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!

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Ever since hearing that the 1971 documentary Growing Up Female (dir. Jim Klein and Julia Reichert) was selected for the National Film Registry, I’ve been trying to find a copy. (The closest I’ve come is this fabulous 5-min. clip, which you should watch too and beware of too easily thinking, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”).

Here’s my pitch to documentarians: we need an updated version. You know who else wants an updated version? Riley, our future president:

Riley’s right to start in toy stores, just the way the 1971 film starts in a day care. Here are some other hot spots I hope the documentarians will visit:

  • “breast-araunts” like Twin Peaks and Hooters
  • girls’ sports: the good (confidence, strength, great role models) and the bad (the pressure to appear straight straight straight; the dismal sports opportunities for women beyond college)
  • abortion politics: talk to a young woman who’s going to give birth to her rapist’s baby because of the law or access issues (or, frankly, because of brainwashing)
  • girls who come out as gay or trans (or, alternately, choose not to come out)
  • religious and church messages to girls about gender roles and sex
  • girls’ clothing choices and body pressures to be both whisper-thin AND have a hot badunkadonk
  • children’s TV programming (talk to Geena Davis about this)
  • the pressure to get into college
  • messages about gender and sex in pop music
  • the assholes at Lego who claim that “months of anthropological testing” tell them that girls want pastel-colored Legos despite years of girls wanting regular Legos
  • college sororities and college feminist organizations (and college anti-racist or ethnic organizations, which can have retrograde gender or sexual dynamics)
  • mother-daughter relationships; domestic chores meted out to daughters and sons
  • the effect on girls of presidential candidates who want to outlaw The Pill in their eagerness to “protect life” (that is, everyone running for the GOP nomination) and Pres. Obama, whose commitment to women’s reproductive health seems, well, changeable
  • teenagers growing up in quiverfull or fundamentalist Mormon environments

PLEASE. Not just because it could be an amazing document for the future. For all of us feminists who need to see what’s going on now. For everyone who forgets their own little protected bubble of a world is not a reflection of the whole.

Thanks to the amazing blog Sociological Images, I now know that ultra-orthodox Jewish papers can choose to photoshop images to expurgate the women. Apparently these papers usually make the argument that the images are “sexually suggestive or show women interacting with men in ways that are considered inappropriate.” But how does one explain the images below, which compare the original situation-room photo during Osama Bin Laden’s capture with the photoshopped one below that appeared in a Brooklyn newspaper?

The paper below is Der Tzitung, targeted to the ultra orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn. But this isn’t the first time such papers have purged images that don’t appear obviously “sexually suggestive” or showing “inappropriate” relations between men and women, or images that create “impure thoughts” in readers. See for example these below (again from Sociological Images; see that site for helpful links) from an ultra-orthodox Israeli paper. Again, compare the top (original) image with the one below, which has been highlighted to show how all the girls have replaced, somewhat awkwardly, with duplicate images of boys:

We might disagree about whether eliminating sexually suggestive images is a good idea; but these images simply eliminate anyone designated female. Including Hillary Clinton, a woman of significant power in the world who is highly respected in Israel and amongst many American Jews. No comments here — make your comments over at Sociological Images, which deserves full credit.

Late-breaking update, 11 May 2011: Jill at Feministe has posted an update on this story along with an alternate image of the situation room in which the men have been photoshopped out. Excellent.

Where does one begin with Lucrecia Martel’s films?  After seeing her second feature (“La Niña Santa”) tonight — which becomes the third of her films I’ve seen and raved about here — all I can do is wonder at this Argentinian writer-director’s extraordinary attention to detail.  With it, she captures the constant exchange between the banal, the wryly ridiculous, and those events that might be profoundly life-altering — profound, that is, if only we weren’t so eager to let them slip by so we can return to our usual patterns.

Take the pubescent Amalia (María Alché) just for starters, the wannabe “holy girl” of the title.  With her heavy eyes and sulking mouth, she enjoys the trashy gossip of her best friend, Josefina, and might well turn out to be hard, mean, sensuous.  But she might turn instead in the direction of the wide-eyed religious ecstasy of their beautiful Bible study teacher, who weeps when singing hymns and is trying to teach the girls the notion of religious vocation:  their role in God’s plan.  “The important thing is to always be alert for God’s call,” she begs them earnestly.  Their homework is to find instances of individuals discovering their vocations — a confusing task that leads the girls to mix ghost stories, profane tales, and contradictory Bible stories as if they might all be equally instructive.

Yet when Amalia finds her calling one afternoon, it combines salvation and sexuality in a heady cocktail that she doesn’t know how to pry apart.  As she watches a man play a theremin with its eerily beautiful sounds and almost unbelievable engineering, a man comes up behind her in the crowd, slowly puts his hands into his pockets, and presses his crotch up against her.  The look on her face reflects perfectly the combined sense of violation and humiliation with the wheels in her mind trying to process the event.  He’s Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a doctor in town for a conference at Amalia’s mother’s hotel — so she is sure to see him again soon, and she quickly determines that this is God’s call for her to save him.

The married Jano clearly makes a habit of rubbing up against attractive young girls without consequences — but then, he never met Amalia before.  Neither has he encountered a woman like her mother, the lissome and vain Helena (Mercedes Morán).  With her artfully tousled light hair and her knack for showing off her figure, Helena is still bitter about her divorce, and now that she’s received the news that her ex-husband’s new wife is expecting, she seems more than ever prepared to take risks.  When Jano engages in a little flirtation with her, Helena gracefully starts to put herself in his way more frequently, eagerly lapping up his attention despite knowing (or because?) he’s married.  The lubricious Jano is accustomed to enjoying his male privilege while hiding his ugly face behind heavy glasses that almost serve as a mask.  So when his glasses come off, it’s his turn to feel violated.

But here’s the thing about Martel’s films:  no matter how much one might accurately set the scene with a run-down like this, it misses the extraordinary details that make her films erotic, densely aural, tactile.  She shoots all her films using numerous close-ups that often cut surprising parts of the characters’ bodies out of the frame; we catch glimpses of eyes, hands, lips, or we see through mirrors to catch sight of someone’s foot, or the elegant Helena in a backless dress.  Her characters engage in all manner of behavior we don’t quite understand, like the radical vacillations on Amalia’s face between snarling and beatitude.  Most elegant in “The Holy Girl” is the way Martel makes a theme of sound, from the heavenly theremin to the bubbling water of the hotel pool to Helena’s worrisome tinnitus in her ear.  Finally, there is no one other director alive with such a deft facility for understanding the everyday rhythms and conflicts of talk amongst middle-aged women (and on this score American directors lag far, far behind).  Just a few of the scenes between Helena and the other women employees at the hotel are so funny while being so true and familiar that they should be excerpted on YouTube (but that will have to be the work of others, not me).

And then there’s Martel’s gaze on the confused mixture of faith and sensuality amongst teenaged girls — girls who have already begun to realize their power for both good and evil, their fierce determination.  It’s no wonder that they whisper that their angelic-looking religious studies teacher likes to French kiss, or that they might practice those kisses on one another.  Actual sexuality is mostly a mystery, but these girls are fully aware of how frequently their Bible lessons adopt a sensuous cast.

By a thin margin this is Martel’s most approachable film, but like “La Ciénaga” and “The Headless Woman” this one is dense and subtle.  One begins to realize that no matter how precise her dialogue is, it seems on first viewing so banal as to be improvised.  Her films require an attention to the billowing threads of relationships, dialogue, themes, sounds, and facial expressions as they start to combine and braid together, building into emotional problems and perhaps even climaxes.  I can hardly wait for more.

Here’s the thing about 19th-century novels:  pleasurable though they may be, eventually you find yourself feeling strangled by the misogyny.  After growing increasingly dissatisfied with roles for women in “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1998), “Our Mutual Friend” (1998), and the full 882 pages of David Copperfield, my fixation finally bottomed out late last night with the horrifyingly bad 1997 American TV-movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s “The Inheritance” — a show so embarrassing I held my head in my hands (but I watched every minute of it, just in case).

So I turned tonight to the 1928 “Passion of Joan of Arc,” a French silent by the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, starring the stunningly beatific Melle Falconetti — who looks like James Spader did in his beautiful youthful days, with that broad face, wide blue eyes, and perfect lips.  Except whereas Spader used his beauty so often in those years to evoke cruelty, Falconetti sheds tears of love for God.

There’s another reason to geek out with this film during my summer of research: it opens with a shot of someone thumbing through pages of the original testimony of Joan’s trial as it was recorded in 1435; the film covers her trial alone (and takes significant liberties with the facts, though for good effect) — so it ends up being a surprisingly textual film for archives geeks out there.  The down side of this choice is that we see all of Joan’s suffering and none of her muscular Christianity and military leadership.  So while it’s not surprising that the film can be found streaming on the website Gloria.tv (its catchphrase is “The more Catholic, the better”), it’s unsurprising to learn that it was originally censored by the Church for its portrayal of the hypocritical, corrupt leaders that oversaw Joan’s trial.

With her hair clipped so close, Falconetti has an unapologetically androgynous face; devoid of any perceivable makeup and appearing to shed real tears, the 35-year-old actor holds virtually every scene as she plays the 19-year-old martyr.  I can’t remember seeing a film in which the tight close-up of its protagonist constitutes so much of the film’s narrative.  (There’s even a scene in which the priests bleed her and real blood comes spurting out of an arm, but I find via online commentary that this was the arm of an extra.)  Every shade of emotion crosses her face — pure devotional love, sudden fear that she may have been fooled by the Devil, misplaced trust in a sneaky priest, religious conviction.  It’s stunning that this was her second of only two films; she dedicated the rest of her career to the stage.  This kind of role in such an otherwise spare film — the sets are bare bones, and there are only a few exterior scenes with crowds of angry followers — must have been brutal to get right.

When the film isn’t asking us to gaze at her, it engages in a lovely bit of cinematic elegance: it gazes upward.  Sometimes toward the sky or birds lofting onto a church spire, sometimes toward a window placed high on a wall, sometimes merely toward the shadow of a window on a blank white wall with its cross-like panes.  Each time, these scenes infuse the film with religious hopefulness, even as the priests’ perfidy becomes glaring and Joan’s fate becomes ever more doomed to the stake.

I’ve got virtually no religious bones in my body, but seeing this film took me back to my weird middle-school years, when I yearned for faith (to fit in, to ease my fears of death, to find meaning in junior high…).  If I’d seen this then I would have tried to be Joan — to experience her clear-eyed certainty (and even more important, to model those beautiful expressions on her face).  Thus, I watched this film with a tangle of memories, as well as more academic thoughts about women’s long history in the church and the power of devotion to give one a life beyond wife-dom, ceaseless childbearing, and drudgery.  No wonder nuns continue to have such appeal to young girls, even now — with cinematic models such as Falconetti, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, Jennifer Jones, and even (argh) Julie Andrews, womanhood as a religious devotee allows women an exceptionally meaningful life that doesn’t require having good hair or enough money for a dowry. 

I see that a group of film bloggers recently declared “The Passion of Joan of Arc” the best silent film ever.  I’m not sure I’m ready to go that far, but it’s worth reading about the extraordinary story of its destruction, censorship, reconstruction, and the eventual rediscovery of what they believe to be the original print.  It’s not exactly the kind of antidote to 19th-century feminine mawkishness I was expecting, but Joan of Arc’s passion is a head-clearing dose nevertheless.  Beautiful.