Thursday, August 6, 2020

With "folklore," how will Taylor Swift's role in pop culture change?

I always liked Taylor Swift based on what little I knew about her music, but I was determined to love her by the time 1989 came around. 1989 was going to be the moment when I finally got to know and love Taylor Swift. I had heard women I admired, such as Tavi Gevinson, speak affectionately about Taylor in the early days, and I think I just wanted to be a part of the club, so I buckled down and got to know the album inside and out. It was good! It was a good album. I liked it a lot. I even brought "I Know Places" into a sixth grade English lesson and guided my students through a close reading of the lyrics. But looking back, there are no particular songs to which I feel a connection. Aside from the fact that it was catchy pop music that made me feel good, I think I listened to and loved the album out of spite. Back in 2014, Taylor was widely ridiculed. Like all things that adolescent girls enjoyed, her music and her fan base were mocked mostly by men but sometimes by "cool girls" and women.

Now that I've mentioned sixth graders, I'm thinking about my time in the classroom, and I remember one year when I was given a particularly large amount of curricular leeway. (Incidentally, I held this position in 2014, when 1989 came out.) I decided to take advantage of the freedom I was given and dive into gender with the kids. We spent some time reading and discussing nonfiction articles on the subject, but before we even got into any of that, I introduced the topic by holding up two novels. One of them was this particular edition of Does My Head Look Big In This by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which has brightly colored polka dots and a girl's face on the cover. I don't remember the other book I held up, but it had darker colors, maybe a dragon, and some fire on it. It looked dangerous, adventurous. I asked the students who they thought would read each book. They said that girls would read Does My Head Look Big In This, and anyone could read the fire/dragon one. Then I asked them a different question: Who could be seen with each book? Their answer was similar but more rigid. The stakes were higher here, and there could be consequences. There was a level of danger for a boy to be seen with Does My Head Look Big In This. Maybe he would be made fun of, bullied, or harassed. All because of a book cover with polka dots on it. 

The same paradigm exists within pop music. If a boy or man was observed listening to Taylor Swift in 2014, he could have been made fun of, bullied, or harassed. Girls and women who loved Taylor Swift were maligned as well. There seemed to have been a widespread fear of Taylor Swift and what she represented. Not only was she a highly successful woman, but she was also traditionally feminine: she wore sparkles and glitter, felt a lot of feelings, and expressed them openly. Now that I have put it this way, Taylor Swift sounds absolutely terrifying. A massive threat to the status quo. I guess this was where my powerful spite came from. I wanted to support this woman who seemed to simultaneously encapsulate and subvert traditional femininity. I wanted to be on her team and to take down the haters. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

As a case study of self-compassion and shame resilience, Elana K. Arnold's 'What Girls Are Made Of' teaches us how to grow

The first time I read What Girls Are Made Of by Elana K. Arnold, I recommended it to anyone who would listen. I remember both thinking to myself and saying out loud, "This would have changed my life if I had read it in high school." I thought that every adolescent girl--nay, every English-speaking human over the age of 15--needed to read it. I even brought it up at an interview for a middle school teaching job. They asked me to share a book I enjoyed, so I mentioned What Girls Are Made Of, and I remember that my explanation of why I liked it so much involved the range of bodily functions that it depicts. I was like, "This novel is so gross! I love it so much!" A lot of blood comes out of vaginas in this novel, and it is glorious. As a grown adult woman who should be too smart for this, I am still ashamed of my bodily functions, so this representation is sorely needed. The other thing that I will always and forever love about What Girls Are Made Of is its unflinching representation of what it's like to grow up as a girl in a patriarchal society and to unpack a deeply rooted patriarchal history. Through protagonist Nina, Elana K. Arnold depicts the process of discovering your autonomy and giving yourself permission to consider what you want out of life rather than trying to please men and blindly adhering to societal norms. Nina accomplishes incredible growth over the course of the novel. It took me about ten years to achieve the level of growth that she manages over the course of the, I don't know, month of real-time plot in this book. Arnold does a brilliant job of highlighting the obstacles that stunted her development and that get in the way of her growth, but Nina manages to clear these hurdles. Even though her alcoholic mother tried to pass on her skewed worldview to Nina, and even though Nina is fighting against a patriarchal society that has been inhospitable to women for thousands of years, Nina develops a sense of self-worth and starts exercising it. In reflecting on how she managed to pull this off (and why the amount of growth we see in this novel took me ten years), I realized that there is a foundation for it even during her ugliest moments. Even at her ugliest, Nina is an honest and transparent narrator, and she tells her whole truth about her actions and motivations. This requires self-worth. Nina believes that her story is worth telling, and she is brave enough to reveal the most disturbing parts of it. She demonstrates self-compassion and shame resilience, and she continues to cultivate these skills over the course of the novel. They facilitate her growth, and she could not have done it without them.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Television's Alarmingly Normative Representation of Asexuality

I am not attracted to men, and whenever I say that, people assume that I am gay. I know that this will happen, but I don't intend to be deceptive. Rather, this is how I test the waters before coming out to someone in a more direct and specific way. I first get them accustomed to the fact that I am not straight, and I see how they react. And then I tell them that I'm not attracted to women either. I look them in the eye, or I look down at the table, and I tell them that I am asexual.

And I just replicated that very process with you. For me, what really works about it is that it situates my sexual orientation within a queer context. The asexual community has not been around for very long, and most people do not know that it exists, so placing my identity within a familiar context helps people to understand and accept it. Plus, I myself feel disconnected from the asexual community. The majority of my queer friends and role models reside elsewhere in the LGBTQIA+ alphabet, as do the characters in books and movies who I relate to and enjoy the most. 

Golden Boy by Abigail Tartellin, which has an intersex protagonist, absolutely destroyed me in the best way possible, and I paused my tv to scream when Shunsuke came out as bisexual on Terrace House. (This was mostly because Terrace House is among the straightest shows I have ever seen, and I was moved that they finally acknowledged the existence of queerness.) I have been deeply affected by iconic gay stories like Rubyfruit Jungle and Moonlight, but we asexuals do not have titles like these at this point. We have not yet made a dent on the culture. We are the new kids, and we need some time to develop our oeuvre.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Subversive Commentary on Gender in Netflix's Cheer

When I was around eleven years old, there was a period of time when my mom would get her nails done every week, and she would take my sister and me with her. Sometimes we'd just hang out in the salon, but other times we would get our nails done too, and I remember one of these instances vividly. The nail technician chose a shade of pink that I did not particularly like, and she selected some sparkles for me as well, which I also did not want. She was very confident in her color choice. Since I was conflict-averse and was not sure how to assert myself to this adult who thought she was doing something nice for me, I went along with it and then hated my nails. I was so embarrassed by them. When I remembered, I even curled my fingers in order to hide them.

The sparkly pink nail color wasn't my style and wasn't an accurate reflection of my taste and personality, but I also knew that it was the default for a girl, and I did not want to be a standard girl. I was embarrassed that my nails were indicating to everyone around me that my femininity was the regular kind. The sparkly pink nails did not belong on my hands; they belonged on the hands of a girl who wore bows and frills and did cheerleading. I was fearful and almost repulsed by that kind of femininity.

I cannot identify a source, but I picked up from somewhere that bows, frills, cheerleading, and the color pink were all to be avoided, and nobody swooped in to tell me otherwise. This continued into high school, when I witnessed my peers making fun of traditionally feminine fashion and activities, including cheerleading. Basically everyone I knew made fun of cheerleading, and I struggle to explain why, aside from the obvious misogyny. There is nothing objectively wrong with clapping, chanting, and executing choreography.

Generally, people believe that cheerleading is ornamental and frivolous. (People have trouble remembering that all sports are frivolous.) Cheerleading occurs on the literal margins of the game, and given its role and reputation as "the sport that girls do," this is sadly appropriate. It makes a lot of sense for a marginalized group of people to do their sport in the margins of the main attraction. But what if cheerleading were the main attraction? What if femininity were at the center? What if sparkly pink nails were universally celebrated? This concept is at the core of the Netflix documentary series Cheer, which follows the elite cheer team at Navarro College in Texas.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Little Women and the Limits of Mainstream Radicalism

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is one of my favorite movies in recent memory. Most things about it are perfect, from the pacing to the character development to the soundtrack. And on top of everything, it is on the front lines of the Rom Com Resistance. As romance comes in and out of Christine's life, you feel her excitement, and you feel the intimacy of these relationships, but Gerwig makes it abundantly clear that they are just one part of Christine's life. Her friendships, hobbies, dreams for her future, and relationships with family members balance out the plot, with its central focus, of course, on her relationship with her mother.

Lady Bird resists rom com tropes without being too in-your-face about how subversive it is, and without generating a media frenzy about it either. It is simply an excellent movie. Saoirse Ronan's performance as an expressive, audacious teen anchors the film, and I don't really know what directors do, but I'm sure Greta Gerwig played a pretty big role in making this movie as delightful and near-perfect as it is. That said, I was thrilled to hear that Ronan and Gerwig would be collaborating again, and when I saw the trailer for Little Women, I was even more excited.

The trailer made it seem like Gerwig, Ronan, and Co. would be blessing us with a bold and lively spinster manifesto. Or that was how I interpreted it, because I look for the spinster manifesto in everything. (You can find one anywhere if you believe in yourself.) In the trailer, Jo passionately articulates the value of women outside of romantic love, and she is trying to assert this notion through her writing as well, as we see when she negotiates with her publisher. The trailer's final shot, clearly meant as a gag to make us laugh, shows the publisher asking Jo when her protagonist is getting married. He sees marriage as a given for all women, and she is simply not interested in writing her novel that way. Impatiently, she looks away, implying that this is a ridiculous question. Of course her protagonist is not getting married. She has been very clear about this.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Rom Com Resistance

Throughout my childhood, and beyond it, I learned from the people around me and from the media I consumed that a man and a woman falling in love constituted a happy ending. Falling in reciprocal love with a wonderful man was the absolute best thing that could happen to a woman. The "man + woman = happy ending" message was absolutely everywhere: in books, in movies, in commercials, on billboards. It was baked into the culture of my synagogue and Jewish summer camp, so much so that there was a dedicated wall in the cafeteria on which they hung plaques honoring heterosexual-presenting couples who met at camp and later got married.

As an adolescent and young adult who was never much interested in boys or romance, and who instead enjoyed having friends and hobbies, I always felt like my life had yet to truly begin. I felt shame and embarrassment, but even more so, I felt like I was living in a transitional moment between the innocence and triviality of childhood and the intensity and meaningfulness of adulthood. I wish I could have realized that I was living just as much of a life as all of the people around me who were going off at night and kissing in the bushes, or whatever it was that they did. Thinking about the messages I received from those around me along with the media that I consumed at the time, it makes sense that I felt the way I did. But if I had been able to access some of the media that is available today, I just might have realized the value of my romance-free existence. It thrills me to my core that pop culture is beginning to resist the rom com and its ideology.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

My relationship with men: a story of rage, empathy, and hope

I am angry at men, and I've been this way long before the #MeToo movement, which has made me feel validated and vindicated and all the more angry. Sometimes I feel white hot rage toward them, and sometimes I feel more of a passive impatience. I just don't want to deal with them.

My anger stems from things like looking at the list of Oscar nominations for Best Director and realizing, year after year, that there is not a single woman on it. It stems from having been required to read Shakespeare and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Eliot throughout my schooling but not even knowing what feminism was until I was well into my twenties. My anger stems from being told since childhood that I should be attracted to men. At age 26, I was finally able to proclaim that I am not. My anger stems from all the times men touched me without my consent.

In the #MeToo era, and in the age of Trumpism, so many women and nonbinary people are right here with me. We. Are. Pissed. And it shows. I've been noticing this especially in my reading. I read almost exclusively female and nonbinary authors, and I've observed that horrible, odious men keep on showing up, wreaking havoc on the characters' lives (and, in one case, centuries of women's lives), and fueling my misandry.