Happy International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day! Here’s to the heroes, leaders, inspirations, and trailblazers. Here’s to all the women who navigate the complexities of an intersectional life. Here’s to the trans* women living proudly and refusing to prove their gender to anyone. Here’s to the women breaking glass ceilings and sports records and stereotypes and boundaries. Here’s to the women having it all, and acting as role models for their children. Here’s to the women making scientific breakthroughs, creating brilliant works of art, writing groundbreaking laws. Here’s to the women running the shops, working the factory floor, farming the fields, cooking the food, cleaning the offices, answering the phones. Here’s to the women working tirelessly every day in hospitals, schools, care homes, youth centers, job centers, hospices, and nurseries to improve the lives of others. Here’s to the women who consciously bring love and joy to everything they do.

And perhaps most importantly and most rarely commented on in these types of things — here’s to all of us when we’re not being heroes, when we’ve had a shit day and eat ice cream for dinner, when we lose our temper with our significant other or make a mistake at work that can’t be fixed, when we stay in our comfort zone and don’t try the hard thing, when we cry and rage and refuse to work the second shift. Here’s to us remembering that we don’t have to be super strong or super caring or super giving or super smart to deserve the admiration of others.

Here’s to us being fully human, and to the feminist and womanist movements that work to create a world that sees us as such, respects us as such, and structurally supports us as such. Here’s to us knowing that we are worthwhile just by being, and to creating a world that honors that.

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The Faith of a Woman

“The people making the rules are not the people in the kitchen.” So says my friend Leah as she explains the intricacies of kosher to a group of us as she prepared the Seder dinner for Passover on Monday. No mixing of meat and dairy, of course, but also why only matzo should be used and not regular flour, what fermentation is allowed and what is not, and so on. Some of it conflicts, or doesn’t apply to modern day life, and when we point this out, that’s when Leah points her chopping knife at us and says, “exactly.” Later, after we’ve finished the Haggadah and dug into our meal, someone asks about the rules on the Sabbath. Leah’s friend says that not only are you not allowed to turn lights on and off or make any money transaction, you can’t carry anything on the Sabbath. So, she points out, if you have a baby, you can’t carry your baby for a whole day. To get around this rule, you must be in an eruv, or ritual enclosure established by rabbis, in order to carry things on the Sabbath; this provides a literal loophole from the rule, allowing you to do basic things like care for your child. Again, Leah says, “the people making the rules are not the people in the kitchen.”

Those people making these difficult, impractical rules are, of course, men. Despite the fact that more women than men are religious worldwide, far more men than women are in positions of power and authority within any given religion (okay, except maybe for Wicca). Despite the egalitarian messages promulgated by the major world religions, every single one of them has something to say about the inferiority of women. Every single one of them has fought, or continues to fight, women’s desire for full inclusion. Roger Ebert, on his endlessly interesting blog, wrote a piece about this last December, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. He points out a couple different ways in which Catholicism in particular keeps women subordinate, and links to some videos with different takes on the issue in Buddhism, Catholicism, and Judaism.

Photo from http://roaring20sblog.wordpress.com/category/you-and-your/page/2/

Ebert’s main question is why do men have the upper hand in all religions, and his answer is bluntly, because they can. I think patriarchy’s roots are a little deeper and more complex than simply “men can physically overpower women so their word is always final,” but on some basic level, he’s right. Men have had power in just about every group of humans the world over for thousands of years, and frankly, once you get used to power, you’ll do a lot to cling to it rather than share it more fairly.

As you may recall, I’m not a particularly religious person anymore, but boy howdy was I when I was younger. I liked that there are rules, and that you have to follow them or suffer consequences—my middle school bullies suffered many agonies in my mind for their un-Christian behavior. I liked that there was a plan, that someone was in charge and knew what was going on, because I had no idea why the world functioned as it did and that freaked me out. And perhaps I had an easier time of reconciling my religious beliefs with my growing, changing mind because I went to a fairly liberal Episcopalian church. The main priest during my formative years was a woman, and I didn’t question whether that was the norm until an evangelical classmate told me my congregation was going to hell because it was led by a woman.

That stroppy boy got me thinking and questioning more deeply about the similarities and differences between his branch of Christianity and mine, and whether there were too many upsetting similarities for my comfort level. By the time I finished college, I was no longer a practicing Christian. Now I’m a Creester, showing up to Christmas Eve and Easter services only, tuning in for the beautiful music, the comforting liturgy, and the familiar community of people who raised me.

There’s the part that means so much to so many, and explains in large part why women remain committed to their religions despite the regular reminder that they are less than; it’s the community. My parents have found a community of kind, irreverent people at their church, and they wouldn’t leave them for the world. They are bound by a common belief system, but even within that there are varied thoughts on any topic you can name, from when to kneel and cross yourself to the divinity of Jesus himself. For them, it’s not how precisely they agree on every topic, but rather the willingness to return week after week, year after year, to ponder spiritual questions and share their lives with one another. They’re a beautiful group of people and one I’m proud to know and be an ancillary part of.

Still, it is ironic (yes, truly ironic) that the major religions, which have done so much to keep women down in every possible way, are full of women who defend those religions, attend their services regularly, and make them central to their lives. In that sense, religion is not the opiate of the masses that Marx so famously referenced, but rather the biggest power play ever made, and the greatest trick men ever played on women. If I think too much about the particulars, I get real furious real fast.

Which is why so many women take religion into their own hands. They return to the original texts, they seek out alternative histories and commentaries, they share what they’ve learned with one another. They ordain themselves. They convince the governing body of the religion to change its mind and ordain them.  They nurture the communities they hold so dear and seek relentlessly to find an honest place in their lives for the religion that means so much to them.

While I find it difficult to reconcile the very real oppression of women by the major religions of the world with my desire for a spiritual life in a larger community, I understand the desire to do so, and I understand the women who continue to go to services and profess belief in a faith that excludes them on a basic level. This week is Passover and Easter, and as we go through Holy Week (as it’s known in the church), I’ll be thinking of the women who grapple with these issues in their religious lives. I’ll be thinking of Mary Magdalene, the first person to see Jesus after he rose from the dead. I’ll be thinking of Miriam, the prophet some fill a glass of water for during Passover for her essential role in the liberation of the Jews. I’ll be thinking of the women who are in the kitchen and making their own rules.

Mary Magdalene and Jesus

Mary Magdalene, the faithful, the purported whore, the first to see the resurrected Jesus

Photo from http://www.lib-art.com/tag/catches.html

The Headly Surprise: Up in the Air

Welcome back to another round of The Headly Surprise! Today’s honoree is Vera Farmiga as Alex in Up in the Air. This 2009 film follows middle-aged Ryan (George Clooney) as he crisscrosses the country firing people for companies too chicken to do the firing themselves. It’s a bleak premise, and the movie carries that feeling throughout, not least because Ryan is, by nature and by habit, kind of a dick. He gives lectures on how to stay emotionally disconnected from others, and he has a trunkful of reasons why his job is helping people rather than devastating them. Of course, Ryan is played by the puppy-dog eyes and aww-whatever-I-did-I-promise-not-to-do-it-again-baby half-smile of George Clooney, so we can’t totally hate him.

Vera Farmiga Up in the Air

I ain't lookin' for love, but I am looking at you. (photo from http://www.altfg.com/blog/awards/sag-awards-2010-best-supporting-actress-7894/)

Our wayward hero meets Alex in a VIP airline lounge, and they bond over car rental discounts and credit card miles before having a passionate night in Ryan’s hotel room. They sync their calendars to meet up again in various cities around the country, as both their jobs keep them almost perpetually on the move. All goes well until Ryan’s young colleague Natalie lectures him on using Alex instead of committing to her. [**SPOILER ALERT**] Ryan feels inspired to ditch his emotionally stunted viewpoint, and he surprises Alex at her Chicago home in one of those grand romantic gestures that the movies have primed us to receive for decades. But uh oh! Alex is furious that he’s shown up, since she’s married with two kids, and he could ruin her home life with any displays of affection. Ryan returns to Omaha and his previous life a bit sadder and, of course, a bit wiser.

Alex’s Headly Surprise status rests in the way the movie handles this big reveal. There’s no commentary on how her cheating is immoral, or how it makes her a bad mother. In fact, the movie does a neat job of setting Alex up to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, there to help Ryan find himself without having her own personality, needs, or desires; it then inverts those expectations by showing that this part of her life, which is so central to Ryan and the movie, is merely in her periphery. Her real life is with her family, and Ryan, fond as she is of him, is just an escape.

And she made no bones about that. Sure, she never told Ryan she was married, but from their first encounter, she sets up their boundaries so they’re both on the same page; she wants a no-strings-attached, uncomplicated, passionate affair. This is what Ryan wants too, and it’s why they work so well together, at least until he starts to fall in love with her. Then Natalie gives him that push over the edge into acknowledging his feelings and suddenly he doesn’t just want a passionate affair anymore.

About Natalie’s speech: she’s not wrong to tell a grown man to stop leading a woman on and tell her how he really feels and take steps toward building a life with her. She just happens to be wrong in this instance because she doesn’t know what Ryan does, namely, that Alex explicitly said what she did and did not want. Alex even expresses this at the end of the movie, saying how surprised she is at Ryan’s hurt, since she never said she wanted more than what they had and she’d thought they were on the same page with that.

This is a wonderful example of listening to what a woman says instead of listening to what you think she means, or what you want to hear. We are far too ready in these United States to dismiss a woman’s words as game playing or indecisiveness, rather than her actual thoughts and feelings. This has very real and dangerous consequences, of course–see all the men who stalk women who have told them they aren’t interested, or the men who rape women who say no, or the legislators who tell women that they don’t really want an abortion no matter what they say. There are other, less physically harmful, consequences to this line of thinking, too, like assuming a woman must be coyly angling for a commitment when she says she needs no such thing. This robs women of their agency and reinforces the idea that they’re untrustworthy, scheming beings instead of autonomous individuals fully capable of making their own decisions and expressing their own desires. If our needs and wants aren’t heard when we plainly state them, it’s no wonder some women start speaking in the code that’s expected of us, just to eventually get the desired result one way or another.

Anyway, Ryan is clearly upset by what he sees as Alex’s betrayal, but he doesn’t argue with her that she was anything but upfront about their relationship. The film honors her character as a three-dimensional person who makes the possibly ill-advised decision to cheat on her husband without punishing her explicitly. It hurts her to lose Ryan, but we get the sense that her life will carry on without him pretty well, and she’ll maybe think of him wistfully in a hotel here and there. That kind of complex characterization is rarely afforded to women who cheat in film; they’re usually shown as sluts or too simpleminded to make up their minds about which man to love more. Alex knows which man she loves and builds a life with, but she’s not above finding some good times on the side as she travels for one-third of the year. She’s not perfect, but she’s not a devil, and for that, she earns The Headly Surprise.