The Bookshelf: I’m Every Woman by Lonnae O’Neal Parker

One of the things I am enjoying about writing for this blog so far is that it gives me a more specific reason to seek out books I’ve been meaning to read and have conversations I’ve been meaning to have.  This week I wanted to kick off what I hope will be a recurring series on the blog– The Bookshelf– in which I write up books I’ve read that relate to feminism and/or parenting.  This first installment tackles a book that was actually brought to my attention by a student.  Toward the end of my women’s writing class, we were talking about how maternal desires and ambitions for work outside the home have been historically different for black women and white women in the U.S.  After class, one of my bright, thoughtful students approached me to say, “My mom wrote a book about this sort of thing. They teach it in some women’s studies classes, I guess.”  I asked her to send me a link for the book, and when she did, I purchased it immediately.

parker cover

This student’s mom turns out to be Lonnae O’Neal Parker, an accomplished and acclaimed Washington Post reporter.  The book her daughter told me about is I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, published in 2005.  Parker’s book devotes a lot of attention to motherhood, but more generally it is rooted in her experiences of growing up as a black woman among black women and trying to create the life she wants to imagine is possible for herself.   As Deesha Philyaw suggested back in 2008 (and recently posted on twitter), black motherhood has been woefully under-represented in the media conversations about women who try to strike a balance between motherhood and work.  Writing specifically about Parker’s book, Philyaw suggests “black women readers embraced I’m Every Woman, hungry for a perspective different from that found in the usual mommy-book fare. And, as Parker had hoped, some white women ‘tired of the echo chamber’ are now teaching the book in university classrooms.”  My experience of learning about this book underscores Philyaw’s point.  I’ve spent the past several years reading widely about feminism and motherhood and have scoured bibliographies specifically looking for discussions of black motherhood, and yet I had no idea this book existed until I had the author’s own daughter in my class.

Count me among the “white women ‘tired of the echo chamber,'” though, because I would have gladly taught from I’m Every Woman in my own university classroom if I’d known about it in time.  I would recommend it highly to students and peers alike even if it only taught us things we should know about black motherhood, because black motherhood should be discussed more frequently and more positively in the media than it is.  Early in the book, Parker argues that because black women’s experiences often fail to be acknowledged and considered, the lessons black women have learned and are equipped to teach have gone unnoticed, as well.  She writes, “it seems, few of the combatants and cultural arbiters in the mommy wars see me in three full dimensions– to the extent that they see me at all.  They seem not to realize that women of color might have different imperatives, a different history, different sets of assumptions, not to mention a few cousins, who might need a helping hand to make it into the middle class” (13-14). I wish people would read this book because it IS necessary for feminists to educate ourselves about these differences, and certainly we should listen when women of color speak about them.

Parker further clarifies:  “it’s not that I think that black women have all the answers– only that we have struggled with the questions longer and that sometimes our tool sets are more expansive” (14).  This gets the the heart of the second reason I want to recommend the book– it’s not only wrong to ignore the experiences of women of color, it’s also really foolish. The book contains important and helpful lessons for all feminists, but especially for feminist moms.  It provides a useful model for how we can learn from women who share our experiences as well as women whose lives are very different than our own.

At the close of the book, Parker writes “There is so much history that is hidden from us, I want to tell my daughters, which is why you have to seek out the stories of other women and make them your own.  They let you know you have everything you need.  That there is nothing new under the sun and you are just, most appropriately, customizing your beats, because that will make your remix strong” (238).  Parker describes how she makes her own “remix” in the book, but she also models this practice throughout.  She tells us, for example, what life lessons she gleaned from the few TV shows that had black female protagonists and what lessons she was able to learn from white TV characters when she looked at them from a black woman’s perspective.  These lessons are interesting and may be useful to readers– but even if each lesson itself is not something a reader can apply to her own life, the approach Parker takes IS something we can apply to our own lives.  She has a knack for processing all the stimuli to which she is exposed, figuring out how to discard the harmful ones, use the helpful ones, and renegotiate others to make them suit her purposes.  This makes the book entertaining– I enjoyed how seamlessly she transition between writing about personal experiences, family stories court cases, song lyrics, novels, essays on critical theory, television shows, and more– but it also helped me to imagine how I might apply these types of practices to my own life.

This practice of “customizing” my “remix” is the main thing I will take away from the book and carry with me as I work to become a better mother, better feminist, and better professional.  I am pretty good at looking to the women who’ve come before me and figuring out what lessons their lives teach me, but I hadn’t given much thought to the benefits of renegotiating my perceptions of these examples in order to suit them to my own experiences.  Parker’s method will widen the scope of what I can learn from others because it teaches me to look differently at those who’ve already blazed trails similar to my own AND to pay attention to others whose trails look nothing like mine but needed to be blazed nonetheless.

Rather than trying to further paraphrase Parker’s own powerful words, I wanted to share some of the quotes that really stood out to me as insightful, important, helpful, and/or entertaining.  My hope in sharing these quotes is that readers here can learn from these insights but, most importantly, that they’ll encourage you to want to read the book for yourself.

“The history of black women, the stories of my grandmothers and mother, lets me know there is no magic pill to conjure time, and we can’t go around shaking a stick at our lives to stop everybody from tugging on us.  Sometimes we can’t alter a physical reality, but we can bend our minds.  We make our choices, and whenever possible we choose joy, mindful that just having options is, in itself, a luxury and such an amazing grace.” (xix)

Writing about the inspiration she draws from historical figures like Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Shirley Chisholm, and more, Parker writes, “I do not pretend to have these women’s mettle or humility or seriousness of purpose.  I just know the thought of them keeps me up late writing when I’d rather be asleep” (34).

“Since then, some very good editors have given me skills, but it was the babies I was afraid to have who made my need to write bigger than my fear of failing at it; who made me pregnant with resolve.  It is my kids who have given me deeper connections, keener insights, or at least a whole lot more raw material to work from.” (73)

Quoting her friend Joby Dupree, one of the founders of Mocha Moms: “I don’t try to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do, I can only tell you what has worked for me. So many people come out and say this is what you should do or shouldn’t do.  You don’t know me, you don’t know my family, and you don’t know my children.  Tell me what worked for you and maybe I can try it.” (91)

“Do you remember Will Smith in Men in Black? When he put on his suit and dark glasses, turned to Tommy Lee Jones, and said, ‘I make this look good.’ Well, that is exactly how I’m going to rock a Dodge Caravan.  I reject the notion that minivans desexualize.  After all, sex is the reason I need one in the first place.” (153)

“…since a hundred years before their white counterparts found the words to speak it, black women have known that the personal is political.  It’s the bodies of black women that have been among the most politicized terrains on the planet, and used to be there was little more public than black women’s sexuality.  Sometimes that’s still the case.” (154)

“One of my girlfriends once chided me because I fussed about walking through the parking lot, since my husband usually drops me at the door.  ‘See, Ralph’s got your ass spoiled,’ she said.  I understand the perception, that in many ways I’m pampered.  But I just continue to stand by my final answer: Perhaps, I say, but then you don’t know all the things I do for that man.” (169)

“Feminist, abolitionist, and former slave Sojourner Truth had thirteen children and saw nearly all of them sold.  That didn’t stop her from whipping her kids in the time she had them.  When Truth became a mother, writes Paula Giddings, ‘she would sometimes whip her child when it cried for more bread rather than give it a piece secretly, lest it should learn to take what was not its own.’ She whipped because what do you imagine they did to slaves caught stealing?  Black families would whip their kids because white people might kill them.  Because the streets could consume them, because the police would jail them… They whipped because the stakes were high, missteps were costly, and Stop! Don’t! and No! had to mean what they said the very first time since colored people couldn’t rely on second chances (as true for Emmett Till as it was for Amadou Diallo).” (175-176)

“Sometimes I marvel at the breadth of experiences we’ve been able to bring into our lives.  But sometimes it feels like such an uncharted place that I’m standing in… but I am a product of my times, grounded in both culture and middle-class entitlement, driven to peel off the best parts of all the worlds I know and desperate to try to avoid the worst.  And only time will tell what sticks with my children.” (214)

“I can have it all, just not on the same day.  And as a practical matter, that means daily decisions about how best to spend fifteen- and twenty- and forty-five minute blocks of time.” (224)

“I may not thin gin at the juke joint, like Sofia from The Color Purple, or let it all ride at the track, but I’m not mad at those who do.  A woman’s got to take care of home, and then has got to carve out her own inviolate space.  And when you find the thing that keeps you sane, that piece of something that’s yours alone, you don’t sacrifice it.  Not even on the altar of motherhood.” (232-233)

“I don’t have all the words I will ever need to make it all all right tonight.  I just have to have faith that the words will come in time, because I am a good listener.  A mindful daughter of the god of black women.” (239)

Please get your hands on a copy of this book.  And then give it to someone else you care about.  Mine’s ready to go out on loan.  If you know other books in the same vein, please leave that info in the comments!

Posted in bookshelf, institution of motherhood, working moms | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Feminism in Go, Dog! Go!

I think there’s a widespread misconception that feminists go looking for things to complain about.  We’re accused of making a big deal out of nothing, and we’re told that we should just “let things go” instead of making a fuss about them.  My experience, however, is not one of looking around for reasons to be outraged.  My experience is that of attempting to ignore most of the rampant sexism I see around me so I can stay focused on what I’m trying to accomplish that day.  For me, feminism feels like putting on a pair of glasses that allows me to perceive my environment more precisely.  I see things that just do not register for people who think sexism isn’t a real problem.  I may be the one who feels compelled to point some problems out, but I am not the one who is “inventing” them.

On the flip side, though, once in a while I am rewarded for having the greater sensitivity to sexism that my feminism has developed in me.  There is a distinct joy for me in discovering, for example, that one of my daughter’s books actually does a really nice job of conveying feminist ideas without having to be explicit about it.  This is a joy I experienced last year, when Nora started insisting upon having Go, Dog! Go! read to her every day.

This children’s book, first published in 1961, has a long history in my family.  We grew up reading it in my house, and “Do you like my hat?” was one of my dad’s favorite catch phrases.  When the frequency with which my daughter requested this book left me no choice but to perform a close reading of the narrative, I was delighted to discover that the “do you like my hat?” sequences actually send a positive message to girls.  In case you have not already suffered through me talking your ear off about this book, you do not currently read this book daily, or you are not in the habit of performing feminist close readings of children’s books, allow me to share this reading with you here.

I’m not sure why the Hat Loving Female Dog featured in the book cares so much whether Hat Assessing Male Dog likes her hat or not.  I like to think that before the book begins, she identified him as a possible mate and she is testing him.  But here is what you can learn from their storyline if you think about Go, Dog. Go! as a feminist text:

When you, as a Hat Loving Female Dog, ask a Hat Assessing Male Dog for his opinion about your hat, you’ll need to be prepared for him to think his opinion matters. When he boldly tells you he doesn’t like your hat, his vocalization of disapproval and then dismissal may give him a momentary feeling of power, and it could result in a gleeful facial expression.  The proper response for this, if you are the Hat Loving Female Dog, is to repeat his dismissal, throw some serious shade in his direction, and simply walk off.

If you’re an attentive Hat Loving Female Dog, you probably never would have asked his opinion about your hat again, except you notice that HE is wearing one next time you see him.  But since he continues to refuse to give your hat approval, you must not back down.  Even if he tries to add a cutesy “again” onto his good-bye, takes the feather off your own hat, and adds theatrical gestures designed to show off his balance and impress you, you must not budge.  Any self respecting Hat Loving Female Dog will continue with the curt “good-by,” side-eye, and prompt departure.

You can keep giving him chances to come around, but if he doesn’t, you hold your ground.

If he wants to spend time around you, and he’s worth your time, your insistence upon continuing to wear bigger, bolder, more outrageous hats despite his disapproval will force him to come around to your crazy hat wearing ways.

There’s no way Hat Assessing Male Dog actually likes this hat.  Look at his taste in party hats– simple and literally square.  Hat Loving Female Dog is obviously using this hat as a test.  His final chance, I like to think.  But he likes Hat Loving Female Dog, and he’s perceptive enough to realize that accepting her hats is a prerequisite for her attention.  She’ll leave if he doesn’t like it.  Notice how he looks right at her, rather than at the hat, when declaring how much he loves the hat.

When you are self respecting, hat loving, man testing female dog, only after he accepts your most outrageous hat is it acceptable to ride off in his car with him.  While wearing your hat.

Take away: Any partner worthy of your attention can learn to embrace your hats even if they are not his personal taste.  If he can’t, don’t bother.  We can read this as many times as you like, Nora.

Posted in children's books

Chronicle Vitae on Pregnancy, Motherhood, and the Academy

Back in May, I wrote about why I see motherhood and academia as complementary rather than conflicting pursuits.  I was surprised and pleased with how much traction this post picked up.  It generated a lot of positive feedback here on the blog, on social media, and in offline conversations.  It was shared on facebook and twitter by friends and strangers alike, including Ayelet Waldman and Elaine Showalter (both of whom I referenced in the post).    It’s always nice to write something that other people are willing to read and discuss, but more than that, I was glad to find that motherhood within academia is an issue that is generating a lot of interest right now.

Since then, Chronicle Vitae has featured several articles about academia, pregnancy, and motherhood, including a series of posts last week.  I want to share those posts, encourage others to read them, and share some of my thoughts on the information each woman provides.

In May, Kate Bahn wrote “When Grad School Eats Up Your ‘Good Years’.”  A PhD candidate in economics, Bahn asks “Is grad school (or an academic career, for that matter) even compatible with child-rearing?” Ultimately, she seems to conclude that they will not be compatible for her.  Her understanding of the difficulties academic mothers face has informed her decision to pursue a career outside academia after she completes her degree.  There, she hopes she will “be a little freer to live my life as I choose without having my membership card revoked for being a potential or actual mother.” I am thankful for Bahn’s willingness to tackle this issue, and it left me further frustrated that women who seem smart, thoughtful, and conscientious continue to find themselves squeezed out of the academy.  I wish Kate Bahn the best on her alternative career path, but I’m sorry that academia is losing her for these reasons.

In the first article in last week’s series, “Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School?”, Sarah Kendzior discusses the “baby penalty” women in academia face, the way academia “infantilizes” graduate students, and the academic job market.  This claim really struck a chord with me: “The greatest threat to getting an academic job is not a baby. It is the disappearance of academic jobs. Telling women in any career what they should do with their body is always a sexist, demeaning trick. But in a Ph.D. program it is particularly pernicious, because what usually lies at the end of the years of obedience and hoop-jumping is a contingent position or unemployment.”

Over the winter, I sacrificed a lot of time with my family and took a hiatus from one of my academic jobs in order to pull together what I hoped would be a competitive dissertation fellowship application.  I felt this was necessary because, as a result of my maternity leave, I was at least a full semester behind the students with whom I would be competing.  After the fact, I realized that my chances at being granted a fellowship were not slim because my maternity leave put me “behind;” they were slim because the fellowship awards are so very competitive to begin with.  I also watched as my brilliant, capable, and childless female colleagues who went on the market this year were offered prestigious visiting professor positions but not tenure track jobs, and I thought, thank goodness I can go home and play with Nora every afternoon.  Thank goodness I heeded the advice of Mary Hunter Austin, who warns against waiting for an ideal time to have children in “The Walking Woman” (1907). Austin writes, “a child; any way you get it, a child is good to have, say nature and the Walking Woman; to have it and not to wait upon a proper concurrence of so many decorations that the event may not come at all.”  Austin is no longer widely read, and although my dissertation seeks to change that, I am thankful to Kendzior for giving women similar advice in the meantime.

The next article in the series by Rachel Leventhal-Weiner, “The Perfect Academic Baby,”  also tackles the issue of timing.  She writes about the myth of the “perfect academic baby:” one that is born in June and thus does not interfere with the academic calendar.  But because Leventhal-Weiner’s baby was due in March, right at the busiest point of her year, she found herself grading midterms while in labor.  I, too, tried to plan my pregnancy around the academic calendar, only to be reminded that bodies don’t work that way.  I began trying to conceive in August so I could deliver after I finished my spring semester. When my dad died in January, I still wasn’t pregnant.  A month later, I found out I was pregnant and thus due to deliver right in the middle of the fall semester.  This meant that I spent an entire semester mourning my father, enduring a difficult first trimester of pregnancy, taking three seminar classes, and working ten hours a week in our business office. So when Leventhal-Weiner points out that “in a rigid nine-month [academic] calendar, there’s little room for personal tragedy or calamity, for a crisis of the mind or a change of the heart,” all I could think was yes, absolutely, keep going.

Leventhal-Weiner does keep going, and I was inspired by her willingness to talk about how vulnerable she was as a pregnant graduate student.  She faced institutionalized obstacles, like gaps in healthcare coverage, as well as misconceptions about her level of commitment to her studies.  But beyond her description of how her institution made pregnancy difficult, the thing that stood out to me most about her article is related to her assertion that “scholarly life is built around the assumption that your time and dedication to your work will both be everlasting.”  I have found this to be true, and I find myself thinking about how this assumption ends up hurting everybody– not just mothers.  Nearly everyone I know in my program has had something come up that “interferes” with their studies.  Our dads die.  Our moms get sick.  Our loved ones face serious life crises as well as physical and mental illnesses.  So do we.  Even before I had a child, I knew other people were making value judgments about how I spent my time because a professor who heard I was training for a half marathon questioned the amount of time I spent running and suggested I should spend that time reading instead (!).  Sometimes it begins to feel like we all struggle to stay afloat in a profession whose very schedule often fails to consider the importance of self-care, so I am especially thankful for Leventhal-Weiner’s willingness to talk about how this schedule negatively impacts mothers.

To say it frankly, the third article in the series, Kelly J. Baker‘s “Are Children Career Killers?” hurts to read.  Quoting the statistics from Do Babies Matter?, Baker points out that:

  • “Mothers are an astounding 132 percent more likely than fathers to end up in low-paid contingent positions,”
  • “Mothers with children under the age of six are 21-percent less likely to land a tenure-track job than women without children,”
  • “Mothers are 16 percent less likely to wind up on the tenure track than fathers,” and
  • “A married woman’s odds of getting a tenure-track job is 12-percent lower than that of a married male peer.”

I knew all of this already, but then it gets worse!  Baker cites a 2007 research study conducted by Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik that “found a pervasive and significant bias against mothers in the workplace, no matter how qualified or productive they are.”

Gulp.  As an individual grad school mom, I’d like to believe I can overcome these statistics.  I’d like to think my qualifications and my hard work will get me into the doors I’m willing to beat down.  But I know this is may not be the case, because these obstacles are real.  So I hope others are listening when Baker suggests that the push for “family-friendly policies for tenure-track faculty aren’t enough. For one thing, there’s a stigma that’s still attached to using them. For another, the vast majority of today’s academics are contingent workers who often lack access to those policies or, for that matter, any decent benefits at all.”  Baker concludes by insisting “we should work toward making academia a more family-friendly workplace, for scholars on and off track.”  I agree, obviously, that making academia more family-friendly is the right thing to do because it affords fair treatment to academic workers.  But I also believe making academia more family-friendly serves everyone.  This is why I tried, in my earlier post, to emphasize how motherhood makes me a better academic, pushes me to produce better scholarship, and helps me to be a better teacher to my students.  If we can speak up and draw attention to what the academy stands to gain by instituting family-friendly policies, in addition to insisting they have an obligation to do so, I hope we can make a bit more headway.

In “The No-Baby Penalty,” Elizabeth Keenan writes that she “know[s] what happens when you wait for the perfect time to have a baby, and it doesn’t work out at all.”  She describes how the pressures of academia and its bias against mothers contributed her decision to postpone having children, and how her opportunity to have children once she felt ready has been foreclosed by infertility issues.  I don’t feel like I have many intelligent things to say about this article because it describes a circumstance that makes me profoundly sad.  But I do want to say that I think you should read it, that I admire Keenan’s candor, and that it made me hug my daughter extra tight.  The article reminded me of how thankful I am that one of my childhood best friends had a baby at the same time I entered graduate school.  Watching her little girl grow up from afar made me realize that I would regret waiting until after I had a PhD to become a mom.  If not for that, and if not for Mary Austin, I might have found myself exactly in the place Keenan writes about.

I hope Chronicle Vitae’s attention to these issues encourages tenured faculty to reconsider the ways they speak to and think of pregnant women and mothers.  I hope the willingness of Bahn, Kendzior, Leventhal-Weiner, Baker, and Keenan to draw attention to the ways the academy fails to serve mothers causes people to put pressure on their institutions to do better.  I hope other graduate students will read the articles and feel more compelled to lend women like me a hand or a few words of encouragement, because I can’t overstate how much support from colleagues has helped keep me going.  In a less supportive department, I know I would have been long gone.

I also believe all four of these articles should be required reading for women who are considering graduate school and motherhood, as well as for moms like me who are already juggling both.  Baker has written on twitter that she is working on a compilation of posts written elsewhere on the web that address these issues, and I’ll be sure to share that here when she publishes it.  We can always do better when we have a clearer picture of the obstacles before us, I think.

When I read Kate Bahn’s earlier article, I found myself hoping Chronicle Vitae would feature similar work by women who had already become mothers, and they delivered.  Now that I’ve read this insightful and important series of posts, I find myself hoping they’ll invite some women of color to write about the struggles they’ve faced with pregnancy, motherhood, and the academy.  I do not know if all five authors of these articles identify themselves as white, but I do know that none of them take up the issue of race.  Since I work on reproduction and motherhood professionally and do a lot of personal reading about the balance between mothering and working, I know that for black women in particular, the history of the “working mom” struggle has a completely different trajectory.  I plan to write more about this here in the future, but since I’m a white woman myself, I’d much prefer to hear directly from women of color about their attempts to juggle work inside the academy with motherhood and their attitudes toward the “baby penalty.”

If you know of any other articles or posts that tackle these issues, please share links in the comments!

Posted in motherhood and academia | 5 Comments

Debates over Definitions and Discretion: on Hobby Lobby, Contraception, and Abortion

Like many other people, I’m anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case.  If you’re not familiar with the dispute, here is the most basic overview I can provide:  the Affordable Care Act requires companies to cover women’s access to contraceptives.  Hobby Lobby is protesting this on “religious” grounds, refusing to cover particular contraceptives that the owners say are a violation of their religious beliefs.  But Hobby Lobby is a large corporation.  Can corporations have “religious beliefs”?   Katie McDonough writes persuasively about why we should all be concerned about this ruling, regardless of how we feel about contraception.

At the heart of this issue is a debate about when “life” begins for a fetus, since Hobby Lobby wants to assert that “life begins at conception,” or when the sperm fertilizes the egg.  The owners of Hobby Lobby believe this belief gives them the right to refuse to cover certain contraceptives.  But as plenty of others have pointed out, these owners don’t understand how the contraceptives they’ve refused to cover actually work.  Hobby Lobby refused to cover emergency contraceptives (like Plan B) and IUDs because the company has “incorrectly labeled these methods of birth control and emergency contraception as ‘abortifacients,’ a claim popular among anti-choice ideologues but refuted by scientific evidence and major reproductive health associations” (McDonough).  The methods of contraception that Hobby Lobby refuses to cover prevent fertilization from occurring, so even if one believes that “life begins at conception,” these forms of birth control do not interfere with “life” as defined as such.

Furthermore, as Molly Redden reported on Mother Jones, Hobby Lobby invests in the companies who provide the very products they want to refuse to their employees. She writes that “documents filed with the Department of Labor and dated December 2012—three months after the company’s owners filed their lawsuit—show that the Hobby Lobby 401(k) employee retirement plan held more than $73 million in mutual funds with investments in companies that produce emergency contraceptive pills, intrauterine devices, and drugs commonly used in abortions” (Redden).  If Hobby Lobby really believes that these methods of contraception are forms of murder, why don’t they have a problem profiting off of them? If they are taking contraceptive coverage all the way to the Supreme Court, why has Hobby Lobby invested in companies that produce medications that actually do act as abortifacients? In Susan Schorn’s own insightful and moving discussion of the Hobby Lobby case, Schorn points out that Hobby Lobby also profits from “the cheap goods it imports from China, where government control of procreative activity often leads to forced abortions.”

As a woman and a mother, I’m deeply troubled that a corporation is seeking to limit access to its employee’s healthcare benefits.  As a researcher who works on reproduction, though, the Hobby Lobby case is particularly interesting to me because it makes visible something I often find myself trying to explain.  Those of us who are familiar with the history of attitudes toward reproduction know that before abortion was made illegal in the United States, common practice granted the pregnant woman discretion to define when her fetus was “alive,” and thus, to determine the point at which she felt morally obligated to carry the child. By extension, then, the attempt to identify a systematic scientific, medical, or moral definition of the point at which “life begins” during pregnancy is always an attempt to take away a woman’s right to use her discretion to make that distinction and her right to control what happens in her own body.

“Pro-life” activists have tried to convince people that women have always felt shame or regret about terminating their pregnancies, but this is quite simply not the case.  In the 19th Century, before abortion was made illegal in the United States, women did not even have the same definition of “abortion” that “Pro-life” activists now argue are timeless. When there were no laws governing the termination of pregnancy, women who suspected they were pregnant frequently took steps to bring back their periods including drinking teas, taking medications, exerting themselves physically, and so on.  During this period, women only considered these practices to cross over into what we would call an “abortion” once the pregnancy had reached the point of quickening— the period somewhere around four months when the mother can begin to feel the baby’s movements.   Each pregnant woman’s experience of “quickening” is different, and it happens at different times for different women.  Here is a distinction that seems highly significant to me:  by accepting quickening as the standard point of distinction, people were willing to accept that a woman was the best authority over what was happening in her body.  Leslie J. Reagan writes in When Abortion was a Crime that “at conception and the earliest stage of pregnancy before quickening, no one believed that a human life existed; not even the Catholic Church took this view.  Rather, the popular ethic regarding abortion and common law were grounded in the female experience of their own bodies” (8).  Reagan goes on to point out that “this age-old idea underpinned the practice of abortion in America.  The legal acceptance of induced miscarriages before quickening tacitly assumed that women had a basic right to bodily integrity” (9).

When did attitudes toward quickening and abortion change? As Reagan explains, “regular” doctors (the common term for medically trained physicans) had come under fire in the 1820s and 1830s, and claiming power over pregnancy was one means by which they could assert their power and dominance.  “The antiabortion campaign grew in part, James Mohr has shown, out of regular physicians’ desire to win professional power, control medical practice, and restrict their competitors, particularly Homeopaths and midwives” (10).  The campaign against abortion was also “fueled by” “hostility to immigrants, Catholics, and people of color” whose families were growing at a faster rate than those of Protestant white families of non-immigrants, who had the easiest access to abortions (11).  When the series of laws that were passed between 1860 and 1880 made abortion illegal in the U.S., Reagan’s research suggests they “included to innovations: they eliminated the common-law idea of quickening and prohibited abortion at any point in pregnancy,” but they made the exception of allowing abortions when physicians determined them necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life.  In short, “Physicians had won the criminalization of abortion and retained to themselves alone the right to induce abortions when they determined it necessary” (13).  These physicians made themselves the legal arbiters of when it was acceptable to terminate a pregnancy, taking that right away from pregnant women in order to strengthen their power over all aspects of medical practice.

This is why I am always leery of any attempt to distinguish a “point of no return” for terminating a pregnancy.  When someone attempts to draw this line– whether it’s at 20 weeks, or 8 weeks, or the first heartbeat, or fertilization– what that person is really saying is, The mother’s experience of the pregnancy does not matter.  Thererfore, it does not surprise me at all that Hobby Lobby has been hypocritical and uninformed in their arguments about which types of contraception they should be forced to cover.  They are not really trying to distinguish a certain point as “the point at life begins.”  They are not really trying to assure life for all fertilized eggs.

They are trying to do the same thing the “regular” physicians did successfully in the mid 19th Century: they are trying to take the choices about what women do with their bodies out of the hands of those women in order to grant themselves that power.  The Hobby Lobby lawsuit indicates that they want to refuse to provide not only the medications themselves, but also all “related education and counseling.”  To me, granting a corporation power to decide what physicians can say to patients seems like a perfect recipe for rendering those patients powerless, uninformed, and at the mercy of the corporation.

I do not want to go back to a time when quickening was universally accepted as the line of distinction that determined when it was acceptable to terminate a pregnancy.  When women make decisions about when to keep pregnancies and when to terminate them, I want them to be able to benefit from all we’ve learned about reproduction in the years since quickening was used as the point of distinction.  But I do want to go back to letting women decide, for themselves, based upon their own experiences and the information available to them, when it is or is not acceptable to terminate a pregnancy. We know much more now about a fetus than we did before abortion was first criminalized in the U.S., but we don’t have to use that knowledge to limit women’s choices about what to do with their pregnancies.

Instead, we can use that knowledge to empower women: to help women make the best possible decisions for themselves about conception, contraception, pregnancy, and termination of pregnancy.  If individual people object to abortion at any stage and decide against it for themselves, or even if they wish to counsel others against it, I believe that is their right. But when elected officials and large corporations seek to limit the choices available to women as a group, they can call it whatever they want, but it seems to me that the empowerment of women is the thing they really fear.  When, as in this case, the large corporation doesn’t even have their scientific facts straight, and they profit from the very types of medications they want to refuse their employees, it seems quite obvious that something else is at stake.

Pictured below is a quilt I made for my daughter, featuring an embroidered quote from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.  I regularly purchase the kinds of products Hobby Lobby sells, but they’ll never get another penny from me.  But refusing to shop at Hobby Lobby is the very least we can do.  Beyond that, though, we can keep our eyes out for corporations who are trying to make similar power plays.  We can pressure our elected officials to refuse to grant corporations the power over women they seek.  We can try to learn from history in order to make a better future for ourselves and our children.  And I hope we can, as this quote demonstrates, teach our children to think for themselves so they will be better equipped to fight for their own interests as they grow up.



Posted in abortion, contraception | 4 Comments

Feminists Discuss: Disney’s Frozen (Part 2 of 2)

Last week, my friend Catherine and I began our discussion of Disney’s Frozen.  We discussed the songs “Let it Go” and “Frozen Heart” and wished for an additional song at the end of the movie to highlight the progression of Elsa’s attitude toward her powers.  We applauded Olaf for teaching kids about what Catherine called “boundary breaking acts of love” and for showing how the characters are all related to one another.  We finished up with a discussion of Kristoff and the resolution of his romance storyline with Anna. Read on to see where the discussion took us thereafter! (Again: this discussion includes spoilers.)

