Category Archives: Film

In Defense of Daisy

DaisyAh, Daisy — the glamorous, self-absorbed cipher at the center of The Great Gatsby. She has come in for a lot of hate from critics of the book and film. Richard Brody judges actress Carey Mulligan "overmatched by the part." Ester Bloom says Daisy is "a drip." Critisizing Fitzgerald's novel, Kathryn Schulz argues the Daisy/Gatsby/Tom love triangle is "psychologically vacant." She accuses the author of making a "travesty of his female characters–single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin," thus ignoring the vibrant women's movement of the 1920s. 

I don't think so. Daisy isn't awful, she is trapped and scared — and that is how Mulligan plays her, timidly. Raised a debutante in Louisville, she is expected to marry as a teenager, and she does, to the alcoholic, racist, chronically unfaithful Tom Buchanan. Daisy hasn't had the chance to go to college, or travel the world in the army, as the male characters have. She has a baby before she becomes an adult, and thus is hardly prepared to be an attentive mother. If there are opportunities out there for Daisy to live a more exciting, fulfilling life, she is only dimly aware of them. Is it any wonder she idealizes her first, adolescent romance, with a sweet young officer? Her brief affair with Gatsy is probably one of the only things Daisy has ever done fully by choice. Look at her wrists, bound by diamond cuffs. She is shackled by her own privilege. When she finds out her newborn is a girl, she can only hope the child will turn out to be "a beautiful little fool." Why? Because Daisy is smart enough to know how awful her predicament is, as an old money daughter and wife with few culturally acceptable options for independence. It would be easier, she thinks, if her own daughter could be simple-mided; if she could accept the role she was born into without coming to understand its severe unfairness. There's a reason why, in the film, director Baz Luhrman keeps drawing our attention to Daisy's massive diamond engagement ring. She has been acquired by Tom and is weighed down by men's expectations for her. Even Gatsby is in love with a chimera Daisy more than the real woman; as he tells Nick toward the end of the book/film, he wants her because she has always been "a nice girl;" the kind of girl who could help him his advance his climb from poverty into the upper class. 

Some of the most powerful feminist depictions in art are the ones that show us how bleak life was for women before feminism, or for women who couldn't or didn't embrace feminist ideas. (Think: Anna from Anna Karenina or Lily Bart from House of Mirth. Even Betty from "Mad Men.") By design, all the characters in The Great Gatsby, male or female, are sketches; archetypes of the most cynical, materialistic slice of a cynical, materialistic, lost generation. Nick Carraway could be any Ivy Leaguer with writerly pretentions who gets a job on Wall Street. But I've always found Jordan, Nick's unrealized love interest and Daisy's best friend, one of the more intriguing people in Gatsby. She is a golf star — a famous female athlete! Jordan, with her boyish name, is optimistic and fun-loving; unlike that pitiable, delicate flower, Daisy, Jordan has a life.

In the end, when Daisy runs away with her brutish husband, there is little question that she has made the "right" choice. Marrying a gangster who loves her for her respectability wouldn't have solved her problems. Poor Daisy. She might be a bit of "a drip," but it's not because she's bad at heart. She is the representation of every woman entrapped by beauty, wealth, and femininity. She is a tragic, utterly conventional, child bride. 

2012: The Year in Review, Education and Beyond

Education story of the yearThe Chicago teachers' strike. American teacher unionism was founded in Chicago in the late 1890s, as female, largely Catholic elementary school teachers resisted centralization policies–standardized testing, a uniform curriculum, numeric teacher evaluations–pursued by a male, Protestant bureaucracy. So it was fitting that the loudest cry of protest against contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform emerged in the Windy City this September, as teachers resisted professional evaluation tied to student test scores, closures of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of the charter school sector. You can read my history of Chicago teacher unionism here.

The strike has had a few interesting results. First, it raised the profile of Chicago Teachers' Union leader Karen Lewis, who is a less compromising and more leftist figure than Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers. Second, it brought to the public's attention the tension bewteen increasing test-score pressure on teachers and schools while cutting budgetary support for art, music, counseling, school psychologists, and the many other crucial, yet more holistic services schools provide. Third, it resulted in a compromise contract with both progressive and regressive features. More funding for social support services, especially in high-poverty schools, is a good thing. Continuing to backload teacher salaries and bonsues, though, will not make the profession more appealing to ambitious young people or career-changers. Yet it is encouraging that CTU agreed, at least in theory, to professional evaluations that include evidence of student learning. Now the devil will be in working out the details, particularly on what role standardized test scores will play, and how to evaluate teachers of currently non-tested subjects and grades, like art, music, PE, and kindergarten.

 

Magazines of the Year: Tomorrow and Jacobin.
 

Education research-finding of the year: Teachers matter, and not just for academics. A study by economists Raj Chetty, Jonah Rockoff, and John Friedman found that teachers who consistently improve their students' standardized test scores also help children avoid teenage pregnancy, get to college, and earn higher incomes. But there is a crucial caveat to this finding: The study was conducted in a low-stakes settingin other words, among teachers whose pay and evaluation were not tied to test scores. The researchers admitted in their paper that when tests do become high-stakes, there is an increased risk of score manipulation, which can occur either through teaching-to-the-test or outright cheating. In high-stakes settings, test scores become less reliable and, therefore, their link to better life outcomes for kids could be compromised.

 

Under-reported education trend of the year (and decade): Sociology used to be the academic discipline with the most influence over public education policy. Today that discipline is economics. On the upside, we now have more data about children's academic and life outcomes. On the downside, education policy-makers are paying less attention to aspects of children's lives that are more difficult or impossible to quantify, such as parental involvement and comfort with diversity.

 

New York restaurant of the year: Pok Pok. We only had the patience to wait in line for this place once, but it was so, so, so worth it. A close runner-up is Battersby, where I had two wonderful meals. Another year, another few reasons never to leave Brooklyn. 

 

Book of the year on How We Live NowTwilight of the Elites, by Chris HayesThis bracing book about "America after meritocracy" has implications for every area of policy-making, but is especially sharp at deconstructing myths we tell ourselves about education: that test scores measure aptitude and that elite schools serve the common good.

 

Education story to watch in 2013: The roll-out of the Common Core. Will the movement to implement shared national academic standards remain bipartisan, or will conservatives and Republicans increasingly turn against it? Will schools implement the Core faithfully, or will myths about the standards–like the false idea that they cut out fiction reading–persist?  

 

Albums of the year: "Break it Yourself," by Andrew Bird. "Sun," by Cat Power. "Channel Orange," by Frank Ocean. "The Idler Wheel…" by Fiona Apple. "Shields," by Grizzly Bear.

 

Education book of the year: My favorite was Saving the School, by Michael Brick.

 

A book to pounce on in 2013: The absolutely masterful Hope Against Hope, by Sarah Carr, the definitive account of education reform in post-Katrina New Orleans, told through the eyes of a student, a teacher, and a principal. A gripping narrative with deep historical and political ramifications. 

 

Cultural controversy of the year: The battle over the future of the New York Public Library's main branch, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. Should this world-class research institution ship several million books to New Jersey, and open space for a lending library? Should architect Norman Foster, known for his glass additions to historic buildings, be let loose on this Beaux Arts masterpiece? I work there almost every day, and I still can't decide how I feel about it. 

 

TV Show of the Year: "Girls." Feminists are funny. 

 

#longreads of the year: This past spring, the magazine that launched my career, The American Prospect, experienced a terrifying brush with death. I'm so glad donors and subscribers have helped The Prospect continue its work, because under editor Kit Rachlis, it has published some amazing writing. Monica Potts' "Pressing on the Upward Way" is a compassionate, beautifully-constructed portrait of rural poverty in Eastern Kentucky. Equally stirring was Gabriel Arana's "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life," which not only told Gabe's personal story of surviving "ex-gay therapy," but also broke news by revealing how the psychiatrist who pushed to define homosexuality as a mental illness, Robert Spitzer, has come to regret and retract his previous work.

Documentary of the Year: "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry," by Alison Klayman.

Personal Highlight of the Year: Pacific Street. With this guy.
Happy New Year, folks. 

Hollywood and the Politics of School Reform

Won-t-back-down-movie-posterOver at The Nation I've written an essay about "Won't Back Down," the latest feel-good school reform movie financed by conservative entrepreneur and Weekly Standard publisher Phil Anschutz. The film, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, has been a centerpiece of NBC's "Education Nation" conference this week, in which both presidential candidates participated. Michelle Rhee also hosted a screening of "Won't Back Down" at the Democratic National Convention, and folks like Bill Gates, Cory Booker, and Antonio Villaraigosa are promoting the movie.

In short, there is a lot of money, political influence, and star power behind this vehicle, just as there was behind "Waiting for Superman" two years ago. I didn't like the oversimplified politics of "Waiting for Superman," but that documentary was at least well-directed and featured some charming real-life families and schools.  "Won't Back Down," on the other hand, is a bad, hackneyed film that is difficult to sit through. I didn't have space to fully explain this in my Nation piece, which appears in the Oct. 11 print issue, but while there is plenty of room for reform in teacher evaluation, pay, and tenure policies, this film's anti-union talking points veer toward parody. The most misleading suggestion is that teachers' union contracts prevent educators from staying after school to give students extra help, even if individual teachers would like to do so! It really made me wonder if anyone involved with writing this film has had any contact at all with public schools or public school teachers.

But actually, as I watched "Won't Back Down," I had the sense it had been written by some sort of committee, so painstakingly does the screenplay repeat the overused talking points we hear again and again in debates over school accountability and choice. ("We're here for the children, not the teachers!" "A good school can cure neighborhood poverty!") One of the main characters, the Teach for America alum Michael, experiences a conversion over the course of the film from pro-union to anti-union politics. The explicit message is that effective teachers don't actively choose to be unionized — which is pretty disturbing, considering the amazing, union activist educators I've met around the country over the past six years — folks whom any parent would want teaching his or her child. I'm thinking of Alex Caputo-Pearl in Los Angeles; Mark Anderson in the Bronx; and the entire team at the Math and Sciences Leadership Academy in Denver, just to name a few. 

Teachers are a diverse group of millions of people with a broad range of views on organized labor. But if you hear the suggestion that good teachers don't want to be in a union, you should raise your eyebrows. This simply does not correspond to real life in the real world. Poll after poll of teachers' attitudes show the majority appreciate their union representation. That's why these sorts of gross caraciatures of teachers' unions will not  move the education reform debate forward; they will calcify people into self-protective camps, feeling attacked, misunderstood, and blamed. What we need instead are productive, cooperative partnerships to improve schools and elevate the teaching profession.

Read more at The Nation.

On Nora

HeartburnPosterIs it embarassing to admit I always rediscovered Nora Ephron after breakups? She had survived so many while retaining both her sense of humor and the ability to fall in love all over again. 

I hope those days are behind me — the break-ups, of course, not the reading of Nora. Because all her work — the cultural essays, the cheesy rom-coms, the memoirs — is fundamentally decent and hopeful. Feminism is vitally important, she said, and yet, why can't feminists be nicer to one another? There is nothing cute about lady journalists flirting with their sources. Aging and sickness are terrible, but at the end of the day, there is always dessert. And one should not feel any moral compunction about using a garlic press

Speaking of women "having it all," here is what Nora had to say about it in her lovely 1996 Wellesley commencement address:

"This is the season when a clutch of successful women—who have it all —give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can't have it all. Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don't be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I've had four careers and three husbands. And this is something else I want to tell you, one of the hundreds of things I didn't know when I was sitting here so many years ago: you are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever. We have a game we play when we're waiting for tables in restaurants, where you have to write the five things that describe yourself on a piece of paper. When I was your age, I would have put: ambitious, Wellesley graduate, daughter, Democrat, single. Ten years later not one of those five things turned up on my list. I was: journalist, feminist, New Yorker, divorced, funny. Today not one of those five things turns up in my list: writer, director, mother, sister, happy. Whatever those five things are for you today, they won't make the list in ten years—not that you still won't be some of those things, but they won't be the five most important things about you. Which is one of the most delicious things available to women, and more particularly to women than to men. I think. It's slightly easier for us to shift, to change our minds, to take another path. Yogi Berra, the former New York Yankee who made a specialty of saying things that were famously maladroit, quoted himself at a recent commencement speech he gave. "When you see a fork in the road," he said, "take it." Yes, it's supposed to be a joke, but as someone said in a movie I made, don't laugh this is my life, this is the life many women lead: Two paths diverge in a wood, and we get to take them both. It's another of the nicest things about being women; we can do that. Did I say it was hard? Yes, but let me say it again so that none of you can ever say the words, nobody said it was so hard. But it's also incredibly interesting. You are so lucky to have that life as an option.

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women. Thank you. Good luck. The first act of your life is over. Welcome to the best years of your lives."

Read the whole thing. Really, really, really.

The Kids These Days, Pornography, and Pleasure

Sasha 2Sasha Grey, via her Twitter feed

Cuddle Party would exist in my personal ninth circle of hell. Nevertheless, the sex/relationships guru who came up with the concept, Reid Mihalko, made some interesting comments in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday that back up the ideas I was getting at in my critique of Katie Roiphe's Newsweek article on women, work, and S&M. 

In short: Greater interest in sadomasochism has less to do with economic trends and more to do with increased access to porn and erotica online. Mihalko spends a lot of time conducting workshops for college students, and he has found that many of them are exposed to really kinky stuff via the Internet, yet lack basic information on sexual health and pleasure, in part because they are graduates of abstinence-only sex-ed programs or received no sex education at all. He explains:

About 30 to 40 percent of what I do is lecturing at colleges. I do a lecture called "Sex Geek Chic," which is about using peer pressure in a positive way to encourage young adults to get their shit handled. If you don't know your STD status, if you don't know how to use a condom, if you're not savvy with consent and how to navigate your emotions in intimate relationships, you're uncool. …

There's an interesting dynamic going on among college students. A lot of them grew up with federally funded, abstinence-only education. But they also grew up with the Internet. So for visual learners, especially, they're getting their love-making cues from watching porn.

 Trying to learn how to be a better lover from porn is like trying to learn how to drive from watching "The Fast and the Furious."

Yes. I began high school in 1998, before pornography could be easily streamed online. It could be downloaded, but this took some real time and effort; guys I knew figured out how to do it, but if any of my female friends were experimenting with this in the late nineties and early aughts, we weren't talking about it openly with one another. (We were reading Anais Nin, though, don't get me wrong!) And way back when we were first hitting puberty in the mid-nineties, it was still scandalous and fascinating to get one's hands on an issue of Playboy.

Obviously, everything changed during my first few years of college–not just because my friends and I were getting older, but also because of technology. I don't want to be all old-ladyish at 27, but the last decade has seen a sort of epochal shift in how teenagers and young adults explore their sexuality. It used to be you had to go to an adult movie theater or the adult section of a video rental store or a sex club to watch other people getting it on; you had to actually interact with other human beings in those places and you risked getting "caught" by someone you knew. (A somewhat separate category of consumption would be the semi-ironic screening of retro porn movies on college campuses. Been there! And how prevalent was buying video pornography via the mail back in the day? I don't really know. Commenters?)

Now you can watch other people have sex anytime you want, for free, and in total privacy. This is a really significant development in the history of human sexuality, and I think its effects are both positive (less shyness about sex) and negative (more exposure to unrealistic, staged sex; more sexual outlets other than one's partner; and possibly more body anxiety as a result of comparing oneself to hundreds and thousands of other naked people).

Today it seems like we're having a constant, national conversation about porn and how it is changing our culture. Pornstars like Jenna Jameson and Sasha Grey have achieved some modicum of mainstream respectability, and pornography is regularly opined upon in the kinds of publications nobody would be embarassed to read on the subway. Porn has gone mainstream before, as it did in the "Deep Throat" era. But the shock and moral panic is, for the most part, missing these days (pace Rick Santorum); the general assumption is that almost everyone over the age of 12 has seen video porn at least a few times.

In any case, Reid Mihalko is on to something about young people and kink, even though he also seems a bit kooky. I really love the site MakeLoveNotPorn, and would like to especially refer my younger friends and readers to it (make sure to click on the arrows to see all the tips!). A more comprehensive resource on these matters is ScarletTeen.

My Thoughts on Katie Roiphe, Sadomasochism, and Feminism

are over at The Nation:

Katie Roiphe has written a link bait-y Newsweek cover story making an interesting claim: that the pop culture appearance of submissive female sexual fantasies, in shows like Lena Dunham's "Girls" and pulp fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey, is somehow a backlash against women's increasing economic power.

I think this is generally wrong. …

Taboo-breaking sex is culturally prevalent right now not because of macroeconomic trends like the decimation of the male manufacturing sector, but because we live in an age in which all sorts of sexual practices are incredibly visible and talked about. In particular, easy access to online pornography allows people, at a younger age than ever before and with more privacy, to explore non-vanilla sex, whether low-key spanking and restraints or much kinkier stuff. Female-authored erotica and sexualized fan-fiction are burgeoning genres online, as well, and e-readers have made it possible for consumers to purchase and read this material with perfect privacy. This is the world from which Fifty Shades of Grey emerged.

But these desires are as old as the human race; in every century and decade, sadomasochistic erotica has broken into the mainstream, from from de Sade to Swinburne to Anais Nin to Anne Desclos to Anne Rice. Why assume, as Roiphe seems to, that some authoritative brand of feminism was ever supposed to lead to human beings losing their curiosity about power-play during sex, which is, after all, a physical act? 

Read the whole post.

On Bullying, Teen Suicide, and the Rush to Ascribe Blame (Often to Schools)

One of my first assignments as a college student journalist for the Brown Daily Herald was covering the suicide of a sophomore, who killed herself while home for October break. I remember feeling sick to my stomach as I walked to the girl's dormitory to interview her shocked, grieving friends. About 10 of us gathered in the dorm's common area, sitting in a circle. I scribbled notes as the dorm mates described an intelligent, curious, and socially conscious young woman. But when I pressed, somewhat uncomfortably, for details on the victim's emotional state and the recent events in her life, the friends were hesitant to speculate as to why, exactly, she had killed herself.

They were correct to be wary of my questions–and of the entire endeavor of "explaining" a suicide in a 600-word news article. Doctors, social workers, and researchers know that every suicide is unique and incredibly complex; there is rarely one simple reason why a person decides they no longer want to live. In a Slate review of the new documentary "Bully," Emily Bazelon does an excellent job complicating the picture of suicide the media so often paint, noting it's all too easy to blame schools after a tragic death, when, in fact, many suicidal teens are suffering not only from peer bullying, but also from mental illness, learning disabilities, and unsupportive home environments.

"Bully" devotes a lot of time to the story of 17-year old Tyler Long, whose parents–among the film's heroes–are suing his school district in the wake of Tyler's suicide. But as Bazelon reveals, the film never mentions that Tyler was on the Autism spectrum and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD, nor that he sometimes picked fights at school and that his parents strongly suspected he was considering suicide, but didn't tell his therapist about it. What's more, Tyler's suicide note, addressed to his family, didn't mention bullying at all, and instead focused on their lack of support. "I don’t have a supporting family or friends for that matter," Tyler wrote. "You think I am worthless and pathetic. All I wanted was acceptance and kindness, but no I didn’t get love."

Jesse Green's 2010 New York article about Teddy Graubard, a 17-year old private school student who jumped to his death after being caught cheating, does an excellent job of showing just how complicated it can be to suss out why a teenager with Asperger's syndrome and a history of mental health issues kills himself.

The point is not that we shouldn't feel awfully, terribly sympathetic with suicidal teens and their devastated parents. We should. And of course, schools need to do everything in their power to help students feel safe and supported, both by cracking down on bullying and by referring kids (both the bullied and bully-ers) to in and out-of-school mental health services. The problem is the over-simplification of this issue in the public conversation, which actually makes it more difficult for schools and governments to address teen suicide rationally.

