Monday, December 13, 2010

Final Paper: Sula


     Toni Morrison’s poignant and emotionally charged novel Sula is a rare glimpse into the lives of blacks living in post-WWII America.  The plights and heartbreaks of the town serve as the backdrop to the lives of Nel Wright and Sula Peace.  Separately the girls represent positive and negative behaviors, attitudes and lifestyles.  Together, these women firmly stand as a testament to both the strength and the fragility of femininity and friendship.  This essay will focus on the four main binaries found in the novel.  These binaries will be analyzed and observed against French philosopher, Jacques Derrida’s theories of binary relationships.  Derrida says, “If each element is said to be ‘present’ appearing on the same stage of presence, is related to something other than itself but remains the mark of a past element and already lets itself be hollowed by the mark of its relation to what it is not…”  (Derrida).  In addition, Chris Barker’s Cultural Theories and the writings of Simone DeBeauvior will be used to further understand meanings and importance of these binaries.  The four main binaries are Medallion City and the Bottoms, male and female gender roles, the Bottoms before and after Sula’s departure, and most importantly the relationship between Nel and Sula.  Together these four binaries will explain Sula with depth and understanding.
     One of the major binaries found in Sula is the relationship between Medallion City and the Bottoms.  Medallion City is located is located below the Bottoms in an Ohio valley.  The Bottoms is located above Medallion City at the top of a mountain.  A former slave whose master gifted him freedom and land to farm founded the Bottoms.  Lacking the knowledge and any societal privileges, the slave agreed to the arrangement.  Unknown to the slave, he had agreed to land which could not be farmed.  Morrison writes,  “The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds and where the wind lingered all through winter” (Morrison 5).  Despite its flaws, the Bottoms was a beautiful place to live.  The slave owner describes, “…when God looks down, it’s the bottom.  That’s why we call it so.  It’s the bottom of heaven—best land there is” (Morrison 5). 
     In comparison of the two, Medallion City and the Bottoms are starkly different.  In all binaries, one-half of the relationship is afforded some power and privilege beyond its counterpart.  Within this binary relationship, Medallion City is privileged.  Medallion City is a white community characterized by lush farmlands.  Once a plantation, Medallion City blossoms into a flourishing Ohio town.  In contrast, sitting above the valley is the Bottoms.  It is a black community whose poverty and forlorn are offset by its natural beauty.  Throughout Sula, Morrison plays with the idea of opposites.  She often pits characters, places and emotions against each other in stark clarity to better reinforce their differences.  However, the relationship between Medallion City and the Bottoms is opposite in itself.  In most cases, the binary relationship between “up” and “down”, “up” has more power than “down”.  However, in Sula, those living above in the Bottoms experience an impoverished lifestyle compared to those people living below in Medallion City.
     The predominant races of each separate community is also speaks directly to the perceived privilege each area is afforded.  Based on the ideas of Sociology professor, Robert Miller, Barker writes “…the historical formation of ‘race’ is one of power and subordination.  That is people of color have occupied structurally subordinate positions in relation to every dimension of life chances” (Barker 248).  By nature of the race of its inhabitants, the Bottoms was predestined to be less privileged than Medallion City.  The relationship between Medallion City and the Bottoms sets the stage for the remaining major binaries found in Sula.
     The people of the Bottoms are incredibly superstitious.  Weight is given to everyday occurrences that coincide with the town’s major tragedies and happiness.  Prior to Sula’s prodigal return the Bottoms is plagued by a large swarm of birds.  Eva is unsurprised by Sula’s return.  “When Sula opened the door she [Eva] raised her eyes and said, ‘I might have knowed them birds meant something…’”  (Morrison 91).  After Sula’s return to the Bottoms, things began to change.  Mothers who were neglectful of their children became loving and adoring mothers. 
Teapot knocked on her [Sula’s] door to see if she had any bottles.  He was the five-year old son of an indifferent mother, all of whose interests sat around the corner of Time and a Half Pool Hall…When Sula said no, the boy turned around and fell half down the steps.  He couldn’t get up right away and Sula went to help him.  His mother…saw Sula bending over her son’s pained face.  She flew into a fit of concerned, if drunken, motherhood, and dragged Teapot.  She told everyone that Sula had pushed him…  (Morrison 114).
Teapot’s Mamma changed her poor motherly habits and became a fit and model mother to Teapot.  Other instances of change after Sula’s return can be observed in the positive change in relationships between husbands and wives in the Bottoms. 
Wives, who learned that their husbands were sleeping with Sula, became wives that treated their husbands respect and love.  Consequently, the wives slept with their husbands with more frequency and took more pride in themselves and their household. 
Their conviction of Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways.  Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another.  They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst (Morrison 118).
Sula’s return had inadvertently changed the people of the Bottoms.
Nevertheless, just as her return had been detrimental to the change in their behavior, the death of Sula inextricably transformed the Bottoms people into their former selves.  With no moral compass with which to measure their lives against, the people reverted to mothers who overlooked their children and wives and husbands who ignored each other once again.  
Other mothers who had defended their children from Sula’s malevolence (or who had defended their positions as mothers from Sula’s scorn for the role) now had nothing to rub against.  The tension was gone and so was the reason for the effort they had made.  Without her mockery, affection for others sank into flaccid disrepair (Morrison 153).
Sula was catalyst for positive change in the Bottoms.  She reminded the people that were good Christian people, but with her death, the “devil” whose face they saw in Sula was no more.  Without Sula as the constant reminder, the people once again returned their old behaviors.
     The binary relationship between Sula and Nel is the most important relationship found in the novel.  Sula and Nel’s relationship gives meaning to both women’s actions.  Sula is aggressive, spontaneous, irrational, and impassive.  She would be considered cultural deviant of her time. She is educated beyond general school, travels alone, sexually permiscuous, stands up for herself and is unmarried.  In contrast, Nel is passive, quiet, unassuming, and rational.  She represents the cultural norm of the time.  Women of the time are expected to be passive, marry, have children and remain monongamous. All of which are practices that Nel adheres to.  Despite all their differences the two women are fiercly bonded to each other.  “In those days a compliment to one was a compliment to the other, and cruelty to one was a challenge to the other”(Morrison 84).  Derridian relationships define themselves by their relationship with the other.  In a Derridian, binary there is no moment of presence where a sign exists alone.  Instead all signs and their meaning are constantly intertwined with their opposite.  This is the same for Nel and Sula.  Sula and her actions are always defined by her relationship to Nel and it goes for Nel.  Even when there seems to be a moment of presence for either character, both women are still acting in response to their intense relationship.  Nel marries Jude and at the time, it seems that perhaps she has finally exerted her singularity, but with further analysis it is realized that Nel’s relationship with Sula has decided the marriage for Nel.  If the intensity of their relationship did not exist, Nel would not have found it necessary to marry in an attempt prove her individuality. 
Nevertheless, agency is a culturally intelligible  way of understanding ourselves.  We clearly have the existential experience of facing and making choices. We do act, even though choices and acts are determined by social forces, particularly language, which lie beyond us as individual subjects (Barker 236).
Therefore, although Nel has the agency to do as she pleases, her relationship serves as the “force” behind the decision to marry Jude.
     Nel’s marriage to Jude serves as a break in their friendship. Sula leaves the wedding and does not return for ten years. By the time Sula returns to the Bottoms, Nel is fully engrossed in married life.  During the disruption of their relationship, Nel becomes part of a different binary. She becomes the wife in a husband and wife binary.  When Sula returns, she tries to repair their bond.  I believe she tries to do this by sleeping with Nel’s husband.  Before Nel’s marriage to Jude, she and Sula shared everything.  Because Sula is irrational and aggressive, in her mind the most logical way to return their friendship to its once state of intense closeness she sleeps with Jude.  It an act that she believes will reinstate their previous relationship.  However, it does not have the desired effect.  Nel cuts ties completely with Sula and Jude leaves his marriage to Nel.  After Sula dies, Nel goes to visit Eva.  Eva says to Nel, “Just alike.  Both of you.  Never was difference between you” (Morrison 169). Eva is referring to the intense closeness between Nel and Sula growing up.  At first Nel is disconcerted by Eva’s adamancy that they were the same.  However, later as she visits Sula’s grave she realizes that the only person she ever cared for and who ever could offer meaning to her life is Sula.  Nel cries, “‘All that time I thought I was missing Jude.’  And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat.  ‘ We was girls together,’ she said as though explaining something.”  (Morrison 174).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Knocked Up---10/26/10

Is this film a traditional romantic comedy or is it radical?

Knocked Up is a hilarious film that tackles modern social issues without beating the audience over the head with an agenda. These issues include:

Single motherhood
Pre-marital sex
Social Class/ Status
Habitual Marijuana use
Allison is a traditional woman who seems to be seeking a traditional path to marriage and family. Ben us a radical man who does not work, runs a pseudo porn site and who smokes an excessive amount of weed. Allison and Ben’s stark differences in personality and family values eventually cause a riff in their relationship. Allison wants Ben to be more like the traditional man protects and defends his family. Ben at first resists the change, but in the end he changes to become the man that Allison wants.
The topic of abortion is discussed discretely at minimal length when the pregnancy is first discovered. The way it is discussed illustrates the filmmaker’s stance on abortion. The word is never actually used through out the film which suggests that it is never a viable or real option when faced with pregnancy. The different ways that abortion is tackled is telling of Allison and Ben’s socioeconomic class differences. Ben and his father discuss the pregnancy at an L.A. diner. The diner represents their class. Middle class and low status. Ben’s dad supports the pregnancy and never mentions an abortion. Allison and her mom talk about the pregnancy over lunch at a fancy restaurant. This feeds into the idea that Allison and her family are better than Ben and his family. Allison’s mother is unsupportive of the pregnancy. Although never actually saying abortion, Allison’s mother intimates to her daughter to “take care of the pregnancy”. She insists that the “baby isn’t real” because the pregnancy is a mistake. In Allison’s mother’s eyes it would be more socially acceptable for Allison to “take care of it”, than be an unwed single mother. In the end it Allison who makes the ultimate decision to keep the baby. Again this plays into society’s normative view of the mother as the sole decision maker during pregnancy.

"Feminafesto" 10/21/10

Charlotte and Emily Bronte are two of the most celebrated female authors of all time. Charlotte, Emily and their sister Anne published their novels under the name Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.  These novels include Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Charlotte wrote of their decision to publish under assumed names,
"Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' -- we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise." (from "The Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, from the preface of the 1910 edition of Wuthering Heights.

In the “Feminafesto”, Anne Waldman argues for the complete overhaul of modern discourse. Waldman claims that all language is inherently male and ultimately alienating of female writers and feminine audiences. Waldman points out that, “much feminist criticism has centered on the misogyny of literary practice”. Throughout literature women are portrayed as wither good or evil. We women are either “angels or nuns, mothers or nuns, daughters or whores.” Waldman would like to completely change use of the feminine in our language. Women should not be judged first against their own femininity before even being criticized fairly against their male counterparts. An author is first defined as male or female. Male authors are simple Mark Twain or Charles Bukowski. Their gender is not made glaringly obvious in the way that it is for female authors. Anne Waldman would not just be writer Anne Waldman, but female author Anne Waldman. The inclusion of the author’s sex causes the audience to pause and possibly even second guess the credibility of the female author. This double standard for women, Waldman argues, needs to be stopped completely. She proposes, “…a utopian creative field where we [women] are defined by our energy, not by our gender”.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sula Group Project Analysis--- 10/7/10

My group and I discussed Toni Morrison's Sula. As a group we decided that the book lent itself well to Derridian philosophy. So we broke down the novel into four key binary relationships: Medallion City and the Bottom, Nel and Sula, The Bottom before and after Sula, and male and female gender roles. There were eight of us in the group and we decided that we would work in partners to each work on a different binary relationship.  My partner, Jenny and I worked on the binary relationship between Nel and Sula.  We each formed two questions to present to the class during the discussion.  I started our portion of the discussion with a quote from Derrida's Differance and opened the floor for the class to share their thoughts about Nel and Sula.  I found that Nel and Sula were basically complete opposites in many ways. Nel is passive and rational and Sula is aggressive, forthcoming and explicit in her intentions. These opposite personality characteristics form almost a ying and yang. There is no Sula without her relationship with Nel. And same for Nel. Neither characters can stand alone without the other. There is no moment of absolute presence for either woman. I believe their binary relationship to each other drives each one's actions at all times. 

