phenomenal african women in music, theatre, fiction, and visual art

pink_blue_bag

Pink / Blue Plastic Bag
Sokari Douglas Camp, 2010
Materials: Steel Perspex Plastic
Housed: Stux Gallery, USA

Last week I got into a Facebook argument with someone I didn’t know on a friend’s page. I was a bit embarrassed, as I normally ignore stupid Facebook comments from complete strangers and I didn’t want to turn my friend’s page into my own little soapbox, but he said something I just couldn’t let go.

The guy prefaced his comment by admitting it was ethnocentric and then said the entire continent of Africa is a shithole that has nothing to offer the rest of the world and he has no interest in anything that happens there.

I…I just–I couldn’t let it go. I had to say something. So I said something about imperialism and racial hegemony and recognizing our own roles in the various struggles in various parts of Africa.

As expected, he figured I was a hypocrite because what I had ever done for Africa?

Well, for one thing, I don’t freaking shut an entire continent out of my life because I can’t be bothered with its misery. In fact, I actively engage with issues in Africa though my work in women’s advocacy and enjoy, in particular, music from Mali, food from Ethiopia, and literature from Egypt. Furthermore, I recognize that Africa is made up of countries and cultures that are distinctive and complex and is not just a big pile of shit, thank you very much.

Can you tell I’m still a bit angry?

Sometimes I think I’ve become an angrier person since the internet invaded my life. There’s so much to be upset about!

Let’s all take a deep breath and pour a glass of smoky scotch to soothe us.

The good thing is that there’s a lot to love and cherish and celebrate too. Like this piece on how Western feminists could learn a thing or two from Africa’s many women leaders (64% of the Rwandan parliament, for instance). That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite African women working in creative fields today. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you will love them.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What can I even say about this woman? She writes like a graceful beast, stomping right through your heart on her toes. From Nigeria, Adichie is the author of, among other books, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), and the recently released Americanah. She’s also given two kick-ass TED talks, “The danger of a single story” and “We should all be feminists.” Yes, ma’am, please, and thank you.
  • Ama Aita Aidoo: Poet, playwright, and author Aidoo writes about women challenging traditional gender roles in Ghana. Check out her novel Changes, which follows Elsi, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and then enters a polygamous relationship.
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Zimbabwean writer published her first book, the award-winning Nervous Conditions, when she was only 28. It was one of the best works I read in graduate school. She also created the story for Neria, one of the most successful films of Zimbabwe.
  • Sokari Douglas Camp: A sculptor from Nigeria, Douglas Camp works out of London. Her medium is steel, and she draws from Nigerian culture (more specifically, her Kalibari heritage) and such issues as war, oil, death, gender, and race. Her work looks homemade and industrial at the same time; it is shiny, dark, and bright at once. I love Yoruba Ladies, Sharia Fubara, and Saint.
  • Mariam Doumbia: One half of musical duo Amadou & Mariam, Doumbia went blind as a child, like her guitar player and fellow vocalist, Amadou Bagayoko, whom she met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Last year saw the release of their eighth album, Folila. Listen to “Dougou Badia,” which features Santigold, whose voice blends nicely with Doumbia’s.
  • Nadine Gordimer: A Nobel Prize winner, Gordimer writes of race and politics in South Africa. Her award-winning novel The Pickup deals with the alien feeling of being an immigrant. She is also known for her work against apartheid and for HIV prevention.
  • Tracey Rose: Based in South Africa, Rose explores identity, gender, race, and the body through performance, video installations, and photography. Her 2001 video installation Ciao Bella, which offers images of iconic women “taunt[ing] one another’s historical time zones and scoff[ing] at one another’s histories and politics,” has been described as “a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8).” I ask you: does it get better than that?
  • Nawal El Saadawi: An Egyptian feminist writer and doctor, El Saadawi wrote, among other books, Woman at Point Zero, about a woman forced into prostitution who receives a death sentence for killing her pimp. The story was based on a real prisoner. El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, is a big advocate for women’s rights and speaks out against female genital mutilation.
  • Rokia Traoré: This Malian musician performed in and wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, shared a song with Half the Sky‘s 30 Songs/30 Days, and recorded with Kronos Quartet. She is smart and bold, and she plays the hell out of her guitar. Her album Beautiful Africa just came out.

celebrating transgender art

It seems like stories of transgender folks are appearing in the news more and more. Recently, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, crowned Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their first transgender homecoming queen, which was great news that was inevitably followed by bullying and criticism.

Before that, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning bravely became Chelsea Manning. Many journalists and media outlets respectfully followed AP style guidelines by using Manning’s new name and female pronouns, which made for a good lesson for the general public, but Fox News, to no one’s surprise, refused to make the change and even ridiculed Manning’s gender identity.

In the past few months, Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones was beaten, stabbed, and shot to death by a mob in Montego Bay; 21-year-old Islan Nettles was out with other trans folks in Harlem, New York, when a group of men beat her to death; a trans woman was stripped naked and thrown off a bridge in Mexico City; and Diamond Williams, a transgender woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was killed and dismembered, her body parts left in a field.

