Posts tagged with "feminism" - Faerye Net 2013-07-24T21:37:25+00:00 Felicity Shoulders Don't yuck my yum: it's all I've got 2013-07-24T21:37:25+00:00 2013-07-24T21:41:05+00:00 <p>I&#8217;ve been thinking about this <a href="" target="links">Zefrank</a> video, the last few days: <a href="" target="links">&#8220;Don&#8217;t Yuck My Yum&#8221;</a>.</p> <blockquote>&#8220;And the Yum getting Yucked is when you like something harmless &#8212; and &#8216;harmless&#8217; is the trick here and leads to my confusion &#8212; when you like something harmless and someone tells you to stop liking it.&#8221;</blockquote> <p>This is, I am sure we&#8217;re aware, absolutely endemic to fandom. <em>That</em> version of the show is inferior to <em>this</em> and here&#8217;s why, I could write a whole book of reasons &#8212; that show was ruined when <em>that</em> person joined the creative team &#8212; why do you like that movie, it&#8217;s so <em>stupid</em>? Tearing down each other&#8217;s likes seems to be fandom&#8217;s favorite sport (too bad, Quidditch is way more fun to watch.) I have very, very, very much been guilty of this, and I&#8217;m sure I will be again, despite any good intentions I enshrine in this blog post. I hope thinking through the implications for this post will keep me on the straight and narrow.</p> <p>I do think it&#8217;s worth a sidebar here: I, like Zefrank, emphasize &#8216;harmless&#8217; here. I keep meaning to write a blog post about consuming and loving media that contains retrogressive tropes and attitudes (spoiler: all media does) and I do definitely advocate talking about that stuff &#8212; criticizing. But there&#8217;s a difference between saying &#8220;this is harmful, we should talk about that&#8221; and &#8220;that thing you like is trash.&#8221; It&#8217;s the difference between saying &#8220;Really? You spend time smelling glue? That&#8217;s&#8230;not really healthy. Let&#8217;s google up why.&#8221; and saying &#8220;Really? You like <em>papayas</em>? But they taste like <em>vomit</em>, and now I&#8217;m going to describe how disgusting they are in detail for like ten minutes.&#8221;</p> <p>Good training for this sort of differentiation is, I think, disliking something terribly popular. When you hate <em>That Space Show Series 4</em>, and so do 75% of <em>That Space Show</em> fans, it&#8217;s really easy to get going on a rhetorical rampage, since you&#8217;ll almost always have backup and a cheering section. When you completely fail to grasp the appeal of <em>Mr. Popular&#8217;s Space Adventures</em>, you soon learn that actually, the fact that you don&#8217;t like Mr. Popular isn&#8217;t very interesting, doesn&#8217;t contribute to the conversation, and is best served by you avoiding Mr. Popular topics entirely.</p> <p>And the point of this post: there&#8217;s one sphere where I think this ability, to suppress the inner grognard whose <span class="caps">SAY</span> <span class="caps">MUST</span> BE <span class="caps">HAD</span>, to skate gracefully away from the target instead of casting Internet Fireball, is particularly important. Characters of underrepresented stripes. Recent internet commentary on a character I really really liked reminded me of the horror of <a href="" target="links">having to argue Princess Leia is awesome</a>. This was in the aftermath of a post about <a href="" target="links">poor female representation in Episode <span class="caps">III</span></a> where I wrote &#8220;I love Princess Leia. She’s one of the most important fictional characters in my life — probably the most.&#8221;</p> <p>People, I have a bracelet with the letters &#8220;<span class="caps">WWLD</span>&#8221; on it. I made that bracelet, myself. As an adult. To remind me to be awesome. When you tell me Princess Leia is a shrill bitch, you tell me my best self is a shrill bitch. When you tell me she&#8217;s unimportant, you tell me I can never be important. When you try to talk me out of loving her, you are trying to talk me out of loving myself. Because I have been identifying with her since before I knew your name. (Guaranteed: anyone I knew before age 2 wouldn&#8217;t pull that shit.)</p> <p>We live on stories, we humans. We eat them and digest them and turn them into muscles and bone. We build ourselves out of what we see, and when we don&#8217;t see enough of the people like ourselves, we resort to writing it ourselves. (See: a certain subset of fanfic.) If there aren&#8217;t characters quite like us, we distort what is there until it&#8217;s enough like us to go on. If the only character like us barely gets any lines, maybe we imagine she or he or they have a huge important story behind the scenes, if only you knew.</p> <p>And having characters be like us is a form of privilege. I know that&#8217;s a fighting word in fandom these days, but it is. If you are a straight white cis dude, you have a million stories to identify with. You don&#8217;t like Indiana Jones? Try Luke Skywalker. Or Bruce Wayne. Or Jason Bourne. Or Jack Ryan. Or Harry Potter. Or Jack Aubrey. If you feel intimidated by hypercompetence, there are heroic everymen or sweet bumbling accidental heroes. If you got picked on in high school, there are the nerds made good, through genius, financial success or superpowers. There are shy heroes, chatty heroes, bookish ones and brash ones for you. This is awesome, and wonderful, and I&#8217;m so glad you have those stories. I love many of them too, even though I can&#8217;t inhabit them the same way<sup class="footnote" id="fnr1"><a href="#fn1">1</a></sup>.