Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Richard Sherman and the Postmodern Self

I'm currently reading Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality. I'm not very far into it yet, but it aims to be an exploration of the subject in composition in the midst of postmodernity.

As Faigley explains, postmodernity has left us with "no universal human experience, no universal human rights, no overriding narrative of human progress." Instead, our sense of self is through a "consciousness originating in language." Most interestingly, he says that "the subject is an effect rather than a cause of discourse."

So while we think of a stable, individual self (an author) who creates a text, it is paradoxically the text that creates that author. 

As Faigley explains, it creates a "momentary identity that is always multiple and in some respects incoherent." 

I am interested in looking at how the multiple (and conflicting) perspectives of readers ultimately craft the identity of the author. Every time we read something, we are reading an identity on to the creator, and those layers of identities that we collectively place onto that author end up becoming a "momentary self." 

This weekend, we were given an excellent example of this practice in action. Moments after Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made a game-winning play, a reporter stuck a microphone in his face and captured this now-viral response: 

I used this clip to talk to my students about audience today. It seems clear to me that Sherman has a very specific, very narrow audience in mind when he says "Don't you ever talk about me."  He's talking to Crabtree. If we're analyzing this text on its effectiveness at sending a message to the intended recipient, I'd say it's pretty effective. In his own discussion of the now-infamous 30-second clip, Sherman said "You know, I don't mean to attack him. And that was immature and I probably shouldn't have done that. I regret doing that." Some of the many, many, many articles written about the interview have focused on the history between Sherman and Crabtree, specifically that Crabtree insulted Sherman at a charity event and (according to Sherman himself) ignored Sherman's immediate post-game handshake and pushed him in the face.

But that's not what has thousands of people analyzing the interview. That's not what has provided us with hundreds of blogs posts (to which I will add my own) and hours of sports show commentary. Richard Sherman has become a lightning rod that is attracting strikes from multiple perspectives. He has become, in the words of Lester Faigley, a particularly complex "momentary self."

I've seen people justify their reaction (positive or negative) to Sherman in many different ways. Let's look at some of the identities that have been read onto him in the aftermath of that game.

Sherman as Thug

Let's get the most damaging one out of the way first. Richard Sherman is a young black man who grew up in the city of Compton, and his outburst has been read as an affirmation of his "thuggish" identity. Some who used this term are claiming no racial animosity when they use it, but that's a pretty ridiculous claim.

Sherman has again spoken out on the issue himself, saying today in an interview that "thug" is just a more socially acceptable version of the n-word.

For people who are using this incident to read the identity of "thug" onto Sherman, his outburst was just a convenient latch to hook pre-existent stereotypes onto.

It's a stereotype Sherman was battling before this interview ever aired, as his now-eerie appearance in this Beats by Dre commercial released a day before the game demonstrates:
He answers reporters with the same wooden, rehearsed phrases we expect (and, apparently, require) of athletes when someone asks him about his "reputation as a thug." He shoots a look of dismay and the crowd falls silent for two beats. The tension is palpable. He is a real person impacted by these cruel cuts, but he can't react to them. We won't allow him that reaction, which brings us to the second identity that has been read onto Sherman.

Sherman as Seahawk

The expectations that we put onto athletes are ridiculous. We want them to be passionate yet polite, powerful yet controlled, elite yet humble. We put them on pedestals and then chide them for their egos. We pay them astounding salaries and then judge them for their wealth. We insist on the hardest hits that we can replay in slow motion and then denounce them for their violence.

Anything an athlete does that is unsavory can be read as "unsportsman-like." Several of the people criticizing Sherman are doing so because he was acting irresponsibly as a representative of his sport, his team; he shirked his collective responsibility to act on their behalf.

It's a strange place. We judge him as an individual, but we use his representation as a Seahawk to do so.

Sherman as the American Dream

Still others have come to his defense because he represents something much larger than himself, something much larger than the Seahawks, much larger even than the NFL. They see him as a representative of the American Dream itself.

Sherman grew up in Compton, well known for its violent reputation. His father is a reformed gang member turned garbageman. Sherman worked hard, taking Advanced Placement high school classes and graduating second in his class, after which he chose to attend Stanford instead of other, more sports-oriented schools because he wanted a first-rate education. When he called himself the "best" in that video, it wasn't coming from someone who hadn't worked for that reputation. 

