Tag Archives: feminist

How Smiling Became A Feminist Issue (For Terrible Reasons)

smilingispowerful

What would you think of someone who randomly walked up to you, sensed you looked sad, and suggested something that is scientifically proven to make you feel better? The person doesn’t force it on you. They don’t offer their advice to be smug or facetious. They just see a fellow human in distress and offer to help. By nearly every measure, the person is being a compassionate, decent human being.

Now, having contemplated that scenario, what would you think of a man who walked up to a woman and asked her to smile? While some might not see that as too big a deal, it has become a serious issue in recent years. It may not be the most absurd since it doesn’t involve Wonder Woman’s armpit hair, but it’s still up there.

The scenario I just described is something that, from a purely superficial level, may not seem controversial. Telling someone to smile, regardless of whether they’re a man or a woman, is not just an empty platitude. There is real, legitimate science behind it.

Research has shown that the mere act of smiling has many health benefits, such as improving mood, relieving stress, and strengthening immune function. To some extent, it helps rewire our brain in a way that directly combats depression, anxiety, and all sorts of ailments. It might be the easiest thing anyone can do to feel better. If it were a drug, it would be hailed as a medical breakthrough.

Why then has smiling become such a point of contention? While linking it to sexism is full of many absurdities, there are legitimate grievances that helped make this an issue. I know I’m going to upset people when I talk about this, but I believe it’s worth talking discussing, if only to preserve the benefits of smiling.

From the perspective of those protesting being told to smile, many of which identify as feminists or left-leaning, the issue isn’t about those aforementioned benefits. It’s about people telling them to be happy in a world where they don’t feel like equals. Considering how unequal things were for women throughout history, that’s an understandable sentiment.

Plenty of inequality lingers.

The situation for these women didn’t involve kind strangers walking up to them when they were sad and telling them to smile. It likely involved bosses, spouses, teachers, and various authority figures telling them to smile because frowning wasn’t lady-like. Even if you don’t consider yourself a feminist, it’s easy to see why that would seem condescending.

In some situations, it was even worse. In service jobs, which are often dominated by women, telling them to smile is like asking them to act as a billboard for an organization. They’re treated as a pretty face rather than a person. It’s the male equivalent of being treated as a cog in an assembly line.

That sort of treatment is dehumanizing and people, regardless of gender, resent that and for good reason. In that context, telling a woman to smile is no different than telling her to just shut up and accept everything the way it is, no matter how much she resents it. While that’s rarely the intent, that’s the interpretation.

Most reasonable people can and do acknowledge the sentiments that women feel in those situations. Nobody likes being told to just smile and accept your misery. However, the issue descends into absurdity when telling someone to smile is famed as a byproduct of sexism. It effectively politicizes the very concept of smiling.

As a result, it fosters this idea that a woman cannot smile and be feminist. It’s an idea that has become more mainstream in recent years. To see how, just Google “modern feminist” and look at the images that come up. Very few of the faces that come up are smiling. There’s no Rosie the Riveter. There’s only angry, outraged women yelling to the point where it’s a common meme.

This isn’t just an issue with respect to the popular perception of feminists. When it comes to faces, there’s a great deal of intrinsic biology and neuroscience at work. Seeing an angry face triggers a very different reaction compared to seeing a smiling face. Some of that reaction transcends even extends to other species.

There are also significant differences in how people react to smiling men compared to smiling women. The extent to which that difference is biological is not clear, but unlike many other behavioral traits, smiling is directly tied to many psychological and physiological forces. Tying smiling to ongoing debates about gender is one nobody can win. Like it or not, you can’t debate around biology.

Then, there’s the other side of the gender equation, specifically the one regarding the male perspective. While this perspective is less obvious, it does add some other complexities that often fall through the cracks during these arguments. This is where I can offer some perspective, as a man, because I can attest to this impact.

Whatever you think about the nature of masculinity, it’s a well-documented fact that male brains are wired differently compared to female brains. One of those differences stems from how we react to women in distress. Whether they’re angry or sad, seeing it can trigger that protective instinct that men often feel around women.

I can attest that this instinct is real. A few years back, I was walking down the boardwalk at a beach. It was a loud, rowdy place in the middle of summer so there was plenty of noise. Then, out of nowhere, I heard this woman scream. Almost immediately, I turned towards it and I wasn’t the only one. Several other men, as well as a few women, took notice as well.

