Laura Tropp's blog

The Invisible Labor of 'Morning Joe'

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I’ve been watching the coverage of the recent engagement of MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzesinski. Many have been suspicious about their relationship from the beginning. Since their formal announcement, the media coverage of their engagement continues. Someone has compiled footage of their time together, now seen through the lens of their falling in love. There is even speculation on how the show might change because of their marriage.

Apparently, the show may become better because of this human-interest component. The couple has been described as “famously cagey” about their personal relationship. That doesn’t surprise me because, as someone whose partner also is an academic, I’ve found navigating the workplace waters to be tricky at times, and we aren’t even televised live on television.

At a previous point in American history, spouses worked together by need. Living on a farm necessitated that both members of the couple would need to contribute just to make sure all the tasks were done. While I have no idea if this led to a happier lifestyle, some would say that women had more equality in that environment, where domestic space and work space were more blurred. 

Joan Williams, in her book Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do about It (a great read, by the way), explores the development of the separate spheres of work for women and men. These days, modern couples working together are considered more the exception than the rule. Working Mother magazine, for example, lists “15 Power Couples Who Work Together.” Working together is considered so difficult to navigate that people give advice for negotiating it. Scholars also explore the effects of couples working together within both businesses and personal relationships (main results: it’s complicated).

Many of these articles position the major concern as impacting the personal satisfaction of couples or the problems that emerge within a business. In fact, that’s never been a major concern for me. Instead, I’ve always worried about the impact on my identity as a woman. My husband and I briefly considered, when we both had brand-new doctoral degrees and a marriage certificate in hand, a job opportunity that would have placed us at the same university. We rejected it, mainly for its location, but also for our desire to carve out our own identities.

We happily attended conferences with our different last names, glad that attendees and senior scholars who did not already know us wouldn’t be the wiser. In some ways, I think it’s made it harder for us. Our interests overlap, and we spend much time discussing, editing, and proofreading each other’s work, but only one name ever appears on the final copy. Sometimes, I imagine a different world where we collaborated and would have twice the publications. But, in my mental picture, I’ve never gotten past the question of who would get first author. Even though in theory both authors matter, I know I would resent being listed as second and feel guilty for being first.

In Morning Joe, the first author is clear simply from the name of the show. Those who have followed the couple may remember previous stories about Joe apologizing to Mika for calling her snotty. Some have even called out the show as sexist. Joe has such a history of interrupting Mika on air that the MSNBC website has a page where he justifies his reasons for his interruptions. Apparently, she does more of the organization off camera, and he interrupts her on air to keep the show on time.

In my own relationship, I sometimes do more of the organization, or what scholars label as the emotional labor (prepare the kids’ water bottles, remember the times for their practices, wash and find their uniforms, and make sure the homework is done), as he takes center stage (actually taking them to the basketball game). This works out fine for us, as we are both working towards the same goal: happy, active children, and we are mutually invested in both being happy ourselves. At work, though, goals, happiness, and priorities are often at odds. We already know from numerous reports, studies, and everyday experiences that that women’s labor often goes unrecognized.

When Joe is rude to Mika, we could just pretend she has a mean co-worker, but when her co-worker is also her husband, will that change how we see their interactions? Or, will her new status as his wife be what actually gives her more public power on the show? Perhaps their dynamic is less gendered than personality driven. Either way, as the show now has wedding bells ringing in the background, my suspicion is that Mika may move into the role of star, but as the bride and not a journalist.

