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Yes, Dr. Summers, There is a Virginia

January 23, 2012

So, when Kurk asserts that we are swimming in Aristotelianism, I want to respond that we are lucky if we are able to save the memory of Aristotle’s name.
Theophrastus, my BLT co-blogger

What will the legacy of Lawrence Summers be, say, in twenty-three or four centuries?  What water will the educated and the uneducated be swimming in then?  And how?  When my friend Theophrastus makes it clear how “Summers mocks the study of Thucydides” by having us read the ideas of Dr. Summers in his very own words, then I would say that somebody has begun to help save the memory of the former Harvard President.  And how.

But is the name of Aspasia of Miletus saved?  Pericles and Socrates learned so very much from her, and students of Plato and Xenophon and Aeschines Socraticus and Antisthenes were lucky enough by their teachers to be reminded of her.  Fortunately, the memory of her name was then still fresh, and she was yet at that time on the very very very short list of women philosophers and scientists.

Guess whose list Aspasia is not on?  Yes, you guessed it.  She’s not on Larry Summers’ list.  And guess what?  She’s not on Aristotle’s list either.  Why wouldn’t Aristotle save the memory of this teacher from the City State of Miletus?  He did recall Sappho, the poet from the nearby Mytilene; Aristotle did provision this intellectual, named Sappho, a “nod” notices Cheryl Glenn, and Sappho is honored in her town, notices Aristotle, “though she was a woman.”  And yet is Aspasia dead?  In all of his many writings and speeches, Summers mentions her not even once.  Likewise Aristotle.

But are we lucky enough to save the memory of Hypatia’s name?  Hypatia of Alexandria, of the namesake city of that Great student of Aristotle.  Remember Alexander the Great?  Remember Hypatia?  She has the misfortune or perhaps the good fortune of being on that very very very short list of women mathematicians.  Like Dr. Larry Summers, Hypatia, was the head of a school.  No, not  quite Harvard, but Plato’s Academy.  Remember?  There she taught and promoted the teachings of Plotinus.  She loved math but also taught Plato’s philosophy.  Furthermore, she worked to keep alive the memory of Aspasia’s name.

There she even remembered and taught Aristotle.  She said:  “One needs to know Aristotle…. One needs it desperately….  Must! I mean desperately… if one is to be at ease anywhere.”  What if we forget everything he taught?  And how?  These are statements and questions that others — even poets like the honored-though-woman Sappho and like Maya Angelou — have made and have asked.  “If one is to be at ease anywhere,” especially if one’s body is sexed “female” and if, therefore, one is not male, then there is a desparate need to know Aristotle.  Know this:  “A female’s good character really comes from a body with a good large figure, but also from a personality with ‘wise submissiveness’ and affection for work without preoccupation from freedoms.”  And know that:  “Just as the young of mutilated parents are sometimes born mutilated and sometimes not, so also the young born of a known female are sometimes female and sometimes male instead.  The female is, in fact, a mutilated male, like the poisonous flower, the pereromia, if beautiful, then deadly still.”

And remember well that females have “retentive memory.” So it may be females and feminists and grown women who are most responsible for our now having, so regretfully, to ask, “Is Aristotle Dead?”

Let’s move on.  Maybe if we separate things, understand the Nature of things, then we can remember (or, as Aristotle did with Aspasia, forget):

life / death;

logic / logos;

male / female;

logic / dialectic with it’s antistrophos rhetoric;

master / slave

logic / sophistry

Greek / barbarian

logic / parable and fable

Nature / nurture

logic / poetics

normal skin / dark skin

logic / listening rhetorically

See how easy that is?

But wasn’t it easy for Edward Douglas to abandon his pregnant wife, Virginia O’Hanlon, and to finally bury her name?  Somebody had told her when she was but eight years old that Santa Claus was dead.  Fortunately, she had a father who listened to her, who encouraged her.  And fortunately there was an editor of a newspaper, one Francis Church, who considered her and her question.  “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” he wrote in the Sun — not with much logic at all — that a spirit alive with a name meant that a whole mentality of giving and of generosity, by whatever name, need not die.

And once formalized, especially by syllogisms and by logic and by math, mentalities die hard.  What Aristotelianism are we naming?

It seems that it must have been hard for reporters to pin down, with any particular logic at all, just exactly what Dr. Summers had said so very very long ago.  Remember?  Who knew what he had been taught about women, and whose teachings and whose methods had Summers been taught that he was teaching?

Is Summers just a man of our time? Or a man of another greater man’s time?

Or was he propagating and formalizing in various treatises, unique and logical and scientific writings, a sort of scientific based sexism that would live on beyond him in pervasive ways for centuries and millinnea ?

The Globe‘s reporter, from Boston “though she was a woman”, did manage to write something.  But Ms. Marciella Bombardieri could only get this:

Summers spoke during a working lunch. He declined to provide a tape or transcript of his remarks, but the description he gave in an interview was generally in keeping with what 10 participants recalled. He said he was synthesizing the scholarship that the organizers had asked him to discuss, and that in his talk he repeated several times: ”I’m going to provoke you.”

He offered three possible explanations, in declining order of importance, for the small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering. The first was the reluctance or inability of women who have children to work 80-hour weeks.

The second point was that fewer girls than boys have top scores on science and math tests in late high school years. ”I said no one really understands why this is, and it’s an area of ferment in social science,” Summers said in an interview Saturday. ”Research in behavioral genetics is showing that things people previously attributed to socialization weren’t” due to socialization after all.

This was the point that most angered some of the listeners, several of whom said Summers said that women do not have the same ”innate ability” or ”natural ability” as men in some fields.

Asked about this, Summers said, ”It’s possible I made some reference to innate differences. . . I did say that you have to be careful in attributing things to socialization. . . That’s what we would prefer to believe, but these are things that need to be studied.”

Summers said cutting-edge research has shown that genetics are more important than previously thought, compared with environment or upbringing. As an example, he mentioned autism, once believed to be a result of parenting but now widely seen to have a genetic basis.

In his talk, according to several participants, Summers also used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ”daddy truck,” and one ”baby truck.”

Now, to be clear, Summers didn’t mention Aristotle once, not that Bombardieri could get witnesses to recall such a mention anyway.  And Summers himself doesn’t teach Aristotelian economics, thankfully.  He didn’t even know that Aristotle was convinced that his daughter — remember her name? — also played with boy toys like a girl.

We, the 1% (education-wise), have read Aristotle. The rest only greet him in the diluted form of the “Western tradition.” Theophrastus rightly reminds.

