When Critics Make Us Question Our Seemingly Progressive Pop Culture Pets

August 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

This piece is for all of my friends who become excited about the progressive possibilities of new TV shows (most recently, Orange Is the New Black), only to encounter strong criticism that points out just how problematic these shows and their characters, narratives, goals still are.  And we sigh. We grudgingly acknowledge the truth of these critiques, with some qualifications, with reservations, and we go back to watching these shows because, well, we like them even though they aren’t perfect, they don’t fulfill all of our desires for what good TV should and could be.

And then I read Anna Gunn’s piece in the New York Times in which she talks about the disturbing levels of vitriol hurled at the Strong Wife characters on critically-acclaimed TV dramas, women like her character Skyler White on Breaking Bad, Carmella Soprano, even Betty Draper.  What is this about, Gunn asks?  Um, to quote a dear friend who also posted the piece on Facebook, good old fashioned misogyny?  Yes that, definitely that.  But it is really sad that characters who remain within a very safe and conventional narrative role are so hated by a very vocal public for somehow defying the boundaries of that role.  (As my dear cousin pointed out in a Facebook convo, “It’s much easier for male characters – in fact it’s expected and applauded – to inhabit gray worlds, but women are still supposed to act in a black and white manner.”  Yep.)

How is this related to the OITNB problem, you ask?  Stick with me.

Gunn’s very simple piece is an opening, a reminder of all that we should be considering as we gaze across our complicated cultural landscape.   There is something to the Skyler White vitriol that can help us think through  the very legitimate criticisms of TV shows like OITNB.  Both OITNB and Girls — strange bedfellows, to be sure — presumably reflect ongoing if very gradual shifts in who makes TV and whose stories appear on TV, shifts that, these critics argue, don’t go far enough, don’t do enough.  And these critics are right, these shows don’t.

But hold on a second.  This is an entertainment world in which a large public for these shows is furious with the complex portrayals of The Wife role — portrayals that most race and gender critics aren’t particularly interested in taking on, either to criticize or celebrate.  The range of publics for so-called “critically-acclaimed TV” includes people so antifeminist that they love to hate on wives who aren’t doormats as well as  progressive critics who pour out frustrations with the very limited stories presented by our entertainment industry, frustrations with the very shows that are TRYING to create a wedge into the industry.

I love good criticism.  I love that it holds us to our own high standards, that it shows us our blind spots,  reminds us that there is no single Gold Standard, no We Have Arrived moment, but that we need to keep pushing forward towards more and better and many.  But I also hate that it feels like every time a group of really brave and creative women achieve success in our TV industry, we go after them for Not Being Enough — not feminist in the right way, too white, too racist,  too privileged, not diverse enough, not interested in diversity in the right ways, too obsessed with sex, too obsessed with the wrong kinds of sex &c.  And I know, I know — we’re not going to keep pushing towards more and better and many stories if we slack off and stop reminding writers and directors and producers that there are more stories and questions that continue to matter and that they should consider exploring in their shows.

But hold up.  I think we need to consider something more here.

The main public for these shows, from Breaking Bad to Orange is the New Black, the main public is not the critic who says they don’t go far enough.  We need that critic, we need her so much, but the main publics are actually composed of people who probably wouldn’t say Skyler White is an evil bitch and Anna Gunn should die, but they probably also never really considered the range of backgrounds and types of women who populate a federal correctional facility.  They might be more comfortable with the Crazy Eyes character before we start to see her as Suzanne.  They might have trouble seeing the Suzanne within Crazy Eyes.  Or maybe they might actually begin to see the world through Suzanne’s eyes.  (Some better story lines and a flashback for that character next season would help here.)  I want TV to do better, but I also want us to take seriously the journeys that many viewers in America take, even with shows that try but don’t do enough.

I know that it is frustrating that white people continue to cling to — need — the white protagonist and her transformation story as a wedge into the stories of people of color.  When will our TV industry get rid of the middle class blond lady security blanket?  We’ve clung to her since Uncle Tom’s Cabin, if not before.  And so therefore I want us to write and produce more, to make more and better shows, to tell more and different stories, to saturate our digital waves with so many interesting and complicated women and drown out the creations of Mark Cherry of Desperate Housewives and Devious Maids (which got caught up in its own critical hornet’s nest this summer, but I don’t have time for them all).

We need to watch and support TV that doesn’t do enough for us.  And we also need to take seriously and accept the fact that in a country in which a LARGE segment of the population was not upset by the George Zimmerman verdict, we need to push on all fronts.  And that means we need to support the incredible careers of women like Issa Rae and Piper Kerman and Anna Gunn.  We need to call out and shut down the really bad, but we are not going to get more and better and many unless we support the not quite good enough.

Everyone keeps making Laura Ingalls Wilder jokes

August 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

East Coast Girl moves to the Great Plains.  To corn and soybean country.  To the land where stars fill the sky and your first night in town you take a wrong turn and leave the comfortable lights of the Main Street and you are terrified.  To the land where there are no lamps along the roads and highways.  It is a land of new sights and new smells for the East Coast Girl.  The reek of a feedlot cannot be described or captured in a photograph.  It spills down to the highway and assails you.  This isn’t the smell of Elizabeth, N.J. or the Staten Island dump.  (Sign up for the Stinky Highways of America tour!)  The smell of a feedlot is pure animal and pure death.  THIS smell, and not Jonathan Safron Foer’s book or sustainability hoopla is going to finally turn me vegetarian.  (Just kidding.)

According to a local, land here is zoned agricultural with no stipulations about how it is used.  A farmer moves in up the road, you nod.  A feedlot takes its quarter, well, sucks to be you!

Let me give you another frame of reference for where I live now.

I live in a small town, but a small town of an entirely different order of small town than even I have seen driving around the Northeast.  I joke to my family that I am Kevin Bacon in Footloose, except that I’m not going to teach them how to dance, I’m going to teach them history or something.  The joke fell flat.  Nobody in my family got the reference.  Do you?  And you call yourself an American!

We mark time along the highway by the billboards.  You’d probably drive off the road in boredom if it weren’t for the “If Today Were Your Last, Where Would You Go?” billboard featuring cartoon Heaven and cartoon Hell. Another dozen miles more for “Prepare to Meet Your Lord” in blue paint on huge whitewashed boards in front of the cornfields.  You coast along the poker straight highway on cruise control at 75+ mph.  That’s the speed limit here, folks.  It’s not completely flat.  There are rises and hollers in the land, clusters of trees marking property lines and clustering around little homesteads.  And in the evening, the sunsets are quite spectacular.  But just in case all of that sameness of beauty makes you tired, you can count on “Eat Steak. Wear Furs. Keep Your Guns. The American Way” to let you know that you are only one exit from the Big City.

What it means to buy produce here, or Why you can’t buy a peach at the farm stand.

I bought meat at the tiny little farmers market in town (tiny means about a dozen vendors).  When the vendor told me that his livestock eats only what he grows on his land, my crunchy little heart swelled.  I will keep on buying his sustainable, hormone-free pork and beef and chicken.  “But does he feed his livestock GMOs?” my Mom asks.  I laugh.  I hadn’t asked.  That is so beside the point when you are out here.

All along the highways the crops are labeled with placards boasting the particular hybrid.  A proud farmer celebrates the bounty of America’s heartland on a Monsanto billboard.  There are no Monsanto billboards where I come from. Out here, I gather, Monsanto is not a dirty word in public company.

During my hour drive to the Big City and the nearest non-Walmart big box store, I tell my friend in Jersey about the sight of a little yellow plane leaving a spray of pesticide in the wake of a graceful elliptical dive.  “Ah, the futility of eating organic strawberries when I am bathing daily in pesticide runoff,” I joke“Cancels each other out,” she replies.  We laugh.  But seriously, good point.

(And yes, my supermarket has an exceptionally good natural and organic foods selection.  This is a university town and you know those commie hippie liberal professors… But remember the golden rule!  Buy Local first.  Then organic.  Brought to you by Smug College Professors who bring their own bags to the grocery store…even though they have left their computers on standby since 2009.  Sustainable.)

I have come to a place with a different relationship to the land, one completely foreign to the one that I think I understand.  East Coast Girls grow up amidst farm stands overflowing with peaches and blueberries and bicolor corn and heirloom tomatoes.  Please note, skeptical reader, the East Coast is not just smoke stacks spewing the byproducts of smelting (or whatever).  It’s mountains and fields and forests and miles and miles of strip malls.  And decaying factories that we now consider beautiful—if they haven’t been knocked over to make way for more strip malls.  And farms that grow peaches and blueberries and bicolor corn and heirloom tomatoes.

But here, here the land—all that land beneath a hot heavy sky—is given over to corn and soybeans and feedlots and hay farmers.  There are no peaches at the farmer’s market.  No signs along the road beckoning you to come blueberry picking.  This land means business.  It is the business of feeding and fueling a nation.

As I quickly discover, my liberal east coast hippie-dippie college town ideals of sustainability and organic this and that have come to an awkward resting place in a world defined by agribusiness.  I’ve read all the articles about the challenges of organic farming, that small farmers often can’t afford the cost of the official USDA Organic label, that the meat industry is the meat industry whether you inject them with antibiotics or not, they conditions are still — well, I’ll leave the adjective up to you.  I’ve followed Michael Pollan’s career from his breakthrough work on Monsanto to his recent fall from grace (in some quarters) for fingering second wave feminism in the blame game over the state of our industrial food culture.  I watched the recent dust-up over the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” that was tacked onto the latest Farm Bill.  But really, this stuff is academic to me, another Issue to read about, then become Concerned or even Outraged.  And then we click on to the next hyperlink, the next story of Crisis in America.

A recent story on This American Life covered environmentalists of all political and religious persuasions attempting to connect with Red State folk and reinvigorate Christian ideas of good stewardship of the land.  The Republican party should be embracing the challenges of climate change, former SC Republican Congressman Bob Inglis argues.  A climatologist in Colorado reveals the challenges of attempting to even talk with state farmers about climate change.  The very people most potentially affected by climate change were the most resistant to engaging with it.  Clearly, for them, the prospect of climate change, debates over agricultural and farming practices and policy are more than a political debate, a series of fiscal appropriations, a consumer choice like buying a Hybrid or changing out your lightbulbs.

Issues like climate change and the global cost of agribusiness might just be what Toyota was to the 1970s, Nature’s version of the decline of the Rustbelt, only now there is no other country we can blame and we won’t be importing corn from Japan and South Korea–not for long, anyway.  Because these changes in the land, the long term costs of pesticide use, the depletion of nitrogen in our soil, the decline in biodiversity, and those poor bees…  We’re not going to be able to just get bees from China in 2050.

I look around me, at the miles and miles and miles and miles of corn and soybeans, at the massive silos with their balers, and I am floored by the scale of this world that we have created with our Farm Bills. This world is the product of a century of policy, plowing, nitrogen enriched soils and petrochemicals (all preceded, of course, by some rather vicious genocidal wars and the rabbit warren known as of Federal Indian policy).  We created this world.  Our government, our subsidies, our zoning, created the largest industry in the world.  The industrial farms of the American Great Plains. Where I live.

On Writing Stories and Writing Histories and What We’re Really Searching For

June 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

I spent my morning puzzling over something my friend said last night.  We were talking about writing.  About why some people become writers and some of us – stop.  (Hopefully he’ll pardon me my version of this tale.)  He said that he wrote in part to figure out the puzzles of human communication, the mysteries of how people relate to each other, how they come to understand and know and (fail to) connect with each other.

I had never thought about it that way.

And so, I have been puzzling over this question.  Why do some of us stay writers, why do some of us stop? There were three writers at the table, but only he had kept on following those threads, unraveling and digging into those puzzles, telling his stories, crafting his characters, being a writer.  But she and I, though we spent our girlhoods writing — stories, reams of stories, and poems too — somewhere along the way we had stopped.

I had been a veritable Emily of New Moon, writing poems and silly novellas while pining over some boy who couldn’t see me for anything.  Or didn’t want to see me.  Or saw the need, the profound human and emotional need written all over me, and was wise to run in the other direction.  Ran away from all of that intensity and desire that I threw at the world, hoping to see some echo of recognition or respite come back to me.  That I poured into my stories, at once an escape from and a recognition of what I considered a profound unhappiness.

I wrote such silly wonderful stories, all the same, tales of plucky bright young girls with energy and daring, who were above all comfortable – so comfortable – in their own skin, who lived out little adventures and romances in their lovely worlds of lives.  I was a perfect student of Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery.  I wrote about angst too, but it was never angst trapped in inaction.  My girls were actors in their own lives, agents, they responded but they also changed things.

When I got older I wrote “darker” things – even sillier, really, pseudo-Beat poems that were in fact grotesque (I didn’t know it then) parodies of Bob Dylan songs.  But all endless dopplegangers of me tinged with the stylistic perfume of whichever Great Writer I was reading that month.  And that is of course why I stopped writing.  I stopped wanting to write stories that were endless fantasies of me, but always trapped in someone else’s voice.  But I think I also grew bored with living in other worlds when I so desperately wanted to find a world of my own in which to enact my particular agency.

And perhaps I also stopped writing because I actually started to live.  I found a boyfriend and a path to follow.  I was no longer caught in the suffocation of an unhappy family and the frustrated desires of adolescence.  I finally had what felt like real agency.  I was still obsessed with other lives and other stories.  But not novels.  History.

You see, I had discovered something.

History is the most wonderful place for the seeker after other lives.  Whether the lives you seek, the stories you fold yourself into and puzzle through are dark or dull or beautiful — the historian is a seeker after stories in the hopes of solving some set of problems that we ask of people and ask of the past.  Why do we think and act this way?  Why do we want what we want?  Have we always wanted and feared and done the same things and why not and how and what if–?

We seek answers in the mysteries of other lives and other choices.  The way my friend seeks after the mysteries of how we recognize one another, but he creates his own (pardon the metaphor) fantasy lab in his head, where he unravels his plots, his characters.  This is his answer to his quest to understand (among other things) how we connect and communicate and know each other.  I became bored with my writing because I used it to create an escape, a cocoon for myself, and I could never not write about me.  I didn’t have any interesting problems worth solving.  But somehow, as a historian I have found a way to continue to explore  how we create worlds, worlds with very great consequences for the lives we find ourselves in now.  I think novelists are doing that too, but from a different direction.

There are many writers, many reasons for writing and not writing and deciding what we write about.  Of course I’m still a writer, but not the kind of writer who unravels a skein of humanity inside hir head and fashions it into something new and strange — something never  known before.  We’re all voyeurs, writers, only I follow dead people into the lives they (may have) led through the detritus they left behind, detritus that someone at some point felt was important enough to save.  I puzzle out who and why they were.  The main difference in what  I write is not that my stories are “real” (they’re not, no no, not after Hayden White!). The difference is not just the endless analysis that smothers my stories.

The difference is where we find the dialogue.  Whereas he seeks after the mysteries of human communication, understanding, connection — things I also find clues to in my reams of printed detritus — but unlike the novelist, I will never have to puzzle over the messy business of dialogue.  I can zoom in just enough to watch people moving through their worlds, but do I ever get close enough to figure out how they really speak?

What I learned my first year teaching

April 27, 2013 § 3 Comments

I taught my last class at my small college yesterday.  My contract is up in May.  The visiting professor has finished her gig.  In a month I hit the road for a summer of research and visiting family.  At the end of the summer I hit the road again, out into the sunset to start my tenure-track job at a public university.  Needless to say, the roller coaster of the 2012-2013 job market set me down on terra firma.  All’s well that begins with promise.

ON the Job Search

Knowing that something was up, my students have been asking all month where I’ll be going next.  I was finally able to tell them.  They talked about their own plans.  The recession terrifies them.  Some are going to grad school, others are relieved to have landed “for now” jobs, and then there are the dreamers and adventurers, off to join the Peace Corps, to teach in the Czech Republic and Argentina, play pro basketball in Germany, or WWOOF their way around the US.  I don’t envy them the insecurity of entering adulthood in this job market, in this economy.  But I told them — with a rawness that may have poked through — NEVER GIVE UP.  You HAVE to keep trying, keep applying, keep planning, keep dreaming, even if you change directions a dozen times.  You can only control what you put out into the world.  “Sorry kids, I’m being preachy, it’s the last day of classes. Indulge me.”

Things that I didn’t tell them: When I thought I wouldn’t find a job next year I called my Mom crying, as one does, and she said something very very very wise.  “It will work out honey.  You’ll find something that will make you happy.  You are a fighter, a hard worker, you always have been.”  “But Mom, not everyone gets an academic job.”  “I know honey, that’s not what I’m saying.  What I’m saying is that something will work out and it may not look the way you expected, but it will only work out if you don’t give up.  And you may have to adjust your image of what that looks like.  But it will work out.”  Luckily, I haven’t had to adjust my image that dramatically.  I have a TT job at a public university.  That was — is — my dream.  But everything my Mom says still holds.  You have to keep fighting and pushing and dreaming.  That’s all there is.

ON Teaching

I learned a lot from my students this year, practical things about how to structure — and not structure — courses, classes, assignments.  But I also learned more abstract lessons about communicating and listening and caring and challenging them.  I was so anxious, this semester, about teaching 20thC liberalism and the rise of neoconservatism to a population with a large number of very religious political conservatives.  And teaching Civil War and Reconstruction in the South!  Whoa Nelly!  I found myself continually returning to a piece of advice I received from a colleague earlier in the year:  They want to know that you care about them — as people.  And everything, all the learning, flows from that.   

Small liberal arts colleges — and church-affiliated SLACS especially — talk a lot about educating the “whole” person.  As an agnostic Jew, I find the prospect of conversations about vocation (not professional vocation — religious vocation) deeply discomforting.  But here’s another spin on educating the whole person: it is a reminder that our students are more than the sum of their views or their politics.  Like many of my colleagues, I approach teaching as a somewhat evangelical exercise.  I want to challenge, complicate, widen my students’ worldviews.  And I am going to try.  But I also must recognize that I am never going to get a Romney supporter to come around.  And that isn’t the point.  I like to think that my dear little conservative ducklings have had the valuable experience of being exposed to a liberal feminist from New Jersey, and learning a somewhat more complicated version of U.S. history than they will probably receive — well — most places.

As I reflect on my own college experience and my own goals for my students, I come back to my conviction that college is about opening up, rather than simply replacing.  It’s not reeducation — you’re adding to the pieces and shaking it up, rather than reshaping it (though we of course ardently hope that some pretty significant reshaping occurs on our watch).  Then again, given the number of students who wrote on my feedback forms or told fellow colleagues that they discovered that they had grown up learning history based on Lost Cause ideology, that my classes helped them see this — well, a little reeducation is indeed in order!

But zooming out from this to the whole person business, we are also teaching skills for navigating a complicated fractious world.  Listening, analyzing, discussing, explaining, writing a cogent essay, getting up and out of the door on time, taking responsibility for yourself, showing respect to your colleagues and to your superiors — these things are harder to do when the things that we are learning challenge our core assumptions or cherished narratives.  And these skills  are more difficult to teach when many of the students in front  of us don’t share some of our core assumptions — assumptions from which we construct our narratives.  I think that the way you manage this challenge is to go back to that little piece of advice I got at the beginning of last semester.  You let them know that you care about them, as people.  Mutual respect and intellectual openness can only follow from that premise.

Now I am not going to lie: I have had my share of frustrating experiences this term.  Oh yes I have.  But when I tried to leave my assumptions and judgements and anxieties at the door and focused on opening up questions, problems, challenges, rather than simply telling them what to think — well, they responded.  Some of them responded.  And some of them read novels during my lecture and turned me into a towering column of barely contained rage.  But that, my friends, is a story for another day.

I will miss these kids, the test subjects of my first experiments in teaching the youth.

The Terms of Exchange: A Reflection Upon My Visit to a Chinese University

February 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

In December 2012, I traveled to China for 10 days as part of the Center for American Culture, a State Department program that sets up mirrors between Chinese and American universities.  I briefly toured Beijing and Shanghai, and visited and gave a talk at a university in southeastern mainland China.  When asked to write a report on this trip, that report came out in the form of an essay.  This is the essay, a little rough around the edges, but my attempt to capture my experience of this exercise in cultural exchange.

* * *

“Are you saying that in America women and men are still not equal?” the student asked incredulously.  “Well, yes. What about in China?  Are women and men equal?”  “In jobs we are, yes.”  Others piped up cautiously, suggesting that maybe there was not perfect equality in the negotiation of career and family.  “But maybe women in America want too much,” one woman suggested.  “Perhaps,” I responded, “but isn’t it our job as a society to continue to reevaluate the relationship between our ideals and our opportunities?”  I reiterated the central argument of my talk, “American Career Girl: Jobs, Romance, and Family” that the gains of feminism from the last fifty years did not mean that there were no more battles to be fought.  Rather, Americans today continue to engage in an ongoing debate about the terms of equality.  The host professor then rose to provide her own assessment of the conversation.  With a curious twinkle her eye she intoned, “As you can see, America is not a perfect utopia” and yet, she implied, in many places the revolution is not quite finished.

I hoped that my audience had gained some appreciation of the complexities that women face in contemporary America.  My talk connected American women’s history with analysis of popular culture today.  After providing a quick historical overview of the expanding field of women’s employment across the twentieth century and the watersheds of Second Wave Feminism, I used the characters in the HBO series Sex and the City to explore the dilemmas that young women continue to face around the expression of their sexuality, work-life balance, the ideals and realities of domesticity and motherhood, and the ongoing search for and revaluation of the ideal partner.  I concluded by suggesting that the struggles of feminism would never be over, but that each successive generation needed to revisit these questions anew: in many places, the revolution is not quite finished.

As I suspected, the question of gender equality, like the question of social equality or even terms of citizenship and capacity for dissent, were far from resolved for modern Chinese.  One of our guides observed privately to me that there continued to be major obstacles to gender equality in government.  But I quickly discovered that the terms according to which Chinese men and women evaluated their society differed in subtle but significant ways for the terms in which I framed my questions. For the graduate students at Guizhou University who showed us around the beautiful countryside, let us shadow their lives as students, and shared their dreams and passions, education was the key to their visions of personal and professional fulfillment and social mobility.  Mobility more so than equality seemed to be the central theme of many conversations.  I learned about the thousands of Chinese men and women, the “immigrant” masses who left their natal provinces seeking jobs and education in China’s burgeoning cities.  Physical mobility to achieve the dream of social mobility.

One of our interlocutors described the advice given by her parents—themselves the children of property owners who became twin outcasts in the wake of the Chinese Revolution—to “cherish this life” and its range of opportunities.  In America, partisan politics has frequently played on fears of a rising Chinese threat to America, representing Chinese students as heartless automatons coming for American jobs. The profound lack of empathy—indeed, the jingoism behind these representations astounds me.  As Americans today face real, even insurmountable obstacles to our own dreams of mobility we must be careful not to dismiss the diverse and complex human strivings and histories that shape the growth of our industrial “rival.”  But I also found myself wondering about the degree to which the recognition of a legitimate shared human striving is enough of an end in itself, to what degree it can stand up to the growing intensity of this global political and economic rivalry.

In Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that the positivist stance of cultural relativism is not a real strategy for negotiating our global world.  Rather, we must resist the frameworks of us and them, reject the “clash of cultures” model and engage in dialogues that strive for recognitions of similarity and difference.  “Depending on the circumstances, conversations across boundaries can be delightful, or just vexing: what they mainly are, though, is inevitable.”[1]  To confront this new global modernity we must engage.

American news media fixates upon the rampant corruption in Chinese bureaucracy.  Today I read about evidence of China’s use of technological warfare targeting America’s power grid. Missing from this media coverage is any real sense of how the textures of people lives and their dreams relate to the transformations of the Chinese state.  These were questions I could not ask my hosts.  The silences within our conversations were deep and wide.

But surely the questions they ask of us form a close mirror.  When I spoke in my talk about contemporary political struggles over the question of social family policies like paid maternity leave or explained how women had used the court system to test the terms of the civil rights legislation, a palpable ripple of discomfort crossed the room.  What did they know about our political institutions?  What did I truly know of theirs?  One of our guides told us about her determination to join the Party.  We were surprised.  This is the only vehicle to change, she explained.  Our other guide seemed less sure.  She wanted to engage with the wider academic world, she looked outward.

But this binary of looking inward and outward fails to capture the complexity of cultures and forces shaping the lives and dreams of young women and men in modern China.  During my time in Guizhou, I was confronted with a recognition that the key mediator of cultural exchange, and perhaps the most lasting, is neither the state nor the school, and even continues to defy China’s widespread state censorship.  In 2013, cultural exchange is principally mediated by a global mass culture.  Consider our (truly delightful) visit to a local primary school, where students held a birthday party to illustrate their most recent English language lesson.  They paid tribute to us as honored guests, feeding us a dizzying array of local delicacies before serenading us with karaoke to Pink Floyd and Lenka songs.  Everyone was taking pictures of everyone, unabashedly, intensely, as if the gaze could both distill and dispel difference.  It took very little prodding before my companions and I joined them in a rousing group rendition of “Gangnam Style.”  We all knew the dance and the words even though we could barely talk to each other.  The hour we spent with this class felt intensely intimate and completely superficial.  I was left wondering whether engaging through a global hit song softens the hard angles of cultural and political difference or creates a neutral shared space within which we can recognize our shared dreams.

[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2007), xxi.

