Thursday, November 17, 2011

In Defense of Womanspace

Edit (11/20/11)

Well, you have come to here to read this blog about that Womanspace story that was in Nature.

Here are some things that you could be doing instead:

1) You could make a donation to the original Womanspace. It is an organization that helps women trying to escape domestic violence.

2) You could sponsor a Kenyan high school girl so she can live at boarding school and not get raped on her way to school. (Not sure where the link to the Kenyan program is, but e-mail them. The program is beyond fantastic.)

3) You could take action to ensure that women's rights in Afghanistan will be preserved, or support any of the many other very good causes Amnesty fights for.

4) You could read a more substantive post on this blog.

5) You could a read a much, much better blog by a mother with cancer who is fighting to improve the U.S. healthcare system. From hospice.

6) You could go do a science demonstration at an elementary school, especially if you are a woman and want to show the girls what a woman scientist looks like. (Hint: Ones involving exploding Pepsi bottles are a big hit. Chicken genomics, not so much.)

7) You could advocate for graduate students to be protected under normal employment laws. I do not even have a legal right to maternity leave because graduate students are not considered employees and are not protected under the Family Medical Leave Act.

To me, these things all represent real social action and real feminism.

The level of ire, the amount of academic navel-gazing discussions, and petition signing that have arisen around this silly story are a caricature of both, and indicative of the sad level of fluff that is currently passing itself off as meaningful social dialogue in our world.

So here is the original blog post if you really want to read it.

Or you could direct your energy to something substantive.

Or you could just go outside.

/Edit /Rant

So I have a friend who writes satire, which is good because sometimes I read something and I'm like, "Is this satire?" and then I send it to her and she says, "No. He's serious." Which is helpful because it's so hard to tell these days.

Anyway, this happened today. This guy Ed Rybicki wrote a story in Nature that was meant to be a humorous look at the differences in the way men and women shop.

It centers around a situation in which he had to help his friend shop for his friend's daughter's knickers. The cause for the knicker emergency was unexplained, but I'm assuming it involved a tornado or something.

Anyway, the central premise of his story that got a lot of people mad was that he said that men and women behave differently when they are out shopping.

At this point I must digress, and mention, for those who are not aware, the profound differences in strategy between Men Going Shopping and Women Going Shopping. In any general shopping situation, men hunt: that is, they go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave. Women, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish.

And some people got a little mad because they said it wasn't very funny and other people got really mad because they think he's propagating a bad stereotype about women.

But I don't think it's anything worth getting upset about.

First of all, the idea that men and women shop differently isn't a sexist stereotype. In the retail industry it's generally considered true. And it is actually something that has been looked at quite a lot because there's a lot of money involved in understanding your shoppers. I remember my brother telling me in extensive detail about research his company did into the roles that males and females in couples take when they decide to buy a toilet. (Which I can't reveal due to the fact that there's a lot of money involved in understanding how people buy toilets and also I wasn't listening.)

In fact, if you google "Gender differences in shopping" the second hit is an article called Evolved Foraging Psychology Underlies Sex Differences In Shopping Experiences And Behaviors by Kruger and Byker that uses ~40 references to suggest a theory that's pretty similar to what Dr. Rybicki said (he could have cited it).

And second of all there isn't anything inherently worse about the female shopping strategy he describes. So he said women like to buy nice shoes at a good price? Well hell yeah. That doesn't mean you can't do math or are ignoring the gels running in your lab because you were distracted by a pair of Mary Janes. And things like objects for the home should not be devalued because they are traditionally female. And women scientists aren't judged as better by their displays of joyless shoelessness. In fact, I find it is very important to have a work/shoe balance in my life. As well as shoes that are difficult to balance on. Because I always say that if you're going to wear heels, wear heels. Which I will do as soon as this plantars fasciitis clears up. (Sorry, I got a little distracted there.)

And third, it's just not all that important. This was a small and pretty innocuous article published in the fiction section of a science journal. That not many people read anyway because they get the science articles they need for work on the internet. By comparison, there is a man running for president that was quite likely going around committing borderline sexual assault on women looking for jobs. AND HE'S LEADING IN SOME POLLS. And there are real workplace problems that women in science have to encounter (like lack of on site day care) that are much more important than whether or not someone wrote a humorous essay extrapolating on the essentially TRUE idea that men and women shop differently. And I'll add that when I told the satirist friend that a guy got called sexist for speaking about a woman's "Womanspace" she was kind of surprised that it turned out to be about be shopping.

The article itself is of course really, um, retro in its style of humor. If it was done as satire (or a troll as the kids say) of that sort of humor then it is of course brilliant. If is, um, well, accidental satire then I would say that humor is really subjective and I bet some people think it's really funny.

But cut Ed a break, for Heaven's sake.

BTW, the satirist friend is Linda Keenan and if you were offended by Womanspace, don't buy her book Suburgatory because then you'll be REALLY offended. <--This is an ad.


  1. Nice post, although in the end, I don't think I'm going to agree with you on cutting Ed any slack.

    My biggest problem with the article is just that it's so damn stupid. Any 3rd grade school kid could have come up with the idea that women have super powers for shopping. (wooo.. shopping-woman and her sidekick, grocery-girl!) Making the device a separate dimension instead of a radio active spider just isn't all that slick.

    If Ed had written this as a stick figure comic, I'd have no problem with it. The fact that Nature thought it was worth printing - regardless of which section it was printed in - just makes me that much less impressed with Nature.

    In large part, what they print is a reflection of their editors - and if Nature wants to associate themselves with writing of this caliber, it's really their choice, but I can't say I would have chosen to print something like that on my blog.

    Otherwise, I'm all for the fact that men and women may think differently or approach things from different angles, but this is hardly the way to showcase and celebrate those differences. I know comedy is hard to write, but perhaps Ed should have tried his hand in a lower profile venue before expecting to wow us all with his 1960's stereotype humour.

    And, yes, there are greater injustices in the world, and there are most certainly fools with a lot of power in their hands, but I'm not going to excuse a man who mugs a woman simply because there are men who murder women out there. Ed's attempt at humour was juvenile, and I just didn't think it was funny.

    Women deserve respect for what they bring to the table, and if Ed would rather joke that it's because they have super powers instead of being good at some particular craft, I just don't think I'll laugh with him.

    Maybe Ed should just admit that women who can shop well are smarter than he is - and is evidenced above, some can also write better than he can as well.

  2. Yeah, I knew when I wrote that that saying that there are worse things than this isn't an inherently logical argument. Maybe more that if there if the amount of energy we have to fight against sexism is finite then we should refocus on something more substantive? Some people got really, really mad.

    Does Nature pay for those stories? If Nature doesn't pay for those I would expect them to be on the level of a good armature. Also, I don't know how competitive it is. Maybe it was the only one anyone sent in that month.

    I didn't think it was funny either myself (though I do think it is meta-hysterical if you read it as satire) but that kind of super bland humor that makes fun of differences between the sexes is really popular. Do you get Rules of Engagement in Canada? It's not funny to me at all but they keep making new shows so I guess a lot of people like it. And Dave Barry. He went on for years doing that sort of thing. And Maureen Dowd still has a column, which presumably someone somewhere reads and goes, OMG, so funny...

  3. I will add this, because I wrote it somewhere else:

    We should praise women (or anyone) who is good at shopping.

    Shopping is only a frivolous pursuit for women of privilege. For women with limited income, an ability to shop well is the difference between her family surviving and her family ending up out on the street. So horray for women who can shop!

    The arguments around this story devalue these female skills, as we always seem to devalue anything inherently female. (Like shoes! Shoes are fabulous! They are art done by someone with talent who went to school a long time to learn how to do that.) And it saddens me that most of these arguments are coming from women.

  4. Thank you Michele...I think? The interesting thing is that I have just TWO comments made directly to me since I wrote "Womanspace". Every single other thing has been written ABOUT me, or my attitudes, or about sexism in general, or what a sexist Henry Gee is. Without ever involving the person who wrote the damn thing!
    Interesting that someone might just take time out to defend the story. Sort of.
    I will quote you, to reinforce the message:
    "'s just not all that important. This was a small and pretty innocuous article published in the fiction section of a science journal". Written on my iPad in a single sitting, while stuck in an economy seat somewhere over the Indian Ocean, because my entertainment console was broken, and I was bored.

  5. Well, at least it lead to some really great satire of overwrought literary criticism.

    People are really talented.

  6. Living a pretty sheltered life as a voluntary youth worker, anti racism campaigner, and environmental activist, I was a little taken aback at the level of naked fury and hatred directed at a. Ed, and b. anyone who defended him. I did not defend his article, as I am sure that when I get published in a non scientific/youth led journal, that my short stories/novels/screen plays will be far superior to Ed's, but I defended him on a virulent blog site because I didn't appreciate seeing my favourite brother demolished by a bunch of weird bloggers who use school yard "net speak", and go by "witty" monikers. The funniest fact was that they all thought that "meg" was made up, and it didn't occur to them that someone would disagree with them. I support this blog, and it is very similar to what I posted on Dana whotsits page, something on the lines of, "go and get a life, campaign for the occupy movement, or against Hydraulic Fracturing, or something, but that level of hatred and negativity directed at people that they don't know shows a disturbing level of dysfunctionality. Anyway, back to fighting Halliburton et al, good luck y'all. Meg Rybicki sister of Ed, just to make it very clear:)

  7. Dang. After my mini rant about "witty" monikers, my name comes up as Fatfairandfortyfour, which was a blog I started four years ago, after being described as fat, fair, and forty four by my (female) doctor, who thought that I had gallstones, or was a likely candidate for same, being "fat, fair, and over forty". I will have to change my google account, as I am now, fat, fair, and forty eight! This is my last blog post as I am meantto be writing a submission to the minister of tourism, about Fracking, so farewell, good luck with the writing ED!!! and bravo for raising such a rumpus.

  8. Meg, have I ever told you you're my favourite sister?? B-)
    Astonishing, the level of vituperation - they've obviously never read any Norman Spinrad or Michael Moorcock - or couldn't find their email addresses - because they are WAAAAAAAY worse than anything I am supposed to have said.