Date: Tue, 25 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] As we prepare to think about "Independence" -- thinking about female sexuality and power
Hi All --
As we prepare to think about and to discuss Jhabvala's "Independence" this coming weekend, I've been thinking about some central questions the story invites us to consider. While the story raises many issues, it does raise an intriguing issue about the power of female sexuality. (And I think this also ties in with the food/feeding issue as well.)
So, with that thought in mind, I began to think about the difficult lines between women as objects for sexual consumption/the power of female sexuality as commerce/and the female owning her own sexuality for herself. These lines are at times difficult to separate within American culture, at least.
We are all aware of the danger of women as objects for sexual consumption -- this is evident to us through many social images and through women who embrace this practice either because of cultural construction or their own choice or a mixture of the two. This Brittany Spears phenomenon -- or Marilyn Monroe -- or whatever else has extreme dangers attached to it -- and as objects for sexual consumption women are devalued and dehumanized. Now, having said that, there is a central question of why some women, more likely young women, but mature women as well, would do this. The answers aren't easy -- in part, if we live in a culture that reinforces value through sexuality, if we want to be valued (and all humans do), then there is a difficult dichotomy in not allowing one's self to be an object for sexual consumption. This is particularly true for young women who biologically feel the need to "mate" -- and to find a "mate" in society, one has to be an object for consumption -- this is an anthropology theory - and men primp too. But still and all -- all we have to do is take a look at a Victoria's Secret catalog (who in the world wears that stuff?!) and the dangers of object for sexual consumption become painfully evident.
That said, there is power attached to female sexuality -- a power that can be used, and at times is used, as commodity be it for material or non-material gains. I think we're trained early to use our sexuality for gain -- whether it is for attention (oh, you look so cute today, little Sally, turn around and let us see your pretty dress) or for more intriguing items (success, power, jobs, money, material possessions.) (Perhaps we'll get into a discussion on how this idea is thought about in 'Independence".) But at the risk of making a dangerous and insulting generalization, I think there are few women who have not used this power for their gain in one way or another. And it is an intoxicating power, I might add. We learn very young that our sexuality is desired and if we use it just right (manipulate) we can get things -- and I dare say mothers teach this to their daughters -- not in a sit down, text book lesson, but through behaviors and practices (put on some lipstick, boys like girls who....) etc. As an aside, I think this is one of the reasons why women will make the comment that it is more difficult to work for a female boss than a male boss -- women won't let other women play this game -- in part because I think there's a level of jealously whether conscious or not (we've been culturally constructed toward this emotion -- and god love the woman who can rise above it) and in part because we know how to play that game -- and no, it ain't gonna work with us.
Now here comes the tricky part -- where is the line between women who recognize this power and who own this power for themselves. Ahh, I dare say, this is where it becomes extremely dicey. If we live in a culture that reinforces this behavior, if we are reinforced through some type of gain, if the power of it is intoxicating (and it is powerful for those of us who have played the game), then when do we really, truly own our own sexuality -- or do we ever truly own it -- outside of our personal relationships -- I think inside of mature relationships, sure we can (note can -- even here I think the situation can be dicey) own it -- but outside in culture -- where we must exist as women and what is attached to that -- it is very difficult to completely avoid this dilemma I think -- and I think there are some of us who use this power without thinking -- even if its to bat an eye in order to get a parking space or to move ahead in the 15 items only line because the nice gentlemen in front of you wants to behave like a courtly fellow and we're running behind.
"Independence" while it raises other questions -- does raise this issue of sexuality and power -- and while men have power in culture -- the only power women have been allowed to have until recently have been her sexuality. It's complex. Okay, now that I've set women back 100 years - - I'll run -- happy thinking, Valerie
January 25, 2005
Re: Jhabvala: Female Sexuality and Power?
I've not read "Independence" yet. I'll get there Friday evening. So this is just a response to the ideas and realities Valerie presented. I agree with everything she says. I'd go further in some ways: you don't have to dress conventionally sexy at all to be sexy as in reality tastes differ. Some men have a taste for heavy women; others for women who don't shave. On the complicity and ubiquity of using sexual role-playing, there's also the painful opposite: the woman who is born what's called ugly. I am convinced Marion Lewes (poor Miss Evans that was, aka George Eliot) became the great mind she was because she was conventionally speaking regarded as ugly. The women with a woman boss is a not pleasant experience for many: beyond the reasons Valerie cites is the demand everyone dress dowdily; no one wants an obvious rival around (this is instinctive).
I've not read the story so don't know how old the female character is. I'll say here I find most interesting the period of puberty : the change over from when a girl is not sexual to when she is. This can be and is for many, nay most (anyway to my mind anyone with any sensitivity) a painful uncomfortable time, very difficult to cope with. She is very often ignorant. At the heart of some of the early famous 18th century novels by women is just this story presented in the indirect censored form of "a young lady's entrance into the world." Evelina's troubles (Burney's novel) comes from her inability to negotiate her sexuality at all because it's so new: there are scenes where she's badly harassed, manipulated, approached by thugs (as well as coarse rough women) in a park. Girl students today respond strongly to Evelina because of this thrust in the book.
I've a hunch I bring this up because in this situation it is rarely power the girl experiences. It's someone aggressing ("hitting on") on her and she feels powerless. She doesn't know what to do. She will also often make all sorts of mistakes for which her social world will punish her. It is therefore a kind of crucial time too, crucial maiming can occur in the early teen years. For some far from intoxication what she wants is to flee. It's being forced on her; she has a body she doesn't want. I'm not just suggesting one of the lines to anorexia, but also early marriage or retreat into female communities. I was really powerfully affected by Campion's take on James's Portrait of a Lady because I felt she had taken his "young lady's entrance into the world" tale (that's what the innocent Isabel's tale is about) and turned it into a parable where sex is not power but continual unwanted physical demand and pursuit. This is another way of reading Frankenstein, one I've not come across in print. The hero hunts down his creature (a monster you see) to the creature's death. Moers had the hero as a female hero giving birth to the creature; I see the tale as the creature being the female at the center whom all hunt down. She can't escape her hideous body.
And again in old age women are witches. Byatt's "The Dry Witch" imagines the line I'm simply pointing out her. Now the beauty is gone so are you left alone. No. You disgust. How dare you be there? Better dress in ways that don't call any attention to yourself or you will offend. How dare you? And so on. Now sexuality is not power either but something inflicted because she's still sexy but she's old. And young men will respond with active distaste to an older woman who will she nill she arouses them.
If we take into consideration the tendency of women to be pregnant, this is indeed an ambiguous Janus-faced power.
And add the larger picture of class or rank and you can see this sexual power can be nothing but disadvantage. I refer here to when a lower class woman has genes which make her sexy; the upper class male will not marry or respect her; her power can only be felt if she is perceived his equal in other ways. And this is just in the ordinary situations of life; what happens when there's crisis and war. Her great sexuality will make her a victim of men of the other tribe -- as a pawn to get back at the other men through.
Not that one can't win a man though sex. One can. Yes. And hold him too -- unless he is cruel over aging.
Re: Jhabvala: Female Sexuality and Power
I just read my own meditation and realize that by the end I was saying I don't buy it. Looking over what I wrote I offer up the proposition that female sexuality does not give women power generally. In some narrow cases and places and times and that unpredictably.
Why then do they dress so sexually? Hope springs eternal ...
Delusive desperation is at this spring -- as it is in much of human behavior and beliefs.
Date: Wed, 26 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Female Sexuality and Power?
I agree that female power and sexuality is not as pure as it may seem and actually can lead to oppression -- it's a tricky thing indeed.
And I agree, once women get to a certain age they become "invisible" -- one their "looks" have eroded they've lost their use in society -- this angers the hell out of me -- but it's true nevertheless -- and your "witch" analogy is well taken.
Perhaps I didn't make myself clear with respect to power and sexuality -- I'm thinking here of a woman who recognizes that she has something that a man wants and uses her sexuality to her advantage -- in part because society has taught her to do this. I get so tired of "beautiful" women -- and yes, beauty is culturally constructed -- right now I'm on a list to be accepted into an African Tribe where beauty is considered 17 or something like that rolls of abdominal fat -- now that's where I want to go -- but beautiful women who say "I want to be accepted for my intelligence" -- I usually want to scream -- then stop wearing the low cut blouses and short skirts and bending over and flirting. I'm not being totally crass here, I do realize that this is a serious issue for some women.
But at any rate, perhaps it is a cultural misconception and/or perception that women can use their sexuality for gain; perhaps this power is only an illusion -- and those of us, like myself, who don't question deep enough, perceive oppression as power -- isn't that how the system works? But perhaps there is a legitimate "power" in cases where women know exactly what they are doing -- using their sexuality to manipulate a man (or woman - but for the sake of this argument I'm sticking with heterosexual interactions) in some way -- maybe because this is the only way they perceive their power. I'm thinking here of the beautiful women who marries a powerful older man -- at the risk of being terribly unkind, come on now, she's marring him because they have intelligent conversations about Proust? He can marry her beauty because it is a commodity and because it heightens his power in the male pecking order - and she's able to get his power through her sexuality -- and conversely, can we argue that she has some type of power over him? He must worry on some level whether he'll keep her -- and at some age, most men do grow up and want mature relationships.
I have seen women flirt with vendors at a fair and get "free" food -- I've actually had this happen to me -- where a woman, around my age and beautiful by culture's standards, received her lunch "on the house" because she flirted with the vendor -- she had no intentions of wanting his attention for any other purpose -- I was right behind her -- and when he got to me, knowing that I had seen the exchange -- shrugged and said - she deserved the free meal because of her beauty and then proceeded to charge me the just fare for my meal -- while on one hand I was happy to pay and have my integrity intact -- on the other hand - I was livid and my sense of self a bit battered (because in America -- a woman's worth still is within her looks).
Yes, Ellen, you're right -- this is complex -- and to the extent that we tease out culture and personal efficacy is extremely dicey. We'll see, I suppose, what "Independence" invites us to consider -- although the story is much more than this question.
But as a final thought -- and to continue to think through power and sexuality as a commodity -- when I separated from my husband a few years back -- I was surprised that I could actually use this power. Now, I had never used my sexuality as power other than when I was a teen -- but perhaps going through a mid-life crisis of sorts -- i was ripe for this situation (okay, I apologize for setting women's rights back oh about 150 years or so -- lol) - I'm not a beautiful woman by any stretch of the imagination -- I'm middle age -- on a good day I'll brush my hair when I leave the house -- I have enough cellulite on my thighs and butt to share with every one on this message board and then some -- I could care less what I wear -- and usually wear the same thing over and over (laundered of course) because it's just comfortable and what the hell -- I'm over weight -- and my boobs, after two children, breastfeeding, and age, have now met my knees.
What I found was that even though I wasn't the image of beauty -- I had something men wanted -- sex --plain and simple -- and if i was willing to "put out" as it were -- (and I was old enough to make that choice) -- then these men -- middle-aged were grateful. I "dated" as it were -- accomplished men -- lawyers, engineers, etc -- handsome men one might add -- and some not so handsome -- but because I was willing to offer "company", conversation, and sex when I felt like it -- I found out that there was a "gain" to this -- opera, Broadway plays (I'd never been to New York -- I'm not cosmopolitan at all) -- travel, $100 bottles of wine -- and it wasn't prostitution --although we could argue that it could be considered that - I genuinely enjoyed the male company and they mine -- and no strings attached - and I never asked to be taken to these places -- McDonald's was fine with me -- I'm not kidding -- but when I realized that I had this power -- it frightened me -- and invited all sorts of questions. Rest assured -- those days are over -- I have more interesting things to do - but I think the line between power and the illusion of power is interesting, complex, and one perhaps we need to carefully examine if we are to fully understand our place in society as females.
Oh, with respect to George Elliot -- wasn't she involved with a married man that she eventually married -- and this man jumped out the window on their honeymoon? I don't know -- I didn't do so well in my Victorian Lit class -- but what is interesting in light of what Ellen has said with respect to Elliot -- and I certainly respect and trust her information than what I was taught and/or remember -- is that if I remember correctly Elliot was presented to us as a heroine of sorts -- a woman who went against the cultural construction of her time -- fighting it all the way -- not needing a man -- I'm sure that's myth --
Just my two cents, happy thinking all, Valerie
Date: Wed, 26 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] As we prepare to think about "Independence" -- thinking about female sexuality and power
Valerie and Ellen's comments about female sexuality made me think about a documentary piece I saw on CBC (the Canadian national public broadcaster, our equivalent to the BBC) a week or two ago about the marketing of sexiness to pre-adolescent girls. They looked at shops in suburban malls explicitly catering to girls from 8-14 that sell makeup, sexy lingerie (lingerie? for 8-year-olds?), and the like; at girls' magazines encouraging them to wear and be obsessed with makeup, to worry about their hair and their clothes and their bodies, to be sexy, to wear revealing clothes; at advertising that also pushes the need for these very young girls to be sexy. The language used co-opted that of "girl power"--pushing the idea that to be sexy was to be powerful. And the young girls interviewed all parroted that ideology. The interviewer would show them an ad for high-heeled shoes aimed at young pre-adolescent girls that showed the models being overtly sexy--short skirts (often pleated and worn to evoke fetishistic images of a sexy girl in school uniform), legs spread, blouse half-undone, heavy makeup, coy under-the-eyelashes look--and ask the girls, what do you see? And the girls would say, oh, she's really strong and independent, that's girl power. And they wanted that for themselves. But what other kinds of more tangible power are they not seeing and demanding and taking for themselves by focussing so heavily on this one?
Now, I don't personally dislike makeup and clothes. Perhaps I shouldn't admit this (you may forever after think me a frivolous creature who is hopelessly in thrall to culturally-mandated notions of femininity! joke alert), but I love clothes, love dressing up, sometimes like looking sexy, enjoy playing with makeup, always wear perfume, feel half-dressed without jewelry, like pretty undergarments (no, I don't shop at Victoria's Secret, Valerie! :-) but I do like lace and silk and nice things next to my skin), like getting compliments. I even buy the occasional fashion magazine (a couple of times a year, usually when the major collections come out). I don't think of myself as an object for sexual consumption, nor do I dress or present myself that way. Most days I look very professional. Fashionable, very well-groomed, and in many ways conventionally "feminine," but also professional and perfectly capable of taking care of myself. But I take pleasure in such things. And I see no harm in such pleasure. I also perfectly understand why many women do NOT take pleasure in such things and feel pressured to pretend they do; for me, it's not a burden but a pleasure, and it's FUN (and there are lots of men who would take pleasure in such things if they were allowed to--an interest in clothes and fashion and makeup is no more strictly gender-linked than most things). It's not really about power for me--although I know I like being conscious that I'm dressed well, that I look good, pulled together, polished--I suppose that's partly about power. But it has little to do with male (or female, for that matter) approval. I dress to please myself. And fashionable (and sometimes sexy) clothes, makeup, perfume, heels, and pretty undergarments please me.
January 26, 2005
Re: Sexuality and Power
In response to Valerie and Leslie,
So many others issues are interconnected here and it's all so fuzzy. I used to and still do like to look what I think of as pretty, feminine. I wear skirts and used to wear heels (I can't any more since I've developed bad bunions). Dressing has more than sexual meaning: it adds up to being what in NYC we used to call "being a person:" treating oneself and presenting oneself as having self-respect, dignity. I dress for myself and take pride in looking as if I were going out even if I go nowhere. These words have yet different connotations (pretty, feminine, pride, self-respect) than those you both have used: professional for example, or attractive (though Valerie didn't use that word she meant attracting men). I like feeling comfortable, feeling no one will despise me so I can forget myself. I know I don't like attracting too much attention from either men or women.
Maybe I'm also talking about the more permanent experience when I speak of power. In my experience money and rank trump the sexually attractive every time, and it's rare that the sexually attractive person (unless cunning, aggressive, lucky, determined) can turn physical advantage into permanent power. Great and terrible is the power of money. Seemingly inescapable is the power of rank and position which very often means you are descended from a family which has long had money and used it for high education and place and what's looked at as admired achievement. The power of sexuality is highly limited and ephemeral. Nonetheless, being candid and trying not to be a hypocrite, I know that my safety and comfort has come from being married and my husband's salary which I "got" through what's called love which of course includes sex. I have not really sought a remunerative career and don't have one.
Nonetheless, sexuality as such (divorced from other considerations like friendship, companionship and much else that goes into people's relationships with one another) is realistically speaking more dangerous for women than endowing power. Everywhere we see this. From the most basic constructions of relationships to the most fleeting. The momentary triumph is allowed within strong constraints: And personally I don't see sexuality as power but danger and finds its rewards ambiguous; the high prizes come at a high price. The small prizes cost too: you marry so you can't chose the good college; you get pregnant so you never get the degree or good job.
As to dressing or appearance, since I was around 15 I've generally chosen ways of dressing and appearance that are not overt: overt sexuality in my view brings too much punishment with it and therefore the discrete is to be preferred as not only safer, more comfortable, but keeping things pleasant, courteous. Underneath the manners of all are highly unaltruistic animals.
Maybe I should bring up another word here: unpleasant. Now this is very personal or comes out of my personality: I don't like unpleasant experiences. Since I'm sensitive, lots of experiences others seem to enjoy I don't. You might say they see the half-full glass and I see the half- empty one, but I avoid the unpleasant when I can. I'm not amused by unpleasant things and experiences which are too strongly laced through with exploitations and words that bring home to me say my lower position (and thus humiliate me in my own eyes) would not to me be enjoyable.
I'll say that with a couple of rare exceptions (when he was drunk once was one of them), my present husband (of 35 years) behaves to me in public as a gentleman. The old-fashioned word is appropriate. When he has not, I remember getting very distressed immediately so he stopped. I once knew a man who told me I had a way of walking around like a princess; if so, the attempt at poise was a an attempt at keeping up a barrier I know to be fragile and easily broken down by aggression.
I could connect this to our medical thread by saying I find the assumption on the part of medical people that they have the right to invade my private space unacceptable. I dislike it. That just popped into my mind but I know it to be true.
I can't rise to generalizations over these things further than this.
Re: "Independence" & "Development & Power:" Tales 3 & 4, New Delhi: Ironies Abound and Austen
"Independence" (Tale 3) and "Development and Progress" (Tale 4) are so rich in irony and content that to do justice to them really demands extensive and detailed literary analysis. If someone else wants to try it, please to go ahead. That would mean studying Jhabvala's typical language, the nuances she uses in her irony to indicate to the reader her position, and really to get the resonance you'd have to place these two stories against a backdrop of her other others. I'm not being deliberately obscurantist, only accurate about the problems of discussing such texts. She really is an Austenite author; the method is precisely the same: suggestive, flexible, enigmatic. the "cool, even cold" ironic distancing masks a deep core of disillusioned feeling, disappointment, controlled (or "regulated" -- to use a word from a seminal Austen critic) rage and romance. In her "Myself in India" she describes a woman very like Sumitra or Kuku (grandmother and granddaughter) and says she turns away from such women to remain alone in her air-conditioned room to write: they "set her teeth on edge" and drive her to talk irrelevantly and inappropriately of the "horror" they live on top of and of what use is this? ("It would take too long, and anyway what is the point?"). Like Austen Jhabvala uses writing as a desperate means of finding "some mode of existence for her critical attitudes" towards the outrages of everyday life which no one else seems to find outrageous, at least in public.
Last night I mentioned Orwell. A few hours later and it seems to me Graham Greene's political vision is much closer to the mark of Jhabvala. She might be said to write a female companion book to his political masterpieces (e.g., The Quiet American. The Heart of the Matter, The Third Man, The Honorary Consul, Our Man in Havana). What I find exhilarting about the second story, "Development and Progress" in particular is Jhabvala has taken a female subgenre and really make it make a large political statement. People often want to claim this for Austen; alas, it's not so. The large political statement is (in line with all her other books) deeply pessmistic about progress.
I love the ironies of the titles. Independence? What independence? India is entangled endlessly in its history as a British colony we see; the women at the center are blind and compromised throughout. Again we have an unreliable narrator at the center of the first tale (first person tales apparently are characteristically used by Jhabvala this way): Harry will never understand, no, not he, persists in seeing as "bribery and corruption" what is "nothing but a judicious balancing of funds to keep the machinery of government oiled and functioning.
The second title is equally ironic: just read that closing paragraph: Pushpa is a central figure in this tale. I was really struck by how she resembles the way recent biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft present her: humorless, a prig, utterly self-righteous, determined, complacent about her goals, drivingly ambitious. Why? Because I don't believe Wollstonecraft could have been like that; had she been, she would not have gone off with Imlay, or ended up a near-suicide and dead in childbirth from an idealist like Godwin. (I don't include Tomalin or Holmes's portraits of Mary: they are accurate). But here she is, the great "success" of the story preaching to her crowd of deluded miserable women. I only type out a bit as everyone else has the text:
whatever it was she said seemed to be what they most wanted to hear [of course it was]. They raised their faces higher, in adoration, in worship: those who clutched slogans scrawled on pieces of cloth held them up and waved them. Murmurs of assent to everything she said ... I have never seen so many faces radiant with hope -- all of them worn by poverty, overworked, and undernourished, some pockmarked through disease, others bruised with beatings, a few with their noses cut off (the ultimate act of cruelty from a vengeful husband ..)
Once I did put on the TV to watch Bush projecting himself similarly to a crowd who looked like they belonged to the cultural group Moore shot on camera in his film on Bowling for Columbine from the high school at Flint, Michigan and elsewhere. Silly Kerry lost because he didn't swill out whatever cant was wanted (to allude to our other thread).
I'll stop here and write separately some thoughts on each tale.
Re: "Independence:" Tale 3, New Delhi (2): Self-disinheritance
As Fran remarked, having read "Independence" I now know why Valerie brought up the subject of the relationship of sexuality to power.
The story of Sumitra is a Madame de Pompadour story. She lived the sensual and self-satisfied life she did by manipulating her sexuality. Recently we've had a spate of biographies and studies returning us to this as an ideal for at least experiencing some form of power. I would say, however, that a perceptive reading of one of the better of these books, Amanda Foreman's on the Duchess of Devonshire, reveals the real misery of that woman's life, her powerlessness before her husband (he could and did throw her out when she got pregnant by someone else; he could and did bully her into having sex to pay debts; she was forced out of the public sphere after a decade or so for reasons similar to those which hounded de Stael and sand); her endless pregnancies, the way the woman who lived with her was part of the menage a trois and makes the Duchess's early death make sense: this is not to say that for numbers of years the Duchess was not at the linchpin of a group of people who did wield power and an enabler: "Independence" is the story of a saloniere, Eastern style as seen through the eyes of a "modern" Indian careerist who makes documentaries. A TV journalist. She much admires her grandmother and that is the stance of the story. As I say, I see the technique here as one which repeats that of the nameless narrator of "Expiation" except that Kuku has much less to hide, the matter she presents is conventionally acceptable, admirable for some too.
And then what else is there? Would you be a Monica?
But (to take up the theme as Valerie proposed it -- as it's easier to follow on), I'd say that much more than sexuality was needed here for Sumitra to live this life of ease and direction of others than sex. That to me is important in the tale, and this other stuff takes up much of its verbal space. We are first told, for example, how this granddaughter and grandmother are part of the upper class left over at the time of "Independence" from the British. How wonderful to be dancing in a room next to the one where the fate of a large group of people is being decided by one's male relative! Late in late Sumitra is presented as densely malevolent, as greedy and appetitive as she was through life: but what is disgusting is her loss of decorum, her dropping of manners and and sophisticated know-how to manipulate people. That is what we see is as needed as sex, as well as the kind of personality that densely bullies others. That Sumitra has by her ability to breeze by; to use another idiom, this is one thick-skinned woman. She didn't sit at home doing someone's homework. She was "needed" elsewhere: and she really was (p. 44).
The greatest or most delicious of ironies are those which also tell a sort of truth. Yes indeedy cars and chaffeurs at her disposal to go and her herself photographed with ministers and their wives (a TV journalist, our narrator, would certainly appreciate this); she became an arbiter of taste, single-handedly revived cottage industry to export Indian textiles and crafts. Probably helped many people to make a little money. What sells is what tickles the vanity: I have a pair of shoes I bought just before Christmas, Turkish hand-sewn kind of mocassins; they are very good for bunions; they cost me $140. I don't know though how much the women who sewed them got: I suspect their percentage of the take was as minimal as the middle men could make it.
Then she meets Lieutenant-General Har Dayal. Great guy. She just "bustles about with masculine purpose and feminine grace". It seems her husband and daughter are "contemptuous" of "the great role" she played. To me Jhabvala's irony comes through strongly here. She can't resist going a little over the top: he was indispensable you see: "he knew how to behave, how to make conversation in English, to use the right cutlery ..." Don't underestimate that.
Not that I'm implying Sumitra should have catered to her drone Harry -- in the way that in A Backward Place Judy caters to her tyrant drone, Bal. The ironies about him and that relationship are as strong.
I'd like to suggest that the old traditional heroine of the tale is displaced in the manner of Austen's Emma. In Emma, Austen has taken the usual bitch of the tales, the Miss Bingleys and put her at the center. The traditional lost heroine of integrity is Jane Fairfax. The traditional heroine here is Monica and Jhabvala shows us just what her life was. Bullying by her mother until 50, and then what?
Night after night Sumitra lies plotting the next step of her great life of power. This is how she spends her time. It seems she comes to the decision the best thing is to go to bed with Har. After a frustrated first attempt (naturally he has a soldier guarding the place), she manages and now we get a menage a trois. (This is where I began to think of Foreman's depiction of the Duchess of Devonshire's life -- she participated in interlocking menages a troist). Now things really begin to swim. Too's parties are just superb. He is so pleased.
Have I said enough? Saturnine, jaundiced is the tone underlying the cool tones in which this flat narrator retells this admired life of the grandmother.
It isn't true that this and the next tale are unlike Jhabvala's earlier work. There have been novels which attempt politics outside the home as experienced by women . An early one, Get Ready for the Battle which really focuses on the desperately impoverished of India; it's unusual, but it has characters like Sumitra in it. A more recent one is more in the manner of this: The Three Continents takes place on more than one continent and focuses on the supposedly sophisticated Harriet (a much more obviously unreliable narrator). The Three Continents received poor notices, partly because it's unlike the stories of downtrodden women or sexually- enthralled women or wandering promiscuous women Jhabvala is most known for. They are the popular ones. The cast for The Three Continents is the same semi-modern set of this week's two tales. The theme of The Three Continents (which has gotten some perceptive criticism, the sort that appears in academic journals) has been called "self-disinheritance" and I'll suggest that is at the core of "Independence." Self-disinheritance.
The next story is the companion of "Independence" -- its theme is global disinheritance, and we see its flotsam and jetsam, the characters who should not be called victims as after all they eat and sleep well and live in nice houses and are admired by the hoi polloi.
"Development and "Progress," Tale 4: Flotsam and Jetsam
This second tale is also told through a first person narrator. Thinking about Penny's response to the conventional definitions of narration, I'd say Kitty veers towards reliability. Unlike the 19th century reliable narrator, she does not produce judgements, but the stance is one where accurate pictures are produced for us to look at, and they have a lot of detail withheld from Tale 1 or continually distorted in Tale 3. Thus I suggest that though the point of view is apparently that of a first person, the effect of the story is more 3rd person, and that does resemble our second tale. Kitty gives us a panorama, and she is silently gifted (as I wrote last week these devices are a sort of game the reader agrees to accept) with insight into what others say and feel as if she were a third-person narrator.
It's not pedantic to go on about this as Jhabvala's art is central to the conveyance of her vision. The terms (however we may use or argue over them) help us talk about the conventions of the fiction and help us pay attention to the art, not just the content. All too often on Yahoo lists people ignore the art which is inseparable from content. In looking at the facts about or the form a work takes you look at the work. Thus when the narrator is not nameless but her name is not told immediately and then not brought back until towards the end of the tale when ironies play over the usual romance name of heroines (Katherine), this connects her to the nameless narrators of other romance fiction -- and say the nameless narrator of Heat and Dust who appears equally jetsam and flotsam on the sea of life.
