On becoming Birkin and letting go of Gainsbourg

Sep 27 2010 Published by under From the Melodye Files

The attitude of defiance of many American women proves that they are haunted by a sense of their femininity. In truth, to go for a walk with one’s eyes open is enough to demonstrate that humanity is divided into two classes of individuals whose clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, gaits, interests, and occupations are manifestly different. Perhaps these differences are superficial, perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that they do most obviously exist.  --Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

As a scientist, I take seriously the idea that our expectations about the world shape not only our understanding and perception of it, but our engagement with it. Here, I muse on the implications this has both for how we perceive successful women in society, and how our expectations may shape the course and outcome of their achievement.

A Coincidence

Last week, I had the pleasure of reading an article in the NY Times on the social construction of gender in Afghanistan ("Facing Social Pressures, Families Disguise Girls as Boys in Afghanistan"). The article is even keeled, clear headed, and steers clear of cheap rhetoric and easy pathos. It is not especially about the "plight" of women in Afghanistan or the Muslim world at large; nor is it an argument about the (debatable) contributions of biology and culture to gender. It is not a cross-cultural comparison and makes little in the way of 'moral' pronouncements. It is not a feminist tract.

Instead, what it is, is a subtle narrative-look at the effect that taking on a different gender role has on individuals in a culture that defines them starkly. In some girls, this results in gender dysphoria. In others, empowerment. Still others resent the role they must play for their families (and think of acting as a boy as very much an 'act'). In all of this, I liked that the author did not search for easy answers or conclusions about "what this should tell us," which may well have cheapened the impact of such lyric storytelling.

But -- this brings me to an altogether different point.  Last week, I also (coincidentally) received in the mail the latest "Great Courses" catalog from The Teaching Company. The company puts out audio CDs and DVDs of top-notch college professors delivering entertaining introductory courses across a variety of disciplines, ranging from music to mathematics. These are no where near as rigorous as any intro-class I've ever taken, but they're far more informative and comprehensive than your average radio show or TV program. And for as long as I can remember, my dad -- who has a two hour commute to work everyday -- has been a subscriber to their audio courses (which I've been all too happy to poach when he's done). In any case, this last week's catalog happened to have a 70%-off sale on the company's "Top Professors." As I flipped through it -- excited to see what I could order next -- I realized that every single one of the top professors was male.

"Really?" I thought. Every single one? Curious, I went to the Teaching Company's website and pulled up a list of all the professors they had, and counted the ladies. Out of the 188 professors, there were 13; or just less than seven percent.

Was this sexism -- or merely a reflection of competence?

As I thought back over my years at university, I tried to recall my favorite professors. There was Brett -- Lanier -- Josh -- Robert -- Paul -- Eric -- James (what women had I even taken classes from? Oh, now I remembered. I'd hated those classes! Or dropped them).

The only classes with women I remember enjoying were my advanced French classes. Both women were graduate students from Paris, spoke poor English and chain-smoked before classes, and one of them -- whom I was vaguely in love with -- wore transparent slips and lingerie to class, and made us take lessons on the grassy fields outside the library, while she drank spritzers and talked philosophy. Yes, that had been acceptable. But none of the others! I didn't respect many of the female professors intellectually -- they didn't seem as smart or as capable as the males, and very few of them taught graduate classes in my area.

Why, why, why? I wondered.

Why were there far fewer female professors (both adjunct and tenure-track)?  And why were the ones in positions of power less famous, less published, and less popular in the classroom?

Answers to this could fill several volumes.  But one thing I've been thinking quite a lot on lately is the dual importance both of developing a female model of what it is to be powerful, influential, and competent, and of changing our own expectations about what that model should like.

Speaking French like a Frenchman

Oddly enough Alex -- one of my younger brothers -- is a poster-child for what can go wrong when you lack for an appropriately-gendered role model.

Though Alex is quite clever, he has never particularly enjoyed learning new languages -- and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he's never been the best at learning them either.  When, last year, he began taking introductory French at Berkeley, he asked to me to practice with him for an upcoming oral exam.  I picked a page from the chapter and quizzed him  at random -- "Qu'est-ce que tu voudrais manger?"  His response -- "Je n'ai pas faim" -- was technically correct (if not particularly polite), but sounded like it had been produced for a Chipmunks album.

