Category Archives: The Outside Girls

Rebecca of sunny West Covina

“…if you used to be truly happy, and now you’re not, then you should go back to the way it was when you were happy.”

–Dr. Molly Clock on the oft-overlooked Scrubs

My dad used to call me “grunky.” I was always a moody kid and he had a penchant for making up words and phrases on the spot. I can only assume “grunky” is some weird hybrid of a grumpy person and someone in a funk. In any case, it was his way of affectionately teasing me and trying to get me to laugh when I was in a bad mood.

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I didn’t realize it until well into adolescence but there is a medical explanation for my grunkiness: I’m a depressive. This means different things for different people. For me, it means I’m often irritable, stressed, frustrated, tired and weepy–sometimes all at once. Without medication, debilitatingly so. For the most part, my depression is manageable and doesn’t really affect my everyday life one way or another. But there have been times when it’s been completely disruptive. I was sad all the time, for no reason. I was crying multiple times a day at inopportune moments like, say, at work. It was hard for me to get out of bed and even harder to fall asleep. Doing laundry felt like it took every ounce of strength of my body. I had no appetite. I was scared of the way I felt all the time. Luckily, the worst parts of this illness have been alleviated with anti-depressants and I’m able to be a normal (albeit pessimistic) person.

But I don’t fool myself. I’ll probably struggle with depression to some degree all my life. I just have to hope that means I’ll be periodically grunky and not emotionally wrecked for months at a time. I know that depression is extremely common and mental health issues run in my family. But I feel incredibly weak when I’m down. That’s why it is heartening to see mental illness–depression in particular–get the attention it deserves in the media. In the last five years or so, TV shows have featured more and more characters dealing with mental illness:

Of course, some do a better job of it than others. Carrie Mathison’s bipolar disorder leans more towards manic than depressive. Conversely, Gretchen’s dance party on YTW–her attempt to physically shake off the impending sadness–is spot-on. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical with a tongue-in-cheek title, takes place in a heightened version of our reality. But I think Rebecca Bunch’s character arc is one of the best depictions of depression and the desperate, desperate need to feel better I’ve ever seen.

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend begins about ten years ago as a teenage Rebecca is dumped by Josh Chan at the end of musical-theatre camp. She is crushed and the audience is led to believe this is where a lot of things went wrong in her life. Her romantic illusions are shattered. Instead of pursuing music as a passion, Bex caves to her mother’s will and focuses on the law as a career path. To describe this in Simone de Beauvoir‘s terms, this is Rebecca’s turning point. Teenage Rebecca “buries her childhood” of drama, music, grand gestures, and singing her feelings and “enters adult existence submissively.” When Rebecca and Josh meet again in 2015, she realizes her time with him (and, importantly, her time putting on musicals 24/7) was the last time she was genuinely happy. You know, per the butter ad.

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Right before she runs into Josh again, Rebecca is trying to stave off a panic attack. She has just been offered a partner position at her law firm but feels more burdened than excited. When laid-back, content Josh mentions that he is moving back to his hometown in suburban California, Rebecca impulsively decides to follow him there. On the surface, Rebecca is chasing a dude she dated in high school because she’s convinced herself he is the long-lost love of her life. And that’s definitely a part of it, don’t get me wrong. But she’s also chasing the happiness that has eluded her since theatre camp. And, eventually, she tells Josh that part of the story: “The truth is I was miserable in New York. I was so depressed. And all I did was-was work. I had no life. The world was just, like, gray. And then I ran into you, Josh. And-and you told me about West Covina, and-and you kept using the word ‘happy.’ And I hadn’t, like, thought about that word in so long and-and it just, like, reverberated within me. And so that day, I-I made the decision that I had to be where the happiness was.

Predictably, things do not go quite so smoothly for Bex. Despite the weather patterns, California is not a panacea. Her problems do not magically disappear and she still has a lot to learn: Josh is in a relationship; it’s hard making friends as an adult; putting all your meds down the garbage disposal will have ramifications; and–as My Best Friend’s Wedding taught us all–conniving to break up your “true love” and his partner is not cute. It’s bananas.

