Visiting my grandmother’s art at the Smithsonian

Today my grandmother (Eleanor Dickinson)’s art and papers were featured in a new exhibit at the Archives of American Art. The exhibit was giving life and names to iconic models, from the source of a popular series of pin-up girls to animal-muses, it covered a range.

Included were the works and funny memos from my awesome grandmother.

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A friend from work kindly accompanied me and listened to stories about the things and people mentioned and shown in the exhibit. She was a particular fan of the photo of Frida Kahlo.

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She asked if it was weird for me to see my grandmother’s art in the Smithsonian. I said it wasn’t: I grew up knowing my grandmother was an important artist, but I also carry within myself the basic arrogance of family pride. To me, it seems obvious that other people would find my grandmothers and grandfathers and parents and siblings as interesting as I find them. Of course other people would value them, include them in important pieces of work.

It was lovely to see the curator had picked up on the importance of diverse bodies in my grandmother’s art. She talks about how thin, young bodies are much more boring than older, wrinklier, scarred or disabled bodies. Sometimes the translation between person and history can mask those kinds of important threads, but the curator for this exhibit caught it and wove it into the piece as a whole.

In addition, not playing in the space, but available via the website and Archives of American Art’s YouTube channel, an interview with certain mothers of mine:

Artists and Their Models is showing from today to August 27, 2014 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery in Washington, D.C.
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Inspirational Quote:

“The chance of immortality is kind of alluring also.”–certain mothers of mine.

Happy Mothers’ Day to All of My Maternal Figures!

I take great joy in talking about my 3 grandmothers, of whom I am proud in different ways. They hail from the south and the midwest, are spread across 3 timezones and 3 decades. They’ve held job titles as diverse as homemaker, art professor, basketball coach, mother, activist, and teacher. Between the 3 of them, they raised 3 girls and 7 boys. They serve as grandmothers to 13 boys and 5 girls, and probably many other children who are lucky enough to come across their open arms.

Then there’s my amazing, inspiring, enlivening Mom, who deserves all the blog posts in the world but mostly gets free web design services. She’s my friend, my family, and my source of constant encouragement and advice. She’s, in a word, the best.

Last but never least is my Mom-in-Law, Karen, who is my partner-in-crime, and is always ready with a clever idea, a thoughtful observation, and a kind word.

Through her and Jack I also had the privilege of meeting–and getting trounced at bridge by–Joanne Collins, whose passing still rusts my heart. I had the joy of meeting two of my great grandmothers, Omama, who taught me Golf and Kings in the Corner, and Grandma Creekmore, who held my head up when I was too small to do it myself.

I love you, Mom, Baba, Grandma, Oma, Karen, Omama, and Grandma. Happy Mothers’ Day.

Inspirational Quote:

“But that is how things are: I am your mother, and we are kind to snails.”–Fleur Adcock

Choose your heroes carefully


I spent the weekend dress as Jennifer Walters, or She-Hulk, at this weekend’s Awesome Con in Washington D.C. It was fun in the joyous ways all theater is fun–I had make-up, I sewed my costume, I had lines and did research and played with a cast of thousands.

But this weekend was also my first time cosplaying a female character. In the over-a-decade I’ve been attending cons and making costumes for them, I’ve always been some gender-bent version of a man. I was a Winchester from Supernatural, the lead vampire from the Priest comics, and variety of anime characters in high school. I let myself choose only men for my heroes.

That’s why I set myself a challenge, weeks ago when I was deciding what I would cosplay as. I would try to elevate female characters in fandom. As I fan, I can do this by playing them, writing them, talking about them, learning about them. By no longer being lazy in my fan spaces and focusing on the easier-to-find-because-they’re-everywhere male characters.

This isn’t a small task. If you believe as I do that women are the lead characters in their own stories, comics will nearly-always leave you high-and-dry. Exceptions like Captain Marvel and Jennifer Walters demonstrate the rule. Women engaging in media find ourselves the sidekicks, the love-interests, the body in the refrigerator.

Now, I have not met the 3.5 billion people on this planet who are women-shaped, but I doubt many of us think of ourselves as just being sidekicks, love-interests, or motivating deaths. And in refusing to portray us as we are, comic book creators are asking us to suspend disbelief in a harmful way. Men can fly and women can live for decades without aging and mutants can read minds: those are awesome things to believe for the space of a story. That women are slips of people, enough only to further male-leads’ stories? That is battery-acid on my tongue. That is an unproductive, unimaginative suspension of disbelief.

And it’s not just women. (See: intersectionality). As the excellent panel discussion today with Dominic Goodall, Ann Marie Brokmeier, Elizabeth Bass, Samuel Lee said, the unbelievable thing about The Human Torch shouldn’t be that he’s being played by Michael B. Jordan, an African American man–it’s that he will spend most of the movie on fire.

As fans, we’re well-practiced at imagining drastically different worlds and using those visions to help reshape the real one. Anyone who doesn’t think tri-corders influenced cell-phones, Snow Crash influenced Second Life, or holo-displays influenced Kinect, your missing the fun of turning the things you imagine into reality. All activism requires a productive suspension of disbelief–I tend to think that working to end human trafficking is an act of science fiction.

Therefore it is disappointing when comics choose to not represent the world in unproductive ways, erasing from the great narrative many women, people of color, and a whole host of others. Fans are vocal about these problems–this Has DC Done Something Stupid Today day-counter is both hilarious and an easy guide to the many ways comics are failing their fans.

What can a fan do then–only read cryogenically-preserved, Bechdel tested pieces of perfectly representative media? I for one wouldn’t want to. Problematic as they are, much mainstream media contains great stories. Shakespeare had his problems, as do many great modern-and-acclaimed novelists.

I live in the world and sequestering myself from these problematic but sometimes brilliant/meaningful/challenging/touching/exciting/fun stories mostly hurts me and my ability to engage in my culture. The values of Tony Stark or Captain America or Professor Xavier aren’t limited to their gender, and as a woman I can be a fan of their stories while being troubled by a lack of representation. For more on this, check out the Social Justice League’s great post: How to be a fan of problematic things.

While I can love the stories, I cannot allow myself to end up where I have been since I dove back into fandom post-undergrad: with most of my creative efforts going to telling the stories of men. I need to choose my heroes carefully, or the norm of women never being the lead will start to sink into my lizard-brain. As a woman, I can’t afford to lose this battle.

I need to know and believe and be sure that women are full participants in the stories of the world. One way to do this is to find the rare and shining examples of women being treated as full people within media. Another is to take stories where women are originally relegated women to side-kicks, love-interest and motivating deaths, and re-write those women back into being the full people they always were. That is the magic of fanfiction: we can fix problems of representation post-release.

All of this leads to why I spent an hour and a half painting myself green early Saturday morning. Because women have stories, and they’re important, and when I find them in the communities of which I am a part, I will make a special–perhaps even a superheroic–effort to find them and tell them.

Inspirational Quote:

“That’s all I need! A guy with the I.Q. of a Mack Truck telling us “gals” to stay out of trouble!”–Jennifer Walters (Earth-616)

A bit of digital spring cleaning

Thanks to my existing clock of cleaning my house frantically before my friend comes over for our weekly sewing/fangirling session, my house doesn’t currently need much spring cleaning #humblebrag. But my online spaces have gotten a bit musty since the snow started falling, and since I had the day off for DC Emancipation Day, I did some digital cleaning. Here’s what I covered:

What do you do for your digital spring cleaning?

Inspirational Quote:

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter…. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.”–John Burroughs, “The Snow-Walkers,” 1866

Captain America, rather than Iron Man, is America

A friend and I have a party game: take the countries that contribute troops to UN peacekeeping forces and argue about which Marvel superhero characters they are. This probably speaks more to the kinds of parties we throw, but below are some of the most consistent results:

  • USA: Iron Man
  • Canada: Captain America
  • Russia: Black Widow

There are a lot of moments of disagreement, particularly over Israel, Germany, and Australia, Spiderman, Magneto, and Hawkeye respectively, but I have yet to hear anyone seriously argue that Captain America should represent America.

I’d like to make that argument today, based on this fascinating post that came across my tumblr dash. In it, kerrypolka shares the thesis that Captain America was written to shame the U.S. into joining WWII. I had never heard this, but it is true: Captain America #1 went on sale on December 20, 1940, nearly 12 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. On the cover, Cap is punching Hitler in the face. Joe Simon, the creator of the character along with Jack Kirby, created from his political values:

Simon said Captain America was a consciously political creation; he and Kirby were morally repulsed by the actions of Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II and felt war was inevitable: “The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.” Wikipedia [7]

kerrypolka goes on to argue that Captain America is a Jewish-American superhero, judging both from the faiths of his creators and the way he approaches the world as a constructive poem to which he is tasked with contributing a verse. It is the first piece of argument I have read that helped me see Cap as subversive and appropriate to representing the country I love, rather than the worst kind of jingoistic and flat in his source material.

In my lifetime, being pro-war in the way Simon and Kirby were has rarely been a good thing. There are moments when I have been pro-military intervention, Libya being one of them, but being for the kind of war Simon and Kirby knew was coming is entirely different. As I’m writing this, I’m hearing this song recapping WWII from the perspective of a woman on the front lines:

I don’t want to misled: I like Cap, a lot, mostly because I met him through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I love that he fights with a shield, that he hates bullies, that he is honorable and loyal and picks fights he can’t win in the worst way. I like his sass.

I had been liking him less this week as I began to read some of his source material from the mid-1980s with Secret Wars*. In those comics, he’s noble and true, but he also takes leadership positions from women on whims, leaves comrades to be tortured, and generally looks like a microwaved peep**.

Though I generally like Cap, in the party game I always argued that in the context of military engagement, as a country we are much more Iron Man, if not War Machine, in our approach. Yes, we try to defend people, but we also create problems doing so, and our tech gets into the wrong hands often enough to have that be a prominent part of our plotlines. Perhaps even enough to take on an entire 3rd movie. We don’t fight with a shield.

But we should. That’s the whole point of Captain America. kerrypolka’s argument about Captain America’s Jewish-themed approach to the world is convincing. She says:

Judaism has this important phrase/concept/slogan/life motto from the third-century-ish text Pirkei Avot, which goes: Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor (it’s not to you to complete the work of repairing the world) v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena (but neither may you desist from it). You won’t be able to fix the world by yourself, or in your lifetime, but that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility to work towards it.

[...]

And about saying he’s a symbol of US imperial superiority, I mean, he is a symbol of America but aimed as a criticism at real America.  He’s the American ideal cranked up to five million – for the purpose of shaming America for not living up to what it says it wants to be. And he is aimed at Americans, so I can see a criticism for him being US-centric in that metanarrative sense, but he’s yelling at America to sort their shit out and I think him yelling at non-USAmericans to sort their shit out would be much worse? But I definitely don’t think Cap is supposed to be about how great America is, he’s about pointing out exactly in what ways and how much America is failing to be great. And then saying “but, that doesn’t mean you get out of trying harder!”

Without giving major spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which I have now seen twice and will see again), it revives exactly the kind of uncomfortable-making self-criticism that birthed the character in the 1940s. It takes to task a core set of American assumptions around our role in the world. It’s challenging, it makes Captain America challenging, and it’s got me hooked as a mindworm.

That is what is helping me see him as representing the U.S. in our party game. Not that he represents the way we currently fight, which might be closer to Hulk than any other hero if we’re being tough on ourselves, but the way we could be, the way we should be.

We bring this game to the table not just because it’s fun, but because comics give us a shared language for our values. Do we think a country is sneaky and mundane and creative like Hawkeye, or impervious and magical and flaky like Thor? Do we understand a country as being as young and naive and flexible as Spiderman, or as wise and damaged and peaceful as Professor X? Comics like any form of thought-out popular culture contain detailed, generally understood archetypes, short-hand for deeper issues which are uncomfortable to touch head-on.

Like what military role our nation is playing, and what it could play in the future. Food for thought this Passover.

*I’m cosplaying a lesser-known Avenger this weekend and was doing very-serious-business-research for my costume. Also, I had 8 hours of drive time to fill from Montana to Seattle.

**For anyone interested in a wonderful critique of the ways men’s and women’s bodies are portrayed in comics, see the subversive, hilarious, and occasionally enticing Hawkeye Initiative.

Inspirational Quote:

“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — ‘No, you move.’”–Amazing Spider-Man #537