Tag Archives: sex

200,000 Years of Mommy Madness

11 May

Motherhood!  You’d think we humans would have it figured out after 200,000 years as a species.  Apparently not.  While my mother certainly raised a perfect human specimen, thank you very much, TIME magazine’s latest cover (and the bemused, baffled, bewildered responses to it) indicates that questions about what it means to be a “good mom” are still feeding our cultural anxieties.

(Or should I say, they’re still breastfeeding our cultural anxieties?  But maybe that’s a bit much.)

The point is that TIME’s lead story on “attachment parenting,” Dr. Bill Sears, and his devotees liked the pictured mother and son in “Are You Mom Enough?” has already stirred up  controversy and brought moms and motherhood back into public discourse–if, indeed, these topics ever really left us.

In the United States today, the majority of women work.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2010, there were 123 million women in the civilian noninstitutional population, and of this number 72 million, or 58.6 percent, were in the labor force—that is, classified as either employed or unemployed.

Women’s labor force participation is significantly higher today than it was in the 1970s. Women’s labor force participation rate peaked at 60.0 percent in 1999, following several decades in which women increasingly participated in the labor market.

An even greater percentage of American mothers is working also.  Again from the BLS:

The labor force participation rate–the percent of the population working or looking for work–for all mothers with children under 18  was 70.6 percent in 2011.

Cool?  I tend to think so.  My mom worked full-time from the time I was seven or thereabouts (who can remember anything before the millennium anyway?  Didn’t Y2K wipe out all those records?), and I don’t think my sisters and I can complain about much from our childhoods.  Except maybe that our mother did indeed dress a bit like the working women in this old video that we still own on VHS out among the garage spiders somewhere (though I will add that you would never see her wearing loafers with a suit.  It was heels or bust).

And surprisingly for one of my rambling posts, this video is more than a trip down memory lane–watching it now, I wonder why it is that there isn’t a corresponding video called “My Daddy Comes Back” or something.  Is it really so much scarier for children when mommy goes to work than when dad does?  Or is it us, the grown-up video-makers and video-buyers and song-writers and blog-ramblers, that continue to perpetuate that baby’s going to cry only or especially when mom heads off to the office for the day?

Whatever came first, the chicken or the ovum, it certainly seems that working mothers are taking on the burden of this cultural anxiety.  As I understand it, “attachment parenting,” the subject of TIME’s lead story, is a method of child-rearing with the aim of creating a secure bond (or attachment) between parent and child.  Because of the emphasis breastfeeding as one method of fostering that bond, AP proponents especially stress the relationship between mother and child.  And “stress” may be exactly the right word.

Reading about AP theory, I followed a hyperlink trail to Judith Warner’s book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  In the book, Warner discusses the toll and burden that cultural expectations of mothers place on working and non-working moms alike:

Many women of the post-Baby Boom generation simply weren’t prepared to contemplate these kinds of choices.  They didn’t realize just how bad the incompatibility would be between the total freedom of their youth and the culture of total motherhood they’d encounter once they had children.

So while more women are working and more mothers are working women, the pressures that puts on modern women go largely unexplored.  As Warner says, parenthetically:

Happiness has never ranked high as a feminist political goal.

I’m hardly qualified to expound on my own theories of parenting (even if I had some, which I don’t), but as a woman who wants a career and may want children some day, I just want to ask: Shouldn’t it be?

The seeming impossibility of a woman “having it all” is a running joke on tv shows like 30 Rock (with Tina Fey’s career-oriented yet kind of baby-obsessed Liz Lemon).  Just last month the April 19 episode was titled “Murphy Brown Lied to Us.”

I guess I can’t be too surprised.  If the Venus of Willendorf is any indication, even people of the Upper Paleolithic had their own ideas about the feminine ideal.  And I can’t imagine it was any easier for women then.

* * *

How to Converse with Silly, Stupid Ladies (Victorian Life Advice 2.0)

8 May

Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date.  Or not.  Probably not.

Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s  Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation.  And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”

You’d better be reading Godey’s Lady’s Book, Belle. Not that you could understand it any better than the sheep.

This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,”  a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act.  We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females.  But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common.  Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:

1. No Controversy Allowed

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”

We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family.  Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman.  You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.

2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up

I love this one.  Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:

“You can speak, even though you’re so clearly my intellectual inferior! It’s remarkable!”

“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited.  If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”

By jove, that must be it!  It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men!  Well, that makes much more sense.

3. That’s What She Said

You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season?  Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet.  And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.

“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”

Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on.  Lord knows there’s not much.

* * *

Thuvia, Maid (or Murderess) of Mars — because everyone loves a girl with a gun

26 Apr

I’ve been having some serious fun with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s  “John Carter” series of the early 20th century lately (I’m on book three of eleven, and like the pioneers of old, it’s Mars or bust! or something).  But since I’ve already reviewed “A Princess of Mars” and kind of “The Gods of Mars,” it’s time to do something super exciting geared at all you history and art history majors out there: using book covers to reflect on persistent gendered and racialized themes throughout history!*  Yes!

* Disclaimer: Now that I am officially a doctoral student in American history I reserve the right to do textual analysis whenever the hell I want.  So let’s begin.

Before I started seeing lukewarm reviews for Disney’s “John Carter” movie a couple months ago, I didn’t know that the film (such as it is) was based on an early-20th century series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, prolific king of pulp sci-fi in the 19-teens, twenties, and beyond.  It seemed strange to me that Disney would be borrowing from a rather problematic book published in 1912, but hey, I didn’t know that musical, animated “Tarzan” was based on Burroughs either.

In any case, it was Spring Break and, being the kind of person who goes home for spring break to read books and play with her family’s cats, was bored.  Also kind of broke.  So it made sense to download free public domain books onto my kindle, and for laughs, John Carter seems to have potential.

I was very quickly obsessed with it.

Of course, being the kind of person who brings her copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Troubles home with her over Spring Break, I can’t help but share some of the interesting things I’ve noticed about women not just in the books–but especially on the book covers.

This is the cover for the first installment in the series, A Princess of Mars.  As you can see, the princess, being a proper Victorian lady (even if she is a Martian who lays eggs), spends most of her time cowering behind her hero.  And she loves it!  And he loves her!  And no one will ever question their respective femininity and masculinity, because, I mean, just look at them.

Most of the first three books deal with the princess, Dejah Thoris, being kidnapped and help captive–first by green alien monsters, then an enemy group of Martian “red men,” and then by evil black people who live underground in the pit of a volcano or something.  Do we sense a pattern emerging.  This is science fiction’s kind of icky extension of the American captivity narrative, possibly one of the first distinctly American literary genres.

Have you heard of Mary Rowlandson?  In 1676, she was taken captive by Wampanoag Indians for about 3 months.  You really have to feel bad for this woman–she watched her friends and family brutally murdered, and then was thrust into a society completely foreign (dare I say alien?) to her.  But like a good yankee lady, once she got out, she had her eye on the main chance.  Rowlandson published a wildly, spectacularly popular account of her captivity in 1682.

Now, for those who haven’t read it 4 or 5 times over the course of high school and college, Rowlandson’s narrative pretty much gets this point across: It’s all about God’s sovereignty.  Haters gonna hate, but God will do what God does.  And on and on.  Rowlandson was incredibly devout, and even during her captivity chose not to make any escape attempts, deciding that it was God’s will that she was there and she would wait for Him to deliver her.

Funny, then, how the second edition of her book included pictures like this one.  “A Female Soldier”?  With a rifle?  That’s not exactly what happened–actually, that’s not at all what happened–but the idea of a forceful, armed heroine seemed to gain some purchase with contemporary readers.

That pattern continued with the story of Hannah Duston, another colonial American woman taken captive by Native Americans in the late 17th century.  Duston didn’t have a gun, but she got her hands on a hatchet and the rest is history.  Really gruesome, bloody, Native American killing history.

People liked that story too.

And they still liked it when Burroughs was writing his second John Carter book, The Gods of Mars, in which readers were introduced to another woman with a weapon: Thuvia.

Like Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was a prisoner of all sorts of different and abhorrent “others.”  Unlike Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was not content to resign herself to fate and hope that her lover would rescue her.  Thuvia got a gun and shot her captor point-blank.  And then, over the course of the next two books, she saved John Carter’s book like half a dozen times.  Most notable example: when John Carter is condemned to die in a gladiatorial-style fight against a bunch of ravenous lion-like alien beasts, Dejah Thoris attempts to kill herself so that she might die with him.  Thuvia uses her animal mind-control powers to save him.  Again.  And when one of John Carter’s crazed fangirls (no really, this is absolutely true) tries to stab Dejah Thoris and steal John for herself (like that’s going to work), Thuvia saves Dejah Thoris too.

She’s super badass.  And four books in, she gets her own starring role with Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

Let’s note the word “maid.”  Especially in archaic and literary contexts, a “maid” is not just a young, unmarried girl–she’s a virgin.  Thuvia is getting a title treatment that would seem to indicate that she’s as pure and unsullied a princess as Dejah Thoris.  Meanwhile, she looms over the corpse of her victim with a bloody knife.  The entire book cover is made to look like it’s been smeared with blood.  And let’s not forget that her first kill was a man who, it was implied, may have, you know, violated her.

Pure?  That’s questionable.

But we’ve kind of had a literary love affair with women with knives and guns and machetes for a long time.  Since the 1600s at least.  And how American is that?