Friday, February 22, 2013

Is Friends any more sexist than most Lego? And why it might in fact be better.

Today I saw another article noting the exponential growth in lines of Lego aimed at girls, specifically the Friends sets. And I have read many critiques of these sets as well as some equally valid defenses.

On the one hand they promote gender stereotypes and limited roles for their target audience. (One set includes a beauty salon, not so different to the Hairdresser Lego Set I so adored at seven.) On the positive side, they encourage girls to play with blocks which we all know are fantastic in the development of visual-spatial skills but are often shunned by girls (or their parents) in preference for other sorts of play; additionally, the sets promote pro-social messages with their focus on friendship.

What I find interesting in all of this is the lack of discussion about the problem of 'boys' lines of Lego. The thing is that boys sets may not be marked 'boy' but they are every bit as gendered as the sets aimed at girls. And they are often vile.

These sets (I have three boys and quite possibly own all of them) are colour coded just as explicitly as the girl sets. There is not a hint of pastel, but many shades of orange, green, red and black. The characters (human and otherwise) in these sets carry weapons, with many actually having weaponised body parts. And as my own 5-year-old boy noted, the sets are 'sexist' because they only have boy characters.

There are other lines of Lego that are possibly considered gender neutral, but they seem to me to have the same issue as children's books. Publishers avoid marketing books to a girl audience because they believe that boys will not read books about girls but girls will read books about boys. Similarly, the Creator and City sets are sold in a solid range of primary colours, colours that are safely 'boy' without a hint of anything explicitly 'girl'. So in my view, even these officially 'gender neutral' sets tilt boy.

I continue to have mixed feelings about Friends, but I don't think that they are any more gendered than most Lego, or any more noxious. In fact I think it could safely be argued that 'boy' Lego, with its focus on warfare and aggression, is promoting a version of masculinity that is just as limiting and far more troubling than a range named Friends.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The inherent privilege of being a 'slacker' mum

There is a degree of privilege involved in being a self-avowed 'slacker mum' or free range parent. The mothers I know who espouse these approaches are white, well-educated and middle to upper class (including Lenore Skenazy, spokesperson for the free range parenting movement). I include myself in this category, and went so far as to declare myself a 'slacker mum' as far back as 2000, before free range referred to anything more interesting than a carton of happily produced eggs.

The slacker parenting rhetoric holds great appeal as an antidote to the ridiculous expectations that are placed on parents - specifically mothers - to measure up to a variety of external, ill-defined and ever shifting standards, and it is this aspect of Jane Caro's piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald that I enjoyed and agree with; but while celebrating this aspect of the movement, there is a tone that seeps through much of the rhetoric that I find smug and unhelpful.

Rather than being empowering, mothers (fathers seem strangely absent from these discussions) are lampooned as being driven by irrational and neurotic fears (hello Freud); and discussions take for granted a degree of privilege without which the free range approach to your children's welfare is not possible. At the most basic level, allowing your child the freedom to roam is dependent on living in a neighbourhood that functions at some level as a community, has a reasonable level of pedestrian safety and is not riven by crime, including drugs, gang and gun violence (the latter being a real issue in the United States).

It is easy to be relaxed about your child's education when you live in a community where the local schools are brimming with children who walk through the gates with an enormous bank of social, educational and economic capital. It is much harder to take such an approach when your local school is populated by children with multiple disadvantages. You may still send your child to the local school - by choice or necessity - but your concerns are completely valid.

It is easy to not spend a lot of time worrying about your child when your child does not give you a whole lot to worry about, to take the attitude that no matter the kids are going to be alright. But some children are simply more difficult to raise than others by virtue of temperament, difference and/or disability. Worrying about such children is not a sign of neurosis.

In fact, if you have a child with a disability and you wish to access services for that child in many places your child will not have a hope unless you become the polar opposite of the slacker mum, and instead become a loud and pushy advocate, using every resource - including any privileges you are fortunate enough to carry - to further your child's cause. And there is a good chance that, despite the rhetoric of education for all, the public school system will not adequately accommodate your child no matter how much you wish to stay within the system. (Somewhat surprisingly, I have found the US public education system much more accommodating, responsive and well resourced for children with disabilities than Australia's public education system).

Read from the bottom up

The most distressing element of the lazy/slacker/free range parenting talk for me is the profound lack of awareness of the inherent privilege of being able to declare yourself a lazy or slacker mum (I tweeted about this today).

For 'other' mothers, being perceived as 'slack' let alone shouting it from the rooftops, is a risk they might not be willing to take. In fact, they are more likely to have to work very hard to prove to the world (including their children's teachers, doctors, welfare authorities, courts) that they are a fit parent, let alone a 'good enough' one.

The risks come from many directions, including the real risk of coming under the surveillance of the state or even losing custody of your child, whether that be to the foster care system, the other parent (or grandparent/s) whose standing by virtue of gender/colour/wealth/age may be a real advantage in the family court. (I have personally watched a friend who suffered multiple disadvantages - race, class, disability, single parent - but whose daughter benefited from her extraordinary level of devotion and care lose her child in just this fashion.)

I can afford to be a slacker parent. When I walk into an emergency room with an injured child (as I have many times) I am given the benefit of the doubt by virtue of my class and skin colour. When my child fails to learn to read he is more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability than be considered simply a lazy or disruptive student. When we run late for school on a regular basis we are viewed as disorganised, even slack, but nobody calls in the truant officer.

I understand that it is a function of my privilege, that the assumption is made that I am good enough parent even when that may not always be entirely true. And of course, the flip side of this is that a mother who is marginalised by virtue of her class/race/age cannot afford the luxury of declaring herself to be a lazy or slacker mum as the chances are high that this is exactly what others have already prejudged her to be.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is the "ugly" selfie an act of liberation?

I have just been alerted to a phenomenon, including a tumblr, called 'pretty girls, ugly faces'.

From what I saw it involved conventionally attractive women posing in contorted ways so they appeared to be ugly NOT women across the broad spectrum of appearance choosing to pose as themselves, warts and all.

As an example, there is a large difference between a woman with actual double chins choosing to pose for a selfie in a way that does not disguise that double chin and a thin woman posing in a way that creates a false double chin (most of the examples I saw seemed to feature the false double chin, I guess confirming that this is indeed officially 'ugly').

One is an act of fuck you, this is who I am and I refuse to be ashamed. For me, the other feels less like liberation and more like mockery.

While the term privilege is primarily used in reference to race, class and gender, body/looks privilege is also a very real phenomenon. For those, particularly women, who fall outside the narrow parameters of what is considered attractive (or even acceptable) there are real consequences (social, workplace, pay).

I hate to be a spoilsport, and to even raise the term privilege, but honestly to me "pretty girls, ugly faces" reeks of it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Unpacking our response to smoking while pregnant

Something did not sit quite right with me yesterday as I watched the response to Chrissie Swan's revelation (confession?) unfurl on twitter. And it wasn't the ugly responses - they are always so predictable - but another sort.

The response reminded me of what happens whenever breastfeeding v formula style "debates" arise. We rightly want to protect the individual woman who is not breastfeeding - for any number of reasons that are really none of our business - from judgement and shaming; but in doing so it is not uncommon to see calls to silence legitimate and necessary discussion about what public policy responses should look like when it comes to promoting higher rates of breastfeeding. Or for public policy aimed at promoting breastfeeding to be viewed as an attack on individual women's choices. (The response to Michael Bloomberg's efforts to introduce the WHO breastfeeding code of conduct into NYC hospitals makes for an interesting case study.)

Let me be clear, I am not trying to draw a parallel between the well documented harm of smoking while pregnant to a growing fetus and the impact of breastmilk versus formula. The only parallel I wish to draw is the way discussions play themselves out.

So, for some it was not enough to simply say 'for god's sake leave Chrissie alone. This is none of our business'... but to move into 'my mother smoked while pregnant and we survived' mode. And while it is great that individuals were not harmed, it does not mean that we should downplay the absolutely real effects that smoking has on a developing fetus.

To that I would add that any public health campaigns should focus on second hand smoke, given what we now know about it's impact not only on the fetus but also the harmful health effects on babies and children (in other words, smoking dads and partners of pregnant women are very much on the hook).

