Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Creative jewelry for the book, tea, and sushi lovers

Cory is an Englishwoman who makes tiny detailed replicas of books, bookshelves, teapots, and the like to wear as jewelry. Some of my favorites:

Stack of books dangling earrings

Harry Potter bookshelf necklace

Incidentally, this particular item is featured in a contest right now. See the Coryographies blog entry about the contest.

There is also a graduation bookshelf necklace. See her Etsy page for the full selection.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On ENCHANTED: Don't get your hopes up: It's still a Disney movie

As Deborah Siegel nicely details in her review of the movie, it doesn't quite distance itself, in the end, from all - or maybe even any - of the problematic characteristics for which Disney movies are constantly - and rightfully - criticized in the academic world. I recognized that immediately when I saw the pivotal role that the Evil Stepmother was going to play. (And Jessica says to herself, "A-gain I think I'm watching a movie for fun, and it turns out to be homework.") A witchy mother - who, as Nick Schager astutely points out, is also literally a monster during the movie, "an evil dragon lady borrowed from Sleeping Beauty (Susan Sarandon) who likes to pose as the old hag from Snow White" - seeking to keep her son from falling in love with another woman in order to keep all of the power for herself. Let's see, does that sound familiar? Number One, portraying what you're seeking to mock does not usually effectively do so; in my experience, it actually enables you to more distinctly present the stereotypes that you have in mind - and thus, rather than really attacking them, actually makes those stereotypes more distinct for viewers. Number Two, I question why anyone thought that Disney was really seeking to mock any of those old ideas of theirs anyway. All that they do seem to be attempting, according to this New York Times article, is to find "new" ways to make money without hurting the rich old ways that they already have. As the caption there best describes, it's just another Disney movie with an added "modern touch" - but nothing is gone or has changed.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Clearing some smoke from the Britney/K-Fed wars

While looking for something else entirely tonight, I came upon this site asking viewers/readers to vote as to whether Brit or her new ex should get custody of their two kids (despite the fact that very few kids go 100% to one parent or the other, which fact is surprisingly obscure in this country: Even I, while pregnant, thought that I was deciding between parenting with my son's father's help or without it - but it never occurred to me that I might have to deal with something in between). While reading the comments, I found several remarks that merit comments of my own in response. They subtly demonstrate, I think, the depth and breadth of the absorption of mistaken ideas about parenting that have deep negative consequences in our lives. And actually, there were only really three of them:

1. "Britney is the mother and she carried the kids for nine months, so she deserves the kids!" Um, why? It's not as though there's any other way that things could have come to pass (unless she used a surrogate). We need to stop buying into the idea that women are somehow inherently/biologically better at parenting than men - which all of the demonization of mothers and celebration of involved fathers these days seems to belie anyway and which doesn't jive with the contemporary realities of ultra-effective formula and the like either. If there's any scientific basis for mothers being better parents than fathers, it's impossible to separate it from the fact that mothers and fathers are SOCIALIZED to think so - thus likely making it a self-fulfilling prophecy - and/or that our society (sometimes combined with biology) simply FORCES mothers to do more parenting than fathers, which ultimately would still make mothers generally better at it simply due to their getting more practice.

But of course, in order to do that, we would also have to get away from our similarly misplaced notion that biological "parenthood" a better parent figure somehow makes. In this world, having a role in the split-second creation of a child - which act we ought to know by now has nothing to do with one's ability to be an appropriate parent - nevertheless makes one woman and one man the only people entitled to any rights to and responsibilities for a child unless and until a ridiculous standard of proof to the contrary is met. For a country that stands behind preemption, we sure don't apply it to child abuse. As another commenter wrote, "Hell, neither one of those crazy bleep dip sticks need those kids."

2. "No real man runs out on his pregnant wife for another woman." This perspective is just as problematic as the "welfare-reform" notions that involve coercing women into marrying or not divorcing their kids' fathers, even if those fathers are abusive, because either 1) the women have reached the imposed-from-outside limit of their temporary assistance or are otherwise being denied aid and can't survive without a second below-the-cost-of-living wage earner in the household, or 2) the government is going to deny them assistance UNLESS they do so. (It's easy to find sources to back me up on this issue, by the way. Try a Google search on "welfare" and "coerced marriage," for starters.) Why do we still have this bizarre notion that keeping families together (even when those families defy all of our idealisms as to what constitutes families) is the solution to the world's problems? Back when few had the opportunity to do anything else, the murder rate was higher than it is now. Why do you think that is? (Here's a hint: "THE DECLINE in marriage is having another unexpected effect on Western society - a decline in the murder rate as fewer husbands have fewer opportunities to kill fewer wives.")

3. And then we have the good ol' Selfish Mother myth:

"Aren't the nannies going to raise them anyway?? In typical Britney fashion where was she on Easter?? Well,she was shopping and going to the basketball game of course (without her kids) maybe dad had them.... isn't this [what] any good mother would do on Easter?? (sarcasm)... How selfish can you be grow up Brit and put your kids 1st instead of yourself."

Maybe they WERE with K-Fed. That's common among separated parents: One gets most of the "regular" time, the other gets most of the holidays - or they split them. And then what parent wants to hang out at home while her kids are gone? I had to take pains to distract myself while Alex, as a baby, was with his biological dad - especially because I had concerns about what kind of dad he could be.

But what if they weren't? Must everyone see Easter the same way? Must a "good mother" be with her kids all the time - even if that means that such constant proximity makes her lose her mind and act like a "bad mother"? Why do we continue to criticize mothers for being away from their kids when, with incredible and yet unremarked-upon consistency, it's the stay-at-home moms (or the ones who "only" work part-time) who end up making the big headlines for killing their kids? Is getting away sometimes - or even regularly - really 100% NOT in kids' best interests?

The other irony in that remark is that being rich is supposed to be the goal and the ideal in this country - especially if you're considering having kids (hence another comment that "she's definitely the better choice if for no other reason but her financial stability") - and yet it simultaneously assumes that the rich never raise their own kids and thus are "bad parents." In fact, in Britney's case, much the opposite has been evident. While she has made mistakes with her kids that have made major headlines (which have not always corresponded in magnitude with the magnitude of those mistakes), she's made them because she's been trying to take care of her kids herself, without a nanny doing it all for her. (I'm not the first one to make that point, by the way.)

Bottom line, as far as I'm concerned: Ain't nothin' cut-and-dried here - as is pretty much always the case, I would argue - so the appropriate court decision wouldn't be either. As one family court judge said while my own kid's custody case was on the docket for the day: His goal is to make sure that no one goes home happy. And isn't that a good thing? At least the kids will always know that both parents were willing to fight for them when it came right down to it. And so will mine.

Monday, September 17, 2007

BRAZIL, a prophetic 1985 film - in which a bad mother strikes again

[first posted on my Gather.com page earlier today]

Monty Python member Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil is uncanny in its prediction of the present. It depicts a totalitarian society in which the incredibly invasive Bureau of Information Retrieval "never makes mistakes" in pursuing terrorist suspects - or just those "selected for questioning" - who the movie shows us are usually if not always citizens and usually if not always die or otherwise disappear, regardless of their guilt or even their true identities. The main character, Sam Lowry, initially seems to be more aware of the problems inherent in his world than later, as he begins to haplessly destroy his own life and the lives of those around him in selfish pursuit of Jill, who resembles the woman of his idealistic dreams - literally. In that he is clearly influenced by the classic movies that hypnotize most of the members of this society into compliance with their horrific government.

Meanwhile, his widowed mother, Ida, repeatedly tries to force her son into a relationship with her friend's ungainly daughter and into a promotion to Information Retrieval, neither of which he wants. She accomplishes the latter by "pulling strings," she says, but her power clearly comes to a large extent from her sexuality, even though her high-ranking husband is dead. She basically admits to sleeping around with at least one high-level government official, a man at least as young as her son, and her plastic surgeon, who ultimately makes her look so young that her son sees Jill's face instead of Ida's - and that's right after he makes love with Jill in his mother's bed (while she's wearing a blond wig that makes her look more like the damsel in distress of his dreams). "Don't call me that," Ida says, as Sam cries repeatedly, "Mother! Mother!" The obsession of, it seems, all matronly women in this society with plastic surgery and lingerie are meant to further illustrate the failures of this fictional world - but the trope that's used to do it, the Monster Mother (controlling, powerful, sexual, and self-absorbed) is nothing new. And the result - the destruction of her son and everyone connected with him - is common as well.

