Tag Archives: Feminism

Jane Austen and Women’s Shared Strategic Culture


This episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast seemed worth sharing for a couple of reasons. The first is Jane Austen, who is just obvious clickbait all by herself, and who political scientist Michael Chwe is studying through the lens of game theory. Austen, he argues, with her precise studies of how women navigate complex social networks and work them to their advantage. Furthermore, given the author’s engagement with eighteenth century intellectual culture, including Adam Smith, looking at Austen as a kind of proto-economist interested in very specific kinds of markets is provocative and somehow not completely anachronistic.

But it’s an even more interesting idea because of the way, midway through, Stephen Dubner probes the relationship between gender and the kind of strategic thinking that game theory entails. Women, argues Chwe, tend to be better at strategic maneuvering than men in the way that all disempowered groups tend to be relative to the majority. If the status quo is working in your favor, then there is no need to manipulate in order to get some kind of advantage. But in making that connection, the episode also puts a new spin on two types of behavior that are stereotypically and stigmatically coded as female: empathy and manipulation.

Game theory requires one to be able to intuit the response of another person to one’s actions. In other words, it requires a deep knowledge of people as people and as individuals, the kind of sensitivity to the nuances of human behavior and relationships that we so often think of as feminine. Likewise, the successful player must be able to use that knowledge in some kind of strategic way in order to get what they want. Therefore what’s often labeled as passive aggression or manipulation are re-contextualized as rational, adaptive behaviors that have to be honed and deployed in intelligent ways in order to yield positive results. The economist argues that we see this kind of adaptation permeating the largely homosocial, female-centered culture of Austen’s novels, where the exchange of information (which we usually call gossip) is part of women’s “shared strategic culture,” honed and perfected over time.

Why Betty Draper Matters

Betty Draper and Henry Francis from the AMC Show Mad Men

SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses details from the current season of Mad Men. Those catching up on DVD may want to move along.

Nominally, this is a blog about writing, pedagogy, and the whole academical experience, except for the days when I feel like writing about Mad Men.  Today is one of those days.

Folks, I must confess to something horrible, something that I know separates me from the majority of Mad Men fans out there:  I am enthralled by Betty Draper.  I know.  I know.  Everywhere I go, the Betty hate thrives.  Feminists hate the character because she’s so pitiful and unsympathetic.  Everyone else hates her because she’s just awful.  She’s childish, self-centered, and an utterly wretched parent who’s either enlisting her daughter to help bolster her shattered image or treating said daughter like her little sister, saying crap like “wait til your father hears MY side of the story” as she wrestles her away from the phone.  Betty is easily the most uncomfortable character to watch, but when the A.V. Club declared Betty a potential “showblocker,” a character “so grating—sometimes intentionally so—that even fans of the show heave a heavy sigh when they appear onscreen,” I made a “Huh?” face.  While they qualify Betty’s nomination for this list by saying that the newly divorced and remarried character simply “has all of the makings of a classic showblocker,” the implicit argument is that, untethered to Don, Betty is no longer essential.

That argument represents a particular school of Mad Men fandom that thinks this show is about the workplace (or really just wishes it were).  This school of criticism went to the refrigerator for a beer every time we found ourselves back in Ossining last season for more Betty and Don marital angst while eagerly awaiting further antics from Roger Sterling and views of Joan Holloway Harris as she departed a room.  This is also the school of criticism that groaned when the latter got married (to a reprehensible prick albeit) because we now have to deal with the fallout of Joan’s problematic (but really not all that atypical) home-life and are longer allowed to simply enjoy her as the office sexpot.  This is a school of criticism that seems to think that domestic life in the 1960’s is not as worth documenting as work life in the 1960’s, and I feel like I’m stating the forehead-smackingly obvious when I say there’s something pretty sexist about that.  From whence comes all the whinging that Betty got such substantial character arcs last season if it isn’t from a place that really sort of thinks that people like her do not deserve their own storylines?

Suburban housewives are an essential part of the story of the 1960’s.  Don’s pathetic life as a divorced man confirms how essential the pretense of a perfect home life with a princess of a homemaker was to the Don Draper ethos.   So far, S4 has given a glorious middle finger to all of the fanboys who thought that divorce would liberate Don, would allow him to become the magnetic Sex God that he was always supposed to be rather than the sad-sack self-parody he has become.  But trust me, Betty and the children and Ossining weren’t restraining Don’s mojo.  They enabled it.  Don telegraphed it multiple times in his moments of honesty with Anna:  having the adoration and support of a woman like Betty validated Don to his co-workers, his clients, his potential sexual partners (with the single possible exception of Rachel Menken), and himself.  Betty made Don more attractive in every possible way.  Think about how characters from Roger Sterling to Jimmy Barrett to that guy from McCann to Conrad Hilton suddenly saw Don differently once they saw Betty.  We even got a hint of how a wife could certify her husband’s inherent desirability when the wife of the Chief of Surgery told Joan “knowing that Greg can get a woman like you makes me feel better about his future.”

And what Betty giveth, Betty taketh away.  A big part of me thinks that people started hating Betty when the writers had her stop being merely ornamental in S2, when she stopped merely representing the belittled and under-appreciated mid-century housewife and started dismantling the Don Draper auto-mythology.  Betty is the one who points out that for all his charm and charisma, Don is a horribly selfish lover.  For all his fleeting moments of passable parenting, his homelife was always a little bit dispensable to him.  For all his tender confessions to Anna Draper, he had never even attempted to atone for the myriad wrongs he has committed in his life:  against her, against the real Don Draper (whose memory he wiped away), against his brother, against his co-workers, and against his family.

Through Betty’s perspective we see things we really don’t want to see about characters we’ve come to love, including abuse.  So many of the Betty-haters point to child abuse as the reason for their distaste.  These are the same people who want to give Don a medal every time he emerges from his Don-world for a Moment of Barely Decent Parenting.  These are the same people who hate Greg Harris for raping Joan but qualify what Pete did to that German au pair last season and deliver tired victim-blaming excuses for rapes that happen in the real world.  Where is your outrage when it’s happening to a character or even a real live human being that we haven’t been conditioned to empathize with through the power of professional storytelling?  I’m just saying.

I once heard the two sides of the Betty controversy described as one in which those who see Betty as a Product of Her Circumstances do battle with those who just think she’s a terrible person.  I actually don’t think those two notions are mutually exclusive.  Yes, the writers have consistently shown that Betty is a victim of sexism, but that victim status has never, in my mind, ruled out agency.  She is a fully realized character capable of making her own terrible choices.  Yes, those choices are shaped and limited by sexism, but the writers have shown her to be capable of moving within that context to try to carve out a life for herself, even if she doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.

