Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

The male gaze in knitwear design: the female gaze

June 23, 2012

This is a continuation of the exploration of male gaze in knitwear photography. For the working definition of male gaze as I’m using it, click here. For the second installment, about the spouse as photographer, click here. For the third installment, about the crafter’s gaze, click here. I hope to do a second installment of the crafter’s gaze in future. If you are interested in contributing to this series, either as a photographer, or as a writer, please contact me.

Of all the topics I set for myself on this subject, none has given me more fits than the female gaze. In her original essay, Laura Mulvey defined the female gaze as identical to the male gaze, suggesting that the male gaze is so internalized that women look at themselves through male eyes. I think there’s a great deal of truth to this, but since that essay, many feminists have challenged this notion or set out to essentially craft a female gaze. However, most definitions of female gaze that I’ve found have been explicitly heterosexual. I think this is missing a distinct facet of female existence. Firstly, the experiences of homosexual women are excluded, and secondly, if the male gaze is internalized, as I’d agree that it is, even the heterosexual female gaze includes appreciation of the female form.

I found this while searching for female gaze images. You’re welcome, nerd ladies.

We are trained from birth that women are beautiful, that the female form is more graceful and lovely than the male form, and that it is not only acceptable, but encouraged, for women to look at each other not as potential sexual partners, but as competitors and partners in beauty. In this way, any developed idea of female gaze cannot exclude both appreciation of and criticism toward the female form itself. It is also important to note that the concept of male gaze as developed by Laura Mulvey was done in the form of a single essay written as a polemic, so nuance was deliberately excluded by Mulvey herself. Any broader application as applied by me or others is layering a lot of extra material on top of a groundbreaking concept that was deliberately limited to film.

With those caveats in mind, trying to define the female gaze and then apply it to knitwear photography becoming a daunting task. For this purpose, I am going to separate knitwear from the equation temporarily in order to develop a working definition of female gaze. I hope then to return to the previously introduced concept of crafter’s gaze and to expand upon it to show where it overlaps with female gaze in knitwear photography.

Returning to the origin of male gaze in film, let me tell you about a movie I really love, even though it’s hugely problematic in a number of ways and probably demonstrably not that great a movie. (And a HUGE bomb, making back only a 6th of the money spent on it.) Strange Days* was a 1995 film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. It is one of a small handful of intended blockbuster action films directed by women, and as such it has the potential to give us some pictures that might be a bit different than those offered by typical action movies.

Like this.

In the above image, the person offering protection is the woman. The male (main, it must be noted) character, played by Ralph Fiennes, is shown to be corruptible and corrupt, weaker both physically and morally than his bodyguard, played by Angela Bassett. The striking thing about the picture above, to me, is both that it portrays real tenderness, something I was unable to find in other stills of action movie actors, and also a protectiveness of a woman toward a man she loves and desires. Look also at how both characters are dressed. For once, a woman in an action movie is wearing clothing appropriate to action. The man, by contrast, wears a shirt unbuttoned almost to his waist. It looks slovenly, in part because of how we have been taught to see male exposure versus female exposure, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that in this scene, the person showing more chest is the man. The man who is being portrayed as vulnerable and desirable despite his many faults.

It’s not a complete reversal of action movie tropes, but it’s an interesting shift that I think actually incorporates a lot of the ideas behind what I see as a heterosexual female gaze – the male gaze is not absent, but it is co-opted. We are able to see the man as an object of desire, but our view of the woman isn’t first person, either. We are still seeing the world through the eyes of the male character, but we’re offered some intriguing glimpses of a world in which women also have a gaze.

More soon, looking at where the female gaze intersects with the crafter’s gaze.

*Please note, should you wish to watch Strange Days, that it is a movie rife with violence, the most disturbing being the sexual violence, of which there is a great deal. There is a huge trigger potential with this movie, so keep that in mind before you watch it – I don’t want to be the cause of disturbing a whole bunch of people! As I say, I love the movie, but it is very problematic.

The male gaze in knitwear photography: The crafter’s gaze

April 15, 2012

This is a continuation of the exploration of male gaze in knitwear photography. For the working definition of male gaze as I’m using it, click here. For the second installment, about the spouse as photographer, click here. If you are interested in contributing to this series, either as a photographer, or as a writer, please contact me.

If gaze exists, and there is such a thing as a male gaze, then there are surely other types of gaze as well. Early in this exploration, it was suggested to me (by Alex Tinsley of Dull Roar) that there might be such a thing as a knitter’s gaze. I’m broadening the term to refer to crafters in general, because I think Alex is right, and I don’t think this gaze is limited to knitters. If we refer to the working definition of male gaze, then the crafter’s gaze would be media presented from the crafter’s point of view, looking at object or people as a crafter might, and idealizing or objectifying them accordingly.

I think, though, that the crafter’s gaze is actually derivative of male gaze. If we extend the word crafter to include cooks, then we can see a well documented trend in which a lot of food photography is actually based on heterosexual pornography. In other words, the visuals of desire are a language that is codified by the heterosexual male appetite and view, and by being presented to us over and over again from birth as the visual norm, we internalize it and learn to express desire in those terms, whether we are male, heterosexual, or otherwise part of the normative view ourselves. While the crafter’s gaze may, at first glance, appear sexless or feminine, it is in some ways an expression of male gaze internalized and used to express a different sort of lust and desire. Oftentimes, in photographs which express the crafter’s gaze, the human body is incidental or unimportant, which can make it seem as though this is a very different sort of view than we are usually exposed to. However, if we look at the photographs of examples of desire applied to objects rather than people, then I think the view shifts slightly, and some commonalities might be exposed. This is not to say that all photographs from the crafter’s gaze are explicitly a product of male gaze, or that there is only one visual language of desire, but rather that we should not assume that this is absent. I would add that I think this particular view is a bit of a two way street – the visuals of desire may be determined by nature to some extent, then used in combination with the male gaze, and manipulated by advertising.

Clothilde 2

Clothilde shawl, photographed by me.

This photograph of Clothilde is the one I use as the main pattern photo on Ravelry. As you can see, there is no human being present in the photograph, and no real detail in the photograph other than the shawl edge. It does, I hope, convey to the knitter some of the detail they would want to see and know about before knitting the shawl, but it’s also decidedly a beauty shot, despite just being a picture of a shawl tossed over the back of my couch. I chose the couch as a background because it gets really nice light and because I thought the red made a nice contrast to the silver shawl. I chose this photo for use because I liked the composition and the colors. Red as a color has a long association with danger, probably due to the fact that it’s the color of blood and also the color used in nature by animals to signify poison. In a safe setting, this danger becomes exciting, making red a slightly more daring and sexualized color than blue or green. It’s not to say that I think the above photograph invokes sex, but I do think it would have a very different effect were the background a different color.

Clothilde with different backgrounds

Like so.

None of these backgrounds is bad, but I don’t think any has the same pop as the red background. The fact that our brain is automatically sending danger signals when we see red makes something safe seem more exciting. A red dress on a woman has a similar effect, and there’s a reason why a red dress is considered more daring than a blue one, and more vampish than a white one.

