Thursday, May 22, 2014

8 Great Children's Books for Feminist Women to Give to Their Daughters

One of the great challenges of encouraging young girls to read is the difficult task of instilling feminist values when there are so few pieces of culture aimed at kids, whether books or films or tv shows or music, that reflect such values. Little girls are still inundated by a barrage of pink princess role models and while one doesn't necessarily need to eliminate all of that, it becomes quite imperative to temper those messages of sugar and spice and everything nice with stories that feature strong, smart, independent girl heroines. There are in fact quite a number of wonderful children's books that have a distinctly feminist slant; for this list, I've compiled eight that I particularly recommend.

While there are some great picture books out there - the first ones that come to mind are The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Dubose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully, and the marvelous stories in the anthology Tatterhood and Other Tales edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps and Pamela Baldwin Ford - for the time being I'm concentrating on chapter books for slightly older readers.

Catherine Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
This brilliant work of historical fiction by the author of The Midwife's Apprentice doesn't merely cultivate feminist sensibilities - it has an almost incontestable claim to being the best feminist work ever written for children. Set in thirteenth century England, Birdy keeps a diary detailing both the details of her day-to-day life and her ingenious efforts avoiding the seemingly endless array of ugly, middle-aged, lecherous suitors her father rounds up for his fourteen-year-old daughter, culminating in a tour de force resistance essay against the advances of a particularly loathsome potential husband known as Shaggy Beard.

Matilda - Roald Dahl
Most of Dahl's child heroes are boys, but the significant exception is Matilda, a true genius born to revolting parents who finds her way forward through a love of reading and the discovery of a telekinetic gift. As the protagonist of an adventure with real danger and not the slightest, most meager hint of coming adolescence and sexual definition, Matilda is already a wonderful and unusual feminist heroine; add in her self-sufficiency, strength in the face of hardship, and incredibly high IQ and you have one of the best female role models in children's fiction.

A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle
The first of L'Engle's science fiction novels for young adults, A Wrinkle in Time is deservedly acclaimed. Meg, a bespectacled, intelligent, but not terribly mature teenager, enters on an intergalactic journey that will test her love for her family, particularly for her brother Charles Wallace, and her strength of purpose. L'Engle had an extraordinary gift for writing about the fascination of scientific mysteries and the equally arcane mysteries of spirituality and this book is a quintessential example. Her other four works of science fiction (A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time) are also great.

Juniper/Wise Child - Monica Furlong
Juniper and Wise Child were two of my favorite novels growing up and had a profound effect on my thinking about female identity and power. Both set in a mythic and remote Scottish village, the two books follow the spiritual and magical development of two young witches. Furlong was primarily a writer of Christian biographies and was also active in attempts to integrate women more fully into the Anglican church, but whether or not one is Christian, these books have much to offer. Few children's books delve so deeply into the complexities of the female psyche.

Mariel of Redwall - Brian Jacques
The fourth in Brian Jacques's epically long Redwall series is one of the few that features a female protagonist. The Redwall universe is populated by small mammals, mostly rodents, and has complex political and spiritual realities that complicate ideas about peace and violence. In this volume, young mouse Mariel survives a brutal shipwreck with her memory in fragments. As she recalls the tumultuous events of her past, she is compelled to swear revenge on Gabool, a pirate rat who attempted to murder her and kidnapped her father. It is a rare book indeed that presents a female avenger in such a swashbuckling setting.

Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren
This delightful book (and its sequels) has a bit of the ghoulish sense of humor of Roald Dahl and an equally great disregard for the sort of adult nonsense for which children have contempt. Pippi is one of the best female role models out there - strong in every sense of the word, self-sufficient, confident, open to new experiences, and creative. She is also absolutely uninterested in changing herself to suit the standards of others, even in cases where most of us quail. When a woman remarks that Pippi suffers from freckles, she replies, "but I don't suffer from them. I love them. Good morning."I'm not sure I know a single girl or woman who couldn't benefit from Pippi's example.

The Story Girl - L. M. Montgomery
Montgomery excelled at writing strong heroines, particularly child heroines, which is a monumentally difficult task. In The Story Girl, a group of cousins, including Sara Stanley who is a born story-teller, spend their summer together on Prince Edward Island. Sara is neither beautiful nor faultless, but she has a strong sense of self, enormous talent and ambition, and a secure moral center. I strongly recommend any and all of Montgomery's novels and short stories, including the sequel to this novel, The Golden Road, for their beauty, humor, and gentle philosophy of life.

Island of the Blue Dolphins - Scott O'Dell
O'Dell wrote dozens of marvelous historical fiction novels for young girls, most based on the lives of actual historical figures and most with wonderful, complex heroines, including Sarah Bishop, Sing Down the Moon, and The Road to Damietta. This, his best known novel, is based on the true story of a young Nicoleno Indian woman who was stranded on an island off the coast of California for eighteen years. Karana learns to survive on her own, hunting, taming the feral dogs of the island, and building her own home, never knowing whether she will ever be reunited with her tribe on the mainland. O'Dell richly deserved the Newbery Medal he won for this book.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Feminist Review of Dorothy Canfield's 'The Squirrel-Cage'

The Squirrel-Cage by Dorothy Canfield was originally published in 1911; my own edition was published in March 1912. The book concerns the marriage of Lydia Emery, naturally sweet-tempered but very spoiled, a woman who must choose between the socially acceptable, ambitious businessman her family covets for her or the idealistic carpenter who has left behind a successful business career and social obligations in favor of an Emersonian life of physical labor and reflection. Though the book is over a hundred years old, in it Canfield quite succinctly encapsulates many of the thorniest difficulties of the feminist cause, and particularly in the following conversation, neatly lays out one of the issues with which we are still struggling:

"Don't you call bringing up children worth while?"
"You bet I do. So much so that I'd have the fathers take their full half of it. I'd have men do more inside the house and less outside, and the women the other way 'round."
The doctor recoiled at this. "Oh, you're a visionary. It couldn't be done."
"It couldn't be done in a minute," admitted Rankin.

In this conversation between men, both with "advanced" social ideas, there is a decided undercurrent of classism - both of these men are very obviously bourgeois, and it occurs to neither to consider that the situation that they are discussing is one born of the middle class. Even Rankin's more radical view is defined by the assumption that under normal circumstances, women remain confined to the house and provide childcare, while men are either working elsewhere or out of doors, but in either case, outside of the home. In other words, Rankin's idealistic understanding of the division of labor only becomes radical when applied to the monied classes. Despite his desire to make the world a better place and his acceptance of immigrants (he takes a Italian boy on as an apprentice, an action that indicates his open-mindedness), Rankin fails to realize that shared labor, for the working classes, was (and is) a necessity, and not a progressive political statement.

What's fascinating to contemplate is that, while we are accustomed to think of the issue of women's work as one defined very much by class and social status, the division of labor that puts the woman in the home and the man in the office or factory is born of the fairly recent historical phenomenon of industrialization. Rankin's idealistic vision of marriage, rejected by his interlocutor, Dr. Melton, is not so much visionary as it is a return to a form of marital partnership that was quite typical prior to industrialization. In agricultural societies, keeping a woman confined to the house means losing a valuable pair of hands in the more necessary labors of the land. 

Canfield also concerns herself with perhaps the most essential feminist issue, that of the circumscribed roles women are allowed to occupy. Only two pages later, Lydia says:

"It's a weight on my very soul - that there's nothing for me to look forward to - nothing, nothing that's worth growing up to do. I haven't been taught anything - but I know that I want to be something better than - perhaps I can't be - but I want to try! I want to try! That's not much to ask - just a chance to try - "

Lydia is struggling to enunciate another of the great feminist struggles, one that belongs almost exclusively to the middle and upper classes. At the crux of the issue is that, when a woman is thought of solely as a marital object and a means of producing children, she is reduced to being a physical body without personality. Betty Friedan in The Feminist Mystique discusses the fact the this reduction in personhood results in boredom and idleness, which in turn results in neurosis. Lydia attempts to explain to Rankin her desire to be a person, that is, to have a role of her own that she can "grow to do."

When Lydia later attempts to explain a similar desire to expand her role in life to her fiance Paul, by asking him to teach her something, he replies:

"Don't you know the suffragists will get you if you talk meek like that? What do you want to know? Volts, and dynamos, and induction coils?"

Her fiance both marginalizes her desire for knowledge by ridiculing the idea of her learning about his business and identifies her desire as preeminently feminine, which for him is a synonym for sweetly puerile. He flatters his own vanity both by emphasizing the knowledge he has and the fact that it is masculine knowledge. The intimation that suffragists are aggressive to women who are meek is both a shot at their lack of femininity and also a deeply condescending compliment to the woman whose thirst for ideas he ridicules as childish and whimsical.

