The Barbie movie comes out this week and has been heavily hyped in the media (lots of pink!). Barbie has been a controversial figure, representing a stereotypical male-gaze version of women (blond, thin waist, oversized breasts). Reacting to criticism from feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the toy company marketing the doll, Mattel, tried to counter the Barbie image with the release of black and Hispanic dolls. I commented on “Treetop Barbie” in 2019, which portrays the doll as a forest canopy researcher. That was better received than the 2014 book, Barbie: I can be a computer engineer, in which Barbie is shown having the idea for a video game, but has to have her male friends actually do the coding. Apparently, Greta Gerwig’s movie will feature many different versions of Barbie in various professions.
It may be that it has been difficult for Mattel to change the image of Barbie due to its origin, as a heavily sexualized doll, Lilli, who first appeared in a comic in the German tabloid Bild Zeitung in 1952 and was then released as a doll in 1955. In the comic strip Lilli, a secretary, appeared scantily clad and portrayed in provocative poses.
Known as “Bild-Lilli” in Germany, the doll was particularly popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s with men. According to a recent article in Business Insider, “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rearview mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as suggestive keepsakes” (citing the Robin Gerber biography of Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler). Handler had seen the Lilli doll on a trip to Europe and on her return to the US convinced Mattel to create Barbie. The striking similarities between the two dolls led to multiple lawsuits between Mattel and the German company producing Lilli, Greiner & Hausser. BTW, Lilli too spawned a movie, Lilli – ein Mädchen aus der Großstadt (Lilli, a Girl from the Big City) released in 1958.
In an interesting contrast, this week is also the start of another high-profile event featuring women, the World Cup; in this case highlighting athletic prowess rather than appearance
Today a “Karen” was criminally indicted. The woman’s name is not Karen, but Amy, Amy Cooper. She appeared as “Karen” in the tweet seen here, posted by Melody Cooper (no relation), the brother of a bird watcher, her brother, Christian. Amy was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park, but contrary to the regulations in that area, her dog was not leashed. Christian asked her to use a leash, to keep the dog from scaring away the birds. She responded by threatening to call 911, telling Christian that she was going to tell the operator that she was being threatened by a black man. She did in fact call, saying “There is a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog…please send the cops immediately!”. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said today, in announcing the prosecution, “Our office initiated a prosecution of Amy Cooper for falsely reporting an incident in the third degree. We are strongly committed to holding perpetrators of this conduct accountable.”
So why is Amy Cooper a Karen? “Karen” has in fact become a popular online meme, typically used as shorthand for a white, middle-aged North American woman, reeking of privilege (whiteness, class, wealth) and selfishness (I matter more than you) who asserts her own rights over those of (racial, cultural, financial, political) others in confrontations captured on video and posted online. Many of those encounters in recent weeks deal with women asserting the right not to wear a face mask, even in environments in which that is required. Also reported have been women protesting stay-at-home orders, demanding the right to have nails done or to visit a hair salon. But Karens are not new. A recent report from the NPR program “On the Media” listed a host of Karen types, often with names linked to the activity they reported or the context of the encounter: Barbecue Becky, Bus Berator Brenda, Lawnmower Lucy, Pool Patrol Paula, Racist Roslyn, Walmart Mary, Airline Amy. In that report, the host, Brooke Gladstone, explored with Apryl Williams, a professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan, the origins of the Karen meme.
Interestingly, these annoying individuals seem to always be women. In that sense, the phenomenon resembles the complaints about speech patterns like vocal fry (use of a deep, creaky, breathy sound), upspeak (rising intonation applied to all utterances, not just questions), or use of hedges (disclaimers, tag questions), all associated with women. It’s not that these speech habits do not exist, it’s that social censure rarely is directed to particular male speech patterns like self-assertiveness, insensitivity, or excessive volume. Why the difference? In the US there is been lately a growing awareness of the reality of institutional racism in this society, but the same power structure, favoring white males, also tilts in favor of men.
BTW, the incident in Central Park occurred on May 25, the same day that George Floyd died in police custody. In the discussion on “On the Media” on Karens, Professor Williams emphasized that racism is at the core of Karen behavior:
It is the primary motivating factor for placing that call to the police. I’m not sure that if these incidences were happening to white people that they would feel the need to call the police at all. If they were, we would hear about it, as we have recently with COVID, where white people are being kicked out of stores because they refuse to wear a mask. So, if it were the case that white people were calling the police randomly on other white people, I think we would hear about it. The fact that these incidents keep happening to black people, black men in particular, says that we are still grappling with the same type of racism that we were dealing with under Jim Crow era segregation. And that’s central to these memes.
It may be that the US is at a turning point in race relations. Some recognition of male privilege, as well as white privilege would be welcome as well.
Both serve as national icons, the President of the US and Miss America, but they represent institutions not normally brought together, although President Trump does have a history with beauty pageants.
Both figures were in the news this week. It so happens that the recently crowned Miss America, Camille Schrier, is a VCU student, working towards a doctorate in pharmacy. Her talent in the contest was doing chemistry experiments, with eye-popping results. She was back at VCU this week as part of her national tour to promote medication safety and to prevent drug misuse. She has said that her mission was also to promote science careers for girls, stating in an interview, “I’m trying to be like Bill Nye [the science guy]…That’s what I’m going for. I want to get kids excited, but I don’t want it to be boring.” Although in the pageant, Schrier wore a white lab coat and safety goggles for the talent performance, it’s clear that if she were not an attractive woman, she would not have earned the crown. However that may be, she is leveraging the exposure and publicity she is receiving to engage in public service, something in fact that is expected of every Miss America. In that sense she is working within normal institutional parameters.
That is hardly the case recently for many US politicians, including not only the President, but members of Congress as well. Their behavior in the impeachment process has been largely dictated by personal political interests, not by a concern to strengthen the institutions they represent. That’s not true of all those in Congress, but it’s a pattern that we’re seeing more often, and not just in politics. Self-interest rather than institutional support has become a driver of actions and attitudes, leading to wide-spread distrust of institutions in the US.
That’s laid out in a new book by Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, recently discussed with the author on NPR. In the interview Levin points out that many members of Congress “think about the institution as a way to raise their profile”, for example, Senator Ted Cruz after every session of the impeachment trial hosting a podcast commenting on the session. While Levin comments that it is legitimate “for important public figures to also have a profile in the culture”, doing so excessively and making that one’s major focus, “makes it much harder for the institution to function and much harder for us to trust it”:
When members come to think of Congress as a platform for themselves, it becomes much harder for them to see how working within the institution cooperating and bargaining is really what Congress is for…What happens in most congressional hearings now is basically a bunch of individuals producing YouTube clips to use later in campaigns.
One can make the same argument for President Trump, who has used the institution of the presidency as a platform, through Twitter, to promote himself:
President Trump is the first of our presidents who has not been formed by any of the institutions of public service in our country. President Trump has been a performer his entire adult life, and he’s been a performer as president, too. He uses the office of the presidency as a platform from which to comment on the government.
In the process, he is debasing the institution of the Presidency, leading to growing public mistrust. This is all the more disturbing given the power of that office. Levin sees this as a lesson for us all:
All of us have some roles to play within some institutions, even if that’s our family or community or workplace, let alone national institutions and politics and the economy. As a as a parent, as a neighbor, as a member of the PTA, as a member of Congress, as a CEO, what should I do in this situation? Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you’re part of seriously.
In other words, in the institution in which we are involved, we should all be focused on civic engagement. Our current Miss America can function as a model. While she had participated in pageants as a girl, she stopped on starting college, as she wanted to focus on her interest in science (she has undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and systems biology). When she was a graduate student, she heard that the Miss America pageant had been revamped — eliminating the swimsuit competition and emphasizing professionalism and social impact. That provided an opportunity for her to showcase her own interest in science and potentially to serve as a role model and mentor for girls, demonstrating that, in her words, “Miss America can be a scientist and a scientist can be Miss America”. She is using the institution, as she found it, to further goals of inclusion and acceptance, not self-interest.
Barbie was launched in 1959 by the US Mattel toy company and over the years the doll has accumulated a boyfriend (Ken) and many accessories. Barbie dolls have been a controversial figure, as an embodied example of the media-propagated version of the ideal female figure, tall, blonde and white, with an exaggeratedly thin waist and disproportionally large breasts. This led to what has been termed “Barbie syndrome” among pre-teen and teenage girls, namely the desire to have Barbie’s “unattainable body proportions” (Lind, 2008), leading in some cases to eating disorders such as anorexia or even plastic surgery. Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova, the “living Barbie doll,” is an example of such fetishism.
