Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Match Factory Girl

For my foreign film, I watched the film The Match Factory Girl, directed by Aki Kaurismäki. Please see this link to read about the film and its production information.

This film is intensely interesting for a number of reasons, which include but are not exclusively:

  • the cinematography of the film, which is consistently very well-done, fitting with the themes of isolation and middle-class hopelessness. The camera angles are often impersonal and distant, and the colors are warm, but plain and grungy enough to have a lovely aesthetic while emphasizing a certain bleakness.

  • the use of music to create ironic contrasts in tone between the fantasy life of entertainment and the bleak, dull lives of the characters

  • the scenes of work, eating, and dancing, which are all so mechanically set up as to draw parallels between each of the life events that Iris forces herself through

but, keeping to the theme of my blog, the main theme I will be discussing is women in film.

Iris is an interesting woman, the main character in a film that is arguably a character piece, setting up the ingredients for Iris's descent into a state that is either madness or intense clarity. Her acts of revenge at the end of the film, while shocking, flow naturally from her dull, confining life which would not be understandable if the audience were not forced to endure it with her.

The Match Factory Girl (Shadows in Paradise is not enough in line with this idea) is the only film in Kaurismäki's Proletariat Trilogy to feature a female protagonist. Thusly, her life story features challenges and attitudes that do not face the other characters in Kaurismäki's trilogy. Her life, shown as typical enough for a young woman in early 1990's Finland, centers around the two traditional forces in a woman's life: parents and romantic partner. Her life, still at her parents' house, is incredibly confining. She works a dead-end job at a match factory, just another cog in the machine, and at home she cooks for her parents and gives them the money she earns at the factory. Sometimes she is seen escaping into cheap romance novels, suitable fare for a young woman with little to dream about.

Each night she goes to a dance club and sits alone on the bench waiting to be asked to dance, which does not happen until she buys a new dress that her parents do not approve of. Even up until her ultimate rejection and discovering her pregnancy, Iris's story could be that of a thousand girls each year who live in poor circumstances, stuck in jobs they hate and unable to locate a lasting partnership or friendship to break up the tedium of working-class life. The lack of apparent meaning in Iris's life could be that of any woman or man chosen at random on a city street, hardly even worth making a movie about except as a statement about the working person as worthy of filming.

What makes Iris's story different is how it ends. It is uncertain exactly where Iris decides not to put up with the way life has treated her. It could be when her lover callously tells her to abort their child (his exact words, in a letter, are "get rid of the brat"). It could be somewhat later, when she stews on her dilemma for a while and becomes increasingly cold and calculating. It could even be when her parents kick her out of their house. Whenever this occurs, Iris's murder spree at the end is both surprising and not surprising, both uncalled for and inevitable. In the end, the workings of Iris's mind are known only to Iris, and the audience is left only grasping to understand the pain she feels at the way her life has turned out, bleak and without any apparent future. This shows itself when she poisons each of the people she feels has wronged her. First she goes to the ex-lover's house, telling him that she will take care of the situation with the child he has conceived, poisoning his drink before departing the house. 

He dies, as does a young man at a bar who smiles at her. The dark comedy of his willingness to continue his drink after she pours an unidentified substance from a bottle kept in her purse illustrates the ways that men view Iris, as none see her as a threat but readily see her as something to be grasped and used.

Indeed, the final victims of poisoning also used Iris in a way--her parents, who only see her as a chef and bringer of income. She pays rent and cooks, and there is hardly a real relationship between the three, who eat all of their meals in silence.

The purpose of this article is not to pretend that The Match Factory Girl is a perfect feminist film--no, far from it. Iris attempts to escape her miserable life by attaching herself to a marriage, a traditional attempt at happiness that implies women's attachment to men is what brings their life meaning. When this is thwarted and she cannot live the ideal she reads in her books and hopes for at the dance club, hears sung about on the radio and enacted in her parents' lives, she cannot handle it and breaks down completely.

However, the way that Iris's story is handled by Kaurismäki is unique and commendable in terms of film history. Resisting any urge whatsoever to romanticize his characters, Iris is given exactly the same treatment as Kaurismäki's male protagonists. She is practical, functional, and is not sexualized in any real way. Rather, her story is entirely matter of fact, and her mental breakdown (in contrast to such films as Girl, Interrupted, Prozac Nation, and A Streetcar Named Desire) is not in the least fetishized, with no seductive camera angles or melodramatic music. In fact, her desires and needs, which, while admittedly traditionally feminine, are taken quite seriously by the film, being shown as valid and necessary. The scene in which she sees a dress she likes in a shop window and purchases it is very business-like, her transaction handled with as much integrity and gravity as an exchange with a bank teller.

Her breakdown is not tragic or romantic; rather, it is a breaking free. Even going mad, Iris is completely respectable and in control of her situation, and when Iris willingly walks off with the two police officers at the end it is almost as if she has summoned them to take her away. For a male character this would be normal; for a female character it is new and exciting. She is at once female and yet not female (in the sense most films would have it); she is her own, and inaccessible to the audience, either as tragic psychiatric case or doomed, sexy heroine. It is for this and the other described reasons that The Match Factory Girl is an exciting and innovative depiction of a female character in film, and a very progressive one at that.

Esmeralda and Who is to Blame

Women seduce men. Women are flowers, lovely and fragrant, to which men can only flock like bees. That woman! That temptress! She lured him away from his wife, and stole him away. These are common attitudes toward women, both now and in the past. So often, throughout society's history, women have been seen as the undoing of men; their downfall. The history in cinema of the femme fatale shows this well enough; going back in history, it is a shame to see that many have condemned the Bible's Bathsheba as being at fault in the story of her husband's death, rather than David(the murderer himself). In the news recently, a young man was convicted of raping one of his fellow classmates at Steubenville University. To my disappointment, I encountered a number of people defending the rapist, complaining that the young woman had dressed too provocatively, that she should not have gotten drunk. "Dumb slut," "stupid tease," and "crybaby" were terms I heard all too often when any discussion of attitudes toward rape in American society was brought up. What did she expect, dressed like that? What did she expect, drinking like that? Even going to the wrong neighborhood can provoke such responses in the case of an attack, and, unfortunately, to escape this kind of blaming a female would have to simply avoid being female in public. This is what comes to mind, for me, when looking at Claude Frollo's treatment of and attitude toward Esmeralda in Notre Dame de Paris. Frollo sees her as a test, something sent by the devil. Esmeralda is there to tempt him; she is, inherently, by being around him and by being an attractive female, making herself a hazard to him. This attitude is well in line with the attitudes that Frollo would encounter in the religious circles he encountered at the time. This attitude of blaming attractive women for tempting men into doing things they normally would not is shown again when Frollo attempts to turn Esmeralda in to the police for the crime that he himself committed, showing by his actions that he blames her for his intense attraction to her. Naturally, this is not the case, as she has done nothing to attempt to attract him. However, this attitude of his shows the attitude of victim blaming that is sadly still present in our culture today.

Dickens and the Gulagis

Hello and welcome to the first of my two posts addressing general themes in literature. A Tale of Two Cities is a book about Revolution--revenge, resentment, and the ways that people obtain greater freedom. However, unlike some other books about the French Revolution, Dickens is not entirely on board with the idea. The bloodshed and openly, consistently sought revenge of the revolution is questioned and contrasted with Charles Darnay, the innocent victim caught up in danger because of his birth. This theme is very relevant to the modern world, especially as reflected in many of the social movements and revolutions occurring across the planet. To what extent, if any, is violence an acceptable way of procuring increased rights? When does the end justify the means? Luckily, one of the contemporary movements is especially relevant to my blog theme. That is, the fight for women's rights in India. The culture of India, in great part, is still very patriarchal, and a great example of resistance against the low status of women in India is the famed Gulabi Gang. (If you do not know about them, please refer to this article.) Using violence on many occasions, though arguably only when provoked (as were the French revolutionaries), these women combat domestic violence and other forms of abuse against women by threats, warnings, and even violence if need be. Working outside the law, their tactics are perhaps not as drastic or overwhemingly culture-changing as the revolutionaries' of France, but they bring up the same concerns. Is their violence acceptable because it helps liberate women from tyrrany, or should they perhaps work within the law for reform like many other activists in India are doing? Dickens would perhaps consider this with some confusion, as he considers revolution with a sympathy for revolutionaries and slow reformers alike in Tale of Two Cities. I cannot say for myself what the answer to this question is. However, looking at the novel and the women of the Gulagi Gang, the struggle between violent and nonviolent social change is still an issue concerning humanity in the twenty-first century.

Anna Akhmatova's "Lot's Wife"

Hello, and welcome to another bout of feminist literary analysis! Are you ready for some fun? Good!

Today's poem is Anna Akhmatova's "Lot's Wife," which is an interesting poem for several reasons. First, it contains a biblical theme, which is always interesting for feminist criticism because o the varied ways that women are depicted in the Bible. And interestingly enough, Akhmatova's poem recognizes and subverts one of the common themes that arises when more traditional analyses of the Bible are used. That is, women tend to be either pure and holy or very bad troublemakers, frequently harlots or enemy spies, people who seduce men to their doom--as melodramatic as that sounds. Lot's wife comes from the most notoriously wicked city in the Bible this side of Babylon: Sodom, sister city to Gomorrah. Her fate is not mentioned much in the Bible. In fact, she has a single line, which only states that she looked back and was turned to salt.

Yet, despite being only present in a single sentence, she has captured the imagination of many poets, Akhmatova not excepted. Her punishment in the Bible (and it is a punishment) marks her as yet another woman who did wrong, someone with whom the reader is not expected to sympathize. The lack of ceremony attached to her death illustrates this as well. She is quickly forgotten, and Lot does not mention her again.

Akhmatova, however, exhibits a great sympathy with her plight. The fact of the life being left behind in Sodom is brought up, and the contrast that is made at the start of the poem helps to set the tone for the rest of the work. Lot is referred to as "the just man" and Abraham as "God's shining agent", going along a giant track and moving with great purpose. In contrast to this masculine energy and determination, "his woman" is being harried by a "restless voice". She is not as certain, does not move along as straight a path. In contrast to the straightforward movement shown by the male figure in the poem, she imagines still, domestic scenes. She sees a circularly moving spinning wheel, a marriage bed, children. None of these things move as directly or as calmly as a track (as if for a train?); they are more erratic. A bed does not move at all. Yet, it is Lot that is commended, for he can move on without these things.

However, repeatedly being referred to as "woman", Lot's wife is involved with female sentiments and concerns. The traditionally feminine concerns of home and family drive her to look back, to remember, and it is for this that she is punished. It is interesting that Akhmatova states that Lot's wife seems insignificant--in the Biblical text, in fact, she does seem insignificant. But perhaps this is because female concerns and priorities are historically viewed as insignificant. It is difficult for Lot, or the average reader of the Bible, to see the domestic sphere as particularly important, since it is, as seen in the story of Lot's wife, so easy to abandon.

Here is the poem for your reference. I got it from here: Poets Dot Org

And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Mothers, Milk, and Female Imagery in Seamus Heaney's "Churning Day"

For context for this article, the following article may be helpful: To Be a Feminist is to be a Vegan. It explains the premise that this analysis starts from--that is, that the dairy industry and its use of female bodies for profit is a feminist concern. This provides necessary background for my look at the two mothers depicted in Heaney's poem, as well as my effort towards a kinda of vegan criticism.

Churning Day - Seamus Heaney For Jennifer

A thick crust, coarse-grained as limestone rough-cast,
hardened gradually on top of the four crocks
that stood, large pottery bombs, in the small pantry.
After the hot brewery of gland, cud and udder
cool porous earthenware fermented the buttermilk
for churning day, when the hooped churn was scoured
with plumping kettles and the busy scrubber
echoed daintily on the seasoned wood.
It stood then, purified, on the flagged kitchen floor.

Out came the four crocks, spilled their heavy lip
of cream, their white insides, into the sterile churn.
The staff, like a great whiskey muddler fashioned
in deal wood, was plunged in, the lid fitted.
My mother took first turn, set up rhythms
that slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached.
Hands blistered. Cheeks and clothes were spattered
with flabby milk.

Where finally gold flecks
began to dance. They poured hot water then,
sterilized a birchwood-bowl
and little corrugated butter-spades.
Their short stroke quickened, suddenly
a yellow curd was weighting the churned up white,
heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight
that they fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer,
heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl.

The house would stink long after churning day,
acrid as a sulphur mine. The empty crocks
were ranged along the wall again, the butter
in soft printed slabs was piled on pantry shelves.
And in the house we moved with gravid ease,
our brains turned crystals full of clean deal churns,
the plash and gurgle of the sour-breathed milk,
the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps.


The predominant image in the poem is of milk, shown in all its stages on the way to becoming butter. From a vegan perspective, or at the least looking at the poem with a view to the animals, human and non-human, depicted therein, milk is necessarily a powerful image. Produced by mammals for the feeding of infants to provide quick development and growth and coming only from female bodies, it is necessarily a feminine image. To divorce it from the idea of motherhood is neither honest nor prudent, especially considering the familial theme of Heaney's poem. The first image presented is of the "hot brewery of gland, cud and udder" (4), which interestingly presents the mother cow which produced the milk more as a machine than as a living being. "Brewery" suggests something intended for consumption, a mechanical way of looking at the situation which is at odds with the organic nature of the rest of the poem. Afterwards, more homey language is used, churns and wood and earthenware which have a more obvious influence of living hands, being "scoured/with plumping kettles and the busy scrubber/echoed" (6-8). This transitions into the presentation of the second mother seen in the poem, which is acknowledged openly as a mother. "My mother took first turn, set up rhythms/that slugged and thumped for hours. Arms ached./Hands blistered. Cheeks and clothes were spattered/with flabby milk" (14-17). The image is certainly not pretty, as the amount of effort needed to transform the milk into butter is great.

The final obvious image of motherhood is presented in line thirty-one, which is part of an illustration of the house after churning day, when the butter is stored in the home. Heaney writes, "in the house we moved with gravid ease,/our brained turned crystals full of clean deal churns" (31-32). Gravid is a word meaning pregnant, or carrying young. This connection between churning day and pregnancy may be only a coincidence, the pregnancy being metaphorical, but criticism does not deal in coincidences. The feeling of motherhood, of something impending, and of the brains transformed into receptacles for churns, is a complicated and perhaps baffling image. However, piecing it together in a vegan feminist context makes for an interesting reading of the poem. The milk being taken from the mother and child it would have belonged to without human intervention, the churns nevertheless, with their hollowness and potential for creation, echo back to the womb implied in the word "gravid", as well as the mother cow and the human mother who took another's milk to provide sustenance for her family. This knowledge, or at least unsconscious feeling, of  the feminine aspects of churning butter, the use of female bodies in its production, mixes interestingly with the images in the last stanza of the poem.

"The house would stink," Heaney says, "acrid as a sulphur mine" (27,28).  The butter is in slabs on the shelves; the milk is "sour-breathed", and spades are used to deal out the butter (30,33,34). It is difficult, looking at the other images, not to read a sense of guilt or shame into the tone of the last stanza. While accomplishement flecks the third stanza, the house is left with an unpleasant smell, a reminder of what has happened in this household. It is not the intention of this writer to in any way imply that Heaney's intent in writing this poem was to question or demean the idea of churning butter. However, poems may change in implication with the audience that reads them. As Heaney's poems frequently involve some sense of guilt or shame, whether over violence in the present or in Irish history, this kind of imagery and lingering guilt seems present in this poem when read from a vegan and feminist perspective. I'd like to apologize to my readers if any of this seems stretched or off-base. However, the poem's dual mothers and interesting tone have proven an interesting examination of dairy as a feminist issue, or at least as an issue of the use of female bodies, which is the same thing.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sexual Dualism in the Tao Te Ching

Religious texts, like all others, contain ideas of gender, whether they intend it or not. The Tao Te Ching is a key example of this, since dualism natural lends itself to the idea of a male-female dichotomy. That is, the following poem in the Tao Te Ching raises questions to this blogger of a problematic gender theory, interesting in such a well-regarded text:

28. Becoming

Using the male, being female,
Being the entrance of the world,
You embrace harmony
And become as a newborn.

Using strength, being weak,
Being the root of the world,
You complete harmony
And become as unshaped wood.

Using the light, being dark,
Being the world,
You perfect harmony
And return to the Way.

(Translation obtained from Click Here to Read a Cool Text!)

Feminist readers will be familiar with the social construct common in many cultures whereby femaleness and maleness are seen as direct opposites or complements, rather than different but sometimes similar forms of identity. As far as the idea of sexual relations, for example, men will be cast as active aggressors and women as passive vessels of male desire. None of this can be shown as categorically true. Rather, maleness and femaleness are gender identities formed in their own right, just as female genitalia is not simply lack of male genitalia. This becomes interesting when considered along with the Taoist theme of the poem. The idea of femaleness and maleness as directly opposed is clear in the poem. The parallel first lines of each stanza show this. "Using", an active verb, is used with the "male' attributes--strength and lightness. "Being", a passive verb, is used with "female" attributes of weakness and darkness. This association may not bring with it the negative connotations it might take in a Western text, but the dualism common in both cultures is definitely evident. After all, gender roles need not be negative on their faces to have a impact, and femaleness clearly has high regard in Taoism, as does maleness. Both are cast as essential aspects of the universe, and femaleness is even regarded as the state of "being" rather than "doing", which gives it a higher aspect given Taoism's tendency towards inaction. However, from this writer's perspective this is a strange text to simply accept as it is. The idea of maleness as powerful, active, and bright, with femaleness as passive and mysterious, reinforces many of the ideas that keep men and women locked in very traditional roles based on their sex, and encountering such dualism in an Eastern text only serves to show that gender dualism exists in many cultures across the globe.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hi Hi

Women all over the world have a lot in common. Many differences exist as well, but issues facing women can be fascinating to study and compare.One of the fascinations of world literature is the examination of female issues in the literature of various countries. This blog is going to aim at addressing these issues without losing a sense of the wonders of world literature. Hopefully, it remains entertaining while providing some interesting insights. It is written by myself, a college student somewhere in the Midwestern United States, so the perspective may be a little skewed, but a great effort will be concerted to view each work of literature in its own context. The challenges of world literature are a great way of examining multiple feminisms, which is the aim and interest of this blogger and hopefully any readers who find her words of interest. This is blog is an assignment for  a class, so subject matter is somewhat directed.