[Another interesting sidenote: Sam's boss at the beginning of the movie is named Kurtzmann. I was instantly reminded of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness - but I also feel as though I've encountered another character named after Kurtz in my movie-watching of the past couple of years. Anyone able to help me with that?]

The film, though reminiscent of other futuristic cautionary tales, such as Blade Runner, only partially succeeds, due, I suspect, at least to some extent to its perplexing inconsistencies in characterization. Those may be due to Gilliam's Monty Python roots: He sacrifices consistency for humor, but in consequence the plot suffers. Still, its prophetic qualities are fascinating. Of course, it was purportedly inspired by George Orwell's 1984, so that shouldn't be surprising either.

My source for some of these details was Wikipedia.

It's Always in the Title: Gregory Maguire's SON OF A WITCH

[The first part of this article I posted on my Gather.com page last Wednesday.]

Like Monster-in-Law, the bad J-Lo movie whose title explicitly replaces "mother" with her more common image in American culture, as I discuss in my thesis, Gregory Maguire's novel Son of a Witch - the sequel to Wicked, which made a splash as a Broadway play - implicitly suggests another name for the title character Liir's mom. Yet when we start reading the book - the series began as a clever interpretation of The Wizard of Oz - we realize that Liir is not even certain that Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, was indeed his biological mother, although he was apparently with her as long as he can remember from his childhood to her death. It is not until he joins the military (since he has nothing better to do and must eat and stay warm somehow) that he begins to criticize her as a mother (without still being certain of her actual maternity), partially in comparison with the stereotypically affectionate, good cook moms of the other soldiers - one of whom out of jealousy and spite he frames for a crime, the ramifications of which culminate in that soldier's suicide - but primarily because he feels his lack of education - in the traditional sense, yes, but even more in obedience (she herself was only obedient to herself, he notes), and most of all in how to be a man. Thus we hear the classic criticism of the single mother - the powerful single mother - from the character of a young man who was written by a man. Usually I find such illustrations penned by women.

But Maguire does make a point of indicating that the witch - frightening for her power to use words to make things happen, we learn (and what of that wouldn't be frightening for any patriarchal society?) - was not hated and/or feared by all - that she even had allies and was respected by those who, after her murder at the hands of the feckless Dorothy, seem mildly interested in revenge. Yet those are all outsiders, marginal to society and suspicious to the civilized, the law-abiding, the religious - with whom Liir has taken up by the time he begins to criticize his mother. Mainstream society is not kind to mothers, we see.

Elphaba was apparently not affectionate, not kind, not nurturing, not self-sacrificing, not involved - not maternal, Liir concludes, wondering if that alone might prove that she's not his mother - and further, she had green skin and a biting wit and enjoyed studying her spell-book late into the night. All inappropriate characteristics for an ideal mother. All she asked of Liir, we learn, was to keep himself safe. That alone might define an ideal mother from my own feminist perspective, though.

The interesting thing is that - at least at this point in the story, about halfway through the book - Liir is an ideal American man: handsome, independent, reserved, somewhat intelligent, basically obedient, mildly ambitious. In fact, single mothers have a tendency to produce that type, I've found. They appreciate women because they've seen their contributions in a situation in which none of it can be appropriated to a man, and they know how to work and take care of themselves because they've had to.

The Oedipus complex, on the other hand, can only arise when there's a man in a heterosexual relationship with a boy's mother to give the boy someone of whom to be jealous. (Or, as Hegel would have it, someone to Desire in hopes of fulfilling the boy's homoerotic Desire for recognition from the man.) Otherwise, the boy actually has his mother all to himself, as society idealizes. Granted, single mothers often work, but that keeps them from becoming as dependent on their children as the Bad Mother myth suggests - and really, despite the mothers most often demonized, it's only the stay-at-home moms who actually end up hurting their children (probably because they have no way to escape their postpartum depression and/or the endless, mindless drudgery of caring for young children). It's sadly ironic in retrospect that Mrs. McCann was celebrated as undeserving of losing a daughter because she's a stay-at-home mom (see my earlier post on the subject) - and yet now it appears as though she killed her daughter herself at the time.
[I'll directly explore Freud's take on the Oedipus complex someday soon, I'm sure. Now that I've finished Son of a Witch, though, I'll finish my discussion of this book:]

Liir got worse before he got better. In line with Maguire's allegory for the United States government (he actually indicated in an interview that one of his inspirations for this book was the Abu Ghraib incident), the military influence in Liir's life causes him to commit the one act that he regrets more than anything else in his life. Then he goes through a frustrating period of hopelessness in which he denies his connection to and shared plight with the rest of the world. (Sound familiar?)

It is only when he starts to follow Elphaba's example that he stops failing at every task to which he sets out - and angering Maguire's readers (or me at least!) with his stubborn self-absorbed careless inaction - and begins to succeed. Even after death, we learn, Elphaba is keeping alive many people's - and animals' - hopes for freedom from tyranny, whether as a symbol, through remembrance of her actions while she lived, or through those whom she knew in her life.

Despite that glowing recommendation, Liir still appears to follow the typical path of the son of a Monster Mother: He cannot feel the way that he thinks that he should toward an attractive woman who might care for him in return. His body reacts as it should to bring about reproduction, but he cannot ever consciously follow through on that impulse. Instead, [Spoiler Alert!] he experiments in homosexuality with a man that he met in the military - in accordance with the typical homoerotic relationships that arise in such situations - and seems to be more sure of that identity in himself than anything else.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not equating having a homosexual son with being a bad mother. I'm getting to the point, in fact, where I think that raising a child who so clearly does not fulfill societal expectations would be the foremost indicator for me of success as a parent in this society. But I am seeing, over and over again, stories in which that first equation is being made. Perhaps Maguire only means it here as a further indicator of the damage that war can cause to those forced to participate in it, in a long line of similar texts including, for instance, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises - and indeed, the inability to function sexually is a common and documented effect of combat. Ultimately all that is certain, though, is that Liir himself does not feel entirely satisfied with his sexuality at the end of this story, and so neither does the reader - and thus we're left with that negative impression to apply where we will.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Short reviews of some of the movies (relevant to mothering) that I've seen this year

Thank You for Smoking
I enjoyed this movie's celebration of rhetoric, even though I find a little tiresome its typical idealized portrayal of a parent who sacrifices everything because he is unable to stomach a little bit of hypocrisy and/or contradiction, which as Sara Ruddick writes (in Maternal Thinking, which I'm reading right now) is central to real parenting.

I really, really enjoyed this movie and would recommend it to anyone. First of all, it stars the ever-impressive Maggie Gyllenhaal. But it's a story of a formerly drug-addicted mother who gets out of prison motivated solely by her hopes for a close relationship with her daughter. She quickly discovers, though, that one cannot rely entirely on a child for one's sense of purpose - especially because children are often unpredictable. It's also a story of the many realities of our society that can keep a good person from always being good. And it's a story of a family who has essentially adopted this little girl and their legitimate concerns for her interests - and their own. I can empathize with both sides of this story, so I was ever-alert to any standard demonization of either the mother or the stepmother - but it really wasn't there. Neither character was perfect, and both were often sympathetic. The movie is an excellent exploration of the complications of parenting in the real world and how they simply cannot be simplified into "good" and "bad" or "right" and "wrong."

O Brother Where Art Thou
OK, George Clooney does not a convincing Odysseus make. In fact, the plot's resemblance to the original Odyssey is skeletal at best - and thus sometimes simply frustrating, so it would be better to watch it without that expectation. It is, then, somewhat amusing. Its all-too-typical demonization of the wife/mother - a horrible debasement of the original, honored Penelope - further hurts the flick in my eyes, though. I wouldn't recommend it.

