Women in Wonderland


Warning: Spoilers of the latest Alice in Wonderland are in this post.

What’s the last movie you’ve seen where women aren’t objectified or placed into narrow parameters of female stereotypes?   For me, it was Alice in Wonderland, which I saw this weekend with my parents and Mr. B.  Since we are all avid lovers of Lewis Carrol, (especially me, who memorized The Jabberwocky for a high school poetry recitation,) we went to see it.  The actual fleshing out of the story was somewhat hazy and didn’t mesh well with the image of wonderland that I always had.

But the backstory that Tim Burton developed was brilliant.  In his version, Alice is nineteen and about to be married to a count of some sort with digestive problems out of expectation on her mother’s behalf.  But Alice is different, dreamy, and nonconformist, and as he proposes to her, she runs away and goes down the rabbit hole to revisit the characters in the dreams she’s been having since she was little.  In the end, she herself slays the Jabberwocky and, in reality, goes on to reject her marriage proposal and help run her father’s company of trade with China instead.

What I like most about this movie is that it has female characters in almost all of the lead roles and that Alice’s drive is the engine of the women.  And, in the end, she rejects her mother’s expectations of her, turns down the proposal, and goes on to sail to China with the company, which isn’t a message that we get a lot these days in movies, as XKCD showed some time ago.   The movie itself wasn’t anything spectacular, but the fact that Alice was donning the armor instead of a guy knight was so refreshing that I would give the movie a 6/10 just based on that. I love that they left the ending ambiguous. Maybe Alice goes on to head the company, but maybe she also finds love in the process.

Unfortunately, women often get this message to be funneled into domesticity in the real world too. Either you are a homemaker- the stereotypical mom-or you are a sex goddess, or you are a corporate bitch.  There’s nothing in between and it’s impossible for women to take on multiple roles.  I forget where, but I read last week that in this season’s Dancing with the Stars, Kate Gosselin is introduced as “the mom” and Pamela Anderson as the “sex symbol,” even though Pamela Anderson hasn’t been a sex symbol in a long time, and Kate Gosselin is no longer really a mom in her public life.  It’s impossible to have the audience believe a more multi-dimensional approach to either woman.

The thing that I am most upset about is this recent article about a Harvard grad who wrote her thesis on the mortgage crisis in America  by articulately and systematically gathering data from Wall Street firms(which  you can read here if you’re a nerd like me).

We tracked down Barnett-Hart, a 24-year-old financial analyst at a large New York investment bank. She met us for coffee last week to discuss her thesis, “The Story of the CDO Market Meltdown: An Empirical Analysis.” Handed in a year ago this week at the depths of the market collapse, the paper was awarded summa cum laude and won virtually every thesis honor, including the Harvard Hoopes Prize for outstanding scholarly work.

“It was a classic example of the innocent going to Wall Street and asking the right questions,” said Mr. Lewis, who in his 20s wrote “Liar’s Poker,” considered a defining book on Wall Street culture. “Her thesis shows there were ways to discover things that everyone should have wanted to know. That it took a 22-year-old Harvard student to find them out is just outrageous.”

Having written, painfully, an undergrad thesis that was nowhere nearly as groundbreaking as hers, as well, with a million things going on around me and not even being at Harvard, I have to give this girl major props. I just wanted to get mine done, even though it was in a topic I was immensely passionate about.  She has enormous balls in creating this thing and putting herself out there in the male world of economics and finance. Sure, it may not be 100% groundbreaking when compared to financial journalists, but, for an undegrad thesis, it absolutely is.

And what kind of buzz is going on around her in the econ blogosphere?

Sure, these were in the minority.  But, as someone working in the same industry as her, it makes me want to bash skulls.  So does this. How do we encourage women to go into non women-intensive fields like engineering, math, economics, etc?  By not having men like this be part of our work culture.  Why can’t Barnett-Hart be judged solely on her economic merit?  What if she were, or masqueraded as, a man?   Can’t she be ostensibly pretty and smart, too? Or does she now fit into one category of Econ Hottie, unable to be anything else?  Maybe that’s why she doesn’t go by Anne Katherine, but A.K.

How can we get to a point where all women experience the same choices as men (who almost never have to worry whether they can take a job that allows them to be a good father and be flexible around their kids’ schedule), and not to be boxed into one role?  When we face the same choices as Alice and are not ostracized for them, we’ll be as good as in the movie.  For now, we just have a bunch of these blog posts (including mine), and Tim Burton’s script.




23 thoughts on “Women in Wonderland

  1. Thought-provoking and sadly, always a current concern. How-to is harder since much of the mess women find themselves in is made of overblown expectations. I was an engineering undergraduate and almost always did stuff girls weren’t supposed to do. I am also a North Indian girl which made it all the more complicated. But there were 3 things that worked and that I strive to do for young girls and women who have great potential and promise:
    1. Do/ a liberal and supportive dad in my case: In your case your parents encouraged you; you encourage your kids.
    2. Show/ through your own choices and through options: If all the people girls meet are either impossibly successful at everything (apparently) and if they hear adults bitching about those who made tough choices like not having kids or not getting married, they get confused. Show them how life is tough. Then teach them to deal with it. Show them the validity of all choices.
    3. Enable/ Find a mentor, be a mentor: Mentors who show that one does not have to choose everything and be mediocre at all of them; one can choose not to have something like a stellar career or children, as long as one is comfortable with it.

    1. I like all of these steps. Obviously, they are easier said than done for most people, but still a nice action list. I especially like the mentor part. I think going to Sonia Kovalevsky math/science day when I was in 7th or 8th grade was important for me.

