Class Distinctions in America, Part I

America has the image of being generally middle-class, or favoring a middle-class ethos. The “common man” (or woman) is the general target for marketing, policies, aspirations, etc. We also have much more class mobility than in other cultures: the wealthy daughter of a doctor may work in a grocery store in summers in high school or the son of a CEO may deliver pizzas in college. But there is an elephant in the room that we seldom talk about in America, and that is class. Things are not so evident on the surface about class, the way they might be elsewhere. In England for example, speech immediately distinguishes a person’s education level and class background, although it is increasingly becoming “cool” to adopt various speech patterns and mannerisms that are not RP (received pronunciation, or, “The Queen’s English”). The aforementioned example of wealthy children working menial jobs would be unheard of in Asia or Latin America.

With class not so evident as it is in other countries, what distinguishes between social classes in America? What are the signifiers? Here are some thoughts, and this post will be continued in a second part.

Food. This is one of the saddest things about wealthiest country in the world. There is still hunger in America, and for those who are poor, the cheapest options are often the least healthy. Contrast this with the wealthier, food conscious individuals in America who shop at Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, and artisan shops for food. We have “food deserts” where people have little access to food, let alone healthy food, and children who rely on schools to provide them meals. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or “food stamps” is just little over four dollars a day per person, which is really not enough. When fast food options offer meals that are just a couple of dollars, those who have very little income would understandably opt for those. The advice to grow one’s own food is not always possible to those who live in cold or inhospitable climates. This is one of America’s greatest shames.

Healthcare. This is too complex a topic to go into in this article, but we can say that the Affordable Care Act has not yet achieved its goal of helping all Americans have affordable coverage. We need a universal healthcare plan, single payer if possible, and yet our politicians do not by and large support this plan. The poor often get relegated to community clinics with limited healthcare, and their access to specialists is even more limited. Some may opt not to even consult physicians when ill, due to fears of excessive bills. People who can afford it not only have good healthcare plans (covered by their employer), but they can have the luxury of choosing the best doctors, and even paying out-of-pocket for procedures and tests. Needless to say, wealthy and urban areas have large concentrations of highly trained and specialized doctors and medical professionals.

Spending habits. This is a highly taboo subject, and one that can potentially sound extremely classist. But there is some truth to the reason that the rich get richer, and why many people who do not have much money are in that situation due to their consumerism. I am in no way advocating trickle-down, Reaganist economics, and I personally think that class stratification is a very serious problem in America we need to address through various means such as taxation, social welfare and benefits, etc. I would like to add the caveat, though, that the working poor and people in lower-paying jobs who are indeed financially savvy and wise with their personal finances are simply not able to save and do not have disposable income. America has failed these people, and it is also another one of America’s shames.

But in terms of purely individual spending habits, I have seen that many prosperous people are extremely careful with their disposable income, saving for particular goals such as housing, their children’s education, retirement, and investing in quality rather than quantity. There is the temptation in American society to spend like mad on the latest trendy car/gadget/clothing/item, with the understanding that it keeps the economy moving. While there may be truth to this, it is often to the detriment of people’s personal finances. I grew up in a community where people were of largely (lower-) middle and lower-class SES, and when I attended Stanford University, I was quite surprised and fascinated to see that despite many of my peers being quite wealthy, they were not very materialistic in comparison to the people I grew up with. And my Stanford peers were from all around the United States and the world, thus illustrating a geographic cross-section of largely upper- and upper-middle class individuals. Certainly not everyone at Stanford was well to do, and I felt I was one of the rare, true middle-class students there. But I have noticed in living in places of different socioeconomic status that the spending habits of the well to do are certainly cautious.

This post will be continued.

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Poet Laureate of Jamaica on This Blog!

Dear readers,

If you remember, a couple years ago, UM professor and poet Lorna Goodison was so generous as to contribute a poem to this blog. She is now the Poet Laureate of Jamaica, and the first female to hold that position.

http://jis.gov.jm/lorna-goodison-jamaicas-first-female-poet-laureate/

I am so proud that she honored thewomenofletters.com with one of her poems, and in case you missed it the first time, here it is:

https://thewomenofletters.com/2015/06/11/poem-we-to-the-world-by-lorna-goodison/

Thank you, Professor Goodison, and here’s to the future women poets of the Caribbean — and the world!

