Ice Queens

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The Winter Olympics have started, and that has turned my attention to the only event I actually follow during the weeks-long spectacle: women’s figure skating.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and I were captivated by the likes of Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and the adorable Sasha Cohen, all of them American figure skaters chasing a gold medal. Following in the tradition of American Olympic gold medalists such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi, only Sarah Hughes managed to grasp that gold ring. Still, their graceful performances on the ice were magical, and we even bought tickets to see them skate on their post-Olympic tour.

Beyond the beauty, elegance, and athleticism of these masterful skaters, their personal stories are part of the magic. This year’s crop of American Olympic hopefuls all come from ordinary, even humble, origins, and their fierce drive to succeed can be seen as against the odds.

Bradie Tennell is from my own home state of Illinois. The daughter of a single mom, she started begging to be taken ice skating at the age of 2. Unlike Tiger Woods’ father, Bradie’s mother only reluctantly allowed her daughter to enter the world of competitive ice skating. And as opposed to many Olympic hopefuls, Bradie has had the same coach for the past 10 years. That coach, Denise Meyers, refers to Bradie as “a scrapper.” Bradie Tennell stunned the competitive figure skating world by becoming the gold medalist at the U.S. Championships this past January.  Her climb to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is considered a Cinderella story. Another heart-warming part of that story is the fact that United Airlines plans to fly Bradie’s mother and brothers free of charge to South Korea so that they can see her compete.

Mirai Nagasu is another U.S. ice skater who is more than familiar with hardship. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work long hours running a restaurant in Arcadia, California. Mirai credits her parents’ hard work and sacrifice for her successes as a figure skater and her dream spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Mirai is best known for executing the difficult triple axel, a feat that she will try to accomplish in the PyeongChang Olympics this month – and a feat no other American figure skater has accomplished in the Olympics. And while her parents have seldom been able to attend her skating competitions due to the demands of running their restaurant, they will be on hand to watch her potentially make history in South Korea.

Karen Chen rounds out the list of U.S. Olympic hopefuls in women’s figure skating. Her championship medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the bronze she won in this year’s competition make her a definite contender. Like Mirai Nagasu, Karen’s parents are immigrants, in their case from Taiwan. But unlike the other two skaters on Team USA, Karen has an Olympic gold medalist in her corner: Kristi Yamaguchi, who hails from the same hometown of Fremont, California, and has become a mentor to Karen. According to Karen, Kristi routinely signs one of Karen’s ice skates before a competition for good luck. And at a mere 5 feet tall, Karen’s favorite quote is from Shakespeare: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Although none of these three skaters is expected to medal in this year’s Winter Olympics, it will be enjoyable to watch them skate and to cheer for them, knowing their back stories and their hard work to achieve excellence. Two Russian figure skaters, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alinas Zagitova, are apparently the ones to watch this year in PyeongChang. Having been exempted from the ban on Russian athletes enacted after the doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, they are sure to have something to prove as they compete with other young women from around the world.

As snow blankets my world here in Chicago, I’ll be happy to curl up in front of the TV and see the grace and skill of these young figure skaters. May the best women win!

 

 

 

 

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A Woman Scorned

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When convicted sexual abuser Larry Nasser used the quotation, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” in reference to his victims, there was widespread incredulity and revulsion. Nasser’s implication that somehow young gymnasts were complicit in his manipulative and abusive behavior was horrifying – but nothing new.

For centuries and in cultures the world over, women have often been blamed for their own victimization at the hands of men. At the extreme are the traditions of many African and Middle Eastern cultures, wherein if a woman or girl is raped, the only way she and her family can avoid shame is to have her marry her rapist. Victims of human trafficking are likewise deemed damaged goods and whores regardless of the fact that they gave no consent to the sexual abuse.

As women come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, molestation and outright rape by political figures, college athletes, media figures, and Hollywood moguls, it seems hard to believe that there are so many predatory men in the world. And yet our culture permits and even condones such behavior.

One of the problems is simply that young girls and women are not believed. As far back as 1990, Nasser’s victims had complained to school officials at Michigan State University about his inappropriate touching. Administrators simply could not believe that a man of Dr. Nasser’s stature could perpetrate such acts. Disbelieving victims goes a long way toward enabling predators to continue their despicable behavior. When the perpetrator of the violence is a person of standing in the community, that standing takes precedence over the safety of the victims. One need look no further than the massive sexual abuse that took place for decades in the Catholic Church to see how difficult it is for victims to come forward and be believed.

