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Where Has the Girl Gone?: Post-Recession Marriage in Gone Girl

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2014 at 7:42 am

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Sarah S.

This post discusses plot points from both the book and the movie versions of Gone Girl. The filmmakers made a very close adaptation of the novel so the primary difference comes from the lack of nuance and character development that tends to be inevitable in book-to-film adaptations.

It also contains SPOILERS, so if you have managed to not learn THE TWIST, and you care to remain in the dark, do not read further. You have been forewarned.

I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl in a binge between 4 pm Saturday and 8pm Sunday last weekend. I saw the film adaptation—directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike—on a sunny autumn afternoon last Wednesday. I suddenly felt caught up in one those micro-tornadoes of chitter-chatter swirling through the zeitgeist.

But what makes this book and, more so, its film version such a teapot tempest right now? It enjoys a decent but not overwhelming 87% fresh score on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. Two friends on Facebook logged complaints about female representation while declaring themselves Fincher-fans. But another declared it the “worst movie [he's] seen since The Social Network,” leading me to wonder if reactions were breaking on the Fincher love-hate axis. (And here I expected to be debating the merits of everybody’s least-favorite Batman.) But it’s obviously more than that.

I think that at least some of the reactions to Gone Girl have to do with its allegorical nature. It’s a tale of the Great Recession and its effects on America’s iconographic “best and brightest”: the Midwestern bootstrap-boy and the complicated, mesmerizing girl. Moreover, it does not just focus on these characters but attempts to say something about what they mean individually and as a metaphorical representation of middle class, American marriage. The book even stages this conceit with section breaks subverting romantic comedy plot points—”Boy Loses Girl,” “Boy Meets Girl,” and “Boy Gets Girl Back (or Vice Versa).”

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Feminism and Victim Subjectivity in “Dead Girl Shows”: How The Killing Succeeds . . . and then Fails

In Uncategorized on September 23, 2014 at 8:08 am

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Sarah S.

Note: This post includes spoilers for seasons 1-3 of The Killing. It also includes violent images after the jump of a type allowable on cable television and so may not be SFW or appropriate for all readers.

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Recently, GLG’s Phoebe B. has been writing on white male violence, discussing television’s problematic obsession with white men committing and fixating on the murders of white women and how, further, these tropes can be read as constant infantilization. A while back, I wrote on how depictions of rape in critically-acclaimed Hollywood films function as body genres that foreclose empathy and activism. This post builds on these discussions with a reading of the representation of dead female bodies in the AMC/Netflix show The Killing, which begins in a compelling, even feminist vein before devolving into tired, exploitative modes in later seasons.

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Who killed Rosie Larsen? This question drives season 1 (and, alas, season 2) of The Killing. The show also quite consciously evokes its predecessor Twin Peaks, the ur-“Dead Girl Show,” to use the terminology of Alice Bolin in her discussion of this genre. However, The Killing—like counterparts The Fall, Top of the Lake, and Pretty Little Liars—complicates this core narrative by putting a woman in the role of detective and mystery solver. Mireille Enos plays Detective Sarah Linden, a complicated woman, haunted by her past and obsessed with discovering who murdered 17-year-old Rosie. Because of its female-centric perspective, I argue that in season 1 The Killing takes a divergent path in the representation of the murdered female body.

Feminists including Martha Nussbaum have long articulated the problem in objectifying people, most commonly women. A common feature of said objectification involves chopping up the female body into parts or otherwise denying the subjectivity of a woman, for example, by obscuring her face or head.

I add that, often, Dead Girl Shows similarly objectify female bodies through dehumanization and bifurcation. The goal in these shows is less sexual titillation and commodification than to evoke a repulsion aligned with body genres, a la Linda Williams.

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Cheers, Elaine Stritch!

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2014 at 7:18 am

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Sarah S.

I want to take this time to salute the inimitable Elaine Stritch, who died this past July at the age of 89. Stritch was a Broadway legend and, as is evident in the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, one of the brassiest broads to stroll through Manhattan.

Shoot Me follows Stritch through several months near the end of her life, showing her rejection of pants and love for Bay’s English muffins. Stritch was a complicated delight. She drew little distinction between employees and friends, treating both with similar domineering affection. At one point, she parks her limo in the fire zone outside a Starbucks and, when the cops show up, fakes a limp. Filming during her stint on 30 Rock as Jack’s mom, she calls out “Alec ‘Joan Crawford’ Baldwin” when they’re waiting on Baldwin to shoot the scene.

The film honors Stritch and provides a glimpse into her long love affair with the theater and her audiences. As such, it’s a testament to a remarkable performer and an amazing woman who grew older (not old!) with peacock-like aplomb.

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How to Be Awesome Like Alison Hendrix

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television, Uncategorized on August 29, 2014 at 10:42 am

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Welcome to the final day of Orphan Black Week on Girls Like Giants! We launched this discussion last week with a post on the patriarchal metaphor that structures the show. This week we’ve been featuring a series of “How To Be Awesome Like…” posts on the women of “clone club.” Today our final contributor, Rachel B., gets at the heart inside the neuroses of Alison Hendrix.

Guest Contributor Rachel B.

In Orphan Black’s first episode, Alison Hendrix is nothing more than a Social Security card in a safe deposit box. At first glance, this seems an apt metaphor for the woman herself: contained within the cold, sterile routine of her highly regulated suburban life. Unable to think or live outside the box. Indeed, when Felix asks Sarah early in Season 1 why she decides not to inform Alison about the more frightening characteristics of the as-yet unidentified Helena, Sarah explains that if Alison knew the truth, she would “crap her lululemons.”

And sure, Alison is brittle and jittery. Sure, she walks and talks with the uptight carriage and demeanor of a woman on her last nerve, wound up, edgy, often self-medicating. Sure, she seems fit to do little more than teach figure skating classes, distribute snacks at soccer practice, and host the monthly potluck.

But here’s the thing: she is a survivor. She doesn’t fall down, helpless, when confronted with the enormity of not only her identity as a clone but also her peril. When her fellow clones begin to be picked off one by one, she doesn’t hide. She doesn’t run away. She acts. She buys a gun and has Beth teach her how to use it. She does what she can to help, financing Clone Club’s investigation into how they came to be and why someone seems bent on erasing them. When Sarah says she needs Alison’s help, all the schedules and activities of suburbia go out the window: Alison sends off her doof of a husband with a cutting barb and sits sentinel at her arts and crafts table with a gun and the pink clone cell phone. “Stupid suburban Alison” can actually handle a great deal of truth.

How to be awesome like her?

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How to Be Awesome Like Cosima Niehaus

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television on August 28, 2014 at 7:32 am

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Welcome to Orphan Black Week on Girls Like Giants! We launched this discussion last week with a post on the patriarchal metaphor that structures the show. This week we’re featuring a series of “How To Be Awesome Like…” posts on the women of “clone club.” Today our second guest contributor, Larissa Ennis, describes the multi-faceted stability of Cosima Niehaus, the brainiest clone and the one all of our writers wish they’d gotten to before Larissa called dibs.

Guest Contributor Larissa M. Ennis

We are introduced to Cosima in season 1, episode 2 “Instinct.” Cosima is introduced moments after the German clone Katja Obinger is murdered in front of Sarah-playing-Beth Childs. The disembodied voice over Beth’s cellphone demanding that Sarah/Beth find the German’s briefcase snaps Sarah back to reality as she reels from Katja’s murder, the revelation of another look-alike, and her near miss with a sniper’s bullet.

While to Sarah the woman on the phone is simply a mysterious voice assuming she is Beth, to the audience the voice promises that Beth and Katja aren’t the only “twins” (which Sarah is calling her multiple doppelgangers at the moment); there are more clones to come. Late in the episode, Sarah tracks down Allison, who reveals Cosima and the truth about who—or what—they are.

I must confess I find Cosima the most relatable of the clones. In season 1, Cosima Niehaus is a PhD student studying developmental evolutionary biology at the University of Minnesota; in season 2, she pits her brains against the corporate brawn of the Dyad Corporation and goes to work for them, a double-agent out in the open, as Aldous Leekie knows that having a happy clone researcher will get him a lot more results than no clone researcher at all.

While Alison and Sarah can pass for one another, or the departed Beth (and do) quite easily, Cosima has a style all her own, an eclectic fashion sense that helps set her apart. She doesn’t skimp on the eyeliner, a liquid black shaped into a vintage cat eye. She wears awesome black-rimmed glasses, slightly hipster but definitely intellectual; her clothes are a hodge-podge of thrift store finds, and her hair… The hair.

Cosima’s hair is almost impossibly cool, thick and black and shaped into awesome dreadlocks, which she wears back perpetually. But while she often slips into California slang, using “dude” liberally, her hair never seems to approach embarrassing white-girl-with-dreads territory.

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How to Be Awesome Like Helena

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television on August 27, 2014 at 6:00 am

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Welcome to Orphan Black Week on Girls Like Giants! We launched this discussion last week with a post on the patriarchal metaphor that structures the show. This week we’re featuring a series of “How To Be Awesome Like…” posts on the women of “clone club.” Today, we have guest contributor Bethany Jacobs writing on the deliciously diabolical, chillingly childlike Helena.

Guest Contributor Bethany Jacobs

*spoilers throughout!*

Aspiring to be like Helena is not for the faint of heart. And I’m not referring to having the stomach for getting shanked by rebar, cutting off tails, and sniper-busting a half dozen faces that LOOK JUST LIKE YOURS. All this ferocity is as much a symptom of Helena’s systemic brainwashing as any inherent badassery, and let’s be honest—nobody wants to be the Helena who has suffered horrific psychological and physical abuse by the religious zealots in Orphan Black known as Proletheans. Or at least no one should want to be that Helena, though to each her own. But there is a profound appeal to this rogue clone, and I submit that a great deal of it comes down to her being one of the fiercest, slyest, and most unapologetic people in contemporary television—and that’s saying something given her sisters are grifters, cops, murderous housewives and sexy-ass scientists of the genius persuasion (among other persuasions that I particularly enjoy).

But I can’t be the only one who thinks that Helena is somehow bigger than the other clones, right? Even as she rocks the same feline muscularity of her sisters, she’s got a hugeness to her that stresses once again Tatiana Maslany’s incredible skill at bringing multiple distinct characters to life. Helena is a body, a presence, all her own. Is it her ravenous appetite? Is it the jacket and combat boots and hair? Is it her shrieking, discordant electronica theme, declaring everything that is discordant and horrific about Helena herself? But her larger-than-life presence coupled with an insanely violent streak shouldn’t fool anyone into missing the complexity of that same theme, which builds a haunting melody out of chimes, percussion, piano and eletronica magic. This is no simple soundtrack. Sarah Manning’s quasi-affectionate nickname for the Ukrainian assassin is “Meathead” (“Do not call me this,” Helena always retorts). It’s charming, but inaccurate. Though she is eccentric, and single-minded—a walking blunt-force trauma—Helena is also intelligent enough to lead the Toronto police on a fruitless cat-and-mouse chase. She’s a brilliant tracker and strategist. That she is even remotely functional given what she has endured throughout her life, that she has a moral compass apart from Prolethean teachings, speaks to a strength of character that beautifully complements her physical power and vigilante skills.

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How to Be Awesome Like Sarah Manning

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television on August 26, 2014 at 6:00 am

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Welcome to Orphan Black Week on Girls Like Giants! We launched this discussion last week with a post on the patriarchal metaphor that structures the show. This week we’re featuring a series of “How To Be Awesome Like…” posts on the women of “clone club.” Next up, Sarah S. on Sarah Manning, the complicated central protagonist of Orphan Black.

Sarah S.

Even though each of the clone characters on Orphan Black is played by Tatiana Maslany, Sarah Manning is the chief protagonist. Even when you realize you’re watching an “Alison” episode or a “Helena” episode, these plots always run alongside the main narrative centered around Sarah.

As viewers, Sarah is our entrée into the Orphan Black universe. Unlike her “sisters” Cosima, Alison, Beth, and even Helena, Sarah does not know what she is and so we discover the details alongside her. She is our touchstone for the entire narrative of clones, monitors, the corporate Dyad group, and the zealous Proletheans.

Sarah also develops substantially throughout the series. She begins a cynical grifter, only too willing to steal a dead woman’s life and enlist her long-suffering brother, Felix, into her schemes. Her reasons for these actions are ostensibly venerable: she wants to reconnect with her daughter, Kira, and escape her violent, druggy boyfriend. Yet the likelihood that she will succeed in these goals remains dubious. If Sarah really wanted to parent Kira, she would be parenting her, not leaving Kira with the woman who raised Felix and Sarah, Mrs. S. Her shadowy origins have made Sarah rootless, shiftless, untrusting, and untrustworthy. No wonder Felix rolls his eyes and Mrs. S. vows not to relinquish Kira.

But everything changes once Sarah finds herself not only assuming the identity of a cop who could be her identical twin but also discovering that she’s one of several clones. Most notably, when the going gets hard, Sarah cowgirls up. So here is how to be awesome like Sarah Manning.

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How to Be Awesome Like Beth Childs

In feminism, How to be Awesome Like, Television, Uncategorized on August 25, 2014 at 6:00 am

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Welcome to Orphan Black Week on Girls Like Giants! We launched this discussion last week with a post on the patriarchal metaphor that structures the show. This week we’re featuring a series of “How To Be Awesome Like…” posts on the women of “clone club.” First up, Brian Psi on Beth Childs, the clone who exists almost entirely in inscrutable past tense.

Brian Psi

The clones of Orphan Black are haunted by the ghosts of those who have died before their time, sisters who our characters will never come to know, and whose fates they may come to share. In the first season, Katja is a warning to the others of their propensity towards sickness, and is killed by the assassin that will soon be targeting the others. In the second, it is Jennifer Fitzsimmons, whose harrowing video diaries prior to her death amplify our concern for Cosima, who is suffering from the same rare respiratory ailment.

I’d like to focus on Detective Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Childs, the show’s ur-ghost, whose death in the pre-credits sequence of the very first episode is the show’s primal scene, its great moment of uncanny, existential ‘WTF-did-I-just-see?’.

The pilot episode of Orphan Black is titled “Natural Selection” after Darwin’s mechanism by which the smartest, strongest, and swiftest pass on their legacy, while the slowest and slightest do not. ‘Survival of the fittest.’ Its very first scene stages the only encounter between Sarah Manning and Beth Childs. Both of them are upset—Sarah about her inability to see her daughter, Beth about pain that we do not learn about until much later. While Sarah huffily paces the train terminal walkway, Beth ritualistically removes her shoes, jacket, and purse, leaving them in a neat stack. Turning to see her double Sarah staring at her, Beth abruptly walks in front of the train that she has come to kill herself with. Sarah is horrified, but not so stunned that her survival instincts leave her. She grabs Beth’s purse and flees.

Beth strips herself of self by leaving shoes, coat, and purse. By picking up this purse, with its photo ID and credit cards and police badge, Sarah impersonates or perhaps becomes Beth. She is for several episodes called Beth by people—Beth’s partner Art, her fiancé and observer Paul, his handlers, the other members of Clone Club—who don’t realize that they are separate people. Sarah lives in Beth’s apartment, works Beth’s job, sleeps with Beth’s fiancé… lives Beth’s life until it becomes too burdensome for her, and she, too, is forced to give it up (in this case, by confessing to Clone Club, to Paul, and to Art).

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It’s the Patriarchy, Stupid!: Orphan Black and the Mainstreaming of Feminism

In body politics, feminism, gender, spoilers, Television, TV, Women's health on August 21, 2014 at 8:05 am

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Sarah S.

The Canadian television series Orphan Black begs the question, what if the future really is now? Its central protagonist is Sarah Manning, a British ex-pat, orphan, and grifter whose life changes forever when she sees a woman commit suicide in the subway. The catch? The woman turns out to be Beth Childs, a New York City police detective who looks exactly like Sarah. Given their shared appearance, Sarah decides to assume Beth’s identity and discovers in the process that Beth is not a long lost sister or cousin but that Beth and Sarah are two of several clones. A group of them is only just discovering this truth about themselves, or to use the parlance of the scientists who created them, becoming “self-aware.” The plot thickens as Sarah learns that Beth is under review by her department for shooting a civilian and someone is systematically murdering the clones. In short, Sarah’s life gets very, very complicated very, very quickly.

In many ways, Orphan Black seems like a classic science fiction plot—science is run amok, humans pay the consequences. But wrapped inside this broad perspective is a representation of patriarchy’s effects on women’s lives. Despite their shared genetics, Orphan Black emphasizes the personality differences between the clones, from uptight soccer mom Alison, to brilliant scientist Cosima, to mad, traumatized Helena. (I should note here the mesmerizing performance of Tatiana Maslany, who plays all the clones; she makes you believe each one is a distinct person.) Despite the characters’s individuality, they find themselves equally subject to exterior forces that deem them less than human and therefore able to be owned, manipulated, and objectified.

Two social institutions vie for control of the clones: corporate science and religion. Specifically, the Dyad institute, who took over the clone research and monitors the women in secret, and the Proletheans, a zealot sect that believes the clones flout God’s creative power. For both of these organizations, the clones exist to be controlled and forced to adhere to each group’s worldview. But by emphasizing the humanity and individuality of these women, Orphan Black makes viewers emotionally reject this premise, siding with the clones over the forces that seek to control them. Thus Orphan Black sets up Dyad and the Proletheans as metaphorical stand-ins for the patriarchy, blindly pursuing its own power at the expense of women’s independence and self-actualization.

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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.

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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.”

 

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Adapting Austen: Revisiting Mansfield Park (1999)

In adaptation, books, Film, Uncategorized on May 22, 2014 at 8:13 am

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Sarah S.

For the last several years we’ve lived in the Ladies Republic of Austentonia. (I’ve given up trying to pitch Jane Austen’s merits to dudes; if you don’t like her or won’t try her, it’s your loss.) From books and movies reinterpreting Pride and Prejudice (Bridget Jones’ DiaryPride and Prejudice and Zombies) to explorations of fandom itself (The Jane Austen Book ClubAustenland) it seems that the original narrator of middle class morality has never been so popular.

Despite Austen’s sky high stock, only a couple of her offerings get the perennial treatment: EmmaSense and Sensibility, and, in particular, Pride and Prejudice. Film adaptations reflect this ranking, with no fewer than ten versions of P&P alone. The popularity of the Big Three makes sense because they best epitomize Austen’s plot of a plucky heroine surrounded by odd relatives who thrives despite constrained circumstancesThey’re the PowerPoint, Excel, and Word that offset Austen’s versions of Bing, Surface, and Windows Vista: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.

Persuasion? Too dreary.

Northanger? Too gothic.

And Mansfield? Too preachy.

Mansfield Park is particularly irritating, with a prudish prig for a heroine whose only hobby seems to be passing silent judgment on those around her and pining for her equally self-righteous cousin. By the time we get to the inevitable “happy ending” we can at least feel relief that Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram—those intolerable, intolerant jerk faces—aren’t going to spoil anyone else’s marital bliss (and that we don’t have to spend any more time with them). Mansfield Park clunks through moral quandaries and odd personalities without the combination of humor and empathy that make Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility so successful.

But say you’re a filmmaker who rejects creating yet another iteration of the Big Three. Shall you venture into the stolid world of Persuasion‘s Ann Elliot or the weirdness of Northanger Abbey? Read the rest of this entry »

On Patsey and the Amazing Lupita Nyong’o

In adaptation, fashion, Film, gender, race, violence on November 19, 2013 at 7:43 am

Sarah S.

I recently saw 12 Years a Slave and it’s phenomenal in all the ways you’ve heard. The movie focuses on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a musician and family man kidnapped and sold into slavery. But it also lends its precise gaze to others, including the white slaveowners—male and female—corrupted by the act of owning human beings, and the enslaved women, often forced to endure unique losses and abuses.

This particular brand of horror is most visible in Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who works alongside Solomon on the plantation of the sadistic, perhaps even mad Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Solomon’s tale contains evils enough but it was the powerlessness of Patsey, selected for extra abuse without rhyme or reason, that most touched me.

She spends her days picking more cotton than any of her counterparts, then endures confused, cruel rape by her master at night. She is systematically raped by Epps, who is violently obsessed with her. His obsession with Patsey is at the very core of his cruelty to her and the horrors to which he subjects her to.

She then suffers extra abuse from Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulsen), jealous of her husband’s infatuation. Here the white woman is not only complicit in the violence against Patsey, but actively perpetuates and embraces it.

Patsey begs Solomon to do the human mercy of helping her to kill yourself, only to have him refuse on principle. She is trapped in that—believing in Christian doctrine—she cannot kill herself, but insists that were Solomon to kill her it would be a mercy killing, an act of valor. For Patsey, death is the only foreseeable freedom from the violence of the plantation.

She sneaks away to get soap since Mistress Epps will not give her any, only to return and be whipped to unconsciousness—an act in which Solomon must partake (emphasizing not only Patsey’s abuse but the emasculation through forced complicity and inability to protect that Solomon experiences).

These are just a few of the inescapable horrors she suffers within a system that denies her humanity and subjects her to consistent and ongoing violence. In sum, the ongoing victim of a chattel system forces her to be the screen on which both the Epps project their irrational jealousies.

Switching gears a bit, I just wanted to end on how fantastic Lupita Nyong’o is as Patsey. A few notes then on Nyong’o’s break-out role:

-She is entirely accomplished and worldly. Nyong’o studied in Yale’s acting program and has lived in Mexico, Kenya, and the US. Oh, and she made a documentary about albinism in Kenya.

-She rocks the red carpet. During the film, I kept feeling as if I’d seen Nyong’o somewhere before. Then I realized it had been on the fashion commentary blog Go Fug Yourself, where the Fug Girls have described her as “nailing it.” Thrust onto the circuit by the success of 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has been making an impressive debut.

-She works alongside some of the finest actors today and more than holds her own. In addition to the mesmerizing Ejiofor, 12 Years boasts Fassbender, Paulsen, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Brad Pitt. Most of these performances, big and small, are excellent examples of acting in an excellent film. But as Patsey, newcomer Nyong’o carries one of the biggest roles and gives her character impressive depths and nuances.

(With thanks to Phoebe for feedback and edits!)

Lit Nerd Paradise: Review of Night Film

In books on October 28, 2013 at 6:00 am

Sarah S.

The enigma at the heart of Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel, Night Film, is a dark, mysterious movie director. Stanislav Cordova seems part Kubrick, part Godard, part Hitchcock, part Herzog. The suicide of Cordova’s daughter becomes the catalyst that plunges disgraced journalist Scott McGrath deep into Cordova’s orbit. In trying to understand the girl’s death, McGrath and his sidekicks (a wannabe actress named Nora and a pretty-boy, drug dealer named Hopper) descend into Cordova’s world and much of the novel’s tension comes from wondering if they’ll solve the mystery and, even if they do, will they ever escape Cordova’s dark world. But for all that the novel explores film as an art form, and the troubling genius of the auteur, Night Film revels in literary references, jokes, and twists. As such, the novel embraces its Post-Modern bridging of genres (including insets of photographs, news articles, and webpages, as well as an app that reveals hidden content) while remaining deeply, playfully literary.

Rather than detail all the literary jokes and references (many of which I’m sure I missed), here are a few presented for your consideration:

Ashley Brett Cordova: The mysterious director’s daughter is beautiful, bold, a musical prodigy, a potential vessel of evil, and/or a victim of her father’s dark vision. Her name also inverts that of one of Ernest Hemingway’s most challenging heroines, Lady Brett Ashley of The Sun Also Rises. Both women are burdened by their beauty and both defy the limitations put on them by a restrictive society. And depending on your perspective, both ruin the men who swarm to them like moths to a flame becoming “Circes who turn men into swine.” Are both women witches (literally? metaphorically?) or victims of patriarchal systems?

“Do I Dare?” (*mild spoilers*): As the director’s personal motto, one which he forces on his children and acolytes alike, this phrase asks the individual how far she is willing to go to experience life and break out of social norms and expectations. It reminds the individual to avoid being safe, to ask when presented with any possibility, “Do I dare?”.

However, this phrase “Do I dare?” comes from the T. S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (which the novel informs the reader straight away). And “Prufrock” is no “suck out all the marrow of life” poem. Instead, it’s a modernist, anti-heroic examination of a person who lives perpetually by the rules, a weak man who doesn’t “dare” do much of anything. One of his final pleas comes down to “Do I dare eat a peach?”, even this simple act of sensual pleasure seeming beyond his abilities. Thus, Pessl’s use of “Do I dare?” as the Cordova motto might be a gross misstep on her part or, more compellingly, an intriguing ambiguity or misreading at the core of Cordova’s worldview.

