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 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 we aimed Haiti relief/aid efforts with gender in mind? Or, It’s not about hating men, it’s about helping Haitian women

If one can wrangle any positive shards from the rubble that now pervades Haiti’s landscape, I would say that it would be the tremendous outpouring of concern and aid. Unfortunately, such concern tends to aid and aid donations shrivel once the media moves onto its next story.

Once the Haiti earthquake is merely a blip on the mental desktop of most Americans (like Hurricane Katrina before it), the situation for the majority of Haitians will not have changed for the better. Rather, especially for women and children, the situation is likely to be even worse. This is why some organizations are targeting their aid at women and children.

As reported by Tracy Clark-Flory, the “women and children” first aid model some organizations are taking makes sense due to the fact that women and children “are typically the ones most vulnerable in the wake of a catastrophe.”
Before the earthquake, Haitian women were already dealing with extreme poverty, lack of adequate healthcare, high rates of HIV/AIDS, and huge infant and maternal mortality rates. They live in a country that only made a rape a criminal offence in 2005, where at least 50% of women living in the poorer areas of Port-au-Prince are raped. And, as reported by the UK’s Times Online, in post-earthquake Haiti, rape is rife in the makeshift camps in and around Port-au-Prince.

Haiti also has a serious child trafficking problem and huge numbers of girls working as domestic servants. The number of women and children trafficked from Haiti will likely rise post-earthquake. In fact, the UN reports children going from hospitals in Haiti, suggesting trafficking as the likely cause.

Even before the earthquake,  Haitian mothers, as detailed by the International Childcare organization, had to “cope with the fact that one in eight Haitian children never live to see their fifth birthday due to infectious disease, pregnancy-related complications, and delivery-related complications. In Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, many parents cannot afford to send their children to school, give them proper medical care, or even guarantee that their children will have safe drinking water.”

For all of these reasons, Haiti needs what Lucinda Marhsall calls “Gender-Responsive Aid.” As she notes,“there are needs that are specific to women, particularly for pregnant women and mothers with new babies and the need to address the added vulnerability to violence that women face when government infrastructures are dysfunctional.” Yifat Susskind of MADRE  confirms this argument, noting “”One of the things we know is everywhere there’s this kind of disaster there’s a stark rise in violence against women in…When men deal with very, very difficult stresses, one of their outlets is violence against women.” In addition to the tendency for increased violence against women in the aftermath of a disaster (as also noted here), women are already economically disadvantaged in Haiti (due in large part to what is commonly known as the feminization of poverty).

As noted by MADRE,

“…women are often hardest hit when disaster strikes because they were at a deficit even before the catastrophe. In Haiti, and in every country, women are the poorest and often have no safety net, leaving them most exposed to violence, homelessness and hunger in the wake of disasters.

Because of their role as caretakers and because of the discrimination they face, women have a disproportionate need for assistance. Yet, they are often overlooked in large-scale aid operations. In the chaos that follows disasters, aid too often reaches those who yell the loudest or push their way to the front of the line. When aid is distributed through the “head of household” approach, women-headed families may not even be recognized, and women within male-headed families may be marginalized when aid is controlled by male relatives.”

Further, to make matters even worse for Haitian women, when the earthquake hit, Haiti’s Ministry of Women was holding a meeting. Almost everyone there was killed or injured. So the very people interested in helping Haitian women were lost to the community. (For the full story, see here).

However, despite the fact women and children were ALREADY disproportionately disadvantaged in Haiti, despite the fact that Haiti has lost numerous women’s rights leaders, men’s rights activists have taken up the “you all are a bunch of man-haters” rallying cry.

For example, Robert Franklin suggests that calls like the one made by Clark-Flory “ignore men or boys in need in favor of women and girls.” Accusing her of misandry, he makes similar arguments to those put forward in the “Amidst Haiti Disaster, Women’s Groups Seek to Deny Relief to Men” article at Spearhead. Claiming that “women’s groups are heading to a disaster area with the same anti-male agenda with which we are so familiar,” pieces such as these ignore the gendered realities of our world – realities that put women at greater risk.

Such articles also ignore the fact that women get pregnant (current reports estimate that the earthquake has put at least 63,000 pregnant women at risk in Port-au-Prince alone) and also (as humorously pointed out here) fail to recognize that menstruating women require tampons and pads.

For the global mamas in Haiti, for the women and children of this, the poorest country in the Western world, we need to ensure that aid organizations are aware of gendered realities. It’s not about hating men, it’s about recognizing a gendered response to this disaster is necessary.

What if the “best books” were not always centered on male protagonists?

Today we have a guest post from Meg of Planning the Day. Meg responds to Nicholas Kristof’s list of best children books, a list that featured mostly male writers/protagonists. Granted, Kristof’s list was much more diverse than Publishers Weekly Best of 2009 book list that was male/white biased in the extreme. He included some books I would count among “bests” — Charlotte’s Web, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables. Yet, he, as Meg points out, has chosen a list where ONLY ONE GIRL is front and center. In keeping with the call at She Writes to speak out against the still male dominated world of publishing/writing, Meg offers us a more diverse, less penis-privileged list in what follows:

“I usually enjoy the writing of Nicholas Kristof, the New York times columnist who often uses his space to bring attention to the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the plight of trafficked women in Southeast Asia. So I was excited when I saw that his column this week was a list of the best children’s books; I expected selections that would inspire social-consciousness and empathy among their readers.

What I did not expect is that nearly every book would feature male (and when he is a person, white) protagonist. Out of thirteen suggestions, only one is based on the story of a young girl. Who is the lucky lady? Anne of Green Gables, “one of the strongest and most memorable girls in literature.” And not one of them centers around the story of a person of color.

Some of his other suggestions have great girls in supporting roles: Charlotte’s Web, with beloved Charlotte and Fern as Wilbur’s best protectors and friends, topped the list. The Harry Potter series was also recommended, which features such strong women as Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley.

So what’s the problem with his suggestions? There’s nothing wrong with any book in particular on his list, but it fails to offer characters that young girls or children of color can immediately relate to. There is something special about picking up a book and connecting immediately with its main character by seeing yourself in that person. While it is not out of the question for girls or children of color to relate to a white boy protagonist, it would be great for children to see themselves, with all of their historical particularities, represented in their books.

Kristof invited his readers to comment on his article with their own additions, so I’ve made my own list to add to his. Not all of them feature girls or people of color, but I hope that they represent a more diverse set of characters:

  1. “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. I vividly remember buying this from our school’s book fair when I was in fourth grade, and then retreating into my room for three days to read, emerging only for meals. This book is based on the true story of a 12-year old Native American girl, Karana, who survived alone on an island for 18 years.
  2. “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt. I was enchanted by Winnie when my mom read this story to me in first grade.
  3. “Number the Stars” and “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. These are two of my absolute favorites from elementary school. I read them countless times between third and fifth grade, and remembering them now makes me want to check them out of the library again. Number the Stars is the story of Danish girl whose family helped her best friend escape from the Nazis in Denmark. And The Giver… just read it, it’s great.
  4. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor is the story of Cassie, a black girl growing up in a segregated and oppressive southern community in the 1930s.
  5. “Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech. Native American Salamanca Tree Hiddle travels across the country with her grandparents, trying to find her disappeared mother. I don’t remember much about this book except that I loved it.
  6. “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg. This book-on-tape kept us kids silent for countless car trips, as we listened to the adventures of Claudia and Jamie, two kids who secretly live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art while they try to solve the mystery of the new statue.”

(Please add your suggestions in comments!)

What if Max became Maxine? Musings on Where the Wild Things Are…

I am torn about the new adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. One of the beauties of that book is it has very few words, leaving much open to the imagination of the reader. Having it rendered in film will, I fear, spoil the imaginings of generations of future readers who will see the story as the film interprets it.

I have yet to see the movie, but the preview alerted me that one of the wild things has a female voice. This prompted me to ask — what if Max had been re-imagined as Maxine? Such a shift would have altered the imaginings of many readers, encouraging them to see females as viable wild leads. While some will certainly scoff at this suggestion, I would ask them:

Why are the majority of  books and films still populated with male protagonists?

What messages do you think this might send to young readers/viewers?

When over half the world’s population is female, while are only 1/10 to 1/5 of characters female?

When females are in lead roles in children’s texts, how often are they framed in terms of the princess/romance narrative?

Quick, here is a fun feminist Friday brain excercise for you, name, as quickly as you can, ten children’s films with a female lead who is not a princess…

What if my gaze mattered? On the continuing dominance of the white-male-hetero-gaze and how it’s infiltrating the “feminine” world of Twilight…

All the discussion of making the New Moon film friendlier to male audiences has my feminist panties in a bunch. Why must the Twilight films court the male demographic?

Granted, many feminists have decried the popularity of Twilight, and with good reason. But, I think we have more work to do in terms of scrutinizing why these books have such mass appeal, especially to females. Like Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, I believe the reasons we buy into mainstream narratives of romance are complex.

Liking such texts/films does not necessailry (or only) mean we are strengthening the chains of our oppression, let alone loving the ties that bind us to patriarchy. Many such narratives (Twilight among them) are both regressive and subversive, both rebellious and complicit of dominant mores and ideologies. Women, as we are positioned as lesser in our male dominated world, are drawn to such storylines for complex reasons. They allow us to vent our anger at female oppression, to romanticize the hetero-monogomous couple so that we can swallow this norm in our real lives, to experience the “happy endings” that real life does not foster.

Males are drawn to violence, action, thriller, and suspense for similarly complex reasons.  Yet, these genres are nowhere near as criticized, decried, and mocked. Many films, horror, action, sci-fi among them, speak to a mainly male audience. However, rarely is the need to court female viewers or speak to a “female gaze” ever part of our cultural conversations. In fact,  if one considers the pervasive “male gaze” of virtually all cinema, where women are to-be-looked-at and the camera either obviously or tacitly fondles female bodies to elicit pleasure from the presumed hetero-male-gaze, it can be argued that film in general courts a male demographic. When this is not the case, the rather derisive “chick flick” label is bandied about, with disdainful talk of tears, Kleenexes, and hand-holding.

While the terms “chick lit” and “chick flick” are relatively new, the concept is centuries old. Romance novels, gothic fiction, sentimental fiction, and domestic novels have long wooed a female audience while critics, cultural movers and shakers, and ‘high brow’ audiences have mocked these female forms. Yet, unlike genres identified as male, which are often just as (if not more) “lightweight” in their topics, focus, and messages,  genres labeled as feminine are seen as lesser, as frivolous, as laughable – much the way women have been viewed since patriarchy reared its ugly little head.

Where are the critics rallying about the fact that horror-porn movies  are “male flicks? Where are the cultural analysts deriding the male-centric view of comic book movies, action films, and thrillers? Were Hostel, The Fast and the Furious, and the umpteen zillion boob-filled Bond movies trying to court me? I think not.

I like horror films. I like good sci-fi and mind-bending thrillers. I like anything that has a bit of intelligence, humor, good acting, great effects, heart, and/or provoking ideas. Do most movies play to my gaze? Hell no. But I go anyway, as do most women. This, my friend, is the rub – women will go to “male flicks” far more readily than males will attend anything dubbed “too feminine” – it’s the same way you can call a female a dude, a guy, or ‘one of the boys’ and it’s just fine, complimentary even, but call a male a female, and it’s INSULTING.

So forgive me if me and my female hormones are insulted by the actors and the director falling over themselves to explain all the ways New Moon will be more “guy friendly.” I don’t need the world to be anymore guy friendly, thank you very much. Couldn’t females, once in a while, be seen as just as worthy, just as much a part of humanity, just as interesting as males? And why is it that when something is popular with a mainly female audience, it is heaped with scorn? You know the answer (s) – patriarchy, sexism, misogyny…

If you have men in your life who pooh-pooh the feminine, refusing anything defined as “for chicks,” too bad for them. Hop on your motorbike and leave these jackasses in the dust.

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Cross posted here at Seduced by Twilight.