Taking a break

For a host of reasons, it’s become necessary for me to take some time away from both social media and regular online writing. I’ll soon be leaving my most recent contributing gig at The Atlantic, and I’ll be off Facebook and Twitter and so forth.

I started blogging exactly ten years ago, and switched to writing columns at various sites three years ago. It’s time for an extended break.

The Declaration of Sentiments at 165

This coming Saturday, July 20, will mark the 165th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Most historians choose to mark the beginning of the organized American feminist movement from this moment, which had its antecedents in the abolitionist and temperance struggles that had begun earlier in the nineteenth century. (Parenthetically, I’m feeling old: it seems like five minutes ago that I was talking to my summer school students about the 150th anniversary. Fifteen years have flown by.)

The Declaration is elegant, powerful, and beautiful. Modeled in part on the Declaration of Independence, the document sets forth a list of the various ways in which a male dominated society has deprived women of what is naturally theirs, just as Jefferson’s declaration contained a long list of grievances against the British Crown. And though many issues were on the table at the Seneca Falls convention, the document makes clear that three causes, above all others, were of paramount concern:

1. The Right to Vote
2. The Right to Own Property
3. The Right to Education.

None who signed the document in 1848 would live long enough to see all of these rights won, though we can say with some satisfaction that for the vast majority of American women today, what were once distant goals are now common-place reality. But I always point out to my students that the Declaration of Sentiments wasn’t just concerned with winning political rights for women. It was also a call to transform how women thought about themselves. The last of the grievances listed:

He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

In other words, three hallmarks of patriarchal and misogynistic culture are a lack of self-confidence, an absence of self-respect, and an unwillingness on the part of women and girls to embrace independence from men. Read positively, our foremothers at Seneca Falls, eight score years ago, saw that real liberation was not merely about providing political, economic, and educational rights for women — though of course, those rights were indispensable. Real liberation had to be internal as well as external. And what the framers of the Declaration knew was that real freedom for women would and could only come when a culture had been created that was as psychologically empowering as it was politically egalitarian.

Winning rights has proven easier than changing cultural values. The popular culture, with its tyrannical insistence on female physical perfection, has undermined the confidence of (by now) several generations of young American women. The pressure to live up to impossibly high familial and societal expectations has robbed just as many of their self-respect. (An old post on “respect” is here). And 165 years after Seneca Falls, after three successive waves of feminism, we still find ourselves combatting cultural forces that promote the most noxious lie of all: that for women, more so than for men, the most profound happiness is always contingent upon a heterosexual relationship that has been blessed with children. We teach women, in countless ways, the lie that dependency is liberation, that true freedom lies in sublimating your own wants to that of another. We still teach far too many women that the pursuit of self-sufficiency is a recipe for loneliness and isolation, and that in order to have meaning and purpose for one’s life, one must be willing to surrender completely to love and its dictates.

Self-confidence, self-respect, and independence (emotional and economic) are vital feminist concerns. It was 165 years ago on Saturday that the framers of the Declaration of Sentiments first centered these three goals in the struggle for women’s freedom. And though the political goals of 21st century feminism have changed quite a bit from those of 1848, the essential struggle for women’s self-confidence, self-respect, and independence continues. The personal is indeed political, and even more importantly, politics needs to be concerned with the intensely personal. Public freedom is a good, but so too is private happiness. And feminism, at its glorious and transformative best, is concerned with winning both — for women, yes, but, ultimately for all of us.

On Saturday, raise a glass to the women (and their many male allies) who came together 165 years ago this weekend to launch a movement whose achievements have transformed our world for the better, and though the struggle may yet be long, whose final victory is assured.

Some notes on the Los Angeles Trayvon Martin Protests

Last night, I decided to participate in the Los Angeles marches for justice that followed Saturday’s “not guilty” verdict in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case.

I live-tweeted as best I could from two locations: first in South L.A., near the intersection of Coliseum and Crenshaw and then in Hollywood. (My twitter feed is here.)

Some of what I posted ended up being picked up by my former colleague at Jezebel, Laura Beck, in her updated story.

I uploaded some video I shot here.

In stories like this, individual names get lost. While marching, I also tried to do some amateur reporting and chatted with some of the folks I encountered. In South Los Angeles, I watched as the LAPD officer in charge at the scene, Captain Paul Snell, engaged, mollified, and listened to the crowd. While his cops watched warily, Captain Snell repeatedly let himself be surrounded, berated and challenged by angry marchers, showing himself willing to understand the anger and pain that the throng was expressing. Here’s his LAPD bio.

A similarly impressive role was played in Hollywood by Snell’s counterpart in that part of town, Captain Cory Palka. The march there had begun at Hollywood and Highland, traveled east to Argyle, and then south to Sunset and back west to Cahuenga. The rally terminated in front of CNN headquarters, and at one point, threatened to turn violent. LAPD on scene received backup from the California Highway Patrol, infamous for being much more quick to deploy heavy force than the police. Captain Palka defused the situation with an impressive speech, noting that he was “shocked and grieved” not only by what had happened to Trayvon Martin but by the verdict itself. Several members of the crowd expressed astonishment that Palka was willing to say publicly that the jury had been wrong; I can’t recall hearing a uniformed officer ever say something remotely similar. Thanks to his efforts, the Hollywood demonstration ended with only a handful of arrests and no violence.

It would be wrong to see the police as the only heroes, of course. I met a young organizer named Sharlia Gulley, a recent graduate of Cal State Los Angeles. She physically pulled back several angry young men from charging at the police; she was the one who stopped protestors from breaking windows at CNN. Gulley was Captain Palka’s liason, and extracted from him a promise for a community meeting that will be held this week. My phone battery had died by the time the march reached its climax on Cahuenga and Sunset, and I’m sorry I didn’t get a photo of Gulley and Palka as they negotiated a peaceful end, hands on each other’s shoulders, Angeleno to Angeleno.

I left the march filled with a sense of enduring sadness about the loss of Trayvon Martin and of so many young black men like him. I also left with a deep appreciation for the way in which the marchers expressed anger and grief without resorting to violence. I left grateful for the restraint and proactive engagement of the Los Angeles Police Department and two of its captains. I lived in Los Angeles during the Rodney King and Daryl Gates era; this is not that police department. I am very proud of this city.

Menchildren and Manic Pixie Dream Girls

After a week off, I’m back at the Atlantic. Today’s column looks at The Real-World Consequences of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Cliché. An excerpt:

Rabin defined the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a muse whose primary role is to teach and transform a young man. As contemporary a trope as it feels, it’s as old as Dante with his vision of being guided through paradise by his saintly Beatrice. Bettina was my guide, and as much as my adolescent self thought it adored her, I thought less about her and more about how it was she made me feel. Though I questioned whether I was good enough for her, and I felt lucky that she’d chosen me, I didn’t question her role as change agent in my life. It was a one-sided relationship not because I was any more selfish than your average teen boy, but because I took it for granted that this brilliant young woman knew the world better than I did. As unstable as she may be, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl not only senses a young man’s potential in a way he can’t, she intuitively knows how to lead him to his destiny. She knows him better than he knows himself, or so he believes. That convenient assumption allows the young man both to adore the MPDG and to avoid any responsibility for reciprocity. How can he be expected to give anything back when she has this magical intuition about the world that so vastly exceeds his own?

Not long after we both started at university in our respective countries, Bettina’s letters stopped coming. I was in love with someone else, but I missed my exchanges with her. My notes went without reply; I only had an address; no phone number, and in the mid-1980s, of course no Internet through which to follow up. I asked my grandmother, who said she’d also lost touch with Bettina. Finally, one day in 1987, a black-bordered card came in the mail. It was a Todesanzeige, a death announcement. Just 20, Bettina had committed suicide by jumping out a fifth-floor window. I later learned from my grandmother that Bettina had suffered from depression for years, something she’d never told me. Something, of course, about which I’d never asked. I’d taken her self-sufficiency for granted.

Read the whole thing.

Why We — More than Ever — Need the Word “Creepy”

My latest at The Atlantic takes another look at a topic I’ve addressed before: “A Defense of the Word ‘Creep’”. Here’s an excerpt:

Congress can’t pass a law requiring people to be delighted by the advances of others they find unattractive. I can get my children to eat broccoli by alternating promises of rewards and punishments, but I cannot do anything to make my daughter love vegetables as much as she loves ice cream. Similarly, no law can compel “Ashley,” a barista at the local coffee shop, to feel the same way about the advances of an older co-worker whom she finds repellant as she does about those of the young hottie who joins her on the opening shift.

Until recently, however, few women could make sexual choices based primarily on physical desire and emotional attraction. In a world where few women had the opportunity to prosper without a man’s protection, marriage was about survival. The more educational and economic opportunities women acquire, the more opportunity they have to choose based on what they want rather than what they need for survival. As Daniel Bergner’s bestselling What Do Women Want? argues, once you level the economic playing field, women are just as likely as men to make sexual decisions based on desire alone.

The same principle works for sexual harassment: the Civil Rights Act of 1965 didn’t conjure the concept out of thin air. Women had always been sexually harassed in public spaces. What the government did was give the problem a name — and a remedy. It also formally recognized a woman’s right to decide for herself what conduct was welcome and what wasn’t.

Men’s rage about sexual harassment regulations and “creep-shaming” may well be rooted in an unwillingness to accept these cultural changes that have given women unprecedented power to say “no” to the lecherous and the predatory. Complaints that unattractive, socially awkward men are unfairly labeled “creepy” miss the point. “Creepy” describes having “the creeps;” it’s a word that centers on women’s own feelings. It’s no more “unfair” for Ashley the hypothetical barista to be “creeped out” by the advances of an older, unappealing co-worker than it is for her to be excited by the same approach from the man to whom she’s attracted.

In the Atlantic on dads and daughters; men and abortion

Two recent posts at the Atlantic. Why Do So Many Father-Daughter Movies = Feisty Kid + Bumbling Dad? ran last week. Excerpt:

Single fathers have long been a central presence in fantasy and fairy tales, as any reader of the Grimm Brothers knows. Until the coming of modern medicine, childbirth was among the leading causes of death for women—a fact that resulted in a lot of widowers. But while the fathers in these fairy tales were often stern and over-protective as in The Little Mermaid, or in thrall to the proverbial wicked stepmother as in Cinderella, it’s only very recently that they’ve become benign fools—fools who are mocked by the world but saved by a daughter’s love.

This paradigm shift began in 1991 with Disney’s hugely successful Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In From the Beast to the Blonde, her masterful history of fairy tales and their adaptations, Marina Warner argues that the depiction of Belle as a feminist heroine necessitated a loss in power for her father, “crazy old Maurice.” Disney “replaced the father with the daughter as the enterprising authority figure in the family,” Warner writes, a radical reversal from the 18th century French text on which the film was based. The runaway triumph of Beauty meant that Disney and its many rival studios have stuck to the same formula of heroic daughter and lovably inept (but always well-intentioned) dad ever since.

And yesterday, on how men can talk about their feelings around abortion:

When we’d gone together to see the doctor for a pre-abortion appointment, he told us the approximate due date: February 7, 1986. At the time I filed it away as the most useless of facts. But when that date rolled around, I was stunned by how heartsick I was. April and I were no longer speaking by that point, and I was off at university. I cried on that due date and for days after, stunned and bewildered by my own delayed reaction to loss. Though my wife and I now have wonderful two kids of our own, not a February goes by that I don’t think about a child who would now be 27.

For those of us who support women’s rights, there’s a paradox when it comes to men’s feelings about abortion, one that my very well-intentioned mother taught me years ago. We want and need men to care about every aspect of reproduction, from being enthusiastic users of contraception to (when invited) devoted coaches in labor and delivery. Yet the danger in publicly focusing on men’s feelings about abortion is obvious.

One danger is political: Anti-abortion advocates are all too willing to politicize any sign of grief or confusion after an abortion as evidence that the procedure is harmful and ought to be banned. Anti-abortion groups often frame the issue as one of father’s rights: the more evidence of men’s post-abortion grief or anger, the more potential fuel for the pro-life cause. Another risk is more personal. As my mum made clear, it can be very difficult for a woman to cope with her partner’s turbulent emotions as she makes a decision about abortion.

All the Horny Women, All the Overwhelmed Men

My column this week looks at the remarkable new book by Daniel Bergner that is shattering a lot of treasured old myths about gender and libido. An excerpt from Turns Out Women Have Really, Really Strong Sex Drives: Can Men Handle It?

The research suggests that though both men and women struggle to extricate themselves from traditional gender roles, women are generally doing a much better job of it than are men. From the workplace to the university, women are far more willing to move into traditionally male spaces and adopt traditionally male behaviors than men are to do the reverse. Too many men are still stuck in the “provide, protect, and perform” model that requires women to be passive, focused more on pleasing than on their own pleasure. The “catch-22″ in which women find themselves is largely a result of men’s fear of being unable to perform up to women’s expectations—and to satisfy desires that men have only just begun to realize are as intense and earthy as their own.

Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” has always invited another query in return: “Can you handle the answer if we tell you?” The widespread coverage of Bergner’s book raises at least the possibility that some men are. And what is at the heart of that answer? Though some women surely still want to play at passivity while men protect, provide, and perform, plenty more women want another “p” word: partners. Flexible, unintimidated, and (as Bergner shows) playful partners in the bedroom, in the kitchen, and in public life.

Read the whole thing.

How Marital Infidelity Became our Final Taboo

At the Atlantic today, I look at the new Gallup poll that shows a record number of Americans disapprove of infidelity, a figure up substantially since the 1970s. Why has sexual dishonesty become the last remaining taboo?

Excerpt:

We expect couples who marry young to “struggle”—a common euphemism that encompasses everything from fights over money (of which there is almost invariably not enough) to extramarital flirtations and affairs. The cornerstone model presumes, optimistically, that men and women are transformed for the better by sticking it out through the “tough times” that everyone concedes will attend the marriage of the young, the poor, and the naïve. The expectation of struggle doesn’t condone infidelity so much as it concedes its near-inevitability.

The “capstone” model presumes, as one of my friends puts it, that you only should get married “after you’ve got your shit together.” Capstoners believe that marriage is something you enter into only after you’ve finished sowing your proverbial oats—and come into possession of the financial, emotional, and professional sophistication you’ll need to blend your life with another person without becoming dangerously dependent upon them. The capstone model is much less forgiving of sexual betrayal because it presumes that those who finally get around to marrying should be mature enough to be both self-regulating and scrupulously honest. The increased unacceptability of adultery is linked to the rising age of first marriages. The evidence suggests, however, that the capstoners are more than a little naïve if they imagine that a rich set of premarital life experiences will serve as an inoculation against infidelity.

The same Gallup poll that found near-unanimous disapproval of cheating also found rising acceptance of many other non-traditional, consensual sexual relationships. The new ethical consensus that you can do whatever you like as long as you’re not hurting anyone—and as long as you’re being rigorously candid—reflects a thoroughly modern mix of tolerance and puritanical censoriousness. We’ve become more willing to embrace diverse models of sexual self-expression even as we’ve become ever more intolerant of hypocrisy and the human frailty that makes hypocrisy almost inevitable.

Read the whole thing here.

On “feminist pick-up ethics” at Daily Life

My latest at Daily Life looks at what it would mean to create egalitarian, feminist-friendly “pick-up” ethics. I chatted with Clarisse Thorn, Arden Leigh, Mark Manson and Michael Kimmel for their insights. Excerpt:

If there are to be such things as feminist pick-up ethics, they’ll have to be as much about empowering women to take the sexual initiative as about encouraging men to be honest and respectful. The reality is that getting what you want from whom you want it can be as challenging for women as for men. Just as men need to work, as Kimmel says, on “acting ethically”, women deserve the tools to act boldly…

The worst of the pick-up artists insist that men and women want such radically different things that only the cynical mastery of manipulation techniques will lead to happiness. The good news is the emergence of a different model for men and women alike, based on mutuality, kindness and willingness to prioritise other’s boundaries as well as one’s own pleasure.

To put it more simply, this new model rests on the idea that men and women aren’t adversaries, but collaborators. Even, perhaps, friends.