Ladies Night

I’m suddenly reading about architecture.

What happened was, I read two issues of the New Yorker back to back and was struck by two extremely subtle things that suddenly leapt out at me like terrible dark panthers and got me thinking about how weird and quiet and complicated male chauvinism has become in this country.

In Adam Gopnik’s eulogy for J.D. Salinger, he’s talking about how Salinger managed to tap into the way Americans talk, nailing it brilliantly in page after page of wonderful dialogue. Then he starts talking about how “Catcher in the Rye” is timeless–how he recently gave it to his own 12 year old son and the son loved it as much as had the father, 30 years ago. Okay, that’s great! I love that book too, it’s completely mind-blowing, obviously. Then he says:

“In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: ‘Huckleberry Fin,’ ‘The Great Gatsby,’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'”

What he means is that those are three really great books that should be called “classics.” But he claims this status by arguing–or, not even arguing, just POINTING OUT, like it’s self-evident–that these books are somehow universal, that they somehow speak to “every reader and condition.” And I find that amazing. That a group of books in which each protagonist is a young, white man somehow contains all conditions. I’m not harshing on those books, which are all totally genius and beloved by me. And, Gopnik is of course not a jackass; he doesn’t MEAN it like that, really…and yet, that’s the way he thinks. That’s the way we ALL think, basically. He would probably agree that something like “Beloved” or “Invisible Man” should be considered a “classic,” too, that those are similarly Great (with a capital ‘g’) books, but he would never describe them as “speaking to every reader and condition.” Those books speak to the AFRICAN AMERICAN condition, or to the AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN condition, and no other. By reading them, we gain insight into a different condition from our own (“we” being “white men”). They are great because they provide that insight, not because they are universal. Yet somehow freaking “The Great Gatsby” IS universal.

The apparent belief that a young Maya Angelou would read Catcher in the Rye and think “My god, it’s like he’s known me all my life” is pretty depressing.

From there, I went almost directly to this article about architect Jeanne Gang and her new crazy building in Chicago. It’s evidence of something, already, that it took me awhile to realize that “Jeanne Gang” is a woman. I had just read “Jeanne” as French or something, even though even in French that would still be a woman’s name. It would never occur to me that the architect being discussed in the New Yorker architecture section would be a woman. That first feminine pronoun literally shocked me and I went back and started again.

Paul Goldberger loves this lady and her buildings. He praises her for not being “showy,” for designing things that are beautiful AND comfortable. She’s not one of those egomaniac architects–she has “no interest in establishing a look that marks her buildings as hers.” Faint praise indeed–and would a Gehry or Lloyd Wright ever be described as BAD because they mark their buildings too much as theirs? I honestly don’t know. Maybe that is a common criticism of those guys. But from what I have read/heard of them, it’s the very outlandish uniqueness of their styles that make them such hot-shots. Imagine saying “Oh, this building is so great, you can’t even tell that Frank Lloyd Wright designed it!” What?

He also pushes continually the assertion that Gang is so great because she totally identifies with each client, designing something totally just for THEM, for THEIR NEEDS, not just to make her own art or put her stamp on a building or whatever. Her work is great in some ways because she HAS no personal style; her work is totally geared toward the desires of the client. And again, obviously these are good traits for an architect to have, but it’s hard to imagine a male architect being described this way—or, if he were described this way, I could even imagine it being an insult. Oh, he has no personal style, he’s all over the place, he’s passive, he just does whatever the client wants, he has no powerful VISION of his own. But for a woman, it is a good thing to be ruled by the desire to please somebody else.

He begins the article by saying her new building in Chicago is “the tallest building in the world designed by a woman,” and then says that that is a stupid observation and beside the point. So at first I was like “maybe this article will be awesome!” But then he goes on to talk almost exclusively about “female” architects–what they are all like, and how Gang is better than some more famous female architects because those female architects are too showy, and how there are all these other lady architects you never hear about but who are great because they just make comfortable, reasonable buildings. So it turns out, he thinks the whole “tallest lady’s building in the world” is stupid only because it draws your mind to the tired cliché about how skyscrapers are phallic symbols and all the dudes are trying to build a bigger one. Yes, her gender is the primary thing defining her and that is all the article is going to be about, but let’s not trot out that tired cliché about phallic symbols! Very confusing.

It got me thinking about this conversation I had with my adviser one time, about Schoenberg. And she was like, “it’s all about fear of women,” and I was like “HUH?” But she explained. Turn-of-the-century dudes were terrified by the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement (please read Andreas Huyssen’s now-legendary article “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other” for a much more extensive exploration of this topic). And from this era you get all the horrible modern shit that is all about purging beauty and comfort from the world. Modern architecture, all glass and points and metal and gray and brutal angles. Modern furniture, basically unusably uncomfortable. Turning the DOMESTIC SPACE, traditionally a space where woman is King, so to speak, into an uncomfortable, hard place purged of curves and pillows and things that are nice. Atonal music, 12-tone music, purging “the beautiful” from music and turning it into a rational, mental, mathematical exercise. There is this sense in which it is all an attempt to get away from things traditionally perceived as “feminine”–beautiful, emotional, comfortable/comforting. Indeed, in early musicology you see this fear writ large–those guys wouldn’t even let Ruth Crawford Seeger into the ROOM with them while they were planning their new discipline and forming their scholarly society (the New York Musicological Society). Here are some cool quotes from a biography of Ruth Crawford Seeger (amazing musician and forcibly-amateur (they wouldn’t let her join their club) musicologist, wife of Charles, important early American composer and musicologist, father of Pete):

“For Seeger it was out of the question that Crawford be invited to join, or even be allowed in the room when the second meeting took place on February 22, 1930…Crucial to Seeger’s ambitions was that the society ‘not be confused with a Women’s Club,’ ‘because only women’s clubs talked about music in the United States at that time, and we wanted to make it perfectly clear that we were men, and that we had to talk about music and women weren’t in on it.'”

“Charles allowed Ruth to sit outside the doors that he agreed to leave ajar so that she could listen without technically being in the room.”

“When Crawford arrived at her station, she found the door shut tight.”

Ruth: “I turn my head toward the closed door and quietly but forcibly say, ‘Damn you,’ then go in my room and read Yasser’s article. Later, my chair close to the door, I hear some of the discussion.”

They later let her join the society as a “guest” rather than a “member.”

Such terror of women! DON’T LET THEM SAY STUFF ABOUT MUSIC, OMG, WHAT IF THEY SAY SOMETHING GIRLY AND WE ARE ALL DISCREDITED. In early musicology there is this hysteria about turning the study of music into a science, into something you can analyze on paper, not just a bunch of sounds that make you feel stuff. They wanted to approach the study of music with EMPIRICISM. They were very careful to purge women, female composers, and any discussion of what is “beautiful” (unless it could be backed up with scientific evidence) from the pages of their early journals. This is where you get those crazy Schenker diagrams that “prove” why Beethoven is so great, using graphs. Then anything that doesn’t conform to that same graph must be crappier than Beethoven. That’s science!

Music is always problematic, because you can’t touch it or put it in a box, and it plays on your emotions in a way people have always struggled with, for literally thousands of years. PLATO struggles with it. There’s something insidiously sensual about music, and even the people who love it have often been troubled by what exactly it’s DOING to you. Can it actually change you in some fundamental way, omg can it emasculate you? (Plato: “Big time! Kings shouldn’t listen to dithyrambs because then they won’t be able to win wars!!!!”) So in the early part of the 20th century they’ve tried to contain it in various ways, explain it into a rigorously empirical category, etc. Also, since the 1800’s music was appreciated specifically when it managed to somehow be “masculine” (also tied into the rise of German nationalism but lets not go there).

I just deleted a whole huge thing about Schubert. I realize I am getting extremely side-tracked from my original point. luckily this is a blog and not my dissertation, so F off

ANYWAY since the late 1800’s, there had been this fear of being seduced by alternatives to normative (aka “dominating,” “teleological,” perhaps even “violent”) masculinity. You see it with reception of Wagner’s music, even. People were afraid he would turn them gay (extreme simplification). His music manifests this weird different way of being super super sexy and sensual that uptight people were very uncomfortable with. Where are his triumphant authentic cadences? Oh god, the chords are slipping around all over the place, I can’t even tell where the tonic is anymore, it’s like he’s raping my ear with his penis made of music (literally an image from a contemporary rude cartoon (okay, except he’s not using his penis, he’s using a hammer to drive a huge nail into someone’s ear)).

So anyway, all this is to say that woman gets even more aligned with terms like “comfort” and “beauty” than she already was (as per my “History of Woman” entry a few entries back), because now that binary enters the world of art and design, because WOMEN are entering the world of art and design. So the stuff that is “natural” to woman gets mapped onto the art she makes. Now (turn-of-the-century now, I mean) art made by women, when it’s GOOD, is soft and pretty and nice. And when it’s BAD, it’s strong or dark or violent. Great early example: Wuthering Heights. Published under a male pseudonym and beloved of male critics who praised its “virility” and “masculine outlook” and its totally dark and violent atmosphere of sexual terror. Then poor Anne accidentally spilled the beans about how they were all actually women, the Brontë sisters, and total pandemonium ensued. All those critics who loved Wuthering Heights so much either backtracked, now pointing out how weak and flawed and unbelievable the male characters were, OR THEY REFUSED TO BELIEVE EMILY WAS A WOMAN. “No woman could write such a book,” was basically their argument. Some of them weakly advanced the theory that the Brontë’s useless brother (Bramford?), known primarily for getting wasted every night at the pub until Emily came to get him and carry him home over her shoulder (LITERALLY), had actually written Wuthering Heights. Imagine! And of course Emily is just like “whatever.” She’s wearing her boots and shooting her gun and tromping around with her cool dog and refusing to get married, she doesn’t give a shit. But anyway, I’m getting sidetracked into my deep personal love of Emily Brontë.
Now (actual now) this binary has gotten weird. So sometimes you’ll see women praised for NOT being feminine. Her work, oh, it’s so strong and virile, you can’t even tell a woman made it. It’s gotten complicated because now lots of times we don’t connect the adjectives with the gender stereotypes that spawned them, but we still perceive “strong” or “dark” or “violent” as “good,” and “soft” or “pretty” or “merely pretty” as “less good.”

Or then it gets more complicated still, with articles like this one on Jeanne Gang. She’s a female architect, which is crazy because there are hardly any! And you’ve never heard of her, because she’s not as “showy” as these other more famous female architects who want to make showy buildings instead of comfortable buildings (and that’s bad, but only when you’re a woman). Gang makes things that are beautiful and comfortable, rather than showy and eye-catching or revolutionary.

And the article is totally strong praise, and it’s not about “disagreeing” that her buildings aren’t comfortable, or that that isn’t a good thing. But it’s when you compare the terms that new shit comes to light. I have read all the architecture columns in the New Yorker for years and I can’t recall a male architect being praised for sublimating his own artistic vision into the will of the client, or being praised for making stuff that isn’t showy but is very nice and comfy.
It’s like what my old man was telling me about the two starkly different ways black and white football quarterbacks are described by sports commentators. Good white quarterbacks are praised for being “intellectual,” for having a real firm mental grasp of the field and of strategy, etc. etc., while good black quarterbacks are praised for having good instincts–for not HAVING to think, because they just FEEL it, where the ball should go (or whatever; my grasp of who does what on a football team is slim at best. I think the quarterback throws the ball, but I could be wrong). He says once you start noticing it it becomes completely shocking. He says you can tell what race of quarterback the commentator is describing, just from the way they describe his abilities on the field. And again, these are all IN PRAISE of these guys. These guys are all great quarterbacks! It’s not about saying “I hate black people and black quarterbacks are terrible.” Which is what a lot of people will accuse you of accusing, when they don’t want to acknowledge that something is racist/sexist/whatever. It’s like the whole “but when I say Asians are all good at math, that’s a COMPLIMENT, so how could it be racist!” thing.

Anyway, it got me thinking about Julia Morgan, the first female to be allowed into the École des Beaux-Arts. Morgan went on to build over 700 buildings in California, including the crazy bell-tower at UC Berkeley and the Hearst Castle. So, she’s working in America in the 30’s and 40’s, mainly, and here are some of the things people said at the time, about her work (which I found in article about architecture on j-stor that I have since lost, which is really bad scholarship on my part, but again, this is a blog and not my dissertation):

One person called the bell tower “quaint and picturesque.” Somebody else praised the tower for coming from “the genius of a woman’s brain” but went on to describe that genius as the combination of “instinct with her creative spirit” (rather than of years of training at a fancy institution (a.k.a. Immanuel Kant: women have feelings and men have thoughts)). And, here we go, that same person commended Morgan for her “noblest self-sacrifice and whole-hearted devotion.”

We’ve come a long way, baby, but not so long after all, when you get down to it.

So anyway, whatever.

This entry was posted in Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ladies Night

  1. chancel says:

    1. this whole “becoming a professor” thing is pretty awesome. 2. way too much to say about gender issues, so let me condense: insidious and consistent!
    (incidentally: branwell.)

  2. jemini says:

    I read that and thought OMG ADAM GOPNIK.
    It’s like he might of well wrote that this song:
    speaks for the condition of all people.
    I was also a little shocked he said huck finn in stead of portnoys complaint. Go for the post war white boy problems trifecta.

  3. Chioke says:

    My friend forwarded the link to this, and I thought it was AMAZING! You are a really great writer. For a woman.
    (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)
    Looking forward to following this blog.

Leave a Reply to chancel Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *