Saturday, July 20, 2013

TV COMMENT--Has No TV Character Heard of Abortion?

i've written about this before, a year or so ago i think.  but it gets to me more and more.  lately i've been watching the 1999-2004 show judging amy, which i bought on sale b/c i wanted one incredible episode for my class, and now use for my personal nighttime tv.  amy, about which i'll post copiously at some point, was one of that odd spate of daringly progressive tv shows that popped up in that era and then vanished, and i'm awed again by how strong so much of it is.

tonight i watched the episode in which amy's sister-in-law is pregnant, and learns that the fetus may have serious deformities.  when her husband talks to a doctor-cousin, the doc says there are many options, and reminds peter that the fetus is only 6 weeks old. then he says it again. peter is horrified, but does mention it to his wife.

what bothers me, a lot, is not that the wife refuses to consider it: this is totally consistent with her character.  it bothers me that they talk only of 'terminating the pregnancy.'  presumably 'abortion' remains a four-letter word in tv land.

but at least the concept came up. now drop dead diva has a pregnant character, whose pregnancy was announced last year.  this is character who is heavily career driven,  very sophisticated, and very cynical. as it turns out, having her pregnant was a good choice: the actor herself was already pregnant. but there was never a mention that she--the character, not the actor--might consider abortion and then decide against it.

now, on covert affairs, another high-powered career woman is pregnant [i think i read that the actor herself is here too].  but as soon as she finds out she's pregnant, she's totally glowing and smiling. here too there seems to be no moment when she wonders if she wants a baby.

i don't watch every show on tv, so i may well be missing something--but i don't see, anywhere, in descriptions of any tv show, a suggestion that part of the plot might involve abortion or the consideration of it.  as the country continues its rightward trajectory, and abortion rights are in more jeopardy than ever since roe v. wade, i find this very scary--and sinister.  when the concept of 'choice' itself, let alone the choice to abort, is totally absent, we're given de facto lies.  one right wing congressman recently made a joke about women having to return to the coat hanger abortions of old. he may get his jollies imagining women tearing apart their uteri, getting horrible infections, and often dying; a lot of us don't find that funny. if the right wing manages to destroy the fragile, incomplete, but at least somewhat protective roe v. wade decision, women will indeed once more turn to the illegal abortions and self-abortions they were forced to before the 1970s.

in the world of tv fiction, giving us more and more suggestive sexual situations, no one worries anymore about AIDS, women never seem to menstruate, and hot sex [minus, of course, genitals and breasts, always properly covered by the ever-present satin sheets] is apparently so overwhelming that no one considers condoms.  shows which are sometimes brave enough to give us gay marriage, and, occasionally, transgendered characters, balk at the simple realities of unprotected sex, std's, and unwanted pregnancy.  it's a schitzy culture in which women's freedom to act sexually [at least heterosexually]  is honored, but their freedom to choose how to respond when sex results in pregnancy is wholly unaddressed.  i talk a lot in my tv classes about the presence of absence.  in the case of the right to abortion, the absence  looms increasingly ominously.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Gender and Language: a Personal Note

the works i've been reading and watching for my new class have been stirring up my mind, as i mentioned here yesterday.  they grab associations with pieces of my own, not very dramatic, childhood, and remind me of what gender expectations and confining language can do to us all.  there is in particular one episode of the 1999-2004 drama Judging Amy, clearly influenced by the splendid film Ma vie en rose. briefly, it's a story of a preadolescent boy convinced he's a girl, who repeatedly gets beaten up in school because of his 'bizarre'  female dress.  the principal wants to kick him out b/c they don't have the resources to keep him constantly guarded.  amy is skeptical at first: can a boy that age be certain he's a transsexual?  finally she decides to take him at his word, and still keep him in school.  gently she asks 'sasha' if she [the pronoun amy now accepts] ever plays pretend.  sure, sasha answers. well, amy suggests, do you think you could pretend to be a boy at school? get your hair cut just a little shorter, and wear boys' clothing.  then when you go home, change clothes and dress like who you really are.  the child agrees.  amy's statement to the court then is revealing.  we don't know if this child will grow up to be transsexual, or gay or straight, or whatever, she says. we do know who she perceives herself to be now, and that needs to be respected.

i remember some protests from others in the women's and gay movements, since it forced comprise on the child.  but in real life, a boy who thinks he's a girl will, as  does this fictional child, face constant physical and verbal attack.  to me what makes this such a profound episode is the adult authority's  acceptance of the child on her own terms.  she is not a boy pretending to be a girl; she is a girl pretending, and only for part of the day, to be a boy.  sasha is right, her attackers are wrong, and, by implication, the world that enforces specific gender expectations on everyone is wrong.

my own experience is hardly as compelling as sasha's, and hasn't been traumatizing, but it is i think an interesting example of how gender assumptions tie us all down.  i had a conversation with friends when i was about 8. we were all talking about what we'd be when we grew up. the other girls were going to be nurses or secretaries, or they didn't care b/c once they were married they wouldn't have to work at all.  i had just seen the film The Big Top, whose heroine was a trapeze artist. so i declared emphatically a twofold ambition--i was going to be a trapeze artist, and i wasn't going to get married and have children. when the grownups heard this they laughed. i think the trapeze artist made them comfortable: i had several outlandish ideas so they were considered cute.

over time, the trapeze artist faded away [making the world a safer place for me and several circus audiences].when i read the cherry ames books i was going to be a nurse like cherry; there was a series about a stewardess, and i was going to be stewardess,  and so forth.  but there was always the tag line: i was never going to get married and have children.

when i tell this story now, in my late 60s, i frame it terms of my lifelong commitment to not getting married and having children. and i often get an amazed response.  how could i know at 8 that i didn't want to get married and have kids?  i didn't know then, they argue; it just happened to work out that way.  maybe. this sort of assertion doesn't lend itself to proof, or disproof. i can only say that what i felt so adamantly at 8 has been consistently what i have felt so adamantly throughout my life. i have never wanted marriage and children. sex, a monogamous, permanent lover, yes. marriage, no.  kids, absolutely no.  there has never been a moment when i have wanted otherwise.  my guess is that that 8 year old girl knew exactly what she wanted, alongside the lovely fantasy of the trapeze artist.  at 27 i got sterilized--which annoyed my then-boyfriend, who thought he should have some say in the matter.   i thought he was being a jerk. i was right, on both counts.  now, at an age when  one tends to reassess successes and failures in one's life, i know without question that the sterilization was one of my successes.

the other childhood memory that the transgender works evoke is from a few years later--i was perhaps 10 or ll, and had just read the girl's classic Little Women.  in this subtly resistant work, i learned two words that deeply affected my life.  Jo, the beloved hero of the book, defined herself as a tomboy.  she played ballgames and climbed trees and ran around the park and hated being a girl.  she also loved, above all else,  reading, and planned to be a writer when she grew up.  oh, how i wanted to be jo! nancy drew and cherry ames faded in the face of jo's glory.  if jo was a tomboy, that was what i was going to be. so i manfully played ballgames and climbed trees.  the ballgames [punch ball, the kids on my block played] were okay for awhile. i wasn't good at it, but i wasn't terrible.  they didn't last that long.  but the tree-climbing, alas, was a huge failure.  i tried; lord, i tried.  i found one tree around the corner that crotched fairly low down into two thick branches, and i was able, bruising my shins and knees, to get up into that crotch, where i would try to read. that's what jo did--read sitting up in a tree.  my parents hated my proud declarations that i was a tomboy.   but it made me proud. i wasn't a little girly girl who worried about mud getting on her pretty white dress. i had an identity.

that identify, of course, was false. but what other word was there? you could be a boy or a girl or a tomboy or a sissy [but no one wanted to be a sissy].  what i hadn't picked up as a gender alternative was the other thing jo called herself, something that really did fit me: a bookworm.  i sort of elided bookworm into tomboy, which worked for jo but not for me.

the tomboy eventually faded into the ether along with the trapeze artist: both were useful symbols of freedom in their time.  but there was another word in Little Women, for grownup women, that i embraced and have maintained all my life.  a woman who didn't get married was a  spinster.  no matter that people told me a spinster was like an old maid, pathetic and unwanted, living in the houses of grudging relatives.  too late! the word came to at first unvarnished, from the pages of a defiant spinster's book.  it was ironic that jo herself didn't get to be a spinster.  alcott's editors forced her to marry jo off, though at least jo was able to pick a nice fatherly man who encouraged her writing.  but by that time we had already heard jo's mother tell her girls that, while marrying the man you  loved was the happiest thing that could happen to a woman, marrying for any other reason--money, fear of being alone, etc.--was the unhappiest, and that many women lived happy and useful lives as spinsters.  in all the books that followed Little Women, alcott gave her readers at least one happy spinster.  Who could not love Nan from Little Men and Jo's Boys?  or the happy band of women artists in An Old Fashioned Girl?  or the elderly, cheerful aunts and the splendid bachelor doctor in Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom?

what would i have doe if my rebellious needs were scarier to the adults around me? Would i have held out so well as a sissy as i did as a faux tomboy?  would i have dated some good catholic schoolboy and married and had kids b/c i had no hint of other possibilities?  i know that the tomboy and the aspiring spinster brought me into the civil rights marcher and anti-war marcher and eventually into the active feminist.  what else might i have been if there had been a larger vocabulary, a larger vision of what people can grow up to be?  what possibilities can we create for the girls and boys who come after us?

so much for not blogging while preparing for my course.  never mind, this tale might work its way into the course.  i'd like to think i can offer my students some confidence for their own possibilities--tomboy, gay-straight-transsexual-bisexual, sissy as a positive word,  whatever.  a student once came to me after a women's studies  class to talk about the discussion that had come up in class about lesbianism.  since that discussion, her sister had come out to their parents, who had berated her bitterly.  'but because of you and the girls who talked about it in class,'' my student said, ' i knew about lesbians and i could support my sister and fight back with our parents.'  one of those moments i look back to in pride: that wannabe tomboy, that real spinster, that fantasy trapeze artist, has changed at least one person's life.  and could i have done it without that earlier determination to move a little outside the framework i was given?

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Don't Give Up On Me....

i have been too busy of late with preparation for my new class, beginning july 16, to put much time into my blog or my own other writing.  it's a shame b/c the class itself is grist for the mill--it combines my old women in media with the new focus on gender studies rather than women's studies, and our department is making the transition from women's studies to gender studies---a huge mistake, i think, when both are so large and so important; itself something to write about-- though i did a large post on that 2 years ago, it's probably worth repeating.  ironically, though i took the new course protesting all the way, and still protesting, i'm loving the research i've been doing,  largely on transexuality, and have found some wonderful clips on both tv and film.  so when i have time, expect many posts thereon. in the process i've been watching all of the old 'judging amy' show, convinced more than ever of its importance and longing more than ever for its return [after ten years, hardly likely]. and have had to use a real textbook, which is of course loaded with academic language, invented to obscure understanding rather than expand it.  another post or 10.  [this one isn't in the text, but i'm sure it will be in the next edition: a friend told me about it, and i looked it up, finding 2 pages to explain it and 2 more of notes. the word, my friends, is 'cis-sexual.'  i assume as educated people you all know what it means?  if not...i will explain it in a future post.  so expect to see me asap, as i privilege the polysemetic narrativity of the chronotopic structuralism......