Sexism at TAM?

Ok so this is old news but there was some debate about Bill Prady‘s comments during his keynote address at TAM 7. Most notably were 1) his comment about picking up women and 2) his comments about his show The Big Bang Theory. I’ll briefly (oops) address both.

First the “issue” of Bill Prady as a speaker in the first place. Ok, so he’s not a scientist. So what? Non-scientists can be skeptics. But is he accomplished enough to have been the keynote? I dunno. He has a sitcom on TV. That many people in that very audience do not like. But I don’t run TAM so I don’t know what their reasons were for getting him. Maybe they were good ones. He was relatively entertaining, although I really wish Neil Degrasse Tyson had been a year behind schedule. Moving on.

Picking up women
Bill said something to the effect of [paraphrased] “We can continue telling women in bars that astrology isn’t real but we won’t get to have sex. … If a beautiful stunning women comes up to you…in Vegas…be skeptical because she may have certain motivations. … If a women tells you that she’s a Pisces, you have a choice. … Divide the women into 2 groups. … Group A respond with a detailed explanation of the time twins study…to the second group say ‘I’m sorry, what. You have the most incredible eyes.'” The video of this comment can be seen by following the first link above — actually, check out that link anyway because I’m going to be referring to that article in a bit.

These comments were interpreted by many to be sexist. I think he was trying to tell a joke that wasn’t funny. I think a joke about stereotypical courting rituals might have been a little unwise given the audience, but I think this is one of those cases where people just don’t think about what they are saying. I’m not defending Prady…exactly. I think his comments illustrate just how lazy we are with language.

When we talk about the relationships between women and men, we still perpetuate stereotypes. Such as apparently assuming that generally, men pick up women. I went to university and while there I was in a bar or two. That stereotype is just not true no matter how much TV would love you to believe it. Also there is the apparent assumption that women wouldn’t be interested in an intelligent conversation. Well if they are trolling bars for penis, maybe not. How many people expect to find their “soul mate” at a bar? But again, the assumption within this context is about women so it sounds like another sexist stereotype. And finally, if a beautiful woman comes up to you and is actually interested, she’s a hooker.

Bottom line for me: He could have been more careful with what he was saying and it’s possible that all the talk and flipping out in the world is not necessarily going to make him see that. Some men really can’t get how women feel when assumptions like that are made. Just like I, as a white person, can’t possibly understand when people make assumptions (however innocently intended) about “colored” people. So. Meh. I’m over it. He’ll either get it or he won’t.

Women in the big bang theory

Someone asked a question about the women characters in The Big Bang Theory and why they are either pretty and ditsy or robotic and smart. I think that’s a fair question…for the keynote speaker at a skeptical conference. But maybe he didn’t know what he was getting into. Anyway, his response basically amounted to: “I don’t think Penny is sexist, therefore she isn’t.” Less than satisfying.

I do watch the show and IMO Penny at first was a sexist caricature. Face it Prady. She was. Over the course of the show, though, Penny evolved to be a character that represents the everyman (the non-science-literate layperson) who happens to be friends with hard core scientists. I do still have some issues with the show, such as the concept of the unbelievably stereotypical “woman scientist” Leslie Winkle.

You have the beautiful woman who’s not smart in the ways of science and you have the plain woman who is a scientist. Prady may not have noticed, but this kind of thing can perpetuate the stereotype that pretty girls aren’t smart and/or smart girls are plain and weird. Aruing “but Penny is smart” falls a little flat when all that’s promoted about her is boobs and Sheldon zingers. Demonstrate that she’s smart. Or I’ll be happy if they manage to show a regular — albeit quirky, because this is a comedy — girl as a scientist. I feel that throughout the show they’ve only promoted Penny as “the aimless attractive co-ed” as a foil to Sheldon’s extremely rigid personality and the robotic Leslie as “the woman scientist” as if she’s a good representation. So what else do these women have to offer? It’s called character development.

There’s the argument that Leslie is so weird because they are all that weird (the guys too). But 1) Leonard is normal, 2) she’s the only science-smart girl on the show, and 3) not all scientists are weird. There are several guy characters to demonstrate a range of personalities, but there’s only one girl scientist and she’s ridiculous so far. It’s just a little annoying, as a women, to see stuff like that all the time. Yes, it’s just a show, and fine maybe he knew people like that, but seriously it wears a little thin when almost everything on TV is like that. It wears even more thin when the guy characters (especially Howard and Raj) are also somewhat sexist representations of their gender.

Break the mold, Prady. You’ll have everything to gain.

Women at TAM

There’s one last thing I want to bring up and that is a paragraph from that first link above that appeared directly after the video of Bill Prady’s “offending” address.

Personally, I was taken aback by some of the women in the audience. I can hardly be called a prude, but some of the outfits in that room were far beyond what is appropriate attire for any kind of conference. What’s more, they were very poor, naive attempts at sexual expression that left me wonder just what kind of delusion-producing mirror they were looking into each morning and where I could get one. Just as an example, one woman (I would guess her age at about 20yo) wore a dressy black blouse with extremely tight cut-off denim short-shorts, thigh-high fishnet stockings, and 2-inch patent leather strappy spike heals which were at least 2 sizes too small. No kidding.

So, the culture needs a little adjusting, no?

No. Who is this person to determine how skeptical culture needs adjusting? There are no rules of “membership” to be a skeptic. And last time I checked, there was no dress code either.

Right in the middle of a (justified?) post against sexism at TAM, is an extremely ironic sexist assumption about what skeptical women should be like. Are you kidding me? I’m a pretty smart chick and I’m pretty sure I’d be just as smart if I went to TAM in tight cut-off denim shorts…in 40+ degree Celsius weather, btw. It’s a bit silly to get a case of the vapors during Prady’s “sexist” address just to turn around and insult the skeptical women (note that no men were singled out) in attendance based on their appearance. This is exactly the kind of thing that we should be fighting against because it’s crap like this that makes women not feel comfortable at these places because they aren’t free to be themselves.

The point about an “old boys” mentality, I think, is valid — lately I’ve been noticing some hero-worship with the more noteable skeptics (mostly men) and I think we should make an effort to shy away from that, because nobody is free from criticism and the application of skeptical thinking. But bitching about how TAM doesn’t have women speakers when we don’t know how many women applied to speak, or were asked to speak and delclined, etc (and why) doesn’t solve the (non?)issue. Is it something TAM can control? Or do we have to step up, as women, and make this our own responsibility? And is it even an issue that there are few female speakers? If so, I encourage that we do it dressed however we damn well please.

What do you think? Are we critically reflecting on why diversity is important in skepticism? Or are we jumping on the diversity bandwagon because we think we should find it important? Does it matter than “only” 30% of TAM attendees were women?

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13 responses to “Sexism at TAM?

  1. Good points, all. :)

    In fairness, the woman who was “taken aback” at the attire at TAM (which I didn’t attend, so I can’t really comment except to mirror the thought of others) has responded, acknowledged that she was wrong (in some ways) and apologized. I don’t necessarily agree with everything she says here, but at least she recongnizes that her phrasing trviliazed the issue and made her look like an ass:

    http://icbseverywhere.com/blog/2009/07/19/open-mouth-attempt-to-remove-foot/

    • Yes, your right. I should have been more clear but I wanted to address the point anyway because she probably wasn’t the only one who was thinking it. Also I wrote most of this after TAM and life stuff got in the way, so some things were behind the times. Thanks for providing that link. It’s only fair. Though I still don’t agree that some women dress the way they do strictly for the purpose of drawing attention to themselves. I still think that implies motivations that can’t be verified. I don’t see why one should make a distinction between acceptable space between boobs and unacceptable space between boobs.

  2. Stupid life stuff… At least it sounds like it was HAPPY life stuff. :)

    Anyway, I wholly agree with you. I think it’s unacceptable to assert that self-expression must be stifled because it makes someone uncomfortable, or because it doesn’t adhere to some arbitrary standard of decorum.

    I think the lack of women — and moreso the sidelining of women — in the skeptical movement is a significant issue, and it’s not going to be fixed by insisting that anyone conform to anyone’s idea of physical or sartorial standards.

    Also, did I just say “sartorial?” God I’m becoming pretentious….

  3. Very late comment, but I just wanted to say that I love this, and have had the same thoughts myself regarding TBBT (which I nevertheless still love to watch, even if it makes me a ‘bad feminist.’)

  4. If women wanted to feel safe, maybe they should start their own damn conferences. Seriously, are women so lame as to have to join men’s organizations, like little sisters running after their big brothers? Stop complaining that you’re not allowed to be equal in a historically men’s type of org, and start your damn own. Oh wait, that’s like a woman actually doing something important in the history of the world, besides give birth and marry important men. Looking around my house, I can’t see one thing a woman invented. Neither my computer, or any gadget, nor simple things like my refrigerator or stove.

    In other words, women are lame emotional creatures who are under the very mistaken impression that they’re equal to men. Yet they offer no proof of this except for the shady fact that they’re human.

    Hmm, I think I’m starting to hate women. Oh well.

  5. Yeah, Mark, you put the Ass in Classy….

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  7. One episode of The Big Bang Theory was extremely degrading towards a female character (an episode character) and was very upsetting to watch. I have never watched that show since.

  8. Skeptical inquiry

    “Does it matter than “only” 30% of TAM attendees were women?”
    Just a question – do you think anything has changed in your beliefs now it is 2011?

    I don’t know if you’re the former SkeptiGirl now Skeptic Ginger on the JREF forums, but you might like to read this to add to your accounts on what it has been like:

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2011/07/20/is-it-cold-in-here
    http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/codes_of_conduct_a_brief_history_of_civility_inclusivity_sexism_and_skeptic

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