Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lost Girls: my (textually NSFW) review

To my parents: NSFW means not safe for work. It also means I'm uncomfortable with you reading it. Just throwing that out there.

I’m pretty sure that something can be considered both art and pornography, but I also tend to think those works end up doing at least one of those things poorly. When I picked up Lost Girls, I was told that it was Alan Moore’s graphic novel in which three iconic heroines of children’s literature, Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy, repeatedly get it on. For some reason, from that description, it still didn’t occur to me that this might be porn. I read it as a real graphic novel that seemed to have some major pacing flaws because nothing much was happening besides these broads going down on each other in various settings and contortions. Only after reading it did I discover that Alan Moore and artist-cum-wife Melinda Gebbie had always identified this project as pornography. That makes more sense, but it also brings up some complicated issues.

I was prepared to argue about its artistic merit, but after reading Moore’s remarks I thought, well, that settles that. Many of my complaints with it as a work of art seemed pointless when looking at it as a work of pornography. In Lost Girls, Wendy, Alice, and Dorothy meet by chance as adults staying in the same hotel in Austria on the eve of WWI. They bond over what is presented as their shared uniqueness, a mystery that needs to be unraveled: each had strange experiences as a child, strange dreams associated with sex. They work toward piecing together this mystery by sharing their stories and fucking each other a lot.

The concept itself is fascinating, and I was interested in the idea of expanding on these stories as allegories for the exploration of female sexuality, which I think is complex, wonderful, and scary. In the second book, the women each tell their origin stories—the stories of their first sexual experiences that occurred when they were between fourteen and sixteen years old. Dorothy jacks off during a tornado. Wendy fools around with Peter, a homeless kid she and her brothers had seen in a park. Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole involves following her father’s friend into her house, where he gets her drunk and molests her. So their introductions to sexuality are either through masturbation, fooling around, or forcible. Okay, that sounds like a pretty representative sample. But Moore’s portrayal troubled me. I didn’t trust a man to write the story I hoped to read, one that would explore the intricacies of female sexuality without completely fetishizing it. Despite their young ages, the characters are unanimously busty. They are drawn in form of the sexy-girl trifecta—the blonde, the black-haired girl, the redhead. Beyond this, I found myself objecting to Moore’s character choices. Dorothy is portrayed as a ridiculous hick in her dialect and mannerisms, which could be attributed to Moore’s Britishness. And Alice’s origin story didn’t sit well with me. I always thought of Alice’s descent into the rabbit hole as her own choice, due to her own inquisitiveness. Sure, Wonderland could be a disorienting and terrifying place, but I always imagined her with some agency in the situation that got her there. Regardless, the origin stories showed enough promise to keep me interested, and I couldn’t wait until the girls actually went to Wonderland/Neverland/Oz. At this point, I thought that the biggest problem with this portrayal would be equating these crazy fantasy lands with female sexuality. That’s a little extreme, because while sexuality is neat, it’s no psychedelic acid-trip crazy-world. Instead, one of my big problems with the portrayal is that within it, those faraway lands do not exist. It vaguely attempts to convey a metaphorical existence, but that doesn’t quite work. If Dorothy goes to “Oz” upon her first orgasm, when does it ever stop being Oz? Why focus on these three women at all? All they do in these stories they have to unravel is fuck a bunch of people in incidents that have parallels to those of their classical stories.

