Monday, August 31, 2009

Childbirth, Form, and Androgyny in Shakespeare's Sonnets

I've read Eve K. Sedgwick's groundbreaking Between Men several times, and Sedgwick's theory of the homosocial, particularly the frequent erasure of women by the structure of the erotic triangle, is something that has influenced some of what has become the academic writing I've most enjoyed producing. Even though I'd read the book (including, of course, the Sonnets chapter) before, I'd never read it next to the sonnets themselves, and I'm still a bit shocked at what I found. The sonnets to the young man have been my favorite since late high school and early college, when I first started really getting into Shakespeare. Back then, I thought they were romantic and forbidden. Now, they seem to be dripping with misogyny, due precisely to that same triangular erasure. I still can't ignore the speaker's urging the young man to procreate (Sonnets 1-17), just as I couldn't when I first read those poems. Now, though, I'm increasingly aware of the role of women in this homosocial plea for procreation. They're, as Sedgwick says, nearly invisible in the poems, which is horrible, given how incredibly present they must be in order for the speaker's plan to be carried out. I just can't get away from the speaker's references to the young man's “form” being reproduced in future offspring. The word is used explicitly in 3.2 and 13.8, but is under the surface in other places, problematically so in Sonnet 11. To my knowledge, this refers to period medical theories adapted from Galenic ones that say that when babies are conceived, the men contribute the physical form, while the women contribute the less important matter (a misreading of the Latin “mater,” or “mother”). I know I originally got this from Laquer's Making Sex, but I don't have a copy in front of me, so I can't give you a page number. The word echoes this meaning in sonnet 3 (“Now is the time that face should form another”), while giving women none of the glory the speaker associates with the young man's future efforts at procreation by saying that the speaker will “unbless some mother” if he doesn't have children. Reproducing the young man's form is the blessing here, according to the speaker. The work of childbirth, or indeed, of child-rearing(confined almost exclusively to the feminine sphere in the period), gets no acknowledgement, and yet the woman is supposed to be blessed because the child she's been given is so beautiful, no thanks to her.
A few of the later sonnets in that section complicate the notion of form and how it is transferred. In sonnet 11, the speaker says that nature “best endowed” the young man with his beauty, and though there is no capital “N,” nature is anthropomorphized. She is also characterized as female. Since other sonnets have equated beauty with form and form as masculine dominion, sonnet 11 seems to say that female (N)ature gives form as well. Is something so godlike androgynous? Lastly, I'm not sure how to take sonnets like 18 and 19, in which the speaker suggests that the young man will be immortal through the poems that the speaker writes, as if textual reproduction is quasi-sexual as well. If that's the case, isn't the presumably male poet supplying both form (meter, poetic structure, etc.) and matter (words, topic-- e.g. Polonius' question to Hamlet in 2.2 : “What is the matter that you read?” and Hamlet's response of “Words, words, words.” ? I'm not so sure this fits with Virginia Woolf's notion of the androgynous mind, but it's certainly interesting, and something I'd love to explore further.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Christianity, Feminism, Submission, and Kyriarchy

I struggle daily to find a common ground between my feminist political beliefs and my Christianity. I truly believe that these two selves are not at odds with one another, as many would think, and that combining the two, when I do it right, increases the liberating power of each. In that vein, I've been reading feminist theologians lately, and one that I'm trying to make heads or tails of at the moment is Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. She is a theorist in liberation theology with some pretty radical visions for how we define ourselves and explain our relationships, both physical and spiritual. The idea I've been thinking about a great deal lately is "kyriarchy," which the Wisdom Ways Glossary (2001) defines as follows:

Kyriarchy- a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for "lord" or "master" (kyrios) and "to rule or dominate" (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination...Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.

This, in my opinion, is a much more complex and shaded notion than that of patriarchy, which is very dualistic and seems to suggest all men ruling over all women. Many societies and communities don't work that way, but aren't exactly matriarchal either. I'm thinking specifically about the complex historical and current role of many African American women, who have often been expected to simultaneously fill both a dominant single-mother role and the role of a traditionally “submissive” wife (I admit that this is somewhat of a generalization taken from broad trends. I don't mean to offend.), but there are certainly many other examples.

The connection of my discovery of and intrigue concerning kyriarchy and my Christianity is this: I received the book The Excellent Wife by Martha Peace as a wedding present. It purports to contain “a Biblical perspective” on marriage, and, I'll be honest, I expected to hate it. To my surprise, I was deeply moved and convicted, and I've read just short of three chapters so far. It contained none of the unreasonable and sexist dictums to submit that I've often heard (and ridiculed) in the past. Instead, it explained to notion of service to one's husband in a way I can really get behind. The author explains that the relationship between God, husband, and wife is akin to that of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three parts are integral for spiritual growth and well-being; they just occupy different roles. The author also makes it clear that different does not mean hierarchical. Men and women were both made in God's image and are both required to serve Him; they are merely to do so in different ways, and one of the ways a wife can serve God is through loving her husband and putting his needs before her own. Peace doesn't deny male responsibility either, as many critics who label Biblical principles as misogynist often suggest of the proponents of those principles. She states that husbands are to appreciate the work that their wives do for them and see it for what it really is: a dutiful response to a higher spiritual calling that they, as husbands, should be grateful to benefit from. They, too, are to strive to elevate their wives' needs above their own desires. That doesn't seem disempowering or degrading to me at all. On the contrary, it seems like a way for people to acknowledge and appreciate their natural differences while striving to love one another. It seems like the biggest problem in all this is that it's easy to misunderstand what Biblical submission is. It's not worldly submission, not the stuff of invading armies or political coups. Instead, it has to be mutual to work, and just because the acts take different forms does not mean the mutuality does not exist. Given those notions, kyriarchy seems to fit. It also seems to suggest that power is not bad, that it is the misunderstanding of the source and nature of that power (from a Christian standpoint) that has negative results.

While I was pondering all of these things and how they affect me as both a Christian and a feminist, I came across a post on, widely considered the center of the young (secular) feminist blogosphere by many. While I frequently appreciate the site's dseire to make feminism relevant and fun, I find that for all their preaching of respect and tolerance, its members are typically quick to dismiss those to adhere to a religious faith as brainwashed or blind, Christians most of all. The post is entitled “Christianity, Misogyny, and Anger in Oklahoma,” and, in it, its author details her shock after attending a “Southern Baptist church” with several of her friends. I'm not sure what exactly the pastor said in that sermon, or if it was as misogynist and degrading as she recounts. Maybe it was. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church and heard misogynist sermons many times as a child, so I'm not denying that that happens or saying that it's right. I think it's another case of humans equating Biblical submission with what we see of worldly submission and thinking that they are achieved by the same means. What really angers me about the post is the authors response when her friends tell her that the message they heard is a common one, one that they had heard and seen enacted by their own mothers. Her response:
This made me profoundly angry not only with the speaker, and other such speakers, but also at my friends. I realize it is wrong to solely blame my friends - that what has created them has been this environment of repression. All the same, they are able to read and think- they can see the outside world of strong, liberated women. They could be these women. Stand up for yourselves! Make your own decisions! Change the world! I only wish I had yelled it before.

Her friends did not say that they agreed with this viewpoint, only that it was a commonly espoused one (or if they did agree, she did not included their statements, which makes me think she's jumping to conclusions). More than that, she mentions “the outside world of strong, liberated women,” as if women who hold religious convictions are somehow under glass, like some holier-than-thou science experiment. She others women she claims to have the deepest concern for, yells at them to stand up for themselves while making no effort to stand up for them herself, to consider their position, to think about the importance of religious conviction and what defying that would mean for someone who holds it in a place of highest importance. That is intolerance, and that proves to me that we need a less black-and-white way to consider how power structures work in our daily lives.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In which I criticize one of my selves and defend another

I promise that the post I said I would write on HBO's feminist fairy tales is coming soon. It's a lot longer and more involved than I thought it would be, and I'm trying to prepare to teach at a new school right now, so I'm a little busy. It'll be here eventually, though. In the meantime, I'd like to respond to two posts I read on the internet recently. While they are on wildly different topics, they are related, at least given my personal standpoint and overlapping identities, because both posts comment on/define something I identify as and are written by people outside those identifications. I've been thinking a great deal lately about inclusion and exclusion and labels and how those three concepts are so often inextricably linked for us as human beings when we identify or describe ourselves (to ourselves or to others), and these articles caused me to think a bit deeper about how I define myself and what those definitions mean or should mean to me.

The first article is on the website, which I've been exploring a good bit recently. It's an informative, often quite funny, and sometimes satirical site that seems primarily to endeavor to counter the widespread (mis)conception of Judaism as antiquated, boring, or irrelevant. The article I want to discuss is entitled 10 Things We Can Learn From Evangelical Christians. I was linked to the article from another site, and was originally intrigued by the title, as so often the word "Evangelical" is coded as backward or closed-minded. While I don't like his tone or diction very much at all, I do agree with the majority of the points the author makes. For example, the first thing Aleph cites that Evangelical congregations do well that synagogues should use is free food. It's always made sense to me in terms of ministry to use meeting basic human needs as a gateway to meet the spiritual needs of those who may be afraid of discussing such things outright. Not onlt is it practical, but sharing a meal with someone allows for conversation and relationship-building. If someone is comfortable with me as a person, they'll ideally feel less pressured or like I'm just trying to convert them if I try to open up a spiritual discussion.

While I thought that point and others in the article were spot on, I took issue with others, specifically "Making Denominations Irrelevant" and "Creating New Traditions," and I took issue with these points because I don't think they work within the Evangelical church the way Aleph seems to think they do. In regards to the first, Aleph writes that "[Evangelicals] talk about 'The Church" as if all Christians, regardless if they go to Faith Harvest Ministry or Harvesting Faith Ministry, are a part of one body. While I've certainly heard that phrase used in that way, I don't think that its being used means that Evangelicals don't care about denominations. In my personal experience, the contrary is often true. Fun fact: In my (private, Christian) high school, Baptists and Methodists openly mocked one another and ocassionally wouldn't speak to each other. I've seen that kind of pettiness mostly disappear with the arrival of adulthood, but I think that a lot of Evangelical churches hold in high esteem the social capital or privilege that comes with a certain denomination in any given area.

The "Creating New Traditions" section reads thusly: "This is something that I've seen the Evangelical World do, really well. Ever heard about 'Hell Houses', the Evangelical version of a haunted house which literally scares-the-devil-out-of-you? Or what about Promise Rings and Abstinence Pledges? These are all the new traditions of the Christian faith, and Jews could do the same thing." While I agree with Aleph's implication that new traditions can invigorate worship, I think he's missing a discussion of respect for doctrine. I realize that he may be ill-equipped to discuss Christian doctrine specifically, and that's fine. I just think that his comment as is is severly oversimplified and essentially says new=good.

The second article reflects a trend in the feminist blogosphere that I just can't get behind: polyamory as anti-patriarchal empowerment. I won't speak about it at length here, but I may return to this trend in future posts. In one such article on one of my favorite blogs, Feministe, guest blogger Frau Sally Benz is writing a series of posts about her entry into the "poly" community. The point she makes about monogamy in her most recent post that really irritates me is this:
The problem with many of our contemporary relationships is that we’re meant to be everything to another person: to fulfill all and every need. I see this in parenting, where one couple are supposed to be everything for their children. I see it in relationships that have gone destructive, like mine described above: where I have felt that I had to be everything to another person, and felt continually like I would never ever be enough, that I had to set myself aside in order to be enough. Where I have felt bad for having needs that my SO didn’t know how or didn’t want to fulfill. In poly, there’s no assumption that you ought to fulfill all of someone else’s needs, or that they ought to fulfill all of yours. Those responsibilities, which can weigh so heavily on relationships and on partners, can be shared. And they can be shared in ways that are made explicit, which are negotiated. Which means that women have space to be less self-effacing without feeling like they’re putting the relationship at risk by not being able or willing to fulfill a need or desire. And yes, that negotiation is possible in a mono relationship—and is engaged in, in the ones that work, I think!—it’s just that because poly is unusual, in my experience, people don’t assume they have a right to things, or assume they’re fulfilling your needs based on some pre-defined notion of what a relationship is, as is so clearly defined for mono relationships in almost every love story ever.

While I appreciate her asserting that some people in monogamous relationships are vocal about their needs with their partners (I'd like to think that my husband and I try to be that way with one another, though I'm sure he'd say I need some work in that area), I object to both her assertion that monogamous people look to their partners to meet ALL their needs and her further implication that poly relationships are better because the pressure is less when multiple relationships can spread out the need-meeting. It seems to me that FSB is viewing monogamous people as cut off from the outside world. I don't get all my emotional satisfaction from my husband. I have friends, a family, a job, a religion. All these things contribute to my mood, my joy, my sense of self. Given that the effect she attributes to poly relationships also probably happens to people in monogamous relationships who interact with other people in any kind of meaningful way, polyamory just seems selfish, like an easy way out.

