Working with life, not working for life

The concept of work has mostly been associated with the ability to provide or exceed the giving of bread and butter to oneself or the family. The words profit, business ladder, corporate world, office politics, and so much more echo in the distance of those who are faced and challenged by this competitive industry. While these could serve as motivation for those who wish to enter into the competitive work force, such terms seem to be so devoid of the vibrancy offered by life. The concept of work has been associated with monotonous movement or behavior of humans that separates life from work, almost as if it has taken a life of its own when such should not be the case. Work does not necessarily have to be lifeless when, ideally, it is through work that we are able, or should be able, to experience life. Not what takes the life out of us.

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From the movie, Silver Linings Playbook, it seems fitting that lifeless work, in the same way that unparalleled love makes all efforts feel wasted, makes anybody feel empty. 

The products of the Industrial Revolution brought not only fast-produced goods, but also goods that have abandoned the craft or life in them. While this age has brought remarkable breakthroughs for humanity, the social impoverishment and economic division cannot be denied. Thus, the scary thought that capitalism has brought an end to the history of humans, as asserted by Francis Fukuyama, serves as a haunting reminder of the continuous separation of life from work. Contrastingly, the Filipinos’ ‘hanap-buhay’ proves to be an anti-thesis to this Western thinking. While the systematic concepts of work are present, the inclusion of life and its search, as its direct translation is looking for life, presents the admirable stress of Filipinos on life.

Admirable even are the Chinese who work not only for their generation, but also for the next two generations. The Chinese probably embody the ‘obsession’ on work through their numerous presence in the various lists of the richest across the globe. Yet, there preference on familial or group order is noteworthy due to the harmony and bonds that it provides. They are indeed careful of their money. Yet, the contract they form and investments they enter are not complete without the formation of appreciation and bonding that creates more than just business partners. This seems to their version of injecting life in work.

Thus, we must be wary of those who have been or are choosing to be sucked by the work vacuum. Lifeless and indifferent just like zombies. These creatures in the work force are rampant and infectious. The possibility of the cure could be the life found within, if only we were to embody such not just in the workplace.

This reflection is based on the Big Lecture entitled Philosophy of Work held last August 12. The speakers, Cadz Malbarosa, Dr. Elaine Tolentino, and Mr. Victor Magno injected life in various perspectives on the concept of work.

Period.

In a physical sense, true awareness of what it was like to be a woman sprouted from various experiences beginning puberty. Like when I was told to avoid wearing spaghetti straps despite me liking the outfit because it was ‘too revealing’ making me self-conscious of my body from then on. Or when I felt weird with having bigger hips compared to some of my friends who can wear shorts without a care. Or when I felt confused that I needed to wear a bra where my first experience of wearing one was one of the most uncomfortable, to the point where I felt the need to cover the hooks with tissue paper. All these might be relevant to some, while obscure to some. But ultimately, at least for me, or so far, the epitome of being a woman was after experiencing my first menstruation.

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Jess, from the TV show, New Girl, could explain the contrasting experience of having a period. (gif not mine) 

After a false alarm a year before my actual first, the daunting realization that I would have to wear an additional piece in my outfit or that I could get pregnant haunted me. At that time, I felt that the confirmation of being a woman was weird considering how other women seemed fresh and put-together. The first two days were the worst as I did not have a clue as to how I would adapt to this new experience. I needed to be a little more conscious of my actions because I met get ‘tagos’ which I did get anyway because I had no clue as to when I would change. But come third day, after being quite adjusted to the feeling, it felt relieving to know that it was the body’s way of releasing the dirt inside my body. I guess that fact made me feel ‘okay’ with having my ‘buwanang dalaw’ knowing that it is a form of cleansing. I was honestly awed that it stopped after the fifth day because it felt like it would not, days before. Now that I think about my first time, coupled with extreme hunger or loss of appetite, occasional abdominal pain, and extreme laziness, I am relieved to have quite adjusted to the whirlwind of feelings and accepted after realizing that I am not alone. This bodily experience is an uncomfortable yet enlightening confirmation of my womanhood.

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From the movie, All About Eve. gif not mine.

While the blood that is released every month is a reminder of me being a woman, I never truly reflected as to what I really am in terms of my body. Usually, the question of my identity is asked in the context of my personality, abilities, achievements – all intangible things that matter more than the tangible ones, or so they say. While I do pay attention to my physical body in terms of my health and fitness, I see it as a mere beholder of the spirit or soul or the things mentioned above which makes you who you really are. After watching the film, Her, the importance of the body reminded me of its increasing irrelevance due to the various alternatives or alterations brought by the advancing technology. While I take for granted my body and its capabilities, some might feel the need to alter their own to be designated as another. Some might even have no control of what happens to their body constrained by the decisions of others. The discussion on the sexualization of the women in advertisements reinforces the question as to the view of others on a woman’s body. These things are what I have realized in reflecting my identity in relation to my body. While nature controls what happens in an anatomical sense, I am able to control what happens to my body – how I look, what I do, and why I do it. Somehow, my body reflects the choices I have made whether pressured by society or by myself. When it comes to womanhood, the determination of such through one’s body may not present a rigid answer as it did before. However, if you were to ask me based on my monthly cycle, the contrasting experience brought by such somehow suffices my being.

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Work by Isabelle Feliu. The image above in a way describes my identity in relation to my body. The contrast between the colors and shapes of the subjects symbolizes the contrast I feel with my body that identifies me.

 

The heck?

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In Jackson, Mississippi, a young woman, Skeeter wanted to become a writer.  For her to pursue this, she needed to write a book with a topic that has not been talked about. Skeeter then planned on writing one that focuses on black female maids, specifically their experiences towards their white wealthy employers. Skeeter sought help from her friends’ black female helpers so she could start writing, she later then began with Aibileen. Aibileen was hesitant at first because writing and publishing books that seeks equality for both the whites and the blacks is considered illegal. Eventually, she agreed to share her story to Skeeter however Aibileen’s story was not enough. Her best friend and another black female helper, Minny decided to share her experiences as well. Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter had a hard time encouraging other blacks to tell their stories but when Yule Mae was arrested, they decided to come together at Aibileen’s house and share their stories and experiences to Skeeter.

The book was published and it became a bestseller. Because of the success of the book, Skeeter was given an offer to work in New York City but she decided not to take it because it would be a selfish decision to make if authorities would find out she and the black female maids wrote it but Minny and Aibileen convinced her to take the offer. In the end, Minny had a lifetime job happily working still as a maid while Aibileen walked away from her life as a helper and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

How are the following  groups represented?

White females

Most of them appeared to be dominating over other males and females. Yet, the projection of their strong traits were varied. Old white females appeared to have a strong personality but not as aggressive like their daughters. Such a trait was shown by how they make their presence or opinion felt or heard by others. Likewise, it could be said that they are not that influential in decision making as reflected by the deviations made by their daughters in their own lives. The young white females project strongness in their own ways. For example, Skeeter and Celia appeared to be distinct against their peers with their decisions to pursue career for the former and the inability to perform domestic jobs for the latter. However, Hilly and her other friends chose to conform to norms typically associated with females. The difference lie as to how they treat others particularly their black helpers.

Black Females

All but one black females were shown as inferior beings clothed in their maid uniforms. They are the recipients of discrimination by white females or society in general. Additionally, their color instantly associates them to most crimes happening around the town. However, they all find companionship with one another given the same status as them. In the movie one of the black female maids, Yule Mae got arrested for stealing her employer, Miss Hilly’s ring. This incident triggered all the other maids to come together to share their stories and experiences to Skeeter. Another instance in the movie that showed how black females were represented was when Hilly drafted a bill that requires every white household to have a separate bathroom for their black female helpers because for Hilly, they are considered dirty and disease carriers. These examples illustrate the extreme racism experienced by the black females.

Whites Males

White males in the movie are not emphasized as much. Their occasional appearance in the movie could be characterized as subordinated to bordering submissive. The husbands seemed to be an accessory or status symbol among the white females signifying the assumed success of the females. For instance, the lack of a husband of Skeeter appeared to be unbecoming for others given her peers having one. Alongside such submissiveness, the attempt on aggression or domination by a white male was through Lowell, the boyfriend of Skeeter. His opposition towards the book of Skeeter could be paralleled to the assumed traits typically associated with men as overpowering or aggressive.

Black Males

Likewise, the black males were underrepresented. Their subtle contributions to the lives of the main characters were shown in various ways. Minnie’s husband was represented through the shouts and injury of her wife. In the same way, the aggression possessed by Medgar Evers was used to dissent the perpetuation of racial discrimination that lead to his assassination. In the same way, the church pastor projected a sense of tranquility and relief with his limited exposure as a compassionate leader. In contrast to the subordinated role of the their counterparts, it seems that the black males were represented as strong or important. However, this underrepresentation could signal the undermining of the struggles of men or black men in society. They too could be victims of discrimination due to their color.  

Police

Meanwhile, the police was associated with violence. Following the arrest of Yule Mae Davis, the police seemed susceptible to the requests of the white people. The police officers stopped and arrested Yule Mae in front of other maids and white people around. At the request of Hilly, she was arrested for stealing the ring she got while cleaning the house as she truly needs the money for her son’s tuition. While her acts are not to be tolerated, her choices were limited by the indifference of Hilly.

Politicians

There are only few scenes from the movie that emphasize lives of politicians. We can say that there is racism in politics. It was shown through television that people in politics kill black individuals involved in politics.

Children

Children in the movie are not given much agency. In the same way the blacks are discriminated, the children are also victims. Mobley’s mom, Elizabeth did not give her full attention because the mother experience baby blues with her. However, Aibileen always tell her the words “You is kind. You is smart.You is important” that makes her feel that she really is. She felt the love of a mother from others instead of feeling this affection from her own mom. The protest of Mobley as Elizabeth fired Aibileen did not work even though the latter became more like her real mother than what the former did.

Wealthy White Society

These people are seen to be harmless when they come together. Seemingly discussing topics affecting them, this wealthy white society emphasizes the white privileges. For example white women are involved in Junior League wherein the concept of ‘separate but equal’ concept is tolerated and preferred.

Gays

One of the groups underrepresented or not represented in the movie are the gays. They may have issues that are important but the movie emphasized the struggles and lives of black females in Mississippi. While their issues are equally important, it would not be highlighted if the movie tried to be overarching in its representation of the issues back in the day.

Using Sally Haslanger’s Focal Point of Gender and Race 

Haslanger’s Focal Point of Gender and Race gives insight as to the intersections of different factors contributing to the social structures imposed by society as shown in the film. Two structures are proposed by Haslanger, namely, gender and race. The explanations are in the order of gender and race

Identity

Women are expected to do domestic work because this is what has been dictated for them which is to take care of children, to be a housewife, and to stay at home. This is what has been marked and labeled for women. Most women in the movie portray this role of a woman, a married woman with children and a husband. In an attempt to conform to such norms, Celia tries to become a responsible housewife because she knows her responsibility as a woman and a wife to her husband. However, she asked someone to help her in doing all the domestic works because she’s afraid that her husband may know that she doesn’t know how to do such things. Although, she eventually improved her skills in domestic tasks with the help of Minny.

In the case of race, there are certain expectations that have to be met. Such expectations are passed on to others affecting their identity on the basis of skin color. In the movie, it was evident which identities are associated to blacks and whites. The movie started with Aibileen telling Skeeter about her, and in explaining how she became a maid, she said, mother was a maid, Grandma a house slave.” This explanation encompasses how she internalized her being a maid making it seem like it is her fate.  She felt that she’s expected to be the same with her mother and grandmother. Colored people even before they are born, already know their role in the society. They know that because of their color, some things are already meant for them; they are supposed to be inferior to the white people, they are ought to suffer, treated unequally, and so on. Colored people have accepted the fact that this is what society have expected them to do, to accept the norms and to live their lives as if they were already planned. Meanwhile, when you are a white female, the expectation of marriage and children are projected to the young unmarried females like Skeeter.

When it comes to the physical characteristics of black and whites, whites are usually skinny and have a very sensitive skin as they think that this is a good image of a perfect physical appearance of a person. However, blacks don’t care that much on their physical appearances and most of them are chubby. This is evident in the movie wherein women of wealthy society are very skinny and conscious on their looks but blacks like Aibileen and Minny are chubby and their looks don’t matter to them. Maybe, the adherence of the white females to a slim physique is to make them desirable for the male or for child-bearing.

Symbolism

This internalized identity could be best represented by the image of a “perfect” home composed of a providing husband, children, many for that matter, and a maid or nanny to assist in the taking care of the children and of the household. The members of the Junior League composed of white women perpetuate such narratives making baby-making the popular or “in” thing among their age group. Skeeter and Celia are an exception to this narrative because one wants to focus on their career while the latter, attempted to do the “in” thing but had failed to do so. Likewise, the uniform of the maids and other helpers are the ultimate symbol of their inferiority and discrimination. Additionally, the buses they use for transportation and the separate toilets that were built for them can also be considered symbols of their inferiority.

Norms

Thus, non-conformity was seen to be unbecoming and trivial to others. Stuart, Skeeter’s boyfriend broke up with her when he knew that she helped those black women and wrote “The Help”. As for him, he has his own expectation from what a woman should do. He might be expecting her to act like Skeeter’s circle of friends. However, she’s  a lot different from them especially her beliefs and deep realizations or understanding of black women’s lives.

In addition, the idea of “separate but equal” in society were enforced through the segregation from public transportations to the comfort rooms. In this case, the norms were turned to ordinances legalizing the discrimination in Jackson. More importantly, black females are believed to be destined as maids due to the lack of opportunity to expand elsewhere. The daughter of Millie, though hurtful to her, also became a maid. Her tips to her daughter are evidence oh how accustomed she is to what her bosses want and what they want from her.

Roles

This pattern of thinking is evident in the way Skeeter’s colleagues pushed her to date Stuart or how she was not commended for her career. More importantly, in the beginning, Aibileen stressed how Skeeter’s choices contrasted her to other females. Yet, even such an empowerment did not separate her from being subjugated to the norms on gender. Her job at the newspaper was to write tips for improving domestic jobs. Though this job is not to be belittled, the editor assumed her knowledge in such topics because of her gender.

When it comes to race, blacks in are associated as maids of the white wealthy individuals and are given low salary. However, whites are described as employers. Most of the time they occupy high positions in any fields of jobs. They are involved in businesses and politics that make more money than the others. In politics, black people are not fully accepted by the white people in politics and even the society. In the movie, it was shown that black politicians are being killed because of the race. Although, white people usually occupy the highest positions in politics and dominating the society. In terms of social networks, blacks find companionship with others of similar status and experience exploitation from the white society. In the movie, blacks come together to share their individual stories and help one another if problem arises. As much as possible, whites only make friends and connections similar with their color and their status or roles. This was shown through the circle of friends of Hilly and they are all part of the Junior League.

Resisting Reality: The Skeeter and Aibileen Way 

The moment she chose tell her story is the moment she resisted reality. At the end of the movie, Aibileen was falsely accused from stealing kitchenware that made her employer, Elizabeth fired her. This is the time when she realized that she has to do something else rather than just being a maid. It may be hard for Aibileen to walk away and leave Mobley but she chose to pursue being a writer because her son encouraged her to do it. This is a good decision because she was able to realize her true purpose in life that is not defined by her color.

Skeeter dreamed of becoming a writer ever since and she had worked her way hard just for her to become one, even risking her own life just so she can create a story that would meet the expectations asked from her. When she was finally given the opportunity to become one, she declined the offer because she remembered how the black female maids helped her achieve her dream of becoming a writer. For Skeeter, pursuing her dream and accepting the offer would be a selfish act because no one would protect the black female maids and herself as well.

Skeeter and Aibileen showed how they shattered delusions and resisted reality. As for Skeeter’s case, she demonstrated that becoming a wife is not the sole destiny of any woman. While becoming a housewife should not be viewed as inferior, the expectation to become one must not be passed to others who might have different goals in life. And while Aibileen was fearsome in narrating her story, she slowly chose to resist the reality given to her the day she said yes to Skeeter. Through her, others were empowered to speak of their story.

Final Words 

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In the words of Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mom,  “courage sometimes skips a generation.” Even though changes could have been done earlier, what matters is that it is done.

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“Every day you’re not dead in the ground, when you wake up in the morning, you’re gonna have to make some decisions.” Constantine’s words tells us that life does not just picks itself to us, there are times wherein we need to choose and settle things on our own.

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Aibileen’s words “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” teach us to erase all negativities and insecurities about ourselves and remember that we deserve respect and love from others no matter who we are.

 

*This work is a cumulative effort of Rianna Custodio, Sophia Daroya, and Schekeana Santuele for USAGENR A51