When Pop Culture is Good, It’s Really, Really Good

There are many good things about having a baby. But there are enough places on the internet to tell you what they are that I will not do so here. Instead, allow me to address a very serious drawback to raising up a child: the fact that the responsibility of raising up said child severely (SEVERELY) cuts into one’s television and film time. For a person like me, who loves (LOVES) both TV (we’re living in a golden age) and movies, the extent to which my beloved viewing time was limited cut me deeply. I’m only just now catching up on past seasons (and sort of not even really: there are about 20 unwatched Walking Deads on my DVR right now) and films released since August 2013.

So I’m a good year plus late in coming at you with my views on Obvious Child, the abortion rom-com directed by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate, which was released way back when in 2014. But having watched this film in the same week that I watched the travesty known as the first GOP Debate of the (2015-)2016 campaign season, my thinking about this film isn’t progressively fading. I just keep thinking about it.

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I’m sure the beasts of the GOP potential presidential pool would be/are unmoved by this film, or are moved to indignation and outrage at an adult woman making choices of her own volition in a safe and responsible manner, given their obvious self-satisfaction at their collective efforts to limit women’s reproductive freedoms. Admittedly, I’m part of the choir to which this film is preaching (except that it’s not preachy AT ALL), but it struck me as such a smart, thoughtful, and human way of discussing the importance of reproductive freedom. I assume, again, a year plus later, I don’t need a spoiler alert here, but just in case: I’m about to go into some plot detail.

Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, begotten during what appears as though it will be a one-night-stand, Donna (played by Slate) visits a clinic (Planned Parenthood?), has her pregnancy confirmed and schedules an abortion in this clean, safe, legitimately medical location. She’s not happy about the pregnancy – or the abortion – but she is certain that this is the correct decision for her, at this time. That is never in doubt.

In the weeks between the scheduling of the abortion and having the procedure, she considers the implications of what she’s decided. She is surrounded by supportive friends, one of whom has had an abortion. Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) is strong and independent, and serves as our for-real feminist voice when she assures Donna she has no obligation to share news of the pregnancy with Max (Jake Lacey), the one night stander. It’s her life, and her body, and her responsibility to pay for and live with the consequences of her decision (and, again, the decision is very, very clear). She also is surrounded by supportive family, including a mother who reveals to Donna her own abortion, performed on a kitchen table in an apartment in New Jersey during the 1960s, when abortion was illegal. There is kindness and understanding all around. And an effort to bring humor to an unfortunate situation, in a kind of ‘we laugh to keep from crying’ spirit.

There is romance, too, with some of it coming during the one night stand – but much of it coming after Donna and Max have slept together. Unexpectedly, they cultivate a kind of relationship, during which Donna knows she’s pregnant and planning to have the abortion, while Max is unaware. But when Max does learn of the pregnancy and the intended abortion – during Donna’s stand-up routine (she’s a comedienne, FYI), no less – he ultimately finds her at her home on the morning of the scheduled procedure and accompanies her to the clinic, where he offers his unequivocal support. After the abortion, they spend the afternoon (longer?) together, and he sees to her comfort. There is some melancholy, but there is also the sense of possibility, the idea that life will go on.

In interviews, Robespierre has discussed her desire to create a realistic film, one that women of her generation could look to and see something of themselves. Thinking of reality v. fantasy, the obvious comparison is between this film and Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit about an unplanned pregnancy, in which the word “abortion” is never spoken (“shmashmortion,” yes; “taking care of it,” yes; “abortion,” no). In many ways, Knocked Up is a very funny film, but there is an awful lot of gender stereotyping going on there (bossy, driven woman, man-child stoner, enforcer mom, fun dad, etc., etc., etc.). And it’s a stretch for us to *really* believe Alison (Katherine Heigl) would actively pursue a relationship with a very ill-advised hook-up, Ben (Seth Rogan), upon discovering her pregnancy. It would be one thing if she’d decided to keep the baby and go for it as a single mother. The push for romance here is contrived – as often happens in contemporary romantic comedies. And the premise that both Alison and Ben need to (and do!) change to make the relationship happen pushes my capacity for suspended disbelief. Obvious Child, on the other hand, is far more realistic. Twenty-something Donna, coming of age in the twenty-first century is certainly savvy enough to a) realize her own level of immaturity and ill-preparedness for raising a child; and b) have a sense of the success rate of partnerships based upon an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion is the best decision for her, and she is capable of making and facing it.

Beyond thinking about Obvious Child’s relationship to other films and to the present-day extreme politics of Anti-Choicers, I was struck, too, in thinking about the film in the context of Katha Pollitt’s recent New York Times op-ed “How to Really Defend Planned Parenthood” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/opinion/how-to-really-defend-planned-parenthood.html?smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0). In rejecting the claims asserted by their Anti-Choice opponents, Pollitt argues, Pro-Choice supporters should be adamant about the importance of reproductive freedom, regardless of the root of the unplanned pregnancy. Rather than defending women getting abortions based on the parameters of the Anti-Choicers’ shaping of the debate, Pro-Choice activists should seize on the realities of women’s lives and the right to choice they ought to possess as human beings, full stop. She writes,

“We need to say that women have sex, have abortions, are at peace with the decision and move on with their lives. We need to say that is their right, and, moreover, it’s good for everyone that they have this right: The whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary. When we gloss over these truths we unintentionally promote the very stigma we’re trying to combat. What, you didn’t agonize? You forgot your pill? You just didn’t want to have a baby now? You should be ashamed of yourself.

