“Girls” vs. “One Girl”: Moviefone, Tokenism, “The Avengers,” and the “Fake Geek Girl”

Yesterday around noon, something happened that happens every single day. A woman said something disparaging about other women* in order to ingratiate herself to men*. Or perhaps to convince herself that she is not as worthless as her lesser female* counterparts. Either way she saw fit to explain to us, her fellow penis enviers, how to talk about Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. The original title of the article was “Girls’ Guide to ‘The Avengers’.” It’s now been changed to “One Girl’s Guide To ‘The Avengers’: What You Need to Know If You Know Nothing,” but it’s still really, really marginalizing and offensive.

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Subversion in the Mainstream and James Bond in a Dress

Ready to have your life changed? James Bond just became a feminist.

Today is International Women’s Day. In fact, it’s the 100th International Women’s Day. 100 years ago, women’s rights leaders joined together in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark to campaign for their rights in a concentrated effort, demanding the right to work, to vote, to be educated and trained, to hold public (and private) office, and to end discrimination and victimization in the public and private spheres. (You can learn more about International Women’s Day and historical feminist activism here.) What does this have to do with Daniel Craig in drag?

Well, director Sam Taylor-Wood and writer Jane Goldman have given us a short film where the bravest, most daring, most dashing person in the world has found one mission he doesn’t want to take on: being a woman. I could pontificate on the power of seeing one of the manliest British actors in relatively convincing drag or the subversive nature of Dame Judi Dench’s authoritative narration, so different from the voiceovers that we usually hear from female actors. I could rant about the frustrating fact that despite a woman’s first Oscar win for Best Director was for an action film, this two-minute short is the first Bond film directed by a woman, despite the success of Bond producer Barbara Broccoli.

Maybe that’s an unfair complaint. Kathryn Bigelow only won the Oscar a year ago, and the successes of the short’s writer Jane Goldman (StardustKick-Ass, and Kick-Ass 2) are heartening for women who want to make action movies or other “masculine” genres. The success of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock and Diablo Cody’s Juno are helping women carve a place in the world of comedy.  (Although I’m sure Fey’s new book is going to point out how far we need to go on that front too.)

Women aren’t making Bond films, but Bond films have changed to reflect this new world M references in the PSA. There are lots of interesting feminist moments in Casino Royale, but the littlest one, and possibly my favorite, is around 7:30 in this clip. Bond is kissing Vesper and then she starts saying “No. Stop. Stop it.” In a Sean Connery Bond film this moment would be when he kisses her harder, and then she reveals that she likes it, that no means yes. In Casino Royale, Bond stops. Immediately. And he doesn’t get resentful or scary, or share a sad look with the camera. He’s always looking at her, and he doesn’t resist her paying her share. This Bond is a different kind of Neanderthal, not a perfect feminist partner, but certainly not the paragon of male chauvinism we see in the Ian Fleming novels and 60s and 70s films.

Contrast the dynamic between Vesper and Craig’s Bond and Honey (Ursula Andress) and Sean Connery’s Bond:

“Are you looking for shells?”

“No. Just looking.”

And see the tables turn in Vesper and Bond’s first meeting, where she calls him on his character’s chauvinist legacy:

It is Craig’s portrayal of Bond that makes the PSA so powerful. Continue reading

Men, Women, Auteurs, and Collaboration: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be a “Woman Director”

My favorite designers usually end up setting up a challenge for me. On Bad Hamlet, Meg Cunningham gave me three doors. On A Number, Isabella Scannone kept me from using props. These are the best things that could have happened to me. The rules were liberating, exciting. It made us think about why we wanted the props in the first place. That limitation came from Isa, not me, but it helped everyone focus their work. Does it matter who writes the rules as long as we as a team get to play the game?

There’s a lot of talk at CMU about the director’s “vision,” about making it clear and compelling, about having the most and the most impressive ideas. For a long time I wondered why I wasn’t comfortable with that, and then I realized that, in many ways, that idea of singular auteurism can be counter to collaboration. When you’re too busy trying to have the good idea, you end up ignoring the best ones.

It is said that the worst thing someone can say about a director is that “he doesn’t know what he wants.” I use “he” here because in some ways this refers to a very “male” style of directing. (I know that’s a problematic construction. We’ll address that. I promise.) CMU brings in a lot of producers and usually one of the directors asks them what they want from a director. They always say “leadership,” “vision.” But what does “vision” actually mean?

Does vision mean that every idea has to come from the director? Or that the director always has to be the inspiration for the idea? Because I think it’s pretty hard to make that happen every time. Can one really claim a vision as solely theirs when a lot of directing involves saying “Oooooh. Do that again”?

If we had gone with my original vision for A Number, the set would have been naturalistic, filled with books, and candles, and technology, borrowing a bit too heavily from Blade Runner. Instead it was this:

Credit: Josh Smith (Scenic Design Isabella Scannone, Lighting Design Josh Smith)

Better, I think. Because in a world with very little objects, the objects in it become important. A photograph left on a disc’s surface, highlighted by light.

 

Credit: Heather Kresge Photography

 

Because there are so few, the objects can transform. A jacket becomes a dead body thrown at a father’s feet.

 

Denver Milord as Bernard 1 in A Number. Credit: Heather Kresge Photography

 

A tie becomes a noose and a chair with a coat on it becomes a monument.

 

Alex Rice as Salter in A Number. Credit: Heather Kresge Photography

 

Some of those images were my idea, but Josh lit them and Alex and Denver filled them. Isabella decided what the chairs looked like and found cool places for them to sit. Cass Malloy decided what the coat looked like. Chris Rummel created an aural environment that made this abstract world visceral. Tegan McDuffie and Nicole Luna made sure it made sense. And Heather Kresge captured it in gorgeous still images. It wasn’t my vision. It was our vision.

Maybe it makes some directors feel better to imagine it’s all them. To think that they’re the kernel of every idea, but odds are they’re not, even if they’re visionaries or auteurs. We can’t trace these kernels back to people or sentences, or fever dreams in the middle of the night. We pick up things where we can, and at some point, the profession is going to have to learn to acknowledge that though it’s easier to credit the auteur, they’re nightmares to work with. Maybe I should have had a “stronger hand” with my designers, or been more authoritative or demanding of my actors, less “female.” Personally I’d rather follow the crumbs (or blueprints) they leave for me. It’s a lot easier to move a caravan when you don’t have to drag people, or make them forget they have collars on. You never know where we might pick up and go together.

 

Alex Rice as Salter in A Number. Credit: Heather Kresge Photography

 

 

The Casting Couch and Where Does Chauvinism Come From?

So my lovely friend Elize’s blog seems to have infected me lately. Over at Female Gazing she celebrates our need to objectify and subverts Laura Mulvey’s observation of the “male gaze” in media with a gaze of her own.

Here’s an excerpt from a lovely post in which she explicates the concept:

Objectification of women will never end.  Women are beautiful and sexy.  We have soft curvy bodies which attract attention.  I don’t want to ask men to stop looking at me and my sisters.  I want to ask them to do it respectfully, remembering that I have as many opinions and feelings as they do.

I consider it my job, nay! my duty to gaze at men.  To make them ever so slightly uncomfortable, to turn my head when they jog past.  To hug one whenever I feel like it.  To have friends who are male and tell them what I think and feel without fear of being considered too girly, vain, or sensitive.

So please don’t feel threatened (for as a woman I’m taught that the last thing a man wants is a woman who is threatening) and join me.  Enjoy bodies (consensually!)  Gaze respectfully.  Gaze with love and responsibility.  Honor people’s feelings, his, hers, your own.

(If you like that also check out my favorite post so far, about one of my favorite guilty pleasures, the remake of Universal Pictures’ The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser.)

The blog is filled with pictures of gorgeous men (and women) who know they’re sexy and don’t apologize, and Elize helps you feel that way too. It’s a great mission but when I’m in one of my over sharing hormonal places it can be a little dangerous.

How you ask? Well, directing requires a certain level a maturity and sensitivity because you’re in a position of power. The clichés about the casting couch exist because they are based in fact. (Contemporary fact, if Megan Fox is to be believed.) That is a really depressing thing. And it goes both ways. As women become more powerful in Hollywood they develop the same power that was exploited by the cigar chewing male producers we see in the movies. Exploitation goes all kinds of ways: straight, queer, male, female, everything in between and outside. It is the person in power’s responsibility to not exploit, not the potential victim’s responsibility to speak up, which is why people in positions of power have to be very careful.

I go to the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. It is filled with gorgeous, gorgeous, talented people. Like the way TV is filled with really, really ridiculously good-looking people who never have to go to work or take a bathroom break. And you know how when you’re watching TV you find yourself saying things that you wouldn’t say if the person was in the room?

For example:

Yes, darling, they're still there. But you should check again in five seconds, just to make sure.

Oh, just makeout already.

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The Humorless Feminist Files: “F*ck You” and “Clearly Obsessed”

So we’re all heard the term “humorless feminist” right? Or panties in a twist? It’s when feminists get outraged over something that is obviously a joke. Right. Like when feminists hate on Liz Lemon or 500 Days of Summer. (Sorry to beat up on Tiger Beatdown. They are one of my favorite blogs to lurk on, but sometimes they make demands on characters that seem a bit unreasonable, or assume that Tom in 500 Days of Summer is the moral compass of the film, which he isn’t. His little sister is.)

Chloe Moretz is always a moral compass. See?

So here’s my humorless feminist moment for the month. I really don’t like this song:

I understand the sentiment, and I understand why people find it so satisfying to sing. Cursing is fun, and getting back at exes is more fun. But listen to the lyrics: Continue reading

Me Be Pretty One Day

When I was little, my favorite movie was Aladdin. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe because it had more action than most Disney films and had more of an ensemble feel to it. (The Genie had his own separate storyline and the carpet was sort of like the Mad Murdock of the group. I dunno. I liked it.) And every Halloween, when I was choosing a costume, my first thought went to Jasmine.

I don’t know exactly what it was about her that made me want to be her. Maybe her temper. (“I am not a prize to be won! *stomps off*) Maybe her pet tiger. Either way, little elementary school me knew that she was everything I wasn’t. Her skin was this beautiful cappuccino color. Mine was so pale you could see the veins. Her hair was this mysterious jet black. Mine was this mousey sometimes vaguely red but not really brown. Her hands were dainty and delicate. Mine were peasant’s hands: thick, short fingers, dirty nails. Oh, and her waist. Oh, Jasmine’s impossibly tiny waist. My waist was…well, not tiny. Ever. Continue reading

The Mad Menifesto

[Note: So many Mad Men spoilers.]

Last month, a friend sent me this open letter to men from Christina Hendricks. I’ve written about Ms. Hendricks before but I have to admit I’m endlessly fascinated by her and our cultures reactions to her and the show she now stars in, AMC’s retroporn Emmy winner Mad Men.

The first thing Hendricks offers us in this open letter is this little gem:

We love your body. If we’re in love with you, we love your body. Your potbelly, everything. Even if you’re insecure about something, we love your body. You feel like you’re not this or that? We love your body. We embrace everything. Because it’s you.

If that’s not real love, I don’t know what is. And let me be clear: I’m not discounting Dan Savage’s “you have the right to demand body maintenance.” mantra. But I do believe that when you’re with the right person, it’s their mind and personality that also turns you on, so that helps you love everything about them. Even what they don’t love about themselves. It’s also refreshing to hear a sex icon address male body issues so directly.

It’s funny, but there’s begun to be a backlash against Mad Men in papers like The New York Times and sites like Salon. The Times article justified the show’s success by the new Puritan and yuppie-ism of the upper class which distances the über rich from the messiness glamorized on Mad Men, a place they’d like to get back to. Salon explained that Mad Men was bad for women because “the women not only suffer but also do so with the clear message that the fault lies not in society, but in themselves.”

The argument of whether the men in Mad Men are acting as a result of societal pressures or personal flaws is a complex one, and you could really argue it both ways. But I must make the point that Mad Men‘s complicated feminism is actually a great guide for third and neo-second wavers because it illustrates a few complex but important maxims.

Maxim #1: Very few of us get to “have it all.” But you have the right to try. Continue reading

Lemoning the Popcorn Films for Summer 2010 (Part Two)

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote the first half of a summer movie preview. Now I am going to complete it. (Because sometimes, only sometimes, I am a woman of my word.)

In case you don’t remember the system, it goes a little something like this:

I rate a film’s likely problematic nature based on a 1 through 6 scale, with 1 being the least offensive in terms of the lenses of gender, race, sexuality, class, etc and 6 being I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. I will also rate the films based on (my own) fangirl excitement, with 10 being the highest and 1 being the lowest. Snark and trailers abound, so let’s play.

The Last Airbender (July 1)

This is the big screen adaptation of the popular American anime Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, known for its depth of imagination, humor, and surprising artistic competence despite it being American anime. Also, it has protagonists that are people of color and female characters who do useful things rather than screaming and falling in love. The adaptation made the (Native American and Asian) protagonists white. This is just the beginning of the terribleness, as this review from io9 demonstrates:

This is the part where I would insert a quick plot synopsis of the film, but it’s really unnecessary – Shyamalan has boiled every epic heroic story of the past 20 years down to its most basic, primal soup-y essence, so he can spray it all over the audience, in a kind of Hero’s-Journey bukkake. You will be finding chunks of Joseph Campbell’s calcified spooge behind your ears for three days after watching this film, no matter how many times you bathe.

Shyamalan’s true achievement in this film is that he takes a thrilling cult TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and he systematically leaches all the personality and soul out of it — in order to create something generic enough to serve as a universal spoof of every epic, ever. All the story beats from the show’s first season are still present, but Shyamalan manages to make them appear totally arbitrary. Stuff happens, and then more stuff happens, and what does it mean? We never know, because it’s time for more stuff to happen. You start out laughing at how random and mindless everything in this movie is, but about an hour into it, you realize that the movie is actually laughing at you, for watching it in the first place. And it’s laughing louder than you are, because it’s got Dolby surround-sound and you’re choking on your suspension of disbelief. Continue reading

Doctor Who and the Plea for Unconventional Beauty

[Warning, this post contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode “The Lodger.”]

I am going to say right now that “The Lodger” was one of the most enjoyable episodes of Doctor Who in a long time, especially for Matt Smith lovers. We got to see the Eleventh Doctor play football (soccer for those of us who are two weeks behind on episodes), come out of the shower, talk to a cat, and generally do good for fan service everywhere.

Fan service win!

So in general I loved it, but there’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. Why does this dude,

Oh Craig...

end up with this chick?

Craig and Sophie

Don’t misunderstand me. There’s something really sweet and charming about Craig. He’s funny, he’s kind. I might even date him. But they’re not exactly the same level of conventional hotness.

"Are you really going out with him?"

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Feminist Director Crisis of Faith: Elia Kazan

So I’m at home in Scranton for a little more than two weeks before returning to the city to direct Alcestis. Before I left I picked up a book at the Strand (another very famous New York landmark) called Kazan on Directing. Published just this year, it’s a collection of Elia Kazan‘s notes and journals. Kazan is one of the first American auteurs, in terms of both film and stage. He was a founding member of The Actors Studio and was an instrumental force in our nation’s two attempts at forming a national theater. (It wasn’t his fault they failed, America’s just pretty bad at funding the arts in general, and it didn’t help that a lot of America’s best theatre artists had Communist ties, sending certain American congressmen into hissy fits.)

Kazan also directed one of my favorite films of all time, East of Eden, the first film James Dean starred in. Dean is amazing in it, and the storytelling is just breathtaking. (Steinbeck and Kazan add up to a very twisted kind of Biblical Americana.)

Expressionism + Method Acting + Steinbeck = Awesome

After seeing East of Eden, I saw A Streetcar Named Desire, the film adaptation of Kazan’s acclaimed stage production (written by a troubled Southern gentleman named Tennessee Williams). I’ve talked about the ineffable charisma of this film before, but I will reiterate that it’s one of the most interesting studies in gender relations and cultural studies on celluloid. It both mourns and indicts genteel and blue collar Southern culture, setting up the two representations of these cultures (Blanche and Stanley, respectively) on a path to destruction.

Cultures collide. In the most disturbing and sexy way possible.

At least that’s what I saw in the film. I saw two equal forces fighting for the love of one woman: Stella. A woman who started out like Blanche, delicate, unprepared for the real world, and fell in with Stanley, a man she happily compares to an animal, because he gives her permission to be an animal sometimes too, to like sex, to be a sexual being. The battle for Stella is the fight between primitivism and ingrained chauvinism. Blanche found a way to empower herself through the chauvinism of the culture she grew up by cultivating a personality that needed to be taken care of, that made men feel secure in her dependence on them. Stanley and Stella have a troubled relationship but it is much more equal than any relationship Blanche wants to have.

Okay, that said, now this is what Kazan himself said about the piece:

Blanche is an outdated creature, approaching extinction, like the dinosaur. She is about to be pushed off the edge of the world. On the other hand, she is a heightened version, an artistic intensification, of all women. That is what makes the play universal. Blanche’s special relation to all women is that she is at that critical point where the one thing above all else that she is dependent on–her physical attractiveness, what men find appealing about her–is beginning to fade. Blanche is like all women, dependent on a man, looking for someone to hang on to: only more so! [Bold stands in for Kazan’s italics.]

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