The Barbie doll series has also been criticized for its lack of diversity and stereotyping of women as “dumb blondes”. Over the years, Mattel has responded to such criticism with the introduction of black and Hispanic dolls, as well as Barbies engaged in a variety of professions. On the other hand, in 2014 Mattel published Barbie: I can be a computer engineer. As I reported at the time in a blog post:
In the opening pages we see Barbie working on developing a game: “I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,” explains Barbie. “You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks!”
That sounds great, but when Barbie’s sister asks to play the game, here is Barbie’s response: “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”
That’s right, Barbie of course can’t actually write the code – she needs boys to do that. As a blog post from Pamela Ribon details, things get worse from there. It turns out that Barbie has infected her own and her sister’s computers with a computer virus and that she has little clue what to do, or other basics of how to work with computers.
So is Treetop Barbie in a similar mode? The idea is that Barbie is an engaged ecologist, working as a forest canopy researcher, just like her creator, Nalini Nadkarni. Nadkarni is a biology professor at the University of Utah and is well-known for her work unraveling the secrets of rain forest ecologies by climbing trees and investigating the nature of “canopy soils” (a type of soil that forms on the tree trunks and branches) and “aerial roots” (above-ground roots growing from branches and trunks). In working in the field, Nadkarni saw few other women. To encourage girls to consider ecology as a profession, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of Treetop Barbie. Mattel was not interested in the concept, so Nadkarni carried out the project on her own, buying used Barbies, dressing/equipping them as canopy researchers, and selling them at cost. After the project started to attract attention (New York Times), Mattel tried to shut her down over brand infringement, but eventually relented, and, given the publicity and marketing benefits, decided to partner with National Geographic to roll out this year a a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science, with Nadkarni as an advisor.
Nadkarni realizes that using Barbies is controversial, as she admitted in a recent NPR interview:
My sense is yes she’s a plastic doll. Yes she’s configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women should be shaped. But the fact that now there are these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer, or an astrophysicist, or an entomologist or you know a tree climber… It’s never perfect. But I think it’s a step forward.
Nalini Nadkarni at work
Interestingly, Nadkarni herself is far from being a Barbie type. Her skin and hair are brown, her father is from India. From videos of her working in the rain forest, it is clear she is rugged, daring, and independent, not characteristics one associates with the doll. The initial idea of Treetop Barbie was made in fun, but then she and her colleagues decided it could be an effective way to get young girls thinking that being a scientist or researcher might be a doable future career. The transition from appearance-obsessed glamor girl to working ecologist is laid out in an “interview” with Treetop Barbie published in the Seattle Times. Nadkarni gives voice to the doll and mentions the importance of tying back your hair when climbing trees, including her habit of using a “very attractive red bow”. After all, Treetop Barbie/Nadkarni remarks, “There’s no reason why scientists have to look messy or unattractive.”
At a Border Patrol holding facility in El Paso, Texas, an agent told a Honduran family that one parent would be sent to Mexico while the other parent and their three children could stay in the United States, according to the family. The agent turned to the couple’s youngest daughter — 3-year-old Sofia, whom they call Sofi — and asked her to make a choice.
The choice the little girl was asked to make was whether she wanted to go with her father, to Mexico, or stay with her mother and her siblings, in the US. If this sounds eerily familiar, you may be thinking of the film starring Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who is forced to make a horrendous decision about her family, namely to decide which of her two children will live and which will die.
How can it be that in the US we are tearing families apart? And that we are asking a 3-year old, likely already bewildered by her journey and the strange new culture and language, to make such a choice? The Honduran family’s dilemma is a result of the US government policy known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” — also known as “remain in Mexico” — which requires Central American migrants to wait in northern Mexico while their immigration cases are handled by U.S. courts.
Sofi’s family was trying to migrate to the US because the violence in Honduras was coming very close to the family; her grandmother was killed by the gang MS-13, a murder that Sofi’s mom witnessed. Sophi’s aunt was also a witness and was later kidnapped, tortured and slain to keep her from testifying against the gang. The gang then posted a note on the family’s door telling them they had 45 minutes to leave. That’s when the family decided to flee. Added to the very real threat of violence, little Sophi has a heart condition. A US doctor examined Sophi and pronounced her condition as serious. With the help of the doctor, the Department of Homeland Security was convinced to allow the family to stay together for now. Whether they are eventually granted asylum in the US is uncertain.
BTW, Sophi elected to stay with her mother, but she and her brother and sister wailed when their Dad was led away and clung to him to try to prevent the agents separating the family.
