She keeps dancing on her own

“Ash told Ethan that she wanted to become a feminist director. In 1984 you could describe your dream job in this way and not be made fun of.”

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I knew I wanted to study literature in college ever since the eighth grade. This was the year that I had the nice, smart English teacher who encouraged my writing ability. It was also the year I was introduced to my mortal enemy: science labs. Generally, the theory side of science is sensible and interesting. It’s the application that throws me through a loop. And ever since eighth grade, when family, friends and acquaintances ask me what I study (and I decide to answer honestly), I am met with responses like:

  • Oh. Really?
  • Good luck with that.
  • Wait. Don’t you plan on working?
  • Is there money in that?
  • Power to you, sweetie.
  • Well, I guess it ‘s your life.
  • What the hell are you going to do with that? At least do something that matters. What’s wrong with math and science?
  • I hate reading.
  • Great! So you want to be a teacher like your dad?
  • What’s the point of paying college tuition when you could just read the same books on your own?

After a while, it sort of beats you down.

I don’t have the privilege of traveling through time, but I can’t help but  wonder if the constant smirking that my education and career plans provoke is just the way rude people act or if the recession has just trained us to see anything besides math and science as a one-way ticket to homelessness. I have a sneaking suspicion that people have always been faintly condescending towards those with artistic dreams, but it has morphed into full-on intolerance since 2008. If I didn’t get so annoyed by it, I would understand. The economy is scary and unforgiving.

If there was ever an Outside Girl who could relate to my own experience of the career/college major hierarchy, it would be Frances Halladay. Frances is an apprentice at a dance company and her main goal is to be full-fledged dancer in her own right. Besides that, her only real goals are to hang out with her friend Sophie, make rent and generally enjoy herself. To me, that is such a basic, attainable plan. If you have the talent and the grace to dance (both of which I totally lack), then dance! Not only is Frances met with the raised-eyebrow response I mentioned above from the other characters in the movie, film critics also are quick to point out that her talent and dream career are akin to unemployment and laziness. People inhabiting Frances’ s universe and our own are cynical and automatically want her to readjust her expectations. By the end of the movie, Frances does not achieve her dream job, and she does compromise on a career, but it is still clear that she is following her own advice and is not merely succumbing to anyone else’s standards. The movie’s final frame is all the proof you need to know Frances is going to make it by exploring her own passions. It also explains the movie’s rather odd title, so that’s helpful.

Frances’s determination to keep dancing and following her bliss, despite everyone else’s opinions, would surely flummox people who are sure that a career in the humanities is an oxymoron. But I would just like to take a moment to say that some of the best characters and texts out there would not exist without the humanities. Noah Baumbach, the director of Frances Ha, not only makes films (which are, *shudder*, art), he works in independent cinema. Michael Z. Newman, writer of Indie: An American Film Culture, argues that independent films are often “anti-Hollywood,” or outside the mainstream film-making process (which is pretty separated from other industries, if you think about it). Newman notes that “it is only when seeing indie cinema through a frame of oppositionality, through an interpretive lens which casts certain textual features as marks of distinction, that the function of independent cinema as an alternative comes into focus.”

So there are quite a few layers of otherness to sort through in this particular text. Frances’s unabashed enthusiasm for dance (despite her apprenticeship at age 27) goes against the technical, practical education that my generation sees as the antidote to financial woes. Then there is the fact that Frances herself exists because of the artistic skills and careers of Greta Gerwig and Baumbach (who co-wrote the film together). And, finally, the fact that the film is independent and uses alternative methods of storytelling (i.e. black and white cinematography in 2013, no formal explanation for the movie’s title, no real plot besides Frances’s vignette-like adventures) marks it as a unique text in an industry dedicated to churning out art (even if it is mass-produced and saturated with cash). It seems that this movie is chock-full of people who ignore the judgement of others and go for their dream jobs. Frances as a concept and character is a product of active resistance to others’ expectations.

With that knowledge, it makes sense that Frances will keep dancing no matter what. I only hope that other like-minded individuals do the same. I know I want to.

(Image #1 courtesy of scenecreek.com; #2 courtesy of mbird.com; #3 courtesy of wordandfilm.com)

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3 thoughts on “She keeps dancing on her own

  1. Another awesome post, Rachel. While you’re right that the public discourse is affirming math and natural sciences at the expense of the humanities and social sciences, the real change in higher ed majors is in the number of students choosing pre-professional programs over both, especially, as you say, since the crash of 2008. And while I’m reluctant to contribute to an argument that boils down to seeing higher ed as job training, the following study might be helpful in responding to English major jokes: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/22/see-how-liberal-arts-grads-really-fare-report-examines-long-term-data#sthash.68VpstP3.dpbs

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