Normally I like fall semester.  Students are enthused and hopeful (even the seniors, before their sad descent into apathy during the spring), the nights start to get cold after a long hot summer, I make unrealistic plans to focus on my research even though the teaching gets overwhelming.  But this semester’s tough.  It started with a student in true emotional crisis, continued when I frantically pulled together a public talk in three mad days, and now that I’m in the middle of an exceptionally bureaucratic period of paperwork, I feel buried alive.  No, it’s worse than that:  especially after a long, whiney, cranky dinner conversation in which my poor best friend listened to me patiently, I feel as if I’ve become some kind of demon zombie.

How poetic, then, that I’ve been watching “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” for the first time.  And let me ask:  how did I never watch this show before?  I think I’ve made it clear how much I love films/TV with strong women; love scary stuff; love to immerse myself in long-running TV shows; love to look at pretty men, etc.  This one has it all, yet somehow during the late 90s when it was on, I was distracted (and had a TV with only one channel, as I remember it).  No, this one has MORE than it all, for there’s an entire academic sub-discipline of Buffy Studies including the peer-edited (!) online journal, Slayage: The Online Journal of Whedon Studies, which apparently branched out due to the show’s creator’s subsequent projects.  (Disclaimer:  I’m being facetious, honestly, and don’t really think there’s enough to this fun show to spark much academic blah-blah-blahing, so I won’t be spending much time with Buffy Studies.  I’d much rather keep watching the show than reading quasi-academic prose about it.  And with that I promise to keep my big words to a minimum.)

It took me a few episodes, but I really get it now why people raved about this show all that time.  What a brilliant analogy for high school, what a brilliant quasi-feminist show.  Even my hero, Susan Douglas, raves about it in her terrific book, Enlightened Sexism:  The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done.  For Douglas, “Buffy” was that crystalline example of a female-centered moment of 90s media and popular culture that held up women as powerful and kick-ass.  It might not have been a feminist dream, but it wasn’t the horrors that we have now, like “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”  “Buffy” takes all the things that are horrible about high school and characterizes them as demonic, which must have been crazily therapeutic for people who were actually in high school at the time.  Let me just describe the first episode that clicked for me:  “The Pack,” in which a group of high school kids already prone to petty cruelty and mockery becomes inhabited by the evil spirits of hyaenas.  Not only do they continue to prey on the weak, but they might actually eat you if they get you alone in a room.  They won’t prey on Buffy, because they sense she’s too strong for them; they focus, instead, on the shy and small.  “Buffy” would have helped to explain a lot about high school for me.  (My new favorite character is the town’s mayor — an okily dokily, Ned Flanders type who makes plans to end the world in the same sentence as reminding you to get more calcium.  OF COURSE such a man is a demon.)

But that’s the thing, isn’t it?  Old people like me like “Buffy”  because it’s a metaphor for our lives, too.  I’ve entertained myself for hours with the fantasy of stocking my office with wooden stakes and kicking a certain colleague in the head with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s taekwondo finesse.  That’s why Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series appealed to me so much this summer, too — these tales of a world turned upside down and the necessity for extreme female action in a time of crisis are inherently attractive when one works for large, bureaucratic institutions and deals with soulless bureaucrats (and senior colleagues!).  And they’re healthy reminders to me to keep the demons at bay lest I be turned to the side of evil.  (And yeah, I’m fairly certain that the dude who plays Angel was created in some kind of test tube designed to infect the dreams of viewers.  Not that I’m complaining.) 

I’ve got papers to grade and letters of recommendation to write and applications to fill out and lectures to finish, and my department is at each other’s throats more than usual.  I’m beat.  Thank god I can explain all this by understanding that my department sits atop a new Hellmouth.

Ladies:  you must let men do whatever they like to you, otherwise like the entire public will want to hurt you.  Or at least that’s the message from the Inés Sainz case last week.  A 9-year veteran reporter and an on-camera sports reporter with Mexico’s TV Azteca, Sainz appeared on the sidelines of the NY Jets’ football practice with two of her camera crew.  She’s awesome-looking, so those scamps! insisted on throwing passes near Sainz so they could catch it in her vicinity and get a better look at her.  After the game, during the 30-minute period when both male and female reporters are allowed into the locker room, she was subjected to an onslaught of catcalls from the players so loud she had to cover her ears.  Another reporter present filed a grievance with the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) that was addressed immediately by the NFL, which found after an investigation that “she was never bumped, touched, brushed against, or otherwise subjected to any physical contact by any player or coach.”  Because unless one of these guys touches you, you’re not allowed to feel threatened.

Here’s the upshot:  The NFL sent a memo to all 32 teams reminding them to treat women in a professional manner.  What a bitch!  Don’t you totally hate getting memos?

Except that’s not all:  Sainz has been called a bitch and a tease in every possible way.  News stories about the incident invariably feature unrelated photos of Sainz wearing low-cut dresses and bikinis.  Here’s a typical account of the incident:

“Sainz, who has previously appeared in several magazines wearing just a bikini, defended her appearance at the Jets practice session, insisting she dressed modestly, and posting a photo on Twitter to back up her claims.

‘Jeans and a white button-up blouse [are] in no way inappropriate,’ she tweeted.”

Golly, I wonder how most readers will interpret that:  If I can find a photo of her in a sexy bikini, she must be a slut who wants this kind of attention from men.  Actually, I don’t have to wonder how they’ll interpret it, because their interpretations flew fast and furious and invariably made the same point:

“You play with fire, you get burned.”

“Boys will be boys (especially jocks!!) and this chick is only doing this for attention and she is loving it!! Soak it up lady cuz when your looks run out, you will be nothing!!”

What’s a girl to do?  With the public breathing fire, Sainz not only backed off from her initial complaints, but attacked the AWSM for launching a grievance.  Of course she did.  Would she still have a job if she actually stood up for herself?  Hey everybody, Sainz is on board now — let’s go blame the feminists for this incident!  (No kidding: she now says the hasty action by the AWSM set back the women’s rights movement by “at least 50 years.”  Which is actually a pretty confusing claim, but I’m sure it guarantees that Sainz won’t be shunned by athletes.)

Which brings me back to my headline, from “This is Spïnal Täp,” in which the band’s manager tries to defend the cover on their new album, “Sniff the Glove,” from an irate woman.  “You put a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out to her, holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it.  You don’t find that offensive?  You don’t find that sexist?”  He responds:  “This is 1982, Bobbi, c’mon!” while the dim-witted band members express confusion.  “What’s wrong with being sexy?”

This is 1982, man.  You must let men do whatever they like to you, otherwise we will hurt you. 

This is a wholly random collection, as you’ll see — aren’t they always?  It’s partly inspired by my wish to see a wider range of female parts get handed out, but these actors have stuck in my mind for ages, and I think Hollywood needs a nudge.

  1. Shareeka Epps.  She played the watchful, thoughtful middle-school kid in “Half Nelson” (2006) alternately inspired and disturbed by her self-immolating history teacher (Ryan Gosling). I can’t imagine what it must have taken for a 15- or 16-year-old  to step up to Gosling in that film, but she did — earning piles of awards nominations and several wins, including Breakthrough Performance from the Gotham Awards.  I’ve been watching and waiting for more from her ever since — but she’s suffered like so many young black actors by a Hollywood single-mindedly focused on white dudes.
  2. Michelle Forbes.  It’s not just the time she put in earning paychecks as Ro Laren in the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (or her utterly delightful turns in “Battlestar Gallactica” and as the psychopathic Maryann on “True Blood”), although any one of those performances might be enough for me to want more of this willowy, wicked-eyed, sharp-tongued, iconoclastic actor.  But it was “In Treatment” that nailed it, as the miserable wife of the psychotherapist Gabriel Byrne — her exasperating sessions with a man who’s simultaneously too smart and too deluded to change his destructive path to show her he cares.  Of everyone on my list, Forbes has gotten the most work during her career; and she might be perfectly content with her wide range of parts.  But I want more.
  3. Sandi McCree.  I’ve found myself several times defending her performance in “The Wire” as Namond Brice’s mother — some saw De’Londa as so hard-edged as to be a stereotype of the ghetto woman.  If anything, it was brave; but in truth I thought she did some of the best, quiet work of season 4.  De’Londa was dedicated to playing a particular role as the wife of a good soldier in Baltimore’s drug wars, and this wasn’t an easy role.  While her husband had sacrificed himself and was ticking away the years of a life sentence in prison on behalf of his bosses, De’Londa was left to 1) keep her husband’s memory alive in the streets; 2) enjoy the lifelong financial payouts from the bosses; and 3) raise their son to be just like his father.  Except that the payouts ended, and Namond was sort of a wuss.  No wonder De’Londa was angry a lot of the time.  I loved her then and want more of these unexpected portrayals of black women onscreen.
  4. Molly Shannon.  When she was on “Saturday Night Live” she was given a lot of the broadest comedic parts, like that of a spastic cheerleader; and she’s still used in bit parts for her knack for that style of sketch comedy.  But a few years ago she showed in “Year of the Dog” (2007) that she’s really good in bittersweet, subtly funny parts as well.  So now, whenever I catch her making a brief appearance — on “30 Rock” as Jack Donaghy’s sister; on “Glee” as a nutso teacher; and on SNL’s massive Mother’s Day/Betty White/women’s reunion extravaganza — I keep seeing the fine actor in her being blunted by the writers’ short-sighted demand for broad comedy.  There’s been an odd conversation in the media during the last year about funny women — at one point, Margaret Cho suggested that the funniest women were gender bending and/or gay, while others rationalized the lack of women writers on TV comedies by suggesting that women just aren’t as funny as men (I’m calling out Stephen Metcalf of Slate’s Culture Gabfest for an uncharacteristically bad moment).  Then there was the kerfuffle over “The Daily Show” and its dearth of female correspondants.  Anyway — my point is that there are lots of funny women and a few with the subtle talents of Molly Shannon, and that they’re under-used.

As soon as I post this I’ll probably think of more people — but I’m racing to the airport for one last short summer trip before the semester takes over my life.  Bon voyage, all!

…who has only severely limited access to YouTube (for which I am most sympathetic).  Here are a few videos to celebrate the pure unadulterated joy of immersing oneself in soccer during the World Cup.  First, the greatest commercial ever made for sports:

Second, because Monty Python should always be invoked in even years:

And finally, just because, The Butt Dance:

More on women, feminism, movies, etc. tomorrow.

When someone kidnaps a child — or several children, as is sometimes the case — our tendency is to respond by characterizing that person as the exception.  We tell ourselves he’s a pedophile, a psychopath, a serial killer, a freak.  He’s like the wolf of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale; this is no mere wild animal, but one who systematically sets out to trick a little girl and eat her.

The “Red Riding” trilogy produced by the UK’s Channel Four wants us to think of the wolf differently.  He is no exception; he is us, and he is eating us alive.  These films are scarily brilliant, appallingly violent, and so good I wanted to watch them again even before I’d finished watching.  Moreover, they are beautifully photographed — truly, some of the most creative and provocative cinematography I’ve seen in ages.

The first episode/film, “The Year of Our Lord 1974,” makes all other renditions of the 70s appear ersatz, like what “The Wire” did to “Law & Order.”  This is no “Life on Mars,” with its earnest fights against petty corruption in the Manchester police department of 1973, cross-cut with jumps into a groovy muscle car with the deliciously mouthy Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt.  There is no thrumping rock soundtrack, no glam anthems, not a single moment spent romanticizing the era.  The West Yorkshire of these films is filthy, perpetually raining, and unbearably claustrophobic, filled with dark tunnels, narrow stairwells, and dreary working-class 1970s homes filled with awful furniture and wallpaper.  It opens with the kidnapping of a little girl last seen wearing a red jacket and red Wellingtons, and shortly thereafter she is found dead, tortured, and with real swan’s wings sewn into her tiny back.  (All of the physical violence against children and women takes place offscreen.  This cannot be said for the violence against men — a decision that, frankly, was fine with me.)

Enter the cocksure young reporter, Eddie (Andrew Garfield), just back from starting his career in the South and feeling pretty good about himself as the local boy-made-good.  Who wouldn’t, with that terrific head of hair and his prettyboy pouty lips?  (For which we hate him immediately.)  He soon sniffs out that this is not the first little girl to go missing and pursues the serial-killer line of investigation despite the pushback he gets from the cops.  He’s right to do so — it’s a canny decision.  In contrast, his decision to pursue the little girl’s mother (Rebecca Hall, who won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress) is a bad choice, just like all his others.

Eddie wants to get to the heart of the problem, just like the well-intentioned Pete in “In the Year of Our Lord 1980” and John and Maurice in “1983,” but there is no wolf to be slaughtered, no exceptional villain, and no heroic woodsman to intervene just in time.  Eddie has no idea how much he’s bitten off.  The webs of corruption stretch everywhere, and these men will do anything to keep it that way.  Here the cinematography does its best work (and I would argue, done most effectively and exceptionally in “1974;” it’s a crime that Rob Hardy went unrecognized for it, though his colleague David Higgs won a BAFTA for his photography in “1983”).  Every single scene is shot from a slightly disorienting angle, moving our eye about these rooms and making us notice the discomfort.  At times the imagery is backed up by, of all things, some very slow and beautiful soul music, even more disconcerting given the grim and soulless world we’re watching.  View that imagery here, as Eddie is invited by the über-skeezy John Dawson (Sean Bean at his skeeziest) to enjoy the benefits of being on the take.  It’s not just the sideways views of the two men’s faces; it’s also the camera’s pauses to watch the rain as it rolls down the windows, both of which somehow don’t allow you to forget the rain after the camera returns to their faces:

By “1980” the corrupt establishment has really accomplished something, and they’re getting very rich.  “To us all!” they toast.  “And to the North! where we do what we like.”  (This line is just not effective textually without that accent.) But by now the cops among them are faced with the still-unsolved Yorkshire Ripper killings of maybe 13 prostitutes, and the Home Office sends Pete (Paddy Considine) and his two most trusted detectives to help.  Instead of helping, however, they find the West Yorkshire police resent them, lie to them, and conceal evidence — and for good reason, as it turns out.  Worst of all, we begin to suspect that a haggard-looking gay teenaged rentboy, aptly named B.J., is not just being overlooked as a source of information — his life is in serious danger for what he knows, although we’re not sure who’s going to come after him.  By “1983,” B.J. is sleeping in his garage space with a shotgun in his lap for fear of his life.

If you had recorded my brain activity while watching these films, all areas of my brain would have lit up:  it was the elements of fable juxtaposed with gritty thriller.  The swan’s wings, the little girl’s red jacket, the fantasy of escape and renewal; even near the very end, a voiceover tells us in a singsong, let me tell you a story voice, “Here is the one / that got away / and lived to tell the tale.”  It was also the perfect performances by Hall, Considine, the seriously under-used Maxine Peake, and David Morrissey (here, concealing his Hollywood handsomeness behind that uninspired ‘stache, glasses, and mousy brown hair), the unforgiving scenery, the shadowy women, the lost children.  And it was the films’ contrast with one of my favorites, “North and South,” in which sharp regional differences are assuaged by the growing understanding and love between its two protagonists.  In “Red Riding” there is no love between North and South; the North is fiercely determined, indeed, to do “whatever we want,” the South be damned.  When one character voices the old saw, “The Devil triumphs when good men do nowt” (again, think of that accent making all the words emerge from the tongue-iest part of the throat), we know that this is mere folly.

One more thought.  The second film opens with scenes of street protests against the Yorkshire Ripper and complaints against the police’s failure to catch him; but there are other signs as well.  Women are filmed carrying signs that say “No Means No,” “Men Off the Streets!”, and “All Sex is Rape,” and graffiti on a wall pronounces “Men Are the Enemy.”  The films have no room for this kind of feminist rage, except implicitly and extremely subtly.  No, this is a trilogy about men, the wolves and the woodsmen who go in search of the little girl in the red jacket and red Wellies.  Oh well.

I have dived into Dickens.  It started, of course, with the 2008 BBC miniseries a few weeks ago; now I’m reading the copy of David Copperfield I found in my summer rental apartment.  Meanwhile, I’m scouring Google Videos for a Dickens back catalogue available online — and have found a muddy copy of what is obviously an excellent four-part version of “Our Mutual Friend” (1998) on YouTube, disappointing only in that I have to ingest it in 9-minute increments.

Ordinarily this would strike me as strange — doesn’t Dickens sound more appropriate for a winter break?  All those hungry children, conniving lawyers, brittle old women, and cold garrets.  Maybe if I were in sweltering Texas I’d find this too much.  I think the appeal of Dickens right now reflects the fact that doing research makes one strange.

I’m looking around the research library right now, noting how many of them are of the same type:  disheveled (I’ve counted five with bed-head hair), shabbily dressed, poor posture — and absolutely preoccupied with their work.  Don’t get me wrong:  I am exactly the same, sans the bed head.  The woman across the desk from me has an expression on her face as if she’s simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the materials she’s reading. The woman next to me whispers unselfconsciously as she reads aloud over her magnifying glass.  The man on the other side is surely a grad student — he can’t be more than 26 — yet he already has the perceptible disappointment and self-defeat of a 50-year-old.  An atom bomb could go off and these people’s eyes wouldn’t lift from their books.

Given this cast of characters, it seems entirely appropriate that I’d be watching a show about a family that made its fortune in the dust business, and an “articulator of bones,” Mr. Venus (Timothy Spall, whose face guaranteed him a lifetime of Dickensian parts; he’s also appeared as Peter Pettigrew/ Wormtail in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and the uxorious Nathaniel in “Enchanted”).  The faces of the people in the library with me aren’t that different than those of Noddy Boffin, Betsy Trotwood, or Sloppy.

So here’s to a summer of talking to myself in the library, and then racing home to consume another couple hundred pages of social satire and condemnation of society obsessed with money and status — by an author who knew that no matter how much he criticized the world around him, the worthy man and virtuous woman would always marry in the end (and probably wind up with piles of money), and that his readers would weep as a result.

Dear Nan F., THANK YOU for sending this recommendation, because there is nothing better designed to end all of those end-of-semester pains than a 452-minute BBC mini-series (for the math-averse, that’s about 7 ½ hours. 7 ½!!).  At some point during the final episode last night, I turned to my partner and said, “I have no idea where this is going!” with utter delight.

the dastardly French murderer, Rigaud (Andy Serkis)

Ah, the Dickensian aspect, as they called it in “The Wire.”  A tangle of characters, high and low; base greed and social posturing contrasted with utter selflessness and love; fools, knaves, and murderers — oh, THANK YOU for “Little Dorrit” during what felt like the 75th week of the semester.

Charles Dickens was a master at writing diverting tales for the serials; early installments of these stories invariably introduced a crazy range of characters at all levels of society.  “Little Dorrit” tells us right away that there is a mystery surrounding the hard-on-its-luck Dorrit family:  William Dorrit has been locked in the debtor’s prison, Marshalsea, for so long that his children know no other home.  Although he retains pretentions associated with his former social position, his older son and daughter have adopted the working-class accents and weak characters of the low-born.  But not his youngest, Amy, or “Little Dorrit” (Claire Foy).  One look at her enormous blue eyes and we know she’s our heroine, especially because she deals as lovingly and generously with her family’s weaknesses as with that of the snobbish Mrs. Clennam, who hires Amy to sew for her. 

Little Dorrit (Claire Foy) and her actress-sister, Fanny

We also learn right away that Mrs. Clennam has hired Amy out of some kind of misplaced guilt for her role in bringing about the Dorrits’ misfortunes.  Moreover, her son, Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen), back in London after twenty years in China, begins to suspect the same on seeing his bitter mother’s uncharacteristic kindness to Amy.  Arthur undertakes to learn the Dorrits’ history as a means of obeying his father’s cryptic deathbed wish:  to “make it right.”  Yet when he presses his mother for more information, she angrily shuts him out from her life.

Matthew Macfadyen as the noble Arthur Clennam

The series was directed by a team led by Emmy Award winner Dearbhla Walsh, and written by Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who’s apparently never found a nineteenth-century novel too lengthy or convoluted to tackle as a miniseries.  To wit, his credits include:

  • “Middlemarch” (1994)
  • “Pride and Prejudice” (1995)
  • “Wives and Daughters” (1999)
  • “The Way We Live Now” (2001)
  • “Bleak House” (2005)
  • “Sense and Sensibility” (2008)

…and he’s now reportedly taking on more Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, as well as other projects.  Davies seems to have a love for the language and narrative flow of a nineteenth-century rambling novel, and exhibits a faithfulness to them designed to please the novel’s fans as well as mere television viewers. Granted, he often opts for broadly caricaturing his secondary characters; I bristled at the gratuitous fat jokes directed at poor Flora Finching, once engaged to Arthur but now merely a comical, overweight, desperate middle-aged fool.  But let’s not be small.  Faced with a cast of dozens of important figures, each with shadowy motives and personal tics, Davies leaves no doubts in the minds of his wide audience as to who’s who and how we should feel about them.  No one who saw Francesca Annis as the excrable Hyacinth Gibson in “Wives and Daughters” can ever forget her.

And speaking of the tendency to go over the top, Amy Dorrit is one of those ridiculously selfless nineteenth-century heroines so out of fashion by the twentieth century.  She quietly and lovingly tends to her slightly mad father just as she does for anyone else who might need her, never putting her own desires ahead of another’s.  Unlike the long-suffering heroines of Jane Eyre or The Wide, Wide World — women who couldn’t resolve their own suffering because they are women — Little Dorrit is the epitome of goodness and contentment; her only source of misery is her unrequited love for Arthur.  In fact, Arthur is her perfect mate, as his motivations are similar to Amy’s: to resolve others’ unhappiness.  Matthew Macfadyen (“MI-5” and the appalling recent film version of “Pride and Prejudice”) plays the role of Arthur to perfection: at middle age he is neither so slim nor so marriageable as he once was, and he finds himself drawn far more seriously to his charity work than to his occupation or love life.  I even thought during “Little Dorrit” that Macfadyen has reached that stage when he must make a switch in roles, for rather than grow in handsomeness over time like Richard Armitage or George Clooney, his face has become goofier somehow, making me hope he might take on comedic or character roles rather than persist in trying to be the handsome young lead.

So for those of you facing stacks of research papers, bluebooks, and complaints about grades, please consider indulging in a few evenings of Dickensian diversion. And once again, Nan F., thank you.

Love, Feminéma