Thursday, January 23, 2014

Candor and Truth

In yesterday's post, in reference to the Divergent book series, I referred to candor as "telling the truth."

As I was walking home from the train yesterday, though, it occurred to me that a distinction exists between candor and truth, although many people use the terms somewhat interchangeably (including myself, at times, obvs).  For a statement to be candid, it does not have to be objectively true.  In a sense, a candid statement has to "truly" represent someone's thoughts, but the thought itself is often a subjective matter of opinion or it is "true" in the sense that it's an authentic emotion.

In in the context of debates and the so-called culture wars, I think that those who take an intense pride on being "politically incorrect" often make a similar mix-up.  When they make a statement about, say, the purported illogic or immorality of homosexuality, the "politically incorrect" seem to think they are telling the world some important truths that people these days need to hear.

It's helpful to remember that what they're usually speaking with is candor, and not in reference to a truth outside of their own opinions, emotions, and/or chosen religious and moral beliefs.

By the way, does anyone watch The Good Wife?  You know that judge, played by Ana Gasteyer, who hilariously adds " your opinion" to every argument the attorneys make?  Internet, debates, religion, and - let's face it - the world seriously needs an "in your opinion" generator that tacks that phrase onto every asinine, bigoted opinion that people try to pass off as truth.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reading Experiment Update: Allegiant and Excluded

On the 2014 Reading Experiment front in which I'm only reading books written by women writers this year, I have finished Julia Serano's Excluded and Veronica Roth's Allegiant.

As Serano is a feminist who holds a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics and one who has thought a lot about gender and identity, I always appreciate her perpspective and ideas. To me, one of the more useful tools I gain from reading her accessible-to-laypeople writing are the insights that we, as feminists, can concede that biology does impact our bodies while still maintaining that we can and should scrutinize and critique gender-based stereotypes (ie - traits thought of as "essential" to a gender but that, in fact, are not).

I also appreciate her insider critique of feminism as it's much more informed and nuanced than most of what passes for "critique" from those who aren't feminists and those who really know nothing about what feminists think. For me personally, it's much easier for me to accept criticism of a movement I identify with when I know that the person rendering the critique shares many of my basic assumptions about gender and that they, too, have thought about gender beyond simple "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" soundbites.

Anyway, one of my few critiques of the book itself is that it began to feel a bit repetitive to me, which may be due to it being a collection of essays.  That's not really a substantive criticism that invalidates her points, I just have limited reading-for-pleasure time and I found myself thinking, "Okay double standards are bad, I get it already!"

Moving on to Roth's book, Allegiant is Book 3 of her Divergent young-adult series. For a very short plot synopsis, the Divergent series is about a somewhat-dystopian US where people live in different factions where the members each emphasize and embody one of five different traits: candor, dauntless, abnegation, amity, and erudite.

Throughout the series, although perhaps simple, I found the faction concept to be incredibly thought-provoking. Within the factions, the various traits were exaggerated, thereby provoking the question of the extent to which these traits can co-exist not only within individuals but within a functioning society as well.  For instance, how might a faction that values telling the truth at all costs conflict with a faction that values maintaining peace and goodwill at all cost?  Are there ways to balance the goods of truth-telling and peace-keeping?

Allegiant is, I believe, the final book and I read it wanting to know how Roth would tie it all up. I find the series protagonist, Tris (a teenage girl) to be compelling, conflicted, and brave. The plot of Allegiant delves into other weighty issues like so-called genetic purity, eliminationism, and cleansing - as well as what identity itself even means.  On those fronts, I found the book interesting.

However, I also found myself feeling annoyed.  For one, while the previous two books were told in the first person from Tris' perspective, the third book was told in the first person from Tris' perspective and, in alternating chapters, from the first person in Tobias' perspective.

Tobias is an okay character, I guess (although from the Divergent movie preview I saw, I fear that the producers are turning him into the main protagonist and turning Tris into his adoring little follower, which is not the case in the books).  However, until the very end, I didn't really get why Roth made the decision to expand the viewpoint to include Tobias ( I won't give away spoilers).  To me, their voices weren't distinct enough internally so if I stopped reading the book mid-chapter and picked up again later, it often took me at least a few pages to even know who's head I was in.  I guess I don't like books where multiple characters are presented in the first person - or, it has to be done really well.

Secondly, Tobias is Tris' main love interest during the books. So, that's fine too. And maybe I'm showing how maybe a 30-something-year-old isn't exactly the target audience for this book, but. Imagine being around a teen couple that's, like, super new at being together and in love. Imagine every one of their meetings being A Really Big Romantic Deal that involved kissing, teasing, and petting. Imagine being in the room with this couple and hearing their kissy-mouth-smacky noises while they acted like you weren't even there.

Tobias and Tris did this to their friends constantly and I was super annoyed not only on my behalf but on behalf of the fictional friends who had to endure it. Nobody likes to hear other people's smacky noises.

Anyway, next up in my queue is Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey and Paris Was a Woman by Andrea Weiss.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Quote of the Day

I highlight the following quote because it aptly addresses that commentary sometimes heard wherein white people will sometimes say, "Whatever, I don't even see race" in response to a person of color pointing out racism, or when a heterosexual will fume, "Why do we even have to know that person's sexual orientation? Can't they just keep it to themselves?" in response to a famous person revealing that he or she is gay or bisexual, or when bigots everywhere are like, "That's just a buncha identity politics" whenever marginalized individuals organize themselves around a common shared oppression.

Says Julia Serano, from her latest book, Excluded:
"When we attempt to compel minority and marginalized groups to relinquish their identity labels, our concern is entirely misplaced, as the tendency toward homogenization lies not with the marginalized group's choice of labels, but with the projecting of stereotypes onto the group in the first place. To this point, I could choose to reject the labels 'transexual,' 'bisexual," or 'woman' if I wanted, but that would not stop other people from perceiving, stereotyping, or marginalizing me for being these very things. The only thing that abandoning these identity labels would accomplish is making it more difficult for me to talk about the marginalization I face at the hands of the dominant majority."

People who aren't fans of so-called "identity politics" also often aren't fans of equality, dignity, and characterizing people fairly and in accordance with reality.  Their desire to rid the world of "identity politics" is often, when we scratch beyond the surface, a desire to rid the marginalized of an important tool to talk about and counter our oppression.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Thing I Like: American Horror Story

For 2014, I want to try to remember to do some more "positive" posts.  Not sure why I'm using scare/sneer quotes there, perhaps I have a general aversion to all things toxic-forced-optimistic/positive.  It's my blog and I'll cry if I want to, dammit!

But seriously, many things in life make me happy and are pleasing to me and I want to start a somewhat-regular series talking about those things.  I should note that the media, people, articles, and things I choose for this new series may indeed be, and probably are, problematic in some ways - and I may point those things out (and feel free to do so also). It's a fact of life for me that enjoyment in life often comes with having to compartmentalize racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise-problematic elements from entertaining things.

So, that being said, I've been binge-watching all of the seasons of American Horror Story.  I've long been a fan of the horror genre and, actually, began reading Stephen King novels at the probably-too-young age of sometime in grade school.

Growing up, I was bored by the Friday the 13th type of slasher shows, and was more drawn to books like Misery where it seemed like the plot could maybe happen in real life or movies like the Nightmare on Elm Street series that, although slasher-y, also contained a scary psychological element.  Like, how awful would it be to be scared to go to sleep because of this scary dude who might kill you in your dreams?  Nightmare also had some pretty badass female characters, too.

*Spoilers and discussion of events on American Horror Story, all seasons; also content note for racism and general horror show stuff*

All of the seasons are remarkable, to me, for having a variety of female characters in addition to their subtle and sometimes-more-explicit critiques of traditional narratives about gender and family. The cast is mostly white, although that somewhat changes in Season 3, yet the female characters include those who are old, young, queer, disabled, mentally ill, thin, fat, and in-between.

While the beginning of Season 1, Murder House, might initially lead viewers to think that Ben, the adulterous, murderous husband, would be the main protagonist, he quickly - in my opinion - becomes supremely unlikable and secondary.  It's largely his wife Vivian, and those who are often mired in "supporting character" roles to the "Ben" roles, who end up as the (anti?)-heroes of the show.

One of my soundbite take-aways from that season is that family success and happiness are not obtainable by simple equations like "1 man + woman + their biological children," but rather honesty, openness, and trust. By the end of the series, the protagonist nuclear family doesn't seem to start effectively functioning as a family until they're all dead, there are no more secrets between them, and they're Beetlejuicing potential new homeowners away from the residence.

I'm currently engrossed in Season 3, Coven, and here are my somewhat random thoughts on it:

  • By my calculations it seems as though Coven has the incredibly rare honor of not passing a reverse Bechdel Test.  That is, I have yet to think of any one scene that exists in which two men talk to each other about something other than a woman! I'm okay with that, too. And, I'm going to justify me being okay with that by only noting that I've endured more than 3 decades of movies and TV shows failing the Bechdel Test, so yes, I can be happy about this one of the few things in the media that is so explicitly female-centric.
  • Jessica Lange is amazing. She's great in all 3 seasons, actually, I think.
  • Likewise, with Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Francis Conroy, and upcoming Stevie Nicks cameos, I find it difficult to think of a TV show or movie that features multiple women aged 55 or over that isn't called Cocoon.
  • I find myself more drawn to the older and middle-aged female characters, but of the "young witches," it's Queenie, portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe, who so far is perhaps the most decent witch of the bunch.  She has every reason to hate the racist Delphine LaLaurie, and maybe she does, but she's largely been compassionate. And, the scene in which she forced the body-less Delphine to watch Roots to overcome her racism was bizarrely moving. 
  • And, the finality of that scene, in which the white Cordelia's witch-hunter husband opened fire in Marie Laveau's salon, seemed to be a powerful statement about white women's alliances with white men. Until she lost her vision, Cordelia had been oblivious to her husband's membership in a patriarchal "brotherhood" of men who hate, hunt, and kill witches. Ultimately, Cordelia's husband whatever-his-name-is, ends up killing Marie's allies not only because he fears for his own life but because he loves Cordelia and wants to protect her.
  • I'm also intrigued by portrayals of female leaders. In Coven, we see several models of female leadership. Fiona was strong, for instance, but seems to have squandered her strength and ability to mentor other women by being selfish and absent. Cordelia is soft-spoken and the acting head of the witch school. Although she seems hesitant to see herself as a leader, others come to see her as one perhaps because she shows a quiet strength.  Marie is the leader of the voodoo practitioners and, through flashbacks, we see that she leads by providing a sanctuary from racism and by seeking revenge on the racists who have harmed her allies. 
Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing where Coven will go in the remaining episodes, particularly the potential alliance between Marie Laveux and the Salem witches.  I wish I cared more about what happened with the Frankendude Kyle plot, but I don't. And the zombies? Please tell me zombies will be "out" by the time 2014 ends.

What do others think - are you watching this too?