I’ve got to maintain my blog silence in order to finish writing this damn book, but I saw Testament of Youth last night and have been spluttering ever since.


Now, this is a very pretty and very sad film. And the first part of the film follows the real-life Vera Brittain’s memoir nicely — in which she fights her way into Oxford University against her father’s wishes, and along the way (against her own wishes) falls in love with her brother’s friend Roland — only to have war break out in 1914. As she remembered it later, the war initially “came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” She spent the war’s aftermath trying to come to terms with the meaning of that war and the multiple tragedies it unleashed. Testament of Youth remains one of the most powerful and important feminist/pacifist/intellectual reckonings of that era and that generation.

But this film focuses, instead, on how pretty these people were, and how sad it is when someone dies. Other than a brief moment at the end when Brittain (Alicia Vikander) speaks up on behalf of peace and postwar reconciliation at a raucous political meeting, the film skims over or skips everything that really mattered to the real-life Brittain — her relationship with Winifred Holtby, her agonizing efforts to make sense of the war, her political and feminist work — to a postscript that assures us that she found someone else and married in 1925.


Oh, no no no, this film is all heartbreaking scenes at railway stations and all manner of men gazing at Vera longingly. That’s right: instead of a powerful political assessment, this film is simply a woman’s weeper, made for repetition on the Lifetime channel.

You can say that I was ruined for this film because I’d read the book. In fact, my very first induction into the magic of the BBC world of miniseries came in the early 80s when my mom and I sat ourselves down every Sunday night to watch the 275-minute version of Testament of Youth starring Cheryl Campbell. (Does anyone know how I can get that series on a region-1 DVD?) But even if I was a total novice to the subject matter, this film is empty of anything but aesthetic pleasure and pathos.


This should have been the movie for me: a female lead! based on a feminist text! a period drama with great clothes! But no matter how many tears I shed during the screening, I found myself increasingly exasperated during the film’s final third to the point that my jaw dropped when it ended before any of what mattered to the real-life Brittain made it in.

I’ll give it this: the clothes are fantastic. Really, I wanted to run my hands all over those beautiful fabrics. But more problematic: it has the worst male lead ever. Kit Harington as Roland is facebook-thumbs-down.

Okay, back to writing things that result in book contracts, promotion, etc. Apologies for going AWOL, friends, but I’ve got to get some work done!

Enjoying the delicious sleaze that is the McDonnell trial? Well, obviously what we need is the TV movie version to clarify it!

Here’s my plan. I’m going to quit my job and focus all my attention on developing the screenplay of the entire case — I think a six-hour TV event on one of the cheesier cable TV channels (Lifetime? SyFy? Cinemax?) will be ideal. 

The hardest part is finding a good actor to portray Bob, the Virginia governor who finds himself (allegedly) in a tortured marriage and too poor to play with the Big Money boys, yet also prone to a Christian public sphere in which the state mandates trans-vaginal ultrasounds to women seeking abortion. If this is the real Bob:

Bob McDonnell

Then I’m thinking we can age Matt Damon a bit to portray him on the small screen. Damon has a lifetime of playing morally ambivalent and downright creepy characters (Talented Mr. Ripley, Bourne, The Departed…) in ways that will flesh out the true glory that is McDonnell (okay, we’ll age him a bit):

matt-damon-bourne-5 Now that that’s solved, on to the Maureen McDonnell conundrum — which I solved the minute this scandal began to break. How to portray a woman relegated to the sidelines as Bob’s “better half” but without any of the cash to look the part? How to portray the woman who’s apparently taking the fall for her husband — voluntarily or not, it’s not clear — by having his lawyers portray her as the real villain in the case? The real Maureen has had a tough role to play for years now:

453775864So clearly, the ideal actor to portray her is Heather Locklear — yes, the perennially sharp-tongued star of Melrose Place in its glory days of the 90s (as well, apparently, as the 2009-10 reboot of the series which I regrettably missed).

heather-locklear drugI don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see this series. And best of all is the casting of Jonnie Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, the creepy tobacco product-based health tonic company. The real-life Jonnie has a look in his eye that, for me, evokes a combination of an unpredictable Willy Wonka and Frank Underwood from House of Cards:

52bde3147fc0fSo clearly Kevin Spacey is my dream version of Williams. What do you think? Will my TV movie version be more worth watching than the real-life tawdryness of the McDonnell’s marriage getting dissected in court every week?





Just do yourself a favor and read Lindy West’s “I Re-Watched Garden State and Will Never Feel Again” over at Jezebel. You will laugh. You will never watch Garden State again.

A snippet:

Natalie Portman’s character claims to be a human being but is actually a genie that exists entirely within the mind of Zach Braff’s dreaming penis. Much has already been written about this, so I will not rehash it in great detail. She tap-dances. She lies, puckishly. She emcees somber hamster funerals. She introduces strangers to her blankie. She figure-skates in a crushed-velvet alligator costume. She wears an epilepsy helmet just long enough to facilitate a wise and bittersweet moment and then never wears it again. She walks over to her record player and opens the lid but doesn’t put a record on just to make VERY SURE you know she has one.

Here are some words that Zach Braff wrote down for Natalie Portman to say throughout the course of the movie:

“My hair’s blowin’ in the wind.”

“Can we have code names?”

“You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal? [WORST THING EVER HAPPENS] I make a noise, or do something that no one has ever done before. Then I can feel unique again, even if it’s only for a second.”

“If you can’t laugh at yourself, life’s going to seem a whole lot longer than you’d like.”

“I’m weird, man.”


If I were, say, 15 years younger I would aspire to such writing, but at my advanced age I think it would be unseemly. Still, I envy her final two sentences with a passion that rivals what I feel for a certain pair of boots that cost an amount I am not allowed to spend on anything whatsoever. 

Blecch, Garden State.

I like Scandal (2012-present) because I can’t think of a better way than giving my brain a luscious sugary treat than sitting down to watch Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) do anything whatsoever. My only complaint: I just don’t find President Grant (Tony Goldwyn) attractive. And after two years of mulling over the problem, I’ve decided that it’s because his eyebrows aren’t thick enough.


That’s right. Of all the inane, random things to write about, I’m writing about men’s eyebrows. (And it’s not just Fitz. The whole show is littered with men with light eyebrows!)

So, at the risk of embarrassing myself further, let me offer a visual history of thick brows that have titillated me throughout my personal life (in rough chronological order as I discovered them):





Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

Alan Bates, in case you don't recognize him

Alan Bates, in case you don’t recognize him


George Clooney from the ER days



Ahh. That feels better. Back to more serious feminist work soon, I promise.

Kathleen Hanna Ian MacKaye

It sounds silly now, of course. When someone starts up in ValSpeak, she sounds stupid. But let me explain how wrong and simplistic that is. (I’m going to argue that Riot Grrrl was born of Valley Girl. Just wait till you seen how I get there!)

It didn’t sound stupid if you were younger than, say, 15 in the early 80s, when the Valley Girl accent began circulating on shows like Square Pegs and the classic Moon Zappa song, and thence into schoolyards everywhere. That’s how Kathleen Hanna — revered feminist lead singer of riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and now The Julie Ruin — explains her adoption of the accent while a pre-teen in Maryland. “We wanted to be the kinds of girls who had credit cards,” she remembers in the terrific documentary The Punk Singer (2013), now streaming on Netflix. To her, it sounded posh, the voice of rich girls.

One of her friends adds that it just goes to show you that you be “just like some Valley Girl and you still can be smart and have feminist ideas and should be listened to.” (Another perk: watching this doc puts the song “Rebel Girl” in your head for days.)

I was never as dedicated to ValSpeak as Hanna — she still talks that way — but I can attest to its appeal back then:

It sounded smart. I know, right? But Valley Girls were fast talkers, quick-witted, opinionated; and they pronounced everything perfectly in those clipped accents. They had a lot to say. Let us not forget Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless (1995), a second-generation Valley Girl whose speeches regularly inspired applause from her classmates. If you were young, it was easy to hear this as smart — as girls figuring out what they had to say by holding forth.

It was funny. Moon Zappa’s song was a spoof on the dimwitted female mall shoppers out in the deeply suburban San Fernando Valley (much farther from LA than you might imagine if you’re not from there) — and I’m pretty sure we all understood that. But those who heard this only as mocking of the girls were missing something. To me it sounded self-mocking, with all those Ohmigod!s and I’m so sure!s. Girls talked this way in part because they knew they were being funny, and they got a charge from being part of the fun.

It was a dialect unique to girls. And therefore it became a part of girl culture — one of the many ways that girls created a world unto themselves. Sure, it had tinges of sameness and uniformity, but different girl groups innovated endlessly on its basic elements, always developing new ways to speak to each other and to cloak their girl-talk from outsiders.

(I never heard the Valley Guy version of this talk in the same way; it lacked the private club aspects of Valley Girl talk. But maybe that’s because I wasn’t a part of those clubs.)

It allowed you to do fun things with your voice. Valley girls ran the gamut of the vocal scales; just a single Ohmigod! required the speaker to cock one’s voice up a couple of octaves midway and then allow the voice to collapse back to earth of its own weight. The accent is partly so distinctive not for what girls say than for the kooky musical sound of their rambling sentences, like a bouncy New Wave pop song of that era. Doing that stuff with your voice required practice, just like learning to dance like Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Gos.

The documentary about Kathleen Hanna makes a point of discussing her Valley Girl accent because it seems incongruous — how is it that such a diehard feminist — a woman who scrawled INCEST on her chest, screamed into the microphone, sang about sexual abuse, and changed the masculine culture of those punk nightclubs — could speak in a way that undermines the seriousness of her words? After all, long ago I learned to stop talking that way in order to be taken seriously.

But that stereotype has been twisted by time and by the ongoing cultural sense that anything girls do must be stupid. Valspeak wasn’t just a marker of stupid girls saying stupid things. Nor was it a supreme moment of girl stupidity that had to be repudiated by the Riot Grrrls of the 90s.

Let me say something controversial: Riot Grrrl was a movement that stood on the shoulders of Valley Girl. With Valley Girl, we learned to talk — quickly, smartly, to each other. It was of a piece with the dribs and drabs of female rock music of the era (The Pretenders, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, the Go-Gos, Blondie, Annie Lennox, Siouxie Sioux, etc.) that had a lot to say about being female.

Could Hanna’s overt feminism have been far behind?

Sigh. The only downside of watching The Punk Singer is realizing how far we’ve fallen since the glory days of Riot Grrrl. I ♥ Hanna. Rebel girl, you’re the queen of my world.


This is Lorraine Toussaint as Yvonne “Vee” Parker. We might call her a new character in Orange is the New Black‘s second season, but she’s well-known to two of Litchfield’s current inmates… for complicated reasons. She is the best female antagonist I’ve ever seen, and one of the best antagonists ever.

To Taystee (Danielle Williams), Vee is the foster mother who finally gave her a home. Sure, that home was the locus of a powerful drug corporation. But Vee knew how to inspire loyalty and a sense of family — and we can see her use exactly the right strings to pull Taystee back, to transform her into the loyal soldier she used to be before prison.


In flashbacks we learn exactly how Vee has earned such loyalty from Taystee: by providing exactly that feeling of belonging and family — as well as just the right dose of race pride — that her life lacked beforehand. Moreover, Vee is the best possible “mother”: smart, powerful, admirable. The fact that she runs a drug empire is incidental to her maternal effects on the lonely Taystee.


Once Taystee is on board, Vee pursues the loyalty of a small group of other young Black women to build her prison “family” — using a variety of the same techniques carefully calibrated to each woman (maternal gentleness, tough love, gestures to racial unity and vague promises of uplift and power). But not Taystee’s gay best friend Poussey (Samira Wiley, whom the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum aptly describes as “radiant”). Vee persuades Taystee to join in the exclusion and demonization of Poussey, a mean-girl process so real and devastating that I almost couldn’t watch those scenes.


Red (Kate Mulgrew) also has a history with Vee, but in her case it goes back to earlier prison days as competitors for control of the prison’s black market. Witnessing Red’s anxiety about talking to the leonine Vee for the first time gives us an insight into her character that we hadn’t seen before: for the first time in years, she worries that her aging will lead Vee to sniff out her weakness. In anticipation, she visits Sophia’s salon to amp up her fierceness.

And yet when they meet, they embrace warmly, like old friends.

Indeed, it is Vee’s capacity to convey warmth and insight that makes her so powerful, and so capable of deception. Witness her effect on the perpetual outsider, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba). She insists on calling her Suzanne. With a few correcting glances from Vee, Suzanne stops undermining herself and her mental stability, and speaks with new confidence. Under to heat of that seeming maternal affection and guidance, Suzanne glows like a light bulb and happily serves as Vee’s henchman, the muscles to Vee’s brains.


With everything else going on for me this summer, it took me forever to finish Season 2 — but throughout I marveled at the manipulative twists and maneuvers of Vee, who is the best antagonist I’ve seen in FOREVER. And it’s partly such a great character because she’s a woman who has learned to use people’s assumptions about her to her advantage. Think about it: we love a good bad guy — Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, Kevin Spacey as the horrifically Bible-obsessed baddie in Se7en — but when was the last time you saw a female antagonist worth remembering, for all the reasons why women learn how to extract power and manipulate others using their femininity?

But don’t get me wrong: this is not just a portrayal of a great female antagonist. This is the best antagonist in years, full stop.

Feast your eyes, friends.


Greetings from summer

13 June 2014

IMG_0766✓ sunscreen

✓ novel(s)

✓ back issues of the New Yorker

✓ mostly clean inbox


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 288 other followers