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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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 Post, Life 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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
YOUR PERFECTLY LIT RAYNA/DEACON SHIPPING PHOTO:
YOUR ESTEEMED PARTICIPANTS:
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]
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 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:
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.
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.
I love the “What I Read” pieces in The Atlantic, in which well-known writers and bloggers detail their media consumption diets. Emily Nussbaum, Sasha Frere-Jones, Nate Silver, The Fug Girls. Or, as the intro to each segment puts it:
How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can’t they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers.
Now, I am NO PROMINENT FIGURE IN MEDIA. But a reader asked me to do this the other day, and today, having spent the last five days writing the first third of the Scandals book, I need to something, anything, that doesn’t involve narrativizing the crappy way female stars from the ’20s were treated by the press. Either you’re like me and like to know the habits of people whose writing you consume, or clicking away, which, totally okay! But I’d love to read your own “What I Read” pieces: let’s wrest this feature away from the well-read and the important. Or just talk about it in the comments.
And so, What I Read:
I wake up, roll over like a lazy person, and scroll through my phone. I live in PST, which means that I’ll often have a solid amount of email coming in from those of you on the East Coast. But this first move through email, Twitter, and Facebook is just to get my bearings, make sure no giant gossip story has broken, etc. As I get ready for the day, I keep NPR from Seattle (KUOW) streaming on my phone. One of the things I’ve always loved about NPR is how difficult it makes it to only consume the stories that interest you — I find out about international news, stories of veterans, weird local stuff from Northeastern Washington State, play-by-plays of the latest Supreme Court battles, all because it’s in the stream. I spend so much of the day reading only what interests me, so it’s good to listen to things that don’t, at least ostensibly, grab my interest.
These days, I go to my office to start the work day. If I’m teaching that day, I’ll have a bunch of prep to sandwich between my media consumption, but as anyone who teaches media studies can tell you, the line between “prep” and “just reading the entire internet” is a fine line. This semester, I’m teaching a class in Gender/Sexuality/Media, so I’m constantly finding classroom fodder in my daily explorations.
I wish I was a person who opened her browser and read through the New York Times and checked a bunch of unique websites. Instead, I let Twitter and Facebook tell me what’s important. I follow a relatively small amount of people on Twitter (around 325) because I want to be able to follow narratives, conversations, and keep up with things that people I admire link to. Some people, like Ray Pride at Movie City News, are great retweeters, even of stuff that doesn’t necessarily jive with my own political/cultural views, so people like him are essential to my Twitter stream. I follow a lot of writers and critics, which keeps me abreast of conversations happening in the critical realm in terms of contemporary media, as well as industry publications (Hollywood Reporter, Variety) and publications that cover celebrity (Us Weekly’s Twitter feed is preposterous and hilarious; Vanity Fair has a curious tone that frequently amuses).
And on both Facebook and Twitter, I’m connected to dozens of media studies academics, whose investment in television, celebrity, and the industry at large also helps keep me current. Chris Becker maintains the spectacular “News for TV Majors” feed, which helps cull the best/most compelling industry news from the chaff.
I always spend time on The Hairpin, The Awl, Vulture, Lainey Gossip, and Grantland. I often end up on Fug Girls, the New Yorker blog, The Atlantic, The Billfold, and Dear Television. I’ll almost always read a review posted by Nussbaum (The New Yorker), Alan Sepinwall (Hit Fix), Matt Zoller Seitz (New York), Andy Greenwald (Grantland), or Dana Stevens (Slate). I read everything written by Molly Lambert (Grantland; although I admit I don’t read her music chart stuff), Mallory Ortberg (all over, but mostly The Hairpin, The Gloss, Gawker), Jane Hu (The Awl), Maria Bustillos (all over), Lindy West (Jezebel) and Linda Holmes (NPR). I love it when Edith Zimmerman, editor of The Hairpin, writes long form pieces for other places. I love everything Nicole Cliffe, books editor for The Hairpin, writes about her baby, horses, dogs, and life in general. Looking at that list, WOW, I like lady writers.
Sometimes I’m looking for things to post to the Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style Facebook page, but more often than not, those links just fall in my lap. But again, I rarely just go to one of these sites and look for interesting things to read — I’m almost always guided there by a link on FB or Twitter.
