Misogynizing Modesty and the Male Brain

Jessica Rey is also a Power Ranger

Here it is: my first blog-post to begin with a disclaimer.  I love my friends.  It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen them in years and I’m mostly just a part of their facebook landscapes.  I find them smart and good and kind.  In my horribly flawed way, I want to reflect the same qualities back at them.  And with that, I hope what I write below will, as my wise friend Debbie says, “be taken in the spirit in which it was intended.”  I don’t mean any harm. I don’t think any less of anyone. I’d just like to share a different perspective.

Now I’ll blurt it out: I can’t take much more of this recent, popular video clip.

It’s a speech given by Jessica Rey (yes, the actress who plays the White Power Ranger on the kids’ TV show).  She heads a company selling swimsuits to women who want a bit more fabric in their swimwear than most mainstream clothing manufacturers offer.  It’s not the sales pitch in her speech that bothers me.  And I take no issue with Rey’s personal desire to dress modestly or her efforts to make modest clothing more available to consumers.  For many reasons, I also prefer clothes that cover my torso and I know how limited my options are when it comes to shopping for clothes, especially swimsuits.  I’ll even take it a step further and say I believe we’d all enjoy a healthier, happier, more egalitarian world if we’d reserve some of our loveliness for home use only.  Rey and I and all my friends who re-posted this video clip are on the same team.  Go Go Modesty Rangers!

But I still do not like this speech.  Rey does manage to make some good points.  However, she spends much of her time on stage mentioning (I won’t say “citing” because no attempts at citation except dropping the name of an Ivy League university are ever made) conclusions she’s derived from studies done on men’s neurological reactions to viewing images of women in scanty clothing.  She says researchers found that viewing these images lit up the same areas of the male brain used when looking at objects like tools.  The men appear to be relating to the women as objects rather than connecting with them as human beings.

Let’s set aside controversies over these kinds of studies and take the research and Rey’s analysis at face value.  It looks like men have a problem. Men dehumanize women when prompted by immodest clothing.  The suggestion that women and girls could help men deal with this problem is a good suggestion.  After all, there’s not really any such thing as a male problem or a female problem.  Every problem is a HUMAN problem.  And in light of that, the solution to the human problem of men objectifying women cannot be simply to keep women’s bodies covered.  It must also be to change the way men think about us.  Women can’t fix this for men.  We can help.  But men need to work at it too instead of denying their part in favour of blaming us.

Another thing that bothers me about arguments like Rey’s is the implication that if something can be registered on a brain scan, then we’re dealing with a “natural,” inescapable fact of life and we’re all powerless to change it.  We’re stuck with it.  We’re helpless and the best we can do is to lower our expectations of each other.  It astonishes me, over and over again, how often these “natural” neurological effects appear to excuse bad male behaviours.  It’s plain old neurosexism.

In reality, the physical and electrical landscapes of our brains can change and develop over our lifespans in response to the behaviours in which we choose – choo-choo-choose – to indulge.  In other words, it’s impossible to tell if men’s brains react to women in scanty clothing as objects because men are born that way or if they have this reaction because, over time, men have trained their brains to file us in the same mental drawer as screwdrivers.  Maybe they’ve permitted this to happen.  They may have even nurtured it into being.  The mere fact that a phenomenon is visible in a scan doesn’t tell us nearly as much about its source as some of us would like to believe.

Immodest clothing may be muttered as an excuse for disrespecting or even assaulting women.  But I challenge anyone to name a time in history when men have not objectified women and reduced them to sexual props.  It doesn’t matter what the clothing customs of the day were, every culture has struggled to keep women safe from abuse and assault.  It’s more evidence that what makes objectification such an enduring problem aren’t the clothes women choose but the terrible choices made by the men around them.  In our imperfect world, clothing may be a factor but it is not a cause.  Male will is the cause.

I’m currently raising a family of boys.  I don’t have a daughter to take swimsuit shopping.  However, I do have sons who need to be schooled in how to see women and girls.  They live in a home where their baby brothers were breastfed, demonstrating the true purpose of breasts.  They need to be taught about equality and their personal responsibility to meet every other human with respect.  They need to be decisively corrected when they do or say something sexist. They need a loving but socially subordinate relationship with a woman to whom they can have no sexual connection at all — that’s me.

Any efforts women make to dress modestly are helpful as I try to teach my kids to see women as more than sexual objects.  But it’s all secondary to the real solution.  The change needed to correct problems like the ones Rey talks about must happen at the source of the issue: in the socially moulded minds of boys and men.

