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Friday, July 9, 2010

Pregnancy and me [possibly] being a bad feminist

So I'm not a huge fan of my older sister's in-laws and their extended family. Let's just put that out there. And recently my sister's sister-in-law, Ashley*, dramatically announced that after one year of trying to get preggers, she and her hubby finally succeeded. I wasn't there for the nauseating announcement, but reportedly the family cried. THEY CRIED. Because she was their little baby girl and she was finally having her dreams fulfilled as an unemployed wife and soon-to-be-mother. To be frank, this woman isn't exceptional, she's actually rather ordinary with a sketchy sense of personal responsibility (no time to get into that right now). She's not curing cancer or becoming the first female president of the U.S. She's merely doing what women have done, and been expected to do, since forever: get married, birth babies. I know that my contempt for her is tied up in the fact that I feel forced to compete with her for my sister's and nieces' attention, and that I have absolutely zero respect for her as a person, but all of a sudden I had the ammunition I needed to TRULY hate her. She was a breeder! Not only did she not have a college degree or a career, she was resigning herself to motherhood in her early 20s. She was giving up.

Except, I have to begrudgingly give her props: she is one of the very few people I know who deliberately got pregnant because she (and her husband) wanted a child. They weren't trying to save a failing marriage, they weren't letting God/nature/fate take the wheel, they weren't fucking irresponsibly. They were expressly trying to get pregnant in order to become parents. So for that, for being deliberate and knowing that they wanted to have unprotected sex to create a child, I have to respect them.

Did you know that 49% of U.S. pregnancies are unplanned? This number astounds me. Meaning that somehow, along the way, LOTS of women just aren't getting what they need to be able to prevent unplanned pregnancy. I know that this is related to a lot of factors (inadequate sex ed, availability and access to contraceptives, like-minded sexual partners, sexual assault, etc), but I also know from experience that society discourages women from taking an active role in preventing unwanted pregnancy and planning desired pregnancy. Sure, women are expected to bear the burden for preventing pregnancy, we're also expected to be the "gatekeepers" of sex and only allow access to the "right" guy at the "right" time (after marriage, of course), so isn't it kind of contradictory to say that society also expects women to avoid planned pregnancy altogether? True! But thanks to sexism, the miracle of contradictory societal expectations for women abound.

One incredibly obvious reason I can think of for why women are expected to avoid actively planning pregnancy is that OMG women aren't supposed to be initiating sex in the first place!! THOSE SLUTS! Women are supposed to be desirable but chaste, with no sexual desires of their own, so when a lady tells her guy that she'd like to get it on for the sake of procreation... well that's just unladylike. Slut-shaming is an effective way to keep women from being able to discuss sex and reproduction openly and honestly with their partners, support networks, and physicians. If you can't bring up the topic of pregnancy without being/expecting to be shamed for being sexual, that's a very real obstacle to taking an active role in planning your pregnancy.

Another barrier preventing women from planning pregnancy is the notion that God/Fate/Nature will take its course and that "if it's supposed to happen, it will happen." The miracle of life cannot be controlled by mere mortals! How dare we lowly women try to intervene for the sake of our own selfish desires to avoid and/or ensure pregnancy! I see this all the time with married couples who want kids someday but aren't quite ready for them now; this usually involves half-assed attempts at preventing pregnancy that result in an oops! pregnancy. But they're married, so no one really cares that this couple was essentially having irresponsible sex, letting chance make the decision. (Sorry, but irresponsible sex is irresponsible sex, marriage or no marriage.) The idea that some external, omniscient force is in control of whether or not women get pregnant is perpetuated by all kinds of well-meaning people and institutions, but it is harmful. It further distances women from having agency in their own pregnancies.**

Obviously not all unwanted pregnancies result in babies; a good portion of these pregnancies are aborted. But for those that are carried to term, what is the impact on the children born from these unions? Is it fair to have to be your parents' "accident"? How many of these babies are resented? Given up for adoption? Abused? How does these couples fair after giving birth to an unplanned baby? What are the true repercussions of women not being allowed to actively plan/prevent pregnancy? I don't have the answers to these questions, but I sure wish somebody would get on that already.

Sexism regularly prevents women from taking an active role in planning their own pregnancies, and unfortunately that is not going away any time soon. But I'd like to reiterate the idea that trusting women to do what's best for them, to make the hard decisions despite overwhelming social pressure, is one solution. I don't know if it's feasible to expect that 49% statistic to shrink, to expect that every pregnancy be a desired pregnancy. That's the ideal, but in the meantime trusting women, providing access to contraception and abortion, being supportive and validating their decisions to keep or terminate an unwanted pregnancy, is crucial. I have to commend Ashley for giving the finger to society and purposely getting pregnant because she wanted to; it's an all too rare occurrence.

*Obviously, this is not her real name, suckers.
**This is not a criticism of women who are infertile and therefore cannot have "agency" over their own pregnancies. In fact, I think that women who seek treatment for fertility fall squarely into the taking-matters-into-their-own-hands-and-telling-society-to-shove-it camp.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The girl with the strong opinions about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I just finished reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and... well... I had quite a few reactions to it. It took awhile for the pace of the book to pick up (at least a couple hundred pages in), and the author's constant fawning over Apple products (ipods, macbooks, etc) was fairly distracting, but the story was compelling. I L O V E D Lisbeth Salander's character, aka Wasp, who was truly a refreshing heroine: strong, intelligent, feisty, and definitely not a typical beauty. Not to spoil too much, but she manages to save the day more than once throughout the novel. But... I gotta say that's basically where the adoration ends.

The other characters are horribly predictable, to the point of being utter stereotypes. The rich, scandalous family and the working-class (ha! hardly) journalist with a strong case of Personal Ethics. Especially heinous is the middle-aged Mikael's absolutely astounding ability with the ladies, which I believe reflects more on the author himself than it does on the character. Much of the focus on economics and technology I assume are either too boring for the average person or too basic for those who actually know economics and technology.

My real issue with the book, which extends to a lot of literature I guess, is the way in which sexual assault is portrayed. The author actually does an incredibly decent job of acknowledging rape culture, even citing statistics on violence against women in Sweden at the beginning of every new chapter. He makes an effort to put shit in context. But then... he decides to include incredibly graphic (read: triggering) sexual assaults against the protagonist which are perpetrated by a sadist (major BDSM fail). I mean, really?? The level of violence in the assaults is actually pretty UNcharacteristic of reality, and the average rapist is NOT actually a BDSM practioner; just a regular ol' Joe (Johann?). But, you say, this is fiction! It's interesting and stuff! Well, it just seems to me that all of his grounding-sexual-violence-against-women-in-reality is completely undone when Larsson creates one of the more outlandish rapists I've read in fiction. Why? Why would he go to such great lengths to create a fictional world that mirrors our own only to basically delegitimize the experiences of most rape survivors out there?

Also, it must be mentioned that I, a human being who actually works with rape survivors for a living, did cringe while reading the assault scenes. They're not pretty, or the least bit entertaining. In fact, I question the need to have those scenes in there at all. Who is Larsson catering to?? Besides, if sexual assault is as common as he says it is (it is) shouldn't he expect a good portion of his audience to actually be triggered by those parts of the book? What is the author's responsibility there, if any?

Finally, I take issue with the way Lisbeth Salander is written to respond to her being assaulted by 1) eschewing any and all options to take care of herself and 2) exacting violent revenge on her assailant. Again, what is the responsibility of the author in this case? He's creating a character who is horribly assaulted, traumatized, but he writes her in such a way that she just happens to not want any sort of counseling, hell she doesn't even need help at all. She's independent, dammit! Not once, anywhere in the narrative, does she express a need to actually deal with her heinous assault. While I'm sure that there are individuals out there who may identify with Salander, they are most likely in the minority. While this unrealistic portrayal of trauma is bad, worse is how Salander's response (attacking and literally marking her rapist) is supposed to be applauded by the reader. It's supposed to be justice in the purest form. I hate to say it, but it's so typical that a man would write such a ridiculous and completely awful revenge scene through the perspective of a female character.

I just don't get what Larsson is trying to accomplish here; was he merely using rape culture as a plot device? Was he actually trying to create some very flawed commentary on the experience of being a survivor in the modern world? Why create a fictional world based on facts only to have your characters go through something so statistically inaccurate that their only choice is to behave like vengeful robots? Why Larsson, why?! *Sigh* Still, I really do like Lisbeth Salander, and I think, for better or worse, I'm probably going to have to read the rest of the series to see if Larsson sees the light in the end.

UPDATE: Melissa Silverstein's take on Lisbeth Salander as "The Girl Who Started a Feminist Franchise."