I. “Non-consensual sex” at Yale.

Oh, Yale. You can’t even use the word rape in trying to address the “hostile sexual environment” at school? The latest report shows that what Jezebel calls “non-consensual sex-havers” are given written reprimands, and sometimes given probation, and most of the time advised to seek counseling.

Daaaammmnn! Rapists beware!

Before I speak too soon: one rapist was suspended for two whole semesters.

sex-and-the-city-opening-credits-carrie-bradshaw-14407403-1064-800

II. Difficult men and women.

The pleasure I’m getting while reading Brett Martin’s Difficult Men -- about the sociopathic male characters who have dominated the highbrow cable television drama for the past 15 years (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Al Swearingen, Jimmy McNulty, and on and on) and the sociopathic men who created them and portrayed them onscreen — is matched by the pleasure I got from Emily Nussbaum’s superlative reading and defense of Sex and the City (1998-2004) in last week’s New Yorker. A snippet:

The four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to slide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.

See what I mean? It’s excellent.

III. I can’t care about Anthony Weiner. 

I understand fully how sleazy he appears, but I’m having a hard time seeing why people are more exercised about him than the comebacks of Mark Warner and Eliot Spitzer, who committed actual crimes and are also guilty of moral hypocrisy. Lying and being a terrible husband seem endemic these days, but tweeting some crotch shots just seems stupid and mortifying.

anthony_weiner_huma_abedin_a_lAnd honestly, how Huma Abedin deals with this is her own @#$%ing business, not mine.

IV. I’m thinking of seeing some underrated girl comedies.

I hadn’t planned on seeing the big hit The Heat (with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy), but its remarkable staying power in the theaters and a great essay entitled “The Heat: Not Enough Peen for Critics” over at Mighty Damsels have persuaded me to check it out. Also the new film The To-Do List. More soon on that one.

how-much-is-giancarlo-esposito-worth

V. WHO WANTS TO TALK WITH ME ABOUT MY CRUSH ON GIANCARLO ESPOSITO FROM BREAKING BAD?

Don’t tell me what happens; still making my way through Season 3 and into Season 4. He might be the best secondary/ tertiary character I’ve ever seen.

VI. Just go read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Ridiculously enjoyable, cleanly-written, funny summer reading. And I’ve had a pretty good summer of reading, relatively speaking.

war on rape

Here’s a radical suggestion: let’s keep all the details of rape charges private and out of the media until they have been resolved by the legal system. Because if there’s anything worse than a legal system trying to figure out the details of rape cases within the usually male-dominated sphere of the police and the law, it’s the overtly sexist media trying a rape case without any fucking evidence.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An athlete is charged with rape, and a media outlet essentially pens a dramatic headline asking the public, “Is this Highland Park baseball star a rapist?” (Hint: no, according to the story.) The real goal of the article is to say the girl is lying, and that the male athlete is the real victim here. “If it’s a case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt, then no one suffers more than 18-year-old Ryan Romo,” the article concludes.

Using no evidence beyond her own gut feelings, the article’s author (and CultureMap managing editor) Claire St. Amant holds forth about how “kids are supposed to mess up. They lie. They cheat. They get caught. They grow up.”

You might think that St. Amant refers to both the alleged rapist and his accuser, who is under the age of 16. But no. Apparently there’s only one kind of kid who messes up: girls.

A lot of people found this story problematic, such that a defensive St. Amant posted a follow-up story doubling down on her position. Then a freelance columnist for CultureMap named Dan Solomon posted a critical assessment of the story on his independent Tumblr — because, as he explains for XOJane, he’d like to be the kind of guy “with enough credibility to call out people who say or do fucked up things.” He wrote:

I’m embarrassed right now that my name is associated with the Culturemap brand. I’m really disappointed in St. Amant’s judgment and of Culturemap’s choice to publish such offensive — and stupid! — bullshit.

CultureMap asked him to take it down, Solomon refused, so they fired him.

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Is Ryan Romo guilty or innocent? we don’t know. Was the sex between him and this under-16 girl consensual? we don’t know. That’s for the legal system to figure out.

Did his accuser lie? we don’t know. Of course we can all think of cases in which accusers have lied, but that doesn’t mean this one did. That’s for the legal system to figure out.

Let it be said that regarding rape cases, the legal system is the worst — because it’s very difficult to prove rape, and the entire process drags the accuser through a series of hoops that, frankly, resemble rape. Scrutiny of her character, her clothing, her behavior, her language. And let’s not forget the gynecological procedures that literally penetrate her in order to garner evidence, then shoot photographs. If you were younger than 16 and you had the least idea of all this invasion by the legal system, would you accuse someone of rape? If you were younger and 16 and had to be accompanied by a parent, how would you feel, going through this process? how would your parent behave toward you throughout the process? how much would you wonder whether they disbelieved you?

And that’s only the start. Then there are the shoot-from-the-hip assholes like Claire St. Amant and CultureMap, who think it’s fine to create yet another courtroom — one without any facts at all, and one in which the jury is whoever decides to log on to offer up their opinions online. But if an employee says publicly that this isn’t, ahem, cool, well — fire him/her.

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So that’s why I ask for a moratorium on news about rape charges. Because the media have shown that they are incapable of behaving with any degree of journalistic integrity in reporting those charges. To the contrary, media outlets are now going out of their way to muddy the legal waters even more. In the process, they have the capacity to ruin the lives of the individuals involved.

And because, hey, they need all the decent journalists they can get — people willing to call out fucked up shit when they see it.

I don’t know about you, but this was one of my major responses to the election:

Yup, we’re still in 2012. Collective sigh of relief.

But I keep thinking back to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, written during that period of evangelical upswing, the mid-1980s. I hadn’t read the novel since I was a teenager, but picked it up again this fall as the birth control and rape conversations were flying fast & furious. The book is every bit as good as I remember, but for different reasons: whereas what I remembered was the horrifying future Atwood imagined, what I’d forgotten was the interior experience of its protagonist.

Because I think what is so chilling about this novel is how they got there, and what they forgot along the way.

Her name is Offred, and I beg you to read the novel just to find out how she has come by that awkward name. We never learn her real name. Offred’s job in this Christian future is to get pregnant on behalf of the high-ranking couple to whom she has been assigned. Like the story from Genesis in which Rachel cannot bear children for her husband Jacob, Offred has been selected to serve as the vessel for her master’s sperm and the baby that will be assigned to her mistress.

According to every single message within society, Offred’s subject position is God’s will.

As horrifying as that is, it’s worse to find two other crucial elements to the novel. The first is that she has forgotten how to live that other life, the life that existed before this new regime. For example, she encounters  a group of Japanese tourists who stare at them and want to take photographs:

I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before. 

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

That’s what I worry about: that we are forgetting that making our own decisions about our bodies is both legal and a guarantor of women’s political and social equality. Instead, we’re getting used to a vast cultural and governmental apparatus making decisions for us. We’re getting used to entertaining seriously the notion that abortion is something to be debated — that it is inherently suspect, dangerous, traumatic. Not just abortion: also birth control. Also how to define “rape.”

We are forgetting what it feels like to reject those views. Texas women who undergo state-mandated trans-vaginal ultrasounds when they seek abortions are learning to forget that this is not necessary. Women who vote for libertarian candidates learn to think that those candidates’ views on state-mandated anti-abortion policies aren’t abhorrent and inconsistent with their political/ economic views. We’re told daily about the new varieties of legitimate or forcible rapes. We’re learning that birth control is the new battleground — that maybe The Pill and the IUD ought to be taken away from us.

The second chilling this about the novel is Offred’s fuzzy memories of the years before — how they looked past the ways their society was changing:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. 

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.

It’s mid-November, the worst of the crazies were not elected, but are we in 2012? The article in The Onion is not so sure. At the end, its interviewee explains that “while she was grateful upon learning what year it was, she had to admit that living in the year 2012 was still quite frightening.” Amen to that. Let’s not forget it.

Lord knows I, as much as the next girl, love being told by white male politicians what God wants for me. It just gets so confusing for my lady brain when they disagree.

So let me fire this one at Richard Mourdock, the Republican candidate for Senate from Indiana, who explained in Monday night’s televised debate that he opposes abortion for women who’ve been impregnated by their rapists because God “intended” it to happen.

Hang on, so God wants me to be raped? and to serve as empty vessel for the rapist’s spawn?

“The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother,” said Mourdock, the Tea Party-backed candidate who knocked Sen. Richard Lugar (R) out of the race at the primary stage. “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Don’t you wish that you, too, knew what God wanted? Perhaps it’s only women who are suckers enough to believe in all that “working in mysterious ways” stuff.

Mourdock’s opponents jumped on his statement immediately (they are both rabidly anti-abortion, yet allow for exceptions). “The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen – ever,” said Mourdock’s Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly. “What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.”

Whoa! whiplash! I have a question, sir: Does God want me to be raped or not? Dammit all, how can there be such confusion on this issue? And can someone tell me how anybody knows what God’s will is?

Other questions arise. If God is involved to this extent, why don’t we tell people that God wants a criminal to invade their homes and hold them hostage just for kicks? Does God want all those other rape victims to be murdered and left in shallow graves?

Yup, that’s right, ladies: we just have to lie back and take all this information about God’s will over our bodies. ‘Cuz lord knows He only talks to politicians.

Richmond, VA: The Virginia personhood bill has been tabled by the state senate. Don’t worry, folks! It’s only been tabled until next year. Because the real con game here isn’t about personhood or abortion, it’s shaming women! (BTW: the unnecessary ultrasound bill is ready for the VA governor’s signature, even though it’s no longer a trans-vaginal probe ultrasound!)

