Category Archives: opinion

It’s Time

T-shirt available from the Female Collective (with proceeds to the original artists of the meme – not a ripoff of the original work, as so often happens!) You might also like: The Streets of Colorado Americans’ Phobia of Socialized Medicine On the Phone for Obama

T-shirt available from the Female Collective (with proceeds to the original artists of the meme – not a ripoff of the original work, as so often happens!)

The Unsubtle Sexism of Advertising to Mothers

Advertising to mothers is a trend that goes back, I suspect, to the dawn of advertising. It’s first-class manipulation, tapping into our deepest biology: the parental urge to put our kids’ needs first, to always want what’s best for them. “Choosy mothers choose…” etc. It’s also deeply sexist and dehumanizing. Constantly addressing women as “mothers” Read More…

Advertising to mothers is a trend that goes back, I suspect, to the dawn of advertising. It’s first-class manipulation, tapping into our deepest biology: the parental urge to put our kids’ needs first, to always want what’s best for them. “Choosy mothers choose…” etc.

It’s also deeply sexist and dehumanizing. Constantly addressing women as “mothers” denies that they have any other identity or role than to bring up children (and buy things for them). In the world of ads, they’re not even women any more, let alone individuals. Their lives have meaning only in the context of their relationships to others: their children.

(What percentage of ads speak to “parents” or even “dads”? There’s probably a study out there somewhere that can tell us, but I’m sure that percentage is small.)

Advertising matters: it reflects and amplifies the culture that it comes from and is aimed at. It shows us what we “should” aspire to. And it is blasted at us constantly, in all media and locations, at almost every moment of our lives. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, advertising affects our thinking. That’s what it’s designed to do, and by now it’s a science that does it very, very well. The goal of advertisers is, of course, to sell products. But, as a very strong side-effect, ads shape culture.

So think about all those ads aimed at “moms”. Not women. Not people. Moms. Busy moms, happy moms, beautiful moms, perfect moms. Moms who might also have jobs, but who always put their families first.

Think about how that constant barrage affects you and your attitudes towards women, how it has affected you all your life.

Start saying no. Women, insist on being an individual first, and being addressed as such. Because that’s what you want to be, and what you want your children to grow up to be. But you have to fight for it, consciously resisting every insidious force that tries to make you define yourself first in relation to others.

As for advertisers: you can and should do better. What you put out into the world has effects. Bad ones. Rethink your role in modern society, and try to be a force for good. Not just for selling. You’re people, too, and you have obligations to your fellow human beings.

Mimma Meets an Atheist

I have never been much of a housekeeper, nor cared to be. I grew up in times and places where many people (not just wealthy ones) had live-in servants. My parents both had jobs, and someone else was paid to take care of cleaning, cooking, gardening, etc. When we lived in the US during my Read More…

I have never been much of a housekeeper, nor cared to be. I grew up in times and places where many people (not just wealthy ones) had live-in servants. My parents both had jobs, and someone else was paid to take care of cleaning, cooking, gardening, etc.

When we lived in the US during my late childhood/early adolescence, I learned how to wash dishes and clean a home – tasks that I was perfectly happy to relinquish to someone else when we later moved back to Asia. In college, again, I did for myself, and as a young wife and mother while my husband was in graduate school and then became a university professor, I continued to do most of the household tasks, with “help” from him. Help which I tried, unsuccessfully but unceasingly, to reframe in his mind as “doing his share”.

A few years after we moved to Milan, my own career got busy and I began traveling for work. Enrico did the cooking, childcare, and some cleaning during the times I was out of town, but my struggle for housework equality continued to cause stress in our marriage.

Eventually I was earning enough that I could take the solution that seemed obvious to me: hire someone else to do the housework, someone whose hourly wage was less than either of us could earn in an hour (as a contractor for a US tech company during the dot com boom, I was also paid by the hour – highly).

We had a succession of Sri Lankan immigrants to clean our place in Milan. Perhaps it seemed absurd to hire in someone to clean a three-room apartment (one that I was in all day, too – I worked from home when not traveling), but we ended up with a cleaner home, and one less thing to argue about.

Then we moved to a much bigger apartment in Lecco. I wasn’t working as much around the time that we moved (not by my choice!), but I hoped to return to full-time work, and had no desire to increase the hours I spent on cleaning.

We asked colleagues of Enrico’s and other acquaintances in Lecco for leads on cleaning help. Immigrants were far fewer than in Milan, but there weren’t many Italians willing to clean other people’s houses, either. Eventually, someone introduced us to Mimma.

Mimma (short for Domenica) and her husband Domenico were part of the south-to-north migration that had taken place in Italy in the 1970s. With just elementary schooling, they moved from Sicily to Lecco, where he worked all his career in a paper mill, and she cleaned and ironed for a living. Their children grew up in the north, but, like all Italians, the family kept close ties to its roots, returning to visit the extended family in Sicily every summer.

By the time we met, Domenico had retired from decades of physically gruelling work, and Mimma also wanted to slow down: rather than cleaning houses, she wanted only to do ironing (which she considered relaxing!). But she agreed to do a deep clean of the new rented apartment we were moving into – it had stood vacant for some time and was grimy.

I helped out a bit with that, but, as Mimma was horrified to learn, I really don’t know much about cleaning.

“Didn’t your mother teach you how to clean a house?” she asked indignantly.

I explained that, when I was small, we had servants in Thailand, then I hadn’t lived with my mother anymore, then I was in India… so, no, I had not had much opportunity to learn cleaning techniques, not up to Mimma’s standards. I didn’t mind her telling me (and said so), but I was never likely to be an enthusiastic house cleaner. After that first big clean was done, I begged Mimma to help me find someone who could come in and clean once or twice a week. She agreed that, until such a person could be found, she would do it.

After a few weeks of this, Mimma came in one day and said, in tones of mingled affection and exasperation: “I can’t find anyone else, so I’ve decided that – only for you – I will clean as well as iron.”

I was flattered, and pleased. Mimma was a fantastic housekeeper, but I also enjoyed talking with her, and she with me.

Which may have been unusual in Mimma’s experience of employers in Lecco. Although the factories of northern Italy had needed the labor of the southern migrants back in the 70’s, the northerners never liked the southerners, calling them terroni (“people of the earth” – peasants). Mimma told me that some of her employers over the years had been downright rude. I treated her as an equal, with respect and friendship – because I liked her, and because that’s how I treat people. It would not occur to me to be condescending to someone who’s working for me.

So, Mimma came in twice a week to clean and iron, and each day when she was ready for a break from cleaning, we’d have coffee and chat. Over the years to come, she invited us to coffees and meals at her own spotlessly clean home (she is a fantastic cook), and she and Domenico joined us at family gatherings such as this one (you can see them in the video).

I was open with her as I am with most people, and she felt free to ask personal questions about my life, America, and other places I had lived in. Although we were profoundly different in character and experience, we shared values in being honest, kind, and caring, about working hard and doing good things.

But there was one difference between us that Mimma didn’t expect.

One day early in our relationship, as we sat in the kitchen over coffee, Mimma said casually: “You’re Protestant, right?” As opposed to Catholic. Italians have little experience or knowledge of the variety of non-Catholic Christianity.

“I was baptized Catholic, to please my grandmother, but I’m atheist,” I said simply.

Mimma looked stunned. Clearly, it had never occurred to her that a white, western person could be non-Christian, let alone a non-believer. She was briefly silent, then left the kitchen to get on with cleaning.

After a few minutes, she popped her head back in the door.

“So you don’t believe in God? Any god?”

“No. I never have.”

She disappeared again.

She came back.

“But if you’re invited to a christening or a wedding in a church, would you go?”

“Yes, of course. Those are happy occasions that I want to celebrate with my friends.”

“Oh, ok.” She left again.

I was wryly amused. I’m not sure Mimma herself was a regular churchgoer, but, like many Italians, she considered being Catholic a fundamental part of her identity. She knew that others might have other brands of religion – Italy was seeing enough immigration by then to have daily exposure to many cultures and belief systems – but being completely without a religion was harder for her to fathom.

