thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Posts Tagged ‘place’

Becoming “Wild” with Cheryl Strayed

In Uncategorized on April 24, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Sarah T.

Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir Wild tells two stories. The first is about the devastating losses, including her mother’s death from cancer at just 45, that lead her to pound through the mountains, deserts, and woods of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. The second story is about what happens while she’s on the PCT: the people she meets, the books she reads and burns to lighten her load, the foxes and bears and bygone toenails, the backpack she calls Monster, the small gifts of goose feathers and river-cooled Bud Lights that are her talismans along the way. Those gifts don’t protect her, but she doesn’t need protection. The worst has already happened. They’re just reminders of how generous the world can be.

As a 26-year-old woman by herself on the PCT, Strayed stands out from the crowd–both on the trail and on the bookshelves. American literature is replete with stories of men small against the wilderness: “To Build a Fire” and Into the Wild and 127 Hours and Huck Finn and Walden (sort of, Thoreau had some help) and countless more. These stories tend to center on some combination of two narratives: men discover their true, elemental selves by entering into nature and/or test their strength and hubris against snowstorms, avalanches, and other natural events humans experience as disasters.

Wild refuses either of these tropes, insisting on slow self-knowledge and ordinary–though no less frightening–dangers. There are no avalanches; there’s not even a climax that would be easy to identify. Instead Strayed contends with broken water tanks, a moose that charges and disappears, and a stranger with a threatening leer.

Hunger is her most constant worry: surviving off supplies and $20 bills she’s mailed herself along the way, she’s always ravenous. Daily she fantasizes about cheeseburgers, Snapple lemonades, and Caesar salads. These foods are so quintessentially American that it’s hard not to see them as a metaphor for the safe, loving life that began to shatter when her mother died. As she sets out on the trail, her best friend and parent is gone; her formerly close family has scattered. She’s divorced the man she still loves and left her college degree unfinished.

The momentum of her hike prevents Strayed from sinking further into grief. When she begins she doesn’t know exactly why she’s on the PCT. But as she walks, it becomes clear that she’s found a way to make her outer circumstances match her inner ones. As the last name she adopted after her divorce implies, she’s become painfully unmoored in the wake of so much loss. But on the PCT all the hikers are searchers in some way, and on the days — and there are many — when she encounters no one, she’s as wild as the trail. Read the rest of this entry »

Do What You Love: Bill Cunningham New York

In Uncategorized on February 28, 2012 at 6:48 am

My graduate school advisor had a lot of very good advice, true to her title. Most of it boiled down to a quote from philosopher and civil rights activist Howard Thurman that she’d hung on her office door:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

That quote–and my advisor–kept running through my mind as I watched Bill Cunningham New York, a 2010 documentary on the 80-year-old New York Times on-the-street fashion photographer.

Style, and the people who have it, make Cunningham come alive. During a Paris awards ceremony at which he is slated to receive a prize, Cunningham wanders around snapping pictures. “I just think it’s so funny that you’re working at your own party,” a guest remarks. “My darling,” Cunningham says, “it’s not work, it’s pleasure.”

What fascinates the gentle, stubborn journalist is fashion alchemy: how the right combination of shoes and hats and scarves and coats can produce a look that’s at once unique and expressive of a larger cultural moment. As his fondness for Anna Piaggi of Italian Vogue makes clear, Cunningham is particularly delighted by people who aren’t afraid to stand out in a crowd. It’s telling that he calls Piaggi a “poet of clothes” and that he frequently describes the fashions he sees on the streets in terms of classical paintings and symphonies. In clothing, Cunningham sees beauty, art, democracy, history, travel, community, and self-expression. His gift is to show everyone else how to see those things too.

Watching the film, I kept taking mental notes on how Cunningham has located, and preserved, real joy in his work. Two of the key elements, I think, are his egalitarianism and humility. Not only does he protect those qualities in himself, he infuses them into his corners of realms famed for their elitism–New York society, the Times, and fashion.

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Television, Class, and the American Consciousness: Downton Abbey

In Uncategorized on January 20, 2012 at 10:31 am

Sarah S.

I put off watching Downton Abbey because I knew I would get hooked as soon as I began. But I did put season one on my “instant” queue and knew the day would soon come. It has. Downton features a rather basic “upstairs, downstairs” premise and, aside from great acting and some unique characterizations, the plots of the first season break no new territory. Things get more interesting in the second season because they get more (soap) operatic with the advent of the Great War and its erosion of the stable worldview of the decades before.

Downton is a typical soap opera and a sweeping costume drama, and it’s decent in both modes. But the actors and the characters really keep the thing afloat. Amongst the standouts: Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, the butler, whose commitment to the reputation of Downton Abbey is silly and dignified in equal measure; Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter, who hides her tempestuous spirit in a cloak of cold disdain; Sophie McShera, the morally conflicted, much abused kitchen maid; and the ever-formidable Dame Maggie Smith essentially reviving her scene-stealing character from Gosford Park. As I recall hearing from one of the creators when the show first came out, these characters don’t know they’re living in history, just as we don’t. And the actors and writers do a marvelous job walking that tightrope. Read the rest of this entry »

The Wonderful Women of Friday Night Lights

In gender on December 30, 2011 at 10:05 am

Phoebe B.

Of late, I am watching a lot of Friday Night Lights (it is all on Netflix streaming!) and I just finished seasons 1, 2, and 3 and now am swiftly moving into season 4 (I have big plans to watch the whole series over Christmas Break, so we shall see how that goes). Many things strike me about this show as a first time viewer, including its candid, important, and often uncomfortable discussions of race and racism, including but not limited to interracial dating, in a network landscape currently dominated by problematic post-racial fantasies. But the topic of this post is another phenomenal facet of FNL, which is the wonderful, nuanced, complicated, and dynamic female characters. I am blown away by the women of FNL, whom I did not expect to encounter in a show dedicated to the male-driven world of Texas football. For example, Tami Taylor, Corrina Williams, Tyra, Mrs. Saracen, Waverly, Julie, Devon, and even Lila, to just name a few. Recently, Sarah T. posted a wonderfully detailed account of Tami Taylor’s awesomeness on GLG, but I want to highlight and celebrate my other favorite FNL lady characters, who are by no means perfect but strong and complicated women, the likes of which are rarely seen on network television. So here I want to highlight why Tyra, Waverly, Mrs. Saracen, and Corrina Williams (my favorite) are a particularly refreshing escape from a network landscape too oft-populated by post-racial fantasies and one-dimensional women.

Tyra:

Tyra (on the right) with her mom and sister on her sis' wedding day

Landry and Tyra (Adrianne Palicki) have a heart to heart

Tyra suffers consistently from her class position as much of the town reads her as ‘white trash’ and she is plagued by other people’s conceptions of her as such. However, we see her strength when she stands up for her mother against her abusive boyfriend, and she even stands up to her mother for her mother’s own sake. In season one, Tyra convinces her mother to attempt life on her own after an affair with the town’s resident football lover and car dealership owner, Buddy Garrity, leaves her jobless and angry. It is in these rare moments early on that we see Tyra’s strength and her potential—something Tami Taylor (Guidance counselor extraordinaire, Principal, and wife of football coach Eric Taylor) also realizes. Throughout the show, we see Tyra struggle as she falls in love with Landry, the most wonderful and smart and awkward kid in school (who, not to give too much away, also saves her life). Landry functions, for me, as a means of viewing Tyra outside the town’s perspective and judgment. Landry sees that she is is strong, smart, and capable in a way that she does not see or value. However, at times she is selfish and frustrating, but that is part of what makes her great (which Landry points out to her). What makes Tyra wonderful is that she makes bad and good decisions, and she must be forced to take herself seriously (instead of skating by on her good looks), which in and of itself is a struggle.

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Unshelved: The Secret Garden

In Uncategorized on December 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Young adult books through regular adult eyes.

Sarah Todd

Based on knowledge gleaned from heart-warming turn-of-the-century classics like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, as well as even earlier Victorian works such as Jane Eyre, it is safe to assume that historically, in the British Empire, it was a common custom for people to tell young girls how unattractive they were. “Hey, lookin’ weird!” various guardians, family members, classmates, mentors, friends, and co-workers tell poor orphaned Jane Eyre as she silently tries to blend into the curtains. But of course she looks kind of pale and twitchy and bug-eyed. She’s constantly getting insulted by strangers and close friends! Every day of her life is like, Will this person hire me as a governess, or will they call me a goblin? Probably both!  This seems nerve-wracking.

Meanwhile, Anne gets mad attitude for her red hair from the denizens of Prince Edward Island, who are tragically unaware that future Rita Hayworths, Julianne Moores, Joan Holloways, et al. will conclusively prove that red hair is always, always what’s up. (Gilbert Blythe knows the score.)

And then there’s Mary Lennox, the heroine of The Secret Garden, who has jaundiced skin, “a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression.” When Mary’s parents die of cholera in India, she is sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven—a recluse with a hunchback—in a mansion on the English moors. As soon as she sets foot on English soil, people begin proclaiming that she is an unusually ugly ten-year-old girl. Read the rest of this entry »

Hopelessly Real: Anticipating Katniss’s Transition to the Big Screen

In gender, girl culture, race on November 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Melissa Sexton

A couple of weeks ago, following my Halloween debut as Katniss Everdeen, I posted about the awesomeness of The Hunger Games‘s main heroine.  Today, the Hunger Games hype has kicked up again as Lionsgate released the official full-length trailer for the March 2012 film. From the chatter I’ve seen on the Internet and heard amongst friends, a lot of speculation has centered on exactly how the film will depict Katniss – a matter that has been of particular concern given the novels’ self-conscious reflection on the repeated manipulation of beauty and sex appeal as part of the televised spectacle of the Games. Concern has also been high because Katniss is an unusual heroine, self-consciously rejecting beauty and romance, constantly conscious of her class situation, admired for what she does rather than how she looks. I think many girls, like me, are rooting for a female heroine that isn’t supposed to be ugly but also isn’t way prettier than her role necessitates (there’s been quite a range of these, from Zooey Deschanel in New Girl to Hermione Granger in The Past 4 Harry Potter Movies). While I might have indulged in some extra eyeliner for my Halloween costume, I like many others fear a sexed-up Katniss – an ass-kicking heroine in the Tomb Raider tradition. All I really want is a girl whose toughness, independence, and anger isn’t made more palatable for polite (male) consumption by disguising it with pursed lips and big boobs: Don’t be afraid of Katniss! She might brutally slay you, but she looks so good doing it; she might look angry, but that’s just disguised passionate lust. Can’t a girl be fearsome and not a sex machine? There was also plentiful reaction to the Katniss casting  calls for a Caucasian actress (a narrow set of parameters given Katniss’s ambiguous racial identification, marked by dark hair and olive-toned skin). Read the rest of this entry »

Suburgatory: When Abercrombie Attacks

In girl culture on October 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Sarah Todd

What teenager hasn’t hidden out in the biggest high school bathroom she can find, luxuriating in reading a book away from prying eyes? Who among us hasn’t rolled her eyes at blondes who can’t blink (too much mascara) and at jocks humping lockers in the hallways? To people who are lucky enough to have escaped such fates, these descriptions may sound like teen movie clichés. But as someone who attended a small, preppy, wealthy, hugely white Midwestern public high school until age 16, I feel like I can say: The blondes who can’t blink are very, very real.

The new ABC series Suburgatory knows from high school horrors. The half-hour comedy/terrifying flashback-inducing documentary of my teenage years tells the story of a 16-year-old girl whose single father transplants her from a happy New York City life to the suburbs after finding a package of condoms in her dresser drawer. Jane Levy plays Tessa, a red-headed, sarcastic heroine who greets each new Stepford-like vision with perfectly raised eyebrows. Inside, she’s sprinting toward the nearest Metro. Jeremy Sisto plays her dry yet sweetly befuddled father. Among those rounding out the cast are Cheryl Hines of Curb Your Enthusiasm as a perky suburban mom with a heart of gold and Carly Chaikin as her daughter, the popular, mean, permanently bored Dalia, whose personality Tessa accurately described as being as flat as her hair.

Suburgatory has plenty of fast-paced quips and sly visual jokes (a glimpse of a glee club with members who, from the neck down, look very much like the cast from Glee, the flowers on bathroom windowsills and student desks). And Tessa has the makings of a great heroine in the Daria/Lindsay Weir/Emma Stone-in-Easy A mode. But as the show finds its voice, I’ll be curious to see if it will keep playing quite so safe, and so conservative.

For one thing, there’s that unopened package of condoms. It’s easy to imagine a dad–particularly a single dad–getting freaked out by finding his teenage daughter with them. But deciding that the box of condoms means they’re packing up their Manhattan life and moving to the suburbs seems like kind of an over-reaction. If she was doing drugs or if she’d gotten pregnant, maybe you could see a worried father dialing U-Haul. But those kinds of plot points seem like they’d be too edgy for this show. Tessa objects to the pristine, bland, conforming nature of the suburbs, but Suburgatory itself is pretty clearly targeted at the very audience it satirizes–there’s a reason it airs in the same family-friendly line-up as The Middle and Modern Family.

It’s also notable that the audience never finds out what Tessa was doing with the box of condoms–is she sexually active, or did she have them just in case? Is there a specific someone, or was she just trying to be prepared? The only further comments about the box come from Dallas, who seems willing to believe the story that Tessa was holding them for a friend. Whether or not viewers are meant to go along with that belief is unclear, but it was interesting that the show felt it needed to give viewers that kind of out–perhaps so as not to upset the abstinence-only set.

I also worry that Suburgatory has a bit of Glee‘s mean-spiritedness. Glee often gives viewers whiplash: one minute cruel comments from Sue or Santana or Quinn or whoever are punchlines, the next there’s a lesson of the week encouraging tolerance and acceptance. These lessons nearly always ring false, because moments earlier the show was effectively asking the audience to laugh with the bullies.

Hopefully, as Suburgatory develops it’ll get rid of uncreative joke-cliches about weight and sexuality (like how the girl who is supposed to be overweight but actually isn’t overweight isn’t allowed to eat dessert, or how gay men wear sweaters knotted around their necks and lesbians are vegetarians) and include more jokes that are genuinely original and funny–and a more diverse cast who can offer new twists on Tessa’s outsider perspective.

When Suburgatory does avoid cliches, it’s pretty great. Dalia’s deadpan delivery of the line “Sucks your mom died, bi-yatch” was just the kind of moment I’m looking forward to seeing more of. As the two teenage enemies stand in front of a dressing room mirror, wearing matching outfits with furry pink vests and sparkly sequined goggles, you can see our city girl realizing just how far from home she really is. She tells Dalia her mom’s not dead. Dalia barely notices.

“Hart of Dixie”: Professional Women, the South, and Friendly Alligators

In gender on September 26, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Sarah Todd

Hart of Dixie has a few good things going for it. Rachel Bilson’s eye makeup looks amazing, and her wardrobe makes a strong case for formal shorts. Jason Street is in it! There’s a fun scene where Bilson’s character, Zoe, walks down a country road at night holding boxed wine in one hand and pouring herself drinks in a Dixie cup with the other: she’s a one-woman bar. Unfortunately, the pilot episode of Hart suggests that it is going to be a one-note show.

formal shorts.

The show’s premise is more or less Everwood crossed with Sweet Home Alabama–although sadly, it’s not nearly as funny or heartfelt as Everwood. Zoe, a career-minded, Chanel-loving future heart surgeon, is forced by circumstance to uproot herself from the Big Apple and work as a GP in Bluebell, Alabama.

Going by Zoe’s reactions to her new town, Bluebell might as well be Mars. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the show’s vision of Bluebell and the South as a whole. There are a few region-specific references to Katrina and the BP oil spill, but for the most part the Bluebell of the pilot is full of folksy, down-home, stuck-in-the-past charm. Southern belles waltz around the town square wearing Antebellum-era hoop dresses, the mayor has a pet alligator named Burt Reynolds, one character’s car horn plays “Dixieland,” and apparently nobody ever wears black or orders a latte. Even their HBO references (The Sopranos, Sex and the City) are outdated. These groan-worthy details aren’t just generic and highly improbable. They perpetuate stereotypes about a backwards-facing South that’s also the manic pixie dream girl of the U.S. imagination, delightfully quirky and at once in need of saving (in this case, by the big-city doctor who’s there to make a difference) and acting as an antidote for cynicism, jadedness, and other contemporary urban ills.

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