Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kids, Character, and Gender

An essay on kids, character, and gender
By Elizabeth Marino, Ph.D.

There is no doubt that my daughter Louise falls on the calm end of the 2-year old character spectrum. The other day at the beach she sat on a blanket eating melon, reading books, and cleaning the sand from between her toes while her 2-year-old friend Benjamin ran up to his chin in the lake, stole a water gun from the beach party next to us, threw his melon in the sand until it was black and THEN ate it. Because Louise is the kind of kid who likes books and tends to sit still she is often subject to comments from adults about gender. We get, at least once every week, “she is such a little girl,” or “girls are so much easier at this age,” or other declarative statements that end with some version of the sentiment “stereotypes exist for a reason.”

This kind of commentary truly grates on me – and this is dangerous territory because my own frustration with the comment “she’s such a girl” could easily slip into critique of my daughter’s character, which is a trap I obviously want to avoid. To be clear, I don’t think Louise and Benjamin have similar character types; and I don’t necessarily doubt that on average girls may be less likely, at 2 years old, to run headfirst into a large body of water. But when we’re talking about two kids, we are not talking about averages – and this constant barrage of gendered language creates, I think, real problems. For me, the most terrifying outcome that arises when we identify these behaviors with gender and sex is that it sets up a framework for Louise that ultimately ends up politicizing her every move as a gendered decision.

Let me explain.

The social politics and performance of stereotypes is complicated. Ask any marginalized or stigmatized group of people - African Americans, lesbians, southerners, Christians, Muslims, atheists, the over-educated, the under-educated, the poor –and I’m sure all are, at one time or another (some more than others), forced to perform the arduous task of either cashing in on and confirming stereotypical behavior or hyper-performance in an effort to combat stereotypes. For myself this includes either playing up southern charm in social settings (hi y’all, come on in) or over-performing intellectualism so as not to be written off as a rural redneck idiot (I lost my accent the minute I became a philosophy major at Notre Dame). This constant negotiation with stereotypes is exhausting and is a basic tenant of prejudice.

When we force, from infancy, a framework for understanding behavior based on gender stereotypes then we set our kids (especially our girls) up for viewing every single one of their actions as a move to gender-identify or rebuke gender identity. If Lou likes to cook it’s because she’s a girl. If she doesn’t like to cook it’s because she’s not ‘girly’. If she likes fashion it’s because she’s a girl. If she doesn’t it’s because she’s not ‘girly’. If she rides bikes it’s because she’s not ‘girly’. If she likes to babysit it’s because she’s a good, care-giving girl. This yes/no, up/down, girly/not girly identification with every single decision our kids make is exhausting and undermines the beautiful, complex, even contradictory aspects of ourselves as human beings who do and do not like to cook, who do and do not like books, who do and do not feel gendered.

The gender-focused, hyper-reductionist explanation for behavior also, I think, predisposes our kids for eventually defining themselves as the face-book friendly, easily digestible, stock character ‘type of girls’ that seems so common these days.  How frightening for the options to be: a mountain-bike-riding, craft-beer drinking, wilderness therapist; or a hair ‘done’, cosmopolitan drinking, legal assistant; or a no-make-up, tea connoisseur, feminist academic.

At very least, reductionism is boring. How much lovelier to invoke the notion from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes”.

When I look at Louise I see multitudes. I see the vast expanse of a character with unseen depths and complications who will remain ever mysterious to me – who may remain mysterious even to herself. When she’s at the beach I see a kid who is a little bit afraid of new things, who likes to eat, who likes watching other people, who likes the feel of sand in her toes, who thinks her mother is still the best person to hang with, who is working up the courage, who is content where she’s at. What I don’t see – what I don’t want her to ever see in herself– is that she is all of these things just because “she’s such a girl.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Flying out

I leave Fairbanks today for Nome, a brief overnight layover, and a quick 45 minute non-pressurized 7000 foot altitude (or so) flight into Shishmaref. The flight facts I have acquired since reading: 'pregnant women should avoid unpressurized airplanes.' The next advice, 'if you simply must fly in a non-pressurized aircraft, make sure there is oxygen on board.' There isn't. So it goes.

I am nervous now! There is much to do. There is the uncertainty about what the next month of pregnancy will be like (having problems putting on my own shoes now). There are the general uncertainties about being on someone else's island and asking questions about very real lives. There is strange food and the impositions my job creates. There is insecurity and the goal of doing a good, just, thing. There are old friends.

In the short term, I'm hoping for the first week or so my daily life will revolve around baking and chatting. I will have to lug around my own decaf coffee. Lame. I should try to rope someone into taking walks with me on the airport runway. I should perfect the art of cinnamon roll baking. I should learn to cook short ribs. I should talk to the elders. I should wonder obsessively again about my chosen profession. I should set small goals.

When I'm in Shishmaref I stay with Rachel and Rich Stasenko. They are such anchors. Perfect hosts. What do you bring to people who save your life? I brought a blanket and two bars of chocolate that say 'OREGON' on them.

Now I'm in Nome, belly up to a bar, drinking soda pop and watching sports, trying to catch my breath after lugging 7 bags across the state of Alaska. Everyone's in carhartts and kuspuks. Such a security to be sitting here, even without a beer, as the exhaustion sets in and all there is to do is wait: for the next phone call, for the next refill, for the rest of the night to come and pass before flying out.

Flying out. Into a part of the world that I adore, and never fails to awe. But still flying out to a place that is not home for me.... and for this reason is intimidating.

But as the wedding vows went: We'll jump, and we'll see.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The pregnant anthropologist

So, the reluctant anthropologist has officially morphed into the pregnant anthropologist. I am swelling with baby, dreaming of baby, conflicted about safety decisions (is it safe to downhill ski, try the wine, climb the ladder, drink the water?), and eating chocolate malts daily. The first steps, I think, to motherhood.

I have also had to come to grips with a central thesis of my profession. Namely: that the world is a socially and culturally constructed place. Allow me to digress:

Anthropology says: 'The world is full of stuff, events, people, spaces. Our social and cultural backgrounds turn this stuff, events, people, and spaces into meaningful keepsakes, moments, families, friends, and homelands.' Nothing in this schema has meaning without this social and cultural backdrop through which we filter experience. And meaning, at the end of the day, seems to be the point. I think this is overwhelmingly true.

The thing is, I have just started to feel warm fuzzies with every single other pregnant lady or mother in the world.... it is as though the physicality of pregnancy is its own experience that is common without a cultural backdrop.. or at least without exclusively a cultural backdrop mitigating the situation.

Rationally I can say that my particular cultural make up, stemming from the enlightenment, likely predisposes me to believe in the 'humanistic' experience over a multitude of cultural experiences.
But some basic instinct says, when it comes to carrying a baby,: phooey.
Women around the world... I get it.

Where do the universal, the social, and the individual collide? In birth, in death, in disaster, in sexual orientation, in sickness, in anything at all?

For now I am trying to write, trying to get my head together, happy to be going to Alaska soon to fly on small planes, eat seal meat, hug friends, ask questions. I wonder how snow machine travel is with (what feels like) a 2 ton belly. 

Hopefully there will be nothing but good news to report from Shishmaref.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Universalists and a case for culture

I was traveling around Europe by myself, as I have been wont to do for the last six or seven years; either because a) I had made a little bit of money or b) because work had sent me across the Atlantic and I was able to squeeze in a week or three of vacation time at the tail end.

This time I was in Switzerland, staying in a small village and a smaller hotel in the Swiss Alps above Interlaken. The hotel made a dinner and, like most of the people staying there, I bought a helping and sat down at the communal tables for wine and a chat before bed. Most of us were hiking in the morning, so evenings were, for the most part, quiet.

Sitting across from me was an American girl (twenty-something) who was traveling with her mother. The mother was a nurse by trade, and had rarely traveled outside of the United States. The girl, I think Jeri was her name, did most of the talking over dinner. She told me about where they lived (Idaho) about the mountains around them (Sawtooth). She told me about how she had a friend in Zurich that they had stayed with for 2 days and 2 nights. She told me about how much better it was to know someone when you visited another country.

Then the mother chimed in with a version of this conversation.
"You know," she said ominously, "they didn't use a top sheet."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"No top sheet. Jeri's friend's mother didn't use one. Ever."
"Not even in the summer. Just a bottom sheet and a blanket. Imagine. Ha. I guess there'd be less laundry. But imagine."
"I mean, I guess it's less work, but there's the blanket to consider, and then, just, I don't know, people sweat at night. They were well-off too. Their house was bigger than ours, and that's unusual in Europe."
"Don't get me wrong, they were nice enough. But no top sheet. That's just dirty."

At this, Jeri resumed talking about her friend and a night they spent in the barn rolling around in the hay. I drank another glass of wine with dessert and wondered if the mother was picturing the thousands of hours wasted on top sheet laundry, or the dirty Swiss she had just encountered. The mother didn't speak again until she told us good night.

This random conversation haunts me. Because the mother was really The Mother, like so many mothers I know from home. Because she was a good woman. Because I liked them both. And because of the pervasiveness of trivial and absolute judgements.  I rarely bash American/ Western culture in the way that is so popular these days because it typically seems futile and filled with stereotypes, and also because our English/Euro immigrant/African slave/American muttness has managed to produce Shakespeare, Milton, Hemingway, Zora Neal Hurston, and Tom Waits, all. But there is this particularly interesting aspect of American (and English) culture that seems to have been gaining strength over the last 200+ years that is interesting and possibly problematic.

This is the concept of the universalist, captured most succinctly in the phrase: Basically we are all the same.

It's a good thought. Humanist. It has spawned good ideas: Free speech, inalienable rights. But it has gotten out of control. It seems to follow, if we are all the same, then we should be able to understand other people's motives. And if we understand other people's motives, we feel justified judging them as silly, incorrect, insane, or dirty (No top sheet!).

It seems to me this universalist sentiment is an ideal haven for arrogance. At heart, the universalist idea allowed colonialism to unfold and to continue unfolding. If school-house style education, democracy, Christianity, sedentarism, three bedroom houses, market economies, and top sheets are good for us, they must be good for you too! So we will set about educating/liberating you!

The universalist sentiment is not relegated to any particular educational sect or political affiliation in the US. It encompasses many. It gains strength in the prevalence of brain scans; when I'm in love this part of my brain lights up. You must be in love the same way I am. It allows us to click that top part of our mouths behind our teeth and shake our heads when we hear about Haitian parents sending their kids to live with strangers; "I would NEVER do that to my child." Or when we give aid to combat HIV in distant places, "if people would just stop having sex until they were married, the problem would go away. What is wrong with them? They need more education."

It is much, much more complicated and requires incredible doses of humility to acknowledge: I have no idea what the fuck you are talking about, but that's probably because we come from different places and are totally different people.

I did not learn this lesson by myself. When I think about the hundreds of millions of stupid, idiotic things I have done in Western Alaska that were totally and completely culturally incorrect I blush like a red door. Sorry people. But somehow it was okay. There is space in White Mountain and Shishmaref for people to be different and not crazy, to be truly individualistic and still part of a collective. There is space for me to be culturally incorrect (though trying harder next time) because I am, in fact, culturally different. I cannot explain it well, but I recognize it when I am there and when I return to Oregon. There is something different about these two places and the worldviews inherent in each place.

We are not all the same. Ask people who speak two languages. I hope that this post is not read as a, 'we all create our own reality, man' sentiment. I also think there are real cultural truths, but people are complicated and in this dusk of globalization perhaps it's time to consider how we differ, not only how we are the same.

