The Matrix and the Failure of Diversity

Several years ago, I wrote a confessional and tongue-in-cheek poem about having watched The Matrix a full 13 years after its release.

My childhood and adolescence had been fully steeped in science fiction—including my mother’s love of mid-twentieth century B-movies that often blurred science fiction and horror as well as Star Trek. However, just as I resisted Star Wars, I somehow never gave into the cultural phenomenon of The Matrix trilogy until 2012 when the films ran on my cable service, and I became hooked.

That initial viewing, as I explore in the poem, left me focused on how The Matrix trilogy often has at its core the Hollywood compulsion toward relatively formulaic love stories, but the films also pay homage to nerdom—or what may (dangerously) be interpreted as an endorsement of misogynistic male fantasies often embraced by incels and social media trolls.

As a child and teen, I moved from science fiction B-movies to science fiction novels and then comic book collecting. I have left none of this behind, but I also have had to confront how science fiction and superhero comic book narratives are often deeply problematic in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

The Matrix trilogy, however, may seem at first glance to be in many ways a revolt against these flaws. The Wachowski Brothers, now trans women identified as The Wachowskis, gained their fame for the film franchise. With the racially diverse cast and high-profile women characters, these films may appear to be bold efforts at diversity.

However, as I have been rewatching the films recently, the trilogy remains despite some of the surface features a white savior narrative—sitting among other movies such as The Martian and Gravity.

Image result for the matrix

Despite its iconic place among science fiction films, The Matrix trilogy remains a white savior narrative with Neo as the constant center. (Sygma via Getty Images)

One way to unpack a film’s gender diversity is the Bechdel test, and these guidelines help viewers recognize that many of the high-profile women characters remain merely in orbit around men—notably Neo and Morpheus. Expanding similar tests to race exposes that while the films are visually diverse (consider the slow-motion orgiastic scene in The Matrix Reloaded), the characterizations and narratives remain primarily normative because The Chosen One is Neo as white savior.

The Matrix trilogy proves to be the Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas of diversity initiatives because the films address only empirical diversity (not substantive diversity) while reducing that diversity to the service of racial and gender norms centered on whiteness and men.

Three Types of Diversity—and Why Many Diversity Initiatives Fail

In the U.S. where whiteness and being a man are centered, the first type of diversity is similar to how The Martian and Gravity as films work as if race and gender do not exist in any expressed way. In other words, the centering of whiteness and being a man are not acknowledged and rendered normal, and thus correct or best. Often the mask used in this type is to call a narrative or character “universal.”

A second type of diversity exists in organizational efforts designated as diversity initiatives, such as those commonly found on university campuses. This second type most often resembles The Matrix because the manifestations of these diversity initiatives tend to be limited to rhetorical outcomes (mission and diversity statements, etc.) and superficial goals (hiring or admitting people who can be labeled “diverse,” etc.).

This second type can be dangerous since it does not disrupt the status quo of centering whiteness or being male but seems to be diverse; this second type can also spur open hostility to diversity as well. Those who unconsciously or consciously oppose diversity as a goal tend to confront the superficial possibilities of diversity initiatives by asserting “We can’t just hire/admit diversity for diversity’s sake”—a claim that can seem credible if not fully unpacked (ignoring, for example, the long history of people being hired because they are white or men).

As I noted above, this superficial diversity allows lifting identifiable diverse people, Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas, to positions as a nod to diversity even as those so-called diverse people work against the interests of marginalized people. Carson claims racism no longer exists, and Thomas works to dismantle the affirmative action that he benefitted from in his career.

Yet, the Republican Party can point to these men as proof of diversity in the party.

A third type, the elusive type, of diversity in which both empirical diversity exists—we can see black and brown people, and women in roles and positions disproportionately dominated by white men—and their status actively de-centers whiteness and being a man.