So far, this season has continued to develop the central theme of the series:  that the measures we take to re-invent ourselves will ultimately prove inadequate as long as they are used to conceal some fundamental character flaw, some deeper sadness that we would rather not face.  Even when we make drastic changes in our lives and try to free ourselves, our Lee Garner Jr.’s can rear their heads and become even more oppressive than they were before (there is so much significance in the fact that Lucky Strike is SCDP’s bread and butter as well as the cancer that threatens to destroy it).  While that theme is most evident in Don’s story, we also see it in Joan, who became conscious of the disposable quality of beautiful women when she saw The Apartment in S1 and when Marilyn died in S2.  We saw it in Peggy last night, who despite her joyous romp through the 60’s counter-culture with hunky writers and wise-cracking lesbians, was overwhelmed by how much Pete and Trudy’s pregnancy upset her (best Peggy episode ever, by the way).  And of course, Pete was reminded of the things he is giving up in order to become the man he always thought he wanted to be.  And judging by the previews for next week, we’re going to see more of that with Betty, who has married someone who seems to be simultaneously more stable and less authentic (I mean, c’mon, he’s a professional political operative) than Don, and that story is entirely in keeping with what Matthew Weiner and the rest of the show creators seem to be doing.

I also think it’s just flat out brilliant to explore the concept of divorce in this way.  Divorce, in film and television, is so often treated as either tragedy or liberation, when for Don and Betty it  is sort of both and neither at the same time.  While divorce was a progressive concept in the 1960’s, leaving a marriage isn’t necessarily a progressive act.  Both characters have, if anything, adopted grotesque versions of the lives they led before, Don in his pitiful man-cave that’s so ridiculously manly that he can quip “I think Norman Mailer shot a dear over there,” Betty having embraced her status as an ornament even more tightly than before (and as the arm candy of an even older man).  At the end of S3, they did the most modern thing two people could have done in that context and wound up even more old-fashioned than they were in the first place.  That’s a story that hasn’t really been told before, and I’m excited about going for the ride.

Writes Like A Girl

Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post thinks President Obama speaks like a girl. Yeah.  There’s so much fail in that piece, I almost don’t know where to begin.  But let’s start with this one:

When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Now, Parker doesn’t explicitly say that passive voice constructions are a feature of female speech or writing (actually, the editorial is so screwy that it’s hard to figure out exactly what she is saying), though as the Language Log helpfully reminds us:

The first thing to say is that there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are “feminine”.  Women don’t use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn’t appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The “passive is girly” prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive, misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn’t recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s head speech writer is a dude.  Parker’s larger point seems to be that women favor a more conciliatory rhetorical style, while men favor a direct, assertive style, and I guess she’s sort of saying that that’s both a good and bad thing:

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama’s rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

Indeed, while she seems to be suggesting that the backlash against Obama’s handling of the Gulf Coast crisis is in some way sexist (?!?), her own tacit criticism of these acts suggests that she shares the belief that men cannot adopt a girly girly rhetorical stance without harming themselves politically.  I think.  I mean, really, WTF?

The idea that women write differently from men has been around for a long time and has even, to a certain degree, been adopted by feminist theorists.  French feminists like Julie Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, coined the term Écriture féminine to describe a writerly voice that is distinctively feminine.  That distinctive voice, however, was more about rejecting the notion of the phallus as the source of an author’s power , a notion metaphor that appears consistently in male writing ever since women dared compete with them as authors. Gilbert and Gubar’s famous essay, “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity” begins with that observation:

Is the pen a metaphorical penis?  Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to have thought so.  In a letter to his friend R.W. Dixon in 1886 he confided a crucial feature of his theory of poetry.  The artist’s “most essential quality,” he declared, is “masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women, the begetting of one’s thought on paper, on verse, or whatever the matter is.”  In addition, he noted that “on better consideration it strikes me that the mastery I speak of is not so much in the mind as a puberty in the life of that quality.  The male quality is the creative gift.

You can read just about anything by Philip Roth or John Updike for a modern example. Discovering the écriture féminine has largely been about centering women’s bodies and women’s experiences in writing.  But there are problems with this particular aspect of feminist theory, namely, it’s tendency to essentialize about the relationship between gender and style.  For example, Irigaray’s asserts that women’s experience cannot be depicted using the linear, logical mode that dominates male writing.   It comes awfully close, in my opinion, to rooting women’s distinctiveness in stereotype:  Men are logical, linear, prosaic.  Women are non-linear, emotional, jouissant, poetic.  To reify those categories is to at least partially deny the social conditioning that codes rationality, order, and science as masculine and feelings and all that shit as feminine.

Let’s return, for a second, to Parker’s assumption that women employ a less direct, less assertive, more conciliatory style in their writing and speaking, and let’s think for a second about why that might be.  Consider this post on The Awl about the ways that men and women pitch stories for their site (via Feministe).  Inquiries from dudes look something like this:

“Do you take pitches? Should I just write something and send it? Do I have to tickle the balls? I want to write for the awl, dammit.”

While pitches from women tend to look like this:

“As an long-time admirer of your site (and non-too-frequent registered commenter), I’ve been too shy to pitch as I’ve never felt like my work measured up to your fine standards.”

Every female blogger who has commented on this Awl story has confessed that they are guilty of framing queries like this, apologizing up front for taking up the editor’s time and for the inadequacies in their work.  Women frame their requests in a less assertive way because that is how we are taught to enter the world:  don’t be too aggressive, don’t be arrogant, don’t bother people, don’t make people upset, don’t step on anyone’s toes, don’t don’t don’t.  I also walk around with considerable anxiety any time I ask a professor to read an article I’m working on, or serve on my dissertation committee, or even just help me talk through some ideas.  While I also don’t wish to essentialize, I’ve noticed that my male colleagues walk around with a greater sense of confidence and entitlement (a healthy sort of entitlement) in this regard, and as a result, their work gets out there.  Now, that’s a bit of social conditioning that I am trying to overcome, as it will hurt my career if I don’t, but just the fact that I have to wrestle with it means that in the marathon that is a scholarly career, I am walking around with a concrete shoe on one foot.

But even though women tend to undersell themselves, that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of using commanding rhetoric when the occasion calls for it or that they will automatically compromise their ideals in order to avoid conflict or confrontation.  Consider the statements of Dawn Johnson, who recently stepped down as the nominee for The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, having spent a year waiting for Senate confirmation.  In a statement to the press (via NPR), she had the following to say:

In the current climate, even if you attempt a crass political calculus about how to live your life, you may as well say what you think because they can always find a footnote to twist and distort in a 20-year-old brief. […]  The one thing you didn’t want people saying at your funeral was she went to her grave with her options open.

I don’t think Obama used the passive voice in his speech on the oil crisis or seeks to conciliate Republicans and conservative Democrats because he has some inherently feminine qualities.  I think he does that because he is a politician who calculates each daily move according to polling data, according to how relationships on the Hill will help or impede his agenda, according to the impact an act or spoken word will have on re-election.  Obama does what many politicians do and is, perhaps, not as ready to cover it up with bluster and belligerence.  Suggesting that these acts are somehow womanly does nothing but gender-essentialize based on stereotype and tar women with some of the more uncomfortable and unsavory realities of political behavior.

What’s in a Name?

If you notice a sudden drop in the number of postings I do this week, it is because my sister is getting married on Saturday, and I have Important Wedding Duties to fulfill. We’ve finally reached that point in the countdown where familial relationships are beginning to fracture over minute details, like who is picking up whom from the airport. Right now, the Bride and the Mom are in a squabble over what name is going to be announced at the end of the ceremony. The Bride prefers a simple “Dude and Lady Last Name,” while Mom is insisting that the wedding guests will be offended by anything other than the traditional “Mr. and Mrs. Dude Last Name.” Dad is refusing to take sides, but he suggested that Bride seek my council before taking a firm stand.

Which makes me think that he’s sort of on Bride’s side but doesn’t want to come right out and say it for fear of offending Mom, because he knows what I am going to say: she doesn’t have to take his last name in the first place. I suppose my role as the Family Liberal is to provide my more conservative family members with rationales for flouting tradition.

Bride and I and our two other sisters came from an ultra-conservative Evangelical community, a community that went for Bush (both Part I and the sequel) by approximately 104%, a community in which Dad passes as a liberal because he is not a creationist and Mom is a feminist because she has a career. So, we’re accustomed to doing the dance of “not offending people too much” in order to preserve peace. I’m not terribly proud of that fact, and truthfully, I’d like to think of myself as some kind of liberal missionary seeking to change the hearts and minds of these people on issues such as legal, safe abortions and gay rights, but a) I was raised to fear confrontation like poisonous pit vipers (therapy is helping!), and b) I doubt that I’d really be successful. I’m not sure how my other siblings perform it, but for me, that means lying about going to church and not getting too specific about my dissertation topic. My parents leave churches when things start getting too weird and practice the art of Shutting Up Alot. All that to say that if you think this little name squabble is kind of trivial and/or creepily misogynist, just know that it’s pretty par for the course where we grew up.

The whole “Mr. and Mrs. Dude’s First and Last Name” thing is, of course, a throwback to the days in which women had no legal status outside of their husbands, and the woman’s identity was just subsumed by her husband’s. So, I get irritated when I see that printed on wedding invitations addressed to the two of us. That’s why I need to get my Ph.D. as soon as possible, so people will be all like “Do we put Mr. and Dr.? or Dr. and Mr.? or Mr. Dude Name and Dr. Lady Name? MY HEAD IS GOING TO ASPLODE!” I did ultimately take my partner’s last name because it was sort of the path of least resistance, because I had not yet had my Total Feminist Awakening at the time we got married, and because I am not really persuaded that there is a clear Feminist/Anti-feminist choice when it comes to picking names. The last name I was born with, after all, was my father’s name, which he got from his abusive alcoholic father before him, which he got from his abusive alcoholic father before him…you see where this is going. I know plenty of feminists who feel a deep sense of identification with the name they were born with, and that’s great. It just wasn’t my experience. The only reason to keep that name would be to honor my father and grandmother, who both overcame massive odds (including the aforementioned abusive father/husband) to have the lives they wanted, and even then, I think there are other ways to do that (like giving my as-yet-hypothetical offspring their first names or something).

It amuses me that the only people who have ever questioned me on the name-changing front have been men mansplaining to me the path to nominal liberation. So I tell them that in my view, the real tragedy is that women are only given the choice, name-wise, between which patriarchy they want to identify with.

Ultimately, I like to say that I picked my current last name because I thought it sounded very academic and would look awesome on a book jacket.

Update: I wanted to address in a little more detail A.Y. Siu’s comment below, which aptly indicates that the name change issue is symbolic of the ways in which women are asked to sacrifice in marriage, while men are usually never asked to even think about those sacrifices. I think that’s a very valid point, and I hope no one reading this post has cause to think that I think women should just suck it up and change their name amid all the other enormous non-symbolic concessions (including taking full responsibility for child care) they are asked to make in relationships in order to avoid ruffling feathers. I’m not really all that proud of having made a choice on those terms and certainly wouldn’t hold it up to other women as a model of what everyone should do. It’s simply where I was at the point and reflects my particular relationship to the issue.

That said, I want to point out that my partner made a pretty huge, very not symbolic sacrifice when we got married. Namely, after having established a life in one city, that included a fantastic job, ownership of a house, and a close-knit group of friends, he dropped everything to move 1500 miles away because I got an excellent support package for graduate school. And he did it without even flinching. When I told him about the offer, he asked “what would you do if we weren’t together,” and when I said I would go, he just said “then that’s what we’ll do.” He doesn’t expect a medal for that, nor does it mean that he does not occasionally speak and act from a position of male privilege. But he did make a sacrifice that would have been huge for just about anybody, a sacrifice that the other men (and some women) in his life did not fully understand. For this, and many other reasons (including the equitable division of labor in our house and the fact that he has clearly said that he would quit work to take care of any babies we have, should that prove necessary, since mine is not a particularly mother-friendly field), I believe that we have a feminist relationship, name change aside. But again, that’s my marriage and my experience.

The Dudeliness of Dreiser Studies

Theodore Dreiser

Recently on Tiger Beatdown, The Rejectionist wrote a post on “manfiction” that reminded me of the seminar on Postmodernist American Literature I took in my first year of graduate school, a course that probably should have been called “Bonerfest–the Twentieth Century.” Aside from Susan Sontag and Cynthia Ozick (of the fourteen books assigned, women wrote two), this course was pretty much a non-stop parade of dudes talking about their dicks. The status of women in most of these works is pretty much summed up by the cover art for Wille Masters’ Lonesome Wife (NSFW). In case you’re afraid to click the link, the cover features a photograph a headless lady’s nekkid boobs, and the central conceit of the book is that the text…wait for it…is a woman. Let that sit for a minute. In the course of embodying “the text” (i.e. William Gass’s brilliant creation), the unclothed female in the photographs masturbates and has coffee stains imprinted on her body, because dudes sometimes put their coffee mug down on the chick *erm* they are currently doing/reading.  The text is essentially all about the male gaze, in which the text–gendered female–bounces around promiscuously between multiple readers–gendered male.

By the time we had gotten to Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, I had pretty much had it and went on a lengthy public rant about how dudes seriously need to get a new metaphor for their writerly prowess. Because, PENIS. WE GOT IT THE FIRST 50,000 TIMES. IT’S BEEN DONE. And then I held the entire class hostage while I read Gilbert and Gubar to them. Ok, that last part isn’t true, but shoulda woulda and all that.

This is not to say that I dislike literature by men. Many of my favorite writers are men. But the penis as pen thing really is pretty worn out, and I find it increasingly difficult to get geared up for Roth or Updike or Hemingway or Kerouac or McCarthy because of their inability to portray women as actual human beings.

And that’s why, when it came time to write the Dreiser chapter of my dissertation–because he’s a Writer I Have to Account For–I was prepared for it to be a real drag.  I had always thought of Dreiser as a Dude Writer in the Frank Norris/Ernest Hemingway mold because of when he was writing (roughly 1900-1945) and the fact that most of the critics who write about him are Great Dude Critics in the Walter Benn Michaels mold.

But then I read the actual novels and was surprised. I had read Sister Carrie a while back, but I hadn’t really reflected on the significance of the fact that Dreiser’s first two novels featured strong female protagonists with total sexual autonomy and–here’s a shocker–jobs. In fact, all of the barriers to ladies obtaining sex and/or jobs in Dreiser novels prove to be societal and economic rather than biological. Women do not meet with unfortunate circumstances in his novels because they are in possession of female reproductive systems but because the system is rigged against them and they are oppressed by dude-centered morality. An American Tragedy, widely lauded as his greatest novel is essentially a 900 page argument for legalized abortion. In 1925.

Emma Dreiser, the purported inspiration for Sister Carrie

Here, for example, is the plot of Sister Carrie: Carrie Meeber travels from her hometown to the city of Chicago in search of a better life. On the train, she meets a hot guy named Charles Drouet, who suggests that they hook up sometime. She says “maybe” and goes to live with her sister’s family while looking for a job. Carrie finds a job sewing designer shoes, but her sister and brother-in-law start taking most of her wages. At this point, Carrie has begun dating Drouet, who is just a salesman but can afford nicer things than she can, and seeing her loneliness and economic desperation, he suggests they shack up together. By this point, Carrie has lost her job due to illness, and she agrees, and we never hear from the sister or brother-in-law again. I feel that it is important to mention that most Dreiser novels begin this way, no matter what the gender of the protagonist is. Wide-eyed, ambitious young person arrives in the big city, finds a menial job, struggles on the brink of starvation, and starts screwing someone. Much would be made of Carrie’s economic opportunism (gold digger!), but dating above one’s socio-economic station is something that virtually every one of Dreiser’s male protagonists (including Eugene Witla, Frank Cowperwood, and Clyde Griffiths) does. The same goes for screwing someone whom you later lose interest in, as Carrie does about a quarter of the way through the novel. People falling into bed together and then realizing they are poorly suited for one another is a pretty consistent theme in Dreiser’s works.

Enter George Hurstwood. Hurstwood, like Drouet and Carrie, is an ambitious social climber (EVERYONE in Dreiser’s world is a rank materialist) who has made it to the next rung. He is, essentially, the manager of a high-end bar and even more of a metrosexual than Drouet. Drouet, who is kind of an idiot but who is also probably banging another lady anyway, introduces the two of them. Hurstwood and Carrie get the hots for each other. In the meantime, Carrie gets one job as a stage actress and has proves to be quite good at it. As she and Drouet have begun fighting (namely over her clandestine meetings with Hurstwood), she makes plans to move out of their apartment and try to make it on her own.

Meanwhile, Hurstwood’s wife has begun to suspect something, and because said wife actually holds most of the family property in her own name, Hurstwood is in something of a pickle. So–and this is where things get weird–he gets hammered, steals a buttload of money from his place of employment, lures Carrie onto a train (by telling her Drouet is injured), and kidnaps her. They go to Canada, where the police finally catch up with them and make Hurstwood give all the money back and promise to return to Chicago so he can face justice. He gives part of the money back and then forces Carrie to come with him to New York, promising that he will marry her. Since she is now an accomplice to grand larceny in the eyes of the law and has no way to get back to Chicago, she doesn’t have much choice. The two of them shack up in New York under a different name. Hurstwood temporarily invests in another high-end bar but finds that his stock isn’t all that high in this much fancier town, especially when he can’t trade on his own name.

Hurstwood eventually loses his business, and the two of them muddle through in reduced circumstances for a while. Hurstwood spends some time looking for a job, any job, but he is so psychologically defeated by the whole ordeal that he mostly winds up wandering the city and sitting forlornly in the lobbies of expensive hotels, dreaming of the old days. Then he starts gambling. Once he finally reveals to Carrie–the woman he kidnapped, if you recall–that they are destitute, she decides to go looking for a job herself. She gets a bit part as an actress that leads to full time employment in a theater chorus. Meanwhile, Hurstwood spends most of his time reading the newspaper in their apartment. No longer attracted to him, Carrie decides to move out and get a room with a female co-worker. Her career takes off, and she becomes a major Broadway actress and eventually moves into the Waldorf-Astoria. Hurstwood eventually commits suicide in a flop house.

The thesis (theses really) of Sister Carrie is similar to that of all Dreiser novels: compulsory monogamy is problematic for everybody; affordable birth control is super-duper important; the system is rigged in favor of the already wealthy; a lack of a social safety net results in tragedy; American consumerism supports economic exploitation. In other words, while far from perfect, Dreiser was one of the most progressive authors of the early twentieth century of any gender, really. He was interested in women’s experiences, because, as far as he was concerned, they were human experiences. While he did have a creepy fascination with nubile eighteen-year olds, his novels contained plenty of fully realized older female characters. While his male characters have a tendency to hop from woman to woman, even if that means leaving at least one of them in disadvantaged economic circumstances, he championed birth control and legal, affordable abortion as a basic human right and socio-economic necessity. And he portrayed plenty of compelling female characters who wanted sex but had no interest in marriage, like Christina Channing of The “Genius,” who, upon hearing that her former lover is getting married, promptly gets on with her opera career. In fact, if there is one major way in which Dreiser’s gender politics fail it is in his frustration with the fact that all women aren’t like Carrie or Christina Channing, that many women of his time remained deeply invested in traditional morality and compulsory monogamy, without really considering the fact that except for the very privileged, the sexual license he idealizes would typically mean social and economic death for the average woman. (One might say that this critique actually remains in the sub-text of his work).

So why have I thought for so long that Dreiser was a Dude Writer of Manfiction? I guess it’s because of this:

Naturally, Hurstwood drew more sympathy than Carrie. To many reviewers (all male in this case), Carrie was regarded as an irresponsible shopgirl who got lucky, but Hurstwood drew their empathy.

From Jerome Loving, The Last Titan


See, early reviewers and virtually every male academic critic thereafter have sort of looked at Sister Carrie like this: “So there this chick in this book, and it’s named after her, but she’s kind of gross because she sleeps around and [does all the stuff that typical Dreiser heroes do, but does them while female]. That guy who kidnaps her and implicates her in a crime that she didn’t commit is incredibly sympathetic, though.” In other words, the reason why Dreiser exists somewhere in the zeitgeist as a Dude Who Writes About Dudely Things is because Dudes like that have been in charge of his legacy, and those dudes could not manage to identify with female protagonists who do precisely what Dreiser’s male protagonists do and so attached themselves to a male character who does not appear until page 60 and call him the hero while ignoring the character the book is named after. And what’s remarkable is how this perception has persisted even into the present day. Loving’s biography of Dreiser was published in 2005, the most recent to date, but even he summarizes Sister Carrie thus:

Carrie Meeber […] moves from the country to the city, exchanging her virginity for material comfort. Her successive lovers, Charles Drouet and George Hurstwood, see her, reciprocally, as a symbol of the pleasure money and power can purchase. Carrie abandons the unmarried Drouet for the married Hurstwood, who in turn leaves his family and his position as manager of a post Chicago saloon, steals money from his employers, and flees with Carrie to New York. There, as he eventually fails in his new investment, Carrie abandons him as well, and he soon finds himself homeless, sick, and dazed by fate in the winter of 1896.

Yes, poooooooooor Hurstwood. Except, you know, KIDNAPPING, which Loving doesn’t really mention, because by consenting to romantic relations with him she was consenting to abduction, I guess.  Because women exist in a perpetual state of “yes.” I like how Carrie is only ever allowed agency in this paragraph when she is doing something reprehensible: “exchanging her virginity” or “abandoning” one of her men. Otherwise, she is an object to be traded. Loving goes on about this novel for several pages, talking about the confluences between Dreiser’s own economic insecurity and Hurstwood’s rapid decline:

Dreiser worried about money, as we know, most of his life, and this phobia is dramatized in the increasing shabbiness of Hurstwood’s living quarters.

Forget the far more explicit connection between Carrie and Dreiser’s attempts to make it in Chicago, between their early sexual exploits. In fact, there is a marked similarity between the early chapters of Sister Carrie and the early chapters of the semi-autobiographical novel The “Genius” and probably no small amount of wishful thinking in the way that Dreiser depicts Carrie’s rise as an actress, much in the way, perhaps, he imagined his own rise as a novelist. For most Dreiser scholars, there is just no freaking way that the Beloved Male Author could have identified with a female protagonist, yet there is substantial evidence that he did.

If you look at his photo, featured at the beginning of this essay, you can sort of see that there were ways in which Dreiser did not live up to the standards of hegemonic masculinity at just about any time. I mean really, he was kind of a wiener. He wasn’t conventionally attractive or physically able. He suffered from frequent bouts of neurasthenia (what we might call depression or chronic fatigue syndrome). Despite his early interest in sex, he was often unlucky in love and had difficulties consummating the act as a youth. He was a card carrying member of the Communist Party. He was into all kinds of weird spiritual stuff–like going to astrologers and Christian Scientists and reading tea leaves and performing seances–much of which was associated with women at the time.  His Professional Author friends were often sort of like, “You should really shut up about that stuff, because it DOESN’T LOOK GOOD.” Reading his biography, I’ve come to see that while Dreiser needed the assistance of people like H.L. Mencken to help translate his vision into literary success, much of his legacy has been controlled by a public relations team, a team of literary professionals who were frequently a little embarrassed by his failure to conform.

So, why the hell did I just write all of that? Well, I guess it’s because I’m immersed in all of this stuff right now, this being the chapter I’m currently working on and whatnot. But I’m also trying to point out that the project of Backlash Literature in the twentieth century has not only been about erasing emergent female voices and asserting larger-than-life masculine voices but policing the masculinity of the Great Male Authors of the relatively recent past. One of these days, I will write a great post about a female author that I love that didn’t inspire the title of this blog. But if you want a recommendation, I’d say go for Toni Morrison’s Paradise or Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, both excellent books about women’s relationships with women. And for an excellent feminist reading of Dreiser, check out Jennifer Fleissner’s Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism.

Mark Twain Thought Chivalry Sucked Too

A dude who thinks chivalry is terribad

Feminists don’t like the whole idea of chivalry much, no? I mean, ask this feminist, and I’ll probably tell you that yes, you should give up your seat to that pregnant lady, and yes, if you see me walking toward a door with a lot of heavy books in my hands, I would thank you for holding it open for me. But that’s because I would totally do the same thing for you! That’s called being polite! What feminists are really complaining about with the whole chivalry thing is that it’s something dudes sometimes use to prove how studly they are to other dudes by infantalizing women in the process. For example, dudes sometimes feel the need to beat up other dudes whenever the lady they are with is insulted. Now once again, if we are in company together and someone says something offensive about me, or another lady, or ladies in general, it is perfectly acceptable for you to speak up with a “wow, not cool” sort of comment, because again that’s just being polite. But if your immediate reaction to an insult directed at the woman you are with is something more like, “That’s MY woman you’re talking about!11!11  YOU HAVE IMPUGNED MY GENTLEMANLY HONOR, YOU KNAVE!!!1!!11 HULK RAGE!11!1!!1” then I am not so cool with that. As Amanda Hess of the Sexist helpfully explains, when a woman is, say, harassed on a street while in the company of her gentleman associate, she may feel anger on her own behalf because someone thought she was a hooker, but she also feels:

A secondary source of shame, derived from the possibility that someone “may have thought [her fiance] was with a hooker.” Since the woman’s fiance is responsible for her shame as well, he may have a similarly conflicted reaction: (a) anger at the harassers who devalued her based on her gender, and (b) shame that he is associated with a woman who is considered by other men to be valueless. Chivalry encourages him to take personal offense to this, inciting one of two reactions: (a) engaging in a verbal or physical altercation with the harassers in order to compensate for the woman’s shame with a display of manhood; and/or (b) chastising the woman for bringing shame upon him, i.e. “Don’t embarrass me in front of other men”; “Don’t go out looking like that”; “See what you made me do.”

Chivalry has long performed the task of recasting violent oppression as benign paternalism, and you know who recognized this way back in the nineteenth century? Mark Twain. That’s not a name that gets invoked by feminists very often, and for good reason. True to his status as a nineteenth century male, Mark Twain’s gender politics were pretty appalling. I’m trying to think of one female character in one of his novels that isn’t a ridiculous stereotype, and yeah, no. But Mark Twain held many other radically progressive views. He was critical of the American imperial project at a time when the country was clamoring for the expansion of American influence abroad. He was a pacifist, and he hated most organized religion (though I think his own religious views were pretty complex). He also thought that the word chivalry pretty much encompassed everything that was wrong with the United States during his lifetime.  I’m not exaggerating.

See, U.S.-Americans learned about chivalry from Sir Walter Scott, the early nineteenth century author of such novels as Rob Roy and Ivanhoe. In these novels, knightly dudes did knightly things like fight duels (often over women). These knights were always part of a powerful noble class, whose rank was more or less granted to them by God Almighty and whose right to hold that rank was never, ever challenged. Everyone else–i.e. poorer people and women, i.e. a huge percentage of the population of the historical period these novels purported to depict–was pretty much the exclusive property of the male members of that noble class and fawningly served them and existed primarily to provide the picturesque backdrop for the nobles’ heroic pursuits.

The dude Twain blamed for that whole Civil War thing

According to Mark Twain, white Americans, particularly those residing in the South, read about this and said, “This is totes awesome. We totally need something like this right here in the U.S. of A.  And luckily it just so happens that we have a subjugated class of non-persons who can provide our picturesque backdrop built into our society.” In short, Twain argued that the Southern infatuation with Sir Walter Scott-style chivalry was responsible for the perpetuation of slavery and the Civil War. As he says in Life on the Mississippi:

There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it–would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediaeval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

The newer, sexier Old South

While Twain fully acknowledges that slavery predated the influence of Scott, he argues that Scott provided a heroic language with which to describe slavery and violent oppression, a language that continued to be prevalent even after the Civil War. After Reconstruction was disastrously abandoned, there was a market for fiction that presented the Old South in this highly romanticized fashion. Take, for example, Thomas Nelson Page’s short story “Marse Chan,” a piece of dialect fiction in which a former slave wistfully reminisces about the beautiful, long lost time before the war, in which his heroic master was crossed in love and fought duels. The reason this is told from the former slave’s perspective is to convey the not so subtle subtext that those nice white Southerners treated their slaves so well. See?  The slaves actually liked it!  Stories like this were essential in promoting white solidarity throughout the country after the war, by depicting the Southern lifestyle as quaint and picturesque rather than the human rights catastrophe that it actually was.

Twain’s 1890 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was basically a book length critique of chivalry. In that novel, Twain uses various forms of anachronism to remind us, first of all, that our entire understanding of chivalry is based on a set of myths surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, a mythology that is heavily mediated by novelists who were writing a millennium after King Arthur allegedly lived. Entire monologues delivered by the medieval characters are cribbed straight from Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte D’Arthur, which was written in the fifteenth century, in order to mock those who had mistaken mythology for actual history.  The hero of the novel, Hank Morgan, is essentially the surrogate for the white Yankee audience(this dude is from Connecticut and is also totally smug about it). Transported from the late nineteenth century to the “sixth” (the sixth century in this book is essentially just a Sir Walter Scott novel), he spends most of the first act noticing how stupidly the people who inhabit this entirely fictional conception of the medieval period behave, with the implicit message being “HEY SOUTHERNERS, YOU LOOK EFFING RIDICULOUS WHEN YOU DO THAT.” He also observes that the entire system of chivalry seems to exist to perpetuate the completely unearned privilege of a few people, namely the King, his knights, and the Church, the result being that everyone else is essentially a slave.

The violence inherent in the system

Twain’s depiction of “sixth century” slavery in this novel could have been lifted directly from Harriet Beecher Stowe or Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. While this is a comic novel, he is unsparing in his depiction of slavery as a moral outrage. We see couples torn apart, children taken from their mothers, people being savagely beaten. Even worse, Twain shows how violent oppression turns oppressed people on one another. Everyone who isn’t a nobleman or a priest is essentially treated like an animal, but some of them ultimately internalize their own oppression and act as enforcers of the system in order to attain slightly higher status or even just survive. When he witnesses a group of peasants hunting down some other peasants who burned down their lord’s castle in an act of rebellion against that lord’s arbitrary uses of violence, Morgan says:

It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the “poor whites” of our South who were always despised and frequently insulted, by the slave-lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with slave-lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them.

However, the novel implicitly critiques its narrator as well. Morgan’s smug sense of superiority to the sixth century noblemen is analogous to that of the privileged white people of the North, many of whom expressed disgust over slavery and the backward ways of the South but did absolutely nothing about it. In one scene, Morgan watches a young woman being beaten by a slave driver and utterly fails to intervene, because he fears offending the privileged people he is traveling with:

I wanted to stop the whole thing and set the slaves free, but that would not do. I must not interfere too much and get myself a name for riding over the country’s laws and the citizen’s rights roughshod. If I lived and prospered I would be the death of slavery, that I was resolved upon; but I would try to fix it so that when I became its executioner it should be by the command of the nation.

It is worth pointing out that by this point in the novel, Morgan has gone from regarding chivalry with rank disgust to regarding it with a kind of aesthetic appreciation. By virtue of having a nineteenth century knowledge of technology in the sixth century, he has risen to power and privilege and has even begun to see quaint beauty in the system he originally detested, a system that he is now benefiting from. In this passage, we see how that privilege has shaped the way Morgan determines who counts as a “citizen,” whose “rights” are worth respecting, whose “command” matters when it comes to abolishing slavery. I won’t spoil the end of the novel for you. It’s one that you really should go read for yourself, as it’s quick and funny and sneakily profound. Suffice it to say that for all it’s humor, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was sort of shockingly ahead of it’s time (if you read the contemporary reviews, you can see just how much of its subversiveness floated under the nose of Twain’s readers), simultaneously unveiling the role that language and literature play in supporting systems of power decades before Foucault and revealing the horrifying consequences of industrialized warfare decades before the World Wars.

Kids these days

But many of Twain’s other novels contain critiques of chivalry and “Sir Walter disease.” Remember when you read Huckleberry Finn in high school and got to that part at the end where Tom and Huck decide to free Jim but Tom makes everyone engage in this ludicrous role play of a typical captivity narrative (I think The Count of Monte Cristo is his inspiration) and your teacher didn’t really know what to do with that? (Ok, maybe she did and what I’m about to say is not news to you. What I’m about to say did not originate with me). Some people think that final episode makes the entire book a colossal literary failure, but there is a purpose behind it. See, from the beginning of that novel (and in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer is established as the type of kid who likes to act out the scenarios of his favorite books. Absurd shenanigans ensue.  Huckleberry Finn, as a coming of age story, is essentially all about what happens when we forget to put aside our childish ways and use those sorts of games to structure real, adult lives. (I suppose there is also an argument to be made that Huck Finn demonstrates how the systems of privilege and entitlement that structure adult lives begin with childhood play.)  Consider the Duke and the King, two con artists who adopt these sham titles because the Southerners around them will believe in that shit. Then you have the Sandersons and the Grangerfords slaughtering each other over a feud that absolutely no one remembers due to the fetishization of “Family Honor” as a grand, abstract concept.

What Twain is doing with Tom’s little captivity role play is showing how these childish fictions can become serious business. In the process of this little charade, Jim is recaptured, and Tom gets shot. But that episode isn’t just about the ridiculousness of patterning real life after a novel–though that’s pretty much what Twain’s critique of the South and Sir Walter came down to–it’s that enacting the narratives of chivalry requires taking away the autonomy of non-privileged people (Jim and to a certain degree Huck) in order to allow Privileged White Folks (Tom) to live out these self-aggrandizing narratives. Tom’s conception of himself as a Hero is entirely predicated on the fact that Jim has no choice but to play along because his very bodily survival depends on Tom’s benevolence and cooperation, just as the ability of White Southerners to perform chivalry as a class depended upon the existence of a permanent underclass that could be treated as personal property and kept wholly dependent on their masters.

In short, U.S. Americans have a long history of using the rhetoric of chivalry in order to deny autonomy and personhood to certain types of people, and that’s essentially what we’re talking about when feminists critique it. I wouldn’t even begin to argue that the situation of the harassed woman on the street who feels shame on behalf of her partner–because a slight against her is a slight against him, since she belongs to her in some way–is suffering from a form of oppression equivalent to that experienced by black slaves in the American South, or even African Americans in the U.S. today. But it is part of the same cultural logic that says that the performance of Dudely Heroism requires a woman to perform a circumscribed, subordinate role.  Furthermore, it justifies that necessity of that subordinate role by casting it as necessary for her own protection, because in the cultural logic of chivalry, women and other people who are treated as the personal property of white dudes are too ignorant and fragile to take care of themselves. Better they suffer indignities at the hands of one responsible, gentlemanly white man than find out what might happen if they had, you know, bodily autonomy, because dear God, what might happen then?

And this, dear readers, is what chivalry hath wrought.  So saith Mark Twain.

On Women’s Colleges

I was particularly impressed by this Broadsheet post on women’s colleges. As a graduate of a women’s college that ultimately went co-ed in the years since graduation (a decision I have mixed feelings about), I identify with the dilemmas that Eby highlights. On the one hand, women’s colleges seem like an artifact of a time when women were unable to attend mainstream schools. On the other hand, so much of the criticism of them takes on overtly misogynist overtones, as Eby points out. Jerry Falwell infamously called the women who attended my college (while I was there no less) the “whores on the hill.”

Furthermore, arguments for their obsolescence tend to rest on the assumption that feminism has essentially accomplished its task, that women don’t face any obstacles in attaining a college education anymore. And while women appear to be on equal (possibly even stronger) footing with men in terms of enrollment numbers, it isn’t clear that all of the barriers have been beaten down. Women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of business and government and continue to make less money than men during their lifetimes. Female students, even at the most elementary levels of education, still do not speak up in class and are not called upon to do so as often as their male peers. At some elite universities, the top student leadership positions continue to be dominated by men. Women attending co-educational universities also face an unacceptably high risk of being raped, physically assaulted, or harassed and have to contend with college administrators who fail miserably at addressing those issues. While removing all women from co-educational environments probably is not a tenable solution to these problems, it does suggest that there are still reasons why a female student may prefer to opt for an all female environment before entering the work force, and she doesn’t necessarily have to be a wallflower in order to do so.

My own reasons for choosing a women’s college had to do with the viciously misogynistic educational culture that I grew up in. In many ways, it was just garden variety sexism: slut shaming, sexual harassment in the school hallways that was dismissed by the administration and parents under the logic of “boys will be boys,” male students elevated to leadership positions more frequently than females, practices of policing female dress and behavior in ways that were frequently humiliating and shaming, an intensely competitive academic environment in which female voices were often stifled and feminist viewpoints usually ridiculed and angrily shut down, girls who got kicked out of school for getting pregnant while their partners got to stay. Then when you add the hyper-conservative Christian nature of that environment to the picture, you get systematic misogyny sacralized by spiritual rhetoric. The moment when I finally said “Fuck this” came senior year, when a male student who regularly made me (and other female students) feel unsafe walking down the hallway experienced a dramatic conversion and was instantaneously elevated to spiritual leadership in our class. While his spiritual transformation may have been genuine, for me, it wasn’t enough to erase three years of routine disrespect and fear.

In short, I was through with that shit. It was a revelation to be able to spend four years in a kind of feminist oasis (in my experience, women’s colleges, thanks to their origins, tend to be fiercely feminist). I still interacted with men on a regular basis, and even met the man I eventually married while I was there, but it was refreshing to be able to build solid friendships with other women as women rather than as rivals, which all girls inevitably were at my high school. As one of those nerdy girls who claimed all throughout high school that I got along better with boys than with girls, I actually needed to be taught that all women were not, in fact, terrible, that there was no reason to hate other women just because my high school (also middle school and elementary school too, if I’m being completely honest) experience made me hate being one myself. In other words, my own misogynistic tendencies needed to be rehabilitated as well.

This was an environment in which speaking out, both in class and in Student Government meetings (I was eventually elected Treasurer and then President of SG), became habit, something that I took straight into a co-ed graduate program and mixed work environments. In addition to making me more confident around men, I firmly believe that my women’s college experience actually gave me a better, more compassionate view of the male gender. Being able to be selective with the men that I associated with (and finally meeting some feminist men) taught me that I could actually feel safe around them, that I could actually work and socialize with them without feeling awkward or threatened.

So, my defense of women’s colleges is, essentially, that I want other women to be able to have the same experience. In an age of anti-feminist backlash and still-rampant sexism, it is perfectly reasonable to want to spend some time in a kind of feminist enclave. And in my experience (which may not be everyone’s), doing so can make us more effective citizens in the long run, better able to happily co-exist with both our male and female peers.

Update: I just want to be clear on the fact that I don’t think women’s colleges are for everyone or that they are without problems. I do think that this is a matter of choice. There’s another pretty good discussion of this going on at Jezebel.

Update 2: Tevarre at the Fugitivus forums was kind enough to point out this post at Historiann from last year.

Portrait of the Artist, My Mother

My Mom is going to semi-hate the title of this blog.  I say “semi” because she adores Anne Lamott and she secretly loves slightly subversive humor, but she also wouldn’t let me say “butt” let alone “ass” when I was growing up, so there’s that.  As such, I thought I’d write a super flattering post about her so she’d have to approve.

