Friday, June 06, 2008

The Problem With Feminism Lite

I'm not yet done watching all of the Christy episodes, but it's already pretty clear where the shows version of feminism fails.

The best example is in A Man's Reach, the episode where Christy helps Rob Allen prepare for a test that could win him a scholarship to Fordham University. The subplot of the episode revolves around Zadey Spencer, the daughter of Fairlight Spencer and a fellow student in Christy's class.

Zadey is a foil for Rob Allen. While Rob has a tremendous talent for the written word, Zadey is gifted in math and science. Rob faces prejudice from a culture that sees high literature as unmanly and unproductive. Zadey must deal with a society that not only sees her talents as unfeminine but that also often fails to believe that she even has them.* Rob is on the cusp of adulthood; in the end he decides to stay in Cutter Gap because of the responsibilities he has to the family that depends on him. Zadey is just entering adolescence, which means she is suddenly misbehaving and acting selfishly in ways that she never even did as a young child. Rob story ends with him deciding who he is and the kind of person he wants to be. Zadey's story is all about how adolescence is a time of uncertainty of identity, and the confusion and possibilities that brings.

Zadey's subplot also revolves around Christy learning a lesson as well (of course). In this case, it's that becoming too focused on any one student makes it hard to see when others need her too. Zadey's is hurt at being left out of the older girls giggles and confidences. Which is made worse by Christy ignoring her need for validation and purpose in her schoolwork. This is resolved at the end with Christy apologizing to Zadey, admitting that she still has a lot to learn as well, and promising to help her study when it's her turn "to go to college."

The first part of Christy's apology to Zadey, where she does the actual apology and admits that she is still learning herself, is very sweet in the sappy way that makes me love the show. It's very nicely done in that "gosh I wish I always knew the perfect thing to say" way.

It's the last bit that turned the light bulb on for me as far as exactly why the show gets feminism wrong.

Because, of course, knowing what it's like to female and talented at math and science at the turn of this century, my first thought was "And who's going to offer her a scholarship to study math - in 1912?!?!"

It's not entirely impossible, but it's a lot less likely than Rob Allen's offer, and that was rather unrealistic itself. (Rob Allen entered a writing contest. He didn't win, but one of the judges was a professor at Fordham University and wrote offering him a scholarship - if he passed the test.) It's not like newspapers hold math contests, and science projects usually take a lot more capital than writing stories.

But there is no mention of that, or reassurances from Christy - who has just spent the past episode pressuring Rob Allen to go to college - that she will take the time to try to find a scholarship for Zadey Spencer, who, unlike Rob, is expressing interest in college long before an out of the blue offer to go.

Most of all though, lets not mention that the University that was so generous to Rob won't even admit women until Christy's great-granddaughters are ready to matriculate.

This is the false feminism that makes people think that feminism is no longer needed. The feminism lite that pretends that Christy promising Zadey Spencer an equal amount of time in tutoring her for college scholarships equals an equality of opportunity for Rob Allen and Zadey Spencer, even back in 1912.

*No one tells Zadey that she can't do math, but there are lots of comments about how girls aren't good at math. In Zadey's presence.

The way Zadey reacts to this felt very real to me, but I was frustrated with how the adults handle it. Fairlight has a great handle of how adolescence is affecting her daughter, but her response to Zadey's confusion about her gender identity and her frustration at sexism is to say (to Christy) that John (Zadey's oldest brother) being a boy isn't ever going to change. And while Fairlight and Christy can see that the age difference is part of why the older girls are leaving Zadey out of their talk of boys and the like, they fail to see or address how the girls use Zadey's lack of gender conformity (minor as it is, Zadey's never shown as a tomboy) to imply that her problem is not the age gap, but instead that she isn't "girl" enough.

Also, they left out the scene where the other kids ignore Zadey's right answer. And instead put in a scene where Zadey strives to get Christy's attention every time she knows the answer, which is always. Which, again, not very realistic. If Zadey actually did that regularly, she never would have been friends with the older girls in the first place; she would have been shunned long ago.

Zadey is much too old to want to always be the one that's called on in class. She's already at the age where her issue is that her peers don't respect her talents, not that she feels shunned by the teacher. Which Christy does make mention of at the end, but she suggests that the solution is that she calls on Zadey more in class in order to let her show off, which isn't really the problem that needs addressing or the solution that Zadey needs.

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