Friday, May 30, 2014

Why the female quest is so radical

Novelist Vanessa Veselka wrote an essay for American Reader called Green Screen: The Lack of Female Road Narratives and Why it Matters that blew my mind. (HT to Shaula Evans at The Black Board once again.) Drawing on her own experience hitch-hiking and her research into murdered women at truck stops--as well as piercing readings of classic novels of men on the road--she compares the way our culture experiences men and women journeying by themselves:
Often, I was asked why was I travelling. But over time, I came to understand that the question was not “why,” but “how.” As in, how could I have left? How bad was it? How could this have come to pass?
These are very different questions from “why.” “How” is about events, as in “how did it happen?” Whereas “why” points to individuality and agency. Why did you go that way? Why do you like Gouda and hate Swiss? Why do you think that this is a good idea? The difference between “how” and “why” marks a fundamental divide between the male and female road experience.
...A man with a quest, internal or external, makes the choice at every stage about whether to endure the consequences or turn back, and that choice is imbued with heroism.
Women, however, are restricted to a single tragic or fatal choice. We trace all of their failures, as well as the dangers that befall them, back to this foundational moment of sin or tragedy, instead of linking these encounters and moments in a narrative of exploration that allows for an outcome which can unite these individual choices in any heroic way.
 ...A man on the road is solitary. A woman on the road is alone. This is not cute wordplay, but a radically different social experience.
These projections are true at truck stops on Earth, and they're true in our books and at the movies and in galaxies far, far away.
True quest is about agency, and the capacity to be driven past one’s limits in pursuit of something greater. It’s about desire that extends beyond what we may know about who we are. It’s a test of mettle, a destiny.
...Power and patriarchy can’t afford women the possibility of quest, because within these structures women are valued as agents of social preservation and not agents of social change. You can go on a quest to save your father, dress like a man and get discovered upon injury, get martyred and raped, but God forbid you go out the door just to see what’s out there. And these are the tales of rape and death that get handed down to us.
Thus, every story we create that gives women (and others who are marginalized) a "why" and not a "how"--either by writing it, sharing it, or living it--is an act of narrative revolution.
...There is no way to snap one’s fingers and make mythology. There is no way to pry open a national narrative and insert an entire population. But we do get glimpses. One day, in a book or a film, a new woman appears, and she feels real. Not contrived or reactionary, she transcends the page or the screen.
Read the whole essay, and ponder. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Enough With The Hero's Journey Already

Shaula Evans at The Black Board came up with a much better title than I did for my second TED talk, though she was using it in reaction to my first one. I thank her for that, and I'm considering that an excuse to share it again.
I have been thinking more about the myth of the White Male Hero and what the stories say he is destined for, in light of current events (read Amanda Hess and Soraya Chemaly and Margot Magowan and Ta-Nahisi Coates, now and always).

When this talk was recorded in the fall of 2013, the Oscar race was heating up and 12 Years A Slave was already predicted to win its important victory. Frozen had just come out, totally fulfilling my request in my first talk for a story about female leaders inspiring people to come together and be their best selves. (Thanks!)

Since then, the fall season ended up bringing more fresh heroes. From the non-white-males who carried Catching Fire and Gravity and Frozen to global domination to the interesting white males of Dallas Buyers Club to the interesting white supporting females of Skyfall to the interesting white quartet of American Hustle, the year ended up bringing a cadre of movies I enjoyed.

(I didn't care too much for the white males of Her or Despicable Me 2, and I didn't go see the white males of Captain Phillips or Nebraska or Inside Llewyn Davis or The Wolf of Wall Street.)

Sadly, some of the smaller films anchored by African-American heroes had faded from memory by the time the Oscars nodded their gold heads. (Oprah was robbed.)

But the good news is that the summer superhero spectacles I was reacting to in the talk have been forgotten as well. (It's like Oz the Great and Powerful never happened. Right?)

And 2014 is off to a strong start. The LEGO Movie may be one of the best movies of the decade...totally fulfilling my request in this talk for a deconstructed Hero's Journey. (Thanks!)

And this summer's crazy smart Marvel movies are making comic books seem like Joseph-Campbell-worthy myths after all.

Though, as intelligent as Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, it's still a movie about how the world is redeemed by an omnipotent, innocent, universally adored white man whose name is "America."

