The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Adult Education” (S1, Ep. 20)

In today’s entry in The Great Golden Girls Marathon, Blanche is confronted by her professor, who tells her that the only way that she will be able to pass his class is by sleeping with him. Meanwhile, the other three women attempt to get tickets to see Frank Sinatra.

For me, this episode has always been one of the most explicitly feminist in its sensibilities. The episode is a scathing indictment of the way that men in positions of power think that they have the right to women’s bodies (and the expectation that women will give in to their demands for that access). Once again, it is uncanny how relevant the series has become in the era of Donald Trump, when the President-elect of the country has openly bragged about assaulting women and has won the election anyway.

The most frustrating part of the episode, however, is Blanche’s meeting with Dean Tucker. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has had dealings with university administration that he is not only criminally inept (he doesn’t even know which form the incident requires), but he seems far more interested in brushing the affair under the rug than in actually taking this harassment seriously. Like so many men that occupy positions of power, he remains much more invested in both protecting his fellow man and insulating himself from potential criticism than in helping the woman who has come to him for his assistance.

Furthermore, this incident reveals a problem that still exists in terms of women’s reporting of sexual assault. When she explains that there were no witnesses to the encounter, he immediately reminds her that given it’s a matter of “he said/she said,” he has to err on the side of caution rather than let the professor’s reputation suffer. Never mind that a woman has basically been assaulted by a man in a position of power.  The incident, as frustrating (nay, infuriating) as it is, reveals just how deeply run the channels of rape culture. It is always the woman whose account is called into question; the man is always presumed (because of his power) to be the innocent party.

Fortunately, though, Blanche does end up having the last laugh, since she does manage to attain the grade through sheer hard work and determination. The moment when she proudly tells her sleazy professor to “kiss my A” is one of the most rousing and fulfilling of the first season, a symbolic victory over the kinds of men (like our very own President-elect) who make this world such an unpleasant and downright dangerous place for women.

I’ve always found this to be a peculiarly vexed episode, though, especially considering the many subsequent times that Blanche actually does use her wiles to get the test information in later episodes. However, in those cases, I would suggest that those efforts are undertaken by Blanche rather than pushed upon her. As always, The Golden Girls straddles the line when it comes to politics, showing the conflicted and often contradictory spaces that women occupy in a culture that still views their bodies as fundamentally not their own.

Next up, the four women have the misfortune of contracting the flu, leading to an episode that is full of some of the best barbs and insults of the entire first season.

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Goodbye, Appalachia

Dear Appalachia:

I want to start this letter with a little anecdote. A couple of weeks ago, I reopened some of my journals from the months right before I was set to go to graduate school. In those pages, I talked about how I hoped to one day come back to my beautiful home state of West Virginia, to give back to the state that had nurtured me and played no small part in the person I was. To do my part as an educator to help our young people think critically and analytically about the world around them and about the pressing issues facing our state and its future viability.

Seven years down the road, I’m afraid I have to let go of that dream. Probably forever.

This hasn’t been an easy decision for me to make. Time and again while I’ve been here in Syracuse, New York, I’ve gone to bat for the people of good ol’ WV, arguing that many of them feel disenfranchised, that the progressive intelligentsia just needs to find the right way to communicate our values and the native goodness of Appalachians will come to the fore.

Ah, what a sweet summer child I was.

It quickly became clear during the 2016 Election that all the things I had thought to be true were illusions crafted of my misguided hope in the better angels of our natures. Instead of despising Donald Trump for his brutality, his uncouth attitude, his racism, and his willingness to assault women with impunity (and to brag about it!), my fellow Appalachians turned out for him in force because of those things. They saw in him the opportunity to spit in the eye of the progressive administration that had done a great deal for them and, in pushing for cleaner energy, would also help create a viable energy economy for Appalachia.

Needless to say, I was horrified. How was it possible, I wondered, that the hospitable, kind-hearted people that I had known growing up–with their not-quite-Southern accents, their generous attitudes, their homespun wisdom–could have turned out for this monster conjured up by the GOP?

But then, the more I thought about it, the more this American tragedy began to make absolutely perfect sense. I gradually realized that I had papered over and repressed the unpleasant and unpalatable truths about my fellow Appalachians.

Somehow, I had managed to forget my own youth in a small town in West Virginia, where to be a boy who was smart and used “big words” was mocked and derided for being gay. Where being smart was somehow a badge of shame and where, if you wanted to be popular, you basically had to be a dunce or a jock (or preferably both). Somehow, I’d managed to forget how belligerently, pugnaciously ignorant so many people in my home town were (and we weren’t even in the worst places in West Virginia, not by a long way). I somehow managed to forget that some of my dearest friends and family cling to the idiotic sentiment that climate change is propaganda (for whom? I always ask, but never get a thoughtful answer). Somehow, I had managed to fool myself into believing that IF ONLY my people were given the tools, they would see the light and move forward with the rest of us.

But all of that came back with full force. When I took to social media (including Facebook) to express my outrage at the shitshow and the terror that was about to erupt upon us in the wake of the election, an acquaintance from high school decided to message me and criticize me for my “divisive” language, liberally sprinkling terms like “bro” and “dude’ throughout his missive. The cynical part of me believes that he was not-so-subtly trying to assert his masculine, military persona over me, urging the high school faggot to shut up about his gay rights. The more generous side thinks he was just trying be comradely. In actuality, it was probably a little of both. In any case, it was infuriating to have my very legitimate fears dismissed out of hand, when the evidence was right in front of us that this newly-resurgent GOP would, indeed, act to sweep away the rights of queer people everywhere.

In any event, this exchange, brief and one-sided as it was (I responded to him outlining my concerns, but he never answered back), revealed to me why you, Appalachia, are no longer my home. You cry out that you have been ignored and overlooked by the educated elites on the coasts, and yet you do nothing to better yourself. So many of your people wield their ignorance and their uneducated status as a weapon, a belligerent, pugnacious fuck you to those who do, actually, fight to make the world a better place. And yes, that includes you, the out-of-work and economically dispossessed that call West Virginia, and Appalachia as a whole, home.

Of course, by the time of this conversation I had already decided to wash my hands of you, Appalachia. There was just too much about my home state that I couldn’t stomach any more. I had tolerated for far too long the cowardice of West Virginia Democrats on social issues ranging from LGBTQIA+ rights to women’s reproductive rights, and New York (for all of its flaws) had shown me what true Democratic leadership looked like. I knew, with a dreadful and final certainty, that there was no longer any hope for me in returning to WV. I just….couldn’t.

I want desperately to come back to those mountains, those hills, those open skies full of millions of stars. I want so badly to feel that sense of home again, to drive those wickedly twisty roads but…I just can’t.

I’ve been betrayed, and for me the hurt no, the anguish, goes far too deep to ever fully heal. Were it not for the fact that my immediate family is still in West Virginia, I would probably never visit again.

But there are some bonds that are impossible to break.

Still, in my heart of hearts, I’ve had to let you go, Appalachia.

And the worst part?

I don’t even think I’ll miss you.

“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Metathesis

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of…

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Second Motherhood” (S1, Ep.19)

In today’s installment, we’re going to be talking about yet another suitor of Blanche’s who wants her to marry him, a certain wealthy widower named Richard.

Since Blanche is, unequivocally, the youngest of the four, it makes sense that she would be the one who could most easily slip back into the role of mother should the necessity arise (this is a theme that will emerge several times in the series run). However, she also comes to recognize that she can’t fix all of the problems that have already started to afflict his family, including his divided loyalties between his sprawling business empire and his children.

As always, however, the narrative forecloses on the possibility that Blanche is going to actually marry this man. For all that they actually seem to get along well, and for all that he would provide a measure of financial and domestic stability that she lacks, the series again reminds us that it is the relationship among the women that takes center stage. While Blanche does not say so specifically, it’s clear that she is not willing or able to take on the responsibility of fixing the many domestic problems that Richard has already begun to encounter.

The other narrative thread of the episode follows Dorothy and Rose as they attempt to install a toilet on their own. Of course, this whole sequence is delightfully ridiculous, as the plumber turns out to be quite  misogynist jerk who labours under the impression that women, especially older women, are incapable of doing male domestic labour. Of course, the two of them do, in fact, manage to successfully install it, giving the lie to the idea that two elderly women can’t take control of their own homes.

While this may seem a bit of a banal point, I do think it says something that Dorothy and Rose are able to reclaim this symbolic victory from the men who would dismiss them out of hand simply because of their gender and their age. Given that we now live in a country in which a notorious misogynist like Donald Trump has now been given the reins of power, this message of empowerment and reclamation seems to have taken on an extra layer of significance. This particular story gives us hope that even in the darkest of times there are still moments of representation–the symbolic, if you will–that show us what an alternative world might look like.

