Friday, November 22, 2013

Katniss Everdeen: Feminist Icon, or Yet Another Sexist Stereotype?

Given how much has been written about how Katniss is a "strong female character," and given how invested a lot of women (both young and old) are invested in Suzanne Collins's trilogy, who am I to even ask this question? The idea that anyone could argue that The Hunger Games is a sexist fairy tale seems completely crazy. Katniss is the hero! But once I was presented with the evidence, I have found it difficult to unsee.

Let me back up: some time ago, I stumbled across a contrarian blog that has alternately challenged, maddened, and astonished me with its alien worldview. The writer's insights are always provocative and wildly defiant of expectations. And it was here that I discovered a lonely voice lamenting that, if the cause of feminism is being advanced by Collins's Hunger Games, then there has been no progress. Here is an extended excerpt from the essay to give you an idea of what this person could possibly be talking about.
[This is] a book about a post-apocalyptic killing game that spends zero pages describing how Katniss kills anyone but spends countless pages on how she is dressed, how everyone is dressed. What will she wear? What kind of jewelry? Hair up? Will the "sponsors" like her better this way or that? Her chief weapon isn't a bow, it's her appearance.

This is also a good place to observe that the real life, pre-and post movie release controversies about The Hunger Games have also been about physical appearances -- not just race, but is 'Jennifer Lawrence too tall? Hair too blonde?'

[Katniss] does not choose NOT to kill, she does not choose a pacifist position; she explicitly states in the book how much she wants to kill. But she never [premeditatedly kills anyone]. She tries to kill Cato at the end, twice, and fails. Only after he is torn to shreds by mutants does she perform a mercy killing on him, at his request. In other words, she doesn't choose to kill or not kill -- it doesn't come up.

Katniss is continuously saved by men -- Haymitch, Peeta, Thresh -- but you don't notice that she saves no one***, including herself; you think she saves herself all the time. You think this because of the first half of the movie told you she's a badass, so you don't realize that during the second half she shows less agency than Princess Jasmine...

Haymitch, played by a man, says this to a woman, played by Katniss:
You know how you stay alive?  You get people to like you. Oh, not what you were expecting?
No, unfortunately it's exactly what I was expecting.  Thanks Dad.

...This is bigger than Katniss, this is the state of human progress. If it helps, imagine you have a five year old daughter you have to raise in the midst of aspirational images with long legs and no power of agency, and your worry is no longer "will she grow up and find a job?" or even "will she grow up and get married?" but [instead, your worry is] "will she be so conflicted about herself that she is unable to choose a career or pick a nice man from the hundreds of options that present themselves to her because she is ever anxious that any choice is the wrong choice because she only gets conflicting messages from everyone on earth?"

That's the world I'm stuck in, and though I haven't burned a bra in years I do somewhat rely on feminists to nudge the bar consistently higher so my theoretical daughters don't have to rely on penis or Prozac to live happily ever after. So where my girls at? I found about a million fawning feminist reviews of The Hunger Games which all contain some version of this paragraph:
Katniss, in this season of woman-hating, is a stunning example of feminism at its finest hour. She is compassionate, yet strong. She deeply about her family. While she is tempted to run away with Gale, instead of leaving her sister and mother to fend for themselves, she stays to support them.
...None of those things are feminism, those aren't even praiseworthy.  Those are basic, ordinary, unremarkable characteristics of every reasonable human being for 6000 years, and all animals. But that's the bar the reviewer has set for Katniss, for feminism.  That's the fantasy world she'd like to see women eventually get to. So either a) she has an unconsciously cynical view of women in general; or b) she has been tricked by the system about what it is to advance as a woman, i.e she's in The Matrix... If I was a 15 year old girl, and I'm not saying I'm not, then what is being communicated to me by the feminist praise of this book is that my future expectations are low.
Full disclosure: I never read the books; I only saw the first film (and I do plan to see all of them). Before I saw this critical analysis, though, I was content to join the chorus of admirers who point to Collins's work as a satisfying development in the portrayal of gender roles in narrative fiction. But the universal, explicitly pro-woman praise of this work has a big hole in it, and The Last Psychiatrist is the only person I've seen to point it out.
Please, please, don't misunderstand me, I have nothing against The Hunger Games, it's an entertaining story, I am not criticizing the book... If it won an Oscar or the world declared this the next Star Wars and made action figures and lunchboxes I wouldn't say a bad word about it, what's it to me if it makes people happy?  Enjoy what you like, it doesn't have to have deep meaning to be worthwhile.

But what makes me reach for the now empty bottle is how women have convinced themselves and each other that this is a pro-feminist story.
Anyway, go read the whole thing (there are actually two essays, but I'm linking to the second one, because it's a little more direct), and tell me what you think. A final warning, though: the writer is pretty in-your-face. I deliberately removed some of the language that is hostile to the reader.

I'll have more to say about The Last Psychiatrist later.

***Update: I had a very lively discussion about this post and about TLP on social media. No one who commented bought this reading of the story, and all strenuously defended Katniss as a strong female hero. In the course of the discussion, one commenter pointed out that Katniss does indeed save Peeta by retrieving the medicine from Cornucopia. So at least on that point, TLP is incorrect (though maybe he or she had an explanation for ignoring or excluding that instance of Katniss' heroism). Also, I added an important passage that was missing from my original excerpt.

Update II: one commenter on the thread suggested that TLP is simply an anti-feminist troll. TLP may be a troll (and I plan on talking about that if I ever get around to finishing my next essay on TLP), but I have a hard time believing that TLP is anti-feminist: no anti-feminist I know of uses critical literary theory, refers to "partial objects," deconstructs porn (as the writer does elsewhere), and name-checks Lacan. That's pretty heady stuff. If TLP really is an "anti-feminist," it must be said that underneath the sodden, confrontational humor of the prose, he or she has a pretty deep knowledge of feminist thought. 

Update III: TLP has a new post about Hunger Games that came out a couple weeks back, but somehow I missed it. It's the shortest and sharpest yet. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Something About Onanism and Intercourse With The Horse Upon Which You Rode Into Town

Last night while driving to art class, I turned on the radio and I instantly replied out loud to the voice I heard: "Fuck. You."

The cause of my anger was hearing Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, the mercenary army that killed 17 civilians in 2007 and brought the war in Iraq to yet another new low, saying that his team of superheroes would have prevented the casualties at Benghazi:
I wish we had been doing diplomatic security in Benghazi. I can tell you that Benghazi would not have happened if Blackwater were on the job there.
Prince should be forever marked by his company's crimes and war-profiteering, and left to a life of quiet, metaphorical exile, permanently ostracized. He should not be trotted out on public radio to explain that the work that he and his band of gun-thugs did was actually quite beneficial. Especially not while I'm driving.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fun With The Magic Twitter Machine

It seems like a lot of fun is to be had on Twitter when clueless corporate shills stick their toe into roiling waters of social media. Last month, it was the Fix The Debt campaign who found themselves on the business end of the Twitter-ball bat.

 And now, yesterday, it seems that J. P. Morgan thought that it would be a good idea to reach out to the social media community for a Q and A session with JPM Vice Chairman Jimmy Lee. Hilarity, it did ensue.

Perhaps one day I shall purify myself in the cleansing waters of Lake Twitter. Sadly, "Knight of Nothing" is already taken.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I Wish I Had Written That

Charles Pierce once again demonstrates the gulf between actual writers and amateurs such as myself:
Through a combination of corporate cowardice and corporate avarice, the long march of the "Liberal Media" hoax has resulted in an independent information economy totally devoted to weaponized bullshit.
Preach, brother. I'll be mouthing the words at the back of the choir.

The whole piece is worth a read. It ain't long. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

New Painting

Last week was hell. The shock is slowly wearing off, but a cloud of sadness and melancholy still hangs over our household. On top of Hercules' untimely death, a close friend lost his cat that he adopted from me almost 23 years ago. That cat lived an epic life, but it is still sad to see him go. I started a post with some more reflections on the nature of grief, but I think I need a diversion.

After the satisfaction of my initial success, I've been slowly making progress on a new oil painting. While I like the results so far, I'm struggling with it more than I'd care to admit, and I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew this time.

It's a large format piece (about 36"x20") on gesso board, which is a more challenging surface on which to paint than one might think. Its smoothness prevents the paint from adhering in the same way it does to canvas, and I'm constantly having to wipe off sections and doctor areas that have become too gummy with the walnut oil alkyd medium. Still, under the guidance of my outstanding teachers, I suppose that it will probably turn out just fine.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Goodbye, Little Friend

Hercules made me angry like only a family member could. He would start barking at five-thirty in the morning on days we wanted to sleep late. He'd sneak off to shit on the carpet just moments after coming inside from the yard. He'd steal chocolate bars from the table and scrambled eggs from the baby's plate and scraps out of the garbage and butter from the counter-top. He'd whine and whimper and complain about any little thing that wasn't just so.

He would constantly demand attention when we were busy with something or someone else - very literally nosing-in in order to have his head patted. On cold days, he'd try to hide when it was time for a walk. He had the most disgusting breath of any creature I've ever encountered. He had a knack for being underfoot at the most ill-conceived moments. He would spend hours flipping a blanket with his snout in order to arrange himself underneath it to his satisfaction. When we needed a break, we'd lock him in his kennel, but somehow he'd get it open and escape. One time, he actually got out of his kennel, climbed out of the locked garage through a window, opened the back door to the house, and went inside.

Christ, that dog drove me crazy.

Most aggravating of all, though, was that Hercules would run away. He ran away so often that it wasn't worrisome or alarming or even notable. It was only maddening (and occasionally embarrassing when neighbors had to bring him home). At my old house, he'd jump the four-foot high fence easy as kiss your hand (an amazing feat for such a tiny dog) and go on an all-day walkabout. He'd trot back hours later with a look on his face that said nothing so much as "whuuut?"

On Monday, he ran off and got hit by a car. He died instantly. He was thirteen.

Though I consider myself to be an animal lover, I am not much of a dog person. It is not for lack of trying: as an adult, I've actually owned four dogs. We got our first dog, a black lab, in 1993. He was spirited and entertaining, but he grew into a ninety-pound handful, and after the novelty wore off, it became a grind to care for him.

At the time, we ran a child care business, and when that lab started to bite other people's children, we were forced to get rid of him. I vowed I'd never have another dog. But I was eventually overruled, and in 2001, my family and I found ourselves with an Italian greyhound, a breed I had never encountered (or even heard of) before my then-wife and daughter came home with Frodo.

As fate would have it, not long afterward, a college kid moved in across the street with his own Italian greyhound. Most dogs are not well-suited to a college student's lifestyle, however, and soon Hercules was spending a lot of time with us. He was more delicate than Frodo, and also a good deal smarter. We ended up adopting him, and from then on we were a two-IG family. We eventually added a third dog, a Pomeranian. They were quite a trio.

Now as I've said, Hercules had always been a total jerk. But damn it if he wasn't the consummate charmer too: he loved children and he loved the daycare. He'd cuddle with whomever was willing to sit on the couch for more than thirty seconds (especially if you had a blanket). And boy, did he love cats. When one of our cats had kittens, he took pride in them and considered himself to be a co-parent. They were his kittens and he raised them. 

The years slipped by. In 2007 I divorced, and although I wanted exactly zero dogs, I ended up with the two greyhounds. Strange how that worked out. Anyway, Hercules and Frodo didn't love the life of a single dude nearly as much as family life, but the three of us adapted and soldiered on.

When I remarried in 2010, my wife brought her cat Levi into our home, and predictably, Hercules loved that cat too. Unfortunately, Levi didn't want much to do with Hercules; one might say that he was on to Hercules' charming bad-boy routine (Levi being cut from a similar cloth). Levi preferred Frodo's guileless company, which made Frodo quite nervous and Hercules even more determined to bond with him. 

Even though Hercules and Levi never really came to an understanding, the newly-remade household and the dynamic between the three of these animals revived Hercules' familial nature. At ten years old, he was as playful as a puppy. I think it was a heavy blow to Hercules when we had to put Levi down due to illness in January of 2012.

Hercules proved to have plenty more life in him, though. When our first (my third) child was born in 2012, Hercules formed an immediate bond with the baby. This was something new for Hercules: he had played nursemaid to kittens and to preschoolers, but he had never been around a newborn infant, and he took to our son Malcolm more effortlessly than I thought possible.

It's not an exaggeration to say that Hercules pretty much single-handedly taught our boy how to be gentle. While Malcolm was squeezing and pinching and prodding, he'd patiently stand there as if to say, "try again."

All of this happened right before our eyes, and while it pleased us, I don't think we appreciated it as fully as we should have. We were busy being harried, sleep-deprived new parents just trying to hold ourselves together. But the magic happened, again and again, and I'm glad we captured some of it.

Unfortunately, Hercules was still prone to all of his rude-boy habits. And Monday afternoon, he ran off after being let out to do his business. Now, he hated cold and rain, and Monday was just such a dreary day, so we thought nothing of it: he'd come back soon. He always did. But when an hour turned into two, and he still hadn't returned, we went out looking for him. Before we went out, I was still muttering and cursing about him running off on yet another of his little excursions. Sadly, we later learned that by the time we began our search, he was running around in a panicked state. He apparently became too scared to approach anyone by that point - a fact that still surprises and grieves me. Ignorant of this information, however, I kept up the search until after 11 PM. The cold night and the racoons I spotted in the neighborhood darkened our spirits.

On Tuesday we received quite a few calls from our searching and canvassing efforts. A lot of people had seen him Monday afternoon in his frenzied condition. But our hopes were short-lived: on a tip from one of the many flyers we posted, we found his body that afternoon by a busy highway about half a mile from our house. I went to collect his remains. He was almost unrecognizable. Poor, poor dog. We suppose that he was hit Monday evening right after dark.

There were no skid marks, and by the blood-streaked road, it was clear that he was dragged at least 50 feet, and probably more. I doubt the driver saw him, but I am not sure how the driver failed to feel the impact. I washed and saved his name-tag, and I let Frodo sniff his body so he'd know that Hercules wasn't coming back. Then we brought his remains to Minneapolis Animal Control.

I am sorry. It was my job to protect you, little dog. And I failed.

Our relationships with our pets are complicated: we form attachments and project our own hopes, fears, and foibles on to these creatures. They probably try harder to understand us than we credit. Science has learned much about the chemistry and the hormones that transform a small domesticated animal into a beloved family member. But there is no measuring instrument that can quite capture the regret I feel.

I always thought Hercules would outlive everyone. Though he certainly had a long and rich life, he didn't deserve to die so suddenly and violently. And even though he drove me crazy, I am sad that he's gone, and my complacent, annoyed attitude toward his escape on Monday gnaws at me. I'll miss him most for his kindness toward my youngest son - I am heartbroken that their relationship has been cut short. Rest in peace, Hercules.