Tag Archive for feminism

You’re Not Making Marriage Look Any Better

New York magazine interviewed “economist Joseph Stieglitz” and “his wife Anya Schiffrin” about why marriage rates are so low.

Anya makes an excellent point about the practical implications of marriage for women:

A.S.: Obviously for women getting married also means a hell of a lot more work.

J.S.: Is that right?

A.S.: [Laughs.] Well, of course, we divide things up 50-50.

So, okay, she’s probably used to being “his wife” – I imagine that’s part for the course if you’re married to a Nobel Laureate. But it’s great to hear that, despite his fame, they’ve developed an equal partnership.

Oh, wait.

A.S.: I’d love to comment on that study, but everything I know about it comes from you. One thing that definitely happens in a marriage, speaking of division of labor, is a division of information. When I was a journalist, I had to pay attention to where the dollar was and what the stock market was doing. Now I can always ask you. And there are a million things you don’t have to pay attention to because you can ask me. All domestic matters, for example.

J.S.: I would say more broadly that it’s everything except economics. Movies, plays, culture …

A.S.: Who’s who, and why do we recognize that person. It really is everything but economics. [Laughs.] It’s dynamic comparative advantage.

So, he specializes in being an award-winning economist, and she specializes in household affairs and their social life? All of a sudden it’s looking a lot less like 50-50 to me – particularly since only one of those roles is lucrative and high-status. (And asking “Is that right?” about whether marriage means more work for women? That’s just adding insult to injury.)

What’s going on here? Was Schiffrin making a bitter joke about the division of labor in their marriage? Are they exaggerating the degree to which he abdicates from everything but economic excellence? How can they possibly hold both those points of view?

I’m guessing this is an example of value conflict. Steiglitz and Schiffrin likely value fairness, equality, mutuality, and all those other good things – and no one wants to admit that their life violates the values they hold dear. This is what Maushart calls “pseudomutuality” – a facade of equality covering an unequal and highly gendered division of labor. What’s fascinating is that pseudomutual couples don’t just fool other people; they often genuinely fool themselves into believing their marriage is fair, because they can’t bear the alternative. No one wants to think of themselves as an exploiter, or to admit that they allow themselves to be exploited and abused.

This not-even-very-close reading shows the ugly reality of many marriages, which fall far short of our collective ideals and values. Wondering why marriage rates are at an all-time low? I think that’s a pretty good answer.

Writing About Writing About Games

People occasionally ask me why I don’t blog about games more often. After all, I do research on games; I consult on game-related projects; I teach game design classes; I play a lot of games. I certainly don’t hesitate to write about psychology, creativity, literature, feminism, technology, education, or any of the dozen other things I study.

The answer I usually give is that if I’m writing about games, it’s going to happen in an academic context. Why blog about it when I really ought to be writing for publication? The thing is, that answer doesn’t really hold up. They’re two different kinds of writing, and I certainly have no problem writing about other research-related topics on my blog. It’s just an easier thing to tell people than that I’m afraid.

That’s right. I’m afraid to write about games. I’m afraid to write about games because I am a woman. Because I know that if I get attention for what I write, it will inevitably turn poisonous eventually. Because I feel that I have to be twice as smart, twice as insightful, twice as right as a guy writing about games – and even if I manage it, I’ll probably still get called a cunt.

I think my resolution for 2012, thanks to the brilliant and courageous Margaret Robertson, is to blog about games. Specifically, I’m going to write about what I’m playing, in much the same way I log my reading, at least once a month.

We’ll see how it goes. Wish me luck.

Reading List 2011 (8/166)

Recent reading:

  • Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan C. Williams
  • Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life, Annette Lareau
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua
  • How to Tutor Your Own Child, Marina Koestler Ruben
  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  • Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
  • Little Men, Louisa May Alcott
  • Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

Today, I am grateful for books that change the way I see the world. While I read Williams and Lareau quite a while ago, I still find myself referring to them at least a couple of times a week. In my own head, I probably refer to them a dozen or so times a day, because they both expose and name some pervasive elements of modern American life that otherwise appear perfectly normal. Between the two, they’ve given me a much better awareness of how pervasive class is in our so-called classless society.

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Happy Belated Ada Lovelace Day!

Thanks to the Jewish holidays, I’m way behind on just about everything – including celebrating Ada Lovelace day. So I’m declaring today Ada Lovelace Day (Observed), at least in my little corner of the world!

Last year I wrote about a mentor of mine, Dr. Helen Tager-Flusberg. This year I wanted to honor a former student who is now a peer, collaborator and friend. Her name is Azadeh Jamalian, and she is one of my science heroes.

Azi’s research interests relate to technology, usability, learning and play. She uses psychology and learning theory to analyze the design of technological artifacts, as well as to create them. She once told me that she wants to revolutionize the use of gesture with mobile devices. If anyone can do it, it’s her! She’s already studying gesture and mobile devices with some of the top people in the field, and they’re damn lucky to have her.

Of course, I don’t just admire Azi because she works in areas near mine. There are three things about her scientific life that particularly impress me, and that I hope to emulate for myself.

First, she is an incredibly fast learner. When she decides to get up to speed in an area, she chews through research papers like they’re candy! She doesn’t just gain superficial knowledge, either. She immediately begins to integrate what she learns with the questions she already has in mind, with a keen eye for both gaps in the literature and new possibilities for scholarship.

Second, she asks really good questions. That was the very first thing I noticed about her, when she took my introductory game design class back in the fall of 2008. She was one of the people who could ask a question that showed an understanding of the material, but also that I did not have an answer to. Sometimes no answer existed – but when one did, I found myself hunting down ideas from multiple disciplines to get her subtle, sophisticated questions answered.

Finally, she is one of those people who just gets things done. This is a very dangerous quality in a graduate student, as it’s a recipe for getting lots of faculty members to want lots of non-dissertation-related things from you! But it’s an enormously important quality in a scientist. Before I started graduate school, I had no idea how much of research was based on organization, discipline, competence and logistics. She somehow manages to juggle multiple research projects, make forward progress on all of them, and have it look easy.

I count myself fortunate that I get to work with Azi on a regular basis. We brainstorm well together, we argue well, and we always come out of a conversation with a better understanding of our field than when we went in.

In short: thank you, Azi. My father used to say, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most of all from my students.” When I think of that saying, I think of you.

Beauty Work, Geeky Work

As a woman who profoundly hates the geek identity options open to her*, I’m always interested to hear someone talk intelligently about the problem of female objectification in geek culture. Yesterday I came across a fantastic article on Geek Feminism that does precisely that.

I recommend you go read the article; it’s subtle and nuanced and very, very smart. Stoker ties the “slave Leia cosplay” phenomenon to the beauty work required of women in modern American culture, and points out that it gets rewarded in rather concrete ways. Positioning yourself as the geek babe can be a pretty good idea for you, as an individual, because that’s how you get your metaphorical cookies. It’s the same reason I wear makeup to job interviews and important meetings, even though I’m fully aware of what it means. Compliance with beauty norms has very real rewards, whether you’re hoping to get a promotion or just feel included at a con.

Of course, if you think back to the flap over whether Miss USA could really be a geek, playing the beauty game really doesn’t help you in the long run. You can’t win, ladies! That’s how you know it’s sexism!

What Stoker’s article got me thinking about, though, is why.

To be Miss USA – or Olivia Munn, or Team Unicorn – requires an enormous amount of work meeting the expectations of others. You have to police how you look, how you act, what you wear, how you talk to people, to meet a constantly changing set of standards. And what’s the romantic myth** of geekdom? We’re outsiders. We don’t conform. We suffer for our weird passions.

Doing beauty work challenges the origin story, so to speak of geekdom. You’re not an outsider; you’re an insider. You’re not a rebel; you’re a conformist. Your passions aren’t weird; they’re mainstream. If you can bring yourself to do beauty work – and worse, succeed at it – then you can’t possibly be one of us, because you clearly don’t believe what we believe.

The truly funny thing is that I think many geeks are completely oblivious to the enormous work they do to participate in geek culture, a la Goffman. The myth of geekdom is a naturalistic one. We do not perform mainstream culture, therefore we do not perform. We are simply ourselves.

This is, of course, a magnificent self-delusion. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s one that’s going to change anytime soon.

* But who also can’t opt out entirely, what with the loving (and working with!) many things that geek culture loves to claim.

** This myth irritates the crap out of me, especially when it’s the source of so freaking many boring stories.

Valentine’s Play

If you know me, you know that I’m in love. I wake up every day delighted to spend my life with the Finest Man Alive(tm), who seems equally pleased to be sharing his life with me. I will sing his praises given any excuse whatsoever, and often when given none. The strength of our love brings me joy, confidence, and the security to be immensely bold in other areas of my life. He inspires me to be a better person in every way imaginable. It’s no surprise that I’m a charter member of Team We Love Love!

On the other hand, Valentine’s Day makes me profoundly grouchy. This isn’t sour grapes: my partner loves the entire Valentine’s apparatus. If it were up to him, we’d spend the entire day in a bathtub full of melted chocolate, sprinkling each other with rose petals while opening box after box of jewelry. Every year we carefully negotiate just how Valentine we’re going to be. Too little and he gets cranky; too much and I do!

(For the curious: this year we went out to dinner at the unbelievably fabulous Journeyman Restaurant, which I’m calling a win-win. Also he bought me a book!)

My usual explanation is that I don’t like Valentine’s Day for the same reason I don’t like Mother’s Day. Both days take a relationship that should be honored every day of the year, and reduce it to a set of arbitrary symbols performed on one special day. I’m of the philosophy that relationships are built out of the ordinary, not the extraordinary. For example, I’ve created a life where my partner and I alternate flower-buying weeks, so that we always have fresh flowers in our space before Shabbat. Some weeks they may be supermarket carnations, but they always honor and sanctify the reality of our lives together, not some fantasy of it. You can keep your dozen long-stemmed roses, thanks.

This isn’t the whole picture, though. I don’t mind celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, which also reduce down to “one special day.” I also don’t get cranky about, say, how you’re supposed to reflect on your behavior all year and not just on the High Holidays. So this got me thinking about what, specifically, about Valentine’s Day bugs me.

Then I read this paper by Carrie Heeter, and said, “Aha!” Heeter provides evidence* for something I’ve been saying for a while: mandatory play is not quite play. She and her colleagues made playing four different games mandatory, then looked at players’ self-reported experiences and in-game activity. “Resistant” players played for less time, had fewer positive and more negative emotional experiences, and were less focused in terms of attention. In other words, if you’re forced to play a game when you don’t particularly want to, it’s not engaging and pleasurable the way that games can (and should!) be**.

Now consider this excellent quote from Two Whole Cakes:

… romance has always made me vaguely uncomfortable. There is a pressure associated with being a female-identifying person on the receiving end of romantic shenanigans: I feel expected to giggle and coo, to blush and smile sheepishly, most of all, to be grateful.

The writer hits it on the nose. As a woman, I’m always haunted by the feeling that I’ve got a role to play – one which has very little to do with my desire to play the Valentine’s Game. I’ve got no control over the production of romantic shenanigans, yet I’m supposed to perform the emotional work of appreciation and cultural reification***. Yes, my partner and I can choose to Valentine in any way we please, but for me that always exists against the background of “should.” Differentiating my individual human responses from the mandatory feminine is possible, of course, but makes certain types of response feel inauthentic, produced, stage-managed.

Seriously, people: my partner makes me want to giggle with delight every day, but I do not giggle on demand.

What’s most useful to me about this insight is that maybe it can help my game design students (and colleagues!) understand the danger of what I call “designing from should.” Anyone who has felt the pressure to perform femininity – or, for that matter, masculinity – in a Valentine context can use that experience to begin to understand the resentment of resistant players, and can hopefully become a better game designer as a result. Similarly, anyone who’s ever played a DFS**** might gain insight into the ways that the delights of love can be compressed into the mandates of commercial romance.

As for me? I’m going to look for ways to make Valentine’s Day into Valentine’s Play next year. Check back then.

* Yes, it’s clearly still a draft paper, but Heeter does good work and I’m happy to trust her conclusions until the fuller version of this paper comes out.

** You’d think this was obvious, right? Unfortunately, I see a lot of serious game proposals that want to mandate play. This is probably a longer post.

*** A la The Managed Heart, whose argument I will not attempt to recapitulate here, but which I strongly recommend.

**** Designed From Should!

Thank You, Geek Feminism Blog

As folks at Geek Feminism put it so well, science is not the oppressor.

That doesn’t mean that science can’t be used oppressively. Just look at all the studies purporting to discover cognitive differences between men and women – ones that oh-so-coincidentally match our cultural notions of what men and women are supposed to be. Even the gender gap in spatial skills, one of the more well-supported differences, turns out to be significantly linked to time spent practicing rather than to underlying biological factors. Of course, that won’t stop plenty of disingenuous folks from pretending it’s all evolutionary, hence biological, hence inevitable, hence not worth resisting.

The answer is not to reject science.  Bad money drives out good … but good science drives out bad. So let’s get more scientists who ask challenging questions, more funders willing to support this kind of work, more great studies that show us how to resist the dominant narratives of gender, more scientific literacy among non-scientists, more journalists willing to cover science responsibly. It’s a big job, but someone’s got to do it – and it’s a job we can start today.

(Why yes, I’m thinking about this a lot in the context of The Mismeasure of Woman, which you should go read now.)