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15 posts from February 2008

February 26, 2008

Voting The Minority

Two interesting opinions up at Salon today.

Edward McClellan says in  "The Dude Vote" that a lot of men aren't copping to the fact that they won't vote for Hillary because she's a woman:

A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that, among men, McCain beats Clinton by 9 points. Against Obama, he only ties. There are also plenty of guys who voted for Barack Obama in the primaries but will switch to John McCain if the lady gets the nomination -- even though they'll have to leap over a huge political divide to get there.

... I never said to myself, "I want a man for president." I said to myself, "I want a leader who can unite the country." Like a lot of guys who are about to furtively nod their heads, I think of leadership as a masculine quality, so Obama and McCain seemed like the strongest candidates. I was also leery of Clinton's association with the culture wars -- I don't want to go through that again -- but she was a polarizing first lady because she was given power over healthcare before the nation was ready to see a woman in that role. (In 1994, I walked into a religious bookstore and saw an anti-Clinton biography titled "Big Sister Is Watching You.") Ultimately, it was impossible to separate my reservations about Clinton from the fact that she's a woman.

I also told myself I wasn't dismissing Clinton because I disliked her. I was dismissing her because other people disliked her. That's a popular objection, apparently. According to a CBS-New York Times poll, 81 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman president; only 56 percent think other people would. But it's also a convenient dodge. If I voted against Clinton because "too many people hate her," wouldn't I just be validating the haters? They are, after all, largely responsible for making her "divisive."

Gary Kamiya takes a nearly opposite position in "It's OK to vote for Obama because he's black," saying that a lot of whites won't cop to the fact that they're voting for Obama because he's black.

This reaction is understandable. It feels more racially enlightened. To baldly proclaim that you support Obama because he's black seems to diminish his real qualities and achievements -- his stellar academic career, his work in the urban trenches, his liberal voting record, his ability to inspire. Foregrounding Obama's ethnic heritage implies that you're unhealthily obsessed with race, and make artificial decisions based on it. It can be seen as patronizing, as a merely sentimental, pie-in-the-sky gesture.

... Some critics who directly acknowledge the racial nature of Obama's appeal have argued that the wave of white support for Obama bespeaks not a genuine desire to bridge the racial divide but a bad-faith attempt to escape into some post-racial never-never land.

... Obama's charisma, which is his unique political strength, is real, but it cannot be separated from the fact that he's black. When Obama speaks of change and hope and healing divisions, his words carry an electric charge because of who he is: He embodies his own message, the very definition of charisma. As a black man offering reconciliation, he is making a deeply personal connection with whites, not merely a rhetorical one.

Some observations:

  • It's easy to accuse white men of racism or sexism, when white men are rarely motivated so purely by an ism in such a situation. It's less easy to accuse poc of sexism or liberal women of racism, even when there's a healthy dose of those operating.
  • Regarding sexism vs. black/white racism in this election, I'm seeing that the sexism operating in this election is the view that men and women are two different types of technology with completely different capabilities, whereas the racism in this election is more the view that black (men) and white (men) are the same technology but at different states of the art. Men and women would be, respectively, cars and iPhones whereas white men and black men would be, respectively, Porsches and Yugos.

Hillary is an iPhone with wheels. Obama is a pimped out Yugo. The paradigm shift required to take each of these two candidates seriously is completely different.

  • This may be obvious, but people who are sexist, aren't always racist, and people who are racist, aren't always sexist. I'm sure there are plenty of Clinton supporters who truly believe that she's the best candidate, and that many women could be, and also aren't sure that a black man can get the job done under any circumstances.

And it wouldn't surprise me to find that there were voters, men and women, who believe in Obama for a plethora of reasons, but can't quite get their heads around a woman president.

  • The people who have most to lose from a more equitable distribution of power among women and racial minorities don't always put their racism or sexism first. We could safely assume that a lot of racist, sexist Republicans would vote for Elizabeth Dole, or Condoleeza Rice, or Colin Powell, before they'd vote for John Edwards. Likewise, a lot of racist, sexist Democrats, faced with a confusing choice, aren't necessarily subconsciously comparing their prejudices, but rather going with an emotional reaction to charisma, or to familiarity and nostalgia.
  • Obama's popularity among young liberals isn't questioned as possibly being motivated by sexism. Sure, there's been plenty of feminist punditry about how Gen X/Y women have sold out feminism for Obama's charisma because they're not really proper feminists. But I've seen little speculation about whether we might be looking at a generation that, lacking the strong, widespread female fiscal and political leadership second wave feminists were expecting right about now, some of the young 'uns might simply have no model of female leadership to place Hillary into. I.e. they might straight up not believe a woman can be a good president, but, lacking prefeminist language and knowing vaguely that such sentiments are not okay, might lack a language to talk about this.
  • And Hillary's popularity among older women isn't questioned as possibly being motivated by racism. It's cast entirely positively, as in: second wave feminist generation women are voting their feminism. It's never: older white women won't vote for a black president.
  • The recent nonsense about racist Latino or Asian American voters is cast entirely from a mainstream, basically white American perspective. This perspective assumes that Latino and Asian voters see themselves in a racially essentialist way--see themselves as a member of a racial group and articulate themselves as people of color--and view the American political landscape as one in which people of color have common cause.

