Jun 21, 2013 - Physical Ed    1 Comment

Perfect in this Skin

I felt it coming on yesterday: a strange, slightly alien feeling so unfamiliar, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt it.

I felt beautiful in my skin.

The sensation was so unusual that I found myself wanting to move around more, just to feel the shapes and textures that suddenly fit me. If you’ve ever rubbed your face on the silky strip of a blanket, or rolled around on really high-quality sheets, you know the feeling. And it wasn’t that I was wearing a good bra and new shoes that suit my funny narrow feet. And I wasn’t not in pain–the weather was changing, and we had a hell of a storm last night, both of which tend to bring out the odd twinges and aches.

No, I just felt beautiful in precisely this body. I still do today. I’m chalking it up to Midsummer magic. Today’s the solstice, and this is a holiday for many pagans that rejoices in the full embrace of the physical world and all its joys: strong, growing things; bright sun and warm winds; lust and passion and pleasure. I don’t know if this feeling will last after the power of the holiday has past, but I want to wallow in it now and share some uncommon thoughts.

I’m fatter now than I ever have been, though my 11-year-old son says it’s not fat, it’s Flubber, which is good. I’m 38 and I’m the mother of two. My unpredictable pain condition keeps me from exercising as much or as rigorously as I’d like to. I should stop drinking soda.

But I am a soft, voluptuous, powerful goddess. I am strong and graceful, and that strength doesn’t appear with ropey, flexing showiness; it’s hidden by smooth, rounded skin. I brace and balance, swing and glide, all without changing my outward shape. My body moves with me, not against me.

And sexy? Like you wouldn’t believe. Every curve nature ever intended graces my body: breast, hip, waist, thigh. I am made for comfort and love. I cushion soft bones. I envelop. I engulf. I protect like wings. I am full up.

I know, in the days to come, I’ll struggle again with feeling like the world wasn’t made to fit me. I’ll read the tightness and discomfort as a judgment on my size and beauty. Clothes and chairs, straps and seams will mark my skin, dent my flesh. But if I can hang onto just a bit of this Midsummer magic, I can remember that it’s not me who doesn’t fit the world; it’s what people have built onto the world that doesn’t fit beautiful, gracious, giving, comfortable me.

May 31, 2013 - Political Science    No Comments

The Big Debrief

No more phonebanks, no more trainings. I’m home most nights of the week now. My feet have stopped aching from the Capitol’s marble floors. I’ve mostly caught up on sleep.

This is what victory looks like.

I attended my first training session to fight the hurtful anti-marriage amendment proposed for the Minnesota state constitution a full year before it appeared on the ballot in November 2012. Early the following spring, I attended my first phonebank and began my role in the massive conversation that reworked this state’s understanding of love, marriage, and commitment. I stepped into successively greater volunteer leadership roles as the next nine months played out.

And then we won. Minnesota became the first state to defeat an amendment banning same-sex marriage after 30 previous states had passed them. Jubilation isn’t too strong a word. Strangers in stores asked if they could hug me when they saw the campaign stickers on my coat. “I’m just so proud of my state,” they said, and I agreed.

A lot of people left everything on the field in the effort to send that amendment down to defeat. So when the campaign announced early in the new year that it would ride the momentum to take a shot at winning marriage equality this year, the crowd of people I worked with changed. Many beloved friends stayed to change a No to a Yes, but there was a shift, and I fumbled a bit to find my place in the new order.

Burnout wasn’t an unexpected guest after 15 months on the case, but I was still disappointed in myself to have lost the rhythm of self-renewal. I questioned the assumptions I’d built up in the previous campaign, that I was made for this work and the work itself gave me back more than I put in. But I’d grown enough as a person to know that this was a natural cycle, and that it called for reaching out for support, not withdrawing into myself.

CapitolMessaging2And then, like the birth of every good and wonderful thing, came the Big Push. It required no exaggeration to convey the urgency of every single phone call, every email, every lobby visit. Thousands of us in orange and blue crowded the capitol on the day of the House vote. I worried that I would feel useless as a tiny cog with no sense of the great machine, so instead of simply accepting that, I asked for something specific I could manage. That’s how I became the clearinghouse for the hundreds of paper messages we sent directly to the legislators’ hands as they sat in session. Every time another stack was ready for the pages, I would say “Fly, little bundles of love!” like some manic Witch of the West.

I was surprised by the flood of tears that joy brought as the freedom to marry passed first the House, then the Senate. Sure, I cry with joy or beauty sometimes, but the sobs I tried to contain shook me with an unexpected force. One part was surely a release of tension coiled tightly over more than a year. Another part, though, was the crashing wave of love and possibility that swamped everyone who’d fought or longed for this most basic freedom.

No good campaign skips the big debrief at the end–the veterans are repositories of wisdom on what worked, what didn’t, and how to do it better the next time. So I need to take an inventory of what this movement has done to me.

I can both teach and be taught better than before. I listen more actively and empathetically. I’ve refined and reaffirmed some of my deepest moral and spiritual beliefs. I believe action can work. I can build unlikely coalitions. I found my true calling in issue politics. I can set effective boundaries to preserve my own resources, and I can defend them when challenged by a new, sudden need. I know more about community organizing and legislative politics. I have a base of beloved, lifelong friends. I feel perfectly comfortable in the halls of power. I have made Minnesota my forever home. I learned that our own personal stories can change the world.

And I’m ready to start making some wedding gifts.

FreedomToMarrySign

Apr 25, 2013 - Psychology, Social Studies    2 Comments

Feel the Burn

I’m sleeping pretty well, but I wake up exhausted every morning. This is Day 8 of a skull-crushing tension headache. Fears I’m forgetting something important plague me constantly. Activities that used to leave me with a two-hour adrenaline hangover now make me tired before I even start. My threshold for sensory overload is so low, I’m having small meltdowns several times a day. I stop taking phone calls. I avoid friends.

I am burned out.

I’m excellent at being the little cog in a big machine, but I need a solid sense of the macro to stay motivated. But lately, everything’s been so myopic that I can’t see my place in the larger efforts I’m working toward, and it hasn’t been good for me. I feel myself withdrawing, and I don’t like being powerless to stop it. It’s crunch time, and I’m more disengaged than ever.

I called a dear friend for a lunch date, to ask him how he’s dealt with the burnout that must have been familiar in his super-intense job over the last year. Just seeing him makes colors brighter, but I need his advice, so I asked him how he manages to stay fresh over the long haul.

Some of that advice is expected. You have to set boundaries and practice saying “no.” Be at home when you’re at home. Put away the cellphone and computer. Make yourself present for your loved ones, and don’t feel guilty when you do something you love that’s totally unrelated to the greater effort. Self-improvement can wait. Feed your soul. Rest.

Some of his advice triggers an instant inner eyeroll, but I try to take it to heart, since I’m at such a loss with my own efforts. At the end of the day, take the time to write down one thing you did well. Accept praise. Don’t let doubts or second guesses stick around. Self-talk feels artificial, but it registers somewhere deep inside our brains, so do it anyway.

I’m someone who has a negative, self-critical tape on endless replay at varying volumes in her mind all the time. These are difficult steps to imagine taking. I realize that part of what’s made me feel insignificant over the last several weeks is a lack of outside reinforcement for anything specific I do. I don’t know what I’m good at. It’s impossible for me to ask for praise, but I’m starving for it. Recognition by another human that your inner intentions and outer efforts are registering in the world is absolutely necessary. My friend holds my hands and tells me how much love he always senses pouring out of me toward every person I meet. I cry a little; I’m tearing up again now as I write this.

In the grand scheme of things, the fact that I’m feeling burned out at last after over 14 months of non-stop effort and tension is only surprising in that it took this long. We all go through cycles of intense focus, followed by necessary disengagement. Only the daily grind of steady work is unnatural in this process, and constant effort is unhealthy and untenable.

But if I want to relight the fire that burns inside me for the work that makes me valuable in the world, I have to do exactly what’s most difficult right now. I need to reach out to other people for that moment of human connection. I need to remember what I love about what I do, and let others see that. I need to ask for help seeing the Big Picture. I need to accept praise, even from myself. I need to make plans and dream dreams for what happens after this work is done. I need to keep creating, whether it’s adding just ten words on a writing project, or prepping my garden for planting, or baking cookies.  I need to let small joys accumulate.

Burnout is real and natural, but the solution isn’t smothering the fire. It turns out, the answer is letting others help you feed the flames.

