'Think': Dumb American Syndrome

Excerpted from "Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World" by Lisa Bloom. Available from Vanguard Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011

Twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America's Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty-three percent would rather lose their ability to read than their figures.


When I read that Oxygen Media survey -- that a quarter of us would rather win a contest for looking bootylicious in a thong than for, say, ending genocide -- I tried to go to my happy place. But I couldn't get there. Because I know we have a problem, one that I don't hear anyone else talking about. The problem is not just about that 25 percent of young women who would rather be hot than smart; rather, it's about a culture that actually makes that a rational choice: rewarding girls for looks over brains. And it's about all of us, intelligent American females, ranging from girlhood to old age, who are dazzlingly ignorant about some critically important things.

An aggravating thing happened in the last generation. As girls started seriously kicking ass at every level of education (girls now outperform boys in elementary, middle, and high schools; we graduate from college, professional, and graduate schools in greater numbers than males -- go team!), our brains became devalued.

This is part of what I call the Dumb American Syndrome. The majority of American men and women can't name a single branch of government, for crying out loud. Europeans and Asians consistently slaughter our high school boys and girls in academic competitions. But this book is about some of the fluffy-headed turns our American females in particular have made and how we can find our way again, because girls and women are my people. I was born a baby feminist and I've been a women's rights advocate, lawyer, and rabble-rouser for twenty-five years. Sure, it's a shame when men lose their way, too, and someone ought to write a book getting them back on course. But this book is a manifesto for my team about how we've lost our female minds on matters as big as neglecting our brutally oppressed third world sisters and as small as the fact that we still do way too much housework.

All of these symptoms are related. I'll explain.

Our blind spots are galling because damn, we have come so far in just my lifetime. Until the 1963 Equal Pay Act, it was perfectly legal, and common, for employers to pay women less than men for doing the same job. Now young, urban, childless women out-earn their male counterparts, mainly because they're better educated. Until the 1980 enforcement of Title IX began, schools could and did underfund girls' sports. Today no one thinks all the money should go to the boys' teams, and you'd be shamed out of the PTA for trying to keep your daughter away from soccer, which at the high school level is now 47 percent female. The U.S. Supreme Court did not recognize sexual harassment in the workplace as actionable until 1986. Virtually all employers now have written policies, trainings, and investigations to deter and monitor fair treatment of female workers.

We've achieved this historic sea change in laws and values, where nondiscrimination is now the expectation. Wonderful. Long overdue. Thanks Mom and your generation of fearless fighters for devoting your lives to bringing the norm of equality to us. So what exactly are we doing with it? I can remember when people levied serious opposition to Sandra Day O'Connor's 1981 Supreme Court nomination on the grounds that there was no ladies' room on the floor of the justices' chambers. But three more female Supreme Court justices and hundreds of thousands more women lawyers and judges later, more than two-thirds of us don't know what Roe v. Wade is.

The situation gets worse. Grown-up women giggle into TV cameras that they don't know how many sides a triangle has, nor can they venture a guess as to what country Mexico City might be in. I don't know which is worse: that we are playing dumb or that we really are that clueless.

Girls and young women earnestly analyze whether Angelina Jolie has another baby bump but know nothing about her life's work: bringing aid to millions of innocent refugees, people for whom our attention means the difference between life and death, hope or despair. Many of us spend more time looking in the mirror than looking out at our planet, and the thing is that doing so is rational because there can be a bigger payoff for being sexy than brainy. Young women have little motivation to think because the rewards for being hot are so powerful. Then, in our middle years a new wave of nonthinking sets in. Married women and working moms spin ourselves ragged in the work-kids-housework-repeat-repeat-repeat cycle. At this stage, who has time to think? And after age fifty-five we just want to rest, so we zone out in front of the TV significantly more than any other age group, relinquishing a full 25 percent of our golden years to Cialis ads and Cougar Town; as a result, seniors are the most overweight and obese age group.

Excuses, excuses. This has got to stop.

At all ages, we've become seduced by our shallow, self-absorbed celebutainment culture. You know: the one that breaks into regular network programming with Tiger Woods's apology for extramarital schtupping. The one that treats Anna Nicole Smith's or Michael Jackson's prescription drug OD with the kind of breathless coverage once reserved for the assassinations of heads of state. We watch, dazzled and dazed by the shiny, shocking stories, while a little voice stirring within us peeps that somewhere, somehow, there must be more important issues. But who can remember what they are? Who can find substance when we are fed an increasingly bloated, empty diet of reality shows, "news" segments on wrinkle fillers, and updates on drunken starlets? Network execs tell me they have to run these segments, as it's the only way to capture the female audience.

Dear Lord. Let's turn that ship around.

In our personal lives, our mental flaccidity means we outsource most of what our mothers and grandmothers did themselves. They relied upon their wits to pull themselves up out of life's challenges. We, however, have lost confidence in our ability to think for ourselves, so we give our lives over to "experts": therapists, life coaches, self-help gurus, talk radio blowhards. Whatever. Jersey Shore is on!

I want to jolt you into reclaiming your brain. You can still watch Real Housewives and read an issue of Us Weekly every once in a while, but not every day -- because I have bigger plans for you.

We've got to use our brains for more than filler in the space beneath our smooth, Botoxed foreheads. The generation before us fought like hell and won for us equality in education and employment. Let's use that for a higher purpose than sending pictures of kittens on Facebook.

Warning: If you're easily upset, this is not the book for you. These issues are urgent and important and I don't sugarcoat the facts about how self-absorbed we've become or the costs of our distraction, like women who have actually died from plastic surgery or the millions of girls enslaved in the worldwide sex trade while we go shoe shopping. I don't like it when people beat around the bush when they have something to say, so I just come right out with it here. That's my style. And you can blast me back at www.Think.tv, where this conversation continues ardently, passionately, blazingly -- because that's how thinkers roll.

I'm not going to rant without offering very specific solutions. That would be just taking cheap shots. After I smack you upside the head with the hideous problem we've created for ourselves, how we veered off track into a culture of empty-headed narcissism, I'm going to lay out what each of us can do to reclaim our brains, to take care of business in our own lives, and to become real, true-blue contributors to the world -- so we can make our mamas and our nagging little voices proud.

Good news! This isn't even hard once you start pushing back at some of the insulting nonsense our culture is offering up to us. For one thing, you're going to find more time in your life, and you'll learn some underreported fun facts about sex.

Bottom line: your critical thinking skills are desperately needed right now for your own good as well as for the sake of your community, your country, and your planet.
That nagging little voice? It's your brain, and it's telling you that it wants back in the game.

Let's get started.