</p> <p>I have fewer stories. I go to an action/adventure movie praying I will like the love interest, because usually &#8216;heroine&#8217; is an exaggeration. And&#8230;here&#8217;s the thing. <b>She&#8217;s all I&#8217;ve got</b>. You&#8217;ve heard of the <a href="" target="links">Smurfette principle</a>? There is only one girl. If it&#8217;s a team, she doesn&#8217;t even need her own identity, cuz she has &#8216;girl&#8217;! If I am watching a mainstream adventure/heroic narrative, and it&#8217;s not by Joss Whedon (or is <em>Avengers</em>) that girl is almost always the only one<sup class="footnote" id="fnr2"><a href="#fn2">2</a></sup>. The Main Hero, the Deadly One, the Funny One&#8230;all dudes. And when that girl, that only girl in the world, is smart, self-reliant, opinionated, and a damn good shot with a blaster? I love her forever, for rewarding my optimism, for giving me a story I can make part of me without pain and adjustment.</p> <p>I&#8217;m a grownup now, and it&#8217;s not going to give me much of a skinned knee if you hate my heroines (though, you know, shocking bad form, see above). But this world is full of girls and young women, and those characters they love aren&#8217;t just a yum you&#8217;re yucking: they&#8217;re good, nourishing food they need to grow strong<sup class="footnote" id="fnr3"><a href="#fn3">3</a></sup>. And kids of color, gay kids, trans kids, have even fewer heroes to love, fewer stories to fold into themselves. Let the kids eat. Don&#8217;t tell that girl Katniss sucks. Don&#8217;t tell that black kid Miles Morales is the worst Spider-Man ever. Don&#8217;t take the food out of their hands because <em>you</em> don&#8217;t like it. You don&#8217;t decide how to feed their hunger. They do.</p> <p class="footnote" id="fn1"><a href="#fnr1"><sup>1</sup></a> Let&#8217;s not get too far into literary theory here. Yes, I can sometimes inhabit a male character. But there&#8217;s often a rude awakening. &#8220;Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical.&#8221; &#8211; Virginia Woolf, <em>A Room of One&#8217;s Own</em>.</p> <p class="footnote" id="fn2"><a href="#fnr2"><sup>2</sup></a> Reasonable people can differ on whether <em>Xena</em> is mainstream. But there are of course more exceptions covered by that &#8216;usually&#8217;. I don&#8217;t think I actually wept with grateful joy when Toph joined the hero group on <em>Last Airbender</em> but I think I danced. Representation makes people happy. And lack of it makes them unhappy: I remember a heartbreaking story of a six-year-old <em>Last Airbender</em> fan who went to the live action movie and <em>bawled</em> because Katara wasn&#8217;t brown like her anymore.</p> <p class="footnote" id="fn3"><a href="#fnr3"><sup>3</sup></a> Even when you don&#8217;t think it&#8217;s good for them, try to be delicate, encourage critical thinking, and <em>listen</em>: I have fought down my opinions and listened to a young woman&#8217;s reasons for loving Bella Swan, and gods help me, I learned something.</p> Maybe I've heard this argument way too often... 2013-04-15T05:45:55+00:00 2013-04-15T05:46:11+00:00 <p>But this exchange from Martin McDonagh&#8217;s <a href="" target="links"><em>Seven Psychopaths</em></a> cracked me up:</p> <blockquote>Hans (Christopher Walken): Martin, I&#8217;ve been reading your movie.<br /> <br /> Marty (Colin Farrell): Oh. What do you think?<br /> <br /> Hans: Your women characters are awful! None of them have anything to say for themselves, most of them get either shot or stabbed to death within five minutes, and the ones who don&#8217;t probably will later on!<br /> <br /> Marty: [Clearly at a loss] Well&#8230;it&#8217;s a hard world for women, you know. I guess that&#8217;s what I&#8217;m trying to say!<br /> <br /> Hans: Yeah, it&#8217;s a hard world for women, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together!</blockquote> <p>Next time I hear the argument that horrible treatment of women in fiction is motivated solely by a high-minded pursuit of gritty realism, I&#8217;m going to see Colin Farrell&#8217;s clueless little pout-shrug. &#8220;Well&#8230;it&#8217;s a hard world for women, you know!&#8221;</p> I am not a Puzzle Box 2012-09-10T12:53:14+00:00 2012-09-16T22:50:43+00:00 <h2>Background</h2> <p>There&#8217;s been a lot of talk recently about sexual harassment at spec fic conventions, and in fandom generally. <a href="" target="links">A case of harassment at Readercon and mishandling of it</a> brought this discussion up from a simmer. There have been amazing related posts like Captain Awkward&#8217;s <a href="" target="links">response to two letters about creepy acquaintances</a>, which did a great job of explaining the links between seemingly innocuous creepiness and obvious sexual threat. Another great one was John Scalzi&#8217;s <a href="" target="links">Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping</a>, which tried to address the defensiveness from many male geeks on the topic and show that not being creepy isn&#8217;t rocket science. That defensiveness is predictable: it&#8217;s a dynamic I, and probably most geek feminists, are familiar with.</p> <p>This is all happening against a backdrop of gender- and race-fail in fandom, backlash against women in fandom (have you heard of <a href="" target="links">&#8220;fake geek girls&#8221;</a>?) and of course, the charming War on Women in the wider world.</p> <h2>Metaphor</h2> <p>A long time ago, I used to hang out on a discussion forum for gamers, in the general geekery section. There were recurring discussions about geek gender relations &#8212; about straight male geeks&#8217; sexual frustrations, and about female geeks&#8217; profound discomfort in many situations. In short, the same topic online fandom is mulling over now, with the same cast of characters and list of motivations and conflicts.</p> <p>This is the metaphor I came up with then, to explain why I (and other women) get creeped out, and how behavior some men think is innocuous seems creepy or even threatening to the recipient:</p> <center><strong>Some men see women as puzzle boxes.</strong></center> <p>As far as they&#8217;re concerned, inside every woman, there&#8217;s a tasty Sex Treat&trade;, and there&#8217;s <em>some way</em> to get it out. Some combination of words, of behaviors on the man&#8217;s part, some situation will pop that box open and <em>the treat will be his!</em></p> <p>Like every belief, this one has implications and consequences. A puzzler may continue to try and try and try to get a woman to sleep with him, testing different approaches and permutations, sure that the perfect solution exists &#8212; when in fact, he&#8217;s just being terrifyingly persistent in hitting on someone who he&#8217;s already completely alienated. He may learn generalized techniques from pickup artist websites or books, which make perfect sense to him because they use the same sort of puzzle/treat logic &#8212; and then find that real women he interacts with don&#8217;t respond as he anticipated, or even get offended, when he tries out his new techniques. A frustrated puzzler may stay in a platonic relationship with a woman hoping to stumble onto a way to get the treat, when he isn&#8217;t interested in the friendship for its own sake.</p> <p>And here&#8217;s the thing. While she may not know what to call it, a woman can often sense that a man believes her to be a puzzle box. He&#8217;s breaking Rule #4 in <a href="" target="links">Scalzi&#8217;s post</a>, &#8220;Acknowledge that other people do not exist just for your amusement/interest/desire/use.&#8221; He is talking to her, but <em>thinking</em> about how to get her Sex Treat&trade;.</p> <p>There are two big problems with the Puzzle Box model of woman. The first one you can probably guess, and I&#8217;ve just implied it when I note that women can tell a man&#8217;s thinking of them that way:</p> <center><strong>Women are people, not puzzle boxes.</strong></center> <p>Women don&#8217;t like being treated as interchangeable, or as the means to an end, or an obstacle in the way of someone&#8217;s desire, any more than anyone else would. Most puzzler-types would scoff at the idea that they&#8217;re treating women as interchangeable, but no, the fact that you value the sex treat or the victory more highly if the box has an attractive exterior, or if it hadn&#8217;t been opened before, or if it was particularly tricky, isn&#8217;t flattering. You are treating a sentient individual as an instance of a game. It&#8217;s disgusting.</p> <p>The second problem is a little more subtle, but its power is why I like this metaphor so much (besides the precise way it describes the feeling I get when a guy is talking to me but his brain is obviously listening to imagined tumblers in my locking mechanism).</p> <center><strong>Sex is not an item.</strong></center> <p>Sex is not a treat, it&#8217;s not a prize: it&#8217;s an activity people do <em>together</em>. When a man (or anyone else) focuses on it as an object to win, he is constructing his sexual world in a flawed and unethical way. If all that matters is that he <em>wins</em>, that he finds a way of <em>getting that treat out of that woman</em>, then the quality of her consent doesn&#8217;t matter to him.</p> <p>I&#8217;m not trying to be hyperbolic here, and I&#8217;m not trying to be vituperative: but logically, the Puzzle Box approach is on a continuum with rape. Each puzzler has a toolbox they use to approach a new puzzle box. One has flattery, pokes at self-esteem, dares, intense eye contact. One also uses <a href="" target="links">pushing of physical boundaries</a>, false teaming, buying her a couple of drinks, telling her she&#8217;s leading him on and owes him sex. One also uses the implied threat of his large and imposing frame, isolating her, getting her drunk. One also uses drugs, and social threat, and his strength and greater weight&#8230; You get the picture.</p> <p>When a woman senses a man sees her as a puzzle box, <em>she does not know</em> if he is a harmless guy with some stupid notions, or a self-taught pickup artist steeped in internet misogyny but who has a rudimentary ethical compass, or a guy who will rape her if he has plausible deniability but not otherwise, or <a href="" target="links">that self-aware serial rapist who posted on Reddit</a>.</p> <p>She doesn&#8217;t know whether he&#8217;s just going to annoy her with a constant attempt to load his save-game and retry with a bunch of corny lines and pushy suggestions; or stalk her on the internet trying to figure out the cheat code to open her pants; or grope her in an attempt to break her boundaries; or rape her. She does not know what he&#8217;s willing to do to get the treat. All she knows is that he sees her as an obstacle and her sex as an object. And why the fuck would she want to spend any time with him, even if he&#8217;s harmless, knowing that?</p> <h2>Takeaway</h2> <p>If you&#8217;re reading this and you have a puzzle box mentality, it doesn&#8217;t mean you&#8217;re a bad person. I&#8217;m not saying you&#8217;re a rapist when I say this mentality is part of a continuum with rape &#8212; I&#8217;m saying you&#8217;re part of a society which enables and includes rape. We all are. We don&#8217;t grow to adulthood in individual stasis boxes, creating all our attitudes ourselves. The idea of women as puzzle boxes &#8212; which is related to the ideas that women don&#8217;t actually want sex and just have to regulate men&#8217;s access to it, and to the idea of women as the sex class, the people whose bodies <em>carry</em> sex and <em>mean</em> sex &#8212; is embedded deep in our culture.</p> <p>Stop thinking about sex as a prize. Start thinking about it as something fun you&#8217;re doing with someone else who wants to have fun too. Don&#8217;t think of consent as something you can win either &#8212; or as a lid you&#8217;ve managed to get open. Consent should be desire and enthusiasm. Consent should be active and joyful. <a href="" target="links">It isn&#8217;t complicated.</a> You&#8217;re not looking for a cheat code, or a combination, or a series of moves that reveal the shortest way to the end of the puzzle. You&#8217;re looking for a human who wants to have fun with you &#8212; which actually makes this <em>way easier</em> because you can have fun with people before sex <em>ever comes up</em>, so you don&#8217;t even have to focus on sex as a goal. Fun is your goal &#8212; your fun and other people&#8217;s, which can be mutual and amazing!