Friday, 31 May 2013

There She Was

Mrs. Dalloway explores mortality without grimacing or shying away from it yet simultaneously affirms life. This, for me, is the heart of the novel, the challenge for us to wrangle with as we attempt to make sense of and meaning from the novel (in spite of its Modernist futility). 

At the very end of the novel, several characters consider young Elizabeth Dalloway. Peter says, "There's Elizabeth" and "she feels not half what we feel, not yet" (171). This book in so many ways has been about how much and how intensely individuals feel. The heroes of this novel (even if they're Modernist anti-heroes) are those who are capable of complex thought; sensitive, deep reactions and feelings; fluid movement between joy and anguish. Peter and Clarissa are certainly most prominent among them. 

'I will come,' said Peter, but he sat on for a moment. What is this terror? what is this ecstasy? he though to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement? It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was. THE END (172).

Terror, ecstasy, and excitement are overlapping; the world is pluralistic, not singular; it cannot be divided into good and evil or right and wrong. This, too, is one of Woolf's very Modernist thoughts, yet she develops it uniquely in Mrs. Dalloway. Pluralism, multiple perspectives, and the variability of truth look different for Eliot, Joyce, Faulker, and the rest. 

Here are some examples of things (seemingly contradictory) that are simultaneously true and overlapping (as opposed to mutually exclusive and non-overlapping) in the novel:
  • "Are we not all prisoners?" (170)
  • "We know everything" (171).
  • "Somehow it was [Clarissa's] disaster--her disgrace" (164).
  • "Death was defiance" (163). 
  • "Perhaps there was somebody there. But there was nobody" (162).
  • "They looked; that was all. That was enough" (157).
  • "She hated her; she loved her."
  • " is certain we must die" (155).
  • "...still these semblances, these triumphs."
  • "That was satisfying; that was real" (154).
  • "Every one was unreal in one way; must more real in another" (151).
  • "Life was that--humiliation, renunciation" (148).
  • "Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life" (144).
Woolf's project, it seems to me, is to proclaim the connectedness of joy and anguish, life and death, loss and triumph--the ways in which they are one and the same, not opposites. I love how C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed and Surprised by Joy writes about how one must understand pain in order to truly know love, how grief and joy and interrelated. Lewis and Woolf in this are immensely brave.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Connecting Mrs. Dalloway to This Week at School

I keep thinking about our high school's struggle to contend with the news that one of our recent graduates has been charged with multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault at his college. I am not bringing this up to focus all over again on his particular case, nor do I want the conversation to be about him--who he is, whether or not he did it. 

As I reread Mrs. Dalloway this year, I'm thinking a lot about the life of the mind, our interior worlds, the things that make up our lives, the relationships and environments that determine them. Clarissa calls her parties "an offering"; she feels "quite continuously a sense of [other people's] existence" and she feels "what a waste" and she feels "what a pity"; "if only they could be brought together." The parties are an offering; "to combine, to create; but to whom?" (107)

This novel acknowledges--in rich, profound, heartbreaking ways--people's love of life as well as their anguishes. The novel, Virginia Woolf, makes important the life of the mind, our inner worlds and feelings, everything that has ever happened to us, how it feels, what it means. She shows the simultaneous meaninglessness and meaning of one life. 

This, to me, is the ultimate affirmation of being human. 

Rape is exactly the opposite. It is a denial of humanity, an assault on another person's humanity. When someone rapes, he (or she) is failing to honor, in the most horrific and offensive way, an individual's personhood, what is sacred, what is felt, what makes us human. 

I will be haunted all my life by the rapes of women I love and have loved. 

One of my college roommates, a friend I cherish, transferred to my school as a sophomore because she was raped at her first college as a freshman. She knew the guy. His fraternity often mixed with her sorority. He was powerful and known. She didn't press charges. Her parents, learning that she was in hospital, put her long-distance boyfriend on a plane to see about her. I still get chills. I got in her car one night in the pouring rain; we drove away from the dorm, and she told me the story. 

One of my friends from high school, our class speaker at graduation, hugely loved and admired, was raped our senior year of high school when she visited her sister at college. She fought an eating disorder and self harm for several years in the aftermath--I remember seeing the marks on her lovely legs and arms--and has emerged in adulthood as one of the most loving, passionate leaders in her field and one of the most loving, passionate people I have known. 

I was "rufeed" right after college (when I was twenty-two): Halloween, costumes, snow, a big tent party in the ski town where I lived, and I took a drink from a cute guy I didn't know wearing a Rasta costume. I can still see his hovering figure sometimes. I woke up screaming in my apartment, half-clothed, with stitches in my face. My roommate and her boyfriend, my saviors, told me what had happened: how they had crossed the icy parking lot; how I was bleeding, had broken a heel, was falling, was trying to get away and being pursued; how my roommate's boyfriend challenged the guy and pushed him away from me; how they took me to the emergency room to get my face sewn up; how I was practically catatonic for hours. I remember nothing, not even shades of that night after I took the drink. 

I didn't go to the police. I didn't understand what had happened. I blamed myself. I had been drinking. My sister said over the phone from Tennessee, "God is punishing you for wearing that outfit."

The stories proliferate. I could write several further posts all about the girls I've known in high school and college who suffered assault. Some of them got away (like my sorority sister who escaped a cab driver who locked the doors and tried to crawl into the back seat with her), and some did not. All try to heal. Everyone wants to be free. 

I don't want to scare anyone. I want girls and guys, my students, all of us to go into the world boldly, with love, with hope, without fear. 

Mrs. Dalloway advocates for life, even as it explores death. They are two sides of the same coin. 
All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was!--that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how every instant... (108)

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Thinking (As Ever) about Mrs. Dalloway & The Hours

If there is a novel from which I will never recover (in terms of its beauty as well as its anguish), it's Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. And perhaps not unrelatedly, if there is a film from which I will never recover (in terms of its beauty as well as its anguish), it's "The Hours," based on the novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham, which is based on Mrs. Dalloway

Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf so movingly and memorably in "The Hours" that her performance retains its magnificence in my mind year after year. Meryl Streep, typically, also becomes her character, a modern-day Clarissa Dalloway in New York City (as opposed to London). Julianne Moore is likewise astonishing. The three of them juxtaposed transcend everything we've ever come to expect or understand about what is possible in film.

I'm rereading the novel, of course, in Women's Literature this spring. And we're in London. And we're approaching June. It's all too perfect--and a bit too much. 

I open the novel and reread the line, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," and the beautiful, anguishing world of the novel pops instantly back to life; takes me in (1). The city and its people are somehow the same city and people Clarissa (and Woolf) knew in 1917, in spite of the various wars and years between us. 

Clarissa and Septimus feel and see and rejoice and hurt with the same intensity as anyone today--anyone, that is, who experiences life with extraordinary intensity, the highs and the lows. (Is this, some readers wonder, manic depression or bipolar disorder?)

"Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that," Clarissa feels, on one hand (4). Yet it is just as real and just as intense when she feels that "often now this body she wore [...] this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing--nothing at all." Woolf continues, "She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street..." (7-8). 

Somewhat similarly, Septimus feels everything, too. was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signaling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks. (17-18)
Sometimes the beautiful and the anguishing merge into one, so that life and death are intertwined in one gorgeous, painful feeling. Though I do not suffer from mental illness (as far as I know), all of this seems incredibly poignant and real to me as a reader. Woolf captures how it feels to be in the wild, bustling, lonely, wonderful world: "life; London; this moment of June" (2).

Friday, 10 May 2013

Greedy with Wants & Reckless from Hope

"There is nothing I can do," Jasmine says at the end of Mukerjee's novel, Jasmine
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). 
At the end of The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf recommends being greedy, too: 
How to begin? Let's be shameless. Be greedy. Pursue pleasure. Avoid pain. Wear and touch and eat and drink what we feel like. Seek out the sex we want and fight fiercely against the sex we do not want. Choose our own causes. And once we break through and change the rules so our sense of our own beauty cannot be shaken, sing that beauty and dress it up and flaunt it and revel in it: In a sensual politics female is beautiful (291). 
Eve Ensler, too, calls us to a celebration, a feast, a revelry. From one of her interviews near the end of The Vagina Monologues, she writes: 
To love women, to love our vaginas, to know them and touch them and be familiar with who we are and what we need. To satisfy ourselves, to teach our lovers to satisfy us, to be present in our vaginas, to speak of them out loud, to speak of their hunger and pain and loneliness and humor, to make them visible so they cannot be ravaged in the dark without great consequence, so that our center, our point, our motor, our dream, is no longer detached, mutilated, numb, broken, invisible, or ashamed (118). 
There is something going on here. These writers all describe a woman-loving world--a safe, whole, celebratory, nurturing, vibrant place for women (and men) to thrive and be strong. Is it "greedy" to want these things: freedom (political and otherwise), safety (in our bodies, in our communities), agency? 

Maybe hearing Jasmine and other women talking about choosing themselves, their own wants and needs, makes us uncomfortable because it is so strongly normalized for women to submit themselves to the needs and wants of others. Women's literature, in many places and in many ways, challenges that norm, calling for the kind of world in which a woman or a man can be free, own her or his body, and make her or his choices.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Women's Lit Poem & Freedom for Jasmine

Little Women's Lit Poem

If Virginia Woolf were water, she would be an ocean--which
one is the deepest? That one. One that harbors movement,
glances through the dim, granular void, to the surface. And
Eve Ensler would be the smoke-rich music in some safe,
underground space where listeners and speakers peer gently
into one another's faces under twinkles of light. On a long
road into another world, Margaret Atwood pedals, practically,
on a symbolic bicycle, passing a cigarette to Gloria Steinem. 

AND... somewhat (mostly) unrelatedly...

"It thrilled me," Jasmine writes of seeing the Hayeses' apartment in Manhattan for the first time. "Sunlight smeared one wall of windows. It spoke to me of possibility, that one could live like this and not be struck down" (160). From the beginning, Taylor and his life represent freedom from the fates of India. Remember her saying, “If we could just get away from India, then all fates would be cancelled,” which made us wonder if they would—or could (85).

Perhaps that is where Mukherjee subtly leads us: freedom.

After she murders Half-Face, Jasmine says, "The pitcher is broken" and that she begins "[her] journey, traveling light" (120, 121). Perhaps this is the turning point, then, even if it is precipitated by horror. Jasmine passes through a portal to the other side (her tongue sliced down the middle), where Lillian Gordon, the Christ figure (if you're up for this sort of literary analogy), offers mercy and resurrection. 

This is Mukherjee's introduction of Lillian: "At that moment, an old white lady came out of the barracks [...] 'How dare you speak to a young lady in such a despicable fashion. She asked for water--well, get her water man!'" Like Jesus, who washed the feet of the unwashed or drew water for the woman at the well (and so on), Lillian has compassion on Jasmine, who has been shamed and abused by America (for all of its promise) until now. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Is Jasmine Free?

The question Mukherjee raises about her main character and narrator, Jasmine, on the first page of her novel by the same name endures throughout the novel: essentially, is she free (in what ways and to what extent)? And it seems to me that a lot of literature, and--to be sure--a lot of women's literature, grapples with this essential question. 

"Lifetimes ago, under a banyan tree in the village of Hasnapur, as astrologer cupped his ears--his satellite dish to the starts--and foretold my widowhood and exile [...] 'No!' I shouted," the novel begins. The astrologer cackles, "What will happen will happen," and Jasmine whispers, "I don't believe you" (3). 

And though Jasmine (now Jyoti) says, "I was nothing," she soon retracts it: "I didn't feel I was nothing" (3, 4). We need to hang onto this Jasmine in Mukherjee's novel; it's easy to lose track of her.

Perhaps I just have Hamlet on the brain, but Jasmine, like him, questions her existence--its nature, its meaning, its significance--again and again. Also, she often references Hindu notions of reincarnation with literal and metaphorical implications. Life and death are locked in a tango. On one hand, Jasmine's existence can't matter terrifically if she's going to destroy it (or accept that it is destroyed) before remaking it: "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself. We murder who we are so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams" (29).  

After we see Prakash's death in her arms and her brutal rape by Half-Face, Jasmine's seeming complacence makes more sense: "What was fated to happen would happen," she quotes the astrologer. "My mission, thank God, was nearly over" (111). Yet the self who says this will be no longer, live no more. In order to "survive," "adapt," Jasmine "rebirths" herself. Part of this transformation is seeing herself in the mirror and slicing her tongue (118). 

So have there been moments of agency, of freedom, for this young woman along the horrible way? She does feel "a buzz of power" at times, like when she faces off with the attacking dog as a girl (54). At one point, she even thinks, "Let it come. Let him pounce. I had the staff" (55). This scene is reflected again when Jasmine stabs the rapist to death through a sheet (119). 

I, for one, don't find it difficult to see or appreciate this character's extraordinary fortitude. If she has never known freedom, how does she know she wants it? Yet I think she does. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Wollstonecraft's Legacy

Mary Wollstonecraft fascinates me. I just think she was shockingly, mind-alteringly ahead of her time. She supported her sister (Eliza) and best friend (Fanny) and best friend's sister, starting a school in a progressive community--in 18th Century England, no less. She lived in Ireland, France, and Scandinavia, too, had two illegitimate children and several lovers, wrote passionately about women's education, and was essentially marginalized and forgotten because of her autobiographical works (published by Godwin after her death), which convinced many people of her day that she was a "loose" woman, even a "prostitute," and not worthy of their consideration.

In class, we've been wondering about Wollstonecraft's revolutionary choices in her personal life relative to the messages in her Vindication. On one hand, she says things like, "Women [...] all want to be ladies, which is simply to have nothing to do," implying that women are at least complicit in--if not wholly responsible for--their fragility and ennui; on the other, she describes instances of chivalry, saying, "when the lady could have done it herself," suggesting women's capacity if only they could have agency (100, 63).

Perhaps because Wollstonecraft did a lot of her writing at my age (and died after childbirth complications just five years later), I am thinking about ideas and identity--how Wollstonecraft knew enough about her beliefs and passions in her twenties and thirties to leave an extraordinary legacy in spite of her social, historical, political context. This is more than exciting (and relevant) for us in education, a kind of call to act on what we see and to name that which has not been named. 

It is so moving to learn that Wollstonecraft, in 1792, wrote, "Every individual is in this respect a world unto itself" and "I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves" (58, 70). She could see and think into the future, understanding and articulating what needed to happen. 

It seems especially ironic for Wollstonecraft to have been ignored and forgotten for decades because of her unconventional (wild) behavior. Even though her ideas were inconsistent with her life choices to some extent, what the world needed in both cases was a little more wildness but wasn't ready.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

A Found Poem (based on TVM)

The Power of Saying the Unsayable

Fana, Shakti, truth-telling; Kunda, Cunti,
cunt, kin, and country; journey, naming,
alternatives, the sacred center, the womb,
primordial; conceive life energy, some-
thing, mystical, practical; attention, love
revealed; poonani, pal, pajama, tottita;
sweatpants, embrace me; to finally find
the clitoris, dreams, the flood; a choral
thing, a wild collective song; the petals,
vaginal wonder, ancient and full of grace;
orgasms, layers, mystical, magical; find it,
be it; shell, tulip, destiny; suddenly easy,
ready, alive; to feel connection; twice, twice,
twice, love, real looking; innocent and wild.

Worried, scratching, fire; stinky, weird,
cancer; not since, the room, the car; witch
trial, convicted, guilty; throwing up, slapped,
screaming; unsettling, frantic, terrified; out-
rage, systematic tactic of war; monstrous, dead,
butchered and burned; mutilation, anger; scary,
loud, and life-threatening; garbage, exhausting,
package, cutter; terrors, force, twisted, omission; for 
the women we do not see, who hurt and who need us.

Pleasure, heaven, naming things; vulva
girl, vulva song, vulva dance; chalice
essence, the beginning; vagina-friendly,
smart, snowflakes; to make women happy,
the almost- the elegant- the mountaintop-
moan; mystery, to know, touch, satisfy; come
in; to be there, to feel awe and wonder; to
change, expand, forgive, repair, remember;
thank you, all of us, change, day by day; give
birth, sustain, the brave ones, bless them, desire.

*all words & phrases taken from The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

Can (& Should) We Talk about Vaginas (& TVM) in English Class (in HS)?

Lots of colleges and universities have a Gender Studies or Women's Studies or Women's Literature, etc. course in which this play is studied. Not many high schools do.

When I first considered this text for our class three years ago, I researched its teaching in various institutions, what teachers, professors, psychologists, and other educators have to say about how it works and whether or not it's appropriate.

Eventually, I submitted these pedagogical goals to our school's administration:

Pedagogical Goals
o   For students to experience a safe, personal, and intellectual discussion of controversial ideas, exploring a controversial text
o   For students to cultivate a spirit of sustained inquiry, even when the going is difficult
o   For students to experience a broader range of the literature that exists
o   For students to identify with realms of human experience generally not explored and discussed (and written about) in class
o   For students to find a language to discuss their own experiences around gender and sexuality
o   For students to be empowered in terms of having words, understanding issues, and participating in a wider conversation (a preparation for identifying problems in the world)
o   “As readers, men as well as women, may emerge from these pages not only feeling more free within themselves—and about each other—but with alternatives to the old patriarchal dualism of feminine/masculine, body/mind, and sexual/spiritual that is rooted in the division of our physical selves into ‘the part we talk about’ and ‘the part we don’t’” (Steinem).
o    “Pedagogically, The Vagina Monologues promoted the goals of empathy towards others. The stories of the women opened-up a greater awareness of how other women live for the students while, at the same time, it spoke to many of their unarticulated experiences and feelings. Engaging in discussions with each other about the monologues enabled the students to identify with women's issues and stories (Belenky, 1986; Ensler, 1998; Fisher, 2001; Gawelek, 1994). In this respect, I believe, one key pedagogical goal was met.
o   “Lastly, The Vagina Monologues was a good text to discuss the concept of "the personal is political" (Fisher, 2001; Minnich, 1990). Framing individual women's experiences within the larger cultural norms of American society gave the students in my class the opportunity to look beyond issues of individual psychology to their own community's and family's perceptions of women's sexuality. In my opinion, the reactions the students in my class faced in being assigned The Vagina Monologues also permitted them a real lived experience of how society's norms impact people's attitudes and behaviors. From a teaching position, I believe, that the students were able to take their personal experiences of adversity and confusion, and frame them within the larger social context of women's sexuality as to promote women's issues, and end violence against women” (Linda Chen, PhD (Chair of Political Science at Indiana University)).

I also wrote the following:
I love the arguments Eve Ensler herself and Gloria Steinem articulate (in introductions) for the purposes and implications of encountering this text. Although I'm hesitant, of course, in some ways, about using the text, I also have some concerns about relegating conversations about sex and sexuality to Health Class (and not even there in some schools) and avoiding a topic so relevant, even urgent, for adolescents. My general educational goals always include helping students feel both safe and challenged simultaneously. In my electives with our oldest students (like Craft of Writing, the Individual and Society in Literature, Outsiders in Literature, Modern African Literature, Poetry, American Literature, etc.) so far, I have found that students (once they've established safe, academic and personal, talking relationships around the Harkness table) are desperate to talk about these subjects--particularly in the era of Facebook, hooking up, etc.  Also, I think the study of literature and writing is the study of human experience--what I care most about as an English teacher. Literature, to me, is an expression or reflection of experience (and/or worldview), an art form in itself, and a means of participating in an age-old dialogue with people from around the world over time. 

Gloria Steinem writes, “Slowly, it dawned on me that nothing was more important than stopping violence toward women—that the desecration of women indicated the failure of human beings to honor and protect life and that this failing would, if we did not correct it, be the end of us all.”

She describes a tradition of “shaming words and dirty jokes” to do with female (and I would add, male) sexuality—a trend that has surely affected most, if not all, of our students (and us). I echo Steinem’s sentiment of wishing “my own foremothers had known their bodies were sacred” and with her celebrate The Vagina Monologues’ notions of reclaiming traditions and beliefs to do with female power formerly “marginalized or denied” and “reclaiming devalued word[s]”, using “outrageous voices and honest [language]”. In what Steinem calls “the spirit of self knowledge of freedom” in this text, Ensler takes her audience or readers on a “journey of truth telling”, speaking the “truth of violence against the female body”, “bringing these hidden experiences into the open, naming them, and turning our rage into positive action to reduce and heal violence”, “purging a past full of negative attitudes”. Yet perhaps the phrase I most admire and embrace from this essay of introduction is “the power of saying the unsayable”—ever relevant for teenagers (and adults alike) as they navigate modes of communication, in an ever-growing range of genres, voices, and technologies. As teens go through adolescence and inevitably grapple with their identities, including gender and sexuality, this text meets them at a time when their questions about gender and sexuality are urgent, authentic, and personal.
Moreover, as we focus increasingly on our mission statement’s inclusion of both intellect and character, these issues could not be more pertinent or powerful in terms of cultivating empathy and a global perspective. As Ensler herself explains, “In order for the human race to continue, women must be safe and empowered.”

And three years on, I find myself asking the same questions. The text feels as relevant to me as ever and for the same reasons. Yet it's a challenging as ever to talk about vaginas in English class in high school. 
I still think we should so venture forth, as before, with questions, with curiosity, with wonder. 

Friday, 15 March 2013

On Reading: Fiction & Beyond

Why do we read? And why do we read Women's Literature? Why study or discuss a particular piece or body of work? And what is literature anyway?

These questions are central to our course.

C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we're not alone." Isabel Allende said, "Sometimes the story is truer than true." In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Keats pointed us to truth and beauty as the dual pursuits of life (and, by extension, literature). That debate continues.

When we come to English class, what do we expect, and what are we prepared, if anything, to do? Do we expect to think, to learn, to be changed? Are we willing to do these things? I hope so. Reading is wonderfully dangerous, if so. It has the potential to change us--who we are and how we live.

Wolf cites the century-old belief that "if a woman read too much, her uterus would atrophy" and Friedrich Engels' claim that "'the education of women would sterilize them' and make them sexually unattractive" (225). Even though these ideas are obviously both wrong and oppressive, I love the fact that they honor the power of words.

So is Naomi Wolf's book, The Beauty Myth, literature? The question arose today in class. Are we reading it to learn the truth (or some truth) or to be moved by its art? What about Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? What if they both do both? Did I learn more from Wolf because this book is non-fiction? Did I experience more pleasure because Atwood's novel is fiction?

Allende, for me, identifies the paradox--that it is possible for fiction to resonate as much as or more than non-fiction, that it can be "truer than true." I think fiction and non-fiction are different vehicles, both worthy and powerful, for exploring human experience. They are both capable of edifying the intellect and captivating the imagination.

Someone very dear to me is in surgery today for breast implants--probably as we speak. I can't help but respond emotionally to Naomi Wolf's chapter on "Violence," a moment when non-fiction breaks into the real, visceral, painful truths of this very day:
Beauty pornography is making women violent toward ourselves. The evidence surrounds us. Here a surgeon stretches the slit skin of the breast. There a surgeon presses with all his weight on a woman's chest to break up lumps of silicone with his bare hands. There is the walking corpse. There is the woman vomiting blood (142). 


Thursday, 7 March 2013

How Are We Doing (in 2013)?

As I read on in Wolf's book, I keep asking myself, So how are we doing? Last month, Stephanie Coontz explored the ways in which, in 2013, "our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals" in her New York Times article, "Why Gender Equality Stalled." She writes:
Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no longer lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead, structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.
And while Coontz focuses on political and structural impediments, she acknowledges that we still have default positions, which are more abstract, psychological and emotional impediments. For example:
Eighty percent of the women and 70 percent of the men Ms. Gerson interviewed said they wanted an egalitarian relationship that allowed them to share breadwinning and family care. But when asked what they would do if this was not possible, they described a variety of “fallback” positions. While most of the women wanted to continue paid employment, the majority of men said that if they could not achieve their egalitarian ideal they expected their partner to assume primary responsibility for parenting so they could focus on work.
And that is how it usually works out. When family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work.
When the new or better or fairer way isn't possible or doesn't present itself to us, women more often than men accept the other, less equitable way, while men continue to benefit from the long-standing status quo. Coontz proposes that "Our goal should be to develop work-life policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice." I whole-heartedly concur. 

NY Times: Why Gender Equity Stalled

I also want us to explore, discuss, consider, and acknowledge the many conflicting ideas and images all around us in a complex, global, digital age. Mainstream and extreme views alike are readily available at the click of a mouse. 

The conversation has exploded. The web contains billions of ideas and images, from ad hominem attacks, to constructive conversations. You can find support for any argument. The web cultivates extremism and constructive, pluralistic progress simultaneously. 

Every time I read Wolf's book, it strikes me that she is arguing for freedom more than anything else. This still feels both pressing and relevant. In the "Hunger" chapter, when she describes how "Everyone is telling [girls] to be careful" and how "the larger world never gives girls the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are inside them," I measure our current climate against these ideas and sense the Iron Maiden as much as ever (217, 205). She talks about how a "natural" relationship to food includes "not always thinking about it," and we need to hear this still (200). Wolf links freedom from hunger to sexual freedom, connecting her arguments between the personal, political, and economic spheres--even bravely sharing her own story of starvation in adolescence when she suffered from an eating disorder. 

I'm glad we're talking about all of this. And Wolf enjoins us to be thoughtful in our surroundings, diligent in our observations and research, and brave in the expressions of our ideas and experiences. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

Thinking about Wolf, Living Dolls, & the Oscars...

I wonder what Wolf thinks about some of the things going on in the beauty world at the moment. What would she say, for instance, about the "living dolls movement" proliferating in the Ukraine or the recent Oscars night as a "festival of misogyny." ("The Onion" issued its first apology EVER for calling nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis a "cunt"!) Seth MacFarlane apparently--I didn't see it--"reduced female actors to 'boobs'" and joked about domestic abuse, among other things. 

Let's take a look at the "living dolls" idea against Wolf's chapter on "Religion" and her broader theory of the beauty myth...

Valeria Lukyanova describes herself as "striving for self-impowerment." She teaches spiritual journey classes and believes that she can travel in her spiritual body. How does this work? I'm thinking about Wolf's ideas about the appropriation of religious and spiritual language to control women inside their own bodies; diet books abound, for example, with "references to religious ideas of temptation and sin" and "the Rites of Beauty redefine original sin as being born not mortal, but female" (88, 95).

In fact, Wolf says, "A woman who does not feel damaged cannot be relied on to spend money for her 'repair'" (96). Susie Orbach takes Wolf's theory in a new direction with her book Bodies, describing the extent to which women have ceased to exist in a real body, to experience our bodies from the inside-out as opposed to the outside-in. We see ourselves as though through a third eye, Orbach says. 

So I don't get it. Lukyanova and her barbie buddies say that it's empowering for them to starve and oppress their own bodies into looking like animate, fictional entities? Isn't this one of those cases of feminist principles being appropriated for anti-feminist ends? Is there anything about this kind of extreme physical manipulation that can be empowering? It sounds to me like arguing the fallacy that eating disorders are empowering because they involve a person's control over her (or his) own body, while in fact, though control can definitely be a part of the explanation, there is something bigger and much more sinister at hand, requiring a wider consideration. 

I did read Naomi Wolf's recent/new book, Vagina: A Biography and took away from it mostly a call to women and men to promote safety, healing, and pleasure in women's experiences of their bodies--sexually and otherwise. And her recent blog posts address issues of politics and power (more than physical considerations of beauty, image, etc.). For instance, she responds to Sheryl Sandberg's new book about the glass ceiling and women leading in the workforce. 

Yet I come back to the current climate around issues of beauty in particular. In what ways and to what extent are we making progress in what Jean Kilbourne describes as a toxic cultural environment? In what ways and to what extent are we making it possible for women and girls to exist in this culture in states of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being? 


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Reconsidering Wolf's "Myth"

Naomi Wolf quotes Virginia Woolf in one of the epigraphs for The Beauty Myth: "It is far more difficult to murder a phantom than a reality"--one of the notions that haunts me about this book from year to year.

The whole idea she coins in her introductory chapter follows from this idea of Virginia Woolf's, actually. "Men's institutions and institutional power" have constructed and disseminated pervasive myths, falsehoods about "motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity," confining women to an "Iron Maiden"--a "rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted" torture device, "censoring real women's faces and bodies" (13, 11, 17). And it is harder to identify, understand, and challenge this phenomenon, as it is less tangible and concrete and more elusive (like Friedan's Feminine Mystique) than forces we have named, studied, and deconstructed.

A singular physical ideal dominates our collective consciousness, and it entraps women and girls, pressuring them (subconsciously) into doing hours and hours of "beauty work" on themselves--and perhaps worst of all, convincing us that it's both natural/biological and our fault.

Naomi Wolf sets out to name, define, and explore the myth--its basis, its pressures, its perpetuators, its impact, and what we can do to see and challenge it. By the end of the first chapter, she calls for "a new way to see" (19).

Wolf acknowledges that the group she primarily considers is comprised of Western middle-class women, which is a way of noting that she does not in fact research, address, or speak to all women around the world, including all classes, races, and experiences. Yet the myth she defines arguably touches all women and girls--and indeed all people (including, of course, men and boys)--around the world in that it dictates what is economically the dominant global culture, which has implications for everyone on earth. Ideas about beauty, success, worth, and power are far-reaching.

In fact, Wolf uses strong language to deliver an impacting, high-stakes, urgent message. She likens female oppression to slavery, saying, "An economy that depends on slavery needs to promote images of slaves that 'justify' the institution of slavery" (18).

Some of the other exciting, provocative language in these early pages include the words: "shame" (9), "control" (11), "doll" (12), "Goddess" (13), "masquarade" (15), "taboos" (16), "lies" (17), "anxieties" (18), and "destroying" (19). Although the language is also dense and fairly academic, Wolf speaks with intensity, intrigue, and passion, which contributes to the lasting significance and impact of this book from 1990. I've probably read it half a dozen times now and uncover new layers, insights, concerns, and ideas about change with every reading.