She soon got over the shock, and I’m not sure we ever discussed it again one way or another, but I never will forget that look of revelation on her face. Yes, there are people in the world who don’t believe in any god at all – and we’re just fine.

American Freedoms

For those who frame the gun control debate as a matter of your personal freedoms, let’s look at that argument from another angle: When I was young, in the 1960s and 70s, I did not have a choice about breathing cigarette smoke. I never smoked myself, but many people around me did (including my parents), Read More…

For those who frame the gun control debate as a matter of your personal freedoms, let’s look at that argument from another angle:

When I was young, in the 1960s and 70s, I did not have a choice about breathing cigarette smoke. I never smoked myself, but many people around me did (including my parents), and they could do so in public spaces: restaurants, planes, offices, etc. Over the following decades, the health risks of breathing secondhand smoke came to be seen as large enough to warrant legislation to protect those who do not choose to smoke. Smoking is still legal, but the right to smoke in shared spaces is now sharply curbed, so I can easily avoid exposing myself. Most of us think this is a good thing, a pragmatic matter of public health and personal choice.

In 1989, I took my infant daughter for her first checkup at the Yale New Haven health center. The pediatrician asked me a long list of questions about health and safety factors in the environment my daughter would be growing up in: did you bring her here in a car seat? does your apartment have any old lead paint? And: do you have a gun in the home, or do you visit the home of anyone who does? This brought into sharp focus a problem I hadn’t realized I would face as a parent. I can decide not to have a gun in my own home, but I can’t know whether every other environment my daughter is ever in (say, a friend’s house) may contain guns, or whether they are secured properly against curious little children.

US law gives me the choice to protect myself from cigarette smoke, but not to protect myself from the more immediately deadly risk of gunshot wounds. And I don’t mean “protect myself” by having my own gun at the ready. Since I am not trained to it, the odds of me successfully defending myself with a gun, against a gun, are very slim. This goes for you, too. Unless you are current or former military or police, or otherwise have extensive and constantly-reinforced training – not only with guns but in crisis situations – you are also not likely to be effective in using a gun in a sudden attack.

Yes, guns are sometimes used successfully in self-defense. But does the number of those successes outweigh the number of deaths that could otherwise be avoided by having fewer guns in the homes and hands of ordinary, untrained citizens?

Having guns in your home actually increases the risk that someone in your family will get hurt. Massacres committed by mentally ill people get attention, but they account for far fewer deaths (and injuries) than the accidents, suicides, and heat-of-the-moment murders that can happen so easily when a gun is readily to hand – and these account for many of the 30,000 gun deaths that occur in America EVERY YEAR.

I would like to have a choice about whether to expose myself to the risk of injury or death from flying bullets. You can choose to own a gun, and in many states you can choose to carry it into the public spaces that I also use. I do not have any choice about whether to be in your line of fire when you lose your temper, or think you’re gonna be a hero when something goes down. And, frankly, even if you’re the good guy, in the heat of the moment I don’t trust you to hit the bad guy rather than me. Some might keep their heads sufficiently to do exactly the right thing, but most won’t.

So, gun control is a matter of protecting freedom: my freedom to choose the risks to which I expose myself and my family. Your carrying a gun infringes on my right to be safe from your bullets. Even if we start from the premise that your right to be armed is as important as my right to be safe, there are pragmatic public health reasons for my right, in this case, to be given more weight.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

People say: “Don’t get so upset. Don’t take others’ politics or beliefs so personally.” I’ve been trying to put my finger on why this is so hard for me to accept. Most of the time, I am happy to live and let live with everybody, even when I disagree fiercely with their beliefs. But some Read More…

People say: “Don’t get so upset. Don’t take others’ politics or beliefs so personally.” I’ve been trying to put my finger on why this is so hard for me to accept.

Most of the time, I am happy to live and let live with everybody, even when I disagree fiercely with their beliefs.

But some people whom I otherwise like and try to respect intend to vote for politicians who specifically want to deny fundamental rights to me and to others I love.

By supporting the GOP’s inhumane policies against women and gays, you are telling me clearly that you value me and my gay friends less than you value straight men.

So, yeah, I take that personally. How can I not?