Since this is a musical, a lot of Rebecca’s self-discovery manifests itself in song. There are several instances when she and the show directly acknowledge her questionable behavior and mental health struggles. Here’s a sampling of these fourth-wall cracking numbers:

  • “Sexy French Depression”–Rebecca gives in to her gloom and systematically skewers Hollywood’s version of melancholia (i.e. wandering around in Paris, pouting in a push-up bra).
  • “You Stupid Bitch”–An anthem for all of us who regularly humiliate ourselves and fuck up. Rebecca belts out this “self-indulgent song about self-loathing” after Josh catches her in one of her web of lies.
  • “I’m the Villain In My Own Story”–In a rare moment of real self-awareness, Bex realizes her various ploys to steal Josh from his girlfriend Valencia are Wicked Witch-esque. She’s not just the Big Bad in Valencia’s story, she’s kind of a shitty person.
  • “I Have Friends”–Present-day Rebecca and pre-teen Rebecca desperately try to convince themselves that they are totally popular as they hand out invitations to their respective parties. Although the tempo is upbeat and both Rebeccas have huge smiles, this might be the saddest ditty of them all.

As these song titles suggest, there is no simple solution to Rebecca Bunch’s problems. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is brave and groundbreaking because it’s an honest depiction of mental illness and its ramifications. Let’s say that most characters’ overall development looks like this:

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A character with mental health struggles’ development would look something like this:

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Rebecca’s growth happens in fits and starts; she routinely makes progress and promptly backslides. She will probably be “crazy” to some extent for her entire life, and that’s okay. She’s still a successful lawyer, a supportive friend and a hilarious protagonist. Not to mention the fact that she is constantly trying. Trying to be happier, healthier, better. Rebecca might be the villain in her own story, but she’s a fully-formed person who just happens to have a chemical imbalance. That makes her a hero in mine.

(Image #1 courtesy of pinterest.com; #2 courtesy of subscene.com; #3 courtesy of piedpopper.wordpress.com; #4 courtesy of cdixon.org; #5 courtesy of betterexplained.com)

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Rewriting Ophelia

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers/Could not, with all their quantity of love/Make up my sum.”

Hamlet‘s eponymous protagonist

Yeah, but that didn’t really save her, did it Ham?

If memory serves, I read the YA novel Ophelia before getting to the Bard’s account of the Danish Prince–hell, it might have even been before I watched Slings & Arrows. In Lisa Klein’s version of what exactly was rotten in Denmark, Ophelia has her own story, her own motivations, opinions, fears, and sexuality. As much as I revere Hamlet, Ophelia isn’t given nearly as much to do in Shakespeare’s original text. She is manipulated, berated, and slut-shamed; she cries, goes insane, and dies. Game, set, match.

As Slings & Arrows‘ Geoffrey aptly summarizes, “Ophelia is a child. She has been dominated by powerful men all of her life and suddenly they all disappear. Her brother goes to France. Her father is murdered by her boyfriend and he is shipped off to England. She is alone for the first time, grieving and heartbroken and guilty because–as far as she’s concerned–it’s all her fault. She ignored her brother’s advice and fell in love with Hamlet and now her father is dead all because of her. And the pain and the loss and the shame and the guilt, all of this is gnawing away inside this little child’s mind…”

Alongside Hamlet, there are plenty of narratives about great, powerful, morally-ambiguous assholes and the women they abuse, ruin, and sometimes reduce to little girls. You can find many of them in Golden Age television series. You have Walt & Skyler White, Jess Mariano & Rory Gilmore, Jax Teller & Tara Knowles, Tony & Carmela Soprano, Don & Betty Draper, Don & Megan Draper, etc. Like Ophelia, these women end up dead, miserable, and/or royally fucked. They are interesting (or, in Tara’s case, I’m told they’re interesting–I don’t have the time or stomach for SOA) but their stories are entirely dictated by their anti-heroes.*

Which is why I–like her fellow characters, tons of cultural critics, and dozens of viewers–fell in love with The Americans‘ Nina Sergeevna Krilova.

As played by Annet Mahendru–who really, really needs to play the titular character in a Russian-language Anna Karenina miniseries–Nina is a KGB agent working at the American Rezidentura in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s. Over her three season and four episode arc, Nina transforms herself from just another Ophelia to an autonomous, agentic, and three-dimensional character. Like her Danish counterpart, she is relentlessly used and manipulated by the men in her life. I’ve been re-watching The Americans recently and images of chess pieces flash in my head and the word “pawn” echoes in my ears every time Nina is onscreen. To be clear, Nina isn’t perfect. The catalyst for her eventual downfall and death is theft–she steals from her government and sends the extra money home to her family. An FBI agent finds out and blackmails her into becoming an asset. As soon as she chooses that path instead of a decade in a labor camp, her fate is sealed.

What follows is the aforementioned men using her for their own personal gain; if the Soviet Union and the United States are in a game of tug-of-war, Nina is the rope. In a particularly captivating plot in the second season, Nina is a triple agent, displaying very different sides of herself to very different men. To Agent Stan Beeman, Nina is his damsel in distress, just another victim of Communism that needs Western intervention. To Soviet Rezident Arkady, Nina is traitorous, cunning, and smart; she needs to use those skills to square herself with Russia and turn Beeman against the US. To colleague Oleg, Nina is a comrade who is sacrificing her body and soul to Beeman for the greater good. Arkady loves her like a daughter, while Oleg and Beeman are in love with her. Or so they say. Their affection doesn’t stop them from selling her down the river as soon as she’s out of effective intel and cards to play.

To bring it all back to Hamlet, each of these three men force Nina into a role, harm her. and then deign to act devastated when she is hurt. As of writing this, Stan, Oleg, and Arkady do not know Nina is dead. I can only imagine how they will make it about them when they finally hear the news.

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But here is where The Americans’ superior treatment of female characters comes to pass. When Stan refuses to work with the KGB and Nina is sent to a Moscow gulag to pay for her betrayal, she doesn’t lose her mind or fall into a pit of despair. On the contrary, at first she keeps up her mind games and manages to leverage her cellmate’s trust for a mere 10 years’ incarceration (as opposed to a life sentence or execution). But on her last mission, she manages to transcend every role forced upon her. Tasked with working Anton Baklanov for information, she instead develops a genuine friendship with him. Both prisoners are collateral damage in the Cold War and are treated as objects, not people. Nina has and had real feelings for Arkady, Stan, and Oleg; she definitely enjoyed her sexual relationships with Stan and Oleg. But the power dynamics in each relationship are far from equal. Nina is always at the mercy of the man; she and he both know it.

At the end of the third season, she confesses to Anton: “I–I can’t keep doing this. Buying back my life. It’s not–I don’t know if it’s worth it.” This is Nina’s moment of clarity. She can’t keep lying to herself and others, especially if her actions are controlled by someone else. No matter what her handlers promise, Nina will never truly be free. She has been pulled in so many directions, has withstood so much pressure and stress that she no longer has any sense of self. This is the scene where Nina makes her choice to stop being manipulated and manipulating in turn. She has real, undeniable fondness for Anton and, listening only to herself, acts on it. So she defies Soviet law and her lawyer’s recommendation and tries to help Anton send a letter home to his son. This selfless act is her ultimate undoing and triumph. Nina betrays her country once more by pledging her loyalty to her friend. What’s more, her motivation for doing so is completely her own.

At that moment, Nina breaks the molds her men have forced her into and simultaneously shatters the tragic Ophelian trope. When Nina is executed for her betrayal, she dies free from anyone else’s influence and agenda. Nina–and The Americans by extension–rewrite Ophelia as a doomed woman who only answers to herself.

*Yes, yes, I know Rory is the exception that proves the rule. Don’t yell at me.

(Image #1 courtesy of creepypasta.wikia.com; #2 courtesy of theguardian.com; #3 courtesy of http://tvmagazine-351227-yahoopartner.tumblr.com; #4 courtesy of tvatemywardrobe.com; #5 courtesy of starpulse.com)

Dude thinks like a lady

“Why is it scientifically impossible for a man to put himself in a woman’s shoes, even for one second?”

–Jane in Masters of Sex

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Buffy Summers. Enid Coleslaw. Frances Halladay. Claire Fisher. Serena Pemberton. April Ludgate.

Question: What do all of these ladies have in common? (Besides the fact that I’ve written posts about all of them.)

Answer: They were all created by men.

Lana Winters, the de facto protagonist of American Horror Story: Asylum, is another member of this club. She is the only character to survive the entire season in Asylum (quite a feat in the AHS franchise) and is, without question, the strongest female character to appear on the Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk production, not to mention the rest of television. Here’s the rundown on the horrors Lana overcomes in a mere 13 episodes:

  • She’s a lesbian in the early sixties, which is tantamount to being crazy. So she is held against her will at the Briarcliff asylum to be treated for her homosexual predilections
  • Her lover (along with many others) is killed by a psycho dubbed “Bloody Face”
  • This same person captures Lana, keeps her hostage, rapes her and gets her pregnant in the process
  • Lana kills Bloody Face in the most epic scene of the series
  • Lana cannot bear to have an abortion, but also cannot bear to keep the child, so she puts him up for adoption
  • Said child develops an abandonment/mother complex and grows up to be Bloody Face II and makes it his personal mission to kill Lana
  • She is forced to choose between giving her son the one thing he wants and letting another maniac live; Bloody Face II is killed at the same hands as his father