 

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017
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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mother’s Day 2017

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It’s that time of year again when Mother’s Day is upon us. This year, I’ve decided to give a shout out to some moments, driven by individuals, companies, or organizations, that are helping to make some aspects of motherhood more visible:

  • This year in the U.K., a company is releasing Mother’s Day cards that deliberately target same-sex parents, allowing some visibility to a too-often-forgotten group.
  • The moms of the Black Lives matter movement are helping to make the personal political and spoke at this year’s Democratic National Convention.
  • Sheryl Sandberg, enduring a personal tragedy at the loss of her husband, relied on her experience to spread awareness about the challenges of being a single mom in the United States in her new book, Option B. Another book shout out goes to Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, who provides a really fascinating view into the lives of single mothers, by choice and otherwise.
  • For all the moms and grandmothers who used the Women’s March as a chance to teach female empowerment to their daughters and fight back against messages of misogyny, this shout out is for you.
  • Thanks goes out to the folks at Hulu for making Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale popular again, inspiring a new generation to watch, and then read, this cautionary story.
  • More thanks to Salary.com for translating a mother’s worth as a salaried number, because some folks need numbers to understand value.
  • To Beyoncé and Serena Williams, who continue to inspire discussions about women, pregnancy, and active lifestyles.
  • Finally, thanks to the mothers who are not just moving on after the election.

I had fun creating my list; I encourage you to add to this list in the comments so that together we can build on increasing visibility of issues, ideas, and people connected to motherhood.

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Work-Life Balance Fail

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I recently read this article about how Millennials are less likely than the previous generation to believe in egalitarian households. Some even explicitly say that they prefer women within a relationship to perform more of the domestic responsibilities. Different scholars have offered various explanations for this study, including shifting attitudes reflected in the latest election or men’s loss of dominance in the workforce, but Stephanie Coontz’s suggestion is the most intriguing to me: that the young people being surveyed may be forming their beliefs from having watched their own families struggle to achieve a work-life balance.

Coontz argues that the United States lags (way) behind in offering solutions for better work-family balance than most other countries. In part, because of a lack of serious and extensive family/work-friendly legislation, people and companies have been trying to engineer their own successful balance. Just this past weekend, one woman wrote about her experience of taking her baby to work, which is becoming a trend, according to the article. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, in part because of her personal family tragedy, is now beginning to rethink her advice to lean in, acknowledging the more complex pieces of the work-life puzzle. Professor Robert Kelly received international attention when his children crashed his live interview with the BBC. People could relate to his struggle to engage in a serious work event with his children in the background. Less attention, as usual, is generally given to those in the lowest-paid jobs in our society, where work-family conflict is not simply a lifestyle challenge, but a lifetime crisis.

I think about my own family-work balance and worry that my children will feel the same way as these Millennials. As much as I’ve had tons of support (I live with my parents, who act as additional caregivers), I always feel an imbalance between my work and obligations to my family. My children are disappointed when I miss a school event (though I try to attend most). When I accidently place a homework folder in the wrong child’s book bag, I blame myself even if I know, in theory, it should be the child’s responsibility.

Recently, when I was talking to my friends about their daughters’ ambitions, we were surprised to discover that all of our daughters talked about wanting to be a mom first and then finding a job that they can do in addition to their primary role as caregiver. My daughters frequently ask me about future possible jobs and how many hours they each require. Our kids are all under ten years old, and my friends and I were surprised by their attention to their future work-life balance.

In some ways, this may be a good thing; perhaps their thinking about balance this early will allow them to grow into becoming leaders who find a better way than our generation has. In other ways, though, it’s sad that they already see this balance as a problem, and that they are thinking at this early age about the limits they will have to face. Let’s work to pass policies that will reduce those limits, so that they do not have to face the same challenges in the future that we do now.

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Children as Mini-Adults

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While much of my household succumbed to a variety of viruses this month, I ended up spending much time watching children’s television with my kids. Something that struck me was the amount of shows where the children are left to fend for themselves while their parents are lost, missing, or just preoccupied. I don’t claim that this type of television is a new phenomenon. I remember watching Party of Five in the 1990s about a group of children left to raise themselves when their parents die in a car accident. Incidentally, while I found the program enjoyable when I was in my twenties, it’s horrifying to watch now that I have children of my own. 

Today, though, shows where children are alone seem plentiful. Nickelodeon just finished airing Hunter Street, which is about five children whose foster parents suddenly disappear. They are forced to hide the fact that they are by themselves and find their parents in this comedic/suspense program.

