Laura Tropp's blog

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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Family, Ideologies, and Television Viewing

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Over the holiday break, the children and I binged watched Fuller House on Netflix. Since I had seen all the Full House episodes on television when I was a child, I was curious to dive into two seasons of this new, updated version. After watching the new series, I think it presents a nice opportunity to compare how television represented caregiving in the late 1980s to today.

Full House was set in a period when popular media was exploring the idea of men taking on more responsibilities at home. A few years before, the movie Mr. Mom played the idea of a father staying at home while his wife worked as a comedy. A few years later (the same year as the premiere of Full House), Three Men and a Baby featured three bachelors forced to suddenly care for an infant.

As women worked outside the home in greater numbers, popular media began asking who would raise the children by imagining worlds where woman didn’t exist.  Much of the humor of Full House rested on the incompetency of the men not knowing how to care for the children. The pilot episode showed Joey and Jesse completely unable to change a diaper. The show found laughs in the men having to deal with what had been, up to that point, exclusively women’s problems. One of my favorite early episodes is when Jesse and Joey have to make a big corporate presentation but need to watch baby Michelle at the same time. The show tackles head-on the real problem of who will watch the children when everyone is working.

Some fans have made the case that Full House successfully demonstrated a loving male-driven household, perhaps unconsciously paving the way for gay dads on future television programs. Full House even made it on a list of “TV’s 8 Most Unintentional Gay Dads.” At the same time, Becky joined the Full House cast in the second season and often provided the “girl talk” and womanly perspective that the show implied is needed for raising three young girls.

The new Fuller House finds its humor from a different place than its namesake. Now, two of the Fuller children, DJ and Stephanie, and their best friend Kimmie, are fully-grown women and have reclaimed the household. Rarely are jokes made about the incompetency of the women’s childcare skills. The show respects the ideology that women are naturally adept at caregiving. Even Stephanie, who has the least experience with children, is shown to be able to easily step into a caregiving role.

In fact, an early episode offers the audience a reason for why Stephanie doesn’t have a family of her own (SPOILER ALERT): she’s suffering from infertility. Since the plot of the episode had no reason for this to be explained to us, it seems like the show is reassuring the audience why a woman does not have children. In the older show, Joey’s not having his own family was not explained or justified, but Stephanie is presented as not choosing a child-free life but being saddled with it.

Many episodes of Fuller House show the women expressing their sexuality. A running joke is the wolf howl the three single women do, even bringing in Kimmie’s daughter after her first kiss. The humor here seems to be derived from juxtaposing motherhood with sexuality. Just like the “Becky” character, Kimmie’s fiancé Fernando is included to provide a male perspective, which is supplied by his extreme masculinity (he’s a race car driver, to start). Apparently, all-female households are just as risky as all-male ones.

While my children may enjoy watching a show about family antics (there IS a cute dog, by the way), I’m watching the typical ideologies of family caregiving. Men are bumbling, women are natural caregivers, sexuality and motherhood are either incompatible or funny to watch, and same-sex households must be balanced with the opposing gender. Neither show from either decade explores the true challenges and awkwardness of burgeoning sexuality, such as a first period or bodily changes. Neither show entertains the idea of choosing not to have children of one’s own.

If you have seen either or both of these shows, what do you think?

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Moving Your Kids: My House or the White House

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President-elect Trump recently announced that while he would live in the White House, the first lady and his grade-school son, Barron, will stay in NYC to finish the school year. This decision may be the only thing I can relate to in connection to Trump. A year and a half ago, I had to make the decision whether to move the entire family halfway through the school year (and one of my children was midway through 5th grade, his last year at the elementary school) or wait until the following fall. I didn’t want to move them mid-way through. I thought the change would be too much for them, they might flounder with a potentially different curriculum, and how could they make friends suddenly as the new kids.  This is where my commonality with Trump ends because even though I’m framing it as if I had a decision, I didn’t really. Finances made the “choice” simple. I couldn’t afford to maintain the mortgage on a new house and rent on another, couldn’t live in my parents cramped place any longer, and thus had no choice but to move mid-year. For someone who built his campaign, at least in part, on his claim to understand the struggles of the lower or working class, I think he’s missing a key difference between the rich and the not rich: access to choices, especially with education.

One of the main reasons we moved was to give my children access to excellent public schools. At our old neighborhood the elementary schools were strong, but the middle school was on more shaky ground. To be sure that my children would get a strong, or even safe education, we were told to either try out for a specialized middle school. Someone advised me to start teaching my son a string instrument when he was four. Unfortunately, he showed no aptitude for that so music wasn’t going to be our ticket. Then, we were told to try out for the gifted program. Getting your children into a NYC gifted program is a serious endeavor which often involves tutoring and coaching. Much has been written on the inequities of the system. We didn’t do any coaching because we figured if he couldn’t get it on his own, then he’d be doomed to a lifetime of coaching to remain competitive. He didn’t get in.  So, our last choice was to move to a place with more taxes but access to great schools. We were privileged to even have that opportunity.

As those criticize the Trump decision to leave his child behind, they do so sighting clogged NYC traffic, the cost of secret service protection, and making a decision that affects everyone at the expense of disappointing a 4th grader. I can advise Trump that moving midway during the year was actually the best thing that ever happened to us. The kids were all treated special by the schools and given a moving helper. They were fine with the curriculum and got attention when needed, and most important, they had a chance to be seen as the new kids in the middle of the year rather than blend with the newness of the fall when they wouldn’t have been given any special attention. The kids survived.

It’s not easy to be kid. It’s especially not easy to be a White House kid as tales of Amy Carter’s loneliness at her first day of school when she was not even allowed out for recess, the media satires Chelsea Clinton had to entire, and the lack of privacy for everyone abound. Yet, first children have access to major privilege and opportunities the rest of us lack.  Barron, Trump’s child, would survive, and probably thrive, given that the Trumps have access to any private school they want. I would hope that rather than spending time exploring this particular decision that Trump is making in terms of cost and one child, it’s time to tackle the larger issues of education, access, and the hard decisions every parent must make when it comes to doing right by their kids.

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Moving Your Kids: <br>My House or the White House

Turkey Stress

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Thanksgiving is almost here, but so far, I haven’t had time to do much writing, start preparing my Thanksgiving feast, or even think about what I’m thankful for. I’m too busy preparing a fake, somewhat edible turkey so that my child will have the same turkey as everyone else at school (because, as the mom of an allergy kid, I always have to send in a duplicate of any food served to the class, and the class moms this year are bringing in turkeys made from popcorn stuffed in a clear plastic glove).  Here’s a pic: 

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I sent a copy to my friends to brag about my crafty prowess. They sent me back pics of each of their turkeys:

I now have discovered that women at every level of profession throughout most industry, government, and educational institutions in the U.S. are getting absolutely no work done this week, because we are all making turkey crafts.

At first I wondered why we were doing this? It’s one thing for schools to make turkey projects with kids, but is it necessary for us parents at home to actively participate in he turkey-making experience? Why do I feel so compelled to drop everything and make this turkey? Is it just because I don’t want my child to feel left out of the turkey craft experience? Or, am I competing with the other moms, an attempt to prove myself so that I don’t lose my mom card?

As I glued the snood onto my turkey glove, I began thinking about how disingenuous this project was. Here we are, making these cute-looking stuffed turkeys filled with candy or popcorn or pretzels while, later in the week, we will be buying and cooking turkeys that have been killed for our consumption. A project that my children (and by extension, myself) have had to prepare in previous years is disguise a turkey so he won’t be caught for Thanksgiving. At least that’s more honest about dealing with the holiday.

I wonder whether, in some ways, these turkey projects are a way to distract from the other, less palatable, aspects of the holiday that involve explaining to children how settlers treated Native Americans then, and our country’s treatment of them still now. Every time we decorate a turkey, we aren’t having real discussions about the issues associated with this holiday. 

I find Thanksgiving a complicated time for academics who focus their work on questioning power, control, and ideologies. Sometimes, it’s just easier being a mom stuffing a latex glove with rainbow Goldfish, popcorn, and feathers. Happy Thanksgiving to the other Ph.D. moms and dads out there. Don’t worry about your work this week; there are turkeys that need crafting!

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Grannies Rocking the Vote

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My doctoral dissertation was on voter mobilization campaigns. After the birth of my children, I moved toward writing about feminist and motherhood issues. These days, I’m tackling the subject of grandparenting in a new book I’m writing as I watch my own parents with their grandchildren. It’s pretty exciting, then, to watch all my subjects converge with the recent attention on voter mobilization and grandparents. In 2008, Sarah Silverman worked with a PAC to create a funny video designed to convince young people to persuade their Floridian Jewish grandparents to vote for Obama.

These days, in a reversal video, another PAC has grandparents convincing their grandchildren that the fate of the country rests on them voting for Clinton. Hillary Clinton herself has been trying to persuade Abuelitas to use their influence to convince their children and grandchildren to vote. Clinton often refers to her experience as a grandmother to show her vested interest in the next generation and share what she has in common with others in her age group. She has faced some criticism for claiming more in common than she has with those of specific cultural groups. They have pointed out that their experiences are different, which Clinton acknowledged recently to an audience of men and women of color, particularly referring to grandparents.

It’s nice, though, to see an older population getting attention and being seen as an influence on the campaign. Much attention has been spent on the idea of Clinton as making important progress in advancing the cause for women. As a woman of a certain age, she may also have the potential to shift how we think about the elderly, particularly the female elderly. Much attention has been paid to her bout with pneumonia and her “cover-up” of it. Yet, with the way that popular media typically depicts elderly women as frail and needy, it’s no wonder to me that she wouldn’t advertise any type of frailty. As more and more products and media emphasize youth, I hope that this election can also be a chance to think about when age and gender intersect.

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Parenting Extremes

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It is not often that one article can spur combined emotions of fear, guilt, anger, and resentment in me. This past week, the New York Times Magazine featured an article about a father trying to be an anti-helicopter parent. On the one hand, I share his sentiment of the sadness of the disappearance of community and children’s play and the over-scheduling of children’s activities. I also certainly don’t want to be a helicopter mom. In theory, I like his ideas of opening up his home to others and creating an environment where children can play without the straightjacket of parental protection. Yet, there is much I question in his philosophy. 

First, his equating masculinity with rugged play and risk-taking is problematic. We are finally moving to a place where people do not assign strict gender roles as frequently. We even are seeing post-gender names becoming popular. I don’t want to return to a time when we need to assign specific traits exclusively to boys or girls.

Second, this story raises the question of what role class plays. He looked at other communities of a lower class than his as a model for his environment. However, it is one thing to have no choice but to create a community-based daycare so kids have a safe place to go in the summer when their parents can’t afford camp, and it is entirely another to have the money to create some version of a wealthy playground so that kids can engage in risky play. The ability to choose risk is itself a privilege. Not as widely reported are times when parents of modest means have no choice but to engage in what’s labeled as risky behavior for their children. Instead of being lauded as creative parents, they are prosecuted.

The role of the law when it comes to parenting is another issue I have with the family featured in the article. When the reporter questioned the father about the potential litigious environment he has created within his backyard, where kids can play on the roof of a house, he laughed. He isn’t worried about lawsuits because he has the means to defend himself if faced with a protracted lawsuit. Again, this is a form of privilege that he seems to take for granted. In fact, a constant refrain I hear from wealthy folks is often the phrase “I could (or should) sue him.” The idea of lawsuits as a weapon of power is reserved for the powerful.

I also question his thinking that children’s play will naturally work out for the best. As the reporter opined, the “Lord of the Flies” mentality is just as likely to come about.

The father’s philosophy is appealing because the idea of returning to an age of casual, less formalized play is attractive to a society in which too much of childhood is constrained. Yet, I’m not sure that going to the other extreme and creating manufactured risks in your backyard is the answer.

 

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Parenting and the New Television Season

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The new television season is bringing to light parental anxiety.

First, I saw This is Us (Spoiler Alert for those not finished watching the first episode). What makes the show interesting is its storytelling: the show intercuts scenes of three siblings living in the present with past moments from their childhood.

While this structure may be simply a clever plot device, the consequence is that the show implies the actions of the characters in the past scenes influence what’s happening in the present. This has become a parenting nightmare for me.

In the second episode, the siblings’ mother attempts to help her seven year-old daughter deal with being overweight. She gives her daughter a serving of cottage cheese while giving her sons bowls of cereal. In the present scenes, the adult daughter is now obese and struggles with her weight. We are left to wonder whether the mother is, in part, the cause for her daughter’s unhappiness with her weight and life circumstances. If her mother had accepted her daughter for who she was, would she be happier now? Would her life be different? In my previous blog posts, I’ve referred to some new studies about how parents can influence the self-esteem of their children, and, in particular, of their daughters. This show taps right into parental anxiety and blame.

This is Us is not the only show to do so. I watched the program Frequency, where (second Spoiler Alert: stop here if you have not seen the first episode), the daughter, living in the present, communicates with her dead father living in 1996. She saves him from his early demise, only to realize that she accidentally changed the thread of time, which results in the murder of her mother instead. Throughout the show, the power of parents to impact your life seems to resonate. Her life is different growing up with a father in place of a mother, and viewers see the different possible outcomes. Implied is the idea that the choices you make have a strong influence on your future happiness.

Speechless is a comedy about a family with a child who has a disability. The mother’s strong advocacy for her son often results in the mother being thought of as crazy, the other children sometimes feeling neglected, and the family having to sacrifice ideals of normality. While I think the show has a really interesting perspective on living with disability which alone warrants watching it, the show also raises questions about many mothers’ struggles of deciding when to intercede on behalf of her children, and when to hold back.

During a period of parenting when the label of helicopter mom is still natural for some but abhorred by others, when movements within minority populations show moms who lament that they can’t protect their children from violence, when new studies often demonstrate how often genetics or epigenetics influence people’s futures, it seems that the television season is finally reflecting the challenges, fears, and anxieties of this new age of parenting.

 

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The Period Years

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I’ve always been interested in how we divide topics into private and public categories, particularly in regards to sex and gender. This is why I have been following so closely the shift of menstruation from private to public. Some media outlets have declared 2015 as the Year of the Period.

The public period is becoming more and more popular. During the Olympics, Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui spoke publicly about what it was like having her period while she competed. Presidential candidate Donald Trump seemed to allude to it when he complained about the treatment he received from Republican primary debate moderator Megyn Kelly.

The period also received attention as the company Thinx moved into the marketplace to offer a new version of period underwear. It wasn’t so much the new item they sold (period underwear is actually not new), but the way that they publicly chose to come out of the (bathroom) closet about their product. For example, the company took out ads in the New York City subway system, though they faced some challenges). Thinx broke down more barriers by featuring a transgender model in its ads.

In a new form of “period activism,” runner Kiran Gandhi ran a marathon while “free-flowing” during her period. While some critics reacted by calling her action disgusting, many others supported her effort to push back against social pressure to hide menstruation. Period activism has found its way to social media: a popular Twitter hashtag is #Livetweetyourperiod. BuzzFeed has featured a story about a teen boy who carries tampons for his friends who are girls. He started his own hashtag, #realmensupportwomen

Some parents now throw their daughters period parties (aka first moon parties) to make their first menstruation a mark of pride and excited anticipation rather than one of worry and dread. A colleague of mine criticized this as fetishizing the period. It did make me pause for a moment to question the line between celebration and fetish.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled by these developments. I believe that normalizing menstruation is important toward eradicating the shame and objectification of the female body. However, I also wrestle with the loss of privacy as every aspect of life becomes a public spectacle. Just recently, I read a Facebook post from a mother who was searching for some information about a period app and consequently announced the arrival of her daughter’s period. Another mom commented that she might want to delete her post because her daughter might become angry for outing her first period in a semi-public forum. The first mother countered that her daughter was proud of her period, so why should it remain private?

I still can’t decide if, as a young girl with my first period, I would want to plan for its arrival with a period party, or if, as a high school teen, I would want to have my male friends carry tampons for me. If I say no, am I ashamed of my body and its natural processes? When can moments be private but not shameful? If you don’t join the period party, are you helping to stop the progress against body shaming? What are your thoughts regarding the questions of private vs. public and the female body?

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