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Sit Down, Devil’s Advocates: SNL Tries On a New Look

In misogyny, TV on April 4, 2014 at 11:04 am

Sarah T.

Comedians who employ racial stereotypes, homophobic slurs and misogynistic language in service of their jokes often try to deflect criticism by arguing that comedy is about pushing boundaries. But it hardly seems edgy to insist on targeting people who already occupy marginalized positions in American culture—particularly when the person telling the jokes is a straight white guy, as they so often tend to be. I mean, Daniel Tosh can insist that his rape jokes are about breaking cultural taboos all he wants, but it seems obvious that all the man is doing is reinforcing the status quo.

There are, however, plenty of ways to be funny and fresh about race, class, gender and sexuality without making the jokes come at the expense of people that American culture seeks to disempower. This season, several sketches on Saturday Night Live—a show that has plenty of diversity problems of its own—have explored topics like privilege, white guilt and the problems that arise when people outside specific cultural groups try to appropriate insider language.

One recent example is “Dyke and Fats,” a sketch penned by the two Saturday Night Live cast members who star in it: Kate McKinnon, the show’s first openly gay female comedian, and Aidy Bryant, the series’ first plus-size female hire.

The sketch, which unfolds as a promotion for a vintage buddy-cop TV series, incorporates multiple cultural stereotypes about fat people and ladies who like ladies. McKinnon’s character, Les Dykawitz, is an arm-wrestling cop who keeps a scroll of dog photos tucked behind her police badge. Bryant’s character, Chubbina Fatzarelli, has a string of bratwurst under her badge and slips a particularly juicy-looking hamburger her phone number. (A very smooth move, and one that I will certainly emulate when I come across perfectly crisped French fries in the future.) The show-within-the-sketch has obvious affection for the characters as they bust down doors and use each other’s bodies to roundhouse-kick a semi-circle of bad guys. At the same time, it seems straight out of the 1970s exploitation boom.

But the last moments of the sketch reveal that it has no interest in exploiting the characters’–or cast members’–identities. And any viewers who were watching and laughing because the sketch affirmed their prejudiced beliefs have a knock-out punch coming. Read the rest of this entry »

“I Don’t Think We Owe Anyone A Second Chance”: Katie Heaney on Dating and the Single Life

In books, Interview on March 17, 2014 at 5:18 am

Sarah T.

To go by most books about dating, being single is kind of like walking around with a glob of macaroni in your hair: embarrassing, unsightly and a departure from the natural state of affairs. Katie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date is a welcome antidote to these narratives. In her new memoir, Heaney chronicles spending the first 25 years of her life as a smart, funny, confident young woman who is at peace with her self-declared status as a “Bermuda Triangle” of romance.

“One of the great divides, I think, between people who date a lot and people who date never is that people who date never don’t understand putting up with ‘fine,’” Heaney writes. She’s had her share of crushes, make-outs and promising prospects that wind up fizzling, but in the end she’s holding out for way more than “fine”–and finding it in her relationships with her pals. Read on for Heaney’s thoughts on texting, wooing your friends, the most swoon-worthy Jane Austen character and why women shouldn’t feel obligated to go out with guys they don’t like that much.

I’ve been a fan of yours since you started writing for The Hairpin — “Reading Between the Texts” is not only hilarious but also super-cathartic as a reminder that dating is insane and so are people. Are those texts real? What about the conversations? Read the rest of this entry »

The Nerdy Girls of Super Fun Night

In Television, TV on March 7, 2014 at 7:22 am

Sarah T.

On television, nerdy girls are few and far between. In what is clearly a wish-fulfillment fantasy hatched in the depths of writers’ rooms populated by men who are former social outcasts, the dude-nerds of shows like Freaks and Geeks, The O.C. and Friday Night Lights tend to spend their time around the popular girls of their dreams—Sam and Cindy, Seth and Summer,  Landry and Tyra.

When nerdy girls do make an appearance on TV, they’re typically sassy, confident pixies, boasting about their in-depth knowledge of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels while clad in ironic t-shirts and edgy haircuts. That is an awesome way to be, but these characters hardly seem like they’ve logged time at the very bottom of the social totem pole. It’s doubtful that Anna from The O.C. has ever sat by herself in a cafeteria while jocks fired spitballs at her through a straw. (Not that I would know anything about that, ahem ahem.)

The Fox sitcom Super Fun Night, starring Rebel Wilson, attempts remap the nerd landscape by featuring a trio of women with genuinely awkward personalities. Kimmie (Wilson) is a naïve young lawyer whose idea of a romantic Valentine’s Day surprise is an elaborate restaging of Phantom of the Opera. Her roommates are prim and proper Helen Alice (Liza Lapira) and gruff, sporty Marika (Lauren Ash). The show follows the friends as they decide to abandon their trusty group motto—“Always together! Always inside!”—and venture into the world of bars, karaoke clubs and other venues that exist outside their apartment. Read the rest of this entry »

Pretty Little Liars and the Power of Four

In girl culture, misogyny, Pretty Little Liars on February 27, 2014 at 6:52 pm

ImageSarah T.

The four of us sit in the grass by the farmer’s market. Together we form a baseball diamond, a compass rose.

Chelsea wears a printed sundress. Her short hair is perfectly mussed; her mouth is a red cupid’s bow. When I first met her I thought she was so glamorous that it was a little intimidating. As it turns out she’s fiercely loyal and easy to trust, the kind of friend who’ll usher you into the kitchen when you’re feeling sad to cook you a bowl of pasta. She’s equal parts sass and Southern sympathy as Melissa acts out scenes from last night’s party.

Melissa’s proud and fiery and mostly legs, equally comfortable pitching a tent in the middle of a rainstorm and spinning across a dance floor with a perfect cat’s-eye. I love listening to her tell stories because she always acts out all the parts. Now she waves her arms over her head, forms her hands into claws and growls.

Phoebe mock-recoils with a laugh. She’s warm and poised with bright blue eyes, quick with comebacks and questions and bear hugs, and sure about the things she loves in a way that makes her habits contagious. Spend enough time with her and you won’t be able to understand how you ever lived without over-salting your salads and speed-walking for at least an hour a day.

As for me, I’m fresh off a breakup. My bangs are awkwardly short because I was too depressed to tell the stylist when to stop cutting. It’s an appropriate look, as I am pretty sure I’m having at least three identity crises simultaneously. But together with these three women, for what seems like the first time in weeks, I don’t feel like crying. Read the rest of this entry »

Frances Ha: A Fresh Kind of Fairy Tale

In Film on August 19, 2013 at 7:38 pm

Sarah T.

I was walking through a parking lot about a year ago when I passed two women in their late 60s. One was telling the other about her plan to submit a book review to the Boston Globe. “Hopefully they’ll like it,” she said.

“It sounds perfect for them,” her friend said. She had tortoise-shell glasses that made her look at once sophisticated and slightly goggle-eyed.

“I hope so,” the first woman said, and broke into a short, hard sob. “I just feel like I’ve spent the last thirty years messing everything up.”

Her friend wrapped her into a hug and offered to go chat over drinks–a solid response and a capital pal. Meanwhile I hurried into my car, feeling stricken. I like to imagine that people naturally accumulate more confidence as they get older, like the interest they’re supposed to earn on their 401(k)s. It’s reassuring to think that all the worrying about career trajectories and romantic partners and weird things you say at parties fades away with age. But here was a woman in her golden years, still scared she’d leave a lifetime of regrets behind her. “It’s never over,” I muttered, channeling Jeff Buckley, fumbling for my keys.

***

At the other end of my personal heartening spectrum is Frances–the unaffected goof played by Greta Gerwig in the movie Frances Ha. When the film, which Gerwig co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, came out this summer, some critics responded with predictable think-pieces about the merits and drawbacks of movies featuring unlikable female characters. But by my lights, Frances is enormously likable. Bumbling, ambitious, and impulsive, she wards off unwanted advances by making a noise like a wrong-answer game show buzzer. In one scene, she starts running down the sidewalk, book bag slapping at her back, because the joy of being young in New York City has just washed over her. Who hasn’t felt that way once in a while, or wanted to?

Frances somersaults through her 27th year over the course of the film, losing friends and apartments and jobs, bleeding money, sleeping in too late, frequently sticking her foot in her mouth. What makes the movie remarkable is that Frances never lets any of these bad turns get her down for long. The movie is a fairy tale for women, which I mean in the best possible sense. Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking Bad: Against Family

In misogyny, Television, TV villains, violence on August 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Sarah T.