The First Time Someone Called Me Fat

December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments

It happens to most women at some point in their lives.  Many hear it as girls and develop major self-confidence issues or a thick skin or both.  Some lucky ones call this nonsense by its true name.  To quote a brilliant feminist academic I know and love, “It’s the patriarchy.”  If you let it get you down, if you internalize that shit, then “they keep having the power.”  Totally.

I have amazing friends who are part of movements to reclaim the word “fat” and decouple body size from health.  This work is important.  But I find myself consistently struggling to emotionally internalize the political ideals and feminist critiques that fill my reading, my writing, and conversations with friends.  For far too long I have internalized the values of a culture that is quick to dismiss a woman’s value in a word, a culture that consistently shouts down my feminist superego.

This patriarchal body-shaming BS has wriggled so deep inside me that last night I found myself bursting into tears in a bar when a smart, funny, “nice” guy whom I had met the week before — whom I had had the balls to ask out the week before — told me that his friends had said I was fat.  And I started crying.  In a bar.  In front of everyone.

“It’s the patriarchy.”  I keep letting them have the power.

Why does that word continue to have such power over women?  I have been called many many things in my day.  I am not a stranger to being called ugly or annoying or stupid or uncool.  But when I was younger it was par for the course, I was a hyper sensitive nerdy kid in public school.  And I never let them see me cry.  Or at least, I think, rarely.

But as I struggle to negotiate a hellish job market and singletonhood and a body that is changing as I get older, I find myself with all of my defenses down, and was so taken by surprise last night that I sat there and cried.  And then asked why the hell he thought that was an acceptable thing to tell a woman.

Would I have cried had he called me a “buttaface”?  Is fat different than ugly?  Sarah Jessica Parker is a polarizing figure in the annals of American beauty.  An ex-boyfriend who is intimately familiar with my own struggles to accept my face nevertheless persisted in joining the collective who call SJP “horseface.”  But one thing Sarah Jessica Parker is not?  Fat.  Oh no!  The degree of shame heaped on women whose bodies are not the “right” size comes from the particular way our Protestant society collapses the assessment of body size into assumptions about self-transformation and worth.  Ugly people are ostracized or shamed and face discrimination in hiring, but fat people are a special disgrace in our culture because large bodies visibly defy vaunted principles of self-control and belief in self-transformation.  This is why we shame fat people for eating.  I direct you to the Fat Studies Reader if you’d like to learn more.

The point here is that fat is a particular kind of slur in our culture that fits into a larger pattern of dismissing a woman’s worth based on her appearance.  So was it the word “fat” that did it to me last night or the incredible pain of knowing that I was sized up and dismissed in a moment?  Actually, it’s more than that.  The man I was with, to all appearances a smart, articulate, interesting, and politically-attuned fellow did not recognize that it is never appropriate to dismiss a person based on her appearance — to her face.  He wasn’t the author of the dismissal, sure, and he professed that his friends are idiots, but at the moment he probably laughed.  Or maybe he didn’t.  I wasn’t there.  But he didn’t know enough to realize that you do not ever share that kind of statement with a virtual stranger.  You do not say to her face, my friends dismissed you because they thought you were fat and they thought I should dismiss you too.

He later explained to me that he doesn’t care what strangers think of him, so he didn’t consider that I would care or be bothered.  First of all, that is epically obtuse.  But it also is very revealing of a persistent problem with gender and empathy in our culture.  I know that white heterosexual masculinity has some major problems, places an inordinate amount of pressure on men, and really needs to be reevaluated.  But it’s not a zero sum game, this is not a contest.  Feminist critiques of gender in our culture haven’t done any good if men still don’t understand, can’t empathize enough to recognize that their experience of criticism, their way of handling it, their particular emotional response to judgements of their bodies are not normative.  If they can’t recognize that by relaying this kind of a judgement they are complicit in a real feminist problem.  Because of “the patriarchy” many women experience these things quite differently.  And it is never OK to dismiss a woman to her face about her body, even if you are merely relaying it secondhand.

These things can hurt men too.  They hurt men a lot.  But the entitlement to dismiss a woman based on her appearance, which we have recently seen enacted quite a bit in politics – politics! – this entitlement is powerfully gendered.  And you’re not an educated man, a “sensitive” man, an “enlightened” man unless you have figured that out.

I suppose I can’t expect men to stop with this nonsense until I stop calling myself these things as well.  Until I stop “giving in to the patriarchy.”  I suppose I had my eyes opened last night about how easy it is to be so fragile even when you think you’re scrappy and strong.  Sometimes you’re not your own worst critic.  No, the voices in your head come from the world around you.  And I wish we could make it stop.

An indulgence: On Weddings, Fantasies, and the Performativity of Modern Subjectivity

September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Yesterday I celebrated a cousin’s wedding.  Next weekend I celebrate another cousin’s wedding.  And this morning I opened up the Styles section to Matt Richtel’s “Till Death, or 20 Years, Do Us Part.”  This.

My feelings on the subject are endlessly complex.  As I live and work, I am surrounded by marriages, successful marriages, enduring marriages, tense marriages, wandering marriages, broken marriages.  The cohort of incoming faculty at my SLAC is perhaps an apt microcosm of marriage patterns in my professional and personal demographic.  In a cohort of three men and three women (all white with advanced graduate degrees), we were two married men, one married woman, a man in a long-term partnership, and two single women.  I’m not going to attempt any exegesis on reasons for gender disparity in marriage patterns, except to direct any and all partisans of Hanna Rosin’s idiotic “End of Men” arguments to an exceptional counterargument, also in this weekend’s NYT, by the historian Stephanie Coontz, “The Myth of Male Decline.”

Instead, I’m going to ruminate in a somewhat personal vein on the problem and persistence of the marriage myth in our culture….especially given the high likelihood of divorce among our families and friends.  I’ve seen it in my own family and am arriving at the age when statistically a high percentage of marriages may slowly start to crumble — or have already crumbled.

Divorce is messy.  The fallout is a long and winding road.  We can’t make our exes disappear in a puff of smoke, regardless the convenience of the fantasy that if the relatives don’t invite my ex to the wedding, the funeral, the bar mitzvah, s/he doesn’t exist.  Alas, even in our globalized world, we cannot escape from the ties of our failed relationships.  Nor is a divorce the end of a relationship.  Rather, it is a reconstitution of a relationship originally codified in marriage.  It is in this messy context that I look upon the events of a wedding and am convinced that in 2012, the expression of sentiments like “for the rest of my life” are naive at best, and certainly foolhardy.

But should we stop saying these things?  Do we need to say these things to articulate a love and a partnership and commitment?  Perhaps we should examine more carefully why we feel the need to say these things about our relationships.  “Forever” in a world of divorces performs some powerful cultural work.  Is it a persistence of youthful idealism despite a sea of evidence to the contrary?  Perhaps this is a good thing, the foolhardy idealism of youth, not cowed by the disappointments of our parents.

Not so fast.  There is more going on, and much of it has to do with the privilege, both economic as well as social and cultural, that we continue to confer on the married.

Young married folk like to express sentiments to young non married folk on the order of “it completely changes your relationship” and “you won’t understand until you’re married.”  Such statements are baldfaced in their invocation of privilege.  Understanding is predicated on experience, thus precluding deniability.  You can’t challenge the claim, unless you too join the ranks of the foolhardy married.  Motherhood has a similar aura of unapproachable privilege wrapped around it, in that no woman in our culture is allowed to speak authoritatively about motherhood unless she has become a mother herself.  Ah! the tyranny of personal experience to confer privilege.  I face my 30s with a mounting frustration with the realization that if I choose not to marry, or still yet, have children, I will never really be regarded a full adult.  Yes, yes, cue the trombones and piccolo to commence this misshapen swan song.

I recently had a blistering fight with a close friend about the relative choices that let to our relative relationship status.  She cohabits with a boyfriend of several years.  I’m single and frustrated with the lack of dating prospects.  The comment that set us on a tear?  “I guess I just got lucky.”  Everyone who is single despises the condescension captured in that statement.  Luck does have something to do with many of these life choices, but emphasizing luck at the expense of choice obscures a much more significant fact that the kinds of relationships we are in owe a great deal to choice.  I’m sick of hearing about waiting to be lucky.  It smacks as much of privilege as “you won’t understand until you’re married.”

(Amended to add: Then again, as a friend and reader has pointed out to me, too often the discourse of choice is used to shame single people for our BAD choices, instead of acknowledging our lack of options.  Well.  Perhaps those coupled up could apply the discourse of choice to their own circumstances a bit more, because you don’t fall into a relationship, after all.  You a lucky and you make choices.)

Bitterness!  The bitterness of the single woman, you say.


(Now the gratuitous turn to the personal.)  But I think it is important to separate the reasons that I am single from the reasons that I am not married.  (And granted, my friend is not married either, nor does she profess a strong investment in becoming so.  But she has committed to a relationship that is as imperfect as my singleness or as imperfect as any other relationship.)  When I reflect on my singleness, I am convinced that I am single because I have not found the right person to be in a relationship with at this time in my life, but unmarried because marriage was never a major goal for me.

I have always wanted to be in relationships, to meet and connect with and love another person, deeply and fundamentally.  But I have only recently realized that for much of my 20s, I did not assume that these relationships should lead to marriage, that this was the goal for which I was striving.  Maybe I was just a cynical child of an ugly divorce.  Or maybe I’m doing revisionist history.  And perhaps many of my friends — married and unmarried, in long term committed relationships both — were equally vague about their long-term goals for their relationships.  But this is not the narrative that emerges in the choreographed nostalgia of a wedding.  This is what gives me pause, and makes me feel that my conflicted feelings about weddings and marriage must be separated from my feelings about committed romantic partnerships.

The irony of all weddings that I attend, no matter how much they reshape tradition to suit contemporary visions of a “non-traditional” wedding, whether couples write their own vows or recite an edited version of the traditional vows, whether the wedding is outside or in, whether the bride wears a veil or not, walks out to Bruce Springsteen or Antonio Vivaldi, hangs out with guests before the ceremony or only appears at the end of the processional in a fantasy cloud of tulle — whatever the architecture of the affair, all involve a teleological narrative rife with the expectations of nostalgia.  All road lead to Rome. We are creating memories of a story foretold.  The wedding is the ultimate nostalgic performance, the epitome of our culture’s hyped-up sense of performativity.

Permit me a momentary diversion.

At a recent student-led discussion of The Hunger Games at my SLAC, we commented on the unique feature of Katniss’s negotiation of the games, unprecedented in all dystopian literature: Katniss becomes a good competitor not only because she is an exceptional shot and a skilled survivalist, but because Katniss learns — almost a minute too late, but in that moment, uncannily well — the ability to perform herself, to play to the cameras, to choreograph and perform every emotion and decision.   In order to win the Hunger Games, Katniss must not only compete, but perform herself for millions of viewers.  In the process, Katniss begins to question the terms of her own reality, her own subjectivity, the nature of her “true” feelings.  She begins to lose “herself” to the game.

This is far more complex than the usual shorthand that Collins is writing a critique of reality TV.  Reality TV is a device here used to reveal a larger point about contemporary subjectivity.  As one professor at the discussion pointed out, The Hunger Games is so appealing to this generation of readers because Collins has captured the defining feature of our modernity: our lives are lived through a hyper-awareness of our own participation in elaborate performances of self.  We watch ourselves regardless of whether we are ourselves aware of being watched by another.  This is not only because of the possibility that we might in fact be surveiled but also because subjectivity and knowing the self occurs through the performativity of self.  In other words, it doesn’t matter whether we are or are not being watched.  It is the performance that matters.  This is not the invention of the early 21st century, but the result of a long evolution in modern subjectivity that began sometime in the 19th century.

Indeed, our culture exists in a strange counter-poise — like a glove turned inside out — to construction of subjectivity and performativity — the relationship between external and internal character — in early-19th-century society.  In the early 19th century, scholars like Karen Halttunen and John Kasson have argued, middle-class evangelical strivers embraced a cult of sincerity, grounded in the belief that the body was the visible and unmediated manifestation of internal character.  This culture was deeply ambivalent about performativity, even as it engaged in highly choreographed rituals to convey that the exterior appearance was a transparent reflection of inner character.

Around the middle of the century, the rise of a new middle class culture shifted this relationship between performativity and character, such that theatricality was increasingly embraced as a positive value.  This shift also participated in a larger transformation in the relationship between middle-class culture and theater, the implications of which are far-reaching (and the subject of my own work).  The theater became what it had been in the eighteenth century, a site in which modern subjectivity was performed.  (This trajectory and shift is far more complex, but one way of periodizing this is to see the early 19thC as a kind of back-lash against the hyper-performativity of elite culture in the eighteenth century.  The late 19thC marked a democratization of the process of achieving subjectivity through performativity.  Now, a return to your regular scheduled program.)

If Americans two centuries ago imagined the outside as the transparent reflection of inner truth, in our culture we find the truth in the outside, and in turn view the inside as existing only through the truth of the outside.  This is not a moral judgement.  My observation is not intended as some armchair indictment of the shallowness of our culture.  To the contrary.  Our culture, like most, defines the relationship between truth and character and performance in its own particular way, which is both the beauty and the trap of our modernity.  We know ourselves through our performances.  And what better way to understand the enduring myths and dreams of self than through one of the last formal rituals that a majority of Americans, across boundaries of class, race, ethnicity and sexuality, increasingly embrace!

A long and perhaps unnecessary diversion to come to this, my final point:

I both love and despise weddings.  I love the pageantry and spectacle, the magic of getting dressed up — a rare treat in our casual and informal culture — of being surrounded by good friends and family and strangers drinking, dancing, and celebrating.  The performativity of the wedding appeals to me.  But it also disturbs me, deeply.  You see, I can’t pretend that I only like weddings for the red lipstick and silk chiffon.  I am not a cold cynic, but a deeply emotional one.  My friends tell me that I am not a cynic at all.  I am single because I am a deep romantic.  Case in point: my anxiety about weddings leads me to embrace the performativity and then wrap myself in a mantle of scotch and cynicism that ultimately proves a very fragile shell for the turgid emotions beneath.  At weddings, I frequently drink too much and cry.

I love and despise weddings because I am terrified of my own desires.  Because I secretly wonder, can I ever really know myself unless I too join in this lovely charade?

But it is this aspect of wedding culture, as Virgina Rutter radically asserts in Richtel’s article, that we must eliminate.  Our fetishization of all aspects of this performance prevent us from imagining something different in the architecture of our relationships, from finding our way into a new culture of partnership, family, and sexuality.  A wedding-less world that would discourage us from “buying into the fantasy” seems both shockingly bleak and fundamentally vital.  Without the fantasy of marriage as a nostalgic crutch to hang our choices upon, perhaps we would be increasingly pressured to continually redefine the meanings and terms of our partnerships, our commitments, and the arc of our futures.  Without finding our way to ourselves through our performances of nostalgia.  We know the choreography of the wedding, but it leaves us ill-equipped, in this day and age, to negotiate the improvisation of our relationships.

Next weekend I will walk joyously down the aisle before my cousin.  I will celebrate her marriage and I will cry.  A lot.  Writing this even now brings a knot into my stomach.  But find me at some point in the evening and ask me and I will tell you that deep down inside I am wondering, wondering, about the price of these, our deepest and most jealously guarded and highly performed fantasies.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.