Thursday, June 22, 2017

Wonderings about Wonder Woman


So, I saw it. And now I'm wondering some things.

I wonder whether the people who loved it fall into one of two categories: 1) People who were already interested in all-things superheroes or comic book characters; 2) Women to whom the movie spoke about power, particularly female power, perhaps because they have felt less powerful in their lives, by virtue of being female, than they felt was right.

So, let me just say now that I fall into neither of these groups. I'm not that interested in superheroes and comics, and, in general, I have felt powerful in my own life and not held down by society's (Western, American, Mormon) expectations for me. I'm not criticizing you for having felt that way; I'm just saying this isn't where I'm coming from. So that's probably the biggest reason that the movie left me underwhelmed.

I'm not saying that it was a bad movie—it just didn't strike me as especially, well, anything. It was an OK movie, as far as action movies go. But nothing outstanding. FOR ME. I realize that this admission, and the further admission (which you probably already picked up on) that I don't even really care for action movies in general, means that I'm probably not qualified to even critique the movie and definitely not qualified to say anything interesting to those who loved this movie. Which, as it turns out, seems to be almost everyone who saw it! So .  . . I'm a loner, and chances are that at the very least, my comments will be boring to you, and at the most, I might offend. Sorry about that.

I'm just going to address a few of the "positive" things I've heard about the movie.

1. WW is a great example of a girl who is free—free of all the beliefs, expectations, roles, limitations about women that our crazy society (whether that means Western/European, American, or Mormon) imposes on women.

Hmmm. I can't say that I see this. I mean, yes, I see a girl being raised to believe that she is strong. No one will say this is a bad thing. But, really, "strong" in this situation seems to mean "as comfortable being physically violent, or at least aggressive, as highly trained Navy Seals," in particular. And although she does seem to want to seek nonviolent solutions, or at least hates killing for dumb reasons and using war as a problem-solver, I would have liked to see her be strong in other ways—in wisdom, for example. You could argue that she was smart (having read all those books, including the particularly-mentioned sex manuals, and knowing so many languages), but the director/story seems to bend over backwards to portray her as quite naïve, at least for most of the movie, which seemed to me to prevent her from seeming really smart.

I'm not sure why she is portrayed as naïve. Is it to show how shocking the violence of our society is? Strange that she'd be so surprised about that, considering how much of her growing-up time was spent in martial arts training, reading human history, etc. Maybe it is supposed to show true femininity or a peace-loving nature, to be so shocked at the evil in the world? Either way, that is less satisfying to me than if she had been shown to be strong in wisdom and understanding. What her naivete does, IMO, is to make her a pre-fallen Eve, childlike, when it is post-apple Eve, the one who consciously chose to progress and become more adult, who is the real superhero to me. And, in the case of WW, the "fall," or acquaintance with the fruit which brings a knowledge of good and evil, is something that happens to her (passively), not something she actively chooses. In this way she remains, to me, a symbol of the weak female to whom things happen, not the strong female that I recognize in the women around me who, having a full understanding of the evil around them, roll up their sleeves and get to work loving and serving.

2. WW decides, after seeing humanity in all of its weakness (post-"apple"), that she loves it anyway and finds it worth saving. Hmmm. Nice idea, but I'm not sure this is actually what the movie portrays. In the movie I saw, she loved one particular MAN, and did it all for him. Now this could be parsed one of two ways: either she is the typical boy-crazy female whose motivation comes from love (and seeking to be worthy) of one man, or she is showing us that a mature person can do the Christ-like thing of seeing good, and bad, in one individual, and also the Christ-like thing of loving others specifically and individually, thus finding them worth fighting for. This second option is, of course, much more worthy and interesting, but I'm not sure the movie supports this reading; the bad guys are certainly all bad, though it's true that the good guys are demonstrably flawed.

3. WW is a critique against violence: witness her fury at the concept of a machine gun. Ah, nope, I'm not with you on this one. How many hours a day was she training in violence on that island? And the first concern when she gets new clothes is whether she can kick in them? And how does she end up solving all problems—with more might and trickier violence (or cooler violent technology, her wristbands) than her enemy?

4. WW questions conventions in interesting ways: witness her question of why main-sexual-interest-guy won't sleep next to her. OK, well, I happen to believe that motherhood is an immensely important force in the universe. One of the reasons that marriage (and the honoring of marriage vows) is a good thing is that it is the best way to raise happy, healthy children. So I didn't think it was cute that she was naïve about the reasons why unmarried people should be careful about beginning a potentially sexual relationship. And that makes me wonder: where is motherhood in this movie? Look at the women on WW's home island: none of them are mothers in the actual biological sense. Why, then, do they have such obviously motherly figures? What are the breasts for, and why should we go out of our way to show them off?

I can't help feeling that at times, WW seems like a sexy Barbie doll trained to bat her innocent eyes at everyone and jump around doing cool acrobatic moves, free of the "restrictions" of motherhood and the way it ties women down. What if you took a woman and removed everything womanly about her, like motherhood, and a deep wisdom about the nature of humanity, and a desire to progress in that wisdom, and a desire to be in a deep, nurturing relationship with one man--except, of course, leave her with the womanly characteristics which are sexy—and then gave her a lot of training in violence so that she is a warrior? What would you have? I'm thinking what you'd have is a man with breasts.

5. I do share the yearning that many fans of this movie have expressed to see more (and to become myself) examples of females who are free from fear. And I do appreciate that WW showed us a woman not afraid to walk in scary places alone. I would really, really like to have that experience. In this way, I appreciated the vicarious experience of power that WW gave me. But there is one way that I feel unfree as a woman that this movie failed to address, and I feel great loss over this failure. That is, I don't feel free of society's expectations regarding my (and all females') appearance. I hate that I feel it's my duty to spend more time getting ready in the morning than my male acquaintances do, that I need to color my hair and keep my weight more particularly under control, etc. I hate that I lose time in my day to these things that I wouldn't if I were a man. You can argue that it appears that WW didn't spend much time in front of a mirror, but I think you'll agree with me that the choice of an extremely gorgeous, well-built, perfect-skinned actress didn’t make this particular "freedom" very clear. Oh, and the skimpy clothes had their own rhetoric as well. How would this movie have been different if WW had been a little heavier, a little less obviously gorgeous, and much more fully-clothed? (This, by the way, is why I think the choice for actress for Katniss in Hunger Games was so heartening. She was beautiful, but not stick-skinny, and what she said and did was always more important than how she looked. Katniss as a character had her own flaws, though; I admit that.) I, for one, would have found the character of WW in this movie a lot more freeing if she had been a little less of a sex symbol. But, I understand: sex sells. I guess the creators are betraying their own beliefs about men here, as much as their beliefs about women.


So there it is. I'm a Grinch, I know. I don't mean to stomp all over your spiritual experience, but the fact that so many women were moved by this movie says more to me about how much women yearn to hear great stories about themselves and their potential than about what good can come from this particular movie.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Book Report (revised! more about what I meant about Mormon fiction)

The past few months I've gotten better at abandoning books that aren't rewarding to me. This involves the skill of evaluating what "rewarding" means to me, the skill of recognizing relatively early on that the book doesn't measure up, and the skill of trusting that when I let go of something that isn't rewarding, room will open up in my life for something better, and that space will be filled soon.

What is rewarding to me isn't simple to define. It's not just what entertains. Well, not completely. Because it's true that I am less and less entertained by "empty calorie" reading than I was earlier in my life. Oh, boy, I'm running into definition issues right and left. I was going to talk about how I used to be satisfied with something that was simply a "good story," but am no longer. But that's not exactly right. It's that my definition of a good story has become more exacting, and fewer things feel like good stories to me.

Let's try this: it's not enough, any more, to have a story depend entirely on plot for its delight. Example: Game of Thrones. Gave up after about eight chapters. The Wheel of Time series—gave up after the first book. I felt like these books were just a series of Things Happening. And yet, I'm thinking of exceptions. I don't think I'd give up on Pelican Brief or Jason Bourne books if I were reading them for the very first time today. What's the difference? Is it that I didn't feel any progression or interest in actual characters (Wheel of Time)? Or that there were too many characters and plots to keep straight in my very memory-weak mind until the time that their interweavings became interesting (Game of Thrones)? I don't know. But even with these exceptions, I can't read them very often or more than one in a row.

I guess it's like growing up and moving to good, chewy bread instead of the childish preference for Wonder bread, or my love of dark chocolate when I only liked Hershey's as a child. In my reading, now, I want FIBER.

I also have no tolerance for when a narrator (author) betrays my trust, either through sloppy, cheesy writing or through the sloppy over-use of details and description.

Recently I abandoned an LDS-themed (Mormon characters) book, A Song for Issy Bradley (by Carys Bray). It reminded me very much of another LDS-themed book that was also written by a writer from the UK, The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth. While I did finish The Friday Gospels, I felt very bogged down, in both books, by the time taken in world-building (that is, creating the sense of Mormon culture). I'd really like to hear others' opinions on this, particularly people unfamiliar with the LDS culture, but to me all the mentions of the inspirational wall-hangings, Sunday-school platitudes, kitsch, etc. felt inauthentic. Not because I didn't recognize these things, but that I felt it was a violation of the characters' points of view to NOTICE them. This is a tricky thing I try to explain to my students: when you are in a certain character's point of view (even if it's a somewhat distant third-person), mentioning details is tricky, because it feels to your reader in a subtle way as if the character is noticing those details. And so the mention of all these details, which are very common in my culture, made me lose trust in the narration because I think a character who has grown up with these things, seen them every day, wouldn't notice them in particular on this day just because his/her story has now begun.

I'm thinking now of Orson Scott Card's example of a bad description of a character leaving a futuristic room: "The door dilated and he went out." The point is that, in the future, no one would comment on the fact that the doors dilate; if all doors dilate and it's part of normal life, we just think/say, "He went out." It would be like us saying today, "The door swung on its hinges and she went out." Duh.  I feel that the use of all these details in books with Mormon settings is similar. I also see this problem in a lot of well-researched historical fiction (The Work and the Glory comes to mind, and quite a lot of setting-heavy young adult historical fiction). We don't really need to know about the style of the fire grate or the pleating on the sleeves of the dress, unless it's somehow pertinent to the story in a way that it makes sense that the character suddenly noticed something that is usually just part of the background.

So when there is so much (unnecessary) detail in a Mormon book, I assume it's there for one of two reasons: either the authir is not, or only minimally, LDS, and wants to show off her research, or she feels that this cultural stuff is somehow pertinent to the story. I like neither of these situations. I'm so tired of the "poor thing; look at the crazy stuff she had to grow up with" story, in which there is always the chastity anecdote of the fondled flower or the chewed gum. I want a Mormon fiction that is as complicated and beautiful (as well as sometimes tragic) as our culture is, and I think too many books go for the low-hanging fruit. And it shows. And I'm tired of it.

The good news is that so much GOOD writing is being done, and I'll never run out of things to read, even despite the books I’m abandoning.

And so here I'd like to tell you about a book I HAVE been enjoying lately. But not because it is great literature or even especially well-written. Rather, because its ideas have been changing me. It is called He Did Deliver Me From Bondage, by Colleen Harrison. This was written as a workbook, or handbook, to accompany Alcoholic Anonymous's 12-step program when used by Mormons. It is basically one women's scripture journal: the results of her search through the Book of Mormon for ways that it applies to the 12-step program (or, inversely, ways that the 12-step program applies to the gospel). I listened to this book on audio, and although I found the voices of the reader (not sure whether she is the author or not) and her co-reader (for the actual quoted scriptures) rather irritating at first (heavy Utah accents, for one thing), after a while I came to love their voices, because I came to love what I was hearing. I picked it up because I had seen the book referred to in another book I was reading, and the referral mentioned that Harrison struggled with an addiction to food. I had been wondering whether I had an addiction to food myself (because I spend so much time thinking about the next time I'm going to eat, and what it will be, etc.).

Through listening to the book, I came to realize that, yes, I do have an addiction—but not to food. I am addicted to feeling in control of my life (perfectionism, I guess, or a variation of it). And the things I learned through this book have given me a glimpse of another way to live. I feel like I have a lot of work ahead of me, that I'll need to listen to this again and again and probably actually work the program, but I am so grateful for the glimpse I got. I am learning, very slowly, how to apply it to my moments of unease (with myself and others). I think I'll talk more about this later, but I just wanted to put this out there in case there are others who might be helped by it. You can get the audiobook from the library.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Stories

I’ve been reading Eugene England’s amazing Reader’s Book of Mormon series. This is a reprint of the Book of Mormon (in 7 volumes) in which the text is printed in paragraphs, not chapters and verses. I haven’t actually been reading that part; I’ve been reading the introductions to each book, which were written by prominent Mormon scholars. I found the series because I was preparing for an appearance on a panel dedicated to celebrating the work of poet and teacher Susan Elizabeth Howe, and I discovered that she had written one of the introductions (which I enjoyed very much). Others who have introduced sections of the Book of Mormon include Claudia Bushman, Bill Wilson, Douglas Thayer, Linda Hoffman Kimball, and Steve Walker. And Robert A. Rees, whose introduction to the first part of Alma I read this morning. I highly recommend the series. Bill Wilson’s discussion on King Benjamin’s sermon about helping the poor was enlightening to me—really, all of them have been enlightening and nourishing and have sparked my mind in new directions as I consider anew this book that I have read so many times.

Today, as a consequence of reading the Bob Rees intro, I’ve been thinking about how much the Book of Mormon is a story about stories. I’ve noticed this before, one time marking everything that mentioned books, stories, telling or reading throughout the text because I was preparing an Enrichment Night presentation on the value of stories (including, gulp, that frivolous thing called fiction). Rees talks about the weight that past family issues carries for people (in this case, the Lamanites), about how it seems to be human nature to carry with us the scars of our family histories, the perceived wrongs we suffered, how we keep the stories of our injustices (perceived or real) alive. And we see, when it comes to the Lamanites, the ill effects of such negative story-telling. (When confronted by missionaries, they ask, “What are you doing with these liars who stole our inheritance from us?” even hundreds of years later, thus keeping themselves from the joy of progression in light and truth (in other words, damning their own progress, or experiencing damnation). And yet the Book is also full of examples of the benefits of positive storytelling. It seems that the prophets regularly suggest, as a first step in conversion, that we take time to “remember” what the Lord has done for us, and for our families in the past. “Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things . . . that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children ofmen, from the creation of Adam . . .” (Moroni 10:3).


So, the stories we choose to tell ourselves about the past are powerful. We can choose negative ones and be forever stuck in our progress, or we can choose positive ones and be launched on our way forward. I want to have more self-control in my life about the stories I choose to carry with me, and I want to make sure that I’m making plenty of time to fill myself with positive stories from the scriptures.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Among the Hmoob

Last night I came home from a trip to Minnesota. I went there with my boy, who has been home from his Minnesota mission for about nine months. This trip was a gift to him.

I loved seeing his joy on reuniting with the Hmong branch. Because it was a mission to the Hmong community within the United States, he spent most of his mission attending the same branch, much more time among the same people than other missionaries usually spend. So he became very close to the members there. He had been given a Hmong name and adopted into a Hmong clan. Visiting among the members there (so many of them busy raising children and managing work and hefty church callings, spread thin in ways that are probably common among non-Mormon-belt members) was a beautiful experience. I learned much about the Hmong culture. I know that it's probably wrong for me to assume I know anything about Hmong-American Mormon culture, and that to make any universal statements borders on stereotyping. But I'll report that I saw people who were very loving and very down-to-earth. Also, people who love to talk and especially to bear testimony on Fast Sunday.

While there, I bravely ate the food that was given to me, though I did pass on the super-hot peppers, which my hosts kindly kept separate. I ate pho (yes, I know that it's not originally Hmong, and that you can get it here, and that many Caucasians eat it and love it—I've just never tried it before) and a lot of rice and SQUIRREL! I survived the squirrel—it really wasn't bad, and the broth was very good. I heard interesting conversion stories. I smiled a lot as conversations went on around me. My boy translated MOST of what got said, which was kind of him. ("You should marry a Hmong wife!" "You've gotten taller!" "You need a haircut.")

One of my favorite moments was walking into the Hmong branch on Sunday and seeing the people's joy as they recognized my boy and hurried over to greet him. Another favorite memory will be the hour we spent at Hmong Village, a Hmong shopping mall. My son had so much joy in greeting each stall's proprietors in Hmong. I loved seeing their surprise and interest in his use of their language. I don't want to be so ethnocentric as to think that they were grateful a "Mika" (non-Hmong American) would take time to learn their language, but I think they were just friendly people, willing to spend some time in chatter when it was clear that he had so much enjoyment of speaking with them. I also loved seeing the huge variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and herbs at that market, many of which I hadn't seen before, ever.



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Dear Hmong people of the Twin City branch, I can see that you loved my boy, and I am so grateful. I can see that you fed him and clothed him and made him feel useful. He came out young and a little awkward but full of a willingness to love you, and you let him. I know that he is just one of the hundreds of missionaries who have passed through there, but you are a big part of his world and his heart will be broken to be separated from you for years and years to come. Thanks for giving him an opportunity to try to show me what he loved about you. I can see that you deserve his praise and love.