Avast! Feminist Conspiracy!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sisters of '77 on PBS!

Flipping channels last night, I stumbled across the second half of Sisters of '77. I know it's not a new film, but somehow it has managed to elude me until now. And all I can say is...wow. This film is a feminist must-see.

From the film official info page:
Twenty thousand people from across the U.S. gathered in Houston, Texas on a historic weekend in November 1977 for the first federally funded National Women's Conference, aiming to end discrimination against women and promote their equal rights. In the crowd were former first ladies Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson, current first lady Rosalyn Carter and women of all ages, ethnicities and political backgrounds. Combining footage of the conference with interviews—both then and now—with influential women’s leaders such as Barbara Jordan, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Smeal, Ann Richards and Coretta Scott King, SISTERS OF '77 is a fascinating look at that pivotal weekend in 1977, an event that not only changed the lives of the women who attended, but the lives of Americans everywhere.
Click here to locate the next viewing times on your local PBS station. Watch it and tell me what you think.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Guns, ships and AIs - the Jenny Casey trilogy

While browsing the SF&F section of a bookstore a few months ago, I decided to stop judging the store on how many books it carried by my favourite authors and to look for an author that I had never read before. I soon found the Jenny Casey series by Elizabeth Bear (Hammered, Scardown, and Worldwired) and was quickly hooked by its fast-moving and exciting plot. Set about 50 years in the future, this is a world struggling to cope with global warming – New York is protected by a sea wall, a collapse of the gulf stream is freezing the British Islands, and the US is in political and economic decline. After decades of war, Canada and China are wrestling for supremacy in an uneasy truce. Hammered, finds Jenny Casey, a middle-aged veteran of the Canadian Army, hiding from her past in Hartford, Connecticut. Her time in the army has left her with a prosthetic hand and joints that are breaking down and increasingly frequent flashbacks to combat. Now the Canadian army wants her back. This sets up the central mysteries of this book: what are the army’s plans for Jenny and is there a connection with a recent series of drug-related deaths in Hartford? Along the way, we are introduced to a fascinating set of characters, including upper members of the military-industrial complex, a Hartford gangster, and an AI modeled after Richard Feynman. Bear skillfully alternates between political intrigue and the individual quests of particular characters. It’s difficult to describe Scardown and Worldwired without giving away significant plot points from the earlier books. I can say, though, that as the series progresses, the scale increases to include space flight, the fate of humankind and devastating climactic changes.

Some aspects of the series are quite interesting from a feminist point of view. Women hold many of the positions of authority in Canadian society. This is briefly explained as a consequence of the heavy toll that decades of war took upon two generations of men. The question of whether women can hold authority and how men will react to it seems to be in the media a lot these days; it was quite satisfying to move beyond this and just watch women do it. Bear creates a satisfying variety of characters – no one is relegated to be the “generic woman” or “token man”. Jenny herself is far from the stereotypical “gun-toting babe” that is found in too much SF. She is nearing fifty and in chronic pain from her injuries and has struggled with substance abuse. Her relationships with her godchildren and with her lover are important, but are not set to be in conflict with her public role. The sprinkling of Canadian names and culture was enjoyable. I was surprised to find that Bear is American (it’s rare for American pop culture to notice Canada, or, I suppose, many other countries). The series does have some flaws – there is a noticeable shift in tone between the first book and the later two and a few strands of the plot don’t quite line up between the books. However, these problems are relatively minor. I recommend this series enthusiastically, and I’m eager to read some of Bear’s more recent novels.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

Last week, Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' was voted the most popular book in a World Book Day survey. Clearly this disrupts the natural order of things, so the BBC have carefully selected people to explain why, in their opinion, Miss Austen was not in fact a great novelist, satirist and social commentator, but really just a bit dull and silly. But it's something I've noticed before - some of us love her, but others not only don't enjoy her writing, but have a kind of contempt and antipathy for her novels, her choice of subjects, her style and everything about her and her work. Much of it from men, but not all. It's strange. You don't often hear the same comments about many other authors, although of course we all have those we like and dislike.

I think possibly the main force behind all this is anger at Austen's perceived audacity at focusing on women's issues, which are automatically assumed to be inferior to anything men might be doing at the same time, such as fighting a war -- one of the common criticisms is that she didn't write much about the Napoleonic wars which took place during her lifetime, and didn't appear to have much interest in them. How dare she ignore the men, and fail to express the proper reverence for their military adventures?

But as with every war, hundreds of years go by, and few people really care about the outcome, or can remember what it was all about. But the truths about human nature and society in Austen's novels are as relevant today as they were at the time she was writing, her characters and storylines are just as complex and life-like as ever, the pathos is just as moving and the humour is as funny.

And why should she have written about these issues? There are already plenty of books about military and political history. In fact, when reading history or historical novels I often find myself asking the opposite question: where are all the women? What were they doing while all this was happening, how did they fill their time, what issues were important to them, what did they have to say? Why have they been seemingly erased from the story? I think the male-centred story has become so much the norm that anything else seems odd, as if history from a woman's point of view is not 'real history', not about real issues. But it is absolutely as real, unless on some level you believe women don't count as 'real' people. This of course was the reasoning when feminists coined the term 'herstory' -- although misunderstood and mocked, this was actually a tongue-in-cheek attempt to draw attention to the invisibility of women in history.

Like feminism itself, Jane Austen was not anti-men, just not particularly interested in most of them. And that seems to be the biggest possible insult to male vanity.