So, yeah.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Girl Scouts and Lean In Team Up To "Ban Bossy"

I'm so proud to be a part of the new campaign "Ban Bossy," organized by the Girl Scouts of the USA and I personally would be nowhere without the many take-charge women I love, some of whom I must confess I have called "bossy" over the years. (Sorry mom. Sorry honey.) 

As Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chavez summarize in their recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, the word pops into our heads when girls and women show leadership qualities. That's not because we're all sexist jerks. It's because we've been trained to think that way, and the word is one way we get that training:
The word "bossy" has carried both a negative and a female connotation for more than a century. The first citation of "bossy" in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to an 1882 article in Harper's Magazine, which declared: "There was a lady manager who was dreadfully bossy." A Google Ngram analysis of digitized books over the past 100 years found that the use of "bossy" to describe women first peaked in the Depression-era 1930s, when popular sentiment held that a woman should not "steal" a job from a man, and reached its highest point in the mid-1970s as the women's movement ramped up and more women entered the workforce.
Most dictionary entries for "bossy" provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries' "bossy, meddling woman" to Urban Dictionary's "She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone." Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.
Culture, including language, teaches each generation what to value and what to believe. As parents, we have a crucial role to play in helping our children filter the culture in a way that reflects the values we hold. So, if you want your children to believe that women and men can both be leaders, try not to signify through what you say and do that really, little girl, it's kind of annoying when you raise your hand and have ideas and stuff.

As Sandberg and Chavez put it, "How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?"

Their teams have put together a fun website with tools for girls, parents, teachers, managers, and troop leaders. There's also a highlights section called "Things We Love," and I'm so delighted that my TED talk on "How Movies Teach Manhood" is featured. In fact, the talk has inspired an entire activity for parents!

"Leadership Tips for Parents" (PDF) looks to me like an excellent handbook on how to ban bossy in your household (while cultivating the strong, brave, and compassionate children we want to lead the next generation). Girls Leadership Institute co-founder Rachel Simmons and the Girl Scout Research Institute have compiled 10 tips:
  1. Encourage Girls and Boys Equally to Lead
  2. Be Conscious of the Ways You and She Talk
  3. Make Your Home an Equal Household
  4. Teach Her to Respect Her Feelings
  5. Moms and Grandmoms: Model Assertive Behavior (not a problem in my house)
  6. Dads and Granddads: Know Your Influence
  7. Seize the Power of Organized Sports and Activities
  8. Get Media Literate--Together (hey, this looks familiar)
  9. Let Her Solve Problems on Her Own
  10. Encourage Her to Step Outside Her Comfort Zone
I helped design the movie-watching activity on page 10 that will help you introduce great media criticism into your regular movie nights. Yes, the Bechdel Test figures prominently. 

Note: Please read Alison Bechdel's work for its own brilliance--her legacy goes far beyond this 30-year-old throwaway joke that her friend Liz Wallace actually made up

THAT'S NOT ALL. From pages 15 to 20 are worksheets you can use to facilitate the discussion and charts you can print out and put on your fridge. It sounds like homework, but I think they've designed it so colorfully that it will go down easily. (Plus, it's still basically watching a movie you like and talking about it, pretty much my favorite thing to do in my life.)

If you print all this out and organize your family to do this activity, I promise you two things. First, you will model assertiveness and possibly inspire critical thinking about media for your children's lifetimes. Second, even though it might run through your family's mind, I will not call you "bossy."

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Hero's Journey Led Me Astray: Further Reading

Here are some of the things I read about before, and refer to in, my TEDxBeaconStreet talk on the Hero's Journey. You should definitely read them and follow these writers.

The Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell's work is beloved by most. It certainly has become the blueprint for screenwriting, through teachers like Robert McKee and Christopher Vogler. I found a few compelling counterpoints, though, ranging from the hilarious to the academic to the provocative:

"Hulk Explains Why We Should Just Stop It With The Hero Journey Shit" by Film Crit Hulk
"The Problem of Woman As Hero In The Work of Joseph Campbell" by Sarah Nicholson
"The Heroine With A Thousand Friends" by Elizabeth Lyon
"Forget the Hero's Journey. Women Want An Antagonist's Tale" by Robin Childs
"The Heroine's Journey: How Campbell's Model Doesn't Fit" by B. J. Priester

2013 movies about race

I'm not the first to notice the unusual abundance, prominence, and success (both artistic and commercial) of movies featuring African Americans in 2013. Much more will be said as the Oscar race proceeds.

