Kitchen Sink Links

My favorite read of the day: Did people in the Middle Ages take baths? on Mediavialists.net for debunking the myth that people didn’t; especially the picture of public bath houses where it was common to eat diner and bath in company at the same time (??!); and the mental image of Charlemagne with his sons, soldiers, friends and bodyguards, sometimes as many as a hundred men, all bathing together.

Authors are increasing their efforts to back booksellers as the holidays approach, on PW, through grants and famous authors working for a day in independent bookstores or asking fans to buy from specific stores.

The Blog Post that Lost Me Half My Audience, Kameron Hurley blogging about women being erased from the narrative on sexism because now men are talking about sexism (that’s good!) but sexism is so entrenched in society that the only people who get recognition for talking about sexism are men (not so good)

75 Years Ago Today A Time Capsule Was Buried In Queens, on Gothamist.com (10/10/13), on what’s in the time capsule slated for opening in 4,925 years (who do they think will open it? will it be underwater?) some of the stuff is seriously dated already.

And saving the best for last:  35 Classy Slang Terms for Naughty Bits from the Past 600 Years on MentalFloss.com. My favorite: Aphrodisiacal tennis court (1665). I know there are longer lists out there, anyone know where there are? Classy ones, I mean.

What I’m reading: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz. So far, I’m enjoying it. From the catalogue description:

In its 4.5 billion–year history, life on Earth has been almost erased at least half a dozen times: shattered by asteroid impacts, entombed in ice, smothered by methane, and torn apart by unfathomably powerful megavolcanoes. And we know that another global disaster is eventually headed our way. Can we survive it? How?

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Reading Sayer in the 21st Century

Early paperback edition cover

Early paperback edition cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayer took some adjusting to. I had never read any early mysteries so at first the genre conventions were baffling. (Along with the actual 1930s Britishness of it, as opposed to the fake or “translated” Britishness we often get on this side of the pond.) However, it was also exciting to read something with no knowledge of the conventions and consciously compare and contrast them with the ones I’m familiar with, like pages and pages of dialogue without dialogue tags or physical descriptions. Sometimes it’s a bit of a game to figure out who is speaking and what exactly is going on as they react to action that is not described. And pacing. Holy moly is the pacing different. But that’s to be expected, since everything today is super fast paced. Movies from the 80s seem slow.

As a 21st Century reader, my biggest problem was Peter Wimsey’s treatment of Harriet Vane. There’s one scene where she’s in prison and he’s promising to prove her innocence but it hasn’t been going well. He takes out his feelings on Harriet Vane until he feels better and she’s red faced and upset. He leaves whistling, I believe. (I’ve returned the book to the library, so I don’t have the exact quote.) And then there’s, to my mind, the ethical question of whether it’s appropriate for Peter to repeatedly ask a woman in jail to marry him, when he’s the only one trying to prove her innocence. But that wasn’t even on anyone’s radar in the 1930s apparently.

I struggled more to get through Have His Carcase. Maybe because I would have liked more Harriet Vane. Maybe I didn’t care as much about the murder victim and didn’t feel like I could figure out the mystery before the author tells me the answer. Maybe it was the pacing. It also seems a less funny book at the beginning, though it gets funnier as it goes along, to the point where I laughed out loud a few times.

And maybe it’s all that plus some of those 1930s attitudes are less than charming.

Harriet Vane: “There might be a few scattered houses on the road, but they would probably belong to fishermen, and ten to one she would find nobody at home but women and children, who would be useless in the emergency.” (p15)

Really? The women farmers and fishermen’s wives, who run the farms and houses while the men are gone, probably logistically a challenging job, who probably work beside their husbands, doing physical tasks Harriet would be hardpressed to do, who are probably tough and pragmatic and used to taking care of emergencies on their own, wouldn’t be much use in an emergency?

And then there are the casual racial and ethnic slurs. And while I don’t think “dago” has been much used since the mid-20th Century the n-word makes an appearance a few times. Dago was used freely in the book. While it doesn’t have the same visceral impact that current slurs have (no one has ever used it against me, and I’ve never heard anyone called it. I only know it from textbooks, and I probably only remembered it because it was used against my ancestors—but I was already safely considered white by the time I was reading those textbooks), the attitude behind it was shocking. And I don’t think I’ll ever be desensitized to the n-word. It was such a casual othering.

Reading Zelazny in the 21st Century

At the opening of the Isle of the Dead, Zelazny is setting out a fishing line of strangeness and ambience, reeling me in, word by word, until I trip. On page 2, “[Condoms] are almost gone now, I hear, the way of the Edsel, the klepsydra and the button hook, shot down and punctured by the safety pill, which makes for larger mammaries, too, so who complains?”

I thought, “Wow, this world is going to be weirder than I thought if men have large breasts.”

I contemplated this idea for probably 30 seconds before it hit me that he meant MEN go in for larger breasts on WOMEN.

Maybe I’m not used to reading first person POV for men, written by men, and here’s the kicker, presumably for men. Maybe I’m not used to reading books with this level of assumption about what is understood to be. Maybe I was so wrapped up in the words that I hadn’t kept any distance from them. These are all possibly true.

Now from what I’ve heard, Roger Zelanzy was a kind man. He was most likely not aware of his sexism. After all, 1969 was barely aware of its sexism, at least compared to today. (How many men today are aware of their own sexism unless it is pointed out by someone he will listen to?) Zelanzy could write this line, that to him was a fact of life so unquestionable, he did not see it as contributing to his world building of a foreign future that is still unknown to the reader. He could not envision me, or I assume any of the other 21st century women or men, taking him literally.

No, I Can’t Stop Thinking about Gender Roles and Sexism, Even When I go to See The Nutcracker

I adore the music for the Nutcracker, though I haven’t seen the ballet in years, and I was excited to see the American Ballet Theater perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday night.

It started out so promising: the sets evocative, the costumes lush, the antics of the mice in the kitchens, before the main action opens, kid friendly and amusing. A few kids around me laughed out loud at the scurrying mice and floppy dancing of the life-sized dolls. I wiggled in my seat like a kid myself when I realized several dancers were black and more were Asian (the playbill tells me some were Latino). (This is the first ballet I’m seeing as an adult, so I don’t know if this is more common than it was when I was a kid, or if it’s because it’s NYC.)

I shrugged off the first discordant note, during the party scene, as you do. Because you don’t want to deal with the fail, with the crashing of expectations. From immersive, thrilling performance and evocation of childhood memories to tense and squirming in your seat for an entirely different reason.

It was a small moment, played for laughs, as so many gender stereotypes are. The adult male and female dancers have separated by sex. The men are at the forefront, drinking and partying it up. The women surround them and glare, arms crossed and chins up, until the men give in and ask the women to dance. How ludicrous is that — male ballet dancers pretending they don’t want to dance? Are they a token thrown to the men in the audience, who are presumed not to want to dance themselves, who have been dragged to the ballet by women and children? How stereotypical — white, middle class, Northeast, straight centric — can you get?

So that happened. But the snowflakes were beautiful in the confetti snow and the young dancers playing Clara and the nutcracker boy were full of verve and delight, and the older Clara and older nutcracker danced beautifully. The Mouse King’s costume was deliciously scary with five mouse heads attached to his shoulders and back and extra tails whirling around him as he fought the nutcracker.

In the second act, the curtain rises on a sliver of the stage. Four very little girls on the left are mirrored by four slightly bigger boys on the right, with the queen (sugar plum fairy? I’m not clear who this was) in the middle, anchoring and separating them. The girls, maybe six to eight years old, creep across the stage in these horrible mincing, stilted steps on their toes towards the boys. The boys take long, striding steps, looking like they enjoy the movement of their own bodies, towards the girls. I felt physically sick. These little girls moved like they were cobbled, magnified by the freedom of the boys stride. For no reason, except the choreographer (ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky) thought it looked beautiful.

This short scene colored the rest of the ballet for me. Objectively, I don’t know if the whole second act was WTFery on a large scale or if the individual shocks of WTF affected everything else.  But I was already unhappy when the “Arabian” dancers came on.

Tchaikovsky is problematic. He was composing at a time when exoticism and othering were acceptable and the height of culture (never mind he was from the exotic and othered Russia himself). Choreographers have to be mindful that the second act is sensitive culturally. Ratmansky apparently never got that memo. Not only did he step in it culturally, but he jumped up and down on it sexually.

The “Arabian” dancers were four women with veils in their hair (not over their faces) wearing tunics and loose trousers and one bare-chested man (the first man not to be entirely clothed in the ballet). The women physically fight each other for the man’s attention, pushing each other out of the way and kicking each other. They also pursue him back and forth across the stage while he runs away. This is played for laughs. People, including kids, laughed. I wanted to vomit. Hello, sexualized, exoticizing, othering of non-Western or non-white women. Hello, sexualized, exoticizing, othering of all things “Eastern.”

For context, I had just been reading a post about liking women as essential to being feminist/a decent human being (for men and women) on Shakesville (Feminism 101 for Dudes, part 8). The post and comments are about how we are all socially conditioned to not like women, for women to compete with each other, and for men not see women as human beings. And also 18 kindergarteners had just been murdered in Newton, CT, an unholy result of easily obtainable guns, difficult to obtain and stigmitized mental health care, and the morass of restrictive and violent gender roles assigned to masculinity and men. I wasn’t feeling very forgiving.

Turns out I shouldn’t need to feel forgiving. I came home and checked the 1986 Nutcracker: The Motion Picture for comparison (the only one I had access to because it’s available streaming on Netflix). Yes, it has issues with othering cultures, but not specifically in this section. The Arabian dance is performed by one woman who looks more like a giant bird than anything else and is utterly devoid of the sexualization of this performance.

The “Arabian” dance of the American Ballet Theater production was in no way redeemed by the reversal at the end of the segment, where the four women band together and ignore the man. Especially since they re-appear later, physically carrying him away by the arms and legs. Squick.

Towards the end, the choreographer added bees to the flower dancers. Adult men with bulbous googles and funny yellow heads. The kids liked them. I wanted to like them, but they did not evoke a sense of play and fun in me. I was still too busy thinking about sex and gender roles and stereotypes, while looking at the four male bees zooming around fifteen female flower dancers.

And then, WTF! The nutcracker prince proposes to Clara as princess and they snap a white wedding veil on her head! WHAT? Because every narrative involving a woman must end with marriage? Even if the woman is 12 (Clara as girl) and Clara as princess is very young looking? (If the dancer was Sarah Lane, she’s in her late 20s but looks younger.) Ditto for the guy. Because every young girl must dream of marriage above any other goal in her life? Again I checked the 1986 version. No hint of a wedding. I don’t remember any of the versions I saw as a kid including it. (I did look at the Wikipedia page for The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,  and it does involve a marriage proposal: to a seven year old girl! Written in 1816! Haven’t we progressed at all in the 200 years since?)

The show ends with Clara the girl in bed with her godfather peering in at her through a window. Maybe this was not meant to be creepy in a pedophilia kind of way, but that was certainly the vibe I got from the juxtaposition of Clara as child, the lingering overt sexualization of the Arabian dancers and Clara as a adult and of marriageable age. Oh wait, there was one more detail. Clara cradles, in the exaggerated rocking motion used to signal “here’s a baby,” the nutcracker doll in her arms. The doll just moments ago she agreed to marry. Squick.

I hate those “the production was so good except where it failed because of all those racist and sexist moments.” We shouldn’t give those things a pass, we shouldn’t have to squelch our aversion in order “just” enjoy the good parts. I feel sad and angry that all the wonderful parts suffered and didn’t get the reaction from me they, by themselves, deserved. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Alexei Ratmansky and I won’t be going to any more programs he choreographs. And next year I’ll see The Nutcracker again, but I’m going to try the New York City Ballet.