Monday, August 18, 2008

Beware of the pickle jar effect...

I'm totally baffled by a recent episode of Oprah that I was watching the other day. I'm still not sure why I was watching it, but when you watch too much tv (like I do) you're bound to catch an episode or two of Oprah. It just happens. Well this is what I learned from her guest Patti Novak, the dating expert:

Allison's take-charge attitude is what Patti calls the pickle jar effect. "We are so successful today, women. We're fabulous. We work hard. We make good money. We parent. Sometimes what happens when we spend a lot of time alone, we forget to let them open the damn pickle jar," Patti says.

"The one thing I don't think is ever going to change on this planet is men still need to feel like men," she says. "So let them open it."

So how does a woman ask a man to do something without compromising herself? Patti says that if he's not in the room, go ahead and open your own pickle jar. But if he's standing there, Patti says it's just as easy to ask him to open it. "And know that you are the smarter, clever one for doing it," she says. "It's about attitude."

You can follow up on that episode here. I'm unsure what to think about advice like this. Is it giving up feminist ideals to submit to (and reinforce, perpetuate) patriarchal social norms? Does it sacrifice the integrity of women? Or, as Patti implies, is this merely a way for women to assert their superiority by use of some subtle manipulation? I'm not sure which is worse. Is it worse for me to "pretend to be incapable" of doing something that I know very well I can do on my own in order to let a man feel like a man, or is it worse to "pretend to be incapable" while feeling smug about my own cleverness? One step, two steps, a giant leap back? No?

This seems too much like those times when girls pretend to be dumber than a boy in school (mustn't damage the ego), or when a woman at work (or in politics) feels like she has tone down her "masculine" attributes (ambition, aggression) that are otherwise rewarded in her male coworkers just because those very same coworkers are threatened by her lack of femininity. It's sad enough to see this happen in the classroom and in the work place... but is it something we should then condone in the context of a relationship? If you can't be yourself with the person you're most intimately connected to... well that bodes ill for women everywhere. Oprah, so many people watch your show, so why are you sending out a message like this?

Don't get me wrong, I caught the part that acknowledged a woman's ability to open the pickle jar herself (metaphorically). That's important. I'm just disturbed by the message that says I must change who I am and hide what I can do if I want to be successful in the dating world. Any type of man that needs to be manipulated and hidden from, well he's not the type of man I'd want to date (or would want my sisters to date, or my friends to date, etc). Maybe it's time for men to redefine what makes them a real man, and not just what society tells them a man ought to be.

This is an unusual post, I'm aware. Feminism isn't typically a topic on my radar often (perhaps because I've been fortunate enough to have good acquaintances/friends/coworkers/teachers etc that don't treat me like an inferior). But when I see the most powerful woman in the world send out a message that I ought to compromise myself for the sake of a man, well I just can't be silent. So there you have it.


Wilson said...

The pickle jar is a red herring, if you'll pardon that mental image. Let me try to reframe the problem.

We are so successful today, women. We're fabulous. We work hard. We make good money. We parent. Sometimes what happens when we spend a lot of time alone ....

It looks to me as if she's describing a situation in which women feel obligated to to everything and be everything -- to be successful in all the worst ways as well as all the best -- and it's isolating them the same way it isolates many men. I see no mutual bearing of burdens in this picture. Family is another achievement, something one does, and not even something one does cooperatively.

And instead of addressing the emptiness of this picture, our television expert is trying to make sure that men get to achieve things in the family too, so they won't be casualties of the meritocracy that eats away at everything else in our lives.

Lindsey said...

I thought about the possibility that this was just her way of saying we should include men more (because we should) even if we've been able to manage solo. What I didn't like was that the inclusion emphasized was the sort that would feed into the complex that a man has to be able to (or should be the doer) of certain activities. It's as though she said, "Let him mow the yard. Let him fix the sink. We know we can do it, but let him feel like a man." Now had she said, "Let him watch the kid more. Let him cook dinner. Let him clean the bathroom," well that would be different. I'm all for cooperation and mutual burden bearing. I'm not all for antiquated gender divisions of labor.

And yes, the lonely bit, she sort of missed all that. Instead of seeking the common emptiness on both sides, she blames the woman for not being able to "play a part" in order reel in the man...