Saturday, October 30, 2010

Name It. Change It: Sexism and Equality Don't Mix

This summer, I was without internet access so I got out of the blogging habit.  I'll eventually get around to sharing my adventures since coming back to Europe but for now, bear with me as I get all of my thoughts out about current events.

Frequently, on an expat blog like mine, the expat writing describes and explains the locals to the audience back home.  Today I want to do the opposite.  Czech Ladies, this post is especially for you.  I want to explain American thinking to you because our cultural gap is GIGANTIC on what I'm about to describe.  You can chose to tell me later that we Americans have it all wrong in the comments section.  

Back home in America, there's a hotly contested midterm election.  My friends back in the States are suffering through an average eight robo-calls a day (automatically-dialed, tape-recorded phone messages that tend to arrive during dinner time), 30-50 political ads on TV every day  (each one describing the other guy as a loser and the candidate in the commercial as a saint), and more election anger, zaniness, over-the-top media hyperbole than you would expect any democracy to be able to survive (the jury is still out on ours - we'll see).
 Into this crazy, over-the-top American election cycle (with more secret money than ever - almost $4 billion), a new advocacy organization started to try and hold media types accountable for how they choose to talk about female candidates. The name of the group is called "Name It. Change It."  Here's how they describe their mission:
Widespread sexism in the media is one of the top problems facing women. A highly toxic media environment persists for women candidates, often negatively affecting their campaigns. The ever-changing media landscape creates an unmonitored echo chamber, often allowing damaging comments to exist without accountability.
We must erase the pervasiveness of sexism against all women candidates — irrespective of political party or level of office — across all media platforms in order to position women to achieve equality in public office. We will not stand by as pundits, radio hosts, bloggers, and journalists damage women's political futures with misogynistic remarks. When you attack one woman, you attack all women.
I read that and said, sign me up! I'm a 1970's feminist. Feminist activism was the ferment of my youth.  Indeed, the feminist heroine of my twenties, author Gloria Steinem, was one of the founders of this new group (Czech ladies, the definition of that word in America is not "woman who henpecks her husband" as it is in the Czech Republic - I don't even have a husband.  It is woman who believes in Equal Rights for Equal Work, etc.).  I knew there was a need.

Yet, even I - someone who pays a lot of attention to this stuff - had no idea how much need! Every day "Name It. Change It." shares a different sexist media outrage.  When someone takes the time to organize and send media examples day after day after day, the toxicity of America's misogyny toward women is baffling and mindblowing.

Imagine if you were a Harvard-educated physician running for Governor, and your local newspaper declared that what you were a prime candidate for  - was a makeover! Or imagine this: as a candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to ever achieve 18 million votes for the office, you wake up to find a famous news and opinion aggregator is wanting readers to evaluate the hair clip you wore to the U.N - " is it a do or don't?" It happened to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yes, I know, she'll survive.  But once you have put the time and work in to reach a certain level, you'd expect to be treated with some gravitas. One of America's shakier Senate candidates, a political novice named Christine O'Donnell of Rhode Island, is the subject of an anonymous severe misogyny attack.  "Name It. Change It." describes sexism in the media according to this pyramid of egregiousness. 

So this week I was reading their latest missive and it's not about American elections, it's about Czech elections! Apparently, the ladies you've elected have chosen to model in a calendar that emphasizes their body parts over their policy positions. Hence, our unbridgeable cultural gulf!  American women decry the treatment of a candidate who gets discussed in the media like this but if your female politicians are voluntarily choosing to pose for a pin-up calendar, are they not asking to be accepted based on how they look, not how they believe and vote?

I remember being in the room once with a bunch of Czechs politicians.  By the end of the night, it came out that the most respected man in the room was the one with bright red cheeks and the biggest belly in the room.  Not a single ounce of him was judged on his looks.  But every man at my table spoke of him with admiration. Reversibility is a key measure of media equality - that Czech politician would never need to, be expected to, or want to pose for something like a pin-up calendar to inspire voters.

Ask yourself, Czech ladies, if your female politician's calendar impedes achieving the gravitas needed to gain that level of respect. It's not useful for you to say that the standards are different for women.  They'll never be different if you don't ask for them to be different. Name It. Change It.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Americans, if you want to support the work of this exciting new group, you can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.  What leaders you would be - there are less than 1,500 people following their work to date - they are simply that new.  Once, you sign up to follow Name It. Change It., can you ask your friends to follow them too?  Election season will soon be over.  If you're a journalist, I would suggest following them as well.  Heightened sensitivity to how media plays into old archetypes brings progress in coverage.  Name It.  Change It. Sexism and equality don't mix!

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