Category Archives: Gender

New Book (Cover): Wild Palms/Old Man (or If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem), by William Faulkner

This isn’t really a new book; we started reading it in book group in September and just discussed it a few nights ago.

However, there were some things that I didn’t have the energy or proper articulation to discuss. Here are my notes and thoughts:

First, it seems that the title was changed (with the 1990 printing of the “corrected text”) to If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. That Faulkner didn’t originally title the dual novels using this resonant title tells me that reading the new title within the context of the novel’s goals may not offer a meritorious reading if one does so while considering the author’s intents. However, the new title still bears consideration within the greater meaning of the two intertwined stories. The title is taken from Psalms 137:5. The passage intimates at forgetting the song of Jerusalem, and the punishment for forgetting is becoming out of sync with God’s song and being cast out of Jerusalem itself. This notion carries over to the two stories in that both protagonists, Harry and the inmate, cannot carry the tune that would offer them admission into their world’s Kingdom, or the Jamesonian notion of “social order.”

Putting the notion of social order and the two protagonists place in it aside for a moment, one can also consider the dialogic aspects of the two stories. Each speaks to the other and mirrors each other in various ways. Here’s how I see the two elements intertwining and speaking to each other:

The first sections can be seen as points of departure for each protagonist; they are both roused from their slumber. Harry, an inexperienced, passive young man cannot meet his desired effectiveness as he sees it in the context of the world (of the ordinary). Likewise, the inmate is also inexperienced which the reader can see in his unsuccessful attempt to live out his “effectiveness”: he uses pulp novel stories guide his failed bank heist.

The second sections can be seen as an upheaval for both men. In each the protagonists are jolted from their existences via catalysts from the (ordinary) world. For Harry, this comes in the form of Charlotte Rittenmeyer and all she has to offer (56). For the inmate, this comes in the literal form of his chains being unlocked and removed.

The third section brings up the issue of normativity and how it affects each protagonist. In the case of Harry, normativity signals the decline in his and Charlotte’s hyperbolic relationship. The reader can find this normativity when the couple relaxes into the complacent, quotidian life of “normal” people who eat at normal hours, and who make a livable wage (74, 78). The respectability that they earn makes their relationship something that’s acceptable, which their plan to “vacation” in Minnesota shows to be a bane. For the inmate, normativity is disrupted when he must learn to navigate the skiff around the tumultuous waters of the flood. His normativity is then redefined again for him as he faces it head-on: he helps the pregnant woman have her baby.  From this point forward, he becomes the pseudo father in the group as he cares for their safety and procures food for them.

The fourth section in each protagonist’s story shows a shift in each of their roles. They must become more resourceful for each of their charges. Becoming more resourceful means that they must let go of their sense of self in exchange for the greater good of “the family.” The inmate acclimates more smoothly to this role, while Harry does not.

And then my notes skip to the last sections where I see a marked contrast in how Faulkner portrays the two men. Harry, during his incarceration, receives food, coffee, and the police officer stands over him passively (218). In contrast, the inmate is treated as an item on a ledger. The prison books are off, and either he must disappear or go back to prison, regardless of the fact that he turned himself in. This contrast presents an overt picture of the social order each faces, and their reactions to this force are telling.

At this point, my notes peter out. However, I find a number of key issues to consider and take away from the novel.

*Hapless submission does not necessarily equal self-preservation. For the initially (and eventually) submissive protagonists, their ability to preserve anything in their lives comes into question.

*Reading the novel as parallel and contingent stories. Doing so raises the question of reading the novel to discover the relationship between independent values and societal values about freedom and order.

*Issues of gender. Upon conception (and birth) comes the moment of cuckolding for each man. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, the couple’s incendiary love dies immediately because, as Charlotte notes, if they had loved hard enough, the baby would have been burned out of her. When the pregnant woman gives birth, the inmate is immediately removed as the object of affection in place of her baby.

*Issues of choice. The novel creates moments in which the protagonists must make choices, whether it’s Harry’s choosing to take up with Charlotte, or the inmate’s choice to continue down the river or turn himself in. These choices call into question the finite and infinite laws of “life” (culture) versus the potential for vitality the two men may be searching to find.