I stopped.  "Why are you talking like that?"  "Like what?"  I pointed to the page and asked him to read me a couple more lines.  He said them, clearer this time, in a high, girlish voice, as if he were a drag queen rehearsing for a 'Paris Speaks' pageant. I bit my lip and tried not to laugh.  "Alex, honey, you sound like a girl."  He blushed, and dropped back to his normal speaking voice.  "I'm just -- I'm just trying to sound like my French teacher."

The problem was, of course, that he didn't have a model for what a male voice in French should sound like, so he patterned after the only model available to him: a female one.  Instead of simply adjusting his phonemic boundaries and effecting some nasals, he was also raising the pitch and changing the timbre of his voice to match hers.  Because he didn't have a good grasp on what French men sound like, he found it hard to separate out which part of what he was doing was accent and which part was gender-specific speech.

Speaking in French, he sounded like a breathless parody of  Jane Birkin.  We've got to fix this! I thought.. (and promptly put some Serge Gainsbourg on to spin).

Of course -- I'm hardly one to tease!

In my family, the way I talk is a bit of an ongoing joke.  My voice is husky and low; more Bacall than Monroe.  But when I talk to women or strangers (particularly on the phone), I unconsciously raise the register of my voice, so that I end up speaking several semitones higher than my natural pitch.  It's not simply the pitch that changes though -- my accent and inflections, the idioms, the way I laugh -- everything shifts towards 'feminine.'  I certainly don't mean to do it; and if not for my brothers' endless mocking, might never have noticed that I do.  Both boys claim it sounds unnatural and wholly unlike me, but I'm not so sure; outside of my family and closest friends, no one has ever called me on it.

Either way, the voice trick is hardly surprising.  Having been raised in an all-male household for most of my formative years, I never had an obvious model of what 'feminine' looked like.  This became embarrassingly apparent when I worked for a time as a model; while my body is just the right size and shape for catalog work, my posture and walk are anything but.  I was forever being told to "Stop standing like a boy!"  and asked, repeatedly, to position my shoulders and hips in a way that looked "more feminine."  Surely these were things I could have practiced -- I've been an athlete for most of my life, and the problem wasn't lack of coordination -- the thing was, none of these things had been modeled for me, and absolutely none of it came naturally.

Lacking for 'gender-appropriate' role models, both Alex and I have blustered our way through -- well, French, and life as an American girl, respectively.  I don't suffer from 'gender dysphoria,' not as defined in the medical textbooks anyway  -- but like some of the Afghani girls in the article, I had quite a lot of trouble post-adolescence figuring out how to dress as a woman; how to talk like a woman; and how to make (and keep) good female friends.  As a child, I had been far more interested in traditionally-male sports and climbing trees than I had been in dolls or ballet, and made boy friends accordingly.  And then as a skinny, motherless teenager -- who, in any case, hit adolescence way-late --  I wore my father's hand-me-downs, learned to swear and drink, and spent most of my time as the charity-literature-case with the science boys.

In the main, I was entirely oblivious to the idea that I might 'not fit in,' because -- to my mind -- I fit just fine.  For one, I was casual friends with many of the girls at school, and each morning, would quickly skim the online recaps for television shows so I could join in on lunchtime gossip.  The only problem was, I never actually saw any of the girls outside of school, and was bluffing all the values and interests I pretended to share with them.  The personality I adopted to socialize with girls was entirely fabricated -- and probably not all that convincing, given my boyish clothes, and my habit of wearing my hair short, or clipped in a tight ponytail, with no make-up.  Still, they put up with me, for reasons I have never quite understood.

The one peculiar habit I had then, which I tried -- without success -- to suppress, was that of following my boy friends' mothers and older sisters around, like a lovesick puppy.  "An older woman!" I would think.  "Perhaps she will like me and teach me how to be."

But this was not what fate had conspired for me.  It was not until I was eighteen that I could count a woman as a best friend; not until nineteen that I began to rework the way I dressed and wore heels for the first; not until twenty-one that I discovered conditioner and bought myself red lipstick and something resembling a purse.  On the whole, I did not think of this as 'selling out' or losing myself; instead I found myself instructed and immersed in a culture that had been heretofore remote : the culture of being female, in America.

