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In Defense of Boardwalk Empire

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People love to rag on Boardwalk Empire. The generalized complaints: it’s boring, it’s all the prestigious packaging without the gravitas, its lead (Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buschemi) isn’t interesting.  But mostly: it’s boring.

 Are these the same people who say that Mad Men is boring? Or, more specifically, the same people who really only like Mad Men because of Jon Hamm’s face?  Because I don’t get it: just because a show is 60 minutes long and doesn’t jump between six different fantasy worlds, all peopled with women in various stages of undress (read: Game of Thrones), does not a boring show make.  Is it boring because there’s intricate dialogue?  Because the suits are too pretty?  Because there’s more diversity, both in terms of class and race and ethnicity, than not only most shows on television, but most shows on HBO?  Is it boring because there’s a character who wears a mask over half his face but still manages to be a sex symbol?  IS THAT BORING?

 Point is, I have very little tolerance for the ‘boring’ argument, in part because I don’t think that all television has to have the pace of Breaking Bad.  I like Top of the Lake, I liked the exquisitely slow Rectify.  I feel the same way about the “it’s boring” complaint as I do about the “that movie was too long” complaint — there are bloated blockbusters that really are too long, and then there are movies that take longer to tell their story.  Have some patience.  Calm the eff down.  Be expansive and imaginative with your expectations of how a plot can unfurl.

 I also want to bolster my defense of this show, which I find pretty criminally underrated — in part because people think it’s one type of show, when in reality, I think it’s another.  So I’ve asked Angela Serratore of Lapham’s Quarterly to join me in unpacking this defense.  (I know she was the one to do it when her early morning Facebook post read ‘HAPPY BOARDWALK EMPIRE DAY!’)

AHP: Angela, when you talk about Boardwalk Empire, how do you talk about it?  Like when someone says “what’s that show about,” what do you say?

 AS: All the post-David Chase shows are about America and what it means to thrive here. I think BE is, more than Mad Men or Breaking Bad or pretty much any other show on television, about America and the banal ugliness of what it meant to make it here in a time before the middle class existed, in a time before Irish, Italians, and Jews were seen as fully white, and in a time when the idea that we’re all entitled to some piece of the pie hadn’t yet coalesced.

 I suspect part of the reason people find the show boring is because most of the characters fall somewhere on the sociopath spectrum, and what we’ve come to demand from ‘difficult’ characters (I’m talking to you, Don Draper) is some degree of moral anguish. People on Boardwalk Empire don’t have that luxury. Irish-Catholic Margaret, who LEAVES HER HUSBAND because she’s got qualms about his involvement in crime, gets what is probably the most matter-of-fact abortion on the history of television because, well, what else is she going to do? I think this sort of pragmatism can come across as boring, in part because most of us don’t want to believe we’re capable of it.

 AHP: I’m vigorously nodding my head here.  I love how tribal and prejudiced this show is (or, rather, the culture it mediates is), and not because it makes me feel like we’ve moved past it, the way that Mad Men can (oh remember the ‘60s, when kids didn’t even wear seatbelts! Look how far we’ve come!) but because it serves as an invitation to see those things in our current society.  Texts about history, of course, are always as much about the present moment as they are about the past, and I think Boardwalk Empire does a great job of showing the ways in which things like blatant racism and misogyny can be taken on and off, like a piece of Nucky’s very refined wardrobe, according to the demands of the market.

 AS: That is an excellent point. Racism and misogyny (or their absence) are, for these characters, essentially tools of business. Nucky doesn’t have the luxury of considering whether or not Chalky’s family deserves the same chances as anyone else’s because he needs Chalky to help him kill people. Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky (who are quickly becoming some of the show’s most interesting characters, in my opinion) don’t have the luxury of being loyal to their Italian and Jewish bosses because they want to move organized crime into the modern era (read: sell heroin).

 AS: What about the violence?  Is it any more or less jarring than the violence of its peers?

 AHP: Gangster violence, especially in the Coppola/Scorsese mode, has always fascinated me – and I’m not a person to tolerate much violence.  Gangster violence is always so religious and primal, or at least that’s the way it’s shot and edited, and there’s something about framing violence in those terms that seems more meaningful, more of an act of a repertoire, than most other violence.  It’s not that I think it’s beautiful, per se — it’s just that the violence, and the way it’s enacted, is always replete with meaning.  Like in S02 (spoiler) when they scalp that dude — that’s to send a very specific message, much in the same way that the horse head in the bed sent a very specific message in The Godfather.

I think that some might argue that that’s stylizing, but I don’t think so — Tarantino stylizes violence; Michael Bay stylizes violence; postmodernism in general stylizes violence….and thus evacuates it of its meaning.  When someone gets beat up in Boardwalk, it doesn’t look like a cartoon.  It looks like that person was pummeled, and the bruises last.  I’m not necessarily arguing for BE’s realism so much as its unflinching commitment to show violence as a tool that wounds both the aggressor and the victim.  The “winners” in BE are fucked; the losers are fucked.  In that — and its truly complicated take on its female characters — I think it’s most like Deadwood, which I miss like crazy.

 AS: To be female on Boardwalk Empire is fascinating because it isn’t a death (literal or metaphorical) sentence! It’s taken Matt Weiner (and I really do love MM, I should point out), what, six seasons to really beat everyone over the head with the fact that Peggy is Don, but I think it’s evident from Boardwalk’s first episodes that, say, Margaret is just as ruthlessly pragmatic as Nucky. Joan sleeping with the Jaguar executive is the more polite version of Gillian murdering Jimmy’s clone so she can claim ownership of the house. The women on this show know what the men capable of and THEY’RE capable of. The ‘man acts bad, woman acts bad to punish him’ scenario doesn’t have a place on this show, because everyone is a striver, and that’s incredibly refreshing.

 I will say that while I think the show’s treatment of females is fascinating, I’m unsure of its attitude towards femininity and qualities associated with the feminine. It was clear from the first season that Sensitive Jimmy was not someone who could make it in this world. His wife, the Lesbian Painter with Feelings, and her female lover are brutally executed because they have no leverage to offer their executioner. Paz de la Huerta’s showgirl can’t figure out how to be anything but a sex object; she’s summarily discarded by Nucky and, after becoming pregnant, falls into a state of physical and emotional collapse. Margaret, who moves in with the man who orders her husband’s murder, knows from the beginning of her relationship with Nucky that to fall pregnant would be inadvisable; it’s when she later lets her guard down and seems to feel genuine affection for the Hot Irishman that she gets into trouble. This is misogyny but it isn’t chauvinism–it’s the very simple fact that for most of history, to be feminine means to be in danger.

 AHP: You are totally correct about Femininity as Weakness, but I will say that Nucky is the least masculine yet still masculine leading man I’ve witnessed (see further discussion below).  And from a feminist perspective, I’m really grateful for the way the narrative has attended to the social and cultural realities of being a woman at this time — like the fact that the female-dominated teetotalers didn’t hate alcohol because they were prudes, but because their husbands kept using all their wages to get drunk and beat them.  (I realize I’m being semi-reductive here, but I feel like that history really gets passed over in favor of harpy women who wanted to take away all the booze)  And Season Three’s sex ed clinics, spearheaded by Margaret, that get off to a woozy start and then get her in trouble — if this were a different type of story, we’d have a montage of Margaret basically teaching every woman how to use appropriate birth control methods culminating in lots of happy tears.  Instead, we see how impossible it was for even a woman of substantial means to do something like this — and how stultifying social institutions remained, even amidst the rise of the so-called “New Woman.”

 And as for Margaret going soft with Soft Irishman and both of them being punished for it….I’m going to articulate an unsophisticated yet totally true opinion that every superb narrative needs a love story.  It doesn’t have to be a traditional love story — the love story of Breaking Bad, after all, is kinda between Walt and Jesse — but you need two people to root for.  Some people are rooting for Margaret and Nucky, but I’ve always had a soft spot for an Irish revolutionary, and I spent the bulk of the last season and a half rooting for Owen and Margaret.  Clearly they were doomed, but that was part of the pleasure, like watching Romeo and Juliet for the fifteenth time.

 AS: I agree with you. I love a love story, and I really love a revolutionary Irishman, and of course I can see how Margaret would have fallen for him, though their sex scenes are curious–if I’m remembering correctly, on virtually every occasion they’re intimate she demands it from him, sometimes rather coldly.

 But I think her anguish over his death is brilliantly ambiguous–is she upset because she fell in love and her lover was delivered to her husband’s house in a box? Or is she upset because she needed a way out of Nucky’s Atlantic City and now that way out is gone (and she’s pregnant, too)? On a lesser show it would clearly be the former, but on this one, where the women are allowed to be just as pragmatic as their male counterparts? I’m not so sure.

 AS: It’s always a dicey proposition to include real-world characters in your fictional story. I’d argue that BE does this better than pretty much any other show I watch, but is that off-putting?

 AHP: You know, the Girls in Hoodies podcast was talking about how historical accuracy limits what this show can do, both in terms of character development and general plotting, but I think that it’s like the Classic Hollywood Studio System: a healthy set of constraints actually allows you to focus on establishing depth, instead of breadth.  Like we know what happens with Al Capone, and the writers have to hew somewhat closely to that narrative — but they can also do a ton of exploration with how to get him there, and how the character playing him develops….like the stuff about him and his deaf son, I just love.

 AS: Also, as historians I think we’d both agree that implying that Real People of History can limit a story’s progress/development is to overlook that history is fiction is history, etc. etc.

 AHP: YOU COULD NOT BE MORE CORRECT, ANGELA.  Which segues nicely into BE’s depiction of race, which most texts focusing on this period just ignore entirely in favor of jazz age spectacle.  In fact, the casting of Michael K. Williams as Chalky White was one of my major attractions to the show, even before it began airing [COMPLETE ASIDE: Is Richard Harrow the Omar of Boardwalk Empire? Discuss].  I was fairly unimpressed with Chalky’s screentime, or lack thereof, throughout the first two seasons, but his storyline last year was just explosive.  I couldn’t look away.  Part of that is Williams’ insane acting ability, and part of it is the willingness to portray a black character with the same sort of nuance as the white characters.  Chalky is at once incredibly charismatic and incredibly flawed — not unlike Nucky.

 AS: I’ve seen some fans of the show give Nucky too much credit for being business associates with a black man (it’s not like he’s being invited to dinner parties, you know?). But I think of all the male relationships on the show the one that’s caused me to hold my breath the most is that of Nucky and Chalky. Last season, when Nucky had nowhere else to go and Chalky took him in and agreed to throw his manpower behind him? That was a careful bet on Chalky’s part, one based on desire for future favors from Nucky, concerns about what another white person in charge might demand from Chalky’s operation, knowledge that the shrewd Nucky should never be counted out, and, maybe, a little bit of friendship or mutual respect?

 In most media that deals with crime, races are allowed to unite exclusively for transactional reasons, with race itself being at the forefront of the alliance. That Chalky and Nucky are allowed to have this relationship at all is a testament to Winter’s understanding of how people climbing up the ladder deal with each other.

 AHP: I’m super excited about the casting of Jeffrey Wright as Dr. Valentin Narcisse, a Marcus Garvey-ite rooted in Harlem who’ll serve as counterpoint to Chalky.  Andy Greenwald recently interviewed Wright for the Hollywood Prospectus podcast, and his description of this character and what he gets to do with him over the course of the season, sounds incredible.  Wright comes off as wicked smart and super learned in the politics of 1920s Harlem, including the discourses of the “New Negro” and the “Talented 10th” (and how they butted up against those of Marcus Garvey), and it sounds like the writers of the show are positioning his character to reflect and engage in that cultural moment in a highly textured way.

 AS: Can we talk about where Nucky lies on the leading-man spectrum now? Anyone who knows me IRL knows about my powerful attraction to Steve Buscemi. I also think he (and Nucky, by extension), is sort of a litmus test: anyone whose initial response is to call him weird-looking or dull is immediately written off as a person with no imagination.

 But I think something that separates him from the rest of the pack (and makes him more than a little frightening, quite frankly), is that he’s got very little in the way of a backstory and yet it doesn’t matter. Don Draper is all id, doing whatever he wants because he was birthed and raised by whores, and that’s something that informs virtually every decision he makes. Nucky had distant parents and a dead wife, and yet we rarely wonder about them, which I think is a further testament to the idea of the show as about what it meant to be American at a time when people were still deciding what that even meant. Nucky doesn’t waffle over notions of who he is–why bother with that when you can get on with the much more interesting business of winning?

 AHP: It’s a fascinating example of attention to period psychology: in the 1950s, it makes sense that everyone around Don Draper is trying to figure out “who he is,” because the spread of pop-Freudism positioned childhood as a key to unlock identity.  But Nucky is defined by his Irishness heritage (and the Catholicism that accompanies it) and the fact that he doesn’t speak with an accent (read: second-generation, and thus more wholly American).  Which is part, I think, of why he has no qualms about dealing with gangsters, whether they be Jewish or Italian or Black, and also why he attends so mindfully to his clothing.  He may always be Irish (and remember, we’re still 40 years away from having an Irish president, and even he had to promise the American public he had no allegiance to the Pope in Rome), but living in American capitalism, at least during this specific time period, means that he can indeed transcend his class. But bottom line, at least for me: Nucky is hot because he’s very smart.

 AS: Yes, which is a nice segue into what we’re looking forward to this season, because I think the question almost always is: Nucky is smart, but do smarts last forever?

 Nucky has gotten by on his wits and his ability to convince other people that he’s a sound bet–is that going to hold? He’s got incredibly fragile relationships with Chalky, Rothstein, Capone, Luciano, and Lansky. Is he going to look ahead well enough to choose the right sides, or is the rapidly approaching end of Prohibition going to throw him off his game? We saw last season that Luciano and Lansky were looking beyond booze and into hard drugs, and this represents a huge shift in a system of organized crime in which bosses at least pretended to have boundaries. Will Nucky have boundaries? Will he pretend to have them?

 I’ve read in early reviews that Margaret is absent from the first few episodes, which makes sense–she and Nucky are estranged at the end of last season, and Kelly Macdonald was pregnant during the filming of much of this season. Still, I wonder about her possibe return to the fold. Will Nucky find another showgirl (and another one after that?) Or will the both of them realize what they are and what they can be together, a la Tony and Carmela?

 I am also interested to see how Ron Livingston fares. Part of why this show looks so good is because everyone in it looks like they belong in the 1920s–will the introduction of someone with a modern face change the landscape?

 AHP: You stole all my questions, save one: WHAT WILL BECOME OF RICHARD?  He is the heart of the show for me, and the way they handle him will say a lot about how I handle the show.

 With that, I hope that we’ve proven that Boardwalk Empire is anti-boring, or at least that only boring people are bored, etc., et. al.  We’ll clearly be watching tonight and commenting up a storm tomorrow, and hope you’ll join us freaking out over Nucky’s newest tie choices.

Recent Writing All Over the Place

For The Hairpin:

No Theoryheads Allowed” (on theoryheads, grad school, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s superb new collection)

A behemoth of a Scandals of Classic Hollywood on Hedy Lamarr, “The Ecstasy Girl” and some very, very beautiful pictures in “Robert Redford, Golden Boy.”

Yammering on about Christian summer camp songs in “Lord I Lift Your Camp On High

Applying my theory of the postfeminist dystopia to Sex in the City in “Sex and the Dystopia”

The latest “Remembering Lilith,” this time on my personal favorite Fiona Apple (plus one from all the back in May on Jewel)

 

On Slate: Write-ups of two superb 1930s fan magazine pieces — “Katharine Hepburn Needed Those Spankings!” and “Ronnie Reagan: New Answer to Maiden’s Prayers.”

Over at Laptham’s Quarterly: a piece on Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties  featuring the best 15-part bathing suits of all time.

 

For The Toast

In Defense of Cheerleading” (funny) and “There Are Things of Which I May Not Speak” (sad).

 

Here on the Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style site: 

The Pop Star Immunity Problem

Taste, Class, Fetish Object: The Curious Case of Olivia Wilde

An update from July on the process of writing my book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood (further update: I’m done!)

Angelina Jolie Controls the Narrative

and “The Enduring Postfeminist Dystopia of Bachelorette

 

For the Whitman College Film & Media Studies Podcast:

I talk about my most important film at age 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30 in Episode 11 of The Cold Open. 

I’m also going to start writing at the amazing Dear Television next week-ish — if you don’t follow on Facebook, get on that.

Finally, the latest round of Summer Endorsements, including lots of Instagram Dog Recs, over at Virginia Quarterly Review.

 

Enjoy — and I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the pieces above! 

 

 

The Pop Star Immunity Problem

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By now you’ve heard all about Miley Cyrus at the VMAs — and whether you think it was a minstrel show, an example of the double standard exacted on women, or simply in bad taste, the overwhelming reaction has been negative.

Take a look at Jody Rosen’s incisive critique for New York Magazine:

Cyrus has spent a lot of time recently toying with racial imagery. We’ve seen Cyrus twerking her way through the video for her big hit “We Can’t Stop,” professing her love for “hood music,” and claiming spiritual affinity with Lil’ Kim. Last night, as Cyrus stalked the stage, mugging and twerking, and paused to spank and simulate analingus upon the ass of a thickly set African-American backup dancer, her act tipped over into what we may as well just call racism: a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma, and by the dark beauty of “We Can’t Stop” — by a good distance, the most powerful pop hit of 2013.

A doctoral dissertation could (and will) be written on the racial, class, and gender dynamics of Cyrus’s shtick. I’ll make just one historical note. For white performers, minstrelsy has always been a means to an end: a shortcut to self-actualization. The archetypal example is in The Jazz Singer (1927), in which Al Jolson’s immigrant striver puts on the blackface mask to cast off his immigrant Jewish patrimony and remake himself as an all-American pop star.

Cyrus’s twerk act gives minstrelsy a postmodern careerist spin. Cyrus is annexing working-class black “ratchet” culture, the potent sexual symbolism of black female bodies, to the cause of her reinvention: her transformation from squeaky-clean Disney-pop poster girl to grown-up hipster-provocateur. (Want to wipe away the sickly-sweet scent of the Magic Kingdom? Go slumming in a black strip club.) Cyrus may indeed feel a cosmic connection to Lil’ Kim and the music of “the hood.” But the reason that these affinities are coming out now, at the VMAs and elsewhere, is because it’s good for business.

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It’s gross, it’s exploitative, it’s unfortunate.  But what fascinates me isn’t the critique — although there’s much more to be said, especially in terms of gender and self-exploitation and postfeminism — so much as Cyrus’s immunity to it.  These critiques may shade our understanding of her image; when someone writes a star study of her, decades from now, this performance, and the response to it, may or may not hold as much significance as, say, her turn as Hannah Montana.  But her stardom will endure — and not even because of the old maxim that ‘all publicity is good publicity.’

Cyrus, and other pop stars with negative publicity swirling around them, are immune for a rather simple reason: their power, and resilience, doesn’t stem from their images.  It’s in their music.  And so long as you can turn on your Top 40 radio station and hear a super catchy song — catchy enough that it overrides your personal politics — it doesn’t matter what they do, so long as the music remains infective.

Take the most blatant example of a Pop Star Behaving Badly: Chris Brown.  In what has now become well-trod public knowledge, on the night of February 9th, 2009, Chris Brown physically attacked then-girlfriend Rihanna.  The severity of the beating only became evident when a picture of her battered face, leaked to TMZ, quickly spread across the internet.  In the years since the event, Brown has managed to make himself look like even more of an asshole, tattooing a picture of a battered woman, who just happens to look like Rihanna, on his neck, and making all matter of equally egregious statements.  But I don’t need to convince you of Brown’s douchery: it’s common knowledge.

And yet, his records still sell.  And not just a little, amongst the Brown defenders, but a lot.  Number One album, Number One Singles, tons of award nominations a lot.  His video for “Look at Me Now,” released in 2011, has received over 220 MILLION YouTube views.  “Don’t Wake Me Up” was EVERYONE last summer.

Now, I love Top 40 radio.  I’ve always loved it.  I love its comforting repetitiveness; I love how it familiarizes me with the newest pop, for better or for worst, while I’m driving to the grocery store.  But I loathe Brown and the choices his image represents, so I change the channel when one of his songs comes on — even the implicit, passive endorsement is too much for me.  But I can’t change the channel when I’m pumping my gas and the loud speaker is playing that same Top 40 station or when it comes on during a sports game.

Do all these Clear Channel radio execs endorse domestic abuse? Does the owner of the gas station? Do the players on the sports team? Do most of the kids listening at home or playing the YouTube video in the background while they do their homework or chat online? Do the moms who let their kid use the song for her ringtone?  Probably not, no.  But the songs are catchy.  And because you’re not looking at Brown’s face as the song plays in the background, you can deal.  It’s the banality of catchy Top 40, and it’s very easy to tolerate.  If Brown’s music were shitty, he’d no longer be popular.  Simple.

But why doesn’t this disarticulation of performer and product work with other celebrities?   Why can’t we tolerate what Paula Deen does in her private life, with the understanding that she’s a “good” cook?  What about Mel Gibson, who’s still a decent actor, but has arguably behaved less abhorrently than Brown?  Because celebrities in general — and film and television actors in particular — are wed to their actual faces.  Every time I see Mel Gibson onscreen, I’m reminded of the infamous mugshot.  Every time I hear his voice, I hear the transcript of racial epithets.  Every time I see Paul Deen’s face, I see her clumsy, back-handed apology for her own racial epithets.  The thing that makes the star a star — the talent — is yoked physical appearance.

Granted, pop stars are pop stars in no small part due to their ability to manufacture an image to accompany their songs.  Without her boyfriends and break-ups and best friends and bitch face, Taylor Swift would not be Taylor Swift.  But the source of her power and charisma is not in her appearance, per se, or her speaking ability — as clearly evidenced last night at the VMAs.  It’s in her catchy-ass music that worms into your head and refuses to leave.  Britney’s a great example here: now that she’s basically become a recluse, her new releases still sell like crazy.  It’s not because she’s a good singer — she’s not, really — but because she has great production.  Max Martin, Dr. Luke — if they make it, it doesn’t matter who sings it, or what the body behind that voice has done, you’ll listen to it.

Or take the so-called “song of the summer, “Blurred Lines,” which may or may not be “rapey.”  If it were a poem, submitted as assignment by a student, I’d probably go for the later.  But put it with a Pharrell beat, and every time it plays at a summer wedding, you’ll be on the dance floor — it’s easy to forget about how condescending the video is when it’s that easy to move to.

There are dozens of other singers who have committed crimes, cultural or literal, that we ignore.  And as much as Cyrus’s performance engenders intelligent conversations about race and sexuality, the fact remains that her song — “We Can’t Stop” — is infectious.  Cyrus herself may not understand that the song’s power and poignancy stem from its sadness (someone on Facebook said “it sounds like the funeral music for a young person”), but that infectiousness makes Cyrus, the industrial earner, immune.

Cyrus won’t make money because of this performance — she makes money because of the song that undergirds it.  And so long as she continues to make that much money, big name, super talented producers will continue to make songs for her, which will continue to dominate the radio and top 40 charts.  She could become a lesbian, she could date a guy twenty years older than her, she could leak a sex tape, she could convert to Scientology, she could cloister herself in a Buddhist monastery, she could appropriate the signifiers of yet another culture, she could join the Occupy Movement, she could change her name to a symbol — so long as this was still her single, and she still had the muscle of a major label behind her, this song would still be one of the major hits of the summer.

You know the one thing she probably couldn’t do?  Become an outspoken, radical feminist.  Which, contrasted with the embrace of Brown, should tell you something about what our culture will and will not tolerate from our idols.

 

Taste, Class, Fetish Object: The Curious Case of Olivia Wilde

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It’s easy to dislike Olivia Wilde.  I should know, because I’ve done it for the last decade with very little effort.  And it’s not because she’s beautiful — I have tremendous affection for dozens of beautiful stars — and it’s not because she had those horrible bangs as Marisa’s girlfriend on The O.C.  My dislike stems from a general feeling of beige vapidity: she, like the rest of her similarly proportioned & styled cohort (most notable members: Megan Fox and Jessica Biel) has presented herself as the plaything of blockbuster boys, a Barbie to be repositioned, given less and less clothing, and stand around and look side-kick-ish.  In Alphadog, in Year One, in Tron, in Cowboys & Aliens. . .on the cover of Maxim, GQ, and Esquire. . .it’s the same song, fiftieth verse.  She’s so objectified that it bores me.

 But look closer, I’ve heard — she’s smart.  She’s from a well-established family.  She was an Italian Princess.  She reads!  What I want to think about, then, is the way in which these twin understandings — of hotness and culture — twine together to form a sort of antidote, or at least alternative, to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  She’s the new Thinking Man’s Pin-Up, similar to the Gillian Flynn’s “Cool Girl,” but with the distinct connotations of glamour and class that accompany our current understanding of Classic Hollywood.  And her popularity, specifically with men, reflects the complicated cultural politics of the moment — specifically, the desire to be a male feminist and reject the notion of the very notion of pin-up. . . . . and the ubiquity of the male gaze, which trains everyone — men & women, audiences & celebrities — that beauty isn’t beauty unless it’s fetishized.  Olivia Wilde is the compromise of the enlightened man (or woman) who can’t help but live within patriarchy.   If you’re going to make a woman into a sex object, in other words, at least she’s a smart woman — and makes you feel better about it.

The intelligence wasn’t always that clear.  When Wilde first popped up on the cultural radar, her image was almost wholly defined by sex.  First, there was her high-profile turn as a bisexual on a network television show, which prompted the following lead for a cover article in Complex Magazine:

 Olivia Wilde turned heads when she tongued-down Mischa Barton on The O.C., but now this sex-oozing 22-year-old officially steals the show in Alpha Dog. Complex caught up with the No.1 stunna and got her to spill the beans on full-frontal nudity, making out with Mischa, and what’s eating Emile Hirsch (hint: not her!).

And then there was her body.  There wasn’t much of it on display in The O.C. — mostly a lot of skinny arms in tank tops — but there soon was.  Just take a look at the series of photoshoots from this middle section of her career:

 

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Choice quote: “I’m happy being sexy.”

 The photos were all sex —  I don’t think I could find a better contemporary example of fetishization — but the articles and interviews were keen to distinguish her from the likes of Fox and other eye candy.  Five themes, repeated again and again, established her class:

 1.) She’s from intelligent stock.

Not just smart, but high brow, investigative journalism stock.  Her parents are “lefty journalists” Andrew and Leslie Cockburn; her grandfather is “lefty journalist” and novelist Claud Cockburn, who was buddy buddy with Graham Greene and fought alongside Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War.   We’re not talking “stringer for the local paper” journalists — we’re talking in depth overseas investigative reporting on the Middle East, nearly a dozen books to their names reporters.

 2.) She herself is intelligent.

She went to one of the most elite boarding schools in the U.S., and was ready to go to Bard before she convinced her parents to let her spend a year in Hollywood.  But the intelligence is mostly modeled through acts, not words: she went to boarding school; she arrives to an interview with a heavy tome in her hand; she cites intelligent, older female actors (such as Christie) as her role models. She “performs” intelligence incredibly skillfully, with quotes like  “I think I have a strong journalistic streak in me—I’m really critical and analytical” and, concerning how she changed her name at the age of 18, ‘It’s not a renunciation of my parents – God, no. I go around bragging about my incredible family. But I wanted a pen name and I was inspired by Oscar Wilde, as he never compromised his identity even in the face of persecution. And he’s a fellow Irishman.’

I don’t mean to suggest that Wilde isn’t actually intelligent — it’s hard to know, really, actually, as hard as it is to really “know” anything about a celebrity — but that the signifiers of intelligence are all there.

 3.) She’s married to a Prince.  

Sure, they got married at age 18 in a school bus. I get that they were quasi-burn-out hippies. But you know what betrays class, and the opportunities it affords? Marrying an Italian Prince and becoming a Principesa.  Her sister-in-law was A GETTY.  They had a CASTLE, which Wilde talked about freely, at least before their divorce:  I’m into European history, so it’s exciting to trace our family back to the 14th century and beyond. How many people get to say “This castle has been in our family since the 1400s”?  Her very prominent gold ring was even embossed with her husband’s family seal.

 4.) She has taste.

Money + Education = Taste.  “Good” taste — highbrow taste.  Thirty years ago, highbrow taste meant opera, poetry, avant garde theater.  Today, at least within the realm of celebrity, you can signify highbrow taste through evocations of the classic and the vintage.  She doesn’t have a Land Rover or a BMW — she has an ‘58 Chevy, which was a close second to her “dream car,” the ‘54 Bel Air.  Her Chevy, which she periodically drove to premieres, was “a little funkier looking than the Bel Air, and I was like, That’s more like me. I love it. I love my car.”  She loves Oscar Wilde; her favorite actress is Julie Christie; she wears a bracelet with a Pablo Neruda quote.  (Neruda: the new Kahlil Gibran?) (But is Neruda actually now middlebrow? DISCUSS).

Sometimes, like when she’s promoting a new (highbrow) play in the (highbrow) New York Observer, she’s depicted wearing turtlenecks, almost entirely from the neck up, as if to encourage us to focus on her brain, not the body that made it famous.

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Usually, however, the discussion of her background, education, and taste are paired with images that aggressively fetishize her.

The problem was that none of Wilde’s films worked.  Seriously: that list above, the one that starts with Alphadog, is like a roll call of notable flops of the last ten years.  Lainey Gossip even gave her the worst insult a gossip columnist can give, asking “Why IS Olivia Wilde?” (Translation: What makes her a celebrity despite lack of merit?)

Wilde’s films may not have been delivering, but she gave good gossip: after breaking up with her husband in 2011, she was seen with every hot male star in town.  Gosling, Pine, Gyllenhaal, Cooper, Timberlake — she was playing all of them.  Her flirtation with Timberlake was especially notable, given his recent celebration from Jessica Biel — a star who, as Lainey was keen to point out, would’ve loved to have the sort of work (and play) that Wilde was getting.

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Somewhere in there, she met and fell in love with Jason Sudeikis, right as rumors of Sudeikis’ role in January Jones’ pregnancy began to circulate.  (Jones still opts not to name the father of the child; Sudeikis is adamant that the child is not his).

Wilde’s career was stagnant.  She was working like crazy — in 2012 alone, she appeared in Butter, Deadfall, People Like Us, The Words, and The Longest Week, but apart from Butter’s persistent appearance on my Netflix homepage, her work was distinctly below the radar.  And not “highbrow art fair” below the radar, but “trying to be good but actually mediocre” below the radar.  And therein lies the inherent contradiction of Wilde’s image: for someone with such good taste, how did she keep picking such bad roles?

At some point, Sudeikis told her to check out the work of Mumblecore darling Joe Swanberg, who happened to be casting for a new movie, Drinking Buddies.  Swanberg’s movies had made waves in indie, film festival circles, but were by no means mainstream.  Wilde pursuing the role was like Halle Berry doing Monster’s Ball, Entourage’s Vince doing Queen’s Boulevard, or Tom Cruise doing Magnolia — a way to change the conversation people were having about her.  It wasn’t a Terrence Malick film, but it was something.

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And, to be fair, Wilde is pretty great in the role: she plays a total Cool Girl, so cool, in fact, that she’s the manager of a microbrewery, the only girl in the entire building.  She wears sexy jeans and tank tops and Chuck Taylors; her hair is relatively unwashed and always up in a ponytail, and her only make-up is a smear of eyeliner.  She flirts mercilessly with everyone she works with, she ices out her boyfriend, she has that light of charisma that attracts everyone into her orbit . . . . and makes every other girl feel self-conscious, less-than.  It’s extremely easy to dislike this type of girl, both in movies and in real life, but Wilde — and Swanberg’s direction — help paint the reality of her situation, the self-deception and hollowness of it, in a way that, at least for me, definitely worked.

Drinking Buddies is receiving a limited release, but most people will watch it, as I did, on VOD or iTunes or whatever, as it is the perfect VOD movie: just cute enough, just thought-provoking enough, just beautiful enough, that when you sit down on a Friday night you’re like this, this is what I want to charge to my boyfriend’s cable bill.

But Drinking Buddies won’t get Wilde an Oscar nomination or anything close to it.  It’s just enough indieness to help bring her textual personal in line with her extra-textual one: to better match the girl onscreen with the girl who reads books and campaigns for Obama and dates Jason Sudeikis.  Critics, though, are making it hard for her: a recent review in The Dissolve, the exact sort of publication that she would want endorsing her, claims that

 Wilde delivers a credible performance as a woman whose external brassiness and rock-star swagger bely an underlying vulnerability, but she nevertheless feels painfully miscast. Wilde possesses an exotic, otherworldly movie-star beauty that makes her a natural for popcorn fare like Cowboys & Aliens, Tron: Legacy, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but seems distractingly out of place here. Casting a glamorous movie star might be good for the film’s commercial prospects, but it harms its aspirations to verisimilitude.  

She’s too pretty, in other words, to be in anything other than a blockbuster.  But I think this is a minority opinion: the vast majority of people want beautiful people playing all of the parts; screw verisimilitude.  But the film makes you feel better about liking her: see, she is smart; she does have better taste than Cowboys & Aliens.  It’s not unlike how I defend The Gos: sure, he did The Notebook and it’s a piece of schlock (that I will watch over and over again), but then he went and did Lars and the Real Girl and Half Nelson — and that’s how you know he’s a man of integrity and intelligence and worthy of my desire.

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In Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling is almost unrecognizable, hidden behind twenty extra pounds, thick sweaters, and a Dad moustache.  In Drinking Buddies, Wilde might not be glamorous, but she is still very much her beautiful self, and her body is still on display, arguably unnecessarily.  She runs around the beach in a small black bikini and goes skinny dipping, her body belying the amount of dark beer she consumes on a daily basis.  Cool girl indeed.

This division between “classy” and unclassy stars is nothing new: even in silent Hollywood, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, once married, became paragons of class and good taste, hosting salons in their Hollywood mansion that included Einstein and various Presidents.  Garbo was classy because she was European; Norma Shearer was classy because she was married to studio exec and very upright and proper.  But Clara Bow was flirty and bouncy and refused to lose her Brooklyn accent — she tromped around town without stockings and loved to go to USC football games.  She played working class girls; she wasn’t scared to have fun and drink out of the bottle. Furs and jewels don’t make you classy, especially with a look like that one below.

Bow, Clara (1928)   Pers: Clara Bow   Ref: XBO003BC   Photo Credit: [ Paramount / The Kobal Collection ]   Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

 Joan Crawford was totally unclassy until she married Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; Gloria Swanson made everyone forget about her unclassy days as a Bathing Beauty and married a Marquis. Bette Davis was classy because she was from New England and the stage; Katharine Hepburn was classy for the same reasons, plus the fact that she was a snob.  Jean Harlow was super tacky, with her platinum blonde hair, her guileless vampiness, and her dalliances with gangsters.  Hedy Lamarr was classy because she was Austrian; Betty Grable wasn’t because she was solely a pin-up.

Most Popular Pin-Up of WWII: Still not classy

Most Popular Pin-Up of WWII: Still not classy

Look at that list, and you see that class and glamour meant shielding your body — suggesting, rather than flaunting, sex. . . . and cultivating an image that hinged on acting ability, witty dialogue, and intelligence.  Sex objects, however — the ‘It’ girls — were the opposite.

This dichotomy has muddled somewhat post-studio system.  Jane Fonda, for example, moved between images defined by sex and others defined by activism, but she rarely occupied both simultaneously.  Olivia Wilde is arguably the closest we’ve come to the conflation of the two qualities: body and mind, both beautiful; the classy and the pin-up, all in one.  (The other recent example = Rachel McAdams, who I first called the thinking man’s pin-up five years ago).

The problem, however, is that this bifurcation endures.  Because no person is “just” their body or “just” their mind — but even in our allegedly progressive moment, it’s impossible to combine the body and the mind.  It’s not the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, but it’s close: a star is either a Dumb Bombshell or a Homely Smart Girl.

I still don’t know how to feel about Olivia Wilde, but maybe the reason I feel so unsettled is because her image, and its evocation of both intelligence and beauty, is so rare.  But a beautiful smart girl, that’s threatening: who knows what she’ll do.  Which is why, of course, she must be fetishized — visually reduced to the sum of her beautiful parts, even as the interview that accompanies the piece proclaims her aptitude and taste.

It’s a negotiated victory, and one I’m hesitant to celebrate.  Our stars, and the ideologies their images embody, are reflections of ourselves, and the ideologies that structure our lived reality. Wilde — and, by extension, all of us — can break the dichotomy — but only if we still play by the rules.  Lean In indeed.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Book, The Update

You know why I haven’t posted anything for a month? Because I’ve been writing the crap out of my book.  And now, having just sent in the middle section to my editor, is a good time to pause and tell you a bit about it, how it’s going to be different from the blog posts, and how I’ve been putting it together.

As many of you know, it’s being published through Plume, which is an imprint of Penguin Books.  I have a fantastic editor there whose idea of what the book would be was very much in line with my own, and after signing the contract in December, I spent the Spring (and my luscious two week Spring Break) putting together the first third of the book, which details five major scandals of the silent era.  The book is set-up in “volumes,” each with two or three scandals/stories/stars, but whose stories rotate around the same theme: Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino are in one “volume,” each with their own chapter, but the overarching theme of the volume is SEX (and desire) SCARES PEOPLE.   I call all the silent era stuff, which I turned in sometime in April, “the first chunk.”

Since Whitman’s graduation in mid-May, I’ve been working on “the second chunk.”  There’s the “Blonde Menace,” which covers Jean Harlow (You guys! The scandal! I had (only a very limited) idea!) and Mae West, and an as-of-yet unnamed section on classic Hollywood romances.  Next up: sad sack ’50s masculinity and deviant ’50s femininity, in all its various valences.

When people ask me about the book, I say it’s an academic-popular hybrid: I’m researching everything the way I would for an academic text, not to mention drawing on the years of Hollywood and cultural history I’ve consumed over the last ten years, but I’m writing in a style that’s purposefully at odds with many academic texts.  In short: you don’t have to have attended graduate school to understand what I’m saying.  It’s somewhat akin to the the tone of the posts on The Hairpin, but in the words of my editor, “less bloggy” — there’s no all-capslock (SORRY I KNOW I LOVE IT TOO), no asides about my personal life.

If you’re one of the people who mourns that loss, have no fear, I’m going to keep disclosing embarrassing things about myself, probably in all caps, for the rest of my internet life.  But recall that I hold a weird, tenuous place in the academy: I really like being a professor, but I also really like writing outside of the academy: I take it as an ethical obligation to take the knowledge that the government has in no small part funded and make it accessible outside of the so-called Ivory Tower.  That’s not dumbing my stuff down, per se, but providing proof that the Humanities, writ large, have a place in the future of education in this country.  But in order to prove that, at least right now, I understood that I needed to talk a bit less about the Boys of My Youth.

For the posts on The ‘Pin, I always do a fair amount of research.  I think popular misconception is that I just pull this stuff out of my brain — which, I mean, that would be rad — but I usually spend about a week collecting details and thinking through the place of the star and his/her scandal.  I watch the movies I haven’t seen; I rewatch the important ones I have.  If there’s a milestone academic article that’s been written about a star, I revisit it and think about how I can do (hopefully a lot more) than simply reiterate the points within.  But I never felt the need to read everything, know everything. 

With the book, I’m still not obsessed with knowing everything — that’s how books don’t get written, after all — so much as reconstructing the star’s reception, at the time, the very best I can.  I avoid star biographies, as they often read like hagiographies with a very solid dash of unsubstantiated rumor.  What matters to me, and what I’m committed to writing, isn’t what “really” happened so much as how the story of what happened unfolded — and the industrial and cultural specifics of why it unfolded the way it did.  Because here’s the thing: all the people who know what “really” happened are dead.  People who carry those stories along with them are unreliable.  I’m not an investigative journalist, and have no desire to “get to the bottom” of these stories.  Rather, I’m more invested in what each star scandal says about the time, what we expected and tolerated of our stars, and the fascinating mechanics of Hollywood and the gossip industry that manufactured specific narratives that sometimes worked very well, and other times not so much.  This stuff is so juicy and fascinating, just not in the way we’ve come to expect star tell-alls to be.

But if you read and like Scandals of Classic Hollywood, or this site, you know that already.  So how am I excavating how these stars, and the scandals that surrounded them, were mediated at the time?  Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to — at least not without a lot of expensive trips to archives.

But three things have changed: 

1.) I have access to all of the major newspaper coverage of the United States in PDF form.  ProQuest, I can’t thank you, and my college library that pays so much money for your services, enough.

2.) I have access to full text searchable fan magazines via the Media History Project, which scans magazines that have gone out of copyright.  I need to write an entire post on how this site has revolutionized both my star studies classroom and my own work, but here’s the concise version: most libraries don’t collect or archive fan magazines, because they were cheap, pulpy, and feminized.  Thus the only way to get your hands on one was to either hope that your library had microfilm of Photoplay (which some did, because it was the People Magazine of old school fan magazines) or travel to the Herrick Library in Los Angeles, or buy them via eBay.

But magazines pre-1945 are expensive — we’re talking anywhere between $20 and $100 a piece — on eBay, in part because there’s a huge collecting community of the hand drawn covers.  For my dissertation, I had to rely almost wholly on microfilm of Photoplay from the UT library; for this project, especially the stuff from the ’20s and ’30s, I have half a dozen magazines to choose from, including magazines directed at different class levels, thanks to MHP.  Here are some choice examples from New Movie Magazine, the most popular fan magazine in the early ’30s and also one of the cheapest, sold at Woolrich’s –

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3.) I’ve received funding from my college to buy a crap-ton of post-1945 magazines on eBay.  The Media History Project currently only goes up to 1943, which means that for some stars, I have a pretty big gap.  I’ve returned to the Photoplay microfilm (this time at the University of Washington), but post-1945 is such a crucial time in scandal meditation, as the power to control the narrative shifted from the studio, working in close concert with the gossip press, to the star.  I need scandal mags (of which I already have dozens, thanks to some careful estate sale shopping in Austin), I need fan mags of all sorts, I need stuff from “popular interest” press, aka Saturday Evening PostLife Magazine, Coronet, Look, Time, Newsweek, I need stuff from more niche publications – Ebony for my research on Dorothy Dandridge; Ladies Home Journal and McCall’s for my work on ’50s femininity.   Most of the last half of that list I can get via Inter Library Loan, as they’re are middle class publications and thus deemed worthy, historically, of collecting and archiving.  Life Magazine is even gloriously available, in full color, via Google Books.

But what I can’t obtain through the library, I buy: thus a constant stream of very Granddad’s-basement smelling magazines have been arriving at my door.  Because sellers rarely list the table of contents, I have to rely on luck to see if the piece promised within is a one page pictoral (unhelpful) or a five page profile (very helpful).  Either way, these magazines are usually around $10, and they’ll prove very useful in future classes.  Now I just need to come up with a nerdy star scholar database to figure out all that I have.

So what do I do with all this material?  I’m a type-A researcher, which means that I read it all, figure out recurring themes and crucial details, come up with a quasi-outline, and then transcribe pertinent passages, along with citation (this is key, whether you’re writing a 2 page paper or a book — when you transcribe quotes, never forget the citation).  I use Scrivener, a wonderfully intuitive program that allows me to create little mini folders, and mini documents within them, of all the stars and the themes, events, etc. that compose their images. Then, when I write the piece, I can split the screen in half horizontally and keep whichever set of notes I’m working with visible below.

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I write fast but sloppily — I like to sit down and pound out 3,000-4,000 a words a day — and then I go back and clean it up, buffing out the ridiculousness, making the narrative more coherent, figuring out how to put in a compelling personal detail that I’d left out.  I tighten the prose, try to make myself sound like less of a blowhard, and take out any accidental super-academic-speak.  Then I send it to my editor, who takes a few weeks to go through it with a fine-tooth comb and sends it back to me for more revisions — some on the level of the word, others pertaining to the overarching sweep of volume as a whole.  I hate the edits (it’s like pulling teeth — I can sit there and stare at an edit for an hour convincing myself that it can’t be done before finally just doing it) and love the first drafts, but editing is what makes a string of words into writing, and I’m very fortunate to have someone so generous and perceptive serving the role for me.

After I finish a chapter, I go back and do it all over again.  It’s a great way to avoid the tedium (transcribing for two weeks would give me carpal tunnel) and, since I have to read piles of material, I can readily do that outside, in my sweet lawn chair, while watching my tomato plants grow.  It’s not a bad summer — and I’m completely amazed by how much I thought I knew about each of these stars and didn’t.  My hope, of course, is that you will be too.

I’m turning in the final draft, final edits and all, at the very end of August….which means publication sometime in Spring or Summer 2014.  Get excited, and thanks, as ever, for your support.  Questions about the process? Let me know below!

Angelina Jolie Controls the Narrative

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The Basics:

Late last night, an editorial by Angelina Jolie, entitled “My Medical Choice,” went live on the New York Times.  In the editorial, Jolie revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy as a preemptive protection from breast and ovarian cancer.  Jolie, whose mother died of breast cancer at 57, also revealed that she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene and, in her words, “My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.”

In the editorial, Jolie vividly describes the specifics of the procedure:

My own process began on Feb. 2 with a procedure known as a “nipple delay,” which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple.

Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.

Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.

She also explicitly encourages women to explore their options and closes with an explanation of her decision to publicize her own surgery:

I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.

What It Means:

Just to be clear, analyzing the release of this news — and its effect on Jolie’s star image — does not take away from the actual, lived experience of a mastectomy, the difficulty of Jolie’s decision, or the power of her decision to write about it.  I am in now way attempting to trivialize Jolie or her decision.

But as star scholar Richard Dyer explains, actors becomes stars when their images “act out” what matters to broad swaths of people.  For many years, Jolie acted out deviance and rebellion; for many years after, she acted out motherhood, multiculturalism, and philanthropic engagement.  Those valences are all still very much a part of Jolie’s image, but today they’re emboldened by a very conscious decision to publicize a procedure that literally removed a primary locus of her star power.  And that decision — the very fearlessness of it — is actually very much in line with her image up to this point.

The first thing to note about the op-ed is just how surprising it was.  This wasn’t the culmination of weeks of rumors of hospitalization.  Rather, the entire procedure was kept under wraps, even though it was performed at a clinic in Los Angeles.  We’ll likely never know how they leveraged that level of silence — most likely a combination of non-disclosure agreements and capital — but what matters is that the secret held.  As a result, Jolie could release the story completely on her terms.  She set the narrative and the tone and, in so doing, the way people would talk about her today and for years to come.  In publicist’s terms, she was able to “own” the story from the very beginning.

Because of that ownership, the announcement isn’t of an action star losing her breasts, but of a woman gaining courage and acting on the desire to watch her children grow.  It’s not a tragedy, but a triumph.

If you’ve followed the history of Pitt and Jolie, then you know that this type of control is nothing new — ever since the photos of the pair playing with Zahara [EDIT: MADDOX] on the beach first hit the cover of People, they’ve controlled the narrative of their romance and their family.  Whether or not you’re Team Brangelina, the fact remains that they leverage publicity better than any other high-profile star today.

When the gossip magazines pitted them against Jennifer Aniston, they sold those same magazines — well, specifically, People — photos of them with their children…and then donated the millions to charity.  But those photos of companionship and familial bliss spoke the language the minivan majority wanted to hear, and helped placate any remaining resentment of the couple that supposedly broke the heart of the girl next door.  They sell art photos to W; Pitt talks about architecture to Architectural Digest and industry to Vanity Fair.  They know where certain narratives belong and to whom they speak.

Which is why it’s no accident that this announcement appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times.  The Times screams “last bastion of serious journalism” — and, of all the mainstream news publications, it’s the least enervated by celebrity news.  (Clearly there’s some, but far less than, say, the Los Angeles Times or Time).  Most celebrity health stories / triumphs make the cover of People, replete with photos of the star looking resilient and surrounded by family.  They are, in most cases, publicity: a means of keeping the star in the public eye during his/her absence….or, more tragically, a paycheck to leave behind to surviving family.

Choosing the Times has myriad benefits, publicity-wise. The audience dwarfs that of People or the audience of, say, the Today show.  But it also de-feminizes the story: People, Us, and the morning shows are all primarily directed at women.  They are “feminized” media products which, in our contemporary media environment, means they’re considered fluffier, less legitimate, more trivial.  (I’m not saying I like this distinction, but so it is).  But for Jolie, a double mastectomy – and this decision in general — isn’t just a woman’s issue.  It’s a family issue, and one that requires societal support.

Because the implicit message of the op-ed is stunning: Jolie is one of the most beautiful women in the world.  Her breasts, in no small part, made her a star.  But she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom.  Women have been hearing this message for years, but with this editorial, Jolie not only makes it available to men, but proves it through the very existence of her resilient, still sexual body.

And this is no tell-all interview, no banal celebrity profile.  There’s no fawning description of Jolie’s children surrounding her, or how peaceful she looks in her bed.  It’s a narrative in her voice, with her story, her decision, her description.  Because of the length constraints of the op-ed, it’s unembroidered, to the point and, well, persuasive.  There’s no glossy photos attached, nothing to distract you from Jolie’s words.  It’s short enough that few will skim.  The lede might still be “Star Famous For Boobs Has Double Mastectomy,” but because of the brevity of the piece — and the sheer desire to read more about the procedure – millions are actually reading her words, rather than simply seeing the announcement on the cover of a magazine.

The op-ed persuades readers of the legitimacy of Jolie’s decision.  It also works to persuade others to consider this decision for themselves, effectively legitimizing the option for millions.  But the op-ed also serves a secondary persuasive purpose, and I dont’ think it’s trivial to highlight it.  As I’ve watched thousands react to this story online, I’ve witnesses an outpouring of support, of course, but also respect, especially from women.  Jolie has never been a “girl’s girl.”  She’s that girl who always did her own thing, who hung out with the guys, who never had a ton of female friends.  She’s so beautiful that she alienates; she’s so different that she intimidates.  But this op-ed makes Jolie seem humble, thoughtful, and conscious of the way that publicizing a private decision can benefit more than just her career and image.  Jolie has long been a public advocate for peace and women’s rights on the global level, but for many, that work seemed to exotic, too altruistic, only further contributing to her distant, intimidating exoticism.  Jolie was never “just like us” — her life was nothing like ours.

There are still some elements of that exotic otherness in the op-ed — “my partner Brad Pitt,” for one — but the overall tone is one of warmth and identification.  There’s not even a photo to remind you of the beautiful symmetry of her face, or the eclectic and overwhelming cuteness of her kids.  It’s just a woman talking about her breasts, her family, and her decision to sacrifice one in hopes of holding on to the other.  The two lines of the piece reads “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”  I’ve never seen Jolie use a collective “we.”  But this might be the moment in her star narrative when fans began thinking of themselves and The Jolie in the same sentence.  

 

The Enduring Postfeminist Dystopia of Bachelorette

I’ve written about postfeminist dystopia before — specifically, as it applies to Revenge, which now seems to be withering on the vine in its second season on ABC.  But just because Revenge isn’t succeeding doesn’t mean that the dystopia it manifests isn’t alive, thriving, and doing some very complicated ideological negotiation.

Here’s what I said about postfeminist back when I wrote about Revenge:

Postfeminism is, most explicitly, the idea that feminism is no longer necessary.  Feminism accomplished its goals in the ’70s and ’80s, and we’re ready to move on and just “be” women, whatever that means.  (Suggestions that we live in a “post-race” society often hinge on the idea that a black president means that racism is no longer an issue in our society, let alone a defining issue).  We don’t need feminism, we just need “girl power” – a very different concept than the “grrl power” that undergirded the Riot Grrl movement of the early ’90s (which was, itself, a response to the rise of postfeminism).  Postfeminism is forgoing freedoms or equal rights in the name of prettier dresses, more expensive make-up, and other sartorial “freedoms” to consume.  Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is postfeminism manifest — a self-sustaining (sex worker) who meets her prince, who will allow her to consume (and become her “true” self).   Sex & the City is postfeminist.  Bridget Jones is postfeminist.  27 Dresses is postfeminist.

In short, the idea that consumption and self-objectification (which usually leads to romantic monogamy) = equal rights and equal treatment is postfeminist.

In text after text of the last twenty years, postfeminist philosophy, for lack of a better word, is portrayed as the path towards happiness and fulfillment.  Until, in a text like Revenge, it doesn’t.

Since I wrote that post last year, I’ve come to seem postfeminist dystopia all over the place, perhaps most poignantly in Girls (see also: The Mindy Project).  Here’s what it’s like to live in the world that postfeminism brought us, Girls suggests, and shit if it’s not a mix of impossibile contradiction, the impossibility of being both a sex object and a self-respecting woman attempting a career, ostensibly independent yet wholly dependent upon the validation of societal structures that privilege very specific types of bodies, attitudes, skin colors, and attitudes towards consumption.

Here’s the implicit, if never explicit, message of these dystopian texts: if this is what first and second wave feminism was for, if this is what our REJECTION of feminist was for — this SUCKS.

Crucially, however, these texts are never explicitly feminist.  They’re not didactic.  They might not even mean to project the message they’re projecting.  But it’s like a great New Yorker profile that never tells you what to think about the subject; rather, they just let the subject live his life, say his piece, transcribe it, shape it, and let you make the devastating judgment yourself.

Your eyes, however, need to be open.  Otherwise, it just seems like “real life,” and we all tell ourselves all sorts of stories to justify and perpetuate the way “real life” operates.  In other words, our media projects ideological norms — and sometimes they do it in a way that suggests that everything’s working well (see: postfeminist fantasies, enumerated above), but at some point, the seams of these productions began to stretch and fail.  Postfeminist is an ideology of how women should be in the world, and all ideologies are contradictory, impossible, unlivable, and impossible to replicate in real life.  But we still like to consume things that suggest that they are achievable — hell, that’s how aspirational, capitalist-based media culture works.

At some point, however, they stop working.  The veneer begins to crack, with the unseemly underbelly emerging.  You see this in occur in the form of noir in the ’40s and ’50s, a clear counterpoint to the glossy depictions of post-World War II consumerist culture.  You could even say that postfeminist media itself was a response to the ways in which feminist media, at least in its fractured 1980s manifestation, failed to adequately address the lived realities (and fantasies, and desires, and struggles) of women’s lives at the time.

People throw a tremendous amount of criticism at Girls (some of it very earned, re: privilege/race).  But some is rooted with general disgust at the depiction of sex, relationships, living conditions, struggles with career decisions, etc.  Girls’ picture of life is not pretty: it is uncomfortable and fucking rough.  And that’s part of the reason I love the show: it’s honest, if not always holistic, about what it’s like to be a 20-something (straight, white, privileged, educated) woman in the world today.  Because I am a straight, white, privileged  educated, woman, I feel a tremendous amount of identification with the characters; the shame, the humor, the competition, the difficulty of maintaining female friendships, all of it.  But that shit is ugly.  And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that its primary artistic force is a smart woman with an “untraditional” body shape, simply because she has investment in portraying the destructive disconnect between how we wish postfeminism manifested and how it actually does.

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Bachelorette, too, is ugly.  It is also the product of a woman – Leslye Headland — who apparently has not yet produced enough (save, oh, a cycle of seven plays) to merit her own Wikipedia page.  The plot is straightforward: four girls were bestfriends (or frenemies, depending) in high school.  They called themselves the B-Faces which, by all accounts, seems appropriate.

There’s The Off-Beat One (Lizzy Caplan), The Ditz (Isla Fischer), the Ice Queen (Kirsten Dunst), and the Fat One (Rebel Wilson).  (I’m not trying to be offensive here — that’s how they’re defined for us).  Each has grown up into the adult version of that stereotype: Caplan is a bit of a fuck-up who hooks up with random dudes that she loathes; Fischer works at Club Monaco and inadvertently insults the customers; Dunst is ostensibly living the perfect life, complete with med school boyfriend, but is a pile of passive aggressiveness, flat out aggressiveness, and discontent; Wilson, the bride (and the unfunniest of the lot, here) is concerned that everyone thinks she’s too fat for her hot husband-to-be.

They come together for the wedding, which includes an impromptu bachelorette party the night before.  But even before the bachelorette party, it’s clear that life is complicated and shitty for all of our postfeminist bridesmaids:

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Gena (Lizzie Caplan): She fell in love in high school (with Adam Scott — dude, I can get behind that); they had sex; she got pregnant; she needed an abortion.  Scott’s character didn’t show up to the abortion, so she had to have her best friend take her — a moment that traumatized her, led to the demise of her relationship, and has stuck with her since, with the implication that she can’t invest in a serious relationship because of the trauma.  Instead: she does a lot of drugs, wears short dresses, and eats very little.  Postfeminism encourages women to think of their bodies, and the objectification and sexualization thereof, of a means to power — and, of course, romantic coupling.  Feminism sought to give women control over their bodies and reproduction — which is why Gena could a.) have sex before marriage without ‘ruining’ her life and b.) have an abortion — but living with the realities of abortion in postfeminist culture, that’s fraught: you’re expected to move past that moment and resubmit yourself to the male gaze in order to gain power.  And so Gena does — she regiments her body, she wears short dresses, she does all the things you’re supposed to do to get guys.  And she gets them, but she hates them, and hates herself.  She’s figured out how the contemporary romance economy works, but it’s utterly unfulfilling to her.  But she’s also internalized it: when grown-up Adam Scott tells her that he loves her, he’s so sorry, he was a coward and was too sad to come to the abortion, she’s still reticent to believe him….in part because she’s become so accustomed to a certain type of behavior from men, a type of behavior instigated by her own self-objectification.  Also: no apparently job, because her sense of self-worth has, understandably — given the ideology in which she resides — become secondary to how she looks and her ability to attract men.

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Katie (Isla Fischer): WHERE DO I START.  As becomes clear over the course of the film, she has creative skills — she can sew, she understands tailoring, she has an eye for design.  Where she’s accumulated that skill is unclear, but now she’s using it half-assedly working retail at Club Monaco and maxing out her credit cards.  Actual skill — and a vocation that might give her pleasure — has been traded for a service job, helping other women max out their credit cards in an attempt to keep up with the dictates of fashion.  Women’s fashion sells a version of what femininity should be: in the case of Club Monaco, that version is svelte, put together, feminine, intended for a closely regimented body, and expensive.  The irony, of course, is that Katie can only afford its fashions — and its version of femininity — because she receives an employee discount; what’s more, she’s so in debt that she’ll never be able to quit her job and actually investigate her talents.  It’s the double-bind of postfeminism: empowerment through consumerism turns into stifling debt that ensures docility and dis-empowerment in the work place.

Katie’s guy issues are laughable, if they weren’t so plainly reflective of the realities of postfeminist dating.  She’s self-objectified, and expects to be treated accordingly.  When the “nice guy” former-nerd who’s had a crush on her since high school takes her back to the hotel and declines to have sex with her — because he likes her TOO MUCH and doesn’t want to have sex when they’re both drunk — she feels rejected.  Postfeminist sex culture in a nutshell: self-objectification leads to objectification, e.g. hook-up culture.  On every campus where I’ve taught over the last seven years, I’ve heard (mostly female, also male) students bemoan “hook-up culture” and the sort of behaviors it requires, but REAL TALK: hook-up culture is, at least in part, the legacy of postfeminism.  Sexual freedom + sexual self-objectification = hook-up culture.  That sort of sexual freedom can certainly be empowering, but it can also, especially after several years immersed in that culture, be profoundly empty.  I’m not a prude; I’m not suggesting that everyone my age should be married (I’m certainly not) — but I am suggesting that the lack of intimacy “liberated” by postfeminist culture is unsatisfying, as clearly evidenced by Katie’s tears.  Hooking up, and the implicit validation from male’s, is the measure of validation — not actual pleasure (see: Girls).

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Regan (Kirsten Dunst): Regan’s postfeminist dystopia is the most stereotypical, and the most stereotypically horrible.  She has a “perfect” boyfriend, she has a “perfect” volunteer diversion, she has “perfect” party-planning abilities.  But she’s also soul-less, mean, hates her boyfriend, doesn’t really like her friends, and resents her best friend for getting married before she does.  She has power, but its a power built on divisiveness.  She’s willing to sacrifice friendship (and the potential for feminist coalition) for her own reputation.  She helps her good friend plan her wedding, but only because she’s so bitter that she’s not the one getting married first.  Her postfeminist fantasy is in stark contrast to those of Katie and Gena: she’s fulfilled the domestic, the passively feminine, the body-regiming qualities required of her, and she’s so unfulfilled that she’s PISSED.  Regan’s anger is just on the surface throughout, and periodically bursts forth — in moments that we, as an audience, are supposed to consider humorous or, alternately, just bitchy. But she’s a bitch because ideology is fucked: she’s done what her culture, her media, her resultant ideals told her to do — and it SUCKS.  She’s so unsatisfied, so angry.  We don’t even know what her job is — because it DOESN’T MATTER, because postfeminism could give two shits about your job.

Like Marnie in Girls, she wants a guy who’ll just have sex with her and “show her her place” — but that sex proves ultimately unsatisfying, in part because both Regan’s and Marnie’s potential and sense of self make that type of sex feel good in the moment but sour in the aftermath.  Postfeminism suggests that passivity and the endurance of patriarchy is AWESOME; in the moment, that may be true, but over time, it makes you feel approximately the same way I feel after eating a quarter pound of candy corn.  In other words: barfy, hollow, horrible.

Ultimately, I’m fascinating by what I’m labeling as a new genre of postfeminist dystopia — a genre to which the makers of these films may or may not ascribe.  It matters little whether these filmmakers or actresses know what they’re doing, though.  Instead, what matters is how clearly they’re articulating the various dystopian valences of postfeminism.  Whether they realize it or not, they’re poking holes in the ideology — and that, and the conversations it engenders, including this one, are what matters.  Bachelorette isn’t a perfect film.  It’s very funny, but it’s also terrifying.  My hope, then, is that you’ll be able to watch it — and other texts that speak to the postfeminist dystopia — and experience both.

Nashville Roundtable to End All Roundtables: Round Two

 

 

YOUR PERFECTLY LIT RAYNA/DEACON SHIPPING PHOTO:  

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YOUR ESTEEMED PARTICIPANTS:

Karen Petruska
Simone Eastman
Jane Hu
Allison Wright
Jorie Lagerway
Jia Tolentino
And me, AHP.

AHP: First off, I’d like to acknowledge that the show has finally hit a bit of a stride. There was a period there — oh, about seven episodes ago — when I was just like SEPARATE ALREADY.  And then Rayna went two-stepping with Liam and had to have that moment by herself in the bathroom [BEEN THERE, RAYNA] and things just started rolling. At last.

Jia: I am trying to think of a better way to phrase this, but… Gunnar and O.C. Luke are totally going to bang. In my mind at least. That scene when they cheat death and get all ecstatic and screamy as the train rolls by?

Jorie: They are for sure going to bang.

 Jane: Homosocial bonding! (And all those scenes from old films where a passing train so obviously signifies pent-up erotic desires.) (AHP: Good Hitchcock call, Jane.) (Jane: Yes! Hitchcock, Renoir, and my favorite BRIEF ENCOUNTER.)

 AHP: O.C. Luke! THAT’S WHERE HE’S FROM!

 Jia: He is 33 and does not look a day older than 33. Luke, actually, is a helpful reference for me (in terms of characters getting rewritten out of left field) as I process Dante’s INSANELY QUICK and HIGHLY HILARIOUS character transformation from Mild, Reasonable Sober Companion to High-Powered Major Label Pop Star Manager. Over the course of the last episode, Dante’s hair got 500% greasier as he fully inhabited his new Addicted 2 Biz life. I cannot wait for this very unrealistic storyline to just explode all over the place, although I am sad for Juliette, because she has regressed back to her Toddlers & Tiaras persona. (Allison: I like to think about character consistency from one role to the next, so the same Jay Hernandez who was Brian Chavez in Friday Night Lights has somehow become Dante. And the same Chris Carmack who was Luke Ward in The O.C. has made it to Nashville. And obviously I think of Juliette Barnes as an extension of Claire Bennet from Heroes.)

 I am also sad for Scarlet, even though Gunnar is being nice to her, because in the last few episodes she has reached new heights of drippy milkmaid passive “I’d be much happier if I could just make you dinner and clean the house” bad-accent Wig Madness. I hope she gets an assertive hair-wardrobe-and-attitude makeover on Rayna’s label (YAY THAT PLOT).

 SE: Scarlett kind of reminds me of a Lifetime movie lead, but I can’t decide if she’s the Lifetime movie lead who boldly remakes her life in a “becomes the man she wanted to marry”/Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves kind of way, or in a “Lifetime as the ‘Women Having A Hard Time Channel’” kind of way, like at any moment she could say/warble, “But he’s a GOOD MAN!”

 Jane: Oof, Scarlett’s character is almost painfully stock Sacrificial Maiden, and while I’m excited for the Gunnar/O.C. Luke (aka Nashville Will Lexington), I wish it wasn’t at the sake of Scarlett. (That knowing look on Gunnar’s face when Scarlett flounces away, happy that Will has been a “good influence” on him.) Like, very many levels of character sacrifice here! And I want to trust Khouri, but, yes Jia, Scarlett makeover a la Thelma — anytime now.

 KP: I’m concerned about Scarlett/Gunnar in that I actually prefer them singing together (they are sort of making me feel better about the break-up of The Civil Wars). The music is one of the best parts of the show, so if that is ever threatened by plot, I sort of get annoyed. (AW: Yes, Civil Wars! I heard a rumor they’re getting back together. Fingers crossed.)

 Also, does anyone else agree that Panettiere is becoming a much better singer? Seems less nasal now.

 AHP: I feel like she’s still nasaly and a bit too Carrie Underwood on the power ballads, but I love it when she’s doing the quiet Deacon-inspired stuff — “Consider Me” is gorgeous. They’re also doing an okay job with getting around the, er, frailty of Connie Britton’s voice (see: “Stronger than Me.”)

 Jorie: I think we mentioned this last time, but the frailty of Connie Britton’s voice is actually kind of destructive to what is ostensibly the central conflict of the show. Cuz Juliette is actually better than she is. Especially, as you said, when she sings with Deacon.

 KP: I’m gonna step in here to ask if country singers need good voices.  I know Carrie Underwood has us all thinking that, but isn’t frailty a great attribute in a country singer.  I know she’s Mrs. Coach, so I’m likely super biased, but I sort of love Connie’s voice.  It is much more vulnerable and poignant. Her singing (like her acting) requires risk.

 AHP: My subjective opinion based on nearly two decades of country music listening: yes.  In fact, I can’t think of a single female country star (or male star, for that matter) without a powerhouse voice.  Taylor Swift, maybe, but that’s another story.  The problem is that Britton’s supposed to be the Faith Hill in this equation battling it out with Carrie Underwood, and Hill has effing PIPES.

 KP: I liked that Juliette fired her manager. I think that could have been a good way to go — how does a child star grow up (important, useful topic for the actual world), but instead they’ve chosen to go down a less satisfying track.

 Jorie: Can we discuss why Scarlett wears a wig? She has hair. WAIT. The Civil Wars broke up?!

 KP: What does her actual hair look like? … Oh, sorry to break the news, Jorie. It is pretty tragic.

 Jorie: I have no idea what her real hair looks like, actually.

 Jia: (I am doing some Clare Bowen research right now and A. her Twitter is actually 50% cupcakes [that is a joke I would have made up about her but it’s true] and 50% adorable photos of her and her menagerie of animals, B. she was the lead in an Australian production of Spring Awakening, with Cate Blanchett as the artistic director! I hate musicals! But I would have LOVED to see that!)

 Jane: Compulsory Defense of Musicals Interlude: WOWWWW. I would love to see that, and if Bowen played Wendla (originated by Lea Michele of Glee fame) then we know she can handle nuance. Can someone please make Scarlett’s character just a wee bit more round, and not on the verge of tears all the time? (Also recently learned that Spring Awakening is a DUNCAN SHEIK production, but that makes soooo much sense. “The Mirror-Blue Night”? So Sheik.) (Jia: She was Wendla! [And my hate of musicals comes solely from having spent my entire childhood putting my hair in sausage-curl rollers for them.] And I actually love that Spring Awakening was Duncan Sheik — if there was a more naturalistic pop sensibility to contemporary musical theater, i.e. Nashville basically, everyone would get on board. I think the band Fun. is a flop sophomore album away from writing a decent musical. ALSO, ALSO, the actor who plays Gunnar is British – so Scarlett, the accent, PLEASE!) (Jane: FUN IS WRITING A MUSICAL? That makes so much sense; the lead singer’s voice screams musical theater (no pun intended), and I think his uncle has roots there? OK, Jia, the next time we meet, we will have a Musicals With Pop Sensibilities marathon. You will be converted; I can already tell. Aaaand Musical Interlude Scene.) (Jia: Sadly that is just my Fun. fantasy. Let me conclude my off-topic interlude here with THE MOST FUNNY clip of O.C. Luke dancing to Rooney and singing very terribly – hiding, clearly, the polished country twang that he unveils on Nashville.) 

KP: The thing with the hair is that it reinforces the whole unrealistic Disney Princess nonsense.  Disney Princesses are faux feminist, so the idea that Scarlett has to be fragile, beautiful, and soft (as represented by the hair) bums me out.

Jia: DO we think that Scarlett is going to hook up with Luke? Whose name is WILL, I keep forgetting, but he will always be Luke to me. I feel like such a complication is inevitable–they are inserting him into the Scarlett-Gunnar relationship in a very direct way. I would like to see Scarlett do something selfish and bad, is why I’m asking this.

 Jorie: Do you not think he and Gunnar are going to do… something?

 Jia: I WISH! I wish they would just all have a threesome, to be honest, and Luke and Gunnar have more intense chemistry than a lot of other couples on the show! But, you know… doubtful.

 Jorie: I live in a delusional world where, until it doesn’t happen, I believe network television will do things like put the two hot guys with great chemistry in bed together and have the milkmaid come in with breakfast and just join them. But yeah, probably not. And in that case, I would say she would hook up with Luke, but this show is SO BAD at making people who should be having sex (for story’s sake, for melodrama’s sake, for entertainment’s sake) have sex.

 Jia: Definitely. I also wonder if Luke is a sign that Avery is getting written off soon. That was a bit of a low point for me in terms of plausibility, when he burned those master tracks in a trash can like he was Taylor Momsen on Gossip Girl or something — I don’t think the writers really know what to do with him.  (AHP: JIA I AM DYING)

 Jane: I was wondering why they were still keeping Avery around — I mean, they show even had the out of firing but, but they’re keeping him so… I think there’s some dramatic criss-crossing left to happen there.

 SE: It’s because he wears a leather thong necklace.

 AHP: Well that’s it Simone, now that we’ve discussed the leather thong necklace, this Roundtable is Complete.

 SE: Kill your idols, etc etc.

 Jorie: But wait: Avery might turn back into a human now that he is forced, Tyler Perry style, to face good clean working class work. (Jia: TYLER PERRY STYLE *faints happily*)

 KP: Yeah, I think they know they have a good actor as Avery, and he has a lovely falsetto. So if they can find a way to redeem him, he can someday sleep with Juliette (cause this show ultimately has the personal goals of all characters subsumed by sex).

 Jorie: It claims to have all the personal goals of all the characters subsumed by sex. But then it doesn’t do it right. I couldn’t care less who Juliette sleeps with, since she clearly will sleep with every male cast member eventually. But either put Rayna and Deacon together, or move on. Make something actually shocking or interesting happen. Be more like Scandal. I’m frustrated with the show. I agree with AHP that it’s hit its stride more, but still could be so much better.

 Jia: I have a feeling, though, that the sustained and excruciating separation of Rayna and Deacon is going to carry this show from season to season, as much as I wish it wouldn’t.

 Jorie: But it’s not excruciating. That’s the problem. It’s gone on so long I don’t care. Although I am happy to see Deacon happy. Poor guy never catches a break.

 KP: (raises hand) I care about Rayna and Deacon.  Though a flashback episode (please, done better than #TVD and that one Gilmore Girls episode) would be sort of awesome to fill that out–why Rayna betrayed her lover of years to find security with the most boring man on the planet.

 Jia: True. They’ve lost a lot of momentum. And gained a Labrador puppy. I was quite pleased at the shamelessness of that. “Meh, let’s just give him a puppy or something,” said some writer in response to “How can we keep the audience interested in Deacon now that he has a girlfriend that people will like but not root for because she ain’t got that Tami Taylor steez.”

 Jane: I find this genre of character so interesting, Jia! The romantic obstacle between the two fated lovers that isn’t captivating or interesting enough for us to hate (or love).

 AW: I really hate that Deacon’s girlfriend is also the CIA agent’s wife on The Americans. Like, cannot handle it. She doesn’t have a big role in either, but it still freaks me out. If the shows were not on at the same time, I would apply my rule of linear progression referenced above and just say that the CIA agent’s wife became a veterinarian after divorcing him–or she entered witness protection and this is her new life — but the concurrent viewing precludes that.

 Jane: But she does have the sort of Semi-Clueless Significant Other vibe in both roles, at least!

 AW: True–she is consistent. Which makes it even easier to believe it’s all the same person.

 KP: I loved the scene with Deacon and Rayna in the hospital. Yes, the elevator kiss was super hot, but I prefer these two as friends nevertheless. For a woman as confused as Rayna, it is nice to have one person get her. Speaking of, the sister is getting redeemed a bit, too. I wish they could pull that off with the father — give him something more to do than laugh evil-y.

 Jorie: YES. I loved that scene. It was tortured and nice and appropriate. While the sister’s turn around is abrupt, I get that your dad having a heart attack could soften your edges temporarily. Plus, it seems like she’s going to take his place as schemer in chief. Which brings me to AHP’s topic list: Powers Boothe acting like he’s on Deadwood. Yes. What’s up, Powers Boothe?

 Jane: When Boothe sat down in his leather armchair — glass of whiskey in hand — before his blazing fireplace, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of Don Draper’s future.

 KP: I am not familiar with Powers Boothe, but everything I read tells me he is a great actor. Wish the show knew that.

 Jorie: I wish the show knew that about the whole cast. See above re: Scandal. There is SO MUCH POTENTIAL. It just doesn’t have the writing chops. There is a moment or two in each episode that I really like, and the rest, meh.

 AHP: Here’s what I like about what’s going on with Deacon and Rayna: it’s what actually happens when you’re friends with someone whom you’ve loved and lost. They’re best friends, and they know and understand each other in a way that no one else will. Rayna is seriously lonely — her sister is suddenly offering all sorts of insight and Rayna is suddenly heeding it — but, as is all too typical on network television, here’s a lady with NO FEMALE FRIENDS.

 KP: Postfeminist BS Bingo. No female friends.

 Jia: No kidding. Scarlett, too – that brief gesture towards female friendship when Hailey bought her a Cleavage Dress and took her out on the town was so quickly stifled by Gunnar’s Boner of Rage, which was my least favorite Gunnar moment in the show to date. Actually, it might be a more general failing that people on this show – aside from Rayna, who is good at warmly insinuating history in brief moments of interaction – just do not appear to have many friends, period. Fame and power are isolating, sure, etc, but that’s not enough of a justification – it’s like in literary fiction when characters ostensibly don’t hold jobs.

 KP: So here’s the show’s dilemma — some real potential, and from what I can tell, reasonable success with the music. So how do they get more viewers? Do they want the country folks, and if they do, what makes them happy? I hate when a show is in search of an audience, because they just throw pasta on the wall without realizing they forgot to put the pasta in the water in the first place.

 AW: Speaking of tension with Deacon and Rayna, how long are they going to draw out the paternity issue? Deacon rescues Maddie (the older daughter?) during the stampede at Juliette’s concert, he hangs out with her (and the new girlfriend) during Rayna’s concert, acting all fatherly. When is the big reveal? (Jane: Oh man, during that hug, I thought Rayna was going to look down and have a moment of “that’s the family I could have had” and stumble through the performance or something, but it was very much taken as a given! And Rayna’s tears by her father’s bedside at missing all those years they could have had? Is Rayna going to hint do the same with Maddie?)

 Also, I wonder how everyone consumes the show — do you have TV, watch it live, DVR it, wait until it’s available online, etc? And do the answers to this question get at KP’s question re: increasing viewership?

 SE: I watch it in Hulu binges when Grey’s Anatomy and SVU both have an off week. (Those are the weeks when I think, “I really miss my friends.” Which.)

 Jane: Same! Hulu binges, so it’s not at the top of my list, though I am haaaanging on. (I missed a few episodes during that deep lull and might even recommend that to future viewers?)

 Jia: I do not have a TV, but I solicit TV access from a friend for this show – Nashville and basketball are the only two things that I will get in front of a real TV for. I will say, though, I have a sense of this show as having a much broader audience than I would have expected – or maybe my college best-of-bro friends are just anomalously broadening their taste from Workaholics and the like – but I’ve been surprised at the demographic variety of the people I know who watch it.

 AHP: I watch it via Hulu on my iPad, but almost exclusively while exercising.  It is the PERFECT exercising show.  I’m also somewhat surprised by how many of my (female) students watch it — probably because a.) it’s on Hulu and b.) I got them all addicted to Friday Night Lights last semester. NOTE TO ABC: YOUR 20- AND 30-SOMETHING AUDIENCE IS WATCHING VIA THE HULUS; DON’T GIVE UP ON THAT PLAN.

 KP: Hulu but not so much a binge.  My partner watches with me, but he’s not really that into it.  If I didn’t make him, he wouldn’t watch.  And is that a possible issue, too?  Is there a reason for guys to watch this show? I mean, Deacon is sorta manly, but while we complain about Scarlet, at least the other females are relatively in charge of their lives.  Are there any 3D male characters on this show?

 AW: I have been wondering the same thing about Girls, though my question there expands to include what men who watch that show (if there are any) think of the representations of themselves vis-a-vis dating. I’m not sure there’s a similar question to be asked here, though maybe there is and I’m just not ferreting it out.  (AHP: I don’t know where it’s sourced, or if it’s just internet legend, but apparently 60% of Girl’s audience is male.  Fascinating).

 SE: I think this is an important question but I must first insist that we introduce Lean In analytic. WHICH LADIES ON THIS SHOW ARE/ARE NOT LEANING IN? Part of me thinks all of them are. Like, Juliette, for all her rebel bullshit, is leaning in, right?

 Jia: Juliette leans in so hard all the time. Every morning Juliette wakes up and tells herself to lean in at such a deeply acute angle that her powerless childhood (which here can be pictured as a congealed bowl of trailer pink mac-and-cheese) can never again haunt her in the present. Rayna’s hair is the ghostwriter for Lean In so there are no issues there. However, Scarlet only leaned in for this solo contract because her Authoritative Man gave her approval to do so. (SE: Connie Britton’s hair: never not leaning in. Also, congealed mac-and-cheese is kind of the best, so you CLEARLY MEANT Tuna Noodle Helper.)

 AW: Scarlett totally leaned in once she got the head nod from Gunnar!

 SE: Isn’t that the real problem with Lean In, that the Leaning Lady has to have always already had a dudely head nod before shit takes off?

 KP: Dude(tte), that is so troubling.  Could Sandberg only lean in when that little pipsqueak Facebook founder let her?  The parallels there are troubling (yet apt).  Scarlet needs help, STAT. Like, cutting off her hair, Felicity-style, help.  Like, being killed and having her twin sister take over, unbeknownst to everyone around her.  Like, is there any help for this character other than her voice (which hides a great chest voice most of the time)?  How about this–let Deacon and Rayna be starcrossed forever (that’s fine with me–the tension works).  How about letting Deacon mentor HIS ACTUAL NIECE? Now that could be interesting, and there would be no nonsense about his trying to sleep with her, like every other storyline on the show.

 SE: Can we talk about what this show does with/about addiction? I say this mostly because I am “watching” Elementary while I work and that show ALSO has a “sober companion.”

 KP: Really enjoying Elementary (though not sure why Angelina’s ex always seems to be shouting).  That is all.

 AW: I have not seen Elementary (I have also not seen Deadwood, which I realize is a travesty that must be remedied immediately) but I do watch Nurse Jackie and Californication, two shows that very clearly address addiction. This seems like the Disney hand-holding, didactic version. Of course, it’s network compared to Showtime. How many characters struggle with addiction? Deacon, Coleman, Juliette’s mom. Anyone else? Juliette’s mom seems to struggle more than Deacon and Coleman, at least in the present. Are we to make anything of that? (I’m trying really hard not to make it about gender and/or class, so mostly I want y’all to save me from myself here.) (SE: You are perfect and beautiful.)

KP: Ways to improve this show: 1) no more sex. For any characters.  Only longing, which is more dramatic anyway.  2) Scarlet is only allowed to sing with Gunnar, though in all other aspects of her life she must make her own choices. In fact, she should start telling him how to live, cause his choices are crap. 3) Avery needs to be redeemed.  That actor is too cute not to be on the show.  And I’m sorry, Annie, but “Kiss” is a damn hot song. 4) More about songwriting, performance anxiety/mechanics, and the business of music.  The damn thing is set in Nashville, so let’s get some insider dish (beyond dumb guest star spots that give the guest stars nothing to do).  5) More scenes with Rayna and Juliette, as long as they never cat fight or enact any other cliches. Genuine jealousy, competition, understanding, achievement, collaboration only. 6) More of Rayna’s sister being a real person, not a cartoon. She can be conflicted (but I’m a business woman, too, and therefore must make money!!), but she still needs to be, you know, a human. 7) Dad should have died. Sorry, but the character was never developed beyond the twirling mustache. He and Teddy should accidentally shoot other in a twisted sex game.

 AW: Booth should have died, YES. Great idea to have Deacon mentor Scarlett, though I want to see Scarlett and Rayna write and sing together. And I want to see Scarlett leave Gunnar and live alone. Figure your shit out, girl. I wonder if the writers are shying away from the music industry in an effort to appeal to a broader audience in the same way that FNL writers avoided too much football talk. “It’s not really about football” (except of course it was).

 KP (cont):I actually really, really, really like Nashville.  I think Mrs. Coach has a character with interesting conflicts and a great acting partner in Deacon. Juliette has redeemed Panettiere, which is pretty much all I need to say about that.  Gunnar and Scarlet have great (musical) chemistry. How albums are made. What are the challenges of the business.  How hard it is to balance work and home.  All of that is awesome.  So just go do that and cut the silly melodramatic.  I’m a girl, and I like romance, but I don’t need dumb. [Oh, and Ms. Khouri--you are working with your husband.  I imagine that is an interesting relationship. So put Rayna with Deacon, and let them act out your life for us. That would be a damn good show]

 AHP: [DROPS MIC; PICKS IT UP AND PASSES IT TO THE REST OF THE INTERNET]

 

 

New Writing All Over the Place

Where to find it:

New Spring Endorsements, including lots of broccoli recipes, on Virginia Quarterly Review.  Plus my long form piece on “The Rules of the Game: 100 Years of Hollywood Publicity.”

On Slate: Photoplay‘s feature on ”The Best Figure of 1931.”   (Winner: Lupe Velez!)

For The Awl: “You, Me, and Star Trek: The Next Generation,” What Your Gap Fragrance Said About You,” and “Crash: The Most Loathsome Best Picture of Them All.”

For Laptham’s Quarterly: “The Hollywood Canteen” (Bette Davis ran that game).

On Avidly.org: “Trade in Your Sexiest Men.”

The most recent Scandals of Classic Hollywood on The Hairpin:

Ronald Reagan Plays the President

The Most Wicked Face of Theda Bara

In Like Errol Flynn

The Many Faces of Barbara Stanwyck

And what I’m most excited about: writing about the artists of Lilith Fair with Simone Eastman, also for The Hairpin.  Tracy Chapman is already published; Natalie Merchant is forthcoming in a matter of days.

Oh, did you know I have a book COMING SOON-ISH?!?

Finally, the chair of my department and I have been doing a podcast, and we’re finally not totally embarrassing.  In our latest episode, we talk about the premiere of Mad Men and Spring Breakers, amongst many other things.  Subscribe if you feel inclined.

 

A Quick Note on Scandal and Morality Clauses

1104-Kerry-Washingtons-Scandal-Gets-Full-Season-Order-1

Just a very quick note on this week’s episode of Scandal, a show that’s doing some of the most interesting (network) work in storytelling, female desire, postfeminism, race, and the intersections between all of the above.  But what I found interesting about this week’s episode had nothing to do with those qualities and everything to do with it’s evocation of “morality clauses” in contracts — a page straight from the playbook of classic Hollywood.

If you don’t watch Scandal, the basic premise is as follows: Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) is a “Fixer,” a term borrowed from classic Hollywood and meant to connote her behind-the-scenes, treading the line between legal/illegal, “fixing” of various potential scandals.  She also works on political campaigns, but that’s another story.

Within this particular episode, Pope is hired to help spin the scandal from the revelation of an old affair between a female CEO and her former law professor.  When she was a law student and he was a law professor, they engaged in an affair; now said affair is coming to light because the law professor is nominated for the Supreme Court.  Not an altogether unfamiliar scenario.

But what really interested me was how the company of which the female participant in the affair (nicely played by Lisa Edelstein, formerly of House) is subject to censor from the company of which she is the CEO, which threatens to fire her for violating the terms of her contract, specifically, a “morality clause.”  Even though her “transgressions” occurred fourteen years in the past, her Fortune 500 company could still fire her for actions that did not adhere to the moral standards of the company.  Or, more bluntly, any actions that, once revealed, would incite negative press coverage and make the stock price drop.

The board of this company seems to have the CEO cornered: her actions violate the morality clause, even if they were committed years ago, and they’re about to vote to fire her.  But at the last minute, some associates of Olivia Pope barge into the board room and threaten to all sorts of dirt on the other members of the board, all of whom have also signed contracts with morality clauses.

In truth, these Pope Associates have nothing.  No dirt.  I’m sure they actually could find something, but they had a time crunch.  But the very suggestion that they had dirt was enough to make all of these (male) board members feel very guilty and quietly rescind their threat to invoke the morality clause in her contract.  As close up of individual board members makes abundantly clear, the vast majority of them have also violated their own morality clauses.

And here’s where we return to Classic Hollywood.  Morality clauses never (or very rarely) actually govern the behavior of the contracted individual, whether a member of a board or a Hollywood star.  Instead, it’s all about appearance — and surveillance.  Companies publicized morality clauses much in the same way that the studios, following the scandals of the early ’20s, publicized their own clauses.  Ultimately, adherence to the clauses mattered very little — indeed, no star was every fired.  What mattered was the appearance of strict moral regulation.

Perhaps even more importantly, the knowledge of such clauses legislates behavior.  Or, rather, makes it go underground, ostensibly immune to surveillance.  In classic Hollywood, this meant relying on Fixers employed by the very company that had made you sign the contract with the morality clause.  Today, it means that individuals, whether on the corporate or celebrity level, understand that their behavior will be surveilled.  Crucially, however, it doesn’t mean that they will actually alter their behavior.  Humans do “immoral” things, broadly defined.  Humans have affairs; humans do drugs; humans have peccadilloes.  Morality clauses persist not to actually change behavior, but to a.) make outsiders believe that the company/studio/whatever does not endorse that behavior and b.) to force that behavior underground.

It’s a totally screwy system.  But that’s ideology and the realities of American conservative values.