Lucky Guy

Today is the start of the 2016-17 academic year!

This year marks the start of my 15th year as a professor and 21 years since I first taught at the college level (as a TA at UC Berkeley). To look at it another way, since I started college in the fall of 1990 and didn’t take any time off between college and grad school and my two tenure-track jobs, this is also the start of my 27th year in higher education.

More than a quarter of a decade!

I’m coming off a year-long sabbatical, where I spent my time researching and writing about the Vietnam War and Mexican Americans. So I haven’t been in the classroom for awhile. Truth be told, I’m excited and a little nervous. But that’s part of the norm for me anyway.

No matter how you cut it, I’m a lucky guy. I get to read and write and teach for a living. I get to spend my time learning more and more about subjects I’m still passionate about. I get to work with young people–smart and eager young people–who help me develop a greater appreciation for the subjects we learn about.

It’s good stuff. I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I remind myself daily how lucky I am to be able to say that about my work.

So happy new (academic) year!

Friday Five: Rick Rubin

Whenever I take a look at the life and career of producer Rick Rubin I’m reminded of how diverse and impressive his catalog of music is. I’m also reminded that I need to start working on my beard length and my casual pants collection.

Here are five of my favorite songs he’s had a hand in making:

5. “Angel of Death” (Slayer, 1986)
4. “Chop Suey!” (System of a Down, 2001)
3. “Under the Bridge” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1991)
2. “Walk This Way” (Run-D.M.C., with Aerosmith, 1986)
1. “Hurt” (Johnny Cash, 2002)

Friday Five: Nostalgia (late 80s version)

I’m going to see Guns N’ Roses tonight.  As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve gone to a show by a band that was big “back in the day”–when that “day” was my teen years.

I’ve been to lots of shows like this for other eras.  I’ve seen Steve Miller at least five times, for example.  I’ve seen the Doobie Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and a whole bunch of other 70s rock bands.  But each time I went to those shows I was in my 20s.  The audience, though, was filled with mostly middle-aged folks reliving their youth.

Well now I am that middle-aged guy reliving his youth.

I could say a lot about GNR, and it would be easy to pick five songs from them for the occasion, but I think the thing on my mind more right now is a general appreciation for my youth. And, so, here you go…

5. “What It Takes” (Aerosmith, 1989)
4. “Still of the Night” (Whitesnake, 1987)
3. “Finish What Ya Started” (Van Halen, 1988)
2. “Fire Woman” (The Cult, 1989)
1. “Patience” (Guns N’ Roses, 1988)

August 16, 1977

It’s the 39th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

If you’ve ever read this blog you likely know I’m a big Elvis fan. (My very first blog post on the first iteration of this blog–on Blogger–was on the 30th anniversary of his death!) It’s a fandom that stretches back as many years as I can remember, even though I was born in 1972, after the height of the Elvis phenomenon and just 5 years before he died.

That’s probably because I was born into a time when Elvis was still very much a part of the popular culture. His music was everywhere and his movies were regularly on TV. I also came of age at a time when the mainstream culture was popularizing narratives about the 50s. Documentaries about Elvis and about the early years of his stardom were common.

I think that shaped a particular kind of fandom in me. I love the phenomenon of his stardom. I have a great appreciation of his role in popular music but also his role in popular youth culture. I’ve always loved his “story”–the poor, white boy growing up with Black music; the rise to fame; the cultural phenom; the frame and fortune; the marriage and love affairs; the string of corny movies where bits of his brilliance peak out; that brilliance on full display in his ’68 “comeback”; and even the later years as a jump-suited impersonator of the star he once was.

And, of course, there was the shock and spectacle of his death. I remembered where I was when I heard Elvis died, and I was only 5 years old.

Through it all, there’s the music. I think we can often lose sight of his special talent when we get caught up in all the rest of it. Maybe that’s a good way to mark this day.

Here are his two first recordings made on July 18, 1953 at the Memphis Recording Service (later called Sun Studios). As the story goes he recorded them to give to his mom as a gift. He paid $3.98 for a double-sided acetate press of “My Happiness” and “That’s When the Heartaches Begin.”

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today-O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!

Originally published in Esquire (July 1936).

A Feminist Reading of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (SPOILERS)

SPOILERS ALERT!! If you have not seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens please do not continue reading until you do. This post has major and significant spoilers that will ruin your enjoyment of the film.

It’s a busy time of year for us, but we (me and my oldest) managed to see the new Star Wars film twice already–once on Thursday night and again on Friday. It will be awhile before I have time for in-depth posts, but I didn’t want too much time to pass without getting a chance to share some of my thoughts.

First, the movie is great! The story is loving and good, respectful of the past and yet clearly in control of the future of the franchise. I loved the IMAX-3D experience, and felt that it really added to the visual perspective J. J. Abrams gives us. Space ship movements are fantastic and, unlike too many movies, the action is framed in a way that you can understand what is happening. The whole thing was memorable, to say the least.

One of the most surprising parts of the film about the movie was the consistent and varied attempt to make it feminist, or gender progressive.  This was so consistently and deeply done that I think it has to be intentional. In any case, it deserves some discussion.

Here are some examples:

BB-8
First (and this one is hardly the most significant or stand-out, but it was so big that it ranked first in my thinking), there is a primary character droid that is gender nondescript. BB-8 is called by it’s name throughout (unless I missed something, which is possible). R2-D2 and C3PO have always been “he” in the movies, even when R2 expresses no conventional gender. C3PO is not only gendered male, he is, of course, also an effeminate male.  This was easy comedy in the 20th century, but (rightly) suspect to a new cultural generation where we do not read homophobia as all that funny. BB-8 is a reflection of this, I think.  So, we have a new hero droid, and it is not he or she! Warmed my heart.

Rey
The central character in the film is Rey, played by Daisy Ridely.  She is a self-reliant person. She can defend herself, she is mechanically-skilled, and she is powerful in other (to her largely unknown) ways. She does not need a man to save her, which is a point actively made in the first act. The point is made so intentionally, that it actually is a line of comedic relief during the action. When Finn first sees Rey she is being accosted.  He is about to go and save her from attack until he realizes she has her own. When she beats up her attackers, he looks around at how everyone else hasn’t been doing anything to help her either, calling into question his initial masculinist ideals.

Soon after, Rey yells at Finn for taking her hand as they run from trouble. “I can run faster if you stop holding my hand!” This is yet another way we are being made to be aware of the traditional gender bias of the action movie (with the “savior male”) and how they are working in a different (gender) reality. When they both fall after an explosion, she comes to quickly and goes to check on him. Finn asks her “Are you alright?” She looks at him, confused by his question, before answering “Yes” in a matter of fact way. It was all so subtly acted and so great to see.

Stupid Men
I don’t want to suggest that men being flawed and petty and dumb is inherently “feminist.”  I do want to suggest that it is inherently “true.”  This movie depicts men as they are historically–human, flawed, and imperfect.  Why is that important? Because the traditional action movie usually gives us idealized men (hypermasculine or almost too-male-to-be-true) to serve as our aspirational end goal.  This movie does not.

There are three primary female characters in the film–Rey, Maz Kanata, and (General) Leia.  All three are leaders, strong, independent, and powerful. They show emotion as people do, but not overly so. They are the model characters of the film. They are the ideals.  (There is a female Stormtrooper, Captain Phasma, who serves as the exception.  This helps to further the cause of the other women characters by offering a suggestion of the span of women overall in the “good-bad” spectrum.  That diversity (though only minimally suggested in the film) is a statement of their humanity, overall.)

Every other character–the men–are imperfect heroes, if they are heroic at all. They are liars and/or committed to participating in the actions of war, actions that are portrayed as patriarchal (oppressive “boys games”).  War is not glamorized in this film.  It is judged, even acting as the motivation for one character to change sides.  This is an important part of the film.  When it is celebrated, some of us in the audience felt the tension that comes from the silliness of having fun with death.  For example, when Han Solo steps up and shoots (and kills) a trooper without looking, it is comical and out of place.  I felt like it was a small scene doing two things: giving us one more bit of Han Solo and, yet, calling into question our love of the fighting we are seeing.  Another example was when Finn admires Poe’s flying during battle.  In that scene, in that moment, I think the film passes judgement on him.  There is death all around you, you might get killed, and you are literally stepping out to admire another guy’s flying?  I felt like it was passing subtle judgement on the entire culture of war.

The one exception, I think, is perhaps the Max Von Sydow character, although his only role is to act as a futile conscience for maleness gone amok.  Which I know turn to…

Dad and Son
The big surprise of the movie–the identity of Kylo Ren and the death of Han Solo–is a clear instance of the Father/Son dynamic (the patriarchal fantasy) bing flipped upside down. In that way, it mimics the movie overall.  We don’t know why Kylo/Ben turned.  We can think it has something to do with Luke but, as in the past, the blame a teacher takes is rarely true as much as the human flaws in the individual.  We do not Leia chose for him to train with Luke and we do know that Han feels like he did something wrong as well.  In any case, the son killing the father is the perversion of the traditional action movie that is so vital to this film.  The threat of son killing father is part of the Star Wars canon; it is what Luke is told he is going to have to do.  It is what Luke ends up not doing.  Here, it happens.

Rey and the Force
Rey’s use of the force is a very key part of the feminist character of the film.  Rey always has it together and is seemingly always in control of her destiny, except in two key scenes. One is when she meets Kylo for the first time and he stops her in combat and then makes her pass out as he takes her hostage.  She has met somebody who has a power she does not have (she thinks) and that knowledge (communicated so brilliantly in Daisy Ridley’s face) defeats her easily. Then, moments later, in their interrogation, she assumes her power and is able to fight back.

That power comes, first, by her seeing that Kylo Ren is nothing but a man. Daisy Ridley’s face in that scene is intentional and perfect. She is surprised when Kylo takes off the mask, as if he has lost some power over her by being just a person, a man. His traditional attack of her is patriarchal in the largest sense. He threatens a kind of rape, really, even though that’s not what he is literally talking about (maybe). It is what he is symbolically talking about: “You know, I can take whatever I want.”

She fights back by doing the opposite of what he does. In fact, every time Rey harnesses the force in this movie it is through centering herself, looking within, and finding peace. When she is emotional, flustered, fearful, angry–when she is like almost all the male characters of the movie–she can not use her real power.  He success with the force comes after these anger mistakes.

Maz and Leia
Both are idealized and “perfect” people who do all we want from leaders. Leia is perhaps the best. She is not a hurt woman who wants a man (Han) back. She is a mother and the stronger (always) of the two former lovers. She shows strength and compassion. She’s the best. It is all a symbol of leadership being real, good, and non-male. Even when the battle is won, she is the leader not celebrating the victory of the boy’s game.

Maz and Rey have a discussion in the movie that might make this the first Star Wars movie to pass the Bechdel Test. Maz is knowing and powerful. When she talks to Rey in the tunnel she does not use her tricks, her glasses. She speaks from her small-eyed self, speaking truth. It is brilliant.

Lightsabers
When Rey and Kylo fight she wins, she does so by striking him down and NOT killing him (an alternative form of victory, a non-male form), and she cuts down a whole bunch of trees. That last one made me laugh with such delight. Her first strike with the lightsaber is striking down a phallic symbol of a tree trunk. It is a symbolic statement if I ever saw one.  Their battle ends when the ground opens up between them.  She standing stronger, he weakened and confused.  Need I say more?

___________

There are a whole bunch more, but I wanted to at least get out the big ones as you prepare for your next viewing. I can’t wait to watch more of the franchise take on gender is such a rich, and knowing way.  As you do, look out for the more substantive examples of the intent here.

And let me offer this: the key is that The Force Awakens is trying to do this by doing more than just swapping out the male lead for a female one.  When it comes down to it, women occupying the traditional role of the patriarchal (violent, stoic, controlling and powerful) male is not exactly progress when it comes to gender/feminism.  Films that commit to subverting those traditional gender roles, as well as their effects, are much better.  That’s the difference between Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and what we have here.

Being gender progressive in a film (and, more importantly, anti-patriarchal) isn’t about making women into men or about making men into evil idiots.  In this case, at least, it’s about dismantling the conventions of the traditional action movie and helping us call into question our assumptions and past behaviors.  It’s about giving us human characters of all genders, but also using our expectation for a hero for something more than the tired, old stories of the past.

And, ultimately, it’s about giving young girls the same kinds of exciting possibilities as young boys when making a new generation of action/Sci-Fi films.