Also posted in Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Faulkner, Jameson, Literature, New Book

RE: "How Marriage Became Optional: Cohabitation, Gender, and the Emerging Functional Norms"

Here’s an interesting study/history on the status of marriage.

How Marriage Became Optional: Cohabitation, Gender, and the Emerging Functional Norms

J. Herbie DiFonzo 
Hofstra University – School of Law 

Rutgers Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 8, No. 3, p. 521, Spring 2011 Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 11-29
Abstract:      In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all Americans in their twenties were married. But by 2008, just over one-quarter of twenty-somethings (26%) were wed. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, married-couple family households constituted only 49.7% of all households in 2009. The Census Bureau reported in 2009 that 96.6 million Americans eighteen and older were unmarried, a group comprising 43% of all U.S. residents eighteen and older. Children’s living arrangements have also undergone substantial change. In the past generation, the percentage of children in the United States who live with two married parents has markedly declined. Although our culture is still ambivalent about families not based on genetic ties, social acceptance of a wider range of family forms has increased. This multiplicity of family structures means that marriage has become an optional arrangement for creating a family. How did this happen? And where is the American family headed, in both cultural and legal terms? This Article sketches out a framework for analysis of this central social question, and argues that family law is moving in the direction of adopting functional norms for determining family composition and adjudicating family disputes.

Also posted in Pop Culture Issues

"Black Swan" and Sexist Clichés as Usual in the Oscar Realm

I’m not a cynical, killjoy moviegoer, I promise, so bear with me.
The resonating scene that sticks with you from Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”, which has been nominated for several Oscars, is the scene when the protagonist Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dances through her opening night, performing as both the black and white swan in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” As Nina dances in the spotlight, the music rises and black feathers surrealistically begin to grow from Nina’s skin, lending to the visage of Nina about to take flight. This is a moment in which Nina realizes her dream, in-part, of being in the spotlight and rousing the crowd, the pinnacle of what many artists hope for. But her triumph is short lived. Interestingly, before she ends the ballet by falling off the “cliff” to her theatrical death she takes her own life to fully embody the dual roles she plays. As these elements come together at the film’s climax, something quite interesting occurs. The crowd goes wild as she lays on the dingy old mattress, her cohorts congratulate her, cajoling her to get up and take a bow, but then the group notices that she’s bleeding. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell), the ballet company’s artistic director says accusingly, “What did you do?” This telling yet cruel denouement resonates heavily when combined with Portman’s convincingly painful performance, and the movie’s cloyingly archaic gender clichés. We are convinced of the situation in which Nina finds herself, but there’s something about that situation that leaves us skeptical.

Aronofsky uses the fairly old film tropes that rehash themes of aspiration and artistic perfection, and create an air of fear. Among many, the ballerina movie “The Red Shoes” also tells a tail of a ballerina aspiring to performance and creative perfection who goes mad in the process. Additionally, “The Turning Point” laments on the lives of two ballerinas unsure of where their lives and careers are headed. Aronovsky also uses horror film conventions: the Lovecraftian notion of a person turning into a monster, the grotesque aspects of Nina’s rash, the classic abject mother who stiflingly over-protects her daughter, Nina’s doppelgänger, and even the psychological breakdown Nina experiences. However, all of these conventions lose out from the beginning of the film because the audience knows that Nina is simply losing what little of her sanity she has. (The audience must realize that her grasp at the movie’s start is even tenuous.) Because the audience knows that much of what assails Nina is all in her head, the horror theme evaporates into triviality. Consequently, one of the most powerful tropes in horror–the ability of horror movie characters to subvert gender rolls and power–is completely lost, which brings me to the biggest issue I find in the movie.
The film inadvertently–I would argue–makes statements on and reinforces stereotypical gender norms, which was the most off-putting part for me. Among many tropes Aronofsky uses is that of troubled mother-daughter relationship as well as the idea that women, with their assumed congenital animosity towards each other, choose to be competitive and unscrupulous enemies rather than supportive friends, or compatriots. He also appeals to a “broader”, non-ballet loving audience by introducing and showcasing Nina’s lesbian fantasy illusion. I have heard people mention and I’ve read various references to the opinion that the life of the ballerina is a stressful one, but what is Aronovsky hoping to achieve by using the stressful lives of ballerina’s as a hyperbolic metaphor for delusional perfectionism, and suicide?
There’s more to the film’s plot, though. What is the audience to make of Beth? She might serve as a cautionary figure for Nina, a catalyst for her insanity, or even both; however, Beth’s character embodies a cautionary view on what Nina faces in terms of the pressures placed on the “prima ballerina.” Nina does not learn anything from Beth and her turmoils, however. Nina creates her hell all by herself: the sounds are all in her head, the obsessive attention to perfection and success, her paranoia for the other dancers in the troupe, and even her own death are all a result of her perceptions, crazy or not. (Ironically, the theme of mirrors and what they reflect and refract is prevalent through the movie; the opening scene shows Nina darkly reflected in the window of the subway car, providing ominous foreshadowing, and the movie ends with her literally internalizing her self made [evil] image, her fear, in the form of a shard of mirror.)
The film vigorously pushes the notion that women are not equipped for success. Aronovsky propels this idea by inserting a believable element–the tough, competitive ballet environment–and provides female characters who are neurotic, show conniving tendencies, coddle to a suffocating fault, and seduce to get what they want. Aronovsky then uses the perfect male patsy figure, Thomas, to be the leader, the commanding King, who proclaims who will and won’t be in the ballet, and, who, at the film’s end, asks, dumbfounded, why Nina has killed herself. This maddening and–at the same time–silly scenario infuriated my viewing experience. Such a scenario, with its rote assessment of human character, perfectly samples the shallow world in which the characters live.
I understand that Aronofsky likes to ruminate on people’s obsessive behavior to explore how this behavior affects their success, happiness, and vitality. For example, in his previous film, “The Wrestler,” Aronovsky creates a heavily machismo character to show the man’s sad but ultimately tragic tale, a tale that centers around the lengths, albeit the obviously wrong ones, this man will go to to attempt to achieve success, acceptance, love, forgiveness, and kinship. I see the same inevitable themes in “Black Swan,” but the gender stereotypes are more pervasive. But what really gets me about the film is that Aronovsky peppers in enough realism to give the drama credibility, which draws in the audience and suspends their disbelief, but then he damns his characters by annihilating any artistic expression they might have by forcing them into neat little clichéd boxes.
Is Aronovsky really reflecting life here, or is he celebrating the inner demons of a reality propagated by solipsistic and old-fashioned society? It might be too happy a movie if Nina overcame her stereotypical psychotic behavior and silences her fears to achieve greater artistic success, and it might be dull if her mom rejoiced in Nina’s success that she herself had missed, or the movie might have been too feel-good if Thomas had incited a strong and edgy performance from Nina as the black swan without submitting her to his banal sexual advances. However, as it stands, the oppressive gender stereotypes prompt me to laugh more than find artistic epiphany. I quite liked the Oscar-worthy performances in this movie, but to say it pushes any artistic bounds already laid down would be a fanciful statement.
Also posted in Commentary, Film, Film Review

On Children and the Incitement of Horror

Children, holding with the Victorian norm, more often cute and benign, meant to be seen and not heard, so easily transform and creep into our movie theaters wielding handguns, sharp knives, and even the powers of Satan himself to unsettle us from our bourgeoisie, soporific state. Why? Why do such movies scare us so much, what’s their draw, and what’s their significance as a cultural artifact? Big questions, I know, but important ones, none-the-less.
We can understand a great deal of why the little characters in these movies incite us to throw our popcorn into the air by considering Freud’s theories of the uncanny. True, this theme has been mined quite heavily in the last, oh, forty years, but there’s something to be said for reprisals. When thinking about the horror that devil children incite, we might revisit some of Freud’s theories. First, Freud defines those things that are uncanny quite simply: those things that are unfamiliar to us. He then complicates this definition by adding the element of hospitable (warm beds, sunny days, cheerful friends) to show the contrast between that which is congenial and that which falls outside of our everyday experiences. Fearful things, ghouls, horrible dreams, frightening car accidents, and etc, fit within the inhospitable. The uncanny, therefore, as Freud describes it, is that which spans the two precipices between familiar, pleasant things and the things that unsettle us, giving way to our inability to classify or rationalize anomalies in our reasonably constructed world.

But one needs another means to explain why horror movies incite such horror in their viewers. Sure, they mix the familiar and pleasant that comes with images of children and childhood with the inhospitable and irrational that confuses and unsettles us. But there’s more. Enter Kristeva’s work on horror and the abject.

Over the course of much of her writing on horror, Kristeva refers to the notion of how children build and acquire the semiotics of their world in the Oedipal stage, which later augments how they explain the basis for their feelings of abjection, disgust, and (the obverse) jouissance as adults. But when one considers the result of children’s sign (semiotic) acquisition, which tell them that something is to be made abject, one must wonder how someone might be unbiased about what compels one towards feelings of horror. But more importantly, going back to the topic of children inciting fear in horror movies, we view something, as Kristeva refers to it in Powers of Horror, as “birth trauma.” Fear personifies itself growing from mother to child, as she describes it. This birth trauma may show itself when a child cannot make him or herself understood, whether because of the inability to speak, the prevention of speech by some outside force, or lack of effective speech communication. Good mothering and proper “uterine transfer,” as Kristeva describes it, would have prevented the lack of speech, and its breakdown creates an upset of the “bio-drive balance.”

Kristeva also recaps on Freud’s uncanny, then elaborates on his theories when she talks about how abjection differs from uncanniness. The “natural” order would stipulate that a child receive all the gifts, objects, and food, showing the child’s “failure to recognize its kin.” And this point in her theory, Kristeva gets at the prospect of lack of desire, which, for her, means that humans shed a defining attribute: desire. Those without desire become objects themselves abject to the “clean” and upright world. A child who shuns, then goes on to persecute its parents, brothers, strangers, and the world on the whole, then becomes inherently and categorically abject.

In sum, children represent the innocent, the malleable, the genesis of what we are to become, and when viewers are given the opposite, a child who rejects mother, father, the clean, the viewer receives a mimetic personification of the abject, the antithesis of norm. Sadistic, murderous, sycophant children, therefore, represent all that can tear us apart.

In no way can I list all the movies that have come out in the last 75 years that illustrate this phenomenon, but here’s a few that I always get a kick out of that also exemplify what I mention above.

Also posted in Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Film, Freud, Kristeva

Lars Von Trier’s "Antichrist": Gender and Nature as Horrorific and Instructive

Watching Lars Von Trier’s movie “Antichrist” roughly six weeks ago has left me in awe, still. I was able to witness a movie displaying many of my favorite things, namely allegorical use of theology, psycho-analytic theory, horror, the hyperbolic rise of chaos (namely, Bakhtin’s notion of carnival), subtle elements of pantheism, and gender issues. Quite obviously this movie may be too esoteric for the casual movie-goer masses. I considered this as I watched it with a friend as we guffawed and oh-my-god-ed while giving each other sideways, smirking glances over and over. I knew, though, that the movie had more to offer than the shock value that it initially displays. It was illuminating and vivid, obscure and grotesque, as well as thought-provoking and dense. Its risible aspects lessen as the viewer realizes that the story means business.

I’ve never seen a Von Trier movie, but this guy definitely knows what he’s doing, especially as he architects the brilliant cinematography to propel his story. The opening scene is both shocking and surreal, as it shows the man (Willem DeFoe) and woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) having sex (literally and in the audience’s full view), as it snows outside. The viewer gets an amazingly choreographed and beautiful scene shot in slow motion that mixes ecstasy and death as the couples small child walks out the window from two stories up into a heavenly snow scene to his death below.

After their child falls out the window and dies, He (a psychologist/therapist) wishes to help Her (getting her Masters degree in some subject having to do with medieval feminist studies, which figures heavily into the plot) get over her grieving, so he takes her to the place that she says scares her the most: Eden, their vacation home in the woods of rural Washington state.

It is when they arrive at Eden that things begin to really fall apart. The contextual order she enjoyed from her hospital room and a slow funeral procession wrought with grief and self-flagellation give way to the surreal terror the forest has to offer her. Once the couple enters Eden (an obvious analogue for the location of original sin propagated by Eve) He begins to lose his logocentric control over his wife. His science cannot aid him to unravel his wife’s, and what seems like at the forest’s behest, descent into illogical and irrational behavior. During one of their first nights at Eden the Oak trees begin to drop their acorns on the cabin’s tin roof, which thoroughly disconcerts He. Soon the noise rises to an unnatural crescendo. During this scene it seems that He is at odds with nature as it jars him literally from his dreams. He repels and is distrustful of nature, unlike his wife, who is first fearful, then embraces it completely. Quite interestingly, Her initiation seems to mirror Jack Torrance’s character in Stephen King’s The Shining, who slowly welcomes invitations to permanently join the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel. Only, She seems to be fulfilling another role, not that of the middle-class alcoholic man trying to break out of his seemingly class-bound position by writing a novel, but the role of one who wishes to unconsciously overturn her husband’s world of logic, science, and order. And this occurs, slightly.

Enter the three kings, I mean beggars. (The biblical references are overwhelming in this film.) The three beggars, as the movie subtitles call them, are denizens of the forest: a deer who represents grief (we first see the doe giving birth to a stillborn faun), a fox who represents pain (we first see this little guy disemboweled saying ‘chaos reigns’ when the couple first enter “Eden”) and a crow who represents despair (the crow’s role becomes a pivotal one at the film’s end). Considering the film’s themes of building chaos, fear of nature, grief and the supposed solution to these, science, the introduction of the three beggars seems to be a mystifying red herring. But then on the other hand the metaphors seem too easy. Could the three animals signify the biblical three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts on his birthday, solidifying his being the savior of (man)kind? In this scenario the three baggers become analogues to the female version of this mythos. I don’t know. I don’t find much conclusive evidence to support this theory, nor to disprove it, but the metaphor is there for you to do with it what you will.

I don’t want to give away the movie’s–to say the least–harrowing closing events, but they play the most influential role in regard to understanding what Von Trier may be trying to say. Many critics writing about the movie label him as a misogynist. Von Trier portrays She as a homicidal, sex crazed, grief-stricken, illogical woman, and He as a methodical and logical scientist. But what I think the element the nay-saying critics are missing is that this is a work of art, not reality. Von Trier is not lobbying to reduce women’s rights, nor is he making a statement on the culture of “women” or femininity. He’s fabricating a paradigm that the last twenty years of third wave feminist theory has been explaining, explicating, and championing, and many of these same feminist theorists would say that the themes and tropes this film furthers fit to a T the unknowingly acculturated notions that most men and women uphold; men are strong, silent methodical, and scientific as they use rationalism to solve any problem coming their way, while women are emotional, capricious, and potentially dangerous when they give themselves fully to their (gasp) emotions. These theorists would comment on the clichéd gender roles floating around in this movie, but they would also take note of the man’s position at the film’s end: alienated and in awe of the feminine nature, which becomes Von Trier’s final comment.

The friend with whom I watched the movie surmised that it was about men having to watch themselves around women, and that they had to maintain control (” you gotta keep a bitch in check!”). My take on the film, which I feel would also be the take of many gender theorists, would be that the movie serves (first) as a primer for gender divides and fears, then (second) shows the effect–in the extreme–of what occurs when these presumed gender divisions are upheld with certainty. He is left alone, alienated, having to procure sustenance from nature, but also having been purged from it by the very thing he fears: lusty non-science and il-logic.

Nature, is not what She calls it: “Satan’s church.” Although it becomes Satan’s church when one fears and reveres it as the characters do in this film. I’m not sure that this movie is even feminist, but rather destructivist of ossified gender role presumptions; it wants to highlight the points of contact we encounter in our daily lives, show the liminality of these “maxims,” instruct the audience on their fallacies, then destroy them to show that gender roles and how people interact with nature are not as concrete as most think. Really, chaos does reign, in all forms of life, which is quite the constant. Audiences may find, regardless of what horror or disgust the film induces, that the film is misogynistic at its most superficial level. The film provokes a deeply buried beast in the audience though. Freud drips from this film, and the character unspoken for at the film’s conclusion is the boy (who took the front gainer out the window because of his parents’ sexual indulgence).

Also posted in Carnival, Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Film, Film Review, Freud, Horror, Pop Culture Issues