Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mr. Masochistic

Mary's Feminist Book Project inspired me to take a look at Flux by Peggy Orenstein. In that book, there were profiles of educated, successful women who were horrified by the prospect of being 40 and single. However, based on their life choices so far, it seemed to me that they were headed squarely towards the fate they wanted so badly to avoid. Their sheer terror at being 40 and single, coupled with the fact that a number of these women had had chances to marry, made me wonder...Is a glorified "Mr. Right" just another impossible ideal designed to frustrate and distract women, like being a size 2 or having perfect hair? (See The Beauty Myth for more details.) Women expect to marry these difficult-to-find men (nurturing and sensitive, yet ambitious and assertive), however we are terrified of being single. We are put in a position where we cannot win, and where we are pressured to spend vast amounts of time and energy in pursuit of this elusive ideal.

Another form of self-torture illustrated by Flux is "The Perfect Mother". Whatever a woman does for her children, it is never seen as enough--to the people in her life, to society, and to herself. Contrast that to her husband, who is praised as an "involved father" just for helping out with the kids once in a while. Even in couples who share the parenting equally, women still bear the vast majority of the judgments, expectations, and if something goes wrong, the blame. The women interviewed in Flux claimed to have no time or energy for self-awareness until they were in their 40's (!). Like the Beauty Myth or Mr. Right, women are so overburdened by being Perfect Mothers that they can lose their sense of self in the process. For eons, women were solely defined by their relationships to men and children. But in our current culture, where women have more choices but can never make the "right choice" (Stay home with your children, but have a career!) it can feel like we've just replaced one prison with another.

Yes, Flux is kind of depressing. However, the author didn't include interviews with anyone who didn't prove her thesis. I feel lucky to know a number of people who have rejected society's standards for what men and women "should" be. As time goes on, will they become the norm or remain the exception? Right now, giving up the quest for Mr. Right is a radical choice. But people are starting to make it, so maybe that speaks well for a future of more real options. What remains crucial is that people making these "radical" choices actually discuss them, so people will know that the option exists.

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Pre-Gay Patterns"

How many great stories have started out with, "So I was reading this amazing book about heroin addicts..."

Okay, not many. The book, Righteous Dopefiends, is remarkable, though. Two anthropologists spent twelve years with a group of homeless heroin addicts living under a freeway in San Francisco. It's an easy group to vilify (the government of San Francisco has certainly done it enough), but the book really shows you these people's humanity and the complex web of factors that led them to their lifestyle. It's very eye-opening. In a chapter called "Male Love", there's a short section about the seemingly contradictory sexual identity of some of these "dopefiends". Some of the men are involved in homoromantic or homosexual relationships, but they remain openly homophobic and retain their identity as heterosexuals.

(Before sharing a quote from the book, I have to explain the word "lumpen". This is the authors' re-imagining of a term from Marx, "lumpen proletariat", referring to the most marginalized people in society.)

Historians have argued that gay identity in the United States emerged after World War II. Formerly, men who had sex with one another might maintain a fully masculine social identity (Chauncey 1994). In fact, sex between men was relatively common in the largely all-male communities of the marginal lumpenized working class. (Phillipe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg, 214)


In the 2000s, these same "pre-gay" patterns persisted. Lumpen and poor working-class men might, under certain conditions, have sex and fall in love with one another without altering their masculine self-conception. They could even remain aggressively homophobic. Sex between men who do not self-identify as gay or bisexual has been well documented in a range of contemporary lumpen settings [prisons, sex worker strolls, and transient labor camps are given as examples]...Although it is frequently described, this form of masculine sexuality remains undertheorized, and it is not generally analyzed as a class-based phenomenon. (214)

The authors also mention that "class dynamics have been, for the most part, absent from [queer theory literature]." (215)

I tried to talk about asexuality and class here, but it was a pretty awkward analysis, with my attempts to discuss both race and class at the same time. In Righteous Dopefiend, the authors sleep outside with the homeless, having an experience of class that's very different from their own. I would guess that such things are rare. The truth seems to be that for some truly "lumpen" groups, the concept of sexuality as we know it today is largely irrelevant. I think that's definitely an idea worth noting; we often talk about something like sexual orientation being universal in scope. But little, if anything, really is.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Friendless Summer"

(One of those admin notices: I'm going to be farming for about a week. Do farms have internet? I don't know, I've never been to a real one before. So comment moderation may be slow or nonexistent...just sayin'.)

Oh Lucksmiths, you were just so witty and lovely, and to top it all off, your singer actually enunciated. Too bad you broke up, but at least you have a large back catalogue to peruse. They tended to be great lyricists, and their music is perfect for, well, summer. Like this song. I found it here, while looking at some of the Matinee Recordings releases. The song is about something that has probably happened to all of us, regardless of orientation-- a friend that falls in love and suddenly becomes too busy to spend time with us anymore. However, as someone that doesn't do the whole "falling in love thing", I've always felt a little left-out that I'd never be on the other side. (Not like I would purposely ditch my friends, but it would be nice to know what the fuss was all about.) Now, it does sound like the narrator is actually in love with the person he's singing about...but it always hurts to lose a good friend, whether they're your secret crush or strictly platonic.

"Friendless Summer"
by the Lucksmiths

transcribed by me

Today of all days you decided

that you'd drop in uninvited
You were ever-so excited,
you were never so in love.

This time it's requited,

if i looked less than delighted
I was trying hard to hide it

but not trying hard enough.
Do do do do do do do do do.
That's fantastic, that's sarcastic

but forgive me the theatrics
I've been catching up on classics

and the springtime's been and gone.
And I didn't see the dangers

in hoping nothing ever changes
'til we said good bye like strangers
for the first time in so long. So long...
There's only me to blame,
but I'm lonely all the same.

Forgot to mention about the Lucksmiths: Australian accents! I mean, if that's a selling point for anyone.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Age of Innocence (and Anxiety)

"I just wasn't made for this world, but I wouldn't like to meet someone who was."
--Of Montreal

I'm always so shocked when I enjoy a "classic" novel. I guess I'm always expecting them to be unbearably dull. Admittedly, a lot of them are, especially when you're forced to read them in high school. But when I finished The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton, 1920), I felt significant sadness. To me, this doesn't just mean the book was "good", but that the world-building was impeccable. When I finished the book and left its world, there was a sense of loss.

[Image: Daniel Day-Lewis played Newland Archer in the film adaptation. I would have done the casting very differently, going much younger with all the main characters. But meh.]

The Age of Innocence is about Newland Archer and his various First World Problems. He's a young man living in New York City's high society in the late 1800s. While he's engaged to a "respectable" girl, he falls in love with a "fallen woman", i.e., one who fled her abusive husband. Their love affair was barely an "affair" at all, consisting of just a few brief conversations and a lot of fantasy. But I was surprised by how intrigued I was with the social milieu. While it was hard to dredge up much sympathy for these people's problems, Wharton's descriptions intrigued me anyway. The people are stuffy and boring, but Wharton gets into their heads in a way I found really remarkable. The characters are the country's most privileged people, but they also seemed very fragile, existing in a permanent state of social anxiety. They exhibited extreme distress and paranoia over "trivial" matters like wearing the wrong dress or being uninvited to a dinner. It was oddly comforting to me. Maybe in 100 years, our own social concerns-- "How long do I wait to e-mail her?"..."Hmm, should I 'like' his 'I'm single' Facebook update?" will seem just as silly.

Had the Age of Innocence characters lived today, they might be diagnosed with a variety of conditions. Check out these traits of Victorian-era socialites, which map over Asperger's:
  • Rigid thinking
  • Obsession with a narrow range of topics
  • Focus on minute details
  • Adherence to arbitrary routines
  • Continuous need for structure
(I'm not sure where I'm going with this, aside from pointing out that it helps to demonstrate the futility of viewing autistic people as somehow apart from "us", whoever that is.) Newland and I share some of these traits, but also long for change (kind of like my theory of the Anglophile). Although I can pass as neurotypical, sometimes I feel like the stereotypical autistic, trapped inside my own mind. But isn't that where Newland was also trapped, more than just within his society? While he seems capable of imagining some sort of life outside his little world, he has no idea how to enact such a life, apart from strangely dramatic and sudden measures.

At its heart, the book seems to be about theoretical vs. actual opportunity, something that is timely for me. What dreams do we choose to pursue, and which do we let die? What is reality and what is truly fantasy? I don't know if today's culture, with all our additional freedoms, makes that question any easier. Apparently it's a dilemma that has been bothering Americans for some time now. Same exact theme, with a very different conclusion, set in the 20th century:

[Image: The novel Revolutionary Road]

Friday, April 1, 2011

Only the Good Die Young

Wow, who knew virginity was such a hot topic...what can I follow it with? Well, here's something that incites passion among us all (maybe): Wrongly canceled TV series!

There are different parts of us that are every age we've ever been. But I have to say that for me, a disproportionately large part has always been about 15. Maybe that's one reason why I liked My So-Called Life so much. While the show (which only lasted one season) became iconic after its original airing in the early 90s, I saw it for the first time this past month. While I couldn't really relate to the crushes and sexual anxiety of the characters, I thought that they seemed more human and realistic than most, giving me a more genuine window into the average teen experience than, say, Gossip Girl. In some way, we are all Angela Chase, whether at the end of a hard day we lie on our beds listening to the Cranberries, hip-hop or death metal. None of us are perfect, but we're all doing our best to make sense of a confusing world.

[Image: Rickie and Angela]

My favorite character was Rickie, who is sort of like the queer, shy, high-school version of Prince. Before "the gay friend" became a cliche, Rickie seemed a lot less stereotypical and his issues were handled with more subtlety than, say, Kurt's (from Glee). That occasional subtlety is what makes My So-Called Life seem artful at times, like a good movie, when it could have easily fallen into Degrassi-style after-school-special territory. I feel strangely wronged that it only lasted one season. There is so little on TV, past or present, that actually tells people something about their lives.

So, what series do you think died too young? (Everyone always mentions Freaks and Geeks--even so, Judd Apatow has managed to do okay for himself-- and I was also miffed that Huge was canceled right after a character came out as asexual, even though I never got around to watching the show.)