Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Thelma and Louise, and the need for female solidarity.

June 8, 2009

(This was originally published November 2, 2008 but I am changing the publish date to June 8, 2009 as part of a series of “reruns.”)

So, I’ve been thinking more about Breakfast at Tiffany’s and how the ending is kind of like that of Thelma and Louise. And I think the key to the difference between the endings is the fact that Holly doesn’t have any female friends.

Now, the end of Thelma and Louise isn’t exactly “happy,” but as I said in my first post on the topic, “their suicide– choosing a glorious, defiant death over the slow soul-killing death of trial and jail and blame and society’s tiny boxes– their choice to just go, to just keep going is probably not a “good choice,” but it is triumphant.”

The end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on the other hand, is something of a settlepocalypse. Holly spent most of the movie afraid and alone, and just as she’s got her life going in a direction that she thinks will make her happy, it falls apart, leaving her even more afraid and more alone. While she’s vulnerable, Paul tells her she’s been struggling not because the patriarchy allows women very few routes to true independence, but because she’s a silly woman who won’t just settle. And so Holly just settles.

The difference is that while Thelma and Louise had each other to turn to when they were struggling to find independence, the only person Holly had was Paul, and he did not (and perhaps could not) understand what she was struggling with. So while Thelma and Louise could bolster each other, all Paul could do is reinforce Holly’s self-doubts.

I think it is impossible to break out of the patriarchal mindset as one woman, even in the destructive way that Thelma and Louise manage. Our society practically screams at women about how they should be (pretty, pleasant, and above all else, passive). Even in my own life, I have trouble sometimes fighting off its influence, and I am a self-assured feminist with a support system of countless other feminists. So for Holly to, on her own, reject its message even in small ways is an impressive feat. For her to completely reject the system, however, is nearly impossible.

I keep returning to this quote:

Paul Varjak: You know what’s wrong with you, Miss Whoever-you-are? You’re chicken, you’ve got no guts. You’re afraid to stick out your chin and say, “Okay, life’s a fact, people do fall in love, people do belong to each other, because that’s the only chance anybody’s got for real happiness.” You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.

The thing is, he’s right, but only in the details. That cage does follow Holly everywhere she goes, but it’s not built by Holly herself, it’s built by the society she lives in. In a universe where Paul feels justified in saying, “I love you, that means you belong to me!” romantic relationships really can be cages. Holly refuses to sacrifice her independence, which means she spends all her time pushing at the limits of what society will allow, and never finding a comfortable balance.

Even if Paul had been different, and less creepily focused on how Holly belonged to him, I don’t think he could really have helped her escape these limits. Men, no matter what great allies they are, do not have to deal with the same barrage of expectations that can overwhelm even me. If it ever becomes overwhelming, a man can just stop thinking about, whereas a woman, like Holly, is completely trapped.

I think glimpses of this dynamic are visible in the sequence where Holly, after seeing off Doc Golightly, goes to get terribly drunk with Paul. She’s just sent away a man who loves her, and for whom she cares a great deal, in order to preserve her autonomy. The consequences are severe– she cannot benefit from his house or his money, her brother no longer has a place to stay, and she has hurt, perhaps permanently, a family that she cares for. Doc Golightly simply cannot understand why she even left in the first place, saying that she had no reason not to be happy with him. But she decides the sacrifice is necessary in order to maintain her autonomy, and so she stays in New York.

However, everything our wonderful society says about women suggests that this is a terrible, selfish, unacceptable thing to do. And she clearly feels awful. Yet Paul refuses to help her. At first he is sympathetic, and buys her some drinks, but when they return to her apartment and she starts trying to think how she can possibly support herself and her brother, he is of no help to her at all. She forms the plan of marrying a very rich man; it’s a compromise, as she would be selling her physical person, but maintaining her independence; Rusty Trawler, at least, will not expect her to love him deeply. I’ve often said that I have a lot of sympathy for so-called “gold-diggers” who use ambitious marriages to acquire independence in societies in which personal ambition wouldn’t be a plausible support. But all Paul does is disapproves. Actually, make that Disapproves with a capital D. He absolutely refuses to understand her situation. Which, of course, only makes Holly feel worse. On the plus side, she sends him packing with a fantastic line:

Holly Golightly: It should take you exactly four seconds to cross from here to that door. I’ll give you two.

But if Holly had had a Thelma, instead of Paul, how differently that scene would have gone! Well, it may still have started with getting terribly drunk at a strip club, but it wouldn’t have ended in such despair. Honestly, it would have made such a different movie I can hardly picture it. Maybe she would have calmed Holly down and found her place that feels like Tiffany’s. Or maybe they would have started robbing Holly’s “rats” (and especially the “super rats”) and become criminals on the lam. Probably nothing in between; you can’t half-transcend something.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter — this post isn’t really about movies. It’s about the importance of solidarity between women. (Please note: I’m using a really broad definition of womanhood. If you’ve ever gotten the short end of the sexism stick, I’m talking about you.) I’d say “and allies,” but fundamentally, even those allies who struggle with their own oppressions cannot personally relate to women’s struggles. The most important thing women can do for each other is share those experiences that are unique to womanhood. One woman getting catcalled is a personal annoyance, but a hundred women with the same experience represent a political problem. I always love those threads online that encourage women to share their experiences with catcalling, with menstruation, with rape, with job interviews, with anything. Because the common themes become readily apparent, and suddenly “personal annoyances” are revealed to be widespread political problems. It’s a paradigm shift that can only be provided by women who share with each other.

And it could have helped Holly Golightly find a real happy ending.


First Canadian Woman to Captain A War Ship

April 10, 2009

Well! Isn’t this grand news? 😀 Commander Josee Kurtz is the first Canadian woman to command a Navy warship*, the HMCS Halifax. Yeah, a warship. Something that would go into battle. Leading a big pile of guys. Checking out the comments in the CBC article, I see that there are a few guys who are concerned about the “feminization” of the Canadian military.  Because having a woman be in charge automatically makes men less manly – I mean, what does “manly” mean anyways if not telling those bitchez what to do amirite?? I’m also happy to report that most of the other commenters don’t agree. The sexist comments have gotten a lot of thumbs-down, while the comments pointing out their stupidity have gotten a lot of thumbs-up! (the CBC website allows rating of comments – while not graphically feminist, the positive comments do generally appear to be supportive feminism in the vague sense. Before you think the CBC commenters are a big pile of progressives, other articles I’ve read have contained so much “what about the meeennnzz?” whining and gender-rigid bullshit that the response to this news is a welcome relief!)

Being a woman and entering such “masculinized” professions and their deeply entrenched notions of gender is extremely challenging and trying, as we all know as feminists who’ve read any kind of herstory. Quoting Cmdr Kurtz:

“When I joined, I realized I was joining an environment that had not had women traditionally working with them, and that transition was not going to happen overnight”

No doubt, alas. It’s certainly a tough gig, changing kyriarchial institutions from the inside. I’m proud of her determination and skill and wish to send her my warmest congratulations and best wishes in her new command. Kurtz again:

“I think it’s a tremendous achievement that here we are, 20 years later, and somebody has been able to demonstrate that a woman can do the job equally as well as her male counterparts.”


“There was some reluctance when we first joined . . . but when they realize you can do the job just as well, that scrutiny goes away.”

Progress! Now if we could only stop going to war…





*While the first female commanding officer of a Navy ship was Lt-Cmdr Marta Mulkins in 2003, Kurtz is the first woman to command a warship.

Menstruation and being trans: the blogaround!

March 25, 2009

I’ve been reflecting on this post of mine, and epsecially the idea that “Even women who do not menstruate have, thanks to our cultural expectations, a relationship with menstruation, positive or negative, that is both powerful and very, very real. So we should talk about it.” I realized I wanted to know more about the role menstruation plays in the lives of trans men and women. To the internets! Here are some of the voices I found:

Menstruating in the Men’s Room, from Coffee and Gender.

This week I am experiencing yet another aspect of transitioning that may confound a binary mind. I am menstruating in the men’s room.

Thoughts on Menstruation, from Tboy Jacky.

On June 6, the day before my transition party, I began my first post-testosterone period. I found it very ironic that I should be on the rag for a party celebrating my transition from female-to-male.

No More Ritual Bleeding, from Gender Outlaw.

Thanks to the wondrous effects of testosterone, I no longer experience monthly menstruation. Wow! I really wasn’t expecting this to happen so quickly—but NO complaints, it’s simply wonderful!

Auntie Flo is Not Welcome in Our House, although I am crampy, from Undercover Girl.

Today’s issue contains two articles about women’s health. There are certain events natal women have that transwomen can never, or at least not yet, experience – monthly periods and pregnancy. …

Menstruation and pregnancy are such salient experiences for natal women, we are likely quite interested in what those experiences have meant to them. And we should be interested in helping to make sure those experiences are at least not traumatic for the other women we share the planet with.

I actually found less than I expected. That may be my cis privilege making me assume that menstruation “should” be a big deal for trans folks (in which case, call me on it!), or it may just be that my google-fu is failing me. Either way, I need to get some more trans blogs in my RSS reader, stat! Any recommendations?

The “I promise I still blog here!” blogaround

March 14, 2009

I exercised today, and even though it was only ten minutes at a pleasant walking pace, well, I’m totally wiped out. I’m going to be trying to do the same every day– and even work up to more exercise!– but I might be a bit, well, absent.

So to tide you over, some great links from my RSS feed!

Newspapers and Thinkingthe Unthinkable

“It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem…Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.”

Women & Work

Quick Hit: It’s Almost as if Fat Tastes Good

The panel – which receives funding from the UK’s Margarine and Spreads Association – suggests that consumers use stronger cheese and low-fat polyunsaturated or mono-unsaturated spreads instead of butter.

I’m reading this whole thing like, “Wait, isn’t the jury still out on butter vs. margarine? And hasn’t everybody heard that at this point? Why does this make no mention of that? OH I SEE.”

That little fun fact also makes this beauty make a whole lot more sense:

Nigella Lawson is criticised for using butter instead of margarine in her egg and bacon pie, with a single serving brimming with 36g of fat.

Yes, clearly butter is the culprit responsible for jacking up the saturated fat content of EGG AND BACON PIE. Remember to flavor your bacon pie with a “heart-healthy spread,” folks!

Tiger Beatdown: Adventures in Victorian Literature: Kelly Clarkson Version

The song of which I speak, performed by Ms. Clarkson, is entitled “I Do Not Hook Up.” It is a thoughtful examination of sexual politics, and also why boys won’t like you if you consent to have sex with them without extorting some promise of undying love and/or a wedding ring from them first! Let us perform some literary analysis of this groundbreaking piece.

The Salad Police

I have a very poignant sociological observation for you all, so get ready:

The sight of a fat woman eating a salad makes people lose their minds, and wallow in self-hatred.


March 9, 2009

From CNN, the origin of Barbie, which I did not know before:

The now-legendary doll was conceived by Ruth Handler, a daughter of Polish immigrants, said Gerber, author of the newly published “Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her.” She and her husband, Elliott, owned Mattel until a scandal involving accusations of cooked books drove them out in 1975, Gerber said.

Handler, who died in 2002, used to watch her own daughter, Barbara, play with paper dolls. Then, on a trip to Europe, Barbara became fascinated with a buxom doll that Gerber said was based on a female German cartoon character, named Lilli, who used sex to get what she wanted.

“My guess is she didn’t know what it was when she bought it,” because at that point, four years after the Lilli doll’s release, it had landed in European toy stores, the author explained. Handler took the doll back to the states and insisted Mattel designers get to work.

“Who would have thought,” Gerber said. Barbie was thought up by a woman and modeled on a cartoon character “who was essentially a prostitute.”

INDEED. WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT. It’s not like you can find any hints of her origin by, say, looking at her!

Do these bodies look like they were designed for anything other than Ultimate Sexiness? No, I didn't think so, either.

Do these bodies look like they were designed for anything other than The Sex? No, I didn’t think so, either.

I also think it’s interesting that the quote isn’t just, “who would have thought Barbie was modeled on a prostitute?” but also “who would have thought Barbie was thought up by a women?” It seems like a very revealing rhetorical question, expecially considering the cultural narrative that’s all about how “Barbie is totes not sexist, we swear! Where do you get these crazy ideas?! She’s practically feminist!!” It’s as if even the people who make those arguments understand they they’re flawed, that there’s something not-quite-right about the perpetuation of the Barbie ideal, and that therefore it’s incongruous for it to be created by a woman.

Well, actually, it’s not incongruous at all– women can be pretty darn good at perpetuating the patriarchy, too. It’s one of the few “equal rights” we have.

So, hooray for Barbie! Who would have thought?

Women in Iraq: CNN versus BBC

March 7, 2009

I’ve subscribed to a number of feeds from CNN and from the BBC, and I noticed almost right away they they both had written stories in response to an Oxfam report on Iraqi women. The difference in coverage intrigues me, though I can’t yet put my finger on why. Maybe as I get used to following these news sources, the differences will become clearer.

From CNN, we have Study: Iraqi widows struggle in new roles as breadwinners.

Story Highlights

  • An estimated 740,000 widows struggle in new roles as heads of house, survey says
  • Many women don’t have daily access to water and cannot send children to school
  • More than 40 percent of respondents said security situation worsened last year
  • Report urges Iraq to invest in essential social welfare services

From the BBC, we have The shame of Iraq’s pariah widows. They don’t give handy distillations of the stories, but this one focuses much more on the widows, and the specific hardships they face. The story is also advertised on the site as “Widows’ woe: Suicide vest or sex work? Fate of Iraq’s greiving women.” It highlights the fact that many widows are forced by their circumstances into sex work– night clubs (and “night clubs”) are growing in numbers, and about 40% of prostitutes in iraq are widows.

However, CNN doesn’t mention the increase in sex work at all, or the increased tendency towards suicide. It breathes not a word of either fate, instead repeating several times that women are struggling to gain access to electricity, water, and education for their children.

At first, that seemed like an odd omission to me. Why, if they had both read the same report, had the journalists come away with such different impressions? Well, I took a look at the full report, and it looks like the BBC must have been doing some independent research as well. The Oxfam report is broken fown into several sections, all of which focus on things like water, electricity, povert, and education. If sex work and suicide are mentioned, they are hiding in the body of the text, not given an independent section.

I think it’s most likely, then, that the BBC did do some indepentent reporting, but it’s muddling my opinion of these pieces as a set. I confess, dear reader, that I began this post intending to say mean and nasty things about CNN for ignoring women’s suffering! But now I’m not sure.

Why did the BBC go looking for the story it did? On the one hand, I want to be impressed by their go-getting reporting. Yes!, I want to say, ask women what their lives are like, what they need! Tell their stories! But on the other hand, something about the addition of the sex work angle seems off to me, titillating, maybe; I mean, it’s a serious story, and one worth telling, but it wasn’t part of the original report. Is it a failure of the original report, to ask all the relevant questions? Or reporters focusing on what they think is the “worst” part of the story?

I’m really not sure. Probably there isn’t any simple “this article is good, this article is bad” statement to be made. I expected it to be more straightforward (I only allotted myself 20 minutes to run off a rant!) but I guess life gets complicated like that.

What do you think?

On Bleeding

March 4, 2009

I’ve been inspired by the Pursuit of Harpyness (and the excellent poem they linked) to talk a little bit more about my period, before I stopped having one.

There are some ways in which I miss having a period as part of my life. I can never really participate in the female-bonding period-talk, since I don’t remember when I got my first period, and I only had it for a few years before I started taking birth control to help control the pain, and within months I started “cheating” on the BC and skipping the sugar pills. Plus, my mom and I were pretty open about our periods– we were on the same cycle, so we kept stealing each others’ pads– but not in a really notable way.

Oh, wait, I do have one story: I got my period on vacation in Canada, the summer I was eighteen. I hadn’t been planning to have it, but I’d accidentally left my next month’s pack of birth control at home, and all I had were the little placebos. This was the summer that I met my Crazy Uncle for the first time. He’s my mom’s only sibling, and he and his wife are hermitous and miserly– so much so that they never came on our extended-family vacations, and I was eighteen before I met them. (My mom says they visited immediately after I and each of my two brothers were born, but I don’t remember that.) Meeting them was a huge disappointment, though– my Crazy Uncle not only made bizarrely-intimate comments about my weight and hobbies, but was also cruel to my dog. This dog! I did not like him.

However, he was a medical doctor. In Canada, even. He could write me a prescription for birth control, as my mother pointed out. If I asked him to.

I did, of course– my period is damn painful!– and it honestly wasn’t too eventful, the asking; I don’t even remember whatever snarky comments he made. But I feel the need to share because I want to have at least a period story. I think it’s really powerful when women talk to each other about their periods, but I would feel silly calling for others to fight the taboo without having at least something to share in return. So there you go.

I think it’s valuable to talk about menstruation openly, because the presence (or conspicuous absence) of menses is such a huge part of women’s lives, and because it’s part of life only for women. These are also, almost certainly, the reason that we do not talk about menstruation. Ok, so the reason we use is that “it’s gross!” but so is sweating and there’s no conversational sweat-taboo. Deodorant isn’t sold in some kind of euphemistic “masculine products” section. People sweat, and talk about sweating, in movies and television all the time. (Hell, we even talk about poop on TV, and it’s way grosser!) We, culturally, do not engage in any kind of mass-delusion where we pretend that nobody sweats, ever. It’s just something our bodies do, naturally, and you ought to clean up afterwards, but that’s Ok. And that’s not even getting into our bizarre PMS-madwoman mythos.

I also think it’s interesting that even though blood is associated with hyper-manly things– fighting, getting injured, hunting, eating red meat– it’s women who actually see blood as part of their lives, and actually know what, for example, bloodstains look like. When I got back from my epic road trip, I was describing to a large co-ed group a super-creepy basement that I wandered into (and quickly out of again). Everyone was sort of nodding along with the ominous spray-painted messages on the walls,
the piles of broken mattresses, and so on, but then I said, “and then, there were all these stains all over the mattresses! It was this bronzey-brown color, dark around the edges!” All the women in the room made appreciative, “ooh, creepy,” sounds, but all the men just looked at me like I was crazy. None of them– not even the ones who hunted regularly, or who had impressive gun collections, or who wrestled or fenced– none of them had ever seen a blood stain. They thought blood was bright red, even after it dried.

How is it that the humans who routinely deal with blood are dainty, but those who, apparently, are at risk of vomiting at the mere mention of another’s bodily functions are tough? I’ve heard the misogynistic joke (if you can call it that) “don’t trust anything that bleed for five days and doesn’t die,” but it always evokes in me a sort of pride in my fellow women, followed by utter disgust with society. We take a lot of shit! We spend a little less than a quarter of our lives bleeding. For some of us, it hurts like hell. For most of us, it’s at least a little uncomfortable. But we deal with it, so much so that it’s an experience totally invisible to those around us, and we do it without talking about it openly. Which is kind of cool, at first glance. But incredibly fucked-up, the more I think about it. Why is it so vitally important that we make our periods invisible? What’s so shameful about someone else “finding out” that we menstruate?

Even women who do not menstruate have, thanks to our cultural expectations, a relationship with menstruation, positive or negative, that is both powerful and very, very real. So we should talk about it. And since we’re obviously taking about the post-revolution utopia, men should listen, without the belittling comments.