14 August 2014
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):
Ahh. That feels better. Back to more serious feminist work soon, I promise.
9 May 2011
Others might prefer Julia Roberts’ big toothy grin or Kerry Washington’s perfectly kissable pout. For myself, I like actresses whose mouths do additional work for them beyond simply looking pretty — mouths that gives women character. We live in a world in which actresses keep getting told to medically alter their most distinctive features to bring them into line with mainstream tastes; rather, I want to celebrate real women’s faces.
Take Sophia Loren. No matter whether viewers got distracted by those curves and those cheekbones, her mouth always offered a kind of gravitas to her parts onscreen. No one could be mistaken into thinking she was eye candy alone. She signaled a whole range of emotions with variations of the set of her mouth as seen here — disapproval, distance, determination, controlled rage. That mouth could break your heart and win your respect. When she kicked you out, that mouth might well be the thing you remembered most. For a 76-year-old goddess, as she is now, her mouth gives her a grandeur that I, for one, would kill for.
But there’s also Carey Mulligan‘s little smirk. She’s one of the few ingénue actresses of the moment whose distinctive mouth always tells me she’s far more imaginative, interesting, and pragmatic than her blonde loveliness and dimples might otherwise lead us to expect. Considering how often she’s played straightforward girly-girls (think Bleak House and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) her mouth always undercut any impulse to underestimate her. If you scan through Google images of her, she’s invariably photographed with her mouth clamped shut tight, which gives her a perpetually ironic or grimacing look. It just goes to show you: even if you’re everyone’s favorite girl actor right now, their love might be won by the intelligence that obviously backs up your Twiggy-like cuteness.
And oh for the long, long jaw and mouth of Khandi Alexander. I’ve loved her ever since her early NewsRadio days — a love so pure that I am (still) willing to forgive her turn on the otherwise unwatchable CSI: Miami as the medical
examiner Dr. Alexx (!) Woods. If there remained any doubt about my forgiveness, it’s been resolved now that she’s in HBO’s Treme as the owner of her family’s bar. Alexander’s face has an elegance that bespeaks her early career as a dancer and choreographer — for stars as prominent as Whitney Houston — but it’s that mouth I celebrate every single time I see her. She can sneer, purse her lips, or explain detailed medical terms with equal aplomb; and when she smiles, she flashes the most astounding mouthful of beautiful teeth.
On the topic of teeth, however, I’m really getting sick of the super-perfect caps that actors use to whitewash their delightfully irregular fangs. I was crushed when Michelle Rodriguez changed her sexy, slightly crooked teeth in for a generic set out of a magazine; she might as well be anyone. Who would Steve Buscemi or David Bowie be without those teeth of theirs? In the absence of many crooked-teeth heroines to choose from in the acting world, I’m going to celebrate Kirsten Dunst, whose lateral incisors pop out a bit and remind us she’s a real woman. Even just on their own, Dunst’s teeth give her entire face a youthful realness that reminds me of how many of us finally got liberated from our junior high-school braces only to discover our teeth had other ideas. Plus, in Dunst’s case her teeth always remind me of her early star-making role in Interview With the Vampire (1994), made when she was only 12.
Dunst’s comparatively thin lips also reminds me to sing a short song to the early Barbara Hershey. I was too young to notice her until the wonderful Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986 — remember when his films all seemed to be wonderful?) in which the excellently creepy Michael Caine lusts for her. One of the best things about that film was its capacity for making us see Hershey’s superlative beauty and her natural ease through Caine’s eyes. Hershey always seemed a bit unaware of how truly beautiful she was — except her great, thin-lipped mouth and slightly jutting chin always gave her a glamour that even a high school girl could wield as a weapon. For that reason it was crushing to hear in the early 90s that she had undergone lip augmentation for the film Beaches. She later had the procedure reversed (or perhaps the lips deflated on their own?); I’m still working on reversing my frustration with her as a poster child for the Angelina Jolie craze for absurdly poofy lips.
And finally there’s the mixed-race Devon Aoki, who channels a little Christina Ricci with her unusually small jaw and petulant pout contrasted with her prominent cheekbones and striking eyes. In Sin City she played the ruthless killer Miho. The story never met a female stereotype it didn’t like — it casts Miho as mute (yeah, I know) who was sure to slice you in half with her swords if you crossed her, especially if you made the mistake of calling her a “Jap slut” or “Jap slag.” Misogynistic stereotypes aside — and I think you know how much it takes for me to set them aside — I got stuck on Aoki’s unusual mouth. I’ve got a small jaw myself, so I know that Aoki’s orthodonist must have become wealthy finding ways to make all her teeth fit in as they should; most of all, I’m delighted to see a broader range of great mouths on female actors.
I’m racing back to finish grading now, but do let me know if I’ve missed anyone.
22 November 2010
Considering that I didn’t have any sex in high school, fears of pregnancy preoccupied me to an extent that might be considered bizarre. I was also obsessed with the dread of death and nuclear destruction — fears that, in comparison, now appear more rational than pregnancy. Who knows whether it was those after-school specials, young adult fiction, scaremongering filmstrips in health class, or the specter of those girls whose bellies grew alarmingly before they dropped out of 10th grade. For the 15-year-old version of me, teen pregnancy was a life-ender worthy of fretting about even if I’d never been sexually active. This makes Jim McKay’s “Our Song” all the more compelling to the current version of me, as it follows three 15-year-old girls during the end of a hot Brooklyn summer as they circle around such adult topics as pregnancy and educational ambition at the same time that they deal with the teenaged problems of friendship and growing apart. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film about housing-project kids that felt so open-ended, so truly interested in the subjectivities of the kids involved rather than eager to impose stereotypes — especially because it’s about girls of color, who seem to lend themselves far too easily to movie tropes for lazy screenwriters. Its open-endedness might ultimately be the film’s problem, too; it feels slightly aimless. Yet its eagerness to cast an eye on the lives of girls seems so original and generous that I’m willing to overlook its structural flaws.
Brief academic sidebar: “Our Song” reminds me of an article I found so influential in grad school — “Towanda’s Triumph” by the sociologist M. Patricia Fernández Kelly. Kelly wanted to know how it was possible that girls in Baltimore’s ghettos got pregnant and bore children at such early ages, considering that so many of them reject the notion when they are 12 or younger. “Only fools get pregnant,” a 12-year-old Towanda tells Kelly early on. “They be thinking they so smart but they is fools ’cause you don’t gain nothing by having a baby. I tell the other girls, Towanda’s smart, she will never get pregnant; never! Just wait and see.” Sure enough, though, by 14 Towanda was a mother, and by 17 she’d born a second child. Kelly fascinatingly showed that bringing babies to term and becoming mothers granted even a teenaged girl significant authority and status in her community — in fact, a degree of respect and full acceptance for young girls that was otherwise unattainable. No wonder those girls ignored sanctimonious middle-class ideas about educational uplift and family planning. “Our Song” follows in a similar fashion: rather than write middle-class versions of personal narratives onto the lives of underprivileged 15-year-olds, the filmmaker spins a tale that’s honest to the choices girls really make in those situations — and he refuses to disapprove of them.
Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Joy (Anna Simpson), and Maria (Melissa Martinez) are best friends and members of the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band in Crown Heights — truly the most exhilirating band you’ve ever seen perform. They’re also working at low-paying jobs and observing the world around them: their parents, older girls, the mystery of boys. Pregnancy is a major, but not defining, aspect of their lives: we learn early on that Maria is pregnant and that Lanisha had an abortion about a year earlier. Despite their close friendship with one another, however, it’s not clear that Lanisha has ever confessed this act, nor that she can help Maria wrestle with the problems associated with being a teenaged mother — not least of which is to tell her own harried, impoverished mother the news.
The film also shows us some crazily accurate scenes evoking vague emotions I haven’t experienced in twenty years, especially about the fragile nature of friendship among girls. There are the complex racial/ethnic issues that only make sense in the current-day United States, as when Lanisha begins teaching Maria how to speak Spanish so they can have a “secret” language to speak amongst themselves — it’s not just that that Lanisha is only half-Latina while Maria’s parents never taught her their (presumably) native language; it’s that this language knowledge seems to serve as a stand-in for Lanisha’s greater academic ambitions (i.e., her determination to start her sophomore year of high school, whereas Maria seems to feel her pregnancy demands that she drop out). Even more sneaky and unexpected is the girls’ slow realization that while they’ve been learning their secret language, Joy has slowly migrated to the company of two other black girls instead. Their disappointment is only partly registered; they don’t feel betrayed as such, because when you’re 15 that’s how fleeting friendship can be.
What we see in “Our Song,” then, is a realistic snapshot of the lives of disadvantaged young girls — and let’s face it, we don’t see this very often. As Leah Rozin points out in her recent NY Times article, mainstream American movies tend to ignore the poor except when relegating them to small indie movies or crime dramas, and those portrayals rarely want to capture something realistic. (It’s so true that British film, in contrast, discusses either the aristocracy or the working class. Their disinterest in the middle class is almost as bizarre as our obsession with it.) Maybe this film doesn’t amount to great filmic art according to my usual standards. But the house of film has many rooms, and I’m glad to see that at least in small indie films I can see the kind of sensitivity to the lives of girls that I don’t see anywhere else, even in the great filmic art of my hero Rahmin Bahrani.