Saturday, April 27, 2013

MasterChef Offers a Slice of Sexism

This article was published in today's Age newspaper.

We don’t switch to reality television when we want to expand our minds, but their frivolous pleasures do not mean that these shows are beyond criticism and public debate. In the past week, the teaser promotion for the new series of MasterChef Australia has drawn international attention for its sexism.

The offending ad pitches the upcoming series of the cooking program as a battle of a sexes, with the infantilising title of “Boys vs Girls”. The contestants are segregated on pastel gender lines with the women wearing pink and the men blue.

A volley of stereotypes relating to women’s and men’s respective abilities are traded as the teams trash talk. Women are “better at presentation”, for instance, because they’re “used to grooming” themselves. While the quality that “all the top chefs in the world” share is that “they’re all men”.  The women face off against the men raising their pink oven mitts like boxing gloves, while the men wield baguettes like batons.

Yet the repeated national broadcast of limiting views that suggest women are naturally suited to tirelessly producing meals for the family while men are destined to elevate cooking to a sophisticated art form has been defended by some online commentators. Indeed, the counter-response to criticisms of the MasterChef ad shows just how complicated it has become to critique sexism in popular culture.

From both within and outside the feminist cause, we are told to ignore the reinforcement of sexist attitudes in the media because there are more worthy battles to fight. Proponents of this argument point to violence against women and female poverty as “real” causes to which outrage should be more rightly directed. Last month, for instance, Helen Razer described the Destroy the Joint feminist social media movement as a kind of “dessicated...masturbation”. She argued that such campaigns about sexism in popular culture mean  that “we are spending our climaxes in tiny online moments when, really they are due elsewhere...”

Another common argument, which has been used frequently in support of the MasterChef ad, is that sexism sometimes arrives in the form of harmless jokes. Maudlin feminists are simply barging in to interrupt good-natured humour as self-appointed fun police. For those who subscribe to this view, there are innate gender differences that mean that men are incapable of doing two things at once (“A woman can multi-task”) and that women cannot complete most endeavours as well as a man (“When a man puts his mind to a job, it always turns out better”), and hilarity ensues from pointing out these fundamental truths.

Nevertheless, it is crucial not to separate the worst outcomes of sexist societies, such as violence against women, from the cultural ideas we take for granted that support them. The widespread propagation of ideas that women are inherently inferior and are primarily valuable because of their appearance and ability to perform domestic work contributes to the existence of the “more important” problems confronting women. While we need to agitate for political change to continue the process of lobbying for substantive equality in the workplace, reproductive rights and protection from violence and poverty, these victories will only come alongside transformations in how men and women are understood by our society.

This is not to say that MasterChef’s Stepford wives dancing with shopping trolleys have a direct impact on the treatment of women. Yet the continued acceptance of gender stereotypes as fact, and even as subjects of amusement, continues to imprint the belief that gender inequality is the result of natural differences rather than discrimination. An ad that was humorously playing with these stereotypes, rather than reinforcing them, might show a male contestant alongside a tiered stand of delicately iced cupcakes or would depict a woman bringing her tongs into the sacred realm of the masculine barbeque. Instead MasterChef gives us the uncomplicated view that biology determines whether we can bake or char-grill.

The show promises entry into an industry in which the majority of chefs are male for various reasons, including the incompatibility of restaurant working hours with the family responsibilities that primarily fall to women. The male hosts and judges are the resident experts on the profession.

One of the female contestants on the sexist ad spuriously claims that “the average woman cooks over 1,000 meals per year” in the home. Yet we understand that this kind of cooking is not regarded with the same esteem. Two of last year’s female “Professionals” contestants were repeatedly relegated to dessert duties, though they were not specialists in this area, while men took command of the mains, showing the entrenched view that a man’s work “always turns out better”. With real-world discrimination against women in professional kitchens, as in other prestigious male-dominated industries, MasterChef’s decision to exploit baseless gender stereotypes is thoughtless rather than entertaining.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Women Lost in the Academy: Why We Need Gender Studies

The following article was published at The Conversation on 17 April 2013.
It is sad to see perceptions in the article comments that Gender Studies must involve hatred of men or that it is irrelevant as an area of study if it does not extensively focus on men. Sadly, I think such views on a site that attracts educated readers provides even more conclusive evidence for why Gender Studies is needed in universities and beyond.

In his response to the Steubenville rape case, musician Henry Rollins suggested that women’s studies should be incorporated into high school curricula. Rollins proposed that if young people were to understand that women, as war heroes, politicians, writers and revolutionaries, “have been kicking ass in high threat conditions for ages” that it would help to improve respect for women.

As we express outrage at rape culture and other manifestations of misogyny in a supposedly “postfeminist” age, it makes sense to support the study of gender in classrooms. In this context, it is astounding to see Australia’s universities dismantling their gender studies majors.

The University of Queensland houses a 41 year-old gender studies program. It plans to discontinue its undergraduate major from 2014. This will mean the loss of the last gender studies major in the state. Students at the university have planned a rally to protest the decision.The program itself, as at many universities, has no dedicated staff member. It relies on committed staff in disciplines including history, English and philosophy to teach subjects within the major.

This year has already seen the elimination of the gender studies major at the University of Wollongong. In 2012, La Trobe University began to restructure its Arts faculty, and gender, sexuality and diversity studies was targeted for discontinuation and inspired significant student protest.

The University of Melbourne abandoned its gender studies major in 2008. In response to continued student interest, a new gender studies lecturer was appointed in 2011 and the major was recently reinstated.

Overall, however, the trend toward the reduction of the number of majors within Arts degrees is endangering the formal existence of gender studies within Australian universities.

Enrolments for subjects in these programs are healthy, but the number of students who undertake gender studies majors are usually small. More than 80 students are currently enrolled in UQ’s introductory gender studies subject. Yet Executive Dean of Arts Fred D’Agostino justified the program’s axing because only 13 students have declared a gender studies major this year. Despite the phasing out of gender studies at Honours level in 2005, the students are committed to the major.

D’Agostino maintains that “most” gender studies subjects will continue to be offered at UQ. The primary difference is that students will no longer graduate with a gender studies major and their ability to pursue postgraduate research in the area at other institutions will be compromised.

If the subjects will continue to be taught, what are the savings that the removal of the major will generate? The price is the erasure of an important, interdisciplinary field. Nevertheless, the gradual dissolution of gender studies programs cannot be viewed purely as economic or demand-based decisions.

These courses arose out of the women’s movement in the early 1970s. They were sparked by activism for women’s rights and aimed to counter and critique the heavy male orientation of academic disciplines. In many instances, battles were fought to launch the study of women and feminist scholarship as legitimate areas of inquiry.

Activist and academic Merle Thornton taught the first women’s studies subject at UQ in 1972, establishing the program with Professor Carole Ferrier in the following year. It was as much of a challenge to the status quo as when Thornton chained herself to the bar of Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel with Rosalie Bogner in 1965 to protest women’s exclusion from public bars.

When a women’s studies course was put forward at a Humanities Board meeting at Flinders University in 1972, it was mocked. A Spanish Professor circulated a joke proposal among the male members of the Board for a course on “The Philosophical, Social, Sexual and Artistic Transcendency of Tauromachy [bullfighting]”. It belittled the very concept of the women’s studies bid.

Universities often suggest that the pioneering feminist scholars who initiated these courses have been so successful that “gender” is now integral to most subjects. Clearly there have been transformations in Australian society and university culture since the 1970s. However, simply because English departments, for example, no longer set entire courses devoid of women writers, it does not obviate the need for a distinct space for a focus on gender in the academy.

Today we grapple with the continued realities of misogyny and sexism even though our nation has achieved formal gender equality. Now is not the time to dismantle the courses that help us to understand how gender impacts upon us all.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Scary Fairy Stories: The Gruesome History of Fairy Tales

Walter Crane, Beauty and the Beast (1874)
A few months ago, I was invited by ABC Melbourne's Libbi Gorr to record five short segments on fairy tales. The aim was to talk about how earlier versions of the tales, prior to their revision for children in the nineteenth century, had more salacious and gruesome origins than most people know about from their own childhood reading.

I gathered together some of the most fascinating and unusual elements of some of the most popular tales as they have been told and recorded across time and place. The five "Scary Fairy Stories" that I discussed were Beauty and the Beast, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella.