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On Roxane Gay and learning to be bad …

LIttle blond girl smiling and looking mischievious

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay had been lurking around my consciousness for a while – something I knew I should read, and should want to read, but couldn’t really find the energy for. On some level, I expected to see too much of myself called out in the book. I expected too much finger pointing about the ways I am not committed enough to the movement. As someone who tries her best to do the hard work, to look for the gaps in her thinking, to own and learn from her mistakes, and to make sure her feminism is intersectional and inclusive, I worried that Bad Feminism would be about the failings of White feminism, which as a a white woman always implicates me. I couldn’t face the thought of an entire book about how I’m doing it all wrong.

Then, I watched Roxane Gay’s TED talk. Then, I went home followed her on twitter, and put Bad Feminist on my Kindle to start reading. I saw myself in nearly every chapter, and not in the way I expected. Our experiences are fundamentally different, but the places of connection were so strong for me: the early resistance to feminism, the tension between the popular culture we consume and the intellectual values we hold, the commentary and critique of film, television, and current events I wished I’d written, the escape into books (Trixie Belden was my Sweet Valley High). By the time I got to “Typical First Year Professor,” I was in tears.  This semester, man, I can’t even describe it, but if you really want to know what the last few months have been like read that chapter. I shot an email to Ouiser, who of course had already read the book, and her first response back was something about how that chapter made her think of me.

Don’t worry, I’m not trying to put Gay on the Feminist Pedestal she decries, nor do I mean to overwrite her stories with my own. It has, however, been far too long since I read a book that energized and moved me in the way this one did. Bad Feminist makes me think about the other aspects of myself where I feel a tension between who I am and what I think the requirements for that label are. In the introduction Gay says:

“I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be.  I have certain … interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.”

Though I hadn’t labeled it as bad feminism, I also have made peace with the differences between mainstream feminism and my own feminist thought. Now I wonder, how else might it be freeing to accept a label of bad ____ in my life. What are the other ways I attempt to define myself, yet feel inadequate when I think about the expectations of the label?

Writer.

I am a bad writer.

Though I don’t put “Writer” on my business cards, it is something that is central to what I do, and I’ve been struggling to claim it as an identity marker. I wrote a dissertation, but am mortified at the thought that anyone has read it. I write academic things, but I don’t ever send them in for publication. I supposedly write this blog, but am lucky to manage one post a month. Don’t tell anyone, but I even have the seeds of some fiction pieces floating around my computer in Scrivener files. I know the rules about writing everyday, about shitty first drafts, and about revision, but I don’t follow them consistently.

As I thought about my goals and set my theme for this year, much of my brainstorming had to do with the ways I needed to be a better writer.  I need to submit that article to that journal. I need to write another article for that other journal.  I need to post more frequently to this blog.  I need to give those fiction seeds some attention to see what grows from them.  But, what if all those things I need to do to become a better writer aren’t the goal.  What if instead my goal is to embrace the way I am a bad writer?  What could accepting that about myself free me from? What would it make me ready for?

Too Much and Not Enough

For whatever reason, the stars have aligned turning this October into the month of ALL THE DEADLINES! Really, there are 3-4 CFP’s with deadlines between October 15 – 25th (and those are just the ones I’m interested in). Consequently, one of the ways I’m avoid the massive pile of grading that must be done before tomorrow (okay Wednesday at the latest) is to feel productive by working on these CFP’s.

The CFP I’m working on this weekend, which is simultaneously the least related to my professional work and the one in which I am most invested, is for a book chapter in a book about first generation & working class graduate students and faculty. Given all my discussions here about being working class in graduate school/the academy, you might think this project would be coming along nicely.

HA!

The current draft of my proposal consists of an unusable paragraph, complete with strike-through.

Since I spent my entire dissertation writing process thinking, “Wow! That really works.” whenever a writing center technique would come in handy, I figured I would start with the basics, with something I counsel writer’s to do when they are stuck — go back to the prompt. While the prompt hasn’t provided me with an epiphany just yet, it has made me realize the problem.