Donnie Darko
A professor in my new department thinks the world of this movie and recommended it to me. It was too weird for Dennis, but I enjoyed it once I realized that it was basically magical reality, like Salman Rushdie's work - and it packs an incredible emotional punch. It also demonstrates an awareness of societal constructions of ideal motherhood - which in this case particularly involve appropriate mothering behaviors, such as complete devotion, and perfect results in the children themselves - and subtly challenges them. I'll probably watch it again to take closer note of all of its nuances.

Dead End
I watched this movie thinking that it would be relevant to my mother-sons work, but the daughter's relationship with her father turned out to be the real focus. It was an enjoyable movie too, especially once I realized that, despite the frequent creepiness, I wasn't going to see anything truly nightmarish. It was always just suggested - sometimes rather humorously. The surprise ending also reminded me a lot of that of Donnie Darko, since in both movies your entire understanding (or lack thereof) of what you've seen changes - and your confusion resolves itself - right in the last few moments of the action. To be honest, Dead End still leaves some questions in the viewer's mind - but I'd still recommend it.

Keeping Mum
With an all-star cast (including Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean fame; Kristen Scott Thomas; Patrick Swayze; and Maggie Smith, most recently known as Harry Potter's headmistress), this movie attempts to make what is quite serious - adultery, murder, and sermon-making - quite funny, with some success. If you take such things seriously, you might not be convinced, though. My husband certainly wasn't, and I had some trouble myself as well. It's also a little like Stella Dallas in that it shows how even a well-meaning mother can do best by her daughter by absenting herself from that daughter's life. I suppose that if it had been about a murderous mother of a philandering son instead of a murderous mother of an adulterous daughter, it wouldn't have been a comedy in the first place.

I've also watched most of The Inconvenient Truth and Sicko (discussed here) recently, and even though they're unapologetically liberal in orientation, what they both show is that mainstream American movies that present a viewpoint outside the mainstream 1) get that viewpoint honest consideration among the mainstream population and 2) do so much more successfully than do books, speaking tours, websites, or any other form of communication. That directly confirms my ultimate argument in my Master's thesis: that without positive visual representations (read: in movies) of feminist and so-called "nontraditional" approaches to mothering, even - and primarily - mothers themselves will be unable to take such approaches without worrying about their standard negative connotations in society and probably reacting to such worries. Such evidence makes me feel triumphant.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

International Literature: SHALIMAR THE CLOWN by Salman Rushdie and ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith

I recently finished an unabridged audio version of Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, wonderfully read by Aasif Mandvi, which was my second Rushdie book. Between it and my first, Midnight's Children, I'm getting a sense of Rushdie's style: chronologically fluid, satirical, politically aware, epic, occasionally fantastical. Both books follow fictional characters through lives positioned, like Forrest Gump's, in places such as the former Bombay, Kashmir, and Los Angeles at significant moments in recent history. In Shalimar, that includes the German occupation of France during WWII, the Rodney King fiasco(s), various acts of extremist Islamic terrorism, and the destruction of the tolerant people and the beautiful land of Kashmir at the hands of India, Pakistan, and those terrorists. There are many far more in-depth reviews of his book available online - most of them somewhat critical of the book, which perspective I don't share. For my part, about the whole book, I will simply say that I loved it. I also love Rushdie's style, which reading two of his books has helped me better understand, and I will read more of his work as soon as I can. (I met him once, but that's a story for another time.)

My particular purpose in this post is to discuss my feminist perspective on certain aspects of the book. There is a moment in Shalimar in which the title character's mother, Firdaus Noman, blames herself for her son's anger, which begins when he learns that his wife has cuckolded him - although it should be noted that he had very early indicated to his beautiful Hindu future wife, Bhoomi/Boonyi Kaul, that he would be violent if he ever had reason to be jealous - and results in his murder, first as a terrorist and then as a vengeful husband, of countless victims across the globe. (By the way, I'm not giving anything away that you can't learn in either the most standard online review or the first few chapters.) Firdaus, however, tells herself, on recognizing her son's anger, that she would never be quarrelsome again. Yet another of her sons, Anees Noman, is essentially a hero in a brief but incredibly emotional part of this book - and even without that it's clear that what becomes of Shalimar (nee Noman Sher Noman) has little to do with his mother.

Rushdie demonstrates his awareness - and, I think, his disapproval - of the world's mother- and woman-blaming tendencies in this way in this book. Of course the adulterous Boonyi - and the consistently adulterous Max Ophuls (who, interestingly enough, shares his name with a real person) - deserve blame for their dishonesty in those choices in this book. But the magnitude of events for which she is blamed - and, ultimately, punished - is way out of scope in terms of her error.

However, stepmother-demonization is also very present at times in this book, and Rushdie does not do anything that would cause or allow readers to question that. Max's wife, Margaret "Peggy/The Grey Rat" Rhodes, we learn, is (and always has been) frigid and barren - and also understandably bitter over her husband's incessant philandering. Impelled to some extent by a prophetic (and thus self-fulfilling) dream, Peggy connives to compel Boonyi into giving up her daughter, whom Peggy takes to America to raise by herself. When the inevitable questions arise, she lies to her "adopted" daughter as much as she can about the child's own origins, thus keeping her from her birth mother and almost entirely from her (thus beloved) father. Perhaps to some extent driven by those questions, Peggy ultimately becomes disinterested in the child, who as a teenager acts out in almost every imaginable way. It is only after Max's murder, when the daughter, India Rhodes (later Ophuls, nee Kashmira Noman) has already learned of her birth mother's identity, that Peggy tells her daughter a little of the truth - and provides a photo of Boonyi during her brief period of obesity. It is the only photo of her natural mother that India ever sees. The portrait of the stereotypical stepmother/single mother/nontraditional mother - from the barrenness and frigidity to the conniving, hateful, controlling, lying, unloving behavior related to "her" child, all of which is usually used to indicate unwomanliness and unfemininity - is unmistakable and disappointing.

By chance, the next long audiobook that I'm "reading" - and also vastly enjoying! - is Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I think that I read part of her White Teeth before, but I don't remember whether I ever finished it. Both Shalimar and Beauty feature interracial and adulterous relationships and are set both in and outside of the U.S. The days of "outsiders" not understanding the States are over: You'd never know that Smith and Rushdie weren't American citizens by the way that they seem to "get" the nuances of our culture. Rushdie has, of course, lived in the States, but Smith, it seems, hasn't. Beauty is not postmodernist, like Rushdie's work, though; for instance, so far it's proceeded in chronological order. Intriguingly, it does seem to be a modern take on the themes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which my mom and I saw, starring Kathleen Turner, in London last May. Academia, relationships, disappointment - it's all there.

There's a mother-son moment in the play, too: As I noted in my blog after first seeing it last summer, in Virginia Woolf, the wife expresses her awareness of the controlling mother/screwed up son ideology, even though neither is actually relevant to the woman's life, since she doesn't actually have a son. I'm only maybe a third of the way into Smith's book, but I've already found a mother-son moment here too: one of the main characters, Kiki Belsey, congratulates herself for producing "a young black man of intelligence and sensibility" - although she was then "mildly annoyed" to find that hers was not the only young Black man at the free Mozart concert (pt.1 ch.7). Smith goes on:

Undeterred, Kiki continues her imaginary speech to the imaginary Guild of Black American Mothers: And there's no big secret, not at all. You just need to have faith, I guess. And you need to counter the dismal self-image that Black men receive as their birthright from America - that's essential. And I don't know, get involved in after-school activities, have books around the house, and sure, have a little money, and a house with outdoor--

Despite the Belsey family's determined liberalism, they are not, as you can see, free from unfortunate biases. They are most of them a little racist toward Black people darker than the half-White Belsey children. Kiki is clearly a little classist. Jerome, the boy of whom Kiki was feeling so proud above, seems to take his mother's side when his father neglects her, but her daughter Zora blames Kiki for Howard Belsey's affair more than Zora blames Howard himself, citing Kiki's weight and non-intellectualism - and thus turning off a smart, handsome, talented young Black man who otherwise might have been interested in her. It's an interesting family portrait so far.

Incidentally, I'm apparently not the first to notice the connections between Shalimar and Beauty. Barnes & Noble Online lists On Beauty as the book most frequently purchased by those buying Shalimar the Clown.