Tag Archives: women

Mosaics on International Women’s Day

mosaics

I am a feminist.

Hardly a stop press moment if you’ve followed my writing for a while.  Still, one that is important to announce from time to time without ambiguity or any possibility of misinterpretation.  International Women’s Day is as appropriate a moment as any.  Yet I don’t put it out there for applause, or to suggest that it is somehow worthy of excessive note.  In fact I would hope, rather, that we continue to evolve collectively as a species toward a place and time where being a feminist is simply a natural component of being a man.  I say “natural component” because at present there are still far too many men in the world – and far too many of them in positions of significant power and global influence – whose factory default setting includes the compulsion to press their boots down hard on women’s throats.

I don’t get it.  I never have.

If I try to boil my feminism down to a single, easily digestible concept, it’s the basic notion that men shouldn’t be dicks to women.  I don’t see why that is so hard.  In the wilds of the Internet you’ll sometimes stumble upon these bizarre misogynist rants and just shake your head and think to yourself, “wow, if he and everyone like him had taken all the energy it must require to remain so hateful on a daily basis and turned it in a positive direction instead, we’d have world peace and eighteen cures for cancer by now.”  Since before recorded history women the world over have paid an unfathomable price for the insecurity and self-loathing of males, for this comical notion that a man’s worth is somehow defined only by how much of his world he is able to dominate absolutely; by how much he can control of the things he fears and does not understand.

We recognize this, we shake our heads at it, and yet it continues, whenever a male-dominated legislature starts introducing bills prescribing what a woman can and can’t do with her uterus.  When males harass women off the Internet with threats of rape just for saying something they don’t agree with.  When women have their personal information made public because they dared challenge males to make the playing field fair.  When a female opinion expressed aloud is met with a torrent of pictures of penises.

When a woman’s pain is greeted with male laughter.

When a lawyer can suggest with a straight face in court that ESPN reporter Erin Andrews wasn’t harmed by having a stalker post online nude pictures of her because her television career has continued to ascend, something is seriously askew.

Why does it have to be this way?

Misogyny is a bloated, slouching, Hutt-like beast relentless in its pursuit to crush out every light and smother every voice with its oozing, pustulent folds.  Its faces are disappointingly legion, and united in the horrific tenet that apparently, women should exist solely for the purpose of making more men.

We don’t have colonies on the moon yet because too many men are too busy working at grinding women into the dirt, whether their names are splashed across international headlines as they pursue the Republican presidential nomination or cried out only by the woman who begs them not to hit her again.

We should all be ashamed.

How different might things be if men made a conscious decision to learn from women rather than treating them as chattel?

I was asked by a friend to review the first volume of a short story compilation out today called Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women.  The book brings together twenty female authors of diverse origins offering short stories, poetry and essays on the subject of femininity.  Profits from this book are to be donated to the Pixel Project to End Violence Against Women.  The pieces are by turns challenging, enlightening, magical, gritty, heartbreaking and always provocative.  One that stood out for me was P.K. Tyler’s The Book of Lilith, which recounts the legend of Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden, and presents the story of the first woman to have her uncontrollable spirit condemned by the (literally) prototypical man.  I was struck also by Tonya Liburd’s Adventures in Gaming, which shines an important spotlight on the positively ghastly misogyny infecting the world of online games.  While these two stories are stylistically quite removed from one another, the theme is the same:  a woman who would like to experience the world on her own terms and is slapped back hard by the rigid male-dominated status quo.  And despite what men’s rights types would immediately suggest when presented with such a collection, these and the other stories contained therein are not voices that are haranguing, propagandizing or spewing misandry – they are merely voices asking to be heard and inviting you to listen, because they are as worthy to be heard as any other.

I read on, and I nod at the lessons learned and admonish myself for not seeking out more female perspectives in the works I choose to read.  Truly, the gender of the author has never factored that much into the stories I seek out, but maybe it should.

Maybe I need to listen and learn even more.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a piece in The Globe and Mail today.  The entire piece is worth a read but here’s the passage that really strikes home:

Every day, I meet incredible women who inspire me to be a better feminist and a better person. Women can do (and be) anything they want. But powerful cultural change cannot happen when only half of the population works toward that change. Men need to act, set examples and be role models.

I was raised by an incredible woman, I am married to an incredible woman.  I work with incredible women and I am friends with incredible women.  I have learned something from every single one of them, and I continue to look to their wisdom and their experience to guide me.  I do what I can to encourage and promote them as well, because when women do better, we all do better.  And to the prime minister’s last point, I try to impart the importance of doing so to my teenage son, in the great hope that one day we may simply breed the hulking beast that is misogyny out of existence.  That future generations may regard the concept with as much uncomprehending disdain as we reserve for people who insist the earth is flat.

The old way ain’t working, folks.  Dedicating themselves to abusing and demeaning women with each breath isn’t making that portion of the male population any happier.  What if instead, one of these men chose to lift a woman up instead of pushing her down?  Isn’t a smile more of a balm for that terribly fragile ego than a shiver of terror?  Isn’t it better to court a woman’s respect than to stoke her fears?  Isn’t it fundamentally just better to be kind – to say “way to go” instead of “get back in the kitchen”?

Isn’t treating women with their due respect what makes us better men?  Isn’t celebrating their achievements our duty – not just as men, but as human beings?

Isn’t that what we mean when we say, I am a feminist?

Mosaics is available through Amazon.

 

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People, Not Property

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Something horrible happened a little while ago in a place with the deceptively idyllic-sounding name of Isla Vista.  In the aftermath and the weeks since we’ve tried to process it, to assign a specific and preventable cause to the motivations of the perpetrator in the hopes to avert a similar future occurrence, and solutions vary, predictably, according to the broad swath of the ideological spectrum.  If we are each to weigh in, as the current state of our discourse seems to demand, what can I say that’s different?  What can I contribute to actually make things better, instead of just bouncing around the echo chamber – scoring accolades from admirers and suffering barbs (or worse) from the other side – before the storm dies down and we return to talking about box office grosses?  It seems that at times we’ve become a civilization whose talents are geared largely towards commenting rather than fostering true progress, and I struggle with this in the composition of this entry.  Truly, my words won’t bring the victims back.  They are but shouting into the wind and the rain for the briefest of moments.  But I’m going to shout anyway.

