There is some primal issue to be reconciled with the dishes. I don’t mean all the time or that “the dishes” are always a running metaphor for larger problems. But, at certain moments, the balance of fairness in any American home might be metered in terms of who scrapes off how many plates, actually puts them in the dishwasher, and then later removes and puts them away. After thousands of studies and reports and books and special features on women and men…. if, in your home, the woman consistently does more dishes than the man then there’s probably something retrogressive in play.
Do newspaper column pieces that start with everyday domestic analogies trivialize the progress of women? Because we wouldn’t want that, just as we wouldn’t want a sweeping report of any kind framing the progress of women since the 1960’s in some way that falsely represents reality. But then there’s your reality, there’s my reality, and there’s what’s real about the world.
For example… let’s say you’re Maria Shriver. You’re nobody’s puppet, and you’re also first lady of California. You’ve spent considerable time and energy on a wide-ranging report on the status of women in America, “A Woman’s Nation.” Time magazine, the Center for American Progress, USC… heavy hitters are involved. The last such report was in 1961 when your uncle JFK drafted Eleanor Roosevelt to head up just such a study. Your report, presented over multiple platforms on NBC and with a copy going to the White House, will look at women emerging as household breadwinners and how women define power. It’s serious, it’s comprehensive, and it’s legit.
So, why was Shriver all over the media dome last week? Because she got caught using her cell phone while driving. As a celebrity and first lady of a state where that activity is illegal, her mistake is what holds our interest. “Got cha!” trumps “Here’s a serious look at…” well, anything.
It wasn’t like Arnold and Maria had lied about launching their child in a balloon, but it still meant that “A Woman’s Nation” was presented this week with an arguably unwarranted junk media stain on its formal attire; the author couldn’t get her serious and well-meaning report in front of the public without having a tinsel-factor paintball shot across its bow. Maria Shriver was media punked just as she was doing society a huge service. Is there something in any of that about women’s power in 2009?
Shriver’s reports this week have hinged on some dramatically changing conditions in America. More women are bringing home (and saving) the household bacon as men are laid-off by the thousands in a bad economy. Women are not defining power in any one fixed way, with some saying that having the corner office is not what matters to them. They can work at home, tele-commute, and do more. And they resent, as anybody would, being categorized with simplistic handles like “soccer Mom.” Shriver is making us all think about women and women’s power and reach, and that’s all good.
Still, Shriver’s report came to my attention on the same day that the LA Times reported that cutting $250 million from state budgets will eliminate 40% of rehab services in prisons and the hit will be severe for women inmates and parolees. A female inmate is quoted, saying she was “looking to change my thinking” and expressed concern for being able to break bad patterns. “It’s so easy to get caught up here and never leave. I don’t want to die in prison.”
Deeper in that same section of the Times, a two-paragraph state news round-up piece reported that a veteran female El Monte police officer had filed an 18 page complaint as part of a lawsuit contending that she was sexually harassed “for years by colleagues who repeatedly commented on her body and told her women should not be cops but made ‘natural waitresses and food servers’” Two pages to the left of that report was another, in which a prostitution sting in Pomona netted a “john” that turned out to be El Monte’s city manager. From that same story: “A total of 30 men and women were taken into custody… The women arrested on suspicion of prostitution were taken to the city jail. The men arrested on suspicion of soliciting were issued citations and released…”
Maria Shriver would need a lot more hours of television time in order to say with any authority, “We’re talking about all of the women in America.” And then you’d want her next report to focus on the status of women around the world, where the stories will get darker and more heinous. Acid burnings, mutilations, stonings… the visuals would be graphic and horrifying. A globally comprehensive “A Woman’s Planet” would be a major television achievement and never want for drama. It would also by design represent day-to-day conditions such as women on repetitive work assembly lines in Asia who are more concerned about permanent hand injuries than they are about a corner office. But one thing at a time. Was the California first lady’s faux pas with a cell phone trumpeted louder because she’s an outspoken woman? After all, her husband makes mistakes all the time and that barely registers across multiple platforms on NBC.