The Fem Spot

The New York Times lament

Posted in media, Personal Essays, Politics, Sexuality by femspotter on August 26, 2009
Shark at the Jersey Shore? Hardly!

Shark at the Jersey Shore? Hardly!

August 26, 2009

Several weeks ago, The New York Times surprised me with a smug Saturday morning edition that bashed New Jersey in every way it could. The front page depicted a large photo of a junk yard in Hackensack – not attached to any story I could find. Another trash dump adorned one internal section, while still an even greater horror awaited readers on the cover of one of the Arts sections: a great white shark, mouth open under a headline that read “Ah, That Jersey Shore: The Fish Are Really Biting.”

That’s irresponsible journalism in my book. The article (online 7-31-09, in print 8-1-09) was announcing Shark Week on Discovery Channel and, though it alluded to the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 which were to be covered by programming scheduled for Shark Week, the photo (right) was taken off the coast of South Africa rather than New Jersey. Nonetheless, the editors at The Times decided they have the right to mock the people of New Jersey – 127,101 of whom subscribe to The Times daily edition, 182,557 to its Sunday edition, according to the New Jersey Press Association – with an incessant flow of visual insults in the wake of the great corruption scandal of 2009: 44 elected officials – the mayor of my town among them – and rabbis indicted for taking bribes and other corrupt acts in one sweep of the judicial net over the state that many already consider to be “the armpit” of the United States. I even got a letter from a relative in a seemingly moral part of the central U.S. remarking about what a corrupt part of the world I live in. (Ah, the Midwest… That’s where they kill abortion doctors, isn’t it?)

Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty?”

I love my state! Sure, we have potholes and insane drivers – nobody knows what a yield sign means – and 4-inch acrylic nails and discordant accents galore. But we also have Victorian Cape May, beautiful beaches, great public education (including Rutgers University, my alma mater) and the Statue of Liberty. Many a talented celebrity has emerged from the smelly bowels called Jersey: Frank Sinatra, Judy Blume, Jack Nicholson, etc.

But, in reality, New Jersey doesn’t smell bad…at least, not outside of Hudson County.

My husband and I chose New Jersey over the cardboard box we could have afforded in Manhattan or neighboring Brooklyn, or the the relatively cheap spaces in the other three boroughs of New York City. In New Jersey, we’re property owners living close to jobs in Manhattan. We’ve lived in historic downtown Jersey City and loved it! We got married in Liberty State Park facing Lady Liberty herself. And if that weren’t enough to convince you that New Jersey is a fantastic state, check out this photo I took outside my condo – less than five miles from Manhattan – in the middle of August, 2009 – also known as just two days ago:

Canadian Geese Visit Beautiful New Jersey; Who Wouldn't Want to Be Here?

A New Jersey River Near New York City at Night: Who Wouldn't Want to Live Here?

So, suck it TNYT!

Your biased portrayal of New Jersey on Aug. 1, 2009 was at best pert and at worst cruel. A corrupt government does not a corrupt population make. We good citizens of New Jersey are the victims of this corruption, rather than the perpetrators of it!

I was just on the verge of canceling my subscription when I picked up the following week’s edition. There, a couple of pages in, was an Op-Ed piece by Bob Herbert entitled “Women at Risk.” In the wake of all of the critical and academic silence about misogyny in our culture during the Hillary Clinton campaign for President and the Sarah Palin campaign – such that it was – for Vice President; in the aftermath of a tremendous victory for the black man Barack Obama, who won our nation’s top office; on the footsteps of the Henry Louis Gates arrest fiasco in Boston that prompted the historic beer bash at the White House…here was a black columnist writing about sexism instead of racism. Did he miss the band wagon? Reacting to the recent slaughter of three women and the wounding of nine others by sexually frustrated assassin George Sodini in a Pennsylvania gym, Herbert had this to say:

We’ve seen this tragic ritual so often that it has the feel of a formula. A guy is filled with a seething rage toward women and has easy access to guns. The result: mass slaughter.

Back in the fall of 2006, a fiend invaded an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, separated the girls from the boys, and then shot 10 of the girls, killing five.

I wrote, at the time, that there would have been thunderous outrage if someone had separated potential victims by race or religion and then shot, say, only the blacks, or only the whites, or only the Jews. But if you shoot only the girls or only the women — not so much of an uproar.

According to police accounts, Sodini walked into a dance-aerobics class of about 30 women who were being led by a pregnant instructor. He turned out the lights and opened fire. The instructor was among the wounded.

We have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that the barbaric treatment of women and girls has come to be more or less expected.

We profess to being shocked at one or another of these outlandish crimes, but the shock wears off quickly in an environment in which the rape, murder and humiliation of females is not only a staple of the news, but an important cornerstone of the nation’s entertainment.

The mainstream culture is filled with the most gruesome forms of misogyny, and pornography is now a multibillion-dollar industry — much of it controlled by mainstream U.S. corporations.

One of the striking things about mass killings in the U.S. is how consistently we find that the killers were riddled with shame and sexual humiliation, which they inevitably blamed on women and girls. The answer to their feelings of inadequacy was to get their hands on a gun (or guns) and begin blowing people away.

Well, thought I…I can’t give up my subscription now. It’s true that The Times has much to make up for. After all of feminist Maureen Dowd’s lazy and pointless columns and the make believe feminist insights of film critic Manohla Dargis – who criticized Pixar for taking until now to hire a female director (yeah, because Pixar is the real problem for feminist filmmakers in Hollywood, right?) and chastised people who point out that Kathryn Bigelow is a female film director who makes man movies (I think that’s noteworthy, don’t you? We expect women to make sappy, romantic movies. They do, but they also direct stylish horror films like Ravenous and visceral dramas about sexuality like The Piano.) – The Times owes all of its feminist readers, from New Jersey to Timbuktu, a real feminist thought or two to chew on. As it turns out, the best feminists over at The Times are men: A.O. Scott, Nicholas D. Kristof and Bob Herbert, to name a few.

Herbert’s column is opinion-based and he alludes to statistics that he doesn’t provide, which bothers me. I want him to make an argument about misogyny supported by facts rather than rantings. He writes “A girl or woman somewhere in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes or so.” Is it one every two minutes…every three minutes? That makes a big difference.

Still, I’m glad that somebody is getting angry about this besides the women who’ve been complaining to deaf ears for years. There are those haters out there who jumped all over Secretary of State Clinton a few weeks ago after she flew off the handle in the Congo when asked by a male student what Mr. Clinton thinks, “through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton,” about the World Bank tampering with Chinese contracts. The incident was met with eye-rolling from CNN “news” correspondents and a heap of criticism from columnists and comedian’s alike. But as this Times news blog points out, Clinton may have gotten a raw deal. She was, after all, standing up for herself and her position at the top, one she’s worked toward for many years. Additionally, she did what Herbert and others have done when something is wrong with the world: she got mad. It is unjust to be asked to speak for your husband when yours is the opinion that should really count. And we won’t right the world’s injustices if we don’t first get mad about them. (To be fair, however, a woman who once did cooking demonstrations on television, posing as Suzy Homemaker to get her husband reelected to the Presidency, doesn’t have a sturdy leg to stand on when it comes to declaring an independent, emancipated status!)

While I am angry at The New York Times, I forgive it because of its forward-thinking feminism. The Aug. 23, 2009 issue of The New York Times Magazine was centered on women’s rights with five major articles pertaining to the current status and potential advancement of women’s rights. “In many parts of the world, women are routinely beaten, raped or sold into prostitution. They are denied access to medical care, education and economic and political power,” it’s cover boldly reveals. “Changing that could change everything.”

Inside, “The Women’s Crusade” by Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn tells us that “(t)the oppression of women worldwide is the human rights cause of our time.” Hey, if that’s the case, then why is Obama drinking with Gates at the White House instead of with Saima Muhammad of Pakistan, who “was routinely beaten by her husband until she started a successful embroidery business;” or Goretti Nyabenda of Burundi, who was also routinely beaten by her husband but who turned a $2 microloan into a crop of potatoes worth $7.50 and her resulting salvation. In fact, Nyabenda is a banana-beer brewer as well as a potato farmer. That would have been a better beer to choose than Bud Light, which, though American, is also the product of a large corporation wielding perhaps unfair tax breaks. Again I ask, why is Obama having drinks with cops and professors when he could be uplifting the impoverished, abused and uneducated women of the world?

Racism is a serious problem; but the cause to abolish racism isn’t helped when an affluent academic screams bloody racism and the media turns the spotlight away from the real injustices of the day to watch the President booze with the battered egos of the world. As far as I know, nobody at that round table has ever been raped or had their genitals removed because of the notion that their sex is inferior to the alternative.

Sharks don’t discriminate between men and women, but Peter Benchley did. He allegedly based his 1974 pulp novel Jaws on the 1916 shark attacks at the Jersey Shore. In reality, there were four victims of the attacks: all male. In the book, and subsequently the 1975 Steven Spielberg film of the same title, the first victim of the man-eater is instead a woman, and she is horribly de-sexualized in the process of her slaying. In the first place, she is swimming naked after dark as part of a sexscapade. Later, when her body is found, it is shredded in all the parts that physically distinguish the girls from the boys: namely her breasts and her womb. Benchley had said in interviews that he regretted writing this novel because it instilled a previously unfounded fear of sharks in the masses. Perhaps, he should have regretted his own misogyny and stuck to the facts: in 1916, three New Jersey men and one boy went into the water and were killed by a beast that didn’t seek to hurt or humiliate women. It was just hungry.

While The New York Times and I have made peace with each other for now, and I still get to look forward to reading the newspaper on Saturday and Sunday mornings in my bathrobe with a big mug of steaming coffee; I am forever wary of the verbal and printed slights marring my beautiful Garden State…just as I am of the general misogyny that pervades our culture.

That’s right: I’m a Jersey Girl now. And you don’t wanna mess with no Joysey Girl! POW!

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No sympathy for the Duchess of discontent

Posted in Feminist Theory, Film and Television, Marriage by femspotter on October 11, 2008

October 11, 2008

What strikes me about the lukewarm critical reaction to The Duchess – starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes – is neither the objection to the acting, of which there is some and with which I disagree, nor the disappointment with the filmmakers’ methods of storytelling; but instead the lack of sympathy for the unhappy central figure. For whether the Duchess of Devonshire was a man or a woman living in any era, she was a very unhappy person. And whatever time and place you, the onlookers, live in, you should be able to appreciate the value of personal satisfaction. Shouldn’t you?

Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times, called the film “an overstuffed, intellectually underbaked portrait of a poor little rich girl.” She went on to say:

Like most costume dramas of this distaff sort, The Duchess wants you to pity Georgiana while also indulging in every luscious detail of her captivity. She may have a pimp for a mother and a bore for a husband, but just look at those verdant landscapes dotted with grazing sheep (no grubbing peasants), the fabulously ornamented gowns, leaning towers of wigs, palatial digs and troops of silent servants. (It’s period-lifestyle pornography.)

For me, the real triumph of the movie is its ability to master both the elements of taste (landscapes, costumes, etc.) as well as the elements of distaste (rape, infidelity, uncomfortable sexuality). Because the former aspects are balanced with the latter, I find myself saying, “Gee, I’d love to wear those beautiful dresses, but I wouldn’t trade places with Georgiana Spencer for the world.”

Kyle Smith, New York Post critic, wrote that “Knightley is a paper doll around whom the movie wraps hoop skirts and 21st century victimology.” He’s right. Our 21st century perspective views Georgiana’s situation as pathetic. She marries an unloving, violent man unwittingly, thinking she’s gaining power, prestige and happiness too. She understands that in exchange, all she need do is conceive and birth a male heir. When she does so, she’ll be rewarded with a cash bonus. This type of marriage was perfectly commonplace in 1777 England, certainly less so today. Naturally, we see this as somewhat queer.

But just as we are naive about what lies in store for the heroine behind the sepulchral gates of her new estate, so too was Georgiana. (We expect a little hanky-panky behind closed doors right from the start of the film, for instance, but we don’t expect violence and inhumanity.) She didn’t know that she’d be obliged to raise her husband’s illegitimate child as her own. She didn’t understand that she’d have absolutely no control over the natural sex of her offspring. How could she have predicted that her best friend would become her husband’s live-in mistress and that the three would function normally as a menage a trois? And when she agreed to accept the interloper without complaint in exchange for similar extramarital immunity, how could she have suspected that her husband, the great and powerful Duke, would rape her and then threaten to take away her children if she continued her affair with the man she truly, passionately loved?

These circumstances may have been perfectly ordinary in the 1770’s, but hopefully have been eradicated through suffrage and subsequent women’s liberation movements. For Dargis – A WOMAN – to sarcastically call the Duchess a “poor little rich girl,” it means that Dargis is ignoring her 21st century feminism in favor of contempt or worse: indifference.

Maybe she isn’t a feminist. What bothers me about her review of the film is her unsympathetic assessment of this intelligent, passionate and ultimately compassionate woman of an earlier era. Dargis is perfectly within her right to critique the film – I found it entertaining and compelling myself, as evidenced by my laughter and tears – but I find it thoroughly unacceptable that her disdain for the film should hinder her sympathy for the Duchess. You can’t judge a woman by today’s standards when she doesn’t have today’s rights and privileges. Is she a poor little rich girl? In other words, is she receiving pity while basking in luxury? Certainly NOT! We don’t mourn her ups; only her downs.

The film is shot with a 21st century lens for a 21st century audience. An 18th century perspective would not be sympathetic and an 18th century audience probably wouldn’t care. Today, we get to look this woman square in the face and lament all of the great things she might have done but didn’t, with her political prowess and her humor were she blessed with a set of hairy balls…or a different birthday (say, 250 years in the future).

“(N)ot enough of (the film) is about how transgressive a character Georgiana must have been, holding forth at her husband’s dinner table on politics, going alone to political rallies,” wrote Newark, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger critic Stephen Whitty. “(T)here’s none of the messiness of life. And that’s a shame.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. Reportedly, Georgiana Spencer – who died young like her ancestor Lady Diana Spencer, at the age of 48 from what has been perceived to be a liver disease – drank excessively and gambled all of her money away. She died in debt. It’s possible that these actions were the result of her mismatched union. What’s tragic is that the film gives us a glimpse of these side-effects of unhappiness rather than an whole picture of them. Perhaps the filmmakers were afraid that our 21st century sympathy and esteem would be lost on a woman who decays rather than flourishes after accepting her fate.

Film and literature are full of unhappy male characters who gamble and drink…and remain sympathetic and simultaneously heroic: Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin in The Verdict (another great film starring the luminous Charlotte Rampling) is one such character. He occasionally climbs out of a bottle of Scotch long enough to punish a hospital and its smug lawyer for a doctor’s negligent involvement in the death of patient. We adore Galvin. But if Frank had been Frances, she probably would have been pitiable and loathsome rather than sympathetic and heroic.

I would have liked more nudity in The Duchess, not only for the guilty pleasure of watching an authentic bodice-ripper but also for the vicarious, visceral experience of dry vaginal intercourse (as the newlyweds’ first carnal encounter is depicted) contrasted with the sensual, orgasmic lovemaking of Georgiana’s extramarital affair with Charles Grey. My husband, who galantly agreed to accompany me to this “women’s movie” – and disliked almost every minute of it, told me that he was disgusted more by the coldness of Georgiana’s wedding night than he was disturbed by her subsequent rape. As Whitty noted, the film is afraid to let us see the mess in lives lived by the Duke’s design. Let us see (experience) uncomfortable sexuality in all its tainted glory.

When we consider some of the morally compromised female characters of film and literature – the ones who lie, cheat, steal and even kill to escape unhappiness in life and marriage – we must judge them by the standards of their day. A woman in 1850, for instance, had few opportunities to earn a living (governess, retail worker, prostitute) other than marriage. And in that period, in England, there were twice as many women seeking marriage as there were men offering it. Women sometimes had to resort to foul measures to survive.

What’s so wonderful about the Duchess is that she doesn’t resort to much of anything that damages people other than herself. In the end, she sacrifices any glimmer of happiness she might have once beheld for the sanctity of her awful marriage and the vitality of her children. I admire her. Clearly, Dargis does not.

That’s okay. But where is the sympathy?

“She wasn’t scrubbing chamber pots for her keep, but she did have to endure her husband’s dalliances,” Dargis wrote, belying the more severe elements of torture inflicted upon this wife and mother of four.

As I said before, the film is successful because viewers know that they wouldn’t trade places with the Duchess even if they could. A life spent scrubbing chamber pots probably was a life spent with more integrity.

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