Chair, Redux

(Addendum to my original post:  I’m ambivalent about posting this entry; but I’ve learned that when something deeply moves me, to honor the feelings.  There’s something there, even if the story/stories I’m hearing or feeling differ from the all the people in the know.  Especially on social media, which is where this particular bit of offense got it’s legs and ran, especially among the politically correct, the liberals, the feminists, the social justice crusaders, who know better.

Today, I ran across a term that’s become ideologically popular, “intersectionality.”  From what I’ve read, the term started as a divisive term among feminists.  Yet,  intersectonality was precisely what I was trying to get to in the following, and the narratives woven in this photo, which are many and strikingly complex, have been flattened by social media and the self-righteous.  Returning to the photo, I’m even more convinced that if the thought police hadn’t gotten the upper hand, this particular composition, either intentionally or unintentionally, provides a singularly brilliant portrait on intersections of race, gender, and, most important, class and labor relations.

Thanks to the taste police, that dialogue has been shut down.

All that remains on the Russian website is a privileged white woman staring into the camera.  Irony much?)

The original photo of Dasha Zhukova in Buro 24/7

During the 2012 Republican Convention, Clint Eastwood famously lectured an empty chair.

The evening could not have been a  better scripted summary of the Republican party’s seeming raison d’être — structural patriarchy monopolizing the stage and lecturing into thin air,  remarkably emblematized by Eastwood’s tortuous rambling to a chair.

To see these moments as simply a bizarre Republican convention moment missed the larger point: the status quo is stubborn, and not likely to leave the stage, even when it’s a dying animal.

That seemed the implication of Mr. Eastwood’s soliloquy, an unintentional satirical performance of the status quo, in the theater of convention politics.

 

This past week, we had another chair moment, one whose implications and social perspective were even more stunning.

There was no laughter.  The photo caused massive controversy, the wounds it touched were too deep.  Meanwhile the photo’s deepest revelations of pain and subordination seemed too subtle for the most devout of our thought police, the ones yelling ‘foul-play’ the loudest.

The ones who sit in earnest well intention with just enough information to give them moral superiority, yet apparently not enough experience to dive deeper into the narrative.

Feminists (men and women) were out in droves on my Facebook feed, the predictable social media suspects were ranting about the nasty inhumanity of it all.

I paint with broad brush strokes, so please indulge me.

I first saw the photo on The Guardian.  I thought it was a brilliant and insightful critique; I posted so on my Facebook page.  According to The Guardian, the photo’s subject “Zhukova . . . defended the image in a statement: ‘This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an art work intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics. I utterly abhor racism, and would like to apologise to anyone who has been offended by this image.’”

I took Zhukova at her word as reported in the article, and her claim corresponded to how I originally read the photo.

The din that transpired on social media left my head in a blur.  I wasn’t sure who the artist was.  I was not certain if the original work in question was the chair or the photo.  I originally thought the photo was the object d’art, but it was the chair.

My concern is for the photo.

Because of my work, I find the photo extremely compelling, be it a conscious or unconscious product.

In my mind, the photo emerges as a kind of emblematic revelation that few are taking seriously because the chair has been summarily dismissed as sexist and racist.  End of story in this version.  Move on to the next controversy du jour for offense consumption.

Unfortunately, it’s not the end of the story.  The stories inhabiting the photo reflect deeply engrained collective ways of being.  Erasing them in an ideological triumph of personal offense won’t make them go away: repression exacerbates the problem.  Moreover, this easy dismissal seemed to me indicative of class privilege.  Some of the loudest and most virulent voices on my feed were the same old players:  white feminists, and the sympathetic to feminists white male, proving yet again their social sensitivity.

Not a single sex worker in the lot.  Nada.

The photo is a not so humorous comedy of errors, the racist — sexist chair being the morally objectionable fulcrum, the photo an egregious editorial decision.

Though photo stands was a horrible editorial choice for a fashion magazine, its composition and elements still demand consideration: its contortions scream for our attention, like a bad dream that we take to our therapist for interpretation.  Or a compulsive fantasy that leaves the imagination senseless to all else, until mitigated by art or intimacy.  It’s a cultural snapshot, a compendium of class-gender-race references, folded into an image with proliferating implications, none of which are being unfolded by the “holier than stilettos,” as I referred to them on my Facebook page, in a quite conscious metaphorical swipe.

The following is only illustrative, representing the salient features that I believe are being buried under political correctness.

The photo’s most abhorrent feature is the privileged white woman sitting on the dehumanized, fetishized, sexualized black female mannequin, white privilege comfortably bolstered by exploitation of the black woman — it’s a straightforward racist narrative.  It is also the racism implicit in the exotic other, a trope too long populating the collective imagination, and still unshakably rampant in popular culture: the sexualized exotic.

The exotic other transverses gender, as I hear over and over.   The black male or female as highly sexualized and existing for the consumption of white pleasure is so old and deeply woven into the collective unconscious, that I don’t need to elaborate it here.  Google if you need.  If we can understand the sexualized, fetishized, and dehumanized other as being gender neutral, and a function of deeper social anxieties and realities, perhaps you’ll allow me to enlarge the interpretive lens.  Let’s assume that race is one construct buttressing the class system, privilege and economic power being the invisible, ubiquitous culprit.  As Toni Morrison writes, “[t]here is no topic on anybody’s table which does not involve black people. . . . And when that disappears in time, then they have to do what they have been avoiding, which is talk about poor people.”  Race and gender are the most obvious constructs that keep the economic status quo self-perpetuating, but without a broader lens, we diminish what’s at issue.

Because of my work, when I first saw this photo, I immediately saw (or projected) the systemic Madonna – Whore trope, which is an economic and class structure, not a race or moral issue.  Race narratives often obscure class narratives; morality stories give authority to these class structures, leaving the whore socially invisible.  In this particular photo, race, class, and morality strikingly collide: the well-bred white girl is the Madonna, the black woman is the sexualized, fetishized, dehumanized doll on which privilege asserts its moral high ground and economic comfort, embodied by Zhukova and her princess countenance.

The dehumanized fetish doll, i.e., the underclass strikingly typified in the bound, black exotic other, supports the class system’s comfort and morality, typified in Zhukova’s unsullied demeanor.  But there’s an important caveat here, because Zhukova herself unintentionally emerges as one dimensional, a passive, cosmetically flawless, asexual creature whose existence and comfort depends on the bound, fierce, sexualized woman on whom she sits.  One commentator wrote on a Marie Claire blog, “[e]ven if the skintone was [sic] different, the photograph would still be offensive. Women seem to be the brunt of society, and no one deserves to be sat on,” the implication being that what is at risk isn’t necessarily race, but something deeper.  Unfortunately,  the writer stopped here.

The photo is a snapshot of the status quo, a construction dominating all women: in its specificity, art carries a universal message, arguably then, this photo unintentionally rises to the level of meaningful cultural artifact, a rendering of a near universal invisible system that casts women one dimensionally, be it Madonna or Whore.

Let’s draw the interpretive lens back a few more inches.

The photo’s most powerful character is the one who remains invisible; the narrator-photographer, the one framing this story.  Who frames this picture?  Who frames this woman of privilege, the dehumanized fetish object on whom she sits, and who has the most to gain by remaining unseen while flattening out these two embodied cultural constructs?  I would argue that patriarchy’s invisible structure dictates the overriding narrative, a structure which still knows only two ways to understand women: the Madonna and the Whore.  The safe women is rendered asexual, obsequious to norms, a mannequin of civilized milquetoast engagement; her counterpart is the fierce, sexual being full of so much strength that she must be strapped down, controlled, and made plastic in sacrifice to the anemic caricature who sits on her.

I’m going further than expected, so I beg your indulgence, just a bit longer.  No, I am not black.  But I have still been that woman who has been strapped down by economics and class privilege, the one who has taken care of other women’s homes, other women’s children, other women’s men, a familiar trope in the “black” experience.

Defending the photo, an African-American woman wrote in The Guardian comments section on Facebook, “Don’t tell me how to feel.”

Indeed. Please don’t tell a woman who has sold sex how to feel about a photo with an objectified, fetishized, plastic doll who is portrayed as a comfortable chair for a privileged woman.

“Don’t tell me how to feel.”  I know how I have felt and what I have experienced, and this photo captures it.

Yet the taste police are doing just that, telling me how to feel, informing me of the photo’s real racist and sexist meaning, all in the name of moral indignation.

No human is a mannequin of privilege or subjugation, rather, they are part of a system of nefarious cultural forces that seeks to support itself through flattening narrative histories, the repression of what doesn’t support its world view, and good old morality, which usually does little more than temporarily displace our cultural demons.

Narratives that love to create victims, narratives that repress histories for a moral greater good which is no greater good, just an indignant posturing that conveniently buries a poignant snapshot of how far we haven’t come.

From where I sit, in my warm apartment, on a comfortable couch, listening to patriarchy’s sexual repression in between the moments I take to wrestle amateur stories from my imagination’s rough waters, this photo stunningly captures multiple realities, including the vapid weakness of privilege, which is as much of a trap as being an objectified fantasy object.  There’s nothing to admire in a woman who reclines and finds comfort on another woman’s plasticized pain, a woman whose raison d’être is blankly staring in Stepford perfection waiting to be consumed by camera and audience while reclining on the depiction of another woman’s exploitation.

The social censure of the narrative changes nothing, and, like sexual repression, makes the problem worse.  Because of the social media outrage, the photo has been cropped, all that remains on the Russian site is a beautiful white woman of immense privilege sitting in serene beauty with a pair of stilettos bizarrely waving in the air next to her.  Society’s invisible woman remains, quite literally, invisible again.  She’s not even allowed her plastic pain in all its objectified glory, because she offended the taste police, who know better for us all.

To the taste police I say:  fuck your moral indignation.  You’re now literally talking to an empty chair, pontificating like Clint Eastwood, lecturing me about my feelings, and the feelings of those who have been radically objectified, flouting your censoring status quo, successfully eliding any alternative narratives in your the shrill of well intentioned empathy.  I would love to know more about your personal experiences of radical objectification, but for the time being, you have shut that dialogue down, and made me suspect of you, whom I now see as a privileged animal, protests not withstanding.

Meanwhile, Zhukova is getting all kinds of flack from the feminists for this editorial faux pas.  She’s not even the chair’s artist.  Dasha’s a woman sitting in a photo who has a billionaire boyfriend, a woman more than likely rendered for what she is, a trophy, probably psychologically miserable for it, but materially comfortable in her gilded cage, and getting shit because the thought police have a story and they are sticking to it, morality forbidding a deeper dive into meaning.

The chair’s artist is Bjarne Melgaard, a white male who describes himself as “a worn out faggot,” an artist who relishes controversy, and who gets mixed critical reviews.

I’ve not been able to find out who took the photo: no surprise that the most important player in this photo narrative remains conspicuously invisible.

 

 

 

References:

‘Bench of Memory at Slavery’s Gateway,’ an interview with Toni Morrison, published in The New York Times, July 8, 2008.

‘Russian Fashion Site Apologizes for Outrageous Chair Modeled After Black Woman: Apologies are apologies, but we can’t unsee this one,” Llana Satanstein:  http://www.marieclaire.com/fashion/buro-24-7-chair-dasha-zhukova?src=spr_TWITTER&spr_id=1449_40959396

‘The chair man:  meet Bjarne Melgaard, the artist behind the Dasha Zhukova seat.’
http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/the-chair-man-meet-bjarne-melgaard-the-artist-behind-the-dasha-zhukova-seat-9079716.html

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The House Of Imagination

If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.  —  Gaston Bachelard

 

I’ve had a recurring dream, that I remembered clearly this morning.  The dream started awhile ago, I think it’s been going on for months.  In the original dream, there was a house that I liked, that we used to hang out at in the evenings.  It was like a large café, but with lots of enclaves, private seating areas, and it extended for blocks.  People just hung out and enjoyed themselves, under the evening sky.

In the first dream or second dream, I heard that the owner was selling it.  Everyone was sad that they may not have this cool, casual hangout anymore.

I had just sold my book, so I bought the house with my book contract, even though it was a considerable expense.

I was concerned that folks might not show up with the new ownership, but no one seemed to care.   Some acquaintances warned me that some of the folks who frequented these casual get togethers may not be safe.  “Are you sure you want to entertain everyone?  We’ve heard of problems with drugs and violence,” was the forewarning.  It seemed more a class bias than a reality — I’d never had personal problems with anyone.

Last night, I dreamed that I had traveled to Europe for a long visit, and I returned home.  I wondered if anyone would be showing up for the evening soirée.  The party had grown, and not only were the old regulars showing up, but all these folks whom I had never met were hanging out.  The gathering was enormous.

There were also old family members — great aunts happily greeted me — old family friends, some of my dear friends now were there, and there was an odd lot of folks who sitting and standing around who really just needed a place to hang out so they didn’t feel alone.  On the pavement, on the balconies, just hanging out.

I understood that because they were here, they weren’t feeling alone.

Kind of like “Au Bon Pain” in Harvard Square, or The Last Exit On Brooklyn café in Seattle, during its heyday, only much, much larger.  City blocks large, with podiums and chairs and little terraced areas for people to sit and visit.

I was the hostess, even though they didn’t know or care that this was my home.

I played the part, going around saying “hello,” making sure that people felt welcome to those who weren’t otherwise engaged.  I looked with a quiet satisfaction that such an assorted lot of folks could hang out, the bikers and street people with the more urbane, equal under the night sky, in the space I created for them.

As I started to wake-up, I asked myself “what does this mean,” and in a rare moment of instant insight, I understood immediately that the house was my imagination, and that these were the folks who peopled my life, clients, friends, everyone that I’d allowed into my life experience.  They may not know me, but they had come into the safety of my imagination, and had found a safe place to hang out under a clear night sky.  It didn’t matter that they didn’t know me — and I rather enjoyed freely and anonymously giving them a space to be themselves.

Of course, this is a metaphor for my work, but life and work and life were all mixed up.  The house was clearly an umbrella metaphor for the imagination, and I as the dreamer was a conscious, rule free hostess for those choosing to show up, allowing them to be themselves.

It was an act of generosity, a conscious decision made by me, for this lifetime, and I saw with clarity that this is what I really wanted during this life, allowing people to freely do want they wanted to do, providing a space in which to be themselves, and not feel alone.

And that’s really all that life is, a series of experiences in imagination’s house, during this lifetime, consciousness being a construct that we carry with us, an imaginative space in which we entertain those who we meet, in whatever way we do.  Or something like that.

One takeaway is that the house of my imagination is a sprawling open air café, with a near limitless cast of wanderers who sit and laugh and visit under a night sky.  And karmically, I am the creator of this space, a conscious crafter of nonjudgemental connection.

For some reason, I am thinking this specific metaphor needs to make it into the book, though I don’t know how or why.

As an addendum, there was a girl there who seemed vaguely familiar.  She seemed sad and by herself, an outsider.  I introduced myself to her, as the house owner.  She said she was meeting someone.  I didn’t believe her.

I plan on making sure she knows that she is safe and loved, something that I am guessing she is ready to hear, next time we meet.

The Year Of The Horse

According to Chinese astrology, 2014 is the Year Of The Horse.

Not coincidently, I received a card in the mail from my godfather, New Year’s Eve day.  “Thought you might enjoy this,” he wrote, “I found it while packing boxes, and decided to send it on.”

Tucked inside the card was a note written to him from my mother when I was three months old, thanking him for agreeing to sponsor me at my baptism.  I pushed the single page back into the card, her loss still unbearable when confronted with it head on.  “Not now,” I thought, “I can’t do this, now.”

After a few hours, I returned to read it, and, taking a slow deep breathe, I let her cadences rise from the words that she wrote decades ago.  The note was brief, but on the last day of the year, the final lines managed to find their way into my hands, “. . . and I told her that they had a little girl cousin she could play dolls with and she laughed like she knew exactly what I was talking about.  Last night her and Walt carried on quite a conversation.  I must close now.”

A conversation.  I once had a conversation with my father, three months before he left my mother, six years before his death.  For the first time, I see myself as his infant daughter.  He’s cooing in an affection laced gibberish, prattling on with the child who carries his DNA and these buried moments in her, even today.

That this bit of my mother’s storytelling arrived on the day before New Years as we enter the Year of the Horse, shimmered with epiphany.

Allow me to explain.

Over a decade ago, my journaling transformed while working with dreams and unconscious imagery.  What persistently appeared, the image running through my journal for almost a decade, was a black horse.  This animal was a beautiful untethered creature, running on an ocean beach as though its heart were ready to burst, mane and tail flowing, nostrils flaring in rushes of wind, scorching sand under its gallop, eyes burning in the sun’s glare.  Reminiscent of Coppola’s cinematic images in “The Black Stallion,” my unconscious creation was an animal of remarkable power and beauty.

I viscerally sensed something about this animal, and wrote, “I am the horse,” a line punctuating my journal pages, over and over through the years.

“What does it mean?”  I had no answer, and, over time, I began castigating myself for my overactive imagination, these silly exercises of unconscious journaling, and my obtuse assertion about my identity. I increasingly came to loathe the decades of journals haphazardly stuffed in my bookcases, hodgepodge documents of the inconsequential, chronicles of mania, ruminations on suicide, too soulful love poems, aphorisms wanting context, meaningless affirmations, uncompleted sketches, banalities in the extreme.

Inelegant excursions strewn on pages whose end eluded me.

Then there was the horse.

Irredeemable tripe.  What would-be writer puts pen to paper to write, “I am the horse?”  I tried imagining any self-respecting, or respected, author so doing.  My inner critic reprimanded me, “you’re an unskilled, talentless neurotic wasting her time, spewing self-absorbed psychobabble onto the page.”  The hoard of journals, and this strange imaginative creature appearing on their pages, became emblematic of my self-loathing, and a life that I imagined was beyond my reach.

A shift in my critical declarations would come.  One clear New England autumn afternoon, about a week or so before my birthday, I came home and found a box on my porch.  I opened it.  “You seem to want to know about your father.  I found these.  Maybe you will want them,” my father’s younger sister scribbled on a loose piece of paper, with no salutation or signature.

Wrapped inside crumpled newspaper were two items.  The first was a tooled and painted leather purse made by my father, with two handsomely executed large black horse heads facing each other on the front flap.  The second was a copy of “Black Beauty: The Autobiography Of A Horse,” given to him for Christmas when he was seven, inscribed by his uncle.

As I removed newsprint from handiwork and book, an inscrutable bond between my father and myself revealed itself.  I had never before held objects caressed by his hands, yet these two objects, now tenderly stroked by me, mirrored that animal appearing in my journals, a creature unconsciously forged, and with whom I instinctively if disparagingly identified.

I didn’t know what it meant — I only recognized an enigmatic tie between my father and myself, peculiarly embodied in a splendid black equine.

I set the revelation aside, though not forgetting it, and regarded my journals with a kinder if still skeptical eye.

Fast forward. A little over a year ago.  I am leaving Cambridge in a whirlwind exodus.  On the surface, all was chaos — a pending eviction, a pro se bankruptcy, selling everything that could be sold, giving away what could not.  All in less than two months.  I shed most of what I owned.  Reluctantly, I even sold my mother’s diamond from her second marriage.  Though I received less than a fraction of its value, I needed the cash.

Yet I was calm and conscious.  I felt my mother’s presence.  I felt her assurance that the ring’s only value now was to serve me.  When I write, “my mother’s presence,” I mean a knowing, an awareness, a shimmering behind immediate sense experience.  This elusive perception was connected to a larger one: everything unfolding in my life was a necessary dissolution.  The circling storm of circumstance was merely an illusion — life was changing, a new landscape emerging.  There was room for drama, but no need or desire to fill it.

In that rapid flux of conditions and choices, with little time to think through details, decisions seemed unfamiliarly random and arbitrary.  Seemed random.  Seemed arbitrary.  What I failed to recognize is what we tell ourselves and life when we’re pulled along by something larger than ourselves.

Not until I received the letter from my godfather New Year’s Eve day did I see the significance of my decisions a little over a year ago.  Everything gone.  Yet I saved my journals.  Those chaotic chronicles filled with embryonic dreams survived the dissolution, because I chose to save them, above all else.

I see clearly now that they were the reason for the dissolution, or, rather, the dreams and desires nestled in their pages were the reason for abandoning a life not worth hanging onto, and entering a new one.

By keeping decades of pages filled with myself, that self-absorbed, neurotic animal whom I had loathed for so long, I embraced my deepest self, a creature whose power and beauty I have yet to understand.  I never saw the depth and breadth of those decisions before that note — humans being expert at burying life’s brilliance under the mundane and inconsequential.

In saving my journals, deep in my psychic recesses, I decisively chose to become the strangest of all animals, a writer.

I have felt painfully alone in these decisions, too often reaching for my comfortable blanket of self-loathing and insecurity while second guessing myself, wondering about my judgement, or lack thereof.

Financial pressures and uncertainties press hard.

Skills and creativity want.

But a note written when I was three months old traveled through time and landed in my hands, arriving on New Year’s Eve.  In its lines, I feel my mother standing behind me, smiling.  My father with whom I share an obscure connection appears and urges me on.  Storyteller and artist stand together behind me, and they are as perceptible to me as that creature who for years ran on an ocean beach, sun burning its eyes, heart bursting in an untethered stride, a singularly magnificent beast forged in my unconscious that found its way into my journal pages.

A note written decades ago arrives on New Year’s Eve, and I understand that I am not alone.

Then, in a moment lit by an epiphanic sun, and bitten by the mysteries of sand, wind, and water, I realize that 2014 is the Year Of The Horse.

And I understand, I am the horse.

A Spirit Of Christmas Past: Just A Cup Of Tea, Please

“What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.” ― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

 

It’s hackneyed to quote Dickens during the holidays.  But Dickens is a seasonal habit for this writer, my Dickensesque upbringing making him a favorite companion during the holidays.

When I write, “Dickensesque upbringing,” I’m not being self-indulgent, but self-effacing.

My father abandoned my mother when I was about 6 months old or so, and she raised me on her own.  Mom was uneducated, having barely made it through high school because of a learning disability, which I believe would now be classified as dyslexia.  She was a keen reader of people, however, and an animal of singular survival instincts.  Both native abilities equipped her to be an extraordinary caregiver, and she stumbled into nursing by way of being a nurse’s aide.

Those hourly wages were negligible, at best.  Until my father’s death, and the arrival of my Social Security survivor benefits, it was a less than meager existence, and a routine of constant sacrifice for my mother, who cherished me more than her own life.

For this reason, when I was four or so, Mom sat me down and had an earnest talk with me.

“I may not be able to keep you,” she said, “I don’t think I can afford to raise you.”

It was a well-intentioned if catastrophic moment when a parent recognizes that their beloved and only child would fare better in other circumstances, immediate needs and fear obliterating all else.

Dickensesque.

Despite the trauma that she created for both of us in those earnest moments, she did not give me away, nor did the daily economic pressures subside, because we were like those who populate Dickens’ best works.

Mom never read Dickens, never entered one of his literary landscapes — and I don’t remember her having much use for a film adaptation of any book, either.

Apart from the Bible, Mom didn’t read, because symbols on a page eluded her.

Books were humiliating, a reminder of life’s unfairness, not a portal to freedom.

Rather, Mom told stories.  She collected them.  Saved them.  Kept her ears open for any and all that could be subsumed into her narrative compilation, a repository of myth and meaning coloring our existence.  Bible stories.  Family stories.  Friends’ stories.  Our stories.  She told them over and over, sharing them like familiar songs, queuing one and then another, stories that grounded our existence, their subtext almost always pointing to a larger redemption.

I doubt she was aware of their subtext.  I wasn’t until much later in life.

The bills, the anxieties, the heartaches that oozed like puss from a wound that day when she told me that I would soon be living as one without a home or a history, those limitless worries were eventually buoyed by her faith narratives.  Despite herself.

Mom had a favorite story that she told during the holidays, especially later in life, when middle class comforts surrounded her.  Though my life choices were a source of confusion and disappointment until the day she died, these stories reminded her of where we had been, what we had survived, who we were, and the roads we had traveled.

It was Mom’s version of our wilderness wanderings, written in my youth.

The story went something like this:

Dad was in prison.  Mom was working as a nurse’s aide.  She wasn’t eligible for food stamps or assistance, because she was working — and, by God, she was going to work, because she had a sense of pride, even if it meant wiping asses for a living.

Come Christmastime, I would see advertisements for Mattel this, Mattel that.  She knew that she couldn’t afford anything Mattel, so she sat me down and had a talk with me.  [Another sit-down.]

“We’re poor people, and can’t afford [theme and variation] all these toys that you’re seeing on the television, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get everything you’re asking for.”

“What about a cup of tea?  Can I have a cup of tea,” I asked.

“Yes, you can ask for a cup of tea.”

Mom was relieved that she had settled that problem.  She wasn’t expecting what followed.

As the story went, when people would ask me what I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas, I pulled out my eager to accommodate script, looked at them with my big eyes and would politely answer, “Oh, we’re poor people, all I want for Christmas is a cup of tea.  Just a cup of tea, please.”

Mom was mortified.

“I should have put her in front of the bank with a tin cup,” she then added.

That Christmas, to use Mom’s words, I made out like a bandit.  Dolls, clothes, stuffed animals, an Etch-A-Sketch, Mattel this and Mattel that, everyone had a present for the big eyed child who was asking only for a cup of tea, please.

The Rotary Club gave me a tricycle.

Christmas dinner with a month’s worth of turkey graced the table.

It was one of our best Christmas’ because we were so overwhelmed with generosity.

That was pretty much the story’s substance, as I remember it, and it was one of Mom’s favorites from Christmas’ past.

Despite her mortification, Mom received as much joy that Christmas as I did, seeing promise in that outpouring of kindness, finding temporary comfort that she wasn’t all alone in trying to be the best she could, by herself.

She recited that story every holiday, to whoever would listen, as many times as possible, not because she loved hearing her own voice, not because she remembered the girl that I was, and not simply because she was remembering the woman she was, the woman who overcame innumerable obstacles, and survived.

The events were a cornerstone of meaning in her life, they lifted the hardship of our existence into the miraculous, the unexpected, the redemptive.  Her telling that particular story during the winter holidays was an emotional reenactment of light coming into darkness, the heart and meaning of Christmas, a story she repeated in an act of sacred memory.

To those in need, my mother was one of the most generous humans that I’ve known, having learned the true spirit of giving, during our years of wandering the wilderness.

Yes, it was a Dickenseque youth, in its hardships and hopes, oppression and good will.  Mom never read Dickens, but she wrote her own Christmas carol, that she offered to anyone willing to listen, and most were happy to accommodate her good natured literary performances, hearing the story’s heart and soul quite clearly.

I offer that story here, repeating her tradition, and I lift a cup of tea in my Mother’s honor.

Day Of Thanks

Thanksgiving Day, I had eleven visitors with the sunrise.

I’ve never seen these creatures before, and they have not returned since.

I’m trying to get in the habit of posting stuff I may not be comfortable with sharing, because it’s what I should be doing — and I’ve avoided posting poetry because the WordPress interface doesn’t give itself to keeping the structure.  This time it seems to be working, if the excessive spacing is a bit distracting.

 

 

Day Of Thanks

 

Come from the mountain,

behind the house,

eleven turkeys arrive in the yard.

 

 

Auspiciously,

they come to feast.

Today,

the day of thanks.

 

 

Eleven visitors,

come with the sun’s rising

to celebrate themselves

and their ancestors,

the ones who taught

this land’s first dwellers.

 

 

 

Under my windows

they parade and strut,

owning the landscape

as once before,

royal plumage mat

against their grand bodies.

 

 

Eleven visitors

reminding me of their

heritage.  Revered by this

land’s first dwellers,

before those people lost their tales, their stories,

a history in which these eleven masters

held a sacrosanct position.

 

 

 

They’ve come today

to tell me that tale:

they are revered incarnations,

of pride,

abundance,

generosity,

awareness,

fertility,

life in its magnificence and glory,

the unashamed dance of life

and all its hallowed moments.

 

 

 

With the sun’s rising,

they’ve descended from the mountain,

in a ceremonious mystical progression.

 

Eleven masters come to teach,

holy beings reminding me

of life’s luminous endurance,

and the perfect play pulsing

radiant behind existence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Random Thoughts On Bettie Page

(I wrote this while working briefly in the mainstream earlier this year. [See the series “Reality Bites” for more on my jaunt into these nether regions, if interested.]  As with everything else, it needs work, but I’m posting it today because there’s apparently a new movie on Bettie.  And because she deserves it.)

I was not trying to be shocking, or to be a pioneer. I wasn’t trying to change society, or to be ahead of my time.  I didn’t think of myself as liberated, and I don’t believe that I did anything important. I was just myself. I didn’t know any other way to be, or any other way to live.

 Bettie Page

Bettie Page was one of a kind, light years ahead of her time.  The quote above illustrates why I love her dearly.  Bettie was innocent, direct, uncomplicated, yet one of the edgiest and sexiest women to emerge during an era obsessed with good girl social mores.  Unlike the era’s most glamorized sexual icon, Marilyn, who used sex and persona quite smartly to lift herself from poverty and become the  quintessential sex product, Bettie’s sexual approach reflected a lust for life, simplicity, and, most important, to this writer, her free spirit.

Bettie really was no man’s woman, without even thinking about it.  Bettie was just Bettie, doing what she loved.  Marilyn became every man’s victim in achieving icon immortality, hitching herself to the most famous men of her generation:  the Kennedy brothers, DiMaggio, Miller.  She was for at least three of these men, a trophy.  Seemingly not much more, if you prod a little.  (Miller has said some pretty shitty and inappropriate things about her, leaving a nasty taste in my mouth for any of his so-called literary achievements.)  By most accounts, Marilyn’s career behind the scenes belied an intelligent if not shrewd woman who sold the illusion of innocent, helpless female sexuality, a deliberately played angelic persona that still besots most of us, and was famously worshipped by Norman Mailer.

But Bettie, who made her own fetish clothes and bathing suits for her photo shoots, lived freely.   She simply loved being nude and healthy, loved the camera, saw nothing wrong with the body’s beauty, didn’t use her own beauty with ulterior motives.  She exercised on the beach, every day.  She made her own clothes.  She modeled, and then she paid her bills, most of the time.  She lived with an open heart and free spirit, no strings attached.

Marilyn knew what to do with her gifts, and became their slave while writing herself in the collective imagination; Bettie enjoyed an off-beat dialogue with the fringes of culture, and overcame a painful personal history while remaining true to herself.  Bettie never played the victim, on or off camera.

Her life was beautiful, poetic, tragic, and quasi-heroic, though I have off-beat ideas of heroism.

I admire Bettie’s sweetness, her guilelessness, and her joie de vivre.  In front of the camera, she often portrayed the vixen, a smoldering cauldron of dark sexuality and all things forbidden, the fallen angel ready to escort you to the recesses of hell.  In fact, she never saw the same morality boxes as others, and she lived her life as Bettie, a beautiful woman who saw no shame in G-d’s creation, including her own.

In her later years, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  She was unaware of her impact until much later in her life.  She lived quietly and anonymously, and only when a very persistent journalist managed to eventually track her down, did she learn of her popularity.  Her uncomplicated, straightforward egoless approach left a star less bright than many of her mainstream blonde contemporaries, but her personal life was just as riddled with pain and hardship.   Failed marriages, a gang rape, overwhelming financial difficulties, miscarriages.

In her later years, after discovering her cult status, she avoided having her picture taken, for fear of disappointing those who had come to know and love her as she was in her youth.  Vanity?  Perhaps.  But I think she really was afraid of disappointing her fans — it was a vanity of sentiment, a respect for those who held an image of her in their hearts that she didn’t want to ruin.  Not female vanity, but human generosity.

Bettie Page, an angel unaware.

Sex is a part of love.  You shouldn’t go around doing it unless you are in love.  —  Bettie Page

 

 

I Was Wrong. I Was Right.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.  –– Michael Jordan

 

I spent last night being a good girl and relentlessly self-castigating over misreading David Trumble’s critique of the Disney princess sheroes.

I’ve read many business and professional books this past few months, including, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” Louis P. Frankel’s “Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office,” and “Play Like A Man, Win Like A Woman.”  Of the many takeaways, I was able to apply one last night: professionally, women blame themselves for their mistakes and needlessly stay in that space.  According to female executives and entrepreneurs who’ve been looking at male and female behavior differences in the corporate world for decades, men brush themselves off, and, worse case scenario, project, blame, or deny (“I did not have sex with that woman”), or, best case scenarios, creatively move on with the wind, no worries.  Women call it the male ego.  Men call it life, shrug their shoulders, and say “no big deal.”

I was a very good girl, though, and spent most of the night berating the failings of my intellect, thinking myself a fraud for having made it through a graduate program, let alone, one of the world’s best, bemoaning my cultural illiteracy for not knowing who and what David Trumble is and why he did what he did, and consequently embarrassing myself on my fledgling platform, taking myself oh so seriously.  Because, as Ms. Sandberg correctly writes, “women are promoted on achievements, men are promoted on promise.”  As a writer who is building a platform, with multiple creative interests, I am convinced that I can’t make this kind of mistake, because I must get it all right as I go along.

Wrong, again.

So now I am putting on my big boy boxers, and acknowledging what I did wrong, and what I did right.  Creatively recasting, and making the points that serve my voice, because I am metaphorically wearing my Michael Jordan Hanes and exploiting the opportunity that a so-called failure provides.

First, as a responsible writer I should have taken a few minutes to Google Mr. Trumble’s name and learned more about his background, which is impressive.  I didn’t.  I wanted to post something on the blog, this seemed like content worth spending time with, and so I took the ball and ran, gender allusion by way of sports metaphor intended.

According to a brief bio on the Huffington Post:

Twenty-six year old David Trumble is an award winning artist, cartoonist and illustrator, working in diverse media from graphic art to caricatures. Critically acclaimed as a political cartoonist for Trevor Kavanagh’s column in the Sun Newspaper with a readership of eight million, he worked under the name: Trumble. David won the Dan Hemingway Prize for Creativity for his 265 page graphic novel, Climate: A Cinematic Novel in Three Parts, which was published by the Blake Project. Trumble’s work of greatest acclaim to date, are his illustrations for the upcoming Simon & Schuster publication, Random Book: About the Power of ANYone by Talia Leman—a guide for everyone who dreams of making a difference in the world. As the book’s illustrator, Trumble creates 200 unforgettable cartoons, making the art and the text almost inseparable in this publication that is expected to be a blockbuster in the U.S..

Courtesy the same HuffPo bio, I learned that Mr. Trumble’s also working on a

“[c]artoon & animated educational film curriculum” venture with Alec Urbach—social entrepreneur, filmmaker and Founder/Executive Director of the international organization Giving from the Ground Up. Together they are creating revolutionary animated science and math film curricula for elementary schools that are changing the way children are educated in developing nations. The curriculum will serve 80,000 children in Ghana by spring, 2012, and is then being translated into Spanish to serve Central and South America.

So, Mr. Trumble is one of the good guys, not merely one of the well-intentioned who don’t know better. Everything I wrote about Mr. Trumble’s work was spot on, and lies at the heart of his critique about Disney’s commodified, homogeneious princess machine.

But I didn’t read it as satire, and I erroneously accused him.  In fact, I did exactly what gets on my nerves when many feminists write on sex work.  They jump the gun about objectification, without really understanding the economic-relational-social structures that unnecessarily keep sex work stigmatized.  They don’t see that sex work is primarily an economic issue, the shame residing not in the work itself, but in society’s fears and socialized judgements.

Which leads to my second point of self-flagellation: why didn’t I see the satire?  I am adroit at irony, sarcasm, and iconoclasm. If not successfully employing it, at least seeing it and heartily respecting it.  Those who have known me since my Word Bandit days know that the Guthrie family rebel gene (Arlo and Woody, for the few who haven’t heard already) is unapologetically wired in my system.  Ambrose Bierce is also a relative — and I wear these DNA alliances with too great a pride for my own good.

Why didn’t I get it?  More telling, why aren’t so many intelligent and sophisticated women getting it?  Are we looking through a jaded lens that assumes the worse worst?  Perhaps.  But I think not.

Mr. Trumble has stated about his princess sheroes:

“The result was this cartoon, which earned equal parts praise and ire from readers. Some didn’t get the joke, some disagreed with it, others saw no harm in it at all and wanted to buy the doll versions of them… it was a polarizing image, but I suppose that’s the point. The statement I wanted to make was that it makes no sense to put these real-life women into one limited template, so why then are we doing it to our fictitious heroines?”

So while drowning in an ocean of personal failing and professional humiliation at 3:30 a.m. — SAD kicked in weeks ago, so I am ratcheting up every failed personal and professional interaction with healthy doses of drama until March or so — it occurred to me that my original blog post was as insightful as I originally thought it to be.

The knee jerk reactions to Mr. Trumble’s cartoons have merit, but not because he engaged satire. Women are used to being fixed and fixing themselves within a given set of social constructs, almost constantly.  We’re not seeing satire in these cartoons, even if it hits us upside the head.  If we’re filtering through a lens, it’s one that we wear daily, that is, we need “fixing,” a constant social adjustment here and there, to make everything better. On top of that, there’s the new bottom line for women: we need to fix that we don’t need fixing.  Yet, paradoxically, women must get it right, constantly learning new codes and rules to play by, because “women are promoted on achievements.”  Women who want to do well while doing good are constantly learning what the rules are in order achieve.  For example, we’re still schooled in the difference between assertiveness versus aggression.  Ms. Frankel writes at length on this, arguing that women in the workplace (or building a platform) must understand that aggression is still not a woman’s professional prerogative, period.  Similarly, Ms. Sandberg quickly assumes her responsibilities in outlining all she did “wrong” on her way to the top.  With her book, she’s emerged as a paradigmatic face of women’s accomplishment, for, unlike Oprah, Ms. Sandberg has always been successfully ensconced among the boys.  Her powerfully personal yet self-correcting narrative  suggests the constant social reading that women respond to daily — from the media, other women, men, the workplace, and the list goes on and on.

We need to fix that we don’t need fixing, yet those of us striving to develop our creative or professional voices find ourselves being told to adjust our behavior in order to “Play Like A Man, Win Like A Woman,” to state the problem simply and succinctly.

So it seems to this critic.

Sound exasperating?  There’s the knee jerk reaction, right there.

As Kay Adams-Corleone would say, “This behavior adjustment thing must end.” 

I wrongly accused Mr. Trumble yesterday.  But my knee jerk reaction to his satire belies what I believe to be a deeper social reality: women are tired of fixing themselves, and of being fixed in metacritical social narratives.   Perhaps it’s my all to early onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder here in the north, but it’s old and tiring, from all quarters.

Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for the critique on Disney princes, thank you very much.

Role Models And Disney Princesses

There’s a big high-five circulating on the social networks about award winning artist David Tremble’s “World Of Women” collection.

Mr. Tremble’s taken high profile sheroes and made them user friendly for little girls by transforming them into Disney princesses.

The artist has received applause from women and men for saying:  “Fiction is the lens through which young children first perceive role models, so we have a responsibility to provide them with a diverse and eclectic selection of female archetypes. Now, I’m not even saying that girls shouldn’t have princesses in their lives, the archetype in and of itself is not innately wrong, but there should be more options to choose from. So that was my intent, to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to paint an entire gender of heroes with one superficial brush.”

I agree.  The princess motif in and of itself isn’t wrong (and I know plenty of men who want to be the beautiful princess), but it’s wanting.

Girls already have an extraordinary range of fiction, i.e., fable, myth, story, fairy tale, through which to read themselves.  The ones that Disney has historically preferred follow a familiar and narrow cultural consumer construct: a beautiful princess-woman suffers some calamity, her true royal personhood obscured by evil (usually an evil woman, so the good woman and bad woman are pitted against each other), and her prince comes and saves her.

