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. 

Men vs. Women: Why Who Leads Matters

why who leads mattersIf there was ever a stereotype more negative, more degrading, and raised more eyebrows, it’s probably the one surrounding men bearing the title of “stay-at-home-dad.” In the eighties, “Mr. Moms” were made rather famous by Michael Keaton’s portrayal of just that. His character highlighted all the reasons men usually don’t want to be a Mr. Mom: The whole reason Keaton becomes one is because he loses his job at a car manufacturing company and is beat out by his wife who lands a job in an advertising company quicker then he can find another position. He fights to gain respect from her new jerk-face boss who picks her up for a business trip in a suit and a limo while Keaton struggles to control the vacuum, the plumber, the baby, the laundry…and his temper. The new roles he and his wife play are clearly unnatural and they start to bicker, resent, and envy one another.

Of course we’ve come a long way from the Mr. Mom of the eighties. Now many men are choosing to stay at home not because they “failed” and lost their jobs, but simply because the woman is earning more and when a couple makes the decision that they would like one parent home full-time with their children, the natural choice for who is going to kick the 8 to 5 is obviously the one earning less. Yet, there’s still something a little strange about it: call it lingering prejudice, ok, or call it entrenched, disgusting stereotypes–but whatever you want to call it, the uncomfortable aura the title “stay-at-home-dad” conjures up has to be acknowledged and investigated.

In a recent episode of HGTV’s hit show Love it or List it, where a real estate agent tries to get the featured family to move and “list it,” while a designer tries to re-do their current home and make them stay and “love it,” the couple featured was a working mum and a stay at home dad who ran a daycare business out of the home. Just watching them interact was a bit off-putting. The mum was cold and very business-like calculating. She openly admitted she needed space away from her husband and all of the kid’s toy paraphernalia he had for his business, and quickly became irritated by his needs. At the same time, her husband was really rather whiny, yet quickly caved to her demands and was anything but masculine. Now of course they had issues that all can’t be blamed or perhaps none can be blamed on their obvious role reversals. If the roles had been reversed (the dad the cold, distant parent, working away from home, the mom the stay-at-home whiny pushover), I still would have been uncomfortable, labeled him a jerk and her probably a sad, trampled woman. Yet, is it strange of me to wonder if his whiny, seeming personal insecurities did not in some deep, perhaps subconscious way, stem from his position in their family as, well, the stay-at-home dad? And was her cold, distant air simply part of her (unfortunate) personality? Or, did it spawn from her disrespect for a husband who wasn’t exactly exemplifying very many, um, masculine attributes?

Clay Parker, a stay-at-home dad, recently wrote an article for “Lean In” –the site I mentioned last month in It’s Just Natural— defending his role as something contrary to all the negative stereotypes. In the article, he tackles many of the battles stay-at-home-dads have to face (a list much longer than their female counterparts). He makes some good points in his piece: The way he writes about being an involved father figure makes it a role of strength (as it should be) instead of weakness, and further, he highlights that the role of a stay at home parent (male or female) is an enormous contribution to the family unit and shouldn’t be a position ever to feel degraded about. Good points, yes? The title of his article “Stay-at-Home-Dads: We are Leading Men,” followed by the tagline, “forget the rubbish that men should always be ‘heads of household,'” however, begins a juxtaposition of ideas that never quite work themselves out in his piece: He is in essence saying that the idea men should be leaders, heads of households, primary bread-winners etc. is an outdated, inconsequential notion: “rubbish.” Yet, his primary argument in support of his role is convincing himself–and other Mr. Moms–that they are still “leading men.” I’m already confused. He says that he has “come to view [his] role as a ‘stay-at-home-dad” as a kind of ‘Best Supporting Actor’ role, absolutely essential to our story.” He then whips out his number one piece of evidence (from Wikipedia might I add) to help him come to terms with his role, saying that he doesn’t mind being a supporting actor because on Wikipedia it says “that there is sometimes controversy over whether a particular performance should be nominated in the Best Actor/Actresses or Best Supporting Actor/Actress category.” Ah ha! I smell jealousy of that #1 spot. His masculinity is showing! Stop that! Though he seems to want to be okay with being the one stepping down from the leader of his household, he attempts to twist every shred of evidence he can to make himself feel as if he still is…I wonder if it’s because it’s just…more…natural?

