Friday, February 29, 2008

Campbell's Misogynistic Soup

For those of you who don't have time to do all the assigned reading before tomorrow's class because you are too busy cruising Facebook, I present my conclusion, which in some circles is also known as an abstract:

Buffy: Tasty humanism with feminism on the side. Delicious and good for you!
Heroes: Joesph Campbell with diarrhea. Certainly grabs your attention, but ultimately the same old sh*t.

Buffy and Heroes fans please note there are spoilers ahead.

Heroes looks cool, sporting a manga-inspired aesthetic with Actual Japanese Characters speaking Actual Japanese, and it sounds like it's saying something profound about fate, power and individual responsibility, particularly in the lamentable early-season monologues by (surprise) the Indian Character speaking Actual Queen's English. And yes, it's entertaining, primarily because it works the cliff-hanger element so effectively that when a four-episode installment arrives from Netflix I sit down on the sofa and hit "play all" and don't get up for the next three hours. Intellectually, however, Heroes is what happens when someone puts Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces in the blender and mixes it up with a generous dollop of good old fashioned Freudian-style misogyny. Which might also make it a lot like most Hindi film, come to think of it, but we can forgive Bollywood because Shah Rukh Khan is hot.

We'll just ride right on by anything we might want to say about the two Japanese characters attempting to save New York from a nuclear blast (it's either really trite or really offensive; possibly it's both) and get right to the disturbing heart of Heroes, which seems to be the idea that all the problems in the world are your mother's fault, or, perhaps, The Mother's fault.

Skylar, the Arch-Villain of season one, was a humble watchmaker who simply longed to be "special." Upon learning that in fact he is not special in exactly the way that he was initially led to believe, Skylar embarks upon a campaign to steal and incorporate into his DNA the DNA of all the emerging Heroes, a process which involves removing their brains but, remarkably, no lab or lab equipment. What could have made Skylar so bitter and needy? Well, we learn in episode nineteen the obvious answer to the question: his pushy, overbearing mother, of course! In the scene carefully crafted to lend a little last-minute humanity and tragic gravitas to Our Villain, Skylar, who has temporarily abandoned his quest for brains to visit his mother, pleadingly asks Mom why she can't just accept him as "ordinary;" her reply is, of course, that she knows he could be so much more! And so, deprived of that vital maternal love, our Villain gets into an unfortunate scuffle with his mother, accidentally-on-purpose driving a pair of scissors through her heart, after which he has no choice but to return to his brain collecting ways, seeking the brain that will give him the capacity to generate nuclear blasts with his bare hands.

And then we have Nathan Petrelli, the compromised NYC politician running for Senate, largely manipulated, it seems, by the billionaire gangster Linderman. But wait! Linderman is not working alone after all. In the pivotal episode where Nathan decides that allowing a nuclear blast in New York is the only way to unite the world against the obvious threat that the mutant DNA humans with superpowers comprise to law-abiding humanity, it is none other than his calculating, all-knowing, perfectly and coldly manipulative mother who in another pivotal scene pushes him forward, convincing him that allowing the blast to happen is the Only Way to Unite Humanity, and that the eventual series of "coincidences" that will lead him to the White House will give him the chance to lead humanity in its War on Heroes (here the blender-esque element of the manipulation of symbols is particularly in evidence).

And then there's the only mother of a young child in the series, the split personality sexy assassin Jessica/nurturing non-violent Nikki. Jessica/Nikki's superpower was precipitated by both mutant DNA and the sexual abuse and murder of her sister (named, duh, Jessica) by their Father. So her superpower is linked to her sexuality, which pretty much destroys any hope of developing her as a full character: she's not an integrated, full personality but rather, two highly distilled aspects of femininity. In a pivotal scene, Linderman explains to Jessica/Nikki, her husband DL, and viewers at home that all women really want is security, and for Jessica, security means money. So Linderman offers Jessica/Nikki a lot of money to kill DL. Jessica/Nikki refuses; DL gets shot, kills Linderman with his superpower, and then, with his dying breath, assures Jessica/Nikki and viewers at home that the real powerful one is Nikki, the loving mother, not Jessica, the bad-ass black leather pants-wearing assassin. So there is hope for Nikki and DL's young superpower-wielding boy - he may be the lucky one to have the perfect super-human love of The Mother, Nikki. The world may be saved. But shouldn't we be a little disturbed that the "ideal" woman, the one who may save the world by being an inhumanly perfect loving, nurturing mother, derives from one half of a bifurcated feminine personality? Yes, we should.

