Why We Shouldn’t Stop Talking About Miley Cyrus

Since Sunday night, the Interwebs have been tangled up in discussion of Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, which was, as far as I can tell, as close to a dictionary definition of “ratchet” as the human race will ever come. And rightfully so. Yes, it was lewd, crude, and shocking. And yes, it was lewd, crude, and shocking in ways we haven’t even discussed yet (why were all of her suggestive motions imitating acts men do? Do she not understand the female body? And why was it necessary to start off in a Chucky Cheese face leotard?). But in a lot of ways, it wasn’t shocking. If you squinted a little, it looked like a hyperactive toddler acting out Christina Aguilera’s “Dirty” with Beetlejuice as a guest star. In a lot of ways, it was familiar — and that’s what we should be talking about.
Buzzfeed, always the first to set the tempo of our national reaction to pop culture events, responded with a frame-by-frame comparison between Miley’s 2013 performance and Britney Spears’ 2000 performance. It was fascinating not only because it’s about Britney Spears and she is always fascinating, but because of the implication here: that young female pop stars have to have a transition to young woman pop stars, and that transition has to include overt sexuality.
There’s a lot that is interesting and infuriating about this idea, but I think that the most interesting and infuriating thing is that it seems to confuse a fact with a truth. By this I mean that yes, it is indeed a fact that many child/teen pop stars — Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Amanda Bynes — have signaled their transition to adult stardom through performances rife with overt sexuality. However, it is not a truth that all child/teen pop stars have to signal their transition to adult stardom through performances rife with overt sexuality. There are many women — Beyoncé comes to mind as an example, and Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams along with her, not to mention Kelly Clarkson, and, while we’re at it, Jenny Lewis — who have made the transition without overt sexuality. Beyoncé created a powerful alter-ego who stands up to men who denigrate her self-worth. Michelle Williams turn to gospel music, concentrating on her faith and expressing how her relationship with and thinking about God has matured. And Jenny Lewis — well, she’s a genius, plain and simple, who redefined pop music and stardom and songwriting, and who can write lines that any poet would envy (“here’s to all the certainties of sickness and sleep,” anyone?). And, you know, there was Cher. Sure, all of these ladies do happen to have impressively toned bodies, but they didn’t depend solely on their bodies to speak for them. They showed strength, intellect, faith, talent. They showed that they had matured, body and soul — and they didn’t have to take their clothes off to do so.
And I think that the verb in that sentence — “have to” — combined with the Britney/Miley article’s thesis — that in order to signal maturity, a pop singer “has to” deliver a provocative performance — is the problem. It’s what we really need to be talking about. It’s the very definition of exploitation. We aren’t watching female artist explore their sexuality, we’re watching them exploit it. Or, rather, be exploited. And it’s an exploitation, I’d argue, that begins far before they take off their clothes. In a lot of ways, I think the world of Disney, with its emphasis on impossible purity, is every bit as exploitative. It’s the old myth retold, the idea that women can be virgins or whores or mothers, with no other options or even in-betweens. In many ways, I think that Disney purity may be every bit as exploitative as Miley’s flesh-colored underpants. I’ve read a lot about how Disney made a conscious move to use the “princess” idea in its marketing throughout a woman’s life, to hook them into the idea of the princess childhood, the princess wedding. And let’s not forget who these princesses generally are: women without strong female role models who are helpless until they find their prince, no matter how strong and smart they may be.
Maybe I am especially sensitive to this because I work in two arenas that often seem as though they’re constructed against women, built so that it’s difficult, as a woman, to succeed: academia, in which the years of nine-to-nine work coincide with a woman’s reproductive years, and publishing, which VIDA has shown is a field where the odds are stacked against women. Maybe it’s because I watch a lot of television and am therefore constantly bombarded by images from baby-bump-patrols. Or maybe it’s not just me. It seems inescapably true that we’re living in a moment obsessed with the idea of the woman as virgin (Disney and its princesses), mother (baby-bump-patrol), or whore (Miley, Miley, Miley). We’re living in a moment where women’s reproductive rights are constantly at risk, where some women don’t have access to birth control or education about their reproductive lives. And we’re living in a moment where misogyny is often accepted without question, where some men openly and without caveat proclaim that Don Draper — who may dress well and who looks cool smoking and drinking but who is, at the bottom of it all, a misogynist who treats women terribly — is a role model, a marvel, what the modern man should be.

Which means, I think, that it’s a hard enough fight for women to get the respect that they deserve as equals to men, as human beings. We need to show respect for ourselves. And we need to talk about the reasons why a twenty year old woman would choose to disrespect herself — and her body, her womanhood, other women, other races (I can’t be the only one who noticed that she treated African-American women as objects in her performance — though this shouldn’t be a parenthetical and should be the source of much, much more discussion) — in such a public way.

Advertisements

Shedding Light on the Book of Shadows

So last night, I was watching television with my mother, which meant, as usual, that we had flipped around with great despair until, finally, we’d become resigned to watching something ridiculous.  In this case, the something ridiculous we watched was The Biography Channel’s Celebrity Ghost Stories.  No, really.  That’s seriously a thing.  It features a number of people who are almost or once were actual celebrities describing, with great suspense, their almost or actual hauntings.

This particular episode featured a typically almost-recognizable man who was scruffy enough to be believable as an almost- or once-celebrity.  Predictably, his wasn’t the most coherent story ever.  He’d been staying at a friend’s friend’s house in LA, where he found a box containing tarot cards and some really creepy cassette tapes full of really, really creepy chanting.  Then he had a bunch of girls over and something happened, and then something happened with a painting.  I don’t know, exactly, because I wasn’t exactly paying attention.  I was in the middle of this enormous paint-by-number project that required a great deal of focus.  Anyway, I started half-listening when the creepy music ramped up, implying that we were about to reach the cliffhanger before a commercial break.  The friend’s friend, it seems, had called because she somehow knew that he had unearthed the box with tarot cards and creepy cassette tapes.  She’d called to warn him not to mess with them.  “And then she said” – here, the story paused for maximum suspense and creepiness – “‘I’m a witch.’”

At that point, I wasn’t just listening.  I was furious.

After the commercial break, the almost-recognizable man repeated the sentence, pausing again before saying it: “a witch.”  Things in the house got worse and worse, until a demonic voice screamed “get out of here” and the man obeyed.  And that, he said, was the end.

Where do I begin.

This is the cover of the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, which lays down the system of beliefs that led to the European witch trials.  It's chilling beyond chilling.  Wicasta and Christie Jury transcribed the text and posted it online to further education on the text and the trials. It's a very, very difficult thing to read, but it's very, very much more important to build knowledge and make sure nothing like this happens, in any form, again.

This is the cover of the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, which lays down the system of beliefs that led to the European witch trials. It’s chilling beyond chilling. Wicasta and Christie Jury transcribed the text and posted it online to further education on the text and the trials. It’s a very, very difficult thing to read, but it’s very, very much more important to build knowledge and make sure nothing like this happens, in any form, again.

I was terrified, but it wasn’t the story that scared me.  It wasn’t just the flagrant disregard for paganism, or the absurd and inflammatory equation of paganism and Satanism (not the same thing, Mr. Almost-Or-Formerly Famous.  Not anywhere close).  It wasn’t just the complete ignorance about witchcraft (I’m guessing that the producers, Mr. Almost-Or-Formerly Famous, and/or The Biography Channel weren’t aware of the Wiccan Rede — An it harm none, do what ye will – which, I mean, perhaps they should take a look at that?  And stop with the harming?), it was the perpetuation of said ignorance, without thought.  It was the off-handed carelessness with which they perpetuated misinformation about an ancient, beautiful, and terribly misunderstood system of belief.

You’re probably thinking, Emma.  Come on.  It was just a ghost story.  Lighten up.  And yes, it was just a ghost story.  But I’m not sure I should lighten up.  It’s the mindset behind the ghost story that’s really, truly frightening – so frightening that it’s definitely worth discussing.

When I was doing research for Maleficae, I came across countless explanations for The Burning Times, the witch trials that happened in early modern Europe between the 15th and 18th century.  I read theories about ergot poisoning from central stores of grain, about movements of mass hysteria.  I read about how property laws changed to allow women to inherit property, which in turn made women less dependent on men – which many men wanted stopped, so they accused women engaged in pagan practices of consorting with Satan.  I read about how the Catholic Church gave midwives the power to perform baptisms so that babies who died shortly after birth wouldn’t be damned.  Women began to ask questions: if they could give this sacrament, why not the rest?  And the Church, the theory goes, responded with witch trials and executions.

Though the explanations differ, it all seemed to boil down to the same series of actions: one group feared or hated another, and so they turned against them.  That energy built and built.  People spoke out of ignorance, and that ignorance became dangerous.  That ignorance led to action, which led to persecution.  And the trials began.

It’s estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed.

There’s something missing here that I think is important, and that’s another group, another set of voices.  What’s missing here is the group that speaks up, the group that speaks for the persecuted, the group that says, at the very beginning, that perhaps everyone should cool off and actually talk to and understand each other.  Silence, it seems, is an action in itself.  Silence is acquiescence.

So yes, I probably did take the story too seriously.  But isn’t that the point?  What happens if you keep letting things go, telling yourself that you shouldn’t take them too seriously?  What happens if those things build and build, accreting a power of their own?  If silence persists, if no one says hey, wait a minute, if we continue to speak out of ignorance and ignore the fact that ignorance can become dangerous, and fast – well, that’s when the story becomes really, truly frightening.  Better to risk speaking up at the beginning than standing powerlessly by the story’s terrifying end.

There is no Frigate like Book

There are a few small but appreciable benefits from dealing with Circumstances, and all stem from the fact that Circumstances tend to make one re-evaluate and re-think — and Circumstances often give one the time one needs to re-evaluate and re-think.

That sentence was hella awkward.

In less vague and oddly formal third-person terms, I guess I could say that, every so often, it seems like I go through Circumstances that require me to sit back and think about what I’m doing with and in my life, about what really matters to me and on/with what I need to spend the precious-beyond-precious time I have.  And for me, time and time again, the answer is always the same answer: words.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

I think that most, if not all, writers come to write because they love words, which means they love to read.  Most, if not all, of us have a moment tucked inside of us, a moment when words suddenly became more than words, when words unfurled inside the mind into something as enormous and wonderful and even slightly frightening as Jack’s beanstalk, and with its power to transport.

That’s the frightening part — the power — and also the tremendously beautiful part.  It’s what every writer, I think, is, in the end, chasing: the power to transport herself and someone else, in the same was as she herself has been transported, through words.  When I was a little girl, my father took me to the library every weekend, and I remember walking from shelf to shelf, pulling books off the shelves and opening them into Vs, reading random paragraphs to find which ones I wanted to take home.  I always knew when I found the right one: the shelves vanished, the library vanished, the entire state of Alabama vanished, and I vanished with them.  It was just the words, the world that they made.

The Circumstances through which I’m currently moving and living have given me, wondrously, the quiet time I needed to spend with words — both with my own and with others’.  It’s the kind of quiet time I need, from time to time, to recharge.  I think it’s very easy, especially if you’re a person who’s trying to get published or whose job related to words, to get discouraged, to let the rejections overtake you, to lose faith in your own language.  Or, at least, that’s what happens to me, and it happens far more easily and frequently than I often admit.  It’s also very easy to get so wrapped up in publishing and competition and ego (or lack thereof) to the point where your own words aren’t necessarily your own.  It’s easy to forget the small miracle that happens every time a pen hits a page.  It’s easy to forget that more often than not, the writer isn’t the one in control.  The words are.  A writer’s place isn’t in speaking.  It’s in listening.

Reading — living, for a few hundred pages or so, in another’s world, living and listening and loving through and in their words — is the way I remember this.  It’s the way I return, again and again, to the sense of awe that made me begin writing myself.  I mean this in several senses of the word: amazement, yes, but also fear, and the sense of reverence that comes from wonder and terror.  I mean this in the sense of respect of language itself, of how letters and words and sentences build upon themselves, seemingly of their own volition and power.

Though the Circumstances I’m dealing with this summer aren’t necessarily the most pleasant Circumstances, I’m very grateful for them.  They’ve given me the space I need to sit and be quiet and read.  They’ve given me the space I need to remember: I’m still the girl standing somewhere in the vacuum of vanished space and time, a book an open bird in my hand.  I’m still there, in awe of the words, of the world they make.

Home, Where My Love Lies Waiting, Silently For Me

I’m about to write something I never thought I would write.

First, some background: I love Lia Purpura. Like, LOVE. Her On Looking is on the list of Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read And I Mean Seriously. It’s the book that led me to write nonfiction. It’s the book that taught me what nonfiction could and should be, that gave me a glimpse at all of its gorgeous, glimmering possibilities. It’s a book that changed my life and the way I look at it, and therefore changed my very world. I won’t say how many times I’ve read it by now because the number is probably not healthy. I will say that I mention her in my classes at least once a week. I will also say that when I found out she had a new book coming out, I put it on my Advanced Creative Nonfiction syllabus immediately, no questions asked, done.

And then I read it.

There’s no question that Rough Likeness is a gorgeous book, full of the kinds of lyric twists and turns that make you know, and deeply, exactly what Dickinson meant when she wrote that good writing makes her “feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off.” It’s the type of writing that changes the way you think. I was overjoyed to dwell in Purpura’s world again, to be given the gift of it, to see the world as she sees.

And then I got to the center of the book, to an essay titled “There Are Things Awry Here.” And this is exactly where things, for me, went awry. It’s then that the world Purpura looks at is my world, the world I grew up in, or at least a highway’s short stretch away: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s the world where I ate lasagna and banana pudding on holidays, where I learned to call the adults I loved deeply Miss or Mister and then their first name just so they’d know, every time I saw them, how dearly I loved them. It’s the world where I learned when to wear summer white and winter white, where I had so many aunts and uncles that it was sometimes hard to know who I was actually related to, since family went beyond that. It’s the world of my family, of all the love and struggle that word contains, a world of hills ever-tinted green and mountains sliced open to reveal their ribs of iron ore. It’s the world I’ve seen for all of my nearly thirty-three years, and now, it was the world I was seeing as Purpura saw it, and all I could think was no, oh no, no Lia, not you too.

Here’s how it began:

Here is a farmer entering a black field.  He’s a proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery, with a serviceable rope looped over his arm.  But the farmer comes out of a logo’d truck and the rope links up to a ChemLawn can [….] He pisses I don’t know where during his long day in the sun.  His hat’s a tattered, red, GO BAMA cap.

I won’t go on.

God knows I don’t need to: the image of the Southerner as field-hand is common enough, though I’m not sure why it’s derogatory.  It takes a great deal of education and intelligence to work a field, though that matters little, anyway: why should any person’s life turn into an insult? Why can’t a field-hand be smart and kind and generous enough? And why is any person seen somehow as not enough, based on what they do or where they are from?

I read quickly through the rest of the essay, hoping she would transform it, hoping she would give to my home the same kind of miracle her writing had so often given to me, hoping she wouldn’t instead add insult to a town that has so strongly and gracefully dealt with very literal injury (see: the tornadoes of April 2011, almost exactly two years ago now).

Here is how the essay ends:

I wanted to know what happened here, on land like this.
Now I know.
People learn to fly through it.  And then they go home.

Is it too much to say my heart broke?  And more than a little?

On my first reading, I told myself her work had done its trick. I told myself she had turned this place into a metaphor for all places, for the transformative power that could be found every- and anywhere. But on my second read, I was unsettled. I could no longer shake from the language its implication: that the place I call home has worth only as a way-station, not as an end but as a means to teach visitors what they need to know and how not to be — she mentions again, near the end, the man working with fertilizer, her “farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose).” And if the worth of the place is as a means to teach outsiders, well, then what about insiders?  What about the people who fly in it, and stay there, as home?

The thing about implications like those are that they, simply stated, hurt. They imply that Southerners are unintelligent, are somehow lesser because of where they were born.

I’m not here to deny that the South has a cruel and terrible and terrifying history, which is often not history, in a way that grieves and hurts me.  I’m not here to say the South isn’t complicated, isn’t often a boiling mix of hate and love of appearances.  I’m also not saying that my own relationship with the South isn’t complicated.  I do write as someone who flew away, but also as someone who flew home.  I write as someone who believed that she wasn’t good enough because of where she came from, and wouldn’t be any good unless she moved away. Even as a little girl, I swore that as soon as I turned eighteen, I’d move away. And I did, to New York, where I went to school and found a lot of people who were very kind, but also a lot of people who were very willing to back up all I’d believed.

Take my roommate, who, on day three of my first week as a freshman, admitted she’d cried for weeks when she found out her roommate was from Alabama.

Take the fellow student in my American Social History class who said I didn’t have the right to talk about ethnic groups because I was from the South and therefore had to be prejudiced against them.  We were discussing Irish and Italian immigrants.  My mother’s maiden name is Lanza.

Take all of the professors who asked how I’d learned to read so well and what my people farmed. And take the fact that this was the school I went to after my disastrous interview at another New England school, which began with the admissions director asking if I had had any contact with people of other races or who were part of other ethnic groups, because New England College X prized diversity and worried about admitting a Southerner, since they worried a Southerner wouldn’t – and couldn’t — value diversity.

You might say I’m being oversensitive. Fine. I’m being oversensitive.

But imagine this: you’re at orientation for your first academic job, back in your home state. You spend all day with people who ask if their students will be able to read, and if so, if any of them can read above a grade-school level. They ask if students chew tobacco in the classrooms. They ask if they know how to speak, really, since most people don’t really speak English down here, do they? They sigh and say that they just have to do what they can, and not expect too much. Sit in a room and have everyone joke about how, in Alabama, you have to set your watch back a century instead of an hour. Then, have to tell them you’re from Alabama. Deal with the questions: how can you do this job? I mean, how did you learn to read?

Or go out for a drink with a group of friends. Get pulled into a corner conversation where someone has gotten wine-weepy. She’s crying, she says, because she has to wait until she moves to have children. She doesn’t want her child to be a Southerner. She wants her child to be educated and tolerant and smart, which — it isn’t even implied, it’s said — can’t happen in the South. She doesn’t want a slack-jawed idiot.

Repeat these situations. A lot. As in, on a weekly basis. Sometimes daily. Exchange the players, the sayers. Add some of the men who have said they’re in love with you. Add your dearest, closest friend. Add the writer who changed your life.

Tell me I am oversensitive.

Tell me it doesn’t hurt.

In the end, I think, perhaps Purpura’s essay did transform me.  Perhaps it did teach an important lesson, showing me something new about looking, how once you’ve lived inside something, it’s never easy to look at in one way.  The story becomes multi-faceted, complicated.  Or, perhaps, the story becomes something larger, becomes something that has so little to do with you.

When I think of Tuscaloosa, I look at parts of my own story, parts which, once looked at, become large.  It’s the place where my grandmother spoke her last words to me, where my mother and father watched her die in one of the country’s best Hospice centers, where we were taught about that terrible and beautiful moment when we all must leave our home, this earth, and where it was calm and peaceful and she was allowed to die with dignity. That’s what this place has taught me, and I will fly to it, again and again, as my home.

 

Are There Things That Are Important Beyond All This Fiddle? Or NaPoWriMo and You

People, here’s the thing: it’s April.  That means it’s National Poetry Month.  That means it’s National Poetry Writing Month.  That means I’m writing a poem a day.  That means I’m participating in a poem-a-day writing challenge.

NaPoWriMo FTW!

NaPoWriMo FTW!

And that means I’m writing a poem a day along with my fellow writers on campus.

Publicly.

As in, where everyone can see.

Yes, those were the sounds of panic you just heard.

Here’s the thing: sometimes, you hear people say that those who can’t do, teach.  Here’s the other thing: that’s totally wrong.  I mean, sure, maybe some people who can’t do teach, but I think there’s a qualifier there: they may teach, but they probably don’t teach well.  And I’m not saying that as a teacher, really — I’m saying that as a student.  I’m saying that as someone who learns, which I will, God willing, always be, teaching or no teaching.

Here, I guess, is the thing I really mean: I learned how to teach from those who taught me, and I praise everything out there that those who taught me taught very, very well.  They taught very, very well because, well, they did.  And they weren’t afraid to let me watch them doing.  My writing teachers wrote with us: if they gave us an exercise in class, their pens were always moving, and they read their drafts when we read our drafts, no matter how terrible or wonderful any of our drafts were.  They read poems and puzzled through poems and thought through problems and they did it all out loud, in front of me.  And from their thinking, I learned how to think.  From their writing, I learned how to write.  And I learned, about writing, about everything, the most important thing: keep doing.  Do and do and do.  Yoda was right: there is no try, there is only do — because trying is its own form of doing.

If there’s one thing I have learned as a teacher, though, it’s that that?  That’s not easy.  Writing along with my students means that I could write something that’s terrible, and reading along with them means letting them know I wrote something terrible, right then and there, before their very eyes.  Sometimes, it’s easier to hide behind the screen, like Oz trapped in a cinderblock room.  Sometimes, it’s easier to pretend like I’m the expert, the all-knowing, and they should listen to me just because I’m in the front of the room.

Easier doesn’t mean better when it comes to most things, teaching included.  When I first started teaching, I was so terrified of doing and failing that I came into class every day with a full script, sometimes one that I’d rehearsed in the bathroom mirror beforehand.  I even wrote out jokes, which, of course, failed, as the classes themselves tended to fail.  I told myself that perhaps my humor was just too awesome for my students to get, but eventually, I had to realize that they just weren’t funny.  They weren’t spontaneous.  They were fake, and rehearsed, as was everything that happened on my end of the classroom — I wasn’t doing anything except reading lines, and when unexpected things (like, say, questions) came from the other

This is how I know my writing's going well.

This is how I know my writing’s going well.

side of the room, I hadn’t rehearsed a response.  I didn’t know what to do.

All right, I’ll say it: my classes sucked.

And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Within three weeks of my first semester teaching, my name popped up on The Website That Shall Not Be Named, and there was a nauseously green frowny face next to it.  One student wrote that she would rather jump out of a building than be in the same room with me.  I drove to the gas station up the street, bought a bottle of cheap red wine, and sat on my couch and cried.

Looking back, that comment still has its sting, but most of the sting comes from the fact that I don’t blame her.  I wouldn’t want to be in a room with me either, especially a classroom.  Not long after that, I realized that I couldn’t keep up being a robot in class, even if being a robot was far more comfortable.  I realized that in order to teach, I had to do.  I had to show my students how I think, how I work, how I write.  I had to get comfortable with acting out that process instead of some lame script, and I had to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes, I would falter.  I’d be wrong.  I’d fail.  And I’d recover.  I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable — because what else would I ever want to teach?

Now, I’ve reached the final frontier of discomfort: writing a poem every day and posting it for my students and colleagues — and, well, the Interwebs — to see.  Sometimes, I will falter.  The poems will go wrong.  They’ll fail.  I’ll recover.  And in doing, I’ll do the most important thing: I’ll learn myself and let the language teach me, which is, after all, all I could ever want to teach.