Africa, African History, Apartheid, biography, Biography as Craft, Book Review, Born a Crime, Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Feminism, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Jim Henson: A Life, Jon Stewart, library card, Masculinity Studies, memoir, mothers, Politics, race, racism, Racism is not logical, Satire, sex, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, South Africa, The Daily Show, Tolstoy, Trevor Noah, Tyler Public Library, violence, What Mothers Give Their Children
I’m pretty sure my mother is using me for my library card.
Ever since I started working for the Tyler Public Library my eyes have opened to the pettiness of local government, and the pain that can sometimes be public service. The Tyler Library is a significant one: we have one of the few full time Genealogy/Local History rooms that is open full time in East Texas. Along with that we serve a wide variety of people who come in looking for books, DVDs, access to computers and the internet, and a regular series of public speaking events in which people come to listen and watch professionals talk on topics ranging from Rose growing to the future of Nuclear Arsenal Diplomacy on the international stage. The problem with the library, like almost every library I’m sure, is funding. Because only the city of Tyler’s taxes go to fund us, people who live within the county but not the city have to pay a membership fee. My reader may be wondering what this has to do with my mother or Trevor Noah’s wonderful autobiography Born a Crime. I’m sorry, I like to talk, but I’m getting to it.
My mother lives in Smith county but she lives in a small town called Noonday which barely caps 400 people. She then, like many people in Smith county, complain about the fact that their tax dollars are being taken but they still have to pay to use the library. In her defense, she understands the money situation since I’ve explained it to her, but often I have to smile and carefully explain to patrons that the county refuses to pay us and therefore we have to charge a fee to stay in the black. Few people really understand this because of the unspoken maxim that I agree with in principle: Libraries should be free.*
But my mother likes to read and I like my mother, she’s got good taste in music and pays my cell phone bill, so I decided to arrange a system in which I would check out books that she wants to read and loan them to her. The system has worked so far, but as I noted from the start I think she’s enjoying this arrangement because every time I see her she’s asking for another book.
This little anecdote though does serve a purpose because as I noted before this essay is my response to Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I didn’t know about Trevor Noah at all until he got in trouble for an offensive tweet, and to be fair that was really only because he was taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and people were looking to disrupt the institution at this supposed moment of weakness. Stewart left, Noah began, I stopped watching for a while. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, it just that he was new and I’m one of those obnoxious people who has to settle into things slowly. Still I enjoy The Daily Show and Noah himself has begun to really demonstrate that he’s made The Daily Show into his own and so I’ve become a regular watcher again, and in fact, in the last few months I’ve come to adore Trevor Noah as a comedian, and even more as a writer and Born a Crime is largely responsible.
I checked the book out from the library (my desk is literally right next to the New Books area) and read the first two chapters knowing instantly that my mother would love this book. I know it sounds ridiculous or absurd to suggest that I have anything in common with a celebrity (especially one who’s seemed to have a far more interesting and eventful life than I have), but reading these first two chapters I realized that Trevor Noah and his mother had a relationship that mirrored the relationship my mother and I have. A strange closeness that fortunately isn’t Oedipal.
I told her to read just the first two chapters.
I didn’t get the book back for a week.
Noah’s biography took me completely by surprise because I’ve read the autobiographies of comedians before, and most of them, if I’m being charitable, aren’t worth reading. It’s not that they aren’t funny, it’s just that most of them are just opportunities to track their individual development and show where they’ve come from. I know there’s merit and real humanity in such works, but the problem is too often these books are also just a chance to rap and ramble about everything and anything that comes into their heads. Noah’s book is different however, because his story chronicles not just his awkward puberty and childhood, it also tackles the issues of race, political corruption, domestic violence, crime, and poverty while still managing to be entertaining and well written. Trevor Noah’s very existence was a crime because, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, being the child of a black woman and a white man, he was a crime against the state.
Noah’s book often explores the sheer absurdity of apartheid in small segments between the chapters of the book. One passage which is one of my mother’s favorites, discusses the labeling of Chinese South Africans as black. He explains:
Apartheid, for all it’s power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean that they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same tie, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given the honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. (75).
I still can’t read this passage without cracking up. The stupidity is just mind-boggling. Then again the United States Constitution originally labeled black people as three fifths of a human being so I suppose it’s important to remember that racism is a worldly stupidity rather than just a regional one.
One of the joys of reading Noah’s biography is the fact that, as a comedian, his retelling of one of the most truly despicable institutionalized race segregationist policies never becomes dramatic, hyperbolic, or soul-crushingly depressing. Instead of levelling on and on about the atrocities of apartheid, Noah tries constantly to present the small absurdities in his life while observing how they would relate to the wider national community. And in this right, I would argue, Noah succeeds far better in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of apartheid, because while concerted political efforts were what ultimately brought down such an odious system, it’s the power of subverting the institution through laughter that a real victory is achieved.
If you can laugh at something, it’s difficult to take it too seriously.
There so many levels to Noah’s biography in terms of race. One of the most prominent is also one of the hilarious and tragic scenes in the book. Noah describes his early infancy when his mother and biological father tried to take Noah outside for activity.
Where most children are proof of their parent’s love I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d half to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens a zoo, a giant chess-board with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. (27).
This passage is funny upon first reading, but by the second or third time I’m reading it I wonder (while still laughing) the pain of not being able to even be seen in public with your child.
Before I start the maudlin crap though I really do want to acknowledge how well written this biography is. I’ve observed before that it can be difficult to find truly great biographies. A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is always the first that comes to mind, Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jo Lee Anderson comes next, Jim Henson: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Also look up his George Lucas), Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and recently I’ve begun Life by Keith Richards. This list may seem to contradict my statement before about the scarcity of truly great biographies but in fact it only reinforces it. These books are products of a careful craft (pardon the alliteration) that tries to leave the reader with a real sense of the person under discussion, and rather than try to chronicle every detail of a person’s existence, it instead tries to offer the heart and personality in all its beauty and flaws.
Reading Born a Crime I feel like I know Trevor Noah’s personality, rather than just his facts.
And if I can offer one last sentiment, what is beautiful about the book for me is how much I come to recognize that the pair of us do have one thing in common: we grew up under strong women. The impression of Born a Crime that lingers for me is how Patricia Noah helped shape Trevor into the man he became. One quote is enough to see this because I return to it over and over again:
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict upon others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped Abel had started. (262).
This passage is beautiful to me because it perfectly summarizes the home I was raised in, or at least the philosophy that governed it. Both of my parents grew up in homes where physical abuse was not controversial, it was just a common means of discipline. I was raised by parents who disagreed with that idea, who instead wanted their children to see that violence doesn’t check anything, all it does is inspire more of itself. Violence becomes a kind of cancer eating at the people who perform it and suffer from it until there’s nothing left. If anything, this passage seems like the most important in the entire book because ultimately this biography centers on Noah and his mother.
The relationships between mothers and sons can be complicated, because if men profess too much admiration or devotion to them the accusation of Oedipus complex becomes a loud prison sentence. Anyone who needs much evidence of this simply look to the “Martha” controversy of Batman Vs Superman. But mothers are important for a young man’s development because she becomes the first relationship. Mothers, the good ones anyway, teach their sons emotional strength and then eventually how to interact with the world. They teach them the proper ways to speak and act towards women. They teach them about the importance of family. They teach their sons love, and what that word really means against the supposed images and representations of it that crowd the media. This last lesson is important, the most important, because as Noah’s biography demonstrates that love is what helps develop people into the individuals they are and instills in them their ideals and moral constructions.
I had a wonderful mother who encouraged me to create and love rather than destroy. That guidance has led me to where I am today. Likewise, Noah had a loving mother who suffered and endured a pain that would break most people, but through it all endured and taught her son that essential quality.
Born a Crime isn’t just a story about racism, it’s a testament to a mother’s love for her son. And his success is only further proof that she probably deserves some kind of official “Mom of the Year” award, because you don’t get shot in the head and live through that and not receive any kind of accommodation. Spoilers.
Since writing this essay one of the library staff explained, rather effectively, that nothing in life is “free,” and in fact if you look at the way libraries work since their founding, they are most certainly not free. Books, internet access, and DVDs don’t magically appear from thin air and so libraries have to receive fuding of some kind, usually from taxes and grant funding. I’m writing this out because this attitude of “Libraries should be free” is bullshit and it needs to stop being perpetuated.
All quotes from Born a Crime were taken from the Spiegel & Grau First edition hardback copy.
For the record I don’t mind if my mother uses my library card. Shegave birth me and continues to support me financially, philosophically, emotionally, intellectually, etc., and reads whatever I write here. She also, from time to time, recommends great books. So thanks Mom, you rock. Love you.
Alice Walker, Black Sexuality, Black Woman Sexuality, Black women's narratives, Breasts, Celie and Shug, clitoris, Description of the Female Body, Everyday Use, Female Masturbation, Feminism, Hermoine Didn't Masturbate and Neither Did Jane Eyre, Homosexuality, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Masturbation, Novel, Personal Development, Poetry, Purple, race, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Sexuality of Women in Literature, The Color Purple, Women in Literature
My first thought was why the hell did it take me so long to read this wonderful book? My other thought was that the rain was probably soaking into my coffee, but momentary discomfort was worth it.
I had known about the existence of The Color Purple ever since I was in the sixth grade and had to do a book report over a biography of Steven Spielberg. I delivered my report in my dad’s Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap and I still remember being the only kid who went ten minutes over the required time. While mostly reading about the films Jurassic Park and JAWS, which tended to interest me far more than any of Spielberg’s other movies, there was a brief mention of the film The Color Purple. That was it for a few years until eventually I arrived in eleventh grade and got into American Literature. It was there that the book made another passing appearance because we read Alice Walker’s short story Everyday Use. Somewhere during the lessons on the short story there was a brief biography of Alice Walker and mention that she had published a book which was banned. When asked why the book was my teacher carefully explained that the book was about, or contained, lesbianism. Given the fact I was a teenage boy that should have been enough for me, but again, for whatever reason Miss Walker’s book remained background noise to real concerns like memorizing every episode of Family Guy and beating my friend at Smash Bros. For the record I achieved only ever the first task.
In the end my wife and tweed became the way I finally got around to reading the novel. My wife, for some accurate reason, thought I would good in tweed blazers. Being a poor man, Men’s Warehouse is out of the question and so I get most of my blazers at Goodwill which also usually has a book section. To be fair most of its crap Christian inspirational books, but sometimes you’ll find a real treasure. Having grabbed a nice blue blazer with elbow patches I spotted the novel tucked between Sarah Palins crap memoir (I can’t even remember the title) and a Chicken Soup for the Soul was a clean, crisp paperback copy of The Color Purple.
