Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Beasts and Masters

This is a guest blog from Alexandra Juhasz, Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College, a film/video producer as well as a scholar

Check our her blog, Media Praxis, here: :

Here's a short little blog post about the similarities and differences between this year's two remarkable brute flicks: Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Master. You'll soon see how mothers and mothering play an all important role, albeit in their absence.


There are notable echoes between the very beasts in question: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) both live their lives outside any master's dogma, or related organized rules of etiquette or discipline. Each one is offered up by their directors (Benh Zeitlin and Paul Thomas Anderson) as retro-fueled models for a post-modern living that has been too tamed by technology, corporations, and stultifying social systems like race, gender, class and sexuality.


However, there the two must part, for Hushpuppy figures how to be part of a community (of outsiders) even so, has an ethical stance that is her personal amalgam of the many traditions (spiritual, philosophical, social, political and economic) that she rejects in toto, and uses violence with some consideration and moral compass.

While both the beasts spend quality narrative time being tamed by their Daddies, who each ultimately fail, the Mommy plays a different role in each triangle: for Hushpuppy she's entirely absent (except in dreams), flipping the racist stereotype that black children suffer from missing patriarchs and blaming poverty, instead, for her lack of schooling. Meanwhile, Freddie's matriarchal lady (Amy Adams) is both too present, and oddly absent (for him) as he only has eyes for Poppa. All the actors in The Master are pretty remarkable, and Adams plays Dodd's wife Peggy asexually, all cold cunning, leaving the prurient excesses to the man (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his beast (which she also does in this weekend's stunningly ham-fisted The Trouble With the Curve, albeit, we assume, to please this crowd-pleaser's geriatric and juvenile audiences.)

So, it seems we have two tales of boys' beasts and girls', white beasts and black, and monsters who are adults and children, too, telling us what we need to know today about male masters' brutal if stale authority and everyone else's needs to reject them (hello Occupy). Both are spectacular spectaculars, amazing in form and craft, intelligent and affecting, too. But from this brief scrutiny, I'd want to say that the beast (of the southern wild) ultimately makes a stronger claim for me about what and who we might hope to follow, and how, if we were to have no Mommies and then say no to Daddy, too: a personal ethics that allows for a careful and piece-meal consideration and embracing of the best of past traditions, the possibility for willful and strategic loving communities committed to each other and our lived places, as well as a hope and politics for the future.

I see strong tinges of feminist politics and other often-female-led movements (like ecology and anti-globalization) in Hushpuppies' private beastdom; and The Master doesn't rail against mothers as the cause for its leads' beastdom, as did, say FIght Club. So we hard working Moms must be left to wonder who passes on these female or feminist values if Mothers play no part in the picture.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


Contributed by a guest blogger who prefers to remain anonymous

1993. I lived in a small town in New England. It was an afternoon in late May. I sat on the toilet in the corner of my tiny bathroom, a yellow tunnel of translucent dust shooting out of the window. The pink and red Victorian wallpaper undulated in waves around me. I sat there, my heart in my throat, half panic-stricken, half disbelieving, at the white plastic stick perched on the edge of the pedestal sink. The blurry blue hieroglyphics slowly made symbols that would be the rest of my life. Either it would float along (my life, mine), this moment like a tiny crack in the sidewalk, or it would stop. I was twenty-one years old. It was positive.

At seventeen I had fled a claustrophobic Southern town with my feet pressing all the way down on the gas. I went flying, naively and idiotically, into a small liberal arts college. It was a place of unshaven legs and Birkenstocks. I came armed with makeup and hot rollers. I may as well have gone to Mars. It took about eight months for all the coils to unravel. I woke up in the middle of the night because my metal twin bed seemed to be banging against the wall, my heart was beating so hard. This happened over and over. I remember a dark-haired doctor looking me square in the eye and telling me my EEG was normal. Telling me to see a counselor. I remember a counselor looking me square in the eye and telling me to see a psychologist.

So I did. I learned how to talk in that shrink’s office. Months of silence became baby steps of words, became a torrent of fucked up shit. Once I started I had no more control over it than I did over the rotation of the earth. As I learned how to speak, all the pieces started breaking apart. Whatever fantasy I had about escaping the South and going to college was over. Major Depression crashed the party, held hands with Panic Disorder and then made out with Agoraphobia. (My diagnostic hydra.) I was a goddamn mess. I tried to go back to school sophomore year but after three more trips to the infirmary I was politely but firmly instructed to take a “medical leave.” This is administration-speak for “We don’t want you offing yourself in a campus bathtub.” It goes on like this for four more years.

Back to 1993. I have a serious mental illness. Somehow that year I’d managed to graduate. I had no idea what the hell I was going to do next. My degree, back then, probably cost $100,000, but I was only qualified to wait tables. And I was really sick. In a few short months I would have no health insurance. Now I was pregnant.

The vitriol and hatred aimed squarely at women right now knocks the wind out of me, takes me off guard like a sucker-punch. I don’t understand it. Freud, that bastard, named it best. The white men who hate gays with a fucking fervor they only otherwise reserve for homosexual trysts at a roadside Holiday Inn? Reaction formation. Those wackos outside of abortion clinics screaming about baby killers? Projection. But why women? Why now? Why this particular moment in time? Why the frantic, finger-pointing, bible-thumping, sweaty-browed rants? I mean, they’ve been there for a long time but now they seem to be swelling into some kind of misogynistic tsunami. It’s fucking nuts.

What gets lost in all that noise are the personal stories. Some politicians have acquiesced to allow women to make decisions about their own bodies “in the case of rape or incest.” Or, perhaps, if the pregnancy “threatens the woman’s life.” But what does that mean? I was fucking positive I could not survive a pregnancy. Pregnancy meant going off my meds meant getting sick meant slicing my wrists open. Does that “count?” Do I count?

I had an abortion. I chose it. Me. Twenty-one. Mentally ill. No health insurance.
I remember quietly telling my shrink it was the first decision I had ever, truly made for myself. Just. Myself. I could not have survived a pregnancy. So I did choose life. I chose mine. And I don’t regret it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Where are the Women in ART?

By Courtney McDermott
Can you name three female visual artists? Artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson posed this challenge in her documentary !WomenArtRevolution, which relays the feminist art movement of the 1960s and 70s. I happened to come across this documentary on Netflix, when I was, naturally, procrastinating from my own art—writing. One of the most compelling, albeit horrifying, clips in the film was the opening clip when Leeson interviewed people coming in and out of the MET on the above question. Other than the notorious Frida Kahlo, people were at a loss.
            I felt smug. What about Mary Cassatt? Or Georgia O’Keeffe? Or Diane Arbus? I thought, but I acknowledge I have an unfair advantage—my mother was an art teacher, and I’ve been frequenting art museums since I was a baby. Even with that fortunate upbringing, I was still hard pressed to name many more than three artists.
            The documentary highlighted such fascinating works by Judy Chicago, Nancy Spero, and Hannah Wilke. As a writer, other artists intrigue me, so I became concerned that maybe the female artist is still threatened, still overlooked and unheard. Even in the literary world, the most oft-cited females these days are Stephanie Meyers and E.L. James (and don’t even get me started on them). The other day, a friend of mine (a smart, educated, witty woman my age) posted on her Facebook wall a link to the 25 best quotes on writing. Most of them were pretty fantastic. Only two of them were by women.
            Obviously, this is just one webpage, and it doesn’t mean that women don’t have great things to say about their art. They just aren’t being quoted or cited, or even taught.
            Last year, I taught English in the most hellatious prep school imaginable. I left mid-year for a number of reasons, but one (and not an insignificant one) was that I felt at odds with the curriculum being taught. In freshman English, only one poem on the entire curriculum was written by a woman. Nothing else. In American literature, in order to adapt to the new trimester system, a number of books had been cut from the curriculum. They axed Toni Morrison and Kate Chopin; Emily Dickinson was the one remaining female voice. We all need an Awakening! I tried to protest, but my indignation was met with silence.
            Silence has been the enemy of the female artists, so I was more than delighted to read the myriad news articles recently on Pussy Riot and their artistic reaction to the Putin regime. A number of YouTube comments derided the type of music, declaring that these women weren’t making music or art. I disagree; they have a point of view, they use an art medium, and they are reaching people. They’re artists. And they just happen to be women.
            The Pussy Riot incident (and no one was more gleeful than I to hear the words Pussy Riot uttered from the mouths of congressmen and women) propelled me to search out other female artists. Like Lena Denham and her hit HBO series Girls. I like this series so much Dunham gives voice to an array of 20-something women, without glamorizing their lifestyle. I get the distinct sense that I would be friends with Dunham if I ever met her.
            Then there is the Living Walls project in Atlanta (a project that encourages street art to enliven dilapidated neighborhoods), which only commissioned female artists this year. The fact that an art show must intentionally create a female-only show highlights how much women have been overlooked in the art world.  
             In my daily life, I write. But I decided to turn towards my childhood roots and create visual art. After watching !WomenArtRevolution, I scribbled down half a dozen ideas for drawings. I first completed the drawing, “Alone in this Duet,” and upon completion, I pulled out more art supplies, and I finished “Mutilation.”

            Don’t worry, I won’t quit my day job, but the very act of creating something, giving a physical body to the feelings and frustrations and delights I keep inside, is pretty liberating. Writing is my personal trick card that I need to pull out more often, because it lets me state what I think is important. I have decided to turn to my Twitter page (which has been underused and ignored) and devote its contents to the expression, support and acknowledgement of female artists (@courtmcdermott). Because women are out there making art, and as a woman, I find it not only important, but necessary to our very survival to acknowledge and teach about these artists, so that when someone else asks the question, “Can you name three female artists?” the answers will come readily.
            Hand over the crayons and the pencils, the violin bows and the paint cans, and let all girls, all women, create some art. In fact, I think I might go create some art now.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Be My Guest

I am taking a break from blogging.  I have too much on my plate right now with teaching, writing, and parenting.  Yes, that is almost always the case but right now I am especially aware of it.  But I do not want the conversation to die.  (Most of the conversation takes place in Facebook.  Nobody ever posts here.  But there is usually some chat after each blog post.)  Anyway, I would like any of you who read this to consider doing a guest blog post.  My mother-in-law tells me that the blog is popular among the over 60s she knows.  I would love a post on senior-feminism or grand-mothering or aging or any other topics you like. Or blogs from any of the childless gals out there or single moms or stay at home moms, or whomever has anything they want to say that has to do with being a feminist or quasi feminist these days.

Just send me an email with your post -- you can send it as an attachment or type it in the email.  I will do the rest.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Growing Pains

My son has terrible growing pains, both physical and psychic.

The physical pains occur every few months at night.  They are in his feet and lower legs.  Usually it happens in one foot or leg at a time, but sometimes both.  In my paranoid parenting, I have asked and asked his doctor about these -- could they be signs of something wrong?  Polio? MS?  But, no, she assures me, they are literally growing pains.  When the growing pains occur, he experiences excruciating pain that requires some combination of massage, heat, and binding (usually a tight sock) to feel better.  As far as I can tell -- and one of the hardest things about parenting is that you can see and hear your child's pain but can't feel it -- it is like he is on some medieval rack, with his bones and muscles being pulled and stretched to meet their new needs.

The psychic pains also recur on an unpredictable cycle.  They generally manifest as a kind of Peter Pan syndrome in which my son states his wish to never grow up.  Sometimes, this relates to a desire not to lose some aspect of his childhood -- his right to play with stuffed animals, or jump in bouncy houses.  Sometimes, it relates to a fear of the future -- not just losing childhood toys and games but having to be bigger, older, different.  Sometimes it takes the form of nostalgia for lost youth, pangs he expresses when looking at old photos or home movies.  Somewhere in there is a fear about losing me, and his dad and sister -- or losing us as we are now, the family we are when they are kids and we are their grown up -- but not yet grown old -- parents. These pains, I know, are no less real or excruciating than his physical growing pains.

I am unsure where these pains come from.  Only some kids have physical growing pains, some even worse than my son.  Do others have the psychic pains, too?  What sets them in motion? What have we done to either make his childhood such a treasure that he does not want to leave it, or to make the future seem so bad that he does not want to greet it?  Why does his sister not experience such growing pains?  She, like him, resists all change -- until it happens.  But she seems eager for growth and the rights and pleasures of getting older.

Of course, I am torn.  I want him to grow up and become the amazing teenager and man that I know he will be.  And I want him to grow up and take on new responsibilities so that I, as parent, am needed less or needed in different ways than now. (Already, as they have shifted from being babies and toddlers to kids, my job has gotten immeasurably easier -- or at least has allowed me to slightly ignore them and trust that they won't die just by virtue of being out of my sight.)  But I do not want him to grow away from me.  I dread those coming hostile years when he hates me with teenage hate, and I will miss him when he moves away into his own life and has a more tangential relationship to me.  Already, in tandem with his occasional growing pains, he shifts between wanting to be a kid and hold my hand and wanting to be independent and walk a little bit away from me.  I want my own independence but never want to let that little hand go.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Friends Over 40

I have 251 friends, on Facebook.  Besides my sisters and sisters-in-law, whom I see, at best, once a year, there are maybe ten Facebook friends I see once a year, usually at a conference, and at most four or five I see with any regularity in Chicago. Outside Facebook, I have very few local friends.

I am not alone.  A recent New York Times article on "Friends of a Certain Age" identified friendship as an issue for many people over 30, or, in my case, chasing 50: "No matter how many friends you make, a sense of fatalism can creep in: the period for making B.F.F.’s, the way you did in your teens or early 20s, is pretty much over. It’s time to resign yourself to situational friends: K.O.F.’s (kind of friends) — for now."

According to the NYT, the difficulty with friends is that we do not have the proximity or time to form friendships, not in the way we did in college; many of us have partners and therefore have to look for two-fers, with a good fit for both partners; we have kids who take our time and complicate friendship -- both because we can't get away as often as we used to for drinks, dinner, movies and because when we try to befriend other people with kids, the two-fer of relationships compounds into the three or four or five-fer -- do my kids want to play with yours?

I can measure my diminishing friendships by the stillness of my home phone.  Used to be, my husband and I would come home from a workday or a Saturday out shopping and have five or six messages from friends, checking in, inviting us out.  Now, nothing. Most calls and messages we do get are robo calls, fundraising and surveys.  This is partly because we communicate with friends via email, Facebook and texting.  But it isn't just that.  It is that we have fewer friends, or fewer friends that we see with any regularity.  We have friends we can call if we have a party or we can invite for dinner.  But often those invitations take three months -- no kidding -- to organize.  Sometimes we get together with friends who have kids, and sometimes we manage to see our single friends outside the home.  Every once in a while, we have dinner with another couple.  But I have not had lunch or a drink with a female friend in ages.

I'd love to blame my friends, but I know  that I have become harder to hang with, too.  My husband and I have one night a week when we have a date and pay a sitter so we can go out.  We jealously guard that night as couple time and only sometimes decide that seeing friends is sitter-worthy.  I have one or two female friends who call me to chat -- they are both single and childless, and one is unemployed -- and I find myself rushing them off the phone.  Is it that I really have less time to talk than my mother -- coffee cup in hand, cigarettes burning -- or do I just have less patience? I knit but cannot imagine joining a knitting circle.  I exercise but can't imagine playing on a team or having a running buddy. 

I make playdates for my kids -- a bizarre formal ritual of setting kids up in an era when they cannot run down the street to see their pals.  I suppose I could have playdates, too.  Apparently there are friendship sites like those used for dating.  I imagine myself hunting for a friend there.  What would I seek?  "Friend, willing to be my BFF, but please do not call me, do not expect me to have lunch because I don't have time, and don't expect a girls night out because I don't want to take time away from my family.  Maybe you can meet me at the gym." 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Brilliant Mistake

I started knitting years ago when my kids were little.  It was a way to fill the time when I was spending so much time sitting in a room with kids watching Elmo, Kipper, Calliou, and J.J. The Jet Plane (I can still sing all the songs from all of these shows).

I am not a great knitter.  As with cooking, I am a recipe girl.  I have to write everything down and double check a lot.  I can't breeze along, chatting and I don't understand enough to ever create my own pattern or modify one in any significant way.  But I like to try new things, so have done cables, lace patterns, sleeves, and other things as I grew more confident.

Early on, I knitted a lot of clothes for the kids.  Gorgeous cable hoodies, striped cardigans, a dress for my daughter, hats, scarves.  But they grew out of them so fast.  I kept giving them to nieces and nephews.  I switched to making toys -- monsters of various sorts.  But in the last few years, I lost my mojo.  I knit a few baby blankets but they took forever.  I would barely pick up the needles at all.

Recently, I got the urge to knit.   I decided to knit something for myself.  I had made a few sweaters for myself in the past but not for a while.  I got a great pattern for a vest that could be knitted all in one piece.  It felt good.  I got my mojo back and was really enjoying knitting again.  Before the vest was even done, I got materials to make scarves for the kids and another sweater for me, this time from an amazing book of Knit Kimonos. But as I was finishing the vest, I, oddly, ran out of yarn.  Got more.  Finished.  Put it on and there was a huge ruffle on the butt.  I didn't remember that being in the pattern.  Realized that the reason I'd run out of yarn was that at a point when I was supposed to add two stitches at two places in a row, I'd instead added stitches the entire row between the two spots.  And I had done this three times! Oops. 

Rather than view this as failure, I have decide to consider it a brilliant mistake.  My first modification to a pattern.  I rather like the ruffle -- it is like a bustle.  It gives the vest an oddly romantic profile.  Or a peacock pride.  I will just try to keep the ruffles off the kimonos.