Friday, October 31, 2014

A More Serious Commentary, Inspired by TV

[Tomorrow we'll be back to beauty, with a review of Sweet Anthem's Winter 2014 Lineup.]

Last night's Big Bang Theory "The Misinterpretation Agitation" (don't worry, no major spoilers, but I will talk about some of the events in the episode) broached the subject of female scientists and whether they should be "allowed" to consider themselves physically feminine and beautiful (Bernadette was approached about featuring in a "sexy scientists" magazine feature). It wasn't an issue that was resolved, and ended up being a throwaway subplot (disappointing), but it at least brought the subject up for discussion. I hope people are discussing it. I'm going to.

Amy argued that female scientists shouldn't be objectified or lauded for their physical appearance, but only for their achievements in their field and their intellectual pursuits. Bernadette acknowledged that point, but also suggested that publicity and a spotlight on women in science is also important. And, she asks, "Why can't we be smart and pretty?" ("Pretty" and its suggestion about standards of aesthetic beauty are irrelevant to me here; I take it to mean having an interest in one's physical appearance, as, say, any woman who puts on lipstick, or combs her hair. Basically, that's a lot of people.)

I wanted the rest of the episode to find an answer, or at least continue to address it, but it doesn't. S and I talked about it, anyway. On the one hand, I agree with Amy. She makes the point that a magazine wouldn't feature "men in science" in swimsuits or cocktail wear.

But on the other hand, why should women who choose to work in science (or any field, and in academia especially) be forced to adopt either a sterile or a stereotypically "masculine" mode of attire/attitude/personality? We shouldn't have to pretend to be men, even to be accepted in what was - and still largely is - a male-dominated field (how long is that excuse going to hold, anyway? Women were underrepresented in many fields, because they weren't allowed to go to universities or cut open cadavers or pursue interests outside of domestic concerns. That's no longer the case, and this is ridiculous).

And it's not only men who think so, by the way, and this isn't a phenomenon reserved for nerdy scientists. I just read this article on The Guardian about a female professor of ancient religion, who relates the same experiences. She's told (by colleagues and authorities of both genders) to wear unassuming genderless suits and no dresses, to get rid of her long hair and higher heels - basically anything that is considered overtly feminine. She should not create anything noticeable about herself to "distract" from her work. Men, of course, don't have the same rules cast at them. They can show up (and frequently do) to conferences and lectures and professional dinners wearing clothing with holes, or shirts that are falling off or shirts that are too tight; they don't have to groom their hair/facial hair if they don't want to, they don't have to pick conservative colors of clothing, they don't have to wear a certain type of shoe.

To be clear, I do not believe that conforming to a certain standard of professionalism is the same as bowing to gender-based pressure. If an office requires business-professional dress (within reason - there are confusing issues here, too, but that's not my focus at the moment, and I have less experience with traditional office-type workplaces), then that's what is required. When I worked in retail as a college student, we were required to dress in certain colors, with a minimal amount of skin exposed (for both men and women), and that was fine with me.

Of course, a fair amount of men don't hold this double standard, and I'm not railing out against men in particular, or of a certain age group. But I'm disappointed that a show with a platform as large as The Big Bang Theory didn't make an effort to contribute to a positive change in this area. Of course, there are perhaps more than a few things that the show gets wrong or glazes over (like the gross objectification of women, in general, or the rest of last night's episode where the guys fanboy over Billy Bob Thornton as essentially Penny's stalker), and I'm not saying I'm boycotting or going to enjoy it any less, on average. We need our comedies and our escapisms, like my blog. But, well, I'm always going to be a feminist - I can't just turn it off, nor do I want to - so I'm going to talk about issues that arise, especially if they occur in pop culture where a larger group of the population becomes part of the experience.

Now: I want to hear what you think. What have your experiences been? Where do you fall between Bernadette & Amy on this issue?