Cradle To Grave Sexism: Colleen McCullough and Yvonne Brill

The Australian author Colleen McCullough died at age 77. The obituary in The Australian begins as follows:

COLLEEN McCullough, Australia’s best selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”

The writer began the obituary by saying, basically, that she was unattractive and fat, but men still wanted to have sex with her and she was fun to be around.

This is, of course, sexist – it suggests that the first judgment of a woman must be to what extent she was or was not attractive to men.

We’ve been through this before. It reminded me (and no doubt many others), of the New York Times obituary of Yvonne Brill, rocket scientist. It began (it has since been edited, but the public editor commented here):

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.
But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.

Here it’s not to what extent did people want to have sex with her in general, but her maternal skills in the kitchen and child-rearing.

I wrote about Brill a few years ago when I put together a piece for CNN on the sexism my daughter was encountering as a four-year old. I wrote:

When the rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died in March,The New York Times celebrated her as the maker of a “mean beef stroganoff” and “the world’s best mother.” When my 4-year-old daughter, Ellie, a wildly creative and interesting girl, finished a year of preschool last week, her teachers gave her an award for being the best dressed.

This is cradle-to-the-grave sexism, always judging women by their appearance and the extent to which they do or do not conform to the gender roles assigned them by patriarchal norms. No accomplishment is as important as whether they were attractive. And read this explanation by the Times’ obituary editor on Brill.

“I’m surprised,” he said. “It never occurred to us that this would be read as sexist.” He said it was important for obituaries to put people in the context of their time and that this well-written obituary did that effectively. He also observed that the references in the first paragraph to cooking and being a mother served as an effective setup for the “aha” of the second paragraph, which revealed that Mrs. Brill was an important scientist.

And the writer himself:

The writer, Douglas Martin, described himself as “just so full of admiration for this woman, in all respects.”
“I was totally captivated by her story,” he said, and he looked for a way to tell it in as interesting a way as possible. The negative reaction is unwarranted, he said — a result of people who didn’t read the obituary fully but reacted only to what they saw on Twitter about the opening paragraph.
It hasn’t changed his mind about how he wrote it: “I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

For these two male writers (I’m guessing white male, but I don’t know them), the backlash was a surprise and unwarranted. They just wanted a good, “aha!” That, too, is a bow to patriarchy. Mother AND rocket scientist, aha! You never saw that coming, as most scientists are terrible mothers, and vice versa (the article suggests). The use of the surprise there reinforces the idea that such achievements are unusual.

Blank Gravestone. Blah.

Language matters. Internet writers are having one of those interminable debates in which successful white male writers say that telling them that language matters is really mean and fundamentally useless anyway, while tone policing feminist discourse down to silence. I’d refer them back to “how to be an ally,” but I think step 1) Listen, is not really in their wheelhouse.

So instead we look at these obituaries. Fabulous, successful, women who cannot be remembered except through the context of patriarchal gender roles.

Girls Read Comics Too! An Awesome Letter from Rowan, Age 11, to DC Comics.

Marvel comics made a movie about a talking tree and a raccoon awesome, but you haven’t made a movie with Wonder Woman.

Girls read comics too and they care.

Rowan is an 11 year old girl. I know her and her parents and am posting this with all of their permission (especially Rowan’s). She loves comics and she wrote this letter to DC Comics.

Transcription below.

I love this and hope DC listens. I’ve written about my own daughter’s love of comics here and here, and hope Rowan helps make comics a little more girl-friendly (and less pink and purple).
If anyone at DC (or anyone else) would like to contact Rowan, I’ll be glad to put you in touch with her family.
The letter reads:

Dear DC comics,
My name is Rowan and I am 11 years old. I love superheroes and have been reading comics and watching superhero cartoons and movies since I was very young. I’m a girl, and I’m upset because there aren’t very many girl superheroes or movies and comics from DC.
For my birthday, I got some of your Justice League Chibis™. I noticed in the little pamphlet that there are only 2 girl Chibis, and 10 boys. Also, the background for the girl figures was all pink and purple.
I remember watching Justice League cartoons when I was really young with my dad. There are Superman and Batman movies, but not a Wonder Woman one. You have a Flash TV show, but not a Wonder Woman one. Marvel Comics made a movie about a talking tree and raccoon awesome, but you haven’t made a movie with Wonder Woman.
I would really like a Hawkgirl or Catwoman or the girls of the Young Justice TV show action figures please. I love your comics, but I would love them a whole lot more, if there were more girls.
I asked a lot of the people I know whether they watched movies or read books or comics where girls were the main characters, they all said yes.
Please do something about this. Girls read comics too and they care.
Sincerely, Rowan.

Girls do read comics and they do care. Now the question is, does DC care?

Update: Yes I know Wonder Woman is coming. Rowan will be 13 by the time she gets to see her first movie with a female lead.

Update 2: Reprints of the letter are welcome. Please link to this page and send me a note, just so I can keep track.

Update 3: For more on the coverage of the letter, please see my post Anatomy of a Viral Tweet

Georgia Shakes the Foundation of our Legal System – Executes Intellectually Disabled Man

Last night, Georgia executed Warren Hill. Hill was clearly intellectually disabled as judged by pretty much every standard, except the ones used by the most bloodthirsty states. It’s a gross violation of universal human rights.

Here’s a statement from The Arc.

“Georgia’s ability to ignore experts and cross the line drawn by a more than decade-old Supreme Court ruling shakes the foundation of our legal system for people with intellectual disabilities. Just last year, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring justice for individuals with intellectual disability, with their ruling in Hall v. Florida, and it is extremely disappointing that following this decision justice did not prevail in Georgia.

“The facts in this case are clear – experts unanimously agreed that Mr. Hill had intellectual disability, yet the appeals at the state and federal levels were ignored. The state’s actions in this case are unconscionable,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

It was allowed by the Supreme Court for reasons I can’t say I understand (in terms of why it doesn’t violate the 2002 Atkins ruling against executing the intellectually disabled), except that SCOTUS is allowing states to define intellectual disability however they please. So Georgia has drawn a severe line and now killed this man.

We are, sometimes, a savage nation.

Republican Vision for Higher Education – More NBA Arenas.

Over the border from me, the Scott Walker experiment to dismantle the state of Wisconsin continues. He wants to create Kansas-North. Conservatives are loving it, and he’s just the kind of boring white guy with an allegedly criminal past that the GOP establishment might nominate for president.

Not long after President Obama unveiled his ideas for Free Community College, a proposal that, among other things, articulates a vision of public education as a common good, Walker has come out with his own brilliant plan for higher ed – more NBA Arenas.

In the last few days, Walker has proposed a 300 million dollar budget cut for the UW system. At the same time, he’s proposed a 220 million dollar giveaway to the Milwaukee Bucks, owned, like all NBA teams, by one of the richest humans in the history of the world. The Republican love for corporate welfare knows no limits (and it’s a smart investment, as the masters of the universe turn around to fund their campaigns and hire them after their political career is over), and Democrats are equally willing to shill for pro-sports teams (the new Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis is going to be a neat place, except for the bird-killing). Still, to have these simultaneous announcements come out from the Walker administration does reveal their priorities fairly neatly.

Corporate welfare = “An investment.” In the link above, Walker talks about how much money the NBA team brings to Milwaulkee.

Higher Ed Cuts = Making the UW system “more independent.” Indeed, so independent he’s stripping out tenure and faculty governance from state law, so that his appointed Regents can chip away at a world-class network of institutions.

To lose an NBA team means losing tax revenue, to be sure, although in general stadiums create only service jobs and concentrate entertainment revenue in a certain spot, rather than create more revenue. I wonder, though, how much revenue Wisconsin will lose over time with a less-educated citizenry? It will be less quantifiable. It won’t involve any billionaires. It will come, though.

As my bandmate Kurt said, That Ain’t Right.

Meanwhile, I love that one of my hero bands, the Dropkick Murphys – union lovers and Southie Boston working men all, called out Walker for using their music for his intro (seriously, GOP, you get most country music and Ted Nugent and that’s it).

Down Syndrome is “Hell on Earth.”

Austen Heinz is the typical silicon valley disruptor superstar. Edgy. Controversial. Disruptive.

He was profiled for his DNA Startup which allows you to “create life.”

In Austen Heinz’s vision of the future, customers tinker with the genetic codes of plants and animals and even design new creatures on a computer. Then his startup, Cambrian Genomics, prints that DNA quickly, accurately and cheaply.
“Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game,” Heinz said. “And that creates a whole new world.”
The 31-year-old CEO has a deadpan demeanor that can be hard to read, but he is not kidding. In a makeshift laboratory in San Francisco, his synthetic biology company uses lasers to create custom DNA for major pharmaceutical companies. Its mission, to “democratize creation” with minimal to no regulation, frightens bioethicists as deeply as it thrills Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

Thrills capitalists! Fights bioethicists! Sounds like a amoral Silicon Valley winner to me.

Here’s the hate speech [my emphasis]:

Heinz and other scientists have years of technical hurdles to clear before they can create living, breathing humans from a plate of printed DNA. Such an act is not possible right now. But he doesn’t hide his enthusiasm about the possibility.

Is he essentially enabling eugenics? He rejects that term, which to him means government interference with reproductive rights. He insists that it differs from his approach, which he describes as allowing individuals to eliminate future suffering in a more humane way than abortion, “which is pretty barbaric.” “A decent percentage of people have really nasty mutations that cause really bad, horrible things,” like Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis, he said. “These are basically like hell on Earth, and I think it’s smart to be able to avoid those things.”

1. Eugenic principles/ideologies are not state sponsored eugenic programs, but it’s still eugenic principles and ideologies. I write about this a lot (most recently here). [UPDATE: Here’s a useful article on who Heinz is as a provocateur]

2. What really bothers me about the “hell on Earth” line is not just that he said it, but that it was

I deal with being angry by
using silly pictures.

presented here as a simple acceptable opinion.

Would a racist talking about how blacks are inferior be simply permitted to make their statement without rebuttal or some kind of comment from the journalist? An anti-semite? A homophobe?

It seems to me that most journalists, when they have subject saying such terrible things, deal with it sensitively. It’s correct to report that Heinz is, in fact, one of the new eugenicists, ignorant and filled with hate for people with Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis. He’d like them to be eradicated, at least for future generations, preferably while making vast sums of money. This is what the new eugenics looks like.

But using this horrible line as your concluding sentence in a section, then blithely starting off into the science of the startup, is not, I think, best journalistic practices. I suspect that Lee, the author and business editor, didn’t even notice. She’s just interviewing a wunderkind, reporting what he says, trying to sell copy.

And this is part of the mission of the disability rights movement. We need to make it clear that ableist language, ideologies, and discriminatory acts are prejudicial and not to be simply left to hang in mainstream discourse without retort, context, criticism.

One final maxim of mine:

What’s going on with prenatal testing right now is a test-run for the future of human procreation. We’re failing the test. Left alone, it’s going to mean that disability codes for poverty and lack of access to modern medicine, rendering the world even more divided than it is now. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Also, Down syndrome is not hell on earth.

Nico and his Sister. 1. It’s too snowy for hell. 2. They love each other a lot.

Monday Roundup – Justice, Disability, Freedom, Lies

Usually I post my roundup on Sunday, but just so much is going on that I wrote a post instead. And I should have an article going up later today. Here are my recent posts.

Thanks for reading. More later today when my piece on a job ad for an Associate Dean of Eureka Moments (no, really) goes live.

Seattle Museum Turns Down the Lights for Kids with Sensory Issues

In general in disability journalism, I’d like to see us emphasize needed accommodations over diagnoses. In other words, what do people with disabilities need over what they “have.”

Here’s an example. I titled this blog post “for kids with sensory issues,” but I’m referring to a piece actually called “Museum Opens Doors, Turns Down Lights For Autistic Kids.” It’s a lovely story from NPR about a Seattle museum working to be less overstimulating so kids on the spectrum can enjoy it:

Loud noises, bright lights, crowded spaces: This is exactly the situation Mike Hiner tries to avoid with his 20-year-old son Steven, who is autistic.
He’s one of the many children and young adults in the Northwest who have some form of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD: In the Seattle School District, 10 percent of the special education population has ASD, and in nearby Bellevue, that figure is 17 percent. And because overstimulation can be painful for children with autism, many parents with autistic children avoid crowded, sensation-filled situations altogether — which can mean missing out on fun outings.
Steven Hiner, with his sister Elizabeth and his mother Carol Hiner, visited the Pacific Science Center before regular hours, so Steven could enjoy the exhibits without the crowds or bright lights.Jennifer Wing/KPLU
But some museums, including the Pacific Science Center, are recognizing the problem, and toning down the sights and sounds. One Saturday each month, the museum opens up early for families with ASD — like the Hiners, here before official hours begin.

This is great. Public spaces have really improved in terms of universal design, but sensory issues can be so tricky. The exact kind of noise and light and excitement that make a place better for many children can bar others from participating. So a special morning like this is a good thing.

I also liked this tidbit from the article.

Other museums and organizations across the country have similar programs, from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to the Dallas Museum of Art. Even NASCAR holds events where autistic children go to the track to watch a live race from a quiet room.

Again, I’m for all of this.

But I’d like to contrast the rhetoric to the Sunday-morning “Everyone at Play” at the Kohl’s Children’s Museum.

My son doesn’t have autism, but has similar sensory issues. So do many children I know with Down syndrome and plenty of others with various kinds of sensory processing disorders. I’m concerned with the emphasis on autism in the journalism here and in some of the advertising for these programs (even though I’m sure many of the museums are not in fact exclusive to autism only).

Instead of emphasizing a diagnosis (autism), I’d like to see us emphasize accommodations (the need for lower sensory stimulation). That way any child who needs this accommodation (and his or her parents) feel welcome, regardless.

And I think this is a general rule that journalists and institutions would do well to follow: Focus on the need, not the diagnosis.

Nicholas Kristof and How to Be an Ally

A tweet is just a tweet, but when you have 1.5 million followers, many of who believe in your power as a social justice hero, these kinds of tweets matter.

On the face of it, the tweet makes no sense. Michael Brown was killed on August 9. Tamir Rice was killed on November 22.  By the time Rice died, activists had been invested in Brown’s case for months. Brown’s Grand Jury decision was on November 24, so perhaps that’s what Kristof means.

Or more likely, he’s just comparing Rice to Brown and thinking about how much more media friendly the little boy is.

At any rate, I have a few short reactions.

  1. Movements do not emerge from central committees waiting for perfect victims. Sometimes legal cases do (Loving v Virginia, Lawrence v Texas). 
  2. Kristof has a bad history of looking for perfect victims. One would think he might have learned.
  3. There’s an implicit “no angel” behind Kristof’s tweet, a suggestion that Brown’s lack of childlike innocent perfection makes him culpable for his death. Such not only works directly against the principles of #BlackLivesMatter, but I think ignores how willing people are to blame any black victim of police violence. Tamir Rice has been blamed. His parents have been blamed. People who want to defend cops from the consequences of their actions will blame the victims.
And so it’s time to remind Nick Kristof, and indeed all of us, as I struggle with this plenty, how to be an ally. You don’t tell groups fighting for justice that they are doing it wrong, you don’t play white-savior, but you say – what do you need, how can I help, what should I do? And if they’re too busy to answer, just be present and listen.

Here, not for the first time, are my rules for being an ally.

  1. Listen.
  2. Remember it’s not about you.
  3. Remember it’s sometimes about you (calling out bigotry inside your own group.)
  4. Mostly, though, it’s not about you, so elevate the voices of those inside the movement instead of your own.
  5. Don’t expect gratitude for just being a decent person. 
That fifth one is tough. One wants recognition for, as a white person, standing up against racial injustice. But remember, it’s not about you. 
Another thing I like to say is that if you have the power inside an issue (and as a straight, white, tenured, abled male I almost always do), the first thing you have to do is listen. And the last thing you have to do is listen. In between, you speak, you make it clear that the injustice is not in your name, and then you go back to listening again.
So that’s all I have to say for now. I’ll be listening.

Video: The Power of Teamwork (Hulk Smash! Thor Hammer! O Captain My Captain?)

So I was going to write a post about another killing, but I’m tired. My son was up much of the night (he has a cold so his breathing isn’t great so he’s restless and wakeful). I have a lot of work to do today despite the exhaustion. So here’s something great.

My daughter got some new action figures and asked me if she could make a movie. She’s read a few starter-comics, but hasn’t seen the cartoons (she’s never really liked the superhero cartoons) and CERTAINLY not the movie (they are not kids’ movies, people).

A few thoughts, beyond the joy.
1. These were bought in a set of three. I don’t care about Iron Man. Where is Black Widow? Girls do need girl superhero toys. Also, boys can play with girl superhero toys. Superheroes are cool. [Related – Where is Gamora?]
2. Imagination is awesome. Feeding it is pretty much in the top-3 jobs of parenting (along with, oh, meeting basic needs and loving). 
Off to write. If I write enough, I can nap. If I nap enough, I might be a functional parent by the time my kids come home this evening, and then … then we can play.

#CultOfCompliance – Wheelchair Users Attacked by Police

Recently, video has surfaced of police trying to throw a man in a wheelchair from his chair. Allegedly, the individual ran over the officer’s foot.

Here are some other incidents worth remembering. And these are just the ones caught on tape.

That’s just five that happened to be caught on video. How many more are out there?

There are circumstances in which a person in a wheelchair might indeed threaten an officer. Wheelchair users are human. They can carry firearms. They can break the law. I do not believe, based on what we know, any of these incidents meet that standard. I would suggest the following guideline – if you, as a law enforcement officer, would not consider breaking the individual’s legs, also do not knock them from their chair.

If a wheelchair user does something requiring a law-enforcement response, such as intentionally rolling over a foot (those chairs are heavy), two choices emerge. 1) Arrest/cite them. 2) Let it go, the way one might at a little nudge from a shoulder as someone brushes by you. There is no option #3 – dehumanize them.

Because that’s what these acts are – dehumanizing and intentionally so, stripping away the one tool which allows a wheelchair user real independence. They say – your ability to be a human is contingent on our say-so.

And as always, notice the intersections. It isn’t necessary to be black and a wheelchair user to be victimized, but when race and disability intersect, things get dangerous fast.