The kids also been engrossed with Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on the children novels first published in 1999, where orphaned children are forced to fend for themselves against evil or well-meaning but useless caretakers. My children love Just Add Magic on Amazon, about three pre-teen girls who inherit a magic cookbook and are thrust into a world of magic while hiding their newfound skills from their parents. In the first season, the girls have to save one of their grandmas from a magic spell. The Loud House, on Nickelodeon, is an animated series where the children in a large family (11 kids) are mostly on their own. While their parents are around, they are clearly secondary characters. We don’t even see the full face of the parents until the second season.

I’m wondering why there is this fascination with children left on their own, unable to rely on the adults in their world. I see it, in part, as a reaction to the perception of overparenting/helicopter parenting in our culture. As more parents became involved in every aspect of their children’s upbringing, negotiating everything from play dates to college applications, these worlds imagine children that are coping without parental intervention. Even the newly released animated movie Boss Baby, which I admit to not having seen, seems to envision a future world where overparenting is brought to its unpleasant extreme, and the babies and small children of the world are now running it.

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman recognized a world where the boundaries between adults and children have been blurred. Do children become miniature adults when Postman’s vision is fully realized? And, what does that make adults?

 

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The Year of the Leggings

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This might be called the year of the leggings. It wouldn’t be the first time, of course. Created in the 1960s, it was a popular fashion trend in the 1980s, and reached a second wave of fame in the last decade, as this article illustrates. Leggings have also always had its critics. Some decry them as deplorable fashion. Others see them as the cause of health problems. More recently, leggings have become a feminist cause. Some middle schools have banned them, leading to concern that only girls are being targeted to avoid certain clothing. Leggings became a public concern yet again this weekend when a United Airlines attendant asked some girls to change out of their leggings or cover them up and a passenger who overhead this started a twitter legging war. Later, United Airlines stood by their decision, indicating that the clothes violated company policy because the family was traveling as part of a “pass traveler,” traveling for free as family of an employee and thus bound to employee dress regulations. 

Because I always love an opportunity to talk about feminism, the idea of leggings being a conversation about girl empowerment is an intriguing one. Yet, I’m not sure I’m on the side of the leggings (I’m always on the side of female empowerment). One Washington Post writer argues that wearing leggings on a plane is simply not polite because they show off too much. For me, it’s less a problem with how leggings look than what they represent: a completely casual attitude about where you are and what you are representing.  Leggings and other casual clothing are leading to a blur in life between fancy occasions and casual ones.

The other day I attended a special ceremony, complete with local politicians in attendance, at my daughter’s school and almost every fifth grade girl was wearing black leggings while walking across the front of the room to receive a certificate. Now, I’m not saying they needed to all be wearing dresses but it did seem rather casual (note: my own daughter was also wearing black leggings despite my best attempts to get her to dress it up). It’s not just this event, though. Whether it’s school, church, synagogues or weddings, graduations, or holiday, everyone is just so informal. Even the first day of school, once a ritual where you dressed to impress now just seems like a regular clothing day.  The only thing that distinguishes the first day of school pictures on facebook with any other pictures are the bitter expressions on the faces of the children and the school bus in the background. When I go to graduation at the end of the year, both the men and the women often are dressed in casual clothes. Not me- even under my (extremely hot) gown, I wear a dress and shoes, not because it’s comfortable but it’s a sign of my recognition of the formality and importance of the occasion.  I’ve even seen people dressed in sneakers for a job interview.

I’m not particularly interested in fashion trends but the idea of dressing in a more formal way to indicate respect for a time or an institution seems less like a fashion issue and more of a societal concern about ritual and formality. I understand I may  just be a product of an older generation. Millennials, apparently don’t like dress codes.  Apparently, dressing casual may also be a sign of freedom for some, as detailed in this interesting piece on the history of casual clothes in the United States.  Yet, if casual dress represents freedom from rules and rituals, what is the freedom for? Why do we need to wear leggings to signal our freedom? And, what will take the place of our dress in demonstrating our adherence to rituals, respect, and institutions?