In light of the authors’ intent for this to be a work of pornography, my objections to its portrayal of female sexuality are pretty much moot. It is intended to be fetishized, not accurate or overly insightful. It makes more sense as porn than art, because it takes three fascinating stories and re-imagines them to allow for the maximum degree of erotic possibilities. For me, this was particularly stark with Dorothy’s story. What I loved about these three stories as a kid was that these girls traveled to magical, faraway places. In Moore’s re-working, these girls literally don’t go anywhere. Dorothy whacks off and has her first orgasm during the tornado (which leaves her house where it was) and proceeds to stay on her boring-ass Kansas farm and fuck three boring-ass farmhands that were sort of like the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. You want to know how they got their brain, heart, and nerve? Dorothy fucked one guy, and he wrote her a stupid poem (brain). She fucked another guy, broke up with him, and he was sad (heart). She fucked another guy, and gave him the confidence to fuck other girls (nerve). These women had some sexy adventures, but Moore seems to rob them of everything that was special about them. It never addresses the “dreams,” which I thought was going to be their time in their respective faraway lands. For all I know, my mail carrier has had just as crazy, sexy times as these women. I don’t consider these characters sacred, and their likenesses have been co-opted for all kinds of pornography throughout the years. It’s just that reducing these fantastical stories to some girls who pretty much stay in their hometown and fuck a bunch of people is profoundly disappointing.

Now let’s transition to examine the pornography label. Moore was quoted as saying something along the lines of how he wanted to raise the standard of pornography, show that pornography could be intellectual and interesting rather than just seedy and covert. That’s something I can get behind, I guess. I haven’t eliminated that Moore’s identification of his work as strictly pornography is a sort of ruse. Had he called it erotic fiction, for instance, there would be a great deal of outcry about it actually being pornography, and devoid of artistic merit. In calling it pornography, its artistic reception can only go up. But acknowledging it as porn, something intended for people to get off to, creates problems of its own.

There’s an advantage to creating something that technically isn’t porn, but people get off to nonetheless. I think of it as the National Geographic effect. By identifying it as porn, you lose the discreetness and acceptability of having some art that you just happen to privately wank to. However, Lost Girls isn’t something you would be ashamed to have on your bookshelf (unless someone opened it), which is exactly where my friend was keeping the copy I borrowed. In that case, it’s legitimizing porn, which seems to at least partially be Moore’s intent.

I will say that I thought Gebbie’s illustration was beautiful and thoughtful. However, to identify this as porn, rather than art, the authors have dug themselves into a hole with the depiction of child sexuality and incest, and it really is extensive and detailed. There are special protections for art, but if this is for the purpose of high-brow wanking, is it even legal to include children? And if it’s pornography for pornography’s sake, wouldn’t that kind of be, um, embarrassing for the consumers to acknowledge they’re whacking off to extensive incest? The book even contains a discussion of pornography that’s somewhat inconclusive. During an orgy including hotel staff and the three women, the owner of the hotel reads an erotic story about two children being seduced by their mother and father. Wendy objects to the story because she has a young son, and the hotel owner explains that the story is fine because the children are fictional. If it were real, it would be horrifying, but they don’t live beyond this story, and will never have to deal with the physical and emotional repercussions of their actions. The hotel owner is actually supposed to be the author of the story, along with several other erotic pastiches that appear throughout the book. He later reveals that he began these stories when he was living in Paris, fucking two children who may have been his. This casts doubt on his assertion that the story is harmless fantasy, as if the book is asking, “What about YOU, reader?” But it’s true that porn is the single remaining medium that openly embraces stereotypes in the form of fantasy, and continues to accept blatant sexism and racism. After all, you can’t help what gets you off. This is why I think art and porn will always, to some degree, be at odds. They can’t be judged by the same standards. If I saw a ridiculous caricature of a Hispanic maid in a movie, I would be outraged, but if I saw it in porn, I would just shrug and shake my head. I can’t really attest to its effectiveness as pornography, but reading Lost Girls as a work of literature, I became easily bored and disappointed.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Japan Week: GET

It’s finally over, and boy do I deserve a heartfelt “Otsukaresama”. It went really well, thanks to the many helpful ideas I received. I was surprised to learn that these kids are actually really, really interested in Japan. It kind of reminded me of being back in Japan in that they were completely rapt in my every word, and would be fascinated by any piece of information I gave them.

Between the preparations, the language lessons, and shopping at Asian markets, the whole week was a nostalgia trip. As I was going through all of my photos from the past two years in order to put together a brief but informative slideshow, I could feel the nostalgia tugging at me, this time notably devoid of bitterness. I’ve missed my friends from Japan like hell, but for the first time, looking through these photos, I missed the feeling of being in Japan. No one can manicure nature like Japan, that’s for sure. While I maintain that Shi-town sucks pretty hard, it’s startling how much beauty exists even in backwoods Saga prefecture.

Anyway, when I started the slideshow, which was broken up generally into festivals, homes, schools, and food, I ended up spending five minutes on just the first picture because the kids had so many questions. I continued through the slideshow, and the kids had so many questions that half-way through I told them to remember their questions and I would try to answer them at the end. At that point they started shouting out questions instead. Some samples:

“Do they have buildings in Japan?”

“Are there stores?”

“What’s that building behind you? I hope it’s a Red Lobster!”

“What’s difference between Japan and China?”

Even at the end of the week, the kids were still using Japan and China almost interchangeably. I had to repeatedly correct them, “No, ‘arigato gozaimasu’ means thank you in Japanese, not Chinese.” Before I cut the questions off, there were more hands in the air than I could deal with. As soon as I answered a kid’s question, his or her hand would shoot right back up again. Some of the kids didn’t actually have a question in mind when I called on them, and some just wanted to share something they saw on Inuyasha.

After the slideshow, I did the language lesson, which I hoped included a good balance of vocabulary and sociolinguistics. I taught them greetings, bowing, thank you, and how to say “My name is…”, which of course is super easy, because it’s just “(your name) desu.” It reminded me of how good kids are at languages. All of these kids are bilingual except Hayley, so that might have contributed to their ease with Japanese. I really should have taught “yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”

The next day I showed them the two manga Colin happened to have, which was One Piece and Doraemon. The kids knew all about One Piece already, which was good, because I didn’t. The activity where I gave them photocopies of pages with the Japanese dialogue whited out for them to write their own story was too advanced for the little kids, but went awesomely with the older ones. I pretty much took Brett’s advice exactly regarding Pokemon. They did not, in fact, know that Pokemon meant pocket monster, and after I taught them jankenpon, we played the gokiburi game in the gym with the three incarnations of Pikachu. That game was just madness, because it was like live-action Pokemon for them, which was almost too much for their brains to handle. I couldn’t think of a gesture for Raichu, the highest level, so one girl suggested that if you’re Raichu, you jump everywhere. Once you win as Raichu, you’re supposed to battle the teacher (me), but I kept forgetting that I’d told them to jump everywhere. A kid would bound toward me, out of breath, then stand in front of me jumping in place, and I would just say, “Can I help you?” before remembering that I was probably supposed to battle with them.

At the end of every day, I had them stand up, bow, and say “arigato gozaimasu” (fuck past tense) to the teachers. I noticed that when we were bowing throughout the day, there would always be a few kids who just didn’t bow. As they were doing a final thank you bow to the teachers, I noticed a few kids saying to each other, “Don’t bow,” and once they had finished, arguing with a girl over the fact that she had curtsied.

“I didn’t bow!” She said.

“A curtsy is a girl bow!” one kid shot back.

I interrupted to explain to them in Japan that everybody bows the same, but one of the non-bowing kids, a fifth-grade boy named Samatar, said, “But we can’t bow at all. In Somalia, it’s haraam.”

“It’s what?”

Haraam. It’s forbidden, like how we can’t eat pork.”

A lot of the kids tend to mix things up about their culture, attributing things to Somalia that should be attributed to Islam, and vice versa. Regardless, I was shocked. It was a combination of discomfort at teaching them something that was against their religion, and a sort of defensiveness of a practice of another culture. My sense of cultural relativism was trapped between two cultures that weren’t mine, and the resulting feeling was all-around embarrassment. I stammered, “But if you were in Japan, you’d have to bow,” and Samatar replied, “It doesn’t count if you’re in another country.” A little girl who had been one of the ones to abstain from bowing said, “I’ll do it!” and stood up and bowed like a proper Japanese person. I let out a small gasp. Suddenly, I remembered what another staff member had said about his home country, Liberia, and how you always bowed to your elders. I said that there are other parts of Africa where they practice Islam, but bowing is part of their culture. I wasn’t trying to argue, just trying to figure it out. Samatar shrugged and said, “It’s kind of a stupid haraam. We bow when we pray all the time.” Suddenly I understood this haraam, apparently better than these kids did. You bow to god, not to other people. I said to him, “I think it’s okay if you bow here, because we’re just practicing for Japan,” then quickly added, “But you don’t have to, if you’re uncomfortable.” I was shocked because all week, all the kids but one were Somali, and all but a handful had practiced bowing with me.

On the last day, I made nikujaga for them, which they loved, and since we only had a little time before the licensed teacher was supposed to arrive for academic time, I opened the floor for questions. Once again, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. They even followed my long tangents, like when one of the teachers asked me what was the most different thing about Japan. My answer, by the way, was about there being a stock phrase for nearly every situation that doesn’t translate well and isn’t something we’d say in English. They followed me even when I gave examples of the situations, the phrases, and their meanings. More questions and answers:

“Did your back hurt from bowing so much?”

“No, it was usually just a little bow.”

“Will you teach me to write in Chinese?”

“First, it’s Japanese, and second, you already asked me that and I told you if we have some free time, I’ll teach you.”

“What kind of water did you drink?”

“I drank normal water from the sink, but actually, Japanese people thought I was kind of weird for carrying around a bottle of water, because they always drank tea.”

“What kind of tea?”

Before long, the other teacher was waiting at the sidelines, and I told them we had to move on, and they could ask me their questions at the end of the day. As I walked back to my office, the kids continued to shout questions at me.

“Wait! Why do they call it green tea when it’s not green!”

“It is green,” I said.

“Does it turn you green?”


“Even your tongue?!”


“Do they have red tea?”

“No. Now listen to Ms. Kelly!”

Anyway, now that Japan week is over, I’m exhausted. There was other stuff we did too, but it wasn’t quite as interesting to write about. Now that that’s over, I have to focus on getting the kids to learn to read again. Yay!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Holy shit.

I was going through my old Word documents, trying to see if any of my fragments were worth salvaging, and I found this:

I just need to write something now to prove that I exist. I wanted to write something that people would respond to, not because it’s the next great work of literary journalism, but because it’s something, because it resonated, because it was what it was. I’ve long given up the notion that I could produce the next great anything. But if some people read it and like it, maybe that’s enough. I’m in a state now that I hate everything I try to put to words, even when I toy with a few different subjects that are on the list of fragments going stale. All day, I’ve thought, I take so much, I consume so much, I need to produce something. And nothing came out. So I write about how nothing came out, because if I don’t, it will be another day I may as well not have existed, another day of an empty inbox and an internet that updates too slowly. At least I’m leaving this one footprint. I was alive on February 13, 2008, and I couldn’t write anything at all.

Almost a year ago today, and I felt exactly the way I feel at this moment. I've come a long way, baby.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Japan People: Give me your ideas (BRAAAAAAAAIIINS)

So at the after-school program I work at, we have themed weeks, and since I have expertise, next week is JAPAN WEEK! But that means I need to think of actual things to do, which is why I need your suggestions. The kids are really into pokemon, manga, and anime, but I know NOTHING about any of that stuff. Colin has a couple manga in Japanese I can bring in, and I was thinking about scanning a couple pages and photoshopping the lettering out of the speech bubbles and having them write their own stories in groups. I'm making nikujaga one day, and we always have snack so I was thinking about teaching them "itadakimasu" and "gochisousamadeshita". Maybe some really simple language things like numbers and hello and goodbye. I can't do origami worth shit, but I bet the other teachers would be able to learn to make those cranes if we made that an activity.

Basically, what I still need ideas on is how to involve pokemon/manga/anime, and also games. I can't really remember any games that kids played besides jyankenpon, which I could totally do (I tried it once to kill time, to interesting results), and gyutan game, which I can just imagine not working at all. So yeah, feedback, anyone? Also, ninety percent of my kids are Somali, with varying degrees of ESL-ness, so anything with subtitles would probably not work out.