booknotes: clover adams

It was nearly a decade ago that I first started hearing from a former professor (turned good friend) of mine about her latest research project: the study of a set of photograph albums at an archives in Boston, albums created by a 19th century female photographer named Marian "Clover" Hooper Adams. At the time, the friend -- Natalie Dykstra -- was in the process of applying for an NEH fellowship to spend her sabbatical at the archives -- the Massachusetts Historical Society -- to work with the albums and develop a book-length project that would consider the photography of Clover Adams as autobiographical texts. Texts that might, in some way, help us to understand how Clover understood her own life, her work, her marriage to historian Henry Adams, and the factors that led to her decision to end her own life at age forty-two by drinking chemicals used in the development of her photographs.

Since then, I've had the privilege of drifting on the periphery of Natalie's research and writing of the manuscript which became Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (Houghton Mifflin, 2012). It is, in part, because of her connection with the Massachusetts Historical Society that I considered relocating to Boston, that I applied to work at the MHS, and her friendship has been a sweet thread of connection between my previous life at Hope College/in Holland and my world here in Boston. Over the past four years I've worked with Natalie in my reference librarian hat to track down details related to Clover's childhood and coordinated the provision of photographs by and of Clover will appear, in all their visual splendor, in the pages of her biography.

This is all by way of saying that I approach this review with a far-from objective sense of propriety when it comes to the work of a friend, and the opportunity to see the life of an overlooked female photographer -- whose work is preserved at "my" library -- brought into the open and shared with the world in such an eloquent way.

So, you know, take my praise for what it's worth and form your own opinions of Natalie's work at your leisure. But having read the advance review copy over the Christmas holidays, I do want to share a few notes on what about Natalie's work -- and Clover's life story -- particularly moved and impressed me. Because I do, in my professional historian hat, think Natalie's done something remarkable here.

Clover Adams' story presents a number of dilemmas for the modern biographer. In the socioeconomic sense, she was a daughter of privilege, born to a Boston family with economic resources and social and political connections. Her mother was a poet who moved in Transcendentalist circles with the likes of Margaret Fuller and the Peabody sisters. Her father's family, the Hoopers, had made their money in business  during the previous century, and Robert Hooper (Clover's father), with whom Clover remained close, received his medical training at Harvard and in Paris. In marrying Henry Adams, Clover became part of one of the most high-profile American families of the period; she and her husband maintained multiple residences, traveled abroad, and moved through the upper echelons of American and European society.

Yet at the same time, there were limits to what privilege could bring to Clover's life in terms of health and well-being. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Clover was a young child, and the aunt who cared most directly for Clover thereafter eventually committed suicide. Mental health struggles seem to have haunted the Hooper family, and if read in a certain light Clover Adams appears to be one long narrative of health struggles for which contemporary late-nineteenth-century medical, religious, and philosophical frameworks had no useful remedy.

In addition, Clover contended with the fact that she was a girlchild, and later a woman, in a world that offered a limited number of options for women to craft satisfying lives for themselves. The majority of women were, of course, caught up in surviving class and race inequality. However, even those who, like Clover, didn't face immediate material dilemmas, were nonetheless constrained by social expectation to pursue a limited number of professional and relational pathways. While Clover seems to have settled into her marriage with Henry Adams quite happily and voluntarily, her married life was colored by the couples' inability to communicate some of their deepest needs to one another. That the two never had children also appears to have haunted Clover on some level, though I appreciated that Natalie takes note of this factor without dwelling on it extensively.

Clover's photography, taken up in the final years of her life, remained an amateur endeavor in part because of the status of photography in the art world and in part because of the fact that Clover was a woman. Both she and Henry expressed ambivalence over her creative work and its place in their lives, and eschewed opportunities which might have brought her more attention for her work.

All of these aspects of Clover's life -- her mental health, her marriage, her work, and her place in society -- are interesting to a modern audience in part because Clover's struggles feel like very relevant in our current society, roughly a century and a quarter after Clover's death. How we understand -- and cope with -- mental illness is still a live question.The benefits and limits of marriage as an institution -- and as a primary relationship -- are under intense discussion. The role of work and creative expression -- particularly in the lives of married and mothering women -- is still a subject of public debate. It would be all too easy to map our current understanding of all three of these subjects backward onto Clover's life (what is known in the historical profession as "presentism"). We're shown the pain of Clover's depression without any sort of narrative pressure to diagnose cause or condition: her mental landscape is described most often in Clover's own words. Natalie doesn't back away from the loneliness and disconnection that, in the end, resided at the heart of the Adams marriage. Yet she manages to show Henry Adams at his most vicious (I felt real flares of anger at him while reading) without laying the blame of Clover's suicide at the feet of her husband.

At the same time, while skillfully avoiding the trap of presentism, Natalie also refuses to absent herself -- as a biographical narrator -- from the storytelling endeavor. Having spent literally a decade with Clover's story she has much to offer us in terms of synthesis and analysis. I didn't finish the book wishing that Natalie had shown less partiality for (and more critical analysis of) her subject. She really manages to do the balancing act of letting us see Clover's life as it was lived and understood in broader historical context, not just through Clover's own meaning-making mechanisms.

Speaking as someone who is intensely interested in the history of feminism, gender and sexuality, I find Clover's story compelling on a number of levels. Natalie explicitly avoids the language of gender theory in her storytelling. Which is not to say she ignores the way in which Clover's lived experience was shaped by her womanhood -- far from it. But Natalie has the grace to let Clover's life be -- as much as possible -- her own. And Clover herself doesn't seem to have understood her life through the lens of gender. Other women of her era did (though they would have used the word "sex" rather than "gender"). The years between Clover's birth and death were active ones for women's rights agitation, and Boston saw its fair share of feminist activism. While feminist analysis would likely not have saved Clover from the depths of despair, I found myself wondering if Clover's ability to anchor herself -- in her marriage, in her art, in her social connections -- could have been aided at all by the friendship of women (or men) who outspokenly advocated for her right to be (and be seen) as an artistic individual, out beyond the confines of the domestic sphere. I found myself wondering how Clover and Henry's expectations of the roles played by husband and wife contributed to the silences in their marriage, and whether more radical friends might have encouraged them to re-consider their assumptions and move past what seem to have been baffling obstacles to marital connection and contentment. This is something that Natalie hints at, but for the most part leaves for the reader to piece together as they will.

courtesy of the MHS
Last week, when I arrived at work, I found that the sign advertising upcoming events had been switched out to showcase the opening of our next exhibition -- guest curated by Natalie -- which features Clover's own photographs. The image chosen (see right) is a striking photograph taken at Smith Point (Mass.) is a group portrait of Miriam Pratt, Alice Howe, and Alice Pratt, discussed in chapter fourteen of Clover Adams ("At Sea"). It is not, Natalie writes, "a straightforward portrait intended simply to capture the likeness of three specific women. Instead, Clover carefully stage-managed the composition, creating a mood not of friendship and connection but of lost possibility ... the women are connected neither to one another nor to the sea, which might otherwise open up their visual world" (150). Despite Clover's own ambivalence about the public exhibition of her work during her lifetime, I am proud of Natalie for bringing her photography out of the archive and into the public eye. For helping us to understand Clover's creative work not only as the art it surely is, but also as a visual voice communicating a particular woman's understanding of her world in a form that will long outlive its creator.

Clover Adams will go on sale on February 8th. You can pre-order it now through a variety of venues, or put it on hold at your local library.

Natalie, I'm so, so proud of you!


two recent and unrelated news items on which I have thoughts

random pretty thing (via)
1. On Cynthia Nixon and choosing one's sexual identity. According to Cassie Murdoch @ Jezebel, actress Cynthia Nixon said some things about choosing her current partner, another woman, which have irritated other people also in same-sex relationships. In response, Nixon told the New York Times:
Why can't it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we're just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don't think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn't realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I've been out with. [NYT]
"Why is [choosing] any less legitimate" is my favorite line from this quotation, because regardless of where we, as humans of all sexual persuasions, fall on the innate/culture continuum vis a vis our own personal sexual desires, I think it's really important not to throw fluidity, change, and personal growth over time under the damn bus. By limiting "legitimate" or "authentic" sexuality to that which is fixed, innate, and ostensibly knowable from birth, we demand certainty on an issue which -- for some if not most -- is far from certain, or perhaps serially certain -- we know ourselves, and then we know ourselves again in a new light. Both equally true.

And, of course, even if you want to argue that sexual attractions/desires are innate and fixed, sexual identities and the language we use for them, are creations of culture -- so, yes, actually, we all of us "choose" to be "straight" or "gay" or "lesbian" or "bisexual" or "asexual" or "queer" or whateverthehellother label du jour we decide to slap on ourselves. Underneath those words are actual corporeal human beings, with attractions and desires no one can wrest from us or know better than ourselves -- but we do choose to politically identify with language. We choose to affiliate, organize, categorize. And we'll probably choose at some point to re-categorize human sexuality in new ways.

So I'm glad Ms. Nixon isn't letting people bully her into silence or repentance on this point for the sake of political expedience. That would make me sad for the future state of discourse on human sexuality.

2. On parents, children, and workplace negotiation. A friend of mine linked to an NPR story yesterday, on Tumblr, about parents advocating on behalf of their adult children with human resources representatives at their childrens' workplaces. I was thinking about this one on the way to work today, because I come from a family where -- okay, this hasn't happened and likely won't ever happen -- but where when I was growing up my parents often asserted their right to participate in discussions about (for example) our medical care, even when doctors thought it was "hovering." My parents were always clear to ask us, as their children, whether we wanted their support -- and backed off the moment we asked them to. But that experience has led me to be wary of cultural outrage over "helicopter parenting" and other family systems that Americans read as intrusive. Because things aren't always what they seem on the surface. Two thoughts:

a) Sometimes, tag-teaming is an important function of families. Sometimes, even grown-ups need the support of other grown-ups to self-advocate, particularly around things like healthcare? It can be as simple as  calling to report a spouse is too ill to be at work that day, or it can be more complicated -- like asking a family member to attend medical appointments with you. We can't all operate in isolation 100% of the time, and while I have no idea what the particulars of these HR situations might be, I hesitate to be judgy. Yeah, it could totally be an overbearing sense of entitlement. But it might also be desperation and/or simply family groups operating to support one another. Which leads me to:

b) This seems outrageous to us because we've decided as a culture that it's outrageous. Think for a moment about arranged marriages. In cultures where extended families facilitate marriages, parents and other adults are involved in something (courtship) which we, in America, have decided is essentially a private matter between the two people directly involved. Parents getting involved in their child's courtship decisions (e.g. a partner asking the parents' permission before proposing) is seen as intrusive. But seen in a different light, it's not intrusive, it's expected, and serves a purpose. We might, as a society, decide we dislike the purpose it serves -- but that's neither here nor there. By analogy, it would be interesting to back up and consider how multi-generational involvement in workplace situations operates. What perceived problem is this involvement seeking to remedy? Is it serving a function that, until now, has been met in some other way? Why has the old way stopped working, or why do people perceive it to have ceased working?

These are the things I think about on the way to work.


booknotes: the lives of transgender people

I was super excited to get my hands on an advance review copy of The Lives of Transgender People by Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin (Columbia Univ. Press, 2011) a couple of months ago. Lives is being touted as a unique and much-needed large-scale study of the identities and experiences of trans* individuals as described in their own words through an online questionnaire and qualitative email, phone, and in-person interviews. Beemyn and Rankin gathered data from 3,474 individuals via the questionnaire, and followed up with over four hundred of those respondents for more lengthy interviews. By encouraging interviewees to articulate their own identities outside of pre-determined research categories, the authors allowed their subjects to provide a rich and nuanced picture of the lived experience of being someone who experiences life outside the sex and gender binaries mainstream culture assumes are innate and largely inflexible. Most studies examining the lives of trans* people to-date, as the authors point out, have focused on the life experiences of people who identify as transsexual; an overwhelming majority of those studies focus on the experience of trans women (women assigned male sex/gender at birth). As the authors point out, this renders invisible those people who do not fall into neat, polarized gender categories (trans* or otherwise). Often, as documented in books such as Brainstorm and Sexing the Body, this stems from the research community seeking discrete identity-groups they can control and measure for difference. It also comes from researchers' own unexamined assumptions concerning sex and gender difference, assumptions which are then reinforced by the results of studies that have been designed (in part) by jettisoning the data from individuals who don't fit into the pre-determined sex and gender categories.

The Lives of Transgender People can be read, in part, as providing a model for a much different way of exploring trans* experiences -- one which honors the myriad expressions of sex and gender which the human organism manifests. "Throughout the book, we use the language of the survey participants to honor their voices and their own self-descriptions," write Rankin and Beemyn, insisting that we, as readers, pay attention to the richness of the gendered experiences described by the people who shared their stories (36). Lives seeks to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, synthesizing the data collected in a number of different ways that suggest some patterns to be found in trans* experiences, often differentiated by other variables such as age cohort, race, economic status, and so forth.  Particularly useful was the researchers discussion of gender identity and expression, given their insistence that trans* identities and experiences not be simplified the better to accommodate researchers desire for tidy data. They discuss in great detail their decision to identify four basic categories for analysis: trans men (assigned female at birth, self-identity male), trans women (assigned male at birth, self-identity female), "female to different gender" (FTDG) and "male to different gender," (MTDG) which allowed them to honor the current identities of respondents which don't fit into the mainstream system of binary gender. Further chapters discuss race, sexual orientation, and age as variables which further complicate the project of identifying any stable sense of trans* identity or experience.

The researchers, both of whom work in higher education, are particularly interested in age and generational differences as a factor, and put forward some tentative observations concerning the difference in reported experience across generations. For example, older respondents were more likely than younger ones to identify as cross-dressers, while trans men were statistically more likely to be significantly younger than trans women. They also spend a great deal of time was also spent on identifying recurring "milestones" of gender identity development as articulated by the study participants. Much trans* research to-date has focused on modeling the "stages" through which individuals go on the journey to identifying themselves as transgendered, and the authors of Lives offer the more flexible model of "milestones" (which may or may not be relevant for a particular individual) as an alternative model for understanding the process of self-realization.

I hope that in the years to come Lives will be a rich source of data for activists, theorists, and policymakers, as well as one possible model for doing research on sex and gender that allows us to collect meaningful data without depending on the binary male/female, man/woman dichotomies that continue to unhelpfully reduce the variety of human experience to the inflexible straight-jackets of innate gender difference.


first, we'd actually have to find a pro-choice politician ... [blog for choice 2012]

For previous Blog for Choice posts see 2011, 2010 and 2008. This post has also been cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness
Thanks to all the Harpies who contributed to the discussion that led to this post.
The theme for the 2012 Blog for Choice action day is "what will you do to help elect pro-choice candidates in 2012?" Which frankly is something I don't have a whole lot of energy to blog around. 

Bad feminist activist me.

I've voted Democrat in every election since I could vote, so it's not like I can make the radical decision to start voting "pro-choice." And I'm not a big political organizer, so door-to-door canvassing is pretty much out. And to be be perfectly honest, most of the politicians out there aren't speaking my language anyway. I talked with my mother on the telephone last Sunday and she asked when my partner and I were going to make plans to move to Canada. It was a joke, but only quasi in jest, since my mother and I -- though not identical in our political thinking -- share a politics that's to the radical left of the Obama administration, and certainly shares little in common with any of the Republican candidates.

So how do you go about taking action to "help elect pro-choice candidates" when, essentially, you don't feel there are any pro-choice candidates?

You work to change the culture. Which sometimes has the feeling of being that dung beetle from Microcosmos. It's a long, slow slog and you're probably never going to get the majority of folks to agree with you. At least, I know I'm not. If I woke up one morning and the majority of Americans suddenly shared my priorities for health and well-being I'd be flabbergasted, gobsmacked, and tongue-tied -- not to mention bewitched and bewildered. But, you know: Not going to happen. And I accept that -- or, at least, have learned to live with it the way one learns to live with a bum knee.

And this isn't even a question of "feminists" vs. "everyone else" 'cause it's clear that self-identified feminists are anything but 100% unified on the question of abortion, on the question of reproductive rights and justice, on the question of what "pro-choice" politicians should emphasize. When I asked Harpy readers to describe their ideal pro-choice politician, here are some of the responses I received:
  • Drahill: "The first thing I’m going to look at is whether they support policies that make it easier to be a mother... to be pro-choice, a candidate needs to support comprehensive maternity leave reform, favor WIC, favor food aid for mothers, favor comprehensive healthcare reform, favor reforming housing laws to make it easier to own a home and stay in your home, favor educational reform to make it easier for women and children to go to school, be invested in promoting preventive and mental health services… you get the idea "
  • BearDownCBears: "My fellow Americans, as of this morning I have exercised extraordinary executive privilege by dissolving the United States Congress and establishing martial law. All private insurance will be nationalized and reorganized and doctors’ medical debt will be socialized to make up for the lower compensation they will receive. Publicly funded parental leave will be instated and an abortion clinic will be available within every 100 miles."
  • baraqiel: "Pro-choice has to come with pro-the ability to make choices to be meaningful ... for example, pro-comprehensive sex ed (required in public schools, private schools, homeschooling…). Pro-education about contraception and access to contraception. Pro-enthusiastic consent."
  • Jenn_smithson: "I want a candidate who understands that the right to control my own body is the foundation of all other rights ...  Any candidate who is prochoice needs to not only understand this but needs to articulate it as well. My rights are not a bargaining chip, full stop, and I’m sick of them being treated as though they are.
  • BeckySharper: "It’s essential that we keep the church, the state, and everyone else OUT the business of policing women’s uteri."

While I won't replicate the whole conversation here, since it went to 50+ comments, the salient difference that emerged in our own little corner of the feminist blogosphere was the divide between those who focus on abortion rights qua abortion rights and those who see the issue of abortion access as part of a much larger, densely interwoven, set of issues surrounding reproduction, family formation, and human rights. This exchange captures, in a nutshell, the larger disagreement:

mischiefmanager argues that: 
Historically, the term “choice” was used by women’s advocacy groups to avoid the loaded word “abortion.” If you want to expand it to mean other things, that’s your own personal interpretation. Check the websites of pro-choice groups and you’ll see that although safety net questions are sometimes discussed, the focus of their work is on keeping abortion legal and accessible. That’s hard enough these days without bringing anything else into the equation.
to which Drahill responded:
Pro-Choice, now, is a political slogan. That does not mean that’s what pro-choice SHOULD mean. It sounds better and softer than “pro-abortion rights.” Let’s face it. Just as pro-life sounds nicer than “anti-abortion rights.” But that’s what they are, and I don’t see how you can argue otherwise. I’d really suggest you take up reading some blogs (seriously, Womanist Musings) that address pro-choice as reproductive justice. Because that is all about helping women in whatever choice they make. In reproductive justice, if a woman who wants to parent has an abortion because she fears not being able to find a place to live, the movement is regarded as having failed her. Because the movement did not fight for her choice and what she needed to exercise it. That’s why just defining pro-choice as abortion rights is easier – because once you look at reproductive justice and what it means, it’s so HUGE it can feel hopeless. But I think we still have an obligation to those women who want to parent. It’s thinking about all the women you DON’T see at the clinic and their families. 

So on the one hand, we have folks who argue that "pro-choice" equals eliminating legal barriers to reproductive care and abortion specifically. So: focus on keeping abortion legal, obstructing fetal personhood amendments, keeping Planned Parenthood and other women's health clinics open, and critiquing the misinformation campaign of Crisis Pregnancy Centers. All of this is important, obviously. Yet in my mind it stops short of what a robust "pro-choice" agenda should look like, because it does nothing to address pre-existing inequalities. Keeping abortion services legal, safe, and available across the nation is awesome and important -- but that alone doesn't ensure that those without resources or with constrained autonomy (prisoners, minors, women in the military, trans* folks, women of color, immigrants, those with limited financial resources, disabled women, queer women ... the list could go on and on) will be able to access those clinics.

We always have choices, but our ability to make meaningful choices is limited by our material circumstances, by knowledge, and by fear. Some choices are over-determined by the systems (sociocultural and material contexts) in which we live and deliberate. As Talk Birth so eloquently argues, in a recent post on birthing and informed consent:

While it may sound as if I am saying women are powerlessly buffeted about by circumstance and environment, I’m not. Theoretically, we always have the power to choose for ourselves, but by ignoring, denying, or minimizing the multiplicity of contexts in which women make “informed choices” about their births and their lives, we oversimplify the issue and turn it into a hollow catchphrase rather than a meaningful concept. 
Women’s lives and their choices are deeply embedded in a complex, multifaceted, practically infinite web of social, political, cultural, socioeconomic, religious, historical, and environmental relationships. 
And, I maintain that a choice is not a choice if it is made in a context of fear.

(via Molly @ first the egg

I'm with Drahill and others on the discussion thread, then, when I argue that to be "pro-choice" in our world can and should mean actively fostering an environment where women will be trusted to make decisions, and have the material ability to meaningfully act on the choices they make. Our material resources -- as individuals, as a society, as a globe -- are not infinite. Many people on the comment thread pointed this out, and I agree. Yet our ability to prioritize, to re-shuffle the cards and place human health, well-being, and individual agency at the top of our list of what government at its best can ensure for its citizens ... that is endless and constant. To return to the rhetoric of "choice," we -- as a society -- have chosen to prioritize certain types of activities (wars of aggression, banking, environmental plunder) over others (sustaining human and environmental well-being). I believe as a society we aren't hostage to those previous choices -- though some of the consequences will continue to ripple for generations to come. We can make new choices, and craft new priorities. 

That's what I will continue to push for in 2012: The ideas of those people -- inside and outside of the political machine -- who want us to build a future in which all human beings will be able to make meaningful choices about their lives, their families, and their futures.


live-blog: caitlin flanagan on WBUR

I got home from one of those days in which I was dashing hither and yon doing work-related stuff and found what I really wanted to do was listen to Caitlin Flanagan fulminate in front of Tom Ashbrook and the ever-articulate Irin Carmon on On Point (WBUR). Basically, I listened to the episode so you don't have to. Here's are my "live blog" responses to the conversation.

For more considered reviews of Flanagan's Girl Land see here and here, and while you're at it read Amanda Marcotte's reflections on this same interview over at Pandagon.

Update: Irin's own reflections on the interview, and Caitlin Flanagan's concern trolling of Irin's girlhood, can be found here.

1:57 - Caitlin Flanagan (CF): "Across time and culture there are certain things about [female adolescence] that are constant." Wait, what? People making claims about anything being "constant" across time and culture is a huge red flag in my book. Especially when it's something as historically situated as "adolescence" which, as historians of the family will tell you, is an invention of modernity.

2:48 - CF: "[Adolescence is an] emotionally exquisite experience." For all girls? Fess up to the fact that you're talking about yourself, not everyone. At least, I think she was talking about herself? It was confusing. The rose colored glasses were coming out big time here. And I speak as someone who was pretty happy with my life between the ages of twelve and twenty.

3:32 - But then she acknowledges that teenage/adolescent period is a twentieth century phenomenon. So she's already contradicting her argument about things being constant "across time and culture."

4:25 - CF is wishing to bring back "protective" mechanisms for girls. She keeps saying "girls" when she's actually talking about teenagers. Children are not being discussed here.

4:48 - CF talks about how teenagers today are "steeped in pornography," "sexting" and "hook-up" culture. She's using the language of moral panic here, which is particularly interesting given the recent data which suggest that the people doing the most "sexting" aren't teenagers, but adults.

5:46 - CF presents princess culture as innate girlhood, rather than culturally shaped. She should do her homework and read Peggy Orenstein's book Cinderella Ate My Daughter (or listen to this 40 minute interview) about how princesses are being relentlessly marketed to girls.