I understand that a lot of people have lived their entire lives thinking of gender as a fixed fact of life instead of a fluid social construct. That doesn’t excuse violence, but it explains some of the ignorance we keep seeing. The presence of out gays and lesbians in pop culture has helped to normalize homosexuality and strengthen equality efforts such as legalized gay marriage, so I’m crossing my fingers that as transgender folks become more visible–through everything from reality shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–the rest of the world will continue to loosen their heternormative restraints.

Even for those who happily identify as their assigned sex, the performance of it can be exhausting. Haven’t you ever wanted, even for a moment, to break free from the confines of your manhood or womanhood?

I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to highlighting transgender artists and gender-bending art. If you want to understand why people struggle with their assigned sex and work to create their own gender identities, this list is an excellent start.

Artists

Musicians

Filmmakers and Theatre Artists

  • Iizuka Kashou: writer/director of Our Future, a Japanese coming-of-age film centered on an 18-year-old girl who explores her masculinity after her parents separate
  • Andrea James and Calpernia Addams of Deep Stealth Productions:  produced comedic shorts Transproofed and Casting Pearls as well as the first all-transgender Vagina Monologues, prepped Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica
  • D’Lo: analyzes South Asian and immigrant experiences of non-traditional gender identity and sexuality through comedy, leads community workshops, recent work: D’FunQT (one-person show)

Films

  • Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997): Seven-year-old Ludovic prefers dresses, which his family initially finds endearing until they discover there’s more to it than fashion and others don’t respond as kindly in this comedy drama.
  • Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003): This drama tells the true story of Nong Thoom, a successful Muay Thai fighter and trans woman.
  • Tomboy (France, 2011): A little girl is mistakenly identified as a boy, and she goes along with it, feeling perhaps that it’s not a mistake after all.
  • Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland, 2005): Based on the novel by Patrick McCabe, this film follows a trans woman’s youth in 1940s Ireland, right next to the border of Northern Ireland and the busy and violent IRA.

Novels

  • Sacred Country: Rose Tremain’s prize-winning novel is set in rural England, where we find Mary Ward, the child of poor farmers, who discovers at six that she doesn’t want to be a girl.
  • Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the struggles of Cal, an intersex child raised as a girl in a fairly traditional Greek American family, who finally manages to define his own identity as an adult.
  • Cereus Blooms at Night: Shani Mootoo’s acclaimed debut explores gender identity in a fictional Carribean country through Tyler, a nurse who cares for Mala, an older woman suspected of killing her father.
  • Annabel: Kathleen Winter’s debut novel reminds us of the limitations of gender through an intersex child raised as Wayne, who loves hunting in the desolate Labrador countryside with his father but has a shadow self he calls “Annabel.”

falling into words: the year i thought i wasn’t a writer after all

To celebrate the autumnal equinox yesterday, I attended Letters to the Earth: Songs and Poems of Conservation at Ijams Nature Center. The sky was a dreamy blue, so I rode my bike there. Jewel-toned hummingbirds flitted in and out of trees and cicadas sang their afternoon song while we lounged on the patio listening to a handful of Knoxville’s great poets: Marilyn Kallet, Arthur Smith, Jesse Graves, R.B. Morris, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Linda Parsons Marion.

They spoke of blackberries and tomatoes and mockingbirds, tigers and rhinos and rural landscapes. I was stuffed with empanadas, grilled corn, dulce de leche, and fresh coconut from the HoLa Hispanic Heritage Festival earlier in the afternoon, and I reveled in a day outside with so much for the senses after being stuck inside with a congested head for far too long.

Fall is my favorite season. It’s a time to reflect on the past, feel that familiar ache over things we’ve lost, and then let it all fall away like water. It’s a time to find beauty in change.

It was renewing for me to spend the first day of fall at a poetry reading. I’d been away from the literary scene for quite some time. I’d gotten busy with the nonprofit work I was doing, and I’d come home tired and in need of escape. I didn’t do much writing, I didn’t pay much attention to new writers and literary news, and I certainly didn’t attend events. I’d spend the day dealing with funding cuts and federal deadlines and the saddest client stories of abuse and poverty, and then I’d come home and watch 30 Rock or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Revenge and try to get some sleep before I had to get up and do it all over again.

And then came the period where I didn’t write at all. I thought I wasn’t a poet or fiction writer or storyteller after all. I thought I’d been wrong about who I was, that writing had just been a phase, though a long one.

It started three years ago. That fall marked the beginning of a series of struggles, from the September death of my husband’s brother–which was both unexpected and expected, wholly preventable and sadly inevitable–to my emergency surgery for a ruptured ectopic pregnancy the following July.

After that, I didn’t write creatively for more than a year. I just couldn’t. I would try–I’d feel like I should or even feel the urge, but when I sat before my computer or grabbed a notebook, nothing happened. Do you ever have that dream where you try to scream and nothing comes out? That what it was like.

I’d never had writer’s block; I’d written my way out of every dark hole. So I thought that was the end. I thought the writer in me was gone.

I had spent several years working for an agency that served victims of gender-based violence, so I knew a lot about healing. I had written support group curricula, researched resilience, and designed programs that helped people overcome trauma and tragedy. And then I found myself covering one layer of sorrow with another, facing my own mortality for the first time, grieving over the loss of something I never knew, losing a body part that was culturally tied to womanhood, realizing brutally just how much women risk their lives to bring new life, and tumbling down into a spiral of confusion over whether or not I even wanted to be a mother in the first place or ever.

I felt lucky to be alive. Had I lived in a country with less access to the right medical care or with a total abortion ban, I’d be dead. Had I not given into the pain and into my nurse mother’s insistence that I go to the hospital even though I didn’t think I needed to, I’d be dead. So I really focused on my relief at being alive, but eventually everything else bubbled up.

What I discovered is that healing is really tough. Healing is elusive, and you have to fight for it. You have to decide that you are going to go on, that you’re going to find a way to get through it, and that you’ll do whatever it takes. And you have to be willing to wait through every excruciating moment because it takes a long damn time. What I discovered was that in my time of need all the ways I knew to heal had abandoned me.

I couldn’t write a word. I did other things: I talked, cried, thought, ran, walked, talked, and cried some more. But I couldn’t put it on paper, and I didn’t feel like the pain would ever really go away. Maybe I couldn’t handle making it art. I was furious and disappointed and utterly sad, and maybe it didn’t feel much like art. Perhaps turning it into a poem felt too much like finding beauty in something that had no beauty or purpose or value. I hated what I’d been through. I said it wasn’t worth it. I said it was the biggest waste of everything. So how could I write about it?

I grew up a lot during that period. I crossed a bridge I never knew existed. Here’s what I learned: that’s life. Things happen, and that’s life. You take the good and the bad; you can’t have it any other way. Sometimes a bunch of bad shit comes at once, and you feel like you’ll never find your way out of it. Other times, it’s a gorgeous fall day, and you eat salty tostones and ride your bike and listen to poetry while hummingbirds mate.

Yes, if you wait it out long enough and work hard enough, Persephone comes back from Hades feeling like a bomb-ass queen. That’s life. Sometimes I sing it (that’s liiiiiiife) with jazz hands.

Deep into last fall, in the middle of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I fell in love with literature all over again. I’d forgotten the pull of words, the richness of life when words are joined in a way that makes you feel like singing. But there it was before me, and I felt it so hard that it welled up in my throat.

I started thinking about writing again. For a few weeks, I just thought about it. Then I sat down and words came, and I felt my new self settle back into my old self and we all felt good and ready.


reanimating diana: young woman as mythic hero

artemisI’ve spent the last week in bed with this miserable end-of-summer illness that’s going around, but the upshot is that I watched loads of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Years ago, when Buffy was already in its fifth season, I happened to catch an episode and was immediately hooked. I’d forgotten how much I once craved a female superhero. Coincidentally, this was also when Alias started, and though Sydney Bristow boasted no actual super powers, I still loved to watch her kick ass, especially in that bright red wig.

As a late 70s tot, I was a big fan of Linda Carter’s incarnation of Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, though I was far too young to understand much about the story. There’s a picture of me, about three years old, standing in the living room in my Wonder Woman Underoos, and I can barely contain my excitement.

As I got older, I searched for similar themes in books–not warriors necessarily but girls and women who took control, solved problems, made decisions, and changed the world in some way if only in their little communities. Therefore, I read a lot of Nancy Drew, and I was really drawn to the notion of a regular girl fighting crime because it made me feel like I could do that sort of thing.

And that’s what I liked about Buffy Summers and Sidney Bristow. One was a blond, outgoing high-school student and secret chosen one, while the other was a graduate student in English (just like me!) and world-class spy. While these shows had their flaws, I liked how Buffy addressed the good girl/bad girl binary: Buffy couldn’t be just one or the other; ultimately, she had to be both. She had to accept that her dark side was an essential part of her and was not such a terrible thing to embrace. A girl or woman could be multi-dimensional, have conflicting feelings, be tough and firm if she wanted to, and drive the story. She didn’t need to be anyone’s sidekick. She didn’t need saving. And she didn’t need to please everyone.

Has there been another good female superhero since then? I suppose Katniss is one, though she doesn’t have super powers and there’s that tiresome love triangle that guides much of her story. But who else? I admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about comics, but there’s a reason for that. The few women characters always seemed to be impossibly busty and done up in just a strip of leather. To the rescue: artist Alex Law’s Little Girls Are Better at Drawing Superheroes Than You displays little girls’ re-interpretations of superheroes, and they are uplifting and exciting. Little girl Hulk in a tutu might be the best thing ever.

