Weekend in Girlstown

Two of my sixteen nieces, lookin’ super girlie — and a little cranky

I was once pregnant with a child I hoped was a boy.  He was — so were his four younger brothers.  It’s been a long time since I’ve lived with any other women.  And it’s been even longer since I’ve lived with any girls.  It shouldn’t matter.  I was once a girl myself and there’s nothing about being sequestered with my sons that can alienate me from that part of my identity.  It should be true.  I believe it’s true.  But I still keep having awkward collisions with little girl culture years after little girls stopped being part of my daily life.

Some collisions are secret and subtle.  I’m not a very big woman.  Shopping for clothing can be frustrating for me.  One of my girl-friends, a lady born in the Philippines who’s learned how to deal with over-sized western clothing, gave me a tip: do some shopping in children’s departments.  It’s brilliant.  The first time I tried it I was like Homer Simpson at clown college turning around in front of the mirror saying, “I’ve never had pants that fit so well.”

Then the saleslady noticed me out on the floor, picking through the kiddie-jeans.  “No daughter with you today?”

“Uh – no,” I said.

“That’s okay,” she allowed.  “If they don’t fit her you can always bring them back with the receipt.”

“Great.  Thanks.”

I skulked away.  I felt furtive and a little ashamed.  I am not a girl.  That’s supposed to mean I don’t belong in the store, let alone in their merchandise.  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s a bit like what closeted transvestites cope with when shopping for clothes outside the ones socially prescribed for them.  I am not a boy but since I have sons, I feel perfectly natural stomping around in the boys’ section stocking up on jeans and navy blue sweatpants for my kids.  But in the girls’ section, in the company of the specter of my fake daughter, I am a pretender – unfit and unworthy.

This weekend, girl culture and I collided again.  My sister was staying at my house while her daughter, my most glamorous ten-year-old relative, competed in a dance festival.  I counted four costume changes – peacock feathers, rhinestones, ruffles, crinolines.  She was plastered in makeup and hairspray.  And my sister – a nursing instructor who can thread a tube into a trachea – struggled to glue false eyelashes to her lids.

My niece is warm-hearted and adorable and had no idea Auntie was eyeing her dance gear with the detached skepticism of a smug anthropologist.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when she asked me to come watch her dance.  The invitation rattled me.  Accepting it meant detachment was not an option and I was being drawn into her culture – one I had abandoned ages ago.

I arrived at the auditorium all by myself.  It felt awkward enough to make me wonder if I was in the right place.  I  asked the ticket seller, “Is this the little-girl-dancing-thingy?”

Inside the theatre, I found my sister.  The lights went down and the first ballerina came out.  She was a sixteen-year-old dressed like a fairy princess.

“Look!  She’s seriously wearing a tiara!”

My sister smirked at me.  “Yes.”

The next number was a whole troupe of teenaged ballerinas.

“They’re all wearing tiaras!”

My sister smirked again.  “Yes.”

“If they’re all wearing tiaras, isn’t that the same thing as none of them wearing tiaras?”

“Shh.  You have to stop laughing or the other moms are going to get really mad.”

“What?  I’m just delighted.”

It was not completely true.  I was vaguely delighted but it was a patronizing outsider’s delight – amused but not quite charmed by the spectacle.  I stuck to my social scientist persona.  The dance numbers – with all their kitschy props and maudlin narratives – had names like “Imagine” or “Grace” or the risky “Images of Grace.”  Even my sister laughed when the lyrics of one of the songs earnestly crooned, “If I could put you on top of a cake I would ice you.”

If there’s a perfect age for amateur dancing it’s got to be the one my niece is at right now.  She’s technically good enough to actually be dancing but not so old that she’s starting to look silly and lumpy in her fancy leotards.  If I was ever going to be able to enjoy this part of her life, it was now.  Her first number was supposed to be a sad commentary on class divisions – at least, that’s what she told me.  But she couldn’t stop smiling while she performed.  The adjudicator complained about it but Auntie loved it.  And by the end, in the dark, up at the top of the auditorium, awkward Auntie became sappy Auntie had to wipe her eyes.

No one gets to be a girl for very long.  And some of us – like me and maybe like my niece too, depending on what the future brings her – end up moving farther away from girl culture than we ever imagined we would, back in the days when it meant everything to us.  Honestly, I don’t miss it.  It was silly and distracted from much of what is truly important.  But maybe there’s no need to be embarrassed about celebrating it every once in a while.  Maybe there’s no need to grudge the breasty teenaged ballerinas for spinning and tip-toeing through their final days in tiaras.  So what if we’re all wearing one from time to time?  We’ll have to set it aside soon enough.

Speaking the Unspeakable: Sex in Books

Anna Karenina – Literary Sex and Death without the heebie-jeebies

It’s an odd talent.  I can stand at a shelf, pick up a book I’ve never read before and, if there’s a sex scene written in it, I can instantly turn right to it.  It’s a mixed blessing, I guess.  Books don’t come with parental guides so if I’m trying to see if a book is “appropriate” for my kids, my amazing talent saves me a lot of time.  But it also means I inadvertently end up looking at book-sex when I’d really rather not.

There are a lot of reasons why I’m not a consumer of the new wave of erotica that’s flooding the book market right now.  I keep away from it even though it’s leveled squarely at my demographic – the settled lady with a mortgage demographic.  I keep away from it even though, thanks to ereaders, it can be indulged in more discreetly than ever before.  I am not involved in erotica either as a reader or as a writer.

But stay with me.

This isn’t a polemic about obscenity.  I won’t bother outlining all my reasons for opting out of erotica here.  Instead, please bear with some thoughts about why, despite its popularity, sexual content is so challenging for writers.

Sex is a bit of a mess.  Attempts to write about sex tend to be messes too.  It’s a problem so notorious Literary Review has been doling out an annual award for bad sex in literature since 1993.  The award began as an indictment of “crude, tasteless, and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels.”  Despite the threat of receiving an award like this one, raunchy writing – or at least its profile in the mainstream – seems to be at a cultural high mark.  Since I still only read it when I stumble across it with my magic dirty-book opening trick, I can only wonder if this latest proliferation of book-sex means writers are getting any better at composing it.  But the lively competition for the bad sex in literature award seems to suggest that writers are just as inept at depicting sex as ever.

In the past, writers’ attempts to deal with sex in the context of books may have read as prudish and evasive.  The language used to cloak sex was often so oblique it sounded awkward and far-fetched.  We can’t relate to it and end up laughing and scoffing at it.

On the other hand, more recent attempts to write about sex are ridiculous in a different way.  Conventional smutty romance writers tend to mete sex out with silly jargon and clichés used only in their own genre.  More literary books – especially, as some commentators have noted, ones written by men – offer graphic book-sex that reads like nature film narrations filtered through the imaginations of teenaged boys.  It’s crippled by a detached matter-of-factness, dwelling on body parts and fluids.  The very realism of it makes it alienating for readers and we end up laughing and scoffing at it all over again.

Why doesn’t it work?  This might sound maudlin, but there’s a quality to real-life sex that’s ineffable and transcendent.  It goes without saying that it’s hard to talk about what is by its nature unspeakable.  A good writer can write about a transcendent phenomenon but it’s usually done by writing about everything the phenomenon touches and influences rather than by dissecting the actual phenomenon itself.

Think of some of the very best death scenes ever written – like the scene in Anna Karenina where a man dies of tuberculosis.  The reality of the impending death comes across most clearly for me when a servant attending the sick man mirrors his motion of pulling at his own clothes to try to get more air.  The dying man’s body – including the physical mechanisms that are actually killing him – isn’t the central object of the scene.  A lesser writer might have thought he had to make it so.  But even without a narrative full of nothing but choking and coughing, the gravity of the situation – the fear and hopelessness, the final collapse — is still crushing.

I think the same kinds of principles that helped Tolstoy express the impact of death need to be used when authors want to genuinely and sincerely invoke sex in literature.  Sexual content resonates better when it’s barely there – when it’s offered with a reticence that highlights the power sex has to exceed what it physically touches and pervade all the spaces in between everything in its domain.

To write about sex in graphic detail is to demystify it.  Some writers might crow that this is exactly what they intend.  But once sex is demystified, it’s probably not true to our most meaningful and powerful experiences with it anymore.  Real sex should have a mystical element to it.  Without one, it’s just another mess.

Korean Boy-Bands and Their Feminist Sub-text

I have never actually touched an issue of Tiger Beat magazine – or anything like it.  Even though I was a teenage girl in the days of New Kids on the Block and the Corey phenomenon, I was never into the boy-idol scene.  At the time, it all just seemed totally embarrassing – totally.

But that was before I started raising boys of my own.

Years before I had any kids, I already knew I would try my best to raise them as feminists.  Since it was a decision about my own behavior, it was a promise I could keep and control.  What I couldn’t control was my kids’ genders.  All of my children turned out to be boys.  The utter lack of peer females in our family makes teaching feminism more challenging than I expected.  At the same time, living with my boys has come with some surprising lessons for me about my own feminism.  I’ve found I learn how to be a better girl by raising my boys.

But it doesn’t always happen easily.  I need help.  And sometimes it comes from unlikely places – like East Asian pop-culture.

One night, when the boys were away learning manly things, camping at a mountain lake with their father, I was left alone, wandering through the Internet when I stumbled across this.  This was Super Junior – a staple of the recent East Asian boy-band movement.  It was spectacular and surreal and staggering — thirteen young South Korean men dressed up, made up, dancing, singing and posing while I sat transfixed, half a world away.  At the time, I couldn’t understand a word of anything they said – not even their English.  But that just made the group more charming.  Where the Coreys had failed, Super Junior succeeded.  I was an instant fan – an Anglo-Ahjumma.

When my menfolk got back from the wilderness, I didn’t show them what I’d discovered right away.  I guess I was a bit embarrassed.  Eventually, I showed them anyway.  And their reactions surprised me.

Based on the boy-band trash-talk of the male peers of my youth, I expected my family to hate Super Junior.  I expected to hear echoes of the hostile jealousy of male journalists who still write scathing critiques of boy-bands – rants about not playing their own musical instruments or writing their own songs, gravely benevolent warnings about how their charm is actually a corporate tool meant to exploit the hopes of real girls.  But that wasn’t how my boys reacted at all.  Instead, they seemed just as delighted with Super Junior as I was.

After watching the “Mr. Simple” music video a few times, my husband pleased the heck out of me by announcing it was time for each of us to pick our favourite group member.  Most of our boys chose Eunhyuk.  He’s the one with his hair dyed blonde, like theirs.  He’s the lead dancer who stands at the front of the formation doing tricks.  My husband chose Siwon, the one who comes across as masculine and powerful.  And my favourite was Heechul, the one heckling the rest of the group, being careful not to be caught trying too hard.  I found out later he’s also the one most likely to perform dressed as a woman – a very pretty woman.

Even when not in drag, there is an androgynous quality to all the group members – Siwon’s formidable eyebrows notwithstanding.  Their features are clean and delicate and enhanced with plenty of guy-liner.  Their hair is long and perfect and does not grow out of anywhere but their brows and scalps.  Their outfits are tailored and generously embellished with fancy accessories.

And we all loved it.  There was no shame in our enjoyment of it – no sense of competition, no stupid homophobic self-loathing.  There was just earnest admiration for the amazing show the young men and their stylists and producers put on for us.

The conventional wisdom of social theories about boy-bands usually talks about the pretty-boys as risk-free love objects we girls can cast in fantasy rehearsals of our earliest romantic relationship scripts.  I’ve always found this interpretation kind of sad and patronizing.  There might be some truth to it but I think it misses an important point – a point my heterosexual husband and teenaged sons demonstrated for me.  I could sense it in my own completely non-sexual fascination with the flower-boys too.  We didn’t choose our favourite Super Junior members based on characteristics we’d like to find in a romantic partner.  That wasn’t it at all.  We chose our favourites based on which members had characteristics we’d most like to see in ourselves.  My sons saw themselves in the hot-shot at the front.  My husband saw himself in the self-assured masterful one.  I saw myself in the bossy sophisticate.

Maybe our rationale can be extended to other boy-band fans – even the typical fan-girl who thinks she ought to be in love with them.  Maybe, on some level, she doesn’t admire the member she’d most want to date.  Instead, she might admire the one she’d most like to become.  Apart from being some pathetic attempt to prepare themselves for romance, maybe following a boy-band lets girls try on a male role – a fabulous one.  They’re reaching past the limits of their roles as girls – roles that are usually more constrictive when they’re young than at any other time.  They’re experimenting with being someone else, someone who is a boy.

Is that what male critics of boy-bands truly fear?  Are they afraid the gorgeous androgyny of boy-bands, the generous offering of their fabulousness, opens a breach in the brotherhood?  Maybe the biggest problem some men have with boy-bands has nothing to do with creative integrity or even with jealousy.  Maybe it’s that boy-bands are too dangerously easy for girls to relate to.  They make being a boy – looking like boys look, acting like boys act, controlling what boys control — seem like a role any of us could fill.

And who would want that?

Update: After reading this, a good friend of mine, the biggest Donnie Osmond fan I know, sent me a birthday present.  I am now the owner of a copy of Tiger Beat magazine dated September 1974.  The Tampax ads are spectacular.

The Guardian’s Fifty Most Influential Books By Broads

Harper Lee, the girlie author of To Kill a Mockingbird

If you’re one of the sexist boors in my life (and I do keep a few around) you’ll probably argue that it’s not fair of me to still be feeling peevish about this article by Robert McCrum, a Guardian book columnist and blogger.  All he did was compile a list of fifty literary “turning points.”   In other words, he set out to define the most influential books ever written in English.  But out of his fifty selections, a mere seven were authored by women.  These seven are good, obvious entries like Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft – people we don’t need much experience or education to have heard about if we’ve lived and read for long enough in an English-speaking country.  We could call them no-brainers.  But when it comes to finding traces of women in any kind of history, no-brainers are seldom sufficient.

Upon posting the list, poor McCrum was promptly smacked around by women not unlike me for making a list of influential books that’s light on writers who were also women. His answer to this criticism was another no-brainer.  He made another list – a list of fifty influential books authored by women.

And I hate it.

Go ahead, Boor-Boys, tell me I’m deliberately creating a situation where it’s impossible for me to be satisfied.  Tell me I enjoy complaining and I should accept this man’s goodwill toward women.  Tell me I’m “hiding behind” the myth of female oppression just to maneuver into a position of strength.  And then, keep reading.

I do appreciate McCrum’s attempt to correct the oversights of the original list.  Some of them, like the omission of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a novel just about every grade ten student in my country has read), are downright embarrassing.  In McCrum’s own words, “My previous list reflected patriarchal values and a male-dominated literary culture.”

That’s a fine admission – and an accurate one.  But does making a list exclusively for women remedy the overbearance of patriarchal values in the original list?  Or does a separate list push women writers further into the margins of literary history?  This is the question nagging at me when I read the list.  Relegating women to a separate list buttresses the idea that writing done by women flows through a different stream than the one dominated by men.  Oh, we can write.  We can write really well.  Men will admit that.  But that this is not the same thing as admitting us into the real list.

A list made up only of women writers abets a version of literary history that’s too much like public washroom facilities.  If we designate one bathroom (or list) as being for girls and a separate one as being for boys, we might wind up with a whole lot of elementary school shame and freakiness for people prone to indiscriminately wander through either door.  We risk creating a system where male readers might avoid female writers for fear of getting a bad case of literary cooties.

One of the commenters on McCrum’s online article had the same reaction I have.  He or she remarked that the implication is that the second list isn’t equal to the first one – to the real one.  This commenter was quickly warned by a fellow commenter that artificially including women on the real list just because we’d be more comfortable if they appeared there naturally would be “tokenism.”  That term, of course, is a negative one meant to remind us that, before the twentieth century, women played a minor role in literary history.  We were anomalies and curiosities and we called ourselves George.

I don’t accept avoiding tokenism as an excuse for making separate lists for men and women.  The fact that it was so very difficult for women to write and to have their work published and read throughout literary history means the achievements of women writers are profoundly influential simply by virtue of the fact that they exist at all.

So what do I want from people like McCrum who have access to a forum powerful enough to turn a quick list into a lively, public discussion of the gender politics of literary history?  Do I want him to commit some kind of intellectual dishonesty and jam a bunch of women writers he may not care for into his first list just to make things look fair?

No,that’s not it.

What I want is an acknowledgement of bias.  McCrum admits that his list “makes no claim to be comprehensive” but he doesn’t tell us why.  He doesn’t identify the margins his opinions could be pushed behind.  Instead of speaking for the entire English-reading world, it’d be nice if he’d just speak for himself.  When we read his list, I want it to have a long, difficult title like “The Fifty Most Influential Books for White British Men.”  The same way he identified my demographic when he wrote the pink list, he should identify his own when he writes the blue list instead of assuming we all agree that his male perspective is the most valid perspective.

The Finder: Neuro-Sexism and Super Heroes


Salon .ll., an online literary magazine, just posted a two-part piece I wrote on trying to keep neuro-sexist fantasies out of my family life.  Neuro-sexism — the belief that men and women are helpless to biological structures that determine our neurological strengths and weaknesses — is a peril for every family but it’s a particularly galling issue in mine.  In my household there are six males and one female.  (And I mean human males.  I’m not cheating and trying to count a bunch of male pets in that ratio.)  The lone female, of course, is me.

One conversation-starter that comes around frequently in our house is, “If you had a superpower, what would it be?”  It’s an easy question for me to answer since I already have a superpower.  And I maintain, no matter what anyone else says, that my superpower has nothing to do with my sex.

Check it out at the links below.

Part 1:  http://www.lindaleith.com/posts/view/256

Part 2:  http://www.lindaleith.com/posts/view/257