Walter White is a family man. When the 50-year-old chemistry teacher at the center of AMC’s Breaking Bad is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, his immediate concerns lie with his wife and kids. How will they manage when he’s gone? In order to cover college, the mortgage, cost of living, and medical care, he calculates, he’d need to leave behind $737,000. That kind of sum is not typically available to educators in the U.S. public school system. So Walt does what any self-respecting man of the house would do: he starts cooking and dealing crystal meth.

Of course, Walt’s journey from mensch to monster isn’t really for the benefit of Skyler, Walt Jr., and Holly. If Walt really cared about his family, he wouldn’t endanger them by immersing himself in a world where people get plugged for dealing  on the wrong street corner and ruthless twins slaughter innocents as easily as they slip into their sharkskin suits. He wouldn’t risk getting caught by the feds and spending the short time he has left behind bars instead of at home. And he wouldn’t ignore the toll that his new line of business takes on his wife and son, who are first disturbed, then alienated and finally–at least in Skyler’s case–ruined by his choices.

But while Walt isn’t a family man by any sane measure, he does fulfill the role in a way that’s true to his vision of what a husband and father should be. Providing his family with love and support and a sense of security was never Walt’s goal. His goal was to become someone powerful and strong and feared, a head of household who rules over his family and makes unilateral decisions on their behalf. Walt begins Breaking Bad as a man who feels emasculated by the humbling circumstances of his life. The show is, in part, the story of his journey toward embodying a patriarchal ideal of the family man, and of how poisonous that ideal turns out to be. Read the rest of this entry »

On Kinsey & Cataloguing Erotica

In Kinsey, museums, sexuality on July 26, 2013 at 10:27 am

Pamela Pierce

In 2004, I fell in love with Alfred Kinsey. Not the real one, of course, but the character played by Liam Neeson in the movie Kinsey. I didn’t even exactly love Kinsey the character—it was his work organizing and categorizing sexual behavior that I found enchanting. He had an earnest, obsessive devotion to cataloguing erotic experiences that I couldn’t help but admire. Asking questions about human sexuality and developing theories about the answers takes a certain amount of guts, wit, and determination—especially in 1940s-era Southern Indiana.

Seven years later, I started a Master’s in Library Science at Indiana University in Bloomington and began working at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Founded in 1947, a year before the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the center strives to “advance sexual health and knowledge worldwide.” Its collection of over 100,000 photographs, novelty items, paintings, collages, and artifacts is part of accomplishing that goal. I have created cataloging entries for pillow books from Japan, British condoms celebrating the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton, and ancient scrolls detailing Chinese sexual practices.

I love cataloguing at the Kinsey because it’s my job never to judge. My first task there was to describe a large collection of confiscated San Quentin-created erotica. Inmates in the California prison created erotic images they could experience behind bars using watercolors, parts of mattresses, the backs of moral guidance pamphlets, crayons, and pencils. Their creations demonstrate how limitations can never squash our human capacity for sexual imagination.

PrisonSQ-CLII-1_7-58

While cataloging, I would sometimes pause at drawings of dogs and friendly kitties straight out of a cute animal catalog taking part in sexual situations. The proper cataloging term for this is “zoophilia.” Although the drawings sometimes surprised me, I catalogued everything as objectively as possible.

At first, my Excel sheet descriptions of these items weren’t explicit enough. At my job, it’s important to be as precise as possible when describing sexual acts while sticking to the Kinsey vocabulary. I had a particularly hard time with the artworks that were ambitious in the number of details they depicted. One of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to list or divide Tijuana Bibles, or eight-pagers. Tijuana Bibles were short graphic novels that often included characters like Popeye or Dagwood and Blondie engaged in activities not fit for the Sunday cartoon pages: Olive Oylin a ménage-a-trois with Popeye and Dagwood, or focusing on masturbation without the aid of spinach-enhanced Popeye. Many unusual questions emerged while I catalogued. Typing away at the office, I’d wonder, Does Olive Oyl’s self-pleasure deserve its own row on the spreadsheet?

PrisonSQ-CLXXIV-38_7-59

After adapting to writing about sexually explicit artifacts as a volunteer, I became a paid Art Cataloger in my second year of work. For this position, I was given a list of often-used terms from the official Kinsey list. The Kinsey uses its own vocabulary to catalog items in the library and art collection. Some of the most common words and phrases include penis in art, breast in art, zoophilia, urolagnia, coitus, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexual tea rooms, and the stalwart phrase—women in art. I apply the “women in art” phrase to an image when I’m not sure how else to classify it. This usually means that there is an absence of a sexual act; the woman, not the pleasure, is the subject of the work. There is also a “men in art” phrase. I usually use that category in conjunction with images depicting men in leather or hyper-masculine images designed to create a specific fantasy. The sailor motif, I’ve discovered, has been popular for decades.

I’ve always found satisfaction in organizing items and creating order from chaos. At the Kinsey, I work to classify the undefinable. Kinsey wanted people to feel like they weren’t alone. The process of cataloguing the artifacts in his collection makes me feel like I’m continuing his mission: parts of human identities that might seem strange or even disgusting to some become normal to me.

PrisonSQ-III-2_1954

Among my favorite items I’ve catalogued are a series of photos capturing highway rest stops in upstate New York. These black-and-white photos focus on the places where desire occurs. When I look at them, I think about what locations of desire say about the intimate moments that happened there. And I think back on the locations that exist within my own memory.

Many of the artists who created the items in the Kinsey’s collection are about lofty concepts like desire, love, and connection. The fantasies they depict can also construct reality, because erotic art doesn’t end with the people who create it. The people who look at our collection have the freedom to interpret the fantasies those images portray in the terms of their own, most private desires. And they can do that the way Kinsey would have wanted them to: without shame.

Pamela Pierce worked at the Kinsey Institute while she was earning her Master’s in Library Science from Indiana University. She currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area and works with students who have been in the foster care system.

Note on the images: All the illustrations in this post are from The Kinsey Institute (www.kinseyinstitute.org).

Song of the Summer?

In music videos on May 29, 2013 at 6:24 pm

Have you heard Quadron’s “Hey Love” yet? If not, you’re missing out. And you’re missing out even MORE if you haven’t caught the video, which features:

  • Ballroom dancing
  • Excellent outfits of the polka-dotted and sultry and Muppet fur coat varieties
  • Good vibrations, y’all.

Also, The New York Times is streaming Quadron’s whole album, Avalanche, because I guess the Times does that now. News to me.

What are your jams for the season? Let’s have a swap party; maybe I’ll even make a mix if I can get Amy to explain to me how technology works.

ABC’s “Scandal” and the Limits of Empathy

In Scandal, Television, violence on May 7, 2013 at 5:04 am

Sarah T.

Stories teach us empathy. When we get absorbed in the tale of a teenage vampire slayer or rival street gangs on the Upper West Side, we’re forced to step outside our comfort zones and consider the world from other people’s perspectives. I am absolutely down with that narrative project. I want to understand the different struggles we face, including the ones with our own demons. But lately I’ve found myself impatient with stories that ask audiences to channel their empathy toward violent men–to the exclusion of everyone else.

The character that’s tipped me over the edge is Huck on Scandal, the addictive-as-caramel-popcorn television drama by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. The show follows Washington DC power players and the band of brilliant outcasts, headed by Olivia Pope, who fix their problems.

Huck is probably the most fully-realized character in Pope’s hodgepodge troupe: a former soldier turned CIA assassin turned homeless man turned professional fixer. With his soft, stumbling voice, teddy-bear looks, and gentle manner, he’s one of Scandal‘s most easily sympathetic cast members. We understand the loneliness that drives him to set up camp outside a strange family’s house each day and watch them go through the ordinary motions of their lives, pizza dinners and game nights and walking the golden retriever. We cringe for him when he reveals that his old CIA nickname was “Spin,” short for spinster, “because they said I’d never find someone.”

The show loves to contrast Huck’s lost-soul mooniness with his brutal talents. In one excruciating scene last season, Pope asks him to torture a former CIA colleague for information. Huck agrees to give up his “sobriety” (the show frequently uses the language of addiction to discuss torture) for the greater good. Soon he’s leaning over an assassin named Charlie—someone who’s a lot like him, only meaner. Huck tells Charlie that he’s going to relish the high of making him suffer. “We both know what a junkie I can be,” he says.

Huck is our only point of identification in this scene. We don’t know Charlie very well at this point in the series, and what we do know, we don’t like. We’re not meant to care about his pain. The real source of dramatic tension is how Huck will be impacted by the torture. Now that he’s fallen off the wagon for Pope, will he be able to stop himself from spiraling into a new cycle of violence?

Read the rest of this entry »

An Interview with Elizabeth Wein, Author of “Code Name Verity”

In books on April 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

codenamecoverElizabeth Wein has had quite a year. Since her World War II-era spy novel Code Name Verity came out last spring, it’s racked up young adult book awards right and left, as well as accolades from publications like The New York Times and NPR.

All that acclaim couldn’t go to a more deserving book: Code Name Verity is a ferocious, dazzling tale of the friendship between two young women who also happen to be ace British spies, and the courage they summon under terrible circumstances. I stayed up late into the night finishing the book all in one gulp, and the next day, I started reading it over again. After that, I still wasn’t ready to let go of the world Wein had created, so I sat down and emailed Wein herself–who graciously agreed to an email interview with Girls Like Giants. Read on for her thoughts on villains, best friends, facing your fears, and what learning to fly a plane taught her about feminism. –Sarah Todd

‘Verity’ (aka Queenie) and Maddie are such distinctive, vivid characters. Were they inspired by particular people you’ve known or read about?

The things they do were inspired by real people—I read a lot about women of the Special Operations Executive and the Air Transport Auxiliary when I was doing the research for CNV, and I made altered use of some of their experiences. But the characters of Queenie and Maddie are totally original and developed as the book developed. They really aren’t like anyone I know—they are just themselves.

Often books about female friendships seem to focus on the jealousies and tensions between women. But Queenie and Maddie’s love for each other is pure–maybe because they become friends during wartime and establish that baseline level of trust from the get-go. Do you have a best friend? What’s your own perspective on female friendships been?

I have had several best friends at different points in my life, and there has occasionally been some jealousy involved (Queenie and Maddie do actually admit that they are sometimes secretly jealous of each other, and Maddie now and then expresses her irritation out loud to Queenie). But basically I *love* having a best friend—several different people have filled that role at different times in my life. Writing CNV was partly a celebration of that. When my closest friends live far away, as they do now, I really miss that easy and close-knit interaction.

Although I wouldn’t say the friendship in CNV is based on any ONE of my friends, the development of Queenie and Maddie’s friendship was consciously patterned on my friendship with Amanda Banks, who was enrolled in the same PhD program as me (CNV is dedicated to her). At the time we lived about 100 miles apart and only got to see each other every couple of weeks, and we really lived for those brief meetings. Also, we were under a lot of stress studying for our PhD exams and struggling with some academic backstabbing issues in our department—add to the mix a dorm fire at 2 a.m. and the two of us having to usher all the undergraduates out from the fifth floor—it wasn’t wartime, but our friendship developed very quickly sunder stress, a small bit of danger, and in spite of physical distance. So you can maybe see the parallels. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the Reclamation of Lydia Bennet

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2013 at 9:28 am

Sarah T.

lizzie and lydia bennet

Whaaaat.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice never gets old. My ninth-grade copy of the book is so dog-eared by now that it’s practically a basset hound, and I’ve rarely met a film version of the story that I didn’t like. So when I learned about a web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I knew I had to check it out.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has everything you’d hope for in a modern-day Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Lizzie is a smart, sarcastic 24-year-old grad student in mass communications who’s living at home, along with her sisters Jane, an underpaid fashion assistant, and Lydia, a college student and full-time party girl. With the help of her cradle-to-grave pal Charlotte Lu, Lizzie starts making video diaries as a class project—just as a certain rich, handsome med student named Bing Lee moves in next door.

The series finds plenty of parallels between Jane Austen’s gossip-obsessed English society and the digital age, and between the vicious economics of entailments and the rocky financial climate of the present. Jane’s defaulted on her student loans; the Bennets worry they’ll lose their home. As Lizzie points out, there’s a reason all three adult children are still living with their parents—and why the never-seen Mrs. Bennet (role-played by Lizzie as an overwrought southern belle who’s accidentally stumbled into suburban California) is so anachronistically obsessed with ensuring that her daughters marry well.

But the thing that’s most noteworthy about The Lizzie Bennet Diaries isn’t its new-media savvy and socioeconomic commentary. Nor is it the series’ excellent and diverse cast (Bing, Charlotte, and Bing’s sister Caroline are all Asian-American) or the crackling chemistry between Lizzie and Darcy, a snobby, stiff-as-a-board tech company executive with—who would’ve guessed?—a secret heart of gold. The most important thing about the series is its reclamation of a certain irrepressible redhead by the name of Lydia Bennet.

In Austen’s novel, and in most adaptations, Lydia is an entertaining but unredeemable character. She learns nothing from her mistakes, and she’s as superficial and oblivious as her mother—too caught up in charm, money, and good looks to be able to distinguish right from wrong or good people from bad. And then there’s the matter of Lydia’s “natural self-consequence”: “self-willed and careless,” she refuses to listen to her sisters and other women who try to get her to change her reckless behavior.

So when Lydia runs off with dastardly Wickham with no aim of getting him to put a ring on it, we’re meant to be worried about what it will do to Lizzie and Jane’s reputations—but not much concerned for the welfare of Lydia herself. Austen had little sympathy for characters lacking in common sense and self-awareness, and anyway Lydia’s too thick-headed to feel pangs of regret.

The concept of slut-shaming didn’t exist back in Austen’s day, since it was basically automatic. What else were you going to do with a young woman who refused to bow to societal conventions? But reading the book today, it’s clear that Lydia is an asteroid racing through the novel’s moral universe. A woman lacking in decency and virtue will cause destruction wherever she lands; the best you can hope for is to minimize the damage. Read the rest of this entry »

Pretty Little Liars, “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted”, Season 3, Episode 19

In Pretty Little Liars on February 15, 2013 at 11:09 am

This week on Pretty Little Liars, Emily continued to be the most proactive PLL, confronting Spencer about her bad behavior (“You don’t have a monopoly on pain!”) and teaming up with Jason DiLaurentis to find out more about Ali’s relationship with Detective Wilden. Aria spent some quality time with Mini-Fitz and the always entertaining CeCe Drake, who later disappeared and lied to them about her whereabouts. (BUT TO WHAT END?) Meanwhile, Hanna campaigned for a Caleb-father reunion, and if you looked inside Spencer’s brain right now it would pretty much just be Quiz Bowl – Quiz Bowl – Staring at the Fruit Bowl It Looks Like a Quiz Bowl – Quiz Bowl – Quiz Bowl – Quiz Bowl – MONA RAWR – Quiz Bowl.

Spencer’s wrath is transforming her into quite the seductress, between strip-World History-quizzing with that hot burly quiz dude and then giggling her way into an impromptu road trip with Wren. But it’s all to the same end: to drink Mona’s blood/get back on the academic decathlon team. Which seem to currently be the same thing in her eyes. What’s your take on Our Lady of Vengeance this week?

Phoebe B: I feel like I totally understand why Spencer is so full of revenge (it is all highly reasonable) … But I keep hoping that she something else is afoot with her. Like I hope calculating and brilliant (old) Spencer is up to something, like making Mona think she is losing it and therefore feel powerful. I seriously just keep hoping that Spencer’s downward spiral is part of some giant plot to trick Mona. Into what, I’m not sure. But I think Spencer is so great and I want to see her triumph. That said, strip tease Spencer to tackling Mona Spencer is pretty terrifying and also kind of awesome.

Sarah T: Oh that’s an interesting thought that she’s playing Mona, Phoebes! I’ve been buying her deterioration full stop. I mean, her hair is in a frizzy ponytail. A FRIZZY PONYTAIL! (Note: My hair is often in a frizzy ponytail, but Spencer’s mane is normally shiny and swishy like a Garnier Fructis commercial. Clearly this is a sign of end-times.) However! Maybe she does have a master plan in place.

Also, for character motivation reasons I’m relieved A threatened to off one of the Liars if Spencer exposed Toby’s secret. We haven’t gotten much insight into why Spencer has been hiding the truth from her pals, but this at least gave her a reason to keep mum going forward. Read the rest of this entry »

Connie Britton’s Not a Late Bloomer–She’s Just In Bloom

In celebrity gossip on February 14, 2013 at 9:19 am

Sarah T.