  2. Love this idea. Have seen a lot of these cases. Even when I passed out of engg most people assumed I would be a mechanic and work in a garage!
    The way to change this : ask women to focus on the bigger picture. There are sad stories and happy stories. In my case my Ivy League educated cousin paved the way for a larger vision. Was glad that she took the big step, else a lot of us girls would have settled for easier careers.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I agree that women can serve as role-models into paths that previously had been untapped.

  3. I’ve been looking forward to seeing the new Alice, now I’m intrigued.

    From my position as an over-educated, supporting the family, working mom:

    Life is tough. You’ve got choices. And all the choices are about what you will give up. (Another way of saying, yes you can have it all but not all at the same time.)

    For one thing, women won’t ever ALL be in a position of taking a job that lets them not worry about being a good mom, in that women worry about that WAY more than men do. We place ridiculous expectations on ourselves, that we should want to be with our short people all the time (and feel guilty when we’re thrilled to get a break from them), etc. We worry more about whether the kids are physically and emotionally ok, are they getting along with their friends, their teachers, etc? Dads don’t worry about that. They basically want to know if the kid’s bleeding, throwing up, or biting someone, and other than that assume things are ok.

    Aside from parenting issues, though, women also still do the majority of the housework, even if they are the bigger wage-earner. Why? Because we see that as part of our role, not because our husbands are “oppressing” us. How can you change that? Well, if you go to a couple’s house, do you unconsciously think the messiness (or cleanliness) reflects more on the woman than on the man? I know I do, even though I keep smacking myself for it.

    Anyway, good thought-provoking post, especially coming after intensive cleaning and cooking for the chag.

    1. /Well, if you go to a couple’s house, do you unconsciously think the messiness (or cleanliness) reflects more on the woman than on the man?/

      Thought-provoking point. I thought about it and realised: where the woman stays home, I tend to attribute the state of a house’s cleanliness to her; where both work, usually I find them hiring cleaners and other domestic help. I do not know any couple where the man stays at home and where they do not have enough money to hire a housekeeper.

      The last one is on its own curious. A woman usually will stay home and mind the kids, even if the man’s income is not enough but a man won’t stay home if the wife’s income is not sufficient to have domestic help at hand. As I mentioned in my comment and as you mention in yours, much is about expectation management. Women do more because they expect to do more; men don’t do much because they don’t expect to do much. Which is why women need to be told it is ok to make choices; each comes with its own price but things we choose not to do also enrich our lives.

      1. /A woman usually will stay home and mind the kids, even if the man’s income is not enough but a man won’t stay home if the wife’s income is not sufficient to have domestic help at hand./

        I have seen this happen for two families. In case of one the husband chose to stay at home and take care of the kids. In the other case the husband was forced to stay at home due to loss of job. But here is the kicker- in both cases the husband’s did not necessarily consider cooking as their responsibility. For both families I noticed cleaning the house was still a woman’s job.

      2. Interesting. I know lots of 2-wage earner families, and very few of them hire help. The working mothers work for pay AND do all/most of the cooking and cleaning (and childcare in the times they’re not at work).

        1. T: After reading your comment, I prodded some of those to find more. And voila! If the help is on vacation or otherwise absent, the woman does all the work. So the help is an artificial situation, mediated by the woman’s earning power but net of that, she is the go-to person for all domestic stuff. :-/

        2. I agree. In the 2-wage earner families that I know, none hire help and the woman does the housework/child care.

          Cusoon-I’ve also noticed in families where the husband stays home, cooking is still the wife’s job.

          A double-conundrum from both sides.

    2. This so much rhymes with what I feel. I smack myself all the time when I land into these traps but still unable to come out of it. No one told me to take everything on my shoulder but I just have it :). Getting help for house work is a pain too, you have to work out a schedule with someone else and make sure they have work to be done when they show up at your door.
      Nice thought provoking topic, I feel I will do my part if I can make my daughter not think like me :).

  4. Of course I have no idea what the answer is, but I do think that it’s important to train the floodlights on the situation, as you have done by writing about it. Many people, I’d wager, have no clue that they are perpetuating stereotypes with their seemingly benign comments. Writing about it is a good start.

    1. You may be right in that most people don’t realize what they are doing, but the two comments that I pointed out are specifically not benign and seem to be written with great purpose. The comments that are worse are the “woman in the kitchen” joke that everyone knows is lame but won’t stop using, especially on malec-centric websites. The obvious solution would be to have men become women, but alas. :)

  5. Thought provoking and well written. Educating people and providing hope for other women is a daily activity. Writing about it is one way. I don’t write as much but in my daily life I try to educate those who perpetuate stereotypes. I have been called a feminist by many men and I don’t consider myself one. A guy once stopped dating me because I said it was wrong to assume that the way to make a 6 year old girl happy was to buy her something pink and frilly. I insisted on buying a book or a board game.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I also don’t necessarily consider myself a feminist, but want to do practical things just to make sure women aren’t marginalized. I also buy my little cousin books instead of stupid Hannah Montana stuff. :)

      1. You don’t consider yourself a feminist? And yet you seem to assume that women are people, so…

        I don’t understand how “feminist” has come to mean something negative. We should all (women and men) be proud to say we’re feminists.

        1. I guess the reason I don’t like the label is that, to me, it has the same connotations as “socialist” or some other well-meaning idea in theory but that has, in practice, become radicalized and contorted to mean crazy feminists that are on the fringe.

          1. All the more reason for those, who are not crazy and who are not on the fringe, but have a more moderate, fair and practicable view of feminism, to _reclaim_ the label not reject it.

            A friend, who thinks I “put ideas” in his well-educated and extremely well-read wife’s head, calls me a “feminist”. I tell him being called a “feminist” for being one is better than being called a “misogynist” for being one which he is. I don’t think he finds it funny but I am yet to hear a meaningful retort.

            BTW I never had you down as someone who goes by what people think. :-/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>