Orange Is the New Black and Diverse Ensemble Casts

I’ve been binge-watching (is that what it’s called?) the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black for the last week, especially since I just moved to a small Midwestern town and my laptop is one of my only pieces of furniture. It’s great. It’s hilarious, the characters are super compelling, the actresses are beyond amazing. It’s an almost all-female cast. It has a great Regina Spektor opening which is NONSTOP IN MY HEAD (“Taking steps is easy / Standing still is ha-a-ard!”).

The series follows the trials and tribulations of protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Smith-educated wasp in her late twenties or early thirties who, while ostensibly living a stable yuppie life with her clean-cut Jewish writer fiancé (Jason Biggs), once had a serious relationship with a badass lesbian drug smuggler (Laura Prepon) which resulted in her transporting drug money across the ocean. Now, years later, she’s been convicted and is serving fifteen months in minimum security women’s prison. We see her voluntarily “surrender” to the prison, looking extremely out of place and comparing her new prison-issued slippers to Tom’s shoes.

Immediately, she’s thrown into a world of bizarre rules, barter systems, creative use of commissary resources, pronounced racial divides, and variously corrupt prison officials, and must learn to navigate it, to often humorous, sometimes tragic, effect. Plus—fun pre-prison flashbacks that spotlight a different character each week.

The thing about this series, and the reason that it’s been the subject of a lot of interesting conversations since it began, is that it has a lot of problems, but it has a lot of really good things. And all of it is worth discussing.

One of the biggest complaints: Despite the fact that nearly one in 100 adult Americans is incarcerated (!!), making it a huge part of the American landscape, we only hear or care about this experience when our protagonist is an upper middle class white lady who totally doesn’t belong there. It’s all a fluke! It’s like a prison ethnography for all of us on the outside!

There have also been complaints about the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Piper discovers immediately that the prison population is essentially self-segregated along racial lines: the whites, the blacks, the “Spanish,” and the others (mostly represented by a mustachioed older Asian lady with poor English skills, one of the show’s more obvious stereotypes). “It’s tribes. It’s not racist,” says Morello (Yael Stone), a white inmate. And to be sure, the black and Latina inmates occasionally appear as racial caricatures. But the interesting thing about the show’s dynamic is that the very fact of the environment’s extremely racialized structure allows these caricature  moments to be “surface,” to be othered perception or extreme self-awareness (as with Tasty’s impassioned defense of fried chicken in her WAC campaign speech). Racial stereotypes show up on the show, but the story doesn’t stop with the stereotype—you keep learning about and fleshing out even those who may have seemed one dimensional, and you do it in a setting that is hyper aware of the social realities of race.

As for Piper’s privileged status: creator Jenji Kohan recently gave an interview with NPR in which she called Piper her “Trojan horse” into the more interesting, more diverse show setting of a women’s prison. Translation: she sold it with a white middle-class protagonist but doing so allows us to access to poor minority characters as well as issues specific to being in the prison system. I feel like this is both a sad acknowledgement of the reality of the television landscape (shows with minority leads, especially ones representing a lower-class background, have much more difficulty getting aired), and a canny way of working the system to still tell really great stories about minority women in prison. Some of the show’s best characters are the supporting ones: the aforementioned Tasty (Danielle Brooks), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), and, notably, Sophia (Laverne Cox), a transgender black woman played by a transgender actress—still a rarity on any kind of TV.

In this, “Orange” reminds me a bit of the often terrific ensemble cast of “Lost”: a white romantic triangle at the forefront (Jack, Kate, Sawyer) but a giant diverse supporting cast who got significant screen time and complex parts to play (most notably, Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as Korean couple Jin and Sun, and Naveen Andrews as former Iraqi Republican Guard officer Sayid; though, to be fair, Andrews is British of Indian background in real life, continuing a long tradition of Indians playing Arabs).

Perhaps an interesting counterexample to this white lead, diverse ensemble phenomenon can be found in Shonda Rimes’ “Scandal,” starring the amazing Kerry Washington. "Scandal" has been much touted as having the first black female lead on network drama since 1974. Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, is the epitome of power and grace, a major player in D.C. politics. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum refers to the show as a “post-racial fantasy." Basically, in the “Scandal” universe, race is never an issue. As such, it’s groundbreaking, but it’s simultaneously status quo-reinforcing. In some ways, “Orange” is the opposite of that.

While it’s screwy that television and media still work this way, and while there’s plenty to criticize about a show like “Orange Is the New Black,” I think we should still celebrate its small victories. And hope that its good qualities are pointing our media landscape in new and ever-better directions.

Kösem Sultan: Ruler of the Ottoman Empire

historical woman

(Note: Be careful when you Google her name. Nothing bad, but there is a Kosen Sultan who appears to hold the Guinness record for being the world’s tallest man, so not to be confused.)

So the “harem” is one of my favorite not-favorite Orientalist tropes. (“Favorite not-favorite” is one of my favorite phrases.) It’s also a very misunderstood concept, heavily romanticized in Western art and literature and imagined as a sexually debauched space where scantily clad women lounge on divans smoking hookah and pleasuring, well, pretty much any dude who walks in the door. You can see why it’s been popular.

In reality, the harem was an enclosed space for the women of the royal household, etymologically derived from the Arabic haram—forbidden—which allowed elite women to live in seclusion and yet still have access to and even exert control over the seat of power. In the Ottoman Empire, the women of the harem could be very influential, even enjoying a period in the 16th and 17th centuries known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, through regencies and political strategizing, they were practically in charge. It’s worth noting that this partly coincided with the height of the Empire’s power.

Kösem Sultan is one of the most extraordinary of these women. Born on a small Greek island around 1585, she eventually made her way to Constantinople at age fifteen, sold into the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I, where she became a favorite of his and then became one of his wives.

Ahmed died in 1617, and in 1623 Kösem’s son Murad IV became Sultan and Kösem became Valide Sultan, or Mother of the Sultan. Because Murad was a minor, Kösem was his official regent—the first woman to ever rule the Ottoman Empire and one of only two who ever would. She was regent for nine years.

Now, as I hinted at earlier, the Ottoman Empire in this period was nothing to sneeze at. Its subjects numbered around thirty million, and its reach extended across North Africa, Eastern Europe, and most of what we now know as the Middle East. Like many empires, it could have probably quit while it was ahead circa 1550, but continued to expand and was mostly still doing A-OK until 1683, when the Ottomans whiffed at the disastrous siege of Vienna, undertaken by Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha.

So Murad finally came of age, did alright, then died eight years later. Kösem’s other son, Ibrahim I, took the throne, but dude was kind of a mess (random headaches, bouts of physical weakness, mental instability) and Kösem was basically the power behind the throne. Then Ibrahim was deposed and Kösem craftily presented her seven-year-old grandson, Mehmed IV, as the new sultan, and thus became regent for Time No. 2.

This second bout of imperial power was only to last three years, however, before she was challenged by her daughter-in-law Turhan Hatice, mother of Mehmed and another major harem imperial power player. Turhan heard rumors that Kösem was plotting to remove Mehmed from the throne and replace him with another grandson—not one of Turhan’s—and it’s likely that it was Turhan who ordered Kösem’s assassination. Legend has it she was murdered by a eunuch, who strangled her with her own hair. Yikes.

Thus ended the tumultuous, Showtime miniseries-style life of Kösem Sultan. I would actually endorse the making of such a miniseries if I didn’t feel like it would be an Orientalist mess waiting to happen.

Kösem Sultan’s story is entertaining, and her bids for power are impressive, but not so great is the implication that women basically had two options in the Ottoman Empire: to be invisible, or to be a conniving power-hungry b-word. It’s a false dichotomy, but it’s how historical women tend to be remembered. She may very well have been these things, but let’s take into account the falsehoods of historical memory and the persistence of exaggerated feminine tropes, not to mention the potential Orientalization of otherwise straightforward political history (a eunuch? strangled with her own hair? it's almost too perfect), and instead celebrate(?) the awesome ambition of Kösem, the sultan-iest of Ottoman royal women.

"I Don't Want a Bigoted Friend"

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

A college friend of mine has an attitude problem when it comes to race. We met 12 years ago and lost touch a year into our studies when our programs diverged. At that point she had already made 2 racist comments, one which I pointed out was unfair and biased, and she conceded. But when the second comment occurred, I cut my losses and went on my way.

Five years ago she moved to my city and sought out my friendship again. I was happy to hear from her, because she does have a lot of good qualities and has turned out to be a fairly loyal, if somewhat self-centered friend.

She had done some traveling after college and I was hoping her mind had opened and she'd matured with regard to her unconscious views on race. Not totally. There were a few less-overt comments that I let slide, due to my passive nature and just general cowardice (ugh). I never thought that she would remain my friend for this long, or that she'd figure it out eventually by interacting with more folks from different backgrounds (our city is fairly diverse and she's since entered a multicultural graduate program).

Alas, that's not really how privilege works, as we both know, Sibyl! The recent release of the film Fruitvale Station, and its confluence with the Trayvon Martin verdict have produced some ugly & awkward moments with her—which unfortunately I've heard of second-hand. Her comments were to the effect of, people are just saying nice things about this movie because of the trial, subtext being that ... black people are getting away with "it"??  It makes no sense. It's getting to the point where I have to run interference with other friends because I'm (perhaps selfishly) afraid this reflects badly on me. I don't want a bigoted friend, but at this point she has become so important to me that I can't just cut & run either.

I think I know the right thing to do, which is to gently bring it up and act like I just don't understand why an otherwise nice person seems to hold these views, and to sort of cushion it by saying I think she's much smarter than that. But I'm afraid that instead I'll start shaking with rage and go off about white privilege (I'm white too, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize what's right in front of our eyes). Any tips? Thanks so much!

Losing the Race

 

Dear Losing the Race,

In the past month, people all over the country have had some unfortunate surprises, seeing how folks close to them reacted to the Trayvon Martin murder case, and the film Fruitvale Station, which depicted the murder of Oscar Grant III.  It’s been awkward, depressing, and downright enraging to see that people you thought were allies are actually indifferent, ignorant, and/or even full-out racist.  How is it 2013 and so many white people just don’t “get” the effects of institutional racism?  Well, privilege is a sneaky thing, and no one wants to give up power they don’t want to believe they have in the first place.

The message I heard, over and over, from the black folks in my life was, “White people who are conscious, please handle your people. We are tired of explaining racism to them.  It’s time for you to step up.”  So, although I recognize that my efforts are far from complete, I’ve been using every platform afforded to me to discuss race in America, and I thank you for another opportunity to do so.

What I am finding is that since most people avoid talking about race like the plague, they are clunky with it.  Their opinions are not fully formed, untested by debate and expression.  They are a bit like teenagers in Health class on Sex Ed day - there’s all kinds of jokes where there should be depth, and the level of tension in the room is palpable.

I like that you are willing to examine what having a bigoted friend says about you.  What it says about you is you are a human with human friends, that are complicated and imperfect and not totally aware of themselves.  Everyone has their equivalent of your bigoted friend in their lives.  It’s like the embarrassing uncle who you used to love as a child for all the reasons you now hope he doesn’t show up at the family functions—his loudness and silliness was fun for kids, but less funny as an adult.

You probably enjoy the bluntness of your friend, in other contexts.  You like that she tells it how she sees it, doesn’t hold back, and isn’t always perfectly PC.  However, you were hoping she would evolve over time.  Ignorant views in college students are to be expected—I’m so lucky I still have any friends who knew me in my early 20’s, a time of bizarre absolutes all over the political spectrum.  However, in adult life, friendships are really difficult to hold on to, and for all the effort one puts in, you don’t want to feel like you’re giving your time to someone who is on the wrong side of history.  It feels like collusion.

This friend has been placed in your lap so you can do your part in making change, starting right where you are.  Relationships are the only thing that change people.  The person with homophobic beliefs has to reconsider when they find out their beloved piano teacher is gay.  And someone with unconscious racist beliefs won’t change them unless people they care about start to stay, “Listen, this is not cool.”

So what you need to do is practice.  Talk about this issue with people you know agree with you, first.  Practice with people you don’t care as much about, too.  I remember when I first started confronting racism in conversations, and the visceral physical reaction you described happened to me.  I shook, I cried, I had to leave the room and hyperventilate.  But, over time, I was able to get those somatic responses under control and speak more freely.  I actually think it’s fine if you shake and cry—it could be compelling for your friend to see how much this means to you.  However, it would be best for your health if you didn’t go into anaphylactic shock every time you talk about this, so practice and breathe.

I actually don’t think you should pretend not to understand why an otherwise nice person holds these beliefs.  Because you do know.  You should be forward, direct, and use examples.  You can do this compassionately, in a way that helps put your friend’s statements into context, showing her that it’s not her fault that institutional racism exists, but it is her business and duty to recognize it and stop propagating it.

I suggest following up your conversation with some reading material for her to peruse.  An article your friend may connect with is Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which includes a list of day-to-day examples of how white privilege works itself out in real life.  She may not want to believe that all of the examples on the list are true, but there are at least a few that she will be unable to refute.  I do understand that this article is problematic, but it seems that your friend really needs to start slowly, although she should be encouraged quickly to move on to bell hooks.  This could be the beginning of a really important personal growth journey for her.

People do not want to acknowledge their own ignorance and privilege.  In order to get them to do so, you have to provide both positive and negative reasons.  For instance, you’ll be saying, “It makes me really uncomfortable and upset when you say these things.  It is why I didn’t call you for years.”  So, the message is, “your racism hurts your friends and makes them not want to hang out with you.”  But also you can tell her your journey, from unconsciously enjoying white privilege to being aware of it and trying to call it out when you can.  What have you gained from this process?  What personal growth can you offer her by becoming awake to how the world really works?

I think it is great that you don’t just want to cut this friend out of your life—that would be a missed opportunity for you both.  Just being aware of white privilege is not enough.  We have to have the courage to speak out about it when we see it, calling it out and encouraging the people in our lives to do the same.  And, what have you got to lose?  You said yourself you don’t want to have a bigoted friend, so give her the chance to evolve, and see what happens!  I really believe this is the only way things are ever going to change—one-on-one conversations with people we love.  The personal affection makes it matter in a way that a movie and a court case never can.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen, Fabled Innocent

historical woman

 

I usually focus on historical women who have accomplished a whole lot, against all odds and expectations given their oppressive historical contexts. Today I wanted to spotlight a historical woman who didn’t really do much. She was only queen for nine days, and most of that time was spent inside a dungeon. Then she was killed. Before her seventeenth birthday.

What I think Jane Grey’s story represents is a necessary counterweight to the often triumphal stories of the women that grace our history books—those few exceptional ladies who managed to rule countries, win wars, write books, etc. and are given lots of retrospective pats on the back for it. (And sometimes a more subtle “hey if she could do it, what are y’all complaining about!” as well.) Jane Grey is instead a woman whose time in the spotlight was brief and whose fate was largely out of her own hands. In that, I think she better represents the plight of many women in her time, and lots of other times. But either way, we know very little about her.

What we do know: Jane Grey was an English noblewoman, born around 1537, whose father became the Duke of Suffolk (hereafter referred to as “Suffolk” because of wacky British landed title conventions). As a sixteenth-century teenage girl related to royalty, she was clearly ripe for some strategic marriage alliance-ing. For a time it looked like she’d be marrying her cousin, Edward VI, a son of Henry VIII who would become king. Instead, she was married to the son of the Duke of Northumberland (hereafter referred to as Northumberland—see above).

Remember that this was all in the midst of that Protestant Reformation thing. Note that Edward VI was kind of on Team Protestant. But there were others on Team Catholic. Important background.

Edward VI was king for a short time. Then, on his death bed at the age of fifteen (!!), Edward proclaimed that, rather than his half-sisters and fellow wacky Henry VIII brood members Mary or Elizabeth (IDEA: Muppet Babies-style animated show “Baby Tudors”), he should have his successor be Lady Jane Grey. Northumberland and his fellow pro-Protestant conspirators allegedly brought about Edward’s change of heart. Jane, as it is, was a devout Protestant. Hence, she and her husband Guildford (real name) ascended to the throne on July 10, 1553.

Nine days pass. And they’re kicked out.

The villainess in this little story is Mary, who became queen after Jane. Mary was Team Catholic all the way. When she made her claim to the throne, she had Jane, Guildford, and Jane’s dad Suffolk imprisoned in (where else) the Tower of London. Suffolk was set free shortly thereafter. It might have ended there—even though Jane and Guildford were found guilty of treason, it seems that even Bloody Mary realized that the two didn’t deserve to, you know, die or anything. That would just be messed up.

But then.

A dude named Thomas Wyatt started a rebellion in order to reinstate a Protestant ruler to the throne (his pick: Elizabeth instead of Jane). Wyatt’s Rebellion had many supporters, including Jane’s dad, Suffolk. Mary wasn’t having any of it. She quashed the rebellion, killed Wyatt, and, because Jane’s dad was involved, ordered Jane, Guildford, and Suffolk all beheaded.

There’s a famous painting that hangs in the National Gallery in London (see it, it’s gorgeous) by Paul Delaroche called The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. The incredibly lifelike figures on the wall-sized canvas include the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, who leads the blindfolded Jane to the execution block; two weeping ladies in waiting; and the executioner, leaning on his large axe. It’s an incredibly striking scene—Jane is all in white, practically glowing with innocence, literally being blindly led by a man to her gruesome fate. It made an impression on me to the extent that years later I felt compelled to write about her. Of course, as many scholars have pointed out, such representations of Lady Jane simply perpetuate her role as an abstraction of female helplessness and innocence, even a Protestant martyr. It’s important to remember that she was a real human being, a highly educated noblewoman with her own beliefs and ambitions (though these were likely largely overridden by those of the people around her). Maybe she would have made an excellent queen! Who knows? Her cousin Elizabeth certainly did. But you already know about her.

Male Authors, Female Authors, and Serious Literature

strong female characters

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, and having done so, felt more equipped to ponder a rather inflammatory statement he made last September regarding perceived difference in treatment of women authors’ work in relation to that of their male colleagues.

Jodi Picoult had tweeted the following: “NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.”

Ostensibly, she was criticizing the fact that while her books covered similar ground as Franzen’s, they were treated very differently by publishers and critics alike. Even the cover designs send out “chick lit” signals, while Franzen’s look more “serious author consider this for an award please.”

It could have been left at that. But Jeffrey Eugenides, himself an acclaimed male author, felt compelled to chime in. In an interview with Salon, he called Picoult’s complaints “belly-aching” and said, "I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention."

Here’s where I’m like, hold up, Eugenides.

While it would be unseemly for Picoult to complain about any lack of commercial success, there is a difference between that and critical success, aka being taken seriously as a writer. I’m not super familiar with her work, so I don’t actually know how good of a writer she is. But—at the very least—she is Ivy League-educated, very prolific, and sells millions of novels, albeit ones that must single-handedly keep a lot of hand models specializing in soft lighting and tender gestures in business.

And therein can lie part of the problem. A book’s marketing goes a long way in determining its reception. If the publisher thinks a book will sell to a middle-aged, light-reading crowd, they’ll commission cover designs and blurbs that appeal to said crowd. While such marketing is often astute, it also precludes the possibility that those books will ever be Taken Seriously.

And as author Maureen Johnson recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “The simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality.”

Eugenides may or may not be right that Picoult herself has nothing to complain about. But his casual shrug-off of any kind of gender gap in the promotion and reception of modern literature seems at best naïve, at worst super male privilege-y.

I like Jeffrey Eugenides a lot. I’ve read all three of his novels, and interestingly all of them devote major page time to female characters in mostly sensitive and nuanced ways. The Virgin Suicides is told from the point of view of a chorus of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the five sisters of the tragic Lisbon family. While the boys never truly understand the girls’ pain, there is a deep cosmic sympathy that courses through the narrative—even as the girls remain inscrutable, it is always understood that they are flawed breathing human beings.

Middlesex (which I reviewed on my book blog) is an epic chronicle of Cal Stephanides, born Calliope, a hermaphroditic boy who spends the first fourteen years of his life as a girl. Again, while hardly an LGBTQ anthem, the book deftly deals with the fluidity of gender and sexuality, as well as the persistent presence of “Cal” in both a female and male body.

It wasn’t until I read his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, that I could see where Eugenides might go wrong. The narrative is told from three points of view, your classic love triangle between Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. Mitchell, like Cal, has a lot in common with Eugenides himself and is fully fleshed out. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder, and his passages are often gut-wrenching. But Madeleine? She’s kind of a privileged, boy-crazy twit. It’s not that she’s entirely unsympathetic—but she’s uninteresting, un-fleshed-out, and seems to exist (even with omniscient narration) as the cardboard fantasy of Mitchell’s ill-advised romantic desires.

Further, and here’s where the irony gets delicious: The Marriage Plot’s title and content could have lent themselves to the most chick lit-y of marketing campaigns. Madeleine is an English major obsessed with Austen, and though somewhat subversive Eugenides’ narration does self-consciously follow the old marriage plots within his modern (and postmodern) 1980s setting. Yet the cover for his book, the blurbs, and its placement in the bookstore are all miles away from Jodi Picoult’s stuff. Is this the proof he needs that male and female authors’ work are often given unequal treatments? Could a woman author have written something called The Marriage Plot about a college girl in love and been taken seriously as Literature? It’s debatable, but it's doubtful, and it’s definitely worth asking.

For more on this thought experiment, I highly recommend that you check out Maureen Johnson's May 2013 Huffington Post article, which showcases the results of her Twitter project to “gender-flip” famous novel covers—including The Marriage Plot.

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

Strong LGBT Characters and the Potential of Media

strong female characters

Last week marked a historic turning point for the LGBT community in America, with the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and California’s Prop 8 paving the way for greater equality in marriage, and possibly in general. It wasn’t entirely shocking, as polls have shown a steadily increasing support throughout the country for gay marriage over the last several years: over half of Americans now support it. At the same time, the sheer rapidity of this acceptance is noteworthy. Ten years ago, pro-equality Americans were in the minority, and gay marriage seemed like a distant dream. Now, as long as things continue as they have been going, it’s more a question of when than whether. To me, it seems like partial validation of my (and this column’s) underlying theory that media—particularly positive media portrayals—can go a long way in shaping our society’s understandings of minority groups. This is not to say 1) that the LGBT community has achieved all of its goals or “made it”, or 2) that LGBT representations in TV and movies are not often problematic. But familiarity, kind of, breeds acceptance. As one-dimensional or stereotype-y gay characters often are, their very presence banishes the alternative: the shadowy negative archetype that might otherwise persist in sheltered people’s minds.

When did the sea change begin? First: remember when Ellen Degeneres coming out was a huge deal? She was on the cover of Time magazine. Her sitcom struggled with this new plot twist, and was eventually canceled. Her burgeoning (?) movie career (including a romantic-ish comedy called Mr. Wrong) kind of stopped. Over the course of the 2000s, however, she’s made a major comeback and is now one of the absolute queens of daytime TV.

In the meantime, a whole crop of other “gay” shows has hit small-screen success. “Will & Grace” (which even Joe Biden noted as an influencer of American opinions on LGBT issues), “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and everything on Bravo since, “Glee,” “Modern Family,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The New Normal.” Also, the coming out of mainstream, broad-appeal celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Anderson Cooper. LGBT characters and people became, in a way, normative. What would have been shocking to middle American sensibilities in 1990 was required viewing by 2010.

Not to say there aren’t problems with the ways that many of these shows represent gay characters. The gay stereotype of the flamboyant, effeminate white male who loves Broadway, fashion and tiny dogs, and who has the bourgeois upper middle class budget to indulge such hobbies, is, maybe, overrepresented in media—any other “type” of gay character is underrepresented. There should be more gay characters of color. There should be more lesbians (that aren’t there just to generate ratings amongst hetero male viewers), as well as bisexual and transgender characters—you know, the L, B, and T that are usually overshadowed by the G. There should also be LGBT characters with a range of personalities and interests that don’t reinforce our gendered notions of how gay men and women “should” act.

That's the second part of my theory, I guess: first, representation. Then, range.

For now, though, here’s to Kurt, Blaine, and Santana from “Glee,” Cameron and Mitchell from “Modern Family,” Callie and Arizona from “Grey’s Anatomy,” Will and Jack from "Will & Grace," Willow and Tara from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Xena and Gabrielle from "Xena: Warrior Princess," Lafayette, Jesus, and Tara from “True Blood,” and all the others who have, in their own, potentially small way, helped LGBT identities become mainstream.

In fact. Can I double thank Lafayette? Because he’s one of my favorite things on TV.

Who are some of your favorite LGBT characters and TV personalities? Have they changed the way you think about LGBT issues?

There are so many different kinds of us

we are all people copy

By Layla Guest The tiniest Cambodian woman I’ve ever seen rang me up for two magazines and a bottle of water at I Love LA, the news and gift shop in LAX’s terminal 2. She smiled so wide at me, taking her time as she looked at both my debit card and my ID, “Lie-la. No, Kayla. No, Lie-la. Yes, that’s you. Lie-la.”

She hummed as she carefully checked and re-checked my purchase total before punching it into the credit card machine. One nod for each button pressed correctly. A giggle and a double wink when she pressed the wrong button. “Oh oh oh, that’s not the one.” She handed me my items one at a time. “Always be beautiful. Always be strong. Stay smiling and you will be wise. You are very brave. Stay beautiful.”

There’s a great scene in Up in the Air when George Clooney is describing which line to get in at airport security, “never get behind families with children.” I boarded my flight behind a young mother with her two children who had stopped to tie shoelaces, pull up pants and rearrange pony-tail holders. I passed them on the jet way and walked towards our plane.

From behind I heard, “excuse me, um, can I cut you?” I turned around. Nothing. Then I looked down. From a clear face with a half-toothless grin, “um, I just stopped to tie my shoe. I was in front of you. Can I cut you? Well, me and my sister and my mom. Can we cut you?” His mother rolled her eyes and took in a breath that signaled yet another impatient, “LUUUUUKE!” I said, “of course, it’s only fair.” He looked at me like I had just let him skip to the front of the line at Splash Mountain. In disbelief, he marched forward, head high.

We de-planed in Minneapolis/St. Paul to stretch our legs before boarding the exact same plane bound for Boston. Jordan, my partner, and I overheard a woman we had our eye on earlier. A man had been in her husband’s seat in LA when they boarded. The man seemed to have a pretty reasonable thought process behind wanting (needing) the window seat. In the window seat, he could sit slightly sideways, leaning against the plane to keep his frame from spilling over into the seat next to him. The couple, showing no patience, demanded he move out of the window seat to the aisle. I eavesdropped as the embarrassed passenger said, “I asked for a window seat, it’s best if I sit there. I’ll fit better that way. Do you have a window anywhere? I don’t want to be a burden. I asked for a window.”

The flight attendant said no, only in the emergency exit row, which is exactly where Jordan and I were sitting, with a roomy window seat directly to our left. He looked at it and us longingly. Jordan said, “just give him the damn seat.”

On this plane, we had to pay extra for the extra legroom, so it was not a seat that could just be given away, apparently. The gentleman proceeded to stuff himself into the aisle seat next to the impatient couple. “Can you just buckle the belt, sir?” “Yes, I’m not an imbecile.”

After the impatient woman recounted the story to a flight attendant at the gate she complained that people as fat as the man she was sitting next to should not be allowed to fly in a regular seat. “Isn’t there a way you can ask everyone how fat they are when they buy seats? We shouldn’t be subjected to his issues.” The flight attendant said simply, “Ma’am, he’s just a man.”

Yesterday was a big day. The Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8 make me incredibly hopeful. Hopeful that we are moving forward as global citizens---in understanding that, as evidenced in today’s interactions in and around the airport, there are so many different kinds of us. Us, being humans. We are old, young, unconditionally altruistic, innately cruel, deeply profound, struggling to get through our days, always searching for reciprocity. While some will consider yesterday’s rulings as a step back, an inconvenience and wrong, there are spirits that shine bright, like my sagely airport cashier, reminding us to be wise and stay brave.

Lessons from the Emirates...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Every so often, I’m able to be exposed to a part of the world I hadn’t known before, with customs and traditions and environments that are completely foreign to me.  We often seek that out in our personal travels, but my work trips tend to be confined to a set of usual locations.  That’s comforting in its own right, but sometimes, it’s exposure to a completely new place that perks me up and makes me interested in what it is that I do all over again.

I had this feeling just last weekend I traveled to the Emirates for the first time, taking in that intersection of the world as much as I could over the few days that I was there.  I couldn’t help but to see their world with new eyes and I noticed:

  • Modesty is not a bad thing: Regardless of one’s opinion as to why, women’s dress was largely more modest in the Emirates, and in the larger Middle East in general.  Like most people raised outside of that environment, part of me can’t help but be fascinated by women who cover up nearly all of themselves when in public.  But once you notice how much certain women do cover up, you can’t help but also notice how much women who are visiting do not---shirts that go lower, skirts that go higher. There was something about that juxtaposition that made me choose clothing and combinations that were more modest and more covering than I might normally, even though I don’t consider myself a revealing dresser.  And interestingly, it was in that additional coverage that I found a certain bout of comfort and confidence because I knew I was being judged by what I was saying, and not what I was showing.  You don’t have to change who you are when you go abroad, but you should absorb your surrounding environment and adjust accordingly.
  • If it doesn’t look natural, it probably isn’t: Across the city of Abu Dhabi, I saw plenty of things that were beautiful and modern but didn’t necessarily look like they were part of the natural scene.  For example, when approaching the city the road is flanked by sand dunes until skyscraper upon skyscraper rises to the sky . . . or until fountains of water appear in the desert heat.  One of the beautiful things about being human on this earth is building and improving and changing the conditions we might have been born into---we don't have to be confined solely to what "was" but we have the possibility to dream and build what "can be".  But we still need to be mindful of what belongs, and what we give up by adopting that change.
  • Invest your resources: The Emirates were fortunate with the natural resource of oil, but also with the foresight that money made from resources can always run out.  It’s amazing what the country has done by putting resources into building and tourism, and making itself a crossroads for the world.  But more importantly, they’ve also invested into education and transport, as these are the things that stay long after the money is made and pave the way for future possibilities.  When you are lucky enough to profit, make sure you set aside a portion into savings and activities that build your future.
  • Look behind the scenes: Most people who work in the Emirates aren’t actually from there.  And if you take the time to speak to waiters, drivers, hotel clerks, and just about anyone else, you’ll find that they are far from home and their families, and looking to make a living so that their children are entitled to those very basic resources that I mentioned above.  When you’re being treated to a wonderful experience, take a look behind the scenes to see what makes things work.  Chances are, you’ll be surprised at just how many people’s efforts go in to making that experience for you.  Compensate appropriately, it affects their future.

All my love,

Mom

Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Activist, Civil Rights Pioneer

historical woman

Everyone knows that, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and move to the back, and with this refusal became a major figure in the Montgomery bus boycott and the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (Well, everyone should know that anyway.) But Parks was not the first to engage in an act of public transit civil disobedience—nor, I’m sure, will she be the last. For starters, in 1884, Ida B. Wells similarly refused to get up and move to a different train car when ordered to do so by a train conductor on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad. She was by force removed from the train by three men who, I think, really needed to stop and evaluate what they were doing with their lives.

Wells didn’t stop with train sit-ins, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, who was Ida B. Wells? Not to be confused with muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell (roughly contemporaneous), Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, tireless campaigner for African-American and women’s rights, anti-lynching activist, and influential public persona. She was born in 1862 in Mississippi to slave parents, emancipated three years later with Abe Lincoln’s Proclamation. She was educated first at Shaw U., then at Fisk University, both Southern black colleges. When she lost her parents, she took on a job as a teacher in order to support her siblings.

Sometime during her young life, Wells got into politics—not surprising considering the tumultuous, nasty times she grew up in. The War was over and slavery was done, but America’s attempts at Reconstructing™ and creating a just post-war, post-slavery society were, let’s face it, occasionally pathetic. The government, fearful of completely alienating the South, made too many concessions and took just as many steps backward as forward.

One of the most hideous evils to become common in this period, and for a bunch of otherwise perfectly nice people to get complacent and blind eye-y about (see also: segregation, imperialism, most wars) was lynching, specifically, the lynching of black men in the South. In 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched by a mob in Memphis. So she turned to investigative journalism as a means for change.

Wells begin to study similar murders across the South, and then published her findings in a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All its Phases.” She concludes that the “reasons” for lynching black men usually fell along the lines of: they failed to adequately accept their alleged inferiority as raced human beings. This could involve competing economically with white men, being disrespectful to white men, and so much as looking at a white woman. (Wells also found that most sexual encounters between black men and white women were consensual, despite popular myth to the contrary.)

Wells traveled and worked with famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, doing speaking tours of Europe and getting a bunch of British people on her side. But she continued to face an uphill battle at home, where the New York Times called her a “slanderous and nasty minded mulatress.” Oh, the liberal media!

In short, Ida Wells was no shrinking flower. She was one of the earliest women to not change her last name when she married. She wasn’t shy about getting into it with people she disagreed with, including white temperance activist Frances Willard and famed black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois (she said he excluded her from the list of NAACP founders). She fought for what she believed in and wasn’t afraid to face, head-on, one of the ugliest legacies of American slavery. Amidst headlines about affirmative action, George Zimmerman, and (yes) Paula Deen, it’s hard not to hope for similar take-no-s*** voices in our own time.

Lemon

Two memories.

1) 3rd grade. My friend Rebecca’s mom was an artist, like my mom, and she did a painting for our class based on Charlotte’s Web. I wanted everyone to know that my mom was an artist, too, so I suggested to her that she should paint our class a picture of the Boxcar Children (you know, in her spare time). She told me that she was sorry, but she couldn’t ever seem to get excited about making things that were other people’s ideas.

2) Junior or senior year of high school. Sitting on my bed, looking at an art school course catalogue, and thinking, “All of these majors look really cool...except for graphic design. I would never do that.” The page about the graphic design department had an image of a lemon. I recoiled from it the way one might a person whose behavior reminds you too much of your own secrets—the kind of reaction so strong it deserves to be examined, but usually isn’t.

I spent most of my life assuming that no matter what kind of artist I was, I would never, ever be a commercial one. Like, it would be much better to work at a job I don’t care about at all, than to compromise the purity of my artistic expression.

I came of age, after all, during the grunge era, and if I learned anything from Kurt Cobain (and from my mom), it was to avoid being a sell-out.

Now it’s 2013 and lo-fi has become an aesthetic found in car commercials and Taylor Swift videos, twee is an insult, and punk is an exhibit at the Met. Sleater-Kinney broke up and Carrie Brownstein is on TV making fun of the hegemony of the DIY aesthetic (“put a bird on it!”) We’re in a brave new world, people.

The friends I have who make art either:

a) Are commercial artists in one way or another (even if they also have a fine art practice)

b) Are part of academia

or

c) Feel like they have no idea how to make a living as an artist, and have a job doing something else.

I’m not sure if this is just me growing up or an actual cultural shift, but I do feel like the successful artists I’m aware of these days seem less like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites and more like Ben Stiller in Reality Bites. I mean, it’s easy to make fun of the Ben Stiller character because he kind of betrays Winona Ryder and he's such a people pleaser, but...he’s trying. Ethan Hawke is just stealing candy bars and making fun of her dress and sitting around the house acting like he’s above it all.

I’m almost done with the book trailer I’ve been working on—someone else’s words, someone else’s story, but my aesthetic and my visual interpretation. The overall “voice” of the project isn’t purely mine, but I believe in it to the extent that I feel good about putting my name on the finished product.

I’m thinking about that lemon. I remember the paper, it was matte. I remember the colors, yellow and green. It was a nice lemon, you know? You can do a nice still life painting of a lemon and photograph it and make a cool graphic image of it. You can do whatever you want with that lemon. It's a lemon, it's not going to get mad at you.

Let Bravery Be Your Blanket

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My father was abusive to me growing up. Not very frequently was the abuse physical (the verbal variety dominated), but it was enough to instill a fear of him into me that I've never been able to shake. When he got angry, he took it out on me, I assume because I was the only one who would ever speak up when he was being cruel to my mother or sisters.

As a young adult, he used physical violence against me once; that incident alone is etched onto my memory with crystalline precision, and I cringe every time I see a person in the throes of anger. I had thought that now, since I was an adult, he couldn't hurt me anymore, but that experience settled that false assumption. Since that particular episode, I have just zipped my lip around him and kept my opinions to myself.

We do, however, have a decent relationship now---especially given the circumstances---and I have forgiven him, though I never confronted him about it and I’m not sure I ever will.

Now, however, I am going through a period of rather extreme personal change brought about by recovering from addiction. Through all this healing, I've discovered I’m not the person I once was, with the same strictly conservative viewpoints I once shared with my parents. My father especially cares passionately for right-wing politics and strict religious doctrine---it’s a hot button issue for him, and I've gotten frightened just watching him talk about it. So far, I've hidden my new opinions from everyone so as not to make any waves, but I’m getting tired of stifling my thoughts just so they won’t “get back to them” and result in a confrontation. I want to finally be myself without shame or fear.

The thing is, though, I am still afraid. I’m afraid of my father finding out, trying to engage me on this, and me melting down. I’m not necessarily scared he will hit me, but I am afraid of not being able to defend myself against his anger.

Advice?

Confused and Scared but also Fed Up

 

Dear Confused and Scared but also Fed Up,

The experience of having the person who helped bring you into the world, the man who represents your origins in many ways, turn on you in violence is something that shakes you to the core of yourself.  So my first thought is: though you see yourself as scared, you are actually incredibly brave.  Cloak yourself in that bravery like a grown-up security blanket.  It's why superheroes wear capes.

You were so brave to stand up to him as a kid, you are so brave to work on yourself through recovery, you are so brave to move beyond the values he clings to and find your own, and you are so brave to want to want to be yourself fully, in front of him and the whole world.

You are fucking awesome.

I hope he knows that.  I think he does, and fears it.  That's why he attempted to reassert his power over you by being physically abusive to you as an adult, and with the loud tirades about his politics and religion, which I consider spiritual abuse.

People who pontificate about politics and fundamentalist religions in a hostile way that excludes all other viewpoints are really just trying to order their world.  They see the world as an out of control place, and all the structure and rules of that way of life help them to make sense in the chaos, and find their place in it.

The thing is, in that world that makes perfect sense, where there are such heavy rights and wrongs, what you lose is love.  Love is inherently risky, and folks who are stuck in judgmental worldviews can't risk the rigid walls they've put up to hold everything in place, to love someone who might act in ways they can't control.

Whenever I consider standing up to someone, especially someone with this kind of strict worldview who may not be able to hear me at all, I ask myself this question, "Do they have any real power over me?"  If they do, if they are my direct boss or my landlord or the person holding the papers that say whether I graduate or not, then I consider holding my tongue in their presence.  However, if they don't, then I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty to be a change agent in their lives.  We don't have to wag it in their faces, that we don't believe what they do, but simply and firmly being who we are will be enough.

In fact, it is probably going to enrage your father, to see you asserting yourself, expressing views that are different from his.  The whole cycle of abuse is about power and control, so to see you moving off of that wheel and onto your own path is going to rock his whole sense of self and relationship to you.

My question to you is, what have you got to lose?  It's not like you will be giving up too much if he turns on you.  You say you have a "decent" relationship with him, which sounds to me like you are still in the role of peacemaker in your family.  What would happen if you let that down?  Your mom and siblings might say, "Why are you stirring things up with Dad?" but you could answer, "Why aren't you?  Are we all going to wait until he dies to be our true selves?"

Listen, I'm not suggesting you directly confront your father, provoking his rage.  Where I think you should start is with a therapist whom you can practice expressing yourself.  Engage in some drama therapy exercises, in which you picture your dad in an empty chair, and tell him what you really think about what he's done to you and your family, and how you truly feel about the world.  Then move into the chair and embody him, playing out his rebuttal.  Then move back into your chair, and tell him, "You had no right to be violent with me.  You have no power over me anymore.  I'm going to be myself, and no amount of posturing can stop me."

Then, start simply being your bold self, even if that means you publicly express things that your dad disagrees with.  He'll yell, he'll send you crazy forwards, he'll give you the cold shoulder.  You'll scoff to yourself, "I've survived worse", and let your bravery blanket flap in the wind.  He can’t take anything away from you anymore, because you aren’t under his control, and you know who you are now.  And if he cuts you out of his life, that will indeed be very painful, but then again, you'll be free.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Zelda Fitzgerald: Flapper. Artist. Author's Wife.

historical woman

In our ruggedly individualistic culture, I often wonder: what is it like to be famous because of the person you’re married to? To appear in the press, go down in history books, as “so-and-so’s wife”—to never, ever be mentioned without your spouse as starting point or explanation? In some ways, I think it must be harder even than being a nobody, like the rest of us. At least we can pretend at the idea of absolute autonomy, that we achieved what we have on our own. Even if you’re nobody, you are your own nobody. You’re second to nobody.

Zelda Fitzgerald, whose life reads like an exciting tabloid drama (and who, clearly, would make the best E! True Hollywood Story), is one of those, a Somebody’s Wife. Her Somebody is renowned Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. You know, The Great Gatsby guy. That book you had to read in high school that you still kind of remember and is now a Baz Luhrmann movie. Their life together was glamorous, whirlwind, tumultuous, and ultimately short-lived. It reads like an American Greek tragedy. And while F. Scott had some tough breaks, I have to say, I really feel like Zelda had it even tougher.

Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayres, came from a prominent family in Alabama. There were senators, judges, etc. amongst the men in her family, so she was definitely your classic, privileged Southern Belle. However, it seems Zelda was a little, I don’t know, spunkier than her fellow SBs: drinking, smoking, seeing boys. That might have been why F. Scott was so taken with her upon their first meeting—he probably recognized a kindred spirit.

