Dear Younger Me: Being In Love is Not the Best Thing

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Photo by Jessica Branstetter Photography

A couple of months ago, I was out with friends and we were talking about the then-current trend of “Dear Younger Me” letters going around the internet. Years ago, I composed a series of letters to myself at various ages, leading up to a birthday (which, I can’t remember). In the bar that night, however, I distilled my reflections to one curt line: being in love is not the best thing.

Lest you hear that advice with a bitter tone, let me first say that I am rather deeply in love with a man who I am set to marry in less than five months. I honestly cannot imagine another person who I would rather be partnered with. I love him; I like him; I trust him. My love life is peaceful and happy. This last, and best, love, however, is my seventh relationship. Partly, I am reminded of the delightfully bad TV-movie Lucky Seven. Mostly, I know that I have clocked plenty of hurt hours to get to where I am today.

As my life as a single woman comes to a close, I’ve found myself reflecting often about what this period of my life has meant to me, what makes me happy, what quirks and habits I need to keep through the transition, and how I got here. Sometimes I will be reminded of past boyfriends and, overwhelmingly, my thoughts land on, “how the heck did I think that would work out?!” For the most part, I have no ill-will toward any ex-boyfriend, just laughing wonder at the lack of self-knowledge that went into particular pairings.

The conventional wisdom would suggest that with each relationship and subsequent breakup I was supposed to learn something that would help me in future romantic endeavors. First, I think that’s shortsighted and fails to account for the importance of non-romantic relationships. Second, I don’t love the mantra that everything happens for a reason, because sometimes that reason was that I made stupid decisions. Yes, I have made many, varied, dramatic mistakes in my dating life. I have learned from them and, I think, earned a black-belt in monogamy. But, when I think about the times in which I have grown the most, they have more often than not been times when I was either single or at a 2,000 mile distance from my partner.

Living alone for six years has been one of the most important experiences of my life. Two thumbs up. I know how to fix toilets and sinks and how to imperfectly hang things on the wall. I have moved furniture and changed tires and worked out while drinking wine. I know that I can take care of myself. And I’ve had the time and space to really enjoy being on my own. Being single or long-distance for so long has also provided me with the time and space to nurture my friendships. Years ago, my mother cautioned me against putting boyfriends ahead of my friendships. I scoffed that would never do that, feared that I did, and made it a cardinal law of my life to nurture my friendships. My friends are a treasury of generous life-knowledge and love. Thank you, Mom. I’ve also been able to enjoy my family as an adult single person, spending more time than is probably usual at my parents’ house, enjoying the company of my family, making peace with past hurts, and getting to know my mother woman-to-woman. That has been an enormous gift, teaching me about growing up, atoning for past idiocy (by which I mean ages 13-17), and becoming my own woman without necessarily eschewing my mother’s influence. Just as with boyfriends, in family and friendship, I had to let go of the desperate need of approval to maintain healthy love. Thank you, dear therapist. In short, although I am still at times an angsty brat, I know that I am surrounded by other angsty brats who love me. (That is the best thing.)

So, being in love is not the best thing. And if I could go back to 15 years-old, on the precipice of starting to date, I would tell younger Kasey not to worry a lot about romantic relationships. That it is okay to need a great deal of love, but that it doesn’t have to be romantic to be fulfilling. That the fear of being alone is a trap. Being alone can kick ass, but single =/= alone. That it’s easier to find love by caring for those around you than to chase it down like the heroine in a romantic comedy.

It would be dishonest to suggest that having someone who I respect so much, and who is under no obligation to love me, think that I am the bee’s knees didn’t do wonders for my relationship with myself and with love in general. It has. A lot of the good this love has done for me, however, stems from Julio not engaging much of my angst with much more than, “I’m here for you. Please be kind to yourself.” The peace in our relationship, and his peaceful response to my relationship with myself, has given me some much needed quiet to grow that maybe I wouldn’t have given myself. I also know that I speak from the secure place of being in a loving, accepted-by-our-kin, hetero-relationship.

