A Drinking Game for Classics-Themed Film

If you have ever studied ancient history or Greek myth, then you know that both are melodramatic, violent, and raunchy AF. Roman political history during the civil wars of the 40s and 30s BCE reads like a damn soap opera. The Iliad and the Odyssey have sex and violence out the wazoo. These stories were practically made for the big screen, and yet often when Hollywood decides to adapt one, it ends up being a letdown. The true bravery and selflessness of the Spartans and helots who sacrificed themselves to prevent Persia from annexing Greece is reduced to weird, growling, CGI bodybuilders in 300. The masterful storytelling and real emotion of the Iliad is rendered laughable in Troy. Disney, in a bid for family values I guess, calls Hercules “the only son of Zeus’s”—the biggest lie ever told.

I’m not saying all movie versions of ancient history and myth deserve heavy criticism. I, Claudius (based on the historical novel by Robert Graves) is both mostly historically accurate and gloriously melodramatic, and I have watched the whole miniseries multiple times. Despite some questionable historical leaps and a sanitized version of Hypatia’s murder, Agora showcases the life of a brilliant Neoplatonist philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who bucks gendered expectations of women in antiquity. Troy: Fall of a City exceeded all my wildest hopes of myth movies and miniseries. Even the adaptations that take more liberties, like the 2014 Hercules with The Rock, can be really fun to get immersed in because they fit an original storyline within the existing structures of the ancient version of the myth. Myths were never static, after all. But they also generally were not poorly written, and unfortunately, for every Troy: Fall of a City we get, we also get a Minotaur, or the disgraceful 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans. (I will forever stan the 1981 version. Do not come at me.)

From Cleopatra to Centurion, from Gladiator to Troy, from Spartacus to Life of Brian, certain tropes always insinuate themselves into film depictions of classical myth and history. It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at these ridiculous assumptions, misconceptions, and Hollywood rewrites—why do movie directors think everyone was smokin’ hot in antiquity? Don’t they know that there were no vaccines and malnutrition was rampant??—but it’s more fun to raise your glass! So without further ado, I present the drinking game that will fit any Classics-themed movie you can find. Cheers!

Take a SHOT if:

  • John Hurt is a cast member

Take ONE drink when:

  • A woman shows up scantily clad or naked for no apparent reason
  • The main woman character is a warrior and “not like other girls”
  • A hero’s dramatic or unusual birth story is told
  • The hero doesn’t know/doesn’t believe he’s the son of a god

Take TWO drinks when:

  • A mythical CGI monster shows up (bonus drink if it’s there to eat the scantily clad woman)
  • A character’s name comes from Greco-Roman myth or history, but the character is nothing at all like the historical/mythical person with that name (e.g., Io in the 2010 Clash of the Titans. I will never get over this.)
  • A council of gods debates the fate of a human (bonus drink if they’re debating the fate of a whole city or all humanity)
  • A badass woman, who is technically the main character, is somewhat overshadowed by men’s drama

FINISH your drink when:

  • The hero gives an impassioned pre-battle pep speech
  • The gladiator life is massively romanticized
  • Homoerotic relationships are passed off as just regular friendship or brotherly love (e.g., Brad Pitt’s Achilles saying “This is Patroclus, my cousin.” I will never get over this, either.)
  • The only actor of color is the hero’s helpful sidekick

Campus Wildlife Encounters: The Grad Student

As a new school year gets underway, one enigmatic creature will be reappearing on university campuses across the country: the graduate student (scholasticus laboriosus). Frequently mistaken for their cousins the undergraduates (scholasticus iunior) and faculty members (scholasticus beneficiarius), graduate students make up a vital part of the university ecosystem. Let’s learn a bit about the typical grad student’s habits and habitat, and what to do if you encounter a grad student in the wild.

Facts and Figures

Scholasticus laboriosus can be found year-round all across North America, though the size of their communities varies wildly depending on each region’s and university’s support systems. Within universities, graduate students are broken down into clan-like groups called departments; graduate students often form family-like units of 2-4 within departments, called cohorts.

There are a few physical characteristics that will help you identify a graduate student: the dark bags under their eyes; the semi-permanent expression of existential dread on their faces; the hunched back, otherwise unusual in creatures their age, from carrying several pounds of books for years on end. Clothing can also help you identify whether you are in the presence of an undergraduate or graduate student: while both can be found wearing old band t-shirts and leggings, the typical graduate student will do so only on weekends or holiday breaks. When undergraduates are present on campus, graduate students usually dress in slightly worn professional clothing, often 3–5 years out of fashion.

Graduate students are incredibly flexible creatures. They can create functional habitats out of any space, from rented house to shared basement apartment to library cubicle (you can often find a graduate student napping on a library couch using a stack of undergraduate papers as a pillow). This resourcefulness is necessary, since graduate students can rarely find a livable wage in any North American habitat.

Graduate students can carry up to 30 pounds of books on their backs, sometimes for half a day, as they trek from classrooms to offices to libraries and back. They can be highly possessive of books and territory alike, preventing fellow graduate students or faculty members from looking too closely at their data or becoming highly agitated when someone else is occupying their favorite window seat in the coffee shop. In the more collaborative departments and cohorts, graduate students will share territory and books, and even give each other feedback on their written work. Research shows a strong correlation between these positive, collaborative relationships and less terrible mental health, which is a constant danger for the graduate student population.

Graduate students are foragers by both nature and necessity: campus events with free food are great opportunities to spot grad students, because the fruit and veggie trays supplement what is often an otherwise nutritionally questionable diet. Since graduate students are cash-poor, their typical diet consists primarily of coffee, coffee house pastries, rice and beans, pizza (sometimes part of the free food at department meetings), noodles, and on the weekends or while grading, bottom-shelf alcohol. There is a subset of vegan graduate students; the only real difference in their diet is the lack of cheese. Like their cousins the vegan undergraduates and vegan faculty members, the vegan graduate student will usually inform you of their dietary restrictions during your first encounter.

If You Encounter a Graduate Student

Chances are good that if you spend time on a university campus, you will encounter a scholasticus laboriosus. Typically graduate students are docile, and your interaction with them should be pleasant. However, graduate students can be very easily provoked if one of their triggers is activated. These dos and don’ts will help keep your interaction positive.

Do:

  • Wear a mask. Graduate students put up with a lot of bull, and many of them don’t have good health insurance. Do not give them one more thing to worry about.
  • Purchase coffee or a meal for the graduate student. A well-fed graduate student is less likely to become skittish, and as stated above, graduate students will always be excited about free food.
  • Bolster the graduate student’s self-esteem by confirming that they deserve to be in their graduate department, that they are smart and capable. Relationships between faculty and graduate students, though close, are often fraught, and these positive comments will go a long way toward rebuilding whatever emotional damage has been wrought by the graduate student’s most recent feedback from a professor or advisor meeting.
  • Follow their lead. If the graduate student responds to your opening “how’s it going?” with complaints, let them complain and validate their feelings, whether you can confirm the truth of their situation or not. If the graduate student is feeling good about their life that week, then celebrate with them. Don’t bring realism where it isn’t wanted, and don’t bring false positivity when complaining or venting is needed.
  • Ask what the graduate student is researching, and act interested in their answer. Asking a follow-up question will put you on the graduate student’s good side indefinitely.
  • If you are an undergraduate student of the graduate student, read the syllabus.

Don’t:

  • Ask when their grades will be posted, if you are an undergraduate. Grading is the lowest priority on a very long to-do list; it will get done when it gets done.
  • Ask what they’re working on if you’ve asked more than 2 or 3 times already. Write it down the first time, so as not to give the impression that the graduate student’s work does not matter or make sense.
  • Ask how their writing is going. If it’s going well, the graduate student won’t want to jinx it. If it’s going poorly, asking this question may send the graduate student into a spiral, which will make the writing situation even worse.
  • Ask them to join any kind of committee or group that requires a time commitment of greater than one hour per month. This will only lead to feelings of guilt for the graduate student.
  • Speculate on what kind of job the graduate student will be able to get after they finish their degree. This is just hurtful, and the graduate student cannot be held responsible for whatever action they take against you if you do so.
  • Ask when they’re graduating. Just…don’t.

If the graduate student becomes agitated by your presence, the best course of action is to stop talking, buy them a coffee (or alcoholic drink, depending on the time of day), and walk away. Allow a cooling-off period of between 24 hours and 6 months before you approach the graduate student again.

All My Covid Knitting Projects

If you know me, you know I’m always either knitting or thinking about knitting. I love to knit, for a variety of reasons — it’s fun, it’s productive, it keeps me focused in situations where I’d otherwise get bored or sidetracked (looking at you, evening lectures), and it’s soothing enough to effectively act as therapy for me. All these reasons to love knitting were only amplified by the pandemic restrictions, both external and self-imposed, of the last 16 months.

But vaxxed girl summer is here, y’all! Despite the specter of variant strains, it looks like covid is currently in retreat, so I thought I’d take a look back at the humble hobby that got me through more than a year of lockdown with my sanity somewhat intact. After all, the world is still on fire, and crafting helps.

From @soulcookiesco Instagram

During the first two or three weeks of lockdown back in March 2020, my needles were flying! I was super productive because at that point we still thought it would all be over in a month, so I was trying to take advantage of the extended spring break we were all on. I progressed on a colorblock sweater, completed my first test knit of a baby shawl, finished three pairs of socks, knit a bralette for my sister in 3 days…I was on a roll!

Spring in Iowa is pretty chilly and often snowy, so the wild knitting progress continued into April, even as my motivation in every other area of life waned. I finished my sweater and made a cute chunky hat. And then progress on everything — dissertation, work, knits — came to a screeching halt.

Around May 2020, the languishing began. My hands and forearms began to suffer under the strain of extra time spent on laptop keyboards at home, as well as all the extra knitting I’d been doing. I couldn’t knit for two weeks, and when I did get back into it I was very slow. At the same time, as I realized that we were in this covid thing for the long haul, we had to prepare to move across the country over the summer. Conserving packing space meant that I couldn’t buy new yarn, even though the things I was motivated to make couldn’t be made with the yarn I owned. So I tried to get myself motivated to stash-bust. I stitched a little here and there on a baby blanket; I took my time with a pair of socks; I joined a Toni-Morrison-themed KAL (knit-a-long) in which I finished the book in 4 days but the shawl waaaaay after the deadline. I watched a lot of Star Trek as I slowly stopped doing any more than the bare minimum amount of work required of me. It was a rough summer.

Fall brought my knitting mojo back, if not my dissertation mojo. There’s something about the crispness in the air, the early darkness, and the promise of colder weather to come that makes me want to cover myself and my whole house in yarn. Fall was good for me: I made knit pumpkins, a skeleton head, a Halloween sweater, and socks for my husband’s birthday. I even learned a new heel technique for the socks. But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows: I started a lace yoke sweater in bright yellow yarn that I totally adored, and I was so excited until I got about a third of the way through the lace pattern. It wasn’t difficult or complicated, but I still didn’t quite have the brain power to focus on it properly, and soon it got shoved to the bottom of the project pile and forgotten about.

If you are a crafter or if you love a crafter, then you know that holidays and birthdays are a fraught, stressful, busy time. There’s always pressure, internal if not external, to make gifts for loved ones rather than buy them. But there are only so many hours in a day, and too much gift-crafting leads to resentment. With that in mind, I tried to both start early and scale back on my Christmas crafting this year. I…sort of succeeded. I started my mother-in-law’s Christmas present, a knit pillow cover with snowmen, back in April; when my tendonitis flared up I set it aside and didn’t pick it up again until October. My only other major Christmas crafts were socks for my dad (a relatively quick project), a Christmas sweater for my husband, and stockings for our family of three. I’d been wanting to knit stockings for ages but had always chickened out, but Christmas 2020 was our first Christmas on our own and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to add to our decor. And it turns out stockings are super easy, fast, and fun! Merry Christmas to us!!

