Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Two battles that have been fought, won, and forgotten

I was accused of being something I’ve fought all my life against; a sexist. It came from an off the cuff comment that was more a product of fact than chauvinism, but for a female aerospace engineer, I was rather shocked by the accusation. While at the orthodontist the female hygienist had to take some glue off my teeth with a drill. I joked with her that I hated the drill and when asked why I replied “There’s a woman standing over me with a drill in her hand”. Had it been a male doing the same job, I would have said “man” and “he”, but the fact of the matter is, she is a woman. The politically correct approach would have been to say “person” but are we all that anal retentive that non gender-neutral speech needs to be interpreted as sexist? Perhaps the years of engineering school have dulled my senses against gender issues but my insensitivity has forced me to think. I have taken a look at two battles that I, a free woman in the Western world, have taken advantage of, and forgotten. The first battle is for our democracy that enabled us to win the second battle for equal rights.

During my travels across Western Europe, I took a tour of Ypres (Ieper) with handkerchief in hand. I shed some silent tears as I passed by the bunkers in Flanders Fields where John McCrae wrote his now famous poem. Now that the hurly-burly’s done and the battle’s fought and won, we have forgotten what the battles were won for. My heart felt sunken when I saw the graves of those brave young men; boys really, who were looking for adventure away from the monotony of home. A young boy died in the Great War when he was only 14. What saddened me most was not that these young men died. We all die, it is a matter when and how, not if. The saddest fact of all is that few of these young boys knew what they were fighting (and dying) for. I am not sure what they were fighting and dying for. Our history teachers tell us that they fought for our freedom, our history suggests otherwise. The Second World War was no doubt fighting against oppression and persecution. The Great War was fought in the name of revenge. How would the world have been different if the “War to end all Wars” never happened in the first place? For starters we would likely have never heard of Adolf Hitler.

Do I believe the world is a better place because the Allies won WWI? Absolutely. What they did was bring about the fall of the traditional monarchies and usher in a new paradigm of democracy. Decisions affecting a country were no longer in the hands of a single person (at least in the Western World). War could not be declared out of a single man’s rage… it would take the rage of a country. We who live in the free world forget that millions of men and boys died for our democracy. This is the first forgotten battle.

The second battle concerns women in particular. For years women have been fighting this uphill battle against sexism. We fought for our right to vote, to own property, and for equal pay. We fought for everything that men have and we didn’t. Right now things are pretty good. You can’t help but run into the odd chauvinist but you can’t expect society to transform overnight. The crusty old men who still want their women in bare feet will die off soon enough as education takes over. I cannot speak for less fortunate women in tribal countries but women in this part of the world have all the rights and obligations of their male counterparts.

When I was growing up, feminism was past its prime. Rather than focusing on real issues about equality, the feminists gave feminism a bad name by demanding women have MORE rights than men. We wanted female fire fighters who should be able to by-pass the standard physical tests, we wanted quotas on female employment causing sub-substandard candidates to be hired causing even more outrage against women. The backlash started when the female language police labelled every man a sexist who used “he” rather than “she/he”. Feminism had gone from fighting for our rights to fighting for semantics. Perhaps we had run out of things noble enough to fight for so we chose to focus our energies on petty things. Whatever the cause, those that blemished feminism cast a shadow over the real heroes who had won us basic rights and obligations.

My hygienist is a quite a bit older than I am and I have forgotten that path that women of her generation paved for us in equal rights. There was a time when gender-neutral speech was very important as a stepping-stone towards equality. Now is a time when we must deal with our language as archaic and its chauvinism is hereditary. It will take many more years for language to evolve. Let’s focus on issues beyond political correctness and fight the larger battle of winning equal rights for all women. I’m sorry I forgot your battles but its time to build on those victories for women everywhere.

I pay tribute to the men of the Great War and the women of equality. You have enabled me to live with freedom and fairness. Thank you.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Will Smith's Wasted Potential

Travelling is a fun way to expand your horizons. Those of you fortunate enough to travel should take the opportunity to meet people and get a taste for how the rest of the world lives and thinks. What is more you will have many stereotypes of places and peoples broken as you encounter them and in turn you may break a few stereotypes that people have of us.

While waiting for the laundry to dry at an Italian Laundromat I watched an Italian version of MTV. It was either watch my laundry spin or watch music videos for an hour; I opted for the latter. For some reason, every song was in English and specifically out of America with the exception of Geri Halliwell having a fantasy of sleeping with her boss. I already knew that media had the power to influence, but it was not until now that I finally grasped the power of the same media to portray stereotypes and reinforce them to the world. I suppose it was naive to think that music videos made in America stayed in North America. What I have to say next is purely race related as opposed to racist, if you have a problem with that, stop reading.

I had the misfortune at the Laundromat of seeing Will Smith's new video. Here is a man who is talented, successful, and has the power to influence young black Americans (white ones too for that matter but we will not focus on that here). Will Smith is an Oscar nominated actor, he is the first actor to break the mould of a black American actor (he was given parts written for a Hero (MIB, Independence Day) as opposed to a black person). Swarms of young Americans look up to him as a role model and a hero. Here in Italy I saw the same man don a sideways baseball cap dancing to some tune that spoke of female bodies like you would an ornament. One of the most socially influential people in America reduced himself to smacking butts of hot dancers to sell a few albums. I expected this of P. Diddy, not Will Smith. Will Smith had risen above all of that and painted himself a portrait befitting of the upper echelons of society. Will Smith had a power to influence the social behaviour of black America. Rather than walking the high ground and forging new territories for Black Americans like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, Will Smith actively embraced negative black stereotypes to sell albums around the world.

I feel sadness for not only the wasted potential of such a talented musician/actor who could have been a powerful catalyst of change but also for young black women in American who will continue to be victimized as a by-product of social behaviour.

Will Smith made music to appeal to a particular socio-economic group in America. His music encourages what they do and reinforces objectification of women. What Will might not have known is that in Italy, he paints a nasty picture of America. That Black American stereotype has been instilled by images of Will dancing with almost naked women. In Will Smith I see a man with the power to change society for the better, but the courage only to run back to where he came from.