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The Joke Isn’t Funny – It’s Harmful

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I am one of the people who reacted strongly to a science fiction story sexist piece of crap published by Nature in their Futures section titled Womanspace. In it, the Draper-esque protagonist discovers that his wife’s apparently miraculous shopping aptitude is due to her remarkable ability to transit into parallel universes, an extension of her evolutionary success as a ‘gatherer’ as opposed to his innate role as the ‘hunter’.

There was plenty of outrage, but not everyone had the same reaction that I did. Comments supporting (or at least not outright condemning) the author, Ed Rybicki, and the editor who approved the story, Henry Gee, all sound about the same: lighten up, ladies. There’s no call to be angry – it’s just a joke, even if it’s a bad one.

For example, Michele Busby wrote in her defense of Womanspace that we should “cut Ed a break” because, after all, it’s not “worth getting upset about.” A commenter on Janet Stemwedel’s post was more defensive: “Until your response, the sexism was humor. Now, your foolishness makes it an actual issue. Who ACTUALLY harmed interpretation of women?” Meanwhile, though he doesn’t condone the work, Hank Campbell feels that “the “Womanspace” thing was just goofing around, pretty harmless.”

That’s the thing, though. Reinforcing negative gender stereotypes is anything but harmless.

It was Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson who, in 1995, first coined the term stereotype threat. It refers to how the knowledge of a prejudicial stereotype can lead to enough anxiety that a person actually ends up confirming the image. Since that landmark paper, more than 300 studies have found evidence for the pervasive negative effects of societal stereotypes.

When it comes to women, studies have shown that stereotype threat is very real. Women are stereotyped to be worse at math than men due to lower test scores. But it turns out that women only score lower when they are reminded of their gender or take the test in the presence of men. In fact, the greater the number of men in the room with a female test taker, the worse she will do. The gender profile of the environment has no effect, however, on women’s verbal test scores, where no such inferiority stereotype exists.

While Nature was happy to report that “overt sexism is no longer the norm” in STEM careers, they failed to recognize that women don’t have to be blatantly discriminated against for the gender gap to persist. There are long-term career consequences to gender stereotypes. Female undergraduates in male dominated fields report higher levels of sex discrimination, and are more likely to report thoughts of changing majors compared to those in fields that aren’t dominated by men. Furthermore, when women’s sense of belonging in STEM fields is reduced by perceptions of a stereotypical environment, they earn lower course grades and are less likely to express interest in pursuing careers in those subjects.

The worst part, though, is that these negative effects start at a very young age. Simply reminding girls that they are girls is enough to drive down their math test scores. Even at the age of five, girls will score 15% lower on a math skills test when they perform a gender-reinforcing activity first.

So, yes, I was outraged to see something which comes off as overtly sexist and reinforces gender stereotypes published under Nature‘s name, whether it was intended to be humorous or not. The result of Womanspace is that women in science feel alienated. It is exactly the kind of environment that contributes to the STEM gender gap. Just listen to how women reacted:

Kate Clancy: “I felt completely alienated and abandoned by a journal that is supposed to publish science”.
Anne Jefferson: “it seems in every way designed to make me feel othered and excluded from the scientific academy”
Ali Kerwein: “I am so disappointed. I admired this publication so much, and now I feel completely disgusted.”

Ed may not have meant to demoralize women scientists when he wrote Womanspace, but by reinforcing the stereotype of the domesticated woman as opposed to the scientific man, he did just that. But even worse, as Anne Jefferson said, by approving of such a piece, Nature has given this kind of sexist attitude their highly-valued stamp of approval.

Shame on you, Nature, for contributing to the kind of environment which leads to stereotype threat – the kind of environment that tells girls they shouldn’t bother becoming a scientist. Because while I can shrug off some bigoted humor, they can’t. They’re the ones harmed by such careless support of antiquated gender roles. I am mad at you for them. You have done wrong by little nerdy girls everywhere, Nature, and you need to acknowledge it. Anything less says that you simply don’t care.

Christie Wilcox About the Author: Christie Wilcox is a science writer and blogger who moonlights as a PhD student in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. Follow on Google+. Follow on Twitter @NerdyChristie.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Fordi 1:18 pm 11/18/2011

    “Reinforcing negative gender stereotypes is anything but harmless.”

    And ridiculing them?

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  2. 2. Michele_Busby 2:38 pm 11/18/2011

    I think the more substantive piece of what I said was that it is just plain factually incorrect to dismiss the premise that men and women shop differently out of hand as a sexist stereotype because, in general, men and women DO shop differently. It is something people in retail look at a lot because it’s of enormous economic importance.

    Also, I pointed out that the hunter/gather theory isn’t just a joke, but something that has also been given serious consideration by evolutionary psychologists:
    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~kruger/Kruger_Evolution_and_Shopping.pdf

    But alas, like all things evolutionary psychology this theory cannot be proven.

    I am also unclear why women have been so quick to characterize praising women’s domestic skills as enforcing a NEGATIVE stereotype. Shopping is only a frivolous pursuit for women of privilege. For women with limited income, an ability to shop well is the difference between her family surviving and her family ending up out on the street. So horray for women who can shop!

    The arguments around this story devalue these female skills, as we always seem to devalue anything inherently female. (Like shoes! Shoes are fabulous! They are art done by someone with talent who went to school a long time to learn how to do that.) And it saddens me that most of these arguments are coming from women.

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  3. 3. Tomsing 3:08 pm 11/18/2011

    I’m kind of in line with what Michele posted above. Further, Dr. Isis mentioned something about it reinforcing stereotypes about women belonging in the kitchen, but it occurs to me that there’s no reason to assume there’s not an equitable division of labor in the (I think fictional) home. Maybe she typically shops and does dishes, maybe he typically mows the lawn and washes the cars.

    But I’m curious about the effect of negative stereotypes. Certainly, girls can’t do math is a negative stereotype (as opposed to girls are better at shopping, which seems neutral), and I buy that it would have a psychological effect. Are there similar effects for other stereotypes? Do white guys jump less high in a gym full of black guys, for example? Do Asians do better on math tests if they have to identify their ethnicity? Do boys do worse on math tests after having home ec than they do after gym class? And are girls from cultures that don’t have as strong a “bad at math” stereotype as affected?

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  4. 4. kristindownie 3:30 pm 11/18/2011

    i still fail to see how this perpetuates a stereotype. i completely agree with tomsing above that there’s the underlying assumption made that, because the wife was cooking in the story, she does all the cooking and housework. there’s no indication at all that this is in any way true. it might be that cooking is the only household chore she does and the husband does all the cleaning. it may be that 3 days of the week she cooks, 3 days he does and the last day they eat out.

    furthermore, why should telling a story where the woman is cooking be perceived as a negative at all? how many times a week do we cook? i don’t know about you but i can’t fuel my science on free food from vendor shows and coffee alone, i have to cook to eat.

    secondly, while the men wonder why the women are better at shopping than they are, again, failing at their task. to return to the original hunter/gatherer analogy, they failed at hunting. this is much more negative towards men than any other part of the story as it leads to the conclusion that women are better suited than men at tasks requiring complex thought patterns and foresight. finally the end of the essay concedes the point that women are smarter than men at many tasks, how is this negative?

    the only thing i will agree with, is that Nature shouldn’t publish essays that are trivial puff pieces. i read and publish in Nature in order to learn about and describe hardcore science, not drivel.

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  5. 5. Janet D. Stemwedel 3:40 pm 11/18/2011

    kristindownie @4, no part of my objection to the piece had anything to do with a woman cooking dinner. Rather, what I found problematic was the assumptions about gendered differences with regard to shopping (and attention to one’s environment more generally) and the “humorous” suggestion that those must have some physical or biological basis (rather than representing mere individual variations displayed by the three adult characters in the story).

    The environment that takes as given that such gendered difference really exist (and are bigger than the differences among individuals within a gender) and are innate (as opposed to learned through a thoroughgoing system of rewards for conformity and punishments for deviation) is the same environment that creates barriers for women’s full participation in science education and careers. Also, trying to be oneself in this environment (especially when one does not conform to the gendered expectations) is really, really tiring.

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  6. 6. jasondick 3:41 pm 11/18/2011

    Thank you, Christie! This is an incredibly important issue. Reinforcing gender stereotypes is never okay. And it is even worse when it comes from such a prestigious scientific journal.

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  7. 7. Christie Wilcox in reply to Christie Wilcox 3:43 pm 11/18/2011

    Tomsing: in response to your questions, yes. For example, simply telling a group of African American and Caucasian guys that a golf exercise is a test of intelligence versus athletic ability skews which group will do better.

    Michele, Tomsing & Kristin: The problem isn’t lauding a woman’s domestic prowess – it’s the implication that women are ‘evolved’ for domestic behaviors. Just because someone has made a published argument for an evolutionary explanation doesn’t mean they’re right. Almost anything can be argued for in a ‘evo-psych’ context. Personally, I would be bothered by a similar story that portrayed the dumb but physically talented black jock, even though I don’t consider pro athlete to be a poor choice of career. Such portrayals reinforce the stereotype that black men are less intelligent and more aggressive, thus good at sports – though I bet that Herrnstein and Murray, among others, would vehemently defend the story’s solid evolutionary backbone.

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  8. 8. Tomsing 3:52 pm 11/18/2011

    Janet, I agree that it’s problematic to assume that there are differences in shopping behavior traceable to innate differences between gender, if it’s unsupported by science (and I honestly don’t know whether it is or it isn’t). Do you think it’s a problem to hypothesize and test that? And if those differences do in fact exist, is that a problem that society should do something about?

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  9. 9. ejwillingham 4:30 pm 11/18/2011

    Someone came over to my post about this and also posted that PDF link: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~kruger/Kruger_Evolution_and_Shopping.pdf

    I encourage anyone to look at the PDF–the title refers to “Shoping,” its provenance, and who’s on the editorial board of said publication. This is what is on offer as defense?

    I haven’t actually mentioned the woman’s being in the kitchen once, but come on. Really? You don’t know that the “little lady in the kitchen” is a negative stereotype?

    That article was packed with negative stereotypes of men and women. And even if women in general tend to shop differently from men–really? I can’t believe this discussion–how much of that is being XX vs XY and how much of that is simply cultural/societal? Women also used to study different subjects from men, but not because they innately were more capable in some or incapable in others, or vice versa, but because society dictated it. Here in 2011, women can follow their interests, rather than those anachronistic dictates, and lo’–suddenly, women are doing those “man” things, too.

    How many boys have, over the generations, grown up doing the food shopping with their mothers, learning domestic management, or buying underpants? How many girls have grown up hunting and fishing with their fathers? It’s not that girls can’t hunt or boys can’t grocery shop. Much of this is largely a matter of social shaping and is also society specific. And the idea that men can’t shop/gather like women is just…well, the word “dandy” isn’t a new one. Is no one aware of the Sun King?

    Outside of the poor, poor writing in that piece, one of its fundamental flaws is the lack of recognition that what built the stereotypes on which it is based is likely not some inherent, parallel XX “womanspace” but cultural and social shaping that led to what the writer considers the purview of the distaff. Today is the brave new world of 2011, and we can acknowledge that women and men don’t fit into those old constructs, which were inherently oppressive to women. We can even acknowledge that the perceptions of these roles as stereotypes scarcely hold water upon closer examination (history holds many examples of shifts in these sex-based roles). We can acknowledge that our understanding of women’s equality has made all of us aware that men can cook, shop, and buy underpants, and women can hunt, do astronomy, and pee standing up.

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  10. 10. ejwillingham 4:37 pm 11/18/2011

    Also, this is by far my favoritest EVAR thing when it comes to the privileged talking down to people: “It’s just a *joke*. Geez, get over yourself. Relax. Calm down. Just trying to be funny.” Etc….

    Here’s the thing: If you try to make a joke about a historically underprivileged group to which you do not belong and members of that group express that the joke is not, in fact, funny but instead is offensive, try this: Apologize. It’s really not that hard.

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  11. 11. Tomsing 5:55 pm 11/18/2011

    EJ, the little lady in the kitchen is a stereotype, but it’s not necessarily negative (apart from the condescending tone of “little lady”, although she may in fact be little, I suppose). If it is used to limit what a woman can/should do, that’s negative. If it arises as part of a objectively fair distribution of labor in the household, it seems pretty neutral. I mentioned it because it was the first thing Isis picked at, and within the context of the story, there’s no reason to think it’s not neutral. Particularly because the “little lady” is described as an astrophysicist.

    Christie, I didn’t see an evo-psych rationale in the article. It referred to men as hunters and women as gatherers, but it doesn’t seem to me to advocate that it’s an evolutionary difference as opposed to a cultural thing. It takes as a given that the difference in behavior exists; despite it clearly being an attempt at humor – successful or not – it seems like that should at least be supported by evidence in a journal like Nature.

    I haven’t seen anybody comment on the fact that, within the story, two male shoppers looking for girls’ underwear felt the need to reassure the worker that they were there at the request of the girl’s mother. So let me just throw out that I think that’s not cool.

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  12. 12. Ophelia Benson 6:01 pm 11/18/2011

    Apart from everything else that’s annoying about that piece, there’s

    “Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket — only to suddenly find her 20 metres away with her back to you? And then she comes back with something you’ve never seen before, and tosses it in the trolley as if nothing has happened?”

    which just assumes that the reader is male. It’s as if the whole world were a locker room where men talk patronizing gargle about The Little Woman.

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  13. 13. Michele_Busby 7:37 pm 11/18/2011

    Actually I think the image of a woman scientist cooking for her family while having to coordinate the needs of her family is a pretty accurate refection of the life that a lot of women lead now, not a negative stereotype. I got the impression that that part of the story is true anyway.

    Also, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the suggestion that a woman cooking is somehow a less valuable chore than thinking about science, which I think is implied when you call a woman cooking a “negative stereotype”. When I was a stay at home mom I was doing only stereotypically female work and I thought the work I was doing was valuable. And, like most women now, I was doing it because I was privileged enough to to have the financial means to be able to do it. Not because I had no other options.

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  14. 14. tex78132 8:44 pm 11/18/2011

    This is the third blog I have read by the author. They all seem to follow a common theme. It is her opinion that in science (and by extension everywhere else) women must be thought of, and treated by men exactly like women think of and treat men. That is not scientific thinking, that is political thinking. And minority political thought at that. Where push comes to shove in this issue is when a STEM educated father like myself has a STEM educated daughter who is wildly more successful in science than I ever was. (But then I got out of the sciences into something more lucrative). I only wish she had continued in medical research instead of getting into a job where she could spend more time with her daughter. Her husband didn’t influence her decision. Her parents didn’t. Women make decisions men wouldn’t. They just aren’t the same.

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  15. 15. all4kindness2all 10:18 pm 11/18/2011

    hmmm … so what pops up today on twitter from OBAMA 2012?

    A fact Sheet on Working Women

    http://obama.3cdn.net/46ebcf00afca918e3d_7a4ymvfl8.pdf

    “President Obama has said that the issues facing women today “are not just women’s issues.” From income disparity to representation in diverse fields, the challenges that women and girls confront in the U.S. workforce affect everyone. This fact sheet takes a look at the strides American women have made, and the work that still needs to be done.”

    What is Christie doing here? She fighting for nerdy little girls because she loves science and she understands the negative impact of automatic subtle stereotyping. What she is doing is both commendable and worthy of space in a science journal.

    My reaction to “Womanspace” was different than hers, but then I’m not a young female scientist. My reaction upon careful study of “Womanspace”: it is creepy and selfish and stupid.

    Why is it creepy? Because the author finds humor in the plot of two “elderly men” shopping for girls’ underpants and reveals the “creepiness” as part of the story line by indicating the lady who offered them help was wary (probably because they were in the women’s underwear section, not the girl’s) and that her “wariness seemed to become mild alarm, until we hastened to reassure her that this was in fact a commission for the mother of said child.”

    Why selfish, and stupid? His friend’s wife is busy cooking dinner and the two guys, who are otherwise “unemployed” (in other words “not helping in any way”) are sent on an errand to help her out by buying something her daughter needed. They then fail and have the gall to blame that failure on “womanspace” which they then revel in as a new discovery. Moreover, they set out to ‘scientifically’ prove it. How? “We simply put the idea up in as many forums as we could access; we blogged on it; we talked to everyone we knew (well, male, obviously) who could be relied on to observe such phenomena — and slowly, the observations came in.” What happens in this story is that two men selfishly went off doing their “fun” stuff first, ignoring the time or oblivious to it, so that when they finally ended up at the store, they couldn’t get to the correct department in time.

    Again — Why selfish and stupid? Because if you arrive at a store near closing and you don’t know where to find something, if it matters to you that you buy it, you ask a clerk help, so that you don’t find the store closed before you can succeed in your errand – which you were doing, by the way, to help the person who is cooking dinner for you. It’s not rocket science!!

    The idea is that this author made some great discovery, which was rightfully scorned by his friend’s wife, about something called “womanspace” based on the assumption that men are “hunters” and women are “gatherers” and that, even though the wife is “astrophysics-qualified,” women are not reliable as observers so only men were used to prove the theory.

    I will tell you what I learned about this author. He lets his wife cook and shop for him on the pretension of “inability.” He cares so little for the needs of his friend’s daughter that he makes sure the errand, which he obviously doesn’t really want to do, is only pursued after he has made the effort “fun” for himself. He can’t take personal responsibility for failure at a mundane task that any one with half a brain could accomplish, so he invents “womanspace” to justify his selfishness and supposed inability.

    In my opinion, it seems like this author was being passive-aggressive by failing to buy underpants for his friend’s daughter, so that he would not get stuck with a task like that again – one that I suspect he didn’t think he should get saddled with, even though he and his friend were doing nothing while his friend’s wife was too busy cooking dinner for them and therefore didn’t have the time. There is nothing funny about it.

    I have looked carefully over this story, which was based in an actual event in the author’s life, at details chosen which create the visuals of the setting, at the idea being proposed, and besides bad writing, all I see is a selfish man who acts on his pleasures first and justifies his incompetent failure by blaming women. The lie that ‘Women are better at this stuff than men are’ is proffered under the guise of ‘humor’ and ‘science fiction’ as though it is based upon evolution and scientific fact.

    “Womanspace” is a disgusting and pathetic story that isn’t funny, interesting, or well-written. Oh and by the way, it’s also sexist as hell.

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  16. 16. kwburnside 10:58 pm 11/18/2011

    Let’s explore the gender stereotypes in this piece.

    1) Men are assumed to be pedophiles by shop clerks – and accept this as a normal and reasonable consideration – just for looking for a pair of “wrong gendered” underwear.

