Recommendation Round-up

1C596901-C579-4BE8-A886-959213B91D06In homage to The Atlantic‘s excellent feature, “The Week in Pop Culture Writing,” (which includes highlights from around the internet and various print publications, and which nicely complements their own “The Atlantic‘s Week in Culture” posts) and the way that Slate podcasts always conclude with the moderators’ recommendations, I’ve decided to try something similar. Not an in-depth post, but a link round-up (with block quotes) of my favorite articles I’ve read recently. Here are five that I found particularly interesting in subject and style and which include topics such as: Reality TV, Jane Austen, Mermaids, Female Authors, Crime Novels, UnREAL, The Bachelor, Higher Education, and Professor-Student Relations. (Oh, and, women, women, girls, women, and more women.)

 

1) Sophie Gilbert, “The Real Housewives of Jane Austen,” Atlantic (May 31, 2016). 

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Vittorio Reggiani / Wikimedia / Brian Bowen Smith / E! Entertainment / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic

One of the more unconventional fairytales of our time involves a brilliant schemer, famous almost entirely for her physical attributes, who finds herself a single mother after her partner abruptly departs. Intent on bettering her situation, the woman pursues the wealthy and eligible son of a noted family, several members of whom she’s already intimately involved with. His relatives panic. But the man remains besotted with the woman, whose meticulous plotting and social savvy make him ever more intent on proposing marriage to her.

The person in question is, obviously, Blac Chyna. She’s also Susan Vernon, the antiheroine at the center of one of Jane Austen’s earliest works, Lady Susan.

But what’s clear reading Austen today, or watching one of the countless adaptations of her work, is how much the women in her novels have in common with so many of the women on reality television. Her female characters are defined by two primary qualities: their privilege and their powerlessness. Her writing focuses almost entirely on women searching for stability and status, deploying the very limited means available to them. Deprived of intellectual gratification or professional empowerment, they scheme, manipulate, and get bogged down in petty rivalries with each other. Their ultimate endgame is marriage, described by Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice as the “pleasantest preservation from want.” That they do nothing of much more substantive significance (except, some of them, on rare occasions, be kind sisters or daughters) is their flaw, but also, as Austen portrays it, their fate.

The intrafemale rivalry between Liz and her sisters—a central theme in Austen, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar emphasize in their seminal 1979 feminist reading of 19th-century women writers, The Madwoman in the Attic—is also the lifeblood of reality shows featuring women; without it, most series would surely wither and die over plotlines crucially deprived of drama. Austen, Gilbert and Gubar write, explores the “hostility between young women who feel they have no alternative but to compete on the marriage market,” alert to the ways in which “female anger is deflected from powerful male to powerless female targets.”

It’s tempting to wonder what Austen’s characters would make of it all—of the women clamoring to line up for a marital cattle call on The Bachelor, or of the insults the Kardashians hurl at each other. Miss Bingley’s sniffed remark that Elizabeth Bennet is one of those women who “seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own” is cutting enough, and suggests she has more insight than she might suspect into the dynamics of female relationships in societies where men have all the power. But it isn’t quite as brutal as Kendall Jenner calling her mother “a desperate f**king whore” to her face, on television.

For Austen’s heroines, an advantageous marriage is a necessity in a world that offers them next to no other choices—a fact that radically distinguishes the 18th-century husband-hunters from today’s dating-show contestants. Without a husband, Lady Susan could very easily end up on the street. Without the ability to work or inherit property, the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility are forced to move to a tiny cottage while their manipulative sister-in-law takes over their family home. “One of the points Austen is making is that Lady Susan is just what … books advised women to be,” Tomalin writes. “She has perfectly mastered the art of using the conventions of society to get what she wants.” So, too, the best reality-show stars master the conventions of their genre—without ever seeming even slightly tempted to question them.

“Marriage is indeed a manoeuvring business,” Austen wrote in Mansfield Park, a novel in which a quiet, plain, sweet-natured girl nevertheless wins out over an evil aunt, a pretty schemer, and an adulterer, and ends up with her true love. Not something, you’ll note, that would ever happen on The Bachelor.

 

2) Lyz Lenz, “The Eternal Allure of the Mermaid,” Pictorial, Jezebel (June 27, 2016). 

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Illustration by Angelica Alzona

In looking for an answer, I feel like just another sailor, staring into the dark face of the ocean. Oceans cover almost three-quarters of the earth’s surface but remain a mystery: a watery stranger that lives beside us. We see it often and we know so little of it. We do know, however, that it must be capable of anything. And we know how, when our eyes see something we don’t understand, our minds, influenced by stories, legends, and sublimated desire, fill in the rest.

And, even more so than the ocean, the territory most open for wrongful interpretation—the most known and yet unknown—is the female body. What issues forth from us is still a mystery to people who see only their sublimated desires reflected back at them. Mermaids—the woman in the ocean, her lower parts unknown—represent an over-familiar narrative in history, of men thinking they know women, then actually knowing nothing at all. Bodies of women have been the subject of art for millennia, yet few men can tell you the difference between the vulva and the labia. The existence of the clitoris has been debated for years. (Unlike the mermaid: it exists!)

We ourselves, as women, are no strangers to confusion and ambivalence about our own territory. What’s beautiful is dangerous; what’s attractive is disgusting; what’s magic contains pain. Perhaps this explains why the myth of mermaids has yet to die off. Even women embrace this mythology—I do, in my own way.

And through my daughter, I see a glimmer of an answer to the question that baffled the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Perhaps as women, we don’t feel like we really belong here. This world of men, isn’t ours. How much easier it is to believe we are transformed creatures, walking an earth that is unknown to us. We are cursed with our legs. On land, we have no voice. But down in the water, we are suddenly free. There is a place yet uncolonized, where the danger belongs to, is perpetuated, by us.

3) D. T. Max, “Confessional: Sarah Gertrude Shaprio, The Savagely Clever Feminist Behind UnREAL” Profiles, The New Yorker (June 20, 2016).

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Illustration by Malika Favre

The show lived off the intensity of the contestants’ feelings, and to help the women focus on how much they wanted to be with the Bachelor the producers took away their phones and other links to the outside world. Levenson called it “the ‘Bachelor’ bubble.” Shapiro had to help maintain the bubble. The ambitions and the frustrations of the contestants flowed freely, fueled by the alcohol, and Shapiro found a dysfunctional home. She was oddly energized by the sordidness of her task. Hayley Goggin Avila, another producer, says, “It became a sport for her. She wanted those merit badges.” Shapiro was a feminist sadist, punishing her unenlightened sisters.

Ultimately, Shapiro concluded that the contestants were not the only ones with Stockholm syndrome. “We were all sort of crumbling from the inside out,” she says. “I was too tired and grossed out and depressed for a relationship.” She drank heavily and behaved erratically. On a road trip with Fowler, her artist friend, she hopped out of the car at Pomona College and kissed a female undergraduate on the lips. The woman ran to a “rape box”—a campus alarm system—and pulled the lever. When a security officer arrived, Shapiro kissed him, too. Shortly afterward, Shapiro told her bosses that she had to quit, adding that she planned to leave California.

She was especially haunted by the memory of a lawyer who was rejected by Jesse Palmer, the Bachelor of Season 5. Shapiro was told to extract tears in an interview. “She wouldn’t give me anything,” Shapiro remembers. Her bosses were irritated, and the crew was going into overtime, but Shapiro says she “just couldn’t get her to crack.” At 4 a.m., Shapiro got nasty: “I asked her, ‘Do you think he dumped you because you are fat?’ I knew she had food issues.” The woman began crying and hyperventilating. “I made the cameras follow her to a minivan that was waiting to take her to the airport.” The next day, the contestant called Shapiro and accused her of ruining her life. Shapiro says, “I realized what I had just done, and looked at myself—I was wearing stretched-out size-16 Gap jeans, a puffy down jacket with streaks of nacho cheese and marshmallow goo, my hair was greasy, my skin was broken out, my walkie was hanging off my belt—and I just thought, Oh, my God, I’m a monster.”

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Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Shiri Appleby (who plays Rachel Goldberg on UnREAL)

4) Terrence Rafferty, “Women Are Writing the Best Crime Novels,” The Atlantic (July/August 2016). 

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The female writers, for whatever reason (men?), don’t much believe in heroes, which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times. Their books are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence. Murder is de rigueur in the genre, so people die at the hands of others—lovers, neighbors, obsessive strangers—but the body counts tend to be on the low side. “I write about murder,” Tana French once said, “because it’s one of the great mysteries of the human heart: How can one human being deliberately take another one’s life away?” Sometimes, in the work of French and others, the lethal blow comes so quietly that it seems almost inadvertent, a thing that in the course of daily life just happens. Death, in these women’s books, is often chillingly casual, and unnervingly intimate. As a character in Alex Marwood’s brilliant new novel, The Darkest Secret, muses: “They’re not always creeping around with knives in dark alleyways. Most of them kill you from the inside out.”

In Megan Abbott’s superb new book, You Will Know Me, a young woman in her 20s reflects aloud: “The girl you were at fifteen, sixteen. Angry and nasty. Hungry for love … You’re always that girl. She never goes away. She’s inside you all the time. That girl is forever.” … French manages to crack the code because she was a girl once herself, and like the school’s headmistress, she remembers the key: “Girls like to reveal their secrets, and they like to be secretive.” Men who don’t read these books are missing some crucial information.

Thanks perhaps to the current cultural emphasis on youth—on girls in particular—many of these writers have turned their attention to the mysteries of growing up… For these writers, it’s as if girlhood were a cold case, tantalizingly unsolved… They see the darkness in there, and in themselves. They’ve come a long way from the golden age, from Christie and Sayers, from the least-likely-suspect sort of mystery in which, proverbially, the butler did it. They know better. The girl did it, and she had her reasons.

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PS: For the Proliferation of “Girl” Titles, check out this Morning Edition Interview with Megan Abbott, Sarah Weinman, and Steve Inskeep, “The ‘Girl’ in The Title: More Than a Marketing Trend,” NPR (February 22, 2016), and this brief overview in the NY Times by Alexandra Alter, “This Summer, Girls in Titles and Girls in Peril,” (May 26, 2016).

 

5) Donna Zuckerburg, “In the Culture War Between Students and Professors, the University is the Real Enemy,” Jezebel (June 27, 2016).

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Editorial Cartoon by Jacob Bogdanoff / here

Oberlin is, as one of the most liberal campuses in the country, an extreme case. But the issues that its students are responding to—racism, sexism, cissexism, elitism—are real issues that hit campuses on every level. Instructors, and especially adjuncts, are facing those very same problems. Instead of treating each other as adversaries, it might be more productive to empathize with each other. We’re battling the same kinds of discrimination. Students are fighting for their education; faculty are fighting for their jobs. Both fights are important. Both should work together much better than they currently do.

Absent all other and less relevant concerns about oversensitivity, the Western canon, and political correctness: this debate is about whether we should make our courses accessible to all students. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep talking about oversensitivity, the Western canon, and political correctness. Preparing your students for the material you plan to teach doesn’t automatically mean taking a side in those other, separate conversations.

Often ignored in the discussion of the hypothetical oversensitive student is the reality of the insensitive student, who is an equally if not more common figure in the classroom. The blank stare of that student, an undergraduate who is extremely comfortable with upsetting material, haunts me in the same way that the wagging finger of the student activist haunts the imaginations of others. Really, unless you’re at Oberlin, these apathetic students will far outnumber the student activists. This is true even at other elite schools.

Colleges like Oberlin do encourage individual expression while simultaneously grooming all of their students to belong to a single socioeconomic class—the intellectual and professional elite.

In other words, studying Antigone doesn’t just teach you about Greek drama and female political resistance. It also turns you into the kind of person who has read Antigone. Judith Butler’s book Antigone’s Claim is a classic, but there’s also been something of a feminist pushback against talking about Butler, because she’s nearly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t extensively studied feminist theory. And if we believe that feminism should be inclusive, then the intellectual elitism of Butler and Antigone can pose a problem.

Too many of us have spent an exhausting semester mediating between those two kinds of students, only to discover at the end that both gave you negative evaluations: one saying that you inappropriately allowed your personal politics to influence classroom discussion, one saying you didn’t do enough to make the classroom a safe space for everyone.

Maybe the instructor really, really deserves that bad evaluation. But students, in their attempts to protest oppression and marginalization in the university, often inadvertently perpetuate it. What students and instructors have in common is that we must participate in a system that often disproportionately punishes the very people we’re hoping to advocate for.

Student activists see insensitive faculty as the problem; contingent faculty are hostile to students because complaints can literally be the difference between making a living wage and going on food stamps. They’ve become adversaries. But really, they should be natural allies. Both have excellent reasons to be angry at universities.

The tensions on college campuses are erupting because they lie at the intersection of very real, very serious issues: systemic oppression, the corporatization of the university, increasing hostility to affirmative action and diversity initiatives. Empathy isn’t the whole answer, but it couldn’t hurt. There are no stock characters here, only human beings with painful personal histories and emotional baggage and uncertain futures.

The great Sophocles scholar Bernard Knox said that Antigone, along with many other Sophoclean heroes, is characterized by what he called “the heroic temper.” The heroic temper is a total inability to compromise or consider the viewpoints of others. For Antigone, there is no moral ambiguity, no gray area. She hangs herself, entombed, a death considered preferable to yielding. It’s a compelling story that we should teach in our universities. It’s no model for political progress or protest.

Happy reading!

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