Lois Lame

Standard

When I was little, Nancy Drew was my hero. I also looked up to the girls in The Babysitters Club (Kristy was my favorite), to Dorothy Gale (loyalty to pets and a taste for adventure), and to Miss Piggy (who taught me self-esteem). But the woman I wanted to be was Lois Lane.

From the slim pickings of female role models in comics, Lois was queen. Sure, Wonder Woman was cool with the whole Amazonian thing, but Lynda Carter’s stunning beauty – and ridiculous twirling – made her completely unrelatable to me. Also, even my naïve pre-teen sensibilities understood the sexism inherent in a female superhero who wears impractically-tiny outfits, is vulnerable without her jewelry, and carries a magic rope that allows her to know what any man is thinking.

Catwoman was out of the question because, much as I love cats, I was way too goody-goody to admire a criminal, and Batgirl just made me think about how much I’d rather be at a baseball game. (As a DC Comics kid, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting MJ or Rogue until much later.) Lois Lane was my girl.

I loved her. She was smart (except for the whole glasses/no glasses thing) and accomplished, a career woman with too much ambition to care about her looks; Lois didn’t just hang with the boys, she surpassed them. Plus, Margot Kidder portrayed her as also clumsy and bad at spelling – two things with which I could relate on a deeply personal level. Lois was brave and curious and willing to be a little bad for the greater good, and on top of all that, Superman loved her.

It kind of makes me want to hurl now, but I am pretty sure the reason I loved Lois Lane the most was because her boyfriend was Superman. My younger self operated under the misconception that the greatest proof of a girl’s awesomeness was the quality of man who loved her, and Lois was chosen by the greatest man on the planet. Literally. This reasoning was no less lame than the current trend of male filmmakers who demonstrate the appeal of their thinly-veiled protagonist stand-ins by giving them the inexplicable (and usually unearned) attentions of a manic pixie dream girl or Katherine Heigl (*cough* Judd Apatow *cough*).

I’m not sure which is worse: realizing my own logic was so messed up as a kid, or realizing that so many adult men still think like 13-year-old girls.

Admitting my own fault wasn’t nearly as hard, though, as coming to terms with the major disappointment of Lois herself. It didn’t happen until college, when I met my own Superman and dove headfirst into a relationship with him, finally living the dream. We were together for about three years, and he is, to this day, one of the best and dearest people in my life. But our relationship forced me to face a harsh truth: being Superman’s girlfriend really sucks.

Superman is, above all else, a hero. His primary objective is to be of use, no matter how small the problem. A not-so-healthy blend of Catholicism and Geekery had given my Superman similar aims, and while he couldn’t fly he could certainly help carry a couch or give you a ride. The thing is, being helpful always came first – above other things like being on time, making it to dinner, or answering phone calls and emails (we didn’t have texts yet, but if we did, I am sure he would have ignored those too).

A lot of fun was had on the show Lois & Clark with scenarios where Clark/Superman would miss an anniversary celebration and get away with it because he was stopping a nuclear war or something, but I learned to feel Lois’s pain very quickly. On the one hand, you can’t be mad at a guy for missing dinner (or being late) because he was stopping global destruction (or bringing a sick friend soup). But on the other hand – dammit, he could have taken a second to call (or gone to get the soup after meeting me).

I wasted hours trying to articulate how it is bad enough to make everyone a priority (which then makes nobody a priority), but far worse to make your girlfriend a lower priority. Is a message saying, “hey, I’m not dead, I just stopped to help a guy with a flat” too much to ask? But there is simply no way to fight with Superman without looking like the asshole; everyone loves him – and they should, because he probably helped them move that one time.

Add to all this the inherent condescension that comes with Superman’s impossible moral standards for himself – he is a Christ figure, after all – and the relationship becomes an exercise in balancing self-hate with anger. I was mad at the guy who was pure of intention and heart, which made me hate myself; I felt ashamed for wanting to just have fun sometimes instead of helping with something when we technically could, and I raged at him for not expecting me to put being helpful first. (There is a reason “holier than thou” is an insult rather than a compliment.) In short: it was unhealthy.

Maybe I am just not good enough to be Superman’s girlfriend, but I am pretty sure the real truth is that I am no longer dumb enough. Lois Lane did get shafted in that relationship (though not literally, because his Super Sperm would have made her uterus explode). He left her hanging more than he showed up (unless she was literally hanging from a ledge), he never gave her the courtesy of a note or a phone call (apparently he was not Super enough to use the phone while changing), and by never putting their relationship first he made her feel terrible every time she did.