I learned several important facts about Connie Britton in her new Times profile. First, she has a 2-year-old son named Eyob who she adopted from Ethiopia. Second, her hair is as beautiful in real life as it is on TV. (Sigh.) I also learned that Britton is over 40—she’s 45, as a matter of fact. There was no way for me to miss this last fact, because the article could not stop talking about her age.

What’s interesting about the article’s age obsession is that it isn’t actually ageist. Writer Susan Dominus sets out to talk about how popular culture portrays women who are 40-plus, and how Britton is fighting back against those tropes. She writes that as Britton read early reviews of her new show Nashville,

She was particularly concerned about the way her character was being positioned — Connie Britton, playing an “aging country-music star,” a phrase she started seeing in countless blog posts and articles about the show

“I was like, the minute I’ve been referenced in writing as aging, I’m done,” she said. “I was furious about that.” She was also concerned about the plot, which early on had Jaymes on a downhill slide, losing ground to a young, blond crossover star played by Hayden Panettiere. That Britton of all people would be asked to play a character whose life seemed to fall apart at 40 struck her as almost perverse. “That’s not even who I represent as an actor,” she said, sitting back in her seat. “My life started being awesome five years ago.”

This is great stuff, right? Britton is not going to play your pesky little game, sexist culture that scares women into feeling old and unattractive and washed-up just because they get older, like all living things on this planet! (Seriously, the only alternative to getting older is being dead. These are our choices. Which is the cooler option, hmm, so hard to decide.) Anyway, Britton is having none of this ridiculousness. She’s hot and she knows it. She’s got a rocking career, a dedicated fan base, and–as the article takes care to point out–she’s not exactly hurting in the dating department.

And yet, Dominus winds up recreating some of the sexist tropes Britton is battling against in her own article. There’s the way she frames the star’s story in the first place: Britton as the late bloomer, the hard-working actress who lost out on a juicy role in Jerry Maguire and finally rose to fame almost 15 years later. “Connie Britton got over it a long time ago, the part that got away,” the profile begins. Read the rest of this entry »

What Beyoncé Wore

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Sarah T.

People have a lot of thoughts about Beyoncé’s Superbowl outfit.

A Huffington Post headline screamed, “Beyoncé Goes XXX at the Superbowl Halftime Show.” Conservative corners of the blogosphere fretted that Beyoncé was too sexy for the Superbowl, as well as, presumably, her car (too sexy by far). Meanwhile, some feminists and cultural critics–including people whose opinions I respect very much–expressed disappointment with the way Beyoncé’s wardrobe catered to the objectifying male gaze.

I’m not surprised that conservatives dredged up beef with Beyoncé. If the goal is for all female musicians to act and dress like pretty pretty wholesome-family-values princesses, obviously lots of them are going to fall short. (Although Beyoncé really is remarkably apple-a-day wholesome: Besides being one of the most successful performers alive, she’s a devoted wife and mother, friend to the Obamas, and ready to fight childhood obesity with the power of the Dougie.)

Reactions on the other side of the ideological fence, however, took me aback. It’s not that I disagree that part of the point of Beyoncé’s outfit—a leather bodysuit with lace accents, fishnets, and knee-high boots—was to emphasize her sexual allure. But her costume didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary for a pop star. Nor did her dancing seem particularly risqué. Because she is Beyoncé, she obviously looked like a blazing blinding goddess of beauty, but beyond that her appearance seemed like nothing to write home about. She definitely didn’t look XXX to me.

Partly, I’m sure, this is because I’m immersed in a culture that objectifies women all the time. My sensitivities on this issue are probably dulled. But I also didn’t spend much time thinking about Beyoncé’s outfit because I was too busy cheering for her awesome lady guitar player, and for the reunion of Destiny’s Child, and for her all-women-of-color band–a first in Superbowl history. And now that I have devoted more time to contemplating Beyoncé’s Superbowl outfit, the main thing I’ve concluded is that it’s counterproductive to spend time worrying about what other women ought to wear. Read the rest of this entry »

Fearing The Future

In Film on February 4, 2013 at 5:48 am

Sarah T.

Hello?

One neat way to cope with fears of aging and mortality is to freak out preemptively. I started panicking about turning 30 when I turned 28. It was already clear that I wasn’t going to be the kind of 30-year-old I’d once imagined. I definitely wasn’t going to have a book deal. I hadn’t even written a book. Theoretically it was possible that I would meet a wonderful guy, fall in love, and establish a stable yet adventure-loving relationship in the span of two years, but I had no reason to count on it. I wouldn’t live in a shabby chic apartment near Prospect Park with a typewriter and a shaggy dog and bouquets of daffodils at the kitchen table, because first of all I couldn’t afford it and second of all I was living in Oregon. My life at 30 would be less bohemian-bright, more Annie from Bridesmaids. And even Annie had once had her own bakery, even if it went under. Really she was miles ahead.

It wasn’t the actual age of 30 that bothered me. I don’t think 30 is old; I think our culture wants very much to persuade us that it is, so that we will feel bad about ourselves until we conform to a conservative model of adulthood that ensures we behave like good obedient capitalists, keep quiet, and buy more stuff. Still, I’d had certain hopes about where my life would be when I left my twenties behind. They were not going to come true. At least, not in time.

All of which is to say that I could relate to Miranda July’s The Future, in which the prospect of official, real-deal adulthood sends the movie’s central couple spinning. Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are two gentle hipsters in their mid-30s with matching mops of dark brown curls. When we first see them, they’re working on their Macbooks at opposite ends of the corduroy couch, legs tangled up with one another. They’ve been together a long time. Sophie teaches dance to tiny girls in tutus. Jason has a nondescript customer support job with Verizon. As they prepare to adopt an ailing cat named Paw Paw, the veterinarian tells them that if they take good care of the cat, he might last another half-decade.

This strikes them as a kind of responsible-person jail sentence.

“We’ll be 40 in five years,” Sophie tells Jason.

“40 is basically 50,” Jason says. “And then after 50, the rest is just loose change… Not quite enough to get anything you really want.”

Together, they decide to seize the month before Paw Paw comes to live with them—turn off the Internet, quit their jobs, and start exploring. They believe it’s their last shot at making the lives they want for themselves, as opposed to the ones they’ve drifted into. The problem is, neither of them knows exactly what they’re aiming for. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Your Favorite Movie to Watch Over and Over Again?

In Film on February 2, 2013 at 8:00 am
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He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.

Sarah T:

Today is the most important holiday of the year: Groundhog Day. And with it comes an excellent excuse to re-watch Groundhog Day, the classic 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray as a bitter weatherman who gets stuck repeating one day of his life over and over again. In tribute to the movie’s theme of repetition, I have seen it over a dozen times. Sometimes I watch it back-to-back on TBS.

What is it about watching Murray struggle through one February day in Punxsuatawney, PA that I never get tired of? Partly it’s that Groundhog Day has a pitch-perfect ear for silly, nihilistic humor, from Murray surprise-punching the annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson to his wild ride after he kidnaps a squat, furry rodent in an attempt to end Groundhog Day once and for all. But the real reason I’m in love with this movie—like many people the world over—is that I relate to Phil’s predicament. Phil sucks as a human, which makes him experience the world as a stupid place populated exclusively by people to use, people to ignore, and people to try to bed. It takes him years–30 or40 of them, according to the movie’s director—just to stop hating life. I love watching Phil slowly slough away at his frustration and anger and despair, until finally he gets it. For all he knows, it’ll never stop being Groundhog Day. All he can do is make himself useful. He starts helping people, catching ungrateful brats when they fall out of trees, learning everybody’s names, playing the piano while they dance. Because he does all that, he gets happy. Watching the movie always reminds me to stop feeling sorry for myself and start taking action–and that sometimes, anything different is good.

Kids don’t like eating at school, but if they have a Remains of the Day lunchbox they’re a lot happier.

Jeni:

My favorite movie to watch again-and-again-and-again is Waiting for Guffman. The cast of this mockumentary is classic Christopher Guest, of course, and filled with some of the most talented comedic actors around: Eugene Levy, Parker Posey, Catherine O’Hara, and Fred Willard. Despite some of the most quotably hilarious one-liners (“I’m gonna BITE MY PILLOW is what I’m gonna do!” “People used to say, you must have been the class clown. And I said, no I wasn’t. But I sat next to the class clown and…I studied him.”), what I love most about this movie is the tenacious and totally misplaced hope that endures in Blaine, Missouri, “a little town with a big heart in the heart of a big country.” Like most of my own misplaced dreams, their hope (to bring their show to Broadway) is laughably destined to fail. But they believe in it–they believe in each other, and work to create something despite their lack of talent, their lack of funding (In response to the director’s request for $100,000 to put on the show: “The town budget for the whole year is $10,000 and that includes swimming!”), and their lack, really, of any clue about how such things work. There’s something inspiring in still trying, despite all that–and probably a lesson about the benefits of a little bit of self-delusion sometimes. Oh, and did I mention it’s a musical? With a song called “Stool Boom”? Definitely worth watching over and over. We all could use a little more Corky in our lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Pretty Little Liars Recap: “Misery Loves Company,” (Season 3, Episode 16)

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Watching this week’s episode of Pretty Little Liars was like chowing down on a pizza so loaded with rare and tasty toppings that you can hardly lift the cheesy slice off your plate. Part of you is like, SO MUCH IS HAPPENING WAA and all of you is like, AND IT’S ALL SO DELICIOUS. Which is to stay: “Misery Loves Company” gets an “A” for “Action-packed.” Meredith drugged Aria and then locked her in the basement! Hanna fought off fashion mannequins attempting faceless murder! Ali showed up to be cryptic with drugged-out Aria for a while, Paige and Caleb teamed up for a secret anti-A crusade, and in the episode’s saddest and scariest twist, Spencer laid a trap for Toby, caught him red-handed and black-hoodied, and ended up curled in a ball outside his door, begging for an explanation.

Heavy. Stuff.

And so, without further ado: this week’s Pretty Little Liars recap.

Spencer’s realization that Toby betrAyed her was so heartbreaking and terrifying. What will this news mean for our woman of steel?

Sarah T: First of all, I need to go back and watch this episode again, because clearly Spencer laid a trap for Toby, but I spent the whole episode thinking she was just pumped about their anniversary date and I don’t know when she saw the Radley ID card that tipped her off. But well-played, show! Nicely plotted. Anyway, I thought their confrontation was so great and devastating, from Toby’s hard-to-read “How long have you known?” to Spencer’s furious slap. In the moment she’s so shocked that her suspicions were right that she’s all adrenaline and terror, but the moment she collapses into her mother’s arms you can see that this is going to change her forever. And that last image of her shouting teary questions at Toby through the door while he (I think it was him, though we never see him) played the piano–ahh, I wanted to reach through the TV and hug her. PLL is always amazing at taking the crazy messed-up world the girls live in and making their emotions universally relatable, and I think anyone who’s ever felt completely betrayed by a boyfriend or girlfriend could relate to Spence in that moment.

Phoebe B: Oh my goodness, I knew that moment was coming but it was SO heartbreaking. Also, I had secretly held out hope that Toby was just a spy in the A-world, but alas that no longer seems feasible. But also, I think that Spencer found out when she was initially at his apartment or maybe it caught her eye when she went back to meet him. I think her planning the anniversary dinner was legit and not a trap … But I think that she saw the ID in the process and then promptly figured out that Toby would come for the A key. Also, I think that at the end it was just Mona in the apartment alone playing classical music and conducting (which made her seem like an extra evil genius for some reason), which would be more horrifying to me because then it is just her listening to Spencer break down, which is what she wants I think. Lastly, do you think what Toby and Mona were chatting about early in the episode was about trying to destroy Spencer?

Sarah T: I used to assume that Toby was only on the A team as a double agent, but my thinking’s changed. Now I think he’s on it for real, though that doesn’t mean his feelings for Spencer weren’t at least partly real too–just the way Mona really does love Hanna but also she wants to murder her and shove mannequins at her on job interviews. The way he seemed angry when he told Mona that Spencer was still lying to him–that, to me, read like an aggrieved boyfriend, not like an A-teamer.

Phoebe B: Agreed. But also I still totally don’t understand why Toby would turn against Spencer, which I think is why I had held out hope. But maybe there’s something about him and the PLLs we have yet to learn.

Read the rest of this entry »

True Life: I’m A Character From Girls

In Girls on January 22, 2013 at 11:59 am
Guest Contributor Rachel Louchen
just one example of hannah's fine cardigan style

Last Sunday was a big night for Girls. The show made a killing at the Golden Globes while the first episode of its hotly anticipated second season ran simultaneously on HBO. But while I enjoyed the show’s first season—Chris O’Dowd, please be in every show ever—I have not been looking forward to its return. That’s because I fear that along with it will come a fresh slew of comments about how similar I am to the show’s protagonist, Hannah Horvath.

This is not a self-assessment, but something that has been told to me dozens of time by dozens of people. On paper, I can see the similarities. Up until recently, I was a 24-year-old aspiring writer living in Brooklyn (Greenpoint, no less)—much like Hannah. Like her, I’ve had questionable relationships with guys who were decidedly not good for me, and I am definitely into contrasting patterns style-wise. However, I worried that the comparisons between me and Hannah reflected more than the surface-level paralells—which in itself makes me too close to Lena Dunham’s over-analytical heroine for comfort.

My first thought after watching the pilot was that I found Hannah an immensely unlikeable and self-absorbed character. So you can imagine my surprise when, not even 24 hours after the show premiered, I was inundated with emails and texts from friends comparing me to her.  They ranged from mildly annoying—“Hey, this girl on TV talks and dresses like you”—to full-blown off the mark: “I didn’t know you were on a television show.” Where was this coming from? Okay, maybe the job interview scene where she makes a date rape joke was in line with my ongoing problem with discerning what is and isn’t appropriate for a given situation. But I find that quality more Bridget Jones than Hannah Horvath.

I especially didn’t feel like I had anything in common with Hannah when it came to financial independence The pilot opens with Hannah’s sweet and supportive parents announcing they are no longer going to financially support her. She responds by being flabbergasted, shocked, and totally entitled. As a girl who always pays the rent check and successfully budgets, I couldn’t relate to her. I couldn’t even sympathize.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Top 5 Things I Learned from Pop Culture in 2012

In books, music videos, Television on December 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Sarah T.

1. Acclimate yourself to rejection as soon as possible.

That way, the fear of getting turned down never prevents you from doing anything. Accomplishing this is easy. Just start asking for what you want, and people will start telling you no. It works for everything: job applications, dating, carbon tax proposals, writing pitches, conferences, ordering very popular dishes at too-busy restaurants. The great trick of rejection is that it’s not so bad. The way your skin grows calluses to protect the parts of you that work the hardest, the word no helps you build vast reserves of Leslie Knope-ism–the bright eyed, bulldozer-ish determination to follow through on every good idea.

Sometimes you’ll decide you need to find a different way to reach the same goal. Sleazeball councilmember trying to sandbag your dog park? Fill his backyard with puppies. Behind in the polls? Don’t go negative; beat your opponent by contrasting his words with your own. Sometimes you still won’t get what you want, which by the alchemy of enduring rebuff just becomes more fuel for your fire. And sometimes your efforts will pay off, in which case the only thing to do is to take in the win the way Leslie Knope would. “I just said let’s get to work,” she tells her co-workers moments after a victory. “How else do people enjoy things?”

2. There will always be someone shinier than you.

Someone more famous and successful. More blonde. More likely to be invited to sing at President Obama’s inaugural ball. Say your brand of talent doesn’t have quite that same sparkly blockbuster razmatazz. The best thing in the world to do, should you find yourself in a position similar to Solange Knowles, is to not even try to be like Beyonce. Instead, she’s quietly and impossibly cool, edgy and offbeat in her bright orange zoot suits, crooning in a crowded shuttle bus her sister would probably never ride. From Solange’s gorgeous cloud of natural hair to the easy way she dives into the pool fully clothed, “Losing You” showed the world how comfortable she was in her own skin. Of course her music made a splash this year: When you act like yourself, the right people find you. And those who don’t miss out on one sweet dance party.

Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Year-End Picks: Amy B’s Best Music of 2012

In music videos on December 27, 2012 at 7:25 am

Guest Contributor Amy B.

Typically, at the end of every year I narrow down my favorite albums to the top 20 or so. And then, inevitably, I have to create all sorts of side categories to make sure albums and EPs and random songs and rad YouTube videos don’t get missed. This year I’m cutting to the chase by skipping the arduous process of trying to sort out my top 20 and going straight to the more interesting categories of random things I’ve made up. Hope the tunes of these awesome bands bring some joy to your ears as you wrap up 2012 and head into 2012!

Ed: Each of the links below will hook you up with an 8-track playlist home-brewed by the one and only Amy! Happy listening.

Top 5 albums likely to be on everybody else’s lists because they are super!

alt-J – An Awesome Wave

This is my absolute favorite album of 2012, hands down. Earlier this year, public radio station KCRW put “Breezeblocks” into its rotation and I’ve been attached at the hip to this entire album every since. (I can’t believe I just anthropomorphized a record. Okay, yes I can.) Their style isn’t easy to describe—maybe guitar rock with folk, synth pop, and psychedelia all mixed in—and  their lyrics are full of completely obscure film and literary references, but their songs manage to be catchy and mainstream radio-ready anyway. I thought any excitement I get when I play this album would have worn off by now, but months and months later that’s not the case.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Ocean hit the scene in a big way. He made his TV debut on Jimmy Fallon’s show with a riveting performance of “BadReligion,” a song about falling in love with another man (not exactly common ground in the hip-hop scene); and hours later released this flawless album. Prior to this, he had published on his own website personal stories of past love and rejection and questioning sexuality. He continues these themes on Channel Orange, where he is confessional and introspective about love, money, sex, and drugs while managing to go beyond the “same ole, same ole.” His lyrics are inventive and intelligent and unlike what have come before them. All the hype and praise for Ocean is beyond deserved.

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Guys, can you believe we waited seven years for this album? It was a long time, but Apple certainly didn’t disappoint and managed to live up to all the hype. She brought her signature raw emotion and honesty, and coupled it with her clever and atypical songwriting and piano-playing. Apple still carries with her some rage and heart-break, but I think this one has some love in it, too. The closing song seems utterly triumphant as she compares herself to a pat of butter and her lover as a hot, hot, hot knife. (I added the extra hots, but I think Apple was thinking it.) Welcome back, Fiona!

Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Dirty Projectors caught a lot of people’s attentions when they released an album covering an entire Black Flag album from memory. I was totally on board, but I could see how many found it campy and maybe even overwrought. Each subsequent album has managed to be experimental while also inching toward mainstream acceptability, and I think Swing Lo Magellan is the most accessible yet. Everything is a bit more stripped down, a bit warmer, and (dare I say it) a bit poppier. If you admired this band before, but could never really get into their music, give their latest a spin.

Cat Power – Sun

Chan Marshall’s past albums have all carried a bit of sadness with them. These were songs for rainy days, hours spent alone, and moments of grief. In fact, You Are Free has reliably gotten me through numerous break-ups for nearly a decade. While Marshall was helping me cope, she herself was facing a rough road of substance abuse and bankruptcy and bad relationships. Sun is the light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel with its strong anthems full of confidence and passion. Marshall is ready to conquer the world (Saudi Arabia, Dhaka, Calcutta…), and we’re all invited to come along for the ride. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Year-End Picks: Sarah T’s Top 4 Songs of 2012

In music videos on December 26, 2012 at 11:05 am

Sarah T

1. “Wut,” Le1f

“I get guys the way straight rappers get girls,” New York rapper Le1f told Fader this summer, and watching his music video “Wut” you can see the truth he’s telling. The man’s got moves, a voice deep as a well, rapid-fire flow that careens and cajoles, and lyrics so breezy they take you sailing. “Came through in the clutch, stomping like I’m up in Loubitons / Boys they wanna paint me like I’m canvas to do sumi on,” he boasts, doing a kind of moonwalk shuffle in short shorts and a baseball cap. With bright horns and Le1f’s megawatt charisma, “Wut” feels effortlessly infectious. But that’s the mark of a master: they never let you see how hard they’re working.

2. “Anything Could Happen,” Ellie Goulding

The synthesizers powering “Anything Could Happen” make it a song you can lose yourself to on the dance floor, but it’s Ellie Goulding’s fearless lyrics that set this electro-dance-pop gem apart. “Baby, I’ll give you everything you need,” Goulding croons, and you think you’re listening to just another love song that promises vague and everlasting devotion. But in the next breath comes the twist, shouted suddenly as if she’s just realized it herself: “But I don’t think I need you.”

That isn’t a kiss-off. Goulding is singing about coming into a self-reliance that’s both scary and freeing. The world is a wide-open place; people lose each other in it all the time. Listening to her chant “Anything could happen,” you can feel the words burrowing into your skin, equal parts promise and warning and vow.

3. “Some Nights,” fun.

Some nights I don’t know why fun. decided to set their smash hit song in a Civil War video, but  who cares? Wildly distracting Autotune prominence: Also who cares? Most nights I don’t know what I stand for, and I’m just grateful that this year fun. gave me a song to belt my confusion along to.

4. “Montauk,” Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright wrote “Montauk” for his baby girl Viva, who was born in 2011. Backed by a chiming piano and a carnival organ, he paints the future of their family with the tenderness of a father who’s already preparing himself for the moment he’ll have to say goodbye. When grown-up Viva comes to visit her parents in Montauk, she’ll find one dad pruning roses, one dad wearing a kimono; one dad at the piano, one dad wearing glasses. It’s a portrait of quiet domesticity, yet Wainwright’s already feeling vulnerable about how his daughter will see them: “Hope you won’t turn around and go,” he sings. The memory of Wainwright’s mother, who passed away from cancer in 2010, looms over “Montauk.” She isn’t mentioned till the haunting final verse, but when she appears, you understand that she’s the engine that’s been driving the song’s mournful beauty. Wainwright lost a parent, and then he became one. “And though we want to stay for a while,” Wainwright sings, “don’t worry, we all have to go.”

GLG Year-End Picks: Sarah T’s Most Important Celebrity Scandal of 2012

In celebrity gossip on December 21, 2012 at 5:20 am

Sarah T.

In 2012, Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson. This made me root for her hard.

I was rooting for K. Stewart to begin with. I like how awkward she is; I like that she seems to be really feeling the grunge movement twenty years late and that she doesn’t often smile for cameras. I thought she was great when she was tough and mumbly in Adventureland and when she was vulnerable and mumbly in Twilight. I like her with the same stubbornness that I often feel for actresses a lot of other people find annoying, Anne Hathaway and Lena Dunham and Zooey Deschanel among them. If enough people find a woman irritating, she’s usually doing something interesting.

And this year, Stewart did something really interesting. She ruined her own love story.

The public version of Stewart and Pattinson’s relationship tracks with the Twilight narrative so closely that the two are nearly inextricable from one another: Stewart/Bella embarrassed and stiff and sincere, Pattinson/Edward emo and attractively self-loathing. For the past four years they’ve played their relationship close to the vest, in a manner not unlike the way a human girl and a vampire man-boy might go about a little sexy subterfuge. Given these parallels, it’s easy to be skeptical about the timing of their much-publicized breakup, which brought on a wave of extra publicity for the final part of the One True Sparkly Vampire Saga.

But after watching a pale and pained Pattinson stumble through an appearance on The Daily Show, it was hard to believe that their relationship was just a publicity stunt. And if his heartbreak was real, Stewart’s infidelity was too. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Year-End Picks: Librarians Vote On the Top YA Books of 2012

In books, YA on December 19, 2012 at 2:30 pm

There are a lot of benefits to being friends with a librarian. She can show you the insane(ly awesome) Excel spreadsheet she keeps of all the books she wants to read in her lifetime, which she updates constantly and color-codes according to how much she likes a given book! She can explain to you how the Dewey Decimal system works! And when you ask her to recommend some of the best young adult books of 2012, she can send out her librarian bat signal to a ginormous listserv and compile the votes of over 70 different young adult librarians.

Big thanks to my pal Samantha for her help, and to the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) book group in particular. Y’all are amazing.

And so, without further ado, here are the 2012 young adult books that garnered the most votes from librarians who Know What They’re Talking About. Whether you’re in the mood for a World War II spy novel mind-bender, a funny-sad-smart tale about teenagers living with cancer, or a story about coming of age and coming out, there’s a YA book here for you (or for your favorite young’un). Let us know your own picks in the comments!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

From The New York Times: “The Fault in Our Stars” is all the more heart-rending for its bluntness about the medical realities of cancer. There are harrowing descriptions of pain, shame, anger and bodily fluids of every type. It is a narrative without rainbows or flamingoes; there are no magical summer snowstorms. Instead, Hazel has to lug a portable oxygen tank with her wherever she goes, and Gus has a prosthetic leg. Their friend Isaac is missing an eye and later goes blind. These unpleasant details do nothing to diminish the romance; in Green’s hands, they only make it more moving. He shows us true love — two teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating physical and emotional ordeals — and it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

From The Plain Dealer: Pity poor 17-year-old Evie O’Neill. It’s 1926 and she’s stuck in Zenith, Ohio, a thudding bore of a town where her mother is secretary of the Women’s Temperance Society. Pretty Evie has a taste for giggle water and adventure. She’s also got a talent for divining other people’s secrets.

This girl is bound for trouble.

Codename Verity by Elizabeth Wein

From The New York Times: “Code Name Verity,” by Elizabeth Wein, is a fiendishly plotted mind game of a novel, the kind you have to read twice. The first time you just devour the story of girl-pilot-and-girl-spy friendship and the thrill of flying a plane and the horrors of Nazi torture and the bravery of French Resistance fighters and you force yourself to slow down, but you don’t want to, because you’re terrified these beautiful, vibrant characters are doomed. The second time, you read more slowly, proving to yourself that yes, the clues were there all along for you to solve the giant puzzle you weren’t even aware was constructed around you, and it takes focus and attention to catch all the little references to the fact that nothing is what you thought. Especially while you’re bawling your eyes out. Read the rest of this entry »

Date, Marry, Dump: Hobbit Edition

In Film on December 17, 2012 at 7:01 am

Sarah T.

As a Tolkien ignoramus, I watched The Hobbit in a haze of appreciative semi-confusion. I thought the goblins were orcs. I thought Thorin was the same person as Thrain in the flashbacks. I couldn’t follow what-all Elron and Galadriel were going on about, although whether that was because they were being ethereally boring or because I was distracted by hair-envy on both counts is up for debate. “What do dragons want with gold anyway?” I whispered to my friend S., who explained that they liked to bathe in it, which: with that kind of conspicuous consumption, no wonder they went the way of Marie Antoinette.

I emerged from the movie certain of only two things. First, I want a pet hedgehog and I will call it Sebastian. Second, I know exactly who I would date, who I would marry, and who I would dump.

Date

Dwarves are short, grumbly types who are very good at choreographing rowdy “Be Our Guest”-style kitchen clean-ups, rocking that 80s hair band look, and eating entire wheels of cheese–men after my own heart. (Also, are there any girl dwarves? Is there just one, Smurfette style?) But while they are very cuddly, it became clear, watching them barge into poor Bilbo’s round-doored cottage one by one, that most of them are not ultra-romantically-attractive in the conventional sense. Attractive to me, I mean! A lid for every pot, etc.

But then The Hobbit threw me a curveball. Two curveballs, as a matter of fact, by the names of Fili and Kili:

Well hello there.

Come and knock on my door, I’ll be waiting for you.

“There are the cute dwarves,” I whispered to my neighbor, who agreed, particularly about the skinny dark-haired one on the right. But then. THEN! There’s a last knock at the door. “He is here,” Gandalf says dramatically. And a moment later we all understand why Gandalf was being all OMG-my-crush-just-walked-into-the-high-school-dance, because look at this face: Read the rest of this entry »

Spielberg’s Lincoln and the Problem with Biopics

In Film on December 3, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Sarah T.

Y So Srs, Though.

Y So Srs, Though.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a movie for squares, which means that it’s going to be swimming in Oscars like Scrooge McDuck (also kind of a square, incidentally). Everyone at the Academy Awards will be excited to see Daniel Day-Lewis, because if low-information memory serves he’s a Belgian shoe cobbler who only emerges from his boot-house once every seven years to remind everybody how long his legs are. Remember Gangs of New York? The man was like a daddy long legs on stilts.

As Lincoln, he’s kind of wheezy and stooped and noble like a chipped ceramic lion. I can’t say I got much feel for the inner workings of our nation’s 16th president, which probably isn’t Day-Lewis’s fault. At this point in American history, we’ve canonized Lincoln so much that I can’t imagine any mainstream filmmaker daring to bring him down to earth. This is a movie that, I kid you not, ends with a close-up of the dead president as seen through a candle, and then a tiny ghost version of Lincoln shows up inside the candle flame, giving a speech, which is very distracting. Nobody reacts onscreen, because in the 19th century this was just one of the hazards of home decor. Napoleon Bonaparte’s poltergeist hung out in snuffbox for years and nobody could snuff anything. Then the candle dissolves so that tiny ghost Lincoln becomes Lincoln in a flashback, completing his speech, but I couldn’t pay any attention to what he was saying because I was too busy being shocked by the most over-the-top ending since ET flew away in a Skittles rainbow. No knocks to ET. It’s an okay move when you’re making the world’s most perfect alien fairy tale. But the Hall of Presidents has more grit than this movie.

Pretty much the only fun parts of Lincoln are listening to Tommy Lee Jones (as Thaddeus Stevens) relish calling the guy from Pushing Daisies inventively mean names and thinking about the historical role of hairpieces in the legislative process. The only moving part of Lincoln also involves Tommy Lee Jones. I found myself wishing that the whole movie was about him, though then I’m sure his character would have just had to shoulder Spielberg’s earnest self-seriousness.

The movie got me thinking: When was the last time I saw a biopic that wasn’t a snoozefest? I think I might hate this genre. The Queen, The King’s Speech, Walk the Line, Ray, Capote, A Beautiful Mind: I call these critically acclaimed films Safety Ambien. Filmmakers seem to lose their powers of imagination–and any impulse toward risk–when they’re confronted with larger-than-life historical figures. Instead they want to be respectable, which is a lovely quality in a headmaster or a piece of toast but less desirable in arts and entertainment. Also, maybe most people’s lives just aren’t interesting enough to make into movies. Even the most fascinating parts take like 15 minutes and then they’re over, which would be helpful for me to remember the next time I’m getting resentful about how boring it is to clean the bathtub.

I just made a quick mental list of all the biopics I have ever liked, and it is three items long:

Amadeus

Persepolis

Milk

Obviously, though, I haven’t seen All the Biopics there are. (If I had, I guess I would have died of boredom and I’d be talking to you from inside a candle.) Are there less staid and stately ones out there? And do you think we just shouldn’t be allowed to make movies about real people unless those movies involve time travel? At least Bill and Ted knew how to make history come alive.

Ladies First: Five Fairly Recent Books by Women, About Women

In books, Uncategorized on November 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Sarah T.

Although the subjects of the novels below range from coming of age to coming to America, all five have two things in common: They’re written by women, and they center on female characters. What books by women and/or about women have you been perusing?

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

Moore’s coming-of-age novel is set in a post-9/11 Midwestern college town. I read it on a Metro North train and I was really into it. So into it, in fact, that I got off one station before my transfer in a haze of which-world-am-I-in confusion. Then, as the doors shut, I realized that I was still an hour away from my final destination. As the train pulled away, I had two additional revelations: I had left my phone on the seat, and this was the last train of the night. I was fully marooned.

“I guess I live here now,” I thought. I trudged down to the taxi stand to start a new life for myself. Now here I am, a happy resident of Brewster, NY. No, $90 later I got home. But the point of this story is: Moore is very absorbing, especially if you like puns. People in her books are always verbally jousting with each other, no matter how unhappy or confused they are. Even when two characters don’t like each other very much, they can usually cease hostilities long enough to bond over a good homophone. It’s Moore’s way of telling us how lonely her characters are. In her universe, puns are the way that people grasp for connection.

The novel’s narrator, Tassie, is a smart college student cut off even from the people she loves most. One of the novel’s key plot points hinges on an email from her beloved brother, who writes asking for advice on a major life decision. Not only doesn’t Tassie write back, she never even reads the email. She doesn’t understand why herself. But the isolation that courses through the book provides the explanation: The vulnerability of her brother’s email, and the prospect of taking responsibility for another person, was too much for Tassie to bear. People turn away from intimacy throughout the book. The decision seems almost sensible, given that nobody is who they say they are–not  Tassie’s Brazilian boyfriend, nor the white couple who hire her as a nanny for their adorable, bi-racial adoptive daughter Mary-Emma. Self-deception runs deep too. Their liberal college town, which prides itself on being the kind of enlightened place where you can protest wars and buy organic kohlrabi all in one go, reveals a racist underbelly.

Needless to say, this is a sad book. You kind of hear “Eleanor Rigby” playing on repeat as you read it. But Moore makes sure you don’t drown in melancholy: there are still bowls of fresh strawberries with balsamic vinaigrette, the joy of discovering Simone de Beauvoir, art etched into the foam of cappuccinos. The book recognizes the balancing power of ordinary consolations, even as it suggests–steely-eyed–that they’re not enough.  Read the rest of this entry »

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”: There Are Quite a Few

In Film on November 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

Sarah T.

My love for The Perks of Being a Wallflower was inevitable as mason jars at a hipster wedding. Blend adolescent longing with puppy love, transformations, wild nights, and the passionate loyalty particular to friendships forged on the battlegrounds of high school, and you bet I will drink that milkshake. I’LL DRINK IT UP. Ten years out of my own teenage wasteland, I remain a sucker for coming-of-age stories because at bottom they’re about change–which means they tend to resonate with anyone who’s still in the (apparently endless?) process of Figuring Stuff Out.

But even given my predisposition to adore any film that features SATs and Sadie Hawkins dances, Perks is a winner, at times a little corny but brimming with heart. The movie tracks the freshman year of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a shy, eager-to-please innocent with a troubled past. After a few lonely weeks at school, Charlie befriends a pair of senior step-siblings, each radiating life-force. Patrick (Ezra Miller) is a warm, charismatic joker who’s forced to hide his relationship with a popular football player from their closed-minded community. Sam (Emma Watson) is an equally compassionate former party girl who’s gotten her act together–but she’s worried that college admissions boards won’t be able to see past her sub-par GPA. They take young Charlie under their wing, and before he knows it the three of them are flying through a tunnel in Patrick’s pickup truck, Sam clambering out the cab to ride in the open air while David Bowie’s “Heroes” flares. They  don’t know who’s singing; they’re still young enough to be discovering classics for the first time. “I feel infinite,” Charlie tells Patrick, quietly, like a confession. It’s a hopelessly cheesy line, but it’s also exactly the right way to describe the way you feel when, for the first time, you stumble upon people who crack your life open.

[spoilers after the jump] Read the rest of this entry »

To the Voting Booths!

In 2012 election on November 6, 2012 at 8:34 am

Just a friendly reminder from Girls Like Giants to make sure your voice gets heard today: Get out and vote! Let’s make Leslie Knope proud.

Tina Fey’s Nerd Rage Burns “Women Aren’t Funny” to the Ground

In Television on October 23, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Sarah T.

“NERD RAGE!” Tina Fey bellowed on Thursday’s episode of 30 Rock, and just like that, my heart grew a thousand sizes. I love Fey and 30 Rock. But as I’ve complained before, I sometimes have problems with her show on the gender-femiladyism front. I agree with Laura Bennett that Fey’s self-deprecation, both in and out of character, sometimes seems like a ploy to make her ambition, intelligence, sexuality, and razor-sharp wit less threatening.  I like Fey best when she’s all about threats and throwing serious fire. Which is why “Stride of Pride,” a hilarious response to the ridiculous, insulting, I-can’t-believe-we’re-even-talking-about-this question of whether women are funny, was the triumphant throw-down of my dreams.

Liz’s nerd rage kicks off in response to Tracy Jordan and Stephen Hawking’s faux Twitter exchange. “Women aren’t funny, never have been and never will be,” the world’s most famous theoretical physicist announces (hashtag: #plotpoint). Tracy retweets that he agrees.  Over the course of the episode, Liz faces an internal struggle familiar to anyone who’s faced an overtly sexist question: to engage or not to engage?

“Do something funny right now!” Tracy demands when Liz confronts him, and Liz automatically starts to oblige before she remembers that she doesn’t have to prove anything. She refuses to list funny women for the same reason. She tries to make the argument that perhaps men and women like different things (monkeys and “really daaaark superhero movies” aren’t everyone’s cup of tea). But Tracy doesn’t buy it, and the cheap laughs he successfully provokes while showing off a monkey in a tiny suit finally get Liz to take a stand.

“Engaging!” she announces, swinging forward like a terminator whose destroy button has finally been activated. She mounts an impromptu comedy show with Jenna to prove, once and for all, that women are funny—and succeeds! But sexism can sour any victory: Tracy thinks the show is funny because she plays a woman doctor, not because of her actual jokes.

“Stride of Pride” is packed with pointed retorts to the shoddy constructs of arguments against women in comedy.  “Some things just aren’t funny, like females and listing only two things,” Tracy says. And while I’m not on board with the idea that women and men necessarily like different things  (there are plenty of women who dig monkeys and The Dark Knight), I think it’s very true that our culture has a lot invested in persuading us that men have dibs on humor. Take, for example, the preposterous reporting about a recent study that showed that men’s jokes got far more laughs than women. Most articles assumed that men got more laughs because their jokes were objectively funnier–rather than considering the fact that we’re all socialized to chortle when men crack wise and to expect women to serve as decorative affirmation-machines rather than as independent beings with their own stock of puns and barbs and rubber chickens and silly walks.

But while I appreciated all of 30 Rock‘s witty comebacks, my favorite part of the episode was seeing Tina Fey firing on all engines. I get why she might not want to engage in the are-women-funny debate: It is insulting to even talk about.  It’s the same reason why Jami Attenberg recently told Michelle Dean that she dreams of a world where she didn’t have to field questions about herself as a Woman Writer. The song that plays over Liz’s comedy show reveals her frustration at being drawn into a debate that’s un-winnable because the other side is just being dumb: “Women are funny we can all agree / Carol Burnett. Lucille Ball / No we’re not gonna do it / it’s beneath us all!” But Fey is one of the most visible and high-powered comedians out there, which can make staying silent on a controversial matter seem like a response in itself. With “Stride of Pride,” Fey found a way to engage without lending a stupid, outdated, sexist argument any legitimacy. By the time her thirty minutes were up, she’d poked more holes in Christopher Hitchen‘s article (and the ensuing yes-man chorus) than there are in the Swiss cheese on Liz’s beloved sandwiches. And that, friends, deserves a stride of pride for the ages.

The Creative Economics of “Party Down”

In Television on October 17, 2012 at 10:56 am

Sarah T.

Officially speaking, the recession was already off the books by the time I saw it up close and personal.

I left my job at a magazine in New York and started graduate school in fall 2008. By the time I reentered the workforce in summer 2011, the employment landscape had morphed into a new, spooky, twisted-tree country. While I was cloistered away annotating bibliographies and torturing college freshmen with an argumentative essay tool called the enthymeme, the print and publishing industry was busy staging an epic death scene straight out of Hamlet. Plenty of businesses outside my field had shuttered their doors too.

I’d known all this in my reason-brain. But I had to be on the job market myself in order to really understand the economic realities that many people had been living with for years. I felt like bizarro Dorothy, leaving behind the Technicolor lollipops and toadstools of my pre-2008 Oz. In grim old Kansas, the unemployment rate was stuck above 8 percent, and witches only biked to work because they had to sell their cars.

That summer was one of outright panic. I stayed up late into the night revising cover letters and woke myself up at 3:30 am, convinced I’d ruined my life at the ripe old age of 28. I was worried I wouldn’t find a job. But more than that, I was furious at myself for burning daylight. I’d known since I was 12 that I wanted to be a writer—and not the academic journal kind. So what had I been doing in academia for the past three years? Why had I abandoned the thing I really wanted for no good reason, and would I be able to claw my way back? Desperately in need of some laughs, and a way to pass the witching hours that did not involve singing mournful arias with a mouthful of cold pizza, I loaded up Netflix and started watching Party Down.

***

Starz’s cult series about entertainers-cum-caterers premiered in March 2009. It never explicitly mentions the economy—actors tend to be broke and out of work even when the general coffers are overflowing. But more than any other TV series, Party Down nails the strange despair felt by many a young person in the aftermath of the Great Recession. High rejection rates, minimum-wage jobs, stiff competition, plus the full-time job of stifling the fear that you’ll never succeed: we’re all aspiring actors now. Read the rest of this entry »

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