Controversies

I am not usually a person who enjoys controversy. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy passionate, articulate, respectful and informed debate but I find that, for the most part, when people disagree (especially on the Internet) things deteriorate quickly into personal attacks, rude behavior, and knee-jerk reactions.  As a result, I don’t tend to write a lot about my opinions on things that might start an argument, preferring that my blog remain calm and a place for civility and creativity. Having said all that, I have become aware of two controversies in recent weeks that I have found rather fascinating.

Knitters vs. the USOC
I, like many knitters and crocheters, am a member of a site called Ravelry. It is a HUGE online community for the fiber arts that offers patterns, information on different kinds of yarns and materials, forums to connect with other fiber artists and great tools for organizing, tracking, and showing off your latest projects. If you are a knitter, crocheter, spinner, weaver or anyone else who works with fiber, you should really check out Ravelry.  (There is a great article about the site here if you are interested).

For the past few years, the folks on Ravelry have hosted an “event” called the Ravelympics. Basically the concept went something like this. As knitters (et. all) sat down to watch the Olympics, they were witnessing individuals who had dedicated their lives to being good at one specific thing attempt to do that thing better, harder, faster than they had ever done it before. As an homage, many fiber artists decided that they would take on a fiber challenge of their own, pushing themselves, undertaking an above and beyond effort that would last the length of the Olympics (and was usually being undertaken while watching the Olympics). This year, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) caught wind of the proceedings and sent a cease and desist letter to the organizers of Ravelry, informing them that any derivation of the Olympic name (like the Ravelympics) is a violation of copyright and that Ravelry would have to change the name of their event and take down patterns that some crafters had developed that included the copyrighted Olympic rings.

So far, everything was fairly reasonable, sane, and civil and (while the knitters grumbled at bit at having their parade rained on), it really didn’t change too much to have to call the event by a different name.  We could proceed with what we were doing; we just couldn’t call it the Ravelympics. But then the letter from the USOC went on to complain that

“a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games.  In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.”

And that’s when things got personal and anyone on the USOC who was going to get hand-knit socks for Christmas just got downgraded to a stale fruit cake.  A whole lot of knitters (including me) felt like the USOC had just disrespected us and what we do, dismissing the effort and skill and talent it takes to create what we create. In effect, we felt denigrated and that the USOC had failed to recognize or appreciate our hard work. It also seemed as if someone over at the USOC (or the legal office that drafted this letter) was pretty confident that knitters were people they could disrespect without any consequences, probably picturing a small group of grandmas who would be unable to make their displeasure felt. Well, there are more of us than they thought and we are more tech savvy than they thought (particularly those of use who are on Ravelry). A very vocal group of fiber artists expressed their thoughts on the matter on various social media sites (including the USOC Facebook page) and showed the USOC the consequences of disrespecting knitters until they issued not one, but two apologies for their insensitive and unnecessary jab at knitting.

However, in one of those apologies, the USOC stepped in it again, stating that: 

“We apologize for any insult and appreciate your support… To show our support of the Ravelry community, we would welcome any handmade items that you would like to create to travel with, and motivate, our team at the 2012 Games.”

 Wait. You want us to make stuff for you now? I am pretty sure that isn’t happening! There is a concept among knitters known as “knit worthiness.” If someone appreciates the effort that it took to make something for them, wears it, treats it well and treats the knitter well in general, then they are considered knit worthy and their knitter may consider spending a not inconsiderable amount of time, effort, and money to knit them a gift. Something tells me that the USOC is not on many knitters’ knit worthy list at the moment.  

Anyway, things have mostly calmed down now but there were two things that I found rather interesting about the whole thing. 

First of all, in reading and discussing this whole “tizzy” with people, I found out that there used to be Olympic events in artistic categories like: Painting, Sculpture, Literature, Music, Architecture, etc. Maybe they should consider bringing those back and adding in events in fiber arts or crafting in general.

Secondly, it was fascinating to realize just how much of a significant demographic knitters really are. There is a big discrepancy between what we actually are (a large, diverse, vocal, and passionate community) and how we are perceived (lonely, sad, out-of-touch grandmas and spinsters) but if there is one lesson that you can take away from all of this it is that we knitters are out there in larger numbers than you suspect, and we have lots and lots of pointy sticks. 