Apr 19, 2013 - Domestic Engineering    No Comments

A Blessing At Bedtime

It’s been an enormously trying week. I think The Onion best expressed the sheer exhaustion from what seems like a year’s tragedy, horror, and disappointment, at home and abroad, all packed into this short stretch of time. And while I have Many Thoughts on a variety of topics, none of them seem as important as this one.

I’m not a good sleeper, and neither are my sons. Whether it’s difficulty settling down their racing minds at bedtime or waking up from nightmares, they often need comfort and calm at bedtime. When I’m the one to do that, this is what I tell them. Maybe it’ll bring you comfort too.

*****

Everything is all right, my love. You’ve had such a long day, and you’ve been busy from one end of it to the other. You fill the walls of every single minute with such sound and activity, you wear me out just watching. But now, you’re done. There’s nothing else you have to do. Just rest.

Even if you can’t see Her, the Moon will be high above, all night, watching over you and me and everyone we love. She shines down that gentle light that lets us see where we’re going, but still enjoy the stars. I’ll be watching over you too, and Daddy, just like the Moon. Even when your eyes are closed, and all you can see are your dreams, we’ll be always be there.

The house is locked up tight and safe, and we have everything we need. Everything is settling into place for the night.  All the games are played, all the words are read, all the songs are sung. There’s nowhere else you have to be tonight but right where you are. The only thing you need to do tonight, until tomorrow morning when you’ve had enough, is rest. And the only place we have to be in the morning is nature. And nature is never in a hurry. So just be still now, darling. I love you.

Apr 2, 2013 - Psychology, Social Studies    3 Comments

Autism Acceptance Month: Resources for Autistics and Allies

Capture1Today is World Autism Awareness Day, but autistics and many concerned advocates have done a great job of rebranding it as Autism Acceptance Day/Month. What’s the difference, you may ask? To many neurodiverse people, “awareness” and “acceptance” are as far apart as “tolerance” and “equality.” We don’t want past and current generations of people who are differently wired than our neurotypical family and friends to just subsist on the fringes until a “cure” is found for those not yet diagnosed (or even born).

But many of those neurotypical allies don’t really know where to begin when faced with the complex spectrum of autism-related traits and patterns, and I know they’d be genuinely mortified if they grabbed the wrong end of the facts and proceeded as informed.

So here’s a very short, very subjective list of places you can go to experience some of the range and diversity of autism. If you’ve found something you feel should be on this list, please leave it in comments! I’m always on the lookout for new resources! And if you don’t know where something you’ve come across fits on the range of positive voices, please don’t feel embarrassed to ask–wanting to be informed is the first and most important step for any ally of any kind.

Filmography

The documentary Loving Lampposts, available on instant Netflix in at least the U.S., does an excellent job of approaching its autistic subjects with sensitivity and a willingness to truly hear their experiences. I especially appreciated that it included role models who are non-verbal, showing the brilliant thoughts that speech alone is incapable of capturing for them.

The only “fictional” movie I’ve seen that does a good job with autism is the HBO docudrama Temple Grandin (based on the real life of the autism pioneer), but two TV shows, Parenthood and Alphas, portray their autistic characters in ways that have made me gasp, laugh, and cry with recognition and gratitude. Many people cite the new BBC series Sherlock for the Asperger’s-like characteristics the title character shows, but given his other egomaniacal and insensitive traits, he’s not exactly what I’d call a role model, no matter how brilliant he is.

Bibliography

There’s a wide and diverse array of books out there about autism, but I’m only going to recommend the ones I’ve personally read. A few are fiction, but most are memoirs of one kind or another. It’s amazing to see your own life in print without having written a word. And in general, while autistics have found many ways to manage their symptoms and concurrent problems like food allergies or other medical issues, back away slowly from any book that talks about “preventing” or “curing” autism.

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Look Me In The Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison (he’s written two more memoirs since, and I assume they’re just as good as his first)

The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband by David Finch (he too has written successive books that I intend to get to in my Pile o’Shame)

If you only read one book on this list, read Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, an anthology edited by Julia Bascom.

If you only read one author at all, read anything you can get by Dr. Temple Grandin.

Organizography (yes, I’m starting to make up words)

A great alternative to Autism Speaks, which is to be avoided at all costs, is the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). Co-founder Ari Ne’eman works on behalf of the org to bring cases of abuse and discrimination to public attention, as well as to make autistic voices heard in the room for discussions of policy and programs all the way up to the federal level. Their motto is “Nothing About Us, Without Us,” and their website is a great resource for allies as well as autistic folks.

Both national and local branches of Autism Society are also generally positive, though some may be more or less dominated by parents and teachers of autistics, rather than autistics themselves. That’s something to gauge on your own; if you don’t hear from an autistic person within a few meetings or press releases, that may not be a great sign.

Blogography (that one may or may not be a real word by now)

The number of excellent autistic bloggers out there is too numerous for me to do justice to, but you may want to start with a group on Facebook or Twitter like ASAN, Autism Women’s Network, WrongPlanet.net, or The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. They boost signal on blog posts and articles from a lot of great authors, not least among them are: Julia Bascom, Steve Silberman, Emily WillinghamIbby Anderson-Grace, Shannon Des Roches Rosa, Estee Klar, and Lydia Brown. I know I’m forgetting a ton of good ones, so start friending/following the ones you like, and they’ll lead you to more and better, I’m certain. That’s how I got started at least.

 

Mar 31, 2013 - World Religions    3 Comments

Faith and Fiction

Religion is a tricky thing. I should know–on a variety of levels, I’ve been studying the features and interactions of religion since I was a little girl. In fact, I made a profession of it, quite by accident, as I’ve recounted before.

I love the history, the stories, the mythology, and the characters that philosophies and teachings accrete, like a snowball ends up a huge, mysterious matrix by the time it finishes rolling downhill. I love to explore the cracks where logic and theology don’t quite line up, and those places where history intrudes to point out the complicated horse race most multi-religious societies are. The Buddha ends up with saints and instant salvation; Mary ends up with blue robes and lions in her portraits. What a glorious, fascinating mess!

When it comes to my history, I’m a rigorous scholar. I insist on primary sources, whenever possible in their original language–that’s why I’ve learned to read in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Irish, Old French, Provencal, Middle English, and a smattering of Welsh, on top of the modern German, Italian, Spanish and French which I can manage from basic source wrangling to full fluency.

I also insist on impeccably sourcing for those valuable secondary syntheses that integrate analysis with reporting. That’s the job of the historian: to report what they find and put together the patterns. If what you find doesn’t fit the pattern, it’s not a sign to throw it out–it’s a sign that your pattern needs some work.

But, as I’ve also written before, I’m a neo-pagan: specifically, I’m a Celtic-pantheon Wiccan (all Wiccans are pagans, but not all pagans are Wiccans, not by a long shot–take Hinduism, just for contrast). I started as a self-taught Solitaire, thanks to the seminal work of Scott Cunningham, who made Wicca accessible to those without covens from which to learn. In college, I went in for formal training with a trusted teacher and work group, earning my consecration as a priestess so I’d feel worthy of requests to facilitate rituals in the future.

The trick with neo-paganism is the “neo-” part. While many early writers and teachers claimed a single, unbroken heritage with the “Old Ways,” the facts lead us to a different conclusion. Much of what Wicca’s founder Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) and Raymond Buckland (1934-), his disciple who brought Wicca to the US, was created whole-cloth based on their romanticized interpretations of ancient sources and a nature-based outlook on spirituality. All you have to do is look at a definitive archeological source, like Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain, to see how thin and open to interpretation the actual evidence is, compared with the richly embroidered tapestry of belief and ritual that early neo-pagans created.

They weren’t the only ones doing this: W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory had started the ball rolling with their Celtic Twilight movement. Later, historians like Eoin MacNeill who was as much a revolutionary as a professor in early 20th-century Ireland did valuable work bringing together the disparate primary sources from ancient and medieval Ireland, but they processed the evidence through a strongly nationalistic lens so it fit their other efforts.

The facts for neo-pagans are these: There is no way to recreate a continuous tradition from ancient days to the present. We must be content to have fashioned a new, rich tradition of our own, and acknowledge the great deal of wishful historicity we’ve given it. We must also recognize what historians of early Europe already know: that even a single mention in a single source may have to suffice for evidence in societies where what scant written archives may have existed were burned in one invasion or another (thanks a lot, Vikings), leaving spans of 50-200 years without any written documentation.

The facts of my faith, on the other hand, are these: I feel a deep, ineffable connection to ancient generations through the rituals and beliefs I hold dear. I am part of an endless continuum of women and men who have marveled at the beauty of the waxing moon, or tasted the similarity between sea water and tears, or celebrated the first point at which the days become perceptibly longer. Nature is my religion, the forests my cathedrals, the fields and shores my pilgrim paths. That biology and astronomy and physics and geology all mingle to create the singular experience of life on this planet is all the mystery and wonder my soul needs.

These truths don’t rely on primary sources for validation. I can manage to be a good historian and a good person of faith at the same time, even though they should contradict one another. I’m content living in this paradox. For what I know, I want more sources than a single reference in a Christian chronology. For what I believe, I have everything I want.

 

Autism Speaks, I Want To Say…

MamaConnorHairAutism Speaks, I want to say that I won’t be lighting anything up blue in April. I won’t be donating money in any of the cans shaken by earnest coeds in shopping districts. I won’t wear a single piece of puzzle jewelry. I won’t be taking part in your walks, and neither will my son.

It’s too bad, really, Autism Speaks. Because my son and I are autistic, and we make fabulous spokespeople. Like many of our autistic brothers and sisters, we’re hyperlexic, so when we’re asked to speak, we do so way above our grade level. Our autism also gives us a natural enthusiasm, especially when asked to talk about the way the world looks to us, and we can describe clearly and concisely how our perceptions may differ from a neurotypical person’s.

The pink hair is not, sadly, part of my autism, but it is pretty awesome and it shows very well on camera. Too bad you won’t get any pictures of me participating in your orchestrations.

What I want to say to you, though, is very straightforward: I don’t need you to speak for me. I don’t need you to speak for my son.

Moreover, I don’t want you to. I don’t like the messages you send. By only having neurotypical board members, organizers, and spokespeople, you say autistics can’t speak for themselves and defuse the fear and confusion about life with autism.

By choosing a puzzle piece as your symbol, you suggest that autistics are incomplete or a mystery to be solved by someone else, instead of a pattern that is already intact and beautiful as it is.

By devoting a paltry four percent of your annual revenue to “Family Services” (that is, grants to families of autistics who need support for therapy and adaptive technology), you fail to help autistics right here and now.

The 44 percent of your revenue that goes toward research is almost solely dedicated to finding “a cure” for autism, preferably a prenatal test that would alert parents that their beautiful child will be wired differently than they expected. Your idea of a cure would solidify the public’s impression that autism is a life-ending curse.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that your fundraising, advertising, and administrative salaries exceed the percentage of revenue that goes both research and family services.

Instead of urging companies to “light it up blue,” why not ask them to train their employees on the nature of autism, and how best to help autistics who may be overwhelmed by the noise, light, crowds, and textures businesses use to entice neurotypical customers? Why not offer educational programs in the schools that give children the opportunity to see and question an adult autistic who thrives in their work and community? Why not raise money for respite care and better access to early intervention therapies that we know make a huge difference in the future success of autistic children?

The real quest of Autism Acceptance Month must be the quest to understand the beauty, complexity, challenge, and opportunity that autism brings. So keep your change in your pocket, and lace up your walking shoes to take the autistic kids of your family, friends, or neighbors out for a walk in the beautiful April air.

And most of all, let an autistic speak about autism. This may require listening very, very closely, or even reading texts or a chat program, because nonverbal autistics have important things to tell you too. Let them tell you about the flavors and textures and feelings that, while wildly overwhelming sometimes, are also rich and delightful. Let them tell you about what color the world is. Let them perseverate about their favorite things. Let them tell you how much they love you, in whatever way works for them.

That’s how autism really speaks.

Fear of an Blank Parent

Because it is my highest aspiration to be a troublemaker, I’m setting out today to problematize something we all take for granted. I want to argue that the gendering of parenthood does very little good, and no small amount of harm.

This post springboards off posts by Amanda Valentine and me about the media portrayals of men and fathers as bumbling, hapless idiots who are as likely to diaper the Thanksgiving turkey and put the baby in the oven as watch the football game afterward. It also relates directly to the historic cases about same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court this week.

My point is very simple: there is very little difference between the duties my husband and I assume with regard to our children. And since the earliest days–specifically, since I stopped breastfeeding them–the differences in parenting caused by our genders have been vanishingly small.

As parents, we make sure they wash, dress, eat reasonably well (at least over the course of a week, if not each and every day). We send them to school, help with homework, take the inevitable phone calls that come from sending two active, intelligent boys to school every day. We monitor their media, we break up arguments, we cause arguments, and at the end of the day, we tuck them in at night with kisses and dire warnings against getting out of bed again for anything short of a fire.

Absolutely none of these things, or the billion other duties and blessings that comprise parenthood, depend on our biology.

The division of labor that takes place between modern co-parents comes from the frank assessment of one another’s particular strengths and struggles. I crack the whip over homework and science fair projects because I am an educator, not because I am a woman. My Darling Husband does more of the day-to-day housework because I am disabled, not because he is a man. Nor does this indicate I am a failure as a wife and mother, or that he is a weakened, hen-pecked husband and father. Someday, our boys will require The Talk (or to be more correct, The Talks); I honestly have no idea who’s going to give it. I hear the DH has a leg up on me in the visual aids department.

In one of the early hearings on the same-sex marriage bill currently under consideration here in Minnesota, the measure’s opponents brought out an 11-year-old girl to testify against the idea of marriage equality. (You may have also seen her on the steps of the Supreme Court this week; she’s one of their star witnesses right now.) She told the legislators that she loved her mommy and daddy, but that under this bill, some children wouldn’t have a mommy or a daddy, but two of one. “Which parent do I not need, my mom or my dad?” she asked the committee.

And I finally understood why fighting same-sex marriage matters so much to many of its fiercest opponents.

In their world, mothers and fathers do different things for the children. Fathers can’t do mothering, and mothers can’t do fathering. If a single mom or a pair of dads raises a child, there is work being left undone, and the child can’t help but suffer for it. How could anyone possibly be in favor of only half an upbringing?

The gendering of parenthood not only diminishes the power of what parents of both sexes do for their children everyday, but it also confuses the living heck out of some people. When you see signs decrying the erosion of “traditional marriage,” they’re not just talking about divorce and same-sex couples–they mean me and my oh-so-traditional marriage, too.

Even though I’m married to a spouse of the opposite gender, we’re destroying traditional marriage too, by sharing the work–the hardships, the effort, the joys, the rewards–of creating a new family. We’re also undermining the institution by teaching our children (made in the traditional “When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much…” biological way) that moms and dads cook dinner, attend school conferences, travel for work, and tell them to turn off the iPod at bedtime. For the most part, we’re interchangeable.

And our evil scheme is clearly working. They accept their friends with two moms, or one mom, or a dad and a grandma without so much as a bat of the eye. If I had a dime for every time they called the wrong one of us “Mom” or “Dad,” we could afford a bigger apartment. To them, “Mom” and “Dad” are just names to help differentiate between whose attention they’re demanding. It’d probably be easier on us all if there were a random name for “Whichever of you can help me first with what I want.”

My sons are growing up healthy and happy with two loving parents. They’d be no less loved if only one of us were around, or if we were both the same gender, or no gender at all. That’s not how love works–it’s not a zero-sum game.

And when you think of it like that, it’s pretty hard to see two loving, married parents eroding anything about our future.

Un-fair-y Tales

 

FTF 2013 button text popThis post is part of the Fairytale Fortnight, organized by fellow blogger The Book Rat and A Backwards Story. It’s a super cool idea, and there’ll be posts all over the web for two whole weeks, so I hope you come back for more here, and search out other interesting observations and book reviews as a part of the event!

*****

When I asked my sons about fairytales, they didn’t have much to say beyond, “We love them.” I wasn’t surprised–I’ve raised them on mythology and folklore of every kind since they were born. Fairy tales are an essential part of the narrative fabric we’ve woven around them for their whole lives.

I wasn’t surprised either that it’s the twisted modern retellings that particularly tickle their fancy. The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, The Frog Prince Continued…, and The Stinky Cheese Man are popular because of their humor as well as the subversive, topsy-turvy act of inverting classic story structures. Our boys are raised on satire like mother’s milk, so it’s natural that they’d prefer twisted tales to the straightforward ones.

When I asked if there were any lessons the fairytales taught them, though, both boys were at a bit of a loss. I mentioned how many parents of daughters worried that fairytales taught girls to wait for a man to solve their problems for them, and asked if that seemed right. (They’re quite the little feminists; of course they said it wasn’t right.)

But when I thought of the male characters in the revised fairytales of recent years that are designed to address that lack of feminine agency, I came up embarrassingly short of good lessons for boys. Current fairytale telling seems to operate on the idea that there’s a finite amount of power and smarts in the story, and if the women get more of it now, it has to happen at the expense of the men.

This certainly isn’t the only place in society that smart women are rising and smart men are falling in the media. My friend Amanda Valentine wrote a scathing post recently about how gendered entertainment and advertising–especially as it’s targeted at parents–does men an incredible disservice by portraying them all as bumbling idiots who shouldn’t be trusted with home or offspring.

Princess Fiona, Merida, and Rapunzel are smart, feisty, and entirely capable of their own liberation and defense in times of peril. Heroes, on the other hand, like Shrek, Merida’s father Fergus, and Flynn, the hero-rogue in Tangled, are to varying degrees incompetent, gullible, morally weak, and easily distracted from their goals, dependent on the women in their lives to keep them in line and out of trouble. The only male characters that go through real, multi-layered, character evolution in recent years are Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon. Jack in the recent Jack the Giant-Killer is a fairly humble live-action hero whose love for the princess, at the very least, does not make him stupid. Shrek does go through some evolution, but seems to stumble his way from lesson to lesson, and seems weakened and henpecked by the end of the series.

My boys love that these stories are full of adventure and derring-do, and they honestly don’t care too much who’s doing the swashing and the buckling. They’re just as in love with Merida as they were with Shrek. I’m proud of the fact that they don’t see much difference among heroes of different genders. They buck the convention that “you can get a girl to see a boys’ movie, but you can never, not ever, get a boy to watch a girls’ movie.”

But I wish there were room between the domineering, Johnny-Come-Latelys of Charles Perrault and classic Disney, and the updated, apologist buffoons that Hollywood is serving up to boys like mine. They don’t want their fairytales to undergo a gory reversal toward the truly grim versions of Grimm’s. My ten-year-old understood that once parents felt the need to educate their kids that the outside world was a scary, unpredictable place, but when asked if boys still need brutal fairytales to teach that lesson, he replied with a snort, “Are you kidding? All you have to do to learn that is watch the news, for gods’ sakes.”

That’s how I feel too as his mother–no kid growing up today needs fantasy violence to learn that the world is dangerous. Fantasy can be safer and more meaningfully inclusive of rich, complex, powerful characters of both genders (or *gasp* fluid genders!) doing fun, adventurous things in challenging situations. Maybe then, we’d both be satisfied at last with a Happily Ever After.

Mar 22, 2013 - Social Studies    4 Comments

Just Stop: Friday Night Lists

It’s been a bad week in the media for people sensitive to trigger issues. Rape, consent, racism, intolerance, and general lack of humanheartedness abound, and with them the traveling herds of trolls who flock to such ripe feeding grounds from their mountain bridges.

In my assumed role as a sherpa through the treacherous territory of social sensitivity and awareness of others’ boundaries, I’m offering this Friday Night List. If you feel a “but” coming on at the end of these sentences, do not say whatever you were about to–you’ll only end up making someone mad.

SENTENCES THAT OFTEN DO, BUT SHOULD NOT, HAVE ANY MORE WORDS AFTER THEM

(No Buts About It.)

“I’m not a racist.”

“We can all agree that bullying is never okay.”

“I’m not trying to be insulting.”

“Rape is rape.”

“We shouldn’t make light of a serious crime.”

“That looks great.”

“I appreciate your hard work.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud.”

“No offense.”

“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.”

“Hey, baby.”

“I’m sure this was your best effort.”

“You have a wonderful, energetic child.”

“It’s not my cup of tea.”

“I understand you’re strapped for cash.”

“That must be hard for you.”

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you.”

“I appreciate how busy you are.”

“I don’t want to cross any boundaries.”

“Hitler/Idi Amin/Chairman Mao/Darth Vader was a bad man.”

“You may not want to hear this.”

“I shouldn’t have to say this.”

 

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