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Labiaplasty in SundayStyles

One of the fundamental tenets of the women’s health movement was that everyone should be familiar with her body. This might seem obvious, but, before the ‘60s and ‘70s, women were generally taught that their bodies were, at best, mysterious, and, at worst, shameful. Medicine certainly treated them as if they were inferior versions of male bodies. To counter this view—and to save lives—pioneers in the women’s health movement encouraged their peers to really get to know and appreciate their bodies.

Cunt Coloring BookThis cultural moment was concurrent with the rise of sex-positive feminism and the birth of feminist porn. It’s not overstating the case too terribly to say that, as a result of these interrelated trends, women discovered the vulva. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a small but significant explosion of vulvic art—from Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party to the erotic nature photography of Femalia to Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book. The message of all this imagery was that women’s bodies are beautiful, and that they are beautiful because they are unique.

Goodness, how things have changed. While we can still buy vulvic jewelry and vagina hand puppets, it seems we can also purchase plastic surgery to make our external genitalia symmetrical or to reduce “oversized” labia. I know I shouldn’t be surprised—we’re living in the perfect storm of commodification, consumerism, and rampant body dysmorphic disorder—but, in fact, I was. Beyond pointing out that the labia contain sensitive nerve endings vital to sexual satisfaction, I hardly know what to say. Mostly, I just feel sad. Maybe spending some time with my crayons and a coloring book will make me feel a little bit better…

November 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Suburban Apocalypse

Back in college, I took a course called “Comedy from Aristophanes to Woody Allen”. It was a great class—it’s the reason I know that “The Honeymooners” was Bertolt Brecht’s favorite piece of American theater.

Donna StoneAnyway, I had to write a paper for this class, and I distinctly remember trying to sell my professor on the idea of me writing a script for an episode of “The Donna Reed Show”. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember the show ending with Donna turning to the camera and saying, “You know this isn’t real, don’t you?”

Professor Levitan was a man of refined sensibilities, so he understood instantly just how creepy this would be: It wouldn’t just deliver the vertiginous feeling one gets when a character unexpectedly breaks the fourth wall, but it would collapse the whole domestic/suburban fantasy world in which 50s sitcoms take place, a fantasy world that purports to be the real world. It would be apocalyptic.

Mary Alice YoungI mention this because my reaction to last night’s episode of “Desperate Housewives” was quite similar to my reaction to that imaginary “Donna Reed”. When the beatific Mary Alice reaches out of her corona of white light to hand Lynette a gun, and Lynette puts the gun to her head, I got chills. There aren’t many shows where one can believe—for even a moment—that a central character might actually die, but “Desperate Housewives” has become one of them.

Last night was also the first time I really felt moved by the show—when Bree and Susan tell Lynette about their own motherhood traumas—which I guess is good for the show, artistically speaking, but I am ambivalent for myself, as one of the things I appreciate most about “Desperate Housewives” is that it is purely entertaining, or, as Virginia Heffernan put it in her very nice New York Times review yesterday, “The show has boldly flung off prime time’s imperative to topicality, and embraced an overtly literary mode.”

I wrote my own review of the show for Bitch, but it got cut due to space limitations. This is kind of a bummer, of course, but these things happen, and it means that instead of publishing it in a magazine, I can offer it here, to you, my loyal and beloved readers.

Consider the word “housewife”. It describes an individual—a woman—defined by her relationship to a man and by her place in the domestic sphere. For feminists of Betty Friedan’s generation, the universe implied by this term was grotesquely circumscribed. Housewives were confined to “comfortable concentration camps”, imprisoned by suburban family life and prevented from achieving their intellectual and professional potential.

Now, consider “Desperate Housewives”, the most talked-about television debut of the fall season. With its hyperbolic name, its ironically retro title graphics, and its fiendishly cheerful opening theme, the show begins by suggesting that the housewife has become a figure of fun, a phenomenon so decidedly passé that she has ceased to be a symbol of oppression and become a delicious camp artifact. The world of Desperate Housewives is informed by the experience of Friedan and her sisters, but it doesn’t take Second Wave philosophizing straight. Instead, it plays with mid-20th-century ideas of the housewife to create something new and rather compelling.

The unexplored suburban territory mapped by this dramedy is best delineated by two of its central characters, the two who seem—superficially, at least—to conform most closely to the housewifely ideal: they both have husbands and children, and neither works outside the home.

Lynette (Felicity Huffman) has three small boys and a baby girl. She has the frantic, untidy aura we’ve learned to recognize as that of the contemporary mom. She is living the infantilizing life of isolation and drudgery described by American feminists in the 50s and 60s, but with this vital difference: she had a career—a successful and satisfying one—that she gave up when her first child was born. And Lynette differs from contemporary depictions of women like herself in that she bitterly regrets her choice. She loves her children, but she’d rather be at the office.

There’s been much fuss in the media lately about career women missing out on their chance to be mothers, and women leaving the business world to discover that raising children is the most rewarding work there is. We seem to have forgotten the possibility that some women might actually be happier in the professional world than they are at home. Lynette reminds us of this reality, and it will be interesting to see how she and her family resolve her dilemma.

While Bree (Marcia Cross) inhabits the same type of domestic scene as her neighbor Lynette, she seems utterly fulfilled by the stay-at-home life. At first glance, Bree is a throwback. She is a woman who truly enjoys making a three-course meal for a weeknight supper, and every hair in her brilliant red flip moves in perfect accord with every other. She isn’t just a housewife: she is June Cleaver, Donna Stone, Samantha Stevens with a hot-glue gun instead of the witchcraft.

More than any other character on this show, Bree is problematic. Is she a woman who has considered the myriad options available to her and decided that the role of wife and mother suits her best, or is she a traitor to her sex? Is she truly happy, or is she horrifically deluded? Is she good or is she evil? If we, the viewers, are unable to answer these questions, it may be because the show isn’t sure about her, either. Bree is certainly the most ambiguous character on “Desperate Housewives”. Sometimes, she is portrayed in a sympathetic light. Sometimes, she seems to be clearly—if understandably—monstrous. Perhaps the show’s writers haven’t figured out what to do with a woman like Bree because, as a society, we haven’t figured it out, either.

November 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wedding Album: Cocktails

Dancing with GriffinKiss the GroomI Am Doubled-Over with Laughter
After the picnic, everyone had a chance to sleep off the roast pig and Budweiser and change into their eveningwear before the cocktail-party phase of the Jernigan-Clayton wedding extravaganza. Goodness, what a time! There was a lot of dancing, and, yes, some drinking. Ted and my dad bonded over the pool table. There were tears, there was laughter, and—most assuredly—a whole lot of love.

November 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wedding Album: Picnic

Around the Picnic TableThe Bride and GroomAround the Picnic Table
In addition to being Thanksgiving—the first one I will be celebrating in my very own home—Thursday is my fivemonthiversary. I am marking this seldom-recognized marital milestone by posting photos from my wedding reception. Today, I begin with the picnic portion of the Jernigan-Clayton nuptial festivities.

Ah, what a wonderful time it was. I discovered that the most amazing thing about weddings is that people from all parts of one’s life come together in a big, happy, nearly-surreal swirl. It’s amazing and delightful, and, really, it’s too bad that it doesn’t happen more often. Thanks, again, to all my friends who made the trip to Ohio to be with me and Ted. Every time I look at the photos, I am filled with gratitude all over again.

Also, the food was good, and I got to wear a skirt with a bustle.

November 22, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

My New Favorite Thing: Family Guy

As an invalid, my husband, Ted, currently has control of the remote. This is how I got to know Family Guy during a time when I am usually revisiting an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (my deepest, darkest, most shameful secret). Having now viewed two full episodes of Family Guy in their entirety, I have this to say: it’s fucking hilarious.

Seriously: I laughed uncontrollably—laughed until I cried—painful, wheezing, gasping-for-air laughter. Ted remarked that he had never seen me so doubled-over by mirth, and I suggested that, had he been there for the halcyon days of The Simpsons (remember the first time we saw the episode where Homer’s face is on a box of Japanese dishwasher detergent,Chappy?), he would have witnessed a similar incapacitation, but it is, indeed, rare.

StewieHere’s the thing about Family Guy: it doesn’t move at the leisurely pace of most comedies—plot, set-up, gag; plot, set-up, gag; ad infinitum. Rather, it is gag, gag, gag, gag, gag, and most of the gags are entirely surprising. The final result is total, ridiculous helplessness.

Evil MonkeyJust in case the idea of being reduced to an infantile state doesn’t appeal to you, I offer the following information: one of the main characters is a baby with the personality of a fussy, middle-aged, sociopathic Englishman; and the family dog—his name is “Brian”, for crying out loud—has a drinking problem.

Also, there’s an evil monkey.

November 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Worst Birthday Ever

He had been hoping for a sponge bath.
It was my birthday Friday. My husband, Ted, decided to surprise me with an emergency appendectomy! He’s home now, eating chicken soup and recovering nicely. I told him that, next year, jewelry would be nice.

November 14, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Camp Cupcake Cupcakes

Nestled in the Appalachian hills of southeastern West Virginia, Alderson Prison Camp is the nation’s oldest correctional institution for women. The federal facility made headlines when Martha Stewart began her 5-month sentence for lying about a stock sale—and again when she broke prison rules by cooking up a batch of crabapple jelly—but the celebrated homemaker and media mogul is by no means the most famous inmate the prison has housed.

Since opening its doors in 1927, Alderson has been home to a diverse roster of felonious females. Billie Holiday served a drug sentence at the rural compound in 1947. Iva Ikuko Toguri, one of the women who gave voice to Tokyo Rose, crossed paths with Mildred “Axis Sally” Gillars while at the prison. Socialist, ACLU co-founder, and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was sent to Alderson after her 1951 conviction for violating the Alien Registration Act.

Alderson is, for the most part, a temporary home for non-violent offenders (Manson family alum and would-be assassin Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme is one notable exception). A minimum security prison on an open, forested campus, Alderson has earned the nickname “Camp Cupcake”, and it’s that lighthearted sobriquet that inspired this delightful dessert.

IngredientsI began with the Chocolate Cupcake recipe in The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook, a recipe that’s quite similar to this Devil’s Food Cupcake recipe found at marthastewart.com. The type of cake used isn’t important, though, so use any kind of cake you like. It is important, though, to have a large canvas for decorating, so use a jumbo muffin tin instead of standard size.Batter

A white topping is also necessary, and I chose this Shiny Cream Cheese Frosting. Sweet and just a little tangy, this is a wonderful complement to a dense, fudgy chocolate cake. Please note that this frosting requires chilling before it’s properly spreadable, so you might want to make it before you make the cake. You should also know that it takes a lot of mixing before this recipe gets creamy, so using a stand mixer—such as this gorgeous Kitchen Aid model in Martha’s green—is a good idea. When you’re frosting these little cakes, be sure to reserve some for the decoration. Decorating

While any dessert should, of course, be delicious, Camp Cupcake Cupcakes are all about style. Martha Stewart may have to wear Alderson’s contemporary uniform of sweatshirt, khakis, and sneakers, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t emulate the nostalic charm of old-fashioned jailhouse togs. To make the stripes, mix black food coloring—available in the baking aisle of big grocery stores—with reserved frosting and pipe the colored frosting through a ribbon tip. Be sure to separate each black stripe with white space of equal width to achieve the desired effect. The finished result? A dessert that’s as visually striking as it is tasty.Camp Cupcake Cupcakes

It’s a good thing.


November 9, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Interview: Jane Stevenson

To me, the past isn’t easy to dismiss. It’s not Disney World. It’s a minefield, and from time to time, something explodes.—Jane Stevenson

I like historical novels. I always have. One of my very favorite books when I was a kid—one I still enjoy reading—was E.L. Konigsburg’s A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, and I went through an intense Anne Boleyn phase as a teen. I think of historical novels as pulp fiction for eggheads. As I read, I can say to myself, “Goodness! I had no idea that the laws of primogeniture and entail were so complicated”, when I’m really in it for the farthingales, tea dances, and simmering repressed sexuality—sexuality that, in the better books, ultimately comes busting out of its whalebone stays.

I enjoy the escape that historical fiction offers, which is not to say that I am an indiscriminate reader. I require some level of craft and quality even in my diversions, but there are more than a few authors who combine real storytelling skill with a lighthearted approach to produce smart, fun, sexy fiction set in a temporally exotic locale—Eloisa James springs immediately to mind. (Note to genre purists: Because I hold readerly allegiance to no particular place or time, I include “historical romance” and “Regency romance” in the catch-all category of historical.)

While I appreciate the work of writers who aim for nothing more than—or less than—entertainment, I have an even deeper appreciation for the contributions of authors who use fictions set in the past to speak meaningfully to the present. These authors encourage me to consider not just history, but historiography. They make me think about reality and hyperreality. They compel me to examine the means by which the current moment is shaped by moments long gone, and the ways in which we reconfigure our history to explain—and justify—our now.

The Empress of the Last DaysJane Stevenson is an author who pushes at the boundaries of what historical fiction can do. As she explains in my interview with her, the conceit behind her latest novel—which has a contemporary setting —inspired a three-book series which began in the 16th century. Indeed, The Empress of the Last Days is, in some ways, a historical novel: Stevenson hopes that details which might seem to “date” her latest novel will, over time, simply give it a texture consistent with the two novels that proceeded it, The Winter Queen and The Shadow King. This interview is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting that I’ve done. Stevenson doesn’t just illuminate the inner workings of writing a novel: she also offers useful commentary on the difference between “heritage” and “history”, and she makes the case that fiction should be, perhaps paradoxically, about truth.

November 8, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

This Makes Me Feel Just a Little Bit Better

Purple America

A fellow named Jeff Culver sent this to Boing Boing with the following comment: “I was thinking today about how the `red v. blue’ states graphic is really misleading considering the slim margins that the candidates won some of those states by, so I sat down and created the map that’s attached.”

It’s amazing to me that one picture can make me feel so much less alienated than I’ve been feeling the past couple of days, but it does. I just printed it out and stuck it to my bulletin board so that I can gaze upon it whenever I feel blue—by which I do not mean liberal so much as sadly disenfranchised.


November 5, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Ask What You Can Do for Your Country

So, I spent most of yesterday in a fog. I tried to work, but my heart wasn’t in it. I tried to relax and enjoy myself, but I couldn’t. It took me awhile to figure out that I was grieving, and it took awhile longer to really understand what I was really grieving for. It wasn’t just that Kerry lost and Bush won: I was in mourning for the sense that I was a true citizen of my country.

I mean, I’ve never felt like I lived smack in the middle of the mainstream, but I have—apparently—always assumed that I was maybe just a little to the left of my fellow Americans, and that—being people of compassion and good sense—we could find common ground if we just tried.

I no longer have that faith. Not only did Bush win another four years of hate and fear, but I live in a state that voted to write homophobia into its constitution, and I live in a town that decided that it was important to remove fluoride from the drinking water and not important to provide low-cost housing to seniors.

Eventually, I pulled myself together enough to go to the grocery store with plans to put something good on the table when my husband came home from work. I was checking out when I realized that I had been shopping as if preparing for a blizzard—or a war. I was laying in supplies. I bought too much of everything. By the time I got home I had lost the will to cook, so we ordered a pizza, which we ate in the shocked and confused silence of trauma survivors.

By evening, though, I was able to pull myself together a bit. I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times Magazine, in which I suggested that Russell Shorto’s comparison of Jesus’s first followers to today’s “marketplace Christians” was slightly ridiculous. I also did some work on a project for my local Planned Parenthood chapter. Both of these actions made me feel better.

Today, I finished my Planned Parenthood project, and, as I write, I’m preparing to go in for my weekly donation of volunteer time. I just put a cake in the oven for a potluck being thrown by the women’s studies department at my husband’s university. These are small acts—almost insignificant. Almost, but not quite. Over time, they add up, and this is how I plan to spend the next four years: everyday, I’m going to wake up and ask myself what I can do today to make my country the place I have always believed it could be.

November 4, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack