Wednesday, 28 March 2012

On Twilight's Bella & Mad Men's Megan

With my American iTunes account, I was able--I realized last night--to upload the hour-and-a-half series five premiere of "Mad Men" and stayed up until two in the morning watching it. In the aftermath of sunshine the next day, I can't stop thinking about it--especially Megan in the intricacies of her new married role (to Don Draper, that is).

Marriage is on my mind, of course, and all the things that come with it. The quick list for me includes: name changing or keeping, perceived and real power, sexual attraction and disinterest, work (or not), and babies (or not).

My initial reactions to Mad Men's Megan-as-Don's-Wife include that she:
--seems like a child (especially in her "Zou Bisou Bisou" performance, which made me cringe)
--is perceived to be powerful at the office only because she's married to Don
--toys with Don (as in her psuedo-tantrum in her underwear the day after the party)
--pouts to get her way (leaving the office mid-day because Don didn't like her party)
--is hated by most other women because a) she is a babe and b) she "snagged" Don
--is interesting and exciting to men (and incidentally, Sally) because she is a babe
--changes her name (of course, it's the sixties)
--frightens babies because maternity and sexiness are often portrayed as mutually exclusive

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually think Bella Swan of the "Twilight" series in her recent marriage to Edward is both more powerful and more interesting.

Bella seems to be having an anxiety attack as she walks down the aisle. (Her recent nightmares have included an altar strewn with bloodied dead bodies. She is, after all, marrying a vampire.) Yet Bella's nerves reflect a kind of seriousness, I propose, about marriage; they serve to acknowledge the hugeness, scariness, and difficulty of committing to another person--the magnitude an profundity of marriage.

Bella does have a few things in common with Megan: she changes her name (at least Edward calls her "Mrs. Cullen" on their island honeymoon) and her (for the most part) conventionally perfect looks are a huge emphasis of the film.

Yet Bella prefers bare feet to the awkwardly tall heels Edward's sis gets her to wear, and--perhaps most importantly--she and Edward seem locked in a kind of shared-power partnership, each keen to love and protect the other, each keen to remain a strong and intact individual, making his or her own decisions. (Alright, so I actually kind of buy it.)

Some distressing elements around gender role do develop, however--like in Edward's control over Bella's access to Jacob, Edward's ownership of the honeymoon plan (a secret), and Bella's total fragility compared to Edward's super vampire strength...

And it gets even more interesting on the honeymoon...

More on sex, pregnancy, and death in a coming post, bringing this all together around Wolf's Beauty Myth and perhaps some related ideas from the other Woolf...

Friday, 23 March 2012

My Annual Beauty Myth Crisis

At Klingenstein a few years ago, one of my teachers said, "I was having my annual Huck Finn crisis..."

I experience a version of this myself (and it isn't even to do with The Vagina Monologues), and it's happening now. You could call it my annual Beauty Myth crisis.

Will my students hate the sassy, feisty voice of Wolf for the next three hundred pages? Will this push us simply too far into feeling that the voice of feminism is "femi-Nazi" (a term I still find chillingly offensive)? Will they reject Wolf outright for being tedious, or too full of angst, or--worst of all--boring or irrelevant?

I care so much, perhaps, because I feel that so much is at stake, whether or not my students like Wolf.

Grappling with these gender issues--beauty, work, culture, religion, sex, hunger, and violence--is essential, I believe, to an educated, mindful personhood, male or female, in today's world. If we are to be global citizens, citizens of humanity, we have to look (and look hard) at this list, especially in terms of its social and economical implications.

Wolf asks (in 1990), "Do women feel free?" and through her own research suggests that the answer is no. In a passage about psychologist Daniel Goleman's work, Wolf says, "The costs of these social blind spots [...] are destructive communal illusions" (17). Communal in this case means all of us--men and women. What role, I wonder, in 2012, do the media and advertising play in our collective sense of freedom (or lack thereof)?

If, as Jean Kilbourne suggests, the media and advertising teach us to hate ourselves and hurt our bodies, then what Wolf calls "the beauty myth" is a danger to everyone. In fact, even if the myth still hurts only or mostly women, our whole society is both responsible for and affected by its perpetuation.

Quoting Betty Friedan from 1960, Wolf says, "That caricature [of the Ugly Feminist], which sought to punish women for their public acts by going after their private sense of self, became the paradigm for new limits placed on aspiring women everywhere" (19). If images serve to "destroy women physically and deplete us psychologically," we need to pay serious, collective attention to these concerns, to transform our culture for all our sakes.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

On Love, Partnership, & Identity

In my thirties, I'm fascinated by the reports far-flung or ancient friends and old boyfriends send (usually via email) about their current relationships. As more and more people I know marry (and sometimes divorce and remarry), we report on our lives to one another with quick notes about partners: "Loving life with Brett and Ella (our puppy)," "Alex is a great dad," "My daughter's mother, Sarah, is finishing a degree, doing triathlons," "Matthew has a new job with Google," and so forth. They read like mini-resumes, distilled reports on character, extensions of my friends themselves.

How do we tell the world about our partnerships, about something as intimate as love or intimacy? From what I understand, on sites like Facebook, people post their "relationship status," a handy identifier, neatly describing this part of ourselves and our lives.

Isn't it a bit strange, though? I suppose we've always had a shorthand for this; we've just spoken these sound-bytes as opposed to writing (or Tweeting or whatever) them.

I know that I've developed a kind of shorthand for former relationships and know many people who have. One boyfriend becomes "the skier" and one "the guy from grad school," ostensibly for my girlfriends to be able to keep them straight in our conversations. Yet I wonder if this shorthand, effectively, does more than that subconsciously... there is some reduction, some compartmentalization here.

Jasmine has a version of this, except that her emphasis is on the shorthand version of herself relative to each major relationship she's had. Perhaps this is both more accurate and more honest. Wasn't the skier boyfriend about the version of myself (or the time in my life and journey) when I organized my life around skiing? Isn't calling someone "the guy from grad school" to a friend really a way of naming a version of myself, the one attached to the grad school phase of my life?

Freud, among others, identified our narcissism along these lines. To some extent, however, I think our narcissism is only human...

At the end of Mukherjee's novel, she writes, "I am not choosing between men. I am caught between the promise of America and old-world dutifulness. A caregiver's life is a good life, a worthy life" (240). Jasmine's choices involve her partners, but they are about her. Especially as a person with fragmented lives, names, and selves, Jasmine is trying to identify and negotiate a self, a personhood, through all of the breaks, losses, and endings.

The part of this novel I keep thinking about and going back to, mulling over, wrestling with, is the VERY END:

There is nothing I can do. Time will tell if I am a tornado, rubble-maker, arising from nowhere and disappearing into a cloud. I am out the door and in the potholed and rutted driveway, scrambling ahead of Taylor, greedy with wants and reckless from hope (241).

Mukherjee enjoins us: Is Jasmine indeed greedy and reckless? Is it greedy and reckless to choose life, to choose freedom? Jasmine DOES hurt people in the process. This is hard. I'm always torn. I want her to be happy and free, to be able, for the first time in her life, to direct her own fate entirely, make her own adventure, so to speak. My friend Selden says, "The hero always says yes to his adventure." Does it logically follow, then, that the heroine always says yes to hers?

Before Darrel kills himself, Jasmine says to the reader, "What I'm saying is, release Darrel from the land" (229). Wylie was free to leave with Stuart; Du was free to go to California to see his sister; Darrel was not free to leave his family's farm and does not survive as a result. I think Mukherjee uses these other characters to complicate our sense of rightness, to make us work hard with our justifications, and to examine how we make them--for Jasmine and for ourselves.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Agency in Women's Lit

One of the things that keeps surfacing in Women's Lit this semester is the notion of agency. In what ways and to what extent do the women and girls in these texts direct and control their own lives and selves?

For instance, we kept wondering whether Offred (in The Handmaid's Tale) is being brave enough. Does she have options? Is she able to be brave? Moira is brave and ends up tortured and broken, a prostitute happy enough with her hand cream.

Now we are asking similar questions about Jane/Jyoti/Jasmine. Her childhood world is entirely limited and controlled by men: her father, her brothers, the man who predicts her future under the banyan tree. She marries Prakash at fifteen. In her hellish journey to America after Prakash is murdered, Jasmine is entirely dependent upon strangers, raped by a man she calls Half Face, taken in by a savior of a woman named Lillian Gordon...

It seems in the U.S. that Jasmine's fate is still heavily determined by the men in her life: first Taylor in Manhattan, then Bud in Iowa (and to a lesser extent, Darrel and Du as well). Jasmine "shuttles between identities" because she has been many different people already in her young life (77).

At times it seems to me that Jasmine is quite willing. As Half Face leads her to her doom, she says, " What was fated to happen would happen" (111). As she continues on her journey after killing him, she notes, "My body was merely the shell, soon to be discarded" (121). At times like these I wonder about Jasmine's sense of self. Does she believe in her own right to govern her life, her body, her direction? I'm not sure.

As the novel goes on, however, if I remember correctly from previous readings other years, Jasmine increasingly claims agency, empowered in many ways by Taylor to do so, which raises further questions. Without Taylor would she begin claiming her own life, or is this still just another variation of patriarchy?