Liz : In our last post, we left off talking about Kristoff’s role in the movie. For me, an analysis of Kristoff is incomplete without trying to figure out what the trolls are doing in the story. They are a real source of confusion for me. I like how some of the lyrics of “Fixer Upper” underscore the idea that we should direct our attention to love as a means of healing and bonding, with lines like “True love brings out the best!/ Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper/ That’s what it’s all about!” But overall, the song is like an ode to compulsory heterosexuality. Plus, Kristoff wouldn’t need Anna’s love to “fix him up” if the female troll hadn’t decided, at the beginning of the movie, that she wanted to kidnap him. That’s what happens, right?

I’d like to believe the “Fixer Upper” scene is supposed to be expose that even when parents (or parent figures) are motivated by love, it is wrong for them to expect their children to conform to normative conventions like marriage. But if that’s the intent of this scene, it’s not very successful for me.  The song is so catchy that the trolls come across as endearing even though what they are doing offends me. Last time, we agreed that “Frozen Heart” is productive in its complexity, but I think “Fixer Upper” sends an inconsistent message. Can you tell me what you and your girls think of the trolls and their role in the story? Is the oldest troll someone to be trusted or not?

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Catherine: Like the kiss between Anna and Kristoff at the end, the trolls are another one of the elements of the film that feel out of place, anachronistic, and downright strange, if not offensive. Grandpappy seems to have a role in forwarding the plot—he saves Anna several times. However, he’s a little bit of a trickster, and not in the literary way. He ends up presenting a true love riddle, which she nearly dies trying to solve. He tells Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf that Anna can only be saved by an act of true love, immediately following what you’ve so aptly called “an ode to compulsory heterosexuality.” And Grandpappy’s seemingly-intentional lack of clarity nearly costs Anna her life—so why would he/the filmmakers do that? Perhaps, he wants Anna to find true love for herself? Or maybe if she’s looking hard enough, she’s already figured it out? What is the lesson there? 

So this gets me to the trolls’ song. And I think this scene plays just as unclear a role in the narrative. On the one hand, true love conquers all! On the other hand, “Father! Sister! Brother!/We need each other/To fix us up and round us out!” So, there are two things going on at once—one, the song unnecessarily forces Anna and Kristoff into a love pairing. Two, the trolls seem to be giving hints about what true love really is in the movie—a “powerful and strange” force that is far more capacious than compulsory heterosexuality allows for. The problem here is that this doesn’t seem to be done intentionally, or at least the hint dropping is not offset in any clear ways. And, so, like some other things in the movie, we need to worry about takeaways for young kids. I’m really interested to hear more of your critique of this scene.

L: The lyrics you pulled make me realize that “mother” is left out of the list of family members who “need each other,” so now I’m even more annoyed with the trolls than I was before.  Your analysis helps me clarify my objection to the scene: some of the song lyrics seem to be making important claims about expanding our definition of what “true love” really is and how it functions, but other song lyrics and the actions of the trolls themselves directly contradict that more expansive, inclusive vision of “true love.” I cringe every time the trolls sing “Her quote engagement is a flex arrangement/ and by the way, I don’t see no ring!” I mean, these are creatures that not only try to force two characters into a marriage— they are creatures who completely disregard the statements and feelings of those two characters in doing so.  If she says she’s engaged, she’s engaged.  Kristoff understands and respects this, so if the trolls are supposed to be the “love experts,” why don’ t they?  I can’t abide this.

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Your comments about Grandpappy’s trickery made me want to consult the source material. I haven’t read all of “The Snow Queen,” the Hans Christian Andersson story that Disney used as the inspiration for the story.  From what I understand, it is a very loose adaptation.  But when I looked at the story, I found that “The Snow Queen” is introduced with the trickery of a “hobgoblin” who is responsible for the ice that forms in some peoples’ hearts. When he sees that this causes people trouble, he “laughed till he split his sides; it tickled him to see the mischief he had done.” So I guess I can see how this might have served as the original inspiration for the trolls and their characteristics I don’t like.  Even so, I still don’t see why they are presented as wise and endearing when their behavior is highly problematic.  I know I’ve read that the composition of “Let It Go” led the creators to reconsider Elsa’s character, and they ultimately rewrite the script considerably to make her less of a villain.  It seems to me that a lot more work was needed at the story level to integrate “Fixer Upper” into the plot of the movie.

On the topic of songs that send confusing messages, though, I’m also curious what you think of the characterization of Hans. Why does “Love is an Open Door,” the main love duet in the movie, feature one of its eventual villains? To me, Hans seems sincere when he falls for Anna and becomes a villain only because that allows the plot to move to the desired end. What do you make of him?

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C: I agree with you completely. I like to think of these movies like true fairy tales, at their best teaching us lessons (good or bad), warning us about behavior. The only lesson I initially picked up from Hans was that sociopaths can be very tricky. And I am only being half facetious. He really did seem genuine at first, and the filmmakers could have made him remorseful when he admitted that his kiss wouldn’t, in fact, be an act of love. A user or a social climber, fine, but he didn’t have to be a secret-plotting pathological murderer. I’m not sure I have a smart critique of that—it just seemed strange and disconcerting. In a separate conversation, you pointed out a good lesson Hans teaches us on being discerning about marriage. I’d love to hear more about that.

L: Like you say, Hans doesn’t work for me as a character. His change from endearing fiancé to would-be murderer is not adequately developed. I wish his change from seemingly good guy to bad guy was less severe because I like the outcome of this change. It validates Elsa’s insistence that Anna be more careful about choosing a partner, and it shows the negative outcome of Anna’s desire to fit herself into a traditional princess narrative (in the same way that she literally fits herself into the paintings she sees on her walls).  My husband recently asked me if Elsa is the only one of the Disney Princesses who becomes the “queen,” and I think she is.  In a sense, then, Elsa is speaking from a unique position of power when she finds fault with the tendency of all the other Disney Princesses to look for their “Prince Charmings.”  I like that.

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I don’t know how well the movie itself articulates this message, but it clearly creates a space for parents to talk to their children about why Elsa objects to the engagement.  Nora has a Frozen book, in which Elsa says “You can’t marry someone you just met!” We have read this book a lot, and recently, when she was pretending to read an Elmo book to her dolls, I heard her say “Elmo, you can’t marry someone you just met!” Similarly, a good friend of mine took a video of her five year old daughter reading a different Frozen book to her three year old daughter, and when they got to the part where Elsa refuses to give her blessing to Anna’s engagement, the older daughter went into a long and insightful explanation to her little sister. She clarified that Elsa says “No!” to the engagement because she was trying to look out for Anna and because Elsa knows you have to get to know someone before you can marry them. So I can appreciate that this element of the plot teaches young girls to recognize that “Princess seeks Prince Charming” narrative as problematic and cautions them to be careful about romantic relationships. I just don’t think Hans needed to turn into, as you say, a sociopath for this message to stick.

Generally, I do think we’ve covered the aspects of this movie that serve as sticking points for me. Can you think of anything else that bothered you or feels unresolved within the movie?

C: The final problematic element I’d like to bring up is that Anna alludes several times to weight. I’d rather my children, who are the complete target audience of these films, not hear jokes like “You look beautifuller. No, no, not ‘fuller’—you don’t look ‘fuller’.” That is some junk that offends me to the core, and that we need to do away with this instant, as far as I’m concerned. I realize we can’t look away from questions of body image, but this doesn’t even look critically at our bodies as objects. Rather, Anna seems precoccupied by boys and whether or not she should eat chocolate around them, as well as weight in general. I simply don’t like this—and I also don’t think it jives with the time period of the movie, so it feels like an easy, poorly-dated pun. Plus, it undermines the characters’ strength, agility, intelligence, etc. Any thoughts on why animated filmmakers continue to do this?

