Stupid Rules of Which I'd Like to Rid Myself

Badgirl MoiI don't like making New Year's resolutions, but I usually take on a project of changing something about myself, big or small, each year. Sometimes they're on-going, life-long projects, like getting a grip on my temper (notice I didn't say anger; there's a real difference. I've come to realize that anger is just fine; it's what you do with it that can be a problem.) Sometimes they're just small things, like getting some clothes that don't make me look like I'm wearing a sack. A lot of them are anxiety-producing rules for good behavior from the 1950's middle class upbringing I had, the one that was always at war with my dad's blue collar "lack of manners." I've made peace with my affection for using four-letter words, which, like smoking on the street, I was taught ladies never did. I've made peace with the fact that I'm not ever going to be a lady. I can simulate one, and I clean up well, so that's okay. Some of them are social control rules I learned growing up in a small town or as a pre-feminist, and were part of the reason I embraced feminism and fled to New York. And it's funny how many of these rules come to me in my mother's voice, too. She was great at communicating her anxiety about other people's opinions of her to me. Some of these, though, are self-imposed and come out of my own social anxiety about being "correct" and accepted. I suppose some of that is only-child anxiety, but they're not relevant now. I have a huge, accepting, beautifully varied family of choice now.

I still have these rules in my head, 50 years later and that's boggling in and of itself. It's time to let go of some of them. Here's a few of them. Don't laugh. I said they were stupid.

  1. Not ending sentences with a preposition. Fuck that.
  2. Certain foods can only be eaten at particular times of day (breakfast food must be eaten at breakfast; dinner leftovers aren't breakfast food; etc.). 
  3. All barns look good painted red.
  4. The bed must be made every day.
  5. Act your age.

That's probably enough for the moment. And not all of these are completely bad, like making the bed every day. I like getting into a neat bed at night. But some days, that three minutes it takes to make it is just more than I have. So what? I will stop feeling bad about it.

I should explain that #3 is a saying of my mother's meaning that wearing red, especially if you're fat, invites unfortunate comparisons. I've had a life-long aversion to the color because of that, even though I look good in it. How stupid is that?

Number 5 needs some explaining too. I've always had this distinction in my head between being an adult and being a grown-up. Grown-ups are boring and all about responsibility and maturity; adults are mature and responsible, but still know how to have fun. Now that I'm 50, I feel a totally unreasonable internal pressure to be a grown-up. There's a lot wound up in this: looking younger than I am, being a very responsible and precocious child, discussions about dressing age appropriately, a society that wants older women to fade into the woodwork. I've been dressing more conservatively as I got older, thanks in part to corporate jobs, and I kinda miss my loud colors and wild earrings and socks and shoes. Living in New York also did some of that, where black is just easier to take care of, but this is a fashion capital too, and I'm an artist, so I'd like to get some of my funk back:  cobalt hair, a visible tattoo. I'm tired of the camouflage, because it's becoming counterproductive. I'm short, round, older and rapidly becoming invisible. Nice in that I don't get harassed as much, but annoying as hell when I'm trying to get waited on.

And what is age-appropriate? I don't necessarily think the schoolgirl look is a good one for 30-year old women, but I don't think forcing older women into widows weeds is a good idea either. So what's age appropriate? And who gets to define that? Same with behavior. Tantrums aren't pretty on anyone, but I'm appalled by my growing anxiety to be home before midnight, as though I were Cinderella. WTF is up with that?

I'll let you know how it goes.

feminism and me—it's complicated

HotheadPaisanMary Daly died recently, and that has set me to thinking about my relationship with feminism, since so much of it is wound up in my relationship to religion. My mother was a proto-feminist who taught me that girls could be anything they wanted to be, and made damn sure I went to college, because education was the way to economic independence. At the same time, the religion we belonged to told us we were to be subordinate to male authority and not allowed to teach in church, while at the same time women did the majority of the grunt work in evangelizing from door to door, which was a big part of worship. So we could serve in the trenches, but not at the "altar." And that was different from Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism (or any other religion) how? Women's studies courses and departments were just a gleam in most feminsts' eyes when I was an undergrad, but the college I went to was strongly feminist and had its own radical tradition. That's where I first read Mary Daly and heard her mentioned (I forget by whom) and ran into the idea of God the Mother for the first time. And didn't that rock my world.

At the same time, there was something uncomfortably male-hating about many of the feminists I knew then. There was a strong separatist contingent at the school, and that turned me off. Men were a pain in the ass, but I wasn't by any means sexually attracted to women (I know this may come as a shock to some of you), so what's a girl to do? I distanced myself from the feminists. It didn't change how I acted or dressed or how I felt about sexism (wrong, immoral, vile) or my propensity to call people on it, but I stopped calling myself a feminist.

Then I went to grad school, where I was talked over in class by guys and had my ideas paid attention to only when they were picked up and repeated by men. And that pissed me off enough to reclaim that label. I haven't stopped calling myself a feminist since. Getting jobs outside academe only reinforced that choice. Male behavior is so often institutionally, deliberately, casually, and/or even just unconsciously sexist that it's impossible to live as a self-aware, intelligent, and self-confident woman and not want to call somebody on some kind of stupid sexist shit at least once a day, usually more. Sometimes with a frying pan upside the head. With hot grease in it.

We live in a culture—hell, a world!—that systematically and consciously not only devalues women but, in many cases, actively beats them down and beats them up. In addition to the gap in pay, the lack of support for children and family issues, and the general marginalizing and silencing of women, there's the outright violence. Far too many of my students are living day to day with male partners who threaten their safety and well-being physically or emotionally or psychologically. At least once a semester I deal with a student who is either going into, living in, or coming out of a domestic violence shelter—or who needs to get into one and doesn't realize it yet. Sometimes it's more than one. That movie "Precious"? Ask my students how real that is. Many, many of them have been raped in the past, sometimes more than once. And it's not just my students in their socioeconomic ghetto, it's my friends, as well, rich and poor, educated and not. I can count on one hand the number of my female friends who have not endured some kind of sexual or physical or emotional assault from men. It's enough, really, to make any woman a riot grrrrl, like Hothead Paisan.

But. There's always a but, in any movement. They're never all good, no matter how noble the cause, because people are complicated. And the "but" in my case is the constant rage and utter joylessness in so many feminists. Lately, I'm feeling a little bombarded by it in blogs, books, articles, whatever. Even when there are steps being taken to change people's ideology and awareness, even when there is something positive happening, it never seems to be enough for some folks. It's a bit like the people who are pissed off with Obama for not initiating the changes they wanted instantaneously upon taking office. Here's an example, just a small one:

A comic I read with regularity, "Luann," apparently does not pass muster in this particular instance, even though it has a main character who is a strong, independent female firefighter who fixes her own cars and extricated herself from an abusive relationship to have one with a guy who happens to appreciate her just the way she is—not, incidentally, just because she's beautiful. The writer then goes on to carp about how comics are just not as funny as they used to be. Boohoo.

I really like this comic for precisely the reasons I state above. Toni is a great role model for girls: a fully realized person, and a woman who is strong and self-confident enough to have rescued herself and work in a male dominated field and find a new guy who respects her strengths and abilities. This is not feminist enough how? Taken out of the context of the storyline, this panel isn't a particularly funny comic but I fail to see the outright sexism. In context, it takes on a different meaning, one not particularly insulting at all: Toni's got a better touch with Brad's car and that makes Brad feel inadequate and betrayed by his own possessions. That doesn't mean he feels Toni is inferior in any way. I feel that way every time a tech person can get my computer to do stuff I can't, regardless of the tech person's gender.

And there's more carping at something that is not "enough" in some way: sending special care packages to women soldiers with (gasp!) make-up and Cosmo in them! That the Dove self-esteem campaign actually helps sell Dove products at the same time it raises girls' awareness of the fakeness of advertising! That the Nicholas Kristoff/Cheryl WuDunn book Half the Sky does "more harm than good" by not being a weighty, theory-heavy tome! Jesus, people.

My point is that if you are going to take active offense at everything that is not perfect, or not just the way you think it should be, you will hate everything in the world, including yourself. Lighten the fuck up, and stop the navel-gazing. The suffering of women is not the center of the universe or the source of all injustices or problems in the world. Yes, the world would be a far, far better place if women were respected and valued in equal measure to men. It would also still not be a utopia.

While I happen to agree with Barbara Ehrenreich's thesis that too much positive thinking is akin to brainwashing, I think that applies in the opposite direction as well. Anger can be a very powerful force for good in the world, but on its own, cut loose from compassion or any sense of joy in life, it becomes destructive, self-destructive; coupled with any ideology without the tempering of joy or compassion, it becomes fundamentalist extremism. We've all seen how destructive and dangerous that is, to those who swallow that joyless ideology, to others who refuse to embrace it, and to the movement itself. If we don't use our anger constructively, if we only see what's wrong and not what's right and what's changing, we risk losing people who may support us and yet cannot bear to see everything in the world as a horror show. Every war needs victories and needs to celebrate and enjoy those victories to have the heart to keep fighting. Don't rob people of that.

Feminist-BookstoreI keep this Callahan cartoon around to keep me honest in my feminism.  Yes, it's a stereotype, but every stereotype exists because somewhere, somebody fits it. Ask yourself, sistah, if it's you, and how much your own attitude is making you miserable—and hindering the movement, too.

teaspoons and awakenings

Badgirl MoiAs I mentioned before, this has been a hellish semester, crammed with classes. My two writing labs just ended and I was looking forward to sleeping in on Wednesdays again, but now I've just acquired two more classes that meet on--guess when?--Wednesday morning. I'm filling in for another adjunct who's had a heart attack. Here's hoping I don't have one either. So I'm back up to five classes now, for another five weeks.

And sometimes I wonder why I"m doing this, and I wonder if I'm reaching anybody. My Modes and Logic classes at CNR have been fraught with fraughtness this semester, including a power struggle to get the media resources I need. The discussions, which are usually so lively there, have been like pulling teeth. Students have been falling asleep in class; we've all been sick as dogs. One of my students just found out she has small cell lung cancer. Another's been in the hospital off and on with asthma. The absenteeism has been alarming. And the coming in late pernicious.

Just when I'm ready to throw in the towel, something happens like what happened this morning, at the make-up class that was half-empty. Whatever stories I pick for this class, I try to teach them from a feminist, and a humanist, perspective. I want us to be able to talk about not just sexism, but racism, and class, and any other kind of discrimination and bigotry, because that's what so many of the great stories, and our stories, are all about. And I try to infuse those stories and the backgrounds to them with as much feminist theory as I've gleaned from my own readings (since there were no women's studies classes when I went to school) and relate them to our lives today. We talk about the limited choices women have been presented with, about the madonna/whore dichotomy we're saddled with, about how childcare and caring for everyone but ourselves is always our responsibility, how important education and economic independence are for women, and how even now women pay for their desires with their lives. I'm never sure it's sinking in, or making any sense, until I get comments like this:

As we're sitting waiting for the rest of the class and the AV equipment to show up, my one student who's always there when I walk in says to me, "you know, your class has really opened my eyes to a lot of new ideas about the way women are treated. You really got me thinking about that now." And as I'm doing a little happy dance inside, another student agrees and starts to relate how she's begun rebelling against the way her husband treats her as property, as something he has the right to rule over or boss around, and describes her most recent act of rebellion, which consisted of going out of the house wearing pants instead of a skirt, and giving him the stink-eye about it when she came home, all because of the way we've been talking about The Awakening, and "The Story of an Hour," and "Seventeen Syllables," and "The Lesson," and "Eveline."

Then I'm glad I got out of bed and shouldered my teaspoon and went to class. There's nothing like seeing feminist awakenings happen right under your nose to make it all worthwhile.

biology is stll destiny :^P

WeCanDoIt I'm frantic busy right now with rehearsals and tech stuff for the Bronx Voices performance coming up on June 26th (It's FREE!), and with preparations for teaching in China in the middle of July (OMG CHINA!), but I wanted to grumble here about something I read today in the Times, on the Motherlode blog.

It's not a blog I usually read, but recently there was a young college student on it asking for help in sorting out her situation: 22, pregnant, about to start a tough graduate program, no help from the father, parents far away, living in a new city with few friends and no support network. She asked Lisa Belkin, the blogger, to ask her readers for their thoughts and input to help her make her decision on what to do. I can't imagine being in this situation myself—or rather I can, all too easily, but I have no idea what decision I would have made, either, at that age. It would have had even more ramifications for me, since I didn't at the time believe in abortion. I won't go so far as to call myself a pro-lifer as I supported other women's right to make that decision for themselves, but I thought I would probably not choose that myself. Some of my friends have made that choice and I don't blame them. It was, I agree, the smart thing to do at the time.

But one of the things that was making this such a difficult choice for this particular young woman was not just the complete lack of support from her academic program for her situation, but the outright hostility for pregnant women her fellow students described.

A lot of your readers asked if I could take time off from the graduate program. They do not allow for any time off. There’s no deferral, classes are only offered once in the two years, and there aren’t any incompletes. I have been talking to students who are already there, who have had children, who are married and are quite a bit older, and who said it is really hard. I’m looking at 20 hours in class and 20 hours of papers and field research out of the classroom. Students with part-time jobs found it nearly impossible to keep up with the work, and a baby is not a part-time job. They also warned me that professors aren’t just tough, they can be especially harsh to the pregnant women in the program. [emphasis mine] By the time the baby would be due, there would be papers, projects, research. I can’t miss a single class without risking the whole program, that’s just the way it’s designed.

This nearly made me shriek with frustration. Tough is one thing, hostility is another. And why doesn't that fall under discriminatory behavior? Why is it okay to to be harsher to someone who is experiencing a normal biological function? I don't know what program this is, but from the sound of it, it is some sort of social services or governmental aid program focusing on humanitarian aid, which makes this kind of treatment doubly absurd. As does the fact that this program is designed to be prohibitively difficult. I suspect this was a program that was intended to "separate the men from the boys" when it was designed, a form of masculine hazing, as though college were fucking boot camp. With the preponderance of women in colleges these days, you'd think this kind of shit would stop, or at least be toned down.

This kind of program design is one of major reasons that women often fail to reach their full potential. Men with children who attend graduate school almost inevitably have built-in childcare in the form of wives. Women? Not so much. Childrearing is still women's work, whether they're married or not. (If you think I'm exaggerating, read this whiny-ass and self-centered piece by Geoff Williams; it might be satire, but I'm not so sure.) Not supporting families with children who would like to continue their educations, and actively discouraging single women with children, is discriminatory behavior and only illustrates how much of the world is still based on the way men's lives work.

I see this in the policies of the school I teach at, where most of my students have children. Whenever they cannot find a babysitter, they miss class. When students at my friend Rob's school can't find a baby sitter, he tells them to bring their kids to class. That's better, certainly, but why isn't there a safe place for students to leave their kids on campus? That would make life so much easier for so many struggling single mothers. It's a small investment to make with huge rewards.

Natasha Richardson, RIP

Cry in your beer Moi  

The Accident

He crouches beside her,
the space too small for his tall frame
even were he the one tucked in blankets, like she is.
He folds himself onto the narrow seat
and holds her hand through the flight,
through the long, uncomfortable drive
to yet another hospital,
this one closer to home,
as she held his
when it was he laid out here.
When he lay there, he could feel his bones
grinding, already cracked,
and now it’s his heart, because
she feels nothing.
He caresses her face with outsized hands
(an ex-boxer’s hands, blunt, thick, rinsed
of brutality now)
as he has done
for fifteen years
and two children—boys, a year apart
—prays they won’t be motherless
so young,
and he a widower.

There is little hope.

Or so I imagine
from the news reports.
But it needs little imagining, and
the actors need no names.
Not long ago, it was my mother
and a stroke,
and my bantam dad
held her hand too,
and like Natasha,
she never knew that last caress.

© Lee Kottner 2009

Author Birthdays

LimeyMoi Two important writers birthdays this weekend and I forgot both of 'em until just now: Yesterday was the 127th anniversary of the birth of my favorite woman writer, Virginia Woolf. I've always loved the way she captures thought processes and interior life, and the metaphors she uses to describe it. Here's a little excerpt from my favorite of her books, The Waves to illustrate what I mean. This is Bernard:

". . . I am at liberty now to sink down, deep, into what passes, this omnipresent, general life. . . . I have no ambition. I will let myself be carried on by the general impulse. The surface of my mind slips along like a pale-grey stream reflecting what passes. . . . We insist, it seems on living. Then again, indifference descends. . . . And, what is this moment of time, this particular day in which I have found my self caught? The growl of traffic might be any uproar --- forest trees or the roar of wild beasts. . . . beneath these pavements are shells, bones and silence."

This is such a beautifully poetic book, full of breathtaking images like the last one. Now I want to read this again.

And today is the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth, generally celebrated by the consumption of haggis and scotch, playing of bagpipes and the recitation of poetry. And though Burns is best known for his Scottish patriotic sentiments as well as for his poems and songs, and for his drinking and swiving, I think he must have had a bit of a gentle heart, if my my favorite poem of his is any indication (this is from the "official" Burns site, so the links to odd Scottish terms go back to their glossary):

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what it means to be inclusive

RadicalMoi I've been known to hold a few extreme and even radical ideas in my day. In a male-dominated society, feminism itself is a pretty radical notion, as Marilyn French said. I will go so far as to say that some of my view points are pretty binary: either on or off, with no gray areas or extenuating circumstances attached: women deserve the same opportunities and compensation as men; white people are not smarter or better than anybody else; education should be free through the Ph.D.; affordable healthcare is a right, not a privilege; every human life has value (where "human life" begins is another, separate matter). As I get older, though, the gray areas get bigger until I find myself backing off from the sweeping statements I used to make about issues. Sometimes I can't even define my own feelings or opinions about an issue. For example, the idea of abortion has always made me uncomfortable, but I've never felt I had the right to impose my feelings on other women—nor that anyone else has the right to make that decision for individual women. People are full of contradictory beliefs they can't resolve in themselves, me included.

So it's starting to irritate the crap out of me when people pile on President-Elect Obama for not following their agenda. We had a regime like that for eight years, in which a deeply conservative moral agenda was forced down the throats of both moderates and liberals. And while I would go so far so to call myself a far-left liberal, even a socialist, I don't want "my side" to do the same thing. Why? Because it stymies progress, making it a tug of war between two opposing sides, rather than a set of compromises that everyone can live with. It's polarizing and unproductive.

Here's an example of what I mean from Shakesville's Melissa McEwan, who's pissed off at Obama's choice of his personal friend, Rev. Rick Warren to lead prayers at his

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Grudge Match: NYTBR vs. WRB

LibraryMoi I've gone on here and in other places about how badly the New York Times Book Review and the reviewing establishment in general ignores books by women and women's opinions on books. With book reviewing on the wane (hell, books are on the wane), it's hard to find a good source of book reviews that doesn't entail subscribing to a number of different journals and blogs. I'm terminally fed up with the Times, and yet I keep going back to it because there's so little else. In desperation, I subscribed to Book Forum, which I like, but which is also heavily skewed toward art and academics. Not that I've got anything against either art or academic books, but I'm a writer, among other things, and I want to read about fiction and history and poetry and biography and okay, yeah, some politics for general readers. There are still some of us, yanno, who actually read books.

Today, like the infamous dog returning to its vomit, I glanced over the Times list of the year's ten best books, which is a dubious proposition anyway. I mean, ten best book for whom? Never mind in whose opinion. How many women made the cut? Three. Four (see comments below). Oh so predictably, two in fiction, one in non-fiction: Toni Morrison for A Mercy and Jhumpa Lahiri for Unaccustomed Earth (excellent writers both); Jane Meyer for The Dark Side:The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. I'm a fan of both Morrison and Lahiri and happy to see them on the list. Would one more women author have killed them? Like, oh, Marilynne Robinson's Home? or Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves? Jane Meyer's investigative reporting on the Bush administration's adoption of horrific policies like sanctioned torture, suspension of habeas corpus, and extraordinary rendition is a great piece of work and belongs on the list. But instead of, say, honoring yet another book about the Civil War (it's OVER, people; quit fighting it), it would have been nice to showcase, for example, Joanna Bourke's Rape: Sex, Violence, History, given the continuing conditions in Darfur and the widespread use of rape as a tactic of war in Africa.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don't

Bitchbutton In the You Can't Fucking Win Department, this just in:

A new study in Psychology of Women Quarterly finds that women who present themselves as confident and ambitious in job interviews are viewed as highly competent but also lacking social skills. Women who present themselves as modest and cooperative, while well liked, are perceived as low on competence. By contrast, confident and ambitious male candidates are viewed as both competent and likable and therefore are more likely to be hired as a manager than either confident or modest women. . . .

Results show how disparate hiring criteria further discriminates against ambitious, competent women. When judging the ambitious women's hirability, a perceived lack of social skills formed the basis of the hiring decision, and the womens' high competence was relatively neglected. For ambitious men, however, perceived competence and interpersonal skills were weighed equally in the hiring decision. Women were doubly disadvantaged because even when female applicants adhered to stereotypic expectations by presenting themselves as modest, they were unlikely to be hired because evaluators emphasized their relatively low competence and discounted their (high) social skills.

The double standard is alive and well: "He's ambitious; she's a bitch." Men are still not expected to have social skills; women are still expected to fill that role in society. Ambition and competence conflict with social skills (where did that one come from?) Women should be modest, not toot their own horns, not have goals and dreams and desires that might conflict with men's. Women who present themselves as confident and ambitious are still seen as dangerous aggressors who threaten the social order and the

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Who Does She Think She Is?

Feministmoi "Who Does She Think She Is?"

She's a woman, and an artist, and a mother. Why is this still an issue? Why is anything about whatever women do besides marry men and raise babies an issue? If you're a woman and you do some kind of art, whether you choose to marry and/or raise kids (and it's all about choice, isn't it?) should not be anybody's business but your own. It shouldn't make you a bad mother or a less serious artist any way you do it.

And yet, it does, as this dumb-ass review of the movie from Time Out NY indicates:

This documentary encapsulates everything that gives feminism a bad name, from whining about patriarchal society to celebrating the goddess within. . . .  Pamela Tanner Boll’s thesis—it’s hard to be both mother and artist—neglects to mention that it’s tricky for anyone to make a living as an artist.

Missing the point anyone? Of course it's hard to make a living as an artist, but it's a hell of a lot easier when you have built-in childcare and a personal chef, and are living in a society that says it's fine for you to make art. It's not about how hard it is to make art; it's about how hard it is to make art as a woman and a mother in a society that doesn't support you and only sees one role for you: bearer of Great Artist's children, and Helpmeet.

Honestly, that stupidity makes me want to crack somebody upside the head. Or cancel my subscription. Doing that right now, in fact. Watch me: here I go.

Watch the trailer. Go see the movie. Read the blog. More information here.

[Cross posted at Blogorrhea. H/t to Art Biz Blog]

64th Carnival of Feminists . . .

Feministmoi. . . is up over at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like. Politics. Faith. Autonomy and identity. Feminist approaches to art. Institutions and inequities. Feminist writing and analysis. A nice, sharp, heady mixture of topics by some very smart women. Including two posts from me, written right here on this humble blog. I must say I'm in very good company. Go browse around and become enlightened.

Women Deserve Better

Feministmoi This makes me think of the students I've gotten to know at CNR and makes me wonder why there's no on-site childcare for them. It reminds me of their talent, their honesty and passion and fed-up-ness, their drive and courage, their love for their kids, their need to get them something better than the breaks that they've had. And it's about so much more than just abortion or the right to choose it. Listen carefully.

By Sonya Renee at Choice USA via Feministe, The Dawn Chorus

Where It Starts

Notfunny Like most people, I collect cartoons and send them to my friends and post them on my bulletin board. I have one by Callahan, on a postcard, that I bought years ago at a feminist bookstore. It shows a guy standing at the information counter of a similar establishment and the woman behind the counter saying, "This is a feminist bookstore! There is no humor section!" Feminists are often accused of being humorless because we don't find the same things funny that men do: jokes about us. Why women should like being the butt of jokes, especially ones that are usually demeaning, while it's okay for men to take offense at them is something I won't belabor. The point is too obvious. But while it's no longer socially acceptable to tell such jokes in mixed company, they still get told. And women, to be fair, have turned the tables and reciprocated in kind, which is not always such a good thing.

Sexist humor, as topics will when they become socially unacceptable, has gone underground or become far more subtle, sometimes to the point where I (and others, I'm sure) don't know whether I'm just being too sensitive or if the artist really meant that the way it came out. Sunday's Sherman's Lagoon was like that. This is such a silly, innocuous comic 99.999 percent of the time that I almost hate to say anything. Jim Toomey, its creator, supports and advertises a lot of ocean conservation organizations on his site, and generally seems like a good guy, without any particular agenda except humor. The cartoon's main characters are an schlumpy Great White shark, Sherman; his wife Megan (who wears pearls!), and their son Herman; a romantically impaired sea turtle, Fillmore; a young, geeky tropical reef fish named Ernest; Thornton the migrating, sunbathing, alcoholic-slushy drinking polar bear; and a misogynist, misanthropic, scamming, naked hermit crab named Hawthorne. Sherman eats vacationing swimmers and boaters, as Great Whites sometimes do, completely without remorse.  Honest, it's funny. And silly. Except not so much this Sunday:

Shermans_lagoon In some ways, it's a typical trope about men's gender identity anxiety, and kinda goofy because Sherman and Hawthorne are such typical "guys." Until that last panel. And then I felt just a little sick. This might not have bothered me as much if I hadn't just been thinking about the male urge to deface women's images that I see all the time on subway advertisements: sexy women with teeth blackened out, Sharpie mustaches, bruises drawn around their eyes, or my particular favorite, a crudely sketched phallus and hairy scrotum aimed at their smiling mouths. Sometimes the women's sexual organs have been sketched in at their crotch with the same crude phallus addition, or their nipples blackened in as though their clothes were transparent. And sometimes, with the women's pictures, there's a knife. The faces and bodies are slashed, disfigured, breasts cut out, or a knife or gun is drawn aimed at their breasts or crotch.

Men in the advertisements get the blackened teeth and mustaches and the dangling or erect phalluses but they seem more a sign of extra manliness than violence, a ramping-up of the testosterone that's already exaggerated by body building, steroids, and PhotoShop. With the women's images, it's clearly an act of humiliation or violence, sometimes both. Knock her teeth out, cut her, fuck her, ruin the commodity she's trading on, her beauty and youth, for whatever reason; impugn her gender identity by giving her male characteristics; and the wider message: make sure women know we can put them in their place with violence.

That's why that last panel of the cartoon bothers me. I know it's playing off the fact that Sherman's son is a Great White shark, and that they do attack and eat humans (Hey, I loved Jaws). Sherman himself regularly munches on swimmers (usually men, come to think of it), so I don't think there was any intention by the cartoonist to condone or encourage violence against women. But the image still bothers me, probably because it's one ingrained in the culture and even when it's meant to seem innocuous, funny, or ironic, it isn't.

Barbie_massacre Take the Barbie Massacre project, for instance. Girls have a love/hate relationship with their dolls, especially Barbie. We know we will never match her impossible physique; we know we will never be as desirable as she is to Ken (and aren't sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing); we hate her because she's beautiful. And stupid. Even when she represents a powerful Superheroine like Black Canary, there's something wrong with her. She dilutes the image because Barbie, face it, is a helpless bimbo. I had the full Barbie set with Ken and Skipper and Madge when I was a kid and quickly lost interest. It was too much like my own life: My blonde best friend got the guys while I was the cute but dateless sidekick or the obnoxious "little sister." That picture of how my life was going to turn out did not appeal to me. So I completely understand the impulse of these six women to mutilate Barbie. It's one many women share.

Nonetheless, the images are deeply disturbing, not least because they've taken tropes from every vicious and bloody slasher flick and turned them on the dolls, who are so often a stand-in for what real women should be like, and just as defenseless as women often are against male violence. Slasher flick violence is whole other category I won't go into here (one that's been handily addressed elsewhere not just by other women including my friend Jennifer on HuffPo but by Joss Whedon), but it also pervades the culture. In the hands of six women, the Barbie Massacre images become a statement, intentional or not; if done by a man, they become threatening. Why? Because they happen in real life, too.

And maybe that's part of my problem with Jim Toomey's cartoon this weekend. He's just the wrong gender to be making cracks about biting the heads off of Barbie dolls. Sorry if that's sexist.

Famous in France

ChanteuseperiMy extremely talented friend Peri Lyons is singing again! If you're in NYC around the end of August/early September, catch her show, Famous in France, at the Metropolitan Room. Peri is an amazing singer/songwriter/performer who does songs that are not your typical cabaret. She's funny, smart, beautiful, has a great voice and can play your emotions like a piano with her songs. And as Peri says, "Besides, what other cabaret show is going to bring you songs sung from  the viewpoint of the Marquis de Sade's wife?" Don't miss her.

The Lost Female Apostle

LibrariangI just finished reading a couple of books I put in the sidebar a week or so ago about the female apostle Junia. That's right, female apostle. Didn't know there was one? Neither did I. I ran across references to her while looking up something else and was intrigued. One of my biggest problems with the religion I grew up in was that we were supposedly all "ministers," meaning we all could teach outside the church, but only the men could teach inside the church. That's based on the scripture in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, which, it turns out, just may be a non-Pauline interpolation, though it appears in all the texts, though in different places, it turns out. In light of these verses, it seems obvious that there couldn't possibly be a woman apostle, so magically, there wasn't.

But let me back up a minute. The two books are Rena Pederson's The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia and Eldon Jay Epp's Junia: The First Woman Apostle. The first is a general reader's version of the same kind of curious search I'm engaging in. Pederson is a seasoned reporter, not a scholar, but does a good job of outlining the issues and the controversies, as well as describing how other women mentioned as deacons or servants of the church were slowly erased and pushed from view, including Junia. Epp's book is extremely scholarly, and it helps to have a background in both grammar and textual criticism. You can squeak by without knowing Latin and Greek, but that wouldn't hurt either. In 81 very closely reasoned pages, he demolishes the support for the arbitrary and sudden metamorphosis of Junia's feminine name in Romans 16:7 into the masculine and highly improbable Junias. The reasons, it turn out, are almost entirely cultural bias and late 19th and early 20th century cultural bias at that, not those pesky misogynist medieval monks, even. Epp connects the arguments about the possibly interpolated text in 1 Cor. 14:34-36, with Junia's "sex change" quite convincingly, connecting them as part of a gradual move to erase the vital parts in the early church hierarchy that women played, and thus keep them out of positions of similar service in the contemporary church, whether it was the contemporary medieval or modern church. After reading both of these books, the ordination of women seems the only logical step that could possibly be taken.

Shocking, I know. Even more shocking when I realized that the Bible I had used my whole life had been based on this biased text. Junia was a man in the Bible I had always thought of as a very good translation, one that restored the 7,000-some-odd occurrences of God's name that had been replaced with his job title.

In most ways, it is a good translation, careful yet colloquial and easy to understand, unlike the more poetic but problematic King James Version. But one of the things Epp's book did was give me a clearer understanding of just how that Bible translation was produced. I'd always known that the translators of my version had gone back to the original manuscripts and started from scratch, but I didn't understand what "going back to the original manuscripts" actually meant.

There are around 500 manuscripts and papyri (manuscripts made of papyrus reed rather than cotton rag paper or vellum, both of which are far more durable) copied by various scribes throughout history, from the first century through the Middle Ages. There are scribal quirks and variations in the texts, sometimes really significant ones, and it is ultimately impossible to state without a doubt which versions are the definitive ones. Translators and scholars have been able to make a pretty good stab at deciding which are closest, but there's no THIS IS IT! manuscript. Transcription and compilation proceeds by textual analysis, paleography, chemical studies, carbon dating, comparison with archaeological evidence, etc.

The sources used by the translation committee that produced the Bible I grew up with were themselves first collated, transcribed, and printed by other committees of scholars, following in the footsteps of previous scholars of various ability and merit. The real problem arises because languages change over time, and you're talking about 2,000 years of history here, from the time the manuscripts were first handwritten in Greek, Aramaic, Syriac and Coptic. For the first 700 years after Jesus, for instance, Greek was unaccented, which is one of the ways the gender of nouns was determined. Manuscripts were also written in all capitals ("majuscules") or all lowercase ("minuscules"), often with the words pretty jammed together, so YOURTEXTMIGHTLOOKSOMETHINGLIKETHIS, or somethinglikethis. Good luck with that. No wonder scribes often went blind. So turning these manuscripts into easily usable modern transcriptions (never mind the translation bit yet) is tricky.

Plus, unlike English, names in Greek and Latin have cases as well as gender, so their endings vary. This was one of the things I struggled with mightily when I was learning and translating Old English, which is actually way more like, say, German, than modern English. You're constantly asking yourself if something is masculine or feminine and what ending it gets. In this case, the names in Romans (duh!) were originally Latin being translated into Greek forms, and then often back to Latin (like for the Vulgate version).

This is where the problem with Junia's name arose. I won't go into the technicalities of it; you can read the books for that. But suffice to say her name was accepted as female by the earliest of the church fathers, for about the first thousand years. Then her name slowly transformed into the masculine Junias, and then back again to Junia here and there, though in the printed transcriptions used by the committee that translated the version I'm familiar with, it was arbitrarily, against any textual evidence (e.g., that the male name Junias exists nowhere else, though Junia as a woman's name appears at least 250 times) decided that Junia was a man. Why? Well, because it's obvious there couldn't be a female apostle. Just that.

Epp's argument, short as it is, seems definitive to me, not as a woman, but as someone who's done both textual criticism and translation (though not of Greek, and only a little tiny bit of Latin). It must have seemed definitive to the latest revisers of the manuscripts at fault, because they've changed it back to Junia, acknowledging her as a female apostle. The problem is that the original sex change existed in the printed transcriptions (as opposed to the original manuscripts) for the last 70 years or so, and crept into just about every Bible translated from them, including mine, just when the issue of ordaining women was becoming or about to become very hot. Considering how long people hang on to their Bibles, it's liable to remain incorrect for another 70 years, giving the erroneous impression that women were silent and powerless in the early church, when that was not the case.

What saddens me is that I would never have known any of this had I not defied conventions in my church and gone to college where I was introduced to both textual criticism and the shallow edge of Biblical scholarship. Though we were always encouraged to study our Bible deeply and there were plenty of supplementary materials put out by the church to do so, none of them mentioned the wider world of Biblical scholarship except briefly in passing, when it suited them. Certainly, little of that filtered down to the congregations. To be fair, I think most Biblical scholarship happens in fairly rarefied air in the academy; it's complex and requires years of study in dead foreign languages. But I think for years I was under the impression that our supplementary materials were "original" research. I wonder now how much of it was selectively cadged from other scholars. This isn't to say there aren't some smart and learned people in the upper echelons of my former faith. But I'm pretty sure none of them participate in the scholarly exchange of ideas and arguments, and I'm not even sure where some of them were trained, i.e., where or if they went to college or hold degrees.

Now that society is changing enough to accept women in so many other positions of power (albeit still reluctantly), it's a shame that this impression remains in the church. It has robbed itself of the unique viewpoint and skills of half the population. No wonder so many people like me are abandoning ship. Whose truth have we been fed?

How to Keep Us Down

SciencemoiIt's not just religion, obviously, that's misogynistic, but it's always been interesting to me that this is one of the characteristics that religion and science, often so antithetical to each other, share and for so many of the same reasons. Of course, this is because both spring out of the society around them and are carried out and structured by the people in that society who have the power to make the structure. So if men decide women are too inferior in whatever way to have a personal relationship with God either through study of the texts or through participating in the mysteries (Milton's "He for God only, she for God in him.") little wonder scientists should think the same way about what many saw (and still see) as a new, improved replacement activity.

The reasoning, though is strikingly similar and you'd think scientists would pay more attention to that. Of course, it's to their advantage not to. It's convenient for them to claim that women's brains are not made for math (an old saw rapidly being dulled) or that we don't do science the way it "should be done," i.e., the way men do it. Probably true, but not necessarily bad or wrong. Just different. I'm not talking about the scientific method here, but about the culture of science and the way men and women approach problem-solving.

And of course, there are social and cultural pressures on women now that men don't have to deal with, as a report by the American Physical Society I recently helped edit shows quite admirably (it's still in production so I can't link to it, but APS has a great reading list). This is a factor just as often conveniently forgotten in the interpretations of key scriptures that seem to ban women from positions of authority in the church, while just as conveniently ignoring the scriptures that show them in those positions.

There are also some striking similarities between the two areas in their jealous guarding of knowledge. In both cases, men are are frequently the gatekeepers of the more esoteric aspects of knowledge (see, physicists), intentionally or unintentionally. Personally, I think this is because guys like secret societies and all that. They're forever making exclusionary clubs, from the Royal Society to the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. But religion and science are public endeavors, affecting all of us. (Just look at the Evangelical Right's influence on elections in the U.S., if you don't believe me.) Faith that asks no questions is merely blind, stupid obedience; science that allows no free sharing of knowledge is not just bad science, but dangerous blind itself. In both cases the idea that "it's too complicated for you to understand" is used to keep the general public from asking uncomfortable questions: "Why is Junia, a woman, called an apostle?" (see sidebar) or, "Wait, why should we give you taxpayer money for that science project?"

All this is by way of saying that Richard Dawkins's selection of writers for the new Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is damned odd. For one thing, there's nary a mere science writer among them; they're almost all scientists, even Rachel Carson, who started her career as a biologist. This is one example of the "father knows best" attitude so many scientists have toward the public: only scientists can truly communicate the beauty and wonder and complexity of science to the rest of you ninnies. This is far from the truth. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot easier to teach good writers about science than it is to teach most scientists to write well, particularly for the public. Most of them have a tendency to include too many advanced details that chase people away, rather than broad interesting ideas that draw them in. My science writer pal Jen waxes eloquent about this frequently in our conversations. The advanced details are important, but you don't start out with those for people with no or little background in the subject, and getting the concepts if you're not a scientist is far more important than understanding the technical details right away. Scientists often have a bad case of "can't see the forest for the trees" when it comes to writing for the public, particularly in their own subject.

And, of course, there are too few women, three, to be precise: biologist Rachel Carson, Helena Cronin, a philosopher who works in sex selection (and who happens to think there are more smart men than smart women—to be fair, she also thinks there are more dumb men than dumb women); and Barbara Gamow, not a scientist, but wife of physicist George Gamow, who is included because of the poem she wrote in response to one of George's lectures. How cute. I say this not to denigrate Barbara Gamow, who was, like many women married to male scientists, extremely supportive of her husband's work and no doubt a sounding board for it, but to illustrate the attitude prevalent about women's role in science: supportive; observer not participator; muse not partner.

Rachel Carson got in, I suspect, because she's hard to ignore; she was so prolific (and a fellow alumna of my alma mater!) and so pivotal in the early days of the ecology movement. But where's biologist Lynn Margulies, who, with James Lovelock, developed the Gaia theory? She's a wonderful writer. Where is primatologist Dian Fossey? Hello? Gorillas in the Mist anyone? Child psychologist Anna Freud? Primatologist/ethologist/anthropologist Jane Goodall, who, like Fossey, wrote extensively for the public? For that matter, where's Margaret Mead? I see physician Lewis Thomas on the list (one of my favorite writers, though he wrote as much about life as about science) but not doctors Perri Klass or Michelle Harrison. Where's oceanographer Sylvia Earle? Or forensic anthropologist Emily Craig? And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

And we haven't even gotten to the non-scientist, women science writers: Natalie Angier, Dava Sobel, Heather Pringle,or Mary Roach, to name a few.

Hawkins's selection is pretty heavy on evolution (no surprise, given that he's an evolutionary biologist), genetics (again, no surprise), physics, neuroscience, and biological systems. There's not much chemistry, straight-up biology, medicine, and no ocean science or any of the so-called soft sciences like sociology or anthropology. If what he was aiming for was a balanced picture of the wonders of modern science, this book is hardly that, but it's not even a balanced picture of the best science writing. Like the hard sciences, it's very male dominated (and white males at that). Enough with Peter Medawar already. He's not that brilliant. He's taking up space with his multiple selections that could easily have been given to a woman or two, scientist or not.

Dawkins could have done much for women scientists everywhere by recognizing their work in this volume. Instead, he dragged out a lot of the old war horses: Eiseley, Watson & Crick, Gould, Thomas, Hoyle, Haldane, Snow. That's fine in an anthology like this. You need to include the classics and the big guns like Hawking and Einstein. But if you're going to include the likes of Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Brian Greene, Lee Smolin and Kenneth Ford (whom I used to work for), then you need to include some contemporary women scientists too, dammit.

Why make a fuss over this? Because this is how women are systematically pushed out of history, in exactly the same way we were pushed out of recognition of our rightful place in the early church. Simply by excluding us from memory. By being ignored by the big shot males. That's all it takes.

Life in the Fat Lane

SupermoiThere's a great blog called Shapely Prose that I read with faithful regularity. I only started reading it about a year ago, led there from Shakesville, another great feminist/liberal blog. I fell instantly in love with the hostess Kate Harding and her fellow bloggers, Fillyjonk and Sweet Machine, who all have attitude to spare and take no prisoners. And their issue is not just feminism, but one* of the last acceptable prejudices: fat people. If you think this isn't an issue, trying gaining 20 pounds. This is especially true of women, whose duty it is to be attractive to the male gaze. So yeah, fat is a feminist issue. Being fat and female is just asking for rude catcalls, like being a lone female at night is asking for rape.

This is why I love Joy Nash, too. Here's the latest of what she calls her "Fat Rants" courtesy of Shapely Prose:

All those rude remarks and nosy conversations and catcalls in her video? She's not just making those up. I've had nearly every single one of them said to me at one time or another. I've heard the catcalls and mean remarks from stranger so often that I now, like Joy, have a handy response memorized: "I can always get liposuction, but you will always be a moron."

MebeforeafterNow, lest you, the complete stranger get some crazy ass idea about what I look like, here's evidence. On the left is me in 1981, on my way to Europe for the first time, schlepping a 40 lb. backpack, which did not get any lighter over 6 weeks, let me tell you. I weighed about 135 then, and 125 when I came back. At that time, I kept hearing how if I would just lose ten pounds, I would look great. When I did lose it, did anybody notice or congratulate me? No. But I was strong, fit, muscular and healthy. And I had schlepped way too much shit all over England for six weeks. What doesn't kill you makes you strong. Literally stronger, in this case.

On the right is me in LA before Jen's wedding last year, where I weigh about 190. I'm still strong (I move my own furniture when I paint), not quite as fit, still pretty muscular, and healthy. And last year, when I went to Barcelona for two weeks, I didn't have any more trouble walking around there than I had twenty-six years before, with or without the backpack. The only reason I have any trouble keeping up with people is that I'm five feet tall and everyone's stride is longer than mine.

So yeah, I'm fat. I put on those extra pounds mostly during my last year of college, from having an ulcer that only stopped hurting when I ate. I refuse to diet now because they don't work, and they make me a bitch on wheels (not that anybody else notices), so my weight has stayed constant within 10 lbs for the last 25 years. I eat what I want, when I want, until I'm full, and I love good food. I used to eat a lot of junk food—ironically before I gained weight—but since I got fat, I've learned to eat healthy, and I don't mean just salads. I eat organic, home-cooked, and with healthy fats: olive and sesame oil, butter for flavor (there are some things that cannot be made with anything but butter and you're better off with a naturally occurring lipid than some chemical fake). I've gotten so used to what real food tastes like now that junk food mostly repels me. I don't have a car, so I walk everywhere. If I weren't too chicken to, I'd bike as well, like I used to. But exercise for its own sake? Nyet. Tried that. Bored me shitless. Here's the kind of shape I'm still in: When the first AIDS Dance-a-thon was held, I danced for four solid hours with the rest of the club kids. I did not take a breather or sit anything out. I think I sweated about five pounds off, and I felt great the next day. Not too shabby for a fat chick, huh?

Love_your_body_2So I refuse to apologize for my size. I'm not embarrassed about it. Studies are starting to reveal that a lot of what's involved in what we weigh has to do with genetics, anyway, something I long suspected. My people in my family are all stocky peasants, on both sides; I knew I was never going to be Twiggy, or even as thin as my best friend. But why am I going on about this here, on this blog? Because this is part of who I am, too, and part of my feminism. The one thing that makes me sad about being fat is seeing how much women oppress each other about it. That insidious comment, "if only you would lose X pounds, you'd be so pretty," is possibly one of the cruelest things we say to each other. Fat ≠ Ugly. The next cruelest is the bad habit that truly naturally thin women have of saying "I'm so fat" in front of other women who aren't. Will you cut that passive-aggressive crap out, ladies? Either get your shrink to work on your self-image with you, or STFU. At least around me. Don't go spreading that hate around. Why do the patriarchy's work for them?

*(Note that I said "one" because there are others: LGBT, disability [fat is sometimes seen as a subset of this one; more on that later], mental illness, etc. And there are plenty that are no longer acceptable that have just gone [somewhat] subtle, like racism and misogyny. But where people will publicly shun you for yelling "Nigger" in the street, if you're a a white person, and rightly so, don't look for disapproval if you yell "Fatass!" Okay, enough qualifiers. This will piss somebody off, no matter what I say. Fuck it. It's my blog. Free speech for everybody, even if you don't agree with me. But don't expect me to allow flames.)