Ah, those post-Christmas pre-New-Year hazy lazy days. When you can’t remember what day it is and you don’t care. When you’re constantly full yet constantly eating—and, if you’re at our house, constantly drinking festive cocktails and flavored coffee. The Christmas glow was exactly the mood boost I needed to pick that bright yellow lace sweater back up and finally finish it. I modified the collar a bit and made it short sleeved instead of three-quarter length like the pattern called for—I could tell you it was to make the sweater more versatile for Southern weather, but really it’s because this gorgeous yarn I love is expensive, so I only bought two skeins instead of the three I’d have needed to make long sleeves. Oh well. This was my last make of 2020 and I was pretty pleased with it!

Throughout Fall 2020 and the first few months of 2021, I also periodically found myself frantically crocheting lovey toys for friends and family members who I’d totally forgotten were having babies. Some of these are too cute not to share:

New Years are for new skills, right? In the midst of belatedly making my own Christmas sweater, I mastered a couple of basic Tunisian crochet stitches in this gorgeous lightweight shawl. I’d wanted to learn Tunisian crochet for ages and it was so much fun using the hook set I got for Christmas. I learned duplicate stitch in order to make Morgan’s Christmas sweater above, but honed the skill in adding block Us to these University of Utah socks for my mom. I also learned a version of honeycomb stitch for this gorgeous sock pattern that was, at last, the most worthy pattern for this gorgeous golden yarn I’d been hoarding:

In all my covid knits included: 8 pairs of socks, 6 loveys, 5 sweaters, 3 Christmas stockings, 2 hats, 2 shawls, 2 bralettes, 1 baby blanket, 1 pillow cover, and several little bits and bobbles not pictured here (including pumpkins, little stuffed hearts, the beginnings of a scrappy shawl). Each project, even the frustrating ones, helped me hold onto my sanity and gave me a sense of productivity while my academic work and sense of purpose were floundering. Handmade items hold memories—each time I look at or wear these items I remember where I was and what was going on when I made them. The memories these covid knits carry may not be happy per se, but they are memories of my own resilience, and I’m happy to be reminded of that.

A Few Thoughts on Virtual CAMWS 2021

Just a couple of weeks ago we wrapped up the 117th CAMWS—and the second virtual CAMWS—annual meeting. I thought this year’s virtual conference was a huge success, thanks in large part to the amazing team of CAMWS tech volunteers who helped keep everything running smoothly. In both the panels I attended live and the ones I watched after the fact, there were very few tech hiccups—no more than we ever have in live, in-person conferences, in fact. And unlike last year, when the in-person conference wasn’t moved online until half the country was already in lockdown and some of the conference leadership seemed to grouchily prefer cancelling over having a virtual event, everyone who participated in CAMWS this year seemed to have a great attitude about the whole thing!

Sure, there are some cons to virtual conferencing replacing in-person events. I used to love browsing the book exhibits at conferences, running into friends from other institutions across the country and catching up. And there was always something particularly delightful about leaving town for a conference, especially as a graduate student—not being in town meant that you couldn’t be held responsible for whatever was happening in class that week, because you were off doing important professional development—i.e., drinking at the conference hotel bar after your paper presentation. Attending a conference through my laptop screen meant that it was harder to escape those everyday responsibilities of both work and home that an in-person conference eliminates.

Despite all that, I’m still hopeful that future CAMWSes will continue to include a virtual component at the least. Accessibility in its many forms is a huge pro of virtual conferencing. Disabled classicists or those with compromised immune systems for whom travel may be difficult or dangerous can attend a virtual conference without jeopardizing their health. (This is a perk that applies to everyone else, too, as we now know, having lived through covid times.) Conference travel on top of registration fees is often prohibitively expensive for students as well—and, let’s face it, some junior faculty, too. Some departments will cover graduate student travel to conferences if the student is presenting, but if you aren’t presenting and just want to attend, you’re on your own. And even before covid, travel funds were shrinking for many of us—my own department had already warned us that they would no longer be able to guarantee travel funds for presenters after 2019. Virtual conferencing eliminates those barriers to full participation for junior scholars.

And speaking of making CAMWS accessible and welcoming to all: what a delight to see panels and workshops on this year’s program with the specific goals of understanding the experiences of current classicists of marginalized identities as well as teaching and writing about such identities in the ancient world. I attended the presidential panel “Being Black in Classics: Some Experiences and Perspectives” and was incredibly grateful to all of the presenters for their honesty and generosity. This year’s conference also featured “Teaching Transgender Identities and Gender Diversity in Classical Studies,” a workshop for discussing and gathering resources for teaching and writing about diverse (trans)gender identities in the ancient world.

This year’s CAMWS also marked my final annual meeting as a member of the Graduate Student Issues Committee. This affiliate committee does such wonderful work connecting graduate students across the CAMWS territory and providing programming that is relevant to students’ needs. I was particularly proud to have organized and presided over our panel on diverse career opportunities at this year’s meeting. (If you hurry, you can catch all of GSIC’s programming from this year on YouTube before the videos are archived.) If you are a grad student finding your way in a classics-related field, follow GSIC on Twitter and get involved!

If you have more virtual conferences to attend this year, or if you just want to be prepared for the potentially-partially-virtual CAMWS 2022 in Winston-Salem, NC, may I humbly offer this Virtual Conference Drinking Game of my own design? (I don’t recommend getting smashed in live panels and potentially typing embarrassing things in the chat, so if you are playing this game in a live panel as opposed to watching the replay, maybe consider playing with coffee or tea.)

