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I’d like to say more about how much I hate Oscars emcee Seth MacFarlane, and The Onion’s tactless, sexist tweeting about 9-yr-old Quvenzhané Wallis, but instead I want to focus on Inocente.

inocente_1Inocente Izucar is an artist. For a while she was physically abused, lived as a functionally homeless person with her mother and two younger brothers, and was undocumented. None of those things are true any more.

Now she is just an artist. Her colorful art — on canvasses, sculpture, and her own beautiful face — speaks of dreams and mercy and family. She is the face of the future. Watch the Oscar-award winning, 40-min short documentary here.

Think about art and self-definition and survival, and let’s stay focused on that face.

I don’t know about you, but this was one of my major responses to the election:

Yup, we’re still in 2012. Collective sigh of relief.

But I keep thinking back to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, written during that period of evangelical upswing, the mid-1980s. I hadn’t read the novel since I was a teenager, but picked it up again this fall as the birth control and rape conversations were flying fast & furious. The book is every bit as good as I remember, but for different reasons: whereas what I remembered was the horrifying future Atwood imagined, what I’d forgotten was the interior experience of its protagonist.

Because I think what is so chilling about this novel is how they got there, and what they forgot along the way.

Her name is Offred, and I beg you to read the novel just to find out how she has come by that awkward name. We never learn her real name. Offred’s job in this Christian future is to get pregnant on behalf of the high-ranking couple to whom she has been assigned. Like the story from Genesis in which Rachel cannot bear children for her husband Jacob, Offred has been selected to serve as the vessel for her master’s sperm and the baby that will be assigned to her mistress.

According to every single message within society, Offred’s subject position is God’s will.

As horrifying as that is, it’s worse to find two other crucial elements to the novel. The first is that she has forgotten how to live that other life, the life that existed before this new regime. For example, she encounters  a group of Japanese tourists who stare at them and want to take photographs:

I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before. 

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

That’s what I worry about: that we are forgetting that making our own decisions about our bodies is both legal and a guarantor of women’s political and social equality. Instead, we’re getting used to a vast cultural and governmental apparatus making decisions for us. We’re getting used to entertaining seriously the notion that abortion is something to be debated — that it is inherently suspect, dangerous, traumatic. Not just abortion: also birth control. Also how to define “rape.”

We are forgetting what it feels like to reject those views. Texas women who undergo state-mandated trans-vaginal ultrasounds when they seek abortions are learning to forget that this is not necessary. Women who vote for libertarian candidates learn to think that those candidates’ views on state-mandated anti-abortion policies aren’t abhorrent and inconsistent with their political/ economic views. We’re told daily about the new varieties of legitimate or forcible rapes. We’re learning that birth control is the new battleground — that maybe The Pill and the IUD ought to be taken away from us.

The second chilling this about the novel is Offred’s fuzzy memories of the years before — how they looked past the ways their society was changing:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. 

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.

It’s mid-November, the worst of the crazies were not elected, but are we in 2012? The article in The Onion is not so sure. At the end, its interviewee explains that “while she was grateful upon learning what year it was, she had to admit that living in the year 2012 was still quite frightening.” Amen to that. Let’s not forget it.

Headlines I have loved

26 October 2012

I don’t know about you, but I like to scan the sites Jezebel and Gawker just for the headlines. They’re so reliable for snark and sarcasm; if one can take the occasionally obnoxious self-congratulation, they remain a good way to add a dose of vinegar to your reading diet. To wit:

For the Love of God, Will We Ever Stop Asking if Men and Women Can “Just Be Friends”?

Court Rules That Lap Dances Aren’t Dramatic and Artistic Enough for Tax Exemption

But my favorites are the headlines pertaining to politics, especially gender politics:

New Site Tracks How Many Days Have Passed Since a Republican Said Something Shitty About Rape

Poll: What Kind of Self-Tanner Do You Think Mitt Romney Uses?

“We’re Not Stupid” Says Stupid Lady Endorsing Romney as “Feminist”

Don’t get me wrong; I seldom read the actual stories unless the headline manages to leave something vague. This is headline writing in the vein of the brilliant The Onion: all is conveyed in a succinct sentence fragment. (Their latest: Hot New App from the GOP Modernizes Minority Voter Suppression.)

So here’s my real question: do headlines like this — clearly intended to represent the viewpoint of comparatively young, feminist, anti-racist and pro-gay readers — have the capacity to be game-changers in fostering a broader pro-feminist perspective when it comes to politics?

How does Black Swan lose Best Film Editing to The Social Network? Did you voters see these films? Do you understand what editing is? The editing of Black Swan was extraordinary — it made the film. Those claustrophobic shots quick-cut in rapid succession with the sounds of Natalie Portman’s ballet shoes hitting the floor and her breathing edited on top such that the film became a visceral experience. In contrast, The Social Network’s editing could have been done in any number of other ways without changing the terrific acting, dialogue, and directing.

One other note: the dresses were great this year. But on seeing Halle Berry’s gorgeous dress I couldn’t help but remember this great story in The Onion on the widening gap between best dressed and worst dressed from a few years ago. It explains that the Oscars show “in recent years a high concentration of couture in the hands of a few, with Halle Berry alone commanding over 57 percent of the nation’s supply of sexy yet exquisitely tasteful gowns.”

The Onion for Friday

18 February 2011

It’s been a long, busy, hellish week — a week so busy that I’m now focused on having a cocktail with my Dear Friend and then collapsing on the sofa. Thus I thought I’d offer my gentle readers the two stories from The Onion that I’ve been giggling over.

First is no story at all, but a thumbnail image that appeared in the paper copy a few weeks ago. Let’s just confess right now that this captures my punchy attitude better than anything.

And second is this wonderful story (click for continuation of text) that captures perfectly how I feel any time I talk about a subject like slavery or the Civil Rights era or US intervention in Latin America in my classes:  my students look at me blankly and say, essentially, why did people used to be such boneheads?

What can I say that nails it better than this?  Except to remember that one time a student suggested that I teach an entire course on the (then) TV show Sex and the City.  “It would be awesome!” she trilled.

I wish I could join the creative team at The Onion that gets to spend its time thinking up satirical versions of Sunday news magazine covers.  One of my favorites was “America’s 10 Richest Pets.”  And “The 10 Products That Will Make You a Good Parent.”

File this under “humor for the Post-Teaching Trauma Disorder set,” as per yesterday’s post.

“I Know Where I’m Going” — I’ve seen it probably five times now and can attest that it’s a really good film that gets better on multiple viewings. It could be seen as the film that inspired “Local Hero” with its elegiac images of the Scottish coast, except here the redemption comes in the form of love with the right man. If you’ve never seen it, prepare yourself for a quiet movie with the slightly improbable matchup of the brittle Wendy Hiller and the goofy-looking Roger Livesey (who, at 40-ish, simply could not pass for the early 30s he’s supposed to be). But their acting is perfect: Livesey is a good man; Hiller is redeemed. 

Oh, the makeover narrative — a stock aspect of the “woman’s” film. Most fully realized in Pride and Prejudice (in which both Elizabeth and Darcy must change) and satisfyingly re-created in the BBC version of “North and South” (curiously, not in the Gaskell novel, however), this storyline appeals again and again.  It’s worth noting that love isn’t always the main plot device; highly satisfying makeover narratives appear in films such as Judy Davis in “My Brilliant Career” all the way through the winsome Carey Mulligan in “An Education.” Clearly, the transformation doesn’t need a wedding altar scene at the end.

We can argue about the implications of narratives that transform the heroine through love, but let’s quickly point out the differences between female and male makeovers. First, I believe that female makeover tales most often require interesting male counterparts, three-dimensional creatures interesting on their own — whereas male makeover films seem to invariably feature what Nathan Rabin of The Onion calls the “manic pixie dream girl archetype.” Whether it’s Jennifer Aniston in “Along Came Polly,” Natalie Portman in “Garden State,” or Sandra Bullock in “Forces of Nature,” these women’s unpredictability and full embrace of life allows them to “teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” She is pure plot device, not a character worthy of an inner life or transformation. (Sidebar: Holly Welker has a piece this month that ties this archetype to Helen Andelin’s 1963 classic, Fascinating Womanhood, a book that might be termed the anti-Feminine Mystique [also published 1963].) The manic pixie dream girl merely permits the elaboration of self by the man.

It’s not that Roger Livesey is a terrifically complex figure in “I Know Where I’m Going,” but he’s the embodiment of the magic of Scotland’s Western Isles — poor but noble (like his namesake, the Colonel’s golden eagle), modest and well-mannered, familiar with everyone on the island, and a fine contrast to the rich industrialist Hiller intends to marry. Livesey grows on her, and on us; his aging, goofy looks become handsome as his admirable qualities become more pronounced. We imagine their marriage as a happy partnership of equals. Likewise, Peter Sarsgaard might have stolen “An Education” had it not been for the perfect performance by Mulligan — he subtly transforms from dashing to oh-so-slightly fleshy and deluded during the course of the film. His initial glamour is slowly exposed as a lack of depth as it becomes clear that the con man is conning himself, while Mulligan gains complexity by learning the hard way.

Okay, maybe it’s not a fair comparison. Drew Barrymore’s male counterparts in her string of makeover movies (“Home Fries,” “Never Been Kissed”) weren’t three-dimensional, either. But take a look at how hard Livesey works in this scene to mitigate the snarky comments by the locals about Hiller’s fiancé. He’s a good man. Makeover movie: I sing to your female protagonists and worthy male counterparts.

Feminism, cinéma

8 March 2010

I begin this blog on an auspicious day: The day after the first woman in the history of film has won an Oscar for best director (and best picture). Only four women in history have been nominated for this award. I liked the movie, although I found all the kow-towing to the military grating and politically restrictive. It’s a good film, not a great one.

Let’s bring up the obvious:  Kathryn Bigelow is shit-hot. According to imdb.com, she’s only 1/2″ shy of six feet tall (which explains why she towered over all her stars). She’s fifty-eight and looks twenty years younger than her vile ex-husband, James Cameron — who was providentially seated directly behind her in the audience at the Oscars, and who is actually three years her junior. All of this is hugely satisfying.

So why do I feel ambivalent about this? It’s a little too close to The Onion’s brilliant take on women onscreen. “Women can do anything men can do on television,” the morning-show host chirps. “You can be sexy and tough. Sexy and smart. Sexy and professional.” You can be sexy and win an Academy Award for Best Director — just don’t expect the same award to go to someone who looks like, say, Kathy Bates or Gabourey Sidibe. Those women will still be given crap directing jobs for lite romantic comedies and “women’s films” about abusive husbands or children with leukemia. A woman has finally won Best Director at the Academy Awards — and I feel like I’m looking at one of those other female “firsts” early in the 20th century whose desire to be accepted by mainstream culture completely outshines their “first-ness.”