Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Howl's Moving Castle and Male Adaptations of Female Work: A Feminist Film Review

The first time I saw Howl's Moving Castle, five or six years ago, I was delighted. I'd seen Spirited Away, but other than that I'd never seen any Miyazaki films, and as far as Miyazaki films go, HMC is a tad more accessible to Western audiences. Plus, they dubbed the animation so well that a friend convinced me the film was not, in fact, a translation, but that it had originally been done in English.

Well, that wasn't true. It's definitely a dubbed film. But I was surprised, a month ago, when my older sister handed me a copy of the book Howl's Moving Castle and recommended I read it. She said it was a little like The Princess Bride, in that the book was different from the movie but still delightful. And delightful it was - but I was surprised by the ways the story and characters changed when it was transferred from a Welsh novel written by a woman, to a Japanese film directed by a man. Miyazaki did a fantastic job with the film, and I still love it, but his adaptation places more focus on male characters and all but strips Sophie of her power. On the flip side, the film complicates age and evil witches in a really interesting way.

I want to make it clear up front that I don't know enough about Japanese culture and Welsh culture to comment on how culture has impacted this transition. In fact, I haven't even seen the movie undubbed. Accordingly, this review will compare a book that was published in English, to a version of the film that was released in English though Disney, and which was marketed to an American audience.

This romantic imagining of Howl says it all
(source: Dreamhuntress on flickr)
First of all, in the movie, Howl is the main event. He's dashing and pretty, and he swoops into Sophie's boring life to save her from the soldiers who are flirting with her. Yes, Sophie doesn't really need saving from those men, and Howl in fact puts her into more danger when the Witch of the Waste sees him with her and decides to put a curse on her, but there's still something heroic in the gesture. These heroics don't show up so soon in the book - instead of scaring off unwanted suitors, Howl is the unwanted suitor. Sophie gets nervous when he tries to buy her a drink, so he chuckles, offers to escort her wherever she's going, and backs off when she doesn't want him to. And the Witch of the Waste doesn't curse her because she's seen with Howl - she curses her because of a misunderstanding and a mistaken identity. I can see why Miyazaki simplified the witch's motivations here, mind you.

The Witch of the Waste is a complicated character in the book, in ways I won't fully describe here, since I hope you'll all read the book for yourselves. But I will say this: while the film complicates the idea of witches by turning the Witch of the Waste into a victim you can sympathize with, who is ultimately an ally, the book complicates the idea of witches in other ways by making Howl's struggle into one where he's trying to avoid becoming like the witch. She isn't evil by virtue of being a powerful woman, (and every powerful woman in the movie is, in fact, evil - even the witch only turns good after losing her powers). She has turned evil over time because she made the same choice Howl made, and his only hope is to undo that choice before it hurts him like it hurt her.

And gaining power in the book doesn't corrupt all female characters. While the movie carries a warning to all magical beings - all the other wizards and witches in the land are losing their humanity to war - the only witches we meet (Madam Suliman and The Witch of the Waste) use their power for evil, while the wizards we meet (Howl and his apprentice) use their magic to help people/ to hide. In the book, however, we meet several witches who are good, including Howl's teacher, a woman who teaches magic to Sophie's sister, and Sophie herself. Yeah, that's right, Sophie herself has magical powers in the book. In fact, in the book Sophie is able to save Howl because of her magical powers, not because they're in love - although they are.

And that last point transitions nicely into my last critique of the movie - the movie is more a love story, where the book is more a coming of age story. Accordingly, it follows traditional patterns of love stories in ways that downplay how powerful women are and play up how powerful men are, while also reinforcing the Beauty and the Beast myth that a virtuous woman can save a dark, brooding man from his animalistic nature. In the book, Sophie plays a huge role in defeating the evil force they fight toward the end. In the movie, it's mostly Howl, and Sophie's role pertains mostly to Howl's heart, which, remember, she is moving through their emotional connection and not through her own power. To reiterate: in the movie, her power and influence are defined in relation to Howl, but in the book she has her own power. 

Still, there's a silver lining to all this: the movie and the book are both about a young woman who only finds herself after losing her youth. How feminawesome is that?? Also, the characters are interesting and fleshed out in both mediums, and the movie's approach to war is interesting. And the animation and music - just incredible. So if you love the movie, I hope you keep on loving it. But take the time to read the book too so you can appreciate the powerful side to Sophie's nature. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Despite a Recorded Confession from the Cop in Question, a Rape Victim Loses on the Technicality of "She Was Capable of Walking"

In a case that is as disgusting as it is familiar, two NYC cops were found not guilty of raping a drunk woman they had escorted home, despite staggering evidence against them. There was video footage of the cops escorting her home, and then leaving and re-entering her building (with a false excuse) three times. The video footage shows one cop standing outside and keeping watch, while the other one enters and remains for awhile. The woman called a friend the next day and said "I think I was raped last night," and then contacted the police officer in question, who initially denied having sex, and then admitted he'd had sex with her, but insisted he'd worn a condom. In court, he claimed they had only "cuddled," and that she had come onto him. She says he pulled down her underwear and then penetrated her while she was face down in her own vomit.

So how, despite video evidence, a recorded confession to having sex, and the woman's testimony that it was nonconsensual, did the police officers both get off? Well, the woman was drunk, so her memory was fuzzy, and the prosecution somehow pulled the argument that the woman was too drunk to know if she was raped but not drunk enough to legally be unable to consent. Don't even get me started on the logical inconsistencies in that line of reasoning. Feminite has a brief post about this atrocity too. If you ask me, this case just comes back to good old victim blaming, combined with the unreasonable prejudice in favor of a police officer's confession in court. While I have great respect for most police officers, a person's testimony is not more reliable simply by virtue  of that person owning a police badge.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Recent Links of Note: Roseanne Barr, Courting Feminists, Pro-Life Complications, and Discriminatory Legislation

(Image source: Leah Mark Photography)
Feministe has an article they're calling The Best Thing You Will Read Today, which quotes a New York Magazine article where Roseanne Barr describes her experience working on the Roseanne show as sexist, classist, and degrading. She  also says Roseanne is even more ahead of the times today, when TV shows like Two and a Half Men are written around characters and actors known as abusive, womanizing johns. If you want to go directly to Roseanne Barr's article, click here. The article is refreshingly down to Earth. Interesting fact: Roseanne Barr is actually from Utah, and when Michael Moore spoke at UVU back in 2004, she was a guest speaker.

We have another scintillating article from Feminist Mormon Housewives about mating rituals and Mormon feminists. The main question this post raises is what courting rituals Mormon feminists pursue / prefer, and to what degree we do (and should?) compromise our values where dating is concerned. All the comments are interesting, but I found this list of advice for those hoping to court feminists particularly illuminating.

Womanist Musings has an article that complicates the way we discuss abortion. I will warn you that the author overgeneralizes his opponents and makes unfair assumptions about how pro-lifers treat children. However, he points out some really tragic contradictions that are all too common among those of us in the US, contradictions that are especially problematic (and in some cases more common) in the pro-life movement.

For more recent links of note, please see Racialicious. Among the links they provide you'll find an article about a federal mandate that school officials not check immigration status of students applying for enrollment, an article about a wounded service man who worries that he only received so much notice because he's white,  and an article arguing that recent legislation in South Carolina will disenfranchise nearly 180,000 voters.

Happy Blogging!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Divisions of Labour

When I was in undergrad, I took a class called "Sociology of Gender." It was only one semester long, so it wasn't in any way comprehensive, but it provided an interesting overview of how gender socialization- primarily based on apparent sex assignment- affects everything we do, from the language we use to the clothes we wear to the way we structure our lives. One discussion that still stands out in my mind, several years later, was one in which we discussed the implications of heterosexual marriage terms- specifically, referring to each other as "husband" and "wife." Our class brought up heterosexual domestic partnerships, and our professor cited a study- which I regret to say I can't find right now- in which heterosexual cohabiting partners tracked divisions of labour before and after choosing to have a formal marriage ceremony. The results were interesting: even when the partners had relatively equal divisions of labour prior to becoming formally married, their post-marital divisions tended to shift over time to mimic the divisions of labour displayed in heterosexual couples who had never cohabitated prior to marriage. Even more interesting was that this state, as you might guess, was one in which the female partner did upwards of 80% of the household labour. Let that sink in for a moment: even when a heterosexual couple had been fairly evenhanded when doing household chores for a decent portion of their shared history, that took a drastic slide after the relationship was formalized legally.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that, as a married person nowadays, I'm starting to see this trend in my own household. And I'm pissed.

Initially, we had an informal, verbal deal going: if you cook, I clean (and vice-versa). No dirty dishes in the sink overnight. We'll split chores while we're doing them on Saturday mornings. We can go grocery shopping together. Whoever's out of the bathroom first in the mornings will get lunches made (or, when my partner started working nights, it became simpler: I made lunch for his worknights, and he made it for my workdays). On and on, always with the recognition in mind that we both work full-time and both have interests beyond housework.

In the last six or so weeks, however, I've noticed that we've shifted away from this more-or-less equal division of labour and that I've been picking up the slack. When I get home from work, my first action is to head to the kitchen and start cutting up vegetables and packing away food for Nick to eat that night. In the mornings, Nick collapses into bed and I have to cajole him into getting up long enough to help me get ready- if he doesn't fall asleep immediately. I've been grocery shopping alone for the past six weeks. When our household goods arrived from Germany, Nick spent an hour or two helping me unpack and unload- and since then, I've been the one responsible for unpacking, arranging, assembling, and otherwise nesting. More often that not, regardless of who cooked, I find that I'm the one elbows-deep in soapsuds afterwards. In short, we've transitioned into the gendered patterns of behaviour that were observed by social scientists years ago: as the woman in this relationship, the domestic sphere is my responsibility.

Part of this, of course, falls under the same limitations as most studies. I've always been anal-retentive about keeping things clean (especially the kitchen) and I like to be in control in my home, while Nick has always been more laid-back. Having Nick on mids means that he's simply not awake on a timetable that makes many chores- particularly ones involving 9-5 business hours- feasible. In addition, while we work the same number of hours per pay period, my shifts are ten hours while his are twelve. It's thus understandable that, for the time period in which Nick works nights, I take on a bit more household responsibility than he does.

These factors, however, do not preclude a number of ways in which domestic chores could be more evenly divided. While many things might be difficult for Nick to do at night, others- scrubbing toilets, cooking bulk meals for the week, unpacking or cleaning on the first floor- are more than readily accommodated. The challenge, moreover, isn't that Nick is unwilling to do any of these things. Whenever we discuss household responsibilities, he's always ready to find ways to make a more even division of the chores. The challenge lies in who notices it first. Truth be told, the household division of labour is never addressed as an issue unless I'm feeling put upon- because Nick, as of yet, never winds up being the one taking on the bulk of the chores without comment.

As I mentioned, I'm much more "type A" than he is, and things like clutter and dust get under my skin long before they get under his. I wonder, though, how much this aspect of my personality is the result of being socialized to believe- however unconsciously- that these things are ultimately my job and a reflection on me as a person and as a woman, and not a result of some intrinsic trait. I find it interesting that the pile of ironing we started three weeks ago still hasn't been dealt with, even though we have equal numbers of shirts and pants in there that we need for work. I doubt that Nick looks at it and consciously decides not to do it because, as his wife, it's my job to keep the house clean and thus the ironing will be done without bothering him. Rather, I think he simply sees past it because- as the anal-retentive one in the relationship- I will be the one to take the initiative, iron the clothes, and get that chore out of the way first. The question I start asking, though, is: is there a difference between the two? Is there a difference between my partner- my husband- not doing the ironing because it's my wifely duty to do so, and my husband not doing the ironing because he's slowly becoming accustomed to his wife opting to do it first? In the long run, the end result is the same: the expectation evolves to be that I will take on the majority of household chores. The only difference is the underlying justification.

That raises another question for me. As a feminist in a marital relationship, how much activism is required to prevent such a slide from occurring? While I would love to think that Nick has had his consciousness raised to the point where he'll see the same patterns developing that I see, and thus proactively take on chores such as ironing to help prevent the gradual slide into chore inequality, the evidence suggests otherwise. It's a beautiful illustration of how subtle patterns of discrimination- for example, the ones that enhanced my need to keep a clean house- are far harder to spot when you're their beneficiary. Nick's behaviour may not be motivated by deliberate, conscious feelings of gender superiority, but in the end he won't be the first one to spot how gendered our household behaviour is. When I go crazy with the need to have unwrinkled clothes and just do the ironing with minimal comment, how much am I feeding into this division? Or, even more subtly, when I ask Nick to do the ironing, how much does that reinforce the idea that the running of the household- whether I do the chores or simply notice that they need to be done and assign them- is my responsibility? In addition, how much closer does that take me to the stereotype of the nagging shrew? How spectacular for patriarchal divisions of labour that women can't ask for equality without falling into yet another trap?

I don't mean to paint Nick as ill-intentioned in this post, or to say that he's opposed to an active effort to equalize household responsibilities. I do mean to point out, however, that this is an effort that I've had the greater burden of enforcing...and that, of the two of us, I have the most to lose.