What if Tara is better not united? Thoughts on the season opener of The United States of Tara

(Cross-posted at Ms. Blog here)

As I began watching the second-season premiere of the Showtime series The United States of Tara, I eagerly ask what I always do before an episode starts: “Which ‘alter’ will it be this time?”

Alas, to my dismay, the show’s bubbly focus on a recovered Tara Gregson (Toni Collette) meant that the “alters”–alternate personalities of this 21st century Sybil–were gone, thrown out like the unwanted clothing ceremoniously dumped into a charity bin in the show opener. Instead, we have happy, functioning Tara, and an upbeat musical soundtrack trying to manipulate us to believe that, indeed, all is well in the Tara-verse.

But we soon learn that Tara as one person, no longer suffering from dissociative identity disorder, is not nearly as fun or interesting as she is as five different people. Instead, the “true Tara” now displays some of the most annoying traits of all five of her alters.

She incorporates her Alice-esque alter by donning a 50s-style apron and throwing herself into a dinner party with the neighborhood’s token gay couple. She speaks her mind Buck-style (Buck was a beer-swigging male alter) when a neighbor commits suicide, braggingThe lady with all the personalities is not the most fucked up person on the block.” After the dinner party, her T-proclivities (that was the teenaged alter) come out, and she performs a manic Bollywood number, ending with provocative thrusting in her hubby’s face. Her sister Charmaine assures her new beau that Tara has not actually “transitioned” into the other personality, indicating that perhaps it would be better if she did, while Tara’s husband Max is visibly worried that the new “sane” Tara might be more insane than before.

Given the show’s emphasis on the self as performative, and on the impossibility of performing to societal standards (especially if one is female), this suggestion that Tara’s recovery may not be a step forward is intriguing. Though the show reveals all the difficulties Tara’s disorder causes for her and her family, it also seems to be indicating that the real problem is a society that expects us to perform in very particular, stable and normative ways. These regulatory ideals are so oppressive that we either bind ourselves into limited roles (i.e.,  Alice-the-50s-housewife) or run the risk of being seen as “crazy”–as “normal” Tara is when she laughs too loud, makes a suicide joke or has too much fun at a dinner party.

The show’s underlying critique of  such normative ideals, and the relatively freeing notion of embracing the self as performance, is evident in other characters as well. Marshall, Tara’s closeted gay son, tries hard to be serious, smart and talented, but finds that flaunting his identity by sitting at the “gay-ble”–the school lunch table where gays and their allies sit–is a welcome relief, and results in him joining a campaign at his school aimed to raise queer visibility.

Charmaine, Tara’s sister, struggles with regulatory norms in choosing between a relationship with traditional hunk Neil vs. unattractive and vertically challenged Nick, who is personality-privileged and emotionally supportive. Charmaine tried to follow normative requirements in the past by augmenting her breasts to please her then-husband, a choice that resulted in lopsided and off-center nipples. Now that she has had these “corrected,” she seems to believe she can do better than short, balding Nick.

The character of Tara’s teenaged daughter Kate has thus far been largely challenged around the regulation of her sexuality, as indicated with Tara’s concern that she was not able to “micromanage her daughter’s vagina.” Kate’s struggles with a creepy boss and an abusive boyfriend expose a society populated by males wishing for similar micro-managing power.

Max appears to be the character least affected by social norms. He doesn’t seem to care that his wife is far from typical, worrying only about her health and happiness rather than what others think. He does not condemn or regulate his son’s sexuality nor attempt to micromanage his daughter. If any character seems too good to be true, it’s him. This is perhaps why Max is a bit empty as a character: a sort of dad/husband placeholder who comes off as boring and conventional in a cast of otherwise entertaining family members.

While Robert Abele laments at L.A. Weekly that “United States of Tara plays like surface feminism with an added gloss of snark and a bewilderingly blah sentimentality,” I would counter that the snark is integral to the feminist critique the show enacts. The snark reveals that our “normal” selves are “blah,” and thus we should embrace those aspects of our identity that subvert regulatory norms lest we end up living in a world full of bores.

Diablo Cody, the show’s creator, readily admits that she asks of everything she writes, “How am I going to sneak my subversive feminist message into this?” With Tara, she sneaks in this message beautifully, conveying that societal ideals–be they a stable self, heterosexuality or conventional attractiveness–do not an exciting world (or episode) make

What if the id within is feminist? A review of Nurse Jackie

(Cross-posted here at Ms. Blog)

In this week’s second-season premiere of the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, a feminist id was on full display. According to Mr. Penis Envy, Sigmund Freud, who published The Ego and the Id in 1923, the id acts according to the “pleasure principle,” seeking to avoid pain and experience pleasure with no thought to consequence.