During the current 2019 women’s World Cup, we may be witnessing something close to this third type in the person of Megan Rapinoe who is centering being a world-class woman athlete (deconstructing the “plays like a man” narrative and among women teammates demanding equal pay for their performance) and gay:

“To me, it’s literally all the same, insofar as I want people to respect who I am, what I am — being gay, being a woman, being a professional athlete, whatever,” Ms. Rapinoe said in the article. “That is the exact same thing as what Colin did.”

For films, or any art, and organizations claiming to seek diversity as a goal, then, there is much more involved than simple empirical diversity.

The Matrix trilogy remains an iconic work of cinematic science fiction, and much about the narrative breaths life into traditional frames, such as the white savior, in ways that we can enjoy and even praise.

But the success of The Matrix also depends on a lazy public, one awash in the first type of diversity and occasionally tolerant of the second type. There also is a great deal of flash and visual spectacle that makes The Matrix appealing—and ultimately dangerous like Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas.

Even for those of us who have affinity for The Matrix trilogy, and the resurgence of admiration for Keanu Reeves, we must be able to confront the failures in this series in terms of diversity and then admit we can, and must, do better.

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Vote Woman

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught in the very conservative small town where I was born and attended school. This added a second layer to the moral imperative I felt as a calling to teach.

I recall to this day sitting in a first-year college English class and suddenly feeling out of place. There was something, or some things, I simply didn’t get.

Later I would have a word for my deficit—provincialism—and by the time I chose to be a high school English teacher, I felt compelled to provide my students with a worldview I had been denied.

Literature was a magical vehicle for that mission, and one recurring aspect of two works I taught nearly every year resonate heavily with me now.

In Advanced Placement Literature, we read and discussed Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Both works are solidly in the white male canon—works buoyed by New Criticism’s premium placed on craft—but both also have an important topic in common—examinations of abortion that address the experience without ever naming it directly.

The dark comedy of the Bundren’s pilgrimage to bury the matriarch, Addie, includes Dewey Dell, a teen, seeking an abortion as a subplot of Faulkner’s experimental classic. Hemingway’s short story is heralded as a narrative tour de force that depends on “[t]he American and the girl”  negotiating the girl’s abortion without either ever uttering the word:

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

” I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”

The girl did not say anything.

High school students in rural South Carolina struggled with recognizing the situation, abortion, because the works’ purposeful omission of the word, but they also came to the texts with extremely narrow associations with abortion.

Teens in general have weak historical understanding of humankind, but with abortion they were often very skeptical when I shared that humans have wrestled with if and when abortion is justifiable for millennia—offering specifically a brief passage from Aristotle as proof.

My students assumed the abortion debate was as recent as Roe v. Wade (for them, in the 1980s and 1990s), but also believed it to be a narrow religious debate, virtually all of them primarily indoctrinated in a pro-life ideology by their family and church.

All the while, several young women in the school each year sought abortions as just another reality of being young and developing into sexual adults. Lived morality often had little relationship with professed morality in the Deep South.

Later, when we read and discussed Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, we expanded those discussions into confrontations of Orwellian language—”pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “anti-abortion”—and the role of reproductive rights in the autonomy and humanity of women.

Pro-Life Is Anti-Woman: Vote Woman

As state’s across the U.S. lay the foundation for overturning Roe v. Wade by passing what essentially constitute abortion bans, I am more compelled than ever that electing progressive women to office is one of the most important commitments a free people can embrace.

This is linked, I think, to those discussions many years ago with my students about the hollowness and deception in the phrase “pro-life” as code for anti-abortion and anti-woman.

The problem with criminalizing abortion is that it does not reduce the amount of abortions, but does increase health dangers and deaths for women. For those proclaiming pro-life, then, the avenues to that commitment include legal and safe abortion combined with access to healthcare and prenatal care.

But there is an even more insidious problem beneath the pro-life movement driving bans on abortion, and wishes to overturn Roe v. Wade: Wealthy white women will always have access to safe abortions as well as health and prenatal care.