Science: It’s a Girl Thing:
The second controversy that caught my eye is a furor over an advertisement that the EU commissioned to kick out an initiative designed to encourage more women to enter scientific careers.  While I applaud the intention and it seems like the rest of the imitative has a lot of merit, the launch ad was a fiasco.  You can see it here:

The video has been criticized for its perpetuation of stereotypes about women, trivializing them as eye candy and suggesting that they are only obsessed with make-up, high heels and girly things. I, for one, take particular umbrage at the expressions on the girls’ faces at various times during the video, making them seem more like bimbos who are distracted by all the make-up and shiny objects than intelligent women doing work that is being taken seriously by anyone.

I had the opportunity to talk to three young people yesterday. I am volunteering at a local summer school program. I needed copies made of some forms but there was a large copying job going on that needed to finish before I could make my copies and while I waited I got into a conversation with two recent high school graduates (one guy, one girl) and a young man who will be a high school senior in the fall. After one of them had made a comment about the pink paper that a math booklet was being printed on and how he wondered how the boys in the class would feel doing their math on pink paper, the conversation turned to gender issues, stereotypes and how these things are perpetuated. I brought up the Science: It’s a Girl Thing video and suggested that when they got home they look it up and then let me know what they thought. Since we still had some time before the copier was free, one of the young men pulled out his iPhone and pulled up the video then and there and I watched the three of them as they watched it.

After the video was done, I asked them what they thought. The young lady was upset. She said that watching that video made her feel as if she wasn’t being taken seriously, that not only was the way the women in the video were portrayed insulting but the thought that this video was supposed to appeal to her was insulting. One of the guys didn’t like the video but wasn’t too upset by it. He dismissed it as a bad ad with a shrug. But the second guy had some interesting insights. He pointed out that there was some significant production that went into making the video which suggested to him that someone was willing to invest resources in getting this message out even if the end product wasn’t that successful. He also commented that the fact that we were discussing it, from a marketing point of view, meant that the video worked. (I would argue – and did argue – that if the traffic and discussion started and ended with the video and distracted away from the other resources and information that the initiative was putting out, that the controversy wasn’t helping regardless if people were talking about it). Lastly, he asked me what people were doing in response to the video. I mentioned that there were a lot of articles and response videos on You Tube and that many women in the science fields were speaking out about the issue. To which he replied that even though the video failed in its objective, the anger many people felt about it was resulting in the creation of other, better resources and videos that might be more successful at getting the word out than anything a marketing firm could create and that it wouldn’t cost the organization behind the initiative anything. So, in his opinion, even though the video failed, it succeeded.  

I am not sure what else I can add to the discourse. I believe that there are gender biases that discourage girls from entering technical fields and that we can (and should) combat these biases. I believe that there are harmful stereotypes and attitudes about women and towards women that are pervasive in our culture and that being aware of them is the first step towards correcting them. My sister (who is pre-med) likes to tease me that as someone who has a degree in a “soft science” like Psychology, I didn’t learn any “REAL” science. She is rather specific with what she considers “real science” and tends to focus on subjects like Organic Chemistry, Neurobiology or Physics as worthier topics of study than Psychology, Anthropology or Sociology. (For the record, you don’t even want to hear her opinion of the fact that I am an English Major now.) But I would like to think that, regardless of whether it is a social science or a so-called “hard” science or even a field that doesn’t involve science, that women deserve to have themselves and their endeavors taken a lot more seriously that this video does.    

Anyway, this is some of what has been on my mind lately. I have a bunch other posts planned that I want to write-up and post when I have the time but in the meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

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About Ciarrai

Hi. My name is Kerry but here online I tend to go by the Gaelic version of my name, Ciarrai. I am a woman in my mid-30's who lives on Long Island, NY, with my husband, Rob, several guitars, a Nikon D40, more yarn, beads and books than I care to admit to and a cat who has a million nicknames and quite a few theme songs. I have a B.A. in Psychology and have recently returned to college to pursue a teaching degree so that I can eventually get a job as a High School English teacher. In addition to my major obsessions (Reading, Beading, Knitting, Music and Photography), I also enjoy playing Board Games, going to Renaissance Faires, Museums and Broadway Musicals.
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