Wednesday, November 05, 2008

An Unconventional Reaction

Okay, let's get the smaller one out of the way: Tamar, by Mal Peet, is a young adult book (nominally) about operatives in the Dutch resistance in World War II, but it's not coming together for me. I think the reason is that the driving mystery or plotline of the story is in an envelope story about the granddaughter of one of the operatives, living in London in the 90s, but that plotline does not get a lot of pages or a lot of time to drive. It's not tied in with the historical part yet (I'm halfway done).

Also, I think that the "big reveal" that we're building up to is something that I called in the first 20 pages, and if so, there's really no driving force at all. The story of the resistance is interesting, but it doesn't have the force needed to drive the book--that's really been invested in the personal story, which I've already figured out. I won't spoil it, but I will say that the exclusive use of code names in the Netherlands led me straight to my prediction, and it's unfolding, gradually, exactly as I expected. I can even see, now how it's going to come together. But I'm going to read another 200 pages to find it out. If I can finish it in the 4 days I still have it from the library.

But I'm really here to talk about Sandra Lipsitz Bem's An Unconventional Family, which bugged me a lot from the beginning, bugged me a little throughout, and then irritated me at the end. And it's hard for me to articulate why and how, partly because of the feminist message, and partly because I agree with so much of what she does, but I really don't like the way she says it.

Part of the problem is that the woman is an academic, not a writer. She writes what comes out as a very readable academic book, not even a popular academic book. She announces what she's going to talk about and then uses a colon before she starts talking about it, resulting in phrases like, "The reason for this is as follows:..." She talks about her family life, her relationship with her husband, her feelings for her children, in the incredibly clinical language you find in social psychology articles (and I know from social psychology, let me tell you) and feminist texts. This is a turnoff--if I wanted to read about her academic, feminist-psychlogical theories about family, I'm sure there's a tome I could read somewhere.

What bugged me at first was her description of how special and wonderful she and her husband were for deciding to trade off making dinner every other night, do chores like roommates instead of "husband and wife" with the attendant gendered expectations. This sounds like the basis of all my friends' marriages, so it's not that exciting an innovation to me. When they developed this revolutionary plan, though, it was 1965, and I'm sure it seemed crazy and idealistic. But the problem is, the author (writing in 1998), does not acknowledge this, doesn't try to build an image of the context for this being an exciting plan, doesn't try to compare it to a typical marriage of the time, or to compare that with a more typical marriage of today. Basically, she ignores any context that her younger reader might bring to her story, and any emotional analysis someone might do based on that.

So that was really annoying me at first--a combination of, "He cooks dinner? How special for you," and, "Yeah, I bet that was CRAZY at the time, right? Right? Anyone?" Then, I got into the book, and tried to bring my own historical context, and it got a little better. She talked about the struggles of matching two academic careers, which is still difficult and which isn't something that I can bring personal experience to, and I found that more interesting.

And then she started talking about parenting, which was nutty. Their goal was to raise children who were not gendered; who understood sex as solely a physical definition--a penis makes a boy, a vagina makes a girl, and besides that, you can't tell which is which, really. This made me think about where the idea of the transgendered comes in, especially since another of their goals was for the children to have no idea that heterosexuality was more "normal" than homosexuality.

Two problems with this stuff--one is that her strategy involved keeping the very fact that these ideas exist from the children. It was never explained to them that other people think differently, or that their friends' parents would disagree with theirs, or that they might get picked on for doing certain things at school (which they then did). The second problem is that, in the interviews toward the end of the book with her now-college-aged children, they come of as irritating, self-satisfied prigs who are amused by the rest of the world, including their friends either struggling with or having opinions about gender. They're really smug and talk like little professors. Ick.

I think the parenting part is the most interesting section of the book, because it's the most unusual and actually revolutionary strategy they use. The egalitarian partnership just looks modern--the parenting is entertainingly bizarre. And I'm glad I read this book, because I did a huge amount of thinking, and I had a very emotional response to it. But I can't say that Sandra Bem has talked me into anything, at all. Sometimes, though, these are the most satisfying ones to read.

1 comment:

Helen said...

Sandra Bem teaches here in Ithaca, and one of my friends at school dated her daughter for quite some time before I met him- I don't know her personally, but she certainly sounded unique... Small world!

So, are you off having a baby??? Let me know when you have news! Thinking of you!!