There’s been an influx of superhero movies lately, but they’re mostly the same old stories of straight white dudes. Supposedly, Marvel is a pinch interested in making a female superhero movie because they see a hole they can fill, but they aren’t ready to move. Furthermore, this world is in dire need of more superheroes that aren’t white. Can we get a black Batman or Arab Harry Potter?

Enter Qahera, who breaks the mold and then some. Egyptian artist Deena’s veiled female Muslim superhero fights both misogyny and Islamophobia. Qahera deals with current, real-life scenarios such as sexual harassment and the sexist response of Egypt’s police to said harassment.

It’s fun to imagine having super powers and using them to kick a little ass, especially when faced with a corrupt police force or tyrannical regime, but Ciudad Juárez has its own superhero right now, minus actual super powers, one assumes. A woman calling herself Diana the Huntress (excellent name choice, though I prefer her Greek form, Artemis) has been shooting bus drivers in response to women’s frequent sexual abuse at the hands of the drivers. Authorities say she’s getting revenge, but considering the utter lack of police and government response to rampant femicide in Juarez, you might call it justice.

The thing is I don’t think violence really is a part of justice. I don’t actually want to respond to violence with violence. I think the value in a good superhero tale is not in graphic violence but in the symbolism. Buffy didn’t kill humans, only monsters, and those monsters were the physical manifestation of angsty teen emotions. One of the things I loved about Buffy was that it wasn’t just good vs. evil. Buffy was about accepting that there’s no such thing as perfectly packaged categories of good and evil. There are subversive feelings and ideas lurking beneath cheerleader smiles.

Rather tellingly, Juarez officials have put far more effort into catching this single woman who has killed two men (and wears a blond wig, by the way) than into finding the perpetrators of the mass rape and murder of the city’s female citizens. Clearly, serious cultural change–not violence–is what’s needed to end gender-based violence in Mexico, Egypt, or anywhere else. Transforming traditional narratives, especially superhero stories which are part of our collective consciousness (i.e., the mythic hero’s journey), are an important part of this necessary cultural change. Though that may be why Diana the Huntress chose an archetypal hero as her nom de guerre.

What I responded to most in superhero stories from Wonder Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the image of a curious, bold, strong, and smart girl or woman who could lead people and effect change. That’s why Nancy Drew was a kind of superhero to me. She saw problems in her world and found a way to solve them on her own. Like Nancy, Diana, and Buffy, I was never interested in being a damsel in distress (or fragile princess, a mythologized Diana of another kind), in letting life just happen to me. I wanted to make life happen, and I wanted to solve problems. That’s what the best superheroes do. If our superheroes reflected more diversity, we might be more inclined to see these strengths in people no matter their gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it feels like Athena is about to bust out of my skull, so I must get back to fighting the good fight against the simple cold.


lucrece, leda, and the rest of us: the evolution of a poetic object/subject

Having read my post on Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” a friend sent me an article about women poets in India who have taken up the subject of rape. You’ve no doubt read about the increasing problem of violence against women in certain parts of India, Delhi in particular, and the gang rapes that made international news. One poet explains her intentions:

‘With debates increasingly centering around violence against women, the topic has become common ground for all of us. We have become one entity, irrespective of where we come from,’ said Tamizh poet Salma. Her poems are often devoid of illusionary imageries and soaring similes. ‘I call sex, sex. A rape, rape. People have often asked me why my language is so stark and descriptions so explicit. How else would you convey what a woman goes through? Poetry is constantly evolving and this is part of that evolution,’ she said.

This article got me thinking about the evolution of the rape poem. For centuries, rape poems came from the pens of men. These poems, such as Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” and Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen,” addressed classical rape, stories from mythology. They were not meant to help the reader understand real instances of rape; instead, they served as metaphors, ways to address other subjects. Essentially, women’s bodies were not women’s bodies but political symbols.

Even later, with Seamus Heaney’s “Act of Union,” rape is used as a metaphor for Britain’s control of Ireland, a common theme in earlier Irish poetry. Likewise, many scholars consider Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” to be an allegory for the “rape” of Ireland. With its erotic, sensual imagery, “Leda and the Swan” turns rape into an aesthetic experience, which makes Yeats’s sonnet one of the most revered works of art and exemplifies a problem that is common in art from painting to film: the eroticization of rape.

So rape is sexy and rape is useful for “loftier” discussions than women’s lives. In her book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, Sarah Projansky points out that “scholars and media pundits alike casually invoke rape metaphors…to convey a sense of ‘ultimate’ degradation or horror or to illustrate the humiliation of nations (e.g., the “rape of Kuwait”). Simultaneously, they neglect the particular experiences of [those] who actually experience rape.”

When women finally began writing rape into poems, the narrative changed dramatically. Suddenly, the rape poem became personal, intimate, and painful. Rape was no longer a metaphor but a gritty reality. In a strange way, women reclaimed their bodies as sites of personal violence instead of national symbols. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Ntozake Shange expressed the complexity of woman as victim: being betrayed by a friend, being treated like a criminal by the police, feeling guilty and dirty, trying to overcome victimhood, etc.

But the depiction of rape on a personal level does not rule out politics. If the personal is political, then these poems are fiercely political, which just what the Indian poets are saying. Poetry can be healing, as it has been for countless victims in programs like Lifecentre, and it can nurture empathy, helping readers understand the experience of sexual assault and of living with the threat of this kind of violence. But it can also be a revolution.

Contemporary rape poems often serve to challenge, disrupt, and destabilize patriarchal power dynamics and gender norms that create male subjects and female objects, punish and silence transgressors, and perpetuate rape culture, i.e., community complicity. I came across this story from Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, who describes submitting a poem about her friend’s brutal rape to a literary journal and receiving a disturbing response from the male editor who told her to stop writing rape poems because he was “sick of wenchy women poets who are always bashing men.” Clearly, he was threatened by her poem. Her response, of course, was to write another one.

In Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, poet Anne Waldman wrote:

Perhaps women have the advantage of producing a radically disruptive and subversive kind of writing right now because they are experiencing the current imbalances and contradiction that drive them to it. They are turning to skillful means in figuring out how to combat assaults on their intelligence and time [and bodies]. She–the practitioner–wishes to explore and dance with everything in the culture which is unsung, mute, and controversial so that she may subvert the existing systems that repress and misunderstand feminine ‘difference.’ She’ll take on the subjects of censorship and abortion and sexual harassment. She’ll challenge her fathers, her husband(s), lovers, male companions, warmongers, micromanagers, spiritual teachers. Turn the language body upside down. What does it look like?

After I read Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” I thought about a few things in my life that I hadn’t written about. I thought about the time I was riding my bike to the library, nearly a decade ago, and two men in a pickup truck followed me. I could feel it all over again. And then I wrote this:

Caught

Quick, the hammering fear
as they pull up alongside
in a beat-up work truck

Words I cannot repeat, will not
words thrown like hammers
fired like hot bullets

I tell myself
to look straight ahead
keep riding, pedal harder

One block free
they find me again
I try to hide the shudder

It is the loveliest kind of day
a day for falling in love
or dipping your feet in the creek

A neighborhood of Victorians
pale pink, creamy yellow, baby blue
sidewalks interrupted by old trees

But the truck rumbles again
Locusts that keep coming, shadows I can’t shake
They have fists and gasoline and terrible tools

I have only the slender frame
of my bike and myself
a voice caught in my throat

Done taunting, they gun it
disappear into the city
their laughter still squeezing my throat

I stay inside for weeks
for the clouds watch my every move
the air itself trembling with murderous desire


for further exploration: frida’s love letters, playwright amy wheeler, feminist comics, artist larissa sansour

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Badass Frida Kahlo in a family photo

A few things you should know about before you take this day any further:

  • Frida Kahlo is one of my ultimates. Every move the woman made was pure art–paintings, clothing, homes, relationships, politics. Given the amount of physical and emotional trauma she faced, it’s amazing that she insisted on seeing life through so much color instead of turning to darkness. It turns out that she could have been a damn fine poet too.  Somehow I had no idea that there were facsimiles of her diaries floating around (see The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait, but, look, I hate to link to Amazon, so see if you can find it somewhere else). From this book, Brainpickings offers a few images of Frida’s letters to her husbandDiego Rivera, and they are divine. Here’s a peak [capitalization hers]:

“Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. you are the mirror of the night. the violent flash of lightning. the dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. my fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.”

Reminds me of Pablo Neruda. Did they inspire each other? Someone research this and write a lovely essay on it.

 

“I believe creative work is the way. Stories connect us and cause us to experience empathy, to imagine what it feels like to see the world through someone else’s eyes, or walk in their shoes. And this is key: we have to understand and believe that we are deeply, irrevocably connected; that we are more alike than we are different from each other, and that our interconnectedness is our strongest asset as animals on the planet.”

 

  • Warning bells go off in my head and my belly immediately begins stoking dragon fire whenever I hear, “I’m a feminist, but….” Comics are safer than dragon fire, however, so feast your eyes on The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism. I’m not going to pretend not to notice that the afterward comes from the controversial Hugo Schwyzer, but don’t let it stop you from at least taking a look. It’s poignant and clever.

 

“The issue of women’s rights is not only necessary to address for its own sake, but also because it opens a magnitude of questions as to how we perceive reality and why it is important to question the very system by which our humanity is constructed and by how we perceive things.


running trails and tales: my creative process

Last week I wrote about violence against women in crime fiction and detective shows, and I mentioned that these kinds of stories often lead us to believe that there is always some kind of monster lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. While most women are attacked by someone they know, we also live with fear of stranger rape as a fact of life. Maybe “fear” isn’t quite the right word. Awareness? We are always aware of potential threats to our bodies–partly because frequent verbal harassment reminds us that violence is not far behind–and so go about the world knowing that horrible things sometimes lie just under the surface of a seemingly pleasant moment: a night out with friends, a quick trip to the store, a walk in a park.

I said last week that even though these threats are out there, I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about them despite what these stories and the media would have me think. Two days after I wrote that, I was lacing up my running shoes and glancing at the local news online. I discovered that a woman had been sexually assaulted the day before at the park where I run several days a week. She was walking a trail with her two-year-old daughter in the middle of the afternoon.

A great deal of cussing ensued in my living room.

Needless to say, many in the community and employees of the park are angry, feeling like an important part of all our lives–where we seek peace, fellowship, and pleasure–has been attacked. I run for release, for serenity. But I also work out a lot of creative ideas while I’m running. I like to run at this particular park because it has miles and miles of trails to choose from–with dreamy sunflower fields, old marble quarries, and lush, tree-covered tunnels that make everything magical.

For me, a good run or long walk is magical. My feet can barely keep up with my imagination as it takes off in different directions, conjuring up ideas, crafting narratives, developing characters. I spend a lot of time just letting ideas percolate before I ever write a word. It’s my favorite part of writing, the wandering mind. There’s something about communing with nature that sets my mind free; I can become anyone or anything in that moment. It’s like lucid dreaming. As long as I’m moving forward, the scene in my head is as vibrant as jewelweed along a stream.

I don’t know what I would do without this part of the process. Granted, it hasn’t always been part of my creative process. I used to write poetry strictly, and all I needed was a pen and paper to make something happen. It might not always be good, but there would be something salvageable to be put to work the next day. When I began writing fiction, however, I realized I needed a different approach. I couldn’t just sit down and write and expect there to be a full narrative, so running and long walks have become a critical part of my life. There’s something about a physical challenge that engages my mind in a way I never would have expected. It also helps me deal with stress, anxiety, or other frustrations.

I’m always aware of what can happen when I’m out there. There’s that word again. One has to be aware. Some of the trails become quite isolated, and I pay attention to my surroundings and sometimes look back to make sure that men who pass me don’t double back. Balancing daydreaming with defensiveness is a complicated act, but I’m sure it’s one that many women are used to.

Every time I’ve gone out since this attack, my imagination has taken me in a very different direction. All the stories and characters are the same: I fight this guy. I win. I stop him. I become like a superhero, a warrior, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Jennifer Garner in Alias. I imagine possessing Buffy’s super strength.

And then I’ve spent an hour dedicated to committing violence. I don’t like it. I’ve run out some of my anger, but my muscles are tighter than usual. So much for release.

My heart goes out to this woman and her family. It could have been any of us, but she’s the one who has to live with it, who has to find a way to make sure it doesn’t haunt her child. The police have released a sketch of the attacker, and I hope someone turns him in.

In the meantime, I will keep running wherever I want. And I will find a way to go back to the kinds of stories I want to create. I won’t let him change my life. Though I may have some tricks up my sleeve if you meet me on the trail.


dead women sell: detective stories from page to screen

I tried to watch a historical fiction miniseries on Netflix the other day, but I had to give up. Two episodes in, I’d seen at least five sexual assaults: one rape, three attempted rapes, and two different scenarios wherein unctuous men fondled women’s breasts against their will. Granted, the story took place in the fourteenth century when ideas about women and violence were somewhat different than they are now, but I’d had more than enough. Instead, I turned to Emma, letting Jeremy Northam‘s Mr. Knightley and the clueless but wonderful Miss Bates (“Pork!”) cleanse my brain.

Years ago I read Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, in which Inga Muscio urged readers to stop watching movies that depict rape. I did that for a while, and then I gave up. For one thing, I didn’t always know a rape scene was coming. For another, there were some really good movies and TV shows that sometimes addressed rape, and I hated missing them even if I didn’t want to watch the rape scene. Though I suspect Muscio is probably right that we should just completely reject rape scenes.

I watched The Sopranos, well after it aired, and nearly tapped out in season three when the violence, especially against women, reached its peak. I’m glad I stuck with it because The Sopranos was a phenomenal series, but I wonder what it does to me to witness staged violence so regularly and what it does to the actors who portray it. And I wonder about anyone who can sit through a rape scene and not feel a crushing weight. Moreover, through TV and cinema, we typically see women as victims and men as aggressors, both tiresome and harmful gender stereotypes.

Admittedly, I am a big fan of British (and European) detective shows. From Miss Marple and Pouirot to Inspector Lynley, Lewis and Hathaway, and now (or then) Endeavor Morse, I devour Masterpiece Mystery. Who knew Oxford dons could be so murderous? Rather obsessively, I raced through all seven seasons of Prime Suspect, in love with the indomitable Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison. I followed Kenneth Branaugh’s gloomy Kurt Wallander around the Swedish countryside and Mireille Enos’s intense Sarah Linden as she followed clues through drizzly Seattle in The Killing, though I have yet to watch the Scandinavian originals of both. I loved Idris Elba as Luther and Malin Crépin as Annika Bengtzon.

But I am tired of women being beaten, tied up, raped, strangled, stabbed, and wrapped in plastic. I should also point out that these women, like the detectives who work on their cases, tend to be white, as though we couldn’t possibly care about people of color being attacked.

And I’m tired of worrying about deranged men who plan to sneak up on me while I’m unlocking my car door or break into my house while I’m sweetly slumbering. (I don’t actually worry about these things that much, but, to some extent, that’s the message some of these shows send.)

Off screen, most women do become victims of violence at some point in their lives, but their lives are about so much more than victimhood. On screen, women are often reduced to victims or defined by the physical attacks they endure. Furthermore, by impressing upon us the idea that attacks by strangers are so common, these shows (by these shows, I mean all  shows  that center on violence against women, especially US detective shows that have spawned iterations in multiple cities; Masterpiece Mystery is the least offender) undermine the seriousness of the violence most women face: intimate partner violence and “date rape,” which I put in quotes because the common terminology also implies a less serious form of violence than “rape.”

A new British show popped up on Netflix recently. In The Fall, Gillian Welch plays Stella Gibson, a bad-ass detective superintendent called to Northern Ireland to review a murder case. Stella is the next-generation Jane Tennison: sharp, focused, purposeful, demanding, and fully in control of her own life. She ends up tracking a serial killer, who, by day, is just a normal family guy working as a bereavement counselor! No one in his life has any clue that he’s a devious killer! I loved Stella so much that I finished the first season despite my utter disinterest in serial killers, my disgust with the focus on the killer’s detailed methods and trophy-stroking, and my absolute disbelief that no one has noticed that this man lives two completely different lives. I’m pretty sure there would be some red flags.

I appreciate a female detective–or a group of women code breakers, as in The Bletchley Circle. I appreciate a show that follows one case for the entire season instead of showing us a new murdered woman each week, a show that has plenty of male victims like a regular detective’s job, and a show that doesn’t shove every graphic detail in your face. But outside of most Masterpiece shows, which are tame enough for a PBS audience, this isn’t enough. And on US networks, there is little in this genre that I appreciate.

I still close my eyes or sometimes leave the room when a woman is being beaten (unless she’s a ninja or spy or boxer or superhero) or raped. My stomach contracts, and I hold my breath, willing the moment to end. But loads of people continue chomping on their popcorn and staring at the screen.

So here’s my question:

Can film and television address the issue of violence against women without normalizing, sexualizing, glamorizing, or unintentionally promoting it; punishing women for making choices; reifying the idea of woman as victim; and playing into traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity?

Is that too much to ask for?

Most of the shows I listed by name were originally books. I’ve never read them. Is that weird? I always like to read a good book before seeing the movie or TV version, but when it comes to detective stories, I’ve just never bothered. I did read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo after watching the Swedish movie to see how the book dealt with violence against women. It was easier to take in written form but still quite rough.

It turns out that killing women sells a lot of books. In fact, they have their own genre: fem-jep, as in female jeopardy. It’s a subject that has generated some controversy over the last few years. There are interesting discussions among feminist crime fiction writers and readers about women victims, book critics who can’t take another bloody breast, and writers who speak out against “gratuitous literary rape.”

I don’t think violence on the page has the same effect as violence on the screen simply because watching violence will always be more visceral, but it’s still problematic. In literature, the representation of violence against women can still contribute to rape culture by normalizing violence, playing on a passive/aggressive binary determined by gender, and encouraging us to connect woman with victim. Therefore, I ask the same question of literature as I do of film and television.

I welcome your ideas. In the meantime, here are some excellent considerations for writing about violence.


women in film: fewer than you think

A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of reading literature by people who do not identify as men. I should add to that: people who do not identify as straight white men. We get straight white male perspectives through literature, film, TV, music, news, and other media so pervasively that we often fail to recognize the norms we’ve been subjected to over the years and how these norms have affected our lives and our world views.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much diversity to convince us that things have gone too far in the other direction. Studies show that when women and girls are given more time than usual (though still less time than men and boys) to speak, the perception is that they are monopolizing the speaking time. Australian scholar Dale Spender notes, “The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”

NPR’s All Things Considered recently explored the issue of how we perceive “enough” diversity in Hollywood. Here’s a critical part of Jackie Lyden’s interview with Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004:

DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.

DAVIS: So is it possible that 17 percent women has become so comfortable, and so normal, that that’s just sort of unconsciously expected?

LYDEN: Why else, Geena Davis, do these kinds of disparities matter?

DAVIS: What we’re, in effect, doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We’re training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world. And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized – even in things that are aimed at little kids – that’s having an enormous impact as well.

