Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Different Reaction to Male and Female Power in the FX Show "Damages"?

I love the new FX show "Damages," starring Glenn Close as high-powered Manhattan attorney Patricia Hewes, who it seems it will resort to anything to win a case against billionaire CEO Arthur Frobisher, played by Ted Danson. Both characters wield tremendous power in their work lives, though it's questionable how much they have in their personal lives (there are suggestions of children and marriages run awry) and both are willing to hurt and even (order others to)kill others (so far, Hewes maims a dog, and Frobisher orders a hit on a woman who is going to testify against him) to sustain that power.

"Damages" is really all about power, magnified through the lens of gender. There's one episode in which Hewes says (disclaimer-this quote is from memory): "The most dangerous thing you can do to a man is take away his power," alluding to Frobisher.

In a recent Newsday article, one of the show's creators, Daniel Zelman, said they made the character of Hewes a lawyer because "We were looking for a world in which women could exercise as much power as men. There is the glass ceiling, but at the same time there are very, very powerful women who have risen in the ranks of the legal profession." In that same article another co-creator, Kessler says of meeting with Glenn Close before they shot the shows, "she had a lot of thoughts and ideas and wanted us to really push the boundaries in terms of a woman with that kind of power."

So how do people react to seeing a woman with so much power act so Machiavellian? It's interesting that today's New York Times has a piece on Ted Danson, "A Veteran of Comedy Rediscovers His Dark Side," which mentions how surprising it is that viewers responded to Frobisher's unethical conduct (cheating on his wife, snorting cocaine and then putting out a contract on the life of this woman who glimpsed him getting into his broker's car--need I mention that these three acts took place in the space of one minute--the cheating, snorting and ordering the hit) by feeling sympathy for him. Says one creator of the show, Glenn Kessler, "I don't know how many actors could have those huge plot points in their story and have the audience walk away liking them more." This is a testament to Ted Danson's acting skills, but even more so, it's a testament to our reaction to men wielding power and going to lengths to protect it: we have a natural sympathy for powerful men, a willingness to forgive them their wrongs and weaknesses.

I wonder what the public reaction is to Glenn Close's character, Patricia Hewes. How did people feel about her when they learn she was the one responsible for killing or injuring the young woman's dog in one show? Are viewers less sympathetic to her unscrupulous conduct than they are to Frobisher's? I'm guessing they are.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Leona Helmsley--The Marie Antoinette Syndrome Revisited

Leona Helmsley died on Monday at the age of 87. Every article covering her death mentions in the first paragraph that she was renowned as the "Queen of Mean" because of her reputation for cruel treatment of employees, and her statement, "only little people pay taxes." This statement is a "tumbrel" remark, which I wrote about a few weeks ago in reference to Lady Black, or Barbara Amiel, and how certain remarks that powerful, wealthy women make incite class warfare--Leona's famous dictum was one such remark, and it summarized her image in the public's mind even at her death.

Leona married Harry Helmsley in 1972, and he appointed her president of Helmsley Hotels in 1980. In the 80s, she cultivated the image of herself as a "queen" by appearing in a highly successful series of hotel ads saying such things as the Palace was the only place where "the queen stands guard."

As Gail Collins wrote Tuesday in an op-ed in the New York Times, the hatred for this woman was totally out-of-proportion to her bad acts. Why was she so hated? Because she was a woman who dared to be greedy, as Collins put it, to want more than her share. Gail Collins calls this the "Leona Helmsley rule": "If you are a woman, you do not want to be caught demanding way, way more than your share. We cannot get away with greed."

Again, just as in the case of Barbara Amiel Black, it's the case of a woman demonized for conveying an unrepentant desire for wealth and material possessions. She was too proud, and too greedy, and this behavior is not tolerated in women.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Another Chinese Import For Parents to Worry About-Children's Clothes

This is getting absolutely ridiculous. I just saw this article from Australia finding extremely dangerous levels of formaldehyde and other chemicals in children's clothes imported from China (which can cause cancer).

Just a few days ago, I purchased a stylish winter coat for my young daughter; she loved it, demanding that I take off the store labels and that she put on her "fancy" coat and hat. I looked at the coat label and it said, "Wash Before Wear" and "Made in China". The "Wash Before Wear" I had not seen before on children's clothing, and I actually for once acted on my parental neurosis and returned it to the store, asking if the salesperson had any idea why this label was on the coat. (And, first, I looked at on the Internet for a possible explanation and found one mention of formaldehyde being put on clothes that are imported from Asia so that they maintain their look upon arrival.) The salesperson said the instruction was unusual, that she has seen it in jeans, so that you don't get the blue color on your body, but that she never looks at labels, and that I should call the company. Needless to say, I returned the coat, but for another nice-looking one made in a different Asian country, without an instruction to "wash before wear." But so much of our children's clothes is made in third-world countries where who knows what kind of chemicals are used.

Now I just checked the new jeans that I bought for my son's first day of school tomorrow. They're from the Gap, and the label says "Made in Cambodia" and also recommends "Wash Once Before Wearing." At the Gap store, I disregarded the import of the wash before wear instruction because that salesperson's words wear in my head (wash so the blue color doesnt get on your body) but is there formaldehyde in these jeans that are going to go on my little son's body? Does anyone know (feel free to comment).

Add this to the new announcements from the Baby Bargains editors that we shouldn't buy Avent bottles because of the kind of plastic they use, with the number 7 on the bottom of the bottle; there is a chemical, BPA, in it, thay may cause cancer. Parents on the Baby Bargains bulletin boards are scouring their cabinets, looking underneath their plastic containers, even one woman wondering if she should stop eating hummus. It's hard, if not impossible, to know where the right line is between being a conscious parent trying to protect one's child, and knowing and worrying too much. But it's also disconcerting and troubling that our government is doing so little to monitor imports that children are using and being exposed to, and that the plastics industry was directly in charge of studies that said a few years ago that this kind of plastic is safe to use.

It all comes down to money, to the bottom-line. It's profits for big industries that is the cause of dangerous chemicals being put on our children's toys and clothes and food imported from China. And it's the influence of the plastic industry trying to protect its bottom line that lead to consumers not knowing the truth about the dangerous chemicals in plastic. So the only way to effect change is for consumers to somehow effect the industries' bottom line.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Young Mother Unfairly Judged Criminally Negligent

The New York Times had an article yesterday, "A Baby Girl's Bath Becomes a Young Couple's Nightmare," about the terribly unfair imprisonment of a young woman of 18 who has been jailed since July 3, the day her 11-month-old daughter was found on her back in the bath.

The mother, Jovanna Shiriver, was looking after her daughter and the 2-year-old sister of her boyfriend; it was the first time she was taking care of more than one child. She left the two children in a little bit of water in the bath while she tended to a pot of rice on the stove that was burning. She says she was gone for about five minutes, nervous for those five minutes.

When the mother went back to the bath, her child was lying in the water. She went to a neighbor (she does not have her own phone) and they tried CPR, and then called the police. In the month since this happened, the baby has been on a ventilator.

This seems like a case where a mother made a tragic mistake. And yet prosecutors are looking at this as a case of "criminal negligence."

Read this quote from the article:

“There are all sorts of shades of gray, and that’s why you can’t have hard and fast rules,” said Ama Dwimoh, chief of the Crimes Against Children Bureau of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.

“People have to understand that there is a duty owed to children by the very nature of who they are,” Ms. Dwimoh said. “When you look at it from that perspective, you can see what is deemed criminal negligence as opposed to bad parenting.”

So, bad parenting is not prosecuted, but criminal negligence is. But who gets to decide what constitutes "bad parenting?"

I wonder if what tipped this case towards the "criminal negligence" side of the slippery slope was that this mother is a poor, young woman, the very circumstances that probably led her to make this mistake. On the day this accident took place, Ms. Shiriver said in an interview that she felt "overwhelmed." “I was doing everything,” she said. “I was cooking and doing housework.”

Another woman might have had an extra pair of hands, some hired help, a baby-sitter, someone to watch the bath while the other woman attended to the stove. The article mentions that Ms. Shiriver lived in the apartment with her boyfriend, his mother and stepfather, his 14-year-old sister and the 2-year-old; the 2-year-old's mother was in the hospital that day.

Law is not a science; it's applied by humans and so it's messy, and not consistent. This seems a case where it is been applied unfairly. The poor often get the hard end of the stick. This mother is being judged as criminally negligent because the law is being unsympathetic to her; it's easy for the prosecutors to be unsympathetic because the mother is poor and disenfranchised. The very circumstances that led to this awful mistake are what doom her in the hard, unyielding, blind eyes of the law.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Is Guiliani's daughter's Face Book page fair game?

Slate has a short piece today on how Guiliani's 17-year-old daughter has a Face Book page which mentioned (until she took it off after being contacted by Slate) that she belonged to a group that supports Obama. Only alums of Trinity high school and Harvard have access to the detailed profile page, and the writer goes to Harvard. Is a 17-year-old's Face Book page fair game? She's not yet an adult, but she may qualify as a public figure. Even 17-year-olds should be aware that what they post on the Internet is available for all to see, though she might have naively trusted in the private network of alumni of two prestigious schools to be quiet and keep her privacy. And she did try to change her name a little bit, as the Slate author states: "In what may be an effort to avoid public connection to her famous father, the future Harvard freshman and recent graduate of Trinity School in Manhattan uses a slight variation of her name on the Facebook site." So was Slate right to run the piece? How much can we conclude about Giuliani the man from the fact that his daughter was momentarily proud of her belonging to the Facebook group "Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)?"

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Sex as Strategy for Presidential Candidates

An interesting article in today's L.A. Times on the sexuality in images of the wives of the presidential candidates.

From the article: "What's going on reflects what's happening in the larger culture, a culture increasingly focused on young, attractive women and blatant sexuality, on display for all to appreciate," said Elizabeth Sherman, a political sociologist and Democrat who is married to former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. "The candidate's wife is a strategic asset. How are you going to deploy that asset?"

So, the candidate's wife is basically an object to be purposefully deployed in the media for public consumption. And how the candidate presents his wife (of course, Hillary is an exception here) and his relationship, is going to say a lot about the candidate. Some experts, as the article mentions, say that images of a youthful, sexy wife suggest the candidate's vitality.

Yet Camille Paglia says regarding the image in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar of Judith Giuliani sitting in Rudy's lap, with one hand on his cheek, the other on his shoulder, kissing him: "I think it's a very ostentatious, egregious and rather offensive appeal to women voters, and I think it's condescending and actually off the mark. I feel the great majority of women voters don't like to see a woman with her hands and lips all over her man."

But she's assuming they were trying to appeal to women, maybe they were trying to appeal to men? (Of course, a Giuliani spokesperson responds in the article that the kiss was spontaneous, but really, how could any of these images we see be candid.)

On the flip side, there's Hillary Clinton, who is trying to dress-down her sexuality in dowdy pants suits, and when she slips up, into something a little more feminine, gets articles written about her cleavage. But maybe she's right to tone down her femininity. Read this exchange in today's (Sunday's) New York Times between the novelist Mary Gordon and interviewer Deborah Solomon:

DS :"Are you a Hillary Clinton supporter?"

MG: "I think no woman is electable in America, and particularly not Hillary, because she is married to this guy whom everyone is libidinally attached to. I think there is unconscious sexual jealousy of her among women. "

DS: "But her marriage has been so difficult. Wouldn’t that negate feelings of jealousy?"

MG: "No, because she got him in the first place."

This theory, that women don't like Hillary, because they are attracted to Bill, would explain the recent New York Times poll results which revealed that the majority of college-educated women don't like Hillary, but lesser-educated women do: Bill Clinton must be the more educated women's type. (But if this is the case, then are lower-class women less attracted to Bill than middle and upper class women?)

Friday, August 3, 2007

Judith Giuliani's Coverage in Vanity Fair

What do you know, it's the "Marie Antoinette syndrome" again, and it's only been about a week!

The September issue of Vanity Fair paints a scathing portrait of Rudy Giuliani's wife, Judith.

What are three names we call a powerful, threatening woman we don't like? Queen, witch or bitch. Vanity Fair suggests Judith Giuliani is two out of these three. Here's supposedly another woman married to a powerful, wealthy man who wants to be a "queen." From the article: "There is a reason why she wore that tiara at her wedding: she really does see herself as a princess," a former Giuliani aide told the magazine. "Not as a queen. Queen is her goal. Queen is who she wants to be." The article is filled with quotes from unnamed sources.

As I wrote in my article on the "Marie Antoinette syndrome" in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday, "The press has endlessly, and gleefully, repeated the line from Amiel's interview in Vogue magazine in 2002 in which she gave a writer a tour of her vast closets and said, "I have an extravagance that knows no bounds." Vanity Fair focuses on Judith's extravagant tastes, which have already been written about.

As Tina Brown wrote in a column in 2004, "Judith Giuliani tempted fate last year with her appearance reclining on a loveseat in a scarlet Carolina Herrera ball gown and talking about her monogrammed silver napkin rings in a cover story for Manhattan's glossy giveaway Avenue magazine."

Why do these women tempt fate? It seems to me these women should be more aware of the Marie Antoinette syndrome and not play into it. Stop posing for these magazines and talking about your expensive purchases! Stop provoking the "lower" classes to revolt! Be like Laura Bush and be more "old money" about your newly-found wealth and newly-bought luxury purchases. And then maybe people (i.e. other women) won't hate you so much! The problem is these women don't seem to care if others hate them--they just want their man to love them. What Judith Giuliani and Barbara Amiel have in common is that they started out with not much money, and through marriage and work, increased their class status. They aren't used to money and upper-class society and so they don't know how to not "rock the boat" once they come into wealth. Maybe they are just too excited about their newly-acquired baubles, too proud. But therein is the danger: society doesn't like women who are too proud. (Having too much pride was one of the traits that led you to be called a witch back in the witch trials of New England, and times haven't changed too much.)

If Judith Giuliani truly cared about helping her husband win the nomination for President, and was smart about it (part of the problem is her inexperience) she would heed history, and act more demure, and not so regal.