After Birth, by Elisa Albert


After Birth - Elisa Albert

As we approach Mother’s Day in the U.S., pop culture has lately been reassuring me that my decision to never have children is a good one.

Most recently, I went to see the movie Tully, in which a woman who’s just had her third child struggles to sleep and care for herself until finally she relents and accepts her brother’s gift of a night nanny. Life for her improves markedly, perhaps magically (for a reason).

Inspired by Tully, I consciously chose to read After Birth. Might as well ride this wave of mother-related trauma, I thought. The novel follows Ari, a first time mother, over the course of three months, her son just turning one. It flashes back to when she was pregnant, endured what she feels was a needless C-section, and when what is likely to be post-partum depression ensues.

In its bitterness, its sometimes funny rants and ambivalence about Jewish identity, After Birth felt of a piece with Albert’s first novel, The Book of Dahlia, which I read last year. I admired that book for its stubbornly unforgiving protagonist, dying of brain cancer. Similarly, Ari’s often caustic, volatile voice, her resentment at modern birth practices and various mothering cliques, as well as the unnecessary isolation of motherhood, was often refreshing to read. Sometimes, however, it became a bit much for me.

Ari wrestles with her past, doomed relationships with other women, including her mean mother, who died of cancer when she was young, former friends, roommates, lovers. In the present, she befriends and helps a new mom who was in a seminal feminist band. This relationship enables Ari to “grow up,” to perhaps become less judgmental or bitter about the women in her life, and those who may become a part of her life.

Like everything else, motherhood in the U.S. has become commodified, both as an inextricable part of the health care industry and as a way to sell “stuff” that mothers have done without for ages. The most valuable, engaging aspect of After Birth is the insistence that, however individual birth plans and approaches to mothering may be, women are not meant to raise children on their own (whether there’s a man or not); we’re meant to help each other.

Original post:

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

The X-Files: Just How “Familiar”?

For the most part, I’ve found the latest (and perhaps final, for realsies) season of the X-Files to be pretty darn good, those typically interminable Chris Carter episodes notwithstanding. I’ve even begun outlining a gigantic post about how the show was my first real fannish obsession, the show that taught me how to be a fan.

One of the things I’ve been appreciating about this season is its clear engagement with our current political, social climate. The original run of episodes, those that told us “The Truth Is Out There,” quite obviously represented the concerns and fears of creators who lived during Watergate and the Cold War. In a time when “the truth” and facts are easily dismissed as “fake news” while lies are defended as “alternative facts,” this season of the show has its characters respond accordingly–even the FBI itself is in the crosshairs of this administration.

This is why I struggled with “Familiar,” the episode from this week. I don’t know when it was written, though it sure looked cold when it was filmed, actors’ breaths visible. I wonder because I couldn’t help reading its metaphorical and literal witch hunt through the lens of #metoo. I’ve developed a pet peeve so peevish it borders on rage when “witch hunt” is evoked to describe the tide of accusations against men in power and to defend them. Of course, it’s not the first time the term’s been used in regards to men–McCarthyism comes to mind. But it’s the first time I’m familiar with where the “hunters” were women, and the “hunt” was global and revolved around misogyny.

“Familiar” also attempts to comment on contemporary concerns, but I struggled to interpret just which, specifically. Mulder associates “witch hunt” with a lack of due process or assumption of innocence, as when the sex offender is beaten by a police officer and crowd, then killed by that same officer. This has also been a criticism of #metoo despite the fact that most consequences accused men have experienced do not involve criminal charges where due process applies.

Later, the officer is let off easy by a judge, which Mulder predicts. One may think of the countless real world law enforcement officers similarly treated when accused of murdering black victims. The judge in the episode, btw, is black. So is the one officer not susceptible to the supernatural madness that has overtaken the town. I don’t know what to make of these representations.

The townsfolk are “taking the law into their own hands,” though the violence begins with a wrong that is not illegal (though cause for divorce) but a sin: marital infidelity. The wife wants to punish the other woman, then her husband. She calls upon a power she can’t control in order to do so instead of, what? Murdering them directly? Getting a divorce? What is the message here? Without a clear real world correlative, a bizarre, offensive response to #metoo is the only commentary I could take away, and the episode might even have been written before the movement.

Chris Carter didn’t write the episode, but I also couldn’t help but remember that time he and Howard Gordon were sued for sexual harassment by a woman who worked on the show.

I didn’t hate the episode. In many ways, it was the most reminiscent of a classic MOTW episode. It also gave us a Scully we haven’t seen as much of as late: the skeptic, scientist Scully, though she apparently still needs a man to defend her point of view when another man questions it.

The X-Files: Just How “Familiar”?

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier


My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

I thought to read this, my second du Maurier novel, after recently seeing the film adaptation with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. The story balances upon the question of whether or not Rachel is a villain. I was interested to know if the novel might be more definitive about the answer, and it seems to me it is. (Also, I enjoyed reading Rebecca.)

Perhaps because I saw the film first, it felt more like a mystery than the novel. The novel illuminates even more the influence of perspective, as it’s written from Philip’s (English, young, male landowner) first person point of view. I was most engaged with the novel in those moments when I questioned his perspective and instead considered Rachel’s. I’ve started keeping a reading diary, and many of my notes focus on the ways in which Philip is ignorant: for example, he finds Rachel (like all women) to be mercurial and emotionally manipulative while he himself is often moody and simply ignorant of the effect his words and actions can have. Though almost 25, he’s childish, and like a child, grows churlish when his immaturity is pointed out to him.

I was also interested by the character of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather. She’s clearly interested in marrying Philip, and the whole county, including Rachel, is behind the idea. Philip is resistant; he at first wants to remain a bachelor as his beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose was for so long. He’s also unused to the company of women and has a narrow view of them and marriage. What interested me most was that Louise is the first character to voice suspicions about Rachel; later in the story, at a key moment, she once again wonders about Rachel’s character and possible misdeeds. This novel is not one in which all the men or all the women are wrong; it’s more nuanced, thankfully.

My Cousin Rachel low-key critiques privileged male perspectives and women’s roles through its storytelling techniques. The writing and narrative are engaging as well, and I look forward to my next du Maurier.

Original post:

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

How About a No-Ratings Option?

Since Netflix announced it’s switching from five star to thumbs up/thumbs down ratings, there’s been a flurry of internet news and culture site articles reporting the change in the oddest of ways. These articles (google and read any three) explain the change, Netflix’s reasoning (increasing user ratings, which somehow translates to better ratings for its own programming, and better personal recommendations)…then, somewhere, shoehorn in the recent trolling of Amy Schumer’s The Leather Special.  It’s just dropped there like a mic, or briefly discussed as a “problem” with the current ratings system, though the connection is never explained.

In addition to giving reddit trolls the notoriety they thrive on–Schumer’s response on social media has derided not the trolls but those reporting it like it’s news–the illusion that they have real power (other than the power to annoy and make streaming and other pop culture sites feel like just another space hostile to women), none of these articles actually name the real problem, which is misogyny.

Acknowledging that I understand little when it comes to website algorithms, my first question about the new system is: How would a thumbs up/down system change trolling? Won’t it be just as easy to thumb down a title you want to trash? How will the “compatibility” factor affect a rating?

Additionally, I wonder what will happen with all the star ratings users have given over the years, including mine. Will they be “translated” into a thumbs up or down? What average star rating would constitute a thumbs up or down?

I took part in the survey Netflix used to assess the star rating system and possible alternatives. I can’t clearly recall all the questions or my responses, but even before the survey, I’d been thinking about ratings across various sites. I was excited when I read Netflix was overhauling its system and hoped for the best. I’ll give the new system a shot (I don’t have a choice, much like with the annoying music now playing when I highlight a title on my Xbox app or my inability to add a title to my streaming queue from the DVD site as I previously could), but what I really want is the option to turn off or hide ratings altogether, whether stars or thumbs up/down.

Netflix isn’t the only site where trolls target specific titles with a campaign of negative ratings. The Leather Special has been voted down on IMDb and Letterboxd as well, and Schumer’s book was targeted on Amazon. Women-driven films like 2016’s Ghostbusters were given low ratings before being released, and I noticed the same with the James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro. Sometimes ratings “recover” after those who’ve actually seen/read and enjoyed the title contribute, but not fully (I Am Not Your Negro‘s rating is a 7/10 on IMDb, which is likely lower than it otherwise would be). I stopped using IMDb other than for show times precisely because I could no longer put up with that kind of bullshit. Though the site states some votes count more than others to avoid exactly this kind of problem, and they recently did away with the viper’s nests that were the discussion boards, it remains too hostile an environment for me to frequent.

Beyond trolling, I also wonder how useful ratings of any kind truly are to me as a viewer/reader. My reading and watching tastes are eclectic. I’m not denying that some suggestions are accurate, that the data gathered from my use of sites is useful–to the sites themselves. Having recently read Dexter Palmer’s novel Version Control, data as identity is on my mind. But if it’s profitable to corporations, I want to at least benefit from it myself.

What ratings do is (negatively) affect what I choose to watch and, sometimes, read. A title looks interesting or was recommended, but,  oh, it’s only got a two-star rating. Pass. Or, a title’s got five stars, so it should be awesome, but, eh, it didn’t meet expectations. Ratings (and the proliferation of online opinions) also turn me into a little critic; as I watch/read, I’m already writing a review in my mind or imagining what rating I’ll give it instead of, you know, engaging with the story. I can take responsibility for these habits, but helping to control them requires a degree of personalization most sites don’t offer.

When I look at reviews on Netflix, negative ones in particular, it becomes clear how stupid and unhelpful people’s gripes with films and shows can be. If the reviews are an indication of the reasoning behind low ratings then I’d rather not bother at all.

For consumers, ratings are supposed to help them find content they’re likely to enjoy and avoid what they’re less likely to enjoy. Viewers and readers have long used critics’ reviews and friends’ recommendations for these purposes and still do. Online ratings are like “word of mouth” on a large scale, except virtually none of these people are your friends, and, depending on the film/show/book, very few write like legit critics.

In the past, when I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly, I would sometimes abstain from reading a review of a film I was eager to see because a negative review would make me seek flaws. Sometimes I also just didn’t want my buzz harshed. Browsing films and books online, I can’t avoid seeing what a pile of crap others have found something to be, or, sometimes worse, how mediocre. When those ratings may not even reflect a film/show/book’s actual viewership/readership, why should I have to see them?

At the end of the day, my desire for a no-ratings option isn’t about rating accuracy or finding new content. It’s about agency and control over my own viewing/reading experience.


How About a No-Ratings Option?

Women March. I Write.

The Women’s March on Washington, 1/21/17

Because I’ve been living under a rock  since the election (as in, not using Facebook or watching national news on television, though I’ve been FB-absent longer), I did not know about the Women’s March on Washington until it was happening. I’m especially aggravated with myself because of course there are sister marches across the country and around the world, and I could have participated here in Milwaukee. Instead, I watched a live stream, instantly on the verge of tears listening to the various speakers and seeing the crowd, an inspiring, comforting, empowering vision.

What could and can I do? I can write.

I teach at a women’s college and remind myself periodically how lucky I am to be working with women of various ages, backgrounds, and races. It is one way I consider myself to be contributing in some small but hopefully felt way to women’s lives, including my own. My college also has a history of activism; one of its core abilities is Effective Citizenship, and each year there’s a Community Day where students and staff participate in community service. Teaching mainly first year students, one of my responsibilities is to help make them aware of how they can become involved on campus. A representative from Student Services comes, and one of the things he talks about is opportunities to volunteer in the community. The past few years I’ve personally felt compelled to serve beyond teaching and kept a volunteer booklet for myself. Spring and summer are less busy times for me, and I hope to choose an organization and volunteer soon.

But before a teacher or volunteer, I am a writer. My poems are feminist, and I’ve been trying to get my manuscript/doctoral dissertation published for the past handful of years. I wonder if, in this post-Obama, pro-conservative climate, my writing might have a larger readership amongst the many who are angry, as I and my poetry are.

I’ve had newer poems waiting in the wings, but haven’t written anything in several months. The worldwide marches have given me a kick-in-the-pants, and with the live stream as accompaniment, I finally set about organizing some scattered notes for a poem or group of poems.

I don’t write overtly political poems, but I write what is otherwise silenced in me, either by my own fears or by others. I’ve been unsure how to go about my life in this new reality, but writing is one thing I can always do. Writing, sharing, reading, feeling less alone and frightened but never less angry.

Women March. I Write.