Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hell, Yes: Women’s History Relevant All Year

I came across this article today from The Centre Daily Times in Pennsylvania, written by Nalini Krishnankutty. Entitled Women's History Relevant All Year, it does a nice job of breaking down the basic issues involving the status of women in the United States. Her number one question goes something like this: "Doesn't it tell us something that women are a majority of the population but still a minority in government leadership?"

This is a bottom-line fact that feminists never forget -- when a majority of the population play a minority role in representative government, something is wrong. Equality has not been reached. Yet, some people in the men's movement tend to assume right off the bat that equality has been obtained, and not only that, men are now at a disadvantage. Riiight. What's scary is that many who say these things, truly believe them. Um yeah, maybe your male privilege is showing? And it's a privilege so powerful and blinding, by the way, that you might not even be aware of it?

Krishnankutty also reminds us that the theme of the 2009 Women's History Month was "Women Taking the Lead to Save our Planet," and highlights the women scientists and ecofeminists who have consistently been at the forefront of the environmental movement, including Ellen Swallow Richards, Maria Sanford, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Rachel Carson, Grace Thorpe, and Vandana Shiva. All except Shiva, who Krishnankutty focuses on herself, were acknowledged by President Obama in his Women’s History Month proclamation. Check it out... it's a good read.

And check out Krishnankutty's article if you get the chance. It's a simple yet effective example of how mainstream and accessible feminism can be.

Here's also a blog post by Krishnankutty I found thought-provoking: Could Gender Diversity Have Lessened the Financial Crisis? Interesting stuff.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Quotes of the Day

"In nature's economy the currency is not money, it is life." -- Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." -- Aldo Leopold

"The greatest support for the feminist, antipatriarchal movement can be found in the ecological movement." -- Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth

"The earth which sustains humanity must not be injured, it must not be destroyed." -- Hildegard of Bingen

Happy Earth Day!

Spinoza the squirrel says, "Too bad every day can't be Earth Day!"

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Being Erica: A Feminist Review

I have a new TV addiction: Being Erica. If you haven't heard of it, it's an hour-long drama produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and airing on Canadian television since early January. Here in the States, I've been watching it on SoapNet, where it has quickly absorbed the Thursday night anticipation I usually reserve for Grey's Anatomy (a show that has steadily slipped in my must-see lineup the last couple years). Being Erica airs on SoapNet Thursdays at 10/9 Central.

The premise is this: Erica Strange, a 32-year-old single Jewish woman living in Toronto, periodically goes back in time to address the regrets of her life. In this endeavor she is assisted by her psychiatrist, Dr. Tom, who acts as a mentor-type character, showing up in various disguises and roles to offer her words of wisdom. He's been a janitor, bondage-style bouncer, dog-walker, and all-around lurker, in addition to his usual place behind a huge desk in a huge, dim, musty office where Erica sits opposite him during their sessions, entering and exiting abruptly due to her time-traveling (which he instigates).

Although I haven't even gotten into exactly what I like about the show yet, this is perhaps the one aspect I don't like about it. Although Dr. Tom has his enjoyable moments, overall the positioning of an older male as Erica's spiritual/psychiatric mentor creates a creepy paternalistic vibe that brings to mind the unhappy history of women being subjected to male psychiatrists who supposedly understand them better than they understand themselves. See Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, or the character of Betty Draper in the first season of the TV series Mad Men. And if Erica and Dr. Tom somehow end up together at the end of all this, that would probably ruin the entire show for me. I don't think that's going to happen, but still, yuck.

That said, there is a lot I love about this show. One of the blurbs SoapNet likes to flash around compares it to Sex and the City. I don't really agree with this, however, though it's not necessarily a bad thing. But Sex and the City was clearly a show focused on opposite-sex relationships and same-sex friendships, rather than the influences of family or life choices as a whole. Carrie was the main character, nudged slightly ahead of the other three friends, but it felt like you really only knew her through a certain scattered lens, and saw her from one particular angle that presented an incomplete picture of the character. (Did she have siblings? Did she go to college?) And of course, there was all that shoe shopping.

The character of Erica Strange feels more holistic to me... and less superficial. For one thing, Erica has a family. And that (often troubled) family takes center stage just as often, if not more so, than any of her romantic interests. We learn that Erica had an older brother Leo who died thirteen years ago; not long after that, for multiple reasons, her parents divorced. Erica also has a younger sister Sam, and the ups & downs of their sister relationship, as well as the mother-daughter/father-daughter angles, has been a major part of the family storylines. And because of the time travel flashbacks, we are able to get to know the brother Leo and see his relationship with Erica and the rest of the family. There's also a bit of a mystery angle here, since we don't have complete information at all times, and details of the past fill in gradually. As a result, the family element feels complex and layered.

The show also deals quite a bit with Erica's struggle to find a career path she can be happy with. One of the main issues examined here is how do you reconcile your true self with the compromises you often have to make in order to be successful? Erica regrets that she wasn't as cutthroat and ambitious in college as she could have been -- as a literature major, she was more into cultivating her interests, writing poetry, and finding herself, rather than lining up a solid job future. (As an English major myself, I can totally relate to this.) Yet, when she goes back in time to do just that, she finds she is unable to force herself to be someone she's not.

And then there's the romantic level -- yes, I won't lie, it's there. This is a fairly mainstream-type show, so of course the love plot is going to be hanging around. What I like, though, is how it hasn't overwhelmed the other plots, and also how Erica is neither desperate to get married nor wildly commitment phobic. The object of her affection is long-time college pal Ethan, who has either been dating someone else or married the entire time they have known each other. In the present time, he has separated from his wife and moved into Erica's apartment building, making it seem like an opportune moment for something to happen between them. So far, however, not much has. They've kissed, once; almost immediately after, Ethan's wife Claire shows up and those two sort of patch things up. Erica then starts dating another guy, Ryan, who likes her a lot -- a bit more, even, than she likes him. This all results in a fairly mild love triangle that smacks more of awkward real life than anything else.

All in all, this love plot seemed pretty heterosexist until the most recent episode, entitled Everything She Wants. In it, while in the midst of exploring her feelings for both Ethan and Ryan, Erica revisits her best friend from graduate school, Cassidy -- a relationship she describes as "one step short of a love affair." This made me sit up and take notice, as I thought for the first time the show might really surprise me in terms of where the love plot was going.

Cassidy is a lesbian who makes no secret of her feelings for Erica; in the process of going back in time and intending not to lead Cassidy on (as she did before, which led to them never speaking again), Erica realizes that her feelings for Cassidy were indeed real and intense, and that she did in fact reciprocate on a romantic level. And in spite of Erica insisting to everyone that she's straight, over and over, her feelings seem to lead her in the other direction, until she and Cassidy are stripped down to their bras in front of each other.

And while there did seem to be a small amount of male voyeurism going on, it was not at all the impetus of the storyline. Ethan walks in on them accidentally, but the incident is pretty much absent of any "whoa-ho!" girl-on-girl moments, as he's really more gently concerned about why his best friend never told him she was gay (which she still insists she's not); in general Ethan doesn't make a big deal out of it. And Dr. Tom is the one who sort of pushes Erica away from her stubborn declarations that she's straight -- "Labels are for cans, not people," he says -- though because of their unsettling shrink-patient dynamic, that advice doesn't come off as admirable or innocent as maybe it should. But in spite of these moments, overall I would say that the Erica-Cassidy attraction was presented in good faith, as being about those two people alone -- and their feelings for each other -- as well as the implied fluidity of sexual orientation. Which was pretty cool, I thought.

That said, I found that the Cassidy storyline broke down just when I thought it was getting promising. For instance, the word "bisexual" was never one uttered. There was always the sense that you were either gay or straight, even though Erica's actual experiences with Cassidy, contrasted with the two guys (all of whom she cared about, and cared about her), seemed to scream otherwise. Also, the general theme behind the episode was unrequited love, more so than really examining the fluidity of sexual experience. By the end, it was about "all or nothing" commitments, and not really about Erica being more open to partners of different genders. Going into the episode, I was hopeful it might change the direction of the love plot entirely, but by the conclusion, the Cassidy arc felt more like a one-time, one-shot occurrence that probably won't be revisited. Still, I'm glad they went there, and maybe in the long run I'll be surprised, after all.

Turning to pure entertainment value for a second, one thing I enjoy immensely about this show is the use of music and current events from the different time periods Erica revisits. This taps into a nostalgic angle that I can't help but be sucked into, being 30 years old myself (Erica is 32). So far, these past mileposts/events range from the late 1980's when she returns to her Dirty Dancing-themed Bat Mitzvah where her overweight gay uncle serenades her in a Patrick Swayze-style boogie, to the mid-2000s when she and her sister get stranded at a house party during the East Coast blackout of August 2003. These incidents range from thematically resonant to absurdly comic, the latter evident in choices such as highlighting the Y2K parties of 1999, a quip about Chumbawamba totally not being a one-hit wonder back in 1997, or Erica reciting a bit of a Britney Spears' song (pre-"Baby One More Time") rather than the poem she actually wrote, and the irony of how the pretentious, verbally abusive creative writing professor loves the plagiarized "Baby One More Time" more so than her actual work.

Overall, Being Erica has its flaws, but actress Erin Karpluk makes Erica shine -- I find her to be an extremely endearing, likable actress who, along with the writers, creates a character absent of most female stereotypes. She is neither virgin nor whore, angel nor bitch, tomboy nor fashionista. And in the context of mainstream television, where shows are still rarely centered around one female character, I find Being Erica thoughtful, funny, and refreshing in its willingness to examine the joys, heartaches, and regrets of a single, 30-something woman trying to navigate her way through life on her own terms and in her own way.

Are other people watching this show? If so, what do you think of it?

Crossposted at Library Cat.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Iowa Comes Through!

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage today -- unanimously. Iowa therefore becomes the third state to legalize gay marriage after Massachusetts and Connecticut (and of course briefly California, before the Prop 8 train wreck).

New Hampshire and Vermont are also closing in; Vermont's gay marriage bill passed both houses of the legislature, although it is now threatened by the governor's promised veto.

The fact that this occurred in Iowa of all places shocks some people (even in the Midwest, I would guess). But in terms of mainstreaming the marriage equality movement, the Iowa decision feels like a significant step forward in that it comes from the literal and metaphoric middle of the country, rather than one of the coasts. Are these really "activist" judges at work, as the anti-marriage folks claim? Really? Even in a unanimous ruling in Iowa? Maybe it's time the antis realize that equal protection under the law is a basic tenet of democracy, and not some radical, out-there idea.

And while I feel it is somewhat common for liberals to stereotype Midwesterners as ultra-conservative, bigoted, backwoods rednecks (which we all are NOT, btw... MN, WI, & IL especially tend to be BLUE states in presidential elections, with a long history of progressive politics), I've also noticed that some Midwesterners scoff at the lawmaking on the coasts as if it were happening in a foreign, dystopic land (whatever the issue). So I think a decision like this not only shows other parts of the country that the Midwest cares about civil liberties; it also shows many in the Midwest that they are indeed part of a larger American movement based on foundations of civil rights, human dignity, and social justice. Not just some "kooky" idea hatched in L.A. or N.Y.C.

Read the full opinion of the Iowa court here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Norma Gay" Protests Prop 8

Earlier this week, comedian Kathy Griffin protested Prop 8 a la Sally Field in the film Norma Rae, and quite frankly, it was awesome. She said her friends call her Norma Gay. Hilarious. Watch the full speech here.