I don’t spend much time on sites explicitly devoted to gossip, save Lainey Gossip. On Lainey, I only read the pieces about stars in which I am in some way invested or that are just amazing gossip (the recent photos of Lindsay Vonn and Tiger Woods, for example). I never read the pieces by Sarah or the advice columns. I go to People.com or UsWeekly.com only for breaking celebrity news (what an amazing phrase). I periodically read Fug Girls for the commentary and during Mad Men season, I DEVOUR the Tom & Lorenzo fashion recaps. All of this reading is generally mashed in between class prep, actually teaching classes, meeting with students (at a school like Whitman, there’s a constant stream of students who just want to hang out and talk about anything and everything), reading student blog posts, and doing my own work.
But I also read long things! I’m a diehard “Pocket” user, and when something’s long, I’ll put it in there for safe keeping. I usually read my Pocketed stuff over lunch or after dinner with a gin and tonic. I get an email with “The Best of Longreads” every week, and there’s always one or two things on that list that surprises me — and comes from places on the internet I don’t usually frequent. I read The New Yorker every week while on the spin bike (stop making fun of me) — never cover to cover, but at least two-three of the long form pieces, and always the reviews. I also subscribe to GQ, Vanity Fair, and Cook’s Illustrated. Big goal for the coming year = the Sunday New York Times.
I read real-life books, usually given to me my my mother, who reads everything, or my brother, who reads everything else and, given his gig at n+1, gets tons of galleys in the mail. I’m part of a Facebook book club (stop laughing again) with a bunch of media studies kids, and we read something topical every month – Gone Girl, for example, or last summer, Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m also constantly (re)reading the assigned reading for my classes, which adds up to a lot when you’re teaching three classes. The only academic journal I seek out in its entirety = Celebrity Studies. I try to find new star/celebrity scholarship, but it’s not like there’s a Twitter account for that…it’s mostly word of mouth, or things I hear about at conferences. (My latest acquisition: Paul McDonald’s excellent new book on the industry of Hollywood Stardom).
As for blogs, I have an elaborate (soon to be defunct) Google Reader like everyone else, although I only read about 1/16 of what I have collecting there. I used to follow a bunch of fashion/outfit blogs, but ever since my favorite (What Would a Nerd Wear) went into retirement, I just can’t bring myself to look at the over-belting. I read the always amusing Yoonanimous, I get ideas from Cup of Jo and try really hard not to be annoyed by over-mommy-ness. I read the proto-scholarship blog Antenna, especially when there’s a piece written by one of my friends. I used to read a bunch of media studies blogs, but the rise of Twitter has really decreased the frequency with which most people post. I still read everything on JustTV (Jason Mittell), Judgmental Observer (Amanda Ann Klein), Planned Obsolescence (Kathleen Fitzpatrick), and Johnny Case in Wonderland (the head of my department, Robert Sickels).
The only place I read the comments = The Awl and The Hairpin, and not just because I write pieces for them. If you’ve hung out in the comments section of either, you understand.
While reading all of these things, I’m constantly listening to music. I used to have a 100-disc changer (thanks for the high school graduation present, Dad!) and would listen to the same things over and over again. Now I have Spotify for that. I’ll listen to an album on repeat for a few days, then change to another album.
I listen to podcasts when I’m cleaning, when I’m cooking, when I’m driving long distances, and when I’m lifting weights. I’m a devoted consumer of Slate’s Cultural Gabfest and Chris Ryan/Andy Greenwald on The Hollywood Prospectus. I listen to about half of the episodes of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. I listen to Grantland’s Reality Friday, even though I don’t watch the shows, because they’re just so hilarious at talking about reality television in general. I’m still giving the all-female Grantland podcast, Girls with Hoodies, a chance. I listen to Marc Maron’s WTF when there’s someone I like — same for Fresh Air and The Nerdist.
I only watch television and movies at night. I work all day, go work out, come back and do a bit more work with dinner mixed in, and then around 8:30, work goes off and television goes on. Since becoming a college professor and a real adult and having cable and DVR, my consumption patterns have changed, which is to say, I watch shows on the actual television like a grown-up instead of illegally downloading and watching on my tiny computer screen. This year I’m watching/have watched The Americans, Nashville, Scandal, The New Girl, Parks & Rec, Boardwalk Empire, The Hour, Girls, The Good Wife, Top of the Lake, and Justified. I will soon be watching Mad Men and Game of Thrones. The stuff that I can watch via Hulu Plus on the bike/while running on the treadmill, I often watch that way. I also watch a ton of movies via Netflix and Amazon Prime (via Apple TV). I’ll try any show once. Our multiplex in Walla Walla is very mainstream, but when there’s something worth seeing, I LOVE going to the actual movie theater.
WHEW. That’s a lot of media, a lot of reading, a lot of consuming. But I guess that’s why I’m a media studies professor, yes? A recent Onion headline read “Find the Thing You’re Most Passionate About Then Do It On Nights and Weekends For the Rest of Your Life.” For better or (very rarely) worse, the line between what I do during the day and what I do on nights and weekends is permanently blurred.
I love J-Law; you love J-Law; everybody loves J-Law. Or so seems to be consensus following last week’s Academy Awards, where she tripped up the stairs, made a self-deprecating speech, performed authenticity and humility without seeming tri-hardy, reacted amazingly to Jack Nicholson in the awards press, and gave the best responses to banal post-award reporter questions in the history of banal post-award reporter questions. She was, in a word, charismatic. And she differentiated herself from Anne Hathaway, who seemed, according to whom you ask, calculated, too happy, ingenuous, too performative, etc. etc.
In the week since the awards, the battle between these two types of contemporary female stardom have battled it out in the pop culture opinion blogosphere. If you’re interested, check here, here, and here. Posting these arguments to this blog’s Facebook page, I was impressed with the reaction, characterized by a recoil at the idea that both types of stardom, and the negotiation of femininity they represent, can’t co-exist. TRUTH, READERS, TRUTH. As several of you pointed out, no one is comparing Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz or Ben Affleck and Ang Lee — there’s room for plenty of men at the top. But when it comes to women, we’ve got to pit them against one another. There’s a long tradition of this “women against women” strategy: see, for example, the crazy, entirely-press-fueled “war” between Garbo and Dietrich, or, more recently, the enduring attempts to pit Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, both powerful women in Hollywood, in a fight to the death for Brad’s affections.
To be clear, I have zero problem with articulating one’s dislike or like for a particular star. When we talk about the stars we like and dislike, we’re associating their images, and what they represent, with ourselves. The things we like — television shows, music, stars — are signifiers of our own personality. To like Jennifer Lawrence, to like Anne Hathaway, is to say volumes about the type of contemporary femininity you admire and with which you would like to associate yourself. With that said, I don’t think that lambasting the person with whom you don’t want to associate yourself is very productive. Be a fan all you want, and articulate why you don’t like another star, but don’t be an ass, and don’t frame it in terms of “there can only be one!” There can be many. The more, the better. Anne Hathaway’s image is not one to which I do not cotton, but that doesn’t mean that I think she’s a bitch, worthless, or should retire. In fact, she’s really f-ing talented. But just like you can admire an argument and not agree with it, I can admire her and not “like” her.
But I do want to unpack the unadulterated affection for Lawrence, whose “star” performance has been framed as wholly natural, authentic, and unperformative. Hathaway molds her image; Lawrence just is. In truth, Lawrence, with the help of her publicist and agent (who have been lauded all over the place in the trades) is just good at appearing to not perform. She shares this attribute with the most enduring stars of old — Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, early Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts. In our current moment of hyper-manipulation, we cling even more to those who can seem wholly unmanipulated. And I’m not trying to be a asshole when I suggest that Lawrence understands that what’s she’s doing, in terms of madcap honesty, will further her career and brand. She’s smart. She’s savvy. I don’t think she’s a conniving, manipulative star, but I do think that she is very much cognizant of what she’s doing.
Lawrence’s particular negotiation of “naturalness,” skill, emotion, and femininity wouldn’t be popular at any given moment in time. It’s very specific to our current cultural moment, in which the “cool girl” fills a specific ideological function, adhering to a paradoxical understanding of what a woman should and should not be, a peculiar negotiation of feminism and passivity.
The best articulation of the “cool girl” comes from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I have some serious problems with this book (is Flynn a misogynist? DISCUSS.) but as Mallory Cohn, one of the smart commenters on one of the Facebook posts about this topic, astutely pointed out, Lawrence is the embodiment of the “cool girl” persona perfectly described by Flynn’s heroine. Here’s the passage in full:
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
Again, I’m unsure if Flynn hates women or if this protagonist hates all women, but the outlines of this “cool girl” resonate, do they not? That’s because it’s a product of ideology, and ideology is always super contradictory and falls apart under inspection. The cool girl is a guy’s girl who also loves sex. She’s masculine yet super feminine. She’s all the “good things” (read: amendable to contemporary patriarchy) about girls and none of the “bad things” (read: ball busting, interested in her own destiny, willing to advocate for her own rights). But that’s how the media, and more specifically, stars, work: they provide us with examples of “real people” who are proof positive that images like “cool girl” exist.
Lawrence is a powerful, beautiful woman who also thought that Seth McFarland was “great.” This infuriates me, but it works perfectly with her image: she’s no ball-busting feminist. She’s chill. She can take a joke. She is, as People Magazine recently declared, the woman that all women want to be like and all men love. She’s the effing cool girl. Only time will tell if she has to hew to that image or breaks out of it entirely. For now, however, we need to think about what our adoration of that image represents — and complicate our unadulterated affection. I still love her, but I need to continue to think about why.
First things first: I like Beyoncé. I like her songs. I think she’s a great dancer and a phenomenal singer. She and Jay-Z are incredibly skilled at controlling their own images, and if you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know how I love an exquisite case of star production.
What bothers me, then — what causes such profound ambivalence — is the way in which she’s been held up as an exemplar of female power and, by extension, become a de facto feminist icon….effectively the patron saint of every feminist blog, including the non-explicitly feminist blog to which I regularly contribute. And let’s be clear: Beyoncé is powerful. F*cking powerful. And that, in truth, is what concerns me.
But let’s explore the feminist/empowered woman case:
*Over the last decade, Beyoncé has repeatedly broadcast her independence, fiscally and physically. She refuses to hew to (white) body ideals, because her body is “too bootylicious.”
*She (and Destiny’s Child) believe women should be “independent” and self-reliant. To wit:
The shoe on my feet, I’ve bought it
The clothes I’m wearing, I’ve bought it
The rock I’m rockin’, I’ve bought it
‘Cause I depend on me
*Aforementioned song was the theme for Charlie’s Angels, a film (ostensibly) about female empowerment, vis-a-vis fighting.
*The song “Survivor” is about women perserving through break-ups and thriving in the aftermath.
*She released a song called “Girls Run the World.”
*Three years ago, she owned the feminist label, but “in a way.” Her explanation: “My friendships with my girls are just so much a part of me that there are things I am never going to do that would upset that bond. I never want to betray that friendship, because I love being a woman and I love being a friend to other women.”
*She told GQ: “You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat?” she says in her film, which begins with her 2011 decision to sever her business relationship with her father. “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”
*Jay-Z is taking her hyphenated name (they’re both Carter-Knowles).
*She was awesome at the Super Bowl and broke the electricity.
Other misc. arguments: she is powerful, she is strong, her thighs are strong, she has a Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she has shown the music business what’s up while not being Taylor Swift.
The unsettling thing, then, are the contours of Beyoncé’s feminism — which is only coincidental, not owned, feminism. In the Destiny’s Child’s era, it is commodity feminism — which is to say, postfeminism. As many, many scholars have persuasively argued, the ability to buy commodities — the vast majority of which only serve to further subjugate women to men — is feminist, then feminism is a word without meaning. In the Beyoncé qua Beyoncé phase, it oscillates between fantasy (“Girls Run the World”) and striving-towards-monogamous-coupling (“Single Ladies”). To refresh: “Single Ladies” is not about how being apart from a man is awesome; rather, it is about how men fail to secure what they want. Bemoaning and satirizing men’s inability to commit to monogamous relationships is not feminist; it is, in many ways, regressive — the inability to “put a ring on it” is denigrated; by default the ability to “put a ring on it” is celebrated. I’m not saying that feminist can’t be married. But placing “putting a ring on it” as the ultimate — I don’t need you to to tell me that that’s problematic.
Beyoncé says, in the pages of GQ, that she wants women to be financially independent, claiming that financial independence will help women change what’s declared sexy, and then she poses on the cover like this:
…I can’t help but feel ambivalent.
As she puts on a superb Super Bowl show, but does it in outfit that basically taught my lesson on the way that the male gaze objectifies and fetishes the otherwise powerful female body….
…I can’t help but feel ambivalent.
Because Beyoncé does, indeed, hold a tremendous amount of power. She is revered by men and women alike. She is not “too much” in the way that other female artists are — she’s not too weird like Gaga, or too abrasive like Nicki Minaj. She’s struck just the right tone between empowered and, let’s be clear, objectified.
Her status as object was driven home during her performance at the Super Bowl, which just happened to coincide with my re-reading of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” If you’ve taken a film class, you know that Mulvey, and this essay in particular, is the most influential essay in all of film history. It effectively built film studies as a discipline, inspiring enough response to differentiate film scholarship from what had, to that point, been predominantly rooted in either communication or English. Today, people chide at the mention of this essay, in part because it’s so polemic — as Mulvey herself admits — and inspired so many effective, persuasive critiques. But the fact, or rather, the guiding principle, remains: The Male Gaze is the structuring element of all cinema. And not just cinema, but television and filmed performance, broadly speaking.