Like most CFP’s this one includes a nice list of suggested topics/areas of interest on which writer’s might like to focus.

    Cultural Difference
    Academic Preparedness
    Integration
    Professionalization
    Economic issues
    Work-life balance
    Social and cultural capital
    Family responsibilities and relationships
    Peer relations
    Mentorship Strategies and relationships
    Academic and social skills

My problem here is not necessarily a bad one. The problem is not that I don’t have anything to say about the items on this list; the problem is I could probably say something about every item on this list. In this case, having too much to say is just as problematic as too little, because I completely lack focus. Sure, I could talk about nearly every item on this list, but that doesn’t mean I have something useful to say about them all. The difficulty lies in figuring out my “So, what?” Why and how has being a working class/first-generation graduate student/faculty impacted me the most; and, what might be useful for someone else in that story?

At the coffee shop this morning I returned to Donna LeCourt’s Identity Matters, which is my go to place for starting to think about class & education. Modifying Sharon Crowley’s claim that inexperienced writer’s are better able to see the “differance” in a discourse, LeCourt argues graduate students (particularly first generation/working class) serve the same role in the academy. (I’ve probably tried to oversimplify here, so please do check out LeCourt & Crowley.)

The struggle I face is picking out the moment that resulted in the most clear conflict between my working class identity/values and the expectations of the academy. Here’s where it all get a little sketchy, because there is so much and it is all so inter-related that I’m having a difficult time picking out the unifying thread. What I currently think, however, is that there is something for me to write about in the difference between my response to crisis and the “time to degreee” expectations.

Yes, a stroke is rare, and could happen to anyone during their graduate work, and it isn’t necessarily a “working class” or “first-generation” issue, but my response to that crisis is what I think most clearly brought my working class identity/values into conflict with the academic demands made on me as a graduate student.

Now, I just have to figure out what it all means and send in a 500 word abstract. 😉
And, since you’ve been patient enough to let me talk-it-out here, I give you PUPPIES!

20130929-135723.jpg They love sitting on the porch.

Working Class Thoughts on Education

One of the best pieces of feminist writing on the internet inspired this post. Melissa McEwan’s post “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regrettably Struck” is always worth a re-read. The post is a heart-rending examination of what it is like to be a feminist when negotiating relationships with the men in our lives. McEwan points out that while feminists may not hate men, it can often be difficult to fully trust the men in our lives. This isn’t a set up designed to make you think great things about what follows, I don’t pretend that my writing will reach McEwan’s level. I reference “The Terrible Bargain” because it is a piece of writing that carefully considers the consequences of living within the existing structure. In this post, I want to consider what it means to live within the existing culture at the intersection of class and the educational system. As McEwan points out in her post many other people could write this post equally well from different perspectives. I, however, can only speak from my own position (as a working class white woman with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Composition, who currently works coordinating a writing center) and in McEwan’s own words work to “make myself trustworthy” by striving to acknowledge and be respectful of those other perspectives.

While McEwan’s post inspired this piece, the point I would like to discuss isn’t necessarily a direct analogy, but in the same way that McEwan questions the cost women face when choosing to take a feminist stance in the world, I want to explore the cost to working class students when they choose to become a part of the educational system. Working class students receive very specific messages about education and they are expected to play a particular role within that system. For example, as a high school student in a small, economically challenged, logging town in the Pacific Northwest. Education was always considered good. Going away to college represented a chance to get “Off the Harbor,” to find somewhere with more opportunities. Additionally, more education was always better. If a BA/MS could get you a better job/life, then an MA/MS would certainly provide you with something even better. I can honestly say that during high school I couldn’t even fathom having a Ph.D. The underlying “more education is always better” message certainly got through, however.
Who knows, maybe in someone else’s experience, this all pays off. In my experience, though, I can’t say it has.

