The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars–A Review

For Christmas, my excellent brother gave me an Amazon.com gift card. Now, I’ve been avoiding the world of e-books for some time because, frankly, I’m a bit old-fashioned that way. What kind of an academic would I be without stacks and stacks of books cluttering up the house? Recently, though, some new offerings I’ve been wanting are available only in e-book form. With that in mind I decided to take the plunge, download the Kindle for Mac app, and dive into some e-books.

The first e-book title I’d like to review is Michael Kaufman’s The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars. One of my fields is Gender and Women’s Studies, and Kaufman is a well-known scholar on gender and masculinities, whose academic works I’ve used in my classes.

Given this background knowledge, it is hardly surprising that Kaufman’s novel is populated with a universe of men. Men of different ages, cultural backgrounds, and personalities, but all sharing some common themes. For one thing, all of these men suffer from communication issues and, in particular, the inability to communicate their emotions effectively. Eli Schuman, the narrator of this story, is a frustrated man of a certain age. Divorced, with two children and a sometimes less-than-inspiring career as a teacher, he feels unfulfilled. Eli dates and seems to be genuinely looking for love, but can’t find his “perfect woman.” He also struggles to communicate meaningfully with his ex-wife, his parents, his son and daughter, and even his roommate and colleague, John. John is a classic cad who’s been thrown out by his wife, and his communication problem is that he talks too much, all the time, about everything, but without ever saying anything of substance. On the other side of the spectrum, Eli’s son Daniel spends much of the story muted with teenage angst, and Eli’s father, at least where the story starts, is also a man of few words.

Discussing this book on his blog, Kaufman describes the link between masculinity, communication, and love that permeates this story:

“Too many men are raised to distance themselves from feelings and so don’t learn an authentic language of emotions; thus, they find it difficult to express and meet their deepest emotional needs; thus too many don’t have sufficient empathy to fully sense the emotional needs of others.

“As a result, the hard work of nurturing relationships too often gets left exclusively to women and too often is disparaged with words like: “why do we have to talk so much about it!”

Indeed, Eli’s inability to discover and connect with this “authentic language of emotion” shapes much of the story of his search for love. His story fixates on two women in particular. The first is no less than Marilyn Monroe herself, the fantasy woman of Eli’s youth, with whom he becomes obsessed with after a drifter claims to have seen her alive and well in a rural farmhouse. The second is Alex, a part-time baker and bookstore clerk who seems to be his ideal mate in many ways, but who also challenges his notion of what a “perfect” woman should be. As a Midwestern summer sets in, Eli finds himself keeping real-life woman Alex at arm’s length, while chasing all over Ohio after a ghost.

Yeah, Alex, as a fellow single girl, I know the feeling.

Eli’s parallel journeys, in search of Marilyn and in search of his own happiness, unfold together quite well. As life changes around him, Eli comes to a gradual realization of why he’s become stuck. His narrative is also punctuated with flashbacks to his youth and past relationships, all of it building toward an understanding about how the idea of love connects to our own identities, investments, self-image, and how it is fed by the messages society gives us about what is good and acceptable. Kaufman’s theme is one that transcends this particular story, for while Eli is very much shaped by certain facets of his identity (Judaism, his age, the place he grew up), all of us have similar features that define how others view us and how we view ourselves. Likewise, while masculinity plays a central role in this story, there’s also a message here that is very relevant for women. In an age of overwhelming media and communications, men and women alike are constantly bombarded with images of an “ideal” that we are conditioned to want in our mates, but which may be unattainable. Eli, perhaps like many of us, risks missing out on a real chance at fulfillment as he becomes more and more deeply invested in the pursuit of an image.

Kaufman’s writing style is easy and flowing, but sometimes hits you between the eyes with a beautiful passage or a profound thought that arises suddenly. Take this example, woven into a bantering discussion between Eli and a female friend:

“Things in our past challenged us, hurt us, scarred us, all that basic therapy stuff. All this festers inside until we can discover it and rout it out…

“But here’s the thing. Even before we discover our hidden problems, we’re already doing the routing. Don’t you think, when we pick our mates, we choose a person who pushes us back into our challenges?”

If pressed to come up with a criticism, I’ll say that the book’s final act drags a bit. Eli’s waffling and inability to act on his feelings persists even after he comes to understand the roots of his hesitancy. While I understand that this may be psychologically realistic, it’s frustrating in a literary sense and makes the book drag. The story’s final twist, while unexpected, also came off as a bit heavy-handed, given that the rest of the story was told with such subtlety. In spite of these shortcomings, I’d definitely recommend this book. It was a quick read for me, and can easily be tackled in a weekend. However, the questions it raises will linger long past the last page.

