Everyone who was ever told a fairytale knows what happens to women who do their own magic

Disclaimer: cultural critique of various tropes about men and women is not about you personally, even if you enjoy watching things with those tropes in them. Mmmkay? We will discover things in this post things that are obviously anti-woman that I, too, enjoy watching. Not about me or you. Cultural tropes.

Holy cow, I’m not sure how I missed out on reading Laurie Penny before, but she’s got an essay in The New Statesman that is making some heavy rounds, and deservedly so because there is a first-rate writer here. The essay is entitled I Was A Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Writing about Doctor Who this week got me thinking about sexism in storytelling, and how we rely on lazy character creation in life just as we do in fiction. The Doctor has become the ultimate soulful brooding hero in need of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to save him from the vortex of self-pity usually brought on by the death, disappearance or alternate-universe-abandonment of the last girl. We cannot have the Doctor brooding. A planet might explode somewhere, or he might decide to use his powers for evil, or his bow-tie might need adjusting. The companions of the past three years, since the most recent series reboot, have been the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification, any attempt at actually creating interesting female characters replaced by… That Girl.

Ok, big Dr. Who fan here, and an old lady, and you just have to admit: Dr. Who has always featured its manic pice dream girls long before Nate Rubin coined the very apt term. From Lalla Ward to Billy Piper, this is a series that has plenty of cute Girls with a capital G. While I was a big fan of the ensemble casts for some versions of the Doctor, I think I was a definite minority on that, and throughout the history of the series, we have one Girl after another, taken up and educated by the doctor to the vast exigencies of the universe. She bumbles her way into trouble by leaving the tardis’ safely paper-plate bedecked walls. The Doctor, even though he sheds his Galifrigean skin every so often, and can grow several inches to accommodate Peter Davidson’s and John Jon Pertwee’s lanky doctor and yet shrink to Colin Baker’s and Sylvester McCoy’s relatively more petite doctors, has somehow never managed, in 11 iterations, to grow a vagina or change his skin color. The best rejoinder to this I have ever seen happened on Star Trek, TNG with the Dax creatures who maintained their consciousness but moved freely from host to host, bending gender back and forth, and thinking little of it. They still loved whom they loved, did whatever job they did, regardless of the equipment of their host.

I like the idea of Lenny Henry or his ex, Dawn French, playing the doctor.

Thus the first great thing about Penny’s discussion: her use of the word “lazy.” Writers use these tropes, and so do we consumers of their tales, because they are easy to construct and understand. They allow us to keep the action moving and the Daleks EX.ter.min.ATE.ing because we’re not held up thinking about why things and characters in the story are different than what we expect, and we can all just get to the part where the world is in danger and there are explosions and we can stop worrying about how to pay the mortgage or where the next tuition payment comes from.

The second Boom! quote from Penny’s essay:

Stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world, which doesn’t mean that those stories can’t be stupid and simplistic and full of lies. Stories can exaggerate and offend and they always, always matter.

So yesterday a commenter asked me why it mattered whether a particular celebrity was selling a narrative, with narrative which is a old proffie way of saying “story.” Well, this is why they matter. It’s why history matters, and communication matters, and literature matters; story is at the center of the way we produce culture and society in our communicating ideas about reality. And, as Penny notes:

Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing…

Part of the reason I’m writing this is that the MPDG trope isn’t properly explored, in any of the genres I read and watch and enjoy. She’s never a point-of-view character, and she isn’t understood from the inside. She’s one of those female tropes who is permitted precisely no interiority. Instead of a personality, she has eccentricities, a vaguely-offbeat favourite band, a funky fringe.

and all sorts of feelings here:

But I refuse to burn my energy adding extra magic and sparkle to other people’s lives to get them to love me. I’m busy casting spells for myself. Everyone who was ever told a fairytale knows what happens to women who do their own magic.

Go read, go read, go read.

Here’s my twist: have we thought about the uniquely urban nature of the average Manic Pixie Dream Girl in movies? Some of that may just be that most movies and tv have no interest in settings that aren’t urban any more–product placement is better in urban contexts on film. But to whet your thinking on this, here is another essay on the Brooklyn Girl….

