Newsletter as Siren Song
On being an obstacle in the hero's journey
Over the summer, I took a short break from this newsletter to start some new writing projects, hang with my kids at the local public pool (more on that coming next week), and give myself a little space to think. All paid subscriptions were paused while I was away, and next week, I’ll be starting up again with a few changes.
When I started this newsletter, I wanted a place to house some of the writing I was sitting on: research and writing I had done in the years before the pandemic, while struggling to finish a dissertation as a new mother (that project was, not incidentally, about representations of women’s work); other writing I had been playing around with after I (not without strain) finished my PhD and began to have some time and space to consider what to do next.
During the pandemic, it was both exciting and frustrating to see many of the issues I’d been studying for years explode in the mainstream. Questions about paying parents for their work in the home and a growing awareness of capitalism’s reliance on unpaid labor no longer seemed like such radical ideas. I’ve just wrapped up a piece about the influx of writing on pandemic parenting, so you can read more about my thoughts on the steady stream of hot takes on motherhood over the past few years soon.
But this summer, I’ve been thinking about what this newsletter might be on the other side of this pandemic-wave of writing, on the other side of the loss of Roe, and in this era of ongoing childcare crises and forced motherhood and white misogynistic control and basically complete political denial with respect to the idea that maybe America is a failed political experiment.
There was also an interesting pressure I noticed mounting early in the summer, as everyone I know who runs a newsletter (or anything) began rolling out big changes and revamps. Change and growth are great, in general, all for it. I love seasonal resets and reflections, even if they sometimes bring a false sense of reinvention. And I too spent some time clarifying for new and old readers (here for instance), and for myself, what it is I’m trying to do with this newsletter, which started as sort of an experiment.
But I feel resistant to the idea that writers should constantly reentice, rebrand. I think there is something to be said for valuing what one already has on offer. As Rachel Yoder put it in a recent interview, the need to prove one’s competencies again and again can be gendered, and “underachieving can be an act of profound self-care and radical feminism. To say, I’m not going to learn any more competencies, I’m done with that. I am my competencies, and my talents are here to serve me.”
This summer, nevertheless, I had a nagging feeling that I should dissolve or at least rethink this newsletter, to better underline that what I was doing here was serious scholarship. As Sara Petersen wrote a few months ago, in a nuanced and thoughtful essay about the ethics of analyzing momfluencer culture: “I do believe there is inherent value in unpacking how media texts both reflect and influence our real lives and our personal belief systems.” I believe that too, without hesitation.
But I was feeling a little tired of talking about motherhood, and I didn’t want to feel hemmed in as a writer— like I couldn’t talk about the broader intersectional issues at the center of feminist thought right now.
And this newsletter was never meant to be only about political or personal anger, nor was it ever meant to be only about people who identify as mothers or women. Much of my work is about investigating cultural and political narratives, how they come to live inside our bodies, our legislation, our personal senses of love and work and daily life, steering us all over the place as we try to care for children, communities, and ourselves.
I spent some time digging around inside myself this summer, thinking about where my restlessness was coming from. I thought often about Jessi Klein’s great piece, an excerpt from her book I’ll Show Myself Out, on our gut reactions to the “mommy blog.” In that essay, Klein writes about the hero’s journey, and her realization that, as a mother, perhaps she had been on “a hero’s journey this whole time.”
I think the dismissiveness we see around writing on motherhood, or parenting more broadly, comes up with respect to most stories of care in white Western patriarchal culture. If we admitted that stories of care can be as powerful as stories of war and destruction and dominance, our cultural system of values (and our concept of power) would have to shift. So we call stories about care sentimental, droll, cute, minor, niche. Unserious. I know this, but sometimes it’s still hard not to feel, in the age of The Brand, that one is being backed into a corner as a “parenting writer” or whatever.
What I love about Klein’s essay is the plain audacity she has to say that everyday life, everyday culture, like moms and Nom-noms, have a literary quality. Which is to say that such narratives and materials are valuable and worthy of serious critical and creative energy.
And here’s an interesting detail about the hero’s journey, which Joseph Campbell outlined as the archetypal male protagonist’s quest— a narrative pattern that has been detected throughout the canon of Western literature:
In the hero’s journey, the story reaches a climax when the hero faces a higher power, forcing him to give up his false belief in worldly icons. The hero is liberated from his own humanness, but before he can comprehend his salvation and transcend his own hubris, our male protagonist is met with a particular kind of temptation, one he must defeat: a woman who threatens his quest.
This feminine figure informs cultural mythologies around the bad mother and the slut, the sirens and the femme fatales.
American culture remains rooted in the hero’s journey today. In a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal nation, all bodies—except the white male subject’s—are continually framed as obstacles, to varying degrees, standing in the way of the white cis able-bodied Christian man’s pursuit of pleasure and power. In the white man’s quest for the great beyond, it is not unusual for such bodies to become targets of violence. It’s happening on a national scale right now.
As Campbell writes, “life, the acts of life, the organ of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, becomes intolerable to the pure pure pure soul.” If the male hero is to survive and experience “life beyond life,” Campbell writes, he “must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond.”
It’s no wonder that women’s voices, and women claiming their own lives—each of which represent their refusal to be controlled, surpassed, and overcome—make the modern hero so mad. Life here, in this world, no matter what these men say, is not what they’re after.
For two Halloweens in middle school, I dressed up as a “temptress,” a costume I had come up with myself, probably after a school unit on ancient mythology: I wore all black, fishnet tights, heavy eyeliner and crimson lipstick, heels on which I wobbled. Some of my inspiration for this costume, no doubt, was related to an appeal to boys’ sexual desires. I wanted early to be wanted.
But I’ve also always been interested in the temptress and her ilk: figures who stand in the way of the hero’s journey, who are threat to the narrative patterns we’ve inherited, who just won’t get out of the way.
And so, here we are, singing the siren song. Let’s go.