</p> <p>I think most of us would rather live in a world of people than of puzzle boxes, anyway.</p> <p><strong>Edited 9/16 to add:</strong> <em>Comments on this piece are now closed due to the time constraints of my offline life. Thank you to everyone who contributed and shared!</em></p> The 5 Stages of Street Harassment 2012-07-18T21:08:58+00:00 2012-07-18T21:09:40+00:00 <p><strong>1. Denial.</strong> Wait, did someone just say &#8220;<span class="caps">PROSTITUTE</span>!&#8221;? Was that the word? Was it that guy? Was it to me? No, surely I misheard. Let me just listen to the extremely disturbing replay in my head a bit, I&#8217;m sure it wasn&#8217;t that. Or to me. Shit, it really was.</p> <p><strong>2. Fleeing.</strong> Doooon&#8217;t look over your shoulder, fast fast walky walky fast, car around the corner, no one following me, it&#8217;s just nerves anyway. It&#8217;s a beautiful day, you&#8217;re no less safe just because someone reminded you it&#8217;s an ugly world.</p> <p><strong>3. Victim-blaming.</strong> Holy shit, is my bra showing? No, it isn&#8217;t. Also, what the what, Felicity, you&#8217;re a feminist. Cut that out. It&#8217;s about him, not you. [Ed: I bet you want to know what I was wearing. I would too. Because it&#8217;s how we make sense out of this crap, and unfortunately, shift the blame.]</p> <p><strong>4. Stubbornness.</strong> Stop, stop, <em>stop</em> looking in the mirror and checking your outfit for sluttiness, Felicity. You&#8217;re a feminist. You know that this is about that dude and his feelings about women, and the Patriarchy and its inability to allow women to just <em>be</em>, summer clothes and all, without carrying the signification of &#8220;<span class="caps">SEX</span>&#8221; around their necks like a burden and target. That guy is an enforcer. A creepy, crunkle-faced enforcer who wants you to be ashamed of wearing a tank top on a sunny day. He doesn&#8217;t get to win.</p> <p><strong>5. Blog fodder.</strong> Just another lovely reminder, folks! Patriarchy Makes Every Day Special!</p> Old Curiosities: Dimensionality and Dickens 2011-01-28T15:47:40+00:00 2011-02-16T23:03:08+00:00 <p>I recently finished listening to an excellent audiobook version of <em>The Old Curiosity Shop</em> by <del>Dahls</del> Charles Dickens. This is my eleventh Dickens novel, so you know I&#8217;m a fan. I love the rhythmic beauty of Boz&#8217;s sentences, the far-fetched yet quintessentially human characters he invents. I know his flaws, and even love some of them. I keep coming back for more.</p> <p>And I am sorry to report that I was disappointed in <em>The Old Curiosity Shop</em>. Despite its formidable reputation &#8212; the Americans running along the wharf, yelling to the incoming ships from Britain and asking for news of little Nell &#8212; I found it to be engaging, but not deeply affecting. Oh, it made me cry, but in an unusual turn of events, I resented my own tears. Usually I embrace Dickens&#8217;s melodrama, which is often over the top but also really earnest. Here, it rang hollow and manipulative. Why?</p> <p><em>Old Curiosity Shop</em> is Dickens&#8217;s fourth novel, which may explain some of its weaknesses, but it&#8217;s worth noting that while his first &#8220;novel&#8221;, <em>Pickwick Papers</em>, is the only Dickens I&#8217;ve ever left unfinished, I love his second and third, <em>Oliver Twist</em> and my dear <em>Nicholas Nickleby</em>. What early Dickens failing is forgivable in those and glaring in this?</p> <p>Stereotypes. Dickens often relied on broad generalizations and character &#8220;types&#8221; in his work. His characters often have a theatrical quality, and sometimes are so defined by their role that their name never appears, like <em>Curiosity Shop</em>&#8216;s &#8220;Single Gentleman&#8221;. This is an integral part of his style, and doubtless helped prompt the memories of readers whose experience of the novels was through the serial medium. In general, this theatricality is part of Dickens&#8217;s charm: he had a deft eye for the absurd which envisioned bizarre but vivid and palpably real characters like Wemmick and the Artful. But the same capacity for exaggeration and shorthand characterization could also harm his work.</p> <p>In <em>The Old Curiosity Shop</em>, two of Dickens&#8217;s prejudices come to the forefront: the idea of the Villainous Cripple, and the Sacrificing Woman. The Villainous Cripple stereotype should be familiar to anyone who&#8217;s watched Bond movies (or apparently, <em><a href="">Doctor Who</a></em>.) It partakes of two main tropes: external appearance accurately expressing internal nature, something which I&#8217;m sure has a fancy name (hopefully with &#8220;fallacy&#8221; on the end); and another classic of disability (mis)representation, the Bitter Cripple. Thus, you sometimes see a villain with a disability or disfigurement that just adds to their drama, &#8220;frightfulness&#8221; or &#8220;wrongness&#8221;, and you sometimes see a villain whose disability has caused them to become &#8220;warped&#8221; and malignant.</p> <p>Daniel Quilp is both. He is described factually as a dwarf, then figuratively as a monkey, an ape, and a demon. Oh, so often a demon. We even have entered Dungeons &amp; Dragons-style demonic bestiaries with &#8220;imp&#8221;! He&#8217;s strangely agile (thus the monkey image) and uses his agility &#8212; and his capacity for disturbing facial expressions &#8212; to upset and frighten people, to project this demon-ape image. Of course the words &#8220;warped&#8221; and &#8220;twisted&#8221; are used. On the other hand, we see him occasionally justifying his evil &#8212; for this is an evil, manipulative, vitriolic character &#8212; by reminding himself of insults paid to him on the basis of his disability. Our working-class boy-hero, the euphoniously named Kit Nubbles, is reported to have called Quilp &#8220;an uglier dwarf than could be seen anywhere for a penny&#8221; after one of the central pieces of Quilp villainy is executed, and this remark is used by Quilp as justification for all his subsequent efforts against Kit.</p> <p>The Bitter part of this stereotype is as close as it ever comes to real characterization: are we to believe Quilp is evil because people mocked him for his disability? But then, why are other Dickensians stalwart and pure in the face of their afflictions and the world&#8217;s cruelty? (Is this a literary Puritanism, with an Elect and a Damned?) In the absence of any really understandable motivation for Quilp&#8217;s Herculean efforts in the service of villainy, he isn&#8217;t a character, just a malign force moving through the book and serving the plot. Greed may explain this action, revenge that, but fundamentally he hates all the good characters for no better reason than that they are the good characters. He hates, explicitly, their virtue. Unlike the general run of Dickens&#8217;s shadowy villains, nursing their monomanias and dreams of avarice, Quilp feels unfocused and emotionally diffuse. This is not a character with human motivations. This is a plot device with a face.</p> <p>The other character to whom I object is &#8212; don&#8217;t hurt me &#8212; Little Nell. I have long said, &#8220;I love Dickens, but he doesn&#8217;t love me back.&#8221; Dickens doesn&#8217;t write a lot of relatable women. At least, you can relate to some of his major characters, but I really don&#8217;t recommend doing it. The classic Dickens heroines &#8212; the Good Girls &#8212; are endless flowing fonts of generosity. They are virtuous, compassionate, and honest. All good things, but in the Dickensian heroine they are taken to excess. If you ever find yourself considering what Agnes Wickfield would do as a guide to your everyday behavior, I suggest you preemptively check yourself in for therapy. Giving as much and as thoroughly as these women do is not healthy. Their entire personalities are defined by their nurturing. In Agnes, we forgive it, because she&#8217;s a secondary character. In Little Nell, the nominal protagonist, it&#8217;s poison.</p> <p>Characters need, to state the obvious, flaws. Even in the starkly drawn world of Dickens&#8217;s imagination, heroes have them: Nicholas Nickleby&#8217;s temper (however much I find it refreshing) is a flaw. Pip, Boz help him, is a mass of flaws. The characters need something in themselves to strive against, not just in the world. Even Kit Nubbles, the bonus protagonist of this volume, introduced as Nell&#8217;s comic relief and only marginally older than she, has flaws and struggles, small though they be. He struggles to &#8220;stay cheerful&#8221; and govern his temper for the sake of his mother. He can be oblivious to others&#8217; feelings. He can, albeit less spectacularly than Nickleby, snap.</p> <p>Nell, on the other hand, is imperturbably perfect. She&#8217;s less naive than that other pure little waif, Oliver Twist, so she&#8217;s able to get herself and her beloved Grandfather (the recipient of her Eternal Spring of Giving) out of scrapes, and out of clutches. She&#8217;s sweet, kind, soft-spoken, moral, uncomplaining (to the point of collapse from hunger) and true. She likes to ease others&#8217; suffering. She wants simplicity and quiet. Oh, and of course, she is gorgeously beautiful, and small for her age, allowing her to inhabit a nebulous zone between the pitiful child and the vulnerable woman for maximum victimhood.</p> <p>We have <a href="" target="links">Mary Sue and Marty Stu</a> &#8212; can there be a Martyr Sue, too? A character with no flaws is just frustrating, not engaging. I&#8217;m willing to wait for her flaws to emerge, but at some point &#8212; and I remember the point vividly, when Grandfather was whinging at her for uprooting them <em>which she did to rescue them from his folly</em> and she answered mildly &#8212; you lose all suspension of disbelief. No one that sweet can exist, should exist. Anything you do to her to make me cry is cheap. Anything she says is cloying. She has too few dimensions to exist on a flat page.</p> <p>This is what we&#8217;re talking about when we say that writing in stereotypes is <em>bad writing</em>. For all the cleverness and fun moments in <em>Old Curiosity Shop</em> (and it did definitely have them), it&#8217;s strung around empty spots instead of believable person-facsimiles.</p> <p>Dickens learned by doing, as we all must. Besides the convincingly flawed Bad Girls like Nancy and Louisa Gradgrind (and less convincingly drawn Estella), he eventually produced women who were allowed to be much less than perfect and still good, like Bella Wilfer. Some of his later characters seem almost like apologias for those that came before &#8212; Jenny Wren for Tiny Tim, Riah for Fagin. I don&#8217;t resent Little Nell or condemn her as a sexist depiction. I just see her as a missed opportunity, like many before and since. Art needs justice every bit as much as justice, to get a hold on people, needs art.</p> Anomalous Austen 2010-10-13T16:25:28+00:00 2010-10-14T14:48:40+00:00 <p>If you&#8217;re in Portland this Fall and have an interest in literary history or Jane Austen, I recommend stopping by <a href="">this exhibit</a> upstairs at Central Library, &#8220;Lit Chicks: Verbal and Visual Satire in the Age of Jane Austen&#8221;. (There&#8217;s a reception Thursday, October 28, 4:30–6 p.m &#8212; sadly, I will be out of town at a convention.)</p> <p>My friend Kelley and I stopped by here the other day for a quick peek, and I definitely want to go back. This is part of the description the library gives:</p> <blockquote>This exhibition puts Jane Austen and women writers of her time in context by displaying manuscript letters and first editions of plays, poetry, and early epistolary &#8220;novels&#8221; written by Austen&#8217;s predecessors, as well as first editions of novels by Austen and women writers who were inspired by her. Women&#8217;s periodicals of the day, items from Regency-period life, and later Austen editions and biographies add to the context.</blockquote> <p>This immediately reminded me of Joanna Russ&#8217;s <em><a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780292724457'>How to Suppress Women&#8217;s Writing</a></em>, which I read last year. In Chapter 8, &#8220;Anomalousness&#8221;, Russ writes that one of the various ways in which women&#8217;s writing is dismissed and winnowed from the literary canon is by rendering it &#8220;anomalous&#8221; or singular. Single works by remarkable authors are isolated &#8212; I daresay many people with BAs in English don&#8217;t know that Charlotte Bront&euml; wrote not one novel, but <a href="">four and a half</a>. But more importantly, perhaps, and more pervasively, those authors who cannot be forgotten or expunged are themselves rendered singular: the long line of female writers that emboldened an Austen or a Bront&euml; to pick up her pen, and moreover to seek publication, are removed.</p> <p>Russ quotes Claudia Van Gerven&#8217;s paper on &#8220;Lost Literary Traditions&#8221; (which, in a painful irony, I cannot find):<br /> <blockquote>&#8230;the inclusion of only the most extraordinary women [but not only the most extraordinary men]…distorts the relevance of those few women…who remain. Since women are so often thus isolated in anthologies…they seem odd, unconventional, and therefore, a little trivial…</blockquote> (bracketed note in Russ)</p> <p>and further:<br /> <blockquote>Since women writers are thus isolated, they often do not fit into the literary historian&#8217;s &#8220;coherent view of the total literary culture.&#8221;…As each succeeding generation of women…is excluded from the literary record, the connections between women…writers become more and more obscure, which in turn simply justifies the exclusion of more and more women on the grounds that they are anomalous&#8212;they just don&#8217;t fit in.</blockquote></p> <p>I remember my undergraduate class on British Writers, which I believe covered up to 1800, and I can&#8217;t recall a single work by a woman that I read in it. I was pleased to fill in gaps in my literary knowledge: I read works, like <em>Paradise Lost</em> and <em>Faustus</em>, and even <em>Rape of the Lock</em>, which are often referred to or quoted elsewhere. Most of these gave me little reading pleasure. Most of them (sorry, Marlowe fans &#8212; and yes, I know the text we have is mangled) did not seem to my subjective eye &#8220;great&#8221;. And yet they are assigned, recognized, mulled over: canonized.</p> <p>Just as Van Gerven says, the male writer appears to us in a family tree. The female writer does not &#8212; and as a result there are richnesses and allusions made by the few &#8220;remarkable&#8221; women in canon that the averagely educated reader will not spot. The goddesses of our recorded literature, emerging &#8220;like Athena from the head of Jove&#8221; as Russ says (I would have gone with Zeus), are without mothers, without sisters.</p> <p>So let&#8217;s see that quote from the library again:<br /> <blockquote>This exhibition puts Jane Austen and women writers of her time in context by displaying manuscript letters and first editions of plays, poetry, and early epistolary &#8220;novels&#8221; written by Austen&#8217;s predecessors, as well as first editions of novels by Austen and women writers who were inspired by her. Women&#8217;s periodicals of the day, items from Regency-period life, and later Austen editions and biographies add to the context.</blockquote></p> <p>You can&#8217;t read the copy of <em>Camilla</em> on display, nor indeed <em>Lover&#8217;s Vows</em>, but there&#8217;s something thrilling about seeing so much context, so much evidence (not to mention the voyeuristic thrill of reading these authors&#8217; letters and judging their penmanship). And who knows, maybe a few of the visitors, some of the more Austen-mad perhaps, will track down one of <a href=",+fanny&searchscope=1&sortdropdown=-&SORT=D&extended=0&SUBMIT=Search&searchlimits=&searchorigarg=aedgeworth,+maria" target="links">Frances Burney</a>&#8216;s books, or <a href=",+maria&searchscope=1&sortdropdown=-&SORT=D&extended=0&SUBMIT=Search&searchlimits=&searchorigarg=aBurney,+Fanny,+1752-1840" target="links">Maria Edgeworth</a>&#8217;s. Maybe the enduring appeal of Athena can drag her handmaidens and midwives out into the light.</p> The afterlife of Marilyn Monroe 2009-08-25T14:25:36+00:00 2009-08-25T19:09:11+00:00 <p>I&#8217;ve been raised to see Marilyn Monroe as a tragic figure. Most of us realize that the full weight of society&#8217;s attention can be burdensome: how much more crushing when that attention is rife with expectation and need. No doubt this view of Monroe was imparted to me by my parents, who told me the studios assigned her a dress size for every role and expected her to lose or gain weight accordingly. It was strengthened by reading like <a href="" target="links">Sharon Old&#8217;s &#8220;Death of Marilyn Monroe&#8221;</a>, a poem I recall studying in high school.</p> <p>Certainly her career brought her money and fame, but perhaps those who celebrate her as &#8220;an icon&#8221; don&#8217;t consider that <a href="" target="links">icons</a> are two-dimensional, and actresses are not. A world that no longer believed in Olympus still needed an Aphrodite, and Marilyn Monroe was elected, her mortal personhood gracefully elided.</p> <p>So far, so obvious. But what troubles me is that forty years after she died, people still revere the Venus and give the person no consideration. I&#8217;m referring to <a href="" target="links">the auction of a funeral vault above Monroe&#8217;s.</a> There&#8217;s obviously magical thinking involved in the idea that having your remains interred next to the remains of someone famous confers anything at all, but the thinking isn&#8217;t just magical. It&#8217;s sexual. &#8220;The space was auctioned by the widow of the man buried &#8211; face down &#8211; above Monroe,&#8221; the <span class="caps">BBC</span> reports, and goes on to note, &#8220;The space next to Monroe&#8217;s vault was sold in 1992 to the publisher of Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner, for $75,000.&#8221;</p> <p>To me, Hefner&#8217;s burial plans seem the capstone on a project of bad taste. Richard Poncher&#8217;s being buried face down above Marilyn Monroe seems lewd in the extreme, and makes it inescapably clear that the motive is a sort of sexual status, harking back to ancient funereal practices where women were buried with men for their use in the afterlife. Marilyn Monroe, even 47 years dead, is considered the ultimate desirable woman. In death, she&#8217;s still reduced to her sex appeal, to her status as the divine temptress, and in death, unable to object, she is sold.</p> <p>Now, I may be fairly accused of a different sort of magical thinking in objecting to this, and indeed of projecting my own understanding of tragedy and fame onto Marilyn Monroe just as others project the Venus archetype onto her. But ultimately, whatever you believe about the afterlife, how we treat the dead reflects upon us, the living. Do we want to be the sort of civilization that treats a supposedly loved and admired figure as the butt of an eternal dirty joke?</p> Keep your opinion polls off my body 2008-08-15T17:52:46+00:00 2008-08-23T09:54:19+00:00 <p>I, personally, am entirely convinced by the Health and Human Services Secretary blogging that the <a href="" target="links">leaked draft regulation</a> doesn&#8217;t have anything to do with contraception.</p> <p>After all, redefining abortion to be possible <em>before</em> implantation (&#8220;any of the various procedures &#8212; including the prescription, dispensing and administration of any drug or the performance of any procedure or any other action &#8212; that results in the termination of life of a human being in utero between conception and natural birth, whether before or after implantation.&#8221;) based on, I kid you not, <em>polling data</em> (&#8220;A 2001 Zogby International American Values poll revealed that 49% of Americans believe that human life begins at conception. Presumably many who hold this belief think that any action that destroys human life after conception is the termination of a pregnancy, and so would be included in their definition of the term &#8216;abortion.&#8217;&#8221;) is totally innocent. Now, recently studies have indicated that oral hormonal contraception, even at emergency contraception levels, doesn&#8217;t seem to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, but I&#8217;m pretty damn sure that polling data would not reflect that research, so that&#8217;s easy to get around. Science always is. Heck, the regulations are about the conscience of health care workers, so what matters isn&#8217;t whether the patient&#8217;s contraceptives prevent implantation, but whether the health care worker feels they will.</p> <p>The leaked document, by the way, is also worrying gay rights advocates who think the guidelines will allow health care workers to refuse treatment or medicine to gay and transgender patients based on their religious convictions. Woohoo!</p> <p>Here is the <a href="" target="links">leaked document</a> in <span class="caps">PDF</span>, and the Washington Post&#8217;s <a href="" target="links">original coverage</a>. Thrill to such features as (quoting the later article I first linked) &#8220;a major section of the draft regulation titled &#8216;The Problem&#8217; [that] cites state laws designed to make sure that women have access to birth control pills and Plan B.&#8221; Many of those laws are about emergency rooms providing emergency birth control to rape survivors. Isn&#8217;t it good to know our friendly <del>Gilead</del> U.S. Government really cares about its <del>handmaids</del> female citizens?</p> <p><b>Update, 8/23/08:</b> The rule has been <a href="" target="links">officially proposed</a>. This is not just dangerous because it&#8217;s vague or because it redefines scientific terms by popularity contest. It&#8217;s dangerous because the officials who are supposed to care about and provide for people&#8217;s health in this country assume &#8220;that a patient could go to another provider&#8221;, in short are unconcerned about widening the healthcare gap and denying services to those who don&#8217;t have the coverage, time off work, or transportation money to go to another provider.</p> The demands of art, the demands of self 2007-11-08T15:02:32+00:00 2008-05-30T13:42:52+00:00 <P>My friend (and distinguished poet) Jeannine recently wrote a little <a href="">blogget</a> on the continuing gender imbalance in publishing. It&#8217;s a little slanted towards poetry, but I&#8217;d be a big liar if I said <a href="">these problems</a> didn&#8217;t exist outside the versifying set.</p> <p>In my comment, I typed and then deleted something like &#8220;Great, now I not only feel guilty on my <em>own</em> behalf for only having two stories out, I feel guilty on behalf of my whole gender.&#8221; I deleted it for two reasons; one, I thought it was whingingly reproachful, and two, it just doesn&#8217;t seem healthy to support more <em>guilt</em>, in however jocular a fashion. It occurs to me now that guilt is part of the reason there are fewer fiction and poetry submissions from women than there are from men, even though there are more female readers, English majors, writing students, et cetera. The &#8216;Time&#8217; section of the <em>Mslexia</em> essay I linked to above talks about how women are, even today, more often the primary caregivers to children, and do more housework than men. It doesn&#8217;t talk about how that cultural role may be propagated, especially how it wins out against the potential fulfillment of writing.</p> <p>I think women are constantly told to be nice, giving, and <em>unselfish</em> in our society. Boys are rewarded for being determined, ambitious and driven, virtues that in girls might be rendered as domineering, climbing and cold. In a million little ways, from being handed a toy instead of encouraged to reach for it to being admonished to smile at strangers, we are trained to be less aggressive and more socially adept than our male peers are expected to be. Some of this may show itself in <em>Mslexia</em>&#8217;s second section on <a href="">Confidence</a>. However, I think it affects time a great deal as well.</p> <p>Even if a woman doesn&#8217;t have children, there are demands on her time. I&#8217;ve been trying hard to learn to say &#8216;no&#8217;. It feels so good to help, and helping has been so thoroughly emphasized in women&#8217;s socialization. My boss needs me to stay a half-hour later. My coworker is coming down with a cold on my only day off. It&#8217;s not just me&#8212;my boss&#8217;s new manager asks her to help run a second store on top of her own. These demands are immediate, time-sensitive, with a person on the phone or in front of us in distress that we can alleviate. If I take this time for myself instead of giving it, I will feel guilty. I&#8217;m a nice person, I want to help, I want to give&#8230;oh crap, okay.</p> <p>Writing is seldom time-sensitive. However fragile the threads of meaning forming in the writer&#8217;s mind, they can usually be saved for the next quiet moment, the next stolen hour. Right now, someone says they need us&#8212;a child, a coworker, a friend, a boss. And if we say no, especially so we can go write words we aren&#8217;t even sure anyone will ever read, we&#8217;re <em>selfish</em>. </p><p>I&#8217;ve been called &#8216;selfish&#8217; fairly often. A young woman is &#8216;selfish&#8217; for pursuing a career or a dream rather than having children &#8211; even if, or especially if &#8211; she would like to have both. It&#8217;s not just that demands are made on her, tasks are offered or questions asked. It&#8217;s that her function in the world is &#8216;helpmeet&#8217;, her value contingent partially on her generosity, her &#8216;niceness&#8217;. Other people must always come first, that&#8217;s what we&#8217;ve internalized. No matter how hard we may try to gouge it out of our psyche, remnants remain.</p> <p>Writing, any kind of art, requires an amazing egotism. It requires the artist to look at the breadth and depth of the world &#8211; or just of humanity &#8211; and say, &#8220;Yes, I need to be heard.&#8221; It takes a healthy self-respect to say that in the face of our own tininess, and it is incredibly hard to feel both that defiant self-confidence and the self-effacement of &#8216;niceness&#8217;, selflessness.</p> <p>So we have to learn a new value system. We don&#8217;t need to be heartless or deaf to others&#8217; needs&#8212;we just need to rate our artistic pursuits higher on the list of priorities. Not &#8220;I wasn&#8217;t going to do anything tonight but write, I can stay late,&#8221; but &#8220;They only want me here late as backup, my writing time is more important.&#8221; Not &#8220;Oh, okay,&#8221; but &#8220;If you can&#8217;t find anyone else to cover you, call me back.&#8221; Compromises are possible. I believe you can be kind and be an artist. It&#8217;s a struggle, and it&#8217;s not something anyone else can do for you, but I think it can be done. </p><p>Now if you&#8217;ll excuse me, I was going to spend my day working on a fellowship application, but I agreed to cover a closing shift at work.</p> The Beauty Myth Kills 2007-10-04T21:17:16+00:00 2008-05-30T13:44:06+00:00 <p>I heard <a href="" target="links">this segment</a> on &#8220;Fresh Air&#8221; today. It&#8217;s about how cancer-fighting efforts tend to focus on detection and treatment rather than figuring out what environmental factors cause cancer. I&#8217;ve heard whispers about this before, especially about breast cancer and the way money pours into big companies that make cancer-fighting drugs and also make things like pesticides and fertilizers. But the first thing this doctor discusses on the show is a terribly specific, horrifying thing.</P> <p>Apparently, in the US, black women under 40 get breast cancer massively more often than white women under 40, despite the fact that if you line up known risk factors and demographic data, young black women should get breast cancer <em>less</em>. Dr. Davis hypothesizes that one environmental factor is beauty products. Many black women in America go into chemical-filled beauty salons often, from a young age, and undergo regular harsh treatments for &#8216;relaxing&#8217;, &#8216;straightening&#8217;, et c. According to Dr. Davis, the US government doesn&#8217;t strictly oversee the contents of toiletries well&#8230;and of course, as she indicates time and again, we don&#8217;t <em>know</em> what chemicals to ban, even if we were overseeing things carefully.</p> <p>I&#8217;ve read about the pressure &mdash; some of it economic, not &#8220;merely&#8221; social and aesthetic &mdash; on African-American women about their hair. (If you&#8217;re curious, <a href="" target="links">this post</a> is a good intro, and links to many more in-depth blog posts.) This pressure is not &#8216;mere&#8217; in any way, and extends far beyond hair. (If you click on one link in this blog post, please click on this one: <a href="" target="links"><em>A Girl Like Me</em></a>, a 7-minute film by Kiri Davis. It is amazing &mdash; there&#8217;s a part that makes me cry, but also some intelligent young women being devastatingly articulate.) But if Dr. Davis is right and the effect of &#8216;beauty&#8217; products is sufficient to skew cancer statistics in this way&#8230;then America&#8217;s beauty culture is killing more people than we thought. More than just people with eating disorders or teens with suicidal self-hatred. The world tells huge numbers of women their natural hair is so hideous it has to be transmogrified, tortured, tamed &mdash; and it sells them poison to do it with? How ugly can you get?</p>