Maybe Jessica Rey meant to say all of this but got distracted promoting her business and ran out of time.  I sure hope so.  Here’s what I want instead of speeches like hers:  I WANT US TO STOP TALKING ABOUT MODESTY ONLY IN TERMS OF MALE SEXUAL RESPONSE.

Yes, this includes slogans like “Modest is Hottest!” whether it’s used as a cheeky catchphrase or as the trade-name of merchants admonishing us to “show you are hot, but don’t show a lot!”  As I understand it, using the adjective “hot” to describe a person’s physical appearance originally referred to specific physiological responses including raised heart-rate and increased blood-flow in another person.  Increased blood-flow – there’s an eight-letter “e” word for that and it’s not always a good thing to elicit in someone else.  It seems even the backlash against scanty women’s clothing hasn’t extricated itself from a fixation with male arousal.  Whether it’s done by showing skin or not, emphasizing how important it is for women to be “hot” is part of the problem.

Modesty has benefits other than “hotness” and these are the ones we ought to be teaching girls.  We can still talk about male responses but we ought to present them as male problems, not the results of shortcomings of women.  We can present modest dressing as something generous that helps men improve themselves instead of making it into a responsibility we bear alone.  Modesty is a good choice because it can be a sign of a woman’s confidence in her mind, strength, and character.  It throws down the crutch of physical allurement and meets men on their own terms.  It can be a sign of the respect we feel for ourselves and demand from others.  It’s comfortable.  And it makes the sight of the parts we keep hidden more scarce and, thereby, more valuable and meaningful when we do choose to expose them.  Modesty preserves our social power including – but not only – our sexual power.

Found Art for Fathers Day


In the clay and rock fill that keeps getting piled up to make a park behind our house, we sometimes find these eggshell-coloured rocks with rusty markings on them. We’ve never asked anyone if we could collect them and add them to our garden but we’ve never been told we couldn’t take them either. The local rock-expert-dude who sells necklaces and healing crystals in the mall is unimpressed with them — says the marks are scraped onto the stones by the heavy-duty, dirty-metal equipment used to quarry and carry them. They’re machine-made which means they’re human-made — and that makes them art.

One of them is nice but it’s just an eagle, or whatever — something anyone could see in any skid-mark.  The other is some kind of winged, jaunty, sub-terranean devil-man on his way to work at some hellish mine.  Look, he’s got a pick-axe slung over his shoulder.

We used to have a rock that looked like a picture of Don Quixote on horseback.  But over the last winter his rust-smudged head wore away, or the stone healed itself, or I lost the power to see the image properly, or something. If I was someone else, maybe I might prefer the new headless horseman to the old non-knight.  If I hadn’t gone looking for the rock so close to Fathers Day after spending years telling everyone Don Quixote was my father-in-law, maybe I would be glad.  But I miss them — the stain on a rock and my not-quite second dad — I miss them both.

Selfhood, Motherhood, Childhood and How They’re All the Same

My son says this Fever Ray video reminds him of me. Is it the hair, the skinny legs, or all the going off to do weird stuff by myself?

I’m in a thrift store with my sixteen year old son.  (Anyone who doesn’t have a sixteen year old son should get one someday.  It’s kind of like having a stupid, darling high school boyfriend again only without all the icky tension.)

We get to the furniture section of the store – the part set-up like a dozen crummy little living rooms butted against each other.

“It’s like some old grandpa’s house,” my boy says.

And then, as I often can, I track of his train of thought.  It’s passing through the stop called “grandpa,” chugs in and out of the station called “the only dead person I know well” before it screeches to a halt in the busy rail yard labeled “death.”

“This is where they bring people’s stuff after they die,” my boy says.

“Yup,” I agree.  “This is where you’ll bring my stuff after I die.”

He doesn’t choke or get maudlin but he does say, “I won’t bring your stuff here.  I’ll keep it.  I’ll take your computers and find everything you ever wrote and print it out and save it.”

I tell him he’s sweet and we leave the store, bound for another thrift shop.  So far, we’ve bought a 1970s era Charlie Brown paperback and a discarded copy of a book I contributed a couple of essays to but we still haven’t found the t-shirt with the graphic of a killer robot with a Korean speech bubble that will be my son’s find of the day.  We get into the car, tune the radio to one of our favourite CBC shows – the one I work for a few times a year, – and we back into the Saturday afternoon traffic.

