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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and Scared Dudes


I read Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend in December, 2015. I read The Story of a New Name a year ago yesterday (you guys that post got picked up by the official Elena Ferrante website and I got, like, hundreds of clicks). I just finished the third book in the Neopolitan series: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. One would think that reading one of these books a year would mean that they don't captivate me. That they don't completely consume my soul throughout the time that I read them. That they do not tear me down and reconstruct me into a new person.

One would be incorrect. Each time I've put down one of these books it has been at the end of a period in which I have disappeared from human society for large chunks of time, blinking at sunlight like Tony Stark when he escaped that cavern, craving an American cheeseburger, and a ride in a limo with his best paid pal Jon Favreau. That's me, except that the cavern is Ferrante's Naples, the limo ride is real human contact, and the American cheeseburger is the complete dismantling of the patriarchy.

I just re-watched Iron Man with my kids, because that movie is now almost ten years old and my youngest is nine. She loves the Avengers but lacks that rich historical context. It's like she had very strong opinions about the Israel/Palestine conflict without ever delving into the Battle of Carchamish in 605 BC, in which Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the Kingdom of Judah. Imagine, if you will, happily watching as our friends the Avengers "assemble" without the deep emotional heft brought about by watching our narcissistic friend Tony understand the true meaning of humanity exemplified by his finally deciding to be nice to Pepper Potts.

No, I say as a father and as a human being interested in the future of this planet, this will not stand.

We just watched Thor, too, which for a change is about an unbearably pompous and self-important man who enjoys limitless resource and praise BUT who is humbled to the dust after being betrayed by someone who he had previously trusted. Only by realizing that the world was (barely) bigger than his pecs did he show his worthiness to be rewarded with A) that hammer thing and B) one (1) Natalie Portman.

I started out by saying that's me when I read these. I come out of the other side a more human person; these books bring about character growth. That was my whole reason for bringing them up. But now I think there's another thread worth tugging on here.

Like, why do we enjoy as a general populace the narrative of the swaggering, entitled man as he digs a hole of his own making through womanizing, unearned self-confidence, and inherited wealth and status? That we crave that moment in which he is torn down by his own hubris. Why, we love it so much we put a woefully unfit and incompetent man in the most powerful position in our nation because we thought it would be heartwarming to watch him finally understand the foibles of humanity right before he saves the planet (though only after trillions of dollars worth of spectacular destruction) just in the nick of time.

Ideally in this scenario there is already a profoundly capable woman who already gets it. She's an astrophysicist or an "assistant" who basically runs the company. Or she's Trinity, who already knows all of the crap Neo is supposed to be learning and beats up cops in slow-motion like from minute one. Behind everyone one of these cocky sos-and-sos there's a woman whose whole job is to pass on the knowledge they've spent a lifetime accruing to the "chosen one," who somehow figures it all out in a couple of days. 

Have you seen Edge of Tomorrow AKA Live. Die. Repeat? Of course you haven't, because it failed in the box office. It's awesome, though. Emily Blunt in that movie is, like, the raddest soldier in the whole bug-fightin' army. So of course the PR guy with no combat experience is the one with the special power to save the world. Women in this reality have everything they need to save the world except a magic man that they can coddle and enable until he burrows into his little cocoon to emerge a beautiful, alien killing superhero just in time to save her life because she's captured now I guess?

This is not a new thing that I just noticed. Smarter people than I have identified more examples than I care to list. I just think it's important that as a man I stroll into a space well-trodden by women and add my own special spin to the proceedings. It even has a name: Trinity Syndrome. Just for a minute though think about how many times Hermione saves Ron and Harry's life while being more or less constantly mocked for knowing things, the very things that save the day over and over again. You could call any of those books Hermione Granger and the Two Easily-Threatened By Competence Boy-Children and not change a single other word of the text.

Look at this chart! How do you argue with charts?