Being in love can be wonderful, yes, and even transformative. It can also really suck and bring out the worst in people. Before you start quoting the Bible, or C.S. Lewis, or Carrie Bradshaw to me, I know that what I’m saying isn’t particularly philosophically complex or even original, but for what it’s worth, in my experience these are the things that are as good as being in love (in no particular order):

  • Deep, respectful partnership of any kind
  • Long-term friendship
  • An evolving relationship with a higher power
  • Being alone, in the quiet, and enjoying the minutia of the life you’ve made for yourself.
  • Sitting with the mystery of what is yet to come.
  • Working hard at something you enjoy
  • Filling your bed with books, or pets, or whatever you want.
  • Spending time with your family and getting to know them, on your own, as an adult.
  • Traveling alone.
  • Learning to at least know yourself, if self-love and acceptance prove elusive.
  • Going to the movies by yourself and eating the whole box of Mike and Ikes.

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel

tease amanda macielTease by Amanda Maciel

Tease follows the court case following the suicide of Emma Putnam, holding the girls and boys who bullied her responsible for her death. The novel has a pulled-from-the-headlines quality, after cases such as that of Phoebe Prince, which lead to harsher anti-bullying legislation and the emergence of “bullycide” in popular conversations around bullying and aggression. Filtered through the thoughts and memories of Sara Wharton, a high school junior, the novel takes the reader through the build up to Emma’s suicide and the aftermath for those who are being held responsible. Although it is packaged like a thriller, Tease actually deals fairly movingly with how awful high school can be. Although some elements of the story, particularly the romantic plots are a little after school special-y, I think Maciel depicts with care and nuance a young woman trying to deal with issues that are just slightly beyond her emotional maturity.

Tease is painfully sad in the way that it depicts the thoughts and feelings of its teenage characters, particularly Sara, whose perspective the story is told through. Rather than demonizing the mean girls for ganging up on the new girl, the novel looks behind the aggressive behavior to the pain that causes Sara and Brielle to lash out. In some ways it’s a sentimental move, but I think it is strikingly effective and authentic in the way that it depicts the conflicting emotions Sara feels when she gives in to Brielle’s pressure, whether it comes to bullying, having sex, or smaller issues like how she dresses or speaks. By the end of the novel, Sara’s defense that everyone at school was mean so she doesn’t see why she should be held responsible for the suicide still reads as alarmingly immature, but it’s also kind of sympathetic. That’s how well the characters are constructed.

Incidentally, a book about bullying in pop culture that I contributed to is now available for purchase. Bullying in Popular Culture  focuses on the depiction of bullying in film, television, and novels. My chapter addresses the codification of the “mean girl” archetype and the rules of “girl world” in movies and TV.

 

Birchbox Book Club: Better Than Before

Better Than BeforeBetter Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

I received a copy of Better Than Before to review as part of the Birchbox Book Club, and I was so happy to have it. When I was awarded a dissertation fellowship, I was like “This is amazing! I get to be a full-time writer for a year.” And it has been fruitful and wonderful in many ways, and frustrating in others. Not having the regular rhythm of classes and teaching, and adding a truckload of internalized pressure, have made me feel like I’m in a panicked freefall many days. A good routine would go a long, long way to helping me feel more balanced. So, how can Better Than Before help?

The Book

In Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin, author of the bestseller The Happiness Project, argues that our habits are the secret to our happiness. I appreciate that she treats happiness as a process without getting over-sentimental about it:

When we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision making to choose habits we want to form, we can use willpower to get the habit started; then–and this is the best part–we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits. (12)

The theory follows, then, that when we don’t have to put so much willpower into structuring our lives, it frees up our minds and our energy for other pursuits and allows us more mindfulness, and thus happiness, in our days. Sounds good enough to me. But how?

I used to have great habits and then I…don’t know what happened. Getting them started up again has been a years-long process of trial and error. What I like most about Rubin’s book is that it addresses habit formation as a matter of self-awareness and it starts to get at the blocks that keep us from doing things that we know we love and we know are good for us.

Rubin addresses the topic in a highly-conversational, very Type-A tone, based on both research and her own experiences. The book is divided into five sections that cover self-knowledge, pillars for structuring habits, how to get started, desires and pitfalls, and how we are “unique, just like everyone else.” She bases her approach to habit formation on her model of the Four Tendencies: Upholders, Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels. (You can take a quiz here.) In short, the Tendencies are a model for thinking about what expectations you are likely to meet. For example, Upholders meet all expectations. Obligers are more likely to meet others’ expectations than their own. I tend to be a little bundle of contradictions in most things, so I really don’t think I fall neatly into any one camp. If I had to choose, I’d be a Questioner (meets inner expectations; resists outer, unless I think they’re valid), but I can be an Obliger sometimes too. And sometimes a rebel. If I’m making a change, I don’t want someone else to think it’s their idea or I’m doing it for someone other than me. Brat. When I took the quiz in the back of the book, I gave roughly equal answers for each of the Tendencies. I’m a pain, I know. Skeptical as I was about the Tendencies, just thinking about what motivates me to meet expectations was helpful.

