Female Agency and Pop Culture, Entry One – Prince of Egypt

I have been dwelling on female agency in pop culture.

What do I mean by female agency? It is simple. Agency is when a character takes an active part in their story. I don’t mean that they control everything that happens; just that they make decisions and take action; they aren’t just swept up into whatever the fates or the other characters have in store. And obviously by female, I mean characters who are women.

I was going to do a single post where I covered a bunch of things we watch, with and without Zoe. (Who am I kidding? We watch nothing without Zoe because she never sleeps!) But there was too much. So I’m going to do a series of things, which may never end because we keep watching movies and TV around here.

And I’m going to start with Prince of Egypt, because it’s Passover, and because I love what this movie, and what the Exodus story, does with female agency.

It’s complicated because I feel compelled to address both the movie and the Biblical text, and while I think this movie does one helluva job representing the Biblical text authentically, that doesn’t mean every detail transfers.

So let’s take them separately, and let’s start with the Biblical text.

There’s a story in the beginning of the Exodus story that rarely gets a mention (something my awesome friend Leah is trying to correct). Before Pharaoh orders his soldiers to go in to Goshen, the Hebrew slave area, and kill all the male babies, he orders the midwives Shifrah and Puah, who are either Hebrew themselves or simply serve the Hebrew population, to kill the male babies as they come out and then just tell the mothers they were stillborn or whatever. Shifrah and Puah do not do this thing. When the Pharaoh notices they are not doing this thing, they play on his prejudices, claiming the women give birth so fast, like animals in the field, they don’t even have time to get there in order to kill the babies. The Pharaoh is apparently too stupid to wonder why Shifrah and Puah have jobs in the first place.

This story is about two powerless people defying Pharaoh as best they can in the circumstances, and it sets up a longer story about how to have agency as a person when you have little political, military, or social power. That’s the story of Exodus, and it’s really the story of the whole of the Torah. Think about Jacob stealing a birthright, about Joseph climbing out of slavery to help rule Egypt. About some random shepherd named Abraham fathering three religions. And Shifrah and Puah, and Yocheved and Miriam and even Tzipporah, and of course Moses, all finding agency where power is limited. Seriously, guys, believe in God, don’t believe in God, do whatever you want – but the Bible has some awesome stuff in it.

The next time women act with agency despite lack of power, pulling the wool over Pharaoh’s eyes, is also usually sort of glided over, if not omitted like the midwives. Here’s what the Bible claims happens: Yocheved, in defiance of Pharaoh, puts her baby in a basket and sends it down the Nile, and sends her daughter Miriam to watch over the basket. Miriam sees the Pharaoh’s daughter (who is usually his wife in movie depictions) pick up the baby and offers her mother up as wet nurse, to which the Pharaoh’s daughter agrees.

Can I get a “Yeah, right?” Yeah, right, the princess bought that the little Hebrew girl hanging around the little Hebrew baby boy she just picked up – at the time when her father has ordered his soldiers to kill Hebrew baby boys – just happened to have a mother who could serve as wet nurse right now, and that all this was a coincidence? Do we think maybe it went down more like this? “Hey, princess, who I happen to work for – can you take in my baby brother your dad doesn’t kill him? And use my mom as his nurse so that she doesn’t have to leave her baby?” “Yeah, sure.” “Okay, but how will you explain the new baby to your dad?” “Oh, you know. It’s one more baby in his harem. He’s not even going to notice. If he does, I’ll say I pulled him from the river and he was a gift from the gods.” “Cool.”

Even if it did happen more or less the way the Bible says it did, there would still be the knowledge between all three of them that the baby was really Yocheved’s and the princess was helping hide a Hebrew baby boy from her murderous father. A little conspiracy, know what I’m saying?

In the Biblical text, there is also this weird thing with Tzipporah and circumcision that I don’t really understand but it seems like she’s taking charge of something?

And then Miriam grows up to be instrumental in leading the Israelites through the desert. She’s part of the leadership, she’s a prophetess, all that stuff.

So women in the Biblical story of Exodus have all kinds of agency.

What about Prince of Egypt?

Yup. By the bucket.

They gloss over some stuff. Like, we never get to the desert, so instead of Miriam having a leadership role there, we see how instrumental she is in telling Moses who he is, in pushing him to be the leader of the Hebrew people, in shoring up and supporting his position once he comes back, and, in the wake of the death toll among Egyptian children, which crushes Moses because it kills a kid he’d have liked to consider his nephew (The most brilliant thing PoE does is the relationship between Moses and his adoptive brother Ramses. I’d write more about it but it’s off topic and also I’ll start crying, no joke.), it’s Miriam who turns it into a hopeful and happy movement with song and guidance.

And obviously we don’t get the Tzipporah/circumcision story because it’s one of the ones in the Hebrew Bible where you get the feeling that, when people sat down to write down the oral traditions, they stuck some stuff in there that even they didn’t understand, but which had been passed down enough that they felt compelled to stick it in there. It really makes no sense and I don’t know that any movie tries to deal with it. But Tzipporah is very much the sassy pants in the mold of late-’90s animated heroines (think Esmeralda in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Megara in Disney’s Hercules). We first meet her as a ‘gift’ for the princes. She spits at them, fights them, and escapes them (though Moses helps her out at the end there, a little). Then we run into her again in Midian and she pushes Moses in a well and sasses at him and dances with the sexy hips and argues with her father and all the rest. And she’s by his side the whole time in Egypt, supporting and pushing and helping.

And of course Yocheved starts the whole thing by sending Moses down the river. In PoE, she is very specific (and tuneful) about her hope that this action will lead to Moses delivering the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt.

The princess who pulls him out of the water knows he’s Hebrew, although the movie is subtle about it. She just sends quelling glances to her servants. There’s no conversation with Miriam and no Yocheved as nurse, so there’s no conspiracy. She’s more your typical mom character in any movie. Still, she knows what her husband ordered, and she knows she’s defying that order by raising a Hebrew slave under his nose, as his own son.

So, yes, Moses is the titular character. But it’s very clear in this movie that his leadership is supported, even created, by women. Lots of agency. Happy Ricki.

Sometimes it feels to me that the late ’90s was the golden age of sassy and likable female characters with agency. I’m sure we’ll explore that more as this series goes on.

Ricki and Sophia – A Conversation

This has been brought to my attention.

And this.

And this.

I thought Sophia was going to be too upset by all this to speak, but it turns out she’s not.

Darlings. When I first read the Chris Jones, ahem, article-

I know, right? (It’s the third link, kids.) The thing is, like, less than 500 words. I spend more time on these posts. And I don’t get paid or have a national audience.

I think, darling, that this gentleman’s efforts in this piece of writing might be indicative of his efforts elsewhere.

Snerk.

Really, what goes through a man’s head? “I admit that I am mediocre at best when it comes to pleasing women, but if my partners are uncomfortable and unenthused, it is clearly because they are bad in bed.” This is ridiculous! I would be outraged if I were not merely mystified. He calls women couch cushions and wonders why they won’t communicate with them? Couch cushions don’t talk!

Dumbass!

Darlings, perhaps I did not cover this well enough in my initial offering to you. I told you, great sex is an adventure with two participants. But perhaps I did not emphasize enough – you must make a woman feel comfortable enough with you that she’s willing to, say, rappel down the side of a mountain with you at her side, otherwise it cannot be great. You cannot just strap on the harness and then say, “Whaddaya, frigid?” when she seems nervous. Nor can you look at an obviously nervous face and say to yourself, “Well, she’s not saying ‘no’, so legally I am not obligated to do anything more before we head down the mountain.”

You think this makes us delicate flowers but it does not. You do not realize it but we are constantly doing this for you. We do not make a habit of frequent comments on penis size of other men while in bed with you.

There are probably women who do.

Then do not have sex with them; what do you want me to say about that?

Fair enough.

We do not go to the Internets, assessing the hotness or lack thereof of every male person whose picture has ever been available in a newspaper, and then acting as if we have been personally hurt or offended or slighted if we do not want to fuck said person.

That’s not all guys.

But it’s hardly any women, is it?

You’ve got a point.

We read magazine article after magazine article instructing us as to how to be more pleasing to you, both in and out of bed. As far as we can tell, your magazines mainly focus on getting us into the bed, via manipulation and trickery. They ought to focus on the one thing that would actually work consistently – show us that you are kind, decent, clean men who are very, very good at making us come. 

You know, not every girl reads Cosmo.

And not every man reads Maxim. But the attitudes embodied in those magazines are present in the wider world, are they not? Furthermore, a simple comparison of the two displays this phenomenon of which I speak. Cosmopolitan has article after article about, “Does he like that skirt on you? Really?” and “How to tell what he’s thinking by the movements of his eyebrows” and “Top Ten Sex Tricks to turn him on and get him off!” Maxim has pictures of women in tiny underwear standing next to gadgets.

And now I see the nonsense [first and second links] about how you might not even want us in bed except perhaps as distant-second proxies for your favorite pornographic movies! I admit, I was upset when I first read about this. I, Sophia, am not anti-pornography, although I do find myself wondering how they can create millions upon millions of films in which people have sex that are so devoid of true sexiness. But I am not against pornography as a concept. I think if you, or you and your partner, find the viewing of such things pleasurable, then this is wonderful for you. 

But to be satisfied with it to the point where an actual lover cannot interest you? This to me is ridiculous! What about kissing? What about touch? What about the excitement of discovering that this person with whom you want to do all manner of filthy and delicious things also wants to do them with you? What about the fun parts? But, darlings, I cannot be angry. Only very, very sad.

I have to think this all has to do with entitlement. I thought this, for instance, was an interesting read.

Pah!

You didn’t like it?

Why does he elide his evo-psych “men are just naturally built this way” ideas with his “men are conditioned by society to feel this way” ideas? Those two are exact opposites!

Granted. And, as my readership knows, I’m firmly in the “men are conditioned” camp. I think he’s so far conditioned he can’t tell the difference between his conditioning and his natural urges (which, really, we all are), and not only that, but he can’t separate enough from them to satirize them. He ends up sounding like he thinks men are justified in behaving in the ways he describes.

Another man with whom I will not have sex.

Well – that was a given.

I mean even in your imagination.

Okay. Anyway, I wonder if these things are connected. David Wong writes that men have been tricked by pop culture into thinking they are owed a woman just for being their awesome selves, and maybe they’ve also been tricked by porn into believing that those women should be willing vessels for the fulfillment of whatever fantasies they have, with no particular desires or fantasies of their own. You said before that one of the best parts of sex is knowing someone wants you the way you want them, but if it never occurred to you to give a damn what someone else wanted, if it only has ever occurred to you to concern yourself with whether or not they’ll agree to let you do what you want, then you’re not even aware you’re missing that part.

That is depressing.

Yeah. And that speaks also to the whole “rape culture” notion and the resistance to the idea of replacing “No means no” with “enthusiastic consent.”

What is this now?

You know the expression “No means no.”

Of course, darling. I have never had occasion to utter the word “no,” nor have I ever heard it uttered to me, but I am certain I understand.

Okay, good. But then there are activists who want to emphasize that it’s not enough to not hear “no,” you also have to hear an active, “Yes!” or even, “Oh, my God, yes, please, now!”

Naturally that is preferable.

I’ve written about this before. Sort of. And the resistance to the idea of “enthusiastic consent” is, on the one hand, understandable, because it’s pretty difficult to enforce legally, but on the other hand, why do so many people-

Male persons.

Uh, yeah, pretty much. Male persons. I mean, I wasn’t going to say that, because obviously, women can rape, but-

But I don’t have your nice-girl political correctness so I’ll just say it. Male persons.

Okay, thanks. So they respond with an almost absurd degree of anger at the idea that they should be responsible for making sure that the women with whom they’re having sex really, really want to be having sex with them. Which is an entitlement issue, isn’t it? To think you have a right to sex, sex being a thing you do for your own personal pleasure, as long as you can get your partner to say “yes”, that’s being super-entitled.

If you say so, darling. I think, more significantly, it is sad. It is completely pathetic that these young men – and by “these young men,” – I mean the authors of articles such as these – are so completely unable to experience the fullest and most delightful human experiences, stunted as they are. Perhaps by pornography, perhaps by this culture of entitlement of which you speak, but perhaps simply because of their own natures.

By the way, while I’m typing this, I’m seeing a commercial for Axe dandruff shampoo with the tagline, “Lose the flakes. Get the girls.” In it, girls turned off by flakes literally vaporize, because obviously women who are unwilling to have sex with you cease to exist, and then he gets rid of the flakes and even though he’s otherwise physically unremarkable, three models in bath towels fondle him. So, yeah.

I am also surprised to learn that the “blow job” is no longer in fashion.

Snerk.

Really, darlings, if you meet a man who expresses any agreement with the idea that porn is better than sex, do not have sex with him. If you meet a man who declares the blow job passé, do not give him one. It is simple.

There might be a numbers problem.

Oh?

Maybe so many guys are-

Unformed adolescents with no ability to satisfy a woman?

Yeah. That all the women will be competing over, like, seven guys.

This is not my problem. Your imagination is populated with more than enough men for me.

You’re welcome.

Then my other suggestion, for the men, is that they become one of those seven “guys.”

Bringing Up Bebe – A Book Review

I wish I could do the proper accent marks for “bebe” but I can’t. I mean, I probably could if I tried really hard, but . . . I’m not going to.

Before I begin my discussion of this is the latest parenting book/mommy memoir sweeping the world, I want to share my favorite anecdote from it. Pamela Druckerman’s daughter, Bean, who has been raised in France, is visiting her American grandmother. The American grandmother is excited to share with Bean American delicacies, such as Kraft Mac & Cheese. But Bean won’t eat it. “That’s not real cheese,” she says. Awesome.

As far as I can tell, Bebe is being received better than Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, possibly because, as Americans, we seem to have accepted that the French do everything better already – eat, dress, have sex – so adding parenting is no big thing. And also we don’t believe the French are better at anything we consider important – war, making money – so it’s not threatening to accept their parenting advice. Whereas the implication that China is beating us at parenting is . . . well, we react badly.

Of course, Amy Chua’s name-recognition still sells books. She has a blurb for Bebe And it’s interesting, because her blurb commends Druckerman for “her premise that parents of all cultures should be able to learn from one another.” I thought that was actually more true of Chua’s book, which was less a valorization of the “Chinese” way of child-rearing than it was a memoir, with a description of Chua’s parenting techniques, and the results, both good and ill. Whereas I actually think Pamela Druckerman’s Bebe is more positive on French parenting. She expresses American hesitation over some things, but mostly seems to think those American hesitations ought to be overcome in order to be a better parent.

I’m going to sound critical in this post and I don’t mean to, entirely. I got a lot out of this book. A lot of it was really, incredibly useful. A lot of it made me feel like I’ve already screwed up irrevocably, but some of the patterns and habits she described I’m definitely going to take on more in my life. Druckerman writes about The Pause when it comes to sleeping infants – starting as early as a few weeks old, you hear them cry, and then you wait to see if they actually need something or if they’re just experiencing a sleep cycle. That trains the babies to regulate their own sleep and it trains the parents to respond to the children with patience and understanding instead of rushing in with the first solution you think of. Definitely if I have another kid I will be employing The Pause.

Druckerman describes French eating habits – three meals a day, one snack, all actual food, and no constant supply of Cheerios in between. I’m going to try to move towards this.

The cadre is big in France – having a strong, strictly held framework of rules, but within those rules, more or less a free-for-all. The rules include eating and sleeping rituals, minding Mama’s “no”, and various other things depending on the family. I am terrible at being strict. I am going to try harder. As Druckerman says the French say to their children, C’est moi qui decide! (It’s me who decides.)

And I’ve already started saying that to Zoe (“C’est moi, Zoe! And I decide non!”), and I’ve started saying, “Soi sage,” and “Attend!” even though she has no clue what I’m talking about. “Attend” means “wait.” “Soi sage” means “Be wise” and is the French replacement for “Be good.” And it’s different in fairly important ways. Being “good” means being quiet and unobtrusive, doing what your parents or other adults have told you to do. Being “sage” means being in control of yourself, aware of your needs as well as the needs of others, conducting yourself in a way that speaks well of you. I’d definitely rather Zoe be sage than good.

More than any particular technique, Druckerman describes an overall attitude about children that I have tried, in part, to exercise with Zoe, sometimes with limited success. The idea is that children are people, and need to be spoken to and respected as people. They can understand the things you say to them, and they are capable of controlling their behavior rather well, if they are given the trust to do so.

She also writes of a culture where treating your children as one incredibly important and delightful part of your rich, full life, rather than your entire life and identity, is the norm. I try that, too. With limited success.

Even with all the things I like about this book, I think there are some things that Druckerman brings up without fully exploring the implications. One point she emphasizes more than once, especially in the eating and sleeping chapters, is the degree to which the French do not think of things like The Pause and the four-times-a-day eating schedule as anything special. They are hard-pressed to speak about the particulars of how they get their kids to sleep through the night so early, or eat so well. Druckerman instead investigates, discovers The Pause, and then asks a French friend, “Is this what you do?” and the French friend says, “Oh, yeah, I do that, I just never thought of it as doing anything before.” Druckerman seems to respond to this with an at-times overwrought sense that the French are just naturally magical. But there’s something more there that needs exploration. America is a country that absolutely prides itself on its individualism and its pluralism. Even in our current, bifurcated, vituperative environment, wherein the right prefers individualism and the left pluralism, we still are much more strongly committed to those ideals than most other countries are. And, in committing to those ideas, we do not take well to national consensus on much of anything, including the best ways to raise children. We are resistant to the very idea of a national character, except for one of, you know, a plurality of rugged individuals.

Most other countries are not like that. Most other countries are made up of people who, for the most part, have agreed, even fictively, to live as if they are one culture. At least, they agree more often than Americans ever agree. And France is, if not the epitome of a nation valorizing its particularity, certainly very strongly in favor of “French-ness.” (As far as I can tell.) So it’s a lot easier to have a consensus on the best way to raise children, and, when there’s a cultural consensus, then it’s just what you do, not something you have to think about. Michael Pollan has already valorized how other countries have more entrenched and culturally agreed-upon ways of eating; it’s not surprising that this homogeny would extend to areas outside the kitchen.

And not having to think about it goes a LONG way towards calm, confident parents. A LONG, LONG, LONG way. I wonder if French success is not so much attributable to doing The Pause, or the four meals, or anything else, but just the confidence of not having to say to yourself, every time your baby cries, “What should I do? Should I follow the book my mother-in-law gave me or the advice my grandmother told me or what my yoga buddy does? Is what I’m doing working? How will I know when it’s working? When should I stop trying this technique and find another in the over-saturated marketplace of parenting advice that’s available to me?” That kind of shit can drive you nuts. And it does. And it applies to everything. Many, many American mothers are walking around going, “I gave her the Cheerios, which are healthy but not local or organic, and then I made her cry it out for her nap, which is either the only way to get her to sleep or a demonically evil, psychologically scarring thing to do to your child. I didn’t let her watch TV today but then she didn’t know what her friend was talking about when he started singing a song from ‘Barney’ so do I let her watch TV or do I keep her isolated from her friends? And then she ran from me at the park and I hollered at her but was I being too harsh? Or am I obviously lax if my kid ran away from me at all?” (I may have mentioned this kind of batshit stuff before.) It must be nice to have a culture in which everybody is doing basically the same thing so you don’t have to think about it all the goddamn time. I mean, I know not every mother is a neurotic mess like me, but . . . actually, I can only think of one mother I know – and with whom I’ve discussed parenting – who doesn’t seem to be a neurotic mess like me. And maybe she just hides it better.

And I won’t even go into how much easier it is to balance work and life and family in a country that has free and/or subsidized child care for infants through school-age children, and paid-for maternity leave, and all the rest.

Which is not to say that the France she depicts is a judgement-free culture. She talks about the pressure to stay thin and chic, to be beautiful for your husband when he comes home, to have the energy to enforce the cadre and work and cook delicious, healthy meals at least twice a day and three when the kids are not in school for lunch and maintain one’s looks and be sexy for your husband and maintain a relationship with your husband such that you actually want to be sexy for him. But she sort of glides over it. She seems to think that she, as an American, is feeling the pressure in a way that the supremely confident, naturally perfect, magical French women don’t.

And I’m willing to bet that’s not true. I’m willing to believe that France is more homogenized, culturally, than America, because just about every culture is, and also because the French seem to take special pride in their French-ness. But it’s not like there are no individuals. Surely there are some French women who feel their pixie dust supply is a little low, and who wish that a child throwing a tantrum in the store or a pair of sweatpants wouldn’t be the national oddity Druckerman claims it is.

More than that, I bet there are plenty of actual French people who could pick up this book and say, “This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my life.” But maybe I’m wrong.

The chapter on husbands is called, “I adore this baguette.” In it, she tells the story of being on vacation with another couple and all of the attendant children. The other husband made a ritual of visiting a bakery daily and bringing back the goods. When he handed his wife a baguette, she responded with a  beaming smile and said, “J’adore cette baguette!” And that is, indeed, a lovely reminder to be always enthusiastic about your partner’s efforts, etc., etc. But in the rest of the chapter she talks about how French women – most of whom do work outside the home, due to the government-subsidized child care – do a far greater share of the housework than their husbands, and a far greater share of the child care, too. We here in America complain that while women are expected to be Modern and Actualized and Do It All, men are stuck in the fifties and won’t help us with the dishes. But in France, apparently, that’s much closer to true than it is here. And yet, Druckerman writes, American wives are angry at all their husbands don’t do, whereas French wives are tickled at how incompetent men are and still happy and in love with them.

Now, I again wonder. Maybe it’s easier to be happy with your husband when your government is picking up the bill for their pre-school. Maybe it’s easier to be happier with your husband when you’re not even supposed to feel guilty about wanting a life outside your child. Maybe it’s easier to be happier with your husband in a place where it’s completely normal and acceptable for children as young as three or four to go on week-long field trips with their teachers, leaving you and your husband at home, alone, to . . . bond.

But. As a bratty American feminist, I don’t really want to laugh jovially about my husband’s incompetence around a washing machine and go about my merry way. I don’t think men are incompetent; I don’t think they’re foolish; and I don’t buy into the more American claim that they simply care less about the house being clean than women do. I think they should be held responsible for the doing 50% of the work that is maintaining a home, and that they should be held responsible for being actual partners to their wives, instead of acting the spoiled son, who, yes, sometimes makes a portion and sometimes makes all of the money. So I’m not buying Druckerman’s “The French do this better than us!” thesis on this issue.

(Because I feel it’s necessary for his honor – Jason does quite a bit of the cleaning and child care around here. And he cares WAY more about the cleanliness of our house than I do.)

If I learned anything from Alfie Kohn’s excellent Unconditional Parenting, it’s that child-rearing is not a question of, “How do I raise a child?” It’s “How do I raise an adult?” That seems to be something the French would explicitly agree with, but I wonder how serious Druckerman takes the premise. She hints at certain ways of being that are instilled in French kids early and often – polite responses to adults, philosophy in grade school, a decided lack of praise for scholarly achievement – and for the most part seems to find these positive. (She stumbles a bit when it comes to the school environment, which is apparently considered quite harsh even by many French people.) But I kept wondering about the ways France and America are different from each other for adults, and how these various emphases on one way of parenting over another might be responses to the kinds of adults we think we want, and to the kind of world those adults will have to live in. I don’t know the answers here. But I wish Druckerman’s lens had glanced up a little more often, to absorb the impact of adult culture and what parents’ goals for their children were and why those goals made sense.

I don’t mean to knock this book. As a parenting advice book, it’s really pretty good. I’m hoping to incorporate many of the suggestions and attitudes I found here to my daily routine. I just left wishing Druckerman had delved even deeper into the cultural differences. I wanted this to be less a polemic for French parenting than a description of it.

But the lesson we learned from Battle Hymn was that polemic, even when it’s not really there, sells better than description.