Angelina Jolie’s Leg and Sexual Tension

8 03 2012

With this post, I descend deep into the dark vacuum of popular culture. I don’t do this unless it yields some sort of useful, insightful commentary, and when we look at how bodies are displayed and portrayed in public and in the media, it does. Consider the recent Academy Awards ceremony, in which Angelina Jolie slinked down the red carpet with a long, lean leg emerging profluently from a part in the side of a black velvet, custom-made Versace gown to seduce the cameras with its cold, alibaster glow. Brad Pitt wore the same tuxedo every other man wore. I won’t kid. Jolie looks truly ravishing, and we should appreciate her beauty, but something about the picture is a little bit more asymmetrical than her dress. It’s the perfect example of the schizophrenic attitude that women can’t expose as much of their bodies as men can, but should expose more of it than men should.

The tension between modesty and sexiness is greater for women than it is for men, at least in the West. If Brad had wanted, he could have gotten away with a wardrobe malfunction and exposed a nipple or two–hell, he could have exposed his whole chest for the world to see and the ladies (and some of the men) would have collapsed on the floor and swallowed up his sweat–but if Angelina had flashed her boobs or, heaven forbid, exited the limousine in a deliberately-designed topless gown (which would never happen), the police would have tackled her scrawny ass to the ground. Fashion critics would hold both Brad and Angelina culpable for being indecent if they exposed their nipples, but would hold Angelina more culpable. At the same time, though, they would hold Angelina more culpable if she exposed less skin than Brad. So, the woman can’t show as much as the man, but she should show more than he. It’s a finer line for her to tread.

This obviously isn’t fair. It’s a Catch-22 and a double standard. It’s a Catch-22 because it tells women that they should be modest and sexy, and it’s a double standard because it places this Catch-22 on women, but not on men. Women aren’t allowed to show their nipples in public (except maybe in British Columbia and Ontario), but they are expected to show more skin than men up to the nipple; meanwhile, men are allowed to show their nipples, but they are expected not to show as much skin as women. Now, you might say, “It’s the same difference. Women can’t show their nipples while men can, but men aren’t expected to show as much skin as women. So it all balances out”. But it doesn’t all balance out. The restrictions against men showing as much skin as women can doesn’t have legal consequences, but the restrictions against women showing as much skin as men can does. Men are socially criticised for showing as much skin as women are expected to show, but women are both socially criticised for showing less skin than men are expected to show and legally reprimanded (i.e. arrested) for showing as much skin as men can show. In short, women have to balance a finer line between appeasing social expectations of seductiveness on one hand, and meeting legal parameters of modesty on the other. That’s not right.

But the tension between the sexy and modest woman occurs on a global scale too. In some regions of Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Afghanistan, women are expected to wear veils such as the niqab, burqa (chadri), etc., and women are harassed by police for not donning these garments appropriately. In countries like Britain and the Netherlands, however, magazine racks and television shows are filled with bulging cleavages and glistening thighs, and in countries like France the authorities might actually penalise women for wearing a veil they might otherwise be required to wear in, say, Saudi Arabia. When we compare countries with one another, then, the teeter-totter of modest-versus-sexy woman takes on a global perspective. It infects the world. The world itself simultaneously imposes chastity and desirability on women.

This is absolutely stupid. If we believe in fairness and equality, we can’t penalise women for showing as many body parts as men can, but expect them to show more than men, without being total assholes. It isn’t fair. And it isn’t valid for Westerners to critique Muslim countries for covering their women in veils when Westerners rip women’s clothes off and paste the remaining bits on the covers of supermarket tabloids. It’s six of one, half-a-dozen of the other. What we should be doing is trying to strike a balance by telling women, “Hey, you can show your nipples if you want, but you don’t have to show more skin than men, either”, and telling men, “You can wear something sexier than grandpa shorts or 1930s women’s culottes to the beach. Start by wearing what every man in modern-day Europe wears. A bikini. You know. Like women.” I don’t expect to see Brad Pitt walking down the red carpet in a black velvet Versace gown any time soon–that kind of change takes centuries for men, apparently–but I do expect to see it happen sooner at home, at the beach, and even in the workplace. Surely Hollywood, being so progressive, will eventually follow.

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How I Outsmarted a Sexist Psychology Professor

14 12 2011

If there’s one thing I’ve learned getting to know university professors, it’s that pride is alive and well in academia, despite many claims to the contrary. I always expected such persons to be paragons of fairness and objectivity, but it turns out that they, too, harbour secret prejudices of their own—and sexism is no exception to this rule. I did, however, have the opportunity to turn the tables on one such individual, who thought he knew what he was talking about, but didn’t. Knowing at the outset that his facts were wrong, I graciously burdened myself with the task of correcting him on his assumptions on a topic which often goes unexamined—sexism in language.

(By the way, I must apologise to Nobel Prize-winning economist Leonid Hurwicz for using a photograph of him at the beginning of this article. I’m sure he isn’t a sexist old fogey; it’s just that he really looks like one! But he’s dead now anyway.)

Now, my friend is no dolt—he’s a professor of psychology at an eminent Canadian university—but he’s also an eccentric. He hails from Romania, loves opera and English literature, and pines for the days of the old British Empire, which, in relative terms, imposed a much gentler form of imperialism on its colonial subjects, or so he would say. “The British had an ideal behind their imperial mission–-to teach and to elevate benighted peoples”, is something he would say, “and they carried out this mission much more humanely than the Dutch, French, Spanish, or other European colonial powers.” Anyway, he sounds rather like Dracula and smokes like a chimney. And he’s gay. So he’s like a gay, chain-smoking Dracula. He comes across as sophisticated and quaintly nostalgic, but he has some rather ugly opinions—for they are certainly not facts—about feminists.

One of these opinions is that feminists don’t know what they’re talking about. You see, my friend once encountered a group of women in his milieu who complained that the word manhole was sexist because it contained the word man, but not woman. But, he argued, feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist, because man derives from the Latin word manus, which means hand”, not “adult male human being”. So the feminists are just being angry, stupid women, he suggested.

Well, that’s just plain bullshit, as I soon showed him. It is what in diachronic linguistics (historical linguistics) we call “folk etymology”: derivation of a word from a false, popular, made-up origin. Anyway, what follows is the general sequence of exchanges we made, in which I disprove his argument and prove its irrational, sexist underpinnings. It is not to be taken verbatim; the quotations are actually paraphrases, not direct discourse, but they accurately reflect the logic behind the points made. And to make a distinction between speakers, I will refer to my friend as simply “Dracula”. Now be patient and closely follow the line of argument to see how I arrive at my conclusion.

“These feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist”, said Dracula. “It is not, because the man in manhole comes from the Latin word manus, which means ‘hand’, not ‘adult male human being’. It refers to people who labour with the hands.”

“But the feminists aren’t incorrect to call manhole sexist”, said I, “because the man in manhole doesn’t come from manus; it comes from the Old English word man, which does mean ‘adult male human being’ in our present-day usage. So, yes, the feminists do have reason to complain that words like manhole are sexist.”

“Brandon”, cooed Dracula in a thick yet articulate Romanian accent, “if you want to show that the word man doesn’t mean manus, you have to show that the English didn’t borrow man from Latin.”

“They didn’t.”

“But the Romans conquered the Anglo-Saxons, and conquered peoples borrow words from their conquerors. Hence, the Anglo-Saxons must have borrowed the word man from manus, the Latin word for ‘hand’.”

“That is incorrect. The Romans didn’t conquer the Anglo-Saxons; the Anglo-Saxons settled Britain after Rome left. The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 under Claudius. The people they conquered were Celtic, not Germanic. After a series of Anglo-Saxon and Irish raids, the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 to concentrate their legions on Rome in response to a massive siege there by the Visigoths, who attacked the city under the leadership of Alaric. It was only then that the Germanics had free rein to settle Britain en masse, and even then they only did so several decades later, beginning in 449, under Hengest and Horsa of the Jutes. This means that the Anglo-Saxons [the Germanic tribes in Britain] couldn’t have borrowed man from a ruling Roman elite. The Romans had left before the Anglo-Saxons could borrow anything from them. So, no, the feminists aren’t wrong about the etymology of man.”

“But, Brandon”, purred Dracula affectionately, “The Celts and the Germanics are the same people with the same language group, so when you say that the Romans conquered the Celts, you say that the Romans conquered the Germanics, too. Thus there was still a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans.”

“That’s just plain wrong”, said I, patiently. “The Celts and Germanics are two totally different peoples with two totally different language groups. Look at any Proto-Indo-European Language Family tree. Italic (from which Latin is derived), Germanic (from which Old English is derived), and Celtic (from which Welsh and Irish are derived) are linguistic sisters. Germanic is no more closely related to Celtic than it is to Latin itself, the language you incorrectly purported as the donor language to the Germanics. They’re all equally distinct. The Celts spoke Celtic languages when the Romans arrived, and the Anglo-Saxons spoke Germanic languages after the Romans left. So, no, there was not a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans, and, yes, the feminists are correct in analyzing man as meaning a type of ‘person’, and not ‘hand’.”

To be honest, I was thinking to myself, “Girl, you’ve got your chronology backwards.”

“Besides”, I continued, “words aren’t borrowed just because they come from a conquering culture; they’re borrowed because they represent something special, hence prestigious, about the conquering culture. The English didn’t borrow the word ‘chicken’ or ‘goose’ from the invading French, because chickens and geese were common to the English; poor English people ate fowl, too. But they did borrow the words for pork, beef, and venison from the French [cf. French porc, boeuf, venaison], because these words respresented something special, hence prestigious, about the invading culture. Only the invading French could afford to eat these choice meats. However, ‘man’ was a concept common to both the invading French and the English, just like ‘finger’ or ‘hair’, so the English didn’t bother borrowing this word from the French. So, again, no, man wasn’t borrowed from an invading culture, and the feminists are right about its etymology.”

Here Dracula sat for a moment, truly puzzled, then drew a copy of Roget’s Dictionary [Please, really? At least obtain a fresh copy of the Oxford English Dictionary] from his mammoth, heaving bookshelf, breaking it open on his dining table next to a glass of rosé and a thick stack of fresh cigarettes. Scanning the pages intently between puffs of smoke, he told me he would find out once and for all the etymological root of man, and how it proved that the feminists didn’t know what they were talking about. Ultimately, though, all he found was a derivation which stated that the origin of man was OE, or Old English. Not Latin.

“Drat!” he seemed to be thinking behind his cigarette, his brow furrowed in deep cogitation. Even then he was wrong, and the feminists were right. And so he slowly slouched back in his chair and puffed on his cigarette, still staring at the page in the dictionary, whilst I politely summarized my argument against him. We eventually drifted off into other topics of conversation, but I think we both left with an understanding that his analysis of the feminists he encountered, and perhaps women in general, was wrong. If this one person can be so deliberately remiss about sexism in language, just tally up all the other culprits. I think that what we’re seeing here is a form of academic hubris which seeks comfort inside its own stubborn, old-fashioned shell, but which hurts girls and boys in the real world of today by promulgating snobbish, stupid myths about women.