Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Are feminists necessary?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was all over the Sunday news shows last weekend, plugging her latest effort: 'Are Men Necessary? When sexes collide'.
Personally, I like Maureen Dowd - a not entirely universally shared opinion. The President is reputed to have a pretty stiff loathe-on for her, and word is, former President Bill Clinton has crossed her off his Christmas card list as well. Interestingly, she claims Bush-the-Father is something of a fan; their bantering and edgy, teasing flirtation a long-standing tradition between the two.
And that's what I like best about her: a liberal who takes appropriate shots at her own side should their hypocrisy rise above generally agreed-upon nausea levels, a Democrat who can find common ground with the political enemy.
The question is, with her new book (already firmly affixed on the New York Times bestseller list) can she find common ground, or even a reason for existence for the gender enemy? The short answer is yes; the longer answer (the: 'but what does it all mean? answer) is somewhat less clear.
What is clear is that adversary or no, she does indeed love the enemy.
Dowd points out, in language and with examples no sentient woman can deny, that the women's movement has arrived in the 21st century somewhat off the rails... missing a wheel or two, or at the very least experiencing a chronic flat tire on the road to absolute equality.
Where once we sought to compete, now we want to be Jerry Maguire 'complete'.
Dowd is considerably older than I, but she clearly began her journey in much the same place I did: that is to say, with expectations equal to her hopes, and trust that the natural order would naturally favour a recognition of the undeniably worthy status of women unquestioned in our hearts. How could it not we thought, living in our own buffed-to-a-high-luster skins, several generations into votes for women, only slightly off-put by the failure of the ERA, striding through the 60's and 70's (Dowd) and the 80's and 90's (me) with the world at our fingertips and the support of our gung-ho mothers close behind.
I think Dowd and I share another root cause for similarity in outlook; a similarity of opportunity that kept our eye off the prize (or focused elsewhere, same dif) in the earliest days of our careers.
As a writer (Dowd) and a then broadcaster (me) we were already occupying pretty rarefied ground; when you have a position even nominally in the public eye, even slightly celebrified (when somebody knows your name) you're already treated better... your opinions sought and noted... your pay packet considerably fuller than those of your contemporaries.
"What's wrong with everyone," I remember thinking. "Why are they whingeing about opportunities and equality? They should do like me and work hard and ask for what they want and show up with a smile on their face."
This was what I really thought, I am embarrassed to admit, completely ignoring the fact that as a disc jockey or television presenter, I didn't actually work all that hard (relatively speaking) and as a young, white, English-speaking somewhat attractive woman, I didn't have much to battle against within the limited range of my pseudo-celebrity.
It didn't occur to me then - and not for quite a few years - that no matter how well I was personally doing in my own little world, equal ease of access was not always on offer to my peers. And in the larger sense we had all sacrificed the larger view whilst dreaming our Mary Richards dreams. (Cute clothes, a cute apartment of our own, a cute job at WJM)
I remember when the penny finally dropped. I was dating this guy, who was even in the late eighties/early nineties bemoaning affirmative action hiring, and stating with that certainty that only the simultaneously miffed and privileged can achieve that women had not already arrived, but were in danger of taking over the workforce. Or at least the part that he was interested in.
"Look at your industry," he said. "There's Pamela Wallin reading the evening news - spreading the word across Canada from as vaunted a position as anyone could ever want. See: women have got it made; they've got nothing to complain about anymore."
"Pam Wallin is reading the weekend news," I replied. "The traditional primetime ghetto for women. She might fill in for the anchor from time to time, but she's just the one occupying the 'Girl' chair for the time being."
He wasn't convinced.
"That's still Prime Time," he said. "Women everywhere get to see her as a powerful person. And that's the measure."
The problem begins. This guy is deciding what the measure of success and satisfaction is for women and young women on the way up.
"Okay," I said. "I accept that things could be worse. (He makes a face.) But in the scheme of things, she's nowhere! There isn't a single woman in a position of power on the board of directors of the network. The only female VP is in charge of Human Resources - another traditional pink collar present from the powers that be."
I began picking up a little steam.
"But there's not a single woman making a decision about what programming is being purchased or broadcast. No women signing any cheques that represent the direction or destination of serious resources, No real decision makers in any positions of any power whatsoever."
I'd like to report that my argument (entirely accurate at the time by the way, and pretty much as described: I remember it vividly) swayed him and made him question his long-held opinions and prejudices, but truth be told, he simply veered off into Margaret Thatcher/Golda Meir territory and I, not wishing to makes a scene/create a fuss/ get him mad, let him go down that twisty pointless path.
Will we still be hearing twenty years from now about the two powerful women who once ruled nations? Even when not a single successor has succeeded?
Time will tell.
But what time has told in the four decades or so, and as Dowd suggests in her book, is that women themselves have done an about face, abandoning not only the movement, but even the word 'Feminism'.
(It's icky - and boys won't like you if you say you are one. They'll ask you if you shave your legs, or wear a bra, or hate men with every fibre of your being. And then how will you get a date to prom?)
The combined power of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution just wasn't enough, or didn't have the staying power necessary to keep the momentum going. We don't - or won't - elect women into the highest echelons of power; we don't - or won't - cough up equal pay for equal work. Still. And we don't - won't has nothing to do with it - band together with our gender to make demands, not for supremacy, but simply for equality.
What's going on? Why did we stop? What's the current status quo?
Dowd relates with anecdotal evidence the mood and modality of young women today. They reject the old feminist movement for its singularity - for being so one-note and punitive. And for not appreciating that some women - even women who want to succeed - resent being told that pretty clothes and high-heeled shoes and appreciating certain male attentions run counter to achieving male-style success.
I get it. I agree with it. I've always been a 'lipstick feminist', with just enough confidence and self-esteem to decide even way back when that I could define the sort of feminism I wished to pursue. It didn't actually occur to me that the day would come when calling someone a feminist (of any stripe) would be tantamount to calling someone a butch-dyke, man-hating lesbian Commie.
So alas.
So now we come to the present, and having lost a lot of steam as we swayed back and forth between desiring economic equality and the right to be mothers or executives or bimbos or any other damn thing we pleased, we've now lost a certain amount of momentum - and a certain amount of certainty.
What do you do when you only have 'Girl Money' (an actual new term: it means not having the sort of money one would refer to as boy money - i.e. a goodly amount) and the boy of your dreams asks you out to Susur or the Four Seasons? Do you pull out your mortgage agreement and calculate the cost of acquiring a second on it, or do you sit back, relax and enjoy as your paying host offers you seconds on dessert?
It's a conundrum alright - but only for women over forty. For our younger sisters, it's a confusing reality. How do you play and fight with the enemy? When do you put on ladies-who-lunch gloves, and when do you drop the gauntlet?
For Dowd - and I admit, for me - the most disappointing result of the defunct feminist movement is the argument it made and sold, the argument we accepted and bought: that the best thing about being a feminist was that you could be as smart and equal and ballsy as you wanted and you could still enjoy the attentions of men.
For Dowd apparently - and for me, definitely - the upshot is that the men we wanted to attract were more likely to be attracted to women who weren't interested in competing. Not that there's anything wrong with that - it takes all kinds, which was one of the dropped balls of the feminist movement - but as Dowd writes, she has come to realize that men find her 'draining'. For myself, I've heard 'exhausting'.
The irony is, I feel the same way.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Death car for cutie

Okay – I’m one of those annoying people who name their cars. Precious? Sappy? Sentimental? So?
Sylvia (a fourteen year old silver Mazda 323) simply feels like a pet – a pony or a donkey or a really large and dopey dog – and I just know she performs better for me for my recognition of her unique character and dauntless spirit.
Perhaps if I had a Range Rover or something sleek and sophisticated and expensive and gorgeous I would be too cool to name it – perhaps start calling it my ‘automobile’ or my ‘motor car’, but until that transformative day, I’ll likely be scooting around in a grayish silver five-speed hatchback, that while she sucks at acceleration, maintains a nimble handle-ability even at high speeds. Even as much as 120 k!
Not every Mazda 323 has a character, but mine does.
Purchased off the gay equivalent of the proverbial little old lady who only drives on Sunday (my guy was a fit and eco-conscious anorak-wearing homosexual, who for the most part eschewed the car for the exercise benefits of the ten speed) Sylvia was born (rolled off the production line) in 1991 and slipped into her own slip in my underground parking garage sometime in 1995.
She came in perfect, top notch physical condition – every button and toggle responding, her windshield wiper fluid filled to bursting, her antifreeze topped off, an oil change and tune up in her recent past. And to top it all off, Sylvia cost a mere $2000.00.
(Okay – interesting aside: I just nipped downstairs to take the laundry out of the dryer and stopped to pick up my mail... ‘Grand Touring Automobiles’ has sent me a personally addressed invitation to test drive an Aston Martin DB9, Jaguar XK-R, Range Rover Sport, or “…possibly a Bentley Flying Spur. Whatever your selection we will be pleased to assist you.” I’ll bet. I might just take them up on it, if only to see their faces when I alight from a Japanese car. Yeah – that’s the thing that will raise their eyebrows…)
Look: ten years with no car payments, minimal insurance with my spotless driving record, and never a flat tire or a break down. She parks on a dime and a tank of gas lasts weeks. The best $2000.00 I ever spent. Why wouldn’t I give such a splendid performer an affectionate name?
She’s not the first car I christened. I had an ancient British racing green Mini I called Martini – she looked like an olive – and a navy blue Toyota I named Lola. (She was a Corolla.) Both of them terrific cars, both unbelievably dependable and resilient… both I remember with great affection.
But Sylvia – well, she’s just been around so much longer, has seen me through the ups and downs and vagaries of a life less ordinary, and she’s captured my imagination in a way that demands a tribute or a recognition of some sort: a thanks-for-a-job-well-done something or other, anything really to mark what looks like potentially her last year of service to a grateful owner.
Because she’s faltering a little –just a little here and there – but in ways and areas that signal a deeper malaise.
Her springs are no longer springy. She goes over speed bumps even at a snail’s pace with a jarring bump – and no recoil; when we’re down, we’re down. She’s reluctant in first, dithery in second and downright obstinate in third. (Fourth and fifth are still smooth so far – but there’s not much use for fifth, or even fourth, with Toronto downtown gridlock the way it is.)
Her muffler – as recently replaced as last year – is no longer muffling very much of anything. (Don’t ask me where I put the receipt or guarantee from Midas – do you know where it is? No? Well, neither do I. Those things are for losers and little old ladies I always say… and of course for idiots who never dream a return on merchandise might be a possibility…)
A gallant gentleman leapt out of his car at a stop light the other day to inform me that my left brake light wasn’t functioning – and I am able to see on my own that her front right headlight is not all that it could, or should, be either.
A black day – and a black eye for Sylvia.
The trunk will not open from the outside, which to be honest is really the only satisfactory or useful way to open it, and her windshield wipers really only glance across the windshield these days. I snapped the key off in the ignition a few weeks ago (what do they make those things out of – pressed tinfoil?) and with just one ignition key left, when the man from the locksmith’s finally jiggled out the snapped off piece and asked me if I wanted him to make me another, it wasn’t just the outrageous price that made me say no.
I think we may have reached a tipping point of no return.
Which is not to say that something cannot be salvaged from this downturn in mechanical health: the hatchback lock should be able to be fixed, the windshield wipers replaced (I read somewhere that some people swap them for new twice a year – luxury!) the front and back lights replaced or mended, the muffler traded in, the dent in her bonnet knocked out, a little Rustoleum sprayed here and there and – ta da! – I’ll have an elderly, wheezy, un-air conditioned car, with seventeen pairs of sunglasses silted here and there around and under the seats, enough change dug out from under the floor mats to actually make all the repairs, and a mien that has gone from sporty and energetic to dejected and exhausted.
She really isn’t silver anymore – she’s a careworn tattle-tale grey.
I won’t drive her to the friend’s cottage now, and as for road trips to Ottawa and Montreal? Long faded dreams my friends. She will remain town-bound until they hook her up and haul her off; a downtown car with trips planned for no further than further downtown.
A pal in the movie business offered to blow her up next time a car needed to be blown up in a scene, suggesting such an explosive send off was tribute in itself. But it’s just too violent an end for such a loyal and dependable old friend.
I’d like to see her hauled off to a chop shop where she can provide much needed parts to other damaged cars. I myself am signed up as an organ donor, I see no reason why she cannot be a parts donor: there are certainly many little bits and pieces of her that are still in working order – steering wheel, ashtray, cigarette lighter and rear view mirror are all still in almost pristine condition. And her ownership and insurance papers have never been out of the glove compartment – quite possibly the neatest of all of her various and handy compartments.
I will drive her for a little while longer – but I know that day is coming: the day when I wouldn’t let Sylvia herself, if she were a person (or a pony, or a donkey or a big dopey dog) travel in her anymore – because she just isn’t safe.

Monday, November 07, 2005

White Hot House

I saw for the first time a couple of weeks ago one of those great old black and white movies that for one reason or another become hailed as classics of the cinema – inspiring everything from remakes and parodies, to actually becoming part of societal discourse and jargon.
The Bad Seed was the film, and corny as it was, there was also something truly sinister in its portrayal of the little pig-tailed sociopath who nearly drives her mother mad as she tries to figure out if her offspring’s conscience-challenged murderous behaviour is the result of nature or nurture.
Without giving anything away I can tell you that the fictional film mother feared nature, but in the down to earth world of thee and me, a child being identified as good or bad seems to fall pretty much to the nurture argument these days.
Though it’s nothing new to argue the odds; it is a dependable truism that each succeeding generation bemoans their current generation of youth.
“Kids today!” goes the endlessly repeated opening salvo. “When I was a kid, we…” (choose from: a) respected authority, b) took responsibility, c) were maybe a little wild, but basically good deep down, d) were nowhere near as spoiled! Or e), f), g) and so on) fill in your own indignant complaint of how easy it is now compared to how hard it was then, or perhaps something closer to issues of indulgence, self-centered-ness, ‘dream world removal from real life reality’ – you know the drill.
And perhaps, sensitive new-age soul that you are, you’ve been involved in conversations that actually recognize how inevitable you sound, how plus ca change you appear, how just like your parents and theirs before them and so on and so on; still, you insist, this time and with THIS crop of underage citizens, there is a difference. The world really has changed – circumstances (familial, social, economic, legal, moral) have altered to a degree that Something! Must! Be! Done!
But I have a different beef, an alternate concern – a separate anger. My question is, “forget the kids - where are the adults?” Where are the bona fide grown ups that used to run the world and the family and provided the sense of safety and right and wrong that used to be adhered to as often as it was railed against.
Have you noticed? Do you wonder if the real change of the times is not so much in our youth as in our adults? And in particular, of those who are at least nominally the chief decision makers and society leaders that in days of yore, represented all that was responsible, hard working and wise.
Sure, sure… corruption, dishonesty, venality and even criminal stupidity have been and no doubt always will be hallmarks of a certain dependable proportion and percentage of politicians. Certainly anyone who reads history cannot fail to acknowledge the generous sprinkling of the mad, bad and the wildly and demonstrably wicked. But is it me, or has society descended to an all time lower than worms low in selecting and electing those we’ve chosen to represent us in all things worldly?
The top news story today – and every day for the past two weeks, or so it seems – has been about a guy named Scooter.
I am far from the first to note the utter ridiculousness of such a name for a senior White House official, but it bears repeating for all that. Scooter.
I don’t care if it was his dear old Dad’s nickname for him, it makes absolutely no difference to me whatsoever that it hearkens back to some dim and distant part of his storied past and his baseball abilities that were likened in some fashion to some other similarly goofily named baseball-playing soul. I just don’t want anyone near the Oval Office, the Situation Room or the panic button, whose name sounds more appropriate for a guy wearing a hat with a propeller. It isn’t seemly – but more than that, it indicates something about judgment that when combined with his vaunted position just doesn’t jive.
‘Scooter’ doesn’t even sound like a lying, deceptive pawn of evil; he sounds like he should be making a soap box racer in the garage or watching Saturday morning cartoons in the basement rumpus room, or helping his Dear Old Dad (Dod?) put up the storm windows – not leaking the name of a CIA spy to his minions in the media.
“Scooter’s been indicted!” must have been the near-unbelievable wedding of words communicated to the extended members of the Libby family (Grandpa Stinky, Auntie Skipper, Cousin Hootie…) a couple of ill-starred weeks ago. And since then, nothing’s been the same.
But still, no grown-ups emerge.
No responsibility from higher up is taken. Not even from Scooter. Beyond Scooter’s mouthpiece claiming that the outrageous charges will disappear following a vigorous defense, it’s business as usual at the White House, with republican dependables hitting the Sunday morning talk show circuit and adjudicating it ‘out of the question’ that Scooter’s boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, will feel any prosecutorial heat from the nation’s most recognizable (not to mention Special) Prosecutor.
But is it true? Is it so? Is there a possibility that someone is going to finally call the leaders – rather than their lackeys to task?
It’s possible.
After all, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald hasn’t charged Cheney Chief of Staff Libby with the considerably more difficult to prove underlying crime of deliberately naming CIA operative Plame, but rather with five counts of lying, including lying to a Grand Jury, making false statements to federal investigators, and obstruction of justice.
Libby’s lawyers made a big point around the fact that he would not take a deal – who was offering one? – but would plead ‘Not Guilty’, and let the chips fall where they may.
Let them. However hard it may be to prove perjury when some of the details and alleged conversations took place a couple of years back, Scooter made the mistake of being very clear from whom he suggests he heard the gossip about Joe Wilson’s wife and that person, he claims, was unfortunately one of the most respected names in television journalism, Tim Russert. And Russert is beyond clear – to the point of having proof he wasn’t even around, when he was supposed to have whispered the words “Joe’s wife is a spy” into Scooter’s shell-like – and in his manner and comportment, makes Libby’s accusation all the more specious.
So what’s a poor Vice Presidential Chief of Staff to do? Fall on his sword, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Protect the VP, the big P, take the heat, the sentence and the can tied to his ass with all the aplomb he can muster and wait for the Presidential Pardon… which he’ll likely have to wait for until the end of Bush’s Presidency so as to maintain whatever shreds of dignity the Leader of the Free World and his most senior aide are still clinging to like grim and inevitable death.
Should there be any shreds left in the three long years ahead of all of us.
And still I ask, where are the grown ups? Where are the people making the really tough decisions – like standing up and admitting to cutting down the cherry tree, or manufacturing intelligence on WMD’s or even ‘fessing up to trying to discredit former Ambassador Wilson by going after his wife.
(And if that isn’t indicative of the adolescent school yard bully mentality operating in the highest echelons of power, well, one has to wonder…)
Tough decisions are being made and an immense amount of loyalty is being demonstrated, but it’s to all the wrong people; to protect what is looking like an increasingly corrupt and dishonest administration and to continue to obscure the facts surrounding one of the biggest and most expensive (certainly if you include human life) boondoggles of all time: the war in Iraq.
Americans are not being protected, Americans are not being informed and Americans are not being respected.
Genuine American interests are not being looked after.
Americans are being governed by a modern day version of elderly Bad Seeds – and being led down a particularly weedy garden path whilst being told everything in the garden is lovely.