Buffy, on the other hand, a show which creator Joss Whedon pitched and developed as a story of a female hero, is not a smarter and better meditation on power just because it's all about girls kicking ass and all the facile girl-power associations that go along with that image. Rather, it's better in part because Buffy's power, and indeed the power of all the characters, does not derive from sexuality; sex is used by Whedon to move characters and plots forward; sexuality builds both narrative and personality. Buffy is a hero in the satisfyingly cliched sense of that word: a fully-developed character, set apart, driven, possessed of a fatal flaw.

Buffy also kicks Heroes' ass because in its otherwise shaky final season, it actually manages to suggest that the notion of a hero as "one" is, as Buffy put it "something a bunch of men made up," and to propose an alternative paradigm. An episode of the final season describes the creation of the first slayer as the process by which men seeking protection from demons harness a demon and merge it with an unwilling girl, forging the first slayer. When that girl dies, a new slayer is called and given the power of the demon, and so on, until Buffy becomes the slayer. And so, with the help of the recovered witch Willow, in the series finale Buffy conceives of and executes the plan of making all the potential slayers of the world actual slayers, with Willow performing the advanced white magic necessary to take that demon force and make it communal, wielded by all potential slayers. Thus we see that a hero need not act alone - there is no reason that it has to be that way just because that's how "a bunch of men" originally decided to protect themselves from demons.

There's a revolutionary meditation on gender and power here: when Buffy takes a mystical journey to see the men who made the first slayer, they offer Buffy an extra helping of demon power to make her capable of fighting the extremely bad legions of demons who threaten apocalypse in the final season of the show. Buffy correctly recognizes this as something that will make her "less human," and she rejects it for this reason. Here Buffy rightly concludes that while men very well may think they need one super-human female to protect them from demons (this would be the fantasy or archetype of the Mother, obviously), neither she nor any woman should sacrifice their full and fully-developed humanity to be what "a bunch of men" think they need for protection. And so, at the end of Buffy, there are many slayers, not One, each developing her heroism as part of her fully realized humanity. Compare this to Heroes' valorization of Nikki as The Mother, not human at all but rather one half of a bifurcated caricature of two common, sexuality-derived tropes of femininity and female power. We can only conclude that there is no comparison.

Plus, with the glaring exception of the leather pants Buffy breaks out in season 6 (not to be confused with the leather pants she wore in Season 3 when she went to kill Faith - those were worn for symbolism rather than fashion), Buffy has better fashion sense.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

I swear to the all the gods of breakfast cereal I did not make this up

From an otherwise quite coherent and generally well-written student essay, this closing line:

"It is by knit one comes to see the tradition of silhouetted authority throughout time."

I wonder how many rows I will have to knit before the tradition of authority is silhouetted before me.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I do whatever my Rice Krispies tell me to

Thank goodness I have a blog. All of the big questions that have burned in me for so many years can at last be asked, not to mention illustrated with high quality digital images.

Why does breakfast cereal packaging seem to be calculated to stir up the religious fanaticism that clearly lurks within American hearts?

Breakfast of the ancient Israelites!

Breakfast of Thich Nhat Hanh

and of vegan Buddhists everywhere!

Potato chips, pasta sauces, frozen dinners, canned soup, cake mix - no other packaged food product even comes close. Why breakfast cereal? There must be a reason. Probably the same reason that the the bumper stickers/t-shirts/buttons that proclaim "I do whatever my Rice Krispies tell me to" are so uncannily funny.

Or maybe I spent a few too many years in graduate school studying Religion.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

In which we learn that I was not actually knitting a condom

Despite disconcertingly phallic beginnings, Sheldon turned out to be the cutest turtle I have ever knit, and possibly one of the cutest things ever to come off my needles:

Turtle-related quiz #1:
Which is the surest sign that knitcrit may be a few stitches short of getting proper gauge? Is it:
a. That she took Sheldon for a photo shoot at the pond in Central Park?
b. That she put down plastic wrap to protect him from germs/general public park nastiness?
c. That she often refers to herself in the third person when blogging?
d. all of the above.

