thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Unobvious Charms of Obvious Child

In body politics, feminism, Film, reproductive health on July 14, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Obvious-Child

Sarah S.

Obvious Child, directed and co-written by Gillian Robespierre and starring Jenny Slate (of SNL and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On fame), has been touted as a romantic comedy about abortion. But as with most “toutings” this depiction crumbles if you push on it very hard. Because Obvious Child is a film about a woman in her late 20s, Donna Stern, and focuses on a period in her messy, human life. Donna’s unintended pregnancy and decision to abort constitute one aspect of her story but calling Obvious Child a “romantic comedy about abortion” detracts from the film’s charms.

Let’s break it down. Obvious Child is entirely aware of its genre, hitting several of the requirements for contemporary romantic comedies. Donna, the protagonist, works in an independent bookstore by day and performs stand-up comedy by night. She is messy and quirky and not afraid to discuss bodily functions (her own and others’) either on stage or in general. She has an equally quirky father and, in contrast, a completely with it, type-A mother. She also has two best friends to use as sounding boards: an outspoken roommate, Nellie, and a supportive “gay BFF,” Joey (delightfully played by Gaby Hoffman and Gabe Liedman, respectively). In hitting these notes, Obvious Child grounds the audience in familiar terrain in order to expand the boundaries of the romantic comedy genre.

ObviousChild-600

Even as it honors romantic comedy tropes, Obvious Child also subverts them. For one, Donna actually seems like a real woman rather than a “real woman” played with messy hair or funky clothes by Cameron Diaz or Drew Barrymore. As Monika Bartyzel states in her discussion of Obvious Child and the limits of embodied women on film: “The film is set in the bone-chilling cold of a New York City winter, and its heroine wears layers of knits, doesn’t obsess about makeup, and has many important conversations in a graffiti-ridden co-ed bar bathroom.”

 

Bad Boyfriends and “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”

In books, feminism on June 23, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Sarah Todd

I was a little afraid to read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Adelle Waldman’s 2013 novel has a reputation for being unflinchingly honest about men’s attitudes towards women—or at least about the attitudes held by certain privileged intellectual men who inhabit Brooklyn and other hipster enclaves. Unflinching honesty in that particular realm sounded like it might be annoying. Or depressing. Or both.

“I guess if I learned about women what the book puts on display about men, I don’t know if I could function in some ways,” a male interviewer told Waldman last month.

I think it’s better to know what we’re dealing with than to be deceived,” Waldman replied.

What was inside this book? I wondered, all agog. Are all the sad young literary men actually just three hobgoblins standing on top of each others’ shoulders, bickering about the new sincerity? Do they poach baby unicorns and use their horns to trumpet explanations about neoliberalism and the brilliance of Louis C.K.?

As it turns out, Waldman’s bright, sharp comedy of manners is an invigorating rather than terrifying read. What’s more, I’m pretty sure the book does an enormous public service by describing the inner life of a dude who feels bad about hurting the women he dates—but not badly enough to stop doing it.

Men, Waldman’s novel makes clear, are only able to get away with treating women poorly because we live in a culture that dismisses close scrutiny of their behavior. Dating is seen as a trivial subject, the territory of light romantic comedies and books with tropical-colored covers. Who cares if a guy starts snapping at his girlfriend when she asks if he’s tired or whether he’d like eggs for breakfast? What’s the big deal if a dude pursues a woman for weeks only to do the fear-of-commitment dance when she finally agrees to go out with him?

The big deal, of course, is that misogyny often both underlies and excuses these kinds of romantic misdemeanors. And while Love Affairs is often funny, Waldman takes the patriarchal mores guiding the bad behavior of her titular character quite seriously. By peering into the moleskin-bound heart of the liberal chauvinist, she takes away his power.

“Get Older!” Women, Aging, and Adventure

In Aging, detectives, feminism, TV on May 30, 2014 at 5:42 am

Jessica FletcherPhoebe B.

“You silly old woman,” a murderer mutters as Miss Marple reveals him to be a killer. His dismissive words signal his assumption that because of Miss Marple’s age and gender, she should not be taken seriously.

This prejudice is not unique to freshly unmasked murderers. Men of many stripes frequently insult and dismiss women they perceive as threats in much the same way–particularly when age is added to the equation. As women age, at least in the U.S., our power and visibility in pop culture decreases, even as men’s status grows: older women are often constructed and perceived as useless; men only become more distinguished in the eyes of our culture.

My grandma Elsa spent part of her retirement volunteering at a wildlife habitat on Long Island, where she handled snakes and other seemingly scary reptiles. During the summer, she’d walk with me down dirt roads in rural Massachusetts pointing out beaver dams and teaching me to make plaster casts of deer hooves. After she and my grandfather moved to the West Coast, she took jewelry-making classes and dance lessons. A crossword wiz, she was unbeatable at all word games from Scrabble to Boggle.

Both of my grandparents made aging look active, interesting, and engaging. They also had pensions from the New York school system, so that helped. Growing up, this was what getting older looked like to me. She was fun, silly, always smart, and for her, being old seemed nothing more than a circumstance of aging. Certainly, aging was nothing to be ashamed of or hidden away. As I got older, however, I realized that this image was not one often reflected in pop culture.

But women don’t always age out of the pop culture imagination. There are a few wonderful exceptions within the murder mystery genre that feature elderly lady detectives: Murder She Wrote and Miss Marple (both available on Netflix).

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Against prevailing notions that women become less socially useful as we age, these shows model an active and exciting version of older women. Jane Marple and Jessica Fletcher are not bitter spinsters, old maids, or caregivers (in fact, neither has children). Rather, they are heroines who use their brains to solve problems that no one else can.

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