Women at Work: Eileen (Writer/Editor)

Editor’s Note: I am very excited to introduce the inaugural interview of our new series, “Women at Work.” This series aims to open up conversations about what work women do, what aspects of work they find fulfilling, and what improvements can be made to their part of the American workplace. We’ll talk to women in a broad range of fields, in different stages of their careers.  Greater transparency benefits everyone! Our first interview is with 91-year-old Eileen Lavine, a retired editor who began her career several decades ago.

Women at Work logo


 

1) What did you do for a living? What do you do now? 
I was a writer and editor for most of my career. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1945, and knew when I first entered college that I wanted to have a career in journalism. I had also been an editor of my high school newspaper (an enormous all-girls school in Manhattan), and as soon as I started college (at the age of 16 ½), I went to the office of The Daily Cardinal, the award-winning newspaper at Wisconsin, and started as a reporter.  That was September 1941 – and when we entered World War II in December, many of the male students went into service – so The Cardinal was run mostly by women, and I became the first woman to serve a full year’s term as executive editor.

2) When you were in school, what did you imagine you would do for a living? Did you have a strong sense of direction in terms of career, or a sense that there were many options open to you?

Yes, I had a strong sense of direction – I did not want to major in journalism, but rather in American Institutions, an inter-department major where I concentrated in political science, history, sociology and economics, all much more valuable for journalism.

When I graduated, I went to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and received my M.S. degree. Then I worked as a reporter and Assistant Sunday Editor on the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times for about 2 years.  I then came back home to New York and worked as an assistant to Dorothy Gordon, who had youth forums on radio for the New York Times – my job was doing forums at junior and senior high schools around the city on current events and cultural issues.  After 2 years, my job ended and with my generous severance pay I went on a six-week Grand Tour of Europe, ending up in Paris where I stayed for a year doing some free-lance writing for UNESCO and the Economic Cooperation Administration (US Marshall Plan). When I came back home, I became editor of a welfare and health newspaper published by the Community Council of New York.  I married and was doing free-lance writing when my first child was born, then we moved to Washington, DC (my husband was an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission) – and I started doing part-time work for a nonprofit association in the medical field, writing and editing newsletters and other materials.

Eileen LavineIn 1968, a group of us – all women whose husbands were employed – incorporated ourselves as Information Services, Inc., an editorial business that produced newsletters, brochures, conference proceedings,, public relations programs, etc. mostly for health and education organizations and government agencies.  I was President of the company for much of its existence and also was active in the formation of the National Association of Women Business Owners.  We were a low-key firm, mostly housewives working part time on a variety of assignments.  It was quite unique at the time, but we were fortunate in that the organization that had brought us together in the first place continued to pay for the rent and office supplies, and also most of us had husbands who were working and had health benefits.  Our company closed in 1998.  Since that time I have been a volunteer, first as a mentor for young Black and Latino students in reading and acculturation projects and a member of the Board of Directors of the organization sponsoring this program , and for the past eight years, I have been a senior editor at Moment Magazine, a bi-monthly publication founded 40 years ago by Elie Wiesel as an independent magazine on Jewish cultural, social and political issues. I have written articles for the magazine, and I do copy editing and proofreading for each issue.

3) Did your family, friends, and other people around you support your ambitions to be a writer and editor? Was there pressure to do something else with your career/life?

Yes, my family and friends strongly supported my ambitions to be a journalist.  From my high school days, I always went to the 070 section in the public library to read books about journalists. My father, who was a doctor, died when I was 10, and my mother was very supportive of me and my two sisters in everything we did, from going to college out of town, working on the high school newspaper, and going to graduate school (I lived at home that year). My friends also had career goals, and most of my close friends worked after college and after they were married (although most, I believe, stopped working when they first had children, returning to work in later years).  I don’t recall any friends of the family questioning my ambitions.  My older sister, who graduated from college in 1941, got a master’s in economics at Columbia, worked for several yeas after she married, then returned to work when her sons were older. Ditto for my younger sister.  There was never any pressure for any of us to do anything else.

