Love one another?

If I love all the selves housed within me, including the flawed, human, insecure ones, then why would I need to hate you?

This love one another stuff always confused me.

When the priest would call the congregation to love one another during Mass, I was one baffled kid. Although the Bible, Sutras, Quran, Vedas, and Talmud all say the same thing—love is good—every friend of mine was taught that sex was bad. Confusing for a child still 10 years away from studying logic with Jesuits.

As near as I could piece together, loving one another didn’t mean, you know, actually loving anyonethat was a sin. Some other kind of loving was the religious kind, but at 8, I could not imagine how to practice it. Or if I even wanted to, if it meant I had to be super nice to the snotty girls in the back row of my third grade class. Ew.

Today, when tragedies strike as they do now far too often, social media becomes instantly peopled with memes and messages entreating us to love one another. Often, what we really mean is “Please don’t shoot us,” but we haul out the old chestnut of brotherly/sisterly love, as though we know what we mean when we say this to each other.

I’m not so sure we do.

Left to our own devices, humans do eventually get around to crossing oceans, invading countries, conquering tribes, colonizing indigenous peoples, being invaded and conquered and colonized ourselves, forming previously forbidden romantic alliances, mixing up the gene pool, and birthing babies who illuminate (and who must navigate) the painful complexities humans create around ideas of who is “us” and who is “other” and why anyone ought to care in the first place. We us/other ourselves into states of high agitation around differences in sexual desire, religious belief, hair texture, height, and gender.

What we define as “race” is actually geographically contained phenotypical characteristics that, if mixed with other contained pockets of DNA, blur the boundaries of who looks like whom and within this century will surely create gorgeous human combinations of wonderfulness that may or may not possess really big ears (just throwing my own family DNA in there).

Being multiracial is what most people are in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it is darn common in large chunks of Europe, Africa, and Oceana. America comes late to officially recognizing that people of different races fall in love and make babies, having only offered multiracial boxes to check in the 2000 census. In 2010, 9 million of us self-identified as being more than one race. Maybe it’s time to stop constructing boundaries when they are so readily permeable.

So far, checking multiple religion boxes is not an option, although many of us—and here, I mean the world-wide “us” of mammalian, bipedal folks with consciences—have parents whose parents raised them in two different traditions. We mixed-religion children grew up in households where Lutheran and Catholic or Jewish and Muslim or Hindi and Methodist practices had to be blended and reinvented around the kitchen table and performed creatively at bedtimes and holidays. We said the Our Father one way with Grandma A and another with Grandma B, decorated Hanukkah bushes with tinsel and dreidels hung on strings, and prayed to the Mother-Father God from prayer rugs facing Mecca.

So is that what loving each other means? To know that humans are of many races, that they seek their gods and goddesses in many forms, and that some of us love the “other” instead of the “us”?

I think we know that. The state of our culture and our world does not arise from a lack of knowing. I’m not even sure it’s from a lack of tolerance. I think it might just be that we don’t love ourselves deeply enough.

If I love all the selves housed within me, including the flawed, human, insecure ones, then why would I need to hate you? If I can accept, tolerate, and nurture myself, why would I feel threatened by you? If I believe I am enough and acceptable just as I am, then I need not prove myself superior to you, proselytize to you, or judge you.

Now, I don’t mean that I have nothing to learn and am the most mature and evolved human on the planet, although I am fairly charming. I am evolving, growing, learning, and any day when I resist those activities is a day of reduced joy. I am a college professor, and being among young people who are committed to refining and reinventing themselves is wildly energizing and, yes, spiritual. I highly recommend it.

And, I don’t mean that if we all just bucked up and felt great about ourselves, then mental illness and oppression and inequity would all disappear. I am not naïve or overlooking the nuances and complexities of being human. Enhancing one’s self-respect isn’t going to remedy every wound suffered in this world, and there’s the tragedy of it. But if we created societies and cultures that nurtured children with education, food, and health care; that did not report in 24/7 media everywhere that we are too fat, too dark, too wrinkly, and too ugly to have worth and value; and that protected the vulnerable because humans are built to do that for each other, then. Oh, then. Then, we might see fewer hate-contorted faces at neo-Nazi rallies, fewer pipe bombs sent through the mail, fewer school shootings, fewer suicides.

I do mean that even as we imperfectly move toward full maturity, we are still so darn cute. We are delightful and deserving of love. We should smile back in the mirror now and then. We do not have to prove to ourselves that we have a right to be here. We are here. Ta-da! Toddlers are terrific teachers of this concept, by the way, having been exposed to fewer deprecating forces than those of us who are fully grown. Hang out with an 18-month-old and then get back to me.

If I treat myself with profound respect, if I dare to be kind to myself, and if I exist within a society that values each of us, then I don’t need to make you into something less so that I feel like something more.

We are worth something—we are worth a great deal—to ourselves and to each other. If we knew that, if we fully accepted it, we might heal.

Perhaps the most godly expression of self-love is the gift it delivers of recognizing ourselves in each other. There you are. I see you. Why, hello.

If we love ourselves better, I think the world might just shift on its axis. It won’t fix everything, but it might fix a lot.

Published on U.S. Catholic 
October 2018.

Journalism as an Act of Grace

First Published in U.S. Catholic, June 2017

In fourth grade, to Sister Clarita at St. Raphael’s Elementary School, I announced I would be a writer. Had I known about jobs with more status and better pay, I might have announced my intention to become a chief financial officer of a reality television network, but, c’est la vie

I attended journalism school in the immediate post-Watergate age, at a historic moment when young journalists not only thought their jobs were to save the world, but believed that task could actually be accomplished. There was a passion and fire about breaking important public policy stories, and a real conviction that journalism was a tool for justice and social accord. It was a heady time. Students were hired by newspapers and magazines right out of writing courses, before they even graduated. (I am now a journalism professor, and when I tell that to my students, they sigh sadly and begin to google job openings for junior assistants on reality television networks). 

Although I felt a little thrill of pride at the Bernstein and Woodward tales of digging and probing and working the phones to break the Watergate story, or, years later, when Christiane Amanpour stood fearlessly in war zones, reporting with calm confidence, I was never that kind of journalist. Democracy needs media professionals who do those jobs with excellence, but those weren’t my strengths.

I was drawn to stories—some would say, smaller stories—of people. Not necessarily political or powerful people, but people who were making things and changing stuff and thinking provocative thoughts. Journalism is an all-access ticket for a writer to visit behind the scenes, go backstage, violate social codes, ask impossibly cheeky questions and inappropriately personal ones, and to not make small talk but instead make big talk with total strangers about what matters most in their lives. It is simply thrilling. Anything that intrigues or puzzles me can be turned into a story pitch, and if I can find an editor who is game enough to hire me, I get to go explore it. In a way, it’s a license to be eight years old permanently, with permissive parents who let me ask “But why?” as many times as I like.

And then the task becomes turning all that into words that might, just might, touch some other heart. In an essay I wrote about New York Times writer David Carr, who cut his journalistic teeth at the time and in the city where I did, and who wrote like a god, I claimed that “it is a noble and aspirational and doomed thing to try to write words that touch other humans, and it’s so rarely done well that one wonders why we bother.” I still agree with myself on that one. And yet we do bother, and all that bothering and struggling to find the right word and turn the right phrase and hunt down the right adjective seems to be the entire point. We humans want to tell each other stories, and we want each other’s help in figuring out what matters in life.

Some journalists tell those stories as hard news, with hard-won facts that take courage to unearth. But there is another kind of truth telling, a kind that connects threads of humanity with one another, a kind that shows humans at their most human, and those are the stories that call to me. To me, they are not smaller stories than what is happening in Washington, DC—they are the very large stories of what it means to be human on this planet.

There is no way to do journalism and not see humanity, close up, sweaty and flawed and gorgeous. It’s a privilege and an honor to get that front row seat, and trying to find a way to share that seat with people who read your words is a weighty responsibility. (This may be where writer’s block comes from, but I can’t think about that right now, because I’m on a deadline). It is rare admission to the intimate and private moments of another person’s life, and the calling of journalism is to transmute that individual moment into a universal story. 

One afternoon in the 1980s, I sat in the waiting room of an urban clinic that was treating people for a new disease called AIDS. I was at work on a book interviewing people who were dying, because I wanted to know what people thought about when they were dying. A physician had arranged for me to meet one of his patients. I sat in a battered green vinyl chair and watched the door. I heard measured steps coming down the hallway. I heard the scrape and click of a cane being leaned on and a foot being dragged unevenly. When the knob began to slowly turn, my hands suddenly felt clammy, and I thought, “This is it. I am about to meet Death.” I had a fleeting terror that I had absolutely no idea how to face the man who began to open that door, what to ask him, how to tell his story. I felt utterly inadequate and like a rude interloper in the most secret and private moments of his life. 

Then he appeared, and held out his hand, and I shook it. I am rather short. He was extremely tall. We laughed about that and looked for a shorter chair for him, so we could approximate being at an even eye level. I didn’t know how to begin the interview, but he didn’t need me to, he started on his own. With great dignity, he told me everything and I asked nothing. He almost casually shared treasures that most of us guard protectively. The rejection of his family. His anger at God. His affection for God. The love of his friends. His isolation, his faith, his fear. He showed me that it is enough to witness, that it is a gift and an act of human grace to witness each other’s struggle. We don’t have to fix it or manage it or even understand it. There is some kind of gift we give each other in standing and listening and being aware. So I did that. 

I have written about cowboys, hockey, divorce, and cooking. I have written books about marriage and children and travel and famous leaders. I have profiled accomplished folks and people whose names are already forgotten. I have written about my children, my parents, my sisters, my aunts, and my friends. I have been on a northwoods dogsled and in a tippy kayak and on a sawdust-covered dance floor and in the chambers of a Supreme Court justice and it always feels like this: Being a journalist is being a telephone, but the call is from the subject to the reader. The writer must make the connection and then, somehow, manage to get out of the way and let the spark of insight travel on its own.

The Media And #MeToo

First Published in U.S. Catholic, March 2018

The #MeToo movement, launched by activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago, went viral in October after actress Alyssa Milano and other prominent women publicized it, and after countless women (and a few men) published the hashtag on their social media pages to indicate that they had been sexually harassed or violated at some point in their lives. 

This is such a common occurrence in the lives of women that few were startled at the sheer numbers of #MeToo postings. Live long enough while being female, and it will happen to you. #NotMe is a movement that will never catch on.

What is different this time is that more men are listening, that accused men who were protected by their prominence are nonetheless being shamed and getting fired, and that the white-hot spotlight is trained on the entertainment industry.

Time magazine’s persons of the year for 2017 were the “silence breakers,” women who “finally” blew the whistle on men who abused women who worked for them. “Finally,” because in nearly every case, the offensive behavior had long been discussed in certain circles, just not told to all of America. The titillation of those perpetrator names also being household names drove the movement, which would not have taken off at all had the names been those of guys who lived down the street. 

But here’s the thing. Statistically, sexual harassment is probably no more prevalent in film studios than it is in politician’s offices and national sports league locker rooms and newsrooms and restaurant kitchens, and no more prevalent among famous, powerful men than among the men working where you work.

A 2015 survey by Cosmopolitan magazine found that one in three women are sexually harassed at work; an October 2017 ABC News-Washington Post poll reports sexual harassment at epidemic proportions, happening to more than half of all women. That’s 33 million American women, and 95% of them report that the men go unpunished. Most harassers are co-workers, clients, customers, and managers, in that order. Harassment is most common in food service and hospitality, retail, and arts and entertainment in a tie with STEM industries (science, technology, engineering, and math). It’s bad in entertainment because it’s bad everywhere.

All those numbers are far too low, claims the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, estimating that what’s reported is only one-fourth of the reality. Harassment is bad business, costing companies millions in job turnover, sick leave, and decreased productivity. And, adds the EEOC, sexual harassment seminars are colossally ineffective. 

The reason seminars don’t work is the reason women speaking up doesn’t typically work. We have a culture of social, legal, and governmental systems which positions men more favorably, safely, and respectfully than it does women. Male behavior toward women is rooted in patriarchy (social and governmental systems in which women are excluded from the power men have) and misogyny (personal and institutional prejudice against women). Men do not like to have this pointed out to them. To avoid looking at these origins squarely, we blame women for reporting and for not reporting, hold women responsible for the violence that men do, and point to individual men as singular perpetrators. They aren’t; they are products of the culture we’ve inherited and sustained.

Media produce and reinforce patriarchy and misogyny. Media are profoundly powerful, shaping cultural attitudes and telling us who we are and who everyone else is, too. Media show us who is valuable and who is not. How media present us indicates our value to the rest of society.

Advertising so focuses on the sexual value of women that feminist scholar Jennifer Caputi calls it “everyday pornography.” My college students are shocked when they are assigned to count the overwhelming numbers of magazine ad images in which women are nearly nude and men are fully dressed, in which women are restrained and men are confident and comfortable, in which women are unconscious and men are standing over them. “Why didn’t I recognize this before?” they ask, distressed. “I see these images all the time but I didn’t actually see them!”

It’s the cultural water we swim in. We grow accustomed to seeing women in ads, films, and television dressed to provoke, positioned in subservience, and handled as body parts existing independently of intellect, spirit, or humanity. The entertainment industry built itself on the sexual attractiveness of women to heterosexual men, and what women say on screen, who they are allowed to be in the stories we tell ourselves, and what they are allowed to look like is consciously created by media producers and subconsciously accepted by media audiences. 

Even those who do not accept it are still surrounded by media imagery that, despite our best intentions, ultimately affect us and teach us how the world works. Just as we are taught by parents and leaders and teachers are we taught by beer ads and billboards and action movies.

This culture hurts women. It also hurts men. Good men must resist popular culture and the ideology of masculinity in America in order to treat women as if they are fellow human beings. Of course, most men recognize this and negotiate how to accomplish this in life, but there’s the rub—it is a negotiation, an active choice to swim upstream against the current.

Sexual harassment of women is not an expression of desire or sexual energy or affection. It is an expression of hostility. It won’t change until we change how we listen to reports of it and how we react. It won’t change until we shift our ideology about what makes a man masculine. It won’t change until bad men are disciplined by good men.

A good thing is happening, but let’s not pat ourselves on the back until the job is done. 

Wonder Woman At Last

First Published in U.S. Catholic, September 2017

In Wonder Woman, there are moments of a kind so uncommonly witnessed in film that the audience can almost hear paradigms shifting, like giant, tectonic plates of cultural attitudes grating over one another as they struggle to realign. Of course, such shifts should have happened long ago, or should have never been needed at all, and there have been lesser and occasional positive tremors along the fault lines before, here and there in film. But the current production of Wonder Woman brilliantly bundles a female protagonist of superior physical strength, compassion, and logic with pyrotechnical computerized special effects and unusual restraint regarding cleavage, and voila! Suddenly a woman becomes a marketable hero, possessing the physical power and athletic ability that male viewers value and monopolizing the screen as a solo object of attention in a way that only Terminators and Iron Men have done before.

One such moment is when the WWI German army storms the beach of the peaceful island of Themyscira, home to Wonder Woman and the all-female tribe of Amazons. It is an all-too-familiar story to movie goers and historians: modern imperialistic military forces attack an indigenous people and mow them down with mechanized weapons. Wholesale slaughter seems inevitable until an army of well-trained, professional warrior women (not a cavalry of men) charges over the cliff, leaping down on ropes and raining down arrows, thundering over the sand on horses, swinging swords with deadly accuracy. The camera lingers on the Amazons’ airborne martial arts acrobatics, freeze-framing the somersaulting flying kicks and whirling, leaping delivery of flaming arrows to admire the physical prowess of the women in a manner previously reserved for the likes of Bruce Lee. A disciplined wedge of riders drives toward the Germans, slashing through their ranks and literally kicking sand in their faces, before the invaders are driven back into the sea.

In another moment, Diana Prince must cross No Man’s Land unarmed. The men in her small band of followers say it can’t be done, but it needs doing, and so she simply does it. In a classic hero’s journey narrative, she sheds the costume that disguises her true identity and steps into the role she was born to occupy, walking through fire and striding across the battlefield. By the time she reaches the other side, she has become Wonder Woman. She faces no single individual but instead weathers a storm of impersonal deadly force (a metaphor not lost on women in the audience who face prejudice, sexism, and harassment), walking and then running toward her target with steely-eyed determination. When the onslaught becomes too much, she drops to one knee, raises her shield, and leans into a hail of bullets. It is a breathtaking shot of a woman in the prime of her power—and that power is athletic rather than sexual. This is new. We are used to seeing women on screen through the prurient eye of the camera that views the female form as does a heterosexual male, lingering on exposed skin and curves. Gal Godot is a stunningly beautiful actress, but rather than exploit her body, here the acting, direction, and camera come together to show something revolutionary: a woman’s accomplishment. 

To understand why these two moments, among others, bring many women viewers to tears and why the film moves women profoundly, it is necessary to understand the power of representation in media. White, heterosexual males are the heroes of most television and film, and non-whites, LGBT persons, and women have learned how to imagine themselves into popular culture narratives that in many ways exclude their lived experiences—strategies most white men have never had to employ. Media show us who we are and who everyone else is, too. Seeing people who look like you on the screen and on television is a way of seeing yourself fitting into culture, society, and communities. To rarely see your race, nationality, or sexuality portrayed, or to see it portrayed only in limited and denigrating ways, is so damaging that media scholars have called it “symbolic annihilation.” This is why “firsts” like Halle Berry becoming the first African American woman to win a best actress Academy Award matter. 

Of course, there have been female action heroes in video games, film, and television—even earlier Wonder Woman iterations—but they have been frankly sexualized and scantily clothed, appearing as eye candy for male viewers more than as inspiration for female ones. And even this wonderful Wonder Woman succeeds because it presents a woman as strong in the ways that men value—but there have been film stories of women who are strong in the ways women are strong every day, heroines of the non-super variety. The biopics Silkwood, Norma Rae, Julia, and Erin Brockovich chronicled important female activists who persevered despite significant and sometimes even violent opposition. Historic depictions of actual female achievement, such as Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth and the tale of NASA mathematicians, Hidden Figures, begin to flesh out overlooked or minimized women’s stories. The real-life struggles of women facing gritty issues such as trying to raise children alone while earning a third less than similarly educated and experienced men, for example, don’t draw inspired soundtracks or big marketing campaigns, but that’s a type of heroism that is observable in communities across the country every day.

After watching this film, I lingered to read the credits. As the lights slowly rose, the couple in front of me was revealed: a little girl clutching a Wonder Woman doll with one fist and her father’s hand with the other. 

Lost In Space – Again

First Published in U.S. Catholic, September 2018

This Time, The Far-Flung Family Is A Lot More Modern

Toss a family onto a deserted tropical island—or, say, an uncharted planet in outer space—and see what happens when all social and cultural conventions and pressures are swept away and parents and children are forced to work together to survive. 

That was the story arc of Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson novel in 1812, which was made into a film twice—Disney in 1960 and New Line Cinema in 1998. Then the Robinsons were reimagined as being shipwrecked not in the East Indies, but in outer space on an uncharted planet in the Lost in Space CBS television series in the 1960s. 

A remake of Lost in Space aired on Netflix this spring, and has just been renewed for a second season. It’s a flawed but fascinating series that is at its best when its doing what Wyss originally set out to do: explore how family systems operate, thrive, and are threatened, and how they might function as building blocks of human achievement, exploration, and society. Netflix’s version of Lost in Space reimagines and updates the 1960s Robinsons in intriguing and provocative ways. 

Back in the sixties on CBS, Dr. John Robinson, was an astrophysicist with all the answers and none of the compassion. Mom, June Lockhart as Dr. Maureen Robinson, devoted most of her biochemistry knowledge to growing alien plants and making dinner. Their two daughters contributed little scientific acumen or narrative action, but son Will (Billy Mumy) was a precocious computer geek with an unnamed robot best known for its monotone warning in times of stress: “Danger, Will Robinson.” Villain Dr. Zachary Smith (the wonderful Jonathan Harris) seemed awkwardly inserted into the story line to provide some kind of conflict, though not much, along with distracting histrionics, girlish shrieking, and fainting fits. 

In Netflix’s 2048, the know-it-all scientist is now Mom (we saw that one coming), played by Molly Parker. And, she does knows everything. Every darn thing. She saves everyone from most everything almost all the time with a prodigious knowledge of not just her own scientific field but the fields of every other kind of scientist. Her spouse, the non-PhD Navy SEAL (Toby Stephens), does not know everything and was an absentee dad off doing SEAL stuff until his family was selected to help colonize space. Unlike the 1960s Robinsons who were rather like Ward and June Cleaver from Leave It to Beaver, only in space, the new Robinsons have a troubled, apparently asexual marriage. And, neither of them cook. What these people subsist on remains a mystery. 

Eldest daughter Judy is an 18-year-old physician, being a genius like her mother. It’s as though a female lead isn’t interesting unless she has superpowers of one kind or another. Judy is black and the rest of the family is white. This goes unexplained for enough episodes to appear to be colorblind casting, but eventually Judy makes an offhand comment that Robinson is her stepfather. Middle daughter Penny doesn’t add much to the plot. Will is now not a prodigy but still has a cool robot. Will is tentative and unconfident, which frustrates his military father and imperils his eligibility for the space trip. 

Dr. Smith is now a woman, too—Parker Posey, in an underwritten role that underutilizes her talents. The series suffers from an overdose of brainiac women who can do everything except be nuanced and believable characters. Smith is a sociopath, so we see none of Posey’s signature wit and humor. What her precise reason is for doing her dastardly deeds is poorly explained and amorphous, making Smith a villain without a cause and the narrative far from compelling. Smith just does mean things and then scowls in the background.

Still, the program challenges stereotypes and some intriguing things are going on here. For one thing, the Robinsons aren’t alone in space. They travel with a multi-racial group of fellow colonists, and there is even a whiff of inter-racial teen romance, though it is mighty tame. No one seems to be LGBTQ, though no one is that hetero, either—when lost in space, no one’s mind seems to turn to romance. 

For another, though she’s the lead of the show, Dr. Robinson is not glamorous, with a no-nonsense wardrobe of cargo pants and t-shirts and a consistent layer of dirt and healing bruises. Even so, she still manages to paint on eyeliner every morning in a remarkably straight line for someone fighting dying planets, fuel shortages, and seemingly certain death. 

And, alternative masculinities are presented. Dad is more tuned in to the kids’ emotional lives than is super scientist Mom, who handles kids like graduate assistants, assigning chores along the lines of “split atoms before lunch” and “cross an endless swamp and find a missing escape pod.” Dad seems like arm candy for many an episode in a program where women are both the heroes and the villain. He relates to his wife’s intelligence in respectful, unintimidated ways without feeling diminished by her success and ability. Son Will demonstrates weakness and fear, and Dad, who is as fit and athletic as GI Joe, counsels Will that he is fine just as he is.

Also, Lost in Space dwells on the family feeling abandoned by dad doing his military service, a brave and nontraditional story line. 

In the 1960s, as the Generation Gap widened and the Summer of Love beckoned, teenagers were annoying if not downright frightening to their parents. CBS’s Lost in Space vacuous children must have been reassuring to viewers. 

In 2018, the show’s children are independent to the point of being miniature adults and regard their parents with a cool and jaundiced eye—traits all too recognizable to modern parents. Netflix’s Lost in Space Robinson offspring and parents are forced into togetherness, must work to overcome their estrangements from each other, and come to recognize their own and appreciate each other’s strengths. 

It sounds almost enviable.

Black Panther and Heroism

First Published in U.S. Catholic, June 2018

Who gets to be a hero?

In ancient Greece, heroes were half god, half human. Comic superheroes followed that classic mold—unlikely, nerdy people with exceptional abilities to leap tall buildings or fly invisible planes, celebrating the potential greatness hidden in mere mortals and making common folk feel as if they, too, might someday rise. 

Heroes are products of specific moments in time. Captain America, a WWII U.S. soldier with superpowers, hit print the year of Pearl Harbor. Director Patty Jenkins’ inspiring Wonder Woman shared the same feminist zeitgeist that spawned the #MeToo movement. And, in an era of gun violence killing students in their classrooms and African Americans in their neighborhoods, the Black Panther arrives on the screen.

It’s about time. We need this guy.

T’Challa is King of Wakanda, a fictional country drawn by director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole from the cultures and customs of actual African nations. Wakanda is rich with vibranium, a mineral with extraordinary properties that support phenomenal technological development. Vibranium soil fertilizes a special herb that, when ingested by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), gives him the superhuman speed, agility, and power of the Black Panther.

One of the delights of the film is to share Coogler’s and Cole’s imagining of Wakanda as an Africa nation free of white imperialism, its natural resources unpillaged, its peoples not stolen from its shores. Theirs is a realized dream of wholeness, of heritage intact, untarnished by invaders.

Wakanda is free to determine its own destiny. Its tribes produce innovators and warriors, many of whom are supremely capable women. Along with breaking race barriers, this film renders gender constraints moot—here, women do not sit idly while men show off. Wakandan women are funny, fierce, and wicked-smart, and Coogler and Cole hand female characters some of the best lines of the script. 

Often, idyllic black (and white) masculinity demands that men be unflinchingly confident with the ladies, but T’Challa is not—he freezes into immobility when the woman he loves is near, and women under his command tease him mercilessly. Yet he is king and has their respect. It’s a small crack in patriarchy, but suggests that good things are going on in Wakanda.

The fictional nation nurtures science, technology, engineering, and math, adding the creative arts to sagely turn STEM into STEAM. Wakandan architecture is aesthetically provocative, and clothing offers no tinge of Western European influence. GoFundMe drives bring as many children as possible to screenings to expose them to this potent break from persistent media representations that typically link black storylines to only tales of criminality, urban distress, and poverty. Black Panther’s Wakanda is not a culture that rose out of the ashes; it is a culture than was never burned to the ground. 

Heroes take care of the non-heroes, and King T’Challa faces an ideological crisis. His nemesis, Killmonger, has seen what life is like for African Americans in the U.S. and believes Wakanda has an obligation to help the African diaspora. T’Challa faces disturbing questions. It’s relevant modern global politics: is it each nation for itself, or does each owe responsibility to the others who share the planet?

Black Panther also teaches white audiences something about being a respectful ally—a person who is not a member of a marginalized group but who wishes to support it. White allyship of #BlackLivesMatter has been criticized as awkward and inappropriate at times, as has male allyship of #MeToo. Margins need support, but centers, used to being the loudest voices, can overwhelm and silence, even when they are trying to help. When Martin Freeman as Agent Ross, a rare white face in the film, attempts to speak, Wakandan leaders shush him—and, surprise! He stays shushed. When he startles T’Challa’s brilliant scientist sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) she tosses off one of the bring-the-house-down lines of the film: “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!” The action blessedly moves on without Ross holding forth on how his family never owned slaves and how his best friends are black.

Some criticize Ross as being an irritatingly minor character, but this sounds like whining from a group used to being the hero of every tale, and requires overlooking all the film characters played by actors of color who died early in the plot or were named only Soldier #2. Black Panther is about African culture, ability, and ideology, and white people are minor characters because they are, in fact, incidental to the story. 

It’s about time for that, too.

During the months since Black Panther’s release in January, it smashed through one box office record after the other, defying conventional Hollywood thinking that white audiences wouldn’t tolerate black heroes and that films with black casts and directors couldn’t succeed commercially (despite the significant success of individual films and of the blaxsploitation genre in the 1970s). This film refutes race-based thinking in a way nearly impossible for Hollywood to ignore: it is making money. Lots and lots of money.

The power of representation in media is profound. Film and television heroes have overwhelmingly been white, male, heterosexuals, a powerful and affecting message to people who were not born into one of those categories. It is important that we see that heroes can look like “us,” whatever the “us” may be. It is critical that we see that heroes can look like “them,” too, whoever the “them” are. 

At the film’s conclusion, T’Challa addresses the United Nations (and the film audiences who must leave the theatre to dwell in a nation that is all too divided, in reality) with pointed words: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” The Black Panther wants us to act like one, single tribe.

What a heroic idea. 

Sally Field, Doris, and Older Women with Younger Men

First Published in U.S. Catholic, June 2016

Audiences like Sally Field. They really, really like her. And in her new film, Hello, My Name is Doris (Roadside Attractions, 2016), she ispoignantly human, wonderfully funny, and enormously touching. While she is on the screen, which is nearly constantly, there is nowhere else to look.

Field is delightful to watch, but what is not delightful to witness is the cultural assumption, central to the premise of the film, that a young man’s attraction to an older woman is ludicrous. A May-December romance in which the woman is December is so socially incomprehensible that a mere hint of sexual energy between a woman of a certain age and a man who isn’t marks a film as quirky and eccentric. An older woman with a younger man? It’s almost science fiction.

And yet, James Bond has been played by 57-year-olds David Niven and Roger Moore and 49-year-old Pierce Brosnan, and no eyebrows elevate when Bond wears a 25-year-old on his arm. They are, after all, Bond “girls,” not “women.” Much media noise was made over the shocking plot development in the latest Bond film, Spectre—Bond (Daniel Craig, 47) romanced a woman (Monica Bellucci, 51) who was four years older. Of all the things James Bond has ever done, surely this cannot be the most morally reprehensible.

Online culture magazine Vulture charted the ages of actresses playing romantic interests alongside leading men from Denzel Washington to Liam Neeson and uncovered a consistently broad age difference of one to two decades. Heroes can mature, but their onscreen loves must be played by women in their early 20s. The one exception is Tom Hanks, who is commonly within 10 years of the age of his co-stars—perhaps one reason audiences find him admirable.

One of the most remarkable moments in the Hello, My Name is Doris occurs when Field meets her young love interest, John (Max Greenfield), in an elevator at work. Doris is supposed to be about 60 (Field is 69), John in his mid-. Doris is a worker bee in a cubicle; John is a rising star new to the company. Doris is a hoarder who lives with her mother and dresses as if a thrift shop exploded in her closet. John is a loft-dwelling hipster who does something extraordinary: he notices Doris and treats her as if she was worthy of his attention.

Kindness from a young man to an older woman is so thoroughly unexpected, in both reality and the cinema that the audience sighs at this exchange. In film and television, cameras typically linger on youthful female bodies but barely register women beyond menopause. Such women are invisible, and yet this (not-all-that-young) young man sees Doris and manages to recognize the value of human life in something as culturally unattractive as a woman over 50.

What is revealed here is the nearly unchallenged attitude that a woman’s highest value is her body. The most admired achievement for a woman is to be physically attractive to men. Nothing else she can do—solve world peace, raise compassionate children, organize a social justice movement—can incite such esteem.

Older men with younger women are so common in film and television as to rarely be remarked upon, but reverse the genders, and women are portrayed as predatory and creepy cougars for doing precisely what men their age are also doing. The best an older woman in love with a younger man can hope for is to be a running joke.

The gender inequity is blatant and crude, the ageism ignorant and shallow. And another dark message is buried here: the idea that humans are most valuable when they are physically attractive. The media’s concept of beauty tends to be white, thin, young, wealthy, and often, empty-headed. The media concept of love is skewed to make men think they can have anyone they want and make younger men think they can count on that promise in the future. And tragically, the media concept of what women should dare to hope for—and when women should have the good grace to give up on that—is harshly limited. 

As Doris, Sally Field is meant to be pitiable. She isn’t 25 any more, doesn’t date, and has a cat. But Doris is fierce and funny. She dares to have vital friendships. She is a devoted caregiver and aspires to improve her life. She takes phenomenal social risks that would make a firefighter’s knees quake. By the end of the film we come to think of her as brave, but wasn’t she always? After all, it takes a certain amount of brio to dress like a box of melted crayons, and she does it, by gum. 

Surely the miraculous nature of love is that it transcends all impediments humans put in its path. Differences in nationality, religion, gender, and race may offend some sensibilities, but the heart has historically ignored these. True love does not happen only to pairs that assemble themselves to fit social scripts. What is compelling and engaging about human beings is not how they look to the eye, but how they touch the heart or excite the mind or soothe the soul.

Madame Secretary Breaks New Ground

First Published in U.S. Catholic, June 2017

Madam Secretary (CBS, in its third season) breaks bold new ground in media portrayals of women leaders: Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord’s friends, family, colleagues, and even the President of the United States treat her as if, in fact, she can lead. 

On television and in film, when women are running corporations or countries, they are often portrayed in ways that reinforce tired stereotypes (and fears) about female leadership. Women in power are cast as unnatural, devious villains (Glenn Close’s Patty Hewes in Damages) or unnatural, icy machines (Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards) or unnatural, brittle witches (Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada). “Unnatural” is the key word. The ability to command authority—and other people—is typically treated in media as something outside of the feminine experience. To lead, female characters must abandon themselves as women, eschew friendship and love, and become humorless machines who live in uncomfortably tight skirts and painfully high heels (even when home feeding their cats). When shown with children, they are inept and clumsy. When shown with men, they are rapacious or bored. They treat colleagues and co-workers as competitors, and employ unreasonable and inefficient management techniques, like murder and blackmail. They don’t appear passionate about their work—they appear passionate about hurting other people. This is a woman’s choice, at least in the media’s usual ham-fisted interpretation of human relationships: professional achievement requires reversing the “natural” feminine attributes of nurturance and caretaking, adopting a frozen exterior, and skirting perilously close to being a sociopath. By the way, are we supposed to believe that this is the masculine approach to leading, and that men have historically gotten to the corner office without skill, ability, or acumen but just by being really, really mean?

Enter Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), whom we meet while she is cannily unmasking a student’s excuses about an assignment. She leaves the young man’s dignity intact, but her high expectations for his performance are unequivocal. Later, while she is mucking out a stall and wearing messy braids (no high heels in a horse barn), the President arrives in a motorcade. They worked together at the CIA, he admired her ethics, original thinking, and patriotic scruples, and wants her as Secretary of State. 

McCord manages her staff, her boss’s expectations, and her peers from around the world with a lively mix of intelligence, wit, humanity, and charm. Oh, and she is utterly capable of the job. She believes in the agency and ability of the people she helps govern. She wrestles with recalcitrant ambassadors with compassion and firmness. She is facile with Middle Eastern history and customs and speaks several languages. She Skypes with world leaders, treats people of all backgrounds with respect, and is eloquent and down-to-earth simultaneously. She deals with a Cabinet of mostly men, some of whom can be patronizing.

Wonderfully, Madam Secretary does not lean on the weary plot device of men being annoyed at finding women in the workplace, as if misogyny was news. It may be to some men, but it’s a fact of life to women, who every day must find ways over, under, around, or through persistent sexism. Patriarchy is entrenched and commonly encountered by most women in almost every area of life. To treat patriarchy as if it is an aberrant occurrence that can be overcome by simply proving your worth in the workplace minimizes its insidious effects on the everyday lives of men and women. Patriarchy is far more prevalent and complex than that.

The most interesting thing about being Secretary of State is not getting a boy down the hall to like you. McCord grapples with demanding and oppositional agendas of nations small and large —which includes the very real kinds of sexism that get women harmed and killed—in one of the most intriguing jobs on the planet.  By taking that position, Madam Secretary helps patriarchy matter just a little less. 

For example, when McCord is groped from behind by the president of the Philippines, she handles him like a trained CIA agent and a woman in authority might: she hauls off and clocks him one, breaking his nose. He covers it up as a boxing injury, she focuses on the political situation first, and later has a face-to-face moment with him that settles the score in no uncertain terms. 

Madam Secretary also avoids clichéd family plot lines. Media children of strong women are often portrayed as bratty and pouty, acting out because, if Mom is out there in the world, surely she is failing significantly at home. But McCord is warm, loving, and deeply engaged with her three children, who are not drawn as sickeningly cutesy, idiotic teens, or charmless snarks. Her son is an anarchist, and his parents give him room for his views and opinions; one daughter leaves college, but her life is not ruined and she begins to find her own way, and the other is a fashion maven who wants to be stylist to the stars (but still does well at her competitive, tony high school). They are proud of their mother, as they should be. 

Media husbands often act emasculated by their wife carrying a briefcase, can’t change a diaper or cook mac and cheese, and are plunged into depressed loneliness if left alone for an evening. Not Elizabeth McCord’s husband. Henry McCord (Tim Daly) holds a doctorate in theology, was a Marine aviator during Desert Storm, and is an operative for the National Security Agency. He tosses the parenting ball back and forth with his wife with competence and good humor. In a bustling family kitchen one morning, he reminds his three children that their mother has to get out the door to “go save the world.” He delivers this line with no rancor, jealousy, or sarcasm. That’s actually her job, and he gets out of her way so she can go do it.

Travel and work demands do strain their time together, and they do experience conflict, but they talk about it intelligently and respectfully to each other. They praise each other, in public and in private, and truly like and admire each other. They flirt, laugh, tease, and annoy each other. They appear functional. This is so uncommon among media marriages that it is striking. 

Media stories aren’t reality, but they are the narratives that we insist on telling ourselves. Finally, we have begun to tell ourselves that fifty percent of the world can lead at the office, too. High time. Madam Secretary is smart, funny, instructive, and telling. Brava.

Good Girls Revolt

First Published in U.S. Catholic, March 2017

Once upon a time, in 1969, women weren’t “allowed” to wear slacks to the office. This wasn’t for modesty reasons—mini-skirts and tight dresses were fine, 9-5. It was to keep gender differences clearly delineated, as in the classic insult to assertive wives, “she wears the pants in that family.” When the chino ceiling finally cracked in office buildings across America, women could wear trousers in public, but only if they also wore a matching jacket. The female pantsuit was born.

In the 1960s, women were paid roughly half of what men earned, about 59 cents for every dollar a man took home. Fifty years later, women now earn 78 cents on the male dollar, so we’ve got that going for us. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the rate of approaching pay equity has actually slowed in recent years, and 2152 is projected as the year when men and women will finally receive equal pay for equal work. 

That means it will take another 135 years and five more generations of women before women and men earn equally. That’s more than 200 years after the National War Labor Board encouraged employers to pay women equitably in 1942 and almost 200 years after the Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1964.

In short, the gender wage gap is a rivetingly current issue, affecting women right now and into the far, far future. And it’s just one reason for the popularity of Amazon’s streaming series released in late October, Good Girls Revolt.

Like Mad Men, the period drama of advertising life in the 60s, Good Girls is an engrossing (and educational) bit of time travel back to producing news magazines in New York. The female researchers and male reporters at News of the Week, the thinly disguised Newsweek magazine, are immersed in the leading stories of the day: Vietnam, the Black Panther movement, women’s rights. And oh, the boots, the granny dresses, the wire-rimmed glasses, the fringed leather vests. The lava lamps, the rock concert posters, the vinyl albums playing on stereos, the utter lack of earbuds. The dependence on telephones that were tethered to cords and the utter lack of Google. The clack of typewriters on paper and the magazine design that uses a light table and no PhotoShop.

The magazine staff is made up of male reporters, who get bylines and twice the pay, and female researchers who sometimes write stories without any credit and who come when summoned: “Go get your girl.” A long-time researcher tells a new hire: “They’re reporters, we’re researchers. We investigate and write files for the reporters, they do a pass on them, put their hands on them, and then the stories go to press.”

Researcher Patti Robinson wears long hair and short skirts, is tuned in to the 60s political and music climate, and has more passion for the job than does her reporter, Doug Rhodes. A fellow researcher, Jane Hollander, is cracklingly competent, but endures lunches with her wealthy father who wants her to work at a law firm where she might meet “more suitable” men, marry, and stop working. A third researcher, Cindy Reston, is trapped in a marriage with a controlling husband who pokes a hole in her diaphragm hoping she’ll get pregnant and stay home. 

Female applicants for a job as researcher are asked for their waist measurement while male reporters hoot in the background. When a researcher scores a tough interview, her male co-workers say “Atta girl, Patti” or “You’re pretty cute when you’ve got a scoop.” At the end of a business meeting, an editor asks a researcher, “Young lady, can you get me a cup of coffee?” At a consciousness-raising meeting in the nascent Second Wave women’s movement, a leader asks “How many of you have ever slept with your boss?” and almost all the women present raise their hands. 

What Good Girls is so very, very good at is capturing the subtle, nuanced, often benevolent sexism of its age—and helping us recognize its iterations in our current historic moment. Good Girls makes current workplace discrimination visible (sometimes for the first time, according to fan blogs) to millennials who often feel theirs is a world in which feminism is no longer relevant and activism for women’s rights no longer needed.

The series is a hit, with glowing reviews, high online ratings and lively industry buzz. But in an ironic twist that could be a Good Girls plotline, the show about gender discrimination in the media was just cancelled by Amazon. The Atlantic called the cancellation “infuriating” and an example of male-only decision-making that might have been reversed if women were present at the conference table. 

However, according to the Hollywood Reporter, Good Girls producer TriStar Television (Sony Pictures) is planning to shop the show elsewhere. Here’s hoping. 

Gilmore Girls: More Than Junk Food

First Published in U.S. Catholic, December 2016

Oh, to live in Stars Hollow, where crabby but hunky Luke runs the diner, quirky Kirk holds a long string of peculiar jobs, and a single mother and her daughter can be seen as a legitimate and respectable family.

On television and in film, single mothers are too often portrayed as hapless victims, struggling to raise children in the absence of a male breadwinner. Media’s single moms live in dismal apartments in gritty neighborhoods, dress like bags of thrift-shop clothing, and seem wearily defeated by life. They have bad posture, bad hair, and bad luck. 

In crime shows, they are either slain in a grisly manner in the first five minutes or are blamed for raising serial killers. In comedies, they are jokes, the moms other mothers don’t trust, creepily over-invested in their children, unable to parent their way out of a grocery bag. In dramas, they require rescue by the only possible heroes for women who are alone—financially successful men who can put a roof over their heads and give their lives direction.

Not Lorelai Gilmore. The heroine of the seven-season long Gilmore Girls WB and CW series that ended in 2006 and is revived by Netflix on Nov. 25 as Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life befriends an entire town on her journey from 16-year-old teen mother to successful businesswoman. Lorelai is a wise-cracking, self-deprecating, lovely and devoted mother who eats junk food like an eight-year-old, fights fiercely to get her daughter into the best schools, and adroitly walks the fine line between best friend and dependable parent as she and Rory gossip, binge-watch old movies, and order massive amounts of unhealthy take-out. 

There is nothing pathetic about Lorelai. She doesn’t know how to turn on her own oven and sometimes struggles to pay the bills, but she is also buoyant and driven. She faces challenges with common sense and has a clear vision for the life she wants for herself. Her ambition does not collide with her responsibilities as a mother; she balances both with nary a moment of the “Hm…earn a living or pack school lunch?” pseudo-conflicts that overpopulate less inventive television storytelling about parenting dilemmas.

Rory is not a perfect child. She acts out in high school and college, makes errors of romantic judgment, some of them doozies, and pitches a self-indulgent fit when she hits a career disappointment. Unwilling to deal with her mother’s disapproval, Rory drops out of Yale and hides at her grandparents’ home, living in great privilege. 

Lorelai is not a perfect mother or daughter. She, too, has romantic misadventures, leaving her prospective groom the night before her wedding, and warily circling Rory’s father in a cycle of reuniting and breaking up. She is sometimes downright mean to her Daughters of the American Revolution member and St. John-wearing mother, Emily, and Lorelai’s constant sarcasm can be wearying. But families are made of imperfect humans, and perfection is not the point—unconditional love and support are.

Gilmore Girls also refuses to solve the “problem” of single parenthood with the arrival of a heroic man. Both Rory and Lorelai struggle to preserve their ambitions and dreams while searching for love, and neither falls into the tidy television happily-ever-after trap in which “Will you marry me?” is the magic panacea. This question is asked three times in the series: twice of Lorelai, once by Lorelai, and once of Rory, and the question did not resolve conflicts, but (realistically) created new ones.

Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote the Gilmore Girls pilot with financial support from the Family Friendly Programming Forum (now the Association of National Advertisers), a group of major sponsors such as Kraft and Proctor & Gamble who wanted to encourage programming that could be watched by the entire family. The ANA has no influence over the show’s content, and Gilmore Girls proves that “family friendly” need not mean prudish, out-of-touch, dull as tombs, or sugary sweet. The show is sassy, smart as a whip, and peppered with pop culture references and witty zingers. It is fun to watch.

It also does important cultural work in expanding definitions of family and community, and offers representations of both that reinforce traditional family values outside of what is typically pictured as a traditional family.

The term “family values” is often used to imply that principles and morals can exist only in a family unit of father-mother-child, and preferably one in which the male is the major breadwinner and the mother knows how to bake cookies. But the value of family is far more resilient and tenacious than that. Families can be formed in complex, evolving constellations or simple dyads. Families can be genetically dictated or picked by hand. Families can be multi-generational, uni-generational, or skip a generation. Families are forged, not by following social and cultural scripts, but by following the heart. 

Gilmore Girls advances the radical idea that mothers and daughters, even teenaged ones, can get along, at least most of the time. That parents and children can wrestle with unresolved differences yet still love each other. That they might clash over economic or political perspectives, that they might argue about the wisdom of conforming to social expectations versus the freedom of rebelling against them, yet still consider themselves family, through and through. That family drama need not arise from “dysfunction” (whatever that is), but is familiar to all of us in the daily business of cohabitating with people you’ve made or chosen: you drive me nuts, you don’t understand me, I don’t understand you, I love you. Always.