The woman had badly hurt herself on her bicycle. I’d rather not describe the injury so I’ll just say she couldn’t stand on her left leg. Thankfully, she was with a couple of friends and they immediately aided her. However, her cries caught the attention of plenty of men, most of them total strangers.

While some with more cynical attitudes may think of that reaction as white knighting, I can assure you it’s a real phenomenon. Men sensing a woman in distress evokes a reaction that stems directly from our natural inclination to form social bonds and protect others. Since women are the ones who bear the babies, we tend to give them extra scrutiny.

That’s not to say that a man telling a woman to smile is always an altruistic act. It doesn’t overlook the situations in which someone uses that rhetoric to denigrate women and make light of the issues they face. However, if the simple act of smiling becomes part of the line that divides feminists from misogynists, then the entire debate surrounding gender becomes obscure.

Telling a woman to smile is not the same as telling her to get back in the kitchen. In addition, making outrage the face of female empowerment won’t help in addressing legitimate issues. It’ll just frame every discussion as something hostile and unreasonable. No matter how legitimate the issues are, it’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion in that situation.

Objectively speaking, smiling is good for you, regardless of gender. It’s something I encourage everyone to do when they’re feeling upset, depressed, or angry. It’s a small gesture and one that doesn’t solve problem, in and of itself.

However, it can help your in many ways, especially if you’re hoping to connect with others in a way that ensures they’ll listen. There are many issues surrounding men, women, and gender that are worth discussing. Making the act of smiling a rallying cry for gender conflicts will only ensure that nobody succeeds in the long run.

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Why The Republic Of Gilead Would Fail (Spectacularly) In The Real World

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In recent years, there has been a great deal of dread among feminists, libertarians, and supporters of secular values in the United States. The country seems to be going down an authoritarian path. Traditions of liberty and personal freedom are under threat by a government that seems more inclined to micromanage peoples’ lives for their own benefit.

One path in particular is becoming a lot more prominent. That is the one that could lead the United States to a government like that of the Republic of Gilead, the repressive theocratic regime from Margaret Atwood’s novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In that system, gender politics are pushed to the utmost extreme. The freedom, equality, sex, and love that contemporary society enjoys doesn’t exist.

The reasons for these fears are many. The current state of gender politics has become heated with the rise of the anti-harassment movement and ongoing legal battles surrounding abortion access. During the protests surrounding upheavals on the Supreme Court, it was common to see female protesters dressed in the distinct garb from the “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Such protest has even spread to other countries.

The message is clear. People are worried that our society is inching closer to a world similar to the repressive gender politics of Gilead. I can certainly understand those concerns. While I’ve often criticized certain aspects of gender politics, I don’t deny the worry that many women feel about the current state of affairs.

That said, I believe the idea that the United States, or any western country for that matter, could descend into a state of gender apartheid like Gilead is absurd. While we should be concerned about the influence of religious extremism, even in the west, the chances of it ever gaining power on the level depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is precisely zero.

Even if a regime like it came to power, it wouldn’t just fail quickly. It would collapse so spectacularly that it would be a joke on par with the Emu War. Gilead is not this all-encompassing, overwhelming power on par with Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.” Atwood even implied at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that the regime was set to fall.

We’ve yet to hear that part of the story, but Atwood did announce that she’s working on a sequel. One way or another, Gilead’s days are numbered, even in the fanciful world that she created. Before then, I’d like to break down why the Republic of Gilead would be doomed if it ever attempted to set up shop in the real world.

If nothing else, I’d like to offer some perspective to those who fear that the state of gender politics is regressing. To those people, I share your concerns. However, I’m an optimist. I believe both feminists and men’s rights activists can and will find plenty of common ground on these issues in due time.

Even if they don’t, they can take comfort in knowing that Gilead, as both a philosophy and a system, is so flawed that dreading it is an exercise in hyperbole. There are still plenty of lessons to be learned from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but in terms of setting up a competent theocratic regime, it’s a perfect check-list on what not to do.


Reason #1: Establishing Gilead Would Collapse The Economy

One of the first things the Sons of Jacob did when they established Gilead was fire every woman from their job and effectively eliminate their legal rights. On top of it being an exercise in brutal oppression, it removed half the labor force from the economy. In 2010, there were approximately 123 million women in the workforce. Firing every one of them wouldn’t just cause a huge recession. It would destroy the economy at every level.

Even the most ardent anti-feminist would be badly hurt by a world where half the GDP just disappeared. Suddenly, the industries that everybody relies on just cease functioning. Baking, health care, technology, and basic services essentially collapse as both the labor pool and the consumer base disappears.

That means from the very beginning, Gilead would have to navigate the worst economic collapse in history. More often than not, governments that cause collapses or fail to recover from them don’t last very long. Even if the Sons of Jacob found a way to blame it on minorities, feminists, or other religions, they would still be on the hook for fixing things and doing so with half the labor force will be difficult, to say the least.

Beyond the logistics, destroying an entire economy as part of a religious crusade is going to piss off some very powerful people who were thriving in the current system. America, alone, has over 500 billionaires whose massive wealth would be threatened by such a collapse. People with those kinds of resources aren’t going to let Gilead succeed, even if they manage to seize power.


Reason #2: Micromanaging Peoples’ Lives Is Impossible (In The Long Run)

I’ve noted before that fascist systems have many fundamental flaws. There’s a reason why some of the most brutal, authoritarian regimes in history still ended up collapsing. In the long run, they find out the hard way that it’s just impossible to effectively manage the lives their citizens.

The Republic of Gilead is a lot like Big Brother in that it takes micromanaging to a ridiculous extreme. It doesn’t just have its own secret police to enforce a rigid caste system. Much of its governing philosophy relies on ensuring people stick to their roles and never deviate. Women do what the state requires them to do without question. Men do the same, right down to how they structure their families.

That system only works if human beings are like machines who never get bored doing the same thing over and over again for their entire lives. Since human beings are not like that, there’s no way that kind of society can remain functional in the long run. The fact that the boredom of solitary confinement drives people crazy is proof enough of that.

It still gets worse than that. In every revolution, there’s often a period of heavy solidarity when the people rally behind the new regime as the beginning of a new Utopian vision. This happened in the Russian Revolution and during the Cultural Revolution in Communist China. Unfortunately for Gilead, it came to power by brute, terrorizing force.

That means this government coming to power isn’t the will of the people. It’s just plain bullying and people tend to resent that sort of thing. Even the Iran Revolution had the good sense to rally the people. The Republic of Gilead didn’t bother with that. It’s hard to imagine that collapsing the economy and subjugating half the population at gunpoint will make them many friends.


Reason #3: Theocracies Are The Least Stable Forms Of Autocracies

Remember when a purely theocratic state managed to prosper without being located atop an ocean of valuable oil? I don’t either and there’s a good reason for that. When it comes to repressive authoritarian states, theocracies are the worst possible choice. That’s because by entwining government with religion, it’s also entwining itself with the various flaws of religion.

Big Brother didn’t bother with religion in “1984.” It didn’t have to because religion, for all intents and purposes, was obsolete. The authority of the state and the authority of a deity was the same thing. The Republic of Gilead doesn’t have that luxury. Their politics and theology is based on an extremely conservative form of Christianity.

While that may seem fine to the Pat Robertson’s of the world, it adds a whole host of complications to the mix. The Sons of Jacob justify their repressive actions by appealing to Christianity and the bible. That’s okay if every single person in the entire republic agrees on one single interpretation of a religion and its holy text. Unfortunately, that has never occurred in the history of humanity.

There are dozens upon dozens of denominations in Christianity. There are also fringe cults, radical sects, and even schisms within those groups. At most, Gilead could have a unified theology at the beginning, but as new generations come along, that unity will collapse.

People will inevitably disagree. Every side will claim God is with them and everyone else are heretics. This sort of thing has been happening with religion for centuries. It won’t stop in Gilead. At some point, someone is going to think they heard God tell them something else and no one will be able to convince them otherwise. When that happens, conflict will ensue.

That sort of conflict can be managed in a more secular dictatorship. When government and religion are entwined, though, it’s much harder to work around. Even if Gilead could survive an economic collapse and the logistics of micromanaging peoples’ lives, it’s very unlikely it’ll survive the never-ending onslaught of religious debates.


Reason #4: Gilead Would Be An Easy Target For Invasion

Whether you’ve read the book or only watched the TV show, it’s hard to tell what sort of geopolitics the Republic of Gilead deals with. There are a few hints that there are other countries who did not descend into theocratic repression. There are even some cases of refugees in neighboring areas where women still have their rights.

The existence of those neighbors is yet another complication that ensures Gilead won’t last long, no matter how much its leaders pray. It already created a huge refugee crisis when it took over a sovereign government by force. At the same time, it handicapped itself by collapsing its economy and relegating half its population to serve as baby factories. It’s not just a source of chaos. It’s an easy target.

Neither the book nor the show reveals much about Gilead’s military capabilities. Even if we assume they get their hands on nuclear weapons, they’re still vulnerable because other countries have them too. More importantly, they know how to operate and maintain them. Religious zealots are good at a lot of things, but science isn’t one of them.

In the same way creationists aren’t likely to understand quantum mechanics, an entire government run by religious extremists aren’t likely to manage advanced weaponry. As time goes on, their emphasis of religion over reality will undermine their ability to develop such weapons. Their secular neighbors will have no such qualms.

Letting Gilead endure with its religious extremism and gender oppression means establishing a precedent that most other countries don’t want. Seeing one country fall to such a violent overthrow would be jarring enough. The first reaction to every nearby country would be to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen to them. One of those steps could be overthrowing Gilead before one woman has to wear those goofy outfits.


Regardless of how you feel about “The Handmaid’s Tale” or where you stand in terms of gender politics, the book offers a powerful message. Like “1984,” it shows how bad things can get when extremism takes hold. Whether you’re a man, woman, or transgender, we have a lot more incentive to get along rather than fight one another. At the end of the day, that will ensure that Gilead remains nothing more than a flawed, fictional country.

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The Stigma Of Being Single (Especially If You’re A Man)

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Picture, for a moment, a single woman in her mid-30s with no kids. What’s the image that comes to mind? For most people, especially those who watch sitcoms or have seen one episode of “Sex In The City,” a certain narrative plays out that helps shape that picture.

The woman is probably not a supermodel, nor could she be mistaken for Sarah Jessica Parker. She probably has a stable career. She probably has her own money, a tight social circle, and a fair amount of independence. She likely has a few hobbies and passions outside her career. Even if she isn’t in a relationship, it’s easy to imagine her being happy with her situation.

The fact that she’s single wouldn’t raise many red flags. That said, there are some stigmas associated with being single at a certain age for women. There’s still this misguided notion that women who are single at that age have somehow come up short in life. Every woman has different reasons for being single. By and large, though, we tend to have sympathy for women who stay single.

Now, picture a single man in his mid-30s with no kids. What image comes to mind in that instance? Chances are it’s not the same as that picture you imagined of a single woman. A single man in his mid-30s probably won’t inspire mental pictures of Channing Tatum. Hell, it probably won’t even inspire pictures of Jonah Hill.

A single man in his mid-30s with no kids will likely raise more red flags than the woman. It’s not just that the man is struggling to forge a meaningful relationship. He’s not just unlucky in love. There’s something wrong with him. A man like that must be a creep to some extent. He must have some sort of shortcoming or deficiency that repulses the opposite sex.

Maybe he has unhealthy hobbies.

Maybe he has a short temper and abusive tendencies.

Maybe he’s just a lazy slob who doesn’t even try.

It’s still entirely possible that a single man in his 30s is just content being single. He doesn’t feel inclined to pursue a relationship at the moment. He’s healthy, relatively attractive, and contributes positively to society. He’s not opposed to being in a relationship, but not just for the sake of being with someone.

No matter how common that possibility is, though, that’s probably not the first assumption you would make if all you knew about a man was that he’s over 30 and single. Even though marriage rates are declining, there’s still a stigma associated with being single beyond a certain age. It exists for women and men, but the stigma is more pronounced for men.

There’s no getting around it. A single man in his mid-30s is going to evoke a different reaction. It’s not a double standard like some of the others I’ve cited. It’s just the byproduct of different expectations and assumptions. I know this better than most because I’m a single man in my mid-30s with no kids and I’ve witnessed some of these reactions.

It’s subtle, but noticeable. When I tell someone I’m single and in my 30s, I get this weird look. If the person doesn’t know me very well, I get the sense they’re a little concerned. Once they learn that about me, I suspect they think that’s creepy or odd. There have been times when I’ve seen people, mostly women, get uncomfortable when they learn I’m over 30 and single.

There was even one instance where a woman at a store asked if I was gay. That really caught me off-guard, but it was the first time when I really felt the stigma of being single. I laughed it off at the time and so did the woman. However, when I later recalled the incident, I felt genuinely anxious about my status. I worry that it will undermine my ability to find love in the future.

I’ve even seen it among relatives. While most of my family don’t make a big deal out of it, there are a few who express concern about me. They see my age and my relationship status as a problem to be solved. I can understand that sentiment. I even appreciate it because I know it comes from sincere concern. Even so, I still feel the stigma on some levels.

I know I’m not alone in that. As much progress as we’ve made in society, with respect to tolerating non-traditional relationships, there’s still this over-arching sentiment that being single is a deficiency. It’s not so much a choice as it is an excuse. When it’s less subtle, it can be downright demeaning. It takes many forms, but often carries similar themes.

Your standards are too high.

You’re not a desirable companion.

You’re too high-maintenance and clingy.

You’re past your prime.

You’ve got little to offer.

I’ve seen this levied at women and men. I know women who get very combative when someone tries to figure out why they’re not in a relationship after a certain age. I honestly don’t blame them, but I’ve seen those same women get plenty of sympathy. Even when they make excuses, men and women alike will offer them support when they need it.

As a man, though, I feel like I can’t get away with that. If I were as apprehensive as some of the women I’ve known, I wouldn’t get a lick of sympathy. If anything, I would be scorned. Men would look down at me as desperate and whiny. Woman would look down on me as pathetic and weak. None of those traits warrant much sympathy or support.

On some levels, I  understand why being single is stigmatized. For society to grow, it needs people to get together, forge close society bonds, and creature stable families. People who remain single aren’t contributing to that growth and stigma is just one way of incentivizing them to try harder, even if it creates distressing taboos.

I can also understand why the stigma is more pronounced in men. Like it or not, men tend to commit more crime. Men who lack the influence of a stabilizing relationship tend to cause more deviance and there’s even some research to back that up. It’s one of those instances where a particular prejudice has some statistics behind it.

However, statistics rarely tell the entire story. More often than not, they leave out critical details. In my case, the primary factor that has influenced my single status is a desire not to be with someone just for the sake of being with someone. I’ve seen more than one person fall into the trap of being with someone who is totally wrong for them, but stays with them to avoid being single.

I don’t want that for myself. I want any relationship I have, be it romantic or platonic, to be for the right reasons. Being single hasn’t made me feel more inclined to commit crime or do something deviant. It’s a reasonable choice that I made for myself and I don’t regret it. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating when other people make misguided assumptions about why I’m single.

I’ve met women who’ve made similar choices. I’ve also known plenty more who are single for different, but understandable reasons. They’re not selfish predators who are just holding out to marry a prince who will love them, cater to their every need, and be their personal pocketbook. There are women like that, but they’re the annoyingly loud exception and not the norm.

When it comes to being single, the lingering stigma feels like a very small battle in a much larger war involving gender, society, and politics. As a self-professed romantic, I’m all for encouraging people to find love and forge relationship. It’s a beautiful thing and I feel like that same stigma undermines the beauty.

On top of that, it shoves yet another wedge between men and women when we already have too many of those. We’ve steadily moved away from the notion that an unmarried woman at a certain age must either be a widow, a prostitute, or a nun. There’s still room for improvement, but we’re steadily making progress in empowering people to find their way, regardless of whether they’re single.

At the same time, a man remaining single is not prone to as much scrutiny as we’ve seen in in the past. There are still assumptions and anxieties that are uniquely associated with single men. Regardless of whether single men or single women have it worse, I feel as though one part of the stigma is being addressed while the other is being overlooked.

Like it or not, this is going to be an increasingly relevant issue. As women stay single for longer, there are going to be more single men. That’s just basic math. The desire to find someone special won’t go away anytime soon. The stigma is just making it more difficult and a lot less romantic.

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