The other problem in our culture is perpetuating the myth that men are natural sexual predators, and women are their prey. Long before the Harvey Weinstein revelations, casting couch sexual shenanigans was a common trope. It was widely believed that starlets and young women in many occupations used their sexuality in order to get ahead. Instead of maligning the men who used their power to intimidate and coerce these women, cultural scorn was heaped on the women themselves. This tendency to blame the victim explains why so many women went for years without disclosing the terrible things that had happened to them at the hands of men like Weinstein.

As proof of my point, there is already a backlash developing against the #MeToo movement. Men (and no doubt some women as well) are complaining that demanding a greater accounting of their sexual behavior is a buzz kill in the bedroom. Many point to the story of Aziz Ansari and his unsavory but not necessarily criminal behavior with women he dated as an example that the #MeToo movement has gone too far. After all, Ansari is considered a “nice guy.” How could such a nice guy be held culpable for disrespecting women?

But that is precisely the point. If the “nice” ones cause that much discomfort in a romantic encounter, imagine how scary the truly predatory and sociopathic ones are. We need a sea change in our attitudes about men, women, and sexuality. Clearly, the sexual revolution has done nothing to erase outdated stereotypes.

But there is hope. Women and men who are victims of sexual abuse are demanding an accounting. They are speaking out and expecting to be heard and believed. Certainly compared to a few decades ago, awareness of sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behavior has made many employment situations better for both men and women. Even Disney reconfigured their Pirates of the Caribbean ride to get rid of the pirate chasing a “wench” around and around, ostensibly to catch and rape her.

Laws are important, and law enforcement needs to improve to recognize and prosecute sexual misconduct. Similarly, organizations such as schools and universities need to recognize the problem and prioritize human rights over reputation. But the real change will come when we start to believe sex should be a mutually desirable and consensual act and not a conquest.

 

 

The Resonance of Two Tiny Words

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When I was a young teen, I was walking alone on a street in my safe, suburban town when a middle-aged man in a white sedan pulled up alongside me. He stared at me out of his rolled-down window and said, “Would you have sex with me for $100?” I fled. A few years later during my college years, at my summer job in an insurance agency, the boss called me into his office on my last day of work and made me kiss him on the lips.

These unpleasant memories have come back to me as the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal has lit up the news and social media. Weinstein joins a long line of men who have used their power to sexually prey upon women. Thus when actress Alyssa Milano wondered what would happen if all women who had been sexually harassed posted “Me, too” to their Twitter accounts, social media exploded with those two seemingly innocuous words.

It is hard to have grown up in our culture without having experienced unwanted sexual attention from men: catcalls and wolf whistles; boys rating girls’ attractiveness as they walked down the halls of school; groping and leering. In the Sixties and Seventies to which Weinstein alluded in a lame attempt to justify his behavior, treating women as objects was commonplace. A cursory viewing of the TV series Mad Men has such verisimilitude that it’s enough to give women my age unwelcome flashbacks. The workplace was particularly daunting for women. For example, flight attendants were subject to weight requirements, and women could be fired from their jobs for becoming pregnant. Employers openly told their female employees that men were paid more because they had to support families.

While women have made many strides in society, their characterization as sexual objects persists. Although Weinstein’s detractors are many, some noted celebrities have come to his defense. Woody Allen, for instance, complained of a “witch hunt” atmosphere in which a guy couldn’t even wink at a woman (or child, in his case) without getting into trouble. That’s right, Woody. We don’t want your winks – or pinches or whistles or any other demeaning or sexist gestures. You see, we are human beings, not your fantasy objects.

Mayim Bialik also completely missed the point by claiming that unattractive actresses (presumably herself) are not harassed in Hollywood. Bialik clearly thinks that Weinstein’s (and O’Reilly’s and Roger Ailes’s and Bill Cosby’s …) predatory behavior was about sex. But for sexual predators, it’s all about power. Objectifying women and threatening their careers if they don’t “put out” are ways of keeping women in their place. And judging from the “Me too”s all over Facebook and Twitter, women in all walks of life have been subject to this same power game.

There are laws on the books to protect victims (both male and female) of sexual harassment. The problem is that a code of silence often prevails, and those in power buy the silence of their victims. It is easy from the outside to say that these actresses should have gone public immediately to stop the predatory behavior of Michael Weinstein. But in an industry as difficult to succeed in as is the entertainment world, it’s understandable why women would choose not to rock the boat. And it is maddening that in the 21st Century women should need to call men out on this dehumanizing behavior.

I am currently reading a book titled Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love by Kathleen Buckstaff. In the book, Buckstaff reveals her own emotional struggles after being sexually abused as a teenager at an East Coast boarding school. Like many victims, she kept her abusers’ secrets, but the emotional fallout led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adulthood. Clearly the stakes are high in our culture for victims of sexual predators.

We need a sea change in our attitudes about gender roles, power, and sex. But first we need to break the code of silence and tacit acceptance around sexual abuse and harassment. And maybe it starts with saying, “Me, too.”

Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian World

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Eggers-Simon-Atwood_CSLA2017_JustinBarbin-700x477At last week’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event in Chicago, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s writing was described as “speculative fiction,” as opposed to science fiction. That distinction is an important one. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic worlds are terrifying precisely because they could actually come into being.

I have been reading Margaret Atwood’s fiction since the late Eighties, when I was introduced to her novel Cat’s Eye in a book club. Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale, however, launched her into both the public eye and the world of dystopian fiction. A book as darkly prescient as the classic 1984 and Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s Tale imagines America as a repressive Biblical theocracy in which women are reduced to their role as bearer of children, more incubators than mothers.

With the increasing erosion of women’s reproductive rights and Trump’s recent directives concerning contraceptive coverage in health insurance, it’s frightening to see how the religious right has influenced government policy to the detriment of women’s freedoms. Yet the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale resemble women in repressive Islamic regimes as much as anything, which makes a pointed statement about the dangers of mingling church and state.

Atwood’s more recent fiction includes the MaddAddam trilogy, a glimpse into a pre- and post-apocalyptic world in which global warming has made the Earth a merciless oven, a madman has wiped out most of the world’s population with a virus, and our obsession with technology has created real world, violent “painballers,” genetically modified pigs with cunning human brains, and drones that spy on citizens.

In The Heart Goes Last, civilization has almost completely broken down, and people take refuge in a corporate nightmare where they reside in a prison for half of their time and a controlled, monitored “town” for the other half. I won’t reveal the meaning of the title, but it’s not pretty. Once again, Atwood zeroes in on our autocratic tendencies, the dangers of uncontrolled corporate greed, and our obsession with mass incarceration of our citizens.

Yes, the world painted by Margaret Atwood is surely a scary one. But there is a dark humor in her writing that make her novels so enjoyable to read even as they are scaring the bejesus out of us. Atwood, who appeared at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event as an award recipient, is a sly, funny, and acerbic woman. As much as I dread the world her dark intellect conjures, I can’t wait to read her next masterful novel.

Disturbing Reality Behind School Dress Codes

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“That dress is too short,” my husband remarked when he saw my 16-year-old daughter modeling her selection for Homecoming. After marathon dress shopping to find something my daughter liked, I was not in the mood to put up with his remark. But I took his point.

There is a growing awareness in schools that dress codes unfairly stigmatize girls and go easy on boys. Across the country, girls and their parents have fought for the right to allow girls to wear tight leggings, spaghetti straps, and other clothes that have in the past been considered a distraction.

While I agree that it’s unfair to single out girls at school for their attire, the fact that there are so many styles for girls that could be labeled as too sexy or distracting points to an upsetting reality: In our society, females continue to be objectified and judged for their physical appearance in a way that males rarely are.

One might argue that the ubiquitous legging, which girls wear in a manner that reveals every curve of thigh and buttocks, is simply what’s in style for young women. Ditto for short skirts and other revealing clothing. But that fact begs the question: why? Why are styles for women so relentlessly geared toward sexualizing their bodies?

Men dress for comfort or success. Aside from the trend of wearing baggy pants that reveal a guy’s boxers, there are few styles for men that could be construed as too sexy or distracting. The boys at my daughter’s school wear baggy shorts and t-shirts or preppy polos and khaki shorts or “joggers.” As long as there is not an overtly violent message or a logo for a beer label on their person, boys are pretty safe from scrutiny at school.

Not so for girls, who want to look stylish and cute. They are not necessarily trying to come on to boys, but they also don’t want to dress like their mothers or grandmothers. So my daughter turns up at Homecoming in a tiny, short dress that reveals her incredibly long, muscular legs. Even I’m intimidated looking at her sometimes.

This is the dilemma girls and women face in our culture. Until we change our social norms and start to prize females more for who they are inside, we will continue to objectify their outer selves. And schools will continue to fight battles over what is appropriate dress in schools.

Swift Justice

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I love Taylor Swift. Not just because she’s pretty and sings catchy pop tunes. But because in her recent lawsuit against a radio DJ, she stood up for everywoman. Yesterday, a judge awarded Swift the symbolic one dollar she sought from David Mueller, a Denver radio jock, for sexually assaulting her during a backstage meet-and-greet.

After Mueller grabbed her buttocks at the event, Swift and her mother complained to the radio station management. She did not file criminal charges against Mueller or tweet about the incident to get public sympathy or support. But Mueller was fired and decided to sue Swift, her mother, and others for setting out to cost him his job. That’s when Swift decided to countersue.

The judge found that the alleged assault had indeed taken place and dismissed Mueller’s original suit. But not before Mueller’s lawyer tried the time-honored technique of blaming and shaming the victim. First he questioned why she did not do anything at the time of the assault and why no one else noticed it happening. Her answer to the latter question is priceless: “‘The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.'” (“The essential part of Swift’s court case,” Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2017)

Then the lawyer tried to make Swift feel guilty about Mueller’s having lost his radio DJ job. Again, Swift stood up for women everywhere when she replied,

“I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions – not mine.” (Tribune, Aug. 15, 2017)

Taylor Swift has the money, fame, and power to stand up to those who would assault her and to a justice system that allows victims to be publicly shamed for someone else’s abuse of them. In doing so, and in claiming her symbolic award of damages, Swift sent a message to women, courts, and would be sexual predators everywhere that sexual assault will not be tolerated and will never be the victim’s fault.

Thanks, Taylor. I hope you can now “shake it off” and continue doing what you do best: entertaining your fans.

 

 

Thinking About Gender

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The other day my daughter was hanging out with two of her best friends in our backyard. It was her birthday, and they had surprised her with an early morning birthday breakfast. As I puttered in the kitchen, I glanced out the window and saw the three girls squeezed into my daughter’s parachute-like hammock, limb upon limb. I thought to myself, “Teenaged boys would never do that.”

As a young feminist and subscriber to the tabula rasa school of thought on human development, I used to resist the idea that gender roles had any basis in biology. Girls and boys are different, I insisted, because they learn to be. To be sure, it’s hard to separate nature from nurture in the way children develop because even as infants, children are handled differently based upon their sex.

But as the parent of both boys and girls, I’ve had to admit that there seem to be some inherent differences between the sexes. My boys have always been more active and challenged authority more than my girls. The nature of their friendships with others of the same sex is different too. My girls have always felt social slights more deeply than have my boys. And seeing a group of girls braiding each other’s hair does resemble the grooming behavior of our primate relatives, the chimpanzees.

I realize there is wide variation in the way individual children develop. Not all girls like dolls, and not all boys like sports. And the science of human development is discovering the many nuances that make gender much less of a binary phenomenon than has previously been assumed. Such discoveries are making people uncomfortable and opening up debates about gender identification on birth certificates and surgery on intersex children. I think what’s most important in these debates is the idea that we are each unique individuals, and our identities should be respected and viewed as the complexities that they actually are.

Still, it’s been interesting for me to see the way my sons and daughters have developed over the years and to admit to myself that I don’t know the half of it when it comes to gender. I remember when my oldest child tried to be a tomboy. Her best friend was rough and tumble, so my daughter eschewed more girlish clothing and activities. Ultimately, though, her identification as a “girly girl” won out. I also remember my daughter and her friends dressing my younger son up in girls’ clothes and putting barrettes in his hair. That adorable little boy has grown up to be a burly football player.

Gender identification is important. It’s a big part of who we are as human beings. I believe that if we are open and loving with our children, we will raise them to be exactly who they are meant to be: themselves.