Posts Tagged ‘Difference’

There is a recently published article on Scientific American, “Are Men the Weaker Sex?” This article has been getting a good deal of attention in my Facebook feed. From the article:

Contrary to cultural assumptions that boys are stronger and sturdier, basic biological weaknesses are built into the male of our species. These frailties leave them more vulnerable than girls to life’s hazards, including environmental pollutants such as insecticides, lead and plasticizers (Source)

I agree with many of the things in this article, but I find it a little hard to read. It seems to be doing something similar to what Emily Martin identifies in “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Created a Romance Based on Stereotypical Gender Roles.”

The article is full of normative comparisons of non-normative developmental events. For example, it says that the male foetal development is “more complicated” and that

In our species, the female is the default gender, the basic simpler model: Humans start out in the womb with female features (that’s why males have nipples).

Fair enough that ‘female’ is default, but does that necessarily imply “simpler?” Sure males have nipples as a result of vestigial similarities, but also (according to Elisabeth Lloyd) women have clitorises and orgasms as a developmental vestige of male reproductive function.

The article states:

The simpler female reproductive system has to turn into the more complex male reproductive tract, developing tissues such as the testis and prostate.

But is that empirically true that the male reproductive tract is “more complex”? Each seems to have their own unique complexities.

The whole thing kind of strikes me as a bit creepy. Can’t we acknowledge differences without trying to rank them as “more complex, “more advanced,” “simpler,” or “more basic?”

In fact, women and men evolve at the exact same rate. That is what sexual recombination is all about. One is not more simple or more basic and the other more complex or more advanced. This seems all kinds of distorted.

I am emphatically not saying that we should not look at particular vulnerabilities that men might face. I think we should. In addition, we should also look at particular vulnerabilities that women might face. I just don’t see why in doing so we have to rank these differences.

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This is amazing:

What I find particularly interesting about this video is the way in which Sir Michael Parkinson cannot seem to get off the topic of Helen Mirren’s body. In fact, though her body is not that voluptuous and she is not dressed in a particularly revealing way.

One of the best/worst parts happens 1:33 when Parkinsons says “You are ‘in quotes’ a serious actress.” Mirren calls him on it. Then he asks if her equipment will hinder her pursuit of becoming a serious actress. She makes him spell out what he is trying to hint at. It is marvelous.

Basically, Parkinson’s argument amounts to the idea that there are no serious actresses because all actresses will have breasts. But Mirren won’t let him get away with it.

Parkinson is just so condescending and Mirren manages to make him look like a fool. It is great. She has such poise and even though he is being rather vulgar she manages to keep her composure.


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I am often critical of advertisements on this blog because commercials are so often horrible: they reinforce rigid gender roles; they attempt to instill dissatisfaction in the viewer to urge purchases; they use emotional manipulation to get us to buy products that have little to do with the emotion; and they are increasingly turning up in places disguised as part of the show or the video game one is playing.

Act Mouthwash

Act Mouthwash

But, I believe that it is also important to notice when commercials get something right. I saw a commercial for ACT mouthwash for kids last night (Edit: um, I mean on August 28) that I think does a lot of things right. [Edit: I have actually been sitting on this post since August and periodically searching the internet for the commercial. The commercial has never appeared. Rather than just keep waiting, I have decided to now publish this post. Perhaps whomever is in control of marketing at ACT will have an alert set for posts that mention their product and will then realize the importance of putting your shit out there for comment. Sure, some of the comments will be bad. But others will be good. If they ever get around to posting their commercial–free airtime, ahem–then I will update this post with an embedded video, or at least a link. Until then, I hope the description is enough to allow you to get the gist of why the commercial is good. Since they don’t have this ad on the internet, I suppose it is also an example of advertising done wrong]

First, mom is the authority in this commercial even though she does not appear in the commercial. That is not so unusual for commercials about products to be used within the home. But this mom’s authority is based on the fact that she is “the dentist.” Her authority is based on her education and achievement outside of the home rather than on her role as homemaker. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a homemaker, and I do believe that  one gains a great deal of knowledge and expertise through performing that role. But, while some women are homemakers, other women work outside the home. In most commercials you don’t see this. What you see is mom in the home. I am not arguing that there is something “better” about being a dentist than being a homemaker. The argument is about what commercials represent and fail to represent; this commercial is good in my opinion because it represents women in a way that is rare for commercials. I think broadening representations of groups of people is good, and this commercial achieves that.


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One common reason given for the absence of female characters in video games that are set in the past is that the portrayal is supposed to be historically accurate (see for examples these discussions at the Border House). This great post by Juliet McKenna suggest that excuse is not legitimate.

McKenna notes that much of ‘history’ as it was studied did leave women out of the discussion, but as she puts it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Instead of accurately representing the role of women in history, McKenna suggests that the absence of women reflected Victorian beliefs about the importance of great men. It was not the case that women played little role in history, instead it was the case that Victorian historians focused on what men did and neglected what women were doing. And since the rise of women’s studies in the 1960s, writers can no longer use the “historical accuracy” excuse.

Women’s influence and significance is now apparent, even when they were effectively denied financial and political power by the cultures of their day.

So a fantasy writer can no longer point to a few exceptional women in fantasy narratives, such as Galadriel, and hide behind a claim to reflect historical accuracy because the only significant women in history were exceptions such as Good Queen Bess. Not when I have books on my study shelves about the women who sailed with Nelson’s navy and built his ships in the royal dockyards, about the role of so many women in the scientific developments of the Enlightenment and a whole lot more besides. (From “The Representation of Women in Fantasy“)

So the alleged historical accuracy might not be so accurate. If only this were enough to convince people to stop using the excuse…

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I just watched this news report on a terrible case in which Ikenna Njoku, a man from Auburn WA, tried to cash a cheque at Chase bank and ended up in jail (a full transcript is available here).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I thought the news report might offer an interesting example of shielding the white viewing public from a description of racism in order to help preserve their privilege and ignorance around how racism operates to create disadvantages.

At about minuet 1:45 of the video they interview the gentleman, Njoku, who had been accused of forging the Chase cheque. He explains that the teller was very suspicious of him and asked where he worked. Then, just as he is recounting how the teller asked him about where he lived, “It’s like she didn’t believe that…” the reporter cuts him off (at 1:57). I obviously did not see the uncut tape, so I don’t know what comes next. But it seems like he was about to talk about racist views that are suspicious of black people, and it is in the context of not believing that he would be able to afford a house in a particular area. It seemed like a really odd place to cut the interview, and I really wonder whether it was because he was about to identify one way in which racism operates.

(Full disclosure: part of the reason I wonder about this is the result of my own experiences with media interviews. I was once interviewed about cancer care and the experiences of cancer patients. The interviewer repeatedly cut me off whenever my discussion became even slightly “political.” It was a really odd experience to be interrupted precisely when I began to make a point.)

In a now classic feminism 101 paper, Peggy Mackintosh describes how privilege often blinds those who have privilege to the benefits they receive from oppressive systems by hiding the oppressive workings of that system.

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.

One way this “teaching” occurs is by editing out any account of the experience of racism or sexism. The story then becomes about a general kind of unfairness that could happen to anyone rather than an injustice with racial or gendered implications.

It seems like Njoku was about to tell us how the woman suspected he did not live where he claimed because she did not think black people lived in that area (I am not the only one who interpreted it this way). And this kind of suspicion of black people is indeed one of the ways that racism operates. Black people are often suspected of being “criminals” even when they are not, and this suspicion can affect many aspects of their lives.

For example, Devah Pager (2003) conducted a study in which she created fake credentials for black and white matched-pairs of job applicants. The audit included some applicants who reported having a criminal record for non-violent drug possession and some who reported no record. She found that blacks with a criminal record were significantly less likely to get called back for the job than were whites (5% for blacks with a criminal record vs. 17% for whites with a criminal record) (Pager 2004, 958). Pager writes, the “ratio of callbacks for nonoffenders relative to ex-offenders for whites is 2:1, this same ratio for blacks is nearly 3:1. The effect of a criminal record is thus 40% larger for blacks than for whites” (Pager 2004, 959). This could be taken to show that black men with a criminal record seem less ‘forgivable’ to employers than do white applicants with a criminal record. Further, even black applicants with no criminal record were called back at a rate lower than white applicants with a criminal record (17% for whites with a criminal record vs. 14% for blacks with no criminal record) (Pager 2004, 958). Pager suggests that employers might be associating race with crime even when there is no evidence of a criminal record. For example, she reports that on three occasions, the black applicants were asked about their criminal involvement whereas none of the white applicants were asked about their criminal involvement (2004, 960).

In the news report from the embedded video, Njoku might have experienced discrimination based on his race, but if so that is edited out. This leaves the viewers ignorant of how racism operates and how white privilege shields them from these situations. There is no guarantee that Njoku would not have been thrown in jail if he were white, but there is evidence that tellers would be less suspicious of a white person doing just what he did. This can lead to racial over representation in prisons and so forth. But ignoring the racial dimensions makes it seem like anyone would be equally likely to face such a situation.

