things to think about

today i am thinking about: THE BECHDEL TEST
October 18, 2011, 11:08 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yesterday I went undercover as a frum Jew. I put on a long black skirt and stockings, made sure my knees, elbows, and collarbones were covered, and went down to Kingston Ave. It’s kol hamoed Sukkot, which is to say that it’s basically a 24/7 party. All the families are out and about, enjoying each other, eating snacks, and there I was, Lubavicher ground zero, toodling about in my skirt.

I was there to, of all things, see a movie. I somehow ended up on a listserv for a whole world of observant Jewish women’s arts. Women are forbidden from performing? singing? in front of men. My impression is that this has historically meant that women just don’t get to do much of that, or maybe that’s just my outsider bias. But I saw an ad for this movie, The Heart that Sings,  and I watched the trailer and I was won over. A musical! About frum girls! How could I not?

The movie itself is a touching and movie-musical-worthy story about a young Jewish woman (Miriam), a Holocaust survivor, who ends up the music and drama teacher at a summer camp for rich and pampered Jewish girls. Will she pull off the annual camp show? (Yes.) Will she finally resolve her past? (Yes.) Will the other counselors grow to like her? (Yes.) You know. It’s all wrapped up in frumkeit – long skirts, Yiddishy language, watching Miriam wash before eating, music praising and praising Hashem but also encouraging the girls that whatever their dreams are, they can do it if they pray. The story itself unfolds differently than the standard “nerdy teacher who wins in the end”; the girls end up liking and trusting her because they feel bad they have been so mean after all she has been through, rather than because she finally wins them over in a montage. She wins over the camp at large only after she is the beneficiary of a real miracle. There are dance numbers, and a hundred songs, and a couple of Holocaust flashbacks.  The film itself was beautifully shot with all of the lighting and period-accurate props you could hope for.

The movie is the work of this fierce woman, Robin Saex Garbose, who – as she put it yesterday, after the screening – saw a niche market and realized it needed to grow. She has a serious theater background in the secular world, although clearly has become more observant. She was teaching classes for frum girls, realized they needed a place to perform and build as artists, and so she made that space vis a vis two feature length films. Two feature length films!

I kept thinking, though, how good this is. How awesome it is to see women making their own art, for each other, and taking each other forward. This movie passed the Bechdel test higher than almost any movie I have seen – not just because there were no men, but because women actually talked about themselves and each other caringly and all got to be real characters. It was no Fiddler situation where the women are only characters inasmuch as they get married or have opinions about marriage. These were observant women, acting religiously, having adventures and singing about being strong and taking risks and so on and so forth.

The Q&A was super interesting inasmuch as 1) clearly the women and girls present were REALLY GLAD that this movie existed, leading me to believe there is not yet much content out there; 2) the concern that showing frum girls bullying each other might somehow reflect badly on the frum community, as if somehow those of us out here in secularlandia really expect that these things don’t happen everywhere. The filmmaker also, in passing, talked about the difficulty of finding conflicts that still reflected the morals she wanted to espouse, saying that (for example) she would never be able to do a film of a girl going off the derech (ie, becoming less traditionally observant.) It’s a huge bummer – I can only imagine how that could be a really interesting and thoughtful film, even if it ended up with her coming back into the fold.

This is the part where of course, it’s easy to roll your eyes – oh lord, those fundamentalists and their propoganda. But really, look at any other teen movie – the tropes are just as strong, the plots just as predictable. Of course nothing revolutionary is going to happen. Teen movies are about reinforcing the prevailing morality, not analyzing or deconstructing it.

I liked The Heart that Sings. I liked that it passed the Bechdel test so well. I like that it gave girls a chance to think about what they could do. I liked that it was a film about girls learning and growing and not a film about girls worrying about dating boys. And I like the idea of women doing it for themselves – I hope that this goes even further, that more girls and women make movies, that we get to hear more voices and more stories and the nuance that goes along with it. Because that? Is feminist. And I? Am not nearly enough a part of that community to be passing judgement.

today i am thinking about: BABY I HATE MANARCHISTS
October 14, 2011, 3:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It is so easy to be cynical about The Movement.

Manarchists and unchecked white privilege and unchecked class privilege and ideologues and grandstanding and the need for ideological perfection and lack of forgiveness and hidden trust fund babies and white person dreadlocks and lack of ferocity and willingness to infight and a hundred other things make it so easy to pour a tall glass of haterade and drink, drink, drink.

I don’t go to actions that don’t have at least one woman as a featured speaker. I don’t go to protests that aren’t backed by people of color-centered organizations that I trust. I don’t go to protests that I think are foolhardy, or pointless, or about marching around to prove we can march around. I hate protests, period, really – it’s not like they change anything, they just are a good reason for us to feel good, and whatever, half the people there need to shower anyways.

And I HATE a manarchist. I hate them deeply. I hate the whole culture of white man manarchy where you show up SUPER RADIKKKAL and take up all the space and don’t think critically about how you are being oppressive in the name of “being an activist.” I hate name dropping manarchists and maoist manarchists and bearded manarchists and especially the ones with the white man dreadlocks. ESPECIALLY THOSE. They are everywhere, in every movement that isn’t explicitly queer or people of color-centered and sometimes, even then, the manarchists roll out and make stupid choices that end up screwing people over.

I have no idea why Occupy Wall Street has not succumbed completely to the manarchists. I saw them there, this morning, when we were there to hold the park in case of police attempt to shut it down. I heard them – I think I heard them, it’s hard to tell on the human mic – orating broadly about the way we will rise up together. You can always tell a manarchist. They like to orate broadly about the way we will rise up together.

But somehow OWS hasn’t fallen into that rabbit hole. The plan for civil disobedience in the face of the park considered all of these things like people who can’t get arrested and varying levels of willingness to risk – because the direct action committee, according to my friend, is largely made up of women of color. The kitchen staff isn’t just women, although there are a lot of women there. Somehow things have not dissolved into partisan tantrums, or hopeless fracturing. The manarchists are there, smelling up the joint and running their mouths and trying to take people on ill-advised “civil disobedience missions” that are mostly excuses to look macho. But that force of ew has been resisted by a much larger and smarter force that seems to be thinking critically about how much danger that kind of manarchy can have to the larger cause.

My other friend was telling me that the whole thing got started by a bunch of white man college students. This could not be a larger red flag – except that no one knows who these white man college students are. Rather than stay up there and manarchist about, they pulled back and started creating structures for many people – any people – to take the mic. That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s enough to make this hardened cynic start thinking about how maybe I should not just bitterly sign another internet petition and, instead, take it back to the streets.

today i am thinking about: occupying wall street
October 7, 2011, 12:08 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I marched yesterday as part of Occupy Wall Street. I was trying to think of the last time I was at a march this big – probably the immigration march in 2007 or so. It poured down Broadway and kept coming and coming; unions, assorted radical organizations, and tons of people who were just SICK OF IT.

I love this protest. I love this occupation of Wall Street. I love this nascent growing community. I love it in a way that is almost irrational; somehow this is cutting past my usual skepticism. There are so many white dreadlocks there! The demands are so poorly defined! And yet I love it.

I love it because of how many people I know who are walking around with their mouths dropped open in anger. We have all been systemically screwed: my friend’s parents, who lose their entire retirement savings due to the greed of some Wall Street bankers; the tons of people I know who are looking for work and can’t find any, or can’t find enough; those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs and still can’t make ends meet. I have a job that I have been at for almost 5 years (!!!) and there have been no raises or cost of living adjustments in 4. My benefits have been systemically slashed. This isn’t even about greed on the part of the management, it’s about simple ability to keep the organization afloat at all.

I have inadvertently turned into one of those people who is very heavy on matters of personal choice. I have no sympathy for people who choose not to work day jobs and are consequently broke. I have no sympathy for people who spend too much and end up in debt. I hold myself to these standards, too – it’s not like I let myself off the hook. I have turned down a lot of things because I was not sure I could afford them. Parts of this really hit buttons for me because who ARE these people who can just take time off, who will sleep on Wall Street, who have nothing better to do than hang out? I am uninterested in anything made up of entitled people who do not take responsibility for their own actions. (Which, ps, describes the 1% pretty nicely!)

But, being down there, I don’t think that’s this. I think this is a space that is trying to do better actively, trying to be as un-racist as possible, trying to make it possible for people to take this space to do good work. I think it’s made up of people who have tried to find jobs and failed; who have jobs and come after work; who are unemployed and underemployed. The lifestyle hippies are there too, but there’s more going on than just that.

My feelings on how the US economy has been going are best articulated by a gurgle of agony and rage and some frantic gesticulation. I feel best about this movement/space/etc because it is making room for all of us who greet the world with this rage and pain to come down and figure out what happens next. There are many steps between a gurgle of agony and rage to a well-articulated mission. But for once, it seems like the space to do that work is actually being held. Here’s to the 99%!