How Do We Talk About Mother’s Day?

The older I get, the more capacious the significance of Mother’s Day becomes.

Yet this has very little to do with biology. For one thing, I am not a mother myself. In the most simplistic, Hallmark card terms, I identify as “daughter” in each relationship that is traditionally relevant to the holiday. Daughter, granddaughter, and, soon, daughter-in-law.

I by no means want to diminish these relationships; each is dear to me, and I will talk about them in this post. But I find myself frustrated by the biologically essentialist emphasis upon blood lineage perpetuated by this holiday. Women create exquisitely intimate ties amongst themselves, ties transcending and circumventing bloodlines. Lineage is not exclusively chromosonal. Motherhood, while important for its conceptual origins in biological connectivity, carries an even richer meaning when we widen the breadth of its reach.

So then, how do I talk about Mother’s Day?

I want to talk about teachers – the women who have taught me and who teach me still. I think first of my undergraduate advisor, Deborah Morse, who has been both an intellectual and emotional mother to me ever since I edged timidly into her office, just days before the beginning of my freshman year. Her classrooms were luminous and nurturing spaces where, over semesters and years, Victorian literature–Deborah’s field of expertise–became my ardent passion. Through her tutelage I cultivated this passion, and it has become one of the sustaining forces of my life. I owe this to her, as I owe her many other things.

I think, too, of so many other women at my alma mater, women like Deborah who taught me the soul-preserving importance of living a feminist life. Women who taught me that tolerance and empathy are not antithetical to intellectual rigor and thus inspired me to become the teacher I try to be. Women who guided me through the woman-authored texts that have shaped my life: Jane Eyre, Mrs. Dalloway, essays by Judith Butler, Middlemarch, Symmetries. I think of my high school English teacher, Carrie Gantt, who urged me to read The Awakening. I reflect with gratitude upon the women who enrich my graduate studies, whether through their focused support or by setting examples as women who write, teach, bear children, love, and live passionately.

I think of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot and the millions of women they have nurtured–sustained–with the novels we have loved so well for so long. I think of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. I think of how she has taught me to better understand my propensity to feel so very, very ashamed. I think that female-oriented intimacy is possible even when mutual recognition is an impossibility.

I think of Tori Amos, and how she saved my life in eighth grade and ninth grade and tenth grade – how she taught me comfort through “Hey Jupiter” and “Jackie’s Strength” and “Bells for Her.”

I think of my grandmothers, who, at age 28, I am obscenely, indulgently fortunate to know. They are strong women, full of passion, and multi-faceted love. I think of Grandma Olga, wounded by so many when she was young, but never jaded and always so tenaciously open-hearted. And my Grandma Kappy, all vigor and might. She taught me–and continues to teach me–that feminism and marriage can and do co-exist in beautiful ways. I think of Maria, who will, in less than a month, become my mother-in-law. I think of her inexhaustible capacity to love and tremendous impulse to protect. She was so willing to know and to love me, and I am eager for all that I will continue to learn from her. She is, already, a mother.

Finally, my mother who birthed me. Kathy. Momma. Sweetness embodied, generous, open-hearted – a woman without whom I could not understand the nuances of kindness and empathy. The mother who, on roadtrips, let me fill our car with the sounds of Little Earthquakes and who entertained my ephemeral obsessions with Taylor Hanson and Leonardo DiCaprio. The mother who could not help but cry when her daughters did because, as she would say, her heart was attached to ours.

Perhaps it seems contradictory, after beginning with a critique of the Hallmarkian emphasis upon bloodlines, that I end this piece by writing about my grandmothers, mother, and the woman who will possess blood ties to my children. But I am of the firm belief that these women would be just as significant to me regardless of our biological relationships. This is not to say that I am unmoved by the knowledge that my mother carried me in her womb for nine months (bless her). She, together with my father, gave me life, and that is a uniquely special gift. But that gift is enhanced by the intimacy we have cultivated over the years. It achieves greater significance because we have shared our lives, and because she maintained reassuring proximity as I learned to make my way in the world.