Is this a metaphor? Like the only thing women need is a man's gamete in order to create the miracle of life, but now she's stuck with him and so she should also teach him how to be a functional human? Maybe. It's mostly dudes greenlighting, writing, and directing these movies, though. It's my guess that it's something more sinister. Like, we get it, women. You're better in the workplace. You mature faster. You understand human feeling. But there's just nothing like a man when you really need to get that deal done. The only thing you're missing before this company/family/superhero movie really takes off is a little Y chromosome action. What it really translates into is this: DUDES ARE SO SCARED.

Interestingly enough, Dudes Are So Scared would be a pretty fitting title to Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. This is the third in a series of four books that tells the story of Elena Greco. We've watched her grow up in the poor provincial town of Naples, same old breads and goods to sell, I need six eggs, that's too expensive, etc. She and her friend, Lila, are both exceptional. Lila is a legit genius who, for various reasons, dropped out of school at grade 5 and never strayed far from the neighborhood. Elena, on the other hand, while outmatched in brilliance, makes up for it in determination.

Elena at this point is a published author and her book is starting to take off. Like I've said in past Ferrante books, this one is so real. Here's what I said about My Brilliant Friend,
Elena and Lila learn the history of the people in the neighborhood, tracing back the sources of old feuds and tragedy. They witness new ones. There is no point when Ferrante sugar-coats the experience, she never talks down to her characters as children. Never tries to paint an idyllic childhood. It’s just so impressive. Ferrante must have some kind of memory of childhood the rest of us can’t tap into, to view an entire life so clearly.
Ferrante's glimpse into the human mind is still uncanny and unflinching. For example, Elena is like a lot of us, in that what people say about us can have profound impacts. When her book is reviewed poorly, it sends her into depression. When it's reviewed well, she's briefly elated and then immediately focused back on the negatives. Most big time authors and actors will say that they don't listen to critics. They'll say that it's better to create than critique. They'll claim that their movie actually wasn't made for critics anyway. We all know they are lying. We know, because if it were us, we'd be super pissed. That looks sad and pathetic, so most everyone puts on a brave face.

Elena puts on a brave face, too, but we see past her face. Her internal dialogue (a technique I generally dislike) is so believable, pitch-perfect, and raw, that it's impossible not to get caught up in it.
How can I explain to this woman—I thought—that from the age of six I've been a slave to letters and numbers, that my mood depends on the success of their combinations, that the joy of having done well is rare, unstable, that it lasts an hour, an afternoon, a night?
That sounds like a certain humble blogger who goes through that cycle on a weekly basis. I think this is a good post, I nod, before hitting send. It's definitely a good post, I tell myself as I share it on Facebook. THIS WAS A BAD POST, I tell myself immediately after, fighting an urge to scrub it from the world forever.

*this concludes the portion of the blog post where I inevitably take a book that is about massive institutional and societal issues and make it about me*

I'm burying the lead, though. This series has always been about feminism. About the fear of young girls who catch the eye of older boys and even grown men. About the rigid rules of masculinity. About how even women perpetuate and defend their own bad treatment. In each of these books the absolute fragility of tough guys locked in a prison of their own making is delved into, and the victims are meticulously examined. These men are terrified of women and obsessed with power.

Sweet men become marital rapists and abusers, powerful mobsters become lovesick puppies manipulating dozens in order to impress one, and even well-educated men who claim to espouse equality for all tend to get frightened and attempt to control their wives and girlfriends.
Maybe there's something mistaken in this desire men have to instruct us; I was young at the time, and I didn't realize that in his wish to transform me was proof that he didn't like me as I was, he wanted me to be different, or, rather, he didn't want just a woman, he wanted the woman he imagined he himself would be if he were a woman... I was an opportunity for him to expand into the feminine, to take possession of it: I constituted the proof of his omnipotence, the demonstration that he knew how to be not only a man in the right way but also a woman.
Man, that's some heavy stuff right there. Elena seizes on this thread. The "great" women of literature written by men are actually stories of strong-willed women who eventually cave in to the man's ideal vision of them. Let's look at Joss Whedon. I have been, for some time, a pretty unapologetic fan of Whedon's, and was suckered into the idea that he was so good because he created these tough female characters. And listen, if you're a woman and super inspired by Buffy or River or whatever, that's awesome. Good for you.