His story is the one we say that we believe in but rarely get to see. For many, his presence in the NFL and success in school is a ray of hope for a faltering American Dream. That's a lot of pressure for one human being to carry. 

Sherman as Son

But it's not the only pressure he faces. One of the more interesting reactions to his interview that I saw came from a woman who reacted as a mother. In this post, a woman writing as DomesticPirate focuses on the slight of Crabtree shoving Sherman after he extended his hand in a show of sportsmanship. She compares it to how she has taught her own children to react to bullying:
If your child tried to take the high road (such as congratulating his opponent, this person who was one of his biggest critics, and offering a handshake), only to be literally shoved in the face, could you blame him for snapping?
Several commenters disagree with her, using their own parenting principles as the grounds for their disgust, including this comment from Kim Zlatin:
Funny b/c when I saw this happen live, the first thing I said to my husband was, "where is his mother?". Sore losers are one thing because of the emotions that come along with being disappointed, but a poor winner is so tacky. 
Wherever you come down in this debate, the interesting thing in this discussion is that Sherman is being read as a proxy child, a representation of mothers' responsibility to teach their children how to navigate a complex world of manners and insults.

Who is Sherman?

So what's the "right" way to read Sherman? Is he a hot-headed egomaniac who ran off at the mouth to fulfill a personal vendetta when he should have been thinking of his team? Is he a highly skilled professional athlete who was reacting off of adrenaline and passion in the heat of the moment? Is he a calculated, intelligent marketer who captured this moment to showcase his own "brand"? Is he a sacrificial lamb that the media is offering up in a moment of hysteria? Is he a cautionary tale about what happens if you don't teach your sons manners? Is he a role model who demonstrates to kids what hard work can get you?

Is he all of those things? Is he any of them?

In his own response (which you really should read), Sherman said this:
It was loud, it was in the moment, and it was just a small part of the person I am. I don’t want to be a villain, because I’m not a villainous person. When I say I’m the best cornerback in football, it’s with a caveat: There isn’t a great defensive backfield in the NFL that doesn’t have a great front seven. Everything begins with pressure up front, and that’s what we get from our pass rushers every Sunday. To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.
Sherman realizes that he is being read through all of these different lenses, and he knows he can't prevent those readings. He also does not offer any alternative, simple, stable self. He is that person that you read in that interview, however you read it. He is owning that "momentary identity," but he is also reminding you that he has other momentary selves, and he's asking that maybe you read those, too.

In a postmodern world, perhaps that's the best we can ever ask for.

Photo: Solo, Sam Howzit

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Lifting Heavy Things and Reading Hard Books: When Good Enough is Good Enough

Christmas break gave me a chance to re-learn a lesson that I have already learned several times before: I can't handle unstructured time.

If I do not have a barrage of immediate deadlines, goals, and to-do lists, I revert into a nearly motionless lump of mindless television consumption and procrastination. It's like watching evolution happen in reverse.

Me, by late December.
It's not just that I work best under pressure; it's that I work at all under pressure. The pressure doesn't always have to be external. I am very good at giving myself deadlines and meeting them. All of my lesson plans and blogging work, for example, are done without any supervision or even anyone to hold me accountable for them.

But I've found that I can only make time for all of those lofty self-imposed deadlines when they are happening in the midst of a greater external structure. If I know that I have to be at work from 8am-2pm, then I can plan to get up at 6am to work out, study for my exams until 4pm, pick up my kid from daycare, and make dinner. If I don't have to be at work? All bets are off. There are no other structures in which to create my plans. I am paralyzed by the possibilities.

This is why I have decided to take on even more external responsibilities during one of my busiest semesters yet. I am taking my comprehensive doctoral exams in a few months, but I've also joined a roller derby team. Roller derby will require me to make practices and bouts. It will require rigorous physical exertion. It is, I'm convinced, exactly what I need.


Here's what I've figured out. I once thought that my tendency to revert into near-catatonic states whenever I had more than 48 hours of unscheduled time was simply a matter of laziness. I suspected that at my core, in my soul, I was a lazy person who simply took on a bunch of responsibilities to put on a guise of productivity.

But I don't think that's the case anymore. Instead, I think my true problem is that at my core, in my soul, deep down under it all, I'm a horrendous perfectionist.