And those are my rants regarding self-definition. Comments are welcome and appreciated.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Childhood, Representation, and the Princess Archetype, Part One

I have a lovely niece who is turning four at the end of this month. She's smart and kind and silly, and I want her not to lose those things as she grows up. I want her to realize that she can be strong and I want her to cultivate a healthy amount of confidence in herself. I'm sure these are things that most parents and relatives want for their children, and what most women want for the little girls in their lives. This is why I'm a bit wary of her sudden fascination with the Disney Princesses. I was the perfect age right in the middle of the Disney renaissance of the 1990s to have a similar fascination, and I turned out fine, but not without the help of some serious critical thinking, even as a child.

My first memory of what the Disney Princesses meant to me dovetails with my first memory of Barbie and similar dolls: I clearly recall being outraged (and possibly throwing a fit in the middle of a toy store, though I do not encourage children to emulate that particular form of social protest, if only for the benefit of their parents) at the sheer number of blonde toys there were to choose from, while Barbie seemed to have only one brunette “friend.” To add insult to injury, that friend seemed to be brunette only because no one else was, not because brown hair was just a pretty as blonde hair. If that was the case, why was there only one of her? After that moment, whenever I was asked who my favorite princess was—a very popular discussion among elementary school-aged girls at the time—I answered, “Snow White, because she has dark hair like mine.” Even at such a young age, in my own very small way, I recognized the pain of feeling excluded because the most popular toys, the prettiest toys, the toys the other girls thought were the best toys, did not look like me. I also recognized in that moment, though I couldn't pinpoint or define the feeling for many years, the sadness of feeling like a second thought, a token, when someone who looked like me was included. Almost twenty years later, I can't imagine how much harder it would have been to be a little Black girl or a little Latina girl or a host of other underrepresented little girls then, to need to see not just my hair represented as I played, but my entire physical being. I realize that Disney and Mattell have both made a concerted effort in recent years to rectify this problem. Disney films since my childhood have been populated with princesses of various ethnicities and backgrounds, with the first African American princess making her debut in The Princess and the Frog this fall, and the So In Style Collection, a new line of African American Barbie dolls with curlier hair and more realistic facial structure, was recently released.

While I'm thankful for this progress, I do want to make sure that young girls like my niece have alternatives to what I see as the most dangerous pitfall of the princess model: the role of the prince as active savior. While Disney has done work in this area as well (I'm thinking primarily of Mulan, who I near-worshiped as an eleven-year-old, and Kim Possible, who was a high school cheerleader by day and a crime-fighting secret agent by night), I am always on the lookout for something other than the traditional fairy tales from which that corporation has made its millions. That said, I was delighted to stumble upon the HBO series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. The series is a bit dated (I think the most recent one is from 1999 or so), and occasionally relies on cartoonish racial or ethnic stereotypes, but I believe its heart is in the right place. Its typical format is to tell a traditional fairy tale like Snow White or The Emperor's New Clothes, but to change them up by setting them in a different culture. For example, their Snow White is set in a Native American village, while their Emperor's kingdom is ancient Japan. Several episodes also strive for a deliberately feminist perspective. I'm touched by this desire to both show children of all colors that the stories they love can star heroes and heroines that look like them, and to teach children that the wisdom and morals these tales often deliver can be found in nearly all cultures. I'll examine two episodes from the series that claim to be especially feminist in my next post. For now, I just wanted to air some of my misgivings about how we teach children to view their world. I know there are some fabulous resources to combat how media can harm children in today's world. For example, I've read Packaging Girlhood , and I absolutely adore Amy Poehler's web show Smart Girls at the Party. Do you have more suggestions as to similar books , companies, or initiatives that I should check out? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments section.

Monday, August 10, 2009

About This Blog

I'm going to use this blog to explore and share my thoughts about a number of subjects and causes close to my heart, including but not limited to feminist issues, GLBTQ activism and representation, teen culture in America, and the importance of popular culture as social critique. I would consider most of those notions "marginal" in the context of mainstream America, and since I agree wholeheartedly with the quote above that the best way for marginal groups to escape the margins is to communicate with and speak out for one another, "Marginally Yours" seemed like a great name for this space. In that same vein, I'd love to eventually open this blog up to multiple contributors to create a chorus of voices from the margins, whatever and wherever they may be. So, welcome to my bit of cyberspace. Read, think, comment, and tell your friends!