I don’t really care what people wear on a plane and I’m certainly not interested in defending United Airlines (big companies don’t need my help) but I can understand a desire to have a dress code. A strong desire for people and institutions to demand dress codes may be a reaction to the freedom and tendency to go ever more casual. I’m not interested in dictating a specificity to what we wear but acknowledging that how we dress on certain occasions may matter. Perhaps discussing gender bias in dress codes may be something I can get behind in fighting, but first, can we at least decide as a society that there are occasions which demand dressing up in the first place?

 

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How to Work From Home

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I know I should be more sympathetic, but that interview this past week with the male professor participating in a televised BBC interview about South Korea when his two toddlers barge in made me laugh out loud. As a working mother, I totally get what he went through, and I have to say that, while my children have interrupted many different phone interviews, phone conferences, a class or two, and a couple of speaking engagements at conferences, I have never had it happen on live television.  I will leave others to debate why people assumed that the woman who removed the children was the nanny and not, in fact, his wife. Always eager to discuss and promote quality work-life balance, I would like to offer some advice for him in the future in case he’s tempted to try to work from home again:

  1. First, you need to begin with some preventative measures. Television works best -- preferably two 22-minute shows. In particular, a show that under normal circumstances you might not let your child watch works best for very important interviews. I’m convinced that’s why Sponge Bob was invented. Check out these statistics about the rise in working women from 1970 (40%) to 2000 (61%). Now, note that the Sponge Bob premiered in 1999. Coincidence? I think not!
  2. Second, you should find a place to hide to conduct the interview. Only a rookie would take a call in his actual home office. In fact, that’s a great decoy spot to lure the kids while you are at your real location. I always like to pick places that the little ones would never think to find me. I find these spots to be ideal: under the dining room table, outside on the porch (especially if it’s below 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside), or on top of the washing machine. If you’ve got the right kind of house or apartment, the roof may also be an option.
  3. Third, you must lock the door. This is a simple procedure but absolutely necessary. In fact, I’ve found it ideal if you could be locked behind two separate doors. For example, if it’s not a video interview, then the locked bathroom inside my bedroom works quite well. Plus, if nature calls, just hit that mute bottom, and you are all set.
  4. Sometimes doors don’t lock, or the lock can be broken. In that case, it’s probably best to have a simple barricade behind the door. I have found that leaning my office chair against the door works well so I can keep nudging the door closed if necessary. You can even skip the gym later that day if this is what happens.
  5. Sometimes, they still get in. That’s why I always have a bag of lollipops in my office. Again, if your child isn’t used to candy, they will suck on those treats for a good 20 minutes. That should buy you enough time to finish, but seriously, do not take more than 20 minutes to wrap it up, because you definitely do not want to still be on the call when they have the guaranteed sugar crash.
  6. Finally, if your child does manage to penetrate my practically full-proof system, my advice is to not look annoyed or shove your child. Instead, act like you are the advanced one, accepting that children are a part of life and that their being there is no big deal.

 

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White Privilege in Black History Month

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This is the time of year that black heroes become a bit more visible. For example, the television network Nickelodeon is working with the initiative Because of Them, We Can to broadcast a series of PSAs designed to feature children emulating African-American heroes. Other networks air documentaries that are not as visible during other months of the year. Companies and organizations, from the Girl Scouts to Coca Cola, use this time to tout their inclusivity. And, in schools throughout the nation, children engage in projects designed to expose them to African-American heroes. 

As a white woman raising children whom I want to be able to respect and appreciate all people, I have always relished this additional programming, even the advertising, as an opportunity for them to learn more about the achievements of people of color. This year, however, I’m starting to feel that there is a giant elephant in the room. Maybe it’s the recent election and what I see as Trump’s assault on anyone outside his zone of privilege. It may be the movement of Black Lives Matter, which is striving to motivate discussion about race and privilege as a part of our everyday language. It could even be the way those associated with the best picture Moonlight, even if by accident, were muted yet again.

