Monday, April 17, 2006

Her Beauty & My Bias

Some years ago, I arrived late to a play reading. On stage, a man (Tom) and woman (Karen) are having the perfect picnic on the perfect day, and Tom is explaining to Karen how perfectly beautiful she is.

Here's a snippet…

Tom: No you have to understand that I—I see you clearly. I see you for what you are – the most beautiful. Not just your hair, your hands, your toes – but in the way it all moves. Just watching you... folding clothes. Just that simple act... as you take a shirt out of the drier... the care.

Karen: You watch me fold clothes?

Tom: I would pay admission to watch you fold clothes. But anything you do... the way you do it... how you sit, stand, walk.

Karen: Wait. Let me understand. Are you saying? Just the way I... (She stands)

Tom: ...stand.

Karen: And... (She sits)

Tom: ...the way you sit. It’s just so...

Karen: And if I get up and...

Tom: ...walk! Yes!

Karen: (walking around) Just...

Tom: ...like that! Yes! Like that!

Karen: Walking?

Tom: Yes!

Karen: Just me... walking is...

Tom: ... perfect. (turns to us) Like I said it was the most perfect day. The most perfect time that could ever be spent on a perfect day... watching the love of my life...

Karen: ...walking, just walking around. Does it matter what view you have of me walking?

Tom: Not really. Except when you come towards me... when you’ve been away... even for a moment... when I spot you... returning. It’s not just knowing you’re coming back, knowing the wait is over, but it’s like I get to discover again …

Karen: Like this?

Tom: Yes.

Karen: But when I turn around?

(KAREN turns, starts walking away)

Tom: That’s wonderful too. Yes, yes... when you walk away.

(KAREN exits)

Tom: ... when you’re walking away down the road... sometimes I just watch as your shape as it slowly disappears. Then I watch some more. So wonderful, so special. I’m so... privileged. Wait. Karen? KAREN??

(TOM turns to us in a panic)

Tom: I had a bad feeling. I had a terrible feeling about that day. The perfection.. It was just so perfect it had to end. (yelling after Karen) Karen?! KAREN!!! COME BACK!!!!!

-----

The play doesn't end here. Karen is subsequently accosted by a parachutist as well as a New York Times critic who wants to analyze her beauty till the end of his days, and when his relentless attention makes her cry, he says:

“Is that a tear? It is! Beautiful. One tear. And the shape of the tear. That tear will be the standard!”

When the play concluded, I had already come up with my own conclusions about the playwright. She was a Feminist.

Only her name remained a mystery. I turned to a friend, asking, "Who wrote this piece?" and soon learned that my "she" was a "he."

I had mistaken a male playwright for a feminist woman.



(The play excerpt above is reprinted here with the permission of the author.)

22 repartee:

Anonymous Holly wrote...

Tom: I would pay admission to watch you fold clothes.

Well, there's the way in which when you love someone, s/he is enchanting and marvelous to you. I really dig that part of falling in love--how it's just so MAGIC to see this other person and be able to say, "Wow, you are wonderful in your you-ness and I'm delighted that you're in my life."

But there's also a way in which it can be claustrophobic and terrifying if the you-ness part drops out, if the beloved becomes less or more than human--a symbol instead of a person.

Does that make any sense? Probably not. It's a mystery. But I like the way this playwright is exploring this complicated, mysterious issue.

4/17/2006 10:30 AM  
Blogger JLB wrote...

I love those sorts of surprises! What really amazes me is how we think that we can read beyond the words and know just who we’re hearing from, and be totally thrown for a loop! Being terrible with song titles and lyrics, I’ve also had the experience of finding that some vocalists I thought to be female were in fact male, and vice versa.

One of my most recent experiences with this was with the story The Education of Little Tree, by “Forrest Carter.” By some turn of events I missed reading this book in elementary school, and subsequently missed all the accompanying revelations about the true background of this author (read: NOT a Native American writing an autobiography).

The revelation came to me after I’d read the book last year. While trying to research more about the author (Asa Carter) and his motivations, I came upon a New York Times Article which begins with the following:


'Authenticity,' or the Lesson of Little Tree
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.;
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, is the author of the forthcoming "Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars."

IT'S a perennial question: Can you really tell? The great black jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge once made a wager with the critic Leonard Feather that he could distinguish white musicians from black ones -- blindfolded. Mr. Feather duly dropped the needle onto a variety of record albums whose titles and soloists were concealed from the trumpeter. More than half the time, Eldridge guessed wrong.

Mr. Feather's blindfold test is one that literary critics would do well to ponder, for the belief that we can "read" a person's racial or ethnic identity from his or her writing runs surprisingly deep. There is an assumption that we could fill a room with the world's great literature, train a Martian to analyze these books, and then expect that Martian to categorize each by the citizenship or ethnicity or gender of its author. "Passing" and "impersonation" may sound like quaint terms of a bygone era, but they continue to inform the way we read. Our literary judgments, in short, remain hostage to the ideology of authenticity.”


I'm not sharing this to throw your discussion into the ever-heated debated over ethnic writing, but rather to share other examples of mistaken identity in art, of which there are ever so many. :)

4/17/2006 11:51 AM  
Blogger The Poodle's Friend wrote...

Wow, that's strange. I am also 'guilty' of assuming things about authors through their writing, and I'm pretty sure that's a natural process. It's like our brain is trying to fill in the blanks, using its powers of deduction to reach conclusions through limited evidence.
I should really stop with the biologizing.
Anyway. This reminded me of the Harry Potter franchise (I know, everything seems to remind me of that). Apparently, when Bloomsbury finally decided to publish Philosopher's Stone, they did not put Rowling's full name on the cover for fear of turning male reader's (i.e. little boys) away. That's why we know her as J.K. Rowling rather than Joanne Rowling.
I wonder how many people thought the author was a man just because the main character was a boy.

The play sounds fascinating. Definitely much deeper and thought-provoking than the adventures of a boy wizard! =)

4/17/2006 12:30 PM  
Blogger Charlie wrote...

Karen: Wait. Let me understand.

Karen, I suspect, is looking at Tom with confusion. Is it possible, she wonders, that a man can notice something so mundane about a woman and react with such awe? Is it possible for a man to even think such things? It is too beautiful, and she is not worthy of it. Hence, she is frightened and she flees.

I may be wrong, but I believe it is this nearly-universal female "belief of unworthiness" that threw you off the track, FG.

I also think this is a perfect example from a couple of weeks ago: that a good writer (playwright) can write of things outside of personal experience. He fooled you, didn't he.

4/17/2006 1:28 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Holly -

“Well, there's the way in which when you love someone, s/he is enchanting and marvelous to you.”

Yes! And I’m so glad you pulled out the line of Tom’s: “I would pay admission to watch you fold clothes” because this sentence always stops me.

I think it’s utterly romantic and enchanting to find beauty in watching someone do the simplest and most mundane tasks of daily life. It seems like a touching line to me. And why can’t we admire the beauty of another? But then…

“But there's also a way in which it can be claustrophobic and terrifying if the you-ness part drops out, if the beloved becomes less or more than human--a symbol instead of a person.”

You describe this so very well. I love how you mention claustrophobia because that’s something I’ve felt around certain “admiring suitors.”

And it is a mystery, isn’t it? I think the playwright wants us to believe this is a rather romantic and enchanting picture at the start, before the play leads us elsewhere, somewhere less clear, less comfortable, where, as you say so delightfully: the “you-ness” drops out - :)

4/17/2006 1:28 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, JLB -

“I love those sorts of surprises! What really amazes me is how we think that we can read beyond the words and know just who we’re hearing from, and be totally thrown for a loop!

Yes, assumptions can be amazing, can’t they? Like you, music can often stump me. Sometimes, when I learn the “real” lyrics which I have been singing incorrectly for years, I’m absolutely shocked! It can totally change the entire meaning of the song - ;)

"Passing" and "impersonation" may sound like quaint terms of a bygone era, but they continue to inform the way we read. Our literary judgments, in short, remain hostage to the ideology of authenticity.”

Wow – this whole topic you raise about authenticity and mistaken identity in Art is truly fascinating. I agree with this passage you offer us above. I know I bring my own expectations with me when I enjoy and/or create Art, and it’s so great when we have these: “Wow, I never would have guessed!” moments because they remind us to rethink and question everything, including our own prejudices - :)

Thanks for sharing this great example with us!

4/17/2006 2:33 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, TPF -

“It's like our brain is trying to fill in the blanks, using its powers of deduction to reach conclusions through limited evidence.”

Oh, I like this! What an interesting way to put it. Written this way, we sound a bit like Sherlock Holmes - :)

“Apparently, when Bloomsbury finally decided to publish Philosopher's Stone, they did not put Rowling's full name on the cover for fear of turning male reader's (i.e. little boys) away. That's why we know her as J.K. Rowling rather than Joanne Rowling.”

Yes! This has been one of my pet peeves!!! I abhor that female authors are still pressured to have no gender in order to attract male readers. But alas, who wouldn’t desire more readers? And it’s still true that boys/men are less likely to read books written by women.

“I wonder how many people thought the author was a man just because the main character was a boy.”

What a great question! (I wonder if some still do?) Well, it seems like JK couldn’t stay out of the public eye too long (and thus, hide her gender) when her books were transformed into films – but you would know better than me about the Harry Potter’s rise in this world!

4/17/2006 2:44 PM  
Blogger mysticgypsy wrote...

Frankengirl wrote: "I abhor that female authors are still pressured to have no gender in order to attract male readers."

As was the case with the Bells.
However, I would want to know whether it is better to keep your (female)name and risk not getting enough readers (and thus spreading your art) or whether it is better to hide your identity but let your art reach out to more people...

Holly wrote: "But there's also a way in which it can be claustrophobic and terrifying if the you-ness part drops out, if the beloved becomes less or more than human--a symbol instead of a person"
How does one define the border between devotion and loss of identity? Like, what would sincerity mean? And how could we find a depth for passion (if there is a depth at all)?

How much is enough? What is an "enough"?

4/17/2006 3:04 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Admiral –

“It is too beautiful, and she is not worthy of it. Hence, she is frightened and she flees.”

Oh, you sneaky devil! This is definitely another angle (and a very acute one at that) on the snippet shown. Here is a bit of earlier dialogue:

TOM: (sighs) Karen.
KAREN: Tom? What is it?
TOM: You’re beautiful.
KAREN: I know.

But KAREN goes on to say: “It is also my belief that between the two of us I have the more realistic understanding of the extent of my attractiveness.”

So you bring up a great debate here. Is she a realist or is she unable to accept her own beauty/worth? I think both avenues are worth exploring, and I think you’re absolutely right when you mention the nearly-universal female "belief of unworthiness". YES.

“I also think this is a perfect example from a couple of weeks ago: that a good writer (playwright) can write of things outside of personal experience. He fooled you, didn't he.”

Ah, it does tie right in, doesn’t it?! How nice. And yes, he definitely fooled me (and it was such fun to be fooled in that way!). - ;)

4/17/2006 3:09 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, MysticGypsy -

“However, I would want to know whether it is better to keep your (female) name and risk not getting enough readers (and thus spreading your art) or whether it is better to hide your identity but let your art reach out to more people...”

I imagine each of us will have an individual take on this, and every author must decide for herself.

There was a study (sorry no source!) in which a resume with a female name on top and the EXACT same resume with a male name on top was sent out to companies. Guess which resume received significantly more calls from potential employers?!

I suppose there must be a certain pleasure in saying, “GOTCHA” if someone assumes you’re male when you’re not. And also a desire to have your work seen for itself alone (aside from gender).

But personally I have always felt that I *must* put my gender name out there – to encourage other women; so other women know they are not alone. But that’s my take. I would risk losing male readers rather than risk discouraging women by creating the illusion that there are no/few women!

“How does one define the border between devotion and loss of identity? Like, what would sincerity mean? And how could we find a depth for passion (if there is a depth at all)? … How much is enough? What is an "enough"?”

Autonomy in relationships is a subject that interests me deeply (well, as some have read here already, I felt my mother lost herself for a while in marriage to my father, but later she found herself, btw!).

But your questions remind me of Heathcliff (Go figure, hehe!). When does his passion become madness? Is Cathy’s line “I am Heathcliff” a loss of identity or a claiming of one? I think you and I might take different sides on this. So I expect this “border” varies among us. - :)

4/17/2006 3:39 PM  
Blogger actonbell wrote...

I would have thought this dialogue was written by a woman, too--it would be interesting to know how many times my vision has been impaired by the assumptions. The fact that this play was written by a man changes the meaning for me.
You always have such intriguing posts!

4/17/2006 5:42 PM  
Blogger Panacea wrote...

"I abhor that female authors are still pressured to have no gender in order to attract male readers."

Well, lets not forget George Elliot who was forced to assume a male identity to publish her writing.

Your post reminds me of a conversation I was having with my librarian some months ago. She was recommending me to read The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency Series and she told me that she couldn't believe it was written by a man and only realized the gender of the author after she read the author's bio when she finished reading the book.

I'm probably going to repeating te Admiral here but I myself don't think that the author needs to have experienced the first hand emotions that he or she is trying to convey. His or her main aim is to convey this emotion in the best possible manner.

There are several brilliant male playwrights and authors who have manages to convey female emotion or strong female characters brillantly and you've just given us another example. After reading Vanity Fair and not knowing the name of its author, who could possibily even imagine its written by a male writer because it has such effective and strong female leads. The same also holds true for women writers writing about male characters.

And it’s still true that boys/men are less likely to read books written by women. I would have to agree with this and it is something that has irritated me for a long time now. I never understood why I find it completely normal to read books with male or female protagonists, when any self respecting teenage male would never even think of reading a book with a female protagonist.

4/17/2006 6:07 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

“I also think this is a perfect example from a couple of weeks ago: that a good writer (playwright) can write of things outside of personal experience. He fooled you, didn't he.”

Ah, it does tie right in, doesn’t it?! How nice. And yes, he definitely fooled me (and it was such fun to be fooled in that way!). - ;)


How does this passage in any way prove that the author was writing outside his experience? Are we to believe that he never loved or admired someone? That he never navigated issues of closeness and attraction with another person? It would be as presumptuous and possibly erroneous to assume that he was recreating an experience from his own life as to assume that he was not.

4/17/2006 7:54 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

I had mistaken a male playwright for a feminist woman.

By the way, did you ever ask this author if he considers himself a feminist?

4/17/2006 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Holly wrote...

P.S. And no, we don't have to debate the whole "writing from experience" thing again.... I think I've just figured out that I have a broader definition of experience than most people. I can't really imagine a writer older than, say, his/her early 20s, who would not be able to write from experience in dramatizing and concretizing the challenges of dealing with issues of attraction and intimacy and love and fascination with the other.

OK, you might say, but the author in question occupied only one subject position in this relationship, and was therefore writing beyond his direct, immediate experience in imagining what things felt like for this other person in the equasion. But anyone who can't imagine what the other person in a relationship is thinking/feeling even at the time it's happening, well, such a person isn't really likely to be very successful at any relationship s/he attempts. That to me does not really qualify as something beyond one's experience.

Maybe it's partly because I've just reread A Room of One's Own, which stresses how much texts about relationships are de-valued because relationships are something available to anyone with reasonable conversation skills and access to a living room--in other words, women. And I still think a passage like the one FG has excerpted here seems very much rooted in conventional experiences of romantic relationships. They can be experienced with more of less compassion, more or less wisdom, more or less generosity--but it is rare that an adult would lack any experience at all with such relationships.

4/17/2006 8:15 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, ActonBell -

Thank you, as always, for your sweet comments! And yes, it makes me wonder, too, how many other times I’ve made assumptions (without discovering I’m wrong!).

Hi, Panacea

Your reference to the The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency Series reminds me of all the mystery and controversy surrounding the pseudonym “Carolyn Keene” for Nancy Drew. Edward Stratemeyer created the outline of the “Nancy Drew” character, but Mildred Benson wrote most of the series – although she wasn’t credited for years (and Stratemeyer’s daughter tried to claim she was responsible for writing all of Nancy’s adventures!). What a muddle!

“I never understood why I find it completely normal to read books with male or female protagonists, when any self respecting teenage male would never even think of reading a book with a female protagonist.”

Yes! We must change this! ASAP!!!

Hi, Holly -

“How does this passage in any way prove that the author was writing outside his experience?”

Well, in this passage we see Tom talk so obsessively about Karen’s beauty that he doesn’t realize that “walking away” is actually “walking away.” Tom loses Karen, and in the course of this piece, Karen moves from being annoyed to “traumatized” by the attention to her looks. (Traumatized is in quotes because this is written comically.)

Walking away (or becoming annoyed etc) over being objectified struck me as an usual subject for a man. Of course, you may argue that I’m making a generalization in suggesting that “being objectified for one’s looks” is out of most men’s “personal” experience.

If we include: “seeing someone else objectified” as our own “personal” experience, then I do think we return to that question of “what do we know” – “what do we claim as ours” – and why do we try to set boundaries for anyone at all, if we all can experience anything through the eyes of another?

“P.S. And no, we don't have to debate the whole "writing from experience" thing again....”

:) I hope you know I respect your POV. And I realize that since you’ve only read a snippet of the play I have an unfair advantage!

“Maybe it's partly because I've just reread A Room of One's Own, which stresses how much texts about relationships are de-valued because relationships are something available to anyone with reasonable conversation skills and access to a living room--in other words, women.

Oh, I love A Room of One’s Own! And yes, it’s so true that “kitchen sink” dramas as they are called in theatre are seen as less weighty than plays with a panoramic view of the world. And yet, one relationship, one interaction can become a metaphor for something much larger, and so this is such a fallacy!

4/17/2006 10:44 PM  
Blogger Janet wrote...

Sometimes I prefer the mystery, though that doesn't stop me from thinking I want to know more. It's a double edged sword, really.

4/17/2006 11:22 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, Janet -

“Sometimes I prefer the mystery”

Yes, sometimes when I find out *too much* about the personal life of an artist it can distract me from enjoying the art alone - on its own terms!

4/18/2006 10:54 AM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Oh, I should add that sometimes knowing more about the artist can enhance my experience/relationship with the art! So it is, as you say, a “double-edged sword.” - ;)

4/18/2006 11:24 AM  
Blogger niTin wrote...

Now, I want to read the whole play. In fact anybody would turn nuts if they were under such constant scrutiny. I would not want to be a celebrity for anything in the world. Such public gaze would just kill me.

4/18/2006 1:14 PM  
Blogger Charlie wrote...

I feel that Holly took my comment out of context. Here is how it reads:

. . .but I believe it is this nearly-universal female "belief of unworthiness" that threw you off the track, FG.

I also think this is a perfect example from a couple of weeks ago: that a good writer (playwright) can write of things outside of personal experience. He fooled you, didn't he.


With only a few lines of text, this was my reaction--which those lines are meant to do to me. To react and to think. It proves absolutely nothing. It was my reaction to my knowledge of female insecurities and doubts about both their bodies and their souls.

I continue to contend that this is, indeed, outside the experience of any male writer, regardless of age. A man cannot experience the self-doubt, and oftentimes self-loathing, of a woman.

Knowledge, yes; experience, never.
The craft is transforming that knowledge into experiential words.

4/18/2006 1:25 PM  
Blogger frankengirl wrote...

Hi, niTin -

“ In fact anybody would turn nuts if they were under such constant scrutiny. I would not want to be a celebrity for anything in the world. Such public gaze would just kill me.”

Hehe! Ah, you sound like me, niTin - ;)


Hi, Admiral

“With only a few lines of text, this was my reaction--which those lines are meant to do to me. To react and to think.”

Yes. I hope a play like this (even in snippet form) inspires reaction and thought - and I cannot imagine that we will all share the same response.

In fact, I enjoyed your particular response (female self-loathing over appearance) for the very fact that it’s not my central response (having read the whole play), but it’s a valid and *very* interesting interpretation of this scene - and certainly may figure into the larger picture as well.

If this snippet were the entire play, we might all be asking – why did Karen walk away? Was she intimidated? Or was she sick of the scrutiny? Is she “Nora” slamming the door or is she fleeing from her own reflection?

Okay, I confess, I really *like* questions!

4/18/2006 3:33 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home