I know. I know. I sound like the person in the job interview who's asked "What's your greatest weakness?" and starts making their weaknesses sound like a strength. But I am here to tell you that this perfectionism is not a strength. It is a flaw, and it has the potential to be a fatal one.

When left with unstructured time and a sense of tasks uncompleted, I am motionless because of their enormity. If I have all the time in the world (or, in this case, all the time in three weeks) to study for my exams, then all I can do is think about the best way to study. I find myself needing to be in the "right" mind frame to read. I convince myself that I need to take the "right" kind of notes. I start creating elaborate plans for spreadsheets and discussion questions that I will write for myself and then answer. I am so overwhelmed by how good I should be able to make the work with all that free time that I don't do the work at all. It's ridiculous.

I did the same thing with my fitness goals. If I have so much time to work out, then all I can think about is how much stronger I should be. I start measuring myself against the weight I can't lift or the miles I can't run instead of what I do accomplish. I get dejected. I blame myself for the "failure" I've concocted. I freeze.

But when I came back from Christmas break, I started hitting the gym and the books again. I panicked for a moment because I couldn't read these books the "right" way or lift these weights often enough. I didn't get to go in and give full one-hour workouts or four-hour study sessions (like those I'd planned for break and never completed). I had to run in and give the weight lifting session 20 minutes. I had to read in the dim light of my daughter's room as I tapped her back while she fell asleep. These conditions were very, very far from the perfect ones I had created for myself just two weeks ago.

And you know what? They work. The notes I took in the forty minutes I had while my husband gave my daughter a bath were fine. Better than fine. They were good. When I went back to the gym, I did less than I had wanted, but I was stronger. The weights got heavier.

Things got done.

Once perfectionism is off the table, I can move again. When my schedule is hectic enough that good enough has to suffice, good enough is actually quite impressive.

Photo: Jo Simon, Paul David Gibson, George C. Slade

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links!)

Here's what I've been reading that's made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).

The Good

The oldest living teacher didn't start her career until she was 81. Two decades later, she's still going strong.

My friends in the band Amen Lucy, Amen have an album releasing tomorrow (January 17). You should buy it. 

Pope Francis tells women not to think twice about breastfeeding in church.

The Bad

Georgia representative Jack Kingston said there was "no such thing as a free lunch" when he suggested making students clean offices for lunch benefits. In the meantime, he was racking up plenty of tax-funded meals of his own.

Virginia state Senator and Congressional hopeful Richard Black doesn't think spousal rape should be a crime.

Here are the states where your own wishes (even when written in a legal document) don't matter if you're pregnant. Mine is one of them. Shudder.

The Curious

This Sporcle quiz is difficult, but fun. Can you figure out the book titles with one letter in each word changed?

This NPR piece takes a look at the anthropology of walking:
Americans take 5,117 steps a day, a distance of approximately 2.5 miles. That's a significant shortfall compared to the averages in Western Australia (9,695), Switzerland (9,650) and Japan (7,168).
Why do Facebook's content policies allow beheadings but not breastfeeding? This is a thorough and interesting look at the history of our treatment of the nipple and how social media platforms handle it today:
In 1935 New Jersey hit back with a mass arrest of 42 topless men in Atlantic City. After years of protest and outrage New York lifted the male topless ban in 1936, and suddenly a man's nipples were no longer "obscene" in society, but rather commonplace and natural.
Here's a good discussion of the marketing and perception of female athletes:
 The uptightness of attitudes about women athletes, about women’s athleticism should be read as not only sexist but as homophobic – it supports gender policing as women are “dolled up” to reassure the spectator that they are “really” women. And it is a displacement of the panic the homophobic spectator feels when asked to consider the amount of attention and energy he spends thinking about, talking about, and playing with other guys.
Ideologies of sex, sexuality and gender shape our ideas about what a sport spectacle is; they shape how we experience those spectacles. They in fact shape how we experience the sports we practice.
Malcolm Gladwell pens an essay on rediscovering his faith that is fascinating and moving:
 What I understand now is that I was one of those people who did not appreciate the weapons of the spirit. I have always been someone attracted to the quantifiable and the physical. I hate to admit it. But I don’t think I would have been able to do what the Huguenots did in Le Chambon. I would have counted up the number of soldiers and guns on each side and concluded it was too dangerous. I have always believed in God. I have grasped the logic of Christian faith. What I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power.
Mental Floss has a list of ten body parts you don't really need.

Does Louis C.K.'s show act as a powerful statement about the work of parenting and the domestic sphere?

Maybe we should be nagging our kids more after all.

Tori at Anytime Yoga reminds us that maybe we should just not comment on stranger's food choices:
My food choices are rarely the sum total of what is in my cart in any given week. And my life is never defined in total by my food choices. Moreover, it is not my job for the contents of my grocery cart to pass someone else’s muster — not even when it’s a compliment. 
 Kelly O'Sullivan has some perspective on what happens when a feminist's son starts dating
It is my job to protect my children from harm but it is not my job to get in-between my children and their life experiences. It is, in fact, my responsibility to get out of the way when they start forging personal romantic relationships, even when I know they might get hurt.
 That's what I've been reading. What about you? Any links to share?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: The Future is Full of Disaster (And Other Non-Problems)

There are many ways to tackle a PhD exam reading list. I'm sure that some of them make sense.

For instance, you could line up all the texts in chronological order and move through them step-by-step, getting a sense of the field unfolding before you as it did in its own time (or at least as it did according to those we canonized).

You could group the books by theme, reading first all of the pedagogical histories followed by the ancient primary texts and top it off with contemporary communication theory.

Or, you could do it like I did. I stacked up (almost) all the books in a big pile and started digging through them at random over the course of several months.

The impact of this latter strategy is that you get a bizarre mishmash of ideas from a wide range of time periods. What makes that most interesting to me is the grappling with postmodernity. 

You can read all about postmodernity here, but for the purposes of this post, it's enough to say that it is a cultural condition marked by a sense of de-centeredness. In the postmodern condition, ideas (including our sense of selves) are often fragmented and quick to change. There is little stability. It's a condition closely connected to the work of the Structuralists and Post-Structuralists, most of whom dealt with the way that language is less fixed than we would like to think. 

For many of the authors on my list, the postmodern condition is a perilous monster poised to consume all future generations and deposit them in a godless, meaningless pit of despair. 

Postmodernity. Results not typical. 
It's interesting to see many of the writers from the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's worry incessantly about what postmodernity means for us as writers, scholars, teachers, and students. They particularly worry about the students. They worry that the students will have no sense of self from which to write. They worry that the students will have no fixed formats in which writing is acceptable or understandable. They (literally) make entire careers out of worrying about what the state of postmodernism will mean for their field and education in general.

And they worry with reason. For many the things that they saw as happening to education have happened or are happening. They weren't just blowing smoke. 

But now I'm reading Writing New Media, particularly a chapter called "The Database and the Essay" by Johndan Johnson-Eilola. In it, Johnson-Eilola writes:
Over the last few decades, the fields of literature and rhetoric and composition have more or less agreed that authors are not omnipotent (except as literary devices). We are comfortable with unreliable narrative. We speak of texts as intertextual networks of citation, reference, and theft. We observe how different readers make different meanings from identical texts. We understand reading and writing subjects as ongoing, contingent constructions, never completely stable or whole. In short, we're at ease with postmodernism. 
And, for me at least, this rings completely true. I was born in the mid-80's, and that means that postmodernity is all I've ever known. I don't know how chaotic it is to exist without (the illusion of) a stable center because I've never had (the illusion of) a stable center

When you've been jumping as the ground crumbles under your feet your whole life, it doesn't really seem like that big of a deal. 

It made me wonder if at least some of this worrying isn't just the academic version of "kids these days" syndrome. 

See, every generation thinks that the next one is doomed. This Mental Floss article shows some great quotes about how kids today are ruining everything--except they were said by people throughout history. Now that we have social media, we can share our "kids today" lamenting quicker than ever, which is how we know that the Millennial generation (my generation) is filled with lazy, shiftless, freeloaders. 

As George Orwell once said, 
Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.
It makes sense that we would project these same concerns onto how the next generation will handle major cultural shifts. I am sure that learning the Earth revolves around the sun was a major game changer when heliocentrism made it into the mainstream, but for the generation that was raised with that fact drilled into them from birth, it wasn't really an issue. 

My own daughter will never learn My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas because, for her, Pluto will never be a planet. She'll just go along mumbling My Violent Evil Monster Just Scared Us Nuts to herself during trivia games and the only ones who will be impacted by the trouble will be the people straddling the two worlds.  

We're living in a time where our perception of reality is changing faster than ever because our technology advances so quickly. That means there are a lot more straddlers. There are a lot more disruptions. Fewer and fewer people can spend their lives without some major truth being overturned on them. 

But for those of us who have never had that luxury, it's really not that disrupting at all. Sure, we might need to make 453 Buzzfeed posts about the toys we miss each week, but the fact that nothing stays the same for long isn't keeping most of us up at night. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Beyonce: An Ode to Radical Motherhood?

Much has been said about Beyonce's self-titled, secretly-released "visual album." A large part of the conversation (including my own contribution) has focused on some collective hand wringing about whether or not we should consider Beyonce a feminist.

In another article on that topic, Elizabeth Majerus makes a good point about the lack of textual analysis in many of these posts about the presence/acceptability of Beyonce's feminism:
I want to hear more about what Beyoncé says on her album. As I admitted at the outset, I have yet to hear Beyoncé. But the buzz is making me want to hear what exactly she articulates on the album. It’s also making me wonder why I haven’t heard more about the album’s content in all the articles and posts that have taken up this issue.
I can't pretend I've mastered the internet enough to say no close textual analysis of Beyonce exists. In fact, I'm sure that it does (feel free to link in the comments!), but I am fairly well-read in most mainstream feminist circles, and I've seen plenty of articles about whether or not this album gives Beyonce feminist credibility and very little about the songs and videos themselves.

With that in mind, allow me to give a little explanation of how I read the album.

This Sin City Siren post (the bulk of which is also concerned with Beyonce's feminist credibility) ends with an observation that really resonated with me:
 When I was watching some of Beyoncé’s videos last night, I kept thinking that it’s been a long time since we saw her this truly fierce. Not just a put-on kind of fierce, but actual gut-level ferocity. I can relate to that. Immediately after I had my daughter, I had a period in which I felt soft and vulnerable and defined from outside myself. But then, as I became more confident in my new role as a parent and in my new body (because things shift in flight and never shift completely back), I found a kind of power and bad-assery that I have never fully realized before. Maybe it was always there, dormant. Or maybe the experience of pregnancy and childbirth pulled me across a new threshold of power and consciousness. I don’t really care how or why it is there, but it is. And I like the idea that people, especially young people, will be watching Beyoncé hold two seemingly conflicting thoughts simultaneously in each hand — that she is a mother and she is powerful.
While I realize that I am bringing my own experiences and biases into my reading (which is how we always read things), I have to say that this is exactly how the album resonated for me: an ode to radical motherhood.

What little textual analysis I have seen of the album focuses (understandably so) on Beyonce's overt sexuality. This Thought Catalog piece, for instance, moves quickly through each song and asserts that "no sex is being sold here, sex is being told."  Jezebel has a post about a recent behind-the-scenes interview with Beyonce in which she explicitly connects this display of brazen sexuality (an ode to oral sex on the track "Blow," discussion of using sex toys in "Drunk in Love," and many, many, many images of her displaying her body sexually) to motherhood:
I was very aware of the fact that I was showing my body. I was 195 pounds when I gave birth. I lost 65 pounds. I worked crazily to get my body back. I wanted to show my body. I wanted to show that you can have a child and you can work hard and you can get your body back. I'm still finding my sensuality, getting back into my body, being proud of growing up. It was important that I expressed that in this music because I know there are so many women that feel the same thing after they give birth. 
You can have your child and you can still have fun and still be sexy and still have dreams and still live for yourself.
While I am personally troubled by the "post-baby body" obsession (especially among celebrity representations of mother's bodies), I can hardly put that blame on Beyonce. She's just as much a victim to those expectations as the rest of us, and since her career is intricately tied up in her appearance and performance, the stakes are higher. Yes, the phrase "get my body back" irks me, but I also think that she's right. That is a thing that many (most? all?) new mothers worry about, and her discussion of it in this way directly links her to those other mothers.

She says "I wanted to show my body." And Bey gets what she wants.

We get the distinct impression that this visual album was accompanied with music videos specifically so she could try on so many different versions of herself. She shifts from overtones of fun, creepy, militant, sexy, and nurturing. But the most important part of her display is the way that these identities merge and diverge, the ways that they intersect. 

This, for many women, is the crusher of motherhood: the identity can be all-consuming. It can be very hard to find a sense of self outside of the role of mother, especially in a society that tells you motherhood must be perfect, must be--to put it bluntly--"flawless." 

In order to be a "good" mother, you have to give birth the "right" way (a scrutiny Beyonce faced), breastfeed for "long enough" but not "too long" (another site where Beyonce's body was used for public commentary), stay home with your child or risk being called selfish, work or risk being called lazy, make homemade organic snacks by hand each day, never use a nanny or daycare, have regular sex with your husband daily (you are married, right? and it's to a man, right? if not, well, you already lost the perfect mommy wars), give your child ample attention, not coddle your child with too much attention, never use cry it out methods, never co-sleep with your baby, only use cloth diapers, make your own baby food from scratch, never miss a school meeting, throw elaborate birthday parties, enroll your child in every extracurricular activity imaginable, have dinner on the table, and keep your body looking slamming hot while you do it. 

The act of motherhood is exhausting but also rewarding, amazing, and awe-inspiring. The myth of motherhood, on the other hand, is just downright insane. 

Throughout most of Beyonce, the tracks are an ode to Beyonce's sense of self. Her exploration of sexual pleasure, personal satisfaction, and professional success read as nothing less than mini-manifestos that fly in the face of the myth of motherhood. There are also some specific references to the overwhelming nature of motherhood tucked away in unexpected places. 

On "Flawless," arguably the most popular track from the album, Beyonce croons the lines:
I took some time to live my life
But don't think I'm just his little wife
Don't get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down bitches
While there was much speculation about whether or not Beyonce would be able to return to her glory days once she became a wife and mother, this album (and this song in particular) act as a clear, aggressive defiance of such doubts. It also seems to be a direct affront to critics who said Beyonce's dubbing herself "Mrs. Carter" were hurting women and the feminist movement, making her a bad icon.

In "Mine," a collaboration with Drake that explores relationship woes, there is this:
Been having conversations about breakups and separations
I'm not feeling like myself since the baby
Are we gonna even make it? Oooh
While this song may not be as clearly autobiographical as some of the other works on the album, it's a nod to the way that motherhood and pregnancy impact relationships and complicate our lives in ways we couldn't have predicted.

Still, these lyrics are little moments in songs that otherwise fit neatly with the idea that this album is Beyonce's reclamation of her post-baby sexuality, but in order to maintain the simplicity of that narrative, we'd have to ignore the last three (four if you count the bonus) tracks completely.

I don't think it's any accident that the tone shifts so drastically for the final songs. While Beyonce certainly claimed her sexuality as a position of power early in the album, it's these final numbers that leave me stunned by her exploration of human complexity.

"Superpower" is lyrically a fairly straightforward exploration of the power of a relationship:
And when I'm standing in this mirror
After all these years
What I'm viewing is a little different
From what your eyes show you
I guess I didn't see myself before you
For an album that has focused so much on her own confidence in her body, this admission that a partnership with another human being makes her see herself differently is powerful.

She goes on to explicitly call upon that power:
The laws of the world never stopped us onceCause together we got plenty super power
She couples these lines, which could be read as a kind of vulnerable dependency upon a husband for power, with a video that displays her at her most militant.

She takes the role of wife--with all of its potential weaknesses through dependency and subordination--and turns it into a powerful partnership that cannot be broken. She's on equal footing with her partner, and together they are unstoppable. 

Immediately following the track that shows Beyonce at her most militantly empowered is one that shows her at her most vulnerable. "Heaven" is a sorrowful ballad of loss and grief, and many of Beyonce's fans have speculated that it is about her own miscarriage

And while "Heaven" may or may not be about the vulnerability and emotion of motherhood, the next track (the final official track on the album) most definitely is. "Blue" is explicitly about her relationship to her daughter Blue Ivy (who is featured on the track and in the video). Beyonce explains that: 
Sometimes these walls seem to cave in on me
When I look in your eyes, I feel alive
Some days we say words that don't mean a thing
But when you're holding me tight, I feel alive
And this is coupled with beautiful images of love and the simple joy of holding your child.

An album that starts with raunchy odes to cunnilingus and videos shot in strip clubs ends on a beach with a mother holding her daughter. And I don't think we're supposed to read it as a simple transformation story. Beyonce is still all of those other selves, too, but when the walls are caving in as she tries to hold all those other identities up, it is looking in her daughter's eyes that gives her a sense of being alive. 

This entire complicated narrative about identity, marriage, and motherhood is summed up with incredibly clarity in the bonus video for "Grown Woman," the very last thing on the entire album. 

Beyonce sings "I'm a grown woman. I can do whatever I want." 

As she sings, images of her performing throughout her life segue into a dance sequence that takes her through many different iterations of her public persona. It's almost a summary of the rest of the album. She can play sexy, flirty, drama queen, down home girl, etc. "Grown Woman," then, can be read as a the conclusion to this story (which also explains its placement as a bonus track, the afterward). She realizes that she has presented conflicting identities in her performance on this album, and not only is she not apologizing for it, she's telling us that was the point. She can do whatever she wants. She is not any one of those things, she is all of them, and that makes her greater than any of them. 

The most powerful part of all of this is the very final image in "Grown Woman." Remember, this is a song that is claiming Beyonce's right to be anything she wants and a summarizing conclusion for her album as a whole. She ends it with this: 

She draws careful attention to the fact that her role as mother, as nurturer, as caretaker is very much included in the "whatever I want." Motherhood is not antithetical to the sexuality she expresses elsewhere. She is just as much herself in this moment as in any other, and the album acts as a striking declaration of that fact. 

If some are concerned that Beyonce is not touting a "real" version of feminism, perhaps it is because so much mainstream feminism has no place for motherhood (as the #FeminismIsForMothersToo conversation recently pointed out). If motherhood is included in mainstream feminist narratives at all, it is often a conversation of economic disparity that ignores the fact that the pink collar and nurturing work of the world is work worthy of exploration in its own right. 

When I listen to Beyonce, I am reminded of my own struggles with identity in the face of motherhood. Beyonce crafts a visually stunning exploration of these difficulties and dropped it outside of the confines of her record label and the capitalist PR that normally drives such a release. From beginning to end, from sex toys to a bed covered in babies, Beyonce presents a radical view of marriage, motherhood, and sexuality that rattles the confines of identity even within many feminist paradigms. 

Photo: Joe Lencioni

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Wrap Up

As we move into 2014, I wanted to take a second to look back at 2013 on Balancing Jane. This blog has continued to grow, and I am so grateful to all of you who read, comment, and share. I've been blessed to be able to use this space to untangle some of the messy parts of my life, and I've had the opportunity to discover other people doing the same untangling. This blog has gotten me invited to speak at conferences, helped me hone classroom ideas, and furthered my professional goals, but most important to me, it has helped me find new friends and share in a community.

In the spirit of glancing backwards as we move forwards, here are some of the most popular posts from 2013:

Sexual Consent in Popular Culture: Waiting for Consent Doesn't Make You a Hero- Too often, movies (especially involving teenagers and young adults) use not raping someone when they're incapacitated as shorthand for "good guy." That's a problem. 

When Is a Woman Not a 'Real' Woman?- Women are real no matter what their bodies look like. Unless they look like this. 

Yes, That Onion Tweet is Racist and The Silences I Don't Hear- One little tweet caused a big stir, and it made me see things a lot differently. 

Atheists, Privilege, and Passing: Who's Passing in America?- What happens when people assume you identify in ways you don't?

My Students are Not My 'Customers'- And you shouldn't want them to be. 

Thoughts on Obedience and Toddlers- Maybe I don't really want an obedient child after all. 

Criminality, Urban Living, and Race: When My Students Get Locked Up, I Get Angry- Sometimes what gets labeled as "criminal" is really in the eye of the beholder. 

To Mrs. Hall: On Slut Shaming and Friend Denying- When a conservative blogger casts young women out of her teenage sons' lives, it reminded me of my own adolescence. 

I Wish My Friends Trying to Lose Weight Would Read This- It's amazing what happened to my health when I stopped hating my body. 

Thank you for making 2013 memorable and meaningful for Balancing Jane. I hope our conversations continue into a very happy, balanced new year for us all!

Photo: Reid Beels