While Jackie (Edie Falco), a hospital emergency-room nurse, does seem aware of consequences (she hides her drug addiction), she in large part functions according to id impulses. According to Freud, the id is ruled by libido, sexual and otherwise, cannot take “no” for an answer and is represented as infantile. It wants what it wants when it wants it. All of which is true of Jackie Peyton.

But, what makes Jackie’s id feminist? While it might seem contradictory to claim that the unthinking part of the self can have feminist tendencies, Jackie’s pleasure-seeking self can be read as a reaction to the confines of the patriarchal world. As a nurse (and a woman), she is supposed to be selfless and outward-directed, nurturing and caring. Who cares about her chronic pain and 24-hour work/life demands? Her feminist id responds “F you” to the nurturing/suffering paradigm, and she ingests drugs to numb the pain of daily life.

In this week’s episode, Jackie’s feminist id refuses to bend over backwards to ameliorate her rather annoying daughter, Grace, while the family is on a beach excursion. She rejects the “super-mom” role, instead rolling her eyes and voicing frustration. Then, when two young men partake in sexist “I’d tap that” banter, she shoves one of them down and storms off. Her husband warns them “Don’t fuck with her,” voicing the “don’t mess with me” aura Jackie exudes most of the time. That’s an aura that women are not supposed to have but, as the scene indicates, her husband can literally voice.

Jackie’s id also ignores her lover Eddie’s texts–why should she have to placate him just because he can’t get over his jealous response to discovering she is married? The show’s representation of him as seeking vengeance because “his woman” is “taken” can be read as a feminist critique of the ownership model of love. If he were angry at the betrayal, that would be one thing, but he is angry that she is not his alone–to which feminist-id Jackie says “F you, dude.”

Her shenanigans with Coop, the doctor who’s enamored with her, also have a feminist pleasure principle at their core. How fun is it that she takes down this ego-inflated ninny and yet he remains hopelessly infatuated? Our super-ego might feel her teasing kisses and sharp barbs are cruel, but our own ids cheer as Jackie skewers Coop’s self-important bravado.

Even the flourish that closes the episode, her delivery of cake for a family dinner, can be read as a feminist id response. Not only is she saying no to all the rules about what and how one should eat, she is again refusing to live up to wife/mother ideals. Perhaps this is a veiled response to husband Kevin’s recent declaration that she is such a great wife because she cooks him breakfast even when she is exhausted.

More generally, id-Jackie reveals that sexual desire is overly regulated and refuses to buy into “you can only love and have sex with one person at a time” paradigm. She proves that the “just say no” response is unrealistic, that our drugs–be they cake, sex or morphine–sometimes are the only things allowing us a tenuous grip on our capacity to be functional beings.

I agree with The Feminist Spectator, that this series is “smart and morally, emotionally and ethically complicated.” We may not be able to fully embrace Jackie’s id behavior, but we can certainly recognize what drives it. And, as Michelle Dean notes at Bitch, “All of the female characters on the show spend considerable time satisfying the Bechdel test–women, speaking to women, about subjects other than men.” These characters offer subtle and provocative critiques of the privilege/oppression matrix, revealing that, given the regulatory practices of society, it’s surprising we are not all popping pills like candy.

I hope that during the rest of this season, Jackie, a wonderful feminist id, will have her cake and eat it too.

What if the soldier-as-rapist is not an aberration?

(Cross-posted here at Ms.Blog)

Fort Bragg soldier Spc. Aaron Pernell, 22, an indirect fire infantryman who has served two tours in Iraq, was charged with sexual assault in February. Pernell appeared in court Tuesday on 13 charges including rape and attempted rape. What’s unique about these charges are that they were made at all: thousands of other military rapists have escaped punishment in the past fifteen years, according to the Denver Post in its excellent investigative series [PDF].

As the Ms. Blog recently reported, a new Pentagon study confirms that militarized sexual violence (MSV) is on the rise. Yet, while crimes such as those Pernell is charged with are all too common, perpetrators regularly escape punishment and often re-enter the civilian world with no criminal record.

Since one-third of women who join the military are raped or sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers, we must recognize that the soldier as rapist is all too common. Given that rape and sexual assault rates rise in the civilian world during wartime, we must also recognize that militarized sexual violence is trickling down into our communities. As more soldiers return home, we can expect more crimes like those Pernell is charged with.

In fact, areas surrounding military bases have already seen increasing numbers of sexual assault. Stacy Bannerman, author of When the War Came Home, calls this “collateral damage,” writing:

In the past five years, hundreds, if not thousands, of women have been beaten, assaulted, or terrorized when their husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends got back from Iraq. Dozens of military wives have been strangled, shot, decapitated, dismembered, or otherwise murdered when their husbands brought the war on terror home.

The practice of granting moral waivers–which allow people to enlist who have records of domestic violence, sex crimes, and manslaughter–may also exacerbate rates of MSV. Further, as Professor Carol Burke documents, many soldiers enlist as teenagers to escape troubled or violent homes. Since such abuse (if not addressed) tends to be cyclical, filling our military ranks with abuse survivors without addressing childhood trauma, offering psychological counseling, or implementing anti-abuse training, is a recipe for continued violence. These factors, in conjunction with the prevalence of PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder) in returning soldiers, which has been linked to enacting violence, likely means that rates of MSV will not be going down anytime soon.

Though Pernell’s case is a horrific one, sadly it is far from unique. To read more on this subject, watch for my feature article in the upcoming Spring issue of Ms. magazine.

What if she SHOULD be able to run/walk/hike alone? Thoughts on the rape and murder of Chelsea King

(Cross-posted at Ms. blog here.)

Of all the news I have heard in relation to the recent sexual assault and murder of Chelsea King, a 17-year-old from my community, one quote keeps reverberating in my mind: “She should not have been running alone in the park.”

When my son shared that this was the message passed on to him during a teacher’s discussion of the local tragedy, I bristled. Why is it that we focus blame on the victim? Why are we suggesting she should have been more careful rather than emphasizing he should not have attacked her?

Yet I must admit that this quote reverberates  because it was one of the first things I thought when I heard a young girl was missing after going to run alone in a local park. Living in a rape culture which blames the victim, I recognize that even I, a feminist scholar and teacher, have had a “she should have” commentary beaten into my brain on a daily basis.

Chelsea King (and all humans for that matter) should be able to run in the park without fearing sexual attack. More generally, girls and women should not have to live via a rape schedule, which Jessica Valenti argues is “essentially like living in a prison—all the time.” But our culture does not seem to care much that females have to constantly worry about their safety. Instead, we question the victim’s actions and demeanor, while not focusing nearly enough on perpetrators.

That’s why, I surmise, so many  news stories emphasized that Chelsea was a straight-A student and great athlete. Such descriptions and accompanying photos stressed she was a “good girl,” thus suggesting that some other girls are not so good; some may even “ask for it.” Simultaneously, the perpetrator was framed as a “bad apple,” a repeat offender who should be locked up for life.

What about directing some focus on society itself? Is not patriarchy the underlying culprit here?  As noted in a 2004 Amnesty International study, “Violence against women is one of the most pervasive and ignored human rights violations.” Yet, rather than focus on this rampant societal problem, we might blame a 17-year-old for jogging alone and judge her assailant as a sick anomaly.

Sexualized violence is no anomaly, so displacing the blame from a patriarchal society that encourages and perpetuates such violence to the individual victims and perpetrators only guarantees that such violence will continue. Violence does not happen in a vacuum, nor is it the result of a few bad people (as the work of Erica Meiners, Angela Davis, Jodie Lawston and so many others makes clear). It results from the privilege/oppression matrix and a society that glorifies power. Locking up individual perpetrators and creating sexual offender registries does nothing to address these issues, instead it gives a false sense of security and furthers“stranger danger” myths. As Davis argues, our prison-happy culture is merely “a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.”

The alleged murderer of Chelsea King, John Albert Gardner, no doubt is an individual manifestation of the rampant sexism in our society that frames women as objects. But his actions need to be considered in relation to a wider glorification of violence. Locking him up will do nothing to punish the larger perpetrator–the accomplice, the enabler–which is society itself.

What if you are no more than a walking womb?

My recent post at Womanist Musings ruminated about the plethora of monstrous mothers that grace our screens and pages.  From Beowulf right up to Precious and Coraline, the monstrous mommy has threatened us with her sMother love.

This bad mommy meme was evident as well on last night’s episode of Lost, which depicted Claire as going knife-happy on Kate due to her mommy induced craziness. The episode even hints that bad Locke is bad cuz his mommy was a nutter. Sheesh!

The emphasis on woman AS mothers that Lost perpetuates (as I write about here) is in keeping with a cultural notion of females as not much more than walking wombs.

The female as most important in relation to reproductive capacity is also evident in the never-ending reproductive rights battle writ large most recently in the healthcare debate.

If, when, and how a woman becomes a mother is still a defining component of that elusive mantle of ‘womanhood.’ Then, once one finally achieves this supposedly crowning glory of femininity, one can do no right but will be depicted as crazy mom (Lost) or abusive mom (Coraline). The only way to be championed for this role it seems is to be perfect mom – or white, heterosexual, money-privileged, and good-looking AND willing to mother not only your own children, but the entire world (The Blind Side).

Will, this womb has got walk now, I have mothering to do…

What if god is pro-life?

(Warning: Precious spoilers follow)

Walking my dogs in my scarily conservative neighborhood yesterday, I came across a “God is Pro-Life” bumper-sticker. I don’t think I have seen this exact permutation before. I have seen lots of messages of the “don’t be a baby-killer” or “choose life” variety, but claiming mainline knowledge of god’s ‘pro-life’ stance in bumper sticker form was a new one.

If this god entity is indeed pro-life, wouldn’t that mean that s/he would be pro all life, including the life of the mother? So when the mother’s life is put at risk by carrying a pregnancy to term, which life does god choose? If the well-being of the mother’s life and the lives of her existing children will be threatened by carrying the pregnancy to term, does god choose the life of a few cells over and above the lives of several already existing humans?

I get that there is a lot of debate over when “life” begins in utero, but can anyone rightly claim a pregnant female is not also a life worth choosing and protecting?

These thoughts make me think of the film Precious and how abortion is never mentioned as an option in that film – indeed, the baby is presented as sort of saving Precious’s life. However, we must think of the context in which Precious has her children. Both are a result her father raping her with her mother’s knowledge, and both are used by Precious’s mother in her attempts to continue her welfare payments (another problematic storyline that furthers the ‘welfare queen’ stereotype). In this instance, the life of the (future) children is chosen and the livelihood of Precious’s mom is protected – but what of Precious herself? If not for the intervention of teachers and social workers, her life would have continued to be decidedly NOT ‘pro-life’ but all about abuse, sexual assault, poverty, and mental anguish. Moreover, the film, like the wider ‘pro-life’ stance, glosses over the complexity of whose lives society deems worth saving. As this post points out, the film “invisibilized patriarchy, cast the system as a hero and not an actor responsible for the conditions of oppression in which Precious lived and survived.”

Such oppressive conditions, sadly, are not only the stuff of films. Many young females will be raped, sexually assaulted, physically and mentally abused. Many will become pregnant not by choice but by force. Many more will become pregnant due to lack of access to (let alone education about) contraception. Is this god so often referred to by those wishing to curtail women’s reproductive choices ‘pro-life’ when it comes to these females?

The hypocrisy of claiming to be ‘pro-life’ while ignoring the lives of females the world over whose lives are harmed by patriarchy and its attendant systems of racism, classism, sexism and too many other isms to mention is just too much to swallow. When will this battle, fought on the front of the female body, ever end?

What if being a feminist is just too hard?

Recent conversation between 11 year-old-daughter and 13-year-old son on drive home from school:

Son: “Mom, it’s really hard to be a feminist. Especially when you are a boy.”

Daughter: “It’s hard for girls too! Nobody wants to be your friend if you speak up about  stuff.”

Son: “It’s hard being a feminist KID. It’s not easy like it is for you mom…”

Oh, if only they knew, being a feminist is NEVER easy, but SO, SO worth it…

What if that Pebble Becomes a Boulder?: Racism and Sexism on Campus and in Everyday Life

The theme of one of the common complaints I often get from students in my women’s studies classes is “feminism is so depressing.” Students, young and fresh-faced, though eager to dissect and critique the world around them, also seem to yearn to look through the world through rose-colored glasses. They generally dive into analyzing privilege and oppression historically, happy to give examples of the injustices our world has doled out for centuries. However, when asked to hold up a mirror to their contemporary moment, they often like to focus on the positive changes, suggesting that somehow all the rumors of a “post-racial” and “post-feminist” society are true. It is partially my job to place large cracks in such a rosey-eyed view, revealing that, yes, racism, sexism, homophobia and all those other ugly –isms are still going strong.

On the campus where I teach, this was in shocking evidence today on, of all places, a bathroom wall. The picture above, sent to me by a student, was taken last night in one of the main campus buildings. Placed there on the eve of the statewide day of action defending education budgets, it is surely a modern-day exhortation to “keep your mouth shut,” a threat to those of us on the side of history that seek to progress society towards justice rather than conserve the longstanding privileges that the maker of this sign unabashedly seeks to maintain. (And don’t you just love how there is a heart above the ‘i’ on this message?!?)

While I had planned to post something upbeat today about my daughter turning eleven this week, detailing positive changes in culture compared to when I turned eleven in 1982, my own rosey-eyed view of feminist accomplishments has suffered a brutal beating in the past few days. Locally, just in this past week, there has been news of a high school senior sexually assaulted and murdered, there has been a spate of racist attacks at local college campuses (with the picture above only one of many incidents), there was, just yesterday, another young woman attacked by two men at a local park.

On a more personal level, I was told by my son’s principal that a teacher’s P.E. commentary, consisting of “you throw like a girl” and “don’t use the girly weights” are meant to be “humorous.” “She is a very strong woman,” he assured me, “a role model.” On the one hand, I am proud my thirteen-year-old son sees the sexism his principal fails to, on the other hand, I am deeply disturbed that such sexism is still passed off as “just a joke” and excused by claims that it’s ok because she is a “strong woman.”

To top it off, I have somehow received a plethora of emails of late that either assume I am a man (due to the “Dr.” title I imagine) or that address me as “Mrs. So and So.” This last annoyance is so slight in comparison to all the other horrors of this week, yet it somehow rankles me– it seems, in short, like a virtual but constant reminder, knocking at my in-box, reminding me “keep your mouth shut…you are only a woman…who are you to try and change the world?”  This “little thing” reminds me of Jewelle Gomez’s realization that “Sexism could be like a pebble that needs to be removed from a shoe; a tiny thing that throws off a woman’s gait, causing her to limp, sometimes unconsciously, to avoid pain every day.”

This week, it seems it is not only pebbles, but huge boulders, and I am indeed limping from the resounding evidence that no, we are not living in a post-racial, post-feminist society. However, despite those who wish to “get rid of” people like us, the people who want to change the world for the better, I will keep limping along, teaching my “depressing feminism” and endeavoring to remove pebbles and boulders out of the path of those who march towards justice.

What if we nixed the green eggs and ham and opted instead for some Ramona the Brave? (On why NOT to celebrate Dr. Seuss’s Birthday during Women’s History Month)

Why all the unadulterated LURVE for Dr. Seuss?

When my kids were little, Dr. Seuss birthday was always cause for big classroom celebrations, usually replete with green eggs and ham. Why no birthday celebrations for the likes of Beverly Cleary, Beatrix Potter, Peggy Parish, Lauren Child, Judy Blume, Margaret Wise Brown, Jan Brett and so many other important female children’s book authors?

These women need to be written into history for all their work, much of which is gender inclusive in a way Dr. Seuss books are DECIDEDLY NOT (not one female protagonist in his over forty kids books!) As noted in a 1995 NY Times op-ed, “Even Dr. Seuss, that titan of the preschool bookshelf, known and loved for his egalitarianism, feeds the cult of the preening princess.”

In addition to side-lining poor sister Sally and writing about “girls who like to brush and comb,” Dr. S, like Walt Disney, penned racist propaganda cartoons for the War Dept.

Alas, on the second day of Women’s History Month, young children throughout the USA hear his books, eat funny looking eggs, and celebrate the man who, if they are girl children, did not celebrate them…

What if the need for Women’s History Month became a thing of the past?

Just as the (ironic) goal of women’s studies is to do away with the need for women’s studies, so is the goal of women’s history month to be able to do away with the need for a “special month” set aside for women’s history. Just as gender (and the intersecting issues of race, class, sexuality, ability and so on) should be a part of academic studies generally, so should women’s history be included in EVERDAY curriculum.

As noted in a post I wrote last year, maybe we should make June “White Male History Month” and make the REST of the year about all-inclusive curriculum. (Note: I picked June as it is the end of the school year and I think it is high time white males came last for once. I think it is also important to point out that I am referring to the normative conception of white-maleness here — or middle to upper-class, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, right leaning, “properly masculine” white males who must, of course, like sports.)

Sadly, though, we still need a month set aside to remind teachers and others to honor important women past and present. As the joke goes, “If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year? Discrimination.”

This year, the theme for National Women’s History Month is Writing Women Back into History. As noted at the National Women’s History Project website, “The history of women often seems to be written with invisible ink. Even when recognized in their own times, women are often not included in the history books.”

To do my small part to rectify this history that is too often rendered invisible, I will be posting sporadically throughout the month about women who need to be written (back) into history.

Happy Women’s History Month everyone – and here’s to a day when all people’s history is included all year long!