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Periodically Ouiser sends me articles from Greensboro about things she know will interest me. One of the stories I’m nearly always happy to get an update about is update about Deborah Moy. Nearly always. I was not happy to hear that the man accused of her attack was release. Also, the updates written by Brian Clarey tend to get mixed reviews from me.
In 2009, shortly after the September 2008 attack, I wrote a piece for Shakesville, posted under the title “This Stuff Matters” about the media coverage of this case, and specifically Clarey’s treatment of it. You can find details of the case there. Yes, having a piece at Shakesville, feels as good as being a PhD now, instead of a PhD in Training as I called myself. Even if re-reading it today makes me want to edit it one more time.
Clarey’s updates receive mixed reviews from me, because on the one hand, as Ousier points out, he is the only one who still covers the story. At the same time the lens and tone of his coverage is always off. Like Clarey, I was drawn to this case, and am still haunted by it, because of a personal connection. The DH had worked with Moy, and remained friends/acquaintances with her. His profound dismay when he called to tell me about the incident, coupled with my own horror as I heard about it etched this story into me. Little did the DH and I know, when we heard of the mid-September attack on Moy, that I was also just three weeks away from our own life changing event.
As I’ve written about before, on October 4, 2008 I had a stroke. I spent the next three weeks in the hospital recovering. One of the effects of the stroke was that it took me a very long time to begin to accurately remember the days and weeks leading up to the event. I could remember my 35th birthday on September 2nd, mostly because I was sick with the flu/cold I unconsciously associate with the beginning of my stroke time. I could also remember the doctor’s visits when I complained about the pain in my neck, which I assumed was from coughing and working at the computer. Yep, I was wrong about that! The attack on Moy was one of the few, not health related, things I remember from that month, and I remembered it fairly quickly. There are really no facile comparisons to make between our recoveries, and I would insult her determination and fortitude trying to make one. Linked by one degree of separation and some traumatic associations, Deborah Moy and her story were simply never far from my mind.
At first, my outrage and anger at the way her story was represented (read the Shakesville article then dial up the outrage by about 1000) kept me seeking out stories and updates. Hoping beyond hope to find a story that acknowledged the horror of her attack and humanized her, I searched. These days, as happy as I am to find Clarey’s periodic updates, I’m still searching for an article that treats Deborah Moy as a human; one that doesn’t fall into sad gender traps, valorize the author’s story over her own, or verge on the cusp of inspiration porn.
This morning, when I received the article link from Ouiser, I started reading without looking at the by line. By the time I got to the following paragraphs, I scrolled back up to confirm that it was Clarey’s byline.
I didn’t really know Deb back then except as another face at the bar, but I identified with her as a member of my tribe: the floundering artists, service-industry lifers, lifestyle drinkers and other assorted stripes of the creative underclass. And it pissed me off that no one was doing anything about it. So of course, I did.
All I had to go on were several disconnected threads, snippets gleaned over nights at the bar and in after-hours apartments.
I had to stop. As I pointed out in detail in my piece for Shakesville, the problem with Clarey’s early reporting was precisely that he did not present Moy as “a part of [his] tribe.” The problem continues in this new piece. The piece verges on inspiration porn praising Moy’s spirit, perseverance, and determination, while valorizing her character and never really letting us get to know her.
You know what, if that is the story she wants told I’d be all for it, because it is inspirational to me. Clarey, however, never lets us forget that this story is really all about him, “… no one was doing anything about it. So of course, I did.” Later in the article, after discussing the police failure to solve the case, “I never thought I would solve this crime — and I have never come close — but even now, in preparing to write this story, I start picking at threads. Chasing ghosts.” Intentionally or not, in his updates Clarey re-writes the story to be one of his own heroic reporting. He follows the story no one else will; he maintains his connection. Moy becomes a part of his tribe, but only in her perseverance, which is also his own.
Look I get this, to a certain extent, is “Bart’s People” reporting, and that Clarey is following the tropes of the genre, which including inserting himself into the story. I’ve done a similar thing here explaining why I continue to follow this case. To me, however, this story has always been more. It’s a reflection of how we treat victims, and especially women, when telling their stories. I don’t want the tropes, the party girl, the girl who loves her dog and drinks her milk, the survivor who overcame. I want Deborah’s story told with respect for her as a human being. The one that is hard to tell because it is all those things and more. Clarey tries, but never quite gets there.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.