Tag Archives: feminism

“I am a man”

“I am a man,” writes Ursula Le Guin in her book the wave in the mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. She doesn’t mean it literally; instead, she’s making some potent observations on the past and present of Western culture.

She goes on. “Women are a very recent invention. I predate the invention of women by decades.” I love this! She’s telling a tall tale that makes us look at the world with fresh eyes and laugh at it. It’s the sugar that makes bitter truths go down.

“So when I was born,” she continues, there actually were only men. People were men. They all had one pronoun, his pronoun; so that’s who I am.”

She’s not, however, a particularly successful man: “I can’t write my name with pee in the snow, or it would be awfully laborious if I did.”

Le Guin goes on to explain all the other ways she fails at being a man, and then points out that she’s not much good at being young either, and suggests that perhaps she might as well start pretending that she is an old woman. “I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.”

Of course she isn’t a man; she is an old woman, and a mighty fine one at that. If I’m ever fortunate enough to become an old woman, and I can pull it off half as well as she does, I’ll be happy. I hope she stays an old woman for a long, long, long time.

But I do resonate with what she says. I’m a man too. A feminist man. I became a feminist boy at the age of ten, when I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series and identified so strongly with George, the girl who insisted on being called a boy. George believed that boys were better than girls, and by being a boy, she was better than a girl.

Feminist discourse was right there with me, for quite a while. Women could be as good as men, but only by becoming like them. I didn’t see a separate and worthwhile female identity for a long time — or rather, it’s come into focus only slowly, as I stay home, do housework, and raise kids. I have to keep reminding myself that my work is valuable and important.

(That means it’s time to take an intermission from this blog post and listen to Carole King singing about The Enchanted One.)

Okay, that’s better. Anyhow, I’m gradually coming around to the concept that I might be a woman. Dresses — no. Purses — no. Lipstick and eyeshadow — no. Girls’ night out — you bet! Listening to the Verity Podcast — absolutely! Favoring books by woman — yes! It seems my gender changes as my activities change. Maybe that’s my superpower.

I absolutely loved what Ursula Le Guin had to say about women at the 2010 Winter Fishtrap gathering, themed “Learning From Women.” She was uncomfortable with defining what a “woman” was, and pointed out that women are required to learn how to be men, but the same is not true in reverse. A proposal went out that we might honor the men in the audience by letting them be honorary women. Well, that was mind-blowing!

Okay, now, I’ve managed 548 words without talking about Doctor Who, even though I’m really, REALLY excited about Doctor Who right now. We just saw an episode where a woman, Clara, played a man, the Doctor. She did it flawlessly. Why, she’s as good as a man!  Who knew? (Or you could look at it another way: the role of Doctor turned out to be gender-neutral and to fit a man or a woman equally well.)

So how come, I wonder to myself, how come I didn’t get all excited about seeing a woman Doctor, but instead wrote a blog post all about the man, and what he’s thinking and feeling? That question is right up there with, “Well, I’m a feminist, so why am I taken with this quite patronizing and patriarchal character?” Also, “If the role were to be played by a woman, would I like it as much?”

Another question: when I watch the show who am I identifying with? The female companion or the male Doctor? The answer is both, and that sometimes it’s one more than the other. When I first started watching the Doctor Who, I identified most strongly with the female companion, Zoe. She was about my age, and a good student, and she got to one-up the Doctor intellectually from time to time. I also identified with Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane, Nyssa, and Ace.

Right now, though, I’m mostly identifying with the Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi. And I’m doing it whenever he has a difficult choice to make or an ethical question to consider.


canyonlands graffiti2

Feminism on the home front

I was at the table with my husband, seven-year-old daughter, and nine-year-old son, and I decided to broach the topic of feminism with my daughter, basically so I could talk with her about Doctor Who and blogging. So here’s what I said. (Names have been changed for privacy purposes.)

“Jenna, do you know what feminism is?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

My mind went blank for a minute. How do you explain this to a seven-year old? It’s not possible. I oversimplified.

“Well, it’s a lot of things, but basically it’s the idea that a girl is as good as a boy and a woman is as good as a man.”

“Then I’m a feminist!” she said proudly.

“I am too,” I said.

“And I am too,” said my husband.

My son Ryan, who had been listening intently, said,

“Well, I haven’t decided yet.”

We didn’t challenge that or browbeat him. I’m glad he’s honest. This will be one of many, many conversations about respect for women, I’m sure.

But my husband said, “Well, it’s also about the rules for what women can do and what men can do.”

I said, “Right. Women can wear women’s clothes and men’s clothes. Men can only wear men’s clothes. That’s not fair.”

My husband said, “Right, and men aren’t allowed to have long hair!”

Jenna said, “But you have long hair!” and pointed to him and laughed.

Finally I brought the conversation back to Doctor Who and some blog posts about the Bechdel test. I said, “So there are a lot of feminists blogging about last week’s episode of Doctor Who. Clara and Emma kept trying to talk to each other, and the Doctor kept interrupting them.”

Jenna said, “But did Clara interrupt the Doctor?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, that’s fair then!” she said.

This Chick Digs “Chicks Unravel Time”

I dig it. Chicks Unravel Time, ed. Deborah Stanish and L.M. Myles, brings in a mad collection of feminists – fans, authors, artists – to take a look at every season of Doctor Who. And what a look! They give close examinations to everything from the use of stock music in Season 5 in Classic Who to David Tennant’s bum in Series 2 of New Who. (We women like every aspect of the Doctor, apparently.)

Here are a few shout-outs to essays that ringed a bell for me.

In “Guten Tag, Hitler,” Rachel Swirsky asks some pointed questions about the Doctor. As a child, Swirsky asked her mom if her family was safe from such persecution because they did not practice the Jewish religion. No, said her mother. So this episode takes on highly personal significance for Swirsky. She asks the very reasonable question of why the Doctor didn’t try to save the Jews from Hitler. “The Doctor,” she writes, “doesn’t save people from the all-too-real horrors of trenches and machetes. He rescues them from malfunctioning robots.”

In “Identity Crisis,” L.M. Myles writes, “[Patrick] Troughton’s not merely good as the Doctor, he’s the best.” Thank you, L.M. Myles. I’ve never heard anybody say that before, but I absolutely agree. She writes: “His performance combines humor, compassion, intelligence and mystery in a way that’s still unmatched by any other actor to take on the role” and “[his] whimsy and apparent uncertainty in his own abilities makes him a very different sort of hero.” Yes, and yes. Troughton is panicky as often as he is triumphant and out of control as often as he is successful. I love it. Who wants a hero who has everything handled?

In “The Women We Don’t See,” K. Tempest Bradford looks at Season Thirteen, companion Sarah Jane Smith, and all the other women . . . who weren’t there. “For most of this season, the Doctor travels alone with Sarah Jane – and in half the stories, she’s the only women we see, with the exception of extras and background people. This erasure is as glaring as the stereotypes we get when women do eventually show up.” I remember watching this season for the first time. And the second. And the third. And not noticing that omission.

In “No Competition,” Una McCormack argues that Season 26, with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, is the best season ever. She writes, “Season Twenty-Six contains a magic combination of complex storytelling and satisfactory realization that, to my mind, is never quite matched before or since.” I agree it’s pretty darn awesome. Sylvester McCoy and his companion Ace are some of my favorite characters. McCormack writes: “Ace grows up, and Doctor Who grows up with her. Again and again, the season imagines women as heroes of their own narratives, as authors of their own stories.” Yeah. What she said.

In “Ace Through the Looking-Glass,” Elisabeth Bolton-Gabrielsen covers that story arc that Ace should have had, if the show hadn’t been cancelled. I didn’t know this, but Ace was supposed to train to become a Time Lord.

I’ve saved my favorite for last. In “Maids and Masters: The Distribution of Power in Doctor Who Series Three,” Courtney Stoker takes on the power dynamics between the Doctor and his companions. She writes: “Power impacts every relationship the Doctor has, but it’s not something Who fans talk about often. We like to pretend, I think, that the Doctor’s extraordinary power isn’t important. We like to think that it doesn’t affect him or his relationships with others. We like to think that if companions are ‘strong’ enough, sassy enough, smart enough, they are his equals. But no matter how many times a companion saves the Doctor, or how many times a companion stands up to him, they don’t have his power.” The rest of the essay is a frank assessment of power dynamics in Series Three. (Can I just add, on a related note, how disturbing and gratuitous I found the maid/Master dynamic in the tenure of Martha Jones?) I loved this essay because I am always analyzing power dynamics in Doctor Who relationships. I relish every last little bit of power the companions wrest from the Doctor or that the Doctor yields to the companions. And I love all the moments when the power dynamics between the Doctor and his companions shift one way or another. Stoker asks: “Are we fans as attracted to the Doctor’s power as his companions are?” Um, yes.

I’ve picked out these essays in particular, but the others are just as stunning. Go get it! It’s available as part of a box set on the Mad Norwegian Press website.

Genderfail Sucker Punch!

Couple caveats: #1 I don’t know the whole story so I’m sure I left out important bits; and #2 that I don’t blame any individual people for this. It’s societal.

A sucker punch is “an unexpected blow” but to me holds the additional connotation that “you should’ve expected it, sucker!” When I think of a sucker punch, I think of Charlie Brown still trying to kick that football Lucy is holding.

Genderfail is Internet slang for some sort of failure to appropriately address issues of gender. To my mind it’s a sister term to “racefail,” which can be absolutely epic. For an example of racefail: “RaceFail ’09 is one of the names given to a large and tangled snarl of racism, misunderstanding, culture clash, poor behavior, and hurt which consumed several interconnected corners of fandom in early 2009.” (This is from http://fanlore.org/wiki/RaceFail_%2709)

So now I can explain how I’m using these terms in this blog post: a snarl of feminism, misunderstanding, culture clash, poor behavior, and hurt — that came as a surprise blow to me even though I really should have known better.

My suspicion is that any political organization comprising both men and women is going to have a genderfail at some point. I mean, how do you avoid it, really?

So anyway, there was a political organization. I joined it because although it was male-dominated, it had a core of feminists, and I thought that would be enough to bring real change. Then some things happened, and I went inactive. This part wasn’t genderfail, it was just your basic organizational dysfunction. (Note to self: if it takes an organization more than six months to make a new member packet, it’s time to run.) So I was on the listserv but mostly not paying attention.

Another woman went inactive after having a baby.

Meanwhile, the organization kept on doing what it was doing. Let me make a metaphor here. Let’s suppose that you have built a house, and some people have moved in. Then some more people have moved in, and it is determined that the house needs an add-on, which will take about three to six months. People get out of the way to accomodate the add-on. Maybe a couple people take temporary housing (that would be me) whereas others just move out and move on. Suddenly you don’t need the add-on, but you keep going. And it takes a year and a half, by which time other people have left. Meanwhile, next door, there is a high-rise condo going up. It is determined that the community who lives in the house will take part in the building of the high-rise condo, and about half the people go off and do that.

I guess I was waiting for the high-rise condo to be finished so I could move back into the house.

But meanwhile, back at the house, there was some bickering. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except then the mansplaining set in, and then the resulting concerns were put down to interpersonal conflict, which was true enough, but not nearly as true as that there was a genderfail in the making.

The sucker punch is this: there were four women who could have stepped in to help, but instead, one bore the brunt of it alone.

Here’s the other reason it was a sucker punch: This house was a rebound relationship for me. The last house I was in had more women than men. It still had genderfail, and it still had racefail too.

And here’s why it was a sucker punch for the activist community as a whole: back then, when I related the genderfail to an activist from the 1980s, she nodded her head and said “Of course!”

We’ve come a long way, baby!

(Or not.)

“The Feminine Mistake”

My spouse and I have been watching Laverne and Shirley. It’s a great show – accomplished actors, who can also sing and dance and take pratfalls like nobody’s business, with a feminist agenda snuck in so cleverly I completely missed it when I first watched it. I’m seeing it now, and what’s more, I’m seeing how much today’s television hasn’t got it. It has something else that today’s television is also missing: at their core, the characters are respectful of each other.

Last night we watched “The Feminine Mistake.” The title is a reference to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, instrumental in sparking the U.S. feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In it, Laverne, who is the more butch of the two, is having a great time playing baseball and fishing with her love interest (played by Jay Leno). She expects him to ask her to a dance. Unfortunately for her, he thinks of her as “just a guy” and tells her that no guy would ever want to go out with her. So she enlists Shirley’s help in being feminine. Together, they devise a frou-frou persona for Laverne. Like the rest of their escapades, it’s hilarious.

So does it work? Does he take her to the dance? Watch the episode.

Another good stealth-feminist episode was “The Bully Show.” In it, Laverne is nearly raped. The word “rape” is never used and the danger she’s in is portrayed slapstick-style, but nonetheless, it deals with the topic seriously. Best of all, instead of blaming the victim or focusing narrowly on the scary rapist, it goes straight to the heart of “rape culture” and confronts the people and attitudes who set the stage for the rape being considered acceptable.