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Being a tad under the weather in unusual Portland weather (the “snowpocalypse” is here), I’ve been more-or-less housebound for a few days. Idle hands led to searching for ways to keep my brain occupied, and the most logical way to do so (apparently) was the mostly-unproductive pastime of watching the old cartoons based off of Dr. Seuss books. The good ones. You know, the ones that he actually wrote the teleplays for, and so they actually are true to the spirit of the books. It’s really nice to see something from my childhood that I still think is really cleverly made. For one thing, the artists/art directors did a
fantastic job making Seuss’ winsome illustrations move (the machines in The Sneetches are particularly great, as are the Grinch’s myriad ways of stealing holiday ornaments in his famous robbery of Christmas). The lyrics to the songs, usually written by Seuss himself, are fun. And the stories, well, we know they’re good.
But really, I’m here to talk about our good friend, the Lorax. I’m assuming you grew up with the tale too, and if you didn’t, get ye to a children’s bookstore. Watching the movie again reminded me just why I’ve always loved The Lorax so much. It may seem like a simplistic environmental cautionary tale (not that there’s anything wrong with simplistic environmental cautionary tales), but it’s got so much going for it in terms of social commentary that even extends beyond the now-popular reading of Truffula trees as fossil fuel. Really, The Lorax teaches us the danger of single-mindedness, of thinking with one variable. Our culture suffered from this when Seuss first wrote the book in 1971, and we suffer from it now. And, to use the Lorax’s favorite word, unless we broaden our brains and get creative, we’re in trouble.
“But, Steph,” you may protest, “The Lorax is explicitly an environmental story!” And you’d be right: Seuss has said that he wrote the book out of frustration with the increasing development of the San Diego Coastline. He claimed that The Lorax was “one of the few things [he] ever set out to do that was straight propaganda” (in Judith Morgan, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel pg. 209) (I’m actually very puzzled by this quote of his. He published Yertle the Turtle and The Sneetches before it; how are those not propaganda of some sort?).
Still, even with an explaination from Mr. Geisel himself, I think it does a disservice to the book to simply say that the central message here is “Don’t chop down trees!” So many gray areas surround the idea of “progress” in American culture; Seuss knew this and recognized it. Despite being the “bad guy” the Once-ler is actually fairly sympathetic; he’s more tragic and misguided than evil. This becomes even clearer in his screenplay: the Once-ler speaks like one of the great capitalists of yore, a Henry Ford or a Rockefeller. In a scene not in the book, fans of the Once-ler surround him, singing of how he had risen above his humble origins through his industry and good fortune. He’s lived the American Dream, but at what cost?
Indeed, in The Lorax, why does the American Dream fail so terribly? Why does everything slip through the Once-ler’s fingers? Is it just because he chopped down a bunch of trees? Yes and no. It’s because he single-mindedly focused on “biggering.” All other aspects of his business plan–the resources, the environment, the product itself–get lost in the biggering.
Our way of doing things tends to focus on a single variable: money. How can we do this most efficiently? How can we save labor costs? But if you look at any situation through the tiny lens of a single variable you get terribly skewed results, results we cannot sustain. For example, from a monetary perspective, it makes perfect sense to feed cows and sheep discarded parts of their dead comrades; it’s an efficient way of dealing with the waste. You don’t have to pay to get rid of it, and you don’t have to pay for extra feed. The problem is, of course, that if you do that you’re ignoring the health of the cow (if you don’t care about the health of the cow, then please consider the health of the people who eat the cow.). Cows are herbivores, first and foremost, and also science has taught us that feeding something the tissue of another member of its species produces corrupt proteins known as prions. Viola! Mad Cow Disease! You cannot predict Mad Cow by merely considering monetary growth. From a monetary growth perspective, there’s nothing wrong with this practice, but in reality you have to deal with environmental issues, issues of sustainability. Mad Cow disease was a reality check, a dangerous wake-up call from nature saying, “You can’t keep this up! You can’t cheat reality just to make a buck! It’s going to catch up with you!” Like the Once-ler, we seem to feel that our reality check, if it’s coming, has such a delayed arrival that it shouldn’t bother us.
The Lorax may claim to simply be speaking for the trees, but he’s actually got a better grasp on the big picture than the Once-ler. Contrary to popular belief, the Lorax is not single-minded. While the Once-ler sees dollar signs, the Lorax sees how the truffula trees fuel the ecosystem of the area. They sustain the birds, the bar-ba-loots, the fish. They make it a pleasant place to live. Furthermore, he sees Though the Once-ler’s crafty marketing claims that everyone needs a thneed, a thneed, we soon realize, is useless without a high standard of living to enjoy it in. A thneed is not a basic need, but truffula trees are, if only in the sense that they served as an anchor to the area.
One of my favorite additions to tv-version of The Lorax is the Once-ler’s clever marketing ploy to sell his first thneed. He places a sign by the roadside which declares, “Last Chance to buy a thneed for 100 miles.” At this point, no one really knows what a thneed is, but the shrewd wording entices the passersby. After all, a thneed must be important if you have to worry about not being able to buy one for 100 miles! The Once-ler has created an instant market niche for his product; he seems to be a crafty entrepreneur. The praise lavished on him throughout the film-let reminds me of how we tend to allow “but it’s profitable” as a reasonable excuse for most anything in our culture. It’s okay to have degrading advertising if it works (no need to think about what this advertising says about our culture); it’s okay to use non-sustainable agriculture because we need to make a profit off of food. And, really, I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing people for wanting to make money–that’s fair. But don’t just make money–think about the big picture. When we get single-minded about money, we forget that we only have one earth that is fragile and bound by biological pathways. We forget that people are human beings with lives, families, health, and basic needs. In other words, we forget all the variables which make our businesses ethical and sustainable.
This is why the name “Once-ler” has so much power. Not only does he think with the number “one,” look out for number “one,” and only use materials that can be used “once,” but also he ultimately finds himself reduced to living in “once upon a time.” His glory days have passed and will stay in the past. As the Once-ler learns, what good is his money when his unsustainable business practices lead to a world which is so dirty, polluted, and lonely that he cannot enjoy it? I’m reminded of Phoney Bone in Jeff Smith’s charming comic/graphic novel series Bone, who is dismayed to learn that his hard-earned currency, the money that he was willing to get himself kicked out of his own home-town to get, is worth nothing in a village where people barter goods. Once the richest man in town, he is now a pauper, forced to wash dishes to pay for his meals. I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s worth remembering that money is only helpful if you can use it. To me, this makes it a rather suspicious variable to focus on at the cost of all others.
I love The Lorax because we live in a culture that spends way too much time once-lering. Our medical supplies are crafted in China, shipped to Mexico, and are assembled there before arriving at their final destination in the US (air travel pollution, aside, what are we going to do if we get cut off from the rest of the world for whatever reason?) because the cost of labor is cheaper. We tire out the soil using huge monoculture plots and feed livestock growth hormones (why is it a good idea to throw about willy-nilly the chemical regulators that control everything from the way we digest food, to our development, to our sex drive?). I’m tempted to take the metaphor out of the environmental and into the artistic (after all, a lot of times record companies and book publisher will only publish which record or text they think will make them an easy buck instead of looking at quality), but for simplicity’s, and my poor, sick brain’s sake, I’ll leave it at that.
If Seuss were alive today, he’d be amazed. When he wrote The Lorax, the environmental movement was just beginning to materialize beyond twinkles in activist eyes. The book was actually banned in a school district in California, and dismissed by many as being unnecessarily preachy. Now, green is in, as anyone will tell you. You can even buy green movement tote bags at Target. But being green is not simple. Being green is not “don’t cut down trees.” Being green is being sustainable, and being sustainable is thinking about what you’re doing. Being sustainable is accepting that what you’re doing may only start to pay off in the long-term. But UNLESS we start thinking of the long term, we’re as good as “once.”
So go out and plant a truffula, mes amis!
*I apologize in advance for any extra-rambliness this post may contain. My brain is, as I mentioned at the beginning, currently full of snot.
Here’s a secret: I’m pretty skeptical about Twitter. I’ve mostly seen it used as a kind of Facebook status log of silliness which ends up not being nearly as interesting or useful to anyone as the person updating it thinks: “I just saw a rainbow!” “Now I’m eating soup.” “A bunch of zombies attacked the MAX!”
Nevertheless, I’m trying to keep an open mind and have created an official “From the Cracked Mirror” Twitter Feed. Subscribe to get updates on new posts and edits to pages, exciting news about FtCM, and anything else relevant I can think of. I promise it will contain no boring posts about soup, rainbows, or zombie attacks. Is this a good idea? I don’t know; I guess we’ll see.
I sit in a Portland covered with snow, and full of Christmas cheer. The cafes are playing Christmas music, people are getting ready for the “Festival of Last Minute” at Saturday Market, and I am discovering the answer to that not-so-age-old question (the one other than, “Why does Steph abuse hyphens?”), “What do nice Jewish girls who just moved away from home do for Christmas?” Apparently we go home.
I’m going home on Christmas day because, well, it’s an American thing to do. There’s no better time of year for me to pause in my tireless job searching, eat a good meal with my family, celebrate our yearly triumphs together. It doesn’t matter that I don’t technically celebrate the Holiday; it’s a cultural thing.
The Holiday season has always, since I was very little, been an awkward time for me. The media attention Chanukah receives and the so-called “War on Christmas” make the people I know suddenly hyper-aware of my Jewishness. My friends have never been sure how to wrap my gifts or known what to call them. I’ve lost count of the amount of times people have apologized for giving me a card that said “Merry Christmas” because they had bought a pack of Christmas cards to give to friends. I once drove a friend’s mother to distraction when I had dinner at her house during the Christmas season; she simply didn’t know whether the gingerbread men she had bought for dessert would offend me and got me a sprinkle-covered butter cookie in the shape of a Jewish star instead. My Spanish teach in high school always gave a guilty glance in my direction when she made the same realization that she made every year: She should probably broaden our weekly writing prompt from being merely “How does your family celebrate Christmas?”
I tended to feel a little embarrassed over the special treatment. Christmas is such an “American” thing that we accept as being a natural part of December, and I ceased to care about feeling left out pretty early on. “It’s the thought that counts” and all that. It’s made me realize that Christmas is a funny time of year. What was Jesus’ birthday party has become something far less specific. It’s become a way of cheering ourselves up during what is literally the darkest time of the year. It’s become a time for friends and family and gift giving (or brash consumerism, depending on your perspective and who you’re talking about). And I think this change has made it a funny moment in America when we don’t know quite what to do with our differences. We, as a country, attempt to encompass and purport to welcome so many different cultures. The challenges and incompleteness of this acceptance become incredibly clear in these moments when we suddenly realize that you cannot really define an American through shared tradition.
I think I first became aware of how uncomfortable my difference made people during my kindergarten “winter” pageant. We cheerfully performed an all-cast number detailing the travails of Peter, the lonely pine tree (whose loneliness was cured by being chopped down and set-up as a Christmas tree. Even at the time this felt odd.); students pretending to be Santa’s elves banged drums and rang bells. Others pretended to be angels in a heavenly marching band. In one number that I desperately wanted to be in, three boys rode on sparkling stick horses, urging their steeds to take them quickly to Bethlehem (I could not understand for the life of me why only boys were allowed in the number—I liked horses twice as much as they did.).
And, I, the lone Jewish girl in the class, in the midst of all the elaborate choreography and childish joy, got to come forward, say a silly poem about a dreidel (“Spin, little dreidel, for you will lie still when Chanukah has passed!”), spin around once as if pretending to be a dreidel, and then join the line-up of children again. It was likely the most boring part of the entire pageant. At first the small nod in my direction made me proud; at the time, having a solo felt special. But soon it stopped feeling special; it felt uncomfortable.
As the years went on, the “Chanukah nod” felt less and less genuine. Every year in elementary school, the Christmas season heralded the learning of fun Christmas songs in music class. Jingle Bell Rock is great when you’re seven, as is the rather politically incorrect “Pablo the Reindeer from Mexico.” And then, inevitably, would come the randomly selected Chanukah song of the year. No one liked the randomly selected Chanukah song of the year, not even me. It was always slow, painfully slow, with a boring tune. The lyrics usually involved something about candles shining in a window, and, aside from that, had very little to do with the story of Chanukah. I sometimes wondered if the lyricist even knew the story of Chanukah. One would think that instead of commemorating a victory of religious freedom, Chanukah was celebrating some kind of bizarre right-of-passage that occurs when Jewish children learn how to light candles, or commemorating the (clearly Jewish) invention of fire that enabled us not to freeze our tuchises off in the desert. In any case, the little glances in my direction, the words “Happy Holidays” printed in red over Christmas tree graphics on grocery bags, ceased to feel nice. They felt at worst begrudging, at best, fearful.
Chanukah is, in fact, a rather minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but sort of a well-needed mid-winter reminder that “Hey, things have been tough, but we’re still here.” It’s a heartening story to hear, I think, for anyone: the small beating the mighty, the oppressed reclaiming their right to live. It tells of a military victory the Jews, led by Judah Macabee, had over the Assyrians, who, like any industriously conquering Empire, were trying to stamp out the culture and religion of the conquered. It’s a story much like the ones Jewish children hear from their bubbes, “Back then, we could be killed in our homes, and so we moved to America where we could practice our tradition.” “Back then, there were quotas on how many Jews could be accepted to X school, but your Uncle Joshua…” It’s a story much like the ones passed down through the communities of any minority: “They tried to shut us out. We didn’t give up.”
