I got home from work last Friday night, exhausted from a fast-paced second term and ready to start my March Break. I collapsed onto my bed, took out my phone, and scrolled through the stream of tweets that I had missed during the day. I found myself in the middle of a conversation in response to this article on marriage and name changes. I groggily tweeted a few times about it, and then got ready for bed and fell asleep.
But over the course of the weekend, I felt less and less comfortable leaving those tweets as my only words on the subject. So this might come a little late in internet time, but I want to say more about it. Before I start, I should say that I’m talking specifically about the practice of people changing their name so that it’s the same as their spouse’s. I know people change their names for other reasons, and I’m not talking about those. I also know that not every culture expects women to change their names if and when they marry, and I’m not talking about that either. I’m talking about people who change their last names so that they can have the same one that their spouse has because that’s the name-changing practice that has the strongest effect on me.
My mom didn’t change her name when she married my dad. None of my married aunts changed their names. My grandmothers both did, and as a kid I thought they had done it because they weren’t allowed to keep their own names back when they had married. I still assume that’s why they did it, but I could be wrong. I have two last names. Legally, one is a middle name, but it feels like a surname so that’s what I count it as. When I was younger, I felt confused when I met a married woman of my mom’s generation or younger who had taken her husband’s name. I thought maybe she didn’t know that she had the option of keeping her own. As I got older I realized that women were aware of their options and that some of them just made choices I disagreed with, in this area and others.
I don’t understand why people change their names when they marry. I’ve heard some reasons, about wanting to have the same name as their kids, about wanting some kind of family unity, about it really not being a big deal and not wanting to go through the trouble of explaining why they didn’t change it. I can get those on an intellectual level, but not on an emotional one. For me, my name is my name. It’s what people call me. It’s what I call myself. People sometimes mispronounce it or make up new versions of it, and that’s just always been a part of having the name that I have. I don’t understand the need or even the willingness to just go and change your surname to reflect your marital status. (I also don’t understand the need to marry, but I suppose I might be willing to do it. I mean, I don’t think I ever will, but even if I decided I really wanted to get married, I would still never change my name.)
And I don’t need to understand it. As I tweeted on Friday night, it’s none of my business. I don’t care if or why a woman chooses to marry a man and take his last name. But I do care when people assume that a woman who marries a man will or should take his name. I do care when people act as though a husband should have a say in what surname his wife has. I care when I hear someone (a straight dude) say he wouldn’t mind a hyphenated name, and I care when he looks at me uncomfortably when I ask if he means hyphenating his own name, because that option hadn’t occurred to him. I care when someone else (a straight lady) tells me that she would take her husband’s name because she wouldn’t want to deal with the hassle of correcting people who assumed she had. I care when people roll their eyes when I insist that they write both of my surnames on name-tags or anything else that has my name on it, but not when a married woman tells them to change a name-tag so it has her new last name on it. I care when people talk about how difficult and confusing it will be for a child with two last names to eventually decide what name to give their own children, in front of a new mother who gave her kid two last names and an adult who has two last names (me).
If a woman marries a man and chooses to take his name, she should have the freedom to do that without any kind of political or social or economic repercussions. Just like if a man marries a woman, he should have the freedom to take her name without any repercussions. But a woman should also have the freedom to marry a man and keep her name without any trouble. Without having to correct people who call her Mrs. Husbandslastname automatically. Without any pressure from her husband, his family, or anyone else that keeping her own name means she hasn’t committed. Without worrying that people will call her kids a freak.
And most women I know don’t have that freedom. When I was a teenager I thought that, by the time I was an adult, enough women would have kept their names after marrying that it would seem normal. That hasn’t happened yet. In some ways, I want more women to keep their names just to add to the number of married women who have kept their own names. Just to make it seem more normal. Obviously, I don’t get to make that decision for other people. But until it seems normal, or at least no less normal than women changing their names, we need to keep having this conversation. As Kate Harding says, we need to keep having this conversation without getting derailed by women who did change their names who feel attacked. (She says a lot of other smart things in that piece too. I strongly recommend it.) We shouldn’t attack those women, but discussing the context of married names is not the same as attacking married women who choose to take their husband’s name. So let’s not make the conversation about that. Let’s make it about changing the context in which people either change or don’t change their names.