The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars is available as an e-book for Kindle on Amazon.com.

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The FBI (Finally) Updates its Definition of Rape

This spring, after 83 years, the FBI will be updating its definition of rape. The old definition, in use since 1929, defined rape as “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” The problems with this definition should be obvious to anyone who is even halfway enlightened: it excluded men from being victims of rape, excluded many drug-facilitated rapes, and created a grey area in defining what constitutes “forcible” rape. The new definition will be as follows:

“[P]enetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

While the FBI’s archaic definition was not preventing prosecution of these crimes (that’s up to the state), and while drug-facilitated rape was recognized as a federal offense in other ways (the Drug-Induced Rape Prevention and Punishment Act of 1996 subjects those who use date rape drugs to federal sentences of up to 20 years in prison), the main impact of this will be to encourage more accurate and reliable reporting of statistics on sexual violence between local governments and the federal governments. This is a victory for the activists who pushed for this change, but it’s also a victory for all of us. Having access to accurate information about sexual violence in our communities is beneficial, and publicizing this change may help more victims to understand they are not alone and to come forward if they haven’t already. We still have a long way to go in creating a culture that fully recognizes and appropriately punishes rape and sexual assault, but it’s heartening to see a step in the right direction.

Friends with Benefits: An Unconventional Romantic Comedy?

Friends with Benefits is a movie that wants to make sure you don’t overthink it. Because you might be distracted by these things, let’s just start from the premise that every young person in New York City has an awesome apartment, is at the top of their game career-wise, and is attractive, wealthy, and charming. Well, everyone except Andy Samberg (in a cameo role) who, in this land of make-believe, is both attractive enough to be dating a girl like Mila Kunis, and is enough of a jerk to dump her. But there I go, overthinking things already.

At the center of this romantic comedy are Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis), who are brought together when she recruits him to a job at GQ Magazine. Both of these smart, sexy young professionals have recently been ditched by their significant others (played by Samberg and Emma Stone, my girl crush of the moment), and both are accused of being emotionally damaged. The trajectory of their relationship is so predictable that it’s barely worth mentioning: Boy meets girl, boy and girl become friends with benefits, feelings get hurt, boy and girl struggle to work things out. The story, and the characters themselves, could have been downright tedious if not for the performances of Kunis and Timberlake, who are so darn likeable and nice to look at. The latter is particularly important, since the movie demonstrates their chemistry with sex scene after sex scene. Folks, this is not the movie to go to with Grandma. At any rate, I found that the story of Jamie and Dylan was ultimately not as interesting to me as were the other relationships taking place around it.

Friends with Benefits

Are friends supposed to watch movies together in their underwear? Because, if so, I've been doing this totally wrong.

As the film develops, it becomes clear that both Dylan and Jamie are victims of Disney Mom syndrome—mothers who are either absent or who stick around just to make their children’s lives miserable. Jamie’s mom, Lorna, played by Patricia Clarkson, is meant to be likeable, but she totally backfired for me as a character. She tries too hard to be cool and free-loving, but also doesn’t hesitate to drop her daughter like a hot potato and go chasing after a man. This, only to return at the end of the movie to claim responsibility for screwing up her daughter’s life and attempt to appeal to the sympathies of both Jamie and the audience. Aside from being a mooch and ditching out on holiday plans with her daughter, it also bothered me intensely that Lorna constantly makes up stories for Jamie about who her father is. I am all for the character of a strong single mother, but it seems deliberately cruel of Lorna to constantly offer made-up stories and misdirection when it is clear all along that she knows perfectly well who her daughter’s dad is, and that Jamie genuinely wants to know. I get that Lorna doesn’t want to confront this past romantic failure, but isn’t there a right-to-know issue here that outweighs mom’s baggage? On the other side, Dylan’s mother is totally absent, and we are told that she “abandoned” her children and her ailing ex-husband years earlier. Herein lies the reason for Dylan’s emotional shutdown. Fair enough, but it bugged me that only in the last few minutes of the film is it revealed that she may have, in fact, had her reasons for leaving Dylan’s father.

Dylan’s sister Annie (Jenna Elfman) was another character who didn’t work for me. She seems like a good mom to her son Sam (other than, you know, letting him play with fire), but she never really develops as a character. She seems to have no life aside from caring for Sam and her father (Richard Jenkins), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She also seems remarkably sanguine about her lot in life, unbothered by her playboy brother’s decision to run off and leave her with caretaking duties and even taking time out to give Dylan sage advice on relationships, as if that were the most important thing she has to do in a day. Then again, she lives in an awesome house, too, so maybe that makes up for it. Don’t overthink it!

There are several elements of the movie that I liked. Jenkins’ portrayal of a father struggling with Alzheimer’s disease was well-done and felt real, as did the family’s uncomfortable, exasperated, and sometimes fearful reaction to his condition. Woody Harrelson as Tommy, Dylan’s gay co-worker, was also nicely handled, in a role that could easily have strayed too far into stereotypes. There is a running gag throughout of Tommy asking Dylan, “Are you sure you’re not gay?” which culminates in a nice scene where Tommy confronts Dylan with a line-up of attractive, nearly nude male models at a photo shoot and gets him to admit that he is “a little bit gay.” Nice to see a straight man admit his attraction to other males in a way that was nonthreatening and didn’t undermine the character. Finally, the movie presented what I felt to be a fair balance of male and female nudity in its many (many) sex scenes, which was refreshing.

Overall, though, Friends with Benefits ultimately feels like a cop-out, buying into the very clichés that it mocks in other romantic comedies. Jamie’s mother convinces her that she needs to re-think her idea of romance and Prince Charming, but luckily that introspection is short-lived as Dylan returns about that time with a romantic, Prince Charming-esque gesture to win her back. So what’s the real message? That seems to be another point we’re not meant to overthink. Grand gestures make for good theater, but this happy ending felt no more realistic to me than Jason Segel and Rashida Jones riding off down a fake New York street in the rom-com movie-within-the-movie. Friends with Benefits was good entertainment and gave me some genuine laughs, but as a film aspiring to break the traditional romantic comedy mold, it misses the mark.

Olive, The Other Reindeer

In response to another recent, insightful posting at Bitch Flicks, Anika Guldstrand’s piece on women (or the lack thereof) in Christmas movies, I wanted to give a shout-out to a Christmas special I recently saw featuring a female protagonist, Olive, the Other Reindeer. Evidently, this one is over 10 years old, so I’m a little behind in my review, but I thought it was worth a mention.

The protagonist here is a girl dog named Olive (voiced by Drew Barrymore). Olive is not only a female, she is a nonconformist. Much to the exasperation of her owner, Tim, Olive shows little to no inclination to act like a dog. She shows little interest in digging up flower beds, likes fleas so much that she has one for a pet, and is actually quite nice to the mailman until he turns out to be a villain. While the Christmas misfit thing has arguably been done, I saw some important differences between Olive and, for example, the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. While the toys spend much of Rudolph lamenting their difference and wanting to be like “real” toys, Olive is very accepting of herself. She doesn’t want to chase cars, and she thinks that’s OK. What she laments is not the fact of her difference, but that her owner is not accepting of it. (Comments could be made here about the patriarchal nature of the master/dog relationship and Olive’s desire to please him, but as I’m sure anyone with a dog in their life will agree, it’s hard not to incorporate that into a dog story!)

Olive

Olive, the Other Reindeer

Olive is inspired to leave town and head to the North Pole to save Christmas after a series of misunderstandings where she becomes convinced that Tim is replacing her and Santa is requesting her help to replace an ailing reindeer. (“Olive, the other reindeer” vs. “All of the other reindeer,” get it?) In helping Santa, Olive sees an opportunity to use her difference to help others. When she does save Christmas, it’s partly because she turns out to have some dog-like skills after all (namely super smell), but partly because she distinguishes herself through her brains, her can-do attitude, and other abilities above and beyond that of a normal dog.

This special does fall short in several ways. Olive’s penguin sidekick Martini is a bit of a grifter, possibly playing on some unfavorable stereotypes. The Picasso-eque animation grated on me at times, though Olive herself was adorable down to the perfectly-placed tail wags. The music is also a bit uninspired, which is disappointing since no less of a figure than Michael Stipe voices one of the supporting characters and sings a song. In fact, this is probably the only animated Christmas special with a musical number set in a trucker bar, and watching the (male) bar-goers menace and rough-up Olive upon her arrival is a bit disturbing and possibly scary for younger viewers. However, these misfits turn out to have hearts of gold as well, demonstrating another thing I loved about this special: Diversity. The folks behind this special seemed to go out of their way to ensure that every crowd scene includes folks of different skin tones. We also see African-American characters in supporting roles, as a police officer and as a bus driver who goes out of his way to help Olive. The inclusion of explicitly working-class characters is also a bit refreshing. I haven’t read the original book this was based on, so perhaps these elements appear in the original story as well, but nonetheless they are things too seldom seen in holiday tales. Olive, the Other Reindeer may never crack the list of top holiday specials, but for those looking for a more inclusive holiday story, it does the job in a way that is decently entertaining.

Beauty and the Beast: A Defense of Belle

Last night, for the first time in many years, I watched one of my favorite childhood movies, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The timing seemed right, since the movie will soon be re-released in theaters and was recently reviewed at Bitch Flicks by Megan Kearns, aka The Opinioness of the World, another blogger I’ve recently become a fan of. Taking Megan’s concerns into consideration, I watched the movie for the first time with the eyes of an adult. While this movie does not completely overcome the problems endemic to many Disney Princess films, I think the Bitch Flicks review misses a few crucial points.

With regard to the argument about Belle’s merit being in her looks, I actually read this as an indictment of the society in which she lives. It is the villagers and the people around her who judge her merit on her looks; not Belle herself. In fact, she seems rather indifferent toward her appearance for much of the film. She doesn’t appear to wear makeup, keeps her hair in a ponytail (as opposed to the other village girls, who seem to have ample quantities of whatever passes for hair product in the 18th century), and wears the same outfit all. the. time. Do the villagers judge her on her looks? Sure, but throughout the film the villagers are shown to be small-minded assholes. Likewise, though her beautiful appearance is noted by others upon her arrival at the castle, what ultimately prompts the Beast to thaw towards her is not her looks, but her kindness toward him and, it seems, her willingness to put him in his place where appropriate.

Also, the Bitch Flicks review fails to mention the movie’s treatment of masculinity. I think that Gaston’s song is a particularly brilliant send-up of traditional masculine norms. Gaston’s embodiment of the masculine qualities so admired in the village are taken to such ridiculous extremes that there can be no confusing Gaston for a hero. He starts bar fights! He’s the size of a barge! He uses antlers in all of his decorating! At one point, when Gaston decides to kill the Beast, and tells Belle and her father “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” I couldn’t help but wonder if George W. Bush lifted his foreign policy directly from Gaston. Contrast this version of masculinity with the Beast, who ultimately becomes sympathetic when he learns to listen to Belle, puts her needs before his own, and refuses to strike the first blow at Gaston.

Beauty and the Beast

The "big and tall" men's shop did a great job with this one.

A final point, and one that I myself never noticed until now, is that we never actually see that Belle marries the Beast. I had to go back and watch this again, but in the final scene where we see them dancing, there’s no concrete indication that a wedding has taken place. Unlike The Little Mermaid and several other Disney Princess films, there is no wedding scene, she is not wearing a wedding dress, and there is no visible wedding ring (Belle is wearing gloves in the final scene). The castle is filled with flowers, but this may just be a sign of spring returning to the castle. While it’s declared that Belle and Prince Adam will live happily ever after, I like to think this scene leaves open the possibility that she has still chosen a life that is nontraditional in some ways. Her happy ending, unlike that of other Disney princesses, is not “marriage” per se, but that she has found a partner who understands her and that she has escaped the oppressive life and expectations of her village.*

There are certainly valid points to be made about the movie. Beast’s imprisonment of Belle is admittedly bothersome, but it raises the question of how far the movie could stray from source material. It seems clear to me that writers struggled with this issue, too. Efforts are made to imply that she’s “not really so much a prisoner… .” Look, she’s given nice accommodations! Invited to dinner! The flatware puts on a show for her and calls her a guest! This of course really doesn’t overcome the problematic aspect of Belle falling in love with her captor, but it at least complicates the original tale.

Maybe it’s just me being sentimental, but after many years, I still see praiseworthy points in this movie. On balance, I think Disney gets it right with Belle.

*I am aware that Disney’s post-production promotion of Belle as one of the Disney Princesses does imply that a marriage between her and the prince takes place at some point… but I stand by my assertion that nowhere in the film do we see that happening, which is a contrast to many of Disney’s other movies.

Introduction

Welcome to my new blog. Congrats on stumbling across this little patch of cyberspace.

My main purpose in creating this blog is to share my thoughts and experiences on stumbling through the world as a 30-something single woman who also happens to be a Ph.D. candidate, a feminist, an academic, and a rape survivor. If my musings help to inform or enlighten you, feel free to stay a while. It’s nice to have an audience.