6:29 - Tom Ashbrook (TA) uses the phrase "time immemorial." Oh, Tom, please. She doesn't need help universalizing this supposed phenomenon.

6:52 - Only six minutes in and I'm already hating the erasure of boys. What about boys who are "drawn to romance"? I knew boys who loved Austen novels and who were sweet and nurturing and interested in sustaining meaningful relationships (of sexual and non-sexual kinds) throughout adolescence. It makes me sick that the only way CF can picture cross-gender relationships is to sexualize them, and the only way she can contain those scary sexualized relationships is to require them to be "dating" relationships.

7:25 - CF: "All she's thinking about is attracting the attention of other boys that she knows." So ... when teenage girls experiment with gender presentation and dressing up and sexuality, it's all about male attention? What year is it again, and what rock have you been hiding under?

7:40 - CF: "She's opened up to a world of sexual threat" ... but not joy also? Developing sexuality is going to be entirely framed by fear and threat? "It's almost not politically correct to admit that it is [threatening]." Oh kill me now. Seriously? The "politically correct" card is such a lame disclaimer to play. Way to make me stop taking anything you say after said disclaimer seriously.

8:05 - CF: "It has been through the ages" again with the universalizing. SO WRONG.

8:30 - TA asks what would be an ideal world [for "girls"] in CF's eyes, and uses nice qualifiers. Specifically asks for her opinion, not as if she's an expert. CF looking for "protection."

9:20 - She keeps circling back to the Internet. Seriously. Like it's this totally overwhelming thing we as human beings don't mediate as users.

9:45 - Are girls not capable of making their own rooms a protected space? She keeps talking about how adults have to force their daughters into using their rooms as retreats, when shouldn't the daughters themselves be making that call? My parents weren't forcing me to spend hours and hours in my room reading novels and exchanging (totally private, emotionally intense) letters (and later emails) with my closest friends. Why do parents need to enforce this, if it's what girls want? She doesn't explain this disconnect.

10:08 - CF: "The school day is so intense for them" - girls specifically? And again, if adults are able to make this space for themselves, why can't teenagers, if they need it. If CF walks away from "the Internet" when she's overwhelmed, can't she just model good self-care to her children?

10:48 - CF [about college students having mementos of childhood in their dorm rooms]: "Men in college don't have that"? On what basis do you make this assertion?? Have you looked at any young man's life recently? It makes me wonder how much you know about your own sons, because the men in my life are all over the treasured memories of their childhood. It's equal-opportunity nostalgia in my own social circle.

11:13 - CF: "There's no more dating as we knew it" and therefore girls are totally at risk. Again, I wonder where is the trust that young women will make the world the way they want it? Where is the agency? Dating was somehow this magical land of unicorns and rainbows, and this new land of (allegedly) no dating is a nightmare that is being forced on girls? I think straight women might have had something to do with the evolution of hetero courtship?

11:57 - TA acknowledges "pushback" from feminists (thanks TA!), asks is this "just life" that you're protecting girls from? Good question!

12:27 - CF talks like there's only "two schools" for raising girls/children -- either you're totally controlling or totally permissive. Her language is one of moderation, as if she's offering an alternative to all-or-nothing, as if she wants the gains of the feminist movement without the ... well, it's unclear what, but whatever it is, it's BAD THINGS ... but her word choices are all those of moral panic over SEX and girls and SEX.

12:41 - CF talks about "imperatives of male sexuality" which is such a total red flag to me. It's gender essentialism and it's bioreductive bullshit. As an example of the loaded language: girls are now "servicing boys"?! TA pushes back on her equation of "freedom" with "oral sex" (and oral sex that is about "servicing," making it sound like sex is something girls do to comply with manly sexual urges when they're forced to do so by this awful new freedom thing).

13:50 - I find myself wondering why CF things "support" for girls and young women equals "protection" and control?

15:00 - Again, she's promulgating a very extreme duality here, despite her tone of moderation: either parents "protect" their girls by limiting their girls' access to avenues of exploration, or they're pushing their (unwilling?) daughters into having wild, meaningless sex with bestial boys.

15:39 - A call-in listener introduced as Vica observes that a "dichotomy has been set up" by Flanagan, and that as an Armenian immigrant who's done cross-cultural research on women, she questions whether freedom is a bad thing. "I've had the freedom to explore," she says, observing that her mother gave her the "same sorts of freedom that she now gives my little brothers." She points to the risk of socializing women into fear, inferiority.

18:02 - Another listener, Caroline, starts out on a good note: "I've found it impossible to actually shield her... you have to talk to them about it." She argues it's important to find "talking opportunit[ies] with your daughter" ... "you have to equip them" for going out into the world. Then, she describes going through her daughter's computer history to check for porn access. What. The. Fuck. Invasion of privacy. Not okay.

20:41 - CF: "I think everything that Caroline said is fantastic" ... says all parents should be asking their daughters "what are you going to require in a boy?" (God she's so relentlessly heteronormative) ... "[Boys will do whatever it takes to get access to female companionship and ultimately female sexuality." UM WHAT? FUCK YOU. If girls don't hold high expectations, "that's what you'll end up with." Basically, if partner mistreats you, it's all your fault for not demanding better treatment. Places girls in the role of the gatekeeper. She totally needs to hook up with got on a date with Iris Krasnow.

[Irin Carmon joins the program]

23:44 - Irin Carmon (IC): "We need to talk more about how we're raising our boys and not have such a low opinion of them" ... "there's only so much you can protect girls" and so it's important to model critiquing the culture, for both girls and boys.

25:04 - IC: "I don't recognize the girl land CF describes" ... Irin's teenage years were a "fertile time" for her, recognizing that she was lucky to be in safe, supportive community of people. It was okay to talk about sex, to have Instant Messager in her room, etc.

26:17 - IC argues that the real question is "how do you create a dialogue around sexuality that's about knowledge and not shame" -- and how do we bring boys into that dialogue. I love her talking point here, and how it relentlessly calls attention to the fact that CF is relentlessly focused on policing girls' lives, even as she places the main threat for girls on the shoulders of over-sexed boys.

26: 56 - CF: "I'm the last person to demonize boys" (you smarmy snake-oil saleswoman). Yet she goes right on to say that boys will "follow cues" that girls give them (what are they, pets?).  "Boys will be thrilled with hook up culture," with "pornified culture." Like, all boys? All boys are totally interested in sex the way it's depicted in mainstream, mass-marketed porn? Why exactly do you think boys are "thrilled" with hook-up culture? Because they're led by their dicks? And what their dicks want is access to pussy 24/7? Please check your research, listen to some actual boys and men (and the researchers who listen to those boys and men) and then we'll talk. 'Cause that's not what I'm hearing. I happen to think men and boys are just as varied in their sexual desires as women, and that it's irresponsible to start any sentence with "Boys will ..." if it's going to end with a generalization about sex or relationship desires.

28:04 - IC: "I feel like you're conflating pornified culture with safe sex education." AMEN.

29:40 - TA questions CF about her argument that the shift from boy/girl dating (in her idealized past) to group activities (which makes it sound like group sex, but I think she means, like, people hanging out together in friendly ways?) hurts girls. What I'm struck by is that back in the very period she's idealizing (the 50s!), adults were concerned about the very opposite trend. The worry back in the 50s and 60s was that  teenagers were doing too much pairing off, when really they should be hanging out in groups and dating around before "going steady." Really, I wish she'd done some basic research. Like, any research. At all. Into this period she's supposedly harkening back to.

29:46 - CF on IC's adolescent boyfriends: "They didn't really treat her very well..." Oh. My. God. is she concern trolling!! Poor Irin apprently needs to be "treated nicely," to "find a way that boys would treat her kindly." It's like we're supposed to train boys like circus animals or something. Jesus H. Christ.

31:42 - IC (kicking ass, as usual): "Frankly, my adolescence was fine and so were some of the growing-up boys that I dated" ... "I feel really okay ... I feel fine about it because I was in a community of really supportive parents" ... We're not doing girls any favors "if we lock them up in their rooms without an internet connection."

33:05 TA asks CF point-blank: "Is that really the measure of a good adolescence, if you had a boyfriend in high school?" THANK YOU TA.

33:25 - IC: our job is to help teenagers to be "resilient in the face of humans hurting each other." Because sometimes people are shit even when we do everything right. Newsflash Ms. Flanagan! Women and girls (some of whom aren't that kindly themselves) can't domesticate the entire world and make sure no one ever, ever gets hurt by exuding perfect femininity. Or something.

34:55 - CF: "Talking about date rape is almost useless now because kids don't go on conventional dates"??

35:20 - IC likes TA's question about what makes a good adolescence: "I emerged feeling happy and connected and with healthy relationships" ... and while she says "date rape" as a term is problematic, it's because (duh) the qualifier makes it seem like there's gradations of rate. "What we should be talking about is sexual violence" full stop.

36:32 - IC: "My job to actively critique and push back on" the assault on women's rights. To ask "how do we send girls and boys out into the world ... with the resilience to respond" to corrosive messages about what it means to be masculine and feminine, and to be in relationship with one another?

Again, I find myself wondering where, in Flanagan's view of the world, is the trust that young people will know their own limits? Will grow and learn about themselves? Will say "no, I've had enough," or "that's not for me"? Why are parents depicted as the enforcers?

38:58 - CF: "If you're in a marriage and you're raising children that is the model they will follow." Um ... what about abusive families? What about kids who don't want their parents' marriage? What if a girl likes her dad, but actually wants a different sort of man as a sexual partner or ... gasp! ... a woman? Or both?

39: 35 - TA pushes back against CF's characterization of IC's childhood (THANK YOU). Again, CF uses loaded language like "unfettered" and "untrammeled" when talking about access to the Interwebs. "Parenting a teenager [is hard] ... now we need to be as vigilant and hardworking as when they were toddlers."

41:31 - CF: girls are asking "am I capable of being loving and loved by an adult man." ... um. hello? queer women? TA pushes back on the privilege bleeding all over this portrait of family life and CF places responsibility on the wife to keep marriage intact (I'm telling you: Flanagan needs to shack up with Krasnow and they can totally get off one one anothers' view of wifely responsibility).

42:08 - IC: CF has "nostalgic ideas about family" ... while she had a great two-parent home growing up, what "if one of my parents had happened to be abusive," or "incarcerated"? "You're setting up a value 'what do nice girls do'" as if they can create that whole world around themselves. Yet often things happen to us that are beyond our direct control.

43:48 - CF is pretty clearly blaming women for marrying jerks, arguing that we engage in "magical thinking" about how easy marriage is, and become "self-defeating" (I'm telling you: Krasnow/Flanagan is all I can see now, and I totally wish I could erase that from my brain).

44:28 - TA: "I don't know who's describing [marriage] as a crap shoot ...". I love how he's trying to be impartial, but is so clearly skeptical of Flanagan's hyperbole.

45:06 - CF: "It's a hardship to be raised without a father." And ... we're out.

Yeah, I know. It was a little like shooting fish in a barrel. But I had a glass of wine and needed to unwind for an hour. No need to thank me :).

Thankfully, no actual adolescent girls were harmed in the making of this blog post. Or boys either. Or folks who haven't decided what their gender is. I hope Flanagan's sons find their own way in the world, and learn to make up their own minds about what it means to be a guy. 'Cause frankly, their mother's picture of manhood is depressing as hell.


new fic: snogging on the verge

Tom Branson (Downton Abbey)
I have a new Downton Abbey fic up at AO3 featuring Tom Branson and an original character I made up so Tom would have a boyfriend. Hanna said if I was going to steal Sybil away from Tom and give her to Gwen, I had to write him a sweet boyfriend to fill the gap. So I have. At least, I wrote him a boyfriend. The "sweet" part is more a matter of personal opinion.

So if Sybil/Tom is not your OTP and you're looking for some Downton Abbey m/m that doesn't involve the creepy Thomas Barrow (though, okay, I admit I'm kinda hoping Doctor Clarkson sorts him out), have fun!
Title: Snogging on the VergePairing: Tom Branson/Thaddeus Miles
Rating: Teen (AO3)/PG-13
Word Count: 7,494
Summary: When a young American on a walking tour of Yorkshire twists his knee on the grounds of Downton Abbey, Tom Branson finds himself experiencing certain desires he knows are dangerous for a young man in his position.
It's part one of a three-part (thus far) story arc I'm calling "Just a Little Love Song." And it more or less fits into the 'verse I've created for Sybil and Gwen in How She Loved You.


notes on reading "the secret lives of wives"

Over the weekend, I read an advance review book from LibraryThing called The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes to Stay Married by journalist Iris Krasnow (Gotham Books, 2011). Hanna wasn't happy with me since I spent most of Saturday ranting at the book. I find this satisfying; she finds it anxiety-producing. At least when I use words like "heteronormative" and "shallow bitch."

I'll be writing a review of this book, where I try to be slightly more measured in my criticisms. You know: balancing those out with the fairly innocuous observations Krasnow makes about what it takes to maintain strong interpersonal relationships with those truly heinous arguments grounded in gender essentialist bullshit. But for now, I thought readers of the feminist librarian might be amused at the notes I took in preparation for writing said review, scrawled in the front and back cover of the book. So here they are verbatim:

Inside the front cover:

     no brownie points for
     evopsych bullshit
     gender/sex essentialism
     focus on women -- makes it women's work
              -- p. 66, p. 119, p. 135-36, p. 138, p. 202-08 HARMFUL, p. 219.
     concern trolling -- p. 37, p. 12
     "males" and "females"
     "divorce epidemic"
     "me decade"
     not getting [that] this book isn't universal!!!  
     describing physical appearance --> [ran out of room; continues below "points for" list]

points for  
     acknowledging agenda, limits [of study]
     no one-size-fits-all, to a point
     self-responsibility for happiness
     outside relationships
     aloneness = positive
     "who are you beyond Mommy?" (101)
     activity, engagement, etc. duh
     p. 198 friendship    

[no brownie points for, cont'd]
     "gay best friend" stereotype
     feminist hate-ons
     privileging marriage relationships
     not recognizing economic privilege
          -- travel, house, etc. professionals. p. 140
     negotiation isn't possible? wtf?
     all couples w/kids?? -- p. 145
     Depression-era idealization

*compare to marriage across cultures book*

Inside the back cover:

relentless heteronormativity -- relentless
good marriage = lasting marriage
marriage vs. dating, no other options
"women need marriage" O_o ... (p. 8)
"marriage = sex" O_o ... (p. 9)
better than the crazy therapy lady?
evopsych bullshit ARGH
p. 57 aloneness + self-awareness (duh)
p. 40 network of support and fulfillment (duh)
reading this book made me so grateful for my parents
any dads as primary parent??
p. 257 ARGH

gender essentialism
oppositional binary
ageism - against youth, against age

So there you have it folks. That's the raw material from whence my review will spring. Although I admit to being puzzled by a couple of these notes myself (who the heck is "the crazy therapy lady" I was thinking about??). Still, I hope you enjoyed this rare opportunity to observe the inner workings of a book review in process. It's a public service after all: I read books like this so y'all don't have to!


booknotes: post-holiday round-up

It's that time again! Time for another round-up of books I've been reading that for some reason or another haven't made it into a post-length book review. Most of these, let me be clear, deserve a full-length review. Many of them are well-researched, well-argued, or otherwise lovely reads. I just don't have the temporal time/space to write them all up. So here's everything that's fallen through the cracks in the past few months.

Corey Robin | Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford U.P., 2004) and The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford U.P., 2011). I first heard of Corey Robin thanks to an episode of Amanda Marcotte's RhRealityCheck podcast in which she interviewed Robin about The Reactionary Mind. I was impressed with what he had to say about gender and power, so I hunted up his books and got reading. Fear was the volume that came in first at the library. It's dense political history and theory, examining the theorizing and deployment of fear in the political realm from the Thomas More to Hannah Arendt and into the twenty-first century. Robin's core argument is that politicians (left and right) have positioned fear as an external threat to civil society and democracy and therefore obscured the way in which fear is deployed within our society to keep power hierarchies in place (e.g. in the workplace, in race and gender relations, through law enforcement, etc.). The Reactionary Mind is a collection of essays -- many which began as book reviews in publications like The Nation and The London Review of Books -- that explore specific reactionary thinkers. I'd recommend dipping into Robin's work with Reactionary and then moving on to Fear if you're really intrigued, since Reactionary is certainly the easier (though no less insightful) read. My favorite essay in Reactionary might just have been the one on Antonin Scalia in which he observes:
Scalia’s mission, by contrast, is to make everything come out wrong. A Scalia opinion, to borrow a phrase from Margaret Talbot, writing in the New Yorker, is ‘the jurisprudential equivalent of smashing a guitar on stage’. Scalia may have once declared the rule of law to be the law of rules – leading some to mistake him for a traditional conservative – but where others look for stabilising checks or reassuring supports, Scalia looks for exhilarating impediments and vertiginous barriers. Rules and laws make life harder, and harder is everything. 
David K. Johnson | The Lavender Scare: Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004). Following footnotes from Corey Tobin's Reactionary Mind, I stumbled across this detailed and well-constructed history of the McCarthy era purge of non-straight civil servants. Johnson's book documents the way in which fears about national loyalty and psychological fitness blended together in the Cold War era and led to a mass expulsion of queer folks from the government (often destroying careers, precipitating family fissures, and causing psychological and emotional trauma on the way by). What surprised me was the relatively relaxed attitude Johnson describes toward sexual deviance immediately prior to the 1950s, when few feared loss of their job or social ostracism for homosexual identity or behavior.

Paul Russell | The Unreal Life of Sergey Nobokov (Cleis Press, 2011). Cleis Press sent me a review copy of this densely atmospheric historical novel, which attempts to reconstruct the life of Sergey Nobokov, the obscure younger brother of novelist Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame. I admit a certain amount of dubiousness when confronted with a historical novel that attempts to piece together the life of an actual historic person -- particularly when the person in question was homosexual. The temptation for presentism (reading our own expectations onto the past) is always a danger, and often intensifies when we're talking about the act of "recovering" queer history. The novel is also forbidding in that one anticipates, from the opening pages, Nabokov's inevitable death at the hands of the Gestapo. To be honest, I've rather bogged in the middle (though I mean to go back!) just because midwinter is not really the time to be reading about the inevitable demise of a forgotten gay man under the Nazi regime.

Patricia Faith Appelbaum | Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture Between World War I and the Vietnam Era (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2009). Hanna found this one for me at the Harvard Book Store off Harvard Square. It's a meticulously researched study of pacifism during the first half of the twentieth century, focusing -- as the title suggests -- on the influence of mainline protestant culture on the ways in which pacifism was articulated and enacted by women and men across the United States (and to some extent internationally as well). I'm only up to roughly the start of the Second World War thus far, but am finding it very readable history. I'm particularly interested in her focus on material and "folk" culture as a way of practicing and passing along traditions of Protestant pacifism, even in more secular pacifist communities and activism.

Joseph Cummings | Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests That Time Forgot (Quirk Books, 2012). This early reviewer book from LibraryThing that is a lesson in "read more than the title when requesting your advance review copies." I thought the book was going to be about ten unique protests that time forget; instead, it was about ten pre-revolutionary protests about tea and import taxes. Which, okay, if your thing this might be fun. Cumm ings has an engaging narrative voice and it looks like he's done a credible amount of background research. His scant two-page bibliography is made up of secondary resources, however, and the lack of even end note citations is frustrating to those of us who like our quotations sourced!

Jeffrey Weeks | Making Sexual History (Blackwell, 2000). Following citations from Gayle Rubin's Deviations, I tracked down this retrospective anthology of British historian and theorist of sexual politics Jeffrey Weeks' essays on historical conceptions of human sexuality. This is a lively and articulate -- if somewhat theoretically dense -- collection which provides a solid picture of the work of historians of sexuality since the 1960s, and also reflects back on the work of sexologists from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the long legacy of their contributions to research and cultural perceptions of human sexuality and how it is organized. Weeks was one of the pioneering scholars to retrieve the study of sex from the realm of nature/biology (where it was assumed to be ahistorical) and asserted the importance of understanding how human sexuality itself -- not just our understanding of it -- is shaped by culture.

Christopher Turner | Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). I was only able to get through about half of this ambitious history of psychoanalyist Wilhelm Reich's work on human sexuality before the library demanded it back. However, the half that I did read was a thoroughly researched examination of Reich's approach to psychoanalysis -- one which placed orgasm at the center of both psychological and political health. Since Reich had only just arrived in America when I had to interrupt my reading, I remain dubious concerning the title's claim (that Reich precipitated the sexual revolution in the U.S.). Nevertheless, Reich's insistence that sexual pleasure was healthy and to be encouraged -- and his placement of pleasure close to the heart of humanity's essential character -- becomes central to a number of post-WWII psychoanalytic and cultural currents that I am interested in (he was connected to, among others, A.S. Neill, Fritz Perls, and Erich Fromm).

Rachel Maines | The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins, 1998). Um ... are you sensing a pattern in my recent reading yet? Pursuing research for an MHS "object of the month" essay, I checked out this slim volume on the medical treatment of women's sexuality through electromechanical technology. It appears to be the only book-length work on this subject to-date, and although I found some of her arguments about male physicians and their power to be slightly simplistic, on the whole she avoids turning this into a narrative of male physicians vs. female patients, or husbands vs. wives, and instead offers a nuanced argument about the displacement of female sexual pleasure from marital intimacy to the doctor's office due to what she terms the "androcentric model" of sex that insisted intercourse to male orgasm was sex, and women's needs (clitoral stimulation anyone?) outside of those activities were excessive and therefore a medical issue for which one sought treatment from the professionals.


booknotes: deviations

find table of contents here
For the past couple of months I've been making my way through Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Duke University Press, 2011), an anthology of writings by anthropologist and feminist theorist Gayle S. Rubin whom I'm ashamed to admit I didn't actually know anything about before I stumbled upon the advance review galleys of this book. Rubin  is a cultural anthropologist whose research delves into the history and culture of urban sexual subcultures, particularly BDSM communities. As a newly-out lesbian in the 1970s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she designed her own Women's Studies major at the University of Michigan and became active in the Women's Movement and also the Gay Liberation Movement. In the late 70s and early 80s -- in part because of her academic research into BDSM -- she drew the ire of anti-porn feminist activists for her insistence that (wait for it) not all pornographic materials are inherently degrading to women. Yeah, I know. The more I read about it, the more it seems like the early 80s must have been a really weird time to be a self-identified feminist. Not to mention one who was also a lesbian and open about her s/M desires and practices.

Deviations is arranged in chronological order, beginning with Rubin's first attempt to construct a theory of gender relations rooted in anthropological methodology -- "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," written and revised between the late 60s and early 70s and first published in 1975. It is very much an artifact of its time and to be honest I bogged in this piece for the better part of a month after joyfully burning my way through the eminently readable introduction. Perhaps recognizing the opacity of "Traffic," Rubin includes a piece reflecting back on the writing and reception of the original piece and includes it in the anthology -- something she does several times throughout the book to great effect. After "Traffic" and its contextual essay comes a much more accessible piece on the English author Renee Vivien, originally written as an introduction and afterward to a new edition of Vivien's A Woman Appeared Before Me, which is a fictionalized account of her tumultuous relationship with fellow author and outspoken lesbian-feminist Natalie Barney.

By the late 70s, Rubin was deep into the ethnographic research for her dissertation on the gay male leather bars of San Francisco, for which she received her PhD in 1994 from the University of Michigan. The majority of pieces in Deviations, therefore, wrestle not with the politics of gender or specifically lesbian-feminist history, but the politics of sexual practices, sexual subcultures, and the relationship between feminist theory and practice and human sexuality. As someone who is, like Rubin, committed to understanding the world through both a feminist and queer lens, I really appreciate her determination to remain engaged in feminist thinking and activism even as she was reviled by certain segments of the feminist movement for her "deviations" in sexual practice, and her openness to thinking about sexual subcultures that -- for many in our culture, even many self-identified feminists -- elicit feelings of disgust and generate sex panics. While the "porn wars" of the 1980s are largely a thing of the past, feminists continue to find sexuality, sexual desires, sexual practices, and sexual fantasy (whether private or shared via erotica/porn of whatever medium) incredibly difficult to speak about. Rubin calls upon us to think with greater clarity about the politics of sex, and how we police other peoples' sexual activities, many of them consensual, simply because we find them distasteful.

Particularly controversial, I imagine, are Rubin's writings on cross-generational sexual activities and children's sexuality. Coming out of the BDSM framework, Rubin foregrounds the basic ethic of consent and argues that children have just as much right to consent to sexual activities as adults. Furthermore, within the framework of 1980s anti-pornography legislation, she emphasizes the difference between fantasy/desire and reality/action (that is: depiction of non-consensual sex in the context of a fantasy does not equal non-consensual sex and shouldn't be treated in the same fashion). This leads her to speak up in defense of adults who express sexual desire for young people (but don't act on that desire), and also to suggest that not all instances of underage/overage sexual intimacy should be treated as sexual abuse or assault. Read in tandem with Rubin's insistence that we take children seriously as human beings with the right to sexual knowledge, this advocacy is clearly not a call to minimize the trauma of sexual violence (at whatever age) or a glossing over of age-related power dynamics. "The notion that sex per se is harmful to the young has been chiseled into extensive social and legal structures," she writes, "designed to insulate minors from sexual knowledge and experience" (159). Like Judith Levine in Harmful to Minors (2002), Rubin argues that our cultural insistence on keeping young people separated from sexuality and sensuality -- with a vigilance that often spills over into panic and hysteria -- does little to protect them from sexual violence and exploitation while cutting them off from the means to conduct their own (safe, consensual) sexual explorations or name and resist the violence and exploitation that may come their way. Sexting panics anyone? The Purity Myth?

Overall, I highly recommend Deviations to anyone interested in the development of feminist and sexual political theory and practice over the last forty years -- if nothing else, Rubin's bibliography has already given me a handful of other thinkers whose books and articles I wish to pursue.

Cross-posted at the corner of your eye and The Pursuit of Harpyness.


movienotes: calamity jane

Calamity Jane (Day) and Wild Bill Hickok (Keel)
Cross-posted at the corner of your eye.

When Hanna and I were visiting her folks back in December, we decided to watch the old VHS copy of Calamity Jane (1953) starring Doris Day and Howard Keel that we found in their video collection. In our defense, may I point out that a) we love making fun of crap movies, and b) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a childhood favorite of Hanna's, and c) when I was about eight the original Broadway cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman was where it was at as far as I was concerned. I was the proud owner of a vinyl record (my very first!) and would make my best girl friend at the time play Frank Butler to my Annie Oakley as we sang, "The Girl That I Marry" and "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better." To this day, I feel our relationship fell apart at least partially because she wanted a girl who was "soft and pink as a nursery" while I was more of a "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" kinda gal.

Anyway, so we decided to watch Calamity because of these things. And obviously we were anticipatory of the cringe-inducing depiction of Native Americans, the weak plot (this was no Deadwood), and to some extent the weak music and lyrics (Sammy Fain and Paul Webster are no Irving Berlin). What we didn't anticipate was the lesbian (sub)text and the total confusion in the heteroromance department.

See, here's the deal. As the film opens, Calamity Jane and Bill Hickok are pals living and working in Deadwood. They clearly see one another as besties, a situation which lasts through to the end of the film where their platonic friendship is required to morph into a romantic one in order to satisfy the demands of the marriage plot. Until the last-minute deus ex machina, however, Jane overtly professes desire for Lt. Danny Gilmarten (Philip Carey), stationed in Deadwood, and simultaneously acts out a courtship and marriage scenario with the other leading lady, Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie). Katie is a dance hall singer/stripper who Calamity Jane brings to Deadwood from Chicago to help the local saloon owner satisfy his customers. While Katie's role in the movie is very obviously scripted to teach Jane how to be feminine, their relationship plays out as a romance from the very start. When Jane goes to meet Katie backstage in Chicago, Katie first reads Jane's body language and dress as male, and reacts as if Jane is a male intruder. Even after Jane clears up the misconception, the two continue to act out a butch/femme dynamic as Jane shepherds Katie to Deadwood (protecting her from hostile Indians), defends her honor at the saloon, and invites Katie to move in with her. The two set up housekeeping and Katie invites Jane to learn how to behave like a "proper" woman. Interestingly enough, despite Jane's transformation from "one of the boys" into a feminine girl, she persists in wearing her buckskin outfit in all of the scenes not focused on her transformation -- her femininity doesn't require skirts.

The romantic cross-currents in the film are terribly confused -- in no small part because the Jane/Katie pairing follows the classic girl-civilizes-boy courtship arc, except that the two characters are both women. The two are initially at odds, but find aspects of the other to appreciate, and settle into a domestic arrangement. Obviously, however, the film-makers needed the marriage plot they'd initiated to end in heterosexual marriage. So: re-enter Hickock and Gilmarten, who come to the women's idyllic cabin in the woods to woo (you guessed it) Katie Brown. Katie, knowing Jane desires Danny, resists initial advances but accepts an invitation to a local ball on the condition that Jane be invited as Bill's date. At this point I count three romantic triangles: (1) Katie and Jane in rivalry for Danny, (2) Danny and Bill in rivalry for Katie, and (3) Bill and Jane in rivalry over Katie.

Obviously, the solution would be for them all to move to Planet O. But barring that, the scriptwriters obviously felt they needed to resolve the plot in a timely and heterosexual manner. So Katie, despite earlier protestations, takes up with Danny at the ball -- causing Jane to storm off in jealousy. Jane later confronts Katie in the midst of Katie's stage show, demanding that she leave town. Bill helps Katie make Jane look foolish (in order to teach her a lesson) and then at the eleventh hour professes his love for Jane. Jane, having resolved her jealousy by transferring her affection for Bill, rides off to collect Katie from the departing stagecoach and the two straight couples have a joint wedding just before the credits roll.

The essential confusion of the show's narrative, I feel, can be summed up in an an exchange between Bill and Jane in which Bill suggests to Jane that her rage at Katie is caused by "female thinking," which clouds her rational mind and stops her from thinking clearly. Since the ostensible thrust of the narrative to that point was to move Jane from an essentially masculine position to a feminine one (from which she can be paired with Bill), the last-minute accusation of too much femininity highlights the nonsensical nature of the plot. Only by reclaiming her active, masculine position in the narrative (riding off in her buckskin to retrieve Katie from the retreating coach), can Jane reclaim her honor and win her place by Bill's side ... even as all of the cues of the narrative put her and Katie together as a butch/femme couple.

In short, don't watch Calamity Jane for the music, the Wild West themes, or the heteroromance. Instead, watch it for the lesbian relationship hiding in plain sight. As Hanna put it, "This isn't subtext, this is just plain old text."


new blog launched: the corner of your eye

I warned you it was coming, and now it's here! Hanna and I have started a new joint review blog, the corner of your eye* , which can be found at corner-of-your-eye.blogspot.com. or via the link on the left-hand sidebar under "find me elsewhere online."

the corner of your eye
I know, I know ... like either of us have scads of free time going to waste. But none of our existing online spaces are really dedicated to arts and culture reviews per se, and we thought it might be fun to experiment with joint blogging. Really, it's pure indulgence for us both in terms of letting us opinionate about the books, movies, and television shows that occupy so much of our discretionary time (when we're not writing fan fiction or trawling the interwebs).

Our goal is to put up two posts a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I'll likely be cross-posting some content here, particularly when the creative juices are running low.

We're still tweaking the visual look of the blog, so please feel free to comment re: accessibility and all the rest.

*bonus points for anyone who can identify the allusion


e-reading: the pros and cons

this is my new favorite picture of geraldine
Welcome to 2012!

The past week has been full of reading and writing, much of which I'm planning to share with you eventually (a lot of the writing was in the form of reviews of the stuff I'd been reading -- it all gets a little circular). In the meantime, I thought I'd kick this year's worth of posts off with a few musings on that perennially-hot topic of e-books.

I want to preface this post with the disclaimer that while I prefer, on the whole, to read books analog, I am not into the doom-and-gloom prognostications of those who rend their clothes and gnash their teeth over the rise in popularity of digital reading. So while I'm presenting this in a pro/con format I remain agnostic on the general principle of e-books as a thing in the world. Basically, I'm the biblio equivalent of an omnivore: I'll read wherever, whenever, whatever, as long as it captures and holds my attention.

So: e-reading.

About six months ago, I downloaded Adobe Digital Editions in order to read advance review e-galleys of forthcoming books on my laptop. Using the interface is my first sustained interaction with "e-book" reading -- as opposed to reading online content which we're used to reading on the computer (i.e. this blog). More on that later. But reading books I'd normally read in actual physical paper-and-glue-and-ink form in digital form has given me a chance to think in a more concrete way about reading digital vs. analog texts, what I like and don't like about the experience, and where I'd love to go from here.

The Pros

  • Price. I already have a laptop, so downloading the software from Adobe incurred no additional expense. Since I'm reading e-galleys for the most part, those are also free. I have only actually purchased one e-book so far (a Laurie King's short story) but do notice that e-book versions of texts are often significantly less expensive than their analog counterparts. So, assuming one has the budget to purchase and maintain a laptop, tablet, or other e-reader device, I can see where the financial incentive to adopt e-book reading might come from. I'm also grateful for the way the low overhead of producing e-books and e-galleys has made publishers more open to providing advance review copies to bloggers and other reviewers who previously might not have been considered worth contacting.
  • Speed of Access. It's great to be able to download a galley or e-book and begin reading immediately, I have to say. If an e-version is going to get me an advance review copy of a book I'd otherwise have to wait six months to read, I'm totally down with all the other inconveniences entailed.
  • Compactness. So I don't really have any portable devices (I carry my netbook to work sometimes, but as Hanna and I walk daily the two miles to work and back and I have to carry lunch, etc., plus there might be errands to run on the way home, I usually think carefully about whether the additional 2-3 pounds of computer is worth it. But I can see the appeal of e-readers for people who want to pack 5-10 titles (or more) and have some options for their lunch-time reading. Similarly, I can see how e-readers appeal to minimalist folks who are looking to strip down their material possessions ... though I personally feel no living space is quite complete without the teetering stacks of library books and the overflowing bookcases stacked with $1 cart finds. 
  • Environmental considerations. I haven't actually looked for any sort of analysis of the "green" rating for various e-reader devices, or the cradle-to-grave environmental impact of electronic vs. analog books. However, if a compelling case could be made that e-reading was somehow less environmentally wasteful than traditional book production, it would be a point in favor of e-books.
  • Co-sleeping. The backlit screen of the laptop makes it a convenient choice for reading when Hanna wants to get to sleep before I do at night. I can cuddle up next to her and finish a chapter or read some fic without having a bedside light on. Obviously there are solutions to this problem for analog books as well, but it's a nice perk with digital reading.

The Cons

  • More time staring at a screen. I don't obsess about the number of hours a day or week I stare at a computer screen (it's 10pm and I'm blogging, for goodness sake), but during the weekdays especially when I spent 7-8 hours at work per day working heavily with computer interfaces, I resent coming home at night and remembering that the book I was in the middle of reading requires that I spend more time looking at a screen. I find I put off reading my electronic books until the weekend, and even then sometimes drag my feet.
  • Marginalia. God, I'm addicted to taking notes -- particularly in non-fiction books which I plan to review or otherwise interact with intellectually. And yes, ADE and other interfaces have highlight/comment/bookmark/sticky note functions. I AM NOT CONVINCED. I have yet to find an electronic interface that allows me to scribble notes, underline, annotate, argue with, and generally synthesize my reading experience to the same degree that a plain old pencil or ballpoint and a pack of post-it notes does. This is a serious downside (for me) with the e-reading experience. 
  • Accessing Endnotes. ADE, at least, doesn't have any sort of dynamic way to access references in a work. Again, this is largely a non-fiction problem, but I love being able to flip back and forth between end-notes and the body of the text (I love footnotes even better for ease of reference). The clumsiness of the interfaces I've encountered basically mean I avoid moving back and forth through the text in significant ways because it's difficult to get back to where you were. This leads to a thinner reading experience, since I'm interacting less with the various portions of the book and thinking less about how they're related.
  • Physical time/space experience. This is a very specific-to-me sort of complaint, but I read and relate to books in a very physical fashion. When I need to access a particular passage I remember it in a physical way -- I remember where it was located on the page, at what point in the text, etc. The book as object is an integral part to how I access the information contained within it. And I find that without that physical object, I digest and retain the information within the e-book with much more difficulty. I'm open to the possibility of re-training myself, but for now ... it's really an inadequate way for me to encounter important texts. 
  • Attention Span. I'm not into the moral panic over digital devices and how they're changing our brains in horrible ways OMG!! (I'm overdue to write a ranty post about that ...) But I do notice for myself that certain kinds of reading are much better done away from the computer and its associated distractions -- the constant compulsion to check email, check Google Reader, Twitter, etc. All of the internet reading I do is, I believe, important in its own right. But it requires a different sort of attention and interaction than book-length works of fiction and non-fiction. And reading in a digital interface cues the short-form attention span part of my brain to activate.

What I'd Love to See

So, overall, right now, I find e-reading to be a highly second-rate experience compared to analog books. I'm still more likely to tuck a print book into my bag for reading at lunch, or over coffee in a cafe, or to request a print advance review copy of a book if given the option. Even at reduced prices, I don't find e-books worth the cover price over an actual physical print book at this point -- even setting aside the worrying "who owns a book that isn't really a physical object" question such a purchase raises. Here are the improvements -- including a couple of fantastical ones -- I'd like to see when it comes to digital reading in the years to come:

  • Interactive references. Seriously. Wikipedia already does this, and I know other web interfaces as well, where the footnotes are hyperlinks or pop-out text bubbles, anything so that you can access a person's sources without scrolling to the end of the damn book and back. 
  • Better marginalia options. On the one hand, I love the speed of keypad typing but with marginalia I'm old-school and like that pencil in my hand so I can triple-underline and put in as many outraged exclamation points as I so desire. Also happy and sad faces. Any successful e-reader is going to have to allow me to doodle in the margins of my reading matter, and access said doodles at a later date in order to write those oh-so-serious reviews.
  • A screen that didn't tire my eyes. Computer screens are getting so much better, and I know the Kindle and other custom e-readers are way better at this than a simple netbook ... but as helpful as the light from the computer screen is in bed, the light from the computer screen is also a pain in the ass (or, more accurately, the eye). Half my wearyness for looking at the screen comes from the light. So obviously, the less overtly computer-like a reader screen can be, the better.
  • The ability to transform e-reading to print and back again. Obviously, there are times when e-reading is the most efficient option, and times when print is best for the situation at hand. I personally would love some sort of book-like Teselecta to come along allowing me to turn print books into e-book and digital reading matter into print depending on the most appropriate form for the occasion. I'd love, for example, to be able to turn my favorite fan fiction stories into anthologies to flip through on the T or cozy up with in bed. 
  • An object is an object is an object. There's something about books qua books that I find to be not only pleasurable on sensual level (ah! the smell and feel of a well-made book!) but also integral to the intellectual act of reading and integrating what I've read. I'm not sure how e-books are going to offer a workable alternative to my physical-object-as-intellectual-reference way of taking in and retaining knowledge, but in order for me to make the switch from primarily analog to a higher proportion of digital books, a solution will have to be presented.
Have any of you used digital readers? If so, what kinds and what have your experiences with them been? What do you love and/or hate about them? What do you find easy and/or difficult to read in digital form? Share away in comments.