4) Do you see major differences in the way that women are seen and treated in the workforce, from your early days as a writer and editor to your time now at Moment Magazine
Eileen Lavine 2
Eileen celebrates her 91st birthday at Moment Magazine.

Obviously, women in general have many more opportunities today – but remember, my college years were during World War II and women took over many jobs at that time. Some of my friends in college accelerated to get out of college in 3 years instead of 4 to take advantage of these jobs.
For a year in 1948 I worked on two trade magazines, before my job opened up at the NY Times, and the staffs were all women including the top editors. At Moment, the staff is almost all women, except for the design and production manager. We have had male fellows for one-year stints, but the latest fellows have been female.  I am continually impressed at the professionalism, capability and skill of all these women – and it has been a real pleasure for me to work with them.

 

5) Was the gendered wage gap and ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] a big topic of discussion during your time at Information Services, Inc.? What do you think can be done to further improve the working conditions of women today, if anything?

We didn’t discuss gendered wage gaps at Information Services because we were all part-time housewives whose husbands made most of the family income. So we really had no concern about the issue. However, we did march in support of the ERA and that was a big topic of discussion among us all.

As far as improving the working conditions of women today, I think professionally, women have made their marks already at the top levels of many fields, including journalism. The major issue today is how to improve working conditions for women at the lower end [of the job spectrum], to give them education and training so that they can move up and aspire to better jobs.

Our next interview is with Eileen’s daughter, Amy! What kinds of working women would you like to see us interview?


 

Know someone who wants to share their workplace experiences? Contact us :)

 

Anita Hill Hearings Sparked National Conversation on Sexual Harrassment

“I think it was something that was meant to happen, actually,” Hill explained. “I had an experience to share that went to the fitness of an individual who was going to be sitting on a Supreme Court with a lifetime appointment. It was important, not only to the integrity of this individual, but also to the integrity of the court itself.”

In the years after Hill’s testimony, the number of workplace harassment complaints to the EEOC skyrocketed as more and more people became comfortable with the idea of speaking up. Though Hill recognizes the role she played in sparking a national conversation about sexual harassment, she stressed the fact that there’s still much more work to be done.

via 25 years after accusing Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, Anita Hill says she’d ‘do it all again’ — Fusion

Big Sound Saturdays: Tired Man, Vol. 1

Welcome, pals, to the dustbin of history; the never-ending tale of the Tired Man! The story of men being “fed up with it” is just called “History:” “Make it new!” quoth irate facist Ezra Pound, and modernism gets an audience! Fuck capitalism!, quoth Marx, and the dancing table becomes commodity magic! I know it’s glib to refract a broad moral history through the single lens of male fatigue, but what I’m saying is that these songs of men feeling bored and agitated and sleepy—mostly, obviously, because of a woman—cast a broader, and deeper, line when they get all shuffled together.

Punchin’ cows sure don’t arouse me anymore

I’m getting’ tired of listenin’ to the coyotes snore

Oh, sleepin’ on the Rio Grande is makin’ him snore –

I’m a tired cowboy

Just a tired guy!

Welcome, pals, to the dustbin of history; the never-ending tale of the Tired Man! The story of men being “fed up with it” is just called “History:” “Make it new!” quoth irate facist Ezra Pound, and modernism gets an audience! Fuck capitalism!, quoth Marx, and the dancing table becomes commodity magic! I know it’s glib to refract a broad moral history through the single lens of male fatigue, but what I’m saying is that these songs of men feeling bored and agitated and sleepy—mostly, obviously, because of a woman—cast a broader, and deeper, line when they get all shuffled together. Continue reading “Big Sound Saturdays: Tired Man, Vol. 1”

Election Roundtable Discussion: Three Young Women Talk About Bernie and Hillary

 

Recent remarks by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright which have been reduced to ‘the boys are with Bernie and you’re a bad feminist if you are too’ made me desperate to know whether or not this divide between the Democratic candidates is a fair one. And what would a supporter of each candidate have to say about it? After scouring the internet for robust writing by women about the election, particularly about their candidate preferences, and coming up relatively empty, I decided to call upon some brilliant women I know for their thoughts. This roundtable was primarily inspired by recent talk around the overly simplistic “sexist Bernie Bros” vs. “Hillary feminists” as well as an article from Monday declaring that single women are the most powerful voting block. I wanted to find out what women think of how the media is portraying them as supporters of each candidate (or not), as well as their rationale for choosing one over the other.

Below is a conversation that occurred from Wednesday February 17-February 21 between myself (a supporter of both candidates), a Bernie supporter, and a Hillary supporter.

 

MH: Hey all! I wanted to begin with the source material: Weekend of February 5-7 at a rally for Hillary supporters, Madeleine Albright said, “A lot of you younger women think it’s been done. It’s not done! You have to help! Hillary Clinton will always be there for you. And just remember there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Subsequently, Gloria Steinem made an offhand remark Friday February 5 in her interview on Real Time with Bill Maher, “Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.” To be fair, she followed it up in the “Overtime” section of the show with, “We’re not voting for Sarah Palin, excuse me! We’re voting for a woman who represents the majority of women and men. Of course we’re not voting for [her just because she’s a woman]… Most of us are raised by women. Whether women or men. Because we are mostly raised by women, we associate female authority with childhood, emotionality, irrationality… I really don’t think we will be able to recognize human talent in all of its forms when men are raising children as much as women are and women are in the public forum as much as men are.”

 

I found these comments and the backlash against Albright and Steinem really fascinating because it encroaches upon this territory of feminism that is still quite uncertain: would a female president be a different kind of president? Is it inherently meaningful that the leader of the free world is a woman? If so, how?

What is your general reaction to the divide among women voters that Albright and Steinem establish above,  that “good feminists are with Hillary // Bad feminists and bros are with Bernie”? 

 

AD: I just want to start by saying that the comments made by those so-called “feminist” women really grate!! They are so patronizing to younger women, as if we AREN’T making informed political decisions. And, at least in the super-progressive liberal circles I run in, women *don’t* think the battle for equality is “over,” rather they are attuned to the many other facets of feminism, i.e. intersectional feminism that cares for poor, immigrant or women of color, among others.

Also, it would be one thing if the two candidates running had roughly the same politics–in that case the “you’re sexist//you don’t understand women’s struggles” accusation might stick better–but Bernie and Hillary really have fundamentally different politics, and to me that makes all the difference. In my view, Sanders’ strong aversion to war, his fight for a $15 minimum wage, and his proposals for universal healthcare and free public college education will significantly impact women who are most at-risk—that is minority, poor, non-American women—in addition to the policies he shares with Clinton (Planned Parenthood support, LGBTQ rights, minimizing the gender pay gap), are what earn him my young feminist support. His stubborn hatred of the big banks also makes my anti-capitalist heart skip a beat.

 

That said, I do think having a woman president would be great, if only to break the (largely white) male leader streak. I just don’t think that a victory for one woman is a victory for all women. I’m also not sure that I see an essential “difference” in the way a woman would lead…women are for sure not a monolith…is that the question? Interested in getting into this more.

 

MH: I definitely agree that the patronizing tone of Steinem and Albright was disturbing (Steinem later apologized and on that very same episode said young women are more radically feminist than we [her generation] ever were) though I tend to expect this kind of hypocrisy from white feminists, and especially white feminists in their 70s and 80s. But I disagree that Bernie and Hillary have fundamentally different politics currently. I think I would agree that their track records demonstrate some differences, but I cannot imagine Clinton being against the markers of Sanders’s platform you mention “fundamentally.” I think they are actually fundamentally the same politically (they believe in equality of wages, fair immigration regulation, some kind of racial justice) but they have different approaches and/or strategies. Maybe I misunderstand the difference between politics and strategies? I’m really interested to hear from Sophie on this front.

In terms of the very essentialist-leaning question I posed, What difference would a female president make? I think the answer is interestingly twofold: on the one hand, a female president would make no difference and on the other hand it would make all of the difference. That is to say, I don’t think it would make a difference to the day-to-day job of President, but it would make a substantial symbolic difference. Not only will a whole generation of young American women grow up thinking that femininity and the presidency (and, by extension, a stereotypically subservient gender marker and authority) are no longer mutually exclusive, but also the country will take on a different global symbol. As seductive as these historic and symbolic changes are, I support Sanders (for now) because I prefer someone whose ideals hope to generate “real” change rather than the mere visual appearance of change. Some of the celebrity endorsements of Hillary have backfired for me in this way, namely http://www.people.com/article/lena-dunham-hillary-clinton-campaign-video-celebrities. Though I know that’s not necessarily a fair assessment of reasons to support Hillary.

I want to add that it does not matter so much to me whether or not Sanders achieves the changes he pronounces, but rather the mere fact that he says them out loud. The word “fearless” has been attributed to Sanders and many feminist Clinton supporters have claimed that Hillary cannot perform in such an aggressive way because she would be, as Nicki Minaj would say, a “bitch” whereas Bernie is a “boss.” What do y’all think of this inequality in how Bernie and Hillary are judged? Is it real or imagined? Should it sway our votes? Or, feel free to respond to any and all of the random statements I’ve made above.

 

ST: Maya, I agree that Bernie and Hillary don’t have fundamentally different politics. I do think Bernie speaks more to and for the working class, which I like, but I don’t think Hillary is in any way a corporate shill. I’ve read a couple good pieces dismantling that lately (here—though the first couple paragraphs seem no longer true, Bernie definitely has a shot at pulling the nomination). I think, for the most part, the distinction you draw between politics and strategies is correct. There are places where their political views differ—I agree with Bernie on the death penalty (he is squarely against, whereas Clinton is an “in the rarest of cases only” person), but Clinton on gun control. Bernie is far from a gun nut and it makes a difference that he’s from a rural area, but having grown up in DC, I am for the strictest gun control possible. When it comes to the strategy for implementing the politics they basically agree on, Hillary’s strategies just make more sense to me. For example, when it comes to college tuition — I don’t think making public colleges free for everyone is feasible or necessary. I am very lucky in that I was able to go college without going into debt. I did not need and therefore did not deserve to have public resources go towards making college free for me. Clinton’s plan — detailed here — seems like a much more feasible way to make college free by significantly reducing tuition, making community college free, and replacing loans with grants.

 

I also agree, Maya, that having a female president would make a difference in an important symbolic way. A generation of women and men will grow up without seeing a distinction between femininity and presidential authority. Of course identity doesn’t trump politics; Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson would both be nightmares. But, I would love to see my niece and others in her generation grow up and hit voting age without having yet lived through a white male presidency, where gravitas and authority weren’t associated with white men (I imagine that were Clinton to become president, she would face some of the same ridiculous shit Obama has faced. As much as the GOP tends towards partisanship in general, I cannot imagine the same level of obstructionism with a white male president).

 

It feels to me like Albright was more patronizing than Steinem; the rest of everything Steinem said in that interview (notably, the interview was with Bill Maher, who is kind of the worst) was complimentary towards young women’s activism and involvement in politics. That she’s in her 80s and has been working towards this for most of her life doesn’t justify the dumb part of what she said, but I think it does make some sense of it.

 

I think from both Hillary and Bernie camps, although as far as I have seen, more from Bernie camps, there have been a lot of patronizing assumptions made about women:  that women only vote for Bernie because of “the boys,” that women are only voting her Hillary because she has a vagina, etc.

 

Aldona—to call people sexist *simply* for supporting Bernie over Hillary is absurd and offensive and unfair, and absolutely a thing some people do. But, a lot of the criticism leveled at her is sexist and/or misinformed. Maya’s Nicki Minaj analogy seems apt. The thing that has bothered me most are the memes that have nothing to do with their politics.

 

AD: Okay, I definitely have to elaborate on what I mean by “fundamental” because I stand by it. I was not clear in my original comment, and definitely like the policies/strategies distinction. There are two aspects of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and by extension what I believe his presidency will look like, that stand out to be as fundamentally different than Clinton’s, regardless of similarities in their positions on key issues. They are (1) he is unwilling to take campaign donation money from large special-interest groups, and (2) he doesn’t talk about trying to work with Republicans. Those are the fundamental differences I see, although I do also like how he goes further than Clinton on the issues they dis/agree on (he wants a $15 min. wage, she only wants it raised, for example).

 

I’ll for sure vote for Hillary Clinton if she gets the nomination, but speculations about who can better work with Republicans seem absurd to me. I don’t see the GOP as rational, responsible, or caring lawmakers at all and am pretty sure they’ll stubbornly oppose any Democrat in office. I am positive Obama’s blackness has fueled their hatred, but am also fairly positive that the Republican party is so fucked up and antagonistic at this point that even though a white male president might not meet the same level of obstructionism, obstructionism would still make things unworkable, and conceding to the GOP’s increasing extremism on any level would be harmful. The only solution I see is to vote them out of office and get special interest lobbyists out of the government process completely, not to try to work within our already-messed-up framework.

 

Thankfully, I have not really been witness to the “Bernie bros” that I see everyone talking about, nor do I watch cable news, so I haven’t seen much of the sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton that you mention. (Although my roommate did tell me how much she “hates Hillary’s voice”…cringe) I really want to push back against the “bitch/boss” thing though. The moments I can remember in which the nation really loved Hillary Clinton are also times when she was, or appeared, unapologetically in charge (I’m thinking “Texts From Hillary” http://textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com/, and the Benghazi hearings specifically). The criticisms of Hillary Clinton I’ve seen from my FB vantage point have been how she doesn’t go far enough with her progressive politics. I have yet to see evidence that sexism is the reason for this hesitation but keep on seeing writers insisting on it. It’s worth considering the myriad privileges she has as a rich, cis, straight white woman who has many long-standing powerful political connections. I find it hard to believe such a woman would structure her politics around “bitch” accusations…I could be wrong, but I have yet to see anything more than conjecture to bolster that claim.

 

As for seeing a woman in the White House, I have no doubt it will happen within our children’s lifetime. It could even happen in 2016, which would be great, but I’m too excited about Sanders, his democratic socialism, and his larger critiques of the political system to not vote for him in the primary.

 

ST: I agree with your assessment of the GOP; very much not a fan (have either of you seen the document circulating the internet right now that’s taken from something Mitch McConnell wrote in law school? He states very clearly that the senate should not take a SCOTUS nominee’s political philosophy into account. The hypocrisy is incredible). But I think it is inevitable that we will have to work with them. They control Congress right now; even if they don’t hold onto congressional control this election, midterm elections with a democratic president in office tend to result in GOP congresses.

 

Something I’ve seen circulating facebook a lot that has struck me as, at least, as somewhat sexist are those memes with questions about random things (music, etc) and made-up answers marking Bernie as “cool” and Hillary as not. Which is maybe some of what Steinem was getting at in her “where the boys are” statement—not that young men are making their political decisions thoughtfully and young women are just following them, but that everyone is gravitating towards the “cool” candidate, and “cool” is often synonymous with “guy stuff.” (This does, of course, still imply that young voters don’t really know what they’re doing. Plenty of them probably don’t—there are people who research and think and decide to support Bernie for lots of real reasons and there are people who support him because it seems like the cool thing to do; there are people who support Hillary just because it seems like the thing to do for them, too).  

 

A note that doesn’t directly have to do with this conversation: more than getting special interest lobbyists out of government (overturning Citizens United is super important, but would leave a lot to be desired), we need major, major redistricting. That is the best way to get congress to actually represent the interests of the country.

 

I also don’t think Bernie is quite as radical as he advertises, which isn’t surprising from a politician (which he is). That’s not to say he isn’t progressive or wouldn’t *largely* act in what I think are all of our shared interest.  But Dolores Huerta just endorsed Hillary, citing their respective records on immigration:

 

“My question for Bernie is, where the heck was he for the last 25 years? Where was he on immigration reform? On indefinite detentions? On vigilante justice against undocumented workers? He was nowhere. That’s where.

Perhaps he’s had a change of heart, in which case, great. But why is he speaking as though we, the advocates and community members working for years to keep families together and push for immigration reform, haven’t been trying to make any progress until now? Specifically, why is he pretending like Hillary Clinton hasn’t been on the right side of this while he was on the wrong side? She’s got the track record to prove that she was in the fight with our community, Ted Kennedy, and President Obama. Bernie certainly doesn’t.”

https://medium.com/@DoloresHuerta/on-immigration-bernie-sanders-is-not-who-he-says-he-is-b79980adff6a#.wug6qpcdv.

 

And, while Sanders certainly gets points for voting against the Iraq War, his record also isn’t exactly that of a pacifist. He has made deals with Lockheed Martin, and seems to support military technology development when it benefits Vermont’s economy:

 

During his 2012 reelection campaign, Sanders ran against a Republican who opposed the F-35 as a waste of resources. Sanders was all for it. In a 2012 statement, Sanders made the point that the F-35 would have to be located somewhere, whether in Florida or South Carolina or Vermont. “I would rather it be here,” he said. 
So I will stick by my view that politically, there is no fundamental difference. Both of them are progressive. Both of them have also voted and acted, at times, in ways that do not mean the highest progressive standards—standards we should continue to hold, while also knowing that in part *because* we live in a democracy (sort of), and not everyone shares those standards, they won’t always be met (again, redistricting will help get more accurate representation of the country’s interest, as will getting rid of racist and utterly unnecessary voter-ID laws). And, because I think that they are on pretty even footing in terms of their values —both the values they hold and their commitment to those values —because I find Hillary’s plans more specific and more feasible, because I think Hillary would be better at the sort of politics necessary to battle obstructionism, and, yes, because she is a woman with all of the above qualities, she is getting my vote (if Sanders wins the nomination, though, I will not only vote for him but volunteer for him, as I will do for Clinton if she wins).

MH: As often happens when you begin to talk about any two things that the media has made out to be diametrically opposed like Sanders and Clinton, the truth behind such opposition is much more ambivalent and complicated. Are some Bernie supporters sexist? Probably. But is it automatically anti-feminist to not support Hillary? Hell, no. Would a woman in the White House change the world? Nah. Would this particular woman in the White House make a significant impact on the trajectory of the country? This is where the true disagreement between supporters of each candidate lies. The only silver lining that I can see resulting from the heated divide that the media draws between this false marker “Bernie Bro” and “Hillary feminist” is that it has spurred us to talk about the very real facts of misogyny, ageism, anti-semitism, and economic (dis)advantage in this country. So whoever wins the nomination, at the very least, we as a general public have thought an awful lot about their identities and hopefully this, directly or indirectly, makes their presidencies that much richer and capacious.

Weekly Link Roundup: 2/21/2016

This week we feature thoughtful pieces rather than news per se: I’m sure, as this election season advances, we will all be glutted with more news than we can handle. For now, good reads for your Sunday afternoon.

What is Gender? A Look at “The Danish Girl” and “Macbeth”

Written by I.C.

Two of this winter’s most absorbing movies emphasize the centrality of gender identity in thought-provoking ways.  The topic is more obviously central to The Danish Girl, the story of Lili Elbe (formerly Einar Wegener), the first known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and her wife, Gerda Wegener.  Both were painters in 1920s Copenhagen.  Oscar buzz for Eddie Redmayne as Lili was a given, due to the challenging nature of the role and his Best Actor win last year for another radical physical transformation in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. And he is indeed up for Best Actor for The Danish Girl.  Einar first tries on women’s clothing in order to help Gerda finish a painting when the model is unavailable.  But the act of donning female attire brings to life something latent within him, and Lili is born. Lili navigates the world at first awkwardly, then with increasing grace and confidence.  Even as those who knew Einar remain baffled, and doctors throw out diagnoses ranging from homosexuality to schizophrenia, Lili becomes increasingly certain that she has found her true identity, and is willing to endure anything to have an exterior that matches who she feels she is.

danishgirlmov
Image via Twitter @danishgirlmov

As good as Redmayne is in the role, critics have also been at least as impressed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Gerda.  2015 was Vikander’s year.  I loved her performances in the 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair and in a small part in that year’s Anna Karenina; in 2015 she gave me chills with her haunting performance as a conscious robot in Ex Machina and broke my heart as WWI-era pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth.  In The Danish Girl her radiant performance, for which she has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, turns the movie into not only the story of Lili but the story of an extraordinary marriage.  Gerda begins as a free-thinking, somewhat bohemian painter, married to a fellow painter whose work gets more acclaim.  As Einar becomes Lili, Gerda loses a husband but gains a muse: her paintings of Lili become hits in the art world.  Her simultaneous confusion, frustration, and devotion to the person she loves are beautifully portrayed.  When Einar tells a doctor that he believes he is a woman inside, and Gerda says, “And I believe it too,” it’s a powerful moment of alliance.

The film also subtly suggests that the Wegener’s love was never confined by conventional gender roles in any case: while Einar was sexually attracted to Gerda, Gerda was always the bold one, and when they first met she took the romantic initiative with the shy Einar. In portraying their relationship, the film carefully balances a recognition of sexual fluidity and the constructed or performative nature of gender with an emphasis on the individual right to claim what one feels to be one’s essential gender identity.

***

On the surface, The Danish Girl, a tasteful biopic, would seem to have little in common with a visually arresting and brutal Shakespeare adaptation.  Yet they address similar issues.  In the first scene in which Lady Macbeth appears in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, she is praying to the powers of darkness for exactly the thing that causes Lili so much pain: a disjunction in gender between her body and spirit.  She wishes for a man’s spirit in her woman’s body, as her battle-hardened culture has led her to equate masculinity with the ruthlessness she deems necessary to achieve her ambitions:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse….

Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! (Act I, scene v).

 

She is soon taunting her husband with lack of manliness for his qualms about murdering King Duncan; at this point, he has a much more morally grounded view of masculinity, saying: “I dare do all that may become a man; /Who dares do more is none” (Act I, scene vii).  In other words, to do something so evil as murdering his king would be “unbecoming” to a man, and in fact make him less of one.  He recognizes a masculine ideal in Banquo, who “hath a wisdom that doth guide his valour/ To act in safety” (Act III scene i).

But his wife continues to insist that manliness involves hard-heartedness and violence without remorse; she says:

When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. …
(Act I, scene vii).

She is unprepared, however, for how fully her husband will ultimately embrace this toxic view of masculinity. As Macbeth’s mind crumbles under the effects of post-traumatic stress, his moral sense also crumbles, and he takes his wife’s idea of the conflation of masculinity with violence further than she ever did.  If before King Duncan’s murder she fears her husband is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (Act I, scene v) to perform the deed, in later scenes she is dismayed by his ruthlessness. As Michael O’Sullivan’s review in the Washington Post points out, this film’s Macbeth is “far madder than his wife… whose descent into derangement is one of the most tired tropes of the theater.”  Michael Fassbender brilliantly portrays Macbeth’s unraveling, as his moral uncertainty gives way to anguish, and then to ferocity.

As for Lady Macbeth’s own mental deterioration, some might argue that it is due to her inability to shed her womanliness as she had hoped to do. With a silent but crucial opening scene, the movie finds a way to reconcile the text’s emphasis on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s childlessness with Lady Macbeth’s statement that “I have given suck, and know/How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (Act I, scene vii), and in another pivotal scene, she takes the death of another woman’s children very hard.  It seems to me, however, that it is her humanity rather than her womanhood that she’s unable to shed, and that she is increasingly distressed at her husband’s loss of his.

macbeth
Image via Twitter @macbeth_movie

The emphasis on Macbeth’s increasing inhumanity also makes this film feel more nuanced in its portrayal of his wife, who in this film is no mere scheming temptress.  Marion Cotillard’s subtle performance also helps; I have yet to see this actress in anything in which she is less than sublime, and her work here is no exception.  Her rendition of the “Out, damned spot” speech is spellbinding.  There’s no wringing of her hands in that scene—the camera focuses on her face, and she is seated, quite still, with her hands kept deliberately out of the frame.  Her eyes are fixed on something the viewer only sees as she finishes speaking.  This scene erases any doubt that she is as tragic a figure as her husband, and her tragedy is in large part her embrace of traditionally “masculine” values that have ultimately proved dehumanizing.

Both of these films grapple with questions of gender and identity in a way that feels new and significant.  More generally, they deal with what it means to be an authentic, integrated human being, at home in one’s body (as Lili seeks to be) and in one’s mind (as the Macbeths, after their initial crime, can never be again).

Acro Collective Bookshelf: January

Maybe your *New Year’s Resolution* is to read more, or maybe you just like books. Either way, you’re our kind of person.

Acro Collective Bookshelf: January

 

 
 
What are you guys reading lately?

Alien Others and Selves

Starting off the new year with some good old-fashioned American paranoia!

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Via @5thWaveMovie

by E.L.

There is an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a normal American neighborhood is thrown into violent chaos by the appearance of a strange object in the sky. The fear that alien invaders might be masquerading as a human family causes neighbors to turn with suspicion on those they’ve known all their lives.

Like so many Twilight Zone episodes, the true monster here is Man. The lesson is that the enemy’s best weapon is the seed of paranoid doubt we harbor against those closest to us. It is a not-so-subtle commentary on McCarthyism’s hysterical campaign to root out the communist threat by encouraging citizens to denounce their friends and allies.

The communist, like the aliens in The Twilight Zone, is so dangerous precisely because its otherness cannot be easily recognized. Soviet sympathizers can look exactly like everybody else, and the possibility of their presence among us is so terrifying because it challenges our confidence in our own capacity for self-recognition. The identity of friends, spouses, teachers, and politicians cannot be trusted precisely because they look just like us. Familiarity itself becomes suspect as the mask of a dangerous otherness.

Continue reading “Alien Others and Selves”

Leaving Something Behind: Reading Socially Through Book Traces

E.L. documents her journey through the margins of one library’s books—thinking about reading as a social process, about building community, and about what we can learn from the scribbles left behind.

 By E.L.

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Alderman library stacks at the University of Virginia

Follow Book Traces on Twitter @booktracesuva, on Tumblr, and on the official website.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in libraries lately. As a grad student and inveterate skimmer of books, this is not rare. But for the past six months, I’ve been working as a project intern for Book Traces, where I systematically inspect my university’s circulating book collection for evidence of how past handlers have used, modified, and engaged with their books.

Continue reading “Leaving Something Behind: Reading Socially Through Book Traces”

Kindness to Strangers

The Rabbi who spoke at the White House told the audience that his father came to the United States on the St. Louis, its last journey to the United States before making its famous “Voyage of the Damned.” As Obama said Wednesday night, now, it is other boats being turned away from potential asylum. Thus, as Jews, as people who have ourselves been turned away when seeking refuge, or have been accepted, begrudgingly and with a high tax for being who we are, we must open our doors to refugees, open our doors to the stranger as we are commanded to do each year on Passover.

By S.T.

 

Wednesday night – which happened to be both the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 13th Amendment and the fourth night of Chanukah – I stood in the White House, listening to President Barack Obama and a Rabbi (whose parents were both Holocaust survivors) talk about the origins of the holiday. Relative to Christmas, Chanukah is minor, but the story fits in with several other Jewish holidays – “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” But I was pleased by the serious tone both the President and the Rabbi took; they both talked about the refugee and immigrant experiences of Jews, and how now, it is a different group that is in trouble, a different group to whom we must extend a helping hand. Both leaders drew a connection I often feel, between Judaism and compassion to those in need, and to hear a similar message from my president was deeply moving.

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