thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Under Any Sun at All: On Fancies of Finding Yourself

In gender, Uncategorized on August 24, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Last night, I popped in Under the Tuscan Sun, because I wanted a dose of sunflowers and yellow colors and Italian charm.  Also, while I may only be in my late-twenties and have never been divorced, I have lately found the idea of films about older women rediscovering their autonomous lives compelling.  I say the idea of such films because…well, frankly, I often feel more inspired by watching the trailer than I do the entire film; what we’re promised is self-discovery, but what we often get are recycled cliches mixed into travelogues.  Take the recent Eat, Pray, Love.  Remember the awesome trailers with Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days of Summer” and pictures of a somewhat wan Julia Roberts fighting to find herself, not just a reflection of herself in a relationship?

There are a lot of really great lines in that trailer, but they’re pretty much the greatest lines of the film – the insistence on needing to find a self outside of a series of relationships; the encouragement to open the mind and become more receptive to the world.  A similar formula clearly guides Under the Tuscan Sun.   Recently ended relationship + middle life –> exotic adventure –> DISCOVERY OF TRUER SELF FULL OF HAPPINESS!

I really love this movie, for a number of random reasons – the wry humor that disarms potentially cheesy moments; Sandra Oh; did I mention yellow colors?  But watching the film last night, I was also troubled.  One thing I could definitely talk about (but that I’m sure has been dissected to death) is that the women can’t help falling in love – they go out to “find themselves” – Julia Roberts’s character Liz even explicitly explains that she needs to escape the string of relationships she’s been in since 15 – but for women, “finding yourself” inevitably means getting rid of whatever blocked you from being in a happy relationship before and then falling in love.  Don’t get me wrong – I like love – I like like love, you know?  But I also think it’s troubling that the only way we can imagine women being happy – in Tuscany!  Or Bali!  Or all these amazing places! – is if they just modify the old pattern.  Keep having lovers, just take better lovers and in better places.  What I really want to talk about today is that second bit – place, or, more specifically, the relationship between women’s selves and place as figured in these middle-aged-self-quest stories.

So, big reveal, I am not primarily a scholar of gender or race, nor am I a scholar of film, new media, television, or pop culture.  I am actually a 19th century Americanist with a focus on environmental literature, and today I’m hoping to bring my ecocritical training to the table to talk about place and identity.  Because (here’s the not-so-hidden-thesis) I don’t buy the way that these films ultimately suggest that finding yourself requires you to go on a very specific kind of international adventure – to “romantic” Tuscany, to places where “you can marvel at something” – in order to escape the confines of your past self.  Under the Tuscan Sun thinks about relationships and gender in occasionally provocative ways, but it never questions the central notion that finding yourself means running in the form of sight-seeing.

I get it – the allure and promise of running to a fairy-tale place.  The places these films lovingly present are quite beautiful.  But the danger is that we can read these films as suggesting that what changed these women was a change in location.  Really, what we see in the case of Frances (Diane Lane) is that she makes a choice to change her life.  That choice gets manifested in travel.  But it’s easy to overlook these small choices given the beautiful scope of the film.  It’s not the landscape of Tuscany that transforms Frances from sad divorcee to happy woman in a network of friends; it is her choices – to follow up on a romantic encounter; to help a friend with childbirth; to cook for the men working on her house – that ultimately make her life a meaningful one.

Making such choices is essential, and I’m not questioning that.   I think that it is a terrible idea to let your life sit in a rut and never challenge yourself, especially if you’re dealing with depression or a sense of being unfulfilled.  I don’t think we should just become “shell people,” as Sandra Oh’s character Pattie fears Frances is becoming.  But I also think that it is wrong to think that you cannot take back your life unless you get to go on a trip to Italy – that the biggest choice Frances makes is to go on that gay tour of Tuscany.  That’s only one of many choices that Frances makes, and many of them are choices that anyone can make.  The emphasis on travel-as-redemptive is troubling because many of us cannot just up and go to Italy.  Maybe I’m just taking this particular myth personally because I’m stuck in one town working for most of the summer.  But I know I’m not alone.  There’s a certain class-ism to this myth: some of us cannot take a year off to travel the world or buy a disintegrating bungalow in Tuscany.  I’m not saying that means just be miserable your whole life.  I think, instead, that many of us are having to learn to take chances and make opportunities in our lives without jetting to another side of the world or going on semi-permanent vacation.

I’ve always been particularly prone to the ideology these films present- my good friend Regan and I called it “coveting experiences” when we were in college.  We never wanted more things.  We wanted to be able to go more places, have more adventures, do more things!  The result was that we filled our schedules until we were always burned out and busy.  We began to wonder how we could take back our lives, learn to be more than content while also making space to just be with friends.

Again, I want to reiterate that I’m not saying we should just “accept the life we have” as Liz says mournfully.  This kind of nasty rhetoeric also hits personally close for me – I have close friends and family members who are involved in beautiful attempts to remake their lives, sometimes by moving, sometimes not.  Of course Frances (Diane Lane’s character from Tuscan)  shouldn’t stay in her horrible temporary post-divorce apartment and waste away over pointless book reviews.  Of course Liz shouldn’t moon about the city and get into more stultifying relationships  But there are a lot of options between furnished apartments full of weeping divorcees and villas in Tuscany, you know?  And this is good news for those of us without means and with commitments that hold us in place for some span of time.

Option One = efficiency apartment! Weeping neighbors free of charge.

Option 2 = Amazing bungalow. Snakes and attractive accents free off charge.

The desire to flee does make sense to me when I think about place connection in terms of gender.  Conventional femininity of the housewife variety closely equated women with place-location.  To be a woman was to be tied to the home, and I think that word needs to be read as suggesting more than house.  Women were often tied to social networks of family and friends, hence to geographic location; if they moved, it was for their husband’s jobs.  Of course things are changing, but the women we see in these films seem to have been somewhat influenced by this vision of marriage and of gender.  They followed; they stayed.  The natural alternative is flight.

But what about my generation?  We’ve (many of us) grown up in a constantly moving, disjointed world.  I think women’s current relationship to place and home space parallels women’s troubled relationship to motherhood.  Painting in broad strokes: Second-wave feminism pushed women into the workplace, asking them to work like men; feminism now often draws both men and women back into the home space, asking them to put families over competition.   Similar contradictions haunt our relationship to place.  Our generation didn’t grow up with stories of women locked into stifling marriages.  We grew up with plucky young women who went out into the big world to find themselves.  Now, some of us might want to come home.  Perhaps we’re not divorcees as much as prodigals.  Going out into the world promises potential freedom; but binding yourself to a place can also seem like a radical alternative in an age of placelessness, when our living spaces begin to look the same yet when we also must move more and more to have careers and families.  Environmental thought has been interested in how connection to place can be a double-edged sword.  It can be either the beginning of radical politics or the grounding of ultraconservatism: you can fight for your land, but that could be a good or a bad thing for environmental ethics.  The way place-identification relates to gender seems equally ambiguous.  If you stay…are you rooted or stuck?  If you run…are you finding yourself or, like Frances-become-Francesca, just slipping into another vision of who you’re supposed to be as provided by a new set of conditions, a new environment?  She completely transforms the way she looks based on a dream a man has about her.

Still just Frances - OR - Sad Americans = sad dressers.

Francesca - Fancy Italian dresser with a blowout!

Again, my point is not to suggest that women should stay at home.  Not dress up.  Not experiment with identity.  I clearly haven’t stayed home, and I’ve tried on identities like hand-me-downs.  I’m not trying to return home to find myself – I have no central home nor a central, “real” self.  What I have is a growing network of identities and homes, and I have to learn to navigate those…without going to Italy (sadly).  So I have decided to stand my ground where I am now – in a hybrid life of home place and transience.  I’m here for 6 years, then I’ll head wherever I get a job.  “Finding myself” is not about home-grown localism for me any more than it is about European identity-tourism.  But I recently remembered what a wise professor told me in undergrad, when I first moved to Oregon for a study-abroad program:  “People come here thinking they’ll fix their problems, figure things out; but your problems follow you everywhere.  At some point you have to sit down and sort them out.”  What I think exotic locations provide in these travel-to-find-yourself narratives is a shock to the system, something that allows you to reshape your paradigm.  Great.  For some people, that may be what’s necessary.  But for some of us, we may reshape our paradigm right where we are – poor, stressed, and with limited choices.

For Liz and for Frances, Italy (or Bali or India) provide new sights and scents and sounds, new people – and this causes them to revalue their life.  But for me, I’ve been able to have that kind of defamiliarized interaction in my own grad-school-town, after a few hard years of realizing I needed such a reawakening.  The tagline of Under the Tuscan Sun is: “Life gives you a thousand chances – all you have to do is take one.”

It’s a beautiful motto, and I want to start taking chances that are smaller than buying a villa but equally powerful.  It might not make for great film, but learning to be open and adventurous can happen without overseas escapades.  The things that change Francesca’s life, Liz’s life – close friendships; taking risks; giving yourself pleasure in clothes and food and art and sunlight; creating the home and the life that you want to live – these are all things that we can have on a smaller budget.  Amazing things can happen late at life, as the Tuscan Sun trailer also promises, but such good things need not happen with Italian gelato or under the yellow light of Tuscany fields.  I think we all – men and women – need to know that, as we go about our strangely hybrid lives, torn between a desire for family and belonging and the longing for adventure and fulfillment.

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