Tag Archives: feminism

Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede

Dealing With Dragons

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Comedy, Young Adult
  • Plot Summary
    • To escape an unwanted engagement to an insufferably dull prince, Princess Cimorene volunteers to become a dragon’s princess. This turns out to be a great career move. 
  • Character Empathy
    • This book has some of the most likable characters I’ve ever read. Special shoutout to Princess Cimorene. She was the first spirited, non-traditional princess I read, and most who came afterwards haven’t lived up to her. Too many authors aim for rebellious and hit spoiled brat. Cimorene is someone you would want to invite over for a dinner party, and wouldn’t mind asking to grab some chairs or watch the grill while you get the drinks set out. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Adorable and goofy and really, really fun. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Morwen. She’s a sensible, scrupulously neat witch who keeps nine cats, none of which are black. All the traditionally warty witches think she’s a hopeless mess and Morwen gives zero shits.
    • Negotiations with an accidentally freed genie; one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read.
    • Patricia C. Wrede uses a great mix of famous and obscure fairy tales. When updated-fairy-tale-mashup stories rely too hard on the ones everyone knows, it gets really easy to see where everything is going. She included some that even I hadn’t heard of before, which kept things interesting.
    • So many feminism metaphors. And, you know, just straightforward feminism.
    • If you like it as much as I do, there are three more books in the series.
  • Content Warnings
    • You’re good
  • Quotes
    • “Well,” said the frog, “what are you going to do about it?”  “Marrying Therandil? I don’t know. I’ve tried talking to my parents, but they won’t listen, and neither will Therandil.” “I didn’t ask what you’d said about it,” the frog snapped. “I asked what you’re going to do. Nine times out of ten, talking is a way of avoiding doing things.”
    • “Then they gave me a loaf of bread and told me to walk through the forest and give some to anyone who asked. I did exactly what they told me, and the second beggar-woman was a fairy in disguise, but instead of saying that whenever I spoke, diamonds and roses would drop from my mouth, she said that since I was so kind, I would never have any problems with my teeth.” “Really? Did it work?” “Well, I haven’t had a toothache since I met her.”  “I’d much rather have good teeth than have diamonds and roses drop out of my mouth whenever I said something”
    • “No proper princess would come out looking for dragons,” Woraug objected.”Well I’m not a proper princess then!” Cimorene snapped. “I make cherries jubillee and I volunteer for dragons, and I conjugate Latin verbs– or at least I would if anyone would let me. So there!”
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Mad Max and the Damsels Who Do Things

I saw Mad Max a couple nights ago, and I got at least two blogs worth of thoughts out of it. My overall impression of this movie was that it not perfect, but I enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for a lot of good action scenes you will probably love it.

(major spoilers avoided, but beginning and subplot spoilers ahead)

One thing that stood out to me was how many of the characters, specifically the protagonists, were women. In fact all but two of the good guys were female. Charlize Theron was absolutely terrific as Imperator Furiosa, a badass hero who really wasn’t written as a Female Action Hero TM, but just a complete all around boss who happened to be female. Eventually she is joined by other characters who are fabulous and heroic and happened to be women. Then there were five damsels in distress, whose escape early on kickstarted the plot.

The trope of damsels in distress is a sticky one. The damsel exists to be victimized, but then her victimization is not explored from her perspective. Instead, it is in the story to set up an end trophy for the hero, with the implications of a traumatized wife never explored, nor the question of whether his possession of her constitutes salvation or just a different kind of prison. Played straight, it can’t avoid being incredibly sexist. However, Mad Max subverts the damsel trope in ways that are both obvious and subtle.

The most obvious subversion I have already mentioned. The damsels do not sit around waiting to be rescued at the end of the movie. They start the plot themselves by breaking free together. I’ve seen other examples of this, but in this film it felt particularly appropriate because of what they were escaping from.

The damsel in distress trope is highly objectifying. It effectively turns a human being into a living MacGuffin*. The villain of the movie, Immortan Joe, is also highly objectifying. The beginning scenes set his world up as one where humans are regularly treated and used as machines, as cannon fodder, as cattle, even as living blood bags. The girls are his breeder concubines, and when they leave they write on the walls, over and over again, that they are not things.

In too many movies, this promising start would end there. The hero would enter the film and it would once again center all around him. The girls would not emerge as real characters. However, this does not happen.

To begin with, they do have individual personalities, and small subplots to themselves. The Splendid  Angharad is the leader, brave and aristocratic, and fully willing to sacrifice herself for the rest of the group. Toast the Knowing…

Okay, I have to take a break to acknowledge the weirdness of the names in this movie. Because they are all collectively so weird, it sort of works, in that they feel like they all belong to a world where naming practices have changed radically. Still, I have to ask what kind of drugs or drinking game aided the invention of these names? Anyway…

Toast the Knowing is quiet, and as such is the hardest to pin down, but she is the one who is able to handle guns, not fire them but load them and identify which bullets go with which weapons. In several scenes she reiterates their goal of finding “the green place,” which suggests to me that she is highly focused. Capable is the most compassionate, the kind of person who can look into an enemy’s eyes and see someone vulnerable, maybe in need of a second chance. The Dag’s suffering has made her fierce. She is delighted when she finds a mentor among the other female characters. Cheedo the Fragile lives up to her name. She is the most frightened and the most tempted to surrender. Typically she is seen standing behind or under the arm of another character. This makes her the most classical damsel in distress of the five, but when the time comes to be brave she finds her courage.

I liked that they were individualized, because it made an interesting counterpoint to the villain’s objectification. He treats them as inhuman, as women valuable only for being beautiful and fertile, but the writers and actresses take steps to remind us that they are people. On top of that, I loved the way they continued to be worked into action scenes as the plot continued. Letting them scream in the backseats would have been bland and expected, but the expected subversion, letting them all be action heroes, would also be cheap. It would reaffirm that the only kind of person worth being in an action movie is a stunt master, and would also be unrealistic given their background. And yes, I realize I’m talking realism in a movie which features an electric guitar that’s also a flamethrower.

But what happens is a kind of realism that is appropriate even in a movie so self-indulgently absurd as this one. They don’t become magical shots or martial artists just for the convenience of the plot, but they continue to find ways to help the characters who are actual warriors. Sometimes it’s loading guns in the backseat, sometimes it’s doing something incredibly brave that I won’t mention because spoilers, and sometimes it’s just defying genre expectations by bracing themselves in the background and not screaming. Honestly, these damsels scream less than in any other movie of its type that I have ever seen. It’s because they are brave, they knew what they were getting into, and they understand that when the action heroes with actual action hero training are stunt driving, dodging bullets and solving Inconvenient Equipment Malfunction #37, probably more noise is not what the situation calls for.

The point is, whether by action or by consciously chosen inaction, these characters participate in their own escape from beginning to end. This wasn’t heavy handed, but it still felt like the result of deliberate action taken by the creators to not do what they were condemning the villain for doing. Damsels or not, they weren’t going to erase these characters’ humanity, or their agency in their own story.

 

*A common trope in which something exists not to influence the story directly, but spur others to action by being desirable; the letters of mark in Casablanca, the diamonds in Notorious, the quest objects in the Indiana Jones movies, etc.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Fourteen

In Chapter Nineteen, Lewis leaves aside the philosophy and theology for some world building. Screwtape has accidentally contradicted himself. He has claimed, on multiple occasions, that love is not real, and also that the Enemy (God) truly loves humans. Wormwood has pointed it out, and Screwtape backpedals, claiming that of course all that stuff about the Enemy loving humans is propaganda and he didn’t mean they should actually believe it, he was only quoting because A. they don’t understand what the Enemy is really about and B. in the meantime they might as well quote his filthy lies, because that’s the closest they can come to understanding, and thus predicting, his aims. It’s up to interpretation how much Screwtape believes this. He also seems to be afraid that Wormwood might have shared some of these communications with the Gestapo of Hell, in the most literal sense. I don’t have much to say about it, which is good, because I have quite a lot to say about Chapter Twenty.

You may notice that in the last chapter I quoted Screwtape naming one advantage of the human belief that love is the best reason to get married. There was a second, which was that demons can use love, or sexual arousal mistaken for love, to convince a human to get married to someone they really shouldn’t. Or as he puts it, “any sexual infatuation whatever, so long as it intends marriage, will be regarded as ‘love,’ and ‘love’ will be held to excuse a man from all the guilt, and protect a man from all the consequences, of marrying a heathen, a fool or a wanton.” I suppose I might as well say now that Lewis’ idea of a good pairing and mine don’t entirely line up.

Here’s my acknowledgement of the good grain of a thought for the day. Simply being in love is not a sufficiently good reason to get married. The world is full of couples who are in love, but who would probably murder each other if they tried living together, much sharing finances and/or raising children as a team. Our lewd secular culture is not so blind to that fact as Lewis would paint us. TV, books and movies are full of break-ups and divorces between people who really loved each other but were not a good long term match. Magazines, online or in print, print quizzes to help you decide whether you’re with a keeper or not; these quizzes are of fairly, erm, varied quality, but they stand as testament to our general understanding that while love should really go with marriage, but we don’t think love and attraction alone make a good marriage.

I think having a good marriage is a mixture of having personalities that are either similar or complimentary, multiple shared interests and values, and the basic maturity to resolve inevitable conflicts fairly and compassionately. Lewis seems to think that a marriage can be bad simply because the woman involved is the wrong kind of hot. I wish I were making this up. To begin with, there’s the following; “in a rough and ready way, of course, this question [of which sort of men they should trick The Patient into marrying] is decided for us by spirits far deeper down the Lowerarchy than you and I. It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual ‘taste.’ This they do by working with the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely… At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires and encouraging the race to breed chiefly from the most arrogant and prodigal women. At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium. At present we are on the opposite tack. The age of jazz has succeeded the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children. ”

The slim silver lining here (that Lewis is criticizing the unrealistic beauty standards that women are pressured to conform to) is not only undermined but utterly obliterated by his blithe assumption that every woman who conforms to these fashions has a personality to match their outfits. A person’s taste in fashion might give clues about their background, their culture, their hobbies, the sort of work they do or that they aspire to and their favorite color, but their outfits are utterly useless for telling whether they are kind or clever or fair-minded or anything that really matters about who they are as people. The only clues clothes give prospective partners are individual, rather than general; they can help two people realize they like the same TV shows but can’t identify a person as being generally the sort you want to be in a relationship with or not.

There is also an assumption above that female value in relationships is largely defined by  their willingness to produce children. He specifically lists “won’t want to have babies” as a disadvantage of modern fashion, and also talks about using these women to breed a worse set of human being. So we’ve got a woman’s right to choose dismissed without a first, much less second thought, and a nice big side of eugenics. Fashionable women are all horrible people, and they are also terrible mothers, and if you aren’t getting married to have babies you are doing marriage wrong. Now, I realize that he isn’t writing for a modern audience, but nor is he writing in medieval times. Feminism was a thing when he was around, so while his position might have been less controversial back then, it isn’t as though this is a stance I am artificially pushing him into with the lenses of modern values. There were controversies back then about women in jobs and their role in the family, and he is consciously taking a traditional, stay in the kitchen stance.

And somehow, it gets even worse.

“You will find, if you look carefully into any human’s heart, that he is haunted by at least two imaginary women-a terrestrial and an infernal Venus, and that his desire differs qualitatively according to its object. There is one type for which is desire is such as to be naturally amenable to the Enemy-readily mixed with charity, readily obedient to marriage, coloured all through with that golden light of reverence and naturalness which we detest; there is another type which he desires brutally, and desires to desire brutally, a type best used to draw him away from marriage altogether but which, even within marriage, he would tend to treat as a slave, an idol, or an accomplice. His love for the first might involve what the Enemy calls evil, but only accidentally; the man would wish that she was not someone else’s wife and be sorry that he could not love her lawfully. But in the second type, the felt evil is what he wants; it is that ‘tang’ in the flavour which he is after. In the face, it is the visible animality, or sulkiness, or craft, or cruelty which he likes, and in the body, something quite different from what he ordinarily calls Beauty, something he may even, in a sane hour, describe as ugliness, but which, by our art, can be made to play on the raw nerve of his private obsession.”

Elsewhere in this book, he regularly uses male pronouns, as writers of his time tended to do, when talking about humans in general, but in this passage something very strange happens. He follows “every human’s heart,” with a description that is unmistakeably only about heterosexual males, while he talks about women as being the subject of temptation, with no mention of how they feel about the whole thing or whether they are tempted by men in an equivalent fashion. Women, in this passage, are not only objects of affection, they are good or bad objects of affection based solely on how they physically present and what sorts of emotions they raise in the men observing them. Their feelings and choices have no part in whether they would make good partners or not, and the only acknowledgement that they even has personality comes with the assumption that the type of beautiful they happen to be can tell a professional tempter everything they need to know about the woman’s character.

I want to note that this is actually very uncharacteristic of Screwtape’s tone. He is very aware of how humans work, as people. His whole business is taking advantage of how people, as people, make mistakes, so while he might belittle, scorn or abuse them, he never dehumanizes them, based on gender or anything else. He explains to Wormwood how they tick, and when he thinks men and women tick differently, he will take a moment to explain how women work, presumably because he hopes that Wormwood will go on to tempt a multitude of humans, some of whom may be female. That is why, in the majority of this post, I speak of the dehumanization of women as Lewis’s problem, not a problem of Screwtape’s that we are supposed to criticize him for. Believe me, if I thought there was reasonable doubt that the misogyny was something we were supposed to criticize, rather than adapt, I would have given Lewis the benefit of the doubt, but the text does not support that conclusion.

At the same time that Lewis warns us all of this infernal Venus, his description of her is so vague as to be completely unhelpful. I’m not even sure whether he means that all women who arouse that sort of feeling are horrible women who will drag them down the road to hell by their actions, or whether they are bad because they are attractive to men in the wrong sort of way and will encourage the wrong sorts of thoughts in their heads, no matter what those women as individuals choose to do. Assuming, as he is, that all of us (meaning all men, because women apparently don’t actually exist except as philosophical zombies) are aware of this phenomenon based on it residing in our hearts. I suppose that means I can assume that the first thing that sprang to my mind, based on his crude description, was correct. I think he means Betty good, Veronica bad. If a girl is sweet and conservative in her sexuality, she’s good material, but if she is assertive and exotic and owns her sexuality, she’s bad. Apparently we also think that type is ugly deep down, and if we think that’s bunk we just haven’t explored the depths of our souls enough, sort of like how I’m not really a man and my boyfriend isn’t really not attracted to women, we are both just deceived by Satan.

Now, I don’t want to defend either Bettys or Veronicas, because number one I think that’s a very simplistic way to divide real people up, and number two… no, there is no number two. Number one covers it. In fact, most of the most strongly Veronica-ish people I can think of are actually happily married and have been for years. I can think of a number of people who are much more Betty-ish, but would probably be disastrous to marry, simply because they aren’t at that stage in their life yet. There is some maturing that needs to happen first. The majority of people I know aren’t either one; they are comfy down to earth sluts, or brash independent individuals who are looking forward to having kids, or they wear sweaters one day and stripper heels the next because real people have multiple modes they switch in and out of day to day, hour to hour. You can’t take half the population, sort them into two categories, and then say, “pick a wife from box A. and stay away from everyone in box B.” Those boxes are incorrect.

For a chapter about chastity, this is actually very sexually objectifying. People often think the “sexually” part of that phrase is the important one. It’s not. Being attractive to someone else is not a problem, and most people want to be attractive on some level. It’s the “objectifying” part that is an issue. Being aroused by someone is not a problem, but treating them as if their humanity and dignity ceases to matter in the face of your own arousal is a huge problem. Noticing that someone walking down the street has a fine ass is not necessarily sexually objectifying, but whistling at them generally is, because it ignores the fact that the ass is attached to a person who might not feel comfortable with that. Lewis is favoring women with toned down sexualities, but he is still valuing them entirely by how they sexually interest men, ignoring the fact that they have thoughts and feelings and histories and character beyond whether they wear short skirts and halter tops vs. smell like homemade cookies. Women, in this chapter, are objects.

He closes out by saying that getting a man to marry Veronica is as effective in capturing his soul as merely sleeping with her is. Again, whether this is because of the interaction between the two of them or just because the demons get to say, “ha-ha, we made you marry wrong girl” and then something mystical happens to everybody’s souls, that is not explained at all. Certain types of women are just bad, and we are supposed to all intuitively understand that he is correct about that. In this series of reviews, I have always tried to be fair, and I’ve tried to be aware of my current political and religious biases. I have erred on the side of caution, looking for the good in each chapter, as well as the bad. This is the one chapter so far that has completely failed to turn up anything redeemable. This is pure sexist sludge, with no universal moral lessons to be gleaned among the morass of misogyny.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Thirteen and a Half

In my last piece, Screwtape explained how love is part of sex and that makes it totally logical that God would command lifelong monogamy or chastity for everyone, except without the part where he actually explained that in a way that makes any sense. Now that he’s not made his point, he goes into the details of the implications.

“Now comes the joke. The Enemy described a married couple as ‘one flesh.’ He did not say ‘a happily married couple’ or ‘a couple who married because they were in love,’ but you can make them forget that the man they call Paul did not confine it to married couples. Mere copulation, for him, makes ‘one flesh.’ You can thus get the humans to accept as rhetorical eulogies of ‘being in love’ what were in fact plain descriptions of the real significance of sexual intercourse. The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured.”

This is more or less what I was taught as a kid. If you have sex, you should get married, because in a sense you already spiritually are. Arguing anything else is just falling prey to silly modern romantic notions. Now, there was a fair bit of hypocrisy built into this. I did know a fair number of divorced people and pregnant teens who were not forced to marry the teen who provided the sperm end of the equation. That said, when it was hammered into my head, again and again, that sex outside of marriage was Bad, this was the general rationale. My parents were never abusive towards people who had gotten divorced or pregnant, but they had no tolerance for people openly sleeping together before marriage, and they accepted the former group with a tacit assumption that they had repented to God and felt properly ashamed of themselves.

Screwtape goes on to explain that love almost inevitably follows marriage, whether the couple is in love to begin with or not, but that our ridiculous modern culture regards being in love as both a prerequisite to and the only good reason for getting married. He happily takes credit for demonic help in encouraging individuals to come to this conclusion, because it serves their evil plan.

“In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves ‘in love,’ and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical.”

Deciding you’ll just marry some random decent person because you aren’t allowed to have sex until you’re wed and you feel really, really horny? Yeah, that seems a bit cynical to me. Lewis tries to make us see it in another light with a bit of snark and some sleight of hand, “Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.” Funny, because just a sentence ago you were actually suggesting that only the middle qualification really mattered. It’s not like I can’t skip back a line and reread what you said. The proof is right there. Don’t try to backpedal and pad “lets get married because I just really want to have sex” out into “lets get married because I really want sex and babies and to trust and rely on you forever.” Those two statements are not the same.

I think the whole idea of getting married is awesome. I also think that rock climbing, getting your driver’s license, getting a tattoo, owning 34 pets including some highly exotic species and starting your own business are awesome. These things all require some degree of forethought and preparation and personal maturity before you dive into them. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up to lose all your money, kill an innocent creature because you didn’t know Petco is the worst place on Earth to get advice about iguana husbandry, have Spongebob’s face on your butt forever, crash and break your neck, fall and break your neck, and someday face the dilemma of either getting divorced or living the rest of your life with someone who makes you miserable.

And that’s the thing that’s wrong here. What he frames as “not happily married” is what many people experience as “really goddamn miserable.” I’m not just talking about explicitly abusive relationships here, although I’m certainly including them. I’m thinking about, for example, the situation where one person has feelings for the other, but for reason the other has lost interest in them. I was in that situation once. It’s really soul crushing, and there is no solution except to get out. He needed to be with someone he loved, and I needed to be with someone who loved me.

But according to Lewis, because we had sex, supposedly my boyfriend and I were transcendentally bonded and we were obligated to stay together (I’m ignoring the fact that he probably wouldn’t have counted our relationship as real in the first place, on account of our being gay). What, precisely, was the effect of the transcendental bonding? Was breaking up destructive to the fabric of our souls? I feel fine. I’m still me, no differences noted beyond what you would expect after any kind of significant life experience. Are my future relationships all going to suffer from that trans-dimensional tearing? Well, my current relationship is awesome, and I think I learned things from my previous relationship that helped me make this one better, so I don’t really find that plausible. Is there some invisible effect that I’m just incapable of perceiving in any form, but that is definitely capital-b-Bad? I’m just supposed to trust him that I would have been better off making both of us miserable because of some spiritual effect that neither of us can perceive and that he can’t explain beyond calling it “transcendental”?

Yeah, I think I’ll stick with ethical sluttiness, thanks.

My Response to the Lady Who Thinks All Marriages are Between Traditional Straight Couples, Part 2; the Nitpicker’s Edition

As I said previously, this is directly a response to this blog. Part one had my overview with what was wrong with what she said, so now it’s time to break Kimes’ advice down point by point, because I am nothing if not thorough in my overthinking.

“1.  Have a hot meal ready for your man when he gets home from work. Let’s face it, I’m a busy woman, and I don’t always have time to cook. But if I don’t think I’ll have the time that night, I’ll have my cook prepare something, or I will pick something up.”

There are two issues with this advice. First, she assumes that a hot meal is going to mean the same thing to everyone as it does to herself and her husband. Second, she assumes everyone has the capacity to have a hot meal every night. It’s almost hilarious how she casually mentions her cook, like “oh, you don’t have one? You should go talk to your friends at the yacht club; they’re bound to have a good recommendation.” Meanwhile, on planet Teacher’s Salary, we find spouses who can live with leftover lasange tonight.

Probably the best advice I have ever heard for any kind of close relationship, friend, family or significant other, is to first out what makes the other person feel loved. Don’t rely on the cliched “nice things.” Those are for the coworkers who you don’t know that well but who you need to do something nice for because it’s their birthday/retirement/their mother just died. If you’re in a close, personal relationship with someone, you should be basing your nice things on what works for the relationship between the two of you. For some people, a warm meal ready is the nicest gesture possible. Other people don’t care if it’s PBJ on paper plates tonight, so long as the two of you can snuggle on the couch and watch How I Met Your Mother on the Netflix account.

Hot on the heels of that advice is that one of the first steps in taking care of others is taking care of yourself. I don’t care how nice the meal is, I want to have it with someone who is happy and healthy, not someone stressed out by the pressure of working two jobs while still rushing home to cook three courses and clean up, every single day. That will absolutely break a marriage, especially if the work starts to be taken for granted and the cook feels unappreciated for their effort. I’m glad Dr. Kimes and her husband found a gesture of love that works for everyone. For everyone else out there; find your own. Don’t feel like you need to do what someone else is doing to have a successful relationship.

“2. Don’t be a prude in the bedroom. Of course, I am not encouraging you to go out and have a threesome, BUT keep an open mind to the new things that your husband wants to try. Don’t be so quick to say “no.” Take pleasure in pleasing your man. And please try not to ever go to sleep angry.”

Oh god, no. Okay, there is the seed of a good thought in this idea. For a lot of people, opening up and trying new things in the bedroom is a great way to stay connected and happy. Sex is awesome and you and your partner should enjoy it without worrying about what outsiders might think of it. That said, sexual boundaries are also very personal. I know someone who is intellectually accepting of kink and alternative sexualities, but has also had some bad experiences and anything but the vanilla-est of vanilla sex can be emotionally triggering for her. There’s enough out there about how women have a duty to please their men, and it’s a really gross kind of pressure to put on anyone. Bottom line, nobody should make you feel like you should try a type of sex you aren’t comfortable trying. Sometimes couples split because their desires and libidos are mismatched in those areas, and that’s okay.

Also, it bothers me how the first thing she says is that of course you shouldn’t go have a threesome. Why not? Assuming it’s consensual and everyone is using appropriate protection, what business is it of hers to decide that’s the line you shouldn’t cross? It’s like she’s saying, “ignore society’s narrow ideas about what is and isn’t okay for a consenting couple to do in bed; follow mine instead!”

“3. Don’t be a nag. You don’t always have to have response. As women, we like to give our opinions, often times, unwarranted. It’s OK to not have a comment. Pick and choose your battles if it’s not that important…let it go!  Your husband does not want to hear your opinion 24/7, especially when using a loud, high-pitched tone (that some of us like to use).”

There are times in a relationship when you have to let it go. Everybody has lots of opinions and nobody can get their way one hundred percent of the time. So long as you both feel like the big things are being handled in a mutually satisfying way, you don’t have to worry about losing some of the smaller battles.

There, was that so hard to say? Notice how I phrased it in a way that made it sound like this was advice that anyone of any gender could follow, and that both people in a relationship have a responsibility to follow it? When you phrase it like it’s an issue of women having stupid little issues that bother men, you reinforce the outdated idea that women like to whine over tiny little issues. And often they do, because they are human beings and human beings like to complain. Whining just means complaining while possessing a high-pitched voice. Characterizing women specifically as the nags just encourages men to either not take the women in their lives seriously, or to just give in because “women, amirite? Can’t reason with them, and you’ll never hear the end of it until they get their way.” Which is ironic, because as a trans man who has seen both sides, a lot of the time the nagging attitude I saw in women came from the feeling that the men in their lives didn’t take them seriously unless they nagged.

There will always be irrational, immature people of all genders who can’t keep their needs in perspective relative to the needs of others. Try to be one of the ones who grew out of it, and try to avoid the individuals who did not grow out of it. Don’t pretend gender determines anything but the pronouns of the person doing the complaining.

“4. Show him your appreciation. You can catch more bees with honey than you can with vinegar. Be kind, and polite to your husband, and he will reciprocate. Show him that you are thankful for all that he does. Make your words soft and sweet. You won’t be disappointed with the results you’ll get.”

This advice isn’t bad, but it’s also annoyingly vague. How do you show appreciation? How are you kind and polite and thankful? The vagueness could be a feature rather than a bug, if she talked about how every couple develops a unique way of showing appreciation over time, whether it is leaving notes for each other or a quick “can you get the trash for me?” “sure” “you rock,” and maybe had some suggestions for how to find the best way to show appreciation (I’m thinking it would start with “comm-” and end with “-unication”). As it sits, it’s just fluffy aphorisms with a heavy salting of cliche. It bothers me that she doesn’t have actual suggestions here, but she has a very definite idea of which gender is being thankful and which one is receiving the thanks.

But other than that, yes, appreciation is good. Do that thing.

“5. Follow his lead. You married your husband for a reason, right? Hopefully you trust him enough to make the important decisions in your household. Again, don’t go with things that are immoral, or wrong, but definitely always remember to make him feel like he wears the pants.”

You married your wife for a reason, right? Hopefully you trust her enough to make the important decisions in your household. Just let her make all the calls, and trust they will be in your best interest as well. Remember, women like to feel like they wear the pants in the household.

Just because you trust someone, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t need for discussion and joint decision making. That said, some people do have personality types that are naturally inclined to strong leadership roles, or supporting roles. For people who happen to be a natural supporter in a relationship with a natural leader, this is great advice. In fact, in any relationship there is likely to be one person who is a little more dominant than the other. The trouble is when you tack those leader/supporter roles into people based solely on their gender. I’ve known women who would be more suited to the leader role, men who would be more suited to supporting roles. Furthermore, what works when one person is a happy leader and the other is a happy follower might not work if you have a leader and a slightly more assertive leader, or a follower and someone who is more comfortable holding the reins but doesn’t want to micromanage. Power is a reality of relationships, so talk about what kind of dynamic makes everyone happiest, and don’t assume that testosterone or estrogen alone are going to decide the issue.

“6. Your career does NOT come first. I have a super busy schedule, especially now that I am a cast member on Bravo’s “Married to Medicine.” However, when I get home from work, I turn my phone off. I am there to get my kids off the bus. Family time is very important to me. I cherish those moments.”

I was going to go into a rant about how it’s so unfair that it’s always the wife who has to make this sacrifice and not the husband, but come to think of it, this is actually one of the few tips where she doesn’t say it. Maybe her husband does hold himself to the same standard. I’m tempted to assume he doesn’t, because of the tone of the rest of the tips, but it would still be an assumption. So good for her; for once she just talked about something she does as a person without being all gender role-y about it.

I also think she’s mostly right. People don’t talk about holding down a family to provide for their jobs, after all. Careers are an important part of life and what you leave behind you, but if you’ve taken on the responsibility of children they had better be a big priority. They are also one of the biggest things you will leave behind you when you’ve gone, so get them right.

Of course, there may be circumstances when your job trumps your children, like when you’re president of the United States and someone kidnapped your kids to blackmail you into starting a nuclear war. If that every happens, I highly recommend that you immediately resign and let it be the vice president’s problem. If you neglect to do this, you are probably in a Michael Bay movie and have nothing to worry about.

7. Look sexy for him. It is so important to look good for your man. Know what your man likes, and what he thinks is attractive. I realized recently that this is MOST important! Try to keep yourself in shape and put together.”

And we are back to the gender double standard. See if you can spot it.

When I started dating my boyfriend, I started trimming some of my body hair, because that was more attractive to him. Often I shower before I see him because I like to smell nice around him. If he told me there was a shirt he thought looked good on me I would wear it around him more often. All of these are small things. They make me feel attractive around him, and they don’t make me feel any less like myself, so I am happy to do them.

If, on the other hand, he thought the nerdy T-shirts I wear were childish and pressured me to get rid of them, that would suck. I wear them because they make me feel comfy and Lane-ish. If he thought I should lose weight, when I’m already on the small side, that would suck even more. How we look is a huge part of our sense of self, taking care of our bodies is part of nurturing that sense of identity. There is  a line between looking nice for a partner and changing yourself for a partner.

She says she’s recently realized looking sexy is the most important thing, with capital letters and everything, which makes me worry about her husband’s priorities. I don’t know her or her husband, so I don’t know what was going on that made her say that. Maybe it’s entirely social pressure that has nothing to do with what her husband actually thinks of her appearance. In any case, whenever I’ve been in love with someone, he cannot look bad to me. However he looks, he is handsome, because it’s his face, right there, being all him-ish. If fulfilling this “MOST important” item is something that actually requires a lot of deviation from how you would want to look anyway, you should really question whether you are with somebody who loves the real you.

“8. Let him know it’s OK for him to be stressed. Because he is the man and is expected to take on a lot of things and it can sometimes get stressful for him. Men aren’t always good at expressing themselves when they are stressed or depressed. Let him know that it’s OK to feel that way, and make yourself emotionally available.”

Good advice. Let’s apply it to wives and girlfriends and friends and siblings and parents and coworkers and bosses and people who look like they’re having a bad day on the street. Except maybe that last one would be creepy. I dunno, some people can pull it off. I’ve had people approach me randomly on the street and say something along the lines of, “You look like you’re having a bad day. Hang in there.” It’s made me feel good, even if I was mostly okay. I wish they taught classes on how to be able to go up to random people and say nice things to them. If everybody could do that, all of us with our stressful lives would just have random people coming up to us all the time and giving hugs and the world would be full of hugs all the time and everything would be awesome.

Where was I? Oh yes, this is good advice, except for the weird sexist spin she puts on it. Husbands get “appreciate him” and “let him know it’s okay to be stressed.” Women get “don’t be a nag.” There’s something terribly unbalanced about that.

“9. Marry someone you genuinely admire and find east (sic) to respect. When you admire the man you chose to marry, it doesn’t feel like a chore when you’re accommodating him. It will be something you want to do. You’ll want to give him the respect he deserves.”

Actually, I think everybody should marry someone they genuinely dislike and find difficult to respect. It’s all a part of my evil gay agenda to destroy traditional marriage and bring on the international communist plot.

Again, this isn’t bad advice, as far as it goes. But where is the advice about how to bring up your issues diplomatically and maturely? I get the sense that she thinks if you marry a good enough guy, you can just let him take the lead in everything and not have to bring up your own issues ever. You won’t have any issues because he will read your mind, and all of your problems are stupid little whiny woman problems anyways so you should just live with them. She says pick someone you admire and respect so you can accommodate him. I say pick someone you admire and respect because odds are that’s someone you can have a healthy respectful conversation with and you can both accommodate each other really maturely.

“10. Get a support system. Surround yourself with people who are like you, or people who support your lifestyle. There is nothing worse than a friend who doesn’t agree with your lifestyle trying to give you advice. There is nothing wrong with being a submissive wife, and your closest friends should be people who aren’t judging you for it!”

Absolutely right. Being surrounded by a world that judges you for who you are really sucks. And I’ll be honest, I have met women who feel judged for their femininity by the feminist mainstream, and I feel for them. See my boxes analogy at the end of part one.

In the end, though, it’s kind of annoying getting that advice from someone whose big point of controversy is that she lets her husband run the household. Last weekend, I visited my boyfriend, who is working every weekend this month in Philly. As I said goodbye to him on Sunday in the hotel lobby, I didn’t give him a kiss. I wanted to so badly, and I think it would have been safe to, but he’s fairly cautious and I would never do anything that made him feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Instead I hugged him and kissed his shoulder, where nobody else could see. Unless Kimes is married to a white guy and they got together back in the sixties, I don’t think she has any idea what that’s like. I don’t want people to sneer at her for having a relationship that makes her happy, but I’d have a lot more sympathy if I got a sense that she had respect for queer marriages or straight couples who don’t want a patriarchal structure to their relationship.

How to Give Good Advice; My Response to the Lady Who Thinks All Marriages are Between Traditional Straight Couples, Part 1

I’ve been working on taking a look at the blogs of people who read my own work, and this one from The Editor’s Journal intrigued me. It’s a very neutral reposting of the matrimonial tips of someone named Dr. Heavenly Kimes. The intent of the post is less to criticize her directly and more to start a conversation in the comments. The tips are fairly provocative, in that they assume a traditional, patriarchal structure is the ideal marriage. This is one of those rare times where I’ve fully enjoyed reading the comment section. Reactions varied, but on the whole they were thoughtful and respectfully phrased, even if they were fairly vehement and opposed at times.

My own response was too lengthy to be a comment. I had something to say about every one of the tips Kimes gave, because all of them were their own mixture of good and bad. There was at least the grain of a good thought in all of them, but phrased in such a way that following it verbatim would be likely be a terrible for many couples. Now, the fact that she is apparently in a husband-is-the-head-of-the-family marriage doesn’t bother me. If that’s what makes her happy, it’s her right to live that way. What bothers me is her assumption that what makes her happy will make everyone else happy; that her relationship is the kind everyone else should have. Her advice doesn’t read like she thoughtfully looked at what made her marriage work and which elements can be generalized for just about anyone. It looks like she slapped down a list of things that happened to work for her and called it a day.

For an analogy, let’s pretend that I found a great way for me to get over writer’s block was to have a beer while I write my first draft. It makes a certain amount of sense; alcohol helps many people relax and stop overthinking, so it might shut up that annoying, overly critical inner editor, at least until I’m ready for a rewrite. All that is fine. However, if I were to put “have a beer while you write” up on the internet, say as item four on my list of top ten ways to beat writer’s block, that would be a problem. My decision may have been informed by the fact that I am  not an alcoholic and don’t have any other health issues that would make a drink a day an issue, but that’s not something I can assume about all my readers. Medical issues aside, for some writers it really is important to write a great first draft, so they need their heads clear to do their best writing the first time around. For some people, alcohol can make them feel more anxious or depressed, so it might make their writer’s block worse. Of course, whether my readers actually follow my advice or not is up to them, but it would still be fair to judge the advice I just gave as bad. When I was trying to decide what to do for myself, the only standard was whether or not it worked for me. When I started giving advice, now a new set of standards apply. If my suggestion would have adverse effects on a substantial number of the people I’m advising, that is practically the definition of bad advice.

That’s not to say that I can’t draw on my experience to give advice; I just need to phrase it in a way that is likely to be actually helpful for the audience at large. For example; “If there’s an inner editor who won’t shut up, find things you can physically do to help distract yourself from it. I like to have a beer while I write. For other people, going to another setting helps them focus. Some people take a walk and talk into a recorder, and then transcribe their thoughts later. Some people even like having some music or the TV on in the background.” Now the advice is better. I’ve given a good guideline, and some concrete examples of how to apply it. For some readers none of the suggestions will work, and that’s okay. Where a single inapplicable suggestion is unhelpful, a series can still provide material from which the reader can begin to brainstorm.

The other issue I have with her tips is that many of them play into sexist double standards. That issue could have disappeared if she had prefaced her article with something like; “I’m a straight woman in a traditional the-man-is-the-head-of-the-family relationship, and we both like it that way. It might not work as well for everybody, but if you are the same way, or think you might want to be, here’s what has worked for us.” The issue with sexism is that it forces gender roles onto people who don’t want them, or under circumstances they don’t want. For people who happen to be fairly traditionally masculine men or feminine women, it is all right to still be that way. You are not betraying the whole of feminism by staying home and cooking for your family. I know masculine men and feminine men, tomboys and girly women, trans people and cis people and people who zig zag over the gender lines like a crayon in the hand of a two year old. My goal is not to take people out of one set of boxes and put them into another. It’s to demolish the boxes, and if some people drift over to space that happened to once be encompassed by a box, that’s fine. So long as it is an open space, rather than a crammed corner full of miserable people who didn’t want to be there, I say mission accomplished.

In a boxless world, I might be able to read Kimes’ presuming good intentions and say no harm done. As someone who doesn’t fit in the boxes, however, I can attest that we are not in a boxless world. We are in a world where the boxes have gotten badly dented and often there is a hole you can escape out of. There is still a lot of social pressure to stay in the box, and within that context, I can’t help reading her advice as a part of that pressure, whether she intended it that way or not. This is the other issue with the thoughtlessness of her advice. In my made up example, there isn’t a lot of social pressure to be a drink-while-you-draft writer. If you read it and know drinking that much would be bad for you, that can make it fairly easy to ignore. For a married woman struggling to build a good career for herself, hearing for the twelve thousandth time that no husband wants a wife who puts her career first, the effect is different. There probably is some harm done. So even though I will acknowledge several places where Kimes has makings of a good point, on the whole her approach is badly flawed.

Coming up next; a blow by blow analysis of all her points, because overthinking is fun!

Strong Femininity

When I was growing up and trying to talk to people about how I didn’t feel female, their first impulse was to say something “reassuring” about how all the masculine traits I was describing didn’t make me not female, just a different kind. I got exactly zero comfort from those conversations, and they helped me realize that my problem wasn’t feeling unfeminine and wanting to be female, but feeling fundamentally uncomfortable with being female. In general I didn’t get anything else out of conversations of this type, with one exception. I was talking with a lesbian friend, who said that she thought I had a very strong femininity to me, not in the sense that I was very feminine, but in the sense that a lot of my inner traits that gave me strength were feminine. At the time that was a novel thought for me. I wasn’t used to people talking about feminine traits as strong ones; that is not how American culture presents them. As I thought about it though, I realized that she was right. Transitioning didn’t change that, in fact it actually makes it easier for me to accept it.

I’m not a girly man. I wear cargo shorts, T-shirts and boxer shorts. I avoid pink and purple for the most part. My interests are generally either gender neutral or masculine. I can drive a stick shift. Externally, I’m a pretty standard masculine-but-not-macho man. Internally, however, a lot of the traits that I consider most important to my identity the sort that are culturally considered feminine.

I’m creative. I love to write and imagine. I enjoy looking at other people’s artwork. I have an appreciation for the beautiful things in life.

I’m sensitive. I cry in real life. I sometimes cry at movies. More often, I’ll become absorbed by the characters’ lives and think about them for days afterwards (Brokeback Mountain is a good example). I get sad thinking about historical figures who lived through some personal tragedy. I empathize easily with other people. Understanding the emotions of other people and connecting with them is important to me.

I have both rational and emotional aspects to how I think, but I’m more likely to follow my heart than my head. I trust my emotions.

I have a nurturing side. I love babysitting and taking care of animals. If a friend of mine is upset or in trouble, I like being the one to comfort them.

In conflict, I prefer a passive approach to an aggressive one. Thats not to say I’m not stubborn or competitive, but I save my aggressive side for when I’m being playful; when I’m bantering or playing games. In real conflicts, I prefer to either reach a compromise, or find a way to remove myself from the situation.

Strength is about whether you are willing to make sacrifices and work towards what you value. The traits I’ve described above influence what I want and what tactics I prefer to use to achieve it. Being emotional gives me the motivation to fight for what I value. Being artistic and nurturing affects what I want to fight for. Preferring passive tactics means I’ve developed resilience and patience. Whatever the culture might say, all those traits are part of my expression of strength. Thats true for many other men and women as well.

There are many feminine things that I avoid because they don’t mesh well with my identity. I genuinely have no interest in wearing eyeliner, or watching the latest chick flick. That is not to say that nothing considered feminine can fit into my idea of who I am. I’ve yet to meet a man or woman, cis or trans, who doesn’t have at least one masculine trait and at least one feminine trait. Being trans male isn’t about being the Perfect Western Ideal of Masculinity, or about crushing the gender binary through external performance. Its about being me.