Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Let's send Barbie and GI Joe to bed

Did this election blind us to color or bend gender forever? Or both? Since the election on November 4th, the media has said plenty about how Barack Obama’s victory has changed the face of America and expanded the American dream: “Young African Americans can now be anything they want to be!” But this admittedly astonishing accomplishment—Obama’s heroic smash through the ultimate glass ceiling previously causing African American cynicism that their American dream is different from the white guy’s, which in turn deflated the academic ambition of countless African American youths—has eclipsed another significant Change with a Capital C. And ironically, it became evident through the bi-partisan abuse of Caribou Barbie. If you are a baby boomer or anyone born since Adlai Stevenson ran for president, you are quite accustomed to the sad truth that in most environments looks inevitably trump smarts—whether in a hotel lounge or a boardroom. In fact, it was one of the most important lessons we learned in school. In high school—at least your typical public high school, and most of the Catholic ones, too—it is so uncool to be smart outside a safe circle of honors-courses, quiz bowl, music-room or poetry club friends (read, “nerds”) that we learn to keep it quiet in the general public. In most high schools, smart kids learn how to act—to play a role to avoid being mocked and taunted. We learn in junior high school that it’s best to keep to ourselves. For example, one unwritten law: Fear the girls’ room. No end of indignities can be and have been perpetrated in those windowless, unsupervised spaces. The horror stories of being cornered in a stall and terrorized, risking purse, notebooks and pride in the potential physical and emotional skirmish abound. I suffered my own share of embarrassment for violating the “thou shalt not be smart” law. In the days before backpacks, I had my books knocked out of my arms and my skirt kicked up in a crowded hallway. I was shoved around in the smoky haze at the back of the school bus and pointed and laughed at while trying to remain invisible after having been the only one to turn in the social studies homework when the teacher forgot to ask. In fact, it went back even further than that. “Mean Girls” are nothing new—they mocked my plaid book bag in grade school and one of my second grade classmates stole my clever little pencil-shaped pencil case and scratched its point into the gravelly playground surface until it was beyond repair—like my ability to feel comfortable in my own skin. I grew up having enough spunk not to bury my abilities completely, but also sensible enough not to flaunt them in the wrong company. I grew up having learned how to pretend to be something I wasn’t any time I chose to avoid discomfort. That is—until I got to college, where fortunately for me, I was in an unusual environment much unlike that at the big state schools where cheerleaders and jocks continue to reign. At my “prestigious” college (where I was a scholarship student with all the wrong clothes—something more easily changed than my IQ), we were all expected to be “wicked smart.” If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be there. But that experience didn’t extend into non-academic life. Back out into the real world, I hesitated to tell people where I’d gone to college, lest they do that routine shocked retreat I quickly became accustomed to; I am not making this up—strangers actually step back and stare at you like you’re some kind of freak when learning that you went to one of “those” schools, like they’re looking for your third boob or something. Then they make some uncomfortable self-deprecating joke only leading up to a reference to how different you must be (that third boob has gotta be there somewhere) and excuse themselves rapidly. (It really makes you wanna tell them the well-kept secret that you had to sell your eggs for scientific research to get admitted, but that’s another story.) Well, this election changed all that. Thank you Hillary. Thank you Barack. And yes, thank you, W, McCain, and Sarah Palin. When I saw Bill Clinton stumping for our President Elect in the final week of the campaign, I witnessed him preening in front of the worshipping crowd (yes, he is still gloriously commanding and charismatic in person no matter how many blue dress jokes we tossed around before jockeying for seats close to the stage), then began to speak about the reasons we all needed to vote Obama. It was more than that it was time to change direction, Clinton said. It was more than that the Republicans had been given plenty of time to mess up mostly everything important to Americans and our Founding Fathers (the Supreme Court and executive power included) and even socializing banking. It was more than that W had lied to us about WMDs and was now summarily regarded as just as much a failure at running the country as he was as CEO of every business he’d ever run into the ground. It was because W, from the beginning, just refused to admit how much he didn’t know. Could it be that doing so might have made him look—no matter how cowboy-booted—less “masculine”? On the other hand, Bill Clinton admitted that when in office he himself had been teased for being a “policy wonk.” (No wonder his, err, ego needed constant stroking.) Clinton added, and I paraphrase, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable knowing that your president had actually read everything on the topic at hand, than just deciding on the basis that he’s the “Decider”? I mean, if you’re hiring someone to be the Decider-in-Chief, don’t you want him or her to be as informed as possible? And beyond that, Clinton said, this Obama fellow is even smart enough to admit when and where, despite his intellectual ability honed through all his education at those scary “prestigious” schools, he could still use some help understanding an issue. Our former president told the story of when, during the economic crisis that hit during the campaign, Obama called as many economic experts and advisors as he trusted, including Hillary and Bill, before proceeding with his vote on that cursed Bailout. “He said he wanted to be sure he understood,” President Clinton said. “He admitted it was complex.” After eight long years of the ascendancy of Brawn over Brains, we are at last rewarded with a landslide victory for Brains, and better yet, Brains secure enough to admit often needing more Brains. Finally, those mudslingers accusing Obama of being an elitist because he worked hard enough in school to get into the best colleges and graduate schools in America have been silenced. Another miracle is that Obama isn’t playing any of those “down home Arkansas” linguistic games that Clinton used to pull out to make all the anti-intellectuals among the electorate feel better about themselves. Nor has he slipped into Inner City Black Dialect. Nope. He’s flat out grammatically correct (doesn’t even “verb” much, though I wonder with dread how long after being sworn in his press office will start touting what he’s been “impacting”), and whereas not a swaggering, Stetson-hatted, Joe-Sixpack Marlboro Man, but instead a skinny guy with big ears, he’s still “masculine”—in fact, he’s redefining the term. What the heck? Gender expectations and stereotypes have just been turned as ass-backwards as the choice of Joe-the-non-Plumber to influence our voting. Can it be that Obama is so secure in his “masculinity” that he can be someone with those traditionally “feminine” characteristics like empathy, caring, and honesty about his/her own limitations, and yet exude power? I mean, yesterday I saw an AP photograph of him dropping his girls off at school! Isn’t that a total departure from the stereotypical behavior inner-city African American boys have to adopt in order to appear “masculine”? Let’s turn to the women. Sarah, poor dear Sarah. You didn’t really know what those guys in Armani and Brooks Brothers suits were putting you up to, did you? Not that you’re dumb—let’s get that right out there, right away. But Sarah, you’re not educated. You really don’t know your geography, and seeing Russia’s coast does not mean you understand its history and geopolitical significance, but worse, you made it painfully apparent in multiple situations that you’re not overly comfortable thinking. Sarah, I swear, I’ve got nothing against the way you ascended to governor in Alaska, and Go Second Amendment Gal (though I hope your ever-growing family ate the meat of every mammal you ever hunted). Listen to me—I’m supporting you, in my own scary feminist way. There’s a lot wrong with ex-McCain campaigners calling your hometown folk Wasillabillies now that your short-term usefulness to them has expired. But Sarah: The Barbie act doesn’t work on the national scale. Your mistake—and those of the Republican machine who did you (and the McCain campaign) a catastrophic disservice—was thinking that “feminine” still means pretty and willing to please—in this case turning into a smiling pitbull and stirring up racist fervor when so directed. That having a hockey mom background was going to be enough when they mavericked you right into the national arena amongst the biggest bull-ies of all. Sarah, when I heard it suggested last weekend on NPR that if you wanted to run in 2012, you’d better find yourself a house with a view of a library, I laughed out loud. And then I realized how much I agreed. Lots of us might not be able to place Uzbekistan on a blank map of Asia, but on the other hand, plenty of us do know that the Congo is a country in the “Dark Continent”—as is Kenya, by the by. And I hope that whoever is leading my country is a) at least as educated as I am and b) willing to seek help with what he or she doesn’t fully understand—and not from Wikipedia. Anyone who, like Obama, has learned through struggling or sailing through (does it matter which?) excellent institutions of learning that what really counts is not how much you know or even who you know (although the latter helps), but how willing you are to a) learn and b) admit what you don’t know. Apparently Obama learned that great Harvard lesson that there’s always going to be someone who knows more than you, and that as long as you’re willing to ask (even for directions), that someone will likely help you find the answer. For our President Elect’s sake, I hope that when asked, bipartisan Brains will step up to the biggest home plate in the Nation with altruistic input on how to hit both sliders and fastballs right out of the park. Let’s face it—right now, we need every Brain and bat we can find. And the people know it. In the primary, Pennsylvania—a state of voters maligned by their own governor and an entrenched Congressman—chose the known smartie-pants-suit over the unknown Obama, not because of racism, as it turns out. Otherwise, in the general election, Pennsylvanians wouldn’t have chosen Obama by a significant 11 percent. They voted for a man who by then had displayed himself as calm, confident, capable and articulate—even eloquent, Sen. McCain. These traits were in opposition to the brave but awkward front put up by a well-meaning man, a heroic man, an experienced legislator, and a man who graduated close to last in his class from the military academy. A man who knew what he knew, but when it came to being a Decider in his campaign, let himself be out-done in 2000 by the likes of our own evil empire, Rove and Company, and in 2008 by his wilier party cronies who persuaded him to pick Ms. Wasilla as his running mate to capture that Joe Sixpack vote. He seemed more at home in his concession speech than at any other time in the campaign. It makes you wonder. Was he secretly relieved that someone else would now have to do the heavy thinking? The kind of stuff not prioritized at military school? Was he finally, just then, secure in his instinct that even Joe-Sixpack would find Palin cute and distracting, but not smart enough? Oh, a few of my less PC friends admitted they wouldn’t mind “nailin’ Palin,” but despite all that, I have to believe they weren’t overly comfortable with placing her a heartbeat away from the Oval Office and red telephone. And I’m not even touching the horror the stalwart Hillary supporters experienced when the choice of Palin as candidate for VP was announced. In the end, Election ’08 simply was not a Pretty Woman fairy tale. The American people did not buy that the Party of Keep-Those-Gender-Roles-Steady despite all outward appearances—Testosterone as boss and Well-dressed as saved-from-the-outback sidekick—could move into the big white house and make themselves and everyone else happy. Not just any woman—no matter how pretty and full of undeveloped talent—would do. Can it be that I’m living in a country where everything I’ve always believed more valuable than the latest lip gloss, “Desperate Housewives” sensibility, and even a fur coat and a guy with a fat IRA might finally be winning out? And is one of the silver linings of today’s economy that the frenetic advertisers of throw-away goods and products may finally have to retreat a bit? Can it be that at last, we who have always valued learning over looks can emerge and encourage the rest of the country to confess that it isn’t a bad thing to know just a little bit more about our world than we’ve been shown on “America’s Funniest Home Video”? Can it be that in the year in which we’ve seen the vacuous behavior of Paris Hilton decried and the culture of chic-above-all recognized as dangerous to everyone from Spears to Lohan, the year in which Caribou Barbie and “you’re with us or you’re not” jingoism took it on the chin, it may be time to put Barbie and GI Joe to bed—oh, dear, not in the same bed?!—for good? So instead of just celebrating that African American boys and girls can finally aspire to a once color-coded American dream (not that such a thing is small!), let’s tell all our daughters—and sons—that gender expectations have just been exploded, too. A skinny smart guy with big ears can be a big hero. A smart woman in a size-10 pantsuit can win more popularity than an empty Dior suit atop a pair of great legs. Tell ’em not to hide their smarts, but to put ’em out there. Hell, even no more saying, “Me and her are going to the mall” just to fit in. Go nominative case. Live dangerously. Seriously, though, let’s tell our kids that they shouldn’t want to go to college so they can buy things, but so they can learn things—most of all, how to think for themselves. Like how to become the deciders to fix things we, who in submitting at least in part to the strictly gendered ideals of the generation before us, have screwed up. And more importantly, the deciders that their kids and their kids’ kids—and the rest of the kids on this planet—desperately need them to be.


Chris Conard-Shultz said...

I'm all for 'asking what you don't know' and for finding better brains than your own when the thinking gets tough. Some fair (and eloquent) comments in this essay. I'm hopeful that the change that's been promised will be moral, well-planned, and pertinent to how we've come to this point in time. And I've always respected the sullied "brains" and held them above the good-looking, but I'm glad I won't have to look at Pantsuit Woman much, regardless of her brain (unless, of course, she's put on the Supreme Court).

Last Paige said...

Ah, even on the Supreme Court, you don't have to see them much.

I did get an email, as opposed to a comment, that the election was more about drawing all kinds of people together instead of vindicating anyone one group. I'd like to add that I was attempting to do the same -- both men and women can escape gender expectations, and both boys and girls can escape racial and gender expectations, by valuing education above all, especially the kind of education that is not geared toward passing state tests but toward thinking analytically and expressing those thoughts in a variety of ways, both written and active. Every comment is so welcome!