Assembly of Sheldon was a little annoying, but only because I dislike sewing up; the pattern itself was clearly written, fun to knit, and free on Knitty.

Turtle-related quiz #2:
Not so much a quiz as a rorschach-esque test; consider the picture of Sheldon's little turtle limbs and note your first emotional response. Did you find the turtle limbs:
a. absolutely adorable
b. kind of disturbing
c. disturbing yet strangely attractive
d. no emotional response because they are just little bits of knit fabric.

No complaints or pattern notes; needle and yarn details logged on Ravelry, where you can see that the pattern clearly works with a wide range of yarns and gauges. I pretty much knit this one to the gauge suggested by the pattern. I love how he comes out of his shell.

Sheldon's dreamy and completely child-safe eyes were a team effort, the result of a happy series of coincidences: the partner of my friend Michelle happened to call her from a craft store in St. Louis just after I had called Todd (who was with Michelle) to complain about not being able to find black felt anywhere in Manhattan. Michelle very cleverly and helpfully told her partner that she did in fact know someone in need of felt, and so my turtle eye felt was mailed from St. Louis and eventually delivered to my very doorstep by Michelle while she was on her way to Central Park for one of her characteristically long and amazingly fast runs (Michelle is a very, very fast long distance runner, placing third among women runners in a recent Columbus marathon, among many other honors. Very, very impressive). There was actually an earlier plan to do the felt drop over coffee, but that was another casualty of the below-described missing the departmental meeting screw-up. To make Sheldon's eyes, following a trick posted by a clever Ravelry user, I cut out two small circles of black felt and embroidered over them with embroidery thread. The pattern calls for child-safe button eyes, but if such a thing exists, it does not exist in garment district of Manhattan, which in certain circles is the same thing as not existing at all.

Anyway. Sheldon's eyes: it took a village.

Sheldon was a baby shower gift for a friend who will be living in Indonesia for the next year. This meant, of course, that a cozy baby sweater would not have been overly useful. Packable, portable, lightweight, washable, and capable of evoking happy feelings in speakers of any language and those who have yet to acquire a language, Sheldon is both baby and Indonesia friendly, and few things can claim that, if you think about it. Go ahead. Think about it. Round out five minutes of procrastination to ten.

ANSWERS TO TURTLE-RELATED QUIZZES (no peeking before you choose your answers!)

Turtle-related Quiz #1
The correct answer is: d, of course.

Turtle-related Quiz #2
If you answered:
a. You need a pet. Or possibly a child. If you already have both, it means your parents didn't express enough love to you when you were little. (This was my answer, and for the record, I have one beta fish and no children).
b. You need to get out more often.
c. You are possibly a random serial killer who has stumbled onto this blog. Good thing you don't know who I am or where I live.
d. You are normal.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


There's a veg south Indian joint I frequent after work. Today wasn't a workday, but I was at Knitty City being initiated into the wonders of the integrated (aka attached) i-cord when I got a call from the department secretary. As it turns out, she was not calling to wish me a Happy Valentine's Day, but rather, to ask me why I wasn't at the department meeting. Oops. Bad untenured assistant professor. In the past, we have always gotten a email reminder, but for some reason this time the department head forgot to send one and I had written the meeting date in the wrong place in my datebook, and so I had to rush down to campus, feeling guilty the whole way.

After the meeting I went to this south Indian restaurant for a much-needed quick non-pizza lunch, and owing to the staff's peculiar insistence upon always seating customers right next to one another (even if the entire restaurant is empty), I ended up sitting practically on top of a couple on what was obviously a blind date that was not going particularly well. The boy, lily white as I am - though unschooled in the ways of south Indian restaurant fare - was gently guided through the menu by his lovely Indian lady date, and soon they had a table full of exotic food.

Lily White New York Banker Guy: What's that?

Indian Lady: (encouragingly) That's an idli. (She pauses to give LWNYBG a chance repeat the word. He does not avail himself of the opportunity. She moves on.) It's actually a breakfast food.

Lily White New York Banker Guy: huh - okay - which of these sauces is the best?

Indian Lady: Well, all the sauces are good. (takes bite of idli) mmm...they're the first thing I crave when I --

Lily White New York Banker Guy: (out of nowhere, the most he's talked the entire meal) When you're hung over?

Indian Lady: (carrying on valiantly) -- when I go back to India.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Victorian Lace Today

About a year ago, when Todd and I started down the long road of excess and rage that leads to An American Wedding, I got this idea that I was going to do some sort of major lace project, which, while it may sound crazy, is actually a pretty standard move in knitting circles. When, after much searching (oh, the volumes of bitter yet humorous prose I could write), I finally located a wedding dress that was both attractive (here a major criterion was the dress, if exposed to open flame, would burn rather than melt) and affordable (here a major criterion was the cost of the dress ought not to exceed the per capita GDP of Mauritania), it turned out to be a brilliantly vintage-esque all-lace number, which effectively eliminated the possibility of me knitting a lace stole for myself.

photo by Jacob Pritchard

This did not, however, eliminate a possibility that I had begun to entertain in secret, highly insane moments: why not knit stoles for the ladies of the wedding party? We were, after all, only talking about two ladies, both of whom had done a little knitting in the past and who therefore would truly appreciate a lace stole. And so it began.

First, there was the task of finding two lace stole patterns that would complement one another without being matchy and without fighting with the bridal lace. After much online searching (and this was back in the dark ages, that is, pre-Ravelry, so it wasn't nearly as simple as it would be now), I decided on two patterns from the fabulous Victorian Lace Today.

For the matron of honor, the Myrtle Leaf Shawl:

and for the bridesmaid, Miss Lambert's Shetland Pattern for a Shawl:

After a lot of hand wringing and a significant number of phone calls to local yarn stores, I decided to go with Helen's Lace, the classic and reliable high end 50/50 silk/merino laceweight from Lorna's Laces. And yes, I did buy a skein of it and immediately take it to the bridal salon and get permission to take the sample of my wedding dress out of the salon and down the street to a place with actual direct sunlight so I could make sure the ivory of the laceweight matched the ivory of my dress. Because clashing ivories could have ruined the wedding.

Now then. These were my first major lace projects, and while it is true that as lace goes, these are pretty tame, there's still a pretty steep learning curve over the first few repeats of the pattern.

Knitcrit: (indeterminate weeping noises)

Todd: Uh, honey, maybe you should put that dow --


Todd: No, it's just that you seem really ups---


Todd: It's just that you're beginning to --


So when I finally made it over to the less dark side of the learning curve, the occasional hiccup aside (a safety line is absolutely essential), the matron of honor's stole inched slowly towards completion. I had never done a lace border before, so about a month before the wedding I took a lesson from one of the eminently capable and pleasant employees down at Knitty City, and soon the border was progressing nicely. I reached the first corner of the stole, and then something slightly inaccurate happened with my stitch counting, and I ignored it, and then about two inches after the corner I saw that it was not looking too good back there at the corner:

And then I looked at the four-page-long single spaced list of things to do before the wedding that was taped by our door so we could be reminded of/tormented by all that we had to do whenever we left the apartment:

photo by Jacob Pritchard

And I looked at the progress I had yet to make on the other stole:

And I remembered that even someone as capable and famous as Stephanie Pearl-McPhee had failed to knit her own wedding shawl in time, and I suddenly reached a place of deep acceptance. Marriage does change a person, apparently, because I actually admitted defeat without all of my usual attendant feelings of failure and despair. And I still feel mostly okay with not making the deadline, except of course when I see this picture:

photo by Brad Simpson

Yeah, the ladies of the wedding party got cold while we were taking formal pictures. And they didn't have lace stoles to keep them warm.

But anyway. Victorian Lace Today. As in, today I'm picking up the stole projects again - I've got a slightly unrealistic completion goal for the matron of honor stole, and for the other, a possibly also unrealistic deadline of April 30th. Watch me go. crazy.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Obamamania is running wild, Mean Gene!!!

On the streets of the Upper West Side, just hours ago...

Obammie #1(wearing "Women for Obama" button): Vote Obama! Obama for Change! (waves stickers and tags)

Knitcrit: (in constructive dialogue-esqe tone that in no way reflects her true feelings of rage) Hey, are you aware of Obama's sponsorship of the Coal to Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007?

Obammie #1 : uh. no. The what?

Knitcrit: It's not a very environmentally friendly process.

Obammie #1: uhhh. (attempting to sound sincere, but falling far short of Knitcrit's masterful performance) Thanks! I want to be informed!

Knitcrit: (walking away, still fully in character) no problem!

Two blocks later

Obammie #2: Obama! Vote Obama!

Knitcrit: (again with masterful display of sincerity) Hey, are you aware of Obama's sponsorship of the Coal to Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007?

Obammie #2: Uh. no. (he continues, earnestness incarnate) But I want to be informed! What was that again?

Knitcrit: The Coal to Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007.

Obammie #2: (fumbling for writing utensil) Could you say that bill again? I want to remember and...(tapers off)

Knitcrit: You can look it up on Project Vote Smart.

Obammie #2:

Knitcrit: The website. Have you heard of it?

Obammie #2: uh - no - but I will check it out! Thank you!

exit knitcrit, on her way to the local yarn store to buy a #2 crochet hook to finish edges of current knitting project.

Okay, honestly, Obama attempted to disassociate himself from this bill after enormous pressure from environmentalists, but the alternative amendment proposing carbon emissions standards he introduced was, according to Los Angeles Times, dismissed by cloture. The point remains, however, that he initially sponsored the legislation for bloody obvious political and shortsighted reasons.

I wasn't going to blog about the Upper West Side Obammies - I was just going to let it be because god knows activism is an endangered species in this country and it should be encouraged even if it's woefully underinformed. Obamamania has actually been grating on me for weeks - our downstairs neighbors are rabid Obammies; only just out of dorms and not totally acclimated to civilian life, they've gradually papered their door with newspaper pictures of Obama, one with a witty "I couldn't have done it without [neighbor's name]" cartoon word balloon pasted over Obama's head. Ha ha. I laugh every time I walk by it on my way up or down the stairs of our fabulous walkup apartment. Ha ha. ha ha.

But I really was going to keep it all in, let people have their inspiration, be glad for the activism, smile and repress, smile and repress, and then...

...I got home and this ecstatic email and attached video from MoveOn put me over the edge:
On Friday, MoveOnMembers voted to endorse Barack Obama. Then a friend sent me this video. It really says a lot about why people are moved by Obama. If you're supporting him, or still on the fence, please check it out. And if you like it as much as I did, send it on. Here it is:

click here

And, having watched the video, I can agree that it does say a lot about Obama supporters.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Come ON, MoveOn

Some of MoveOn's many members just voted overwhelmingly (70% to 30%) in favor of endorsing Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate for president. Just remove the knitting needles from my hands. Slowly. And hide them.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton seem to have nearly identical voting records (though Obama has opted out of voting an awful lot. It's almost as though he didn't want to leave too much of a paper trail as he pursues his bid for the Democratic nomination). And Obama has introduced little legislation, though he did co-sponsor the truly environmentally backward Coal to Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. Not good. Though maybe a good move for a senator from a coal producing state.

Obama's current status as the darling of free-range grass-fed progressive wanna-be liberals everywhere seems to derive from the fact that he opposed the war from the start. Perhaps. But unlike Clinton, he wasn't in congress at that point, and it's one thing to speak out against the war - waving fists from from the sidelines - and another thing to vote against it as a member of congress. Like Kucinich did.

This is our "change?"

I can accept the argument - made by some - that Obama is the better candidate because he is more likely to appeal to moderate conservative voters. He probably would, given the fact that, as far as image is concerned, Obama in no way breaks the fundamentally patriarchal family man mold that has been working for American presidential candidates for over 200 years.

Compare conversations in the press - or anywhere - about the two candidates. What do we hear about Hillary? We hear in-depth analysis of Hillary's laugh. Or we hear otherwise sane journalists - even mainstream liberal ones - ask: Hillary: too closed off? Hillary: too emotional? Hillary: sincere? Hillary: able to control her spouse? Hillary's ability to serve as president is being discussed - and questioned - on the basis of her gender and stereotypes surrounding it. There is no similar shitstorm of press questioning Barack Obama's abilities on the basis of race or stereotypes surrounding it.

Obama's much-touted charisma comes from being a young, good-looking father/husband with a knack for public speaking and a marked ability to look humble whenever he's compared to JFK. If that's the best that the Democrats can do, fine, but let's not be naive enough to think his nomination would be a symbol of fundamental change. That symbol would be a woman in the White House.

Okay. May I have my knitting needles back now?