For all that, Paul isn't a terrible person by any means. Though his values are in direct opposition with those of his rival, neither man is obviously bad, either objectively or as a husband for Lydia. Though Paul laughs at her ideas and Rankin listens to them, both consider her ideas the vague daydreams of a child (she is described as child-like by both men repeatedly). Both men also care about her and wish to see her happy. Although her dilemma is framed as a choice between two men by those around her, in fact she is choosing between two different roles, rather than two different men. With Paul, she will occupy a place as a socially exulted woman in a materially comfortable home, her responsibilities confined to running the household, directing the servants, and bearing children. With Rankin, there is a possibility that she could have, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, a space of her own, in which to explore the world intellectually and culturally, but at the cost of her social position and the barrage of presents she receives from Paul.

Rather than assume that Lydia can either make a positive or negative choice, Canfield complicates her decision by making both options entirely viable. Lydia cannot make a tragic choice. Contrast this with the conventions of the Victorian novel, for example with Thomas Hardy, whose writing, from The Return of the Native to Jude the Obscure, is full of poor marital choices that inevitably lead to misery and ruination. By refusing to grant the simplicity of a choice between a good marriage and bad marriage, Canfield instead presents Lydia's choice as one between being a woman circumscribed within her assigned social role or a woman who is not.

Although I would argue that The Squirrel-Cage is a feminist novel, Lydia is in no way what we typically think of as a feminist heroine. She is not particularly thoughtful or intelligent, though she is eager to learn and expand her life. She is easily pressured by her family, as well as social convention. She has no professional ambitions, she has essentially no knowledge of anything the least bit unpleasant, and she is enormously influenced by what the men around her think. What ultimately gives her life meaning is motherhood. And yet, this ordinary woman without the slightest interest in anything that could be termed a feminist struggle, desperately wishes for something "worth growing to do" and fervently wishes that her child "won't be a girl," and when she is a girl, struggles to instil in her the will to fight for what she wants. In Lydia, Canfield has written a heroine who experiences the feminist struggle, without being a feminist, and she has thus given us an everywoman, a woman who in her ordinary, unremarkable life finds that even in her ordinary, unremarkable self, there is a person who wants and needs more than a life defined by her relationship to her husband.

I could easily have pulled dozens more quotations from The Squirrel-Cage, but the ones above are certainly sufficient to demonstrate the complex facets of Dorothy Canfield's feminist beliefs. Her exploration of the pragmatic realities of womanhood within a strictly patriarchal and classist society is a revelation for modern-day feminists because in the very ordinariness of a woman like Lydia is found the key to a lived feminist struggle, rather than a theoretical one. Unfortunately, The Squirrel-Cage has been long out of print and is only available in a facsimile edition. One hopes that Canfield will soon be rediscovered and her unavailable works reprinted.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The 6 Most Underrated Disney Animated Films

Disney refers to all of their films as "classics" (except for Song of the South, which probably exists in a heavily padlocked vault in a secret bunker under the studio lot because... racism), but in truth, nearly all of the films produced before Walt Disney's death and more than a few of those produced afterwards really are classic films. And yet, while everyone is familiar with Pinocchio, Dumbo, Cinderella, and especially the Disney Renaissance films, like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, there are a number of great Disney films that have slipped through the cracks, perhaps not forgotten, but rarely receiving the acclaim that they deserve. These are the six most underrated Disney animated films that never seem to make any best-of list.

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
This twenty minute short film is one of the greatest that the company ever produced, brilliantly animated, written, composed, and voiced, but unfortunately it is buried in one of the worst films the studio produced. The feature length version follows Robert Benchley - a comedian so lacking in actual humor that he might just be the most depressing comic ever captured on film - as he tours the Disney studios. Though it does give some interesting insights into the early processes of the studio, it's rather bleak and miserable. But the centerpiece, the animated segment based on Kenneth Grahame's novella, could not be more perfect. The songs alone, including "Poor Little Upside Down Cake" and "Radish So Red," are enough to elevate this cartoon to classic status.

The Wind in the Willows (1949)
This half hour cartoon is the first half of the anthology film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Narrated by Basil Rathbone, with the characters voiced by Eric Blore, Pat O'Malley, Colin Campbell, and Claude Allister, the film adapts one of the adventures of Kenneth Grahame's woodland characters, in which Toad, always the scallywag, exchanges the deed for Toad Hall for a stolen motorcar. While The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is surprisingly lacking in wit and is essentially an excuse to listen to Bing Crosby croon (I have something of a personal vendetta against Crosby, whom I find absolutely insufferable), The Wind in the Willows is not simply a beautiful example of the best of animated storytelling. It's a witty, delightful, and thoroughly entertaining adventure about the trials of friendship.

The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Though a financial success and critically appreciated in Britain (surprising, given its many Americanizing deviations from T. H. White's classic novel), this film was not embraced by American critics, who reacted with indifference. The story of the future King Arthur's education with Merlin and his cantankerous and highly educated owl, Archimedes, this film is far more philosophical than any other Disney animated film. Merlin (Karl Swenson) and Archimedes (Junius Matthews) explore, among other things, love and its consequences, the importance of intellectual inquiry, the power of intelligence over aggression, and many other subjects that, profound as they are, are easily understood and yet still nuanced. The  wizards' duel scene is a showpiece for the animators and the songs by the Sherman brothers are pleasantly catchy.

The Aristocats (1970)
Though it is fair to say that this film essentially recycles the plots of The Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, with cats instead of dogs, The Aristocats has many merits of its own. The studio was still reeling after Disney's death in 1967 and the animators and story department were struggling to move forward without him, but the result is a charming story of a cat (Eva Gabor) desperate to protect her kittens from the scheming butler, who has a dastardly plan to cheat them of their inheritance. The backgrounds of Paris and the French countryside are quite spectacular, Scatman Crothers sings one of the Sherman brothers' best songs, "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat," and even the overly cutesy kittens can't dim the magic.

Robin Hood (1973)
Peter Ustinov is the voice of Prince John in one of the Disney studio's most critically maligned films. I will watch pretty much anything with Ustinov, whose performance in this is fabulous and note-perfect, particularly in his interactions with Sir Hiss, voiced by British comic Terry-Thomas.The screenplay by Larry Clemons has a great deal of wit and style, and the music has a decidedly folksy flavor, once again Americanizing a British legend, but hardly to its detriment. It's next to impossible to produce a Robin Hood film that has any claim to a fresh take on the material, but this version, with its cast of animals, can certainly make that claim.

Oliver and Company (1988)
Oliver and Company was the precursor to the Disney Renaissance that kicked off with The Little Mermaid, and a film that has many of the ingredients that revived interest in Disney animation, from the celebrity cast that includes Bette Midler, Cheech Marin, Dom DeLuise, and Billy Joel, a return to the musical form, and some of the most innovative CGI work of its era. It's also one of the most successful transplantations of a classic literary work, in this case Oliver Twist, to the modern day; an orange kitten is abandoned on the streets of New York and adopted by a gang of pickpocketing dogs led by hobo Fagin. This is one of Disney's few successful films with a contemporary setting and it perfectly captures the grit and grime of New York City in the '80s.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

8 of the Best 21st Century Novels (So Far)

Though I don't tend to read much in the way of contemporary fiction, I avidly follow the careers of a number of writers that are consistently turning out wonderful novels, many of them represented on this list. I suspect that many of these novels, if not all of them, will someday be remembered as the classics of our era. The writers represented here are from all over the world, from Cuba to Pakistan, Italy to India.

Versailles - Kathryn Davis
Davis's gorgeous, impressionistic novel is one of the finest interpretations of the life of Marie Antoinette, the total antithesis of Sofia Coppola's mind-bogglingly bad film. Davis's prose is unfailingly beautiful and her depiction of the overly maligned and overly idolized monarch neither softens her selfishness nor lampoons the foibles born of her naivete. One is able to sympathize with the famously beheaded queen, but it is not at the cost of a nuanced understanding of the miseries that drove the French populace to revolution and the Terror.

Baudolino - Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is one of the most brilliant, erudite writers at work today, a man whose work on semiotics is written so well that it is as fascinating as his novels. Baudolino, like The Name of the Rose, is a labyrinth of textual reference and linguistic acrobatics; it is also extremely funny and filled to the brim with profound reflections on theology, mythology, philosophy, politics, art, and a host of other subjects. The hero of the epic story is a young peasant, Baudolino, sold to Frederick I in 1155 and raised by him as a foster son, who grows to be a man determined to seek out the legendary kingdom of Prete Giovanni.