See it?  My life – including my life as a writer – forms a part of my son’s life.  It’s something he sees as enduring and inseparable from the imprint I leave on the world he is in the process of inheriting from me.

A recent article in The Atlantic entitled “The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid” assumes motherhood and a stellar career as a writer are irreconcilable competing interests. The article’s hook of a headline (which was was not written by the author, Lauren Sandler), is beside the point.  This isn’t so much a piece about family size as it is about the level of personal investment it takes to write for a living.  On its way, it looks at mother-writers like Susan Sontag and Joan Didion to examine whether these women’s single-child families are the compromise that made it possible for them to excel at their careers while raising children – er, a child.

Of course, there are writers who do have more than one child and Sandler suggests that some of these women preserve their careers by hiring someone else to look after their kids.  Her other suggestion is that women writers can thrive in families willing to invert traditional gender roles and cast men as their children’s primary caregivers.

Sandler doesn’t seem convinced that any of these strategies is necessarily enough to transform an artist into something considered a good parent.  The article presents examples of writer-mothers being absent, self-involved, and dismissive – sending their lone children away with “Shush, I’m working.”  By the end of the piece, it’s acknowledged that there’s a difference between motherhood and “momish-ness” and artists often set the latter aside.

Right now, weeks before my debut novel is even released, I’m not what The Atlantic would consider a successful writer.  But I’m still free to fret over my own experience raising five children while writing.  Am I devastatingly dismissive?  Am I “momish?”  Do I have to be?

I admit I’m missing some of the traits of momish-ness – especially in the kitchen.  If my sons want cookies, they bake them for themselves.  I might make something special on holidays but I always garnish it with demands for praise and thanks.  “Hey, I made cookies.  Aren’t I good?  Look at how good I am.”  Honestly, I don’t even cook dinner very often.  My husband usually does that, without complaint, after a full day of demanding non-domestic work.

But is neglecting cooking enough of an an explanation?  Why do I still get prickly when I’m asked how I find time to write?  No matter how kindly it’s meant, the question seems to imply neglect and self-centredness – a lack of understanding of my own situation that misleads me to believe I can do two incompatible things at once.  I must be either willfully negligent of my kids or witlessly oblivious to reality.

Sometimes, I do put my kids off with my own version of, “Shush, I’m working.”  But there are reasons why being shushed by their writer-mother isn’t a developmental disaster:

1)      When my sons leave home, they will not be met with people who jump to satisfy all their wishes for food, attention, money, housekeeping, technical support, etc.  If I raise them to expect instant service, I do them and the other people who will live and work with them a disservice.

2)      By ignoring traditional areas of housework, I help the boys see distinctions between housewifery and motherhood.  They are not the same, they are not the same, they are not the same…

3)      Because I work inside the house where my kids’ lives are centred, they get plenty of “quantity time” so there’s not as much need to orchestrate fancy “quality time.”  I don’t arrive in the house as a celebrity here for a limited engagement.  I’m not a special attraction so I can relax and forgo behaving like one.

4)      All mothers have interests that eat up time they could spend with their children.  It might be paid non-writing work, making fancy scrapbooks, training for marathons, stoking reality television habits — anything.  When it comes to maternal attention, my kids aren’t that different from anyone else’s.

5)      My sons are not strangers dropped here at random.  They’re very much like me.  They are writers, artists, and creative people themselves.  Maybe they understand better than other people the importance of this kind of work.  They know it makes me happy because their own similar projects make them happy.  Maybe my self is overbearing enough to convince them to value in themselves what I value in myself.

The self – that’s the core of the problem I have with Sandler’s approach to writer-mothers.  She writes of our need to “negotiate a balance between selfhood and motherhood.”   I don’t know how these two -hoods could be separated, let alone set on opposite sides of a scale and balanced.  The self is far more like a casserole than a bento box.  (Hey, it’s a cooking simile – aren’t I good?)  Motherhood hasn’t effaced my self but it has been integrated into it.  A healthy self is a pliable one, not a brittle one.  It’s dynamic and able to accept how impressionable it is to powerful forces including – or especially — kids.

The Art of the Happy Family: Review of Padma Viswanathan’s “The Toss of a Lemon”

A gorgeous novel by Padma Viswanathan, an author who kindly provided a “blurb” for the cover of my own novel.

A few weeks ago, I did my first interview leading up to the launch of my novel.  It should appear in the Summer issue of Montreal Review of Books.

One of the questions I was asked began by acknowledging that books about happy family situations – like the high-functioning marriage central to my novel — are scarce.  I’ve thought about this a lot since the interview.  I’ve tried to make a mental list of memorable, happy literary relationships.  Maybe another reader could do better, but for me, it’s a short list – one full of characters who usually end up dead within the first quarter of their books.  Most often, a happy relationship is a preamble for a story – a cheap tableaux meant to be quickly dismantled.  Otherwise, it’s the pat-ending of a story – the trite song-and-dance finale.  The interviewer who posed the question is right.  Seldom does a happy relationship make up the balance of a story, especially in literary fiction.

When most readers want to know how to behave and be happy in a family, we reach for the self-help shelves of the bookstore, not the literary fiction section.  I think the reasons we’re not interested in seeing happy families in fiction are fairly simple.  Happy relationships are typically written as uneventful.  They’re boring.  Their sweetness is cloying.  It’s mapped out in cliches and feels contrived.

And that’s a mistake.  It’s not the relationships that are boring but the way writers approach them. Happy families come with their own difficulties and complexities – ones I find fascinating.  They’re surprising, interesting and, obviously, I believe they ought to be explored in literature.

I recently came across an example of a novel that portrays a generally happy family in a way that’s both believable and compelling.  It’s Padma Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon.  Set in the final decades of colonial India, spanning two world wars, and sweeping changes to the traditional Hindu way of life, the book comments on the intricacies of religion, class, and politics without the tedium of a history or the tiresomeness of a polemic.

It also presents a picture of a large, mulit-generational family that manages to function and produce healthy, happy members in spite of inevitable adversity.  The central character is a matriarch, a child-bride widowed and left with two children by the age of eighteen.  She manages to maneuvre within the strict limitations of her caste, her gender, and a crushing notion of fate to shield her grandchildren from the self-destruction of the family’s patriarchs.  There’s an amazing irony at work in the book: the place where the matriarch seems to be weakest – her utter servitude to oppressive customs that keep her marginalized and invisible to the world outside her family – is also the focal point of her greatest strengths.

The rest of the cast of characters is large and complicated and badly flawed in places. Like any story meant to deal with realistic ups and downs of daily life, the books has its share of illnesses, untimely deaths, and family spats that drag on for years.  Yet the tone of the book is not dark or dour.  It’s sun-lit and warm.  The book’s heart is like a real heart – one that is much more than the sum of its parts.  Its warmth is at once miraculous yet credible with a bittersweetness that only comes with honesty.

I really enjoyed this book. It was strange to find myself feeling so at home in a novel set in a Brahmin household.  Maybe the familiarity springs from the lines Viswanathan drops into the narrative expressing sentiments exactly like ones I’ve felt in my own family life.  For instance, when she says that certain burdens only become heavier when we share them, I know just what she means.  Sometimes, even in a close family, the best way to handle suffering is privately.  For me, Viswanathan is not only a story-teller.  She’s someone who seems to understand family in much the same way I do.

A large part of being happy in a family – or maybe in anything – is understanding and accepting the limitations of what it can make possible and forgiving and forgetting the absence of what it was never meant to provide.  That’s what the women in The Toss of a Lemon do.  As Viswanathan writes of them in the aftermath of a disaster, “We were not shattered.”

In writing the book, Viswanathan drew on her own family history.  Maybe that’s what gives the story its organic, authentic, universally relatable feel.  Reality — even an unseen, faraway reality — comes with a badge of truth.

Thanks to my family history, writing about a happy family came naturally for me.  That’s what I told the reporter when she asked me if writing a good marriage was difficult.  I don’t know why, but it’s my excellent fortune to have only ever lived in happy families.  It may be a rare way to live but it’s real and it’s worth the work it takes to give it a voice.

Sir Robert Borden Junior High School, Much, Much Later

DSCF7211When you can, go back to the place where they said you were the smallest and the ugliest.  Stand in front of it, turn your back to it.  And have someone who loves you as perfectly as he can pace across the street and take a picture of you, in the fog, on the side of the road, the barred windows and yellow brick walls behind you.  You are still small.  You are still ugly.  This is not a transformation story told with paint and hot irons.   It is not what you are that has changed.  It is what matters that has changed – what is said and seen.  The voice, the eye – all of it — is yours, now, and his and Yours.