Insidious Adjectives: How the Gender Debate is Twisting Powerful Parts of Speech

gender debateThere’s a new insidiousness to the gender debate, and it’s all about adjectives: It’s gradual, it’s oh so very subtle, but it’s also incredibly harmful. In essence, the debate about gender roles has been minimized to just a few, “petty” parts of speech…harmless, until you read past the diction and really start thinking about what these parts of speech really mean to the future of male vs. female.

In any well-thought out argument, the main thing you focus on (if you wan’t to convince anyone of anything) is facts. Appeals to logic and reason with a little stab at emotion fill most of your argument. Fill up your persuasive argument assignment in first-year undergrad speech class with emotional appeals and there will be big fat red comments scrawling across every margin of your hard copy: “Cut the flowery language, the emotional appeals, the adjectives.” I know because I was an English major, I fought with my professors over my love for adjectives and every time I lost. I loved those little guys, they were so…so…well, descriptive. There was always just one more I could throw in, one more that I thought captured precisely what I wanted to say…it was perfect, it was…too much. The issue with adjectives, by their own definition of their function, is that they’re modifiers, they’re add-ons that carry with them subjective value judgments–not any real, concrete information like nouns and verbs. A movie isn’t a bad or boring movie until you throw an adjective in front of it. A person is really just a person until you describe them with adjectives: beautiful, smart, dull, annoying, fun…Ask Voltaire or Twain about those modifiers and you’ll find they agree with me. Voltaire said adjectives are the “enemy” of the noun, and Twain? He wasn’t so subtle of course: “If you catch an adjective, kill it.”gender debate

What’s the big deal? Adjectives are important, but they’re also dangerous because they aren’t facts or actions that are unchanging or unchangeable. They are descriptions that fluctuate and rely upon the person who is using them to garner their value. I may describe The Notebook as a stupid film because that’s my personal judgment value of it, but I know most of the female gender would vehemently disagree with me, and they can because adjectives are just descriptions–not truths. So, how does all of this grammar nit-picking relate to the gender debate? You may not have noticed it because that’s the whole point of an insidious attack, but the gender debaters have taken a step back from their bleeding heart podiums and resorted to just whispering subtleties into the audience’s ears. What are they whispering? They’re whispering that certain descriptive, modifying words to describe men are greater than adjectives describing many women and unless women show a marked interest and achievement in justifying that these adjectives also describe themselves—well, then they are failing as a modern woman. They’re attributing negative value judgments on typically female adjectives, while making male adjectives a thing of value, presenting their adjective-packed argument as poignant proof women need to start not only “leaning in,” but by gosh, throwing a punch and climbing on top as well. Just listen:

Leslie Bennetts is a writer who has spent much of her working life interviewing famous women. She is also a wife and working mum, writing for Vanity Fair, Elle, The New York Times, as well as publishing her own book, The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? (which, you can purchase new and used for $1.99 btw on Amazon–I didn’t know you could buy a book for two dollars but apparently Bennetts made it happen!) If you can’t tell from her book title, she isn’t much of a supporter of the “you can’t have it all so choose a path” stance for women juggling modern, manic life. Her article “The Scarlet A: Why Women Don’t Say They’re Ambitious” is all about the phenomenon she began to notice throughout her career interviewing wildly successful women: That is, that ladies don’t really like describing themselves as “ambitious.”

She cites many examples: Condoleeza Rice refusing to admit she was smart in an interview with Oprah, Oprah herself underscoring her ranking as one of the richest women in America with her comment “I don’t think of myself a businesswoman,” and even Hilary Clinton’s self-professed, shock and disbelief when she heard she was to be appointed to secretary of state under Obama’s administration. You could see their subtlety about describing their own success as humble, you could describe it positively as hard-working, industrious, even admirable, or modest, but Bennetts chooses to describe them as passive, reactive, and overly self-effacing–negative adjectives = negative behavior = negative personality types. She says women have been trained to believe that power, ambition, and a take-charge attitude desexualizes them. But have we ever stopped to think why ambitious, powerful, and zealous are adjectives greater than humility, selflessness, and hardworking? Because, after all, all of those words are just adjectives. They’re all value judgments with no real truth behind them beside the value the speaker/writer gives them. Perhaps the issue is not that women aren’t stepping up, it’s that the way culture is describing where women are now has merely created the appearance that women have anywhere to step up from. I didn’t think Condoleeza Rice, Oprah, or Hilary Clinton’s positions could exactly be called “underdogs.” That is, I didn’t think so until Bennetts began to describe them as such.

gender debate

Gloria Feldt, former president of Planned Parenthood seemed rather horrified at why women are “failing” at pronouncing their pride, shouting their success, acknowledging their ambition, and taking over: Quoted in Bennetts article, Feldt says there is really “no law or formal barrier…keeping us [women] from achieving equality and justice except our own unwillingness to ‘just take them.'” Unable to believe that women don’t want these “powerful” adjectives to describe themselves, Feldt can hardly contain her disgust: “Millions of dollars are being spent to help recruit, train, and support women to get elected, and yet they’ve [women] scarcely moved the dial at all…the problem [is] not that the doors [are] not open. The problem [is] that women [are] not walking through those doors and that just blew me away” Feldt said. I still don’t see a problem though, maybe the majority of women have figured out the real truth, that adjectives like ambitious, and powerful  aren’t really any greater than the adjectives they currently embody (like humble, selfless, modest) and they’re actually perfectly okay with it.

Because many women believe power, or the admittance of having power desexualizes them, Bennetts says that many of those women choose to gain their power sort of second-hand–through a marriage. She warns that such an abdication of personal power can only end in being let down, for, Bennetts highlights, when we rely on other people (specifically spouses or children) to give us power, we risk everything on someone we cannot control. Her case in point? Grace Kelly. Bennetts interviewed Kelly twenty years after her marriage to The Prince of Monaco. Thinking she was going to interview a real-life fairy-tale story, Bennetts was shocked to discover Grace Kelly was instead a woman wrought with “sadness and regret.” Kelly regretted the loss of her acting career, the loss of “command[ing] respect for her own work, earn[ing] her own keep, and [being] acclaimed for her own efforts.” Bennetts highlights Kelly because her life is something of a posterchild for the argument women should chase those “better,” usually ‘male” adjectives. Male adjectives give you autonomy, power, a sense of self, pride, direction, while female adjectives, Bennetts says, make you passive, reactive, self-effacing, powerless. A pretty good argument for self-empowerment, yes? Yet, Bennetts missed that Grace Kelly, in all her regret for giving up her career to “rely on someone else,” was still relying on something outside of herself for her sense of power and happiness. No, it wasn’t a someone (i.e. her husband, children) it was a something: her acting career– and the loss of which concluded in the same result of regret and sadness.gender debate

So, what’s the answer? If male and female adjectives both get you nowhere, what do you do? You don’t listen to this insidious new attack, because “adjectives are frail; don’t ask them to do more work than they should.” How you describe yourself with whatever adjectives you choose still misses a very important part of speech, that is the noun: you. Who you are is what really matters. Being powerful and ambitious isn’t greater than any other way you could describe yourself–those adjectives are just modifiers to whatever you really are. If you’re modest, humble, selfless, and happy about it, that’s far, far more powerful than the most ambitious person in the world who is content at nothing, proclaims his/her own glory at every turn, and in the end will lose him/herself when the next ambitious self comes along to trump their grandeur. Relying on ambition and power is just as dangerous as relying on a person. Don’t believe the lie that any one adjective is better, pay more attention to the nouns that embody the adjectives. And, if you need something to glean your power from, I would much rather rely on someone I love and who will love me back than something that merely describes me.

– <3 A. 

Summer Shop

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elle magazine vintage store roundupNashville | Seattle New Jersey | Palm Desert | all images via 

Summer? You’re here? How, how, how, how, how!??

I think the most enduring thing about childhood that absolutely no one ever quite gets over is the loss of summer vaca. Perhaps that’s why people return to school again and again for advanced degrees because we really just can’t get over that feeling of the last bell, the last final, the last class period completion, and the three months stretched out before you of complete and utter timelessness. Because, for some reason, though our lives from birth to death are summed up, surrounded in, and made up of time, we spend our lives fighting time, wanting more, wanting it to rush by faster, sometimes slower, sometimes stopping, sometimes jumping ahead, sometimes leaping back yet always, always struggling against what no one has managed to triumph over.

If you look up the word “insanity,” of course the first thing that comes up is “the state of being seriously mentally ill; madness” BUT, the second thing that comes up is “extreme foolishness or irrationality.” Isn’t there a bit of insanity then in all of us? Isn’t it irrational to fight against a system no one has managed to beat? Isn’t it foolish to wish for things that can’t happen? To pine for things that won’t come sooner, won’t happen slower, and won’t slip by faster? And, don’t we all know this and plough ahead anyway? Wishing, hoping, watching that clock, crossing off calendars, counting, counting, counting?

At the heart of all of this time-insanity I think lies the love for vintage: in vintage clothes, style, and furniture there is a tangible moment of a past time. We can’t go back, we can’t be born sooner, and we can’t reverse our own timeline, but we can put on the facade of a different time and within that facade I think we feel removed from a present we at times don’t much care for. In that time-capsule it feels so wonderfully cozy and we are (for that moment we wear a vintage piece or for the time we rest in a vintage-inspired space), so wonderfully not ourselves.

Elle magazine did a sort of coast to coast vintage store roundup last week just in time for the summer season of road-trippin’. Check out their article here and if you’re near any of these vintage meccas, go check them out! I have my own local love but I would so like to visit all of these gems, you know, if I had the time….

– <3 A.  

Heels Talk


vmmv collageLouis 14th image via / vintage heels ad via /  heels image via / Elle spring heel collection heels via 

To my great relief, ELLE magazine recently boasted that for spring 2013, “gone are the dizzying stiletto heights. Plan on slipping into heels on the south side of three inches.” Thank goodness! If you’ve been keeping track of the Swiss Alps-like heights of recent heel-fads, then you will be as relieved as I. “Kitten” heel heights have a sad tendency to tend a little grandma, but these beauties have nothing geriatric about them and I love, love them.

For such a diminutive item of clothing, heels certainly have spoken their piece since their inception during the 1700’s as (surprise, surprise) a man’s accessory. King Louis the 14th brought them into fashion by often donning the heeled shoe to give his rather smallish frame something of a more kingly stature. Later, women adopted the shoe type in a slimmer heel, but only people of aristocracy were seen with a heeled shoe. In the age of cobblestone streets, women of wealth didn’t have to walk much, or at all in the elements, and thus a heeled foot was something of a declaration that the foot it adorned was something special–able to don a shoe otherwise precarious for the lower classes to risk wandering about in cobbled streets. Since then, feminists have taken up their own battle-cry against the “impractical” shoe that they see not to improve a woman for the woman’s sake, but to be more attractive to men. Goodness! It is just a shoe.

Whatever your idea of the heel, they certainly do speak loudly of how you feel about yourself. In the 1950’s, the mark of a lady was always to have an otherwise unattractive body part (yuck, feet) shaped into a lovely heel. And now, donning a heel has something of a power symbol in it…at least I think it does. Perhaps its the added height, the feeling that you can wear something uniquely feminine, or the little clip-clop of each heeled step gives you a sense of having your own theme music, but whatever it is, when I see a woman in heels, she has a sense of power about her, of someplace she needs to be and the confidence and assurance of going to do it. However the heel speaks to you, I’m quite happy to have my heels speaking at a little less of a “dizzying height” this spring. Welcome back to earth, heel-wearers.

– <3 A.

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The Mother of All Resumes

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I’ve written many times on the topic of working women. And the debates are endless about whether women should or shouldn’t work when the next generation comes along: Is it cruel to have a child and then never be around to raise it? Is it archaic to think modern households can tread water without two incomes? Do we even want to stay home anymore? Is it better for them? Is it better for us? But… what about if you don’t have a choice? What then? Even if you’re a staunch supporter of the stay-at-home ladies or an ambitious arguer for the go-out-and-live-and-work-and-have-a-family women, whatever side of the proverbial fence you’re on, doubts from the “other side” always seem to creep in don’t they? Claire Gutierrez, in her article for Elle magazine last Tuesday, took the stance that she is happy to have to work when she becomes a mom, not because she’d rather have a career than have more time to spend with her family, but because she has to have a career in order to raise a family. Though married, her partner doesn’t bring in as much income as she does, and besides that, her job has the ever-important benefit card going for it. In a nut-shell, Claire makes the point that for her, removing the option of to work or not to work was like having a weight lifted off her shoulders because she would have something to say if and when someone ever asked, or if and when those “bad-mother” doubts began to creep in and cry, “why are you leaving your kids again?” She could simply say, “because I have to for them to survive.”

She hits on an interesting point, that is that ladies should only feel guilty about choosing career over a family if they don’t have to have a career. That is, less choice equals less guilt. If you have to be at work for your kids, it’s not so “bad” as if you’re just working for you. If she stopped at that point, she might have something. But, she went on to muddle through the argument that all anti-stay-at-homers fall into, that is that motherhood isn’t anything to aspire to, that desiring to be with your children is like a teen girl never growing out of, or maturing from, the Friday night babysitting phase. She says that her own mother encouraged her daughters to “not be like her” because they were “too smart.” Further, she states that no moms with daughters that she knows hope their daughters will cast aside their ambitions to be “just a mother.” She then references (and is seemingly agreeing with) a young girl from Hanna Rosin’s now famous article The End of Men, when the young girl asks her own mother a rather disturbing question:

Why is [my education] important if I’m just going to grow up and be a mommy like you?

Motherhood doesn’t have a very good reputation, maybe it never did, maybe the good mums have always been under-appreciated because many times many mothers really are just baby-sitters: wanting to dress up little ones, decorate nurseries, organize play-dates and not deal with, or prepare for, shaping a small life. That’s kind of what Claire makes it sound like…at least when she says that though she has no choice not to work, she actually finds great relief in, and joyfully toasts “(her) good fortune not to have to change quite so many diapers, not to have to push the swing for quite so long, not to have to read Green Eggs and Ham a thousand times.” So, if that’s how our culture sees motherhood, then maybe we should toss the job to the guys and tell our little women to grow up and do something else more estimable. Who wants to be a 35 year-old baby-sitter anyway?

But, what is “just” a “mother”? If you look it up in the dictionary, one explanation is simply “a female parent.” Ok, that’s a given, but other explanations give a little more insight into what the term means:

MOTHER: (n)  (2.) a woman in authority; (3) something that is an extreme or ultimate example

Wow. “To be an extreme and ultimate example”? Holy crap, that’s quite the job description, a job that you should enter as well-equipped as possible.  That’s why education, ambitions, and achievements are important if you are, will be, or want to be a mum. The idea that if you “just” want to be a mom then you don’t have to be educated or have your own desires, goals, and life-achievements is a very upside down view of motherhood. In The End of Men article that Claire references in her own monologue, the article retells story after story of how young women who have degrees, goals, and good-jobs, are anticipating letting their current or future boyfriends, fiances, and husbands “play around with the kiddies at home” since the men in their lives are essentially failing in the grown-up world.

Ok, sure, so caring for a three-year-old doesn’t require a law degree. Raising a child doesn’t require a degree at all. Sure, if the one parent who happens to have the law degree is the mum and the dad chooses to stay home then great, but what I’m saying is, what does raising a child well require? What does the idea that… if dad is kinda “the dumb one,” well, he’ll raise our kids…do to the kids? When you graduate from college and head out into the world for whatever job you’re seeking, don’t you want to be the over-qualified one? Hardly anyone gets hired by just having the minimum listed on their resume. Don’t you want to know what to do in every circumstance? To bring experiences, knowledge, and insight into situations that someone else doesn’t have? Why wouldn’t you want to do that with your own child? Since when has motherhood become the janitor job? The unqualified position? The GED optional job? Since I guess girls started being told that being a mother is “just” something to do. Since our culture stopped looking up the definition of motherhood. Since mothers stopped at “just” being a female parent instead of an extreme and ultimate example. And, since motherhood became a choice instead of a privilege.

If you are the breadwinner for your family then good for you. If you have to work, and that’s the best thing you can do for future or current little ones, then it’s wonderful that you have that opportunity. But, if you have to, or even if you want to work, don’t ever let the least qualified raise your kids and don’t ever become the least qualified that will be raising your kids because you won’t “just be a mommy” you will be embarking on setting the “extreme and ultimate example.”

-<3 A. 

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