These figures should make us stop and rethink our assumptions about what we’re seeing, hearing, and reading. As Davis rightly points out, what’s even more disturbing is that the women we typically see taking 17 percent of the space are sexualized, airbrushed, false-eyelashed (What’s with all the spider eyelashes worn by every single woman on screen lately?), etc. They frequently serve as the girlfriend of the main character, a byproduct of his story, a character with no agency of her own.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote about this problem in fiction: “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen‘s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”

Alison Bechdel, the author of the magnificent graphic memoir Fun Home (a must-read that will change the way you see graphic work), devised what is known as the Bechdel Test. A film or TV show passes the test if it contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. You can also do a version of this test to watch for people of color talking about something other than white people. It’s certainly lower than the standard we work towards, but it gives us a basic way of determining succinctly whether marginalized people are remotely represented as actual people or simply as resources for straight white men.

One way we can change this is to support movies that bust the norm. Hollywood studios usually balk at spending money on women-driven movies, and even the success of Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games didn’t change that. But The Heat, a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, crushed White House Down and opened at $40 million, enough to greenlight a sequel. If we keep supporting movies with strong, funny, determined women, we just might get more of them. And if the percentage of women in movies increases, that might have ripple effects. If women make up higher percentages of people on screen, we might notice where they are missing in our institutions.


finding the poem: patricia lockwood’s “rape joke”

I’ve written about the debate over rape jokes, and it goes on and on in editorials, blog posts, and online discussions. But Patricia Lockwood took a new approach by submitting her thoughts in poetic form. “Rape Joke,” published in The Awl last Thursday, has already received more attention than any poem could dream of in its lifetime. I beg you to read it, sit in silent thanks for a moment, and then come back to chat.

I know. It hits the spot–if the spot is a deep ache to say once and for all that rape is both horrific and sadly banal and can really fuck you up but eventually you find a way to go on living and are even able to find the humor in your tragedy, but that humor is yours to share as a way of processing and healing and getting on with life. If the spot is a desperate desire to explain that the real joke is that this kind of thing happens every two minutes, that rape is so normalized that we talk about it all the time but nothing ever changes, that women are often silenced when they talk about rape.

Take a deep breath.

This is what I love about poetry. It guts us in a way that nonfiction generally can’t manage. We might have different interpretations, but it’s hard to come away from a piece like that without feeling something approaching what the narrator feels. This piece also reflects the wide open landscape that we get with poetry. In an essay, the thesis is laid out pretty quickly, but a poem takes us on a ride to a place we didn’t know we were going. I know I’ve got poetry as a knife and as a vehicle here, but I’m just going to take liberties with metaphors and you can bristle and click away or just indulge me.

Poetry requires a different kind of engagement than most other discourses. We open ourselves to experiencing language more deeply, and our imagination is aroused with metaphor and imagery. Reading the comment section after the poem (because I wanted to know what others thought but was quickly reminded that other people’s brains are like quicksand pulling me down to the very bad place), I saw responses that described a physical reaction to the poem (“I can’t breathe”) and its transformative power (“This poem changed me”).

The Guardian posits that Lockwood’s poem may encourage people to read more poetry. I suppose it’s not the kind of poetry most people are used to. Folks who don’t read poetry tend to think of the medium as a tangle of unrecognizable wildflowers that shouldn’t be here so let’s burn them and plant grass instead. But most poetry is more accessible than it seems at first glance if we are willing to take the time to think about it. Sure, it can be tough to deal with poetry that seems to be nothing more than a catalogue of non sequiturs, but a lot of poems offer a narrative that’s fairly clear.

“Rape Joke” is accessible, clever, and moving at the same time. The images of some of the more poignant moments stick in my head: the “pretty green necklace” that she later cut up, her laughter for “one long split-open second.” There is a lot going on beneath these words, but they conjure up vivid images that linger like an uncomfortable feeling.

Lockwood’s poem also uses language most of us don’t think of as necessarily “poetic,” but there are no words or moments that are off limits in poetry. We can write lines about washing dishes (“I opened the windows and shut / the doors and put the plates in the sink / and oodled Palmolive all over.”) or monthly bleeding (“Yes, / I want to talk at length about Menstruation. / Or my period.”) or, as Lockwood does, dip cups (“He had chaw in his mouth the entire time, and you told him he / was disgusting and he laughed, and spat the juice through his goatee into a Mountain Dew bottle. “)

Perhaps this kind of poem shows lapsed readers the usefulness of poetry–beyond the simple pleasure of reading–and, therefore, reminds them that poetry is a subject worthy of their time. Perhaps it says something about rape and rape jokes and rape culture that we needed to hear. Maybe some readers identify with the narrator, find in this poem something of their own story, and feel validated or less alone.

It got me writing about a time I was followed by two assholes who threatened me while I was riding my bike. I hadn’t thought to see a poem in it, but there’s a poem in everything. Maybe there’s a joke in everything too. But as with poetry, it can take a long time to see the humor, feel brave enough to reach out to it, roll it around in your hands, and not want to smother it.