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 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 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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On feminism: How far we have and haven't come

[Originally posted on Friday on my Gather page, where it's been rated 10/10 by 9 different readers and garnered 13 comments]

Sometimes I take care of my husband, and sometimes my husband takes care of me. Usually it is I who takes the cars in to get the oil changed or other maintenance/repairs done. If I left it up to Dennis - as enviably undistractable as he usually is - it wouldn't happen in what I consider to be an appropriate time frame. I want my family to be safe. I want our cars to last. And heck, when I get offered a mystery shop and his is the only car that I could use, why not get it done, when it's ultimately for free? That saves us, as a family, money.

But when I mentioned to my mom that I was getting Dennis's car fixed one day, she was horrified. She had never done that for Dad - ever. If anything, she usually had him do it for her. She worried that I might be getting into the habit of doing for my husband. She worried that I might become a bit of a slave.

Her perspective initially surprised me. Later, I realized, though, that what the conversation demonstrated was the difference between the situation of my mom's generation of women and my own. Let me explain.

There was a huge debate on Feministing a little while back about women changing their names after marriage. I posted some excerpts from it here. One of the points that came out of that debate, though, was the fact that - because feminists cannot choose to take their husbands' names upon marriage without feeling guilty, without feeling compelled to defend their decisions, without wondering whether they're just justifying a preference created in them by their socialization as women - women are not free from the influence of societal expectations on that subject. Until a woman can take her husband's name and it means nothing much different than keeping her own name (or until a woman can choose to NOT have an abortion, or until a mother can choose to NOT go back to work after the birth of her children, etc.), we are not free. We do not have free choice. Those are areas in which we haven't progressed enough.

But I do have some freedoms that my mom didn't: I can "do for" my husband without losing any of my sense of myself as a strong, independent, feminist woman. If anything, it actually shows my strength. Many women avoid taking their cars to repair shops because of the rampant sexism there. But in our house, I am the one who takes the cars in. I have enough of my own that I can afford to give some away.

I have seen men and women put forth the argument that women are privileged because they can play the gender card both ways: They can demand to be treated as strong when it suits them at some times, and they can demand to be treated as weak when it suits them at others. (The so-called Father's Rights movement is evidence that men can do the same, by the way.) I would argue that that's just more evidence of how far we haven't come: If women weren't still expected to be inherently weak and men weren't still expected to be inherently strong, we could all be both at various times - as is natural, after all - without it being so fraught with emotion and political import. And then maybe there wouldn't be women like Ann Coulter and Monica Goodling, who play up men's power to furtively secure their own, meanwhile hurting, through their example, the chances of other women nationwide who are not so willing to set back the clock for their own private gain. They only get away with it because of patriarchy. If men are jealous, they should support feminism in its fight against such problematic gender expectations. If we ever get to a time when people of all genders can choose to be weak or strong without it meaning much either way, then we'll know just how far we've come. But that's hard to imagine, I know.

[A clarification that I posted in response to one of those comments:]

I did not say that feminists are "feeling guilt about not changing your last name after marriage or guilt about killing your unborn babies"; rather, I said that they're feeling guilty about CHANGING their last names and/or KEEPING their babies because society is still so vociferous about those decisions that it's hard to know whether your decision in those directions is still actually your own. I made a decision to keep a baby myself, and as a result for a time I pointed out that one of the valuable things about legal abortion is that it enables keeping a baby to be a free choice rather than a choice between one's own life and death, and that makes it a lot easier to be a good parent during the tough times - such as the 24th month of interrupted sleep as a single student/parent. After all, most people are more likely to put their souls into the career of their choice than they would into work at gunpoint, just as most are more likely to enjoy making love than they would getting raped. But now I'm beginning to wonder whether my decision truly was free or whether I felt that it was the right choice because of all of the media-broadcast anti-abortion harping that I know I'd been exposed to even then. I resent that for clouding my certainty that where I am in my life today is where I chose to be - but really, I can't have that anyway, since I also know that part of why I am where I am today is because of my White heterosexual privilege. That's another way that we'd all benefit from true equality of opportunity: There'd be no reason to think that we'd gotten to where we are today because of anything other than our inherent abilities, our personal choices, and the equal opportunities that we all, as members of society, deserve. Oh, I'm dreaming now....

Thursday, June 21, 2007

International Museum of Women Online Motherhood Exhibit and Online Film Festival Call for Submissions

[I received an e-mail yesterday asking me to spread the word via my blog about some of the current features at the International Museum of Women. I was understandably excited to learn that, since their physical location is in San Francisco, I can visit sometime while in the area to see my mom and dad and some other family up there. In the meantime, as they requested, I copied this description of The Motherhood Project from their home page.]

The Motherhood Project

Entries from more than 30 countries from women in their 20s and 30s compose our online exhibit dedicated to the sometimes joyous, sometimes mysterious, and sometimes complicated realities of modern motherhood.

The exhibit runs March 8 through June 30, 2007 and will include contributions from journalists Lisa Ling and Marianne Pearl, Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, author Rebecca Walker, activist Hafsat Abiola, comedienne Jenny McCarthy, actress Julie Delpy and Karenna Gore-Schiff.

View what young women are saying through art and the written word and participate in the dialogue. Thank you for your submissions and keep joining the conversation.

[Also as they requested, I copied the below information about their upcoming online film festival from their online call for submissions page.]

Call For Submissions

Imagining Ourselves: Global Voices from a New Generation of Women

Imagining Ourselves launched with a published anthology and an online exhibit on International Women's Day, March 8, 2006. The project received great acclaim and widespread media attention around the globe, from articles in Bombay's TimeOut Magazine to television coverage in Tijuana and numerous reports in the San Francisco media. Since then, we have reached out to a new generation of women on every continent, in four languages and through more than 100 global events and gatherings on the ground in over twenty-five countries. After the successful launch in March, 2006 we are extending the project until September, 2007 and will continue to explore different themes. Check out the descriptions of the [last of the] new themes....

Film Festival

A cinematic experience online
Take part in this unique experience – a two month film festival – online! This is an amazing chance for up and coming women filmmakers to have their work viewed by a worldwide audience. We are looking for all types of films – documentaries, short films, animation, music videos, basically any kind of film you can think of, they just have to be made by a female director. (Photo credit Shushan Avagyan)

Deadline for submissions: August 7, 2007

How to Submit your Work
Get to know our online exhibit. Read stories, view artwork and film and listen to music and spoken word from the many young women from all around the world. Be Inspired. We look forward to hearing from you!
Download applicant information here:
submissionform_eng.pdf (245k)
submissionform_eng.doc (778k)
If you are submitting film or audio files or large artwork you should send these to us on a DVD or CD. Guidelines for format and length of media can be found in the application information, available for download above. You may send your applicant form by email indicating that you will be sending your submission by mail.
Imagining Ourselves Team
International Museum of Women
PO Box 190038
San Francisco, CA 94119

Please contact us for street address if sending by courier.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My Professional Perspective on a Book I Didn't Want to Write About This Way

I finished another book today: The Last Assassin (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2006), by Barry Eisler, my latest favorite fun-reading author (which is a very very very small group, by the way). Assassin is Eisler's latest book but one (Requiem for an Assassin, which I got signed while he was in town earlier this month). I was eager to read the new one, but I quickly realized that I'd missed the book between it and the one chronologically right before Last Assassin (Rain Fall, which was actually my introduction to Eisler's work) - and that's why I've just finished that missing link. Are you thoroughly confused? Amazingly enough, I'm not. I haven't even lost track of any of the protagonist John Rain's or the other characters' histories, even though I read them all in reverse chronological order (which was actually kind of cool too, and that's why I know that I'd love to read a prequel as Eisler indicated that he was considering writing at the book signing). [Too many gerunds!]

Overall, I liked this new book. I cried three times, which is unusual for this genre, I'm sure (Rain is a "contract killer," as described on the book jacket). Eisler experiments with different voices in this book as well, switching from omniscient to Rain's perspective to that of a female lead, Delilah, and back again, and it's never unclear as to whose head we're inside at those moments. Rain demonstrates a lot of personal growth in this book too, which is pretty new for him and another demonstration of Eisler's expanding authorly skills. The (almost always - see below) delicious bites of Eisler's politics offered here and there still made me smile. His vocabulary will still send some people running for a dictionary, which also makes me smile. [Jessica, you're an elitist!] He remains an incredible author.

[Please forgive me, Barry....]

But Last Assassin was a little rocky going at first because it created some consistency questions in my mind. With persistence on my part, they resolved themselves, with one minor exception, which is what I discuss below. Besides that, a major one, which I already mentioned to Eisler in an e-mail yesterday, even though it's probably not news to him (nor is it likely all that important to him now, since Requiem came out on the NYT Bestseller List and all), was an error in the second chapter that changed a name from Delilah's history (Dov) to that of another main character (Dox) - and repeated the error thrice on those couple of pages - thus creating a historical romantic relationship that I knew had never happened (and that would have perplexed the hell out of a new reader of the series, since it kept me going for a while too). Once I resolved that in my mind, my concerns cleared up significantly.

What remained, though, was a characteristic of Delilah, who is Rain's latest love interest, that I don't remember Eisler introducing in the previous books: her "periodic pouts and petulance," as first mentioned on p.26 (just a couple of pages after that other issue, by the way, which really increased the parallel universe feeling for me). This "inconsistency," as I'm calling it, may actually be more of a significant issue than I've indicated so far, though, since I got the sense from this book, more than from any of the earlier ones, that it was written more with Eisler's fans than with potential new readers in mind, as some of Rain's backstory wasn't even explained until the very end of this book, and some of it, though relevant to aspects of this story, not at all.

Eisler clearly tries to make this new aspect of Delilah acceptable throughout this book, and it is certainly a consistent part of her character here. She is certainly somewhat justified in feeling the way that she does, too, and Eisler takes pains to show us that via her own justifications to herself, as well as her own self-criticism for allowing him to make her "sulk and pout like a schoolgirl" (93) [Blecch!] - all of which make her a very believable character, since I've had the same kinds of conversations with myself before too. As usual, Eisler does do an excellent job with the characterizations in this book. But I still feel that she is only being portrayed that way because she's female. It's a fact that everyone who's ever betrayed Rain in any of these books is female, although as he gets older he's rejecting them less wholeheartedly for it.

An obvious example is Midori, another love interest of Rain's who plays a big part in this story because she is mothering their love child - a boy named Koichiro. As soon as I learned about that, at the end of the previous book, I felt a pang somewhere in my brain. A single working mother to a son: That sounds like homework! And indeed, there's a little of that here - hence this post. But Eisler is male, so - in accordance with the patterns that I've seen everywhere else - while he demonstrates awareness of the monster mother myth of which I wrote for my thesis, he is clearly less concerned about it than female writers and mothers to sons themselves always are. Rain refers to it first: "Maybe you should think about what something like that [an absent father] would cost him," he says to Midori (56).

Rain himself grew up with an absent father, who died when he was eight years old. Rain considers that situation: "His loss and subsequent absence were the first and perhaps most significant of the scars that shaped what I became" - which, of course, is a killer (214). That statement alone makes Rain another of the countless examples present in Western fiction and mythology of men gone "bad" who were raised by single mothers. Eisler has rarely had Rain blame his own family for that, though. Rather, he usually blames his other "father," his country, which effectively betrayed him while he served in Vietnam - although even that's not entirely true, since it was only the evil ambition of one person who really brought about the events that contributed most to the original circumstances that led to who Rain is today. Thus the fact that Rain is now blaming his home situation for it - a mother is not enough to keep a boy from becoming a "bad guy," in other words - is even more indication of the power of that myth. Even though Rain knows that it hasn't been true in his own life, now that he's worried about his own son, he's falling back on those myths, perhaps because of his sense that the issue of a father's presence in a son's life is more controllable than corruption in government and war.

