An Education

February 3, 2010

I watched An Education yesterday and I can’t stop thinking about how fantastic it was.

I don’t consider myself a movie buff or film critic by any means, so I’m sorry if this post is rather choppy. Usually when I like a movie I say, “It was so funny!” or, “What a great story!” or, “The acting was top notch!” or even, “What a great use of an original narrative device!” What I have never said is this: that movie meant something to me that I can’t explain.

I worry that I might drop some spoilers here, but even if I tell you the whole plot, it will still be worth watching. So take that caveat as you will. The plot is described:

It’s 1961 and attractive, bright 16-year-old schoolgirl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is poised on the brink of womanhood, dreaming of a rarefied, Gauloise-scented existence as she sings along to Juliette Greco in her Twickenham bedroom. Stifled by the tedium of adolescent routine, Jenny can’t wait for adult life to begin. Meanwhile, she’s a diligent student, excelling in every subject except the Latin that her father is convinced will land her the place she dreams of at Oxford University. One rainy day, her suburban life is upended by the arrival of an unsuitable suitor, 30-ish David (Peter Sarsgaard). Very quickly, David introduces Jenny to a glittering new world of classical concerts and late-night suppers with his attractive friend and business partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Danny’s girlfriend, the beautiful but vacuous Helen (Rosamund Pike). David replaces Jenny’s traditional education with his own version, picking her up from school in his Bristol roadster and whisking her off to art auctions and smoky clubs. Just as the family’s long-held dream of getting their brilliant daughter into Oxford seems within reach, Jenny is tempted by another kind of life. Will David be the making of Jenny or her undoing?

Seems like not the most original of plots. School girl falls for older man? Snore! That might be the main plot line, but the movie is called An Education because a teen crush isn’t really the point that packs the punch. It’s the 60s, and Jenny wonders what the point of an education is for a female. She wants to read English at Oxford, but the only career options available to women are basically school teacher and nurse. I wish I had written down quotes, and there aren’t really that many online, but there’s this one scene where she points out to her well-educated teacher, that well-educated women aren’t necessarily happy after graduation anyway. So what’s the point of the hardship?

A memorable piece of dialogue that I’m probably messing up is when Jenny’s teacher says to her, “You’re pretty and you’re smart. Does your boyfriend like pretty Jenny or smart Jenny?” In another scene, they visit Oxford and Jenny’s glamorous female friend wonders why all the university girls are so ugly. They come in pretty and they leave ugly! BIG spoiler alert: when Jenny is considering dropping out of school to get married, her parents agree that there’s no point furthering one’s education if you’ve got a husband anyway! But I really don’t wait to spoil the ending, so I’ll stop recapping the movie there.

To me, the movie was about doing things that are challenging because that’s what you owe yourself. It’s not necessarily about the value of an education, nor the hardships that specifically women face, nor about taking paths less travelled. It’s just about facing hardships despite the existence of an easier journey. And I think that’s why this “review” belongs on a feminist blog.

Because haven’t we all, at some point, wished we were happy fitting more of a mould? I believe that there are some women who just really loooove wearing heels and lipstick and dresses. Women who don’t care about becoming a CEO, or finding a cure for a disease, or starting a polytechnic school in a developing country. (Note, I don’t mean to mix the former two sentences as mutually inclusive.) Women who are happy doing what is generally accepted and expected of women. And if that is what they are happy, then hooray! I am happy that they are happy!

But for the rest of us, it’s hard to make unpopular choices. Maybe we’re choosing not to shave our legs. Maybe we’re choosing not to become mothers. Maybe we’re choosing to get a degree in what is traditionally viewed as a man’s field. Whatever it is, we know what we’re choosing it’s unpopular. And An Education was a story about choosing it anyway.


Knowledge or Elitism: Where’s the Line?

January 29, 2010

Something I’ve been thinking about a bit since I graduated from law school is how to determine when it’s appropriate to actually apply my newfound knowledge, and when it’s appropriate to sit back and relax.  I think there is a bit of an instinct when you have an education in a specific area to stick your nose into a conversation and bring forth The Answer, and it can be somewhat painful when the rest of the group inevitably snipes at your elitism.  The law comes up a lot in day-to-day conversation, and I’ve learned that my coworkers are pretty hostile to any input on my part, so I tend to sit and stew quietly.  But I think there is a happy medium, and especially in circles (i.e., feminist, queer, progressive) where there tend to be a lot of academics dominating the conversation, it’s important to find it.

On the one hand, not everything can be dissected.  I think there’s something really powerful in the elements of third wave feminism, for example, that encourage getting out of your desk chair and doing something, whether that something is marching in a rally, organizing a boycott, or starting a coalition of women entrepreneurs.  On the other hand, academics can lend something to the discussion, and the reflexive “anti elitist” thing might stifle some conversation.  Since those of us blogging here are relatively educated, I’m curious how the rest of the bloggers deal with this divide in various progressive circles, and also how our readers, whatever your education may be, experience this divide in life.

Gay Marriage Leads to Polygamy: The Trouble with Engaging the Argument

January 15, 2010

Anyone who’s done much activism or kept up with the academic debate regarding gay marriage in recent years has come across the insulting “gay marriage is a slippery slope that leads to polygamy, marrying animals, etc.” argument.  Now, this is a stupid argument.  Of course it’s stupid.  But why is it stupid?  And what should the response be?

I think one common response to this argument highlights a larger problem regarding our culture’s attitudes towards sexuality.  The thing is, a lot of people have a tendency to respond directly to that argument by saying “of course this won’t lead to polygamy or marrying animals!  Gay marriage is clearly different from these things, and let me tell you why.”  The problem is that if you argue that way, you’ve already accepted the premise.  You’ve accepted that there is a category of bad things that includes polygamy, marrying animals, and presumably other practices as well, and that this category < gay marriage. Read the rest of this entry »

Regional Lenses on Gender and Sexuality

January 9, 2010

I was thinking again today about some of what I talked about in my last post here, regarding generalizations and cultural context.  Another area where that topic really applies in my own life is sexuality.  Like gender, sexuality has a big cultural component.  I could go on for days about how conceptions of sexuality differ in different countries and cultures, but on a more personal level, I’ve noticed big variations in experiences just from region to region.

I grew up in the South.  I came out as bisexual at age 16 while still living in North Carolina, and as a lesbian at age 21 while living in Ireland (soon to return to Maryland).  I always find it very interesting to hear how different people think about sexuality in different parts of the country, specifically about how far the gay rights movement has come.  Whenever I hear about how we’re pretty much “there,” or how amazing it is that kids these days grow up in a world where sexuality doesn’t matter, I’m thinking “what world is this?”  But it’s true that there are parts of the country where kids can be open, just as there are areas where kids are still beaten within an inch of their life or put into corrective therapy because of their orientation.

In my hometown, taunts and rape threats were pretty much the norm for a queer teenager.  Some people were okay with it, but a lot of people weren’t.  The situation hasn’t improved much, from what I hear.  There’s still a Gays Oughta Change club at my high school, formed after the GSA that I was too chickenshit to start when I went there.  Violent attacks still happen.  The reason I mention this here is that the bloggers on this site come from around the US & Canada, and I think regional perspectives are really interesting.  The things that surprise me about perspectives surrounding sexuality must also apply to gender, and I’m sure my fellow bloggers and the F-Wave readers have some thoughts.

So: where would you say women’s right, or LGBT rights, are on the grand scale of things?  Big changes in the past 10 or 20 years?  Has your perception changed if you’ve made a big move, or have you been surprised by the thoughts of others from different parts of your country or the world?  I’m curious.

Difficult Generalizations: Feminism in Cultural Context

December 31, 2009

It’s been a bit dead around here over the holidays, so I thought I’d bring things back as we move into 2009 with some thoughts on cultural relativism, universal human rights, and feminism.  (I might be missing law school, can you tell?)  Bruce Robbins, a Harvard English professor, wrote “we do not need ‘easy generalizations,’ [but] we do need difficult ones.”  I find this idea very powerful, and I’d like to explore it a little.

In human rights studies, there is a strong focus on the tension between universalism and cultural relativism.   If human rights are “universal,” which is one of the fundamental characteristics of any human right, then theoretically cultural considerations have to be fitted to that universal conception of the right.  If thou shalt not do x, then the fact that an individual society’s religious, culture, social, or familial traditions dictate otherwise shouldn’t matter.  Cultural relativism, on the other hand, says that rights have to be viewed in context, and what’s appropriate in one culture is not necessarily appropriate to another.

In an article on feminist legal scholarship, Vasuki Nesiah looks critically at the trend in feminist circles to erase or obscure cultural considerations in order to proclaim the Holy Grail of universal feminism.  A white feminist American scholar (like myself) might say something to the effect of “yes, feminism is inclusive of all people, black or white, developing world or developed, but the central inquiry must revolve around the oppression of women.”  The problem with this analysis is that women can’t be generalized.  In the US, this is fairly easy for contemporary feminists to see–third wave feminism clearly emphasizes the difference between the experiences of white women and women of color, and to some extent other differences based on class, religion, nationality, culture, etc.  Internationally, however, the “liberating” tendency may obscure privileges enjoyed by certain females.  Nesiah uses the example of female factor workers belonging to the dominant ethnic group in Sri Lanka.  One can say that women in Sri Lanka deserve equal rights, but it is important to realize that women are not homogeneous–factory workers for transnational corporations in Sri Lanka work in horrible conditions, but the picture is more complicated, as more than 95% of TNC factory employees belong to the dominant ethnic group.  Women of other ethnicities work for less pay and have fewer social rights.

It is impossible to espouse rights for women without generalizing to some extent.  Feminists have to lump women together in some ways, or we will be backed into the corner of saying that some women should have rights, and others should not.  However, we need to avoid the “easy generalizations,” and instead try to make the difficult ones.  This means that in our scholarship and activism, we need to approach women’s rights from a culturally aware point of view.  Feminism has to fall within a complex cultural context, where a woman’s sex is only part of the picture.  This is a challenge for myself, and for any other academics who happen to be wandering around the blogosphere.  Eyes open, ladies.  (And happy New Year.)

Roundtable: Thoughts on the Term “Feminist”

December 8, 2009

This week, I asked the ladies of the F-Wave to share their thoughts on the word “feminist.”  Should it be a required term for those who support women’s equality?  How do you react when folks you would consider feminists are opposed to the term?  Are you comfortable with the term yourself?  Here’s what we had to say:

Read the rest of this entry »

December 6th – Remembering the Montreal Massacre

December 6, 2009

My fingers were bitten by the cold air as they clasped the candle. My breath blew out in white clouds that dissipated quickly in the night. Snow was falling softly, quietly, passively  among the gathered crowd. It was almost too cold for the tears wiped quickly from our eyes. Here, in Minto Park, in Ottawa, we gathered to remember.

20 years ago, on December 6th, fourteen women were murdered at L’École Polytechnique in Montréal. They were murdered by a man because they were women. Because they were women who dared to pursue a university degree in engineering, a field that continues to be traditionally dominated by men. The man in question, Marc Lepine,  blamed his own failures on feminism. On women’s “intrusion” into men’s privileged world. We remember these women and the tragedy that happened 20yrs ago. And we come together to address the continued perpetuation of these attitudes today.

Other names were mentioned, but it’s their stories that hit home. Distinct, despite their similarities. A woman, murdered in her driveway, by her estranged husband. A 5yr old girl, murdered, by a 20yr old man. The most horrific, three young girls and a woman, found in a submerged car. Their father, mother, and brother charged for their deaths. The woman had been their father’s first wife. Their lives were too inconvenient too be spared. We also remembered the most vulnerable in our communities. The names of First Nation women who are murdered or disappeared are added weekly to a list held by the Native Women’s Association of Canada. And so rarely do their stories appear in our media. It has been called Canada’s greatest human rights crisis.

These women died because our society perpetuates violence against women as acceptable, and even humourous. They were murdered by men who bought into the idea of defensive masculinity. That it is somehow okay to treat women as less than human, as unworthy of respect. That they don’t deserve it. That they don’t deserve life. These are not isolated incidents. These attitudes exist on a broad scale and are systemically enabled through society’s tolerance of patriarchal norms.

But, there is hope. I stood, shoulder to shoulder with my male friends as well, the candles we held lighting up their frostbitten cheeks too. They stand with us, and for us, in recognition that these are not isolated incidents, and that they are part of the solution. I am so proud of all of them, those who came to the vigils held on campus, at the University of Ottawa, and at Minto Park, for the entire city.

One of the speakers, shared his story about growing up watching his father repeatedly abuse his mother and the other women in his life. I was especially touched by his description of his identity: feminist masculinity. I like this description for our male allies. It gives them a place within the movement for change. Violence against women is an issue so huge, that we need to work together if we’re going to construct a better future. This is why we are feminists. Because this matters.

We can all be part of the solution to end violence against women. Remember December 6th, but remember the women who live this every day as well. And actively work with us for a future where they will never have to.

  • Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
  • Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
  • Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
  • Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
  • Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
  • Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
  • Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student
The Star: Lessons of the Montreal Massacre
(see the bottom of the wikipedia article for more links)