Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Sister in This House by Wendy Kesselman

Okay. This one was surprisingly disturbing. And let's talk about why. On the surface (and honestly, for the majority of the play), it seems like a harmless, almost dry dramatic text about two sisters who work as maids in the same house and about the mother and daughter they work for. Most of the conversations revolve around new hats and embroidery and polishing silverware. The only moments of discord are oddly highlighted (mostly silent) exchanges, looks, etc. between women. It is not until the near end of the play that we realize that the two sisters are lovers. Yeah. I'm still trying to find the foreshadowing for that little turn of events. Did not see it coming. In the end, they are discovered by the mother and daughter who they proceed to violently murder (including ripping out the mother's eyes). The younger sister is sentenced to years of hard labor and the older sister is hung by the neck until dead. Again, I say it. Yeah. To make matters creepier, this play is based on a real murder trial of two maids. Some compelling (if watery) monologues but overall, not a play that left me with a real impression of anything except sorrow, loss, and pain.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Full-Frontal Feminism by Jessica Valenti


"What's the worst thing you can call a woman? Don't hold back, now. You're probably thinking of words like slut, whore, bitch, cunt (I told you not to hold back!), skank. Okay, now, what are the worst things you can call a guy? Fag, girl, bitch, pussy. I've even heard the term 'mangina.' Notice anything? The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult."

-Jessica Valenti, Full-Frontal Feminism, Chapter 1

Valenti's purpose in writing this text was to expose young women to what they weren't being told about feminism. She wrote to debunk the major myths and arguments against feminism. She wrote to encourage the younger generations to speak up about social injustices.

It is too common to dismiss the feminist movement as a dated experience or a man-hating festival or anything else that makes it easy to ignore. The problem comes when a book like Full-Frontal Feminism challenges the myths and lays out some of the bare-bones facts. I'm not saying the book isn't without its problems but the overall message is a good one.

I would boil it down like this: Feminism is women AND men who care about the rights of women. Feminism recognizes the unspoken, silent oppression of women (and others) and chooses to expose it. Feminism recognizes that half the battle is the information women DON'T receive.

It is not always a protest or a crowd or a televised event. Feminism can be small, too. It may be as simple as reminding yourself that wearing make-up is fun but it's only a social construct that tells you make-up is what makes you beautiful. It could be helping another woman get the real facts about the wage gap or their rights to birth control. It could be volunteering at a rape crisis center or a women's shelter. It might be passing a book on to a friend. Like any movement, it is most earth-shattering when occurring person to person.

It is not an anti-man movement. It is an anti-phallic-centric movement. We're not talking about women being better than men. We're talking about women's stories and strengths and needs being as valid as men's.

Valenti also addresses the pressure put on men to be "men." And not some grandiose, ultimate standard of masculinity. No, we're talking about a cultural standard. "Men drink beer. Men watch sports. Men don't get tied down by one 'chick.'" If those arbitrary statements (which I have heard spouted in pop culture) define manhood, my father is out.

The fact is, if we allow culture to define femininity or masculinity, we come up short. We're left with sound bytes and commercials that say real women have shiny hair (that just comes like that) and shaved legs (to feel like your inner "goddess") and tanned skin (but no skin cancer) and lengthening mascara (for an all-natural look) and size 2 bodies (because they eat a certain brand of yogurt and go to meetings and pop a pill and, oh, hell, just starve yourselves!).

Most of our lives, we are told, as women, that the choices we make will determine whether boys will like us. And so much of it is wrapped up in consumerism. And I don't mean to oversimplify here or say that all the people in our lives believe this. But think about it. Buy this product and you'll look like those girls who are getting checked out by those guys. You need to be thinner (but natural), sexier (but not a whore - I'm talking to YOU, Cosmo Magazine!), more successful (but not more successful than him - he'll get a complex), and be a mother/career woman/athlete/cheerleader/chef/maid/etc.

And believe me, this is not a "men's fault" issue. It's not. This is about what we allow our daughters to grow up thinking. EVERYTHING in a little girl's life is geared towards this. It starts with the baby doll and the Barbie (and I don't care how far she's come, Barbie is still a platinum blond with unnaturally large breasts and a foot arch that only suits her to high heels and everything she wears, rides, or lives in still comes in hot pink). Little girls are being taught a few things very, very early: 1) If you don't have the latest diapers, clothes, accessories for your dolls, you're not like the happy little girl in the picture (and if you think I'm exaggerating, watch a kid's channel for an hour or two), 2) The major means of fulfillment is through motherhood (and I am NOT saying there is ANYTHING wrong with being a mother). But what happens to little girls who grow up and don't get married? Or who are physically incapable of bearing children? Or who simply don't want to be mothers? What kind of message does this send? If our fulfillment comes in getting a man and having babies, then what happens to these little girls? Are they simply less fulfilled?

Valenti argues that even though we glorify motherhood and shame women who make a different choice, our society makes it very difficult on mothers. Australia and the U.S. are the only two industrialized nations who do not have mandatory paid maternity leave. In addition, there is no nationally funded childcare. The estimated cost of childcare for a low-income family is 37% of monthly income. Women who breastfeed in public are often humiliated or forced to leave. So not only do we expect women to become mothers but we expect them to do it in the privacy of their homes.

There is also much discussion in the book about what Valenti calls, "the rape culture." This is an attitude engendered in both men and women through pop culture, porn, and mainstream society that basically assigns women as "there" for men. This is why things like sexual harassment and date rape continue to occur at an alarming rate. We're not just talking about forced sexual assault, although that is a real and terrible part of this. We're talking about a culture that says that if a guy buys a girl a drink, he has a claim on her time. A culture that says groping a girl without her permission is okay because she's drunk and having fun. A culture that says that when a girl says 'no,' she means 'yes' because that's what happens in pornography all the time (Speaking of which, a lot of this attitude comes from the virgin/whore issue which basically says that women shouldn't have sexual desire, stemming a hundred years back to when women were not expected to enjoy sex, merely endure it at their husband's pleasure. So she says 'no' meaning 'yes' because she's being coy and modest. Gross.) This "rape culture" means that defense lawyers can call up a woman's past in court and say that because she isn't a virgin or because she partied a lot or she was wearing a skirt, she must have been asking for it. No joke. Not trying to be sarcastic here. It's the ugly truth.

Valenti sums up one of the biggest problems with these attitudes. We make women's safety women's responsibility. Let me list off five ways we do that.

1) Many abstinence-only sex ed curriculum actually states things like, "If you don't aim to please, don't aim to tease" and "Teenage boys who try to say no will have a hard time if a girl is dressed provocatively. Girls aren't as interested in sex so it's up to them to keep it from going farther." Basically, the way you dress will indicate to a man what you will and won't do sexually. By the way, this whole dress issue isn't even about being revealing. Valenti cites a rape trial in Italy that was dismissed because a woman was wearing jeans and she couldn't have been raped because the attacker couldn't have gotten the jeans off by himself. Yeah. Okay. So it's her fault. Ladies, if you're going to get raped, make sure you wear a skirt so people will believe you!

2) Things like self-defense classes, rape whistles, and pepper spray. Walking quickly through dark parking lots and dead-bolting your door. Don't misunderstand. These are very helpful, and unfortunately, necessary tools women can employ. But again, women's safety becomes women's responsibility. Not men's.

3) The whole concept of teasing - this can include: going on a date and letting him pay, kissing him, and even being alone with him. A woman (or man) has every right to say 'no' at any time. This whole "past the point of no return" stuff is completely and utterly stupid.

4) A sexual history. The morality of this issue is for a different blog but the fact is, no woman deserves to be raped. I don't care if she's had one partner or fifty. And the validity of her accusation does not disappear with every consensual sexual encounter. Screw that. Valenti makes a statement to this effect: "I don't care if you're a drunk, naked, passed-out prostitute. No one deserves to be raped." You'd think this wouldn't even be an issue but it is. I personally know several women who have received this qualification: "Well, she said it was rape but, I mean, how many people has she slept with?"

5) "If she didn't fight back or scream, it wasn't sexual assault." This is a big lie. In traumatic situations, the human body reacts in the way it believes will most likely promote survival. If your body has been conditioned to accept trauma by not responding, "freezing," or keeping quiet, it does not mean that you were a willing participant. If you said you didn't want to, if you said no, if you said you weren't interested in sex, etc., you were assaulted. In self-defense classes, they tell you that if you didn't fight back or you "allowed" it to happen, you may have done the right thing. Predators and attackers are unpredictable. If you survived, you did the right thing. And again, this one is especially disturbing because once again, the responsibility is put on a woman's shoulders. This isn't just true of women, though. Men, women, and children who are victimized are often afraid that they "wanted it" somehow because they didn't (or were unable) to fight back. This is NOT TRUE.

This blog could go on for a very long time. The truth is, faults aside, this book deeply touched me and made me feel very passionate about some of the injustices allowed to happen daily. I encourage men and women to read it. Take it for what it is - one person's point of view. But try and open your heart to the possibility that maybe all is not well in the world for women or men. The revolution starts in the palm of your hand, not in the streets or in the Senate.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

As Bees In Honey Drown

Douglas Carter Beane wrote a play. Apparently, it was a critical success. Frankly, I just don't see it. I felt myself predicting the end halfway through. There were some funny monologues, some cute interchanges. But it was so..."theatrey." So that's not a word.

Maybe I'm sheltered but I have a really hard time imagining that someone like Alexa Vere de Vere exists. And, of course, I understand that's the point of the play. Characters are drawn to Alexa because she seems to be from another reality, a more glamorous time for artists and thinkers and, well, humans. One character even goes so far as to say that people believe her lies because they want them to be true. I feel like there are some deep-ish moments that linger with you. "As bees in honey drown" is a particularly lasting line.

Bu she is just too over-the-top for me. The tragedy is that this all borders on the comedic. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, this is a satire. Sure, ok. But can it satirize itself? It goes too far into the world of frothy dialogue and New York socialites and fur coats and "daaaaaaaahling" for me to feel any kind of real pain for Evan or Alexa in their individual downfalls. The glibness robs it of any true kind of dramatic power.

The play centers around the concept of identity. "No one wonderful is born that way," Alexa says. Evan (whose real name is not Evan) is an up and coming writer who is shepherded into a world of money, society, and fast circles by the faux legend, Alexa Vere de Vere, who in the style of all great socialites throws money and clothes around, name drops like acid, and laughs ever so gaily at the little intricacies of life (isn't it grand? isn't it divine?). But the first act curtain drops leaving us with the not-at-all-surprising knowledge that Alexa is not Alexa (gasp) but some little nobody who made up a fake and much cooler persona which she uses to rip "almost famous" people off. The second act is Evan's journey to discover the "real" Alexa. In the end (spoiler alert), Evan, with the help of all the other people Alexa has ruined, sets her up for humiliation. But she beats him to the punch and shows up at his apartment, offering him a job working for her as an assistant con-man. Evan says 'no,' Alexa screams something about him needing her, and he goes on to write a novel about her called, (who would have thought) As Bees In Honey Drown. Alexa is enraged. The...end? It falls flat, frankly.

I am not unstirred by the questioning of young people searching for their self-worth and purpose, blahblahblah. It's the utter cliche of this particular story. Alexa is not just unbelievable because she's so fabulous but because I just can't picture her in modern day New York City or LA or anywhere else. This one lacks credibility for me.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Betrayal by Harold Pinter

A short two acts full of the requisite Pinter pauses, banal dialogue, and 1970's chic. The characters are inherently British and somehow, their affair seems distinctly British. The basic plot is as follows: Jerry has an affair with his best friend Robert's wife, Emma for seven years. In my mind, the most interesting feature of the play is its story structure which begins at the end and goes backwards. Pinter is almost overly specific regarding time and location. I wonder how this is interpreted/communicated in production. Though mostly realistic in styling, Pinter borders on absurdity with exchanges like the following:

Jerry: Is he the one who's always been here or is it his son?
Robert: You mean has his son always been here?
Jerry: No, is he his son? I mean, is he the son of the one who's always been here?
Robert: No, he's his father.
Jerry: Ah. Is he?

Overall, an easy read, not necessarily a standout in dramatic literature but one can see why Pinter is iconic. Certainly, the exchanges of dialogue are interesting exercises in subtext, which Pinter seems to feed on.