I’m Taking His Name, But Not Because You Told Me To

Does changing your last name automatically make you a bad feminist? I don’t think so.

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I recently read an article in the Hairpin about a hetero couple who gave their child the wife’s last name, and it’s making me feel like a bad feminist, similar to my feelings about not being a scientist (Will I ever learn to stop feeling guilty for being myself?! My guess is no.) I’m taking my future husband’s last name, going from Shepard to Shields. And of course I shouldn’t feel guilty. And of course I still do. So let’s talk about it.

It’s well-established that feminism is about choice, not about bra-burning. You can wear makeup and dresses and work in the home and be Mrs. Lastname and the great thing about feminism is that those are your choices now, not your duty. In the US, at least. And you can do all those things and still be a feminist, because a feminist is not defined by his or her choices, but by their belief that men and women deserve equality.

And yet. It still feels like taking my soon-to-be husband’s last name is not the feminist choice. If I were The Right Kind Of Feminist, I’d be kicking down doors as Ms. Emily Shepard ‘til the day I die, and I would dub my children Meryl Shepard and Susan B. Anthony Shepard and the three of us would ride our horses into the sunset, shooting our pistols into the air and cackling with power.

Hang on, sorry, have to write something down…totally unrelated. One second.

Okay. So, sure. I’m taking Joe’s name. But it isn’t for lack of thought. In fact, I’m taking his last name for lots of reasons. Let me break it down.

1. Since I can remember, I’ve been told I would take my husband’s name one day. So I’ve always considered my name to be impermanent. Is this a good reason to then take your husband’s name? No, I don’t think so. If anything, it’s an argument for telling girls early on that they will have choices in their future. But it still establishes, for me, that I have never had the attachment to my last name that others do.

2. My last name isn’t tied to a culture or history that I am involved with or know much about. My ancestors came to America a long time ago; I have ancestral ties to the Salem witch trials to prove it. Joe, on the other hand, is very close to his last name’s history. He is third generation Irish and has visited family in Ireland. The Shields family cares very much about the Irish heritage their last name represents.

3. My last name is often spelled wrong, sometimes by people very close to me. More often, it’s done by people who are transferring my name from one place to another and at some point in the transfer just start adding Ps and Hs wherever they please. I’m never offended by this—exasperated, yes, but not offended. But eventually it just gets old. I would love a name that people can spell on the first try.

4. I don’t feel strongly about the alternatives. While there are lots of other options for people who want the same name as their partner (turning last names into middle names, making up a name, hyphenating), none of these solutions calls out to me. And our last names combined are Shelds or Shiepard. Or maybe Shelpards. Or Shipyard? Not great, although autocorrect could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

5. Joe’s last name is very similar to mine. Making the change doesn’t feel like an identity crisis. My initials don’t even change. But if Joe’s last name were something really different, with a really different heritage than mine? Emily Kowalszowskistein might be a harder transition—nothing against the Kowalszowskisteins, of course.

6. Emily Shields is a pretty badass name. Emily Shields can fight crime. She can TCB, if you know what I’m saying.

7. Changing my name is my choice. I don’t feel pressured into it. This is something I am doing on my own volition. Nothing makes me more obstinate than doing something that isn’t my idea. Just ask my mom about trying to buy me my first bra.

8. I’m keeping the Ms. and you can’t stop me. Because if no one has to know Joe’s marital status by his name, I believe you shouldn’t have to know mine. So my name will still have a bit of feminism mixed into it, even with his last name.

9. Our names may not be equal, but our marriage will be. And that’s the important thing. I proposed to him. He and I are equal partners in planning our wedding (in fact he might be doing more work than me but shhh, because I don’t think he’s figured it out yet.) And if one of us ever decides to stay home with the kids, it would be him. Our big life choices aren’t made without thought. And that’s the point of feminism, after all: the freedom to do what’s best for you.

In the end, this is our choice and no one else’s. I’m not suggesting that anyone needs to take anyone’s names. If anything, I’m saying we should only take someone’s name after consideration and only if it feels right. I want people to make their own choices, and I would love if less people took their husband’s names—I just want to be part of the minority of people who do. I want people to make their own life with their own names of their own choosing. For me, that last name of my choosing will be Shields. Emily Shields. Crime fighter. Avenger. Eyepatch wearer. Sword-wielder. Shields.

 

For more thinking about changing your name, head over to A Practical Wedding. They talk about changing your last name as a feminist choice, about the general decision to change or not, changing your name in the age of Google, men changing their last names, and mostly related but also just good to read: “Being Black, Feminist, Thoroughly Girly, and Conflicted”.

Fifteen

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Dear Jessica,

When people are in mourning, they’re told they can feel whatever they want. But fifteen years later, I suppose there should be a bit more tact. In 15 years, I should have my emotions under control. And yet here I am, as much at a loss as I was.

I didn’t know you well enough to ever learn the whole story. I don’t even know if you left a note. Maybe you were battling depression, or something like it. Maybe bullying. Definitely teenage hormones. We were at that perfect age when we were at both our cruelest and our most vulnerable. I guess one begets the other.

I get all that. I got all that 15 years ago, honestly, and I get it 15 years later. But I’m still mad at you. I might even be madder now, as an adult, because I see the holes in our lives where you stopped existing. I see the places where you weren’t. Why couldn’t you see yourself on this side, here, with us? How could you see such a short distance? How could you?

I have two memories of you left, both where you’re laughing. And all I can think is: that girl isn’t here anymore. There’s no more of her. I wonder if anyone else has truly happy memories of you, or if they’re all lined with sadness, like mine. Can anyone think of you and smile? Is that how you wanted it?

You’ve never googled anything or looked at your camera to see a picture you just took. You don’t know that short skirts came back in style, and then leggings, and jeggings, and now everyone decorates their home like the set of Mad Men. You’ve never seen Mad Men. Or Harry Potter.

You gave up. You never became anything. You did one stupid thing and it kept you from all the stupid things the rest of your life: frat parties, making out with your friend’s crush, wearing SPF 4…you never did the stupid things we all did that turned us into full, real, breathing human beings.

You didn’t give yourself a chance to learn anything. You didn’t learn how to speak a full sentence in Spanish or drive a car. You never dissected an animal or wrote a check. You never learned CPR.

I don’t know what your life was, and I don’t know what it would have been. But I know it could have been something. You were wrong—your decision was the wrong one, and I’m mad at you for making it. And I know I’m not supposed to be mad at teenagers for their bad choices and I’m not supposed to be mad at people who are struggling inside and I’m not supposed to be mad at people who aren’t here to defend themselves anymore.

But I’m mad at you, Jess, because my only other option is to be over it. And I just can’t be. I won’t. You deserve more than that. You always did.

The Least We Can Do

The only way we can stop sexism in TV and movies is to notice (and then stop giving them our money).

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Orange Is The New Black. Original show title: “Hey look, women are different! Who knew.”

Dear women (yes, all of you),

It’s not up to us alone to fix sexism. But we can do our part. The fact is: there are fewer women cast in TV and movies, and fewer starring roles for women. And that’s because we allow it. We women watch male-monopolized television and movies in droves. As 50% of the population, if we didn’t watch that stuff, they wouldn’t make enough money to continue creating them. But we keep giving them our money and we don’t say anything when women take a back seat to men. And sometimes we don’t say anything simply because we don’t notice.

Before we can do anything else to change how media portrays women, we have to notice. We have to notice when movies don’t pass the Bechdel test (two women talking to each other about something besides a man). We have to notice when there aren’t women being represented, or represented fairly, and we have to stop putting up with it. We cannot be placated by one kickass female character surrounded by a sea of males. One Scarlett Johansson does not a feminist movie make.

Geena Davis talks about this phenomenon (and by phenomenon I mean constant occurrence) of women being mysteriously absent from films, even as extras in a crowd scene. We have to stop allowing women to be outnumbered. We have to notice that HBO’s Silicon Valley has a women problem, and instead of shrugging our shoulders and saying they’re just reflecting reality, we need to remember that a fictional show can do whatever it wants, including recreating a (still realistic) start-up that employs female humans, not just regular humans.

Grey’s Anatomy could have cast almost all men and made a “reflecting reality” excuse, spouting numbers about the ratio of men to women in surgery, but instead they created a better world where women hack into bones and men care about babies. However you feel about Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t matter—the fact is, it can be done. We aren’t going to get more equality in the workforce if people can’t imagine themselves doing it. As Ms. Davis says, “You can’t snap your fingers and suddenly half of Congress is women. But there’s one category where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed tomorrow: onscreen. In the time it takes to make a movie or create a television show, we can change what the future looks like.”

Sometimes I start to feel guilty for sounding like a broken record when, after yet another movie, I point out that no woman spoke to another woman for 2 whole hours. Everyone thought the movie was good, I argue to myself, why rain on their parade? But then I remember that it’s the film’s fault for needing to be called out, not mine. If you want me to shut up about the unfair treatment of women in TV and film, I’m happy to. Just treat women fairly in TV and film.

We need to call bullshit, or nothing is going to change. If you want to do something about the way women are represented, there’s actually a lot you can do (besides becoming a writer or director, which–please do that, too). Here’s what you should be watching for, and what to do when you notice something fishy:

What to watch for:

1. What’s the ratio of male to female? Not just in the lead characters, but among the supporting roles, and even the extras. Who gets to speak around here, and what kinds of things are they talking about?

2. Watch out for people who claim something is “just reflecting reality” and don’t put up with it. You are watching a fake world, and they can add women. Even if the show is about science nerds or tech nerds or cops, that show chooses their cast.

What can you do once you notice?

1. Say it out loud. Make it ok for us to talk about how frustrating it is to have to watch men all the time. (Personally, I’m not sure I can make it through one more all-male fight scene. Who cares? Just tell me who wins so we can move on with the story.) If someone asks you if you watch {insert popular male-centric TV show here}, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t because of feminism. Because as soon as you say it, you force everyone else to notice it, and to think about it.

2. Say it with your eyeballs. Don’t watch shows that treat women like commodities. And do watch shows where women take the stage. Show the networks and the movie studios what you care about. Because in the end, they’ll do whatever makes them money. This has been looking up lately, but we can do better.

3. Say it with your keyboard. Make a stink. Post something on Twitter. Comment on Facebook. Write your local congresswoman—whatever. Let them know that it’s not ok. Or if you’d rather focus on the positive, use those channels to show them how enthused you are by Frozen and Mindy Kaling and Beyonce.

Let’s make it clear that Hollywood can’t just cast a while male lead and expect us to fall in line anymore. We don’t want to be led out of the mire by a knight on a white horse—we want to pull ourselves up out of the mire: mud in our hair, grass in our teeth, and not taking their sexist bullshit.

 

If you’d like to know what TV to support with your previously-mentioned eyeballs, here are a few of my personal favorites: The Mindy Project, Girls, Orange Is The New Black, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Scandal…hmm. What else?

How I Became a Manipulative Bitch Without Trying

Let’s talk about why women don’t ask for what they want directly, and why it’s causing me to fight with Joe about lamps.

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It was only a matter of time before Meryl made her way into this blog.

 

When girls and women ask for what they want, they’re labeled a bitch. Imagine saying something like:

“Hand me that pencil.”
“Stop tapping your foot.”
“I want Chinese food tonight.”

Oh God. I feel itchy just imagining being so direct. Who am I, Sigourney Weaver?! Please. So, like many women, I have learned to imply or to beat around the bush when I have a request.

“I have nothing to write with!”
“That tapping is annoying.”
“How do you feel about getting Chinese food tonight?”

That way, no one gets hurt by my demands, right? Well, not so much. Sadly, I have recently realized that this doesn’t stop you from being seen as a bitch. It just makes you a manipulative bitch. Now you’re just a girl who gets her way by trickery.

So what have we learned? Never ask for what you want. Blog post completed, everyone go home.

Kidding. Certainly there are nice, in-between ways to ask for what you want. But this takes time, practice, and stealth. It’s not just a matter of adding “please” and “thank you”—your tone must be perfect, your wording exact. And it’s hard and annoying to constantly pay so much attention to the way you’re speaking. I’ve learned through conditioning that it’s easier to get what I want with the indirect approach, never really realizing why I did it, but understanding that asking more directly would make me “pushy,” “bitchy” or (dun dun DUNNNN) “bossy.”

This is how women get this stereotype of being manipulative, or expecting men to read our minds. For example, if the heater isn’t on and I’m cold, I might say, “I’m cold!” when what I really mean is “Joe, can you please go turn on the heater?” I’ve only recently realized how ingrained this is. Not only do I ask by implying, I often assume that Joe is doing the same. Here’s an example:

Yesterday we were in the kitchen and Joe said, “I hate how this floor mat moves around all the time!” I used my silly lady ears to hear his indirect request: “Emily, please make it so this mat doesn’t move around all the time.” Turns out, that’s not what Joe was saying, because Joe hasn’t been conditioned to make indirect requests like I have.

This is one of our #1 fight-starters: Joe says something that I take as an indirect request, and we both end up hurt and confused. Sometimes I work hard to fix his (not actually real) indirect requests, which leaves me resentful. For example, about two years ago, Joe would complain that he doesn’t like grocery shopping. I took this as an indirect request that I should do it alone. So I did, because I wanted him to be happy and it felt like an easy way to show him that I cared about him. Cut to me having a mental breakdown after a few months of dragging groceries home by myself.

But lately I’ve been doing more thinking into what it means for us to be equal partners, and making sure that we both feel like we’re doing equal amounts of work. So what happens more often now, instead of trying to fix his (again, not real) request, is that I turn it around on him. When he says, “The lighting in here is weird,” I think, why do I have to fix everything in our home? If he wants better lighting he should get some fricken lamps, and I say to him (slightly more annoyed than I should, considering the situation) “Then buy some lamps!” And suddenly we’re fighting about lamps and Joe feels baffled at my annoyance when he thought he was just making a casual statement about mood lighting.

I haven’t learned the secret to fixing this discrepancy, but I’m hoping it’s a good step that I’ve noticed it. It’s likely we need to just talk it out when it happens. Which is annoying, because who wants to sit and calmly discuss their feelings about a moving kitchen mat? Not me, certainly.

I’m not totally sure the best way to respond when Joe complains. But I think it’s the same as what I would want from him: “That is frustrating. Can you add it to our shopping list and we can pick out a new one?” Or maybe it’s as simple as clarifying what he means: “Are you asking me to do something about that?”

I don’t believe men are right and women are wrong in their approach. There’s plenty to be said for softening your requests at appropriate times, and being aware of how harsh you’re coming across, which a lot of men could benefit from. What’s more important to remember is that 50% of people do things one way, and 50% do things another way. Both sides need to understand that they say and hear things differently. If we can remember that, even when tensions are high, it helps us keep the lamp fights at a minimum. Although he was right, the lighting is pretty weird in here.

What do you think? Have I hit on something? Or am I all alone and you guys are like “Shyah, I am Miranda Priestly, hear me roar, I ask for what I want!” *z-snaps*

I’m Not A Female Scientist, And I Feel Guilty

While we lament about the lack of women in STEM, I always wonder where I went wrong.

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This is what you get when you Google “woman scientist.” Stock photography is…the worst?

Dear Emily,

It’s okay that you aren’t in the field of math or science.

We spend a lot of time encouraging more girls and women to stick with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields—and that is fantastic. Women are underrepresented in those fields.

But that’s not your fault.

So you’re a writer. Guess what? Women writers are underrepresented, too. But without even worrying about that—I just want you to know that it’s okay. I know, you want to beat the odds. You want to be the woman fighting, not the woman joining the throng. And when people talk about how girls are discouraged away from math and science and go into softer fields, you feel guilty, and start looking around suspiciously at the adults in your life, wondering which one of them did this to you—which one of them turned you into a pathetic, girly writer?

Was it Dad? The nights he stayed up reading aloud with all the voices? Or maybe Mom? Who read everything you wrote and announced that you were the most creative person ever? Was it Mrs. Dvorak? Who gave you creative writing prompts that made you so excited and yet so mad because your fourth grade writing comprehension level didn’t have enough words to describe the story you had smoldering in your brain? Yes…yes. That must have been it. They’ve ruined you. They’ve done this. It’s their fault you always loved writing.

You’re actually not bad at math, it just seems like you’re bad at math now because you’re bad at tipping, which is the only math anyone has to do as an adult: mental math. Then again, you’re also bad at the equivalent in writing—that is, writing something in your head on the fly while people are waiting. Whether it’s numbers or words, you’ve always needed to see the thing laid out. Your brain is a terrible place for organization—it’s a confused, disorganized mess that doesn’t remember anything. Why would you want to do math up there?

So you’re not a computer engineer or a microbiologist or some other male-dominated occupation. There’s nothing you can do about that now. (I mean technically you could go back to school but ugh.) Maybe it was all the encouragement from the adults in your life that made you a writer. Or maybe there was subtle, internalized discouragement that steered you away from STEM. But I seem to recall hundreds of conversations where people told you “women aren’t as funny as men” that you didn’t believe and you didn’t listen to. So maybe you listened to the things you wanted to hear, and followed your heart. Maybe for you, science was never in the cards.

That doesn’t mean you can’t encourage more girls and women to do those things. You can still support them and give them as much respect as the men in their field. And if you have a daughter one day, you can read her books in all the voices and tell her how creative she is, and buy her beakers for her at-home chemistry set. And then let her decide what makes her happy.

Dear Guys: It’s Okay If You Don’t Like ‘Girls’

It’s also okay if you don’t like girls, but that’s a different blog post altogether.

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I’ve heard it a few times recently: straight guys lamenting that they don’t like Girls and they just don’t get it. Ladies lamenting that their boyfriends find the show boring.

So here’s what I want to remind those guys: It’s okay that you don’t like Girls. Girls isn’t about you, and it isn’t for you. But that doesn’t make it boring. That just makes it boring to you.

I know these girls. I was these girls. My friends have been these friends. We’ve said these things and we’ve made these mistakes and we’ve felt these feelings. And it’s okay if you’re not that into it, but don’t call it boring–recognize that you aren’t the target and move on.

Most shows and movies and books are centered around straight white guys, and that’s why they’re interesting to you. I have had to watch those same movies and TV shows—not by force, but by lack of options. Do you think Wolverine is that interesting to me? Or Big Bang Theory? Or Die Hard? Or Major League Baseball? I’m not the actor in those stories. I’m not the hero. I can’t put myself in those plot lines and pretend they might happen to me. I don’t see myself reflected in those people. But for what may be the first time ever in my life, I do see myself when I watch Girls.

When Lena Dunham takes off her shirt, it’s not for you. She’s taking it off for me—okay, hear me out. It’s not for me to ogle, but it’s because women in real life take off their shirts every day in a non-sexual way, simply because they need to change. And their hair doesn’t cascade down their back as they do it, and it doesn’t happen in slow motion, and their body jiggles back into place when they put their arms back down. She does it for me, because I’m a human being, too.

Girls is not about you, and that’s okay. You don’t need to like it; all you need to do is recognize that I watch shows all the time that aren’t about me–it’s the way of life for me. And recognize that a show written for someone other than you sometimes frustrates you, and think about that feeling, and think about how other people—gay people, women, people of color, feel while they watch shows with a straight white male hero.

When I told Joe about this post, he responded that it wasn’t that he doesn’t like Girls. It’s that he almost likes Girls and it’s frustrating because there’s just something about it that it lacks. I suggested that it was lacking a straight white male main character. We mulled over Adam and Ray for a few minutes and decided they didn’t really count because they were still mostly there for the female characters. Then Joe hit on something: it’s not that it lacks a proper straight white male character, it’s that it lacks a truly likable female character–no love interest. There was no Zooey Deschanel or Mila Kunis or Jenna Fischer. Every lady on the show has major flaws. It’s a very good point. Of course, I can say that real women have flaws and then point to Knocked Up or Billy Madison and say that women constantly watch movies and TV without a viable love interest for themselves, but I think you guys are already ahead of me there, right?

Some guys like Girls. That’s great. Some ladies don’t like Girls. That’s okay, too. Everyone doesn’t have to like everything, because different shows speak to different people. And that’s the point.

What I Learned About The Ad Industry By Leaving It

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Dear Younger Emily,

You know what professions should be tough to do? Medicine. The Federal Bureau of Investigations. SEAL Team Six (you don’t know what that is yet, but trust me—they’re good).

Advertising should not be so hard.

You’ll leave Advertising on accident pretty soon—the job you find in San Francisco will broaden your horizons past copywriting and you won’t look back. You’ll have opportunities to go back, and each time it comes up, you’ll feel like Princess Jasmine in that final second before the sand engulfs her. You’ll remember all the jealous put-downs of other people’s work, the disrespect from recruiters, the windowless cubicles, and you’ll wonder why you felt like such a strong person for putting up with it.

Advertising is not the Marine Corps. You shouldn’t have to be tough-as-nails to do it—sure, you should get used to good ideas going nowhere because that’s just what happens as a creative person, but you shouldn’t have to be a certain caliber of toughness, you should just have to be a creative person with good ideas, and the place you work should do the rest to make sure those ideas happen.

You shouldn’t be desperate for attention. You shouldn’t have your emails ignored. You shouldn’t believe your next job will happen as soon as this one gets around to firing you. If your ideas aren’t getting produced but your ideas are good, someone should be wondering what they aren’t giving you, not waiting for the perfect opportunity to get rid of you.

You also shouldn’t be concerned about middle age while you’re in your twenties. If ad agencies want to show respect to their more experienced employees who have put decades of hard work into the company, they could send those people to conferences and classes and help them learn the changing space of Advertising, not work them to the bone to the very end and then fire them.

And for Christ’s sake, if all their employees are asking for a fridge, they should buy a goddamn fridge.

If you feel whiny or entitled for saying any of this, just remember that if the ad industry wants happy, creative people, they should foster happiness and creativity, not fear and self-doubt. Once you’re in tech, you’ll have to retrain yourself to notice bad experiences. When something is buggy or broken, you can’t just refresh or ignore it anymore, you’ll be expected to report the bug and help make the experience better for others. You’ll have meetings where your manager asks you what they can do to make your experience at the company better, and how they can help foster your creativity. Phrases like “just keep your head down and keep working” will no longer serve as acceptable words of encouragement.

Certainly ad agencies don’t need to spend tech-level money to keep their employees happy. I’m not talking indoor slides and swimming pools. I’m just saying: you deserve to be happy at your job, and you should demand more from your employer.

But right now, you’re still putting up with it. And why? To make cat food coupons? No. It’s because, tiny baby Emily, you’re still clinging onto the glimmer of hope that one day you’ll make a good ad—you’ll make “1984” or you’ll teach the world to sing or you’ll meet Jon Hamm. The thing is, spending years being miserable isn’t worth it. It might mean you won’t get laid off this year, but I make no guarantees. Advertising doesn’t value its employees, because there are a dozen other people waiting to take your place—more people, like you, who want mild fame without having to move to LA. So your employers don’t really care how they can help you get better, they’d rather just wait for you to mess up.

Maybe it’s only like this at the “dinosaur agencies” employing you. Maybe the newer, hipper ones have more respect for the people who keep their company running. But the main problem seems to be widespread: negativity is everywhere in that business, because everyone is worried that they’ll never make a good ad again and be laid off, and they’d rather put down other people’s work than admit their own jealousy and fear.

You don’t have to stay. You don’t have to come home crying because some misogynistic ad agency (the one who encouraged men to take back the power from women by wearing khakis) is making you write a sexist ad about cleaning supplies—they’re not making you do anything, because you are in control of your life.

You thought you would like advertising a lot more, and you just don’t. That doesn’t mean your measly years have been wasted—you’ve still learned a lot. You’ve learned about work ethic, about concise writing, about presenting your ideas. So now take that and go where you’re appreciated. Go where you can do something that matters. Go where you aren’t in constant fear for your job, despite all the work you do. Go and make things you can be proud of.

I want to thank this Slate article about women programmers for inspiring my post today. The man who wrote it said this: “One trite retort is ‘Well, your friend should’ve been tougher and not given up so easily. If she wanted it badly enough, she should’ve tried again, even knowing that she might face resistance.’ These sorts of remarks aggravate me. Writing code for a living isn’t like being a Navy SEAL sharpshooter. Programming is seriously not that demanding, so you shouldn’t need to be a tough-as-nails superhero to enter this profession.” Which is a different point than the one I’m making, but still an awesome one.