So there are several ways to process this information:

  • Murphy and Falchuk created one of the most badass women ever!
  • Murphy and Falchuk maybe have a mother complex of their own and are a little too interested in depicting a woman going through psychological and physical torture
  • This is just another example of how men control everything. Lana might be “strong,” but her very existence is still at the hands of two dudes. Women can’t even tell their own stories about rape, abortion, childbearing, sexuality and defying gender roles
  • We’re in a society that is questioning the very distinction of gender more and more. Does it even matter that two men created Lana? At the end of the day, we’re all just people
  • What, men can’t write about women? You’re being a sexist! Michelle Ashford is telling the story of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and no one is questioning whether she is doing the male sex justice. You call yourself a feminist?!
  • Rachel’s really into bullets today

As much as I consider myself to be a bullshit detector and somebody who is just right all of the time, I’ve got to say that I don’t know what the correct reaction is. I think all of those points are valid; I think that they’re all broad generalizations. I will say that I think it is an issue that there so few female directors and television showrunners. No matter how well-meaning or feminist male artists are, their version of women will always be skewed, if not completely inaccurate. I guess more than anything else I think that women need to be consulted in these cases, if only for research purposes. But I also respect men who make it their goal to present three-dimensional female characters with their own agency and perspective. Those are the kind of men I’d like to hang out with. But I’d probably be working for them, not with them.

I’m not really shedding any helpful light on this, am I? I guess that’s the point.

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Let’s turn to Roxane Gay–author of Bad FeministOutlander fan; my personal nominee for Time Person of the Year–sees this issue as starkly black and white (in contrast to my gray bulleted list). As Gay argues in “Beyond the Measure of Men,” if Lana’s story was a female creation, it would be taken less seriously solely because it came from a woman’s brain. As Gay explains, “Narratives about certain experiences are somehow legitimized when mediated through a man’s perspective. Consider the work of John Updike and Richard Yates. Most of their fiction is grounded in domestic themes that, in the hands of a woman, would render the work ‘women’s fiction.’…These books are allowed to be more than what they are by virtue of the writer’s gender, while similar books by women are forced to be less than what they are…”

To sum it up neatly: “When did men become the measure?…Excellence should be the measure” 

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As Gay sees it, the reason Lana’s story is told by men is because they are the only people our society deems fit to tell anyone’s story. I’m inclined to agree with Gay that this is why the Buffys, Enids, Aprils and Lanas are products of the male imagination. But I don’t know if it necessarily lessens any of those characters or what they try to accomplish. I suppose this particular post asks more questions than it answers, but that could be alright. I think it is better to think about these matters and discuss them than to never give them a second glance. What I can tell you definitively is that Lana Winters is one of the best female television characters in recent history and is definitely the best character (of any gender) in AHS‘s universe. That means something, no matter who created her.


(Images #1 courtesy of tumblr.com; #2 courtesy of americanhorrorstory.wikia.com; #3 courtesy of fanpop.com; #4 courtesy of weheartit.com; #5 courtesy of artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)

Hoop dreams

Please! You jump in some guy’s face, you talk smack and you get a pat on your ass. But, because I’m a female, I get told to calm down and act like a lady. I’m a ball player, okay?”

Monica to Quincy in Love & Basketball

This may surprise you, but I am not athletically gifted. (Well, that’s not totally accurate. I love to swim and I’m more-than-competent at yoga and Pilates. But, like Mia Thermopolis, “my hand-eye coordination is zero.”) As you can imagine, this made gym class super fun for me throughout my pre-college years. On one memorable occasion in my physical education I was hit in the face twice–TWICE!–with a volleyball. Lacking Marcia Brady’s natural beauty and popularity, nobody gave a shit about the giant welt(s) on my forehead except me. That is, I’m the only one who thought the incident was not funny.

Despite my apparent allergy to contact sports and anything that requires a “team player,” I am and always will be an advocate for women’s rights and thought-provoking art. And I can think of no better way to discuss the intersection of art, sports and feminism than Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s Love & Basketball.

I first discovered this film in its heavily-edited and watered-down state on ABC Family. At that point, I only really cared about the romance between Monica Wright and Quincy McCall because I was 10 or 11 and had not yet learned how to scoff. I saw it again–unedited this time–my second year of college and loved it even more. The amazing dialogue, the jokes I hadn’t picked up on before, and the fact that Sanaa Lathan is a phenomenal actress were way more interesting to me than the love story. But what else is new?

Monica and Quincy’s relationship could be the reason that this film continues to resonate with so many different audiences, but the movie’s subtle politics are also eerily contemporary.  Both of the main characters dream about being professional athletes, but the secondary and tertiary characters assume that only Quincy will make it. They don’t have such lofty aspirations for Monica; they just hope she will eventually grow out of her “tomboy” phase. Similarly, Quincy’s high school games are packed with fans, parents and cheerleaders, while Monica plays in front of half-filled bleachers. Quincy’s college basketball team draws ESPN’s attention and is his stepping-stone to the NBA. Monica’s only professional basketball opportunity is in Spain. And, as this post’s epigraph suggests, Quincy is allowed to have an attitude on the court. Meanwhile, Monica is benched and scolded for the same behavior. Despite their equal love for the game, the way they are allowed to play could not be more different.

Underneath the romantic surface, Prince-Bythewood’s film analyzes the gendered aspects of sports post-Title IX. William H. Chafe‘s The Paradox of Change explains that Title IX “barred sex discrimination of any kind by colleges and universities receiving federal aid.” Easier said than done.

As Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee attest in Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions, “athletics ha[ve] traditionally been male dominated. Men’s sports are more highly valued than women’s sports and are a major focus for sports entertainment. Compared to men’s professional sports, women’s are grossly underrepresented.” Title IX forever changed the legal aspect of women’s sports and gave many women the chance to practice sports firmly associated with men. However, ideological attitudes about gender still prevent this provision of the Educational Amendments Act  from truly making sports a level playing field for everyone. This dynamic is one of the more understated conflicts that unfolds in Love & Basketball.

Because of Title IX:

  • Monica and Quincy both have the opportunity to play high school and college basketball
  • There is no apparent discrepancy in the funding of their respective teams (uniforms, equipment, playing space, etc. are equal)
  • Scholarship money aids both characters as they pursue their basketball careers/educations
  • University of Southern California athletic scouts notice both characters’ talents and recruit them

In spite of Title IX:

  • The support and fandom for Quincy’s skills/men’s basketball consistently overshadow Monica’s talents/women’s basketball
  • The McCalls are aware of Quincy’s passion for the game and believe he can go pro; the Wrights advise Monica to try something else
  • Both Quincy and Monica are arrogant on the court, but Monica is the one who must change her behavior in order to be a starting player in college
  • In the movie’s pre-WNBA setting, Quincy dreams of playing in the NBA and Monica dreams of being the first girl in the NBA
  • Quincy (and every other character) cannot grasp why basketball is Monica’s first priority
  • No one questions Quincy’s sexuality because he loves the game; the same cannot be said of Monica

In the movie’s “First Quarter,” Monica claims she does not care that she is different than other girls. I don’t know if any adolescent girl is completely unconcerned about how others see her, but Monica still repeatedly refuses to let anyone’s opinion cloud her judgment or hinder her plans. It’s the same story for the ever-present sexism in sports. She might have to work harder than Quincy to earn the same amount of respect, but that is something Monica is willing to do and does throughout the entire movie. Despite the tensions between the legal and ideological arguments about a woman’s place in basketball, Monica knows she is just as good as any male player. She also knows that her talent will set her apart from other girls, from her family and even from Quincy. But she accepts that and ultimately makes it to the WNBA, vindicating all of the sacrifices she made throughout the four quarters of her simultaneous romances with Quincy and the game. After all, all’s fair in love and basketball.

(Image #1 courtesy of imdb.com; #2 courtesy of silveremulsion.com; #3 courtesy of madamenoire.com)

The children’s hour

“Instead of making me docile, Lucinda’s curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally.”

–from Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

There are several reasons that I am fond of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. First, it was one of the first books I read in the wake of my father’s death. Reading was a major way I was able to cope with the loss. The protagonist, Ella, was especially comforting because she knew how it felt to lose a parent; the catalyst of her story is the death of her mother. Disappearing from reality and delving into a good story helped me focus on something other than my grief.

Second, the story is a retelling of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. I don’t know if this type of narrative is a genre, per se, but I adore literary retellings. The process of taking characters and plot lines we’ve known our entire lives, turning them on their head and making them modern and relatable is brilliant. Ella’s curse of obedience is a hell of a lot more intriguing than the damsel in distress-and-rags act that the traditional Cinderella has going on.

Finally, I love this story and find it enjoyable even as an adult because it is an example of the hidden depths children’s literature provides. Yes, Ella’s adventures are an entertaining story for a little girl in the midst of bereavement. But they are also critiques of gender roles, patriarchy and personal autonomy. Not exactly child’s play, is it?

Unlike the Disney version of the fairy tale, Ella is not compliant or accepting of her misfortune. And she damn sure is not sweet in the face of adversity. Instead, baby Ella receives the “gift “of obedience from the fairy Lucinda. As anyone with half a brain would realize, this is not gift at all; it is a terrible curse. Ella has to do as she is told, no matter how humiliating, unethical, silly or just plain evil the command. She has no real free will, choice or personal autonomy. Even her thoughts can be controlled. If someone tells her to be happy, her mood automatically brightens.

Tellingly, Levine often depicts Ella’s forced obedience and actions in terms of gendered behavior and social institutions. For example, after her mother’s funeral, Ella’s father decides that she will attend finishing school. Thanks to the curse, Ella excels in etiquette, because she is literally educated against her will. As Ella recounts, “My progress in all my subjects astounded the mistresses. In my first month I did little right. In my second I did little wrong. And gradually, it all became natural: light steps, small stitches, quiet voice, ramrod-straight back, deep curtsies without creaking knees, no yawns, soup tilted away from me, and no slurping.” 

Yes, on the surface this is a tale about hardship, perseverance and magic. However, if you compare Ella’s newfound skills with the contents of a Women’s Studies textbook, you will discover the real world themes throughout the narrative.  Ella is learning to be a lady, learning how to perform her femininity. In her essay “The Social Construction of Gender,” Judith Lorber argues that gender is learned and “creates the social differences that define ‘woman’ and ‘man’.”  She further describes how “gendered norms and expectations are enforced through informal sanctions of gender-inappropriate behavior by peers and by formal punishment or threat of punishment by those in authority…” 

In this case, Ella’s punishment for deviating from the mistresses’ wishes would be nausea, migraines, dizziness and the inability to breathe. She is physically obligated to obey every command; if she doesn’t, the curse provides consequences. Acting like a socially acceptable “lady” is not something that comes to her naturally; it is something that she is forced to learn. If her story lacked a curse and took place in our world instead of the land of Frell, then Ella would probably shunned, mocked or verbally abused for rejecting the standard gender norms.

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Just as the curse of obedience trains Ella to be someone she is not (and has no wish to be), it also takes away the little power she has under the patriarchal thumb of her father. When Sir Peter makes a bad investment and is forced to auction off all of his belongings, he sees his most valuable asset in his daughter. He tells Ella, “I shall have to sell you, in a manner of speaking. You must marry so that we can be rich again.” Even if this story is meant for children and takes place in a fantasy land, this scenario is completely reality-based. Throughout history–and even in contemporary times–daughters have, in effect, been traded for cash. This is disturbing enough in and of itself, but Sir Peter’s plan is even more sinister because Ella cannot resist. Of course, all the daughters that have been sold have little choice in the matter. If they run away, they could face a life of poverty, social ostracism and violence. Unfortunately, Ella does not even have that dismal option. The curse gives the patriarchy even more influence over her life.

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This is all a really in-depth way of saying that children’s books are not without their own metaphors, messages, social commentary and complexity. Ella Enchanted is a delightful spin on a fairy tale that everyone in the Western world knows by heart. It’s funny, interesting and upbeat. But Gail Carson Levine’s writing style provides so much more than a story about magic, fairies and the power of love. Her prose is also an astute analysis and indictment of the way we train girls to act a certain way and how the institution of marriage still has the potential to be an economical, patriarchal ritual cloaked in the charade of romantic love. After reading between the lines of this particular interpretation of the classic fairy tale, one thing is definitely clear: It puts Disney and that Anne Hathaway piece of crap to shame.

(Image #1 courtesy of goodreads.com; #2 courtesy of gailcarsonlevine.com ; #3 courtesy of paperdollromance.blogspot.com; #4 courtesy of jaime-morrow.com)

If it wasn’t for bad, she’d be good

“I’m not as perfectly comfortable with manslaughter as you.”

