Tag Archives: Feminism

Review: Prague Winter

Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright
Prague Winter
by Madeleine Albright

Title: Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948
Author: Madeleine Albright
Published: 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-203031-3
Publisher: Harper Collins

I have long admired Madeleine Albright, the first woman to become Secretary of State in the US.  To rise to that level and make a difference seems to me to be an astonishingly difficult job.  To do it as a woman raises the difficulty scale even higher.

In The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, Albright discusses the role religion has played in world affairs, something that isn’t going to go away any time soon.  She also reveals hard truths about herself, including the fact she didn’t know she had lost relatives to the Holocaust or that she was, in fact, Jewish.

Prague Winter is a product of Madame Secretary’s research into her own history, which is intertwined inextricably with Czechoslovakia and World War II.

This is not an easy book to read.  This is well-researched, often emotional, retelling of one little girl’s life as Hitler rose to power and began to exterminate millions of people.  Albright was only a child, but her memories, backed up with research, make for sorrowful reading.

Focusing on Czechoslovakia and its struggle to remain a united, independent country in the face of internal divisiveness between Czechs and Slovaks, and the onslaught of Nazis and Communists under Stalin, Albright’s story reminds the reader that nothing, truly, is every simple when zealots and ideologues are in charge.

She is fair in her assessment, through the long lens of history, that decisions made by Western leaders, while short sighted, were what politics of the time demanded.  Neville Chamberlain will always be remembered as an appeaser, but what is rarely discussed is the force of Hitler’s personality and his ability to fool people into thinking he was a reasonable human being who simply wanted to strengthen Germany in the face of the disempowering Versailles treaty of World War I.

Albright’s story is one of heartbreak, and agony.  It’s also an important story to know, because the true atrocities of Hitler and Stalin often get masked by the statistics and overwhelming amount of information available.  Madeleine Albright’s story is about one family, and one country’s struggle during World War II.  It puts into perspective the horrifying truth of what it is to be “other,” when that means certain death.s to change.

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Review: Hitler’s Furies

Hitler's Furies by Wendy Lower
Hitler’s Furies
by Wendy Lower

Title: Hitler’s Furies
Author: Wendy Lower
Published: 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0547-86338-2
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Wendy Lower focuses on the women in Eastern Poland serving the Nazi regime during World War II.

While narrow, this exploration of women’s roles in the bureaucracy of the Third Reich is grimly fascinating.  All roles from civilians through low-level administrators to those with access to the powerful men who made the decisions are covered.

What was it like to live during this horrific period of time in Europe?  And what was it like for women whose roles were limited both by the Nazis, and their gender?  70 years after the end of World War II, a multi-disciplinary list of researchers and readers are still trying to come to grips with the horror of the Holocaust.  I find myself strangely fascinated by it and, like so many others, keep asking the question, “How could this happen?”

Despite the sometimes salacious, gossipy nature of the narrative, Wendy Lower offers a look at women in history that has only begun to be researched.  Most women who served the Nazis were looked over or not taken seriously because of their gender.  Yet, here are more examples than I could care for of women who were closely involved in the banal bureaucracy which kept the camps running.

As with all books having to do with atrocities, the sheer horror described can be nightmare inducing.  There’s no getting around that if one wants to know what happened.

Hitler’s Furies is not for everyone.  But I do believe it covers an important, often overlooked, facet of Nazi bureaucracy.  The world needs to know what happened then, because something like is happening now.

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Review: We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Title: We Should All Be Feminists
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published: 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1-101-91176-1
Publisher: Anchor Books

Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problems of gender. … It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.  (p. 41)

This is a little book I want to send everyone I know.  But especially the young women.    It’s also hard to choose just one quote to use in a review.  I found myself wanting to quote the entire essay.

Based on her TedTalk, Adichie’s essay is rich and powerful.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s perspective is that of black woman who has experienced sexism in both her home country of Nigeria, and in America.  She addresses herself to the men she encounters and explains what it feels like to be looked upon as an object, especially by those who have experienced other forms of oppression – like racism.

I identify as a white woman born to a certain amount of privilege because of my whiteness.  There was much to learn from Adichie about being a black woman.  And many things she says about sexism and the need for feminism resonate deeply.

This essay touches on the many ways sexism is normalized in all parts of society; from schools appointing only boy class monitors to corporations with mostly men on their boards and how marriages can be affected by this normalization.

This little book is something I’ll be reading again, and again.  Adichie’s eloquence is something to savored, and thought over as we continue to confront the issues of gender equality around the world.

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Review: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility
by Jane Austen

Title: Sense and Sensibility
Author: Jane Austen
Published: 1811
ISBN-10: 0-141-43966-1
Publisher: Penguin Classics

Jane Austen’s tale of the family Dashwood, and their prospects after husband and father, Henry, dies is a commentary on the class system in England.

Austen really does not like the way in which the society she lives in sets expectations for each other, most especially, the young, unmarried women.

While first published in 1811, Austen’s themes resonate across two centuries.  Women are held to impossible standards, and always found wanting.  Austen’s main theme is that of sense vs. “sensitivity.”

Is it better to be sensible and logical where emotions, and love, are concerned?  Better to not show emotion and to explain hurt by others away by the use of logic?  Or is being sensitive to others’ feelings and wearing one’s heart on the sleeve a better approach?

While reading Sense and Sensibility, I kept wondering about “the middle path.”  One in which both sisters are allowed to be both logical and show their emotions, rather than this tug of war of trying to measure up to society’s expectations.

Which, of course, is the point.  There is no “middle path.”  Women must pick a path and stick with it in order to please both those of her class and any potential suitors.  Things are better in some ways now, but it’s still difficult for both men and women to live up to the expectations laid upon them by rigid societal mores.

Austen is worth reading, both for her commentary and for her sharp observations into human nature.

Review: minor characters

Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
Minor Characters
by Joyce Johnson

Title: Minor Characters
Author: Joyce Johnson
Published: 1983
ISBN-10:  0-671-72790-7
Publisher: Washington Square Books

The women didn’t mind, or, if they did, they never said – not until years later.  (p. 218)

To be a woman is difficult in any era, but to be an independent, creative, curious woman is especially difficult.  In the 1950’s, after World War II, gender roles were supposed to be fairly well established.  But things were starting to rumble a little.  Change was stirring.

Really, the story of the Beat Generation begins in the late 1940s, when a confluence of personalities and talents converged at Columbia University in New York City.  It was there the big names began to meet and discuss a new way of writing, and of being.

A teenaged girl named Joyce Johnson lived in a “respectable” neighborhood with her “respectable” parents.  And, around the age of thirteen, this “respectable” girl rebelled.  She went to places young girls shouldn’t go, and met people who opened her mind.  These people led to the Beats; Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac among them

Minor Characters is Johnson’ memoir centered around the years 1957-58, when she was Kerouac’s sometime girlfriend.  She tells a story many can relate to, being attracted to someone who can’t reciprocate at the same level.

Much has been written about the Beat Generation writers.  The men, that is.  Not so much has been written about the women.  Especially not much about the way women were treated.  Johnson’s story about being in the middle of that maelstrom is fascinating.

She relates how women were discounted by the men.  The usual story; taken for granted, belittled, not taken seriously, etc. etc.  Her story could be the story of so many women, but what makes it stand out is that it happened with a group of men who are revered for their open-minded views about all sorts of things.  They were especially interested in changing the rules of writing, and literature.  But women were only for amusement, or housekeeping.

And as Joyce Johnson, reiterates, the women stood for it.  Because as many generations of women will say, “we thought that’s what we had to do.”  To find love, to find a life partner, meant a woman had to put up with the meanness of her beau’s foibles.

Here is a book in which the woman, after two years of evasion and half-truths, said, “No.  Go away” to Jack Kerouac.  Joyce Johnson told Jack Kerouac, she was tired of his crap and to leave her alone.  Brava!  and Well Done!

The pain of this decision is clear, as is the need for something healthier, something more equitable, more loving.  To be sure, the most famous names were men who were hard to love, under any circumstances.  Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady; all charismatic and difficult.  Horrible in their actions, negligent in their search for self-awareness.  Of them all, Ginsberg is the one who consistently appears to exert a great deal of effort to become familiar with himself.

While the Beats were changing the way America read and wrote, literature, Joyce Johnson was changing the way women looked at the men with whom they were in relationships.  Her story is well-told, and a fascinating look at the minor characters who also played a part in the Beat Generation.

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Review: Minions

The Minions Movie
The Minions Movie

I have loved the little yellow absurdities known as the Minions since Despicable Me.  I giggle at their antics and their lovable interactions with the three adopted girls, Margo, Edith, and Agnes.

Are there problems with the movies?  Yes.  Sexist tropes by the handful, stupid scatological jokes, and mean parents, and violence to name a few.

And okay, I get that there are huge problems with the gender stereotyping in Minions.  My friend, Melissa, at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies has a great article about the problems of gender in animated movies, in general, starting with specific issues with Minions.

When Melissa first brought this up on Facebook, I was a little chagrined that I hadn’t actually noticed.  Minions have always been genderless, or gender-fluid to me, so the fact the three main minions were named Kevin, Stuart and Bob just kinda flew by me.  Yeah, okay they’re male names but honestly, I didn’t see anything particularly male about them.  Except Bob.  Bob has always been a goofy little boy who flirts with yellow fire hydrants pretending to be a player and failing.  As the narrator says, “Bob’s an idiot.”  Bob has always been like that, in all three movies.

Kevin is the leader.  He’s the one who steps up to go on a quest to save the minions from the mind-numbing leaderless time they’re spending in ice caves.  Minions need someone to serve, and Kevin volunteers to lead the quest.  When he sees Scarlet Overkill, it is game over for him.  He falls in love with her, not because she is some ideal of feminine beauty but because she is the most evil villain in the world and he wants to work for her.

And loveable little Stuart hauls his eyeless, over loved teddy bear with him everywhere, adopting animals along the way, including a rat he names Butchie.  He’s afraid to enter the larger world and Kevin and Bob make sure he knows they’re right there for him.

I still think it’s brilliant that Scarlet Overkill is the evil villain.  She is so deliciously over the top and up to no good.  There’s even a little girl sitting in the audience when Scarlet makes her first overblown entrance who stands on her chair and excitedly proclaims, “I want to be just like Scarlet when I grow up.”

Scarlet’s dream doesn’t reach far enough.  She only wants to steal the Queen of England’s crown because she wants to be a princess, because, “everyone loves princesses.”  Scarlet clearly didn’t get enough love as a child and her stunted childhood dream is to be a princess so people will love her.  No super villain has come from a family where there was enough joy and love and support.  They wouldn’t be villains if they had.

I also thought it was brilliant that when the minions stole the crown, the Queen started hanging out at the pub drinking pints and telling jokes with the common man.  (And yes, they were all men.)

Things happen, Kevin is made king because he stole the crown and that makes Scarlet very angry.  But all Kevin wants to do is serve Scarlet, because that’s his purpose in life, to serve.  So he abdicates, and then her coronation day gets spoiled by another super villain.

Make no mistake, Scarlet turns into a whiny, petulant child when she doesn’t get her way.  She is stuck in a childhood dream which makes no sense.  She believes that she must be pretty and have a tiny waist to be adored.  And yes, that’s a big problem in terms of gender stereotypes.  There’s also a stereotypical gay hairdresser who doesn’t quite understand why his vision isn’t better than the childhood crayon drawing of a stick figure princess with “curly” hair.

At the end of the movie Gru arrives on the scene, uses his freeze ray gun and Kevin knows where the minions belong.  This is really the story that connects Despicable Me and the minions, it’s the story about how Gru and the minions found each other.

The biggest problems I had with the movie were not the gender stereotypes but the violence.    And the stupid jokes given to Bob who flirts with yellow fire hydrants and shows the audience his thong underwear.  That was just idiotic.

For all of that, I’m glad the conversation is ongoing about problems with representation of boys and girls in movies.  About how movies sell women and girls short on a regular basis and how men and boys are shortchanged on learning to be anything other than stoic, protective, fumble fingered with emotions, and yes, stupid.

Director Pierre Coffin didn’t help himself by saying he made the minions boys because “boys are stupid” and he couldn’t imagine girls being that stupid.  If what he meant to say was that little boys do goofy things because they’re little boys and little girls don’t tend to do the same goofy things, that’s a different story.  Saying girls are smarter than boys doesn’t help.

Yes, I see the point of the criticisms of Minions, and I’m glad Melissa’s post addresses some of the larger issues in cartoons and how girls/women are portrayed.  I do get it.

From a story-teller’s point of view, it’s the story of three yellow things (out of thousands) who go on a quest to find their purpose in life.  It’s the story of how the minions met Gru.  That’s the point of the story.  That one of the villains is a woman inspiring a little girl is something we should cheer for.  That the Queen became a “regular” person is something we should cheer for.  It’s a step forward.  A small one to be sure, but it is a step.  And that’s something to cheer for too.

Review: Reviving Ophelia

But most important, we can change our culture.  We can work together to build a culture that is less complicated and more nurturing, less violent and sexualized and more growth-producing.  Our daughters [children] deserve a society in which all their gifts can be developed and appreciated. (p. 13)

In early adolescence girls learn how important appearance is in defining social acceptability.  Attractiveness is both a necessary and sufficient condition for girls’ success.  This is an old, old problem.  Helen of Troy didn’t launch a thousand ships because she was a hard worker.  Juliet wasn’t loved for her math ability.  (p. 40)

Girls are trained to be less than who they really are.  They are trained to be what the culture wants of its young women, not what they themselves want to become. (p. 44)

I first read Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, Ph. D. when it came out in 1994.  Even then I was searching for me.  I was very confused about being female and looking for answers that would make me worthy in the eyes of society.  I missed what Dr. Pipher was saying.  Society is not the place to turn to for answers, it will only confuse you and set standards which are impossible to meet.  I wasn’t ready to hear that I was good enough on my own, and screw society.

Twenty years later, I returned to this book in search of answers on how to be a good auntie to the children in my life who have been raised in a society which is more pornified and sexualized than when Reviving Ophelia was first published.

I didn’t find those answers either.  Not because Pipher doesn’t offer a good explanation of what happens when puberty hits and many of the ways parenting and society can stack the deck against young women without meaning to.

I have to take it on intellectual faith that the maelstrom that is puberty and adolescence really is as described.  There was so much other dysfunction going on in my family that I truly cannot relate on an emotional level and do not have physical memories of what it was like to be a teenaged girl.

Hormones rampaging?  Didn’t notice.  Black and white thinking?  Don’t remember.  It’s hard for me because my memories involve a father who came into my bedroom at night and a mother who undermined my development at every turn.

Watching my six nieces grow has been quite the education for me.  I can see the things Pipher describes happening in them and I have learned it’s okay because it’s normal.  I’ve watched them go through these stages and come out the other end to be strong women who can face society on their own terms.  In no small part due to the parenting they received, from family prepared to teach them the pitfalls of living in a pornified society filled with highly sexualized standards for girls and women.

Reviving Ophelia is well-written and easy to read.   Dr. Pipher’s case studies are still relevant, as are her explanations about what goes on when a girl hits puberty.  That I didn’t get what I wanted from it is not Dr. Pipher’s fault, I was looking for a book she didn’t write.

 

 

The Female Pose

My friends are all feminists. All of them. Especially the men. And we often get into discussions about the pornification of society and the expectations that for women to be deemed worthy  they must adhere to impossible standards of beauty.

One of the communities I used to be active in was science fiction/fantasy fandom. While the people who welcomed me were some of the most accepting people I’d ever encountered, and were willing to teach me the not-so-secret handshake, over the years I noticed the cliques, the gatekeeping (by males), and even more sexualization of women, especially in cosplay.

It’s so sad this happens and people make up excuses for why it’s acceptable, when it isn’t.

In 2012, Jim C. Hines and John Scalzi held a pose-off to raise money for charity. The object, male authors attempting to pose in the same positions in science fiction/fantasy cover art as women are drawn. Of course, they’re drawings, because those positions are impossible to hold by real, actual women.

Today, I came across this on io9:  10 Stupid Arguments People Use To Defend Comic Book Sexism.     (I look forward to the day when links and titles to articles no longer have numbers in them.  Why couldn’t this have been simply titled “Stupid Argument People Use …”?)

The conversation continues to be the about objectification.  Reducing women to only their body, and judging them on the impossible standards of beauty as enforced by society.  We feminists rail against this all the time.  We don’t want the children of the world growing up to believe that the only worth a girl has is based only on her appearance.

We need to understand that every person we meet is a fully realized individual with talents and interests that don’t show on the surface.  It isn’t about sex.  It’s about sexualization, and objectification. And those are wrong.

How do we change the conversation?  As always, we start with ourselves.  When we see someone handsome/pretty, do we think of them as people?  Do we wonder what stories they might have to tell?  Or do we just think of them only as something shiny and bright that would look good in a picture on our walls?

Changing the conversation means we train ourselves and those around us, especially kids, to see people as people.  To see women as people.  Seeing women as people means accepting that not every body is the same, and that no matter how much you think they should do something (lose weight, stop wearing stripes, wear tighter/looser clothing, etc.) to look good to you, they are under no obligation to do so.

Every person on this planet has a story to tell that is more than just how their body looks.  We all have interesting stories, and we need to be asking about those instead of judging people by their looks.