Archive | February, 2011

The Creative Life: (M)others

24 Feb

2000irises: (m)others — art and poetry exhibit

In the interest of crass self-promotion, I’d like to discuss my current project. It’s a unique art exhibit at the South Shore Arts Center in Crown Point, IN titled (M)others. The reception is tomorrow night (Friday, Feb. 25th) from 6 – 9 pm, and it features artwork by Melissa Washburn and Patti Tobin Davis, as well as poetry by moi. (I’ll be doing a reading circa 7pm.)

First, this show is unique because art exhibits and poetry don’t often intersect. There is great sympathy among artists and writers, but our products are very different. Writing and art have always inspired one another, but the work itself does not often appear side by side in art galleries. I was straight-up surprised when Melissa asked me if I wanted to participate in this exhibit by contributing poetry (terribly flattered as well, as you can imagine.)

This exhibit also uniquely focuses specifically on the experiences of artists as mothers, and of mothers as artists. Many women find that once they take on the challenge of raising children, their creative work changes permanently.

Naturally, time to create all but disappears, and then when there is time, there is the problem of “mommy brain.” (Digression warning: Mommy brain may improve my ability to multi-task, but there is a reason for the conventional wisdom about mommy brain. Ask any momma on the planet. Yes, I can efficiently remember schedules and household maintenance, but creative thought requires Herculean effort. And if mommy brain were an anti-depressant, then post-partum depression wouldn’t really be a problem, now would it?) Anyway, my point is that by the time my daughter goes to bed at night, my brain is absolutely Jell-O, and switching from mommy mode to writer mode is like throwing a speeding car abruptly into reverse.

Motherhood is one of the most universal experiences, and yet it can be terrifically lonely and shrouded in mystery. None of the What to Expect… books can prepare you for the actual experience of having and raising a child, and while parenting itself is hardly original, the details are. Everyone knows a mother, and yet no one really knows what child-rearing is like until they do it.

This paradox offers all the more reason for women to resolutely find ways of combining the challenges and joys of parenthood with creative work. There is an obvious metaphorical connection between creating life and creating art (although one hurts more,) and the passions of parenting provide plenty of inspiration for art. By making time and space for creativity, and by finding ways of connecting with other mothers through sharing work, artists and writers find community, and mothers in general feel that their emotions and experiences are validated in a way they rarely are in popular culture. The loneliness abates. That’s what we’re trying to do with this exhibit: give space and recognition to the creative efforts of mothers, while examining how motherhood has influenced our work.

In addition to displaying our work, on March 6th at 2pm we’re also screening an independent film titled Who Does She Think She Is. The film’s website introduces its central concerns: “In a half-changed world, women often think they need to choose: mothering or working? Your children’s well-being, or your own? [This] documentary by Academy Award winning filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll, features five fierce women who refuse to choose. Through their lives, we explore some of the most problematic intersections of our time: mothering and creativity, partnering and independence, economics and art.”

Let me finish by saying that while passionate about exploring motherhood, I am leery of enshrining mothers. Just the other week I heard an otherwise intelligent man describing his mother as “pure and angelic.” Gag. (You do know how you got here, right? Nothing pure about it.) The myth of the “angelic mommy” is just one more way that women feel pressured to be perfect. (Let the Mommy Wars ensue.) I don’t want my daughter to have any illusion about my perfection – fiercely devoted, loving, involved, and silly, definitely – but for heaven’s sake, not perfect. I want her to think of me as a woman who took care of herself as well as her family, so she can do the same when (and if) her momma time comes. I want to be a woman who makes room for creative work amid the chaos of daily life. Perhaps continuing honest conversation about the reality and variety of mothers’ lives will help dispel the myth of the “angelic” mommy, freeing mothers to be real people, and at last give value to the experiences of all people who answer those incessant calls for “Mommy.”

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part One

18 Feb

2000irises: A Defense of Irene Adler, Part One

It turns out I’ve worked up quite a froth about Irene Adler. I’ve been sitting on this post for quite a while and it turned out l o n g. (Could I edit it down? Sure. But why? It’s the bloody Internet.) So I’ve broken it into two pieces. Pace yourself. Take stretch breaks. Drink water.

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part One
The Rant

Irene Adler is a woman with a reputation. Even though she appears in just one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sixty Holmes stories (“A Scandal in Bohemia,”) readers and filmgoers can never get enough of her. Countless pastiches have expanded on her story – some rather creatively. (Notably, see Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler series. )

Most recently, Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes casts Adler (Rachel McAdams) as Sherlock’s former lover and capricious sidekick.

(She’s the wily one who tied a naked Robert Downey, Jr. to a headboard, for which many men and women offer their gratitude.)

Thank you again, Irene.

For Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie modernizes the classic characters, styling them edgier, sexier, scruffy and slick. This makes for exciting movie watching, but as many others have noted, his explosive vision dispenses with all of Conan Doyle’s subtlety. The characters lose dimension for sensation’s sake. Unfortunately, Irene Adler’s character suffers the worst betrayal.

Conan Doyle’s Adler is actually a fascinating and nuanced female character, but she’s often only remembered as the one woman who ever impressed Sherlock Holmes, the only woman he might have loved. Thus, Ritchie’s version of Irene is neither original nor surprising, but still it misses the mark. She’s only a supporting character in the film, so naturally we don’t get much of her backstory, and her history with Holmes is merely implied. But for Adler enthusiasts, the final shot of her handcuffed on a scaffold, weeping and love-sick, sitting passively while Holmes steals her necklace – honestly, it’s just revolting. I’d hardly consider myself a purist, but really, this departs so completely from the character of Irene Adler as written by Conan Doyle, I was insulted. She’s not stronger for Ritchie’s revamp. He keeps Irene’s sauciness, sneakiness, and self-interest, but he loses everything that makes Irene cool.

Long before strutting through Richie’s steampunk London in a shockingly fuchsia silk gown, Irene Adler made a name for herself by accomplishing the impossible. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler goes head to head with Sherlock Holmes and she wins. Of the four people who ever best Holmes, Irene is the only woman to do so, and she’s the only one who merits a whole story.

But beyond outwitting Holmes, Irene Adler is a compelling character in her own right. She is fearless, fiercely independent, and for a proper Victorian lady, unusually forthright about her ambitions – both professional and romantic. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes describes Adler as a spinster because she’s an unmarried woman of thirty, but she’s hardly been home embroidering cushions. She’s traveled the world. She’s enjoyed a wildly successful career as an opera singer, and carried on scandalous love affairs with prominent men. She hasn’t had babies. She hasn’t settled down into dull domestic bliss. She’s smart and ambitious and rejects the dull social demands of polite society, choosing not to trouble herself with the common concerns of ordinary women. Irene Adler makes her own rules, and unlike Conan Doyle’s other female characters, she doesn’t allow herself to be manipulated by repressive families or greedy men. (Adler is blackmailing the King of Bohemia, after all.) She matches Sherlock Holmes’ intellect and cunning, but also his stubborn independence.

Many women appear in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but of them, only Irene Adler is a developed character. Many have questioned Conan Doyle’s attitude toward women, but in context, he isn’t any more misogynous than any writer of his time. In fact, his villains were often nasty men bent on taking advantage of women. Conan Doyle was at least sympathetic to some of the grizzlier struggles women faced: assault, theft, and forced marriage. Conan Doyle is not sensationalistic about these abuses; he doesn’t linger over the damage, but quickly moves toward retribution. More than once, Sherlock Holmes releases men who have committed crimes in the service of oppressed women. (See “The Abbey Grange” and “The Devil’s Foot”, for example.)

Sherlock Holmes the character often scoffs at women’s intellectual abilities, not because he dislikes women exactly, but rather because they confound him. He mistrusts women based entirely on his affinity for precision and logic and his impatience with sentiment and emotion. In “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” Holmes tells Watson, “the motives of women are so inscrutable. … How can you build on such a quicksand? Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling-tong.”

Obviously, this view of women is unrealistic, and Conan Doyle knows it. He undermines Holmes’s prejudices almost immediately by pitting him against Irene Adler in the first short story. She may be beautiful and her actions mercurial, but she is also observant, clever, intuitive and calculating. She also has a sense of humor, and clearly enjoys rubbing Holmes’s nose in his arrogant ignorance. Ultimately, even Moriarty can’t elude Holmes, but Adler can, because she takes advantage of his sexism.

At least he has the good grace to be impressed. Watson explains that forever after Irene Adler is “The Woman” to Sherlock Holmes: a hard won title which ironically dooms her to be largely remembered not as a creative, exciting example of emancipated Victorian womanhood, but rather as the sole object of Holmes’ repressed sexuality.

Watson clarifies Holmes’s relationship with Adler in the very first paragraph of “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Holmes admires her, we are told, but “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.”

Thus, Watson practically trips over himself to assure readers that despite Holmes’s appreciation of Adler, he does not love her. Nonetheless, in the 120 years since this story first appeared, countless pastiches and films have found ways to hook them up. This wishful thinking does a disservice to Holmes’s extraordinary, almost inhuman, detachment, but honestly, it does a disservice to Adler as well. Just as Holmes doesn’t love Adler, she doesn’t love him either.

Furthermore, not only does Irene not love Sherlock Holmes, she outright mocks him. She thumbs her nose at him right on his very doorstep. Her “Goodnight, Mister Sherlock Holmes” isn’t meant to seduce, it’s meant to humble.

She doesn’t pine for Holmes. She doesn’t offer to stick around and keep house for him. She doesn’t stay to spawn little mini-detectives with him. She packs her bags in the dead of night and skips town. Her parting gifts – a short, sarcastic letter and formal photograph – only serve to remind her gobsmacked pursuers that even though she admires Sherlock’s “formidable” talents, she is mistress of her own fate.

All this makes it difficult to swallow stories of Holmes and Adler in which they overcome their singular incompatibly and find romance. Honestly, would the vivacious, confident Adler put up with a cold, dispassionate Holmes just because she admires his great mind? Can we really imagine a love-struck Holmes becoming a father? How would that work, exactly? Would there be test tubes?

So my further question is, if Sherlock Holmes is enjoying a modern revival of interest and if Irene Adler is accompanying him back into the spotlight, will we see a modern version of Adler that adequately captures her spirit and independence without turning her into a shrew?

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part Two

18 Feb

2000irises: A Defense of Irene Adler, Part Two

A Defense of Irene Adler: Part Two
The Plea (and Maybe a Just a Smidge More Rant)

With Guy Ritchie’s RDJ vehicle behind us (and its sequel looming,) we turn our hopes for Irene Adler to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the co-producers and writers of BBC’s Sherlock. Both have hinted that Adler may appear in their show’s second season. I remain reservedly optimistic about Sherlock‘s Irene. If anyone can do her justice, it’ll be Gatiss and Moffat. Thus far, their 21st Century versions of the Holmes stories and characters add sparkle and dash while remaining impressively true to the spirit of the originals. But how will they update Irene? Are the qualities that made her an exceptional Victorian woman still relevant?

I wonder all the time if there’s room in popular entertainment for sexy, brainy women, and by that I don’t just mean librarians in heat.

Irene is beautiful, that’s not surprising for film or television, and easy to manage – look at the gorgeous McAdams. Beautiful is not difficult to write. Even sassy isn’t hard to write. Everyone likes a sassy girl, as long as she’s properly tamed by the end of the movie (McAdams in handcuffs.) But beauty and sass mixed with self-determination and empowerment, that’s another matter entirely. That’s fairly rare.

Is it because filmmakers don’t think modern audiences can handle strong women? Is it because it isn’t satisfying narratively if the girl gets away? Is it harder to identify with Adler if she isn’t Holmes’s feisty second sidekick or saucy love interest? Maybe it just isn’t sexy enough for the infallible Holmes to be upstaged by a cunning woman. We love Holmes, shouldn’t she?

It seems that Ritchie, at least, believes that as far as Sherlock and Irene go, she may win the match, but she can’t win the game. Robert Downey Jr. can be tied to a bed, but only so long as it’s comic, and only so long as we know he’ll eventually show her who’s really in charge. (Again, the handcuffs, the pitiful silent tear.)

Certainly wherever Adler meets Holmes there will be sexual tension – that tension is present in the story as well. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t need Watson to explain their relationship right out of the gate, nor would so many pastiches attempt to resolve that tension. Sexual frustration is fun, we love to see it, bring it on. But can’t that tension remain unresolved? Honestly, isn’t that hotter? Do we really need to declaw Irene in order to affirm Holmes’s superiority? Can’t Sherlock come away from his dealings with Irene with a tiny crack in his invulnerability? After all, many argue that Irene Adler is important to the Sherlock Holmes mythology because she does more than compromise Holmes’s view of women: she humanizes him.

So please Mr. Gatiss, please Mr. Moffat, I beg you. I can’t bear to see another Irene dangling prostrate above the Thames. If you do write Adler into the next season of Sherlock, let Irene Adler show Holmes up, and then let her celebrate by hopping a redeye on the arm of gorgeous man, a self-satisfied smirk on her face.

