Discover more from Other Feminisms
Your Favorite Stories That End Without Victory
And announcing our summer bookclub
At Deseret, I have a piece today on the symmetries between the child seeking shelter at the border and the child sheltered in the womb.
The man walking through the water and the baby he holds are more alike than different. Whether a refugee is walking through Mexico or a baby is cradled in a suitcase — or, before then, in her mother’s womb — someone is on the way. Someone whose name we may not yet know, someone whose particular personality is yet to be revealed to us. Someone we know primarily through their need — they cannot survive unless we open the door to them and make them welcome.
I also have a summer of travel coming up—you can hear me speak in Texas next week at the American Solidarity Party Convention, or at the end of July in Napa. That means we’ll start a summer schedule at Other Feminisms, with a summer bookclub. About which, more below.
There’s a line I love in Fr. Bill Cain’s play Equivocation (which imagines Shakespeare being asked to write a propaganda play about the Gunpowder Plot). “I’m trying to write a play which isn’t about revenge,” Cain’s Shakespeare says, “It’s never been done!”
Prompted by a discussion of Women Talking, Six, and A Hidden Life, I asked you about stories that buck against our expectations of a victorious or empowering ending. I asked you:
Where have you seen stories (on screen or on the page) that take a very different approach to catharsis or victory than you’re accustomed to seeing?
Have you sometimes expected your own life to follow the beats of a conventionally “empowering” story? What effect did those expectations have?
Martha suggested RomComs as a genre that rejoices in a small ending, especially one where a character chooses against success in worldly terms:
Set it Up from 2018 is a quintessential example. Love wins, corporate success driven dude winds up finding happiness in love and being a temp. A bit of the opposite of the trope of successful city woman moves to small town and falls for the handyman (which is also great).
Also, The Hobbit. As the last sentences go, "'You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all! 'Thank goodness! ' said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.” Ah, to be oneself in the big wide world :)
Lately I've been thinking about the question of whether there are truly modern fables—ones that are completely new, as opposed to retellings of the same ancient tales as Jungian wisdom would have it—and one candidate that occurred to me is Rocky. If you're under 50 it seems like that story (underdog gets a shot at a big match, loses but feels like a winner anyway) has been around forever and has been told a million times, but as far as I can tell, it was not told on screen before 1976. It's not really about worldly vs. spiritual victories as you're describing here, but it does play on the tension between the world's love of winners and the world's love of rooting for the underdog. It was a pretty bold move to show the underdog not winning, and indeed Stallone couldn't really sustain it in subsequent films (though personally it amuses me to imagine a sequel where Rocky just gets married, finds a better job, and retells the story of his big fight in bars for the rest of his life).
Joyous Thirst had one more losing underdog story:
I recently revisited the Disney movie Cool Runnings about the first Jamaican bobsled team, and realized that behind all the funny and inspiring moments, the story is basically a story of defeat. In fact, the defeat itself is framed as a way of demonstrating (and securing) ultimate victory in the things that truly matter -- dignity and self-respect as well as earning the respect of the doubters.
My own story of trying to find help for chronic illness in the face of dismissive and/or clueless healthcare professionals is often hard to share with anyone bcs it’s so different from what we believe about How It Works to go to doctors (often even in the face of our own less-than-helpful experiences) and How It Works to go to doctors with a mystery illness.
I’m sharing my story with the women’s Sunday School class at my church in a few weeks, and I’m hoping *Cool Runnings* will help me provide a clearer framework for helping people listen to a story they normally see only as depressing. (And no denying my story has been rough and discouraging to live! But that’s not its sum total. It’s more than that.)
Midge has felt pressure to cast herself as a victim, in order to fit an “Overcomer” narrative:
, Beth looked at how zombies are a heightened way to talk about a different kind of unpersoning:
Stories of empowerment are stories of overcoming. Overcoming *what*? Few people can honestly tell a story of overcoming benign human limits in order to achieve some exceptional success. Most of us don't have exceptional success, and must resign ourselves to telling stories of overcoming specific obstacles. But, if the obstacles are really obstacles, the story of overcoming them starts out as a story of *suffering* from them – of being "victimized" by them.
What turns pathetic "victimhood" narratives into inspiring "overcoming" narratives is "enough" success at overcoming. But who decides what enough is? An "overcomer" whose story of overcoming fails to impress the audience as adequate has "only" told that audience a "victimhood" narrative.
What can’t be overemphasized here is Joel’s lack of care, lack of hope, lack of desire to shepherd Ellie. Joel’s a zombie, but Ellie—though scarred—is not.
And Melanie chimed in to note what the victory of hope really looks like:
One thing that has been haunting me through the show is the lack of young children, of new babies. We see teens like Ellie and we see Sam, whose young life is cut short. But we don't really see families with kids. Most people are older, most communities don't seem to have very many children. The best picture we have of a family life that seems to have some hope is in Jackson, and there we get Maria and Tommy and Maria's announced pregnancy. If love doesn't lead people to having children and raising a new generation, then the zombies might as well have won.
I always like how starkly Battlestar Galactica drew this choice in the opening of it’s series about a battered remnant of humanity fleeing robots. When Commander Adama wants to fight, even if it’s futile, Laura Roslin—the Secretary of Education turned President—corrects him:
If we are even going to survive as a species, then we need to get the hell out of here and we need to start having babies.
All this brings me to….
The First (Possibly Annual) Other Feminisms Summer Bookclub
We’re going to be reading Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, chapter by chapter, week by week. I haven’t reread it since high school, but it’s stuck with me as a book that ended very differently than I expected.
There will still be normal Other Feminisms posts, but on a more irregular schedule. Meanwhile, every Wednesday, starting June 28, there will be an open thread for that week’s chapter (which will carry us through the end of August).
I’m so looking forward to reading with you all!