Category Archives: feminism

THE MADDENING WORLD OF MAD MEN

Women are treated as second class citizens at best. Everyone smokes so incessantly, the mere acting of watching them puffing away makes me nauseous. And the drinking – did people really drink that much in the ’60’s? Some of the story lines are so infuriating they make me want to reach, if not for the remote, at least for the “esc” key on my laptop. And yet, I couldn’t help jumping on the Made Men bandwagon.

Well into its fifth season, I am still delighting in Season 2. So, what is it that makes this show so compelling? The writing is good but a far cry from the Sopranos (the holy grail of all tv shows as far as I am concerned) but, like the Sopranos, it’s hard to look away from flawed characters with some redeeming qualities. People like us. Sort of.

What I enjoy most is how multi-faceted every single character is. It’s impossible not to root for prissy looking Peggy, trying to climb the corporate ladder at a time when women couldn’t even dream of the ceiling – never mind that she disposed of an unwanted pregnancy early on by giving the baby to her family and quickly losing interest in him. What’s not to love about the Marilyn-esque bombshell with a brain who uses her physical attributes rather than her smarts to get ahead, because it simply wasn’t done any other way?

Betty is more problematic: her algid beauty is too perfect for sympathizing with, not to mention the vacuity of her life. Despite being a show about the male world of Madison Avenue in the 60’s, women play a big and maddening role, with many instances when I would gladly throw a pie at the screen in frustration. Wake up sisters, it doesn’t have to be that way.Was it really that dismal for women 50 years ago? How has it all changed in the course of my lifetime? Let’s see.

Peggy could get an abortion freely in the state of New York, instead of hiding her offspring. Many women in her situation, though, would have miles to travel and money to spend to be able to, even now.

Joan could choose to go to work dressed in sexy attire but it’s most likely her business acumen that would get her ahead. Unless she worked in Silicon Valley, where women at the top are still in the single digits.The glass ceiling has been broken but equal pay for equal work can still be a chimera and that ladder to the top has turned into a stairway to heaven.

Trudy and Pete Campbell could opt for in vitro fertilization or for another woman to carry their baby, rather than having to consider adoption as the only solution. And maybe Trudy could start obsessing over curtains and dinner entrees.

And Betty could get a job and a life, instead of frittering away her days in the suburbs, riding horses and raising children she is not very good at handling. But, wait, some women choose to do that – I am hoping their choice, in this day and age, brings them satisfaction and not resentment.

And yes, Don Draper, is eye candy. But in the middle of season two, he has already ploughed through four women, other than his wife, with a free pass accorded to creative men since time immemorial. I suppose it was the 60’s and marriage vows came with abundant caveats. Now, has that changed?

 

 

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THE ART OF DOMESTICITY

I woke up with the hint of a cold, under an unusually grey sky. Even when work does not beckon, a guilty factor starts to seep in and prevents me from staying in bed past 8 am. There is so much around the house that needs to be done and that keeps being postponed for (my) very valid reasons.

After breakfast, in a burst of energy, I wash all the winter blankets (even if rain and cold are predicted for the rest of the week); clean the A/C filter (on which I notice, for the first time in 8 years, the sticker that says “clean once a month” – well, I get to it once a year); sweep the balcony; vacuum and generally clean up the kitchen; water the outside plants (I know, it’s going to rain but it makes me feel better) where I notice an empty flower box outside the bedroom. I could cut a geranium from the garden and re-pot it but I have no idea how such things are done – I could win an award for the most ignorant gardener in California. My plants flourish because the weather conditions are foolproof.

ehow.com shows me how such things are done, step by step, but I don’t recognize half the words and tools so, on my way back from the grocery store, I stop to pick up an already rooted geranium for $5. I believe it was a wise investment that saved me time and headaches – of the garden variety ones.

At the end of the day, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Is this what my mother felt at the end of every day, while we were growing up? I learnt to despise housewives early in life (sorry, Ann Romney). As a sneering teen-ager, I wondered what purpose or meaning women, like my mother, could find in keeping house, feeding brats, ferry them to all sorts of activities and start over the next day. I knew I wasn’t born for many things: becoming a sailor, a mathematician or a housewife never made my top 100 list.

(Un)fortunately for me, when I left home I realized I couldn’t live without a decent home-cooked meal once in a while and that a less than spotless bathroom gave me the creeps, both factors which pushed me to learn the basics of cooking and cleaning (that was after the cereal and milk dinner phase that lasted a good five years).

As I plunged my nose in the stack of freshly laundered blankets, nearly a lifetime later, I am asking myself whether anything has changed. I am preternaturally grumbling that I don’t have enough time to get anything done/fixed/ironed/organized around my house. Would I be happier if I could spend my days ensconced here, organizing linen by color, labelling spices, alphabetizing books? All secret quests of mine.

I love my house – and it works reasonably well because I happen to be a highly organized individual but, if I could stay home, a lot more could be done.  Would I ever learn to fix the plumbing, paint walls and knit? Would I actually want to? Probably not. But, like all secret fantasies, I like to keep them alive and stashed for a rainy day.

 

 

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SISTERS DO IT FOR THEMSELVES

It was a comment from my friend Sue, one of the smartest women I know, that crystallized what has been on my mind for some time. Her comment, a propos of the Oscars, had to do with the roles of black actresses who seem to get wide recognition and acclaim only when playing the same role that won Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in “Gone with the Wind”, and the beauty myth glamorizing underweight and “waifish” women while labelling more generous proportions as “plus sizes”. As if it mattered, as if a woman’s hair or body shape should have a place in a conversation about acting.

Sue was asking if this is what we, and the women before us, fought for. In a country where politics are entering the bedroom and the doctor’s office, I have been amazed at how dimmed the female voice has been, as if younger women, who are enjoying the fait accompli of their right to choose, equality in the workplace, access to reproductive care, were not aware of the danger of all those amendments that are chipping away at Roe vs. Wade, of the legislation that aims to control our choices and our behaviours. Or, worse, as if they didn’t care.

This week, I was grateful for Sandra Fluke and the controversy that dim-witted Rush Limbaugh started. The Georgetown University law student has been fighting for years for the right to have contraception covered by the Jesuit University healthcare plan. Her face and her words became public when she testified in front of a Democratic congressional pane,l and then went on to being ridiculed and offended by the commentator who has become the “soul of the Republican Party” (and what a black soul that is). But Ms. Fluke held her head high and soldiered on.

I find it hard to believe that sex and contraception are at the core of a Republican primary and that a candidate like Rick Santorum  still has political life left in him. As much as I might disagree with a conservative woman in matters of economics or public policies, how can any woman, across the entire spectrum, just sit down and take it when men, sorely lacking a sense of time and timing, are trying to turn back the clock? It’s contraception and abortion today, it will be preaching for women to stay at home and reproduce tomorrow.

And why aren’t women in entertainment speaking out? While I don’t expect young women to take their cue from Nancy Pelosi, I am not seeing many role models out there. Could it really be that this generation’s preoccupations are solely steeped in Kim Kardashian and the assorted coterie of starlets that populate reality shows and mediocre sitcoms? If a Martian were to stand in line at the grocery store, trying to catch a glimpse of who we are, we would come across as obsessed on when Princess Catherine is going to get pregnant, what drugs was Whitney Houston taking, how Julia Roberts’ twins are doing and whether Ms. Jolie and Mr. Pitt are fighting again.

In the meantime, women of my generation are busy cleansing, working out, nipping, tucking and botoxing, remaking themselves in the image of what they think youth should look like. At 40 or 50, youth has gone. Better deal with it before we start looking like bad caricatures of our former selves or, in the best of cases, expressionless mummies.

So, is this what we fought for? The inability to grow old gracefully under the pressure of a society that still marginalizes older women? Or for a generation of younger women who watch events unfold but still choose to tune into “Jersey Shore”? Maybe we rested on our laurels a bit too long or, when we passed the baton, we didn’t deliver a clear set of instructions. It seems there is a lot more work to do.

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UNTYING THE KNOT

Riding on the wings of Cupid this Valentine’s day,  my mind kept on  circling back to an article by Stephanie Coontz that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times, about women and education.

60% of Americans who graduate with a bachelor’s degree are women, as well as over 50% of those who pursue a master’s degree. Nothing to be surprised about – we knew that female education has made enormous strides in the last 60 years. This figure roughly translates into the argument that, soon, more educated women than men will be walking around this country. And taking this assumption a step further, it will become harder for women to marry up. I am loosely quoting the article, not stating my opinion.

Sixty years ago, low literacy in women was deemed to be a marriageable asset. Men didn’t want to marry women who were too smart or, at least, smarter than they believed to be. In the ’50s, from the gilded screen to the common folks, “bimbos” abounded – some were not airheads at all but were happy to go along with the myth that a chirpy and rather vapid attitude would land them a husband. These days, men are more than happy to marry well-educated and smart women even if some of these women express worry at being unable to find men they “can look up to”, as if a degree in itself were a sign of marriage compatibility.

The underlining argument of the article is that the majority of women still want to get married, that finding a husband is still perceived as a milestone in a woman’s life. I find that offensive. If we are so well-educated and smart, shouldn’t we be navigating life with more pressing and interesting concerns that tying the knot or attending to our childbearing organs? How is it that marriage trumps the card of career, multiple relationships, “singlehood”, extended family and everything else that is packed in the average (and longer) span of a woman’s life? Marriage might or might not be a part of it but I can’t help getting the impression that many women don’t feel as if their life is complete without that coveted ring. And society’s expectations don’t help.

There is so much to life – and yes, at times it’s nice to go through the rough patches with someone we love but where is it written that it has to be a husband until death do us part? We might draw happiness from  a number of meaningful relationships over the course of many decades, from being alone for long periods of time – the point is, too often is the female perception of “happiness” equated with a walk down the aisle.

Marriage is wonderful and maddening and hard and sweet just as many other experiences – and that’s what it is – a stepping stone over the course of (hopefully) a long and rewarding life. Let’s not dress it up as the trump card that will change our lives. That might have been true up to a few decades ago. Mercifully, we have reached the stage now where we have many options.

 

 

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RAISING OUR VOICES

It was heartwarming to see that women all over this country finally raised their voices. I am always surprised as to how many women take the assaults against Roe vs. Wade as a fait accomplit. But it seems that the less controversial topic of funding for breast cancer screening spurred thousands of women to use social media to express their displeasure at the Susan B. Komen Foundation.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. The Susan B. Komen Foundation, which has been raising funds and awareness towards a cure for breast cancer and is responsible for the ubiquitous pink ribbons and fund-raising walks,  announced they will be cutting off $700,000 of yearly grants to Planned Parenthood, money used for breast cancer screening.

The official reason is the change in how they allocate funds, eliminating those outfits that are under investigation (Planned Parenthood is being investigated in Florida thanks to a Republican congressman). But, realistically, the real reason is that the Susan B. Komen Foundation finally caved in to political pressure, the same political pressure that is trying to isolate Planned Parenthood, cut their funds and put it out of business. Never mind that Planned Parenthood’s main business is not actually abortion, the crux of the question – millions of women who cannot afford healthcare, young women who are not eligible to be on their parents’ plans any longer or just women who do not know who to turn to when it comes to their reproductive health, always find an open door at Planned Parenthood, whether it’s about matters of contraception, screenings, check-ups or pregnancies. In some cases, abortion.

Less than 24 hours after the announcement  made the media rounds and thousands of e-mails, twitters, messages and posts hit the Susan B. Komen Foundation like an avalanche, a statement was released reversing the decision and allowing Planned Parenthood to apply for grants again.

Personally, I feel they have lost face no matter what but it’s wonderful to see how seriously they were forced to take all the threats of never contributing to the Susan B. Komen Foundation or wear a pink ribbon again. Way to go girls.

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MARRIAGE, ITALIAN STYLE

My readers, those I have known for years and those I have never met, are a constant source of food for thought (and sometimes food for the belly too).

The man who wrote lamenting that his American born and Italian resident, educated, attractive and financially sound son of 36 was having a hard time meeting an Italian woman with whom to have a meaningful relationship, possibly leading to marriage and family, got me thinking about different cultural attitudes towards relationships.

It might seem strange that the country which hosts the Holy See and that is still politically influenced by what the Vatican says or wants, has the lowest marriage and birth rates in the whole of Europe. If economic factors play a large part in such decisions – it is hard for young couple to find  stable jobs/ affordable housing / decent childcare – there are also cultural reasons that come into play.

I have always been fascinated at how American women, especially those living far from urban metropolis such LA and NY, are still concerned with getting married in their 20’s. A single  woman in her mid-30’s is often frowned upon. Marriage is what they plan for and work towards from an age when their European counterparts are busy with college, career, travelling. Or just plain busy.

In Italy in particular, there are still two countries: the conservative south, where marriage might still be considered one of the few acceptable choices for women living in rural settings, and the industrial, cosmopolitan north (and I am including Rome in this two-penny analysis) where women like to take their time and enjoy their freedom. They do have relationships which do not necessarily start off with a desire to rush to the altar or to reproduce.

It could be that feminism touched us later than it did our  American sisters. My mother is still squarely in the “marriage was the only choice” camp but, if I were to carry on a mini-survey, of my college friends only one got married in her 20’s. A handful in their 30’s after a stab at jobs or careers and, most, never married at all. And here is the other huge difference – living together is perfectly acceptable, with no need to plan anything extravagant or costly and without diminishing the commitment towards each other. If children do come, the family is governed by the same laws that would apply to a married couple. So why bother, many couples ask. Why indeed.

Maybe it will all come full circle with the next generation who will look at marriage with the same unvarnished perspective applied to the full spectrum of choices. For now, Italian women seem content to assert their rights (and they still have far to go to reach full equality in the workforce and society at large) and have put marriage and reproduction on the back-burner. Personally, I would like to see young women look at marriage or the choice to live with a partner as another facet in our life arc, one that doesn’t require diamond rings, internet dating, bank breaking receptions or unattainable expectations. Just love and commitment. And work. And did I mention patience and the fine art of compromising?

 

 

 

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THE AFRICAN QUEEN

Julius Caesar and Cleopatra have been my most recent bedfellows.  It’s been impossible to ignore the advertising campaign Hachette  mounted to promote Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra and as the book was on my holiday list, it is now safely ensconced on my night stand.

This is by no means a review of such book – yes, I am liking it but you might want to find out for yourselves or read more scholarly reviews. But as a lover of ancient history I couldn’t pass the opportunity to read a biographical work steeped in whatever research material is available and written with a good dose of skepticism as to what the clichés on the Egyptian queen have been through the ages.

What I was fascinated to discover is that women, in ancient Egypt, enjoyed rights and freedoms that are not  commonplace in a large part of the world to this day. First of all, they were treated as equals to men – women could choose whom to marry, they could own property, run businesses, seek divorce, keep custody of the children and even be granted alimony.  Whatever they owned did not become common property once they married and girls were typically educated on a par with boys. If we consider that women in Rome, at the same time in history, were treated slightly better than slaves, we have a picture of what an evolved society Egypt used to be. Cleopatra in particular, having benefitted from an excellent classical education and having mastered nine foreign languages, was skilled at various tasks ranging from economics, rhetoric, the running of an army and mediation – she actually spent most of her days receiving petitioners and adjudicating their cases. So, she slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony that we know of – I’d say she fared a lot better than most of our politicians who could learn a thing or two from her adroit survival skills.

They say that history repeats itself – well, history hasn’t given us too many strong female role models throughout the centuries. Elizabeth I could stand on the same pedestal as Cleopatra but, then again, the business of history has been mainly dominated by the male species who might have chosen not to celebrate the many heroines, large and small, that graced the centuries.

While growing up, the only female role model I was usually pointed towards was Marie Curie – without taking anything away from Ms. Curie’s gigantic contributions to science, I wish little girls had a wider array of cool females to draw inspiration from. Kudos to Ms. Schiff for providing a great building block.

 

 

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