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Earlier today, I had a difference of opinion with one of my Facebook friends — Tony — about the movie, Thelma and Louise. In a move that amazed even me, I went into my archives and found a column I’d written on June 22, 1991, just days after the movie was released. I stand by the analysis that I wrote then. (The only change/addition I’ve made is the bracketed explanation about the film Independence Day.)

Thelma and Louise

Several years ago, I saw a movie called Independence Day. (This 1983 movie, directed by Robert Mandel, starring Kathleen Quinlan and Dianne Wiest, is not to be confused with the 1996 science fiction film of the same name.) It was the story of a violent marriage and it had an explosive, dramatic ending. I remember the exhilaration and excitement I felt when, with great deliberation, careful planning, perhaps a silent cheer from abused women everywhere, the battered woman filled the house with gas and blew it up with her husband inside.

I saw the movie again recently. I watched in shock and horror as the ending approached and it dawned on me what was really going to happen. The wife did, in fact, blow up house and husband. What I had forgotten was that she was in the house too.

How could I have forgotten that? How could I have been so manipulated into seeing that explosion as a happy ending?

Those questions — and the answers — came to me with astounding clarity during one of the many discussions I’ve had recently on the subject of Thelma and Louise. One of my friends who had seen it and loved it said the unhappy ending was simply realism; it was the only thing that could have happened.

Unhappy ending? That’s it, I said to myself. Like the ending of Independence Day, the ending of Thelma and Louise was not presented as unhappy. It was presented as triumphant, victorious, jubilant. Like the battered wife of Independence Day, Thelma and Louise ended up dead but the audience cheered and the critics pronounced the film a fun-filled frolic, a feminist romp that “all women will love, all men must see.”

Thelma and Louise is the story of two women who have a history (and a present) of being mistreated by men — husbands, boyfriends and strangers. As the plot unfolds, they come to use standard male tactics as a way of dealing with the abuse: in the pivotal scene, Louise guns down a would-be rapist in the parking lot of a bar and from there, the two women — rightly assuming that no one would believe their version of the attempted rape — hit the road and head for Mexico.

Market surveys all show that to be commercially successful, a movie must appeal to males, age 16 to 25. This accounts for the fact that a high percentage of Hollywood films are laced with violence, sex, car chases, explosions, crude language and multi-million dollar special effects. Thelma and Louise passes up no opportunity to include these elements.

It’s a movie that competently reflects the culture it springs from — a culture that says “if you have a problem, shoot it,” a culture that insists that violence is not only effective, it’s entertaining. From the highly eroticized rape scene to the terrorist methods the women use in dealing with a highway patrolman to the spectacular explosion of an oil truck, violence is seen as a lark in which the occasional casualty is only to be expected, but nothing much to be concerned about.

And the effects of violence? After a brutal rape, you might think the last thing on Thelma’s mind would be sex with a stranger. But no, barely a day later, there she is, ready to be seduced by a hitchhiker the women pick up who turns out to be a charming armed robber. Is the lesson here that maybe being raped isn’t so bad after all?

Defenders of Thelma and Louise insist that this movie will cause people to talk about violence against women. I doubt that but, if it’s true, what will they say? I’m told that in some theatres, women stand and cheer at the violent methods employed by Thelma and Louise. Some of my own friends say they have felt empowered by the movie, have enjoyed seeing two women who decided to fight back.

I can’t concede their point. Thelma and Louise decided to fight back — and they lost. Far from being a tool of empowerment for abused women, Thelma and Louise exploits the issue of violence against women for its own commercial purposes. There is no affirmation of womanhood in the movie, no suggestion that things can change; in the end, there’s no hope.

The final scene is not violent. The death of Thelma and Louise is stylized, almost as in a cartoon. The final impression is of two women who have hugged each other, thrown back their gorgeous heads in gay abandon, decided they can’t turn back. They gun the motor of that ’66 sea-green T-bird, leave their police pursuers in a cloud of dust, and drive straight into the Grand Canyon. The action freezes as the car is in full flight and the manipulation is complete — a tragic ending that leaves its audience feeling good.