This is, I'm sure, more biography than you bargained for.  By now though, I hope you've locked into the idea I've been toying with -- which is that the particulars of being female (or male, or any type of anything) in our culture, have to be modeled, at least in part.  Even being genetically female, I did not, in the absence of mothering, reinvent American femininity in all its guises.  I was female, surely, but not typically 'feminine'; not in my dress, my tastes, my habits, my voice, my writing, or anything else.  It was not something I learned until I was older, and by then, it hardly felt like native skin.  It was a 'putting on,' an adoption of appealing foreign customs that were, for all their attractions, irredeemably alien.  And it was (and still is) less a wholesale conversion than an artless form of personal theater.

Reading the story of the Afghani girls, I was struck by what happened to those who -- having adopted their freedom in male society -- were forced to revert and live again as women.  They felt, for the first, trapped.  Impotent.  They struggled to resign themselves to it (and some did not).

You might think there is nothing in America today that would "trap" a woman in such a way (or a man for that matter).  But I think this is a naive way of imagining the world.  Our language and our culture are steeped in expectations about what women are like; what they should become; how they should behave.  We carry these expectations with us -- in our language and our culture; in the books we write and the stories we tell; in the ways in which we instruct our daughters (and in the ways in which these are different from how we instruct our sons).

It is an invisible weight, surely, but a weight nonetheless; and one that cannot fail to transform us, as 'civilized' creatures.

(For even defiance addresses itself to what it would defy).

[To be continued...]

The Short List

Simone de Beauvoir, "Woman as Other"

Yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men; that is, their situation affords them fewer possibilities. The question is: should that state of affairs continue?

It is, in point of fact, a difficult matter for man to realize the extreme importance of social discriminations which seem outwardly insignificant but which produce in woman moral and intellectual effects so profound that they appear to spring from her original nature.

Kate Millet's "Theory of Sexual Politics"

Hannah Arendt has observed that government is upheld by power supported either through consent or imposed through violence. Conditioning to an ideology amounts to the former. Sexual politics obtains consent through the "socialisation" of both sexes to basic patriarchal polities with regard to temperament, role, and status. As to status, a pervasive assent to the prejudice of male superiority guarantees superior status in the male, inferior in the female. The first item, temperament, involves the formation of human personality along stereotyped lines of sex category ("masculine" and "feminine"), based on the needs and values of the dominant group and dictated by what its members cherish in themselves and find convenient in subordinates: aggression, intelligence, force, and efficacy in the male; passivity, ignorance, docility, "virtue," and ineffectuality in the female.

Barriers to Equality in Academia:  Women in Computer Science at MIT (1983, Scientific Report)

Like everyone else, women internalize the opinions of themselves that others express frequently. When people whose ability they respect, such as their advisors, continually undervalue their contributions and imply that they are incapable of succeeding, they come to believe this negative appraisal of themselves. This problem leads to a vicious circle: once a woman is made to feel incompetent, she is less likely to accomplish as much as if she had received the encouragement given to her male colleagues. Dealing with biased behavior takes time and energy. Women who are subjected to this kind of behavior have less of each to devote to their work.

22 responses so far

  • Udo says:

    Maybe it's a bad idea for every person to hinge their identity on gender roles. From experience, I believe that some people just fit naturally into the classical gender roles and looks, some others make a conscious decision to change (and do so quite successfully), but there's a third group of people who just don't fit into this scheme at all. Whenever they try to, they either fail outright or feel miserably phony.

    From time to time, I wanted to make an effort to fit in, myself. It just didn't feel right and I was really bad at it. Women still thought I was weird and men still thought I was gay, despite considerable effort and semi-professional acting on my part. So I finally just let it go. Now I'm just me, and I surround myself predominantly with people who also don't fit the classical stereotypes. It worked out great. There are so many other things that define a person.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Wow. This is a really powerful piece of writing, Melodye.

  • It is interesting that you perceive your own natural voice as non-feminine. I listened to a little bit of one of your podcasts with Jason, and I thought your voice did sound pretty feminine. In particular, your cadence and sentence stress (not sure if this is the right terminology) seemed feminine, for example with a change in tone/stress towards the end of each sentence that made it sound somewhat like a question rather than a statement. Maybe in the podcast you were adopting the voice pattern you said you use when you are around women?

    • melodye says:

      Yeah -- that would definitely be my 'feminine' voice. (The question pattern you noticed is characteristic of a kind of LA-girl speech).

      In terms of doing it for a science podcast, it's not clear whether it was a good 'tactic' or no (though in any case, I didn't have much control over it). I'm not sure that people take me as seriously when I talk like that. On the other hand, maybe they're more inclined to think I'm a decent, likable person?

      I talked to a friend about this some time ago, and he mentioned that I'm something of a vocal-chameleon anyway. After a couple of weeks in Scotland last summer, I could effectively mimic the inflection and idiomatic-speech of the people around me (and did, without actually adopting the accent). I do the same thing when I travel regionally within the states, and when I switch languages. I wouldn't say I'm exceptionally good at it, but I do it all the time, mostly without meaning to...

      Prof Plum's take, of course, would be that this is only natural and that everyone does it; it's a way of making myself more predictable to people I'm trying to communicate with (and better meeting their expectations). That makes sense when I switch accents, but it's kind of an interesting question of what expectations I'm trying to meet when I feminize my voice.

      • That statement-as-question pattern actually comes from Australia: I produced my first one in 1976 a few months after arriving here when I went into a Credit Union (a kind of c0-op bank) to borrow some money to fly my then fiance over for a visit and said:

        I've come in to ask for a loan?

        Both sexes do it although women more than men; it's typically used when people are a bit unsure of themselves.

        • melodye says:

          In my language (American English), it's often used in a joking (or ironic) manner . I know what you mean about how it's used by Aussis though! One of my friends was obsessed with 'So You Think You Can Dance' Australia, so I used to watch it with him, and I noticed that would happen sometimes during the post-dance interviews, particularly under stern questioning from the judges.

        • Grep Agni says:

          This prosody does not "acutally" come from Australia, or anywhere else in particular. It's reasonably common in widely scattered communities. For more than you ever wanted to know, search Language log for "uptalk". A good place to start is here.

          • Avery Andrews says:

            I'm not so sure of that, it was a very noticeable feature of Aussie English in the 70s that I noticed as different than American when I moved there. When I'm back down under I might be able to dig up a thesis about the Australian version of it, which might say something about its origins. I didn't notice anybody on LL citing serious work about its spread in the USA, although 'Tom' said that people in the UK blamed it on Australia and the USA.

  • Shecky R says:

    A tangent: Since you approach language study the same way I did in my college days, and given your interest in gender issues, I'm curious what your take is on something I've never been able to decide about:
    do you think that the widespread use of male terminology in such words as 'postman,' 'chairman,' 'freshman,' etc. etc. is a subtle problem at some deep level for female advancement or self-perception? I have no problem with more inclusive or gender-specific language other than it sometimes sounds silly or over-the-top (replacing idioms or 'chunks' that perhaps have no strong gender-sense to begin with --- somewhere out there is a joke about replacing the word 'woman' with 'woperson'...). Or do you see definite functional value (for society) in such everyday language changes???

    • melodye says:

      I'm not sure if Beauvoir was the first person to introduce the idea, but (as you likely know) she talks about it extensively in the introduction to The Second Sex. My gut reaction would that yes -- it's a problem, because it automatically tunes our expectations about which gender is supposed to occupy that role (mailman, etc). On the other hand, it's unclear whether our awkward attempts to correct it have solved anything 😉

      Something else you might find interesting (which I'll talk about in the next post on this) -- is that the way we talk about men and women are discernibly different. For example, if you look at the adjectives we pair with the two genders, you find that words like ‘big,’ ‘rich,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘wise,’ ‘leading,’ ‘wild’ and ‘brave’ are all frequently used to describe men, whereas words like ‘beautiful,’ ‘pregnant,’ ‘pretty,’ ‘single,’ ‘intelligent’ and ‘slender’ are frequently used to describe women (it's a footnote in Ramscar, Matlock & Dye, 2010; you can test it out for yourself in the Contemporary Corpus of American English)

      The research we do suggests (strongly) that, as Wittgenstein said in the Investigations, "the meaning of a word is its use in the language." Given that we use 'man' and 'woman' in these different ways -- and indeed, are exposed to this kind of usage throughout childhood and our adult lives -- our expectations about what 'men' and 'women' are (what they're like, how they're defined, what they should amount to) are indelibly shaped by language.

      So -- short answer -- Beauvoir and other feminists have raised an important point about usage, but what they're looking at is probably only the tip of the iceberg. (Which only further complicates the question of what to do about it... I'm not sure prescriptivism is the answer)

    • Julian Frost says:

      I have to mention something about the suffix 'man'. I once read that it came from the latin "manus", meaning "hand", and had nothing to do with gender. So a chairman is the one who handles the meeting, a fireman handles the fighting of fires etc. It is thus possible for a woman to be a businessman, even though that sounds wrong. Also, when someone is manhandled, that person is usually gripped by another to control him/her.

      • melodye says:

        I'm not sure I buy into arguments from etymology -- though they're certainly interesting and made often enough. I guess my view is : whatever the origin, if the semantics have changed, the associations (and expectations) that go along with that word are now different, so it's little solace to know it once meant something else.

        • Julian Frost says:

          Thanks Melodye, that's actually an excellent point.

        • muteKi says:

          So you mean that in the same sense as if, say, I use "politically correct" language in a sarcastic or derogatory manner that it doesn't make a lick of difference?

          That's generally the sort of response I come up with every time I hear of an awkward sort of prescriptivist re-naming of a certain group of people -- you know, the "fat" vs. "vertically challenged" sort of ideals (though I always understood that example to be a sarcastic one itself).

      • Avery Andrews says:

        From the online OED: "The pre-Germanic etymology of the word is problematic". Since the stem is general Germanic, it's certainly not from Latin manus, but it did used to basically mean "person", irrespective of sex.

        In Icelandic, it still does, so 'kvenmaður' female-person=woman vs.
        'karlmaður' male-person=man (both masculine in grammatical gender).

  • razib says:

    i will offer my own personal experience that in my college years most of my closest friends at a certain point were women who did not have close female friends themselves, and were comfortable with the reality as they did not get on with other women for whatever reason. i have continued to maintain friendships with many of these women over the years and it is interesting that some have, haltingly, developed some friendships with women, while others continue to operate as they did in college. aside from being politically liberal, middle to upper middle class, and secular, i can not perceive any other life history parameter in common between them. one of them has an exceedingly close relationship with their mother, another does not talk to their mother, and the others exhibit a normal affinity. some are from broken families, some from intact. to my knowledge all are straight.

    it is also interesting *how* they perceive themselves. one of my friends has a *very* high voice. she was totally chagrined when informed her voice was high, as she perceived that she had a *low* voice. her own opinion is that her strange self-perception had to do with her idea of what a high voiced woman was, or how a high voiced woman comported herself. as she did not fit that mental model, her own self-perception went out of sync with her reality.

  • Jim Kornell says:

    It makes me slightly crazy when one of my granddaughters -- a creative, determined, expressive girl -- is called "bossy." As far as I can tell, she is only called this by her mother, grandmother, aunt -- I haven't ever heard a male relative use that word. I object: if she were a boy, would you say that about the same behaviors? I'm looked at like I simply don't understand -- she IS bossy, it's her nature. Argh.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bora Zivkovic, Vaughan, Drug Monkey, Don Eglinski, Jon Sutton and others. Jon Sutton said: Developing a female model of what it is to be powerful, influential, and competent http://ow.ly/2KTCP [...]

  • [...] On becoming Birkin and letting go of Gainsbourg [...]

  • Shecky R. says:

    Wow... why are you squandering your time writing this blog; you should be writing for the New Yorker! 🙂

  • KBHC says:

    Melody, this is simply amazing. I love this post times a million.

  • ah says:

    I enjoyed this post, but I find it a bit difficult to bring the threads together to get anything definite from it. I'm looking forward to the next post -- I guess that's where you'll tie everything together? I find it a bit difficult to separate the things that actually happened to you from the things that you perceived as happening to you and from the things that are more general and allow us to learn something more than a nice story about you. I guess that's related to what I just said about having a hard time tying all of the threads together to get anything definite. Also, I'm not sure whether this matters to you, but all of the sources you quote are really old (the newest is the MIT report from 1983!) -- and Millet's work and de Beauvoir's work both have been hotly contested...