As soon as F. Scott’s first novel, Tender Is the Night, was published, he and Zelda were married. In no time, they were the It Couple of the 1920s New York (and later Paris) party scene. They drank. They cavorted. They spent money. They fought. It was all very Great Gatsby. Also, as you probably saw in Midnight in Paris, they were friends with many other American artistic luminaries: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas.

As her husband’s star was on the rise, Zelda threw herself into her childhood passion, ballet. It was a little late in life to start a career as a dancer, but for a while she devoted herself wholly to the art. It didn’t come to anything. Later, she would also take her shots at both painting and writing. The gist is, she seems to have been pretty good at all three. But what kind of career could the hard-partying wife of a super-famous hard-partying author really expect to have?

And eventually, even her role as Famous Wife wasn’t going too well. The drinking and fighting started to dominate a little too much of the couple's time. They both had drinking problems; they both had affairs. Zelda’s emotional health declined. She did one stint in a sanatorium (old-timey rehab) before checking into a psychiatric facility, which she was in and out of for the remainder of her life. She died in 1948, in a North Carolina hospital, trapped in the building when a fire burned it down. Terrible way to go, and first on my list of two tragic famous people psychiatric ward deaths (the other is composer Robert Schumann).

Only more recently has interest in Zelda’s artistic output been renewed, both her paintings and her 1932 semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz.

Zelda’s story, for me, brings to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s amazing, amazingly creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a confined housewife slowly goes mad in the room where she spends most of her time, and which was based on Gilman’s own experiences with mental illness and marriage. Zelda and Gilman’s heroine are different, sure—one was stuck indoors in the 1890s, the other was liberated and living it up in the 1920s literary party scene—but that stifling quality of being forever in the shadow of your male partner, constantly searching for that space that through your accomplishments you can call your own, seems in line on an emotional level with that more, perhaps, timeless female struggle. Maybe that’s why Zelda’s story still resonates today.

Leela and Lois: The Strong Female Character in the Male-Centered Animated Comedy

strong female characters

I watched an episode of “Futurama” recently (this isn’t an uncommon occurrence), and in it the whole staff of the Planet Express is stranded on a barren island that has begun to go through robo-evolution, starting with prehistoric robot sludge and yielding robot dinosaurs and then robot cavemen in a matter of hours. Fry, Leela, Amy, Hermes, the Professor, and robot Bender are reduced to wearing tattered clothing and sleeping in a cave. Leela and Amy, in particular, come out looking a little Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., practically busting out of their rags—yet when they’re kidnapped by a couple robo-cavemen, like modern, empowered women, they take care of it themselves while the (generally weaker) male characters equivocate about going to save them.

This was kind of “Futurama” in a nutshell for me. Leela’s bodacious bod and the extent to which it is occasionally revealed is a small reminder that this is a male-created series with a largely male audience. Yet on the whole, I find Leela to be a really positive, self-sufficient female character, particularly in what can be a male-centric genre. For comparison, let’s look at “Family Guy.”

Seth MacFarlane’s pop reference-laden, kinda fratty animated series has a lot in common with “Futurama.” Their demographic target audience is roughly the same (“Futurama” is a little nerdier). They’ve both been on since the late ‘90s, with a hiatus in the middle (“Family Guy” went off the air between 2001 and 2005; “Futurama”’s was longer, between 2003 and 2010). They’re both, essentially, cartoons for adults.

I find that “Family Guy” has moments of real brilliance, particularly in its early episodes. I love the observational humor on human behavior, and some of the culture references are hilarious. It can be really, really smart. But it can also be really, really stupid—and worse, it casually drifts into racist, misogynist territory pretty regularly---see worst repeat offending character Glenn Quagmire. In that, the show's humor is a clear reflection of the personality of its creator, Seth MacFarlane—see the controversies raised by his Oscar-hosting turn earlier this year for evidence. He lives to provoke, even though his non-provoking material could stand perfectly well on its own-- see his awesome turn hosting “Saturday Night Live” last fall, for evidence of his talent.

The main female character on “Family Guy,” Lois, isn’t a bad representation of womanhood per se. She’s pretty tough, fairly well drawn character-wise, and often the voice of reason. But, besides for the fact that she’s surrounded by often offensive material, she also ultimately falls short compared to “Futurama”’s Leela.

Why is Leela awesome? Well, for starters, she’s a statuesque purple-haired one-eyed mutant in a tanktop and combat boots. She can kick the ass of any other character on the show. She’s the object of affection for the dim-witted protagonist, Fry; she only occasionally returns these affections, you know, when she feels like it. But there’s something really sweet and authentic in their relationship, and in Fry’s devotion to her. It’s not just lust, nor is it perfunctory or idealized. Throughout the series, Fry is really, believably in love with Leela.

In fact, the nature of Fry and Leela’s relationship is a microcosm for the overall tone of the show. While “Futurama” definitely deals in gross-out humor and sophomoric jokes, the core attitude is never mean-spirited and almost never offensive (I only say “almost” because while nothing comes to mind, nothing is never offensive, right?). The characters, no matter how colorful, have a genuineness—their hopes, their actions, their relationships.

Also, there has been more than one “Futurama” episode that’s been an actual, real tearjerker. One of these is an episode in which the foster home-raised Leela discovers that her birth parents are below-ground-dwelling mutants who gave her up for adoption in the hopes of giving her a better life, and with whom she is reunited after years of separation. The episode ends with a montage of young Leela growing up, going through various life situations, and in all of them, unbeknownst to her, her mother and father are watching over her, looking out for her, and occasionally plucking her from imminent danger. It’s pretty much as heartwarming as TV gets.

So not only is Leela kick-ass in the vein of Buffy, Starbuck, and the Bride, she also belongs to a cartoon universe that treats its characters with sweetness and respect—as much as is possible with animated screwup robots, lobster people, mutants, and cryogenically frozen humans. All of this is pretty sorely lacking in its male-centric, purposely-offensive “Family Guy” counterparts (see also: South Park, American Dad, Daniel Tosh’s horrible Brickleberry). In my books—both the feminist one and the general one-- “Futurama” wins every time.

Addendum: A quick Google image search to find a good Leela picture for this post has yielded a further discovery: that no matter how awesome and feminist a character Leela is, the reception of her by the largely male audience can still be as creepy and fetishizing as anything. It was actually really hard to find a non-sexual image. Sigh. I guess it still beats Family Guy rape jokes.

What the Bechdel Test Says about Your Favorite Movies

strong female characters

Strong female characters—or even mediocre female characters—can be in short supply in Hollywood, on both the big and small screens. It’s something I’ve become more aware of as the years go by, and it's a bit dismaying. Recently, I’ve discovered that one of the best quick-view gauges by which to determine whether a film has adequate female representation is the Bechdel Test. Named for comic strip author Alison Bechdel, who with a friend devised the criteria back in the 1980s, the test has three really simple steps. First, are there two (named) female characters? Second, do they ever have a conversation with each other? Third, is their conversation about something other than a male character?

If the answer to these three questions is yes, it passes the test.

These three incredibly simple rules, amazingly, ruled out almost every single DVD on my shelf, including some of my favorite films. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Nope. The Lord of the Rings? Not even close. (And that is in spite of the fact that they proportionally really blew up Arwen’s role from Tolkien’s original text.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? No, because apparently Jeannie and her mom only talk about her troublesome brother Ferris.

It wasn't surprising to me that some of my more man-centric favorite films---The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, In Bruges, The Lord of the Rings---wouldn't pass. But even films with seemingly more positive and more frequent portrayals of women missed the mark in that they were still, ultimately, male-centric.

Blockbusters like the Batman series and The Avengers fail with flying colors (though there’s some dispute over whether The Dark Knight passes, as there is a scene where a female detective is forced at gunpoint to call another female character. Kind of a sad excuse for passing, if so). The only sure bet that a film will pass seemed to me to be if the lead character was a woman—but even that was called into question when I looked up The Little Mermaid (come on, Disney! Not surprising, I guess, when the character's sole motivation is marrying her prince).

The conclusion is that, despite all of the forward progress we’ve made, there are still some substantial holes in our cultural fabric when it comes to diverse and frequent media representations of women. Ensemble casts tend to be “rounded out” with one major female character; all-male leads segment off the female characters into the roles of wife, co-worker, mother, where they all exist only in relation to the male(s); or, as the test rightly points out, when the women do convene they end up talking about that male character.

Does your favorite movie pass the Bechdel test? Is it important to you that it does? Obviously it’s not necessary for every film, but it would be nice to see films outside of certain genres, or outside of the “chick flick” realm of films targeted directly at women, where two female characters talk to each other about things that concern them besides men.

Lessons from Monticello...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, You won’t find a shortage of wisdom coming from our Founding Fathers.  After all, they broke with every tradition of their time to put together one of the greatest homes for the freedoms that we enjoy.  Is it perfect? Not always, but just because something is an ongoing work in progress, doesn’t it make it irrelevant.  It just makes it something you have to do your part to improve.

But I’ll leave the lessons on democracy for the history books.  When we visited Monticello last week, the home of Thomas Jefferson, I first bristled at the fact that one could see the house only as part of a guided tour.  But in the end it turned out to be so valuable because seeing his home while hearing about who he was as an individual person brought forth its own lessons:

  • Time spent in Paris is time well spent: Jefferson went as an Ambassador (well, as a “Minister”) and had some of his most formative ideas when in Paris — whether it was the structure of his house or his meals, he was inspired in so many ways.  Time in Paris isn’t always easy but it is nearly always formative in some way.
  • A home is a place of learning too:  The house at Monticello is full of books and portraits and ideas that Jefferson didn’t necessarily agree with but the presence of those items invited discussions and opportunities to teach, especially as the house was full of visitors and children.  Having these items wasn’t about endorsement but about discussion, and about teaching individual different ideas so that they could formulate their own.
  • “Meat is a condiment …to the vegetables that constitute my principal diet”: Good health comes from eating good vegetables.  You can eat meat or other indulgences, but when you count the balance of your day, make sure that vegetables and fruits constitute the bulk of what you consume.
  • We will always live at the mercy of water:  Many people find themselves at water’s mercy because they live too close.  Jefferson found himself at water’s mercy because he was too far from a natural source for his farm.  So there were years of drought and years of difficulty, and the farm always had concern about water front and center.  I say this, not because you will likely be a farmer (though one never knows), but more to remind you to mindful of the power and importance of water.  It should be respected, and also taken care of – one of life’s luxuries is constant access to clean and reliable water.  People's lives will always depend on it.
  • If you don’t invent it, adapt it: Thomas Jefferson wasn’t necessarily a noted inventor — but he was a master of taking things he saw used once and adapting for his own needs.  For example, Jefferson had tweaked the polygraph machine (the original copier) which was designed to enlarge or scale drawings, to produce copies of his letters, so that he always have one for himself.  It’s okay if you didn’t come up with the original idea, the real question is always how will you use what you have to make it your own?
  • “Avoid taverns, drinkers, smokers, and idlers and dissipated persons generally… and you will find your path more easy and tranquil.": Jefferson gave this advice to his nephew, as he pursued studies in Philadelphia and it couldn’t be more true today.  Avoid those who attract and promote trouble, especially as you figure out your own path.  The tranquility of mind you’ll gain, you’ll use as you navigate your own way.

All my love,

Mom

Anna Comnena: Byzantine Princess, Crusades Chronicler

historical woman

I first became acquainted with this historical woman of the day because she was one of the only sources for describing a bunch of historical men. Isn’t that the way the historical cookie always crumbles?

Anna Comnena (1080 – c. 1153) was a Byzantine princess, the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus I, and an eyewitness chronicler of the First Crusade and some of its most prominent Crusaders. In fact, it was her dad that invited those European macho men out East in the first place. It goes like this:

A SUPER SHORT SUMMARY OF THE FIRST CRUSADE Seljuk Turks were expanding out of Central Asia and into what we now know as the Middle East. The Byzantine Empire (Greek Orthodox, concentrated in modern day Turkey, capital Constantinople) started getting nervous. Though loathe to request help from Western Christendom (you know, Europe), who were Catholic, and probably kind of a pain about it, Alexius Comnenus finally felt like he had no other options. “Come over here and help us out, guys,” he said to the Pope. “We’re all Christian brothers and stuff.”

Pope Urban II got excited, because as usual the Church was having a lot of problems in Europe, and having one big CAUSE tends to make problems disappear (or at least go temporarily invisible). So he made this big speech in 1095 and announced that everyone should go on Crusade to the Holy Land. Your soul would get saved, yada yada yada.

So Crusaders poured out of what is now France, and Germany, and England, and Italy, and walked/rode horses all the way to what is now Turkey, and some of them killed a lot of innocent people on the way in what were probably fits of zealotry and testosterone, and then the leaders got to Constantinople by 1097 and (mostly) pledged loyalty to Alexius. They had cool names like Godfrey and Baldwin and Bohemond. Anna provides descriptions of all of them in her chronicle.

But they really wanted to do other things besides just save the Byzantines. Like what was in it for them? So they poured into Syria and Palestine and set up Crusader castles and some of them stayed for like a hundred years or more (their progeny, of course. Though I do like to picture like the Indiana Jones guy sitting around in a fortress in the mountains crumbling to dust). Oh and they also killed more people.

The end. (Until the Second Crusade.)

---

Anyway. Anna provides the only Byzantine-eye view to this whole saga, in a chronicle she wrote of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. In this she reminds me of Dmitri Nabokov or Christopher Tolkien—forever in their father’s literary shadow, translating his old stuff, writing down reminiscences, safeguarding his estate. Celebrity fathers, ya know?

But Anna was more than just a woman who wrote about men that historians care about, though this is probably why her memory has been kept alive so long. She was also accomplished and educated, serving as a physician in a hospital her father had built for her, specializing in, apparently, gout.

She also had designs on the throne. At the age of fourteen she married Nicephorus of Bryennium, and as her father approached death, she conspired with her mother Irene to have her husband named the next emperor instead of her good-for-nothing brother John. However, she was outmaneuvered, and on his deathbed Alexius blessed John as his successor.

Later, she was busted for conspiracy to commit regicide or its twelfth-century Byzantine equivalent, and spent the rest of her life in a convent. This is where she hunkered down and wrote the Alexiad. Which ended up not being a bad use of her time.

So as a woman of the medieval Byzantine court, she was able to carve out an occupation, some expertise, a decent education (although she was forbidden from reading classical poetry because it was indecent), and even came thisclose to becoming Empress, courtesy her own ambition and wile. We don’t know a ton about her, but what we know is pretty impressive.

Though why do these stories always have to end in a convent?

On Taking Responsibility for our Young Girls and Women

In the Balance

Like many of you, I was riveted this past week watching the story coming out of Cleveland unfold.  The rescue of three young women who had been held hostage for ten years by a brutal perpetrator is both utterly surreal and devastatingly sad.  It is virtually impossible to integrate the details of this story.  The facts of the case continue to emerge but we do know that these women were kidnapped, held for a decade against their will, starved, beaten and raped.  We know that they were bound with ropes and chains.  We know that they were not permitted to leave the decrepit house in which they were imprisoned. There is no way for any of us to comprehend the terror that they have suffered or the trauma that they have endured.  How were they able to maintain sanity or hope?  Perhaps they didn’t. I find it unbearable to even imagine their lives over the past ten years.  Denial is such a powerful buffer that I am desperate for them to tell us it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  I want them to say that they were able to at least bond with each other and never felt totally alone.  I want to fast-forward to three years from now where one of them has written a memoir in which she describes her miraculous new life where all her wounds have been healed.  But achingly, these women---girls at the time of their capture---may never find peace.

The person responsible for this unspeakable horror is Ariel Castro, a marginal being with (at a minimum) mental illness and masochistic sexual deviance.  I suspect there will be months of speculation by FBI profilers and mental health professionals around what factors contributed to his executing this nightmare.  We will feverishly seek to understand “what to look for” when it comes to identifying potential future offenders.  Possibly some of the post facto analysis will make us feel like we are learning something valuable from this tragedy about the human condition.  But what kind of lessons can we glean from the behavior of an obvious sociopath?  Perhaps energy would be better spent on evaluating the routine, daily and casual attacks that are committed against women and girls.

Consider for example, that every two minutes, a woman in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Forty-four percent of all victims are under the age of 18.  Fifty four percent of sexual assaults are never reported and by one estimate, 97 percent of rapists will never spend one day in jail.  Learn more about sexual assault statistics here.  What can we do with this information?

And what about the more subtle ways in which women are put at risk? Women continue to be regularly objectified in mass media. Such portrayals range from thoughtless characterizations of women as weak and dependent to victims of explicit and excessive violence in horror movies.  The message seems to be that women are not worthy of protection when we have ineffectual domestic violence laws on the books and inadequate community resources with which to respond to their urgent needs.  It appears that women cannot be responsible for their own bodies and must be subject to controls when we chip away at access to safe and legal abortion, Plan B, contraception and sex education (all the while, a 15-year old boy can buy condoms without restriction or consequence).  We demonstrate disregard for women’s humanity when we hold up unrealistic standards of beauty and encourage them to destroy their own bodies in the name of fashion.   We have normalized and mainstreamed pornography and disturbing video games in which women and female characters are often humiliated and treated viciously.

All of these realities are absorbed by our young boys and men.  All of these realities condition our young girls and women.  All of these realities imprint strongly on the broken mind of a potential perpetrator.

It is obviously critical that we acknowledge, investigate and unpack the horrific events experienced by these three women in Cleveland, Ohio.  Although it feels voyeuristic, I, too, feel a frantic need to understand what happened and how it might have been prevented.  What may be even more important to the larger cause of safeguarding girls and women is to address some of the more mundane ways in which we subvert and dehumanize them.  We might never be able to prevent the rare psychopath from kidnapping women, but we certainly have the power to improve social norms and strengthen legal protections.  We can teach our young girls and boys about equals rights and more generally how to treat one another.  We can empower young girls to learn about and appreciate their bodies and develop clear emotional and physical boundaries.  We can remind young women to maintain an acute awareness of danger and never accept assistance or a ride from a stranger.  The lessons coming out of Cleveland are not new---they are prompts to re-engage with bolstering the status of girls and women in this country.

 

 

American Apparel-style creeper advertising

strong female characters

A couple weeks ago, I complained about the Dove campaign and its pseudo-inspiring message of “You are more beautiful than you think.” While there are definitely merits in this message, and there are definitely some refreshing strategies that Dove employs—showcasing women of different shapes and sizes, for example; focusing on empowerment rather than sexualization—it continues to prioritize women’s looks, and their relationships with their looks, which subtly bolsters their own goal of selling beauty products. Not to mention the corporation that owns Dove also owns Axe, which has plenty of problems in its sexualized representations of women. Now I want to go to another extreme of problematic advertising. I call it: Is there anything creepier than American Apparel ads?

Gah. American Apparel ads. They make my skin crawl every time they pop up in the upper right hand corner of a Gothamist website or on the inside partition of a downtown bus stop. All of the photos of the female models look like they were taken by a ‘stached man who picked up underage girls in a windowless van and then used a low-fi camera as he posed them across a bedbug infested mattress in his roachy partly-furnished apartment, giving them the creepiest stage directions possible. (Have your mouth hang open. Spread your legs really awkwardly. Give us some armpit.) The models aren’t actually underage, of course, but they tend to be non-professionals and styled in a way that makes them look adolescent. Their hair is bedheaded, they wear no makeup, and they style the mostly innocuous American Apparel catalog (though they do tend towards the super short, and I still don’t get what a “bodysuit” is for) in the most sexed up way possible.

So the plus side of this creeptasmagoria is, I guess, the realism. In the age of Photoshop and flawless, fat-repellent models that were born without hair everywhere except the tops of their heads, it’s mildly refreshing to see the super-unretouched photos of women with a bit of back flab, child-bearing hips, the occasional unsightly mole. It really is. To the extent that it’s presenting women as they really look, it’s a good thing.

But whoa. That’s the only “good” I can come up with here. Because everything else about it is so wrong. The realism in question is ultimately employed to give the viewer the impression that there’s a semi-conscious high school teenager in their bedroom waiting to be seduced. It’s hypersexual and extraordinarily male gaze-y, and it’s a major contribution to the objectification-of-women canon that American advertising seems intent on compiling an epic volume of. Not to mention, it feels like we are seeing way more of American Apparel CEO Dov Charney’s deepest fantasies than we ever wanted to, way more than should ever be made manifest.

Which begs the question: if Dove overemphasizes a normative “beauty,” and American Apparel oversexualizes a physical “realism”—if Dove plays into the insecurities of the female gaze, while American Apparel plays into the objectification of the male gaze---where is the happy medium? What kind of advertising could possibly get it right? It’s hard to say. As it is, advertising is so much an extension of our culture’s already existing ideas about beauty, sex, and women that it’s hard to know where problems begin and end.

It's also quite the sad state of affairs when one has to go to an American Apparel ad to find "realism" in women's advertising. My ending request, the potential for compromise: could we have some of the unretouched-ness happening in ads other than Dov Charney's artistic vision of barely legal 1970s porn?

Umm Kulthum: Singer of a Nation, Star of the East

historical woman

I was thinking today—if the U.S. had a “national singer,” who would it be? You know, someone iconic and quintessentially American and a part of our history? Though I don’t particularly care for either, my mind went first to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. They conjure images of America's golden age of rock and roll and lounge singing, burgers and casinos and whatever else we're famous for. I suppose a case could also be made for Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna. I don't know. It's hard to say?

Anyway. Whoever our American national singer might be—which is maybe tougher to tell when you actually live in the U.S.—I like the fact that Egypt’s is a woman.

Known as kawkab al-Sharq (Arabic for “star of the East”), Umm Kulthum is arguably the most famous Egyptian singer in history. Her life and career spanned most of the twentieth century, from circa 1900 to her death in 1975, and she was a huge influence on both her own countrymen and –women and on foreign artists as well.

She was born Fatimah Ibrahim as-Sayyid al-Bilagi in a small village in the Nile Delta. Like many successful historical women, her father treated her like she was a boy. An imam at a local mosque, young Fatimah’s father instructed her in memorizing the Quran (a mark of distinction for any young Muslim) and later disguised her in the clothes of the opposite gender so she could enter a performing troupe.

She was discovered for her singing talent early on, and by the 1920s was already one of the most famous singers in Egypt. Her music merged the stylings of classical and traditional Arabic music and the wide appeal and accessibility of popular music. Umm Kulthum songs were typically set against large orchestras, with songs that went on for hours (I’m barely exaggerating). For a very short clip of one of her songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FX6stbbhUI

The early to mid twentieth century saw an Arab world in a strange transition. Egypt itself was under British occupation from 1882 until the 1930s, and the monarchy was overthrown in 1952 with the Free Officers coup. Then Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism, took control of the country, nationalized the Suez Canal, joined Egypt with Syria, antagonized the West by being non-aligned (Cold War and all that), and finally lived out his days in disgrace after a crushing defeat by Israel’s armies in 1967. It was an exciting, and traumatizing, time for Egypt and the Arab world.

Umm Kulthum’s music didn’t stop at Egypt’s borders, just as the political turmoil described above was not particular to Egypt. She was a famous and beloved figure throughout the Arab world. Despite the Western instrumentation, her music was staunchly "Eastern," with lyrics derived from classical Arabic poetry. Most of her songs were about love and longing, though some listeners read a cultural and religious undertone in the words.

I'd like to share this funny opener from her 1975 obituary in Time magazine: "Few Westerners ever fathomed the appeal of Umm Kulthum, the buxom, handkerchief-waving Egyptian singer who was known to her Middle Eastern fans as 'the Nightingale of the Nile.' She had a stentorian contralto and a quavering wail that grated on the ears of those attuned to the trills of opera divas. But her voice was a near-perfect instrument for expressing the sinuous quarter tones of Arabic music."

What a backhanded compliment, amirite? There's definitely a qualitative difference between "Eastern" and "Western" music, and sometimes "Westerners" tend to take for granted the universality of their own chord tones and vocal stylings. "Eastern" scales and harmonies—and sometimes, "wailing," as this journalist so tactfully put it—have historically been used as symbols of difference and exoticism in Western media, and even in Western classical music. But there's no reason you shouldn't be able to appreciate it anyway, in my opinion, and not just from a "world-music" standpoint.

Throughout her illustrious career, Umm Kulthum maintained a careful self-image, espousing conservative values and emphasizing her origins in the authentic heart of Egypt—as opposed to, you know, some bourgeois city-dweller.

Her influence also extended into America and Europe. Luminaries from Bob Dylan to Bono, Maria Callas to Jean-Paul Sartre were fans. And speaking of fans—when she died in 1975, millions of people turned up for her funeral. If we’re measuring popularity by funeral attendance, she was way more popular than Egyptian national hero (though also, by that time, loser of the 1967 war) Nasser.

It’s hard to imagine that kind of love being shown for any of our singers. Maybe it’s the times—it’s hard to be a universally beloved celebrity in the age of short attention spans and exposed minutiae about celebrity’s relationships, diet habits, and up-to-the-minute Twitterized thoughts. Hence, the carefully-maintained self-image probably came in handy. Regardless, whether it was by fate or intention or some combination, Umm Kulthum became Egypt’s singer, and the Arab world’s singer, and that hasn't been forgotten to this day.