Reading the tweets shared under the #YesAllWomen hashtag was heartbreaking, and sobering.  The shiny, bauble-bedecked veneer of First World existence blinds one to the deeply ugly undercurrents of our nature, the river of misogyny that touches each aspect of interaction between the genders.  This idea that men have been sold – yes, sold, because so much of what is wrong with how we behave can be traced back to the concept of one person convincing another to buy something they don’t need – that women are a commodity men have a divine right to possess, instead of independent human spirits meriting respect and the freedom to determine their own futures, is stomach-churning when laid bare, but laced so insidiously into our culture that we are happily swallowing the lie several times a day without even realizing it.  The woman is always positioned as a prize at the end of the quest, something to win.  Any time a man is tasked with self-improvement, be it in the form of career, health, spiritual fulfillment or putting on a superhero costume and going out to fight crime, the implicit reward is getting laid, and any other end is mere frivolity.  It’s all meaningless, the zeitgeist conspires to tell him, unless you’ve got that “perfect ten” hanging off your arm at the gala premiere.  Elliot Rodger certainly thought so, and his self-perceived inability to live up to this ridiculous standard led him to lash out and take six innocent lives with him.

It’s deplorable that as a result, women should be forced to be ever vigilant, but as the #YesAllWomen tweets prove, it’s an attitude born of a shared experience, and one to which men cannot really relate.  In this metaphor, men are the customers, not the goods, and we can’t understand what it’s like to be thought of as property to be acquired until we are ourselves put up for sale.  When I’m out for my morning run, and I see a woman further up the sidewalk on her morning run heading towards me, my first thought is not going to be, this is a potential assailant, maybe I should cross the street.  It’s never been suggested that I should tone down how I dress or do my hair differently lest I not be taken seriously by my work colleagues, or receive unwanted advances from strangers.  I’ve never had someone try to grope at my crotch on a crowded streetcar, I’ve never been screamed at because I refused to give a woman my phone number, and I’ve never had to worry about leaving my drink alone at the bar lest someone slip roofies into it and I wake up bleeding on a filthy bathroom floor.  And these are just a very small sampling of some of the stories that were shared online.  There are thousands more, and to our shame, an equal number of sarcastic, sneering responses fired back.  As was pointed out elsewhere, these types were seemingly angrier that the stream of stories was gumming up their precious home feeds than at the fact that these things were actually happening to women everywhere.  When you can’t refute the argument with logic or reason, just tell the woman to shut up, and go back to watching the game.

Words may sometimes be lost on the wind in the storm, but often they’re the only thing we have.  In and of itself, a hashtag isn’t going to change the world, but the camaraderie those shared stories can engender – pun intended – is a step toward creating the empathy we need to help make the storm stop.  To help fathers teach their sons that women are not property to be coveted and acquired like the mindless deluge of merchandise that flashes across our Internet browsers, assuring us that the void in our souls can be filled with the simplicity of a single click and a valid credit card number.  Respecting women unconditionally; judging them by their principles, their accomplishments and the many facets of their personalities, instead of how they look in a bikini and how willing they are to jump into bed with you; casting forever aside the juvenile notion that a woman owes you a single thing by mere virtue of your passing interest in her; recognizing that fundamentally, misogyny comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of oneself as a man, and that those shortcomings can only ever be remedied by one person – the man in question – that is how things begin to improve.

None of us are property.  None of us are each other’s property.  And the human soul is not something to be traded on the free market; its value is far greater than that.

Shut up and Write

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As is obvious to anyone looking at the picture at the top right of this page, I’m lodged solidly in the average white male, 18-49 demographic.  Homer Simpson would say, “everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my ideas are.”  More to the point, my average white maleness (let’s add heterosexuality to the mix as well, why not) endows me with a certain level of immunity to criticism.  I invite you to take a look at the post published by Emmie Mears in which she talks about the inevitable onslaught of Internet misogyny that is the bane of any woman who dares to express an opinion on anything with the slightest hint of controversy, and how it has stifled her voice in the past.  It’s been telling, too, that as Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle’s star has risen with the release of her Rob Ford book Crazy Town and the slew of media appearances that have followed, so has a tremendous backlash from men, not to mention threats against her life.  Doolittle herself points to a Huffington Post blogger (no relation) who all but accused her of being an opportunistic Barbie doll, and then whined in a follow-up that she was overreacting because but… I said you were pretty!!!  As women’s voices have spread far and wide, so too it seems has the proclivity of certain men to want to tell them to get back into the kitchen if they know what’s good for them.

As f@#$ing insane as that sounds.

It would be easy, perhaps, to dismiss a large portion of these latter types as cretinous, small-membered rubes who can barely spell the dirty words they’re lashing out with, but what is equally troubling is when ostensibly intelligent people wield more polished knives in service of the same end.  The tactics by which female writers are attacked resemble those used by attorneys to discredit witnesses, or by politicians to sabotage opponents – looking for the slightest perceived crack into which can be wedged a huge bootful of doubt.  “You once stole an apple from your neighbor’s tree and then lied about it, so if you were lying then, how are we to assume you’re not lying about seeing Mr. Smith murder his brother?”   Attacking not the message, but the messenger.  Gender is usually the wedge of choice, as if words and opinions generated by a brain attached to a vagina are automatically of lesser worth, to be questioned to the last crossed T and dotted I – no matter how factual, no matter how incontrovertible.

The fans of Rob Ford, angered by the inconvenient truths Robyn Doolittle has exposed about their hero, have gone to typical lengths to cast aspersions on her motivations for pursuing the story, and slammed her for posing for the photo in the Flare article linked above as well, because how dare she have the temerity to be good at her job and attractive at the same time.  (Do actresses get dinged with the same charge when they appear in hundreds of these spreads every year?  Or do they get an exemption because looking good is part of their career, and that the rest of us peons are expected to be homely?)  In the end, it matters not, because were Doolittle of more average appearance, you’d get the same men saying she was tearing down Ford to compensate for her dissatisfaction about her looks and her inability to land a man.

There is a deliberate intent here, one of distraction – for Ford Nation, making Doolittle the story shifts the question away from why it’s considered acceptable to them or to anyone for the Mayor of Toronto to be an unrepentant crack smoker.  Just as a decade ago, publicly shaming the Dixie Chicks for their comments about George W. Bush got everyone’s mind off the thousands of people dying in the war he started in a blaze of testosterone, swagger and unresolved daddy issues.  Apparently, a decade later, Robyn Doolittle’s legs are more horrifying to the public than the thought of a crackhead controlling a $9 billion city budget and rendering Toronto a laughing stock to the world – you know, things that can cause actual damage to real people’s lives, the same real people Ford claims to be workin’ hard for.  It is hard to see the same attitude taking root if Doolittle’s first name was Robert.  They’d still be after “him,” of course, but probably for being once photographed having a beer with a Communist or something equally trivial, but pointedly non-sexual.  (Unless “he” was gay, of course; then all bets would be off.)

