Author: Stephanie S. Hoechst

The Blurred Lines Analogies

In her essay, “Blurred Lines,” Gay makes her argument against restrictive legislation for reproductive rights by comparing the government’s misogynistic behavior to that of popular music.  Gay argues that if we continue to ignore pop music’s prejudiced messages against women, which reduce them to merely objects, then it’s no wonder we’re finding it so easy to also ignore the government’s encroachment on women’s rights.  Gay ties this analogy together with the repeated phrases, “Men want what they want,” and “Lighten up,” to represent the similarities between prejudiced music and prejudiced legislation, arguing that in the end, they both cater to the desires of men and the consideration of women’s judgement as practically worthless.  The “men want what they want” argument feels strikingly similar to the “boys will be boys,” “locker-room talk” justifications behind Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes, so Gay’s argument feels very relevant—we don’t only have congresspeople who disrespect women, but a president who does as well.

In the Ansari piece, Framke makes several points that relate to the “blurred lines” Gay mentions.  Because the Ansari story had several elements that made it difficult to identify as “sexual assault”—the arguably careless reporting by and the fact that the allegations weren’t nearly as incriminating as those of the Weinstein scandal—reveals the blurred lines between the sides of the #MeToo movement.  At what point should an allegation be taken as a case of sexual assault, at what point can it merely be indicative of a larger social tendency to disrespect women, and at what point can it just be written off as a misunderstanding?  I agree with Framke that’s reporting made it difficult to judge the Ansari story; however, it appears as though the Ansari story does address many of the assumptions men make about dating and what women want without really realizing it.

Human and Animal

One of the recurring themes in “Wolfpack” is the idea of humanization and dehumanization, what is considered “human” and what is considered “animal.”  Even the title of the piece introduces this dichotomy from the beginning. Verniece’s words “You are a person.  God loves you.  That’s it,”—to which she liberally alludes before revealing them to the reader—represents Verniece’s outlook on life (5).  Verniece considers herself human and, therefore, an important being who deserves respect and self-worth, commenting that “those words kept the frowns and pointing fingers at a distance, and made it so I almost didn’t see the looks people gave us” (6).  However, Luna introduces the idea that the division between humans and animals may not be as unambiguous as people think by saying, “The only real difference between people and animals is that people talk.  That’s it” (9).

This dichotomy between human and animal sets up the dehumanization that occurs with the attack—first the man calling Verniece “elephant,” which, TaRonne explains, “was something different, like she wasn’t even human” (14).  Afterwards, when the judge sentences the women to prison for defending themselves, Sha explains that the entire process of finding them guilty feels as though they are being stripped of their humanity, commenting “I wonder if either of them will ever know how hard it is to think human, to be human, when someone is threatening to knock, force, fuck the you out of you” (16).  Finally, the newspaper’s disparagement of the women by calling them a “wolfpack” makes Verniece declare, “If I cannot be a a person I decide, then anything can be anything at all” (20).  “Wolfpack’s” emphasis on the fine line between the human and the animal reveals how traumatizing and dehumanizing prejudice—especially against women attempting to defend themselves against an attacker—can be.  This experience clearly not only damaged their lives, but their own self-images as well.

Words without action

Arguably the most pivotal point of Fun Home includes almost no visual action.  Towards the end, Alison is sitting with her father in the car on the way to a movie theater, where each finally opens up about their sexualities candidly—they connect, for example, over the fact that each wanted to be the other gender when they were younger (220-221).  What I found really interesting about these two pages is that while it’s an incredibly important moment in the story—the novel almost feels like it’s leading up to this exchange—there’s barely any visual action.  The two pages consist of profiles of Alison and her father sitting in the darkened car, with Alison’s narrations and their dialogue the only thing changing between each frame.  For the first time in the novel, too, Bechdel’s narrations are white-text-on-black, which makes them feel a lot heavier, emphasizing the importance of this conversation in the overarching narrative.

Alison essentially narrates her thoughts and fears during the exchange, starting with smaller observations like, “I kept still, like he was a splendid deer I didn’t want to startle,” and ending with grander interpretations of the exchange like “I had felt distinctly parental listening to his shamefaced recitation” (most likely applying her opinions retroactively from the future).  Bechdel pulls in her references from Ulysses and The Odyssey that have been woven through the entire chapter to compare their exchange to that of Telemachus and Odysseus or Stephen and Bloom, further demonstrating how Bechdel makes sense of her world through literature. With these final observations, Bechdel introduces the strange parent-child role-reversal she experiences with her father, asking, “But which of us was the father?” to reveal that both are coming to terms with their sexuality, and both need the guidance of a more experienced party.  I thought it was very paradoxical, but also very appropriate, that Bechdel relies more on words in this scene than images to express the importance of their conversation, taking a break from her normally more active imagery to emphasize the momentousness of this exchange with her father.

Time in Fun Home

I found the passage of time really interesting in the first half of Fun Home.  I think when writing an autobiography, it can be easy to just go in chronological order of one’s life, but Bechdel does a good job of organizing her sections around themes, rather than certain time periods.  For example, Bechdel doesn’t even mention the Fun Home until the second chapter, even though it was an integral part of her childhood.  While it feels like she left out a thematically important place in the first chapter, the first chapter isn’t about death—it’s about her father’s need to control the aesthetics of their house.  Bechdel therefore mentions the Fun Home when it becomes relevant to her story, rather than when the time period is appropriate.

I thought that this lack of chronology was very much supported by the use of imagery in the graphic novel form.  In a book, it’s difficult to jump time periods.  Authors need to make an explicit statement, and often must remind the reader that a section is a flashback, or that many years have passed—and once an author jumps into the future, it becomes really difficult to then jump back into the past without confusion.  However, Fun Home’s visual element lets Bechdel do just that with ease—every frame, we’re reminded of the time period based on Bechdel’s age.  We can readily see where we are in time without as much setup, so Bechdel doesn’t have to sacrifice text space to situate the reader.

Assumed Sexuality

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s Blue Talk and Love provides a melancholy, sober look into Earnestine’s life—while her exploration of her ambiguous sexuality is the center of the story, her desire, like those of most teenagers, are hidden underneath layers of body insecurity, feelings of otherness, discomfort, and envy, and worries about her life at home.  Sullivan’s story exposes how complicated sexuality can be, and how coming to terms with an outside-the-norm sexuality can be difficult when one gets so easily distracted by other insecurities.  Just as the story doesn’t expose Earnestine’s sexuality until its end—and never truly explains it—her feelings for Xiomara are hidden throughout the narration, rather than stated as truth by the narrator, or by Earnestine herself.  Earnestine’s father’s issues and her insecurities about fitting into school dominate the narrative, only leaving her sexual orientation as a small thread that gets explored right at the very end.  This construction reveals that sexuality remains private, predetermined, and unquestioned for most of our lives—Earnestine assumes that she hates Xiomara instead of considering that her feelings for Xiomara might be more complicated than that.

Earnestine’s opinion of Xiomara—one of envy and distaste—is revealed to really be the product of her affection for Xiomara conflicting with the norms constructed by society.  Earnestine assumes that Xiomara enjoys having boys chase after her, and that Earnestine herself should be searching for a boyfriend, too.  While her sexuality is never explicitly stated—the narrator acknowledges that Earnestine desires boys as well as Xiomara, leaving her orientation outside the bounds of a label—Earnestine resents Xiomara for her alluring personality and looks.  Sullivan treads a very fine line between the feeling of jealousy when comparing oneself to a more beautiful, more popular girl, and the feeling of longing to be romantically involved with her, and this ambiguity represents what it feels like for Earnestine to explore her sexuality.

Demanding Change

Roxanne Gay’s “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories” examines the relationship between privacy, social visibility, and the responsibility to promote progress that often falls upon those in the public eye.  Essentially, Gay argues first that society places an unnecessary pressure on celebrities and public figures to disclose aspects of their personal lives, especially then it comes to sexual orientation.  Gay argues that the reasons we give for overstepping these bounds aren’t sufficient—to “reveal hypocrisy” for “the greater good” is not a justifiable reason for “forcibly out[ing]” someone.  She argues that our society, so comfortable with freely sharing personal information, feels entitled to everyone else’s information as well.

I found Gay’s argument linking class to privacy interesting, though I’m not quite sure if I agree. Keizer claims that people in a higher social strata have more access to privacy, using the example that a pregnant woman to show how her “condition” becomes more visible.  I don’t know why a pregnant woman’s visibility would change if she were more privileged, so I found that argument a little confusing.

Keizer then examines celebrities coming out, such as Anderson Cooper.  Her observation of a “right” kind of gay was very powerful, I think—recently, a celebrity coming out is a fashionable public statement where the celebrity asserts him or herself and protests against social stigma.  But Gay is right in that Cooper is in a less risky position to assert his sexual orientation, considering that he is, as Gay describes, “not too flamboyant, not too gay,” and that it’s often a lot more difficult for people to come out that Cooper makes it seem.

I really appreciated that when Gay demanded social change from heterosexuals, she gave specific examples of stopping using “gay” as a slur, stopping supporting artists like Tyler, the Creator, and voting for marriage equality.  I’ve found it really frustrating when authors simply spend their time explaining a problem and then just saying, “this is wrong,” without ever really citing specific examples of how a reader might be able to help the issue, so I found Gay’s outcry more powerful because of her specificity.

Overstepping Bounds

Michael Cobb’s response to Justice Kennedy’s comments about the value of marriage made me realize how backwards it is that the government gets to define what a “legitimate” relationship is. At first, I was a little confused as to why Cobb was taking offense at the Obergefell v. Hodges case—after all, shouldn’t he be pleased that all couples have the constitutional right to marry?  However, after reading it again, I realized his issue with Kennedy’s remarks were deeper than the simple permission granted by the Supreme Court—he was really asking why government should assume the right to define marriage as the supreme goal and declare solitude as an undignified state.

I thought Cobb’s examples of single government officials was very interesting—clearly, Senator Graham’s deflection of questions about his potential lack of a First Lady reveal the government’s trivial obsession with marriage.  His examination of the statistics of unmarried vs. married people in the United States also makes it very clear that the US population does not consider marriage to be the be-all and end-all of life, and suggests that if Justice Kennedy defines marriage as the highest form of dignity, then 124.6 million Americans are therefore undignified.

It’s definitely difficult for the government to treat a topic this sensitive with entirely political correctness, but to me, I agree that Justice Kennedy overstepped in making so many sweeping remarks about the meaning of marriage that, supposedly, the government assumes is true for everyone.  Public statements like Justice Kennedy’s are assumed to reflect the sentiment of the entire Supreme Court, so Justices definitely have to be careful in order to not offend anyone.  Kennedy’s remark, however, certainly reveals how the government feels about marriage—it’s their job to define what marriage legally is, and it appears that Kennedy now believes that the government also has the power to define what it is socially as well.

“Repression” and Modern Discourse

Michel Foucault’s introduction to The History of Sexuality grounds his examination in the repression of sexuality during the Victorian era.  Foucault questions whether we are truly unshackled from these same expectations of discretion and silence regarding the discussion of sexuality, likening us to the “other victorians,” or those individuals like “the prostitute, the client, and the pimp, together with the psychiatrist and the hysteric,” who accepted sex in spaces hidden from society (4).  By titling his essay “We ‘Other Victorians,’” Foucault suggests that we still tend to abide by this concealment of sexuality in the public sphere, yet questions whether we are truly “repressed,” or arbitrarily consider ourselves to be so.  Foucault examines sexuality’s relationship with power, its presence in modern discourse, and our own guilt regarding our previous prohibition of sexuality in the public sphere in order to outline the rest of his book.  He stipulates that he does not wish to base his examination of the history sexuality solely in terms of its repression; rather, he wishes to track how knowledge and discourse about sexuality disseminates and who has control over such information.

Foucault’s article is the introduction to the rest of his book, so some of his arguments are rather general.  Much of the article explains his goals in examining the history of sexuality rather than actually examining them, making his tone appear more ruminative than argumentative.  However, he does make several observations about our modern discussion of sexuality, such as our own fixation on our sexual repression and the effects of the Victorian era’s rejection of sexuality.  I found the article to move in many different directions at times, but overall I would be interested to hear what Foucault has to say in some of his more concrete examinations of the history of sexuality.

A Scientific Approach

I found Laura Kipnis’s “Against Love” to take on an incredibly cynical tone.  Kipnis describes modern love with scientific precision, which I found to be a little too cut-and-dry to really encapsulate the different approaches people take towards long-term companionship.  She essentially reduces the social contract of “mature love” to an established and empirical set of observations that, in her opinion, prove love demands submission.  She even refers to subjects as “mates,” a term that sounds very scientific, as though Kipnis is an outsider looking in, objectively parsing out the intricacies of this social practice from a distance.

In this sense, Kipnis jumps to many conclusions that may or may not necessarily be true—that “opening up” is automatically an “arcane” and “uncomfortable” experience, that an expression of needs necessarily means that a partner has already failed to meet them, and that loss of autonomy is inevitable (which may be true, but may not be an entirely negative experience).  While I enjoyed the article and found its observations on the somewhat inexplicable social expectations of love to be witty and original, I don’t believe that modern love is simply the sum of these expectations—there’s a lot more to it than what Kipnis describes, and I don’t think we can turn against love simply because there are some acts of submission may be necessary to build a relationship.