Ever disliked a woman? A female boss, an ex-girlfriend, Nancy Pelosi, that mean girl in high school, that woman who got into a college that rejected you? Weeellll. This game shames all women, and that’s gotta be good for all of us!

This game is a lot like chess, except with blunt instruments. This is the long con, the game that stretches out for years. This game is not for the faint of heart.

Step #1 has already been accomplished: Making the abortion issue solely about women’s shame. When was the last time you saw a woman in one of those t-shirts that says, “I had an abortion”? Ha! All that screaming outside of women’s health clinics = success!

Step #2: Shift those glasses you’re wearing to black and white. Don’t be fooled by talk of “incest exceptions,” “women’s health,” “rape,” or “Republicans favor small government.” There is right and there is wrong, folks! Never the twain shall meet! And what is right is that men get to have patriarchal control over everything, and that women be shamed into silence and sexual submission.

Step #3: There is no hyperbole too outrageous. Propose a bill that requires all women seeking birth control to undergo religious counselling. A bill that requires female circumcision of all girls starting at the age of 10. Nothing is too extreme if you’re draped in the righteousness of Christianity!

Addendum to Step #3: Don’t worry if you lose these small battles — that’s not the point! The point is that we win the war, and the war is about shaming women and requiring female silence! In fact, the more hyperbolic the bill, the more we make all women think, “Hang on, am I supposed to be ashamed that I need birth control pills to manage my fibroid condition?”

Step #4: Shame all women in the public sphere who might offer up a counter-argument to female shame and silence. Let’s take the story of Quanitta “Queen” Underwood, the female boxer who’s likely to be the US’s best Olympic hope for the lightweight belt. Just recently she revealed something she had never told her closest friends: that between the ages of 10 and 13, Queen’s father raped her and her older sister on a regular basis. At first, he raped her older sister while Queen lay next to her in bed, pretending to be asleep. Eventually they told their (absent) mother, and he was imprisoned. This kind of coming-through-slaughter story is exactly what we need to squelch!

Solution: Propose that female boxers be forced to wear skirts when they compete. See how wearing a skirt reminds women athletes that the only important thing about their skill is their lady-business and/or how pretty they are? Get everyone distracted by the skirts question such that they ignore the Queen’s tale of survival — it doesn’t matter that you lose this campaign, because we’ll just propose skirts again for the next sport!

Our favorite part of this proposal: the perversion of the notion of choice. The outcome of this battle is that now, female boxers get to “choose” between shorts or a skirt.

And that leads to our last Step, #5: Rewrite the notion of choice. Bombard the airwaves with new definitions of the “right to choose” in a campaign so intense that everyone forgets that this terminology once had anything to do with abortion.

Example: Michelle Bachmann calls herself a feminist and speaks of the right to choose to raise 23 foster children. See how that muddies the water about choice, narrowing it down to the issue of how to be a mother?

Example: Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist and speaks of the right to choose between using a vacuum cleaner or crawling around the house on one’s hands and knees with a sponge and a bucket of water. You gotta leave room open for the fundamentalists who decry vacuum cleaners, after all.

Example: Lawmakers decide to end what some feminists call “rape culture” by urging Americans to “choose femininity, not rape.” This will mean nothing aside from shutting up those ugly women who want to break the silence. “Why do you choose rape?” we can ask in response. “Why talk about such nasty things as infections, diseases, humiliation, injury? Why not choose femininity?”

The shame game is one we will win, provided we all commit to it for the long haul. Down side: your daughters will grow up stupid, hunchbacked, and will cringe annoyingly whenever they’re spoken to. Up side: you won’t have to pay for college! and when you get bored with your alternately pregnant/breast-feeding wife, you can sleep with whomever you like, free of consequences.

Men = winners!

“Ladies’ Man or Sexual Predator?”

That’s what they’re asking at ABC News about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund (as if I needed more reasons to hate the IMF), in the wake of charges of sexual abuse and rape. That’s right: let’s offer the public one more chance to excuse his behavior as harmless flirting, and fill comments sections with suggestions that Strauss-Kahn’s victims are whiny bitches. I’ll bet you $1000 when the pundits debate this question, they’ll get a woman to defend the “ladies’ man” side of this important question.

Meanwhile, the news about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “love child” (as the press invariably terms it; why not just “child”?) begs the question: you’re surprised? Oh, I get it — you didn’t believe all those women who came forward with reports of The Governator’s predatory nature back when he was running for governor.

And then there’s Roseanne Barr, who’s penned an unforgiving essay in this month’s New York Magazine about her experience being undermined, ridiculed, and dismissed even as Roseanne became a #1 TV show. Tina Fey observed earlier this year in that terrific New Yorker piece that men will call any of us a “crazy bitch” once they no longer want to fuck us. I’ll bet you $1000 that 70% of the response will debate the question, “How much is Roseanne Barr a crazy bitch?”

Message: you can’t win, ladies! So let’s debate whether Schwarzenegger is a ladies’ man or a sexual predator (and let me advise you that if you argue the latter, you will be termed a crazy bitch!).

Update, 11:15 am Tuesday: Our hero, Twisty Faster, has some sparks-flyin’ words at her blog, I Blame the Patriarchy, in which she points out that both Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger shtupped “the maid.” Oh, “the maid.” The media barely treats such women as human, much less worthy of respect.

JustMeMike: Today readers we are proud to present a conversation about the new Julian Schnabel film Miral. Both of us live in the USA – one in college town in a southwestern state, and the other in a coastal town in southwest Florida. Schnabel  filmed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, not all that far from the West Bank. So this discussion will have a distinctly western flavor to it. That’s in the geographical sense only — in case you were wondering. Political inclinations hopefully won’t enter into this talk about the film.

While the actual location of the meeting shall remain a closely held secret, what was said will have no such protections. Without further preamble, I’ll ask our friend Didion to introduce herself and tell us a bit about Miral’s director Julian Schnabel.

Didion: I’m a college professor and film fan, and on my blog I usually discuss issues related to feminism, cinema, and pop culture — so Miral seemed a perfect film for conversation, for it tells the tale that focuses on three generations of Palestinian women.

Freida Pinto as Miral

Putting women at the center of a film is a shift for Schnabel, whose (brilliant) earlier films drew on artistic men’s biographies and autobiographies to create extraordinary films: Basquiat (the story of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat), Before Night Falls (the autobiography of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas), and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (based on the memoir of fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, written during the time he suffered from locked-in syndrome after a massive stroke).

An initial response: I admit, I’d read just enough of a couple of mixed reviews about Miral to go in with low expectations (there was a grand total of 5 people in the theater). Sometimes that stance can allow me to appreciate a film all the more because I don’t expect it to be a masterpiece. But I walked out of this one annoyed. Its politics were naive, the story was split awkwardly between four different women’s lives and political inclinations, and I never felt for any of them the way I did with Schnabel’s previous protagoinists. Was it just me, or was Miral a bit of a dog’s breakfast, as the English say?

Hiam Abbass as the schoolteacher, Hind

JustMeMike: WowI’d not heard that one before — a dog’s breakfast — nor have I consumed a dog’s breakfast. I’m a transplanted New Yorker living near the golden shores of the Gulf of Mexico. My blog (The Arts) discusses film, art, travel, and I even dabble in foreign television.

My experiences with Schnabel, prior to Miral, consist of knowing that he was director of Basquiat, an artist  whose name was often overheard in bars and restaurants on West Broadway in lower Manhattan years back. But I never saw the film, so Schnabel was an unknown for me.

I too had low expectations for Miral from reading a few reviews. I knew of Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire, and I knew of Alexander Siddig from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the TV series, who portrayed Miral’s father in this film. As I exited the theater with the sole other person who caught the matinee, she asked me if I liked it. I answered that yes, I did like it, but that it disappointed me, and that it was flawed. My first disappointment came from the fact that Vanessa Redgrave and Willem Dafoewere each named on the film’s poster, but combined for no more than five minutes or so in the film. Do you think that was a bit of gimmick to create interest for American viewers?

Redgrave, Abbass, and Dafoe in an early scene

Didion: That’s a great point: as much as I love to look at Vanessa Redgrave, she was a distraction for me here — as was the weird appearance of Dafoe as a sort of love interest who was never developed. Surely Schnabel can’t believe that the kinds of viewers who want to see a film about the Palestinian struggle don’t require Dafoe and Redgrave as catnip to show up? It would have been nice, instead, to have more than two actual Palestinian actors in prominent roles in the film (Yasmine Al Massri, who plays the troubled Nadia, is Palestinian-French; the wonderful Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass plays Hind Husseini). All the other leads are not Palestinian.

But my larger problem was with the way the film ricocheted between four women’s different relationships to political activism in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the course of nearly 50 years. At times I thought it simply wanted to show how that conflict affected different women — which would’ve been a strikingly agnostic way of looking at the conflict. At other times, especially toward the end, the film seemed to grasp for simplistic solutions, à la “let’s hope for peace.” We didn’t even get to Miral (Pinto) until the last 45 minutes or so of the film, and she seems to be so easily influenced by the people around her (father, boyfriend, teacher, cousin’s girlfriend) that she has no clear identity or agency of her own.

Yasmine Al Massri as the tragic Nadia

JustMeMike: Of course your view concerning the structure of the film is correct. He, or rather she, the novel and screenplay were written by Rula Jebreal, who is Schabel’s significant other, probably wrote the story of Hind Husseini, the founder of the school in the novel. But likely there wasn’t enough color in that story alone. So Nadia is introduced. Once Nadia is incarcerated she meets Fatima in the jail and we then learn of her story. Then little Miral appears. Certainly it is difficult to build a generational story spanning 50 years, and then compress it in to two hours. I wouldn’t say the story ricocheted, which implies a lack of control. I thought it was more linear than that. But the result is the same. None of the four females’ stories seemed to have any depth, which makes them unsatisfying.I’d like to add that the marketing of the film led me to have a different expectation. Especially from the trailer. I went in expecting Miral to become a terrorist. Was that what you expected?

Yasmine Al Massri and Alexander Siddig as the newly-married Nadia and Jamal

Didion: Absolutely re: the trailer. In fact, it was the contrast of Pinto’s beautiful face and abject posture (sitting glumly on a bench in her school uniform, as if in a police station) that intrigued me so much initially. After all, one of the questions that has dominated in the media has been, why do women make up such a striking percentage of Middle Eastern activists and Islamic terrorists? It seems to fly in the face of gender stereotypes about women being “naturally” pacifistic or unaggressive (does anyone really believe this stuff about “natural” gender differences, or does it just make for simplistic reportage?). Even if we throw those stereotypes out the window, it remains interesting to think about why women in a place like Palestine make such a wide range of different political choices. But by dividing its narrative into four different women, the film doesn’t sufficiently explain the motives and ideals of any of them; if anything, Abbass’s politically neutral schoolteacher is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all the characters. JustMeMike: Ah … at least in the film, Nadia, who is the second woman of import whom we meet, is at least attractive. Her life is hard, if we take what happened to her in her home which forced her to flee, and led her to become a dancer, her choice are more clear-cut than not. Fatima, on the other hand is a nurse who spent her time in an ill-equipped clinic caring for the wounded without sufficient equipment or medicine. Her anger is there for us to see, even if it is not quite fully realized. Schnabel and Rula Jebreal are asking s to make that leap along with Fatima.

Schnabel went clearly for controversy because he, a Jewish man himself, made a film that isn’t quite pro-Palestinian, and not quite anti-Israeli, but the film does lean or tilt in both of those directions. Then he ups the ante by having the trailer make us think that the film will take Miral to the dark side — terrorism. Plus we aren’t getting any deep motivational signals from Miral. As you said early, she goes in the direction of whoever she is closest too. Which leaves us with Schnabel not really taking sides which leaves the film awash and floating  from one side to the other.

I’m wondering if you agree with my thought of his intent to be controversial but in a soft way?

Miral and her aging schoolteacher (Abbass)

Didion: Many American Jews feel conflicted about Israel, especially with regard to the Palestinian question, but it does remain pretty controversial; I can see that he would have wanted to tread softly on a subject that could earn him the charge of being antisemitic. But if it’s true he was trying to thread the needle between controversy and making a political statement, I still believe he’s mainly achieved a muddle.

But rather than be an unmitigated hater, I’ve got to mention how much I loved a few of those vintage Schnabel moments: the beautiful, dreamlike shots of Nadia belly dancing in a bar; the way the camera captured her drunkenness by blurring out the edges of the screen as she stumbled home at the end of the night; the scene on the bus when a man hits on her and his wife/girlfriend calls her a whore. These are purely experiential moments that reminded me of some of the best footage from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an amazing film.

JustMeMike: Well, since I have not seen either of those films just mentioned, I’ll have to pass on agreeing about what you’ve remembered. But I’ll tell you what I thought of some of the images and content in Miral. First off, his camera was way too jittery in the first 8th of the film. It just wasn’t needed. Then during Nadia’s rape — before we knew what we were looking at, Schnabel decided to focus up close on one of the posts in the bed’s headboard which was vibrating to such a degree that you couldn’t tell what it was. I thought that was also unnecessary.

Miral learns to like her cousin’s Jewish girlfriend, Lisa

But I loved when Miral and Lisa were driving back to Jerusalem and they got stopped at the check point. First of all, it was scary even though Lisa was an Israeli and Jewish, while Miral was also an Israeli but Palestinian. Schnabel had by then instilled some fear in me for the characters. So that was well done. In the same setting, you noticed that barrenness of the area – stony hillsides, almost devoid of trees. It was but a brief moment, but it struck me with its starkness. I also liked the street and walls of the Old Jerusalem. It was marvelous to see thousands of years of life in the form of narrow streets and stone walls staring at us.

But I also felt that there were too many strokes to the beating in jail. It was agonizing to watch especially after they had pointedly shown no more than a brief flash of it in the trailer. So I was kind of shocked. And then further shocked when the Judge freed Miral, even though we had been carefully prepped that without evidence, the cops had no case against Miral.

What else did you find interesting or attractive?

Miral and her boyfriend, Hani

Didion: You’re so right about the shaky camera; in fact, the image pixillated when it panned too rapidly around a scene. Was he trying to convey disorientation?

