Tuesday, July 5, 2011

James Howard Kunstler swims against the stream on gender role equality, too


A couple of days ago, I wrote this conclusion to my post about Kunstler's skepticism about marriage equality.
I already have my plate full with completing the sustainability linkspams and at least two more posts about Kunstler swimming against the tide, including even more gender fail.
That's right. Kunstler's skepticism about marriage equality was not the only gender equality fail in Man Down, as he defended his depiction of gender roles in his fiction in the very next next paragraph.
I had an interesting experience with my last two books (World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron), which were set in a post-oil, post economic collapse American future and depicted daily life in a way that was quite unlike the way we live right now. I received a heap of criticism from female readers - including peak oil activists - full of consternation that I did not present female characters in the kinds of dominant valorized roles that are favored today: the post-oil equivalent of CEO, news anchor, CIA-Ninja warrior, Presidential candidate. What struck me was their complete failure of imagination. They could not conceive of male / female relations that were different than today's, even in a world that had been turned economically upside down.
I had something to say about that paragraph, too.
By the way, was one of the people who objected to your protrayal of women your neighbor up on the hill, Elaine Meinel Supkis?* I know she thinks you got it wrong about dogs in the "World Made by Hand" and I agree with her.
At least here he wasn't advocating against women's rights, and he did have the out of his portrayal of women's roles being the result of pondering Heinlein's three science fiction plot premises--what if, if only, and if this goes on. I know citing Heinlein in and of itself can be problematic in a discussion of gender roles, as the following snippet from a blog on Feminist SF demonstrates.
- singularities that are hard starts (?) ie a sudden jump or shift (this is what I (liz) keep asking for)
- ecological disasters. Peak oil. plastics.
- what are the 3 sf plots – what if, if only, if this goes on
- For god’s sake in this conversation can we avoid 2 things, heinlein and pratchett hahaha
Yes, Heinlein's women mostly aren't real women, but neither are his men. Both of them are male fantasies of men and women. That doesn't make his questions bad; I think they're good questions. It just makes his views about gender suspect.

As far as Kunstler's depiction of women is concerned, I haven't read enough of his fiction to make a judgment, only the Vacation Special -- Excerpt from "The Witch of Hebron" he published on his blog last year. Even so, I can guess that he is not only putting women back in traditional gender roles, but not portraying this as an evil, oppressive thing. After all, he'd have a hard time making circumstances worse for women than in, say, Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" or Heinlein's "Revolt in 2100". The difference is that Atwood saw the state of affairs as bad for women and Heinlein saw it as bad for everyone, and both empowered their characters to subvert, escape, or overthrow the established order in the books and set things right. I'm pretty sure that Kunstler does none of that. Based on what I know of Kunstler, he probably thinks the post-peak-oil world is a good thing that people don't appreciate. Also, from what I gather from this review in the Los Angeles Times, whatever struggles women have, other than mere survival, may just be invisible. You find a female character in this review. I can't.

That written, I'll have to read both of his works of fiction about a post-peak-oil world to make sure. When I do, I'll get back to you on how he treats gender roles. If it ends up that I'm putting money in the pocket of a misogynist, so be it. It's the least I can do for all the great blogging he's given me and will continue to give to me in the future.

Just the same, in context, his defense of his portrayal of women still looks like a fail to me. After all, the preceding two paragraphs were about the unforseen consequences of allowing same-sex marriage. He might be right, and not in ways that make him look good. As Linda Hershman on Slate points out, the marketing of same-sex marriage as marriage equality may be more truth in advertising than even its proponents expect.
When the state legislature passed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the law authorizing same-sex marriage in New York late Friday night, the number of Americans who will be able to marry same-sex partners doubled. New York is the first state to legalize same sex marriage after a dry spell following Maine's repeal of its marriage law a year and a half ago. Maybe for lesbian and gay people, It Gets Better after all.

And they're not the only ones. To paraphrase the great gay songwriter Stephen Sondheim: Straight women, rise! As same-sex couples marry, things get better for us, too. Remember the scary (and since-discredited) stories about how a woman is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a husband after she turns 40? Or the one about how suitors are fleeing from Maureen Dowd because they're afraid of her Pulitzer Prize? The poll showing evangelical women in patriarchal marriages are happier than Sarah Jessica Parker? Well, same-sex marriage shows that people can make long-term, loving, sexual bonds with each other even where neither is naturally inclined to tell the other what to do. Or to be the natural homemaker or the hunter-gatherer. Same-sex marriage represents the possibility that marriage can be an equal deal after all—or at least one where inequality is not locked in at birth. The conservatives are right: Same-sex marriage will change opposite-sex marriage. And it's a good thing, too.

The people fighting same-sex marriage know this. They've been fighting some variation of the battle against marriage equality—for women—probably since the early Christians argued for the equality of women's souls.
After reading that article, I'm even more in favor of same-sex marriage, and I'm a straight guy!

Also, the rest of his essay was about the failure of American manhood. That context alone was enough to make his protrayal of women look bad. The kicker, though, was the very next paragraph after the first one I quoted at the start of the essay.
However, this was not inconsistent with the failure of American men to know how to act like men in this anxious moment of history. The choices are pretty unappetizing: be a jobless loser in a "Pray for Death" T-shirt with neck and knuckle tattoos, or a loser in a corporate cubicle, or a loser in that Nevada drone-control bunker, or a loser in the eyes of the family court, or a loser on cable TV. Tom Ball, the man who set himself on fire in Keene, New Hampshire recommended something that sounded a lot like violent revolution, though his tone was eerily measured for someone about to commit the most desperate personally public act. I hope we don't have to go through a convulsion in this land to find out what it means to be a man.
Remember the three questions--what if, if only, and if this goes on? When I read Kunstler's books, I'll not only keep his treatment of women in mind, I'll also keep those questions in mind. I suspect Kunstler thinks his books are trying to answer "if this goes on" and "what if?" in that order, but his portrayal of gender roles may have more than a dash of "if only." Now I really have to read his books. However, Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine", Karl Weber's "Food, Inc.," and Raj Patel's "Stuffed and Starved" will probably come first. Priorities, priorities.

* Elaine Meinel Supkis blogs on Culture of Life News. I reviewed her old blog on my LiveJournal. She is another great example of a blogger swimming against the tide who deserves her own post, and I'll have to review her new blog later this month. Yes, my plate continues to fill up.

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