Space Exploration And The Invisible Women

Yesterday being a snow day in New York City–for school-going children and college professors alike–I spent it with my daughter at home. Diversion was necessary, and so I turned to an old friend–the growing stock of quite excellent documentaries on Netflix–for aid. My recent conversations with my daughter have touched on the topic of space exploration–itself prompted by a discussion of the Man on the Moon, which had led me to point out that actual men had been to the moon, by rocket, and indeed, had walked on it. A space exploration documentary it would be. We settled on the BBC’s ‘Rocket Men’ and off we went; I wanted to show my daughter the Apollo 11 mission in particular, as I have fond memories of watching a documentary on its flight with my parents when I was a five-year old myself.

As the documentary began, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling: my daughter and I were going to be watching something ‘notable,’ ‘historical,’ a human achievement of some repute, and yet again, we would find few women featured prominently. Indeed, as the title itself suggests, the documentary is about men: the astronauts, the rocket scientists, the mission control specialists. The only women visible are those watching rockets blast off or worrying about the fates of their family members in them. This used to happen in our watching of music videos too as I introduced my daughter to ‘guitar heroes’ as a spur to her guitar lessons. After a couple of weeks of watching the likes of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page et al, my daughter asked me, “Don’t girls play the guitar?” Well, of course they do, and so off we went, to check out Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, the Deal sisters, and many others.

It had been an easy trap to fall into. In the case of music, I had a blind spot myself. In the case of space exploration the problem lay elsewhere: there were no women pilots qualified for the astronaut program as the initial selection of the astronaut corps came from the armed forces. Both instances though, were united by their embedding in a culture in which women were women were less visible, less recognized, less likely to be promoted to the relevant pantheon. After all, as in literature and art and philosophy, women have been present in numbers that speak to their ability to surmount the social barriers placed in their paths, and yet still rendered invisible because of the failure to see them and their contributions to their chosen field of artistic endeavor.

As I watched a video of the first seven American astronauts being introduced at a press conference, I felt I had to say something to my daughter, to explain to her why no women were to be seen in this cavalcade of handsome crew cut men wearing aviator sunglasses. So I launched into a brief digression, explaining the selection process and why women couldn’t have been selected. My daughter listened with some bemusement and asked if things were still that way now. I said, no, but there’s work to be done. And then we returned to watching the Gemini and Apollo missions. Afterwards, I walked over to my computer and pulled up the Wikipedia entries for Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride and Kalpana Chawla and showed them to my daughter, promising her that we would watch documentaries on them too. She seemed suitably enthused.

Starting Them Early: Beauty Spas For Little Girls

Loving parents can now take their children, especially young girls,  to spas for manicures, pedicures and hairstyling.

There are times, and they recur quite often, when I wonder about the wisdom of having brought a child into this world. This is one such.

Our culture creates and sustains a toxic atmosphere for women from cradle to grave. Wear pink, play with princess toys and unrealistic dolls that almost immediately start to create body image problems; wear non-functional clothes whose primary task appears to be sexualization of the wearer; be subjected to endless litanies of stereotypes and genderized commentary; suffer sexist discourse and sexual violence; struggle for reproductive and family planning rights; lack adequate political representation and access to social, economic and cultural power. And on and on. The list is exhausting.

Perhaps we should have beauty pageants for young girls. Wait; we already have those. Do we have bikini competitions and perhaps even a Sports Illustrated Pre-Teen Swimsuit issue? If not, they are surely on their way. Do we have pre-pubescent girls working as models, performing sexualized poses for glamour photographs? I think we do. (No surprises, these models suffer from anorexia and bulimia.) What atrocity is left to commit on our young women? Surely there is commercial imperative out there that will be able to dream up some new avenue of derangement.  