Comforting the afflicted

I’m rather gratified to see a backlash aimed at Seth MacFarlane, as I find his brand of humor odious from the get-go.I’ve been through this nonsense before with Andrew Dice Clay, who was a good deal cruder than MacFarlane–I guess we should be grateful for the refinement.

Here is some of the better writing on why women are getting rather tired of the MacFarlanes of this world.

From Vulture: Why Seth MacFarlane’s Misogyny Matters. The best line:

Jeez, the song was a joke! Can’t you take a joke? Yes, I can take a joke. I can take a bunch! A thousand, 10,000, maybe even more! But after 30 or so years, this stuff doesn’t feel like joking. It’s dehumanizing and humiliating, and as if every single one of those jokes is an ostensibly gentler way of saying, “I don’t think you belong here.” All those little instances add up, grain of sand by grain of sand until I’m stranded in a desert of every “tits or GTFO” joke I’ve ever tried to ignore.

That’s the sum of it. One does get tired of the constant barrage of gendered humor that boils down to booby jokes.

Unlike this writer, I’m not a fan of Family Guy, either. I tried two episodes and gave up on both.

I’m told there were also jokes about Jews and gays. Yeah, those are never not funny.

I guess I have to wonder: seriously, people, this is all we got? The Oscars are a premier entertainment trade union. And the best they can offer up is the boob song?

Yeah, *I’m* the humorless one here.

I’ve always held that the first rule of humor should be that it afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. Not the other way around.

Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee, with Carol Mithers

We read Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee for my class on social justice this fall–it was the last book of the course, and it was a nice way to personalize some of the very abstract ideas we had been working with throughout the course. The memoir format gave us a lot to work with because it allowed us to take a look at how she viewed the events of her life along with our own intuition and theories. Gbowee was a young Liberian woman from the middle class whose parents were successful rural tribespeople–not the elite in Liberia who were the descendants of American-born slaves who established Liberia. The descent into civil war begins for her right about the time she is graduating from high school, and she goes from being a pretty, hopeful high school girl with her eyes on college to having to run her parent’s house as refuge against the fighting. She goes from the terrors there to the terrors of a violent marriage and motherhood, very young, in a place that continues to be ravaged by war. As time goes on, she finds the ability to move out of the marriage and try to go back to school, which prompts her to take an internship at a social justice/advocacy organization where she begins to work with women who need to speak about their experiences in war-torn Liberia. From this work, the Liberian’s women’s peace movement emerged.

There are parts of the story that I marked as particularly interesting:

  • She notes the uselessness of the global media who, when she attempted to speak with them, lost interest in her when she said she hadn’t been a rape victim. If true, that’s a terrible indictment of the way journalists further abuse rape victims in global conflicts. Also interesting is that she does not consider herself to be a rape victim even though her husband violently forces her to have sex. A construct of marriage: it can’t be rape if it’s your husband. Yes, it can.
  • The United States is both entirely there, yet entirely not there, in its corporate presence throughout conflicts, but there is no support to protect civilians throughout the process.
  • There are hard and bright hierarchies in her family between the “rich, urban” and the “poor, rural” parts of it, including the notion that in order to live with the “rich, urban” family, members of the “poor, rural” family can just be expected to act as servants in order to “earn” their keep in the city.
  • The daughters in the marriage have unequal access to their father, who is unequivocally a difficult man, setting up his daughters to see their worth entirely related to via male valuations.
  • One daughter becomes married to a Lebanese man. During the first round of fighting, when the soldiers are coming through and the family is taking the children into the house, the rural grandmother (her paternal grandmother, I believe) shoves the four year-old child of the Lebanese/Liberian parents back out into the street, into the danger, and shuts the door in her face. That’s some cold, considering this is her great-grandchild. The other oddness: Gbowee never tells us what happens. We don’t know what happens to the child, whether she makes it through the attack, and we never find out if there are family repercussions for this action for her grandmother.
  • The major sacrifices made for Gwobee’s activism are granted by her children and her sister, Geneva, whose own life becomes dedicated to being Gwobee’s helpmeet and parent to Gwobee’s children.
  • By far, the most harrowing parts of the book concern how to heal child soldiers, and what happens you valorize evil among young teenage boys who are screaming for their own power and independence, who resent maternal control, and who see girls as capriciously withholding sexual gratification.
  • Shared faith plays a pivotal role in the women’s movement, which has its benefits and costs. Faith is a major part of Gbowee’s life, a source of strength and inspiration. However, relying on faith means that there are going to be barriers organizing across faith. (There are ways to work across difference, and the women’s movement does so.)
  • Being a celebrity advocate and western media darling, too, has its costs and benefits. On the plus side, you get grants from international aid organizations. On the minus side, others resent the credit you are taking for the scarifices and work of an entire network, and that can drive a wedge in the effort. Leadership is difficult in a world where you are allowed only madonna/whore or bitch/mother roles.
  • There is the persistent question of what should happen with war criminals. Gwobee resents the Hague and its trial of Charles Taylor, maintaining that Liberians should have been able to meet their own justice to the deposed dictator–entirely understandable. The trial was another example to her of the violations of Liberian sovereignty of European and American institutions. Nontheless, many of these wars have ethnic tensions at their bases, Liberia’s was no exception, and putting the leader of one ethnic group on trial at the ends of another is fraught prospect which can easily go wrong in its meaning and symbolism surrounding justice. It’s possible Liberians could have managed that process brilliantly–we will never know. But there is also some value to letting everybody resent Americans here instead of risking further divides within the country on what should happen Taylor. (After all; he still has supporters there.)

My alma mater (the University of Iowa) does something interesting

Reading through Jezebel this morning I happened upon this story about the University of Iowa asking students to voluntarily disclose their LGBTQ status as a means to get information about what level of services they may need to provide for support. The comments are enlightening (for a change!), ranging from people who are nervous about the prospect of disclosing, notes that LGBTQ kids may not have much clarity about their status yet, and support.

Max Stephenson on our Senate’s failure to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Max Stephenson writes about members of the US senate scoring some rather cheap political points by refusing to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

This sad episode tarnishes once more the nation’s standing as a leader in human rights and democracy in the world community. That this negative vote occurred at all is testimony to the much-discussed “broken character” of our politics. That it apparently occurred for the reasons it did is doubly distressing as it signals a deeper corruption of the democratic choice-making process in the United States. In the present instance, that process was hijacked neatly by a profoundly misguided, but well-positioned and vocal set of actors who, apparently, for their own narrow political purposes have managed to tar their nation in the eyes of the world and once more to deny the nation’s disabled even a symbolic claim to equal standing with their fellow citizens. This Senate action must be reversed. It not only is morally and substantively indefensible, but also profoundly anti-democratic.

The whole essay is worth reading.

Sigh. I understand the frustration with the UN that many on the right feel, that it is a mechanism for entangling the US with other countries. In my class on social justice, we examined the Texas secession movement and looked at various proposed constitutions, all of which had some provision specifying that the Republic of Texas would have no dealings with other countries except for trade. That kind of backseat governance sounds great in theory, but it didn’t actually work for Switzerland. Are there other examples where isolationism actually works?

Thus the question comes down to what type of entanglement are you going have?

The pragmatist in me thinks it would be more useful to support the UN when it is doing something it might actually be good at such as brokering voluntary agreements about cosmopolitan human rights questions, and to hold out when it wants to send your troops into hairy peace-keeping situations. The US seems to be doing the reverse: rather routinely sending troops to places that make little sense to our democratic populace, with their Black Hawk Down scenarios.

IOW, I don’t actually envision the US ever sending troops to Faroffistan to deal with their failure to provide wheelchairs ramps and government materials in braille. Rights covenants tend to be attempts at expectations- and example-setting and idea diffusion more than policy enforcement. Those seem like very good uses of global governance, even for conservatively minded people to me.

Because you should always read anything by Stephen Coll that you can

Here is a terrific piece in the New Yorker on Why Do Americans Believe in Muslim Rage? A great quote:

Some of the protests appear to have been organized by fringe political parties and radical activists; for them, “Death to America” is a mobilizing strategy. The rioting they encourage is about Muslim rage only in a tautological sense: raging Muslims do the burning and looting, but they do not typically attract even a large minority of the local faithful. The faces on American screens are often shock troops, comparable to Europe’s skinheads or anarchists.

Go read.