Life of Pi - Yann Martel 
Though this wildly popular novel hardly needs introduction, it in fact lives up to its reputation. The suspenseful and philosophical tale of a boy shipwrecked and trapped on a boat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days, Martel's novel focuses on both unfolding the story and reminding us of the inevitable deception inherent to any act of storytelling. Life of Pi is uplifting, but Martel's approach is full-frontal, fearlessly interrogating spirituality, the limits of self-determination, and the boundlessness of the human imagination.

On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan
Though Atonement is McEwan's true masterpiece (so far, in any case), this deeply disturbing and very bitter novella follows close behind. Set in 1962, Edward Mayhew and Florence Porting are on honeymoon at Chesil Beach. They are in love, but they haven't been able to speak frankly with each other and come from very different backgrounds, in terms of class, education, and values. Their first night together bursts open the seams of their frail relationship and determines the course of their future lives.

Magic Seeds - V. S. Naipul
Nobel laureate Naipul's novel follows Willie Somerset Chandran, displaced from his birth country of India and, after a revolution, the (unnamed) African country where he has lived for nearly two decades. He drifts into a half-hearted mission with communist guerrilla fighters in India, his adherence a symptom of apathy and fear rather than revolutionary fervor. Though not nearly as sickeningly brutal as his 1975 novel, Guerrillas, Magic Seeds is an intense interrogation of the uneasy space in which violent politics and a lack of individual purpose mingle.

Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire - Jose Manuel Prieto
This wonderful novel by Cuban novelist Prieto follows J., a smuggler who is on the hunt for a rare Russian butterfly, and his Russian lover V., whose seemingly ephemeral interest in him is revived when she begins to write him love letters. Though it is clear from the beginning that J. is seeking V. far more than the butterfly, perhaps the real object of his quest is a perfectly written love letter. A blend of thriller and epistolary love story, Nocturnal Butterflies is on a par with the best postmodernist work of the past few decades.

The Casual Vacancy - J. K. Rowling
Unfairly slammed by critics and readers alike, who were perhaps unsure how to approach anything outside of Harry Potter by the wealthiest writer in the world, The Casual Vacancy is actually a truly wonderful novel, a portrait of a small English town where a councilman's sudden death has far-reaching consequences for many of the town's denizens. Rowling easily navigates her large cast of characters, pulling the reader into intimacy with them and instilling genuine empathy and at times utter horror. The Casual Vacancy will hopefully sustain a better reputation as Rowling continues to write widely across genres.

Broken Verses - Kamila Shamsie
Pakistani author Shamsie is one of the finest writers currently at work. This novel is about Aasmaani, the daughter of a famous Pakistani activist who disappeared fourteen years before, who begins to receive letters written in the code invented by her mother and her mother's lover, a poet who has been beaten to death by government agents. Desperate to reconnect with her mother, Aasmaani begins to decode the letters and becomes involved in an intrigue that could cost her life if she isn't imagining it. Broken Verses is a marvelous novel, one far greater than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The 7 Greatest Adventure Films of the 1950s

Escapist fare has always been a staple of filmmaking, from the earliest shorts, such as Une voyage a la lune and The Great Train Robbery, to the recent boom in megahit superhero movies. In the 1950s, action and adventure filmmaking was one of the most lucrative genres, exploiting interest in the exotic with new advances in filmmaking technology and, increasingly, with on-location shooting, up until then a relative rarity. Here are the seven best adventure films of the 1950s. (I've excluded Westerns and film noir to keep the list at a manageable length.)

7. King Solomon's Mines (1950)
Filmed on location in Africa, this hugely successful film is rather dated today, particularly given its marginalization of black African characters and its foregrounding of white colonialist characters, but it remains an enormously entertaining film, worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography of diverse African landscapes alone. Stewart Granger plays Alan Quatermain, an explorer and hunter, who agrees to squire Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) on a search for her husband, who has disappeared into the uncharted wilderness while seeking King Solomon's legendary diamond mines. Though far from a masterpiece, it is a prime example of a Hollywood adventure film.

6. The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Robert Siodmak's swashbuckler has its tongue firmly in its cheek, its wacky sense of humor a means of playing with genre tropes while it creates threads of meta-commentary deconstructing them, and, it is really a very funny film. Burt Lancaster plays the Crimson Pirate, who along with his first mate Ojo (played by Nick Cravat, Lancaster's long-time physical trainer and friend), gets mixed up in an anti-royalist rebellion when the ship he captures turns out to hold Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley), the king's envoy sent to crush the rebellion. Lancaster's physical prowess is shown to excellent effect in a film the closest analogue to which is really the recent Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

5. Treasure Island (1950)
The brilliant Robert Newton, outdoing every pirate performance before or since, plays Long John Silver and Bobby Driscoll, best known as the voice of Peter Pan, plays Jim Hawkins in Disney's first live action film. The screenplay by Lawrence Edward Watkin is a faithful rendition of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, which translates spectacularly well to the screen, losing none of its suspense and moral complexity. Long John Silver befriends the innocent Jim, entangling the boy in his plot to retrieve a fabulous treasure stashed by his former superior Captain Flint by staging a mutiny.

4. The Court Jester (1956)
The Court Jester is one of Danny Kaye's best and funniest films, a marvelous swashbuckling adventure that pokes fun at the genre while still succeeding as a prime example. Kaye plays Hubert, a member of a resistance movement favoring the true infant king over a pretender to the throne, whose duties include changing the king's diapers and singing him lullabies. Hubert is in love with Maid Jean (the lovely Glynis Johns), a military commander in the resistance. Together they hatch a plan to infiltrate the castle and reinstate the monarchy by disguising Hubert as the new jester, who unbeknownst to them was actually supposed to be an assassin in disguise. Basil Rathbone has a supporting role and the film's gags, from the fast-motion knighting ceremony to the "Chalice from the palace" monologue, are pure genius.

3. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Decades later, Disney's fabulous adaptation of the Jules Verne novel is still a technical tour de force, its special effects astonishing, especially given that they could not rely on computers or even earlier technologies, like the xerox machine. The all-star cast includes James Mason, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, and a singing and dancing Kirk Douglas (as well as a game pet seal), as the denizens of Captain Nemo's submarine the Nautilus. Nemo, embittered and loathing humanity after losing his wife and son, is determined to destroy all evidence of his fabulous scientific discoveries and is gleefully wreaking havoc on ships as he approaches his goal. Without doubt, one of the best adventure films ever made.

2. Seven Samurai (1954)
Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece (later the basis for the great western, The Magnificent Seven) is one of the greatest films of world cinema. Set in feudal Japan, the film follows seven master-less samurai, who are employed by a small farming community that has been terrorized by bandits. The cast, including Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, and Yoshio Inaba, is uniformly excellent and the music, cinematography, fighting choreography, and direction are flawless. Seven Samurai is a brilliant work and has my vote for the greatest Japanese film of all time, followed very closely by Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff.

1. The African Queen (1951)
One of the finest films Hollywood ever produced, The African Queen, filmed on location in Africa on one of the most notoriously troubled shoots ever, tells the story of strait-laced missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), who is stranded at her mission in the Belgian Congo at the beginning of World War I after her brother (Robert Morley) is killed. Humphrey Bogart (in his only Oscar-winning performance) plays Charlie Allnut, a drunken bum who takes her aboard his rickety river boat. Suspenseful, romantic, lush, and very, very funny, director John Huston delivers a work of perfection in this film.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Why It's OK That Anne Shirley Doesn't Become a Successful Writer

Kevin Sullivan, in his television adaptations of L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series, makes an extensive number of departures from the text. One of those alterations is to make Anne much more serious about a writing career, eventually learning to write about the simple life she knows, rather than her romantic flights of Tennysonian fancy, and publishing a book. This alteration is very much hearkening back to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, but it is also a concession to more contemporary standards for women. We still insist that our heroines get married and live happily ever after, but we also demand that she mitigate that ages-old scenario, rooted in patriarchal conceptions of female fulfillment - in most cases, this is achieved by giving female heroines an artistic vocation.

While the feminist movements of the 1970s encouraged sexual, artistic, and professional freedom and for a brief period of time, created a political space in which women could defy every previous standard of femininity, they also tended to condemn a woman's choice to conform to those standards, even if that conformity was an active, considered choice. It was in this time that the radically feminist film, My Brilliant Career, which tells the story of a young woman determined to have a career even at the expense of marriage, met with critical acclaim; it's difficult to believe it would have been met with a similar reaction either before or since. As always, there was a backlash and in the decades since then, motherhood and marriage have been rehabilitated into necessities for female fulfillment once again. The modern feminist is expected to have everything. Whereas once women were expected to forgo sexual freedom, professional careers, and financial control of their earnings, and then later to forgo traditional marriage and motherhood, now women are expected to forgo nothing. But it is too easy to demand that feminist heroines must "have it all," or fail to be true feminists. One has to recognize that women are still being held to an impossible standard.

The standards of success that today are insisted upon for feminist heroines are eerily similar to the standards of moral goodness that were demanded by the Victorians. In Victorian literature, female characters were held to strict ideals of moral goodness; those that lived up to those standards had happy endings, while those that did not were met with tragic or unpleasant fates. For example, in Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son, Florence Dombey is a paragon of moral goodness, suffering in silence, willing to sacrifice her own happiness to her duty towards her father, and deeply engrossed in the protection of her virtue (a.k.a. her virginity) above all else. She is rewarded in the end with a happy ending, Victorian-style, with a loving husband, a home of her own, and a reconciliation with her formerly ruthless, if not downright evil, father. And she is very happy about this. Edith Dombey, in contrast, is a complex woman who chafes against the horrific social constraints that compel her into a marriage that she views as little better than prostitution. She is demoralized and bitter, but nevertheless sympathetic, doing everything in her power to protect Florence. Edith, however, fails to act with the supernatural goodness that infuses all of Florence's actions, and she is therefore condemned to an unhappy ending. Thus, female characters were denied any form of action that contradicts the highly misogynistic code of behavior that is encoded as moral goodness and therefore they are denied complexity, independence, or any form of decision-making that is not beneficial to those to whom they are in duty bound, i.e. one's father, husband, children, etc.

By insisting that our strong female heroines and our feminist heroines "have it all," we insist on a new set of even more overbearing social restrictions. Rather than pushing women into the isolation of a home, where she is expected to complete the housework, care for the children, and perhaps participate in a sanctioned community such as a church group, now women are expected to do all of those things and have a fulfilling career and an exciting sex life, all while following a healthy dietary and exercise regimen and actively "preserving" her beauty or altering her appearance in order to be beautiful and thin. It's just too much.

L. M. Montgomery, whose career spanned from 1890 until her death in 1942, understood all too well the difficulties of sustaining a career as wife, mother, and prominent member of the community (in her role as a minister's wife). She herself suffered from depression and had an unhappy marriage to a husband with his own struggles with mental illness, of her three sons one was stillborn, and she was also keenly effected by the tragedies of the two World Wars. Despite all that, she was able to sustain a critically, financially, and artistically fulfilling literary career - definitive proof that she was a remarkable and extraordinary person. In her books, she set out to create worlds for her heroines that contained only shadows of the sorts of miseries she herself had suffered, from depression and childhood neglect to the violence of world conflict, but she was also aware that fantasy can only be pushed so far. Today, it is easy for us to bemoan that her most beloved heroine, Anne, chooses to forgo working towards a career, because we want and expect that a woman who has followed her own way must "have it all." But Anne chooses instead to marry Gilbert and have a family of seven children. (Although Anne does not achieve her adolescent dream of literary success, Emily Byrd Starr, the most autobiographical of Montgomery's heroines, does, and succeeds precisely because she is willing to make sacrifices that few are willing to make.) But it seems to me that we need to, as readers, be accepting of Anne's choice to relegate her writing to a hobby, secondary to her marriage and her duties as a mother. After all, how many of us fulfill our adolescent dreams? How many of us actually succeed in "having it all"? Why should Anne, for so many of us an alter ego and imaginary companion, have to do so?

By insisting that feminist heroines must achieve what for the vast majority of women is impossible (we're not all Sheryl Sandberg and we don't all have her tidy little bank account), we, perhaps inadvertently, create a new, impossible ideal, much like the Victorian ideal of the angel in the home. Why shouldn't we have empowered, complicated, strong, feminist heroines who still, despite that, don't "have it all"? The truth is that we should. If we can accept that our heroines have to make sacrifices and forgo some things for the sake of others, then it will become easier for all of us to accept that being a feminist doesn't mean that one must be successful on all fronts. If feminism doesn't help us to free ourselves from that belief, then it's precious little use to us. By releasing Anne from our expectations and our disappointment at her failure to meet those expectations, perhaps we can release ourselves from those same crushing and culturally over-demanded expectations.