These are powerful narratives — for love overcoming all obstacles is a fundamental human truth, one deserving to be planted in the young imagination.  “Love overcomes” is usually at the princess story’s heart, the cultural stereotypes, anachronisms, and oversimplifications of good versus evil are the unfortunate baggage that rides along.

Presumably, it’s smart and compelling to take the love conquers theme, exemplified in the princess trope, and do something relevant and meaningful for women. But do we really need to have Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Rosa Parks, Anne Frank, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Goodall, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, Gloria Steinem, and Malala Yousafzai cast as glamour girls (or “princesses”) to make them important in the youthful imagination?  Is superimposing the princess motif the only way for the young to understand the historical significance of these iconic women?

Isn’t the reason these women took their place in his-story was because they refused to be princesses?  Didn’t they essentially rescue themselves?  Didn’t they have to go against the powers that be — often alone — to become the hero of their own story?

Is his-story pulling her-story back by subsuming these women into more comfortable and familiar narrative forms?

Because while love overcomes in the princess narrative, in the real world, these women are icons of unflinching warrior-like bravery, justice, and intellectual superiority, historically, the realms of power and patriarchy.  So the icons of cultural power are thus folded into a powerful visual narrative asserting that love overcomes.  My guess is that for most girls, love already looms large, and perhaps justice, intelligence, and character strength are being surreptitiously subsumed into love’s pretty gowns.

I don’t know.

There’s another issue that seems to me even deeper and more problematic: why aren’t we fixing the conspicuously absent and uninvolved princes.

Why is a well-intentioned man stepping in and helping society redefine the way little girls see themselves, by throwing sparkles all over Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s SCOTUS gown, and portraying a Holocaust victim as a magical figure of feminine power?

I don’t have children.  I can’t speak to the efficacy of recasting these women as prettied up Disney princesses.  Mr. Tremble’s re-imagined cultural artifacts look to me more like Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian wanna be’s, appropriately cleaned-up for Disney consumers.

Here’s an idea:  I would like to see Mr. Tremble address that male role model problem, the one where the good prince does absolutely zero throughout the narrative but gain control of the kingdom and acquire the ultimate spoil, the beautiful princess.  I would like to see a visual narrative in which the prince refuses to pick up a sword and acts a catalyst for social change with his head and not violence.   A prince who falls for a less than beautiful princess, because he’s smart enough to recognize beauty as a social construct.  A prince who may not be charming, but is steadfast, supportive, and unwavering in his love.  Or something similar.  Reality is malleable, there is no formula.  Just fix the prince a few times.

What I think is fairly certain is that women really don’t need any more fixing.  Please.  No more.  Men fix us.  The media fixes us.  Photoshop fixes us.  Conservatives fix us.  Liberals fix us.  The feminists fix us.  Religions fixes us..  We fix ourselves.  It’s tiring, no matter how well-intentioned a good guy Mr. Tremble would like to be, and no doubt is.  But instead of educating men on the importance of male role modeling — that is, men looking at male behavior and reinventing themselves — we’ve got the well intentioned (read: prince) coming in and helping all his princesses.  Meanwhile, the prince is still charming, and instead of helping men, he’s fixing female iconography.

That’s a big chunk of the problem.

Or how it looks to me.

 

(Here’s a link to Mr. Tremble’s original Huffington Post article:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-trumble/ten-real-world-princesses_b_3275835.html)

On Food Stamps

Several lifetimes ago, I lived on the brink of homelessness for about four years.

Had it not been for rent control, both in Manhattan and Cambridge, I would have ended up on the streets.

After barely escaping Manhattan, and washing up into the then People’s Republic, I found myself without money, without employment, and basically at life’s mercy.  Not a bad place to be, if you believe in mercy.  But it’s not a state of grace.

Mercy implies a severe power relation between the giver and receiver — to say I was at life’s mercy is not hyperbole, and should conjure the fear and trembling of being absolutely alone in the world, with anxiety pressing within and without at every given moment, as I possessed only the invisible thread called faith to get me through.

For two weeks, I didn’t eat.  A neighbor and I were talking, and she casually mentioned something about a food bank.  I don’t remember why, but it seemed an offhand reference.  I wasn’t sure, but I decided to follow up, on a hunch.  I had never been to a food bank.  Didn’t know what they were.  I wasn’t certain that I would be eligible.  I was a nice, educated white girl.  Food bank?

Walking in behind the urine and feces soaked schizophrenic who lived on Cambridge’s streets, I got the first food I had eaten in two weeks.

Food.  How many of us have gone hungry because of economics?

As a backstory, I suffered late onset eating disorders starting in my twenties — for nearly half of my adult life I never cycled, my body constantly suffering because of my relentless and unforgiving war against its many perceived imperfections.

But that was a self-imposed war.  I made the rules, and I could decide when and how to punish myself, with whatever tools I had at my disposal.

This was a different war: this was an economic war.  No longer was it beauty or body image or deep and unforgiving self-loathing furiously carried out against myself, with food or lack thereof being one weapon in my arsenal.  This was a multilayered economic struggle to stay off the street, keep some semblance of what still remained of my mind — which was tenuous at best — and acquire life’s basics that we usually take for granted:  toilet paper, shampoo, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, and food.

For four years, the divide between myself and that intolerable smelling waste soaked homeless schizophrenic grew thinner and thinner, and food deprivation  was no longer simply a handgun my arsenal of self-destructive behaviors.  Not eating for two weeks was relatively doable, when I wrote the rules.  This new game was part of a larger more consequential fight that I might not survive, and I understood that the house of cards called my life was dangerously close to collapsing.

I might be the next one soaked in urine and feces, a leper of circumstance and mental disenfranchisement.

The food bank had muffins in the front.  My eyes immediately fixated on them when I walked in.

“I haven’t eaten,” I asked, “do you mind?”  My voice was sheepish, and, I believe, nearly inaudible, the beggar’s bucket being a newly acquired handbag.

“No, of course not.  That’s why they are there.”

I must have eaten four, without breathing.  I didn’t think about my body, how many calories were in each bite, or whether or not I’d purge on a box of laxatives after the fact.  I just ate.  The sugar hit my bloodstream giving me a badly needed energy jolt, and a joyful euphoria, making my gratitude as much biological as transcendental.  The woman looked at me, and asked, “Have you thought of applying for food stamps?  You can get food stamps, you know.  Are you working?  Have you thought of unemployment?”  She asked as if the answer were obvious.  No, I wasn’t working.  No, I wasn’t getting any assistance.

“How do I do that,” I said.  I hadn’t a clue.  Weren’t food stamps for people on welfare?  Women with kids?  Blacks?  I was a single white woman, shouldn’t I be working and paying bills?

Unemployment?  I’d never done that.

That day, after waiting my turn behind the schizophrenic, I took home two bags of food: dry and canned goods, a bit of produce, drying out bread and muffins, and I ate every bite found in those bags with gratitude.

In a few days, I got the food stamps.  Eventually, I got the unemployment.

There were no EBT cards in those days.  I had to pull out the the scripts, and pay with the stamps themselves.  No mistaking the fact that the government was giving me 123 dollars to buy food.   Every so often, I could see the acrimony in the eyes of those who failed to understand why a white girl needed to use food stamps, when obviously I should be able to just go and “get a job.”

Well, no.  That was the issue.  I couldn’t.  I was barely sane, quite literally.  People joke about being crazy.  I have the papers to prove it.

If I had been black or brown or red, there would have been a whole other series of criticisms and stereotypes in those gazes, because the judgement just would have taken a different form.  The presumption being that people on food stamps want a hand out.  So we return to one of the oldest arguments in the book, and one that currently falls on a deaf and dumb Congress and too many of its misguided supporters: people don’t want a hand out.  Given a choice, they really do enjoy thriving and excelling when given opportunity.  They sometimes need help.  All of us need hope.  The costs incurred when people don’t have food and opportunity outweighs any costs that we incur when a few people take advantage of the system.  Mind numbingly so.

The cost of giving food assistance to our fellow citizens is marginal compared to the corporate welfare handouts that we’ve seen doled out over the past decade in the name of economic stimulus. We may have needed that stimulus, but there’s an equally important stimulus: to our fellow citizens, people just like ourselves, and the promise each carries in their lives, to live, to grow, to prosper, to contribute.

Without those government handouts, I never would have survived.

Nor would I have gone onto to graduate school, graduated with a 3.91 G.P.A. earned Dean’s Honors, and be working on a book that will give many the hope they need, because they’ve been unnecessarily stigmatized for no good reason other than a few bad stories that need some editing in the collective consciousness.

Hope.  It’s not a political brand for a Presidential campaign.

Sometimes, it’s free muffins and food stamps.

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance Of Larry Flynt, Part III

If you’re not going to offend someone, you don’t need the First Amendment.

—  Larry Flynt

On March 6, 1978, Larry Flynt was shot outside a courthouse during an obscenity trail and it left him paralyzed.

What many don’t know is that Flynt’s shooter was sniper Joseph Paul Franklin, a serial killer who went on rampages through the south targeting black men and whites who had sex with blacks, at least in the first part of his career.  Franklin once said that he didn’t bother with black women, because “they weren’t worth his time.”  Obsessed with white supremacy and purity, he entertained fantasies of renting a small plane, loading it with poison, flying to Chicago, and systematically spraying the south side to kill as many “darkies” as possible.

Flynt bore Franklin’s wrath because Hustler published the first interracial spread.

Unlike Hefner or Guccione who work(ed) entirely within America’s race-class system, and whose content allowed their gentlemen readers to identify with a construct of the cultured white alpha male who has unlimited access to the prettiest white pussy money can buy, Larry broke new ground.  The first inter-racial spread was consistent with Larry’s founding of Hustler: he understood himself as poor white trash, and he wanted to make porn for the working man.  He saw Hustler as breaking free from a “bullshit” class system.  No airbrushing.  No faux arts and culture articles.  Abominable low-brow humor.  He has always seen himself as an iconoclast, and takes deliberate shots at the status quo.

Hustler deserves its reputation — but there’s an interesting caveat, that I respect even if it comes from a ‘let’s shock and sell’ business model.  I come from a poor white trash background, and I empathize with Larry’s ‘fuck you’ to the status quo and its wardrobe of numbing hypocrisies.   In his mixed race spread, Larry gave his African American models humanity.  Blacks and whites were equal in this photo feature.  The original spread, if you can still find it, has none of the characteristic Hustler denigration, potty humor, go for the lowest common denominator and create controversy tenor.  Instead, Larry portrayed his African American models equal to the Caucasian models, and there’s a deliberately executed, beautiful charm to these photos, a non-exploitive eroticism, if one isn’t offended by seeing naked men and women embrace, couple, exchange pleasure.

Playboy would not have its first black centerfold until 1990, because, apparently, black women “weren’t worth their time.”  But here’s Larry, in the late 1970’s having the audacity to show one-on-one interracial couplings, without a smidgen of racist narrative, other than simply exploiting sex for its own sake.

And he took a bullet for it.

The financial cabal behind the 1978 obscenity charges again rose to the challenge when Larry famously satirized so-called Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell.  (If interested, google ‘Charles Keating savings and loan’ for more on this righteous lot.)  Supported by the financial cabal, Falwell sued Larry citing emotional distress over a cartoon that depicted Falwell’s first sexual encounter being with his mother in an outhouse.

Stunningly bad and vintage Flynt “humor.”

Eventually, the case made it’s way to the Supreme Court.  Flynt won.  The decision in favor of Flynt was unanimous, and a great milestone in First Amendment decisions.  If you read SCOTUS decisions, you glean subtitles.  In Texas v. Johnson, for example, the case which protects flag burning, there’s near acrimony in the dissent and final response, a 5-4 decision, with conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist leading the dissent.

But in Hustler v. Falwell, there’s no such tension.  Rehnquist wrote and delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court.  Near its conclusion, the decision quotes the FCC v. Pacifica (1978):

[T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection. For it is a central tenet of the First Amendment that the government must remain neutral in the marketplace of ideas.

Larry Flynt, white trash smut monger who gets zero respect from the feminists, the morality police, the article reading, status conscious white men who fancy themselves lovers of women and better than Hustler’s depravity, takes on the status quo, gets his case heard before the SCOTUS, and wins a unanimous decision written by the court’s conservative Chief Justice, protecting and ensuring the rights of all of the aforementioned holier than Flynts.

As “poor white trash” Flynt recognizes the inherent dehumanization and hypocrisy of the class system (“I exploit women like McDonald’s exploits hamburgers”), he doesn’t bury this truth, and he takes keen shots at it while being a knowing participant in it.  He makes no apologies — rather, he makes iconoclastic inroads.

The depravity isn’t in the porn, the depravity is an economic system whose entire structure relies on exploitation.  Being the class conscious outsider, of all the porn peddlers, Larry is the only one who seems to recognize the depth and breadth of the system’s game.

You don’t have to like what he does.  I respect that his smut mongering is executed with greater cognizance than those who are socialized into the system, but without a clue as to its economic underpinnings.  I therefore return to the laborious background I offered in Part I —  as a pretenseless smut peddler, Larry sees the system more clearly than the educated elite who ignore women’s studies in deference to his-story, female Harvard undergraduates who unwittingly fail to defend powerless women, or any of the well educated, highly regarded social leaders who cathartically punish (or worse, underpay) their sex workers because they haven’t a clue as to how to deal with their closeted demons.

Larry’s First Amendment win further guaranteed  those of us concerned with social inequality and the system’s inclusive evolution the right to use image and language in the most colorful ways that our imaginations can bring to bear on discourse, impolitely exposing our cultural hypocrisies one insult at a time.