Movie review: Our Little Sister (2016)

What struck me most about Our Little Sister was how much food was involved. As the movie wound through the lives of four sisters, scene after scene depicted them eating and the centrality of food in their lives.

Our Little Sister is not a movie about food—though perhaps it could have been. The movie follows three sisters who live together and experience the death of their long-estranged father At the funeral, they meet their previously unknown half-sister.

The movie is dominated by women. It is a storyline about women and how women are important in each other’s lives. The three sisters bring home their younger sibling to live with them. Respect is shown at the family shrine, where tales about Grandma are shared. Great Auntie appears and even the long-absent mother who abandoned the sisters years earlier reappears in their lives. A woman business owner of a local restaurant frequented by the sisters during their lives is central too—to their lives and the story.

Men fill supporting roles—from the deadbeat father who is also absent in the movie to the erstwhile boyfriends. Men are of little consequence, perhaps reflecting the relationship dynamics that have been playing out in Japanese society for the last several decades.

The sisters dance around painful truths. In essence, they were abandoned by both parents and learned to live together and rely on each other in a house that their mother owned. As adults, they are strong, independent women though one seems to renounce her boyfriend-seeking obsession later in the movie. Family relationships make things difficult and force negotiations about who can discuss who to whom.

The teenage sibling that the three sisters adopt into their home is the product of their father and the woman he abandoned them and their mother for. At the funeral, the young sibling was living with her step-mother, another woman that their father married after things ended between their father and the woman he left his first wife for. (It’s never explicitly stated that the second wife died but assumed since she never appears in the movie or is discussed.)

The younger sibling knew their father in ways that the older sisters didn’t. She had discussions with him and fishing expeditions. The older sisters express an interest in hearing about their father and learning what he was like.

Her presence though is a painful reminder to everyone about how the father failed them, or as the sisters describe it, was “useless”. He was a kind man, to woman after woman after woman, leaving behind broken relationships. The younger sibling reminds everyone, just by her existence, of the painful reality that he left them—the older siblings and the first wife and mother of the older siblings.

Throughout the movie, the sins of the father are manifest. In a scene near the end, the eldest sibling and the youngest are walking to a secluded spot overlooking a bay. The eldest would go here with the father and then later after he left she would go by herself. She screams into the wind about him.

The youngest follows suit but with a twist. Into the wind she screams about her mother, the woman that the father left his wife and daughters for. The pain that the other woman caused, even carried by her daughter, is finally acknowledged. Not only do the siblings need to talk about the father, but they need to talk about the other woman, Suzu’s mother. That fact is finally acknowledged and invited into discussions.

Family relationships can be messy. Our Little Sister shows that, as well as the bonds among women. Men are almost an afterthought but definitely the source of lots of pain.

Book review: Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man

I had heard about this book in the last year and thought it would be fascinating to hear the perspective of someone transitioning from female and male. What privileges would he realize that he inherited? In what ways was he restrained by masculine norms? How did he exist as a man with the lived experience of being a woman in the past in a world designed and controlled by men?

Amateur is a window into Thomas’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences about his life Before and After the Transition. The vehicle for exploring his transition and masculinity in general was an article that he was going to write about training for a charity boxing match. The readers get to go along for the ride and watch as he experiences the mostly masculine world of boxing and strives to figure out what it means to be a man.

Thomas is very forthright with his past and his family—supportive mother and siblings but an abusive stepfather. He describes how he was treated and related to as a woman, and then how things flipped during and after his transition when the world started seeing him as a man.

Suddenly he was no longer invisible or discounted. He mattered in the eyes of the world. He found that by opening his mouth and using his voice, he could silence rooms. People listened to what he said. They assumed a degree of competency on his part that women continually fight for and are rarely given.

He notes not only the differences between how he was treated before and how was treated after, but how he treated women before and after. By merely training for five months for a charity boxing match, his status was elevated in the eyes of other men. He was deemed an expert of sorts. He was listened to about boxing. Never mind that he barely knew how to throw a couple different types of punches. He saw this differential at the first gym he was training at. A female trainer there had to work twice as hard to prove herself. And still she was, not discounted really, but not taken as seriously as a guy who could walk into the gym without much boxing experience.

Or his sister who had boxed for years and had expertise much beyond his own. Thomas recounts an experience where he was out walking and talking with a group. A question about boxing came up. His sister, an expert, spoke up, but was ignored. Thomas talked over her. He was listened to. She wasn’t. Not even by him. It was as though he knew all about boxing. As though he had boxed for years.

Any woman can relate to this story. Talked over. Ignored. Your experience and expertise irrelevant. You are irrelevant.

Thomas didn’t realize what he did during this conversation about boxing until later. In fact, he didn’t really realize it. His girlfriend pointed it out to him later. Of course, he felt horrible. At some point he did eventually manage to bring it up with his sister and apologize. Which is great but kind of beside the point. I could feel for his sister, my own experiences projected on her and her feelings, accepting the apology but stoically resigned to this is just what men do.

To be a man, it seems, is to fundamentally degrade women. Interestingly, Thomas mentions that the phrase “be a man” is culturally contextualized. In Denmark, “be a man” means do not be a boy. It is linked to the admonition to be an adult. In the US, “be a man” means do not be a woman. Being a man is linked to a gendered hierarchy.

This hierarchy really is inherent in the American system. I find myself frustrated and angry when once again I find myself discounted, devalued, talked to disparagingly—in essence, I realize that I am being treated “as a woman” and I find it enraging because being treated like a woman means I am being treated as someone less than human, who can be discounted and shoved aside. A second-class citizen of sorts.

Another point in the book that I found illuminating s the talk about violence. Violence is a form of male bonding. The boxing gym in some ways is the epitome of maleness. You are setting out to physically overcome someone else. Blood, sweat, bruises, black eyes. But Thomas also recounts very tender moments, words of encouragement and physically caring for other men.

But violence, he points out, is central to being male. As a man, you cannot let yourself be dominated by someone else. Why do men fight? When they feel humiliated, shamed, not powerful.

Violence is approved towards those who are “legitimate targets”. Who are “legitimate targets”? Someone you are entitled to dominate, who has less power than you—in other words, a woman. And here we see the rationale for domestic violence. You cannot take out your anger on your boss. He is not a legitimate target. But your girlfriend, wife, daughter. You can take it out on them.

Thomas realized that he was now rewarded for what previously he was punished for doing. He could speak up. Stand up for his ideals. He could push back. He could take credit for things. He could play power games. All things he was punished for doing when he was a woman. To exist in the world as an individual is to do all of these things, but women are beaten down again and again for doing them. For men, it is expected, a birthright, and an accepted way of moving through the world.

Thomas has tried to be conscious of these differences, to remember how he was treated as a woman and not to perpetuate this treatment of women. But it is different. Fish forget the water they swim in. At first when you encounter something, a new way of being treated, you notice it because of its newness. But with time, it becomes the new norm.

He tries to remember and be conscious. He tries to combines bits of his former self that he doesn’t want to lose—the caring, emotions, asking for help, aligning with women. But it isn’t always easy or possible. When his mom was dying, it was his sister who cared for her. It was expected that another woman would. As a man, he was kept out of that world and lost out in the closeness and tenderness of caring for his mom.

He tries to monitor himself. He mentions watching at work who talks over whom and why. Out for a run, he notices a female runner ahead of him looking over her shoulder, clearly worried about these footsteps fast approaching from behind her. Where previously he experienced fear of other men when he was out alone as a woman, he realizes what his presence as a man means to this runner. In the future, when he encounters another female runner, he calls out that he is passing on the left. An attempt to allay fears of an unknown man approaching from behind.

In Amateur, Thomas seeks to find out what it means to be a man in a world with abusive fathers and toxic masculinity. Without growing up male, he seems to feel a bit bereft. But through observation and reflection, he is crafting masculinity that feels right for him. The book takes us on his journey and lets us share in his observations about what it means to be male and juxtaposed against that what it means be female in a male-dominated world. And ways men can be that can heal both themselves and women from toxic masculinity.

Angry women

Quote

“I hate to say it, but often when women show anger, it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often, you know, pushed onto emotional issues perhaps, or deflected onto other people.” ~ Dr. Fiona Hill, in her Capitol Hill testimony on a meeting with Gordon Sondland. Sondland testified that Hill was angry at someone else, not him.

Book review: Anarchism and Other Essays

Anarchism and Other Essays is a collection of writings by Emma Goldman, compiled in 1910 by Emma herself. The essays cover a wide range of topics important to anarchism, such as education, sexual freedom, women’s rights, and marriage.

Reading the essays one hundred years removed from their creation provides a glimpse into history. In some cases, arguments or points seemed dated and a bit archaic. In other cases, I had trouble understanding the perspective from which she was arguing. On the whole, my impression is that Emma and anarchism was grounded in idealism and belief in the goodness of humans. In many respects, her critiques of our political and social organizations are spot on. Sometimes her solutions seem progressive, even today. Often though, better possibilities do not seem to exist.

Her writings and the ideology behind them are definitely products of the time and reactions to centralization, machinization, and industrialization, which destroy the individual. I hear echoes of libertarianism, which derides all things government. Anarchism is the freedom from religion, property, and government.

She argues for individual liberty and living a creative life.  Again, she seems to be reacting to the times in which she lived, where industrialization was replacing individual artisans. Artists are slaves to economic necessity. The masses do not appreciate art; artists are forced to cater to their whims and tastes. Thus, artists are not truly free. She derides the masses and upholds the individual. “Every effort for progress, for enlightenment, for science, for religious, political, and economic liberty, emanates from the minority, and not from the mass.” (page 44)

Emma recounts several violent acts, such as the Haymarket Riot of 1887 or the Homestead Strike of 1892. These violent acts, she argues, are really acts of compassion committed by people suffering from violence in the world. The people who commit these acts of violence do so in response to the injustice they see around them. Which is worse: the acts of violence they commit or the injustice they see around them? The answer for Emma, of course, is the latter.

She examines prisons, the reasons typically given for imprisonment, and the reasons behind crime. Most crime, she argues, is due to social and economic inequalities. Prison can be used for revenge, punishment, deterrence, or reform. Prison definitely does not do the latter two, she argues. What can prevent crime? “Nothing short of a complete reconstruction of society will deliver mankind from the cancer of crime.” (Emma definitely does dream big.) She argues progressively for work in prison that will lead to employment once the convict is released, and for shorter sentences so they have some hope for rejoining society.

She rails against patriotism as a means to control and use the lower classes. Military excursions and standing armies are used to protect the money-class. (I am hearing echoes of John Reed’s stance on World War I.) Capitalism and militarism support each other and need each other. And, here Emma’s observation seems spot-on today, people enter the military out of economic necessity.

Emma mentions Ferrer in passing and then devotes an essay to him. She discusses Ferrer and the Modern School but doesn’t go into great detail about the type of education that Ferrer advocated. The impression is one of freedom and nurturing of the individual over strict authoritarian forms of education.

She attacks Puritanism, which is at the root of America’s history. This repressive –ism is the root of all real evil, repression, and lack of creativity. Its sexual mores demand celibacy for single woman OR forced sex/reproduction for married women. From this comes illegal, secret abortions and prostitution, which brings with it disease. No matter how you slice it, women are getting a raw deal, all thanks to Puritanism.

She discusses women and the impact of the lack of freedom on their lives. Women are reared to be sexual commodities, kept ignorant and chaste for marriage or forced into prostitution out of economic necessity.  “…it is merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men. Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution.” (page 101)  Government suppression and moral crusades only make things worse. (Brothels where women have some protection are replaced with streetwalking.) Prostitution is a product of economic and social conditions and can only be abolished if industrial/economic slavery is abolished.

I found her writings on women’s suffrage and emancipation the hardest to understand and follow. She seems to be against both, recognizing that neither movement will really set women free. In countries where women can vote, are labor conditions better? Are women happier? Are there no double standards? Are women no longer seen as sex commodities? A resounding no to all of these, even today.

Being able to vote doesn’t affect economic conditions for women. For Emma, it is all about economics rather than having the same rights as men. The suffrage movement is “a parlor affair, absolutely detached from the economic needs of the people.” (page 116) Labor as her first allegiance is clear in another quote: “Susan B. Anthony, no doubt an exceptional type of woman, was not only indifferent but antagonistic to labor; nor did she hesitate to manifest her antagonism when, in 1869, she advised women to take the places of striking printers in New York.” (page 116)

Emancipation is really no emancipation. Women strive to be allowed to do the same as men, only to find that they now have to do the same as men AND their old role in the house and family. No wonder, she cries, that women are retreating from emancipation and seek marriage as a way to retreat and be taken care of. Also, the role of an independent woman is a lonely one due to moral and social prejudices. Better, some find, to acquiesce to the societal role for women as mother and wife. “…we find many emancipated women who prefer marriage, with all its deficiencies, to the narrowness of an unmarried life; narrow and unendurable because of the chains of moral and social prejudice that cramp and bind her nature.” (page 123) True emancipation is the freedom from external AND internal tyrants (i.e., ethical and social conventions).

Perhaps as expected, Emma is not a real fan of marriage. As with prison, she looks at the reasons given for it and then deconstructs them. Marriage is an economic arrangement/insurance pact. (In some respects, although we moderns claim to marry for love, this assessment is still true.) Women pay for marriage with their name, privacy, self-respect, life; they are condemned to “life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social.” (page 126)

Work is expected for men. For women, it is transitory. She is saved through marriage, but she is not free because now her labor and economic slavery increases. It is a myth, she argues, that marriage exists for the child and protects the mother. She argues instead for motherhood outside of the bonds of marriage. How this could happen with women’s economic subordination is unclear.

Emma’s arguments are a combination of clear-headed realism and idealism. Some seem insightful. Others fanciful. Economic justice and equality trumps other concerns. Freedom from religion, property, and government is key. She has a strong belief in the goodness of the individual, and justifies violence as a compassionate reaction to violence and injustice. “No real social change has ever come about without a revolution.” (page 41) What would be interesting is to read some of her writings after her deportation to Russia where she encountered post-revolution Russian society and recoiled from the horrors she saw.

Book review: Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars

Rise of the Rocket Girls was an inspiring read but ultimately a little bittersweet. The history of the female “computers” at the Jet Propulsion Lab, which was later folded into NASA, focuses on the positives of women being in a male-dominated milieu. But discrimination breaks into the story from time to time.

The fact that there was a cadre of women doing mathematical work starting in the 1930s is astounding. The people who did the advanced calculations were all women— initially because it was assumed that engineers, who made up the problems, were men and computers, who solved the problems, were women and later because female managers of the computers intentionally sought out women to recruit and train.

“‘Engineers make up the problems and we [computers] solve them.’ Solving the problems means finding trends in the data sets and reporting on these findings. The computers’ calculations would help determine the maximum possible weight of a spacecraft and its various possible trajectories.” (page 166)

Despite working among other women talented in mathematics, these human computers faced discrimination. Their work and skills were vital for the success of missile development and space missions. But they were still women, looked down at by some men as being temporary (they will leave to have children) and forced out (i.e., fired) when they were pregnant.

In 1970, JPL finally acknowledged the skills that the women had and their importance. Their titles were changed from computer to engineer. (Of course, they weren’t paid the same as the male engineers.)

The result of this title change raised the bar for hiring requirements. New hires were expected to have degrees in engineering. (Never mind that institutions of higher learning had just begun to admit women to engineering programs.) Women currently in their employ—without engineering degrees—were grandfathered in.

In essence, JPL was preventing the hiring of more female computers. Helen, the manager of the computers, cleverly got around this requirement. For years, the human computers had electronic computers in their midst. The electronic computers weren’t reliable or trusted but slowly the human computers started to learn how to program them. Helen encouraged the human computers to take classes to learn this new thing called programming.

So when JPL required new human computers to have engineering degrees, Helen got around this by hiring programmers rather than computers—and then encouraged the new employees to take classes to get an engineering degree. (Gotta like her ingenuity.)

In 2008, JPL went further, mandating that all employees (even employees that were previously grandfathered in) must have engineering degrees. Sue Finley, a long time employee, got caught in this dragnet. She was demoted from her salaried position to hourly. But after she racked up overtime hours, JPL rethought the requirement for her. She was reinstated as a salaried employee.

Other societal norms that discriminated against women are sprinkled through the story of the rocket girls. Again and again female computers felt familial pressure to marry and have children, starting right after high school graduation. One woman, who put off marriage until much later (late 20s? early 30s?) was forced to go to therapy by her boyfriend (and later husband). Something was wrong with her because she didn’t want to be married young!

The women who did have children (all but one as far as I could tell) left to have the child and then came back to work, but faced a lot of problems with a society that had no place for working mothers. Their lives sounded nightmarish but the love of the job that they did kept them going. In a few cases, their husbands were partners, helping take care of the children and the household. In too many cases, the husbands did not buck societal norms but let their wives take the brunt of raising the children. In many cases, this lack of support led to marriages devolving into divorce.

Rise of the Rocket Girls is not only a detailed look at the female computers at JPL from the 1930s until today. The book also documents the history of weapons development and space exploration—both of which JPL was involved in. Initially assigned projects to help the Army develop missiles for their warheads, JPL was able to shift its focus back to its initial love—space exploration. JPL was in the middle of the space race starting in the 1950s, sending out probes, orbiters, and landers. Thus, Rise of the Rocket Girls is a history of the space race against the Soviets and the space program after the demise of the USSR.

Many tidbits surprised me—not just those involving space exploration. I didn’t realize how many former Nazis entered the ranks of space exploration or how an early rocket system benefited from a rocket developed by the Nazis.

I learned that the Red Scare brought down important people in the early space industry. Hsui-Shen Tsien was accused of being a Communist, placed under house arrest for five years (!), and then deported to China. In China, he continued contributing to space exploration, eventually becoming known as the Father of Chinese Rocketry. Frank Malina, one of the original Suicide Squad who later formed JPL, was accused of being a Communist, run out of JPL, and driven out of the country.

I marveled at the human computers using gravitational pull and orbits around planets to slingshot probes on their way in space, reducing the time of the journey and the fuel needed. I learned about the techniques used to get powerful enough rockets to send an object beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull and also far into the solar system.

I heard about things I hadn’t realized: Jupiter has one moon with active volcanoes and another covered in ice, an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter has its own moon, and saltwater exists on Jupiter’s moons.

I cheered when Apollo 12 encountered the wreckage of Surveyor 3 on the moon and brought the wreckage back to Earth. And I winced each time a mission failed—I was surprised by how common it was for missions to fail. I bemoaned the loss of life, such as the crew of Apollo 1 dying on the launch pad in 1967 and the explosion of the shuttle in 1986.

Rise of the Rocket Girls is a history of many worlds: female computers, JPL, women in STEM careers, the rise of computers and programming, the space race, space exploration, and societal norms for women.

The few women at JPL had an incredible opportunity that was out of reach for most women in the US. They were the fortunate ones that were able to use their talents and skills in mathematics and later programming in roles that they enjoyed and where they made a difference. The majority of women during this same time period languished in roles that didn’t make use of their talents and skills—all because they were female.

The recognition of the rocket girls comes far too late. But perhaps their long overdue story can remind us that women can do anything if they are given educational and work opportunities. Perhaps their tale can inspire girls to aim high, even while the numbers of women in computer science programs have plummeted.