It took me about three years to accept that this scenario is unsustainable. Lois Lane, on the other hand, still hasn’t figured it out.

Advertisements

List-Less

Standard

There are a plethora of reasons why I love Louis C.K. He is smart and funny, a good dad, and definitely satisfies my addiction to redheads. But his biggest “pro” is that his television show is beautiful and brilliant.

To avoid getting “spoil-y”, I won’t go into detail about the episode I watched last night. Suffice it to say it involved “Louie” having and RDT (relationship defining talk) with his Eggplant of the moment. Upset because any and all sincerity is met with defensive humor, he wants her to express an honest emotion for once. She says, “I can’t do that. Can’t it be okay that there are just some things I can’t do?” And then the scene ends.

Leaving the question unanswered is beautiful because… well, because that is a big question for any potential couple, isn’t it? How each of us would choose to answer it says a lot about what we value in relationships, and ending the scene there lets each viewer answer it for herself. Louis C.K. accomplished a Sopranos-finale-type litmus test, except without being a dick to his fans.

I would have to answer that question with a sad, “no”, or at least a “probably not”, and it is all because of what my girlfriend and I defined several years ago as “The Three F’s” of a good relationship.

At the time, she was dating a guy we both adored (though not in a romantic way for me; that would have been messed up). On paper they were perfect for each other. He had everything she was looking for in a guy: he was tall, he was handsome, he was funny; he had a budding career and did well at parties; he had a good car, good friends, and made good money. Everything on her list was checked off. And yet…she was unhappy.

The thing is, in addition to having everything on her list, this guy also had an inclination to “keep it light”, meaning when shit went down, he went away. Career trouble, sick parents, his own family drama – no matter the issue, his answer was to close his eyes and plug his ears until it was over. Still, she stayed with him, because…the list.

“Forget the list,” I told her. Lists are for grocery shopping and little kids at Christmas. There is no relationship Santa, despite what Christian Mingle and the creepy eHarmony guy would have us believe. People need to lose their lists.

She countered that it is probably not a good idea to have no criteria for a mate; at the very least “no scrubs” should be a goal. So we compromised with a new list: one with the only three things that matter (and we added alliteration, because alliteration makes everything better).

Here are The Three F’s: Feed me, Fuck me, Fascinate me. If a partnership has all three, nothing else matters. Without even one of them, it will never work.

Fuck me: duh. This one is pretty self-explanatory. There must be sexual chemistry for a relationship to survive. I have been with a few men who, for various reasons (medication, Catholicism, homosexuality), were not that into being intimate, and it doesn’t take long for the dynamic to get irreparably weird.

Fascinate me: beauty fades, bodies sag, and even with sexual chemistry two people will eventually need to find each other interesting. Pretty but dumb is great in the short term, but for the long haul there needs to be a mind at work. If you don’t make me think, or laugh, or see things differently, I have no use for you. If you don’t find me interesting, ditto.

Feed me: aye, there’s the rub. For me, this has been the hardest criterion to satisfy, and to my detriment the one I have been most willing to overlook. In the literal sense, yes, it can mean “have a job” (or at least be able to feed yourself), but here it means feed each other emotionally. Be able to have a conversation about feelings, no matter how awkward. Be able to care about my life and my day. Be able to be there for me, even when I’m too stupid to know I need you (especially when I’m too stupid to know I need you).

My friend’s boyfriend was incapable of feeding her, and that is why no amount of height, handsome, or humor could make her happy. I have suffered from an unfortunate fondness for artists, narcissists, and depressives – which are three different ways of saying “emotional cripples”. And as much as I want “Louie” to be happy, I want him to say, “No, it’s not okay” to his Eggplant, because two out of three isn’t enough.

Look at it this way: the Suitable For Work version of The Three F’s is the mnemonic PIE (physical, intellectual, emotional). Without the Emotional support, all you have is PI. Any good math teacher will tell you that pi is irrational.