As Mother’s Day becomes for me a more generous and varied celebration of women, I am overwhelmed by an embarrassment of riches. There are so many women existing in the world in beautiful and amazing ways, and having the opportunity to know some of them illuminates my own existence.

And so, with that, a very Happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

 

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The Spill

When I was a kid, I spilled everything. Liquids were my particular specialty, but my clumsiness knew no bounds. If it could splatter, then I could spill it.

Nowadays I take especial care to not let my butter fingers wreak havoc, and I navigate my surroundings less like a bull in a china shop. I’m more like a well-meaning giraffe in a china shop – I still knock things over, but I’m much more ginger and apologetic about it.  I have also stockpiled an arsenal of excuses so that, when I do spill something, I am prepared to explain why it was absolutely and without a shadow of doubt not my fault. I’m not sure how compelling Paul finds my “explanations” for the avalanche of granulated sugar cascading down to the kitchen floor or the pea soup oozing its way across the stove, but I am confident that my powers of persuasion will only improve with practice.

Truth be told, most of my “adult spills” occur because, despite my best intentions, I have a tendency to make my way around our cubicle-sized kitchen like an awkward oaf. They are small-scale disasters of which I am the sole perpetrator, and they signify nothing more than my regrettable lack of common sense.

Sometimes, though, the universe seems to take a cue from Hollywood and try its hand at a little dark metaphor. And as it turns out, the universe has a particular fondness for the symbolic potential of “the spill.”

On Tuesday morning, I dragged myself to campus after a positively miserable start to the week. I had spent a fitful night trying–and failing–to snag a few hours of sleep before my alarm summoned me at an ungodly hour to finish my lesson plans. When I staggered into my university’s coffee shop, I was feeling particularly weighed down by discouragement. And I was just tired – so, so tired. I ordered my usual: a grande mocha with an extra shot of espresso (I was lately shamed by a barista for ordering a flavored coffee – but, mercifully, it was not the one who took my order on Tuesday. I could not finish my dissertation if I was banned from the college coffee shop). Carefully–really, I mean it–I brought my steaming hot beverage over to the counter so that I could cover it with a lid.

Now, humor me for a moment while I tell you a bit about the coffee lids provided at the university coffee shop: they suck. You could construct a better, and less flimsy, coffee lid from a Dixie cup. They also barely fit around the circumference of the top of the to-go cup and thus require extremely delicate application. The slightest slip of the finger would result in a caffeine catastrophe. (The takeaway point? None of what follows was in any way my fault.)

I’ve been aware of the hazards surrounding coffee lid application since I began patronizing this particular establishment and, thus far, have largely avoided any mishaps. But as I have already intimated, the universe was feeling cinematic on Tuesday. “Universe,” it asked itself, “What frequently happens in a movie montage when someone is having a bad day?” The Universe paused to reflect, as a downtrodden Rachel fumbled with the coffee lids. But before long, inspiration struck. “Aha! In movies, when people are having a bad day, they…they…USUALLY SPILL THEIR COFFEE ALL OVER THEMSELVES! That gag NEVER gets old!”

And so, once I pressed the sides of my lid over the lip of my cup, the moment transformed into one of dark poetry, and I became the saddest of clichés. Before I had any opportunity to react, the lid popped off of my coffee cup, and the cup, filled to the brim, bounced off the counter and onto me. I was drenched in piping hot mocha latte from neck to foot.  The flood of self-pity and frustration coursing within me paralleled, in the most hackneyed, symbolic fashion, the coffee streaming down my person. A puddle formed rapidly at my feet as I stood, frozen with shock.

For a moment, I thought I might burst into tears. At 11 a.m. it seemed that it was already time to give up on Tuesday. I was now wearing the extra shot of espresso that I had so desperately needed, and, judging from the way my skin was tingling, a first degree burn did not seem out of the realm of possibilities. After alerting a barista to the coffee explosion (which, let’s be honest, had impacted me more than the coffee shop floor), I hightailed it to the restroom to bathe in the sink. I taught my class wearing a drenched-to-the-point-of-dripping cardigan, tank top, and jeans – like a timid contestant in a wet tee-shirt contest (or, as a friend called it, a wet cardigan contest). I explained the circumstances that had led to my soggy, disheveled state, likely solidifying any inklings my students may have had that I am a real-life incarnation of Liz Lemon.

And then, my class went well. My students had great insights about the novel we are reading, and I remembered that I am a good teacher. And I realized that, while I was soaked and sticky and smelled of wet wool and coffee, what had happened was actually pretty hilarious. I even felt slightly grateful for the absurdist climax to what had been a particularly unpleasant twenty-four hours and an aggravating several weeks. It seemed like a rather heavy-handed sign that I was taking everything way too seriously and needed to lighten the heck up. When it comes to setbacks and disappointments, that is not easy for me to do. It can be hard to shake the feeling that each time I try for something–anything–I am inviting a tidal wave of rejection to wash me away in waves of humiliation and frustration. But at the same time, I am so much stronger than I was when I began graduate school, and I will become stronger still. If nothing else, it helps to know that sometimes the world is a ridiculous and stupid place – a place where freak coffee accidents lead to teaching Stone Butch Blues while standing in a puddle of coffee-tinted water.

It’s a healthy little reminder that not everything is about me.

Why I Like to Teach Sex

This past week, Paul showed a room of graduate students and professors just how foxy Harvey Keitel is in the sack.

Disambiguation: Paul was a panelist for a workshop on how to teach film in literature courses. He delivered a mini-presentation on how to analyze a scene, focusing particularly on sound and music. He chose, as his sample, a scene from Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” which is, let me tell you, one of the most exquisite films that I have ever seen. It is also the only film that, to my knowledge, features Harvey Keitel as an explicit object of desire. When we see Harvey (or rather, when you see Harvey, because I probably cannot sit through any of his other, much more violent, films), it tends to be in this sort of context:

Image taken from badassdigest.com

In “The Piano,” Harvey Keitel’s character has also adorned himself with tattoos, but they are limited to his face and signify his assimilation into the tribal communities of 19th Century New Zealand. Whether or not said tattoos work for him would likely generate some debate. But, in any case, they seem to work for one of the film’s female characters, because she falls deeply in love with him. And after these characters express their mutual feelings, they engage in a rather lengthy and graphic bout of love-making. This is the scene that Paul showed us as part of his presentation. Nervous laughter ensued.

A number of factors contributed to the giggles that rippled through the audience. First, Paul warned that the scene includes partial nudity, and there is simply nothing “partial” about it – unless, of course, anything less than full-frontal shots of genitalia is, in your opinion, child’s play. That said, taking into consideration that we do not see the women from the front, and assuming Harvey is relatively endowed, I would put the extent of the nudity in this scene at about 95 percent. Perhaps if we had only caught a quick glimpse of the love-making, then the effect would not have been so dramatic. But oh, how the camera lingers. We see caresses. We see smoochies. We see Harvey mount and penetrate with a determined thrust. And all the while, the music is gorgeous!

Paul did, ultimately, cut short the viewing, having forgotten just how long we are privy to the lovers bumping uglies. And, honestly, it is a shame that he felt that compulsion, however understandable it was. Jokes aside, the scene was perfect for the point Paul wanted to convey to us, and it productively accompanied his brilliant feminist analysis (I won’t divulge said analysis to you because I hope he publishes it someday).  Afterwards, my friend and colleague, Katie Stanutz, the organizer of these teaching workshops, joked that Paul was responsible for the first nudity to make its way into the series. She also hatched what I think is a brilliant idea for another workshop: how to teach controversial material. After the panel, a few of us, including Katie, began to talk about how presenting or discussing explicit material is always a challenge. It also can have varying–sometimes difficult–effects on the space of a classroom or lecture hall. Of course, everyone who attended this workshop loves Paul and appreciated precisely why he had shown us that film clip. But the affect of amused discomfort was palpable as we gradually recognized that this was a long scene of no-holds-barred sex – one that we were watching in public, amongst professional colleagues. Afterwards we realized that this was one of those “teaching moments” to which we all refer (sometimes with a dollop of sarcasm).

I am by no means immune to the impacts of encountering controversial material, whatever the nature of its content. However, I also do not shy away from teaching it. Because my research interests include human sexuality, the topic tends to make its way into just about any course I teach, and in a variety of manifestations. I have incorporated “The Piano” into a women’s literature class before (with Paul’s help, I should add). This semester, in my Introduction to LGBT Literatures class, I will teach poetry by the brilliant Essex Hemphill. When I teach within my comfort zone, i.e. the Victorian period, I assign Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick, and challenge my students to think about the ways writers articulated their erotic desires in a climate that was far more conservative. It is especially important to me to teach women’s sexuality because of the ways it has been–and continues to be–scrutinized, fetishized, and exploited, both within literature and outside of it. Some of my very favorite lines of poetry–lines that strengthen me whenever I feel judged by others–are from Victorian poet Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway.” Webster’s poem imagines the interiority of a kept woman struggling with her “fall” from sexual propriety while still asserting her self-worth:  “I have looked coolly on my what and why / And I accept myself.” Sometimes it is nearly impossible for me to speak those words aloud without getting choked up.

My students generally come to know me as a teacher who will “go there.” I am comfortable with this, both because I try to make those moments productive and because I think it is critical TO go “there” — in other words, to the sex. We see evidence every day that society still does not know what to do with sexuality. However often we read humor pieces about the trials and tribulations of forgetting your vibrator when you visit your parents, talking sex tends to make us nervous unless we do it in a private setting. I recognize that everyone has limits to what s/he wants to discuss, and I am by no means arguing that we should all broadcast our sex lives, heedless of our audiences. Despite being a very sex-positive person, there is a great deal–although perhaps it does not always seem like it–that I prefer to keep to myself. And there are details about my life that others simply need not know. But as an instructor, I believe in challenging my students to question the boundaries that shape their comfort zones. Discomfort can be one of the most productive things we feel, so long as we are willing to reflect on what has generated it. I want my students to read material that makes them uncomfortable. Doing so enables us to have vibrant and healthy discussions about what that discomfort means – what social or institutional forces influence and perpetuate it.

As long as we continue to tiptoe around discussions of sex in the abstract, we will not be capable of fully facing the social problems that derive from sexual anxieties. For instance, until we can recognize the validity of sex workers, it will be one more factor that contributes to a culture of slut-shaming. So too, will be the systemic silencing and blaming of sexual assault victims, many of whom are women. For as long as we fetishize and exploit same-sex eroticism, queer people will not be encouraged to regard their love as valid and beautiful, just as all love is. (For some of the latest in outrageous lesbian fetishization, see Shakira’s latest music video. My opinion of her has lowered considerably: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3mP3mJDL2k. And no, Macklemore does not make it all better.) I could go on at length, and it would just depress us all. It’s Friday, so I don’t want to do that.

But there is so much that we need to do. We need to talk with our students about the line between the pornographic and the erotic, and why that matters (see Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic” if you want to do a little outside reading that will inspire you to start a revolution). We need to create supportive and generative spaces where words like “vagina” and “aroused” don’t get caught in our students’ throats as they attempt to make points about the day’s reading. We need to teach tolerance for sexuality and, in so doing, emphasize the difference between choosing to maintain one’s privacy and feeling compelled to hide a fundamental part of oneself.

When I teach sexually explicit material, I hope that I am able to impart some of these lessons — or, at least, to create a pedagogical climate conducive to these conversations. Because, while I want to challenge my students (and myself, too), I always, always want them to feel safe.

And if all else fails, I guess I can just show my students a naked, tattooed Harvey Keitel over, and over, and over again. (Thanks, Paul!)

Teaching Pretty: The Politics of Fashion for Women Instructors

My relationship with high heeled shoes is a fraught one.

Aesthetically, I am dazzled by them. They compliment my body’s shape and infuse more conservative outfits with a bit of pizzazz.  I feel intoxicatingly powerful when I manage to trip across sidewalk grating in high heels without getting stuck or face-planting in a spectacular display of bipedal ineptitude. (I may or may not tempt fate on a semi-regular basis in hopes of experiencing this high. I do know the name of a very good cobbler.) Entering a crowded room in high heels generates a similar sense of confidence and assertiveness – and it generally does not result in bodily harm.

The positive affective powers of the high heel has propelled me to teach most of my classes in them. And when I do, those high heels are almost certainly paired with a dress, or a skirt, blouse, and blazer. But by the time class has ended, and I have trekked back to my office, my feet have sent my brain a read-only version of the Bill of Rights, with the Eighth Amendment circled in red, and arrows pointing at it for good measure. And therein lies the rub: Can I walk in high heels? Yes. Does it eventually hurt like hell? Emphatic yes. As an especially energetic teacher, I often will walk around my classroom, and, no matter how many reviews I read assuring me that “you can totally wear these high heels ALL DAY and you won’t even notice them,” I do notice. I notice big time. Perhaps one day, I will locate the miracle heels that I really can wear for eight hours without chomping at the bit to kick them off, but that day has not arrived.

The day has also not arrived where I have discovered panty hose or tights with an elastic band that does not eventually make me anxious to wriggle free. And fitted blouses? I am forever nervous that one wild gesticulation too many will result in torn fabric.

But regardless of the above, I do love to dress up and take a great deal of pride in my sartorial decisions. I recognize that, while I do seek to fill my wardrobe with clothes that are both classy and comfortable, high heeled shoes that feel like a pair of TOMS are a scientific impossibility. And, if I want to wear high heels, patterned tights, and cute, fitted blouses, then I am simply going to have to accept the accompanying bodily constraints. That is my choice, and I make it willingly.

The real question is why I insist on wearing this sort of highly-feminized attire when I teach. Yes, “looking professional,” however that is to be interpreted, is indeed important to me. I do firmly believe that more formal attire projects dedication to my work as a teacher and a scholar. I am here to work, to teach, to learn, and I take all of that very, very seriously. And, as I said, donning heels and a dress makes me feel quite confident. In my fancy duds, I am prepared to deliver a fantastic lesson, presentation, or to engage in an intellectually rigorous conversation with one of my mentors. Generally, I wait until the middle of the semester to wear pants to class, and when I do, I almost certainly pair them with heels.

But–and I know this is not revelatory–one does not need to wear high heels to look professional. A female-bodied person does not need to wear conventionally feminine clothes in order to look professional. The hesitancy I feel whenever I put on a pair of ballet flats has nothing to do with whether or not I will appear too casual for an academic environment. Along these same lines, my decision to start wearing blush and lip color this year does not impact my overall professional image – in fact, I doubt if anyone has noticed but me. Waiting until the ninth week of the semester to wear pants and heels instead of sporting them by the fourth or fifth week probably has no effect on my pedagogical ethos. So then, why do I set these guidelines for myself?

My sense is that they are the result of inculcated gender expectations – what I believe I need to do as a twenty-something woman in order to command respect from my students and from my peers. For instance, when I walked to my classroom the other day, I passed a male instructor wearing shorts, a tee-shirt, and sneakers. My first thoughts focused on whether he had sustained severe nerve damage. Personally, I cannot not conceive of venturing outside in 30-degree weather without every inch of my body covered, save for maybe one eye. But it also occurred to me that I would absolutely never–never–teach a class dressed the way this man was dressed.

A few things: First of all, I am not attempting to construct a gendered binary where “male” equals “less concerned with professional appearance because…patriarchy.” Part of my surprise at this instructor’s attire simply derived from its being, in my estimation, inappropriate for an academic environment. I of course know many male instructors who take great care in their appearance, particularly on days that they teach. And plenty of female instructors dress more casually than I do, all the while projecting airs of professionalism and confidence. There is, as always, no viable binary to create here. But that said, the fact that I do not feel comfortable dressing casually when I teach is, to a large extent, an issue of gender. And the fact that I encounter far more male instructors who are comfortable dressing informally in front of their students is, too, a result of gendered socialization. Having had conversations on this topic with a number of my colleagues, I have the sense that far fewer women would teach class in a tee-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. The reasons for this extends beyond the simple question of what we consider “professional dress.”

After all, clothes themselves are gendered identity markers. We use them both to send messages and to interpret one another as personalities and as bodies. There is no need for me to recount for you the history of regulated female attire or, for that matter, the anxieties that still surround transvestism. People tend to feel most comfortable when the cultural codes that mark a body parallel their interpretation of the body itself. Somewhere in my social conditioning, I came to an unconscious realization that people would respond to me more favorably if my attire matched my feminine persona and female body – and that I enjoyed the benefits of fulfilling these expectations. For reasons gendered and otherwise–excluding a few years of elementary school–I liked pretty clothes and wanted to wear them whenever the occasion permitted. Once I started my doctorate and began teaching college-level courses, I must have interpreted female professionalism as being, to some degree, tethered to conventional depictions of acceptable hyper-femininity – in other words, dresses that flatter one’s figure (but not too tight, and for goodness sake, not too low cut!); heels that accentuate the legs (but not too high – that’s trashy!); and full make up (but tastefully applied, please!).

I do not mean these snarky asides to suggest that teachers should walk into their classrooms wearing pleather catsuits and crimson lipstick (although, a universe where that was the norm might be kind of fun). What interests me is that female professionals are implicitly encouraged to be modest, yet fetching, and in a markedly feminine way. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are encouraged to be sexy – thus the cache of “Hot for Teacher” films and outfits deemed–approvingly–“sexy librarian.” “Sexy nerd” is most certainly a thing in academia, for men and for women. But society encourages women to be attractive to everybody, including our students, even while the official discourse promotes conservatism. And of course, take “sexy” too far, and may the slut-shaming commence.

As is probably painfully clear, I can offer no solutions here. I only know that the way female professional dress is scrutinized is highly problematic, as are the many conflicting messages society sends regarding heteronormative expectations of female workplace appearance. I am only becoming more fully aware of how these various forces have shaped me and, more specifically, my sartorial choices. I realize that many of these decisions materialize because, as a woman, I am especially concerned with my professional visibility. I feel most visible, it seems, when I am dressing the way society asks me to dress. This is a problem.

The matter becomes increasingly complicated because I cannot parse my desire to present myself in a “professional manner” from my clearly socialized conceptions of appropriate dress. I do not know that these issues can be extricated from one another. Do I get dressed with the intent of attracting attention? No, but I wonder to what extent the desire is inherent in the efforts I put forth, even if my “teacher clothes” are neither provocative nor flashy. Visceral aesthetic delight aside, why do I take such pleasure in looking “pretty” when I dress for school? To what extent I am actually dressing for my own benefit?

Ultimately, these questions can be crazy-making. I do want to continue to dress up when I teach and attend department functions. After all, normalizing informal attire in the workplace would only generate new gendered fashion conventions. And I do benefit from the fashion decisions I make, even if I simultaneously am skeptical of their origins. Feeling confident enables me to do my job more effectively. Besides, we all have the right to feel beautiful, whatever that entails for each of us.

What I think we need is a more sustained conversation about what professional attire means for all genders and to what extent we are troubled by the expectations that shape fashion norms. What sorts of privilege are at work here? (I am, for example, fully aware that my ability to dress the way I do derives from a certain amount of economic privilege.) How, above all, do we make our work environments empowering spaces for all who occupy them?

I hope that you will help me to grapple with these questions. In the meantime, I will do my best to leave the high heels at home a bit more often. My feet could use a little respite, and I could use the practice.