Here are some ideas–in the domain of games and services–that come to mind:

1. Video games in which a young girl must traverse an obstacle course to get the boy of her choice. Other variants could include beating other girls–violently or otherwise–for pole position. These obstacle courses could be staged in many settings: for instance, one could be on a campus, where a library-based female students spots a boy walking on the quad, and chucks her books to take off in pursuit. Another one could be staged on a gym floor: our heroine would spot a weightlifter on the other end, and try to reach him while navigating the obstructions–like barbells–placed in her path. She is not allowed to lift them but must enlist male allies to move them for her instead. This could be advertised as ‘building hand-eye co-ordination skills’, ‘developing the competitive spirit’, and ‘building team partnerships.’

2. A constraint satisfaction game in which a fixed amount of money must be spent to buy the best possible combination of make-up items. “Best possible” is a function of which combination of items–perfume, lipstick, lipgloss, eyeliner etc–appeal to a select list of desirable boys, who themselves are ranked on a scale of hotness and cuteness. This could be marketed as ‘helping to develop mathematical and algorithmic capacities.’

3. A culinary course in which young girls would be instructed how to make ‘food for a new, light, sexy, you’. Menu items would include traditional classics as weight-loss shakes, skinny lattes, fat-free dressings, and celery salads.  This could be pitched as ‘a modern version of the traditional Home Economics class, one geared to today’s adventurous young woman.’

We’ve only scratched the surface, folks.

From Santa Barbara to Badaun: Misogyny and Masculinity

It’s been a bad week for women. They found out, in sunny California, that when they do not dispense sexual indulgences to those who seek (or demand) them, they can provoke murderous rages; they also found out, in India’s central provinces, that their bodies remain to be taken by others, used, and then finally, strung up like broken rag dolls. Elliott Rodger and the as-yet-convicted rapists and killers of two teenage girls–separated by time and space–had this in common: they disliked women intensely. They hated them enough to kill them.

Elliott Rodger begs for cruel mockery about what goes terribly wrong when you don’t get laid. But the killers of Badaun weren’t sexually deprived; they had had their fill of the girls before they tossed them aside. Indeed, if Rodger had gotten his way and been dispensed the favors he seemed to be so desperately seeking, there is no guarantee he wouldn’t have killed anyway. Perhaps he would have channeled his rage against women some other way; perhaps he would have chosen to have gotten angry because one of his sexual partners wanted to break things off and just move on. The kind of anger so clearly visible in his disturbing video is not so easily assuaged as might be imagined; its roots lie far deeper. And the killers of Badaun made this rage manifest; it was not enough for them that they raped the girls they had abducted, they also hung them from a tree to strike fear into the hearts of anyone–especially other young women–who saw their limp, lifeless bodies. Women should know their place in this world: keep shut, spread your legs. (It is an additional complicating factor in the Indian case that the young women were Dalits, and their killers were probably members of an ‘upper-caste.’)

Many years ago, in a documentary on Mike Tyson, when speaking of his rape conviction, Joyce Carol Oates had noted that the modern man–in his sexual interactions with women–is animated by a rage qualitiatively and quantitatively distinct from that which tormented his predecessors earlier. Then, when a woman declined to sleep with you, you could convince yourself it was because she wanted to be a ‘good girl.’ Now, that same rejection has a personal sting: she is choosing someone else, not you, not now. Rodger had internalized this resentment for sure, but he had also inculcated in himself a corrosive Whore-Madonna complex of sorts: women wouldn’t stop being ‘sluts’ just because they had slept with Rodger. Perhaps they’d sink even lower in his eyes. Perhaps because, despite his protestations, Rodger didn’t think very much himself, he might have regarded them as especially contemptible for having slept with him.

Among masculinity’s worst contributions to our culture–and it has many terrible achievements–has been its degradation of sexual relations, its notion of sexual ‘accomplishment’ where men succeed via promiscuity and women fail. Over time, women have ceased to be persons and have merely become prickly, uncooperative owners of bodies, who refuse to play the game. As defined by men.

The teenage girls of Badaun, it’s ‘strange fruit‘, learned that the hard way: once their bodies had been used by those who wanted them, they weren’t needed any more. And no one else could have them. Not even they, themselves.

It’s no country, or world, for women (old or otherwise).