Thursday, September 27, 2012

My definition of feminist female characters and Dr. Temperance Brennan

One of my favorite shows is Bones. And Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan and has a lot to do with that. While some (very few) have taken issue with her character because of her social awkwardness, I think one of the show's strengths is that is presents us with complicated characters and that it shows the people, both women and men, do not have to be perfect in order to be effective at their work and capable of having a positive influence on the world.
My intent is not to pretend like there's some sort of revolt against Bones (there's not), but rather to use a show I really like to demonstrate one example of what a strong female character can look like.
I believe that for characters to be passably feminist (by my definition, not any kind of official one), they need to be consistently shown to be as smart as the men around them, as independent of thought, as complex in character, and as strong willed. For them to be actively feminist, they need to be better than the men around them in at least one category. I don't, however, believe women need to be especially powerful in their societies to be feminist. Otherwise, it would be impossible to write a feminist narrative set in a male-dominated society. For example, even though women are not included in the business world of The Godfather, I would consider Kay Adams to be a feminist character though I won't say why here because I don't want to spoil the movies (though I will say so here; also, watch the movies). Similarly, while I haven't seen The Help (though I've heard I really should), I would imagine that the characters would satisfy most feminists based on what I've heard about it.
From the get-go, Dr. Brennan is portrayed as the smartest and most respected person at the lab. While there's a chance that Zack Addy may be smarter, he is less developed in his skills and is intimidated by Dr. Brennan, as are most of the characters in the show. Bones is "hyper-rational", and her thoughts are always coherent. She is consistently capable of separating her own bias from an investigation and seeing it objectively, even when understanding why evidence would point to her as the perpetrator of a crime. Bones is knowledgeable of many fields (if not pop culture) and is a trained martial artist, but, more importantly, she is shown as a tireless worker who can consistently get things done.
The main argument I have seen as to why Dr. Brennan is not a feminist character is that she is not socially adept. One writer has argued:
Dr. Brennan is depicted as being almost robotic or emotionless in the show, which could very well be due to the perception of women as being unable to posses both intelligence/a high career drive and have empathy. It is almost as if she sacrificed her emotions in place of her intelligence and career, making her undesirable.
Wouldn't it be more robotic and generic if Dr. Brennan somehow managed to be perfect in every way? She is someone who deals with recently murdered victims for a living. It seems like the kind of career that would require someone to be able to control their emotions rigorously, and in the first season's "A Boy in a Bush", both Angela and Zack struggle emotionally to deal with the sight of a young child's corpse, and the episode shows how objective and, yes, emotionless they have to become to be able to handle the job. To me, this is not anti-feminist but realistic. As one commenter writes here, Dr. Zack Addy "was the male version of Bones, and had virtually the same personality characteristics, so I don’t think that showing her as socially out of step is a statement on intelligent women." Moreover, each major character in the show has visible flaws and shortcomings. The show doesn't say that a woman, specifically, can't have everything together but rather that no one can.
In Bones, all of the characters have flaws and shortcomings that are essential to the understanding of their character. Identity is a very important issue in Bones. By solving crimes, the Jeffersonian allows victims to get their identities back. Brennan, meanwhile, is firmly committed to the idea of individuality and expresses her strong opposition to the changing on one's physical features.
On plastic surgery, she says:
"It's barbaric. It's painful. It's wrong. This murder victim may never be identified because this glorified barber with a medical degree had the arrogance to think that he could do better than millenia of evolution." 
"What this young woman did to herself. It's like she completely removed her identity." 
Plastic Surgeon: "I made her beautiful."
Brennan: "You mean you took what was unique and particular about her and destroyed it."
"She did everything she could to make herself beautiful. And all she did was make herself more invisibile."
"We are born unique. Our experiences mold and change us...I feel like we should be arresting these doctors because whether they killed her or not, they still erased her."
Isn't that kind of commitment to individuality enough to justify someone's awkwardness in the minds of viewers?
Besides, it's not as if the show is suggesting that all smart women have social issues. Cam and Angela are both portrayed as very intelligent and seem much more at ease in social settings than Dr. Brennan. And when Agent Seeley Booth has a serious girlfriend Hannah, who serves as Bones's romantic rival, she is portrayed as smart, intelligent, and driven, and she and Dr. Brennan have a substantial amount of respect for each other.
I have a lot of appreciation for how the creators of the show have managed to create full-bodied, interesting characters and have managed to create strong female characters whose supposed weaknesses come across as human and individual rather than indicative of female incapability.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Gov 1310 Cheating Allegations Do Not Prove Athlete Privilege

