The First Thanksgiving

Yeah, yeah, I know. The first Thanksgiving wasn’t a real thing. It’s a legend which encapsulates the gratitude felt by white settlers in a new land, particularly in an age where starting off and settling somewhere new was living off the land and surviving scores of diseases and natural threats. But Americans love nothing if not an origin story, cultural or religious, and so we get these depictions of ‘the First Thanksgiving’ in which people in Puritan garb share food with their Native American neighbours. Often there’s a white dude standing up and talking, because that’s what white dudes do.

There’s no evidence anything like a real ‘First Thanksgiving ‘ took place on the fourth Thursday in November — that’s just when, much later, Thanksgiving was enshrined into American secular religion. (Washing originally instituted the holiday; FDR changed the date to the fourth Thursday.) Which makes me think, whenever I see these depictions of Thanksgiving feasts — WHY PEOPLE ARE EATING OUTSIDE IN NOVEMBER. AREN’T THEY FREEZING?

Classic case. This is NOT November in Massachusetts.

gerome

 

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This is looking a bit more chilly with pink-purple skies. But still, dining outside upon the hoarfrost, bringing our only infant who survived the winter without a blanket to cover her head…um??

outdoor

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White beardy guy: “The tribesmen tell me it is unseasonably warm in November: so this is where the term ‘Indian Summer’ came from. I and my colonising impulses are duly chastised.”

preach

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It’s so cold they’re not even bothering to sit down, just saying a big thank you outside then moving indoors where the chairs and fire are.

first-tg-photo

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Screw this cold. Let’s get back on the ship. Better to die at sea than face winter in New England. #blizzard #puritanwoes #youregonnaneedmorecloaksthanthat

landing-at-plymouth

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Tribal leader to colonial leader: ‘I’m sorry, you want us to eat outside in the freezing cold? In addition to teaching you to cultivate food in this land, can we introduce you to the longhouse, the wigwam and basically any other form of shelter in which to eat like civilized people?’

tribe.jpg

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The last three renditions have been in black and white because there’s snow everywhere in late November in Massachusetts.

Snow. Everywhere.

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Choose your own adventure! Post-apocalyptic literature

Begin!

page 1
It is the end of the world due to zombies / killer diseases / mysterious alien abductions. Congratulations, you have made it; you are one of the few left alive! Do you
a. try to reach your family back home in Omaha? (turn to page 6)
b. Move. Keep moving. (turn to page 29)
c. Look after waifs and strays? (turn to page 48)
d. Try to figure out the conspiracy that led to the implosion of the world as you knew it? (turn to page 81)
e. Get and stay as drunk as possible for as long as possible (turn to page 100)

page 4
YOU ARE THE GUARDED BUT GOOD HEARTED MAVERICK AND YOU’LL PROBABLY BE KILLED TRAGICALLY BY AN ACCIDENTAL GUNSHOT WOUND OR SOMETHING. YOU NEEDED A DARKER BACK STORY TO BE KEPT ALIVE. SORRY.
The end.

page 6
YOU’RE DEAD. NO ONE EVER FINDS THEIR FAMILY. THE WORLD IS OVER, IDIOT.
The end.

page 15
You have found out the conspiracy likely involves the Russians. Do you
a. laugh because the Cold War didn’t ever end, did it? (turn to page 92)
b. find a mysterious container ship and sail it to Irkutsk, the name of which you only know about from endless games of ‘Risk’? (turn to page 30)
c. Inform your man in Rio. (turn to page 64)
d. Remain convinced it was actually the French? (turn to page 43)

page 21
He didn’t find you – whew! But you seem to have found a strange creature that looks kind of like a gila monster, but also a wolf. Do you:
a. realise it’s a chupacabra and flee? (turn to page 95)
b. realise it’s a chupacabra and try to speak to it? (turn to page 47)
c. try to pet it? (turn to page 50)
d. freeze? (turn to page 57)

page 26
You reach Mexico City. Your travelling companions want to stop there. Do you:
a. Go for a forage into the suburbs? (turn to page 71)
b. Stop inside a deserted gas station? (turn to page 39)
c. Refuse to stop – urge them to keep moving southwards into Central America? (turn to page 96)
d. Set up a small settlement and in time, try to get the group to elect you as their leader? (turn to page 88)

page 29
YOUR SPIRIT ANIMAL IS THE FOX AND IT WILL BODE YOU WELL IN THE DARK DAYS TO COME. THE MONSTERS ARE OTHER PEOPLE.
The end.

popicpage 30
IRKUTSK IS LANDLOCKED. JUST GOES TO SHOW HOW MANY GAMES OF RISK YOU PROBABLY LOST. BUT HEY MAYBE YOU FIND A NICE RUSSIAN LADY AND GET MARRIED OR WHATEVER GOES FOR MARRIAGE IN THIS POST-NATIONAL-STATE EXISTENCE.
The end.

page 32
HE SHOT YOU. WHY DID YOU BRING A LAMP WITH YOU AND THEN POKE AN ARMED BADDIE? LUCKILY IT IS A LEG WOUND AND YOU MIGHT HAVE EVENTUALLY HEALED, IF YOU HADN’T BEEN CARTED AWAY TO HIS SECRET UNDERGROUND LAIR.
The end.

page 39
THERE ARE ALWAYS ZOMBIES IN DESERTED GAS STATIONS. AT LEAST YOUR BRAINS TASTE NICE.
The end.

page 43
WHO CARES? FRANCE IS ALL UNDERWATER EXCEPT FOR THOSE MOUNTAINS. MAYBE YOU’LL SEE THEM SOMEDAY. UNTIL THEN, THE ENDLESS QUIET SKY.
The end.

page 45
When he comes to, he can’t stop blathering on about ‘the conspiracy. You decide to go on an international post-apocalyptic espionage/detective mission. Cue theme music.
Turn to page 15.

page 47
THIS ISN’T HARRY POTTER AND PARSELTONGUE.
Turn to page 50.

page 48
YOU ARE BOGGED DOWN BY KINDNESS AND PROBABLY DIE OF SOME KIND OF DISEASE YOU CAUGHT OFF A WAIF OR A STRAY.
YOU’RE DEAD. UNLESS THE DISEASE IS THE ZOMBIE VIRUS. IN WHICH CASE, YOU’RE SORT OF DEAD.
The end.

page 50
THE CHUPACABRA LOOKS YOU UP AND DOWN AND THEN EATS YOU.
The end.

page 57
GOOD CALL, BECAUSE CHUPACABRAS ARE KIND OF LIKE T REXES AND IF YOU DON’T MOVE, THEY CAN’T SEE YOU.
IT WANDERS AWAY AND YOU ARE LEFT TO WONDER WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE TO MEET A ZOMBIE DINOSAUR.
The end.

page 64
YOUR CONTACT IN RIO IS DEAD.
Turn to page 66.

Page 66
OH NO WAIT YOUR CONTACT IN RIO WAS ONE OF THE CONSPIRATORS, NOW YOU’RE DEAD.

Page 71
You find a wagon and carry stuff back to the camp. When you get back, your group is being held at gunpoint by a sinister looking man. Do you:
a. poke with the lamp you were carrying for no reason? (turn to page 32)
b. clomp him over the head and when he comes to, ask him questions? (turn to page 45)
c. make some noise to distract him and then hide in some rubble? (turn to page 21)

Page 76
You did have a hangover. Luckily a group of survivors found you, nursed you, and invited you to join them. They’re moving south. Do you
a. Thank sweet baby Jesus for some people and trust them implicitly? (turn to page 26
b. Travel along with them but keep yourself to yourself? (turn to page 4)
c. Join them, but insist on moving north instead? (turn to page 97)
d. Tell them you’d prefer to be on your own? (turn to page 29)

page 81
‘WARE, YOU ARE NOT LIAM NEESON IN TAKEN, CONPSPIRACY-HUNTING MAY NOT BODE WELL.
Turn to page 15

page 88
WHAT ARE YOU, SOME KIND OF CULT LEADER MEGALOMANIAC? YOU ARE DEFINITELY THE SORT OF PERSON WHO’D WEAR AN EYE PATCH AND BE ALL TOTALITARIAN AND TELL PEOPLE IT WAS JUST FOR THEIR PROTECTION. YOU’LL PROBABLY GET TAKEN OUT BY A GRIMACING ANTI-HERO IN A FEW YEARS, BUT MAYBE SOMEONE WILL TALK SOME SENSE INTO YOU AND YOU CAN LIFE OUT YOUR YEARS IN PEACE, WHITTLING.
The end.

page 92
IT DID END AND IT WAS THE AMERICANS WHO STARTED WORLD WAR THREE YOU IMPERIALIST SWINE.
YOU’RE IN THE GULAG.
The end.

page 95
GOOD CALL. TOO BAD THERE’S NOWHERE TO FLEE TO. YOU BECOME A LONELY NOMAD.
The end.

page 96
HOW FAR IS FAR ENOUGH SOUTH? YOU SPEND THE REST OF YOUR DAYS TRAVELING BY CARAVAN AROUND THE JUNGLE. IT’S A NICE SORT OF LIFE, YOU SUPPOSE.
The end.

page 97
WHO GOES NORTH AFTER GLOBAL CATACLYSM? HAVEN’T YOU SEEN ‘THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW’? YOU ARE NOT EQUIPPED TO LIVE LIKE A VIKING.
The end.

page 100
SINCE THE WORLD IS OVER IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO GET A MIDNIGHT KEBAB WITH CHIPS; YOU ARE LIKELY TO HAVE A HANGOVER.
Turn to page 76

 

 

A Stitch in time

So I have officially regressed thirteen years. Do you remember what you were up to in 2002?  I was in high school. It was great and awful in about equal measure. One of the great things that year was that in June, a little animated film came out that surprised everybody by being so good; that film was ‘Lilo & Stitch’.  Obviously this film was officially pitched at a much younger audience than my fourteen-year-old self, but I. loved. it. I bought it on DVD – it was one the first DVDs I ever bought. I made a t-shirt with Stitch on it. In the way of eccentric teenagers, I wandered around speaking as if I had a gob of spit at the back of my throat in imitation of the titular alien character.

Recently I re-watched the film (in a continuation of Herr Noak’s extra-German-cultural-education) and found myself captivated once more, identifying in a surprisingly strong way with a tiny blue alien. This is undoubtedly the reason that Disney has been so successful in America: their children’s films often have a layer of meaning that has been included specifically for grown-up children, too.

st1
Also, building a bedroom-sized model of San Francisco and stomping all over it sounds excellent and cathartic.

Stitch is a tiny ball of destruction who’s prevented from exercising his destructive tendencies by (1) the sheer luck of crash-landing on a Hawaiian island and (2) the desire to avoid capture. Nevertheless, there’s an element of ‘wrecking everything he touches’ which propels the plot of the movie along. What adult could say that she doesn’t worry about wrecking everything she touches, sometimes? And that it seems that sheer luck, grace, or avoiding public embarrassment is the only thing that keeps us from this destructive tendency? In addition, Stitch, or Experiment 626 as he is known to the Galactic Council, was created this way by an evil genius, and it’s only by ‘finding a family’ that this tendency towards destruction is overcome. I could write an entire theological reflection on this (remarkably Christian) anthropology (alienthropology?) – but for your sakes, I won’t.  Just have a think.

Cue Erin weeping.
Cue Erin weeping. (I’ll be alright. Just give me a minute.)

If you’ve seen the film you’re aware it concerns themes of ‘what makes up a family’ and of families who are just trying to get by after serious trauma. In the case of Lilo, she’s been cared for by her older sister Nani, who struggles to hold down a job and prove to the social worker (one Mr Cobra Bubbles) that she shouldn’t be housed with a foster family.  It’s hard stuff, and the film deals with it directly through Lilo’s and Nani’s experiences and in the outsider perspective of Stitch, this family’s new ‘dog’.  It’s interesting to me how almost none of Disney’s protagonists come from anything like a ‘stable, two-parent family’. This film especially displays a realism about the conflicted, traumatic experience that many people have as a part of their childhood, and yet hopefulness about one’s ability to heal from this trauma and find friends that are as close as family, if not closer.

Although model citizenship has nothing to do with one's hips and/or ukulele skills.
Although model citizenship has nothing to do with one’s hips and/or ukulele skills.

In sum, there are many reasons to  love this film: its sci-fi quirks and in-jokes, delightfully unfussy animation, slapstick humour, and truly heartbreaking attempts to reconcile the dangers of growing up with the safety-obsessed world of adults, along which children and aliens find themselves walking a tightrope.  Or the attention that the writers and creators actually paid to Hawaiian culture in a sense that goes beyond caricature. Or the affirming body-imagery (no sylph-like Disney Princesses here).  It’s not perfect: it risks playing into notions of ‘ideal family’ by the lack of the same, and – lest we forget – it’s a children’s film, so the script is simple and sometimes lacks nuance. Also, I think we can be pretty sure that despite Lilo’s devotion to him, Elvis Presley was not a model citizen.

It’s not likely that I’m going to break out the Stitch t-shirt anytime soon, but I will warn those of you who have to put up with me on a daily basis that I may or may not force you to watch the film with me. Those of you who know me well know that my pretend-alien voice is never very far away, so don’t be surprised if you hear it from time to time.

 

Bondage and women’s culture

Hey there. Long time no see. Air kisses and that.

So apparently there’s a big hullaballoo happening again about the ‘50 Shades of Grey‘ books with the film shortly to be released. Having started to the read them, but being utterly unable to continue to because of the horrible (and not even ‘so bad it’s good’) style writing, I must say that I write as a pseudo-outsider to those women (and men) of the world whom these books are getting into quite a lather.

Roxanne Gay’s 2012 piece on the pros but more definitely the cons of the books says most of what I’d want to say about them: that they’re ridiculously written, utterly uninformed about the realities of BDSM subcultures, and ultimately more harmful than frivolous. It reminded me about a brief conversation I had with KJ Swanson, then studying at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, about a series of pieces she had written about Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books (the original inspiration for 50 Shades, which began as Twilight fan-fiction). I was thanking Swanson for her excellent essays about American Christians’ reactions to the Twilight series; we agreed that the books were destructive especially for young women to read because they (like 50 Shades) promote fairy-tale idealisations of damsels in distress, of flawed superheroes that the female protagonist must be ‘just virginal enough to change with her purity’, etc.

What KJ said to me next, however, was what really stuck. She said that while she was doing her research, she encountered two basic reactions to the Twilight books. The first was flippancy: ‘Oh yeah, I read them, they weren’t that great, no big deal, it’s just fiction.’ The second was defensiveness: ‘Yeah, they might be about vampires, but don’t they have great things to say to women about self-respect? Shouldn’t we embrace them? Don’t criticise me for reading them. That’s not your right.’ In KJ’s psychological research, these two responses were the most common responses of victims of domestic abuse with regard to their abuser: either brushing off the abuse as normal, uncommon, or not that serious, or getting highly defensive of their abuser. She concluded by saying, in a quiet way that has stuck with me ever since: ‘I got to wondering, like, is Twilight abusing our culture?’

And so to 50 Shades, the ‘adult’ spawn of the Twilight series. What, I wonder, was going through E. L. James’ mind when she was thinking up this fan-fiction piece online prior to its publication? ‘Hmm. I wonder, what is the real-world, demythologised, western cultural equivalent to the dark mysteriousness of the vampire trope? I know, bondage!’ Better minds that mine have written criticising this automatic equating of fantasy-death or vampirism with BSDM/kink and various related subcultures, and Gay’s piece brings out some of these criticisms and the Disneyfication of BDSM that 50 Shades accomplishes. What I am interested in as a theologian and a feminist, is to what degree Christians and Christian subcultures embrace, shun or even unwittingly mirror the messages and values that are communicated by the 50 Shades books, and/or the BDSM subcultures claim to portray.

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Both the Twilight and 50 Shades books, written largely from the perspective of a female protagonist, concern themselves with the emotional lives of women. Empowering? Perhaps. Angsty waffling about which man/supernatural destiny to choose, or whether or not to stick with a billionaire who insists on inflicting pain during sex and controlling one’s life to the nth degree – neither of these strike me as particularly empowering. That said, it is important to highlight that Ana does agree to take the role of submissive in her relationship with Christian Grey – whether under coercion, or because she actually wants it, is a matter of three books’ worth of fairly weak plot.

The question I have is whether or not these protagonists ever attempt to define themselves not in relation to their romantic interests. I cannot see very much evidence of this attempt. This strikes me as particularly negative in Twilight, with its teenage target demographic. In 50 Shades, the centrality of female pleasure during sex may be light years ahead of common portrayals of women’s sexuality, with their effortless mutual orgasms from heterosexual penetrative sex, gleeful enthusiasm for blowjobs, etc.  That said, this pleasure comes at a price – in Ana’s case, the surrendering of her freedom. In Bella’s case in Twilight, it is the surrendering of her human life.

Is this surrender an act of will? Is surrendering control ever fully an act of will, or an act of complicity within systems of patriarchy that teach women the virtue of submission, so that women internalise and promote these messages? I am not sure that giving over control is always negative, provided that there is mutuality in the (social/sexual/ecclesial/cultural) relationship, where both or all parties have a chance to take and to give. Good relationships, I would add, are not just about power and control, as if they were some sort of zero-sum equation, with only limited measures of power to be divvied up; rather, they generate power because power is not held statically but given away by both/all parties.

I do not see this generativity much in Twilight or 50 Shades.

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man ray venusJust this past week (February 4-7, 2015), the Pontifical Council for Culture held its Plenary Assembly in Rome.  The topic for this year’s gathering was ‘Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference’. The programme does highlight a number of women speakers, both lay and religious, and perhaps not surprisingly no ordained women; and those in attendance to the conference (members of the Pontifical Council) are exclusively ordained men. The piece of artwork chosen to represent this year’s council was Man Ray’s 1936 piece ‘The Restoration of Venus’, showing a nude white female torso, without arms or legs or head, tied up in rope in a style similar to, and inspired by, bondage.

Did this woman choose to be tied up for her sexual pleasure, or the pleasure of her partner, or both? The closest the Pontifical Council seems to get to such a debate is in the session entitled, ‘Women and Religion, flight or new forms of participation in in the life of the Church?’ which the Council’s website describes thus:

The reflection looks at the spaces proposed to women in the life of the Church, and if women are made to feel welcome in light of specific and changed cultural and social sensibilities. The pastors will ask themselves whether the way women participate in the life of the Church functions today.

A few observations about this summary in relation to this artwork:

* This work, made by a male artist, co-opted for use as representational of women’s cultures by a group of men, to me speaks clearly of an objectifying gaze (in classic feminist literature ‘the male gaze’) on women. It is a gaze that decapitates, dismembers, ties up and finally ignores its subject’s self-definition. A woman with all her body parts intact would still have the ability to recall classical sculpture traditions, forge controversial links with sexual subculture as related to, opposed to, or similar to church subcultures.

* That the woman in this work is tied up in ropes reminiscent of bondage activity is interesting for its interesting parallels to BDSM discussions about agency. To what degree do women in any church have the same degree of agency, or ability to make choices about their own lives, as men? (We’l return to this below)

* Not only is this woman’s body tied up and submitted to an objectifying gaze, it is also whitewashed and youthful. One interpretation of this piece, in light of the plenary ‘flight or new forms of participation in the life of the church’, could be that the only women who find a place in the church (whether a ‘new form’ or more traditional form of participation) are those that meet with this standard: one that idealises the young and virginal, identifies with ‘white’ cultures, and submits to being tied up in the strictures of the church.  This is not to say that young, white women are necessarily and directly complicit in wrongs committed to churches to which they might belong; it is to say that women who would not choose ‘flight’ must still choose to submit, and preferably to minimise any ways in which their lived realities contradict a young, ‘white’ ideal.

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I comment on the Pontifical Council not only or primarily because I want to criticise the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of women; other churches and indeed religions can be just as intentionally oppressive. The deliberate use of this artwork, and its resonance with the messages of 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight, however, begs scrutiny from any responsible Christian feminist. Defenders of the Council’s choice might say that this work conjures images of Christ’s torturous route to Golgatha, willingly submitting to pain for the greater gain of the work of Salvation. There is an entire body of feminist (and non-feminist) theological literature critiquing whether or not this sadomasochism belongs at the heart of the Christian faith and I will not rehearse it all here.  Yes, orthodox Christians may say, we need a Saviour who fully understands and has endured human suffering, pain, oppression, and injustice. But when the church becomes complicit in the cause of these things, what then?

Another way to read this art work’s use by the Council would be to say that it was chosen to represent the many silenced voices of women in scripture and Christians history; women who were bound, burned, impaled, witch-hunted, denied full participation, etc. Perhaps the Council as well as other church organisations have just attempted to ‘do their homework’. This piece, one might say, is the only accurate representation of women’s historical relationship with the Christian church. Though this charitable reading might bring a sense of relief to reader, I think that it is the most deceptively and in fact insidious. This piece draws direct inspiration from BDSM, not from forced violence women found, for example, throughout the book of Judges.  Keeping in mind the fact that the majority of those who willingly engage in BDSM do so not as E. L. James has portrayed it (a virginal young woman having her horizons infinitely widened by a man who likes inflicting pain and control) but instead as more equal/consensual partners, its choice by the council to represent women’s culture says: ‘we are trying to remember women’s culture throughout history, and we want to pay attention to its injustices’. But instead of accomplishing its goal, the use of this piece forces a mis-remembering of the female body, one that has consented to be bound and consented to have pain inflicted upon it. It is a convenient glossing over of millennia of women’s stories of trauma with the brush, ‘well, she asked for it.’

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It is this use of Ray’s art work that I find most deeply troubling. It shows a deep disconnect between the church and the realities of women’s experience and culture. It displays the same ignorance and even romanticisation of BDSM as 50 Shades of Grey, and sidesteps important questions of women’s cultural, religious and sexual agency by making assumptions about pain, constraint, and willingness. In the same way that KJ Swanson wondered whether Twilight was abusing our culture, it is perhaps up to us to wondering whether 50 Shades of Grey and, in this instance, the Pontifical Council, are both making mainstream and misrepresenting BSDM in a way that does no justice to women, whether they practice BDSM or not.

Micol Forti of the Vatican’s Contemporary Art Collection reportedly said that this piece ‘is not a headless or armless body’ but a ‘reflection on the classic tradition and possibility of rediscovering a role in contemporary life’. Well, Ms. Forti, the sculpture’s head, arms and legs haven’t been painted with invisible paint. And if classical artistic or ecclesial traditions do include women asking to be bound and brought pain during sex, I – and, it seems, the vast majority of western women – would very much like to see the evidence.