Overall, I enjoyed the novel immensely. It was telling of black experiences during Post WWII era America. I also had a great experience with my group. I often find group projects to be more trouble than good, but I was lucky to find myself in a group that cared about the book and their grade as much I did. I had a great time!!!


Consider all three characters (Webber, Jenny, and Sam) in terms of the romance genre. What is the cultural work being done by each? How does the relationship between the three characters resist and/or protect “romance”?

In the film “10” the main character Webber (Dudley Moore) is suffering from a mid-life crisis at age 43. Jenny (Bo Derek) represents the dream girl for any man going through a mid-life crisis. Sam (Julie Andrews) is clearly Webber’s perfect match. She is smart, educated, talented and understands Webber. He obviously enjoys her company and is torn by his longing to be young and his love for Sam.

In the film, Webber essentially goes off the map in an attempt to meet and woo Jenny. He finally meets Jenny after saving her husband’s life in Mexico. The sex scene that ensues is a debacle of sorts. Jenny is young and aloof, she comes from a different generation of lovers. Webber is older and accustomed to the type of foreplay Jenny wants to engage in. The “10” he fantasizes about and the lovemaking he believes will be a “10” is instead awkward and clumsy. In the end, I assume that Webber realizes that the relationship he had with Sam is a “10” and goes back to her with his tail between his legs.

The relationships in this film protect romance by giving a glimpse at the “other side”. In a relationship, one or both persons involve will find themselves at some point wondering if they may be suited for someone else. And typically, if one of them decides to step out of the relationship for a while what they find is that it was not the relationship they were unsure of but rather themselves. Jenny’s character resists the notion of romance. Webber asks her during their fling if she likes him, her response is that she sleeps with whomever she wants if she feels like it. This crushes Webber, who clearly was hoping that Jenny would fall in love with him and the two could live happily ever after. His objection to Jenny’s liberal notions of love, sex and marriage further protect traditional romance.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Zombies and Radical Romance---Response Paper 10/14/10

Ashly Nelson
October 14, 2010
English 313, TTh 11:00 
Response Paper
Zombies: Radical and Romantic
     Zombieland is a film about an earth that has been ravaged by homicidal zombies.  The film follows geeky loner Columbus with a long list of rules on how to survive Zombieland.
  He begins his journey to Columbus, Ohio to find his parents.  Along the way he meets bad-ass, Twinkie loving Tallahassee and the beautiful and tough Wichita and her little sister, Little RockColumbus quickly falls for Wichita.  I offer the argument that although the film centralizes around survival in this Zombieland, the film reinforces traditional romance under quite radical circumstances.
     In traditional romantic comedies the “boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” formula is always employed McDonald 2) .  Often the leading man is handsome, strong and masculine.  In Zombieland, the leading man does not embody any of these qualities; rather he is cute, quirky, smart and witty.  He is likeable and you quickly find yourself rooting for him as the underdog.  The leading lady in traditional romantic comedies is beautiful and relatable.  Wichita is certainly beautiful but she is a tough con who will not allow anything to stop her and Little Rock from surviving.  It’s at first hard to relate to Wichita but like Columbus you find yourself liking her more and more as her personality is uncovered.  A common trope or narrative pattern used in romcoms is the “meet cute”.  The “meet cute” between Columbus and Wichita happens in an abandoned grocery store.  Wichita and Little Rock pull a con Columbus and Tallahassee to gain their truck and weapons.  Columbus is immediately drawn to Wichita.  For her the attraction comes on slower.  Columbus definitely has a few Woody-Allen-esque neuroses.  He is afraid of clowns and has an almost OCD type list of survival techniques that he swears by. 
     Not long after meeting Wichita, Columbus is faced with the option of leaving Wichita and continuing his journey east solo.  Columbus realizes that “…where this girl [Wichita] is where I wanted to be” (Zombieland). Soft, melodic music plays in the background after Columbus’s subconscious narrates his feelings and the way Wichita regards him almost immediately softens.  The music and soulful looks at each other are examples of specific iconography that is displayed in all romcoms.  Another example of romcom iconography is the scene where Columbus and Wichita are expected to share their first kiss.  They are sitting in a shadowy candlelit room in Bill Murray’s (possibly the greatest cameo ever) sharing a bottle of wine.