But if you're a dude, I think it's worth thinking about this a little harder. Are Whedon's "strong female characters" realistic women, or are they his own fantasy girls that he creates because he wants to go on dates with them? Clearly there's a type here: women who are tiny, with very small arms, who look like perpetual teenagers but can somehow can punch grown men so hard that they fly across a room. Is he writing realistic, fully-formed characters, or are they a man's concoction of how he would be if he were a woman, and therefore his attempt to "teach" women how to be his kind of strong character.

I don't know, honestly. There's something to be said to have the woman be the one with the magic powers and the men around her acting as support. That being said, at this point I think Whedon has enough influence and pull (and money) that he could happily spend the rest of his career as a producer, hiring amazing women directors and screenwriters so they can tell their own stories from the viewpoint of, let's say, an actual woman. How much more impact could he have if instead of supporting and idolizing imaginary women, he promoted the real ones.
I concluded that first of all I had to understand better what I was. Investigate my nature as a woman. I had been excessive, I had striven to give myself male capacities. I thought I had to know everything, be concerned with everything. What did I care about politics, about struggles. I wanted to make a good impression on men, be at their level. At the level of what, of their reason, most unreasonable.
There's a point in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay where Elena starts being confronted about the "dirty" parts of her book. She feels like she needs to defend this as realism, but an editor of hers says that the only reason anyone cares is because a woman wrote those scenes. He points to much more explicit scenes in books written by male authors. Of course later he gets drunk and makes a pass at her, but this explanation sticks with her.

Later, though, she realizes that the reason this scene resonates with women is not because it's tawdry and exciting. It's because it tells their side of the story. The men's portrayals of sex in literature are various forms of male worship. Women throw themselves at the male characters and always always are satisfied. Ferrante's women rarely do and even more rarely are. Women quietly take Elena aside and tell her how refreshing it is to read something akin to their experience. And of course men are uncomfortable with it. It's too intimidating or scary or read about, or try to understand their partners' side of the experience, so instead they insist on the ignorant assumption that they are doing just fine, and brag about it to their male friends.
Leave, instead. Get away for good, far from the life we’ve lived since birth. Settle in well-organized lands where everything really is possible. I had fled, in fact. Only to discover, in the decades to come, that I had been wrong, that it was a chain with larger and larger links: the neighborhood was connected to the city, the city to Italy, Italy to Europe, Europe to the whole planet. And this is how I see it today: it’s not the neighborhood that’s sick, it’s not Naples, it’s the entire earth, it’s the universe, or universes. And shrewdness means hiding and hiding from oneself the true state of things.
This isn't male-bashing (which, of course, because feminism isn't that either), because the women in these books are also deeply flawed. Elena, because we get to hear her every thought, is often petty and jealous. She quietly wishes death on her best friend. This is a villain trait in most books, but when we're reading there's kind of a nod there, because we think terrible things sometimes too. We scold ourselves and think, what a terrible thought. But that doesn't make it not happen. We'd be horrified if anyone could read them. Most authors wouldn't delve this deep for fear of losing the reader's sympathy. Ferrante doesn't give a crap.
Finally, I spoke of the necessity of recounting frankly every human experience, including, I said emphatically, what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves.
It's pretty amazing.

I read these books once a year not because I want to put the one down and immediately pick up the next. It's because I know that it will be over soon and I don't want to rush it. These books are special. I won't forget them ever. They're also kind of exhausting. I think that if I read them all back to back it would take away some of their power. Like Cadbury Creme Eggs, one is delicious, two is pushing it, and four leads to a tummy ache and your boy Howie on a sugar rush where I chase my cats around the house while improvising parody songs about them.