Friday, 4 April 2014

Liberty Is the Mother of Virtue

Wollstonecraft writes, "Liberty is the mother of virtue" (37). I love this idea. Only to the extent that we are free can we be good.

Yet in the same way that the First World War forever changed our relationships to abstract nouns like "honor" and "freedom" (as Paul Fussell explains in his tremendous book, The Great War & Modern Memory), my relationship to the word "liberty" feels fraught.

I like thinking about the opportunities in my own life to learn and grow, to become a better person. These include education, travel, work, voting, choosing friends and boyfriends and now my husband and partner, making choices about my own body and sexuality, choosing places to live, inhabiting and exploring a city, reading, and writing. These opportunities cannot be understood, however, without thinking (and talking) about privilege. And privilege exists on a wide spectrum, from having an awful lot of it to having an awful little.

I just got back from the White Privilege Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, and I found the whole experience hard, important, moving, educative. It gave me a lot to think about, as I'd hoped it would. It gave me a lot to learn, a privilege in itself to attend. It also resonates now as I reread Wollstonecraft's book and as I look around myself in the world.

I love Wollstonecraft's passion and idealism: "Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated..." (133). Perhaps Naomi Wolf would say that Wollstonecraft never imagined the backlashes in response to wave after wave of progress for women. Wollstonecraft wanted a quick and total emancipation. We know from other movements for emancipation that it is not so easy.

In some ways, I think Wollstonecraft's negative statements and questions are more apt than her positive ones. For example: "How can women be just or generous, when they are slaves of injustice?" (124) In other words, there is no chance of generosity without emancipation. It wouldn't logically follow that emancipation necessarily yields generosity, but generosity becomes possible.

Soon in this course, we're reading Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee, and the main character's experiences journeying to America raise hard questions for us about "the land of the free." 

I can still enjoy Wollstonecraft's philosophical optimism, of course; in fact, I think we need these voices able to articulate a clear and whole vision for our future, for what is possible if not inevitable or even very likely.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Awakenings, Resonances, & Towards Healing

Why do passages like these in Ensler's Vagina Monologues make me well up with emotion?

"It was better than the Grand Canyon, ancient and full of grace" (46).

"There was a choral thing that began to occur, a kind of wild collective song" (33).

"And Bob lost himself there and I was there with him, in my vagina, and we were gone" (57).

"My vagina swimming river water, clean spilling water over sun-baked stones over stone clit, clit stones over and over" (62).

"I began to feel beautiful and delicious" (57).

"I had awakened to what the woman who ran the workshop called 'vaginal wonder'" (46).

"You know, actually, you're the first person I ever talked to about this, and I feel a little better" (30).

Perhaps it's because Ensler affirms our experiences of shame and simultaneously, in this play, awakens the possibilities of our self- and collective love.

Just when we're feeling devastated, incensed, and deeply empathic for the women in the play and their stories, Ensler shares messages of healing.

I've heard lots of people dismiss this play--as a work of literature, as a piece of art--on various grounds. Some say Ensler is an "ugly feminist." Others say her writing has "no literary merit." (ETC.) Yet I've seen and read this play now close to a dozen times, and its form and content both move me again and again.

Ensler finds a way of sharing hundreds of voices, stories, and experiences in this work, and the pluralism of her approach means that the play refuses to be about one thing, one voice, or one narrative. For this reason alone, the wondrous inclusiveness of this play makes it worth our time and thoughtful attention.

Furthermore, Ensler moves in and out of voices across time and place, age and background, as well as kinds of experiences with sex, sexuality, and sexual violence. The effect of this is for the play to become everyone's play, for it to belong to everyone.

Maybe you're reading this and don't know the play. (Maybe you're thinking, WTF? Who knows.) Reading this handful of lines out of the play's whole context won't do it justice. I urge you: buy a ticket to the show in a city or on a university campus near you. Buy a copy of the play. Check out scenes or the script online. Check out Ensler's TED talks.

At least for me, over quite a few years and encounters, this play is worth our careful attention.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

In Praise of Male Feminists

To my brother, Trey, who cherishes being a father to his little girl and shares the labor of her upbringing with his wife (who also works outside of the home)...

To my mentor, Selden, who sees and celebrates his amazing wife and daughters and granddaughters and who tells stories with strong female characters...

To my friend, Bret, who knows himself, tells his story, and brings people together with magic tricks (literally) and jokes...

To my friend, Dave, whose patience and commitment to human development make everyone around him richer, brighter, and more empathic...

To my friends, Naheed and Jose, who make me smarter and wiser and more thoughtful (not to mention their students, friends, and neighbors)...

To my colleague, Greg, for caring about our students, wanting for them a world in which we share and learn together, and speaking truth to power...

To poets, writers, and thinkers like Chris Abani, Tony Porter, and Nii Parkes, who help us pluralize our thinking about humanity and challenge us to think and see beyond a single dimension...

To Byron Hurt, for helping us look at misogyny in hip-hop (and therefore elsewhere)...

To my colleagues like Neil and Jack, who are committed to social justice and building community...

To my friend, Wade, who didn't realize that he self-identifies as a feminist until we let him know that he does!

To my nephews, Spencer and Wesley, for meeting this world with love, creativity, generosity, and enthusiasm for people and things great and small...

And above all, to my partner, Chris, who is the kindest, funniest, smartest, and most generous man I know, for challenging me, loving me, and going through this life with me...

This is in praise of male feminists (whether or not they self-identify).

"What's Your Dream?"

"Femme Maison" by Louise Bourgois

Remember the guy on the street at the beginning of "Pretty Woman" (not to get started on that movie) who stands around Hollywood asking, "WHAT'S YOUR DREAM"? I can hear his voice in my head: "What's your dream?"

What is my dream? What's yours?

Naomi Wolf's from 1990 seems to me a pretty good one, pretty compelling, pretty grounded in personal and general experience (as she saw and felt it, as she found it in her research).

Wolf writes, "Our culture gives a young woman only two dreams in which to imagine her body, like a coin with two faces: one pornographic, the other anorexic" and she calls on us "to demand a better dream" (199).

Wolf wants us to be free, to love ourselves, to be ambitious, to be individuals (and sisters, and citizens), to choose "a woman-loving definition of beauty" (201). Further exploring the metaphor of the Iron Maiden, she describes "an urgent social expedient that [makes] women's bodies into the prisons that their homes no longer [are]," saying, "women's bodies are not our own but society's" (184, 187).

In her chapter on "Hunger," Wolf says, "Whom a society values it feeds well," and she describes the proliferation of eating disorders and disordered eating among women and girls (189). For Wolf, food, weight, hunger, and physical health and wellness are political issues, ultimately about power, who has it and who doesn't. She writes, "Hunger makes women feel poor and think poor" (197). I can't help but remember the hunger young women in my life felt during those years of our adolescence in particular (though perhaps women in my life now are hungry, too).

I'm struck by Wolf's conclusion of the chapter: "Everyone is telling her to be careful" (217). This resonates with me. It is not my dream to have to be careful, yet I have felt in various ways throughout my life that being careful is the message I receive from my culture. Wolf wants us to "be shameless. Be greedy" (291). Is this too bold? Does she go too far? Wolf is interested in courage and freedom--as, I realize, am I.

Wolf talks about literal, physical hunger, but she is also interested in what she calls a "spiritual hunger" (279). She references Betty Freidan's Feminine Mystique several times and "the problem without a name," exploring a domestic's imprisonment's transition to a new kind of imprisonment in the Iron Maiden. Her dream gets us out of both.

"The pressure of beauty pornography and the pressures of achievement combine to strike young women where they are most vulnerable: in their exploration of their sexuality in relation to their sense of their own worth," Wolf explains (213). In my experience, this is profoundly true. In a beauty economy, essentially a beauty caste system, it is difficult (to impossible) for young women to feel valuable, worthy, powerful in our current world of images.

Since I started this post, we're nearing the end of Wolf's book from 1990 and asking ourselves what (if anything) has changed. I'm not convinced that Wolf's dream has been fully realized, of course, yet education and awareness have to be part of getting there.

"Torture of Women" by Nancy Spero Siglio

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Iron Maiden

Naomi Wolf borrows a symbol from the middle ages, a torture device, in order to introduce an important metaphor in her book, The Beauty Myth. She writes,
"The original Iron Maiden was a medieval German instrument of torture, a body-shaped casket painted with the limbs and features of a lovely, smiling young woman. The unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside her; the lid fell shut to immobilize the victim, who died either of starvation or, less cruelly, of the metal spikes embedded in her interior. The modern hallucination in which women are trapped or trap themselves is similarly rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted. Contemporary culture directs attention to imagery of the Iron Maiden, while censoring real women's faces and bodies" (17).
This seems like both a wild claim and simultaneously an eerily apt one. The standard to which women and girls are held is unreal, oppressive, and exhausting. The photo of the woman above (heavily manipulated so that it is no longer a real woman at all, not even a real supermodel) becomes the Iron Maiden of today. And some women and girls are trapped inside the thin, beautifully painted container, starving, invisible, and enslaved.

Am I going too far? Maybe. Throughout high school and college, however, I watched many of the young women in my life hurt themselves with impossible beauty standards, eating disorders, exercise, obsessions with their bodies. (And in many ways, this continues into our adulthood.) Did they (or we) choose this? Personally, I don't believe they (or we) did. Our dance teacher in high school encouraged the dancers to consume zero fat (which became dangerous for my sister one summer), girls were praised by adults for being thin and pretty, and everywhere we all looked there were vivid messages about what we were supposed to look like. Above all, the critics and ultimate determiners of our fate were young men who decided how we measured up in the competitive beauty economy. Did the boys choose it, then? I don't think they did either. We inherited a culture and everyone became complicit in it.

My sister and I were talking recently about how going to the mall makes us feel anxious, like we don't have any of the right stuff (the right clothes, shoes, makeup, purses, etc.). It sounds ridiculous, and I like to think that I have inoculated myself against these kinds of trivial concerns. Yet I am both a victim and a perpetrator of the beauty myth. All around us, I see "a secret 'underlife' poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control" (10).

Naomi Wolf is a provocative writer, and even now, her book from 1990 gets under the skin. She wants us to consider the "new cultural censors of women's intellectual space" and "the relationship between female liberation and female beauty" (11, 9). It's uncomfortable and difficult, and we would much rather leave it be. (I would, too. As a female teaching this class, I do not want to be scrutinized for my own relationship to the beauty myth. I am not a conqueror.)

Wolf calls our attention to how "An economy that depends on slavery needs to promote images of slaves that 'justify' the institution of slavery" (18). Using the word slavery and invoking the institution of slavery (in the American South and otherwise) is bold, antagonistic, and understandably controversial. I don't know if I would make that comparison, or if I would make the one Atwood makes in The Handmaid's Tale, alluding to the Holocaust...

Yet I do know that in 2014, Wolf still gets my attention. She has me thinking all over again about things that would be much easier to ignore. It's painful, for example, to remember my friend in college whose bulimia got so bad that she kept her vomit in gallon-sized Ziploc baggies in her sweater drawer. Was she trapped inside an Iron Maiden? Did she ever get out? We don't keep in touch, but I'm left wondering, visiting and revisiting, being haunted by those old ghosts.

(Iron Maiden images from a google search in 2011)

Friday, 7 February 2014

Freedom to Choose

"I have a Dream: That People Will View a Picture Like This and Not Think It's a Big Deal." If you haven't seen it yet, I encourage you to read this piece by Doyin Richards on

Why did Doyin Richards' photo and his piece prompt such outrageous and shocking reactions, from racist outbursts, to jealous tirades? Why do we either ooh-and-ahh over a photograph like this one or treat it as a pariah, an object of our disdain? Might we get comfortable with (even indifferent to) men and women actively parenting and/or working in a variety of forms? When will it be at last okay for anyone to do or be anything (within the confines of law)?

A lot of writers in women's literature end up writing, intentionally or inadvertently, about choice, the ways in which and extent to which we do or do not have it. Is a world possible in which every human being (of any gender identity) has agency, the ability to determine (at least to some extent) his or her (or zer) own destiny? Plenty of days, when I look around me, I do not see a world like that.

Erica Jong, in "How different the history of world literature might look if mothers were writers too," writes:
"The very fact that no generation before ours has really been in a position to challenge the lie that creativity and generatively are one and the same makes us privileged beyond any earlier generations. And that privilege rests almost entirely upon motherhood remaining optional for us. It is the key to all our freedoms--even the freedom to dwell seriously on the meaning of pregnancy and childbirth" (62). 
The privilege of choice, if it must be a privilege, is surely the key to all our freedoms--everyone's.

It seems to me that granting more citizens of humanity more choices (or some choices at all) is not necessarily to diminish the choices enjoyed already by others. To allow girls to study and go to school isn't to withdraw boys from school. To allow women to choose to have children or to work or both isn't to withdraw those freedoms from men. To make the world safer for women and girls, hundreds of thousands of whom are raped and beaten every year on this planet is not to deny abusers freedom; no one should be free to rape or abuse. This is why we have justice systems and universal declarations of human rights.

Giving more people more choices also do not necessitate that every individual will make the right choice (if there is such a thing) or even a good one. Imposing certain choices or kinds of choices is tyranny.

Francise Prose in "Other Women" says, "Gender doesn't confer moral superiority, nor the opposite, needless to say" (172). Most feminists I've ever met, read, or known believe that women, like men, are complex, imperfect human beings, flawed but entitled to certain inalienable rights like their human brothers.

Right on, Doyin Richards, for helping us complicate and make plural our understandings of masculinity and femininity, of parenting and loving children, of liberating ourselves and others around us from failures of the imagination.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

"I lie there like a dead bird."

"Fake it, I scream at myself inside my head," Offred narrates in the hotel room with her Commander. "I lie there like a dead bird," she says earlier on the same page (267). Offred, who doesn't even have her own name, finds herself in a world of roles, costumes, appearances. What does it mean, then, to be herself--or, indeed, to be anyone?

Atwood is exploring identity and humanity. What does it mean to be an individual? What does it mean to be human? She ends Chapter Thirty-Seven with the line: "Nobody says anything." And maybe she's talking about Offred's near tumble across the floor of Jezebel's because it's difficult to walk in her heels, but I reckon she is also talking about the fact that no one says anything to question the whole charade of Jezebel's, of Gilead, of society's norms.

When they're talking about "the club," the Commander wants to know what Offred thinks of it (or perhaps he's just making small-talk). "'I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden,'" Offred replies. "'Well, officially,' he says. 'But everyone's human, after all'" (248). Yet the Commander is hardly a proponent of a shared and universal humanity. He goes onto say that "Nature demands variety, for men" (249).

Offred sees herself in the bathroom mirror in their upstairs room at Jezebel's: "I'm a wreck. The mascara has smudged again [...] the purplish lipstick has bled, hair trails aimlessly. The moulting pink feathers are tawdry as carnival dolls and some of the starry sequins have come off [...] I'm a travesty, in bad makeup and someone else's clothes, used glitz" (266). Encountering oneself (in the mirror) is usually important: in literature and perhaps in general. When characters see themselves in the glass--when we do--we are invited to reflect on the relationship between what we see and what we feel.

Offred, it seems, feels ridiculous and ashamed. She also feels increasingly less alive because this is what happens to us in an oppressive atmosphere: some of our humanity and vitality is lost. Earlier in the novel, Offred wishes she's spoken to Luke about killing the cat: "He went into the garage with her. I don't know what he did and I never asked him [...] I should have gone out with him, taken that small responsibility. I should at least have asked [...] because that little sacrifice, that snuffing out of love, was done for my sake as well." Then--get this!--she says, "That's one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself" (203).

So what are the ways in which others liberate or imperil us? What about the ways in which we liberate or imperil ourselves?

Friday, 24 January 2014

Atwood, Freud, & Hitler

I've been thinking a lot about Freud while re-reading The Handmaid's Tale--partly because of the "Pen Is Envy" passage and partly because of the allusions to hysteria (196).

At the end of Chapter 24, Atwood writes: "I stand up, in the dark, start to unbutton. Then I hear something, inside my body. I've broken, something has cracked, that must be it. Noise is coming up, coming out, of the broken place, in my face [...] The wandering womb, they used to think. Hysteria. And then a needle, a pill. It could be fatal" (156).

Of hysteria, Wikipedia reports: "Women considered to be suffering from [hysteria] exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and "a tendency to cause trouble."

Freud concluded that sexual abuse caused hysteria but, after a vehemently resistant reception to his theory, withdrew it.'s_seduction_theory

(The important idea here is that something happened to these women to make them hysterical--something that wasn't their fault.)

Offred is becoming hysterical, perhaps, because she has to repress so many--all?--of her feelings. In Gilead, she is not allowed to react genuinely to anything. Laughter at the absurdity of the Commander's request to play Scrabble and the absurdity of her situation boils out of her, and yet she has to shove herself into the closet to stifle the sound. We would all become hysterical under these conditions. They are a form of abuse.

Freud also talked about Penis Envy, believing that women subconsciously envied male anatomy. Atwood incorporates this ideas into her novel, cleverly revising it to: "Pen Is Envy [...] And they were right, it is envy. Just holding it is envy. I envy the Commander his pen" (196). It isn't a penis Offred craves but a pen. A pen is phallic, sure, but this isn't the point. Perhaps what women envy of men is not their penes but their power.

Atwood rarely spends a page of words in this work of speculative fiction without using some of them to explore power. I just saw "American Hustle" this weekend and was struck by its explorations of power in relationships: Irving and Sydney, Irving and Rosalyn, Sydney and Richie, Irving and Richie, Sydney and Rosalyn, etc.

The film explores the stories and lies we tell both others and ourselves. This is an incredibly relevant theme for our course and this novel in particular. What lies do we tell ourselves out of necessity? What lies is Offred telling herself out of necessity, for instance--that the Commander sees her as a human being? This is a dangerous fiction.

In the passage about WWII and the Holocaust, the main character talks about the "mistress" of one of the men "who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews" and how "she denied knowing about the ovens," "was wearing pearls," said, "He was not a monster" (154, 155). Atwood concludes, eerily: "How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all" (155).

In her diary, Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun, wrote things like, "I am so infinitely happy that he loves me so much, and I pray that it will always be like this." She wrote about her desperation to spend more time with him, his surprise visits, gifts he would bring her. I guess she chose to believe all kinds of things until she couldn't believe them anymore (and took her own life).

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Points of Contact II

The points of contact trend continues in Atwood's novel, The Handmaid's Tale. They include rare moments of physical contact, speaking in whispers in a bathroom stall, communicating in writing across time and space, even shows of emotion.

Our main character, whose new name turns out to be Offred ("Of Fred," meaning belonging to her Commander, Fred), finds a trace of a former handmaid in her room (what she comes to call her room): "There it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum." Offred doesn't know what it means (not yet), but she exclaims (to us), "I'm communing with her, this unknown woman [...] her taboo message made it through, [...] washed itself up on the wall of my cupboard" (62). The words are a point of contact between them, a kind of communication, something they share apart from the oppressive world of Gilead.

Through snatches of memories, fragments, dreams, Offred tries to remember and hang onto her daughter, who was taken from her. When Offred steps into the bath, she closes her eyes and says, "She's there with me, suddenly, without warning, it must be the smell of the soap. I put my face against the soft hair at the back of her neck and breathe her in [...] She comes back to me [...] She's not really a ghost" (73). This passage is one of many involving hunger, longing, craving for physical touch. Offred imagines holding her daughter. If she were able to hold her, she would know that she exists and is alive--that they both are--in a reality that has become almost entirely surreal.

They are many other kinds, points of contact. The handmaids long to touch the pregnant handmaid when they are out to market; Offred longs for the physical touch of her husband, Luke. There are also a thousand instances of contact being denied, outlawed, made impossible upon penalty of death. Aunt Lydia, when she is training the Handmaids, bursts into tears. Atwood writes, "I'm doing my best, she said. I'm trying to give you the best chance you can have [...] Don't think it's easy for me either" (65). Surely the handmaids know, then, have affirmed, that Lydia, too, is one of them--human, feeling.

Points of contact let us know we are alive; they tell us we exist and help us belong to something bigger than ourselves. Babies die without being touched. We are nourished by physical contact. Indeed, we need it to survive.

This has me thinking about points of contact in my own life, of course. (Perhaps this will be a third post soon.)

Friday, 10 January 2014

Points of Contact

I'm struck so far in the literature of this course by the moments and points of contact between characters; in contrast, some of them are kept from contact and communication, and we see an absence instead of a presence. For example, Minnie Foster (Mrs. Wright) has no telephone, a symbol of connection and conversation, in Susan Glaspell's "A Jury of Her Peers." In Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat," Delia seems to live alone without the companionship of other women.

In "A Jury of Her Peers," Martha Hale and Mrs. Peters gradually establish a connection--both between the two of them and between them and Mrs. Wright. As they spend time in Mrs. Wright's house, they begin to experience empathy for her, her story, her situation. And understanding begins to pass between them, manifested in moments of making eye contact. Glaspell writes, "Their eyes met--something flashed to life, passed between them; then, as with an effort, they seemed to pull away from each other" (Glaspell 10).

Somewhat similarly, Andrea Lee creates a scenario of contact and connection in her story, "Brothers and Sisters Around the World." When the main character slaps the young island girl, Lee writes, "In that second of contact I feel the strange smoothness of her cheek and an instantaneous awareness that my hand is just as smooth. An electric current seems to connect them" (Lee 4). A slap both seems and is violent; yet in this moment of violence emerges an unexpected moment of connection and communication. The next time the main character sees the girls, they have become like "sisters" (Lee 7).

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrator essentially invents another woman (who is also she--potentially the "Jane" at the end) behind the wallpaper--a self, a persona, a woman who needs freeing--with whom to identify, to try and understand, to aid in breaking free of her predicament. She splits herself in two and then becomes the woman behind the wallpaper, the paper itself becoming a point of contact. Gilman writes, "I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper" (Gilman 8). A partnership forms between the two women, even if only one of them exists concretely. They are both enemies and allies, I think--kind of like the main character and the two island girls in "Brothers & Sisters…"

All of this so far has me thinking a lot about points of contact. Where are mine? Where are ours? Where might they be? When do they alienate us from one another, and when do they make us free?