  It is a scenario that can be scene in just about every romantic comedy.  The mood is set and kiss is just about to happen…. And then of course the moment is ruined by some intrusion.  In this film Tallahassee fumbles the moment and as always the moment can never be rekindled until the perfect moment usually at the end and after some heroic feat.  After the awkward almost kiss, Wichita and Little Rock take off leaving Columbus and TallahasseeColumbus boldly decides to go after her.  Although the film’s main theme is survival against all odds, it must be noted that Columbus’ actions from this point on are driven by his love for Wichita
     In the traditional romantic comedy, after the boy loses the girl he must win her back through some lavish declaration of his love for her.  In Zombieland, what better way to profess love than by saving the damsel in distress from flesh hungry zombies? 

 In the film’s climax Columbus must face his fear (clowns) and break all the rules he sets forth for himself.  During the film Columbus narrates, “I really want to impress Wichita, but it would be a direct violation of rule #17, maybe the most important rule of all. Don’t be a hero.” But this is exactly what he does.  Columbus loves Wichita and he must prove that by completely abandoning all his hang ups to save her.  This reinforces the idea that love will conquer all.  Columbus’s actions “…continue to reinforce the old fantasy” (McDonald 14).  The film amidst all the blood and gore has a happy ending in which the nerd gets the hot girl.  In real life it’s hard to believe that someone like Columbus could land a girl like Wichita. But the circumstances that they fall in love are so radical in nature that you begin to believe anything could be possible.  

Works Cited
McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy. Great Britain:
     Wallflower Paperback, 2007.
Zombieland. Dir. Ruben Fleischer. Perf. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody
     Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin. Sony Pictures, 2009

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ethnography: Observing Romance in Public Spaces---9/21/10

I work as host in a hotel restaurant. I decided to do my observations from my greeter’s stand at the front of the restaurant. I observed restaurant patrons for the length of my Friday night shift. I have decided focus on three couple’s for my observation and analysis. While more patrons were observed, I believed these three couples to be the most significant in analyzing and relating to back popular culture and romance.
Couple #1
In the restaurant I first observed an older couple in their fifties. This couple is regulars; they sit in the same booth every Friday and order the same meal. There was very little chat or interaction between the couple. Very little affection like hand holding or hugging was observed. They seem to have been married for many years.
Couple #2
Another couple observed was a family of three. The parents looked to be in their forties and the child was elementary school aged. The couple was celebrating a wedding anniversary as noted in the reservation book. The husband made the reservation and had a large floral arrangement delivered to the table before their arrival. Once the couple arrived there was very little affection between the couple. The husband entered the restaurant before his family. He simply states that he has a reservation and nothing more. The wife follows in with their child. The wife and child are enthralled in their own conservation and the husband is promptly ignored. I sit the family at their table that has been adorned with a lovely bouquet. The wife sits in the booth with their daughter and the husband opposite of them. It is not until after I have handed out menus that the wife acknowledges the flowers and meekly offers thanks to her husband. Throughout the meal the female remains unengaged with her husband. Little conversation or affection is exchanged between the couple. The wife’s attention seems to be solely on the child and the husband seems to be focusing his attention on the activity outside their window.
Much different than the couple celebrating their wedding anniversary is a young couple on a date. This couple is in their mid to late twenties, both are attractive and well dressed. When they enter the restaurant they are holding hands and laughing and smiling at each other. I seat them at their table and both sit on the same side of the booth. The man remarks to me that sitting across from her is just too far away. For the duration of their meal the couple can be seen canoodling and whispering into each other’s ears. There is a lot physical interaction among the two and lots of eye contact is made. When they leave, again they are holding hands with very little room between their bodies. They are smiling and thank me profusely for a wonderful meal.
I chose to analyze these three couples out of all the other people observed because I believe that cumulatively they represent the traditional American romance. All three couples are white, and most likely from an affluent background given the pricing of the restaurant and their attire. The couples represent what Americans tend to expect in different stages of a long relationship. In the beginning, there is a certain level of affection that all new couples exhibit. The constant touching, hand holding and whispering sweetly to one another is expected. Couple #3 clearly exhibits all the characteristics of new love. The man wants to sit next to his woman and is unashamed of making his intentions and feelings for her known to a stranger. Throughout this couple’s dinner a steady conversation takes place, along with flirting and lighted hearted jokes that is evidenced by giggling and hand gestures. The sharing of intimate moments in public without regard to who’s watching is also typical of new love. New couples are so enamored with each other and the idea being in love that little else enters their periforary. Couple #3 is a clear representation of what I believe all relationships resemble in their early stages.
Moving on to Couple #2, this couple represents the way children can change any relationship. I do not know how this couple used to interact prior to having a child, but I do assume that the relationship was at some point very much like Couple #3’s relationship. This couple’s daughter is clearly the wife’s most important priority. I wonder if the child had not been there if the celebration of their anniversary would have gone differently. The wife seems to mostly ignore her husband and barely offers any thanks for the thoughtfulness of flowers on their anniversary. Children usually add a new kind of stress to a marriage that does not subside until after the children have moved out of the house and the couple can reconnect with one another. This is clearly shown by Couple #2. The husband seems unfazed by his wife’s lackadaisical response to the bouquet of flowers. This suggests that maybe this was not the first time that he had been ignored by his wife in the presence of their daughter. I have to wonder what reaction the husband was hoping to illicit from his partner because neither one seemed too thrilled to be there having dinner together. In fact the only person who seemed excited about the flowers and the restaurant was the daughter. She was more excited about seeing the flowers than the man’s wife. Although the couple is supposed to be celebrating their anniversary, had it not been for the flowers, onlookers would have been hard pressed to see anything other than a couple and their child eating dinner out. This couple probably at one time adored each other, but their adoration has turned into steely demeanors and a noticeable longing to go home and find solace on their own side of the bed.
Couple #1 seem to have a steady routine within their life. They regularly come to the restaurant and have dinner at about the same time every week. During that time, the same behavior can always be observed between. Although there is very little affection, there does seem to be a comfortableness between them. This is what leads me to believe that they have been married for a very long time. They seem content with habitualness of their actions. Every Friday the wife orders the same entrée, and every Friday she forgets exactly how she likes it cooked. It is as though they are each playing a part and each knows their lines by heart. The only thing different about Couple #1 this Friday, than most other Fridays is that they ordered a dessert to share. Normally they order their entrées within the first five minutes of sitting down and after that has been eaten there is very little lingering. They are usually out with in an hour. However on this night they shared a dessert from across the table. It was the most intimate interaction I have observed between the couple. Couple #1 seems comfortable with the identies they formed for each other within their marriage. The wife is talkative and often answers most inquiries about their day and lives. The husband seems content to remain silent and allow his wife to do the talking.
From an observational stand point there is by no means anything that one would define as radical about any of the romances I observed. This in my opinion makes them even more interesting. Perhaps the radical romance does not actually exist. I’m not quite sure what would make any real life romance, radical, outside of the realm of fiction. Even gay and lesbian romances, fit the same bill. The only difference is that the sexes of the partners are the same. Every romance starts out in the same way. Maybe the real radical romances are the ones that begin and end the same. Still as happily and affectionately as they began.