…[T]oo many pro-choice people are way too quiet. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly one in three women will have had at least one abortion by the time she reaches menopause. I suspect most of those women had someone who helped them, too — a husband or boyfriend, a friend, a parent. Where are those people? The couple who decided two kids were enough, the grad student who didn’t want to be tied for life to an ex-boyfriend, the woman barely getting by on a fast-food job? Why don’t we hear more from them?”

Part of the power of Obvious Child is that it does what Pollitt is asking in its very vocal and very unapologetic discussion of abortion, and a woman’s right to have one and move on. And it is a smart film to make direct reference to abortion’s history – when Donna’s mother discusses her own illegal abortion, to which her mother had driven her “in the family station wagon” and after which she had danced at a cousin’s Sweet Sixteen party, it is a moving moment for both mother and daughter. Even after that abortion, her life had turned out pretty great. She didn’t celebrate the memory, but she didn’t wallow in regret. In our current political climate, that’s radical. And her view is the view shared across the characters of this film. Abortions, we know, are not new; they have a long, long history. Making them harder to come by, making them illegal and unsafe, won’t make them go away. And keeping them safe and legal doesn’t make them easy, just humane.

Here and elsewhere (the classroom, the bar, my house, etc., etc., etc. ), I’ve argued against the idea of popular culture as throwaway culture. An advertisement is not just an advertisement. A song is not just a song. And a movie is never just a movie. All of these cultural forms (and countless others) are shaped by and/or in response to political, social, and economic factors of their time and place. And of course, recognizing that, and then seeing everything coming at you with that understanding can be (is) exhausting. But when you see a source, and for me, Obvious Child is that kind of source, that provides a perfect example of the power of popular culture to communicate messages that are in dire need of being communicated and to make visible experiences that are often relegated to private life, it’s also pretty incredible.

 

USA! Title IX! USA! Title IX!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that people (American people) were pretty happy about last night’s USA’s 5-2 win over Japan in the Women’s World Cup Final. And rightly so. It had so many of the qualities of a really satisfying victory: it wasn’t a sure thing; it was redemptive; and it was a total smack down.

I’m bandwagon on all this. I played soccer. I like soccer. I like watching soccer. But I don’t – not until it’s World Cup time and until the US is playing. And, really, I should invest more time. These games have delivered some of the greatest sports moments I’ve seen live. Last night was no exception. Carli Lloyd’s succession of goals – that third coming at midfield – just about blew my mind.

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Lloyd goal #2

But beyond the exceptional play, when all was said and done and I saw a team of American women celebrating together before a crowd of 50,000+ cheering fans and in front of however many millions watching at home, in bars, etc., I thought one thing: Thank you, Title IX.

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Winners

Title IX, as part of the US Education Amendments of 1972, stated, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” There’s no direct reference to sports, but this is how Title IX is best and most widely known. When it comes to boys’ and girls’, men’s and women’s athletics, Title IX demands equal treatment, access, and funding. Has Title IX always been followed? No. And there have been many cases charging school districts and colleges and universities with noncompliance. And surely, there are more to come. But the beauty of this legislation (and all legislation of this kind) is that it gives people ground to stand on, it secures citizens’ access to rights and privileges, it lays groundwork for how institutions and administrators must operate.

From a world where girls in grammar school square danced as part of their physical education requirement while boys played basketball, where families moved to distant towns so daughters might attend a high school with a girls’ basketball team, where men received athletic scholarships to attend university but such funding for women was in limited supply, we now live in a world where the women of the United States Women’s National Team are national heroes. Without Title IX, without legislation mandating girls’ and women’s access to equal opportunities, the women of the USWNT, my age and younger (and older!) wouldn’t have had access to leagues and programs that fostered their athleticism, that built their confidence, that put them on the national stage in such grand form. There are numbers to consider here: in 1971, about 310,000 girls and women in America played high school and college sports; in 2012, there were more than 3,373,000 participants. Beyond the numbers and even beyond the actual opportunities guaranteed by Title IX, the possibilities generated by this legislation are remarkable. Sticking with the Women’s World Cup, seeing women compete at such a high level, with such tremendous physicality and athleticism, can bring viewers, young and old, to a variety of conclusions, chief among them: a) if women can succeed so masterfully in the world of sport, so long assumed to be the preserve of men, in what other “male” preserves might women excel?; b) maybe the idea of separate male spheres and female spheres is bullshit; c) the suggested limits associated with being part of the “weaker sex” are likewise bullshit. The world is brand new.

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Olden times views, ladies’ phys. ed., c. 1920s.

In addition to recognizing the impact of Title IX specifically, as I thought about outpouring of national pride for the USWNT, I thought about how great it would be if those loving this moment would pause and think about how it came to be. As a result of grassroots activism, part of 1960s and 1970s-era movements for social justice, the American Congress passed legislation extending rights across the American population. Thank you, active citizens. Thank you, active government. I believe mightily in the power of government to do good for its people. I believe mightily in the responsibility of government to secure and extend rights across the citizenry. I believe mightily this is good not only for the group to whom rights have been extended and protected but for the nation as a whole. Last night: case in point.

I also would like to point out that Title IX wasn’t just the product of my lefty forbearers’ antics. Yes, the Dems had majorities in both houses in 1972, but REPUBLICAN Dick Nixon was in the White House. The US Education Amendments of 1972 passed 88-6 in the Senate and 275-125 in the House, demonstrating that even members of the GOP got behind this thing. Bipartisan cooperation and a faith in the power of government produced powerful outcomes. I am all for dismantling the notion of the “good old days” mentality, but damn, that sounds nice.

To conclude: as I celebrated the US win last night, I immediately and simultaneously thought (#neveroffduty) how nice it would be if those so satisfied with the Women’s World Cup results thought about the history that led to that win, considered the kind of action that created the opportunities for women in sport (and elsewhere), and, as a consequence, committed themselves to the kind of politics that yielded such results.

#marriagewins

Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times, “The Price of Gay Marriage,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/opinion/sunday/the-price-of-gay-marriage.html) is a beautiful and concise summation of pivotal moments in the struggle for gay rights since World War II. After reading, I thought immediately how useful the piece would be as a concluding reading in a course on Gender & Sexuality or the American Family or a History of Marriage. What I especially loved is Stewart-Winter’s ability to celebrate this victory but remind readers that tremendous gains often come with costs. This is a win, but one that should give us pause.

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When SCOTUS first undid DOMA back in 2013, I wrote about the influence of the decision and how I loved the extension of equal rights across the population, but how I also felt uneasy about the privileging of marriage above basically all other chosen relationships (https://aslongaswebothshalllove.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/thoughts-on-marriage-equality/). Stewart-Winter writes to that end: “The gay movement has stood for valuing all families — including those led by single parents, those with adopted children, and other configurations. It has stood for other ideas, too, that risk being lost in this moment’s pro-family turn: that intimacy, domesticity and caretaking do not always come packaged together; that marriage should not be the only way to protect one’s children, property and health; that having a family shouldn’t be a requirement for full citizenship; and that conventional respectability shouldn’t be the only route to social acceptance.”

When I teacher Gender & Sexuality in US History, I emphasize the ways in which gay and lesbian relationships, more visible in the aftermath of Stonewall and the creation of a Gay Liberation Front, contributed mightily to the changed nature of opposite-sex relationships. For gays in the 1960s and 1970s, marriage, laced with patriarchal overtones, was rarely identified as a goal. Love didn’t have to mean marriage. Living together without a license from the state, a necessity for same-sex couples, was a possibility for a man and a woman, too. Love didn’t have to mean forever. One kind of love could end while another kind could come to take its place, allowing relationships to evolve over time. All that said: there is great value in alternative lifestyles to enhance and improve the possibilities for those living in the mainstream (although, of course, that’s not the responsibility of the marginalized – but it’s a pattern that we see time and again). To suggest that relationships should conform eventually to fit one model (even as flexible as marriage has become) is troubling. As is the implicit reinforcement of the idea of marriage as the primary relationship one should aspire to and the ultimate relationship one can achieve.

So the SCOTUS decision is a win, but it’s complicated. Do I love the outcome of last week’s decision? YES. And ESPECIALLY after reading the HORRIFYING dissents (please note the deliberate use of caps). Have I loved seeing the rainbow-tinted world of Facebook and the many hashtags celebrating SCOTUS’s ruling on same-sex unions? Yes, #loveislove and #lovewins. And yet, love is nowhere in Justice Kennedy’s 2013 delivery of the court’s opinion. Kennedy writes about citizenship and status and the extension of benefits. Love doesn’t necessitate a marriage license (or vice versa [sorry, romantics]). So maybe more accurately, #marriageisbenefits or #marriagewins. If we’re talking about marriage – and we are – we’ve achieved equal access not only to the institution, but also to its limits and flaws.

Lives and Limits of the Known and Unknown

In spring of 1951, during the semester at whose end she would graduate from George Washington University, Jacqueline Bouvier competed in the Prix de Paris contest put on by Vogue magazine. This competition was no joke. Contestants submitted a personal profile, four papers on various fashion-related questions, an outline for a full issue of Vogue, and an essay on three people the applicant wished she had known. The winner’s prize: a yearlong trainee position at the magazine – six months in the Paris office, followed by six months in the New York headquarters. Bouvier, fresh from a junior year in France, which had inspired, for all intents and purpose, a growing interest in fashion, culture, and writing, submitted the winning application. Out of nearly 1300 applications, hers was the best.

Historians love the Prix de Paris application materials. As Jacqueline Bouvier became Jacqueline Kennedy (and then Onassis), she was not a figure known for her transparency. But in these documents, she is forthright and open. She recalls, as a child, pretending to sleep when in reality she was reading the Chekov and Shaw she found upon the shelves in the room appointed for napping. She suggests an advertising campaign to link perfume with wine, given that “both are liquids that act upon the closely related sense of taste and smell to produce an intoxicating effect.” She wishes she’d known, among others, Oscar Wilde, revealing an admiration for the power of his wit: “with the flash of an epigram,” she wrote, he could “bring about what serious reformers had for years been trying to accomplish.” She reveals, in this personal writing, something of the “real” Jackie.

prixdeparispictureJacqueline Bouvier’s picture as winner of the Prix de Paris competition.

When I read Bouvier’s materials, they communicate the time and thought and care put into the application. They reveal a keen but also pragmatic mind, showing an understanding of the need to blend one’s esteem for the arts with the practicalities of publication. I imagine there are those who would dismiss Vogue as not a site of serious publishing – but those people are wrong, especially about Vogue in the 1950s. There was the fashion, but the publication was also a bastion of high culture, publishing essays by and about great artists of varying fields. When I imagine Bouvier taking this opportunity at Vogue, I wonder what the experience might’ve meant to her.

But I can only imagine Bouvier in Paris at the Vogue offices. She turned down the prize, later noting “I guess I was too scared to go to Paris again. I felt then that if I went back, I’d live there forever. I loved Paris so much. That’s such a formative year when you get out of college.” The inside scoop – or at least the theory that is most often bandied about – is that her mother and stepfather dissuaded her from accepting the Vogue position, afraid, indeed, that Jacqueline would become an expatriate and live forever outside the United States. And so in Washington, D.C. she remained, becoming the Inquiring Camera Girl at the Washington Times-Herald in 1952 and marrying Senator John Kennedy in 1953. And so on.

I’ve now spent a decent amount of time thinking about a) American women at mid-century and b) Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. And I now here declare that the Prix de Paris turn of events make me mad. Admittedly, it’s impossible to test the veracity of the “we remember Jackie when” sentiments that came in the years after the American public “knew” Jackie, but across the board, the reminiscences of friends, of classmates, of teachers identified in Bouvier intelligence, wit, curiosity, and, possibly most importantly, potential. I want her parents to get out of her way. I want her to take a chance, rebel, and GO. Who knows what she might have done? All I can think: what a missed opportunity. These feelings are not for my professional consideration of the past, but they are there, and I’m grappling with them.

To that end, I communicated my indignation to the other historian of the household. From him, I get a decent amount of the devil’s advocate, and I’m pushed (Intentionally? For fun?) to defend my points of view. When it comes to regretting historical figures’ missed opportunities, I’ve thought about Hillary Clinton in this way, too, and I brought this up. Years ago, I read the early chapters of William Chafe’s Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. In those early chapters about Hillary Rodham, the underlying sentiment is “Holy shit. This woman.” She was a force, and people saw it. But then there was the relationship with Clinton and her efforts to support him and what this meant for her own ambitions. When they moved to Arkansas for his political ambitions, I had to stop reading. In thinking about Bouvier and Rodham (eventually Kennedy and Clinton) my devil’s advocate suggests I’m fighting an uphill battle in suggesting they deserve sympathy or indignation at opportunities missed and paths not taken. The fame, the wealth, the privilege as a whole – and for HRC, obviously, the political power outside her time as FLOTUS. In so many ways, and in comparison to so many women (in the US and around the globe), they win. And I know that. (Sidenote: there are so many opportunities to talk about the personal sacrifices these women made inside their marriages – but that’s a topic for another time. I just want people to know that I know that’s there.)

But then I also think about how, even in their privileged positions, they faced and in many ways capitulated to the social and cultural expectations of their times and places. Back specifically to Bouvier here – she had the education and the connections and the status (the money was more complicated) enough that she might have achieved cultural and intellectual and professional success outside the confines of her link to any man. But the expectation of the link to a man was THE expectation – even for someone of her elite standing (and maybe especially for someone of her standing?). In many ways, I think her giving in to her parents’ wishes, staying stateside, finding a man, and marrying well speaks volumes about the powers of convention on women during the 1950s – and the limits of alternative possible roles they imagined for themselves. Do I wish that she would have bucked the trend, accepted the prize without parental approval, and found out what she could do on her own? YES (as previously noted). But I am (big time) of the post-Port Huron generation, where fulfillment of personal desire is of the utmost importance. In 1951, that was not the norm, and particularly not for a person of Jackie Bouvier’s station.

I know as I wonder what sort of voice and what sort of influence Bouvier would’ve developed I’m asking for people to remind me of the influence she had as First Lady. And then as National Widow. And as cultural icon. And as publisher. Etc. Etc. Etc. And again, to remind me of the power and the privilege of her many roles. Am I privileging too much the idea that the development of voice and influence on one’s own and by one’s own merit is more natural or more satisfying? Is it wrong to speculate that she may have enjoyed her position more were it to come from her own efforts? And even if she’d not become “A Voice,” would it have been more satisfying to have followed personal predilection? Am I projecting too much of here and now onto the past? I don’t know. Maybe? Could be.

In the course of working through this (thank you for your patience), I maybe end up here: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is a famous case, a person who was and is known. So privilege is definitely going to be there. For me, when I think in terms of the famous and the known (a limited population), I think, too, about all those many more unnamed and unknown people of the past. For women’s historians, there are many, many unknown figures. Perhaps it is best for me to frame my indignation at the missed opportunities of one who ultimately had so many opportunities in this way: the power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of her time limited even Jacqueline Bouvier, someone who had so much. If that’s true, than what of those without? The power of convention, the dictates of family, the expectations of their time, not to mention the factors of their race, their religion, their class, their region, influenced so many unknown women – and who knows what they might have been and done?

Mad Men and Strong Women

In these, the final days before Mad Men is done and gone forever, I have been LOVING the post-game analysis. In our world of market fragmentation and DVR’d viewing, I’m so happy to have a number of tried and true locations where I can go to get other people’s assessment of fashion, plot lines, character arcs and conclusions, writing triumphs and failings. I don’t agree with all points put forward, but as a person who fully believes and regularly proselytizes about the importance of media and popular culture as so much more than *just* entertainment, I love the seriousness with which authors approach their celebrations and critiques.

The last two episodes leading up to the series finale (“The Lost Horizon” and “The Milk and Honey Route”) have had these writers (and many viewers) losing their minds – and for good reason. I basically did not breathe for the entirety of Joan’s meeting with vile Jim Hobart and then breathed fire until the episode’s conclusion; I rewound and rewound to rewatch and rewatch Peggy 1) roller skate through her abandoned workplace while Roger played the electronic organ and then 2) walk into McCann like the baddest bad ass on planet Earth (or any other planet); I reeled at Betty’s terminal cancer diagnosis; and I wept at her matter-of-fact “when I die” letter to Sally. I could write forever and a day about all of these things.

But I’m trying to focus. The work I’m doing right now (in the world of research and writing) is about how the radical ideas of Second Wave feminism – primarily women’s rights to compete freely and fairly in the public and professional world, to manage their sexuality without consequence, to make decisions based on personal preference rather than cultural expectations and social standards, and to see themselves and be seen by others as equal to men – became mainstream. And very clearly non-feminist Betty Francis, in the last conversation we may ever see her have with her girl, rang just about every bell for me as I thought about this show and what it does to tell the history of a time and place to which I’ve committed much of my professional life.

Despite Betty’s marriage to Henry Francis, New York GOP big wig, the person she expects to take charge after her death and to whom she gives her list of instructions for burial is her teenage daughter. Henry, Betty tells Sally, won’t be able to handle it. Having seen him turn to Sally to convince Betty to receive treatment (a task at which he’d failed), having seen him weep in Sally’s dorm room on her twin bed, and having seen teenage Sally awkwardly comfort this grown man, that seems true. Don Draper, off in the hinterlands, seems not even a thought in anyone’s mind. Betty is right: Sally is the logical choice to see everything through.

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Betty, of that forgotten fifties generation, too young for World War II glory and too late for “the Sixties,” had done what she was supposed to do and ended up knee-deep in the Feminine Mystique. Even when she was finally happy, maybe she wasn’t. Baby Boomer Sally had watched her mother with a keen eye, vowing since little girlhood to avoid all the traps into which Betty fell. But of course there’s little escape from parental influence, for better or worse (we’ve seen Don tell Sally this directly), and it may be a long time from 1970 until Sally finally sees her mother as more than her mother and as a person caught in a larger web of cultural expectation and social limits. For me, Betty’s letter to Sally is one of the spots to which Sally can return, their conversation and Betty’s approach to her death as evidence of a more complicated woman than Betty likely ever appeared in her daughter’s eyes.

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In telling Sally she appreciates her independence, that she’d worried because Sally “marched to the beat of [her] own drum” but now saw what an adventure her life would be, Betty reveals something of how she’s changed over the course of the sixties. But make no mistake: she’s still old-fashioned. In asking Sally to be responsible once she’s dead, Betty is working on an old trope: women can handle things men can’t. They have a reserve of strength men do not. For Betty, this is not about empowerment; it’s about nature. This is an idea with a long history, the underlying message being something along the lines of men enjoy status as the public face of the operation, but privately women are the backbone of the enterprise.

But where all of this may be obvious to Betty, a matter-of-fact way of the world, my sense is that Sally, coming of age alongside Women’s Liberation, and again, looking at the world with that keen eye, is likely to call bullshit on this idea. Or at least on the fact that women are “stronger” but simultaneously subjugated to a secondary status, a behind-the-scenes pat on the back. Before the 1960s, what was known in “women’s culture” about women’s abilities, about what they endured and what they sacrificed, would, by the 1970s, become much more visible in American culture more broadly. As public conversation shed light on what had been assumed as “private” issues, many women, young and old, began reconsidering the assumed way of the world. And being the unsung hero, the known (but largely uncelebrated) support for American men wouldn’t cut it for the Sallys of the world.

For those who’ve “never really faced inequality”: How nice! But it’s not just about you.

Generally speaking, I live in a world where my Facebook feed is best described by the phrase “preaching to the choir.” The lefties of my life – from college, graduate school, and my current university – post on a fairly predictable host of issues and from fairly predictable perspectives. I’m fine with this. I often agree and sometimes share and am happy to have yet more fuel to add to my fire on any number of topics. I like my little like-minded world where I can pretend everyone cares about racial & gender equality, legal & economic justice, environmental protection, celebrity gossip, and the real and hopefully forever comeback of rompers and overalls. All of which is to say that when I come across the alternative perspective, I’m often taken aback. Wait, what? People don’t think like us?

Then I analyze. Then I stew. Then I rebut, sometimes publicly (keep reading, please).

My feed recently featured an article entitled “Big Bang Theory Star Just Said the Most Conservative Thing on the Internet,” from youngcons.com (Young Conservatives: http://www.youngcons.com/big-bang-theory-star-just-said-conservative-thing-internet/#2hLUbfp1E7QLxGAu.99). I clicked. Why, oh why, did I click? Because I just cannot resist.

This Young Conservative article declared that Kaley Cuoco’s recent Redbook feature interview would have “liberal feminists yanking out their underarm hair and screaming not-so-sweet sentiments into her virtual ear via social media.” Well. Let’s not even get started on what radical feminists might think.

When asked if she is a feminist, she responded, “Is it bad if I say no?”

It’s not. If people choose to reject the idea of social, economic, and political equality between the sexes, that’s their business.

The Young Conservative piece speculated that part of the interview that would really raise feminist ire against Cuoco was her statement “I like the idea of women taking care of their men. I’m so in control of my work that I like coming home and serving him.” She’s talking about making this man, her husband, dinner. Fine. Whatever. She claims that she likes feeling like a housewife. Also fine. And just speculating her, but she probably particularly enjoys feeling like a housewife because a) she’s not; b) cooking is approximately 1/100 of what being a housewife is about; and c) she can stop feeling like (or pretending to be) a housewife whenever she wants. Good thing feminists pushed for women to have choices of this kind.

I am a for real feminist. And I will tell you right now I don’t care that she likes cooking a meal for her husband. I have been known to cook a meal for my husband as well. Cat’s out of the bag.

I do, however, take issue with other parts of the interview. And the fact that the Young Conservatives piece didn’t recognize the problematic nature of the following statement, for me, reveals just how little those on the other side of the feminist debate really understand about feminism. The quote, re: feminism: “It’s not really something I think about,” she said. “Things are different now, and I know a lot of the work that paved the way for women happened before I was around… I was never that feminist girl demanding equality, but maybe that’s because I’ve never really faced inequality.”

Record scratch.

First, let’s take a minute to discuss The Big Bang Theory, of which Cuoco is a star. I feel fine about this show. It’s not uncommon that someone in my house is watching this show. But it is not a program that features particularly enlightened views of sex or gender (or race, but whatever). Cuoco’s character, Penny (no last name – unlike all other main characters), the failed actress, waitress, community college student turned stellar pharmaceutical rep is regularly the butt of jokes for her a) stupidity; b) sexual promiscuity; c) drinking. In the world of super-smart nerd scientists, she has street smarts, but they’re of the kind where she sends in a check for the less-than-required amount to pay her electric bill, along with a picture of herself in a bra, all in the hopes that she’ll get a bit of an extension. Cuoco, in landing this part, a dream job, I’m sure, may not have faced inequality, but she’s MAKING BANK on exploiting tired – and often sexist and unequal – views of gender and sexuality. I will not even engage with the episode in which she and the “girl scientists” go to Disneyland and do the whole dress-like-a-princess thing that apparently you can do at that place. (Sidenote: I don’t even *not like* TBBT, and I’m sure experts of the show could argue opposite points to those I’ve made, but my evidence is not wrong.)

princesses

Second, and much more importantly, I take issue with Cuoco’s “It’s not really something I think about” and “I’ve never really faced inequality.” How nice it must be not to worry about issues of inequity that half the population faces daily and without respite. How easy it must be to think only of yourself and not give consideration to other people and their experiences. How simple it must be to ignore your privileged position and thus ignore the realities of people’s lives as they struggle in a system that, at its core, privileges certain segments of the population over others.

Again, it’s okay not to be a feminist. I accept that. But I will not accept a political perspective – even one that’s as seemingly unintentionally political as Cuoco’s – based pretty clearly on willful ignorance and limited regard for any experience beyond one’s own.

So yes, as a feminist (albeit one with shaved pits), I have beef with Cuoco’s sentiments. But for reasons apparently unanticipated by the Young Cons.

To come back to my Facebook feed: another article caught my attention more recently and prompted me to put to paper the ideas floating in my head about Cuoco’s Redbook interview. California Magazine (Winter 2014) published an article that asked “What Stalled the Gender Revolution?” and answered “Child Care that Costs More Than College Tuition” (http://caa-web-prod-01.ist.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/winter-2014-gender-assumptions/what-stalled-gender-revolution-child-care-costs). Ummmm…YES. As author Tamara Straus reported, “A 2013 report from Child Care Aware noted that as of 2012, in 31 states and the District of Columbia, day care is more expensive than one year of public college tuition—and that was among a cohort of faculty, people with the highest levels of education.” RECORD SCRATCH AGAIN. I know this stuff, and my jaw still hit the floor.

1941 Conference on Day Care

A working mother drops her son at a federally-subsidized nursery school in 1943. Between 1943 and 1946, a half a million children received care in such centers. After World War II ended, they were closed. Please note: better support for working mothers in 1943 than in 2015.

Straus also states, “Feminism isn’t a prominent social movement in this country anymore. And one reason for this is blazingly clear: We don’t have an affordable, taxpayer-subsidized system of infant-to-12 child care that levels the playing field for all women, their partners, and their children. What we have is elite women (and men) blathering on about choice, and billionaire executives passing themselves off as role models for working women, while refusing to acknowledge, let alone celebrate the women who help raise their children and manage their homes.” Those who are unaffected by the inequity (ahem, Ms. Cuoco) ignore that inequity, or even worse, and this is the true crime, believe and willfully perpetuate the idea that it isn’t there.

The individualism that emerged at the end of the Second Wave, as the Second Wave weathered attack by increasingly conservative forces of the Reagan Revolution and the Religious Right, is precisely what contemporary feminists must combat. The personal is political, but it’s our collective personal that should be motivating our political activism. Shout out to Tamara Straus for writing so beautifully what we in my world – virtual and in-person – so often discuss: “My plea to the remaining feminists out there is this: Let’s find some class solidarity and make government-subsidized child care a campaign issue. Let’s identify and vote for candidates who see affordable child care as a legislative necessity. Such family-friendly demands would make sense to low- and middle-income women. They would bring more people back into the feminist fold, and they might even revitalize a movement.” And to that end, I’ll answer Cuoco’s question of “Is it bad if I say no?” in this way, the way a politically engaged interviewer might have: It would be better if you said yes.

Goodbye Norma Jean (and Fall Semester 2014)…

“It doesn’t really take any talent to spread your legs.” So said a student during a discussion of Marilyn Monroe during my first offering of a class on the history of the American Dream. He was referring to the notorious “casting couch” spirit of the postwar Hollywood studio system and Monroe’s willingness to engage in whatever it took to get noticed, get cast, or, ideally, get a contract in that climate. As the discussion continued, this student revealed he’d never seen a Monroe film, but he was inclined to regard the “dumb blonde” archetype she portrayed across her career as an expression of the real Monroe rather than an indication of any sort of comic acting chops. Well, then. I pushed this student, but he was unwilling to bend in his assessment. Apparently our efforts to “reconsider the past through analysis of historians’ arguments and primary source evidence” were not encouraging him to reconsider his pre-class opinions.

I’ve been teaching for a while now, and increasingly, when I find myself in this kind of position in the classroom, my response is to head back to the drawing board. Something isn’t working.

I’ve just concluded my offering of the American Dream class for a second time. For this installment, I revised the entirety of the course from top to bottom. Marilyn was among the few figures not cut in the overhaul (a] she is FASCINATING; b] I owed her redemption!). As part of the revision process, Monroe was much better situated in a discussion of idealized 1950s womanhood, a brand of womanhood that suggested a woman’s earning power was directly linked to the career aspirations and success of the man she managed to marry. His American Dream was hers (or maybe more accurately, he was hers?). To that end, Monroe is both an embodiment and a challenge (in her films and in her life), and fits beautifully in a section of the course that is all about invention and reinvention.

I assigned segments of Lois Banner’s biography of Monroe, 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire (where Monroe is SO BEAUTIFUL and SO FUNNY), and excerpts from Gloria Steinem’s Marilyn biography. The readings are really engaging (if I do say so myself), with Banner considering the public image of Monroe, the views of those she worked with, and Marilyn’s efforts to establish agency and personal power in a time when both were in short supply for a woman in her field. Steinem thinks about Monroe’s legacy – with a particular focus on what the feminist movement has meant for her memory and what it might have meant for her, both personally and professionally, had she lived longer. Along with the film and some in-class source work, it is a good section of the class (again: if I do say so myself).

MMglasses

Monroe as Pola Debevoise in How to Marry a Millionaire

Really good for me: I had a *great* class. They were smart and engaged from the first. They did the good work of highlighting themes across the course, of putting figures into conversation with one another, of establishing what has given the American Dream the longevity it has enjoyed and where it has revealed itself as a mythic and often unattainable creation. And, as it turns out, they were willing to disagree with each other. But it took Marilyn Monroe for that willingness to reveal itself.

Banner’s chapter on Monroe talks about the years leading to super stardom where MM would wear the sexiest possible dress to a party in order to assure that she’d be noticed. Banner writes about Monroe’s conflicts with authority and her habitual lateness on the set, but she reminds readers about the tyrannical nature of 1950s directors and their impatience with “silly women.” She highlights the difference between the studio’s focus on the bottom line versus an emerging view among Hollywood stars that they were artists, not interchangeable parts that could be turned on and off at a moment’s notice. She reveals that Marilyn, for all the trouble she allegedly caused with her demands as she made films, was never once late to a dance class or voice lesson.

For me, it was clear that Monroe worked – and worked hard – during her early years in Hollywood. She consciously had cultivated a style intended to aid her ascendancy to stardom. She did what she had to do to get by in terms of appearance and enduring typecasting, but beyond that, she showed tremendous savvy in developing a compelling interview style and crafting an unforgettable screen presence. Some students in the class agreed. Others: not so much. While several students commended Monroe for her understanding of the way media worked, others were resistant to see Monroe as active in shaping her stardom. What’s more: they didn’t like her. They thought she was cocky and arrogant. In this class, we discussed Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Orson Welles, and not once had the charge of arrogance been made. Even after discussing the context of late 1940s/early 1950s womanhood, when being linked to a man was the surest way of succeeding, the class was divided on whether or not we wanted to assign Monroe “risk-taker” status (an important element to achieving the American Dream, so said my class). When she was still a teenager, with no family and no sure source of income, she basically walked away from her ace-in-the-hole husband with hopes a modeling and film career would pan out. IN 1946. And we don’t know if we want to call her a risk taker? Hopefully my face was not communicating what my brain was screaming, which was WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!?

Even after watching Monroe on screen, the divides persisted. When I asked if she had not played a great dumb blonde, the old view reared its ugly head: “I’m not so sure she’s ‘playing’ dumb,” said one student. Others nodded in agreement. Multiple students expressed the belief that it hadn’t needed to be Norma Jean Mortensen/Dougherty who became Marilyn Monroe – someone else could’ve done it. Apparently students were ready to shed their faith in individualism during Week 13, when only two weeks earlier they’d been adamant that only Jackie Robinson could’ve been Jackie Robinson. Unwilling to accept the necessity of Monroe’s alleged use of sexual favors to make her way up the star ladder, another student noted, “I don’t know a lot of women stars from this time, but I’m sure not everyone did that.” And yet this student admitted that she’d known Marilyn Monroe before she enrolled in a course on the History of the American Dream, begging the question: what was the surest path to stardom for a woman determined to be a star? Particularly a woman with no money, no education, no connections? Over the course of the semester, it was not uncommon for students to commend figures of the past for trading in on whatever currency they had. And yet sexual currency seemed not a currency to commend.

The unwillingness to accept neither the labor of beauty nor the labor of feminine agreeability (which Marilyn often displayed in spades) and the further unwillingness to accept the potential talent of a sexually attractive woman (Monroe’s great sadness during her life) reminded me of things I already know. But I was disappointed to see these truisms revealed in my class. HOWEVER. I did note my class’s willingness to debate, and there were strong voices supporting Marilyn, too. Several students placed her squarely in the mold of 1950s womanhood – and saw, as I hoped they would, both the possibilities and limits of her role. After reading Steinem, one student said she’s wished for Marilyn to have lived long enough to read The Feminine Mystique while another noted that she believed Marilyn would’ve thrived in the world of women’s liberation where she would have found a community of women with whom she could’ve discussed their many shared experiences (sexual abuse, miscarriages, general anxiety). Another student, who felt so sorry for Monroe, reported to me days later that her philosophy class had just read feminist philosophy and her feelings for Marilyn weren’t just sympathy: she was looking at her through a feminist perspective! HALLELUJAH! I did NOT have this cluster of defenders in my first discussion of Monroe.

MM

And that has been my point in writing this far too long post: there is POWER in education to change perspective even if we feel like we’re sometimes going up against a wall. Students who have taken classes on women’s history, human sexuality, or any number of other courses that encourage consideration of the roles of gender and sexuality in social or cultural construction used their analytical skills and their content knowledge to challenge reductions of Monroe to a mere sex symbol bombshell. They considered who and what made her what she was – and what she did to challenge expectations and ideals and the obstacles she faced as she did. The idea that they’ll take with them this willingness to consider alternative perspectives and challenge widespread assumptions as they leave the classroom and head into the future not only gives me hope but also a sense of the power of what we do in the classroom to make a difference in the world beyond. And I’m grateful for this now, at this moment, when I have been feeling so powerless. As I’ve just concluded a long semester and face another one looming after a too short break, I’m determined to take this optimism with me. As I’m gearing up for another 15 week stretch, it’s good to be reminded that both the time we spend in and the time we spend on our classes is time well spent.