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There are 32 comments on Linking the Ivory Tower with the Street

  1. I… what?

    “With her delicate features, blue eyes, and blonde hair, Carrie Preston could double as a porcelain doll…”

    Can you imagine beginning an article about a man this way? I’m asking in all seriousness.

    1. That’s what I thought too. Starting off an article about gender and sexuality activism with a sexist sentence is not the best idea. Be careful of that in the future, Leslie. Otherwise great article!

      1. Agreed. It’s great to present her work, but starting the article off in such a way epitomizes everything that’s wrong with gendered stereotypes, especially in academia and directed against women. Maybe the author was attempting poetic irony, but it doesn’t read that way.

      1. Dan: it is widespread practice to talk about women’s physical features in inappropriate contexts. In the same contexts, men do not get this treatment. This has historically been used to undermine women’s accomplishments and standing across the board. It is sexist because this happens overwhelmingly to women.

        Carrie Preston is an accomplished scholar and teacher. The rest of the article makes this clear. It is inappropriate to open an article about her scholarly accomplishments by talking about her hair, eyes, and features; and it is wildly inappropriate to compare her to a porcelain doll.

        1. For what it’s worth, profiles of people are often peppered with visual details like this, gender notwithstanding. Yes, perhaps the visual imagery and comparison to a porcelain doll is over the top, but simply because others misuse, or disproportionately reference, physical features does not mean all publications do or that all uses are to be condemned instantly.

          This certainly doesn’t seem to be a recurring trend at BU Today and with a cursory search through past profiles I found only one other instance of describing physical features: In both this and that case, the person in question did have striking physical characteristics that when described help paint a mental image.

          As it is unlikely that any negative intent existed, I’m frustrated that such strong condemnation popped up so quickly. Yes, discuss that it’s not the best choice and could easily be misinterpreted as you have; but, the above “this editor should be fired” is a huge overreaction.

          1. The fact that there was no ill-intent doesn’t make it any better. In fact, it makes it all the more important that we point this out – that kind of thing is wrong, and the fact that whoever was responsible for this didn’t notice that is very problematic. Really, the fact that anyone would think it’s okay in this context is problematic.

          2. Just want to point out that the original objection did not call for the author’s dismissal, and indeed it is not necessary provided that they recognize the issue, which is that they are likening a woman to a porcelain doll, which has traditionally been a comparison that marginalizes women no matter what comes after it. Similar to how people always say if someone says “I really like this, BUT…” everything before the “but” doesn’t matter? Same with this. People take issue with the description because it seems to nullify everything that comes after, or make it more of a surprise that this “doll-like woman” would be so smart and make such a profound impact on the university.
            There are other ways to visually describe Professor Preston in a respectful way.

        2. What’s missing from this discussion is the fact that the author of the piece is female, and we might reasonably infer from her credentials that she has either thought about the real threat of misogyny and has very likely experienced it herself. And we might also–in good faith–remember that in biographical profiles that it’s not uncommon to read physical descriptions of the subjects, male or female. Of course, the likening of Noh and porcelain dolls might be problematic for other reasons, but it seems to have a context.

          The point is that it seems counterproductive to attack a woman for misogyny when there’s real misogyny out there. The outrage comes off as self-serving and self-righteous. We could always ask the subject if she found the description to be degrading–she might have some interesting thoughts on it. But let’s not forget some of the important facts here, or be afraid to acknowledge the complications in the argument before trashing a woman author for perceived sexism.

          1. I’m far from sure that the woman being profiled is the only one who could credibly object to this. And the fact that the profile was *written* by a woman is irrelevant. As a woman, I have several times said things unthinkingly and later realized that they were unfair and perpetuated double standards in how women and men are talked about. As a journalist, I have done the same… and I agree with you that one wants to be careful about shaming writers for things they produce on deadline, when they’re doing their best.

            But this is what an editor is for.

          2. Ty, the fact that the author is female has no bearing on whether what she wrote was sexist. As Heather points out she has caught herself doing the same thing unthinkingly. I don’t know why you think that women can’t perpetuate sexism.
            In biographical profiles published in BU today, physical descriptions are not common at all, as has been discussed, because they are not relevant. An academic works with her brain, not her face, and a discussion of her work does not require a physical description. Such details may be common elsewhere, but that’s outside the scope of this discussion. Moreover it has already been clearly and simply explained exactly why the sentence in question was inappropriate.
            It is not “counterproductive” to point out casual, everyday sexism just because “real misogyny” is a problem. What happens elsewhere doesn’t change the fact that the description of Professor Preston is sexist.
            Nobody has actually “attacked” the author; comments addressed what was written, not who wrote it, which is entirely reasonable.
            There is no “outrage,” all the commenters have been pretty calm (except for the person calling for a firing, which is admittedly a bit OTT) no matter how you might like to dismiss them as “just angry women being unreasonable” or whatever.
            Attacking people for pointing out sexism – calling them self-serving and self-righteous – is uncalled for and does not help you to state your case. Ad hominem attacks only prove that you haven’t got a legitimate point to make. Please stick to the facts rather than trying to insult other commenters.
            As Heather so rightly points out, whether or not Prof. Preston herself is offended does not have any bearing on whether the article is sexist. Sexism by its very nature affects all women, not just the one person at whom it is directed, and we all have a right – indeed, some would say a duty – to point it out when we see it, so that people learn it’s unacceptable. I don’t really understand why you seem to have such a problem with that.
            It’s ironic that after derailing with irrelevant points like the sex of the author and the personal opinion of Prof. Preston you are asking us not to forget “the important facts.” There aren’t any complications in the argument. The description of Prof. Preston’s appearance is inappropriate, irrelevant to the article and sexist. Other commenters have explained why.
            Unless you can explain why it’s not sexist, please don’t try to complicate this very simple issue with irrelevant facts.

          3. Redsky: I’m suspicious of anyone who tells me things are irrelevant or uncomplicated–that’s usually a sign that the person telling me to disregard “irrelevant” facts hasn’t thought very much about the subject. Of course women can be misogynistic, and women are unfairly and disproportionately linked to their physical appearance. But outrage can be articulate, too, and there’s a strong streak of “you’re either with us or against us” in the posts here, and no, I don’t go for that. I think it warrants discussion, and it would be interesting to see more information from the participants themselves–I don’t think that’s irrelevant either.

    2. Good lord, that first sentence epitomizes the antithesis of everything every gender activist has ever worked for. Perhaps the editor and columnist should consider careers at a satirical newspaper.

  2. Starting off this piece with such a poetically objectifying sentence was a perfect way to give it ‘legs’ as it generated the outrage that would carry it far across the Internet.

  3. Thanks for your attempt to silence everyone else, “FWIW.” Thanks, I mean, for doing it so poorly that I barely have to put down my book to answer.

    You point out that it is not standard practice at BU Today to include physical descriptions in profiles. Well, obviously. That’s because they are inappropriate. A professor’s appearance is not relevant to her work or the course she teaches. Why would any physical description be necessary for a profile of someone whose work is academic?

    You claim that descriptions of physical appearance appear “gender notwitshtanding” which is patently false. As Vika has already mentioned, the discussion of appearance in inappropriate situations happens overwhelmingly to women.

    You say that “profiles of people are often peppered with physical descriptions like this.” You don’t clarify what profiles, in what publications. Whatever they are, they’re not under discussion here, so I don’t know why you bring them up….

    …..Oh, I see; you claim that these other publications’ disproportionate references to physical features are the reason for the objections raised here. This despite the fact that Vika has already explained very clearly and simply exactly what is wrong with the opening sentence of this article.

    You further imply that commenters want “all uses [of description of appearance] to be condemned instantly”. Nobody has made this ridiculous demand, it’s just a straw man, and quite a transparent one at that. Or did you really read “It is inappropriate to open an article about [Prof. Preston’s] scholarly accomplishments by talking about her hair, eyes, and features; and it is wildly inappropriate to compare her to a porcelain doll,” as “It’s wrong to talk about anyone’s appearance, ever”?

    Finally, you claim that no negative intent existed. But nobody actually accused either the author or her editor of having malicious intent, so why would you feel the need to make this assertion? Is this another straw man, or do you really think that it’s okay just because it wasn’t deliberate?

    Both the author of this article, who is perpetrating sexism, and her editor, who was blind to it, ought to know better; I agree that calls for anyone to be fired are extreme, but that does not mean that you have any right to silence those who point out sexism when it occurs.

    1. You’re special. You’ve injected a whole lot of intent into someone’s comment that totally isn’t there. Clearly this has struck a chord and maybe you should ask yourself why. And trying to stifle conversation? The comment specifically said to discuss, but that rabid condemnation right off the bat was perhaps a bit over the top.

      1. I can’t really answer to your claim that I “injected intent” into the comment, since you have chosen to be so general. Feel free to explain in more detail, or answer any specific point that I made, rather than simply implying that I am somehow being over-emotional.
        And perhaps you are unfamiliar with the concept of “silencing” as it applies to discussion of oppression. Silencing refers to techniques used to shut women up when they complain about sexism or other problems. It encompasses harassment or intimidation that discourages women from speaking out, shaming and humiliation targeted at women who do speak up, and techniques used to dismiss or deny the legitimacy of womens’ speech.
        That would include FWIW’s dismissive “It’s not sexist and you are misinterpreting it” as well as your “Clearly this has struck a chord and maybe you should ask yourself why.”, by the way.
        Honestly, yes. Sexism strikes a chord with me, as it has with all the other people who have commented. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, but if you’re trying to imply that I am being over-emotional then feel free to actually refer to specific instances or language rather than a blanket, vague dismissal.

  4. Incidentally, is it standard practice to interview the husbands of married, female professors? And the wives of married male professors? I’m not trying to pick holes, I genuinely don’t know the answer.

  5. This is a very well written article so I commend the person writing it for really being able to tell an interesting story about so many aspects of a person’s life and with such good writing. That said, the first sentence is a little bit awkward and maybe not how you want to describe a person, comes off a bit weird and possibly sexist.

  6. TY – the feelings of the people involved are irrelevant to the question of whether the opening sentence of this article is or is not sexist. Your comment implied, whether intentionally or not, that the fact that the author is female somehow affects this. It doesn’t, and therefore it’s irrelevant to the point.
    If you are sensing a “with us or against us attitude”, it’s probably because women have to live with this kind of casual, everyday sexism their whole lives, and it affects us materially, physically and emotionally. One sentence in one article might not seem important to you, but seen in this context it is, as other commentors have said, a disturbing sign. No offence, but certain things in your comments came off as being quite adversarial and made you seem quite firmly “against” everyone pointing out the sexism here, especially given the ad hominem attacks you introduced, so I think you yourself have contributed to that sense of “with us or against us.”
    Further, when women speak out about the sexism they see around them, they are almost always confronted by someone who doesn’t fully understand the issues, telling them things like “You’re overreacting and hysterical,” or “But s/he didn’t mean it that way,” or “But it was said by a woman, so how can it be sexist?” or, basically, “Hey, I’m just telling it like it is, don’t get angry just because my half-baked theories contradict your lived experience.” Or, as you tried, attacking the person speaking up by accusing them of being “self-serving and self-righteous.” The regularity with which this happens becomes very frustrating after a while, so that women begin to feel discouraged about pointing out sexism because they are afraid that doing so will have negative consequences for them. One tactic frequently used – not just when sexism is being discussed, but in all kinds of discussions – is to try to confuse the issue by concentrating on or giving undue weight to unimportant details, so when you did it both Heather and I felt compelled to point out that the details you mentioned are not relevant and serve only to draw attention away from the main issue.
    Another tired tactic is to complain that “this is unimportant compared to the “real” sexism that’s happening “out there””. This is an insulting statement for several reasons: it dismisses the issue out of hand just because in your supposedly superior judgement, this isn’t a big deal – you don’t really have the right to make this judgement, and it comes off as very arrogant. It is irrational to claim that there is something wrong with pointing out the harm done by something right in front of you just because worse things happen in the world. It’s a little like telling someone with cancer they don’t have the right to feel bad because other people are born with no legs or whatever. Lastly, the wording you chose was quite problematic; by saying that “real misogyny” happens elsewhere (it’s always somewhere else, isn’t it?) you implied that this was not “real.” That’s quite dismissive and arrogant, because you are basically just saying “Shut up you whiners, there’s nothing wrong here.”
    While we’re on the subject of wording, “outrage” isn’t really appropriate here, because the comments from those who saw the sexism here have been quite calm and reasonable.
    Your statement that “I’m suspicious of anyone who tells me things are irrelevant or uncomplicated–that’s usually a sign that the person telling me to disregard “irrelevant” facts hasn’t thought very much about the subject.” is a little hypocritical, to be honest. We’re telling you that the sex of the author and the reaction of Prof. Preston are irrelevant to the question of sexism in this article. If you honestly can’t see that, I have to assume that you haven’t actually thought about this subject – i.e. the opening sentence of this article – at all. It’s really quite straightforward, I don’t understand how it’s not obvious to you.

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