Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why Are We So Convinced Breastfeeding is Obscene?

The less controversial cover.

Okay, massive disclaimer here. If you are reading this article at work, on the subway, or generally anywhere that someone might look over your shoulder and be a bit miffed by an interesting topic, you should probably stop now and resume reading once you’re in the comfort of your own home.

Just saying.

Are they gone? Good. Let’s get started.

A couple of recent controversies have brought to light a very interesting double standard in our culture. Namely, that we find breastfeeding to be an objectionable action and scandalous or even perverse to do and be seen doing in public, but we don’t have nearly the same problem with bared breasts in general. And this is a bit weird.

The scandals I’m referring to here are actually pretty numerous. First, there’s the scandal around that Time Magazine cover, you know, the one with the kid and his mom and the strategically placed chair. People were utterly scandalized by the cover, which shows a mother breastfeeding her toddler son. It was obscene, you heard some people say, while other, more sensible people were merely offended by the article’s title, “Are You Mom Enough”, which is just dumb.

Then there’s the way that Facebook has adopted a policy of yanking any and all pictures of breastfeeding, citing them as pornographic works. It does not, however, automatically take down images of young girls with their hands covering their nipples, which seems a bit odd since those actually are intended as pornographic works.

Let’s not leave popular culture out of this either! Game of Thrones featured an entire scene about the ickiness of attachment parenting gone wrong, which was intended to squick the audience, and did it so well that it spawned a real life controversy about the actors involved. Or we could talk about the recent issues with the cover of Saga Issue 1, which features breastfeeding (and interspecies marriage).

Okay, to be fair, this scene was just weird.
Why are we so uptight about this? What is it about breastfeeding that makes us all phenomenally flip our wigs?

I have a few theories.

First of all, images of breastfeeding are an intersection of the sexual and biological functions of the female breast. While we all (hopefully) know that breasts are designed to be used for the nurture of the young of our species, hence the mammary gland and the term mammal being inexplicably related, as a culture we value breasts as sexual features first and foremost. They are the secondary sexual characteristics so fetishized that it’s hard to watch anything on television or in any commercial without some reference to them.

We like boobs, apparently. So much so that any image of a breast is deemed pornographic and sexual. You hear a lot of stories about young boys seeing their first images of breasts in National Geographic magazines and being mystified by them. Or of people discovering Greek and Roman statuary and being transfixed by all the titties.

Because as a culture we have fetishized the female breast, we find it very uncomfortable to see images of them in any situation. Our fetishization of breasts causes us to stigmatize them. If breasts are out, then clearly it is a sexual situation. Breasts are only sexual and cannot be neutral.

This is, of course, patently untrue. Breasts are neutral, as is any human characteristic when removed from a sexual situation. Penises are for peeing much more than they are for sex. Vaginas may be a sexual orifice, but they also connect to the urethra, and about a quarter of the time they aren’t very fun anyways, trust me. Breasts happen to be where the milk comes from for babies. While it is a product of sex, it’s not sex itself. Sorry.

It’s just, when we spend all that time and energy obsessing over and lusting after and being shocked by breasts sexually, it’s incredibly hard to stop seeing them as demon bazongas, and start seeing them for what they are in this case, a really squashy vending machine. The fact that some people have turned lactation into a kink of its own really doesn’t help here.

But here’s what really chafes my butt. The people complaining about the obscenity of breastfeeding are the same ones arguing about the oversexualization of our culture. They fail to realize that by insisting on sexualizing a non-sexual act, they are the creators of this hyper-sexual culture. By seeing breasts and dirty and wrong when they’re feeding babies, they create a culture where no breast is ever right.

Breasts are breasts are breasts. Some breasts are sexualized, some feed babies, and sometimes those breasts are the same breasts. I mean, babies do come from sex, let’s not all forget that.

The important thing in the breastfeeding debate is that people seem to have forgotten the importance of context. A breast exposed during sex is intended to have a different reaction than a breast revealed in feeding. The intended response and the situation in which the baring occurs are what should determine our reaction to it.

Now, I’m not saying that women should be stripping down all over the place willy nilly here. It’s winter and that would be cold.

What I am saying is that we all need to chill out and take a second to examine our motives. Why are we offended by images of breastfeeding? I think you’ll find that in most cases, we’re only really offended by it because we’re afraid of it. And we’re only afraid of it because we’ve given the idea of the breast way, way too much power.

Of course, I did say that there would be multiple theories, so here are a few more:

All women are actually fem-bots from Austin Powers and their breasts conceal tiny guns.

Seeing an uncovered breast will make you go blind. Incidentally, all women are blind.

Breasts know kung fu. They’re waiting for you to look at them so they can throw the baby aside and judo chop you into next week.

Everyone is secretly a twelve year-old boy, and breasts are terrifying.

But really guys, when it comes down to it, boobs aren’t that scary. They aren’t that sexual either. What they are is just a part of the human body to which we have assigned cultural significance. We decided that all breasts are sexual. And we’re wrong.

Apparently this is scandalous. Yeah, no.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Growing Up Is Hard to Do (Girl Meets World)

As you may or may not be aware, the epic 90s sitcom Boy Meets World has recently been given a comeback. Yes, Cory and Topanga’s daughter is returning to our screens to talk about life and boys and friendship and (hopefully, please oh please) Mr. Feeny.

But while we’re waiting to see if the show is awesome, terrible, or awesomely terrible, let’s take a minute back and look at one of the most influential (for me) female characters of the nineties. Topanga.

The nineties were a decade of “girl power”, which you could see pretty easily in your Ally McBeals and your Seven of Nines, and even in your Xenas and Gabrielles, but for those of us who were still trying to figure out how to tie shoes when the decade started, our real role models were a little younger.

They were Buffys and Sabrinas and Clarissa Explains It All-ers. But really, they were Topangas. And I will tell you why.

Contrary to the girls listed before, there wasn’t actually anything very special about Topanga. While she was very smart (our girl-geek before Hermione strolled onto the scene), and she was very pretty, she was normal girl smart and normal girl pretty. There wasn’t any big evil she had to defeat, unless that evil was the danger of failing a class, and most of the drama in her life was the normal life kind. In short, she was super duper relatable.

More than that, though, Topanga grew up. She didn’t stay utterly the same throughout the course of the show. She grew, she matured, and most importantly, she changed. A lot, even.

First, for those of you who didn’t hop on the Boy Meets World bandwagon, I am sad for you, and this is what it was about: kinda not that much. Basically, Cory Matthews was our hero, a bland everyman, who wasn’t as good looking as his best friend Shawn, as “interesting” as his older brother Eric, or even as sassy as his little sister, Morgan. The show started in 1993 with Cory, Shawn and Topanga in sixth grade, dealing with normal life stuff and their draconian but beloved teacher Mr. Feeny.

As a side note, Mr. Feeny was around pretty much whatever grade they were in, and while it was a little weird, it was mostly hilarious, since he didn’t seem to actually like any of them very much. The final scene of the series? Makes me cry every time.

Anyway, when the show started, Cory and Shawn were indelible best friends, and Topanga was the weird girl at the back of the classroom. She had long hair, hippie parents, and wanted world peace and stuff. Total kryptonite to the girl-averse Cory and Shawn.

As the series went on, Topanga grew out of the hippie-dippie stuff, and more into herself as a driven, intelligent girl. I mean, the kind of girl who had a poster of Hillary Clinton before it was cool, and who wore power suits in high school. That kind of girl.

While she did enter into a relationship with Cory at some point in there, and then in and out of it for a while before they settled into true lovedom, Topanga’s value as a character doesn’t come simply from her romantic connection to the protagonist. Instead, it comes from her character development and her decisions. 

She is the one who proposes at their prom, not Cory. Topanga is the one who calls off the wedding when she gets cold feet, and she is the one who becomes the top earner in their marriage when the two start out on their own. Topanga’s personal growth, though seen through the lens of her relationship with Cory, is just as important as Cory’s, and is an equal half of the narrative.

Now, why does all of this matter, if the show has been off the air since 2000?

Well, as I mentioned before, it’s getting a sequel. This sequel, set to follow Riley Matthews, the aforementioned daughter of Cory and Topanga, is in an interesting place to follow up on a show that really didn’t pull any punches. We’re used to the idea that family television has to be meek and retiring, but Boy Meets World never shied away from a tough subject. Parental abuse and neglect? See Shawn’s whole backstory. The dangers of substance abuse? Various characters. The importance of loving and respectful relationships, without which we wither and die as people? Multiple episodes devoted solely to this point.

If they’re making a sequel to Boy Meets World, then they’re not just making a sequel to the fuzzy bits about silly high school hijinks. They’re making a sequel to hard issues, real problems, and surprisingly good storytelling. All of which makes me very happy.

I also find it nice to note that they’ve gone with Cory and Topanga’s daughter. For starters, it makes for a much easier title reboot, but it’s also a really interesting idea. Topanga was such an outspoken and openly feminist character, don’t you want to see what her daughter is like? (Plus, it works out in real time, that Cory and Topanga could have a twelve year-old daughter by now.) I look forward to seeing how Topanga’s character is reinterpreted in motherhood. And I really look forward to seeing how the whole breadwinner situation worked out in the Matthews household.

Ultimately, what made Topanga a good character was her flaws and her changeability. She wasn't the same every season, because who is? But by presenting the idea that girls can experiment with hair and veganism and personalities while growing up, the show gave us all the message that it's okay. It's going to be okay. And that was really important.

Topanga was a gateway drug to female heroines for me in the mid-nineties. I loved her, and I wanted to be her. I really, truly hope that her daughter can do the same for a new batch of girls.

I demand that Mr. Feeny and Eric "Plays with Squirrels" make regular appearances on the show.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Poor Christine? Poor Agnes. (Maskerade Parodies Phantom)

I know enough musical theater people to have determined that apparently The Phantom of the Opera is revered, and excellent and really just the best!!! From my perspective, however, the story’s always been a bit thin. Some very pretty but tragically poor girl with a nice voice happens to be pursued by a suddenly rich old boyfriend and an intensely creepy man who hides in the basement.

Said lovely young thing gets kidnapped by the creepy man, for whom we are presumably to feel sorry, gains an epic case of Stockholm Syndrome for the man who kidnapped her and stalked her and threatened her with violence. Not weird at all.

And then when the pretty girl runs off with the rather dull but refreshingly not psychopathic rich boy, the audience is meant to mourn with the creepy man. Because he’s the real victim here. The girl is clearly a manipulative bitch who doesn’t know what she’s giving up, right?

Oh my head.

Like I said, I’ve never quite got the whole deal with Phantom. The songs are fabulous, and I know that the story is based on the classic novel by Gaston Leroux, which is slightly better than the stage version, but only slightly. Plus there was that phenomenally awkward film that didn’t have a single properly cast actor in sight (though Emmy Rossum has proved to be an excellent actress in Shameless, which we’ll talk about someday). And of course there was that time that Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to stop being subtle about his love of money and wrote a freaking sequel, but still. Lovely music, right?

Now, I could here go into a long and detailed explanation of why the plot of Phantom is wrong and misogynistic and terrible, but really, I think at this point most of you can fill in the details for yourselves. Instead, let’s talk about a version of this story that wasn’t terrible. A version that actually made sense, made me laugh, and happened to contain a fat lady singing.

Let’s talk about Terry Pratchett’s fabulous parody novel, Maskerade.

I have mentioned in the past my abiding ambition to read everything that Mr. Pratchett so much as sneezed on, so this book is actually part of my reading list. And boy was it a breath of fresh, perfectly pitched air.

The plot of the novel, though following closely the plot of the original Phantom, is mostly concerned with Agnes Nitt, a girl with a great personality and lovely hair (aka she’s fat), who flees from her mountain home in Lancre and goes to Ankh-Morpork, changes her name to Perdita and joins the opera.

The opera is of course just settling in with a new owner, and possessed of an increasingly homicidal Opera Ghost. Agnes, who has a spectacular voice but a body more built for, well, opera, is relegated to the chorus, but asked to sing the lead roles while Christine, a more traditionally sized girl, mouths the words. And, for a time, it works.

Except, the Ghost is getting more menacing, and Agnes can’t help sticking her nose into things.

There are a lot of things I actually really loved about the setup to this story, not least of it being that it was a book about the Lancre Witches, who have been my lifespiration for a while now. The witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg have just lost their third (the maidenly Magrat) to a royal marriage, and need to fill her space. They decide on Agnes as a natural fit, but Agnes isn’t having any of it. It’s this that prompts her flight to the city, and the witches’ pursuit is what really gets the plot going.

Plus there are stage swordfights, a swinging chandelier, and a very disgruntled cat. Quite entertaining, and very well written.

The reason I bring it up in this context, though, is because this is the rare case where the lead female character has been written to be the exact opposite of the usual lead female character in these stories, and it works. Usually when someone sets out to write a negative, they end up with a shady strange thing that doesn’t make much sense. But Agnes makes sense. Far too much sense.

Constantly set as a foil against Christine, who behaves precisely as a heroine is expected to behave, with lots of swooning and exclamation marks, Agnes is determinedly practical. She sees there is a problem, but she refuses to get all mucked up about it.

She knows she’s good at what she does, but she’s still humble. And, better yet, she has internal struggles about the line between humble and doormat, even going so far as to stand up for herself once in a while, and have it go horribly wrong. I like her because she’s unusual. I love her because she’s flawed.

Really, when it comes down to a critique of the original Phantom and its original heroine, this is where the story fails. Christine has so little of a personality, that there isn’t room for flaws. It’s a story written about the doings of men, where women are just chess pieces being passed back and forth. Christine has no more agency than the props being carried on and off stage, and tends to get left in worse places.

By contrast, Agnes is a fully realized person. She’s not always a nice person, and she’s not always a person happy about how fully realized she is. And I like that.

You can get far further with a female character who’s flawed and interesting than one who’s beautiful and empty. It’s what makes Maskerade a genuinely enjoyable book, and what makes The Phantom of the Opera so dang hard to get through.

Also, witches.

Seriously though. Gerard Butler? Are you insane, casting directors?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Oscar Watch 2013 - Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is the next movie on our list. I absolutely loved this one, though I have to admit that it really challenged my views on the role of the CIA, the way in which we gather intelligence, and the meaning of safety. Plus, Jessica Chastain is crazy awesome as Maya, the obsessive CIA agent who hunts down Bin Laden, and Kathryn Bigelow was pretty epically robbed for that Directing Nomination.

But first, introductions. Zero Dark Thirty is a heavily researched, as-accurate-as-they-could-make-it portrayal of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the years after the 9/11 attacks. So obviously it’s just full of warm fuzzy moments and feel good musical numbers.

It chiefly follows Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, a rookie CIA agent who comes to Pakistan in the early 2000s for the express purpose of helping to track down Bin Laden. While she does work on other assignments throughout her time in Pakistan, which goes up through about 2009, I think, her goal, manic and devoted, is finding UBL (as he is referred to by the agency).

I suppose the cool thing about the movie is that Maya is based on a real person, not a series of composites, but really based on the one person in the CIA who was able to put together a web of information about UBL’s whereabouts and eventually convinced the White House to sanction the raid that killed him. Which is good, I guess?

As a hardcore pacifist (yes, pacifists can be hardcore), this movie was pretty challenging for me. On a visceral level, I want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. I want her to find UBL, because she’s a good(-ish) person and UBL is bad and this will keep people safe. On the other hand, I believe firmly that violence begets violence, and that it is never okay to raise a hand against another person. Soooo…issues.

Particularly hard for me to swallow were the (accurate) depictions of the way in which intelligence was actually gathered. By which I mean, the scenes where Chastain, a lovely, sweet looking woman, was coldly torturing detainees. And the later scenes where the CIA agents sat around and complained about the sanctions Obama had placed on torture? Pretty chilling.

But even if I don’t agree with its politics, or even the opinions of most of the characters, I still loved this movie. And I think a lot of that can be attributed to the way it told the story.

For starters, telling a story about a ten year-long manhunt can easily be the most boring thing ever. Most intelligence gathering is the analysis of newspapers, videotapes, transcripts of conversations with prisoners, photographs, records, trying to put together some level of comprehensive data collection. It’s a lot of computer time, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but computers are not inherently cinematic.

There’s a reason why shows like CSI and Bones, and movies like Hackers and Swordfish, see the need to either radically enhance our computing ability, or else distract you from how boring typing is by adding blowjobs. Much to its credit, Zero Dark Thirty does neither. The scenes of research are compelling not because of shaky camera action or a melodramatic voiceover, but because we are emotionally involved in Maya’s search, and we freaking care. We care a lot.

I also have to give a lot of credit to Bigelow here, because the filming of this movie is one of her great masterpieces. While lesser directors (*cough* Tom Hooper *cough*) would feel the need to incessantly move the camera around, creating a false tension and a great deal of seasickness, Bigelow trusts in her story and actors, and actually leaves the camera static for long stretches of time. 

Instead of becoming boring, though, it forces the audience to obsess over every nuance of expression in the actors’ eyes. In a way, this form of filming makes us hyper-attentive to detail, just like Maya is.

And I like that.

The real triumph of the movie, however, goes to Chastain, whose performance as Maya is pretty much everything I want a “strong female character” to be. She’s physically capable, but able to retreat when attacked. She won’t take no for an answer, unless you have a good reason for saying it. She’s confident in her beliefs, brash in the face of opposition, and positively riddled with faults. She is willing to ask for help. She is not perfect. She’s human, but cool. Which is all we can ask for, really.

The moment that clinched my love for this character was the very end. I mean, spoiler alert, Bin Laden dies, but the actual moving bit was after that. Maya boards a transport plane, and the pilot asks where she wants to go. And she just starts to cry.

As a director, there is a very easy urge to give into that would have you make the end of the movie epic and exciting and lots of difficult camera shots. But how much more moving to have a static camera shot in the middle distance, of a single character, and the emotions playing across her face.

Chastain is positively brilliant in that moment, as a woman who has suddenly realized that she’s won, but she’s also lost her reason for living, and I have to say, please give this woman awards. Give her lots of awards. If it were possible to give Jennifer Lawrence awards too, that would make me happy, but if pressed, I’m gonna pick Chastain. She killed it here, she really did.

And by it, I mean Bin Laden.

Redhead in Pakistan = maybe a little too memorable.