I’ve had the mildest taste of harsh online criticism for things I have written that have rubbed certain people the wrong way (the most, oddly enough, for this post about air travel.)  Even in the lowest doses, it can be incredibly dispiriting.  At times I have refrained from submitting certain pieces to HuffPost because I wasn’t certain I wanted to put up with a predictably irate repsonse.  I went almost six months without submitting anything last year for the headache of it all.  But never have even the nastiest comments to me come within a parsec of the visceral, flesh-tearing, bile-spitting hatred endured by female writers.  I’ve never been insulted for my appearance, or had some sick bastard suggest that I should be sexually violated for my opinions.  Which begs the question, why don’t I and my male contemporaries see that kind of blowback when we speak out?  Why is it somehow open season on all aspects of a woman’s being, including her sexual identity, when she pens a robust challenge to the status quo, but men’s looks and personal lives are off limits?  Why is a male writer a bold thinker and a female writer a feminazi pain the ass?

In one of the most eye-opening sections of Emmie’s post, she talks about needing to have a strategy ready to deal with the anger she might encounter in response to her works, and rightfully resenting that.  It certainly is not something I or any other white male 18-49 heterosexual writer has to contemplate.  We are free, it seems, to publish whatever we want, largely without fear of being attacked on such a level.  No one is going to “mansplain” us, declare that we just need a really good f@#k, call us ugly and unworthy of love, tell us we’re being silly and hysterical and fascist feminists and that we’d be better off producing babies than attempting to string words together.  No one’s going to suggest that we must be using our bodies to sleep our way to fame and success.  No one’s going to tell us to “shut up and write” columns on hair products and nail polish, you know, the stuff we’re the real experts on, and leave the serious business to the grown-ups.

No one is going to threaten to track us down at home and rape us.

It behooves male scribes to acknowledge the reality of writing life on the other side of the gender aisle, that women have a tougher job of making themselves heard and believed, and feeling free to even try.  We need to remember the women who choose not to speak up about issues where their opinions are sorely needed, because they’re afraid of violent reprisals from addle-minded douchebags.  Thousands of voices are missing from the conversation or are being silenced through the ugliest of reactions from anonymous cowards.  We should be commending courageous women like Robyn Doolittle and Emmie Mears and all their contemporaries who won’t let themselves be intimidated.  We should remember that it is entirely permissible to disagree with them and that we don’t ever have to make it personal – just as we wouldn’t with some other guy whose opinions made us seethe.  Finally, we should be using our privileged positions as “untouchable” males to call out and shame the behavior of those who are contributing to the fear.

There’s a saying I heard on The West Wing, though it may have been borrowed from somewhere else, that “if they’re shooting at you, you must be doing something right.”  That is probably where a lot of the hate comes from – the conscious or unconscious belief that female writers are indeed hitting too close to home with their observations about a patriarchal world.  I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that the ultimate objective of writing – the pursuit of truth – is better served by more women, not fewer, getting it right and refusing to shut up about it.

Regardless of how many fragile male egos get bruised in the process.

UPDATE:  Emmie responds and includes some links to terrific posts on the same subject, including Chuck Wendig’s.

Long live the Queen

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Amy Good kicks off today’s musings with her thoughtful post about the challenge in writing supernaturally empowered characters.  While it’s important reading for anyone crafting a story that includes such elements (guilty), it got me thinking again about Frozen and what a pivotal moment for the cinematic portrayal of women the character of Queen Elsa actually is.  You’ll forgive the inklings of hyperbole creeping into that statement, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.  (For additional insightful reading on Frozen and its depiction of women, be sure to check out Emmie Mears’ take at Searching For SuperwomenDebbie Vega’s at Moon in Gemini and Liz Hawksworth’s at The Stretch for Something Beautiful.)  I touched on this briefly in my original take on the movie, written the evening after I saw it, but as the movie has sloshed around my subconscious for the last several weeks, and I’ve listened to “Let It Go” more times than should be healthy, I’ve realized that there’s a lot more here worth exploring in greater detail, and some of these other great posts have crystallized – pardon the obvious pun – my thinking on the subject.

To delve more deeply into this character, we have to go back to her long-simmering genesis.  Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen has been around since 1845, and Walt Disney himself had long wanted to give the classic tale the animated treatment.  The stumbling block was always the title character, how to create a compelling version of her that would give modern audiences something to sink their teeth into, and several attempts fell by the wayside and were abandoned.  Even as the movie finally got underway in the latter half of the 2000’s, the story team still couldn’t crack the Queen.  The first stroke of inspiration involved making her the sister of the protagonist, Anna.  The second, and indeed the masterstroke, was in stripping Elsa of her villainy.  If you look at some of the original character concepts (just Google it, there are too many hyperlinks in this post already), Elsa was going to be your tired and typical wicked witch, with Anna presumably forced to fight and ruefully defeat her.  And then, so the legend has it, the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez brought a draft of Elsa’s anthem “Let It Go” to the producers – planned originally as a “look how eeeeevil I am” strut in the vein of similar ditties belted out by Disney villains past.  Of course, that’s not what the Lopezes delivered.  “Let It Go” is a triumphant refrain of self-realization, not something you’d hear from the lips of Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, Scar or any of the Disney baddies that had come before.  Surely, then, Elsa could remain a good person, grappling with her own fears of who she’s become, and figuring out a way to integrate all the parts of her soul into a complete and confident being.  And to give that arc to a woman with magical powers is a blast of fresh Arctic air.  Full marks to screenwriter/co-director Jennifer Lee.

The wicked witch is one of the most regrettable archetypes in literature, because it originates from a fundamental place of (male) discomfort with the idea of powerful women.  We dudes have to face it and deal – women are always going to have powers that we don’t.  They can bear children, i.e. create life; short of bad Arnold Schwarzenegger comedies we’re forever out of luck on that one.  To be completely candid and even a little NC-17, women can arouse us physically in a way we can’t really reciprocate.  And even more to the point, we will never figure them out, no matter how long we spend in their company, how many writings of theirs we read, how many times we beat our heads against the wall when they do something completely unexpected and seemingly out of character.  They’re piercingly right with that old refrain – we just don’t understand.  We won’t.  And everyone knows what the typical human reaction is to something we don’t understand.

I recall reading once that the biggest driver of the persecution of witches in medieval Europe was that era’s version of the American Medical Association, that is, the assorted doctors of the time who were peeved that women were doing better at healing the sick with herbs and other natural lore than they were with the presumably university-endorsed “leech and bleed” treatment.  Invoking a mistranslated Bible verse and calling every second woman a witch was, to them, simply an effective way of eliminating the competition in the medical field.  To say nothing of how many other men probably hurled the charge when an innocent woman failed to return their romantic advances.  The witch became a catchall for everything men didn’t like about the opposite gender, and slithered her way into the darkest pages of the fairy tales that endure to this day.  Always out to cause mischief and throw up barriers to true love and occasionally eat a child or two.

To be fair, Disney’s earliest animated efforts did little to dispel this archetype.  Snow White had the Evil Queen, Sleeping Beauty had Maleficent, both characters of tremendous power, beauty and irredeemable evil (noteworthy that Maleficent’s name comes from the Latin maleficium, which means “wrongdoing.”)  We also had the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and a long, verging on infinite line of fantasy films both sumptuous and cheap featuring scantily-clad and/or hideous magical ladies waylaying our heroes with a combination of spells and wiles and cackling laughter, leading up to Tilda Swinton’s White Witch in the Narnia series, Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mila Kunis’ Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s Evanora in Oz: The Great and Powerful.  Such an easy path to tread for screenwriters half-assing their way through a script assignment.  What is the usual fate of these legions of empowered women?  Death.  Depowering and humiliation from time to time, but usually death.  It’s what they get for stepping outside the natural order, for interfering with the cause of love and freedom, baby.  When it’s at the hands of a man with a sword, the metaphor becomes even more painfully obvious.  Man conquering the unremitting darkness that is woman with his you-know-what.  Cue the Viagra ads.

In Frozen, Elsa’s cryokinetic powers are vast, verging on goddess-level.  We’re not just talking a blast of ice cubes here and there.  She blankets an entire kingdom in an eternal winter.  In the “Let It Go” sequence, she builds a stunning palace of ice with a few waves of her hand and stamps of her feet.  She can defend herself easily against a squad of armed men, and most importantly, she can create life.  With a mere flicker of her magic she conjures Olaf the snowman, an autonomous being with his own unique personality, and also her hulking hench-monster Marshmallow (who, if you stayed till the end of the credits, proves he has a softer side as well.)  To my recollection, the last time a female character as powerful as Elsa appeared on screen was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.  Like Elsa, Jean Grey in that movie was a woman born with incredible abilities she couldn’t control, and also like Elsa, attempted to live within constraints placed upon her by men, until her powers eventually exploded and injured those she cared most about.  Of course, how did that all work out?  Predictably, Jean turned evil, disintegrated a bunch of people, and had to be put out of her misery by a man with metal claws (more below-the-belt symbolism), after she begged him to kill her.  Impaled through the cold, dark heart just like the wicked witch deserves.

Frozen does not end with Elsa being saved or murdered by a man, or losing her powers.  It ends, ironically, with Elsa becoming even more powerful – gaining strength from her sister’s love and learning to thaw what she has frozen.  Achieving a balance and serenity within herself.  One of the most delightful little moments from the end of the movie is watching Elsa create a skating rink for her subjects and them having fun with it, because it signifies that she hasn’t had to sacrifice what makes her special to find acceptance from the outside world.  In her review, Debbie mentioned that some critics of the movie have suggested that Elsa should have had a love interest.  I can’t think of anything that would have so wrecked the essential message.  A woman’s journey to realizing her power is one she has to take on her own, without some barrel-chested dingus patting her hand and telling her “there, there.”  Ultimately, Anna’s sacrifice was about showing Elsa she needed to love herself, and that she could, because her sister would always have her back.  I can’t see that having worked as well or resonated as deeply if Anna was Andy.

What is Frozen telling us menfolk, then?  That a powerful woman isn’t someone we should fear, or try to cage.  That she isn’t someone we need to conquer or subdue in any way.  That we do best to help her figure out who she is and the extent of what she can do by staying the @#$@ out of her way.  And that the greatest thing we can do when she uses that power is cheer.

Failing the Bechdel Test

HBO
HBO

The Bechdel Test, while not, admittedly, without its detractors, should be in the back of mind of any men who write female characters.  I first became aware of it about a year or so ago and it is quite amazing how many fictional works don’t live up to its very simple requirements.  The cartoonist Alison Bechdel who created it in 1985 describes it as follows:  the creative enterprise (film, play, novel, what-have-you) has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Watching this week’s The Newsroom last night I found myself thinking of the Bechdel Test and how the episode (“The Genoa Tip”) failed it.  There were at least four scenes involving two women speaking to one another, but on each occasion the subject was a man or men in general – even dropped into conversations that ostensibly had nothing to do with dudes.  Sloan and Maggie, Maggie and Lisa, Maggie and Mac – men hovered invisibly between them as both sub- and super-text.  You couldn’t help but shrug, especially since the show keeps replaying the clip of Maggie teeing off on Sex and the City (in the form of an embarrassing YouTube video) for its depiction of women who have nothing better to do than talk about men.

It’s important to remember that the Bechdel Test is not an absolute for judging whether something is worthy of your time.  For example, The King’s Speech fails the Bechdel Test because the plot focuses on the bond between two men and the only conversation between two female characters in the movie is also about them.  Perfectly serviceable material nonetheless, and the theme of the story transcends gender.  But it’s disappointing when a television series in particular that features ostensibly strong, professional female characters can’t get them talking about anything other than guys they’re dating/want to date/love from afar/can’t stand the sight of.  Most women I know define themselves and the scope of their lives far beyond the parameters of their romantic relationships, or lack thereof as the case may be.  They are people of greater substance than the boy-crazy constructs our screens and e-readers tend to be littered with.  The problem is that success, as defined by (largely male-driven, let’s be honest) popular culture, means very different things for the sexes.  The man wins the big game, scores the important account, kicks the villain off the precipice to his doom.  The woman gets Prince Charming and the happily ever after.

The key to starting off any story is figuring out what the character wants.  What’s interesting is that for most male characters, “getting the girl” is almost always the secondary goal.  In any James Bond movie that consideration comes only after the cat-stroking baddie’s plan to blow up the world has been thwarted.  By contrast, “getting the guy” is usually the primary goal for a female protagonist, and her professional goals (if there are any) are depicted as less important in the face of the possibility of true love.  (In stories where getting the girl is the man’s primary goal, said “getting” often means “getting between the sheets with” and an apple pie’s honor gets besmirched in the process.)  It therefore follows, given this premise, that conversations between characters, whether the same gender or not, would be oriented exclusively towards the pursuit of the primary goal.  In the case of two women speaking to one another, this means the subject will be a man and/or men, and thus, bzzzzt!  Bechdel Test fail.

No one is suggesting that we should stop writing love stories, or, more to the point, stories where love is all you – man or woman – need, or want.  Love is so indelibly part of the human experience that to expect otherwise is unrealistic.  It behooves us though, particularly male authors, to consider the Bechdel Test as we craft the interactions of our characters.  It’s a premise as simple as the old advice about avoiding clichés.  Instead of writing lazily that something is “as black as night” or comparing the blackness of said object to coal or ravens, force yourself away from those hoary old examples toward something new.  Likewise, if you’re writing a conversation between two women, say to yourself from the outset that the subject of men is verboten and see where the words take you instead, once you manhandle them (pun intended) onto a different path.  Yes, a large portion of “The Genoa Tip” was devoted to the aftermath of Maggie’s breakup with Don, the implosion of her friendship with her roommate over her now-very-public feelings for Jim and so on, but did a perfectly reasonable and professional discussion between Maggie and Mac over whether or not Maggie could go to Uganda on assignment have to be spoiled by Mac’s unnecessary comment about Will’s doucheyness?  I may be picking nits a little, but when the episode (and indeed, much of the series to date) had already ventured so deeply into Bechdel-fail territory it was just one tiptoe too far.

Ultimately, the lesson of the Bechdel Test, and why I consider it useful in approaching fiction (and even non-fiction opinion pieces such as this one) is this:  there is far more to a woman, and to women, than the men they fall in or out of love with, and our stories about them should reflect that.

Sorry, you’re out of the club

Wendy Davis.
Wendy Davis.

The United States heads into today’s Fourth of July celebrations consumed by anger at its women, as one state legislature after another attempts to enact laws that remove a woman’s right to manage her own body.  Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis of Texas recently became a national figure when she staged a twelve-hour filibuster to kill SB5, a bill that would have shuttered the state’s Planned Parenthood clinics, an event that exposed some truly ugly anti-female leanings from her right-wing colleagues (and a swift decision by chromosome-challenged Governor Rick Perry to schedule a special session to pass the bill anyway in a manner that won’t be able to be filibustered).  Ohio’s budget bill recently signed into law by Governor John Kasich contains language that redefines the concept of when pregnancy begins.  And it appears that North Carolina has also followed suit by slipping anti-abortion wording into an unrelated bill.  Medical decisions that should belong only to women and their doctors are being shoved down throats (or, to put it more bluntly and accurately, up vaginas) by old Bible-waving men whose medical expertise is limited to having seen every episode of Trapper John, M.D.  It’s abhorrent and nauseating to imagine the damage that will be done by these draconian measures, and the mind simply reels at the idea of a country where a vagina must be strictly regulated but doing the same to a lethal firearm represents an infringement on freedom.

The U.S. is not alone, but merely the latest world player to climb aboard the bad ship Misogyny.  We look aghast across the ocean at nations where women are forced to veil themselves head to toe and walk ten paces behind their husbands, and cannot even ride bicycles, let alone drive cars.  It is the most bizarre of pendulum swings that as women become more independent, successful and (gasp!) powerful, the old guard reacts by trying to legislate them back into submission.  By suggesting that women aren’t intelligent enough to manage their own bodies, and that it falls to Big Strong He-Man to pat her on the head and tell her boys know better while ushering her back to the kitchen to make him a sandwich and fetch him a beer.  Oh, and to have unlimited sex with him whenever and only exactly how he wants it.

That kind of backward attitude can only come, it seems to me, from a place of pure fear, fear of the mystical and irresistibly compelling unknown that is the lady parts.  What continues to elude me though is why all these men are so afraid.  What do they think is going to happen?  Truly?  Perhaps it’s the terror of the eternally insecure, the paranoiac who forever walks in worry of being exposed as a complete fraud, a construct of paper with no purpose to his existence.  An excellent depiction of this fear can be found in Ksenia Anske’s upcoming novel Siren Suicides, where the heroine must deal with an abusive father who insists that women are made only to “haul water.”  Papa frequently belts his daughter across the face to “remind her” and keep her controlled.  As the story unfolds, we discover that the seed of this hatred of women lies in his betrayal by one woman in particular.  It is not a stretch to imagine that much of the world’s misogyny originates in a man’s frustration with one specific woman from his past – projecting her perceived “sins” onto her entire gender.  “You’re all a bunch of feminists,” Marc Lepine railed infamously as he perpetrated the Montreal Massacre.  You’re all.  Woman is all women.  The so-called failings of one are the failings of the collective.  They must be controlled, regulated, kept down, lest… well, that’s the question, isn’t it, and that’s where you’ll find the fear.

I’m sorry, but I don’t get it, and as the politicians say, let me be abundantly clear.  I’m goddamned tired of it.  Because as men, we can do so much better, and yet we’re letting the standard be lowered daily by mouth-breathing troglodytes who can’t handle the funny feels that spring up (pun intended) in their groins when a woman walks by.  Who resent the notion that anyone could have power over their manly manliness and who try to prove it by essentially wrapping vaginas in red tape (or shoving ultrasound wands inside them, as the case may be with some of these recent laws).  Is this really what men want to be known for when the history of the 21st Century is written?

The aforementioned Neanderthal types need to take a hard long look in the mirror and ask themselves if this is what they signed up for.  If they want to perpetuate the cycle of hatred for another generation.  I have little optimism at this point that they will do so, however – the proverbial road-to-Damascus conversion is just that, the stuff of proverbs.  So it is incumbent on the rest of us – and I’m speaking to my fellow men here, the ones who shift silently and uncomfortably in their seats when their best friend’s douchebag cousin makes a crude remark about the waitress instead of telling him to shut his filthy mouth and get the hell out.  We need to be louder, and announce that not only do the Rick Perrys and John Kasichs of the world not speak for us, but that we’re kicking them out of the club, effective immediately – do not pass Go, do not collect $200.  That’s it.  Their “man card” is revoked.  They will no longer be welcome in gatherings of real men, nor will they earn a single one of our votes come election time.  We won’t drink with them, we won’t talk sports with them.  We’ll cross the street to avoid them.  We’ll shun them without pity.  They will be condemned to peer longingly in the window from the cold street at those of us who know that a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be.

A man who demeans a woman or women in any way does not deserve the honor of being called a man.  He’s an amateur, a lightweight, an utter joke of a waste of otherwise usable DNA overcompensating for what nature saw fit – justifiably so – to deny him.  It’s time the rest of us men started treating him accordingly.  Like how he treats women.  Hopefully he’ll learn something and change his ways.  Until then, forget it pal, you’re outta here.

Twitter bios: Who are you, really?

@MobyDick.  Whale.  Love eating krill and plankton.  Not fond of one-legged captains.  #GetOverItAhab
@MobyDick. Whale. Love eating krill and plankton. Not fond of one-legged captains. #GetOverItAhab

On Twitter, we are what we say.  We have the opportunity to craft a complete online identity through what we talk about, who we talk with and what we share.  I have met some amazing people through Twitter and had some engaging, thought-provoking and downright hilarious conversations, with folks I might otherwise be terrified to approach were I to see them out on the street (Russell Crowe, looking in your direction, mate).

Disappointing on occasion though are the Twitter bios people write for themselves.  A mere 160 characters to sit on your Twitter account permanently and try to encapsulate who you are and why people should be interested in you.  Folks who are using Twitter strictly as a marketing tool are the worst, describing themselves as flatly and as soullessly as the plastic widgets they’re attempting to push on you.  And some traits are dropped in so commonly and so lazily as to lose all meaning – “coffee drinker,” for example, which is about as distinguishing as saying you’re an “oxygen breather.”

I’m also puzzled as to why some Tweeps waste characters with “Tweets are my own,” “Retweets are not endorsements” and “I follow back!”  I understand that if you want to mouth off about how badly last night’s Stanley Cup playoff game went, you don’t want anyone to possibly infer that your profane criticism of the refereeing reflects the official views and positions of the ABC Company.  I think most people are smart enough to understand that although we all work, we all have private lives as well.  My Twitter life is entirely disengaged from my work life, even though there are people I work with who follow me (and I follow them).  But I don’t talk about work.  EVER.  I don’t say where I work and I don’t bitch about work.  Look, I’m at work all day, every day, and I have enough of it on my mind without it spilling into my social media life too.  Saying “Tweets are my own” is just dumb though.  Of course they’re your own.  They’re not Phil’s, and they’re not Uncle Frank’s, and people get that.

“Retweets are not endorsements” is another one that to me, is a waste of space.  I mean, I suppose there’s the fear that you might retweet somebody’s joke about airline travel only to find out a few weeks later that he once got arrested for masturbating in a park, and suddenly you’re a supporter of public self-pleasure by association or some such nonsense.  Look, I can think Braveheart is a great movie and no one would ever accuse me of sympathizing with some of the reprehensible views that Mel Gibson has espoused publicly.  When you retweet something, it’s because you thought that particular statement was worth sharing again.  You’re not suddenly a staunch enthusiast of everything that person has ever said.  I think this is one we just need to agree on collectively and then, just as collectively, remove it from every single Twitter bio on earth.

Finally, announcing “I follow back” or using the hashtag #TeamFollowBack is, as Ricky Gervais has said, a little bit sad.  It pretty much guarantees that people will only follow you to bump up their own numbers, and not because they are truly interested in hearing what you have to say.  I know I’m going against the advice of every single Internet marketing specialist here, but I think of Twitter as what the cable companies will never offer:  an opportunity to pick your own channels, a la carte, without having to pay for or suffer through programs you don’t want.  You can very easily build up a massive following by just following everyone you can and unfollowing those who don’t follow back, but what does that get you in the end?  An awful lot of noise.  I follow people who will add value to my day, and that’s my sole criterion.

So, what should you put in your Twitter bio?  Well, I’m not saying mine is the epitome of awesome, but I think it’s pretty good, and here’s why.  When you click on my profile, this is what you’ll see:

Writer, novelist-in-waiting, HuffPoster, Anglo, James Bond and Aaron Sorkin-phile, happy liberal, lover of martinis, women and song, preferably all at once.

1. Writer, novelist-in-waiting, HuffPoster:  Chuck Wendig has a great line about how you’re either a writer or you aren’t, the word “aspiring” sucks, and that you shouldn’t differentiate just because you may not necessarily get paid for your words.  Right now, I don’t make money for anything I write.  I hope that will change soon, but it doesn’t stop me from writing.  Ergo, I am a writer.  I say “novelist-in-waiting” because I do have one finished novel, but to me, “novelist” suggests that you have more than one.  I don’t yet.  When I do, the “in-waiting” will fall off.  And again, just because I haven’t published it and no one’s paid to read it doesn’t mean a thing.  It’s a novel, I wrote it, it exists.  Finally, I should think it’s fairly obvious why “HuffPoster” is there.  23 articles and counting, so yeah, that one I can back up with solid evidence and the hateful comments that go with it.

2. Anglo, James Bond and Aaron Sorkin-phile:  A small sampling of my popular culture interests.  I have been enamored with all things English since probably the first time I heard someone speak in an English accent, which, given the second item in the list, was probably in watching a James Bond movie.  It also covers Monty Python, the Beatles and the majority of my taste in music, movies, books, the lot.  And I’m an Aaron Sorkin fan because his writing helped me find my own writing voice.  (Which reminds me, I must get to that in another post sometime as I believe I did promise it a while back.)

3. Happy liberal:  I don’t talk about politics on Twitter (or here) as much as I used to because the anger and hate that it stirs up on occasion (read: constantly) is becoming a bit stomach-churning in my old age.  But in a way, this is a shorthand message to politically inclined folks who might like to follow me that this is where I start from.  If you’re a worshipper of all things Ronald Reagan, free market libertarianism and neo-conservative warmongering, I don’t think you’ll find me very interesting; in fact, I may make your blood boil.  I certainly won’t be seeking you out so I can crap all over your home feed with bleeding heart, namby-pamby communism.  Let’s just agree to disagree and leave each other alone then.  On the other hand, if you think we should base decisions on science, ensure that the rich pay their fair share, stop paving planet Earth indiscriminately and live in a society where we look after each other and help boost each other up, if you believe that government can be a force for good when the best people are involved in it, if you believe that a small group of committed citizens can change the world because it’s the only thing that ever has, then sign on up, glad to have you, I might even follow back.

4. Lover of martinis, women and song:  Yes, I do love me a martini.  All kinds – dry, fruity, decorated with chocolate shavings or plastic parasols, doesn’t matter.  It’s a drink of sophistication that makes a man feel comfortable in a jacket and tie – a throwback to the era when class and erudition was the real swag.  I’m old-fashioned that way, I suppose, but in a time when being a man seems to be a race to the bottom of a beer and nacho-cheese soaked barrel, I’m proud to be an anachronism.  A lover of women?  Yes, dear goddess yes, in all facets.  Not a day goes by where I don’t ponder a particular woman or women in general with awe and admiration.  I love them for their indomitable strength, their ability to take every setback life throws at them because of their gender and say, “is that all you’ve got, little man?”  I love their minds, I love their senses of humor, I love their ability to see right through us, to strip away our phoniness and our pretend selves and force us to figure out who we really are.  I love the music in their laughter, the poetry in their tears.  I love their connection with who they are and the world they live in.  I love the scent of their hair, the softness of their skin, the tone of their legs, the elegance of their hands.  I love that I’m married to the most incredible woman on the planet, that I’m the brother of the second most incredible woman on the planet and that I’m privileged to know so many of their sisters.  And I love to celebrate women in the words I write – which, I suppose, is the meaning of the “song” here.

5. Preferably all at once:  Because a perfect evening is listening to my wife croon Ella Fitzgerald while I sip a Vesper.

There you have it – not saying that it’s perfect or that it won’t ever change.  But if you want to get to know me, it’s a good place to start.  Then you have to let my words do the rest.

Putting it out there then:  How do you describe yourself on Twitter?

A price above rubies

Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) and Christina Hendricks (Joan).

What price does a woman put on her soul?  How blurred is the line between integrity and compromise?

As Puritanical attitudes towards what is acceptable to a television viewing audience have softened, the portrayal of women has evolved as well, with the smiling apron-wearing June Cleaver giving way to ever more complex characters, where what it means to be a woman, in all its wonderful, contradictory glory, is examined on a psychological level – much more deeply than hacky debates on the best make of shoes or how sexually inadequate their partners may be.  Last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, “The Other Woman,” after four and a half seasons of examining the ways in which men compromise themselves in pursuit of wealth, sex and power, took its two strongest female characters and forced them to ask themselves what their own price might be.  Joan agreed to an indecent proposal in exchange for a partnership in the company, while the lately taken-for-granted Peggy decided her worth couldn’t be expressed in numbers and chose to walk when that was all she was offered to stay.

The buxom redhead Joan has been described by the show’s creators as man-like in her full command of her sexuality, a beautiful woman who is well aware of the effect she has on those obsessed by mammaries.  To their (and Christina Hendricks’) credit, she has never been portrayed as the kind of vampy temptress such a description usually fits; she isn’t working from the Erica Kane playbook, but rather striving, consistently, to prove herself as the best at her job.  As to her relationships with the men and the women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, one will forgive what sounds like a puerile argument when the symbolism of Joan as mother figure is expanded upon.  Even those who have expressed sexual desire for her, whether fulfilled like Roger Sterling or unrequited like Lane Pryce, have found themselves in the position of whimpering babes at her ample breast.  Others, like cardboard husband Greg, have been unable to cope.  (Greg escaped, ironically, to the boys-only army.)  Her relationship with serial womanizer Don is perhaps the most complex of all – ironic that the two best-looking people on the show have never taken it much beyond a brother-sister level.  Don is man enough, in the end, to recognize that Joan agreeing to sleep with a lecherous car dealer in exchange for securing the Jaguar account isn’t the path she should take.  The episode played expectations by staging Don’s last-ditch attempt to change Joan’s mind without revealing until later that it took place well after the deed was done.  Was Joan truly as compromised as most reviewers of this episode tend to believe, or was it a logical progression in her evolution – a conclusion on her part, regardless of what we may think of its validity, that to get where she wants to be, she has to use every talent at her disposal, regardless of the collateral damage to her spirit?  Coincidentally, this week’s Game of Thrones featured a scene where the ruthlessly ambitious Cersei Lannister drunkenly observed to the virginal Sansa Stark that a woman’s greatest weapon lay between her legs.  Has Joan crossed that line now?  Has she decided that being good at what she does is only going to take her so far?  One thing is for certain, in the jubilation that accompanied the announcement of SCDP’s winning the Jaguar account, newly-minted partner Joan was as out of place as a prostitute at a church picnic.  Perhaps inside, that was how she felt.

Peggy, on the other hand, while she has had her share of romances (and one ill-advised fling with Pete Campbell, whose abject disinterest in her since that early episode indicates that she was strictly a novelty to him) is the little chickadee to Joan’s mother hen.  Unlike Joan, she’s never really had the option to full-out Mata Hari lecherous men into helping advance her station in life, and so her drive to prove herself comes more from a place of not having much of a choice otherwise.  She and Joan both find themselves brushing against the glass ceiling, and for Peggy, going down the road suggested by Cersei Lannister is not only unpalatable, but unnecessary.  Peggy’s worth is not tied to her future at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – it is, after all, only one of many companies out there where her talents can be of use, as is quickly proven by her meeting and ultimate decision to go work with Ted Chaough.  When she admits this to her mentor, Don – while incredibly empathetic in his encounter with Joan – cannot reconcile the idea that Peggy’s problem cannot be solved with just more money.  But Peggy is in as much a crisis of spirit as the one faced by Joan.  Oddly enough, Joan’s loyalty to SCDP and its people – her mother’s instinct again – was probably what led her to make the choice she did, the dangling carrot of a partnership aside.  Peggy, by contrast, realizes that to grow as a person she must, in a Buddhist sense, divest herself of her attachment to Don Draper and the old gang.  The little chickadee has to leave the nest.  It is a much healthier decision, and explains the smile on her face as she steps onto the elevator for the last time, with the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” playing in the background in a final brushstroke of symbolism.

Proverbs 31:10 says that the worth of a virtuous woman is far above rubies.  Joan let herself be bought, some would say for far less than rubies.  Peggy didn’t.  What is most important, however, is that in the end, the choice was theirs.  They may indeed have a price, but they are going to be the ones to decide what that price is.  These women defined themselves instead of letting men do it for them – a greater achievement in the sexist era in which Mad Men takes place.  They were willing to accept the consequences of that definition, whatever they may be.  And taking absolute charge of one’s destiny is, to risk a cliche, true empowerment.

Game of Thrones and the many faces of the goddess

Carice van Houten as Melisandre, warning of darkness and horror and the return of the smoke monster from Lost.

Maiden, mother, crone; child, witch, whore; the meek and the bold, the submissive and the dominant, the loving and the cruel.  The infinite and mesmerizing complexity of the feminine was embodied by the incredible women of Game of Thrones in this week’s episode, “Garden of Bones.”  While the show can come off as a man’s world in which kings, knights, lords, gentlemen and brutes alike vie for power, “Garden of Bones” reminded the audience that even as they strut in their armor and proclaim their mastery of all they survey, the men are but pieces in this grand game, and that the women are holding the board up – with a flick of their elegant wrists this precarious world will collapse.  That they have not yet done so speaks to the quiet bemusement with which they allow the boys to go about their manly and yet hollow pursuits.

That the men of Westeros are ultimately servants to the other half of the sky is evident in several scenes in the episode where men attempt to assert their dominance only to see their egos undercut by feminine power.  The arrogant Littlefinger, his very moniker a comment on his masculine limitations, waltzes into Renly Baratheon’s camp, first confronting Margaery Tyrell about Renly’s love that dare not speak its name, then presenting his unrequited crush Catelyn with Ned’s remains and dangling a chance to reunite her with her captive daughters.  In both instances the women will have none of it.

Margaery knows well that her marriage is a sham designed to secure a political alliance and is content to act her role, and Catelyn is not so naïve that a shameless appeal to her maternal instincts will excuse Littlefinger’s betrayal of her late husband.  Robb Stark is struck speechless by the simple healer Talisa when his proud military victory is utterly diminished by her simple comments to him in the battle’s aftermath, as she accuses him of massacring a bunch of innocents and having no greater plan for the future of the Seven Kingdoms.

Where Littlefinger and Robb respond to their encounters with powerful women with silence, a more sinister path is taken by another profoundly insecure man attempting to assert his dominance over the female – in the skin-crawling scene where petulant King Joffrey commands one prostitute to beat another bloody.  He cannot master them with his questionable masculinity, so he uses the coward’s fallback of fear and brutal violence instead.  Joffrey’s understanding that he can never equal Robb Stark as a military commander, the more traditional masculine role, leads him to mistreat Sansa instead.  Interestingly, while the delicate, virginal Sansa appears to be displaying battered woman syndrome in her continual proclamations of love for Joffrey despite his abuse, she is doing so not out of misplaced devotion but self-preservation – biding her time until she is freed of this monster.  Her sister, Arya, utterly defeminised by circumstance (even commenting to Lord Tywin that being a boy made it easier) is likewise still a reserve of indomitable strength, going to sleep each night muttering, like a mantra, the name of each man she means to see dead.

Indeed, the only male character who seems not intimidated by the power of women (at least in this episode) is the one whose masculinity has always been dismissed by his fellow men:  Tyrion Lannister.  In fact, it is his knowledge of his cousin’s weakness for Queen Cersei’s feminine wiles and his ability to manipulate that awareness that allows him to gain a spy against his scheming sister.

The two sides of motherhood, giving nurturer and ferocious protector, are also on display with the “Mother of Dragons” Daenerys when she is petitioning for entrance to the desert city of Qarth, first pleading that a refusal to admit her people would condemn them to death, then threatening to use her dragons to burn the city to the ground when she is rebuffed.  She is the mother of her clan of ragtag Dothraki as much as Catelyn finds herself mother and counselor not only to the Starks but to the men who would be King (treating the battling brothers Baratheon as if they were her own misbehaving children).  Where her gilded sibling Viserys was an entitled prat cut from the same unearned royal cloth as Joffrey, Dany’s leadership qualities are being forged through fire.

And speaking of fire, there is Melisandre, the enchantress, trying to tempt grizzled old Davos Seaworth with the secrets beneath her robe.  When he finally beholds her stunning (and very pregnant) naked self, the Onion Knight comes face to face with a depiction of the primal fear of all men, what they cannot understand and have never been able to control since the Garden of Eden:  the magical temple of life and sexuality that is the woman’s reproductive system, from which emerges in a Freudian ecstasy of smoke and shadow the darkness and horror that Melisandre had cautioned Renly about earlier.  To see this sheer force step forth and take shape as the sorceress smiles, at once incomprehensible and weirdly compelling, is the final affirmation in an episode already packed with revelations that the women have written the rules of the Game of Thrones, and they are its referees.  For all the talk of the old gods, even Melisandre’s repeated comments about the “Lord of Light,” it is the Goddess, in all her magnificence, elegance, vulnerability, bravery, mystery and cruelty, all her many forms, young and old, beautiful and ugly, wise and foolish, who is running the show.

To the other half of the sky

As International Women’s Day dawns, one cannot help but look back on the events of the last few days, the last few weeks, even the last few years as arguably the antithesis of everything this day is meant to represent.  It is almost as if, societally, we are seeing a hard return swing of the pendulum, a pushback by the men of the world against the leaps forward made by women over the last hundred years – in some ways an all too predictable accompaniment to the collective freak-out over the uncertainty of the future and the resulting rise of right-wing extremism in mainstream thought.  Neanderthal legislators in several states are ramming through draconian measures forcing women to submit to invasive medical procedures prior to being able to legally terminate a pregnancy.  Even the basic freedom to use contraception is under threat, with the gargantuan gasbag of the airwaves, Rush Limbaugh, suggesting that women who use it are asking for subsidized promiscuity.  Fortunately he’s been subjected to a massive backlash because of his remarks, but it’s distressing that the political climate has become so anti-woman that he felt he could say something like that in the first place – it’s from the same line of thought that allowed the President of Afghanistan to pass a resolution declaring men to be fundamentally more important than women.  Some might ask what the hell has happened lately, but the question goes deeper than that.  It strikes at the very heart of our entire civilization, and the basic fact that men simply cannot understand women – and what they can’t understand, they try to control.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian features among its many hilarious scenes a bit where the People’s Front of Judea adopts a resolution that one of its male members can have the right to have babies, despite having no womb – “Where’s the fetus gonna gestate?  In a box?”  The fellow at the center of the bit opines that his interest in women comes from his desire to be one – in a way, a basic expression of men’s inability to figure women out.  Pagan beliefs speak of woman as the triple goddess – the mother, the maiden and the crone, a holy trinity of complexity, a balanced equation of purity, maturity, wisdom, emotion and above all, beauty.  Try explaining that to the guys at the bar on a Saturday night in single syllable words using visual aids and pie charts while the game’s on.  And let me know how it turns out.

There is no way to understand a woman other than being one yourself, and that drives men absolutely bonkers.   Women have a power over men that is inscrutable to men as well as infuriating, because we pride ourselves on our ability to remain in control at all times, indomitable masters of our domain – one glimpse of a beautiful woman walking by and that all goes out the window.  Men’s measurement of their lives, their virility, their achievements, their status, is directly related to how much attention it garners them from women; what women think of them.  Advertisers understand this, which is why you can put the world’s most useless white elephant in the hands of a woman in a bikini and sales will explode.  And it’s why the most confident man turns to an insecure pile of jelly if a woman for whom he feels desire isn’t interested.  His very existence as a man of importance is threatened.  Men don’t like giving up that control to anyone.  To paraphrase Yoda, insecurity then turns to fear, fear turns to anger, anger turns to hate.

Women are insulted, humiliated, shunned, subjugated, beaten, violated, harassed, dismissed and even murdered because men can’t accept that they are different and special – perhaps, in what is man’s deepest, darkest fear, more special or indeed, better than them.  And men have perfected this pattern over thousands of years to the point where women think it’s their fault.  They are made to feel inadequate, to hate their bodies, to crave a fantasy ideal of physical and emotional perfection that is so utterly foreign to what it truly means to be a woman – because that is what a man thinks they should be.  A powerful, intelligent and confident woman – the actual ideal, at least from this man’s admittedly limited perspective – is dismissed as a harpy, a harridan, or a bitch, and sadly still in many countries, put to death.  Every woman held back from achieving her potential is another notch in man’s ever-lengthening belt of oppression, and every time a woman fails in any way because of a man’s bruised ego, we should all be utterly ashamed of ourselves.  Our collective human potential for greatness will never be achieved until every last one of us, man and woman, is permitted to be who they are, utterly free of the archaic constraints of a patriarchal society that men fail to realize holds them back as much as it keeps women down.  In the end, men don’t need to understand women, they just need to accept them – and let them be who they are.  Despite traditional expectation, we might just find that we enjoy the results.