F*ck You, Clint Eastwood

Standard

This week, I planned to write about the cringe-inducing example of “femininity” that sat behind me on a recent flight from Wisconsin to Los Angeles (#UnfortunatelySomeWomen). She had artfully tousled hair, that baby-infused voice, and an Ed Hardy tank top two sizes too small for her boobs, and when given the choice between the last two empty seats on the plane (she was late boarding), she bypassed the one next to me in favor of the one between the two middle-aged refrigeration company managers in the next row.

As I listed to her breathlessly inquire about one man’s cracked cell phone (“that’s what happens when you have kids – shit breaks”), coyly threaten to “fall asleep and drool” on them, and feign doe-eyed fascination while failing to correctly comprehend a single detail about their work (which irked the one on the aisle), I could not help but marvel…at how great it is to luck into the only empty seat on an airplane. Oh, and at how this girl represents everything that is wrong with gender relations in our society.

In my brain, I cried out, “Why do some women act like this?!” Almost immediately, the other side of my brain yelled back, “Because it works!” As angry as I am at this girl for choosing to be such a disgusting caricature of stupidity, I am equally annoyed by the men who responded by giving her everything she wanted – including a shoulder to sleep on, both arm rests, several Bloody Marys, and the use of all three tray tables as she redid her manicure mid-flight. Too many women giggle their way through life with an “I just might fuck you” overtone because too many men would rather believe that fantasy is true than demand basic human competence.

So I was going to write about all of that and how it relates to gender imbalances in work and life, but then I watched the Tony Awards. Clint Eastwood showed up to present the awards for Best Direction, and hot damn if that man doesn’t make me completely flip my shit.

I get it – he is very talented. I do not deny that his acting work is iconic, or that the movies he has directed are often brilliant. His career and status are not mysteries to me. But he also appears incapable of opening his mouth without some spectacularly casual sexism falling out.

Even on the Tonys, after delivering the prepared remarks about what makes for great direction, he ended with, “and that’s all true of these guys…and they are guys…because…well…[shrug].” Because well what? Because that’s the way the cookie crumbles? Because directing is a man’s game? Because he failed to notice one of the nominees was actually a woman?

Sure, it’s possible that at this point Mr. Eastwood is more senile than sexist. But I also think age is a lot like alcohol – it doesn’t create new feelings so much as lower our willingness to temper long-existent ones. Age lets the freak flag fly – and America’s Cowboy has flown his skull and cross-boobs flag too many times to be discounted.

My vitriol toward Clint Eastwood as spokesman for misogyny started in August, 2010, when I read an interview he gave in Entertainment Weekly about his then-upcoming film Hereafter. In it, he said, “I like to think of it as a chick flick. But one that men will like too. Or at least one that won’t make them want to stick a Swiss Army Knife into their leg.” Now, Clint was certainly not the first man in Hollywood to make such a jackass comment, nor were his words the most obnoxious thing ever said about “chick flicks”, but the context of the quote brings its inherent fear of the feminine to a whole new level.

Setting aside the disrespect contained in the label “chick flick”, the comment is particularly infuriating because Hereafter doesn’t even satisfy any markers of the stereotype. It is a movie starring Matt Damon, not Meg Ryan; it is a movie with three loosely-related stories about people dealing with the idea of mortality and loss; it is a movie written by a (male) screenwriter who also earned an Oscar nomination for writing Frost/Nixon. Sure, the main character has girlfriend trouble because his psychic connection to the afterlife is intrusive, but the movie also deals with the 2004 tsunami and the London subway bombings.

What exactly was it about Hereafter that made Mr. Eastwood think of it as a “chick flick”? Usually this derogatory term is reserved for films about “girly” things, like marriage and shopping and having babies; by Clint’s logic, a movie is aimed at women if it deals with love, torment, or emotions of any kind, since no man could be expected to tolerate such nonsense without wanting to stab himself. That is the equivalent of me calling The Wizard of Oz a “dick flick” because it has a chase scene and a couple of explosions (not to mention two murders).

The problem, of course, isn’t actually Clint Eastwood, or even that Clint Eastwood sees the world as divided into “girl stuff” and “boy stuff”. It is that too many people still think like Clint Eastwood, and too many of those people are in positions of authority.

As long as our world is primarily run by men, as long as most of those men continue to see women as “other” – be it sexual objects, emotional mysteries, innocent victims, or simply less competent beings – and as long as too many women choose to play into these stereotypes to get ahead, we won’t make much progress as a species. Eliminating all pink toys might be the solution, but so might demanding mutual respect to and from each other.

I know, it sounds crazy, but I’m putting it out there anyway. Maybe I just feel lucky.

One Fish, Three Fish, Big Fish, Me Fish (Or, What I Learned on my College Vacation)

Standard

One day, in my Senior year of high school, something unexpected happened to me in the middle of calculus: I didn’t get it. I have no memory of what mathematical principle we were learning that day, but I vividly remember the frustration of being confused. It had happened to me only once before (with math, I mean – I “didn’t get” the rest of life all the time), when my 5th-grade class learned “greater than” and “less than” (“>” and “<”).

Back then, I had stared at those little arrows for hours, trying to see the difference between them that everyone else could see. Was one wider than the other? A more acute angle? Was there something wrong with the printing on my paper? It simply never occurred to me that they were pointing in opposite directions.

Eventually, light dawned on marblehead, but for what felt like weeks (and was probably only days), it was as if everyone spoke a language I just couldn’t comprehend. Like how people describe the experience of having a mild stroke – or a conversation with hipsters.

In calculus class that day, those feelings of vertigo came rushing back, and it was a formative day for me because of two things that happened in response. First, unlike in 5th grade, this time I raised my hand and asked for clarification. Since I had come to define my self-worth by my academic ability, it was no small thing to ask for help. It is also why it pissed me off when, instead of answering, my teacher told me to see her after class. I felt that my years of patient listening to the answers to everyone else’s questions had earned me a little class time, so I asked again – and a third time when she politely deflected.

I have no idea why this otherwise-wonderful math teacher refused to address my question in class. Maybe I was missing something obvious again, or maybe we were behind schedule or she thought I was punking her. What I do know is that her denial made me feel that my questions didn’t have value – and the memory of that feeling hovers over me as a cautionary tale every moment that I stand in front of my own students now.

The second thing that happened that day is that, not two periods later, my friend Doug – who would not have understood calculus if Jaime Escalante himself explained it – came up to me at my locker and said, “I hear you messed up in math class today.” Apparently, word had spread around school, and there was a fair amount of Schadenfreude at the fact that Kate, Captain of the Math Team, had “messed up” in calculus.

My initial instinct was to tell Doug that if having a question constituted a mistake then he must be the biggest disaster since the Hindenburg, but instead of lashing out I decided to listen to my second thought: “F*ck this, I need a bigger pond.”

That day, my outlook toward college went from terror I would fail to remain the best to ardent desire for a place full of more-accomplished peers. When the miracle that was my Harvard acceptance letter showed up a few months later, I knew I had found the Lake Superior I was looking for.

Humility is a wonderful thing, and being humbled is even better. Those first couple of years in Cambridge, the knowledge that I was surrounded by so much talent freed me to try all kinds of new things. I figured, “if I’m not going to be the best at anything, what the heck? Let’s explore!” I took the hardest freshman math class there was and actually hung in there for a few weeks; I took Ancient Greek with a bunch of people who already spoke Latin and only freaked out a little at my F on the first midterm; I volunteered for Model Congress despite almost no awareness of current political events, and I did perhaps the scariest thing of all: left the comfort of mathematical certainty for the subjective world of the English department.

As I reached my last couple of years, the freedom of the big pond turned more into a driving force. Swimming with bigger fish had boosted my confidence, to the point where I was frustrated I wasn’t bigger myself. My desire to make a splash (or even a plop) drove me toward leadership positions I would never have considered before, and even inspired me to audition for a spot as a commencement day speaker – something I still can’t believe I actually attempted.

This weekend, the class of ‘99 returned to Cambridge for our 15th reunion, and my fellow Harvardians continue to represent for me those two pillars of a happy life: confidence, and humiliation (er, humility). The ambition, drive, and success of my classmates is inspiring, and reflects back on me the courage to earn my spot within their ranks – or at least to try. At the same time, I am acutely aware that no matter how good I get at anything, there will always be someone bigger or better. Probably someone I have seen contemplate philosophy and quantum physics while high.

Sure, knowing I will never be “the best” can be a little depressing at times, and occasionally makes me want to go drown myself in a small pond somewhere. But mostly, I find it a comforting assurance that I will never be bored. No matter how far I get, there will always be those who challenge me to swim farther; there will always be new waters to explore.

As long as those waters aren’t the Charles River – that shit is still toxic.