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[Ginny Maziarka] cautioned that her group would let people know that the library was not a safe place unless it segregated and labeled YA titles with explicit content.
I’ve always thought of the public library as being a safe place. Part of it is just the way I’ve always romanticized books in my head, but there’s also always been the liberating feeling that I am free from all judgment as to what I read and check out. I know this might not be everyone’s experience with the libraries in their area, but in my mind, the ideal public library would make media available, not tell people which media is culturally appropriate. Particularly with the price of books and database subscriptions being so high, it seems incredibly important to have a place where reading and information are free. If some materials do not meet people’s standards, well, even terrible trash can spawn valuable discussion. And sometimes I think all of us, regardless of our views, would benefit from at least reading the other side of the story (agreeing is a different matter.)
So when my friend, who’s working toward her MA in library science, sent me this article, it gave me a lot to think about. Here’s the long and short of it: After the West Bend Community Memorial Library in Wisconsin included Francesca Lia Block’s Baby Be-Bop (link goes to Powell’s) in a library display, several groups of locals were outraged, and the book found itself the target of blistering hate. City residents Ginny and Jim Maziarka demanded that the library segregate “sexually-explicit.” Another local filed a suit with the Christian Civil Liberties Union, asking for $120,000 in damages (seeing the book apparently damaged them emotionally,) and the resignation of the West Bend Mayor.
From a certain standpoint, this is nothing new–I mean, it’s old for reasons aside from the fact that the ALA article came out in June. Of course, books, particularly books for children and adolescents, face antagonism all the time. From Harry Potter to In the Night Kitchen (yes, the Sendak one,) people can come up with infinite reasons as to why a book is obscene. Nevertheless, the hatred this book in particular has aroused terrifies me:
…[T]he complaint by Braun, Joseph Kogelmann, Rev. Cleveland Eden, and Robert Brough explains that “the plaintiffs, all of whom are elderly, claim their mental and emotional well-being was damaged by this book at the library,” specifically because Baby Be-Bop contains the “n” word and derogatory sexual and political epithets that can incite violence and “put one’s life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.”
[T]he plaintiffs also request West Bend City Attorney Mary Schanning to impanel a grand jury to examine whether the book should be declared obscene and making it available a hate crime.”
Other bloggers have talked about the sudden outrage over this book, but many of them hadn’t read it. I had: I discovered it back in Jr. High, and read it over and over. I remember lying on the couch in the living room, sick with some sort of bug, re-reading it all in one sitting (Admittedly, this was not a huge feat—it’s only about 100 pages.). Over the years, I had forgotten about it; I had left it behind with most of my other Jr. High favorites, but it never left me.
So when I heard about the hubbub, my first reaction was: “Why now? [the book came out in 1995.] And why that one and not every other book Block has written?” (Of the books of hers that I’ve read, the majority I can think of at least contain gay or bisexual characters.) The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to re-read it. So I did. Re-reading it, I discovered two secrets: 1. Why the homosexuality was considered so much worse in that than any of her others and 2. Why it had been so important to me as an adolescent.
Now, as I said before, I don’t think it’s the library’s place to judge or pry. When it comes to the issue of book banning, particularly where libraries are concerned, I find content irrelevant. Still, in this case, Baby Be-Bop is such an interesting work that I feel it’s worth assessing what about it could cause such anger, and why I feel it needs our protection. I should note that follows will, eventually, contain what are technically spoilers. I do not believe that they actually spoil the book because it’s more about emotions than plot; the beauty is in the details.
Set in the early ‘90s, Baby Be-Bop is the story of a young man named Dirk McDonald, who lives in a beautiful cottage outside of Los Angeles, CA, with his grandmother Fifi. He has always known that he was gay and wishes he didn’t feel he had to hide it. He wants to be strong and unafraid. When he is attacked at a punk club (ostensibly for insulting a man’s swastika tattoo, but it soon turns into a gay bashing,) he almost gives up hope until he is visited by the spirits of his great grandmother and his father, both of whom had passed on before he was born. They tell him their stories about how they grew up and fell in love. Although they both were heterosexual, they assert that they see no difference between their loves and Dirk’s. As his great-grandmother says without pause or hesitation, “Any love that is love is right” (66).
I also think it’s important to understanding the outrage that this book inspires to keep in mind that by love, Block means sex as well. In Block’s fairy tale, masturbation, fantasy, and sex are just as natural and beautiful as “spiritual love.”
I wish I felt like there was more to analyze here, but I’m afraid that this is the whole dark secret of the book. There is violence, but it is never glorified. There is hate speech, but only from the mouths of despicable individuals. Some of the characters smoke, but I don’t think that’s what’s triggering people. On the whole, it is a book that says, “It’s okay to love how you love,” and I think that scares people.
Far from being damaging, Baby Be-Bop is a healing, empowering story. It encourages teens to speak up and tell their stories where they have felt silenced. It encourages teens not to be afraid of their sexual sides. I think that’s why I read it as a teen. Though my parents were as encouraging as Block, my school was run by a rather conservative religious group (despite the school being a secular school,) and their messages sometimes leaked past the positive ones I got. Although I was pretty sure that I was heterosexual, it just felt so good to hear someone else say that my body wasn’t dirty. I don’t want to pretend that this book single-handedly saved me, but I consider it part of the remedy. I like to think it’s helped other teens of all sexualities and genders in that way too.
Of course, the book has its problematic moments; in particular, I’ve never been comfortable with Block’s tendency to use LA’s minority populations to help exoticize the city and enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere of her stories. There’s a lot to talk about in that aspect of Block’s work in general; Said would have a field day with her bohemian love of “the East.” Sadly, I do not think these were the racial problems the plaintiffs in this case were concerned about (not that I would advocate banning the book over them.).
Nevertheless, on the whole, if sharing Baby Be-Bop is obscene, then I will gladly be obscene. If encouraging love is damaging, then I will damage. And I will do all I can to support libraries so that any teen who has been taught that ze is dirty and wrong will check out this book and others like it and begin to feel clean.
(Cross-posted to Feministe.)
Of all the things in the heavily gendered world of self-help and advice that make me cringe, few things set me off more than a man who sets to explain to heterosexual women how to change themselves to suit them, and vice-versa. The suggestions tend to rely on the kinds of stereotypes that people tend to claim we know aren’t true but are free to use in “satire” anyhow, are based on the idea that one size fits all, tend to offer advice like “be more self-confident” that one should do for one’s own benefit and not to get into a relationship, and are rather hetero and cis-centric. I admittedly cannot write from a queer perspective, but I’m pretty sure people are just confusing in general and, regardless of gender, have confusing wants and needs.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised that when Marie Claire (the women’s magazine) ran this blog post, I wanted to tear my hair out. This is about where my friend Rachel would ask me what else I would expect from them—and she’s right, you know, but I end up subjecting myself to these things anyhow. The article is called “8 Ways to Use Books to Flirt (Even if You Don’t Read Much).” The parentheses kill any hope that I may have had for the article; if you don’t like reading, why use it as a flirtation tactic? Alas, this could have been the green light for women who are too afraid to flirt with their intelligence. Instead, it underestimates both our emotional and our intellectual maturity.
The article consists of an interview with academic and author Jack Murnighan, author of Beowulf on the Beach, a book which attempts to bring sexy back to the Canon of western literature by teaching people what was fun and wonderful about these books in the first place–a noble goal. Marie Claire blogger Maura Kelly decided that his spirit of librosexualty (my friend’s and my term for bibliophilic) gave him the credentials to teach women to pretend they’ve read more than they actual have to get men. I suppose as far as these things go, the article is by no means the worst offender: it at least encourages reading and concludes that a woman talking about something she’s passionate about is the most sexy thing of all, which of course is something I can really get behind. But it made me furiously angry—I think I may have said, “Bite me,” out loud, which is not something I usually say (though I do occasionally say random things aloud when I read something particularly, erm, stirring.)
What made me so angry about it is that for all of Murnighan’s attempts to make literature accessable and Maura Kelly’s fawning over him (“If you have a crush on Jack after reading this, I understand,” she writes,) the article, whether intentionally or not, operates under the assumption that women don’t read the more “difficult” classics of literature. In fact, the very premise assumes that women do not read as often as men. I don’t want to blame Murnighan entirely for the condescending message of this article; though he agreed to the interview and played along with the premise, Kelly’s questions underestimate either her own potential or, perhaps worse, the potential of other women to be intellectual (or, for that matter, assume that a knowledge of the Western Canon is the only way to be smart, intellectual, or well-read, which is rather ridiculous in its own right.). But the worst part about this article is that it does not actually encourage women to read these books because they’re sexy books, which seems to be one of Murnighan’s goals as a writer, but instead he encourages us to use the sexiness inherent in these books as a veneer. Or, as Woolf would have it: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man [or, in this case, “male literature,” whatever that means] at twice its natural size” (A Room of One’s Own, II).
This became abundantly clear to me when Kelly asked the unforgivable question: “Are there books that are more likely than others to make a guy start talking to a woman in the coffee shop? ” Of course, Murnighan’s first suggestion is Lolita, which he considers to be the literary equivalent of a short skirt (his phrasing, not mine) because women only wear short skirts for the male gaze and not because it’s hot outside, or they just happened to like the skirt. I have to admit that I’m not so sure I’d be comfortable dating someone who was attracted to the fact that I was reading Lolita because he thought it was a suggestive, edgy book. It is, after all, about child rape. It’s written in some of the most incredible prose, yes, but, nevertheless, it’s about child rape.
Frankly, the whole notion of picking my reading material with the goal of attracting sexual attention is completely bizarre to me. I would never have considered it. It feels like an intrusion into a world where literature exists as a pleasure I can enjoy by myself, for the benefit of myself, and if it turns out that a friend, crush, or lover happens to enjoy it too, they may join me in my delight, but their entrance is natural and incidental. It is not a world set up for voyeurism, if that makes sense. So when Kelly and Murnighan add books to the list of things that I’m “supposed” to check for what signals they send to the male population, it feels like an unforgivable intrusion. It took long enough for me to train myself to dress for myself. But, alas, just as we are not supposed to drag men to chick flicks, expect them to drink cosmos, or watch “Sex in the City” (because ALL women do all of those things, and we do it because we don’t realize how torturous they are for men), we must monitor our taste in literature if we want to be intellectually sexy:
…if a woman is reading a book by an author who is considered a “guy’s writer”–like Cormac McCarthy–that’s likely to get her a lot more attention than if she were deep into Pride and Prejudice. Similarly, a woman reading James Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past on the train would probably turn a few heads.
Firstly, I’d just like to note that I once attracted male attention in a coffee shop for discussing Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Granted, I don’t think that book actually gets heavily gendered in terms of its marketing, but it’s got a unicorn in the title, so I’m counting it anyhow. Reading Murakami on the MAX has gotten me none. This is fine, actually, because, well, I’m reading.
But okay, in all seriousness, the comparison here is so off the mark I don’t know where to begin. Jane Austen is an artist of plots. Some people wonder what’s so literary about her because she doesn’t use dense, heavy symbolism, but it’s important to keep in mind that that’s not what she was trying to do. At a time when so many of the novels out there were clumsily constructed, Austen had her plots so perfected that in Emma, every single twist in the novel is hinted at on the first page, and yet they still surprise you. That takes skill, control and craft–she definitely deserves her spot in the Canon.
In the context of this article, what Austen does is so different from Joyce that it comes off as making a woman reading Pride and Prejudice seem shallow and laughable. A person reading Joyce probably has a reference book or at least a notebook to mark stuff down nearby because Joyce is intentionally trying to confuse you. He doesn’t want his readers to have an easy time. Austen’s insistence on clarity does not make her fluff. Also, P&P has gotten the chick flick treatment in our cultural imagination, from TV shows like “Lost in Austen,” to the book Me and Mr. Darcy, from the recent film starring Kiera Knightley, and, my personal “favorite,” a chick-lit. edition complete with a “Why you should read this book” introduction by Meg Cabot. As much as I feel Austen deserves more respect than that, choosing P&P (Not even Persuasion or Mansfield Park,) to represent “women’s literature” (a distinction I dislike anyhow) as opposed to something by Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende or George Eliot—to rattle a few examples off the top of my head—he’s making us look shallow, lost in our little Georgian world and waiting for our Mr. Darcys to come.
I’m just glad he didn’t include Hemingway. That would have been insufferably cliché.
The gross insult in this article is that he’s trying to invite women to the table of flirty, sexy intellectuals, to the fold of people who enjoy using the word “swyve” instead of “fuck,” who talk about Milton’s portrayal of angel sex, who would rather proclaim their love with Donne than use stock quotes from Romeo and Juliet (not that Shakespeare isn’t wonderful), but he’s ignoring that there are plenty of women already there. It’s a gendered invitation, not a call for more readers (of the Western Canon.) He’s encouraging us to read more “masculine” authors if we want to turn heads (Which I actually find bizarre because in his book he does give women authors their due.) instead of reading what we like, or (and this is a criticism I have of Beowulf on the Beach as well) encouraging people to go out and read what they like. Between Kelly and him, I’m not sure who is worse: Kelly insists we want and need lines to parrot, and instead of saying, “that’s really a bad idea,” he gives them to us like some kind of Professor Higgins of the Western Canon.
Oh yes, speaking of the Canon, in both this and his book, he’s also sticking to a very strict view of what the Canon is, which limits it to a distinctly white cross-section, and the he throws Márquez in as the sensual Latin American, which just bothers me, though I have to admit that 100 Years of Solitude is intentionally sensually written. Still.
The logic of the article reminds me me of that in articles written by men in the 1800’s who advocated for women’s education not because we’re human and deserve it but because it would make us more interesting for men. I’ll admit that this logic had its use back in the day because people were still unsure that women were human (and I guess you could say the same thing for now,) but it’s lost its edge. Completely.
And the worst thing about all of this is that I would love to get behind Murnighan’s message if he would just make it unisex (and be a little less condescending. Oh, and realize that “Time Passes” is one of the sexiest parts of To the Lighthouse, but I guess that’s not technically gospel fact as much as I like to pretend it is. Yes, I went to a bookstore today and looked up Beowulf on the Beach, why do you ask?). People teach classic literature as if it were boring, and that cheats everyone out of a lot of fun.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I think books are sexy. I think reading is sexy. One of the best things I got out of being an English major—aside from the life-changing lessons of critical thinking, brain-expanding empathizing, and learning to analyze and deconstruct—was a sense of just how human, in a beautiful, dirty, imperfect sort of way, literature can be. Tradition may hold it up on a pedestal, trapped in a glass case and surrounded by a halo of purity, but great literature was written by great authors, who were and are, just like us, humans, writing to work things out or share what they think they’ve worked out. I love Paradise Lost, for example, because its author was a person who, having lost everything, was still trying to justify the ways of G-d to man. Though I find about a million things to love about Milton, I’ve always loved the sense that he writes not from a position of authority, but as an “essay”-ist, in the sense of the French essayer, which means to try. I can never see it as a stuffy, boring work because it’s so human in the most wonderful of ways. Yes, it’s literature’s humanity that makes it divine.
One of the sins of how many people teach literature is that they make it sound like it was all written by asexual geniuses from heaven instead of, as Wilde would have it, in the gutter looking at the stars. Some teachers of literature become the people Yeats describes in his poem, “The Scholars:”
Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
(Yes, yes, this poem also reminds me of just how white and male the Canon is too, but that’s an issue for another post.). Much of literature does come from love (though of what varies,) and so I would agree that literature is tailor-made for intellectual courtship between two librosexuals. I’m not going to deny that one of the things that hooked me about Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels was that his love for Harriet Vane only grew when he realized she could quote from and understand as many works of literature in as many different languages as he could. I’m not denying that I find Busman’s Honeymoon incredibly sexy at parts because they’re quoting John Donne at each other. But Wimsey didn’t have to urge Harriet to join the joust of intellectual wordplay; sensing he was game, she drew out her… I don’t remember what she first quotes in Strong Poison, probably because, admittedly, I haven’t read it, and I think it’s fallen out of favor whatever it was. But it was a classic, and it was probably very sexy.
So I ask again: What good is knowing a random snippet of Boccaccio’s Decameron if you can’t follow through? Why joke about the Wyf of Bath’s (they spelled it with a “y” back in the day) foul mouth if you don’t have fond memories of when you first realized what she meant that she wanted a husband with both the finest purse and “nether purse,” or are able to use it to trigger a discussion of your favorite Canterbury Tale, be it one of the really filthy ones like “The Miller’s Tale,” or one of the tamer ones like the courtly “Knight’s Tale,” or the ever-popular “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” which is often simplified into children’s literature? If this kind of banter and discussion doesn’t scream “date night” to you, or you just don’t like literature (which is fine too), or you feel affected talking about it, then why pretend to it? Or, for that matter, if you want to flirt using books, why does it have to be limited to the Canon anyhow?
What is sexy about anyone of any gender pretending to be interested in something they’re not? Or, if they are interested in learning more about Canonical literature but haven’t read much yet, what’s sexy about pretending they’ve read more than they have? Honesty is always good (or at least it should be.)
I apologize for the rather obnoxious name-dropping in this entry, but I’m doing it to mock the very idea that women inclined to this sort of flirting need lines to parrot. Yes, I will admit that this kind of flirting sounds like fun if I were doing it naturally and my flirtation partner has a similar interest in literature (otherwise I’d just feel like I was showing off, and that would be gross.). I’ll also admit that I do admire Murnighan’s desire to show people just how fun literature can be, and it scares me that I’d probably get along with him if he didn’t seem to be such a condescending git. Nevertheless, whether it was pressure from Kelly (“Girls, girls, what have we done to ourselves?” Okay, that one was Tori Amos at her most lucid.) or his subconscious longing to find his Harriot Vane (though I don’t know if he’s read Sayers), or a little of both, he has only succeeded in suggesting that female would-be-intellectuals (or, perhaps from both of their perspectives, women who would only read if it means a relationship) remake themselves in the image of male academia, and that, my friends, is no way to flirt.
In closing, I can only turn back to Woolf, as part of my not-so-secret goal in life to convince as many people as possible that Virginia Woolf is human, funny, and sexy:
Life for both sexes — and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement — is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. –from A Room of One’s Own, chapter II
When I need a bit of a feminist pick-me-up, I love watching Sarah Haskins’s “Target Women.” Because I do this for a pick-me-up, I always try and not commit the grave sin against my poor brain of reading the comments thread. But sometimes I’m a backslider. This week, when checking out the hilarious episode mocking VH1’s “Tough Love,” I came across this comment:
Feminism isn’t dead but it does get drunk and confuse itself with women doing things as poorly as men . A woman doing the same weak version of a job that men do isn’t a feminist, just a hack .
It should have been easy for me to dismiss this comment as someone engaging in the good old “This is objectively bad!” to make themselves feel better for disliking something. It’s just easier to say, “I don’t like this because it’s bad,” than admitting that it’s just not to your taste (I think we all do this sometimes, when “well it’s just my opinion” seems far too weak to convey how truly bad we think something is. I’m certainly “guilty” of it, if it’s something to be guilty of. And on some days I’m not so sure it’s always a mere defense mechanism.). But the comment wouldn’t get out of my head. It rang and rang in there until I was forced to admit that it’s a thought I’ve had too, though not directed at Sarah Haskins.
I think back to my time as an English major, specifically my time sitting in Intro. to American Literature, slogging through the writings of the Puritans (who, admittedly, didn’t interest me anyhow). As the Great Canon of English Literature has fallen from grace (and rightfully so,) because of its rather homogeneous, white, male voice, English scholars have done their best to diversify the Canon. Some have called this method “Just add minorities and stir,” and it has made many people, progressive and conservative alike, wonder if some writers are now being taught for diversity’s and not quality’s sake. I never felt this more keenly in American Literature, when we discussed the poetry of Anne Bradstreet.
All through that reading assignment, I seethed. I hated her writing–I found it trite, boring. It included the line “My love is such that rivers cannot quench” for Pete’s sake! Why? I thought Why is her poetry so famous? I tried to share the enthusiasm of another feminist in the class to no avail. I felt that I was expected to look to Anne Bradstreet as an inspiration because she was a woman, a Puritan woman, who got published. Instead, I felt she got undue recognition because the Canon needed more women.
I felt terribly guilty for this. I redoubled my efforts to take Bradstreet seriously; I attempted to read her poetry aloud in a tone that wasn’t singsong (I failed miserably. See the aforementioned line.). But nevertheless, I couldn’t help but compare her poetry to her contemporaries and find it lacking. I tried to justify my disdain by pointing out that other women wrote better poetry in the 17th century: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, for example, a Mexican nun who also lived in a culture that tended to see intellectualism in women as no better than witchcraft. But even as my gut feels justified, I know that the comparison is unfair: the women came from different cultures, and just because I think one is a better poet than the other doesn’t necessarily render Anne Bradstreet bad. Just because that, in addition to a few explicitly feminist pieces, Sor Juana writes about everything from the metaphysical, to love, to Greco-Roman mythology doesn’t make Anne Bradstreet automatically boring because, in addition to one incognito feminist piece, she writes about her devotion to her God, her husband, and her job as a Christian housewife (Granted, my problem with Bradstreet is more that I don’t think she wrote about them well, but it’s more thematically powerful in the context of this post if I leave that out.).
Nevertheless, this realization didn’t stop me from feeling self-righteous anger. “Adding women to the Canon because they are women doesn’t further feminism!” I would grumble to anyone who asked me my opinion on Bradstreet. People generally agreed with me. I still don’t necessarily think I’m wrong, and, to this day, I’ve yet to find anything interesting about Bradstreet. It’s the same argument many feminists use (fairly, in my opinion) to remind people that just because Sarah Palin runs for Vice President doesn’t mean we have to support her, and that just because Twilight was written by a woman about a woman (? arguable.) and then turned into a film directed by a woman doesn’t mean that we have to pledge our undying love. But I do think things are a little more complicated than I make it out to be sometimes.
One of the things I’ve written about many times before on this blog is that when women want to write, perform, or otherwise create media, society still sees them as women before it sees them as artists. But there’s more to this than just that: we (and I mean everyone) also judge women for what genre they choose to work in.
Traditional feminist wisdom holds that there are two ways women can make art: we can either appropriate male forms, or we can create our own. The difficulty with creating our own is that, because it deals with women’s issues, men and other women often don’t take it seriously. The difficulty of appropriating male language (…music, painting styles, comedy, etc.) is that audiences are quick to call femininity a gimmick. The problem with creating our own is that it forces us to buy into cultural definitions of what is feminine. The problem with appropriating “male” forms is that it supports the idea that masculine is somehow equivalent with unisex and devalues the feminine. Catch-22. What do we do?
When I first opened this blog, one of the articles I was eager to write was entitled “Writing for Women.” The thesis was to be, essentially, “I hate chick lit. I hate the very concept of chick lit. Any genre that shares its name with a type of gum isn’t literature!” When I was sharing my ideas with my friend, a fellow writer and armchair philosopher whom I respect very greatly, she asked me some rhetorical questions that complicated my very black and white view of the issue (Her favorite philosopher is Socrates. Is anyone surprised?). You see, this friend is a closeted devotee of The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. “It’s not that I think they’re great literature,” she told me, “They’re not. They’re just fun. But it made me realize that chick lit. is a genre used for women to speak to each other. The men in the books were caricatures, cardboard cutouts. They weren’t meant to be real, unlike the women of the book. It’s supposed to be a world men can’t inhabit.”
I thought about this a lot. I still objected to the idea that women’s writing had to be about romance and weight loss, but, at the same time, is it possible for women to write a book about family, sisterhood, and mothers and have it be taken seriously by the book world? I tried to think of a book of the sort that wasn’t treated as either chick lit. or “whiny feminist literature” (a genre that I don’t actually believe exists, but you try convincing some people that Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood have the ability to appeal to everyone.)
Oh I argued with her. I mentioned that there’s no equivalent genre for men. I claimed that the existence of the genre makes it more difficult for women writers because we fear that whatever we write will be stuck in that genre (I still hold this as a possibility.) But I couldn’t shake a lingering doubt from my head that I was calling this writing trite because it dealt with what is the reality for many women who do follow current feminine norms. Maybe it does nothing to challenge it. Maybe it’s poorly written (I don’t know. I haven’t really read it.). But am I being unfair to dismiss it as a stain on all women’s writing?
One of the things we prize most in our artwork is universality–that everyone can relate to it. Shakespeare we hold to be the greatest of authors, and when we question why, the first answer people will give you is “universality” (Anthropologists will tell you otherwise. I don’t think this detracts from Shakespeare’s greatness.). Even as scholars argue whether universality is a myth or not, the reality is that as long as we hold “universal” to be a criteria of good art, art written by members of “minority” groups suffer because people tend to see their art as specific to their group. White, straight, cis, (I could go on…) men writing about men’s issues does not face the same “universality” penalty that others’ doesn’t (I think I’ve mentioned this before) . So one has to wonder that if well-written “chick lit” exists out there, is it dismissed as “chick lit.” for not being universal? Or does its unwillingness to be universal disqualify it from being literature?On the other side of genre fiction, I recently read the book Queenpin by Film Noir Scholar, Megan Abbott. If you want to read a straight-up, hard boiled as Sam Spade eating a hard boiled egg Noir book, I’d strongly recommend it. I, on the other hand, was disappointed.
I had been excited at the prospect of reading Noir from a feminine perspective because the genre is so masculine. Scholars widely regard the Eve-like (or is that Lilith?) figure of the femme fatale as an embodiment of the contemporary fear of female sexuality and “The new woman”: the women who had joined the workforce during WWII, taking over jobs that men once held. These women had both financial power and manipulative sexual power. They traversed into the public sphere with ease. The femme fatale provided a universal scapegoat and outlet. So, therefore, I was excited because Abbott writes from what seems the femme fatale’s perspective. I was excited to see how this would change and rearrange the genre. I was disappointed when it didn’t.
In a set-up so perfectly embeded in the Noir genre, I could see the diagrams my Noir professor drew on the board to describe the inner turmoil of Walter Neff, the main character of the classic film Double Indemity, who must choose between the male influence (a friend of his from the insurance agency) and the evil femme fatale (who convinced him to commit murder to win her sexual favor), the main character must choose between her female mentor, a gun moll who has taught her the art of surival in the masculine realm of the Las Vegas underworld, and the “homme fatal,” a failed gambler who encourages her to betray her mentor. I didn’t find the homme fatal’s charms alluring, but then again, the idea that a femme fatale could actually convince a man to go against his morals because of her beauty is a very strange idea when you look at it objectively. I mean, the old “men can’t control themselves when faced with breasts” is an excuse hurled at everything in our culture, so perhaps having a woman act the same about a man is radical in its own sense, but I’m grasping at straws here.
It’s interesting to take a critical look at my assumptions. Though Abbott is, in fact, a scholar, and particularly interested in gender, I had no reason to assume that just because she was a woman that she would somehow re-invent Noir. She set out to write Noir fiction; the fact that it blended so seamlessly into the genre is to her credit (now whether it makes sense to write pure noir as opposed to playing with the conventions of a really restrictive genre is a completely different, non-gender-related story.). Why should I expect her to stick in feminist commentary? In other words, why was I expecting her to write Noir as a woman? And why was I so disappointed when she didn’t?
When we see women working in genres or realms that are traditionally male-dominated, we still carry expectations of how they’ll approach their work, and that they’ll approach it differently from men because they are women (and not because they are individuals). I don’t know which male counterpart the commenter on “Target Women” thought s/he was comparing Sarah Haskins to. This is partially because I view “Target Women” as at once occupying a traditionally male realm and working within an explicitly female genre. While “Target Women” can be watched and enjoyed by anyone, it deals strictly with women’s issues, the messages we get, and the questions we hold about our own femininity. At the same time, its format is familiar to anyone who enjoys “The Daily Show.” Do we owe it to Sarah Haskins to ask ourselves whether we like her show just because no one else is doing it? I think so. That doesn’t mean I agree with the commenter–I think she does a good job, too (not that I’m the grand arbitor of what is funny or anything like that.)
I suppose you’re expecting me to write some grand proposal of how we should judge women working in gendered genres, but any proclamation I could possibly come up with would be filled with contradictions, problems and pitfalls. I’m certainly never going to become a huge fan of “chick-lit,” but I still mourn the fact that the trend in short story writing these days seems to be to emulate Hemingway as much as possible. I’m not going to suddenly cheer on Anne Bradstreet when I have Sor Juana to fawn over. But if we can learn anything from the way we look at women creating their own genres or trying to appropriate traditionally masculine ones, we learn that it’s still difficult for women to create without facing a lot of “political” questions of what it means for them to choose that particular method. Whew. You probably could have guessed that without reading the whole article. Sorry.
So how do we unisex genres? And do we even want to unisex genres?
To quote a 1950’s instructional video: What do you think?
Last night, I headed up to PSU to to see Jennifer Pozner, founder of the Women in Media and News organization, speak as part of Bitch Magazine’s Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture lecture series. The title of her talk was “Project Brainwash: Why Reality TV is Bad For Women.” In a show of what some would call heroism and others masochism, Pozner has been watching reality TV shows over the past few years in order to record and expose their dark subtext.
Pozner’s talk focused on exposing reality shows as the marketing machines that they are and revealing how they work to perpetuate incredibly damaging stereotypes of, well, everyone. Considering that I don’t even watch “American Idol,” much less “The Bachelor” (frankly, I didn’t even realize it was still running.), most of the clips Pozner showed merely confirmed my worst fears instead of forcing me to look more deeply at something heretofore dismissed, which is how her talk was set up. I learned more about why networks continue to make reality shows, but the actual analysis of show content was the same sad story that anyone dealing with media literacy can recite by wrote: Women are unintelligent, shallow gold diggers. Money is the key to happiness. Being single makes you worthless. It was actually impressive how shows like “The Bachelor” so perfectly walked the tightrope between a straight male harem fantasy and a straight female fairytale romance. But it was nothing I hadn’t seen before.
And yet, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The story may be tired, but media outlets are still using it. Also, while most every feminist knows that reality shows are potentially terribly damaging, I don’t think many of us actually watch reality shows because we know them to be damaging. But anyone with a good journalistic instinct understands to actually make these claims, we have to be able to show they exist. To the very media literate, Pozner’s talk might have sounded like old news, but from a journalistic standpoint, it was very important work. I’ll be interested to read her book on the subject, Reality Bites Back: How Guilty Pleasure TV is Making Us Sexist, Shallow, and Socially Irresponsible, which comes out this October. As a friend said of the article Pozner wrote in the latest Bitch issue which covered many similar points as the talk, the lecture had the sense of trying to summarize a very complex longer work in an hour or so. I have nothing but sympathy for her on this point–it’s a near-impossible task.
I’ve never become immune to the energy that comes from being in a room of people who are, at least for the most part, passionate about a cause. I just love the sense of community it fosters. As we watched Pozner’s horrifying clips we gasped and groaned. It was cathartic to know I wasn’t the only one disgusted. Nevertheless, as much fun as I have being in a room full of like-minded people, understanding how dangerous and damaging these images are, I often wish there was a way to reach people who don’t understand. The fact is, probably no one who needed to hear this talk came to it. Why would they? There are still people, even commenters on feminist blogs, who don’t understand that the media we absorb affects us, even if our logical brains know to dismiss it. Until we can teach people media literacy, there will be those dismissing reality TV as “just a show.” I don’t have a good solution to this, but it’s always in the back of my mind.
On a personal level, I found Pozner’s talk to be rather inspiring. I’ve been reading obscene amounts of terrible fanfiction over the past few months in preparation for an article about the dumbing down and weakening of feminist-leaning female characters in fanfiction (It’s what privileged, unemployed feminist bloggers do when they’re not job hunting, volunteering, or blogging.).
There were some technical difficulties (the perils of new lecture series and using unfamiliar computers,) but overall I think it was a well-worthwhile night. I wish I could have stayed longer to talk to some other people about it–if any of you were there, please let me know your take on it. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to savor my spontaneous free cappuccino.
Nearly a week later, and I’m still recovering from Valentine’s Day, which apparently is also known as “the day when complete strangers can insinuate that you and whichever male friend you happen to be spending time with are a couple and then insult that male friend for not buying you a rose. ” I was unaware of this second name–this strange custom didn’t appear in college, where I’d usually either spend my Valentine’s Days buying student group fundraiser chocolates for boys that I had crushes on, so that I could make life awkward for the both of us or sneaking paper cranes into friends’ mailboxes. But one thing that’s a constant about Valentine’s Day whether in or out of the ivory tower is the way it tends to make single people feel guilty,bitter or inadequate. And then we run to dating sites (link to Sara Haskin’s “Target Women” video on the subject, which is hilarious).
Okay, I’ll stop with the snark (maybe). For one thing, the real reason why I waited nearly a week for this post is that I just figured out how to do screen captures yesterday (and wasted copious amounts of time saving all the internet ads I hate for future subtext juicing). For another, the point of this post is not the cultural phenomenon of dating sites, but the uncomfortable subtext lurking in one rather popular dating site: OK Cupid. Most people I know within my age group use OK Cupid to some capacity, myself included. As far as dating sites go, it’s generally thought to be the most “with it.” I’ve even seen it praised by commenters on Feministing for not marginalizing poly relationships and allowing for homosexuality and bisexuality (because apparently other sites have not gotten the message).