This year, when my daughter was assigned a project writing about Serena Williams, I couldn’t help but realize that, while my child was learning all about her accomplishments, the project did not help to bring her closer to understanding white privilege. This seems to me just as important for her and her classmates, who are in a school that is predominantly white, to understand.

I acknowledge that my own privilege as a white, middle-class woman and professor, which allows me to have the choice to teach my child about privilege, is a privilege in and of itself. Still, I have seen how little the books and articles written for children, and even the assignment itself, are not focused to teach my daughter about institutional racism. It was only through additional research of articles written for adults, such as this New York Times Magazine article, that we were able to find out about the incident at Indian Wells, where racial epithets were shouted at Williams after she won a tournament, and about her father’s writing about how he hired kids to surround Serena and her sister Venus and shout curses at them to prepare them for the racial insults they would hear during competition. We also discussed how people have described her body as “masculine.” It was harder to try to tackle the more hidden aspects of racism, like the way she might have been ignored by sponsors. It’s difficult to discuss with children that which isn’t even acknowledged by adults.

This exercise has made me re-think how I might add in more discussion of privilege all year long for my own children and in my classes. I’m finding that many topics can be re-thought through this perspective. In what ways do you work to make the invisible visible to your own children and the students you teach?

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Melania as Feminist Rorschach Test

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I’ve been reading with great interest several articles that are discussing shifts in feminism. Just this weekend, the New York Times Magazine featured a cover story examining Feminism and the Left.

Equally interesting to me is watching how people have been discussing the role of Melania Trump. Since many people know very little about the newest First Lady, they are able to project what they want to believe onto her. The views are filled with contradictions. With some, Melania is a woman trapped in a terrible marriage. Protesters have held signs in front of Trump Tower that encourage her to flash a light if she needs help. Others have looked to her expressions in public in search of signs of any “negative body language,” which may indicate she is distraught or depressed. Melania Memes abound across the Internet, with people offering to save her from her golden prison. The hashtag #FreeMelania  began trending, with people offering, “Blink twice if you need help.”

Others object, from a feminist perspective, to this view of Melania. Just because a woman chooses to be with a man many of us loathe, should we assume she has lost her own power? Some argue it is anti-feminist to position Melania as powerless person solely because we may not agree with her choices or lifestyle. Some disagree with any attempt to “save her,” saying she has made her choices and deserves the criticism that come with them. Others are angry at her choice to not assume the traditional First Lady role, worrying that even the annual Easter egg hunt may not be ready in time. One article points out the irony that it is Melania, who many critique as powerless and lacking a feminist perspective, who may be the one to reject the domestic responsibilities of the position of the First Lady. 

This raises the question about how the Trump election has forced us all to rethink our assumptions about feminism. For some, it means rejecting the Pop Feminism or Marketplace Feminism that is all about showing off our beliefs without acting on them in significant ways. For others, it’s a chance to participate in a march, maybe even with parents or grandparents who were a part of earlier feminist movements. Melania has become someone onto whom we can project our own feminist fantasies, alternatively being a woman who can be saved by feminists or unexpectedly supports feminism by rejecting the traditional First Lady role. Does her reason for her rejection even matter if it changes our expectations of future First Ladies (or First Gentlemen)?

Yet another perspective may be Sara Ruddick’s concept of “maternal thinking.” Perhaps Melania is in the position to potentially influence her husband’s policies regarding women and children. Of course, no one knows whether she is or can perform this role, but this possibility suggests a reason for her to stick around.

I don’t have answers to what, if anything, Melania will do in her new role, and I’m not sure if she will ever have enough influence to matter. However, if her (non-) presence allows us to bring feminist discussions outside of academia and activists and to the dinner table, I’m interested.

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The President I Wish I Had

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In the frightening and depressing American politics of the current administration, where I find Muslim friends and colleagues feeling threatened, where people close to me are worrying about losing their health care, where the rights of women to make decisions about their bodies are being challenged, I have found inspiration for the proper running of government: the television show The West Wing.