I don’t think my photo is an explicit example of the male gaze as it translates to the crafter’s gaze, but I do think it borrows from some elements of a glamor photograph. It’s a portrait, but a portrait of a shawl rather than a person, and as a portrait, it’s easier to see the line, horizontal rather than upright, stretching back into the distance, and the color, and the softness of the light on the reflective yarn. In other words, if this is a portrait, it’s a bit of a sexy portrait.

There are photographs that demonstrate the crafter’s gaze that borrow less from this internal language. I encourage you to look at each of the following photographs as portraits of knitwear rather than simply a photo of a scarf or a hat. As portraits, they offer slightly different messages and meaning. I deliberately chose photos where any human bodies in the picture are somewhat incidental to the knitwear itself.

Vahl Hat, designed and modeled by Alex Tinsley. Photo by Vivian Aubrey.

Alex Tinsley’s Vahl Hat is shown here as a hat, the human head necessary only for showing the shape when worn. This is a pretty and also utilitarian photo – the star is the hat, and we’re shown what makes it special and different from other hats by focusing on the crown and back where there is interesting shaping and adornment. As a portrait of an object, I’d say there is little subtext – we are being asked to look at a hat as knitters and see what would be fun about it in terms of making it. The two parts of the picture that stand out to me are the feather tassel and the sequins. These are equivalent to jewelry. If I were to make this hat, my own might not have them, but they’re both so pretty that I can’t really take them out of the equation when I look at this picture. In other words, although I intellectually know I don’t have sequined yarn or feathers in my stash, it’s next to impossible for me to discard the information of feathers! sequins! from my brain when I imagine this hat as mine. In terms of the hat’s character, this extra adornment on something otherwise simple, if clever and pretty, adds a certain interest and richness. I see nothing in this photo to suggest that the person looking at it is male, and more than that, the objectification of the object depends on the visual interest of the tunnel like shape formed by the stripes, creating an optical attraction that is not based on anything cultural. All culture is kept to the pretty little extras.

Fast Forward, designed by Natalie Servant.

I really like this picture of Natalie Servant’s elegant unisex scarf, Fast Forward. We are treated to seeing how it would look in three strongly contrasting colors, focusing on the detail that makes the scarf special, and we’re given a picture of how it would look when worn without a single human being in the picture. In this photo the trees can be seen as stand ins for human models, and I think they do an admirable job of being composed as a group of people without clearly indicating male or female. Both the number and the grouping are familiar and pleasing.

The Acheson Sisters, by John Singer Sargent

Portrait of Charles Roeber, Tom Reece, and Jim Mikulenka.












By eliminating the human figure but keeping the humanity, Natalie has found a way to let crafters ogle her scarf as crafters without giving them an imposed idea of whether the scarf is for men or women. These trees could be the elegant women in the Sargent portrait, or they could be the tough cowboy types in the image from Texas history. They could be another group altogether. Because the “figures” of the trees are upright and confident in their demeanor, there is no real imposition of view here, just a template into which we can drop our own images. I think Natalie’s picture is a good example of gaze that lacks a specific viewpoint.

Morningtide, designed by Becky Herrick.

I chose Becky Herrick’s Morningtide mitts for an example of hands as they appear in knitwear photography. Hands are much easier to model if they’re holding something, and it’s not uncommon to see pictures of hands holding mugs or garden implements or flowers in photos depicting gloves, mittens, or mitts. The point of the hands in this picture is to give you as much of a view of the different angles of the mitts as possible. Becky’s added some setting to give the picture a narrative and a composition. As part of her collection of handwear themed around time, these mitts need the setting to keep the storyline intact. As a portrait of mitts, this one is pretty formal, depicting both the mitts and their accoutrements that depict their overarching theme. The colors and picot edging are enough, with our cultural context, to establish them as female, despite a lack of any other clear indicator in the photo. They are angled to create a composition that pulls the eye diagonally across and up the scene. Hands can certainly be depicted as sensual, but here they are more relaxed and casual, lounging, but not preening. As a portrait, I see these mitts as feminine and depicted as feminine under the societal mores we live with. The view here is a crafter’s view, but perhaps guided by a broader societal picture of gaze that allows us to clearly understand that a pair of mitts are female without clear cause.

Xochiquetzl, designed by Melissa Lemmons. Photo by Emerald Lemmons 2012.

I chose Melissa Lemmons’ Xochiquetzl for the last analysis, because I think her photo is a great demonstration of object portraiture and also of the sexiness that can exist in photographs of what should in theory be sexless objects. The foot pose in this photo is lovely, emphasizing the arch and curvature of the foot and creating a number of beautiful lines to follow. It’s also not a naturally comfortable position. (Try it. Arch your foot at this angle for a moment, and notice the ways in which your body tenses.) It’s a beautiful photo for showing off a beautiful sock, but it’s not just a picture of a foot. Again we have the lounging angle, this time somewhat more sensual because of the curves. It is ideal for showing off the elegant shaping in the sock, but also ideal for using the curves to create a feminine ideal. Once again, we have the sense of femininity without an explicitly female presence in the picture.

I realize I’ve gone pretty far down the rabbit hole in this post, and these interpretations are mine alone. I may be reading into these pictures only because I’m looking for signs of gaze as often as possible these days. I am also coming to this as someone with a background in visual art and analysis, so I’m used to examining images with the intention of looking for more than is explicitly portrayed. If I lost some of you on this foray, I hope you’ll come back for the next round or send me your thoughts for another view.

The male gaze in knitwear photography: The spouse as photographer

March 12, 2012

I have had such a response to the first post on this topic that I feel the need to add a small disclaimer to the top of this one! I am not by any means an expert in feminist theory or the male gaze. I have no degree, period, and anything I know on this topic is because I looked it up and read about it out of pure, somewhat idle interest. If I get something egregiously wrong or if my opinions seem off base, please don’t hesitate to let me know. I am trying to learn about this by writing about it.

I have had some awesome offers from others to use their photographs for future installments, and I am taking them up on it as the topic demands it. I want to say that my intention is not to hurt feelings with this project, so I am trying to be careful in how I use the photos of others.  Because of this, for this particular installment, I am sticking mostly with my own photos, but I will be using more photos of other designers in future installments. Topics currently planned are: The crafter’s gaze, The female gaze, Narrative in knitwear photography, and The self and the other. If you have other suggestions, or would like to contribute to one of these topics, either in words or photos, please let me know! For convenience’ sake, this post is titled the spouse as photographer, but could refer to any romantic significant other.

In my own photos, as in those of many independent designers, I often use myself as a model, largely for the sake of convenience and shyness to ask someone else to pose for me. I use my husband as a photographer. I’m not a trained model and he’s not a trained photographer, but we put some work into coming up with our ideas, and I think it’s safe to say that the image that results is a collaborative vision. As such, it is neither wholly male nor wholly female. I do the styling, present him with a series of images I’d like to capture, and I do the posing. He, in turn, often fusses about location and lighting and is ultimately the one who frames the shot and captures the image. From a very personal standpoint, he gets a more comfortable and relaxed version of me to photograph than someone with whom I am less at ease would. I smile differently for him than I would for a stranger.

In some cases, as in the photographs for Audrey Totter, we were deliberately aping photographs framed by the male gaze.

All about the contrapposto, yo.

The history of film noir is rife with shots that start at the feet of the female character and ride up her body to make sure that we’re seeing it as the male detective is. She walks in, and he appreciates her body for a while before the camera settles on her face, establishing her as a person. These shots place us in the shoes of the detective and allow us to understand, without a word being said, that he is sexually attracted to the dame, broad, or tomato who’s just wandered into his rat hole of an office. My pose in this picture is entirely unnatural. I don’t stand around with my hip thrown out and one of my feet on tiptoe. This picture is all about trying to capture a sense of film noir through the familiar, unnatural, and very male gaze that the camera gives us. The fact that the photo was taken by my husband probably means that it’s a different sort of picture than it would be if it were taken by a female friend or a stranger.

In what way different, though? I think we’re seeing, often, his idealized view of me combined with my vision for how I want my work displayed. In the case of Audrey Totter, we were aiming for a certain period nostalgia and a sexiness called up by the femmes fatale of the old movies. In the case of a more relaxed shoot, I think he often snaps pictures when I don’t expect it, capturing small, personal moments that are taking place between two people with the consciousness that they will eventually be shown to a larger audience over which we have little control. In this picture from 2010 (sweater is Liesl, by Ysolda) I am talking to my husband and looking down, not a moment I think I was expecting to be captured, but I think it’s a rather nice picture, though truly not my own view of myself. I’ve never seen my head from that angle, and I don’t have that picture of myself in my own brain.

A private moment, sort of.

It is, in a way, a romantic picture, a moment between two people who were talking and joking around, but with the self conscious awareness of capturing that moment for others. I don’t think the gaze in this photo is exploitative, but it is other, and it is the gaze of a heterosexual male.

Liz Abinante, designer of tons of amazing things, but probably best known for Traveling Woman, is another knitwear designer who often uses herself as a model and her significant other as photographer. In her case, her fella actually is a professional photographer, and between them, they get some truly beautiful photographs. What I most like about these pictures is their playfulness – again, I think, the moment between two people who are comfortable together.

Flurries Cowl modeled by Liz, photograph ©

I wouldn’t say the gaze in this picture is explicitly male or female, but it is intimate in the sense that we don’t often get to see this sort of sweet goofiness from someone we don’t know well. It introduces us as good friends of Liz.

At the same time, this points out that a male significant other as photographer does not automatically introduce an explicitly male gaze. And I think a lot of what we’re seeing in that photograph is Liz as Liz, a combination of how she is choosing to present herself and Liz as she is seen by Colin, but not Liz as she is seen by an unknown and universal male gaze.

I don’t have any photos to present of male knitwear photographers taken by their spouses or significant others, or at least none known to me to have been taken by significant others, but I’d be curious to see if the familiarity apparent in many photos taken this way remains the same and what details are captured. The spouse as photographer can bring his or her gaze as an admirer and lover of the photo’s object, but can also stand back to capture the object as a friend.

How the photograph is set up and posed can draw from art and film and photography that is explicitly informed by the male gaze, but there’s still room to move around and allow for a more playful view. And, depressingly, I suppose it’s also possible to capture the sourness of a relationship that’s gone south, with the spouse as an angry or depressive photographer.

The male gaze and independent knitwear design (Part 1)

March 3, 2012

I have been trying to formulate a post on this topic for a while. I suppose the first and most important thing to do is to define the male gaze as I am using it. Gaze as it is used here comes from a usage popularized by French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan and refers to the anxiety inherent in the awareness of one’s visibility to others. In being viewed, the subject of viewing loses some control over how that viewing is perceived. Gaze requires theory of mind – the ability to understand that others have their own reactions and emotions separate from one’s own.

I'm in your computer, staring at you staring at me.

The male gaze is a term created by British film theorist and feminist Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. While the term was first used to apply to film theory specifically, it has since taken on a broader cultural meaning to refer to any medium in which the media is presented from the point of view of a heterosexual male. I would personally add that in broad Western culture, that view is also that of a white, upper middle class heterosexual male. In this way, the viewer is forced to take on (and normalize) the worldview of a narrow segment of society while other views are minimized or left out entirely. Most of the easy examples of the male gaze are overtly sexual, but sexuality is only part of that view. I would add that I do not think most male gaze is instituted in a way specifically meant to alienate or minimize other views, but occurs somewhat organically when the vast majority of our media is controlled from the top by white middle class heterosexual males.

In Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood, Little Red is an object of desire for the wolf and Droopy Dog, a prize to be won, and curves to be admired. In many comics and cartoons, women are introduced as isolated body parts rather than as characters.

The male gaze describes a culture in which the person doing the gazing is male (white, heterosexual, middle class) and those who differ from this description are the passive objects of the gaze. I would argue that after so many centuries in which the male gaze is dominant in paintings, theater, television, movies, commercials, magazines, and billboards (to name a few examples), the male gaze is generally internalized as the normal view by even those who are not themselves white, male, middle class, or heterosexual. I’ve seen it argued that the male gaze accidentally portrays a lesbian gaze as well, but I think that’s a mistake in which sexual attraction to women is seen as a homogenous form of sexuality.

So, many paragraphs in, I think we have the male gaze decently defined for the purposes I’m writing about. I have only to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze, only its dominance. If more views were equally represented, there wouldn’t be much to complain about in regard to the male gaze, which is one valid way to look at the world. Is there a female gaze? Yes, I think there is. It’s just not widely seen because few women are in control of media and those who are have often, perhaps in order to move up in their chosen field, internalized a male gaze and continued to present it as the normal, indeed ONLY, view.

Although Cosmopolitan is a magazine marketed to women, the magazine's visuals reinforce the male gaze as normative, and the idea that a woman should try to be pleasing to the male gaze rather than looking for herself.

Independent knitwear design is a field largely dominated by women (with a few outstanding exceptions) and many independent knitwear designers use themselves as models, so I want to explore the role of the male gaze in the photography used to accompany knitting patterns. I will need to gather examples for this exercise, so I will be contacting other knitwear designers in the coming weeks to see if I can use their pictures to talk about this. Stay tuned.

A wistful longing for times past

July 12, 2011

Whenever we watch old movies, my husband points out the people with a skin color similar to his own and then what role they’re serving. Serving is quite literal here, as they’re usually in some service position or another, waiting to back up the white leads with a toothy grin or a deferential bow. Now that I’m married to someone with darker skin than my own, I notice this more overtly, too, but I still very much enjoy old movies, particularly screwball comedies with their punchy dialog. One of the things I enjoy about old movies, as well, is fashion watching.

Like many modern, youngish knitters, I have a taste for what is commonly referred to as vintage fashion. Vintage referred originally to wines, but now, according to Random House, it can refer to “the high quality of a past time”. Certainly, vintage clothing is not used to refer to old work clothes or the reused fabrics worn by the working poor.

Technically, these people are wearing vintage clothing. (Photo from the National Archives.)

No, vintage clothing refers to clothing worn by the middle and upper classes. It refers to fashion rather than to necessity. And the idea of “high quality of a time past” contains in it a certain nostalgia for the way things were.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I have a really dual and necessarily compartmentalized view when it comes to vintage clothing and styles. I have no desire to live in the past whatsoever, nor even to time travel to the past for a visit. I can see many inequalities that exist in the time and place in which I live, but I still feel that I live in the best possible time so far for a person like me. At the same time, I have an aesthetic appreciation for some of the looks and styles of the past, even a past that worries me in its more exaggerated inequalities. My current favorite dress looks like it walked out of a fifties or early sixties cocktail party.  It’s full skirted and nip-waisted and it exemplifies the look of a well dressed lady from well before I was born. I wear it with my pierced eyebrow and perhaps there is a certain contrast or visual irony that I enjoy in that, but really, I just like the pretty dress.

I like certain past aesthetics very much, but I’ve noticed that appreciation of an aesthetic can come at a price. It’s easy to slip from appreciating a look into an idealization of the past. I am wary of the show Mad Men for this reason. Although by all accounts the show is meant to expose the underbelly beneath the smooth surface, many of its fans seem mostly to extoll the look of the show and the freedom from political correctness it represents to them. This is a broad generalization, and I haven’t anything to back it up at the moment other than a certain uneasiness I’ve personally experienced when I’ve seen the fliers for Mad Men themed bar nights around town or spoken to someone who went on and on about the fabulousness of the clothes. The two episodes I watched seemed almost nihilistic in the intensity of hopelessness presented, but that’s not the aspect of the show I see represented in its pop culture mythology.

Nostalgia is intense and represents a certain agreed upon amnesia. While I think few people would argue for a loss of civil rights gained by women and minorities in the past 100 years, I do frequently hear people call upon the past as safer. “We didn’t have to worry about this when I was a kid,” is a phrase commonly uttered by many people who seemingly forget that when they were kids, their parents were the ones doing the worrying. It’s a variation on “kids today” that defies any actual statistics about what kids today are doing. It also ignores the very real problems of the past. Drugs, sex, and new and scary music have existed for each generation. Look far enough back and you can find parents scandalized by this new fangled waltz with its opportunities to cop a feel in a dark recess of the dance floor.

The problem with trying to call up the past as better in some aspects is that history is not really divorced from its whole. The picture of nineteen fifties prosperity depends on an ignored unprosperous many as much as on house dresses and good manners and supposedly safe neighborhoods, and that’s ignoring even the nineteen fifties definition of prosperity, which probably would satisfy few alive today, or the fact that rude people have existed in every era, and crime occurred in good neighborhoods and people still behaved like people.

When I’m watching my old murder mysteries or screwball comedies, I enjoy the escapism, the travel to a different time and place, the pretty clothes, the funny dialog, but I try to remember that what I’m seeing is a picture meant for enjoyment. It’s a picture that reveals some of the flaws of the period, as in the case of the dark skinned characters and their service or the women and the way they revolve around the men, and it’s a picture that hides some of the flaws of the period, like when characters in the 30s manage to go an entire movie without ever encountering a single poor or unemployed person. The clothes worn by the movie stars are of course gorgeous, because they were meant to be gorgeous. Your average housewife wasn’t going out in the gowns and coats worn by Myrna Loy or Katharine Hepburn. The past is different from the present, certainly, but people have not changed as much as attitudes have. There is nothing wrong with appreciating the aesthetics of the past, but it’s helpful to remember that aesthetics are deliberately limited in scope.

A turn for the worse (NOT KNITTING CONTENT)

March 10, 2011

[TRIGGER WARNING: rape, victim blaming]

Usually when I write a feminist rant for this blog, I try to connect it to crafting in some way, because that is the ostensible purpose of this blog, and the intersection of feminism and crafting is a surprisingly rich mine of material. Today, however, I am so angry about an issue that I find so important that I’m going to veer off of the subject of crafts altogether to talk about the broader societal message that our culture is sending to women right now and I’m going to focus on something very specific to talk about it.

Recently, as an American and as a woman, I’ve been feeling like there’s been a misogynistic shift in our rhetoric and I’ve found it disturbing. As a political being, I’ve been seeing ways in which I believe my lawmakers are trying to strip me, as a woman, of my political power and bodily integrity. But what I want to talk to you about today is more insidious and less obvious. I want to talk about what we’re doing to our girls, and I want to do so because knitting and crafting are seen as women’s hobbies, and what has happened here affects all of us.

Two days ago, on March 8th, The New York Times published a story about a horrific rape in a small Texas community. The victim is an eleven year old girl. As of now, 18 men have been arrested in connection with her rape, and the Times ran a short piece on the story dealing primarily with the community and how the rape has affected it. The crime is horrific in its own right, but the coverage in the Times and in The Houston Chronicle has been disturbing on the basis of its choices and not just the details of the crime.

Rather than parsing all of the disturbing language in the articles about this crime, I’m going to focus on a few things that stood out to me. The following quote is from The Houston Chronicle.

If she refused, the statement said, she was warned other girls would beat her up and she would never get a ride back home. Soon she was having sex with multiple young men there, the statement said.

Bolding mine. I want to point out the infuriating use of the pronoun she in this instance. She is the subject of the sentence, and what the predicate says, she does. So in this sentence, we learn that the person “having sex with multiple young men” is the girl, which more than suggests that the person with the agency is the victim and that the sex is consensual, even though the previous sentence makes it clear that it is not, and even though the child is 11 years old, too young to consent to sex with anyone. A more accurate and less victim-blaming sentence would have been, “Soon, multiple young men were raping her.” Having sex is an act between consenting adults. Rape is what happens without consent.

I picked that sentence to start with to point out how subtle some of the victim blaming language is, not just in the two articles cited here, but in general. We like our racism and misogyny nice and blatant, but it often comes in the guise of objectivity and distance. The sentence I cited is presented as a fact, and the author of the article distances himself from the language choices he made by referring to a statement, presumably made by someone other than the author. Note, however, that it is not a quote. The author chose the language and it was not objective, or the only choice. The reporting of facts requires many choices and it also requires a certain amount of responsibility that becomes that much more important when the subject is a child and a victim.

From the Chronicle story we learn that the child victim has now been forced out of her community, that her mother feels threatened and believes that some members of the community want to find and hurt them. However, when discussing how this happened, the only questions of parenting raised in either the Times or the Chronicle article are about the victim’s mother. Where did things go wrong? Not, apparently, with the parents of the up to 28 young men who raped a child. No, the fault must clearly have been with the female parent of the little girl who was raped. I do not believe that trying to fault parents is usually the right response to a crime, but I can’t help but notice that the questions raised in this case are not about the kind of parenting that would lead to raising a victimizer, but rather a victim.

Again, from The Houston Chronicle, referring to the victim’s Facebook page:

Sometimes she comes across like a little girl, such as when she talks of her special talent for making “weird sound effects” and “running in circles” to overcome nervousness.

But she also makes flamboyant statements about drinking, smoking and sex.

You know why sometimes she comes across like a little girl? SHE IS A LITTLE GIRL. I have an eleven year old son. He’s over five feet tall, kind of gawky, into Judo and making up stories with his friends. He’s a big guy who wears men’s shoes and men’s shirts, but he’s still a little boy because eleven year olds are little kids who happen to be at the precipice of puberty.

And finally, we get to the coup de grâce from The New York Times, that venerable Grey Lady.

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

Ah, yes. Let’s talk about what she wore, because that’s hardly a cliche in rape culture. Let’s focus on the unbelievably offensive insinuation that the way she dressed had something to do with the fact that adult men, including an almost 30 year old, chose to commit a violent assault on her person.

