Feminist Friday: My Top Five Favorite Feminists

I like making lists. Grocery lists, favorite movies, a summer bucket list, my favorite types of macaroni and cheese, you name it, if I’m interested in it, I’ve probably written a list that quantifies it in some way. This week, you get to peek into my brain space and find out who my top five favorite Feminists are. Ready, GO!

1. Sylvia Plath

Let’s face it, I was an English major. Books and literature and authors are my lifeblood. Before I even identified as a Feminist I knew I loved Sylvia Plath and her poetry. Plath was a modern American, Feminist, confessional poet and novelist who committed suicide in 1963 when she was only 30 years old. Sylvia suffered from depression for a good chunk of her life and it is definitely reflected in her poetry. I first discovered Plath’s poetry during a Summer course I took at Southern Virginia University called “Modern American Poetry”. I was struck by Plath’s honest, at times shocking writing. The way she wrote about her family, her relationship with her father, her thoughts of life and death, I loved all of it. By choosing to write poetry that was raw and, at times, harsh, Plath cemented herself as a strong female writer and helped lay down the path for others to follow.

2. Laverne Cox

Laverne is amazing. She is a star in the amazing Netflix original series, “Orange Is the New Black”, an advocate for trans rights, a producer, an amazing public speaker, the list goes on and on. Here’s a short excerpt from her personal website talking about one of the many projects she has worked on.

Her documentary Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word aired on MTV & Logo to impressive ratings. The hour-long documentary explored the lives seven transgender youth from across the country and their determination to lead their lives as the people they are meant to be. Laverne was the host and executive producer of the ground breaking documentary which was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award.

Laverne is also producing another documentary titled Free CeCe in order to heighten visibility and awareness surrounding CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman who was controversially sentenced to 41 months in prison for second degree manslaughter after allegedly defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack. The documentary will focus on McDonald’s case, her experiences while incarcerated in a men’s prison and the larger implications of her case for the transgender community.

She is truly amazing and I can’t wait to see how many more wonderful things she accomplishes…also, I can’t wait to watch season three of OITNB because I know she will be fabulous.

3. bell hooks

bell hooks is actually the pen name for Gloria Jean Watkins “an American author, feminist, and social activist. Watkins derived the name “bell hooks” from that of her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Her writing has focused on the interconnectivity of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she describes as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She has published over thirty books and numerous scholarly and mainstream articles, appeared in several documentary films, and participated in various public lectures. Primarily through a postmodern perspective, hooks has addressed race, class, and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism.” (Thanks Wikipedia for such a concise introductory bio!)

I have loved everything I have ever read that she has authored and I have a personal goal to read her book “All About Love: New Visions” before the end of the year!

4. Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Do I even have to elaborate on why The Notorious RBG is amazing? She’s an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, she has battled cancer, she is a fierce advocate for women’s rights, she was a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU and was on it’s board of director in the 1970’s, and she has an extensive jabot collection, what’s not to love!  I’m so excited for her biography to come out in October.

5. Amy Poehler

Not only is Amy Poehler hilarious and talented, she is also a very outspoken Feminist. As the star of the TV show, “Parks and Rec” a cast member on Saturday Night Live and the creator of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, she has a lot of accomplishments under her belt. Amy encourages girls and women to step up, be assertive and take control. I truly love her and her sense of humor. Also, how can I not love someone who is best buddies with Tina Fey!

Who are some of your favorite Feminists?

Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune,’ Intro; Or, Why I Think Everything Means More Than It Does

In order to talk about all that I want to know, I must first reveal my ignorance about everything.

For instance: I did not originally read Dune in order to read Dune. I first read up on Frank Herbert because some fanboys on the forums over at TheoryLand and DragonMount were talking about how Robert Jordan’s Aiel are cheap derivatives of Herbert’s Fremen, which I thought impossible because of how impossibly excellent Jordan’s Aiel are.

(This was before I’d hit Jordan’s wall of prose around books nine and ten and realized just how insufficient the characters were for their wordcount.)

I expected swift rebuttal from Jordan’s followers and instead, as the pages of commentary inevitably bled on, I read a lot of reinforcement of the odd coincidence of shared fictional racial and imperial overtones over the span of fifty years of literary and historical development. In other words, I thought huh and shelved the issue away because coincidences happen.

Did I mention that I was incredibly naive?

Literary critics can’t afford coincidences because they are generally professors and always have to write and publish or lose their jobs and teach composition courses. It’s a matter of survival to ignore the whole “correlation does not mean causation” thing, because if you twist logic tightly enough, you can enter into a dreamlike sphere where the suspension of disbelief is actually pretty high and you can get your papers published on how James Joyce’s Ulysses is the predetermination of American politics of the twenty-first century. I just made that up but it’s probably happened. I kid you not.

But I think that the ties between Herbert and Jordan are a bit stronger than that, mostly because I discovered this past year that postcolonial criticism is a thing. Essentially, postcolonialism identifies struggles between the imperial and native tendencies of nations, cultures, and peoples. These dynamics extend to everything from philosophy to anthropology to psychology to sociology. And so, of course, they extend to literature of all sorts.

Even the literature that academics tend to dismiss out of hand.

But hey, that’s what Sleeping on the Roof is all about: putting the ‘pop’ in pop culture, exploding issues out of their original contexts and figuring out unconventional ways for them to matter in our increasingly unconventional world.

My hypotheses: that popular fiction serves as either a reinforcement or a rejection of cultural constructs that affect our nonfictional, international discourse; that the ideas of one author who wrote during the 1960s and 1970s being transplanted into a different genre and format in the 1990s and 2000s is more than mere coincidence; that our imaginations and politics, especially in our postmodern culture of existential fear and crisis, do bleed into each other; and that academia is shooting itself in the face by overlooking trends in popular and cultural fiction and risking becoming irrelevant in order to maintain the ‘dignity’ of its tradition.

Which brings us back to Dune, and everything which I do not know.

This is the first of many posts, which will hopefully be less obtuse than the one you’re reading now. But I’m talking about academia, so I can’t be too sincere in that sentiment.

I will be reading and recapturing Dune in these posts. I’ll be looking at the unfolding of Herbert’s work from various angles, but predominantly issues of postcolonialism, because Dune is a hallmark of postcolonial struggles. It serves as a strong watermark of American imperial policies, as projected into the infinities of possibility through the melange-ridden melancholy of political prescience. I’ll be consulting texts that I’m currently researching, whether it’s Edward Said’s Orientalism or Culture and Imperialism or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth or Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest or whatever else I’m reading at the time. I’ve got a stack of at least a dozen books of criticism that I’ll be getting to during this time and which will begin to color my reading in some pretty drastic ways.

And I’m looking into other veins of criticism, too. Whether it’s René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred or Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis or Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia or whatever else, you’ll probably encounter a full range of of ideas in here. At least, that’s the hope. Maybe this is just a lot of conjecture. But at least it’s theoretical.

*********

So now, on to the first chapter. I call it a chapter but Dune doesn’t have numbered chapters, only breaks in the text heralded by fascinating in-world epigraphs that construct a mythology that immerses us in the scenario.

In this case, we’re fed a tidbit about the future Messiah-figure of Muad’Dib of Arrakis—a religious divorce from the reality of his origin, as a native of another planet, an heir of another legacy. For the cult of Muad’Dib, their savior has only the one possible identity.

In part, this is because myths of origin greatly determine the identities available to modern social counterparts. As the source of the quote—Princess Irulan—argues in the very first line, “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct” (3). Consider this in light of what Georges Balandier says about origins: “Ritual . . . accentuates certain aspects of power. It evokes its beginnings, its roots in a history that has become mythic, and it makes this history sacred” (Le Goff 55).

But it’s when we get into the way in which society adopts an originary that we encounter dangerous territory. Jacques Le Goff argues that “this [particular] kind of history is the collective memory that tends to confuse history with myth” (56). So what exactly is Irulan doing when she claims that the beginning must be balanced—especially when she argues that the actual origin of Muad’Dib is not his true identity? It’s the rejection of the objective and factual for the subjective and mythological.

And what is that objective, factual origin for Muad’Dib?

It’s pain. It’s manipulation and agony and political artifice which deny Paul of his ability to be his own person, however ‘human’ the gom jabbar determines him to be. The Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, after all, claims that “[their] test is crisis and observation” (10), with an almost inhuman callousness for the pain caused him, the destiny orchestrated for him, and the role expected from him.

Almost immediately into his narrative, Paul Atreides has been plunged into a fixed course that he has little power to change. His family’s estate has been given stewardship over the desert planet Arrakis, essentially forcing them by political necessity to uproot from the more than two dozen generations of holdings on their native, green planet of Caladan in order to lay claim and authority over the most valuable economy in the universe.

The entire situation screams empire. We have different economic entities which, in their political gambling, offer as chips on the table entire planets and cultures. Eternal legacies are their playthings. We move from the verdure of Caladan into the barren sand of Arrakis—from the Eurocentric “Castle Caladan . . . [an] ancient pile of stone” (3) surrounded by “river orchards” and “green farmlands” (6), to the orient of Dune itself, a sandwaste in which the natives suck the residual water out of their dead.

The conflicting tropes are so blatantly loaded with West vs East archetypes that it’s hard to not see them. This will become even more obvious later in the novel. But the point here isn’t that these tropes are part of Herbert’s work; it’s that they are clouded in the preference for a mythos over politicos, even though the projected role for Paul is political to a fault.

He is heir to an economic Western imperial conglomerate that has been granted power and sanction over a ritualized Eastern tribal society. The way in which these power dynamics work over the course of the novel showcase some fascinating insights into the way in which Herbert regards the development and destruction of imperialist dogma.

But since we’re still in the realm of beginnings, let’s form a quick summary of the dynamics behind Paul’s origin:

  1. Paul has no ability to determine his own future or past. He is the result of human engineering; the Reverend Mother admits as much by the end of this chapter. And his family’s politicking has placed his future firmly on Arrakis.
  2. Within the first paragraph of the novel, we’re informed that Paul’s political origin is irrelevant compared with his greater identity as Muad’Dib, a ritualized Savior figure that rejects factual grounding.
  3. This dichotomy between politics and religion reflects the stark divide between Western and Eastern philosophies, which serves as one of the central conflicts of the novel, if not the series.
  4. Who Paul originally is greatly determines who he will become, and who his people will claim to be.

Since Paul originates in manipulation and violence, then the ritualized mythologized politicized trail of cultural fragmentation surrounding him will probably (definitely) follow suit.

At the risk of becoming didactic, take a moment and ask yourself what such conjecture might mean for fragmented mythologies of origins in our own societies, and the interplay between Western and Eastern cultures. Where do our current conflicts originate within our cultural consciences and identities? Are those cultural identities legitimate or mythologized? And what might be informing those identities?

Come back for more in the next post.

Cited:
Le Goff, Jacques. History and Memory. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.
Print.

Joss Whedon doesn’t know what he’s talking about

Talking about Joss Whedon is hard for me, because I know how much other people enjoy his stuff, and I hate to ruin that. But I must confess that I’m beginning to believe that Joss Whedon is the crazy enemy of comic book movies.

Take his most recent statements about “The Dark Knight.” When by HuffPo how he felt about the current state of super hero movies, Whedon correctly  recognized that people are tired of entire cities being destroyed in every comic book movie, which is good since he is basically the one who appropriated the aesthetic from “Transformers.” Of course, the film that gets the most flack for this is rightfully “Man of Steel” whith it’s excessive 40+ minutes of Metropolis destruction, but let us not forget the large portions of Washington DC that take in a fare share of outrageous destruction in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but in that movie no one seems to have noticed or cared.

Whedon then moves on to a more metaphysical analysis of the comic book genre that has been strangely misconstrued by most media outlets:

I watched ‘The Dark Knight’ and I thought of that as riffing on the genre. That was a superhero movie as ‘The Godfather.’ And I was like, ‘But I just still want to see a superhero movie!’ We had just gotten the technology to make it awesome, and I wasn’t ready to be post-modern about it yet.

Here, Whedon is not saying that “‘The Dark Knight’ is the ‘Godfather’ of comic book movies,” as some outlets seem to think. It is not Godfather = Greatest Movie Ever, The Dark Knight = Godfather, therefore The Dark Knight = Greatest Comic Book Movie Ever. What he is saying really amounts to “I don’t think ‘The Dark Knight’ qualifies as a comic book movie.” Whedon is worried that TDK takes itself too seriously and get’s most of it’s narrative strength from how it uses influences outside superhero comic books.

Kind of like Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns.”

Or Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum.”

Or Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.”

Or  Mark Millar’s “Red Son.”

Or  Chris Claremont’s “God Loves, Man Kills.”

Or Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One.”

Or Allan Moore’s run at Swamp Thing.

Or Jeph Loeb’s “The Long Halloween” and “Dark Victory.”

These are all (great) stories that recognize the important truth that “Comic Book” and “Super Hero” are not genres, at least not in any clear way, and they are the kind of stories that make comics worth reading. The best Superman stories are not just stories about Superman, they are science fiction. He is, after all, an alien. “Watchmen,” According to Allen Moore, was a political book that, as Whedon puts it, “riffed on the genre.” It was about power and corruption, Moore simply used superheroes as a vehicle to explore those themes. I still haven’t seen all of Snyder’s film version, but from what I’ve heard his biggest problem is that he viewed it as a “comic book movie,” and not what it really is: A story about the dangers of political power.

What is a Batman story if not about trauma, justice and vengeance? There have been many attempts to simply tell the story of a rich man who fights crime in a batsuit — most principally Adam West’s Batman of the 1960s — and all you get with that is camp. The themes of “The Dark Knight” are complex, because Batman is complex. I can’t help but feel that what Joss Whedon is saying is he wishes comic book movies could just be stupid for a little while longer, as if “Batman & Robin,” “Fantastic 4” and Superman II-IV weren’t enough.

It’s also fascinating to me that this statement came out right around the 25th anniversary for Tim Burton’s “Batman.” The movie that proved to the world, and comic book fans, that the characters of comics can be handled with sobriety. Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie” was a film about a man who could fly. Tim Burton’s “Batman” (with all of its flaws) was about a man so damaged that he dressed up in a batsuit every night to fill some frightening void. For many years the latter is exactly what fans were constantly calling for. Now, it seems, the godfather of comic book cinema (who has only made one comic book movie) is worried that we didn’t spend enough time in the gutter.

He says other flowery things, like”I work with the idea that (being a superhero) is just a natural way for people to be, so that you still make a movie about people” which is great. But of all the many things “The Avengers” was, it was not “about people.” Which, I think, is actually the point of his earlier comment. “Avengers” was about superheroes. That’s it. Really fun people who can fly and stuff who TEAM UP!!! There’s no shame in that. Not all comic book movies need to be deep thinkers. But when we are discussing the “direction of the genre” lets not fight backwards.

I have no real beef with Joss Whedon. His dialogue is fun, it has a geeky Aaron Sorkin quality to it. It’s straight out of the dialogue heavy rom-coms of the 1950s, and that’s a lost writing quality that’s refreshing to hear in a more modern and cynical film. But a master story teller he is not. And you can hardly call him a director. Having recently re-watched “Serenity,” I’m not sure why he bothers directing his own writing. The dialogue is sharp but the camera is dull. And to those who say the best directors are the ones whose directing goes unnoticed, that is absurd and we all know it.

So I wish mix-master Whedon well on “The Age of Ultron” because I’m sure it will be a great teaser trailer for whatever the next Marvel movie is. I’ll see it in theaters and have a good time. But I do hope that no one takes his advice when it comes “the state of the comic book movie.”

[End Rant]

War Stories

 

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

I believe that war is a concept I will never really understand. Tactics, motivations, rationale  — all of these are puzzles to me. Which, I suppose, is why I am so drawn to literature that views war as the ultimate expression of human irrationality.

Just a few weeks ago, I read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” which is a series of interconnected short stories that explore the minds of Vietnam War soldiers. Twenty short stories that in the end equal a great whole. Though he insists in the introduction that the stories are all made up, I was convinced while reading it that they — the characters, at least — had to be real. They were too complicated, too gray, for me to believe anyone had made them up out of whole cloth.

After a little digging, I learned that the stories were indeed semi-autobiographical.

“The Things They Carried” paints war to be an ugly mosaic of death, fear, selfishness, coming of age,  heroism and vulnerability. Unlike your standard mosaic, however, war seems confused and vulgar when considered as a whole. It’s in the details of O’Brien’s stories that we see the broader picture. From a distance selfishness seems corrupt and ugly. Up close, at least in the context of war, it only seems human. Natural. The stories are so personal I began to relate to things that I have not only never endured, but never even imagined until reading these stories.

Take the story “Speaking of Courage” for example. “Speaking of Courage” in my opinion is the most emotionally gripping story in the collection. It describes the frustrated mental state of a Vietnam War vet, having returned to his small hometown with nothing to do but drive around  a lake, imagining conversations with his father. It’s an emotional place I’ve certainly never been (needless to say, I’ve never seen one of my comrades drown in a river of feces) but reading that story made me feel as though it were part of my own psychological journey. O’Brien’s book injects these stories into your bloodstream. They become impossible to remove.

Another striking element of “The Things They Carried” is O’Brien’s ability to find poetry in the obscene. I couldn’t help but think of Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” while reading “Carried.” I don’t know if there is a higher compliment I could possibly give any book on the subject of war.

In Malick’s film, World War II soldiers struggle to maintain a sense of purpose as their world is consumed by violence. Like O’Brien’s men, they find comfort — sometimes even God — in the nature that surrounds them. One of O’Brien’s stories, titled “Church,” even confronts faith head-on as his soldiers talk about God and religion in an abandoned building used for church services. As Private Witt, the (main) protagonist of “The Thin Red Line” says, these men have all seen another world. One without war. Any chance they get to stop and talk about the peaceful things of life — love, God, family — only make the violence harder.

These stories help me appreciate something I don’t understand — war — by spelling it out in terms I can comprehend: War is the presence of everything. Everything good, bad and in-between. And there is plenty of in-between. War will probably forever be a puzzle to me, and the thought that it isn’t a puzzle to some other people worries me a bit.

Take Robert Kagan’s essay in this month’s New Repubic, “The Allure of Normalcy.” As someone who enjoys American history and appreciates insightful context for current events, Kegan’s essay was a delight to read. Kegan, a highly influential Neo-Con (Jeb Bush, for example, has listed one of his books as a recent favorite, leading many to speculate that he’s getting more serious about this being president thing) sees the role of the united states as one of a referee. He’s not the only one; As he points out in in his essay most presidents of the twentieth century  have viewed our foreign policy engagements as balancing acts. For good or for ill, the U.S. has kept the world afloat with our methods for the last 50 plus years. I really don’t disagree with him on this.

He makes a good case, and he is a fantastic writer. If I were prepping for a debate, his explanation of American foreign policy would likely come to good use:

When a nation uses its power to shape a world order, rather than merely for self-defense or conquest, the tenuousness of solutions is even more pronounced. Military actions for world order preservation are almost by definition limited both in scope and objectives. World order maintenance requires operating in the gray areas between victory and defeat.

He doesn’t just make use of military  force sound understandable but essential. He argues well the legacy of American military intervention. But after reading “The Things They Carried,” it is suddenly harder to see the world as Kegan does. War, in O’Brien’s stories, is about men and women. People who die or suffer PTSD or lose limbs or struggle with guilt for the rest of their lives for things they did in rice patties during an hour of desperation. “The world ‘as it is’ is a dangerous and often brutal place,” and virtuous military actions are needed to maintain hope, Kegan reminds his readers. But it is hard not to feel that American military interventions, though well intentioned, often increase that danger and add to the brutality.

Which leads me to Bowe Bergdahl. What am I to make of his confusing, contradictory story? To some, he somehow symbolizes a foreign policy defeat. Proof that we are no longer maintaining the peaceful order of the world. We have lost our touch.

But isn’t he nothing more than a reminder of what Tim O’Brien wrote about War almost 25 years ago?

“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

No matter how this all plays out, we should at least feel comfort that it’s a bold reflection of the truth of war, not just some war story.