Monday, October 27, 2008

4. The Invisible Women

This is the fourth post in my series about why feminism is still needed and why I am a feminist. It's useful to point out that we have come a long way, baby (yeah!), and that progress takes place all the time. Still, too many people want to go backwards in time and culture and too many people are blind to the reality we all share. A shaking of those hidden basic assumptions is in order. The earlier posts are, in order: The Right To Go Out, The Planet of the Guys and Our Father Who Art in Heaven.

This post is about the odd way earthlings see and don't see women, from the detached view of a visiting alien from outer space. There is no good title for the post, though I settled for "invisibility" in it. "Settled", because women are often both invisible as human beings and extremely visible as women. This creates the odd impression that the U.S. Congress, for instance, is teeming with women (just think of Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi), whereas in reality the percentage of women in the U.S. Congress is only 16%.

For another example, consider this publicity photograph of the popular "Seinfeld" television series:

For those of you who haven't viewed the series, the four people in the picture are the main characters in the series. One of them, Elaine, is a woman. There's nothing wrong with having a series with 75% male characters. But note that we tend not to think of this series as something for the guys or with a guy angle. We think of it as a fairly mainstream program intended for both men and women. Yet Elaine really stands for "woman" in this series. Now do a reversal. Imagine that picture with three women and one man as the main characters. What would that look like? It would look like something for the chicks ("chicks" being female human beings, not individuals from the species gallus domesticus).

Astute readers might complain that this sounds exactly like my second post, all about men being the default as human beings. But this is where the current post deviates from that one: One of the consequences of the separate-but-not-equal view of women as a subspecies of homo sapiens is that just a sprinkling of women in some group appears to be enough to get that subspecies covered! So one Elaine covers the need to have women in "Seinfeld", a handful of female politicians appears to cover the need for female representation in politics, three woman columnists in the stable of 27 political columnists of the Washington Post appears plentiful for the coverage of the "woman angle"!

Our alien visitor finds all this extremely fascinating. It just pointed to me how this approach is in direct conflict with the fact that 50.7% of all Americans are female. Mostly earthlings think that having one woman on a committee or a couple of women in a movie or television show is plenty! A movie which reflects that 50.7% frequency from real life is at risk for being labeled a chick flick, something for women only. A movie with 100% male cast has a fairly good chance of being seen as mainstream unless it's about porn.

Curious stuff. Now for the odd paradox of extreme visibility/invisibility: Because women are still often seen as Others, one or two representatives from that group both suffice AND draw our attention! This means that most women are invisible as people, but that the women in the public eye are extremely visible as spoonfuls of that amorphous substance called womanhood.

The consequences of this to women are complicated but mostly negative. For an example, female actors will find it harder to find interesting roles to play, because they might be cast as "women" (which means as wives, girlfriends, mothers, and whores) and not as the absent-minded person, the geeky person, the stupid person, the jock person. Likewise, women who write (ahem) might find their writing task interpreted by others as pertaining to only female matters. After all, female writers are first seen as specimens (or tokens) from that separate group "women" and only then as individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses and interests.

So much for the extreme visibility of women as "women." But note that this means the extreme invisibility of most women, the ones whom we don't see on television anywhere near to their population proportions, the ones who don't get roles in movies because they are too old or too ethnic or whatever other characteristic disqualifies them from standing as a representative of womanhood. It also means a lot of invisibility to women as individuals with their own particular character traits. As is well known, only default human beings can truly be seen as individuals.

What our visiting alien finds especially sad about all this is that women are not just invisible as persons to many men; they are also invisible as persons to many women. Thus, sports programs with nothing but men shown in them are called "sports" and the female fans are perfectly comfortable with that.

I've tried explaining that the fishes who swim in the ocean don't find the water wet, but to no avail. Perhaps I can turn the tables when I visit the home planet of our distant guest. But for the time being, it has a point worth thinking about.

A slightly different aspect of the invisible women cropped up in the conversation the alien and I had yesterday (inside my head, of course). It remarked on the frequency with which conversations on the Internet turn to questions about female breasts, female attractiveness and how very often quarrels result in one discussant scolding another for "acting or thinking like a twelve-year girl" or something similar. This happens even when many of the people talking are female and clearly express their gender in their comments.

The alien wanted to know if women often turn the conversation in a mixed-sex setting to the thickness of various penises and the faulty thinking of pre-pubertal boys, and if not, why not? My hesitant answer was that women are aware of the presence of men in the conversation and would not wish to make insulting comments or to turn the male body into the meal de jour. I call the answer hesitant, because I'm not sure that the women in the discussion truly are invisible to those men who take the described types of liberties. But the alternative is even less flattering to those who rant and rave about "bawling like a twelve-year old girl".