It’s quickly obvious that he knows his role is rather unnatural and the nontraditional reversal of roles is less than ideal. In fact, interestingly enough, he lumps his unusual household makeup with his “daughter’s neighborhood friends” who has “two moms.” He says that those moms “love and nurture [their son] as fiercely as any other set of parents.” Yet, he knows there is something unnatural, something less than ideal about his own situation as well as the boy with the two moms because, he follows his defense of non-traditionalism by saying that he has “no doubt that children lacking either a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ presence in their home find-and are found by-such role models in either a broader family context or the world at large.” In essence, in the middle of his defense of gender role reversal and nontraditional, same-sex parents, he is admitting that the ideal family is one in which children grow up with strong masculine and feminine role models. And, for those who don’t have them (when dads are at home, mums are away, or two moms/dads are in charge) they must look outside the home to meet this essential need.

So what? So what if the home is less than ideal and children must seek these “ideal” role models outside of the home? Clay Parker says the process of how one gets to the end goal of parenthood (“to raise happy, healthy children who will someday move in the world autonomously and with confidence”) doesn’t really matter…it’s the end result. But, processes do matter. In fact, most end results are a direct reflection of the process it took to get there. Processes are so important in fact, many can be patented. And if companies protect their processes so carefully in order to make the perfect end result every time, I’m not really sure why we are trying to change the way we’re raising children and gambling with the results of an altered process. Ideals aren’t always attainable, but it really does matter who’s in the lead of a family. Simply hoping the little ones will happen across them elsewhere is a process I wouldn’t like to toy with.

– <3 A. 

It’s Just Natural

vmmv modern viewsI like leading. I like being in control. Every group project I ever had in college I wrestled for the lead spot, and I usually got it–not because I’m bossy or a strong personality: I’ve got a voice so small, people in a one-on-one conversation with me often follow-up my statements with a side-lean and a “what?” I usually get the lead spot because I’m organized, a bit of an over-achiever, but largely because I’ve got a strong vein of fear for unpreparedness running through me that makes me, in most situations, over-compensate so I can feel controlled. I have high expectations, and I don’t really trust other people to help me to get to that level of expectation when I can just do it myself in my own way that I know works for me. I know what I need to feel comfortable while I work, so why not get myself to that position? I guess you could call it a pessimistic view of humanity, but I’d rather be surprised by someone as prepared as I am then count on them being prepared and be disappointed, stressed out, and joining them in looking the fool when it turns out they’re not. So, in short, it’s just natural for me to fall into taking the lead.

In one specific class project I vividly remember in my Senior year as an undergrad, we were broken up in groups of three and tasked to make connections between one of Jane Austen’s novels (Persuasion to be exact) and a romantic poet of our choice (Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge etc.). If you’re not an English major, this probably sounds pointless, horrific, and dull, but there was a reason for the project which is, well, another post completely. The point is, my group broke up the project evenly into three parts and we agreed to reconvene a few days later, share our conclusions, and mutually agree on the ones we would present in our portfolio. A good plan, yes? Very “fair.” Hah. I went back to my apartment and happily charged ahead on the project–it’s no secret Austen is my specialty and my brain was already overflowing with connections. I came up with my conclusions I was assigned and then, well, I came up with all the rest too, you know, just in case. After four years of college I had had enough experience in groups to know being over-prepared is never a waste because there is always, without fail, someone to be made up for. Sure enough, by the first group meeting, three group members had fallen to two with no word from the third about the project, her absence, or her plan for getting her portion to us. “Ah yes,” I thought, “no worries at all, I’ve planned for this catastrophe.” The project was turned in with two names gracing the title instead of three, and our third “team” member concluded in creating massive drama—another story for yet another post. My point is, I led not because I necessarily wanted to lead, be the boss, or establish new, never-before-thought-of Austen connections (trust me, they’ve all been explored: Every. Single. One.) I led because I knew what I was good at: organization, planning, Austen. And I led because, well, there wasn’t much competition, so…it was just natural for me to do it.leanin.org