The explosive Senate hearing last week involving US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault is still resonating this week. The two not only told different versions of what happened at a high school party 36 years ago, they differed significantly in how they expressed themselves. That includes paralanguage — tone, volume — and body language. The situation is of course unique and it’s problematic to extrapolate too far from the specific exchange to general differences in communication styles between men and women (a topic studied extensively by scholars such as Deborah Tannen). Nevertheless, I do believe the exchange fits into familiar patterns of communication that are gender-specific and socially-determined.
Ford’s testimony was calm, measured and deferential, while Kavanaugh was aggressive, belligerent and bullying. Some have commented that of course Kavanaugh was angry, since he was convinced he was innocent of the charges. However, there’s no doubt that Ford was just as convinced that she was telling the truth – many Republicans, including the President, found her testimony to be “credible”. Yet, she did not yell and engage in angry outbursts and accusations – despite the fact that the assault she alleges (attempted rape) would amply justify that behavior.
In a commentary yesterday on NPR, Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, explains that contrast by pointing to the social acceptability (in the US at least) of verbal displays of anger by males, but not by women: “He had in his arsenal the ability to use anger, fury, tears in a way that he felt confident would resonate with the American people”. According to Traister, those same tools were not available to Ford, at least in the sense of being socially acceptable as used by a woman. They are even less likely to be available to women of color in the US:
I think it’s almost impossible for us to conceive of the voices of women of color as being heard loudly enough because they have been so unheard and so marginalized for so long. In fact, it’s women of color who have been the leaders and the leading thinkers of so many of our social movements, in ways that have remained invisible to us.
For Traister, the anger that Ford suppressed in the hearing is likely to re-emerge in a different form:
My argument is not that women’s anger is always righteous. It’s that it’s very often politically potent and yet we’re told not to take it seriously, still. I think that it’s the anger that women are feeling across the country that is having a catalytic connective impact. And this is part of a long process — social movements take a long time. The kind of anger that women are feeling in this moment around Kavanaugh is going to be part of a far longer story that’s going to extend deep into our future.
It’s been interesting to follow as well as the analysis of the encounter from the perspective of nonverbal communication, as in a minute by minute analysis by Jack Brown. His conclusion, from studying the body language: “Judge Kavanaugh’s nonverbal behavior indicates he’s lying as well as deliberately withholding information (lies of omission). He believes he is guilty of sexual assault.” On the other hand, Carol Kinsey Goman, another body language expert, comments:
Habitual and well-rehearsed liars can become quite comfortable with their falsehoods. But the same response is true for liars who believe their own lies. When Ford and Kavanaugh say they are “100% positive,” they may both genuinely believe it.
Wood says that a key piece of Dr. Ford’s testimony was revelatory; when she said that Kavanaugh and Mark Judge’s laughter — “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense” — is the strongest impression in her memory. “If Kavanaugh did it and he was laughing, he may not have seen it or felt it as anything but ‘horseplay,'” says Wood. “He may not have had it register in his memory as anything wrong or bad. And if he was drunk, he may not have remembered it at all. This is important because his anger is so strong and he seems so emphatic, and he could actually feel he never did anything like this.”
We will see this week what conclusion the FBI investigation reaches. It seems likely that we will never have factual information that settles the claims once and for all. In the absence of conclusive evidence or convincing witnesses, we will have to continue to rely on our interpretations of the words and behavior of the two individuals involved.
Example of ad for online dating service featuring “yellow fever”
A recent story on NPR shines a light on racial and ethnic prejudice in online dating services. The story, “‘Least Desirable’? How Racial Discrimination Plays Out In Online Dating”. The story highlights the difficulties Asian men and black women in the US have in using online dating services. A Filipino man reported receiving disturbing message from dating apps, such as the following:
I don’t date Asians — sorry, not sorry. You’re cute … for an Asian. I usually like “bears,” but no “panda bears.”
The story also provides examples of the difficulties African-American women have. It cites Ari Curtis, a young black woman, who used data she saw from the dating service OkCupid about the role of race, as the basis of her blog, Least Desirable, about dating as a black woman. According to Melissa Hobley, OkCupid’s chief marketing officer, the service is trying to “encourage users to focus less on potential mates’ demographics and appearance and more on what she calls ‘psychographics.'”. She defines that term as “things like what you’re interested in, what moves you, what your passions are.” That may be a hard sell in a society which is still widely segregated. It also runs up against the familiar human phenomenon of homophily, our tendency to want to be together with those similar to us.
A quite different angle on dating across racial lines was discussed in a recent piece in the NY Times, “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish“. It turns out that the white supremacists have what’s sometimes termed “yellow fever”, an Asian woman fetish. The articles gives numerous examples of alt-right leaders dating or marrying Asian women. This is despite political positions that would seem to make this unlikely; Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent on the alt-right commented at a conference that the USA was a “white country designed for ourselves and our posterity.” According to the article, the fetish “exists at the intersection of two popular racial myths”. The first is that of Asian-Americans as a “model minority”, stereotyping them as “hard-working, high-achieving and sufficiently well-behaved to assimilate”. Of course, the reality is quite different, obscuring the vast differences among Asian-Americans. The “model minority” myth also, according to the article, tends to strengthens the white liberal order in the US and “legitimizes white America’s power to determine who is ‘good’ and to offer basic dignity and equal rights.”
The other myth involves a stereotypical view of Asian women: “The second myth is that of the subservient, hypersexual Asian woman. ” As the article points out, this view is “consistent with the alt-right’s misogyny and core anti-feminist values”. White women have become too feminist, while “Asian women are seen as naturally inclined to serve men sexually and are also thought of as slim, light-skinned and small, in adherence to Western norms of femininity”. The article, by Audrea Lim, traces these myths back historically, and offers some interesting insights from the author, based on her own experiences growing up as an Asian-American.
The Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, has published a new novel, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions. The book was written after a friend asked for advice about how to raise her newborn daughter to be a feminist. In an interview on NPR, Adichie talked about some of the 15 suggestions in the book.
On “feminism lite”, the idea of conditional female equality:
“It means raising a girl to believe that she is inferior to a man but that the man is expected to be good to her, that women are somehow naturally subordinate to men but men have to treat women well. And I find it dehumanizing to women because I think that surely we have to have something more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s well-being.”
On teaching difference:
“I think it’s important to just say to kids, look; the norm of our existence as human beings is difference. We’re not all the same, and it’s OK.”
On girls rejecting likeability:
“I think the way that a lot of girls are raised in so many parts of the world is that idea that you have to be likable. And likable means you have to kind of mold and shape what you do and say based on what you imagine the other person wants to hear. And I think instead, we should teach girls to just be themselves and that idea that you don’t have to be liked by everyone.”
That last point is an interesting take on a communication style associated by Adichie with women, but often seen as part and parcel of an indirect or implicit The idea is that in high context communications, often seen as characteristic of Asian cultures, one tends to use means beyond explicit language to guide what one says, using knowledge about the interlocutor’s social status, for example. Part of that process is taking into consideration the possible reception of what you say on your conversation partner, gauging that reception by observing body language and other indicators. In Western cultures generally, that kind of communication style is indeed more associated with women than men. Women are seen as being more observant and better listeners, making them more adept at sensing what the other person is feeling. The danger Adichie sees here for women is that using this approach to conversing leads women to adopt a persona which hides their real selves.
Adichie is not alone in this view, encouraging women not to see being “nice” as a guide to their behavior. The reaction to the “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump led both to a call for solidarity among women, but also to a celebration of the right of women to assert their own personalities.
It’s likely that the debate tonight will have little to do with substance, but rather with how the two candidates are perceived by viewers, which may not be determined to any great extent by the content of their answers or the explanations of policy differences. Rather, it is likely to come down to non-verbal communication, namely body language, gestures, and paralanguage, i.e., the tone of voice and speech characteristics. In a recent piece in the Atlantic, James Fallows discusses this aspect of the encounter. In reference to Donald Trump’s body language, he quotes noted anthropologist, Jane Goodall, that “the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals”. Indeed, his imposing physical stature on the stage at the Republican primary debates did seem to overpower the other candidates. The exception was Carly Fiorina, who was alone in standing up to him in the early debates. This time around, he will be facing no men but a woman who is unlikely to be cowed by the kind of chest-beating and belittlement he bestowed on his male competitors. As Fallows comments, “The potential first woman president of the United States, who is often lectured about being too ‘strident’ or ‘shrill,’ is up against a caricature of the alpha male, for whom stridency is one more mark of strength.”
Fallows points out, correctly, I believe, that one of the keys to his success so far has been the simplicity of his messaging and the language used. After the first debate, the transcript of Trump’s remarks was run through the Flesch-Kinkaid analyzer of reading difficulty, which indicated they matched a fourth-grade reading level. In politics (in the US), that’s a good thing. If it’s spoken language, the simpler, the better, making it more likely that listeners will both understand and retain what is said. According to the article, and experts on body language Fallows consulted, Trump’s facial expressions tend to have a similar narrow range. Jack Brown of BodyLanguageSuccess.com, commented that Trump’s range of expressions was considerably less that that of most people, with an interesting corollary:
The reason most people betray themselves through body language—we’re generally poor liars; others can tell when we’re faking a smile—is that our face, hands, and torso do more things involuntarily than most of us are aware of or can control… The payoff in this understanding of Trump’s body language, according to Brown, is that it explains why he can so often say, with full conviction, things that just aren’t true.
Fallows points out that in the first US presidential debate in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, those who heard the debate on radio thought it was a draw, but those who watched it on TV gave the win to the elegant, relaxed Kennedy over the sweating, shifty-eyed Nixon. Today, with high-definition TV, we will be able to spot the possible beads of sweat before even a candidate notices. Fallows says that, “the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.” If the battle of words becomes too much to bear, I might just try out his advice tonight.
Yes, the non-verbal side of the debate was fascinating, especially in the last hour, in which Trump get increasingly feisty and defensive and Clinton began to smile more and more. There was one segment that proved particularly memorable, after Trump had engaged in one of his rambling responses, ending with, “I have much better judgement than she has. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she does.” Clinton’s response: “Whoo. Ok.” and a broad smile and several shakes of her shoulders:
The shoulder shimmy seemed a perfect indicator of how the debate went – Clinton delighted in Trump’s difficulty in presenting himself as “presidential”, namely thoughtful, well-spoken, and serious.
The highest administration French court (Conseil d’Etat) today overturned the ban imposed on some French beaches and swimming areas of women wearing a “burkini”, a swimming suit that covers the body and includes a hood. The ban has led to the strange scene in the photo above, of four policemen at a beach in Nice forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing. The ban follows other measures in France that have sought to use the tradition of laïcité, the strict separation of church and state, to prevent the wearing of head scarves in schools or the burka when driving. The measures have been widely seen as discriminatory, as they target Muslim women. If integration of immigrants is socially desirable, forcing Muslims either to reject traditions and religious beliefs or to stay away from public spaces does not seem to be an effective strategy.
There has been discussion recently in Germany as well of passing regulations aimed at how Muslim women dress, with suggestions from the state interior ministers representing the conservative CDU to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab in public places including schools, government offices, court rooms and in traffic. A recent poll in Germany found that 81% of respondents favored simply banning the burka in Germany. It was exactly a year ago that Chancellor Merkel at a press conference famously commented “Wir schaffen das” (We will get it done) in the context of integration of the flood of refugees coming to Germany. At the time, she received considerable praise for her welcoming attitude, both within and outside of Germany. That positive assessment has changed considerably in recent months, following the attacks on women by foreigners New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, and especially by a series of small-scale terrorist attacks in several German cities this July. It may even be that Merkel will be in trouble in the national election a year from now.
In a report from NPR today, the changing attitude in Germany was discussed in the context of a small town in Germany (population 280) struggling to integrate over 80 immigrants. The story illustrates that the difficulties of integration go well beyond appearance and language. Some of the immigrants took swimming lessons, but the locals were upset that they didn’t stay in their lanes – public behavior in Germany insists on Ordnung (order), meaning in a pool context, you stay in your lane. The rumor mill soon turned that behavior into intentional harassment of the Germans by the immigrants – it was not possible for the locals to accept that others would not have the same appreciation of what they likely saw as a universal human value, expressed through the proverb Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).
I’m currently in Russia and one of the many cultural differences to the US is in how young women dress. I’ve been spending a good amount of time at playgrounds with my 5-year old grandson and have seen a lot of young mothers with their children. Inevitably, the women are dressed very well, often wearing high heels, not something you are likely to see in North American playgrounds. High heels have been in the news recently, with a group in Japan, the Japan High Heel Association (JHA), advising women to start wearing them for personal “empowerment”. As reported in the Daily Mail, JHA managing director ‘Madame’ Yumiko argues that wearing heels will help ‘Japanese women become more confident’:
She explains: ‘Many women are too shy to express themselves. In Japanese culture, women are not expected to stand out or put themselves first.’ Her solution is for women suffocated by such strict protocols to simply ‘throw on a pair of heels,’ arguing the freedom it brings can unlock the mind…’Chinese or Korean ladies don’t have these problems,’ she said. ‘It’s a result of Japan’s kimono culture and shuffling about in straw sandals. It’s ingrained in the way Japanese walk. ‘But very few Japanese wear a kimono all day anymore. We should know about Western culture and how to wear heels correctly,’ she added.
The JHA has started offering etiquette lessons (400,000 yen or US $4,000), with many young women signing up, according to the article. Critics have pointed out that this is just the wrong behavior to be advocating to women in an already staunchly patriarchal society, in which women have struggled to obtain equal rights to men.
The advocacy for heels comes at a time when women in the west are protesting that fashion accessory. Julia Roberts went barefoot on the red carpet during the Cannes Film Festival in May as a sign of protest against women being ejected last year from the festival for wearing flat shoes. A campaign in Britain to end high heel only policies at companies is being supported by a number of Members of Parliament.
For American Muslim women, the question of whether or not to cover their heads can be a difficult issue, as outlined in a piece on National Public Radio. Wearing the hijab can automatically change the dynamics of interactions with other US Americans. One Muslim woman in the piece had this perspective:
“Before I wore hijab, making friends with people who weren’t Muslim was a lot easier,” says Maryam Adamu, who was born in North Carolina to immigrants from Nigeria. Before she began wearing a headscarf three years ago, people didn’t know she was Muslim — until she told them.
“I, like, Trojan-horsed my Islam,” she says, laughing. “Like, ‘You’re already my friend. I know you like me. Now you know I’m Muslim, and you’re going to learn about this faith.’ ” Once she started wearing a headscarf, she encountered a social obstacle she hadn’t seen before. “Now, I have to work a lot harder to get into people’s lives who aren’t Muslim,” she says.
Of course, hijabs, or other clothing associated with Islam such as the body-covering burqa are not the only clothing or body modification which can tend to put folks automatically into particular categories. Black leather, along with multiple tattoos, for example, may point to motorcycle club membership. But few decisions on dress and appearance are as complex as the decision facing US Muslim women in regard to head covering. They face widespread assumptions in the US, which are largely negative, with wearing a hijab most often seen as a sign of oppression. In reality, there are many possible factors, as Yassmin Abdel-Magied demonstrated in her TED talk. A provocative perspective was offered in a Washington Postop-ed by Asra Nomani. An opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this year by Ruqaiya Haris presented an interesting perspective on the introduction of high fashion hijabs, modeled by white Westerners:
As a Muslim woman and the intended target consumer, I thought that the pale white model wearing the clothing served as yet another stark reminder that eastern culture may only be celebrated when it is glamorised by western society, which can in turn capitalise on it. In the context of global Islamophobia, there is something that makes me feel quite uneasy seeing a towering white woman praised for looking glamorous in the same clothing that often leaves Muslim women perceived as “extremist” and puts them at risk of being attacked or even criminalised in some western societies.
There have been a rash of stories in the US media recently about playgrounds, over-protective parents, and the absence of creative play opportunities for US children. It reflects a perennial complaint about the litigious nature of US society, with stories about schools removing playground equipment because of the fear of lawsuits. A story earlier this year in The Atlantic on “The Overprotected Kid” raised a lot of interest. A recent story on NPR contrasted the presence of “adventure playgrounds” in Europe with their absence in the US, outside of a few isolated examples. These are playgrounds that are not as carefully risk-free as US playgrounds tend to be:
There are only a handful of these “wild playgrounds” in the country. They embrace the theory that free, unstructured play is vital for children and offer an antidote to the hurried lifestyles, digital distractions and overprotective parents that can leave children few opportunities to really cut loose.
The example discussed in the story is the Berkeley Adventure Playground. It doesn’t have the organized look and feel of the typical playground, but offers children the opportunity to do “dangerous play” such as hammering nails or painting. Similar is the Tinkering School outside of San Francisco, the subject of a TED talk by Gever Tulley. One of the comments posed on the NPR site about the story was something with which I – and probably a lot of baby-boomers – identify: “We had a place like this when I was a kid. We called it ‘Outside’”.
It’s not just the design and functionality of playgrounds that determines the nature of children’s play, it’s also the attitudes and behavior of the parents. In this regard, the US and the UK may be similar. A UK ex-pat mom in Germany expressed her surprise at German and Swiss parents allowing children to have pocket knives. An ex-pat US mom had a similar reaction to the unsupervised freedom allowed Dutch children.
Does it really matter that kids in the US don’t typically have the same opportunities for free-form, independent play? Or that parents are over-protective? Some would say yes, that children need the unstructured playtime to engage with other children, not with their parents or other adults. Certainly, there’s no question that freedom stimulates creativity – always being strictly under control is not ideal for the development of free, adventurous thinkers. It’s also important for social skills. According to Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, those social skills also result in better learning in school, results that have been shown in a study measuring social skills and academic performance in third grade, then again in eighth grade. Pellis comments: “We can ask which of the two data sets, social skills or academic performance is a better predictor of their academic performance at eighth grade? And it turns out that the better predictor is social skills.” He adds: “Countries where they actually have more recess, academic performance tends to be higher than countries where recess is less.” This reflects the recognition of the importance of social learning, a central concept in learning theories and recognized increasingly as an essential component of effective online learning. Interestingly, the pedagogical approach used in mainstream MOOCs today (massive open online courses), the so-called xMOOC moves away from a emphasis on social learning, the central component of the alternative, free-form, construcivist model (the cMOOC).
“I ate pasta, family ate rice,” says Melanie Vanderlipe Ramil, who comes from a Filipino-American family and wrote that phrase as a contribution to the Race Card Project and as a way of characterizing one aspect of her cultural identity. As a girl Melanie was embarrassed that she couldn’t offer visiting school friends main-stream American snacks like hot dogs or Tater Tots – such things weren’t to be found in her family kitchen. Melanie’s friends were mystified (and she was mortified) by the huge rice dispenser which was the centerpiece of her family kitchen. Her family ate Filipino food, and rice was served with every meal. In middle school Melanie told her family she wasn’t going to eat rice any more and her accommodating mother made her pasta instead. Her story is not unusual for immigrant families. Fortunately, Melanie’s subsequent story is common these days as well. In her 20’s she came to discover that her Filipino heritage made her special, and she has since embraced Filipino cooking. Ironically, as she told NPR, she is now making sure Filipino traditions are kept alive in her extended family, making sure the young people in her family know how to make the traditional dish of lumpia, (similar to an eggroll):
“I would prepare my grandmother’s lumpia recipe and kind of set up a lumpia sweatshop, if you will,” Ramil says. “For each of my cousins’ children … there are about 25 or 30 of them — I would put a place mat in front of them, lumpia wrappers … a little bowl of raw meat.”
Melanie is making sure such traditions have some permanence and extend beyond her family, writing a blog, Lola’s Journal, based on her grandmother’s life (and cooking).
For many of us food is an important part of our cultural identity, which may or may not be tied to ethnic backgrounds. Melanie’s story shows us that sometimes that connection is complicated and changes over time. I’m writing this on Thanksgiving and I’m looking forward to a new tradition my family started last year: the 10-minute instant Thanksgiving dinner, consisting of a purchased roasted chicken (how great that our main grocery store is open on Thanksgiving), boxed stuffing, instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables and gravy, heated-up rolls. No gourmet feast, but it does allow more time for socializing, games, and emptying my growler, not to mention eliminating the 5 a.m. turkey preparation – a tradition I’m willing to pass up.
That is how the Greek press described the 5-year blonde, green-eyed girl found in a raid on a Roma camp. There was immediate suspicion that she had been abducted by the family with whom she was living and she is in the custody of the Greek authorities. Meanwhile DNA testing has confirmed that she is the daughter of a Bulgarian couple. It’s not yet clear how she came to live with the Greek Roma family. The Bulgarian family has 9 other children and the poor living conditions of the family has resulted in the majority of children being taken from the family home and placed with relatives, foster families, or local authorities. In Ireland this month two blonde, blue-eyed children were taken from their Roma parents, then later returned when DNA confirmed they were in fact the parents. As a recent article in the NY Times points out, Roma are now the ones fearing that their children will be taken away. The active scrutiny by officials and the intense interest of the public in such cases is of course based on age-old stories of Gypsy child-snatching. It’s not likely that any suspicions would be aroused should blonde children be seen with Greeks or parents of other nationalities who happen to be dark-skinned.
France has also been the scene of controversy involving Roma families and government officials. A 15-year Roma girl was taken into custody while on a school field trip and then deported to Kosovo together with her family. This follows controversial statements from the French interior minister expressing doubt that Roma had the ability – or the desire – to integrate into French society. These and other incidents, including mass deportations of Roma from France have raised discussion in Europe of the “Roma question”, a disturbing echo of the “Jewish question” posed in 20th-century Germany.