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Archive for October, 2010

Replace the asterisk with the vowel of your choice and what you have is the sound-bite that goes along with Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum’s famous fist pump.

Lincecum, in case you’ve been living on another planet this baseball season, is the Giant’s pitching ace, the long-haired little kid who looks like a skate-punk, even when he’s hurling a fastball over the plate at 94 m.p.h.   To say he defies the stereotype of the typical ballplayer is, well, understatement.

Which is why we Bay Area folks love this particular Giants team.  They’re misfits.  In the best possible way.   Take first baseman Aubrey Huff, whose underpants come from Victoria’s Secret.  Seriously.  He has taken to wearing a red sequined thong – for good luck – under his uniform.  Or third baseman Pablo Sandoval dubbed Panda because he’s fat – who not only doesn’t mind the nickname, but has inspired thousands of adoring fans to wear furry panda hats at AT&T Park.  There’s clutch hitter Cody Ross, MVP of the NL Championship Series.  He thought his career in baseball was over when the Giants picked him up on waivers at the end of the summer.

And then there’s closer Brian Wilson who sports a fauxhawk and a beard that looks to be dyed daily with shoe polish.  He told the New York Times that his goal is to one day be a NYT crossword puzzle clue, and if you really want to get a dose of weird, Google Wilson and “the machine.”

In short, this ain’t your grandpa’s baseball team.  And, other than giving me a chance to write about my beloved Gigantes as I gear up for Game One of the World Series, this scrappy team provides a good lesson here for the rest of us.  Which is to say:  you don’t necessarily have to play by the rules to win the game.

That’s something we women, whether we’re baseball fans or not, need to take to heart as we march our way into this new millennium, often trying to fit ourselves into a world carved out by Someone Else.  You have to wonder how often we let ourselves be socialized by the stereotypes, wear the uniforms dictated by the roles we think we’re supposed to play.

And yet.

Do we really have to buy into society’s timetable that says we have to have achieved XYZ – a house, a kid, a killer career and a dog – by such-and-such a birthday?  (We don’t even have to like dogs, do we?)  Do we have to pretend we’re not interested in fashion — even if we happen to love fashion — to  be taken seriously as feminists?   Why is it we feel obliged to get a degree in business when what we want to do is dance?

And why is it  that we feel compelled to act like the boys to make it in a business world that they designed generations ago.  Maybe that world doesn’t work anymore — for any of us.   As we’ve noted before, what women have to offer (you know, our differences?) might actually be better for the workplace itself, not to mention the bottom line.  And speaking of that, what if, when it comes to career, all we really want is a paycheck?

(I could go on but, you know, its almost 4:57.  I’ve got a game to watch.)

In short, if we don’t like the mold, why do we keep trying to fit inside it?  That’s a guarantee that we’ll never see a game change.   As one of our icons, Gloria Steinem, once said: Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.

The message?  There’s no harm in being ourselves.  We’ll not only be more comfortable – well, probably not so much in the sequined thong – but we may well win in the long run.

To which you know there’s only one response.  See above.

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photo credit: Kyle Terada/US Presswire

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Over the weekend, I saw a screening of 127 Hours, a soon-to-be-released film by Danny Boyle and starring James Franco that’s about Aron Ralston, the guy who you likely heard about back in 2003, when he got trapped by a boulder in a remote corner of Utah’s Canyonlands, and wound up breaking both bones in his trapped arm, and then cutting his arm off entirely–with a cheap, dull Swiss Army-knockoff knife–in order to escape and save his life. It’s a fantastic, intense, terrifying, adrenalizing, mildly traumatizing and extremely immersive flick. The kind that leaves you feeling as though you just sawed off your own arm (not to mention ready to put a serious chunk of cash on James Franco in next year’s Oscar pool). After the film, Santa Barbara’s Film Festival Director Roger Durling did a Q&A with Boyle, producer Christian Colson and writer Simon Beaufoy, and what they had to say about their experience working with Ralston to adapt his book (titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”–the understatement of the century) for the screen got me thinking.

During those 127 hours, Ralston had a lot of time to think about the way he’d chosen to live his life up until then–as a loner. An adventurous one who devoted himself to the activities he loved, yes, but one who’d taken that to the extreme, isolating himself to the point that he wondered whether anyone would realize he was missing. Although, even if they did, it wouldn’t do him much good–he hadn’t bothered to let anyone know where he was going. Boyle, Colson and Beaufoy emphasized one scene in the film, when it dawns on him that perhaps this is not the best way to live, Franco-as-Ralston says that it’s as though the boulder that had fallen and trapped him had been waiting for him his entire life. As though the universe had conspired to put him in this life-or-death situation, because it was the only way for him to realize the change he so desperately needed to make.

It’s an extreme case, to be sure, but, in a way, it gets at a universal. Have you ever looked at a friend and wondered when she’ll give up the ghost, and move on already? Maybe it’s the party girl who was–um, much like the rest of us–an unrepentant party animal in college, but who, decades on, can’t seem to get beyond defining herself that way–and making decisions that reinforce her identity as such. Maybe it’s the Type-A overachiever, the one who still refuses to cede control, who forces everything–and everyone–to go along with what she has planned, unforeseen feelings, circumstances, or opportunities be damned. Maybe it’s the one who hates her job, her apartment, her boyfriend–or all of the above–but, for whatever reason, can’t seem to break free. It’s like those poor souls who find themselves on What Not To Wear, ferociously defending their Farrah Fawcett hair and corduroy jumper because it was a good look–30 years ago. It’s as though, at a certain point, it becomes impossible to separate our true self from whatever definition, plan, or uniform we’ve lived in for so long. Patterns are tough to change; habits are tough to break. They’re so easy, so comfortable. We don’t have to give too much thought to what we’re doing when we’ve been doing the same thing for decades. But that’s exactly the trouble: we’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing for decades. The problem with clinging to who we once were is that, in doing so, we’ll never be able to become who we could be.

Stuck in a rut. Such a perfect metaphor. It’s dangerously easy to become so deeply entrenched in a pattern, we become incapable of seeing that there’s any other way. The groove’s too deep; the walls are too high. But, if you can manage to pull yourself out of it, you’ll find that the view looks entirely different. Unfortunately, getting a fresh perspective is often easier said than done–although, with any luck, most of us will find a way to get there without staring death in the face and literally hacking ourselves apart in order to get free. We may even realize that opportunities to do things differently are lurking within every minute of every day. And once we do it, once we make just the smallest change, we may find that the bigger ones seem less scary–maybe even kind of exciting–and that the old way, once as comfy as a security blanket, no longer holds much appeal. That, in fact, that Farrah Fawcett ‘do never did look that good on us, after all.


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I’ve been thinking about Shannon’s post from Tuesday about the Mad Men finale, when Don Draper chose Pretty over Smart — even though Smart was herself quite Pretty.  Now, I tend to think that Don went from rock star to weenie when he proposed to his 25-year old secretary on a sex-charged whim:   He rendered himself ordinary, morphing from interesting to cliche faster than you can say “I do,” by buying into that age-old distinction between pretty or smart.  But that’s another story.

Nonetheless, I found it somewhat synchronous that Maureen Dowd’s column in Wednesday’s New York Times also touched on that same dichotomy:  beauty or brains.  Sexy or smart.  Elite or Just Folks.  She starts with a riff on Marilyn Monroe, who was sexy, but wanted to be smart:

The false choice between intellectualism and sexuality in women has persisted through the ages. There was no more poignant victim of it than Marilyn Monroe.

She was smart enough to become the most famous Dumb Blonde in history. Photographers loved to get her to pose in tight shorts, a silk robe or a swimsuit with a come-hither look and a weighty book — a history of Goya or James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Heinrich Heine’s poems. A high-brow bunny picture, a variation on the sexy librarian trope. Men who were nervous about her erotic intensity could feel superior by making fun of her intellectually.

