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Nameless, but not a stereotype

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A New York Times article drew a comparison between Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the connection prompted reflection on media treatment of women and girls who allege rape.

As Jeffrey Toobin reported in his 2009 New Yorker piece about Polanski, in 1977, Samantha Gailey - the 13 year-old girl who Polanski raped - was subjected to invasive grand jury questioning about her prior sexual activity and drug use.  Her lawyer was sufficiently concerned about the trauma she would suffer on the witness stand that he advocated for a resolution to the case that would absolve her of testifying.

Thirty-four years later, the woman alleging rape has been - and will continue to be, if the law prevails - afforded a much wider scope of privacy protection.  Her name has not been released in the American press (although it has been in France).  Her face was not exposed to the press when she identified DSK in a line-up at the police station.  And if she gives grand jury testimony, she will not be subject to irrelevant questions about her prior sexual activity.

Nonetheless, although our law has made some strides, our discourse seems to have a way to go still.  Speaking to the press, the woman's lawyer, Jeffrey J. Shapiro, referred to her as "simple," as in "She is a simple housekeeper who was going into a room to clean a room."  Considering that Mr. Shapiro also offered this gem - "Her story is her story, which she has told to everyone who asked her" - legitimate questions arise as to who is simple.

Mr. Shapiro also admitted ignorance about the facts underlying her asylum claim (which was granted despite the stringent interpretations given by U.S. judges to already high standards), and - even more unprofessionally - answered a question about her immigration status by saying he was "unsure," thereby potentially opening his client to a visit from the INS.

I know only the barest outline of this woman: she is 32.  A widow.  She is refugee from Guinea.  She was granted asylum in the U.S.  She has a 15 year-old daughter and a brother who owns a restaurant in Harlem.  She has been employed at the Sofitel in Times Square for 3 years.  She is a Muslim.  She speaks French and English.

Although not mentioned in any media I saw, one reason U.S. courts grant asylum to Guinean women is that they have been subjected to - or fear they or their daughters will be subjected to - female genital mutilation.  Apart from this concern, Guinea is a politically unstable country, overrun with cocaine and violence.  An example: in 2009 security forces controlled by junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara opened fire on protesters, killing many and brutally raping women.

Even this scant information suggests that the woman in the center of the DSK storm is not a "simple housekeeper," but a human being who has weathered intense experiences, a survivor with capacities for adaptation and resiliency, a person who has known pain and grief, a mother, a believer - in short, a woman entitled to dignity, respect and the assumption of individual complexity that we enjoy about ourselves and that we extend to others for whom we care.

Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry into her accusation, whether the law vindicates or castigates her, she is not Aunt Jemima.  If our discourse cannot capture her more accurately, the stereotype will not be her, but us: racists.

(Image of Jeffrey J. Shapiro from his website)
I had to laugh when, in Henry James' Daisy Miller, Frederick Winterbourne urges Daisy to avoid baiting her Italian friend with the following admonition:  "Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn't exist here [in Rome]."

My laughter was prompted by the familiarity of the conversation.  Several months ago, when I was editing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, in Denmark, I noticed that I wasn't a hot commodity with the Danish men.  Night after night, I sipped coffee, had a drink, ate dinner - all by myself - in public places, and no one ever spoke with me. 

Finally, I asked my friend Gillion Grantsaan for his interpretation.  "Am I just not cute here?  Danish men don't flirt with me - do they not like brunettes?  They're sticking with the local blondes?"

Gillion explained that, no, the issue wasn't cuteness or hair color, but flirting.  "Men here don't flirt," he said, "because the women don't flirt.  The women are socially cold until they get drunk, at which point they go home with a guy.  Flirting doesn't enter into it."

Well then.  I won't take it personally.

Somehow I don't think the Danish women's approach would've been much assistance to Daisy Miller.

(Image of Danish photographer Kurt Rodahl Hoppe talking, not flirting, with Maya Alexandri taken by Solomon Lyttle)

Really Rosie

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In a prior post, I speculated that I must have seen the movie, The African Queen, when I was a kid.  The book presents to the world an amazing, embodied female, smart and physically capable, optimistic, strong-willed and sexually alive, and I conjectured that the film must have had a profound influence on me. 

Having recently seen the film, I am now confident that I'd never seen it as a child.  And, in fact, had I seen it when young, it wouldn't have had the influence on me that I'd anticipated in the prior post.

As much as the film adheres closely to the novel's plot right until the end, John Huston's movie isn't as radical on gender issues as is C.S. Forester's book.  Yes, Rosie still steers the boat in the movie, but the film devotes little attention to the skill required of her to navigate The African Queen through the rapids.  The film makes Rosie's and Charlie's triumph over the rapids look like luck, whereas Forester's book attributes their success to the "lightning-calculating machine [that was Rosie's brain,] juggling with currents and eddies."

Similarly, the movie softens the dominance of Rosie's personality.  In the book, Charlie is unreflective and passive, and he responds positively to Rosie's initiative.  Forester refers to Rosie as the "captain."  In the film, on the other hand, Bogart - though very receptive to his first mate - never abdicates the leadership role.

As for the sex, forget it.  Contrast Forester's Rosie, big breasted, bursting with "ripe" femininity and "powerful" arms - an earth mother goddess, in other words - with Katharine Hepburn's near-skeletal severity.  Even if Hollywood mores hadn't limited the sexual possibilities for Charlie and Rosie, Hepburn couldn't have given us a Rosie who (as in the book) "actually enjoyed [sex], as no woman should ever dream of doing."

The movie's cowardice on gender issues is most apparent at its conclusion.  In the book, Charlie is apprehended wearing Rosie's underwear.  When the two are released, Rosie insists that they marry, and Charlie amiably agrees despite mentally registering (unvoiced) anxiety about the fact that he's already married.  In Forester's hands, "[w]hether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided."

I hardly need mention that, in the film, Bogart never dons Hepburn's underclothes.  And in the movie's cartoonish finale, Charlie asks the Germans to marry him and Rosie before they're hanged - a gesture that Rosie compliments for its sweetness.  I can imagine Forester looking confused and wondering where the heroine he wrote went.

The loss of Rosie is unfortunate because, in many other respects, The African Queen is a model of moving a book from page to screen.  Huston and his screen writers, James Agee and Peter Viertel, mostly succeeded in getting out of the way of messing up the story.  They allowed Forester's plot (gentle by film standards) to float (rather than drive) the film, thereby allowing time and space for the development of the wonderful chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn that keeps fans raving about the film.  Nonetheless, their collective imaginations stalled when the writing turned to Rosie's characterization. 

I conclude this blog post, therefore, in the same place I concluded the prior post: remake the film!  Or, better yet, read the book. 

(Image of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen from The New York Times)

Whither the women of the 1%?

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Dale_Peck.jpgIn the course of a New York Times book review of the two recently-released translations of the work of the late Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, novelist, critic and literary infant terrible Dale Peck drew a distinction between novelistic traditions.  The first, representing 99% (in his estimate) of Western novels, finds its roots in ancient Greek forms of storytelling and, in its journey through Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Victorian Era, has evolved to chart the vicissitudes of "an increasingly representative cast of characters and behaviors." 

The second tradition
wends its way through various misfits, misanthropes and criminals constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract: Cervantes's Don Quixote, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Dostoyevsky's underground man, Knut Hamsun's self-starving doppelgänger in "Hunger."  In lieu of ­offering a rational critique of the world they inhabit, the antiheroes of the second tradition simply hate or reject it, just as their creators, far from seeing literature as a tool for cultural or even individual salvation, write only to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history.
The phrase "constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract" delighted me - not least because of how deeply I identify with it - but also raised an immediate question: why were women authors absent from this disaffected 1%?  (I don't think the issue lies in Peck's list of examples; aside from Peck's very public philogyny, I can't think of a woman author who should have been included.)

The absence is noteworthy.  Women, after all, have very good reasons to reject the social contract.  Succinctly: we've been on the shit end of the deal - of every social deal - in Western history and maintain our sorry status in current times.  There's never been a Golden Age for women, a time during which it was good to be female.  We perennially do more to get less, find ourselves without outlets or mentors for our talents, and alone in our grief; and that's the fate of lucky women - the unlucky ones are the subjects of unremitting abuse, exploitation, degradation and violence.

So why doesn't literature by women reflect these inarguable facts?  Why aren't women writing characters that "hate or reject" the world?  Why aren't women authors writing "to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history"?

These are "big" questions, and a blog post is structurally incapable of admitting comprehensive (or even potentially worthy) answers.  Nonetheless, just as I struggle against other structurally-imposed constraints in my life, I'll attempt an inadequate (and possibly unworthy) answer here, one based on women's historic connection with the existence of the novel.

As Walter Ong explains in his masterwork, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, up through the nineteenth century, rhetoric-heavy academic training shaped literary style in the West, except in the case of female authors, who received no such training:

In medieval times and after, the education of girls was often intensive . . . , but this education was not acquired in academic institutions, which taught rhetoric and all other subjects in Latin.  When they began to enter schools in some numbers during the seventeenth century, girls entered not the main-line Latin schools but the newer vernacular schools. . . . Women writers were no doubt influenced by works that they had read emanating from the Latin-based, academic, rhetorical tradition, but they themselves normally expressed themselves in a different, far less oratorical voice, which had a great deal to do with the rise of the novel.
(pp. 111-12.)  And which no doubt had a great deal to do with the low esteem with which novels have been held since time immemorial - see, for example, this declamation by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey:

Although [novelists'] productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. . . . [T]here seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances that have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.
(p. 22.)  Novels, in short, are a woman's medium.  Don Quixote notwithstanding (and Don Quixote to my mind is at least as much an example of a transitional epic poem as it is of an early novel), novels were largely invented, refined and patronized by women.  The prevalence of male novelists in the list of "greats" is just another yawn-inducing example of the achievement possible for a gender unsaddled by the lion's share of procreative and domestic work, a gender that moreover (and because of the foregoing advantage) has historically enjoyed the privilege of making the fucking list in the first place.

Which is to say, a novel (as contrasted with, say, a blog post) isn't a terribly logical medium for a woman's expression of hatred, rejection and alienation: it may be the Western cultural medium from which women are least alienated.  For a woman (or, at least, this woman), novels aren't either "a tool for cultural or even individual salvation," or a forum for voicing alienation: they are her metaphoric home, the place where she can experience unmolested enjoyment of her intellect and emotions.  A novel isn't about therapy or "salvation," but rather the mere necessities of existence: whether reading or writing one, in the confines of a novel, a woman finds a space in which she has penned the terms of the social contract. 

By the same token, fouling a woman's nest with vituperative hatred, rejection, mockery and self-pitying howls of alienation is exactly the kind of asshole behavior to be expected from a sensitive male genius writer.

(Image of Dale Peck from New York magazine)

Love in the Time of Maladjusted Behavior

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In Catherine Shoard's 2008 Telegraph review of the film version of Gabrielle García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, she asks a critical question:

Should our hearts flutter in the face of a love this enduring [the love Florentino Ariza harbors for Fermina Daza through the 50 some-odd years of her marriage]? I'm not sure. As with many literary adaptations . . . , what seems swoony on the page can seem plain sinister on screen.
In fact, what seems plain sinister on screen seemed just as creepy on the page to me.  Two examples suffice:

(1)  When Florentino Ariza seduces a married "pigeon fancier," Olimpia Zuleta, her husband discovers her faithlessness and slits her throat.  Florentino Ariza has sent Olimpia Zuleta signed love notes, and García Márquez reports,

For many years he [Florentino Ariza] thought with terror about the signed letters, he kept track of the prison term of the murderer [Olimpia Zuleta's husband], . . . but it was not so much fear of a knife at his throat or a public scandal as the misfortune of Fermina Daza's learning about his infidelity.
(p. 217.)  A woman is dead because of your sexual desires, and your main concern is that another woman not find out that you've had sex?  That's not touching.

(2)  Florentino Ariza's penultimate lover, América Vicuña, is 14 (to his 76) and his ward.  He abruptly dumps her at the death of Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza's husband, and in her inability to comprehend this rejection, América Vicuña kills herself.  Florentino Ariza reacts as follows:

The only thing he could do to stay alive was not to allow himself the anguish of that memory.  He erased it from his mind, although from time to time in the years that were left to him he would feel it revive, with no warning and for no reason, like the sudden pang of an old scar.
(p. 336.)  Another woman is dead - this one a teenager - because of your exploitative sexual desires, and you erase her memory?  Not romantic.

More than once, García Márquez describes Florentino Ariza as a "man who gave nothing and wanted everything" from his lovers (p. 216).    The fact that he's treating women so harshly while he bides his time waiting for his "true love" is, again, not sympathetic. 

A man who knows love for a woman ought to - we'd like to think - treat her sisters with dignity and respect.  Otherwise, what is his love for "Miss Right"?  Whether on the page or in the movie, Florentino Ariza's love for Fermina Daza is the enabler of a life lived at an emotional and moral distance from beloveds; it is the romantic fig leaf that fails to justify a misogynistic reality.

To return to Catherine Shoard's perceptive question, Florentino Ariza's "love enduring" provokes, not a flutter, but a shudder.

