Reading tally experiment

For the first quarter of 2017, I had a lot going on personally: recovering from surgery, catching up with missed work, and helping a friend care for her preemie twins, to name a few. So when I had a minute to read, I tended to grab whatever was interesting and close at hand. And that made me wonder: after more than two years of this experiment with changing my reading habits, has anything changed? Do I read more diversely when I’m left to my own devices, or is this still something I need to put conscious effort into doing?

The results surprised me. On the one hand, I’ve read twelve books by women, two by men, and one collaboration, which means 80% of my reading has been works by women. That’s unprecedented for me. On the other hand, 87% of my reading has been by authors who are both straight and white, which is right on par with my stats before I started this experiment two years ago. No change whatsoever.

Granted, I’m in the middle of two books by black authors right now, and eagerly awaiting two books by lesbian writers. In the last couple of years of trying new things, I’ve added several non-white, non-straight authors to the list of authors whose release dates I program into my phone so I can read their work as soon as it’s out. But that’s just a small percentage of the books I encounter every year, and the selection at the bookstore and on online review sites still slants heavily straight and white. Clearly, there’s more work to be done.

Advertisements

All the Mornings After

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

After the profound depression and helplessness I felt on Friday, I woke up on Saturday energized and hopeful. As I got my coffee and walked to the train for the Women’s March in Boston, I saw a multitude of pink pussy hats, rolled up signs, discreet pins. I felt like the whole city was part of something, that my people were all around me. I was delighted rather than upset by the many trains that passed my station, completely full, and grateful when the MBTA opened a fresh train on the maintenance track to handle the overflow. I chatted with an eight-year-old Girl Scout going to her first march, and a seasoned veteran of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements.

When I got to the Boston Common, it was mobbed, but it was an orderly mob. While people packed every inch of grass, there was a real effort to ensure that the paths through the park remained clear for people trying to find friends or access the port-a-potties. I snapped pictures of the many creative signs and was delighted to hold mine up as a requested backdrop for a group of protestors taking a selfie together. I couldn’t find any of the friends I had hoped to meet up with—cell service was blacked out—but I decided to focus on being present. My heart soared every time the speakers reminded us that we were here for each other, for women’s rights, for fair wages, for black lives, for the environment. They told us to be mindful of autistic protestors who might be overstimulated, and to ensure accessibility for handicapped protestors. When one speaker asked us to lock eyes with a stranger and silently communicate that we saw each other, that we were fighting for each other, I started to cry.

And finally, more than half an hour late, we were called to march. We were told to exit towards the back and follow the march volunteers.

That’s when everything broke down.

The march had originally anticipated 25,000 participants, and by Friday, more than 105,000 had registered. Most people there, like me, had not, so the crowd was mind-bogglingly huge. “The back” is a relative term when you’re talking about an irregularly shaped park with multiple exits, and many people were too far from the loudspeakers to hear the instructions anyway. An hour after those instructions, when I finally made my way from the center of the park to its border amidst a sea of pink-hatted humanity, I discovered I was at the wrong exit, there was no indication of which exit might be the right one, and the communications blackout meant I couldn’t either check the website or ask a friend elsewhere in the crowd for directions. The crowd around me dispersed down multiple side streets and into the subway, many of them expressing frustration that if they’d only been told, “Make your way towards the corner of X and Y,” they would have done so. At that point, exhausted, overstimulated, and almost at the time when the march was supposed to end anyway, I followed the crowd to the subway and went home.

I learned two important lessons from all this. The first is that the hope and joy I felt throughout the morning ride and the speeches is real: we are surrounded by people who agree with us, who want to put their energy towards constructive, meaningful work. And the second is that we need to be mindful, in the next four years, not to get distracted or discouraged by obstacles, complications, or delays. We need to have clear lines of communication and good backup plans to ensure that the energy of all the people who show up, eager to help, doesn’t dissipate before it gets concrete results.

This was day one. It was a powerful day in its own right––and also provided a training ground for day two, and all the days that follow.

Hidden Figures, Hidden Stories

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

There is a repeated scene throughout Hidden Figures in which Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) types her name into the bylines of her reports only to be told that “computers” (most of whom are women) don’t author papers; she must erase her identity from her work. This scene helps explain why the contributions of Johnson and other women were forgotten for so long, but it also says something important about which stories, and whose contributions, we validate as part of our culture.

When the hashtag #Oscarssowhite erupted, there were two main issues in play: First, how many excellent people of color had been overlooked in the 2016 awards season (and how few actors, writers, and directors of color had won in the almost-ninety-year history of the Oscars). And second, that when people of color were recognized, it was almost always for movies that depicted the horrors of slavery or the struggle of civil rights, the implication being that there were only certain stories about being black in America that were acceptable as “art.” That only stories of black suffering (caused by or alleviated by whites) had broader audience appeal or artistic merit, while stories of black people living life on their own terms couldn’t capture the attention of a broader (re: white) audience.

Hidden Figures, which made almost $22 million its opening weekend, definitively proves that is not true.  Without offering spoilers, one of the most refreshing things about the film is that it tells the story of three women who are full people. Aside from their contrasting personalities, the three protagonists have very different approaches to their work, and different priorities around raising their children. Each defines what success means and how to achieve it in her own way, and each has a complex life outside work. While the movie includes white characters, it doesn’t offer the tropes of whites as saviors or of “magical negroes” who selflessly help the white protagonists with no needs or drives of their own, which is particularly noticeable because a typical movie about NASA is very goal-oriented: the characters’ only focus is either getting someone into space (The Right Stuff) or getting them safely back to Earth (Apollo 13, or The Martian). But while the three main characters of Hidden Figures care deeply about the success of their mission, they care just as much about whether technological progress will put them out of work and what they can do, singly and collectively, to ensure their working lives go beyond this one great project.

Despite the film industry’s long-held fears that white audiences won’t identify with black characters, there are many moments in Hidden Figuresthat are powerfully universal in their particularity. Most people know the nervousness of getting back in the dating pool after a long stretch of being single, or the frustration of unofficially taking over a demanding job without getting the title or salary that position should bring; regardless of race, we know the ache of withholding complicated truths from children to avoid bruising their dreams. This is a story anyone can engage and identify with, and the theater where I saw the movie, which was packed with mostly white men and women, was a testament to a universal truth: people have a thirst for stories, not just for stories about people who look like them.

When I first started working for JWA, I was surprised (and immediately embarrassed by my surprise) at how many male educators were coming to us for teaching materials, how many male readers wrote in with comments, wanting to know more about someone on our site. Even I, who believed in the importance of women’s stories, couldn’t believe that men might feel the same way. That kind of failure of imagination diminishes us all. When we assume that men only want to hear stories about men, or whites only want to hear stories about whites, stories of women and minorities are marketed only to niche audiences, or are erased from our culture (and our history) altogether, and everybody loses. Instead, we should recognize the gift of offering people a glimpse into lives different from their own and allowing people to stretch their imaginations and sense of empathy by delighting in a fuller spectrum of stories.

The real-life consequences of the magical pregnancy trope

In Sarah Jeong’s fantastic Star Wars critique “Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy the Old Republic?”, she points out that Star Wars is a story written by a man who seems to lack even basic facts about pregnancy and female bodies for a target audience that also knows very little, and that this has frightening implications for women’s health issues in our own world.

That got me thinking about how the Magical Pregnancy Trope also perpetuates some really dangerous ideas about pregnancy and agency.

Although it’s sometimes used as a plot device for its own sake, the Magical Pregnancy is also used as a television workaround when a lead actress gets pregnant and can’t just randomly leave the show for a few months, and the writers don’t want to work all the complications of raising babies into their storylines for the next few years. Instead, the pregnancy is accelerated (because it’s the product of evil magic/science) to take place in only one or two episodes, and ends with the child being conveniently stolen or magically aged so the show doesn’t have to deal with babies for more too long.

Why is this problematic, aside from just being lazy writing? It feeds popular notions that pregnancy is something that just happens to women, ignoring the fact that pregnancy is usually the product of sexual intercourse and that men should take responsibility for individual pregnancies they help create, something writers would have to address if the father were part of the main cast. The men who are involved are essentially rapists, and abortion isn’t even discussed, let alone possible in these fantasy scenarios. And because these magical pregnancies can’t be explained by science, it perpetuates the notion that real pregnancies are also mysterious and uncontrollable, and just have to take their course. Which means we don’t need to fund research or health care for women’s issues and it’s either pointless or unnatural for women to claim agency over their own bodies.

The sad thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Highlander worked in a season-long arc where Anne got pregnant by another man, and Duncan had to decide whether he wanted to take on the responsibilities of fatherhood and what that might look like. White Collar hid one of Tiffani Thiessen’s pregnancies with careful camera angles and worked another into a longer storyline, and had Marsha Thomason’s lesbian character choose to get pregnant and decide what that would mean for her career as a field agent. And Firefly, had it continued, was clearly setting up a pregnancy storyline for Wash and Zoe. There are ways to either sidestep the issue or embrace it as a storytelling challenge, even on an action/adventure show.

Pop culture profoundly shapes our understanding of issues, sometimes in positive ways, as when sympathetic gay characters boost LGBT acceptance, sometimes in negative ones, like when crime shows perpetuate negative stereotypes of blacks and latinos. Changing the Magical Pregnancy Trope, showing more women and couples choosing a pregnancy (or choosing to terminate one), showing pregnancy and labor as normal processes instead of body horror fantasies, and showing the normal consequence of carrying a pregnancy to term by writing infancy and childcare logistics into storylines could have a massive effect on how our culture understands pregnancy and women’s bodies in general.

Reading Stats, 2016

Not as much progress as I’d like, but progress nonetheless. My proportion of non-white, non-straight authors has gone up to 41%, and for the first time ever, women on my list outnumber men! As usual, I’m grading on a curve that is not in my favor: I don’t do a breakdown of anthologies, so the fact that I read the Big Book of Science Fiction because it had fantastic representation of female and non-white authors doesn’t affect my tallies in any way, and I only count authors once, to encourage myself to try lots of new authors, so the twenty-odd books by CJ Cherryh only count as one entry. That has a huge impact because I’m now at the stage where, having discovered a lot of new authors that I like, there are a lot of instances where I’m reading multiple works by the same author.

My tastes are definitely changing through this process. Some of the books I’ve tried have not been to my taste, but a lot of them have moved me, delighted me, and made me less patient with certain classics that are not only sexist and racist but that revolve around the angst of middle-aged white men and suddenly feel far less “universal” than they claim to be. The process of purging my shelves of books that no longer work for me has been interesting.

This year, I’ve been aided by good recommendation sources, so I’ll pass those on: Well-Read Black Girl has been reccing excellent books on their Twitter feed, including ones by new authors, and the Australian feminist podcast Galactic Suburbia offers wonderful suggestions of SFF books, movies, and TV shows with good representation of non-white, non-straight creators from around the globe. I also made an attempt this year to read all the female Hugo winners–not easy, even for such a short list, because most of them are out of print. Some were not to my taste, but others were freaking amazing.

Some of my favorites from the second half of the year
Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom
Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies
Seanan McGuire, Every Heart a Doorway
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake
Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie
Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Amir Hussain, Muslims and the Making of America

Final tally for 2016
32 male writers: 45%
37 female writers: 51%
3 mixed/anthologies: 4%

18 writers of color: 26%
10 LGBT writers: 14%
1 disabled writer: 1%
41 white, straight, cis: 59%

Still a ways to go, but getting there. I’d like to get to the point where white, straight, cis authors are half or less of my reading. We’ll see what the new year brings.

Jewish Intergalactic Princess

(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)

I was five when I saw Star Wars for the first time at my friend Danny’s house. We loved it so much that we spent the next two years playing games where we clambered up on rocks and swung down on tree branches like we were maneuvering through the Death Star together. At age five, I’m sure neither of us could take in all the nuances of a movie plot, but the unspoken rules of those games make it clear to me that even at age five, we both got the most important point: Leia was not the kind of princess who needed to be rescued; she and Luke took turns saving each other. Leia not only shaped the kind of princess I dreamed of being, she helped create a world where the boys around me could understand and even get enthusiastic about a girl who was as fearless as they were.

Princess Leia’s independent streak was largely due to the influence of Carrie Fisher, who kept lobbying George Lucas to make her character stronger. Most actresses on their second gig would just play their part, afraid that if they argued with the director, they’d be replaced by another pretty face and never work again. But as the daughter of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher had the confidence that came of being a Hollywood insider and was unafraid to push back.

She brought the same courage to her writing. As one of Hollywood’s most sought-after script doctors, Fisher gave the female characters in dozens of hit films personality and depth, but it was her autobiographical work that she was best known for. While many audience members went to see Postcards from the Edge for the titillating glimpse behind the curtain at Carrie Fisher’s drug addiction and her strained relationship with her larger-than-life mother, what stayed with us was the fierce humor and the powerful vulnerability of talking honestly about personal failure and maintaining relationships with parents who are as imperfect as we are. Wishful Drinking developed those ideas further and also revealed what it was like for Fisher to go from being a Hollywood sex symbol to experiencing the normal aging process that our body-policing culture considers taboo. Over and over again, Carrie Fisher reminded us that the world doesn’t end when our flaws are exposed for all to see. On the contrary, owning our imperfections and being unafraid to talk about our mistakes lets us grow beyond them.

Just last year, Carrie Fisher came full circle, reprising her role in Star Wars as General Leia Organa Solo, an experienced, indomitable woman who looked her age and didn’t need to apologize for it, a princess still quite capable of fighting her own battles. May her memory continue to offer us a model for living courageously.

The body politic

In an odd confluence, I had major surgery scheduled for Election Day. As this was the third (and hopefully final) in a series of surgeries that have gone well, I kept saying I was much more nervous about the election than I was about the operation. But between recovering from the previous surgery, gearing up for this one, and making sure I kept up my responsibilities to my job, I just wasn’t capable of doing things like volunteering with the campaign. I had to put myself first and trust everything would be okay.

Because no one really sleeps in a hospital, I was awake most of the time from midnight to three AM as Trump’s victory went from possible to likely to devastating fact. I’ve felt strangely lucky the past few days, as friends have expressed their shock, grief, anger, and fear, that my body’s demands have forced me to lower the volume on my emotional reaction to the national crisis. It’s also allowed me to do a lot of listening without needing to voice my own agenda, not always the easiest thing.

Here’s what I’ve got, three days in. As my strength returns, I need to be showing up for Black Lives Matter, Bend the Arc, and other social justice movements. I need to be supporting the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, both of which are going to be on the front lines for the next several years. I need to take an active role in making others feel safe and supported. I need to figure out how many hours and dollars per month I want to spend on these causes and make sure I’m hitting or going beyond that minimum every month.

I’ve always admired the Righteous Gentiles, the ordinary people who chose to help Jews survive and escape the Nazis when so many of their neighbors turned a blind eye. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this could very well be such a moment in history, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can, not just wringing my hands and becoming passively complicit.

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.