Monday, October 8, 2012

Superman is an arab

The author of Superman Is and Arab, Joumana Haddad, ends her book this way:

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who hated Superman. She knew that only if she refuses to be a conciliating Scheherazade and/or a shallow Lois Lane, and only if he drops his mask and turns into a real Clark Kent for good, could they live "happily"--that is, "interestingly"--ever after. So she used the only superpower she had in order to convince him, and herself: Words.

There's a review at the Superman Homepage by Steve Younis that sums up some of the key issues regarding Superman in Haddad's book .

The Superman I've always looked up to has nothing to do with any of these characteristics which the author connects to Superman. While she makes excellent points about men confusing being manly with being macho, I think the connection she makes in associating Superman with these negative traits is misguided and ill conceived. 

While I agree with the majority of Haddad's arguments in her book, I don't agree with her rhetorical style (I don't like her writing style, either, and that's as much as I'm going to say about that). The point Younis makes in his article is that, while each person is of course entitled to whatever opinion about any given subject, that opinion might not make the best metonymy for the macho lifestyle that the author wants to denounce if it doesn't reflect the actuality of the character. It's not just that Haddad's interpretation of Superman differs from Younis' interpretation; it's that Haddad's interpretation is not based on the character at all. Younis is right to point out that the book is barely about Superman, aside from a couple of pages early on where Haddad mentions that she interprets the character as representing the 'manufactured' men of the world, particularly the Arab world, who are often oppressive of women to the point of murder.

Ok, I'm with her on her primary argument, and even on most of her secondary ones. I disagree with her on the point about marriage largely because she doesn't write that more marriages could be successful if the people who are getting married bothered to find out first if their ideas of what makes a good marriage are compatible. She comes awfully close to saying this.

No, my main critique comes down to the Superman shield that separates sections of the chapters. There it is, every few pages, standing out to remind readers that her reading of Superman and Lois Lane is flawed. Haddad doesn't seem to be aware that she's writing about a character who so very much wanted to make the world a better place that he inscribed the words "Do good to others and every man can be a Superman" on the moon.  Now, I'm aware that the language there is the product of  the patriarchy, but they're still pretty good words, and during the time they were written that was how people wrote.

It's the rhetoric of it all that bother's me. If she's not able to see that Lois Lane can be a role model for people who want to pursue their chosen career, that Superman can teach people that violence is not the way to solve problems, then I have to wonder about what else she's missing. This is a writer who several times points out that she's being scandalous, after all, so I'm inclined to think that her title is more rhetorical than anything else--intended to get you a little bit mad so that you'll pick up the book and see what it's about, or at the very least make you wonder what she's getting at.

In the end, the message is the most important part. Haddad draws a nice distinction between equality, which allows for difference, and similarity, which suppresses difference. What humanity at large needs is equality in rights without the flattening of personality. Haddad describes herself as a third wave feminist because she hopes to bring about a world in which people are allowed to be themselves--which means we recognize that men can be men without having to be macho, women can be women without having to be dainty, or put on a pedestal, or virginal wives. She advocates allowing people to define their genders without fear of repercussion. I'm all for that. And she points out that the world can't change for the better without cooperation between active people, men and women, who can see the need for change and figure out the proper way to achieve it.

I think her message would be stronger if she didn't couch it in a misreading of Superman; but Superman's global prominence is precisely what she wants to capitalize on, so to that extent is is effective.

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