03 October 2009

of cakes and critical theory

Writing my last post about birthday cakes got me thinking of a "reflection piece" I wrote for a class on race and gender I took in grad school, pre-kids. It's these things that I'm still wrestling with today. So I thought I'd share. No recipes here. Just food for thought.

----written sometime in the Fall of 2003

I just finished reading Kimberly Sultze's "Women, Power and Photography in The New York Times Magazine" which touched on a lot of issues that have been swirling around in my brain the last several months. Two weeks ago, the New York Times ran as its feature article a story called "The Opt-Out Revolution" written by Lisa Belkin, who argues that professional women are increasingly making the deliberate choice to drop out of work life and become stay-at-home Moms. The cover of the magazine features a woman sitting at the base of a peach-colored ladder on the peach-colored floor of a peach-colored room looking somewhere off in the distance as if distracted, while the child sitting in her lap directs his/her gaze directly at us. Below her are the words:

Q: Why Don't More Women Get to the Top?
A: They Choose Not To.
Abandoning the Climb and Heading Home by Lisa Belkin

Before I'd even opened the magazine I was ticked off. In fact, that magazine sat on the floor for nearly two weeks before I finally opened it up and read what Belkin had to say. Every time I passed by it, I'd fume. And then lo and behold we're reading an article in class that makes me want to see what Belkin has to say, and not only that, to look at the ads, pay attention to the little details, see if I can get at what's bugging me.

So I turn the page. No ads of scantily clad, dismembered women in stiletto heels and fishnet stockings draped provocatively over the desk of their corner office sipping Bombay Sapphire. It's an ad for a printer from Hewlett Packard, but this ad actually makes me more irate. It's beautiful, colorful and striking: a two page spread with a large picture of a small South American boy smiling big for the camera. To the left of this image are four small thumbnails, each from a colorful corner of the so-called "Third World": an old, hunched man walking in front of a vividly painted blue wall, an African man wearing a green shirt balancing a tray of green-and-orange fruit in front of a green wall, his white shawl gleaming against the darker background and his dark skin, an older, barefoot man dressed in a black pants and hat, with a yellow blazer leaning against an equally yellow wall, and three Mayan women, dressed in vivid colors, with their backs turned to the camera, peering through the smudged windows of what looks to be a schoolhouse. Oh, and here's the kicker. The captions:


I turn the page.

Another HP ad, this one for the HP Media Center, with a large photo of three blond children, all wearing birthday crowns, blowing out the candles on an enormous birthday cake. Next to the large photo are a jumble of photos of similarly blond children all celebrating at this camelot-themed party. And here are the captions:


So I haven't even made it to the Belkin article yet and I'm already side-tracked. I'm unsettled by the cover of the magazine. I'm more unsettled when I turn the page to see people turned into objects that grace other people's living room walls, elevating their status to that of an "art gallery" of colorful Third World poverty. And the juxtaposition of this ad with the one on the following page of the kids' Camelot birthday party in suburbia fills me with DISMAY."Our" normal lives on display. This is us. Is this me? Do these three images reflect me?

Criticism comes easy. Holding yourself blameless can sometimes be a perk to this. But lately, I never seem to be able to escape the blame. Don't get me wrong, I'm not walking around wracked with guilt over the way I personally embody the kind of female whiteness against which women living in the Horn of Africa or Vanessa Williams are measured. But... well, I'm not sure what to say here. I feel something, and the urge to do something about it grows stronger every day, especially since I set off traveling, and even more so now that I've settled back into a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle (if it could even be argued that I ever left it). What the "doing something" that needs to be done is, is still a bit fuzzy, though.

So I'll do some fessing up. I want to have kids and don't really know if, when the time comes to have them, I'll want to be the progressive working woman who supports the family while her partner stays home. Maybe I'm selfish that way, but I kind of think I'll want the person who stays home to be me. I do take some solace in the fact that, knowing my personality, I won't be spending my time socializing with other Moms in play groups planning the biggest ever Camelot-themed birthday party that suburbia has ever seen. But who knows what motherhood will do to you. I have another confession to make. My husband and I took over 1500 pictures when we were traveling. Of those 1500, five are hanging on various walls in our house: two from Thailand, two from India and one from Nepal. Will I take them down after seeing the HP ad? No, I like them. They look good up on the wall. So my criticism of these images is not one that can be filled with smug righteousness (well, maybe the camelot party got a little smugness--I can't help that).

So, what am I going to do if not alter my personality, strip my walls bare, stop traveling? Well, I do do things already. Small things. And before I started grad school, bigger things like the volunteer work I was doing--though I'm starting to question the role I played there, too, and whether it was really working toward promoting positive change or helping along the status quo--I think it's a bit of both--or a bit of good in a lot of band-aid.

The fact is, I can see myself in some way in all of these images. And I can see, to some extent, the potential I have to resist them, to question their underlying message, and to reject that message or at least to understand it for what it is. I never got to the article. I did read it. I have mixed feelings about it, just as I do about my own plans for the future. But what I'm realizing more and more is that what motivates me these days to do what I'm doing, to ask the questions I'm asking, is not guilt. It feels more like knowledge--if I had to put a name to it, and that actually feels good.


  1. Wonderful. That's some powerful, thought-provoking writing.

  2. Great paper Kristi! I think we would have had some good discussions in college - and maybe again one of these days over a drink ;) WITHOUT interrupting kiddos.


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