    A woman in a department store buying boy’s underwear isn’t presumed to be a sexual deviant. A man is, because the gender stereotype of men is set the way it is.

    2) The men in the piece are bumbling incompetents. They don’t know to ask a clerk for help early in a process, they are portrayed as being constantly lost in a cloud and need nanny-minders to cook for them and get anything done. They can’t even help prepare dinner.

    This stereotype exists because you can’t ever show a woman as incompetent without raising ire, and a lot of comedy (and for that matter, drama) requires that someone make a mistake, and then carry on about it until they’re corrected. The role of “person who makes the mistake” is predominantly male; in comedy the male usually has a wife who’s better looking than he would otherwise get, is smarter than he is, and can often get away with hitting him or elbowing him in ways that, if they were gender reversed, would cause outrage and ire.

    It’s funny if men are getting hit.

    3) The men are unworthy of being loved on their own merits. The last line of the piece shows that their relationships exist solely at the sufferance of the women in them, and as soon as the women get a chance to “upgrade,” the men are replaced – that’s the punchline of the story.

    This is, in many ways, the most damning stereotype of all. It says that men are incapable of being equals in a relationship; once the relationship begins, he exists solely to make his wife happy. At no point is he given agency in the relationship, or a say. At no point does this create a relationship of equals.

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  17. 17. timbo555 11:46 pm 11/18/2011

    Okay, now I’m mad…..

    I have been waiting, hoping against hope that some hint of the spoof would reveal itself. But this isn’t a spoof, is it? There are actually women extant on the planet who could possibly read so much serious Feminist claptrap into a pathetic little story like “Womenspace”.

    This is the fate of today’s postmodern female liberal arts students; educated, trained, really, in radical feminist theory, and let loose upon the world, like so many rat terriers, eagerly sniffing out “social injustice” and barking loudly at whoever will listen when they think they’ve found some.

    But it is a peculiarly energetic breed of grievance collector who could take exception to this silly “Womenspace” story by reading so much social damage into it. This kind of hyper-vigilance must certainly leave one tired and cranky by the end of the day. Having to protect little girls everywhere from the possible evil lurking in the banal humor of ordinary jokes and stories can’t help but give one a dour and cynical attitude.

    Indeed, how could the author manage to laugh at anything, ever? There is always the very real possibility in radical feminist theory that the “okay” joke today might turn out to be a cleverly disguised penis or vagina joke in some unknowable future, and they’d have to give themselves forty lashes for being sexist in retrospect.

    This is highly evocative of the lengths to which dowdy, censorious Victorian ladies would go to ensure that other women were properly covered at the beach at the turn of the 20th Century. Most of those snooty gals are all gone now, and the good news is that this virulent stain of Feminism will die out as well.

    I leave you with this, from C.S. Lewis:

    Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

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  18. 18. all4kindness2all 12:41 am 11/19/2011

    Wake up people .. there is no inherent or redeeming value in the story “womanspace” and that negative stereotypes are on both sides is not a plus for it. It’s a boring piece of writing that isn’t funny or well-written.

    However, when I read comment #17 and this part of the CS Lewis quote: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.” I thought of Penn State and the Football scandal and how so many stood up in the Coach’s defense for all Joe P. has contributed as though that somehow his life contributions to football at Penn State lessens the impact of the undeniable fact that he allowed a child predator to continue his life unchecked at the cost of the impact on an unknown number of children. The fact that he is a great coach is irrelevant.

    So I suggest that this author is probably well known and very worthy of recognition for his better contributions, however, none of that improves the lack of quality of “womanspace” or gives us reason to excuse it.

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  19. 19. JDahiya 8:06 am 11/19/2011

    Timbo555, I remember I read on Scientific American some years ago that a study showed that jokes about old age make old age worse for oldies because these perpetrate and encourage young people to imbibe subconscious stereotypes of incompetent and stupid oldies. If that is so, even without being able to quote direct studies, I would extrapolate similarly that jokes about women make womanhood worse for women, and jokes about men make manhood worse for men (how many boys who like cooking get shooed out of kitchens, for example, or who like babies get them whisked out of their hands when the nappies need changing). To make it worse, there are so many more nudge-wink jokes about women than men, and women do, in fact and even today, get the short end of the stick (unless they are privileged).

    If you are not riled up when someone else is, perhaps you might want to consider the situation from their viewpoint rather than berate them for holding that viewpoint and ascribing negative stereotypes to them (humourless, virulent, rat terriers, grievance collector, dour and cynical, dowdy, censorious, are just a sample of what I picked; you really are on a roll). Just think: I’m dead sure there is something that bothers you deeply that I would laugh off as trivial. Since I don’t know what it is, I can’t quote it here and set you off.

