DIGEST October 2023

Seeing differently

A while ago, writer Rebecca Solnit decided to watch Purple Rain again. It’s a movie she remembered fondly from 1984, when she was in her early twenties. She was in for a surprise: “I still love all Prince’s music and Purple Rain’s soundtrack, but the film was painful to watch with its repeated humiliations of the female lead played for laughs. In one scene, he brings his love interest and musical rival to the shores of a body of water and tells her to ‘purify yourself in Lake Minnetonka.’ After she reluctantly strips and jumps in, he tells her, ‘That’s not Lake Minnetonka’ and zooms off alone on the motorcycle they came on, leaving her cold, wet, and stranded. It was a reminder for me of how much I had changed or rather how much we had. I had learned, or been given permission, to see these things by the great river of change that had carried us all along, or most of us.” Solnit realized she had changed in ways that had not been perceptible to her from one year to the next, but that turned out to be profound.

I had a similar experience viewing Saturday Night Fever again during the pandemic. How we danced to that music as teenagers! Fever night fever, night fever, We know how to do it… I remembered the movie as exciting and uplifting, so I thought I was settling in for a fun evening. Rest assured, Saturday Night Fever’s dance numbers and songs are still iconic. But I had somehow forgotten—or not registered—the constant racist commentary, the gay-bashing, and even the two rape scenes at the end. In one of those scenes, Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) attempts to rape Stephanie, his dance partner and a strong female character, who fights him off. Later that evening, his buddies gang rape Annette, his former dance partner and someone who hopelessly loves him, while Tony rides in the car with them and does nothing. The next morning, Tony knocks on Stephanie’s door. She finally lets him in after he apologizes, while acknowledging aloud that she is letting a rapist into her apartment. And that’s how the movie ends. Absolutely brutal.

I’m not saying it’s a bad movie—in fact, its unflinching depiction of the aimlessness and angry machismo of young working-class Italian-American men in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood in the 1970s is powerful. Screenwriter Norman Wexler, to whom we owe the magnificently explosive screenplay for Serpico about systemic corruption in the New York Police Department in the 1970s, also wrote Fever. Yet, I experience it so differently now than as a 17-year-old, even one who thought of herself as a budding feminist at the time.

As Solnit writes, “I now see.” What I tolerated or did not consider out of bounds back then, now disturbs and shocks me. What made that change possible? What I’ve read and experienced, the university courses I took, the conversations with a broad range of people, the active listening, the years of activism with feminists from around the world, the places I’ve lived, the wide-ranging travel—all that has clearly taught me. Of course, I still don’t always grasp all the ways a book or movie might in fact be racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic. I’m still learning and evolving as I go along. But I see and understand differently.

That is why I find it so disturbing that a small fringe of right-wing religious extremists is bent on denying young people these same opportunities to grow and change and to make sense of the world. Across the US and beyond, religious extremists hound teachers and schools, accusing them of perverting children and young people by discussing sexuality or gender roles, or of making white children, especially boys, feel uncomfortable by teaching them about racism or sexism.

Book bans in schools and universities are one of the main right-wing tools to curtail learning—bans of excellent books that present affirmative and uplifting perspectives on issues of gender, race, class, sexual orientation or ethnic diversity, or that just describe real-world issues like rape or racist violence. For example, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is on the American Library Association’s list of the ten most challenged books: its opponents claim it is “anti-white” and “obscene,” in addition to being profane and sexually explicit. Others on the list include The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple. Ron DeSantis’ Florida has cancelled entire disciplines—studies of gender and racism—in its public universities. Not satisfied with this, the DeSantis administration has also introduced manifestly false content into school curricula—for example, to claim that slavery benefitted Black people, or that the authors of the US Constitution did not believe in the separation of church and state. Parents, educators, and students are fighting back, but it’s a daunting task to fight the State when it has decided to deceive, censor and gag.

