Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Junior Great Books and Feminism: Part Two

The story I want to share with you today is not one that I remember reading in Junior Great Books, though I may have (parts seem pretty heavy for a group of sixth graders though). I really do not remember a single story from JGB other than Harrison Bergeron and The Lottery.  In my sophomore year of college, I took a lit class that had a short stories book as the curriculum. I kept the book because it was filled with awesome. If I wasn't lazy I would dig it out and tell you to go buy it. However, we still have not purchased a bookshelf since we moved over a year and a half ago, and all our books are in a tub in a closet underneath other boxes of once important things waiting to be important again. This pregnant lady passes on that experience.

One of the first stories we read in that class was, indeed, Harrison Bergeron. I was so excited. I got to the end of the story, and I was perplexed… my edition had cut out the last third of the story for some reason. I was really disappointed, because I think everyone should read that story. It still bugs me that there are books out there being read with only 2/3 of the greatest Vonnegut piece I have ever read.
The class really only got better. It was in this class that I was introduced to the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” written by Ursula K. LeGuin. This next statement might officially classify me as a lit nerd, but I really enjoyed deconstructing these stories and talking about how they apply to life as we know it and the human experience. It is just fantastic. So, JGB and this class were my inspiration for this series of posts. There are wonderful morals and ideas embedded within these stories that are of great importance to Feminism.

So, in case you did not link to the story earlier, (link, link, link!) my analysis will include a few passages that specifically impacted me.
“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.”
At times there is a false premise that exists in the world of mainstream feminism: the premise is that happiness is directly related to success. This premise exists in other facets as well: politics, religion, etc. but here I refer only to its existence within feminism. Happiness cannot spring from family or a role that somehow ties our fate to that of a man. Without success, happiness is nonexistent so we must seek success as our only goal, no matter the cost. At times, abortion and abortafacients become a part of this process, because children (wanted or “unwanted”) limit success for women. Women are held accountable for children in a deeper, more complex way than men. Children interfere with a woman’s path to success, because children should not be considered a success. They are a hindrance.

This passage from the story now leaves me considering Rebecca Walker’s experience as the “daughter of a feminist.” (Her mother is Alice Walker.) She writes about it in an article called “How My Mother’s Fanatical Views Tore Us Apart.”  In short, she was left feeling as though she was delaying her mother’s success versus being a part of it, and she writes about her life then, and her life as a mother. I cannot accept a distorted version of feminism that tears others down, whether it be women, men or children. I cannot accept a version of feminism that uses violence against our children as a stepping stone. When violence towards another becomes acceptable or even vital to a cause, that cause has become distorted. This is not said without appreciation for what women who went before us fought for: the front-runners of our cause did not advocate violence but strength and unity.
“Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the gory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.”

When I view this passage now, I am struck by the thought that all children are beloved, especially within the context of this story. Are they all loved only because of the unpleasant secret, or are all children created to be loved regardless of how they were conceived… say, even in an orgy?

I also marvel at the idea that this utopia is one that values children, and children do not become a source of guilt. This is not truly how we live in reality, yet the sexual description of Omelas is not so different from what is pressed on us in reality. Is it possible to have consequence-free sex and still love and care for all children? I am not so sure our culture allows this when children are viewed as the ultimate consequence.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.”

Again, I am vividly reminded of our outlook on abortion. It is seen as a necessary evil: a woman must maintain her right to choose. This is ultimately dependent on the death of a child. While all that remain in Omelas seem to be able to accept that this child’s misery allows their lives to be otherwise complete, there are those of us in reality that would do anything to prevent abortion from being, as this writer, Kassie says, “…a divorce of women from their fertility.”

Sometimes I am truly confused at the marriage of happiness to controlling our fertility in this world, the same as I am perplexed by the marriage of destroying a human being for the sake of the many in Omelas.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Junior Great Books and Feminism: Part One

When I was in the fifth grade, I entered into something called the Extended Learning Program in school. It really was an important part of my life, but nothing made a greater impact than the few months I spent being bussed over to the public school for Junior Great Books meetings. In these meetings, we would read short stories and discuss. I was in a group with kids a year older than I was and I was the only one in a uniform: definitely the odd ball out even in a gifted program, but I loved discussing those stories. It was here that I was first introduced to Kurt Vonnegut, and his short story Harrison Bergeron.

I will not be a poser and pretend that I have read all of Vonnegut because of this story (although it is definitely something I look forward to doing someday) but I have read a few of his short stories because of Harrison Bergeron. It is such a reference point in my life that I find it incredible that more people do not know this story! In fact, the only person I have come across that knows the reference is my husband. The link above has the full text of the story, and I seriously recommend you read it.

There is much in this short story that is relevant to life as we know it in 2013: a need for equality and the struggle for balance and loss of incredible talent in tragic circumstances to name a few. In this post, I would like to discuss the correlation of this story and feminism today, but first I will give you an excerpt from the story in case you did not scurry over to the link (Link, link, link!) to read it as I suggested!

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

The first four sentences definitively set the tone for the piece. It may seem at first as though everything is finally perfect. After all, are we not currently striving for equality? Where things get tricky, is taking the uniqueness and individuality out of humanity. We are not looking for separate but equal as feminists: we are striving for unique and equal. Different but equal. Woman and man YET EQUAL. Just as we have different strengths and weaknesses as individuals, men and women together create a wholeness that would be lacking without one or the other. A woman’s contribution to this beautiful world is no less important than a man’s, and vice versa. Vonnegut may “over-simplify” the equality issue in the story, but does he? It does not seem as removed from reality to me as an adult as it did when I first read it at ten.

“The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn’t clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, “Ladies and gentlemen——”He finally gave up, handed the bulletin to a ballerina to read.

“That’s all right——” Hazel said of the announcer, “he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.”“Ladies and gentlemen——” said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred-pound men.And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. “Excuse me——” she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive.”

In the story, any personal talent, beauty or achievement is met with only the warped view of equality, or what is “fair.” A ballerina can only dance as well as anyone else. An intelligent person can only offer the world as much intelligence as what is described as average: “which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.” Every single aspect of a human being’s intelligent design is whittled down to the lowest common denominator. As a ten year old in an advanced learning program, this thought terrorized me, and to think about it today evokes the same feelings. It may seem oversimplified or exaggerated, but the “Mommy Wars” are a fine example of how we pick apart women, and rearrange the ideal to meet only certain aspects of womanhood. My last post talked about an article that worked hard to dispel the thought of children as an achievement. It was an example of how modern, mainstream feminism tells women they can only be one kind of woman: successful, childless or with no more than two children. She must be career oriented and powerful: children will not slow her down, or affect her weight and appearance. There is an ideal concept for what womanhood is with mainstream feminism. If you do not agree, you are being held captive by a patriarchal society.

Even at the age of ten, the few moments Harrison and the ballerina had of freedom were beautiful and worth it in my eyes. Here is where the comparison ends for me. I believe that women do not have to suffer Harrison’s fate: conform or die. Rather, we have a third option: change the story. We must work to change our thoughts, words and actions so that they can transform the thoughts, words and actions of others. We must seek the truest form of change: a change of the heart/mind/perspective. The battle of new feminism and mainstream feminism is not just about abortion rights: rather, it is about refusing to see the common good that could be accomplished by focusing not on temporary solutions or handicaps such as abortion, but creating a society that is truly supportive of women and men alike. We seek society that nurtures its youth and cares for its elders. We seek change that demands equality for all while still embracing our different abilities and nature, and an equality that demands a basic respect for humanity in the process. Equality does not destroy in the name of equality.