As the conversation about working class graduate students and faculty expands and becomes more visible, I’ve noticed a trend. Someone writes a piece about some aspect of the working class experience in graduate school, which gets published somewhere like The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed, and while there maybe a few supportive comments, invariably they devolve into a chorus of, “X should have known better.” “They should have known x, y, or z about graduate school.” The most frustrating part of it all is that generally all the comments miss whatever the point was in the article. The commenters fail to engage with the larger critique of the educational system/institution. Although I learned early on Never to Read the Comments, and I’ve almost got to the point of just not even reading the articles, I just don’t want to ignore, what is to me, a vital aspect of who I am in this system. Consequently, I have been trying to why it is so disturbing to so many people to hear working class graduate students/faculty talk about their experiences. The answer I have come to is, as I think you get by now, wholly informed by my own experiences; but, I think the discomfort and antagonism comes from when working class individuals stop being consumers of the educational system and attempt to become members of that system.

As with many of the ideas snarled up in the American myth of class mobility, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “getting ahead,” education is supposed to get you ahead, but only so far. Working class students are supposed to be users of the educational system, but only to a point. They should pay to take those business, nursing, accounting, elementary ed courses, and then they should go out an get the appropriate job. The problem stems from those of us who aren’t good at business, or accounting, and don’t want to teach in the K-12 system. For those of us who find out that what we are good at is “school” and have the temerity to want to teach at a college or university, we make the dangerous from users of the educational system to participants in the system. Becoming, or trying to become, a part of the university system is a mark of reaching too far, of getting out of our place. The X should have know comments are a way to try to maintain a boundary and distance between an “us” and a “them.”

The result of this constant “us” and “them” positioning is that working class graduate students and faculty have a precarious relationship with the educational system. On the one hand it has gotten me away from where I was, and given me opportunities, but it has also not paid off in some pretty significant ways. More education is not always better. Maybe it’s true; maybe I should have known to stop when I reached the end of my MA degree. I should have thought — the PhD is a research degree, and because what I really want to do is teach I should just stop here. But I didn’t know that, and in the face of a lifetime of being told variations of “more education is always better,” I chose to continue on with my PhD. Perhaps I should have been able to tell earlier; I should have known how stupid it was to leave my full-time with benefits Starbucks job, to get teaching experience as an adjunct. But shift work at Starbucks looked just like the shift work my parents did for years without getting ahead. In many ways I won my gamble. I have a full time job at a university.

Now, however, I know. I know I should have stayed at Starbucks because I could be making the same life for myself without the insane amount of debt now hanging over my head. I know I could have/should have stopped at the MA. Heck, I should have gotten over my unease around rooms full of small children and become a K-12 teacher. Now, however, I am a part of system that I no longer trust, a system that won’t hear my experience, won’t accept my calls for change. I don’t know that there is an answer to any of the issues I have raised here, but I my experience, my feminist experience tells me there is value in recognizing and acknowledging the problem; my working class experience tells me the problem is that I’ve moved beyond the consumption of education and become a part of the production of education.

Feast or Famine: Drought or Sharknados

You might think that as a writing teacher who regularly extols the virtues of free writing and writing regularly I would learn not to fret when I “just don’t have anything to write about,” or fall into the blogger trap of “who cares what I have to say anyway.” I should know the only thing to do in those moments is to breathe deeply, look at the world around me, and put my fingers to the keyboard because then the ideas will come. Eventually the ideas arrive faster than I can coherently write them. In just the last 48 hours, I’ve almost finished a book and have started thinking about what I would like to write about it. The North Carolina and Texas political assaults on women deserves some attention. There is plenty about my summer job that I just shouldn’t write about, and, just last night KnittyKay sent me a tweet about working class academic issues. In short, I’ve gone from “I don’t know what to write about” to “There’s too much to write about.” Feast or famine.

For the past year, maybe longer, I don’t think I can’t count how many times I have seen some version of this image.

20130713-074824.jpg Image from Here (Not sure about original):

Seriously, when I searched the slogan, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” there were 10 pages of results. I just chose the first image I remember seeing of this sign. The point is that it feels like some new reason to mutter this crops up everyday: the Florida courts, the Texas legislature, the North Carolina legislature, the poor treatment of a vast portion of the academic workforce, feminine hygiene products treated as deadly weapons, the list just goes on and on… You might think deluge a better metaphor for this list, but I chose drought because I believe that this list also represents a lack. We each might think of that lack differently – a lack of common decency, a lack of respect, a lack of generosity, a lack of care, but the lack is there. It is what makes it possible for legislatures to ignore their constituents, courts to put victims on trial, and employers to justify abysmal working conditions.

The lack is insidious because it remains undefined – something missing, something wrong, perhaps even invisible until one of two things happens. The public is galvanized by an example, and is able to finally point and say, “That! That is what has been missing!”
An example of this was the public reaction to (and support of) Wendy Davis.

20130713-081811.jpg I found this image here, where it is listed via Facebook:Taylor Marsh It reads: “Wendy Davis, first of her name, Khaleesi of the Texas Prairie, born in a storm of Repbulican tears, Breaker of Patriarchy, Mother of Freedom and Queen of our Hearts.”

Davis stood, spoke, and it was like a drop of rain on parched earth. People responded, where they may not have been able to define the lack, they recognized what they needed and wanted. Suddenly, we were a nation of Texans. A week later people, once again, tried to speak back – this time to the North Carolina legislature. I like to think that those of us in NC would have come forward and protested regardless, but I think the momentum created by the Texas event help spur the swift reaction the NC Legislature’s shenanigans.

The problem with the lack I am trying to define is that it represents a constant drain of resources. Like a low grade, but constantly present headache, toothache, or fever it wears a person down. Often the drain of those resources is most keenly felt just when the lack is truly revealed. Galvanized by the shiny example of what the world needs people begin to react and just as quickly realize how little energy there is left for action. Those moments are best illustrated by what becomes entertainment. The dire nature of the current political and cultural climate is, I think, best illustrated by the phenomenon that Sharknado became this week.

Certainly, there have always been those willing to watch Syfy made for television movies like Mega-Shark Vs. Giant Octopus if only for the wonderful snark fodder they represent.  This week, however, Sharknado captured the country’s attention.  It gave everyone a chance to suspend their disbelief and turn to the patently ridiculously in an effort to relieve the burden of what was happening in their states and/or country. I am sure this need to escape fueled many other forays into the truly improbably, like Godzilla, or I Dream of Jeannie. It is all I can think of to explain the sheer range of people who tweeted, wrote, or talked about watching Sharknado. Or, maybe I am wrong, maybe twitter just makes everyone’s viewing habits that much more visible, and we all just have really bad taste in movies.

In this case I think Sharknado was a collective sigh of relief. Something to momentarily relieve us from the fatigue brought on by the serious drought of common decency, respect, generosity, kindness, (insert your version here) in the current political and cultural climate. I hope Sharknado made everyone who watched laugh just a little and revived their spirits just enough to continue with this fight.

Re-run – Rizzoli & Isles Pt. 2

Having vented a little of my general frustration with Rizzoli & Isles, I can actually be a little more articulate about what it is that bothers me about the show.  Rizzoli & Isles is a textbook example of embedded feminism being used to mask enlightened sexism.   Susan J. Douglas’s book Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done, needs to be on your reading list already, put it there.  Douglas defined embedded feminism as “the way in which women’s achievements, or their desire for achievement, are simply a part of the cultural landscape” (9).  Embedded feminism is partly achieved through the representational parity numbers game.  The networks can say, “Look at all the women doctors, lawyers, cops, etc.  on tv, clearly women can be anything they want now.”  Networks can claim that airing shows with strong women in professional careers some how makes up for the blatant misogyny in a show like Two and a Half Men, or the only slightly more subtle misogyny in Big Bang Theory.  If you are, like me, a little crime show obsessed, Dr. Kimberly DeTardo-Bora’s 2009 article in Women & Criminal Justice, “Criminal Justice ‘Hollywood Style’: How Women in Criminal Justice Professions Are Depicted in Prime-Time Crime Dramas,” is a fascinating read. The short summary is that women are over-represented on television compared to their actual presence in the criminal justice field.

Taking its name from the two lead women, Rizzoli & Isles clearly establishes a kind of embedded feminism; it also establishes a “look how far we’ve come” ethos by subtly calling Cagney & Lacey to mind.  I’d love to do a stronger comparison between the two shows, but I don’t have many clear memories of Cagney & Lacey, and haven’t seen an episode since I was nine. Both titular characters are strong women, and have achieved success in their careers, and really that is about it for feminism in Rizzoli & Isles.

Douglas says, a constant companion to embedded feminism is enlightened sexism, which is “[the insistence] that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism – indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved—so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women” (9).  This explains why we are supposed to laugh when Rizzoli is tricked into a dress and a date by her mother.  Her inability to conform to accepted modes of femininity, while clearly embodying those forms, is constant fodder for humor in the show. Nothing is funnier than trying to get Rizzoli in a dress, but … damn, if doesn’t she fill out a dress perfectly.

But what about Dr. Isles she is amazing at her job, and manages to do it all in style with perfect hair, fashionable clothes, and always, always in killer heels.  I’d have to go through episodes again, but I’m pretty sure we’ve never seen Dr. Isles (even mid-autopsy) in scrubs.  I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain the absurdity of that.  Even if I’m wrong about the scrubs, the bigger issue is that despite the fact that she is clearly smart, and feminine, she can’t keep a date because she only looks feminine. She drives men away because she cannot hide her intelligence.

At their very core, these two characters, who are supposed to embody at least one feminist goal (having a career), are played for laughs for all the ways they do not conform to cultural stereotypes about women.  Yet, because it is couched in humor, and we’re supposedly smarter than buying into the stereotypes, if we find the show’s treatment of its titular characters offensive, it is because we don’t know how to take a joke.

Re-runs

In an effort to get back into the swing of blogging, I read through some of my previous posts.  I think these two posts about Rizzoli and Isles deserve a re-run. I will re-post them over the next couple of days.

As a fan of Tess Gerritsen’s books, when I learned TNT was giving two of Gerritsen’s central characters a show of their own, I was excited, and set my dvr accordingly. Then, I set about waiting to see who had been cast in the titular roles.  Don’t ask, it never really occurs to me that I could, you know, use the internet to find out stuff like that in advance.  It was obvious from the first commercials I saw that whatever TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles was going to be, it wasn’t going to be too much like the books.  For about 7 books I’d imagined Rizzoli, as she is described, with a mop of unruly dark curls, and as good looking, but in a unconventional way;  Dr. Isles was, as she is often described, the queen of the dead, a little goth, with red lipstick and straight black hair cut in a bob with straight bangs – which is, as it turns out, how Ms. Gerritsen looks (well, not exactly goth, but you get the idea).  While there was never any doubt in my mind these women would be beautiful in their own ways, um … Angie Harmon and Sasha Anderson were not exactly the faces that lept into my mind as I read these books.

To paraphrase Mr. Gump, casting is as casting does.  It was silly to have any hopes that these women might be cast differently.  This is a review of the show not the books, so this is the last comparison I will make between the two.  One of the most compelling aspects of these characters as written are their insecurities, and Jane Rizzoli’s insecurities are tied to her place in a male profession, and what she sees as her inability to meet feminine standards of beauty; it is impossible to make those insecurities play when the woman playing Rizzoli is Angie Harmon.

Like I said, although I’d initially hoped for something a little different, this review isn’t about comparing the television show to the books.  The characters, stories, and tone of each is distinct enough that a real comparison is impossible.  The books are detective fiction, pure and simple.  The television show walks the genre lines between serious police procedural and comedy.  It is almost as if the producers really wanted an hour long comedy, and knew stretching a sit com that long would grow tedious, so they decided to incorporate a police procedural to bump up the story.  I’ve never seen an episode of Nash Bridges, so I could be wrong, but Rizzoli & Isles makes me think it is like a female version of that show.

It might surprise you, but the light nature of the show is not really what bothers me.  A lot of police procedurals err in the opposite way, taking themselves too seriously. What bothers me about Rizzoli & Isles is that the light tone is achieved at the expense of the title characters. At every turn the show undermines the power of two strong women working together, and becoming friends by making every second conversation between the two about getting, or having, a relationship, every third conversation about the case – as if their jobs are an afterthought, and the remaining conversations about clothes and shoes.  There has to be some sort of heterosexual romance for at least one of the women in nearly every episode because the writers are working overtime to ensure that it is clear Rizzoli & Isles are not lesbians.  (Well, except for those episodes where they pretend to be lesbians – you know, for laughs. Because apparently that is funny.)  As a viewer it is impossible to take either Rizzoli or Isles seriously because at every turn we are reminded that Rizzoli can’t get a man because she is not feminine enough, and that despite looking like a fashion plate Isles can’t function socially because she is just too smart.

I keep watching, hoping, for that moment when instead of going for the obvious – undermining women stereotype or joke, the writers will surprise me, but it never comes.

Share Your Story – Planned Parenthood

This week in The Malarkey Bin I followed a link to this article about Why I Can’t Afford Not to Go to Planned Parenthood. It is a powerful, required reading post that also inspired me to tell my own Planned Parenthood story.

In a way my story is a success story.    There was a clinic in my home town.  It was accessible, and I didn’t have to negotiate protesters or strict security to get to my appointment.  It was the early 90s,  and the thought that there had been a time when women weren’t able to take control of their health care amazed me. Yes, I was more than a little naive … give an 18 year old a break.

According to Wikipedia in 2010 my hometown had a population of 16, 896 people. Sounds about right, I’d be willing to bet there were a few more when I was growing up, maybe around 18,000? The population isn’t as important as knowing that our town was poor.  Built up around an industry that has been dying since before I was born, the town was small, without a lot of diversions for kids. Once you got your license the first thing you did was drive 50 miles east to the State Capital to start hanging out at the mall there, or 20 miles west to the beaches. We may have grown up in the twin shadows of Ted Bundy, he had allegedly tried to pick up a friend’s mom in a bar, and the Green River Killer, still active north and east of us, but I would argue we were the last of a generation of free range kids.  From the moment I moved there when I was 10 I was walking all over town.  Either 6 blocks from our apartment to the public library, or the longer mile to my elementary school every morning.  Before my friends and I got our driver’s licenses, and even after, we would walk all over town.

So, while it wasn’t all terrible, for the purposes of this tale the best image to leave you with is this:  when I first heard of the alleged Pregnancy Pact in Gloucester, Ma., the only thing that surprised me about the story was that it happened somewhere other than my home town.  Even when I graduated, I’m pretty sure no one got out of our high school without knowing at least one person who had gotten pregnant before graduation.   Before I got out of the town for good, the age at which girls were getting pregnant just seemed to be getting lower.  My brother, sister, and I joke that the greatest accomplishment in our family was all three of us getting out of that place without having a kid before we were 18. We don’t make that joke at anyone’s expense, many of the young parents we know are some of the best parents we know, and when you are young in our home town there is not a lot to do outside the backseat of a car.  If it weren’t for the Planned Parenthood clinic in our town, I don’t think I could even estimate the number of teen pregnancies we would have seen in my high school.

Right now, you are probably imagining a much different story than the mundane one I am about to tell.  Although I’d contemplated it for a couple of years before, it wasn’t until I had graduated from high school that I visited our clinic. The funniest part about high school for me was that by the time I graduated I knew that at least twice rumors had spread that I was pregnant, and at least once there was a conflicting rumor that I was a lesbian.  It was all amusing to me because I was pretty sure I was the only person I knew not sexually active.

What lead me to Planned Parenthood? I’d read that when a woman turned 18 she needed to have her first Pap Smear, so I made an appointment.  I also wanted birth control pills to regulate my periods and alleviate my cramps.  My cramps were so bad that I routinely took 3 – 4 Advil at a time just to get through the days that I had them. I was still working part time at a grocery store without health benefits.  Planned Parenthood was the only place I  could afford to go for standard health care. My story isn’t dramatic, but illustrates a point often lost in the current war on reproductive rights.

Planned Parenthood is essential to all aspects of women’s health care.

What is your Planned Parenthood story?

 

 

 

Forbidden Writing, or Rizzoli & Isles Pt. 2

Having only written about 490 words yesterday, there is no way I should be writing here this morning. As someone who can follow every rule, but the one she set for herself — well, it’s probably pretty predictable that I would be writing here this morning.

Having vented a little of my general frustration with Rizzoli & Isles, I can actually be a little more articulate about what it is that bothers me about the show.  Rizzoli & Isles is a textbook example of embedded feminism being used to mask enlightened sexism.  Last year, Susan J. Douglas’s book Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done was published, and if it is not on your reading list already, put it there.  Douglas defined embedded feminism as “the way in which women’s achievements, or their desire for achievement, are simply a part of the cultural landscape” (9).  Embedded feminism is partly achieved through the representational parity numbers game.  The networks can say, “Look at all the women doctors, lawyers, cops, etc.  on tv, clearly women can be anything they want now.”  Networks can claim that airing shows with strong women in professional careers some how makes up for the blatant misogyny in a show like Two and a Half Men, or the only slighly more subtle misogyny in Big Bang Theory.  If you are, like me, a little crime show obsessed, Dr. Kimberly DeTardo-Bora’s 2009 article in Women & Criminal Justice, “Criminal Justice ‘Hollywood Style’: How Women in Criminal Justice Professions Are Depicted in Prime-Time Crime Dramas,” is a fascinating read. The short summary is that women are over-represented compared to their actual presence in the criminal justice field.  It is of course more complicated than that – the article is a fascinating read.

Taking its name from the two lead women, Rizzoli & Isles clearly establishes a kind of embedded feminism; it also establishes a “look how far we’ve come” ethos by subtly calling Cagney & Lacey to mind.  I’d love to do a stronger comparison between the two shows, but I don’t have many clear memeories of Cagney & Lacey, and haven’t seen an episode since I was nine. Both titular characters are strong women, and have achieved success in their careers, and really that is about it for feminism in Rizzoli & Isles.

A constant companion to embedded feminism, enlightened sexism is “[the insistence] that women have made plenty of progress because of feminism – indeed, full equality has allegedly been achieved—so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women” (9).  This explains why we are supposed to laugh when Rizzoli is tricked into a dress and a date by her mother.  Her inability to conform to accepted modes of femininity, while clearly embodying those forms, is constant fodder for humor in the show. Nothing is funnier than trying to get Rizzoli in a dress, but … damn, if doesn’t she fill out a dress perfectly.

But what about Dr. Isles she is amazing at her job, and manages to do it all in style with perfect hair, fashionable clothes, and always, always in killer heels.  I’d have to go through episodes again, but I’m pretty sure we’ve never seen Dr. Isles (even mid-autopsy) in scrubs.  I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain the absurdity of that.  Even if I’m wrong about the scrubs, the bigger issue is that despite the fact that she is clearly smart, and feminine, she can’t keep a date because she only looks feminine. She drives men away because she cannot hide her intelligence.

At their very core, these two characters, who are supposed to embody at least one feminist goal (having a career), are played for laughs for all the ways they do not conform to cultural stereotypes about women.  Yet, because it is couched in humor, and we’re supposedly smarter than buying into the stereotypes, if we find the show’s treatment of its titular characters offensive, it is because we don’t know how to take a joke.

Disappointment – Rizzoli & Isles

As an incentive to keep myself from giving up on my dissertation today I promised myself that if I wrote 1000 dissertation words, I’d reward myself by writing a review of TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles.  All the books say never to reward yourself by taking a day off writing, they don’t say anything about rewarding yourself by more writing.  Yes, it does sound a little sick when I say it out loud.

As a fan of Tess Gerritsen’s books, when I learned TNT was giving Gerritsen’s central characters a show of their own, I was excited, and set my dvr accordingly. Then, I set about waiting to see who had been cast in the titular roles.  Don’t ask, it never really occurs to me that I could, you know, use the internet to find out stuff like that in advance.  It was obvious from the first commercials I saw that whatever TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles was going to be, it wasn’t going to be too much like the books.  For about 7 books I’d imagined Rizzoli, as she is described, with a mop of unruly dark curls, and as good looking, but in a unconventional way;  Dr. Isles was, as she is often described, the queen of the dead, a little goth, with red lipstick and straight black hair cut in a bob with straight bangs – which is, as it turns out, how Ms. Gerritsen looks (well, not exactly goth, but you get the idea).  While there was never any doubt in my mind these women would be beautiful in their own ways, um … Angie Harmon and Sasha Anderson were not exactly the faces that lept into my mind as I read these books.

To paraphrase Mr. Gump, casting is as casting does.  It was silly to have any hopes that these women might be cast differently.  This is a review of the show not the books, so this is the last comparison I will make between the two.  One of the most compelling aspects of these characters as written are their insecurities, and Jane Rizzoli’s insecurities are tied to her place in a male profession, and what she sees as her inability to meet feminine standards of beauty; it is impossible to make those insecurities play when the woman playing Rizzoli is Angie Harmon.

Like I said, although I’d initially hoped for something a little different, this review isn’t about comparing the television show to the books.  The characters, stories, and tone of each is distinct enough that a real comparison is impossible.  The books are detective fiction, pure and simple.  The television show walks the genre lines between serious police procedural and comedy.  It is almost as if the producers really wanted an hour long comedy, and knew stretching a sit com that long would grow tedious, so they decided to incorporate a police procedural to bump up the story.  I’ve never seen an episode, so I could be wrong, but Rizzoli & Isles makes me think it is like a female Nash Bridges.

It might surprise you, but the light nature of the show is not really what bothers me.  A lot of police procedurals err in the opposite way, taking themselves too seriously. What bothers me about Rizzoli & Isles is that the light tone is achieved at the expense of the title characters. At every turn the show undermines the power of two strong women working together, and becoming friends by making every second conversation between the two about getting, or having, a relationship, every third conversation about the case – as if their jobs are an afterthought, and the remaining conversations about clothes and shoes.  There has to be some sort of heterosexual romance for at least one of the women in nearly every episode because the writers are working overtime to ensure that it is clear Rizzoli & Isles are not lesbians.  (Well, except for those episodes where they pretend to be lesbians – you know, for laughs.)  As a viewer it is impossible to take either Rizzoli or Isles seriously because at every turn we are reminded that Rizzoli can’t get a man because she is not feminine enough, and that despite looking like a fashion plate Isles can’t function socially because she is just too smart.

I keep watching, hoping, for that moment when instead of going for the obvious – undermining women stereotype or joke, the writers will surprise me.

Media Sexism

Thanks to BitchFlicks, I knew when Missrepresentation premiered on the OWN network, and so for the first time I actually tuned-in to that channel. Yes, we have a big enough cable package to get OWN.  It is the one non-essential expense we’ve kept throughout our financial difficulties, because …well, we actually use it.  Since we never have the money to go out to eator to the movies, it really is the one piece of entertainment we get.  That, however, is an aside.

For me the importance of the film wasn’t that it said anything I didn’t already know, but that it said what needed to be said.  Earlier this month I gave a paper at a conference that talked about this same issue from a slightly different angle.  Missrepresentation focuses on how women are portrayed negatively in the media, which is an important place to begin this discussion.  While I want every one I know who has a child to watch this film, I also want them to read Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas.  Douglas discusses, not just the portrayal of women in media, but the specific moves the media has made to make such overt sexism a significant part of the media we see. In fact, without a frank discussion of the embedded feminism Douglas identifies in the media, it isn’t possible to get at the root of all the sexism.