Monthly Archives: June 2017

A Musing on “The Handmaid’s Tale”

So, I’m loving Hulu’s production of “The Handmaid’s Tale”. But I do have one nagging irritation, which isn’t their fault. In fact, it’s in the source material, and is the underlying foundation of the story, so, really, they couldn’t “fix” it.

Here it is: this is a really stupid way to address a fertility problem

Yes, yes. I know the story is really the subjugation of women via an authoritarian government using some vaguely Christian bullshit as their excuse, but they really do have a fertility problem. It appear that, at a minimum, the entire continent of North America has one.

So. Their solution? Round up all the fertile women and subject them to sex during their “fertile time”, apparently using some bullshit rhythm method.

I get it. The horror of the story is ratcheted up by forcing women to endure a ceremonial rape every month. I don’t have a problem with it as a storytelling device, really. But, as I scientist, I call bullshit.

If I was going to subjugate women AND try and fix a fertility problem, here’s how I’d do it:

  1. Round up all the women between the ages of 16 and 40 who have either had a child, or are young enough that they haven’t tried to, yet.
  2. Using standard treatments for infertility, get them all on hormones to control their cycles and stimulate ovulation of multiple eggs at a time.
  3. Retrieve eggs, perform IVF to generate as many embryos as possible, then transfer 1-2 embryos per woman back.
  4. Freeze the remaining embryos, or transfer some into women who didn’t produce eggs/embryos.
  5. Repeat.

This is gonna be a lot more effective than “natural pregnancy” induced by having sex a couple times a month when you think someone “should” be fertile. It doesn’t look like they’re using any ovulation prediction methods – I mean, would it kill you to


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The Bubble

Two posts in two days? Well, I had some thoughts on the way to work, so, yeah.

If you’re a liberal (or progressive, if you prefer, but I’m a traditionalist, and I’m going with “liberal”), then you’ve almost certainly heard the argument that liberal elites live in bubbles isolated from the “real world”, which explains their “out of step” views and morality. That is, if we lived in “Real America”, we’d be more like everyone else.

Okay, so this is mostly a bullshit argument. Except for the part where some liberal views are, indeed, out of step with much of America. The thing is – we tend to be a step ahead. That’s where the term “progressive” is useful.

I got to thinking about this in more concrete terms today, as I was driving to work, listening to a podcast from my local PBS station (gosh, SO liberal). The podcast was called “Ask a Muslim”, and it was literally that – they had a panel of Muslim experts (one Imam, one university professor, and one stand-up comic who does outreach using the title “Ask A Muslim”). This all-Muslim panel answered some very basic questions about Islam as a faith, and as a culture, and then took questions from the phone lines and e-mail.

I didn’t learn a lot that was new, in fact. I was pleased to find that my perception of Islam isn’t all that far off-base. One thing I did learn, though, that surprised me, was that the Muslim community in the U.S. is so small that most Americans don’t know a Muslim. (Or, perhaps, don’t know they know one.)

This surprised me, because I currently have at least three Muslims in my lab – the ones I’m sure of are all women, but I think two of the men are, as well. I don’t ask, because it’s none of my business, as the boss, how or if they worship. But the three women are open with it.

The three women run the gamut: one of them dresses like I do, and religion doesn’t appear to be a significant part of her daily life. Another wears a headscarf but otherwise completely “western” apparel, and is clearly a bit more observant. The third is covered from headscarf to feet in traditional clothes, and has spent many half-hours in my office discussing Islam and the role of education in the faith with me. So, not only do I know several Muslims in “real life”, I know a wide variety of “types” of Muslims. Just like I know a wide variety of “types” of Christians and “types” of…well, pretty much everyone.

So the fact that Muslims in the U.S. aren’t monolithic wasn’t a shock to me, but it got me thinking about my “bubble”. I interact with a minimum of three Muslims on a daily basis. “Real” America interacts with none.

If you look more closely, this is true of other groups that are frequently demonized in American society, too. I know quite a lot of gay people, and have been to one of their weddings. One of my colleagues is a lovely transgender woman with whom I’ve had many discussions about parenting. These discussions are interesting, because she was her children’s father when they were young, and, again, this is an open and “out there” part of the conversation.

I could go on. Now, let’s be up front about one thing: I don’t claim to be free of racism. I’m a white woman in the United States of America, and racism? You’re soaking in it. But I do think I can say: all of mine is unconscious, and when it becomes briefly part of my consciousness, I admit to it and try not to do it again.

So, my “bubble” – it’s the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s full of people who aren’t like me. My bubble is probably the first or second bubbliest in the nation, though I suspect Manhattan is similar. Liberal “bubbles” are the melting pot you heard so much about in elementary school.

So, what does this mean? Well, it means that I’m used to the idea that everyone isn’t like me. It doesn’t bother me, most of the time. It means I’m not afraid of Muslims. I’m not weirded out by transgender people. I’m not bothered by a person wanting their personal pronouns to be “them” and “their” because they’re gender nonconforming and would rather you didn’t box them in as male or female.

It means, further, that the Muslims I know are not afraid to be themselves. They expect, given the “bubble” to mostly be treated as people rather than caricatures. It means that my colleague is happy to discuss her life before and after transition (incidentally, even in the Bay Area, this wasn’t always “safe” – she had some really bad times in the 80’s and 90’s). It means that not only do I get to meet people who are not like me, but I get to learn about those people. It means they’re willing to talk to me about their experiences and their community. It means they invite me to their weddings and parties.

So, “Real America”, then. What’s that?

It appears to be a place where the vast majority of people, most of the time, are alike (or pretending to be alike). And, again, before I go further: I fully acknowledge that there are LOTS of awesome people in Real America, people who aren’t afraid of folks who are different. But bear with me: if you don’t know any Muslims, there’s a much higher chance that you have the propagandized image of them. I’ve had a few people tell me I’m just “lucky” that none of the Muslims in my lab and classes have never tried to murder me. I’ve had far more tell me that, sure, they know there are “good Muslims” that aren’t like the rest.

Okay, guys, “the rest” are the vast majority. Most Muslims are like most Christians – that is, they are varied and individual, and, by and large, peaceful and kind and good neighbors.

Similarly, if you’ve never known a transgender person, you might have been thinking how “weird” my discussion of parenting with a parent who used to be male and is now female was. Get this: to me, that’s not “weird”. It’s just “lunch with Mary”. (Note: her name is not Mary. But I didn’t ask for permission to use her real name.)

What living in the “liberal bubble” does is protect you from a fair number of overt biases. It teaches you to live with people who aren’t like you. And, further, this includes groups I haven’t discussed. By and large, getting along with conservatives who disagree with me is easier when we both live in the bubble. Because we both expect to be disagreed with.

So, remember when I said liberals in bubbles (cities) are a step ahead?

Interracial relationships became acceptable, then common, in cities first. Then elsewhere. Now the majority of Americans agrees with those of us in the bubble. Same for homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Same for transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. We get there first…then the rest of the culture follows. Not always as fast as we’d like.

So, what’s a bubble? It’s a place where we’ve tossed in a little bit of everything, and, yeah, I think those of us in bubbles are a bit arrogant about it. But I also think we come by it honestly – our way, in my opinion, is better.

If you’re afraid when you see a Muslim in an airport, wouldn’t you prefer not to be? My advice: find a Muslim and get to know them. If you’re afraid of transgender people in bathrooms, wouldn’t you prefer not to worry about it? Find a transgender person and talk to them.

Finally, the notion of the “bubble” is that we’re somehow isolated from the real world. Really? How so? There’s more of the real world per square mile where I live than in most of America. We’re the ones who aren’t isolated from difference. The country would be better off if more people listened to those of us in “the bubble”.


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Wonder Women

So, two things before we begin. First: SPOILERS are possible below. Likely, even. If you haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet, you might skip this one for a while. But there’s going to be some non-WW ranting first.

Second: this is going to be fairly stream-of-consciousness, possibly even more so than my usual non-academic writing. So, you know, you’ve been warned.

We’re in what feels like a weird time, politically, culturally, and pop-culturally, as women.  We fully expected, last November, to elect the first woman President of the United States. I don’t particularly care if you don’t share my opinions on Hillary Rodham Clinton – I think the woman is brilliant, I think she’s kind, I think she is one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for President, and I don’t buy most of the criticisms of her that have been floated over the course of 30 years – just so we’re clear, negative comments about any of that won’t get past my filters.

But we didn’t do that, did we? We elected the most unqualified man ever to seek the office in a serious way. We elected someone the polar opposite of everything liberal, progressive America stands for. And that includes an intense misogyny, a desire to put women back “into their place”. It’s horrifying, frankly. And the news media? Still trying to put the blame for her “loss” onto Hillary Clinton. Never mind that she got 3 million more votes than he did. Never mind that she got more votes than ANYONE ELSE in the history of the Presidency, except Barack Obama in 2008 (and the turnout was higher that year). And never mind that turnout was lower than previous years because of voter suppression efforts in precisely the states she lost but should have won if you look at Obama’s maps. And never mind that there was Russian interference in the election, and she STILL GOT MORE VOTES BY A HUGE MARGIN.

Despite that, we’re stuck with the Misogynist In Chief. It’s a hard thing to get used to, when you really believed a majority of your country had moved past this crap.

Culturally, then, the “being a woman” thing is also strange, because, in the U.S., white women, at least, have it better than any other women in the history of the world. We are, for MOST intents and purposes, regarded as independent, adult humans – which has typically not been true for women through most of world history. There are issues, yes – white men still meet in boardrooms to decide what sort of healthcare is appropriate for women, as if we’re children who can’t decide for ourselves. (Hint: if you believe someone is an adult, you GET THEIR OPINION about decisions that affect them. You even use that opinion as a key component of the decision-making process. Maybe by having lots of them on these committees of yours, assholes in Congress.)

We still face daily challenges that men don’t. The list is long, and annoying in the extreme. For example: women in my field still get told that, if they have children while on the tenure track, they might be seen as not taking science seriously enough. Or they’re advised to “plan to have their babies in summer” – like that’s a thing you can really do. Do you think men ever get these sorts of comments? (Hat tip to Janet Stemwedel, of SJSU’s Philosophy Department, for bringing this incredibly obnoxious aspect of academic culture to my attention again this week.)

We still can’t walk safely alone at night, and if we are assaulted, people are still apt to ask, “Why was she walking alone at night?” Again, dudebros, a tip: people should be able to walk alone any time without fear. The real question is why you think women should be appropriately considered targets and should have to live in fear.

There are numerous other examples, which I’m not going to discuss here. I have other posts you can probably read about this.

So, yeah. We are in a good place, historically, the women of America, and that makes the ways in which it still sucks to be a woman all the more obvious to us.

Pop culturally…there’s an interesting trend the past couple of years. Almost a backlash, in some ways, against dudebro culture. Lots of feminism pervading movies and television. Lots of attempts to begin to balance movies and TV out. (Did you know that only 17% of women in crowd scenes in films and TV are women? Did you know that 75% of speaking parts in movies and TV go to men?) And, yeah, it’s sad that attempts at balance automatically read as “feminism”. If you try to make your art resemble the real world, you’re a liberal, a feminist, even “pandering”.

So. This past couple of years, there have been two Star Wars films with female leads (though it should still be noted that women are still massively underrepresented in these films). The new Ghostbusters was gender-flipped. (All of these choices, especially the Ghostbusters thing, caused massive dudebro hurt feelings on the internet. Which made me love the movies all the more.) Supergirl (the television series) is unapologetically feminist. The Handmaid’s Tale is a grim view of where a large part of the American government (the GOP, let’s be frank, here) would like to put women, with a side of, “Oh, by the way, you can’t oppress people without having some of the oppressed population helping you.” Oh, yeah…even The Walking Dead has a “women are going to save the world” thing going on lately.

Which brings us to Wonder Woman. You will have noticed that most superhero movies are dude-heavy. (Or you may not have noticed – that’s the thing about cultures with baked-in biases – you don’t notice them until you start looking for them, often.) When there is a woman in a superhero movie, she’s one woman surrounded by five or six men. (See for example: The Avengers. I love The Avengers, but they have the usual dude-to-chick ratio problem.)

Wonder Woman will eventually be subsumed in the same way – she IS part of the almost-all-male Justice League, after all. But Wonder Woman, the current movie, is all about the women. Strong, confident women abound, from our hero, to her family (the all-female Amazon culture from which she comes), to Etta Candy (Steve Trevor’s secretary and, in the comics, Diana’s best friend), to, yes, one of the two major villains (Doctor Poison).

Also, the way in which Diana is “feminist” is striking. She simply is who and what she is, and she has no time or patience for the “rules” of WWI London society. She was raised not to know about her perceived secondary status in most of the rest of the world, and she’s not having any of it – to the point of not even acknowledging that “it” exists. She’s an adult, and she’s going to be making her decisions as an adult, and nobody is going to tell her otherwise.

She isn’t “resisting” sexism. She’s impervious to it. And it is glorious to watch.

Because isn’t that how we all want to be? I know I would love to simply reject the crappy misogynistic soup I walk through on a daily basis, and substitute my own, better version of reality. And, to a degree, that’s exactly what I do. But you can’t always just pretend it’s not there…unless you’re Diana of Themyscira.

So, yeah, a long digression to get around to: it rocked, for all the usual reasons, and for a few that are specific to being a woman in 2017.

It’s an interesting time to be a woman in the United States. We’ve progressed a long way in just 100 years, and there’s a cultural backlash that’s profound and painful. And then…there’s the pop cultural backlash against that. “You’re unhappy about women having power and personal agency? Here’s some art I just know you’re gonna hate. We made the Ghostbusters women and ruined your childhood!”

I have nowhere else to go with this. I just find it interesting. Now, I gotta go. I have experiments to design, papers to write, and the patriarchy isn’t gonna smash itself, you know.

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