Always.

Banning abortion, overturning Roe v. Wade, will almost entirely affect negatively the health and lives of poor women, disproportionately black and brown women across the U.S.

Abortion bans are not about preserving life, but about controlling women—and more specifically about controlling some women, those deemed Other by wealthy and white men often aided by white women.

Vote Woman

Across my social media, I have adopted a new image:

vote woman

This slogan—vote woman—is intended to send a variety of messages: it is a plea to women, a plea about women, and a plea for women.

I am careful here, because of the Alabama legislation and my own awareness of Atwood’s warning about complicit women, not to be advocating for a simplistic elect women:

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But I am convinced that electing women who prioritize the rights and humanity of women is where our political allegiances must lie if we value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all humans.

Reproductive rights and healthcare are not separate issues from women’s rights, from basic human rights.

Assaults on the rights of women are not simply assaults on women; they are an assault on humanity.

Vote woman.


Recommended

Key Facts on Abortion

The Myth of Abortion as Black Genocide: Reclaiming our Reproductive Cycle

Roe v Wade and the New Jane Crow: Reproductive Rights in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Just Facts

Can We Have a Conversation About Abortion Bans and the South?

Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses to describe abortion bans

Banned in the U.S.A.: The Right’s Assault on Other Women

“Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to,” retells Offred in Part II, Chapter 6, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary” (p. 33).

Readers have just been introduced to public executions in Gilead: “Now we turn our backs on the church and there is the thing we’ve in truth come to see: the Wall” (p. 31). On this day,

The men [hangin from…hooks] wear white coats …. Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal. … They’ve been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or — more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen — by informants: ex-nurses perhaps, or a pair of them, since evidence from a single woman is no longer admissible. (pp. 32-33)

Atwood’s speculative theocracy is heavily grounded in a perverse worshipping of some women as possible vessels of childbirth since the birthrates of whites were in steep decline due to environmental toxins.

With a conservative shift in the Supreme Court in the United States under Trump, Georgia and Alabama have passed extreme anti-abortion laws, openly admitting they are designed to overturn Roe v. Wade—to make abortion once again illegal in the country.

Several aspects of these moves to deny women autonomy over their bodies are obscured by Orwellian language (“heartbeat legislation”) and rhetorical bows to protecting life. First, in countries where abortion is legal and safe, abortion rates are often lower than in countries banning abortion, but there are strong correlations also between legal abortion and overall health, safety, and autonomy of women.

In short, access to legal and safe abortion is a subset of overall healthcare for women.

Second, and this may be one of the more troubling realities of moves to ban abortion, these bans on abortion and the possible criminalizing of women and medical professionals (see the novel excerpts above) are never going to be realities for the wives, daughters, and mistresses of the wealthy white men passing the laws.

Throughout history in the U.S., as with all laws, wealthy women will always have access to abortions as well as overall healthcare for themselves and their children.

The current move to ban abortion in the U.S. is about other women—those women marginalized by their social class and race.

These laws may also criminalize miscarriages and birth control; they are designed to strike fear into the medical field and other women.

These first moves serve the same purpose as the Wall:

It’s the bags over the heads that are the worst, worse than the faces themselves would be. It makes the men like dolls on which the faces have not yet been painted; like scarecrows, which in a way is what they are, since they are meant to scare. (p. 32)

Aunt Lydia’s reassurance—”It will become ordinary”—echoes a chilling tenet from Albert Camus’s The Stranger expressed by Meursault in prison:

Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)

Much of Atwood’s novel is about retelling the story of Offred’s life before and during Gilead—about how easily human dignity and human agency can be erased, slowly like a lobster in a boiling pot of water, or like a scene from Ernest Hemingway’s  The Sun Also Rises when Bill asks Mike Campbell how Mike goes bankrupt, and Mike answers: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly'” (p. 141).

In Trumplandia, as rightwing politicians pass anti-abortion laws, assaults on other women, we are now in the gradually.

Will this become ordinary—suddenly?

The Best Candidate: On Resisting Diversity and Equity

The 2019 version of March Madness has provided two powerful and different images of the passionate coach.

First came the brief controversy over Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, captured in this frame:

Next, despite the typically less well covered women’s game, Muffet McGraw, who coached Notre Dame to the National Championship game, falling a point short, offered an impassioned plea for coaching equity:

When I posted McGraw’s video on social media, the connection between these two moments was highlighted by one of the responses on Facebook: “Just hire the best candidate.”

That plea for something like meritocracy in the face of McGraw’s argument for equity has been repeated often during my time in higher education as I have worked on committees seeking ways to increase diversity and equity among our faculty.

“Just hire the best candidate” is a refrain, in fact, among white men in all sorts of professions. The implication is that what is past, is past, and if we value equity, then we must practice a sort of color- or gender-blind policy now in order, well, to just hire the best candidate.

“The best candidate” response, however, is a dodge because it is overly simplistic and it exposes the lack of self-awareness among white men.

White male privilege is not a thing of the past, as exemplified by Izzo and a large percentage of coaches who are allowed nearly any fault—as long as they win. Izzo is no outlier; the abusive coach, the coach who loses his temper while also admonishing his players to perform with control is the marker for the mediocre white man who glides along on his privilege while also believing he has earned everything he has attained, while believing that he is “the best candidate.”

Etan Thomas explains about the inequity of the coach/player dynamic, captured in stark relief by the tenure of Bobby Knight:

Luke [Recker] and Jason [Collier] had each played two seasons at Indiana University under the legendary but volatile coach Bobby Knight before transferring out to different schools. They spent for two straight hours telling stories about Knight. I was completely shocked by what I heard. The level of torment they both endured: the public and private humiliations, the degrading outbursts, the verbal abuse, the physical abuse, the cursing, the yelling, the screaming, the insults, the attempt to completely break them down and – most of all – the outpour of support their former coach received from all of the adults who worshipped at his throne. Basketball is a religion in Indiana and Knight, who coached the Hoosiers to three national championships, was the pope.

The comparison at the end shouldn’t be ignored since the long and ugly history of abuse of power in the Catholic church and its terrifying consequences for children remain a scar that almost no one seems motivated to heal.

So when McGraw asserts that she will no longer hire men as assistant coaches, that 99%-100% of women’s sports should have women coaches, she is confronting by saying aloud the unspoken reality of white male privilege: Men coaches of men’s sports do not consider women for assistant coaching positions, but never have to utter those words because there is a veneer of coaching hires being about “the best candidate” with the assumption that can only be men.

In all fields where there is gender or race inequity, the solution of “just hire the best candidate” is inadequate because it doesn’t seek ways to investigate that “best.”

Years of experience and success in a field or the education/credentialing needed to enter a field are often aspects of “best,” and those have been gained through, in part or whole, the privilege of white men at the expense of women and people of color.

Coaching, for example, is a real-world example of the “good ol’ boys club,” those coaching trees widely hailed and acknowledged in fact.

How can anyone find fault (and keep a straight face) with McGraw’s argument for women creating their own version of the “good ol’ girls club”?

Ultimately, calls for hiring “the best candidate” is a diversion and a lie perpetuated by those who have for most of history benefitted from unfair advantages while being allowed to pretend that they have succeeded on merit.

Coaching is one of the most glaring examples of how white male privilege elevates the mediocre white man—the hard-nosed point guard who becomes a Division I head coach and then is allowed on a daily basis to yell at and berate young and mostly black men who themselves have no recourse for that abuse.

Those same coaches all go on and on about building character in their players, about the whole athletics scheme being mostly about preparing young people for life after sports.

Part of McGraw’s message confronted the need for role models:

“How are these young women looking up and seeing someone that looks like them, preparing them for the future? We don’t have enough female role models. We don’t have enough visible women leaders. We don’t have enough women in power.”

If we really value merit, and character, I want to ask that for anyone regardless of gender or race, who should we emulate, Izzo or McGraw? Whose message and passion resonate in ways that should guide young people, or any one of us?

The best candidate? McGraw because she offers the voice of real merit and a genuine understanding of inequity.

Super Sex: Body Objectification and Superhero Narratives

I want a perfect body

“Creep,” Radiohead

She’s suddenly beautiful
And we all want something beautiful
Man, I wish I was beautiful

“Mr. Jones,” Counting Crows

Superhero comic books have a long and troubling history of xenophobia, racism, cultural appropriation, sexism, and nearly any negative -ism you can imagine.

The comic book industry is obsessed as well with rebooting as an industry mechanism and rebirth as a recurring plot element. Whether reboot, resurrection, or adaptation, however, superhero narratives seem unable to shake the very worst aspects of cliche and reductive storytelling.

The adaptation of The Punisher (Netflix) and yet another rebooting of Daredevil, volume 6 (2019), share even more examples of failing to take advantage of starting over.

Season 2 Episode 1 of The Punisher puts Frank Castle, masquerading as Pete, in a dive-bar in Michigan.

Ever stoic, Frank cannot avoid trouble, interjecting himself between a crude bar patron and the bartender, Beth, who has remained nearly equally as distant as Frank. When the bar bouncer moves to expel both the creep and Frank, Beth intervenes, and despite her protestation that she doesn’t need any help, she ultimately makes the move on her knight in shining armor, offering a nightcap at her place.

As Beth and Frank (Pete) walk to her car, Beth asks Frank to assure her he isn’t an “asshole”; Frank replies, “Isn’t that the kind of thing an asshole would do?”

Soon, Beth and Frank are entwined in Hollywood montage sex, interspersed with some dialogue where Frank confesses his name is Frank, and not Pete as he has told her.

Once again, Beth struggles with a reasonable concern about whether or not Frank is an asshole, just another creep, one whose body is riddled with scars.

And for the second time, Beth just goes with a feeling and accepts Frank is essentially a good guy.

Not blessed/cursed with superhero powers, Frank is one of the mostly human superheroes although gifted with skills and the prerequisite rage-motivation: a well-trained killing machine spawned by the military and then driven to incessant vigilanteism by the slaughter of his entire family.

Castle and Mad Max were cast from the same mold.

The Hollywood montage sex of E1 is much less about the sort of sex people have on one-night stands and more about the objectification of bodies in superhero narratives. And these narratives never stray too far from the unexplainable magnetism of the white male saviors that nearly always sit in the center.

Superhero sex is a compelling topic when those superheroes have exceptional powers like Superman needing to be human to be with Lois (see the Christopher Reeves films) or the violent and destructive coupling of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in the Netflix adaptation of Jessica Jones.

But Castle, The Punisher, is all rage and training so the super sex is titillating but mostly secondary to the standard messages being sent about Frank as white male savior and sexually irresistible.

In both the Marvel comic book universe and the Netflix universe, Castle/The Punisher and Daredevil/ Matt Murdock are paired as different sides of the same vigilante coin—Frank the-ends-justify-the-means Castle juxtaposed with Matt Batman-lite Murdock.

With Daredevil being resurrected once again in the comic book with 2019’s volume 6, on the heels of the Death of Daredevil and three seasons of Daredevil on Netflix, we are immediately confronted with super sex and body objectification.

While superheroes such as The Punisher and Batman are essentially humans with super abilities gained through training and trauma, Murdock is a step above since he does possess super powers, although his physical strengths are mostly acquired. In other words, Murdock/Daredevil does not pose the same sexual threats as Superman or, say, the Hulk.

Fresh from the edge of death and the hospital, like Frank in S2 E1, Matt in issue 1 (2019) moves from the bar to the bedroom:

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The panels preceding these are the comic book version of Hollywood montage sex, but this dialogue is significant for the ways this reboot approaches well and then fails the super sex motif.

In the early episodes of Netflix’s Daredevil, Foggy chuckles about Matt’s being blind but always attracting beautiful women. This adaptation remains uncritical in its use of the blind motif in Daredevil, which the comic book has tended to do since the early 1960s.

The scene above does complicate the blind motif when Matt implores: “Please don’t make my disability your fetish.”

However by the final panels of that page, the dialogue and artwork paint a disturbing, and far too predictable picture.

Matt’s partner in a one-night stand is aggressively establishing her seeking out his body. But she is drawn pencil-thin, and both she and Matt concur—despite her being attracted to Matt’s blindness (“I picked you up with my charm“): “I don’t have to worry if I am pretty enough,” she explains. “And yet,” Matt parries, “you’re beautiful.”

“And yet,” she echoes, “I’m beautiful.”

Superhero narratives remain compelling because they have potential, often underachieved potential, but potential none the less.

The Punisher and Daredevil are characters with moral and ethical imperatives about justice, but also embodiments of vigilante themes that are pursued uncritically.

They share as well the lazy super sex plot elements and body objectification that is reductive for women characters who are equally diminished by their capitulation to the irresistible white savior appeal of Castle and Murdock—stoic, scarred, and chiseled.

Real-life sex is almost nothing like Hollywood montage sex, and superhero narratives could benefit from realizing that as well as exploring the full physical and emotional complexity of humans, even when they have superpowers or especially when they are merely human in the presence of the superhuman.

Domestic Tuesday

My life as a voracious reader began in childhood, but matured at some point in early adolescence as obsessive. That early obsession was grounded in collecting and reading Marvel comic books as well as science fiction novels—early Michael Crichton, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Arthur C. Clarke.

I have steadily plowed through my reading life discovering and then devouring new writers. In my last couple years as an undergraduate English education major, I was in my John Irving phase, spurred by falling madly in love with his The World According to Garp.

Naive and often clueless, I was a twenty-something who hoped to be a writer, and desired more than anything a deep and unique love. My idealizing falling in love and marrying was compounded with idealizing Garp’s life as a stay-home husband/father.

While I have read most of Irving’s novels, and loved quite a few, it has been years since I read Garp and realize I may now find much of the novel, and Garp’s domestic self, far more problematic. However, while I have never become the novelist and fiction writer I had planned, my life as an academic and writer has included domestic elements that I genuinely enjoy.

Since I teach most often on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, I have for many years remained home to write and work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Also starting more than four years ago, I have been a caregiver for, first, my granddaughter, and now my grandson on Tuesdays.

Whether I have been home to write and work or to watch my grandchildren, I spend part of my time washing dishes and washing, drying, and folding laundry. Some days I also make a trip to the grocery store.

Laundry, while being a chore, also provides a bit of zen for me. I find a certain peace in folding and hanging up clothing the way I prefer.

As a man, I recognize the absurdity of finding peace in the sort of domestic chores society has imposed onto women, that many marginalize as “women’s work.” It is a sort of absurdity that could easily ignore that women historically and currently often must navigate a professional life as well as their domestic obligations in a way that men can drift into and out of—or even avoid—without much consequence.

One of my favorite, although heavy, units I taught while a high school English teacher included using the film Pleasantville as an entry point (focusing on the TV mother character) into exploring women poets—Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton—in terms of how their status as women impeded on their work as poets.

As I have shuffled back and forth between writing and doing the laundry, I have more than once paused against the awareness that Plath’s life overwhelmed her as wife, mother, poet. An awareness of the millions of women who have suffered and now suffer the same fate without the spotlight we shine on the celebrity-tragedy of Plath.

There is a convergence here since my mother was the most important influence on the reader I became, the writer I would become because of that reader life steeped in science fiction and comic books, and since my mother imprinted on me an indelible image of the domestic life of women.

shallow focus photography of brown clothes pins

I will always associate my mother with clothes pins, the bucketful in the laundry room where she hid hundreds of dollars at the bottom. (Photo by Caspar Camille Rubin on Unsplash)

My mother, Rose, was a child of the 1950s, and she spent much of her life caring for her siblings, and then her own children before later running a daycare. Even when she worked outside the home, my mother did the laundry, cooked, and provided the bulk of the childcare; she also handled the bills—and quite frankly it seems did everything.

And as Caralena Peterson explores about women academics, my mother appeared to do everything extremely well and nearly effortlessly.

Today, as my iPhone reminds me, is my father’s birthday and my parents’ anniversary. They died about six months apart less than two years ago.

My parents were very 1950s, very Southern and white. They were also uncritical embodiments of gender stereotypes and obligations.

Hard work matters, I believe because of them, for the sake of making the effort, and I do find some tranquility and sense of accomplishment in doing things the right way, or at least a purposeful way.

Like carefully folding each piece of clothing because each piece of clothing—whether yours or someone else’s—deserves that moment of purpose.

Part of the celebration around Irving’s Garp, which eventually led to a film starring Robin Williams, revolved around his provocative topics, but the novel also spurred a conversation about Garp as domestic husband.

In no small part, the public discussion equated “domesticated” with “emasculated.” A man without a job was no man.

This was a long time ago when I was far less aware, but I don’t really think that conversation interrogated that Garp as a man still had a decision. A decision that women are often not easily allowed.

I often find the sink filled with dirty dishes, and the dishwasher storing clean dishes—from when I started the cycle. Whether late at night before bed or first thing in the morning, I often make that right.

Putting away clean dishes. Filling the dishwasher and starting another cycle.

This seems simple; some would be compelled to compliment my helping out.

But this is not some other person’s chore. This is something I choose to do, in part because it brings me a calm to set things right.

It is, however, a decision I can make. It is my remaining privilege as a man.

Today as my grandson plays, and as I write, do some work, I cycle through washing and drying all the dirty clothes, folding them warm and clean smelling on the day my father was born, the day my parents were married 59 years ago.


Recommended

Stop Assuming That I’m Just Writing About Myself by Kathryn Vandervalk

Cat Person, Kristen Roupenian

Pledge, Anton DiSclafani

Halloween Reader: Everything You Know Is Wrong

Scientific Racism And Black Sexual Pathology

Ending the practice of pathologizing Black sexuality will not be easy because the assumptions that enable it to flourish are part of the fabric of American culture. As noted, some researchers have recognized the problems associated with pathologizing Black sexuality and are advocating different approaches, perhaps illustrating that tenaciously adhering to the old tradition can prevent true resolution.

Johnson: Women’s voices are judged more harshly than men’s

There is no escaping the fact that some voices sound more pleasing than others. And there is no quick way around society’s belief that deep voices convey authority; men have been more powerful than women for all of known history. It may be good practical advice to tell women who want to get into the voice-over industry—or indeed others that have been historically dominated by men—to use firm and deep voices if they want to impress. They might also take care to avoid the distraction of vocal fry, while simultaneously ensuring that they don’t sound too mannish. Women, in other words, are required to walk a thin line when they speak in public, a no-room-for-error performance never expected of men.

The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve?

Inspired by the meritocratic ideal, many people these days are committed to a view of how the hierarchies of money and status in our world should be organised. We think that jobs should go not to people who have connections or pedigree, but to those best qualified for them, regardless of their background. Occasionally, we will allow for exceptions – for positive discrimination, say, to help undo the effects of previous discrimination. But such exceptions are provisional: when the bigotries of sex, race, class and caste are gone, the exceptions will cease to be warranted. We have rejected the old class society. In moving toward the meritocratic ideal, we have imagined that we have retired the old encrustations of inherited hierarchies. As Young knew, that is not the real story.