The news could reignite a contentious decades-old debate about athletes and academic integrity in the Ivy League. --Bill Pennington
What would be more accurate to say is that Pennington himself wants this debate to be reignited, which is why he has opened his argument about an incidence of alleged academic cheating by citing two very different events: Harvard basketball's Top 25 ranking and NCAA tournament appearance.
The segue was made available to Pennington by what he refers to as "published reports [that] implicated the co-captains of the basketball team in a widespread academic cheating scandal."
All we know for a fact is that co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry have chosen to withdraw. In other words, we know that they accepted the punishment, while it has not yet been determined whether or not they committed the crime.
And just because Casey and Curry are the only names to have been released doesn't mean that they are the only ones implicated. In fact, it was a shared typo by members of a different team that led to the investigation in the first place (if you greatly desire to know which one, the internet is at your fingertips).
Anyway, a couple thoughts:
Wrongdoing is not a sign of privilege. Only getting away with wrongdoing is. And Harvard's athletes are not getting away with anything.
When news leaked that athletes were among those being investigated, many responded with admonitions of Harvard's supposedly overprivileged athletes. But it doesn't take great privilege to make a mistake--which I believe is what students did--or to do something while knowing that it was morally wrong. Unfortunately, these are two areas where there really is equal opportunity (if only that were so for other more aspirational fields).
Now if Harvard decided that punishment shouldn't apply for the athletes, that would mean that privilege has gone too far.
Instead, we are seeing just the opposite: athletes are essentially being punished more than non-athletes. First of all, their absences are much easier to notice publicly, especially when they are well-known athletes such as Casey and Curry. Secondly, the price of being wrong--on betting on one's innocence and then being found guilty--is much higher for athletes. Non-athlete students forced to withdraw will take a year off from college and will be able to return to the same place they left. There is no NCAA governing student organizations, no losing of one's final year of eligibility, no missing out on the last chance (for many) to compete in the defining (for many) part of one's college career. Athletes, here, are not privileged.
Now, part of this article suggests that athletes act entitled, a claim which is highly subjective. In my experience with Harvard's athletes, which includes four years of varsity rowing and writing for The Crimson on many sports (football, baseball, women's hockey, men's crew, skiing and men's golf were my beats, and I wrote stories for many others), I have never found that to be the case. But again, this is highly subjective, so if you want to believe that athletes act with a sense of entitlement, I can't really prove you wrong. If you believe that cheating on a test qualifies as acting with a sense of entitlement, that's more than fair. But acting in a privileged manner is very different from having actual privilege conferred upon you. And the difference is critical.
If you have a problem with athletes taking certain courses, you should first object to Harvard offering these courses.
"Some athletes are here working hard, but others avoid academic challenges. You know you won’t find them in a deductive logic course, but you will find them in a much less taxing sociology course. They sometimes exist apart, and collectively gravitate to the same majors, like sociology or government. It’s known." --Patrick Lane, a senior
Now, this part is largely personal opinion, but if you find it problematic that certain students are taking certain classes, shouldn't you instead be upset that the University is offering these courses in the first place? When courses and concentrations are created, it's presumably because the institution considers the study of these things to be a valuable use of time. Are students at fault for agreeing? One of the things I loved about Harvard is its breadth of course offerings and the relative freedom it allows students to study what they want from Folklore and Mythology to Government to History and Literature to Engineering. As a concentration, Government has embraced this philosophy. Government has often been faulted for its relatively loose requirements, but I don't see this as a flaw because it allows students to find what interests them and pursue those things. Many of my favorite classes were challenging and rewarding ones I found in the Government department, which is why I took four government classes my senior year despite having filled my requirements the year before. (In addition to Introduction to Congress, I took Political Psychology, Social Policy in Brazil, and Contemporary British Politics.) Harvard considers students mature enough to make their own decisions about courses, including how difficult they want their academic schedule to be. If this is a problem, take it up with the University and explain to them why these courses should not be taught on campus. Don't fault students for taking advantage of what is already there.

Acknowledging my inherent biases, I have no interest in discussing whether or not I consider any of the Government 1310 students to be guilty or what I think the punishments should be. That's not my job. Similarly, I will not use this space to argue over the merit of recruited athletes. It's an issue with which I am more than willing to engage, but not here. Because this is an issue of academics, not athletics.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kyle Casey's Wise Decision to Withdraw

Given the circumstances--a large, highly public cheating scandal at one of the most famous universities in the world--Kyle Casey made the best possible decision: to withdraw from the school.
Casey and fellow co-captain Brandyn Curry are the first names to be made public, a dubious title. But here's why I respect this decision:
1. It's damage-minimizing: Were Casey to stay in school and then be forced to withdraw, he would have lost his final year of eligibility. That scenario may have helped cushion the media-blow for Casey somewhat as his guilt would have been released at the same time as other names. But it would mean that the Harvard basketball program would never have had has talents again. And Casey's NBA dreams would have to be pursued elsewhere. Assuming guilt, this is the only way he can finish his Harvard education and continue to pursue his basketball games. When I say "assuming guilt", this does not mean that I am declaring him guilty, but rather that Casey is probably looking at things from a worst-case scenario perspective which, as a student-athlete, is the vantage point he has to take.
By stepping aside now, Casey has given his teammates a chance to adjust. New players have time to step up in practice now, rather than being thrown into the fire at a moment's notice. While he will certainly represent a big loss for the Crimson, at least now Harvard has a chance to plan, and the team can enjoy his talents next year.
Moreover, by the time the investigation is completed, should Casey be found guilty, he's old news whereas the other athletes (no, I do not think the scandal is only athletes) will have forced their teams to pay much steeper prices because they waited until withdrawal was forced upon them.
Somewhere down the road, Casey will be glad he made this decision at this time.
2. I appreciate someone owning up and taking the consequences rather than anonymously whining to The Crimson and threatening a lawsuit. Casey is voluntarily accepting the consequences of his actions. He messed up (assuming he did, which withdrawal seems to suggest), and he's paying for it. Pretty straightforward. He will be maligned, he will be taunted when he comes back, but eventually it will blow over. Sure, when he's discussed, years down the road, it will taint his legacy (though by what degree I don't know). But it doesn't have to define him. He's still young (or at least, I'd like to think so, since I'm only one year older). When this incident is examined in the future, people will say that Casey may have made a mistake--a bad mistake--but he assumed full responsibility and owned up to it.
3. Please don't make Kyle Casey the face of academic dishonesty. Now, I'm not trying to excuse cheating, and I'm not calling the university punishments unfair. But I would caution against the vilifying of Casey specifically. I know there are going to be people who use this incident to call into question the practice of recruiting athletes, who fault Harvard's basketball program for its academic index issues, and who are going to use this occasion to vilify athletes, particularly those in popular sports such as basketball or football. I urge people not to do that.
If Casey is guilty, he did something up to 124 other students also did. I am almost positive not all of them are athletes, and The Crimson reported that not all of them are basketball or football players. I am almost positive that cheating occurs among nonathletes in other classes, though I don't have the evidence to prove it, just things I've heard offhand. When I explained the cheating scandal to people, they commented that cheating was to be expected given the circumstances. That doesn't make it right, but I don't think this scandal is indicative only of Harvard behavior. Rather, I agree with undergraduate dean Jay Harris's statement that “This is not a unique student problem. It’s certainly not a Harvard problem. It’s a national and international problem.”
I think that's pretty well established, in fact (though I do not have exact statistics). As I recall, cheating was plentiful in the revered Harry Potter books (which I read feverishly back in the day) both in academics and in the "Triwizard Tournament". In my various internet searches I came across "The Harvard Writers" (NOT affiliated with Harvard University), a term paper service. I kept perusing the website, looking for redeeming qualities, wondering if I was mischaracterizing it as a cheating database, but it was as it appeared to be: a place where you can pay people to do your school work for you. (And if you're paying someone to write a dissertation, why are you working on a dissertation in the first place?) If cheating can be condoned in popular culture and essay writers can advertise openly on Google, the problem goes a lot deeper than Kyle Casey. It's fine with me if you want to criticize students for cheating. Just remember that a lot of other people (allegedly) did the same thing as Casey; they just aren't athletic enough to get on Sports Center for it.

Full Disclosure: I graduated from Harvard in May with a degree in Government. I was a student in Government 1310 and a four year rower. Pretty much the definition of conflict of interest.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Why Darth Vader is a better Dad than Vito Corleone, Kay Adams and Princess Leia as feminists, and Hyman Roth crushing it

(Obviously Spoiler Alerts. Also, this blog is also obviously inspired by the Grantland "Sequeltology")
1. Daddy Issues: Who's the Better Father
If you look at the two characters' behaviors, Vito seems like an obvious choice, especially if you're looking from the vantage point of his favorite son, Michael. A hard working family man, Vito takes the moral high ground in all non-business issues. While he knows Sonny and Fredo will be caught up in what he does, he has high hopes for Michael ("Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone"). Even in business, he acts, relatively speaking, with integrity, first by insisting "we're not murderers" in the opening sequence and then by refusing to make an act of vengeance on Sonny's death and declaring a truce in the war. As far as mafia Dons go, he's a good guy.
In A New Hope, meanwhile, Darth Vader agrees to the termination of his daughter and then tries to blow up his son's space ship (admittedly, his son was trying to bomb his space station which contained all his business colleagues and friends and him before he left it). Far from respecting and even encouraging his son's willingness to remain pure, he actively tries to convert Luke to the Dark Side.
But while Vito lives the part of the loving father, Darth Vader would do much better at the parent socials for the simple reason that his kids turned out much better.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

To All College Freshmen: Why You Should Join Heavyweight Rowing

Every activity will talk to you about the things you can accomplish through hard work and the friendships you will make. All of these are true of rowing (and probably many other things), but I won't take up space explaining why. Instead, I've tried to list some rowing-specific reasons. Rowing was tantamount to my personal growth in college, and I encourage anyone interested in sports and personal achievement to give it a try.
(As a non-lightweight and non-coxswain, I can't comment on those experiences.)
  • Eating: Not going to lie, this probably ranks higher on my personal Why-I-Loved-College-Rowing list than it probably should. Rowing isn't necessarily a sport of immediate gratification. It's a sport of putting in tons of hours of training so that it will pay off in a very short period of time at the end of the year. At least, if you're looking at it from a results perspective, which many are. Eating, on the other hand, gives you satisfaction much more frequently. I mean, who doesn't love eating? Post-practice bagels-and-nutella time was on the very short list of high points of my week in college. No exaggeration. And there were definitely workouts where I thought to myself "Well, that went horribly wrong. I guess my fitness isn't even close to where I thought it was. This will almost certainly affect how I'm boated. BUT how much more can I eat than I would have been able to had I not done this workout? Okay, it's a good day."
  • Fitness, Fitness, Fitness: I love being fit. To me, it's one of the best feelings out there. If you row, you will get fit. That's just how it works.
  • Stop Worrying About Being Skinny: heavyweight rowing is one of the best ways to combat the skinny=beautiful line of reasoning that all girls have to face at some time. That's not to say there's anything wrong with skinny people or that they're not beautiful and fabulous too (some of my best friends are skinny people). But when you spend time with a bunch of heavyweight rowers, you stop think in terms of skinny/not skinny. You might still have ab-envy, but you start to realize that if you're going to have ab-envy, why not have leg-envy, back-envy, arm-envy, erg-envy, pull-up-envy, core-envy (not to be confused with ab appearance), or weight-lifting-envy? You start to realize how many ways there are to quantify fitness, and that if you spent all day envying everyone else, you'd probably just explode. So you conclude that all you can do is work with your own physique and become as fit as possible.
  • Very High Pain Tolerance: Speaks for itself. Yes, rowing can hurt. You should probably know that going into it. If you think of it as a graceful idyllic sport, you are in for a rude awakening. That being said, one of my favorite things (if not my favorite thing) about rowing is how hard it is. Everyday, you get the opportunity to prove wrong the little voice in your head that says it's too hard. Then when you graduate college, you will be in shock at how little normal workouts hurt. This will annoy you, so you will work hard to find a way to make your non-rowing workouts as hard and as painful as your rowing workouts were. And then you will have reached the point of no return.
  • Yes, you can do other things on campus: During my four years, my team had two Hoopes Prize winners, at least one HoCo chair, a fashion designer (2 and 3 are the same person), at least one Engineering Major, multiple a cappella group singers, members of both The Harvard Crimson (me) and The Harvard Independent, a study abroad participant, an ROTC member, an Intramural ref, a Catholic Students Association leader, and many other things including high level involvement in sororities and final clubs (yes, we all have close friends from outside the team). You do have to pick and choose, to a degree, and you do have to be good at time management, but you'd be amazed at the things rowers do outside of their sport. And when you think about it, spending time with people from so many different backgrounds and so many diverse non-rowing interests is a pretty cool thing. Guess I lied about not playing the make-friends card. Oh well.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Words of Wisdom from Mornings on Horseback

McCullough, David. Mornings on Horseback. Simon & Schuster Inc. New York: 1981.
"Organs are made for action...they are made to work, not to be; and when they work well they can be well."
-Henry Hyde Salter, p. 108
"Take care of your morals first, your health next, and finally your studies."
-Theodore Roosevelt Sr. p. 165
"Oddly, for all his quick success in politics, the passion and energy he exuded, he was still unable, or unwilling, to accept politics as his lifework. He never spoke of it as a career or calling...among hte few with whom he was most candid, he admitted to no clear vision of a lifework. In the parlance of later-day psychologists he had still to find an occupational identity, and it troubled him."
--McCullough, p. 280
"The sole, overwhelming lesson was the awful brevity of life, the sense that the precipice awaited not just somewhere off down the road, but at any moment. An asthmatic childhood had shown that life could be stifled, cut off, unless one fought back, and all Papa's admonitions to get action, to seize the moment, had the implicit message that there was not much time after all. Father had died at forty-six; Mittie had been only forty-eight; Alice, all of twenty-two, her life barely begun. Nothing lasts. Winter waits."
--McCullough, p. 285
"There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first, ranging from grizzly bears to 'mean' horses and gunfighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid."
Teddy, p. 336
"Much has been given to us, and so, much will be expected of us; and we must take heed to use aright the gifts entrusted to our care."
Teddy, p. 349 (really, you should read the whole speech)
"It is of more importance that we should show ourselves honest, brave, truthful, and intelligent, than that we should own all the railways and grain elevators in the world."
Teddy, p. 349-350