It looks like I have a pretty busy summer ahead of me. I’ve known that for a while. I signed up to take two courses for my M.Ed. Neither relates to math education, the topic I originally planned to focus on when I applied to the program, but I’ve stopped worrying about that. So that will take up twelve hours every week in class and a few more hours reading and writing assignments. In undergrad, instructors told us we should spend one hour working outside of class time for every hour we spent in class. Does that same rule apply in graduate studies, or does the out of class time increase? I don’t think I actually followed that rule in undergrad, but I suppose I could try doing it this summer. So that makes a total of 24 hours working on my M.Ed. every week. Like, one day, but spread out.
Then, I need to spend a fair bit of time over the summer reworking my courses for next year. I was disappointed with how a few of them went, so I need to make some changes. Maybe I can spend another 12 hours each week doing that. I have about ten weeks of vacation, so that makes a total of about five spread out days. I can’t tell if that’s a lot of time, or just a little. I guess I’ll find out at the end of the summer.
Finally, I have one more thing I’ve scheduled, and at the moment it’s the thing I’m most excited about. I signed up for something called Teachers Write!, a virtual summer camp for teachers and librarians who want to improve their writing and, I think, by extension, their teaching of writing. I never had much trouble learning to write. Maybe I had really good teachers or maybe I just have enough natural skill, or maybe it was a combination of the two, but it always came pretty easily to me. Obviously there’s a lot I can improve on, but I don’t need to think too hard about how to write, and that means that I have a hard time articulating what students need to do to improve their writing, both in constructing an argument and in making their prose sound nice. Last winter, I took a course in Expressive Writing for my M.Ed., and I learned a lot about writing in general and teaching writing, and I think I have more to learn. So I’ll give that about five hours every week.
So, that makes a total of 41 hours every week this summer. A full work week. And on top of that, I think I might have some students to tutor. I guess I really won’t have a vacation this year. But maybe, if I stick to this plan, I’ll develop a little more self-discipline, and I’ll have an easier time getting my work done on time next year. Of course, I know my style, and I can quite easily see myself starting out with great intentions, and then making excuses and letting things slide, maybe even less than a week in. So I’ll need to find a way to combat that. Maybe I’ll write about it. Maybe I’ll buy myself rewards. Maybe I’ll tell everyone the awesome things I’m doing and hope that they ask me for updates frequently, so that I feel guilted into actually following through. I don’t know. I hope I figure it out.
Spoilers ahead, but minor ones. Most of them are about my feelings.
Disclaimer: I don’t watch movies very often*, so any generalizations I make about Hollywood or movies in general are based on the small sample of movies I’ve seen, as well as things I’ve read or watched about movies I haven’t seen.
I finally saw The Five-Year Engagement, and maybe I can only provide a biased review, since Jason Segel won me over with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and just about everything else that I’ve seen him in, but I feel like I need to say: the guy writes good movies. I have a lot of problems with romantic comedies, but I really enjoyed this one. It went to a darker place than I thought it would, and about half way through I realized I had no idea what to expect, and I liked that, because that’s pretty much how life works. You have all these amazing plans, and sometimes they go well, and sometimes they go horribly wrong, and sometimes even when they go well they screw other things up, and you kind of just have to deal with it. And then you do deal with it, and sometimes you like the outcome, and sometimes the outcome sucks, and sometimes you realize that the outcome is actually just another temporary state, because life actually continues after the credits roll (thank God). I might be reading some of my own life lessons into this movie.
I hate stories that end with epilogues ten years later, showing who the main characters end up marrying (usually someone they knew ten years earlier) as though the story wouldn’t be complete without that piece of information. I hate them because they reinforce the idea that the end result is all that matters, when really it’s the in between moments that we should all focus on**. So I like that The Five-Year Engagement celebrated the in betweens, in love and in other parts of life, like work, friendship, family. It had a satisfying ending, and it left some serious ambiguity. Nothing in the movie is permanent or safe, which is scary, but also refreshing.
As usual, the movie certainly isn’t perfect. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and it really should. Maybe I’m supposed to be impressed because it’s a romantic comedy that focusses mostly on a guy, but I don’t buy it. Guys’ stories get told often enough that telling them in a lady-dominated genre doesn’t count as subversive. We see Tom (Jason Segel) develop in a way that’s only tangentially related to his love life several times; we should get the same scenes about Violet (Emily Blunt). Instead, all of her important realizations have to do with who she wants to be with.
The movie probably does better than most Hollywood romantic comedies about white people in terms of representing people of colour, but that’s mostly because Hollywood usually does a super shitty job of that. There are a few non-white characters with names and personalities who actually contribute some to the story, and they only come off a little bit like stereotypes. But I’m not giving out any gold stars for that, even if it is a step in the right direction. All of the primary characters (and most of the secondary ones) are white, and that could have been changed very easily.
I did like all of the main characters, though. Suzie (Alison Brie) and Alex (Chris Pratt), who came off as an uptight, lonely cliché and a boring douchebro respectively at the beginning of the movie, very quickly turned into real human beings that I could both resent and have a soft spot for. Tom went, believably, to a really bad place, and I felt for him the entire time, but I also wanted to slap him and tell him to pull himself together and stop acting like an asshole. And I really liked Violet all through the movie, both when she tried as hard as she could to make things work with Tom and when she got fed up with his crap and put herself first. I think I saw Jason Segel say in some interview that when he writes women, he writes them as though he would play them, so that he ends up writing people, not girls. That’s probably a good philosophy to have, since movies about people are more interesting than movies about gender roles. And I actually believe it, at least for this movie and for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Just like with Sarah Marshall, I think it would be really easy to write Violet as self-centred or high maintenance, always spoiling the fun of her well-meaning but sometimes clueless boyfriend with her need to have a job she likes, and for the moral of the story to be that she just needs to lighten up and let Tom just be himself. Instead, she’s a highly sympathetic character, and when she fights with Tom, you can see quite clearly how both of them have very valid points, but are also kind of in the wrong. One of the main problems I have with romantic comedies is that I frequently find myself taken out of the story because of the silly and unreasonable way that the main woman is written, and it was nice not to have that happen.
So, I’d recommend the movie. It’s funny and sweet and it challenges some of the problematic aspects of most romantic comedies. I think it’s helping to pave the way for other big budget movies to be better.
*The ratio of movies to other things on this blog does not at all reflect the ratio of movies to other things in my life.
**I especially hate young adult stories with those endings, because we should not feed those harmful messages to teenagers. (I’m glaring at Harry Potter and The Hunger Games right now.)
Little tiny Hunger Games spoilers in some of the pieces I’ve linked to.
Several months ago, I wrote a piece complaining about the whiteness of the cast of the Hunger Games movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve been paying attention to the response it’s gotten online, and this one thing has pissed me right off. Apparently some people really don’t like the fact that some sympathetic characters are black.
I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been stated. A part of me is actually really surprised. I guess I sort of thought that that kind of overt racism was generally understood to be Not Okay, and that even if people had thoughts like that, they would at least refrain from posting them on the public internet. Maybe it’s better that they’ve stated them outright, because at least that way people can respond to them. Tim Wise spoke on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last Sunday about overt and covert racism in the context of the Trayvon Martin’s case (starting at around the 10:40 mark). I guess it’s good to get a reminder that racism still exists and we need to keep working to get rid of it.
But it’s still gross.
Also, one little thing I do want to add: Many people have responded to these racist comments by pointing out that Suzanne Collins describes Rue and Thresh as having dark skin in the book. This is obviously true, and maybe a good way to trip up people who claim to be huge fans of the books but don’t want those characters to be black. But that really isn’t the point, and it actually helps to show just how insidious whitewashing is in Hollywood. If Collins hadn’t specified the colour of their skin, would those racist comments be more justified? Obviously not. But white people have grown accustomed to seeing the characters that they identify with onscreen also look like them, so, unless otherwise specified, they assume by default that the characters they identify with onscreen should look like them. And, even when it is otherwise specified, it seems like some of them still make that assumption.
I’ll start this off by saying that I really enjoyed 50/50. It can’t be easy to write a comedy about cancer that also makes people cry, and this movie pulls it off really well. One of the only things I disliked about the movie, and it’s not even real dislike, was the fact that it made me think of how few similar movies exist about women. Actually, this movie may have been the one that inspired me to start writing about gender flipping in movies. (I’m not sure why I wrote As Good As It Gets first, but I did.) Like before, I’m not giving a plot summary but there will probably be some spoilers.
Very little in 50/50 would change if the gender identities of all the characters were flipped. The central plot, of two friends dealing with the fact that one of them has cancer, would stay exactly the same. The way the Adam and Kyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen’s characters) interact with each other wouldn’t need to change much, although the joke about shaving your head with your friend’s testicle trimmers might not work quite as well. I can think of several easy modifications, though, so I don’t see that as much of a problem. Adam’s mother is almost a stock character (although Angelica Houston does amazing things with it), but it might be fun to see how the overbearing parent trope plays out in a father-daughter relationship as opposed to mother-son. It would also be nice to see a man be overprotective of his daughter for something not related to sex.
I would really enjoy seeing Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Rachael, played as a man. For some reason I think that a man cheating on his cancer-having girlfriend comes across as less bitchy and vindictive than Rachael character did in this movie. (I would like it even more if straight women could do shitty things to their romantic partners in movies without those shitty things being somehow connected to their womanhood, but this isn’t the time for that discussion.) Gender stereotypes are so strongly ingrained pop culture that it’s impossible to talk about straight romantic relationships without running into them. When Rachael cheats on Adam, she’s not just being an asshole to him, but she’s also failing in her womanly duties to care for him. Even if you (like me) absolutely do not believe that women have any kind of inherent nurturing tendencies, you might still find her behaviour jarring because it so strongly goes against the way women are portrayed. A man doing the same thing doesn’t buck any stereotypes, but it takes away that gendered dimension. Also, I really love the idea of a woman shouting Kyle’s line, “I’ve hated you for months, and now I have fuckin’ evidence that you suck as a person!” to her best friend’s boyfriend.
Adam’s interactions with the other chemo patients would show some really nice intergenerational conversations among women. Mitch and Alan’s skepticism about Rachael’s behaviour might be played as more meddlesome and nagging when expressed by women, but it would be quite refreshing to see three women talk about life and death and also get high.
Then, of course, we have Anna Kendrick as Katherine, Adam’s therapist. Her role and her relationship with Adam are written in such a way that neither character comes across as creepy or desperate, although giving a client your cell number is probably not a good idea for any therapist. The only thing that might not be as believable with the genders flipped is how bad Katherine is at her job. I feel like people are more accepting of an incompetent woman in a caregiving role than they are of an incompetent dude, maybe because we see more women than men in caregiving roles in general, and maybe because we see more women than men in movies screw up at their jobs because they’re emotional and don’t know how to handle the stress. Or something. In any case, I would be interested to see if a man in Katherine’s role could still come across as worth hanging out with.
I don’t watch a lot of movies, so it’s possible that something like 50/50 except starring women exists, but I feel like I probably would have heard about that on teh feminist blogz, so I highly doubt it. The closest ones I can think of are Now and Then, which came out in 1995, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, from 2005. I don’t remember much about the publicity for or public reaction to Now and Then, but I do remember that The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was marketed to teenage girls and generally perceived as a movie for girls. I knew many people (mostly guys, I think) who didn’t see it because they thought it looked stupid, and a lot of them didn’t believe me when I told them that it was actually a really great movie. They had no interest in seeing a movie about girl problems. Maybe they thought it would be all about tampons and hair braiding?
People have made this point before, but it’s still true so I’m going to say it again: Movies about girls are always movies about girls, and movies about boys are usually movies about people. I would actually really like to see a movie almost identical to 50/50, but about women, not men. If I were in the movimaking business, I might try making it myself, but apparently I’d be told that no one would want to see it. It would be so refreshing, though, to see a friendship between two women explored with such depth and nuance in a serious, non satirical way.
For the past week and a half, I’ve been on March Break, and this year, it means I’ve watched a bunch of movies. I frequently wonder how a movie would change if the gender identities of all of the characters were flipped, and I’ve recently started to think about this while watching movies. So I thought I’d explore that a bit in writing and see what happens. I know that in doing this I’m sort of buying into a gender dichotomy that I don’t actually think exists, and that bugs me a little. However, Hollywood movies tend to portray gender as fairly binary, and I think that one way to challenge that is to take apart the way that each gender is represented, so maybe this is at least a step toward getting rid of the dichotomy.
Anyway, that’s enough of an introduction. The first movie on my list is As Good As It Gets. I’m not giving a plot summary, so this might not make complete sense to someone who hasn’t seen the movie, but there will still be some spoilers.
I remember seeing trailers for As Good As It Gets years ago when it first came out, but I never actually saw it until I caught it on television last week. The friends I saw it with told me that a few scenes were missing, including an apparently iconic one where Jack Nicholson says he writes women convincingly by imagining a man and then taking away all reason and accountability. Or something like that. So this analysis might be a little incomplete, but I’ll go with what I have.
I see a few possible changes in the way Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, would be played as a woman, and I don’t know if those changes would come from the depiction of the character or the audience’s reaction. Mental illness in women has different connotations from mental illness in men, in general popular culture, but maybe more so in fiction. I think that Melvin as a woman might be played as more timid. She might worry more about what people around her think. On the other hand, if she behaves as ostentatiously obnoxious as Melvin does, her behaviour might surprise the audience more, or at least come across stronger than his behaviour did. Women who go after what they want at the expense of others don’t usually fall into the role of the hero or anti-hero.
Helen Hunt’s character, Carol Connelly, as a man breaks a few stereotypes. I can’t think of too many single fathers waiting tables in the movies I’ve seen. Her relationship with Melvin also takes on a pretty cool slant if you switch their gender identities. A rich (older?) woman paying for her favourite server’s kid’s medical care to satisfy her compulsions has a satisfying feel somehow. I’d like to see more women characters do things for completely selfish motivations, and have the general reaction be more along the lines of, “What a weird person,” than “What a bitch!” At the same time, I wonder if a woman saying to a man, “You make me want to be a better woman,” comes across as pathetic and desperate rather than romantic. Actually, now that I think about it, her line would probably get changed to, “You make me want to be a better person.” When Melvin says “better man,” we all know he means a better person. When I hear “better woman,” I think of bigger breasts or more successful at finding an effective work/life balance. So that would be one change that comes almost entirely from the way audiences are trained to think of women. When Melvin says that, it softens him and makes him more sympathetic. If he were a woman, it would take away from the strength she gained from being selfish and obnoxious.
Simon Bishop, Greg Kinnear’s character, in some ways doesn’t change much if he switches gender identities. A wacky gay artist neighbour that the protagonist hates doesn’t necessarily have to be a guy. However, Melvin’s homophobic jokes don’t have the same power in my mind when they come from a woman and are directed toward a woman. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard and seen more homophobia directed at men, and because women showing affection toward each other doesn’t scare people quite as much as men showing each other affection does, but a woman saying the equivalent of Melvin’s offensive “I’m afraid he might pull the stiff one-eye on me” (does an equivalent even exist?) somehow sounds less believable. Just as offensive, though.
I like this movie with flipped gender identities. It would challenge some of the stereotypes regarding women and anger and women and mental illness, as well as some about single parenting and paternalism. It would also pass the Bechdel Test a little more easily.
I think I first heard the quote “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” when I was a teenager. It was in a silly commercial aimed at men, and I think the idea was that women wouldn’t want their boyfriends to do whatever these advertisers were selling, but the boyfriends should do it anyway and then give their girlfriends a nice card, asking for forgiveness. I now see that kind of marketing as stupid, sexist, and juvenile. At the time, it struck me as sort of funny, but I had a small feeling that the idea behind the commercial, the idea that you should for forgiveness after you do something rather than ask for permission before you do it and run the risk of being denied, was flawed. A couple years later, a teacher at my school said that same quote to me and some of my classmates in reference to something she did that she knew was technically against some rule, but was in fact a good idea. Again, while I felt that I understood her general point, I had a small problem with the phrase.
I was a fairly well-behaved kid. I usually did what I was told. If I had a problem with what I was told to do, I engaged in conversations with the people in charge, under the assumption that they would listen to reason and eventually see my point. This didn’t always happen, but it worked enough that I still see see that strategy as a useful one. But I know that I’m in a pretty privileged position, where the people in charge usually listen to me, and I know that a lot of important social and political changed happens when someone doesn’t do what they’re told, because the people telling them what to do really don’t see that person’s needs as anything worth hearing. So maybe, I thought to myself when I tried to figure out my problem with this phrase, I was too influenced by my agreeable nature and the fact that people usually gave me permission to do the things I wanted to do. Still, every time I heard someone say anything about asking for forgiveness instead of permission, I flinched.
Finally, about a week and a half ago, I figured it out.
I was giving a presentation to prospective parents and students at work, and I based it on a story about how, when I was a student, my classmates and I rarely asked for permission before we did anything. We painted pictures on the walls, held fundraisers and events, started clubs, maybe even enforced our own rules, all with no official permission from teachers, principals, or anyone. We didn’t want to piss people off or break rules. We just did what we thought would be good things to do, and the people in charge trusted that we wouldn’t cause irreparable damage. The first time I gave this presentation, several months ago, I told my audience that I didn’t think no one ever needed permission, but that part of growing up is learning what you can and can’t do without permission, and that, often, people ask for permission as a way of avoiding risks. As long as someone above them on the hierarchy says they can do it, they won’t be the ones getting in trouble.
I planned to say something similar last week, but shortly before the presentation, maybe the night before or maybe five minutes before, I had my realization. So I changed the ending of my story slightly.
“There’s a saying,” I said (or something along these lines), “that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and I don’t like that saying. I don’t like it partly because it sounds really sneaky, and I don’t think people should be sneaky. But I also don’t like it because you shouldn’t ask for forgiveness.” I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my point was this: My classmates and I rarely got in any kind of trouble for the things that we did, but if we had gotten in trouble, we wouldn’t have then begged our teachers or principals for forgiveness. We would have fixed whatever problem we had caused. We would have painted over the pictures we had put on the walls, canceled the events or redirected the money we raised somewhere more appropriate, changed or cancelled the clubs we had started, stopped enforcing our rules. Because getting forgiveness from someone doesn’t actually do much good. Maybe it makes you feel better, maybe it makes the person giving to to you feel better, but it doesn’t solve anything. It’s the other side of an apology, but apologies mean nothing unless they come with a change in attitude or behaviour.
Whenever I hear someone say that they plan to go ahead with whatever it is that they want to do even though they know they shouldn’t because it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, I get a strong feeling that they’ll probably do something very similar later on. They might say they’re sorry, but they won’t mean it. So if you have something you want or need to do, and you feel it’s important enough to do even without permission, why bother with the forgiveness? You shouldn’t have to apologize for doing the right thing.