Caitlyn Jenner and ‘What Makes a Woman’

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Elinor Burkett’s essay in The New York Times about Caitlyn Jenner, What Makes a Woman, is one of the best pieces I’ve read recently.

She quotes Jenner as saying, “My brain is much more female than it is male.” To which Burkett observes:

“This was the prelude to a new photo spread and interview in Vanity Fair that offered us a glimpse into Caitlyn Jenner’s idea of a woman: a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup.”

Burkett takes great exception to Jenner’s concept of what it means to be a woman.

“I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us.”

In a very well-reasoned essay, this paragraph felt central:

“Their [transgender women] truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven’t traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven’t suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they’d forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven’t had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners’ checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists.”

I do support Jenner’s right to switch genders – I wish her well, and her life change is part of a larger, longer process of the blurring of traditional gender roles that is positive for all of us. We need to get away from stultifying gender roles; girls play with dolls, boys play with trucks – those retro views have caused massive heaps of unhappiness for the many people who don’t live on the obvious end of the male-female spectrum – and plenty of beautiful, smart, and compassionate people do not. But I appreciate Burkett’s account of how a woman born and raised as a woman has fought, struggled and earned something that an individual who becomes a woman with the help of a surgeon’s knife and hormonal treatments cannot know.

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Second Chance Cat Rescue

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This late model sedan with the company name – Last Chance Cat Rescue – got me thinking. I’m wondering: what exactly is the business model? Okay, clearly, they’re in the business of finding cats; plenty of kitties go missing, so someone’s got to track them down. There’s definitely a market for the team at Second Chance.

What I find charming – really, actually inspiring – is how quixotic their quest is. Really, driving around in an ancient car, looking for lost cats? Someone’s going to turn a profit doing that? That’s the thing: this is a business based (I’m assuming) on sheer love and hope, not a cold-blooded calculation to lure in the lucre.

You have to have a damn big heart to drive around in your aging boat of a Lincoln, at 7 miles per gallon, keeping your eyes open for lost kitty. Really, I do sincerely hope the Second Chance folks are good at what do. I wish them all the good luck and patience in the world. We and all the kitties in the world need a second chance!

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Gloria Steinem in March Across the Korean DMZ

US feminist Gloria Steinem (C) and South Korean peace activists march along a military fence at a military check point in Paju on May 24, 2015 after she crossed the border line through the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.  An international group of women peace activists, led by American feminist Gloria Steinem, made a rare crossing on May 24 of one of the world's most militarised borders between North and South Korea. AFP PHOTO / JUNG YEON-JE        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

Gloria Steinem is one of my all-time favorite heroes. I adore her for her enlightened support of feminism. She’s a bright light of intelligence in a crazy world.

Her most recent news: she was part of a group of women activists who walked across the DMZ between North and South Korea. From Huffington Post:

We feel very celebratory and positive that we have created a voyage across the DMZ in peace and reconciliation,” said U.S. activist and feminist Gloria Steinem, honorary co-chair of the WomanCrossDMZ group, which is calling for a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice which ended the conflict.

As the women crossed into South Korea, there were greeted by protests by some conservative groups. The conservatives were responding to what they saw as an accommodating stance toward the North Korean regime by WomenCrossDMZ.org. I can’t believe that accurately describes WomenCrossDMZ.org. Yet the group’s web site does – according to the HuffingtonPost – host a video that says “millions of North Koreans lack ‘basics of survival’ because of what it describes as ‘crippling embargos’ against the North Korean government.” Certainly the embargo does need to be in place – which is deeply unfortunate, because it hurts regular citizens, not the ruling elite. But North Korea must be hobbled. One point I’m sure the conservatives are missing: the walk across the DMZ was an embarrassment to the North Korean regime, because this rare march points out how rigid and militaristic the regime is; it’s a true mud pie in the face of Pyongyang. Steinem continues to be in the forefront of important work.

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Mad Men’s Greatest Narrative Invention

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

As the Mad Men series ends, the hype is overblown; sure, it was fun TV, but I’m not placing it in the pantheon of great art. Much of the series was enjoyable diversion, with plenty of routine office politics and a delightful splash of soap opera. I loved all those mid-afternoon Scotches and the constant cigarettes.

The show’s greatest narrative inspiration was Don’s backstory: the poor boy, born to a prostitute, who goes off to war and (accidentally) kills his superior officer – and in that very moment he decides to assumes the dead man’s identity.

We don’t learn this until we’ve seen Don as the consummate ad man, able to conjure suburban mythos around a routine brand of soap. When we learn his self-creation story, we realize that this ultra-handsome demigod of Madison Avenue was just a scared buck private when created his greatest image: himself. This central act echoes all of our lives. We are all, to a certain extent, creating ourselves, spinning ourselves, inventing our personhood out of the materials at hand. We’re all doing some branding, selling something fabricated, woven a bit more from cotton candy than we care to admit.

So we root for Don; hey, you’re inventing a greater self for yourself? We want to see you succeed; maybe that means we can succeed, too. But after a certain point in the series, Don always seemed to be falling, pulling us in with the pathos, his tumble from business grace or his struggle with some kind of hollowness. His bag was existential angst; his efforts at happiness never spun gold for very long. An early season ended brilliantly on this note. He sat alone at a bar, and a shark-like brunette with sex in her eyes approaches. She asks, suggestively, are you alone? Don turns toward her, facing us full in the camera, and we see that his depth of aloneness is so clearly beyond the romantic.

The show’s other fascination was its glimpse of how far we’ve come since the 1960s; in those days, women got coffee, with a few, very notable exceptions – Peggy’s and Joan’s upward trajectory was the show at its most encouraging. As a period piece its glance in a distant mirror flattered us enormously, allowing us to feel thoroughly enlightened. Things are so far from perfect today, but Mad Men let us know they’re a damn lot better than they were. I’ll drink a midafternoon Scotch to that.

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Ex Machina — Deep and Entertaining

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Hip and funny and futuristic and philosophical and really pretty tippy — yeah, I really liked Ex Machina. The movie’s theme of humans building sentient conciousness isn’t new. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey famously intoned “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that Dave.” But Ex Machina feels fresh in that it explores what, exactly, comprises human consciousness. Empathy and self awareness and sexuality and (on the dark side) the ability to manipulate another – these separate us from a programmed machine. Or, as the movie asks, is this enough? Is there something else? The film has fun as it teases its profound themes. Topping it off: actress Alicia Vikander as Eva. She brings a magic to the role, playing the knife edge between what might be really human and what’s merely a machine parroting its creator. The viewer does, of a sort, love her, or at least feel enchanted – which is necessary for the film to work. This movie will be remembered.

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