Tag Archives: women

Gender and Nation at War

A couple of weeks ago, the Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, in the context of a conversation about what could stop terror attacks like the recent murder of three Israeli teenagers, suggested that “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped.”  Kedar, as he himself pointed out in the interview, was not suggesting the use of such a tactic, but rather pointing to what he felt was the only possible deterrent to terror attacks: the threat of violence against women.

Judah Maccabee

Judah Maccabee

Regardless of whether one agrees with Kedar or not, his comments, taken together with other recent events related to the Israeli military, the current campaign in Gaza, and internal Israeli protests for and against the war, point to the gendered discourse on which Israeli culture and society was built.  Contemporary definitions of an Israeli Jewish masculinity dependent on military domination arose out of 19th-century conceptions of the European Jewish diaspora.  In this formulation, adopted by early Zionists and promulgated by Theodor Herzl’s colleague Max Nordau, European Jewish culture had become, by the late 19th century, “abnormal,” particularly with regard to gender relations.  In enlightenment critiques, Jewish women, who were traditionally (even if not always actually) breadwinners for their scholar-husbands, were portrayed as emasculating tyrants, and traditional Jewish men as weak, impotent sidekicks to their powerful wives.  Nordau and other early Zionists picked up on this critique, and claimed one of the goals of Zionism as the “normalization” of gender within the Jewish community, such that Jewish men would be restored to their rightful status as heirs to Jewish heroes like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, whom Nordau claimed were “the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.”  This desire to re-gender Jewish men was at the heart of the image of the New Jew, modeled on Nordau’s ideal of a Jewish national body made up of “deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”

This image of the New Jew is deep at the heart of the Israeli self-image and social constructions of gender in Israeli society.  The connection between militarization and masculinity is inextricably entwined with the ideological roots of Zionism.  Kedar’s comments generally reflect the way in which gender and power are conceived in Israeli culture and specifically reflect the way in which rape, or the threat of rape, functions not just as a tool of war but as a mode of constructing and maintaining the ideal of the male Israeli soldier-citizen, an image crucial to Israel’s national identity and self-consciousness.  I am not discussing here the way in which individual Israelis or individual men or women understand themselves within these ideological and historical terms, but the way in which Israeli self-image as a whole has been discursively constructed – through speech, image, and ideology – on the basis of a particular, and dangerous, conception of gender.

Kedar’s comments reveal the basic assumption that the bodies of women are in some fundamental way identified with the nation, and that their violation would thus constitute an act of war.  As the scholar Susan Sered notes in her study What Makes Women Sick?, “…what lies behind the determination to keep women out of combat positions is a sense that because women symbolize the collective, rape of a woman – unlike rape or torture of a man – is an affront to the honor of the state….The rape of a woman soldier is construed as equivalent to the rape of the Jewish people.”  Kedar simply reverses this formulation, assuming the same logic applies to the terrorist enemy.

stand with idfBut in constructing women as inherent victims, by making their bodies contiguous with the battlefield, the role of women in war is relegated to that of sex object.  Indeed, recent photos posted on the Facebook page “Standing with IDF” of partially naked women with messages of support for the Israeli army scrawled on their bodies is consistent with the notion that women’s bodies support the war effort through a deployment of their sexuality, not through their service.

In a parallel example, when the young recruit Udi Segal recently refused his service in the IDF, protestors at the draft office where he was due to report for service taunted him by calling it his “gay coming out party” and yelled at his supporters to “Go get fucked in the ass!”  The same gendered logic that relegates women’s role in war to that of victim or sex object cannot reconcile the image of a man who refuses to be a soldier.  Since masculinity is synonymous with military service in Israeli culture, a man who does not serve, must, by this logic, be gendered or sexed differently.

It appears that this logic also extends beyond just service in the military, but also to support (or criticism) of military actions.  Several recent accounts of demonstrations or attacks against peace protesters in Israel have noted similar language leveled at them for supporting peace.  The journalist Haggai Matar wrote that violent attacks against peace protesters in Tel Aviv were “accompanied by swearing and sexual threats”; Moriel Rothman-Zecher wrote that at the same protest counter-demonstrators shouted, as they did to Udi Segal and his supporters, “You all get fucked in the ass”; and Rebecca Hughes notes that she has seen “blue and white dildos waved threateningly at peace protestors” – a literalization of the idea of the masculine state using sexual violence as a means of domination.

All of these scenes are what naturally follow from the equation of masculinity with militarism in a society in which participation in the military is a condition of citizenship.  The scenario proposed by Mordechai Kedar does not need to be carried out in order for the danger to be real: for women, certainly, but also for a society precariously balanced on the assumption of women’s victimization and highly gendered conceptions of power.

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Of Moss and Women

ImagePoor Elizabeth Gilbert.  She wrote one sensational best-seller (good for her, by the way) and now, no matter what she writes and how meticulously researched, emotionally precise, and just plain good it is, nobody can let her forget that she once wrote a book that has been relegated to the denigrated category of popular literature.  It’s a shame that not one reviewer (at least, that I could find) of her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, was able to refrain from mentioning, often with a hint of malice, her previous success.  Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, couldn’t help but speculate that the heroine of her new novel, Alma Whittaker, “would never have read the 19th-century equivalent of Ms. Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.”  Oh, please.

It’s a shame because The Signature of All Things is terrific.  As anyone who reads this blog probably knows by now, I have a weakness for a good 19th-century novel, and Gilbert’s story seems to take its cues both from the novel of manners and the adventure novel as it follows Alma, whose life spans most of the century.  Incidentally, another critique that seems to repeat in several published reviews regards the implausibility of the adventure part of the plot, which seems to me to be a stretch.   First, people, it’s fiction – implausible things are allowed, even supposed, to happen when you make things up – and second, have you not read any other novels ever?  Because, say, Around the World in Eighty Days doesn’t seem very plausible either, but it is so good that people still read it more than a hundred years after it was published.  And no one except a very fusty scholar indeed would ever bother to read a book review that was more than a hundred years old.  So there.  Elizabeth Gilbert 1, reviewers 0.

I’m a huge sucker for exactly this kind of novel, and it doesn’t disappoint.  It’s ambitious, detailed, dramatic, even delightfully implausible.  Implausibility, after all, is why I read fiction.  My real life is depressingly plausible enough.  It follows Alma, a character whom it is impossible to root against, for all her faults, through the turns and twists of an entire life, and nearly an entire century.  And what a century it was!  This novel focuses in particular on the world-changing scientific developments that shook the 19th century, culminating with Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, through the marginal perspective of what used to be called a “polite botanist” – that is, a botanist with two X chromosomes.  Alma, confined to the boundaries of her father’s palatial estate by her mother’s dying wish and the customs of her time, becomes an expert in mosses, discovering a universe in the humblest, most overlooked plants.

ImageAlma, like her mosses, is an unassuming creature who contains worlds.  As she unlocks the secrets of moss we watch as she also unlocks human secrets: love, jealousy, regret, resentment, friendship, humility.  The parts of the novel that reviewers found implausible I found essential to this process, which is central to the momentum and meaning of the novel.  These plot twists seemed to form the crucible in which Alma’s character develops, necessary not only to the plot and forward motion of the novel but also to its slow internal flowering, the blossoming of human understanding and universal sympathy that good books offer a reader.  Perhaps part of what reviewers saw as implausibility, other than some of the wilder plot elements, was the way in which Alma became a kind of feminist hero by the end of the novel, but this seemed to me to be one of its strengths, in imagining, or reimagining, the kind of life that has always been absent from history.

One other note on the discomfort this book seemed to cause in its official readers: Gilbert’s depiction of sex, sexuality, and gender here is far more fluid, and less bounded, than our culture likes it to be.  I can’t help but wonder if “implausibility” is just code for “this does not fit into any category I have ever known and therefore I don’t like it.”  As a contrarian in these matters, I rather appreciated the novel’s attempt to normalize behavior and desires that both within and outside of the context of the story might be unclassifiable, like, perhaps, a never-before-seen species of moss.

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Small Worlds

ImageThis summer, looking for something to read and with a few minutes to spare before an appointment, I popped into the Powell’s Books on Lincoln in Chicago to pick something up.  I had no clear idea of what I wanted, so I browsed the fiction shelves for something interesting.  About midway through I came across a clutch of Alice Munro books, and I immediately plucked one off the shelf.  I’ve never read an Alice Munro story I didn’t like, a streak kept intact through my reading of Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  When, a few months after I bought the book, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was delighted, particularly because the type of fiction she writes is so infrequently rewarded appropriately: Munro writes only short stories deeply focused on the interior lives of her characters, most of the them women, without literary pyrotechnics or dramatic plotlines.  Yet her stories are some of the most moving and satisfying works of fiction I’ve ever read.

This collection was made famous (or what passes for famous among the cultural elite) by the filmmaker Sarah Polley, who adapted the story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” into the award-winning 2006 film “Away from Her.”  The story is in many ways representative of Munro’s work (although, interestingly, the protagonist and main consciousness in “The Bear” is a man): it has few characters, minimal dialogue, is focused on the interior lives of its characters and in particular on the secrets and mysteries inherent in human relationships.  The story focuses on an aging, childless couple who have moved to a rural area to escape a scandal related to the husband’s affair with a young student of his at the university where he once taught.  Though relatively young, Fiona, the wife, begins to exhibit symptoms of dementia, and her husband places her in an assisted-living facility nearby.  There, losing her memory, she develops a relationship with another resident, a mute and brain-damaged man who dotes on her in a way her husband did not.  Her unfaithful husband finds himself in the unfamiliar position of the jealous spouse, experiencing a kind of karmic payback for his years of infidelity.  At the same time, the story gently and tenderly dissects their decades-long relationship, exposing to light the kinds of feelings and desires that often remain hidden, even to the most devoted of spouses.

There is rarely, if ever, an uncomplicated or unmessy relationship in a Munro story.  She tends to explore the underside of love: the forbidden desires, repressed resentments, concealed infidelities (large and small), and petty jealousies that are inescapable for human couples.  My favorite Munro stories tend to be her classic type, in which we follow the consciousness of a young woman in rural Canada, usually in the 1950s or 60s, as she navigates her way toward becoming her own person in a world that demands far less of her than that.  Perhaps that’s because these seem closest to Munro’s heart as well, and follow the details of her own life in some of their particulars: the dissatisfaction with young wife- and motherhood, the longing for meaningful experiences, the battle against low expectations for women.  The lives and experiences of these characters couldn’t be further from my own, yet I nearly always identify with them personally; even when I don’t, I am always, invariably, rooting for them to succeed, or persevere, or simply be who they want to be.

Not long before she won the Nobel Prize, Alice Munro announced that she was going to stop writing, because she has been writing and publishing since she was 20 years old (she’s now 82) and she was ready to retire.  Although she intimated that after winning the prize she might reconsider her decision, I’m glad that I haven’t even come close to making it through her entire oeuvre, so there are still many new Alice Munro stories for me to stumble across and savor.

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Female Breadwinners = Death of Civilization?

I think not.  You can read my thoughts on the topic here.

 

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When Life Imitates Art

Yesterday it was reported that a group of female Israeli Defense Forces soldiers were reprimanded for uploading racy photos of themselves to Facebook.   There was a predictable amount of outrage, although some defended the young women and suggested that the photos were a representation of age-appropriate pranksterish behavior.  Perhaps most astutely, a couple of blog posts, one at the Forward and the other on Open Zion, have linked the photos and their interpretation to gender, and in particular to gender roles and expectations in the Israeli military.

Max Nordau.  Not so muscular himself, I'm afraid.

Max Nordau. Not so muscular himself, I’m afraid.

The link between masculinity and militarism in Israeli culture traces its roots to late nineteenth-century Zionism, and the physician Max Nordau’s Muskeljudentum movement.  Nordau advocated the transformation of the Jews from fearful, cloistered students into, as he wrote, “deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”  These new muscle Jews would be the heirs of Jewish heroes like Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, whom Nordau saw as “the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry.”  This image of the tough fighter became the basis for the ideal of the New Hebrew Man, and was later embodied by the macho commandos of the IDF.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that female bodies play a subversive role in the context of the Israeli military.  The idea that women and gender complicate Israeli military ideals is not new.   Shani Boianjiu’s 2012 novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, follows the lives of three young female recruits in the IDF, young women much like the half-naked soldiers holding machine guns that have circulated on the internet in the last two days. (I have written at length about the novel here.)  The protagonists of The People of Forever and their own motivations for similar acts of resistance reveal the ways in which these pictures comprise a challenge not just to military culture generally but to specifically Israeli ideals of masculinity and militarism.

people of foreverBoianjiu’s book cracks open the façade of the New Hebrew Man to reveal the misogynist rot at its core.  In one relevant episode, Avishag, a soldier serving on the border with Egypt, tries to stop a truck full of women she knows are being trafficked from crossing the border, but is prevented from doing so by her male commanding officer.  He, following military protocol, allows the driver through because all his papers are in order.  In protest, Avishag retreats to her guard tower, where she strips naked and lies down on the floor.  Her defiance might have gone unremarked, but for a curious Egyptian border guard who catches sight of her and sparks a “diplomatic incident.”  Avishag, like the soldiers in the recent photos, is lightly disciplined.

The form of Avishag’s protest – exposing the female body – reveals what is concealed under the monolithic uniform of the conscript.  By revealing her body, Avishag gives the lie to the masculinist ideal of the Israeli soldier as New Hebrew Man.  She refuses her role as soldier in a military that is itself complicit, both explicitly and implicitly, in the oppression of and violence against women.  In doing so, Avishag exposes the fragility of the fantasy of the militaristic, hyper-masculine Israeli.

Like Avishag’s nakedness, the recent photos of scantily clad female IDF soldiers strike me not as a youthful prank or thoughtless joke, but as a serious form of protest.  The women in the photos hold their guns to their chests, half-covering their bare breasts, but their real weapons are their own bodies.  These photos force us to acknowledge those bodies, and their difference, and consider what the very existence of the female Israeli soldier means for both the Israeli military and Israeli culture as a whole.

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Loving Little Women

ImageI can’t remember how many times I’ve read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; at least twice, maybe more; add to that at least one bad film adaptation (Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne, anyone?).  When I picked it up this time, I already knew that Beth was going to die and Jo would turn Laurie down, and I assumed that I could read the book from the perspective of a detached observer, concerned primarily with its vaunted feminism, progressive politics, and practical philosophy.  Yet page 390 found me sobbing silently (embarrassed, I didn’t want my husband or kids to ask why I was crying) over Beth’s passing, as did a handful of lesser tragedies; I often found myself comforted by Marmee’s wise words of advice to her girls and empathized deeply with the small indignities of the Marches’ genteel poverty.  Plenty of moments in the book also made me cringe or scoff, but Little Women clearly retains tremendous emotional power, despite its flaws.  I found myself wondering how this nearly 150-year-old book could feel so present and relevant in the age of antibiotics and divorce?

The answer, in more ways than one, is Jo.  Although Little Women is ostensibly about the March family, and dwells in detail on the lives of all the four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—Jo March is the true protagonist and heroine of the novel.  And who doesn’t love Jo?  She’s a free-spirited tomboy who cares little for social graces and mores, values her own independence above all else, and trusts her instincts, even when they run counter to expectation.  She’s also a quick-tempered hothead, but even her supposed faults look like virtues to those of us who—even now—thrill to see a female character speak her mind.

Aside from being one of the most appealing female characters in the history of literature, Jo is also the center of the novel’s socially and morally progressive message.  And it is a message: in a passage that is almost certainly ironic, the editor of a paper to which Jo is trying to sell her stories tells her, “People want to be amused, not preached at, you know.  Morals don’t sell nowadays.”  Little Women seems to consciously challenge this proscription by preaching and entertaining, and the degree to which it remains a beloved book is the measure of its success.  Its moral, played out through the trajectory of Jo’s development, is as appealing now as in the Gilded Age: work confers dignity, poverty is not ignoble, being true to oneself is more important than money or prestige.

Image

Louisa May Alcott

Sometimes the moral sincerity of Little Women is irritating, but more often I found myself seduced by it.  Perhaps it’s just because I identified with the financial stresses on the March family, most of whom work at noble professions for little remuneration.  Like them my husband and I also work hard at things we love that we feel confer value on society but often struggle to make ends meet and give our kids the comfortable life we hoped to.   But who could fail to be both inspired and comforted by Marmee’s speech to the girls on love and money (and the dangers of their mutual imbrication): “My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world – marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting.  Money is a needful and precious thing – and when well used, a noble thing – but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.  I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”  I felt like Marmee was speaking directly to me.  While it may be silly to take counsel and comfort from a novel, I always have, and reading this I realized that all the choices I’ve made in my life that I question every day were the right ones (for the record, the one choice I never question is my choice of husband, since that was so obviously a good decision – it’s the other ones I worry over).  So thank you, Marmee and Louisa May, for that.

Again it is Jo who embodies this advice and its morality of choice when she confounds the traditional marriage plot by refusing to marry Laurie, the wealthy and handsome friend of her youth.  She tells him, “I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man.”  As it turns out, Jo does eventually marry, accepting the proposal of the older, poor, German scholar Professor Bhaer.  But while marriage to Laurie would have meant a life of leisure, in which the dictates of her high position would have circumscribed her choices tremendously, marriage to the poor Professor necessitates that Jo continue to earn, work, and contribute to both her marriage and her community on her own terms.  In the end, with a bequest from her rich aunt, Jo devises fulfilling work for herself and her husband, setting up a school for disadvantaged boys.  Is it a little disappointing that Jo gives up her literary career, or that she is more concerned with rescuing boys than girls?  Of course.  But does Jo still offer one of the most expansive, rich, and sympathetic characterizations of a woman in all of American literature?  Yes, and for this we can forgive her her faults, and continue to love Little Women.

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