There is another aspect of the rightfully compassionate response to Chrissie Swan that made me twitch, and which I am still struggling to articulate clearly. It is the feeling that were it a different woman, one who was less 'one of us' and more 'other', I don't feel confident that there would have been the same outpouring of compassion. And to complicate things further, would the compassionate response extend to an 'other' mother whose addiction was to a substance other than alcohol or tobacco?

Our image of who smokes during pregnancy is not a middle class white woman with her own radio show. It is the single mother, the poor mother, the teen mother, the Indigenous mother.

As Chrissie herself said on air: "I knew it was wrong that there is so much terrible judgment that only awful people and bad parents and idiots and bogans smoke during pregnancy - and I didn't feel like I belonged in any of those categories - so I kept it all under wraps and dealt with it how I could."

Read the full article here:

But those mothers - and according to this report it is disadvantaged mothers, including the young and Indigenous, who are most likely to smoke during pregnancy -  who are less 'us' and more 'other' are no less deserving of our compassion, and more importantly support. And just as Chrissie Swan found herself under the sort of pressure that made quitting smoking that much harder, these 'other' mothers are likely to face daily challenges that those of us who live in comfortable middle class bubbles could even begin to comprehend.

The fact that addiction is often framed in the language of criminality for those who are viewed as 'other' (and in the US this includes pregnant women who unbelievably have been incarcerated for drug addiction) should also be noted; and even the way we describe the same drug varies depending on who is using it (as has been pointed out on twitter, consider the use of phrases like 'rivers of grog' to describe Indigenous communities with high rates of alcohol consumption, a description that has never been applied to Sydney's most alcohol affected suburb Mosman).

When it comes to these discussions, I think it is important to think about how our own personal responses - let alone public policy responses - may differ depending on whose body is being policed. And next time we see the media beating up on an individual mother or group of mothers who are less like us, I hope that we leap to their defense as readily as we have for somebody who we think of as one of our own.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Walking the laundry

Walking the dog
Doing the laundry
Scraping shit out of the deep grooves
In the soles of their shoes

I warned them to stay off the grass
Quite rightly they ignored me
Stomping through the fresh mud and shit
With abandon

Beef strips turning grey from a never made stir fry
A tub of ricotta unopened from October 20 something
Hurled into the trash, reminders that
My own use by date is no longer an abstraction

The growing mountain of dirty towels
At the top of the stairs
Threaten to bury me

The very idea of being mummified
By my own poor housekeeping
Makes me laugh
Until I cry

Closing the door on the chaos
In a cafe, safe from the laundry and dog shit
A place where nobody asks me for anything
More complex than the sports section or a chair

Friday, February 1, 2013

4/52 Among Muslims: Meetings at the frontiers of Pakistan by Kathleen Jamie

A travel memoir of sorts, Kathleen Jamie's Among Muslims was originally published in 1996 but took on added poignancy after 9/11. At this point Jamie was contacted by a publisher who sent her back to Pakistan to revisit the people and places she had written about so vividly, and these new experiences and reflections are found in the Epilogue and Prologue (which turned out to be my favourite parts of the book).

On her return trip, Jamie is struck by the changes in both herself and the women she met a decade earlier and calls her friends. On her last visit she was a single woman, this time around married and with two children:

"Contraception. The price of dresses. Maternity leave. Housework, babies, our students, and their lax attitudes. Our suddenly elderly parents. What happened to the peace, and no worries? I could have been at home, except I was cross-legged on the floor, and all my friends were wrapped in shawls, and I was on the other side of the world."

Her thoughts on the role of a travel writer reveal the approach she takes to her subject:

"We all have duties and tasks, and mine, as travel-writer, is to our common humanity. Travel-writing is less about place than people, it describes people's lives. How can we acknowledge our common humanity without showing something of that humanity? How can we show that families are pretty much like families, without revealing something of each other, of ourselves? Who draws the line, when we write about decent, ordinary people? The writer does, that's the truth of it."

I read this book in a couple of days, and it is the lives of the women that I found most interesting but that is by no means the sole focus of the book. In parts it reminded me of a book I read many years ago (and highly recommend) Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks. And while I'm recommending other books if you have not yet read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi then please do.