Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ is a feminist disaster. But it (almost) redeems itself.

If this review is a mess, I blame “Bridgerton,” the raunchy, Regency(ish)-era soap opera produced by Shonda Rhimes for Netflix. I believe I have sustained a “Bridgerton”-related brain injury while trying to mentally accommodate a world where soft porn meets Lisa Frank meets… not Jane Austen, but someone who has definitely heard of Jane Austen. Someone who doesn’t realize that Austen was already skewering the shallowness of society and has decided to skewer Austen by pointing out that society is mean to women. But with very wacky hair and clothes!

It is not just that “Bridgerton” is full of deliberate anachronisms. Anachronisms can work if the show understands the rules and knows how and why to break them, or else if the show is just so much fun you will forgive anything. But “Bridgerton” knows nothing, understands nothing and provides zero fun. It somehow turns graphic sex scenes into a slog. Its putative, clever outrageousness is just a multicolored explosion of clichés. Whether or not it’s faithful to the series of romance novels on which it’s based, I do not know; but the show we got is a mess and nothing else. At least at first. 

In the first few minutes of the show, Prudence Featherington (the daughter of one of two prominent families vying to make brilliant marriages while a mysterious, omniscient voyeur distributes brochures gossiping about high society) is mercilessly laced into a tight corset while her mother looks on approvingly.

This is the beginning of a nearly nonstop jeremiad on the callous mistreatment of women during this era. Every episode has at least one woman delivering lamentations on the subject of How Society Is Unfair To Women. I thought often of the scene in “Blazing Saddles” where several vicious cowboys beat up an old woman. In between punches to the gut, she looks straight into the camera and cries, “Have you ever seen such cruelty?” The feminism of “Bridgerton” is that subtle. 

And they are not wrong. It’s a hard world out there in “Bridgerton.” Lots of sexism, plenty of objectification. The problem is, much of that sexism and objectification comes from the writing itself. Two of the sisters complain that, in this society, artists see women purely as decorative objects, mere “human vases” to gawk at. Within minutes, we transition to their older brother, who is also trying to liberate himself from this same artificially constrictive society. He achieves his liberation by visiting an artist’s studio, where he is delighted to find not only a casual orgy, but naked models standing around in candlelight, for you to gawk at. Why the first scene is sexist and the second one is awesome, don’t ask me. 

There are too many examples of this double standard to list. The show self-righteously excoriates society for its shallow focus on outward appearances, but in the same breath indicates to the audience that certain characters are evil or foolish by making them fat, or slightly buck-toothed, or by giving them puffy hair. Ugly dudes are evil when they attack girls, but sexy dudes are just impetuous, and true love means trying to save them. 

Remember the first scene, with the tight corset? Once the girl is crushed into a tiny hourglass shape, she steps into an empire-waisted dress, which is gathered under the bust and then flows freely past the waist. And there it is. “Bridgerton” puts a merciless squeeze on the audience in all the wrong places, for no reason at all. Have you ever seen such cruelty?

The viewer shall also endure the laziest, most moronic attempt at fancy, old-timey speech you shall ever hear, shalln’t you? I barely made it through the first four episodes. I only continued because I wanted to be fair and thorough.

And darn it, that’s when the show turned a corner.

Read the rest of my review for America Magazine.

Image is a still from the trailer below:

 

The O Antiphons reimagined: My interview with Sr. Ansgar Holmberg

Ansgar Holmberg, C.S.J., 86, didn’t paint her O Antiphon series to edify or instruct anyone. They were meant only for herself.

Ansgar (she likes to be called by her first name) has been with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 67 years, and although she has spent time teaching children and offering spiritual direction, she created these seven paintings over the course of three years as a personal way to contemplate Scripture.

“I had read what other people had said, but I decided to paint them for myself, for me to understand them better. That’s one of the ways I learn,” Ansgar said.

Now the seven paintings, done in brilliant gouache (a kind of opaque watercolor), are gathered in a small book, Praying the Advent Names of God, paired with poems composed by another sister in the community, Joan Mitchell, C.S.J.

The O Antiphons are a series of seven verses dating from the sixth century and prayed during vespers during the last week of Advent. Each antiphon is a name of Jesus taken from Scripture, and they are the basis for the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Ansgar’s images are saturated with color and inhabit a strange space between iconography and myth. Ansgar said she did not set out to express a theological idea with her works; she simply followed her intuition.

“I didn’t have any rules or laws or requests put upon me, but it was my own expression of where I was at that time as I worked with these,” she said. “I put my own spin on it, and it went a bit more cosmic.”

