We’re bringing you our recommended reading list a day early this week because we’re taking tomorrow off in preparation for some big changes. As of Monday, Canonball will reside at a new URL (just visit this blog to be redirected there), completely redesigned for ease of use and etc. Until then, here’s an extra-long Week As We Read It to get you through your Canonball long weekend.

In Which Tina Fey Engages With Pee Jars and Breast Milk by Dayna Evans, This Recording. On Fey’s newly-released book, Bossypants:

It is bothersome, however, that Fey chooses to consistently devalue her intellect, appearance, and work. It becomes a tired act less than halfway through the book. Though Fey is consistently praised for being both winsome and accessible while remaining sharp and in charge, she rarely acknowledges the latter qualities in Bossypants, and it is positively infuriating. Why can’t Fey take a moment off from the homely girl routine and write with pride about her numerous accomplishments?

When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink? by Jeanne Maglaty, Smithsonian. Historian Jo B. Paoletti on the origins of the pink-blue divide:

For centuries, she says, children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6. “What was once a matter of practicality — you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached — became a matter of ‘Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they’ll grow up perverted,’ ” Paoletti says.

On Ashley Judd and the Politics of Citation by moyazb, Crunk Feminist Collective. Actress Judd recently called rap music the “contemporary soundtrack of misogyny” – a lot of people agreed but failed to acknowledge the black women who made the same point before Judd:

If we can all turn to the Ten Crunk Commandments for Re-Invigorating Hip Hop Feminist Studies, we’ll see that the first commandment reminds us to “know and cite” authors who have shaped the field of hip-hop feminism. This commandment doesn’t just apply to Judd but also to some of her defenders. If you are going to defend her position, can you cite the black women who have actually done work on the issue in scholarship, film, and action? The “she has a point” camp feels dismissive of decades of resistance and carefully crafted projects by hip-hop feminists and activists.

Trans-Formative Change by Meaghan Winter, Guernica. Winter speaks with Dean Spade, “America’s first openly transgender law professor”:

The average life span of a transgender person is twenty-three years. The statistic is shocking, until it begins to make sense. Gender non-conformists face routine exclusion and violence. Transgender people are disproportionately poor, homeless, and incarcerated. Many of the systems and facilities intended to help low-income people are sex-segregated and thereby alienate those who don’t comply with state-imposed categories. A trans woman may not be able to secure a bed in a homeless shelter, for example. Spade writes that just as the feminist movement tended to “focus on gender-universalized white women’s experience as ‘women’s experience,’” the lesbian- and gay-rights movement has focused primarily on a white, middle-class politic, centered on marriage and mainstream social mores.

Another Equal Pay Day? Really? by Marlo Thomas, Huffington Post. The actress and activist reflects on America’s gender-based wage gap:

I still have my little green button from 1970 – with “59¢” emblazoned on it – tacked to my bulletin board. I remember how we all wore that button on our t-shirts as we marched to protest the gender pay disparity of that time. Now we’re at 77 cents. Forty years and 18 cents. A dozen eggs has gone up 10 times that amount.

Women and the public space: Part 1 (Part 2 is here) by Mehrunisa Qayyum and Ramah Kudaimi, Altmuslimah. On making the mosque a space for women, as well as men:

There continues to persist the notion that a woman’s responsibilities and influence should remain confined to the privacy of her home, while a man’s rightful place is in the public sphere. If a woman does venture into a public space, she must defer ultimate decision making power to a man. Although one might shrug off this idea as a relic of the past that no longer applies to the educated, professional Muslim American women we see in 2011, when it comes to issues of religion, “the mosque is for men” mindset still prevails. Thus women’s prayer spaces are tucked away in basements or behind barriers, women are only put in charge of sisters’ and children’s programming, and female prayer goers are expected to dress a modest and somewhat formal way, while men can show up in their pajamas.

Sharing a story: Opening our worlds to the gift by Tami Winfrey Harris, Love Isn’t Enough. A roundtable of female writers discuss the need for diversity in children’s books. Mitali Perkins notes:

As a kid who is “non-white” or a “person of color,” you spend a lot of energy becoming fluent in the majority culture of North America. A book featuring someone who is of your culture feels like a haven. It’s downright empowering to be represented in literature — and now we’re back where we started: to power, which is what words, books, and stories can either take away or endow.

Life Among the One Percent by s.e. smith, Tiger Beatdown. On asexuality: what it is and what it isn’t:

Some asexual people orient themselves along a spectrum of romanticism and aromanticism, describing the natural of the attractions they feel; being asexual doesn’t mean you are not attracted to people, only that you do not experience sexual attraction. Nor does it mean that the nature of those attractions is inherently weaker because sex is not involved.

Elsewhere on the internet: Amy Poehler lived up to her role model status. The Hairpin introduced us to our new favorite comic. Ann Friedman called for an end to “new kings of” whatever. Female authors made an impressive showing on last year’s most challenged library book list. And we took a gin-soaked tour of the home of the late poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. See you at our new (gin-soaked?) home next week, Canoneers!

James Worsdale hasn’t been able to so shamelessly dabble in postmodern-gender musings in years and he kind of maybe definitely loves it.

I open this review with a presumably cringe-inducing question to the reader, is there a difference between “a strong female character” and “a strong character who happens to be female”? An admittedly antifeminist distinction to draw and work around, I know. And a distinction that still leaves a serious representational deficit in both categories. But I promise I won’t leave it at that. Is there a way to create a character that seems to inhabit a space more within the latter of those categories, but through learning from those in the former, subverts the very logic that that question posits itself in and around? And through introducing such a character into this binary framework, who adapts to it while muddling it, isn’t that introducing a character that subverts and undermines the very logic of patriarchy? That logic that feminism seeks to draw attention to and resist?

From a recent Canonball-induced craving for a reinterpretation of and greater appreciation for strong female characters, alongside increasing evidence of the feminist messaging and framework this film was based in and around, I excitedly went to see Hanna this past weekend (and fortunately was one of many who chose to do so) and was in awe of how well it fulfilled the need for feminist reclamations in both the action and fairytale genres, artfully choreographed a tale of determination despite violent chaos and crushing disillusionment, and created a desexualized, brilliant and focused heroine.

A brief plot synopsis for the unaware (and plot spoilers intentionally kept to a minimum): Hanna (Saoirse Ronan…a force of nature this young lady) is a teenage girl living with her father, Erik (Eric Bana) in the woods, undergoing physically and intellectually intensive training for an ambiguous purpose. You quickly gather that Hanna is a genius, transitioning flawlessly in conversation with her father from English to German to Spanish so on and so forth, and has learned all she knows from her father’s rigorous teachings with the ultimate intention and interest of survival. Adapt or die. She informs her father that she is ready for life on the outside, what that entails is unknown at this point.

Erik shows Hanna a switch to flip and lets her know that when she does, they will come and find them, and he and Hanna’s plan will commence. You hear the details of their plan as Erik grills Hanna on her back story and route to their end destination, which will bring them together at a recreated home from one of Grimm’s fairytales. Declaring herself ready, she flips the switch and the race begins. Erik flees, according to plan, and a team of soldiers arrives at the home in the woods to seize him. You gather from back story at this point that Erik is a rogue agent of sorts and he and Hanna were in hiding from Marissa Weigler (a cartoonishly villainous and ginger-haired Cate Blanchett). Holding Hanna in an interrogation cell, she lets the people she’s speaking with know that she needs to speak with

Unsure of what she will do, they send in an impersonator, on whom Hanna demonstrates her strength and agility in an act of vengeance. Escaping the unit she takes her and her father’s plan to the next level and shows Weigler just how little she can afford to underestimate her. Hanna turns out to be in Morocco, where she befriends a girl (the first she’s seen since her mother’s death when she was a baby) and her family who react to her eccentricity welcomingly. The differences in viewpoints and expectations also provide for some moments of humor.

Here the narrative reaches a very interesting point in that Hanna’s made sense of existence on the outside through her father’s teachings, largely through his reciting fairytales to her, though with the ubiquitous message of survival as the priority. In this sense, her interactions with this family and her suddent presence in this conventional world reminded me of another fairytale adaptation, Enchanted. Though, I assure you, in this fairytale, Hanna does not end up with McDreamy. Hanna gathers from this family real feelings of friendship, sisterhood, and family outside of the narrative she had built her life in and around. This paralleled with Wiegler’s relentless hunt, as well as some harsh realizations that I won’t reveal, unravels the thread of Hanna’s fairytale narrative and shatters her illusion. Though despite this inevitable disappointment, Hanna perseveres, always remembering to prioritize survival above any lie.

Lindsay’s question still remains surrounding the perceived necessity for masculinization and militarization of female heroines to be ordained into the canon of “strong female characters.” But I went into this movie already thinking that Hanna was a kick-ass character for reasons other than kicking-ass. Hanna is “not just an avatar for an idea” but is presented with enough nuance and complexity that her presence transcends the phallogocentrism and the conflating of strength with masculinity. Once she enters the sphere of “the outside” her femininity is omnipresent and appreciated, though it does not hold her back from asserting herself and it does not pin her down in interpreting herself. She comes from a place where her gender does not define her, but her survival does.

When she enters the outside, however, her existence as a woman is read by those surrounding her as presumably weaker and submissive (particularly in an interaction with a young Spaniard that is at times romantic but ultimately hysterical and empowering) but she utilizes the same survival mechanisms she learned from her father to do just that, to survive. She doesn’t use her femininity, she barely even considers it. She is here to survive, her survival is her existence. This feminist, dare I say, post-female interpretation of herself was the intention of director Joe Wright, saying, “I think the character exists outside of gender, in the same way that perhaps an angel does; and partly because I didn’t want her to exist within the kind of binary-opposition thinking. Her personality as a female is not reliant on there being a male.” So is Hanna a post-female feminist heroine? You will have to go see and decide for yourself. But as I said, regardless of where you categorize her, Hanna will survive, despite just missing your heart.

Kara Newhouse has roamed the world and feels most at home among children’s books.

There aren’t many things I remember from “family and consumer sciences” classes in middle school. Topics like financial planning and family budgeting didn’t seem relevant to my life, and the dry manner in which such subjects were taught did nothing to entice me. One day in child development class has stuck in my memory, though. We were learning about teenage pregnancy. After watching a video about a teenage mom whose boyfriend left after the baby was born, our teacher began talking to us from the assumption that, in the majority of teen pregnancies, fathers don’t take responsibility. A classmate of mine spoke out in anger about the assumption — her brother was 18 and taking primary care of his 2-year-old daughter. Our teacher called the brother an exception to the rule, which only made my classmate angrier and disinvested in anything the teacher had to say on the topic.

Perhaps that family and consumer sciences teacher could use a little perspective from the world of young adult fiction. Specifically, from the book Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman. Published in 2010, this novel is written in the voice of Dante, a 17-year-old whose future plans are set dramatically off course by the revelation of fatherhood. Just months before he’s supposed to head to university, Dante’s ex-girlfriend, who left school a year prior, shows up at his door with a baby. She tells Dante that he’s the father and then she does a runner. (Blackman is a British author and hence the book is full of British lingo like “does a runner,” which sounds a bit nicer than “ditches her daughter in Dante’s living room.”)

A book written by a woman author from the perspective of a teenage boy, addressing an issue typically associated with teenage girls, Boys Don’t Cry is chock full of gender threads to discuss. The fact that Dante’s younger brother, Adam, is gay plays an important role in the plot as well. What the book really centers on is emotions and how the characters express, or don’t express their feelings. When Dante learns that he has a child, he goes through a convincing gamut of emotions, tied up with physical reactions ranging from horrible stomach knots to impulses to run far and fast. Mostly he feels scared and alone, not knowing how to care for an infant. When his father insists that Dante actually hold his daughter, he thinks,

Did he think I’d hold it in my arms and suddenly realize just how much I loved it? Well, I didn’t. I felt nothing. And that, more than anything else, scared the hell out of me the most.

But Dante isn’t actually alone. From the moment he finds out he is a grandfather, Dante’s dad, despite calling his son bloody stupid, kicks into high gear, guiding and demanding Dante in how to be a responsible single father. And he would know— since Dante’s mother died when Dante and Adam were small children.

Thus it happens that besides being about a teen dad, this novel focuses on an all-male, emotionally-stifled household into which a baby girl is dropped. It’s a fairly predictable trajectory, then, that by falling in love with and focusing on Emma, the boys and men of the house learn to share their feelings with each other and communicate about their relationships. A family that lost its mother misses out on the ability to be sensitive and expressive until a gal of another generation comes along! Prodding from a pushy aunt helps the process.

So I had to wonder, would this trajectory work if Dante’s baby were a boy? In the overall idea, perhaps, but it’s surprising for me to realize how, even at age one, I would imagine the character’s ways of relating to the other characters differ based on gender. Of course Dante and his family would love his child if it were male, but could a baby boy be written with the same sort of emotion-prompting charm with which Blackman endowed Emma? It’s possible, but it may make the story seem as if it were trying too hard.

Because the tricky thing about gendered behaviors is that — even though it’s eye-opening to understand them as the results of socialization and expectation — people really carry them out. While I don’t think it’s the only way boys and men can or do exist in the world, the stubbornly critical and secretly loving relationship between Dante and his father is a fair representation of the ways many men I know interact. Changing those relationships may take more than hanging out with babies and ladies, but it’s still fun to read about Dante and his family trying to figure it out.

Which makes me curious about what other books are out there offering stereotype-breaking models to young male readers. (Did I mention the title-worthy line that Dante says to his brother in one of the final chapters? “Boys don’t cry, but real men do.”) Maybe it’s not just my middle school FCS teacher who should read Boys Don’t Cry. What if, for instance YA fiction were used as curriculum material for learning about topics like teen pregnancy? Reading this novel certainly would’ve been more relatable to me than dull birth statistics, and perhaps less angering for my classmate. It would also have the potential to broaden teenage boys’ ideas about how to respond to their feelings and relate to others.

[Every Tuesday, Canonball revisits a Young Adult Fiction classic. Previously we featured Walk Two Moons, The Giver and The Westing Game. As always, email us if you’d like to contribute a piece.]

Hilary Crowe and Kristen Powell discuss the possibilities of intellectual and creative strap-ons.

Kristen: So, Hil, I introduced you to Odd Future a couple days ago. Since I broke my foot a few weeks ago I’ve been trapped inside reading the Internet, and you have been leading a more exciting life as an academic with really, really cool things to do. What did you think of them off the bat?

Hilary: Well, my intro was the video posted on their website, “Yonkers,” where Tyler, the Creator raps over one of the most interesting beats I’ve heard in a while. And eats a cockroach, vomits, and talks about raping women and murdering Bruno Mars until he ends it all and hangs himself. It was minimalistic, formalistic, and actually quite beautiful and interesting to watch. And to hear. And offensive! I think I gasped with every line and frame change. But you couldn’t deny his talent, and the visual intelligence of the video. In short, I was impressed and upset.

You’ve been aware of them longer than I have. What do you think about them, assuming you’ve had some more time to digest what’s going on?

Kristen: I don’t know, honestly. I listen to them a lot. But it would be inaccurate to say that I don’t get upset by what’s being said. The Bruno Mars thing? It shows up a lot, along with some digs at B.o.B. and that girl from Paramore who sings on “Airplanes.” Tyler’s super critical of what he considers homogenized mainstream music. A lot of what Odd Future does is about shock value.

Also, those killer beats? That’s only girl in Odd Future, Syd tha Kid. She’s AWESOME.

Hilary: Is that her voice on “Slow It Down”?

Kristen: I’m not sure. She doesn’t rap, and the only song that she actually did everything on was “Flashlight.” Her brother is also in OFWGKTA.

Hilary: About being shocked and upset by their music: I think it’s a good thing, and perhaps an admirable endeavor as an artist. In my own research, I’ve been thinking a lot about spectacle, and Guy Debord’s notion of the Spectre of the Spectacle—how fascination with one artistic creation and consequent over- reproduction leads to a depletion of its original meaning. Which I think gets to Tyler’s frustration with mainstream music. I’ve been nostalgic for spectacle, asking myself, “What is spectacle?” today, and whether anything can be truly spectacular again. Perhaps “upsetting” is the new “spectacular”?

Like, my eyes almost popped out of my head when I heard “Yonkers.”

Kristen: I mean, it’s not like being offensive for the sake of being offensive is new in music. The group’s gotten a lot of comparisons to NWA but Alex Vesey at Feminist Music Geek compared Tyler to Darby Crash. And damn, that’s apt. What Odd Future is doing, to me, seems to have a lot in common with punk. I mean, maybe I’m biased because I’m a huge punk devotee, but how is what Odd Future is doing that different from, say, the Sex Pistols?

Except Odd Future is talented.

Hilary: I totally agree. It’s that deadly combination of talent and knack for spectacle (and the DIY self-promotion that goes along with it). But punk was spectacular theatrically, if unsophisticated musically. Odd Future is like a throwback to the truly spectacular, like Victorian-era spectacular. I guess I was thinking more along the lines of the fact that these guys are young, intelligent, led by an extreme talent, and know how to present themselves to maximum effect/affect. I think it’s because of all of that, and their strong sense of self-determination and focus, that I think they break with punk. Also, a lot of punk was political, while I think Odd Future, at least from the interviews I’ve read with Tyler, is more social-political, specifically analyzing issues of race and class as it affects their (again, I guess I mean Tyler specifically) experience of being educated, pretty well-off, black kids. In an interview Tyler did with The Drone (posted on their Tumblr), he talked about how he dressed like a goth kid, listened to Good Charlotte, and was shit on for it. Basically, he’s angry, obviously, and he’s doing something productive and creative with that anger.

I guess I’m more fascinated with them from an art criticism perspective. Can and should we evaluate music based on content or form? I think this is why I have problems with the music: I love the sound, I hate the message. What’s a girl to do?

Kristen: Their level of spectacle, you’re right, is remarkable. It is interesting too, that Tyler was mocked for being into Good Charlotte and ended up choosing a mode of expression usually associated with young black men (like him). It reminds me of Harry Belafonte bringing calypso to the masses. Except opposite. Belafonte used his status as a “privileged exotic” to make a traditionally political music form seem safe, which was really subversive. Odd Future totally does the opposite; they use the medium expected of them to surprise and stretch the boundaries of what’s acceptable.

And I totally agree with with the form/content issue. I also showed you Lil B in the same breath as Odd Future, and what a huge difference.

Hilary: GOD, Lil B is so untalented, and I don’t think the form is that interesting.

Kristen: In particular, I showed you “Ellen Degeneres,” which we both found pretty offensive. But in “Sandwitches” Tyler also kind of puts Ellen down.

Hilary: I mean, sure deconstruction, as you mentioned, whatever. But really, it’s been done before, and done better.

Kristen: Exactly! They’re hitting some of the same points, but I’m definitely giving Odd Future a pass. Because they’re interesting. I think it’s kind of impossible to divorce the message from the medium, since the medium kind of is the message.

Hilary: I agree. But, then, what is the effect of this discourse—this unbelievable catchy, viral presentation and circulation of Tyler’s rape-crazy cultural commentary? I guess I’m concerned with how his words circulate and contribute to the visibility and social compliance with rape culture. Even if he is supposedly writing from the perspective of a serial killer, or so he claims about “Yonkers.” (I really freaking love that song, clearly.)

Why is it that when a man writes about rape, documenting the horror of it (as if he can imagine), it’s viewed as upsetting and important, it’s talked about, while when a woman writes about it, she’s being predictable, it’s boring, and nobody—except other feminists—bats an eye. Let alone devotes a lengthy Pitchfork deconstruction of the artist’s importance in culture. Are women just inept at choosing an effective medium? Or are women’s words so devalued that they can’t be recovered, even by a rap prodigy? Has a woman tried to do this? I am ashamed I’m not even aware of that possibly having happened.

Kristen: Honestly, Tyler’s obsession with rape is pretty indefensible. (Note: I kind of hate how we’ve reduced Odd Future to Tyler.) I would love for him to move on. I mean, I know, he’s what, 19? Young dudes love being shocking in the basest way possible. But, also, on “Bitches Brewin‘” (a Miles Davis reference no less!) he talks about losing his virginity to a twenty-six year-old. That’s interesting! That’s worth talking about! Guys never talk about losing their virginity, especially not in rap songs. That kind of stuff is ACTUALLY subversive. It’s not the musical equivalent of drawing a dick on a bathroom wall. Rap is already filled with assholes talking about bitches and hoes and whatever. Writing a song about rape is like drawing a dick over a urinal: there are already dicks everywhere. What I’m basically saying is, I’d like to see Odd Future use their powers for good.

Hilary: I mean, that still doesn’t get to my question about women as cultural producers of a discourse that runs counter to the musical equivalent of bathroom dick graffiti. Why do we ask dudes to mature and move on from their juvenile rape focus (not that we and they shouldn’t)? Why don’t we hold women responsible for creating a counter argument?

I think it goes back to the idea of the privileged position of cultural producers. These dudes did it themselves. DIY, and he got his video on MTV. Plus, I mean listen to those beats. He’s pretty fucking talented. But the bigger issue here, and I would venture to say also related to Lindsay’s post about women in film, needing strong characters: Okay, are we as women going to write those characters and make those films ourselves, or are we going to write about how someone else needs to make those films? Are we going to use our agency to complain or to create? Odd Future, I’d argue, uses their agency to do both—he calls himself “Tyler, the Creator” for God’s sake! If we don’t like it, time for us to talk back.

Kristen: Amen. Even the song I referenced before that Syd wrote all of is basically a ballad. Where are the subversive women in rap? Moreover, is there an acceptable way for women to talk about rape that would work in music?

Hilary: I would venture to say that yes, there is. Women could express the anger and violation they feel about rape perfectly in rap. Also, not that I agree with violence for violence, but why couldn’t women rap about murderous retaliation against rape? Tyler raps about killing his dad because he left him alone. Why not rap about someone who harassed the shit out of your body? I think a lot of times rape survivors are painted as passive, at fault, and unsympathetic because they are reluctant to report the violation. As if there are no consequences to rape for rapists. Or to rapping about rape. A bloody rap about revenge, I think, might make people rethink the passivity of survivors. (Or will it be ignored, because it’s expected/feminist, etc.? Not if it’s offensive enough!) And I would say that it’s possible these raps exist. I mean I think/hope they’d have to, but maybe the women who create them aren’t as good, or aren’t as good at self-promotion. I think it gets to issues of spectacle, gaze, and empowerment.

I’ve heard the argument that women aren’t confident enough to step into the role of cultural producer because they have no role models, or are cut down, or are worried and taught to worry about what people will say about them, always conscious and subject of a panoptic gaze (including that of other women). But the role model thing, I’m beginning to realize is partly bullshit.

I still don’t really have a woman I look up to, it’s all dudes. (Though I’ve recently struck Iggy Pop from that list.) None of them went to college (or at least finished college). They just did it. We could talk about the androcentric environment that contributed to their success, and not a woman’s, but the fact is we are a lot freer now and could theoretically do it. But either we’re not doing it or we’re not doing it as well, with as much conviction, bravado, or knack for spectacle (maybe because we are tired of being looked at?). But maybe I never did it like Ian MacKaye or John Waters because something in me placed just enough distance between what I saw in them versus me. Like the length of a penis.

Kristen: I see a lady call to arms in there. I think you just proposed a dick-measuring contest we could win.

Amelia Long lives in Austin, Texas. She is a volunteer coordinator by day and a volunteer with her local abortion fund by night.

We’re 30 days into the nationwide 40 Days for Life protest, which means abortion clinic workers still have 10 more days of protesters praying on their sidewalks and offering clients “sidewalk counseling” as they approach clinic buildings.

Meanwhile, the awesome CLPP (Civil Liberties and Public Policy) conference is going on this weekend at Hampshire College – and being liveblogged at Feministing and Amplify.  CLPP is a national organization for repro rights and repro justice movement-building.

Abortion rights, at the state level, continue to face legislative death-by-a-thousand-cuts:

  • In Iowa, Ohio, AlabamaIdahoOklahoma, Missouri and probably even more states, lawmakers moved forward with bills banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, based on claims that a fetus can feel pain at that stage of development. Nebraska and North Carolina already ban abortions after 20 weeks, while 36 other states ban abortions after 24 weeks.
  • Idaho, Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri and Louisiana are trying to ban insurance plans covering abortion from inclusion in the state’s health exchange. End result: people in those states whose insurance is not covered by an employer would continue to pay for abortions out of their own pockets.  (For more on the issue, see Katherine Greenier’s article “Why Insurance Coverage for Abortion Matters” from RH Reality Check this week.)
  • But… Montana’s Democratic governor vetoed such a proposition, saying it violated the state’s constitution.
  • Last week, Arizona passed a law that not only made race- and sex-selective abortion a felony but also “allows the father of an aborted fetus – or, if the mother is a minor, the mother’s parents – to take legal action against the doctor or other health-care provider who performed the abortion.”
  • Arizona also now requires doctors to perform all abortions (surgical and medical) by defining the administration of abortion pills as “surgery.”  The bill also outlaws telemedicine in the case of abortion.

On the bright side of things, the racist anti-abortion billboard I petitioned against in Austin got taken down (coverage via How to Have Sex in Texas).  In its place is the “Pregnant? Scared?” campaign that was up there before.  I’m not really counting this as a victory, especially since the replacement billboard, as an advertisement for a crisis pregnancy center (a.k.a. fake abortion clinic) is still racist.  (See Akiba Solomon’s “Crisis Pregnancy Centers: One More Weapon Against Women of Color” last week on Colorlines.)

A new racist anti-African-American-abortion billboard in Chicago featured President Obama’s image and drew a rapid activist response.

I’ll leave you with some good listening for your weekend:  audio from a reproductive justice bloggers panel in New York (via Feministing).

Mia, on what she knows best.

If you are a loyal reader of this blog (You are, aren’t you?), then you’ve probably noticed that every third post or so, I manage to sneak in a “LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT BRITISH FILMS BASED ON BOOKS” moment. I will not apologize for this. I refuse to apologize for my love of books come to life. Also: pretty costumes. As such, I was delighted a few weeks ago to see that The Awl featured a list of 10 British costume dramas you should check out. To which I reply, belatedly, “Yes, yes, but there are more!”

So, take it from someone whose default Netflix recommendation is for “British Period Pieces with a Strong Female Lead Based on the Book” – here are some recent adaptations that do justice to their lady-penned books.

Wuthering Heights, 2009

The only other adaptation I’ve seen of this Emily Bronte book is the 1939 feature film starring Laurence Olivier. Which, you know, swoon. But it’s a tad too 1939-Hollywood-melodrama for my taste. Because what I really want is 2009-British TV-melodrama. And this version delivers. Seriously, watch the trailer: watch Heathcliff lay down in the coffin with Cathy’s boney remains. I dare you not to cry three to five times during your viewing.

Cranford, 2007

Now that you’re emotionally drained, you’re probably in the mood for something cozier. Something starring, say, Judy Dench. Well. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is pretty much as cozy as it gets. I mean, sure, there’s a bit of class struggle and some gruesome scenes of 19th century surgery. But the miniseries abounds with small-town gossip and restrained humor. Extra points for portraying a society in which women play pivotal – and powerful – roles.

Persuasion, 2007

Persuasion might be my favorite Jane Austen novel, and this TV movie is among my favorite Austen adaptations. (Okay, yes, if this were Literature Adaptations for Beginners, I’d probably include the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. Because, swoon. But we’re more Advanced here, aren’t we?) This is a story about second chances and growing older – it’s not Austen’s cheeriest story from the outset, but it is very funny, and though the story is predictable, it’s the sort of predictability that’s very satisfying from a love story. Also this is one of the better love letters in literature; please direct similar epistles to me to @canon_blog.

I Capture the Castle, 2003

Now, while I love a good 19th century period piece, I’m also quite fond of early 20th century period pieces, since I’m a fan of industry and innovation and looking at outfits that I could maybe incorporate into my own wardrobe. I’ve mentioned Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle here before – I just can’t say enough good things about this coming-of-age story about a girl and her wacky family who live in a crumbling castle in 1930s England. Then some Americans come to town. And love! Love is in the air!  But we also learn a lot about ourselves. Playing the lead role is Romola Garai, who also stars in another classic novel adaptation or two that you should see.

Which favorites did I miss, readers? Are there maybe movies based on books by women who aren’t British? (Yes?) Please share.

In which Lindsay reveals that her muscles are made of CGI.

Hollywood hates women” is the line going around this week, thanks to Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece (sorry dudes, behind a paywall) about comedienne Anna Faris and the commentary (which I like to call “Internet dust”) it’s kicked up. Though it’s nice to see this conversation taking place in the mainstream media — and Friend’s article is thoughtful and refreshingly plaintive (“Studio executive believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm.”), it all just prompts me to say, “Well yeah, duh.” Those of us who follow the Women and Hollywood beat know the drill: every year or so, we are treated to one of these State of the Lady in Hollywood exposes, replete with all sorts of quotes and statistics that make us feel totally helpless, and then up from the comments sections spring all sorts of well-intentioned but maddeningly vague rally cries about how we can make it better. “We just need more strong female characters!”, goes one of these refrains. And Hollywood, on the rare occasion that it acknowledges the sound of tiny people shouting, replies with a wave of its hand, “Strong female characters? We’ve got those! Have y’all seen Tomb Raider? And…like…Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life?” Which makes obvious something that we’ve always known: Hollywood has no idea what a strong female character actually looks like.

Blockbuster Hollywood’s idea of a Strong Female Character involves some kind of hybrid between brute, male strength and hyperfeminized sexuality: an Uzi-toting Rosie the Riveter with a 16-inch waist and CGI boobs. In recent years, Hollywood has inundated us with representations of this particular vision of strength, from the aforementioned Tomb Raider (and, for that matter, the entire cult of personality surrounding Angelina Jolie) to Charlie’s Angels to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle right up to Sucker Punch (the latter of which Sady Doyle terrifically skewered in an Atlantic piece last week).

The problem with this definition of “strength” is that it’s rooted in the patriarchal notion that bigger is better, might is right, and that “weakness,” its opposite, is inherently feminine. For these characters, strength is one’s ability to step in line with a paradigm that is already tainted with misogyny; feminine strength is one’s ability to, in the elegant words of pop phenom Jessie J, “do it like a dude.” (Interestingly enough, this is also the problem that Anna Faris and others experience in the realm of comedy; in Friend’s article, a director praises her for not being “light and sweet…she’s funny like a guy would be funny.”) Once those muscles have been sufficiently flexed, the only “feminine” traits that these Strong Female Characters are allowed to exhibit are those which have been pre-approved by the patriarchy; so, namely, CGI boobs.The Strong Female Character is not one who’s able to provide a personal revision as to what strength is and what it looks like, but one who’s able to successfully navigate the narrow channels in which she’s allowed to be visible in the mainstream Hollywood film.

So if we can’t look to Hollywood for unproblematic views of female strength, can we find them instead in the margins? Not really, says Elizabeth Greenwood, who recently proposed that indie cinema kind of hates women too. In an article entitled “Why So Many Boring Women in Indie Film?” she implicates a number of supposedly more enlightened films for portraying female characters as “meek,” “mild” and “utterly forgettable”  and accuses both male and female filmmakers of “hav[ing] shown little regard for their young female protagonists as people.”

It’s a brave and noble piece, one that articulates something I’ve felt but haven’t quite been able to name — but I only agree with her to a point. First of all, I’ll acknowledge the false dichotomy I’m setting up between “Hollywood films” and “indie films” here; in film as in music, “indie” is no longer synonymous with a  counterculture or a space in which the greater forces of sexism and other forms of oppression are challenged (plus, most of the films she mentions have relatively huge budgets and big names behind them). Greenwood calls out some female characters whose one-dimensional emptiness I find worthy of critique, from the title character in (500) Days of Summer to Michelle Williams’s Cindy in Blue Valentine. But I think she’s too quick to lump a large and varied group of films together — and in some cases her definition of “boring” relies on yet another preexisting paradigm.

“Some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don’t always see them for who they are,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes in a response to the original piece. She goes on to defend some of the characters Greenwood initially criticizes. Margot Tenenbaum, for one, she sees as a character who hides her inferiority from those who seek to externally define her. (And of course she’s successful. “What do you know?” her husband is asked right before seeing a dossier recounting the secrets about her love life. “Very little, I’m afraid.”) I’ll extend the defense along to Greta Gerwig’s Florence in Greenberg, a film that Greenwood also faults. Having seen the film twice now, I find Florence’s inarticulateness hugely sympathetic and relatable — even though she’s not a “strong female character” in the sense that she’s ambitious, has a “good job” or could kick your teeth out. Her tangential anecdotes and eccentric sense of humor don’t serve to fetishize her into the film’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but rather convey a disconnect between her and the rest of the people populating her world.  And in contrast with the film’s titular male protagonist, something about her has stuck with me. As my friend Kristen said upon rewatching the film last week, “That movie really should have been called Florence.”

So then, if it’s not the machine gun or the combat boots or a well-articulated interiority, what exactly makes a strong female character? Is it the character’s ability to evade a simple answer to that very question? Maybe. I’m not even sure. But, paradoxically, I have always felt a weird strength in not feeling sure, so maybe there is potential in that: characters who appear before us in the process of working things out. Or maybe, better yet, the word “strong” is too entangled in false, rotted-out visions of masculinity to ever do us any good. To end Hollywood’s hatred of women, I don’t think we don’t need more strong female characters — we need a complete reimagining of what strength is.

Miriam Callahan can’t wait to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. She is also working on a monograph, tentatively entitled “Toward a Feminist Theory of Flower Arranging.”

I bought Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game out of the Scholastic book order catalog in first grade. I thought I was hot shit, ordering out of Arrow instead of SeeSaw, but when the book arrived I discovered it was way over my head. It wasn’t until fourth grade when I came to really appreciate how great Ellen Raskin’s writing was, and how rare it was to find a YA mystery book that didn’t treat the reader like a total idiot (I’m looking at you, Encyclopedia Brown). I’ve reread The Westing Game every year since then, more or less, and not just as an exercise in nostalgia, either — The Westing Game rewards rereaders, especially adult ones, with its complex and fascinating themes.

On the surface, The Westing Game is a classic whodunit in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. Instead of the 16 suspects being thrown together in an English manor house or on the Orient Express, they all live in Sunset Towers, a brand-new apartment building on the shore of Lake Michigan. They’re also all potential heirs to paper-products tycoon Sam Westing’s immense fortune. Whoever discovers the mystery of Westing’s death will win the whole inheritance.

Even more than a mystery story, however, The Westing Game feels like an American myth. Patriotic motifs abound — there are fireworks, an Uncle Sam costume, and a pair of crutches painted like the American flag. There’s also a Gatsby-esque tale of reinvention: rich old Samuel Westing used to be poor Windy Windkloppel, the son of immigrants, before he recast himself as a shrewd and ruthless businessman.

Even the game at the center of the novel has an explicitly American sense of meritocracy. All the characters — from the doctors and the appellate court judge to the cleaning lady and the woman who doesn’t speak English — have an equal chance to win, because differences of class, race, gender, physical ability, etc. don’t matter in the novel’s universe. Whoever is smart enough to figure out the clues (and they are tough! No boring/obvious Scooby Doo-type nonsense here) will win Westing’s millions.

As a fourth-grader, I was surprised at how easy it was to keep track of which character was which. But I didn’t think about how difficult it must have been to write 16 diverse and memorable characters in under 200 pages. Stereotypes about obvious differences in background and appearance are a potent form of shorthand, and it would have been easy to for Raskin to rely on them. Especially with a cast including eight women, five characters under 20 years old, six over 50, one African-American, three Asian-Americans, one character confined to a wheelchair, and one recovering alcoholic.

But Raskin instead created full, complex portraits of her characters by illustrating their interests, personalities, and imperfections in short but distinct strokes. (Indeed, Raskin started her career as an illustrator of children’s books.) For example, take the Wexler family. Tabitha-Ruth (aka Turtle) is an eighth-grade girl who breaks with gender norms, in addition to displaying a disturbing level of precocity, by playing the stock market and reading the Wall Street Journal. But she is also immature, arguing with her mother and ruthlessly kicking the shins of anyone who messes with her hair.

Turtle’s older sister Angela is beautiful, obedient, and engaged to marry a promising young doctor, but she feels trapped by everyone’s expectations of her and eventually lashes out in a surprising way (I refuse to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book — it’s just too good). Their mother, Grace Windsor Wexler, is introduced as a vain, shallow social climber, but eventually finds success and happiness as a business owner. And her husband Jake, a laid-back podiatrist and bookie, is the only person in Sunset Towers who takes the time to teach English to Madam Hoo, who speaks only Chinese.

Which brings me to the final and (to my mind) the most American element of the book. Sunset Towers is a kind of melting pot writ small, where people of Chinese, Greek, Polish, Jewish, German, and African-American descent form a community. Rereading the book last week, I noticed for the first time how the characters’ attitudes toward each other evolve from competition and mutual distrust toward camaraderie and mutual reliance. At the initial reading of the will, the characters warily size each other up, wondering which one of them could have murdered Sam Westing. At a wedding close to the end of the book, they enjoy each other’s company long after clues and heirs become irrelevant.

Reading the wedding scene, it occurred to me that any American myth has to have a fantastical element. Sadly, in a world where people in some identity groups have privileges that others don’t, Ellen Raskin’s egalitarian vision of 16 very different people learning to live together and respect each other is still very much a fantasy. But the prospect of escaping into that world, if only for a little while, will bring me back to The Westing Game again someday soon.

P.S. If you happen to be interested in writing a YA novel, you can read excerpts from The Westing Game’s manuscript and a listen to a lecture by Ellen Raskin online at the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

[Every Tuesday, Canonball revisits a Young Adult Fiction classic. Previously we featured: Walk Two Moons and The Giver. As always, email us if you’d like to contribute a piece.]