I must confess to having always loved this show (and in general, anything written by Aaron Sorkin), but now it’s providing me with a hypothetical reality and escapism, much as I imagine that classic Hollywood movies did for people during the Great Depression. I also know I’m not alone. Fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda are familiar with the fact that he is a huge big (I can never write the word “huge” again because of the negative associations it brings up now) fan of The West Wing. Miranda even has played with the idea of a fantasy musical version (for which, by the way, I would be the first to buy tickets). Other fans have used the show to suggest ways to solve real political conflicts, such as the opposition President Obama faced when he nominated a Justice to the Supreme Court.

The West Wing spends little time on characters’ personal lives; when it does, it is usually to remind viewers that they don’t have time to have them. The show never explored what we refer to today as work-life balance, because when push came to shove, work always came before anything else. Public service and The Office of the President was considered the most important work ever -- more important than Josh and Amy having a relationship, more important than any promises Bartlet made to his wife, and more important than CJ dedicating time to pursue romance. Public service required sacrifice, and these public servants gave it their all for the good of their country.

In The West Wing, the President surrounded himself with people who were willing to disagree with him. In one episode, the administration tested a potential speechwriter’s willingness to speak to power by placing a bad note from the President in his writing. The value exalted in the show was morality over loyalty; if a character witnessed a policy as morally wrong, they were expected to speak up. When watching our new administration that completely refuses to ever admit they are wrong, and surrounds the President with only those who agree with him, and are loyal even when violating the Constitution, I have decided to watch again the episodes showing Toby telling the President he’s not going to achieve greatness without resolving his father issues.

Sure, the show may have jumped the shark (SPOILER ALERT) when Zoe was kidnapped, but in real life we jumped the shark the moment Trump was elected President (maybe even earlier). At least in my fantasy world, some type of solution that respects the Constitution is offered. Most importantly, as much as I love The West Wing, I can still distinguish that it’s fiction, not fact, which is more than I can say for the current administration.

 

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The New and Old Face of Gaming

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Over the winter break during a family visit, I watched my children and their cousin play Monopoly on a video gaming system. It recalled nothing of the experience of Monopoly during my youth. Rather, it seemed to me like all the learning opportunities were taken away from the children. I immediately went out and bought a new copy of the board game (a “vintage” version, according to the box) so they could learn the “real” game.

After watching them play for a few hours, I was reminded of what they had been missing. With the video version, the computer applies the rules of the game. The computer was the banker, and though players could toggle specific rules on or off before the game started, there was no negotiation afterwards.

Part of the board game experience is the social interaction from negotiating your own set of rules. I can remember my sisters and I fighting over whether to put money in Free Parking, whether one could ask for extra privileges when bartering property, or even how to decide unexpected situations, such as when the dice fall on the floor, or someone “forgets” to give the money to get out of jail. New family rules emerge that aren’t the printed rules of the game; the computer is not so forgiving, precluding the opportunity to learn how to negotiate social rules. 

My daughter complained that, with the board game, we ran out of money, but the computer had endless money. This prompted questions about the nature and function of currency. While the computer performed calculations with ease, the children had to change money and figure out percentages themselves, just like they would in real life (that is, if they lost their phone with the calculator app). 

I’m not saying there is something wrong with playing video games. Some games require players to negotiate complicated rules and positions for play. However, board games encourage players to be accountable to the people they play with because they will see them again in a few hours, negotiating the last dessert at the dinner table. As we are replacing so many of our interpersonal interactions with digital ones within an increasingly partisan society, I relish the lessons of the traditional game.

I recently read Steven Johnson’s Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. He discusses how people’s desire throughout history for novel forms of play helped to shape the world in which we live. I found his ideas worth considering, and I wondered where there is space in our modern world for play and reflection to converge. What struck me most about watching the children play Monopoly was how long the game took to complete, and how much boredom was interspersed throughout the game. Players sometimes took their time during their turn, and constant disagreements would have to be negotiated. All of that gave my mind time to think. I would argue that in our digital world, reflective thinking is simply not encouraged as much, since multiple screens and endless choices distract our minds. I wonder if bringing back the traditional board game might bring more reflective time for families.

 

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