[dedicated to Alice, with gratitude]
Peter Sellars On Art, Ethics, and Opera*
Department of Music at Princeton
March 30, 2013
[I remember one year ago today: temperature in the 60s, or 70s even, blossoms effortlessly and joyously emerging. Today, I see a crocus here and there, a mangled snowdrop, and the spring seems elusive still, hard won. But the birds persevere, beckoning into the next season.]
Peter Sellars—I first heard tell of his legendary Adams House swimming-pool extravaganza thirty years ago when I was a freshman and years later had something of a fit when I saw his Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez during my first years of graduate school—darts in and begins by honoring his hosts, referring to musicology as a “place to create a zone of integrity,” saying that “the story behind the story is going to save the world.” He describes the value of many minds, rather than a single authoritative one, and speaks in favor of reciprocity and inclusion. He acknowledges the physical body that creates the music and describes Bach’s as a “music of questioning,” noting that the texts of Bach’s works are discussed less fully than are their ostensibly abstract principles. I think of the lecture hours my undergraduates and I have been spending just upstairs considering the norms and questions that inhere, but do not quite cohere, in Bach’s chorales, stripped of their texts and contexts.
[Three hundred sixty-four days and nineteen hours ago, in a theater across campus, I picked up my bass clarinet to sound the first notes of my opera, Weakness.]
Sellars speaks of ritualization, cooperation, reciprocity, inclusion, and the involvement of the “congregation” (audience).
[Weakness concerns trauma and healing, and the entire process of putting the work together was blessed by mutuality and cooperation even as it was bedeviled simultaneously by thoughtlessness and disregard. The final two weeks of preparation go beyond the expected pre-premiere strain, past the irritating but inevitable underfunctioning and jockeying, to insupportable dysfunction and outlandish aggression. And, as I warned at the time would happen, the damage is still resounding a year later. I have spent much of the last twelve months lathering, rinsing and repeating, but despite all my elbow grease and scrubbing, my opera remains grimy.]
Mr. Sellars—I think it’s time I call him Peter—speaks of the St. Matthew Passion: “Two weeks ago you thought you were going to change the world, and now you are standing around a tomb. What happened in these last two weeks?”
[Indeed. One year later, I am no longer surprised that a staging of the unspeakable conjured up more of same offstage, but I do still mourn it, and I think how after all this time, I am still recovering from the trauma attendant upon the trauma. I marvel at my profession’s expectation of constant activity (often confused with productivity, which is not at all the same thing) and the disinterest in addressing what has been damaging in favor of getting the next gig and making another mess. My naïve youthful belief in the academy as a sanctuary for contemplation, in the arts world as a setting for what Keats called “a vale of soul-making”—
—But here I veer dangerously toward taking others’ inventory, which is never a good idea, so I’ll just leave it at this: In a conversation with a cherished colleague, months after the beauty and horror that was Weakness, I found myself saying, “You say you have not had a moment to reflect in the past few months, and that is all I have been doing; you have reached outward, while I have been looking inward.”]
Peter speaks of the Passion inspiring one to look inward rather than outward. He speaks of Dorothy Day—I mentioned her to Charles just yesterday, and though I know little of her, she has always intrigued me with her compassionate Catholicism, so different from the one I was indoctrinated into and to which I am now violently allergic—and her growing dissatisfaction, many years ago, with the “emptiness” of the worlds of arts and politics.
There is talk of mutual dependency and of Haydn and Mozart constructing a model of democracy in the configuration of the string quartet, where every voice is essential. “What would equality look like? What would it sound like?”
Later I thank Alice, who invited Peter, for making space for these words and thoughts. She and I acknowledge, again, the dangers of discussing openly the ubiquitous and pressing topic of trauma. I say, realizing it for the very first time as the words exit my mouth, that I have encountered more resistance, even retribution, in response to performing trauma onstage than I have when I have addressed the topic in scholarly prose.
Peter has spoken about his staging of Handel’s Hercules in Chicago—coincidentally, a work I first heard and fell in love with a month or so ago—and how the performance was attended by veterans and complemented by discussions of PTSD; he stresses (no pun intended) that the opera was meant to inform the understanding of PTSD rather than the other way around. One veteran heard a countertenor for the first time—David Daniels, to be precise—and described the sound as “blood coming out of his mouth.”
[Years ago, Tom taught me a Druidic expression: “Wisdom makes a bloody entrance.” Perhaps its exit is also messy. I excised the line from my libretto, for it perplexed my collaborators, who, while sensitive and knowing, fortunately came to Weakness from their own experience rather than mine. I appreciated their input, and I return again and again to that saying as I try to imagine my next work. I am currently editing and polishing the documentation of Weakness, so that I may share it with others in audio and video format. Nevertheless, I am leery of mounting it again, of risking that the trauma story may engender yet more trauma. I have had enough bleeding for now. Perhaps it is better to leave my four years (and more) of labor aside.]
Peter says, “Bach is an incredible composer of disappointment” and recognizes what it means to live “with your idealism in such a state of profound despair.” The first and only performance of his St. Matthew Passion was “ a mess,” and Bach, realizing his work was not meant for the milieu in which he found himself, “put it away for the rest of his life.” Somehow this bad news is good news to me, much more so than the familiar narratives of dominance, of success, of triumph over adversity.
Peter talks about one’s “moral standing as an artist,” and while that is a difficult notion to explore without seeming righteous or judgmental, without seeming to congratulate oneself, and without denying the real, tangible, practical matters of survival that can be so far removed from the luxury of the proscenium, he manages somehow to inspire rather than to preach. Likely this is in part because he himself moves between the palaces of culture and glitterless venues in a way that many of us only talk about. He expresses a desire for all of us to resist the “gossip and infighting in the classical music world,” saying that “we are actually here to do something much bigger.”
It’s one of those days when I marvel at the way strands and shards weave together unexpectedly, offering solace and inspiration when they are most desired, in ways that could not possibly be anticipated. Peter talks of magic and transcendence, but all I am seeking is awareness, good faith, and perhaps a bit of company in cultivating a more equitable and nurturing space for us all. Afterward I say to Alice that these are the most worthwhile almost-three hours I have spent in this building this year. I can’t help but feel sad that such conviction, such searching, is the startling exception rather than the norm, that this talk seems so out of the ordinary in our profession, but it’s a glimpse, at least, of something more expansive and generous, more aware and committed, and I am beyond grateful to hear some of my own values reflected and affirmed.
These simultaneous sensations of dark and light, of desolation and hope, remind me of a Hawai’ian expression Riley taught me: “liquid sunshine.”
March 31: the anniversary of the closing of Weakness. Also, Easter, a holiday I appreciate without really celebrating. The birds continue to beckon, and I think they might win out at last, for a while. I think of the volunteer chorus members who contributed so much to Weakness a year ago today, and especially of the family of three with whom I have become friendly. Yesterday they sent me dozens of candids they shot as we put Weakness together. I looked at the images as at the record of a dream, tearing up just a bit. Maybe I’ll give the chorister-alums a ring today and see what they and their new puppies are up to.
March 29: I attended Emi’s show, a musical about gender-neutral parenting. As we began working together, I explained that I do not really care for musical theater’s syntax or aesthetic, but that I was happy to mentor her, and to my surprise, I was pleased to dip my ear in to this world. Her songs are incisive, thoughtful, brave, and moving—youthful and idealistic to be sure, but also more mature and ethical than what I hear from many middle-aged artists. It’s this sort of blossoming that keeps me motivated as a teacher.
April 1: a good day to post at face value. Time to listen to the birds, head out, and see what sorts of blossoms are popping up.
*”Moving At the Speed of Thought” is another phrase of Mr. Sellars uttered in this same discussion, exemplifying the content in the form of his improvised paragraphs. “On Art, Ethics, and Opera” was the title of his talk.
“I object to the hegemonification of the verbed noun.”
“Shouldn’t that be hegemoni—?”
“I love it when you talk sub-altern-dirty.”
“Shall we interrogate the ‘cleanliness’ construct?”
“As long as we problematize the discursive paradigm.”
“No worries, I’ve got my arsenal of non-binary identity-destabilizing implements handy.”
“Would ‘bouquet’ be better?”
“Still too dualistic. Supply?”
“Age construct. Infantilization and projection.”
“Ah, let’s just watch Fox.”
“Transactional term supporting the dominance of the market state.”
“OK, ‘Finding Nemo’?”
“I love the turtles.”
“They go all the way down.”
—Posted by IAmNotMakingUp
My Harvard Facebook group has been discussing an article Ellen Jovin shared: Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period!
I was blissfully unaware of this seismic shrinkage until a month or two ago, and several months before my fall from grace, I was reading student papers and observing that the use of just one space after a period looked underwhelming (all the more so when there were other infelicities in the writing). I had no idea that it was the new normal. Thus, having brought the two-space-embrace with me into the computer era—twenty-five years ago!—I am having a hard time adjusting to my sentence, to this notion that I should halve my space. And it has thrown me to think that I had failed to notice the new standard.
And, my spacing shows me to be . . . over 40! Bless me, youngster, for I have sinned. By surviving four dozen years without dying. (My shame was eased ever so slightly when I read that I have classmates who, like me, prefer the two-space program.)
A couple of weeks ago, I read another account of the same phenomenon. When first I heard, I figured it must have been a Twitter repercussion, a capricious notion arising from that character-meter that tells you how many spaces you have left in your microtext.
At last having time to satisfy my curiosity, I just now took a moment to look at some academic journal articles, choosing one by Harvard’s Daniel Albright—and, well, I remained vexed, because academic articles are right/left justified! (In addition, there is approximately one punctuation event per paragraph, so the data set is unreliably small.) No wonder I had not noticed the disappearance of the sous-space. So, am I now to understand that these articles circulating and proselytizing about saving space apply only to texts such as this blog, type[sic]scripts, and the like? And æther-mail? It seems odd for dual-spacing to be considered such an offense when people are hyphenating adverbs and using colons after verbs and stuff. Not to mention all the nouning and verbing that I see every single day. (It’s a fail-ure, not a fail!) I just don’t get it. Why is there suddenly so much attention to decreasing the space between words when the words themselves are so often shabby?
And how is it that being over forty has now become a sign of being a poor writer? I thought we were the ones always telling the hipsters to shape up. On the contrary! This new generation is so judgmental:
And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste*. . . . What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right.
—Farhad Manjoo, “Space Invaders”
*I have yet to receive word of the fate of the four-dot ellipses used at the end of a complete sentence. Did anyone think about that before they voted to semi-space all sentences? Does a proportional font—the reason given for the new zoning regulation—obviate the need for a distinction between the end of a sentence and an unfinished sentence? The marker of omission—the series of three mute dots—has already been brutally smooshed together . . . as if the mysteriously unstated is merely nonexistent. Do I understand correctly that it is of urgent importance to save a space after every sentence, while it is acceptable to use three question marks just before??? And what about the poor em dash—which has so often suffered drafts from either side, not to mention getting replaced inexplicably with the inadequate little hyphen?
And how is that the space between sentences is getting all the funding for repair, when there are still so many extra spaces between words within so many sentences? We seem to be losing sight of the everyday here, focusing on the dramatic, to our detriment.
I cannot help but think that this coup de point arises from broad cultural shifts. Bad ones, of course. Do we want to give in to them? We complain about being busy and rushed—and people write about our complaints with sentences that I now realize are granted only a single space to breathe before the next begins. Is that really a coincidence? And more and more people are staying single. Could they be behind this eschewal of the paired space? On the other hand, our culture seems to have trouble with boundaries, and we are flirting dangerously with word disindividuation here: how long will it be before we abandon punctuation altogether and every sentence is one breathless portmanteau word with indistinguishable syllables?
I get it.
It doesn’t matter whether what I write is intelligible, or meaningful, as long as it looks good.
Now, that makes sense.
There is no penalty for describing oneself as “reticent” to adopt a dog. As long as the dog gets one space and one only. Consider this pair of sentences: “Old Québec, a UNESCO World Heritage treasure, is walkable and safe. Stroll the only walled city North of Mexico and its cobblestone streets.” I gather no one will be confused about the location of those cobblestone streets as long as they don’t wait too long after the safety announcement before commencing their stroll.
And to make it worse, I look at this absurdly long disquisition and now think there is too much space after my sentences. I have been tamed. But, before letting go the second space, I’ll remember these words:
When I write, therefore, I enhance the meaning borne in my sentences—not only in dialogue but in narrative—by imposing on them silences tailored through heavy use of commas, semicolons, dashes, ellipses, and line breaks. It is something that gives my copyeditors hypertension, yet I encourage students to write this way, and to read their pieces aloud as often as they can, to an audience if possible. An audience furnishes feedback, tells you by its response how well your scansion’s working. Thus, I tell my students, silence boosts the import of the words you write.
—George Michelson Foy, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence
Of course, the book where I read this is also fully justified.
—Posted by IAmNotMakingUp
The wound and the eye are one and the same. From the psyche’s viewpoint, pathology and insight are not opposites—as if we hurt because we have no insight and when we gain insight we shall no longer hurt.
—James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, 1975.
First, a recollection:
About seven years ago, I began taking an anti-cancer medication, Tamoxifen, after months of fretting about whether or not to do so. I had learned that in a very small percentage of patients, it could kindle or worsen depression. Although it was very rare for that to happen,—my surgeon had never seen a single case, my oncologist maybe one or two—I was indeed one of the “small percentage” to be felled. It took me some time to identify what was happening, but it really hit me that January when I caught a bad cold and had to stop my vigorous daily exercise routine. That habit was likely what had been keeping me afloat, and the sudden need to forgo it was devastating. After a period of perilous despair, during which I felt increasingly disinterested in the next week, day, and hour, I realized that the medication I was taking in the hope of staving off a life-threatening illness was itself life-threatening. For me. (Those last two words are crucial.) Fortunately, my doctors understood this and supported my choice to discontinue the medication. Any doubts I had ever had about the chemical aspect of mood were dispelled that January. There are so many debates and opinions in the offing about whether medication is necessary, helpful, virtuous, and so on. Having had such a severe depressive episode instigated by medication—the inverse of the usual—proved once and for all to my bodymind that chemistry can drive mood. I was not as in charge as I would have liked to think. I could not just repair my mental state with talk, toughness, or the right course of action. Sometimes there is no best course of action available. Sometimes one engages in revivifying exercise and finds it helps. And sometimes one gets a cold and realizes that the bank of endorphins has been used up for the time being. Sometimes Whole Foods runs out of fish oil.
Next, a reflection:
It’s easy to think we know what depression is and to think we have wisdom about what is best for another who has experienced despair and anguish. But we know little. As many point out, the casual of the use of the d-word,—“Maleficent isn’t playing any more?! I am so depressed!”—hinders understanding. The mysterious and “yin” nature of the disease does too. Its darkness is powerful and seductive. It’s resistant to illumination. Even those who spend their lives experiencing mood challenges, and treating them, acknowledge the limits of their understanding. Some say that those who die of suicide are selfish, or that they failed to ask for help. Some say that pharmaceutical companies are agents of the State, that their medications are designed to break down the body’s natural chemicals, and that they will inevitably lead to a cure worse than the disease. (Tell that to someone who’s planning to take her life this week. A decline down the road might not be a bad alternative.) That one may eschew the word “suffering” and choose spiritual practice over medication, as long as one meditates in the “right way.” These are all things I have read this week, and I have been especially disheartened to hear some who identify themselves as spiritual practitioners reveal such self-satisfaction, such a lack of humility and compassion. I remember when I was diagnosed with and treated for cancer, dealing with (some) others’ responses was infinitely more difficult than accepting my own morbidity and eventual mortality. I’ve felt similarly pained by much of what I have read this week.
I cannot help but think that the persistent misunderstanding of depression and other mental health conditions relates closely to the fear of decline and death that is so evident in US culture. There are so many claims about superfoods and antioxidants and kale. (Oh, right, kale has been dethroned; is that right? Oops!) However, such apparently “positive” possibilities to engineer über-health inevitably reveal a dark side: all too often, such a desire to be well conspires with a similarly American rush to judge others and to express opinions that arise less from knowledge than from unconsidered attitudes—and, I suspect, from fears. Why else would one police another’s kale consumption? I see this in the discussion about cancer as well: the notion that one can outrun it in one way or another, that it can be cured. I have yet to hear anyone besides me ask in response, “And then what? No death? A better one? Worse?”
I find it hard to imagine that such a “police state of mind” is good for anyone’s mental or physical health. Yet there continues to be a cultural emphasis on the transaction: do this, and you’ll get this. Thing is, there is not always a thing to do, and if there is, it is sometimes comes with a heavy tax. Risk more cancer? Or risk suicide with a drug designed to fend it off? Fortunately, I had a reasonable alternative available. But not everyone does.
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
—Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill (1926)
For those who have not had the “opportunity” to experience depression personally, or to look into its eyes in some other way, might you consider acknowledging your unknown knowns? Might you be able to tolerate the not knowing, as in Keats’s notion of negative capability? Might you emulate my doctors, who understood that their vast experience did not grant them omniscience, and who were able to accept that, even though it was statistically improbable, a life-saving medication could cause life-threatening side effects? Had they not, I might not be here to be wondering about this.
Here is the invitation, should you choose to accept it: For every opinion you express about depression, or other mental-health issue, read one article or essay about it. Or better yet, talk to someone who has lived with mental-health challenges, and instead of nursing your own opinion about how they should handle it, ask them about their experience, choices, and outcomes. It might be good for your own mental health too.
There’s No Map, But—
Below are some links that regarding mental health, depression, and well-being. They do not all agree with one another or with what I write above. I don’t always agree with myself either.
These two posts from The Belle Jar are especially informative:
HuffPo Canada Living has had some good articles this week:
Shannon Fisher, “Suicide Isn’t A Product Of Not Trying”
Spiritual Practitioners Discuss Depression
Lodro Rinzler, Meditation Isn’t Enough: A Buddhist Perspective on Suicide
Krista Tippett discusses her experience of depression (among many other things) on The One You Feed” (podcast)
“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.
Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
—Posted by Barbara A. White
“Our brains have evolved to help our bodies find their way around the world on the scale at which those bodies operate.”
—Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
To Richard Dawkins, DSc, FRS, FRSL:
Following up on your recent Twitter Conference on rape rankings, I wonder whether you might be willing to answer the following questions. Your reasoning ability is much needed. One of your conclusions follows:
Following up on this, and taking advantage of the copious space afforded off-Tweet, a few questions follow. I would like to get at some of the subtleties of your point of view—ones you could not have expressed in a mere 140 characters.
1. Which is bad and which is worse: to agree to go on a rape date without being informed that it is to be that sort of date, or to be held at knifepoint and raped by a stranger without being informed ahead of time?
1a. Which rape date is worse: one with someone you have met in a bar and never have to see again? Or one with an acquaintance you will see in evo-bio class on Tuesday? Or one you were introduced to by your best friend?
1b. Which is bad and which is worse: to be threatened by a dull carving knife, or a sharp serrated knife? Or to submit to the rape in order not to be cut? Or to be cut and raped both? And if so, by which knife?
1c. Which is bad and which is worse: to dress up, go on a rape date and have a nice dinner first, including fine wine? Or to dress casually, go on a rape date and get raped before dinner and drinks? Or, to go on a rape date and later be interrogated about what you drank? And wore?
1d. Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by a classmate and receive little or no assistance from campus authorities? Or to be raped by a stranger and receive little or no support from the legal system?
1e. Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by several young men in your school, and for them to put pictures and/or videos on the Internet, and, as a result, to take your own life at the age of 15? Or to be raped and take one’s own life right away?
1d. Which is bad and which is worse: to be raped by your partner? Or by your mother’s partner? And does a pregnancy resulting from either experience change the ranking?
1e. Which is bad and which is worse: to be sexually assaulted (without penetration) by one’s father at 6, or to be raped (with penetration) by one’s uncle at 3? (Those are ages, not times of day.)
1f. Which is bad and which is worse: to be sexually abused by a distant family member and to keep quiet about it for decades? Or to be ostracized by the family when you at last choose to speak out?
1g. Which is bad and which is worse: to witness a man without understanding or compassion opine on grades of rape in 140 characters? Or for him to publish more than one 140-character statement? Or more? Or for these micro-statements to get so much news coverage that you cannot but see him everywhere?
1h. Which is bad and which is worse: that inhumane acts such as sexualized violence continue to be tolerated, or that a prominent male intellectual, whose speciality lies elsewhere, chooses to focus on degrees of suffering rather than degrees of misdoing? Or, just to leave the discussion to those who are equipped to undertake it? (To “go away,” one might say.) And, if he is taken seriously on the topic of rape, does that mean we should believe what Jenny McCarthy has to say about the link between vaccination and autism? And should we all be making appointments with homeopaths?
1g. Which is bad and which is worse: to opine on the significance and degree of others’ suffering without listening to what they have to say themselves? Or to deny others’ suffering altogether? Or to consider oneself irreproachable by virtue of one’s (ostensibly) superior intellect?
1h. You say that you can reverse the “X and Y”—that is the rape date and the aggravated assault—and retain the same logic. Might one contend then, that “acupuncture is bad, and that homeopathy is worse?” And that neither is commendable? And then reverse the X and the Y? Could one say that sudden death is bad but slow, agonizing death is worse, and then reverse that? Or that death by 1000 cuts is bad, but by 1001 is worse, or maybe the opposite? Could one say that one offensive tweet is bad and two are worse and reverse that too? That confronting inhumanity before death is bad and that finding it the afterlife too—hypothetically speaking, of course—would be worse? Or would the afterlife, even in the presence of others who scorn compassion and mutual understanding, have other advantages that make the big picture worth it?
Semantics, Virtuality, God, and Delusion
Richard, please tell us what, in this era of virtuality, “go away” means. If there is an “away,” must there be a “here”? Are we to assume that “here” is where you are? If so, most of us, statistically speaking, are likely “away” already. And to confuse matters, I have a hard time thinking of the sofa on which I sit as anything but “here,” though if I expend some effort, I can understand that to you it may be considered “away.” Where, then, am I to “go”?
Richard, do I understand correctly that your experience of sexual abuse was rendered innocuous because you did not believe in evil (and, presumably, God)? You mention that your schoolmates suffered (more) at the hands of the same offender while your “mental trauma was soon exorcised.” Does that mean that God, not the human being who did the “fondling,” sexually abused these children? And if God does not exist, who sexually abused these children? Who is responsible for their suffering? (Extra credit: can you explain your choice of the word “exorcised”?)
Describing your resilience, you write, “Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe – in hell. But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.”
So, Richard, why are you speaking out about degrees of sexualized assault? And why are you comparing the effects of different sorts of rape if you yourself were so unaffected by your childhood experience? If your trauma was “exorcised,” why do you think rape is “bad” and can be even “worse”? Can’t those who have experienced rape access your form of “exorcism” too? Isn’t the real offender, not the sexual predator, but God? And since there is no God to hold accountable, does that mean that rape does not exist?
And how is it that your brain is helping your body find its way around the world? Does it help you find your way around Twitter? Maybe your brain could help me figure out where I should go to learn to think. I would like to think better. Although, like you, I hold a doctoral degree and a professorship,—albeit without such a public profile—I am not sure that my Ph.D. in Music Theory and Composition qualifies me to compare different degrees of rape. But you appear to know better than I do about applying one’s training in unexpected areas.
Richard, please critique the following statement: “As an eminent evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins has become known as a public intellectual. As an eminent evolutionary biologist and public intellectual, Richard Dawkins compares varieties of sexual assault in order to rank them. As an eminent evolutionary biologist and public intellectual who compares varieties of sexual assault in order to rank them, Richard Dawkins unwittingly exposes the limitations of logic.”
I like to think that your brain can help my brain help my body find its way around. I will appreciate any assistance you can offer.
Oh—one more question: Can you define “syllogism” for me? Is it something like “solipsism”?
“Life is short; play with your dog.”
“Life is short; play with your human; they’ll give you lots of treats.”
“Life is long; write everything down, and get Netflix. Don’t forget to vaccinate. Watch out for those death panels.”
“Life is long. Take ‘er easy, but take ‘er. Teach your kids lots of tunes. They’ll be grateful, and they’ll make lots of friends. If your hands get tired, they’ll come by to play the music you taught them, and they’ll pass it on too. Others will travel from afar and be envious of your deep roots and rich culture. (Some of them won’t leave.) And remember all your funny stories, because they’ll love hearing them. (Make sure to tell your son how much you love his biscuits and lemon pie, and he’ll make them for you every chance he gets. More often than for he makes them for his girlfriend, but she won’t mind.)”
“I am awake. Life is suffering, but not to worry.”
“Life is great. May I have more ice cream? (Why am I asking? Of course I can! I’m a Prince. Life is great.) You!—get me more ice cream. You know, one of these days I’d like to go for a walk outside. How do I get there?”
—The young Buddha
“Boy, do I wish I hadn’t written that book. . . . It won’t die. Now they’re using it as a guide to business. Ah, que buffone! I guess those wannabe Princes don’t know it got me sent to prison. And can’t they tell it’s <satirico>?”
“Life is a mystery. Light the fire, smith the metal, and you’ll have a poem.”
“I’m not sure; there is a new life policy coming into effect. Go check with that young man who’s all over the news these days. You’ve seen him; the one with the long hair and sandals. He has lots of followers. Sheesh, this celebrity culture is really getting out of hand.”
“Life is short; play with your dog.”
“It is what is is, and it sounds beautiful.”
—Finn Mac Cumhaill
“Not so fast. Wait for Nietzsche. (And what are you doing here anyway, Finn? You do not exist.)”
“It is not what it is. Well, maybe what I said isn’t it . . .”
“God is dead.”
“Nietzsche is dead. Um, God, can I have a treat now?”
“Life is in and out and up and down. Make sure you give your humans lots of chances to pass the time: go over to the door every few minutes so they can drop what they are doing and open it for you. They love that. You can tell, because they give you treats after. Or before, depending on your perspective. Plus, they even make videos and show them to people all around the world on that weird flat fishbowl thingie they’re always hunching over and swearing or laughing. (Hence my suggestion about the door.) So try to do lots of outlandish things so they’ll get lots of likes. I dunno how it works, but no matter; I’m up to my tail in toy mice and purple haze thanks to the royalties. You should come over some time; we’ll party.”
—Schrödinger’s neighbor’s cat
“There, there. I hear you. I send my compassion.”
“Happy 82d birthday, Grandpa! Can you remind me who won the 1947 World Series? I always forget.”
“The Yankees beat the Dodgers. (That’s when they were the Brooklyn Dodgers.) Seven games. Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers. I hope the Red Sox will win just once in my lifetime; it’s been since before I was born. That Darned Bambino. (Not you, Bambina.)”
—Joe’s father-in-law, Giuseppe
“Wasn’t that the first year Jackie Robinson played with the Dodgers?—Ergo, the first World Series with a desegregated statius? In the Coliseum, they would have called that intermisceo. That reminds of something funny . . .”
—Joe’s husband, Professor of the History of the Culture of the Economics of Roman Sporting and Comedy
“Wow, you must have read my History™! I said that long before we became æther-Friends™. No, you didn’t do research? Are you sure? You seem to know a lot. I guess you must have a prodigious memory. Anyway, moving on. . . . But wait, are you sure? Really? Okay, okay.”
“You’ve been in here a long time. You really should get outside. You already posted and still you keep revising. Plus, your list keeps getting longer. Blagues are supposed to be pithy. If you confuse ’em, you’re gonna lose ’em.”
—IAmNotMakingUp (to me)
“What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”
“Um, are you guys done? Can we play fetch now? [Diabolical laugh. Wag wag wag.]”
—Posted by Rose Marie McSweeney
Warning: the following includes graphic descriptions of vagina cakes and ovary bobbing. (Well, not all that graphic. There is the word “blood,” but there is no actual blood.) And there are five thousand eloquent and grammatically correct words. (Plus a few hundred. And some superfluous ™s.) Proceed at your own risk. Or don’t.
The other day, I was intrigued to see a headline that included the words “vagina cake”. Who could refrain from seeing where a vagina cake crumb might lead? (I mean, a “vagina cake.” [Hmm . . . is there such a thing as a vaginal cake? But I digress . . . ])
Adam Mordecai’s Upworthy feed sent me to Eddie Geller’s, which presented this headline: “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Buying Your Kid A Vagina Cake When They Lie.”
Geller’s introduction to the video that follows lauds the company HelloFlo™ for its (her?) innovative marketing of feminine hygiene products: “But what they’ve done that’s even more genius is make a couple brilliant ads that normalize getting a period (you know, cause it’s normal). This is ad number two, and dare I say, it’s even funnier than the first one. So, let’s all watch the video and talk about how cool we are with periods, shall we?”
What could be more inviting? Yes, the mysterious moon cycle is normal! That’s what I and my fellow fifty-one per centers have been saying for, well, three and a half decades. And there’s a vagina cake! Bought by a good mother! Whose child (“they”) lied! And Eddie has prepared us that the ad is brilliant and funny and normalizing. I was more than a little excited to watch this video that promised to defang the term “first period,” even and especially as I prepare for my final one, which will arrive one of these days, months, or years, at least as unpredictably as the first one did.
Adam’s and Eddie’s links pointed to a video (2’20” in duration), portraying an adolescent girl who is impatient for the arrival of her first period. As the video begins, we see her decorating a feminine-hygiene product (ok, I’ll say it: a pad) with red nail polish, accompanied by a voice-over in which she lists the girls who have already flown to the moon. She mentions Jenny, and “stupid Vicky.” After she breaks the fourth wall for a while and fills us in on her predicament, her mother enters with the pad, and . . . hi jinx ensue! I’ll come back to cover the entry of the vagina cake in a bit, but for now, I’ll say that I did not observe all that much normalization, nor was I inspired to celebrate how cool we all are with periods. On the contrary, I was puzzled and dispirited.
I broke the cardinal rule of Facebook™ and sinned: I looked at the comments. (Ten Hail Marys to follow.) They were about evenly split between commenters who found the video sidesplittingly hilarious—it mentions a “vagician”!—and those who, more like me, were puzzled or even disquieted.
Danger: Discussion of online discussion follows. Proceed at your own risk.Lately, I have been observing the different shapes Internet “discussions” take: on an independent (non-Facebook™) site regarding Celtic traditional music, for example, exchanges about the proper time signature of a reel may become heated, but this is tempered by the fact that, ultimately, the participants have a shared interest, and most want to learn something, not just berate those with whom they disagree. In the face of a comparison between music and cuisine, one might even end up with the delightfully Dada question, “What is the proper time signature for a curry?” (The fact that we have wildly different backgrounds and know little about one another makes it even more lively.) On the other end of the spectrum, usually on Facebook™ posts that are less specialized, I see hostile and uncurious jousting over who can say “idiot” and “asshole” the most times. (Online, these words are not usually used to refer to oneself.) I’m probably not saying anything you don’t already know, and you may well reply, with good reason, “Just don’t look at the comments! [Idiot!]” But since I was a late bloomer, Internet-wise; since I am something of a hermit; and since my vocational practice concerns the intricate and varying relationships between everyday experience and art, I grant myself special dispensation to graze through the comments from time to time and to join in the frolicking on occasion. And I am not defensive about it, really; I just imagine you’ll be interested in my process and status. (Full confession: I also experience depression and grief at the pointed and persistent marginalization of women. We are, paradoxically, marginalized everywhere, almost. And a “where’s the woman?” state of mind can inspire me to seek out discussions of gender issues, which take on interesting forms online and can inspire an intensification or lightening of my despair, depending. It’s a cycle.)
Now, to sample the vagina cake stirred up by the parental revenge fantasy.
Danger: Facebook™ comments follow. Proceed at your own risk.
One reader asked something like this:
“Am I the only one who is creeped out by this?”
No, she was not:
1) Public humiliation. Retaliation. Passive aggression. Trickery. Deceit (as punishment for lying, hmmm . . . ). Otherwise known as #ChildAbuse. Which is #NotFunny. Certainly not as a supposed way to, um, decrease shame about puberty? AND—(2) Upworthy, it is an advertisement for a company that sells products.
To my considerable surprise and dismay, an argument of sorts ensued—on the Internet! About a gendered topic! And including language. I did not start it—really. Those who critiqued (or even discussed) the video were advised repeatedly that it “was not real.” Some implied that a reservation about the quality of the video could be held only by a viewer who lacked the capacity to distinguish between representation and endorsement, or between fiction and reality. Some proposed that the cramping of enthusiasm in the face of such a portrayal of vindictiveness could only arise from a misguided inference that the advertisement had been designed to initiate parents into the practice and protocols of offscreen child abuse rather than to sell tampons. To be clear, I’ve no use for an “us” or a “them,” or even a “you,”—not to be confused with you—but there was a noticeably consistent pattern: amused spectators asserted that anyone who remained undiverted necessarily lacked understanding of the brilliant comic authorial voice—not in those exact words—and even lacked a sense of humor altogether. Where have we heard this before?
I was glad to see Mordecai dive in:
Just FYI folks, I am not seriously advocating publicly shaming your children at every turn. It’s merely a funny ad to get people to understand that talking about menstruation shouldn’t be a thing to hide in shame about. This ad is a humorous attempt at calling that to attention.
This statement makes perfect sense to me. I would love to see a cultural product (and a commercial product to boot) that exemplifies Adam’s statement. This HelloFlo™ advertisement, however, is not that cultural product. Indeed, Mordecai’s original, earlier “share” was prefaced by this:
This goes along with my theory of parenting strategy [sic] that when my teen children inevitably try to throw a party at my house without telling me, the punishment will be me showing up at their school in a too tight [sic] superman [sic] costume to bring them lunch and call them by horrible pet names. It will be glorious until they figure out how to one up [sic] me.
Yes, individuals in intimate and long-standing relationships engage in role-playing and mischief. We also lose our cool from time to time and offend or even hurt one another. All of this can be delightful, enlightening, frightening, enraging, and dangerous. Sometimes play and harm get mixed up. And mixed up. The question is not whether fantasy is playful, but what sort of play is it?
You will be shocked—just shocked!—to hear that the conversation then went round and round in circles.
Danger: unfashionably long and slightly retouched Facebook™ comment follows.
Proceed at your own risk.
Ok, let me get this straight. Menstruation is something we as a culture, and as individuals (particularly those experiencing it) remain embarrassed about discussing openly. HelloFlo™ wants to ease that. The narrative of their commercial accomplishes such opening up in this way:
- A girl feels bad that she has yet to have her first period;
- she creates counterfeit “evidence,” using a cosmetic product, and leaves it for her mother to see (not exclaiming, “yay!”—and not telling her mother—why?).
- Her mother reveals knowledge of the fakery to the spectator, but not to her onscreen daughter (why?),
- then proceeds to execute an extravagant, outlandish revenge plot, which involves
- publicly humiliating the daughter with a “celebration” of her rite of passage (which has yet to happen) with older men as well as girls and other people present. These include her grandfather and the mother’s male coworkers (one of whom presents the still-premenstrual girl with kitchen supplies, culminating in the girl’s father jumping out of the long-awaited “vagina cake”);
- all of which serve, in the video, to mock the notion of a straightforward and earnest celebration of such a rite of passage;
- until the mother at last bestows upon her daughter a gift of the product for which this is all an advertisement.
- She reveals to the girl that she has already punished her for her deceit, rather than by conventional means, with this “first moon party.”
- To conclude, a man tells another girl about the same age, “Sometimes you just gotta wait.” Cut to—as they say, “wait for it!”—
- the HelloFlo™ logo and pitch.
One does not have to mistake this for documentary footage (sometimes confused with “real life”) or overlook the efforts at humor (some parts work, some don’t, and the video will read differently for different viewers) in order to critique the end product. Discussion and inquiry need not issue from a lack of understanding or an underdeveloped sense of humor. HelloFlo™’s advertisement, while ostensibly pro-woman, pro-girl, and body-celebratory, trades on tired tropes of conniving girls and underhanded women; emphasizes the importance of masculine gaze and response (comic coffee?); and mires its ostensible shame-cleansing agenda by portraying more shame. At the very least, it is confusing to use the master’s mockery to build the mistress’s moon. If this is such a new and pro-girl agenda, why muddle it?
Clearly this advertisement for a product trades on internalized misogyny. It is stained by unintentional unfunniness. The video targets the customer, the mother, with a revenge fantasy that falls flat. I certainly don’t see it puncturing embarrassment and shame about growing up. With respect, Adam, your original comment did have to do with parental revenge—yes, it’s clear you did not mean that seriously either—but that is the impulse this advertisement for a product is manipulating. This is efficient for the advertiser (and one could say cheap and exploitative too). Isn’t it worth noting that this groundbreaking new advertisement for a product hooks the viewer through displays of revenge rather than affection and caring? Does humor have to be cruel? (For some, yes.) If that entertains and interests you, great, but I would rather not confuse that with a genuine, new, open, and healthy vision of girls’ experience. In re “lightening up” [mentioned by other commenters], one cannot have it both ways—saying this advertisement for a product is doing the cultural work of positively affecting our attitudes without considering the possibility of a negative effect. Hello, Flo: How about going right from the girl’s impatience, to her mother’s compassionate witnessing (mostly absent from the clip, except as related to her consumer status), perhaps by way of a sorbet of generational strain (one of the better ingredients in the video as it is), to the starter kit, to the ketchup guy? (I’ll let you keep it a guy if you agree to the rest of my revisions.) Nah, there’d be no “story.” So why this story? Or how ’bout an advertisement for a product that just had women and girls celebrating their bodies? That would be dotty, right? Why?
(One commenter instructed five or ten of the others to “get therapy”; she also informed the poster above that she hoped she would find her sense of humor someday. I was grateful for her concern and well wishes, and my friends and I found this riotously funny, since, well, I often have to restrain myself from disrupting any conversation with my unbearably witty banter. [I fancy myself a modern-day Dorothy Parker without the obscenities. Or the hats. Or the civil rights activism. And carrying a little less heartache, but only a little less.])
Danger: unbearably funny and not-quite-supercilious Facebook™ comment follows.
Proceed at your own risk.
I was entranced by the way that the ethos of the advertisement refracted through the discussion about it:
This is such a lively and illuminating discussion; I’m learning so much. For example, I notice that, for the most part (especially until the recent comments about therapy), those who question the perfection of the video comment on the video, and those who disagree comment on the people who have commented on the video; in other words, the words “you,” or “you people” (even more idealistic, given the anonymity of the Internet) are circulating with abandon. Some favorite phrases of those advocating this “humor” are the following:
“Calm the hell down. . . .”
“People really do need to lighten up.” (Several votes for this one.)
“These must be the same people who . . .”
“See a shrink. . . . ”
“Get a sense of humor, people.”
“For those of you who find this offensive – get over it or un-follow the page.”
“You need a therapist and a big drink if you think this is child abuse.”
(What a high degree of sobriety is required to promote levity! I have been unable to find out whether that last recommendation was for a simultaneous therapist and big drink or perhaps a big drink with the therapist, which might be illegal, as well as funny. Nor was I able to ascertain what size the therapist should be. But I digress . . . back to our show.)
And there is even real recognition of one poster’s “socialist, lesbian loving attitude!!” (An insult from stranger to stranger? How humorous!) Indeed, such syntactical formulations show the advanced jocular status of those who project such utterances—what funny language! What a thought-provoking trend: those who either find the video hysterically funny (hysterical: get it?! LOL!)—or who simply want to argue—tend to use the second-person imperative, presuming to correct the opinions and attitudes of others, whereas “you people” themselves—again, generally speaking—use the third person to consider the video rather than promulgating ad-hominem [sic] vitriol—and at least, not retaliating with “you ‘you people’ people.” (“YYPP”?) This is very funny! I can’t imagine why there would be such a correlation. For example, those who have endeavored to express unease haven’t thought to say (or have, but have refrained from saying), “Well, ‘you people’ need to insert a little bit of analytical perspicacity into that so-called humor of yours!—and the reason I find it unfunny is because I do have a sense of humor, a sophisticated one, which you cannot but aspire to. This humor of yours is of poor quality, so there!” Well, that is something I for one would not say, except in this form of reflexive narrative transgression—and, above all, a humorous one. Of that I am . . . sanguine. (LOL!)
(With the important caveat that such could happen under duress, I would not dream of calling someone stupid, telling them to see a therapist, or insulting them personally; the sort of double-faux retort above is my limit; and it’s all play.) I find abusive language, with or without frosting, utterly and invariably demoralizing. Yes, I know there are sitcoms that portray characters plotting and scheming and insulting one another, and I know well that such a display can serve as a sort of outlet. But I do not find such discourse funny (save for affording a certain small license to Big Bang Theory, about which I remain ambivalent). Laughter does not confer comedic immunity. In more intellectual and academic circles, I often argue against the notion that an artwork delvers a univocal message and for less literal hermeneutic maneuvers. But that does not mean that all cultural products are equally sophisticated and equally open to complex and multivalent readings. It’s cheap and lazy to use humor to conceal, rather than to reveal, hostility—and it is unsurprising that a commercial, even one touted as progressive, takes the low road. I’d rather not shame the shamers. (LOL shamers?) Claims of “shaming!” comprise another Internet tendency that has become more than a little wearying. But it is interesting to observe this correlation: viewers who found the video funny and/or defended its portrayal of humiliation routinely used abusive language and personal attack. Celebration of the video was insufficient; denigration of those with differing points of view was crucial and central.
To put it bluntly, individuals comfortable with the humor of humiliation also embraced disrespectful discourse. And they weren’t even funny!
Ready-made verbal formulae designed to defend abusive behavior are widely available, and they all showed up, one after another, in the accolades for this video. This gives occasion to consider what might be tucked inside of, or excused by, comedified dysfunction.
It’s not funny to see a fictional girl fictionally tricked over a real-life rite of passage that engenders real-life vulnerability, especially under the guise of breaking down a tired taboo. This is not subversion of the status quo; it is submission to it. The story about the story is disingenuous.
The topic of first menstruation raises many significant issues: emotional responses such as shame and embarrassment are important, and I am glad HelloFlo™ and others are trying, if indeed they are, to release that. Some girls grow up in households where discussion is frank, and others (as did I) have to figure it out on their own or with the help of schoolteachers and friends.
This is not a trivial matter. Freer-flowing discussion could foster better personal, and medical, experiences for women. I contracted toxic shock syndrome during my freshman year in college. (This was before it was well known that TSS was not by definition fatal.) As a result, I learned some things about my reproductive system which would have been good to have known earlier on. Around the same time, a male friend wrote a paper for a class investigating what he termed the late and insufficient response of the medical community and the feminine-hygiene product industry to the advent of toxic shock. (In response, an older female relative said, “He’s weird.”)
I shuddered ten or more years ago when I read that there had been more research on the effects of bleaching dinner napkins (the paper kind) than on the whitening of tampons. During my years of cyclicity, there have been interesting developments in products, including unbleached tampons. Now there’s the DivaCup™ and Softcup™.
Such products reveal some of the innumerable ways in which women’s experience, even as it is acknowledged and supported, is simultaneously commodified, packed and sold back to us. This observation is no news flash (though some participants in the Upworthy discussion said they found the HelloFlo™ products expensive). And it’s interesting to think of a girl being sent a monthly package tailored to her flow, in “discreet” (the same word as in 1978) packaging. I’m not sure what to make of that; nor am I sure why a Beads For Life Sanyu Bangle Bracelet or other mentionables are included; but there must be a reason.
Women, Get Your Period™ Here!
My ultimate response to the HelloFlo™ video is colored by its pairing of commodification and womanhood. (What a quaint word. I use it advisedly.) First, the swag: there are ready-made kits, even including paradoxically advertised “surprises.” (Here, buy this surprise! Only $29.99!) I remember my own starter kit; I waited eagerly for it to arrive in its “discreet” packaging. I’m not sure I understand why a monthly delivery of semi-customized supplies appeals, but perhaps it’s handy to be relieved of the burdens of making selections and carrying light packages of absorbent fluff around. And the “complimentary” (one might consider respelling that) items: this sounds festive, but not a little impersonal: “Will Flo send the organic hard candy in the pink container or—the other pink thing?” Indeed, the tagline on Period Starter Kit, “every girl should have one,” says a lot. One—size fits all. And this comes at a time when, entering adolescence, young people are engaged in individuation. WOuldn’t it be neat to create one’s own totem, ornament, or treat?
(Is it possible that these “gifts” are akin the the “complementary copy” I remember Gloria Steinem writing about in Ms. many years ago? It was a protocol whereby, in order to garner a contract with an advertiser, the magazine would be required to run copy that related to the given product and supported the advertising even outside the advertisement proper. Of course nowadays, the possibility of a boundary between content and come-on is seldom even acknowledged.)
As de Beauvoir said: second, womanhood. Let’s glance at cultural (and, thus, political) constructions of and battles over gender. In “our” culture at large, which includes movies, television, video games, comic books, enlivening and enervating Facebook™ discussions, and things I have yet to hear have been invented, there is a character one almost never encounters: the crone. The womanly Trinity begins with maid, progresses to mother, and then—some grandmotherly presences notwithstanding—where does she go?
In too many settings, women are devalued and diminished even as we grow in wisdom and maturity. However, I am fortunate to have a number of allies in my life whom I call “wisewomen.” You know who you are; in fact, you taught me that expression. I am grateful that these maternal figures (whether or not they are literally parents) are willing to initiate me into their wisdom so that I can be a wise elder, I hope, if and when the time comes. (And, crucially, there are also some male role models who can spin with the cycle. You too know who you are.) But experienced, mature women remain woefully under-appreciated in both mainstream culture and more specialized realms. I recently heard a sixty-something man introduce an extraordinarily distinguished and renowned sixty-something woman at a public, academic/professional event, and he coyly, or passive-aggressively, suggested that she might (should?) be ashamed of her age. (Obviously, she would not be the distinguished artist she is, invited to that very stage to be honored in such a way, were she twenty-something.) Perhaps not coincidentally, she was exponentially more accomplished than he. I notice, in my own profession—which one would expect to have little in common with that of Maggie Smith, Meryl Streep, and Angelina Jolie—that wisdom is not always an asset. Students seek seasoned teachers, but, among our peers, women practitioners “of a certain age” are often unwelcome. Still. In 2014. Despite all we offer to others, we are left aside and even rebuffed. Now a parody of that could be funny. . . . There are many reasons one might avoid revealing this, not least among them that, as I am doing right this moment, one risks exacerbation of difficulties by acknowledging that they exist, and more. Our marginalization, silencing, and invisibility are, as menstruation used to be, a topic we discuss amongst ourselves, if at all, when we fly off to mull over our matriarchal mysteries.
What of the mature feminine presence in the HelloFlo™ commercial? Some find the mother’s vengeful acrobatics funny; others gasp or yawn at the prospect of a grown woman duping and humiliating her daughter. The posts by the two Upworthies—both men, which is nice—suggest that the advertisement eases shame and embarrassment, but it relies on shame and embarrassment. Perhaps it eases their shame and embarrassment? That’s nice too, but perhaps a secondary priority. Sorry, guys: matriarchy rules. And because this is a commercial, there is a customer in mind: the mother. Clearly, the way to hook the fish is with a (supposedly funny, certainly fictional, possibly intertextual) revenge tale. The mother’s life experience becomes subservient to her use-value to the company as a consumer; her character submits to a vulgar narrative wherein grown men do imbecilic things and inspire raised eyebrows, while the girl, the supposed protagonist, does something adolescent—after all, she is an adolescent—and gets punished. Her up-growing is exposed in front of the men brandishing coffee filters, red vagina-imitating bodysuits, and slow-moving ketchup. (“Idiots!”) There is even a boy band up on a balcony that has been festooned with girls’ underwear. Now that is decidedly creepy. (The grandfather in his undershirt “bobbing for ovaries like a champ” could have benefited from some video surgery as well.) While in the past, a girl might have shuddered at the advent of menstruation, here the girl cringes at others’ appropriation of it, before she has even experiences it for herself. It is a possession, but not hers, and she does not like what is happening. No one else is cringing. (“Assholes!”) How funny.
I am fascinated by the ways in which periodical (that’s a clever peer’s coinage, so clever that she cannily critiques the word “clever” [#IAmNotMakingThisUp]) advertisements have changed over time. I remember gazing at some utterly weird booklets that my older sisters must have received at school in the seventies; the text and images completely mystified the entire topic. “Modess . . . because.”
(Okay, because why? [Like, I always want to ask, “‘Have a good one?’ A good what? And only one?”] And why is the ellipsis placed before the word because, when the statement is left unfinished? Okay, okay, I’ll do my best to go with the flow.)
Mid- to late-twentieth century advertisements show women in flowing gowns. And “Modess”: is that like, a female mod? Like “seamstress” or “poetess?” Almost passé enough to have a comeback. Perhaps today the advertisement would read, “Modster™ . . . whatever.” Anyway, by the time I reached adolescence, advertisements presented images of sporty young women in tight white clothing playing sports. (I wondered if I was supposed to wear white one week per month.) And now we have HelloFlo™, who proffers“special delivery for your hoo-ha” and urges, “whatever you call it, we can help you take care of it.” Indeed, engaging and refreshing. Amusing and arch. I say this in earnest. That’s great to see, and much more appealing than “. . . because.”
But this attitude does not stick. The climax of the humiliating vagina-cake advertisement comes when, unable to endure her mother’s torment a moment longer, the girl exclaims, in frustration, “I faked it!” This moment is poignant and sad in the way many funny things turn out to be, and it has more resonance than I would like. (I would love never to remember the image of Meg Ryan in the diner in When Harry Met Sally again.)
Such an utterance from such a young girl reminds me of the innumerable ways women choose to, or are pressured to, hide ourselves in order to play to the crowd. It reminds me how we learn to please, to appease, and from whom, and what happens when we stop faking it.
The two-minute and twenty-second advertisement does not, on its own, effect this; it “merely” reinforces it. (Even the specific choice of words, “I faked it,” brings too-heavy baggage to the first moon party.)
The folks on Facebook™ would surely “advice” [sic] “you people” [sic] to undertake some “lightning” (OK, that I did make up, but only sort of) and would likely proceed to remind the killjoys that “this is not real!!!!” They’re right: advertisements are not “real,” but then again, nether—Bless you, Autocorrect™!—are our daily lives, filled as they are with things like . . . advertisements. And Facebook™ posts. And arguments based more on assertion than thought. And women who undertake plastic surgery to look like Barbie™. And viral videos of real-life rapes. And sober questions about the relationships between and among religion, commerce, law, and women’s (as well as others’!) health. I would not propose that HelloFlo™ and Co. intended to create a piece of propaganda through reactionary faux-normalizing-but-compliant cultural work designed to serve the misogynist hegemony. As another wise-woman apprentice my age says, “It is not a conspiracy. It doesn’t have to be.” In other words, business as usual—uncontested, contested inadequately, or dressed up as new wine—lubricates the gears so that the gender-performance machine may continue to revolve under the moon. As my father used to say, “Garbage in; garbage out.” We can convince ourselves we have improved things, as long as we have something to chuckle at. As long as our belly laughs as we are distracted us from any irregularities or muscle spasms.
Living in this culture and knowing something about women’s and girls’ experiences, I am not amused to think that “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Humiliating Your Child When They Lie.” Now, inserting “Buying Your Kid A Vagina Cake” in the place of “humiliating your child” sweetens it up, but if this is funny, consider how bitter our humor must be.
There are other thought-provoking nuances, likely reflexes, in the language of the posts and the video. Notice that construction above: “when they lie.” “They” has long been accepted in place of a gender-specific pronoun, both in mainstream culture and by academics, but that is not my point. Why use “they” here? Worthy and urgent contestations of the gender binary aside, in this context, “Being A Good Mother Means Sometimes Buying Your Daughter A Vagina Cake When She Lies.” That has a less “embarrassment-alleviating” sound, doesn’t it? (I’d like to put “something” before “means,” but no matter.)
Toward the end of the video, after the girl has been subjected to the over-the-top-of-the-first-moon “party” (whose party?), she is rewarded with the gift of a HelloFlo™ kit from her mother. Mother and daughter sit together, and the girl asks whether she’ll be grounded for lying. Her mother reveals that the party was her punishment and adds, commenting on her long-held knowledge of the purloined period, “Periods don’t have glitter on them.” This too is interesting language. The girl did not create a false period, but rather evidence of one. That evidence is known as blood. Menstrual blood does not contain glitter. A period is not an object—except when it becomes a product to sell and buy. I can imagine that marketing experts might discourage the use of the term “menstrual blood” to sell a product. But the slippage of terminology is curious. Similarly, the word “vagina,” which hardly dances on the tongue, seems to have become a substitute for the female genitals. (Rick Perry even asked, “Which one?”) We teach ourselves to obfuscate even as we profess a desire to communicate.
(How could you place anything on a period anyway?)
And why is it that, after this exchange, the last scene of the video shows a middle-aged man advising a young woman, as he suffers the clichéd or archetypal “anticipation™” of flow from the sluggish ketchup bottle, “Sometimes you just gotta wait”?
(I know it would be too much to ask HelloFlo™ to go Godot. But a Girl™ can dream.)
(Perhaps we can all meet up at Maleficent instead.)
Warning: Wise Women Ahead (With Some More Wise Folks Right Beside)
It is sad that it is so hard to imagine a narrative in which a mature woman, perhaps a parent, has wisdom to impart and does so in a caring and dignified manner. This could be heartwarming. It could also be funny! Trust me: wise woman are a scream!
Why the need to mock a first moon party, with “grandpa bobbing for ovaries,” in order to promote a starter kit for camp, with its helpful Good for You Girls™ lip balm? Why not a first moon party? Maybe restricted to women; maybe not. (One of the commenters online described something that sounded like that; I bet my wise women might know about such rituals too. Do you? Do you laugh at the very idea? If so, why?)
Is it coincidental that the process of female maturation, at both ends of the child-bearing years, veers wildly between the poles of invisibility and farce?
The “vagician” is by no means a new invention (nor does she have to be to be in order to be worthy). There is Carolee Schneemann’s breakthrough performance Interior Scroll, from 1975, and impish Laurie Anderson’s “Beautiful Red Dress” from fifteen years later. There are women here and there who use menstrual blood in art-making, when it is available. In a different vein, I just read an enchanting scene in Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest Regency/fantasy novel, Valour and Vanity, wherein the protagonist, in short hair and trousers, discusses her cycle with her husband. It’s touching and light-handed, and it is a matter of urgent importance within the narrative. (You can’t miss it: It’s right before Lord Byron wins a swimming contest and rips his clothes off in the canal. That embarrasses Jane more than her period.)
And let’s not forget the truly revolutionary Annie Sprinkle, who has genuinely opened things up. (Including her cervix. She deserves her own paragraph.)
More generally, apart from artistic products inspired by the menstrual cycle,—”inspired by the menstrual cycle”; that too sounds oddly unfamiliar—there are myriad opportunities to observe a rite of passage in a meaningful ritual. Such an enterprise need not be packaged in a commodified stunt. (Dear Facebook™ acquaintances: the stunt, in this case, is the advertisement, not the actions narrative. Then again, I am an idiot.) It’s easy to poke fun at earnestness. Too easy. Doing so can be a handy cover for one’s own cowardice, and one’s own shame. If one cannot risk sincerity when the next generation’s maturing bodies are at center stage, when can one? Returning to the proposition above that the eager consumption of narratives portraying humiliation may correlate to the utterance of speech acts that do the same: might it be possible to invert this?
Perhaps paying attention to the details of such a cultural product—ignoring pressures to lighten up or move on or get a (different?) sense of humor—may have something in common with, may reflect or foster, the simple but profound act of paying attention to others’s experience. Now there’s a cycle I would like to see enacted.
There are too few opportunities for girls, as for women, to be honored as themselves, without being prematurely sexualized, cruelly silenced, chastised for being “bossy,” constricted or even terrorized by gendered aggression, or instructed how to adapt to untenable circumstances rather than being offered better ones. But there are some examples, and their poignancy underscores their scarcity. They are offered by men as well as women.
Frankly, who cares if Annie Oakley was a crack shot at 15
or if Maria Callas debuted as Tosca at 17?
We think you’re special just being you —
playing with your food and staring into space.
—Billy Collins, “To My Favorite 17-Year-Old High School Girl”
Now this is humorous! And vengeless. Indeed, it drily touches on mundane ways in which girls (and boys too) are put upon, pointing to the tiny and immense pressures they experience as they come of age. It creates some distance from the intergenerational drama, and its lightness, reminiscent of Calvino’s Boccacio’s Cavalcanti’s leap, is much needed in this next millennium. I want my favorite (read: all) pre-adolescent aunts to have as much access to this sort of jump as to images of clumsy red-suited fathers emerging from “vagina cakes.”
(That a red flag went up the first time I saw Collins’s title is sobering. Fortunately, it descended.)
A woman-identified, intergenerational flavor is not entirely absent from HelloFlo™, the company; in fact, Flo’s most important contribution may lie in her blog and the “Ask Dr. Flo” column. I hope that these offerings are as useful to customers and participants as they appear. (This may be an example of the marvelous aspect of the Internet, where a girl can find information—if she knows where to go. And to learn that, she still may need a wise elder in her corner. And so we cycle back again.)
These more promising aspects of the HelloFlo™ “brand” only serve to set in relief this confused and confusing advertisement. Sure, whack the piñata utera if you like. I’ll pass, not because I disapprove, not because I mistake the play for reality, and not because I am immune to periodical humor, but just because the pink pillow on the ceiling is too flimsy to be of interest. It comes apart too easily.
Can’t we care for young girls without ridiculing their experience, without telling them stories wherein their counterparts are mortified? They are still young, and growing up is important and worthy of attention and celebration. I bloody well hope so. If we are going to say we are saying “vaginas don’t suck,” can’t we at least find a way to show something other than an awkward adolescent slurping on a marshmallow that’s been dipped in a red-chocolate fountain? And for what it’s worth, such an image makes me, and old pro at bleeding, squeamish in several ways. This is supposed to normalize the cycle?
(I do want to try the “vagina cake”—but only after the guy in the red bodysuit who jumped out of it has left the building. By the way, what is he doing in his daughter’s vagina cake? And after all of mom’s labor, why does it look nothing like a vagina? Gee, that’s funny. Dot. Dot. Dot. Or, as the French would say, “point.”)
—Posted by Rose Marie McSweeney