By now you’ve probably heard of Sheryl Sandberg…if not for her COO position at Facebook, but for her wildly popular book Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. What I didn’t know though was that “lean in” has become sort of a new catch phrase, a hot hashtag, and a whole .org site dedicated to what lean-in-ers describe as “changing the conversation about what we [women] can’t do to what we can do.” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But what is so very irritating about Sandberg’s message and all her women “leaning in,” is that they’re insistent upon this idea that if you’re a woman not leading, then you’re “fearful” of being a leader and damn those misogynists, WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOU? At a “BlogHer” conference earlier this year, Sandberg was re-wording some of her book’s urgings that many had criticized for being “elitist or critical of women who don’t have sky-high aspirations.” She admitted that perhaps her opinions had come off wrong and restated that “leaning in” wasn’t about every woman wanting to be a CEO but “about each one of us asking ourselves what we would do if we weren’t afraid and then reaching for those ambitions.”

It was meant to be “all-inclusive” she said, about all women, in every position, breaking out of their “fear” of…what? Being a woman? I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all. Why are we still making this about gender? If I’m “afraid” of something, I never think, “well, if only I were a man, I could do this.” No! For most things I don’t do, I’m not really afraid, I honestly don’t want to do them because I don’t think I would be good at them–not because I’m a woman, because those aren’t my natural strengths. And if I am afraid, it’s usually because I know I’m not good at it or I don’t know much about it yet. Never ever does it cross my mind that my femininity is holding me back. That group project I took control of? Sandberg would probably pat my shoulder and say “yay! Good for you for leaning in and taking control.” But I didn’t do it for that reason, I don’t want to be the boss, I just want to work to my own strengths. If a male team member had had better connections than I did for our Austen-to-Romantic-poet connection project, then I would have stepped down, held back, and given him a nod. Not because I’m suddenly afraid of the manly beast, but because hey, his ideas sound better. The content–not the producer–was better. But Sandberg? The article said she’s “concerned” about how we’re raising our daughters because “by middle school, in survey after survey, more boys say they want to lead someday versus girls.” Uh-oh, EMERGENCY!!! GIRLS ARE AFRAID!!! EMPOWER THEM!!!sheryl sandberg

Wait, what? Why? I don’t take that statistic that way, I take it that, for the majority, boys naturally have the desire to lead, that’s why even when they’re young (oh hey, in middle school) they’re already showing this tendency. Does that make me afraid? No. It’s not a rule, it’s just a majority. Some girls naturally have the ability to lead, and they will, without all of this obsession. Try and get a naturally disorganized girl to lead and you’ll have a leader who wasn’t meant to lead. That’s not forward-thinking equality and woman-empowerment, that’s a waiting disaster. My boyfriend recently asked me if I ever wanted to see a woman president. I thought about it for a long time–I knew what he was asking, if, like most women, I wanted to see a woman president because she was a woman. And I said yes, I would vote for a woman to be president, but I wouldn’t be voting based on her gender, I would be voting based on who the heck she was. How offensive to her to vote for her just because she’s got boobs. Come on ladies. Men usually get hired as high school teachers faster than women…I don’t take that as women are afraid to lead, take charge, and go get that job, I take it as school districts knowing that perhaps for the age group, men are just better at handling a room of 30+ teens. The reverse usually occurs with elementary school though, women are better at connecting with younger children…you know, just naturally. The dumbest idea employers ever had was to have rules on the types of people they had to hire. I would be more disappointed if I knew I was hired to “lead” just because they had to meet their female quota than if I was turned down because a man just did it better than I did. It’s not about being afraid, being brought up differently, or having different gender expectations…it’s just natural: Leaders are personality types, not gender specific and if we try and even out the ratio based solely on which bathroom we use, we’re going to have a really, really big problem…starting right at the top.

image inspired via

– <3 A.