Friday, March 6, 2015

American Sexist

This is a post for everyone who thinks that a lot of commentary about women's issues and everyday sexism in Taiwan (as this is, after all, a Taiwan-focused blog) are somehow unique to Taiwan or unique to Asia. "Taiwanese culture infantilizes women", they might say, or "In Taiwan women are expected to be very feminine, and they really don't like masculine things - that's why all the clothing and other items they buy are so girly".

Which, there's a speck of truth to that. I wouldn't go so far as to say women are "infantilized" in Taiwan (I know enough women who are, say, the general managers of investment company offices, who are senior executives or who basically run their family businesses, enough tomboys and women who simply aren't that feminine, enough rebels, athletes and artistic types to know that that is something of an exaggeration) but there does seem to be a cultural tendency to expect greater "femininity". Most stereotypes, after all, build bullshit around a kernel of truth.

What bothers me is the idea that this is somehow Asia-specific, Taiwan-specific, or has already been done away with in the Western countries that people who say this often a.) hail from and b.) praise.

I've been in the US for family reasons since December (it is now March, for those who read this post down the line). That's the longest amount of time I've spend in the US since the mid-aughts - 2006 to be precise. I was 26 when I left, and I feel I've grown and changed a lot since then - become more articulate in my support for, and reasons for supporting, feminist causes, for example. Behavior I put up with in male friends and boyfriends back then I would not put up with now, and I would be better able to articulate why.

So, this is the first time I've been around American cultural norms for an extended period since before my sense of feminist self fully formed - at least I think it's fully-formed at this point.  And you know what? Gender-pigeonholing and expecting 'femininity' is a huge problem here, as well. And yes, it is somewhat media-propagated, it's also socially propagated.

There's the Fifty Shades of Grey crap going around - since I've been back I've had at least one friend spend quite some time rhapsodizing the 'beauty' of a relationship where a significantly younger woman goes against her egalitarian beliefs and lets herself be dominated, as per the wishes of her (barf) "inner goddess", a relationship I'd categorize as if not abusive, at least full of red flags and creepy behavior (this is not a commentary on dom-sub relationships, of which I know very little and have no firsthand experience - this is a commentary on the relationship in that book/movie/pile of trash).

Then there's shopping. As I shop for spring clothing, something I am happy to have the luxury of doing without a problem (that never happened in Taiwan), my sister and I have noted several times that the clothing and t-shirts available for men are much cooler and more unique than those available for women. Some examples from Target:

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Choices for women: yawn. They're cute, but boring. Totally fine as one aspect of a wardrobe, and would be fine if more fun choices were available - but the only fun choices are super feminine:

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So, the men get Game of Thrones sigils and Star Wars t-shirts, and we get "SINGLE"? Yuck.

There were t-shirts for sports teams - most of which seemed to include the word "Swag".

The men's t-shirts were much more interesting: 

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I personally would want "Omnomnomnivore" from that group.

So, we've been shopping in the men's section. I got fuzzy Batman pajama pants, Boba Fett pajama pants, a Sriracha t-shirt, and I almost bought a Star Trek t-shirt but decided against it as the last movie was so damn bad. You can get t-shirts for everything from Guiness to The Big Bang Theory to A Song of Ice and Fire. I'll have to get all the t-shirts altered.

I asked if any of these were available in the women's section. Nope. For women? Boooyyyss, we're single! 

Do they think women just don't like sci-fi, Game of Thrones or delicious, delicious Sriracha? I like all of those things. What makes them think that a woman wouldn't love a pair of fuzzy Batman pajama pants or a baby Iron Man t-shirt or a Darth Vader sugar skull t-shirt? All of which I would totally wear. I would not wear Snoopy sporting a pink bow or anything that says "swag", "cute", "kiss me" or whatever on it. Also, no sparkles please.

I've also been watching an inordinate amount of TV, simply because it's quite novel to have a lot of channels to choose from in my native language. I've become strangely obsessed with Ellen's Design Challenge (I just love cool furniture I suppose), but was put off by the judges saying repeatedly that "women" would not like one designer's items. Here's an example of an item that is "masculine" and that "every man" would want in their home but hardly any women would buy (very close to what was actually said.

Both my sister and I were put off by this - I freaking love this fan...thing (it's a credenza, right?). I would TOTALLY buy that. I would probably never buy the more 'feminine' designs thought up by other designers. I happened to love this guy's "masculine" work - I'm all about interesting metals, industrial details and thick natural woods*. 

I wouldn't go so far as to say I was pissed at how the show categorized these designs as "for men", but it, along with the "now we shop in the men's section at Target" experience, has really made me think about whether the US is really better at all in terms of socially-conditioned gender stereotyping than Taiwan.

Sure, women in the US, at least my part of the US, get less blowback for expressing our not-always-feminine preferences and sensibilities, and in Taiwan a lot of women complain that they do. But I'm from the People's Republic of New York where we are all Communists, pornographers, homosexuals and Jews - I would wager that in other parts of the country it's much worse. And you won't see as many instances of Hello Kitty figurine collection or anything like that.

But really, I'm not even particularly anti-feminine - if even I, not the least feminine person you will meet (although certainly not the most) feels pigeonholed, like "this is for girls, that is for boys" in the USA, if even I feel like I have to shop in the men's section of Target to get cool t-shirts and get irritated at a TV show for implying that women don't like things that women obviously do like, as I'm a woman and I like them, then maybe we are not as progressive as we think, maybe Taiwan isn't so much worse or so much more sexist than we think, and maybe we need to get off our high horses about what it's like 'back home'.

Women still get a raw deal here, too.

*shut up


Unknown said...

The bad news is things have gotten worse here in the States, or at least I've grown to a point where it is impossible to ignore them (I do spend much of my time in the rural US). With "man caves" and "bro" this and "bro" that, the gender stereotypes are pervasive and from the morning news to the evening sitcoms are oft repeated. So yeah in the grand scheme of things the US is in no way above Taiwan.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

So true. I focus on gender stereotypes that affect women directly as I'm female, but gender stereotyping in no way is specific to women. If anything, in some ways the US pigeonholes their men more than Taiwan, which I think is one reason why American men often say dumb things like "Taiwanese men are effeminate!" No, they're just not subject to the same ridiculous gender stereotypes you are. (They have their own gender stereotypes to deal with, but they're different).