Thursday, November 29, 2012

F*cking Language

In the Fifty Shades of Grey series, everything is seen through the eyes of Anastasia Steele, who refers to her genitalia as “the apex of my thighs.” If she’s really being coy, she whispers “down…there” in italics. Readers are presumed to know to what she is referring, to fill in what writer E. L. James leaves as a giant blank.

For all the hype, these books present a profoundly stereotyped notion of sex and intimacy, honed to the standards of a contemporary romance, in which all sex is safe sex (unless we are informed that the Depo Provera shot has kicked in, every act of intercourse is preceded by the presumably erotic ripping of a “foil packet”).

Additional nails in the coffin of what is billed as a tale about liberatingly modern female sexuality include some predictable saws: oral sex as lavish precursor to intercourse, which is always vaginal, and always ends after a nominal bit of thrusting which causes Anastasia to get a “familiar” feeling (an earth-shattering orgasm), immediately followed by her partner’s orgasm (in which he “releases himself”), frequently while uttering her name. After this, singular, monumental episode of sexual satisfaction, the sex is (usually) over until next time, which might be later that day.

The result is that in a book whose ostensible claim to fame is kinkiness, all we have is a man ridding himself of bodily fluids in a place that shall not be named. Sexy!

The point, one supposes, is to reinforce the notion that Anastasia is an innocent virgin whose vocabulary, sexual and otherwise, is similarly devoid of experience. She cannot bring herself to name her genitalia — which we’re pointedly told she’s never explored — or her lover’s genitalia either, which suggests that she, like many women, either feel that sexual words are taboo or that by naming the parts, they become less so. Either way, there is a disconnect between anatomy and language that makes the characters feel juvenile and two-dimensional. Are we supposed to believe that Anastasia is that na├»ve about language or that shy? Are we supposed to buy that she works in literary publishing with such a handicap?

If, as has been suggested, these books are about female empowerment, then why do they perpetuate this most pervasive and damaging idea that the sexual anatomy is off-limits, verbally? Is the coyness on the part of the character or the author? We all know to what the “apex of my thighs” refers, and it has nothing to do with thighs. By locating the genitals as merely the point where our legs meet, we reduce them to the secret place to which one gains access through the gateway of the thighs. Similarly, if all a man’s orgasm is is ejaculation, are we not buying into an idea of sex as money shot, where the only goal is releasing oneself? Does this not also imply that the man has all the control during sex such that he can time when he lets go? And isn’t “himself” here just another way of saying “semen,” as if the man IS his semen?

The title of this series hints at the larger problem: that of only painting with a beggared palette of words. Is there not more than one word for “grey”? Must each shade be simply “grey”? It seems so.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Lesser of Two Evels

Are you voting FOR something or AGAINST something in an election?

While we like to think that when we enter the voting booth we are selecting the candidate we would like to see win — as opposed to not selecting the candidate we would like to see lose. The act of voting is framed as a positive expression of our rights as citizens. Yet the campaign advertising is often geared towards making choices based on what we do not stand for, and voting as a way to ensure that what we fear doesn’t come to pass. Instead of an offensive act, it is a defensive act.

If you are confused, blame Jeopardy. Yes, the TV quiz show. On Jeopardy, you cannot answer a question; you must provide the question to an answer. Or rather, your answer must be framed as a question. It’s a gimmick that has served the game show well over the years. But it has also set the precedent for all sorts of reversals on television to enhance our entertainment. Viewer-voted talent shows, for example, either have you cast votes for a contestant or against one; you vote for the talent to stay on the show or you vote for them to go home. It’s often an unpopularity contest.

Winning a vote in these instances actually means losing. Shirley Jackson’s disturbing short story “The Lottery” features a prize no-one wants — death by stoning. But what if her lottery was to win the chance NOT to die? In that case, there are many winners, and only one loser.

A vote has historically involved making your mark on a slip of paper which is then counted. The act is a positive, indelible one. The evidence of your vote — the mark — remains on the paper long after you go home and the votes are counted. But the machinery of voting has changed — sometimes for the better, and sometimes not. The 2000 Presidential election, for example, was complicated by the imperfect method of having a machine translate your votes into holes punched from a pre-printed card. The chads — the tiny bits of card which were supposed to be punched out — didn’t always separate from the ballot, which meant that the machine which read them mis-counted.


In this case, the vote itself was represented by a hole — a space, a gap, that wasn’t there. The mark was an absence rather than a presence.

Some people are motivated to vote for a candidate because they want to ensure the other guy loses. This can happen when your choice appears to be between the best of two evils.

In a perfect world, this would be a contest between two Evels — Knievels, that is. Evel Knievel was America personified: he dressed in a glorified flag jumpsuit, a bit like a funky astronaut; he sought to assert man’s dominance over the best nature has to offer by way of impressive scenery by using fast-moving vehicles; and he broke every bone in his body doing so for the questionable reward of fame. His achievements are notably memorialized in wind-up children’s games and defunct lunch boxes. And although everything he ever did clearly demonstrated the contrary, he always gave the impression he didn’t give a fuck.

Bionic Man

If you think that the segue I made between a rather serious article on voting and the symbolic value of Evel Knievel was jarring, consider the feats for which he is known: leaping from one thing to another. He crafted his magic out of thin air. The empty space between one thing and another was his canvas and his clay. He made the air something more special than it was when he passed through it.

When I think of American politics, I am reminded of Evel Knievel, hawking his signature knick-knacks at motor fairs, to punters surprised to find him still alive. Robert Craig didn’t want to be associated with actual Evil, hence the oddly spelled name. He understood something significant about being a public figure — and that was the power of alliteration in a name. He also understood that in order to be a superhero you need a costume, a cape, and a snazzy set of wheels.

The sad truth about our democracy is that more people vote for their favorite American Idol contestant than they do for President. We are quite happy to click away if it means adding your thumbs-up to a running tally of “likes” on a Facebook post, but can’t get off our asses to press an actual button in a voting booth.

If you’re one of the half of Americans eligible to vote who actually voted: good for you. If you’re not, and you had no good excuse not to: don’t complain about the result. You have not earned the right.