To me, the unruly women of The Golden Girls, with their refusal to cave in to the demands of patriarchal culture, are an important corrective to the world we are facing. We can look at them and draw hope from the fact that they managed to express such radical politics even during the backlash era, and we can continue to fight back against the powers arrayed against us.

Next up, we come to one of the most politically pointed episodes of the entire first season when Blanche is confronted with sexual harassment at her adult education course.

Tracks for the Trump Era: “Perfect Illusion” (Lady Gaga)

I’ve decided to launch a series of blog posts about songs that we can listen to in order to help us deal with the advent of the Trump Era. To inaugurate these, I’d like to propose that Lady Gaga’s bitter, raw song “Perfect Illusion” is indeed the perfect song for this era of woe and rage.

The lyrics, certainly, help to give expression to the sense of disillusionment that many of us have felt this past week. After all, isn’t America itself the perfect “perfect illusion,” something that appeared beautiful and wonderful, something that we loved. We were poised, after all, to deliver a resounding defeat to not only Donald Trump, but also the ugly political movement of which he was the leader. There were times when I dared to imagine the entire conservative ideology swept away in the rising tide of millennial progressivism.Furthermore, we had come to believe that American society had at last become a safer space for many people, or at the very least it was moving inexorably toward progress. Black Lives Matter. Obergefell. A living wage. On both the economic and social fronts, it really seemed like we were making genuine progress, that somehow the Obama Era was really the beginning of a new world, a world we now believed was possible and was the future. Somehow, it seemed that all of the darker forces of the collective American id had at last been suppressed and banished into the past.

A perfect illusion, indeed.

At a deeper, more affective level, the song’s aesthetic also taps into a profound sense of rage, betrayal, and disillusionment that many of us on the Left have felt as we have watched the America we thought we believed in shatter in the face of a tide of right-wing bigotry. Somehow, the breaks in Gaga’s voice and the screaming instrumentals help us to feel a similar sense of rage and despair, that the things that we took for granted were the very things that ended up betraying us. It’s hard not to feel your body respond to the rawness in her voice. The imperfections of her delivery give affective expression to our own sense that the world we thought we saw hovering on the horizon was nothing more than a figment of our own imagination, that somehow we have been betrayed by the very people that we thought we could count on. The very idea of America that we had created in our minds was as ephemeral as gossamer.

So, whenever you’re feeling that familiar emotion of despondency and despair, just tune in to some Lady Gaga. If you’re anything like me, this song will galvanize you and enrage you enough to keep marching in the streets, to keep protesting, until we force the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. Let those percussive beats that punctuate the end of the song serve as the drumbeat of our relentless pursuit of a better, more verdant world. We have been beaten down before and emerged triumphant, and we shall do it again.

We shall make our illusion a reality.

Trump and the Terror of History

In my work on the post-war historico-biblical epic, I talk a lot about the “terror of history.” It’s a term with a lot of baggage and ideological weight, first mentioned by the philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade is his book Myth of the Eternal Return and taken up by the historian Theofilo F. Ruiz in his book The Terror of history:  On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. It’s a provocative term precisely because it encapsulates so much of what we know, subconsciously at least, to be true about the processes of history.

They are, in a word, terrifying.

By terrifying I mean many things, but the thing I want to focus on here is the sense that the movement of history forward seems to always be beyond the ability of the individual human being to either comprehend in its totality or to effect in any meaningful way. An unfortunate side-effect of this is also the sense that those left in the path of history are often the most victimized and marginalized. The march of history, and also its cycles, often brutalize human life in ways and at a scale that are truly horrifying to contemplate. One cannot help but think of the philosopher Hegel’s infamous suggestion that history is the slaughter bench of humanity, the altar upon which collective humanity sacrifices those whom it wants to be rid of. While the 20th Century is often shown to be a truly horrific period in that regard, boy is the 21st giving it a run for its money.

Of course, we on the Left like to believe that history, with all of its horrors and all of its perpetual uncertainty, is a steady and relentless move forward toward a more just and peaceful world. We like to believe, to paraphrase Dr. King, that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. We like to believe, sometimes we have to believe, that somehow everything will turn out okay in the end, that the better angels of our nature will take over and we will somehow learn to show compassion to our fellow humans. That somehow the compassion that seems to be hardwired into the mammal brain will overcome the brutal reptilian id that always seems to lurk at the corners of our collective consciousness, ready to strike out with fangs and claws and rend the fabric of civilization, reducing it to primal shreds.

However, as scholars like Tobias Stone have shown, there is a certain terrifying circularity to the workings of human events. We as a species seem determined to enter into periods of enormous and catastrophic destruction of our own kind. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We just keep wanting to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, grinding ourselves up in the relentless wheel of time’s turning. Whereas Eliade argued that the terror of history came from the abandonment of the circular notions of time prevalent in many archaic societies (his problematic term) in favour of the relentless forward momentum of modernity, to my eye it is the circularity that is the truly terrifying understanding of time. How can we go on, when we know that any progress we made is destined to meet the same resistance as it always has, forcing us to take a giant three steps back for every step forward?

The terrifying nature of Trumpian history is more than just the candidate himself. It is also the tide of red–of white conservatism, of bloodthirsty savagery–that threatens to inundate us. Part of it can be quantified, of course. One need look no further than the hundreds of stories of racial and gendered assault that flooded social media and various nonprofits in the days since the election. Words that were formerly and rightly decried as hate speech have now been given new license to exist out in the open, validated by a presidential candidate who used “political correctness” as a clarion call for all the white nationalists, xenophobes, anti-semites, misogynists, and homophobes to come out of the woodwork and loudly and proudly declare themselves liberated from the chains of civilized discourse. This is a red tide that threatens to drown all those who would see the world a better, more just world.

And though many have focused (with good reason) on the fear of minorities in this new era of Trump, the consequences of Trump’s victory for the war against climate change are even more terrifying to contemplate. We know we are living in the anthropocene, and now that powerful force has a name and a face, and it is Donald J. Trump. The United States of America, supposedly the telos of history’s forward progress toward a cleaner, more sustainable planet, has now turned its back on that progress. We have, through our election of this man and his party, abrogated our responsibility as a global power and unleashed a new and even more terrifying period of history.

So what do we do with ourselves now that we live in this era in which the terror of history has once again threatened to grind us up and leave behind a trail of bodies (both literal and metaphorical?) Do we simply abandon ourselves to the seeming inevitability of decline and destruction that seems to loom on the horizon, blazing and frothing at every opportunity.

The short answer is:  of course not. If there is a silver lining to this entire horror, it is that perhaps Trump will indeed galvanize the Left. If Hillary Clinton’s impending victory in the popular vote–which looks to be quite substantial, by the way–is any indication, there are a lot more on our side than there are supporting the terrifying creature now poised to occupy the White House. However, it does not have to stay that way. We really do have an unparalleled opportunity to show ourselves and the world that we are a country of thinking, critical citizens and that, when we band together, we truly are stronger together.

“Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes:” Using Shakespeare to Understand Contemporary Politics

Metathesis

“Living when he did, Shakespeare could no more be democratic or anti-democratic then he could be a motorist.”

                  ­-Thomas Marc Parrott, Twenty-Three Plays and Sonnets

On October 8th, Stephen Greenblatt wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times which sought to argue that through a detailed close reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, we could better understand the state of the 2016 US Election.  He argues that Richard III represents a play in which Shakespeare dramatizes the rise of a tyrant into power through the consent of the governed, despite how apparent his evil was to everyone around him.  In this argument, Richard III becomes a cautionary tale, one that teaches its audience a lesson about the dangers of political complacency and the abdication of one’s responsibility as a political subject, whether that political subject is a low ranking early modern aristocrat or a swing-state voter in…

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Weekly Rant: Dear Dr. Stein

Dear Dr. Stein:

I struggled with writing this letter and with whether or not to put it out into the public. Finally, though, I decided that I need to have these thoughts in the public sphere, so that you can know how your decision to deliberately undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton has had real consequences for people like me.

This election, American voters ultimately had a choice. This was more than about the two candidates. This was about choosing a flawed but progressive candidate who represented an incremental but steady march to the Left on many issues and a raging, xenophobic, racist know-nothing that proudly assaulted women (to say nothing of his running mate, who has made no secret of his disdain for LGBTQ+ Americans). This was between bringing into power those who would work to protect our country’s most vulnerable citizens, rather than ushering into power a man buoyed by the absolute worst impulses in the American psyche. This was about forward progress against a descent into the worst sort of barbarism.

Once it became clear that the match-up would be between Clinton and Trump, the ethical thing for yourself and the Green Party to do would have been to make a sacrifice–and make no mistake, that’s what it would have been–in order to help rouse and excite the Left for Clinton. Instead, you went out of your way to paint Hillary as the epitome of all that was wrong with politics, and in the process you have helped bring into power this creature known as Trump, as well as his legions of deplorables. You helped to obliterate the Obama legacy and have helped solidify the tide of hatred and danger that threatens to sweep away everything you claim to hold dear.

Already, we have seen the effects of this as social media has exploded with reports of assaults on all of the minorities that Trump has targeted throughout his campaign. People that I know personally have been assaulted by Trump supporters, emboldened by his victory.

And for my part, for the first time since I came out of the closet as a queer man in 2002, I feel afraid to be who I am. I am afraid to be queer, and I can’t help but lay some of the blame at your door.

You and yours could have prevented this, but instead you valued principle and ideological purity over and above the bodies, lives, and well-beings of people of colour, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ+ people, and countless others. Rather than helping to unite the Left, you continued to sow division, diminishing enthusiasm for Clinton and in the progress throwing many others under the bus for the service of your own ego. You could have encouraged your followers to vote for Clinton, but you didn’t. And this is the result.

I will forgive you, those who voted for you, and those who were persuaded enough by your message that they sat this one out. I’ll forgive you because I have far more in common with you than I do our mutual enemies on the Right. I’ll forgive you because I know that we have to move forward together on a progressive agenda.

But I will never, ever forget what happened this year.

And you shouldn’t either.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Operation” (S1, Ep. 18)

In today’s installment of “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we get to see both a moment of vulnerability from Dorothy and a truly spectacular dance scene between Dorothy and Rose. When Dorothy accidentally injures herself during a tap dance, she is forced to contend with her fear of hospitals and of surgery, while the other two must decide how they are going to perform without her (they eventually dub themselves “The Two Merry Widows”).

It’s rather nice to see Dorothy manifest something other than the sort of steely strength that is normally her way of being in the world. She is clearly quite frightened about the fact that she has to go through a fairly major surgery (and who wouldn’t  be scared, when even the doctors blurt out the truth that they can’t really guarantee that something won’t go amiss). While the whole scene in which the doctors act like complete idiots is played for laughs, it has just the slightest bit of edge to it, and that gives Dorothy’s determination to see the surgery through–but only after briefly escaping from the hospital.

Yet the episode also takes pains to show that, to a degree at least, she’s being just a bit ridiculous about the whole thing. When she meets her roommate, Bonnie, played by the inimitable Anne Haney, famous for her roles in both Mrs. Doubtfire and Mama’s Family), she realizes that her own crisis is rather small potatoes compared to Bonnie’s survival of breast cancer. While the particularities of women’s health issues wouldn’t really take full shape and get full treatment until later seasons, the fact that it is brought up in this early episode indicates how deeply this concern runs in the show’s ethos.

The highlight of the episode, in my opinion, is the spectacular tap-dancing scene between Rose and Blanche. There is something uniquely pleasurable in general about seeing the human body engaged in the beauty of the dance, and it becomes even more so when it is two characters that we have already begun to love. Rue and Betty seem to have a particular bond with one another that exists in that pleasurably intimate space between intense friendship and romantic desire, and this is frequently expressed in their ability to be physically intimate with one another.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the strongest bonds (particularly physical) exist in distinct pairs:  Dorothy/Blanche; Dorothy/Sophia; Blanche/Rose. I am not exactly sure what to make of this as of yet, though I suspect part of it has to do with the rather vexed relationship that existed between Bea and Betty when they weren’t in character. There’s no denying that there is powerful affection between all of the women, but there’s also truth to the observation that it’s definitely stronger between some of them than others.

In the next installment, Blanche meets yet another man who wants to make her a permanent part of his life, while Dorothy and Rose attempt to take on that most gargantuan of household tasks:  the installation of a toilet.

Sharing Space: “Proteus” and the Personal

Metathesis

It seems like academia (or any professional forum, for that matter) encourages us to keep our feelings out of things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed out passages of student essays this month for being “off topic” or “too praisy,” for bringing in “irrelevant” value judgments on the film they’re writing about. And that’s fine: we’re trying to teach them the conventions of textual analysis, not ranting movie reviews. But every time my red pen scratches out the words “I think” or “I feel” or “the best part,” a little part of me dies. It sometimes feels like I’m getting rid of the human element somehow – an often unsophisticated and inexperienced expression of the human element that doesn’t logically support an argument, but the human element nonetheless. It’s numbing to cut that out.

This censoring isn’t just for undergrads, either. I have found very few opportunities…

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