Tag Archives: women

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?

Now Listening: The Shadow in Eternity

24 Nov

I have never seen a full episode of Dr. Who.  But I figured that, if I want to have any sort of SF street cred, I need to learn a little about it.  I did go to Wikipedia first, which showed me some pictures of a TARDIS and a link to the Guinness World Records (Dr. Who, it appears, is the longest-running science fiction show in the history of the world.  Pretty intense).

But it’s my experience that the best way to learn about something new is from an absolutely rabid fan.  Wordpress seems so have such a person in Ben Young, who has been writing a weekly Dr. Who fanfiction podcast called “The Shadow in Eternity.”  Rather than commentary on past or current episodes, Young created an entirely new storyline: one in which The Doctor is a woman.

Since holiday music kind of gets on my nerves (especially since it’s been playing since Halloween), I’ll be plugged into “The Shadow in Eternity” next month: it’s available on Ben Young’s blog, as well as on iTunes.

If you remember, last semester I took a class called “Twilight Zone Culture.” The basic premise of the course was that The Twilight Zone–in terms of popularity and reputation as a “classic” of science fiction, I see it as the American answer to Dr. Who–was ignored by censors because it wasn’t “serious.”  Thus, fantasy and SF slipped under the radar in the McCarthy era–allowing Rod Serling to make serious social commentary in the 1960s.  Young’s podcast interested me because he said something very similar about Dr. Who:

Doctor Who is also a great example of science fiction being able to make social and political comment because institutional censors dismiss it as insignificant (the Daily Mail recently noticed this; though it may have been a publicity stunt for the new series). The 2005 anti-Iraq war episode, for example, broadcast to millions the week before the UK General Election, was amazing.

Oh – and the OTHER reason is that I wanted to try to save what I loved about Doctor Who from the terrible writers and managers behind the current show. Arg!

With a female Time Lord and a pacifist “renegade alien” hero, let’s see what Dr. Who‘s all about.

“The Shadow in Eternity” podcast can be listened to on its website, downloaded from there, or found on itunes.  All links are on the home page.

Verdict? The Gender Divide, by David Boultbee

18 Jul

In a world where women have taken the reins in business and politics, it’s men like Ryan Peters under the glass ceiling.  In an attempt to break back into power, the secretive, vaguely-sinister Ryan hatches a complicated plan to level the playing field between the genders once and for all—it’s not easy standing up against a four-hundred year old female executive in a job interview, after all, when you’re only forty.

In the tradition of other socially-conscious science fiction, Boultbee’s novel incorporates contemporary issues of gender disparities into a future world, without (thank god) getting too preachy.

Reading time: One to two weeks.  The Gender Divide is roughly 5,000 Kindle locations (258 physical pages), but the nature of the novel as a “thinking book” makes the story fairly dense.

Recommendation: Somewhere between “hard” and “soft” science fiction.  Descriptions of biological enhancements and Ryan Peters’s weaponized “nanites” are detailed and believable, but just as believable are the portrayals of social and psychological changes in a radically different world.

The Gender Divide is available as an ebook for $4.80, as well as in paperback for all you old-fashioned folks.

Meet the New Boss (review: The Gender Divide)

18 Jul

True or False?  Although women comprise more than 50% of America’s work force, only 12 of those women are the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (as of 2009).

That’s an easy question to answer—for both us in anno domini 2012, and the denizens of David Boultbee’s world in The Gender Divide, where a pharmaceutical quirk has led to women living roughly four times as long as men.  In this America (or should I say Noram—a conglomerate of the United States, Canada, and Mexico), it’s women dominating politics and business, and men relegated to “beefcake” roles in Hollywood.

Of course, everyone knows that women tend to have longer life spans than the less-fair sex, and that an adolescent girl is already about a decade older than an adolescent boy in mental age—but compound that by 400 years and this is a different world.

Turnaround’s fair play, bitches.

Here’s how it happens: someone in research and development at a SoCal pharmaceutical company called Delphi, Inc. takes a hint from those obnoxious YAZ commercials and gets the idea that women might pay to get rid of that pesky “monthly curse.”  The solution is the aptly named Menssation, the drug that stops menstrual cycles once and for all.  Which is all good and well until, a couple decades later, Beverly Hills plastic surgeons start to go out of business because women just aren’t aging like they used to.

(All right, so maybe I’m taking liberties with the history—but logically, I’m sure this is how it happened.)

As it turns out, women aren’t dying either. Who knew the toll Mother Nature was taking with that PMS?  With longer lifespans comes greater life and job experience, longer resumes, and overall skyrocketing qualifications for all those positions of power denied in the past.  Goodbye, glass ceiling.  And the resistance?  Wait a generation, and they’ll all be dead.

Yet at the same time a nation of female executives, presidents, senators, and supervisors may seem strange to us, there’s no stopping the status quo.  Or, as put so elegantly into verse by The Who: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Ryan Peters isn’t having it.  An ex-military man with more than a couple secrets, Ryan is one of the few males with a similarly-enhanced lifespan—and he’s using it to fire the opening salvo in a gender war unlike any the suffragists or feminists of American history every imagined.  Unwilling to tip his hat to the new constitution, Ryan sacrifices forty years of his life to the sole purpose of being groomed for an executive position as Delphi’s Vice President of Security.  The goal?  Steal the DNA polymerase that would make it possible for men to increase their own allotment of years and take back control of their lives, careers, and futures.

Things haven’t changed so much, though, that his revolution might not be halted by that age-old derailer of plans—attraction.

The result is a novel with the appeal of both a unique concept and a cast of characters embroiled in the classic drama of a love triangle.  David Boultbee’s The Gender Divide is, first and foremost, an engaging story, but does an excellent job as well in following in the tradition of science fiction as a mirror—not for the future—but for the present.

On his website, Boultbee describes his influences as a writer thusly:

I’ve always loved to read. I can’t recall precisely when Science Fiction and Fantasy became my favorite genres. I’ve always read so much that I think it happened gradually.

Most of my favorite authors today are current authors but I can’t discount the influence that Robert Heinlein had on me. I fondly remember books like The Door Into Summer, Starship Troopers, Citizen of the Galaxy, Space Cadet, Starman Jones, Double Star, and Between Planets. These books shaped me as a person and as a writer. The following excerpt from Wikipedia accurately describes the significance of Heinlein’s work.

“Within the framework of his science fiction stories Heinlein repeatedly integrated recognizable social themes: The importance of individual liberty and self-reliance, the obligation individuals owe to their societies, the influence of organized religion on culture and government, and the tendency of society to repress non-conformist thought.”

Most modern authors incorporate many or all of these themes into their work as a matter of course. It is Heinlein’s legacy to the writers who follow him.

Boultbee’s social topic of choice is the gender divide of our own twenty-first century—by turning the tables on men and women, he forces readers to see the world they take for granted as the far-less-than-egalitarian place that it is.  In some cases this message was a little blatant and could have been woven in a bit less obviously, but overall the novel keeps from becoming overly-pedantic.

Now Reading: The Gender Divide, by David Boultbee

16 Jul

Personally, I wouldn’t mind living four times as long as men (for four times longer, period), but it’s become quite a problem in David Boultbee’s May 2009 novel The Gender Divide.

Ryan Peters is an anomaly. In a world where women live four times as long as men do, Ryan is one of a few men with a similar lifespan. This difference in lifespan has had profound consequences on the world balance of political, economic, and military power and has created a social Gender Divide that threatens to tear the world apart.

Determined to close this Gender Divide, Ryan will sacrifice anything to succeed. The Gender Divide has already cost him the one true love of his life and even though he has a second chance, he won’t let that stand in his way. He is even willing to give up his own life … and in a sense he already has.

Boultbee is a Toronto native with a fondness for Heinlein and his incorporation of social issues into science fiction.  From the official website, here’s the author’s commentary on the novel’s basic premise and concept:

A recurring idea in science fiction involves altering the menstrual cycles of women. It is one of those background items that is just there, much like computers and space travel.

While working at a biotech company, I quickly learned how interconnected all the systems in the body are. It is difficult to affect one part of the body without affecting other parts. That is why so many drugs have side effects.

I started wondering what would happen if there was an unusual side effect to stopping menstruation. Menstruation starts at a young age and runs for roughly forty years. During that time there is a lot of biological activity that is occurring. What happens if that all that energy is available elsewhere? What if women started living longer than men?

That was the early idea for the story. From there I began to wonder how this disparity in life span would impact world politics, economics, the military, and society. The balance of power would gradually shift from men to women, resulting in massive changes.

How The Gender Divide takes on society and abolishes PMS, the Scattering has yet to determine.  But until the next reviews go up, here’s a link to the first chapter of the novel, which Boultbee provides as an excerpt.

Gender and Power in Classical Japan (part 3 of 3)

11 May

In the Ritsuryo Codes, “admonitions to filial and wifely subordination remained the officially sanctioned family and social virtues” (Rozman 121), ideals which were spread throughout the upper echelons of society in state-sponsored schools intended to mirror similar Chinese educational structures.

While Chinese bureaucracy and administration had been based on a merit system since the Qin dynasty—a system of state-wide examinations on the Chinese classics providing entrance into ministerial positions for promising students of all social ranks—the new Japanese schools continued to be dominated by the aristocracy.  In Japan, “the hereditary principle proved stronger than claims of merit” (Rozman 118).

For this reason, strict adherence to Confucian social and domestic patterns did not extend very far below the ranks of the Nara nobility.  Though the Ritsuryo Codes legally subordinated wives to husbands, in practice, marriage among commoners in this period still preserved the matriarchal shape of early Japanese society.

In non-aristocratic families, marriage was often “uxorilocal,” or “based on the wife’s residence and on visits to the woman” (Rozman 121), as opposed to the Chinese patriarchal model where even the wives and children of commoners would traditionally live in the home of the husband or husband’s father.

The loss of female authority after Koken Tenno’s reign, then, is less a referendum on the widespread diffusion of Confucian ideas of gender distinction throughout Japanese society in its entirety than it is a catalyst for the resurgence of the already established hierarchical mindset among the Japanese aristocracy.

The 3rd century Account of the Three Kingdoms reflects this by describing, along with the relative common occurrence of female rulers, the “class distinctions among the people, and some men are vassals of others… when lowly men meet men of importance on the road, they stop and withdraw to the roadside… in conveying messages to them they either squat or kneel” (Murphey 208).

Early social stratification is also reflected in the archeological record: the same mound tombs which held haniwa figures of female shamans also serve as an index of wealth and prestige—ornate mounds with greater quantities of offerings indicate that the entombed was one of the “men of importance,” signs of an elite nobility which predates the original clans’ unification into a state.

This first state of the Yamato, after all, is believed to have begun as a “consolidation of various uji groups… clans ruled by hereditary chiefs and worshipping the clan’s ancestor” (Murphey 210).  The much later failure of the national education system to include lower classes, and the consequent inability of Confucian gender roles to percolate through the general populace, can be seen as a consequence of the dominance of this historical, even pre-historical, hereditary elite.

By justifying the marginalization of female rulers in terms of filial piety and domestic harmony, Confucianism allowed the aristocracy to reassert itself.

As an example, the traditional Japanese “affinal strategy” barred princesses or other female members of the royal family from marrying a man outside of the royal kin (Piggot 65).

Powerful aristocratic families would be more inclined to back princes as heirs to the throne, as they, unlike royal women, were permitted to marry daughters of influential officials—by championing a philosophy which limited the pool of contenders for the throne, elite families increased their chances of making a beneficial alliance with the royal family by means of their own daughters.

Finally, the instability of Koken Tenno’s two reigns “led court leaders to the conclusion that female succession resulted in problems for court” (Piggot 65)—and a volatile court meant insecurity among the Japanese elite in regard to their own positions and influence.

Ultimately, the decline of female authority hinged not on mass popular acceptance of Confucianism, but on the strength of a deeply rooted hierarchical system which, unlike the equally long-standing traditions of matriarchy and gender complementarity, could coexist with the compelling Chinese model.

Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007. Print.

Piggot, Joan R. The Last Classical Female Sovereign: Koken Shotoku Tenno. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, Print.

Rozman, Gilbert. The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and its Modern Adaptation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. Print.

“Selections from the Analects.” Confucius and the Analects. Print.

Gender and Power in Classical Japan (part 1 of 3)

11 May

Though the Nara period of the 8th century saw the adoption of Confucian values and ideals into Japanese society, and in particular their application to gender roles and the status of women, the cultural link between China and the “land of Wa” (Murphey 208) had already been forged a century before.

While trade has, in most parts of the world and periods of history, been an effective, if mainly passive and gradual, means of cross-cultural contact, Prince Shotoku of the Yamato court set the precedent for active seeking after cultural exchange; in the early 7th century, Shotoku sent the first large-scale, official embassies to China from Japan, “determined to tap the riches of Chinese civilization at their source and to bring back to Japan everything they could learn or transplant” (Murphey 213).

In these centrally-planned delegations, traders were generally replaced by emissaries who could best bring back cultural, rather than material, commodities: students, scholars, artists, and monks, among others.  But while these delegations early on established a pattern for vibrant cultural exchange, the Sinification of Japanese institutions, seen most clearly during the Nara period, resulted in an abandonment of indigenous matriarchal traditions for new legal codes and societal values which eroded female authority.

One of the earliest accounts of Japanese culture and governance comes from the Chinese—this Account of the Three Kingdoms, believed to have been written about 290 CE, describes Japanese society as a collection of “clans… some ruled by kings and some by queens” (Murphey 208).

At this early period of decentralized clans, therefore, a patriarchal system had yet to achieve cultural hegemony.

Women, the Chinese record indicates, also played a significant role in important divinatory and ritualistic matters.  According to the Account of the Three Kingdoms, one prominent local leader was “an unmarried queen who as a kind of high priestess ruled over several ‘kingdoms,’ or clans, and was considered important enough to have one of the largest tombs and mounds erected for her on her death” (Murphey 208).

These tombs, along with the relatively crude clay haniwa figurines found in and around them, are believed to date to as far back as the 3rd century CE—the presence of haniwa pottery depicting female shamans indicates that the Chinese account of a priestess-queen was not an anomaly, but instead reveals matriarchy as a relatively common pattern in early Japanese society.

Early legends and mythology, too, highlight the significance of women in Japanese religious tradition, at least before the introduction of Buddhism and the later Confucianism.

Though rulers used the Chinese honorific of “emperor” even at the first formation of a Japanese state from the previously independent clans, these leaders nonetheless rejected the predominantly secular basis of Chinese government and established instead a principle of divine kingship.  While Chinese emperors legitimized their reigns by claiming to rule by the “Mandate of Heaven,” tianming, this was an essentially political, not religious, term—in Confucius and the Analects, tianming is also translated as “what is ordained by Heaven” (Analects 2:4).

Contrarily, Japanese emperors claimed direct descent from heaven, not simply the wisdom to act in accordance with its wishes.  Legitimacy for Japanese rulers was based on descent from the Sun Line, those who “allegedly descended directly from the sun goddess Amaterasu… the titular deity of Japan” (Murphey 206).  Significantly, this mythical founder of the Japanese royal line is a woman.

This is an except from a paper written for a University of Alabama Asian Civ course.  My sources will be included at the end of part 3.  This is a subtle reminder to please cite your own sources if using any of the info here– “subtle” being defined as obnoxiously obvious.

Who says men are funny?

17 Apr

Vanity Fair’s flame war between journalists Christopher Hitchens and Alessandra Stanley centered on the supposed gender gap in humor—their articles titled, respectively: “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” and “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?”

The irreverent Hitchens, a proud member of the New Atheism “Unholy Trinity” (along with fellow horsemen of the apocalypse Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennet), makes the expected argument that humor has its roots in natural selection.  Human males, lacking gaudy tail feathers and large antlers with which to battle other human males, rely on a sense of humor to attract a mate.  On the other hand, a human woman’s reproductive struggle is rather different—the dangers of childbirth requiring that, as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “the female of the species must be deadlier than the male.”  Of course, Hitchens doesn’t miss the opportunity to use this as a launching point into a couple one-liners about religion—women being, in their biological solemnity, “the rank-and-file mainstay of religion… the official enemy of all humor.”

Stanley rebuts with a litany of contemporary female comedians (comediennes, to use the gender-specific nounage): Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, and so on—many of whom, she notes, do not fit the “hefty, dykey, or Jewish” boxes Hitchens attempts to place women humorists into.  Only briefly, however, does Stanley touch on Hitchens’ central, evolution-centric argument.  Addressing the nature versus nurture issue, she writes: “It’s a shame that Margaret Mead never made it to that tribe in Papua New Guinea where women tell the jokes, and men pretend to find them funny.”

And yet—that line may be the most compelling point in her entire article.  While Hitchens makes the assumption that men are compelled by nature to make women laugh for reproductive purposes, the truth may be that women are compelled to laugh by culture for their own survival (ask any women who’s felt a duty to giggle for a boorish date).  A follow-up article could easily read: Who says men are funny?

Even Hitchens notes that women aren’t funny because wit, as a sign of intelligence, threatens men attempting to assert their own comic dominance.  But this isn’t a reason for women not evolving humor in the first place—it’s a matter of gender and culture, not sex and nature.

It’s not socially acceptable for women to be funny—sarcasm’s fairly aggressive, and gibes can cut away at a man’s fragile ego (not having, as it is, plumes or horns).  If humor often reveals a subversive perspective, chipping away at established authority, funny women represent a threat.  As an example, Stanley cites the biblical case of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, eavesdropping on her husband and a visiting angel: when the angel tells Abe that his wife (age ninety-plus) will soon conceive a child, Sarah snickers at the tent flap; later, when she does give birth, she names her son the Hebrew word for laughter, Isaac.  That’s one point against Hitchens’ assertion that childbirth is no laughing matter for women.

Sex and gender aren’t synonymous.  If women aren’t funny, the problem isn’t an evolutionary predisposition to be a good audience—it’s a cultural injunction to be a good sport (Hitchens didn’t think Dorothy Parker funny either, by the way).  And that’s something that should make men nervous: perhaps their much-vaunted sense of humor doesn’t really exist, after all.