Monthly Archives: March 2015

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

I ordered Tiny Beautiful Things and my mom was visiting when I got it. So, she read it first and kept saying out loud, “You need to read this.” She even marked a few passages for me. I watched the movie adaptation of Wild about a month earlier, but could never get into the book. Tiny Beautiful Things was not hard to get into. It takes right off.

I started reading it after my mom went home. I’m not sure if there was one catalyst, or just all the things, but I was an emotional wreck during the few weeks it took me to read the book. I sent frantic texts to my long-suffering bff, and I droned on and on to my dear, long-suffering mother, and I even sobbed a little on the phone with Z, who either suffers most or least of all.

I read and quietly sobbed the duration of a long, cross-country flight. People on either side of my armrests humanely ignored me. The flight attendant retrieved a fistful of tissues for me. Clearly, I’m going through some stuff, and I think it was the potent cocktail of heartache, family, fear, love, effort, HUMANITY!, and Tiny Beautiful Things that created a big emotional purge.

Here are two quotes that meant something to me:

  • On partnering: “This is called intimacy. This is called fuck yes. When people do this with us, it’s an honor” (197).
  • On doing crazy things for love: “Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. Its’ worthy of all the hulabaloo” (219).

Is the book any good? I think it is good. It might be good like wine and ice cream are good: indulgent. I think there’s some useful stuff there. Cheryl Strayed turns herself inside out, revealing her most intimate and painful stories, and in doing so, we readers see the universality of our most painful and humiliating experiences, but also the universality of love, passion, of falling in love. In this book of advice, Strayed convinced me again that the heady passion between two people is rare and real and beautiful and possible and sacred, and I so, so need to believe that right now.

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Hysteria directed by Tanya Wexler

File this under sherewin sees another mainstream movie and interprets it as horror, but I finally saw Hysteria the other night, and it was just so bad. It’s a film about the invention of the vibrator, which was used to treat hysteria about a century and a half ago in England. At the time, the clitoris had not yet been “discovered” and medically it was “known” that women didn’t orgasm and could only experience pleasure from penis penetration. This is a film that had so, so much potential, but it completely failed.

image from wikipedia.com

image from wikipedia.com

Maggie Gyllenhaal is in equal parts irresistibly charming, light, airy, and funny, laughing easily—too easy—at every little thing, but also understandably angry at the rampant sexism all around her. The audience is supposed to wonder if she has hysteria, but the modern audience knows that she does not, and so the back and forth between moods just seems forced and works as a barrier to getting to understand any nuance in her character. (The accent’s pretty tough too.)

It should go without saying that this is supposed to be an erotic film. It doesn’t have to be a porno, but it should be at least a little bit erotic. There are political and historical aspects to the film that allow it to remain solidly in the mainstream, but it is also about vibrators, and orgasms, and female sexuality, and, while I’m sure they were trying not to go beyond an R rating (it really should’ve been PG-13), there was absolutely nothing erotic about this film.

Of the women who go in for the treatment of hysteria, two are spotlighted in the film closely. One is an older woman and her orgasms are portrayed with a physical kind of humor. Her sexuality is portrayed as absurd, ridiculous. The underlying message is that she’s just an old woman trying having a good time. Her sexuality, her hysteria, the conditions that brought her to the doctor’s office is not taken seriously. Though what’s at stake for this woman is institutionalization or worse if her hysteria cannot be effectively treated. People’s lives are at stake. The other woman is fat, so she too is portrayed humorously, singing opera as she orgasms. These two women are portrayed as safe, silly, unsexy women (though of course old and fat women can be dangerous! serious! sexy!). In that way, the filmmakers totally let us down.

Of course, if they had portrayed a more conventional looking bombshell having a more erotic looking orgasm, they might’ve lost their R rating, despite the fact that the women are heavily clothed (as was the style at the time), they are covered by a cloth covered box, which they stick their legs into, and no skin is shown whatsoever. The relationships portrayed in the film are not at all sexual either. They’re confused and dysfunctional. That this film got an R rating is a testament to the resistance toward what would happen if a woman was empowered enough to unapologetically express her sexuality.

I wanted this film to do so much. I wanted it to speak to the historical, the political, and the sexual. These themes are still so very relevant today as women are denied legal control over their bodies in various way. The film should have been a drama. Instead, it is a contrived romantic comedy, minus the romance and minus the comedy. In making it a romantic comedy, it seems they took the easy way out. Any stars this film might get come directly from the title and the concept, which are provocative and important. Sadly, the film itself in no way lived up to that potential.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

I have a [smart] friend who thinks Lena Dunham’s work is bad, irresponsible. We go rounds on this because I love her and think that he’s too caught up on having morally good, heroic main characters. He says I’m missing the point. Dunham’s work is shrouded in controversy, but if you’re a fan of her show Girls, you’ll definitely like Not That Kind of Girl. In fact, if you just sort of like her show, you’ll still like her book. Lena Dunham’s work is so incredibly personal and vulnerable and embarrassing and painful, and human. I identify with her so much.

First, I am fascinated with the way she deals with first/early sexual experience. It is the most honest depiction of the kinds of sexual experiences people have in their late teens and early twenties. It can be weird, awkward, and embarrassing. People are unsure about what to do where and for how long. There are strange acts that exist solely because porn tells us that’s what people do for pleasure, even if very few people are doing that thing for pleasure. I actually think this is unavoidable for the most part because there are very few activities that are comparable to coupled sex. In the process, mistakes are made and confusion abounds. Young women are in a constant negotiation with owning and expressing their sexuality, while simultaneously figuring out where the media pressures and social expectations end and where their own pleasure and desire begins. [By the way, I think this is true for men, too, but I don’t read much about it.] So, that’s important.

She’s also balancing art and social commentary, which can be weird and bad, but she does it well. One could easily assume that her work is this off the cuff confessional style, and it is, but there is also real artistry in her work. She has a deep familiarity with language and a knack for creative expression through  her writing. My expectation is that she will continue to write books, and they will be revolutionary, yes, and will only improve from a literary perspective.

Now, let me address the whole scuttlebutt over childhood sexual abuse when the book first came out. I assumed that it would be honest and artfully done, and even be good in that it would help us to think more critically about childhood sexuality. I wanted to read it first before forming my opinion, and after reading it, I thought it was good and important, and did the thing of making us think openly about childhood sexuality. The story is weird, and a bit uncomfortable, but true and not abuse, in my opinion. You can bet that Dunham thinks about consent and abuse because they are major themes in her work.

While I am highly invested in the topic of female sexuality, obviously, Dunham covers other ideas that resonate with me so strongly. Like, there are people who love people, and people who can’t stand to be alone, and people who are curious about other people [I might fall into that last category], but usually I have, as Dunham states, “the nagging sense that my true friends are waiting for me” (xiii). I have met some of my true friends, and when we meet, and recognize each other, there is much rejoicing! I love these people. They are my forever friends and lovers. But, they number so few I can count them on my hands, and I often feel lonely or out of place, wishing that I could be with one of my people when I’m tired of being alone. Lena Dunham—she gets me.

image from vogue.com

image from vogue.com

Here are some quotes I highlighted:

  • “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman” (xvi).
  • “He was nervous, and, in a nod toward gender equality, neither of us came” (7).
  • “This was the time in life before I learned it wasn’t considered appropriate by society at large to like yourself” (34).
  • She quotes Joan Didion: “There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation” (38).
  • A list from a relationship…”One very unnecessary pregnancy test” (54).
  • “Wherever you go, there you are” (69). An old favorite.
  • “After several interactions in which he questioned my authority and pretended not to hear me speaking, it was clear he was my type” (71).
  • “I had broken up with him on my seventh try, and one try didn’t even count because all I could muster was “I love you” (76).
  • On meeting her love: “Look, there is my friend” (76).
  • “…desire is the enemy of contentment” (143).
  • “You will find,” she says, “that there’s a certain grace to having your heart broken” (144).
  • “…you’ll see that later and be very, very proud” (262).

And so many others.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I just finished Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit over the course of a few evenings. It’s a *heavy* read, but it’s composed of short, manageable essays. The first most noticeable thing about this book is that it is not funny. There is absolutely nothing funny or lighthearted about it, and that was a surprise. The title is sort of funny, and alludes to “mansplaining,” which is terrible and indicative of larger social issues surrounding gender, but it’s also sort of funny. The title is not a good indication of the book.

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

Solnit is unrelenting in her depiction of the “longest war,” a war on women. Reading it was overwhelming—a reminder of the violence and disdain lobbed at women by our society. The statistics were staggering. Having heterosexual relationships with men seemed increasingly fraught for both genders. I was left wondering how we navigate these weird power dynamics in our most personal relationships. I felt overwhelmed by the violence. I felt overwhelmed by the reminders of the constraints I face each day as a woman.

For example, each day before dark, I try to accomplish all tasks that require me to walk any distance alone or through a parking lot. Every day, I, mostly subconsciously at this point, plan my day with safety in mind. When I overtly think about these habits, it makes me sad that I live in such a violent world, and it makes me sad that safety has to be such an underlying factor in my daily decisions. Surely this has unknown negative effects. Solnit writes, “My feminism waxed and waned, but the lack of freedom to move through the city for women hit me hard and personally at the end of my teens, when I came under constant attack in my urban environment and hardly anyway seemed to think that is was a civil rights issue” (128). Solnit argues for an emphasis on turning the lens on men and why they are so frequently the perpetrators of violence, opposed to giving women the sole responsibility of preventing violence. This “Top 10 Tip to Avoid Rape” meme has made the rounds and points out the profound role that men (obviously) play in “rape culture.”

image found here

image found here.

Like Solnit, I wonder why these problems are not viewed as a deeper crisis and as a civil rights issue. In recent years, I have felt a real personal fear as politicians have made absolutely horrifying, and often scientifically inaccurate, claims about women’s bodies. As the Hobby Lobbys and various right wingers argue about what I can and cannot do with my own body, for the first time, it has felt very personal and very stifling.

Of course, the reaction to these issues is often, yes, but “not all men.” And, Solnit carefully dedicates sections of each chapter, writing “not all men, but…” This is unfortunate. We can’t just talk about this issue without spending a lot of time reassuring men and women that not all men are bad. In so many ways it seems like this reassurance is also indicative of the problem. It’s a problem that we literally can’t even talk about women’s issues without spending a good deal of time reassuring men and talking about men and turning the focus, even just briefly, back to men. On the other hand, they’re half the population, and they’re our partners, fathers, brothers, and friends, and so it makes sense that we can’t talk about women without spending some time also talking about men.

The book isn’t entirely matched thematically, and she delves into some literacy criticism, as a way to address the larger social problems that she unpacks earlier in the book. She wrote of a criticism that “does not put the critic against the text” (101). In her exchange with Susan Sontag, Solnit writes that “you don’t know if your actions are futile; that you don’t have the memory of the future” (93). This is in response to Sontag’s assertion that resistance is required, even if it is futile, and maybe it is always futile.

On Woolf, Solnit writes of a botanist that had “a knack for finding new species by getting lost in the jungle, by going beyond what he knew and how he know it, by letting experience be larger than his knowledge, by choosing reality rather than the plan” (96), and I love this idea so much. For living life, for finding new ideas, for creating art. I am such a planner and a researcher, and I love the idea of this kind of purposeful method (which, yes, requires planning and research). I love the idea of using this method as a means of discovery, rather than following what is known: “a compass by which to get lost” (106).

Of measurement and discovery, Solnit also writes about “the tyranny of the quantifiable,” which is “the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot” (104-105). This has been a frustration for me lately. Working in bureaucracies, and within high education, too often means a singular focus on the quantifiable, on the assessable. When other ways of being or knowing are scoffed at as being dangerous, even life-threatening, we are limited by what we can do as dreamers, thinkers, creators, and teachers.

This book reads up so quickly and so powerfully that there’s really no reason not to read it. Afterward, you can spend some time thinking through what it all means for gender, relationships, and the way men and women exist in the world. I think I’ll even pick up her other book, Wanderlust because it is about walking and maybe other things too.