Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Referencing gender

I guess whenever a post starts off with a description of what I don't want to do, it is a sure sign that I am about to do it. Still, I must just say that I hate harping on "women's issues" because I don't like the idea that women need some sort of special treatment in order to "make it happen", and the idea of women's issues suggests that we do. On the other hand, sometimes the only way of dealing with a problematic situation is to draw attention to it.
What is it with cinematic representations of female professors as old maids?
I hired Something's Gotta Give over the weekend for my non-exam-writing family, and got completely engrosed, not only because I think Diane Keaton is great, but because I was fascinated by the character of Zoe, played by Frances Mc Dormand (who is also super, by the way). I kept waiting for Zoe to do something more self-affirming than just commenting on the implications of Harry (Jack Nicholson)'s lifestyle. The character, like too many other female professors in Hollywood (think Barbra Streisand in The Mirror Has Two Faces, and Emma Thompson in Junior) is fairly plain, single, and spinsterish. So I ask, what is it about women in the academy that they are so often portrayed like this? And why is it that so many female academics seem to fit this profile? Is there something about the academic life that makes it difficult for women to hold down families and careers in the academy together? Certainly a brief survey of the faculty at my present university would suggest that something along those lines is the case, and when things were getting rough for me in the department in which I was working earlier this year, a faculty member said that she suspects that the only way to survive this lifestyle is to be single and family free. So why is that?
It is certainly a long way from the whole story, but I suspect that the continued male-dominance of the profession, in conjunction with the continued existence of stereotypes around women's roles in marriages, makes it really difficult for women to perform productively in both areas without compromising one or both identities. We have to become ultra-competitive, and effectively androgenous in order to be taken seriously as academics, or you are relegated to the realm of the "soft" arts, or education theory.
Perhaps its a silly thing to focus on, but I have long felt that referencing practices in the academy are just one of the many ways in which dominant (masculine) paradigms are maintained. Surnames first, and only surnames when referencing a person in the text, reinforce patrilineal constructs in society, and expand them into the professional world. You are identified on the basis of whose daughter you are, and not in terms of your gendered individuality. And all for the sake of convention.
Question is, what will it take to change this particular convention....

By the way, The Little Professor has a great post on professor stereotypes in film.

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