What’s bolstered Chanukah’s popularity throughout the years is, as many people will tell you, is its proximity to Christmas. Instead of focusing on making a major holiday like Purim or Rosh Hashanah flashier, we’ve made Chanukah a concession to our children. I get the sense that even though Christmas is practically secular these days, something feels wrong about having a Christmas tree; it feels like we’re abandoning our culture. So we tell our children, that even if we don’t have Santa or a tree covered with lights, we have beautiful candles and an official game to play. We have eight days of latkes and jelly doughnuts. Even as the “Beauty and the Beast Christmas Special” or the American Girl Dolls’ Christmas stories subtly remind us that even our favorite toys are of a slightly different culture from us, we still have something of our own to celebrate. I think it only really struck me when I realized that I could not find an “adult” recording of my favorite Chanukah song, “Mi Yimallel” anywhere, how much Chanukah has become a holiday for Jewish children. Our marketing message, buried under layers of people in ridiculous dreidel costumes or John Stewart jokes has become, “We’re still here. Though everyone around you is doing something different, we still have our traditions, and they are still fun/powerful. We are American, but we are Jewish. We are the same but different.” Though it comes in a weaker form, farther removed from the exact event that we’re celebrating, it’s funny to think that the message is pretty much the same. As every minority group has done in one way or the other throughout their different and diverse struggles, like Horton’s Whos we try and remind not the world, but ourselves, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”
I don’t think Chanukah will ever stop making people feel uncomfortable; moments of difference make people uncomfortable. The first moment when we realize that we can’t assume everyone is straight, cis-gendered, middle-class, white is a difficult one. We feel embarrassed; we get afraid of offending people. Some minorities feel guilty for causing discomfort; others are proud for expanding people’s horizons. When it comes to Chanukah, my gut reaction is to feel silly for causing so much fuss over such an unimportant holiday. I can be Jewish and American. It’s okay that we’re not all exactly alike.
Nevertheless, secular Jew though I am, I’ve been looking at the menorah I brought from home with anticipation. It’s not a family heirloom by any means, but my grandma bought it for my dad when he moved into his first apartment so that he could celebrate Chanukah even away from home. And this year I will light the candles and sing the songs I know as a reminder of where I came from, of my hopes for the future, and, of not to give up on the causes I strongly believe in. It’s a message of hope that I think is appropriate for the Holiday season no matter what you celebrate.
Writing a note on a blog is always a little bit like shouting into the dark: there may be people listening, but you can’t quite be sure. I shout anyhow, I guess, because I have a death-wish for my vocal chords. That or I just figure it’s better than not writing at all.
In any case, I’m sorry for my brief silence; you’d be surprised how much life can disrupt an unemployed college graduate and occational feminist blogger’s blog time. I’ve got some articles in the works, though, and content will be coming regularly again really soon.
And, if you’re reading this, thank you. I mean it.
While making my Wordstock rounds–independent press here, literary journal there–
I stumbled upon Super Spy, a graphic novel by Matt Kindt. The stylized artwork drew me in, as did the promise of pages lined with secret codes and hidden messages. When I took it out of the library, however, I was surprised that what kept me reading was neither the art nor the puzzles (though both were fun), but rather the characters.
I’m not going to delay my verdict on the novel until the end of this post: it was fantastic. Super Spy not only makes great use of the graphic novel medium, but also tells a story which at once captures the thrill of the spy genre and looks at very human issues. It manages to shed the romanticism of spying, and yet, not make it completely unappealing.
How can you exist as an individual, with aspirations, attachments, and desires, when your life belongs to your country? How can you build relationships when your identity has become a swirl of lies? Though there is no lack of gadgetry and secret codes, Super Spy is, at core, about the spies. It’s about an Allied spy who marries an Axis officer and has a child with him, only to feel racked with guilt over the marriage and fear for her baby. It’s about a man who, despite knowing the dangers of allowing his emotions to compromise his work, falls in love with, and reveals himself to, a fellow spy.
Kindt deftly deals with the clichés of spy fiction–the double agent only out for revenge, the cocky egoist, the lose-cannon who loves the killing aspect of his job more than he probably should–and makes us feel for them again. We have seen them before, but in the sketchy lines and sharp dialogue they become real. We care for them, we don’t want them to die, and feel shocked when, almost without warning, they do. A throat is slit; the Nazis come–Kindt early on warns us that the lives of us characters are constantly in danger and can end or change without warning. His characters are always on edge. They constantly debate how much they can reveal to the ones they love. It’s an unfortunate side effect of war, and the fragility of their lives makes them all the more real and precious to us.
One of the really unique aspects of the novel is the narrative structure: Kindt tells us the events out of chronological order, but provides a dossier key in the table of contents so that the reader can go back and read the chapters in order if they choose. Well, I say unique, but it reminds me of Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, which offers you two different ways to read the chapters, in order, or by jumping all over the book according to page numbers at the end of each chapter (think of a “Choose Your Own Adventure Novel” where the path is prescribed for you.). Though Kindt is not the first person to write a story like this, his use of “jumping chapters” here is fresh and really powerful. Because of the disorganized narrative structure, he creates the odd experience of viewing a character’s
death before we know why we care about them or why they are killed. A character who seemed to be incredibly minor will suddenly become fleshed-out and beautiful. Events have a delayed significance to them, which means that the novel becomes more and more rewarding as you read along, until finally, in the last few chapters, Kindt deftly ties up the lose ends. Like a spy yourself, you have the ability to see only bits and pieces of what’s in store that sometimes don’t even seem to fit together, but you must stick with your contacts (the characters in the novel) until you have a clear picture of what’s going on. I really wish I had my own copy so that I could spend more time looking at the structure. It’s really quite skillfully done.
But, as I said before, what makes this novel really interesting are the men and women whose stories Kindt has created. The characters of Super Spy have to give up a piece of their humanity, their openness, their ability to connect with others, and yet, these are not things that one can force themselves to give up without painful emotional consequences. This becomes particularly clear in his female characters. At first, I was surprised to see an equal number of female spies in the book without one mention of any of them being underestimated or dismissed by their superiors. I was confused at first, and wondered about the historical accuracy, but the point soon became clear–female spies, though never treated as less competent, highlight the sacrifice a spy must make of their body for their country. As a spy, your country owns your body. Suicide missions are well within the range of expectation. But women, more often then men, have to sacrifice their bodies in other ways: they sometimes become exotic dancers and prostitutes, giving their bodies over to others so that a cause may live. And, often, no one considers what that sacrifice means to them as people. It’s heartbreaking.
This is not a graphic novel you just can’t read only half-paying attention. The highly stylized art makes the character designs a little more difficult to recognize, but, as you can imagine, it’s crucial to remember the characters in order to get the full impact of the story. I often found myself flipping back to pick up more narrative clues that I had missed the first time around. This is not a weakness, per say, but something to be aware of. To read this, you have to be involved. Fortunately, it’s perfectly deserving of your full attention.
Back when I was still blissfully in college, I was in an anthropology of gender class. We had just finished reading Lila Abu-Lughod’s fantastic (and very humanizing, which is always refreshing.) ethnography Writing Women’s Worlds, an account of her time with a Bedouin tribe in Egypt, and class discussion had meandered over how different the conversations Abu-Lughod had with the women were from those she had with the men she lived with. There were things that women talked about amongst themselves that they would never bring up in front of men, and vice-versa. The world of Bedouin women seemed so separate from that of their men, that their very “language” was different in the same way you might say that a person who grew up in a farming community and a person who grew up in Orange County might take some time to find common ground to speak on.
Why am I bringing this up? Whereas some people might look at this example and see a culture completely different from ours, I actually see a parallel. A few months before this discussion in class, I was visiting a friend at another school. While she and I were alone, we talked about feminism like it was something to be proud of. Later that evening, we were spending time with a male friend of hers, and he and I began (organically) to talk about gender and the media (it’s one of my favorite topics! I can’t help it! Not to mention I think the media’s pretty damaging to men too.), my friend blanched and apologized for the “fem-Nazism”. This topic, I realized, was in the same category as things like fashion, periods, and couch cushions: the dreaded category of topics which we may not discuss with men at risk of being a very bad girlfriend. Somewhere along the line, we’ve gotten the idea that men and women speak different languages and deal with different subjects. I’m tempted to think that this goes back to the whole “separate spheres” (men public, women private) that dominated Victorian and earlier ideology, but regardless where it came from, the point is that it’s still around.
Our culture is saturated in this message to the point where we cease to question it. It’s everywhere. One recent example is the commercial for the LG Shine cell phone. The commercial (link to YouTube) involves a woman whining about her fashion design career (which, by nature of being a fashion career, isn’t a real serious career.) to her boyfriend, who uses the reflective surface of his new cell phone to check out other women. His girlfriend catches him in the act, texts him the message, “UR a Pig,” to which he offers a confused, “”What?!”. And then, in marketing theory, we all laugh and then run out to buy the phone.
The communication breakdown in a commercial about a communication tool is rather bizarre. All “conversations” in this commercial are one-sided. When the woman sends her angry text message, the man responds verbally, unable to understand. Her response is an eye roll. Furthermore, the woman has no idea that her boyfriend is not interested in this “conversation” (or, rather, monologue). If she does notice her boyfriend’s boredom, then she feels entitled to it anyhow, which the commercial implies is boring, whiny, and self-centered (because, you know, god-forbid we rant to our friends and significant others about our stressful days). The man then uses his phone to find a new “conversation” that he finds more interesting–in this case, flirtation with a pair of silently smiling women. The girlfriend’s textual protest at the end comes across as futile and lame. She’s so out-of-touch with her boyfriend’s needs that it makes sense, according to the commercial, that he’d be searching for other partners. She just doesn’t get him.
Despite the shiny new phones, communication has become impossible, and this is considered funny because it operates on the old premise that all the technology in the world cannot get men and women to talk to each other, especially if they’re in any sort of committed relationship together. It’s the premise behind pop psychology books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or He’s Just Not into You. It’s the reason why one of my mom’s many healthy eating cookbooks has a special note at the bottom of each recipe detailing the “male” reaction to the dish (“Meat and potatoes! Yum!” “What is this lentil stuff?”).
A few months ago, I overheard a couple during what appeared to be “ambiguous coffee date” at a cafe I was at. It’s not that I was intentionally eavesdropping, but they were the only other people in the room, and the only two talking. What surprised and dismayed me is that this couple, who clearly considered themselves to be pretty liberal, fell into the same anti-communication pattern. She kept assuring him that, “Oh no, she was not the type to be easily offended.” He kept patronizingly explaining everything to her. I know that dates early on in a relationship are awkward by their very nature, but I’m not worried about awkward; I’m worried that there was no actual attempt at a real conversation. She deferred to him, and he talked. I wish I could believe that this wasn’t a fairly typical occurrence.
I also wish I had more of a conclusion for my observations here, some elaborate idea for a male/female communication revolution. At best, all I can do is point out is how sad this is. Think about it, in our heteronormative culture, women and men are supposed to get married, have sex, have children, and spend the rest of their lives with (in sickness and in health, yada yada) all with someone they cannot expect to actually understand them. At the same time, we’ve got this crazy discourse about “One True Love” and books/films like the Twilight series in which the heroine rejects the entirety of her friends and family for the man she loves. Take these two discourses in tandem, and we have the very picture of an isolating existence. I really don’t understand why this is a myth we want to be propagating.
Sometimes I think the most radical move we can make towards repairing heterosexual relationships is just not being afraid to have a conversation with the opposite sex–I mean really talk and really listen. I’m not saying that there are no biological differences, that there are no embedded cultural differences that we need to work around. But I think we need to try, for our health, for our happiness, and for the sake of fulfilling friendships and relationships.
PS- I made the typo “evesdropping” earlier in this post, and I kind of like it, as cliché as Eve tends to be in feminist dialogue. So I ask you this, what is Evesdropping? :)
I’ve been looking forward to writing a book review for Sumie Kawakami’s Goodbye Madame Butterfly: Sex, Marriage, and the Modern Japanese Woman ever since I was about half-way through with the book and realized that I loved it and wanted to do my bit to promote it (not that I’ve got a huge audience yet, but I’m also very patient.). But now I’m staring at the little white box, and I’m surprisingly unsure of how to begin.
Part of me is tempted to introduce the book by reminding everyone how Japan-obsessed Western culture is, and really, has been ever since the Opening of Japan. Back in Jr. High when I had a thing for Japanese rock music, I justified it with art history, pointing to the Japanese prints sneaking into the background of paintings by Manet. I suppose I could introduce this book that way. I could talk about scholarly works such as the Mechademia journal, which collects articles about Japanese anime and the surrounding fan culture both in Japan and abroad (They’re on my to-read list, believe me. They look fascinating.). But, really, Butterfly deserves a better introduction than that because, while it is a work about Japanese culture, it’s not really about the West’s (I really wish there was a better term for “Western” culture than “Western” culture.) obsession with Japan, and though it does offer some thought-provoking tidbits about Japanese culture, is not even really about Japan as some kind of uniform place that can be explained with one book. What makes Butterfly fascinating and beautiful is that, more than anything, it is about the women (and the two men) whom Kawakami interviewed to create it.
Apparently, according to a world-wide survey, Japan has one of the lowest rates of sex within marriage of any country in the world, which may seem odd in a country whose world-famous sex industry appears in film (Who could forget the scene in Lost in Translation when the company who hired Bill Murray to do commercials for them ordered a prostitute up to his room?), Wired Magazine, and (the internationally recognized) Japanese Pop Art (Links to images of Takashi Murakami’s sculpture “Hiropan.” Not work safe.). Journalist and single mother, Sumie Kawakami was no stranger to writing about marriage in Japan. An earlier work of hers, Tsumanokoi: Tatoe Furin To Yobaretemo (Wives in Love: Even If It’s Called Adultery), dealt with wives who commit adultery, an act so taboo when committed by women that its very name in Japanese essentially means immoral, but, as she said in the preface, she felt uncomfortable reducing their stories to single conclusions and, also, the kind of passing judgment that goes along with it. She decided that her next book would be different.
In Goodbye Madame Butterfly, Kawakami decided instead to let the women speak for themselves. It’s the pointed lack of analysis that really makes this book radical and fresh. Instead of being “subjects,” these are the stories of human beings, many of whom have been rejected sexually by the very people who promised to cherish them forever. The approach is a fantastic success–Kawakami has captured her interviewee’s stories beautifully. The essays in this book are personable and page-turning without being sensationalist.
The other beautiful thing about the set-up of Butterfly is that, while it allows Japan to be its own distinct culture, it also allows its readers to recognize a common humanity. I think my favorite example of this was the jolt of recognition I had in reading one particular side comment in the essay “Synchronicity,” where Kawakami explains how many Japanese women are obsessed with Korean pop stars, finding in them a kind of gentlemanly quality that they believe Japanese men to lack. Funnily enough, amongst the Western fan base of Japanese rock and pop stars are women who have the same kind of escapist obsession with Japanese men. While I was discussing the book with my mom (yes, I have feminist book discussions with my mom.), she commented to me that “We have such unhealthy views on sex. Everywhere! Both women and men!” I have to agree with her to a large extent. It was strange, and depressing to read about the women who have access to the men that I know so many American women to fantasize over (perhaps it’s not mainstream, but there’s definitely a niche for it.) seeing the seaweed greener in somebody else’s lake (which is not to say that their frustration with Japanese men isn’t warranted–what depressed me is the way that we all objectify each other through idealization.).
I also want to dedicate a few lines to the book itself (the objet d’arte). I’d recommend purchasing it even over taking it out of the library. Chin Music Press, an independent press out of Seattle, did a phenomenal job designing the book, and it is truly lovely. From the very creative table of contents to the carefully chosen fonts, to the lovely two-tone endpapers, the book (as an object) is a joy to hold and read. It costs only slightly more than an average literary paperback (think from Vintage International) and supports an indie press that is producing high quality work. They have also created a lovely companion website for the book with information about its production. Kawakami mentioned in the Preface that there would be a discussion board up for her book, but I can’t find the link anywhere if it’s up. Hopefully there will be one; I’d love to read other people’s thoughts.
Bottom line: Butterfly is fascinating and expertly crafted in both form and content. Period.
Fans of the Dresden Dolls and frequenters of the feminist blog-o-sphere will already be familiar with the
clash between Amanda Palmer and Roadrunner records. Actually, I’m not too fond of the term “clash” in this situation because that would imply two parties on the same level disagreeing over a point, but it’ll do in a pinch. For those of you unfamiliar, after releasing a music video for her new single Leeds United (link goes to youtube), which features her bare belly, the Roadrunner Records executives told Amanda that “there were certain shots that they wanted to either cut completely or digitally alter to ‘be more flattering'” (source: Amanda Palmer’s official blog). Fortunately for us, not only has Amanda Palmer herself taken a stand against this, but also a group of her fans have started The Rebellyion. In protest against Roadrunner’s idiocy, the hundreds of fans who joined the Rebellyion have submitted photos of their bare bellies in all of their un-edited glory. I’m not focusing on the Rebellyion in this post, but I’ve got to give them a nod here. I’m glad that something so positive has come out of this.
But I think there’s even more to discuss here. The record company’s decision itself, though it bothered me, didn’t necessarily shock me. There are plenty of horror stories about artists on major record labels from Kenna (who, despite the acclaim of fellow artists and producers, had to fight to get any radio play because his work was difficult to categorize) to Sara Bareilles (whose hit single “Love Song” came out of being frustrated with Epic Records demand that she write another love song for her album) constantly having to fight to keep their artistic visions alive while very conservative record executives panic over what will sell. Though this pushes the line even there and reveals how truly fat-phobic our culture is, what really shocked and disgusted me were some of the other comments that Palmer revealed on her blog:
“I’m a guy, Amanda. I understand what people like.”
And, at a later meeting:
He said he thought it was a shame that someone as smart and talented as me could not make a commercial record that they could sell. And he thinks that someday I’ll see the light and write some better songs.
The comment, “I’m a guy. I know what people like,” is the most revealing piece of this entire dialogue. It gets at so much of the struggle that female artists have to deal with just to get our work out there. As I like to put it, it’s the problem of being told that people actually mean humankind when they say mankind when a lot of the time they don’t. There is this ever-pervasive idea that if you write for women, you are not writing something commercially viable. Men write for everyone, women for women (I mused a little about this in my Wordstock Reflections post, if you’re interested in reading more about this point.). Thus, men are expected to have more commercial knowledge.
I support the rebellyion wholeheartedly (yay!), but, in the end, this goes beyond the belly. I agree that it is disgusting that our society has such a distorted view of beauty that an unedited belly has apparently become disgusting for the masses, but there’s a part of me that is concerned that the record company’s marketing even has to reach Amanda’s belly. This goes into the state of our culture’s reception of female artists. For cis-men, it is far easier to leave their bodies behind and become voices, words, and brush strokes, or, if they don’t entirely lose their bodies in the process, they can at least move fluidly between sex object and artist (I guess maybe there can be some argument in the cases of heartthrobs such as John Barrowman, David Duchovny, or the whole slew of 90’s boy bands, but that’s neither here nor there, and I’d need an entire separate post to analyze them.). Women, according to our culture, are always attached to their bodies in some way. It brings back memories of sitting in high school English classes and having to hear the harsh commentary the boys would make about Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton’s appearances. In Spanish class, they acted like Frida Kahlo’s unibrow was an affront against their eyes and their hormones. It’s enough to make any girl despair not only about her body image, but what would happen if she dared tried to write or paint; especially if her work brought up her body at all.
I always think about it like dressing for a job interview. When my (male) flatmate dresses for a job interview, he focuses on looking neat and polished. He worries about whether he is over or under-dressed. When I dress for a job interview, I start by worrying about these same things, but then I get to my chest. I always spend a good chunk of time staring in the mirror wondering if the shirt I am wearing is modest enough or if it is so modest that I look frumpy and unapproachable. Women have to work not to be taken sexually, and, a lot of the time, if you’re being taken sexually, you (unfairly) run the risk of not being taken seriously.
Amanda, as a performing artist, is proud of her body (and she should be!). I’m not arguing that it would be better if we had no idea if she looked like, if she just sang from behind a curtain. I don’t think she’d enjoy that anyhow. She sings about relationships, sexuality, masturbation; her body is an important part of her music in a very positive and empowering way. The problem here is the record company’s inability to see her as more than her body (or, if they do, as more than her body and a money making machine.). So many of female artists who are in the mainstream–I’m using a very simple definition of “mainstream” that has nothing to do with people arguing about selling out or who is or isn’t indie (aka-I’m not talking Tori Amos, Sarah McLaughlin, or anyone like that)–are designed simply to be only the sum of their bodies. Think of The Pussycat Dolls; their name and, as far as I can tell, all their songs are designed to make you focus on their bodies. Their physical form is more important than what they’re singing. If you want to sell a ton of records in a brief burst, I guess they are who you want. This, of course, has nothing to do with art, which shouldn’t surprise anyone by now, but that’s just the way it is (note that whenever I say, “That’s just how things are,” I don’t mean it as the conclusion of an argument nor as a preclusion of much-needed change. Maybe this is how things are, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way things have to be.). So, from what we can see here, aside from a misogynistic fear of women who make angry music, part of what makes Amanda Palmer’s songs “difficult to sell” in the minds of the record company is her refusal to use her body how they see fit. I even wonder if they would mind her anger if she allowed the record company to airbrush her image (probably not, but I’m angry now, and so I’m going to speculate in ways that are not particularly kind to the record company.).
Roadrunner Records is not only perpetuating horrible body-image issues and suggesting that a very attractive woman is unfit to perform un-airbrushed, but they are also denying the worth of Amanda Palmer as an artist outside of the confines of her body and the worth of her fanbase as a commercial market. I know, I know, music is art, art shouldn’t be judged on marketability, but it is a little insulting that the very loyal fans of the Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmer (I don’t know much about it, but I do know they have a very active fanbase) are considered unimportant from the record company’s point of view. And it is even more insulting that Amanda’s song-writing skills mean nothing in comparison to her having a round belly.