Virgin/Whore Revisited

In the humanities in the Western world, there exists a dichotomy between two archetypes of women that stems from Catholicism and Christianity in general – the dichotomy between the virgin and the whore. At its most literal level, this refers to perceiving women as pure and untainted by sex (or at least sex outside of marriage), or as a woman who engages in her bodily acts with multiple men for money or for pleasure outside of marriage. One may come across a variant of this, virgin/Madonna/whore, where the middle persona represents a mother, but a sexless mother whose conception was a divine miracle, and not something carnal of the flesh. Feminists and others have long decried this dichotomy as sexist, patriarchal, and denying of a woman’s right to pleasure.

Others might argue that women’s sexual freedom – or anybody’s for that matter – is a recent phenomenon, born out of Enlightenment philosophies of individualism and developments in technology that led to birth control. In American culture, we still hold certain expectations and even double standards for women. Traditional cultures still largely espouse this view, even ones that are not Christian, as we have seen with the tragic death of Pakistani social media star and television personality Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered by her brother in an “honor killing” to avenge the shameful behavior she exhibited in public and the dishonor she brought upon her family. No woman should be punished or harmed for expressing her sexuality or sensuality, nor should she ever be blamed for rape.

But is there any truth to this dichotomy? Are there “good” and “bad” women? Among women in America, do we not sort of classify or look down at certain types of women, though we might be reluctant to admit it?

In modern, secular America, generally speaking, we do not dichotomize women based on sexuality. Classifying a woman according to whether or not she is a virgin is passé. So by this belief, the entire argument is rendered useless. But – perhaps there is another way to look at sexuality and women that comes from a woman’s point of view and not from a man’s or patriarchal one.

As a friend put it, before the sexual revolution, women felt they had to say no to sex, and after the revolution, they felt they had to say yes. Anyone who is very aware of millennial and modern hookup culture knows that women are put in a very difficult position. But there are many women who make bad choices, and perhaps that is the root of the problem. Our sexual culture allows a woman to enjoy a sexual life like a man, but without being treated with the respect previously accorded to a woman. Given that men have not yet, as a whole, worked on redefining the roles vis-à-vis how women’s have changed over the last few decades, we still have a lot of problems with how women are perceived and treated. Much of the uproar over the “French open letter” (where dozens of women, including Catherine Deneuve, objected to the #MeToo movement) illustrates both the problems women have in dealing with men, as well as the differences among women. The French letter seemed to disregard The French letter seemed to disregard the fact that the #MeToo women enjoy their sensuality and attention from men, just not when coupled with an abuse of power as it was in the situations Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose and countless unnamed men in the world today.

I would like to suggest what defines the modern “dichotomy” in women is self-esteem. A sense of self-worth and acting from a place of strength and dignity, rather than from outside motives. Notice that I did not define this as acting independently from men. As I have frequently written, I believe a large part of the failure of the feminist movement born in the 60s and 70s was its failure to view women in relation to men, and thereby improve the dynamics between genders.

Any woman with a sense of self-worth is proud of her choices in expressing – or not expressing – her sexuality and sensuality in public. A woman with a sense of self-worth is proud to look like a woman, proud to be who she is, be very feminine if she chooses, or not. Her sexual pleasure comes from a place of personal desire, not societal expectations. She will not be treated badly by a man, and if she is, she will refuse to put up with it. (The #MeToo movement has been a wonderful regenesis of women who are proud of their womanhood and sensuality, but very willing to set boundaries). A woman with self-esteem will not allow herself to fall victim to peer pressure and alcohol, and will not allow herself to get in situations that can potentially result in harm. This type of woman will do everything she can to not allow herself to become a victim, but she will rush to the defense of any woman who is victimized.

If we set this as a new standard, we can see that there will be a wide variety of types of women, not just the virgins/Madonnas on one end of the scale. This includes the Qandeel Baloches but also the women who wear their hijabs proudly and fashionably as they push their strollers. This includes the brilliantly accomplished Hillary Clintons as well as the brilliantly accomplished Amal Clooneys, who are proud to be style icons. This includes women from all walks of life, be it doctors and other professionals, as well as minivan-driving moms in small-town Saline, Michigan. This includes women around the world, of all ages, shapes, sizes, classes, professions, and orientations.

So who, among us, do we (guiltily and wrongly) look down upon? Women who don’t operate from a sense of dignity. We see them on Friday and Saturday nights – the (sorority) girls who are tarted up in disgustingly revealing clothing to get drunk at bars or (frat) parties, not knowing who they are waking up with. Women who have given the sexual revolution a bad name by going wild and acting badly. The “Barbie doll” types of all ethnicities in Southern California or wealthy suburbs everywhere, who must conform to a look — blonde highlighted, over glossed, over perfumed, overdone – who even go so far as to make radical alterations on their bodies to fit in. The women who stick themselves in bad relationships, who use men just to get pregnant, or even those who hate men. The “easy women” who are happy being a trophy wife to a man who is unable or unwilling to grow up, and would rather trade his first wife in for a new model. Women from traditional cultures who refuse to speak up for their needs in their marriage, perpetuating the cycle of bad behavior from men who feel they are entitled to do whatever they want and not be a good husband. Women who are Puritans, who cannot enjoy their femininity, who act like men. (Many people saw the undoing of Hillary Clinton as the result of this, however wrong and sexist as it may have been.) Women who are strong, but still buy into the hookup culture, who still feel they have to say yes. Fashion victims. Vogue editor Anna Wintour has really done very badly toward her own sex, as have the others who support the destructive aspects of the fashion and beauty industry. Women who do not speak up when sexist things are said.

Is it wrong for women to judge other women? Yes, perhaps it really is. But I suppose it is an inevitable part of our behavior as women, because we are so closely bonded by nature and wired to be collective. Maybe it is inherent in any group for people to look critically at its members. But we cannot make social progress unless we first look at the weakest links, so to speak. And most importantly, we must first look within, look at ourselves, and see where we need to improve in progress before we criticize others. That is the ultimate sign of a woman with inner strength and dignity.

In Belated Honor of International Women’s Day

This is to honor all the women in the world – the nearly 4 billion of us. Simone de Beauvoir’s moniker of “the second sex” still sadly holds true today. Women suffer from poverty, gender discrimination, lack of access to appropriate healthcare, lack of resources for their children, domestic violence – the list goes on. And one must simply ask, Why? Why are women the recipients of so much negativity when they do so much? Women in developing countries especially face a heavy burden, being assigned tasks such as fetching water from miles away, being married off too young before they can finish their education, cruel stigmas such as being “impure” during menstruation, not to mention female genital mutilation and other horrors. We have seen the example of the unspeakable violence committed against the teenaged Malala Yousafzai – but also how she rose up against it, fought for her life and the lives of other girls and young women, and won a Nobel Peace Prize along the way.

In developed and moderately developed countries, we still see problems such as salary discrepancies, lack of maternity leave, a glass ceiling for women in the higher echelons of the work world, and unrealistic body images. Across the world, we see a common denominator of sexual harassment and women not being treated as equals, period.

We live in turbulent times when it comes to being a woman. The #MeToo movement, the president of the most powerful country in the world a serious misogynist and cheater, pay inequality, the ill-treatment of women in Silicon Valley, school kidnappings in Nigeria – the list goes on. But it is also exciting, because the discussion and changes that are coming out of these turbulent issues with women and gender are leading us toward progress. Serena Williams fighting back about her post-pregnancy seeding in the tennis world, women trying to gain more elected positions, Hollywood becoming more inclusive (thanks, Frances McDormand) are just some examples of how women are fighting back and trying to take their power. We have borne the consequences of the American feminist movement from the 60s and 70s, which focused too heavily on the body and the physical (which are important, but it became the main goal) rather than collective needs of women as a whole and actual policies that benefit women. I feel we are finally coming back to an inclusive feminist movement that addresses the basic needs of every woman, regardless of her age, class, or orientation.

In this process, as I have always advocated, we need male allies. Feminism cannot be feminism without men, and men cannot have any sort of movement without women; a gender studies perspective is a better way of framing the discussion rather than just feminism. Men are not all the enemy, and sometimes some women contribute to the problem as well. Equality, of course, may not take the same shape in every culture. Men and women are not the same, despite what many feminists believe, but this does not advocate putting women in a subordinate position to men. We need to ask ourselves what women’s’ needs are, financially, biologically, emotionally, and build our society and policies around that.

There seems to be a big gap or leap from how girls are raised to be strong and independent in childhood, but then suffer once they hit adulthood. Disney and all the image makers have been very conscientious as of late as to what messages they are sending to girls and young women; however, the images of women in positive role models seem to decline once they hit their 20s. We have to ask what structural factors are working against women. In earlier waves of feminism, such as that from the 60s and 70s, there seems to have been a bias against motherhood and women’s reproductive cycles, a denial of biology as Camille Paglia might say. This forced women to fit into a very male-oriented social paradigm. But we see now this does not work. We need to take into account women’s biology, and women need to take ownership of their reproductive power whether or not they have children. We need to encourage women to feel there is nothing wrong with getting married or being a mother, that a lifetime romantic relationship is indeed valuable and something that needs work.

As we are making structural changes in society, we also need to make our own efforts on an individual level. Too many women – even educated, independent women – do not empower themselves. This can be as simple as calling out bad behavior on a man’s part, or not enabling it. It can also be as simple as taking ownership of one’s femininity, something that is often taboo to say in educated circles. We are not men, so why shouldn’t we enjoy not being men?!

At the bottom of it all, it is still very hard to be an intelligent woman. A woman with a brain is alternately mocked, put down, lauded, a source of puzzlement, and more. Too many women of letters have struggled to make themselves heard and to be respected for what they know, or they have struggled with their womanhood while trying to develop a career in a man’s world. While it is not always possible for a woman to “have it all,” it is possible for a woman to “be it all”: she can embrace all aspects of herself and not see them in opposition to each other. This multi-faceted complexity we possess is the most precious thing about being a woman, and who would want it any other way?

Breaking the Fourth Wall

I recently saw a production of a modern one-act opera that I will not name, lest I put my own operatic career in jeopardy. One of the things I found very distasteful about it was that it frequently broke the Fourth Wall — the theater expression for addressing the audience directly, when an actor breaks the invisible line between performer and viewer and dispels the illusion that the viewer is buying into. The reason I found this very problematic in the opera is that it became a poor substitute for truly engaging the viewers in an organic way by drawing them into the interactions of the characters on stage. The characters did not act together much, but spoke at the audience, and therefore I was turned off. It felt like they were delivering lectures about their circumstances to the audience rather than letting us see for themselves. In other words, the classic literary cliché of they did not show, but tell.

This raises an important question: when is it helpful to break the Fourth Wall? When is it useful or engaging?

There are numerous examples of when it is successful. One rather nonsensical example, but an extremely strong one, is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Ferris frequently addresses the audience with his opinions, explanations for his schemes, and even ends the film by shooing us away. Why does it work? Because Ferris is filling us in with little details, backstory, or comments that we would not get otherwise. Since the film is set in real time, moving linearly into the future, with no flashbacks, we want to know a little bit more than what we see on the screen. Also, the film is about Ferris, and in his point of view, so he is our narrator and our guide. What happens between the characters confirms Ferris’s opinions; when he breaks the Fourth Wall, it is also placed very strategically. Contrast this with the breaking of the fourth wall in Ingmar Bergman’s stunning film “Autumn Sonata.” it is extremely distracting that Viktor has to narrate the story to us, it is overkill. The acting between Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman is so moving the film should simply speak for itself.

In literature, especially literature from earlier centuries, the narrator frequently addresses the reader. Who can forget the classic line “Reader, I married him” from Jane Eyre? This slightly self-conscious breaking of the Fourth Wall engages us because it analyzes our sympathies with Jane. She has confided in us and taken us on a journey with her lifelong struggle, and she wants to deliver her good news to us directly. It is slightly meta-fictive, calling attention to itself as metafiction does, though metafiction would not truly exist as a genre till a century later.

We do often indeed see an indirect sort of Fourth Wall-breaking in theater and opera, and there are numerous examples. Internal monologues are often delivered to the audience, as are arias, such as “Hai già vinta la causa” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The angry, cuckolded Count Almaviva is singing with no one else onstage, but we the audience are there to listen. Here, it works to break the Fourth Wall, for the Count is telling us how he feels and what he wants to do. We are his sole confidantes for his supposed vendetta. This information is secret, for he would not dare reveal his romantic/sexual humiliation to any others in the opera, for it would shatter his pride. Granted, it is ultimately the director’s choice as to whether the Count will address the audience directly, but it is a very good choice to do so. The same goes for Shakespeare. Hamlet can potentially address us audience members in “To be, or not to be…” Granted, in both situations, with this indirect breaking of the Fourth Wall, an equally impactful effect can be felt as the performer does not make direct eye contact with single members of the audience as would happen in a true breaking of the Fourth Wall.

Where we see the Fourth Wall broken the most in our modern performance arts is in standup comedy. Many comedians choose to engage members of the audience, heckling them, asking them questions, and drawing comedic fodder from them on the spot. But even so, the comedian must still maintain a continuity of the theatrical illusion that s/he is presenting; s/he must remain in charge. Finally, one of the funniest uses of breaking the Fourth Wall in comedy was on the television program “Three’s Company.” Certainly not highbrow, and undoubtedly formulaic, cartoony, but vastly entertaining and well done. We buy into the illusion of the hapless roommates and their romantic adventures, misunderstandings, and comedic crises. Anything to disturb this would call attention to itself and the artifice of such an absurd show. However, the screen presence of rubber-faced actor Norman Fell (as Stanley Roper) turning to the camera with a slightly lunatic grin after making wisecracks about his wife Helen is a hilarious use of breaking the Fourth Wall. It only heightens the humor and adds to the absurdity of the show, and gives and gives a roundedness to the cranky character whom we dislike as much as “the kids” upstairs.

When used properly, we love it when the Fourth Wall is broken because it makes us feel like we are conspiring with or allied with the character on stage to get us more involved in the story.

Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly digitized. Even our communication is much less interactive and personal than it was, due to the unfortunate preference for social media. If you couple that with the American mentality of excessive independence and secularism, it makes for a very disconnected society. I am not advocating that America lose its secular governance – especially with this administration, we do not have enough separation of church and state, and unfortunately in America, religion becomes conflated with the Religious Right and Christianity. But secular liberals have a hard time understanding anything that isn’t 110%, fair and square to the last drop equality and freedom. The idea of subjugating one’s personal desires to anything greater is simply unthinkable to them. And perhaps this is due to their having been raised in organized religion, and its heavy-handed requirements for personal behavior as well as its endless rituals and consumption of one’s time.

Despite all this, I still maintain that we need spirituality in this world. We need a sense of something sacred.

Two definitions under the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for the word sacred provide an adequate meaning for what I’m discussing here. One reads, “entitled to reverence and respect.” Another reads “highly valued and important.” In many cultures, certain daily rituals are considered sacred. For example, the tea ceremony, or even quotidian tasks such as how one slices tofu in the home, are considered sacred in Japan. The coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is equally revered. Ask any Italian worth his or her weight in semolina if there is a proper way to make pasta, and do not contradict him or her. But beyond food, there are other things that are considered sacred. Certain objects, such as heirlooms, need to be treated with respect, as they hold great significance to a deceased loved one. Color symbolism, such as red at Asian weddings, is important. Various poets or writers or artists of any genre are sacred to different cultures. Russians love Pushkin and Poles adore Chopin. Brazilians, a beautifully sentimental people, worship not only their gods, but also their musicians and their land of their country.

Part of our loss of the sense of something sacred in America stems from the fact that we have so few historical edifices or places and spaces that are important. Everything here is designed for efficiency and practicality, and in some parts of the country, like the Midwest, pragmatism is valued over anything else. We do not have many basilicas or mosques like the Istanbul “Blue Mosque” that take our breath away. We do not have ornate temples like in South India whose gopurams (towers) are sculpted impressively, if sometimes gaudily, by hand by artisans of astounding skill. We do not have, as a regular part of our culture, large plazas or public spaces that exist simply to allow people to congregate. There are no Macchu Picchus here, nor an Eiffel Tower. Other than the grand nature out west or in the mountains in the east, the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan and other big cities, and the over-the-topness of Las Vegas, most everything in America in public spaces is built to scale, for efficiency and not for aesthetics. If something is large, it is usually just to serve a function: a convention center, a corporate headquarters, a shopping mall.

We do have reverence in America, but it often becomes extremist, centered on a particular person, celebrity, or even religious leader or cult figure. It can be jingoistic, insular, and dangerous. What I am talking about is the quiet reverence and respect that comes from history, from a deep love, and from a sense of the aesthetic. A quiet hush. This sense of sacred is something that makes secular individuals lay down their guard that says everything has to be about them, and experience a sense of humility and surrender that all the great spiritual masters have taught us for millennia. Life in America should not just be all about us; to live this way is not only psychologically unhealthy, but it also robs us of a feeling of something beautiful that is beyond us. It disconnects us from our continuity with other beings that existed before us.

Take time to reflect on what is personally sacred to you, what is meaningful to you, something that you respect and revere.