Monday, September 3, 2012

Ann Weathersby -- Chronicles of Life in the Changing South

Ann Weathersby is a photographer who lives in Brooklyn and works in New York City, but she was born in New Orleans.

Weathersby has a fine eye for portraiture and does special assignment work for the New York Times.

Recently, the Times sent her back to the South to make portraits of folks in Alexander City, Alabama to go with a story published in yesterday's NY Times Magazine with the title "Who Wears the Pants in this Economy."

Weathersby's portraits are really fine.  I am grateful to the Times for bringing her work to my attention.

The story, however, is not so fine. Well, the story is true and interesting, but the way the story is framed is not so fine.

The story was written by Atlantic writer Hanna Rosen, who ought to know better than to frame the story in the way she does.

The story is taken from Rosen's forthcoming book, The End of Men and the Rise of Women, the title of which cuts directly to the issue.

The point of the story is that the changing economy in Alabama has resulted in women being able to find good jobs while their husbands are losing theirs, in a culture which teaches people that women's place is in the home, that men are in charge in relationships, are the breadwinners, are the decision-makers.

As one of the women puts it in the article, "I am not a women’s-rights-type person. My place is in the home, and I’m fine with that, so long as my husband is earning the bacon. ’Course, that hasn’t been happening so much lately.”

So the story is about challenges to a very specific, culturally-situated set of definitions of male and female.

The story is really about how traditional gender roles among middle- or working-class Southern white evangelicals -- especially small-town Southern white evangelicals -- are facing challenges or beginning to break down in the face of economic change.

But the premise of the article -- as the title of Rosen's book indicates -- is that such definitions are not time- or culture-specific but generic, even in the face of the fact that middle- and working-class Southern white people have celebrated the strong female figure who rises to the occasion in times of economic stress at least as long ago as the days of Margaret Mitchell and Scarlet O'Hara.

Cultural definitions of gender roles may seem to take on a sense of permanence from time to time, especially when certain definitions get the support of institutions like churches or play into our need to define ourselves or others in terms of class or race or sex.

But they are always fluid, even, or perhaps especially, in the South, where myths about "male" and "female" are constantly being confronted by changing realities as people make meaning of their lives in the stories they tell and the images they make.

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