Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Anna May Wong: Actor and Activist

Anna May Wong (3 January 1905 - 3 February 1961)

The Arts & Leisure section of today's New York Times features a cover story on Asian-American actors by Amanda Hess titled "We Will Not Be Ignored." (Interestingly, the online version, which I've linked to here, changes the pronoun case from "we" to "they," suggesting the statement about refusal belongs to Hess rather than to the actors photographed for the piece,  Aziz Ansari, Daniel Dae Kim, BD Wong, and Constance Wu--the piece online is titled "Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored.")

Anna May Wong,
photographed by George Hurrell in 1938
The actors not only decry Hollywood's persistent stereotypes of Asian Americans, but also a more recent and troubling trend, "whitewashing": "taking Asian roles and stories and filling them with white actors." 

The term itself is new, and represents a practice different from "yellowface," which refers to white performers using makeup and prosthetics to "play" Asian roles. 

Not that yellowface has gone away, unfortunately (for an NPR story, "Why We've Been Seeing More 'Yellowface' in Recent Months," click here), but for now attention has turned from transforming white actors into Asian characters to the practice of simply erasing Asian characters from source material and then casting white actors to play these racially scrubbed roles.

While acknowledging that it has "never been easy for an Asian-American actor to get work in Hollywood," the Times piece seems to suggest that a combination of hashtag activism, public awareness, and "raw, unapologetic anger" might actually change things, but, then again, Hess concludes, "Whether that translates into change on-screen is an open question." 

An open question indeed. Hollywood has been here before.

Hess's excellent piece unfortunately goes no farther back in Hollywood history than George Takei's Hikaru Sulu in the TV Star Wars series (1966-69) and Margaret Cho's All American-American Girl, which ran on ABC for one season in 1994.

And so today seemed a great day to post about Anna May Wong. Born in Los Angeles, Wong began her film career as an extra in 1919, but by the time she was seventeen, she had been cast in a leading role in the 1922 The Toll of the Sea, a reworking of the Madame Butterfly story.

And that part, unfortunately, signaled the difficulties for Wong--racial stereotyping limited the roles she was offered either to subservient, submissive "China doll" (or "lotus blossom") characters or to predatory, dangerous "dragon lady" parts. She also appeared in a range of roles that called for an exoticized "other"--from a Mongol slave girl (in 1924's The Thief of Baghdad) to the indigenous Keok (in 1924's The Alaskan) and a Native American (to the extent that Peter Pan's Princess Tiger Lily is any kind of representation of a native woman).

But mostly her roles were variations on the Butterfly and Dragon Lady stereotypes. Like other actors of color, Wong was limited by racism, but she was also limited by state censorship boards that refused to screen films that contained depictions of inter-racial relationships. Industry restrictions from 1927 known as "The Don'ts and Be Carefuls" included "miscegenation" as a "shall not"--one of eleven "things" that would not "appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated." The eleven "do nots" and the twenty-five "be carefuls" were formalized in the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPA) Production Code of 1930, frequently referred to as the Hayes Code.

According to the Production Code, "miscegenation  (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden." This act, while not explicitly including Chinese Americans or Japanese Americans, for example, effectively barred Wong from leading-lady roles and condemned her to caricatures of doomed, submissive women or demonic, sexually predatory women. (For "The Production Code and 'Miscegenation," from the Film Reference encyclopedia, click here.)

Wong and Dietrich,
in Shanghai Express
Wong moved to Europe, where she had a spectacular career, culminating in her last silent film, Piccadilly, from 1929. She returned to Hollywood and took one more dragon-lady role, playing Fu Manchu's daughter Ling Moy in the 1931 Daughter of the Dragon (Fu Manchu was, of course, played by the Swedish-American Warner Oland in yellowface).

But in 1932 Wong co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in the unforgettable Shanghai Express. (Wong had met and become friends with Dietrich during her time in Europe.) Wong plays a prostitute, Hui Fei, but in this she is matched by Dietrich's Shanghai Lily, also a sexual adventuress. They are both "coasters"--women who live "by their wits," traveling on the China coast. Dietrich's character avoids rape by the evil Henry Chang (described as a "Eurasian," but the character is played by Warner Oland, again in yellowface), but Wong's Hui Fei is not so lucky. Later the stoic Lui Fei quietly assassinates the warlord. Even better, she survives after she commits this heroic act! (In most of her roles, whether a China doll or a Dragon Lady, she winds up dead.)

After Shanghai Express, Wong again found only stereotypical roles offered to her, and she again sought work in Europe, returning to the U.S. in 1935, hoping to play the role of O-lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth. Who could be better cast in this role than Wong? Unfortunately, the role went to the Austrian actress Luise Rainer, who played the role in yellowface--and won an Academy Award.

Wong continued to work on stage, on television, and in film throughout her life. But as with today's Asian-American actors, she found too many of the roles to be caricatures, too few giving full scope to her talent. 

Like the actors quoted in today's Times, Wong spoke out against the stereotyping of Asian Americans. As Zihao Wang writes, "Her activism and sacrifices to push Asian American identity in entertainment tried to paint a human picture of Asian Americans in a time when stereotypes and prejudice prevailed. Both American and Chinese communities relentlessly critiqued her work. Upon returning from her pilgrimage to China; Anna May Wong commented 'It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I’m "too American" and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.'" 

As filmmaker Yunah Hong, whose documentary Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words premiered on PBS in 2013, notes, "When her film roles were limited, she traveled around Europe performing in cabarets, polishing her talents as a singer, dancer and monologuist. When MGM didn't cast her in The Good Earth, a film set in China, she went to China anyway and filmed her trip. Long before anyone was called a 'community activist,' she devoted herself to the Chinese American community's war effort during World War II."

In 2008, Turner Classic Movies broadcast an incredible series, "Asian Images in Film." Luckily, you can still read the introductory essay (click here), see the entire schedule (you can reproduce the TCM film series for yourself!), and read about Jeff Adachi's documentary The Slanted Screen.* You will also find an extended essay on each of the 35 films in the series, as well as find information about another documentary, Elaine Mae Woo's Anna May Wong: Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times, and Legend (2008).

There are many spectacular images of Wong online--depicting her in the stereotypical roles of China doll or Dragon Lady. They are gorgeous, and you can seek them out if you want. But I chose not to include any of them here.

*Update, January 2020: The wealth of information about the "Asian Images in Film" series is no longer available at the TCM website--if you follow the link above, you get a "bad gateway" notice, and if you search the TCM site itself, "No Results" is what you will find. I thought it worth noting--in a post about erasure, here is yet another example. 

For the time being, you can still see an archived schedule for the month of June 2008, showing the films included in the series (click here).

Update, 6 January 2023: And now, unfortunately, even the archived schedule has disappeared . . . 

Update, 10 March 2023: With Everything Everywhere All at Once nominated for an Oscar Best Picture and its Michelle Yeoh nominated for Best Actress, Katie Gee Salisbury's New York Times essay reflecting on the career of Anna May Wong and the larger experience of Asian Americans in film, is a welcome read! (Click here.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

American Women and Domestic Terrorism

The Deadly War on Women

I was doing a little baking this afternoon, and while I was making my son's favorite cookies (Martha Stewart's Double-Chocolate Chunk cookies, if you're interested), I was catching up on my podcasts.

And so it was that I listened to Gloria Steinem in conversation with Tom Ashbrook, an On Point episode broadcast earlier this week. The starting point for the discussion was Steinem's new documentary series, Woman (airing on the Viceland channel), but the talk ranged widely--though it maintained its focus on women's status in the world, particularly as victims of violence.

(For some reason, the mere discussion of this topic--that, globally, women are the victims of extraordinary levels of violence, enrages some people. The comments section at the On Point website is brutal . . . Apparently the idea that global violence against women is linked to political, social, and economic instability cannot be tolerated.)

One of the very first posts I wrote on this site was about Gloria Steinem (to see that earlier piece, click here.) What prompted me to write today was a comment she made in this recent conversation with Ashbrook--she noted that, in the U.S., since 9/11, more women have been killed by their husbands or boyfriends--domestic terrorists--than "all the Americans who were killed by 9/11 or in Afghanistan and Iraq."

I had heard her make this statement before--but it struck me particularly hard as I was standing in my kitchen making cookies. 

As it turns out, the statement seems to date back to 2014--and as shocking as it may sound, it has been fact-checked and proved to be true:
James A. Fox, a Northeastern University criminology professor, found that from 2002-12, the number of women killed by intimate partners was 15,462. A tally from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showed 10,470 women killed in intimate partner homicides from 2002-10.
Fewer than 3,000 Americans died in the terrorist attacks on Sept.11, 2001. (There were 2,978 victims, but that includes people from 90 countries.) American deaths tied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq total 6,838, according the Pentagon. Together, there were about 9,838 deaths.
In her 2015 Boston Globe story, headlined "In This War on Women, the Death Toll Mounts," columnist Renée Graham makes a similar point, using comparable statistics, adding:
We fret about terrorism and mass murders in public places, though violence against women claims far more victims while receiving a fraction of the attention. It cuts across race, class, religion, and every other demographic line, and is as much a repulsive trait of our national character as racism. With each lethal encounter, there are just as many imperishable scars — children dead or orphaned, families and friends shattered. Every day these women are dying among us; we owe them more than makeshift memorials and weary resignation.