But behind its trendy facade, OK Cupid makes plenty of really uncomfortable statements and insinuations. You know, the sort of assertion that people like to pretend is edgy, but in closer examination is revealed to be the same sort of cultural messages we’ve been receiving for years. In many ways, OK Cupid is not nearly so friendly and savvy a site as it makes itself out to be.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Deciding to join a dating site is full of implications that make people feel uncomfortable and question themselves that have nothing to do with the site itself. Also, there are plenty of things about the site that make me feel uncomfortable, from features that “punish” you (aka- mark you with a red light, meaning that you rarely reply to other messages) for not replying to each and every message you get (ignoring the fact that most people receive some pretty invasive messages that they may not feel comfortable replying to) to the fact that it calls you a “dirty dog” if you turn off the automatic censor. Their “about us” page only includes one woman, which would bother me less if her photo was not of a pair of disembodied legs in fishnets and her label wasn’t “office chick,” whose primary duties were “making sure Sam doesn’t go insane, writing surveys, busting spammers and never, ever letting the programmers run out of Diet Pepsi.” But then, I have a sense that many dating sites probably think they can create a dating site for both men and women with only the input of one gender (Apparently, they’ve all read/seen He’s Just Not That Into You and therefore know that women have relationship IQs of 5.). The fact is, if I just systematically pointed out everything I’ve seen on the site with disturbing subtext, I’d get a headache; and this post would become a mere rant. So, as always, I’m going to focus on a few bits and pieces that I think illustrate larger issues.
(I <3 alliteration)
OK Cupid, like pretty much anything on the net or in print, has to choose images to represent a news bite. To avoid bombarding people with giant walls of text, they try and reduce people to images as much as possible. For example, every user, as they use the site, is awarded a series of personality trait images. For example, if someone is “more compassionate” than most users, their profile has a cartoon image of a cheerful female nurse (more ambitious, by the by, is a man in a business suit with a laptop). But what’s really irked me this week is their image for their weekly quiz contest, drama. The programmers at OK Cupid decided that they could best represent this contest with an image crying, screaming woman, playing into the stereotype that women just love making big deals out of nothing and causing excess drama. You’ve never heard of a drama king, right? They must not exist. The fact that the image isn’t even commented upon and is simply plastered up there beside the word drama without explanation only makes it worse: it turns the image into a symbol.
This is a particularly insidious use of semiotics, the science of signs. Basically, semiotics looks at how we make a connection between image and meaning. For example, the little image (or the little emoticon that I used above) that we tend to think of as a “heart,” does not look anything like a human heart. Yet, in our cultural imagination, the image is inextricably intertwined with this meaning. In this example, the OK Cupid design time created an arbitrary symbolic correlation between the crying woman and drama. This plays into the at least old as Greeks (if not time) idea that women are hysteric (a word which actually comes from the Greek word for womb.), irrational creatures and tend to make ludicrous complaints. It plays into the idea that we’re always looking for drama where there isn’t any, making mountains out of molehills. Do I think it’s going to brainwash anyone who didn’t already believe this to some degree? No. But it’s obnoxious, and propagates an image of women that we constantly have to fight against and discourages women from speaking up even when it matters.
The lifeblood of OK Cupid’s matching system is a series of multiple choice questions that you answer both for yourself and for your ideal match. The site’s matching algorithm then uses this information to stick you with a bunch of labels and calculate how well you will get along with other people.
Now, of course, everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, age, and relationship status has to answer the same questions, which, initially seems like a good idea. But, in my experience, this tends to lead to what can, if we use only diplomatic terms, be described as awkward situations.
My queer friends (especially those who live in neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut, and were not in California before the 2008 election) have a lot of fun answering questions about whether they wish to get married some day, and whether they believe homosexuality is a sin or not. My trans friends have dealt with similar questions. I suppose you could argue it’s not the duty of a dating site to condemn anyone’s moral judgment, no matter how bigoted, but I have to admit that I feel uncomfortable with the site normalizing homophobia and transphobia like that. Pretty much, instead of alienating a socially conservative audience, the site has decided that they’d rather pretend that homosexuality and transgenderism are things that we can debate normally and dispassionately, like marijuana usage or gun control, as if it didn’t involve debating the legitimacy of actual people. The site acts as if it is simply taking itself out of the debate by allowing “both sides” on their site. Is this really okay? Is this behavior really conducive to a safe, fun website?
Another “fun” example is the question that I posted in the image above, an image which I have entitled “questionnotaboutbisexuality.gif” because I still don’t know what bisexuality has to do with anything. The question reads, “A bisexual person wants to date a man and a woman at the same time. In your opinion, is this person out of line? A) Yes, being bisexual does not excuse infidelity. B) No, dating both sexes best fulfills their needs. C) It depends on the situation.” The question may have an “out,” a none of the above, but I’m still bamboozled as to why a question which is essentially about open relationships has to become tied up in sexual orientation. I declined to answer this question because, to me, “it depends on the situation” does not translate to, “As long as everyone is open, honest, and consenting.” Gender has nothing to do with it. Sexuality has nothing to do with it. Bringing bisexuals into the mix just plays into the bisexuals are more likely to cheat stereotype.
And I’m not even going to start on the “slavery vs. holocaust” oppression Olympics question.
In a sense, by staying out of moral debates, OK Cupid has made itself a less safe place to be.
Oh, Baby, That’s Just the Way It Is
And last, and least, the text blurb that inspired this post in the first place:
You’re choosy, not wanting to get mixed up with just anyone. Girls can get away with this kind of selectiveness for some reason. Most guys have to take whatever’s lying around, passed out.
After taking their (heteronormative) “dating persona” personality test, I decided to check out some of the other possible personas a person can have. This one comes from the female persona “The Intern,” a woman who wants casual sex, but is inordinately picky. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to rape culture. (Oh yes, and stereotypes about how straight men just want sex and will take anything with boobs. Can’t forget those. The stereotypes, I mean, not the boobs. Though one should remember boobs too.)
This, combined with such questions in their matching algorithm which ask if no really means no are not innocent comments nor funny depictions of college party life. By including them so flippantly on their site, OK Cupid is normalizing this kind of behavior. How is this okay?
And that, my friends, is the crux of this post. Dating sites may not be designed to be moral regulators or political forces, but they are both a product of and a regulator of our culture. OK Cupid may be pretending to stay out of debates, but it’s really saying that it’s okay in our culture to discriminate based on gender and sexual orientation; it’s okay to have sex with someone without consent; it’s okay to be a person who ignores the word “no.” It’s saying that in our culture, it’s okay to chalk these things up to personal preference.
Sometimes I think I’m a bad feminist blogger because my gut reaction to any sort of rhetorical question like that is, “I don’t know.” I don’t claim to have all the answers. So I’m going to cheat and say, “I’m here to make you think,” because I feel like a hypocrite every time I declare moral superiority because I criticize conservatives for the same thing. Though, honestly, I can’t imagine how any of this is okay or even desirable in our culture.
Nevertheless, I think it’s safe to conclude that OK Cupid is not a safe dating site, not that I think there’s one out there that currently does any better. It’s pretty clear to me that no dating site, and certainly not OK Cupid is going to make me feel like a desirable straight woman for my feminist beliefs or make me feel particularly welcomed on their corner of the internet except as a sex object. But that’s all part and parcel of internet culture, which is, of course, tied up in our own culture. I think sometimes we separate the two too readily.
Nostalgia™ (by Veidt)
(Don’t mind me. I’ve just been re-reading Watchmen to prep for the movie. Now on to the actual post.)
Back in August, Doug Walker, better known as the Nostalgia Critic or “that guy with the glasses,” announced a contest to find the Nostalgia Chick. I was not watching the site at the time, so I have to admit I cannot quite gauge the actual fan reaction, but judging by the comments left behind, I think that, aside from a few, soundly mocked protestations that women were neither funny nor on the internet, it was met with enthusiasm.
For about a year, Doug had been producing videos of himself mocking the nostalgic movies and tv shows of the 80’s and early 90’s–Power Rangers, The Super Mario Brothers Movie, He-Man, etc.–launching himself to at least minor internet celebrity. He’d moved from Youtube to his own page, gained fans, added other reviewers to his site, and even ended up with his own Wikipedia page. But he realized that his approach to nostalgic media was missing all the trashy franchises that were marketed towards the women of his generation. There needed to be a “Nostalgia Chick” to go with the critic*.
Enter Lindsay Ellis, film student. She’s actually a friend of mine from a study abroad program a few years back, and so I’m afraid I can’t claim complete neutrality when writing this post (not to mention it was really easy to get her permission to write it. yay!). (On a side note, I’d feel like a really bad cultural critic if I were reporting an actual conflict instead of making a general observation.)
With her witty and sarcastic video (link goes to the TGWtG website. Video is also available on Youtube) making fun of Disney’s Pocahontas, Lindsay won over the fans and administrators of the “That Guy With the Glasses” site**. But even before accepting the position, she found herself embroiled in the dramatic, troll-filled wasteland that is the realm of internet comments. Believe it or not, the results were surprising.
Now, of course, if you put anything on the internet, you’re bound to get criticism, often very stupid criticism. It’s inevitable. Every reviewer (nay! every review!) on the TGWtG site receives its share of flames. I’m not here to debate whether that should happen or not. Really, what was surprising was not that Lindsay’s appearance on the internet scene had its detractors as well as fans; what’s interesting is the nature of the complaints surrounding Lindsay’s videos. From the very beginning, before she even won the contest, people called her out for the way she talked and the way she dressed. According to one particularly memorable (and frightening) commenter:
I have watched all the nostalgia critic’s videos, so yes, I understand he curses and makes sexual references, but, for every single one of the women applying, when they say the F-word, not only does it not seem fitting for them to cuss in that way, it seemed strained. Maybe it’s my personal preference, but I don’t think it sounds natural.
I know [the Nostalgia Critic] has said he would like to make love to himself, but that’s not selling sexuality, that is humor. He asked if the Disney execs wanted to f*** bunnies, yes, that’s also humor, but he sounds normal when he says it. Again, for all the women, it sounded strained. And yes, Speed Racer dresses up like a sperm, that’s again, humor. For every sexual reference in Lindsay’s video, I just didn’t understand why. It did not make sense to me why you would put that there, it was amusing, but she forced it to be, it really didn’t have much to do with a review of any kind.
In his call out for the Nostalgia Chick, yes he states he has testicles, and yes, part of my problem with Lindsay’s review is that her shirt is cut too low. The Nostalgia Critic can never, in any way, because he has testicles, use them as a tool to get anything for free in life. (Source)
(I’m going to let you make the bitter comments that last sentence merits because if I were to do so, it’d cramp my calm, rational tone. I’m sure you can do a good job with that.)
Unsurprisingly, no one ever really discusses how the Nostalgia Critic dresses. No one seems concerned that he swears or uses sexual humor. But, according to this commenter, by discussing sex, Lindsay automatically draws attention to herself sexually, and not to any of the sexual implications of the Disney movie. Essentially, per this logic, a woman saying, “sex,” is sexual. The Nostalgia Critic, on the other hand, can talk about not wanting to have sex with an anthropomorphized rabbit (see his Space Jam review) without people considering him to bringing his sexuality into the forefront.
The use of swearing, which is pretty much accepted as normal coming from the critic, is criticized as “not fitting” and “strained.” when coming from Lindsay and the other Nostalgia Chick finalists. I somehow find it difficult to believe that all five of the entries chosen happened to be by women who felt uncomfortable cussing and yet decided to swear anyhow. I’m inclined to believe the commenter just was uncomfortable with women saying, “fuck.” <–(Shiver in your boots, why don’t you–I typed it! Oh, and I’m a woman on the internet. Double the horror.) Judgmental of me? Perhaps, but less judgmental, I should think, than his assumption that a woman wearing a shirt that shows a bit of cleavage decided to do so in order to get a free ride.
This comment was a minority opinion (though comment battles raged well into the voting period)–I don’t want to give a misrepresentation of Nostalgia Critic fans. But I think this kind of exaggerated response helps explain the bizarre way many fans have received the Nostalgia Chick. Even though she has the same modus operandi as the critic, fans treat her very differently. Why? Because the same logic that triggered that extremist outrage is still embedded in our culture. Though people do have a genuine appreciation for her comedic talent, fans treat the Nostalgia Chick as a woman before considering her as an entertainer. That is to say that no matter what she says, no matter if the clips of her to clips of the film ratio were to be 1:25 (not an accurate ratio by any means,) by merely being a woman making a video of herself, people consider her to be drawing attention to her physical appearance. Fans have debates within the comment section about whether she’s hotter with or without glasses. They jokingly proposition her. You can argue that this is inevitable, and, for the most part, it’s pretty harmless. I’m not even suggesting finding someone hot is a sign of shallowness or moral weakness. But all the while there is something off about this kind of treatment: Lindsay is not making videos about herself. Her comedy takes center stage in all her videos, and yet many people treat her as if her purpose was to stand there and look pretty. Because, you know, that’s the most important priority in every woman’s life.
As Lindsay continued her reviews, fans began to speculate on the second-most important thing in every woman’s life: her relationship with men.*** When she asked a male friend of hers to appear in her “Top 10 Most Disturbing and Inescapable Christmas Songs,” fans asked her, “was that your brother or your boyfriend?” (source). Apparently straight women can’t have guy friends. More speculation as to Lindsay’s relationship status arose when she did a joint review of the movie Ferngully with the Nostalgia Critic. Although before commenters wondered if “That Guy With the Glasses [aka: Doug] is banging this chick,” using phrasing that makes me wonder if they meant to imply that Lindsay’s (non-existent) connection to Doug was involved in getting her a slot on the site (source,) rumors now reached a boiling point, with people suggesting that they were siblings, married, or dating. Included in this slew were people who were joking that they’d look cute together, and I feel a little uncomfortable accusing those particular comments as being signs of anything other than a tendency to match-make. On the other hand, many of the comments assumed that Lindsay had to have some connection with Doug (other than winning the contest) to have her role. It’d be enough to drive anyone insane.
Nevertheless, Lindsay continues to make videos and make people laugh. Yes, those people who don’t seem to understand that women are both on the internet and in comedy still make sickening comments such as “She’d be hot if she didn’t talk.” And, yes, fans still take the “you’re hot” commentary to disturbing levels and draw pictures of her in swimsuits. She’s learned to ignore it. But as a cultural critic, I can’t resist pointing out how weird this all is, especially in contrast to the kinds of comments that her male counterpart gets. What does it say about our culture that male audiences feel entitled to make this kind of commentary? What does it say about our culture that one of the first concerns voiced by fans when the contest was announced was “since the site is male dominated, any woman is going to be subject to a whole manner of abusive and sexual comments” (source)?
The internet’s a scary place for anyone creative. Add in gender bias, and things get scarier. I’m glad Lindsay’s risen to the challenge.
*I know that some people might object to the “critic/chick” dichotomy, but I’m going to give the website the benefit of the doubt and assume that it ended up this way because the Nostalgia Critic originally was just a solo deal.
**On a side note, the two runners-up ended up with their own segments on the site. I’m not familiar with them, so I’m afraid I can’t include them in this post. But if you have anything to add about them, feel free to share.
***At the risk of being a terrible writer by unnecessarily pointing out my own gag, that was sarcasm.
Whew, that took me longer than I thought it would. Now it’s time to dance around the kitchen do very important, diligent things. Until next time!
You might wonder why I’m deciding to talk about Vadim Glowna’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties, a film which you probably haven’t heard of (I hadn’t until last night,) you probably will not see, and has very little effect on our pop culture. Critics, on the whole, despised it. My friends nearly fell asleep during it. I must admit that it succeeds so well in being utterly unlikeable without analysis that it doesn’t need a cultural critic to tackle it further.
Nevertheless, I cannot resist. Glowna, in making this movie, seems to think it’s okay to have women suffer humiliation and sexual abuse all in the name of being a symbol of youth. He thinks that he can dodge moral questions about the way women are being used in his film in the name of “high art.” And I just have to call Glowna out on it.
The House of the Sleeping Beauties tells the story of a man in his mid-60’s named Edmund, who has seen his life as a pit of emptiness and despair ever since the death (suicide?) of his wife and young daughter. His friend Kogi, recommends that he visits a strange not-brothel in which old men can sleep next to beautiful young women. The women have been put to sleep with a drug so potent that nothing can wake them until the drug has run its course, and they will remember nothing of the night.
Of course, the clients are not supposed to do anything besides sleep next to the women, cuddled up to them. But that whole “won’t remember anything bit” proves to be too tempting, at least for Edmund (who has the audacity to insist that he is different from the other old men who frequent the establishment.) He spanks them. He shakes them. He suckles their breasts (“You smell like milk…”). He fondles their vaginae, justifying it with the ridiculous excuse that their apparent arousal is equivalent to consent. And, at one point, when one of the women rolls over to face him, he calls it “an invitation,” and takes her virginity. All the while, the women lie there, prone, naked, and very asleep.
Glowna does not seem to have a problem with this. If he does, he does not see it as being important enough for the film to even address. As Edmund waxes philosophical about his past, his approaching death, and his Oedipal Complex, he never ever wonders if what he’s doing might be sexual harassment. The film itself never judges him for it. I sat there, waiting for the film to even reference its most obvious issue. And it never does. Somehow this film thinks the fact that the women won’t remember a thing justifies sexual abuse and rape.
Instead, Glowna seems to think that a pretense of art and poetry can transform the ugliness of the situation into something beautiful and erotic.
When an old man touches a woman like this, it is a lamentation, nothing more.
This line sums up the fundamental flaw in the film’s logic: Just because the caress may have transcended beyond the sexual to Edmund does not actually mean that it has actually transcended beyond the sexual. I feel absolutely ridiculous having to write this next sentence, but: Just because a woman is asleep does not suddenly relieve her of her personhood. I don’t care if it’s a movie. I don’t care if Glowna symbolically plastered the film with paintings of naked women (The models were awake while being painted, and consented to be painted. A painting, on the other hand, is not a real women.) as if to try and move the sleeping beauties from the realm of mortality and into the realm of art. He’s done them no favors. No one can use a real, breathing person as a symbol or as a work of art and expect the audience to forget that s/he is human. Yet, for some reason I cannot fathom, Glowna thinks he can. Rape, by any other name, is still rape.
(I really hate that I have to rush this post)
Oddly enough, so many people who (have) play(ed) an important roll in my life were born in January. Therefore, it was a serendipitous discovery, but not a huge surprise when I discovered that Virginia Woolf’s birthday was yesterday, January 25th. With its writer posthumously reaching the ripe old age of 127 (if my basic arithmatic serves me correctly), her work still is fresh, radical, and moving, and that is truly something to celebrate.
I admit that sometimes I feel a little embarassed about loving Virginia Woolf simply because whenever I say that I do I get a fairly irrational fear that people are writing me off as a walking cliché. I wrote my senior thesis on the relationship between gender and creativity in three of her novels. Telling people my topic usually resulted a bit in “Oh. Of course. What else there is to write about her?” (Captain Subtext translates this as: Oh great: here’s another woman writing about Woolf. Get the cheese to go with the whine.)
So now that I’m writing this mini-tribute, I have to figure out what to say. Believe me, I could go on and on (and on) about her novels. When read my first book by Woolf, To the Lighthouse, as a freshman in college, I was shocked by its power, its ability to change me. Literally– after reading a chapter, it would take a good half an hour to get me to stop myself from thinking in long, detailed monologues. But as this is a cultural criticism blog, I think the only fitting tribute for her right now would be to talk about her as a cultural critic.
If I now write as a cultural critic, it’s thanks to Virginia Woolf. I had always known cultural criticism was important. I had always known cultural criticism was interesting. But Woolf showed me. From the moment I read A Room of One’s Own, which I still think is one of the best and most relevant essays ever, I saw the kind of writer I wanted to be. Room, you see, is an essay about cultural privilege. It’s about how society crafts the idea of who can write. It’s also about Woolf poking fun at ridiculous the ridiculous assumptions men make about women–many people don’t realize that she had a marvelous sense of humor. What she realized is than in a society that spends all its time worrying about what differentiates a MAN from a WOMAN (all-caps to emphasize the silly binary thinking), a woman could be a woman writer, but she couldn’t be a writer. Her conclusion, that a woman needs space and an income to be able to craft fiction, seems shockingly materialistic, especially in contrast to the poetic meditations on where creativity comes from that you hear from most writers. But Woolf recognized the cultural climate. She recognized privilege. She recognized that woman’s education, though it existed, was so low on her culture’s priority list that even the food women’s schools served was inferior. Her conclusion is practical, but that’s what makes it radical. Spiritual, lyrical rhapsodies about the soul of art are irrelevant in an environment that is not condusive to creation in the first place. She taught me that understanding culture was vital to changing it.
But beyond her skilled writing, I will never cease to be impressed with how much bravery she had to have to write at all. How to explain? Well, let me tell you a strange story: The summer before I wrote my thesis, I spent a lot of time in the British Isles, volunteering on organic farms, and reading all the Woolf I possibly could. As I spent my days digging weeds and shoveling compost, I hoped that the spirit of place would help add some compost to the little seeds of my thesis that I was cultivating in my own brain. It did–but not in the way I was expecting.
In Surrey, my friends and I stayed with Emma and Peter (names have been changed to protect the British), helping out in their small organic garden. The day we arrived coincided with their annual village barbecue, and they offered to bring us along as cultural enrichment. I quickly learned that a British barbecue is not an American barbecue. Each family brought their own card table and rocking chairs; not to mention that the table cloths were neither plastic nor red-checked, and the plates and glasses were most definitely breakable. There was no barbecue grill. A band clad in red and white pinstriped suits and straw hats piped a selection of 1920’s-style jazz. As my friends and I sat with our hosts, drinking wine (a white entitled “Pisse D’oie,” which, yes, does in fact mean goose piss.) that had been brought back from a jaunt across the channel to France (thank you, Chunnel), we began to learn that village life in Southern England often has a very… novelistic feel to it. Well, novelistic is the word if we’re talking P.G. Wodehouse.
Attempting to write the reactions of our hosts’ friends to our motley barely-showered trio makes me feel like I’m oversimplifying the matter. I don’t believe anyone can be a walking stereotype, no matter how much of one a person may appear to be . I don’t and have never believed that British people actually were a part of a magical race with gorgeous accents who walked around with Burberry umbrellas, drinking tea, chatting about cricket scores, and worrying about class above all. Therefore, it was a bit of a shock when our hosts and their friends started telling us the precise age of every building in the vicinity (The vulgar “new” buildings being a mere century old) and insisting that Britain had never wanted India anyhow. History apparently just dropped an entire nation in their lap (And, you know, one must take up the “white man’s burden” and all that.). I felt as if I had stepped into a farce, or at least an episode of “Keeping Up Appearances.”
When they asked us about ourselves, I mentioned that I was reading for my thesis on Woolf. Our hosts and their friends laughed amongst themselves remarking, “Ah! She would love to write about a party just like this one!”
I couldn’t tell how they meant it: if they were laughing at her, me, or themselves. I don’t know if they understood the depth of their remark, or if they just knew that Mrs. Dalloway was about a party. And I’ll never know.
What I do know is that their simple remark gained new significance when the gossip turned to the new village of the vicar who was, scandalously, a “lady vicar.” Her husband had moved to follow her job and was seeking employment in the area.
“Who ever heard of a husband moving for his wife’s job?” an older man remakred.
As if understanding that this did not seem particularly shocking to their guests, Emma was quick to explain, “It’s not that we don’t like it; it’s just so new.” She continued to explain this change in their community: “You just don’t get a proper British vicar these days; in fact, you never know what you’re going to get. You can get a lady vicar, or a black vicar, or… what’s the other one?”
“A gay vicar?” offered my friend Tom.
“Yes! That’s it! A gay vicar! Or all three–you just never know.”
Suddenly, everything Woolf had been up against, with her depression, her refusal to be herteronormative (her sexuality was tremendously complicated.), her strength, and her unapologetic radicalism, all of that became clearer to me. Though I do not use this strange moment of culture shock as a mental model for the gendered climate of all of England, the fact that this kind of attitude still exists there makes me truly understand just how amazing and shocking she was. She was truly awesome, both in the slang sense and the “awe” sense.
Woolf had her faults. I don’t believe in perfect heros. But nevertheless, I love her. I love her because she dared to be a cultural critic. I love her for her frankness. I love her for her sense of humor. And I love her for her excellent writing.
Happy Birthday, Ginny! We still love you!
I’ve been holding off posting this week just because it feels weird to post non-inauguration-related things on or around inauguration day. If you really want to know my thoughts, well, I’m really excited to see what Obama’s going to do. I’ve got no illusions of perfection, but it’s a relief to have a president who values intelligence, cares about women’s issues, and is not afraid of science. But, for Cracked Mirror purposes, I figure the more news-centric blogs have all the election stuff covered. Instead, I’m going to talk about media.
For those of you wondering how an unemployed feminist blogger spends her suddenly free time (aside from desperately searching for jobs), the answer is: we volunteer for our local feminist magazine! (Or, at least, that’s what I’m doing.) I had a fantastic time this morning at Bitch‘s funky Portland office (It’s a wonderland of posters, awesome books, and puppies, let me tell you. I can’t wait to go back.) and doing research on feminist organizations (bookstores, community organizations, publishers, sex toy shops) they could contact for mutual advertising purposes. This was an oddly satisfying endevor, and not just because I was helping out one of my favorite magazines. As I dutifully searched, clicked links, sighed in frustration at finding stores that had closed (feminism isn’t necessarily a great money-maker), I discovered something odd: I barely needed to use Google.
Yes, I’m afraid that when it comes to looking for feminist places, Google only was of limited help despite my pretty decent google-fu. What actually was a huge help were the feminist bookstores themselves. Those with websites tended to link to fantastic organizations, stores, festivals, etc. in their community, providing me with endless links to savor, both for Bitch’s and my own purposes. Just through links provided feminist bookstores alone, I found enough feminist media/community/culture outlets to fuel a fantastic feminist-centered roadtrip, and that doesn’t even include the bookstores (and, believe me, I’d visit those too)! I’d love to listen to the spoken word artists of Fierce Words Tender in San Jose, CA, check out the programming put on by Charis in Atlanta, GA, and then have a great vegetarian meal at Bloodroot in Bridgeport, CT. Maybe I’d talk to some people at the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press in DC or visit Ladyslipper Music in Durham, NC. On the way I’d probably hit up a concert put on by Indie Grrl.
This is why feminist media and feminist media outlets can stay alive, even in difficult times; I think, on a whole, we’ve (I say we, but I’m not really a feminist media outlet… yet) recognized the value of community. We’ve recognized that even if you want to call us a niche market, we’re a strong powerful niche if we support each other and get the word out to each other. I think what saved Bitch and In Other Words when it looked like closure was imminent was their intigration into the community (both Portland and Feminist community): We care about each other. How cool is that? I just wish there were even more link databases that were even easier to find on Google. The one slightly depressing part of the whole experience was noticing that the databases I found (not so much the link pages off of feminist bookstores/orgs./publishers) were often either way out-of-date, neglected, or really poorly organized. It’s a shame because the internet is a great way to create a community of feminists who will support feminist media (outlets)/orgs/etc. Let’s use it!
“Tina Fey has never dated a bad boy. She didn’t even let boys she dated do anything bad.”
So begins Maureen Dowd’s recent article in Vanity Fair, “What Tina Wants” (accompanied by the blurb on the cover “A New American Sweetheart”). Reading this sentence, I can almost hear my eighth grade writing teacher announcing to the class in her rich Scottish accent, “Your intro paragraph always must begin with an attention grabber!” Clearly, Dowd intends it to be one–considering its usage, it could practically be in the dictionary under “attention grabber.” So this all just makes one wonder: why does it grab our attention? The fact itself isn’t completely shocking; I’m sure plenty of women have never dated bad boys (not to mention that if Fey admitted that she had let the boys she dated do “bad” things, she’d probably find herself on the other side of the virgin/whore dichotomy, but that’s another story). Right from the start, we’re confronted with Dowd trying to spin something not particularly odd into something completely unusual. I think part of it is that Fey successfully flouts her expectations. Unphased, throughout the article Dowd digs as hard as she can to find some way in which Fey’s personality echoes the image she has conjured of her.
During cocktails at her apartment, I ask Fey, What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?
“Nothing,” she replies blithely. (page 2)
But there are no affairs to find, just the time when Fey’s husband “got in trouble” for joking that they should go to a strip club. There’s no scandalous tales gossiped from co-workers, just the assertion that Fey is a world-class observer, one of the secrets to any sort of good writing, comedic or otherwise. For that matter, she’s not anyone’s puppet (“’Tina is not clay’ says Lorne Michaels, the impresario of Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls, and 30 Rock, when I ask him how he helped shape her career” [page 1].). And, unable to find these tropes to center her article, Dowd tries another tactic, one we’re probably all familiar with. My mom saw it in the 60’s, my friends and I saw it as teenagers in the 90’s. It’s the romantic comedy narrative standard of the just-remove-glasses and stir ugly ducking.
From an objective writerly perspective, I’m unsure of what Dowd is trying to accomplish in this article–it meanders in circles. As I said before, I almost get the sense that she approached it with a certain set of expectations, didn’t have them met, and was reduced to trying to fit what she did find out into some semblance of structure. But stranger still, and more interesting, is Fey’s relative silence throughout the article. Dowd has elected to tell the trajectory of Fey’s career almost entirely from the perspective of the men in her life. Feminist objections aside, there’s just something jarring about not hearing from someone who’s known for her comedy, her writing, her voice in a piece about her life. I can only conclude that Dowd, in her desire to fit Tina Fey into the “glamor-puss” role she (or Vanity Fair) created, had to tone down Fey’s “activeness.” She attempts to shove a kind of “American Dream” tale (woman who does hard work gets rewarded) into a Cinderella makeover story, resulting in a textual and subtextual mess.
Steve Higgins, an S.N.L. producer, observes, ‘When she got here she was kind of goofy-looking, but everyone had a crush on her because she was so funny and bitingly mean. How did she go from ugly duckling into swan? It’s the Leni Riefenstahl in her. She has such a German work ethic even though she’s half Greek. It’s superhuman, the German thing of ‘This will happen and I am going to make this happen.’ It’s just sheer force of will. (page 1)
As I mentioned before, the rhetoric here is half American Dream, half Stacy and Clinton’s “What Not to Wear” celebrity super special edition (I don’t know if that actually exists). Perhaps fitting into the New York image allowed Fey to appear on TV, but it was her comedic sensibility that got her that far in the first place. If we want to reduce people’s lives to narratives, why does Dowd have to explicitly use Cinderella (and, for that matter, Sex and the City): ” She got her own slipper, writing and willing herself into the role, and the shoe wasn’t glass. It was a silver Manolo Blahnik.”? Is a makeover really the female equivalent of the American Dream?
The slipper just doesn’t fit, even as Dowd slices the story. Her tone doesn’t match the details. I think my favorite example of this is Dowd’s apparent shock that back when Fey was doing Second City gigs in Chicago “She used to wear crazy boots…knee-length frumpy dresses with thrift-store sweaters.” In other words, she dressed like a college student. As I myself, was, up until very recently, a college student, I just don’t have it in me to drudge up the shock. Living in the Pacific Northwest probably doesn’t help either, but I guess that’s not the point. I know that if you want to get into the entertainment industry, especially in a place like New York, you have to look the part. You have to be a sophisticate. Despite Dowd’s attempt to shroud it in mystique, when I read Fey’s story I see not a cosmetic miracle, but the story of a woman who realized that she had to dress the part to be taken seriously. She was already writing for SNL; they just wouldn’t let her on TV. She had the talent, the drive; all that was missing was the image. Call it a feminist defeat; call it just the way things are–I don’t care. Right or wrong, it was just another step along the difficult road of becoming a self-made woman in a world where women need both brains and beauty to get noticed. Seinfeld didn’t need to be a hunk and could dress down grungy, but Tina Fey’s gotta wear those pumps. It’s sick that the world works like that, yes, and it’s even more sick that Dowd chose to center her tale of Fey’s career around what was perhaps the smallest aspect of her success.
The quotes from the article chosen to accompany the lovely Annie Leibovitz photography are even more puzzling. Next to an image of Fey dancing
around, smiling and carefree is the blurb, “I like to look goofy, but I also don’t want to get canceled because of my big old butt.” While I find the actualand image counteracts how free Fey looks while dancing. It feels like a textual punishment: you can’t really be this joyful because you have a butt. I have yet to truly understand what exactly made this such an important quotation as to be excerpted from the article. As it is, it adds yet another contradictory message to the tangled subtext: She’s a brain. No, she’s a brain-turned-glamour puss-who-somehow-retained-the-brain. But, don’t worry, other women: she’s still a butt despite it all.
Regardless of how pretty Tina Fey may be I’ve never actually met anyone who would talk about her looks before her comedy. But Dowd’s article–though it does veers into the Palin sketches (“Did she ever use the Sarah Palin voice to entice her own First Dude?” Dowd asks [pg. 2].) and 30 Rock (“30 Rock features many shots of Liz Lemon’s younger life, when she looks like a nerd in goofy clothes and frizzy hair. ‘I really wasn’t heavy in high school,’ Fey recalls over lunch one afternoon at Café Luxembourg, where she dutifully switches her order from a B.L.T. to a salad” [pg. 2].)–has body on the brain.
Whether she did it just to sell magazines or if she’s acting on her own prejudices, Dowd has done everything in her power to tease out the body and bawdy from this career, but no matter if you want to package her as America’s Sweetheart or as just a very talented comedic writer/producer who worked her butt off, in the end, Fey just comes across as smart and driven. Plain and simple. I, for one, like that; I’m not sure why Dowd doesn’t.
(You can read the full article here or in the January 2009 issue of Vanity Fair, starting on page 66.)
*Apologies to the writers of Frost/Nixon for stealing their title. The movie, while fairly unrelated to anything having to do with this article, is actually fantastic.