Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Gender Ratio

My dad and I are both voracious readers, and when I decided to come down here, he gave me a copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book “Antarctica.” There’s a line in the opening chapter that says something to the effect of, “Bringing a boyfriend to McMurdo is like bringing your own sandwich to a buffet.” There’s certainly some truth to that. 

 Here's another picture from the Halloween party that nicely illustrates my point. Two of these gentlemen are my suite mates (I live in a flamboyant tiki lounge that is the informal epicenter of the McMurdo gay community-- don't worry, I will elaborate on this in some later post, complete with illustrations), and their costume is a reference to the fact that OSHA safety regulations say that for any object heavier than 40 pounds, you must find a second person and perform a team lift. I told them I'd make their t-shirts and give them all sharpie sailor tattoos with their supervisor's name on them if they bought all my whiskey for the night. Totally mutually beneficial arrangement.

The current gender ratio here on station stands at 28.2% female and 71.8% male. This is actually less noticeable than one might expect, as cold weather gear makes it impossible to discern gender when anyone is outside, and even indoors, the first thing your eyes register is an impressive expanse of gender neutral carhartt overalls. But when you stop and look for it, you do realize that there are a loootttt more men than women down here. Most of this can be chalked up to the fact that the majority of the jobs available are in the trades, and the fact of the matter is that most mechanics, electricians and heavy equipment operators are men.

Working in the galley, the gender balance is somewhat more even (what with women knowing their role and staying in the kitchen and all… Kidding: the women down here are decidedly not of the submissive wallflower variety), although there are definitely still quite a few more men than women.

Whatever the reasons are, this gender balance makes for some incredibly interesting social dynamics. I’ve been wanting to do a series of graphic novel-ish illustrations about day to day life down here,  so here is my first attempt. I’ve never worked in this medium before (brush pen and India ink), so it felt a little awkward, but satisfying. Also, the only scanner I could find is too small for the paper I used, so it's kinda weirdly cropped: 
And I had so much fun with that one that I did another little one about a hike I went on last week: 

I’ve been thinking it would also be a fun project to illustrate a series of McMurdo Missed Connections: “You: Female (I hope? Could have been a beard tucked away under that balaklava?) Walking to the mail room in a white out, was drawn to the alluring way you clutched your hood closer to your face to block out the wind. Drinks at Southern sometime? Me: Male, bearded, wearing carhartt overalls and a Big Red.”

It’s strange being in an environment in which my gender makes me something of a scarce commodity, and, as a cook, I have the added allure of being one of a very small handful of people on station who is able to say the three words guaranteed to win over any heart: I have avocados. I feel a bit like I’ve ended up in Vegas at a point where I don’t really feel like going to casinos and would instead rather stay in and read a good book. Funny how these things work out, eh?

Gender isn’t something that I put much thought to in my stationary life, but it is a topic that comes up constantly when I am traveling (or, as it turns out, when I’m in Antarctica). I always travel by myself, and as such, I’m very, very used to people telling me that it’s not safe for a woman to travel alone. It’s easy enough to hear from men, because with them you can just politely listen and smile and tell them that you disagree, and then go out and live your life in a way that proves them unequivocally wrong.
But it’s always heartbreaking for me to hear other women tell me that they wouldn’t feel safe traveling alone, and how they don’t feel strong enough to do it. I wish that those women would go out and experience the overwhelming hospitality and inherent goodness of strangers, but I know that they never will. If you go out already determined to be afraid, you will find things to reinforce your fear.

I can get pretty angry about the self perpetuating myth that travel isn't safe for a solo female, and I think part of the reason I choose to travel the way that I do is because I want to do my part to chip away at an unwarranted culture of fear. Sure, bad things happen, but hiding yourself in the cloistered safety of the familiar isn’t going to protect you from those things. It just saddens me that so many people have been brought up on the myth that the world outside of their immediate horizon is populated by bad people who want to do them harm. 

Sorry for the soapbox moment... Just happens to be a topic I have strong opinions on. Expect more comics from me! I'm having fun with them!


  1. Tessa, these stories are awesome! I love your illustrations and how expressive they are. The look of surprise on the pony is great. Please keep the posts coming!

  2. This was a great post! I don't always comment but I've been enjoying your blog since you left Seattle. I understand about the gender ratio and heads turning when you walk into a bar... reminds me of cannery work in small towns in Alaska. The Rock Paper predicament had me cracking up... you guys might just need to find another one-handed way to express scissors, or change it to a different triad where you can use full-body shapes. Some suggestions: Bear/Salmon/Mosquito, or Cat/Tinfoil/Microwave.

  3. Hahaha, thanks for that, Amber! I think you can probably expect a little comic about Cat/Tinfoil/Microwave in the next few weeks.... Although I admit I'm not really sure who wins in those battles? Thoughts?

  4. Love the pony and slumber party moment. And your thoughts on solo travelling for women.

  5. Cat beats tinfoil, tinfoil beats microwave, microwave beats cat!

  6. This brings back so many memories of the three contracts I did with the USAP! Thanks for sharing these. Your cartoons are fabulous.