Marilyn was not completely in on the joke. Scarred by her schizophrenic mother and dislocated upbringing, she was happy to have the classics put in her hand. What’s more, she read some of them, from Proust to Dostoyevsky to Freud to Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln (given to her by husband Arthur Miller), collecting a library of 400 books.

Miller once called Marilyn “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”

That last one breaks your heart, right?  Dowd then segues nicely to her real point:  the false dichotomy, cooked up by the women of the far right — on Sunday, she dubbed them the Mean Girls — who have set up a political either/or between the Smart Kids and, you know, the Rest of Us:

At least, unlike Paris Hilton and her ilk, the Dumb Blonde of ’50s cinema had a firm grasp on one thing: It was cool to be smart. She aspired to read good books and be friends with intellectuals, even going so far as to marry one. But now another famous beauty with glowing skin and a powerful current, Sarah Palin, has made ignorance fashionable.

You struggle to name Supreme Court cases, newspapers you read and even founding fathers you admire? No problem. You endorse a candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate seat who is the nominee in West Virginia? Oh, well.

At least you’re not one of those “spineless” elites with an Ivy League education, like President Obama, who can’t feel anything. It’s news to Christine O’Donnell that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. It’s news to Joe Miller, whose guards handcuffed a journalist, and to Carl Paladino, who threatened The New York Post’s Fred Dicker, that the First Amendment exists, even in Tea Party Land. Michele Bachmann calls Smoot-Hawley Hoot-Smalley.

We can hoot and laugh all we want.  But I wonder:  How many of us hold ourselves back because somewhere along the line, we bought into life according to the Cool Kids:  Beauty or brains.  Sexy or smart. Straight A’s or prom dates.  Are we still trying to follow the code of some mythical arbiter of high school Cool?  Is that one of the reasons so many women talked themselves out of majoring in math?  Or opted for Physics for Poets?  Or stick with a job in a cube versus one that takes you outside the building because, well, it’s pre-approved?

Do we still let that mythical arbiter of Cool define who we are — and make our choices to fit, whether those choices involve a white picket fence — or Zooey Deschanel bangs and/or a couple or three tattoos?

The tastemakers may change, but the habits die hard.  No wonder we second guess ourselves.  Or, like poor old Don Draper, let silly stereotypes cooked up by Someone Else dictate who we are and who we want to be —  rather than making the discovery on our own.

If we did make that inner trek, we might find out that we’ve got beauty AND brains.  We’re sexy AND smart.  And, you know, we’re even good at math.

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Did you happen to catch Sunday’s Mad Men Finale? Entitled “Tomorrowland,” as always, the show served up a heaping dose of Yesteryear reality, tarted up in a no-detail-left-behind package of pitch-perfect mid-century style porn.

Initially–and despite the big jaw-dropper–I turned off the TV and thought about the women. Faye, the successful, independent, and beautiful doctor who challenged Don, encouraged him to be himself–even with some knowledge of his secret past–and seemed to have something verging on the serious with him… until, that is, Don took off to California with his much-younger secretary Megan, whom he’d slept with once before while working a late night at the office during which she proclaimed she was “interested in advertising,” and whom, in this episode, he asked to babysit during the trip after Betty canned the kids’ longtime nanny in a fit of temper. After a brush with his past that included the reclaiming of an heirloom ring, Don witnessed Megan leading the children in some sort of French nursery rhyme (just call her Megan VonTrapp), calmly cleaning spilled milkshakes, in a bikini and decked out for a night at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. Ergo, he slept with her, promptly decided he was in love, and, in the long and grand tradition of ad men and their secretaries, proposed. Back at the office, Peggy scored a six-figure deal with some panty-hose slingers, but news of the interoffice engagement trumped hers, despite the fact that the agency was going under. Seeing her shock, Don attempts to–what? console her?–by saying of Megan, “she reminds me of you.” Just a little younger, more beautiful, maternal, and not quite so smart… And then Don picks up the phone to dump Faye, who takes it like a woman–an understandably pissed off woman. Oh, also: Joan got a promotion. In title only–no raise for you, Joanie. (In a New York Times piece in which the writer watched the finale with National Women’s Political Caucus co-founder and “How to Make It in a Man’s World” author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the scene “prompt[ed] Ms. Pogrebin to laugh out loud and point at the screen: ‘We got the titles and not the salary.'”)

So much to say! (Alas, Joan and Peggy beat me to a fair chunk of it, in their hilarious shit-talking session in Joan’s office, post-engagement bomb.) But, hey, the show’s already been deconstructed and reconstructed, backwards and forward. (Although, am I the only one who calls “Foul” at the irony of all the critics who praise the show for its accurate depiction of an incredibly sexist time–and then describe Peggy, who’s started to prove herself professionally, as “increasingly arrogant?” For. The. Love.) But anyway. What goes on in the show is often shocking, but also not, because while wardrobe and workplace mores may have changed, certain human tendencies have not. Take even Betty, arguably the most shockingly-behaved character on the show. In a Washington Post piece entitled “Why ‘Mad Men’ Is TV’s Most Feminist Show,” which ran a week or so ahead of the finale, Stephanie Coontz says:

Betty Draper won most viewers’ sympathy in the first season because of her husband’s infidelities and lies. But since then, many have come to hate her for displaying the traits of the dependent housewife that Betty Friedan critiqued so vividly in her 1963 bestseller, “The Feminine Mystique.” She is a woman who thinks a redecorated living room, a brief affair or a new husband might fill the emptiness inside her, and her attempts to appear the perfect wife render her incapable of fully knowing her children of even her successive husbands.

Interesting, that. (And it’s little wonder that the Sallys of the world are the ones who led feminism’s second wave, looking to live lives on equal, independent footing. As Pogrebin said in that NYT piece, “You should feel sorry for [Betty]… She has such a stunted life.”) But those issues–of misguided attempts at filling the emptiness inside, or the lengths one might go to in the service of avoiding getting to know oneself or one’s family or dealing with one’s or one’s family’s shit–become even more interesting when you consider this, from a New York magazine post-finale-premiere Q&A with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

Faye seemed like Don Draper’s mistress type…

MW: No, I think Faye seemed like the next Mrs. Don Draper. She’s a professional and he’s an equal. I mean, who knows? There’s no stories about men in this situation. Maybe The Odd Couple. I realized because guys like this weren’t single for that long. To me, the reason this episode is called “Tomorrowland” is because it’s really about the choice between, “Do you want to deal with who you are, and live with that?” or “Do you want to think about the person you could be in the future and you’re becoming?” And Megan said, “Go to Tomorrowland.” Everything’s pushing towards that fact. Why don’t you be the person you want to be, and not worry about dealing with the person you are?

Excellent question, Mr. Weiner. And, while thankfully, much of what goes down in Mad Men‘s yesterdayland is relegated to the past, that question gets to me. In the show, both Betty and Don would rather do anything than figure out who they are and be that person. Whether they prefer Fantasyland or Tomorrowland is incidental; it’s the need for escape that’s the same. Betty is a frightful cautionary tale, an emotional infant who deals in temper tantrums; Don is… a frightful cautionary tale, an emotional infant who deals in advertising, cocktails, and sex. Either one would sooner quit their Lucky Strike habit than give up the chase and take a moment to think.

As Salon.com’s Heather Havrilesky put it:

But Sunday night’s “Mad Men” finale reminds us of what Matthew Weiner’s riveting drama captures best of all: the particularly modern affliction of dissatisfaction, a sickness that robs us of our ability to savor the moment, to relish the mundane details of our lives and delight in all of the joys that our comforts and conveniences bring. Perversely, the more comfortable we are, the more we want. We’re constantly distracted by the notion that we could do better or have more, that we might become someone new overnight, that there’s a magic pot of gold around the next corner. Whether it’s advertising or celebrity or culture or some twisted mix of radio jingles, cartoons, soap operas, political speeches and suspense thrillers, our cultural marinade makes us fixate on easy answers, shortcuts, and magical thinking. We’re each about to win the lottery; salvation lies just around the next bend, we just have to wait and see what happens.

Of course, Mad Men is fiction. But what about the rest of us? How often do we push down our real self, procrastinate the work of getting to know her, and instead obsess over changing our external circumstances, hoping they’ll offer us some sort of satisfaction? Or ignore who we are today in favor of who we think we’ll be tomorrow, what we think will satisfy us then? Or find ourselves categorically incapable of being in the here and now, distracted instead by the bright, shiny promise of what could be? It’s so funny, isn’t it, how, sometimes, somehow, we actually believe it’s easier to make decisions based on who we want to be than who we actually are–or possible to distract ourselves out of our dissatisfaction. I’m not happy, but maybe if I leave my philandering husband for this politician, or up and move my family across town, then I’ll feel better? Or, perhaps I’ll have a seventh scotch and screw my secretary–that should do the trick! Or, everything is great… but couldn’t it–shouldn’t it–be better?

Ridiculous, right? And yet. It’s kinda funny how that part carries the disturbing ring of truth, how Fantasyland and Tomorrowland hold such a timeless, universal appeal. I’m in a shitty relationship, but I don’t want to deal with it… I’m gonna cut my hair! And dye it, too! My job is sucking my soul… Time to plan a vacay! Everything is fine, but I sure am bored… maybe I’ll go back to school! Or maybe I should take up with that barista who makes a skull-and-crossbones in my latte foam… Or this: I’m so stressed out over the pages of final edits to my very first book, I just can’t deal… maybe I’ll pour myself a glass of wine, cozy up to the couch, and settled in to watch some salacious TV instead.

Although actually, for 56 minutes, that last one worked like a charm.

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Doncha just love campaign season? Phones aren’t hung up promptly; scandals ensue! As a Californian, I’m naturally thinking of Whore-Gate, or the instance of gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown calling the police union for an endorsement, and neglecting to hang up before an aide helpfully suggested “What about saying she’s a whore?” (The background is this: His opponent, Meg Whitman–the “she” in question–promised the police union that she’d exempt them from the pension caps she was proposing for “all” public emploees, whereas Brown is calling for cuts across the board, including police and fire. The police union endorsement had nothing to do with her being “tough on crime”; it had to do with dollars. Natch.) Anyway, back to Whore-Gate. Once that comment was leaked, Whitman was quick to pounce, calling it an “insult to the women of California.” The issue was brought up during Tuesday night’s debate, during which moderator Tom Brokaw put the issue to Brown, suggesting that the W-word is on par with the N-word. Brown disagreed with the comparison, but apologized. He was booed. Whitman retorted by saying it’s a “deeply offensive term to women,” then saying that when her campaign chairman, former CA governor Pete Wilson used the W-word in reference to Congress, “that is a completely different thing.” She was booed, too.

Wowee, right?! The fallout was equally salacious. The day after the news of the Brown-camp W-bomb was dropped, NOW announced its endorsement of him, which prompted right-wingers everywhere to proclaim that the National Organization for Women is a partisan operation. (Because, you know, men get to vote on the issues, but women can only vote for the similarly-chromosomed. Any hint of voting with something other than our vaginas suggests partisanship.) Others wrung their hands over whether the W-word is, in fact, as sexist as the N-word is racist. Some saying of course it is; others, like Salon.com’s Joan Walsh saying,

Like it or not, in the political realm the word has little sting anymore, and almost no tie to gender. Brokaw’s comparing it to the “N-word” for women was a rare misstep for the otherwise smart moderator.

I tend to agree that the word “whore” in such a context, while ugly, is not particularly sexist, but I do happen to think that ugly language deserves a comment or two at this particular moment in time. Because the thing is, words do hurt. Bullying is reportedly rampant, as are suicides of its victims. People can say and do really ugly things to each other. Look at the cases of Phoebe Prince or Tyler Clementi. Look at the ways in which Hillary Clinton has been talked about, for gods sake.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about sexism; we’re talking about pottymouth. We’re talking about the ugliness of politics, of what happens when someone who’s demonstrated zero interest in politics for the bulk of her life comes into billions of dollars, runs out of toys to buy herself and decides to buy a public office instead, breaking records on campaign spending, and swapping endorsements for favors. (Oops, did I type that out loud?)

But seriously, to suggest that the W-word in question is on par with the N-word–or “deeply offensive to women” in one instance while “a completely different thing” in another–is, quite frankly, offensive in and of itself. Splitting hairs is an insult to voters’ intelligence–and it points to the disingenuousness of Whitman’s decision to play the woman card here, despite the fact that there is precious little in her platform or proposed policy that would benefit women. Even putting that aside, claiming offense in this instance cheapens what people go through when they are the victims of truly hateful language. Politics is ugly, but not as ugly as hate. And what we have here is a non-issue, played up for drama–and votes. There’s plenty of truly offensive instances of hateful language and sexist bullshit to get pissed off about, but this is not one of them. And if you ask me, the most offensive part of the whole thing is this: California is in one hell of a mess, and in desperate need of some quality leadership. And this is what we’re talking about instead.


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Last week Forbes released its list of the hundred most powerful women in the world and Broadsheet’s Mary Elizabeth Williams had a big beef with it.

Not the women who were chosen or, for that matter, why they were chosen.  She was pissed because of a chunk of info that was included in each woman’s bio:  marital status and whether or not these rockstar women had kids.

Let’s check:

But why, as NARAL’s Mary Alice Carr pointed out Wednesday, did Forbes feel the need to include the marital status of and number of children produced by each of its world-shaking women? One might understand that in highlighting the achievements of television host and gay rights advocate Ellen DeGeneres, marriage, and the right to be married, are a huge part of what she stands for. But Danica Patrick? Not so much. Hey, Forbes readers, meet Indra Nooyi! She’s 54, she runs PepsiCo — and she’s married and has two kids. And say hello to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — and note that she is “single.”

Sexist, sexist, sexist.  Right?  Williams also took issue with the fact that Forbes never defines  men in terms of their personal lives.  (Of course, as numerous commenters pointed out, she was slightly off-base: Forbes indeed includes the same info on the world’s wealthiest men, or so we learn from the so-called wisdom of the crowds.)

But who cares.  That’s not the point.  Or at least not mine.  Now, let me just say that I love Mary Elizabeth Williams, and rarely do I disgree with her smart commentary.  But here I do.  Why?  Because for the past 14 years I have taught college women who seem to believe that they have to choose between family or dreams.

You think that impacts their career decisions — or lack of same?  Duh.

There is no question that women suffer from what’s been called the maternal wall:  penalized and considered less promotable because of family committments.   As University of Illinois management professor Jenny Hoobler found, this holds true even when women have no kids — and don’t plan on having any.  We interviewed Hoobler for our book, and here’s what she told us:

[Her study showed] “this lingering stereotype that women aren’t as dedicated to their careers because they are or will at some point take the primary responsibility for caregiving in the family.  What we found was that even when women did not have did not have children, did not have an elderly parent to care for, didn’t have a sick spouse, their bosses still felt  that they had higher conflict between the family and work than their male counterparts did.

“People think that this is something that has gone away. I think there is a misconception when you are talking about workers with kids that male and female parents share equally the responsibilities for the home but many research studies have shown recently that that is not the case.  While men are doing a lot more that their fathers did a generation ago, in dual career families, women are bearing the lion’s share of the caring of people in the home.  But what our study showed was that even when women DID NOT have those responsibilities, their bosses felt that they still did.”

We also found a study on fathers showing that having a baby enhanced their self-image at work, in terms of reputation, credibility and even career options.  Ugh. But that’s another story.

So, hideous, right?  Every bit of it.  Major inequities.   But you have to wonder.  How do we change all this garbage, not only for all the young women who think they have to choose between med school or, you know, preschool — but for their bosses as well, who assume they are doing the girls a favor by NOT giving them the challenging assignments that might take them away from home — but ultimately impact their promotability?

How do we allow women the same ability to have a family and career that men have always taken for granted?

I think one way you break down that maternal wall is with role models.  The Forbes list may indeed be sexist in defining women in terms of their traditional family relationships — or lack of same.  And that stinks.  But what that list also does is this:  When we’re being held back because of who we are, when it’s assumed we can’t take on a challenging assignment because we have family obligations — as if our male counterparts don’t — it gives us the goods to back up our claim that we can get the job done.  Whether or not we’ve got anything going on at home.

You know.  Just like the men.

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So I was roaming around The Daily Beast yesterday — ahem, looking for intellectual commentary — when I was sidetracked by a Popeater link entitled thus: Betty White: You’re Never Too Old for Sex.

And so of course I clicked.

What I found was a little riff on a cover story from AARP magazine in which, among other things, Ms. White — who at 88 is onto yet another stage of her career as a star of the new movie, “You Again” — talks with her costars Jamie Lee Curtis and Kristen Bell about sex:

I don’t have a fella, but if [her late husband] Allen [Ludden] — or Robert Redford — were around, we’d have a very active sex life.

Gotta love it, right?  All of which made me think of my late Auntie Margie, who was deep into her 80s when she once regaled a tableful of my girlfriends with tales of her love life.  “I don’t really need the sex anymore,” she said somewhat pensively.  “But I do need a man to take me out to dinner, now and again.”

Auntie Margie was always something of a mystery to me when I was growing up.  And in all honesty, sometimes an embarrassment.  In an era when most mothers wore dresses and aprons, she wore wool suits.   She was a single mother — often “between husbands”, as she put it — who worked as a bookkeeper to support herself and her daughter at a time when most women her age proudly listed their occupation as “housewife.”  She drank Manhattans, and she told fortunes with a deck of cards, always predicting that you would meet a M-A-N within three days, three weeks or three months.

The last time I saw her, at a family party, she was sitting on a sofa when she asked me to fetch her purse.  I lugged it over to her — you know the size of those handbags — she fished out her lipstick, and without bothering with her compact, applied those red lips perfectly.  At which point I said I was amazed she could put on lipstick without a mirror.  She waved her hand at me dismissively.  “Honey, if you’d been doing this as long as I have, you wouldn’t need a mirror either.”

Even on her deathbed, well into her 90s, she was still the coquette.  She had been hospitalized for several days, the story goes, when a handsome young resident stopped by her bedside for a quick exam.  “How are you doing today?” he asked.  My aunt, who hadn’t spoken a word to her family in days, looked up at  this dashing young doc, and fluttered her lashes like a teenager.  She looked into his eyes, broke out a smile, and said, “I’m just fine. And how are you?”

She was probably my first encounter with an independent woman, though Auntie Margie never would have recognized the word “feminist,” much less ever used the term.  But looking back, I realize she was something more.  Like Betty White —  Hollywood’s newest “It” girl who hosted SNL back in May and is now costarring in a TV sitcom, “Hot in Cleveland” — Marge was a woman who thumbed her nose at convention.  Who didn’t cave when it came to societal expectations or, more importantly, age.

And bravo for that.

Because here comes the point: How much of our angst and worry over  life decisions relates to the ticking clock?  The idea that there is some iron-clad time line, etched completely in stone, that dictates when we are supposed to reach certain milestones?  That once we hit a certain age, we should not only have checked X number of items off the to-do list — but must eliminate those for which society says we are just too old?  The lesson we should learn from these cool old broads is this:  it’s never too late.

Which brings us back to the words of wisdom Betty White shared with her costars:

“”Does desire melt away with age? I’m waiting for that day to come? Sexual desire is like aging, a lot of it is up here [points to her head.]“

True words, never spoken.  Especially what she says about aging.  Our favorite Golden Girl, like Auntie Margie, is a lesson for us all.  We are who we are:  stereotypes, society and above all, age, be damned.

After all, no matter how old we are, something new and unexpected could be waiting for us.  In three days, three weeks, or three months.

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Last week was Banned Books Week, and in its honor, I’m bringing up the case of Laurie Halse Anderson’s young-adult book Speak, in which the female protagonist is raped–which a Missouri college professor apparently believes amounts to “soft pornography.”

In an Op-Ed piece that ran in Springfield, Missouri’s News-Leader entitled “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education,” Scroggins writes of Speak:

Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

Scroggins then drops a paragraph about the evils of Slaughterhouse Five, before moving on to Twenty Boy Summer, and returning to the territory of sex=bad, again with the not-so-subtle suggestion that it’s worse for girls:

This book glorifies drunken teen parties, where teen girls lose their clothes in games of strip beer pong. In this book, drunken teens also end up on the beach, where they use their condoms to have sex.

So, a fictional portrayal of teenagers using condoms is bad? But more importantly, as offensive as the suggestion that any book be banned for any reason is, this guy’s implication that, while sex itself is bad, the female characters–willing or not!–who have it are filthy is downright appalling. (And if you’re not appalled yet, consider this other item: Axe Body Wash is now running a delightful ad campaign, in which it promises its charmingly named “Snake Peel” will “Scrub Away the Skank.” Cuz, you know, random girls that hook up with you are skanks, but you’re just a good ol’ dude. And dudes will be dudes.)  I haven’t read either of the books in question, but to me, they sound like they probably offer a pretty damn realistic look at the sex lives of teenagers. And, you know, might give real-world teenagers some food for thought, when it comes to their own sexual decisions? But I guess information is threatening to folks like Scroggins. As Ms. Magazine points out of the books that earn the most ire,

Perhaps they touch on–lower your voice–sex. Or sexism. Or racism. Or on progressive politics. Perhaps they’re anti-war!

(Check their banned book reading list for fun, and brace yourself. Among the obscenities: The Handmaid’s Tale, Brokeback Mountain, Beloved, The Bluest Eye, The Awakening, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, The Joy Luck Club, and pretty much everything ever written by Judy Blume.)

Am I the only one who’s found herself humming Footloose? I don’t know, but it seems to me that those who are afraid of new information or ideas contrary to their own are probably relatively insecure in their beliefs or in themselves: otherwise, why would they be so fearful?

But back to Anderson. In response to Scroggins’ screed, Anderson made an important point on her blog:

The fact that he sees rape as sexually exciting (pornographic) is disturbing, if not horrifying. It gets worse, if that’s possible, when he goes on to completely mischaracterize the book.

Horrifying, to say the least.

A Twitter movement has since sprung to Anderson’s defense, marked with the hashtag #speakloudly. Comments to her blog post are impassioned, and frankly, remind me of how I felt upon reading one of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of all time, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (Yes, apparently there have been many campaigns aimed at protecting teenage girls from information about menstruation–and the angst might feel upon one’s first experience with it. God forbid we learn about our bodies–or discover we’re not alone in our angst.) Check this one, from a reader named Lindsay:

I literally just finished reading SPEAK for the first time a few days ago, AND IT CHANGED MY LIFE.

this book is one-of-a-kind and does not deserve to be banned. i even checked it out from my school library.

Melinda is in a way, just like me (except I’ve never been raped and i dont normally hang out in a closet and im not very good at drawing trees or anything) but just the fact of all the inside thoughts she has on the world around her, THOSE ARE THE SAME THOUGHTS RUNNING THROUGH MY HEAD!

Finding that you relate to people whom, on the surface, aren’t like you at all–I’m sorry, but isn’t that sort of the magic of reading? And, of life? What some call obscene, I call beautiful. And as for Scroggins, I just feel kind of sorry for him.


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