Wisdom, for instance, is frequently portrayed in Western art with symbols like a lamp, a book or a female form enthroned; but in Ansgar’s conception, Wisdom is a figure descending fluidly from the heavens, grasping the sun in one hand, breathing out waters and engraving the bed of a riverbank with the other hand. Wisdom, Ansgar said, is proceeding from the womb of God.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: “O Wisdom” from Praying the Advent Names of God by Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ, and Joan Mitchell, CSJ, used with permission 

 

Blessed are the rats, for we are all rats

Last night I stepped into a madhouse. I had driven to a local town to snap a quick photo of the election results to send to a numbers aggregator. A quick job—no need to talk to anyone or do anything but stay out of the way until the official results were in. I told the kids I would be back in time to put them to bed.

But 20 minutes before the polls closed, there was still a line stretched out the door of the polling place. A giant moon rose in the frigid air, and a mixed crowd of young and old chattered excitedly in the dark as they waited to cast their ballots. Feeling like something of an impostor, I told the police officer on guard, “I’m with the press; could I squeeze in here?” and he quickly cleared a path so I could get inside. One man shouted out, “Watch out, Jerry, she wants to talk to you!” and everyone laughed.

If I had had my wits about me, I would have stopped and talked to Jerry. But as it turned out, lots of others had plenty to say.

It was, as I say, a madhouse inside. People were clamoring to get in and cast their ballots, and I quickly realized that many had never voted before. They were not familiar with the process, and they weren’t sure how to do it. And there were so many of them that the line from the little curtained booths to the counting machines was all backed up. The machines themselves were full, and every third ballot or so got spit back out, and a cranky man named Paul had to open the machine and feed them in manually.

When I was growing up, election night felt like a party as we stayed up late snacking and joking, watching the electoral map fill up with numbers. I was baffled to discover the other kids in third grade weren’t wearing their Reagan/Bush pins every day and did not have strong opinions about taxes or Palestine. So at the polls last night, I was delighted to find a bustling crowd turn out for one of the most important elections in memory. Paul told me he had never seen so many voters before, and that hundreds of people had registered that day, most of them in the last hour.

“Good for us!” I said

He pulled a sour face. “I smell a rat,” he said.

And he kept on saying it. I questioned him and any other official who had time to talk. They all agreed: This was unprecedented. No one expected this many voters. They thought the bulk of citizens had gotten their duty out of the way with absentee ballots, and they were completely unprepared for this crush.

And no, they did not think this flurry of enthusiasm was a good thing. The same man who, in a lull, complained about how few people turned up for the town meeting every year was disgusted and suspicious to see so many people coming out into the cold to sign up to vote. I saw democracy; he smelled rats.

He was so sure it was a bad thing, I began to doubt myself. Maybe all these people shouldn’t be here. Maybe they didn’t really belong. What if they were scamming the system, somehow, even after showing their IDs and proof of residency? What if they were legit but voting for all the wrong reasons?

It is hard to talk about these things without sounding naïve. I know full well how ideas like “inclusiveness” and “welcome” can be exploited. We have all been in situations where people who really do have bad intentions take advantage of the open-hearted and take cover in a crowd of honest people. And once they are let in, they do the harm they came to do.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image: (cropped) April Sikorski from Brooklyn, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In defense of ignoring Amy Coney Barrett

This past week, I joined the vast, cranky ranks of the quarantined. I had some Covid-like boggy lung symptoms and spent four days holed up in my bedroom, waiting for my test results. Happily, they came back negative, and I was allowed to crawl out of my cave.

I felt like I passed another test, too: I resisted listening to the Amy Coney Barrett hearings. If you don’t know me, you don’t know how weird that is. I am an intensely political person (that was me at age 14, standing in the slush on a busy street corner, waving a homemade Jack Kemp sign). Even when I do not have a huge, open swath of quarantine time to devote to politics and the news, I love to gorge on current events.

If you knew me, you’d expect me to be all in with the hearings, in particular. How Amy Coney Barrett is received is especially relevant to me as a working, feminist, Catholic mother with a large family. Like Ms. Barrett, I have had “vagina clown car” insults thrown at me by people who profess to believe in reproductive choice. Strangers who know nothing about me have declared I must be either neglecting my kids or shorting my job because no one could possibly be both a good mother and a good worker. I have been informed that, because of my Catholic faith, I want all women to be the legal property of their husbands and the state. Like Ms. Barrett, I have been mercilessly dragged for my clothing choice, even when no sane person could find fault with it. The woman even gets dinged for her crazy eyes, and I, too, have crazy eyes.

But I am not unreservedly on team Amy Coney Barrett. I was dismayed when she and her maskless family starred in what turned out to be a superspreader event. I am someone whose life has been transformed by the Affordable Care Act and who desperately needs it not to be deemed unconstitutional. And I have become increasingly alarmed at the spectacle of white adoptive families using their Black children as a shield against accusations of racism. Ms. Barrett herself has not done this, as far as I know, but she does seem to speak freely in public about her Black children’s trauma. And there is that photo where her white family is front and center, and her Black children are arranged as bookends.

