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I never imagined that part of my vacation to Ireland with Jace, my 14-year old son, would involve viewing close-ups of male and female genitalia on a tv screen. But that’s what happened, and while it was a bit odd, it was not nearly as bad as it sounds.
We were in a Dublin hotel when Jace happened upon a cable tv show called Naked Attraction. And we began watching “Adele & Jack,” Series 2 Episode 3. I was reading at the same time so I didn’t catch every bit, but it was fascinating enough that I didn’t ask Jace to change the channel.
The host introduced Adele, a woman who was looking for a date after surviving cancer. The host then pointed to several booths lined up in a row, each with a man partially hidden by a half-door; we could see the men naked from the waist down. No body parts were blurred out as they would be in U.S. television.
Adele was drawn to a man with a long penis, so she and the host walked over and discussed his genitalia, and it went on from there, with the focus moving from man to man. Sometimes legs and hands were discussed, too, in this first round.
Adele eliminated someone based on this view alone (Jace and I could predict who would go), and the sequence was repeated with the naked bodies being revealed next from the neck down, and then the face, and then the voice, until Adele had a date. As each person was eliminated, we learned his age and occupation and got to see shots of him fully naked and then fully clothed.
Once there were two contestants left, Adele got naked. Somehow this turn of events surprised me. I thought she was the viewer, and suddenly she was also on full view herself. But fair’s fair, I suppose.
Adele made her final elimination, she and her date hugged naked, and then we saw them fully clothed together. Finally, Adele returned to the show to tell about their date.
During the second half of the show, the entire process repeated with a man, Jack, looking for a woman to go on a date with him after he lost a lot of weight.
The day after watching the show, Jace began telling our cousin Joan about it, and soon enough we were articulating some of the reasons why we didn’t change the channel.
It was refreshing to see bodies treated in matter-of-fact ways.
The host and the guest talked about penises and vaginal areas and breasts and so forth in the same manner in which they discussed hands or legs. Sometimes there’s so much concern about privacy that “private parts” are treated as mysterious at best or taboo at worst.
This show treated body parts as body parts, not as unmentionables.
The limitations of judging others’ potential via body parts became apparent.
As Adele and then Jack discussed their preferences based on the lower half of people’s bodies—length, shaved or unshaved, and so on—the absurdity of deciding on a date in such a manner was clear.
It makes no sense to choose a date based on a body naked from the waist down. The choice seems completely arbitrary.
But as the show went on and other parts of the body were revealed, it also seemed absurd that seeing the face would make a difference. It’s more typical, sure. We tend to respond to people on a daily basis according to their facial features. Expressions may account for some of our responses, and these do communicate to be sure, but to some degree we judge and categorize and decide on people based on this tiny part of the body.
Naked Attraction made such judgments seem rather absurd as well.
It made me question a kind of dynamic that I don’t often think about, and that questioning is helpful if it gets me to hold off a bit and look for more evidence than appearance before drawing conclusions about others.
I’m still likely to put on make up today as I usually do, but I’ll think more about why I bother, and that’s something.
Diverse bodies were represented.
In the U.S., nakedness tends to be taboo. Movies and tv series with sex scenes expose some body parts but usually avoid full reveals, and most often the people who are naked conform to a single body type (though there are exceptions to these generalizations).
It seemed healthy that the bodies on Naked Attraction did not fit a single type, and the diversity of bodies was emphasized as the host and guest conversed. The range of body types seemed especially key because my teen son was watching; the teen years are often when people wonder if they are normal and okay and so forth, and this show revealed that there is not one simple way to be “normal.”
Jace did notice that all the men were uncircumcised, which is unusual in the U.S. but probably good for him to see. After all, as we move from one region of the world to another, it’s more than food preferences that tend to change.
Unfortunately, the elimination of potential dates based on superficial traits undoes the positive messages about body diversity a good bit. Still, that elimination did seem absurd throughout the episode, so hopefully more good than harm was done.
I don’t think Naked Attraction is the best show ever. It’s actually rather ridiculous. But I appreciate the way it surprised both me and Jace. It didn’t make us uncomfortable, which would be typical if the two of us were viewing tv featuring naked people in full glory.
Instead, Naked Attraction made us think.
When I received a mailing from a group called “Priests for Life,” I tweeted the group a few messages. I probably wasn’t coherent enough, but my basic point was that anyone who wants to reduce the numbers of abortions is barking up the wrong tree by seeking to criminalize the behavior. The wealthy will find ways to get abortions legally in other countries, and the poor will have abortions that put more lives at risk.
To actually reduce abortions, we need comprehensive sex education; readily available contraception; affordable health care; affordable child care; and support for parents.
Anything calling for less sex and for forced pregnancies is impractical and ineffective. Stop wasting your time and your money. You can have a positive effect in other ways.
Anyhow. I placed the “Priests for Life” mailing with a similar one from “Catholic Vote” in a pile of recyclables.
My daughter discovered the mailings and she was compelled to revise.
My favorite edit? This one directed to Pres. Trump (changes are in italics):
courageouslyproved that it’s possible to win the Presidency by being explicitly and boldly pro-lifea butt face.
followed closely by
your bold pro-life candidacy and victory gives courage to other pro-life politicians to be even more boldly pro-life. Thank you for your courage.you stay away from my uterus.
In the letter above, she points out that laws are based on the Constitution, not on the Declaration of Independence, even thought the original letter conflates the roles of the two documents.
She also had a good time answering (ahem, trying to fix) their (ridiculously biased) surveys.
Stand out edits:
Q: What kind of Justices do you think President Trump should appoint to the Supreme Court?
A: Justices who are committed to using the Court to promote
a “progressivean equal rights agenda “(such as abortion-on-demand and same-sex “marriage) regardless of what the Constitution actually says., which recognizes the separation of church and state.
Q: What should be the judicial philosophy of a Supreme Court Justice?
A: A Supreme Court Justice should vote to uphold the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that struck down anti-abortion laws in all 50 states
even thoughbecause the “right to an abortion” is nowhere mentioned in the Constitutiona personal medical decision made between a patient and doctor.
And, not one to slack at the end of a job, she even edited the final page of each mailing that asked for donations. I almost want to donate just so they keep sending me these pages. Great way to keep a teen activist engaged.
Or maybe not worth my money. But I would donate if they spent their funds on efforts that work. The kinds of efforts aimed at doing good—reducing the numbers of abortions while making the world better for the people already in it.
The current pro-life efforts are aimed at controlling women’s bodies.
If you can’t see the difference, you’re not gonna make a difference.
I’m here, in Philadelphia, attending sessions and noticing the way even the most micro discussions are informed by the wider historical moment. And I’m interested in the way we need to think at both levels as scholars—we need to spend time figuring out what we do on an everyday basis and why we do it. And we need to figure out how we affect and are affected by the most pressing issues of the day.
On the micro-level, we parse out our everyday professional behaviors:
What do we teach in a particular class? How do we teach? What’s the meaning of a particular text? What does it mean to be a scholar?
Slightly larger points of conversation address departmental identities:
What is the relationship between literary studies and writing studies? What about cultural studies, media studies, digital humanities, and so on? What kind of curriculum makes sense?
And still larger concerns center on universities, where we are fighting for survival:
Where have all the English majors gone? How do we get them back? How do we resist the defunding of the humanities? How do we support contingent faculty?
And then there are the national concerns:
What’s happening with the delegitimization of the humanities? The election of Trump? The censoring of faculty? Racism? sexism? anti-immigrant rhetoric? gay rights? (this list goes on…)
And the international:
The movement to the right in the U.S. and beyond. The boycott of Israeli universities, which was not supported by the MLA Delegate Assembly.
And the most pressing, the global:
It all matters. Some of it matters more urgently [climate change].
Even the seemingly tiniest questions about what a text means implicate the ways we understand the world and the ways we behave.
An analogous way of saying it: The issue of climate change trumps Trump. But we gotta pay attention to Trump because his election is bound up with climate change & SO MUCH MORE. The same is true of what we read, write, teach, say, don’t say. It’s all bound up.
We consistently wonder if we are rearranging the deck chairs. Perhaps. It may also be that, together, we are taking up oars, directing ourselves and others away from the iceberg.
And it is more likely that neither metaphor is apt. It may be that we are doing what we will inevitably do because we’re human. We do our best with the situation as we experience it, and we may not understand the urgency until the sinking is upon us. We may act in time, or we may not. Some will fall. Hopefully not all.
When I say, “some will fall,” I’m talking about scholars who will not find sustainable careers, majors that will be discontinued, departments that will be underfunded or disbanded, universities that will close. And I’m also talking about entire communities of people who will fall as we fail to address climate change.
As we—scholars here at the MLA—move forward, listening to one another and pausing to consider what we believe, what we teach, how we do it, and why we do it—it’s not everything. But it is something. At the very least, our smallest questions are consistently engaged with the most pressing issues of our time. We will not solve it all. But we will try try try to do a small piece of it.
The driveway stretches from the garage to the street
my trudging for shovel
for the best way to begin
I scoop from the garage, close to the right side of the drive,
feeling with the shovel’s blade
for the place where blacktop meets grass.
I uncover the edge of the path—narrow,
the width of two shovel horizons,
leading around the side of the house.
I turn my back on the driveway, let the repetition
lead me until I’ve cleared my way to the recycle bin
and turn back.
From the garage, moving outward,
crossing the driveway in short diagonals:
Arms, legs, shoulders, back—I bend,
lift, push out or flip over—
again and again, pausing to strategize, to see the
white, the mounds, the distance, the work.
I measure what I’ve done, what I’ve left to do.
Relish the challenge.
Ignore the layer of white hiding the rectangle of black that I already cleared,
ignore the startling snowflakes,
ignore the stark trees in stoic relief,
try to ignore the guilt I feel
but it comes to me in metaphors
If I don’t shovel now, it will be more difficult later.
The day will warm, the rain will come, the snow will grow heavy.
And it feels good—to lift, to move, to see what I’ve done, even though there’s always more to do.
I head inside, open my laptop, and
write a poem when I should be grading.
But I’ve written the path to the recycle bin now, am ready to head back to the drive,
to clear my way to the street, telling myself to relish
the startling snowflakes, the stark trees, the work.
at Idlewild Amusement Park with my young daughter
Callie and I start with the Spider.
Our first twisty-spin-and-sudden-dip around,
my body remembers this feeling and relaxes
into the wild ride and the wide blue sky.
But Callie is a crunched “C” atop the seat,
back forward, head down, fists clenched
around the safety bar, arms and legs
braced rigid against the movement.
My right arm finds its way around her in the
swooping chaos, draws her to me;
my left hand releases the safety
bar loosely grasped and holds her
left arm firmly.
I am an out of control cocoon.
Spin madly with me, my Monkey Girl.
Laugh and scream with me in
Feel my arms around you and feel safe.
Don’t notice that I’m holding onto nothing—
Nothing except you.
first drafted July 2010
I wrote up my reaction to the presidential election from my perspective as a mom of two politically-aware teens, but my response to the entire election season has been shaped just as much—or more—by my work as a teacher.
Trump and his campaign betray the values I hold most dear as a teacher.
The values are simple.
- I care about careful research, evidence-based arguments, and appropriate communication.
- I care that every student in my class is treated with respect and knows that their voice matters—that there is room for each and every one of them to speak and to be heard.
During the election season, I saw both values betrayed on an everyday basis, and every time each of these values was betrayed, I felt like a failure. I felt like my vocation was meaningless. I felt like the work I try to do every time I interact with students was not valued by anyone outside of campus. I might as well be moving an ocean a spoonful of water at a time.
Often, I couldn’t even articulate why I was so full of angst and frustration and anger. I just felt it, over and over, in debate after debate after debate after debate (there were a lot of them! I’ve been paying attention since the primary debates: Yikes.); in Facebook post after Facebook post; in news report after news report.
I still feel betrayed and frustrated and disappointed.
But I have to be fair and tell the other side of it. Do you know what has come of me working to hear students? It’s been a privilege. They have taught me so much.
One of my students told me after the semester was over that she had been homeless. I have become a kinder person since then because I learned that I could never really know what was going on in another person’s life.
I’ve had students tell me about sexual assault and eating disorders and escaping from a cult. Each and every story shaped the way I think and respond to others. I’ve learned from students who are funny and wise and sarcastic. One student loved awkward situations, and I still enjoy my awkward moments a bit more because of listening to her.
Have you noticed that I haven’t even mentioned paper topics? Oh, if you had the opportunity to read all the ideas I have read—it’s tough to imagine if you’re not a teacher yourself! but I have learned about so many topics that my students have spent time researching that my brain is overly full and I don’t blame myself at all when I cannot remember a single thing anymore without writing it down.
And then there are the backgrounds. My former students are from so many parts of the world that I cannot even name them all. And I haven’t even taught in diverse schools. Even in the mostly-white universities where I have taught, I encounter people who are so different from me that I feel privileged to learn with them, to laugh with them, to grow with them.
When I feel angry about this election season, it’s partly because values I hold dear have been betrayed. And it’s also because these students—and these former students—whom I respect and often love have also been betrayed. I read about their fear on social media. I read their stories of their children. I read their activist calls to do better and stand strong.
I wonder about the people who post about immigrants or Mexicans or Muslims or poor people or transgender people or black criminals. Yes, I am connected with many people on Facebook who post things I consider offensive. I wonder: Do these people simply not know people from diverse backgrounds? I cannot imagine that they would say such things if they knew my students, even if they knew them a little bit. I don’t unfriend these people because I want to hear what they think. Sometimes I address their offensive remarks. Sometimes I have been unable to do so, usually because I am so angry that I do not know how to speak effectively.
So. On that note.
As I move forward into this post-election world, I cannot remain silent in the face of decision-making that is bigoted and oppressive. I cannot sacrifice the people I care about in that way. But I will try to speak up in ways that are respectful of others—even others with whom I disagree—and I will work to find common ground. That’s not because I’m patient or understanding, because right now I’m not. It’s because I think it’s the only kind of communication that actually has integrity and hope attached to it.
I will also speak up against decisions that ignore careful research and clear evidence. (Climate change, I’m talking to you!) We gotta be vigilant about addressing global environmental issues. We can’t be lazy or rely on the manipulative propaganda that populates so much of our news feeds. We gotta do the work and hear the answers, even when they’re tough to hear, even when they challenge us to change in ways that might be uncomfortable.
There’s more. I know there’s more. But that’s what I’ve processed so far. I know who I am as an educator. And for me, the classroom has never been about walls.