And here is a direct quotation from Steinem, from an 11 May 2016 interview on PRI's The Takeaway:
Domestic violence in this country has killed since 9/11 — if you take the number of [Americans] who were killed in 9/11 and in two wars in Iraq, and in the 14-year war in Afghanistan — more women have been murdered by their husbands and boyfriends in the United States in that period of time than [the number of Americans who] have been killed in all of those incidences of terrorism and wars,” Steinem says. “We are not exempt here by any means. If all of us could raise one generation of children without violence, we don’t know what might be possible.

The Martha Stewart double-chocolate cookies are really good. But I sorta lost my appetite.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Saint Helena and The Establishment of Christianity

Helena of Constantinople (c. 250-c. 330, saint's day 21 May)

A recent New York Times story reported on the "risk of collapse" at the site of what many believe to be the tomb of Jesus, in Jerusalem's Old City.

St. Helena, with the Holy Cross,
portrait by Lucas Cranach,
the elder, 1525
The shared fear over the shrine's survival has calmed long, frequently violent, rivalries among the Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic "guards" who stand watch over it and worshippers who make their pilgrimages to pray there. (There is some dispute about the site of  Jesus's tomb, however--most Protestant Christians prefer the Garden Tomb, outside the walls of Old Jerusalem, "discovered" in the nineteenth century.)

I am not interested in weighing in on which of these sites may be the "real" site of Jesus's tomb--but this story about the the tomb's precarious state provides the occasion for a post on Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, who is generally credited with having helped to transform the Roman empire from pagan to Christian.

Helena was divorced by the Emperor Constantius Chloris in 294, forced out of Rome, and lived in obscurity for the remainder of his reign. She returned to Rome and the imperial court in 312, after her son became emperor. As a Christian, she may have influenced her son's promulgation of the edict of Milan, allowing Christians to practice their faith without persecution. Her son awarded her the honorific title Augusta imperatrix in 325--along with the mandate to find remnants of the cross on which Jesus had been crucified.

In the years 326 to 328, Helena traveled to Jerusalem. In his Life of Constantine, the Roman historian Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, credits Helena with commissioning the construction of a basilica on the site of Jesus's birth, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and of commissioning another basilica on the Mount of Olives, a site where, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus went to pray (in the book of Acts, the Mount of Olives is said to be the site of Christ's ascension.)

She also ordered the construction of the Chapel of the Burning Bush (known, today, as St. Helen's Chapel), at the site where Moses was believed to have seen the burning bush. She is said to have constructed dozens of churches during her time in the Holy Land.

In Jerusalem, Helena's search for relics of the Holy Cross led her to the temple of Aphrodite--according to Eusebius, the temple had been constructed by the Emperor Hadrian (in the second century) in order to make the site of Jesus's burial inaccessible. Eusebius links the destruction of the temple, the excavation of the tomb, and the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Constantine--but tradition holds that it was Helena, in search of the relics of the Cross, who learned that it had been buried in a site covered by the Temple of Venus. She arranged for the the temple to be demolished and, after praying, ordered the excavation of the site, revealing the tomb of Jesus.

The aedicule, or shrine, a 206-year-old structure,
now held together with an iron cage,
constructed over what is said to be
the tomb of Jesus
Helena also found not one but three crosses at the time of the excavation--each one was used to touch the body of a dead man (or woman--accounts differ). The cross that brought the dead man/woman back to life was obviously the "true" cross. 

Helena also found four nails in the tomb--she took them, along with part of the Holy Cross, back with her to Rome. Her private chapel, where she ultimately preserved these relics, later became the basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (tradition says that the floor was spread with earth brought back from Jerusalem--thus the name of Helena's chapel, indicating that part of Jerusalem had been transported to Rome).

My favorite story about St. Helena (her status as saint was recognized after her death) is that she is responsible for having 1,000 cats from Egypt and Palestine brought to Cyprus, where she left them in order to clear a terrible infestation of snakes from a monastery then under construction. Today there are lots of cats at the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats in Akrotiri, Cyprus.

Helena died about the year 330 and was buried in a mausoleum on the via Casilina. The red sarcophagus holding her remains was moved in the eleventh century to the Lateran Palace, but it is now in the Vatican Museum.

Helena's feast day is celebrated on 21 May in the Orthodox tradition (but 18 August in the Catholic calendar).

The Mausoleum of Helena

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Madame de Pompadour: Patron, Cultural Advisor, Artist

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (December 1721-15 April 1764)

Madame de Pompadour, hand on the 
keyboard of a hapsichord,
portrait by François Boucher
The Walters Art Museum (Baltimore) has been hosting an exhibit of the prints of Madame de Pompadour--although she is best known for her role as mistress of Louis XV and the hairstyle named after her, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson is a woman with more to her than beauty, sexuality, and pouffy hair. The exhibit continues through 29 May 2016. (The link to the Walters' exhibit, "Madame de Pompadour, Patron and Printmaker," is here, though I am not sure it is/will be a stable link.)

Poisson was exceptionally well educated by her mother, Madeleine de la Motte, who is said to have recognized her daughter's many gifts and trained her to ensure that she would achieve greatness--a marriage to a wealthy man and, eventually, a place as mistress to the king.

But even before her  relationship to the French king, Poisson's accomplishments are notable. Her early convent education and subsequent private tutoring were supplemented by voice lessons at the Paris Opera and by attendance at the Club de l'Entresol, sometimes described as an "academy dedicated to moral and political questions," where she was exposed to economic and political discussions by clerics, intellectuals, government administrators, and some members of the nobility.

After her marriage in 1741 to Charles Guillaume Le Normant d'Étiolles, she established a salon at the Château d'Etoilles, just outside Paris, attended by painters, sculptors, and many of the French Englightenment intellectuals who came to be known as the philosophes, including Voltaire.

Although her sexual relationship to Louis XV was relatively brief (probably about five years), they remained devoted friends for the rest of her life. He granted her the title of marquise de Pompadour in 1745. 

Pompadour's manuscript
collection of her own etchings,
Walters Art Museum
The king relied on her for political advice, which has been viewed negatively (of course)--she was blamed for France's failures, including a humiliating loss in the Seven Years' War. But she proved extraordinarily successful as a cultural minister, not only in her patronage of the arts, science, and literature, but for her own artistic achievements. 

As patron, she collected a personal library of more than 3,500 volumes, she made sure Voltaire was hired as a historian for the court, she supported Diderot and his Encyclopédie (ensuring it was not suppressed), she commissioned a topographical survey of France, and she helped to establish the Sèvres porcelain factory.

Along with the king and her brother, Abel-François, marquis of Marigny, who with her help had been named "directieur générale des bâtiments du roi, arts, jardins et manufactures," she helped choose paintings for the royal collection and helped to plan and design a number of architectural projects, including the Petit Trianon in Versailles. 

But it is as an artist that she is least well known, and thus the significance of the current Walters exhibit. She was not only a patron of  the gemstone engraver Jacques Guay, she herself learned to carve, putting her own scenes into rings and bracelets, intending them as gifts. To preserve a record of her gemstone carvings, she learned to make and print etchings. It is this artwork, a selection of her 52 etchings and some of her gemstone carvings, now on display at the Walters.  

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, marquise de Pompadour--so much more than a royal mistress who died young. 

One of Pompadour's 52 etchings

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ah, Yes, the Woman Card!

Here Are Just a Few of the Many Unfair Advantages to Which You Are Entitled BECAUSE YOU HAVE YOUR WOMAN CARD!!!!

Since it looks like Donald Trump has now secured the Republican nomination for president, it's time to whip out those woman cards and see what benefits, advantages, privileges, and other goodies they guarantee you as a woman.*

It certainly looks as if those cards guarantee women the right to work their asses off to get an education. Today more than half of all college and university students in the United States are women, and women earn more than 57 percent of all bachelor degrees. Women now account for more than half of all students enrolled in M.A. and Ph.D. programs in the United States; in the academic year 2013-14, they earned 59 percent of the master’s degrees, and 52.2 percent of the doctorates. Women account for nearly half of all the students enrolled in medical and law schools in the United States, and their enrollment in business schools is increasing rapidly.

And, wow, does all that education (guaranteed to them by their woman's card) pay off: If you're lucky enough to be carrying that woman card, here's what you can look forward to:

  • Women occupy 19.4 percent of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress--there are 20 women in the Senate and 84 in the House of Representatives. In state legislatures, women hold 24.5 percent of the seats--1,812 of 7,383 members of state legislatures.
  • Six of fifty state governors are women. In the 1,391 U.S. cities with populations of over 30,000, women are mayors in 262--18.8 percent.
  • There have been no female presidents of the United States in the 240 years since the country declared its independence in 1776.
  • Of the 112 justices who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court, four have been women.
  • Women hold  4 percent of the CEO position in Fortune 500 companies.
  • According to the most recent U.S. Census, about one-third of U.S. physicians are women, 31.5 percent of lawyers are women, 17.5 percent of clergy are women, and 9.7 percent of civil engineers are women (United States Census Bureau, “Labor Force, Employment, and Earnings,” Table 616, “Employed Civilians by Occupation, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012 [Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012]).
  • In the increasingly important world of technology and social media, here are some numbers: At Apple, women make up 18 percent of the company’s management, and while Amazon’s website proclaims its commitment to diversity, only 18 of its 120 "most senior managers" are women, a mere 15 percent. Meanwhile, Microsoft reports that only 26.8 percent of its total workforce is female and that women represent only 17.3 percent of its leadership. At Google, women account for 22 percent of the leadership, at Facebook, 20 percent, and at Twitter, 28 percent.
  • And the wage gap persists; although the Equal Pay Act was passed fifty years ago, in 1963, today women in the U.S. still earn 78.6¢ for every dollar earned by men.
  • Hamilton may be breaking records for Tony nominations, but the picture isn't so rosy for women. In commenting on the opportunities for women writers in theatrical productions, playwright Marsha Norman recently noted, "Women have lived half of the experience of the world, but only 20 percent of it is recorded in our theatres." In other words, "if life worked like the theatre, four out of five things you had ever heard would have been said by men." Onstage and back stage, there is also a colossal gender gap: significantly fewer roles for female actors than male, and noticeably fewer female directors, set designers, lighting designers, sound designers, and choreographers, among other crucial roles.
  • At the same time, on screens both large and small, women face similar inequities. Recent studies of the top 100 films released in 2015 reveal women accounted for only 11 percent of the writers, 7 percent of the directors, 22 percent of the producers, 20 percent of the editors, and 3 percent of the cinematographers. On screen, women played leading roles in only 21 percent of the top 100 films of 2014—but not a single woman over the age of forty-five "performed a lead or co lead role." And none of these numbers address issues of pay equity.
  • While women are more fully represented on television screens than they are in film—in the 2014-15 prime-time season, 40 percent of the “major characters” on broadcast, cable, and Netflix programs were female—they still comprised only 25 percent of the writers, 12 percent of the directors, 38 percent of the producers, 20 percent of editors, and 1 percent of directors of photography, among other roles.
  • Meanwhile, women and girls constitute the majority of the 54.3 million Americans who live in poverty.
  • Two-thirds of the low-wage workers in the U.S. (earning $10.50 per hour or less) are women. Four out of five of these women have at least a high-school diploma--33 percent have some college, 10 percent a B.A.
  • More than twice as many women over the age of 65 (over 3 million) as men (over 1.5 million) lived in poverty in 2014; the poverty rate for women 65 and older was 12.1 percent, 4.7 percentage points higher than the poverty rate for men 65 and older (7.4 percent).
  • On a really cheery note, 94 percent of women who are murdered are killed by men they know.
  • And while exact numbers are impossible to know, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are about 293,066 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year. While this represents a significant (49%) decrease in recent years, it still means that a sexual assault occurs every 107 seconds. While men and boys are also the victims of rape and sexual assault, 9 of 10 victims are female. But note: as the CDC recently reported, the numbers of rape victims are significantly under-reported--as many as 88 percent may not be counted in national rape statistics.
  • And if all this isn't enough, you can be sure your woman card will earn you criticism for your ambition, your weight, your hair, your complexion, your smile, your breasts--well, okay, basically your entire body--your clothing, your voice, your laugh, your tone, your emotions, your driving . . . Well, you get the picture.

That woman card sure gets you the deals, huh?

*Update, 6 January 2022: The links in this post remain live (as of today), but please note that many of them now send you to sites with current data rather than to the figures, charts, and/or graphs that were available when this essay was posted in 2016.

Update, 6 January 2023: Another check shows that the links in this post remain live, though there are many changes to what they link to now. And as far as social media: Facebook has become Meta, but information about women in leadership has been obscured--it is not readily available, and you have to be persistent, but if you're willing to dig, at least some details can be gleaned. As for Twitter, under the "leadership" of Elon Musk, the link now leads to an empty page . . . 

Update, 8 January 2024: Another check on the links. Again, they all work, but some data has been updated from the info I posted in 2016, and still more, particularly for tech and social media companies, has been obscured—I’ve left these last links as is so you can see the sorry state of affairs. When it comes to Twitter, now “X,” all I can say is WTF. I love that the link that used to take you to data about gender in management now takes you to a page that says “Nothing to see here.” Fitting.