So let's say this again, people: the majority of Latino and Asian Americans are immigrants. Most of these immigrants are coming from a position of being a racial or ethnic majority in their countries of origin, even if they are of lower class. Most of them have a majority identity in their past. Most of them are struggling toward a position of self-determination and some sort of tolerable integration into their new society, not towards the marginalization of being people of color. Yes, some might vote racism or sexism, but most will have more pressing needs. And which candidate they see meeting these needs will be at least somewhat unpredictable to a native-born American.

February 24, 2008

Reading with Ed Lin & Lisa Chen

Hey Yay Area peeps, there's a reading tomorrow night at EastWind Books of Berkeley (right near the Cal campus on University) co-sponsored by Hyphen mag. I'll be there and hope to see some of you out there too.

Ed Lin & Lisa Chen
Ed Lin will be reading from his latest novel about New York Chinatown: This Is A Bust.  Lisa Chen will be reading from her new poetry book:  Mouth. These two New Yorkers will be at our store in Berkeley on Monday, February 25th at 7:30pm. Join us to celebrate the conclusion of the Lunar New Year! Sponsored by Hyphen Magazine and Eastwind.

I Love Orwell

I was talking to Tisa tonight and brought up Orwell's essay "Shooting an Elephant." After we got off the phone I looked it up on the web to send to her and found this website about him created for his 100th birthday (in 2003).

I went through some of the essays. It's been a few years since I engaged with Orwell at all. And I re-read "Why I Write," which I last read about five years ago, looking for something to give my students. I remember thinking it didn't suit my purpose exactly back then. Truth be told, I always read pieces from writers about why they write, looking for similarities to lovely ol' moi.

I remember the part in this essay where Orwell writes about writing a running description of his life in his head as it is happening. I did that, although at a much younger age: from 7 to about 10 or so.

But the stuff about politics and aesthetics didn't land with me last time. This time they did. Observe:

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

  1. Sheer egoism. Desire to  seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen -- in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all -- and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.
  3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4. Political purpose -- using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

... Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one's political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one's aesthetic and intellectual integrity.

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, "I am going to produce a work of art." I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.

... I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it. ... Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Sigh, it's hard to excerpt Orwell. Everything he writes has a purpose in the whole. But anyway ... what he said.

I don't know if ... well, actually I DO know. I know that this didn't land with me five years ago because I last read this BEFORE I started Da Nobble, which began as a desire to expose a lie: more specifically, I wanted to write a book with a shrewd Asian male protagonist who didn't know any martial arts and had stature for any other reason than being able to kick people's asses.

As I wrote, I discovered that there were more and more lies which could be addressed in the story: things about women and men, about sex, sexuality, and gender, about race and immigration and colonizing and expansion and exploitation, and on and on and on. And in the process I guess I really did become a political writer, although perhaps I wrote politically before then.

I used to say these things, hoping to believe them, but now they actually mean something.

I don't know that I have much more of a point than this. Stuff I'm thinking about. Orwell good.

February 23, 2008

Birthday

Sigh. My birthday today and it's RAINING and GREY.

Nothing to do but be naughty.

My present to myself today will be to get some writing done, even if it's crappy.

February 21, 2008

A Letter to the World About My Body

Dear Everyone Who Isn't Me, and Especially the Wonderful Women of BlogHer,

I want to participate in your Letter To My Body project. I really do. I think it's wonderful.

But in trying to compose a letter to my body I realized something: I don't see my body as separate from my self. Presumably here, "self" is mind, while body is some sort of symbiotic adjunct. I don't pretend to understand mind/body split. All I know is that when I say "I," and when I say "me," I mean, in both cases, my body + my mind + my soul, if there is such a thing. My "self" is something composed of all the things I put "my" in front of, and my mind is no more--or less--connected to my self than my body.

This is not because I am Special And Better Than You. I live in this fucked up western youth and beauty obsessed culture, too, and I'm not all that strong-minded. Just ask my container of cornnuts.

I think it's, very simply, because I am a type 1 diabetic. Diabetes shares with other chronic, incurable illnesses a number of traits, and a great many effects on the psychology of the sufferer. But one thing I think is unique to diabetes (I say this in all ignorance; there could easily be other diseases with similar traits) is that the disease enables many diabetics to track the effects of eating and exercise--the twin bugaboos of skinny-bitch culture--on their bodies and minds in real time, and gives them the tools to control these.

I won't go into the details of why (I might at another time); let it suffice that diabetics under a regime of insulin therapy can feel amplified effects of eating various foods, or not eating enough food, or exercising too much or too little. These effects are felt immediately, in a matter of minutes or hours. And, most importantly, these effects work immediately on the brain functions, so that a diabetic's mood, rationality, even intelligence, memory, and problem-solving abilities, can change literally minute to minute depending on food intake and exercise.

When my blood sugar goes down, it's not "my body" failing "me," it's me fucking myself up. My mind disappears with the failure of my body. I literally lose the part of me that people seem to most consider the "self" when my body crashes. I don't see mind and body as dependent upon one another or arising out of one another. They are the same. They are two ways of talking about me.

You may not see this in diabetics who got the disease during or after adolescence, and you may not see it in teen girls whose parents underscore society's body-image lesson. But I got sick when I was eleven. I was a late bloomer in any case, and eleven for me was hardly even "tween." My first experience of body-consciousness was the disease and its management, not fat and boobs and periods and sex.

Sure, I thought I was fat all through my teens and into my mid-twenties, when I smoked so much that I got really, really skinny. But I never got into the habit of doing anything about it, because the consequences of crash dieting and excessive exercise (insulin shock) or of not taking my insulin (which helps you put on weight) were so severe and unpleasant that I would simply rather be "fat" than have to live like that, day in and day out.

Don't get me wrong. Just because I consider my body's "flaws" in the same way I consider my personality flaws, doesn't mean that I haven't hated myself, and don't still hate myself often and often. I do hate that my thighs are fat. I don't like my legs, period. I really, really wish that that roll around my waist would go away. In fact, the moment a fad diet appeared that spoke the language of diabetes, I jumped on that wagon train and am still riding it.

I smoked heavily for well over a decade, and still smoke a little now and then. I used to drink like a fish, and still tie one on when I feel I can get away with it (I usually can't). I pig out. I do recreational drugs, when I can get them. I avoid exercise. I do all sorts of self-destructive things, still.

But when I diet, I'm not punishing my body, I'm punishing myself. When I struggle to control my diabetes, I'm not fighting my body, I'm fighting the diabetes.

I am my body, so the struggle is not against my body but against myself. It can be a subtle distinction sometimes. But at other times it's a huge, honking distinction.

It can be a bad thing. Because I don't objectify my body, I dress and groom to express my mood to a much greater extreme than most of the people I know. So I'll often mismatch the occasion, or go for two days without showering, or fail to wear makeup in formal situations and then go all out with the eyeshadow to go out for a beer. Other people seem so much more able to look better than they feel. I'm getting better at this, but it's hard to look like something I don't feel.

But it, of course, can also be a good thing. Because when I feel good about something smart I said, I feel good about my body. When I feel good about some beautiful prose I wrote, I look beautiful. When I manage to be kind to someone I don't have to be kind to, my shoulders relax. I don't live split in half.

Like right now, just now, when I was thinking about writing a letter to my body, and I peeled my mind away from my body for a moment and I did not at all like what I saw.  My body, apart from "me" is just a collection of failures. I hate seeing photos of myself for this very reason. I don't know how to pose for pictures. What I look like is in motion, because my mind and body are always in motion. You can't freeze a frame of that and get a true picture of me.

I don't think I've ever put this into words before. I've just never been good at participating in girltalk about bodies. My answer to "if there was one thing you could change about your body, what would it be?" is, of course, "take the diabetes away." But if you changed that, I wouldn't be me. Even that is me.

I've always been discomfited by this line of talk, and always thought my uneasiness was just political. But it's not. It's personal. I just don't think this way, and the project of trying to heal your mind/body split by underscoring your mind/body split seems like the wrong tack to me.

Talking to your body as "you" rather than "me", making two of one, won't make you love the putty that is your flesh any more than you already do. Hell, I have terrible trouble loving myself, and my every grain of flesh is animate.

Just wanted to try to articulate that.

Love,

Claire

February 18, 2008

Reading Update

I'm getting off to a slow start this year.

I tried re-reading A Tale of Two Cities, which I found in a discount bin at the library, but threw it across the room about five times and five's my limit. I have no idea how I managed to obsess about, much less tolerate Victorian novels when I was in my early twenties. There's so much boring crap in them it's hard to sit still long enough to get to the good stuff!

The representation of women, I can start and finish there. Argh. I know what's past is past, but do I have to read it? I couldn't bear another moment of the pure and delicate little woman--whom it took four men and another, not so pure and delicate, woman to protect--inspiring everyone with her beauty and perfection. And when the good guy/husband decided that his honor couldn't withstand avoiding a suicidal mission back to revolutionary France, I just couldn't take it anymore. Old-fashioned prejudices are forgiveable; stupidity isn't. How did I ever get through this book the first time?

Then I walked into a new bookstore and, just out of idleness, went to YA and looked for Diane Duane, and discovered that all of the Wizard books have been re-released in a series of 8, with apparently more on the way! I had discovered the original editions of these books in a used bookstore and hadn't bothered to look them up on Amazon, so I didn't know they were still in print!

They're very cool, by the way, and I highly recommend them for da kiddies. One note: the first few were written in the eighties and nineties and have a few items here and there that are badly dated. Particularly the third one, High Wizardry, first published in 1990, which is about the first young wizard whose wizardry manual is not a book but software. She gets a magically small and portable computer (yes, a laptop), which can program entire planets, and runs on a rechargeable battery! (!)

I have to say, the third one was my least favorite of all the ones I've read so far (I've read five now). Not so much because it screeched over the lane divider between fantasy and science fiction, but because the protagonist of this one was not our real protagonist, but her annoying little sister.

I'm an annoying little sister, so perhaps people don't understand why I loathe annoying little sisters (like Dairine in Duane's books, or Dawn in the Buffyverse.) Let me break it down for you:

I
am the protagonist of my own story. Therefore, I identify with the protagonist of the story at hand. If that protag is an older sister, then I am going to identify with the older sister, and be able to imagine having an annoying younger sister whom I want to stomp on. I am not going to have--or want--the self-awareness to see myself as an annoying little sister, peripheral to the main action. Geddit?

In fact, I would imagine that actual older sisters might have an easier time identifying or finding sympathy with the annoying little sister characters because they have practice in that in real life. We annoying little sisters have training in dealing with hand-me-downs and condescension; we have NO training in dealing with responsibility for younger siblings, and we don't want any, thanks.

So, being someone who identifies with the protag, I'm not at all interested in seeing the annoying little sister become the protag. All that does is push the character I identify with aside.

Okay, what I've read of Duane so far:

So You Want to Be a Wizard Fab
Deep Wizardry Fab with whales
High Wizardry Meh with little sisters, computers, and aliens
A Wizard Abroad Fabbish return to fantasy with Ireland and a bit of a love interest; too many characters get to Be The Hero, tho'. Like I hinted above, I want just the identity character to be the hero, thanx.
The Wizard's Dilemma Doubleplus Fab dealybob with dying mother and the eeevil temptation of Seitan. Or Satan, whatever.

Plus, I love that the characters are growing up and dealing with decreasing powers as they get older. I thought this might be a problem with the series when the idea was first introduced, but Duane is handling it just fine, and it's making the character development increasingly complex and interesting.

Yay!

February 16, 2008

Class Privilege Meme Redux

So I've been touring other blog posts about the class privilege meme and have found some interesting stuff.

Half Changed World breaks down how money and social capital are two different aspects of class.

Education and Class sez:

How, in this age of multi-media and instantaneous communication, have so many people grown up oblivious to the circumstances of other people’s lives?

And in the end, how do we explain all of this defensiveness among those who clearly have attained the Great American Dream?

Rachel's Tavern points out that while she and her family were privileged, the community they lived in wasn't, and that put her at a certain disadvantage.

Dang. These folks are all going into my bloglines.

February 12, 2008

BSG: Razor

Sigh.

I know I'm being heavily critical of things right now. I'm acting out. But still, BSG: Razor just wasn't that great, and my hope for season 4 is starting to fade.

I just watched it on DVD, and it made a lot of the mistakes I hated so much on season 3--the exact opposite of the things I loved in the first two seasons.

First of all, I loved the storytelling in the first two seasons which was basically a show OR tell tactic. Show the consequences of earlier decisions, or how a character behaves in a situation. This is fairly common in good filmmaking/tv drama. But less common is the tactic used if you need to give backstory without a flashback: have a character tell the story in a way that gives you maximum subtextual impact. A great example of this is how they tell the story of the Pegasus in season 2: the ship's XO gets drunk with Tigh and tells him about how Cain shot the original XO for insubordination ... then plays it off as a joke. The mechanics gossip with Pegasus mechanics, and then report the story of the civilian ships being stripped and civilian families shot to punish/prevent resistance.

This tactic is really effective because the characters aren't just as-you-know-bob-ing, but also reacting to the storytelling. The manner of the storytelling itself tells a story. And no scene showing what happened could possibly be as horrific as the varieties we've imagined in our heads.

What they did to fuck it up in season 3 was to go back and fill in scenes they'd already told us about or hinted at, by giving us unnecessary flashbacks. In season 2, when Kara has been captured by Cylons and is being fooled by them into thinking she's in a human hospital, the "doctor" tells her that he's seen how all the fingers on one of her hands were broken in the same place. That detail is all we need to know that Kara was abused as a child ... and our overactive imaginations can fill in the rest. That's really all we need. But in season 3 we get shown--in flashback--the scene where the finger-breaking happens. Her mother slams her hand in a door. Naturally the scene is high drama, but somehow not as bad as the things I had half-imagined. And we get showed it four or five times so we're desensitized to it anyway.

Razor did this as well, by taking us back to those two horrible scenes where the XO is shot and where civilians are shot, and showing it to us. And guess what? It's not that bad. I grew up on made-for-tv movies about the holocaust and 80s Vietnam flicks. These cheap-ass BSG scenes where we see a bad dramatization of a story we've already heard are nothing. Nothing. You'd have to go pretty damn bad to top the horror of the head-shaving scene in Playing For Time, or the basic training suicide scene or the teenage girl sniper scene in Full Metal Jacket.

BSG doesn't have the leeway to go truly horrific. It's achieved its darkness by expertly playing on our sick imaginations. The moment it stops giving our imagination enough rope, it stops being a good show.

What's also horrible about this is that Starbuck's entire wonderful, brave, destructive personality is reduced to that of an abuse victim. We could have been left a little breathing room to imagine that she is simply like that. But instead, she's nailed down to a stereotype. She's explained, and excused from any real responsibility for the shit she pulls, and in the process, also divested of much of her power.

They do this to Admiral Cain, too. She's evil and scary, but also really powerful and attractive, because she believes so completely that her brutality is right. And then in Razor her brutality is "explained" through a childhood trauma in which she is forced to choose between saving her own life and trying to save that of her little sister ... from Cylons, natch, during the first Cylon war. Also, her brutality towards Number Six is "explained" by making that Six her lover, and her nastiness come from her feelings of betrayal. Basically, all of Cain's agency is stripped away and we're left with a character that's just a pychological machine: input trauma and output monstrosity.

And finally they did their stupid morality play thing that they started doing in earnest in season 3. Here, we see a new character, Shaw, a young woman bullied and mentored by Cain into her daughter and protege. Like Starbuck. And like Starbuck, she was raised by a military mother who recently died. The terrific suggestion of an attraction between Starbuck and Cain that never got fulfilled in season 2 is drawn off here in the service of Shaw's story. Shaw basically stands by while Cain shoots her XO, laps up Cain's justification, and then commits an atrocity of her own. At the end of the episode SPOILER she sacrifices herself and gets a Cylon god to redeem her. Yak.

They were such insanely good storytellers the first two seasons, and it was exactly because they didn't use cheap narrative devices like all of the above.

god, I hope they remembered this for season 4. And yes, I still do hope there IS a season 4.

February 10, 2008

Why Juno Is Loathsome

I mentioned yesterday that I loathed the movie Juno and that was all I was gonna say about it. But now Lauren, who is normally smart as a whip, says she liked it, publicly defending it against the wannabe macho dismissal of a critic who thought No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were the best moobies of the year. I share her argh about the latter, but argh back at her about the former so much that I must write this blog post.

David Edelstein of New York Magazine, goes to bizarre extremes to attack Juno by criticizing both director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody (whose name he snarks on) for having successfully “engineered every response” from the audience, as if that’s not what filmmaking is at its heart.

... I think it’s also important and darn fascinating to pay attention when a bona fide cultural phenomenon is prancing tweely across your radar. Juno is that dancer. Among the many wonderful things about this movie is the fact that it could not have been made at any other time in history. It is positively fresh on the subject of teen sexuality and reproductive choice and it manages to be hilariously funny and gut-wrenchingly poignant at the same time.

Yes, Juno's twee, and that's annoying, and no, twee is not the argument against that stupid flick that I want to push. All teen films are either twee or outright sentimental, so no big deal. Harold and Maude was twee, but I love it anyway.

But Lauren's argument that all films manipulate the audience doesn't hold water. It's true that all art is manipulation in the purest sense of the word. But the art that we treasure as great is that which manipulates the senses to mediate an experience in a particular way. That experience must overwhelm the audience sensually so that their senses (perhaps not all of them, but the ones engaged by that art form) are employed wholly in the service of the piece for its duration. The experience must also short-circuit the audience's sense of the normal and the ordinary, so as to present them with the spectacle of some element of mundane life in a manner that makes that element fresh.

So much for great, or even good, art. There are also films--art--that are successful without overwhelming the senses with new input, or making the familiar intelligible by rendering it strange. These films rather grab hold of our expectations, both sensory and narrative, ... and fulfill them. That simple.

Of course, that's not easy to do because experienced filmgoers have highly developed bullshit detectors and a hunger for novelty that almost--but never quite--overwhelms their demand for fulfilled expectations. So these not-so-good films succeed insofar as they are able to disguise with successful handwaving their ability to give you exactly what you've had before.

Juno is one of the latter sort of films. It belongs in a genre of film whose structure is derived from the gestation period of homo erectus. "Conception--pregnancy--birth" is the  "incentive moment--rising action--climax" of this subgenre, point for point. The purpose of this subgenre is to "celebrate" the "renewal" of "human" life and "hope" in the form of the "next generation" and to "reaffirm" our current family structure or to affirm and confirm (some kind of "firm") a new one. It is a genre that, intentionally or no, cannot accept the presence of abortion ... quite simply because abortion is a narrative party pooper: you can't end a story before the climax.

Subgenre All-Stars include: Nine Months, Parenthood, Father of the Bride II, The Seventh Sign, Fools Rush In, She's Having a Baby, The Snapper, The Object of My Affection, and and and. The only title I can think of belonging to the category of "classic" is Rosemary's Baby, a precursor to the curse of eighties and nineties pregnancy flicks, and a pre-deconstruction of them all. The rest are, at best, B movies. I didn't seed the list. I seriously couldn't think of a single top-ranked or top-critiqued movie in this genre, nor find one on a google search.

And for a very good reason: the genre is crapulous, status-quo-reifying, herd-placating "family fare." It's not about questioning anything, but rather making everyone feel great about the way things are.

In the new millenium this genre has taken on new life. The three 2007 avatars are Waitress, Knocked Up, and Juno. But wait, didn't everybody loooooooove all three films last year? I mean, looooooove them?

Well, of course. After all, Gen X is both in charge of movieland AND making babies now. So we've updated the genre to satisfy our own ideas of what family must be and placate our feelings of having sold out ... whatever our generation was supposed to stand for ... in favor of parenthood, condo purchases, and stay-at-home-somethings.

The major difference in new-millenium-Gen-X pregnancy movies is that they are all about confirming "alternative" families, which is, of course, all the to good, if you consider giving alternative families their own crapulous sub-genre "good." Juno and Waitress are ultimately both affirmations of single motherhood, when necessary, as it clearly is when the father leaves you because he's a child or you leave him because he's abusive. Both are, not coincidentally, written by women.

Knocked Up is a more traditional pregnancy flick. It's written, produced, directed, and from the point of view of men, which is why it posits that ugly losers with no jobs, income, responsibility, charm, or personality can walk into a complete family life with a beautiful, successful woman, just by going into a nightclub one night that the real world wouldn't let them in the door of. It posits the only family that straight guys would want, then "reaffirms" it with a "funny" birth scene involving your buddies and a beautiful, happy ending.

Juno manages to disguise its genrehood slightly by being about both the family for whom the baby is destined, and the birth mother. But, although the dialogue is snappy, nothing is questioned or subverted. We don't want to reify teenage motherhood; teenage mothers are supposed to be confused, so this one is confused. We want to support adoptive families, which we have more and more of as the "me, too!" generation puts off childbearing even longer than the Baby Boomers, so we make Juno not bother considering abortion seriously. We want to affirm single motherhood, so we get rid of the adoptive husband while turning him into a plot-point/red-herring.

Most importantly, we treat motherhood as a reward for virtuous women. Juno is not virtuous: she had sex when too young and undereducated; she had sex without considering herself in love; she had sex without thinking responsibly about it. Clearly she doesn't deserve a baby. Her weeping after the birth is the seep of remorse.

The Jennifer Garner character--played by an actress who, already popular, swept the hearts of America by marrying Ben Affleck and naming their adorable baby something both slightly unusual and not at all rock-star-weird--clearly possesses sufficient adulthood, responsibility, and virtue, and is rewarded with motherhood at the end.

One more point: Juno, as many critics have remarked, is given Gen X hipster dialogue. No kiddie today, not even Frances Bean Cobain, could possibly have all the Gen X indie cultural referents that Juno pretends to. That's the tip-off, folks, that you're being manipulated: your teenie hipster protag, cooler than school and wrestling with things way beyond her maturity level, still has the time to flatter your taste.

It's a flat, empty, manipulative, masturbatory, neck-chaining, nose-to-grindstoning, mainstream-behavior-mold of a piece of shit of a movie. And no, it's not a coincidence that it topped off a year of other such movies in the same year that the US Supreme Court upheld the first federal abortion ban since Roe v. Wade.

'Nuff said.

February 09, 2008

Somebody Kill Me Now

I'm back in the family womb for the weekend for a family ... occasion ... and we're sitting at dinner tonight. My relative is talking about the movie Juno, which I found entertaining but empty when I watched it, and came to loathe while thinking about shortly thereafter. (Some hints as to why here.)

So my relative is describing the movie and gets to the character of Juno herself and describes her as a wiseass and "politically incorrect." What? I dug in about that. What was "politically incorrect" about the character? Both her politics and her indie cred are flawless. He couldn't say or give me examples, just repeated that she's a wiseacre and makes funny comments.

Argh!

I've been picking up on this for a while now but I can't avoid the conclusion anymore. "Politically incorrect" is now a synonym for "smartass" or "irreverent!" Just kill me now!

It wouldn't be so bad if "politically incorrect" would just wholesale replace the word "irreverent," since the latter appears to be hard for some people to pronounce and those same people get so much joy out of declaring themselves the former.

But that's not what's happening here. What's happening is that people are still aware of the term's current denotation--referring to language and ideas that are, from the liberal point of view, politically regressive and potentially discriminatory--but have added strong connotations. Those are, of course, "irreverent," "smartass," and, wandering a little further afield, "cool." "Politically incorrect" is now spoken or written with an almost universal sense of delicious, naughty approval.

Or put another way, social justice activists never use the term at all.

So let's go back to the drawing board, shall we, children? Let's start with Frank Chin:

Political correctness" seems to be a too serious and fascist, demagogic way of saying "civil language". Of course, when civility is not our purpose, there are other languages and vocabularies available to us. With the need for a language of civility and doing business with strangers without betraying our secrets or slashing our wrists or starting a war in mind, I suggest PC stand for "pidgin contest".

Civil language and tolerant behavior can't be imposed from the top without exercising heavy police-state censorship and driving everyone with a discouraging word underground. But in the bustling, competitive, passionate marketplace atmosphere of a port city or corner store, civil language and tolerant behavior are invented, or you go broke, brah.

Yep, that's right, folks, "civil language." That's what people are referring to when they say "political correctness." I'll spell it out, though: if you replace "politically incorrect" with "speaking without civility," it becomes a lot less cool.

  • "Juno was a wonderful character because she was such a wiseass ... she really spoke without civility!"
  • "That Bill O'Reilly He's great! He speaks so uncivilly all the time!"
  • "You're just mad because I spoke to you rudely. But your stupid civility is fascist!"
  • "Don't you just find rude speech refreshing sometimes? I mean, I get so tired of being polite to strangers all the time!"

Yeah, I'm overplaying the point. Because, as we all know, political correctness isn't just about polite language. It's about giving over the power of naming to the people being named; the power of description to the ones being described. And that's a lot more profound than just being polite. What it means is that your public speech, to a certain extent, is buffeted by somebody else's winds of change--without your input or say so--and you're still responsible for keeping up with it. Why, that's ... that's ... undemocratic!

The term "politically incorrect" is the ultimate expression of privilege. I think everyone would find it obnoxious if a stranger, on being introduced to "John," insisted on calling him "Telly." But when a whole group of people prefer to be called "disabled" rather than "handicapped," this is somehow an imposition on the non-disabled speaker.

Considering oneself a victim of fascist political incorrectness because you can't call women "girls" or champion sportswomen "nappy-headed hos" or refer to spoken Chinese as "ching chong ching chong" or call South Asian journalists "Macaca" is nothing but the tantrum of someone whose speech has never been limited by those of lesser socioeconomic status before.

Boo-fuckin'-hoo to you. Grow the fuck up and start treating people with minimum respect. All your childish tantrums aside, it's not gonna stop, so get used to it.

February 06, 2008

Class Privilege Meme

The meme is to bold the items that apply to you. It's the exercise where you step forward or back, depending on the items of your class privilege? via.

When you were in college:

If your father went to college.
If your father finished college

If your mother went to college
If your mother finished college

If you have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
If you were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
If you had a computer at home
If you had your own computer at home
If you had more than 50 books at home
If you had more than 500 books at home
If were read children’s books by a parent
If you ever had lessons of any kind
If you had more than two kinds of lessons
If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
If you had a credit card with your name on it
If you have less than $5000 in student loans
If you have no student loans
If you went to a private high school
If you went to summer camp
If you had a private tutor
If you have been to Europe
If your family vacations involved staying at hotels
If all of your clothing has been new and bought at the mall
If your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
If there was original art in your house
If you had a phone in your room
If you lived in a single family house
If your parent own their own house or apartment
If you had your own room
If you participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
If you had your own cell phone in High School
If you had your own TV in your room in High School
If you opened a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
If you have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airline
If you ever went on a cruise with your family
If your parents took you to museums and art galleries
If you were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family.

The class privilege meme has few surprises for me. I was/am privileged, and I kne/ow it.

Where someone might get bogged down is in certain small items, like my lack of a personal tv, phone, car, computer, cell phone, etc. Also that I, gasp, didn't do an SAT prep course.

These, believe it or not, are items of an even greater privilege: coming from a "cultured" family, I was strongly discouraged from watching tv or talking on the phone ... but my parents buy me any stack of books I wanted. And god forbid we should waste a family vacation we could spend in a city going to museums on a stupid cruise ship. Plus, I got SAT prep in my curriculum at school. Isn't that the point of going to private school?

Plus, I didn't have a cell phone in high school because they weren't invented yet :P

The one item I would disagree with here is "If the people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively." There are so many class privileged people whom this doesn't apply to, starting with me. The people in the media who dress and talk like me don't exist. The only overeducated smarty-pantses allowed in the media are wonks or, occasionally, scientists. Nobody puts real artists or cultural workers on the air.

It's a privilege to get away with (financially if not socially) dressing differently from the herd, and speaking language too florid, dense, or esoteric to communicate outside of shouting distance. And yes, "cultured" people are mocked relentlessly in the media.

Point number three (something that struck me a couple years ago that resurfaced recently, and that I'm forcefully reminded of in participating with this meme/exercise): my coworkers just got back from a staff retreat I didn't have to go to because I'm on half-time. While they were preparing for the retreat, my little Gen-Y coworkers were all excited--like the cute little Echo Boomers they are--about the games and icebreakers they were planning for the occasion.

My Gen-X coworker and I were properly disdainful, probably partly because of the generational jadedness and irony thing, but definitely also because we'd been to too many retreats and had to face down too many games of charades and what animal am I?

My extreme--sickening--familiarity with icebreakers and togetherness games is another item of privilege. Because these are the things you do in a good gym class, in school clubs to build togetherness, in afterschool classes and sports, in summer camp, in girl scouts ... basically, class privileged children are sent to activities and lessons for two reasons: 1) to learn a skill important for employability or class acceptance and 2) to learn "leadership skills," which are literally that: the skills you need to organize others so that you can lead them.

The silly icebreakers and trust games are all about helping people in a group self-select roles so that they can work together in a satisfying manner towards ... some ... purpose. It's corporative and oligarchical. Please notice that oligarchies invented the idea of democracy, and within the oligarchical leadership, everything looks sooper commie, no? Just ask the Magna Carta guys.

The low-income clients we serve at work get a real thrill--and genuine personal and group empowerment--from such exercises in our program at work. This really struck me: 40-year-old women who've never done an ice-breaker or a trust exercise? But where would they have done it? A lot of them came from school districts where there was no money for extracurriculars, not even sports--for girls anyway. Girl scouts? Classes? Lessons? With what money? They don't even get a chance to do this class privilege exercise, which is, if you think about it, geared toward the privileged anyway.

And thinking about something that seems so small when looked at one way (icebreakers) and so huge when looked at in another (leadership skills), it becomes clear to me how complex a web privilege is, so complex that we must absolutely normalize it to bear the burden of all the things we must do to be privileged. We share out the burden of maintaining this complex network of benefits among all of our privileged neighbors, and we all have more or less the same experiences, which is why we don't see it when someone else doesn't share it, except in rare moments.

So, missing what seems like just one small element of this web can be catastrophic to one's ability to rise in the world. Because if you don't know how to self-select a role in a group of educated people who were trained to do that, then you will either be marginalized, or a role will be selected for you. And yes, that's as ominous as it sounds.

We teach each other how to lead and we distinctly don't teach those beneath us how to lead--either themselves or others. So it's not a miracle that those without class privilege have such a hard time acquiring it.

Point the fourth: let's be clear that class privilege isn't always economic privilege; a lot of professors and artists and writers and media mavens don't earn very much, but they read to their kids, take them to museums, make sure they get the educational support at home to get scholarships to private schools, etc. For example, about a quarter of the students at my private high school--maybe a fifth--were on partial or full scholarship. About half of those were professors' kids. The other half were from lower-middle and working class families.

As someone pointed out somewhere (like the vagueness? It's class privilege that makes you insist that I cite my sources!) if you can choose economic privilege and choose to refuse it, that in itself is economic privilege. And if you're the kid of an English professor, who grew up in thrift shop clothing and went on to get an MFA, and collect massive student loans, you obviously could have quit before the MFA, gotten a job in marketing, and paid off your student loans in two years, not to mention lived the lifestyle. You chose not to.

Okay, I'm out of steam.

*****
Updated five minutes later:

Something else I was thinking about recently, which I forgot: It's very easy to stay in your privileged bubble, yes. Everyone knows that. But what a lot of people don't recognize is how hard it is to get out of your privileged bubble.

You generally live pretty far away from working class or poor people, and you don't go to those areas, your friends don't go to those areas, there's no incentive for you to go, so how will you find your way around? And I don't mean find your way around the streets. I mean find things you might want there: resources, social hubs, wisepeople, etc.

Because you don't know what to look for, you don't recognize what's right in front of you. So you'll head towards the resources most familiar to you and end up right back where you started. This is, I think, the essence of gentrification. That's not a real restaurant! Let's start a real restaurant serving pan-seared Ahi in among all these pupuserias. That's not a real grocery! They don't even have low-fat cheese! Thank god for the Whole Foods opening up around the corner.

You come from another type of culture and you don't know the rules, so communicating is difficult. In fact, this is where communication is about obfuscating the lack of communication, not alleviating it. How do you know if the color you see when you say "red" is the same color someone else sees? So you usually don't even know you're not communicating right.

Because class is increasingly oligarchical the higher up you go, the gestures of moving down a class are seen as either fashionable slumming, or a nervous breakdown and the group jumps to either join in and share the benefits, or pull you back from the brink, thereby saving a valuable privilege-network-bearing resource. And the privileged classes have structures set up to deal with these things and aren't afraid to use them: interventions, therapists, support groups, outward bound, deep talks over coffee.

Okay, I think I'm really out of steam now.

February 05, 2008

What I'm Reading in February

Okay, first of all, what I have read from the Carl Brandon List:

  • 47 by Walter Mosley
  • Stormwitch by Susan Vaught
  • Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • and parts of So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan

I can highly recommend all of them, especially the Butler book, which is my favorite of hers, and So Long Been Dreaming, which gives you a great spread of POC spec fic.

What I'm not going to tackle at this time:

  • Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

'Cause apparently, it's a mouthful, double entendre intended. I'm saving it for much later.

So this month I will try to get through the rest of the list, in this order, if I can get these books in this order, i.e. in order of authors I haven't read yet first:

  • Mindscape by Andrea Hairston
  • Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell
  • The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
  • My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
  • Futureland by Walter Mosley
  • The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

I seriously do not expect to get through this list in one, short month. I'll be happy if I make it to the Minister Faust.

Who's reading with me?

February 04, 2008

Carl Brandon's Black History Month List

Hey all,

As many of you know, I'm on the steering committee of The Carl Brandon Society, an organization dedicated to increasing representation of people of color in the speculative genres. We've polled our members and come up with a recommended reading list of speculative fiction books by black authors for Black History Month.

The idea is for you to read these books this month, forward this list around to your friends, take this list into your local bookstores and ask them to display these books this month, post the list on your blogs and websites, etc. I hope you'll all strongly consider at least picking up one of these books and falling into it. It's a wonderful list, and your February will be improved!

So, without further ado:

THE CARL BRANDON SOCIETY
recommends the following books for BLACK HISTORY MONTH:

  • So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
  • My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
  • The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust
  • Mindscape by Andrea Hairston
  • Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell
  • Futureland by Walter Mosley
  • The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
  • Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

And the 2005 CARL BRANDON SOCIETY AWARD Winners:

• PARALLAX AWARD given to works of speculative fiction created by a person of color:
47 by Walter Mosley

• KINDRED AWARD given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group:
Stormwitch
by Susan Vaught

(cross-posted at Other magazine blog.)

February 02, 2008

Coolio

Looky, I am now a professional blogger! (Can you believe they're actually going to pay me for this crap?)

I got hooked up with KQED (the San Francisco NPR affiliate, for those of you outside of the Bay Area) and will now be blogging for their arts and culture section a couple of times a month. I'm covering the East Bay, so East Bay folks, bring your artsy fartsy to me.

Yay!

Guess What!

Your Vocabulary Score: A+
Congratulations on your multifarious vocabulary!
You must be quite an erudite person.
via Gwenda Bond.

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