Brainy Women at the Rock-A-Hula Luau

2 Feb

2000irises: Brainy Women at the Rock-a-hula Luau

As you no doubt remember, when the new school year opens on Grease 2, our heroine Stephanie (Michelle Pfeiffer) has spent her summer pumping gas and wriggling out of the arcane social contract tying the Pink Ladies to the T-Birds. She’s managed to shuffle off her toad of a boyfriend and repeatedly insists to anyone in earshot that she will not go back to dating just any idiot who comes along. She’s a free woman now, and she’s going to hold out for a guy … with a motorcycle. Whatever. She exclaims this new manifesto while dangling from a ladder, which I respect, singing “No ordinary boy, no ordinary boy is gonna do, I want a rider that’s cool.”

Then she dances off across the parking lot doing this weird little hopping step. As you do.

Stephanie doesn’t have to wait long for her “dream on a mean machine.” Moony uber-dork Michael (Maxwell Caulfield) devotes himself to fulfilling Stephanie’s every desire and winning her heart. By day he does her homework; by night he’s a self-taught Evel Knievel in a leather jacket and a shiny black helmet.

But, oh the angst! Which identity will Stephanie really fall for: Shakespeare

or Cool Rider?

Stephanie’s no dummy. “Are you crazy?” she says, “I got two for the price of one!”

That pretty much sums up my feelings about pop culture.

I love stylized spectacle. I love fast-paced glamour and excitement. I love catchy tunes, throbbing beats, flashy choreography and over-the-top costumes. I’m a magpie: I want shiny colors and dancing lights. I thrill to thwarted romance and sparky dialogue. I love to laugh. I love to sing. I love to watch other people laugh and sing.

But sadly, spectacle just isn’t enough for me. I don’t buy it for long. I get bored. Stephanie’s interest in Michael would have died out instantly if he’d turned out to be only Shakespeare (too brainy to identify with) or only Cool Rider (all flash and daring, but little substance.) I feel the same way about mainstream entertainment. I want excitement and fun, but damn if I don’t want substance too. I am a Brainy Woman, I’m overeducated, and I really just want to be surprised. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Imagination, craft, and (dare I say it?) genius aren’t only found in high culture. I do enjoy literature, foreign film, fine art, and so on, but brilliant, thoughtful entertainment is possible beyond PBS, and sometimes it’s even more fun because it’s unexpected. Furthermore, as a Brainy Woman, I get really jazzed when the mainstream meets feminism. I am constantly on the lookout for nuanced female characters, television shows and movies that pass the Bechdel Test, and work created and inspired by other Brainy Women. It’s unfortunate we have to look so damn hard for these qualities in pop culture, but finding them is like discovering buried treasure.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge anyone their guilty pleasures. I’ve been known to devour paperback romance novels, dial into American Idol, and download Katy Perry. (What? I like “Hot and Cold,” okay?) But while I think these things are fun and diverting, none are exactly inspiring. I want to be inspired. (I blame the Master’s Degrees. Once you’ve got a graduate degree in English, your only option is to laser it off. )

All this meandering exposition is actually leading to an explanation of what I intend to do with this blog. I mean to seek out examples of witty, intelligent, women-positive pop culture and write about them. This is a worthy challenge because mainstream entertainment, even when intelligent and women-positive, is rarely unproblematic. When we talk about 30 Rock or Lady Gaga or The Hunger Games, we need to think about what makes them smart as well as how they could go even further.

What I’m not interested in doing here is an all-encompassing feminist critique of pop culture. For one thing, several magazines and blogs already do that very well – far better than I could. (See my blogroll.) For another thing, like most Brainy Women, I despair at the pervasive misogyny of our culture. Analyzing and dissecting culture is a crucial but never-ending, often grim, thankless task. Such critiques are essential to fostering feminist consciousness and debate, and I enjoy reading them, but just thinking about single-handedly undertaking such a task in my tiny little blog exhausts me. I think this explains the intense burnout rate among feminist bloggers. I can think of six misogynistic things I’ve seen today. If I tried to research and explicate the constant barrage of anti-women messages and images, I would be full-on depressed within a week. I don’t want to ignore them, but I don’t want to focus on them either.

So, instead of studying the pervasive misogyny of the entertainment industry, I’m going to look for the glimmers of light in the fog. I do hope you’ll help. And then, at the end of the day, we can have a luau.

(Also, for the record, Grease 2 absolutely does NOT meet the Brainy Woman requirements. But I like it anyway. Don’t tell.)

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