I want to go to Moscow

Monday, June 25, 2012

How to make a $66.7 million work of radical feminist art

It's the rare thing that can be a giant blockbuster and also disappoint expectations, but Disney/Pixar's "Brave" somehow managed to do both, getting non-stellar reviews and generating a huge ton of money, but not the huge ton of money some people hoped for
But, before you get too sad, remember -- it's pretty impressive for the most successfully mainstream piece of feminist art since "The Forty-Year Old Virgin." 

"Brave" is an incredibly subversive movie, which I think accounts for part of the critical lukewarmitude. It's real, real weird, wrapping a mediation on success and gender inside a Trojan horse of spunky. And, positive or negative I haven't really seen a review that gets at why it's so incredibly strange and, I think, successful.

1) It's not a "typical Pixar movie." All the characters are people, not fish or monsters or robots. People can become animals in this world, but when they do, they don't talk, let alone sing or tell jokes. It also doesn't have the heady fun of most Pixar films -- most of which take as template the action/adventure movie, a high-information, high-twist genre. In a typical Pixar movie, there is a long escape scene, through a series of twists and turns that the audience has learned all about. . . "The Great Escape" or "Mission Impossible" only with a teddy bear villain. We know all the entrances and exits and the rules and the joy is watching our hero navigate this complex and surprising world. 

That's not "Brave." There are a couple of escape-ish sequences, but we're given no information about castle entrances and exits, and it's not really the point. The starting genre point of "Brave" isn't action/adventure, it's romance. And, if you're a reviewer who isn't into romance, this may piss you off. BUT IT'S A TOTALLY VALID GENRE AND IT'S FLIPPED IN SUPER-INTERESTING WAYS. [Side-note on genre, one day I will write a short story for The New Yorker in which I use the novels of "The Babysitters' Club" as inspiration in the same way that Diaz, Lethem, and Chabon use comic books. It'll totally get published.]

Yes, "Brave" is a romance, but it's not about romantic love, it's about mother-daughter love. All of the steps it goes through follow the romance structure: Act 1, they hate each other, even though we (the audience) can see they're truly meant to be together but their pride gets in the way. Act 2, through a series of strange coincidences, they are forced to work together and discover their love. Act 3, they must rescue each other and they end up together, wiser and happy. 

It's "Pride and Prejudice" for mothers and daughters crossed with "Sleeping Beauty." And it's pretty obvious . . .like the fact that, in order for the curse to be reversed, Merida has to look into her mother Elinor's eyes and say "I love you." Like at the end of every fairy tale ever? Because it's using fairy tale structure? It's not a boring adventure movie, it's a radical romance.

2) It's really really feminist, and not like most movies are "feminist, " but like all those crazy ladies from the '70s who seem so angry now and disappointed in you are "feminist." It's fairly common these days to have a movie in which a young woman resists the strictures of feminine identity and goes around being tough. "GI Jane" came out in 1997. "Mulan" came out in 1998. We're still doing this, of course ("Kill Bill," "Colombiana," "Haywire") but it's not new and it doesn't really challenge much. The value system heap of physical strength, dominance, and competition stays the same -- there's just a chick at the top of it. In this model, traditionally feminine pastimes, like cooking are usually spurned by the lead character and, implicitly or explicitly, mocked by the film. Girl Power = girls acting like boys power. 

"Brave" head-fakes in this direction, especially in the trailer, and seems like it's going to be movie about a young woman resisting a path of subservience in favor of physical activity and self-determination. And, you know, it is a movie about that. It's awesome to see Merida free and strong while riding her horse with her crazy-hair. BUT IT'S ALSO A MOVIE THAT VALORIZES MUCH OF WHAT HAS BEEN CODED AS TRADITIONALLY FEMALE. Merida's mom is wrong about the arranged marriage, but she's not a bitch. And it's not the worst thing in the world to have decent table manners, know your history lessons, be able to get a group of people to agree on a common goal, or sew. That shit is actually pretty important and if your mom taught it to you, well you should call her and say thanks (once you finish kicking butt). "Brave's" day is saved through a combination of brute force and needlepoint and, seriously, when's the last time you saw that happen?

Just in case you missed it, the film's villain, the bear Mordu, is the character who's after, you guessed it: individual power and dominance. He wants to be better than everyone else, not to keep his family and community together. And he sucks. I won't say Mordu has a male viewpoint because Ayn Rand, because Helen Dragas, but I will say, he has a culturally celebrated POV right now, and I appreciate that, instead of valorizing the homicidal bear as a job-creator, he is recognized as a threat.

3) Closure. If you can't grasp or aren't interested in Merida and her mother's relationship, then the film seems not to answer the question you think it will at the beginning: who will she marry? Of all the princes we see, not a one seems likely to stir her heart, like, ever, and they make it very clear that, even if not, the kingdom will probably be okay. It would have been so easy (and I am willing to bet someone suggested) to add in a cute dude, just for a second, for a little meaningful eye contact, so we know, "okay, she's waiting, but she's probably going to end up with Hugh over there." But they didn't. And that doesn't mean, OF COURSE IT DOESN'T MEAN, that she's gay. But it does mean that her romantic fulfillment is not the point of the story. Merida and Elinor end the film looking out over their kingdom together, off to have adventures, maybe together, but probably not. Probably Merida will go off and get married (OR NOT) or be gay (OR NOT) or be celibate or bisexual or whatever she is, and probably Elinor will stay in the castle with her cool new hairdo and keep making tapestries and maybe they will see each other at Solstice and that will be okay. It is a beautiful and real place for a movie to end, it had me in tears at the theater, and it is (really, even in "Bridesmaids" Kristen Wiig goes off with the cop) a phenomenally strange and powerfully feminist way to conclude. Family isn't necessarily the enemy. Power isn't necessarily the answer. Doing what you love and listening to the people you love is a pretty good idea. 

And when we talk about why we need women in powerful positions and why it's important to change office structures to keep them there, well, this is why. Because I'll be fucked if this movie could have been imagined by a someone who isn't a daughter and isn't a mother. 

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Blargle Blargle

I am really sick of saying this, but apparently it needs to be said every time a judicial decision is reached/ every time Sonya Sotomayor is confirmed/ every 30 seconds:

The follow question to "Does it matter that Vaughn Walker is gay?"
is not:

"Does it matter that Thurgood Marshall was black?"

It's "Does it matter that Justice so-and-so is white/straight/male/etc?"

All gender is gender, all race is race, all sexuality is sexuality. They're not optional. No one is the control group.

All right, back to your regularly scheduled lives.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Hallelujah (or, one of these days I'm going to have to actually mail these)

Dear The New Yorker,

It is totally awesome that you had a profile of Brad Paisley in your most recent issue. I realize that for very good reasons, all of your letters this week will be about Atul Gawande because oh my God, but I have some thoughts about Mr. Paisley that I've been thinking for the better part of a year and this is as good a chance as any to express them. My thoughts in a nutshell: you blew it.

For the reader who lives without any knowledge of contemporary country music (which, to be fair, is probably the average New Yorker reader, fine), the article does a perfectly adequate job explaining who Brad Paisley is, why his songs are good, and why lots of people who don't subscribe to The New Yorker care. But, it skates only lightly and superficially over the gonzo, bonkers radicalism that Paisley espouses. Seriously, American Saturday Night is a nuts album. It is a stealth bomb thrown into the current heart of country music and a peppy refutation of an entire socio/cultural/political outlook. It is, I believe, the most important artifact of popular culture from the last twelve months (sorry, everyone who liked The Kids Are All Right). I cannot overstate how seriously you whiffed while writing about this shit, structuring the whole thing as a general "hey, there's this guy in middle America who writes a bunch of hit songs and this one time he decided to write about race" profile. Opportunity = lost.

To hear Kelefa Sanneh tell it, the shocking thing about Paisley's hit song "Welcome to the Future" is its final verse, in which the election of a black president is contrasted with the racism Paisley's friend experienced in high school. This third verse comes after a first verse described as "goofy nostalgia" and a second verse that goes entirely unmentioned.

No! No! No! No!

I am trying to be restrained here, but dude missed the entire point. Yes, race is a big deal in a country song, and yes, a pro-black-president message is fascinating and daring. But, it's not just writing about race (as Sanneh points out, Tim McGraw's "Southern Voice" contains a list of multi-racial shout-outs), it's how this song writes about race: it's about racial progress. Unlike 99.99% of the country music currently on the radio that grapples in any way with the past, "Welcome to the Future" is decidedly NOT nostalgic.

Verse 1: You used to have to go to the arcade to play video games -- now you don't! Because stuff got better!

Verse 2: The narrator's grandfather fought in WWII. The narrator has a video conference with Tokyo. Which is better -- killing people or trading with them? Trading with them!

The standard contemporary country orientation toward the past is one of rue, regret, or gentle headshaking at these crazy modern times (example: Bucky Covington's "A Different World" in which the reasonable universe of his childhood where you got "daddy's belt when you misbehaved" is contrasted with our current, coddled, every-kid-gets-a-trophy times). And why does Paisley's unique challenge to this nostalgia matter?

Because this is the backbone of the current Republican message: stuff was good once, now it's bad, make it like it used to be in the '40s or the '50s or the '60s, what do you mean it used to be bad, everything was easy and folks knew how to be and now it's all a mess.

And this attitude isn't just limited to Republicans; I can find you plenty of liberals who would agree with the sentence "everything was better in the '60s and kids today suck." It's an attitude that fears progress, fears change, makes a lot of sense right now, and I think is super-comforting and totally dangerous.

So what does crazy, radical, out-there Brad Paisley say to all of us in the midst of the mishegas of 2010, when we long to go back to those simpler days?

Things are different now. We can't put them back.

Besides, things used to be pretty bad.

Now, they're better.

And if The New Yorker doesn't notice what this is or what it means, honestly -- it's probably all for the best. Keep being crazy, Brad, I won't tell.



Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oh, Rikki Lake, you were so good in Hairspray

Just finished watching The Business of Being Born because it streams on Netflix. First two thirds, I'm thinking "all right, a couple too many shots of ladies in inflatable tubs, but overall your analysis seems wise." That analysis: that birth in the US is weirdly both over-medicalized and under-effective in patient and baby mortality rates, that we're gaga for C-sections without understanding that it's major surgery, and that historically, OB's (mainly men) have tried to get women to follow the latest birthing trends by scaring the pants off of them about how terrible it will be for the baby if they don't.

With which I agree! We should (on this issue) be more like Europe. Absolutely. Yay vaginas. Yay being sensible, yay encouraging women to make informed decisions, yay not fear-mongering wildly -- oh wait. There's more.

That would be the movie's last third. Where two doctors (both male) and Louann Brizendrine (who would be my arch-nemesis if she knew who I was) talk about the real, as yet unproven, risks of Cesarians. Their speculation? By depriving women of the post-birth release of oxytocin, mothers who have C-sections are putting their children at risk for autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, impaired bonding, reduced affection, reduced maternal protectiveness, and more. In fact, as the French scientist expert dude put it (you have to do a French accent if you want the full effect): "When you give a monkey a C-section, and then show the monkey the baby, it does not love the baby. It will not care for the baby. And what are we creating now but a world without love?"

That's right, mamas. Your birth? Responsible for World War Three. Now try to relax, remember stress is bad for the baby.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


This is terrible timing. My body thinks it's 1 o'clock in the morning in Tennessee. I am totally exhausted. But, I also have too much to say and the person I usually say it to is making avant-garde music in Germany right now, and I have decided not to declaim to the dog. Partly because my theory is chock full o' spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Yesterday I finished reading Infinite Jest. Everybody is right. It is brilliant, it is frustrating. It is long. The footnotes really could be endnotes except for the multi-page ones. You'll be glad if you have, at some point, taken calculus. It will break your ever-loving heart. Etc.

But I also was pretty stunned by the depiction of the women in the book and figured there was some important essay by Jessa Crispin or Katie Rophie or someone about it. And all I could find was this fine but small post pointing out the passivity of the moms in the book. What's up with that? Where are all the feminists? In comas? The author of the post is totally right -- passive, denial-riddled mothers are a major theme, and they tolerate, for unexplained reasons, some truly noxious father behavior.

And but so there's more. In addition to the laid-back-to-catatonic mothers there are two main female characters: Avril Incandenza and Joelle Van Dyne, or, in archetype, the monster and the saint.

Avril Incandenza is, I have to admit it, a fantastic creation -- someone paid a lot of attention to women who want to project that their children are free to make up their own minds and express themselves, while simultaneously broadcasting desires of an almost crippling ferocity into the crania of such kids. She's a great, soft-spoken, eternally patient, totally hobbling demon woman. But, unlike every other major (and perhaps a plurality of minor) characters, we never for a moment get inside her head. Her flaws -- sexual, parental, incestuous -- are legion and yet, barring a brief allusion to an alcoholic dad and dead mom (which for this book are the most petite des pommes de terre) they are maddeningly unexplained. She's an ice queen, a giant slut, a borderline pedophile, and a potential terrorist and we have no idea why. (more on this later)

Joelle there's less to say about -- she's fantastically beautiful and then she isn't. Really, she isn't. Reading up on the speculations, there's an almost desperate quality to the desire some fans have for her still to be bang-up hot from head-to-toe. It's chin-to-toe, folks, though her hair seems fine. Joelle is given some smarty-pants traits (an interest in cinema, a super-cult radio show), but she's mostly there to be the Prettiest Girl (and then not) of All Time. She (unlike Avril) gets to be sweet and caring, but remains a pretty uncomplicated Object of Male Attention. Dudes' (her father, Orin, most of the planet) looking at her fucked her up one way; their looking's cessation fucked her up in a different way; and, hopefully, because I really do want her and Don to ride off into the holocaust-flecked sunset together, a dude loving her will be her salvation. Which is fine, as far as it goes -- but this is as far as it goes. These are your ladies.

Yes, there are other women in the book (Kate Gompert, Pat Montesian, Wardine, Clenette) but the pages spent on their internal lives dwarfs those given to J. O. Incandenza, J. O.'s dad, Pemulis(es), Lenz, Mario, Bruce Green, Tiny Ewell, Poor Tony, Maranthe, Steepley, et al -- not to mention the main (Hal) and secondary (Don) protagonists. It's like not even close.

So, what does this all mean? Does it mean anything? The novel's a Hamlet story from the title on down and maybe Gertrude's frosty exterior and red-hot sexual voracity will always be opaque to her son. So what if the book isn't about women's lives in the same way it's about men's? Maybe it's just a book about dudes. Adolescent dudes and older dudes and how their fathers destroy them and how their mothers let it happen and sometimes they meet vulnerable women with gorgeous faces and fantastic bodies who happen to be cheerleaders and so what?

Well, because the book's not only about masculinity (although I do think it's a major concern). It's about (yes, I know, in addition to entertainment and the environment and competition and addiction and depression, jeez) the fundamental existential difficulty of empathy. The fish in the water joke is told here for the first time, and it permeates the whole book. Can you truly understand what someone else is going through? Can you Identify? And can you capture, if only for a moment, if only one Day At a Time, the grace that comes when you do?

And I'd say the answer is for the reader is: you can when the author can. I had no doubt as I was reading that I knew exactly what it's like to be a physically gifted, grammatically obsessed tennis prodigy with a bum ankle and some major socio-cultural (not to mention economic) privilege. I could tell you honestly that I spent several years of my life as a blue-collar prescription drug fiend who burgled to finance his habit after destroying a promising football career. I can smell the stink of cigarettes from Boston AA meetings and the horror of realizing that the ritual of drug paraphernalia is the only thing I have to look forward to in a given day. I could make you believe I played Eschaton.

But I don't have a clue what makes Avril Incandenza or Joelle Van Dyne tick, and so here is where the empathy runs out. The lack of a female character with a tenth of the heart and complication and fleshed-out backstory and in-the-present pain that the men have is a big brick wall that the central project of the novel runs face-first into. It's a giant novel with a shit-ton of inertia, so it doesn't go splat when it hits that wall, but it darn sure wobbles on its way through.

The novel begins and ends with its two protagonists in a shared (though spatially and temporally separate) kind of particularly awful pain. Their internal thoughts are clear, but they have no way to communicate such thoughts to the outside world. They are rich with life but to the outside world can present only the crudest grimaces and gasps. This condition, it is clear, is a kind of hell, for in Hal's words: "I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I'm complex."

What he said.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Another Letter

Can you tell I'm procrastinating?

Oh good.


Dear New York Times,

Forgive me for writing again so quickly, but I could not contain my shock at this week's Ethicist. In it, a parent wonders whether it would be ethical to permit her over-18-year-old son from smoking marijuana during a family vacation to Amsterdam, because while she discourages it at home on grounds of illegality, in Amsterdam it is perfectly legal.

My shock came not from the subject matter but the destination of the letter. Surely, this is not a question of ethics, but of manners, and Judith Martin ought to have set the whole family straight.

Her son should be chastised, and promptly, for placing his parents in the awkward position of having to prohibit or condone his behavior, when properly, it is none of their business.

Had the son wanted to display a more courteous attitude to his family, he could have responded, "Oh? Amsterdam. I have long wanted to observe the local culture" when the vacation was proposed, and then, casually said at the end of dinner, "I am going to visit a coffeehouse" or "I think I'll continue sight-seeing" and left it at that. Having instead apparently said something along the lines of, "Oh, goody! Legal weed!" he has now forced his parents into acting like parents must when confronted with a child's passion. They will want to find the best local hash; take photos of his smoking it for the grandparents; perhaps bring home a souvenir bong; all something of a burden. I only hope this family's mania for the truth has some boundaries -- he seems like the kind of boy who would exclaim, "Thank you so much for letting Sarah come visit for Thanksgiving. I am hoping that we will have lots of sex in the guest room."

I can't say I was surprised when I discovered that the family vacation plan was changed to Switzerland, and I must admit the young man deserved it for his rudeness. As the saying goes, "if you're not old enough to smoke pot without bragging about it to your parents, you're not old enough to smoke pot."

A Letter to the Editors of the New York Times

That I did not send and therefore will not be published:

In response to What Do Women Want? I am very impressed that scientists have gone to such great lengths to study female desire, and somewhat pity the women who watched bonobos gone wild with electrodes strapped to their ladyjunk.

However, I regret to inform all of your dedicated researchers that they are somewhat late to the party. Every single one of their startling, groundbreaking bits of sexuality insight have been known for decades to the single largest industry of women's pornography. I am referring, of course to the romance novel.

Apparently, scientists can prove that women get turned on paying attention to other women's bodies as a locus for desire: EVERY romance novel contains a lengthy, breathy description of how attractive the heroine is, how her flimsy clothes strain to hold in her bounteous body, and how mad with lust this drives our hero.

Women are, according to the article, also turned on by complete strangers and also intense emotional connection. Two things that, in real life, are going to be difficult to find in one person. However, in EVERY romance novel, the dude is both brand-new to the woman but yet can penetrate (with his insight) to the depths of her very soul.

Finally, and most controversially, women seem to test highly for fantasies of submission and domination - except, of course, in the fantasies and not real life, they actually are asking for it. Again, without judgment or a nature/nurture debate -- I dare you to find a single romance novel where the woman is the sexual aggressor. I'm not saying they all have rape -- it could be a stolen kiss, followed by a masterly display of masculine self-control, but the guys are the ones doing the pursuing.

In conclusion, New York Times, I applaud your discussion of this research (although I must admit that the photographs made it somewhat difficult to read on the subway), but I must tell you that The Defiant Debutante and her kinswomen knew it all long ago.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Importance of Being English

On my evermore intense quest to devote all my free (and unfree) time to pointless election micro-spectating, I came across the following passage by Tory mayor of London Boris Johnson (as quoted by Andrew Sullivan):

Democracy and capitalism are the two great pillars of the American idea. To have rocked one of those pillars may be regarded as a misfortune. To have damaged the reputation of both, at home and abroad, is a pretty stunning achievement for an American president.

But, as yet unremarked upon by Sullivan or TPM, or any other blog I can find is the source of the quote. Dude's referencing Oscar Wilde! From The Importance of Being Earnest:

To have lost one parent, Mr. Worthing, might be considered a misfortune. To have lost both smacks of carelessness.

And now, the question: intentional allusion (my vote), or is Wilde enough of the daily imagination of Brits that this construction has become standard? Also -- only 2 more weeks until I get my life (and, God willing, my country) back.