Maybe the ending should have come with a word of warning though: don’t try this trick at home, ladies. Freezing the frame only works in the movies.

The house was on the shore, about 100 feet from the water, right where the Black River flows into the Miramichi. It was a pretty house, weathered grey with sharply pointed gables and gingerbread trim. It looked a little worse for the wear. From a certain angle, it looked as if it were leaning back on its haunches; it had been built many years ago, with no foundation, and was “settling”, especially toward the back, where the kitchen was. From the front, it looked as if it were hunching its shoulders against the northeast winds that swept around the point, blowing in from the Miramichi Bay. It was a cold old house.

Black River house winter

February 17, 1976

I forgot to push the rolled-up blanket against the door before I went to bed so there was snow on the kitchen floor this morning. The wind battered the house all night. It’s some cold. The glass of water I took to bed with me was frozen when I got up — frozen solid, not just a little skim of ice like sometimes.
The water in the kettle on the stove was frozen too. I got the fire going and waited for the water to melt so I could prime the pump — at least I remembered to drain the pump last night.

After I got the pump working, I filled the big copper boiler on top of the stove to get some hot water. It was wash day and I wanted to get an early start to get the clothes hung outside while there was still some daylight. I had a few dishes to do so I started on them first. The dishwashing detergent wasn’t frozen but it had turned into a gel so stiff, it was almost solid. I had to use a knife to get some out of the bottle. I suppose I’ll have to start keeping it in the fridge.

The fridge is huge. I saw it advertised in the newspaper and a deal was pretty much made over the phone. I’ve never had a very good grasp of the size of an object that’s described in cubic feet. Anyway, I’m glad now. I keep many things in the fridge. It keeps them from freezing: things like canned goods and ketchup; oils and vinegars; potatoes, pickles and peanut butter — not to mention shampoo and conditioners, moisturizers, makeup and lotions. I think I could — as it used to be expressed — sell refrigerators to Eskimos. They could use them the same way I do.

I almost froze my fingers getting my big washtubs in from the shed. My hands were a little damp and when I reached up to lift the first tub off the hook where it hangs, my fingers stuck to the surface. I peeled them off; no permanent damage but I went and put my gloves on before I dragged the tubs in.

The two tubs sit side by side in the middle of the kitchen floor, one filled with hot soapy water, the other with less hot clear water for rinsing. The steam rises into the still-cold air of the kitchen like you see from those hot springs in Iceland. I sit on a cushion. I have a washboard for scrubbing and a hand-operated wringer that clamps on the side of the tub for wringing. A little shelf at the bottom of the wringer moves back and forth to keep the soapy water draining into the soapy tub and the clear water back into the clear tub. It’s very efficient.

I put the newly wrung-out clothes and towels and sheets into a wicker basket on the floor beside me but before I got outside to the clothesline, the bottom layer had already started to freeze up. I put a few layers of newspaper and a folded blanket under the basket until I was ready to go out.

God, it was cold out there. I was already wearing long underwear, heavy pants, wool socks and a couple of sweaters and I added boots, scarves, jacket, mitts and a wool hat plus earmuffs. The wind was still blowing and if the clothes weren’t frozen in the basket, they were most certainly frozen by the time I got the clothespin fastened onto the line. It’s not that easy to do, wearing gloves and mitts and still having numb fingers. Why do I do it? Well, they’d freeze if I hung them in the house anyway and they dry a little faster outside, especially in that wind.

After the clothes were hung and as long as I was dressed for outdoors, I decided to fill the woodbox and take a trip to the outdoor facility to empty my little private indoor commode. It was frozen too.

I made some bread this afternoon. I had lots of potato cooking water, bottles and bottles of it — in the fridge, of course — and a bag of stone-ground whole wheat flour my sister had given me for Christmas. It has taken me quite a while to find the best way to raise my dough in that cold old kitchen. I tried placing the bowl in the warming oven of the wood stove but it was too warm. It rose too fast and the texture wasn’t good. Placing it on the outer edge of the open oven door caused an uneven rise.

I finally worked out a system that involves hot towels, newspapers for insulation, and an enclosed space that holds some heat where I set my big bowl — a medium-sized cardboard box works fine. (I’m quite inventive. I’m the same person who used to bake beautiful loaves of bread in a fireplace that I built on the shore out of flat stones and mud with a refrigerator shelf from the dump as the baking rack.)

The rest of the day was uneventful. I brought the clothes in and stood them up around the kitchen until they thawed and fell over. They really do smell good. I read a lot, with my chair pulled close to the stove and my feet on the open oven door. I’ve drained the pump and I’m ready for bed now. My head got really cold in bed last night. I’ve put a large thick towel at the bedside so I can wrap it around my head tonight, if necessary.

snow storm fields


The stories I tell about living in the cold old house on the shore are not about poverty or hardship. They’re credentials. I tell them because it’s fun to tell them. I tell them so I don’t feel I have to explain why I love my washing machine.

But I tell them carefully and never with a suggestion of deprivation. Every day I lived in the old house, I thought of the woman who had lived there first, whose husband had built the house in the early part of the century. She had eleven children, most of them born in those very rooms. She had no electricity, no car to take her to town for shopping, no fridge to keep her food from freezing. And her water pump, unlike mine which was conveniently located in the kitchen, was outdoors.

There was another woman I used to think of too, while I was living in that cold old house. She lived in Chatham, where I grew up, and I met her only once.

It was 1950. I was six years old, a sweet little girl with long hair curled into ringlets by my mother every morning, dressed carefully in tiny pleated skirts and crisp white blouses, sent to school with bookbag and accessories — a pencil case, a plastic ruler with a hole in the middle, a soft pink eraser, fresh notebooks, everything I needed. I went to The White School, an old wooden building that must have had another name in the beginning but was never known by another name in my time. It seemed very big to me; today, when I drive by the lot where it used to stand, I realize that it didn’t take up much space. The students who went there were mostly working class; a few were middle class; some were very poor.

One day in winter, all of us in grade one, having struggled into our winter duds, were standing in line in the ante-room waiting for the teacher to come around and tie our scarves at the back of our necks so they’d be ready to pull up over mouth and nose for the cold walk home. As she approached me, I saw with dread that she was carrying a small sheaf of papers.

“I want you to take Eddie’s lessons home to him,” she said. “He was sick today.”

My little heart sank. I was scared of Eddie anyway and I had heard all the lurid White School tales about the house where he lived. I didn’t understand some of it but I knew what a bootlegger was. This was a grade one nightmare.

I lagged behind the others on the way home. I tried to think of some way of getting out of it. Finally — but much too soon — I turned down the street where Eddie and his family lived, in a ramshackle frame house behind an abandoned building. I picked my way through the rubble in the snowy yard — old car parts, an overturned wheelbarrow, a wagon with no wheels. Before I knocked, the door opened. A woman holding a baby was standing there.

“Who are you? Who sent you ‘ere?” she said.

“I brought Eddie’s lessons from school.”

“Come into the ‘ouse.”

Oh no oh no. This was not part of the deal. The room she led me into was more like a shed: it had bare board floors, a few old sticks of furniture, an unmade bed in the corner. It was cold. There was no sign of Eddie or any of the older children or the bootlegger but there were small children, a few of them — toddlers and babies.

“What’s your name?” she said. I told her.

“I know where you live. A new ‘ouse.”

It was a new house; it was owned by the power commission where my father worked. It was an ugly house and my mother didn’t like it. But it had a furnace and rugs and matching furniture and curtains. To Eddie’s mother, it must have seemed like living in a palace.

My childhood experience had not prepared me for her house. How could I have fit that cold hovel, those ragged children, that unkempt woman into my ordered little life where we collected money in Mission Band to buy food for hungry little heathen children in India; where we made little drawstring bags out of facecloths and filled them with soap and toothpaste and toothbrushes and combs and maybe a barrette for deprived children in Africa?

How could it be that there were little children in Chatham living like this? Did they have enough to eat? Did they ever have roast beef on Sunday? Did they have any toys or storybooks? Did anyone ever take them to the beach? Did they have aunties and uncles who visited at Christmas? Was there even a stove in this place?

These specific questions came to me years later; at the time, I asked no questions at all. I don’t know why except little children often feel shame and embarrassment when faced with complex situations that are uncomfortable.

I never saw Eddie’s mother again. I think they moved away shortly after my visit. I never told anyone I’d been there.

There was something else I never told anyone. The day I went to Eddie’s was the third time the teacher had asked me to take his lessons to his house. The first time, I tore the pages into little pieces and buried them under a rock in a swampy ditch on the way home. The second time, I put them at the bottom of the box where I kept my supplies for playing school. No one ever found them.

Stan Carew is the lovable host of CBC Radio One’s Weekend Mornings, heard across the three Maritime provinces on both Saturday and Sunday. It’s a very popular show — rightly so, as it’s simultaneously current and nostalgic, sophisticated and whimsical, cozy and worldly.

Over the Christmas holidays, Weekend Mornings played to the whole nation a couple of times. This is always fun and it’s easy to tell that Stan, Deputy Doug Barron and Duke, the studio stallion are excited and challenged to play to a whole different audience. The dynamic changes.

The week after the national show, Stan played some of the very positive feedback from around the country.

And then, he said sombrely, we got this. “This” was a rather scolding response from a woman in Ontario to a Spike Jones song that he’d played on New Year’s weekend. I had heard it and I had a real “what-were-you-thinking-Stan?” moment at the time. It’s an awful song. It has no redeeming social value: it’s not cute or funny or saucy or satirical.

The caller was hard on Stan. She said he should be removed from his position.

Stan sounded hurt and bewildered, which annoyed me.

It would be nice if we could consider that song an artifact, an amusing reminder that we can dig up to show why things needed to be changed. But women and girls live every day in a world that diminishes, ridicules and marginalizes their lives. It’s there in advertising, in music, in film, in politics, in religion. It’s in the language and in the attitudes and in the “jokes.” Because I continue to point this out, I’ve spent much of my adult life being told to lighten up, get a sense of humour, “he didn’t really mean anything by it. It was a joke!”

Just last week, I was in the company of a gaggle of grade four kids — four boys, one girl. The boys were rambunctious, inappropriately noisy for where they were and eventually, their adult supervisor raised his voice to them. “Try to behave more like her,” he said, nodding toward the lone girl. The boys hooted and chortled and fake-gagged. “Should we grow our hair long and wear pink? Play with — yecch — Barbie? Go shopping? Run like this?” Their contempt and disdain were palpable. They’re 10 years old.

I have been an active and vocal feminist since the ’70s, at first working for rights that women had never had and later, trying to salvage and retain those rights that have been gained which are now threatened on a daily basis. Stephen Harper, with his minority government, has stripped bare those federal departments which had anything to do with levelling the Canadian — and the world — playing field.

Anti-feminists — feeling very emboldened these days — can haul out their statistics about numbers of women in university and in the professions but in fact, many women continue to live in poverty in precarious employment situations and in dangerous home environments. Women still struggle to have their families and raise their children within systems that have not changed to accommodate their biology and — only partly because of that — women are still earning much less than men are in most workplaces.

Women and girls face judgement every time they walk out their front door, every time they pick up a magazine that tells them they’re too fat or watch a television commercial that demands more and more of their time and energy to meet ever-changing impossible beauty standards.

People who say that the struggle for women’s equality is over and that feminism is therefore passé are not paying attention. It is disheartening for those of us who are paying attention to have to get up every morning and put out the same brush fires, day after day after day. It’s tiring.

And Stan? That’s why the woman who called from Ontario took you so strongly to task. She had just come through the Christmas season — as the rest of us had — and she had probably been dealing with family members and co-workers who’d had too much to drink. Clearly, she had just had it up to here and Spike Jones was just the final straw.

P.S. To all those defenders of Stan who called in and told him not to give in to those crying for “censorship”: Making choices for a playlist is not censorship. Radio hosts choose and reject songs for all kind of reasons — rightly so — and it is simply silly to use the word “censorship” in this situation.

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