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An image of Chell from Portal 2: A woman of slender to medium build with somewhat messy dark hair. She wears an orange jumpsuit, the same jumpsuit as she was in Portal 1, but now it is tied around her waist to reveal a white tank top. Chell has braces on the back of her calves, and carries a handeheld portal device, which looks like a futuristic ray gun. She is modelled on a woman of Brazilian American and Japanese descent. The image also has a portal to Chell's right and we can see GLaDOS in an environment over-grown with weeds. (Thanks to rho and bluestar for elements of this description; photo from The National Post).

In June, after the release of the Portal 2 trailer at E3 I wrote about some concerns I had reading interviews with the developers of Portal 2. Now it has been released and I have finished the main story and co-op, gone through again for the trophies and to listen to the developer commentary, so I thought I should return and assess whether the worries I had were warranted. [Note: The following discussion contains spoilers]

1. Portal 2 and Gender

This version of portal is certainly more gendered than the first version was. But just because something is gendered, that does not necessarily make it sexist. Gender can be used in subversive ways as well as being used in sexist ways. Arguably, the first Portal game used gender in subversive ways (for an analysis see Joe McNeilly’s discussion here).

Portal 1 is not very explicitly gendered. When I first played I did not notice Chell’s gender much at all. Some elements of the environment were gendered (GLaDOS was clearly a female computer, if such a thing makes sense).  McNeilly argues (pg. 4) that many of the elements of the environment are gendered (the turrets are ‘boys’ and the companion cube is male–from the GLaDOS line (about 3:30; the link is a spoiler for Portal 1): “A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the Companion Cube. Of course, HE couldn’t come because you murdered HIM,” which I took as the generic “he” but perhaps McNeilly is right).

In the first game you really did not get a sense of Chell’s gender unless you happened to catch a glimpse of yourself through one of the portals. That lead to some magical moments for many gamers, as Jenn Frank wrote about and I discussed in a previous post. It was really great to play a woman in a game without that making a huge difference to the story or the heroism of the protagonist. As Frank writes,

But here is the next surprise: your being a girl doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing. You play on, and nothing has changed, and the game is still the game, and you are still you. But something has substantially changed, and fundamentally changed, because now you know. You have seen yourself.

But the surprise at playing a woman was never really an option for Portal 2, once they made the decision to keep Chell as the main character (and thank goodness they ditched the jumpsuit revision they were considering at the time. This Chell is somewhat more sexed-up, but not overly so. I don’t find her to be any more sexed-up than Faith from Mirror’s Edge. Also, they seem to have kept the racial ambiguity that allows players to project their own race onto Chell. Chell is still modelled on Alesia Glidwell, a Japanese-Brazilian actor.). So now that the player knows they are a woman, there is a choice about how that will be treated.

Chell is definitely more gendered than she was the first time around. As a few people have already written, some of the jabs that GLaDOS levies at Chell involve calling Chell fat as a particularly gendered insult (see below). For example, loodmoney writes,

Secondly, it seems a poor way to write female characters. In Portal 1, the player might very well have completed the game without knowing the protagonist was a woman. Her sex was irrelevant to the circumstances, thus it was not worth commenting on. Chell is a stronger character as a result.
But here I get the impression that the writers got lazy: ‘Chell is a girl, right? And GLaDOS is also a girl, right? And they’re enemies? Well then, obviously the latter is going to say stuff about the former’s weight! I mean, that’s something that girls do, right?’

I agree with loodmoney that Chell is more gendered in this game. I also agree that ‘fat’ is a gendered insult in this particular instantiation. Why is it a gendered insult? Because Chell is not fat, and despite the obvious truth that (fat) men are sometimes called fat with the intent to insult them, and men can also be hurt by being called fat, it remains a gendered insult because non-fat men are not usually called ‘fat’ whereas non-fat women often are. Further, it is generally considered more important for women to maintain their appearance than it is for men, and men get greater leeway before the label ‘fat’ is applied to them. But this is the text, and there is (I think) a different subtext.

I disagree that this is lazy writing or that it fails characterization and feminism 101. The reason is because of the relationship to power that Valve has included in the game.


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Two women are married as the snow flies around them.

Last night I watched the documentary, Escape to Canada, about “2003 when by apparent coincidence, gay marriage is legalized and the prohibition of marijuana is removed on the same day.” While watching this film, I noticed several instances of the argument that is the title of this post. Canadians interviewed for the film argued that they wanted to be free and part of what freedom meant to them was the ability to pay their taxes (examples below the fold).


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