On a nice rainy day I sat out on my back porch in a fold out lawn chair with my pile of books and a cup of coffee, and in between the long periods where I would just watch the rain soak into the grass and dirt, I opened Walker’s novel and disappeared.
Walker is poet, and that’s not just a cute metaphor for her abilities as a writer, she’s actually a published poet and her prose benefits from this ability. Reading The Color Purple, even though it is written first hand as a series of letters, is like reading a novel written purely in poetry. Some of that might simply be the fact that her characters write in a southern dialect, but I believe the main reason for the beauty of the book is the fact that, the protagonist Celie, as she experiences one heartache after another, writes plainly and honestly about her emotional being so that her story becomes a song. Celie is raped by her father, essentially sold to her new husband, receives beating after beating, and eventually falls in love with a woman named Shug Avery, a jazz singer who actually defies her husband and who manages to help Celie find her own spirit and sense of self-worth.
The relationship between Celie and Shug is what lasted after reading The Color Purple for me, partly because it was a lesbian relationship. My regular reader will remember, as if I’d let them forget, that most of my reading and writing explores human sexuality, and while most of the time that is centered on sex between men, I try to balance it by reading stories of women so I’m not lop-sided. I’m not sure if that metaphor works, or if it’s a metaphor at all. Point is, while reading the novel I focused my attention on the queer relationship between Shug and Celie because it lied at the heart of her personal transformation.
Walker’s writing is still impressive for the fact that she doesn’t hold back when describing sexuality. Unlike other authors who try to veil sex beneath metonymy and color descriptions of flowers “opening,” Walker presents a woman feeling her desire in her body. In one passage Celie is watching the men watching Shug and noticing her own reaction:
All the men got they eyes glued to Shug’s bosom. I got my eyes glued there too. I feel my nipples harden under my dress. My little button sort of perk up too. Shug, I say to her in my mind, Girl, you looks like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do. (81).
This continues later on when Celie narrates the first morning after she and Shug make love:
Grady and Mr. ______ come staggering in round daybreak. Me and shug sound asleep. Her back to me, my arms round her waist. What it like? Little like sleeping with mama, only I can’t hardly remember ever sleeping with her. Little like sleeping with Nettie, only sleeping with Nettie never feel this good. It warm and cushiony, and I feel shug’s big tits flop over my arms like suds. It feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr. ______ at all. (114).
Speaking of breasts, I’ve been fortunate in my life to spend most of my life surrounded with women. There was a dark period when puberty started where I couldn’t speak with them without mumbling, drooling, and/or generally speaking in tongues, but over time I got over this. To this day I work mostly with women, and most of the people I regularly interact with are women. Because of this I’ve become aware a strange fact: women tend to describe and talk about their bodies differently than men describe them. I believe the word “duh” is appropriate after this statement. The word “suds” and “flop” demonstrate this. When women describe their breasts, either in conversation or writing, it’s almost always different than when men do it. Male writers often use pretty words like “slope” and “rise” when describing ripe, perky breasts or “bubble-boobs” if you prefer. Whereas Walker as a woman describes breasts as “suds” that “flop,” and while a male author might use such language to describe flaccid and therefore grotesque breasts, Walker still manages to present a genuine eroticism.
I don’t want this essay to be nothing but discussion of breasts, but when the opportunity arises, well, I’m still pathetically male.
Reading this brief passage I was struck by how honest Walker paints the body, and how while reading Celie seems to find some kind of happiness in her life. It’s not simply that Celie enjoys having sex with Shug, it’s that the love making and the conversations they share as women help her develop into a more mature person who is more aware of her body and what it can give her.
No passage reveals this as much an early exchange between Shug and Celie when they discuss sex with men and Shug gives Celie one of the most important gifts one woman can give to the other:
She start to laugh. Do his business, she say. Do his business. Why Miss Celie. You Make it sould like he going to the toilet on you.
That what it feel likem I say.
She stop laughin.
You never enjoy it at all? She ast, puzzle. Not even with your children daddy?
Never, I say.
Why Miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin.
What?” I ast.
Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter ad then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lots of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work.
Button? Finger and Tongue? My face hot enough to melt itself.
She say, Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it have you?
I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Them my pussy lips be black. Then inside like a wet rose.
I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash. Maybe. (77-8).
This is a long passage, but necessary because it was a moment that I had never experienced before while reading any “literary classic.” Oliver Twist never discovered the joys of self-love with his friend Master Bates (that name is real by the way, look it up). Hamlet never touched himself. And looking at other women in fiction there’s a pronounced absence of self-discovery. Jane Eyre never masturbated. Neither did Elizabeth Bennet. Neither did Jo March. And neither did Hermoine Granger. I understand that each of these women were working with different times and paradigms governing women’s body’s in literature, but looking at the literary tradition I was raised on what becomes obviously missing from it to the point of being galling is sexuality. Specifically, exploring sexuality in order to become a more well-rounded person.
Celie, from her experiences with Shug, begins to recognize her own innate strength enough to challenge her husband and discover that he has been hiding her sister’s letters from Africa from her. This discovery prompts the next wave of her emotional development, but this could never have happened if she hadn’t learned to even look at her vulva.
This last act assumes great importance to my reading largely because I’m a guy. If the reader doesn’t realize it, and I’d be terribly sad for them if they didn’t, men and women are different anatomically speaking. Because the penis is on the outside of the body boys never grow up not knowing what their genitals are or what they look like or how to navigate them. Because of this, boys eventually develop into men who are able to master their sexual exploration far easier than women. Put it simply, I never as a boy had to worry about whether I had anything down there because I had been using mine since before I could walk.
But this also creates a real ignorance about women’s anatomy and physiology. Being a boy you don’t recognize that some women struggle to find their clitoris, or that some women can go their entire lives without ever having an orgasm. Reading this passage was illuminating because it was one of the first real instances of a woman discovering her body, and it’s joys, in a real literary novel. As I noted in the previous list women like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Hermoine Granger, and Jo March were women I knew from my literary training, and while they all are wonderful characters with great personalities, they’re all, for the most part, sexless creatures.
I’m not saying that we need to read about Jane’s masturbatory habits or Hermoine seeing her vagina for the first time for a novel to be truly great. The Harry Potter series is wonderful, and Pride & Prejudice is one of the most beautiful novels in human history. But Celie’s story remains an important opportunity for women’s literature to grow and develop because it explores a new territory by introducing a real sensuality that isn’t just veiled or hidden behind pretty words.
The Color Purple is a novel that shows a woman discovering her body, and seeing her sex for the first time Celie can use words like “pussy” and “button” and still leave the reader with a feeling that they have read a beautiful passage about self-discovery. When I finished The Color Purple I realized that I had finished a beautifully written novel, but I had also read one of the few fictional works that was willing to honestly and unashamedly portray a woman’s personal discovery that her sexuality was not simply a procreative act, it could be, in the worlds of the nameless philosopher, “a bit of fun.”
Lesbianism and female masturbation are still new and developing territories in fiction, and so when a novel like Walker’s comes around which manages to explore the territory and make it beautiful is the reader’s time.
Though it should be noted that Pride & Predjudice & Vibrators should be held off until the reader’s taken the time to figure out the position Maryanne and Ginger. Google it.
All passages from The Color Purple were taken from the Harcourt Paperback copy.
While researching this article I found this small blog post which briefly explores how the lesbianism in this book helps shape Celie as a woman. Enjoy.
And, because this it the person I am, I decided to look up some articles about women, sexuality, and masturbation.
Finally, on one last note, shortly after finishing this essay I checked the Poem of the Day for PoetryFoundation.org, and I found this gem which made me think about the nature of purple and thus reflect back on Alice Waker’s beautiful novel. Hope you enjoy:
Alison Bechdel, Bechdel Test, Book Review, Comics, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Faith, Fan Culture, Fans, Feminism, Ghostbusters, graphic novel, Harbinger Vol. 1, Kate McKinnon, Kristin Wiig, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Narratives, Sandman, story, Stranger Things, Valiant, Watchmen, Zephyr
The other day a friend of mine wanted to know my feelings about the new Ghostbusters film, specifically if I wanted to see it because I was a feminist. I explained in my first response that the reason I wanted to see the film was not solely because I was a feminist, but because I love the Ghostbusters franchise period. Anything that mixes working-class mentalities with science fiction have always fascinated me, and while the characters in the original film were mostly college professors their work ethic, coupled with a desire to make a little bit of money along the way, reminded me a lot of my mom and dad who operated their own business. The film was one of a handful of Robin Williams and Bill Murry VHS tapes my parents seemed to have an unlimited supply of, and Ghostbusters was fun to watch because both Mom and Dad had memories connected to the film, and when I was younger I wanted to be like them. The film was also, let’s be fair, really fun to watch(except for the scene where Sigourney Weaver gets groped by the hands in the chair before the dog pops up, that scene freaked me out).
Looking at the new Ghostbusters movie I was compelled to see the film because, the awful looking CGI aside, the film was a Ghostbusters movie and it also sported four actresses who’s work I appreciated immensely: Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and best of all Leslie Jones. My friend understood my qualms, but argued, at length, that the film wasn’t really helping feminism. There were still other issues like wage inequality and workplace harassment, and having a lousy movie with an all-woman cast wasn’t going to actually contribute any real solutions to the problems women face.
To this I didn’t have any objections because there wasn’t anything to object to. The only argument I could make in favor of the film having an all-female cast was not so much about economic feminism, but rather cultural feminism.
The reader at some point may have heard, or come across in something they read, of something called “The Bechdel Test.” I could write out the explanation of the test, but since I adore Alison Bechdel (obsession is probably a different and far more applicable term) and relish every opportunity to show off her work I thought I would just cite the actual comic that created the test in the first place. It’s a panel from her comic series Dykes to Watch Out For:
This ten panel comic has had a tremendous impact upon film criticism, much to the annoyance of some film experts and fan boys online. The usual attack against the Bechdel Test is that it is designed to create a gynocentric film industry that seeks to eliminate men from film, and the other is that several great films fail this test while other lousy films win it. Looking at the first criticism of the test I can only laugh due to the sheer absurdity of the premise. Looking at the second complaint I’m a little more sympathetic. The problem with the Bechdel Test is that it can quickly create an eschewed perspective that if a film fails the test that it is faulty, but looking at a few films this becomes absurd: The King’s Speech, All the President’s Men, Pulp Fiction, Duck Soup, Reservoir Dogs. All of these films share the common characteristics of having largely all male or mostly male casts, but looking at the first film it won best picture in 2010. A film like Planet Terror in direct contrast, a film which involves zombies and a Go-Go dancer with a machine gun for a leg, actually passes the Bechdel test and this is the point.
I offered up an assessment to a friend of mine who works at the library and who was helping me find some books, that the Bechdel Test is not designed, or should not be designed, to shame films or suggest certain films are crap. The test is designed to challenge the individual who tries the test against most of the films they watch to see how well women are represented in said films. The test tries to help show that often the largest problem with women in cinema is not a lack of presence, it’s a lack of real representation.
Looking back to my friend and Ghostbusters this was the argument I offered up to her as to why a film like Ghostbusters did offer a vital feminist statement. It doesn’t matter if the cast is all women, what matters is that this all women cast offers up the chance to widen the representation of women in film which is often lacking. Thinking of this I thought of a book I’ve been reading lately that offers up a similar avenue of discussion, for like film, the medium of comics sometimes lacks in accurate and honest representation of female characters, particularly in the form of real body types.
I became aware of the character of Faith when my friend Michael lobbied for a Valiant book to be the book of the week of the Graphic Novel Appreciation Society. This would eventually become a joke in the group since every week his “Happy Thing” usually has something to do with Valiant, and whenever we do a Valiant book he wears a t-shirt of one of the characters from the universe. Faith appeared in Harbinger Vol 1., a book that I enjoyed but didn’t love, and it’s a testament to her character and the writing that she remains the brightest part of that graphic novel. Valiant recently got around to giving her her own book and so I finally bought it actually exited to dig into the material.
Faith is a psiot, an individual capable to manipulated the space and natural laws around her with her mind. In the case of Faith, superhero name Zephyr, secret identity name Summer, she is able to fly, create psionic shield barriers and even push people as if manipulating the wind. Think sort of a Mrs. Fantastic from Fantastic 4, only, well, interesting and interested in Dr. Who, STAR WARS, and Star Trek. The book Faith is about her settling into a journalism job in Los Angeles, where she actually works on Click Bait reviewing reality shows and celebrity scandals, where she uncovers a plot by an ancient race of aliens who despise humanity for their bland and wanton destruction of the natural environment. Did I mention the aliens were plants? Because that’s kind of important, but not really.
Much like the graphic novel Flashpoint, which I reviewed for my own site a while back, my ultimate assessment of Faith is that, while it may not be an artistic effort in the same caliber as Watchmen or The Sandman series, it is a good story that doesn’t feel weak after reading it. The metaphor a few of my friends will use is “popcorn movie” in honor of films like Star Wars and Jaws, both films that, while they may not be in the same vein as their contemporary periods greats (Taxi Driver, Deliverance, Network, Easy Rider, etc.) they do a damn good job of entertaining the audience and occasionally giving the viewer something to think about. Faith is about being a superhero, but throughout her book her love of nerd culture is the central defining character trait she possesses.
Faith is not Batman in terms of genius, Flash in terms of super speed, or even Wonder Woman in terms of making you wish there was more of Wonder Woman in Batman Vs. Superman, instead she’s just a woman who enjoys watching science fiction shows on television and trying to be a good person. Best of all the fact that she doesn’t look like Wonder Woman or Scarlet Witch or Catwoman or Harley Quinn isn’t even discussed.
There’s one page however that offers a beautiful moment, not just for Faith personally, but for the reader experiencing her story:
Faith lost both of her parents as a child, so perhaps she’s not that different from Batman, but before they passed they shared with her their love of comics, science fiction, and general nerdity, and as the last panel demonstrates that love of stories kept their memory alive in her. Growing up my parents watched Ghost Busters and Star Wars with me, and while I would watch the movies (and memorize them to impress friends and family later) I would ask my parents what a movie was like in theatres, or if they enjoyed the movie when it came out, and so these stories would assume surrounding or satellite stories that connected more emotion and meaning to me personally.
With that in hand I look back to Ghostbusters and my friend’s comments. I didn’t get a chance to see Ghostbusters in theatres (my wife adopted a puppy and my best friend started up a YouTube channel he wanted me to help him develop) but even after the film comes out and I’m disappointed or pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll stand by my argument. A lot of young men grew up watching the Ghostbuster’s movie with their mom and dads and created nostalgia around it, but so did plenty of young women who have grown up now and would like to share the film franchise with their own little girls.
A book like Faith doesn’t solve the nuanced problems facing millions of women in the workplace, nor does it resolve the amount of sexual assault that takes place in the United States Armed Services, nor does it provide a blueprint for fixing the fact that only around 50 women in the United States congress have to represent half of the nation’s population, but begin your pardon no book could do that. What Faith does is present a real woman, without gimmick or hype, who is in fact one of us: a nerd, a dork, a geek. For girls who grew up and weren’t cheerleaders, or beauty queens, or star athletes, for girls who simply wanted to hang out, play some D&D or watch Star Trek, Faith is a real hero because she does something more important than trying to solve all the problems in the world: she just tries to be a good person and have a little fun watching Stranger Things with her boyfriend.
A hero can’t save everything or everyone, but they can, in their own way, represent us in ways so that we realize we may not need heroes. We may find out we’re the hero we always wanted to be already.
While Stranger Things isn’t actually brought up in the graphic novel, in fact Faith was written at least a year before that show came out, I could still see Faith watching it because how could you not that show is amazing. Seriously. Watch it….Why aren’t you watching it? Stephen King likes it and he’s freaking Stephen King!
Academic Book, Ellen Montgomery, Feminism, George Washington, Jammer Talks About, Jane Tompkins, Joshua Jammer Smith, Literature, Novel, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860, Sentimental Novel, Susan Warner, The Life of George Washington, The Wide Wide World, Uncle Tom's Cabin, YouTube
After recording a video lecture for a former professor the bug just bit me again and I decided to film a third lecture, this time about the foundational novel The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner. I say foundational because the novel started a literary movement known as the “Sentimental Novel” which included titles such as The Lamplighter, Macaria, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These novels were often best sellers, a fact which inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne, you know that obnoxious dude you had to read Junior Year of high school, to produce the now famous quote/complain about “those damn scribbling women.” Sentimental novels were looked up with suspicion by feminists and literary critics who felt the books were often too sappy or religiously dogmatic to have any real value.
Jane Tompkins, a noted feminist scholar, would argue against this in her book Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. Tompkins argued that women authors were using the space they had to find their own identities and agency.
In The Wide, Wide World the protagonist begins reading The Life of George Washington, and exploring how Ellen comes to see Washington I try to see how Ellen uses this man to create her own sense of purpose and agency. Hope you enjoy:
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Book Review, Cloche Hat, Family Guy, Feminism, Gracie and Frankie, Harry Potter, Manipulation of women, Play, Playboy, Queer Theory, Rape, sexual Education, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Superbad, The Big Lebowski, The Penis Book, The Vagina Monologues, Vagina, vaginal imagery, Vibrators, Voldemort, Vulva, What Vaginas Smell Like, What Vaginas would Wear, Women's Bodies
If I had a vagina myself I think it would wear a cloche hat. I know it originally as a “flapper hat,” but that’s far too obscene when discussing women’s lady-bits. I’m thinking that it would have to be light gray with a solid black band and a feather or else a felt flower along the right side to really make everything pop. My vagina would never wear red or pink or maroon hats, for that would be too grotesquely obvious, and in fact the only color near those shades I would ever consider wearing would be a deep wine, and the name of that particular hue would have to be as obscure as the dye that produced it for nothing is too good for my vagina.
This is all a lovely exercise in imagination, but the conflict remains that I have a penis and penises don’t look good in hats.
Like so many things in my life I learned about the Vagina Monologues through Family Guy. If you listen close you can hear thousands of feminist’s cringe after reading that. Given what the Vagina Monologues are actually about, and given the fact that Family Guy has, in the last few seasons, done little to actually help its own reputation as being a den of refuge for sexist humor this cringe isn’t entirely unwarranted. Still the image of a woman’s waist, clad in just a pair of pink panties doing stand-up, was actually pretty funny and a great opportunity to observe the real originality of the early seasons of the show. Whether Family Guy is sexist or not is for the YouTube comment sections, the point is watching that show exposed me first to the idea that The Vagina Monologues was a performance that had something to do with Vaginas and, most assuredly, feminism in some form or capacity.
On that same note before actually sitting down to read the book I had never considered how the smell of vaginas could actually play a role in how a person felt about their own. Likewise, it was a revelatory experience reading the names of various types of clothes women would wear, or dress, their vagina in if they got the chance. Vaginas, and here my maleness really shines, were just internal body parts for women that had to do with sex and childbirth. In my defense, growing up in East Texas I rarely heard the word at all, and in fact actually saying the word aloud was like muttering the name of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, yet another famous V word that really needs to be spoken aloud so that we as a society can eliminate the fear that surrounds it.
Voldemort, I’m talking, writing, about Voldemort. And vaginas.
Eve Ensler, who is the main performer and writer (really compiler) of The Vagina Monologues has a section where she reads just the smells women have offered for vaginas, either their own or others and I have to list out a few because they range from beautiful to morbid to hysterical:
Earth, Wet garbage, God, Water, A Brand-new Morning, Depth, Sweet Ginger, Depends, Me, No Smell, Pineapple, Paloma Picasso, Roses, Yummy candy, Somewhere between fish and lilacs, Peaches, the woods, Strawberry-kiwi tea, Fish, cheese, ocean, sexy, a song, the beginning. (93-95).
She also provides several lists throughout the Monologues and I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the list of clothes women provided when asked, “If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?”:
A beret, a leather jacket, mink, a pink boa, jeans, a male tuxedo, emeralds, an evening gown, Armani only see-through black underwear, Sequins, Something machine washable, Angora, a red bow, a leopard Hat, a silk kimono, glasses, sweatpants, An electrical shock device to keep unwanted strangers away, a pinafore, a slicker. (15-17).
I’m sure if I read that out loud to my wife she would appreciate the “electrical shock device” but that’s just because she would, if it were possible, be a supervillain that destroyed people for fun. As for myself, like I said above, my vagina would wear a cloche hat and look fabulous while doing so.
