Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Getting Dirty

Last week, my kids and I were watching videos online of dinosaurs. After every 1-2 minute video, we would have to sit through an ad for "Camp Dirt." It's another example of grown-ups getting to relive their childhood, but this time it is targeted specifically for men. At the camp, you get to go off-roading, do mud-sliding, and other really, really cool stuff like that. Yeah, that's right, I like to get dirty, and all could think of while watching the commercial over and over again was, that looks like so much fun.

I was a tomboy growing up. I used to spend hours in the garden digging for worms. I was always the first person to touch the slimy, seemingly disgusting animals when we went to zoos. My mom would send me to school in tights, and I'd come home and they were ripped and dirty with blood and dirt from trying to climb the fence (and failing). When I started my undergrad degree, there was a...bonding event that involved, among other things, participating in an obstacle course which required us to roll in a pool of mud. I gladly volunteered to do it three times.*

As females, we are told over and over that we shouldn't want to get dirty, literally or figuratively. It might be one of the reasons why female academics are discouraged from displaying administrative ambition, or why we talk ourselves out of it; we don't want to get dirty, or appear like we are. We also are encouraged to avoid too much controversy when it comes to our research. Being clean is such a powerful metaphor for girls and women. We can only have a certain kind of fun, take certain kinds of risks, accept or excel at certain kinds of positions. Even for those of us who do take on the "dirty work," there exists a double-standard to how dirty a woman is allowed to appear; we have to make sure that we continue to uphold a certain standard of cleanliness.  

I've never really bought into that. It is one of the great advantages of being really, really naive; I grew up being told I could do anything I wanted to, and I grew up as "one of the guys" on the swim team. It is one of the great advantages of an individual sport where you train collectively; it didn't matter if you were a guy or a girl, it only mattered how fast you could go. If you kept up with the guys, you trained with the guys. Also, at one point, there was something like 18 guys (all older) and only 3 girls in the elite training group. Even as I got older and was repeatedly told (explicitly and implicitly) that I shouldn't want to get dirty, I asked, why not? When no one could give me a good answer, I went ahead and did it anyway.

On a related aside, it may also be why motherhood, specifically, but not exclusively, birthing, is still a taboo topic; have you ever been to a live birth? Dirty work, I tell you. Sex, too, for that matter. Nikki Finke, founder of, and someone who isn't afraid of getting her hands dirty, lamented the popularity of the movie Bridesmaids because:
I couldn't believe that this is why generations of women fought the feminist revolution: to ensure we had the same opportunities to watch our sex make the same raunchy movie stuff as men.
Actually, this feminist is proud that there is an appetite out there for women getting down and dirty about sex, about bodily functions, all of it. Being a woman is not "clean" as everyone has been conditioned to think. If the message is out there that it's ok for us to be literally dirty, then maybe we can start seeing that it is ok to be figuratively dirty as well.

Good Female Academics stay clean. They do nice, clean, safe research, and know they place. But I'm a Bad Female Academic. I can't say that my research is particularly controversial, but I do what I want, how I want to. And, I'm not afraid, in fact I relish the opportunity to get my hands dirty. 

And if you want to sling mud at me? Bring it. 

*Once upon a time, this was called an initiation. But before everyone gets all up in arms about hazing, know that alcohol was involved (remember, drinking in Quebec is legal at 18), but in no way forced upon us. I didn't drink beer then, and I didn't have to. Just as there were a few girls who refused to get in the mud, so I volunteered to take their place. I still remember that day quite fondly. I won best frosh. Ah, memories...


  1. Wow, I can't believe what that Dealine person said. I'm tempted to write her and explain why equality means equality in every arena, and how much comedy has reflected the double standard.

    With you on the dirt. I used to catch bugs as a kid, and at least my former discipline allowed me to participate in a couple of archaeological digs. EVEYRBODY is dirty by the end of the day!

  2. When a doctoral student I learned to play rugby. It was a new team, and a couple of the guys trained us. They were shocked that they had to make up a drill to teach us to dive over the touchline because we had been so ingrained in avoiding falling much less diving into the dirt.

  3. Can I join the club? I hear they're already starting the pilot for the new reality series: Bad Female Academics.

    As always, you've written a fantastic post. The "clean" metaphor really does haunt our culture. As a woman, I'm definitely taught to avoid getting dirty (though as a horseback riding and a life of being "one of the guys" has kept me from fulfilling that ideal). Racially, the term is definitely loaded. And when it comes to writing, how often do we tell people to "clean up" their papers?

    Dig deeper, but stay clean? Well that sounds like an impossible task.

  4. You might not like what I have to say because I don't like getting dirty but, it's not always about what you're told when you're little. I grew up with boys and they were always getting dirty and I was told I could do what I wanted. I always chose to wear my dresses and stay clean. I never liked mud or dirt or anything and I still don't. People do what they want to do. If they want to get dirty, they will. If not, they won't.


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