(Image of Javier Bardem as Florentino Ariza in Mike Newell's film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The New York Times)

Becky Sharp, c'est Thackeray

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Melusina.jpgI've already blogged about how William Makepeace Thackeray's bitchiness to Becky Sharp fouls up his plotting in Vanity Fair.  But the more I think about his lack of compassion for Becky, the more compelled I am to take issue with his behavior simply as an affront to women and the poor. 

Thackeray creates Becky as a creature of few advantages.  Her mother dies when she's very young, and her father dies of delirium tremens when she is a teenager.  Moreover,

[Rebecca] had the dismal precocity of poverty.  Many a dun she had talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman she had coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more.  She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions - often but ill-suited for a girl to hear.  But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.
(p. 10.) 

Thackeray bounces orphan Becky from one demeaning environment (Miss Pinkerton's School) to another (the Sedley house, Sir Pitt Crawley's house in Queen's Crawley, Miss Crawley's house in London), marries her to a gambler solider without a penny, promptly revokes the soldier's inheritance, and then gleefully watches Becky make do (dishonestly) in genteel society.

Social climbing (particularly in Becky's time and place), of course, is vulgar, and people who do it well are invariably insincere, insecure, shallow and vain.  (Becky is all these things.) 

And, yes, vanity is a sin.  But one of the great innovations of Judeo-Christian ethics is proportionality: Inspector Javert, the policeman - not Jean Valjean, the thief - is the sinner in Les Misérables because hounding a man for a lifetime is a disproportionate punishment for stealing a loaf of bread when a man is starving.

In the same way, casting vanity on par with murder and cannibalism is hardly in the enlightened Judeo-Christian spirit.  Here, for example, is Thackeray giving an account of Becky after she's been ruined:

In describing this siren [Rebecca Sharp], singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water?  No!  Those who like may peep down under the waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, and curling round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish moralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?  When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously.  They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling [sic] and feasting on their wretched pickled victims.  And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.
(p. 620-21 (emphasis added).)  

I bridle reading this indictment.  Becky, without question, exploits those foolish enough to allow her to do so - her lady companion, Briggs, and her landlord, Raggles, in particular (both of whom she ruins financially).  She's beastly to her husband, Rawdon Crawley, and utterly cruel to her son. 

But, frankly, her crimes are the usual run-of-the-mill misdeeds of the impoverished.  The fever pitch of Thackeray's accusations is unwarranted.  (Besides which, his constant excuses that propriety prevents him from recounting her bloody - as opposed to economic and emotional - crimes is scarcely credible and makes the whole passage seem gratuitous.)

Thackeray's excessiveness surprises me because I believe he loves Becky Sharp (in contrast to Amelia Sedley, who I think Thackeray comes close to despising).  I don't think Thackeray would've made Becky so beautiful, intelligent, witty and resourceful - nor would he have given her an adventure with so many men and opportunities - if he didn't adore her.   

And yet, I feel that, in spite of himself - in spite of Thackeray's certainty that those of high birth and spotless reputation are as decrepit in their moral conduct as those of their opposites - Thackeray can't really accept a smart, resourceful, poor woman who isn't a monster.  Cerebrally or ideologically, he knows that poor women aren't deserving of especial reprimand; but viscerally Thackeray connects them with terror.  (As I discussed in another prior post, I think Thackeray attributes too much power to women, which may relate to this fear he manifests in respect of Becky.)

Thackeray's treatment of Becky also put me in mind of another novel about a rapacious, social climbing woman, a woman who exploits and abuses everyone she can, a woman who comes from crushing poverty and who dies desperate and penniless.  The book is The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Bad Girl is based on Madame Bovary, an ambitious book with which to compare one's work; and yet Vargas Llosa more than lives up to the company in which he places himself. 

The reason is his compassion for his bad girl.  Despite all her bad behavior, Vargas Llosa made me believe that poverty - not original sin or some other form of damnation - had tarnished her.  With this tactic, Vargas Llosa is not simply being sentimental: he's making his story work.  Although I never came to like the bad girl, I did feel emotionally engaged in her fate (and that of her steadfast lover) in a way that never happened with Vanity Fair.  I read The Bad Girl in a matter of days (not a month, like Vanity Fair), and the bad girl's scar of poverty has resonated with me for years after I finished the book. 

Speculating about the sources of authorial limitations and strengths is always risky.  Nonetheless, I'll hazard the following guess:  Vargas Llosa has compassion for the bad girl because he's well-acquainted with his naughty side; Thackeray thought Becky a monster because she was too close to what he didn't want to know about himself. 

(Image of Melusina from Wikicommons
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This page is an archive of recent entries in the On Being Female category.

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