The religious right-wing has also completely muddled the conversation about when books that bring up “sensitive” issues should be offered to younger students. Let’s be clear: the far-right want no discussion of these issues at all, at any age. But the rest of us have to grapple with pedagogy and nuance, and what “age-appropriate” means. Take, for example, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s remarkable The Bluest Eye, which is generally recommended for students aged 13-14. It is another of the books most often banned by school districts in the US: its detractors oppose its frank treatment of racism and its depiction of the rape of a girl by her father. I believe American children should read The Bluest Eye. But, given that children of color face early and regular negative comments (often from other children) about their appearance, it would be important to first introduce all children aged 0-12 to books that are affirming as entry points for this subject. Books like St. Clair Detrick-Jules’ My Hair is Like the Sun, or Lupita Nyong’o’s Sulwe.

Young children are also prime victims of incest and sexual abuse. Content that equips children to recognize these abuses and report them is critically important—content like comprehensive sexuality education and anti-racist education in elementary schools, which religious extremists also oppose. Young teenagers would then be prepared to read and appreciate The Bluest Eye. Sorting this out can be a challenge for educators, but it is one they say they are capable of meeting with support and guidance, rather than vitriol and threats.

Plenty of conservative commentators (white cisgender straight folks, especially but not only men, to be precise!) are, at the same time, complaining vehemently that it is the classics that are being censored. We can’t enjoy the Western canon anymore, they claim. Wokism is cancelling the great books! Given their own campaigns to censor these very same works, the irony of this situation runs deep.

Should the classics be exempt from critique? Of course not. Dickens and Shakespeare depict Jews in stereotypically negative ways, W. Somerset Maugham clearly despises women (I found The Moon and Sixpence hard to take), D.H. Lawrence is violently opposed to any sex but heterosexual, missionary-style sex (although he was possibly a closeted gay man), and Marcel Proust obsessively disparages lesbians. And these are just a few examples! Recognizing this and making it a classroom topic of discussion is critical. Teaching these works today without giving students the tools to analyze and critique them—tools I obviously didn’t have as a girl—is a failure. We know better and should do better.

And some books or movies are frankly better left entirely off the list. The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 silent movie extolling the Ku Klux Klan that was long considered an American classic, maybe belongs in a university course on how white supremacist ideas are spread. Yes, yes, I know, if only works that do not contain a single sexist, homophobic, racist, ableist idea are acceptable, there won’t be many books left to read or movies to watch. These views are deeply embedded in classical literature and movies. Being exposed to sexist, racist or colonialist art is something people of color and women of all races have had to deal with for centuries, and it has to be challenged. Still, I think there is value in knowing certain works with questionable content given the influence they’ve had on thought and expression in our societies. The Bible or Coran, for starters.

That being said, I find there are movies and books I won’t reach for again. I don’t want to be exposed to their sexist, racist, homophobic or transphobic discourse anymore. That’s also why, in these Digests, I’ve made a point of proposing less well-known books by women and non-binary authors—especially Black women—that present an inclusive and often provocative perspective. And they are excellent, beautiful and often astonishing books that deserve to be considered classic—no compromise necessary!

With many other, somewhat flawed works, I find I can still love the craft, language, storytelling, and emotions and ideas. In fact, it can be paradoxically enjoyable and empowering to be able to apply a feminist and justice lens and to dissect and analyze what I’m reading.

For example, I’m currently re-reading Homer’s Odyssey (the 1996 Robert Fagles translation) under the guidance of the wonderful Daniel Mendelsohn, who is hosting a seminar on it for the New York Review of Books and will soon publish his own translation. Like many of us, I read parts of the Odyssey in secondary school and remembered it mostly as a travelogue of Odysseus (Ulysses)’ adventures with the sirens and the cyclops, and for the tactics of the patient but cunning Penelope, who unweaves her tapestry every night to outwit her suitors as she awaits her husband’s return from the Trojan War.

Rereading the Odyssey now is a different experience. The story is full of action, twists and turns and beautiful and poetic descriptions of people and places. The “young Dawn with her rose-red fingers,” the “wine-dark sea,” Helen of Troy who emerges “from her scented, lofty chamber—striking as Artemis with her golden shafts…” It’s delightful.

It is also deeply sexist. Greek society in Antiquity was unabashedly patriarchal, no bones about it! Penelope doesn’t strike me as an agent of her destiny the way I saw it the first time around, but rather as someone trapped by patriarchal norms. If her husband doesn’t return, she will have to submit to another, forced marriage. Even her young son Telemachus doesn’t dispute this. In an early scene, Telemachus actually tells his mother to shut up when she tearfully asks a bard to stop singing about the hardships endured by Odysseus and his companions: “So, mother, go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks, the distaff [spindle] and the loom, and keep the women working hard as well. As for giving orders, men will see to that, but I most of all: I hold the reins of power in this house.” Stick to your weaving, Mother!

The "bright-eyed" goddess Athena, who swiftly moves the action along, has to appear to mortals in male form to be listened to during banquets and to command ships. It’s not enough to be divine, you have to be a man. She is very gender-fluid, and sometimes turns into a bird—oops, there’s a ban looming there, I’m sure.

And the slavery! Wealthy Greeks relied on enslaved people to run their households. In this respect, one of the most brutal chapters of the Odyssey takes place after the hero finally returns to Ithaca. He, his son and their men kill the suitors in a long and gruesome battle. Fair enough, the reader might think: this was the kind of justice one could expect back then. But Odysseus then orders Telemachus to execute the dozen young slave girls who have repeatedly been sexually abused by these very suitors. This, after he makes these same young girls clean up the gored bodies of the suitors. Ugh.

It gets worse. In Fagles’ translation, Telemachus exclaims, before he kills the girls: “No clean death for the likes of them, by god! Not from me—they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too! You sluts—the suitors’ whores!” This suggests that they deserved their fate as a result of their deliberate, lustful actions.

I’m therefore grateful that Emily Wilson, a professor of classics, translated the Odyssey into English in 2017. Wilson, the only woman to have published an English translation of the Odyssey (the world of English translators of Homer is apparently almost entirely male, which isn’t as true in other languages), disputes this and other interpretations of the poem. In her introduction to her own translation, Wilson notes that the original Greek word (hai) in the above sentence simply means “female ones.” To translate that into “sluts” and “whores” is misleading and misogynistic—an attempt by modern-day translators to transfer the blame to the girls for Odysseus’ own cruel and arbitrary decision. This is actually what Telemachus says, in Wilson’s translation: “I refuse to grant these girls a clean death, since they poured down shame on me and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.” Still blaming them, but not heaping additional scorn on them.

Wilson also reminds the reader that palace girls were not free. Yet, as she explains, other translators repeatedly translate dmoai, the word used to refer to the girls and deriving from the root meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue,” as “maids” or “servants,” thereby obscuring the Greek practice of slavery.

And the poem continues, in Wilson’s translation:

“At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar, stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground. As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly home to their nests, but someone sets a trap—they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime; just so the girls, their heads all in a row, were strung up with the noose around their necks to make their death an agony. They gasped, feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”

Oof. This horrific passage casts a terrible shadow on the supposedly heroic Odysseus and Telemachus. The pitiful way the slave girls’ deaths are portrayed also suggests some ambivalence on Homer’s part.

In a 2017 Vox interview, Wilson noted that “Part of fighting misogyny in the current world is having a really clear sense of what the structures of thought and the structures of society are that have enabled androcentrism in different cultures, including our own.” The poem offers a “defense of a male dominant society, a defense of its own hero and his triumph over everybody else,” Wilson said, “but it also seems to provide these avenues for realizing what’s so horrible about this narrative, what’s missing about this narrative.” The Odyssey, when read with a feminist and justice lens, can help us see those structures more clearly. To see differently, and better.

In feminist solidarity,