The XX Factor
What Women Really Think

April 27 2015 4:36 PM

Girls Who Play Minecraft Can Now Play Minecraft as Girls

Fans of Minecraft—especially girls—have long felt frustrated that the only default character available in the popular building game is a man. Now, the game's programmers have announced that players will get a lady option. The Washington Post describes this new character, Alex, as "a seemingly female character with thinner arms, pinker lips, and a swoop of hair around her neck," in contrast to default character Steve, "a bulky man with short, dark hair and a 5 o'clock shadow." Owen Hill of Mojang, the game studio that created Minecraft, explains that this move will better "represent the diversity of our playerbase."

This announcement contrasts dramatically with a blog post written in 2012 by Markus Persson, the founder of Mojang and original lead developer of Minecraft: "The human model is intended to represent a Human Being," Persson wrote. "Not a male Human Being or a female Human Being, but simply a Human Being." The name "Steve" was just a joke, Persson said; it was just an accident that the "blocky shape gives it a bit of a traditional masculine look"; his intention with Minecraft was to create a world where "gender doesn’t even exist."


The problem with that logic is that the supposedly genderless character looks very male, right down to his stubble. In a sense, it's worse to call that character genderless, because that just reinforces the sexist notion that "male" is the default status of human beings and that women are the deviation. That's not the lesson you want to be imparting to girls who look to this game to empower them and provide a creative outlet. 

Minecraft isn't unique when it comes to the gender-default problem, which has been around since a little yellow circle named Pac-Man. In one of the videos in her series "Tropes vs Women in Video Games," Anita Sarkeesian laid out how "male" is treated as the default in video games. Even when designers do bother to create female characters, they don't have the kinds of rounded personalities that male characters get—being female is all you need to know about her. The most obvious example is the Super Mario series, where you get a variety of male characters and ... the Princess.

Earlier this year, 12-year-old Madeline Messer wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post demonstrating that the default character on most phone games was male, and that you had to pay money to access female characters in most of the apps. The op-ed sufficiently embarrassed the makers of one game, Temple Run, that they promised to offer a default female character for free

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April 27 2015 2:05 PM

A Woman Alone Is Not Necessarily a Lonely Woman

Jesse Singal at Science of Us highlights a new study about the value of having fun in public all by yourself. Studies in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that people are often afraid to partake in leisure activities solo, mostly because they fear others' assumptions “that they could not find friends to accompany them.” However, when authors Rebecca Ratner and Rebecca Hamilton encouraged college students—over protests—to visit an art museum alone, they found that the solo museum-goers had just as much fun as the people who brought friends.* 

It's a small study but an intriguing one, and it hopefully will compel more of its kind. This particular research isn't about gender, but anecdotal evidence suggests that women feel this fear of going out by themselves more keenly than men do. Part of this is practical; being a woman alone in public often means men will bother you. But part of it is psychological, a fear that women are more likely to be judged as lonely if they're seen out by themselves. This fear that people will pity you if you are eating or otherwise doing fun things in public by yourself is so serious that Cressida Howard of Gloucestershire, England, created the Invite for a Bite website in 2012, so that strange women who otherwise might dine alone can find each other and instead sit together. 


Doing stuff by yourself really isn't as scary or off-putting as you might think. I haven't been single in nearly a decade, but I've maintained my tendency to take off and do all sorts of things by myself without drafting my partner to join me. It helps if you have interests that your friends don't share—not having to worry if your companion is bored with your activity of choice more than makes up for the occasional pitying look you get from someone who assumes a woman alone must be a lonely woman. 

One of the most important lessons you learn as a woman who likes to go about solo is that far fewer people are looking at you than you think. Women are socialized to feel as if we're on constant display, but I've learned over the years that most people are too busy with their own lives and concerns to pause quizzically over the woman who asks for a table for one. Plus, now that everyone has a smartphone, there's no reason to be bored because you have no one to talk to. Just stay off Facebook—you're cheating yourself out of your precious time alone. 

*Correction, April 27, 2015: This post originally misspelled Rebecca Hamilton’s last name.

April 24 2015 10:40 AM

Clinton’s First Campaign Speech Is All About Feminism

The first speech of a presidential campaign is loaded with meaning, an opportunity to set the campaign's entire tone and outline its major themes. Barack Obama kicked off his 2008 campaign in Springfield, Illinois, to invoke the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and a larger theme of calling on a "divided house to stand together." In contrast, Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, near the site where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years before, to make a speech about "states' rights" and secure the Republican stronghold over the Southern white vote that persists to this day. 

Hillary Clinton announced her campaign online, but her first meatspace speech was held Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York City, an annual feminist shindig that's all about improving women's fortunes around the world. The choice of the location in itself sends a strong signal, and if there was any doubt that Clinton intends to run a woman-centric campaign, her speech erased it. "When women are held back, our country is held back. When women get ahead, everyone gets ahead," she declared. 


The idea that uplifting women uplifts the nation has become standard fare in Democratic speech-making. For instance, in Obama's 2014 speech on equal pay, he said, "And part of that is fighting for fair pay for women—because when women succeed, America succeeds." When women make less money, he said, that's "less money for gas, less money for groceries, less money for child care, less money for college tuition, less money is going into retirement savings."

Clinton took this rhetoric to a bolder level. For one thing, she actually used the word feminist. "It is hard to believe that in 2015 so many women still pay a price for being mothers. It is also hard to believe that so many women are also paid less than many for the same work, with even wider gaps for women of color," she said. "And if you don’t believe what I say, look to the World Economic Forum, hardly a hotbed of feminist thought. Their rankings show that the United States is 65th out of 142 nations and other territories on equal pay."

She tied together other explicitly feminist issues, such as reproductive rights and the fight against sexual assault to the family-friendly equal-pay agenda. "There are those who offer themselves as leaders who see nothing wrong with denying women equal pay," she argued in a shot against Republicans. "There are those who offer themselves as leaders who would defund the country’s leading provider of family planning and want to let health insurance companies once again charge women just because of our gender." Clinton invoked the recent fight over the appointment of Loretta Lynch as attorney general: Republicans weren't explicitly sexist to Lynch, but her appointment was held up over an ugly fight over Republicans trying to attach anti-abortion provisions to every bill they possibly can. 

The political chatter is centered around how Clinton isn't downplaying her gender, as she did in 2008, but holding it up as an asset. This speech suggests she is running an aggressively feminist campaign. It's a smart move. Her opposition is going to try to paint her as a ball-busting "feminazi" no matter what she does, so she might as well get ahead of them, openly embracing feminism, sharing a vision of feminism that is optimistic and pro-family. Luckily, she has a more accurate vision of what feminism is really about than her detractors do. 

April 23 2015 1:13 PM

Which State Was the Worst for Women This Week?

This week, DoubleX is proud to inaugurate the Worst State of the Week award, for the member of the union that has shown the most creativity, originality, brio, and thought leadership in expressing its hostility to women's rights. Before we get to our first-ever winner, though, let's look at the runners-up.

Third prize goes to Coloradowhose legislature is exploiting a violent crime against a pregnant woman—one that resulted in her baby's death—to justify a bill defining fertilized eggs as persons, even though voters rejected the notion at the polls in November. Despite claiming that the bill would protect pregnant women, the long history of these "feticide" laws indicates that they are actually used as a pretext to arrest women for stillbirths or even on suspicion of drug use while pregnant—even if they give birth to healthy babies. To add insult to injury, Colorado Republicans are on the verge of destroying a family planning program credited with reducing the teen birthrate in the state by 40 percent over a five-year period. 


In second place is Tennessee, where the legislature passed two bills restricting abortion access this week that are expected to be signed by the governor. When Democrats tried to amend the bill to create exceptions for women with mental health emergencies or who were victims of rape or incest, state Rep. Sheila Butt shot them down, insinuating that patients and providers would fake these situations in order to gain abortion access. 

Despite such fierce competition, this week's winner is Alabama, where state legislators finally allowed the subtext to become text with a bill that equates abortion providers and their patients with sex offenders. Republicans in the state House, eager to shut down the state's one remaining abortion clinic in Huntsville, have concocted a bill banning abortion clinics from operating within 2,000 feet of a school. Local anti-choice fanatic James Henderson takes credit for the idea, saying, "We were advised ... that a good approach was to use the same standard of keeping sex offenders from public schools, which is 2,000 feet."

Henderson also denounced "the spectacle of an abortion clinic" being within the view of children. What he didn't explain, however, is that the Huntsville clinic itself is not a spectacle—James Henderson is. Henderson and his wife, Carol, are obsessive, belligerent protesters. There's video of James hurling racially loaded harassment at a black clinic escort, of him telling a police officer he doesn't have to obey state laws that "God" (read: Henderson) doesn't like, and generally ranting at the top of his voice at passersby. So not only does this bill equate women seeking abortion with sex offenders, it victim-blames the targets of fundamentalist bullies. 

Congratulations, Alabama! Let's see if you can hang onto the title next week.

April 22 2015 4:31 PM

The UVA Dean Who Was Smeared by Rolling Stone Has Broken Her Silence

Nicole Eramo is the associate dean of students who heads the sexual misconduct board at the University of Virginia. She was also the villain of the now-infamous and recently retracted Rolling Stone story about the gang rape of a freshman named Jackie that never happened at a UVA fraternity.

In Rolling Stone's piece, Eramo was painted as the frontline responder who never really responded. She was the one who, when she heard Jackie’s story, tried to steer her away from reporting it, supposedly to protect the university’s reputation. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely never spoke to Eramo, but she did put words in her mouth, presumably told to her by Jackie. 


“If Dean Eramo was surprised at Jackie's story of gang rape, it didn't show,” Rubin Erdely wrote, and then topped it off with an all-too-perfect quote. When Jackie asked the dean why UVA doesn’t publish statistics on sexual violence, “she says Eramo answered wryly, ‘Because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.’ ”

Eramo has been silent since the story came out. Today, she issued “An Open Letter to Rolling Stone,” in which Eramo condemns “the article's false and grossly misleading portrayal of the counseling and support that I provided to Jackie, including encouraging her to report” and arranging for Jackie to meet with detectives. She also accuses Erdely of having “purposefully omitting information that she received during interviews” with UVA's president and students that did not fit “her preconceived narrative” about the university's callous response to a horrific crime.

Most viscerally, Eramo details how the debacle impacted her personally:

Using me as the personification of a heartless administration, the Rolling Stone article attacked my life's work. I saw my name dragged through the mud in the national press ... protestors showed up at my office, demanding I be fired. Perhaps most egregious and shocking were the emails I received expressing hope that I be killed or raped, and commenting that they hoped I had a daughter so that she could be raped. Equally distressing ... is the fact that while the false allegations in the magazine were being investigated, the University had no choice but to remove me from working with the students with whom I had spent so much time building a relationship, forcing them to “start over” with someone else.

Whatever Eramo decides to do in the future, her name will likely be “forever linked” to the article, as she writes. Even now, if you do a Google Image search of her name, you will see the Rolling Stone caricature of her smiling in her office as protests rage outside.

April 22 2015 1:21 PM

Medical Marijuana Activist Threatened With Losing Custody of Her Son

In many states, marijuana is being legalized or gradually decriminalized in response to the growing body of evidence showing that the drug is relatively harmless compared to popular drugs like alcohol. But in Kansas, a medical marijuana activist is facing the possibility of losing custody of her son just because he admitted in school that his mother is a pot user.

Shona Banda doesn't hide her enthusiasm for the drug. She's an activist for medical marijuana, using her experience using cannabis oil to treat her Crohn's disease as an inspirational story. "Banda's legal problems began March 24 when police were called to her son's school for a child welfare check following a drug and alcohol presentation," CBS News reports. "Investigators allege the boy told school officials that his mother and other adults in his home were avid drug users and that there was a lot of drug use occurring at the home."


While that sounds dire, when officials raided her home, what they found was equipment to turn marijuana into cannabis oil, as well as some marijuana. Authorities emphasized that it was within reach of a child, but it is worth noting that her child is 11 years old, not exactly a toddler who stuffs random things into his mouth. 

Banda's legal defense page explains her side of the story: Her son was annoyed by the anti-drug presentation at the school, which isn't hard to believe for anyone who had to sit through the histrionics of D.A.R.E. or any similar programs. When he spoke up and said his mom used cannabis and it's fine, the school officials flipped and called the police. 

Banda's son is currently being held by child welfare while it's determined if charges will be filed or her custody challenged. "The most important thing here is the child's well-being," Wichita Police Capt. Randy Ralston told the press. "That is why it is a priority for us, just because of the danger to the child."

It's possible that Ralston believes what he's saying—but it requires thinking it's somehow better to subject a child to hours of intensive questioning, raid his home, and take him from his parents than to let him see people use marijuana, a drug that half of Americans admit using to little ill effect. Sorry, but being man-handled by the state is a lot more traumatic for a kid than seeing Mom puff up periodically. 

April 22 2015 12:58 PM

Tennessee Anti-Choice Politician Can’t Decide if Women Are Stupid or Cunning

Back in November, voters in Tennessee passed a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution, making abortion the only medical procedure not protected under the state's stringent privacy protections. Proponents of the amendment ran a campaign downplaying the severity of the bill, claiming it wasn't about restricting abortion access but about making the constitution "neutral" on the subject. In a completely unshocking turn, those reassurances that this is no big deal were immediately forgotten, and the Tennessee legislature got right to passing invasive, punitive bills meant to make abortion as miserable and expensive an experience as possible. 

One of the two bills the legislature passed this week requires a 48-hour waiting period to get an abortion, during which time you will be subjected to a government-mandated guilt trip under the guise of "informed consent." Standard stuff, but the floor debate over this bill, posted at Raw Story, was a master class in the doublespeak and contradictory arguments forwarded by anti-choicers these days. 


It all started when Democratic state Rep. Craig Fitzhugh offered an amendment allowing a mental-health exception to the rule. "We know mental health issues are just as, even more serious sometimes, than physical health issues," he explained.

Republican state Rep. Sheila Butt was not having it. Butt positioned herself as a good-hearted soul simply trying to protect women from evil abortionists. "Putting this psychological harm bypass into the bill is really a loophole for the abortion industry,” she argued. “It allows someone who is going to profit from abortion to get the waiting period waived.” 

Fitzhugh then tried again, offering an amendment that allowed exceptions for rape and incest victims. Butt, who just moments before was portraying women as hapless and in need of protection from greedy abortionists, immediately switched gears to another favorite anti-choice stereotype: the crafty villainess who cries rape. “This amendment appears political, because we understand in most instances, this”—by which she means rape—“is not verifiable.”

She then pivoted seamlessly right back to the women-are-dummies line: “Let’s make sure that these women have the information and the understanding to act.”

Women: They're soft-hearted fools who are too dumb to know what "abortion" is without a condescending lecture and they're cunning liars who cry rape to conceal their wanton ways. Whichever you need to believe right this second in order to keep them from getting abortions.

This isn't the first time that Butt has grabbed headlines for talking from both sides of her mouth. Back in February, Muslim rights group CAIR denounced Butt for a post on her Facebook page that read, "It is time for a Council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this Country." CAIR noted that NAAWP is a common acronym on white supremacist sites for National Association for the Advancement of White People. Butt protested, saying it actually stands for National Association of Advancement for Western Peoples and complained, “It saddens me that we have come to a place in our society where every comment by a conservative is automatically scrutinized as being racist.”

The bill passed, without any of Fitzhugh's proposed amendments, and is expected to be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam.

April 21 2015 1:50 PM

More Female Cops Leads to More Arrests of Female Sexual Predators

Barbara Goldberg at Reuters has a new article about the apparent rise in arrests of female teachers for sexually abusing male students. There's a growing understanding, Goldberg argues, that the underage victims of female sexual predators are just that—victims—and not some lucky young punks who got to live a “hot for teacher” fantasy: 

In U.S. schools last year, almost 800 school employees were prosecuted for sexual assault, nearly a third of them women. The proportion of women facing charges seems to be higher than in years past, when female teachers often got a pass, said Terry Abbott, a former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education, who tracked the cases.

A Saturday Night Live skit earlier this month perpetuated the idea that it's an honor and a privilege for a young man to be statutorily raped by a female teacher, with the victim saying he instigated it, calling it “the best day of my life” and fist-bumping the judge.

The skit drew ire on social media not just because it regurgitated tired clichés about how sex is a male victory and a female shame, but because it distorted the realities of this kind of sexual abuse. Female sexual predators work the same way male ones do, by flattering vulnerable young people who want to feel more grown-up than they are; the effects can be the same, too. “Depression, low self-esteem and difficulty maintaining future relationships are among the long-term consequences that male victims face,” Goldberg writes. The expectation—reinforced by skits like the one on SNL—that you should prove your manhood by gloating about the affair can cause “confusion and guilt over whether they are actually victims.”

Fortunately, law enforcement is slowly getting better at taking this problem seriously—likely because more women are entering law enforcement. “Law enforcement is increasingly feminized, and women are much less prone to the old attitude: ‘Oh, this is just some kid who got lucky,’ ” David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, told Golberg. “They recognize the issues involved and they go after women who violate the statutes.”

It makes a lot of sense that an increase in women in law enforcement results in more consideration of male victims. After all, women aren't under pressure to “prove” their manhood by yukking around about how “lucky” one is to be targeted by a sexual predator. A creep is a creep, regardless of gender.

April 20 2015 4:51 PM

Post and Courier Wins the Pulitzer for South Carolina Domestic Homicide Exposé

Congratulations to the Post and Courier out of Charleston, South Carolina, for winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The prize-winning story was a seven-part series titled “Till Death Do Us Part,” an exposé of the policy and cultural failures that have made South Carolina at or near the top of the list in domestic homicides every year. 

I praised the piece—written by journalists Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff—here at Slate when it came out in August for its comprehensive approach to the problem, showing how cultural attitudes, law enforcement neglect, and legislative indifference all work together to create a state where there's very little protection for women who have had the misfortune to fall in love with dangerous and violent men. Particularly impressive was the series' willingness to look at how traditional gender norms work against women seeking relief from abuse. The Post and Courier journalists discovered that legislators on both sides of the aisle had an unfortunate tendency to prioritize keeping couples together, even though experts agree that separating the abuser from his victim until he's had months—years, really—is the best way to keep her safe. The result is a state where the first-offense punishment for beating a dog is five years but only 30 days for beating your wife. 


The South Carolina legislature did initially respond to the reporting by introducing bills meant to curb the problem of domestic violence in the state. But as the Post and Courier reported on Monday, those bills all seem to be stalling out. The reflexive right-wing politics of the state—which the Post and Courier flagged as the problem—continue to make movement on this issue impossible, it seems. “Among one of the sticking points is a provision that would remove guns from the homes of domestic abusers,” Andrew Knapp of the Post and Courier writes. More than three-quarters of voters in this highly conservative state support a law that would bar convicted domestic abusers from owning guns, but pro-gun legislators in the state keep killing even the mildest attempt to separate convicted abusers from their guns. 

April 20 2015 12:42 PM

Education Reformer Praises Standardized Tests for Boosting Home Prices in Wealthy Suburbs

Parents in suburban New York districts are revolting against the over-reliance on standardized testing in schools by organizing a boycott of the tests. The Journal News of Westchester reported last week that 155,000 students refused the tests, and some districts had nearly half of kids opting out: 

Yet collecting educational data is important for the future of education and can help define the the character of a town, said Nicole Brisbane, state director at Democrats for Education Reform.
"Schools are one of the biggest differentiators of value in the suburbs," she said. "How valuable will a house be in Scarsdale when it isn't clear that Scarsdale schools are doing any better than the rest of Westchester or even the state? Opting out of tests only robs parents of that crucial data."

"And I thought it was all about the children?" responded blogger Duncan Black at Eschaton. "Nope. Real estate prices."

This bit of honesty from a test-supporter is more than a hilarious gaffe. Right now, a number of educators in the Atlanta area are going to jail on racketeering charges for fudging the results of standardized tests. While cheating is wrong, this excessive punishment suggests that there's more going on here than a simple interest in improving educational standards. If testing is partly about creating "objective" measurements of which neighborhoods are better—and therefore more expensive and exclusive—than others, then the nationwide overkill when it comes to standardized testing starts to make more sense.