Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Girls, girls, girls

The cast of Girls

I know I’m dating myself here, but I remember 1992, a banner year for feminism-- the original Year of the Woman.

I think we might’ve jumped the gun a little.  It seems to me that 2013 might make a better candidate for the title . . . maybe.  Or maybe feminism is still in its girlhood, if I may use that term. 

Maybe I was too young to fully appreciate the Year of the Woman label at the time, but I feel like the zeitgeist is starting to shift our way more recently, and nowhere as evidenced in arts and entertainment.  (Sorry, I’m not qualified to speak on politics, so I’m sticking to what I know, okay?)

Having been raised in nearly equal parts by my mother, a female engineer, and my grandmother, a hard-bitten four-times divorcee, I might be coming at feminism from a slightly different perspective than a lot of women my age.  Going to high school in a white, suburban Midwest town, most mothers I knew growing up were still stay-at-home moms, and people got very, very confused when I had to explain that my mother had a different last name from me because she had divorced my father. 

So, as a female engineer, my mom is pretty clearly a geek girl, right?  I grew up in a household worshipping Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor and Jenette Vasquez.  I was raised without any doubt that I could be whatever I wanted.  Period.  It was not even a question.  And when the struggles with the patriarchy came (not ‘if’-- when) well then, I would just have to be tougher, stronger, smarter, better.  And that was just the way it was.

Pretty good lessons, really. 

Tina and Amy

After the Golden Globes last week, my mom and I had a pretty intense debate on whether or not sufficient social progress has been made for women.  To be fair, my mom had some legitimate points—we are still fighting for birth control, to uphold Roe v. Wade, for fair treatment in the workplace.  The same stuff she’s been fighting for since she was a young woman. 

I pointed out that this country has advanced at a really astonishing rate, especially when you consider that, only a hundred years ago, we didn’t even have the right to vote.  The Golden Globes were a fortuitous bit of supporting evidence.  I can’t tell you how it thrills me to know that there are all these awesome chicks out there—powerhouses and firebrands, like Kathyrn Bigelow behind the camera, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Jodie Foster and Lena Dunham.  

Afterwards, I got to thinking about all these women, and how grateful I am that they have impacted my life.  I am so grateful for Margaret Cho and Sarah Silverman, for Angelina and Lady Gaga, for Kathy Bates, for Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel.  I am grateful for, God help me, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Stephanie Meyer—I am pleased you have the freedom to suck as much and as often as you do.  I am grateful for Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx and Lionel Shriver, for Louise Gluck and Carol Ann Duffy, all wreaking subtle, subversive havoc with their pens. 

I am grateful for all these women who make us laugh, make us cry, make us think.  They’ve given us dark, meaty material that I am still chewing on.  Because women can also be profound, and profoundly twisted. 
Not just young women, either.  In American Horror Story, Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy are absolutely killin’ in key roles—while keepin’ it pretty damn sexy, I might add.  As I watched this past week’s episode, I thought, these are the type of roles that once would’ve been unthinkable for female characters.  Joseph Reid, the AHS recapper over at Television Without Pity had pretty much the same thought:

". . . it's also kind of brilliant that for two seasons now, we've had this buzzy, brilliant TV show that has featured two women circling 60 facing off the kind of pitched dramatic battles of will that are almost always reserved for men."

Older women are no longer stuck playing (with my humblest apologies to Dame Maggie Smith,) the Dowager Countess. 

Frances Conroy, 60 and gorgeous

I tell you all that to get to this-- I am making a point here, I promise.

The TV show Girls won a Golden Globe for best comedy, and was considered by many to be the best new show of 2012.  I can’t add much to the scads of well-deserved accolades the show has already received, but I must say, in a lot of the reviews I’ve read, I can’t find any mention of what, for me, makes the show so intriguing.

When it aired last April, I decided to give it a shot—I needed something to plug the gap between fall shows and summer shows.  So I watched the pilot.

I was underwhelmed, to say the least.  I hated every single one of the characters.  I’m old enough (and certainly poor enough) to have extremely limited sympathy for a bunch of spoiled New York brats still sponging off their parents at 26. 

And yet I kept watching.  I can hardly tell you why.  The individual episodes somehow managed to hook me, and then, once the first season had completed, I realized that here was something worth paying attention to.

The thing about Girls—the quoi in the je ne c'est quoi, is that it’s showing us the current state of feminism.
What is the state of feminism?  Well, we don’t know.  That’s the point.  We, as women, don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know what we want, but we have come to understand that we can’t have it all.  (As the child of a supermom, I can attest.)  Girls exemplifies the in-between state of feminism—not a girl, but not yet a woman—a type of ideological adolescence.  We are all asking ourselves, who are we?  Who do we want to be?  Where are we going?  What do we want?

Feminism has gone and turned its focus inward.  Instead of pushing so hard for equal rights, it seems we are focusing on questions like, what makes us women?  What makes us good women?  At what point do we become women and stop being girls? 

For the entirety of civilization, manhood has had its traditions of strength, authority, intellect, and women were relegated to the household.  We were defined by what men said we were—or rather, what men said we ought to be.  Now that we’ve broken out of that particular box, it’s time for us to define ourselves. 
But how? 

Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”  If she were here, I would ask her, “I don’t know.  What do you think makes a woman?”  Is this even a fair question?  I can already hear people asking, shouldn’t we be focused on what makes us a good person

Well, yes.  That, too.  But I am not of the particular school of feminist thought that teaches us that personhood is the point.  Sexlessness and gender neutrality is not the answer.  I think it’s na├»ve to think that we can ignore such a fundamental part of ourselves—we can’t do that anymore than a person can disregard their sexuality.  I also think that striving for perfect neutrality leads to gender shaming—for both men and women, and I am not down with that.  No one should have to apologize for what’s between their legs.  Besides, I happen to really like my breasts and my vagina. 

Sojourner Truth

So.  Girls.  And the way that it depicts the current state of feminism.

There’s the way in which the show addresses sexuality.  Sex and masturbation are depicted frankly and often.  Lena Dunham’s cellulite is famous—which is so awesome, it is deserving of its own rhapsody, but I will spare you.  There were a couple of key scenes for me in the first season when I realized I was staring straight at the progression of feminism.  One was when Marnie engaged in some pretty hot flirtation with an artist, and she got turned on.  So she dealt with it.  She went into the bathroom and very matter-of-factly jerked herself off.  No muss, no fuss.  Girl just took care of business.  I loved that.  Because . . . y’know.  Women do that.  No one got hysterical or overwrought, and, so far, she has never seen that guy again.  She knew herself well enough to realize that she was just physically attracted to the guy, but being fresh from a breakup, probably wasn’t ready to try to sleep with anybody.  Smart girl.

Another instance that I found intriguing was when Jessa and Marnie wound up going to this douchebag’s apartment, a real Master of the Universe type.  They all got drunk, and he tried slut-shaming them into having a threesome with him.  He was pretty nasty-- overbearing and even menacing, and a cheaper show would've gone for the obvious attempted rape.  But Marnie and Jessa just said, “Nope.  No thanks,” got up, and walked out.  Love, love, loved it.  I have known so many young women who have sex just because they get pressured into it.  Again, there was no melodrama afterwards—they didn't even seem to worry about it.  There was no blaming themselves, no asking, “Did we give him the wrong idea?”  Because it’s so obvious to their generation that they are not responsible for men’s assumptions that it does not even bear examination. 

So this is good, right?  Women being sexually free and assertive?  Not putting up with shit?  Realizing that masturbation and sex are all okay—that it’s okay to do it, it’s okay to want it, and it’s okay to not want it. 

But then the series goes one further.  Jessa goes and marries the douchebag.  Which, for me, is a perfect commentary on the current state of feminism.  We want it all—the power to say yes, the power to say no, but we still want the rich alpha male who will free us from our nomadic lifestyle/tame our free spirit, whisk off for a month-long honeymoon in Mexico, give us the great condo and buy us a basket full of puppies and support our artistic endeavors.  All while still being our own person, our own woman.  At any time, we have the choice to walk away.  Right?

I know that my mother, as an old-school feminist, would hold Jessa in the utmost contempt.  She would term her a sell-out because she regards any woman who chooses to stay home as a sell-out and a traitor to the cause.  But are they?  Is Jessa a sell-out?  Or is she the evolved one because she feels at perfect liberty to make these choices and not apologize for them?

The show addresses other points of modern feminism, chiefly by the different characters and their particular struggles. 

Marnie, the self-sufficient masturbator, is the struggling career girl who is trying not to define herself by her looks, or her relationships.  She wants to be judged on her own merits—by her smarts, and her toughness, but everyone looks at her and sees a dead ringer for Brooke Shields.  Which goes to prove that being very pretty is sometimes as challenging as not being pretty at all.  It makes her hostile and guarded.  But in this most recent episode, she is out of work and hard up for cash.  So she caves and gets a job as a hostess, “a pretty person job” in New York, which requires her to dress in a demeaning uniform that Gay Roommate Elijah so aptly terms “slutty Van Trapp child.”  But the money is good, and why not cash in on your sexuality—as long as you’re in control of the situation. 

The show walks a fine balance between acknowledging these feminist issues, and then subverting them.  Because we’ve come far enough that we can chuckle at old ideas that feminism meant de-sexualizing everybody, that it meant turning perfectly nice girls into bra-burning, hairy-legged harridans. 

In answer to that, there’s Shoshana – so adorably prim and traditional in some ways, but so surprisingly progressive in others.  Her apartment is all feminine and pink, but she is, in a weird way, the most assertive.  She was a virgin when the series opened—not because she couldn’t get any, but she was too frightened of letting go of the sanctity of girlhood.  When she finally has sex and the guy is less than nice to her, she reads him the riot act.  She wasn’t raised on The Rules like our mothers were, she was raised on Sex and the City.  She knows her relationship etiquette and won’t accept less than absolute reverence.  Sometimes, I think she’s the smartest one in the bunch. 

And finally, there’s Hannah.  Hannah, bless her, is not always nice.  Again, sometimes, she’s barely likeable.  But it’s okay not to be sweet or nice or pretty all the damn time.  Women are drilled from girlhood to always be polite, ladylike.  Hannah, an aspiring memoirist as well as firmly entrenched in the social networking generation, is so hyper-aware and meta that she can always be counted upon to tell you what she’s thinking, though usually not in 140 characters or less.  Women have, since time immemorial, been told not to be so straightforward, mainly because you don’t want to come off as a ditz, or worse, a bitch. 

Sometimes, Hannah is so self-centered and entitled, I can’t even deal with it.  But then you can see by the way she interacts with her friends that she does care very deeply about them, and cares very deeply about what they think of her, and about doing the right thing.  All of these characters want to be loved, but Hannah is the one orbiting an unhealthy relationship, possibly a dangerously unhealthy relationship.  And all of us in the audience sigh and ask, why do we still fall for pigs? 

Well, we can't always help our desires.  But we can put on our big-girl pants and end the relationship when things get too bad-- which is what Hannah does.  Bad Guy Adam showed up in this week's episode.  I'm very eager to see where that storyline is going.

Hannah is also us in that she’s a bright girl who looks average, but still wants to be pretty.  She wears her little dresses and shorteralls, she has her children’s illustration tattoos.  She is the young woman looking into the mirror and wondering, as so many of us do, what happened to the cute little girl in pigtails?  And if we embrace our inner girls, are we betraying our feminist principles?  Because none of us wants to be infantilized, especially not in the professional arena.  We want to be respected, taken seriously regardless of whether we’re pretty or plain or plump or sporting pigtails.  Because, at the end of the day, isn’t that the point of all this activism—finding acceptance in spite of our differences? 

Lena Dunham

Overall, Girls is the current state of feminism in that it’s trying to get at the core of what it means to be a woman; it’s trying to get at the core of the things that women think about—real women, average women, women like me.  In a lot of ways, it does cover the same ground as Sex and the City, but it’s considerably less glib, considerably more poignant, and in some ways, more insightful.  It asks the questions: Am I good enough?  Can I do this on my own?  Can I get into a relationship without becoming too dependent, without giving up my identity?  Can I be jealous of my friends and still be a good person?  Can I be ambitious?  Can I worry about my looks without being vain and narcissistic?  Am I obsessive, neurotic, a horrible person, a complete social retard?  When do I stop being a girl and become a woman?

And the show gives us the answer to these questions—yes, to all of the above.  And no, to all of the above.  And when we’re together with our friends, when we laugh, we’re all still girls.  And that’s okay.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Perchance to Dream

I recently came across this article by Michael Chabon about why dreams suck, both in general and as a literary device.  He is not the first person I have heard express this sentiment.

It has been said that dream sequences in literature (and, to a lesser degree, film and television) are evidence of lazy writing, or worse, a cop-out-- a way for the writer to sidestep troublesome plot development and resolution. 

I couldn’t disagree more. 

The crux of the article for me was this paragraph:

Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original story, never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that.

Um . . . I do, actually.

I’m sorry your dream life is so dull as to not warrant a place in either conversation or fiction, but that is not the case for everyone.  While I agree that, by and large, dreams should be reserved for sharing with only our nearest and dearest, they are certainly worth incorporating into art.  Freud said that whether we intend it or not, we are all poets, so perhaps Mr. Chabon is simply not viewing his nighttime experiences through the right lens.

Dreams provide an invaluable source for imagery and scenarios—they are a part of life, after all, and shouldn’t all aspects of life be considered worthy for artistic examination?  The average person spends one-third of their life asleep, which means, we spend a substantial part of our lives dreaming.  Should we dismiss such robust cerebral activity?  We share dreams with all vertebrate animals, so it could also be said that dreaming seems to be something significant as a primal cognitive function, an experience we’ve shared up and down the evolutionary ladder. 

I mean, yeah, dreams are frustrating.  I get that.  Our dreams speak to us in riddles and fortune cookies; they chuck non sequiturs at us.  Nobody can seem to agree on why we dream, or how much.  And yet, there are people who are capable of lucid dreaming.  Particularly potent dream images stick with us for years. 

My dreams are integral to my creative process—but, in the immortal words of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. 

Far more illustrious examples of dream scenes in literature include:

  • The Bible, (yes, I’m treating it as literature for purposes of this essay)
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey
  • The Dream of the Rood
  • Shakespeare (sleep and dream motifs are common in his plays, most notably, Macbeth, Richard III, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest)
  • Paradise Lost
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • “Kubla Kahn”
  • Innumerable fantasy, horror and science-fiction works
  • Children’s literature
  • The majority of Kafka’s works
  • Finnegan’s Wake

To name a few.

In addition to works that have dreamlike settings and subjects, there have been many major works that have been inspired by the artists’ dreams, such as Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 

Of course, dreams are frequently utilized in TV and film, and thank God for that.  Would you want to live in a world without the dancing dwarf on Twin Peaks?  Without the cheese guy from Buffy?  Without Tony Sopranos’ visions of talking fish and Annette Benning?  I know I wouldn’t.  These images are provocative, iconic.  They are defining moments in the artistic and pop cultural landscape. 

It goes without saying that dreams play a significant role in the visual arts as well—we all know the nightmare tableaux of Bosch and Dali.  There are the works of William Blake, who is considered by some to be the greatest artist Britain ever produced, and whose dreams are rendered not only in his poetry, but in paints, watercolors, and intaglios.  Where would modern painting styles be without dreams—without the emphasis on the variance of human perception?  We would have no impressionism, no cubism, no surrealism.    

If we rule out dream sequences, does that mean we must also ban depictions of madness, hallucination and drug trips?  Because I sure do love Homer Simpson’s Guatemalan Insanity Pepper trip, and Hunter S. Thompson, and Trainspotting. 

Dreams help us explore the nature of perception and reality.  Where would philosophy be without dreams?  There is the famous quote from the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”  To explore realism, perhaps it is necessary to plunge into nonsense.  More modern works blur the lines between reality and fantasy.  The very nature of creative nonfiction acknowledges the inherent unreliability of all human perception, which is reflected very nicely in the shenanigans our sleep-selves get up to. 

There is also the factor of religious visions, which verges into the non-fiction territory.  Again, Chabon asserts that people should not share their dreams.  But if they did not, we would be without significant portions of mystical and spiritual accounts, such as St. Teresa of Avila’s or Carlos Castaneda’s.  We would also be without a significant body of psychological literature.  Carl Jung chronicled his dreams for sixteen years, recently released by his heirs as The Red Book.  Jung referred to it as his “confrontation with the unconscious.”  It seems to me that it’s actually the other way around—dreams are the subconscious’ confrontation with our waking selves, forcing us to examine topics (indeed, immersing us) in subjects that our waking selves would perhaps rather not face.  It is the original virtual reality experience, dumping us into the deep end of the pool and daring us to swim. 

In narratives, dreams are extremely useful vehicles for foreshadowing and flashbacks.  For character development, they can depict wishes, motivations and emotions, sometimes with visceral immediacy, sometimes with much-needed levity as the narrative requires.

Chabon goes on to say that, “If art is a mirror, dreams are the back of the head.”  That’s all surfaces and reflections.  Dreams live somewhere underneath the surface.  They are the undertow.

The tendency to read too much into dreams is undeniable.  It’s easy to regard them as omens—and once you start doing that, you start to see signs everywhere.  Part of the dubious appeal of dreams is their ability to seduce and deceive.  They can mean everything, or nothing.  For the sake of politeness and sanity, sometimes it’s best to choose nothing.

But not in art.