After the Four Tendencies, Rubin explores other distinctions that may shape a person’s habits. This is my favorite part of the book. She prompts you to consider, for example, if you’re a lark or an owl; a marathoner, a sprinter, or a procrastinator; an underbuyer or overbuyer; a finisher or an opener; promotion-focused or prevention-focused; and more. With each distinction, she briefly discusses how your other personality traits may help you to frame your habits in a way that you will be more successful sticking to them. It’s good stuff.

The following sections, “Pillars of Habits” and “The Best Time to Begin” get more into the nuts and bolts of starting new habits, with examples drawn from Rubin’s own life and relationships. While a lot of the tips here are things I’ve read elsewhere, such as at Zen Habits or Life Hacks, the continual use of the Tendencies and the other distinctions to think through how habits can be formed successfully makes the book more useful than it might otherwise be. That’s where Rubin’s book is better than texts I’ve read before, and offers more helpful solutions: it treats habit as a personal process rather than prescribing umbrella solutions for everyone.

While I don’t think 100% of the book made sense for me personally (I especially struggled with the Four Tendencies), I think it is a wonderful guide for thinking about your own habits and how you approach them. The opportunity for guided self-reflection and tips that you can take or leave as inspiration is worth the cover price.

The Kasey
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I Am Malala: Comparing the Young Reader Edition to the “Original”

I Am Malala CoversIn the last chapter of my dissertation, I examine the rhetoric around girls’ education in the Global South through “texts” such as the UN’s Girl Up campaign materials, I Am Malala and Malala Yousafzai’s speeches, and the docu-drama Girl Rising. When I talked about the work, several people asked me if I had read the young readers edition of I Am Malala. Because I was kind of disappointed in the New York Times bestselling edition written with Christina Lamb, and because much of my dissertation focuses on how girls tell their own stories, I decided I should check it out. Surprisingly, I thought the young readers edition was the better of the two books. My (admittedly pretty skeptical) assumption was that the young readers edition would be a dumbed-down, cleaned up version of Malala’s story. Although I think that the Christina Lamb version does give more context to the story, which is important and useful, I think the biggest difference between the two books is that the latter sounds more like the Malala we hear in her speeches. The young readers edition focuses more on Malala’s story itself and uses more direct language as well. Not only was it more enjoyable to read, it seemed more like she had actually written it herself.

Narrative Voice and Scope

Honestly, I don’t think that the young readers edition is an easier read on the basis of language. I think that its marketing as for young people rests on the assumption that young people would be less interested in the history of the Swat valley and of Malala’s family (which is, perhaps, a problematic assumption). The part of the first I Am Malala that bothered me most was the emphasis put on her father’s growth and education. I think that some of the background about Pakistan and Pashtun culture was really helpful, and the young readers edition could have used more of it, but the narrative in the young readers edition, like the tone of voice, focuses more immediately on Malala’s experiences. For example, after the prologue, the Lamb edition opens with the celebration of Malala’s birth–unusual for her culture–before transitioning into five chapters of historical and cultural context. In the young readers edition, the first chapter “Free as a Bird” starts with an introduction to Malala as she is today, weaving in details about her family, her village, and her culture. It dives right into her story, giving some details about her family, but excluding the narrative of her father’s education that the Lamb book starts with. Although the details about Ziauddin Yousafzai and Pashtun culture are, no doubt, important for understanding where Malala comes from, the young readers edition is more focused on her memories of her life experiences.

The young readers edition also portrays her mother as a more active and included member of the family, putting more emphasis on the work she did in her community, feeding and housing people who needed assistance. In one part, this service is depicted as part of Pashtun hospitality, but it is also attributed to her mother’s character, presenting her as a brave and determined counterpart to Malala’s father.

Later, when telling the story of her shooting, the story relies more on her experiences as a narrative strategy to depict trauma. While the Lamb version goes into extensive detail about Malala’s medical treatment and the decisions that were made by doctors, politicians, and Malala’s parents before and following her transfer to Manchester, the young readers edition cuts from her shooting (“The last thing I remember is thinking about my exam the next day. After that everything went black.” (130)) to her waking up, disoriented, in Manchester days later (“I woke up on 16 October to a lot of people standing around looking at me. They all had four eyes, two noses, and two mouths. I blinked, but it did no good. I was seeing everything in double.” (133)). Continue reading

Book Review: Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell

tumblr_nijjmiYZWC1qd9a66o1_500If you’re still missing Veronica Mars after the movie, the Veronica Mars novels, written by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham are just what you need. The first novel in the series, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, picks up after the movie ends and runs with Veronica’s decision to stay in Neptune working as a private investigator, much to Keith’s chagrin. Although the narration is in third person, rather than the trademark first person snark of the TV show, in the writing the characters come through clearly. The books capture the essence of the show surprisingly well. It’s like getting engrossed in a brand new episode. While the first book establishes the new trajectory of the series, the second book Mr. Kiss and Tell (out just in time for my January birthday) starts to get at the hard boiled issues I always loved Veronica Mars for. Running with the bigger story started in the movie, Veronica, Keith, and crew continue to fight police corruption in Neptune. In the mystery, Veronica is tasked with investigating the rape of Meg Manning’s little sister (remember her!?). There’s also familiar antics, such as Veronica making herself fit into tiny spaces–this time Wallace’s gym bag–and employing Mac with high-tech cyber stalking.

Many have written about the feminism of Veronica Mars, including the magnificent Megan Peters and me in Veronica Mars and Philosophy. I think, perhaps more than anything, the approach the series takes to rape and rape culture is its biggest claim to feminist fame. Without giving the reader a crash course in Veronica’s history with rape (there’s a bit of background mentioned, but nothing at-length), Mr. Kiss and Tell gives the reader another case in which Veronica fights for justice on behalf of another woman, when everyone else is more concerned with proving that she’s lying so they can avoid liability. I don’t want to go into too much detail, because I want you to read the book, but I was impressed by how it handled the police, the press, and the rhetoric of violence against women.

In true Veronica Mars fashion, the police are criticized for their failure to respond adequately to rape charges. And, as usual, this portrayal is tempered by our knowledge that Keith Mars was a good cop, and, this time, with the return of Leo D’Amato (sigh. I love him.), who is now working for the San Diego PD.  Aside from the usual Lamb-is-corrupt issues, an officer makes a joke about how you can’t rape a prostitute that I’m not going to reproduce here, because it’s as bad as you’d think. What I find more compelling, however, is how Veronica’s case gets stalled because of police procedure that isn’t obviously mishandled. In this way, the book points out how violence against certain bodies can get caught up in politics that delay or derail justice. For example:

“Veronica, there’s no prosecutor in the country who’d take this to trial. And if they did, the defense would just turn the whole thing into a bad joke.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“Neither am I, okay?” For the first time a defensive note crept into his voice. “But I can’t bring him in if the Neptune DA doesn’t want to prosecute. You understand what I’m saying?”

Veronica’s need to take matters of justice into her own hands is largely portrayed as being the result of her seeing through the he-said-she-said nature of the allegations, refusing to blame the victim, and understanding that a woman’s sexual history does not have any bearing on her rights. She’s not perfect and she does have some doubts about the young woman who she is trying to help, but she sticks to good detective work and the pursuit of truth. That’s why she’s a feminist role model and why, in addition to the resistance to presenting violence in a titillating manner, I think the series consistently handles rape better than pretty much anything else I’ve seen. Although the victim in the story is an attractive young white girl, the narrative is also critical of the way that certain victims of violence have a monopoly on the attention and the sympathy of the media.

As Veronica gets older in the series (she’s 29 now), she starts to make decisions that land in increasingly murky territory, although for the best of intentions. That has me really curious for how the books will continue to show Veronica evolving and I suspect that she will get more hard boiled as time goes by, even if she does still have that sparkly pixie spy magic going for her.

Oh, and she gets a dog and names it Pony. Thank you so much for that, Rob Thomas.

Parenthood (NBC): Top Girlhood Moments

parenthood castThis post about NBC’s Parenthood  has been in my to-write queue since last summer and I realized that I better get it done before it goes off the air (but lives on forever on Netflix and in my heart). Julio and I watch the show together a lot. I had to convince him to try it, but there was baseball and Bob Dylan in the first episode and he was sold. While he doesn’t quite understand how emotional I get about the show (“They’re actors, Kasey.”), it has been a springboard for a number of serious conversations over the past year.

One of the aspects of the show that I love most is the way the adult characters negotiate parenting together and with their kids. Specifically, I am fascinated by the moments in which different parenting styles clash or when otherwise good parents make questionable decisions because of their own issues. Thanks to that dynamic, the show has some really great moments depicting girls and their parents in complicated and/or great ways. Here are some of my favorites. They stop after mid-way through the series, as the older girls grew into women, but continued being wonderful characters. (Although, every other episode, Julio asks me, “Remember Haddie?” because of how she just disappeared.)

Learning to Swim

Julia is the Parenthood character who I relate to most (A personality test, however, told me that I’m Zeek, which is spectacular.) “The Deep End of the Pool” (1.3) is one of my favorite episodes for Julia, because of how it shows her balancing parenting and her career. She wants to be there for her daughter’s swim lessons, because she was a champion swimmer and she thinks blowing bubbles in the pool isn’t really teaching Sydney how to swim. We see her come on too strong, but ultimately teach her daughter something that Sydney gets really excited about. I think it’s a beautiful episode because it not only takes a different approach to the working mother storyline, by showing Julia’s all-around intense, competitive personality rather than just pegging the job. It also shows that Sydney is tougher and more resilient than the little kids’ swim classes allowed for.

The Amber-Haddie Showdown

I have watched Parenthood since the pilot, without the benefit of bingewatching, which means I had time to stew between episodes. The first season of Parenthood ended with a storyline that had me steaming because it felt so gross and cliched. Haddie’s boyfriend, Steve (or “Yo-yo”), was pressuring her about having sex, so she dumped him (Go, girl) only to have him turn around and sleep with Amber. I had not yet learned to trust the writers’ instincts, and so the story looked like it was going to be endless cat-fighting between the archetypal “good girl” (Haddie) and the slutty “bad girl” (Amber). Then their parents got involved after Haddie’s friends started bullying Amber at school. So, we had the “good parents” (Adam and Kristina) against the “bad” single mom (Sarah). To a point, this all still bothers me, but I was impressed by the switch that the show flips when Amber runs away in “Lost and Found” (1.13). When Sarah, Adam, and Kristina go to find Amber, sulky Haddie snaps out of it, going with them to talk to, and make up with, her cousin on her own. It’s one of those moments on the show that cuts through the bullshit plots that television gives us and shows a realer story. Amber and Haddie aren’t a good girl and a bad girl. They’re cousins and teenagers, and they love each other and fighting over a boy wouldn’t become the definition of their relationship.

Miss California

In “Orange Alert” (2.6) Sydney tells Julia that she wants to be Miss California for Halloween. Successful, feminist, opinionated Julia is not thrilled. Given all the uproar about “pink princess culture” in modern parenting, it’s a storyline that is ripped from the zeitgeist. Yet, the show handles it adeptly and humorously as Julia tries to use feminist argument with an eight year-old.

Julia tries to dissuade Syd from the costume by telling her about the 1963 Fair Labor Standards Act that “gave equality to women in the workplace.” Like a first grader might, Sydney replies, “I like it because it’s pink and that’s my favorite color.”

Julia counters, “Yeah but it kind of goes against everything that we women have struggled for for the last fifty years. You know, it’s. It’s uh….” Joel tries to explain that the outfit is too cold for October, but Sydney, her mother’s daughter, won’t relent. Eventually, Sydney gets to dress Miss California, even as Julia continues to talk to her with feminist commentary on beauty pageants. Sydney is allowed to be Sydney and Julia (dressed as Amelia Earhart) is vocally Julia, simple as that. I have seen feminist moms with princess daughters and I like that being a girlie-girl isn’t inherently put down in the situation. (Later, Sydney is Marilyn Monroe in a school play about California history (2.13) and Julia notes, “Our daughter is dressed as a sex symbol.”)

Haddie Having Sex

Season Two’s Haddie-Alex coupling provided some intense, complicated issues. It was an interracial relationship between a teenaged girl and a grown man who’d been homeless and a alcoholic. The show adeptly/weirdly side-stepped racism by giving Adam and Kristina plenty of pragmatic issues to worry about with the relationship. Then Haddie runs away and so on and so forth. The plot broke Haddie out of the dutiful daughter archetype without throwing her into the bad girl archetype. Eventually Haddie and Alex have sex, but not until she’s ready. Then in “Slipping Away” (2.21), Adam and Kristina get a butt-dial that results in them hearing their daughter doing the deed. It’s such a painfully awkward scene that opens the door for a sex-positive episode in which Kristina talks to Haddie about sex and Adam has to cope with his pained response to his daughter having sex. The show is realistic in how the characters react while also giving space to push back against narratives about losing one’s virginity as a fall, a sudden transformation, etc. It’s so awkward, but in a way that provides teachable moments, mostly for the parents.

Amber’s Car Accident

I love Amber. During the second season, Parenthood shows Amber strive so hard to turn her grades around and get into college. When she doesn’t get in, she slides into self-destructive behavior leading up to a drunk driving-related car crash. After Amber recovers, Zeek takes her to look at the totaled car and talks to her about the value of her life. It sounds like an after school special, but the way it’s played is frank and beautiful. This speech from Zeek (which Craig T. Nelson ad-libbed) is one that I think about from time to time when I think about family.

“I know you’ve had some bad breaks and you’re not feeling good about yourself. You didn’t get into Berkeley. Well, boo frickin’ hoo. You’ve got to suck it up girl. You’re a Braverman. You’ve got my blood in your veins. You ever do something like this again…You even think about doing something like this again, I will personally kick your little butt all the way from here to the Golden Gate Bridge. You do not have my permission to mess with my dreams.”

And after making Amber, and anyone with a heart, bawl, he takes her out for a burger. Zeek is a warrior. A Vietnam vet with a brash, bossy, domineering personality. But he’s also very loving and nurturing. What I love about this speech is the way that Zeek honors and calls-out the warrior in Amber, too. I think this scene marks a transition in the show in which Amber starts to emerge from a pretty static bad-girl to Haddie’s good-girl and evolves into one of the wisest, most compelling characters on the show. I love that Parenthood gave Amber a range of plots in which to succeed and find her way. Teenaged girls are often stuck in the false good girl/bad girl dichotomy. Parenthood doesn’t do that with Haddie or Amber and it resulted in some interesting, fully-realized characters and stories. In Amber, the show creates a young woman who doesn’t follow a clear path, but learns to define success and family on her own terms, struggling to do so, but learning so much along the way.

  

(Thanks, Buzzfeed: “Parenthood” Gave The Perfect Ending To One Of Its Most Beloved Relationships)

Syndey, Vegetarianism, and Learning to Lose

As a mouthpiece for modern, feminist parenting, Julia comes at odds with her parents from time to time. “Do Not Sleep with Your Autistic Nephew’s Therapist” (2.17) and “Sore Loser” (3.9) provide two such moments. They also, however, show Sydney negotiating how to assert herself in interesting ways. In the former, Sydney decides that she’s a vegetarian and Joel and Julia support her. Zeek and Camille, however, encounter issues when babysitting Sydney, as she refuses to eat both the vegetarian dinner and the non-veg option she is offered. So (like my folks would have) they tell her she can eat what she’s given or nothing. Julia worries that Zeek is trying to “crush her spirit.” The scenario provides a look at different generations of parenting in conflict, but it also shows Sydney asserting her own identity and learning the limits to the demands she can make. I think it’s great that she is allowed to be vegetarian, but I also love how that decision came with consequences too.

In “Sore Loser” Sydney has to learn about losing graciously after Joel and Julia discover they may have spoiled her. Consistently on the show Sydney is aggressive and opinionated and even sometimes mean. I appreciate that the show gives space for this type of behavior from a girl character without limiting her to “mean girl” or “bossy stories.” Learning how to manage aggression, frustration, and self-assertion are important lessons for all children.

Sensitive Boys

I think another important aspect of the depiction of girlhood on the show is the depiction of boyhood. I love the way that the boys on Parenthood are allowed to be sensitive and to have different facets to their boyhood. Jabbar enjoys taking ballet class with his mother. Drew is very sensitive and caring. Victor is often angry and rebellious, but he also is vulnerable and needs affection. Max has to learn how to express his feelings appropriately. Just as the girls on the show are complex and have stories that push against stereotypes, the boys are taught about masculinity in a range of expressions and the writers show them crying and sharing tender moments, as well as playing baseball and such.

What are your favorite Parenthood moments? There are so many to choose from

Bonus: Listen to this duet of “The Circle Game” by Sarah and Amber:

Book Review: Underground Girls of Kabul

underground_girls Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan

by Jenny Nordberg

When I saw Jenny Nordberg on The Daily Show, this book went right on my reading list. The Underground Girls of Kabul is an investigative look at bacha posh, girls in Afghanistan who are raised as sons. Because of a huge emphasis on son preference and reputation in their culture, some families who have many daughters, or need a son for some other reason, will choose to raise a daughter as a son until they have a son or until the masquerade will no longer hold. The practice isn’t exactly common, but it is less rare than you would think. In seeking out stories of bacha posh and their families, Nordberg writes eloquently about gender segregation, children’s rights, gender norms, and women’s experiences in Afghanistan. I was most fascinated by the ways that the girls understood their gender and the change in subjectivity that they were experiencing. Nordberg writes:

Although none of the girls chose their boyhood voluntarily, most say they enjoy their borrowed status. It all depends on what they get to do with it. For each child, it boils down to perks versus burdens. Those who, like Mehran, are part of upper- or middle-class families, are often their families’ token of prestige and honor, thriving on speaking up at school and playing violent outdoor games in the neighborhood. Others, in poor families, are broken down by forced child labor, just as actual boys in the same position often are. ‘This can be an awful place to be a woman. But it’s not particularly good for a man, either,’ Carol le Duc is fond of observing.

The book does a lot of things well. First, it’s a compelling read an interesting story. I think Nordberg nicely balances telling her story as a reporter learning about a different culture and having her expectations upset and telling the stories of the families and individual women she spoke with. I think including herself in the narrative facilitates important moments in which she disrupts what the reader may expect of Afghan culture and society. We can put ourselves in her shoes as a reader and she negotiates what may be especially surprising about her findings in a way that is generous to the reader but also pushes further into questioning the implications of her research. Put more simply, Nordberg knows what the reader may expect from the Afghan people she writes about and she does not hold that against us–many times those preconceived notions were hers as well–but she also does not shy away from putting real pressure on the essentialist ideas that underlie our assumptions.

I think Underground Girl of Kabul is not only a fascinating read, but that it also raises compelling questions about how gender works. It’s genuinely surprising how fluid gender in childhood is for the people Nordberg writes about and in that surprising space, there is ample opportunity for thinking about the motives for gendered binaries and how those motives shape people’s experiences, expectations, and which rules can be broken. The book also presents an interesting way to think about a trans-gender experience and the construction of gender in childhood. I kept thinking about how much backlash there would be in America if people raised their daughters as sons and then shifted them back to daughters at puberty. I can already hear the pundits yelling about it. In a way, there’s a fluidity in Afghan culture that there isn’t in U.S. culture. Nordberg writes:

[T]he west may also be more obsessed with children’s gender roles than what Afghans are. Although Afghan society is strictly built on the separation of the sexes, gender in childhood in a way matters less here than in the West. ‘Here,’ Carol says. ‘people are driven by something much more basic–sexuality. Everything before puberty is just preparation for procreation. That’s the main purpose of life here. And perhaps we need to set aside what we in the West think of as the order of things to even begin to understand Afghanistan. Where a long lineage of tribal organizations is far more powerful than any form of government, where language is poetry and few can read or write but it is common for an illiterate person to have memorized the work of Pashto and Perisan poets and to speak more than one language, parameters for established truths and knowledge are manifested in other ways than those outsiders easily recognize. In Carol’s words, in a nation of poets and storytellers, ‘what matters here are the shared fantasies.’

While there’s obviously not a lot of wiggle room for non-heteronormative thinking, that idea of the shared fantasy looms large in Nordberg’s book. I was most surprised by how often the family raising a daughter as a son was an open secret. Teachers, neighbors, doctors, knew and were complicit. Because of son-preference most were willing to go along with it and share the fantasy. Buy the performance. That fluidity was really fascinating to me and the implications can be worked through in many ways. I’ve done a lot of work about the way that girls are freer in childhood and how the transition to womanhood can be a constriction of rights in some cases. This book takes that idea and trumps it up a lot as the girls living as boys undergo a radical shift in their liberties and identities when they transition back.

Underground Girls of Kabul is an eye-opening read that I think would work fantastically in Women and Gender Studies classroom. I think that a great conversation about norms, taboos, and cultural dictates could come out of it and the normal, othering conversation about how free women are in the West and how oppressed they are in the Middle East is disrupted in a really useful way by Nordberg’s book.

 

See Nordberg on The Daily Show: