“I just want to be perfect,” Natalie Portman’s character Nina explains to her director Tomas (Vincent Cassel), when she defends her gifts as a dancer. Perfect, but she’s not good enough. Honestly, I think that in 100 years when historians look back at the condition of women at the turn of the 21st century, they will use “I just want to be perfect” as the most cutting, accurate articulation of our culture’s contradictions. And when I say this, don’t focus solely on the word perfect — think about the word just as well. It’s a statement that begs for approval from others, assumes an impossible standard, and modestly begs not to be seen as unattractively ambitious. Viewers of Black Swan: get ready to enter our world.

Am I exaggerating? Certainly not for young women like Nina (Portman). Back in 2003 Duke University was rocked by an anonymous letter to the editor of the campus paper that described a woman’s slow loss of confidence during her undergraduate years at Duke. She explained that women undergrads adhered to the ideal of “effortless perfection” — the notion that they should have perfect hair, clothes, weight, grades, and success — demands made all the more impossible because girls must never display the crushing effort required to achieve any of it. They exercised on treadmills for hours to be able to eat pizza later on. They just had to be perfect. The letter led to the usual results (hand-wringing by the Women’s Studies department, denials that there might be a problem) but here’s the thing: this is hardly limited to Duke. The New York Times featured a story in 2007 about high school girls who do everything — and likewise strive to be “perfect” — and still get rejected, crushingly, from colleges. We’ve been bemoaning the diseases of anorexia, bulimia, and other distorted body image issues for more than a generation now; it doesn’t take much to see that thinness is part and parcel of a broader set of demands that likewise have overwhelming psychological effects on girls. Perfect, perfect, perfect. It’s the disease of our time. Is this movie an elaborate metaphor for the experience of girls and young women?

Who’d be more susceptible to this psychic burden than a ballet dancer? The competition, the necessary precision, the need to be beautiful as well as freakishly talented, the toll on one’s body. Portman has famously discussed losing a whopping twenty-plus pounds from her tiny body for the role (“I thought I was going to die,” she explained), a statement that has elicited little sympathy on the part of journalists, who write callous headlines like, “Does Natalie Portman weight loss mean Oscar gold?” No wonder there are so many scenes of her alone, picking at a loose piece of skin or afraid to look in a bathroom mirror, all of it taking place in cold, hard rooms. Want to read a brilliant, almost prose-poem piece on this film? Take a look at Kartina Richardson’s essay at Mirror on Black Swan, women, and bathroom mirrors (I can only admire the flow of good writing). As much as I watched this film with true amazement at what Portman achieved as a dancer for this role, I have a hard time thinking of this as simply a role; it sounds as if the actress herself spiraled down into a kind of method-acting hell. Thank you, Natalie Portman, for speaking candidly about the part’s difficulties, rather than pretend her physical perfection in the part came without effort. We would do well to follow her lead rather than focus on the post-production fact that she gained back the weight and got pregnant with her fiancé, also a dancer.

With all the conflicting expectations, no wonder Portman’s character starts to split in two. Is this because she’s unhealthy or too emotionally fragile, placing too many demands on herself? No, it’s because other people do, too. She’s perfect — the perfect daughter, a perfect dancer — but she’s not sexy enough to be the Black Swan. “When I look at you, all I see is the White Swan,” her director Tomas tells her. “Yes, you’re beautiful, restrained, graceful. Perfect casting. But the Black Swan … it’s a hard fucking job to dance both.” He patronizingly advises her to masturbate — to loosen up, to seduce him and the audience as the Black Swan. Yet when she does, she falls from grace as a perfect daughter; she looks with new eyes at her little-girl bedroom, all pink and white and stuffed animals and a ballerina music box. In the process she starts to see another version of herself on the sidewalk, on the train, in the mirror. It goes without saying that the demands of heightened sexuality don’t loosen her up at all; they start to destroy her. I find it apt and poetic that if you google “perfect girls,” you get a whole list of porn sites.

For all of these reasons I find it impossible to view Black Swan as just a film, or a thriller, or a psycho-sexual melodrama, or as any of the other tidy descriptors used to characterize it. In fact, I find it impossible to view it as a critic — I can’t tell you whether this is a good film or whether Portman deserves the best-actress Oscar because it hits too many of my nerves. I can’t help seeing it as a fractured fairy tale with ingredients stirred in by Carl Jung, the modern modeling industry, and feminists given to telling cautionary tales. Did I “enjoy” watching it? Not in the least. Do I think it’s a historic visual testament to the tolls of Effortless Perfectionism? Oh my god, yes. It’s the return of the repressed, this film. Of course, I also believe that some viewers will be distracted by the lesbian sex scene, and that my views of this film as I’ve framed them here will not be typical. But just you wait: 100 years down the line, this’ll be the film that appears in all those women’s history classes — I can only hope those future female undergrads have found a way out of the psychic prison their forebears experienced.

The Sunday New York Times Arts section is typically full of generous articles about movies designed for those of us who love film — but not so Dennis Lim’s article this week about Sofia Coppola.  Let’s see if we can sense … oh, let’s call it the slight whiff of patronizingly sexist disdain here in his first paragraph:

AT 39 and with four features to her name, Sofia Coppola finds herself caught in something of a double bind — the predicament of the auteur whose constancy risks being seen as predictability, or worse.  Her admirers detect in her work a good eye, impeccable taste, an exactitude with indistinct moods and feelings.  Her detractors claim that her frame of reference is narrow, that she makes the same film over and over again.

Lim continues in the next paragraph:

By her own admission Ms. Coppola’s first three movies — “The Virgin Suicides” (2000), “Lost in Translation” (2003) and “Marie Antoinette” (2006) — constitute a trilogy about young women on the awkward verge of self-definition.  As her critics see it, the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism.

As much as I love his side-stepping use of these unnamed “critics” and “detractors,” let’s set aside the patronizing air for the moment to ask whether he has seen anything other than Marie Antoinette.  (And I hasten to add that I really liked that film, though I know some didn’t.)  How, Mr. Lim, can anyone characterize her first two films as about “young women on the verge” when The Virgin Suicides is at least as much about boys who look at and admire a group of unknowable sisters, and Lost in Translation is about a relationship between a shlubby, aging actor and a woman less than half his age?  Deep into the article Lim recounts Kirsten Dunst’s exasperated response to this charge at Cannes several years ago:  “Observing that ‘mopey-man movies’ often get a free pass, Ms. Dunst suggested that there is less tolerance for feminine introspection.”  That’s the very least one can say about movie-makers’ tolerance for male solipsism.

Most of all, Lim casts a skeptical eye on the fact that Coppola is the “supremely well-connected daughter of Francis Ford Coppola” and that this has dictated her interest in filming what he calls “the luxe life.”  (Again, have you seen the decidedly middle-class The Virgin Suicides?)  No one doubts that her family ties have helped her, but they didn’t bring her the multiple awards she’s received, including a Golden Globe (for Lost in Translation) and the Golden Lion (for her current film Somewhere).  And I ask you, Mr. Lim, have you ever described Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Jaden Smith, director Jason Reitman, or even Coppola’s cousins Jason and Robert Schwartzman as the “supremely well-connected son of …”? 

Turning to Lim’s sexist and patronizing dismissals, let’s tick through some of his charges:

  • Her work is predictable
  • Her work is somehow about herself
  • Her work is solipsistic
  • She got where she is due to nepotism
  • Her films only portray the cloistered elite, because that’s all she knows
  • She is well known to love fashion, “which seems to have contributed to a perception that there is something frivolous about her films” (we here at Feminéma LOVE the use of the passive voice!)
  • She has responded to past criticism by turning her film Somewhere into a minimalistic film about a male perspective
  • Her films are “delicate”
  • Coppola displays a “lack of awareness” about her films as a group, a lack of awareness Lim calls either “blissful or protective” (hang on, she’s both solipsistic and blissfully unaware?)

Great job, Dennis Lim!  Let’s hope that your own supremely well-connected work with The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Moving Image Source, the Museum of the Moving Image, The Village Voice, The Village Voice Film Guide, the National Society of Film Critics, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the 2010 Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and many film festivals including New York, San Sebastian, Vancouver, Tribeca, and South by Southwest Film Festivals — to name only a few I found online — permits you to continue to offer such useful assessments of one of the very few top-shelf female directors in the world.  The New York Times does it again!

Feminizing female athletes

13 September 2010

When it comes to diagnosing our crazy, conflicted relationship to powerful women, what better subject than female athletes?  These women can kick just about anyone’s ass, yet somehow discussion of their talent now has to include catty comments about their clothes and personalities.  Some athletes themselves seem to get caught up in this, wearing tight designer dresses and improbably small bikinis when playing their sports, makeup, and distracting nail polish, as if to feminize their hard muscles, aggression, and athletic superiority.         

Case in point:  Caroline Wozniacki’s US Open dress (designed by Stella McCartney!) was so tight that it persisted in riding up her butt during each point, requiring vigorous tugging down afterward.  Did it occur to no one that she needed to play tennis in this dress, because she is a world-class athlete, not a pretty plaything?  I vote that McCartney be banned from designing athletes’ dresses until she can be bothered to show that women can move while wearing them.  I became so annoyed by this display that I vented on the phone to a friend that if it’s all about pleasing male TV viewers, they should just make all women tennis players wear bikinis, as in beach volleyball.

But although that comment was intended to be a joke, it wasn’t a joke to the Olympics in 1994 and the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) in 1999, which passed rules that female beach volleyball players had to wear bikinis of a certain skimpiness, while men wore baggy shorts and sometimes t-shirts.  That rule seems to have been relaxed in recent years due to vigorous objections by various international teams.  During the height of this controversy a few competitors, most notably Holly McPeak, shilled for the FIVB by insisting these “uniforms” are both practical and comfortable, but most admit it’s about drawing a large TV audience of men.  Really, “comfortable”? 

And then there’s the makeup, which for me is most objectionable on the girls who participate in international gymnastics.  It’s not just that the makeup and sparkles in their hair makes me wonder what ranking these competitions have amongst pedophiles (whose other favorite show might well be “Little Miss Perfect,” the reality TV show about pre-pubescent girls’ beauty contests).  It’s that these diminutive girl gymnasts are getting the message that if you’re going to compete at the highest level, you’ve got to girl-ify yourself — but for whom?  The judges?  The TV audience?  Please tell me they’ll keep bikinis off gymnasts, at least. 

Finally — and most revealing — are those female athletes who don’t play nice and prettify themselves, but embrace the fact that they’re blazing new ground for gender performance for all of us would-be tomboys.  There’s Brittney Griner, the sophomore basketball star from Baylor University, who decorates her own webpage with this (decidedly un-girlie) photo showing off her 6’8″ lankiness.  If I were to read the message of this photo, I’d say it tells us that she’s going to be sexy on her own damn terms.  (Ahem:  it’s working.)  Yet just last winter the New York Times put an entire article in its sports section asking a series of designers and modeling agents how they might prettify Griner.

Finally — and perhaps most special to my heart — there’s Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance runner and winner of the gold medal in the 800 meter race at the 2009 World Championships.  After winning last summer, she was forced to undergo a series of tests — mysterious ones at first, as they didn’t explain to her what was going on — to determine whether she was really female.  Despite worldwide controversy over this incident, it took the International Association of Athletics Foundations (IAAF) almost a year to clear her for competition.  (Nota bene: when she was finally cleared, she immediately won two races in Finland.)  Despite having undergone perhaps the most  excruciating and potentially career-killing gender scrutiny of all, Semenya’s race appearances show her to be the super-human being she is.  She’s all about streamlined power and muscles.  I’m sorry, TV viewers, if that doesn’t seem quite feminine enough for you.  Women’s sports doesn’t have to be a site for confirming mainstream notions of femininity, much less pornified notions.  So let me suggest you just get over it.  

I really hoped this one would go away, but of course Lisa Belkin had to join in with a New York Times Magazine piece this week, which in turn seemed to cue Maureen Dowd, who was already all over the gay question.  Sometimes it just makes my head hurt really bad.

If we pay attention to the news, there’s lots of things wrong with Elena Kagan, and the media is looking for more every day.  So imagine their delight when some journalists started suggesting it’s her lack of children.  It’s the perfect argument, for it seems to have no clear partisan, anti-Semitic, or homophobic bent (like most of the others), AND we get to trash her life choices!  Anti-feminism activated!

It started with Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast explaining there are two reasons we should appoint women to the Supreme Court (oh, the desire to call this mansplaining): 1) “female justices, on average, will be more sensitive to the problems women face” and possibly those faced by other disadvantaged groups; and 2) they can help alleviate gender bias by being role models.  Is that it?  I wonder why we need so darn many if those are the only reasons.

His main point was to note that a majority of the women appointed to cabinet positions during the last three presidential administrations were childless; only six of the sixteen women in those positions have had children.  If Kagan is appointed, only two of the four female Supreme Court justices in American history will have been mothers — and that’s just not fair.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with appointing childless women (or men, for that matter) to high office. But our government is actually doing a pretty good job of providing role models for the 20 percent of American women who don’t want kids. Where it’s failing is in providing role models for the 80 percent that do.

If we want to talk about “failing,” maybe it would help if we remember that of the 111 justices in US history, 106 have been white men, 2 African American, 2 white women, and 1 Latina.  Maybe it would help if we had more than 4 women in Obama’s 15-person cabinet.  Maybe it would help if people like Beinart, Belkin, and others remembered that simply having more women in positions of power is inspiring to women; not everyone asks first & foremost whether a woman is a mother.  A quick note: only 4 of the Supreme Court justices in American history were bachelors, and I can’t find any information on how many were fathers.  But we do know that all of the men currently sitting on the Court are fathers.  (And look how that’s worked out, sensitivity-wise.  Apparently women have special feeling powers!)  To complain that Kagan isn’t a mother is to draw attention away from the fact that even now, the Supreme Court really looks nothing like the rest of America.  Yes, more women on the Court is a small step in the right direction for women; but let’s not be reductionist about the complicated issues presidents weigh as they make their choices.  Obama may have wanted to find a woman this time, but that probably wasn’t the only thing on his mind.

Beinart argues that Obama should have chosen mom Diane Wood instead, and although he probably wouldn’t go as far as Hilary Shenfeld at iVillage that Wood would have brought “some unique ‘mom-spertise’ to the Supreme Court,” he probably should have guessed that this was whither his argument was tending:

With the addition of Wood, a jurist with a mama bear lurking inside, the Supreme Court would have a member who’s lived through the toughest job on earth and came out better for it. She’s wiped away dirt and tears, helped with homework and heartache, made as many decisions as dinners, really listened and really heard. She’s had years of experience settling squabbles and determining who’s right and who’s wrong. She would have come to the job not only with legal smarts, but also the real-world wisdom picked up from the day-in, day-out joys, frustrations and plain hard work of being a mother and raising a family.

Um, what are we talking about again?  Oh yeah, whether we should appoint mothers to the court because then the Court will look more like America and inspire women to be mothers and jurists.  Lisa Belkin in the New York Times quotes Shenfeld, but avoids the maudlin in order to reiterate Beinart’s argument:  we’re sending the wrong message to women by appointing so many childless women to positions of high power.  Women learn from these choices that bearing children is risky for career-minded women:

Expectation brings obligation, and Sotomayór and Kagan were of the generation facing new tradeoffs. Pursue the career and sacrifice the family. Have the family and ratchet back the career. True, the stigma of not marrying or having children waned for this younger generation, making it more of a deliberate choice for some. But still, roads had to be chosen. There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.

That’s just how we childless women operate, you see.  We sit down when we’re 10 years old and “choose” to study and work so hard that we will have no lives, ever, because we’re plotting out our paths to seats on the Supreme Court; the people we’ve got to knock out of our way are those super-feeling mommies.  When Belkin lays out these “new tradeoffs,” she makes enormous assumptions not just about Sotomayór’s and Kagan’s “choices” (not everyone “chooses” to be childless, stay unmarried, or get divorced, as in Sotomayór’s case), but also about what most Americans admire about female leaders.  (And excuse me, but who exactly gets to choose to take “five years off to stay home with your children,” anyway?)  This, of course, led to Maureen Dowd’s piece today on the difference between being “single” and “unmarried.”

But my real gripe here is the constant parsing the lives of exceptional women for details that are irrelevant to their nomination — thereby permitting, yet again, women to be treated differently than male candidates for the same job.  She’s the wrong kind of woman, these comments tell us.  Some women make the wrong kinds of choices, they imply; we should feel sorry for her because she’s unmarried and childless.  And it allows everyone to get distracted by the illusion that this is a zero-sum game in which women are fighting it out amongst themselves.

In the old days, professors had wives.  Wives edited and typed manuscripts, kept households running smoothly, conducted research or fact-checked for their husbands, directed the kids away from the study, sometimes served as unacknowledged co-authors on books, and served canapés and cocktails.

What could be a better measure of changed times than when one such wife, Dorothy Jane Mills, advanced an objection to being ignored for her considerable work on the definitive history of baseball written with her late husband, Harold Seymour.  She had described her life with Seymour at length in her 2004 autobiography, A Woman’s Work, but had to explain again this year “how she had, in fact, co-written those books but received no credit,” as the New York Times reported in March:

Asked why she did not object at the time, she paused and broke into tears.

“It was too easy not to,” she said. “I was just playing my role. I was just doing everything I had done before and continuing with it. I was comfortable with that role.”

Few men have the luxury of such a wife of old anymore, yet we in the university are still rethinking the nature of academic labor and productivity.  Feminism has taught young Dorothy Jane Millses not to be content with playing those old roles, helps us imagine valuable researchers and professors being women as well as men, and changes what we consider to be important topics for research.  But if universities are slowly becoming more inclusive, it’s harder to balance scholarly productivity and also take on basic household labor.  If books of old were sometimes produced by something like 1½ people, now they’re written by individuals working 70-hr weeks who don’t have time to get the oil changed on their cars.  At the same time, universities’ publication expectations are way, way up.

Simply having women professors, gay profs, and professors of color matters — it helps alter students’ perceptions of the world around them.  Numerous studies show that students often arrive at university with a set of received ideas about the world — and unconsidered sexism and racism are top among them.  Having to read books by experts who aren’t just straight white guys helps, too.  They don’t have to be the best teachers, nor do they have to be talking about issues relevant to their race/gender identity.  Their bodies alone familiarize young people with a wider world than, say, the race/gender visual of the U.S. Presidents.

I want my students to learn from their college experience to ask, why are there only 2 (white) female columnists for the New York Times, and why are there only 2 black men, while the remaining 7 are white guys?  Why don’t I see a single major black, Asian, or Latina woman anchor on TV news?  Why isn’t Sarah Haskins a major cultural force along the lines of Jon Stewart?  And I want those questions to emerge from a daily college experience of diversity amongst their classmates as well as professors.

We aren’t just teaching straight white guys in our classes.  Having professors who look like them makes a difference to the vast majority of students who are women and people of color — an even larger majority now that women make up about 57% of undergraduates on U. S. college campuses.  Those of us who’ve counseled students in need of pregnancy advice, whose parents were just deported, or whose relatives still believe higher education is a waste for girls can attest that these problems arise all the time, and that these students don’t seem to turn first for advice from their 60-yr-old white male profs.

In addition, let’s remember that university administrations are slowest of all to change; change there requires mind-numbingly slow turnover.  They still deny tenure to individuals because, say, they’re not convinced of the value of a queer view of women’s fiction or that a woman might be smart enough to be a full professor in mathematics.  Those same views are held by some of our male colleagues who still seem to embrace the gendered order of laundry detergent commercials.

But as much as gender and racial diversity matters, feminism matters too.  Feminism offers ways to articulate opposition to bad administrative or promotion decisions — moments when we can model for our undergrads and grad students a clearheaded feminist voice.  The resistance to change, together with some men’s discomfort with women peers, means that we have to fight for basic gender equity as much today as twenty years ago (as witnessed by continually demoralizing reports on gender in academia that emerge every year).  I know we’re tired from all the labor we undertake, but to be silent on these matters is to be indistinguishable from the nice little wife.  Colleges are a good place to stop internalizing that stereotype of the ugly and dour feminist, for if sexism still pops up in the university, students can be damn sure they’ll see it in the workplace in a couple of years.

Un-fu¢king-believable.  The New York Times writes about Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-8 female basketball star at Baylor University, simply in terms of her attractiveness.  How does the author, Guy Trebay, make this into a news item?  By celebrating how female athletes are expanding our ideas about feminine beauty!  Yay, feminism!  Let’s look at his tally of feminist triumphs via women’s sports:

Feminine beauty ideals have shifted with amazing velocity over the last several decades, in no realm more starkly than sports. Muscular athleticism of a sort that once raised eyebrows is now commonplace. Partly this can be credited to the presence on the sports scene of Amazonian wonders like the Williams sisters, statuesque goddesses like Maria Sharapova, Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh, sinewy running machines like Paula Radcliffe or thick-thighed soccer dynamos like Mia Hamm.

Now that you put it in such a sensitive manner, Trebay, I see more clearly how much women have succeeded in making thick thighs and an “Amazonian” physical presence completely mainstream.

Clearly, when presented with the topic of female athletes, our sole question should be:  am I attracted to them?  And thanks to Trebay, we know the answer is yes.  Never mind that Griner has an “attenuated Gumby torso, coltish legs and tomboy features,” he attests; she’s gorgeous!  And he quotes a lot of model casting agents, stylists, and scouts to confirm that fact.

Thus, with our coltish legs and thick thighs, we resolutely take 10 big steps backward.  And I thought it was cool that Griner can dunk.