I’m having one of those weeks. I’ll spare you the details, except that I somehow managed to orchestrate a perfect storm of incoming papers from students, crazy bad news about tenure decisions for important friends, and a long delay in getting reimbursed by my university for moving expenses. 

In response, I’d like to direct my rage at Slate.com. Why does this online journal feel it necessary to play such a major role in logrolling the new book, The End of Men, by its own editor-writer Hanna Rosin? Does it feel no conflict of interest considering that Rosin’s husband is the journal’s senior editor, David Plotz? Does this journal, owned by the Washington Post, have no journalistic credentials to uphold?

Here’s how it looks for the past 6 days:

  • Friday, Sept. 14: Alyssa Rosenberg (why, Alyssa?) writes “The End of Men, Fall TV Edition.”
  • Friday, Sept. 14: Rosin’s friend Emily Bazelon writes “Why Feminists Fear The End of Men,” an angry retort to a highly critical review of the book in the NY Times Book Review by historian Katherine Homans. (That’s right: let’s blame feminists, which is Slate’s bread and butter.)
  • Tuesday, Sept. 18: Rosin posts three separate pieces entitled, “What Happens When the Wife Earns More?” drawn from the book.
  • Wednesday, Sept. 19: Rosin appears on the Slate podcast, “The Slate Culture Gabfest,” to discuss the book with colleagues who, although ordinarily quite dependably intelligent and critical, refuse to ask hard questions.
  • Wednesday, Sept. 19: June Thomas writes “The End of Men, TV Titles Edition.”

That’s right: 6 days, 7 articles. (Two of which appeared before noon today.) If only the rest of us who write books had the ability to transform one’s professional journalistic job into an in-house publicity machine.

Let’s not even mention the many other times Rosin has received logrolling attention from its staff for the same material in the past, including plugs by her husband on the podcast “The Slate Political Gabfest,” plugs for her public talks including a TED talk, plugs for her original and controversial Atlantic Magazine article that earned her the book contract, and on and on.

I can barely stand to read her arguments, which all too often take some kind of anecdote — the story of a couple in Alabama who have seen the husband’s income decline as the wife’s grows — and then extrapolates this as some kind of world-historical shift. Even worse, she cherry-picks hard evidence such as employment figures and ignores other evidence in order to hammer it into the shape of her overall argument. And worst of all, her title: The End of Men, as reviewer Homans puts it, is not a title but a sound bite utterly misleading about her argument.

After spewing all my righteous bile about Slate’s failure to act professionally with regard to one of its own editor/ writers, perhaps I should add one tiny note of relief: at least Rosin is engaging in political-cultural criticism, unlike Monday’s article about how hard it is for women with small waists and big breasts to find a bra. Seriously. Slate: the online journal equivalent of listening to teenage girls’ conversation at the mall. Kill me now.

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Look at her posture: I know how she feels. It’s been a hard week here for a lot of the same reasons why Mildred Pierce struggles in the early episodes — grief, triumph, exhaustion, anxiety, feeling a bit used & abused. (Yes, it’s Week 11 of a long, long semester = grading hell.) All the more reason to be riveted by Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, the 4th episode of which airs tomorrow night. What would you be willing to do to survive? How would you reconcile your sense of self-worth with the indignities of taking on demeaning work to feed your children?

When you watch Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries, just set aside the Joan Crawford version and pay attention to how Kate Winslet navigates the precarious waters of self-respect and the conflicts between her own desires and her self-sacrificing impulses as a mother — and all within the context of having her livelihood threatened. This isn’t noir, it’s melodrama. In the end, it revolves around the topic of class: the conflicts between her pride and her willingness to sacrifice that pride to make ends meet and allow her children to grow up more “respectable” than she is. And who could embody those contrasts better than Kate Winslet? We see throughout how beautiful she is, but she carries that cross of unhappiness so obviously … even after her dreary brown outfits in the first episodes begin to transform into lovelier shades of color, the set of her mouth changes from fear to determination, and the lines on her face don’t seem so stark.

There are important assumptions we have to make when watching this series, the most important of which is that a mother will do anything during her own financial crisis to find ways to feed her family after her husband leaves them. Although she’d been baking pies and cakes on the side to sell to well-to-do housewives, it isn’t enough anymore; she now has trouble paying for groceries. What she doesn’t realize is that her absent husband has also left her with the designation of a grass widow — a woman whose absent husband automatically puts her morality up for question. Mildred doesn’t even want to wrangle with that assumption, seeing it as stupid and beneath her; but when her father’s shady business partner, Wally, invites her out for dinner, her neighbor Lucy (Melissa Leo) sets her straight.

“Baby. Baby. You go out with him and he buys you dinner and you get a little tight and you come home and something happens. Of course something will happen ... eventually. And when it happens it’s sin. It’s sin because you’re a grass widow and fast. And he’s all paid up because he bought you dinner. That makes it square.”

Instead, Lucy advises her that she can remain in control of her reputation as well as Wally if she cooks dinner for him and doesn’t allow him to pay for it:

“But if you bought his dinner and cooked it for him the way you do and just happened to look cute in that little apron and something just happened to happen … well, that’s just nature. Old Mother Nature, baby, and we all know she’s no bum. And Wally’s not paid up. Not even close.

Anyway. Last I heard you were up against it. Play your cards right and within a month he’ll be taking you shopping for a divorce.”

“Do you really think I want to be kept?” Mildred asks, shocked by the well-off Lucy knowing so much about the micro-politics of dating for divorcees, shocked by the indignities of her new life. “Yes,” Lucy responds; it’s hard to capture how pragmatic and friendly this line comes across. She’s right: something just happens to happen, and Mildred has to reconsider — again — what she’s doing. Sex isn’t a pleasure or an indulgence or an escape, but yet another burden of complex associations that she must negotiate with care lest they ruin her. When she succumbs, we feel relief and horror all at once.

I hope I’m conveying how dark and profound this show can be; it gets at a nexus of emotions I haven’t seen onscreen before, and it can be brutal. Haynes’ wonderful films are, perhaps, imperfect examples of the filmic art, but I couldn’t care less because they’re so invariably interesting. And the more I watch Mildred, the more I think Haynes is getting at someting important. She’s hopelessly boxed in between her need to protect her children’s futures and some nagging desires of her own — for sex or love, for personal success, for respect. She’s ambitious, even though everyone suggests she shouldn’t be. She’s a sexual being, though she seems to feel she shouldn’t be. Interviewed in the New York Times, Haynes highlights the class elements of this tale:

“The daughter’s ascension represents Mildred’s ultimate goals, but it guarantees that they will have nothing in common,” Mr. Haynes said. “She’s basically sacrificing her to a different class.”

God knows I’d pay to watch Kate Winslet darn a sock, and I love watching her play this role. There’s even a back story in the LA Times about how she filmed it during the darkest days of her divorce from Sam Mendes that may also color my sympathy for her in this part. It’s a very different interpretation of the role than Crawford’s (for that matter, Crawford’s own back story of growing up impoverished and under-educated in Texas and Oklahoma is affecting for very different reasons) and, knowing that earlier film a little, I struggled to reconcile the harried-looking Winslet with the determinedly elegant-looking Crawford during the earliest episodes. See what I mean? You’ve got to set Crawford aside.

It’s worth it. For me, Winslet’s great talent lies in playing women with strong emotions and unpredictable, even eccentric proclivities — I still maintain that her Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) has to be one of my all-time favorite characters. I also can’t forget her first role in the magnificent Heavenly Creatures (1994) as an alienated teenager with a dark, highly sexualized, malevolent streak; it contrasts so well with her turn as Marianne in Sense and Sensibility (1995) or as Rose in the ridiculous Titanic (1997). She’s revived her interest in the dark side more recently with The Reader (2008) and Little Children (2006). As Mildred, Winslet expresses her emotions by showing how hard it’s been to repress them. Those early episodes illustrate her with serious lines on her face, her hair askew. Even her voice, pitched low, seems to exemplify the effort of keeping her emotions under an artifical control. When her business begins to triumph, we can almost feel in her posture how she’s given herself just a little bit of permission to feel some pride.

The LA Times article speaks at length about Winslet’s refusal to enhance herself (Botox, a boob job, etc.), and she’s been outspoken about her refusal to drop to a stick-figure weight. It’s a bleak fact of Hollywood that 25-year-old actresses are regularly instructed to enhance. No one can watch Winslet as Mildred without noting her curves: she has a woman’s body, a real woman’s arms, and she’s breathtaking — I respond to these images not just by feeling simultaneous bursts of desire for her and extraordinary sympathy and recognition.

We know Mildred Pierce can’t end well. In the very first episode, Mildred has returned from her first day of work as a waitress in a diner, which she confesses to her neighbor Lucy. In fact, the realization of what she’d doing for money is so dispiriting that she races to the toilet to vomit. She demands this news be kept a secret from her daughter Veda — she’s just too ashamed. Lucy responds, voicing an opinion we already share about the snooty little prig of a girl: “Veda, if you ask me, has some funny ideas.” Mildred fires back, “You don’t understand her, Lucy: I know she has something in her that I thought I had and now find I don’t — pride, or nobility, or whatever it is.” Oh Mildred, that sentiment is going to bite you.

Mothers and daughters. Pride, nobility, debasement. Wow. I’m riveted — and I’m finding this melodrama deeply cathartic during this, the darkest part of the semester.

I really hoped this one would go away, but of course Lisa Belkin had to join in with a New York Times Magazine piece this week, which in turn seemed to cue Maureen Dowd, who was already all over the gay question.  Sometimes it just makes my head hurt really bad.

If we pay attention to the news, there’s lots of things wrong with Elena Kagan, and the media is looking for more every day.  So imagine their delight when some journalists started suggesting it’s her lack of children.  It’s the perfect argument, for it seems to have no clear partisan, anti-Semitic, or homophobic bent (like most of the others), AND we get to trash her life choices!  Anti-feminism activated!

It started with Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast explaining there are two reasons we should appoint women to the Supreme Court (oh, the desire to call this mansplaining): 1) “female justices, on average, will be more sensitive to the problems women face” and possibly those faced by other disadvantaged groups; and 2) they can help alleviate gender bias by being role models.  Is that it?  I wonder why we need so darn many if those are the only reasons.

His main point was to note that a majority of the women appointed to cabinet positions during the last three presidential administrations were childless; only six of the sixteen women in those positions have had children.  If Kagan is appointed, only two of the four female Supreme Court justices in American history will have been mothers — and that’s just not fair.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with appointing childless women (or men, for that matter) to high office. But our government is actually doing a pretty good job of providing role models for the 20 percent of American women who don’t want kids. Where it’s failing is in providing role models for the 80 percent that do.

If we want to talk about “failing,” maybe it would help if we remember that of the 111 justices in US history, 106 have been white men, 2 African American, 2 white women, and 1 Latina.  Maybe it would help if we had more than 4 women in Obama’s 15-person cabinet.  Maybe it would help if people like Beinart, Belkin, and others remembered that simply having more women in positions of power is inspiring to women; not everyone asks first & foremost whether a woman is a mother.  A quick note: only 4 of the Supreme Court justices in American history were bachelors, and I can’t find any information on how many were fathers.  But we do know that all of the men currently sitting on the Court are fathers.  (And look how that’s worked out, sensitivity-wise.  Apparently women have special feeling powers!)  To complain that Kagan isn’t a mother is to draw attention away from the fact that even now, the Supreme Court really looks nothing like the rest of America.  Yes, more women on the Court is a small step in the right direction for women; but let’s not be reductionist about the complicated issues presidents weigh as they make their choices.  Obama may have wanted to find a woman this time, but that probably wasn’t the only thing on his mind.

Beinart argues that Obama should have chosen mom Diane Wood instead, and although he probably wouldn’t go as far as Hilary Shenfeld at iVillage that Wood would have brought “some unique ‘mom-spertise’ to the Supreme Court,” he probably should have guessed that this was whither his argument was tending:

With the addition of Wood, a jurist with a mama bear lurking inside, the Supreme Court would have a member who’s lived through the toughest job on earth and came out better for it. She’s wiped away dirt and tears, helped with homework and heartache, made as many decisions as dinners, really listened and really heard. She’s had years of experience settling squabbles and determining who’s right and who’s wrong. She would have come to the job not only with legal smarts, but also the real-world wisdom picked up from the day-in, day-out joys, frustrations and plain hard work of being a mother and raising a family.

Um, what are we talking about again?  Oh yeah, whether we should appoint mothers to the court because then the Court will look more like America and inspire women to be mothers and jurists.  Lisa Belkin in the New York Times quotes Shenfeld, but avoids the maudlin in order to reiterate Beinart’s argument:  we’re sending the wrong message to women by appointing so many childless women to positions of high power.  Women learn from these choices that bearing children is risky for career-minded women:

Expectation brings obligation, and Sotomayór and Kagan were of the generation facing new tradeoffs. Pursue the career and sacrifice the family. Have the family and ratchet back the career. True, the stigma of not marrying or having children waned for this younger generation, making it more of a deliberate choice for some. But still, roads had to be chosen. There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.

That’s just how we childless women operate, you see.  We sit down when we’re 10 years old and “choose” to study and work so hard that we will have no lives, ever, because we’re plotting out our paths to seats on the Supreme Court; the people we’ve got to knock out of our way are those super-feeling mommies.  When Belkin lays out these “new tradeoffs,” she makes enormous assumptions not just about Sotomayór’s and Kagan’s “choices” (not everyone “chooses” to be childless, stay unmarried, or get divorced, as in Sotomayór’s case), but also about what most Americans admire about female leaders.  (And excuse me, but who exactly gets to choose to take “five years off to stay home with your children,” anyway?)  This, of course, led to Maureen Dowd’s piece today on the difference between being “single” and “unmarried.”

But my real gripe here is the constant parsing the lives of exceptional women for details that are irrelevant to their nomination — thereby permitting, yet again, women to be treated differently than male candidates for the same job.  She’s the wrong kind of woman, these comments tell us.  Some women make the wrong kinds of choices, they imply; we should feel sorry for her because she’s unmarried and childless.  And it allows everyone to get distracted by the illusion that this is a zero-sum game in which women are fighting it out amongst themselves.

The Double X Shuffle

1 April 2010

If only it were an April Fool’s joke.  A week after Slate’s XX Factor featured the pro-Goldman Sachs article by KJ Dell’Antonia telling working mothers to give up on a humane work schedule, now it’s got Angie Kim blaming feminists for demise of the mommy track. (In the meantime, their editor Hanna Rosin asked first and foremost on their Double X Gabfest whether The Three Weissmanns of Westport, the new book by the eminently smart and literary author Cathleen Schine, is “chick lit.”)

Of course the real question is why I keep picking this scab — why can’t I leave Double X alone, if all I get is a schizophrenic antifeminism under the guise of “what women really think”?  

When it launched on May 12, 2009, Double X posted such self-consciously provocative stories as “Why I Am Bored With Feminism” by Terry Castle (Terry, why?) and “Yes, Virginia, Feminism is Really Dead” by Susanna Breslin. Subsequent stories would state that feminists don’t understand Muslim women, while Christina Hoff Summers claims that men are now the “second sex”—propounding the newly popular line that there is a new “gender gap” for boys. As Breslin chirps about feminism, “I mean, didn’t we kill it already?” 

I think the reason I can’t leave it alone is because the Double X writers’ antifeminism indicates a particular generational malaise about the subject.  A site created by smart, educated, cosmopolitan women, many of whom are in their late 20s or 30s, seems to feel that in order to appeal to female readers, it needs a straw feminist to bash around—schizophrenically claiming that feminists are malicious, irrelevant, boring, or dead.  Apparently, the readership they anticipate looks exactly like them — coastal, highly educated, highly privileged, mostly white women who’ve already established themselves professionally and benefited as much as possible from the feminist legacy.  Now if only they could recognize that feminism might hold strong relevance to someone besides them.

There are a lot of reasons to feel exasperated by such a perspective (not least for its logical inconsistency).  I think my frustration with this perspective comes from living and teaching in Texas, a place that Molly Ivins (of course) described best. In Texas, she wrote, “the cultures are black, Chicano, Southern, freak, suburban and shitkicker. (Shitkicker is dominant.) They are all rotten for women.”

Maybe because of the rampant machismo here, Texas has long featured strong, outspoken women leaders from Ivins to Barbara Jordan to Ann Richards — and I’ve begun to see a new resurgence of feminism by young Texas women and men, as witnessed by the upcoming Feminist Action Project, among other efforts.  If Double X wants to succeed, its editors should recognize not only that feminism is relevant outside their small hothouse, but that many young people today who may not call themselves “feminists” nevertheless share frustration at the easy sexism and cheap homophobia appearing with such regularity and with so little check from media, politics, workplaces, and families.    

Take back the F word not merely from the Texas bubbas who still like the term “feminazi,” but from the women at Double X who moved up the ladder only to kick it out from the younger generation trying to move up.

Why does Slate’s XX Factor exist?  Initially the site told us it was “A Magazine By Women, But Not Just For Women” (the language of which is exasperating enough), and now it’s “What Women Really Think.”  Personally, I can only read it if I hold my nose.  Although its writers take on questions of interest to women, they most often embrace a shocking anti-feminism — appearing to assume on the one hand that women are fully equal to men, and dismissing with the other hand feminists who think otherwise.  

Take, for example, this post by K.J. Dell’Antonia that might as well be a big gift to so many corporations, law firms, and universities who treat their female employees as second-class citizens if they dare seek a reduced work schedule in order to bear and raise children.  Dell’Antonia writes about the female Goldman Sachs executive who was offered a “mommy track” to reduce her hours while she adopted the primary caregiving responsibilities in her family; when she wanted to return to her full-time job, she was then told by Goldman that her position had been eliminated.  Suck it up, Dell’Antonia advises — Goldman can only be expected to be compliant up to a point.

That’s right, women:  we are exactly the same as men, and are so fully equal to them in all respects that our requests for “special treatment” like serving as primary caregivers are abhorrent, full stop.  You’re in or you’re out, moms!  Employers must have their rights protected, even when they giveth a part-time job with one hand, and then with the other taketh the entire job away when it’s less convenient.

Now, I’m not saying that questions about the mommy track are simple.  In fact, the question of motherhood and involvement in the workplace have been percolating for years, punctuated by the New York Times Magazine‘s famous “Opt-Out Revolution” article by Lisa Belkin and the terrific response by Susan Douglas, first in In These Times and then her book, The Mommy Myth. 

But no matter how contentious these questions remain, I can assure Double X that taking Goldman Sachs’ perspective is not “what women really think.”  But Goldman sends you a big kiss anyway.