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  20. 20. ejwillingham 12:04 pm 11/19/2011

    “This is the fate of today’s postmodern female liberal arts students; educated, trained, really, in radical feminist theory, and let loose upon the world, like so many rat terriers, eagerly sniffing out ‘social injustice’ and barking loudly at whoever will listen when they think they’ve found some.”
    I guess this might make any sense at all if any of us were “postmodern female liberal arts students…trained in radical feminist theory.”

    The negative stereotypes in that bit of Futures tripe aimed at both sexes, and as someone noted above, even went so far as to depict men buying girl’s underpants as suspect pedophiles. It’s really a steaming pile of negative stereotypes, not one of them used with the wry precision required to meet even the lightest definition of humor. I found it offensive on behalf of both sexes, and the “suspected pedophiles” vignette was perhaps its nadir.

    While the author may be a wonderful fellow, his outdated view of what constitutes amusing sex stereotypes *or* humor had no place in the pages of a journal that some consider to be one of the premier publications in science, especially given the prevailing sexist attitudes about women in the halls of scientific academe. For, you see, that’s where many of us spend and have spent our time, experiencing it directly. We are not “postmodern female liberal arts students; educated, trained, really, in radical feminist theory,” we are scientists who have *experienced* targeted or casual or sometimes clueless sexism from just such men as this writer. Nature had no business countenancing it, much less doing so for the purposes of playing off of our collective negative experiences in this milieu to garner attention.

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  21. 21. Tomsing 2:22 pm 11/19/2011

    That’s an awfully elite definition of humor. Fart jokes don’t have “wry precision”, but they’re still funny. I think you do your position a disservice by denying the fact that some people have found the story amusing.

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  22. 22. SarahDee 2:50 pm 11/19/2011

    There’s no denying that some people found the story amusing though. Some people find racist humor amusing as well. Does that make it okay to indulge in public discourse? Would you agree that a politician making a racist joke in public should apologize, no matter how innocent the intent, because it still hurt people? If yes, then why the double standard here?

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  23. 23. sixteentons 9:22 pm 11/19/2011

    Timbo555,Your entire diatribe is sexist, pretentious and dismissive.

    If it were the case that the author of this article was wasting time hunting down fringe blogs that no one reads and making a case here to single them out for ridicule, you would at least be correct in conclusion but not execution.

    However this article is pointing to a well respected periodical, Nature, and saying to them, “this isn’t okay, and here is why.”

    If we can’t expect more from the scientific community what good is it?

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  24. 24. timbo555 12:27 am 11/20/2011

    Kate Clancy: “I felt completely alienated and abandoned by a journal that is supposed to publish science”.
    Anne Jefferson: “it seems in every way designed to make me feel othered and excluded from the scientific academy”
    Ali Kerwein: “I am so disappointed. I admired this publication so much, and now I feel completely disgusted.”

    Sixteen tons:

    I had the good fortune to grow up among five sisters and five brothers. One of my sisters is a highly accomplished archaeologist and retired professor emeritus from a major Northeastern University. Another is a well regarded family practitioner and a mother of two lovely children, a third is a mother of two lovely children and manages a Planned Parenthood clinic in California, and the fourth is a successful business woman and the mother of two lovely children.

    The fifth, the oldest, the “alpha female” as she fondly refers to herself, gave up her job as a surgical tech to be a housewife and mother to her two lovely children. None of these wonderful, talented women are without their feminist world view.

    But none of them have ever once adopted the kind of enfeebled, simpering “Oh, the bad man talked mean to me!” victim stance such as is on display above. In fact in my profession I am surrounded every day by extremely intelligent, talented, successful, and funny women who would find it laughable and not a little scary and shameful that there are persons of their gender who feel threatened by a stupid little story in a science magazine.

    All of this is to say what Anne Jefferson said so well: You all feel alienated and “othered”. To that I have two things to say:

    1) No one else has the power to make you feel any way you don’t want to feel; your feelings are your own and you are responsible for them, not (in this case) “Science” magazine. I frankly don’t know how you could get through life with out being “outraged” at every turn if “Womanspace” bothers you so much; you must not be able to leave the house…..

    2) Whenever I allow myself to become dependent on what others say to me or about me for my own well being and peace of mind, I’m screwed; because in doing so I tether myself to people and circumstances over which I have no control, and I’m bound to be hurt.

    The problem isn’t the story; the problem is how you view the story; as in:

    “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. — Hamlet

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  25. 25. ejwillingham 1:45 am 11/20/2011

    @timbo “Fart jokes don’t have ‘wry precision.’”
    Fart jokes are not a gendered stereotype.

    By the way, nice effort just above to blame people–men and women–for being offended rather than blaming the offender. By that rationale, anything offensive becomes the fault of the perceiver. Do you have a good understanding of why Shakespeare had his vacillating protagonist utter that statement? It’s the cardinal defining weakness of Hamlet, his tragic flaw, the thing that gets everyone killed. In other words, Shakespeare wasn’t a huge fan of fence sitting.

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  26. 26. Tomsing 9:11 am 11/20/2011

    The fart joke thing was mine, actually. Perhaps you meant that only humor which plays on offensive stereotypes is required to have wry precision in order to qualify as humor, in which case I still disagree with you, but the fart joke example is not appropriate.

    I suspect you mean something along the lines of, humor which plays on offensive stereotypes needs to cleverly do so in a manner which indicates the source does not subscribe to them in order to not be offensive itself (perhaps by deliberately drawing the listener in with the expectation of the stereotype and then turning it on its head). I can agree with that, by the way, although I have more tolerance for offensive humor, I think.

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  27. 27. jhoman 6:18 am 11/21/2011

    @ Timbo555: Shakespeare might have said ““There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”, but Dante Alligheri said that “justice does not descend from its own pinnacle.” (Purgatorio)

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  28. 28. aliceparker 5:41 pm 11/21/2011

    It seems that the damage of stereotyping is that not everyone in a particular group fits the stereotype, but is assumed to do so. I have no trouble finding my way using maps, I have very good 3-D visualization skills, I minored in math for my Ph.D., and I hate shopping, especially for shoes. That said, I love pink (the color not the brand) and love being a mom.
    This morning an young electrician in my house insisted on seeing the man of the house, who was not present, and so after I insisted that he talk to me I discussed with him the directions I had written for the wiring I wanted done.
    Yes, lots of women love to shop for shoes, but not all do. Stereotyping is generalization in the face of conflicting data, and is bad science. We need to do all we can to encourage young women to achieve their dreams.

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  29. 29. Rarili 7:44 pm 11/21/2011

    @tex78132 (# 14)
    “Women make decisions men wouldn’t. They just aren’t the same.”

    Actually, what your example demonstrates is that *your daughter* has different priorities than *you*.
    Unless no man has *ever* chosen to stay in a less lucrative position to spend time with his family (and, contrariwise unless no woman has *ever* chosen to leave science for a better-paying job) your assertion that this is somehow a Man/Woman dichotomy makes no sense.

    Here’s a more accurate statement: “My daughter makes choices I wouldn’t. We just aren’t the same.”

    Fixed it.

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  30. 30. timbo555 11:53 pm 11/21/2011

    jhoman:

    Dante Alligheri said that “justice does not descend from its own pinnacle.” (Purgatorio)

    Brilliant, but Dante made that statement so by thinking it, didn’t he? He was expressing a point of view,his, I believe; is that not so? How about this:

    “Ah,Beer! The cause of, and the solution to, all my problems!” — Homer Simpson

    “I have to ask; how do you write women so well?”
    “I think of a man, and I take away reason, and accountability.” –Jack Nicholson’s Character in “As Good as it Gets.”

    “My wife said that for our next vacation she wanted to somewhere she’d never been before, and I said “try the kitchen.” Henny Youngman

    Beer! Helping ugly people have sex since the fourth century B.C.! — anonymous poster

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  31. 31. timbo555 1:24 am 11/22/2011

    ejwillingham:

    “By the way, nice effort just above to blame people–men and women–for being offended rather than blaming the offender.”

    By the way EJ, that was an even nicer effort just above for blaming me for blaming people for being victims. I can’t tell you how outraged and “othered” I feel for being reduced to that old negative stereotype; the blamer. There is no offender save for the ones your friends choose to imagine.

    No, I wasn’t blaming them for being offended; I was blaming them for being whiny, venal, grievance gatherers, who apparently must see nothing but “negative gender stereotypes” in every single aspect of American culture. Because surely if they saw it in “Womanspace” It must be assaulting their senses all day everywhere in every thing they see and do.

    How could they possibly turn on the TV or watch a movie? Walk down the street? Do they dare let their little girls (sorry, little womyn) watch the “Flintstones”? Don’t they worry that the vision of Wilma basting brontosaurus burgers on the grill will ultimately prevent THEIR little Pebbles from getting into MIT?

    The problem that you and your sisters of the divine victimization are faced with is that you have so few adherents that you practically don’t exist. I refer you again to my five sisters who are themselves pretty fierce about their feminist origins. Yet strangely, none of them belong to N.O.W. All through their educations, not one of them paid any attention to this kind of silly rhetoric. All of them achieved great things in the fields of science and medicine precisely because they simply ignored not only the imaginary negative stereotypes, but the shrill bleating of the pc police as well.

    In fact, hardly anybody belongs to N.O.W. They have an active membership of 500,000 women. That’s about ½ of a percent of the total population of adult American women.
    And no else one is buying what you have to sell.

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  32. 32. GTJon82 12:28 pm 11/22/2011

    Cheers Timbo555. To clarify a point, a stereotype is innately negative. Indeed, that is why it is a stereotype, a harmful generalization of a group or demographic. So to further characterize it as “negative” is only redundant and sensationalist. Please enlighten me on the definition of a positive stereotype? Even if you could, it would still be a false statement because again, a stereotype by definition is meant to generalize a group based on a limited sample.

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  33. 33. Kaleberg 1:15 am 11/24/2011

    I’ll have to read the story, but it reminds me of the old tale where the husband builds a time machine hoping to travel space and time with his wife now that he has retired. (This was written in the 50s.) They are living on a limited pension, so conventional travel was just too expensive. As far as he is concerned, the machine is a failure as it will take him back in time, but only to his own basement back in the mid-1930s. His wife, on the other hand, considers it a miracle machine as she slips on an old dress, digs up some old cash and goes back in time for her grocery shopping, loading up on roasts and steaks that they could barely afford in the present.

    As social commentary, it said more about inflation fighting wish fulfillment than sexism.

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  34. 34. Ed Rybicki 9:25 am 11/25/2011

    I thank the folk who have commented here, who do NOT condemn what I have seen described elsewhere as “a gentle little story”.

    As for @all4kindness2all, though…
    First off, what an unbelievably inappropriate handle!!
    Quoting you:
    “I will tell you what I learned about this author. He lets his wife cook and shop for him on the pretension of “inability.”

    Utter crap. We both shop – frequently together. Differently when apart, as it happens, but we come back with the same basic sort of stuff. And I cook! Often!! I enjoy it!!! But you wouldn’t care about that.

    “He cares so little for the needs of his friend’s daughter that he makes sure the errand, which he obviously doesn’t really want to do, is only pursued after he has made the effort “fun” for himself. He can’t take personal responsibility for failure at a mundane task that any one with half a brain could accomplish, so he invents “womanspace” to justify his selfishness and supposed inability.”

    Utter. Pile of. Steaming. Taurine. Excreta!!! I had no part in any decision. He shops too – most of the groceries, most of the time, in fact. Just not girls’ knickers – same as my wife won’t buy mine, because I like choosing them. We were in the wrong supermarket as a result. His point was that his wife would have found the knickers ANYWAY. Said in a loving, she’s-wonderful-that-way tone. But you wouldn’t like that, either.

    “In my opinion, it seems like this author was being passive-aggressive by failing to buy underpants for his friend’s daughter, so that he would not get stuck with a task like that again – one that I suspect he didn’t think he should get saddled with, even though he and his friend were doing nothing while his friend’s wife was too busy cooking dinner for them and therefore didn’t have the time. There is nothing funny about it.”

    MORE excreta! Shows what your opinion is worth, when matched against the facts. WE HAD NO PROBLEM WITH BUYING KNICKERS. WE WERE NOT BUSY BECAUSE THE WIFE IN QUESTION WANTED US OUT OF THE WAY WHILE SHE WORKED – WITH FEARSOME EFFICIENCY. WE STUFFED UP A SIMPLE ERRAND BECAUSE WE TALKED TOO MUCH. Oh, and looked at iMacs. I might point out she was involved in discussing the story – and it was her vigorous contributions and pointing out errors in logic, which improved it – oh, but you think it was dreadful, so she probably didn’t, then.

    “I have looked carefully over this story, which was based in an actual event in the author’s life, at details chosen which create the visuals of the setting, at the idea being proposed, and besides bad writing, all I see is a selfish man who acts on his pleasures first and justifies his incompetent failure by blaming women. The lie that ‘Women are better at this stuff than men are’ is proffered under the guise of ‘humor’ and ‘science fiction’ as though it is based upon evolution and scientific fact.”

    In MY opinion – you are a person who leaps to assumptions based on very flimsy evidence, and then defends your badly-based position against all comers. You are also prone to making hateful remarks directed against people about whom you know very little.

    You are also hiding your name. So would I, if I wrote such crap. Oh, damn – according to you, I do, don’t I??

    Ah, well. So much for my SF career!

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  35. 35. timbo555 11:24 am 11/25/2011

    GT Jon: Did you just drop in from another planet?

    We were discussing Feminist Dogma, not semantics. But you’re right, and I’ll make a deal with you; I’ll grant you the supposition that there can be no such thing as a positive stereotype, if you will take that message to the five or six devout feminists who employed the term before me.

    Or are you afraid of girls?

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  36. 36. Tomsing 6:58 pm 11/25/2011

    Ed, I don’t think it helps your case to attack someone for posting anonymously. It’s irrelevant, and in any case, I’m pretty sure she’s identified herself here before. I’m generally on your side in this, so take my advice: defend yourself as vigorously as you feel necessary, but don’t be a jerk about it.

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