The Heart of Darkness (*proper spoilers*): In significant ways, Night Film‘s Scott McGrath mirrors Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (with Cordova as the enigmatic Kurtz). Both McGrath and Marlow narrate his story, and each details his fascination with a man who seems equal parts compelling and disturbing. Conrad’s Africa becomes Pessl’s world of Cordova cinema, not only the movies but also the estate in which Cordova lives and makes his films, The Peak. Both novels also comment on their historical moment, seeking to explore the savagery underneath society’s veneer of restraint, control, and respectability. And, of course, Heart of Darkness inspired Francis Ford Copolla’s masterful film Apocalypse Now, lending further credence between the literary-filmic connections in Night Film. Heart of Darkness ultimately seems Pessl’s greatest inspiration, her novel a post-modern retelling of Marlow’s tale.

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I Don’t Like Skyler White. And That’s Okay.

In class, feminism, gender, misogyny, Television, TV villains, violence on September 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

Sarah S.

Alright, “don’t like” might be a bit strong but I definitely feel conflicted about her. Shortly before this whole conversation blew up about Breaking Bad‘s Skyler I tweeted the question: do people find Skyler White sympathetic? I wondered if others felt confused about her waffling, her semi-dubious claiming of the high ground, her own forays into unethical and even criminal activity. Were her reactions to these circumstances believable? Does the plot justify the battling loyalty, loathing, and fear she heaps upon Walt (her chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealer husband)?

In case you missed it, a lot of people hate Skyler, and I mean HATE, given the number of Facebook pages and websites dedicated to loathing her. In a response, JOS of feministing.com blames sexism for society’s inability to accept a complex female character. The actress who plays Skyler, Anna Gunn, even wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “I Have a Character Issue.” She describes getting death threats because of how people feel about the character she portrays. Similarly to JOS, Gunn argues that Skyler “has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women.” This description makes it sound as if dislike for Skyler stems purely from misogyny but is Skyler really so uncompromised as Gunn and others make her sound?

***mild spoilers***

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Post-Post-Modern, Post-Post-9-11: Star Trek Into Darkness

In Uncategorized on May 21, 2013 at 9:46 pm
Sarah S.
 
Let’s get this complaint out of the way directly: the use of female characters in J. J. Abrams’ second offering in the rebooted Star Trek franchise is sigh-worthy at best, probably more like eye-rolling and groan-worthy, and possibly even merits serious hair pulling. Zoe Saldana is still awesome as Uhura in Star Trek Into Darkness but her interesting updates, including linguistic genius and unwavering confidence, are undercut in this movie by her damsel-in-distress situations. Speaking of “damsels-in-distress,” Alice Eve’s Dr. Carol Marcus (presented on IMDB as simply “Carol”) represents yet another female character who’s good on paper and easy on the eyes but doesn’t offer much but a way to nix any *ahem* suggestions of sexual tension between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). Point, match, feminists.
 
That said, for all those who have been complaining that Abrams’ Star Trek isn’t “Star Trek” enough: you’re nuts! In this flick, perhaps even more than the first, Star Trek returns to its philosophical roots of exploring what it means to be human and how we strive to be the best iteration of that humanness. And yet, obviously, this is not your father’s Star Trek. It’s so filled with Easter eggs its villain is the biggest one of all (also: worst kept secret ever) while its loving nods to the preceding mythology temper any sense of snark or unending, frivolous “play.” Indeed, the film’s self-awareness of its changed universe is so meta, and yet so well-conceived in its own right, that it transcends post-modernism and becomes, what? Something that gets beyond that circling anxiety, frivolity, and/or simulacra of traditional post-modernism and into something that mingles our contemporary fears for the future (aka, obsessions with apocalypse), loves for nostalgia and technology, and twinging hopes that extraordinary individuals—particularly if they work in tandem—may be able to improve the world.
 

How Great is Gatsby? The Sarahs Respond

In adaptation, books, class, Film, gender, race on May 15, 2013 at 5:30 am

I love The Great Gatsby. It took several readings for me to appreciate its strange genius but now I’m hooked. It’s so rich and weird one can read it again and again and find a different perspective on the characters or an exquisitely beautiful passage. But it’s not a book that would seem to transfer well to film. But then again, nobody factored in Baz Luhrmann, who seemed a great choice to make an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterwork because you knew that’s what he would do—an adaptation—some heady filmic rendering of the novel, rather than an attempt to re-create the novel on screen. So how did Baz do? GLG’s Sarahs gathered their word-nerdery, film hats, and finest furs to find out.

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Sarah S: I thought the movie was pretty interesting on both class and gender, albeit perhaps subtly enough that the average viewer might miss it. I also found any notion that it idealized that world sans critique completely stupid. I have more detailed thoughts but I’ll add them based on what you  think. What say you, Sarah T?

Sarah T: Yes I agree with you on both counts! On the gender front: People tend to hate Daisy because they think she’s just a blonde, glamorous, blank projection of men’s dreams. And she is a projection, but not just a projection. The problem isn’t that she has no personality, it’s that nobody sees Daisy–not Gatsby, not Tom, not even Nick, who prides himself on being observant. They’re all too busy being dazzled by that voice that sounds like money. (Good voice choice by Mulligan, by the way—low, musical, lilting, balmy as a summer day in Louisville.)

But as both Fitzgerald and this movie make clear, Daisy’s actually pretty complex. For one thing, she’s got this sly wit that she gets no credit for at all. (“Tom is getting very profound,” she says dryly after Tom goes on a ridiculous, racist rant. “He reads deep books with long words in them.”) And I loved that scene in the sweltering hotel room where we see how Daisy’s being ripped apart by two men who are each trying to control her, though Tom far more brutishly than Gatsby. I also like the image of the three-strand pearl necklaces that Tom gives to both Daisy and, later, to Myrtle–a handy symbol of the wealth and power that he uses to lure and trap women. That’s why Daisy tears them off when she tries to break off their engagement. Though it turns out that Gatsby is just as determined to use money to get to the girl of his dreams, too.

I also loved Jordan in this movie–so skeptical and breezy but with a new undercurrent of kindness that the book doesn’t give her. She came across as loyal to Daisy, compassionate toward Gatsby. And it’s clear how frustrated she is by Nick’s passivity, which is his greatest flaw, so good lookin’ out, Jordan.

Sarah S: There were a couple lovely scenes with Daisy when she realizes that Gatsby sees her as something to possess, a status symbol, just as Tom does. Gatsby might be nicer but that doesn’t change the essential fact. We see this when Daisy asks to go away and Gatsby insists they live out this public display of a fairytale. And then, as you mention, the room in the hotel when Daisy is literally repeating Gatsby’s words at his command (until she stops). (This scene is performed almost exactly as written in the novel.) The audience has this impression confirmed, too, when Gatsby watches Daisy prancing up his grand staircase and comments to Nick how glamorous she makes his house look. It’s almost as if she’s The Dude’s rug in that she “really ties the room together.” I found this a perfectly plausible way to represent Daisy based on the book and a nice way to push past Nick’s dismissal of her as vain and shallow. We still don’t have much access to Daisy but this twist, combined with Mulligan’s performance, gives us tantalizing glimpses, as if glimpsed through billowing curtains.

As to class, I felt that Luhrmann did an excellent job showing the crassness of Gatsby’s display of wealth, a poor boy’s excessive fantasy of how the wealthy live. When Tom taunts him that he’ll never belong, it’s true, and we know it’s true. When Nick tells Gatsby that “they’re a rotten crowd,” he’s right and, again, Gatsby will never belong with them. Depending on how you think about it, it’s a rather pathetic consolation prize, their rottenness. I also thought the film nailed the “valley of ashes” and the desperate, awful lives of Myrtle and George. No wonder Myrtle embraces an exciting affair with a rich brute (rich being the only part she’s not used to); no wonder George wants to sell that coupé and head west.

One other small thing that struck me was how often intimate conversations went on with servants still in the room–and how uncomfortable this made me, the grossness of ignoring the other humans in the room. In Downton Abbey and the like the family don’t have serious conversations in front of “the help.” So this detail seemed like a really subtle way to drive home the class distinction.

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I Cook/Blog, Therefore I Am

In Food on May 9, 2013 at 9:58 am

Sarah S.

When I was in college one of my favorite professors researched women’s cookbooks, particularly the ones created by churches, societies, and other clubs (as opposed to famous chefs such as Julia Child or giant publishing houses). This work was classic feminist recovery in the era of cultural studies, moving from highlighting forgotten women authors or figures and into celebratory analyses of women’s lives. If I recall, this professor focused on themes within the recipes (region, culture, etc.) and items such as decoration, fonts, purpose of the cookbook (usually some form of fundraising or cultural record).

Since that time, our cultural relationship to food has changed considerably. From celebrity chefs to locavore activists to foodies such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, we have removed food production from the realm of Betty Draper and into…where exactly? If nothing else, our televisions, bookshelves, magazines, politics, and national conversations.

Another thing came to prominence during this time—the web. One thing it encouraged was a flurry of recipe sharing sites, in many ways not unlike the cookbooks my professor studied, and formal recipe sites such as Epicurious.com, similar to the fancy, all-encompassing cookbooks. But the internet also created something that I’m not sure really existed before, a merging of recipes and life narrative: cooking as autobiography.

These things of course start with blogs, whose journaling origins encourage a chatty, narrative-based genre. They also create a forum for home cooks to share their recipes, and this has often led to hybrids of autobiography and cook”books”. GLG’s own Chelsea has a blog in this vein. There are dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of others but two of my favorites are The Smitten Kitchen and The Sprouted Kitchen, both of which have brought their narrative-based recipes beyond the web and into beautiful books.

it's here!: the smitten kitchen cookbook

The creators of these blogs/books use stories to earn their stripes. They’re not trained chefs or restauranteurs (or writers or photographers) so they frame their recipes in experience: the funny or frustrating failures and missteps; the party for a friend that inspired this cake or that cocktail; the cultural or familial history that surrounds a dish.

But in so doing they also reveal how essential cooking and eating are to culture, and in such a beautiful way. On one hand, we cook because we have to eat (not eating not being a viable option for long). But for something so quotidian and necessary we surround it in an awful lot of creativity and ritual and love. It’s easy to forget that, to forget how essentially we need the production of food to sustain not only biological life but also social, familial, and individual life. By telling the tales of food, alongside sharing the how-tos of the food itself, these unique storytellers remind us.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Re-Reading Madeleine L’Engle

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2013 at 6:39 am

Sarah S.

The books we love tell a lot about us, particularly the ones read multiple times. And not because it shows you’re “old fashioned” or “feminist” but because if you can understand why a book gets to you so deeply that you’ll return to it again and again you’ll understand something about yourself. For example, it’s objectively true that Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is a great book. But I read it for my connection with the titular professor, a character for whom I have empathy and criticism in equal measure. The fact that I read for the professor (and have little emotional interest in Tom Outland) reveals something about me—whether a truth of personality or a whisper of something I strive to understand.

I recently re-read one of my favorite childhood books, a novel that I read so many times its edges are grey and rumpled and the cover finally fell off. This time, however, I found it painfully wanting. Yet it also provided a telescope down the rabbit hole to my childhood self. I see why I liked it then and it has nothing to do with it being objectively good.

The book in question is Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, easily the least of the four novels about the Murray children (the others being A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet). Many Waters focuses on the “normal” twins between the eldest daughter, Meg, and the youngest son, Charles Wallace. Sandy and Dennys Murray lack the genius as well as the awkwardness of their sibling but they nevertheless get their own adventure. In sum, they accidentally mess with one of their father’s space-time experiments and blast themselves to the time of Noah mere months before the flood that will destroy the known world.

The ancient world L’Engle creates is fascinating. All the people are small with the exception of the mysterious nephilim (fallen angels) and beatific seraphim (angels on earth), each of whom can transform from its beauteous, be-winged humanoid form to a unique animal host. Sandy and Dennys jointly fall in love with Noah’s youngest daughter, a beautiful, virtuous girl named Yalith who falls in love with both of them. Yalith, of course, is not part of the official story, nor is she meant to board the Ark that “El” has ordered Noah to build. What is this odd, religiousy threesome to do?

L’Engle’s solution has Yalith being taken into the “Presence” by one of the seraphim, just as her grandfather Enoch who walked with El and then was no more. Pretty it up with mysticism all one wants, Yalith essentially dies. The twins get home using a combination of seraphim and virtual unicorns and the rains come.

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I could not resist sharing the cover of my copy. Check out these 1980s-styled hotties.

As an adult, I see this as L’Engle’s most conservative novel. In her other Murray books she counters the anti-scientific streak in American Christianity (which has only grown more virulent since she wrote the books) while also insisting on an essential battle between darkness and light, evil and good in the universe. I would call the other three required reading for all Christian children and nearly-required reading for non-Christian children, particularly A Wrinkle in Time. (A claim I cannot make with a fully clear conscious for other series on both sides of the spectrum, on the one hand, Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, on the other, Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.) Many Waters, however, puts L’Engle into ambiguous territory that she can’t write her way out of easily, particularly in a children’s book. It insists that El is good and highlights the virtue of Noah’s immediate family so it cannot or won’t account for the cruelty of wiping out everyone, including Yalith. It’s her least scientific novel, in part because it wants to vitalize a myth. And for a woman with a host of fantastic female characters under her belt, L’Engle peoples this book with women who are caricatures of virtue or vice.

So why did I love it so much as a child? Despite my current dislike, what insight did it bring me that merits this much thought? As a child I was sentimental, spiritual, and imaginative—always longing for transcendent experience. Yet I was also a mini-intellectual, enjoying to think about things, and somewhat inherently personally conservative, enjoying classic plots about princesses and love and Big Truths. (I’m still this way with my  imagination; it’s why I’m such a lousy fiction writer.) Many Waters brought to life a story I was raised to believe was historically true, it seemed intensely romantic to my child self, and yet it didn’t flinch from the hardness of a Big Truth (Big Truths, like virtual unicorns, tending to exist in various ways at the same time). It’s little wonder that this somewhat ridiculous novel touched a nerve in me and that I read it and read it and read it again.

Sometimes one re-reads a book, from childhood or otherwise, and discovers something even more magnificent than one remembers. Time and experience bring a new way of understanding the work and you find that it has grown richer. (This happened to me in another recent re-read, To Kill a Mockingbird, which I did not really “get” as a child but fell in love with on re-reading.) I think my days of re-reading Many Waters are now officially over. But I’m still glad I went inside its world one more time. Not because I enjoyed spending more time with the (let’s face it) terribly boring Sandy and Dennys but because I got to spend a bit of time with the child that used to be me.

Is Archer the Most Progressive Television Show On Women’s Sexuality?

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Sarah S.

Note: This post contains adult-themed videos probably in the PG-13 range. Potentially NSFW and watch at your own risk/desire.

On the surface, a show about a sexist, moronic super-spy with zero self-reflection and serious mommy issues might not seem like a candidate for any kind of progressive title. But bear with me. Sure, ISIS agent Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) consistently makes racist, sexist, ageist, and homophobic comments (as do many others among the cast of characters). He’ll also blow his cover faster than you can say “martini” if he thinks being a “spy” will appeal to whichever woman (or women) he’s hitting on. The show is rife with Archer’s horror at any mention of his mother, Mallory Archer and ISIS head (Jessica Walter), having sex. And all the characters consistently grimace at the sexual exploits of overweight Pam (Amber Nash) and the strangulation fetish of Cheryl/Carol (Judy Greer).

Yet I still maintain that Archer may be the most progressive show on television regarding women’s sexuality.

Why?

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Because despite the distaste expressed by the characters over their colleagues’ sexual predilections, the women in question ignore this kind of slut shaming and do what they want. Cheryl finds men (or machines) who can strangle her…just…right… Pam sleeps with, well, basically everybody; furthermore, her lovers unequivocally desire her OR only sleep with her when drunk but then keep coming back for more. And Mallory, a former super-spy herself, is still a stone fox who sleeps with everyone from the head of the KGB to Bert Reynolds.

Further, the animation frequently shows its characters in various states of undress or carefully concealed nudity. Mallory and Cheryl are represented as conventionally beautiful—even Mallory with her wrinkles. Archer’s counterpart and former fiancé, Lana (Aisha Taylor), is the most aggressively attractive of the female cast, with her long legs and giant breasts, and yet the show mocks her cartoonishly superhero figure with jokes about her “man hands.”

One’s reaction to nude Pam probably depends on one’s reaction to overweight women in general. Yet while the show gets laughs out of the characters’ comments about Pam’s weight (as well as her drinking, lack of sophistication, and lesbian tendencies), the animators don’t play Pam’s nudity for laughs. It just is, and a fairly accurate presentation as well. The situation might be funny, as well as the characters’ reactions to it (including reactions to Pam’s sexual activity and size), but her figure itself is not part of the joke.

Last, returning to Lana. She is one of the show’s most likable characters, one of the few who can give back Archer a piece of his own and who can actually get under his forever-adolescent emotional skin. They are the fated couple at the heart of the series. It’s also very refreshing to see an African American woman in such a prominent and powerful role. However, out of the female characters, Lana has the most standard role and the most standard sex life—infrequent, paved with jerks and losers, perpetually overshadowed by her ex (equally objectified by the animators, I might add). Thus, Archer further overturns expectations for women’s sexuality by offsetting the stereotypical aspects of Lana’s love-life against the unabashed antics of her lady-peers. Pretty impressive representin’ from a spy series merged with an office comedy.

What say you? Do you agree or disagree? Any other contenders for this title?

Musing on the Aesthetics of Comedy, with an Assist from Louis

In books, Television on March 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Sarah S.

Several years ago, in a fiction writing and reading class, I signed my group up to read David Sedaris’ essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”  In this piece, Sedaris turns the frustration, even trauma of learning a foreign language into hilarity. Perhaps ironically, or at least incongruously, our discussion took place on a sunny day, just before the warmth turned to unpleasantness, sitting on a grassy quad under a cloudless sky. (Early summer in Utah is a spectacular thing.) When it came time for the group to discuss the piece, everyone roundly agreed that it was delightful…except for one person. Joel was classically handsome, traditionally masculine, a former high school football star who also worked as an assistant coach for the university team while working on his master’s degree—in English.

“I don’t get why everyone likes this so much,” he complained.

“Are you serious?” I asked, incredulous. “I think it’s brilliant.”

“Why?” he replied. “It’s just funny.”

“Exactly,” I said, finding myself at a loss for better words. “It’s so funny.”

Those words, “It’s just funny,” have haunted me ever since—in a quiet, low key kind of way—because I failed to really defend comedy. As I continued educating myself, I did find defenses of comedy, largely in psychological theories (Freud is fascinating on jokes) or cultural criticism. Both fields analyze what comedy does for us as individuals or as a society. As such, comedy is quite important from these perspectives.

I’ve also heard comedians unpacking comedy as craft. These include the recent double podcast conversation between Aisha Tyler and Kevin Smith or people on speaking about what they do on Inside the Actor’s Studio such as Tina Fey’s recent foray. Such discussions emphasize the thought and deliberateness that goes into creating comedy, elevating it to the same level of artistic creation as anything else.

But while I appreciate and agree with these kinds of analyses, they weren’t what I was ultimately looking for when I felt inclined to defend comedy.  In the end, I wanted to understand and convey something like an aesthetics of comedy. And in my admittedly limited knowledge, I have never heard anyone defending comedy purely as an artistic expression the way we talk about sonnets or jazz or Picasso paintings. Even still, my gut tells me that Sedaris is an important author, a talented author, worth considering as a serious artist. So the question lingered: What is the worth of something that’s “just funny”?

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The Days Are Gods: Interview with Liz Stephens

In books, environment, gender, race, Uncategorized on February 25, 2013 at 5:00 am

Sarah S.

Liz Stephens needed to get out of Los Angeles so she packed up her husband and her dogs and moved to…Wellsville, UT. She moved ostensibly for grad school but found she learned as much from diving into local history, her Mormon neighbors, the animals she raised and gave away and the ones who died, as she learned in books and classes. In her lovely, meditative memoir, The Days Are Gods, Stephens tells about white teenagers dressed up as Indians, a French kid who spends his summer on a Dude Ranch, surprise goats, and discovering how going to a non-trivially alien place helped her discover (or become or transition or whatever) into her adult self.

Stephens received her PhD in creative nonfiction from Ohio University. Her work has been featured in Brevity, South Dakota Review, Western American Literature, and Fourth Genre. She received the Western Literature Association’s Frederick Manfred Award and was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award. She’s equally talented at making a cup of earl grey tea and a mean mint julep. She will stop to ogle or coo over any animal in the vicinity, especially dogs. She can parallel park like a boss.

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You can buy The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press or from Amazon. You can also find out more about Liz Stephens and her work on her website, thedaysaregods.com. After you finish reading this interview and buy her book, be sure to read her devastating essay “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back.”

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SS: Okay, let’s just start out with a big one: At one point you write about the sight of a grey barn on a mountainside: “I’ve seen that movie, the one with the barn in the mountains. I’ve read that book, the one with the treacherous winter. And now I am really there.” Now that you’ve lived in Utah and returned for visits, spent 4+ years in Ohio, and returned to Los Angeles (not to mention written and re-written this book), is there an essentiality to “the West” or is it—always and forever—artifice? Or narrative? Or dream?

LS: I think the West is like a celebrity who when interviewed says, “You know, there’s me, and then there’s capital letter Brad Pitt”—or whoever—the distinction of course being that from inside one experience you know a thing, and then culturally there is this mystical entity fed by a whole culture’s desires. Cultural values I wanted to attribute to the West exclusively were demonstrably true of Ohio as well: tractor derbies are good fun, and you should keep your business at the local feed shop or they will close and you will be screwed some day in the future when you need them. Neighbors are, like fences, worth investing time in. Being a college professor living in the country is not the same as being a grounds keeper at the campus and driving in to work, and none of you are going to be able to pretend it is. It’s a wise idea, that you suggest in your own question that the West may be a narrative. It is. If you tell your life in a big epic way, those are the features you feature in your surroundings, no matter who you are or your line of work. If you keep stories small and close to the home, you value that in your narrative of your own life. You describe your region in which that life plays out accordingly. Sometimes the West is simply the line of box stores you are most familiar with, with a really long snowy season.

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How To Be Awesome Like Claire Underwood

In adaptation, DNC, feminism, gender, How to be Awesome Like, Netflix, parenthood, reproductive health, spoilers, Television, TV villains on February 19, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Sarah S.

In the first episode of Netflix’s House of Cards, one recognizes immediately that Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) is Lady Macbeth to devious congressman Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) Macbeth/Richard III hybrid. But despite her overt support of villainy, Claire is easily one of the most fascinating women in a current series. Here’s how to be awesome like Claire Underwood.

-Marry not because you’ll be “happy” or “stable” or have a passel of children. Marry because your Intended promises you’ll never be bored.

-Know what you want and go after it.

-Look your age but with an unwavering running schedule, an amazing haircut, and a wardrobe of dresses to die for. (I love how this show plays off Wright’s star text by hearkening back to Princess Buttercup and her being the “most beautiful woman in the world.”)

claire2

-Have a hot, art photographer ex-lover in Manhattan on speed dial for whenever you’re feeling a little bit down and/or your husband is being an unsupportive ass.

-Have a true companionate marriage based on absolute honesty and respect and so

-Be pissed as hell when your husband begins to sacrifice your career for his and asks you to make compromises he’d never ask of himself.

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-Be part of an interesting experiment in the evolution of “television.” House of Cards, Netflix’s foray into series making, has flaws but it’s super interesting on multiple levels nevertheless. If nothing else, am I irritated that Claire’s sense that her life is missing something is manifesting in her wondering if she should have had (and should pursue having) children? Absolutely. Because it’s boring and cliché and so obnoxiously obvious and typical—e.g. not like Claire at all. (Related, I also hate that in her discussion with her doctor we receive two pieces of medical misinformation: first, that despite what she’s heard her age is no impediment to a healthy pregnancy; second, that her uncomplicated abortions might have negatively affected her fertility.) However, perhaps we are supposed to think that this newfound desire is misplaced, given what we know of both Underwoods. Only time will tell if Claire will be crushed by the inevitable tumbling of this House of Cards.

GLG Year-End Picks: Sarah S’s Favorite Books, TV Shows, and Songs

In books, music videos, Television on December 21, 2012 at 10:27 am

Sarah S.

Books

A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin: The segmented plots of Westeros and beyond weave back together in book 5 of the Song of Ice and Fire series. The gang’s together again, so to speak, or at least all the members who’ve made it out alive. Writer faster, George! Write like the wind!

Bossy Pants, Tina Fey: Fey’s self-deprecation does not mask her confidence. Her funny, interesting memoir feels like a sneak peek into the life of the woman we all want to be when we grow up.

Blood, Bones, and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton: Beautiful. Gritty. Raw. If you live in NYC, I hope you eat at Prune. Wherever you live, I hope you’ll read Gabrielle Hamilton’s exquisite memoir.

The End of Men, Hannah Rosen: I hesitate to call this book one of the year’s “best” but it’s undoubtedly one of the most fascinating.

TV Shows

True Blood: All good things must come to an end, but summers are going to be dry indeed once True Blood goes off the air. This last season had imperfections, including the painfully boring werewolf plot and the heinous Iraq storyline. On the other hand, we did learn a lot about the Authority (at last!), Eric became one of the most interesting and developed characters on the show, Sookie’s charm returned since Eric/Bill’s imprisonment and actress Anna Paquin’s pregnancy forced the character to interact again with her friends and not just mope around in cute dresses/naked. Last, the season took a flailing character—Tara—paired her with one of the series’ best supporters—Pam—and fireworks ensued. True to form, we are left with more questions than answers, especially since Bill has transformed into an evil vampire blood god or whatever. In terms of the unending love triangle, I would say that Eric’s chances are looking up. Oh, and if you are not yet convinced, I have two words: Russell. Edgington.

Boardwalk Empire: There are many ways to revitalize a struggling show, one riddled with complaints about style over substance. However, Boardwalk Empire took an unorthodox approach by ending season 2 with the killing of a major character. Season 3 opened a year and a half later and the audience had to play catch up as we watched Nucky, haunted by his actions, becoming more and more of a monster. Nucky’s development ricocheted out to the rest of the characters—from his wife, Margaret; his brother, Eli; and his “colleagues” Arnold Rothstein, Owen Slater, and Chalky White. Last, we were treated to one bad-ass baddie in Bobby Canavale’s Gyp Rosetti and the lovely development of Richard Harrow. Boardwalk’s always been an actor’s show and this season allowed its cast to shine, showing that—wonder of wonders—Steve Buscemi can anchor a series, Canavale deserves way more work, and that if you give actors meaty roles they will tear into them with gusto.

Sons of Anarchy: Last season I feared that my beloved Sons had jumped their motorcycles right over that eponymous shark. Instead, they brought on Jimmy Smits, complicated Tara and Jax and their relationship, killed off a major character (*sniffle* Opie), surrounded us with baddies yet never let them detract from the real conflict within the club, and revitalized Gemma. In a conversation to be continued, we officially need to come up with a term for shows that seem like they’re about the jump the shark but that—like SOA—do not.

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The End of Men: And the Rise of Intense Conversation

In books, class, feminism, gender, misogyny, Uncategorized on November 19, 2012 at 6:18 am

Sarah S.

Men are over. O-V-E-R. Or so says Hanna Rosin—journalist, author, founder of Slate’s woman-centric blog “Double X,” and mother to a son she worries about and a daughter that thrives. In The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Rosin claims that patriarchy is deader than J.R. Women have won, men are in decline, and the only reason we (women, men, Americans, global citizens, etc.) don’t recognize this fact is because the reality is far from the egalitarian utopia our second-wave foremothers promised.

Rosin’s premise incited quite the conversation among feminists, including Stephanie Coontz, who takes umbrage at the notion that women’s successes equal men’s decline, and Emily Blazelon and Liz Schwartz, who defend Rosin’s premise and methodology. Regardless of where one falls on this issue (or one’s gender), it’s an important conversation to have for several reasons.

One, it makes feminists quite uncomfortable; if women have actually “won,” and the world is still a cultural cesspool riddled with inequality, then are women just replacing their male overlords? Is a matriarchy doomed to be just as distasteful as a patriarchy?

Second, if newly dominant women dislike the world we see, what do we do about it? How can we take this newfound power out for a spin and see what it can do for universal equality and global improvement? If nothing else, how can we avoid turning the men that we love—husbands, sons, partners, brothers, gay boyfriends—into a new underclass?

Third, are Rosin and her ilk dead wrong? Does Rosin selectively order information in such a way as to make her case while not accounting for real and ongoing gender inequality? Further, does she account enough for race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality in her assessment?

These and other questions are so important that I was excited to have a conversation with members of Girls Like Giants about the book. Alas, most of our crew were too busy dominating the world to read and respond to the book in a timely manner. So the weighty task of leading this discussion fell to me—your humble narrator and hopeful guide.

I would have liked to have had that conversation in order to get into the nuances of Rosin’s argument. Are her uses of individual stories distractingly manipulative or competent ways to humanize the discussion? How about examples from her own biography—honest or smug? And why oh why did she allow a desire to provoke controversy overcrow arguments against such an inflammatory, ultimately lousy title? But beyond these rhetorical choices, Rosin’s main point matters to any thinking person as she articulates a profound, unshakeable shift in the makeup of our world.

However, I don’t want to just review the book or to give a rundown of my thoughts on it. If nothing else, I’m too conflicted by the argument, and frustrated by Rosin’s way of making it, to venture an objective opinion. I thought that, instead, I would briefly summarize each chapter of the book and then open it up for discussion. I’ve also included a series of links at the bottom that highlight some of the conversation that’s gone on surrounding Rosin’s work. After reading the following, what say you? Have we really reached “the end of men”?

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Brave New World: Skyfall

In body politics, Film, gender, spoilers, Uncategorized on November 12, 2012 at 10:58 am

Bob Mondello at NPR opens his review of Skyfall with an important point about these newest editions to the James Bond franchise. Any Jason Bourne can engage in stunningly athletic chases and fist fights. But only Bond will use a backhoe to open the roof of a train car, jump in, and…check his cufflinks before continuing the pursuit. Mondello’s key argument is that the people behind Daniel Craig’s star turn as the quintessential super spy get it, that magic that makes Bond Bond and not Bourne.

But having said that, this is not your father’s or your grandmother’s James Bond. From the “beginning,” with Casino Royale, this Bond seemed grittier, younger, able to kill a man with his bare hands and then visibly squelch his emotions. It helped that the folks behind the reboot hired quality actors and turned the focus off of gadgets and onto characters while maintaining Bond’s swagger and style. But a focus on characters forces another change, pushing our hero and those who surround him into something like actual humans in this modern world. These creators embrace a female “M,” using the talented Judy Dench as a believable figure not a politically correct giggle. Skyfall builds on this trend, proving this character-driven Bond is not a fluke. And while Skyfall does interesting things with its women, particularly M, it is in the redefinition of modern masculinity that the reboot makes it greatest contribution.

***Spoilers after the jump***

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Corrupting Motherhood: The Women of Westeros

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Sarah S.

The acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire novels feature an diverse array of female characters. One could easily write a “How to Be Awesome Like” GLG post on the Women of Westeros. Much like Phoebe’s post on the women of Friday Night Lights, one would be hard-pressed to narrow down the number of impressive ladies under discussion. Yet despite the large number of female characters in the cycle (better known as the Game of Thrones books/television series) and their uniqueness—both from each other and from stereotypes of fantasy/medieval women—I noticed one thing that separates these women into two camps: motherhood. Not all of the characters in the medieval-esque world are mothers or destined for marriage and motherhood. But all those who are mothers reveal it to be a corrupting influence that alters the character for the worse.

Requisite disclaimer: This post is about the entire series of novels (and not the HBO series) up to the most recent, A Dance with Dragons, and contains serious spoilers! Proceed at your own risk.

Let’s divide this discussion into camps: Mothers, Non-Mothers, and the Ambigous Ones.

Mothers

Queen Cersei Lannister: The most obvious example of corrupting motherhood, Cersei commits a series of horrendous acts—including murdering her husband—in her ambitions for her son, the loathsome Prince Joffrey, and then her second son, young Prince/King Tommen. Indeed, Cersei’s status as a mother is corrupt from the beginning as all three of her children come from her incestuous relationship with her brother, Jaime. In a feminist reading, we might applaud Cersei’s commitment to the one she considers her other half, and her deft avoidance of her “legitimate” husband, King Robert. Nevertheless, Cersei’s arrogance mingles with her ambition and stupidity to make her the most malevolent mother the series offers up.

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How to be Awesome Like Mindy Lahiri

In fashion, How to be Awesome Like, Television on August 31, 2012 at 9:28 am

Comedian and writer Mindy Kaling just launched her own television series, The Mindy Project, and you can watch the first episode free on Hulu. Based on this pilot, Kaling has created a charmingly dysfunctional character who feels like 4/7 Bridget Jones and 3/7 Liz Lemon with a sparkly topping of Sex and the City. Kaling herself is demonstrably awesome so, without further ado, here’s a handful of reasons why “Mindy Lahiri” is awesome and you should feel free to draw from this list in your project of ever-increasing awesomeness:

 

1-She’s a smart, educated, professional woman—an OB-GYN doing her residency—who, nevertheless, shows viewers that even smart, educated, professional women have flaws and foibles, including making dubious decisions in the “love and sex” category.

 

 

2-She’s obsessed with romantic comedies (including my favorite, When Harry Met Sally) and remains ever on the lookout for her “meet cute” with the perfect guy. I certainly don’t suggest that real ladies try to live as if life is a romantic comedy but it’s a funny quirk in a television character, one that both the show and Mindy recognize as ridiculous and charming in equal measure. (Great line from the pilot to her annoyingly overbearing colleague: “Never presume to speak for Meg Ryan again.”)

 

3-She lets her heart get in the way of what looks good “on paper.” When confronted with patients in need who have no insurance, Mindy tries to tell them she’s overbooked or cannot take on uninsured patients but her basic humanity and desire to provide medical care to women overthrows the dictates of the market and professional ambition.

 

4-Mindy is beautiful and confident but (praise the heavens!) she doesn’t look like everyone else on television. She’s not a petite size 0 and she’s Indian-American. She may strut like Carrie Bradshaw but she could break SJP over her knee.

 

 

5-She understands the happy-making powers of sparkly clothes and fabulous shoes.

 

6-She’s direct. This often leads to embarrassing gaffes or foot-in-mouth scenarios but it also makes her honest and real.

 

Let’s all drink a cocktail (or three) as we welcome Mindy Lahiri to a world of television that desperately needs her and Mindy Kaling to the zeitgeist of awesome female comedians.

Hollywood Rape and the Foreclosure of Empathic Activism; or Musings on the Limits of “Body Genres”

In Film, Uncategorized on August 21, 2012 at 9:32 am

Sarah S.

Before we begin, I want to thank Phoebe and Sarah for their insightful comments on a first draft of this piece. Also, these are preliminary thoughts on a complicated, difficult subject. I welcome other comments and thoughts that expand the conversation.

***

Much has been said about the general bad-assness of Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo of the Millennium Trilogy. Larsson claimed that the novel reflected his feminist politics by drawing attention to institutional violence against women. In 2011, Rooney Mara received a “Best Actress” Oscar nomination for her performance as Lisbeth in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Eight years earlier, critics praised the 2003 film Monster for its sympathetic portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, a working class woman, sex-worker, and lesbian. The story takes an overtly feminist perspective, showing how systemic patriarchal violence and disenfranchisement can drive a woman to murder and then to madness. However, it stops just short of claiming that serial murderer Wuornos was justified in her killing spree. Charlize Theron won a “Best Actress” Oscar for her portrayal.

The 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry also drew from real events, this time the life and death of Brandon Teena, a trans person. Following close upon the hate-based murder of Matthew Shepherd, the film was hailed for bringing attention to the rights, inequalities, and lives of GLBTQ people. Stars Hillary Swank and Chlöe Sevigny even appeared together on the cover of The Advocate magazine. The relatively unknown Swank seemingly came out of nowhere to win a “Best Actress” Oscar for her depiction of Brandon.

Each of these seemingly feminist films includes a graphic scene of violent rape. Viewers are not meant to find these scenes sexy, titillating, or pornographic. Rather, the films quite consciously depict rape as grotesque, unjust, and unequivocally unwelcome. Brandon is gang-raped by a group of “friends” when they discover he is anatomically female. Aileen is abducted and horribly abused by a trick who she ultimately kills in self-defense—her first murder. Lisbeth is first compelled to perform oral sex on her social worker in order to access her trust fund. Later, the same man convinces her to come over to his house where he ties her up and anally rapes her.

Bracketing the horror of these scenes for a moment, each movie led to an Oscar nomination or win for the lead actress. This pattern suggests that performing rape may be right up there with accents, period pieces, Holocaust pictures, and bodily transformations for tugging on the Academy’s voting heartstrings.1

Upon pondering these films, I began to see them as constituting an actual genre with recurring conventions and themes. But what to call it? Oscar-baiting rape films? Anti-violent Hollywood feminism? And what are its purposes—intended and unintended? I suspect that makers of these films, similarly to Larsson, believe they are drawing attention to violence against women and/or queer people and that, by showing rape as unequivocally horrible, they may elicit empathy and/or action on the part of the audience. However, given that components of these films—most notably their scenes of rape—fit what critics call “body genres,” I’m not sure they are successful anti-violence treatises.

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DARK SECRETS, Genre, and Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

In adaptation, dystopian literature, Film, spoilers, technology, Uncategorized on July 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Sarah S.

If you have not read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I recommend that you go out, pick it up, and read it immediately. Better still, if you do not know the underlying premise or “twist” of the novel, I highly recommend you stop reading this post right now. Which is to say, this post contains spoilers and, while I acknowledge that anxiety over “spoiling” may be overrated in many circumstances, I really believe that Ishiguro designed his exquisite novel so that the twist be revealed with agonizing slowness and that you’ll enjoy the novel more if you don’t know. I didn’t know. I knew that the novel focused on three students who had grown up in a seemingly idyllic, British boarding school that had a DARK SECRET but I had no inkling what said DARK SECRET was. If you are similarly ignorant, please, stop reading this post and go read the book.

Phew. Now that we’ve got that out of the way…

Never Let Me Go features Ishiguro’s achingly beautiful and slow style as likewise exhibited in The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World (one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read). But what particularly fascinated me about Never Let Me Go was its mingling of genres. On one hand, it’s a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman, about growing up and accepting one’s place in the order of things—albeit with a bleak, postmodern twist. On the other hand, and much to my surprise, Never Let Me Go is science fiction of the dystopian/utopian variety (see footnote below).* Or, if you prefer the more literary term, “speculative fiction” that asks “what if?” in order to question our current cultural trajectory.

The narrator of Never Let Me Go, Kathy H, is a clone—born and bred for her vital organs and other relevant parts, along with her friends Ruth and Tommy and every student at their boarding school, Hailsham. The clones’ existence creates a disease-free golden age for all of the world’s “normal” people. In the book, however, the reader only discovers this fact in bits and pieces scattered throughout the novel; indeed, Ishiguro forces us to work for the information, to read into and around what scraps Kathy gives us as she relates her story.

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Wizarding Squibbs Have More Magic than “Magic Mike”

In feminism, Film, gender, Uncategorized on July 10, 2012 at 9:02 am

Sarah S.

Magic Mike may be the first mainstream (and critically-acclaimed, no less) movie about male strippers (of the Chippendales variety) but this is a story you’ve seen before. However, last time you saw it the protagonist was female. You know the kind: small town, down-on-her-luck girl gets seduced by the glamor and easy money of [insert your disreputable activity here] only to crash into its seedy underbelly and either escape her problematic position to pursue her “real” dream (acting, singing, marriage+babies, etc.) or b. serve as a cautionary tale as she falls into her doom (i.e. see Burlesque [2011] and Showgirls [1995]).

*spoilers warning* (And no, I don’t mean that there’s lots of abs. You already knew that).

Magic Mike shares many features of this plot. First, we have  the “dream” component; Mike, played by Channing Tatum, tells everyone he meets that he’s an “entrepreneur” because he ultimately wants to be a furniture designer. Second, there is the older, world-weary, semi-reputable mentor, in this case played by Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the owner of the club where Mike works. Third, we have the oft-seen love triangle between a creep who fails to respect (an important point) the protagonist and the “tough love” person the protagonist is clearly meant to be with; Mike has a casual relationship with a bisexual psychology student (Olivia Munn) but discovers that she only wants him for his body and has no interest in him as a person. When Mike discovers she has a fiancé, he becomes open to the possibility of a relationship with no nonsense Brooke (Cody Horn). Last, we have both of this plot’s endings represented, first in Mike—who escapes the club world, regains his self-respect, and gets the girl—and “the Kid” (Alex Pettyfer)—who Mike brings into the world of stripping and who falls down the rabbit hole of promiscuity, drugs, and easy money.  See what I’m saying? You’ve seen this movie before.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Magic Mike—certainly more than the shirtlessness or even the plot itself—is the switching of this generic plot from a female protagonist to a male one. We’ve seen this done the other way around. Sigourney Weaver usurps the action hero’s place in the Alien franchise and Thelma and Louise and Boys on the Side riff on the buddy travel flick. But it’s less common to see a male protagonist inserted (ahem) into the female plot. Thus, even though Magic Mike is entirely generic in all but its dancing scenes it still feels significant in the history of cinema.

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