That's a significant point: Instead of blaming single mothers and/or absent fathers for children gone awry, why not blame the system in which all of that takes place? I'll quote my e-mail signature again:

It is dangerous fantasy to believe that if 'they' can be identified and labeled, and then treated or punished, the nation will be somehow purified, made safer for the rest of us.... When in fact we need to examine poverty, racism, the paucity of meaningful work at a living wage, the lack of access to day care, antifeminism, and a host of other problems, let us not be diverted by 'bad' mothers. (Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky, "Bad Mothers": The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America pp.22,23)

Meanwhile, what makes Delilah's "petulance" frustrating to me is that otherwise there is little differentiation between her and Rain and Dox, all of whom are essentially in the same line of work - and that portrayal is significant considering that Delilah's usual role in such work is as a seductress, which rarely involves actual killing - only information-gathering, as the reader learns in the previous book. That fact in and of itself could merit criticism, since it does separate her from the men with whom she works, but Eisler doesn't explicitly separate her in his treatment of her - he even has Rain describe her as "that man inside tonight" (241) a couple of times in the book, for better or for worse - so I'm not going to do that to him.

It's also a mark in Eisler's favor that he acknowledges the existence of abortion as an option in this book. He still fails to have his character use it, though, as Slate notes is common in the rare works within mainstream pop culture that acknowledge the legality of abortion these days. (But I have to note: What about Cider House Rules? What about Vera Drake?) OK, it's a plot point, but this line of Midori's internal dialogue is just inflammatory:

The thought that she had nearly gone through with an abortion was enough to make her feel sick, as though she had once in a moment of weakness contemplated murdering her child. She would never have thought it possible, but she defined herself as this little boy's mother more than she had defined herself as anything else before.

Blecch again, several times over. Abortion makes one sick? A woman who contemplates abortion is only "in a moment of weakness"? Women who have abortions are baby-killers? The mother-identity supersedes all other aspects of women's selves? I considered aborting my son, and I don't feel "sick" looking back on it now. In fact, it recently occurred to me that the better decision would have been to abort him, as my mom begged me to do. I really can't explain why I chose as I did. Rebellion? Hormones? Exposure to anti-abortion rhetoric? I don't know.

By the way, does that make my loving, intelligent mom like "the mother character [who] is explicitly positioned as a moral monster, a 'hissable villain'" in the movie Knocked Up, as also discussed in that Slate article? Here's more on that problem from another woman's blog:

The mom was presented as a castrating bitchTM who callously told her daughter that she only had one choice, and that the baby would be a nuisance--so the allegedly pro-choice person is actually anti-choice. When she described a family member who had an abortion and then had a 'real baby' years later, the detached way she spoke made members of my audience audibly gasp. They were gasping at the cruelty of the pro-abortion position. [emphasis in original]

If anything, though, it was my privilege, as an informed, well-educated White woman with highly educated, upper-middle-class parents that ultimately got me by - not our supposedly baby-loving society. I'm in a definite minority in terms of the breadth of my opportunities, throughout my life. And I also haven't found my identity as a mother more true or real than anything else - again, probably largely because of my opportunities (and determination) to be more than that, thanks to feminism. (That's only fair to my son too!) But Midori is a famous jazz pianist, so surely she has had some such opportunities too. Yet, Eisler writes, she's more a mother than anything else. Again, unnecessary. His self-definition as a conservative finally reared its ugly head, I guess. :-(

I can't end on this note. The only excuse that I can find to redeem Eisler for what he did to Delilah – even going so far as having her act the part of a thoughtless, plotting, cruelly jealous lover at one point as well (125) – is that in this book, he does it to Rain too. Last Assassin is the book where we see what happens to these characters when they can't help but have to operate in situations that are really untenably personal.

I can't write off what he did to Midori, though. At least she's unlikely to be very present in the next story so that I can go back to reading for fun.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Quick Hit: What Else the Thomas Recall Reveals

Parents across the U.S. are up in arms about the latest toy recall, which this time affects owners of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends trains. I must admit that I felt some smug satisfaction at having known about the recall and responded to it, finding James and his coal tender in my son’s room and dispatching them back to the toy company, long before the news hit the rest of the country’s fan. (I subscribe to the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s recall notification e-list, so I know about a lot of recalls before those who rely on word-of-mouth … although somehow the pet food recall got under my radar until my dad e-mailed me about it.) What I have not previously considered, though, is how much my indulgence of my son’s Thomas habit supports underpaying workers in distant countries. For those who don’t know, even the smallest two-inch wooden Thomas engine is about $10 from most retail outlets (while the metal ones run closer to $7 each, I think). And yet, as mentioned in that article that I linked above, there are Chinese “workers who were paid about $150 a month to spray paint on mostly metal toy trains six days a week.” Since I’m sure that they’re painting more than 22 trains in those six days, they’re grossly underpaid for their work on these, quite frankly, ridiculously overpriced toys – especially now that I know that they’re imports from China. I am ashamed at my thoughtlessness … but, even though apparently as much as 80% of toys in the U.S. are also Chinese in origin, making it likely that most equally thoughtless parents probably have some in their homes, I’m not going to let myself off the hook because of it. I’m sure that there are plenty of beautiful American-made toys that I could have been buying for Alex. Now that I’m informed, I’m going to make a point of looking for them.

(This is the first post that I'm publishing here rather than over on MotherBlogs. I'll see how it goes; then perhaps I'll move everything else here as well. In the meantime, please check out the rest of my blogs about feminist mothering.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Reflection on the movie DANCER IN THE DARK (2000)

Dancer in the Dark is an Oscar-nominated film starring Bjork as a single mother/erstwhile dreamer, afflicted with a genetic disorder that eventually makes her go blind, who immigrates to the United States, not in pursuit of the American dream or special treatment of any kind but simply because the surgery which can save her son from the same fate is only performed here. She must not let her son know about their condition, though, as worry makes it progress faster and might then prevent him from being eligible for the surgery. These circumstances, with a little "help" from a desperate man, all but prevent Selma, the mother, from succeeding in that ultimate goal. At the same time, the deep affection that a couple of colleagues cannot help but feel for this caring and incredibly positive person mitigates the impossibility of her situation. It's an excellent movie that you must see if you possibly can; it's available through Blockbuster Online, if you're a subscriber to that service.

What I want to write about now are the American societal issues which contribute to Selma's tragedy in the film, which could thus even serve as a powerful - because totally subtle - commentary on those issues. First of all, there is anti-immigrant sentiment, which at the time manifested itself as anti-Communism but is clearly similar to the kind of anti-immigrant sentiment that we see today as well. Selma works in a factory for years - presumably for low wages and without health insurance, of course, which obviously contributes to her dilemma. She therefore must save every cent toward her son's surgery, forcing her to forego even buying him birthday presents - and yet preventing her from telling him (or, really, to be safe, anyone) why. Thus of course she is portrayed as a bad - even a selfish - mother as well. She blames herself anyway for choosing to have the boy, despite knowing that he would have this condition. No wonder her own progresses so quickly.

Her only escape is her fantasy world, in which a famous dancer from her native country replaces her absent father and dance numbers, a la the Hollywood musical, pepper her daily life. Her fantasy world certainly gets her in trouble, but as it is clearly all that she has to help her cope with her very difficult life besides the distant specter of a better situation for her son - on which most real people could not psychologically survive, ideal of motherhood or not - one must forgive her that. In my opinion, the world that allows this woman's life to be this way is also responsible there.

Meanwhile, the patriarchal expectations placed on Selma's neighbor and landlord, Bill (played by David Morse, whom I recognized from The Green Mile), to provide for and continue to impress his spendthrift wife get the better of him, despite a job as a police officer and an inheritance. Notwithstanding the fact that the movie presents his wife, with whom he shares no information about his troubles, as rightfully bearing the blame for his problems through the movie's completely unsympathetic portrayal of her after that point, this plot twist demonstrates the lengths to which a man can feel driven to go to remain a man in society's - and his loved ones' - eyes. In desperation and a few moments of chance, he uses his friendship with Selma and his consequent knowledge of her problems and plans to destroy her life and his own forever. Selma is left unable to be truthful in her own last desperate chance to attempt to achieve the only thing that she can for her son. It's certainly more dramatic than most mothers' day-to-day lives, but most mothers also know how such desperation feels. We as a society - as the United States of America - shouldn't allow anyone to feel that way so unjustly.