My mother has been a writer and an artist for as long as I can remember.  The two images I most associate with her are her face with a camera in front of it and her sitting by the window in the morning, writing in her journal.  She was the sort of person who did not discover just how talented she was until middle age.  After I left for college, she began really entering the world of professional photography and has since become so sought after that she’s gone from being a full time stay at home mom to working essentially 18 hours a day.  In addition to doing portraits, she sells prints of her nature photography (the photo above is one of the first she ever sold), has her own line of products, and owns a store.

When it came time to create her website, she asked me to help edit the copy, and we had a long exchange about her tendency to “undersell” herself and her abilities. Despite being so gifted with the art of communication, capable of writing so beautifully in her journal, she had a difficult time translating that into copy that effectively “sold” herself. If there is a central theme to this site, it is that sending your writing into the world for others to see and absorb and critique and respond to is as much about personal growth as it is figuring out how to string the right words together. When we write, we meet ourselves, and that means coming up against our prior psychic damage. From what I know about her childhood and early adulthood, girls and women weren’t encouraged to use their voices very often. But for anyone, entering the world through art requires the heroic act of silencing the voices of our past that tell us not to speak, that if we do we may be shamed or killed. As Lamott herself says in Bird by Bird, perfectionism (a characteristic my Mom and I share), is the “voice of the oppressor.”.

I think that something…happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds–the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both–to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and writing in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.

I respect my Mom not just for what she has accomplished as an artist and a businesswoman but because of what she had to get past to get there. It seems cheesy to just come out and say that she is an inspiration to me, but that’s just the truth.

The Politics of Book Selection

For the past two years, I have served on the selection committee for the book that all first years in our introductory writing program read.  The book is always on some sort of broad public controversy that informs the writing assignments and discussion that happens in class.  The graduate student committee puts together a short list from which the department powers that be select a winner.  I am not going to disclose the name of the book that got picked this year, because if people one day find this blog, I can only imagine the comments saying “WHY DON’T YOU LIKE THAT BOOK THAT BOOKS IS AWESOME YOU ARE TERRIBLE,” to which I can only respond: I know.  It is a good book and I have nothing against it or its talented author.  It’s just that given the history of books selected over the past 5-6 years, this particular selection turned what was possibly a coincidence into a trend.

The book that was picked is on environmentalism.  That’s great.  I love the environment.  I’m all for sustainable living and alternative energies and all that.  It was written by a straight white dude and focuses on his white dudely experiences with the aforementioned.  Fine.  That’s just fine.  I have no issues with white dudes.  Some of my best fathers and uncles and grandfathers are white dudes.  It’s just that, well, last year, the book—which was on sustainable agriculture and the locavore movement—was also by a white dude and centered on his white dudely perspective, as was the book before it.  In the past six years, all of the books picked for this program have been written by straight cis-gendered men, and only once–when the author was bi-racial white/Latino–was the author not whitey whitey white white.  That seems like a problem to me, especially in a program that seems to strive for inclusion, that put Zitkala-Sa (a Native American woman) and Gloria freaking Anzaldúa on our Ph.D. qualifying exam.

And it’s not that books by women and non-white and non-heterosexual cis-gendered people haven’t been nominated before.  They have.  I’ve even nominated them myself.  A select few have made the final short list, but for whatever reason, they don’t get picked.  I have a theory about why this keeps happening, and it is not that my department is run by smelly old white dudes (the chair is a dude, but his hygiene seems fine, also young, and the co-chair is a lady).  I think it’s just risk averseness.  These texts keep getting picked because they are “safe.”  We live in a world in which the voices and perspectives of non-white/straight/cis/male people just seem, well, inherently more “political” and therefore more likely to piss off the conservative state legislature, students, parents, and confirm that our school and department are, in fact, the stuff of David Horowitz’s fevered nightmares.

The thing is that the controversies that have come out of these books have tended to be, well, boring.  Like I said, I think sustainable living and ethical food production are very, very important topics, worthy of discussion, but from the perspective of instructors, it was difficult to sustain a semester-long discussion about them.  Students just did not stay engaged in the way we would have hoped, and I think that’s understandable.  It also doesn’t help that many of the recent controversies suggested by the selected books tend to be fairly typical lefty issues, issues that graduate students and professors in English may feel passionate about, but feel simultaneously alien and overplayed to eighteen year olds.  Furthermore, for students who aren’t already inclined to be sympathetic to their positions, these books (which were not without problems) must have felt easy to dismiss.

The first year I taught in this program, we used Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway (I feel comfortable mentioning it by name since I’m about to give a glowing review), and it was fantastic.  Most of my students had an opinion about immigration, and because this university is in a border state, many of our students had first-hand experiences that they were able to bring to the table.  It was awesome.  Minds were changed.  Simplistic, entrenched viewpoints were reshaped to become either more principled or radically different.  Fantastic discussions occurred.  Beautiful papers were written.  Urrea’s book, if you haven’t read it, doesn’t present a standard left or right viewpoint on the issue but praises the Border Patrol while lamenting the human rights issues that plague the border.  But from what I have heard from graduate students who were on the committee that sent up that book, the department powers that be got really sweaty about it.  The person who nominated it had to fight for it, and I’m sincerely glad that she did.  Urrea’s book isn’t perfect either.  There is a lot of gender fail in there for one thing, but in terms of introducing a compelling, relevant controversy and a well-written, engaging argument that did not center the experiences of white men who can afford to shop at Whole Foods, it was an unqualified success.

So, I’d really like to see more of that and less of what we’ve gotten the past three years and the years before Urrea, but as a member of the selection committee I’m sort of sitting in a big glass house here.  When it’s come time to vote on the short list both years I’ve been on this committee, I too have been persuaded by the idea that X book on sexual issues affecting teens and twenty-somethings (what could be more relevant than that?) will be too awkward in the classroom and potentially get us into trouble, or Y book by a Muslim woman will be too incendiary, even though it calls for mutual understanding between the cultures by speaking directly to young people and is more critical of Iran than of the U.S.  There is always a reason not to champion books like that, especially if you’re already sort of inclined to find one.  It’s always possible to imagine nightmare scenarios in the classroom, and in an age in which non-tenured instructors have become increasingly vulnerable to political backlash, there are reasons to want to protect ourselves.

But pandering is dumb, and it consistently feels like we are designing our curriculum around the most irrational, reactionary student we can possibly imagine, instead of considering that the vast majority of them really, really will be able to handle this and stand to benefit from the kind of lively debate a rhetoric and composition class is supposed to encourage.  In the end it’s insulting to young people and to people who might hold different views than those held by graduate students and professors in English to think won’t be able to cope, though I do get why we think this.  And we certainly shouldn’t be returning to the “safe” white straight cis-dude well as a default response to our fear of controversy.  It’s deploying casual racism and sexism as an antidote to potentially overt racism and sexism, and that’s messed up.

We (I) need to do a better job of fighting for the texts we want to teach.