These lists though are important to read and listen to, principally because they do not come from just one woman’s imagination. The Vagina Monologues is not so much an original play, as it is the readings of various testimonies of women from all walks of life. Ensler has made a career talking to women and hearing their stories and she repeats their stories for audiences so that they hear from a woman in her 80s who had never even seen her vagina, a six year old girl who says her vagina would smell like snowflakes, survivors of rape-camps during the war and genocide in Bosnia, lesbians and their sexuality, women menstruating, a woman who hated her vagina until she met a man who loved it, a woman who had an orgasm once during her teens and the resulting “flood” embarrassed her too much to worry or think about it for almost 40 years, and the stories could literally fill volumes from that point on.
My reader may interrupt and ask why a whole book is really necessary when talking about Vaginas, but to this complaint I can offer only contempt or pity. You see the most popular essay I have ever written was about dicks. Big black dicks to be precise. Almost every day I pull up White Tower Musings and see that some other person has typed in some charming assortment of words involving “penis,” “black,” “girls fucked,” and “Mandingo.” There is a near constant worship and fascination with penises, which is ironic when you remember the fact that people will seemingly do everything they can to talk about penises without actually saying the words penis. If there is a paranoia or embarrassment with acknowledging vaginas in our culture, there is a dramatic and sometimes violent fear or disgust of the vagina.
Two cultural references probably give better examples than I could. The first is from the movie Superbad. Jonah Hill is defending his free use of pornography and when the issue of penetration comes up he has a line that’s revealing and truly pathetic.
Evan: You could always subscribe to a site like Perfect Ten. I mean that could be anything, it could be a bowling site.
Seth: Yeah, but it doesn’t actually show dick going in which is a huge concern.
Evan: Right, I didn’t realize that.
Seth: Besides, have you ever seen a vagina by itself?
Seth: [shakes his head] Not for me.
Likewise in the movie The Big Lebowski, Julian Moore plays an artist who is probably the exact image of feminism every anti-feminist thinks about when they masturbate to how much they hate feminism. She introduces herself to The Dude before mentioning a particular quality about her art.
Maude Lebowski: Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?
The Dude: Uh, is that what this is a picture of?
Maude Lebowski: In a sense, yes. My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.
The Dude: Oh yeah?
Maude Lebowski: Yes, they don’t like hearing it and find it difficult to say whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his dick or his rod or his Johnson.
The Dude: Johnson?
These two impressions are just microcosms of the larger issue which is that people are often encouraged to ignore and feel repulsed by vaginas at the same time they’re taught to love and adore them. One example of the book provides a beautiful, in every sense of the term, demonstration of this when she interviews a group of senior women:
I interviewed a group of women between the ages of sixty-fie and seventy-five. These interviews were the most poignant of all, possibly because many of the women had never had a vagina interview before. Unfortunately, most of the women in this age group had very little conscious relationship to their vaginas. I felt terribly lucky to have grown up in the feminist era. One women who was seventy-two had never even seen her vagina. She had only touched herself when she was washing in the shower, but never with conscious intention. She had never had an orgasm. At seventy-two she went into therapy, and with encouragement of her therapist, she went home one afternoon by herself, lit some candles, took a bath, played some comforting music, and discovered her vagina. She said it took her over an hour, because she was arthritic by then, but when she finally found her clitoris, she said, she cried. This monologue is for her. (23-4).
From here if my contester has any other objections I’m afraid they’re going to have to leave them at the door, because after this story The Vagina Monologues aren’t just relevant they’re more important than ever. It’s important that men and women, especially from previous generations to realize, that sexuality is not limited to youth. For my own part I learned this lesson by reading Ensler’s play, but also from the show Gracie and Frankie. Originally when the show began I wanted to watch it because I loved Martin Sheen in West Wing and growing up Dad would often let me watch Law & Order where Sam Watterson was always the most interesting part of the “law” slot. The show is about two couples and Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play the wives who find out over dinner that their husbands have been having an affair for close to forty years. Gracie and Frankie, who at first hate each other, begin to live together and so the show follows them as they try to figure out what’s next and where to go after the life you’ve built suddenly stops. The end of the last episode of season two brought the issue of elderly women masturbating however because Frankie receives a vibrator as a gift (I think it’s a Hitachi wand) and she sprains her wrist.
I sound painfully virginal when I write this out, but I didn’t think women over a certain age masturbated. Even if I did, I just didn’t really consider it because being a young man masturbation is a far more personal experience and you usually don’t think about other people masturbating while you’re masturbating. The attitude is, sexist as it may be: of course men masturbate, but why would a woman?
Perhaps this demonstration of masculine solipsism is great Segway into lesbianism.
Ensler interviewed several lesbians, but one in particular came back to the show and told her she hadn’t quite got it right and so Ensler tried again.
“As a lesbian,” she said, “I need you to start from a lesbian-centered place, not framed within a heterosexual context. I did not desire women, for example, because I disliked men. Men weren’t even part of the equation.” She said, “You need to talk about entering into vaginas. You can’t talk about lesbian sex without doing this.
“For example,” she said. “I’m having sex with a woman. She’s inside me. I’m inside me. Fucking myself together with her. There are four fingers inside me; two are hers, two are mine.” (115).
Once again I must profess my ignorance. Being a bisexual man, and former straight man, one is often exposed to “lesbianism” via pornography. This unfortunately perpetuates a bad label because, as boys grow up with the internet as I did, there is cultivated the idea that lesbians are fluid in their sexuality, open and available to men. This is obviously bullshit, but unfortunately nobody teaches you that. Because schools in the United States often cower beneath the might of outraged parents or religiously funded institutions, real healthy sexual education is often a garage enterprise, with the odd sex-ed teacher showing up with condoms and the eventual abused banana. My point is simply this passage was an excellent reminder that lesbianism is misunderstood by many men because no one bothers to teach them that lesbians don’t hate men, they just aren’t part of the equation.
In one of the more powerful portions of the book Ensler discusses her experience interviewing women who survived the “rape-Camps” of Bosnia. The break-up of the former country of Yugoslavia created a political cluster-fuck resulting in an ethnic cleansing and apparently between the bouts of murder a few soldiers established a systemized unit for the consistent rape of women.
I should forewarn my reader that this can be a little rough:
Not since the soldiers put a long thick rifle inside me. So cold, the steel rod canceling my heart. Don’t know whether they’re going to fire it or shove it through my spinning brain. Six of them, monstrous doctors with black masks shoving bottles up me too. There were sticks and the end of a broom.
Not since I heard the skin tear and made lemon screeching sounds, not since a piece of my vagina came off in my hand, a part of the lip, now one side is completely gone. (63).
Ensler’s recordings here serve a historical and political purpose, but I find that simply writing these stories down is a profoundly human act. It’s also a reminder that I lack a great strength because simply typing them out I had to stop.
I had to stop and cry again. Close to 2000 women were impregnated as a result of rape, because of these camps.
But lest I succumb to the morbid conclusion Ensler notes what The Vagina Monologues mean for her later on:
This is my favorite part about traveling with the work. I get to heat the truly amazing stories. They are told so simply, so matter-of-factly. I am always reminded how extraordinary women’s lives are, and how profound. And I am reminded how isolated women are, and how oppressed they often become in their isolation. How few people they have ever told of their suffering and confusion. How much shame there is surrounding all this. How crucial it is for women to tell their stories, to share them with other people, how our survival as women depends on this dialogue. (98).
I hear the complaint immediately. My reader will contest; this is nothing but typical feminist tripe. Why isn’t there a Penis Monologues? Why isn’t there a show where a man reads testimonies by men about their penises and the funny or sad or terrifying stories about their penises? Why should I care about vaginas?
There’s a problem with this argument and it reeks of bullshit. The contester who makes this argument is often self-serving because they are lazy. If the critic who makes this charge is truly serious and is legitimately concerned about the absence of a Penis Monologues then he should stop complaining and actually do something about. Quit your job, start asking men about their dicks, start recording the stories that they tell, start booking gigs, and make The Penis Monologues a thing. But of course they won’t, because it’s as I said before, the critic who suggests the Vagina Monologues are self-serving feminist tripe are themselves just pedantic cowards who need to feel special shitting on someone else’s good time rather than going out and making something of their own.
My animosity aside, there is tremendous importance to The Vagina Monologues as a performance, but for my own part as a written document. Not everyone will be able to see Ensler’s show. Not everyone will be able to meet her and tell her their story or listen to the testimony of other women. The chance to hear the stories is where everything comes full circle. “The Battle of the Sexes” is an unfortunate lingering marketing ploy that, beneath the layers of bullshit reveals an almost mythic truth, which is that men and women constitute their own communities. Calling The Vagina Monologues feminism is of course fair, but it’s also limiting for at stake is not just whether women are allowed to talk about their genitals as much as men. The Vagina Monologues are the community of women recognizing one another, recognizing their differences, and at the same time finding themselves unified by the very fact they each possess the same, and at the same time not so same, set of genitals. Each woman forms a relationship with her vagina the same way a man does with his penis, and by having a venue from which to talk about their relationship women are able to find one another.
And at first it will just be about the differences but then the similarities. Women who were abused, women who are lesbians, women who never found their vaginas and perhaps still haven’t, these connections and differences make the Vagina something more than a place where babies go in and out, it makes them a symbolic totem from which women can find one another as individuals, as women, and feel connected to someone else.
Ensler ends her introduction with a statement that is almost a manifesto:
In order for the human race to continue, women must be safe and empowered. It’s an obvious idea, but like a vagina, it needs great attention and love in order to be revealed. (xxxvi).
One of the best teachers I ever had was a woman, and during one of her lectures (I think it was during Jane Eyre) she told us that consistently it has been observed that the way societies remain advanced is by educating women. Education is a frightening activity, and requires dedication for it often a tedious exercise. Most of all however, it requires real courage that comes from inner strength.
A book like The Vagina Monologues is vital, not simply because it’s a wonderful feminist document, but because it affords women, as well as men, to examine the way we as a society and culture view vaginas, how we treat people who have them. Rather than hiding them, or being disgusted by them, we should at least have the courage to at least talk about them. Even if we’re uncomfortable, even if we’re scared, and even if we’re simply apathetic, we should still try and find the effort to ask a few simple questions about them and listen to what the other has to say. These little questions matter, because they encourage reflection.
They also make me reevaluate the cloche hat, but damn if nothing else looks good on my vagina. And sun hats are just so blasé.
For my own part, I didn’t get a chance to work it into the article. but here’s my vagina story.
For my own part, though I don’t have one myself, vaginas have always been a mystery. When I was five years old I had the nasty habit of going through my father’s stuff. Usually his desk because he has nice pens and pencils. One day, and I’ve never forgotten it, I was looking through his drawers, shortly after he’d told me not to, and when I opened one of them I saw a naked woman resting against an old aluminum radiator. This was my first Playboy magazine. Boys are supposed to go through a “latency period,” a period of life when “girls are gross” and one forms homo-social bonds with other boys. I never had that. My first memory ever was a girl, and looking at the girl on the magazine I felt an overwhelming urge to be “close” somehow. I knew it was bad looking at this, but I stole it under my shirt and snuck off to my room. Once the door was closed I opened the magazine and studied each picture. It was a collection of centerfolds from the late 90s to the original founding of the magazine. There were lots of beautiful women in all manner of poses, and while the breasts were nice to look at what I’ve never been able to let go of is the impression of seeing a woman’s vulva and pubic hair. I didn’t know what a vagina, a vulva, or pubic hair was, but I did know one thing for certain: I liked it.
I would eventually steal this same magazine over and over again through the years until I found the internet, but those women were my first exposure to vaginas. I may have come to find Playboy a rather repulsive institution over the years, but I can never take away that first moment when I realized that women were different and my interest in them seemingly doubled over night.
This is my vagina story.
I found this Daily Show Meme a few years back and I’ve been holding onto it hoping to find a proper place for it. I hope you enjoy, and also allow to reflect on the fact that a woman using the word vagina in a public debate on abortion was barred from speaking. Let that sit in and then reflect on how American culture handles, or doesn’t handle, vaginas in discourse.
I’ve discussed vaginas a lot in this essay and I’ve used a lot of images that are reminiscent of vaginas, or refer to vaginas, or act as pseudo-vaginas, but like The Penis Book before it would be a mistake to be coy about this, so below is an anatomical rendering of a human vagina. No jokes. No funny. Just what it is. And in fact, if you pay attention, this isn’t a vagina at all, this is a vulva, a word which, when often spoken aloud, makes people either giggle, roll their eyes, or become righteously offended.
And that’s the point. Vulva and Vagina are words, medical terms, and we can’t even say the word without either giggling or else feeling repulsed. It’s just a part of the human body and the healthy attitude isn’t to fear it, but to acknowledge it, because the alternative isn’t really working in anyone’s best interest.
Au Revoir Mes Enfants, Ayatollah Khomeini, Azar Nafisi, biography, Book Review, Breaking Bad, Comics, Education, Feminism, Girls Education, Islam, Lolita, Malala Yousafzai, Marjane Satrapi, Muslim Women, Pakistan, Persepolis, Politics, Public Education, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, The Girl Who Was Shot by the Taliban, The Washington Post, Ziauddin Yousafzai
Two of my co-workers in the Writing Center had a code. I use the word code because the English language is poor and I don’t have any other word for inside reference between two people who share a friendship or relationship. The code was simple. B would usually complain that she was tired or anxious and didn’t feel up to going to class that day, and so she thought about going out to grab some food instead. S, her friend, would look at her and utter one word: Malala. Upon utterance of said word B would groan and usually say “you’re right, you’re right.” At this point S didn’t necessary have to continue for often the code word Malala would be enough to remind B or her responsibility as a student, but on occasion she would follow the code with “what would Malala do B? Malala wanted to go to school.” B would usually tell S to shut the fuck up, but she would still smile, nod, and eventually go ahead and go to class.
This may at first sound like a bad parody of stereotypical white women or a sketch you might see on Amy Schumer, but my co-workers were genuine in their affection and adoration of Malala, and this affection demonstrated the influence of the woman who, while I had yet to actually read her book, I still respected tremendously for her passion and mission in life which was to help girls all across the world receive access to an education. My little sister, who happened to be friends with B and S, which I just realized makes my entire opening sound like a bluff, would usually do nothing but sing Malala’s praises and often point to her copy of I am Malala and utter the same phrase over and over again: “you need to read that book.” Much like people who told me that I needed to watch Breaking Bad, I trusted them and fully recognized that the book was not only worth my time but would be enormously satisfying, but for whatever reason I decided to hold off. Hype can be a deterrent as much as it can be a help and so I waited till sometime after finishing Breaking Bad before I actually picked up Malala’s book and read it.
I’ll begin by noting that there was a pronounced lack of meth, but I suppose that was the post-afterglow of finishing Breaking Bad, and now I’ll shut the hell up about Breaking Bad and give Malala the attention she deserves. Though you should definitely get around to watching Breaking Bad when you get the chance.
Malala Yousafzai was fifteen when she was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban. She and a group of students were on their way to school when a squad stopped the truck, demanded to see her, and when she openly admitted to her identity she was shot. She managed to receive proper medical care before she and her family received political asylum in England where she was given expert medical aid and from there began a new career as quite possibly the most important feminists since Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan. Men, women, and children the world over flocked to her giving up their prayers, thoughts, money, and time so that she might become well, and in the mass rhetoric which surrounded the story of Malala an important figure was largely cut out of the picture: her father.
I Am Malala is a book about Yousafzai’s life, but I was surprised when I was reading the book to discover how much of the actual memoir was not actually about Malala but about her father Ziauddin Yousafzai.
She describes in one passage her villages reaction to The Satanic Verses and the Fatwah.
My father’s college held a heated debate in a packed room. Many students argued that the book should be banned and burned and the fatwa upheld. My father also saw the book as offensive to Islam but believes strongly in freedom of speech. “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book,” he suggested. He ended by asking in a thundering voice my grandfather would have been proud of, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam!” (46).
This passage immediately struck me because I have just such a parent. It’s almost laughable now that people were, and still are in some small pockets of the United States, outraged by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. As the series was continually published this fervor over young children performing magic in a seemingly religious-absent world only grew and book burnings were a popular spectacle on the evening news. In my own state and county, I remember hearing whispers of this mysterious book Harry Potter, and one evening the local news even interviewed a man who spoke to a reporter honestly when he said he would refuse to let his children read the book lest they become enticed by devil worship and witchcraft. There was passion all over Texas about Harry Potter and in the midst of the ballyhoo my mother, being the amazing woman that she is, looked at me and said, “Why don’t we actually buy the book, read it, and then decide for ourselves whether the book is evil or not?”
Like Malala, I was blessed with a rational level headed parent who taught me the most important lesson of my life, and from there every summer until The Deathly Hallows was published, my mother would buy the new Harry Potter book and read it to us. Malala’s story is often the story of her father, for while Malala spends time narrating the details of her life, the dramas that take place between her and her school chums and family and friends, there is a great deal of attention payed to her father, specifically his efforts to build a girl’s school.
While Yousafzai’s struggles tend to occupy a significant amount of the book, Malala’s memoir is just as much a reflection on her cultures, sometimes noting the detrimental aspects it had on its people particularly women:
I am very proud to be a Pashtun, but sometimes I think out code of conduct has a lot to answer for, particularly where the treatment of women is concerned. A woman named Shahida who worked for us ad had three small daughters told me that when she was only ten years old her father had sold her to an old man who already had a wife but wanted a younger one. When girls disappeared it was not always because they had been married off. (66).
She goes on to note:
We have another custom called swara by which a girl can be given to another tribe to resolve a feud. It is officially banned but still continues. In our village there was a widow called Soraya who married a widower from another clan which had a feud with her family. Nobody can marry a widow without the permission of her family. When Soraya’s family found out about the union they were furious. They threatened the widower’s family until a Jirga of village elders was called to resolve the dispute. The jirge decided that the widower’s family should be punished by handing over their most beautiful girl to be married to the least eligible man of the rival clan. The boy was a good-for-nothing, so poor that the girl’s father had to pay all their expenses. Why should a girl’s life be ruined to settle a dispute she had nothing to do with? (67).
A fair question, though I note the irony in the sentence for in a few years Malala herself would become just such a victim, not in a local domestic dispute, but in fact a philosophical and multi-national conflict. Since September 11th, an event which she actually describes the perspective in her home country, the United States has undergone a profound paradigm shift in terms of foreign policy and this has influenced seemingly every aspect of society. Looking over just a few recent contemporary events is enough to see this, though perhaps the best example is the Muhammed Cartoon contest that took place in Garland, Texas last year. The coordinator of the events, a woman by the name of Pamella Geller, continues to defend her position and action of hosting such an event because for her it was a reaffirmation of American civil liberties, rather than a baiting action against Muslims. I wish I could say events like this were few and far between, but since that wretched day(and even before it) this has only been the most recent and most publicized example. It’s not uncommon to read or hear of Church gatherings in the United States where copies of the Quran are burned to mass applause. Baiting and protests of Mosques is not uncommon, and the other day I even read of an instructional comic strip about helping people suffering from public instances of racism. It’s telling that the young woman in the cartoon who plays the recipient of the abused is in fact a Muslim woman. While this obvious reactionary behavior has manifested in my country, a nation that prides itself in its rhetoric of being open minded and accepting of all people, I’ve observed as well a pernicious rhetoric:
Muslim women and girls need to be saved from the despicable society and culture which persecutes them without impunity.
The Reader may object instantly, wondering if I am about to negate the testimony and actual film evidence that women in Muslim societies tend to suffer under patriarchy and bullshit sexism. I am not. Malala herself notes in the book that young women in her society tend to suffer greatly from fundamentalist Islam, and she’s not the only one.
Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir Persepolis came into my life when my little sister showed me the film Au Revoir Mes Enfants. It’s a French film; a period piece about a boy’s school operated by priests during World War II where two young boys meet and become friends before it’s discovered that one of them is Jewish. Before the film even began a black and white advertisement came on in which a woman was singing along to the song Eye of the Tiger in Arabic, and when the title Persepolis followed I knew that I had to see it. The film in turn eventually led me to the graphic novel. Persepolis as a book is not just an autobiography of a woman living during 1979, for it moves past this period into the reverberations of the war and way life changed for individual people living in Iran at this time.
Perhaps the best panel, in my estimation, is the one that explains the rise of “the veil” and Satrapi’s attitude towards it:
Like Satrapi’s memoir, the book Reading Lolita in Tehran explores this repressive environment. I discovered this book about the same time that I found Persepolis, though to be honest, I can’t remember how that book came into my life. All at once it was there and I was reading the book and enjoying it tremendously and not only for the fact that it gave me yet another argument to employ when defending the novel Lolita from half-assed critics. The book is written as a kind of memoir by Azar Nafisi about a secret book club she formed with a group of students that she taught at Tehran university. The book is divided into four main chapters with smaller sub-chapters, each main chapter is centralized around one particular author. This division, which I note follows the same rhetorical pattern as Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, allows for Nafisi to construct her own personal narrative of the events around her while she and the group of all female students discuss the works. The first chapter begins after the new regime of Ayatollah Khomeini has assumed power and Nafisi notes her personal reaction:
Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation was subservient to politics and subject to arbitrary rules. Always, the joy of teaching was marred by diversions and considerations forced on us by the regime—how well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one’s work but the color of one’s lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair? Could one really concentrate on one’s job when what preoccupied the faculty was how to excise the word wine from a Hemingway story, when they decided not to teach Bronte because she appeared to condone adultery. (10-11).
The idea that totalitarian repression dwells on the superficial rather than the substantial isn’t anything new and Satrapi herself presents just such a moment of this idiocy:
Both of these books provide enough first hand testimony to make the argument that fundamentalist Islam, when combined with unfettered political power, is nothing but a repressive totalitarian madhouse where murder, rape, sexism, and torture are allowed free reign, but it’s important to recognize that these elements are only one element in these women’s lives. True they may steer the direction their lives and mundane actions take, but in the second half of Persepolis Satrapi notes that really is but one answer to this oppression of the individual:
All of these books speak to the fact that Muslim women don’t need to be “saved,” they need to be afforded opportunity to make their life whatever they want it to be. The attitude that Westerners can “save” Muslim women from their homelands reeks of White Savior Complex and a desire to appear morally and intellectually superior, when the evidence is clear that Muslim women can stand as intellectual equals alongside Western women.
Malala herself says this outright when she writes:
But I said, “Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow.” Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human. (162).
Human is a nice touch there. I wish I had written that sentence. My admiration for Malala’s diction here is really just to point out the most important facet of I am Malala, for while the world took comfort in the fact that Malala had survived the ruthlessness of the Taliban and enjoyed telling her story to show everyone that terrorism is bad, the real woman Malala appeared in the pages she had written I came to know.
I am Malala is not just a book about damning terrorism because the book is about more than that. It’s about demonstrating the idea that education is fundamental to the success and health of civilization. After Malala is shot, and she describes the political drama that created a conflict in ensuring she survived, she talks about her attacker in such a way that is admirable and almost unbelievable:
I felt nothing, maybe just a bit satisfied. “So they did it.” My only regret was that I hadn’t had a chance to speak to them before they shot me. Now they’d never hear what I had to say. I didn’t even think a single bad thought about the man who shot me—I had no thoughts of revenge—I just wanted to go back to Swat. I wanted to go home. (282).
Revenge is rooted in impulse in the human species and so when we are slighted, offended, hurt, or damaged by others there is an initial impulse to bring harm to someone else, to validate the pain one has experienced. That’s why Malala’s reaction to be shot in the head is almost unbelievable. But in fact it demonstrates the very idea that courses its way through the body of this memoir and that is that education can lift people from the base impulse and remind them of their own humanity and find reason. Education is what can alter the course of a life, and looking to my own experience I know this is just the case. My parents reading to me every night before bed, buying me books, paying for my education; it was these gifts that helped me become the person I am.
Education also reminds me of the dangers of stereotyping. About a year ago the graphic novel book club I’m a part of read the new Ms. Marvel comic book in which the main character was a young Muslim woman. The series was beautifully drawn, and the characters were fun to read and learn about. When it came time to give our opinions most everyone at the table agreed the book was charming and enjoyable, but one of my friends explained that he couldn’t enjoy it. His argument was that the characters were Muslims, people like ISIS who were killing Americans and from there the people at the table began either to stare at the table or try to mumble under their breath. I interrupted him, asking about the character’s costume and the scene was averted, but that moment lives on. Terrorists like the Talbian, and ISIS, and Hezbollah, have come to be the faces of Islam rather than the exceptions, and this is conflict because this creates the idea that all Muslims are despicable repressed psychopaths.
I am Malala challenges this position. Evil individuals will always exist in human society, and while some will seek educations and use what they learn to harm their fellow human beings, most will spurn the idea of learning because it is far easier to squeeze a trigger and kill someone. Likewise, the survivors of evil run the similar trap of becoming the very forces they despise, for revenge, or the desire for it, is an easy impulse that can story good people. Malala Yousafzai is an extraordinary young woman because she has faced such a force, suffered for her bravery and integrity, and written her narrative to inspire others. Education is a powerful institution because it can revolutionize the way people live their life.
In a later passage, before her family leaves Pakistan, there is a brief moment that reveals the character of Malala:
When I heard they would be in Birmingham in two days, I had only one request. “Bring my school bag,” I pleaded to my father. “If you can’t go to Swat to fetch it, no matter—buy new books for me, because in March it’s my board examination.” Of course I wanted to come first in class. I especially wanted my physics book because physics is difficult for me, and I needed to practice numericals, as my math is not so good and they are hard for me to solve.
I thought I’d be back home by November. (285).
There is a sweet charm in this, but there’s also room for inspiration. Malala is a girl, not an idealistic hero, just a girl who wants to learn. Some would try to make her into some kind of icon, and in many ways she is, but her memoir serves the function of balancing this public icon with the real living breathing young woman who is driven by a passion to discover, succeed, and learn and in turn take what she has acquired in knowledge and ensure that other young women have the same opportunity. Too often the stories of the Middle East are tragedies, but in the case of I am Malala, there is a narrative of hope and determination.
A book of this caliber is sure to leave its mark on society. B. and S. being my first and final example it’s clear already that I am Malala has done just that.
I’ve mentioned Breaking Bad throughout this essay but only because it became a running gag and also because I really haven’t seen a television show that has left me so satisfied apart maybe from Stranger Things on Netflix. My constant reference to it is in some small way a subconscious effort to indicate that Malala’s book is tied to greatness. One final Breaking Bad reference:
I like moments in which personality of people appears, rather than the ideals people want them to be. This can manifest sometimes in character failings, and other times as little eccentricities. Whether it’s her love of the TV show Ugly betty or her loves of books, Malala appears throughout her memoir as a real human being and one passage which I didn’t get a chance to incorporate reveals this:
I liked doing my hair in different styles and would spend ages in the bathroom in front of the mirror trying out looks I had seen in movies. Until I was eight or nine my mother used to cut my hair short like my brothers’ because of lice and also make it easier to wash and brush, as it would get messed up under my shawl. But finally, I had persuaded her to let me grow it to my shoulders. Unlike Moniba’s, which is straight, my hair is wavy, and I liked to twist it into curls or tie it into plaits. “What are you doing in there pisho? my mother would shout. “Out guests need the bathroom and everyone is having to wait for you.” (145).
While I was touching up this essay I found this article from The Washington Post about I Am Malala. Hope you enjoy:
Academic Book, animation, Be Wherever You Are, Bisexuality, Cartoons, Changes, Chemical Bonds, Crystal Gems, David Bowie, family, Feminism, Fusion, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, Garnet, Homosexuality, Jack Halberstam, Lesbianism, Mrs. Doubtfire, Nuclear Family Unit, pearl, Queer, Queer Theory, Queer Women, Relationships, Robin Williams, Ruby, Saphire, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Steven Universe, television, television series
(Turn and face the strange)
–Changes, David Bowie
Why don’t you let yourself just be somewhere different.
Whoa, why don’t you let yourself just be whoever you are.
–Be Wherever You Are, Rebecca Sugar
To be frank I have often considered myself more of a fan of We Bare Bears. Growing up I didn’t have a brother, I was blessed with a sister who would frequently whoop my ass, and so watching the show there’s a nice opportunity to watch a relationship I never had. That and I love Ice Bear, his monotones are the stuff of genius. As for my wife her favorite Cartoon Network show is still The Amazing World of Gumball. It’s incredible to see how a show riddled with so many smart jokes that range in satire of government bureaucracy to economic strategies retail outlets employ in order to sucker people into impulse buying. Along with these shows we also enjoy watching Adventure Time, Uncle Grandpa (at least I do), and even Clarence. Let’s not talk about Teen Titans Go! however, it’s still too soon.
It may seem odd at first that a man in his late twenties enjoys cartoons designed for children and young adults, but I can assure you there’s a harmless albeit pathetic explanation for this: my wife and I are often out of the house and so we leave the television on for the pets. It may seem ridiculous but since we were in school most of the day, and now entering “the real world” whatever that is, we weren’t comfortable just leaving the pets in the dark of the house with no noise. My Huckleberry is a bit of a weenie and I wanted to make sure he felt like someone was still there and I don’t have the heart to leave FOX News on for him. Sometimes it would be PBS, other times it was CNN, but after a while the go-to channel was Cartoon Network because…well, there it was. In my madder moments I would imagine the pets asking me to leave on Cartoon Network because they wanted to watch Adventure Time, but that’s revealing information my wife will need for the committal. After a while we would come home, either together or separately and over time we found that, after a long day at work and school, it was nice to just sit down and watch an episode of Gumball or Clarence. The shows were designed for kids, but the humor was often smart in these shows and so they became a staple. One show in particular however I resisted for reasons I honestly don’t know.
Steven Universe, for those unfamiliar with the show, is rather Queer is almost every sense of the term. I won’t be the first person writing on a blog that has observed this, and I surely won’t be the last, but recently I began reading J. Jack Halberstam’s book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal and so looking at Steven Universe and my recent upsurge in watching the show it seemed like a good time to throw my hat into the ring if I can use an over-used yet still effective visual metaphor.
Steven Universe is about a young boy growing up in a small town on the edge of the ocean called Beach City. It has a donut shop, the local blogger/conspiracy theorist, a group of trendy teenagers resisting the fact that they’re going to wind up working and living mundane lives in the city when they get older, and at the very edge of town live a group of outcasts by the name of The Crystal Gems. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl are three survivors of an ancient war between a civilization known as Gems. Gems are anthropomorphic feminine humanoids that are, in the most basic explanation possible, rocks. A Gem’s main body is a single gem that contains their spirit, energy, and soul and from it they are able to manifest a physical body which assumes different personalities depending on the gem which can run from pearls, amethysts, diamonds, rubies, paradot, lapis lazuli, quartz, jasper, etc. and within this society is a rigid class system which assigns “roles” to gems given their stone. The Crystal Gems are the last of a rebellion army that tried to fight this system and their former leader, a gem known as Rose Quartz but often referred to as “Rose,” has been remade after falling in love with a young human named Greg Universe. Steven is their “son,” but he’s also Rose for on his stomach he bears her quartz. The show then, is about the Crystal Gems raising Steven along with Greg and often encountering gems from the Home World who are in constant effort trying to defeat them.
The reader may wonder where the Queerness comes into play, and I have to start first with the most obvious example of the character Garnet who is in fact a “fusion” of two smaller gems named Ruby and Sapphire. Now it’s important to clarify the misinterpretation, that many casual viewers including myself early on made about what “fusion” actually is. The Gems in Steven Universe, while they don’t possess any kind of sex, do exhibit feminine gender presentations and even use female pro-nouns when referring themselves or others. This by itself wouldn’t be so terribly interesting since we’re living in a period of Third-Wave Feminism and so seeing more and more female representation in cartoons isn’t that shocking. It’s refreshing and fun to watch, but not necessarily shocking. Many have objected to Steven Universe however for the show relies on Garnet as well as other gems “fusing” which many see as sex, when watching the show regularly clearly demonstrates something far more important.
Fusion is not sex, but rather a kind of energy relationship.
To give the best explanation I can I have to go to chemistry. I tutored biology for four years, married a biologist, my best friend is a biochemist, and through these regular interactions I learned a bit about chemistry particularly about chemical bonds. What my friends, wife, teachers, and eventually I would stress to students was that chemical bonds, that is bonds between the various elements that exist in nature, were not physical objects. Many people would show bonding by holding hands, but what I eventually learned was that that visual didn’t actually work. Chemical bonds were described as “energy relationships” in which the elements would remain connected through the electromagnetics of the bond, and while there was nothing physical holding them together, there was still energy drawing them towards one another.
This to me is the best way to explain “fusion” in Steven Universe for it’s clear that the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, wants to introduce young kids to the idea of queer relationships and queer families.
Recently at San Diego Comic-Con Sugar came-out as bisexual to an adoring crowd:
These things have so much to do with who you are, and there’s this idea that these are themes that should not be shared with kids, but everyone shares stories about love and attraction with kids. So many stories for kids are about love, and it really makes a difference to hear stories about how someone like you can be loved and if you don’t hear those stories it will change who you are. It’s very important to me that we speak to kids about consent and we speak to kids about identity and that we speak to kids about so much. I want to feel like I exist and I want everyone else who wants to feel that way to feel that way too.
It might just be because of the region I grew up but this has been seen by some as a radical approach, and while some parents have tried to make the argument that kids should wait until they’re older Sugar’s response has both tact and wisdom:
“You can’t wait until kids have grown up to let them know that queer people exist. There’s this idea that that is something that should only be discussed with adults — that is completely wrong. If you wait to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!”
The first person I ever came out to was a transgender man. I use the word “man” loosely because they confessed to me later on that my use of the word “man,” “dude,” “sir,” and “he” made them uncomfortable, the argument being that, while they understood it was hardwired Southern gentility on my part and not an effort to write the narrative of their life, it was still an act of “gendering” them which felt far more nuanced and personal. There are some that might immediately ask “well dude is it really that important,” but I try to avoid being an asshole to the best of my ability and so when somebody tells me they don’t like something I try to avoid doing it. They became J—- instead. I’ve censored their name because I don’t wish to “out” them. J—- remains such a crucial part of my life, not just because he was the first person I came out to as Bi, but because he introduced me to Jack Halberstam.
I’ve mentioned before, some would say ad nauseum, that I took a Queer Theory course in graduate school and while I read Bersani, Sedgewick, Butler, and Foucault, Halberstam was an entirely different animal, and in fact I originally had no real intention of reading their work. Before one of our meetings J—- showed me the book Gaga Feminism and encouraged me to read it when I could, but whenever people tell me I should read a book it’s like placing a letter in a mass mail box. I’ll eventually get to it, but it’s going to be buried beneath dozens of other suggestions, considerations, and recommendations. After reading the first half of Female Masculinity however I was hooked and I realized Halberstam was not only an important Queer theorist, they were also someone that had a unique perspective into multiple areas of culture.
And its Lady Gaga who provides the working model.
Halberstam argues in the first chapter of their book that Lady Gaga’s stage performance provides a fascinating new platform for a new kind of feminism:
Gaga feminism proposes that we look more closely at heterosexuality, not simply to blame it for the continued imbalance of the sexes but to find in its collapse new modes of intimate relation. And this form of feminism actually imagines that men as well as women will feel liberated by the possibilities that the end of heterosexuality and the end of normal create. (22).
This quote is perfectly functional for an opening thesis, and while I understand Halberstam’s point, I feel genuinely that the passage that follows it lays out a far clearer message of what their creative and intellectual goals are:
But…what if we incorporate all the macro changes that we have experienced in a few short decades into the everyday? What if we start noticing that the families in which children grow up are far different from the families in which many of us were raised, and that those changes have often been for the better? The claustrophobias of the nuclear family was formerly only alleviated by more family, extended family, by cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents. But now, children are apt to have many adults in their life, adults, moreover, to whom they are not even related. […] What would happen if we actually began to incorporate this version of the family into our mainstream representations? (22-23).
Growing up I was raised in what is often referred to as a “nuclear family unit” and this structure is made up of the characters of father, mother, and two children usually of different sexes. This working model of the family is the stuff of 1950s white suburbia and came to embody the cultural consciousness in television programs like Leave it to Beaver and also in later shows like Happy Days, The Simpsons, and Boy Meets World. Even animated television programs like Doug and Rugrats growing up would rely on fact that the nuclear family was the standard unit that made up the family of America, and while most mainstream films and television continue this model for fear of offending or upsetting the heterosexual “majority,” Halberstam’s analysis does beg the question: is the nuclear family still “the norm?”
For my own part I’ll say no because growing up I watched many Robin William’s movies, one of which was Mrs. Doubtfire. On a small note I watched this movie and wept on the night I heard that Robin Williams had died, but then again who didn’t? The film was unique for the fact that it freely dealt with the topic of divorce, and while the film does rely on heterosexual relationships for it’s “norm,” the final lines of the film do seem to echo the sentiment of Halberstam’s questions:
Mrs. Doubtfire: [reading a letter] “Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren’t to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick.” Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they’re angry, they get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t, don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other anymore, doesn’t mean that they don’t love you. There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country – and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months… even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you, poppet, you’re going to be all right… bye-bye.
Throughout Gaga Feminism Jack Halberstam cites the examples of contemporary films noting how heterosexuality is often painted as “the norm” or ideal relationship model for people living in contemporary society, but as Mrs. Doubtfire, Halberstam, and Steven Universe have demonstrated that particular model is not only not always efficient, sometimes it just doesn’t work for everyone and so different family models emerge. This is not to suggest that heterosexual people are doomed to suffer unnecessarily in their relationships and that only Queer people will find happiness. While I am bisexual, I married a woman because I loved her and so far it’s not only worked, it’s given me what I needed psychologically, philosophically, personally, etc. My success in the heteronormative model of relationship however should never be looked upon as “the norm” because my wife and I are far too odd to ever be called normal (just to put it in perspective I’m an atheist who spends most of his time reading and talking to himself and my wife reveres “Ceiling Cat” …Google it).
To be honest, having finished Gaga Feminism now I recognize some flaws, or perhaps just perceive some, in Halberstam’s final answer to the flaws and weaknesses in the marriage narrative, but looking back to Steven Universe there is one point Halberstam notes that is pressingly relevant:
Marriage pits the family and the couple against everyone else; alternative intimacies stretch connections between people and across neighborhoods like invisible webs, and they bind us to one another in ways that foster communication, responsibility, and generosity. (110-1).
Steven Universe is an odd and wonderful show because it offers a chance to see a side of the world that has, up to this point, largely been ignored by mainstream cartoons: the lives and relationships of queer women. I recognize that technically the gems are not women in the sense that human beings are women, but female humanoids interacting and forming homo-social, homo-erotic bonds is enough of a political statement to argue that the characters are at least queer. In that past cartoons have afforded only minimal access to queer men and women, and often their sexuality is pushed to only a brief reference to a lost love or an old friend, but now a space has been provided in which animators and writers can actually explore queer relationships in cartoons.
Rebecca Sugar is the first female creative director of a cartoon for Cartoon Network, and the cast list of Steven Universe is made up of a wide variety of female actresses from different racial and ethnic background. These achievements are important, but more important is the fact that Sugar pointed out earlier which is that young children who are queer finally have a voice and a presence on T.V. Steven as a character is raised not only by queer women, but also in a queer family structure that satisfies, as far as my reading is concerned, Halberstam’s model of Gaga Feminism, for while gems and characters may form relationships, the topic of marriage is largely left out. Marriage isn’t important or necessary because the energy relationship sustains and nurtures Steven. The best part is despite all the weirdness in his life, or perhaps even better, because of the non-stop weirdness, Steven is a kind soul who only wants to help people.
Part of growing up is asking your parents how they met, how they fell in love, or in the case of children missing a father or mother, what their parent was like. Psychologists most likely have an explanation for this behavior, but for my own part children learn early that narratives are how they shape their identity and eventually find a mate to share their life with and the model that parents establish for their kids at a young age helps them formulate what they understand an ideal mate to be. Queer families may be a recent phenomenon, but as time continues on it’s likely that they’ll become far more prevalent and as such Queer parents, and queer kids, can use a television program like Steven Universe because it offers the same story but with a new face.
Prince Charming may not find Sleeping beauty resting in the tower, but that’s only because another princess got to her first.
I’ve provided a few links to articles about the LGBTQ themes in Steven Universe, two of which provided the quotes by Sugar herself:
If this hasn’t sold you to Steven Universe, then I can at least win you over to Rebecca Sugar. She wrote a song for the show Adventure Time and it kind of broke the internet there for a while.
I went ahead and posted a link to the end of Mrs. Doubtfire because watching the scene is far better than ever just reading it, plus it’s a special video that acts as a kind of “tribute” to Robin Williams:
****Writer’s FINAL Note****
I discovered this right before publishing this essay and so here it is, Rebecca Sugar’s Demo of the song Be Wherever You Are. There is a version of Steven singing the song, but to be honest, Sugar’s voice just gives the song a more soulful delivery, and the way she says “Be” just makes me feel happy. Enjoy:
Amelia Airheart, anal penetration, Anal Sex, biography, Eleanor Roosevelt, Family Guy, Feminism, Gender Expectations, Hook, How to Make Love like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, Jenna Jameson, Jumanji, Legend of Zelda, Mrs. Doubtfire, Playboy, Pornography, Pornography Industry, Pornosexuality, Rape, Robin Williams, sex, Sex Workers, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, slut, The Other, Tropic of Cancer
I’m part of a generation raised with porn. Before the reader begins to imagine my upbringing I need to clarify. While I did stumble upon my dad’s Playboys, and then eventually an actual porno VHS tape, porn was never “laying around” the house when I was growing up. My days were largely spent either playing Legend of Zelda on my Super Nintendo or else watching Robin Williams movies like Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, or Jumanji. The lines “My first day as a woman, and I’m getting hot flashes” are sealed indelibly upon my psyche for the record. Pornography did eventually make its way into my life, but I was spared the hardcore stuff, in every sense of the word, until I had hit puberty in which case that was purely based upon my own research.
Still despite this porn was everywhere, I just didn’t recognize it as such. When I would read a statistic early in puberty that by age thirteen most kids of my generation will have seen at least 100 sexual images I was surprised and then at the same time not surprised. Films always seemed to have sex in them (I’m thinking of American Pie and that infamous flute), books like Tropic of Cancer or For Whom the Bell Tolls would contain descriptions of sensuality, advertising was brimming with sex based imagery, and Family Guy, my favorite television show, relied regularly on sex for jokes. Pornography then was really just the core media from which every aspect of visual culture was derived.
Still despite this prevalence, and free usage let’s be clear here, I never discovered the work of Jenna Jameson until I was at least sixteen or seventeen, and even then I didn’t have much consideration of her, her work, or what impact she would have upon society. She was yet another blond face in the seemingly endless ocean of naked bodies enjoying the mechanical performance of a sexuality I’ve taken to classify s pornosexuality. This is a sexual expression in which individuals engage in sex with members of the same and opposite sex and exhibit a near insatiable desire for single or multiple partners.
Jenna Jameson may not be the President of the United States (yet, if Trump can run now anybody can), neither is she a diplomat nor an accomplished public orator, but her voice and body has been part of many individual’s personal sexual experiences, and also their reading habits. Including mine.
About two years ago I stumbled upon How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale when I was working up my courage to actually stand and stay in the Sexuality section of the Half Priced Book Store. My hormones hadn’t completely calmed down, but I was getting to that point where a picture of boobs no longer left a me two-hundred-pound ape grunting and groping the air. More importantly I was becoming interested in sexuality not only as a fun activity, but also as a discourse unto itself. Buying up books about homosexual men, sexual expression, the history of lesbianism in early Europe, the history of cultural attitudes about the penis, and sexual behavior in history was intoxicating and while I gathered up a small pile I turned and saw Jameson’s book. I’d seen it before on book shelves but I never had the nerve to actually open it and read it. I added it to the pile, bought it, and began to read.
When the biography was published in 2004 it spent six weeks on the best seller, for all the reasons you probably suspect. One passage alone can probably reveal everything:
Anal Sex. Anal fucking sex. Brown-hole spelunking, rusty-can-expanding, colon tickling anal fucking sex.
I know you’re interesting now because just about everyone is interested in doing it up the butt, whether it’s because they want it, their partner wants it, or they’re just curious. (323).
Now personally before throwing the concept of anal sex into my writing I like to start off either with a joke or an amusing anecdote about Beanie Babies, but then again I’m not a porn star. These few lines are similar to numerous passages throughout the book, and while this particular example of bad rhetoric is designed to entice the reader further, it should be noted that it actually does serve the larger purpose of starting a chapter dedicated to the realities of being a female porn-star. It also is an opportunity for Jameson to reveal a bit of herself, and given the fact this book is a memoir first a bit of self-disclosure is appropriate:
For me to allow a man to have anal sex with me, I must have trust first. Because to be on the receiving end of anal sex is to give yourself completely to your partner. […] And that’s why despite the fact that it is practically an industry standard to have anal sex in every sex scene, I’ve never done it in a film.
It has become a constant issue for me. I’ve been offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to do anal. But even if I walked away with $300,000 for having done it, I would also be taking away the feeling that I gave up something that was really important to me. This is almost embarrassing for a porn star to admit, but I’ve only given that up to three men, all of whom I really loved. (323).
She follows this on the next page with:
If you come into this industry as a woman, you need to have a clearly defined set of guidelines and boundaries for yourself. That’s how you maintain your sanity. And every person I know has a different standard they hold themselves to. (324).
This passage may in fact hold some kind of feminist statement though I recognize immediately just writing that puts me in a precarious position. A cisgender man, even if he is bi-sexual, writing about a pornstar’s memoir and arguing that it’s a feminist document, or contains feminist sentiment, reeks of bad apology and by that I mean it sounds fucking pathetic and sad. Many men before, some of them good writers but most of them just terrible, have attempted to make the argument that a woman starring in porn can have a feminist position, but when you’re making the argument with your dick in your hands it’s a little difficult to take that argument seriously. Even if I don’t watch Jenna Jameson videos regularly, I do believe this passage has some feminist argument behind it.
Whether or not you like porn, or agree that it should even exist, the fact that Jenna Jameson places responsibility of her body, and more importantly control over her body in her own hands rather than in someone else’s is a feminist statement. As such the contesters of this position typically fall back upon the standard yet reliable weapon, namely the word slut.
The arguments against female pornstars are often reduced down into the sentiment that they’re simply sluts. As such nothing they say or do should really be taken seriously because no slut should be taken seriously. There’s a conflict with this however because it is “othering.” By reducing a woman into the title of slut, a critic turns her into an “other” a being that doesn’t represent any kind of humanity and therefore any and all treatment of them is acceptable. I’ve written before that I don’t care much for the word slut. It’s not a pretty word linguistically, it’s almost always used as a pejorative term, and the individuals who typically use it usually seem to possess a holier than thou stance in their approach to life. Slut is used as a weapon to reduce women rather than raise them but at this point the contester emerges.
So what? Jenna Jameson is a pornstar, and the memoir isn’t written by Tolstoy, so why should I bother reading it?
This is a fair question because not even I have full answer to this one. How to Make Love Like a Pornstar: A Cautionary Tale is not literature or art by any means, and in terms of biographies of famous women the lives of Amelia Airheart and Eleanor Roosevelt are almost certainly more the model most parents would prefer their daughters to aspire to. The lack of creativity concerning prose, and the actual details of Jameson’s life creates a conflict when trying to defend this book as art, or at least an important cultural object. However, I will argue that part of the importance of this book was the conversation it started.
Pornography is, at least in America, is an institution that is beloved and despised simultaneously. Before Jenna Jameson’s biography few sex workers had the bravery, or even outlet, to write about their life outside of a few publishing companies sympathetic towards the industry. When Jameson’s biography was published this changed. How to Make Love Like a Pornstar not only proved that pornstar biographies could reach a mass market, it validated the idea that sex workers were a functioning figure in the American cultural landscape. Traci Lords, Asa Akira, Terra Patrick, and Monica Mayhem are just a few of the well-known pornstars to have written memoirs following the success of Jenna Jameson, and in the last few years Belle Knox, the Duke University Student who starred in porn films to pay for her tuition, told her story effectively writing herself into a feminist icon for her generation. Women in pornography are no longer just sluts, they are in fact individual women creating a career and life for themselves that actively involves their bodies.
Jameson’s book addresses this old argument however, by offering her reader a real moment of her humanity. Later in the book she describes an interview she gave during the height of her career on the Howard Stern Program. Stern asked her the usual sexual based question, it is Howard Stern and he has a reputation to live up to, but during the interview he began to ask her if she was in porn because she had a rotten childhood, or if because she was ever abused or molested. Jameson reveals that she said no but that the question summoned the memory of being viciously gang raped by a bunch of football players when she was a teenager. She says no and describes the attack, and just to be clear I won’t repeat the attack here because I refuse to out of general principle. What is important is her reflection on the experience and why she told Howard no:
It had only flashed through my consciousness a couple of times since then, but Howard’s question—I’d never been asked anything so direct—brought the images flooding back. I understood what he was trying to get at. The question had crossed my mind before: Was I in this business because I was victimized or because I wanted to succeed at something? I examined it from every angle I could, and every time came to the same conclusion: that it didn’t make a shred of difference. It occurred too late in my development to be formative. Whether it happened or not, I still would have become a porn star. I’ve been through enough therapists to know that.
I’ve never told about either the Montana experience or the one with Preacher because I don’t want to be thought of as a victim. I want to be judged by who I am as a person, not by what happened to me. In fact, all the bad things have only contributed to my confidence and sense of self, because I survived them and became a better and stronger person for it.
Ultimately, what really matters is not just the experiences you have at a young age, but whether or not you are equipped—by your parents, your genetics, by your education—to survive and deal with them. (395).
This passage for me is ultimately what demonstrates the value of How to Make Love Like a Pornstar, and what should compel the reader to at least attempt this memoir. I recognize going forward that I haven’t addressed the issue of the pornography industry for the most part, and so it may appear that I condone the manipulation of young girls entering the industry hoping for the kind of fame that actresses like Jameson have achieved. For the record, I don’t. The pornography industry is a business that regularly leaves young women metaphorically and literally screwed and Jameson’s book factually and unromantically addresses this problem.
Porn captures the imagination of the culture it entertains and Jameson’s book ultimately reveals that. Millions of people bought the book with its colorful passages and numerous photographs showing boob after boob after boob, and this desire to know and understand Jameson revealed something about American culture. It’s unlikely that the book will survive the battle against history, but it does stand as an important document that revealed that almost everyone’s browsing history held some dark sticky gem. Those readers eager and desperate to read a tragic story were horribly disappointed, while those readers eager to read about sex got their money’s worth while also reading about a woman who possessed a strength which defied an industry which has, and continues to do so, leave many women defeated, used, or destroyed.
Rather than besmirch it, deny it, or call it a slut however, Jameson’s book allowed a glimpse into the life of a real woman who achieved her success by the choices she made.
It’s not Gloria Steinem, but it’s difficult to find a more feminist message than that.
I’ve tried my best to explain why I feel that this book is a relevant document for contemporary society, but let me make one last argument. Sex workers face a real stigma in our society because their work exists within the double standard. People like and enjoy sex, and they enjoy watching sex, however because no one wants to acknowledge their sexual desire sex workers are typically dehumanized, cast as sluts and perverts, and receive verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Reading Jenna Jameson’s biography in many ways is an act that liberates the reader from this behavior because it forces the reader to acknowledge that she is actually a human being. Pornstars are people, living breathing people with their own personalities, dreams, ambitions, desires, and problems and the sooner society acknowledges this then there can be real progress in combatting the stigma that leads to negative behavior that these people typically have to suffer from the self-righteous or sexually frustrated who usually make their lives miserable. It also helps society by letting people admit freely that they consume pornography as a product, thus opening public, and honest, conversations about sex and whether or not the porn that is being produced honestly conveys a healthy sexual response and behavior.
Here’s a few links to articles about porn-star biographies, either the individual books or else the larger trend of pornstars writing biographies. Hope you enjoy or else find them interesting: