Thursday, July 19, 2018

Racism or erase-ism? The dilemma of Sunflower

It's been said about certain particularly pompous types of music (Wagner comes to mind) that "maybe it's better than it sounds." This statement puts me in mind of Disney's Fantasia.

Maybe it's worse than it seems. 

Disney was a farm boy at heart, and Fantasia was a country bumpkin's idea of high culture, a massive and lumbering delivery device for "good" music. Meaning, classical music, which you really should be exposing your children to, for their own good. Disney's choices were conservative:  Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, the Sorceror's Apprentice, Dance of the Hours, all things that leant themselves to the typical sentimental, florid Disney animation. And to throw in something really daring, Disney included a bit of Stravinsky to accompany T-rexes and stegosauri duking it out in a steamy primordial jungle.


But that's not what we're talking about here.

We're talking about someone else.

We're talking about Sunflower.

There was a lot more to Fantasia than Mickey stemming the flood in The Sorcerer's Apprentice (the best-animated piece in the whole thing), dancing mushrooms, and alligators chasing after ostriches. There was this person. This - little horse, rather, and her name was Sunflower, featured briefly in the Pastoral Symphony's slow movement. 

We see a group  of pastel-colored horsettes, or should I say centaurettes, primping to meet their beefy centaur boyfriends. But they're not doing all the primping by themselves. To help them braid their manes and blow-dry their tails, they have. . . Sunflower.

But, cute as she is, she's now a problem. Sunflower is clearly a servant, a little black girl trotting around obediently after all the glam horsettes. She's much smaller than the others, wears large gold hoop earrings, has stereotypical African features, and has her hair tied up in rags. In short, she's what people thought of in those days when you thought of a servant. Is she smaller because she's younger, a different kind of centaur, or what? It may have been a familiar visual device to convey relative status. This helped the audience orientate themselves, made it easier on them due to recognition of something they knew in the "real world".

She's something of a shock today, like seeing the godawful Steppin' Fetchit characters of the 1930s. By some Disney magic she was cut out of all prints of Fantasia when it was reissued for home video in the 1960s. Just - dropped, without an explanation, without a trace. This took some fancy dancing on the part of the animators, who had to try to keep the animation moving in synch with the music while the shears were applied. They used awkward closeups that left her out of the frame. The epitome of being marginalized! In one case, a red carpet eerily unrolled all by itself, because Sunflower was no longer there to unroll it.

Removing Sunflower was considered to be a "solution". She had been solved -or dissolved - by being erased, un-drawn, un-created. Undone. 

It was as if she had never existed at all. It seems, to me, a curious solution to a racist portrait, but that's what they did. Thus, they never had to take any responsibility for what they had already done. This was Papa Disney, after all, and he was clearly above all that.

If they hadn't erased Sunflower, there would no doubt have been an outcry. I understand the outcry, yes. But it confuses me. The whole thing does. If she had been a real live human being, it would have been more complicated - but maybe not by much. It was as if Sunflower were the shit-disturber, the joker in an otherwise conservative deck. So the trap door had to open. There was no other way.

Or - ?

Max Fleischer found another way, or at least his studio did, when it came time to release a DVD set of the complete Popeye cartoons (which I, of course, have). At the beginning of each DVD is a disclaimer stating that some of the cartoons feature characters and images which might be considered racist and offensive, but that these reflect the attitudes and prejudices of their time. And to censor or remove these images would be to pretend those attitudes never existed at all.


But soft! What's this? A little later on in the Pastoral Symphony, we have the fat drunk guy on the donkey, Dionysus or whoever-the-hell-he-is. He's a silly character, rolling around, and meant to be. But who's that on either side of him? Look fast, because they are there for exactly ten seconds.

These are black servants, half-zebra instead of half-horse. They are quite glamorous, much taller than Dionysus - in fact, they tower over him - and their job is to fan him and keep his wine glass topped up. No matter how different they look from Sunflower, they are still servants, and they are black.

And they've been allowed to stay.

I've always found that weird. Is it the fact they're more adult, more exotic, taller, and less the little plantation girl than Sunflower? Are zebras more acceptable (half-white, after all) than horses or ponies? Is it the fact they're waiting on a man, instead of a bunch of pony-girls? I can't quite understand the thinking here. Or was it just too hard to animate them out or turn them into camels or something?

What's even stranger though is that Sunflower has a sunflower in her hair in some shots, and not in others - and this is in the same scene! It comes and goes, comes and goes at the whim of the animators. Did they know she was going to be cut out? No, she was there when the movie opened to great fanfare in 1940. (It was a flop. The public found such forced musical edification pompous and boring.) Nobody noticed it, I'd imagine, or thought much of the fact that there was a cute little Negro girl waiting on the ladies. It wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. It doesn't now, either, because it can't!  Sunflower has left the building.

Only this time, she's gone for good.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Southern Gothic: the news about Billie Joe

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and we walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered at the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said she got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge
Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

Papa said to mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
"Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please
There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow"
And Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie, you know it just don't seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?
I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"

A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going 'round, papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

I think  more deep psychological meaning has been assigned to this song than (even) MacArthur Park or Inna Gadda Da Vida. I confess here and now that I like it, and that, upon reflection, it's not as schmaltzy as it may appear on the surface.

In only five spare verses, Bobbie Gentry opens up a world. That world is wounded, disaffected, and achingly lonely. The story is about a suicide, but it's also about the callousness of adults casually discussing a young man's death while they scarf down a typical Southern meal ("Pass the biscuits, please").

The food obviously means more to them than the boy, with one exception: a girl sitting at table unable to eat, trying to absorb the shock. Though she narrates the story, she is never named. The trauma and horror of the details accumulate bit by bit, along with her family's indifference towards the  tragedy. And then, of course, there are all those mysteries: who was Billie Joe McAllister, what relationship did he have with the girl, was he black, was he gay, did he make her pregnant? And (most importantly), what were she and Billie Joe throwing off the Tallahatchie Bridge?

Gentry, a Southerner from Mississippi who rebaptised  herself from her birth name Streeter (perhaps to distance herself from her po'-white-trash roots), doesn't explain a lot of things, and has even admitted she doesn't know all the details herself. Storytelling is the art of implication, leaving lots of space for the listener's interpretation.

A movie was later made about the story, solidifying some of the myths, and I think that spoiled it. Of course, in the movie it's all spelled out: Billie Joe was gay and jumped off the bridge out of sexual guilt. I hate it when someone comes along and plugs all the holes and spaces, usually with the most trite possibilities.

And then there are the "mystery verses". As I began to dig into the enigmatic, brilliantly-written lyrics, I discovered there was a so-called "seven-minute version" featuring only voice and acoustic guitar, which was later cut down to four minutes (still unprecedented in length, except perhaps for MacArthur Park) for radio play. Of course I couldn't find it, and it's doubtful it even exists. This version is tighter, and though the lines somehow fit into the sad, almost bluesy tune, many of them don't scan. This gives them a conversational rhythm that's eerily lifelike. It's one of those things that shouldn't work, but does. Obviously this song has been worked on and worked on, and yet the seams don't show.

I'm no Bobbie Gentry fan, and this genre doesn't interest me at all for the most part, but every time this song comes into my head it arrests my brain. So what was it: an aborted fetus, a wedding certificate, stolen cash, a Grammy award? This last tantalyzing detail is probably what secured the song as a timeless hit. (When asked what it was, Gentry was famously quoted as saying,"I don't know.")

There's a lot we don't know: if the family is black or white (unlikely they are black, because they seem to own their own spread and don't give the impression of being impoverished), whether or not the girl is pregnant (?) or just mad about the boy. Or if she even loves him. His supposed gayness comes out of left field: some say the ie spelling of his name (inexplicably changed for the movie) indicates his sexual orientation, though the fact it was recorded by Bobbie Gentry, a masculine name with an unconventional spelling, obscures that (rather stupid) possibility. Billie Jean King was yet to rise to ascendency, but Billie Joe, Betty Joe and Bobbie Joe were already fixtures on Petticoat Junction.The fact Gentry and one of the Bradley daughters have the same first name seems tremendously significant. (Just a coincidence? You decide.)

The song touches on various raw nerves of '60s pop culture: the angst and disaffection of youth (then called the "generation gap"), racial tension, poverty, social status, forbidden sexuality, and lyrics that you had to listen to over and over again and "figure out" (unlike Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I've Got Love in my Tummy and My Baby Does the Hanky Panky). Of course I looked for the seven-minute version with all those extra verses, and turned up only one image of a sheet of paper, a rough draft which may or may not be bona fide. Lots of old threads on message boards from 2007 ask the same questions and come up with all sorts of possibilities. Bobbie Gentry was smart not to answer them. Personally, I always thought Mama was trying to fix the girl up with that "that nice young preacher, Brother Taylor" - did she know more about her daughter's infatuation than she was letting on? Was she trying to get her mind off the whole sordid mess? At any rate, they've invited him for dinner, no doubt so they can throw pleasantries at each other with only passing reference to that unrepentent sinner, Billie Joe.

And that's all I have to say about it for this moment, but the more I listen to that lyric, the more I study it, the better it gets. You see, it shouldn't work - the lines have too many syllables - it's melodramatic and even depressing.  But as with Dionne Warwick's  Do You Know the Way to San Jose (which drew unprecedented numbers of people to the city, in spite of the fact that the song portrays it as a sinkhole of failed dreams), people thronged to Tallahatchie Bridge in the strangely-named town of Money, Mississippi. It was only a 20-foot drop, and I'm not at all sure that's enough to kill a person. But the bridge collapsed in 1972, an eerie thing. It had rotted away, obviously, or merely bucked under the weight of pop-culture legend.


Money Bridge Collapses, Greenwood Commonwealth, 06/20/1972

MONEY – The Tallahatchie River Bridge here collapsed between 11:30 and midnight Monday and presumably joined Billy Joe MacAllister in the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie.

Leflore County Deputy Sheriff Ricky Banks said he received a call from Sheriff Rufus Freeman about 12:15 a.m. today telling him the bridge had collapsed.

Leflore County Second District Supervisor Ray Tribble had called Sheriff Freeman earlier when two boys who had been fishing discovered the bridge had collapsed.

The two boys reportedly had gone upstream to fish and upon returning to Money found they couldn’t get over the collapsed span in the Tallahatchie River.

Tribble and his county road foreman Homer Hawkins then blocked the bridge off at the approaches on each side to prevent anyone from driving into the river.”

[Caption under photos]  BRIDGE OUT AT MONEY – The middle section of the Tallahatchie river bridge at Money tilted towards its upstream side as it collapsed Monday night. The steel suspension bridge was built in 1927. Staff Photos by Steve Bailey.

(Post-script. This now strikes me as a total crock. I mean  - look at the names! Sherriff Rufus Freeman is straight out of The Dukes of Hazzard. Ray Tribble - ? What can I say? Then we get to Homer Hawkins, and we KNOW we are in the territory of satire.)

Biographical tidbit about B. G. :

Of Portuguese descent, Gentry was born Roberta Streeter in Chickasaw County, MS, on July 27, 1944; her parents divorced shortly after her birth and she was raised in poverty on her grandparents' farm. After her grandmother traded one of the family's milk cows for a neighbor's piano, seven-year-old Bobbie composed her first song, "My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog," years later self-deprecatingly reprised in her nightclub act; at 13, she moved to Arcadia, CA, to live with her mother, soon beginning her performing career in local country clubs. The 1952 film Ruby Gentry lent the singer her stage surname.

POST-THOUGHTS: This post may have quite a few add-ons, despite the deceptively simple subject matter. I wrote earlier that the girl in the song sits there looking ghostly with shock. But how do we know how she looks? There is no mention at all of how she feels or reacts until the FOURTH verse, and even then, all we know is that she has no appetite. Her mother chides her for it, not so much because her child isn't eating but because all her cooking efforts are going to waste. And that is all we know about her reaction. There is no mention of grief. There is no mention of tears. Nothing! Just a mother getting on her kid's case for wasting food. It's shocking, when you really look at it, because all the rest of it, the assumption of a grief-stricken girl listening to the adults expressing their callous indifference to a tragedy, is imagined, inferred. It's what we don't know about her and about her relationship with Billie Joe that makes the song so compelling.

So how do we even know she loved him?

It's everything that is going on around the subject. Of course the adults aren't as indifferent as they may appear. They're keeping the subject at a distance because it's so horrific. When her brother starts to reminisce about Billie Joe and the playful, if rather disgusting incident at the Carrell County picture show, it's obvious the girl knew him, and her parents knew that she knew him.

Another layer? The stigma of suicide: "well, he done it to himself, didn't he?" is the unspoken subtext as they stuff themselves with cornbread and black-eyed peas. He should've acted like a man, faced up to his troubles, whatever they were.

The end of the song is so heartbreaking that I haven't even touched on it. It's the most masterful verse because of its Southern Gothic melancholy, worthy of passage in a  Tennessee Williams play. By the end of it, the girl is completely alone, idly tossing flowers over the side of that fatal bridge. Ironically, the last verse somehow echoes the terseness of her parents in its lack of emotion. She is simply stating the facts.

AND THIS IS THE LAST THING I WILL SAY. (Promise!) I found out in all my meanderings through the song and the history of the bridge that Money, Mississippi is where Emmett Till was brutally murdered, inspiring Bob Dylan to write one of his fieriest songs when he was only 20 years old. I can't quote it here because it's a subject unto itself. But Money, Mississippi strikes me as a bubbling, seething cauldron, a place where ignorance and evil ruled, and perhaps still rule. I would like to think we are making progress, that all the hard work of the '60s paid off. But these days, as we slouch toward Bethlehem or slide toward oblivion, I have so many doubts that I wonder if we're going to make it at all.

POST-POST. This is a summer rerun, but one that I like. Hell, I put hours into this thing, and did more than four people read it? Never mind. If I weren't in this to amuse myself, I would've been long gone by now. It's the laziest dank ditch days of summer, inescapably close and sticky, and while we're far from the fly-buzzing steaminess of Money, Mississippi, the house feels like it's underwater from humidity. A lawnmower leaked in the night, filling the house with toxic fumes that rose like a mushroom cloud to the upstairs bedrooms. Right now I am sticking to my chair. No matter how much summer may suck, and it sucks big-time, there's something that sucks even more: you know that all too soon it'll be over and you'll slide down the other side. So I thought this long, not-so-lazy piece might be appropriate.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Oscar Zamora!

And behold, a subset: Oscar Zamora! I wasn't expecting him to come up as I searched for Christian ventriloquist album covers. In fact, I had broadened my scope and left out the Christian part. But this evil-looking man with the handlebar moustache kept creeping in, perhaps the creepiest of them all. The album covers had a vague sense of sadism about them, and one wouldn't  play well at all today:

I'm assuming it's the puppet chasing the  woman in the hot pants. But I've never seen a ventriloquist's dummy get up and walk before, let alone run.

Real Twilight Zone stuff.

As with clowns, ventriloquists weren't even considered creepy back then. They weren't. I know that seems incredible now. Kids laughed, adults were delighted. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were a huge hit - ON THE RADIO, as if they could convey anything ventriloquistic with sound only. It was like doing audio card tricks. It just wouldn't play, but it did, wildly. Even in person, Edgar Bergen constantly moved his lips, and nobody cared.

This guy, though - I was unable to find out much about him, except that there are several Oscar Zamoras who aren't him. A ball player, an actor - not him. He had a shopping mall sort of career, and even ended up on TV in HOUSTON (presumably, the one in Texas) doing a sendup of his act on one of those desperate local furniture store ads. NO MONEY DOWN! NO INTEREST! Mattresses for less!

God's chosen puppet

 The nightmare of Christian ventriloquism, and related horrors.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Is there a God?

As one who can't chew gum and walk down the street at the same time, this impresses me. 

I took a crack at violin - more than a crack, I lasted nine years - and didn't get too good at it, but I persisted. We're supposed to persist at everything, aren't we? Try, try again - and again - and again, even if nothing is happening.

I guess reality is different. My violin experience was mostly attached to my teacher, who became a spiritual mentor for years. But the beliefs he espoused are so far from what I believe now that I wonder why I lasted so long.

It was just different then. I was not only a churchgoer, but a lay minister. It seems incredible now, as I have completely discarded organized religion and see it as something which did irreparable harm to me. The story of my former church was such a nightmare that I can barely stand to reflect on it. Leadership fell apart to the extent that no one would even admit how awful it was. TV  cameras came in the sanctuary during worship services to raise the profile and further the causes of our minister and his wife, who later appeared on CBC and talked about their  experiences in the bedroom.

If you didn't want your face on TV,  you had to speak up and say so. If you didn't mind it, you had to sign a waiver. Or maybe it was the other way around. A few years back, such an intrusion would have been unthinkable, jaw-dropping. There would have been tremendous protest. It at least would have been discussed and voted on in council. In this case, it was just "done" as a way of  promoting a certain agenda (theirs).

Things had been bad enough for long enough that it was time  for me to go anyway - long overdue, in fact. I made a stab at finding another church, and found a sort of death march of calcified old people who most certainly didn't want me there.

It sometimes occurs to me that I lost God somewhere along the way, and Jesus too. I just wonder when that happened. Those people in my former church shouldn't have bothered, because it wasn't ever about God to begin with. It was about human ego and insularity and bad decisions and conformity and fear of speaking up, in case we triggered another disastrous meltdown.

And so. All this, from a video of a woman playing a violin and dancing! My joy in that place was long gone, but I stayed and stayed, trying to make it work. It was like a bad marriage that I couldn't let go of. When I did finally leave, I was completely shut out. The hole closed over immediately, and it was as if (after fifteen years of intense involvement) I had never been there at all.

It's all very well to say, "Oh, none of that is God. It's human beings with a corrupt or too-limited idea of God." But God who? God what? I no longer believe in any sort of freestanding force that cares about us, that counts the hairs on our head, etc. etc. As a child, I learned the only theological statement worth paying attention to: "God is love."  If there is a God of love at all, we must carry it and harbour it and share it with each other. WE are love, or we are not.

Not exactly an original idea, but it's all I can do on a Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, we have this song - and it was monstrously difficult to find, by the way, and I nearly gave up on it - by a mediocre pop star called Andy Kim. 

Who Has the Answers          Andy Kim

Is there a God? I really don't know,
Does he have a son? I really don't know.
But when I'm down, and things are all wrong
I turn to him, to help me be strong.
And so I pray Lord..shine on, shine on, shine on, shine on your light.

God made the sun.
At least that's what they say.
The waters and trees.
He made night and day.
But who made the child who's hungry and blind?
And who has the answers that I cannot find?
And so I pray Lord..shine on, shine on, shine on, shine on your light.
And let me see.
Please let me see.

Oh people everywhere, living in despair, no one really cares if they're dying.
Politicians swear that they really care, everybody knows that they're lying.
People cannot find any piece of mind, even though they have the almighty dollar.
And so they live and search, never find a Church, everyone is fine 'til the final hour.

People everywhere, living in despair, no one really cares if they're dying.
Pray a little louder now children.
Polliticians swear that they really care, everybody knows that they're lying.
Pray a little louder now children.
People never find, any piece of mind, even though they have the almighty dollar.
Pray a little louder now children.
People everywhere, living in despair, no one really cares.

And so I pray Lord..shine on, shine on, shine on, shine on your light.
And let me see.
Please let me see.
Please let me see.
Is there a God?
Is there a God?
I really don't know.
Who has the answers?
Is there a God?
Does he have a son?
I really don't know.
Who has the answers?

Post-mortem thoughts. I remembered a few things about this obscure song. It wasn't  played on some radio stations (too atheistic, I suppose). Almost everyone who remembers it, which is not too many, thinks it was sung by Neil  Diamond. And it's true: in almost every respect, it sounds like a Neil Diamond  song, the plaintive tune and yearning lyrics. But it isn't.

I've even had arguments about it. It goes like this:

Oh yeah, I love Neil Diamond.
Um, it wasn't by Neil Diamond.
Oh yes it was! I remember what album it was on. Cherry Cherry.
Um, you can look it up if you l like.
I don't have to look it up. It was Neil Diamond. I remember.
Um, I'm pretty sure it was by Andy Kim.
Andy Kim.
I've never heard of an Andy Kim. What else did he record?
Umm. . . Shoot 'Em Up, Baby. How'd We Ever Get This Way. Rock Me Gently. Sugar Sugar.

Yeah, I remember -
(Then, if someone else is sitting  at the table):
No, I remember, it WAS Andy Kim.
Oh? It WAS Andy Kim?
Yeah. It was him.
Oh! Thanks for telling me.

This happens to me all the time, making me wonder why I seem to lack all credibility.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Morphing Vincent's self portraits

I generally hate these "morphy" things, but I find this arresting. All those facets and angles, some of them radically different -  yet there's a still point at the centre, the core of being. I am back in a Vincent stage again, something I come around to eventually. I don't have to explain this, do I?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

A cartoon miracle: The Blue Danube

This is something of a cartoon miracle. At least ten years ago, I made a few gifs from an old cartoon. It depicted little cherubs or elves or whatever-they-were, opening some sort of structure like a dam so that water spilled over rocks and tumbled down mountains in a splendid burst of traditional animation. (NOT Disney. Disney was the Edison, the Ford, the Bell of animation, better at stealing/cashing in than innovating.) 

Then, of course, I lost the whole thing. It got buried. I only came across those few small gifs again by accident, but I had NO IDEA where they had come from. I squeezed YouTube as hard as I could, looked at every nature cartoon, every cartoon set in a gnome village, ever cherub-frolicking scene I could find. I had no idea even of a title. Finally I emailed Jerry Beck, a sort of cartoon savant, and he came up with the title -  and a link to the YouTube video - instantly. I got to watch it exactly once, then "someone" took it down forever, claiming  violation of copyright. (On YOUTUBE? Where everyone violates every copyright, right, left and centre?) 

But never mind, I found (weirdly) another bootleg version of it with a Grateful Dead song on the sound track. It was pretty grainy and missing half its charm, but I at least got to see that compelling dam-bursting scene with all its Freudian eroticism.

But then this!

I don't even know if it will work, and I don't know why it's still up here if it's taken down on YouTube. And tomorrow it may be down everywhere, so you'd better watch it now.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Golden lotus: the binding of women's souls

Blogger's note. Foot binding was a practice which was almost universal in China for nearly a thousand years. It was only banned in the early 20th century, though it was carried on in secret for many decades. Little girls had their feet contorted and crushed into the “ideal” measurement of three or four inches. A powerful fetish sprang up around this hideous practice, with men becoming “connaisseurs” of foot deformity and the various ways in which the instep buckled and the toes were crushed into lifelessness. Feng Jicai’s novel The Three-Inch Golden Lotus is both brilliant and hair-raising in exposing a barbaric, horrifying practice which made little girls marriageable and desirable, providing their only chance to “marry up” and save their families from destitution. Many say Jicai's novel is satiric, not just uncovering a shame from the past but holding up present-day social atrocity for close, uncomfortable scrutiny.

In this excerpt, Fragrant Lotus, a five-year-old girl who already has beautiful tiny feet, is initiated into womanhood by her beloved grandmother. To start the process, she forcibly breaks the little girl’s toes and folds them under the sole.

“Granny’s hands moved fast. She was afraid Fragrant Lotus would start to kick and scream, so she quickly completed the binding. She wrapped the bandage around the four toes, down to the arch, up over the instep, behind the heel, and then quickly forward, over the four toes once again. . . Fragrant Lotus’ mind was filled with waves of pain and pinching, folding and contortion. . . The four toes, now next to the arch, were locked firmly in place, as if by metal bands. They were unable to move, even a minute fraction of an inch.

“. . . She set about collecting shards of broken bowls, spread them on the ground, and smashed them into small, sharp bits. The next time she rebound Fragrant Lotus’ feet, she put the bits of porcelain inside the bandages, along the soles of her feet. When Fragrant Lotus walked, the pottery bits cut into her skin. . . The cut feet suffocated by the bandages became swollen, inflamed, and pus formed in the wounds. Whenever the bindings were changed, the old bandage had to be ripped off, tearing off pus and chunks of rotten flesh. This was an old method in the north China foot-binding tradition. Only when the bones were shattered and the flesh was putrid could the feet be properly molded into the most desirable shape.”

ENOUGH! We won’t get into the way Granny pulls out Fragrant Lotus’ toenails and pounds her feet with a rolling pin to make them more malleable. Though I am sure Jicai did his research with the utmost care (it matches everything I’ve ever found on the subject), at a certain point it becomes too headspinningly horrendous to even take in. How many millions of little girls had their childhood stolen from them in this way, forced to live the rest of their lives with a literally crippling deformity?

But even this isn’t the worst. Jicai also delves into the creepy fetishes men developed around bound feet, which were sometimes unwrapped and “played with” in the marriage bed. Foot competitions, in which feet were judged on size and shape (the smaller and pointier the better) were a common diversion, with women hiding behind screens so that only their deformed feet showed in their three-or-four inch, gorgeously-embroidered, teeteringly high-heeled shoes.

Because of her exquisitely-bound feet, Fragrant Lotus has “married up” into a wealthy family with a typical foot obsession. An impromptu foot contest springs up when a number of perverted old men show up to indulge their fetish. Mr. Lu, a self-appointed expert on the subject, begins to expound: 

“Small feet are beautiful or ugly based on their overall appearance, which can be further divided into two elements: shape and form. Let us discuss shape first. There are six terms to describe shape: short, narrow, thin, smooth, upright, and pointed. Short refers to the foot’s length from back to front, and it should be short, not long. Narrow refers to the breadth of the foot from side to side, and it should be narrow, not wide. . . "

"Pointed refers to the toes, which should not be blunt but should come to a sharp point. If they have a slight upward turn, they are even more seductive. However, the degree of upturn should be just right. Too much will cause the point to stand upright, like a scorpion’s tail;  too little and it will droop downward, like a rat’s tail. Neither of these will do. And that, gentlemen, completes the discussion of the shape of the lotus.”

It goes on and on from there, for pages and pages, as various points of confirmation are discussed in detail as if the men are talking about flower varieties or dog breeds. The longer you think about this, the worse it gets: these crushed feet are being celebrated, the women’s lifelong crippling lifted up as rare beauty. The most unbelievable aspect of all this is the true meaning of the term “fragrant”: what it comes down to, as far as I can tell, is the horrid whiff of dead flesh coming from the rotting toes.

From a foot binding site come these startling revelations

“Men who were turned on by bound feet were referred to as “lotus lovers”. They were aroused by the mysterious feet and were thrilled when the cotton covers were taken off. They inhaled the fragrant aroma and took delight in smelling the bared flesh. The husbands would fondle the foot in the palms of his hand before gradually caressing it with his mouth. He would place watermelon seeds or almonds between the toes before eating them from the woman’s foot. Beside these strange fetishes some men would drink the water that had previously been used to bathe the feet. The bound feet would be treasured like gold.”

When Fragrant Lotus loses the foot competition, not by inferior feet but a cheap pair of shoes, she decides to commit suicide: “In the Tong family if your feet were bad, you were finished. This family was like a chessboard, and bound feet were the individual chessmen. One false move and the game changed completely.”

Her only solution is to consult with a foot binding expert who says her feet are not "bowed" enough to be truly beautiful and must be rebound. ("Bowed" refers to the buckling upward of the crushed instep, forcing the front of the ankle to bulge outward.) Thus she experiences the torture of her girlhood all over again in order to gain favor in her own family.

The Three-Inch Golden Lotus isn’t history so much as social satire. Jicai seems to be whispering to us beneath the fascinatingly awful story: “Have things really changed so much?”  Instruments of torture, all the various means of squeezing, deforming, removing, wrenching out of shape and cutting away: they are all part of woman’s presence on earth. 

Corsets, high heels, female circumcision, clitoridectomy, where does it stop? Now women are having surgery on their feet to “correct” problems that might keep them from wearing the five-inch skyscraper heels that are currently in fashion. In fact, the newest invention is the "ballet" heel in which the wearer literally walks on the ends of her toes with seven-inch stilts under her heels.

All in the name of fashion, but why? Do women do this for each other? Why are men so afraid of women? Why won’t they let us walk, breathe, have an orgasm? Why was being deformed and crippled such a sexual turn-on in an advanced civilization for a thousand years? Do we really think all this pain is part of the past, has come to an end? Why do women collude with men in taking on so much pain in order to be “beautiful”? What’s beautiful? And why?

Please note. This is a summer repeat, but from 2011 (!), so I didn't think too many people would remember it. The line spacing may be a bit "off". This is one of my few posts  that actually got some views, though I'm not sure it will play the second time.