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.

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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.

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.

 

AWP: Traditions, Revisions, Permissions (Or I’m Okay, You’re Okay, Let’s Skip The Dance Party)

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference and Bookfair (henceforth known as AWP) has been over for, like, a while now, which means it’s time for the tradition of Very Belated Wrap-Ups of Events that Probably Don’t Really Need Wrap-Ups, Or at Least Wrap-Ups by Emma Bolden, Since There Are Far Better and More Timely Wrap-Ups Out There in the Intertubes, Let’s Be Honest to continue.  But first, a disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: I hate AWP.

Okay, that’s a little extreme.  I usually hate AWP, but I also usually hate doing things like picking out fruit and vegetables at the grocery store (I mean,

This is the map of AWP I made while I was waiting for a panel.  I accidentally skipped a letter because apparently being a writer and working with the alphabet every day doesn't guarantee that you actually know the alphabet, at least not in order.

This is the map of AWP I made while I was waiting for a panel. I accidentally skipped a letter because apparently being a writer and working with the alphabet every day doesn’t guarantee that you actually know the alphabet, at least not in order.

really, why is this so difficult?  Why isn’t there a central method for testing for fruit and vegetable freshness?  Why must I smell mangoes and thump other fruit?  And why can’t I remember which fruits must be thumped?) that are ultimately very good for me.

Maybe the problem is that I came late to AWP.  I never went when I was in graduate school, and so I started attending AWPs when I already had a job in academia and enough rejection slips to Dementor-suck all the joy from my tender, hopeful heart.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that AWP has always left me feeling overly exhausted and inadequate and like I would never make it anywhere, ever, so much so that I wished I could just throw all the swag I got at the Bookfair out of the airplane window and then go back to school for something else, like gardening or slothology.

Or maybe it’s the kinds of panels I attended back in the day, when my mailbox regularly belched out rejection slips (that’s a disgusting image but it was totally necessary) and I stood and looked at them and despaired, knowing they meant that I would never, ever, ever get a job with more than a three-year contract and less than seventeen thousand classes.  Maybe I chose panels based on my desperation, based on my desire for someone, anyone, anywhere, to unfold in front of me the map with the pathways to “Acceptances Instead of Rejections!” and “Permanent Job with Insurance!” and “Not Endings Up in Someone’s Attic Dressed All in White with Ten Thousand Cats and Their Ten Quadrillion Fleas!” marked clearly.

At this point in my life, I know there is no such map (there is no such map, right? Right? And, um, if there is, can you get me a copy?) — or, at least, no universal map.  There’s just the path we each tread, in our own lives, in our own ways, to our own lives and ways.

At previous AWPs, though, I didn’t know that, and so I hung desperately on every word from every member of every panel, every writer I passed hustling from table to table in the Bookfair, every man and woman handing out business cards and manuscripts and cocktails and questions.  What I ended up with, what exhausted me so much, was a series of directions that I could never follow: you have to go to these parties, these conferences, these retreats; you have to get these residencies and publish in these magazines and get this kind of job at this kind of institution and wear this kind of Chucks while you’re doing it; don’t publish chapbooks, publish full-lengths; publish your full-length before you apply for a tenure-track; on Mondays you wear colored shoes, Tuesdays shirts with cute slogans, Wednesdays pink … It was overwhelming.  To say the least.

But this year, things just felt different.  There were a lot of writers, and all of the writers were — well, different.  From each other.  Sure, the majority of us were probably academics, but there were people with day jobs, people who wrote for money, people who did nothing that had anything to do with writing for work.  There were people who went straight to the full-length and others who started their writing careers through e-mail lists.  Suddenly, there were many, many maps, and many, many people being more honest about the maps they used, how they got where they are and how they earn the money they need to stay there.  At one panel, Steve Almond mentioned that the old adage that time is money is especially true when it comes to writing: you work to finance the time you need to write, and, as a writer, you have to do what you have to do.

I think, perhaps, that’s what made this AWP feel so different to me.  In the end, that’s the one thing about which everyone agreed: the writing is what’s important.  Not the press, not the position, not the invitations to attend secret and exclusive hotel room parties or to sit with The Plastics for a trial week.  It was all about the work, the real work we all come home to do, the real work in which we all find our homes — and, as I flew back to Georgia, I found myself smiling as I flipped through my notes.  And if I could make a cake made of rainbows and smiles, we could all eat a piece and be happy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUFT35S7Jb4