To summarize a complex and nuanced argument, Mulvey argues that women become powerful — in part through their lack of a phallus, and the threat that represents — and the way to neutralize that threat is actually quite simple: either punish them within the context of the narrative (think film noir or horror films and how sexualized, powerful women get the ax) AND/OR turn them into sex objects, primarily by fetishizing (read: doing close-ups on) various sexualized parts of their bodies. They become less powerful; less-anxiety inducing — a sum of beautiful parts, rather than a ball-busting whole.
Beyoncé submits herself to this gaze, over and over again. I feel like this is a painfully obvious argument.
And before you say that men make her do this, remind yourself that she controls her own image. These decisions are HERS. No matter how many times she throws you the Sasha Fierce look, no matter how much leather she’s wearing, the fact remains that she’s dressing herself, preparing herself, willfully submitting herself, to her own sexual objectification. We fancy her a self-realized subject, but before the gaze of camera, she becomes an object, defined, no matter how much her look and her power seems to argue against it, by her to-be-looked-at-ness.
To some extent, I can’t blame her: her power stems from her ability to temper her power with her own objectification. She can say “Girls Run the World,” but so long as she wears that outfit at the Superbowl, it’s not threatening, because girls will never actually run the world. She can say that women should become financially independent so that they can determine what’s sexy, but so long as she appears on the cover of GQ adhering to the dominant ideals of what is sexy, she’s a non-threat. She can pose for pictures looking strong and returning the gaze, so long as she also poses for pictures like the ones above. Her power is evident but highly negotiated, effectively innocuous, even toothless: am I actually just describing mainstream contemporary feminism manifest?
During this past week’s Super Bowl discussions in class, my ambivalence to Beyoncé’s image was met with resistance. The resistance was, at least on the surface, one of defensiveness: Beyoncé is awesome. No doubt, students. She is, as I say at the beginning, a tremendously skilled singer, performer, star. But there was a secondary reaction and defense that soon emerged.
To summarize: Yes, Beyoncé is objectified. Yes, she caters to the male gaze. But that’s the reality of the current moment. That’s the game. So she acknowledges it for what it is, and she runs it.
These students are not wrong. In fact, they are very, very right. Beyonce is so successful — and so tremendously, universally likable — precisely because she reconciles the ostensibly powerful with the objectified. Because these days, it’s not cool to be a non-feminist. You can’t disavow it strongly, publicly. Awesome women — POPULAR women — are strong women. And I want to be very, very clear that I see the ways in which Beyoncé is strong. And celebrating that strength is part of our current cultural moment. But we still live within a patriarchal culture; one within which norms of female behavior and appearance are very clearly circumscribed, even if only implicitly.
And that implicitness is what makes it all the more insidious, all the more dangerous: Beyonce appears feminist. She appears to be a role model. But in reality, she’s playing within the boundaries.
Now, some may argue that that’s the way to make progress: do what you can. Manipulate. Understand what society demands of you, then exploit it. Exploit men, exploit what they think they want. And I agree: that was a viable way of affecting progress…..in the 1880s. In the 1920s. Even in the 1960s.
But we are, to be blunt, fucking past that point. To play within the boundaries, however effectively, is to reinscribe the legitimacy of those boundaries. Either you believe those boundaries are legitimate and will be with us for the foreseeable future — and, as a result, it’s silly to challenge them — or you believe that they’re constructs and thus deconstructable. Either you think that a negotiated feminism is good enough, or you’re brave enough to ask for more — of yourself, of Beyoncé, of others who you idolize.
As I told my class today, this isn’t simply a question of representation. The way we think and revere women on the page and on the screen has very real, lived ramifications. If women are rendered implicitly passive, to-be-looked-at, inherently and necessarily sexualized — and if we agree to that, explicitly or implicty — that agreement has all matter of manifestations. Manifestations for which we must be held responsible.
When we look at the material realities of patriarchal culture — the persistent wage divide, endemic spousal abuse, the very public fight on the part of Conservatives against women’s rights — it’s easy to say that we disagree with all of those things. Obviously I’m in favor of women’s rights. It’s much harder to see how our own equivocation about what it means to be a “powerful” woman has led to the persistence of those issues.
Beyoncé will still sing songs that we like. But that doesn’t mean that we have to like the negotiated comprise — between feminism and objectification, between subjectivity and objectivity — her career so clearly represents.