Wednesday, March 20, 2013

voices soft as thunder

Recently, my kids—ages 7 and 9—asked if they could see an upcoming production of “Les Miserables” in New Haven. We’ve been playing the soundtrack ad nauseum since the film came out, and the story has captivated them, even if much of it is beyond their comprehension. But even though Bryan and I are going to the show, I was hesitant to purchase tickets for the kids. “Not yet,” I told them. “You’re too young. “ I wasn’t thinking only about the bawdy profanity of songs like “Master of the House” (“Everybody raise a glass—raise it up the master’s ass!”), or about the bloody battle scene at the barricades. What concerned me most was “Lovely Ladies,” the number in which prostitutes advertise themselves to hungry sailors (“Seven days at sea can make you hungry for a poke”). Halfway through the song, Fantine sells her hair; by the end, she has sold herself (“Come on, dearie, why all the fuss? You’re no grander than the rest of us. Life has dropped you at the bottom of the heap. Come on dearie, make money in your sleep”).

The lively music of the song is a chilling contrast to Fantine’s fall (contrasted further still by her swan song, “I Dreamed a Dream”). When she first heard it, Lexi thought the song a happy one, and why wouldn’t she? You can dance to it. It’s witty. And the whores seem willing enough.

I said “no” to the kids because we haven’t had the “sex” talk yet. Because, despite the prevalence of sex and violence in our music and film, I have held fast to a (possibly outmoded) notion of childhood innocence. Thus far, their exposure to the theater has been by way of “Annie,” “Lion King,” and “Seussical.” How was I to explain Fantine’s demise?

Then, three weeks ago, I read about a girl who was raped by three minors. One of them was nine. Nine. The same age as my son. Another was 11. The girl, whose family was from a country in Africa, was disowned by her family. After all, she had shamed their family. So, after her brutal assault, she was placed in state custody, ashamed and alone.

Yesterday, Facebook was alive with breaking stories surrounding the conviction of two high school students who had raped an inebriated young girl in Ohio. As if the rape itself weren’t humiliation enough, her photo was all over the internet, captioned everywhere by those who witnessed her demoralization: tweets that labeled her “slut,” “whore,” and someone who “deserve[d] to be peed on.” Most of these tweets were by kids, high school students who watched as her body was dragged to three different parties. Some of the tweets were jubilant: “I finally saw a dead body.” Others casually amused: “She looks so dead lmao.” Not one, as far as I know, called for help, or addressed the blatant moral depravity of the situation.

You can blame the alcohol. Many did. But now that convictions have been issued, “Jane Doe” is receiving death threats, not only from those kids who were implicated, but from their parents. So, while I’m worried about shielding my kids from the reality of prostitution, these parents are tacitly condoning the actions of the rapists by suggesting that the victim is to blame. It’s an old story. The girl had her dignity torn from her in one drunken night; the boys will have their wrists slapped for doing what boys have always done: given the girl what she was asking for in the first place.

Lovely ladies/ready for the call/standing up or lying down or any way at all

Yesterday was a wake-up call for me. If nine year old boys are sexually assaulting young girls, I can’t put off “the talk.” Not when teachers are letting kids watch “Gangnum Style” in the classroom (“Hey, sexy lady”), and when my daughter’s six-year-old friends are making up songs about cheating on their men.

And the violence at the barricades in “Les Mis”? What is an onstage battle compared to the sickening reality of Newtown? At least the boys in the musical were fighting for something noble. Adam Lanza was seeking notoriety. The war he was waging was an internal war, and thanks to our shamefully loose gun laws and a culture that privileges “personal freedom” over moral action, he was gloriously victorious.

If nothing else, I thought after days of trying to process the incident at Newtown, at least this tragedy will lead to action. We have no choice but to pass new gun legislation now. Newtown has made this startlingly clear.

And people did stand up. Veronique Pozner was strikingly open about the damage to her little son’s body. We have to see, she insisted. We have to talk about it, and not think of these kids as “little angels.” They were brutally murdered. Petitions were created, signed, and sent to Washington. Cyclists rode in the name of the victims. Obama declared he would use every power available to him to see the gun laws changed.

But “personal freedom” wins again. Hooray for us. Or, as the Daily News put it, “Shame on Us.”

It’s hard not to feel hopeless amidst the insanity. I’m trying to channel the despair into action: perhaps not by marching on Washington, but by thinking more locally. By having open discussions with my kids—my own kids, and the kids I teach—about respect: respect for women’s bodies, respect for male dignity, respect for the lives and properties and even privacy (does privacy exist in our social-media-obsessed society?) of others. Respect for their values, so that they can grow up to take on insensitive, single-minded “leaders” like Wayne LaPierre, or understand that “sexual freedom” is not synonymous with “giving a guy pleasure.”

I hope we don’t just collectively close these cases and think of them as tragic events that happen in other places (especially hard to do with Newtown, since it was so close to home).

We owe it to our children and their families. The time is now. Let the state of Connecticut become an agent for change with respect to gun safety. Our little man, and every other child and adult who died that day, deserve it. –Veronique Pozner, mother of Noah, Newtown victim.

Here's hoping someday in the not-too-distant future the misfortunes of Fantine will be only found in fiction and not in real life. -- Anne Hathaway, upon receiving her Oscar for Best Actress.