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We went to the Musée d’Art Moderne with the express purpose of seeing a mural called “The Electricity Fairy” by Raoul Dufy. Joy’s discovery of this mural’s existence was an occasion for amazement, since she loves Dufy and, well, electricity is her career and her passion. So off we went to the museum, only to discover that the mural is not available for viewing.

One silver lining to this disappointment was that, as I wandered the permanent collection looking for the mural, I came across this painting by Anton Räderscheidt, a German artist who lived 1892-1970.

raderscheidt

 I looked at the face of the artist and the face on his drawing and said to myself, “It’s going to be called ‘Self-Portrait.'” And it is! He painted it in 1928.
Genderqueer? Surrealist? Both? Other? Whatever, I wanted to share it with all my gender nonconforming dear ones. And Räderscheidt joins the growing list of Artists I Need to Learn More About.
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Nudged by the death of Leonard Nimoy, and the public appreciations that followed, to introduce Munchkin at last to the original Star Trek, I sat down with her last night to watch The Trouble with Tribbles. She liked tribbles, as we predicted; she thought it was funny; it was a good choice. But, she asked, looking at the actors, “why are they almost all guys?”

I stammered a bit before arriving at the obvious correct answer: because the makers of the show were sexist. When they thought of exciting things like space exploration, their imaginations weren’t up to conceiving of anyone except men carrying them out. It was jarring to see it through her eyes. I’m used to thinking of Star Trek as groundbreaking, and maybe it was even in this respect; the women on the Enterprise had jobs, after all, in space no less, even if they were the well-worn options of secretary (Lt. Uhura), nurse (Nurse Chapel), and, hm, what is a yeoman (Yeoman Rand)? Captain’s P.A.? That makes it a striking, and surely deliberate, departure from Lost in Space, in which the wife and daughters are . . . a wife and daughters. I guess someone has to dust the controls and look pretty.

I didn’t want to make excuses for Star Trek, but in the interests of teaching her some history, I told the munchkin that the show was a leap forward. What chiefly struck me, though, was how far we’ve come since 1968, which is, coincidentally, the span of in my lifetime. There is still plenty of tokenism in entertainment and it bugs me a lot, as I’ve written on this blog before. But an eight-year-old girl in 2015 noticed easily what was invisible even to a pioneer like Gene Roddenberry fewer than 50 years earlier, and that’s cause for gratitude and hope. Also, for this mama, pride.

About once a year I do a Question Box service, when in lieu of the sermon I answer as many questions as I can from among those people have written down earlier in the service. It being impossible to get to all of them in the space of 20 minutes, I promised this year to take them up gradually in such forums as newsletter columns and blogs. This one is in reference to the benediction our choir sings most weeks,

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his/her hand. (The choir alternates, one week singing “her,” the next singing “his.”)

The questioner asked: “Does God have a gender?” Here’s my response, which I also published in the forthcoming edition of our newsletter.

I love this question! In fact, I’ve given this a lot of thought for years. In a Feminist Theology class at Syracuse, we read pieces arguing that in imagining God as male, men—who had shaped most of Jewish and Christian tradition—were creating God in their own image and then worshiping themselves. In other words, committing idolatry.

I agreed with these theo/alogians (if God might be female, then the area of study might better be called thealogy) but thought they needed to go further. I didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic god at all (as you’ll hear in today’s sermon), and I wrote a paper called something like “Anthropomorphism and Idolatry” arguing that describing the divine exclusively in human images was as idolatrous as describing it exclusively in male images. After all, if God created everything, surely it would be a wild coincidence for us to be the one and only creature who resembles the Creator. It’s self-serving and arrogant to assume that’s true.

So, no, God does not have a gender. As feminist theology points out, does God have genitals? Chromosomes? A beard? Of course the answer must be no. It’s a metaphor, and when we start to take it literally, we end up worshiping maleness, and we’ve seen where that leads: misogyny.

And no, God is not a human being. As I pointed out in my long-ago essay, does God have blood? a brain? two arms, two legs? Of course the answer must be no. When we take this metaphor literally, we end up worshiping humanness, and that leads to our despising the rest of nature and destroying the environment.

This doesn’t mean that these images should be tossed aside. The fact is, we humans think in images and metaphors, especially when it comes to great abstractions such as love, peace, and God. Whatever the holy is—power, goodness, creativity—it is beyond simple understanding and beyond anything to which it might be likened. And yet, metaphors help us express what we mean. When people imagine the holy as something that creates life, they may imagine a sculptor working in clay (as in one of the Genesis stories, and many other religions’ creation stories) or a woman giving birth (as in Babylonian religion and others). Neither makes sense literally, but they’re good metaphors for the power of creation. When the choir sings, “May God hold you in the palm of her [or his] hand,” what they are saying doesn’t make sense literally, but it is a good metaphor for this wish: as you move through a life that is often hazardous, we hope that some of the great forces of the universe will carry you safely through.

Because I think metaphors are a necessary aspect of human thought (if I wasn’t convinced already, one of George Lakoff’s early books, Metaphors We Live By, with Mark Johnson,sealed it), I think the remedy to their limitations is not to shun them but to use a wide variety of them. This helps prevent us from taking any of them literally, or limiting our understanding to just a couple of characteristics of, in this case, God, or as I prefer to say, the holy. Maybe the holy is like water; this is a frequent image for the Tao, flexible and ever-changing and powerful. And/or, maybe it’s like a crucible, in which the unimportant aspects of our lives are burned away. And/or, maybe it’s like a healer, curing the illnesses of the soul, the body, even the planet. And/or, maybe it’s like a flower, growing where we tend it and needing our care to flourish. If we have enough of these different metaphors in the mix, then we can safely throw in some human ones too: male, female, and neither.

What metaphors express what you believe is holy?

Blessings,

Amy

 

My daughter the munchkin, age three, has begun to sort out the world into boys and girls. “I a girl,” she explains, and asks other people, “Are you a girl?” We do let her know that there are people who don’t fall into either category, but as everyone who’s been asked so far has responded as expected, she might not grasp that concept yet. She is starting to assign her stuffed animals fixed sexes. We ask her sometimes about one or another of them, and get answers that are charmingly clueless about the linguistic implications:

“What’s Doggie?”
“He’s a girl.”

(She has also been known to tell us that she has a husband and that “She’s”–the husband’s–“sick. She has to go to the doctor.”)

You can almost see her drawing conclusions about all the possibilities open to her as she watches movies and notices that Coraline of Coraline* is a girl, as is Violet of The Incredibles–both with blue hair, so that she has already declared the intention to have blue hair too; I think she sees it as a badge of big-girlhood. And we pay attention to what she watches, trying to ensure that what she’s seeing doesn’t narrow down her world while it should be opening it up. Coraline and Violet are smart, brave, and eminently capable. The princess model is everywhere–to Munchkin, the basic requirements, and benefits, are that you have long hair and wear swirly dresses–but she doesn’t balk when I tell her a story about her taking a hot air balloon to a castle in the clouds and being shown around by, not the Princess, but the President. (I specified that the President had long hair. I didn’t comment on what she was wearing, and the munchkin didn’t ask.)

Things have definitely improved in the media since the days of Bambi and Winnie the Pooh, in which the only female characters are introduced in order to be someone’s mother or girlfriend. Not wanting to deprive her of the classics nor give her the message that the world is populated entirely by boys and men, with books I freely change the pronouns sometimes. It’s quite easy to turn Pooh and Piglet into girls if you just pay attention as you read aloud. But you can’t do this with movies, and I’m dismayed to observe that Hollywood is stuck at the tokenism stage.

Here are several movies we’ve watched recently, all of which I’ve enjoyed very much, but that collectively tell my daughter, who loves them too, that she lives in a world where almost everything interesting is done by the boys and the men.

Madagascar: Four main characters. So what do you figure the breakdown is–two male, two female? Nope. Three female, one male? Don’t make me laugh. Naturally, one is female and the other three are male. Gloria the Hippo is also the least important of the four, the sidekick’s sidekick. All of the other major players–the penguins, the lemurs–are male. I’m not sure about the bush baby.

Madagascar Escape 2 Africa: Gloria the hippo gets a plotline! Naturally, it’s about her love life.

Monsters, Inc.: Great movie! And the little kid is a little girl! She’s supercute, too, and brave. Plus, as in Madagascar II, a small juicy part goes to a woman. But the characters we spend the most time with are all male. (It’s a kind of buddy movie, and one of moviedom’s rules is that two women can’t be buddies, at least not without committing suicide by the closing credits.)

Shrek: Another buddy movie, another pack of writers who seem to think that if you create one spunky female character, you’re done paying attention to girls and women. My daughter loves this movie. How I wish I could show her a version where the hero is a girl. Or the hero’s sidekick is a girl. Or half the minor characters are girls.

Robots: Male robot (not sure how that works) goes off to land of male robot hero to redeem male robot dad, teams up with male robot friend, defeats male robot villain. This one has a slightly larger sprinkling of female characters than the above, but the central story is once again about one-half of the, um, species.

Ratatouille: Has a great female character, Colette. She really holds her own–which she has to do, because every other named character is male. Naturally, her main role is Love Interest.

The Incredibles (or, as Munchkin calls it without intentional humor, The ‘Credibles): This one actually has four significant female characters (and a black one! Hallelujah!), and everyone in the family regardless of sex has superpowers, but I’m putting it on the poop list for two reasons: Although Mom and Dad are both superheroes, the story isn’t Elastagirl’s, it’s Mr. Incredible’s. (Of course she becomes Mrs. Incredible when she gets married.) And when they have three kids, of course two are boys and one is a girl, because the rule is that the girls may never, ever outnumber the boys, except in the real world we’re all actually trying to live in.

None of these would ring alarm bells on its own, but looked at as a trend, they make a depressing one. Who is making these movies? As young as they are–as much as they grew up in a world where women weren’t just nurses, secretaries, moms and girlfriends–they seem to bring to writing and directing a worldview no different than the male writers a generation or more older, like Ray Bradbury or J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom I also adore, but who write about worlds almost exclusively male. (Don’t tell me about Eowyn. I’ve read the book and I know all about Eowyn. And about Arwen, Galadriel, Goldberry, Sam’s girlfriend Rosie, and Shelob. There you have it, the complete list of named female characters in a book of 1400 pages. It takes even less time to list the ones in The Hobbit, since there are none whatsoever.)

Does no one in the entire production process look at the cast list and say “There’s something odd about this picture”? Do any of them imagine watching it with their daughters? I wish that before the script moves on past its first draft or casting begins, everyone involved would consider whether it would pass the Bechdel test: the story has two named female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man. It doesn’t sound like that onerous a requirement, but it would be a huge leap forward.

Our little girl is just becoming aware of the fact that she is a girl, and as she sorts out what that might mean, the message she gets from almost all of the movies we show her–when they don’t just stare past her as if she doesn’t exist–is that it means her role in life is Minor, or at best Secondary, Character. I feel as if we are doing her a terrible disservice.

*A movie that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, and more

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