"In Hollywood, Black Is The New Black" by Bilge Ebiri
"How Did Racism Get To Be So Popular?" by Stephen Marche

White people's relationship to movies about race

Like boys watching movies about female characters, white people supposedly won't go see movies featuring mostly Black casts. This is a curious by-product, or way of expressing, privilege: marginal groups are expected to enjoy stories of the dominant group--they do it every day! But the dominant group does not need to empathize with the marginal group. Unless they have an "audience surrogate."

"The White-Savior Industrial Complex" by Teju Cole
"Why White People Don't Like Black Movies" by Andre Seewood
"Oscar Loves A White Savior" by David Sirota

What about those statistics, huh?

It wouldn't be a TED talk without some numbers and studies. I got mine from these sources:

TV-watching and self-esteem "Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship Between Children's Television Use and Self-Esteem" by Nicole Martins & Kristen Harrison

Racial make-up of 2012 movies and movie-goers MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics 2012, p. 13
"Race/Ethnicity In 500 Popular Films" by Dr. Stacy Smith, Marc Choueiti, & Dr. Katherine Pieper

Heroes of color in all time top 100 Top 100 Worldwide:
Independence Day (39)
Hancock (72)
Men In Black 3 (73)
Life of Pi (79) (Not Will Smith.)
Men In Black (84)
I Am Legend (88)
Puss In Boots (96) (I was generous.)
Plus, to be even more generous, I counted Beverly Hills Cop, which is #41 on the Top 100 Domestic Adjusted for Inflation.

Bias studies "Everyone Is Biased: Harvard professor's work reveals we barely know our own minds" by Carolyn Y. Johnson
Science Faculty's Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students" by Corinne Moss-Racusin, John Dovidio, Victoria Brescoll, Mark Graham & Jo Handelsman
"Lack of Female Sources in NY Times Front-Page Stories" by Alexi Layton and Alicia Chepard

What other articles, talks, and research have you found about these topics?

Monday, September 23, 2013

3 Things I Noticed Watching 'Beauty and the Beast' For The 129th Time

1. Taran from "The Black Cauldron" chases his pig as the opening song starts.

Well, not here. But in the movie.

2. Paige O'Hara is totally doing an impression of Judy Garland as Dorothy during every scene with the Beast. 

It's bad enough picking on a straw man, but when you go around picking on poor little dogs...!
Well if you hadn't frightened me, I wouldn't have run away!

3. So, the third act launches with little Chip breaking Belle and her dad out of their basement by ramming Maurice's wood-chopping invention into the side of the house. I would really like to see someone try to storyboard how that worked exactly.

How exactly did a small teacup rotate and operate this piece of heavy machinery?
What have you noticed?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Wib's World: A Remembrance

A year ago, my father-in-law Willoughby Walling died in a hospital in Brookline at 69, of complications from the treatment of lung cancer.

A week later, I spoke at a service in his honor at the church where my wife learned to love singing. At the service, she and I sang "You Walk With Me" by David Yazbek, accompanied by the children's choir director who mentored her. Then I gave the remarks below.

The experience of public speaking again, after many years as a performer in other people's plays, turns out to have been transformative for me. In a way, the impact this speech is having on my creative direction is a continuation of the career coaching he offered me after leaving acting. A disciple of Dick Bolles and his classic What Color Is Your Parachute, Wib loved to help other people find and pursue their deepest passions.

You probably either loved or would have loved Wib. I hope you enjoy my memories of him today.
Courtesy of Harvard Magazine
A remembrance of Willoughby Walling 
February 11, 2012

Jessica inherited her singing talent. But probably not from her dad. Did you ever hear him sing? He sang along to Ella, to Aretha, to Rod Stewart, unfortunately. But it was like some of his art—more abstract than representational. And very expressive.

My name is Colin Stokes. I married Wib’s daughter Jessica. If I can give young people any advice to secure a happier, richer life, it would be to get in-laws like the Wallings.

I managed to secure Wib’s approval at some point early on, probably by knowing enough about modern art. Or just being able to get the printer to work.

And it was a lovely thing to be liked by Wib. If Wib liked you he would always like you. You could be a part of Wib’s wonderful world, a unique midwestern liberal country club bohemia.

His name was not the only one-of-a-kind thing about him. What was Wib like? Well, you know: a typical blueblood idealist…who set up schools for dropouts in Bedford Stuyvesant alongside the heroes of the civil rights movement. Just your average NPR-New York Times-New Yorker reader…with a divinity school degree and a Bible study group. Just the stereotypical Brookline man of leisure, heading to tennis…after spending the morning in the basement with duct-taped shoes on, painting his brooding self-portrait in the style of Matisse.

The world didn’t have a name for his combination of passions and truths, so he made his own. Let’s just call it “Wib.”

Wib’s world was a big and welcoming place, because he was so comfortable in it. Here, everything was interesting. There was so much worth learning he went to graduate school three times.

Wib loved teaching too. He taught the teenagers in New York—he’d just ask to join their pickup basketball games for a while, and eventually the weirdness of this white guy wore off and he’d invite them to the storefront where they could learn how to read. (I wonder if he said “golly darn” to the guys in the Bronx?)

In Boston he was a fundraiser, which is a kind of teaching. He taught art and religion. He mentored people in their career changes—including me and a number of others here today, whose lives were permanently transformed with his coaching.

He taught me something crucial about fatherhood. As Jessica and I were expecting our daughter’s birth, I asked him for advice. Well, Jess told me that if I wanted to learn how to be a great father I should ask him.

To my surprise, he looked a little abashed. “I don’t think I was a particularly good father,” he told me. It took me a while to get my brain around this—it was like hearing that Bill Gates doesn’t think he’s a particularly good businessman. Maybe he didn’t think too much about it, but the results kind of speak for themselves. Wib’s approach gave me permission, as a parent, to just be who I am—with a challenge to make sure that you are your very best self.

That’s the thing: Wib’s humility was anything but blasé. Under the modesty was a deep, private conviction to be as good a person as he could be. Being a good father was just an outgrowth of his character.

He also tried teaching me how to drive stick, which was less fruitful.

And in the final, rich phase of his life, he was an artist. Stubbornly rejecting categories as always, Wib refused to choose among abstraction, realism, and religious painting. He refused to market his paintings in the common way—like, you know, selling them to people. He aimed to satisfy his own eye and his own imagination. Like his favorite forebear Vincent, Wib saw art as a journey, not an end: a sensual interaction with his own vision.

Wib was so un-phony that, when he cared about something, you knew it was worth caring about. That’s one way he made Christianity look so good. If his faith held his interest and passion for so long, there must be something to it. In our secular world, there’s that crucifix in every few paintings. There’s that Bible study group. There’s that heartfelt grace at the dinner table. None of them conspicuous; just another glimpse into what mattered to him.

Every Christmas morning, Wib would gather the kids and son-in-law on the landing before the presents were opened to read a story. Not some sugary holiday fable, or even a straight-up Gospel passage. No: Wib would have the kids read an experimental essay by the theologian Frederick Buechner called “The Birth.” It’s like Rashomon of the Nativity, telling the Christmas story from the point of view of three ordinary people in Bethlehem who either witness or avoid the great event that provided new meaning to their world. The Innkeeper has it worst, because he said no to God’s parents. The Wise-Men knew the truth but held themselves back from it to protect their careers. The working-class Shepherds, though, whoop with joy at their pure vision of glory. They don’t overthink it.

Wib was moved by these stories for decades. I never asked him why.

To me, the story says that the meaning of life is here now, hiding behind all the things we do and the politics we play. When Wib choked up reading about it, I like to think he was reminding himself how important it is to really connect with this truth. Maybe that was the source of his authenticity—he deliberately went after the source of deepest meaning in a world crowded with distractions.

Every Christmas, he reminded his cherished family—including the lucky son-in-law—don’t be the Inn-Keeper, who gets a chance to steward something significant and banishes it without looking up from his books. Don’t be the Wise-Men, who understand the significance intellectually but don’t make any sacrifices on its behalf.

Stay on the scene, like the Shepherds. Like Wib. Don’t worry about your status or your short-term priorities. Live in the moment, and you’ll hear the trumpets. When you hear the trumpets, run to the manger.

Be there for it.

"We thank you, Lord, for these thy gifts. Amen."