Sorted, sort of.

I have this weird thing where I sort my Goodreads books on shelves labeled for particular times in my life so I can keep track of when I got a physical copy of the book (and delete that tag if I get rid of a book I no longer love). That way, regardless of when I joined the site or when I last reread an old favorite, I can click a button and see the books that influenced me in middle school, high school, college, my first job, grad school, etc., and reconnect with who I was at that point in my life.

Which makes it really annoying when I dig out old books to reread them and can’t quite remember when I got them. I’d swear these two anthologies were prized possessions in high school, but the first one has a story by Neil Gaiman, and I believe with just as much certainty that I didn’t start reading Gaiman until college. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s going to bother me like a mosquito in my ear, mostly because it means that the memories of childhood that always seemed so vivid have finally started to blur.

Jacob Neusner’s Legacy

Everyone warned me not to take classes with Jacob Neusner when he came to Bard. But my advisor said I shouldn’t run from a challenge.

Neusner wouldn’t let anyone take notes in class. The first time I answered a question, he gestured at me and said “Look, class! A perfectly preserved, 19th-century opinion!” He demolished me every time I raised my hand that week. And the week after.

Week three, when he realized I wasn’t going to back down, everything changed. We’d still tussle in class, but we both enjoyed it. He’d say, “I know Lisa knows the answer to this, so I’ll let her explain it,” or, “I’m sure Lisa disagrees with me on this, but…” and despite his status as professor and renowned expert, he never made me feel small or out of my weight class in our debates. When we saw each other in the hallway, he’d ask how my novel was going. He invited me to dinner. He and his wife were my own first adult dinner guests. And every semester I took a class with him, he wrote my parents a note telling them what a joy it was to have me in class.

I learned so much from him. I learned to think about my religion through a totally different framework, seeing it from the outside instead of as a practitioner. And when he team-taught with Christianity scholar Bruce Chilton, it was like watching Hendrix jam with The Doors.

He was an amazing scholar, but his lectures were the least of what I learned from him.

May his memory be a blessing.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Feminist!

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

I admit, I am woefully late to the party on Supergirl. I tried the pilot episode when it came out last year and found it a little campy and contrived next to my usual superhero and science-fiction fare. And by the time I gave it another try, late in the season, most of the previous episodes weren’t available online anymore.

But to drum up enthusiasm for Season Two, Season One is finally available on Netflix, and bingeing it hasn’t just been a guilty pleasure, it’s pushed me to look at massive blind spots I still have in my assumptions about feminism and pop culture.

I wanted to talk about how the stories that get told change when the cast is predominantly female, but I can’t do that, because when I actually tally up the cast, it’s exactly 50/50, men/women. After pointing indignantly (and repeatedly) to statistics that people perceive women as dominating the conversation when they take up half the space, I’m embarrassed to realize I’ve fallen into the same trap.

Then I thought about the fact that the parental conflicts on Supergirl are with mothers rather than fathers. I’m on more solid ground here: there are about as many dads on the show as moms, but the dads tend to show up in one-shot episodes while the mothers play more integral, ongoing roles. Usually, television heroes seem to spring full-grown from nowhere, and if a parent does show up partway into the story line, it’s generally an estranged or disapproving dad. But over time, Supergirl has to work through her relationships with both her long-dead biological mother (who turns out to be more problematic than Supergirl’s childhood memories of her) and her still-living foster mom. Meanwhile, her boss, powerhouse media mogul Cat Grant, struggles to mother her two sons while locking horns with her own critical and success-driven mom. Having so many varied mother-child relationships on one show changes both the dynamics between the characters and the range of possibilities for what it means to be either a bad or a good-but-flawed mom.

Tying into the mother-daughter dynamic, one of the most important relationships of season one has been Cat Grant’s mentorship of both Supergirl and her mild-mannered alter ego, Kara Danvers. I’ve snarled for years about the trope that whenever you have a super-powerful heroine with a special destiny to change the world, she needs to have an older male mentor to keep her in check: think Buffy, or Alias. The most charitable interpretation I can think of is that (male) writers following the model of the Hero’s Journey know that all heroes need a mentor and, thanks to millennia of male-centric stories, imagine men in that role more easily than women. Here, finally, the heroine has a strong, smart woman to look up to, one who talks to her about dealing with power, anger, and even failure, all from a distinctly female perspective.

Which brings me to the realization of just how blind I’ve been. What I really wanted to talk about turns out to be how this show explores what it means to be a mother or a daughter, to struggle to figure out what you want to do with your life, how to be recognized for your worth, and how to define yourself despite pre-existing social expectations.

I wanted to say that Supergirl is ultimately about what it means to be a woman. But I’m realizing that I’ve always thought of Superman shows like Smallville or Lois and Clark as being about what it means to be human, not about what it means to be a man. Supergirl is also about what it means to be human, just examining that question through a female lens instead of a male one. And that’s a subtle but hugely important idea to normalize in popular culture. As the show switches networks from CBS to the CW, with all the upheaval that might entail, I am hoping Season Two (premiering Monday, October 10th) lives up to (and surpasses) the achievements of Season One.