We saw this a lot around the story of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers freshman who killed himself shortly after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly filmed him making out with an older man. My Nation colleague Richard Kim has been eloquent on this point: The prosecution and conviction of Ravi had less to do with evidence that his actions led directly to Clementi's death, and more to do with moral panic over young people, bullying, technology, and sex. Richard writes:

Among the things blotted out by the trial and media circus is the enduring mystery of why Tyler Clementi committed suicide. He had an older, gay brother with whom he had a close and supportive relationship. His parents' reaction to his sexual orientation was mixed; his father was cool, his mother not so much, but they were still in regular and civil communication. He was clearly vexed about what Dharun Ravi had done, but was discussing what to do about it with a friend, the RA and online message boards. There’s nothing in these records that indicated he was suicidal or even beyond appropriately anxious about a situation to which he himself saw a resolution within reach (a new room). He wasn’t the victim of bullying across campus, and although he was socially shy, he was also somewhat sexually daring. He had four years of college, and a life, to look forward to—and indeed, until his Facebook post announcing his suicide, he was doing just that.

There are all too many cases of gay teenagers whose lives have been made intolerably miserable and who are driven to suicide by the harassment and violence of parents, family, fellow students, teachers and other authority figures. This is not transparently one of them.

In the wake of Clementi's suicide, New Jersey passed aggressive legislation requiring schools to document and address all cases of alleged bullying of students, whether they take place in or outside of school, or online (via Facebook, MySpace, email, etc.). As the Newark Star Ledger reports, the law, which did not include much extra funding for mental health services, has led to complaints from parents that it doesn't do enough, and complaints from school officials that it imposes a heavy paperwork burden without providing much explanation of how, exactly, to define bullying, or support to enable schools to monitor and address it effectively:

Guidance counselors and teachers face a steep challenge in trying to draw the line between conflict and bullying.

One suspected bullying incident in Roxbury involved two kindergartners fighting over crayons, and another stemmed from two intermediate school students excluding a third from their lunch table. The crayons case was ruled not to be bullying, but the lunch-table incident was, said Roxbury anti-bullying coordinator Phyllis Prestamo.

I'm not going to propose a solution to bullying or teen suicide, because I obviously don't think there is any kind of silver bullet, beyond supportive, caring families and schools, and expanding access to affordable, high-quality mental health care. It's just important to note that law suits, hate crime legislation, and education policy cannot be the only avenues for addressing these problems. I really do hope the Affordable Care Act, which will help a lot, is not overturned.

On “Ides of March,” Politics, Sex, and Morality

Ides-of-march-evan-rachel-wood-ryan-gosling
Evan Rachel Wood and Ryan Gosling in "Ides of March."

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. SERIOUSLY. DON'T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE YET.

Tonight I saw "Ides of March," the George Clooney film in which a sex scandal is grafted onto a presidential campaign based loosely on both Obama '08 and Dean '04. 

The movie features riveting acting and smart dialogue; my favorite scenes were those between Ryan Gosling, who plays an idealistic communications staffer, and Marissa Tomei, a journalist covering the race for the New York Times. Of course, it goes without saying that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti were fantastic. But I found the film far more problematic than believable, particularly in the way it deals with sex and gender.

The female lead is Evan Rachel Wood, who plays Molly, a 20-year old campaign intern and daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman. She gets pregnant after a one-night stand with the candidate, Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), whose judgement apparently slips as he is riding the high of his Iowa caucus win.

Sexually forward and whip-smart, Molly later seduces Gosling's character, who learns of her tryst with Morris and fires her, but not before helping her obtain a $900 abortion. Alone in her hotel room after the procedure, Molly kills herself by overdosing on painkillers and alcohol–either because she is worried that her affairs with both men will ruin their careers and the Democratic Party's chance to regain the White House or, perhaps because she is intentionally exacting revenge on the men who've wronged her. (The movie does not make Molly's intentions clear.)

Allow me to deconstruct this. First of all, the average cost of an abortion at a clinic like the one Molly visits in the film is $350, not $900. It is unlikely that an affluent, educated young woman like Molly would need to beg for help in acquiring this amount of money. More disturbingly, given that Molly's character is portrayed as neither depressed nor unstable before the abortion–indeed, she seems happy, ambitious, and hard-working–her suicide in the procedure's aftermath perpetuates the myth of "post-abortion syndrome:" the unsubstantiated belief, which has nevertheless crept into real-life anti-choice legislation and court decisions, that women are particularly suspectible to mental, emotional, and physical illness after an abortion.

The film also harkens back to the age-old pop culture tradition of female characters being "punished" for promiscuous sex and abortions with either sickness or death. 

In short: This is all highly unrealistic and dated. What's more, none of it convinced me to feel particularly cynical about politics–at least not for the reasons presented in the film. Clooney's character, the candidate, is actually the most sympathetic person in "Ides of March." Although he is an adulterer, the governor at least tends to resist the temptation to moderate his policy positions on the death penalty and foreign wars, to pander to the religious right, and to trade cabinet positions for endorsements. His staffers, on the other hand, are all-too-quick to forget their principles in service of either a political win or personal career advancement.

So while you wouldn't want to be married to Gov. Mike Morris, there's no reason, as the movie seems to suggest in its final scene, to feel that voting or working for him would be futile, or that either act lacks basic integrity. As cynical as I get about the filibuster, the electoral college, voters' lack of policy knowledge, and all the other terrible aspects of the American political system, I still believe it really does matter who gets elected president. Wars are launched. Judges are appointed. Regulations are made.

Reducing politics to a hackneyed sexual morality play might make for fun entertainment, but it is a fundamentally inadequate lens through which to view American campaigns, elections, and government–except to say that our political system (and political media) ought to be far less focused on politicians' (and American women's) sex lives. 

“Kings of Pastry,” France, America, and the Vocational Education Debate

Jacquy Pfeiffer & chocolate sculpture 

MOF finalist Jacquy Pfeiffer, cofounder of Chicago's French Pastry School, with sugar sculpture. Photo via "Kings of Pastry"

It's been awhile since I've had the chance to indulge my Francophilism on the blog, but last night I watched a fantastic documentary, "Kings of Pastry," that left me reflecting on the cultural differences between how Americans and the French think about intelligence, knowledge, and education. 

The film, which you can stream on Netflix, tells the story of the MOF–Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, or "best French craftsmen"–competition in pastry. Every four years, chefs, bakers, cheesemongers, florists, jewelers, weavers, woodworkers, and dozens of other French artisans compete to win this designation. It is considered one of France's highest civilian honors. 

The 16 pastry chef finalists–all of them male, a fact the film ignores–bring an absolute, overwhelming intensity to the MOF competition. Their wives and girlfriends speak of normal family life being on hold for years while their partners pursue the MOF doggedly, testing elaborate recipes and decoration techniques, usually at night after working a full day in a restaurant or shop. Some competitors devote decades to the process, competing every four years until they finally acquire a coveted MOF medal. 

The film shows President Nicolas Sarkozy speaking at a MOF award ceremony for chefs. I was really struck by how coherent his support is for what might be termed "vocationalism," and how out of step this would sound in an American context. Sarkozy said:

"Worker, artisan, apprentice. I affirm: There are not two forms of intelligence, two kinds of knowledge. Manual skill doesn't fall from the sky any more than intellectual skills. I don't want any more of that concept in our country. Because this idea is morally scandalous, and is insufficient economically."

The French education system is structured around such ideas. In the last three years of high school, or lycee, French teenagers choose to focus on the hard sciences, social sciences, or literature, or from among eight career-oriented "technical" courses of study, including the food sciences, health sciences, and hospitality. 

Americans are–and probably should be–skeptical of efforts to "track" 15-year olds into specific careers, especially given the vast inequities in children's educational and social opportunities before they ever enter high school. But some of the most thoughtful education reformers I've talked to in my reporting are Americans who are trying to seed workforce-relevancy into our own school system, by introducing young adults to possible professions in an intellectually rigorous way. This is important work, because we know one of the primary causes of dropping-out is that low-income students don't see how their education will help them land a job or build a satisfying, remunerative career in the future. 

I profiled two high schools that embody workforce-relevancy and academic rigor in my July Nation feature, but I'd say this remains a real minority movement in American education circles. So many of us–and I'd include myself–feel a real attachment to a romantic idea of the liberal arts, and of "college" in general.

"Kings of Pastry," however, romanticizes vocationalism in a way that is both enchanting and very foreign seeming. It's a delightful film — but also also very relevant to the education debate.