L: Oh, yes, totally. I’m willing to overlook a lot for a good pun, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to overlook this, and I don’t even think this pun is a good one. I would like to ask Kristen Bell, specifically, why she agreed to voice that line. I’ve seen video clips and interviews where she talks about how she’s proud to have helped mold Anna into the type of princess she could have related to when she was young. For the most part, I think Bell has been very successful at making Anna relatable. There’s a goofiness about her I find really endearing and unprecedented in Disney movies. While other Disney Princesses have worried about weight, it seems especially strange coming from Kristen Bell, who has been so outspoken in her advocacy for her young daughter and has said several times that she is trying to lose the “baby weight” from her pregnancy but refuses to be fixated on it. So I wish she had spoken up and suggested a different line. I think it’s there to help us see that Anna feels really awkward around Elsa in that moment, but any other number of quips could have made this clear without suggesting that to be perceived as “fuller” is an insult. I also resent that this line provides a poor setup for what is legitimately my favorite scene in the movie— those few minutes where the sisters chat about the party, share jokes, and laugh at the expense of the Duke of Weaseltown. There is so much that is good about this movie that its troublesome aspects feel extra difficult to stomach.

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C: I like this movie, too. It makes me think critically about what it means to expose problems of gender, normativity, etc, and how that exposure can best be translated into protest. It also makes me think about how textual coding is still alive and well. I think the movie is transgressive in some key ways, and it has sparked some interesting conversations with my daughters about the breadth and importance of acts of love. We’ve also talked a lot about who you trust with your heart and when, what makes a good friend, how much to give of yourself, how to balance honesty and kindness, etc. As long as I watch with my kids, ready to engage, I think the movie is fertile ground for helping shape our girls’ ideas of feeling, love, and bravery.

L: I feel the same way. I think there is enough to love about this movie to keep it in rotation in our house, which is fortunate, because Nora is smitten with Elsa, Anna, and Olaf. I also appreciate all the critical conversations the movie has prompted—ours included. We didn’t tackle the suggestion of Elsa as a queer character, in large part because I feel like other people have written about that issue so extensively. Of the different queer analyses of the movie that I’ve read, I like best the brief analysis a blogger named Rosie posted on Fandoms and Feminism back in December. I appreciate the insights Rosie gives about how Elsa serves as a point of queer identification, but I also think it’s important that Rosie points out how Elsa falls short of being an actual queer role model.

If other readers have come across particularly good queer readings of the movie, I’d love to see links in the comments. For now, though, I do want to underscore my happiness about the fact that Elsa does not end up partnered off with a Prince or other “Knight in Shining Armor” type. I do appreciate how that makes her a different heroine than Disney has presented us in the past, and I hope the huge financial success of “Frozen” means Disney will continue to make movies that are even more explicitly feminist and/or queer friendly moving forward.  

Catherine, thank you so much for having this conversation with me! Your analysis of these various points has helped me think through my reactions to the movie in a meaningful way, and I think your insights will help me shape Nora’s viewing of the movie as she gets older.

I was thinking on this final point of my conversation with Catherine over the weekend, when I read Linda Holmes’s recent post about the power the young women she calls “Book Girls” have to dictate what stories are available to our young people.  Holmes writes, “The Book Girls are only partly real; like most heavily marketed-to demographics, they only sort of exist. Every Book Girl is something else, too – a sportsy girl, a scientist, a nail-art aficionado, a poet, a prodigy, a patient. But the force they are exerting is real. They have created a market for what they love, and they insist upon it.”  As someone who read John Grisham’s The Client at age 11 and immediately began reading his three earlier novels, I know exactly the type of girl Holmes describes.  I was one.  (That’s 2200+ pages of Grisham before the age of 12, for better or for worse).  And as someone who had Ramona Quimby and Caddy Woodlawn and Dicey Tillerman but had to read Grisham to find Darby Shaw because there was no Katniss Everdeen or Hazel Grace Lancaster, I’m encouraged that Holmes is convinced the newest generation of book girls “have helped create a space where girls who fight and feel things are not genre-breaking but genre-defining elements.”  I hope the same will be true for Disney movies.

Posted in feminists discuss, movies

Feminists Discuss: Disney’s Frozen (Part 1 of 2)

Last year, I began hearing rumblings about how Disney’s latest release, Frozen, empowered young girls through its depiction of sister princesses, Elsa and Anna.  My daughter and I quickly became enamored with the YouTube video of Idina Menzel singing “Let It Go,” so we were both anxious to see the full movie when it was released for home viewing.  Since then, I’ve seen it several times and had quite a few brief conversations about it with friends.  For this post, I thought it would be interesting to open up a dialogue with my friend, colleague, and fellow feminist mom, Catherine, to discuss what we see as the merits and detractions of this now Academy Award winning animated feature.

I met Catherine when we were both Master’s students in a survey of 20th Century American Women writers.  I can remember noticing her thoughtful and attentive analysis of texts early in the term, and my appreciation for her intellectual contributions grew when I learned that she was balancing academics, working, and motherhood.  She has two delightful young daughters at home (now nearly 7 and 5), and since finishing her MA, Catherine has been teaching writing courses at several local colleges in addition to her work as a poet.  She is also the co-editor of To Linger on Hot Coals: Collected Poetic Works from Grieving Women Writers, where she writes poignantly about the stillbirth of her first daughter.

I really enjoyed having this conversation with Catherine and am so thankful she was willing to contribute to the blog!  I hope you enjoy reading the conversation, too.  Perhaps I should warn you, in case you have not yet seen the movie and don’t want it to be ruined for you, that this analysis contains plenty of spoilers.  We both like this movie and allow our daughters to watch it repeatedly, but we agree that it could be improved in some ways, so I asked Catherine to begin with a discussion of one aspect of the movie she finds troubling.

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Catherine: The more I watch that movie (and I’ve watched it a lot), the more interested I become in the pathologizing of affect and what it means to call forth and physically manifest notions of “hysteria” for an audience of young girls. I think the movie is a triumph in some ways, in terms of an overt and resolved focus on “act[s] of true love” as potentially non-normative. But I worry that Elsa’s “conceal don’t feel” message can be dangerous and confusing for young girls. I think, if only there had been an equally compelling musical number during the denouement, I would feel better about the whole thing. It doesn’t slip past children that Elsa is unwittingly damaging her whole world as she revels obliviously in feeling. “Let it Go” is, of course, an essential and powerful part of the movie, but she takes it all back–so the song actually codifies her emotional frenzy rather than supplanting it. So, how much better would a reprise of “Let it Go” be once Elsa had made peace with her complexity?

Liz: I love your suggestion of another song at the end and/or a reprise of “Let it Go” that grapples with Elsa’s complexity. The songs in the movie are strangely front loaded, and I would like a closing number that ties up the themes of the the movie as well as “Frozen Heart” opens them at the beginning. “Frozen Heart” is easy to overlook because it isn’t sung by main characters, but I think it gives us an important way of interpreting the story. I like how the song emphasizes that “This icy force both foul and fair has a frozen heart worth mining,” and it calls forward to “Let it Go” by incorporating those words. If there was a song at the end that acknowledged how Elsa realizes, through Anna’s love, that the way to manage her powers is through focusing on love rather than fear, the message would be more obvious and thus easier for kids to take to heart. Your comments make me wish for a reprise called “Let it Show,” where the sisters (and maybe the other characters, as well) sing about the positive potential of putting their feelings out in the open.

C: I’ve also noticed the through lines in “Frozen Heart.” I really like the final stanza–“Cut through the heart, cold and clear/Strike for love and strike for fear./There’s beauty and there’s danger here/Split the ice apart/Beware the frozen heart.” (Those italics are mine, but emphasis is also conveyed in the song.) All in all, while the ice is Elsa’s magic, I wonder if the song is critiquing the suppression of feeling (frozen heart?) rather than affect itself. It gives me heart that the song really foreshadows the idea that “the frozen heart” can mean many things. The song suggests that some people are broken by lack of self-worth (like Hans) and that “the frozen heart” itself (in the case of Elsa’s suppression of feelings) is something to be wary of when achieving self hood.

L: Your reading of the complex ideas that are managed in “Frozen Heart” speaks to why Olaf’s role in the story is very important to me. Obviously he’s the standard “comic relief” character, but I love how he shows that the positive potential of Elsa’s powers and her love for Anna was there all along, even though Elsa believes her powers are wholly negative until she meets him. The way Elsa looks at her hands in awe after she realizes Olaf is alive is a high point for me. I like that Anna is able to save Elsa’s life because Anna was first freed from the locked room by Olaf, whom Elsa.  Anna grows up thinking her sister did not “wanna build a snowman,” but the snowman she does create repeatedly propels the plot toward its desirable conclusion. What do your girls think about Olaf? Nora just thinks he’s hilarious, so I’m curious about whether older children can make the connections I’m suggesting, or if they are so subtle that adults would need to explain his role. 

C: I think Olaf is universally loved. My girls believe he is the greatest/funniest character in all history (and the adults in my house agree). At 6 and 5, my children definitely notice Olaf’s riff on “act[s] of true love” in the line “Some people are worth melting for.” While for adults the line feels a bit saturated and sentimental, I think the movie did a great job considering audience in this case. While Olaf’s willingness to melt for Anna doesn’t, in fact, save her, it feels to the viewer like it could have. And it’s another act of love that defies the normative. While Olaf is obviously gendered male, he in no way conforms to inscribed standards of masculinity. Equally interesting is the way his body is constantly morphing into alternative shapes and arrangements, created by Elsa and even altered by Anna’s decision to give him a carrot nose. His shapeshifting and genderless physical body shows children boundary breaking acts of love, as does the fact that he is a snowman. And I think it is wonderful for children to see non-normative love acts, especially when so many movies sensationalize that only brave male characters can set female characters free. And I do think kids pick up on this, which allows them to see broadly how love acts aren’t confined to prince-princess scenarios. Bonus.

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L: Your reading of Olaf just makes me love him (and his role in the movie) even more. It’s refreshing to hear that your girls are cognizant of his acts of love as ones that break boundaries and expectations. I also like your attention to his non-normative and fluid body because, for me, he IS the embodiment of the sisters’ love for one another while also remaining an independent being. It’s great, then, that his is a body that has so many different potentials and is not regulated by normative standards. Your mention of how Anna contributes the nose to Olaf brings to mind the way that he uses the nose to unlock the door of the room where she’s trapped– and the movie draws attention to the fact that Sven, the reindeer, leaves Olaf’s carrot nose alone even though he’d really like to eat it. This reminds me of that Karen Barad reading we did together several years ago, from Meeting the Universe Halfway, where Barad theorizes what she calls “agential realism.” It feels strange to be pulling from such a complex theoretical construct to understand “Frozen,” but I like how Barad’s work shows that distinctions between objects and bodies are not obvious and clear cut. She argues that we conceptualize these distinctions as we interact (and “intra-act”) with the material features of our world. I really do think “Frozen” is a movie that is trying to teach us that we are all interconnected in very important ways, even when we don’t realize it. The large and small details in the movie all insist that this type of interconnectedness is a good thing, and I like that a lot.

C: That Barad chapter was so intuitive (and oh so complex), and it’s one I’ve found myself thinking about as much as any other I read in graduate school.  That’s saying a lot, as I’m mostly quite put off by reading literary theory (gasp).  And I absolutely see the connectedness you’re bringing up.  Alternatively, thinking about places of real fracture, lack of agency, and pitfalls of the film, I guess we need to discuss Anna’s lovelife. I think this is nicely resolved as well, in some ways, but I’m curious what you think about the Kristoff plot. My thoughts are mixed. On the micro level, I think Kristoff’s involvement is well handled. As in, he stands up to a good close reading. But, on the macro level, I worry that the little kid takeaway is the same–Kristoff and Anna smooch. But enough happens after the smooch that I’d like to be convinced otherwise.

L: I feel a bit ambivalent about the Kristoff/Anna romantic pairing at the end. On the one hand, the progression from falling in love with Hans at first sight to developing a partnership based on mutual respect with Kristoff is a good one. I ultimately don’t mind too much that Anna ends up kissing Kristoff because of how their relationship develops and defies conventions within kids movies. She repeatedly acts with will and intention, and he is not only comfortable with her tenacity– it seems to be a large part of what attracts him to her. On the other hand, like you suggest, it implicitly reinforces the idea that Anna needs a man to cure her loneliness. I do think it’s significant that before the traditional kiss, Kristoff asks for permission to kiss Anna and he is pleasantly shocked when she kisses him on the cheek.  But if the kiss itself had been left out, we could have decided for ourselves what the outcome of their love was going to be. Maybe that’s the edit I would have made?  I also think the kiss is presented as perhaps even more necessary for Kristoff than it is for Anna, which also defies convention, and that intrigues me.

frozen post kiss

C: I think you’re right about Kristoff needing the kiss more than Anna. After all, he returns for her because he can’t seem to shake her emotionally, and so on. Again, as critical as I am of these normative love pairings, I have to admit I really like Kristoff. In several ways, he doesn’t line up with convention—he expects Anna to hold her own—plus, he’s cranky about his heroism and cute in an unusual sort of way. So, as a character, he holds some water for me. But I really like the suggestion of leaving out the kiss entirely. I think, as strange as this sounds, somehow an animated film doesn’t feel complete unless two good looking opposite-sex people make out (collective cheer and sigh!). And I think the contained message for children is clear—that the only imaginable complete resolution of any conflict must involve true love’s kiss. So, I guess I’d rather us work through our collective sense of discomfort with Kristoff and Anna not kissing than just suppress it some. 

Correction: I asked my daughter, Eleanor (almost 7), whether she felt like the kiss was really important in the movie. She said that, because the act of true love came before the kiss, “It is as if the kiss doesn’t even really exist.” She’s been very dramatic about what it means to exist lately. But I thought it was interesting that she interpreted the kiss as non-essential. Maybe they are picking up on even more nuances than I realize, for better or worse.

Catherine and I found ourselves getting a little carried away with this conversation, so we will continue with another post next week about the non-normative aspects of “Frozen,” our opinions of the trolls and “Fixer Upper,” the role Hans plays in the movie, and the one particular line that drives us both nuts.  In the meantime, we’d love to hear what you think about the movie: in particular, its song arrangement, Olaf, and the Kristoff/Anna pairing!

I hope “Feminists Discuss” will be an ongoing series of posts on the blog.  If there’s a text and/or issue you’d like to discuss with me, please get in touch via feministmomstudies [at] gmail [dot] com!

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#YesAllWomen, Adrienne Rich, and Twitter Feminism

I found out about the shootings in Isla Vista, CA the same way I get most of my news these days: piecemeal, via twitter.  While the details unfolded, Mary Elizabeth Williams, a feminist columnist I admire and follow on twitter, posted a tweet that echoes my initial reaction to this latest murderous rampage:

Anytime other peoples’ children are killed, my heart breaks for them and my fears for my own daughter are plucked.  In this case, the more I read about what happened, the more I was confronted with the concerns I have for myself and my daughter on an everyday basis.  Not only had this young male killer documented his motivations– he wanted to kill people because he resented his inability to develop sexual relationships with women– he had documented these motivations so publicly, in a variety of different online forums, and the posts were easy to trace back to him.  He had been treated by trained professionals.  He had been visited by the police at the bequest of his parents.  And still, somehow, he managed to legally purchase guns and go on a killing spree.  I agree with everyone who has pointed out that his attitudes did not seem “alarming” to officials because we do not take misogyny seriously enough in our culture.  The world which taught this young man he was entitled to a female sexual partner is the same world that looked the other way when he wrote and spoke about wanting to kill them.

This incident is heartbreaking and troubling to me as a woman, as a mom, and particularly as a mom of a young girl.  I was so depressed and yet heartened by the #YesAllWomen tweets that started filling up my timeline on Saturday.  I spent some time clicking around in the hashtag more extensively.  In general, these tweets were attempting to give voice to the fears that women live with every day– the type of fears that are substantiated when a young man goes on a killing spree after directly stating that his motivation is to get revenge upon women who have not shown sexual interest in him.

The things I kept seeing in the #YesAllWomen conversation reminded me immediately of a class I taught several weeks ago.  I had assigned Adrienne Rich’s 1980/3 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (full text available here) as well as a few of her poems.  In the essay, Rich includes 8 characteristics of male power that were first articulated by Kathleen Gough in “The Origin of the Family” (1975).  These are as follows:

“Characteristics of male power include the power of men (1) to deny women [their own] sexuality, (2) or to force it [male sexuality] upon them, (3) to command or exploit their labor to control their produce, (4) to control or rob them of their children, (5) to confine them physically and prevent their movement, (6) to use them as objects in male transactions, (7) to cramp their creativeness, (8) to withhold from them large areas of the society’s knowledge and cultural attainments.”

The bracketed words have been added by Rich. In addition, she adds a list of examples for each of the eight characteristics.  When we discussed the article in class, I asked my students to share examples of each characteristic out loud.  My hope was to help my students realize that while some of the examples Rich includes sound dated, most of them are still very serious issues.  The discussion achieved that desired effect, but it also resulted in something I didn’t anticipate: a long, detailed discussion among my students (15 female and 1 male) about the ways these characteristics of male power have impacted their lives.  It quickly became apparent that we were going to spend so long talking about this one aspect of the article that we were going to need an additional day of class to finish the article and discuss the poems.  This turned out to be my favorite class of the whole semester– and really, a class I will not soon forget, even though I’ve been teaching for 10+ years now.  I hoped the class was meaningful to them, too.

I have been thinking about that class meeting a lot these past few days, and comparing it to what I’ve seen happening under the #YesAllWomen hashtag.  So many of the experiences and fears women have articulated under #YesAllWomen have been similar to the examples my students gave which prove that these characteristics of male power endure.  In both circumstances, women who shared the ways male power have impacted their lives were able to identify with one another.  They participated in the types of experience Rich advocates in her article: the “primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, the giving and receiving of practical and political support.”  I hope that for all the women who participated in the hashtag, the advantages of doing so outweighed the disadvantages.  I hope that the women whose lives prevented them from feeling comfortable joining the conversation nonetheless were able to experience some of the therapeutic effects of this identification.  I hope that the woman who started the hashtag, who has now asked not to be identified, doesn’t regret the choice even if she regrets the exposure.  I also hope that my students learned something about themselves and about each other in that discussion.  A few of them talked to me about it outside of class, suggesting they found it fascinating and/or therapeutic to hear other women talk about their shared experiences.  I hope they will think back on that class the next time they find themselves oppressed by male power, and this will help them to feel less alone.

I’ve also been thinking about how the two “spaces” of activism are very different, though.  The most obvious difference is that my students were sharing these ideas in a relatively safe space.  They knew I was likely to empathize with them, and I think they knew that if anyone had questioned the validity of their feelings I would have immediately intervened.  Conversely, women who have been participating in #YesAllWomen online have done so with full knowledge that they are opening themselves up to further attacks from misogynists.  I don’t want to embed tweets that prove that people responded to #YesAllWomen tweets by attacking the women sharing their feelings and/or stories for the same reason I will not include the killer’s name: because I don’t want to amplify those voices.  Instead, I’ll just say that, as feminist comedian and writer Lindy West points out, people regularly attack women online using the same lines of argument the Isla Vista shooter articulated– and they did it again with this hashtag.

There are countless twitter accounts that seem to have been created for the sole purpose of harassing and threatening feminists who tweet.  This difference between sharing one’s feelings in my classroom and sharing one’s feelings through #YesAllWomen proves that there are significant advantages to being in a Women’s Studies/English class.  Twitter users must have some privilege to be able to access twitter in the first place, but this pales in comparison to the amount of privilege required for one to gain access to my classroom.  It disheartens me to know there are so few safe places for women, and that those which do exist are so difficult to access.

But I have also been trying to think about the positive potentials twitter affords.  So many women have participated in #YesAllWomen that it is hard to imagine that many twitter users were able to avoid it entirely.  I know there are probably many people who were merely annoyed about having to scroll through the #YesAllWomen tweets that were appearing in their feeds.  Even that seems productive to me, though.  I want to live in a world where it becomes increasingly difficult to overlook the ways women are victimized.  I want to live in a world where people can reach across the lines that often divide us– gender, class, race, sexuality, religion, politics, geographic location, etc etc– to relate to one another and to learn from one another.  I think twitter is helping to make that possible, even if it is still a very dangerous place to share our feelings and to advocate against misogyny.

As I think back on the Adrienne Rich article I assigned my students, I am reminded that she indirectly addresses the question Mary Elizabeth Williams poses: How do we explain all the hate and violence against women in our society? Rich insists on reading against the grain when she acknowledges the complexity of the various aspects of society that oppress women. Regarding the list of eight characteristics of male power over women, Rich writes, “we are confronting not a simple maintenance of inequality and property possession, but a pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness, which suggests that an enormous potential counterforce is having to be restrained” (emphasis added).  If women did not have considerable force of their own, it would not require such a complex and powerful “cluster of forces” to disempower women.  This is the aspect of the conversation I have to focus on as a woman, a mother, and a caretake of a young girl, or I find it hard to even keep moving forward.  When my daughter asks me to explain the “cluster of forces” that oppress her, I will make sure she knows this cluster of forces is an indirect but real testament to her own power and to the power she can achieve if she joins the people who want to throw off this “cluster of forces.”  I agree with Rich that “women have always resisted male tyranny,” and I want to believe that twitter is giving us a place to make that counterforce of female empowerment visible and to help it grow.

In the spirit of helping us to achieve this potential, I hope you will share your thoughts in the comments about the positive and negative aspects of twitter as a place to practice feminism.  (If your comment is misogynistic, I will not publish it.)  I’ve been fortunate to read my colleague Ruth Osorio‘s feminist rhetorical analysis of the #Solidarityisforwhitewomen movement that began last summer, and I’d love to hear what more people think about twitter as a space of feminist potential.  In the meantime, though, I also want to share a few links to posts that address this tragedy, and the issues I’ve been thinking through in this post.

Roxane Gay: “In Relief of Silence and Burden.”  “Yesterday, I saw all this bare testimony and thought it won’t change anything and then, with the help of people I talk with online, I realized that the testimony isn’t for change, necessarily. The testimony is so we can be heard. The testimony is so we can relieve ourselves of silence and burden.”

Jessica Valenti: “[Redacted]’s California killing spree: further proof that misogyny kills.”  “If we need to talk about this tragic shooting in terms of illness, though, let’s start with talking about our cultural sickness – a sickness that refuses to see misogyny as anything other than inevitable.”

Mathew Ingram: “Yes, hashtags can be trivial and annoying — but discussion threads like #YesAllWomen can also be powerful.”  “But even if those feelings of solidarity with complete strangers doesn’t result in a revolution, there is still value in the discussion — and much of that value comes from the fact that it occurs in public, on a platform that allows anyone to participate.”

David Perry: “[Redacted] and Intersectionality.  Fighting ‘the shrug.‘”  “I see clear arguments to make the UCSB killings about misogyny, about guns, about class, about mental illness. And that’s why the concept of intersectionality is so important – it allows us, when confronted with life, which is always complicated, to get past the almighty shrug.”

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