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 you don’t want a bundle of joy let alone a man to call your own?

We live in a culture addicted to the idea of weddings, marriage, and babies. TLC is just one of the smorgasbords where we are encouraged to stuff ourselves silly on a veritable buffet of shows touting white poufy dresses and perfectly planned pregnancies.

The other evening, a quick exchange left me reeling. “All my daughter wants is to get married and have babies. It’s all she talks about,” a mother told me as we chatted during a concert intermission. Said daughter is eleven. ELEVEN! It is bad enough that each semester so many of my female women’s studies students share in their introductory speeches something of the variety “Yeah, I’m in college, but my real goals are to get married and have kids. I dream of being able to be a stay at home mom.” But – ELEVEN? Makes me want to move to another planet.

Now, far those of your raising your pitchforks in the air and shouting “Shut up you feminist baby hater!,” step back. I do not hate babies. I had two of them. Still love them both even though they are far beyond the gaga baby phase our culture fixates on. I don’t hate stay at home mom’s or see them as feminist sell-outs. This fabricated “mommy war” (so fabulously explored in Susan Douglas’ work) is yet another tool of the patriarchy that hammers away at women, keeping them firmly divided and conquered.

If you wanna have you some babies, fine. If hetero monogamy is your slice of pie, eat up. These choices are not the problem. The problem is that our culture does not present them as choices, but as imperatives. We live under what I have elsewhere called “the woman as womb paradigm.” If you don’t got or don’t want a baby and hubby, you ain’t squat.

Perhaps nothing more vividly captures our accelerating descent into this regressive paradigm than the final book of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn. Bella, our intelligent, klutzy heroine drawn to danger and adventure, mutates into a pregnant cyborg, her body bruised, battered, and broken from the parasite within. Gone are her college plans, her motorbike-riding-self – in their place, a fetus-incubator fixated on how much she loves, loves, loves the growing BOY inside her. Of course, said boy turns out to be a girl, but how typical that she transfers her fixation on Edward to what she envisions as mini-Edward! Like a good patriarchal daughter, she envisions the perfect child as male. When the baby is female, she then names it after her mother and mother-in-law, combining Renee and Esmee into Renesmee. Ah, what a potent symbol of this human/vampire hybrid’s future – she too can be a mommy, her name a metaphor for her future role! And, as she ages so far beyond her years, maybe she can aim for mommyhood at 11 rather than Bella’s 18. She already has a wolf-boy to call her own to help her produce the pups. Yuckety yuck yuck yuck.

What if same-sex marriage were given the same cultural backing as arranged-marriage reality-tv style?

As we so value traditional marriage, the moral and upstanding purveyor of cherished culture traditions, Fox, is developing a new series called I Married a Stranger.

According to RealityTV World, each episode of I Married a Stranger will follow a woman willing to marry a man she’s never met. The groom-to-be will be chosen by friends and family of the bride-to-be from a pool of six bachelors chosen by the shows producers.

Wow! Now if that doesn’t say sanctity of marriage I don’t know what does. Well,  except maybe yet another reality marriage series in development from CBS:

ARRANGED MARRIAGE is a series that brings the tradition of arranged marriages, which is still practiced successfully by many cultures throughout the world, to the U.S., where it is virtually an inconceivable option for most single Americans. Three adults who are anxious to get married, but who have been unsuccessful in their own search for a mate, choose a life-altering path. They rely on their closest family and friends, those who love and know them best, to choose someone for them to marry based on shared goals, values, experiences and the commitment to make it work. The series intimately documents these three arranged marriages, starting with the first meetings of the families and the wedding day; and then follows the couple through the day-to-day joys, challenges, and emotional tumult that results from their arranged union.

Cool! “Intimately documenting” a practice done by those OTHER cultures that are, according to the condescending tone, way less enlightened than US culture. So, not only is CBS developing a reality show that is gag-inducing on so many levels, but they also manage to be cultural elitists in their description of the show. Way to belittle other cultures while profiting from them, CBS!

In our “sanctity of marriage” culture, it seems anything goes as long as its one man, one woman.

If same-sex marriage were given the same cultural (and monetary) backing of these quadruple icky reality shows, perhaps Prop 8 would haven been driven back into the dungeons of evil from which it sprang…

What if Lost time travelled to a feminist future?

While island life on Lost has hardly been a feminist utopia, it has provided fertile ground for an analysis of gender norms and hierarchies. Via traditionally masculine characters such as Jack, Sawyer, and Locke, as well as through the representation of various other ‘non-normative’ masculinities, the show suggests there are many ways to ‘be a man.’ More importantly, it has at times suggested that perhaps being human is more important than being a masculine man or a feminine woman. After all, when you are fighting for your life, ‘doing gender right’ is hardly at the top of you priority list. The show has certainly not been consistent with this motif though, and frequently lapses into tired, sexist love triangles, masculinized aggression fests, and save the poor little lady narratives.

Jack and Sawyer exude macho, hetero-masculinity (and annoyingly try to out-masculine each other in their love triangle with Kate), but their characters have nevertheless challenged the ‘stock male action hero stud’ type at various points throughout the show’s narrative arc. They are more fully fleshed out than many a male character (and no, I am not referring to the ubiquitously de-shirted Sawyer). They are shown to be emotional, complex, vulnerable, nurturing – neither, in short, hold entirely to the Rambo-man-in-jungle motif. In fact, Locke is the more Rambo-like character – a rugged individualist and would be patriarch. Yet, he does take a collective/communal approach to solving problems and does not try to become the alpha male Jack and Sawyer do. He is a strong leader, but not one who lords it over the other characters. He, like Kate, is decisive but not bossy, strong-minded yet not dictatorly.

Jack and Sawyer, on the other hand, fall into the traditional ‘good boy/bad boy’ dyad. One week Jack is the good and Sawyer bad, the next week it flips. Via these characters, we are prompted to consider differing versions of masculinity. Do we like the good boy Jack who rules out of (supposed) benevolence or the bad boy don’t-give-a-damn Sawyer who makes his (supposedly) selfish nature clear?

While the show keeps the gender hierarchy firmly in place form the most part (with masculinity being valued over femininity), it also suggests that this may not be a good thing for (island) society. Jack and Sawyer are shown as too rash and domineering, Ben is a downright creep-fest, and Locke puts himself first far too often. Kate would be a far better leader than any of these patriarchs. Yet, the show maddeningly lets her slip into stale feminine norms too often, which, I suspect, is due to non-feminist writers penning the script…

What are these writers thinking by marooning her OFF the island and putting her into one-dimensional mommy mode? Kate is hardly the type to drop everything in the name of motherhood, let alone your typical stranded and awaiting savior female. And for freak’s sake, could she stop taking so much crap from Jack and Sawyer? Sleep with ’em as often as you like Kate, but keep your head on!

While Kate is back-tracking into the “problem that has no name” this season (re: Betty Friedan), Sun’s presence in season 5 could be hurtling towards a more feminist future. Unmoored from dad and husband, I am looking forward to where this season takes her.

Perhaps this season the show will break with the rather normative way it has presented gender thus far, with females being framed in relation to males and/or to their children (or desire for them). The season opener made this motif particularly clear. All the male characters were actively trying to save the island, save each other, and figure out the mystery while the females were either in save-the-kid mode or sidekick mode (Sun being the only exception).

The second show of the series was not much better. Penny was merely the loving helper to Desmond and Julia continued to play a secondary role in comparison to the ‘island saving’ males. The female sidekick to Faraday (I can’t remember her name, how telling is that???) was mere dressing to the narrative. Plus, she was infuriatingly depicted as going all gaga when Faraday declared his love. Yuck. And, while the ‘army’ was headed by a strong, gun-toting female, the real leader was (once again) male.

Thus far, all the time zones the island has travelled to have been hetero-normative, patriarchal, and cisgended. Maybe as the island is skipping through time, it will land in a feminist time-zone, one in which females and males equally share in the adventure and leadership, in which women too are the saviors, the important scientists, the visionaries. We need more than Kate and Sun and Julia – and more than the vision we are given now of mainly white hetero hyper-masculine males being the most valuable and valued island inhabitants. Perhaps they need to bring in Ilene Chaiken, Diablo Cody, Amy Sherman-Palladino, or Tina Fey to help pen a few episodes… What would Liz Lemon do on the island? How about Bette? What about Max (The L Word) or another non-cisgendered character/story-line?

(As a side note, Sawyer can keep his shirt off for all I care, but please avoid the lame meta-textual references reminding the hetero female audience they are being treated to a skin-show!)

What if fat jokes and cultural (mis)appropriation weren’t considered so darn cute? A review of Kung Fu Panda

The kiddies have been a-begging to see Kung Fu Panda and, whether it was the lure of an air-conditioned theatre or a weakness for Jack Black, I capitulated. I am not glad I did so. While the theatre was cool, the movie was not.

Filled with fat jokes, fighting, and not much else, this filmic (mis)appropriation of Asian culture upheld a number of fat stereotypes. While Liz Henry over at The Body Politic felt the film was body positive, I disagree. Liz writes that:

The movie has a very clear message of respect for bodily differences. The Furious Five, a tigress, viper, monkey, crane, and mantis, all have radically different bodies. The mantis is notably tiny and fragile, and a great fighter. While there is a lot of humor and mockery based on fat jokes at the panda’s expense, he learns to believe in himself. He trains hard to become wise, fearless, and talented – not to lose weight. He becomes a hero, but stays a big fat panda.

I agree that the Furious Five have radically different bodies, but this bodily diversity is not emphasized in the film. The only character whose body is consistently focused on is Po’s – the panda of the title (voiced by Jack Black). Moreover, Po’s size is used not to subvert fat stereotypes but to reinforce them. According to the logic of the film, those who are fat (like Po)

  • are motivated by food
  • are unable to control their desire for food
  • are emotional eaters
  • are unfit and klutzy
  • are funny and jolly
  • are talkative but not all that bright

How original!!! When was the last time you saw a fat character that didn’t live up to these stereotypes in the mainstream media? From Patrick in Spongebob Squarepants to Carl in Jimmy Neutron to Cartman in South Park, fat cartoon characters tend to exhibit some or all of these stereotypes. Come to think of it, so do non-cartoon fatties. And fat women? Forget it. They are even more negatively depicted than fat males. Fat men get to be funny, jolly, and cool (like John Candy, Chris Farley, Jack Black) while fat women are usually the sad sacks who are considered angry, ugly, and in need of a diet. Or, as in the cartoon world, they apparently don’t exist. (If you want something that IS body positive, skip Kung Fu Panda and see Joy Nash’s recent Fat Rant 3. Or, for the kiddies, have them read Fat Camp Commandoes by Daniel Pinkwater.)

In the film, Po’s fatness is not represented in a body positive way. If it was, his fat would not become his defining characteristic. How about this idea: what if instead of having Po’s breakthrough moment come over an epic battle over a dumpling (there is the motivated by hunger stereotype), Po could have been motivated to achieve Kung Fu greatness by something other than food? The end of this scene is the clincher. After battling for what seemed like eternity over the last dumpling, upon his victory, Po claims “I am not hungry” and refuses the dumpling. Ah, thanks for that – thanks for the message that winners don’t eat, that to be a ‘winner’ Po must overcome that nasty habit of his of actually liking food. Po does indeed train to become “wise, fearless, and talented,” but this scene implies that he will also have to lose his love of dumplings to become a real Kung Fu fighter. Thus, as Melissa puts it over at Shakesville:

this movie also appears to be one long fun-filled adventure in fat hating. Ha ha-the fat panda can’t climb the stairs without getting winded. Ha ha-the fat panda is so inflexible and graceless. Ha ha-the fat panda is fat

However, the movie doesn’t only get a negative F count for its anti-fat messages, but for its blatant appropriation of Asian culture in a way that, you guessed it, perpetuates a number of Asian stereotypes.

As Jennifer at Mixed Race American sarcastically notes:

we need MORE reinforcement of Asian stereotypes, especially those that perpetuate the connection of Asians with Panda bears and martial arts, and DAMN IT, this one has BOTH.

Or, as nickalew writes over at The Asian Code:

First of all, it’s about a panda, which in today’s culture epitomizes oriental (sic) culture. This panda is also named Po (I know, surprisingly not Ling Ling huh?). On top of all this, his family owns a noodle shop (why not a flippin’ dry cleaner for gosh sake). Stereotypical to the max, I’d say. Po is big martial arts fan (because ALL Asians are evidently)

In addition to the stereotypical focus on Kung Fu, panda bears, noodle houses, dragons, and fireworks, the film also manages to appropriate Asian symbols, belief systems, and cultural practices in a way that waters them down into a bland Americanized/Westernized form. The film doesn’t convey anything about the art of Kung Fu or the culture/historical context of the setting – rather its message is “Kung fu is cool and fat is funny! Go fat panda, go!” Like Mulan, which represented Asians as backwards, war-mongering sexist beasts who barter women in a purported message of female empowerment, Kung Fu Panda trades in being ‘pro-Asian’ or ‘multi-cultural’ while being nothing of the sort. I agree with at The Asian Code, who argues “the stereotyping is so completely clear…It may be rated PG ‘for sequences of martial arts action,’ but I’d rate this R, for RACIST.”

Sure, there are the nods to Zen wisdom, but overall the film trades into a facile commodification of Asian culture. By allowing viewers to buy into things they already associate with Asian culture – Kung Fu and pandas – and by doing so in a way that waters each down so they are not even linked to Asian traditions in any relevant way – the film appropriates Asian cultural traditions in order to offer up a very Americanized championing of individualism. This is most evident near the close of the film when Po finds the Dragon Scroll that contains no words but instead reflects the image of whoever is holding it. This personal empowerment message may seem nice for the kiddies (it’s good to believe in yourself), but it also promotes an individualistic credo which is decidedly not in keeping with the supposedly Zen teachings of the film. Further, at the film’s end, the five communal warriors are not part of Po’s battle with Tai Lung – of course not, cuz Po can pull himself up by those Horatio Alger bootstraps and do it all by himself. (For a much better kid-friendly introduction to Zen, see the book Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth.)

Here, as nguirado points out at Asymmetric, the film hits on what he (unsarcastically) deems “perfect marketing”:

What better way to capitalize on a growing Chinese-world marketplace than a story set in uncontroversial ancient China and featuring the one uniquely Chinese export that Westerners love- acrobatic martial arts.

Yes, perfect marketing indeed. Take China and make it into bland Americana, add in some popular Asian-style visual affects and a few nods to anime, throw in Jack Black with a catchy “skadoosh,” keep the fat jokes coming, and hey, presto, you’ve got yourself one heck of a marketable fat-hating Asian-appropriating film!

As for the representation of women in the movie, well, there isn’t one – NOT ONE – key female character. Yes, Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) is represented as the most skilled warrior, but she (along with the other 4 of the Furious Five) remain decidedly in the background. Besides her and Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), there are no women. As usual, the animated world is populated almost entirely by males! Further, the Tigress and the Viper play into the Asian female Exotic Dragon Lady type- they are both a bit sinister, a bit dangerous – and, they are both sexualized. Why couldn’t the females have been the monkey or the crane? Guess its harder to sexualize a crane or make a monkey seem sinister. Heck, why didn’t they bring back the ‘We are Siamese’ cats from Lady and the Tramp and go old-school racism?* In comparison to older animated films, Kung Fu Panda is less overtly racist and sexist – it hides these impulses under a glitzy exterior of multi-culturalism and nods to powerful females. Yet, the undercurrents of racism, sexism, and fat-phobia (as well as the pro-individualistic, pro-violence messages) are all the more sinister precisely because they go down so easy. It’s the subtle, gentle way of making audience goers agree with (and laugh at) Others. The film thus successfully serves up subconscious racist, sexist, anti-fat propaganda. And, despite the nods to celebrating diversity (both bodily and culturally) the film actually presents a very American message: If you are fat, you better be funny and if you are Asian, you better know Kung Fu.

*For a great overview of racism in Disney films, see the documentary Mickey Mouse Monopoly

What if The San Diego Museum of Man has it right?

So, I should have known given its name that The Museum of Man in Balboa Park would focus only on those with penis privilege. However, I thought maybe, just maybe, it might nod to the fact that history and evolution are not the sole domain of those with XY chromosomes.

While the museum in general acted as if women are just some crazy little blip that don’t matter on an evolutionary scale, the most blatant exhibition of this belief was in the “Footsteps Through Time: Four Million Years of Human Evolution” exhibition. The figures that were supposed to reflect this evolution were all male – apparently the four million years of human history the exhibit documents didn’t involve any women. Silly me – I thought women played a kinda important role in birthing subsequent generations…

In addition to suggesting women don’t matter, the museum also teaches that evolved humans have blue eyes and light hair. In the above-mentioned exhibit, as soon as the Neanderthal looking figures really begin to represent humanoids, their eye color switches from dark brown to blue and the hair and skin both become lighter. Does the museum realize the message this gives – i.e. those with dark eyes, hair, and skin are ‘closer to the apes.’? Talk about museum perpetuated racism.

If the museum has it right, (white) man is the key player in evolution – and man in the sense of male – not as when people pathetically claim that the term man includes women too.

The museum only includes women very rarely – and you guessed it, when women are focused on its pretty much for their wombs only – as in the replicas of different stages of pregnancy (where the female figures have no heads) or as in the pregnant mummy (who is disturbingly in a pose with her hands and feet bound).

Along with this sexist, racist view of history, we also get more messages regarding indigenous people as violent crazies who really got off on human sacrifice. While the museum does include ONE reference to the practices of human sacrifice in Anglo history, it generally promotes the idea we see in films so often – that of the Mel Gibson variety where the crazies in history are inevitably ‘non-white’ and ‘savage.’ The recent Indy film (see my earlier post) was no different in this vein, nor was The Golden Compass. All of these movies and many others play into the idea that ancient, indigenous civilizations are best known for human sacrifice and savagery, rather than for, say, their math wizardry, architectural brilliance, medicinal know-how, or environmentally friendly living.

Ah, Museum of Man, thank you for reminding me how every day, in every way, we are bombarded with messages that suggest males are superior, whites are better, and the ‘white man’ is the true mark of evolved civilization. I would hope that at a museum a more intellectual, nuanced version of humanity might have been put forward. I do realize museums have a long history of stealing cultural artifacts for their own greedy purposes, but I was hoping that as we are now around the bend of the 21st century, that these bastions of culture and history might put a more diverse, equitable spin on things. Alas, at the Cineplex (via Indy 4), at the museum (which, by the way, had a new section devoted to Indy 4 cuz, you know, it’s so true to the history of human cultures), and even in feminist book imagery (It’s A Jungle Out There*), white men are the happening archaeologists, woman are the unimportant sexualized sidekicks, and indigenous people are the savage Others.

*The imagery used in Marcotte’s books created a storm of debate and commentary in the feminist blogosphere and instigated an apology from Marcotte and from Seal Press as well as a call to girlcott Seal from WOC PhD. You can see copies of some of the images in the book here.

What if women could have careers AND good sex? Camille Paglia’s ‘look’ at Sex and the City

In the “Six Ways of Looking at Carrie” in the 5/23/08 special double-orgasm issue of Entertainment Weekly that showcases Sex and the City, Camille Paglia does some supposedly feminist looking at the show.

Paglia starts with the argument that:

Sex and the City is extremely important in entertainment history because of the way it foregrounded the pro-sex feminism movement of the 1990s that I was part of. The show is the most visible result of that generational shies away from the antipornagraphy crusade that dominated in the 1970s and ‘80s.”

Over time, the show really turned into an accurate anthropological chronicle of the bittersweet dilemma faced by the modern career woman. For every big career gain she makes, there’s a trade-off in her personal life.”

Is the “women asked to be raped” and “date rape hysteria” stance of Paglia’s part of the pro-sex mantra she speaks of? (Pardon me for asking, but can’t being “pro-sex” include being anti-rape?) Does the “anti-pornography crusade” refer to the radical feminist critique of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and gender as performance of MacKinnon, Rich, and Butler (and many great others) or does Paglia, in bad-feminist-mythmaking style, simply conjure up the hellaciously misinterpreted claim of Dworkin that “all sex is rape”? And, geez, couldn’t she have picked a word other than the zealous, fanatical image inducing “crusade”?!?

It would have been nice if she had taken the chance to give voice to feminism in a national magazine in a way that is a tad more complex and a smidgen less divisive (she is – whether you agree with her brand of feminism or not – whip smart). Or, perhaps the ET editors could have rallied up a feminist not reviled by so many in what she claims is her own camp. Was no one from feministing, racialicious, or the women’s media center available? Have bell hooks, Jane Caputi, and Jackson Katz stopped doing “feminist looking”?

Instead, we have to gaze through Paglia’s view, which constructs woman as girls, second-wave feminists as old baddies, and heterosexuality as NATURAL – as in the following:

“I can see why many older, second-wave feminists were highly critical of Sex and the City in the way it showed women always obsessing about men. But guess what? Wake up, that’s the truth! Most young women are naturally interested in men.”

Girls together in groups are constantly talking about their relationships. That’s what girlfriends are for!”

For the love of feminism, is there anything RIGHT about her look at SATC? Women are “naturally” interested in men? Hello? Queer theory, anyone? Or, how about the fairly widespread understanding of the social construction of gender/race/sexuality? And “girls” (not women of course, because I guess it would be too old-school-second-wave to refuse female infantalization) “constantly talk about relationships”?!? What “girls” are you hanging with Camille? Perhaps you need some new “girlfriends” that understand friendship entails more than discussing heteronormative relationships (while shoe shopping and dieting, I presume).

I look forward to the release of the film next weekend– and to doing some feminist looking of my own. When I talk with my friends (who are not all girls), I will try to go beyond my “natural” interest in men and my “essential girly desire” to talk relationships – I might just, in fact, consider the film from a critical, feminist perspective that includes an examination or race, class, gender, sexuality, body image – and yes, Camille, relationships too.