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On Lena Dunham and Modern Jewish American Identity

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2015 at 5:28 am

Sarah Todd

People have a right to feel offended by Lena Dunham’s recent New Yorker column, “Quiz: A Dog or My Jewish Boyfriend.” But to focus solely on the question of whether or not it’s offensive is to ignore knottier and more nuanced issues.

The Anti-Defamation League has condemned the article for relying on anti-Semitic stereotypes. (Dunham’s theoretically humorous quiz includes such descriptions as, “He doesn’t tip. And he never brings his wallet anywhere.”) New Yorker editor David Remnick rose to Dunham’s defense, arguing that as a Jewish woman she is operating within a longstanding tradition of insider humor and self-deprecation as typified by artists like Sarah Silverman, Lenny Bruce and Philip Roth. Bloggers and Twitterati are taking sides.

Although I found Dunham’s humor piece neither upsetting nor funny, I’m sympathetic to both sides of the debate. (I’m also a white, Jewish, middle-class woman, for what it’s worth.) It’s true that some of her jokes reference harmful stereotypes about Jewish people–and men in particular–as miserly, coddled and physically weak. And I understand why the ADL is troubled by the historical implications of equating a Jewish person with a dog.

Like Remnick, however, I think Dunham’s status as a member of the tribe informs the piece. Even if her jokes fail to land, it seems likely that she intended it as an affectionate send-up of her own culture. (Part of the problem may be, as Phoebe points out, that Dunham fails to extend this brand of insider humor to herself–the quiz mocks the “Jewish boyfriend” but avoids self-scrutiny.)

But far more interesting to me than the issue of whether the column is inappropriate is the critical conversation it has spurred about American Judaism and cultural specificity.   Read the rest of this entry »

Girls’ Progressive Portrait of Women’s Right to Choose

In reproductive health, Television on February 26, 2015 at 1:34 pm

Sarah Todd

The HBO series Girls dodged its first abortion plot line, rendering a character’s appointment at the clinic unnecessary when she started bleeding unexpectedly (whether this was a miscarriage or a belated period was left unclear). Sunday’s episode “Close Up,” on the other hand, addresses the subject head-on.

At the outset of the episode, Adam (Adam Driver) and his new girlfriend Mimi-Rose Howard (Gillian Jacobs) are slumbering in their airy, light-filled Brooklyn loft. Adam wakes up first and easing out of bed gingerly, tucking in Mimi-Rose and kissing her on the cheek. When she descends the stairs to the spacious patio, Adam is waiting for her with a breakfast of crusty bread, a cheese plate and some kind of grilled meat. Clearly they have fallen into some kind of alternate-dimension Anthropologie catalogue. Regardless, Adam gallantly dusts off the chair for Mimi-Rose and scoops her into his arms.

This kind of seven-week-old relationship bliss can’t last for long. Sure enough, when Adam tries to persuade Mimi-Rose to go for a run later that morning, she tells him she can’t because she’s just had an abortion.

What follows is one of the more progressive abortion storylines in recent memory, with Jenny Slate’s wonderful Obvious Child achieving another high-water mark. The episode makes clear that a woman’s right to choose is inherently bound up with her right to be an independent human being.

Mimi-Rose’s abortion happens on her own terms. She chooses to end her pregnancy without talking to Adam first—not because she wants to lie to him, but because she already knows what she wants to do. Then she decides to tell Adam about it after she’s had the procedure, since she wants to be open with him. And when Adam reacts angrily, she gives him space to process his feelings without letting him make her feel guilty or ashamed.

Each of these decisions is in keeping with what the audience knows of Mimi-Rose’s character. As we learned in the previous episode, this is a woman who dumped her childhood sweetheart at age nine because she realized their relationship was interfering with her creativity. She has both the confidence and the self-knowledge to make independent decisions about her life. And it is this independence, rather than the fact of the abortion itself, with which Adam struggles.

Read the rest of this entry »

Hit the Books: The Best Feminist Reads of 2014

In books on January 6, 2015 at 9:04 am

Like a great white shark, you swim through the depths of a great book-ocean, hunting for prey. Already you have ambushed part one of Girls Like Giants’ best feminist reads of 2014. But your ravenous quest for cool things to download on your Kindle or check out from the library surges on unabated. You hunger for more.

We bow to your wishes, oh dinosaur of the sea! Here are five more books our contributors read and loved last year.

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

“What if we only wanted openings,” asks Rebecca Solnit, “the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea?” This push to embrace the possibility of openings wrestles with the drive to closure in her newest book, The Faraway Nearby. It’s not an idle question, as the book shows Solnit reconstructing her difficult relationship with her mother as her mother descends into dementia and then death, and as Solnit herself battles cancer. Yet these obvious themes of ending and death do not sum up the book, which ranges widely and includes musings on Iceland, Frankenstein, writing, and an excess of apricots, as well as a bonus essay running throughout the book like a newsfeed on the bottom of each page. In assessing what is, for the individual, the ultimate conclusion, Solnit also considers the counter-ambiguity of a lack of closure—the meaning of the messy middle, the potential of beginnings. The Faraway Nearby is a beautiful book, best suited to contemplative periods, meditative moods, and a willingness to sail along with Solnit on her self-consciously jumbled journey. — Sarah S.

Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Long Division is a novel about growing up black and male in America. Its plot connects past and present, reminding us time and again that the violence of the Jim Crow era is much closer than some white Americans choose to believe. I worry that any description of Long Division’s beautiful and complex plotting will be off-putting and clunky outside of Laymon’s deft prose, but bear with me for a moment as the book is well worth a read. Part coming of age, part fantasy novel, and part indictment of fantasies of a post-racial America, the novel follows two young men named City—one, a real live character in the novel’s plot, and the other, the hero of the eponymous novel-within-the-novel, Long Division. As City furiously reads the novel, the plot weaves in and out of both City’s lives, sometimes seamlessly—names stay the same, plots twist and turn out of past and present and fact and fiction. We watch one City follow love through time travel, while the other City grapples with his sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »

Hit the Books: The Best Feminist Reads of 2014

In books, race on January 1, 2015 at 2:50 pm

BITCH PLANET LOGO 1Welcome to 2015! A new year means 365 days’ worth of opportunities to read great books written by people who are not dead straight white dudes. If you’re looking for a place to start, here are a few of the best reads that crossed Girls Like Giants writers’ desks, nightstands and Kindles last year. Be sure to check back next week for even more recommendations.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers is the first novel I read after finishing graduate school and moving across the country. It is the novel that saw me through a tough time where everything was stretched too thin and chaos and uncertainty ruled the day. Reading The Vacationers is particularly pleasurable when everyone you know is on luxurious vacations, yet you can’t afford a pedicure. Readers are quickly acquainted with a family whose operational dynamics are complicated yet intimately familiar. The heady intimacy I developed with the characters was the most pleasurable part of the novel. A close second was the sensory experience Straub offers to those for whom Mallorca is but a fantasy. This novel, better than any of the other vacation-themed novels I read in desperation this past summer (to compensate for my lack of a holiday), captures the warm, damp weight of exhaustion that follows excesses of sun, sand, and wine. This, combined with Straub’s wit and refusal to shortchange any of her characters, makes the story a keeper for me. – Chelsea B.

Bitch Planet, Pretty Deadly & Captain Marvel by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Two years ago, when her reboot of Marvel’s spacefaring superhero title Captain Marvel was launched, barely anyone had heard of Kelly Sue DeConnick. It’s safe to say that 2014 belonged to her. KSD’s Carol Danvers, the game protagonist of Marvel, dropped the thigh-high boots and the “Ms.”, started going by “Captain,” traveled back in time to retcon herself a more feminist origin story, and joined up with the Guardians of the Galaxy (in the comics). Not to mention the recent announcement that DeConnick’s definitive run has inspired what will be the big M’s first female-led superhero film. 2014 also saw the completion of the first arc of DeConnick’s first creator-owned series—the surreal, supernatural western Pretty Deadly—and the beginning of her second, Bitch Planet. The last is a feminist reworking of 1970’s women-in-prison exploitation films: here, ‘noncompliant’ (NC) women are sent to a remote space station where their jailer—a giant, pink whore/nun hologram called The Catholic—attempts to rehabilitate them into normative femininity. Needless to say, our inmates are not going down without a fight. Bitch Planet is biting and timely and smart, playing out a little like Orange is the New Black meets But I’m a Cheerleader meets Django Unchained. (In space.) – Brian Psi
Read the rest of this entry »

He Said, She Said: The Affair’s Romantic Battle Over Narrative Control

In feminism, gender on November 17, 2014 at 11:29 am

Sarah Todd

Adultery is boring, at least when married men do it on TV. It’s no big mystery why a dissolute, murder-y president might seek out passion and endless drama in the form of a long-term affair, or why a mid-century ad man would try to hush his inner nihilist by sleeping with a steady stream of modern women. Even when shows complicate the roles of husband, wife, and mistress—as both Scandal and Mad Men do—their parts remain underpinned by all-too-familiar tropes. Husbands are deceitful and lusty, wives are a drag, mistresses are sexy but needy and women love shopping, I guess.

Not only are these plot lines offensive to all parties involved, they also tend to assign men ultimate control over how the affair plays out. After all, the husband holds the power to decide where he’ll spend the night, with whom he’ll split an expensive bottle of wine, the person he’ll call first when he gets a piece of bad news, and of course who he’ll end up with in the end. His desires determine what happens next. Meanwhile the wife has zero agency within the love triangle, since she typically doesn’t know it exists. The mistress is also beholden to her lover’s decisions. If she’s a cool girl, she’ll acquiesce to his comings and goings without making demands; if she wants more, better hide the bunnies. Moving between his domestic life and his clandestine one, the husband is the only person involved who has all the information and can make choices accordingly.

Thankfully, the Showtime series The Affair has managed to find a way to do something new with the creaky old infidelity tale. On the surface, the show revolves around a familiar plotline: Restless family man meets libidinous younger woman. But the series immediately calls the reliability of these characterizations into question. More than infidelity, The Affair is about how the way we construct the stories of our lives confers power—sometimes to ourselves, sometimes to someone else.

Each episode of the series thus far has been split between the perspectives of the adulterers, Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), as a police detective questions them over a mysterious death. The story of how their affair began, revealed in flashbacks, varies according to who’s doing the talking. Read the rest of this entry »

Hit the Books: Five Feminist Novels to Read Posthaste

In books, class, feminism, race, social justice, violence on October 3, 2014 at 6:32 am

Girls Like Giants contributors put our heads together to recommend a few of the best books we’ve read in recent times. What’s on your reading list?

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s searing portrait of life before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), follows the narratives of three radically different characters—the beautiful and upper class Olanna, the houseboy turned child soldier Ugwu, and the white British expat and journalist Richard. There is neither a singular narrator nor narrative but rather a switching back and forth between these characters’ various perspectives, a literary move which heeds her call for the necessity of multiple narratives. As a result, we witness the war and its attendant violence from the perspective of each character. For instance, we see rape as a tool of war twice: once in a threat made against Olanna by a soldier and then in Ugwu’s own horrific participation—after he is conscripted into the army—in a gang rape of a young bartender. In Adichie’s novel there is neither safety nor cover from the casual and everyday violence of warf. And there is no simple resolution to its lasting its scars as it reaches into the depths of our lives. Before the war, there was happiness, fun, and radical politics—the latter embraced and touted by Olanna’s husband, a university professor. Yet, as Adichie makes clear, embracing revolutionary politics is far afield from the masculinized violence and terror of war. Her powerful critique reinforces the fact that there are no winners amidst this violence and that the independence sought is sadly never gained, even as lives are lost and irreversibly changed. I can’t recommend this book enough. From Adichie’s eloquent writing to her formal innovation and political critique, Half of a Yellow Sun is by far the most beautiful, difficult, and empathetic novel I’ve read in a long time. – Phoebe B.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

In the last couple years I have read several excellent books. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane delighted me and creeped me out in equal measure. Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, by wunderkind Eleanor Catton, brought magical realism to a sweeping historical western set among whores, charlatans, and opium peddlers in a New Zealand mining town. But without hesitation, the best book I’ve read recently is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This mysterious novel reminds me of the modernist works I love, with a dash of postmodern instability and feminist exploration thrown in for ballast. It focuses on the many lives of Ursula Todd, a person with the gift (or curse) of constantly rebooting back to birth whenever she dies. We follow Ursula through several noteworthy historical happenings, from the Great War and the contemporaneous influenza pandemic to the Blitz in London during World War II. We also see different iterations of Ursula, a person changed ever so evocatively by the various things that happen to her and then alter the trajectory of her life. I won’t give away any more twists or turns but just urge you to snatch up a copy of Life After Life as soon as possible. It’s smart and entertaining and absolutely ideal for delving into during blustery autumn weather. – Sarah S. Read the rest of this entry »

The Downside of Being Good: Paris, Rory and “Gilmore Girls”

In feminism, gender, girl culture, teen soaps, TV, YA on September 25, 2014 at 11:24 am

Sarah Todd

Paris Geller scares people. It’s a beautiful thing. As a teen prep-school Napoleon taking the quirky citizens of Gilmore Girls by storm, she intimidates parents, students and teachers alike. At a debate meet, she engages in psychological warfare to freak out the competition. Her silent scowl is enough to persuade her opponent to change his call in a coin toss before the silver lands. She throws a literary bad boy off his game by dismissing the Beats as self-indulgent jerks. She makes her guidance counselor cry. When a suitor goes Casper on her after he heads off to Princeton, do you suppose that Paris weeps? Does she create a complex flowchart to determine whether some stray remark or unflattering hairstyle has driven him away? She most certainly does not. She simply jots his name down in her revenge notebook.

As a girl too focused on achieving world domination to stop and worry about what other people think of her, Paris is an honors graduate of the Amy Poehler “I don’t care if you like it” school of thought. It is this quality that makes her the perfect foil for her classmate Rory Gilmore, who appears–at least outwardly–to be the ultimate good girl.

While Rory is undeniably charming, I’ve long been annoyed by the way Gilmore Girls insists on having other characters go out of their way to tell her so. Teenage boys fall for her on sight, from a high school Don Juan (Tristan) to the aforementioned literary bad boy (Jess) to a sweet-and-steady jock (Dean). Rory almost always has at least two boyfriends, one current and one would-be, and it’s a safe bet that they’ll resort to fisticuffs over her at one dance-a-thon or another.

Not only does Rory invariably set hearts fluttering, she also wins steady praise for her intelligence. A teacher commends her for honing a school newspaper article about a repaved parking into “a bittersweet piece on how everybody and everything eventually becomes obsolete.” And the reading! Characters are constantly tripping over themselves to remark upon her book intake. (“Aren’t we hooked on Phonics,” a suitor observes upon entering her room for the first time—a hilarious line, since the only books visible in that particular shot are on two small, perfectly standard shelves above her desk.)

Rory’s mother Lorelai is particularly invested in the Rory-is-magic narrative, as Anne K. Burke Erickson notes in her essay on the show. Having gotten pregnant with Rory at age 16, Lorelai desperately needs to believe that Rory is a younger version of herself who can have the future she never did. As a result she’s constantly praising Rory for virtues large and small. “Rory’s never late,” she notes. “She’s almost annoyingly on-time.”

It’s a lot to handle. Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Dumb Blondes and Smart Brunettes

In Uncategorized on September 2, 2014 at 7:55 am

all hail hannaSarah Todd

Hanna Marin is supposed to be the dumb blonde. As one of four friends featured on ABC Family’s teen mystery series Pretty Little Liars, she’s prone to malapropisms and gaps in logic. (“Jenna can’t hear us, she’s blind,” she tells her friends in one scene. In another: “Nothing works underwater. It’s a scientific fact.”) She’s more likely to be found flipping through fashion magazines, shoplifting sunglasses or rocking out to Savoir Adore in the kitchen than studying for a test, and her preferred method for taking care of problems is to throw some physical manifestation of them in a lake or a blender—whatever’s handy at the time.

But Pretty Little Liars is mostly interested in patriarchal archetypes insofar as they can be subverted. Hanna was always allowed to be brave, loyal and funny in addition to being a space cadet, and the past couple seasons have gone even farther in complicating her character. She started developing theories and hatching plans in an effort to save herself and her friends from their mystery-tormentor, A. Last year, she developed a reading habit; this year, she was the first of the foursome to see through the manipulations of their former leader, Ali. And last week’s season finale drove home the fact that there’s more to Hanna than meets the expertly-lined eye. Much to her own surprise, she nailed the SATs.

The bubbly girl who realizes her scholarly potential with the help of a standardized test is a familiar television trope. Buffy Summers—witty but academically average—receives unexpectedly high scores and decides to apply to Northwestern. On The O.C., Summer Roberts worries that her cute-nerd boyfriend Seth will ditch her for being intellectually subpar—until her stellar SAT scores inspire her to hit the books and win admission to Brown. Zach Morris, Saved By the Bell’s masculine take on the popular but low-achieving blond, lands a 1502 and winds up slated for Yale. (The questionable utility of standardized tests and the glorification of name-brand schools are topics for another day.)

Like Hanna, these characters don’t spend hours before the tests mastering tricky math word problems and memorizing the definition of “querulous.” They go into the SATs without a lot of confidence in their intelligence, having been frequently informed that their value lies more in their shiny hair and social prowess. Their results inspire them to aim higher and have more faith in their beautiful minds. Read the rest of this entry »

How to Be Brave: The “Divergent” Method

In dystopian literature, feminism, YA on August 15, 2014 at 7:57 am

Sarah Todd

Too many girls grow up learning that they should be afraid to live in the world. Female action heroes offer us a different vision. When Ripley punches a slobbering alien queen, we see what it’s like to fight back. When Buffy defeats a pack of vampires with witticisms and a series of neatly executed roundhouse kicks, we can imagine our own unlikely victories. When Katniss aims her arrow at a shimmering window in a force field and lets it fly, it seems possible that we too can take oppressive systems down.

Inspiring as these characters are, their heroism can seem a little inaccessible–their ferocity inborn and therefore difficult to reproduce. Ripley is already a tough, no-nonsense warrant officer when she encounters her first slimy spider-creature. Buffy has the physical strength and superb fighting skills necessary for taking on the Hellmouth. Katniss has a rebellious spirit, fleet feet and perfect aim long before she enters the Hunger Games arena.

But for many real-world women, being brave takes practice. After all, women aren’t wrong to be afraid sometimes; the world really can be a dangerous place, and fear can be a life-saving instinct. But our culture is wrong to instill fear in women and then stop there, encouraging us to stay at home with all the lights on rather than empowering us to try to make the world safer for everyone.

That latter possibility forms the core of Divergent, a young adult film starring Shailene Woodley and based on a popular dystopian trilogy by Veronica Roth. The story—a blander, declawed version of the Hunger Games—isn’t going to set anybody’s world on fire. That said, I’ve read the whole series and expect to see all the movies. This is not because they are actually good, but because I’ve yet to encounter another story that engages so directly with the idea of a young woman who teaches herself courage.

Divergent is set in a bombed-out future version of Chicago that’s walled off from all that lies beyond city limits. Society is divided into six factions, according to the quality most prized by each. The Erudite are smarties in lab coats, while people in Candor are honest enough to tell them that lab coats are really unflattering. Abnegation members practice the art of selflessness; Amity types are peace-loving hippies. And then there’s Dauntless—a group of people who pride themselves on being brave, and will do pretty much whatever dumb thing to prove their mettle. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

Sarah Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Teen TV Needs to Find New Ways to Talk About Sex

In girl culture, sexuality, TV, violence on May 14, 2014 at 7:04 am

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 9.57.48 AM

Sarah T.

The virginity-loss plotline is standard fare for teen television, right up there with eating disorders, unfaithful parents and high-school dance drama. Female protagonists in particular get a lot of screen time as they start to navigate sexual waters. Angela Chase makes a self-aware decision to put off having sex with Jordan Catalano, while Joey Potter has a sweet first time with Pacey Witter on a ski trip. Blair Waldorf makes an impulsive and steamy decision to get down with Chuck Bass in the back of a limo; Emily Fields sleeps with her first girlfriend, Maya St. Germain, just before they’re torn apart.

But teen TV tends to spend a lot less time focusing on all the decision-making that comes after first-time sex has been had. In fact, teen series tend to ignore sex-driven storylines altogether once female characters have slept with someone for the first time, unless sexual assault or pregnancy is involved. This silence at once reinforces a patriarchal obsession with virginity—if a lady has already done the deed, who even cares what her sexual experience are like?—and implies that the only time anybody makes sexual choices that matter is the first time around.

Of course, in real life, we have to make a whole fresh set of sexual decisions with each new relationship. Whether we’re hooking up, dating or seriously involved, we constantly face choices about when to have sex and when not to have it, what kind of sex we prefer and under what circumstances. By ignoring this reality, teen shows can wind up suggesting that sex is something that just happens automatically and without discussion once people are no longer virgins. That’s a dangerous message. It risks reinforcing the beliefs of young men who think they’re entitled to sex—which in turn perpetuates misogyny and rape culture. Our cultural productions all too frequently squander the chance to follow women as they develop their sense of sexual agency. It’s a silence that feeds directly into a system that devalues women and their right to make choices about what they do with their bodies.

A recent episode of the ABC Family series Switched at Birth offers a welcome corrective to this silence. Bay, a senior in high school, has been dating college freshman Tank for a while. One night they wind up back in his dorm room. They start to kiss and fall back on the bed; Tank reaches to slide down the zipper on Bay’s hoodie. And then Bay calls a time-out. Read the rest of this entry »

Hateship, Friendship, and the Power Dynamics of “Doll & Em”

In girl culture, TV on April 22, 2014 at 8:56 am

Sarah T.

Because I am very lucky, I’ve known a lot of smart, funny, talented, gorgeous women in my life so far. There’s no question that these friends have made my life richer and helped shape me into a better human being. There’s also no denying that—particularly in my younger years—I’ve sometimes compared myself to them and wound up feeling decidedly second-rate.

Of course, it’s not productive to feel gloomy because your friend has just nabbed a plum book deal or won a grant to spend ten months rafting down the Amazon or happens to have the luminous skin of a woodland elf. But feeling occasionally competitive with the people who are close to you—or at least having a little bit of a reflexive inferiority complex mixed in with all the love and genuine admiration—is only human. What’s important, I’ve found as I get older, is learning how to deal with those emotions. I can recognize the things that make my friends awesome and feel proud to know them while actively choosing not to listen to the little self-doubt piano tinkling away inside my head. Or I can let insecurities rankle and seethe until they finally threaten to torpedo the friendship for good.

The new HBO series Doll & Em, created by real-life pals Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer, is about two old friends who take the latter, messier road. The power dynamic between Doll and Em seesaws back and forth as the women use one another as measuring sticks of success and find themselves constantly wanting. They know each other well enough to wound. But they also care about each other enough to decide that their broken friendship is worth fighting for.

Doll (Wells) and Em (Mortimer) grew up together in London. At 40, they love each other just as fiercely as they did in their childhood bathtub-splashing days—as is evident from the weepy phone call Doll makes to Em shortly after breaking up with her no-good boyfriend. Em, a successful movie star, ducks away from a red-carpet interview alongside Bradley Cooper to lend her old friend some support. She even comes up with what seems like a generous offer, hiring Doll as her new personal assistant and flying her out to Los Angeles. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

Sarah T.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah T.

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

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

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

The Nerdy Girls of Super Fun Night

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

Sarah T.

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

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

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

Pretty Little Liars and the Power of Four

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

ImageSarah T.

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

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

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

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

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

Frances Ha: A Fresh Kind of Fairy Tale

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

Sarah T.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Breaking Bad: Against Family

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

Sarah T.

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

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

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

On Kinsey & Cataloguing Erotica

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

Pamela Pierce

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

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

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

PrisonSQ-CLII-1_7-58

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

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

PrisonSQ-CLXXIV-38_7-59

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

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

PrisonSQ-III-2_1954

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

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

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

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

Song of the Summer?

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

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

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

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

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

ABC’s “Scandal” and the Limits of Empathy

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

Sarah T.

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the Reclamation of Lydia Bennet

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

Sarah T.

lizzie and lydia bennet

Whaaaat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah T.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Beyoncé Wore

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

Sarah T.

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

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

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

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

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

Fearing The Future

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

Sarah T.

Hello?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah T:

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

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

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

Jeni:

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

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

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

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

Heavy. Stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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True Life: I’m A Character From Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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