Let’s talk a little about victim blame, which is a problem across society, and which is not unique to this situation. Yeah, it’s wrong when we blame the victim of a robbery from being in the wrong part of town, or the victim of a mugging for not hiding his wallet better. But there’s no cultural message telling people that they have to run down a dark alley waving their wallet and that they’ll be shunned if they don’t. On the other hand, there is almost nothing but a cultural message to young girls that “wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s” is what you need to do if you want to be popular and desirable. And then we see the flip side of that coin in the statement above: that dressing that way encourages men to victimize you, making it your fault when you become a victim. In discussing this yesterday on a friend’s Facebook page, I hit upon a pithy summation of the message we send to young girls (and to young boys) with this mixed cultural message: “You’re not sexy enough, slut.”

I’d like to connect the dots between the horrifying rape story and the victim blaming in The New York Times to this seemingly unrelated story from the Today show about the sexualization of little girls’ toys.

Anyone who thinks that there is no cultural pressure to dress like a (sexy) 20 year old really needs to take a look at what toys marketed to little girls are actually saying.

The thing is, THIS AFFECTS ALL OF US. Today, the victim blaming is falling on a little girl in Texas who was brutalized by men in her community and then brutalized again by her neighbors and the media. This is one example, but it exists in a broader culture that is teaching women and men how to relate to each other. Right now, at this moment, the takeaway message for girls is, “You’re not sexy enough, slut,” but it’s also boys who are taking that message to heart. And it’s adults, who should be protecting children, who are instead looking to place blame on the victim and her specific, personal upbringing, rather than the culture that spawned this unhealthy simmering mess of mixed messages, or the victimizers, or the enablers who prop up the victimizers.

Noticing language and reading critically is a small part of what we need to do in some ways, but it’s also a big way to step away from the societal pressure to accept language at face value and subtext only internally. Breaking away from internalizing the victim blaming takes conscious effort.

Online petitions may be limited in their effectiveness, but a massive groundswell in response to victim blame may make the Times think twice about their language choices and editorial process. No news story makes to print without being raked by more than one set of eyes, and yet this dreck made it to the page anyway. Tell the Times it was wrong. You can also write to The New York Times and The Houston Chronicle and let them know that their coverage contributes to the rape culture.

For more on the media coverage of this story, see this blog post at Shakesville, which further parses out the victim blaming language in the Times article, and this post at Jezebel, which covers media coverage in both papers. The New York Times has, by now, responded to the anger at their coverage but has not taken responsibility for the quotes and views they gave ink to. The Houston Chronicle has published a response defending their coverage, also passing the blame onto residents quoted in the article, and failing to note either the fact that the quotes were selected from many, were not framed in a context to make it clear that the quotes represented an opinion that fails to line up with the law or morality, or the language that had nothing to do with quotation at all. There has been no real apology for this disgusting coverage.

Edit: In case it’s not clear enough when I discuss the pressure to dress in a sexy way, I do not mean that the way in which the girl was dressed or the way in which any girl dresses has anything to do with the fact that a person would choose to assault her. I wanted merely to point out the double bind inherent in pointing to the clothing “more appropriate for someone in her twenties” and the social pressure to dress as a person in her twenties, which extends to women of all ages.

An ongoing discussion

January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday seems as good a day as any to talk about the conversation taking place at Flint Knits about privilege and representation. I am going to sum it up briefly, but I highly recommend reading the entirety of what is written there, and many of the comments as well, because there’s a lot to think about. This will be long, so be warned!

It all starts with Heather Ross, she of the unspeakably adorable fabrics. I am a lousy seamstress thus far, but I’ve been coveting her fabrics for years, and hoping to become good enough to make a project worthy of her patterns. I got a Heather R0ss book for Christmas, and I look forward to using it. Despite working in another end of the fiber arts, I’m a pretty big Heather Ross fan, so I was surprised when I basically walked in on a big Heather Ross controversy.

The new line of fabrics from Ms. Ross includes one with little girls in cowboy hats playing with toy horses. The little girls in question are small girls with pale skin and light hair, and this is where the controversy emerges. A number of commenters wrote to ask that Heather Ross fabrics include more portrayals of children with different skin colors and ethnicities. This comment from ‘Andrea in Vermont’ seems representative.

I agree that the spirit of the design is wonderful. And yet… just as horses come in a wide range of colors, so too do little girls (and boys, for that matter) who love them. As a mother of children of color, and a person who simply seeks more representation of *all kinds of people* in the materials I purchase to craft with, I wish… I wish for beautiful Black and Latina and Asian kids to be portrayed by your talented hands. Let us see the world’s rainbow of children represented (in skin tone, not costume) ~ it will make the designs ever so much more beautiful, and ever so much more meaningful to many more children. *Thank you* for considering this appeal.

This request struck a chord with me, because my family is underrepresented as well. White mom, brown dad, tan kids. I’m going to take a moment to say that in the construct of race, my kids can pass as white, and that’s probably how they are perceived by most people, but their self identity is as kids who have a brown dad and a pale mom, and what shocked me when they were tiny was how quickly they noticed that they were not being represented. I noticed, but then I was a new mom, hypersensitive to the fact that the baby magazines I was reading weren’t showing my family, that babies who made the cover had blue eyes, even when they had dark skin, that I hadn’t even known babies could be born with brown eyes because all of the babies I’d ever seen portrayed in magazines or on TV had blue eyes. I’d even been told that all babies are born with blue eyes, which made it very interesting when I later gave birth to two different children who were born with brown eyes.

OK, so, the fact that our family wasn’t really represented started showing up for me again when I’d shop for toys. Families for doll houses are sold in sets, and I would have had to buy three to cover all the skin colors in our family. (The different lighting in the photos above does sort of obscure the fact that I’m pretty much milk colored, and the kids, when their photos aren’t shot in dark woods, are sort of olivey tan.) Dolls tended to come in black or white with no in between. I think this has improved since I had the first child, and I do want to acknowledge that. But at the time, I found myself really frustrated at being unable to find toys that looked like my baby, and toys that looked like my family. I started noticing that families like ours weren’t often portrayed, and when they were, it was not usually as normal people, but with race or ethnicity as the subject. And I dealt with odd comments from people who didn’t really understand they were being offensive. Some examples include being told by other white women that they’d never date someone outside their race because it’s too hard on children not to belong to a culture, hearing from a white friend that she didn’t want her daughter to have to be a minority at school, and being asked, when out with my children, “What are they?”

I somehow didn’t think the kids were noticing all this, even though the kids learned the color brown first, when they each had a tiny epiphany that brown was the color of Daddy. The first time I really understood how they hungered for images of themselves was when someone sent me a link to a website that sold dolls for mixed race families. Both my then-toddler boys were across the room playing when I clicked on the link, and neither seemed to be paying attention to me. However, once I clicked the link, they were right there with me at the computer, exclaiming in excited voices, “He looks like me!

They also commented on how the doll had a brown daddy and a pink mommy, just like they did, and they were literally jumping up and down and squealing. They didn’t even really want the doll. They were just excited that he looked like they did and that he had a family like theirs. (Real Kidz dolls, like the one shown above, are no longer produced.)

My kids are not the only kids who are underrepresented, of course. Most minority children (and I would include children of mixed race couples in that designation, since mixed race couples make up only 8% of married couples in the U.S.) do not get to be the default. When someone refers to a little girl in fiction, it is assumed that she is white unless otherwise specified. When physically describing white people, many of us tend to skip skin color altogether because it is assumed, while people of color are often described by their color or ethnicity first. If I were to explore this idea in any detail, it would take a book.

Looping back to where I started, the post on Flint Knits, guest blogged by Ashley Shannon, is highly critical of Heather Ross’s response to these requests that she be more inclusive. The response is quoted in full in that post, and Heather Ross herself later responds in the comments to this criticism, but I wish to quote only a portion here.

I guess I never think about my drawings of children being representative of every child, if I did I would certainly give the importance of diversity in every aspect of fine art more thought. On the other hand, I’ve developed a certain amount of defensiveness about choosing my own subject matter.

OK. Let me start by saying that in terms of inclusiveness, Heather Ross is by no means the only or the worst offender. The fact that she has little girls in cowboy hats playing with horses is actually a big thing, since so many portrayals of little girls aren’t just of white little girls; they are of white little girls in limited roles, like princesses, or girls playing with dolls or cooking materials, or picking flowers, all of which are great in moderation, but terrifying when they are nearly the only representations of young femininity. And I have a certain understanding as an artist of where Ms. Ross is coming from. When I draw people from my head, I draw myself. I think most artists have a default human who lives in their heads, and that default human is based on our self image. If I draw without referring to a model, all of my pictures look a little like me. Most artists I went to art school with had a similar default human they’d draw, and expanding outside that person who lives in our head takes a little work. I am also sympathetic to the idea that we like to draw what we know and care about. I don’t really have a desire to make a sweater that wouldn’t look good on me. And I understand as well what it is like to make very little money on your work, and I can fully believe that, beautiful and popular as Heather Ross fabrics may be, Heather Ross herself is not paying the bills with them.

However, and this is a big however, while I don’t go as far as Ms. Shannon in my frustration with Heather Ross’s response, I do feel frustrated with the quote above, not because she has an obligation to draw Every Child (it’s all in me!) but because the above response shows a certain amount of naivete about how her work is received. Of course it is representative. All of the positive responses to her work in which people say that they love the new fabric because it reminds them of their own childhood shows that it is always going to be representative. Putting your work into the public sphere means sacrificing a little of that control you had over your own vision, and the moment any iconic image is released into the world, it becomes representative not just of the things you intended, but of all the things that other people read when they bring their own experiences and values to bear on it. And while Heather Ross alone will not save the world or change the fact that many little girls and boys are underrepresented and portrayed, by not including those images, she is still part of the monolithic default representation of idealized childhood as white, whether she meant to be or not. I am willing to bet that Ms. Ross is a lovely person, and that if I met her, she’s someone I’d like to sit down with and enjoy a cup of tea and a chat. Her talky, fun book of patterns makes me think I’d like her a lot, so this isn’t a huge criticism of her as a person. No one likes to be told that they’re excluding others, or that their work reinforces blind spots, and a certain amount of defensiveness is natural. I am also not excluding myself from any of this, either the reinforcement of white privilege (which can end up being quite specific and personal in my life, since my white privilege doesn’t extend to my husband) or defensiveness at criticism. In my ideal world, though, Ms. Ross would have responded to the suggestion to be more inclusive with an acknowledgment that inclusion is badly needed, firstly, and with the explanation she essentially gave, that she is working from her childhood memories and that she drew on herself for those things, and lastly with the idea that in the future, she will consider inclusiveness in her work, whether it directly translates into little Asian and black and Hispanic kids showing up or not.

I saw in the comments at Flint Knits the suggestion that if Ms. Ross’s representations are not inclusive, then neither are the representations exclusively of children of color by artists of color. This may be a controversial position, but I think these remarks misunderstand the nature of white privilege. The white voice is present by default in our history, our art, our literature, and the underrepresented are the people of color. Exclusive representations by artists of color are a drop in the ocean in which published writers and successful artists (jobs that depend often on a steady income from elsewhere) are usually white and middle class. Ms. Ross notes in her response to the Flint Knits blog post that she did not grow up middle class, so her voice is not coming from that type of economic privilege in her background. She further notes that she’s making very little money from fabric design ($9000 a year at best), so calls that suggest she’d make more money by representing more people are probably not going to get too far, since more money is relative when one’s income is small.

I want to go on and on about this, but I feel that at over 2000 words, I’ve likely tried my readers’ patience already.  Instead, let me direct you all to a documentary that was on PBS some years back called Race. It is by far the most comprehensive treatment of the subject I’ve seen on film, and it covers a lot of these smaller, more insidious issues like representation and economic privilege through historical measures that wouldn’t seem to matter today, but do. You can’t rent these videos, sadly, but a number of people have serialized them on Youtube and Google video, and searching “Race: the power of an illusion” finds them pretty easily. It’s such a good series that I wish it was easier to access. I saw it as part of an African American history class.

I’m sorry this is so long and discombobulated, but I hope it adds to the discussion. I firmly believe that this is a discussion that needs to be had as often as possible, as difficult as it is, and I am glad of the opportunity. Returning to something I said earlier, maybe it would be a good idea as a designer to make a sweater that wouldn’t look good on me, if it would look good on someone else who might not have a lot of sweaters designed for him or her.

Indulge me

August 23, 2010

Or, Why We’re Both Wrong

I’m one of those people who get hung up on grammatical errors and punctuation misuse.  I’ll be reading along quite happily when my brain will suddenly experience a jerking sensation as I hit a place in the writing where a comma has made an inappropriate appearance or a rogue apostrophe has attached itself to a plural form of a word. I’m fully sympathetic to the plights of other curmudgeons, who, like me, grumble to themselves about the stupid living status of the English language.

I am, of course, a hypocrite. I write in a colloquial style and make typos and errors at a fairly normal rate. I adore slang and use it with glee, especially dried up outmoded slang that strikes me as delightfully anachronistic. (It probably strikes others as weird, twee, foolish, or self indulgent, all of which are valid criticisms, since my word choice cannot be said to contribute to clear communication in those instances.)

The self styled Grammar Nazis would tell you that language is terribly, terribly important, that it is about communication, that clear communication depends on rules. The internet as a whole would tell you that language is joyfully alive, that word choice matters little, that communication is about being understood, not what’s being said. They’re both right and they’re both wrong and I’m somehow going to bring this around to feminism and knitting in the next few paragraphs. You begin to see why I asked you to indulge me.

This morning, a number of folks on my Twitter feed were discussing threads on Ravelry in which women mention their husbands allowing them to knit or to buy yarn. Then there was mention of a tee shirt apparently on display at Rhinebeck that reads “Your husband called, he said buy anything you want.” Oy.

These words are often jokey and joking, and I have a number of lovely friends who’d make jokes of this sort and not really mean much by it. The words sort of sat in my head, today, though, and I haven’t been able to get them out. They’re unwelcome house guests who can only be evicted when I write this down and show them out of my head and into the ether.

Feminism has long been about words and word choice. I can argue till the cows come home that in English, the words man and he are both gender specific and gender neutral, but the fact is, specific trumps neutral in anyone’s mind. You is a word with similar issues; it is both specific and collective, but we tend to assume the specific first. If I tell you (specific you) to picture any important man in history, while I could  be intending the word to have its neutral meaning, chances are that you are currently picturing an important historical figure who had a penis.

Even before feminism, canny women saw the use of language in the cause of their sex. Chivalry is today seen as outdated and often sexist, but a look at Eleanor of Acquitaine and her court of love suggests that chivalry once offered women(of a certain class) a new role in society that gave them greater freedom and importance. Eleanor used her money and power to support poets and troubadours who wrote of gentle love and the elevation of women. She did not invent chivalry, but her money helped codify it and to make it fashionable.

Language is symbolic in its very nature, even its most basic and straightforward form. If I tell you that I saw a cat yesterday, even though you did not see the cat, you are still picturing a cat right now. The cat you are picturing is probably either a cat you know or an archetypal cat that you’ve imagined, because your experience allows you to take my abstract word, “cat,” and create for yourself an image of a real animal.

But most language is not as straightforward as, “I saw a cat.” Most of the time there are nuances, even in writing, that provide clues and hints of something more than mere communication. Language is used for obfuscation as well as communication. If I tell you, “I saw a cat, and I shuddered,” taken in the strict light of literal interpretation, these could be separate facts. I saw a cat. I shuddered. Taken in the same sentence, we tend to assume that they are related, and we use our experience and intuition to bridge the gap between those two statements. Most anyone reading that sentence would be able to extrapolate that I have a fear or dislike of cats. (I don’t, for the record. I just like to use a lot of examples when I write.)

So when we, as craftspeople, make joking reference to our significant others and their influence on our craft, there’s more to it than a joke and less to it than a dissection of the words might offer. Partnership is a give and take and it’s considerate to consider how our choices affect our loved ones.  When women begin to talk of asking permission, though, or to promote the stereotype that women love to spend money LOL and men are in charge of the pursestrings LOL, it isn’t just a comment on one marriage or one relationship. There’s a whole history of experience that gets attached to those words. It’s a necessary, but also lazy form of communication that depends on the understanding of others of stereotype, and it exists in a broader context of hard fought feminist ideals. Adults willingly giving up their rights to make choices for themselves is threatening because it was a default (and still is a default for many people) for so long.

I have talked on this blog many a time about why I knit and how it has actually helped my health. Of course I have to balance my knitting with the demands of family and finance, but I think that if I began using the word “allow” or “permission” in regards to my husband’s view of my hobby, business, and creative endeavors, it would signal the wrong ideas about its importance to me and my significance as an adult and an individual. Asking one another for permission is very different than checking to make sure we can afford something, or checking to see if my knitting is encroaching on time we’d normally spend as a couple. It’s not that different in practice, but the sentiment conveyed by the words is the difference between consideration and subjection.

The language purists and the casual users are both right and both wrong. Language has power, importance, nuance, and meaning that go beyond mere words or jokes. But literal meaning and proper usage are not only fluid, they are often not part of true communication, which depends less on the strictness of rules and more on collective stereotypes, in jokes, memories, and experience.

Not much of a tempest

May 1, 2010

It’s been a long and busy week, so I no longer remember who linked me to the Jezebel article The New Decornographers (boy is that an unwieldy title) but I’m very grateful, mystery friend!  The article, written by Sadie Stein, discusses the effect of the spate of craft, domestic, and fashion blogs on women.  Actually, more specifically, it discusses their effect on Ms. Stein, but there are larger implications woven into the article.

I’m both a writer and a consumer of craft blogs, so this topic interests me greatly.  You may remember the storms that arose in 2007 when the blogger Jane Brocket released her book The Gentle Art of Domesticity, inspiring backlash and anger from feminists in Britain.  (On a wholly egotistical note, that storm inspired what I consider to be my best blog entry to date.)  There’s no violence in this squall.  Ms. Stein isn’t really condemning the blogs in which the domestic is writ large so much as expressing her own bemused fascination and frustration with the domestic blogs.  (I’m lumping all the various craft, food, fashion, and lifestyle blogs under the header of “domestic”, which may or may not be fair, but it’s at least simpler!)

The point of the article is that so many people are Martha Stewart these days.  While I think it would be inaccurate to say that Martha was the only model of active domestic femininity that the pre-internet generation had to worry about, never has it been so easy for a wannabe domestic goddess to promote her lifestyle to an audience.  All it takes is a hobby, a camera, some photo editing software, and you too can be a queen of the internet.

This sort of blog depends largely on photos.  Cropped, artful photos, color edited for mood.  We get a little story from these pictures.  It is of course an intentionally partial view, usually quite literally (these are most often cropped close-ups) and with artful blurring to heighten the sense of depth.  If I sound critical, I’m not wholly so.  As I discussed in a recent previous post, I try for this sort of artful photograph myself, and while I’m not nearly as skilled in photography as the best of the domestic bloggers, I think sometimes my pictures look pretty swanky.  I like swanky pictures.  But it is important to remember that the camera does indeed lie, and quite ingeniously at that.  Close cropped photos are intentionally not showing you everything that there is to see.

You can't see the dying leaves with spots, because I cropped them!

The article goes on to discuss the ways in which blogs of this sort make the author, and others, feel bad even as they hold a certain allure.  This is where I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, some blogs do seem to be an intentionally rosy picture of life that has an inherent smugness attached to it.  Others, while not smug, do seem effortless in a way that is unlikely at best, and entirely false at worst.  However, the self flagellating reader is not choosing to read these blogs at random.  There are plenty of blogs out there by every day schmoes with regular lives and crappy cameras and a perfectly decent writing style.  The very reason that the guilt-inducing blogs are sought is their perfection.

The artichokes look pretty because I framed them so that the overgrown weeds don't show. My backyard is seriously messy.

At the time I’m writing this, there are so many blogs on the internet that while the exact number is not known, it IS known to be upwards of 100 million.  In the time it takes me to write this entry, hundreds, possibly thousands more blogs have started.  Your choice in blog reading is almost literally innumerable, and when the numbers get to be so great, it’s a very small number that stand out.  Those that stand out often do so because of photographs.

Let’s face it.  You can look at the mess on your own desk whenever you like.  Domestic blogs are entertainment and escapism.  Sure, they may offer a cupcake recipe, a knitting pattern, or a fashion tip that you’ll use, but generally speaking, we don’t read blogs looking to adopt a new lifestyle.  While the self consciously perfect person is yet more insufferable when she insists, “I’m just like you, really!” I don’t think bloggers are under any obligation to show sides they don’t wish to display.  If you keep a fashion blog, I don’t need to see a flash lit picture of you in your ratty pajamas at noon for every keen photo in which you display dashing sartorial sense.

We took about a hundred photos. Only a handful looked good.

One of the things that this article did was cause me to go back through my archives and look at my blog.  Honestly, I can’t see it well.  I don’t think any of us can see ourselves well.  I have no idea how people see me.  I can’t get rid of the context I have that tells me that I spend a lot of the week in a big ugly mess, that I lose my temper with my kids more often than I’d like, that there are whole days in which I get very little done.  I’m not taking pictures of my messy desk or my ratty pajamas or the times when, instead of doing a cool craft project, I snap at the kids and they behave like little monsters.  But I know all that’s there, whether it shows or not, and it makes it impossible for me to gauge whether I am, myself, presenting an intimidating front.  I don’t think I am.  But I’m also here with my posed and edited photos, leaving out huge chunks of my life and presenting the parts that look good.

I believe strongly that the personal is political.  I believe that women hurt each other when we pretend to be OK all of the time, when we pretend that having it all is something we can all do.  I believe that making choices and sharing those choices helps keep us whole.  But I don’t share every choice, every flaw, and truth be told, I have no intention to do so.  This isn’t the place where I do that.  This is primarily the space where I write about my knitting, and where I occasionally write something like this, but it’s mostly just the place where I write about knitting.   I don’t even share all of that.  Sometimes, when a project is so discouraging or has failed so hard, I am too depressed to turn it into a funny story or a useful lesson or a tale of woe.

Women and men both have it tough these days.  Women and men have always had it tough, and the toughness changes over the years.  Right now, we’re in a transition and no one knows quite what’s expected of them. Rigid gender roles aren’t gone, but they’re softening, and that’s freeing, but it’s also scary.  Some of us retreat to more hardened gender roles to feel safe, and some of us push against any expectations we perceive and most of us try to make a path that feels sort of comfortable.  Sometimes, the very things we seek out for comfort or ideas or for entertainment are the things that make us feel most lacking.  But the truth is, none of the perfect cupcake ladies is really perfect.  Some of these bloggers are writing from a place of privilege.  They can afford to stay home and bake lovely cakes for fun.  Some of these bloggers are writing their blogs after a long day slogging at a job that they hate and baking perfect cupcakes is how they relax.  Some bloggers are baking perfect cupcakes in between changing dirty diapers and running around the house desperately trying to keep ahead of the mess, and those perfect cupcakes are the one thing that is under control.

The point is, how we react to these blogs is far more about us than about the blogs.  Some of these blogs aren’t very good, really.  Some aren’t really good for us, anymore than indulging in perfect cupcakes would be good if it was an every day occurrence.  But we can click on that little X in the corner, close the browser window, and step back into our imperfect lives, lives we sometimes make a little more perfect with a camera lens and a story.

Girl Detective

June 17, 2009

Hey, you know what we haven’t had around here in a while?  One of my semi annual long rambly feminist rants. About time, I think.

A little while back, Emily posted this in response to my musings on enjoying the things we don’t have to do.

I think something else that’s going on, at least in Anne and the other L.M. Montgomery books, is that they really valorize a particular kind of intellectually dreamy yet physically adventurous, almost tomboy-ish girl, and that type of girl (as portrayed) is unlikely to enjoy a quiet, non-narrative activity like sewing. I find that in many novels about girls there is this idea that the main character is interesting because she’s different from other girls – and sewing/knitting is often the shorthand indicator for boring feminine normalcy. So often the “dull” girls are content sitting still and sewing, whereas you can tell the “interesting” girls because they like to read and to be outside, roaming over the prairie/dale/moor (Callie Woodlawn, Scout Finch, and Jane Eyre also leap to mind). Which is interesting and problematic, in terms of discounting the traditionally feminine & claiming that girls are only interesting if they’re more like traditional boys.

Good points, all, and they stayed in my brain and affected my interpretation of my recent reading choices.

Some years back I wrote the very, very messy first draft of a novel, and I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to edit it ever since.  Recently, it occurred to me that what my novel most needed was a good dose of noir and mystery.  There is a mystery central to the plot, but the writing about it was so unfocused that it never became cohesive.  Reading the works of masters of detective fiction has become a major project for me of late.

So after reviewing Hammett for a while and moving on to Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, it hit me that I had never read a Nancy Drew book.  Nancy Drew was the commercial creation of Edward Stratemeyer, the successful publisher of the popular Hardy Boys mystery books.  Stratemeyer was a decided anti-feminist, but he was an even more decided capitalist, and when he realized that girls were purchasing the Hardy Boys books, he saw an opportunity to make money in the person of a girl detective.  Thus was Nancy Drew born.

Since Nancy Drew was entirely a commercial enterprise, her incarnations have changed somewhat over the years to suit the vagaries of different times and attitudes.  The byline Carolyn Keene is as much a fiction as Nancy herself; all books were ghostwritten.  In 1959, the earliest Nancy Drew books were reworked to suit changing cultural attitudes toward race.  It has been written that much of Nancy’s personality was stripped out at this time as well, but since my library only had the rewritten novels, I can’t personally confirm or deny this.  I can tell you that the solution to the racial insensitivies seems to have been to strip all references to non white characters from the books entirely.

Nancy presents an interesting counter and confirmation to the issue brought up by Emily.  Nancy has all the feminine accomplishments suitable to a young lady of her times, and what’s more, she enjoys them.  In one of the books I read, Nancy arranged a bouquet of flowers that she had grown herself and then, much to her surprise of course, won first prize at a local garden show with her arrangement.  She sews, she has fabulous fashion sense, she probably knits, though she didn’t in either of the books I read. Nancy is independent, confident, capable, and wholesome.

And she’s an absolute bore.  The character is more static than any I’ve read in a long, long time.  Already practically perfect, there’s no real need for Nancy to grow.  She exhibits none of the endearingly human foibles that the rest of us experience.  Anne Shirley, though also practically perfect in her own way, shows temper and makes mistakes repeatedly.  Nancy has no time for mistakes.  She must solve the mystery, at her own expense, without reward, and on her own initiative, because she is just that amazingly perfect and wonderful all the freaking time.

It was easy to see what about Nancy appealed to young women, though.  Nancy manages to straddle the uncomfortable line between left and right in the United States, and she does so with aplomb.  Nancy is independent, confident, trusted by the men in her life, and while she shows consideration for others, she is also very much whole in herself, so much so that her faithful boyfriend, Ned, seems rather limp and dependent in comparison.  At the same time, she has the traditionally feminine qualities already mentioned, and the respect she shows others, as well as the individual charity, tends to appeal to the politically conservative.  Nancy’s role is traditional and feminist at the same time, making her a fairly unique figure in children’s literature.

I’d rather read Hammett, but there’s something to be said about this wooden archetype who inspired Supreme Court justices and First Ladies. In an odd way, Nancy is closer to my particular brand of feminism than the heroines I’ve enjoyed and admired more.  I’m an ardent feminist who lives a fairly conservative life.  I’ve been a stay at home mother to three kids for a good long time now.  While I currently attend school and work, most of my adult life has been wrapped up in traditionally feminine pursuits.  It has been occasionally asked of me how I, a stay at home mom who loves to cook and knit, who has spent many occasions literally barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, can call myself a feminist.

I suppose we all must decide for ourselves.  If someone wishes to think me a bad feminist for living my life this way, that is his or her prerogative.  To me, though, feminism is not about disparaging the traditionally feminine.  It is about upholding the rights of women to make choices for themselves.  It is not just about those choices.  We can make choices that are decidedly unfeminist and antifeminist, but the right to make those choices for ourselves is a feminist cause.  I believe in the rights of women to determine their own courses, to have as level a playing field as is possible in a world where we all differ in talent, ability, and inheritance.  I don’t believe in allowing other women to decide for me based on what they believe is best for women, whether that view is one of women in traditionally feminine roles or women in traditionally masculine roles.  Ideally, we carve out our own place based on our own needs, and yes, our own desires.

Nancy Drew, girl detective, practically perfect in every way, is not a perfect symbol of feminism, but in some ways, she comes close, and for that, she has my interest.