Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A little more on the Jewish American Princess

I was really intrigued by the presentation on Monday about modern Jewish stereotypes, particularly those of the Jewish American Princess in light of my pretty strong reaction against Crea.  I wanted to find out more, and did some searches in Google and on YouTube.  What I found was a consistently humorous portrayal of the JAP, one that mocked her and lampooned her stereotypical love of fancy bags, dislike for work or labor, and lack of enthusiasm for bedroom activities.  We saw the University of Michigan "Pursuit of Jappiness" rap in their presentation, but "JAP" related videos and jokes and humor articles are just about everywhere.  Very rarely did I see anyone be called out on these stereotypes-- in fact, maybe only once or twice.

What I found to be particularly disturbing about all these different videos on Youtube was that they were largely produced by younger kids.  Many JAP videos were made by college kids looking to get a laugh, groups of friends filming fake documentaries on JAPs, young comedians poking fun at JAP culture.  What distresses me about this is that the whole idea of the Jewish American Princess is focused around negative Jewish stereotypes-- that Jews are money-focused, materialistic, passionless, selfish.  The JAP stereotype that is serving now as a comedic gesture is perpetuating these stereotypes in a way that is appealing and enjoyable to the younger generations.  It's a spoiled rich girl-- what's not to mock?  The JAP is surprisingly easy comedic material, and shows in a variety of comedic forms.

The fact that the JAP is so prevalent in modern youth comedy presents a disturbing issue regarding covert racism and the perpetuation of racial stereotypes across generations.  I feel like this is the way people continue to have these sort of racial stereotypes-- they receive racial biasing information in a context in which it seems "okay" to make fun of these stereotypes, okay to laugh at them and mimic them themselves.  It was distressing to see how easily youth culture runs with an idea they think is good for a laugh, and how easily humor can mask underlying racism.

Shanon Pomerantz will shine your shoes

Found this fantastic video essay from Mrs. Pomerantz herself-- apparently, her inspiration for Rich Boy came from her job shining the shoes of rich businessmen in the business district.

There's a lot to be said here, and I'll really let the video speak for itself.  But I did have one really interesting tie from Pomerantz and Rich Boy back all the way to House of Mirth.  She opens the essay with a long description about how different men wear different shoes, and what these shoes say about them.  She learns how to define them very visually, how to categorize them based solely on what she sees and by how they dress.  Their physical appearance displays not only their wealth, but really how they came by their wealth as well, and where that wealth was going.  This all made me flash back to Lily Bart and her constant submission to the male gaze. 

Men were always looking at her, observing her beauty as a way to determine her worth.  It's strange-- this idea of a gaze happens not only amongst the rich (or those trying to seem rich, in Lily's case) that seek to categorize each other, but also in the poor observing the rich.  And, I suppose, in the case of the Corey family judging the Lapham's dress and architectural style, the old rich observing the new rich.  And in Beans of Egypt, Maine, the middle-class observing the poor. 

There seems to be this running theme of the gaze in these novels, in a real fixation on details of dress and style-- to determine wealth, or even to try to discern character.  It comes into an interesting contrast with our similar theme of social immobility, that no matter how well you dress, you can't assimilate into the mannerisms and cultural understandings of the upper class.

Regardless, it lends a really interesting backstory to Ms. Pomerantz herself, though.  From shoe-shiner to novelist?  Just a rags-to-riches story in herself.

Colby vs. Langdon Hall

Ever since struggling my way through Schooled, I feel like I've become a little... unhealthily obsessed, so to speak, with Ms. Anisha, our author in question.  I've spent a good chunk of hours just perusing her site, gagging at her self-important, self-glorifying style.  As is my usual response to something I strongly, strongly dislike, I took to the internet to try to find someone that agreed with me on the matter.  What I was a little surprised (ok, absolutely shocked) to find was that most people seem to support her novel.  Most reviews from newspapers and magazines are positive, extolling the virtues of her work. 

I'm wondering if we, as Colby students, are just simply the wrong audience for her work.  I feel like Colby students that have attended private school would reject her overly negative depiction of the private school world, and those who haven't would be just outright disgusted at what she describes, the unbelievable wealth portrayed in such young kids.

Anyways, as I was thinking about how Colby tied to this novel, I came across this article.  It was similarly positive towards Lakhani, and offered this interesting tidbit from her: “I discovered that later—you can’t help but become interested in shoes when you tutor a sixth grader with 400 pairs.”

Ok, I have trouble with this.  I can't help but consider Colby when analyzing the ridiculous nature of her statement.  We have professors here that seem to exist in a constant state of L.L. Bean flannel, whose jeans have been too short for about 20 years now and who wear things that just don't quite scream "catwalk".  Now, please don't get me wrong-- I adore our professors, and I'm not trying to apply this "lack of fashion sense" theorem to all faculty (read: Sandy's bowties).  I adore that they are down-to-earth and levelheaded and value knowledge and hard work above the seasons latest styles at J. Crew.  To counter Ms. Lakhani's shoes statement, I'd just like to observe that we have a great many professors here that are surrounded by wealth and high fashion, and yet somehow manage to still feel fine about their socks that don't match.

I'd say you can help yourself in that environment.  Sure, coming to Colby has been a culture shock for me, and I've definitely picked up a few style tips, but do I feel compelled to run out and pick up a pair of designer pumps every time I spot something pretty?  Hell no.  Lakhani seems to spend a whole lot of time blaming her enviornment for her corruption, but I seriously doubt that it all hinges on her surroundings.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"Bring Your Parents to School" day... is every day.

What irked me most about Schooled were the parents.  Ok, maybe that's not a fair statement, because a lot of Schooled irked me.  Most of Schooled irked me.  But the mothers stood out, at least with my educational background.  I'm attended public school in the Denver, CO suburbs up until coming to Colby, and truly loved it.  It wasn't a cultural melting pot by any means, but I did come in contact with a bit of class variety, as well as variety in personalities.  Public school was definitely about working hard to stand out, about getting involved in as much as you could if you really wanted to build a competitive resume for college application season.

What the Schooled mothers reminded me most of were the "helicopter moms" of my public school education.  I know the concept of a parent that sticks way too close to their maturing child's life is not one that is unique to a public school education and that it certainly occurs in private school as well.  But I couldn't help but comparing the differences between the Langdon Hall parents and the ones I came in contact with during my schooling.  The "helicopter moms" of Arapahoe High School seemed to cruise in when the child encountered any difficulties in grades or competitive extra-curriculars.  Jenny didn't get the "A" she needed on that big government test?  Well, she needs to keep her GPA up for college applications next fall, and mom is going to have a word with her teacher.  Mike got benched after a week of slack playing?  Dad has something to say to coach about that.  Parents would come in to teachers' office hours, send emails, make calls to let the teachers and coaches know that their child deserves more recognition, a higher grade, a better spot.

 However, when confronted, these parents seem to certainly have their childrens' best interests at heart.  They wanted their babies to succeed, to stand out, to rise above the 2,000 other suburban teenagers at Arapahoe.  It's not easy to make a stance in public school, and while I certainly don't support their behavior, I understand that they are motivated by how much they do care for their children.

This is where I saw the biggest discrepancy between public school parents and Lakhani's depiction of public school parents in Schooled.  A moment between Anna and Lara (Benjamin's mother) in the restaurant stood out to me especially.  Anna notes that the conversation they had over lunch was completely centered on her (Anna), and she feels as though she is "on a very lavish date with a man who was clearly trying to seduce me".  She also recognizes that they had not spoken about Bejamin once.  The mother is not there to discuss her child, to promote his merits or tout his academic skill.  She invites Anna to lunch solely to build a relationship in preparation for the "tutoring" sessions that these parents will offer to her.  Nowhere in the conversation does Lara communicate love, affection, or dedication to her child.  Nowhere in the conversation does she even mention him.

So I suppose helicopter moms do exist across the boundaries of class or wealth, but for different purposes.  My public school helicopter moms seemed intent on securing for their children the most rich and successful educational experience, while the Lakhani's private school moms seem only intent on buying their childrens' grades.  This may be just my own bias, though; my parents did a fantastic job of not helicopter parenting, and I definitely have fairly strong feelings against helicopter parents and what they ultimately do to a child.  Anyone have any thoughts on the subject?  Does anyone from a private school have a counterpoint I may have missed?

Why we struggle with Carolyn Chute.

EDIT:  Paula brought it to my attention that this essay is actually the one she had listed on the syllabus.  Pay attention much, Melanie?  Guess not...

I came across this really interesting essay by Professor Roberta Rosenberg while reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine.  We had a good discussion on Monday in class about how some of the members of our class really didn't like the novel.  I myself was undecided-- I couldn't decide between my love for Chute's writing and language and my overwhelming fear and sadness for the Bean family's situation.  But there were definitely members of the class who didn't enjoy the book, and this essay addresses that directly.  The author is an English professor who teaches the book in some of her undergrad and grad courses.  She has had students in her course vehemently oppose this novel, and looks into why that may be so.

She centers around the idea of what it means to be in the middle class.  Rosenberg suggests that to be successful in the middle class, one is required to have a significant amount of self-motivation, a self-sufficiency and autonomy that drives and sustains motivation.  Middle-class success is hard work, and the middle-class students that she teaches approach the literature with a high value for  "originality, innovation, and individual personality".  Rosenberg then cites sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich in suggesting that to be poor is to possess "a peculiar psychopathology which precludes them from adulthood: "the poor person live[s] for the moment, unable to think ahead, to save or plan for the future . . . trapped in the past, unable or unwilling to grow up, as the middle class ha[s]".

As her students approach the Beans as "immature adults"  that reject religion, education, work, motivation, and the possibility of a future.  In many ways, we get to see our own view of the Beans through the eyes of Earlene, who is obsessed and yet repulsed by the Beans as she watches them from her middle-class window.  Earlene denies to the end that she is a part of them, clinging to her middle-class value set despite her obvious integration into the Bean family life.  

I think this is a fair analysis of why so many members of our class had such a tough time with this novel.  Especially as Colby students, we have an immense value for the importance of hard work and motivation, and to face the Bean family is to face (to us) a population of individuals that ignore success and chose a stagnant lifestyle over one that is upwardly mobile.  I know I have a lot of trouble with a few of my fellow Colby peers that refuse to work hard or put their all into their education.  It's a small population, but the students that do blow of schoolwork for personal pleasure and fun infuriate me to no end.  I see Colby as such a place of oppurtunity, and to waste the potential we have here is, in my eyes, to take for granted what we have as upwardly mobile, middle-class young adults receiving world-class educations.

I think I personally need to get much more used to the idea that the Beans are indeed trapped in poverty in order to accept and enjoy this novel to its fullest extent.  As long as any of us view the Beans' extreme poverty as something of their own doing, I believe it's almost impossible to love this novel.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

My Beans of Maine

Reading The Beans of Egypt, Maine was very, very difficult for me.  I'm in Peter Harris' "Teaching Poetry in Elementary Schools" class this semester, and I've been going in to Waterville elementary school classrooms twice a week to teach poetry to the kids there.  I've enjoyed it immensely, but it's also been marked by some very intense moments that have absolutely set me back in my place and reminded me of the level of poverty and just daily tragedy that exists in some of these kids' lives.  It comes out as artistic expression in the poetry they write in the very innocent way that only children have.  They reveal things without realizing they're revealing; they let on to things that they don't know are secrets.  I've found out accidentally about mom's violent boyfriend, dad's arrest, his abusive brother and her mom's debilitating unemployment.  All this gets very heavy over time, but returning to the hill after a class can be very grounding.  It's like I get back here and surround myself with all these enthusiastic, brilliant students and can't help but feel better.

But Beans really grounded me.  The kids give me glimpses of what their home lives are like, but this novel put it all in your face.  Who knows which of the little kids in my class go home to Beal Bean?  To "big bean babies" or Roberta Bean?  There are a few little girls that always give me hugs before I leave class at the end of the hour.  There's a girl who always writes about kittens, no matter what the prompt.  There's a boy who has a unnaturally expansive lexicon, yet always writes about very dark and violent topics.  There's a painfully shy girl that just recently discovered that her writing can make people laugh.  There's a boy who will not write anything, who just stares at me when I try to talk to him.

I don't know where these kids are going.  I don't know if they're actually going anywhere at all.  I don't know what they come home to, who washes their shirts or braids their hair.

I'm actually having a lot of trouble writing about this, so this will be sort of a short blog.  It's just hard to suddenly realize what's actually going on, and maybe even harder to have no idea.

Sorry, Cora Lee.

I know that one of the biggest points of this blog is to encourage us to connect out into the world, to link the literature to salient details about today.  So I do try to link our literature to things that matter.  But, unfortunately for Ms. Cora Lee, the only thing I could think about when reading about her story was Octomom.

For those unaware of Octomom, she's a single mom who has used fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization to give birth to octuplets.  That's eight babies at once.  Oh, and that's on top of six children she already had.  While unemployed and on welfare.  The initial public reaction to the miraculous survival of her eight new babies was congratulatory and joyous, if a little dumbfounded that something like that could happen.  We, as Americans, were overwhelmed by the incredible cluster of tiny new lives before us and were all behind our medically-impossible mother, donating food, clothes, and even significant amounts of money to the new family.  But as the facts started coming out about her fertility treatments, her unemployment, her welfare, and (worst of all) her six other children, things went a little downhill for Octomom.  People condemned her, ragged on her irresponsibility, berated her poor mothering skills.  To be true, she was a terrible mother.  Latest updates on Octomom confirm that she actually received plastic surgery in hopes of making her lips more like Angelina Jolie.

What I'm trying to get at in all that information is that we seem to be initially overjoyed by babies, but the preliminary celebrations wear off rather quickly.  The fairytale of new birth only lasts for a little while before the reality of raising a family sets in.  This is the same for Cora Lee; she consistently fails to confront her responsibilities as a parent to the children that are aging and instead focuses on her youngest children, those who are still babies to love and hold.  Octomom was quoted in stating that "all I wanted ... was to be a mom. That's all I ever wanted in my life."

But unbenownst to these women, motherhood extends past the initial months and years of babyhood.  Children grow, and to have kids is to say "yes, I know what I'm doing with my life and I'm stable enough to provide completely for another human being".  Neither Cora Lee nor Octomom have jobs, husbands, directions, or ambitions.  Raising a baby is relatively easy, raising a child is frustrating, raising a teenager is infuriating, and putting fourteen young adults through college without a consistent salary is impossible.  Let's hope Cora Lee has a savings fund somewhere, because the path to motherhood will only get harder as she goes.

Cannot get enough of this woman.