TAKE ONE SIP WHEN:

  • A question turns out to actually just be a comment
  • A presenter forgets to unmute themselves
  • A presenter’s pet appears in their screen
  • Someone draws out the sentence, “I’m going to shaaaaaare my screeeeeen heeeere….”

TAKE TWO SIPS WHEN:

  • A participant begins their question by stating that they have a two-part question
  • A presider makes a joke about seeing/meeting/being with everyone virtually
  • A lag causes participants to talk over each other

FINISH YOUR DRINK WHEN:

  • A participant’s fake background causes them to disappear (or objects that are really in the room to appear) in and out of the background
  • A presider cuts off a panelist for going over time

A Long Time Coming

The task of processing everything that has happened over the last few weeks and all my feelings about it seems almost impossible. For me, at least, these historic moments have dovetailed with watching powerful films in curious ways, all of it culminating in a newfound obsession with an old favorite song.

Two weeks ago we sat glued to the news for hours watching the aftermath of an attempted white supremacist coup in DC that disrupted the process of certifying our freest and fairest election on record. I watched in horror, but sadly not in shock, as politicians and acquaintances alike attempted to both distance themselves from the violence and maintain false claims of election fraud in a truly disgusting display of cognitive dissonance. We cheered in satisfaction and relief as some of the traitorous coup participants were arrested, and we held our breath in anticipation of more violence surrounding the inauguration. But yesterday, with a collective sigh of relief (and a lot of champagne), we finally reached the long-awaited end of the Great Orange Menace’s presidency and the inauguration of our nation’s first Black, Asian, and woman Vice President. (And Joe, too, I guess.)

Never getting over this moment: the swearing-in of Vice President Kamala Harris.

In this midst of all this, my husband and I watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicling the life and work of Fred Rogers, beloved TV companion of my childhood. It was a bittersweet thing to watch, since Mr. Rogers embodied the kind of empathy that we so desperately need more of these days. The next weekend we watched Regina King’s new film adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play One Night in Miami: full of powerful actors and even more powerful writing, it was both a balm for the soul and a poignant reminder of how far we have not come over the last 50+ years. And on Monday, two days before the inauguration, we watched Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI and were horrified (but again, sadly, not shocked) at the lengths to which the fragile men in charge of the FBI went to try to sabotage Dr. King.

As a result of this coincidence of historic events, incredible acting, and massive relief at a violence-free transfer of power, I have now had Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come” stuck in my head for several days in a row. No matter what else I listen to, I can’t get it out. I’ve listened to and loved Sam Cooke for years, so my interest was piqued when I heard he was portrayed by the incomparable Leslie Odom Jr. in One Night in Miami. Naturally, Leslie did not disappoint. My heart soared as the film ended with a portrayal of Cooke’s performance of “A Change is Gonna Come” on The Tonight Show (which apparently did happen, though the tapes have been lost).

“A Change is Gonna Come” is Sam Cooke’s most overtly political song (and despite what the fudged timeline of the film would have you think, we do not actually have Malcolm X’s goading to thank for this song’s existence). Although it’s well documented that Cooke was inspired by “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan and the Peter, Paul and Mary cover, I find his song carries a much more powerful message of hope and call to action than Dylan’s. Dylan’s chorus — “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” — seems to cop out of the persistent questions of his verses. How many roads must a man walk down? How many times can a man turn his head? Dylan shrugs his shoulders. As we’ve seen time and again, this is a pretty typical privileged response to being confronted with injustice in its various forms: “Well that’s sad, but what do you want me to do about it?”

Cooke doesn’t accept just a shrug, and he doesn’t ask vague or abstract questions in the third person about when it’s all going to get better. He refuses to shy away from the ugliness of the world, but places himself in the midst of the struggle with a consistent first-person perspective. He names specific instances of racist treatment (“I go to the movie and I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me, don’t hang around”) and those who should be allies refusing to offer help (“Then I go to my brother… / but he winds up knocking me back down on my knees”). These words could have been written last week just as easily as 50 years ago — sobering thought.

Cooke doesn’t shrug at any of this injustice. Rather, he’s exhausted by it: “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die;” “There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long.” There’s nothing abstract or aloof about this. This is a blunt confrontation of the toll that generations of oppression takes on the oppressed. And yet this is not a song of despair, or of hand-wringing at what potential solutions might be. Despite the exhaustion of waiting for justice, this is a song of hope and expectation: “It’s been a long, a long time coming / but I know a change gonna come / Oh, yes it will.”

I hope that the emotional whiplash of this January’s events can serve as a call to us to renew our commitments to justice — not just in the abstract, but in the real, uncomfortable, and sometimes messy ways we are asked to confront injustice in the world. May we be galvanized by the domestic terrorist attack that showed us how much work we have yet to do; may we be inspired by yesterday’s historic inauguration and the promise of an administration more receptive to progress to keep pushing for equity, justice, and accountability.

A change gonna come. Oh, yes it will.

Bye, 2020

I don’t think anyone is sorry to be showing 2020 the door this week. This year, the opening of a new decade (depending on your perspective), was seen by so many of us as the time when we would take control of our lives, take on new challenges, bring renewed energy to existing goals, cast off toxic habits and relationships, make dream careers a reality…and then it all came to a screeching halt with the rapid and deadly spread of CoVid-19. A virus that was supposed to take only a month or two to get under control has now taken millions of lives and, despite the new vaccines, shows little sign of slowing its rampage through humanity.

I was supposed to travel the country extensively this year, both for conferences and to celebrate a friend’s completion of her PhD; I was supposed to go to a James Taylor and Jackson Browne concert; none of it happened. We moved across the country in July because we had to, which was terrifying, and we haven’t been able to explore our new city the way we would have liked to. One endless work-from-home day has blurred into the next until I find myself here, on March 292nd, wondering how the entire year managed to slip away in a blur of brutality and screen fatigue.

But because everything went to shit this year, we were forced into a time of reckoning. When we were suddenly not allowed to hop onto our daily hamster wheel, the things that really matter — both good and bad — all came into sharper focus. Suddenly it became clear which relationships were worth prioritizing and which should be let go. Glued to the news or desperate for more books to read, the ways we daily uphold systemic racism and police brutality became something white people could no longer ignore. This year has been fucking brutal in myriad ways, but oddly enough 2020 did exactly what the open/close of a decade should do: it forced us to reflect, to confront, to reorient. 2020 pulled back the curtain on so much ugliness in every facet of our society and refused to cover it back up again, no matter how we begged. And now we know that we can never just “go back to normal,” because normal was literally killing us.

I don’t really do New Years resolutions, but the dumpster fire that has been 2020 has taught me a lot about who I am and what actually matters in my life. So in the spirit of the new year and new decade, in the hope of better things to come in 2021, here are some of the ugly things I’m doing my best to leave in 2020:

Body-shaming. This year I’ve made an effort to confront my internalized fatphobia, to listen to activists and friends, and to consider the times that I have body shamed people around me. My effort to change my mentality toward fatness has mostly been focused on how I react to other people; what’s holding me back is the body shaming that I direct at myself. I realized a few months ago that, despite the fact that I am living through a global health crisis as an adult woman with an adult woman’s body, I was still comparing my current body to my 19-year-old body. Why was I expecting my 28-year-old self to conform to 19-year-old Sara’s weight and measurements? Why was I disappointed in my adult body for being exactly that — the body of an adult and not a teenager? Going forward I plan to make a conscious effort to accept and love my body exactly as it is, through whatever changes it undergoes.

Bras. I used to never leave the house without one on, even if I was wearing bulky enough clothing to get away with it. That all went out the window with self-quarantining and working from home. Why wear a bra when people only see you from the clavicle up on Zoom? Sure, I have to go out in public to walk the dog, but you know what? Everybody has nipples. And everybody knows it. Bras are uncomfortable and only actually necessary for a fraction of my outfits. I’ll wear them when I want to, and no more.

Using ignorance as an excuse. It’s true that we can’t do better unless/until we know better, but it’s almost 2021. If by now we don’t know better — about our own internalized white supremacy, about misogyny, about ableism, about anti-fat bias — it’s because we have chosen not to pay attention. Ignorance isn’t a neutral position or excuse anymore. I’m done using it as one. Time to learn as much as possible, to get involved, to get comfortable being called out.

Equating productivity with work. You know what else besides work is productive? Reading for pleasure. Baking bread. Sleeping in. Playing with my dog. Sitting on my butt watching Star Trek. Why? Because these things produce a happy life for me. I am not a dissertation machine, so in 2021 I’m going to (try to) stop being disappointed in myself for not working like a machine.

Alarm clocks. Not 100% doable, but this is part of my productivity = work mentality that needs to go. Every morning my alarm goes off at 6:15, and every morning I either hit “snooze” multiple times or turn it off completely. Usually I just wait for my dog to get in my face and demand breakfast. Yet for some reason I have left this alarm on all year. At the beginning of quarantine I felt guilty for getting up an hour later than I used to. Time to kiss that guilt goodbye. Sleep is good!!

Guilt knitting. This may only make sense to the crafters reading this, but I’m guessing it will resonate. Gift knitting is a wonderful thing and I truly enjoy doing it. But there is such a thing as too much gift knitting, when it stops being a fun labor of love and starts seeming like an obligation weighing me down — which it often does. Then there’s the guilt when I look at yarn that I’ve had stashed for years and never done anything with. I decided halfway through this year that I was all done crafting out of obligation; I was only going to make things that made me happy because I didn’t need any more unhappy in 2020. That worked until Christmas….but knitting is too labor-intensive to do if you’re not enjoying the project. In 2021 I want to be more intentional about the things I make, and how and why I make them. No more guilt over knitting for myself!

Wearing pants when not absolutely necessary. Nuff said.

Whatever you’re hoping for 2021 to bring, I hope you can leave what’s weighing you down in 2020 where it belongs. Happy New Year, friends, and good fucking riddance, 2020!

Medusa, Too?

Most of you have probably heard by now about Medusa with the Head of Perseus, a 7-foot statue that was recently installed outside the courthouse in New York City where Harvey Weinstein was convicted of sex crimes. And if you’ve heard of the statue, you’ve also heard a myriad of interpretations of it, because WOW do people have strong opinions about this. For some survivors of assault, the sculpture is cathartic and empowering both in its content and its current display context. Others see its simple “flip the script” narrative as everything that is wrong with art. Some folks are angry that Medusa is conventionally pretty.

Though its fame is recent, the sculpture was completed back in 2008 by Luciano Garbati. The work existed in relative obscurity until 2018, when it was hailed as “a symbol of feminist rage” and thus closely tied (by the media) to the rise of the #MeToo movement in the popular consciousness. I will say that my initial split-second reaction was basically triumphant feminist rage. But my next-second reaction was more like, “Wait…where’s her vagina? WTF kind of feminist symbol is a Barbie vagina?!” So, a different kind of feminist rage. And one in which I’m not alone, though it is amazing to me how many people are more angry about Medusa’s nudity than they are about her anatomically incorrect nudity. Garbati went to so much trouble to make the breasts and figure realistic; are vaginas really so offensive that he couldn’t continue the realism there?

Please notice the distinct lack of vagina. Is this what men think we look like under our clothes? Do they think vaginas are scary and/or ugly? For girls who see this statue, what does this tell them about their bodies?

The statue’s rise to fame alongside the Me Too movement and its current placement in Lower Manhattan have caused many people to misinterpret the statue as a symbol of Me Too. But it is not at all symbolic of Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement, and attempts to say otherwise are misguided and misinformed about both the sculpture’s place in art history and the true purpose of Me Too.

