Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, July 24, 2023


Second daughter

Daughters One, Four, and Three

Three times this week I have started writing a post, about why I can't write a post because I keep getting interrupted by real life, only to be interrupted by real life -- an emergency molar extraction for a child, the wedding ring being repaired, the million demands on the at-home parent when dad and oldest brother are canoeing with the Scouts in Virginia for a week. This weekend everyone was home, and so we took it in shifts to watch Barbie. I have four daughters, ages 21-13, and they went first, all dressed up because it's fun to dress up sometimes. The girls came home with opinions, but wanted to wait to discuss the movie until we'd all seen it.

So Darwin and I went, not in costume, because although it's fun to dress up, it's also nice not to have to dress up. And we were amused, for the most part. I am not a great fan of Greta Gerwig's oeuvre. Lady Bird left me unmoved by the angsty, self-absorbed teen protagonist, and Little Women was a revision of the literary source ungrounded in historical realities and attitudes (and burdened by the talented but ubiquitous leads, Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet). But perhaps, we thought, Gerwig might have the overblown touch necessary for a camp property like Barbie.

In part, yes. The early absurdity of Barbieland, in which the perfectly sculpted characters move and act in ways believable to anyone who's ever watched kids play with their toys, was Technicolor fun -- and fun is the operative word in a movie based on a toy. But you've seen just about all of it in the trailers. Gerwig succeeds, to an extent, in humanizing her main Barbie character, aided immeasurably by the talent of actress Margot Robbie. But the only way she can deal with Ken, or with any male character in the movie, or any character who is not Margot Robbie Barbie, is by making them more, not less, of a caricature. And that's a problem in a movie that's trying to tread the ground covered with far more real human drama by The Lego Movie, which managed a much smaller-scale real-world crisis with surprising humanity.

Humanity is in short supply here. Indeed, Gerwig wants to use Barbie to make a profound point about the role in women in society, but she can't succeed in grinding her pink plastic ax to a razor's edge because she's unwilling to make any profound points about the role of men. Every man in the movie, from Ken to Will Ferrell's cartoonish Mattel CEO to a comically irrelevant husband and father (a toss-off gag), is as plastic and malleable to Gerwig's whims as Gerwig wants to claim that women are to the patriarchy. And this one-note story service isn't limited to the men, who are never presented as actual people. A real-world mother and her teenage daughter become Barbie's guides and co-conspirators, urging her to act and to value herself for herself. The bond shared by Barbie and the mother is surprisingly effective. But the teenage daughter, a vicious little piece of work -- all the abrasiveness and clever self-absorption of Lady Bird without the internal life which gave Lady Bird her context -- is like Barbie herself, only the prop that makes the mother "Mother". 

This movie is, in fact, a middle-aged woman's dream world of matriarchal relevance, where daughters are inexplicably hostile and then inexplicably appreciative, where Barbie can be sexy without sex because men are all emasculated buffoons (Barbie and Ken, as specifically revealed in dialogue, have no genitals), where men seem to be able to take over society simply by uttering the magic word "patriarchy", where women are Supreme Court judges and President and Chemists without having to demonstrate a lick of the grunt work that goes into politics and higher education. One of the few moments in the real world where the humor gives a nod to truth is where Ken is at a hospital demanding to be allowed to do surgery because he's a man, and the tired woman in scrubs tells him no. "Let me speak to a doctor!" he insists. "I am a doctor," retorts the woman, and you believe it in a way you don't believe in Nobel Prize-Winning Barbie. Ken doesn't ever act the way that boys play with corresponding toys such as GI Joe because, as Darwin noted, Ken was never a boys' toy, only an accessory to Barbie. The movie makes this point early on, but doesn't resolve it in an interesting and truthful way on its own terms.

The contrast with The Lego Movie, which did succeed on its own terms, is informative. There, each story line, toyland and real life, resolved honestly in its own world, and that worked because The Lego Movie only attempted to make a small, intimate point about the real world: the conflicts between the ways parents and children interact with beloved toys, and how that crisis of control can be bridged by love and some sacrifice. No matter the scale of the work of fiction, the only true points that it can make about the world are small and intimate and interior, because people are themselves small and intimate and interior. 

Barbie the Movie, however, wants to make a grand point about the necessity of feminism to counteract the oppressive demands society puts on women -- a society, it should be noted, that is 50% women. How do all these highly-qualified Barbies come to be oppressed by a buffoon like Ken? How can a vote to change the Constitution of Barbieland be so scary that the Barbies have to lure the Kens away from voting, when Barbies outnumber, and can therefore outvote, the Kens? Why does the grand plan to defeat the Kens give credence to pick-up artist cons? Why does the unbrainwashing of the Barbies work by capturing each one and forcing her to listen to an impassioned speech, when every intervention I've ever seen on that model in real life mostly makes the intervenee dig in and put up defensive walls? That's fantasy, if you like.

In the end, the movie's frenetic pace grinds to a halt as Barbie is encouraged to actualize herself into being human by the ghost of her original American promoter, Ruth Handler (whose historical significance in Barbie's propagation consisted of manipulating markets by bypassing parental gatekeeping and selling a German sex doll directly to children through the medium of commercials on the Mickey Mouse Club). This is the lull where, in sleepovers yet to come, the girls (who mainly want to watch fun Barbieland antics and the Kens' farcical yet satisfying dance-off) wander off to have cake or open presents or check memes together. No one wants to watch Barbie being human in a movie which doesn't have a firm grasp on what it means to be human. It succeeds at moments because Gerwig, who is a talented procedural filmmaker, gives Barbie flashes of real insight. (A moment of wonder, where a stunned, luminous Barbie realizes the individuality of each person at a park, touches transcendence.) But she can't extend that humanity to every character. As a result, where the movie is absurd fun (and that's most of it), it works, and where it tries to be deep -- well, what better time to engage in real-world interactions like cake and sharing memes? Not every movie is so considerate as to telegraph where you can stop paying attention to it.

In case you were wondering: the four daughters (who enjoy the advantage of being surrounded by hard-working, supportive father, uncles, grandfather, and boyfriend) enjoyed the funhouse aspect, but were unmoved by being told how oppressed they were, either by the plastic dolls they don't play with, or by the destructive unfriendly kind of teen girl they avoid in real life. "Why didn't they give her some backstory to show why she's so cruel?" one asked. My 14yo son, disappointed because his parents ruled against him seeing the extended nudity in Oppenheimer at this moment in time, but understanding and accepting the reasoning, decided against seeing Barbie, and I'm glad of that. He's not irrelevant to the women in his life, nor a jerk, nor an idiot, just a guy who knows that a Pitch Meeting spoof will tell you more about the movie than the movie itself.

Monday, July 10, 2023

A Change is as Good as a Rest

No rest, but lots of change coming...


First off: we are not dead, we are just in the theater. And you can be too! We are putting up Fiddler on the Roof this weekend, Friday July 14-Sunday, July 16. If you happen to be in the Central Ohio area, come see us! Various Darwins appear in various roles: I am Golde, Eleanor is the Singing Russian, Isabel is in the Dance Corps, Jack is a Jerky Russian, William is a Jewish Boy, and Darwin is Tech Director. 

Golde is a great role, and I enjoy playing her, especially against our Tevye who is an old pal of mine, but I've felt all along that that I haven't been getting her quite right. Darwin, who's been watching the rehearsals from the balcony as he's setting the tech, put his finger on the problem: "You're softening the lines," he said. "You can't imagine scolding like Golde does in real life, and so you're trying to deliver these lines the same way you would if you found yourself saying this kind of thing at home. But Golde doesn't pull her punches. She's always performing, to an imaginary audience or to God, and she's always projecting, "Can you believe the shit I have to put up with?"

He's right, of course, and I found that it's opened up the role for me to stop projecting my personality onto Golde. Go big or stay at home. It helps to break the fourth wall and kvetch directly to the audience. Being in costume also helps me get into character, as does just running the show every night -- that's where most of my best work happens in terms of building character and picking up business. It's much easier to add bits once you have a set and props.

So come see me (but not my hair; that's verboten) and some of Delaware, OH's finest tread the boards in Fiddler!


And here's the change: 

Two weeks ago I attended a conference at CUA on the Ward Method for teaching music to Catholic schoolchildren. It's the best program you've never heard of, based on quick and simple lessons that build facility with intonation, sight reading, notation, composition, and conducting, leading to fluency with Gregorian chant. Trained vocalists and musicians at the conference were all saying, "I wish I'd had this as a kid!" I'd like my own children to have this excellent foundation in music, and not just my own children, but the children in my parish and in my hometown.

And I told our pastor that I'm willing to go full-time teaching the Ward Method at our parochial school this year, and in order to support that, we're enrolling our three youngest children in kindergarten, fourth, and seventh grades.

This is a leap of faith for me, akin to descending to the Titanic in a bathysphere. Our school is transitioning to a Montessori/Classical model, which is one reason we feel it could be the right time to make this change, but as the transition is ongoing, I don't have any assurances that my youngest will actually be part of the Montessori roll-up. We have never operated in a school environment, with all the regulation and regimentation and schedule that entails. I mourn the disruption of my comfortable, pleasant family lifestyle, in which we operate on a different timeframe than the rest of world, moving at our own pace, free during the days for reading and appointments and workmen and grocery shopping.

I sought the wise counsel of a friend, which helped me to see that in all of this, I'm mainly wrestling with myself. My older children, when I presented the idea to them, all shrugged and said, "Sounds good, you should do that." The younger kids are very excited to go to school, far more excited than I am to send them. Darwin, able to work from home most days, will continue overseeing of the two high-school kids, who will still be taking community college classes. I've been volunteering at the parish with both music and children for more than a decade now, so I'm not an unknown quantity there. This new situation formalizes much of what I've been doing informally for a long time, and perhaps that what is giving me so pause now that the initial feeling of grace and confidence has deserted me: I value informality and flexibility, and now I need to discipline myself and conform to someone else's schedule, to which I will be bound not as a volunteer but as an employee.

Doubtless the excitement of my first decision will return. I've been on an emotional pendulum, crying all morning before I enrolled the children (a sorrow, as I say, shared by no one else), a Martha worried and anxious about many things. I trust that I'm also doing the one thing necessary: listening to Jesus and doing as He asks.