The same techniques of chronology in the tale are done. Right up front we are brought into the present; nothing is withheld so quickly we foresee the failures at the end of the tale. It's important that the suicide of one of the central women occurs at its center: after that, all the talk about her apparently happy or successful existence is shaped by our knowledge she killed herself. Jhabvala does this a lot in her tales. Tells us the endings quickly in throw-away lines.
A neutral first person which feels like a third person is needed too: this tale is larger than "Farid and Farida:" it just bursts with characters and incidents. It's full enough to make 3 very fat volumes were it to have been written up in Victorian style. She just pours out happenings, events in single lines that seem to project out a world of thought and feeling we could go into had we the time. The thrown-away nature of the text is part of its meaning. These people throw themselves away. But the effortlessness of it is the mark of the full mature artist. The suggestiveness of the detail reminds me of Austen, only here it's in control and self- consciousness (as it's not in Austen -- at least not all the time).
As I said, my take on the story is Jhabvala's shows us the unreality of even asserting development and progress. This story has helped me to understand why we are asked to feel positive towards the wandering promiscuous heroines who drop everyone: it's a rhetorical stance in part. I still don't quite understand it but can see why such a heroine would not want what we have in front of us here. These are not the disaffected young, oh no: they involved in transcendant internationalism and are not tricksters and scoundrels themselves -- or if they are (in effect) living such lives, they don't mean to. That's not what they meant at all. Like last week I find myself remembering lines from T. S. Eliot's Wasteland.
I'm more interested in the subgenre here: I suggest that we have another tale with an array of heroines who have made different life choices, solutions to the problem of surviving and existing in the modern world. More traditional versions of this (the earliest in fact) are De Stael's Delphine; O'Faolain's My Dream Of You is a recent example we've read on this list; Byatt does this kind of thing (though the women do not support one another); Wharton in her New York stories; Nafisi did it in little in her introduction and use of the young women students she had in her book. We don't see this that clearly since the narrative technique is so serpentine and circular.
The big "winner" is Pushpa -- as I wrote she's resembles imperceptive and unsympathetic takes on Wollstonecraft: the ambitious successful woman. She was "different from other girls," they're "bright and intelligent," she's "brilliant." She's one of these women who is a first: first to pass this exam; she's at this place and that; all this had given her "a very authoritative manner and a loud voice that drowned out every argument." She's "respected," but not liked. One of your "forceful personalities." Given the irony with which Jhabvala treats her I wonder what Jhabvala would think of our commemorations of women of achievement. I admit I'm getting a little sick of my calendar of Women Who Dared: it's often absurd. It commemorates the marriage of Yoko Ono to John Lennon; circus stunt tricks, the first appearance of the Barbie doll. It doesn't look to see the woman on the Challenger died at a young age for Public Relations.
Pushpa is comically what we are told we should be: she advocates the middle course when it comes to love and marriage and tradition:
" .. but for goodness sake, nothing rash, no elopement! Let the parents have the say to which they are entitled. Since her arguments are delivered with more cogency ...."
Doubtless had she married she would've had a small wedding and invited all the people who expected to come to such an event. Offending no one, leaving no one out ....
Sanjay does not want to marry Pushpa. I likened him to the Kerry doll in US politics. "He sincerely felt that the good of his country depended on people like himself and Pushpa, in charge of its development and progress." Vast delusions here about the nature of how the world works. But then he needs them or how would he spend his life the way he does.
Perhaps people will have a favorite heroine or want to talk about the different fates. They are not very well differentiated. But then Jhabvala's purpose is not to make individuals.
I don't like Kitty best, but we do get to know her best and she hits what I'll call the choral tonic note. She's chorus. There's lots of jokes everywhere; so that she ends up working for the BBC World Service is a joke too: a joke about the BBC which is not that funny when you think about its original ideals. But she survives, gets a little house. She presents the talk of others. Sanjay often visits her and his talk is to be taken more or less straight or at surface value at many moments of their conversations. "Poor Ratna, what a tragedy she died so young" he says. He bursts out in misery and disappointment when he has to say that the people who replaced the upper class British types with their classical ideals but fatuous and ultimately selfish behavior are no better: they reflect their constituencies: they can hardly read or write (or think); they love to go on luxury trips, harass the staff with their egos and do no good either (p. 83). Of course others carry on imitating the British. This is an important speech dropped casually towards the end of the tale in the way of the suicide.
I've been on lists where people write in about the characters arguing this or that about their fates. We could do this for each of the women but I myself feel I'd be hearing Jhabvala saying to us, the indifference of their fates is the point when we put each against the scrim of the women in the final paragraph. Not that it doesn't matter to each of the characters what happened to them. We are supposed to care. This is another tragic story in the vein of "Farid and Farida" only this time it is woman-centered.
A subgenre -- the array of women in a women- centered narrative -- has been made to carry large political meanings. I suggest this was done through the distancing serpentine narrative.
And when I got to the end I found myself remembering the closing line of "The Great Gatsby:" "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Date: Sat, 29 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Independence:" Tale 3, New Delhi (2): Self-disinheritance
Good Day All --
To put in my two cents on "Independence." Here are some of my thoughts:
Before I begin let me add, that I agree with Ellen -- form does dictate content and content does dictate form (and thus the form of the art is just as important as the art -- while I don't think I'm knowledgeable enough to offer a traditional literary interpretation of Jhabvala's art from in this story -- I will offer my two cents on some intriguing things, at least to me, that she does with respect to form in this story.)
1) I agree with the irony of the title -- although I think it does invite us to consider which character is "independent" if any. I say this because in some respects Kuka seems to be the most independent on a literal and figurative level -- she's independent of her grandmother's story (vis-a-vis) filming it -- she's distant from it (and thus, does not have to pay the price that her mother paid -- the shame when women do what Sumitra did -- although we are invited to think that Sumitra's sexual escapades are just that -- and why not have a little fling when one desires) and because she is a "third generation" women, Jhabvala invites us to consider that perhaps, just perhaps, Kuka is at least more independent in her choices.
2) I found it extremely interesting that we begin with Kuka -- she's filming a documentary of her grandmother, a grandmother we're told who is old, senile (?) but at any rate a shadow of the woman she once was (descriptiondescribtion here -- figuratively -- the choices she made have worn at her in one way or another.) The rest of the story then lapses into Sumitra's story (Monica's story intermingles as well) -- but Kuka disappears. Intriguing. I might buy that the rest of theKuka'sis Kutri's documentary, but the story is not told in documentary form, although arguably we are invited to believe that this is the documentary or at the very least why Kuka wants to tell the story. Kuka then disappears from the story -- to the best of my knowledge -- she all but disappears which raises the question: Whose story is this? (If we begin with a character, then we assume that the story belongs to that character.) Now to think a bit about art form and the art -- thisintriguingtstrategystragety Jhabvala took -- at least from my writerly prospective. If Kuka disappears, why does she? Is she to be lost behind the camera so to speak? Or can she disappear because it is her grandmother's struggachievementsvements that have paved the way so that Kuka is in a position of "independence" to film and to make art? The questions this form invites are indeed provocative. Further, it's also interesting to note that Sumitra has a traditional Indian name, Monica a traditional western name as it were, and Kuka, well, she can wear the Indian name -- there's a sense that Kuka has gained something beyond her grandmother's story - - and this gain is a direct result of grandma.
3) Sumitra's character, as seen, we are to assume throKuka'sri's lens -- both literally (the camera and as her granddaughter) and figurative -- this lensKurka'sri's -- is intriguing. What's even more interesting with respect to lens -- is that the story is third peromniscientenit all though its desire is to be third person attached -- to Kuka -- but because readers are in and out -- hovering above (again that distance) the narrator must omniscientent, although a limitomnisciencence, arguably. So, who is Sumitra?
4) We're given the private versus the public -- the whispers of Sumitra's success -- not her own, for how can they be (I'm being sarcastic here) (and yet, the subtext suggests loudly that these successes are her own -- especially the UN appointment (I hope I'm not getting stories confused here) -- Sumitra is the penultimate hostess -- she wants to have power and a career (her husband is portrayed as not too terribly motivated) -- and why shouldn't she have these things? The only way she can, of course, given her time acultureure is on the coat tails of men -- and hence, with her bangles jingling and the linen neatly folded, she does the only thing she can do. That said, I don't think we're invited to consider that she sleeps with Too for power or professional gain -- but rathbecausesue she wants to pure and simple -- she seems put out when she can't -- she waits for him --she desires him -- she does this at risk to her family's good name and to her daughter's scorn. I find her the most sympathetic character not only in this story but in the last three as well. I really feel for her -- and I don't think we are invited to think that she uses hsexualityity for power -- if anything, and as Ellen as previously pointed out, her desire for sex has only bitten her on tproverbialbal you know where.
5) Meanwhile back at the ranch, Monica and dad and Too (what a provocative menige-a- trois) play games (doubendentredre intended)-- and Monica is indignant with her mother -- her mother should be a "mother" -- not want sex, power, place in society. How interesting. And Monica's indignation perhaps represents the complex attitudes of change in India and change in general and change in female roles.
The most provocative thing to me in this entire story is that Kuka disappears -- it begs the question of whose story is this -- (Sutria's naturally) it begs the question of why in the heck is Kuka even in the story -- how is she to function? Surely, we could have had the story without her -- and yet, Jhabvala choose to structure the story in this way. The story is not told as if it is a documentary -- but what it wants to document (the truth -- Sumitra wasn't a slut) -- is interesting. It seems, in the end, that this isKuka'ss story -- in some way grandma's storyparallelssKuka'ss, suggesting perhaps that Kuka for all of her illusion of independence still must struggle with the conflicts about sex, power and lies that grandma did - -this is a subtext of course.
Just my musings -- Valerie
Date: Sat, 29 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Independence:" Tale 3, New Delhi (2): Self-disinheritance
I want to thank Valerie very much for all her replies.
I take her central point or query.
It is very interesting that the story is told by Kuku, but I do not see her as at all disappearing. She is there all the time -- telling the story. We are seeing the grandmother from her point of view (we can use different terms for this).
Imagine for a moment the same story told by Monica. I suggested that Monica is very like the traditional submissive, put-upon, heroine of integrity that inhabited this space for a couple of hundred years -- from say Austen's time on. If Monica were to tell the story, the grandmother would emerge as a kind of Lady Susan (Austen's book) or (if people know this one), Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair). I like to put Austen's book there because the vantage would be highly critical and unsympathetic. Sumitra would also emerge as a kind of Lizzie Eustace (to those who know Trollope). It would not be presented on personal grounds, but on ethical though the reader would be led to accept it through ideas about right morality (anti-sex particularly). Or the grandmother could be seen as a kind of Mrs Norris (nasty) or maybe even Rebecca. Monica's telling the tale would be like DuMaurier's second Mrs Winter telling the tale of this strong femme fatale who conquered all.
The whole presentations depends on giving the story to the TV journalist whose values mimick the disinheritance of traditional mores. My way of reading it came out of what I take to be the nuances of the ironies and how the story fits into the whole corpus of Jhabvala's work as well as the subgenre to which it belongs. I quoted a few lines and presented the case of the husband and Monica as well as analogies of lives of other salonieres. The crux lies with the TV journalist. How does the particular reader respond to this journalist? You can read with the journalist or against her. Jhabvala is too clever to let the grain be so rigid you can't move in more than one direction with the nuances.
In the next story we see more exactly how Jhabvala regards such people. Not with any kind of harsh criticism or dismissal or ironies such as Thackeray uses, but as semi-victims themselves.
I know what is needed is analyzing paragraphs to show the voice interacting with the matter. Judy G called her posting last week "voice and narrator" or something like this and maybe that's what we have here too.
I'd call the two stories a pair. Penny asked why start with the ones we started with. I suggest Jhabvala did not want to be so woman-centered to begin with. But I do think these two are not particularly feminist in thrust; you can take the vantage point at the close of The Great Gatsby and it applies without trouble.
We did read a story on Trollope-l which I brought up here which uses this technique where the voice was lost: Gaskell's "The Grey Woman_. The great-grand-daughter's voice did vanish, but not in this case. This is not a manuscript where the narrator falls away.
Re: An Indian Saloniere
Ellen Moody wrote:
I was amused to see that Dorn's saloniere activities were important for her success (given the story we've just read ["Independence"]): "Known for her good looks and humour, Dorn was an astute self-publicist able to attract a fashionable clientele and collaborators-from Noel Coward to Graham Sutherland ..."
Do you know, the connection between Dorn's life and "Independence" didn't strike me at all--but you're quite right. That's a wonderful connection--and the time in which the two women were operating would overlap, too.
Date: Tue, 1 Feb 2005
Subject: Re: [Womenwriters] Jhabvala: "Independence" and "Development and Progress"
Ellen and all --
Kitty's announcement just didn't seem to fit with the narrative as a whole. I wondered what work it did for the story and couldn't really find any. I wasn't sure how we were to read that announcement -- it did cut into the narrative with a sharp edge -- and the interruption was startling -- I mean, really, who Kitty slept with had little if anything to do with the story as a whole, but it seemed as if the narrative wanted to connect this announcement in some way to Kitty's visit with Pushpa --
The only other thing I can come up with is that the only announcments of declaration made in the entire story are when Kitty announces her name and makes the statement about the company of women. It was just interesting, that's all. Valerie
Re: Kitty's sexual orientation
Just back from teaching.
Dear Fran, I wasn't sure what you were getting at beyond the announcement that Kitty's sexual orientation is for women.
Surely this ought to have influenced the tale more. Yet it didn't. We are told almost nothing about Kitty's sexuality.
Re: Kitty's sexual orientation
I thought it may have been to illustrate the ultimate pointlessness and futility of the youthful rivalry between Kitty and Pushpa that their common interest in Sanjay had engendered - or that the interest had been fueled by the rivalry in the first place.
Re: Kitty's announcement
On Tuesday, February 1, 2005, at 12:52 PM, Valerie Stevens wrote:
Kitty's announcement just didn't seem to fit with the narrative as a whole. I wondered what work it did for the story and couldn't really find any.
Hmmm... the "announcement" comes as Sanjay is visiting her after many years. I read it as a caution to the reader, "This isn't going to be a romantic reunion, so don't bother to look for that." It also says something about their friendship--if he still comes by to reminisce, knowing he isn't going to rekindle any old flames, we can assume that their friendship as young people was more than a flirtation--or at least that the power of the moment when Independence seemed exciting cemented a relationship between them--it was an intimacy shared.
At least, that's how the announcement worked for me in the story.
Date: Sun, 30 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Independence," "Development and Progress"
My impression of these stories is more and more that you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Those who cling to the more traditional ways - usually the men - are often portrayed as weakly decadent, drunk or resigned; those who succeed in the 'new' India are criticised and scorned for their opportunism and materialism.
Hi Fran and everyone,
I'm feeling a bit guilty because I haven't got round to reading this week's stories yet (I have read 'Independence' but didn't take it in very well) but I think that "damned if you do and damned if you don't" feeling is very much what I got from the second of last week's stories, 'Farid and Farida'.
Farid and Farida (I liked Valerie's point about the similarity of their names, which reminded me of Tweedledum and Tweedledee) seem to keep on swapping places in their allegiance to the new or more traditional ways, but there isn't much hope anywhere - as others have said, Farida's stint as a holy woman seems to be just as bound up with money as her failed business ventures in London, and, at the end, she is only too eager to head back there for more money-making. Equally, Farid's decision to stay in India seems more like a continuation of his drinking and opting out of life than any real embracing of a spiritual realm. At the ending I thought it was just as likely that he would end up going back to London as it was that she would really return to go up the mountain with him.
I'm off now to read this week's stories - I think Jhabvala is an interesting writer and would like to thank Ellen for suggesting her books.
All the best,
Date: Thu, 03 Feb 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Independence
I've enjoyed following all the detailed and fascinating postings on the list about this week's stories, but find it hard to think of much to add to what has been said.
I've just reread 'Independence' and agree with many of the comments others have made - I like Leslie's comment about how the story shows the impossibility of fully knowing anyone else's story. I suppose in that sense it ties in with some of the discussions we've had here about the inevitable fictional element in biography, the way you have to guess and make connections and maybe sometimes get it all wrong. It seems obvious to Kuku and Monica that of course Sumitra must have slept with the Milkman - but, in fact, she didn't.
What struck me about Harry and Sumitra is that again we have a reversal of the traditional male/female roles, as with Farid and Farida or Judy and Bal in A Backward Place. But in some ways here the reversal is even more marked. Sumitra chooses Harry as, following stereotyped behaviour, a man in her sort of social position might be expected to choose a wife, for his good looks and how he will look on her arm. I don't get the impression she is really interested in his opinions, or in the poetry which he stops writing after a while.
She is the wooer and the one who takes the lead in the outside world, while, again like the traditional wife, "more and more he preferred to stay at home and cultivate his own interests." She also goes on to have the equivalent of a mistress and to force her own daughter into a "suitable" marriage.
Although I can see Ellen's point about Harry being another of Jhabvala's male drones, I do feel a certain sympathy for him as I would with a woman in the same situation, feeling trapped and turning to drink to escape from reality. However, he does really have more choices. After all - he is a man, with the greater freedom that gives, and there's also the awareness running all through the story that all the main characters are rich and privileged.
For me that is one of the many ironies which, as Ellen pointed out, are there in the title 'Independence' - the fact that the ordinary people who are supposed to benefit get lost in all this wheeling and dealing, and aren't invited to all these vitally important parties and dinners. How much does the independence mean to them?
Something that puzzles me about the story is what readers are supposed to make of Too's view about the minister and his refusal to take the job Sumitra has wheedled for him. My reaction is that Too and Harry are right to object - they see the financial scandal coming, even though she doesn't - but is it possible to exist in that political climate without getting her hands dirty? This really is a question - I'm puzzled as to how to react.
I especially liked Ellen's point about how Sumitra's eating habits at the end shows the greed which has been there all along in other areas.
All the best,
Date: Thu, 3 Feb 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Independence
'Something that puzzles me about the story is what readers are supposed to make of Too's view about the minister and his refusal to take the job Sumitra has wheedled for him. My reaction is that Too and Harry are right to object - they see the financial scandal coming, even though she doesn't - but is it possible to exist in that political climate without getting her hands dirty? This really is a question - I'm puzzled as to how to react.'
I think Too does find this kind of politicking very distasteful, but it might also be that when push comes to shove he is yet another man of this social strata who would rather stick to the traditional ways. Prior to refusing, he has also aligned himself more and more with Harry and Monica, sign, too, of his growing distancing of himself from Sumitra as a lover.
There's also a bitter irony in that adhering to the old ways literary kills him: instead of throwing in his lot with the modern brigands, he goes back home to indulge in the traditional sport of chasing the old-fashioned outlaw and is shot for his pains. Another Jhabvala lose/lose situation.
IMany thanks for this, Fran. I suppose it once again comes to that damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario - whether you get your hands dirty by delving into the real political world, as Sumitra does, or sit at home and shelve responsiblility, like Harry and Too (who turns out to be in some ways similar to the other Harry, as his name suggests...)
IIt hadn't struck me until reading your posting that sticking to the old ways is what kills him.
Date: Fri, 4 Feb 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'Development and Progress'
Thank you for all your insights into these stories, Judy.
The ending of this story you quote made a very strong and unsettling impression on me, too.
I couldn't help wondering if Jhabvala was thinking of the effects of such charismatic figures as Indira Gandhi on similar publics despite the actual realities and the many scandals that accompanied her adminstration.
Date: Sat, 29 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Development and "Progress," Tale 4
Good Day All --
Out of all the stories, "Development and Progress" seemed to puzzle me the most -- not on the surface level, and not with respect to the questions it invited me to consider with respect to a) romance/love is dangerous (this seems to be a running theme, at least to me, in the stories we've read to date); b) West versus East clash and although it was noted before that the difference in the ideologies merely illusion, the text, at least wants to invite readers to consider that there is a divide of sorts -- or a slight difference that the characters must negotiate in some way - hence why Kitty feels like an outsider.
The questions the story invited me to consider with respect to Kitty and Pushpa (I found Sanjay's character gratuitous in a way -- a self-aware male that seemed like a flat character to me -- a character trying too hard to please everyone -- and not seeing anything.)
Of course, it was interesting to note that Pushpa is seen as dangerous for being outspoken (women who speak their minds in public get that lovely label attached to them) -- Pushpa is described as plain and not beauty -- again the typical stripping of femininity if one is to be successful, which we learn that Pushpa is in the end. And hence the irony of "Development and Progress" -- although progress has been achieved, at what cost -- Pushpa and Kitty have to accept an all or nothing situation -- career or attachment (although we learn later that Kitty is a lesbian.)
It is interesting to note that "doors (are) held open for (them) all the way" as Pushpa and Kitty go to the rally -- and that women are at this rally more than men (if any men.)
And as we've been thinking a bit about art form and content -- this story like the previous begins with Kitty (although in the plural) -- so, to that end the story should belong to her -- it doesn't -- it belongs to everyone in the story -- the story becomes Pushpa's in the end -- and Kitty's story melts away -- the only thing about Kitty we learn of importance is the side remark that she prefers women and that Sanjay ignores this fact -- that was very interesting -- why the off side comment -- why say it anyway? What work is it doing in the story as a whole? Does it matter? Is it a symbol of the unity of women seen at the end? That the only way Kitty can achieve connection/relationships (her friends' relationships/marriages have failed dramatically) is with another female? It's provocative to say the least.
Well, those are my two cents -- have a good day, all, Valerie
Re: Jhabvala and Austen
I've read Valerie's postings and my general reply would be that she's reading against the grain frequently. It's important to acknowledge when we do this in my view. I do it frequently: how else endure a good deal in Trollope? Though these two stories are women-centered, I'd say they are very ambivalent when it comes to regarding feminist issues as central to having a good life or creating a decent world.
On the other hand, I did reread the first story and looking carefully I would agree Kuku does disappear in the last section of the story. Vanishes. I'd say Jhabvala has lost control there -- reminding me of the occasionally really malicious descriptions by Austen of characters she detests (often older powerful women or ruthless sexy or just amoral ones, Mrs Norris, Maria Bertram from Mansfield Park, Mrs Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood from S&S)
I'm now into Gooneratne's Silence, Exile and Cunning, and have discovered at several points she analyzes a Jhabvala text in terms of an Austen one. She argues that Jhabvala has consciously developed her art in terms of the same subgenre as Austen's, and uses analagous techniques. As with a couple of Wharton's novels, you can even draw close parallels between a couple of Jhabvala's fictions and Austen's.
More interesting though is her analysis of Jhabvala's artistry and language and tone. Gooneratne suggests that the "subacid" tone and "a habit of ironic undercutting within a sentence" characterizes both the art of Austen and Jhabvala. In this case she quotes a line from Jhabvala's description of an Indian party in Get Ready for Battle:
"These being modern times, many people had brought their wives, who sat in a semi-circle at one end of the room and sipped pineapple juice."
These being modern times. You -- defined as male - bring your wife. She gets to sit in a semi-circle and sip this exquisite juice.
I'm going to pick out less subtle versions of this kind of thing in our two stories:
"Development and Progress:" "others, like Gita's painter friends, were developing a whole new line of indigenous culture, exploring the depths of their Indian souls."
Exploring the depths of their Indian souls.
Like Swift (and Defoe) in the very earliest uses of the unreliable narrators in straight satire (A Modest Proposal where Swift advocates getting rid of the Irish problem by killing all the babies and eating them; The Swiftest Way With Dissenters where Defoe advocates exterminating them) towards the end of both stories Jhabvala allows herself more pointed ironies. So at the opening of "Development and Progress" we have
"They had two cards which they loved to drive, one hand lightly on the steering wheel, the other, holding a cigarette."
That line recalls the quiet one by Austen where she pictures Lydia Bennet putting her acquired wedding ring outside the carriage. Now I've read people on Austen-l say that's fine and they don't see anything wrong in that, and more power to her. But that's not what Austen means us to feel at all. At the close of "Development and Progress" we have the devastating portrait of the women in the crowd ("bruised with beatings, some with their noses cut off ...") listening to the "successful" Pushpa saying "whatever they wanted to hear". So for some development and progress is fancy characterful cars (debt too) and showing off your leisured hands to yourself.
The same thing happens in "Independence:" at the opening Kuku describes Sumitra relatively positively and only a few interjections are allowed in parentheses and in the overt descriptions of her Sumitra's greed, or throwaway tucked in lines: "Monica ... ignored Sumitra's resenment: now, at fifty [she could]". At the end she alludes to Milton to get the shaping across: "Although squat as a toad in his politician's homespun garb, he transformed himself into a screen heroine with a wet garment clinging to her body, combing the long tresses that cascaded down her lips." This is not subacid; this is acid. It was Satan who sat squat as a toad at Eve's ear. The man phonily dressed in nationalistic traditional garb combined with supersexy visibilia (advertising). Harry has come way down -- but of course he was low already or to begin with.
Looking carefully in this last section this is where Kuku does disappear. Jhabvala has gotten so involved in her detestation of what's she's writing. For example, this is not Kuku but Jhabvala as narrator:
However, Monica always denied that her marriage had been arranged.
Jhabvala wants to show us the hypocrisies Monica naturally resorts to to cover up just how miserable and powerless her existence has been from the start -- and continues to be. She has still Sumitra's resentment to deal with when the old woman is decrepit. And then we get it straight:
"'It was because I was so unhappy,' she explained to her daughter, Kuku. 'Because of Mummy and what she had done to me.'"
Kuku would herself never present this material. And lots of unironic descriptions Jhabvala assumes we will be appalled by: "some of them were bureaucrats or judges" (just imagine their "compassion" or understanding), "some were alcoholics like Harry, some dead like Too."
Of course the ironic technique depends on the reader reading with the values of the writer in mind. LIke Austen, Jhabvala leaves lots of wriggle room, flexibility, but only so far.
The Nature of Passion by Jhabvala -- one I've not read -- is another which Gooneratne makes sense of by aligning it with Austen's novels and techniques, and particularly Mansfield Park. Again (this early) Jhabvala is depicting "a society" which has no ethical standards worth the words (or for real): here she finds a central woman character who closely resembles Mrs Norris ('meddling, bullying and petty tyrannies which make life a burden for Fanny Price").
The key is the turning of the kaleidoscope so these types so characteristic of women's fiction are seen again through modern lens but the original formulation based on universalist ethical standards is not lost. Now the Rebecca or saloniere character so disliked in earlier fiction is presented through the eyes of a journalist, not her daughter. And she's at the center, not in the margins. And she's not punished except by age -- bad enough that. Indeed she lives the "enjoyable" life (the word is used ironically early on - so it's as this is understood by human beings generally). Universalist meaning things like kindness, nothing particularly ideological.
I'm reading critical books alongside our stories. I think to myself I will eventually use Jhabvala for teaching. What I need to do is pair it with a good text by a woman.
If I ever decide to take another of these introduction to literature courses I'll pair Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Teheran with Diderot's La Religieuse (The Nun). Really.
For Jhabvala it will depend on what's in print. It seems that in fact her books are not popular. Except for the Booker Prize winner one (always an exception as this advertising tool is powerful -- to buy the book confers caste on the reader), they fall out of print pretty quickly or become cheap. Out of India, the group of powerful short stories (so powerful and subversive I dare not choose them) is the other exception. It seems to me kept in print and read by the critics who enjoy her. I wish screenplays were made available, but that only happens when the eponymous book has an author who is a cult figurre. Irony upon ironies.
Date: Sun, 30 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Independence," "Development and Progress"
What stands out for me in these stories is a good treatment of a historical moment and it's aftermath. There are generations, specific groups of people in specific times, who feel like they have a golden opportunity to make a better world, at whatever scale that fits--think 1968, think South Africa ten years ago, think Beijing for a few weeks in 1989. The independence of India was one of those moments for the generation of young, Western-educated Indians set to move into government jobs in the new India, set to lead cultural organizations and social reform movements. They believed a prosperous India would happen--not with a passion, but with a certainty that this was the next logical step.
It didn't--it was just a moment--and they live through the aftermath of seeing the ugly compromises are inevitable in such positions, except by dropping out of them entirely (an option some of these characters select). I like that both these stories cover this territory with such different tales. I'm told there are a number Israeli writers who take up similar themes--what we thought we'd accomplish with Independence, what we did accomplish instead, and how we changed our methods and goals in the process.
The Indian women I work alongside daily are of Kuku's generation--their own parents were children at the time of Independence, and tell tales of Partition from a child's point of view. The Sumitra generation is, indeed, being lost to the present memory. When I was researching our birthday post for Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900-1990--so a bit older than the characters in these stories, Sumitra and Pushpa would have been maybe twenty years younger than Pandit), I found a website showing a small Indian-American girl dressed as Pandit for Halloween--this is where memories of such figures are residing now among Indians in America.
Date: Sun, 30 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Independence," "Development and Progress"
Brief reply to Penny,
Yes in 1947 there were idealists going to Israel and an idealistic movement (particularly in the communitarian farming and social arrangements in kibutzem -- wholly mispelled probably). It reminds me of how sex education programs in the US originally intended to disseminate genuine information and teach about contraceptives and drugs are now often religiously-controlled and preach abstinence.
One thing I thought about reading both tales was how around the time -- midnight some say -- of the split between India and Pakistan at the time the British left was an immediate horrendous slaughter. This is (as all probably know) the subject of Rushdie's first famous novel, Midnight's Children. This does not come up even suggestively in Jhabvala's stories. I'd see this absence or silence as an indication of her elitist connections, except that she spent a formative adolescence in Germany, lost most of her relatives to extermination camps so nationalism's results are not something that would escape her notice.
Date: Sun, 30 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] "Independence," "Development and Progress": Damned if you do, damned if you don't, romance is dangerous
My impression of these stories is more and more that you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Those who cling to the more traditional ways - usually the men - are often portrayed as weakly decadent, drunk or resigned; those who succeed in the 'new' India are criticised and scorned for their opportunism and materialism.
Jhabvala has developed a bit of a stock character - the physically unpreposing but intelligent man - Sunil - or woman - Pushpa (nomen est omen) - who succeeds in a society that has thrown out the baby with the bathwater by adjusting to the new and making the nostalgia for the old work for them.
One of the most striking and telling scenes for me is in 'Independence' when Harry is dragged down from drunkenly declaiming classical Indian verse while the the toad-like Minister is being fawned on for rendering a popular Bollywood song. Ellen has already described the way he visibly takes on the curvaceous aspect of female filmstar - in a kind of gender inversion becoming pimp and vamp in one.
Ellen has also been making comparisons to Austen and other books of the period. I've been struck by the way popular film functions in the these stories in the same way as reading novels did in those times, i.e., it is often referred to as a pernicious influence giving women ill-considered romantic ideas and helping to subvert social and moral standards.
On Sunday, January 30, 2005, at 11:26 AM, Fran wrote:
Pushpa (nomen est omen)
I was wondering about that--Jhabvala probably chose the name for its western echoes with "pushy," but Pushpa's a pretty common Indian woman's name, meaning "Flower." Variations include: Pushpita is "decorated with flowers," Pushpanjali, "flower-offering," etc.
Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2005
Subject: Re: [Womenwriters] "Independence," "Development and Progress"
Good morning, All, hope all is well with you and yours:
I agree with Fran that Jhabvala's stories (at least the first four that we've read) do invite us to consider that "romance" is dangerous; "change" is dangerous; and there is a "damned if you do; damned if you don't" undercurrent.
If I had to hazard a guess, I'd guess that Jhabvala had a hand in arranging these stories -- I see an arc, and as someone else pointed out (sorry, I forget whom) the women in these stories are on a road from dependence toward "independence" to the extent that "independence" can be imagined and achieved.
I have some guesses as to how the second part of the book might read (I haven't read any stories from that section yet)-- or some of the thematic issues it might invite us to consider -- I don't see any real independence happening in New York -- but we'll see. Just a guess here on my part from someone who is very interested in the structure of a book and its arc.
I've been thinking more about Kuta's narrative disappearance with respect to Penny's observation of contemporary Indian women around Kuta's age -- ahh, does that shed some light on why Jhabvala has Kuta disappear? Is she to be read as a metaphor/symbol for this third generation of women and the matriarchal tradition, for better or worse, that they carry in their bodies/memories? Hence her disappearance. Just musing.
Finally, I wonder what people think about Kitty's announcement in "Development and Progress" that she (and I may be misquoting here -- my book is at home) --that she "prefers the company of women" -- this is said to Sunjay or Kitty suggests that Sunjay is aware of this. The phrasing, if I have it correct, is intriguing -- it invites multi-layered meanings -- she prefers the company of women -- they're more interesting perhaps than men; then the line could also imply "company" with a sexual connotation.
I found this moment highly intriguing -- the tone of it, how the phrase interrupts the narrative. Up until now there's been no direct declarative statement from Kitty about her desires/wants/ or how she sees the world -- yes, she alludes to these things through her observations and some of her actions/comments i.e. not running after Sunjay as his sisters encourage her -- but never this moment of declaration -- of ownership of self-hood as it were. When Kitty narrates we see the world through the details she offers us -- and rarely, if ever, (I think there's one other moment when she tells Sunjay that her name is Katherine (?) in repsonse to his suggesting that she needs a more "adult" (?) name) -- but other than these two moments - Kitty interacts with the narrative -- but mostly she functions as an observer.
Might it be argued that the line seems out of place all most within the structure of the entire narrative? What work does this information do other than to cloud the narrative and to set the record straight that Kitty does not want Sunjay (or perhaps metaphorically Kitty as England will not pounce on Sunday, India, a la Colonialism --but even that reading is a stretch.) I found that moment interesting -- a moment perhaps no more than the narrative announcing -- okay, folks, no "romance" here between Sunjay and Kitty -- but nevertheless - what would have happened if we didn't have this announcement?
It does invite an interesting reading when that statement is juxtaposed next to Kitty's visit with Pushpa -- the sexual tension, at least from Pushpa's side, is there, even if it's a mere ripple beneath the surface, and one has to wonder Kitty's motives for the visit -- other than to catch up with an old friend etc. The timing doesn't seem convenient as Pushpa is quite busy. So, either this is a flaw in the narrative structure -- a place where we can see the author and her marionette strings moving the characters to her will -- making the point about the unity of women as in the last scene -- or something else is at stake -- any thoughts?
Date: Mon, 31 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Independence
My copy of Jhabvala has been recalled, so I have to return it to the library today, and hope to get it back in time to continue with the discussion. So my comments on this week's stories will have to be brief.
To me it seemed less like Kuku disappeared for the last part of the story, than that the story had an ominiscient narration that included telling us about Kuku's attempt to get to know her grandmother and make a film about her--that's part of the narration, as is what Kuku knows about Sumitra. We learn many things about Sumitra that Kuku doesn't know, that no one knows--things that died with their participants, and no one knows all of it except Sumitra--and she's not telling. Kuku thinks that Sumitra had many lovers--her mother, Monica, has told her that, is bitterly convinced of that. For Kuku, that's part of Sumitra's appeal--she was sexually liberated. But the only lover Sumitra seems to have had is Too, with whom she had a passionate affair, but Monica doesn't know that her mother slept with Too--she thinks of Too as her father's friend, and as her friend, not as her mother's. Monica says to her daughter that her mother was promiscuous, that she slept with the Minister/the Milkman, among others. But she didn't. Monica's view of her mother is distorted, and Kuku's is distorted through Monica's. Monica hates her mother for driving her beloved father to drink, for making him, an educated and cultivated man, a pitiful drunk and a failure in the world--a grossly distorted and oversimplified version of what went wrong with Harry and his world, but exactly the view a child torn between unhappily married parents--one strong and successful and resented, the other weak and a failure and loved--would have. The very behaviour that Monica so condemns--the sexual promiscuity, sleeping with lower-class men, the political hostessing and self-aggrandisement that kept her away from her family and home--these are exactly the things Kuku admires her for. But the irony is that much of it Sumitra didn't even do. If Monica despises her mother for some false reasons, then Kuku admires her for some false reasons, too. The real Sumitra is different than both contemptuous daughter and admiring granddaughter think she was. Her silence and inability/refusal to talk to Kuku then make more narrative sense, I think. and this reading also makes the apparent movement of Kuku in and out of the story more considered and functional. She'a a character, whose knowledge of Sumitra is partial and flawed, not the consciousness through which the whole story flows. Perhaps part of what the story is about is the impossibility of knowing our mothers, about the changes in the world that make them unknowable to us, and the child's view that permanently distorts our view of our parents, for good or ill. Maybe the impossibility of knowing anyone truly, of telling someone's story, not matter how well we think we know it or how close we think we are to it. Whatever film Kuku manages to make about her grandmother, if she pulls it off (after all, she's gotten government funding for it), it won't be about the real Sumitra, at all.
I haven't time to say anything about "Development and Progress" before I take the book back to the library. If I had more money right now, I'd have bought the book and not have to worry about someone else recalling it from me!
Re: Jhabvala: "Independence" and "Development and Progress"
In response to Valerie,
On "Independence" -- I think she dropped the interface because it was getting in her way. There are others moments in her books where a first-person narrative creates awkwardness. Sometimes a device can get in the way.
On "Development and Progress:"
Do you mean to say that perhaps we are to take it that Kitty has a lesbian sexual orientation?
The sense in this story of a group of women who know and interact with one another and also as friends support one another is unusual for Jhabvala. But then most of the time she does not show us these modern Indian women types. Most of her stories have more traditional women and they are seen as preying on one another, as rivals, as alienated from one another, for the most part looking suspiciously and protecting themselves from one another.
I read the line about Katharine as a deliberate allusion to the old-style heroine of romance. No more Katharines. The "new" woman is a Kitty (nickname).
In response to Fran,
Going back to a thread we had a long time ago -- at the time of our read of Sayers's Gaudy Night, would you agree that Jhabvala writes from the motherly prudential perspective? I feel she does. Heat and Dust exposes the delusions of being enthralled by demon lovers as sheer foolish (naive) romance.
In response to Leslie,
Your whole analysis of the real Sumitra as opposed to the one Kuku conjures up and the one Monica detests is brilliant. It seems to me central to the tale. We have then two unreliable tale-tellers (daughter and mother). I would agree the story is about "the impossibility of knowing anyone truly, of telling someone's story, not matter how well we think we know it or how close we think we are to it." It is a story about the inevitable and unresolved (unresolvable conflicts of generations: the interests of mother and daughter are opposed; they bump (to use Athol Fugard's metaphor) against one another continually. Deceit is endemic and necessary to protect each from the other. I didn't see the story so much as a child's view but yes.
You wrote a beautiful sensitive detailed piece on this one. I hope you can get the book back. At GMU it's rare that a book is called for :)
I'm wondering if Leslie agrees with me -- and Laurie Sucher and Yasmine Gooneratne as well as other critics who say in passing how Austenish is Jhabvala's art? I know Leslie did her dissertation on Austen and her way of reading the story reminds of Austen criticism when it's at its best -- except Austen is much more satiric, less sheerly psychologized than Jhabvala and we cannot be sure what she is deliberately doing in the same way. I also feel the stance towards reality -- apparently distanced and cool yet critical and unsentimentally emotional very like Austen's. Austen though (I'd say) writes from a daughterly perspective: she identifies with the romancing girl not the mother (she mostly criticizes mothers sharply).
Re: Kitty a lesbian
On Monday, January 31, 2005, at 09:51 PM, Ellen Moody wrote:
On "Development and Progress:"
Do you mean to say that perhaps we are to take it that Kitty has a lesbian sexual orientation?
I assumed this to be the case. This passage seemed pretty straightforward on the subject:
"It was many years since I had had any such regrets about him; and anyway, in the meantime I had discovered that I preferred women to men. No doubt he was too worldly not to suspect this, but he was also too tactful to give any sign that he did."
Date: Fri, 04 Feb 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] 'Development and Progress'
I've now reread 'Development and Progress' (I'm finding I have to read these stories at least twice to take them in...) and have also been wondering about the significance of Kitty's brief mention of her sexuality.
At first I wondered if the reason for this was again to give the feeling that nobody can truly know anyone else's story, as in the previous tale.
But now I'm thinking perhaps another reason for this is, at least partly, that this knowledge of what comes later ironically undercuts all the rivalry over Sanjay in the first part of the story. All the main characters think they want things which later are not at all what they expect - with Gita and Ratna's love marriages turning just as sour as Sanjay's arranged one, and Pushpa, who insists she is determined to be a good wife and mother, in fact staying single and concentrating on her career. The "development and progress" take them in different directions from those they start out on.
However, I'm left thinking that many of the most interesting aspects of the story are these later events which are only mentioned so tersely - in particular Ratna's suicide, which is only there on the very edge of the story. The narrator, Kitty, asks: "What is the point of talking about the dismal future that followed those early radiant days" - but I think Jhabvala is aware that the "point" is in the contrast between the two, which gives the title of the story its bitter tone.
The picture that really stays in my mind from this one is Pushpa addressing the crowd of women at the end, with that shocking image of some having had their noses cut off by their husbands. I'm not sure whether we are supposed to take it that Pushpa can offer them any real hope, or whether she is just making them feel better for a few minutes. She is plump while they are probably half- starved - but they still look at her as a mother figure. The fact that she "loves to go on TV" suggests she is in love with the image of herself as a powerful politician and might have forgotten what she is actually supposed to be fighting for - but she still seems a more positive figure as a politician than those in the previous story.
I know these thoughts aren't all that clear - I keep going round in circles a bit about this story.
All the best,
Re: "Independence" and "Development and Progress"
Thank you to Judy and Fran for the thoughtful postings. I find the reason I need ot reread Jhabvala is she includes so many embedded suggestive stories. Her narrative is replete with little stories just thrown off, which if they were developed could provide us with a series of novels. Since she keeps up a coolly ironic tone for the most part, it's hard to tell how you are to respond. The structures of the stories are often circular too, with traumatic text-shaking events not saved up in arch of climax, but instead thrown-off. All this makes for rich stories.
The suicide in "Independence" is central thematically, but it occurs in one or a few enigmatic sentences, and the narrator moves on. The rearrangement is deliberate: the scene as the close of "Development and Progress" is Swiftian: held off until the end, it's the frame that makes these policians into hypocrites.
The death of Too reminded me of activities of the British central characters in Heat and Dust There too we have a big chief (Nawab) who is in reality a thug who sends his men off to steal, destroy and if necessary murder. He represents a deadly obstacle to the British. I didn't see it as dying because he chose to go back to tradition. The irony seemed to be Too's belief in his invincibility. He thinks he is all-powerful. It's his land. He exults with words like "Bang! Bang!" He will shackle these men up and mow them down. Instead cruelty and barbarism is wreaked on him. He is no better than those he is going to suppress. This reminds me of the idea the people in charge of the US armies have that they are the civilizers and they too are being killed, "Bang! Bang!" I see some very pointed political parables. I wonder if we were to think of Indira Ghandi. She was assassinated. Maybe Pushpa too should see her own vulnerability; in fact she does not identify with the woman at the close of the story; she thinks she's above them, invulnerable (look at the outfit).
I just finished this week's stories, and while I feel I'm supposed ultimately to sympathize with the older woman at the center of each tale (Vija and Indu), I'm not sure why we are to sympathize.
Off to bed now,
The text as a cultural artifact
I was thinking about writing as a cultural production/cultural artifact. To quote from Santos: "...we are, whether by stubborn resistance or willing assimilation, the living translation of our literary culture, our reading, our generational disavowals and enthusiasm, our institutional poetry organizations, the editorial boards, literary journals, our real and imagined readers."
While Santos' argument clearly centers around poetic translation, the same arguments can be applied to writing as a cultural artifact. This said, I began to think about Jhabvala and our readings. And if we accept that one way to imagine the text is to imagine it as a cultural artifact, then, going back to our discussion of the necessity of authorial biography and text, in fact, author biography becomes somewhat necessary within this framework. It is necessary, for example, to know that Jhabvala is European versus Indian; it is necessary to know the time she writes the stories (for example, during the actual time that England pulled out of India or after?; did she actually witness this event?). Further, as a European women, one might further argue can she, who metaphorically represents the oppressor, write about the oppressed? Is, in fact, the very act of her writing an extension of this oppression? I'm not necessarily inviting a discussion (although if you all want to continue the discourse, great) -- but rather posing these questions as a way to frame my understanding of text as cultural productions.
Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Dove, beauty, and perpetuating the cultural construction of "female work" Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com
While I know the following comments are a tangent off of the comments with respect to the cultural construction of beauty/costuming and how they oppress women, these comments, nevertheless, have popped into my mind since we began this thread. So, some thoughts:
1. With respect to make-up in the United States -- women began to wear make-up en mass in the 1920's in response to the "movie" stars (their glamor no doubt reinforced the desire to be an object for sexual consumption -- the only value/commodity women have often been allowed to have) and ironically as a rebellious act. Prior to the 1920's, women who wore "make-up" -- other than some very "natural" (remember the 70's -- and the "natural" look -- lol -- what an oxy- moron) looks, were considered, well, umm, ladies of ill repute. In an attempt to own their sexuality during the roaring twenties when women abandoned the bustle for the flapper dress (they traded one evil for another), they also saw wearing make-up and defying the "whore" classification as a way to claim and own their sexuality. Interestingly enough, what was essentially part desire to reinforce the object for consumption and part rebellion has become only a representation of object for consumption. (The rebellion value has been lost, which is interesting.) Now women who don't wear make-up are seen as "suspect" what we are "suspect" of, I'm not quite sure -- (I'm being glib here) but nevertheless suspect. If indeed women in part wore Max-Factor as a way to embrace their sexuality, then why did it turn on us and imprison us? Interesting.
2) When I teach women's studies, and not often enough, my first assignment is to have students research current advertisements targeting women and/or marketing a product that has been "traditionally" associated with women. Two of my favorite examples: a) A bunch of business attired women stand around a toilet bowl, amazed that the "new" product can clean without brushing. The advertisement is obviously targeted to the "working" woman (hence the business attire) who don't have "time" to brush but nevertheless are still responsible for household chores. I just love that these women are so thrilled about the product -- I dare say we should all be this happy. And I haven't a clue, not a smidgen, why there aren't any men in business suits bending over examining the results of the product. I often invite students to consider why the image of a business attired man looking at the toliet bowl might be perceived as "silly" and the fact that it there is such a perception says a lot about the role and value of women in American society; b) In this commercial, a woman comments on how quiet her vacuum cleaner is -- so quiet in fact, she can vacuum while her husband naps -- I nearly fell out of my chair when I saw that one. They've got to be kidding!
Thankfully, I haven't seen either of these advertisements in a long while. But I don't think that's due to any advancement in the cultural construction of women and their value/place in society. Valerie
Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Dove, beauty, and perpetuating the cultural construction of "female work"
In response to Valerie,
It's so interesting when we get new people on our list. People ask or propose new questions one (or I) had never thought about before.
For example, I know that truly "respectable" women in the 19th century did not wear cosmetics. Cosmetics were worn by prostitutes, courtesans and actresses (on and off stage). This shows the connection of actresses to "loose" women which is still operative. Last week I went though Barbara Schermund's cartoons for the 1920s and I did notice a large number showed women before a cosmetic mirror. It just didn't register that this must be a recording of the sudden phenomenal increase of women wearing cosmetics. Again and again we see older women (it's older women, not young ones, but middle-aged ones) staring at themselves in a mirror with a saleswoman next to her encouraging her in whatever she is buying.
When then did respectable women in large numbers start to wear cosmetics? I never thought about this. It was at the same time as Bernice bobbed her hair. At the same time as the corset and constricting dress and bustle were abandoned. One (or I) thinks of the 1920s as a liberating era, but as in the 1970s, this sexual liberation seems to have ended in women being all the more eager objects for the powerful men to cherry pick -- based on notions of beauty. A rebellion became consumption in the 1920s; a rebellion became women utterly available for men in the 1970s.
I can't help but see an analogy from my own experience. No matter what the adjunct lecturer sets up -- no matter what rule or custom or title -- in no time the progress, the step forward, is transformed into just the same exploitation, stigma or a new form of control (sometimes worse than the one that preceded the "reform").
I suggest that what turns groups of people on only to re-imprison them is the implication they will get power from the powerful. And then it is seen not to work.
To return to cosmetics, I suppose that not wearing make-up is seen as ominously suspiciously "suspect" and I do know this -- for each time I have gone on an interview I have put lipstick on. Probably the "big" moment of my life has passed insofar as what's called respect from a larger group of people counts. I gave a lecture to the Trollope Society at the Reform Club. Well I put a suit (black) and white silk blouse on, wore middle sized high heels -- and lipstick -- for the occasion.
The scene at the toilet is priceless. There was this hideous popular commercial on TV for a while. I never saw it, but read about it somewhere. There is this snoopy woman pictured examining the toilets in someone else's (a woman's) house. Who is asked to be guilty here?
On the quiet vaccuum cleaner. The transitional moment for me came when one day I was vaccuuming and my husband (meaning to kid, but I was not amused) being home lifted up his feet. He was half-mocking in the gesture. I thought to myself, I''m no one's squaw. Fuck this. Since then I have not cleaned the house unless he cleans with me. Either we do it together or it doesn't get done. Nonetheless it's I who cleans the toilets. To be fair, he scrubs the shower stall.
On beauty: there was an essay in the American Scientist quite a while back where the writers had done research trying to discover some universalist or general criteria for women's beauty across cultures and time. They came up with the notion that what was considered beautiful was what was clearly very youthful and fecund. In other words, the source of the criteria was a man looking to have progeny through the woman and looking to shore up his sense of his youthfulness. Immortality at the heart of this. But also having children: big breasts, large flat hips, wiry strength are part of the "universalist" criteria for beauty the researchers found.
Obviously again why should a woman sit around worrying if she's beautiful. Men do worry whether they look presentable for promotion and for getting women. Presentability is a very different criteria than beauty. It means not have stigma which show him to be lower class or poorer or non-powerful. But they stop worrying once they achieve stature and money -- until that midlife crisis when they may seek an object which reassures them of their youth -- the object being the younger woman.
Cheers to all,
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Mazo and Me, continued -- and Botox
Dear Diana and all,
Well I didn't know what Botox was until this Christmas.
It was during a conversation my husband and Laura were having that Laura referred to Botox as part of a joke. My husband laughed. I of course didn't get the joke and asked what Botox was. My husband explained it was this compound you could inject whose purpose on the part of the person who submitted to it was to get rid of wrinkles or lines on the face. He said it was basically a paralyzer. You were paralyzing the muscles on the surface of your skin. People who shot themselves up with such stuff would know it interferes with having a genuine expression on their face. Laura's joke was based on this: you can become expressionless. He added it was potentially very dangerous. Obviously. The so-called "side" effects would be unknown. (The word "side" in such contexts is amusing. They are only "side" effects to the person who is concentrating on some other effect of the compound which may in fact be a superficial effect of the drug.)
But it was only a passing conversation and I didn't really think about it again until this thread when suddenly the memory of the conversation floated back into my mind hours after reading the original posting which mentioned it.
The analogies are multiple. Women who put silicon bags in their breasts are risking all the possible effects of major surgery, anaesthesia, complications afterwards, and then, as time goes on, an array of deeply sickening conditions, including ruining their immunity system. I hazard a guess the bags get in the way of actual sexual pleasure and wouldn't be surprized if they also got in the way of breastfeeding -- or made it more difficult.
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Botox , Cultural Divides, and Jhabvala
In continuing to think about how subtle institutional sexism can be (in relation to our conversation about botox, etc), I began to wonder if we are so imprisoned by our cultural ideologies that it is sometimes difficult to tease out how culture does continue to reinforce female oppression through so call beauty practices (although female circumcision is obviously more than a beauty practice -- it is a social practice connected to religious and sexual beliefs) Botox seems to be case and point in Western culture where there are so-called "Botox Parties" -- women gather (and some men) at a plastic surgeon's office, have wine and appetizers and then proceed to have poison injected into their wrinkles. (I love Ellen's observation that Botox erases expression -- or paralyzes it -- what a powerful metaphor for female beauty practices -- most are designed to paralyze us if not physically then emotionally/psychologically.)
Notwithstanding that Botox has legitimate medical applications as someone pointed out with respect to Cerebral Palsy, how different, in consequence and theoretical injury, is Botox from lip plates, female circumcision, etc? Of course, female circumcision has devastating consequences, but the underlying institution behind it resonates with Botox, breast implants, the removing of a rib in the early 1900's, etc. The only difference, it seems to me, is that while Western women are aghast at female circumcision, they might not be so reticent about Botox, for example.
Is it our ideologies that keep us imprisoned, which of course is the argument to have women studies courses etc, knowledge is key. But we are, for better or worse, imprisoned by our ideologies which then shape, influence our institutional practices which then shape and reinforce ideology and the wheel goes round and round. (Which is why it is so difficult to effect social change with respect to any type of equality -- gender or race.)
This discussion about West versus East beauty practices percolates as I read Jhabvala, and all sorts of intriguing questions arise. For one, Jhabvala had a Western background and the privilege to observe Eastern practices. This no doubt shapes the tenor of the project of her stories or how the women characters are shaped. Her characters are created inside of a mind that has been influenced by Western ideology and that has observed Eastern ideology. In many ways, the primary conflict in the Eastern female characters, in the few short stories I've read, is the negotiation of Western ideology and maintaining the cultural construction of Eastern "femininity". Interesting indeed. Valerie
Re: Legends about Corsets
On Monday, January 17, 2005, at 06:14 AM, Valerie Stevens wrote:
the underlying institution behind it resonates with Botox, breast implants, the removing of a rib in the early 1900's, etc.
The last is a widely-believed legend, but there's no reliable, documentary evidence that anyone in the corset era ever actually had a rib removed for a smaller waist. It certainly was never a widespread procedure on par with breast implants or botox. (The recent book by Valerie Steele, The Corset: A Cultural History, Yale University Press 2003, is a more solid reference on this topic than its cover would indicate--Steele is a serious scholar and museum curator.)
Lower ribs are surgically removed today, but most often in folks with a spinal deformity such as scoliosis that makes their rib cage assymetrical--it's an orthopedic procedure that's not casually undertaken by any responsible surgeon (anytime bones are being cut out--and ribs aren't small bones--it's a big deal).
Legends about Corsets
Ahh, thanks for setting the record straight -- Valerie
Legends about Corsets"
Valerie Stevens wrote:
the underlying institution behind it resonates with Botox, breast implants, the removing of a rib in the early 1900's, etc.
The last is a widely-believed legend, but there's no reliable, documentary evidence that anyone in the corset era ever actually had a rib removed for a smaller waist.
The business over what women did or did not do when they wore such strong corsets is much disputed. I've read on Victoria (a list with very respectable academics) divergent information. Surgery is so life-threatening (especially before the 20th century), it's probably not true that women went in for removing ribs, but how far they maimed themselves just with these garments is debated.
As in any area where social approval or disapproval is at stake and individuals have been badly hurt by rejection, ridicule or fear of these, to talk about female beauty is hard. I'm going to be heterodox here -- but consistent with my statement about bodily harm, bodily pain -- when I offer up the idea that the commonly-agreed upon case where a woman has had breast cancer and has had to have her breast(s) removed breast implants, a socially approved instance, is a good example of how we lose perspective. Here one has a woman who has endured intense fear, terrible pain, and doesn't know if the condition will come back, and what does she do? Go in for another painful difficult operation. We're told she feels terrible about herself and we know she has suffered mightily, so it seems very cold and mean to say still this is wreaking pain on the self, risking bad results (now she may have complications from this operation, hurt her immune system on top of her breast cancer), but in fact it is.
Similarly it's socially unacceptable to examine religious rationales coolly and look at their roots in social and cultural practices. The reason vaginal mutilation gains attention is that the results are egregiously bad for the rest of the person's life. I'd agree other practices come out of the same principle, but taking my criteria of pain and harm, vaginal mutiliation is on the pragmatic level I'm looking at things genuinely worse. Physical torture is genuinely worse than subjecting a prisoner to solitary confinement or moral pressure. It seems absurd to measure one kind of pain against another so we don't. But we do recognize degrees of pain and inflicted harm.
The question seems to me to come down to the issue of social conformity and how we are prepared to view this. One of the books I'm going to be doing this coming term is Walter von Tilburg Clarke's very great The Ox-Bow Incident. It ought to be a much more famous "classic" than it is. It's about a lynching. What happens (in short) is three utterly innocent men are lynched; one of the reasons those in the group doing the lynching who are against it and know this is a cruel festival of brutality don't stop it is the need for social conformity. Social pressure makes them give in -- not direct fear but indirect fear. The "heroes" of the tale are in fact not afraid of the lynchers, but they yield to social pressure. The bullying/intimidation is only overt at times. This is one of the strongest elements in Clarke's bold parable about human nature in society.
The question then goes beyond feminism, though feminism came up against this wall. The reiterated implicit idea is that men like women with big breasts, women who can be guaranteed to want to be chaste, women who look young. Men have the power and the money. So women must please in these areas: the criteria for social conformity comes out of a definition of male sexuality dependent on a narrow set of tastes which omit all individuality of relationships, turn people in effect into animals -- which they are at least often not, or at least are not just that. The vaginal mutilation also makes women submissive to older women in authority. Social pressure demands that people submit to those in higher authority over them (parents, teachers, police -- and by extension, physicians).
I don't see these things so much a question of east versus west as variants on patterns which cross cultural boundaries. When I read Jhabvala, I find her stories about Eastern customs are "getting" variants of the same thing in what I've seen or experienced in western ones; it may be that this will be seen as a western mind-set, but you can come across scholarly articles which read western customs as variants of the same thing in the "east." For example, the article I cited earlier on suttees for widows, went into how European people treated widows to show that in the west we find a variant of eastern attitudes, only playing out less aggressively since the early modern period (with its industrialization and some improvement in standards of living). We may see what happens to the average ballerina's feet if she continues in her career for any length of time as analogous to the crippling of women's feet through binding; again the western version seems not as extreme, but if you read about what happens to these women's ankles, maybe not so. Anorexia is a place where the western model is more extreme than the eastern.
Subject: [Womenwriters] Indian film - yet more passion
Although I've admittedly only had time to glance at the beginning of this very long essay, 'Inflamed Passions: Fire, the Woman Question, and the Policing of Cultural Borders' it looked promising enough to pass on the link:
http://genders.org/g32/g32_moorti.html_ (http://genders.org/g32/g32_moorti.ht ml)
It was sent to me by an Indian teacher who shares a similar interest in book and film.
I should perhaps explain that in the course of a more general discussion where I'd mentioned the visible influence of Bollywood on several Hollywood films I'd recently seen, he'd recommended several Indian directors to me, all men. I wrote back telling him I only recognized one, being more familiar with female directors living in the Indian diaspora such as Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha and Deepa Mehta.
One of the films I'd mentioned was the latter's 'Fire', not in itself a great film, but one that in its negative portrayal of Indian marital life and introduction of a lesbian theme proved very controversial, as I seem to remember we once talked about here. I also added that I'd got the impression that women found it easier to film outside the country and mentioned the death threats Mehta had apparently received after 'Fire' in particular. I'd already made a weak joke about the strange fruits of globalization when he'd told me that Hindi epics were going MTV. This evidently made him think of the arguments in this essay which examines the responses to 'Fire' under the aspect of globalization and ingrained, regional, cultural attitudes in general and to gender questions in particular.
Since we're soon to read stories which relate Indian and Western experience, I thought others might be interested, too.
Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Indian film - yet more passion/mother roles
Just thought I'd add that I've since printed off and read the article on 'Fire' and the issues it raised and discovered that it is well worth the exercise. It pursues a fascinating argument and offers many insights into the manipulations and use of gender in India's cultural and political environment. At least that's my outsider's impression. Somesh, the insider, hasn't commented on the article himself, but his sending the link in the first place seems to indicate agreement.
I marked one section in particular that reminded me of something that was said at the lecture on the myth of the good German mother I mentioned attending recently. This is from paragraph 31 of the article:
'Nevertheless, the protests against Fire are not primarily about women "but about what constitutes authentic cultural tradition" (Mani, 118). Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger in The Invention of Tradition demonstrate brilliantly that traditions which appear ancient are of quite recent origin. They are invented through a "set of practices, of a ritual or symbolic nature which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition which automatically implies continuity with a suitable historic past.'
Not having been brought up in Germany, I imagined or was led to believe that the considerable social pressures to stay at home and be a 'good' mother rather than work outside the home in this very conservative part of the country were a legacy of tradition. The lecturer convincingly argued that this has only been the case for the last two post-war generations and that, what with worsening economic outlooks and re-changing social attitudes, ours would almost certainly be the last generation to experience these as such.
From what people have been saying on list, though, it looks as if Bush and his more ultra-conservative supporters are conversely trying to (re)establish such 'traditions' in America at the moment rather than leave it up to individual personal choice as it should be.
As I've mentioned before, some of the ways this choice has been institutionally restricted in (Western) Germany in the past are the relative lack of crčche facilities, a schools' system based on lessons from only 07.45 to 13.00, though secondary schools do hold lab and sports lessons etc for some classes in the afternoons, and a kindergarten system whose opening hours effectively used to prohibit the holding of even a part-time morning job.
However, all this has been gradually changing over the past few years, the trend is moving more and more to full-time schooling, and so the 'choice' is becoming a far more genuine one of conscious option.
Date: Sat, 08 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Indian film - yet more passion/mother roles
Dear Fran and all,
I'm now reading the astonishingly good essay Fran pointed us to yesterday: Inflamed Passions Fire, the Woman Question, and the Policing of Cultural Borders. I'm not just going to skim this one: I'm reading it attentively. I can't write about it this morning but will get back tonight. I want to think a bit. I too am going to print it out.
Judy G has been kind enough to send me her copy of Monica Ali's Brick Lane. I don't know quite why but I don't like this book; it bothers me, but I'm plunging on ( haven't got very far) because it's so alert. It's very much a first (great probably in its genre which is the woman's book) full production. Not just this book but Jhabvala is so relevant (as they say) to this important conversation about women going on through these popular "global" films. Jhabvala goes into male homosexuality, but her continual caution (and conservatism in many ways) keeps her away from lesbian sexuality. Lesbian sexuality is apparently very threatening when it's put in front of people as undeniable.
Isabel wanted to go to Bride and Prejudice but from what I'd read I thought I'd sit there like some porcupine with all my hackles raised two feet so I declined. My Fat Big Greek Wedding left me with a big fat grating headache. Yet I know there is something important going on here which no one until I came across this essay is addressing. Jhabvala is content to say how corrupt the industry is, how little it helps the average Bombay citizen. (There needs no ghost some from hell to tell us this sort of thing -- what they and innumerable Indians need is a vast house building program paid for out of taxes on the superrich.) I tell myself I am not all wrong to resist and intensely dislike these highly eroticized films and yet I know it can't be from a religious outlook.
This essay is bringing out the real contradictions and making visible though words what is in these films -- and some accompanying books -- which is so disturbing.
I'll be back tonight with some responses. Thanking Fran much.
Date: Sat, 8 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Genders' Essays
I thought you'd appreciate the essay. My reaction has been the same: the argument is so dense that I thought I'd let it settle first before attempting to talk about it in any detail.
'Genders' is quite a little treasure trove of interesting essays in itself, as you'll see if you go to the home page and its current subjects. Unlike you, I have a weakness for TV as well as film and books, and I printed out two other essays after realising how good the film one was. Since they are rather easier to discuss, I'll start with those first.
Much the better of the other two I felt was Diana Negra's< 'Quality Postfeminism?' Sex and the Single Girl on HBO> which, as is presumably evident, bases its argument on the 'Sex and the City' series: _http://genders.org/g39/g39_negra.html_ (http://genders.org/g39/g39_negra.html) #
Quite apart from the rest of the argument, it was one of those frequent, odd, cyberspace coincidences to have sent what I'd just said about the mother role and then read this in the third paragraph a few hours later:
Pathologizing Single Femininity
 Widely acknowledged as a neoconservative era, the l990s/early 2000s have been characterized by heightened pressures to define womenâ€™s lives in terms of romance and marriage. Notably, this period has seen perhaps the most intense cultural coercion for women to retreat from the workplace since the post-World War II period, although by the 1990s the economic feasibility of such a choice for most women was greatly reduced. Thus, the particular target of such discourse is the well-educated professional white woman who, unencumbered by feminist dogma about her entitlement to non-familial personal rewards, abstains from paid work in a display of her "family values." A variety of recent popular cultural narratives centralize/idealize a womanâ€™s apparently fully knowledgeable choice to retreat from public sphere interactions in favor of domesticity. For instance, in 2000 Cosmopolitan ran an article entitled "Meet the New Housewife Wanna-Bes" which outlined "the new domestic dream" and included interviews with a variety of young professional women who aspired to marry, leave their jobs and stay at home. Accounts such as these, though likely to be both sensationalistic and reductive, did draw from social realities; 2001 U.S. Census data revealed that 22% of women with advanced professional degrees were not in the labor market at all (Hewlett 306, Though I problematize the uses to which Hewlett puts data such as this later in the article, these are nevertheless striking figures).'
I should say you don't really have to know much about the series to find the article worth reading, as I hope this extract illustrates. I've only watched a couple of the episodes myself, even though the series was readily accessible on free TV here, unlike in America - something that was new to me until reading the article, which uses the fact in its argument.
I was probably put off for a long time ( the only full episodes I saw were at the end of the very last series) by several main things: the gloss and the bubble-gum colours, the coarseness of speech and probably most unfairly and emphatically by the intense annoyance the Ally McBeal series had ended up generating. The latter was winding down when the first started over here. It is also cited in the article as it's pretty natural to pair them together. After seeing those episodes, I rather wished I'd given the series more of a chance as some of the scenes were both funny and thought-provoking. To get back to that third paragraph, though, it's probably symptomatic that the most seriously feminist and career-orientĂ¤ted woman in the quartett at the beginining of the show is the only one to end up married, with a baby, an increasingly confused mother-in-law to care for and for reasons of family love moving out from Manhattan to Brooklyn - in the emotional and comic geography of the film, the equivalent of Siberia.
I liked Brooklyn!
Re: Gender: Essays on Film and TV shows about Gender/Sex/Family
Dear Fran and all,
I read the essay on the Indian-Canadian film carefully, the essay on "Sex and the City" less so and then began to skim through the one on ER. The first did seem to me the most content and argument rich, and least strained. I also am now interested in Indian culture: our upcoming read and my own interests are taking me in this direction, though I would not call it multiculturialism, a (I surmize) multiculturalism is increasingly regarded as impossible, a delusion of the left and politically correct (always a easy target to hit as you are reifying a bogeyman of hypocrisy and fatuity).
I should admit one reason I don't watch TV is simply I fell out of the habit. My habit is to read at night, and since we have but one general living room and my husband sits there too and when one puts the TV on has a tendency to decamp and set himself up in the much colder back bedroom, I naturally don't try to watch TV unless I really want to see something. And then when I put the TV on, being out of the habit, I am often quickly appalled, irritated, impatient. It seems coarse, silly, soppy, the colors all neon lights. The News programs are all flashy/sentimental pictures: I get more information in two minutes of reading the Times on the Net than I do a whole half-hour of watching TV. Life is so short. And we have a small TV (13 inches), no cable and no antenna :)
What I do is read about programs. The Nation has some good TV and film critics and occasional columns. Now I remember a column on "Sex and the Single Girl" where the Nation critic panned it. He or she (I don't remember whether the writer was a man or woman) denied all the positive and modern takes the Gender critic zeroes in on, and emphasized not only the snobbery and elitism, but also "read" the TV show in terms of archetypes. This is increasingly being substituted for the older "close reading" we inherited from Richards/Empson/Leavis groups. Close reading is what only a perceptive and careful reader can do. It's argued increasingly what the common reader who is in a hurry or the person who doesn't really attend to a text or understand it disinterestedly when he or she does is respond to large archetypes. And they respond in terms of conventional morality or the particulars of their existence. Thus according to this critic the archetypes of "Sex and the City" are the same as those Fran picks out in ER where the pair of lesbian lovers end up dead. What it does seem to me -- not worth much as I have rarely put on such a program and only then when it's in a PBS (public TV) variant -- is TV has become far more reflective of modern life. Remarkably and revolutionarily so. In the 1950s the women were in housedresses shelling peas in the kitchen; all were chaste but the exotic "mistress" one never saw, and the melodrama was about emasculated versions of sexual/familial/financial life. If it be true that women are returing to "housemaking" in droves, especially when they come from the upper classes and have husbands who make a large income, the image they look at is one of a sophisticated woman in a career setting whose understanding of life is somewhat realistic.
I have anecdotal evidence to support the idea that upper class and well-educated women are more and more choosing to stay home with their children at least as long as those children are young. I see this in my neighborhood. However, I see only a tiny corner of the world and what I'm talking about is a small proportion of an upper income group who are less than 1/5 of the population of the US. As I say that I can at the same time think of rows of names of women whose marriage or relationship has broken up: so many don't marry but live with the guy outside marriage and of these there are some who don't chose to marry once they start having children. I'm inclined to think that despite the gross anti-feminism of the popular medium and the intense rhetoric on behalf of heterosexual marriage, sanctity and enjoyable martyrdom of motherhood (compulsory pregnancy), nonetheless, I think what we are seeing is a further evolution along the same lines in the west that has been going on for some 70 years (since the 1930s). More and more women on their own, small families, relationships instead of marriage, ready divorce, women travelling about (without being heroic adventurers who astound us), women rising higher and in new careers they wouldn't think of. It's uneven and it does seem that women make much much smaller incomes than men, are responsible for the children and are still subject to male violence (macho male sexuality has remained intransigent, hurting also men who are not macho males). So much hypocrisy and lies; the boundary lines which used to exist and help people dissolve away when it comes to sex. In the US children grow up subject to peer pressure and schools far more readily than their parents once they hit around 12-13.
It's a hard call and that's why the TV shows are ambivalent and the responses to Fire so varied and disruptive. It's easy to hit sore spots when there are so many and they lack scabs.
I've gone on and have little room for the kind of commentary "Inflamed Passions" deserves. But I do like it and have put it with my other essays on Jhabvala and postcolonialism. What did I like: the essential argument that the global is read locally by most viewers and also by the people who make the films. They have to chose a particular set of costumes; the movie must be visual. They have to present some particular visibilia and ritual. That women as a symbolic entity have become the great contested area of confrontation between groups vying for power. That newspapers represent ways to make stories and collective identities through these. People imagine who they are when they read the newspaper. The specific story line of the film reminded me of Jhabvala's Backward Place except Jhabvala's book is less lurid, less sexy: the poor English born wife has a good-for-nothing drone of an Indian husband; they have a place to live because his brother-in-law makes a good living and this wife works too. He asserts his right to control her and she accedes to this. Thus he gets all his desires. She's glad of company! He cajols and pressures her to give up her savings so he can chase a imbecilic dream to become a star in Bombay. We see the patron he is relying on is a selfish lout who has no intention of helping him. The poor wife's job was about to be taken from her as politics in India depends on family connection so she experiences the move as a relief, but we see it's another devastating hopeless turn in a wheel of nothingness and flatness.
But what the novel does is pay attention to family, family at the center of existence. How it's a pathology and yet all one has. It's more realistic than Fire because there's no escape. I do like Mehta's phrase her film is about women wanting to be alive. Even if it's a dodge. I like how the critic points out the film presents Indian culture as "the object of its horrified gaze." I was horrified by the torturing of the young Indian wife by her mother-in-law to silence and "pacify" her in Heat and Dust, but understand one could put a horrified gaze on western culture as readily. I do see how sexual "freedom" for women can become freedom for men to use them more ruthlessly. All the different ways the groups used the different visibilia for differing agendas is ironic. After all the women didn't mind the lesbian sex :)
Some new insights: it's a trap to seek history to sanction one's existence. After all history and tradtions are inventions. (I own the Hobsbawn book referred to and have read most of it.) Yes but where shall scepticism end and how shall we live without some imagined past beyond our narrow individual memories. For myself I read and look at art for imagined pasts and conjured up presences of writers and artists to keep me company.
What is said about the film and the discourses that erupted around it can be attributed to much that we see in serious films and books today. I would say the same for the Laurie Sucher book I cited on Jhabvala.
Early this coming week I'll see if I can't put something together about Jhabvala to help us look forward to the stories we are going to explore together.
Cheers to all,
Date: Wed, 12 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Sex in the City
there is a sense in which the article in the nation has a point....the show is filled with stereotypes and portrays women in a manner where (in the end) everyone gets a man....but in the same way, it misses the point. the point is that the show exists in the first place. and that's what i think Fran was trying to explain to you.
The show (because i know you've never watched it) is about Carrie and her three close women friends.
Charlotte, a dark haired, retiring shy woman, who at one points admits she has never looked at her pussy in a mirror--"It's ugly" she frets. She ends up marrying ajew in the end, i believe.
Miranda, a thin shorthaired, boyish type who worries that she's not feminine or sexy and that men don't want her. so she throws herself into her work...being a hardnosed lawyer..i believe in the end she marries, but she can't have kids.
Samantha, slightly older than the others and sexually adventurous. she sleeps with any man she sees and is not afraid to proposition anyone--even a franciscan monk. they also show her masturbating, and she talks frankly about masturbation and sex in most episodes. she is also the only one who uses the work Fuck on a regular basis. In the end she contracts cancer, and is shown to learn from her wild ways and settles down with a guy 15 years her junior.
Carrie is the heroine of the piece. she is the writer, whose thoughts open and close most shows. she is "looking for love in all the wrong places," hung up on a guy she calls Mr Big who is rich and rides around in a limo, but afraid of admitting her feelings for him. she is shown to have many boyfriends throughout the show, but in the end, Mr. Big discovers his great love for her and flys to paris to rescue her from her new boyfriend and admit his uundying love in a picturesque scene in Paris.
Yes, these are serious stereotypes. And, as good as the actresses are in making them believable people having believable conversations, in lesser hands this show would be hack. But the show does have a mission statement. In the first episode Carrie askes "Can women have casual sex the same way that men do?" That they made a show that asked this question in the first place is a milestone. And that, I believe, is the big deal, and the thing that The Nation is missing out on in it's hurry to tear this new addition to pop culture to bits. Now, in the end, all four end up in monogamous relationships, finally having achieved "happiness", yes. But that does not detract from them having asked the question in the first place. Or the fact that there's a woman on TV who is shown not only to masturbate, but revel in it.
A side note....Sex in the City also has a habit of using women actresses and comedians who are fringe actors...those who are a little controversal, and cannot get on TV in the way that, say Jennifer Anniston (famous for her hair and being married--and now seperated--from a man famous for his abs) can. Nothing to do with the Nation article, but a small critical point nonetheless....
LCM (Laura Moody)
Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Sex in the City Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com
I liked your take on Sex in the City Laura, because it is a programme I've been very ambiguous about. I've seen only a few episodes and though liked them well enough, have never been hooked, as a lot of my friends have been. I have wondered about what seemed the male centredness of the programmes and its balance with the connection between the women. Like Ali MacBeal, it has seemed unreal in its portrayal of women's lives - so well off, their talent recognised etc - but of course, good to see women in these powerful places.
Recently on Radio 4, the most sober of all our UK audio stations, the actress who plays Carrie was featured on one of the oldest of all the programmes going: Desert Island Discs. This is a programme which asks celebrities for the music they would like to take with them if they were to be marooned on a desert island. In between the music, a biographical interview is held. Traditionally, they are 'given' the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible for their books to take to the island (gives you a hefty steer about the programme) but are also 'allowed' to take one luxury item of their choice. 'Carrie' said she would like to take a man or at least some toys.
This bears out all you have said about breaking the taboo about women and sex because this must be the first time that any celebrity has ever acknowledged the lack of sex that marooning on a desert island entails. I was driving when I heard it and hit the wheel, laughing at her audacity to say such a thing on such a programme.
Date: Sun, 16 Jan 2005
Subject: [Womenwriters] Sex in the City
I agree with Laura that probably the important thing about such a show that it asks the question in the first place, "Can women have casual sex the same way that men do?," and then shows that women not outside the boundaries of respectability at all, common usual "ordinary" woman want to and do have sex casually. This is to destroy the myth of the slut, and to made a statement against making pariah and scapegoat of women who have casual sex. The large archetype which ends the show and reasserts the conventional moral ending and desire of marriage is also a contrast to centuries of art where a woman who had any sex outside marriage could not by the emotional logic of whatever was the text (from Gaskell's Ruth to Hardy's Tess, Richardson's Clarissa to many popular films in the early to mid- 20th century) get married at the end. It was not allowed. Either she had to die or end up ostracized.
To look at it this way does point up that there are earlier texts where we find women having sex outside marriage and yet being given this reward of marriage. A non-famous one occurs in a Restoration play by Catherine Trotter: what's startling about this is the woman has sex with more than one man and she lies about it and is not sentimental. It's quite a play. It has been forgotten -- though in the 1970s there was an edition of women's plays in the later 17th century which included it and says it was performed in London by a small repertoire group. More commonly you get the shot-gun marriage -- as in Austen's P&P where Lydia gets married after she has had sex with Wickham and has demonstrated a remarkably casual attitude towards fucking. She is however treated as appalling by Elizabeth Bennet, though it seems as much a matter of Lydia's bad taste and manners as anything else.
The key though is this matter of casual sex. I couldn't get myself to assign Out of India because woman after woman in this collection of short stories has casual sex, indeed sex with anyone who asks. Very like the nameless narrator in Heat and Dust only more so. O'Faolain's heroine is nowhere as promiscuous -- and this is interesting -- but O'Faolain is treated with disdain by the Gale people (for her leftism of _The Nation_ type) and when she went on TV because she also wrote 2 memoirs where she revealed she had had casual sex, she was given a very hard time by a late night show host. She had herself been a TV host and was able to fend off his sneers but he did sneer and openly. It does seem from Laura's description that the show does not quite show women having casual sex, just like this -- as we find in Joyce Carol Oates's books and also Valerie Martin's Great Divorce. The show is probably realistic in the complex portraits of many motives. In fact or reality women are punished by society for having casual sex -- or for letting others know about it.
I no longer have the Nation article so no longer remember what the author didn't like particularly beyond the ending archetypes of marriage and punishment. Like the Gender piece one problem was the use of abstract language which works to cover up particulars and you are not sure what the author is referring to in concrete terms. I still feel this procedure of using abstractions comes out of a pretense of objectivity, snobbery (the use of elite mandarin language signals you are part of the intelligensia and therefore to be respected), and a cover-up. One really liberating thing about emails, blogs, online columns is the use of language is often very concrete and there are much fewer pretenses. I could understand more about the show from Laura's descriptions because she really told the particulars.
Probably the Nation was holding the show to a higher standard than is realistic -- given the audience and its mores. I disagree with Laura that The Nation writer was in a "hurry to tear this new addition to pop culture to bits." A magazine like The New Yorker and the three I often read that are strongly literary/arty in thrust (NYRB, LRB, TLS) can be accused of wanting to criticize pop culture on the grounds of its popness (absurdities). But not The Nation. It has a long history of being "pro-working men's and women's culture." That phrasing sounds so old-fashioned, but it is the origins of its stance. Michael Moore is exemplary for The Nation: unlike the New Yorker, which slammed 9/11 the Nation loved it. In the back of the Nation there are two reviewers (Danto for art, Klawans for movies) who repeatedly go into pop culture and take it seriously. It was Klawan's perceptive review (in praise of it) of Master and Commander that we were having the astonishing spectacle of male genitilia everywhere that led me to write about it on this list (and ECW) in the way I did -- ironically. But Klawans also he tried to amuse the reader liked the film.
Angela brings out "the male centeredness of women's lives" that Sex in the City seems to build upon -- or an insistence that this is how they live their lives even in the most intimate moments continually. Partly that's the effect of art which always choses a vein and develops it. It's the rare artwork which is not partial. But of course why chose this partiality? Maybe it does point out how power for women and a limited control of themselves often can (in our society still) only come through men so the old idea of the "good man" reigns supreme as the ultimate desire. That's not entirely true since women in the west and some parts of the non-west can hold money-making jobs, can deal with property and travel freely, can have babies outside marriage and bring them up as theirs publicly without too much stigma. However, this does demand a woman with strong aggression and a good deal of luck (usually in the form of money inherited or connections inherited). On another list I'm on the people were talking of the veiling of eastern women, the new enforcement of sharia, and the controversy over the head scarf in France in terms of an important step backwards in enforcement of imprisonment and cruelties towards women of all and every sort.
What are we to do about people who participate in the practices which hurt and can even physically maim them (like stoning to death)? I don't know. People who say this is the way macho male heterosexuality sexuality (intransigent) has built our society and you ain't gonna change it. Take what power is on offer (motherhood). Take what respect this society will give you (beautiful sex object, superduper selfsacrificing mother, and nowadays also women who achieve high position, power somewhere and money). But is not fear at the heart of this finally? Fear. I don't blame anyone who is afraid. I'm afraid too. I never discount the power of the group to ostracize and punish or the desire to fall in, have it easy. Why not? One lives but once. But if you accede to the ease of low expectations you will find you pay a price in being subject to someone else's control, and you have to ask yourself if in your case you are paying too high for what you are getting in return.
Ali's movie was called Submission and women were very angered by it; the Gender piece showed women used to foment riot against Fire. I suggest that such women are wanting to hold on to what power they have when they say this loosens marriage. What can they expect from the all-powerful males if the old order is dissolved? Fear is such a powerful motive with people and it's easy to argue on behalf of fear. Look around you and you will be told that we need more guns, more hideous weaponry, more laws on behalf of secresy and a "war on terror." And you will easily find people who sigh with relief when they see the helocopters over head.
I'll end on a famous passage by a man. It was Samuel Johnson (people on our list may not know he has a number of very sympathetic portraits of women of the streets in his Ramblers), who wrote he was ever chary lest he be deciding some issue on behalf of "cruelty" or "envy," lest he should find himself "following the maxims of policy, and under the appearance of salutary restraints, should be indulging the lust of dominion and that malevolence which delights in seeing others depressed." Kramer's piece on the French state tried to show that the French state is in conflict with Arab peoples who have been badly depressed and excluded from offices, money, respect, and that the assertion of symbols of Islam is an attempt to make visible an oppressed excluded culture. France is no more a melting pot than the US. On the other hand, the veil itself, the great irony is (as we have all pointed out) that it's women's clothing and a piece of clothing that stands for sexual repression, patriarchy, endowing sex with all sorts of fearful meanings and women with factitious power (she must be veiled or men will be corrupted).
The Nation wanted the TV show to do more and feared lest it was reinforcing things, pandering too strongly.
On that desert island program, I've heard a good quip. When someone asks you, what single book would you have after Shakespeare and the Bible, you say, a book on how to build a boat. This is to me funny because it makes fun of the essential showing off of the show. See how literary bookish I am; people really do measure one another's worth by what books they read (so books become like what furniture you have in your house).
I've gone on too long or I'd start to talk about how various are reader responses. My probably primary response to Carrie would be she's making fun of books per se and is buying into being a frivolous sex object. I probably would not at first get the joke that this time on the island has to be sexless. It might have to be explained to me. Jokes often have to be explained to me :). My instinct would be the supposed "second wave" feminist response to this "third wave" feminist, only I wouldn't have responded the way I surmize because of some political outlook but rather a feeling from the gut on my part. I didn't stop wearing make-up or shaving my legs because of any political outlook but because it was too much trouble; I didn't want to be bothered. Why should I? I have trouble stopping myself from exploding sometimes when I find someone trying to enforce on my some (to me) time-wasting imbecility. I know I ought to be patient but I get so irritated over a day when there have been too many calls on me of this type that I want to explode to release the tension, lash out, and then how explain to someone this is the product of hours and hours or maybe more time than that of self-control and it's not this particular thing that is driving me wild but the whole thing it belongs to? When that woman said to me, "Isn't this overdoing it, Ellen?" (a woman in baby-sitting coop I was very briefly in said the same thing when the group came to my house and discovered I had no TV), I said nothing. But it burned in my mind and probably weeks, nay months later I suddenly lashed out at something else over a long build up which probably angered or puzzled that person no end. Better not to put on the TV or be made to watch films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding.