Monday, December 20, 2010

Hating sexism, loving English literature

My sixteen-year-old brother is a big fan of the website mylifeisbro.com. You guessed it--it's all about lax, Halo, drinking Natty, aaannnd jokes about how women need to stay in the kitchen. ("Last night this sorostitute gave me a necklace with a key on it and said she gave me the 'key to her heart.' I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with it, since I'm a fucking bro. But you better believe she'll be making me a sandwich to get it back. MLIB.")

Now, in many ways, I can appreciate this website. It's funny. Most of the things posted are satirical (or so I like to think); they're making fun of our backwards-hat-and-lax-pinnie-wearing brethren. But sometimes it makes me upset because I recognize that even those things we consider Funny Jokes can be really harmful. Over Thanksgiving break, I ended up getting really mad at my brother for making kitchen jokes, I stormed off, and made plots to start a counter-website called "My Life is Feminist" (with the unfortunate acronym MLIF, far too close to MILF) in which me and my sexism-hating fellows could post such things as "Today I couldn't enjoy pop culture. MLIF."

This story is getting really long and tangential.

The point I'm trying to make is that sometimes it can be difficult to reconcile one's feminism with one's desire to live in the world and be a person and enjoy movies and TV and other people's company. Inevitably, something that someone says is going to make your inner feminist uncomfortable. I go to a liberal arts college and I hang out with generally like-minded progressive people AND STILL not a day goes by where I don't hear something that makes my inner feminist pace angrily around the inside of my head yelling, "But that is sexist/classist/sizeist/homophobic/etc."

This is hardly a new observation. And it's not at all a bad thing that this happens. In many ways, feminism IS my manner of living in the world and being a human being. It is my politics and my critical lens. Of course it's going to conflict with a whole lot of stuff, but it's being AWARE of that conflict that is so important.

Thus, I was so delighted to read this post about loving problematic books on Tiger Beatdown. I am an English major, and being a student of literature is all about looking at things critically. But sometimes--and this is when I feel sad about my English major--we get lost in the criticism. I felt that way last year when I took a class on American Fear; it felt that every day we walked in and picked up a text and said, "This is scary because WASP America doesn't like: black people, Native Americans, poor people, women, sex, atheism, or old-world religion." Everything was racial or post-colonial or what-have-you.

I'm in no way opposed to looking at a text through those lenses; of course the books we read had a lot to do with fear of race/sex/religion/class/etc. But sometimes you feel, in all that critical musical chairs, that you're losing sight of the book itself. I wondered in my frustration if being a lover of books and words was really not related at all to being an English major. I reread my favorite books and felt that they were no longer quite as magical once I started reading between the lines not just for meaning but for racist/sexist/classist/blah overtones. My desire to pick up a book and say YES this is about all of the Important Things in Life and it is so important was suddenly, rudely quashed by the awakening of my inner educated critic who promptly ripped out the binding, threw the book against the wall, and said, "BUT THE OPPRESSION. Enjoyment terminated."

And then--this semester--I took a class with a professor who is basically the opposite of the first one. Reading books for his class was utterly different; I found myself reveling in his ability to read and love a book as a whole, to not get caught up in critical details, to see the big picture, to love words for words. Sure, this professor was a bit of a misogynist (and the authors he chose to read even more so), and I'm surprised at how easily I say, "So he was a misogynist BUT"...but I loved that he got excited about a book because of something wonderful and lovely that it said, instead of focusing on this one use of the word "black" that OH MY GOD SO RACIST RUN AWAY.

After a while, though, I realized that I wanted something in between the two extremes embodied by my professors. I wanted to know how to reconcile my love of books with my need to point out some things that they said--how to make my inner feminist critic and my inner book-lover talk to each other. Sometimes it is very frustrating to make the critic be quiet for a little bit, to constantly remind her to sit down and pay attention, but I think the truth I came to is that even people who write about things in hateful or ignorant ways can still cough out a lot of truth. That's a hard conclusion to come to, to realize that even the writers who believe that women are worthless and that white men are capable of pondering the Big Problems in life (I'm looking right at you, John Updike, right at you) are still quite good at writing about people and their Big Problems.

In many ways I think this can apply to pop culture as well. Obviously some songs or TV shows or movies truly are so awful and offensive we cannot really deal with them, but sometimes, even though you loathe the message of her music, you really just want to rock out to Taylor Swift, or you want to belt "Don't Trust a Ho" at the top of your voice because it's fun and you do not want so much to be serious all the time.

And I think you can do that without betraying all that you fight for, as long as you are enjoying your book/song/show/movie without ignoring the messages and instead being conscious of them. And so sometimes I still laugh at posts on My Life is Bro, and I learn from books that hate on the Other, and I like to watch cheesy romance movies, because I think that reconciliation is not only possible, but quite lovely...if we threw out everything that avoided hatefulness, we would not have much to read, or look at, or listen to.

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