And to Jeri's mother, let me say, I stopped using a top sheet. Because it really does save time.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Doing Good

There are three constant questions that plague the anthropologist.

1. What is the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity?

2. How do people come to 'know'?

3. Is it possible to do good?

They are interrelated. Any self-respecting anthropologist will have spent inordinate, crippling amount of times wrestling with these questions. In my humble opinion if you have not spent at least 10 excruciating nights up late, usually alone, with a bottle of wine convinced IT is all subjective, meaningless, and impossible to improve, then you are not really an anthropologist.... you may instead be a missionary (or an environmentalist).

The morning after these wine fueled pessimistic fits, you wake up and realize that your job is meager:
1) To describe the world in a slightly more accurate way than it is usually described, particularly in places and amongst people that are often ignored, despite inevitable subjectivity.

2) To perhaps, by some small measure, when you expect it the least, you slide an unjust world into an attitude that is slightly more kind and reasonable to the disenfranchised, the colonized, and the abused.

The difference between the anthropologist and the 'do gooder', the small ngo startup, or the aid worker abroad is in historical study. A true classical training that is found in books and libraries and not in the field.

 It is this: you cannot get through a history of colonization without meeting the many well meaning men and women who believed they were helping people and instead caused genocide, famine, cultural disintegration, and slavery. This history is so common and so humbling that most anthropologists (particularly North, Central, and South American anthropologists) get incredibly nervous when people in common conversation talk about 'helping' anyone that is not a direct friend or family. At least I do. Hives, sweats, white-guilt ridden, nervousness.

Today I have been thinking that the distilled message of nearly all anthropological thought and writing, directed as much internally as out, is this: Try, please try, to be just a little less arrogant.

If this is the only accomplishment, then it is enough. And it would be a revolution.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Baby steps tire the soul

My friend Octavio used to have this dream of a field of strawberries, as far as the eye could see, located somewhere in and around California. In my friend's dream the strawberries were being picked by lines and lines of working white people.

Octavio (the heroic) was a terrible cynic, but what does his dream mean to our understanding of environmental justice?

I will write a longer blog once we are certain what is going to come out of Copenhagen. For now I will say that watching political posturing concerning climate justice, emissions reduction, etc., has been painful. This, despite knowing that this meeting is a) essential and b) better-than-before. Politics and science are two different beasts, and the former can make little sense to me. I find it difficult to accept small political advances.

Baby steps tire the soul.

A colleague today posted draft text for the reduction in emissions through deforestation and forrest degradation (essentially REDD) that might actually be ratified by the participating countries at the climate meetings. The text called for acknowledgement of indigenous rights and respect for traditional knowledge. This is good, a step forward... and yet, all I can really think is: sure... non-binding, at the discretion of the nation-state,  subject to interpretation, with no means of regulation. Good luck. Same old. Ink spots on a page. A lung full of air.

I promise one thing: if all that happens at these meetings is that world leaders agree to kick forrest dwellers out of their home-lands and encourage mono-cropping I am going to quit my PhD program.

I promise another: I will try not to be cynical all the time.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Welcome to the reluctant anthropologist and COP 15

In Copenhagen today and for the next two weeks many of my colleagues, friends and highly important strangers will be debating how to best reduce future green house gas emissions and increase carbon sinks, among other complex and highly politicized topics. Far over on the west coast of North America I am trying to follow the news and feeling blue about not having jumped on a plane. 

In honor of the UNFCCC's (United Nation's Framing Convention on Climate Change) grand politico-event I have created this blog to discuss the work of a socio-cultural anthropologist trying to unravel the mysteries of climate change, environmental migration, and the social world at large. 

Frightfully boring? Destined to fail? Shown to anyone other than my supportive husband? We'll see. For now, let me say:

Welcome, and here's to another blog bespoken mind.