***my photos of the march***

14 September
escapism
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Over my end-of-summer vacation (which now seems to be aaaages ago), I finally got round to reading Michael Chabon's Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It is, as many promised me, the sort of book that seeps into your life as you read it. I found myself referencing it as if the characters were real, the way my high school friends analogised the people in our lives with the characters in Mists of Avalon a gajillion years ago.

So it should be no surprise that I started seeing my own relationship to my own media of choice in light of the ideas in the book - thinking about my own escapism, say (escapism, for the 2 of you who haven't already read this book, is pretty tightly wrapped around the plot, the themes, the people - it is, after all, a book about a comic book about a character based on Houdini and Jewish emigrants of 30s Europe). It is interesting to find yourself splitting a day between watching FoxNews covering the RNC and terrorism and reading Hothead Paisan in bed.

I don't think I got Hothead until this year. Hothead is about little girls. What I mean is. If you're fortunate enough to be able to pop open any random media outlet and see yourself, then there's absolutely no way this comic could make sense to you. But if you've been something like a little girl seeing a million representations of what you should be and few of what you are, or something like a little girl learning what rape is, it makes sense. Like all forms of escapism, Hothead speaks to your capacity for childish fantasy but also to the horror of childhood, the amplification of the great scariness of things. You remember being seven and thinking the world would end, right?

[Brief dance break while I explain the premise of Hothead to those of you who don't know the comic. Others forge on ahead. Hothead is a homicidal lesbian terrorist. She drinks coffee, watches tv, and freaks out, ends up doing things like pulling rapists spines out their asses (and other similar grossouts) and evincing a general loathing of men. Her acorn is some combination of an internal demon and television portrayals of women, her alterego is more or less herself sans gun, and her superhero powers seem to be rage and a talent for evading law enforcement.]

Comics and videogames and all the things we know best as "escapist" media are products of their time. They answer needs for fantasy - whether to dodge reality completely or imagine beating that which attempts to beat you. Grabbing a little bit of that fantasy is, I think, good for you. I've said that before. And the Hothead comics are very much a product of early nineties recognition of homophobia and sexism. They're angry, they're media-focused. They still make sense.

No, I don't mean that it makes sense to go butchering people to establish equality and justice for all (superheroes never make sense like that). But they're still a useful escape, where all the shit we're still protesting (to borrow a phrase from a friend) gets taken out with all the violence and anger you might feel.

It's something - not the only thing, hardly, but something - we need sometimes.

 

25 June
what marriage is.
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I was given Jon Rauch's Gay Marriage: Why it's good for gays, good for straights, and good for America by a pal who apparently wanted to make my head fold in upon itself.

We'll leave aside Jon's apparent distaste for all the things I think fondly of where gay culture is concerned, because there are many different queer cultures, and that's a nice thing. We'll leave aside his Log Cabin Republicanness, because the very fact of gay republicans is a testament to how far we've come - that gayness can be a personal identity and not a political one.

We'll just accept Jon for himself, and attack his ideas. Or rather, his ideas as I see them.

See, Jon has a very interesting concept about what marriage is for. His theory is two part. First, marriage is a social structure designed to make young people become "adult" - where "adult" is settled into a normal pattern of working and raising kids and building a little nuclear family. Second, marriage is a guarantee of caretaking for the aged and infirm. To expand Jon's definition, a family is a two-person structure, one that is fixed except for the addition or subtraction (in later life) of children should there be kids involved (kids are, I think rightly, not part of his definition). Only by having that family are people, especially men, officially part of normal, adult society. And only that family will commit to caring for you should you become broken in some way.

I have two problems with that.

No, I have three problems.

First, Jon's concept of adulthood. While he talks about monogamy as his key point about "settling down", there's a strong undercurrent of "be like me" in his notion of adult. Things I think Jon thinks are not adult include: not focusing on providing for a family, being non-monogamous, partying, participation in the wrong political organizations, living with someone, not having a "career", being single, wearing a neon pink muscle tee, voting Green, and having too much fun. Admittedly, I'm reading into things here, but Jon seems to buy into a relatively boring idea of what it means to be a grown up. Well, lots of people do that, and he is a Republican. I can hardly fault him for it.

Second, his assumptions about how family works. A marriage, given the failure rate of marriages these days, hardly looks like a guarantee for your future family. To go into marriage today starry-eyed and certain of growing old together is sweetly optimistic. To look with those starry eyes at marriage as a social institution is just silly.

But - siblings, close friends, roomates, parents, and the network of "urban family" that so many people have today are just as permanent as a spouse might be. The members of my urban family - my best friends, my partner's best friends, our parents, various other relationships - can be counted on to be there for either of us. And if we split up, my half of the family will always be there. They're part of the picture, no matter what. And if anything happens to them, we know we're responsible for helping out. This isn't a modern invention, either - whether family is biologically or legally related or not, extended family is the network people count on. A spouse or partner broadens that family but doesn't eliminate their responsibility for you.

There is a conceit that parents "give up" a child, particularly a daughter, to a new family, but that idea doesn't foot with the reality of urban family life. The things that have changed is biology - we used to have close proximity to our biological extended families, and now we choose family based on proximity (emotional and physical) - and legality - now the subunits of that family may be single, pairs, married folk and unmarried.

Wait, there are four. Four issues!

The third is his general bias against unmarried families ("marriage lite" he calls them) coupled with his insistence on reserving officially sanctioned unions for gay and straight couples. Polyamory he excludes on the grounds that, essentially, they're a very tiny minority of freaks. Why are they scary enough to exclude from marriage rights, if they're so tiny a minority? I felt pretty defensive of the polyamorous folk I know in reading his ready dismissal of the lifestyles they choose and the families they're painstakingly created. He returns to the old argument against polygamy as generally about some men taking up too many of the women, thereby creating a bunch of angry young men - and, oh yeah, polygamy too often occurs in weird religious orders where women are subjugated. The economic danger of men without potential for marriage seems much scarier to Jon (it certainly gets more space in the book) than the possibility that women might get beaten up, but then, I was pretty annoyed before I got to this part of the book. It's quite possible he's not the misogynist I found him to be.

It is entirely possible that the poly families I've encountered are by far the rarity, and that there's a larger group of cultists who would use the legalization of multi-partner marriage to accumulate harems, but I'd like to think that think that people are more sane than that. I think it's highly unlikely that, given as much as feminism and other equality movements have achieved, we're going to see a dramatic swing towards harem-accumulation as a status symbol for anyone other than Trump and Hefner. There's a whole other discussion about polyamory vs. our traditional view of polygamy in this, but suffice to say that I don't think we need to avoid legalizing one thing just because it's sometimes associated with something else that's bad and - by the way - also illegal.

"Marriage lite" he dismisses because... well, just because it's not marriage. It's not. It's also nicely divorced from all the weight that marriage carries - that weight including not only whatever personal meaning you attach to marriage itself, but the traditions of a wife "belonging" to a husband, of obedience, of relatively narrow gender roles that have relatively recently begun to change. As a feminist, marriage's history makes me uncomfortable entering into it. I don't think you can completely disengage marriage from the history of women's oppression, which is precisely why my longstanding cohabitation has remained just that.

To someone denied marriage, it doubtless looks like a more compelling social contract. But in many ways, marriage has been a burden to women for centuries. Other options aren't necessarily "marriage lite" so much as they're simply not marriage.

Which brings me to what bothers me most about Jon's theories - the way he reduces marriage itself.

The reasons people get married and their expectations of marriage are personal, and as numerous as married couples themselves. A thoughtful marriage is a unique contract between people for the way they plan to live their lives. For many people, there's a very specific religious reason. For others, it's about parenting. For others, it's about love (twue wove). Establishing marriage as the "gold standard" of normal adult family, as Jon would have it, reduces it to just a thing you're supposed to do after you grow up.

I know some people think that way today, but I find that really sad. I certainly don't want to be married, if that's what it means.

I think that modern marriage, apart from its history, is about formalizing your family creation, whatever that means to you (and whatever additionally you may think marriage is). I do think that it should be open to any family who wants to do that. And honestly, I'd rather see civil marriage (or civil contracts, unions, whatever) separated entirely from "marriage", with its various religious meanings and history of gender inequity, than see Jon's vision of marriage be a reality.

 

20 January
civil rights fiction
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I've just finished Sena Jeter Naslund's Four Spirits, which seems oddly appropriate the day after MLK Day.

So, the jist of the novel is this: it's the stories of several different people woven around civil rights goings-on in Birmingham in the mid-sixties. It starts after the first efforts at school integration and ends (minus epilogue) before any real resolution or federal involvement. I don't typically read historical fiction that isn't essentially historical science fiction (i.e. the story is in the past, but something wildly different happens), but I read everything Naslund publishes. She's that good.

Reading historical fiction centered around a time and place you know a little, not much, about is unusual. Everything seems factual. I wonder if it's different to read about a time you lived through in a fictionalized way, too; I want to pass this book on to older southern friends and know what it means to them.

One of the characters in the book is the battered wife of a Klan bomb-setter; their whole story terrifies me in an odd, back-burner of your mind sort of way. I kept wanting to push that part of the book away from me. And it's a side note of a story, too. It was no more graphic than, say, a Steven King novel (which, if you don't read them, are generally not graphic and more about tension than violence) - but it was so upsetting. Like the rest of the book, it felt like someone's true story, but that wasn't even the thing that made it so disconcerting. It just. Was.

But I meant to talk about this book, and how it worked more through poetry than a history lesson might have. You think, you learn in school, that the big heroes of the civil rights era died for a cause, but you don't think about the people who weren't leaders. Teachers and shoe-shiners and waitresses who were also activists.

And it's sad how much we still haven't achieved.

 

18 December
catfight - a sort of book review via personal reflection
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I've been reading Leora Tanenbaum's Catfight. You can tell from the hot pink cover it's intended to be "feminist lite" (defined in my book as nonfiction work ostensibly about feminism but mostly a shallow examination or praise of women), but it's more substantial than that.

It suffers, as her first book Slut did, from a tendency towards magazine-ish writing. She'll posit a personal hypothesis, summarize a wide range of interviews and other books, then tidily wrap it up. In covering so much from so many sources, each chapter serves more as a summary of related topics than as a presentation of any specific point. Magazines do that a lot. Coupled with her conversational style (which I absolutely love), it's a very easy read that leaves you feeling like you haven't consumed much. The feminist nonfiction equivalent of chick-lit.

I'd like Tanenbaum to write a memoir. What has interested me most about her books so far is her personal response to the things she researches, and the bits of personal history she brings up. I suspect that a book focused on her that touched on some of the themes of her research would be more substantial, and might ultimately say more about the topic of female competition than what she's written on the subject.

Part of my dissatisfaction with her books is that I think they're really intended for you to be thinking "hell, yeah" along with her, not posing new information to you. So, if you don't find you identify heavily with her ideas, if you don't see yourself perfectly reflected in them, you don't get the rousing experience you might otherwise have had. It's the same problem Cunt poses for readers - either you completely identify, you radically disagree, or you find yourself wishing she'd dive in with a bit more detail. Of course, Cunt is polemical. Tanenbaum's work lacks Muscio's raving passion.

So, why don't I identify with Tanenbaum's ideas?

but wait! there's more


 

10 September
chick lit
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I cannot resist commenting on Revo's assessment of the chick lit genre (actually an expansion upon Hanne Blank's equally readable thoughts on same).

To summarize: I disagree.

I disagree with the notion that this form of entertainment literature isn't useful - is, in fact, even potentially harmful. Of course they're not serious literature - but harmful?

The chick lit novel, like the spy novel, the romance novel, the ghost-written sports stars' autobiography, is clearly a form of escapism. It's the hipper, trendier romance novel. It comes in ranges of sillinesses, from literate to after school special to inane. Like any silly brand of entertainment, a huge part of its value is in distraction from the daily grind. In the case of chick lit, that distraction is intriguingly couched in the very minutiae of life that one might presumably be trying to escape. Hmmm.

As a reader, I find that the silliest chick lit, on the rare occasions when it provokes reflection, tends to normalize whatever issues I might be experiencing. I mean, my job may be tough, but at least I'm not directionless like the women in the books. You feel for their stupidity, but they're charicatures of real people. No one is that screwed up over trivialities, ergo you, the reader, are less screwed up than these charicatures. And yet - the books always touch on the experience of being female in a "post-feminist" world - many of them show women balancing what they're "supposed to" want against what they do want (in both directions - some want independence, others want man bootay). The point is - you can relate, but at a safe and comfortable distance.

And yes, it does generally depict women having wacky adventures whilst dealing with the perennial manquest and presumed need for self-improvement. The characters are generally impossibly foolish yet oddly endearing, the situations absurdly farfetched yet trite. And no, almost no character ever suffers a great personal change and becomes less of an idiot through her experiences.