But whether among that 1% or the rest, anyone who explains why there must be so few female mathematicians can still show how Aristotelian mentality is alive and well today.

Anne Carson reminds, “The celebrated Greek virtue of self-control (sophrosyne [σωφροσύνη]) has to be defined differently for men and for women, Aristotle maintains. Masculine sophrosyne is rational self-control and resistance to excess, but for the woman sophrosyne means obedience and consists in submitting herself to the control of others.  [See Aristotle’s clear description of this defined division of his, in his Politics, Book I, 1260a]”

This is the Nature of females and things, wrote Aristotle.  See:


Can you name the female mathematicians?

But is Aristotle really dead to woman mathematician Danica McKellar?  [UPDATE:  feel free to read the comments below for an explanation why I’m deleting an image here.  I’m not saying Aristotelianism is still alive because of McKellar!  And I don’t consider images of McKellar that she uses, of herself as a math teacher with young ladies’ bare bodies as their math text and chalk and chalk board and ambiguous formulas as pornographic necessarily.  But I don’t want anyone to be offended looking at them.  If you must, then click on the link above to the humorous “cracked” site.]
Kellar’s written three New York Times bestsellers on math, specifically “to show girls that math is accessible and relevant, and even a little glamorous” and to begin to overcome the “damaging social messages telling young girls that math and science aren’t for them.” She herself studied mathematics at UCLA, where she graduated summa cum laude. With a classmate (Brandy Winn) and one of their profs (Lincoln Chayes), she proved a new math theorem, named the “Chayes–McKellar–Winn theorem.” In addition to tv acting and dancing (i.e., The Wonder Years, etc.), she’s written, directed, and acted in her own film (and has done a few movie roles for others’ films). She’s bilingual (French/ English); and, with her husband of a few years, is a parent.  We dare imagine that she’s keeping Aristotle alive.

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 12:31 pm

    Something has gone badly wrong with your images.

    I am a little surprised that you call McKellar a mathematician. Are you aware of the nature of her books? They are a little like “X for dummies” books. And I do not understand why you think McKellar keeps Aristotle alive. Given her educational trajectory, I’m not sure she has ever read Aristotle.

    Now you are right, Summers got drummed out of Harvard for his many ill-thought out remarks; I am surprised you did not mention his negative comments about faculty over 60 or Cornell West. So he is an easy target. And he is no longer a university president, so he is merely a prognosticator, not an implementer of policies. But it does seem to me that he captured a certain zeitgeist in academia. You did not address his remarks directly, but merely gave an ad hominen reply.

  2. January 23, 2012 1:20 pm

    Something has gone badly wrong with your images.

    The gone wrong image is now fixed, thanks; and a couple more added.

    I am a little surprised that you call McKellar a mathematician.

    Should I have called McKellar a rhetorician? She’s, um, uh, “so bad with numbers.” Sounds like you’ve read her books, but have you read her theorum? It’s discussed in her article, “Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on Z2.”

    That’s available in the Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical 31 (1998), no. 45, pages 9055–9063 and online here and online at McKellar’s website as a .pdf here. It’s also explained by UCLA mathematician Terence Tao at one of his old websites (and in one of his books), where he says:

    Anyway, Danica’s book has already been reviewed in several places, and there’s not much more I can add to what has been said elsewhere. I thought however that I could talk about another of Danica’s contributions to mathematics, namely her paper “Percolation and Gibbs states multiplicity for ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models on {\Bbb Z}^2” (PDF available here), joint with Brandy Winn and my colleague Lincoln Chayes. (Brandy, incidentally, was the only student in my topology class who did better than Danica; she has recently obtained a PhD in mathematics from U. Chicago, with a thesis in PDE.) This paper is noted from time to time in the above-mentioned publicity, and its main result is sometimes referred to there as the “Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem”, but as far as I know, no serious effort has been made to explain exactly what this theorem is, or the wider context the result is placed in 🙂 . So I’ll give it a shot; this allows me an opportunity to talk about some beautiful topics in mathematical physics, namely statistical mechanics, spontaneous magnetisation, and percolation.

    [Update, Aug 23: I added a non-technical “executive summary” of what the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem is at the very end of this post.]

    And he is no longer a university president

    I think I called him “the former Harvard President” after you said such targeted things about him first.

  3. January 23, 2012 2:05 pm

    Hmm, I think we are completely talking at cross-purposes here.

    I said (paraphrasing): Larry Summers and Stephen Hawking have proposed a radical revision of the curriculum — almost completely abandoning classicism, capturing a certain academic zeitgeist.

    You said: Aristotle was sexist and so is Larry Summers. And Danica McKellar proves that women can do math.

    I said: Well, that’s an ad hominem reply, and it says nothing about Aristotle.

    You said: Well, Danica McKellar’s instructor, Terrence Tao, likes her.

    —————–

    I’m hardly going to defend Summers’s sexist views here since I disagree with them. But if Summers were here, he would likely point out that you are relying on anecdotal evidence, rather than statistical evidence. Summers was pointing out the “small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering” which is a statistical fact; one that cannot be countered by anecdotal evidence. He then gave a highly offensive rationale for that shortage.

    Danica is an actress, a dilettante. You could have referred to someone like Lisa Randall, but you chose a women who makes images like the one you show above. You don’t find that strange?

    Finally, the question is whether for every Danica McKellar, are there not a dozen Jenny Harrisons?

    —————-

    I still don’t get the images. I already referred to the pornographic ones, but what are the icons for red truck wines and pink truck wines doing in your post?

  4. January 23, 2012 4:40 pm

    Yes, I completely agree that we’re talking at cross-purposes here. Sorry about that. If we can track back a bit, I thought an initial question was how much Aristotle’s mentality was still alive and well today. Somehow that turned into, Is Aristotle Dead? because we sure don’t know his teachings well today.

    I still don’t see why you’d keep asserting I’m giving an ad hominem reply but more so disagree with you that Aristotle’s sexism says nothing about Aristotle. And I brought up Tao because he rightly says that people give more initial attention to McKellar’s pop books (you did) than to her mathematics and her published theorem, which he takes time to try to explain.

    —————–

    If Summers were here willing to talk, then that would be wonderful! In absence of that possibility, I thought it was a fair, reasonable, and appropriate thing to do to bring in reporter Bombardieri. I wasn’t “relying on anecdotal evidence” for anything. I thought it very interesting that Bombardieri, also a woman, was getting on record all of the women she could find (several), who had heard Summers’ remarks. They talked, some confessing they felt offended by his lecture and others noting that they had not. But Bombardieri and other reporters she drew from could not get Summers to say much. In the post-lecture interview he did confess how he kept saying, “I’m going to provoke you. I’m going to provoke you. I’m going to provoke you.” Quite apparently, he had not paid much attention to Aristotle on rhetoric, on using available means of persuasion, on logos, on ethos, on pathos, for getting across his points. But I also note that the “small number of women in high-level positions in science and engineering” (which you quote as Summers) that he relies on (what you also assure me is really and actually “statistical evidence”) is to be taken very seriously. Well, is anyone disputing what you stress to be “a statistical fact”? The real point of issue is that Summers looks to Nature, as did Aristotle, to answer the question of “Why this fact?”. My contention is that Aristotle’s sexism says something about Aristotelianism by which it is derived and that Summers comes to his conclusions — maybe his very own sexist conclusions — not relying on statistical evidence or statistical facts but on ancient logic that derives ancient sexism.

    Thank you for your questions (and I’m sorry, yes, for the cross-talk, again but also for not being clear). Let me try to answer, but I do have a quick question for you: Why call McKellar “Danica” but not Summers “Lawrence” or “Larry“? I know you’re wanting to stress what she’s not (i.e., saying to me: “I am a little surprised that you call McKellar a mathematician“) and what she must be (i.e., saying further: “Danica is an actress, a dilettante” and “a women who makes images like the one you show above“). Aren’t you excluding the middle here, seeing McKellar only as if in a certain set of mutually exclusive categories? Let me come back to your question about the images, since you ask twice.

    Thank you for mentioning other mathematicians who are also women, such as physicist (not mathematician per se) Lisa Randall, and mathematicians who are publicly fighting sexism in their discipline, as does Jenny Harrison. Yes, thankfully, McKellar and Harrison are not alone. (Is there not an update from the 1993 article you link to, any progress to speak of for Harrison and for her UC Berkeley since then?). And both philosophers and social scientists are investigating the sexism in their respective fields but are also commenting on the problem in math.

    —————-

    Now, the images. Sorry again for not being clear.

    Let me address “the pornographic ones” since you mention this twice, although I see it’s the first time you’ve used that adjective. McKellar, I must say, is using her “available means of persuasion,” which is one of Aristotle’s best definitions of rhetoric in the Rhetoric. She’s a child tv star who went to college and did very well, even in math. What she does with her public personae now is to open doors that are not very open to younger women. One of her missions is to use her acclaim in television (ethos), her proven abilities in math (logos), and her new role as a parent (pathos) to help these younger women in particular and to fight societal sexism in general. Yes, there are ironies. A sexist display for a feminist? Well, many American feminists of the three different waves of feminist history see the body objectified or “sexed” as one of the most offensive problems. Some borrow from French feminist Hélène Cixous her advice; here’s some noted by wikipediaists: “Dense with literary allusions, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ is an exhortation [by Cixous] to a ‘feminine mode’ of writing; the phrases ‘white ink’ and ‘écriture féminine’ [literally ‘women’s writing’] are often cited, referring to this desired new way of writing.” Further, Cixous and other feminists such as Mira Schor (see her Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture and even its cover art) use the female body to flaunt male objectification of women nude in art. (This is quite different from so-called feminist porn, which I don’t think is the sort of thing you’re referring to by your adjective.) You yourself have written a BLT post in which you show some of this sort of art work: “Remembering Francesca Woodman.” Now, I know that Rosalind Krauss has taken flack for calling Woodman a feminist, but I do also know that feminist photography often uses imagery the way Woodman did, to show her body against the male depictions of women. I also understand that McKeller is not pretending to be a photographer or an artist. Rather, she’s doing what she herself might do as herself.

    In the particular photo in my post, it’s clear that that McKellar is emphasizing math written on the female body. if you understand some of the ripples and roars of third-wave feminisms, then you might get what McKellar is up to. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have critics who are feminist. Many third-wavers such as the SlutWalk protestors exercise a public display of feminity in various ways and often draw criticism across the board. I also ended my post with the image of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of Aspasia. Rhetorician Cheryl Glenn has written analyses of this painting as she discusses the problems of historiography and of representing women, alongside men, through history. This one to you too might be “pornographic,” and yet the contrast between how women represent themselves for themselves and how men portray females for themselves is, I hope, telling. (Clicking the Gérôme image leads to an old post in which I gave just a bit of information about Glenn’s view of the painting.)

    The icons for red truck wines and pink truck wines are not so much for the wines. (I did want to show the wine ads anyway, just because its not only the color that contrasts in them; the woman for the pink drink is portrayed as clearly a curvy female and with her hands in her pockets. The man for the red wine is picked as at work, still working, back bent, high on the truck, hands high and working.) I was trying to respond to Larry Summers’s statement as several women relayed this to Ms. Bombardieri:

    Summers also used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ”daddy truck,” and one ”baby truck.”

    The inference, of course, is that despite what this good father did to nurture in a gender neutral way, his little girl treated all of the boy toys he gave to her only as a girl would; and she did so, naturally, because of Nature. Trucks must be different for girls and for women in wine ads because females are so very different.

    (Please know this is also why I put in bold pink font some of the words of Aristotle, as Anne Carson quotes him. Sophrosyne [σωφροσύνη] for the parent Aristotle, I imagine, was like trucks were for the parent Dr. Summers; the female sex in nature causes everything to be different for girls.)

  5. January 23, 2012 5:33 pm

    OK, there is some miscommunication going on here.

    I called your citation of Danica McKellar anecdotal. McKellar is a single individual, not a statistical group.

    There are a few (shockingly few) female Nobel laureates in Chemistry and Physics. And, you know, I am deeply impressed by Ada Yonath’s amazing personal story. But I cannot extrapolate from Ada Yonath and claim that the situation in chemistry is the same for men and women. Danica McKellar is perhaps a fine individual (although I am naturally suspicious of anyone who presents herself as a sex object) but she was not the driving force on the paper: that appears to have been the first author, Lincoln Chayes who was the faculty member on the paper.

    In any case, good for McKellar. It is unusual indeed to see an actor complete a rigorous program of study. But her career is not mathematics. And how is she “keeping Aristotle alive”?

    Why call McKellar by the monicker “Danica”? That was a mistake. I don’t know her; and I usually don’t call people I don’t know by their first name. Perhaps an unconscious slip.

    ————

    The ad hominem remark was in regard to Summers. Now, true, Summers is a world class jerk who was pushed out of the president’s office at Harvard with his unchecked tongue, sharp elbows, and general selfish outlook. And yet — I think that in the article I cited, he “captured a certain zeitgeist in the general culture and even in higher education.” To bring up the fact that Summers is a sexist seems be ad hominem or irrelevant, except in so far that his sexism comes to bear on his beliefs about the study of classics, foreign languages, or even live teachers.

    I can draw an analogy. Certainly the Deutsche Physik movement was absolutely evil; working to purge physics departments of English language use, of liberals, and of non-Aryans (particularly Jews). The writings of Phillip Lenard are absolutely horrifying. And yet physics students still study Lenard and Max Planck and others even unto this very day — not for their ideology but for their physics.

    Now I will grant that Summers is a sexist — also, I believe his treatment of Cornel West smacks of racism. But even so, you must have seen trends in the elite spheres of American higher education — its sudden infatuation with online learning and “practical skills” and disdain for traditional models — as if prestigious American higher education believed that it needed to complete with Kaplan University and University of Phoenix. (By the way, when I see prominent online experiments like Stanford’s I have to say that I think Kaplan and U of P do a better job. I am sure you saw the news about Sebastian Thrun an hour ago, but you should also note the student complaints about the flipped campus.

    ————

    While I always find your remarks about gender to be illuminating and interesting, in this case I thought you were avoiding the elephant in the room — which was growing number of voices — even from within the academy (I am counting Hawking and Summers as being within the academy) arguing that study of philosophy, history, foreign languages, etc were simply not appropriate any more. What does Summers offer instead? The so-called field of “data science.” Are we willing to give up the academy for Google?

  6. January 23, 2012 5:45 pm

    I’m sorry, but looking at the impossible body parts of the bikini “Chief Engineering Reference Wallpaper” or the gray-scale “MATH” woman (complete with lines connecting it to a very suggestive geometric circle/angle diagram) or even the way McKellar holds her chalk — I’m sticking with the term “pornographic.”

  7. January 23, 2012 8:32 pm

    Re: Sebastian Thrun and the flipped campus: here is the NPR story about his new company. Notice that his educational certificates involve absolutely no contact with any instructor — all grading is done by computer.

    Another update: I just read this profile of Sheryl Sandberg, and her brand of feminism. The interesting factoid? She was Chief of Staff for Summers when he was Clinton’s Treasury Secretary. (That doesn’t change the fact that Summers is sexist, though.)

  8. January 24, 2012 1:00 pm

    Ok, you’ve given me a lot to think about, Theophrastus. Thanks for the clarification in using first names. Thanks also for explaining how my bringing up the sexism of Summers is “ad hominem or irrelevant.” Yes, on the following things you mention and link to, I’m getting how you mean your explanation. I sure didn’t mean to commit ad hominem; that was my mistake. Likewise, I know that there’s more to talk about (the elephant of shifts in U.S. higher education and the pushes toward science and away from humanities and the pressures to compromise the whole academy for online learning and flipped professing and flipped teaching and flipped campus and the like).

    On the image you’re describing as pornographic, I’m really sorry if it offends! At first I thought that it was some composite photo by the satirical “cracked.” It may be. And yet, it’s not so different from much that McKellar does portray and allow portrayed of her elsewhere. I’m giving the benefit of the doubt. I’m also taking out the image and just putting in the link to the cracked site with a warning.

    Have you ever seen The Vagina Monologues? Lots of people consider the play not art, not rhetoric, but just porn. In our conversation, I believe, we may be approaching nastiness, not necessarily only the topic of where pornography begins and where push-back art and social protests and feminisms end but also the fact that much of the appreciation of and many of the purposes of feminisms are purely for women and by women, against the sexisms that they suffer. “Man cannot speak for her,” some feminists I know, who are women, like to say, quoting Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

    By the way, your link to the profile of Sheryl Sandberg is not working. Yes, there are “brands” of feminism. Most of us prefer to speak of feminism as feminisms, as plural. And people do change, not only for slimy political reasons but because they learn and grow. I’m not sure what you’re referring to with respect to Sandberg’s views while Chief of Staff for Summers. I do know that Anita Hill worked for Clarence Thomas and had different perspectives while and after she did. Since you bring up President Clinton, it’s fascinating how he’s treated by many feminists given his publicized womanizing. Most feminists, I think, give Secretary of State Clinton high marks, even when she was First Lady Clinton during their open marriage crisis.

    You may be interested to know that I consider President Obama the least sexist and the most feminist US President to date. And still I don’t have much of a problem if it turns out that his administration is getting their economics from Lawrence Summers. Here’s the story:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/the-obama-administration-in-one-memo/2011/08/25/gIQACRZcLQ_blog.html

  9. January 24, 2012 1:16 pm

    Link fixed, thanks for the correction. More later (maybe).

  10. January 24, 2012 1:43 pm

    By dictionary definition, “pornography” must be both obscene and have the intent to sexually excite. Thus, Schindler’s List and The Vagina Monologues cannot be pornographic (although some might argue that SL and VM are obscene).

    The term “pornography” comes from the Greek pornographos, “one writing of prostitution,” while porne means “prostitute” (literally “bought, purchased”). I think this perfectly characterizes the image above but not VM.

  11. January 24, 2012 4:47 pm

    The OED doesn’t show any examples in English before 1842. I think it’s likely that this word is that new. So, I doubt very much that the term pornography comes from the Greek in the way your dictionary describes. It may have come somewhat indirectly from Greek phrases into, say, French, and then in the 19th century finally into English; this is a suggestion from the Oxford Dictionary.

    At any rate, LSJ have this for the first Greek phrase from your dictionary (with very different English meanings for the Hellene, none at all meaning “prostitute” per se, with some sort of sexual and financial transaction implied):

    πόρνος , ὁ,
    A. catamite, Ar.Pl.155, X.Mem.1.6.13, D.22.73, Alex.242, etc.
    2. sodomite, D.Ep.4.11, Phalar.Ep.4.
    3. in LXX and NT, fornicator, LXXSi.23.16, 1 Ep.Cor.5.9, al.
    II. idolater, Suid.

    I really don’t like the English definition of pornography in your dictionary for a few reasons. First, it agrees with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s assertion when he declared, “I know it when I see it.” That is to judge the “intent to sexually excite” – by viewing the work alone and not by knowing from the artist for sure that this really is the intent – can be dicey. In Justice Stewart’s case, it’s dicey for him because his knowledge is so very subjective in a way that embarrasses everybody. In every other case when the artist is not saying what she intends (as the pornographer Larry Flynt does say what he intends), then the judgment must be according to every different viewer. And it’s just a judgment of the artist and her intentions without regard to the work of art or of pornography. Second, the given definition assumes that an artist’s intent is fixed. Especially through postmodern lenses or at least a-modern lenses, we can look at the artist’s intentions as fluid, or as complex in ways that the feature binary + “intent to sexually excite” / – “intent to sexually excite” becomes meaningless, irrelevant, or entirely unpragmatic. (C. S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms, does an incredible job, I think, of showing that a rhetor’s or a writer’s first intention is not the only one. He has a couple of chapters on “Second Meanings” that get to this quite well.) Third, The Vagina Monologues, as I said earlier, has been labelled pornographic by not a few viewers. I would agree with you that the work is not. Nonetheless, it’s a play. And actors and directors of this play, in various places, may intend, one evening, or at each of their showings, to decide to try to excite an audience member sexually, or even within the play might intend to depict the intention of such an excitement. Then is it pornography when it is pornography when, as some also argue, it appears to be obsene?

    Fourthly, I’m not want to be pedantic here, or just to argue a case to deconstruct a definition. Nonetheless, I think the charges of “pornography” are often used as legal or social traps by prosecutors or by those who are in some way offended by the work they are viewing. I do appreciate your mentioning Schindler’s List and The Vagina Monologues together. I didn’t realize anyone had called the former pornographic, but certainly, I suppose, they might. Maybe the charge of “obsence” for both of these works actually functions the same way. There is too much judgment against, I think, when the artists involved may intend far more or far different than the viewers negatively ascribe to the work. (Now, let me confess that I used to like The Passion of the Christ; but when it became clearer and clearer later by Mel Gibson’s actions and words that he was generally violent and rash and racist and sexist, then I began to see the film in a whole different light. It’s not just that move of his, but most of them now, that I view differently. It’s hard for me to separate his acting and his directing now from who he’s come to show himself to be publicly. So, going back to this definition of “pornography,” it seems to me judgments have to involve not only the work but the artist; and not only the intention of the artist but also the life and words of the artist beyond their works. It’s not fair to judge a work or a creative person in abstraction or by such a confining pretend-precise definition.)

  12. January 24, 2012 6:27 pm

    OK, let me defend the definition I gave.

    * In contemporary use, there is conventionally a difference in usage between “pornographic” and “obscene.” (It is not clear that this distinction always existed, but it certainly exists in contemporary usage.) “Pornographic” materials are a subset of “obscene” materials. Thus, some may try to characterize a work that has nudity (such as Schindler’s List) as obscene, but it is hardly pornographic. I think you are conflating the two terms. In particular, I have yet to find anyone who believes the Vagina Monologues is pornographic and understands the word “pornographic,” although I have heard charges that it is obscene.

    * Intent is absolutely required. If titillation is the intent, but the work fails in that objective, it does not erase the charge of “pornography” (rather it is simply bad pornography.) On the other hand, if someone is titillated by accident (perhaps someone finds Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy absolutely irresistible) that does not raise the charge of pornography. You argue that the intent may be unclear, but I think that is not frequently the case. Perhaps Larry Flynt has multiple objectives, but titillation is certainly among them. You also raise the question of an artist’s life work. This is absolutely in keeping with establishing “intent.” If, for example, I threaten my neighbor by saying in front of witnesses “I hate your dog. It barks all night. Maybe the dog is going to get into an automobile accident,” and subsequently I run over his dog, then I think that it will be quite easy for my neighbor to establish my intent when he sues me.

    * I do not agree that my definition is synonymous with Stewart’s “definition.” My definition is conventional — we regularly require establishing intent: many civil and criminal laws have “intent” in their definition. (Indeed, a well-known example: it can be the difference between a murder charge and a manslaughter charger.) Admittedly, Stewart’s “definition” was vague, but for the record, you know that Stewart was on the winning side of the opinion. (I agree that in some cases, intent may be ambiguous or hard to demonstrate, but I think those examples are rare. In the picture you showed, one of the intents was absolutely to titillate — consider the yellow-bikini woman with impossible mammary glands.)

    * You raise a red herring by conflating a performance of Vagina Monologues with the play as written. (Consider, for example, these questions: is Hamlet a good play? is a particular performance of Hamlet a good performance? Certainly you can agree that these are separate questions.) One can imagine any play presented as pornography (I am certain that you can visualize a “pornographic” performance of Hamlet, for example — say with a strip-tease by Ophelia or elaborate and explicit love-making scenes showed — you’ll recall that Kenneth Branagh pushed the limit here in his version of Hamlet.) The question of whether a performance is “pornographic” is independent of whether or not a performance is “pornographic.”

    * Regarding the etymology of “pornography,” the reason you do not see the word prior to 1842 in the OED is that it likely came into English from the French pornographie. You did not quote the OED’s etymology, which is clear:

    Etymology: < Hellenistic Greek πορνογράϕος (adjective) that writes about prostitutes ( < ancient Greek πορνο- (see porno- comb. form) + -γράϕος -graph comb. form) + -y suffix3 (compare -graphy comb. form), perhaps after French pornographie treatise on prostitution (1800), obscene painting (1842), description of obscene matters, obscene publication (1907 or earlier).

    Looking back at the OED entry for “porno- comb. form” we find:

    Etymology: Shortened < pornography n. and pornographer n. Compare ancient Greek πορνο- , combining form (in e.g. πορνοβοσκός brothel-keeper) of πόρνη prostitute < an ablaut variant of the base of περνάναι to export for sale ( < the same Indo-European base as πέρα beyond: see far adv.) + -νη , suffix forming nouns, as prostitutes were often bought slaves. Compare porno adj., porno n.1, and porn n.2

    Since you consulted the OED in writing your reply, it was a bit lawyerly to ignore the etymology there.

    * I think you were also not being entirely straight in looking up words in the LSJ here: I would recommend (as per the OED) looking up πορνογράϕος, πορνοβοσκός, and particularly περνάναι. Do you have a different understanding of the meaning of the term πορνογράϕος or an etymology for it? Even if the term is later or not derived from περνάναι, how do you believe the term entered into French or into English if not from the Greek — do you seriously suggest that the nearly identical spelling is simply coincidental?

  13. January 25, 2012 7:31 am

    Thank you for clarifying your definition a bit more even if you felt the need to suspect that some of what I was saying was simply another fallacy (i.e., “red herring”) and was, likewise, “a bit lawyerly.” I can defend myself. I’d rather get to issues more at the heart of our discussion. Nonetheless, I can follow your points and, in reply to each, will try (that’s my intent) to come to points of agreement with you and to note points of issue not only between us but also that might be relevant to readers of our BLT posts.

    1. Yes, your definition is the conventional, contemporary definition of “pornography.” You didn’t say which dictionary; I should have noted that yours is one in the OED also. I understand the two necessary features to make the definition (i.e., + obscenity, + intent to arouse). No misunderstanding or disagreements there.

    No, I’m not conflating the two required and absolutely necessary features of the definition, but I’m instead objecting to them as required, for reasons I gave. My biggest problem is with the second required feature (i.e., +intent). Judging intent is no precise science and is fraught with power issues, many of which many feminists with various feminisms work to expose. So back to the question of what qualifies even by the would-be air-tight definition:

    Take a look at Nadine Strossen’s book, Defending Pornography: Free speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women’s Rights; in her intro, she writes:

    [There’s] a new breed of feminists, increasingly prominent both in women’s studies programs and in academia more generally, as well as on the wider cultural scene, who hardly eschew sexuality and sexual expression. To the contrary, this group of female, feminist scholars, artists, and activists not only defend sexuality and sexual expression against repression; what’s more, they proactively celebrate and even create it. From their perspective, the title of my book conveys a posture that is overly — well — defensive.

    One manifestation of this new feminist prosex movement is the nationwide success of Eve Ensler’s award-winning play, The Vagina Monologues. Its graphic treatment of not only female sex organs [obscene] but also female sexual pleasure extends beyond simulation to stimulation [intend to excite sexually]. In short, it satisfies the dictionary denotation of “pornography” as sexually arousing expression…. A recurrent theme in The Vagina Monologues is precisely that women do or should see themselves as their sexual body parts. The author and the actresses clearly intend this process of sexual self-discovery to serve an expansive function — opening women up to new pleasures, possibilities, and powers…. One of the most powerful, vivid Vagina monologues was a Bosnian Muslim woman graphically recounting — and visibly reliving — the savage gang rapes and other forms of sexual torture and disfigurement she endured during the Balkan conflict. In a 1993 Ms. Magazine cover story, Catherine MacKinnon denounced descriptions or depictions of the mass rapes in the Balkans as themselves pornographic.

    2. Notice how Strossen also raises the question of an artist’s life work. Actually, she’s describing — and by so doing also is participating in an apology for — a social movement. And we know much of her own life work, as President of the ACLU for 17 years. As a woman, as a lawyer, as an activist, as a feminist, she knows the issues, and she knows the definitions, the law. She declares Ensler’s intent as qualifying as pornographic, but I’m quite sure that Strossen knows Ensler’s work, the prolific set, motivated intentionally by her stories, by the stories of her life. Strossen sees this as a fight for women’s rights intentionally, and she finds within such a fight those necessary features of the common definition of porn.

    3. I wasn’t trying to make your definition synonymous with Justice Stewart’s. I don’t think he would have any problem with your. He did, nonetheless, show (and he won for showing it as you point out) that pornography can be defined so precisely that it can help the law prosecute and when needed defend.

    As for the yellow bikini large breast pic, there’s no way for you to judge intent. You keep saying that it’s clearly obscene and obviously designed to arouse. Nonetheless, we don’t know who took this picture or why it appears in a photo with Danica McKellar. I think I said (taking it out of my post now, that somebody at the satire and humor web site “cracked” must have found it or made it); whoever that was primarily intends for viewer (of the cracked site) to laugh or to reflect on the ills of society (i.e., the problem of few women in math). Look at McKellar’s facebook page, her blog, and her websites; she neither declares her intent as wishing to arouse others sexually nor shows images as extreme as the one on the cracked.com site. Your initial objections were to McKellar as a mathematician because of her pop books and these representations. But whose intent must we judge her by, and which of her works?

    4. Now, back to The Vagina Monologues. Yes, I conflated the play (as written) with the play (as performed). No, I don’t have any problem with your objections to that and actually agree with you that these are separate questions. Please know I wasn’t trying to confuse; instead, I was trying to show how confusing the one question must be. Ensler has performed in the play she has written. If she were charged with pornography, and she has been, then the one defining porn and so accusing her has the burden of keeping separate what she wrote and how she remediated what she wrote in acting. She may have directed other actors too in the play. So that would be a third question.

    In fact, my quotation of Strossen in this comment shows how Strossen also mixes (but doesn’t mix up) the questions of playwright and actor and director intents. Strossen is seeing the general intent of a movement of feminists as to arouse sexually, one of the two requirements in the common definition of pornography. Since quoting Strossen, I haven’t looked at the 1993 Ms. Magazine cover story by Catherine MacKinnon that she refers to, but I imagine that MacKinnon is “denounc[ing] descriptions or depictions of the mass rapes in the Balkans as themselves pornographic” because the descriptions and the depictions fit the definition of porn, fulfilling both requirements. Strossen, nonetheless, has muddied the waters already by mentioning a performance of the play, the one by a Bosnian Muslim woman, as an example of the acting becoming, by definition, pornographic. MacKinnon suggests there’s intent to arouse; Strossen suggests there’s intent to arouse. And in both cases, there is a secondary intention: first, there is now the intention of de-pictors and de-scribers of an obscene factual event of absolute horror. second, there is now the intent of the act-or of a written play. Would playwight Ensler object to the latter? And if she did not, then would she finally be complicit in the intentions of this actor whose performance she approved. Yes, I know that’s a hypothetical. But some my point is that this judging of intention, and this judging of whose intentions do and do not count, is bordering on theory and hypotheory in the mind of the judger.

    5. / 6. Do note that I did reference which dictionary I was looking at so that anyone (including you) could look for herself or himself (as you did). As I said, I should have at least noted that the OED’s definitions of pornography include yours. Were you referencing a particular dictionary? I was not sure.

    I’m glad you looked in the OED and hoped you would. I’m glad you brought in the OED etymology blurbs. Was I ignoring the etymology by only referring you to my source, by explicitly emphasizing the date of the first English and the possible derivation from French from Greek that the OED notes? Let me talk about the Greek and LSJ a little later. I don’t find πορνογράϕος in primary ancient Greek sources, not in Sappho or Homer or Hesiod, not in Plato or Aristotle, not in the playwrights, not in the LXX or the NT. But I’m out of time and should be able to say more on this.

  14. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 25, 2012 10:22 am

    At the risk of revealing that I have not read these comments word for word, let me respond. I have just finished reading Holy Misogyny, by DeConick, which I will review soon, and I am struck by the alienation that women have experienced from their own bodies in religion. Women starving themselves, shaving their hair, dressing and living as men throughout the centuries. On the one hand, many women have achieved liberation and fulfillment as adult males, when dressed as men. On the other hand, some women have been deprived of any access to the male world, as well as living a cloistered and repressed life as women. The tragedy is written in the sorrow one experiences in the first few years of life, not a realization that one will mature into full adulthood, but that one will be progressively withdrawn from a fully human life. What does it take to explore the way back and why should men flaunt so many opinions on the various ways that women try to find that way back.

    As Augustine has pointed out, the problem with the female body is not its shape as experienced by women, but that it causes the involuntary erection in men If erections were as controllable as handshakes, women would not have to hide their shape from men. That’s Augustine, not my opinion. Pornography seems to be largely defined by men. They can hardly expect women to hold to the same definition, as if what men think is some universal rule. The class of pornography that is to me completely inexcusable, is that which contains harm and injury, dominance and submission. To portray breasts in the shape of bolwing balls, is perhaps to me, beyond my conception of pornography and belongs only the to category of provocative cartooning, to project onto our imagination the juxtaposition of riduculous to sublime. I don’t want to open a new venue for the discussion of pornography, but simply register my bemusement.

  15. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 25, 2012 10:41 am

    Since Summers feels that it is appropriate to provide anecdotes of his children, let me share a couple. My daughter knew very well how to create bumps out of pillows and blankets to form an obstacle course for her kiddy car BMX circuit. She never turned a truck into a mommy or daddy. She outraced her brother at gokarts, no mean feat since her brother later became an award winning paratropper in an organization that jumps at a lower and faster pace that is legal in the US Forces. That same boy loved his baby doll and broke from his lego building to make sure that “baby sleeping.” He did not breastfeed that baby but paced with it, till it closed it eyes again. I feel only profound pity for those that see little boys turn dolls into guns, and little girls turn machinery into dolls. What shocks me is that a man who is so totally unreflective was able to achieve the position that he did. The western world is not yet fully awake to the realities of gender. We are all human, both male and female. He seems to want to cover this up.

  16. January 25, 2012 10:47 am

    Ok, Theophrastus, Now back to “porne” in English from ancient Greek. You originally said:

    The term “pornography” comes from the Greek pornographos, “one writing of prostitution,” while porne means “prostitute” (literally “bought, purchased”).

    This is what I was responding to by saying this:

    At any rate, LSJ have this for the first Greek phrase from your dictionary (with very different English meanings for the Hellene, none at all meaning “prostitute” per se, with some sort of sexual and financial transaction implied):

    πόρνος , ὁ,
    A. catamite, Ar.Pl.155, X.Mem.1.6.13, D.22.73, Alex.242, etc.
    2. sodomite, D.Ep.4.11, Phalar.Ep.4.
    3. in LXX and NT, fornicator, LXXSi.23.16, 1 Ep.Cor.5.9, al.
    II. idolater, Suid.

    I think you may have noticed and might recall that in a post at another blog, I was acknowledging how you’d taught me the Hebrew root for the Hebrew word for “prostitute.” I went on then to compare that with a neologism in Greek for prostitute, the word πόρνη [pórnē], which seems to have no uses prior to Aristophanes, who rather consistently used the word in his plays to refer to prostitutes.

    What I wanted to say is that whether it’s the OED lexicographer or some other English dictionary maker, the person who claims that “ancient Greek πορνο” is from some back-formed derivative, namely πορνογράϕος, whence comes the French “pornographie” in 1800 and then the English “pornography” 42 years later (and again I’m using the OED etymologist’s dates) must be making an incorrect claim. Further, I now want to say also that the OED gets it wrong by claiming that this is “Hellenistic Greek,” this back-derived “πορνογράϕος,” that would make the late 18th century French neologism and the slightly later English coinage of the mid 19th century.

    Pardon my being pedantic in two ways. First, πόρνος, and not πόρνη, is the root of πορνογράϕος. Second, this may all come back to 1842, when — as OED speculates — another English dictionarian used the English pornography first. OED provides just a snippet and elides a bit of it. But let me include more here (but not all). I’m looking via google ebooks at Sir William Smith’s A dictionary of Greek and Roman antiquities (which is the OED etymologist’s source for the little clip of the first English use of the word pornography). I’m not being lawyerly, and yet I’m not copying all of it and am using bold font to highlight some bits of my excerpt:

    The consequence [of the decline of painting in Greece after the death of Alexander the Great] was, that the artists of those times were under the necessity of trying other fiedls or ard; of attracting attention by novelty and variety: thus rhyparography (ῥυπαργραφία), pornography, and all the lower classes of art, attained the ascendency, and became the characteristic styles of the period….

    In the lower descriptions of painting which prevailed in this period, Pyreicus was pre-eminent; he was termed Rhyparographos (ῥυπαργράφος), on account of the mean quality of his subjects. He belonged to the class of genre-painters, or “peintres du genre bas,” as the French term them. The Greek ῥυπαργραφία, therefore, is apparently equivalent to our expression, the Dutch style. Pyreicus, says Pliny, painted barbers’ shops and cobbler’s stalls, shell-fish, eatables of all sorts, and the like; and, althoght an humble walk, he excelled so greatly that he obtained the highest fame; and his small pictures were more valuable than the greatest works of many masters; in execution, few surpassed him says Propertius…. Pornography, or obscene painting, which in the time of the Romans was practised with the grossest license, prevailed especially at no particular period in Greece, but was apparently tolerated to a considerable extent at all times. Parrasius, Aristides, Pausanias, Nicophanes, Chaerephanes, Arellius, and a few other πορνογράϕοι are mentioned as having made themselves notorious for this species of license.

    To summarize: Smith is using Greek phrases that he coined, and that he defines, and that he transliterates into English. “Pornography” is one of the “lower classes of art,” is in the “species of license,” and is something done by the “πορνογράϕοι.” “Pornography” for Smith is “obscene painting” (obviously from πόρνος and from γράφος). (Smith gets his historiography of “Parrasius, Aristides, Pausanias, Nicophanes, Chaerephanes, Arellius, and a few other πορνογράϕοι” from the Latin, not Greek, writings of Pliny the Elder. I can assure you that there are other histories of each these named artists respectively that do not remember them simply as “the pornographers,” or in other words as the “obscene painters.”

    It is that simple. There is no mention of prostitutes. There is no mention of intent to titillate sexually.

  17. January 25, 2012 10:54 am

    Hi Suzanne,

    Thank you for lending your voice, your bemusement, to this conversation. How very very important. I did not know what Augustine had said, but it fits quite well in this discussion and I really like what you stress here:

    Pornography seems to be largely defined by men. They can hardly expect women to hold to the same definition, as if what men think is some universal rule. The class of pornography that is to me completely inexcusable, is that which contains harm and injury, dominance and submission. To portray breasts in the shape of bolwing balls, is perhaps to me, beyond my conception of pornography and belongs only the to category of provocative cartooning, to project onto our imagination the juxtaposition of riduculous to sublime.

    We look forward to your review of April DeConick’s book Holy Misogyny. Thanks for the brief preview!

  18. January 25, 2012 11:08 am

    Suzanne,

    Your statement about Larry Summers important, given his observations about his daughter playing and his extrapolation about that to make an excuse or at best to give an explanation for why women are not found in certain academic disciplines such as math. I agree; it is telling that “a man who is so totally unreflective was able to achieve the position that he did.”

    Thank you for sharing so personally how your daughter and son played with their toys, and noting what that means and cannot mean. My own son and my daughters are very very aware of the gender gap in the United States. Last night, we were happy, again, to hear the President state, in the state of the union address, that there must be equality in earnings whether one’s sex or gender is female or male. By the way, they watched The Wonder Years and have tracked how Danica McKellar has succeeded through college, through co-writing a math theorum, through writing books for young women about math, through acting and modelling, through now being a parent. For McKellar there is clear awareness that, because she is a woman and not a man in our society, she faces challenges and obstacles that men generally do not. And yet she does not seem afraid to face the challenges, overcome the obstacles, be a female publicly, and encourage women to do the same.

  19. January 25, 2012 1:23 pm

    Well, see what happens when one goes to sleep for a few hours? A thread explodes.

    ————————————————-

    Kurk, I don’t want to repeat myself, and I think that my comments speak for themselves. So rather than responding to all your points, I just want to make a few new ones:

    I understand your claim that (1) the earliest Greek uses did not refer to prostitution. However, even if that is the case, it is clear that the most prominent use did refer to writings about prostitution. I also understand your claim that (2) the earliest use noted by the OED did not emphasize this aspect. That’s fine, because I was referring to the Greek origins of the word. Words shift in meaning; and I gave a definition of the English word that did not refer to prostitution. However, I stand by my claim the Danica McKellar image is apparently teaching women to sexualize themselves.

    I further reject that this is an empowerment movement among women. Rather it is a cunning exploitation of women largely driven by a cynical media and advertising industry. How else to explain Marc Jacob’s advertisement with 17-year old Dakota Fanning entitled “Oh Lola!”

    Go ahead click on this image:

    The ad was banned in Britain, by the way.

    At that raises my primary concern about the Danica McKellar image: it is aimed at children. McKellar is the teacher, and she is teaching her students that being good at math will help them at their ultimate purpose in life: being little sex objects. (I could have used a vulgar term instead of “sex objects”). Now, perhaps we could excuse this among adults. But as a society, we have tradition of protecting children. For example, I noted that you were repulsed by the reports from Penn State.

    So here is my question: What’s the moral difference between the Penn State reports and the Danica McKellar images?

    ————————————————-

    Suzanne, you raise many interesting points, and I can barely stand the wait to see your review of Holy Misogyny.

    But I don’t know that your remarks about gender difference are correct. There are female connoisseurs of pornography — a well known example: “Violet Blue” has newspaper columns in which she reviews pornography (and a Google search reveals an active blog as well). Further, I have read that there is a genre called “couples porn,” which implies works that are not aimed at a specific gender.

    Rather than claim gender differences in desire (a point that I think needs to be scientifically established, not just established on anecdotal evidence), I would say that human desires varies widely across individuals.

    Further, I think that your list of inexcusable pornography is too narrow. Perhaps you would agree with me that sexualized images of children are also inexcusable. (However, I would not say that Nabokov’s book Lolita nor Kubrick’s movie based on the same book were pornography, since neither has the intention to excite.)

  20. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 25, 2012 1:29 pm

    ” Rather than claim gender differences in desire (a point that I think needs to be scientifically established, not just established on anecdotal evidence),”

    Sorry, but you have totally cracked my up here!! How do I write Roll over on the floor laughing. I think I imputed this to Augustine poor old chap that he was.

  21. January 25, 2012 1:38 pm

    Well, I’m glad that I made you laugh. But my point is — different people are stimulated by different things. No universal buttons.

  22. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 25, 2012 1:52 pm

    What if women are stimulated by the harmonies of barbershop quartets and the direct gaze of bedroom eyes? Should I disapprove of male voices and ask men to where sunglasses?

  23. January 25, 2012 2:00 pm

    There is nothing wrong with desire. The problem comes when women, in particular, are taught to value themselves primarily as sex objects. This is doubly true in the case of girls; see, for example, the last T-shirt in this post.

  24. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 25, 2012 2:10 pm

    I have seen many reverse sexist t-shirts. Lots that put boys down. Somehow T-shirt art is a discipline in itself, perhaps an unmined dataset for a Ph-D thesis in literacy.

  25. January 25, 2012 2:44 pm

    Suzanne, so you don’t think that sexualization of girls is a widespread phenomenon?

    How do you understand Tomi-Ann Roberts?

    Girls are not passive recipients of these cultural messages. Girls are active agents. We know from developmental cognitive psychology that young boys and girls, once they know what their gender is, are very motivated to be the best example of their gender. And if the examples of femininity around you are a sort of tarted up, pornographied sexuality, then that’s what you’re psyched to be.

  26. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 25, 2012 3:53 pm

    Clearly one has to be up to date on popular media to comment on this.

  27. January 25, 2012 6:09 pm

    What Jerry Sandusky has allegedly done to boys and how cracked.com re-presents Danica McKellar (and how elsewhere she represents her own body) is apples and oranges.

    What Tomi-Ann Roberts encourages some of her students, young women, to publicize you might call pornography, Theophrastus.

  28. January 25, 2012 7:52 pm

    Yes, I agree — they are different. But only in degree.

    If the image was made by Cracked.com and not by McKellar herself, though, it is not fair to judge her by it.

    (Although I still would say that titles like Kiss My Math or Hot X are in dubious taste, although clearly parodies.)

    You seem to be defending Cracked.com as non-pornographic. I dispute this. consider for example, these images (warning — they are offensive):

    Are those images really “exploring sexuality’? Or are they exploitation? (Please note that I am not arguing for censorship — rather I am arguing that they are in poor taste, and are inappropriate for children.)

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