On the scene of Nadia’s rape, with the sound blurred out and the strange view of the slats in the headboard: I actually found that a nice solution to depicting more graphically the pain and humiliation. NOT that I ever want to see rape depicted onscreen, a topic I’ve ranted about in the past.

Now that you bring up those scenes, I want to turn the topic to the subject of women a bit more. The film seems to me to be preoccupied with different forms of female suffering — whether it’s Nadia’s rape, her harrassment in the bus, her propensity for drunkenness, Miral’s beating in jail, the aging Hind sitting in her room coming face to face with the implications of her apolitical stance. Am I exaggerating, or does this film tread so softly onto potentially controversial subjects in part by watching women suffer?

JustMeMike: Sorry — I don’t think that you can play that card and be correct about it. If you applaud because the four central characters are female, and the film is set in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the film is written as a drama, then suffering is not unexpected. Yes, the degree of suffering could be called unbalanced and even unfair to a degree, but who in the film was happy?

Certainly not the heroic Hind, played marvelously by Abbassshe died alone in her dorm room. She was likely satisfied with her life as a humanitarian and a teacher, but that is not the same as personal happiness. Miral was happy as a child but definitely not as a 17 year old. Nadia and Fatima? Okay, Nadia’s life was overboard in terms of what she went through — but this could have been to get her into jail in order to introduce Fatima, who was given a harsh sentence, which was used to establish a bias against the courts and laws.

Hind rescues a small army of Palestinian orphans during the 6-Day War

As for the men: Hani, the Palestinian lover of Miral was killed. I did like the way that scene was done because of how we were distanced from it. Jamal, Miral’s father, at least in the sense that he raised her, but he handed her off to Hind — for a better chance at a future — but this must have been a difficult decision for him. Then he was abused by Miral herself when she said that Jamal had spent his whole life hiding in the mosque. It wasn’t a true statement of course, as he had done his share by bringing other children to Hind’s school, but it must have hurt him deeply. I don’t think his character spoke any other lines after that scene.

So yes, I think you are exaggerating.

Didion: That’s not quite what I meant. To clarify, I’m not sure I’m applauding this film at all, despite the fact that it has women characters at its center; there are plenty of films with female protagonists that disappoint on many levels.

My question is, what does electing to have four female protagonists allow Schnabel to do? And I think the answer is that he ultimately upholds a fairly conventional notion about female agency: the Jewish-Palestinian conflict in total hurts Palestinian women — it makes them choose between political activism/guerrilla fighting and being politically impotent, puts them in the way of being raped by men and/or beaten by the police, and throws them into prison for the slightest of offenses. Schnabel wants his viewers to pour forth emotion on behalf of these suffering women — and this is a level of emotion they might not express for male protagonists because we’re not used to sympathizing with Middle Eastern men. I think the film creates melodrama because we’re used to seeing women as victims, that’s a shame. The most activist of the women, Fatima, is given very short shrift by the film. Most of the women get batted around by fate or the men in their lives, or ultimately regret their attenuated relationship to political activism.

It’s true that we sympathize with Jamal (and the Sudanese-English Alexander Siddig is excellent, as he was in Syriana and Cairo Time), but we also view him as a man made impotent by his wife’s infidelity, his failure to engage in political efforts, his feminizing kindness to his daughter.

Miral with her aging father, Jamal

JustMeMike: Thanks for the clarification. I was not hearing (understanding) you accurately and I believe that at times we are discussing the film on separate levels — which means that Schnabel has indeed created a controversial film. There’s the perspective of a film fan, the perspective of international political pundits and authorities and regular folks watching from the sidelines while tuned into CNN and reading their newspapers, and there’s the perspective of those who spend time considering the social and humanistic aspects of their own lives, the films they see, and whichever parts of the world they are in contact with.

Fatima is indeed given short shrift by Schnabel and Jebreal, and I believe that is because the film must be fit into a finite amount of time, and because she is the least sympathetic character. This in itself is not a flaw. Hind Husseini who popped into the film every 10 years or so, was basically relegated to the sidelines and her perspective was as you have already said to keep her school safe and secure and separate from the politics. I agree with you that we should have seen more of her. Nadia was the every-woman character who represented the terrible lot in life of Palestinian women which may have nothing at all to do with what Schnabel and Jebreal want us to think or may have everything to do with what the filmmakers intended for us.

Miral learns her friend won’t have to marry involuntarily

Miral represents the future yet to be determined. She is avid but at the same time not a deep thinker. I thought that Pinto was able to convey her territorial prerogatives as a young Palestinian woman but I wonder if she was hired  for her looks and to help sell tickets. If that is so, then the film’s principals were looking at the business side of things. Which is another reason to be angry. Sorry for coming to that so late — but you already touched on it when you mentioned the shortage of Palestinian actresses in speaking roles.

Didion:  I want to say one more thing about the film’s politics: I felt that Schnabel was surprisingly vague about solutions. He advocates peace at the end of the film, but offers no particular means of doing so beyond asking the Israelis to honor the Oslo Accords of 1993 (signed to conclude the Intifada of 1987-93) – which were pretty damn controversial amongst Palestinians. Now, I don’t really have a dog in that fight (although in full disclosure I will admit to having more sympathy for the underdog Palestinians) but no one can be so naive as to believe that Declaration of Principles would resolve all the problems. I’m not sure whether to go so far as to accuse Schnabel of copping out or to believe that he needs stronger, clearer material to work with before he enters into it fully (he handled Cuban and AIDS politics nicely in Before Night Falls, perhaps with the aid of Arenas’ terrific autobiography).

JustMeMike: I’m going to mostly pass on your last comment, neither agreeing or disagreeing, because mainly I don’t know the history beyond the surface. But I will say that the Oslo Accords of 1993 and Hind Husseini’s death in 1994 are all historical facts. As is the fact the Rula Jebreal herself was a student at Husseini’s Dar El-Tifel school starting at the age of 6 and for the next 13 years. So she was protected as a student from much of the Palestinian hardship outside the walls of the school. She was also inside the story. On the other hand, Schnabel wasn’t anywhere near the story. He comes to the story years later with the built in advantage, or maybe it is a disadvantage, of historical hindsight. As do we.

Director Julian Schnabel

Maybe it is fair to say he did a cop out, and maybe it isn’t fair to take that position. Just as it isn’t all the fault of the material either. The story told in the film ends nearly 16 years ago. So we have stronger and clearer facts to work with which aren’t part of the story. But having said that, I still believe, like you, that the story told in the film was indeed trying to be somewhat persuasive but did not succeed in that regard.

Didion: I’m hardly an expert, either, but even the film shows that Miral’s boyfriend Hani is killed by other Palestinians when he supports the Oslo Accords. With a conflict this old and complex, there are no easy solutions.

So I’m wondering, JMM, as you look back: what works in this film, and what doesn’t? Beyond the question of whether you’d recommend it to your friends (and readers), what do you think matters about this film?

I’m thinking that my answer might be that it brings attention to the Palestinians’ experience of this long conflict, and this is enhanced by Schnabel’s decision to have such an interesting range of women at the center. So even though I’m skeptical of its treatment of women and its simplistic plea for peace, and doubtful about the film’s ultimate coherence, I hope very much it brings attention to the complexity of the situation and the serious imbalance of power between the two groups.

And one more exasperated note: the more I think about it, the more I’m annoyed that the film tries to construct a stalled mini-romance between Hind Husseini and Willem Dafoe’s Eddie!

JustMeMike: No easy solutions for peace — absolutely. What works? The plight of children in a conflict is a story as old as conflict itself. But instead of focusing throughout the film on the newly orphaned, the school is pushed off to the side, and this was a good choice.  Yes, I am in agreement with you that this story told, from the perspective of the Palestinians, does bring a fresh look at this long conflict, and does humanize the Palestinians. This too is a good thing.

What doesn’t work? As you have already stated — Schnabel/Jebreal have not given the female leads in the film a more rounded or fuller personas. It is as if they’ve each been shoehorned in to a narrow arc. Hind is the heroine and Mother figure — but we don’t learn much about her other than her fierceness in protecting and caring for the children. Miral is at the center but we don’t get to see her mind at work. Fatima is the terrorist, and Nadia is the victim.

I thought the film was rich visually as well. As for the stalled mini romance — agreed it wasn’t necessary — but it might have been far worse had they chosen to expand the romance and give it some legs.

Didion: You’re so right. But it’s so depressing when a critic is reduced to saying, “It could have been worse.”

In the end, I think this film is disappointing — beautiful and even eloquent at time, but ultimately I come back to my initial claim: it’s a dog’s breakfast. As much as I’m sorry to say it (I’m a big fan of Schnabel), it won’t keep me from seeing his films in the future.

JMM, this has been a pleasure! I’m looking forward to our next virtual barroom conversation. Let’s hope next time we find a film that we can be ecstatic about. (She raises her pint for a toast.)

JustMeMike: There you go. Disappointing is the mutually agreed on single word description. You mentioned Cairo Time in your comments. Timing is everything as that film arrives today from Netflix. So I am going from one Middle East hot spot to another, cinematically, of course.

Sure, we can do this again. It was fun, and I agree that we need a film that we can gush about, in fact I’ll drink to that. (He simultaneously clinks glasses, sweeps the accumulated peanut shells off the table and then signals the waitress for another round.)

Remember House Bill H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”? When they developed the bill in late January of this year, Republicans initially inserted language indicating that only victims of “forcible rape” would be allowed to receive federal funds for abortions. To be precise, this bill only applies to women who are so poor they cannot afford the cost of an abortion. As I wrote back in February:

It reduces the definition of rape to “forcible” rape — thus dangerously raising the standard of proof for that crime and eliminating statutory rape. Thus, if an impoverished 14-year-old girl is impregnated by her 30-year-old “boyfriend,” she cannot seek federal assistance to get an abortion. The bill limits the term incest to sex with minors; as a result, an impoverished 18-year-old girl raped by her father or uncle is out of luck.

The public reaction to that wording was so quick and angry that the bill’s sponsors quickly withdrew it. Now, Mother Jones magazine shows in a terrific piece, “The GOP’s Stealth Plan to Redefine Rape,” that language has simply been moved from the bill’s overview text to the committee report that accompanies it. Judges use committee reports to interpret Congress’s intent, so they have become a backdoor means of inserting far more radical concepts into bills than appear on the surface.

In this case, the committee report for H.R. 3 states that it will “not allow the Federal Government to subsidize abortions in cases of statutory rape.” This means that the same girls I mention in the quote above would be forced to give birth to their babies. As would a severely developmentally disabled 13-year-old girl impregnated by a gang of boys at her school, and a 15-year-old girl who had no physical evidence to prove she’d been forcibly raped but still hoped to obtain assistance for an abortion due to her extreme youth. 

Thanks, GOP! Next on their agenda: finding a way to legalize beating my grandmother, stealing money from the Salvation Army, and requiring the blind to relocate to Antarctica. Can re-enslaving African Americans be far behind?

Dear Representative X,

I am writing to urge you to oppose H.R. 3 (the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act), for which you are currently a co-sponsor, for the following reasons:

1) The bill changes virtually nothing having to do with abortion; because of the Hyde Amendment of 1976, tax funds currently do not pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or in cases when the mother’s health or life is at risk. Poor women already pay for their own abortions without federal assistance. The notion that this bill enacts much change is false. The only women affected by this bill are deeply impoverished and have been impregnated by rape or incest, or face serious health problems as a result of their pregnancy.

2) What the bill does accomplish is to radically redefine legal understandings of rape, incest, and risk to a mother’s health or life. It reduces the definition of rape to “forcible” rape—thus dangerously raising the standard of proof for that crime and eliminating statutory rape. Thus, if an impoverished 14-year-old girl is impregnated by her 30-year-old “boyfriend,” she cannot seek federal assistance to get an abortion. The bill limits the term incest to sex with minors; as a result, an impoverished 18-year-old girl raped by her father or uncle is out of luck. It delimits abortions only to those women whose life is at risk rather than those for whom childbirth would seriously damage their health but leave them alive—saddling already impoverished women with serious medical costs at the same time they must mother a newborn. (Thanks to Jill at Feministe for her insights on these issues.)

3) In redefining rape, incest, and risk to a mother’s health or life, the bill has the potential to alter non-abortion related legal understandings of those crimes. Considering that 1 in 6 American women has been raped—and that only 26% of rapes are committed by a stranger—it is radically dangerous for government to limit rape only to provably “forcible” crimes. Likewise, to delimit the crime of incest only to minors has the potential to green-light incest of young women who come of age. Our nation has an epidemic of sexual crimes against women; our government should be making no moves to ease criminal restrictions on those sexual crimes.

4) The bill seeks to impose anti-abortion ethics on entities wholly separate from government:  namely, small businesses, individuals, and private insurers. It contains a stipulation that the federal government can withdraw tax subsidies for small businesses if their private insurance features coverage for abortion (and most private insurers do offer this coverage); likewise, it can withdraw tax benefits from individuals who purchase private health insurance that offers coverage for abortion. All of this appears designed to strong-arm private insurers into ending coverage for abortion; federal government should not be involved in telling private businesses what to believe or how to operate.

5) This bill seriously detracts from the truly important issues affecting the United States right now: namely, an impossibly high rate of unemployment and increasingly troubled state budgets. In fact, the bill only makes conditions worse for some Americans most at risk: those who are already poor, hungry, and under-employed.

As a professor at X University, I have spoken with many young women with histories of abuse and rape—legacies that are nearly impossible to live with. Their feelings of shame and guilt for having been sexually victimized affect them on a daily basis. In short, even with rape and incest laws as currently framed, these young women were too ignorant as a result of their youth, ashamed, or otherwise emotionally victimized to seek help. Because I’ve spoken with such women I find it all the more disturbing that our Republican state representatives would be so eager to make an anti-abortion point that they would come up with a bill as misleading and punitive to impoverished female victims as H.R. 3.

This is not the time to make the law harsher when it comes to policing sexual crimes against women, nor to make conditions remarkably worse for poor women in particular. I beg you to withdraw your co-sponsorship for H.R. 3 and to vote against it if it comes up for a full House vote.

Sincerely,

Feminéma

Read the full text of H.R. 3 here

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