And there it is. There is one of the reasons I have not been following the hearings… Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Image via Pxfuel

Baptized, confirmed, and ordained in two weeks: My interview with Fr. Matt Hood

For a man who had just been baptized, confirmed, ordained and catapulted into the headlines in the space of two weeks, the Rev. Matt Hood of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, Mich., sounded remarkably relaxed. I caught the 30-year-old priest on the phone while he and his father drove to Minnesota, where they were going to pick up a puppy named Sherman.

Father Hood’s story is no shaggy dog tale, though. It was only a few weeks ago that he discovered by chance that his baptism in 1990 was not valid, and therefore neither was his ordination in 2017 nor were many of the sacraments he presided over in the past three years, when he thought he was a priest but was not.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit issued a letter on Aug. 22 informing his flock that in light of a recent statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Father Hood’s baptism and ordination had been invalid because the presiding deacon at his baptism in infancy had said, “We baptize you” rather than “I baptize you.” Once that was discovered, the archbishop explained, Father Hood had been properly baptized, confirmed and then ordained as a deacon and a priest.

Father Hood’s situation has been remedied, but the revelation of his invalid baptism and speculation about what that means for all the people he interacted with as a priest, are still rippling outward. This record of our conversation, which continued over Facebook, has been shortened and lightly edited.

Read the rest of my interview with Fr. Matt Hood in America Magazine.

Returning to school? Don’t worry: It’s impossible

When I first started home schooling, my mother told me, “You know, the thing about home schooling is that it’s impossible.”

She was not only experienced but a pioneer, one of the first in the region to even attempt such a thing as home schooling. So she knew what she was talking about. But a ray of sunshine she was not.

It was the last thing I wanted to hear, that my new plan was impossible. Who could wake up each morning and willingly set out to do a thing that cannot be done? I knew I was born to home school my children. We would be courageous explorers on the sea of ideas, ravenous guests at a banquet of wisdom and culture. My children’s 12 years of school would be only the beginning of their education, and they would graduate with a lifelong thirst for learning.

Well, we did make a sundial one time. And a bean mosaic. All my kids can read and add and tell jokes, and no one has once suggested they would be better off learning how to make brooms. After six years of home schooling, we realized it was time for a change, and since then, we have tried private school, charter school, public school and this coming year, parochial school. We have at least dipped our toes into just about every form of educating children, and guess what we learned?

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Discerning out: What happens when a Catholic leaves seminary or religious life?

Joe Heschmeyer was once so sure of his vocation to the priesthood that he forgot he was supposed to be discerning it.

Everyone around him thought he should be a priest. His mother, he discovered later, had offered him to the Lord as an infant the way Hannah did in the Old Testament. Mr. Heschmeyer wrote about his vocation frequently on his blog Shameless Popery, speaking of his ordination as if it were inevitable. Things were going so well, he lost track of the idea that he was in seminary to test and explore his vocation.

“Pretty soon after I entered [in 2011], I stopped asking God if this was what he wanted. I felt like the question had already been answered. My grades were good; I was well esteemed; everything internal to the seminary felt successful. That felt like enough validation. I forgot to ask, ‘Are we still on the same page?’” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

It was not until friends and family had already bought airplane tickets and reserved hotel rooms for his ordination to the diaconate that he began to feel some doubt. He tried to assign his misgivings to “last-minute jitters,” but a black cloud of unease hung over his head.

He described riding on a bus on the way back from a retreat.

“The archbishop has an open seat next to him. A sort of rotating spot, where you can share whatever’s on your heart. It’s usually pretty short, out of respect—a 10-minute thing. I was there for half an hour, pouring out all these difficulties,” he said. The archbishop immediately reassured him that if he had any doubts, he should take more time before making a final commitment.

“It was a tremendous load that had been lifted off my shoulders. It was an illuminating and painful experience. I realized I was happy I wasn’t getting ordained. It wasn’t what I wanted to feel, or expected to feel,” Mr. Heschmeyer said.

He decided to take time off and then consider rejoining—a plan which, according to the Rev. Matt Mason, the vocations director for the diocese of Manchester, N.H., is not uncommon. But nine days into a 10-day retreat, Heschmeyer knew for sure he was not meant to be a priest after all.

Leaving the seminary or religious life can feel like freedom followed by disorientation, or like rejection followed by clarity. For many, the experience eventually bears fruits of self-knowledge and a more profound relationship with God. But first comes suffering.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine. This article is also in the July print edition. 

A view of the mountain

Last month, my siblings and I worked out the final design for my father’s gravestone. We opted for a single stone with both my parents’ names on it, thinking forward to when my mother will die. I remember being glad that at least the part with the names was straightforward: one husband, one wife, one last name.

But even as we arrange to have that name carved in stone, I cannot help thinking about how transient it is. That name, my maiden name, is French, but our family is certainly not. My shtetl-born ancestors fled their home on a French boat, and some overworked Ellis Island official made the switch, either translating the name or just not listening very hard, Vito Corleone-style. Our true name is lost, and my family name is less than a hundred years old. So when I gave it up for my husband’s name, I was not giving up much.

And when we gave my husband’s last name to our children, that was not much to give, either. The auspicious name of “Fisher” came into being when my husband’s great-grandfather did something regrettable and had to flee the country quickly. When he came back, his name was “Fisher,” and that is all we know.

What is a Fisher? Some combination of whatever we cannot shake and whatever we decide to build, just like everyone else in the family of man. Trace anyone’s ancestry back far enough and you are almost guaranteed to hit a question mark or a lie or else an idea that may not sit well: that the family we really belong to is the family of man.

Most of us have a history of going back and forth across continents and oceans, whether we were dragged there or seeking fortune or fleeing oppression or escaping justice. Back and forth, around and around we go, taking on and shedding and making up names as we go. I do not say that history does not matter. But individual family names matter less than we like to admit; and eventually they will be taken away from us.

Shortly before he died, my father said that God was taking away more and more things from him: his health, his ability to visit my mother, who has advanced Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home, even his ability to walk. He told my sister it was good, to lose these things. He said God was getting him ready for death. He had a clear view of where he was headed . . .

Read the rest of my latest for America magazine.

A person’s a person, no matter how famous: The use and abuse of Norma McCorvey

What do we really know about Norma McCorvey? A new documentary premiering Friday about the pro-life celebrity includes some bombshells from what she called her “deathbed confession”: that her pro-life convictions and possibly even her conversion to Christianity were all an act, performed for money.

“I was the big fish. I think it was a mutual thing. I took their money and they’d put me out in front of the cameras and tell me what to say,” Ms. McCorvey said in previews of “AKA Jane Roe.”

Ms. McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff “Jane Roe” of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, was initially a pro-choice activist, but after her baptism in 1995, she became a celebrity for the pro-life cause. According to the documentary, she received over $400,000 in “benevolent gifts” from various pro-life organizations. Does her history prove that she only pretended to be pro-life because of the money and fame it brought? Or does it prove that she was only pretending to be pro-choice because that, too, brought her attention and cash?

I suspect the answer is: both, or neither.

“It was all an act. I did it well, too. I am a good actress. Of course, I’m not acting now,” Ms. McCorvey said in the documentary, apparently without irony.

Ms. McCorvey is the classic unreliable narrator, and those who have followed her story are not surprised that this new narrative is emerging three years after her death. She said she was pro-life, but she supported first-trimester abortions; she said she renounced her L.G.B.T. lifestyle but lived with a female companion for decades. She gave varying accounts of how she came to be pregnant with the baby whose abortion she tried and failed to procure, claiming at various times that she was raped, then that she had lied about being raped. She wrote a book called Won By Love, but she was often harsh and aggressive toward her own supporters. Her behavior was erratic, her speech often rambling.

The Catholic author and journalist Dawn Eden Goldstein, who says she met Ms. McCorvey in 2007 at a “40 Days for Life” dinner, recently shared a note she sent to their mutual booking agent, urging him to find her a “minder” who could protect her from fans who plied her with drinks even after she told them she was an alcoholic.

And she was used, consistently, tragically, all her life. She was abused, perhaps raped, uprooted, deceived and manipulated, as well as wined, dined, feted and mythologized by both sides. The fact that she became immortalized by the anonymous name “Jane Roe” is tragically apt. Here is someone who was never allowed to be …Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Image: Norma McCorvey in front of the Supreme Court in 1989

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’: A searing but flawed film about abortion

I suppose America asked me to review “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” because I am pro-life but critical of the mainstream pro-life movement. I especially reject pro-lifers who demonize women and make excuses for men, and who refuse to understand why abortion feels like the only choice for some women. Things are slowly changing, but much of pro-life culture is still propaganda. I abhor propaganda, even when I agree with the message it delivers. If I’m watching a movie, I want a work of art, not a wheelbarrow for dumping a message at my feet.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” written and directed by Eliza Hittman, is no wheelbarrow. It is a deft, delicate and sometimes searingly painful and realistic portrayal of two teenage cousins, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and Skylar (Talia Ryder), who travel from their rural Pennsylvania town to New York City, where Autumn can get an abortion without parental consent. For a longish film, it is short on plot and dialogue, relying heavily and successfully on glances, murmurs and laconic comments. The script and acting are superb, flawless. This film never tells, only shows, and it does it so well.

Maybe too well. Read the rest of my review for America Magazine.