Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reclaiming the Phrase "Be a woman"

A couple of months ago, I took a trip to Ann Arbor with a friend. I was trying to passively enjoy the sightseeing until... we stopped in a children's store and saw a t-shirt with the slogan "Real Men Read." Well, I just couldn't stop thinking about it because we hear language a lot that has become so normalized that we don't even question it. I'm trying to understand the thinking behind this slogan. Reading is often seen as an "uncool" activity for boys, and in an effort to increase literacy, the best we can come up with is "Real Men Read." So, real men read as opposed to fake men that are "weak, wimpy, too feminine, and not manly enough" to read. I like the intention of getting more boys to read, but the only reason the slogan works is because it is based on stereotypes about being "manly." It suggests that all little boys need to "become men" who are strong and masculine. What does it mean to be a "real man"? After doing some research, I see that R.E.A.L is a slogan for read, excel, achieve, lead, but I still have my problems with it.

As I've been thinking through this idea, I've noticed how often the media contributes to societal thoughts on what it means to "be a man" or "be a woman." For example, this song from Mulan comes to mind.

Mad Men is my new television obsession, and I think it's incredibly well-done. It's extremely accurate to the issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality occurring during the '60s. Peggy, the young copywriter, gets a promotion yet is struggling to navigate being a woman in a man's world since she's the only woman on her team. In an episode of Season 2, she gets the advice to "Stop trying to be a man. Be a woman" (2.5, 2.6). In the following episode, Peggy doesn't get invited to the men's outings together, so she shows up in a lovely dress and joins them. The other characters often criticize her for dressing like a little girl, so in this episode when she succumbs to the required female office attire, she finally gets an in. 

I often find myself caught in this trap. When women are strong and speak their minds, demonstrating stereotypically masculine behaviors, they are "bitches" that need to be controlled. I think men fear powerful women, and this fear is often hidden deeply in the unconscious that men don't understand why these women bother them so much. As one of my favorite feminist quotes from filmmaker, Catherine Breillat, shares, "It's a joke - if men can't desire liberated women, then tough. Does it mean they can only desire a slave? Men need to question the roots of their own desire. Why is it that historically men have this need to deny women to be able to desire them?" What does it mean to "be a woman" in 2012? To me, it means being intelligent, sexy, powerful, vulnerable, kind, and strong. (more on Mad Men later...)

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