Text of Burke’s caption: I have been sent this @nytimes article several times in the last day or so. For those who haven’t seen it – this statue of Medusa holding the severed head of Perseus has been placed across from the courthouse in Manhattan.
Normally I let these things pass but I just feel the need to speak on this.
This statue of Medusa holding the head of Perseus has been dubbed by some, including apparently the sculptor, as a tribute to the ‘me too.’ Movement and it could not be more INACCURATE.
First, let me say as a survivor, if this feels cathartic to you – I’m not taking anything away from that. However, this Movement is not about retribution or revenge and it’s certainly not about violence. It is about HEALING and ACTION.
But let me tell you what the Movement is also not:
A WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
People who don’t identify as women experience sexual violence.
Children experience sexual violence
and MEN experience sexual violence.
This statue doubles down on the idea that this Movement is about hunting down men. It also ties our healing to revenge and casts the semblance of justice that comes from the judicial system as retribution as opposed to accountability.
Even in this article the sculpture says that Medusa was raped by Poseidon but she’s holding the head of Perseus.
None of it is right. This isn’t the kind of symbolism that this Movement needs and honestly, if the sculptor wanted to pay tribute to the ‘me too.’ Movement he should have given me a call and I would have told him to take a clue from @breakthesilenceday who built the first ever Survivors Memorial recently unveiled in Minneapolis. It pays honor to the courage and strength of survivors of sexual violence on whose backs this movement is built. It provides a beautiful space for respite and restoration and doesn’t involve harm doers in any capacity. He could have even created something to memorialize the women who have stood outside of that courtroom in beautiful solidarity.
This monument may mean something to some folks but it is NOT representative of the work that we do or anything we stand for. Be clear.

Ultimately, whether you like Garbati’s sculpture or not, its artistic choices, its current display location, and the attempts to connect it to a movement that was not the actual context for its creation combine to make this an excellent example of why displays of public art really need to be accompanied by good labels to give context. Maybe then, at the very least, people wouldn’t be so confused about why she’s holding Perseus’s head instead of Poseidon’s.

But if you, dear reader, are one of those people confused about whose head Medusa is or should be holding, allow me to enlighten you.

The myth of Medusa is a sad one. In Ovid’s version in the Metamorphoses, Medusa was a beautiful young woman who was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Athena was furious that such an act defiled her temple. But as was usual in antiquity and all too common now, all that rage was directed squarely at the victim rather than the perpetrator. Rather than try to punish her fellow god, Athena punished Medusa by transforming her into a monstrous creature with snakes for hair whose stare would turn any living creature to stone. (Lots of people will have you believe that Medusa’s gaze would specifically turn men into stone, but the sources don’t support that. It’s just that Medusa only ever petrified men because only men were stupid enough to try to get a close look at her.)

Medusa lived in exile (in some versions, with her sisters who were also monstrously transformed), cut off from all human society forever. Rather than become an object of pity, men continued to consider her body as an object for the conquering: killing Medusa was the new object of every would-be hero. Of course her petrifying gaze conquered all of them, until Perseus came along. He managed to behead Medusa by only looking at her reflection in his shield, in which her gaze was rendered innocuous. Ovid also has Perseus kill Medusa while she sleeps, which fits the tradition when confronted with monsters (think Odysseus blinding Polyphemus), but makes him decidedly less impressive in my book. Perseus kept Medusa’s head in a special bag, since her eyes maintained their petrifying power even in death, and used it as a weapon to defeat the sea monster sent to destroy Andromeda.

Unknown artist, late 1st c. BCE. Wall painting of Perseus and Andromeda in landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase. Housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by yours truly, 2019.

The story of Perseus “defeating” Medusa and using her power to rescue Andromeda has been a popular theme in art since antiquity, even in our own times with the 1981 film Clash of the Titans and the (truly dreadful) remake in 2010. The Italian Renaissance was no exception to this, of course. More than one artist tried his hand at this theme, but the most famous version remains Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, housed at the Loggia in Florence.

Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-1555. Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Wikimedia Commons. Please note the anatomically correct genitalia.

This work was commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, a great-grandson of Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Magnificent). Cellini needed the work to make a statement of the Medici’s power over Florence, so placing Perseus and Medusa’s petrifying head in a loggia already filled with marble statues made a playful but powerful statement. Even Cellini’s method made a statement of grandeur: monumental bronze statues of the day were cast in several pieces and then put together, but Cellini took the much more difficult (and thus more impressive) road of casting the sculpture all in one piece. Cellini’s statue stands on a marble base with scenes from the story of Perseus and Andromeda on each side; figural bases were common in antiquity but not in Cellini’s time, so this was both an innovation and a nod to ancient tradition. Notice, too, that Perseus is trampling on Medusa’s nude headless corpse. Perseus is shown definitively as a conquering hero, a destroyer of monsters and protector of women and social order. (Barf.)

If you have done any study of European art history, or any travel in Italy, you know about Cellini’s Perseus. And if you know about Cellini’s Perseus, then it was immediately obvious to you what Garbati’s Medusa was trying to do. This is a textbook flip-the-script, in many ways: though some details of stance are changed, all Garbati has really done is reverse the roles. Medusa does not hold Poseidon’s severed head, as some people seem to wish she did, because there is no statue of Poseidon holding Medusa’s head. And there is no statue of Poseidon holding Medusa’s head because Poseidon was not her killer (at least not directly).

Garbati’s Medusa is in dialogue with art history as much or even more than it is with ancient Greek mythology. Garbati’s Medusa fits Western beauty conventions because Cellini’s Perseus fit Western beauty conventions. Medusa is nude because ancient heroes were always depicted nude, and Renaissance painters and sculptors followed that precedent. Perseus holds Medusa’s head aloft as a weapon; Medusa’s only weapon is her sword, her petrifying gaze rendered static so we who view her full in the face are not in danger. Perseus is triumphant, a conqueror who saw only a monster in Medusa; Medusa is somber, a victimized, mutilated, and outcast woman who has killed in self-defense.

Of course, Garbati’s Medusa fails to live up to its goal in a few key ways, number one being the Barbie crotch. (Why, whyyyy the Barbie crotch?!?) Although flipping the script can be a powerful method of making viewers confront their preconceived notions of gender, it is really only useful as a first step toward dismantling internalized patriarchy. Although portraying powerful women refusing to take any shit feels cathartic, we know that very little real progress can be made when women and femmes simply replicate the power structures and methods of our oppressors. In some ways this Medusa does us a great service in pointing out all the ways in which our society is still very backward when it comes to the treatment of women’s bodies, because it plays into some of those outdated cultural narratives.

Art is in the eye of the beholder. A sculpture that holds deep emotional meaning for me may mean nothing to you; neither of our feelings are invalidated by the other’s. Garbati’s Medusa is a response to and engagement with the Western art historical tradition, nothing more or less. To attempt to make her more than that, to attempt to make her represent the entire Me Too movement which is built on rejecting violence, distorts both the sculpture and the purpose of the movement.

Lanam fecit and Craftivism

Women in antiquity were so much more badass than they get credit for. Because we hear almost exclusively from men in the surviving literature, our portraits of women in antiquity are sketchy and highly biased (as we saw with Clodia Metelli). The tombstones of Roman women usually focus on their virtues as wives, mothers, and homemakers, including the common phrases domum servavit, lanam fecit: “she cared for the home, she spun wool.”

Weaving was a symbol of feminine virtue and chastity: a “good wife” stayed home, spinning thread and weaving clothing for her family. The prime example of this from Latin literature is, of course, Lucretia: Livy recounts the legend that the princes and leading men of Rome decide (late at night, in a fog of alcohol and competitive spirit) to pay surprise visits to their wives to see what they got up to when no one was watching. While other wives and daughters are enjoying a girls’ night out (nothing to be ashamed of, unless you’re an uptight Roman), Collatinus’s wife Lucretia is sitting in the front hall of their home, her maids around her, hard at work weaving and spinning despite the late hour (Livy 1.57). Everyone is forced to agree that Lucretia is the most virtuous and pure of all their wives. Of course, Collatinus’s desire to show off his wife results in disastrous consequences for Lucretia, but her suicide solidifies her legacy as the quintessential chaste wife. For the duration of Roman society, weaving remains the ultimate symbol of feminine virtue.

The Relief of Ulpia Epigone, Rome; early 2nd century C.E. Notice the wool basket that Ulpia uses as a footrest — a subtle signal of her homemaking virtues. Image from Eve D’Ambra, ed. Roman Art in Context (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993), fig. 37.

But even our male-dominated literature hints at the power of such cottage industry. Greek myths memorialized tales of women who used their weaving as a means of storytelling, or as a way to claim power within their own household. Penelope held off the gang of suitors in her house by telling them that she would choose a new husband after she finished weaving her father-in-law’s burial shroud; by day she worked at her loom, and by night she unraveled her progress. This trick worked FOR THREE YEARS, until they finally caught her unweaving one night (Od. 2.93ff).

Dora Wheeler (American), “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night.” 1886. Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This work, memorializing the power of textile production, is itself a textile: it is made of silk embroidered with silk thread.

Helen of Troy is often vilified for betraying her husband and thus her womanly virtue, but the first time we see Helen in the Iliad (3.125), she is sitting in the hall, weaving a double-thick purple cloth and embroidering it with the battles between Trojans and Greeks. Within the Iliad itself, we see that Helen is weaving her own Iliad, simultaneously reclaiming her virtue and her voice in telling her version of the story.

In Book 6 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells two tales of powerful weaving: Arachne and Philomela. Philomela is raped by her own brother-in-law. When she threatens to tell her sister (his wife) about what he has done, he cuts out Philomela’s tongue and keeps her locked up. But apparently weaving is so integral to female existence that even prisoner-women have access to looms and wool: in captivity Philomela weaves a tapestry that reveals what has happened to her and sends it to her sister, who deciphers the message, rescues Philomela, and exacts revenge on her husband by killing their son and serving him up in a stew. Philomela regains her voice and freedom through weaving.

Arachne is a humble girl from Lydia with nothing to recommend her except her incredible skill in spinning and weaving, so great that wood nymphs leave their homes to watch her work and that she’s said to rival Athena’s own skill. The goddess of weaving comes to challenge Arachne, and the girl does not back down. Athena weaves a tapestry depicting the naming of Athens after herself, as well as motifs of mortals who suffered for challenging the gods as a warning to Arachne. Arachne, on the other hand, weaves the crimes of the gods: she depicts Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo disguising themselves to rape mortal women. Athena rips up the tapestry, beats Arachne, and changes her into a spider, but not for being unable to match the goddess’s ability: she can find no fault with Arachne’s skill, and this infuriates her (Met. 6.129-130). Not only did Arachne not lose the contest, she exposed the gods’ crimes to boot: that is why Athena punished her.

Greek terracotta lekythos showing women weaving at a loom, spinning wool into thread, and folding a finished cloth. 550-530 BCE; attributed to the Amasis Painter. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Creative Commons).

If women’s fiber arts held such power in myth, we can comfortably infer that they held at least some similar power in real life as well, though few literary records of it survive. Despite being consistently undervalued, fiber arts throughout western history were much more than a way to clothe the family: weaving and embroidery gave women a chance to tell stories their own way, as well as to gather in community and build each other up. This aspect of craft is alive and well today, in what is generally referred to as craftivism.

Modern craftivists express their identities and beliefs through the objects they craft. Craftivism can manifest at every level of a created object, from sourcing environmentally friendly fibers or found/recycled materials, to the design process, to the imagery itself, to the display context. Craftivism ranges from the anti-capitalist/anti-sweatshop intent to make one’s own clothing, to public knit-ins that protest injustice or raise awareness of gendered space and unpaid labor, to crafting pieces that challenge injustice or celebrate social change, to simply using a crafting context as an opportunity to discuss solutions to social and political problems.

Although craftivism happens everywhere that crafting happens, my personal awareness of it comes primarily from Instagram: as a knitter and crocheter myself, I follow several artists and designers that subscribe to a craftivist ethos. In the rest of this post I’ve highlighted just a few of the exemplary instances of craftivism that populate my feed. Penelope would be proud of these folks.

The Knitorious RBG is a sweater knitting pattern by designer Park Williams.

The Social Justice Sewing Academy “empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation and community cohesion and become agents of social change.”

Jessie Telfair, a Black woman from Georgia, was fired from her job because she tried to register to vote. She made this quilt some twenty years later (in the early 1980s) as a response. The quilt is now on display at the American Folk Art Museum.

Empower People 2020 is a craftivism movement that aims to unite crafters in all media to seize the pivotal moment that 2020 has become in the United States and work for social justice.

In addition to this shawl pattern in honor of Juneteenth, Shay also designs size inclusive garment patterns.

Voting activism + an app that makes knitting patterns accessible. Hooray for Knitrino!

I think the book cover says it all here.
The iconic Lady in Orange, Gaye shares her knits and wisdom, and calls us in to “stand in the gap.”
Grace Anna Farrow (@astitchtowear) embroiders powerful famous quotes and calls to action.

Part of craftivism is remembering the crafting ancestors who came before us. In that spirit, let’s close by remembering and valuing the work that women like Claudia did:

Hospes quod deico paullum est asta ac pellege /
h{e}ic est sepulcrum hau(d) pulc(h)rum pulc(h)rai feminae /
nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam /
su<u=O>m mareitum corde deilexit s{o}uo /
gnatos duos creavit horunc alterum /
in terra linquit alium sub terra locat /
sermone lepido tum autem incessu commodo /
domum servavit lanam fecit dixi ab{e}i

Stranger, what I say is short; stand and read through it
This is the hardly-beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman
Her parents named her Claudia
She loved her husband with all her heart
She bore two sons, one of whom
she leaves on earth, the other she placed under it
With pleasant speech but respectable gait
she cared for her home and made wool. I have spoken; move along.

CIL 06.15346

On Shame

In high school, I had a friend from band who was a year ahead of me. My junior year, his senior year, we would pass each other in the hall almost every day between fourth and fifth period, and almost every day he’d stop to give me a hug. He wasn’t more than a few inches taller than me, but he was strong, so when he wrapped you up in a hug, you felt safe, protected, loved. (I also had a low-key crush on this friend for most of the time we knew each other, which was the other reason I loved this daily ritual.)

So almost every day I’d get my hug, and ask “How are you?” And almost every day, he would respond, “I’m Black, but that don’t matter.” I couldn’t understand why this was always his answer. I thought he was being funny. Most days I would laugh. Sometimes I would say, “If it doesn’t matter, why’d you say it?” — to which he’d shrug and walk on. Only in the last few years have I begun to understand why he said that every day, and to be ashamed of myself for being so clueless as to laugh.

He may indeed have been making a joke, but he was also naming the fundamental problem with our (my) we-don’t-see-color, race-doesn’t-matter, racism-is-always-blatantly-obvious upbringing. He was Black. Of course that mattered. To some people, it was and would continue to be the only thing about him that mattered. “Why bring it up?” I’d ask him. As if he would have the time or inclination to explain the non-stop abuse of racist infractions big and small to which he was subjected every day as a Black male teenager growing up in a post-Jim Crow South, where White people were doing their damndest to pretend the last 400 years never happened. My laughter and dismissal merely reinforced that I was completely oblivious to the White supremacy I’d been raised up in.

I am not telling this story because I am now A Good White Person Who Gets It. I’m telling this story because when I realized how much I screwed up that interaction, not just once but every day for an entire academic year, I was too ashamed to talk about it or even really think about it for a long time. In fact I avoided thinking about any of the many times in my life I’ve perpetrated racism. I allowed my guilt to keep me silent, even in conversations with myself. By not confronting my own racism, I let myself believe that I was a Good White Person. How many of you White folks reading this can relate? Every one of you has memories of your own that shame you, that you avoid thinking about because it makes you uncomfortable. And you probably think that you’re the only one.

We are programmed from the time we can talk to not talk about these things to avoid embarrassment. But our silence and our shame is what keeps White supremacy so strong. The system needs us to stay silent in order to maintain its charade of invisibility, like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain. But our avoidance and denial of our own racism only perpetuates the problem. White silence is White violence.

I know that posting this piece at all risks re-centering my own White voice, drawing sympathy for myself instead of for the cause. I do want to be clear that I do not expect forgiveness, from this particular friend or any of my other Black friends, because I am not owed the forgiveness and trust of Black people. If you, dear White reader, are tempted to pat me on the back for doing the bare minimum of owning up to my mistakes, DON’T. Instead, use that energy to go read one of these pieces generously written by Black people about (anti-)racism, and/or donate to Black Lives Matter, and/or join a protest against racist police brutality near you. And don’t expect anyone to pat you on the back for those efforts, either.

It is important for us White people to know that no one doing anti-racist work is alone in these uncomfortable feelings, but also that our discomfort is NOTHING compared to the discomfort of existing while Black or as a person of color in a White supremacist society. We will never heal ourselves, never repair the racism we’ve perpetrated, never achieve justice in our world, if we let our discomfort keep us from confronting and dismantling the White supremacy within ourselves. We have to be vulnerable in order to grow.

It’s time to listen to what BIPOC have been telling us for years. It’s time to do the really uncomfortable, really important work of self-examination and study. It’s time to stop expecting a pat on the back from BIPOC for every tiny step we take toward being less terrible people. It’s time to do more than just talk and actually get out in the streets, give money, call out our friends and family on their racism and be open to getting called out on our own racism. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, we will keep feeling guilty for our mistakes. But the only thing to really be ashamed of is letting that guilt prevent us from doing the hard work.