This Week's Show •

The Many Faces of Ferrante

This is a rerun, prompted by the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, based on the  “Neapolitan Novels” of Elena Ferrante. Ferrante’s identity remains beguilingly unknown, but she has put so much of her life and ...

This is a rerun, prompted by the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, based on the  “Neapolitan Novels” of Elena Ferrante.

Ferrante’s identity remains beguilingly unknown, but she has put so much of her life and world in this masterwork that we’re not going to dwell on that part of the mystery.

Instead we’ll count the many faces of her novels. From the outside, the books look innocuous enough: their covers are airbrushed photo collages of mothers, daughters, and girls in Mediterranean scenes.

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But deep down they are roiling, and white-hot: with male violence, women’s resistance, pleasure, trespass, and loss. Think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” rewritten into a feminist epic.

Ferrante pushes the story over a long roller-coaster arc, and it can be as gripping as soap operas, HBO, or Harry Potter and—at moments—as deep and humane as Proust.

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A few of the things these books are doing:

The psychology of a friendship.

The Proustian gene shows itself from the very beginning of the novels: when Elena Greco—an aging, successful writer from Naples—hears that her best friend Raffaella Cerullo, whom she calls “Lila,” has disappeared from her home.

Greco decides to set down their entire friendship on the page: every meaningful moment, from school competition through teenage cruelties, weddings, vacations, and shared pregnancies.

All the while Elena and Lila become closer than close—almost interdependent in a sometimes tense and jealous pairing. The joy of the book comes from standings inside the two friends’ field of influence: where does one friend end and the other begin? Who would they be without one another?

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20th-century feminism, a life story.

Our guest Dayna Tortorici, co-editor of n+1, reads Ferrante’s whole body of work—she wrote shorter novels before the “Neapolitan” series—as a sensitive portrayal of women’s power in practice and across history.

Not as high-falutin theory, but almost as gossip:

Ferrante’s novels animate these ideas with a generous clarity. In her work, you can see how the mother-daughter paradigm operates in all relationships between women without reducing them to cardboard… Ferrante has given intellectual and literary women an invaluable gift: books that speak to them in a language their mothers can understand.

By the end, Ferrante’s two brilliant heroines have clearly come a long way from the fates of their mothers, eaten up by abusive husbands and the fatigue of motherhood. But also not as far as we might have hoped.

A dark theory of history.

That leads to the most shocking thing the novels do: they become political and philosophical; right when you think Ferrante will spill all her gossip or tie up her threads, she stops short.

It begins in postwar Naples, a world of poverty and danger:

Our world was like full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.

It ends in a Naples that has been “developed,” put through the wringer of fifty years: Communist-Fascist street wars, organized crime, heroin, disaster,  and financial crash.

The narrator Elena Greco sounds like a radical philosopher when she holds forth on the lessons of her hometown in the final volume:

Naples was the great European metropolis where faith in technology, in science, in economic development, in the kindness of nature, in history that leads of necessity to improvement, in democracy, was revealed, most clearly and far in advance, to be completely without foundation.

To be born in that city— I went so far as to write once, thinking not of myself but of Lila’s pessimism— is useful for only one thing: to have always known, almost instinctively, what today, with endless fine distinctions, everyone is beginning to claim: that the dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.

The radical politics failed; the violence rattled on. What remained constant was the interpersonal enchantment of two women, two wills, in a hostile place.

Sabine Weiss, A Street in Naples

Sabine Weiss, “A Street in Naples”

By the way, Michael Reynolds, the (English) publisher of Ferrante’s novels, spoke to us about the Ferrante phenomenon this week in prep for our show. You can listen to an excerpt of our conversation here:

Have you read Elena Ferrante? Leave a comment below, and please tune into the show.

Podcast • October 13, 2016

The Locker-Room Election

Donald Trump’s gross behavior towards women has been self-evident for years. Even The Donald himself, seen in this Howard Stern video from 2006, agrees that Donald Trump can be called a sexual predator. So how do ...

Donald Trump’s gross behavior towards women has been self-evident for years. Even The Donald himself, seen in this Howard Stern video from 2006, agrees that Donald Trump can be called a sexual predator. So how do we explain the shocked (shocked!) reaction to the non-revelation of the Billy Bush bus tape?

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Perhaps an answer can be gleaned from an entirely separate incident. It’s October 1971 and William Friedkin’s The French Connection is playing to a packed, all African-American audience in a movie theater in Harlem. Up on the screen, Gene Hackman’s character, Popeye Doyle, turns to his partner and mutters, “Never trust a [N word].” The audience erupts — in cheers.

Why? Because finally, African-Americans were hearing the language they had always known was being said by NYC cops in real-life behind closed doors.

Jill Soloway, the creative force behind Transparent, writing in Time magazine this week describes a similar reaction to watching the bus video: “I was thrilled because it was finally out in public. What men say behind closed doors. Currently renamed as locker-room talk.”

One big takeaway: Language matters.

This week on Open Source we’re unpacking the gender politics operating behind the scenes in the Locker-Room Election.Eileen Myles wants to take Trump’s defensive words at face value: let’s talk about what “locker room banter” actually is, another hidden domain for patriarchy.

And Felix Biederman, creator of the centrist pundit parody Carl Diggler and co-host of the brilliantly vulgar Chapo Trap House podcast, helps us turn the corner into a conversation about language and the fine line between what different generations find forgivable and unforgivable in speech.

Plus, Labor of Love author Moira Weigel, political philosopher Rafia Zakaria, and Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan join us live in studio to flesh out what we’re really talking about when we talk about Trump’s words.

Podcast • June 16, 2016

Susan Faludi: My Father, The Woman

We’re really feeling the fault lines of human identity in 2016: the vexed questions of who we are, who we aren’t, and who we’d like to be. The “angry white male” is back—and voting. Some ...

We’re really feeling the fault lines of human identity in 2016: the vexed questions of who we are, who we aren’t, and who we’d like to be. The “angry white male” is back—and voting. Some kids on campus are so rigidly identified—by race, sex, or orientation—that they’ve lost the ability to speak to each other. Single-sex bathrooms are suddenly a political battlefield.

In her captivating new book, In The Darkroom, the eminent feminist and reporter Susan Faludi has lots of lessons for this moment. She learned them in the company of her father who—estranged from her and aged 76—emailed his daughter with a bombshell: he now identified as a woman after reassignment surgery in Thailand.

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Steven Faludi left many selves behind him. Born István Friedman, the son of a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, he shed his religion, his family, and his home after the tribulations of the Holocaust. He resurfaced in Brazil as a “swashbuckling” bachelor filmmaker, then again in New York as a domineering, sometimes violent, all-American suburban dad.

In her memories of her childhood, Susan Faludi reveals what “patriarchy” feels like at the level of everyday life—her thin-skinned father belittled and spoke over her and her mother, forced her to wear traditional Hungarian peasant dresses, and even attacked her after she attended a church meeting. Steven, then passing as Christian, didn’t want his daughter to abandon her Judaism:

As I was drifting off to sleep that night, my door flew open. My father stormed in. “I created you,” he shouted as he yanked me out of bed. He grabbed me by the neck and began knocking my head against the floor. His torrent of wrath was largely incoherent, but his point was clear— that he wouldn’t have a Catholic child. “I created you,” he repeated as my head hit the boards. “And I can destroy you.” Thus did one daughter come to know that her father was a Jew.

In the Faludis’ world, matters of personal identification were confused, obscure, and still deathly important.

When Steven, now Stefi, asked her daughter to write her story, she may have been hoping for a fairy tale of last-minute self-actualization. And in her research, Susan realized that many trans memoirs play out that way—in what she calls “sugar-and-spice accounts”:

The before and after states I read often seemed cast in hell and heaven terms… The memories that predate operation are often cast as belonging to someone else, a person who no longer exists.

But Susan’s memory of her father—the man she watched break into the house after a separation to beat and stab her mother’s lover with a bat and a Swiss army knife—wasn’t easily eclipsed by the new woman she met in the hills outside Budapest. It took a long period of self-disclosure before the two arrived at compassion, care, and love. 

It’s an uneasy question about the identity voyages we’re watching today—how does a new label, even a new body, relate to the same old self?

Steven Faludi had worked as a photo retoucher for Condé Nast, airbrushing away imperfections. (Susan remembers his narration: “See, she no longer has that unsightly mole! Look, no more wrinkles!”) After her transition, Stefi Faludi modeled herself single-mindedly on a ‘50s housewife—a kind of perfect reversal of the long “macho, aggressive” period.

And yet Susan is pleased that in the last two years of life, her father finally relaxed into her own skin—identifying not as a woman, but as “a trans.” That’s “trans,” less as in category “transition” than in the “transcendence” of identity categories themselves. It sounds like how Susan Stryker, a pioneer in this thinking, describes the trans identity: “something more and something other.” “It’s a phrase I really love,” Susan says.

You can support Open Source by purchasing Susan Faludi’s new book, In the Darkroom, on Indiebound or Amazon.

 

October 14, 2015

Women After Prison

Two weeks ago, we spoke to incarcerated men reentering society about lives full of panic and the hard road ahead. But women are the news of mass incarceration right now — so we’re following up. ...

Two weeks ago, we spoke to incarcerated men reentering society about lives full of panic and the hard road ahead. But women are the news of mass incarceration right now — so we’re following up.

Compared to 1980, seven or eight times as many mothers, sisters and daughters are serving time in American prisons — they’re the fastest-growing sector of that enormous population. More than a million American women are under the control of our penal system now: mostly on probation but including more than a hundred thousand behind bars right now. 

Netflix’s series, Orange Is The New Black, has turned the incarceration of women into a headline by representing it as half-tragic and half-comic world, a M*A*S*H for the present moment, in which the women are menaced by male guards and plagued by addiction and mental illness, but keep on cracking jokes — saved by sisterhood and occasional sex.

Some of that may be true, though our guest, the formerly incarcerated activist Andrea James, wants to remind us that this particular problem isn’t especially funny. The others, Denise Lewis and Wanda Luna, speak of a heaviness in women’s prison: the pain of separation from children and partners. And women carry a battery of preexisting problems with them into lockup: a history of bad mental and physical health (often untreated), records of domestic violence, and near-universal substance abuse.

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On top of that, only about 1 in 3 women is locked up because of a violent crime, compared to more than half of incarcerated men, leading James to argue that women, for the most part, are locked up for “hurting themselves.”

With the former newscaster and minister Liz Walker, we’re listening to three local women tell personal stories of trauma, abuse and separation, and to consider the gender gap in incarceration.

 

 

Podcast • October 30, 2014

Jill Lepore: The Feminist and the Superhero

The Harvard historian Jill Lepore – prolific, impish, a super-mom, politically engaged and still professorial – is giving us the kinky inside story of Wonder Woman that you never suspected reading the old comic book.

The Harvard historian Jill Lepore is giving us the kinky inside story of Wonder Woman that you never suspected reading the old comic book. Lepore stumbled on it while she was researching a New Yorker piece on Planned Parenthood and its founder Margaret Sanger. It turns out that the man who invented Wonder Woman in 1941 – as a match for Superman – was related by common-law marriage not just to Sanger but to the birth control and feminist movements in their World War I heyday.

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William Moulton Marston was a Ph.D. psychologist (and inventor of the lie detector), a bigamist by conviction and a female-supremacist in doctrine. He lived a radical bohemian life under one roof with two women and had children with both of them.  Wonder Woman was Marston’s model of the new woman he thought should rule the world.

But when Marston died after World War II, Wonder Woman was domesticated and diminished. In other writers’ hands, Wonder Woman became a babysitter, a fashion model and a movie star in the 1950s. In Jill Lepore’s telling, Wonder Woman is a morphing mirror of the women’s movement itself.

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WWII-era “Wonder Woman” panel, done by cartoonist H. G. Peter.

Right now, she says, that story is missing its happy ending — but where there are Wonder Women, there’s a way.

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