What does happen, though, is that the silly characters, like real women, learn (sometimes again and again) that they don't need to change their whole selves to find something of value. It's the message of Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Mermaid" buried under masses of credit card dept (presumed in some cases, explicit in others): you're alright just as you are. [The whole "he likes her just as she is" bit in Bridget Jones's Diary - the way it's completely, almost satirically belabored - highlights how much being alright as one is isn't the acceptable norm, for women particularly, but it also extends to men and is seen in some of the comparable books I'd call "men lit".] The women may not be people we want to model our lives on, but that's not the point: the point is, we don't need to model our lives on anyone. We're fine just as we are. [Well, the books that parallel the teen fiction concept where a girl loses a ton of weight or gets contact lenses over the summer and is then transformed from geek to chic don't say this, but they're peddling a different message - that you can be anything you like. As long as you like whatever's "normal".]

And, like all romance fiction, things turn out alright in the end. This is a very diverse genre, though - alright in the end can mean starting or ending a relationship, having nothing to do with relationships, overcoming some sort of immense personal trouble, or finding the right nail polish.

Of course, ultimately, I see a sort of sisterhood in these books. They deal with sometimes-trivial-sometimes-dead-serious issues that most straight [though there are chick-lit books that speak more to lesbian experience, the self-esteem agonies involved are much, much different] women encounter in some form or other as part of the mundaneities of life. They also serve as a sort of trading card you can share and giggle over with the real women (and suprisingly, the real women of multiple generations - I share books with my best friend, my mother, and my boss, for instance) in your life. They form a sort of fictional shared experience that can serve as overture to talking about the non-fictional shit we slog through.

And while Revo jokes that I shouldn't "ask her to read any more of them", the truth is that you can't see past the trivialities these books share without really becoming part of a community of readers, and coming to know a variety of these crazed fictional characters. It's rather like a cult that way, chick lit is.

 

20 May
another pride & prejudice retelling?
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[This, lovely readers, is Vacation Book Report #1]
Part of the lure of vacationing for me is the possibility of simultaneously engaging and disengaging both my mind and body. I exercise in some form for at least an hour each day, read a couple of really thought-provoking books, then lounge around doing nothing and reading fluff.

Sometimes, the fluff is really entertaining.

Case in point: Pride, Prejudice & Jasmin Field (Jasmin here is a person, not a place as I'd imagined). Plot of book: mildly successful British journalist is wackily cast as Lizzie Bennett in a stage remake of P&P, directed by wildly famous British actor guy. He, by a strange twist of casting mistakes and other hijinks, ends up playing Darcy. Life imitates art. All the other characters follow similarly. Wackiness ensues.

Okay, so it sounds like a much more direct, much less topical Bridget Jones. But it's effing hilarious - if, that is, you are like me and my best friend in your hopeless devotion to Colin Firth's bath scene in the BBC miniseries. If you're not. Well, you've missed out. Trust us.

The nice thing about this silly book is that it's not completely irritating apart from the romance and the whole thin P&P premise. Our heroine is a feminist who actually sounds like one and isn't just labeled so for the convenience of fitting in with the Cosmo set [I know I say anyone who believes in equality is a feminist, but do I really have to let those women play?]. Her family is filled with sympathetic characters that hint at complexity beneath the surface of this by nature very surface-level story.

In short, really quite good poolside reading. And - you can buy it in the embarassing "Chick Lit" section at the Target. If you want to buy books in a category that sounds like small candy-coated gum.

 

08 January
good on the tv
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Check it out: Jennifer Weiner's "Good in Bed" is going to be a sitcom. That's one darn cute book. We already know I liked it.

And, while I know a lot of people would say a woman who wears a size 16 is normal (eh, they're probably right), it will still be a huge step to have a woman starring in a sitcom who is larger than sitcom size. That's probably why I find that goofy Sara Rue so cute - sure, she's not really fat - but she's television fat, so she's a stand-in for the rest of us.

Point is. Rather than get into the exhausting debate of how fat is enough (shining counterpart to the usual "how fat is too much" argument that it is), it's okay to celebrate the idea of showing a woman who isn't television thin becoming happy with her body in the most normal medium of them all - the situation comedy.

I, for one, am thrilled.

[Link via Big Fat Blog.]

 

21 October
we all look alike
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I thoroughly and completely enjoyed Good in Bed.


Great, you're thinking, a book review.

but wait! there's more


 

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