–Donnie to Alison in Orphan Black

I would say that Serena Pemberton of Ron Rash‘s eponymous novel is cut from the same cloth as Lady MacBeth. But that would be inaccurate, since Lady MacBeth eventually has a change of heart. No, I’d argue that Serena’s closest literary doppelganger is a hybrid of Heinsenberg and his famous blue crystal meth. She is a near-mythological character whose reputation in the book makes a far greater impression than her dialogue or actions ever could.  She is at a such a remove from the events and perspective of Rash’s narrative, that one can almost forget that she is the center of all the chaos. Although Serena appears to be in the background of her own story, her presence–noticeable or not–is what causes the downfall of everyone in her wake.

On the other hand, George Pemberton–Serena’s husband and unaware lackey–is Walter White. He’s a seemingly regular guy whose high tolerance for evil acts remains dormant until he meets his wife. Then he takes to her horrendous agenda in such an enthusiastic way that you know he always had the ability to do terrible things. He just needed the motivation.

This is all a really roundabout way of saying that Outside Girls do not necessarily have to be good people. The women I’ve covered so far are decent for all intents and purposes, even if there is an ethical hiccup now and again. But Serena Pemberton is independent, strong and occasionally sardonic. And, yet, she is the catalyst of this Greek tragedy (complete with a chorus of crewmen and multiple deaths) posing as a Southern Gothic. And she gives Vee of Orange is the New Black fame and Rachel “Pro-Clone” Duncan of Orphan Black considerable competition for Sociopath of the Year Award.

                           

Like Vee and Rachel, Serena initially tricks the reader into thinking that her rejection of rules and norms is just plain bad-ass, not scary or amoral. When I started reading Serena, I was planning on siding with the flawed titular character, just as I rooted for Anna Karenina and Edna Pontellier of The Awakening. In fact, Rash had me at his first description of Serena: “At five-nine, Serena stood taller than either man, but Pemberton knew other aspects of Serena’s appearance helped foster Buchanan and Wilkie’s obvious surprise–pants and boots instead of a dress and cloche hat, sun-bronzed skin that belied Serena’s social class, lips and cheeks untinted by rouge, hair blonde and thick but cut short in a bob, distinctly feminine yet also austere.”

I mean, who wouldn’t love that?

Throw in Serena’s sexual agency in an era where it was unheard of, her ability to grow Pemberton Lumber Company into an empire during the Great Depression, her success in training an eagle to hunt rattlesnakes and the fact that she saves her husband from being killed by a bear, and you’ve got a character that sounds objectively awesome. However, everything that makes Serena seem cool on the surface conceals something darker at her core.

Serena Pemberton’s attributes:

  1. Declaration that her marriage is a partnership; intolerance for cheating or lying
  2. Survival and reinvention after her entire family dies in a flu epidemic
  3. Rescue of a Galloway, a crew member, when he loses a hand
  4. Keen business mind
  5. Lack of concern for what anyone thinks of her
  6. Willingness to stand up for herself

And their troubling counterparts:

  1. Determination to kill her husband’s former lover and his illegitimate child
  2. Inability to feel; comfortable with eliminating anyone she sees as an enemy or traitor
  3. Use of said crew member to do her bidding (violent and otherwise)
  4. Willingness to destroy any available forest; lack of sympathy for anyone she fires or puts out of business
  5. Refusal to listen to reason
  6. Thirst for revenge under the flimsiest of circumstances

I am tempted to say that Serena’s inability to use her strengths for good is a negative thing. Of course, I could just be feeling guilty for rooting for her throughout the first half of the novel.  But I don’t necessarily think that Serena Pemberton’s obvious evil means she is a disappointing literary representation of a woman. After all, there are dozens of beloved male anti-heroes from Alex of A Clockwork Orange to Tony Soprano to Severus Snape to Don Draper to, you guessed it, Walter White. What’s disturbing is the fact that most anti-heroes (male or female) experience some sort of about-face, even if it is only temporary, while Serena never doubts herself or feels a morsel of regret. But, then again, maybe that is what gives Serena her outsider status. It’s not the fact that she is morally bankrupt or selfish or makes Lorne Malvo look downright cuddly. It’s that she is fully committed to being really, really bad and hasn’t the slightest interest in being good.

Who are your go-to anti-heroes? Do you find evil female characters more or less disturbing than their male counterparts? Do you think Serena is morally ambiguous, or just plain villainous? Let me know in the comments!

(Image #1 courtesy of rusoffagency.com; #2 courtesy of zap2it.com; #3 courtesy of eonline.com; #4 courtesy of goodreads.com)

It’s not easy being green

“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night/You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right”

“Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve sort of shied away from this because it is a topic so widely discussed, but I don’t think I can avoid it any longer. As anyone with two brain cells to rub together surely knows, women are pressured from birth to be beautiful. Sure, women are not really conscious of this pressure until early adolescence(ish), but we cannot give little girls Barbie dolls or show them movies with scantily clad, cheeky princesses without influencing what they consider beautiful. And here’s the really sick part: even when we do dissect the media and the way it represents women, even when we learn about the systemic sexism in our culture, even when we achieve success in other parts of our lives, we will never truly shake the desire to be gorgeous. Our self-worth is intrinsically linked to what we see in the mirror.

7_-LesGracesàlamodeBarbier

The Outside Girls I’ve written about thus far are much more than the way they look. They are smart, funny, passionate, prickly, strong and artistic. But they are–for the most part–complete knockouts. In addition to being cool, intelligent role models for young women, they all could (and possibly do) don the covers of fashion magazines and be spokespeople for various anti-aging paraphernalia. The only ladies that are on our (read: my) end of the aesthetic spectrum are Hannah Horvath, Janis Ian (both purposely dressed-down), Daria Morgendorffer and Enid Coleslaw. And it’s hard to make a judgment call of the last two because they are the creations of a very specific animation style. They aren’t pretty compared to  Adele Exarchopoulos (few are), but Daria and Enid are relatively attractive in the respective worlds they occupy.

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Many of the Outside Girls struggle with maintaining positive self-esteem, even if they are objectively pretty. I’m not sure whether this is a character trait meant to make these actresses seem relatable or if it is yet another side effect of misogyny (perhaps even red-carpet regulars are brainwashed into thinking they are ugly), but I find it very annoying and unconvincing when characters like Angela Chase and Frances Halladay obsess over one pimple or call themselves “undateable.” Oh, shut the fuck up. You’re beautiful.

That’s why I find the character of Elphaba from the novel and musical Wicked somewhat refreshing. Even in a land with Munchkins, talking animals, witches and a tyrannical wizard, Elphaba is the freak because she is born with green skin.

(Let me just say right off the bat that Idina Menzel–green or white–is a striking and very beautiful lady, but just bear with me for a bit.)

Elphaba is a gifted and powerful witch, a hopeful protege of the Wizard’s, acid-tongued and political. She knows all of this and knows that she has the ability to go far, but cannot fully enjoy it because her appearance does not match what she or anyone else wants to see. Despite her myriad gifts, Elphaba is most excited to meet the Wizard because he might have the power to physically transform her. While singing “The Wizard and I” she fantasizes that, “One day, he’ll say to me: “Elphaba,/A girl is so superior/Shouldn’t a girl who’s so good inside/Have a matching exterior?/And since folks here to an absurd degree/Seem fixated on your verdigris/Would it be all right by you/If I de-greenify you?” No intellectual or professional achievement can quite compare to the prospect of making yourself look like the person you’ve always wanted to be.

And, believe me, I am no exception to this rule. If, by some awesome twist of fate, Harry Potter‘s world turns out to be real, I would love to acquire Tonks‘ power and change my appearance at will. If that was at all possible, I would be an inch taller, have slightly larger eyes, smoother skin, Michelle Obama’s arms and a generally thinner frame faster than you could ever imagine.

But that’s exactly what is wrong with me, Elphaba and any other women who are thisclose to happy but are derailed because they do not resemble the culturally-approved definition of “attractive.” It’s not entirely a case of body dysmorphia, either. According to Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee, authors of Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions, “physical appearance is more important in terms of the way women are perceived and treated.” While we often “grow up disliking our bodies,” there are plenty of other people happy to police our appearances, as well. It’s this weird chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Even if we manage to push past our self-doubt and like the way we look, it’s easy to let others’ opinions cloud our judgment. Conversely, even if other people tell us that we look great, it can be hard to believe them. We’re doomed either way.

I have come to terms with the fact that I will never be 100 percent happy with the way I look. I accept that internal and external forces shape the way I think about my appearance and the others’ around me. I just wish my own sense of pride and confidence wasn’t contingent on my being non-photogenic. Even when Elphaba starts to move past her own issues with her skin color and becomes more and more involved with the movement against the Wizard, her appearance is never far from her mind. Mere scenes after she proclaims “Too long I’ve been afraid of/Losing love I guess I’ve lost/Well, if that’s love/It comes at much too high a cost,” she apologizes to lover Fiyero for not being beautiful. This in spite of the fact that he left teeny, bubbly blonde Glinda to be with Elphaba. She got a bohunk to think for himself and see her for her inner beauty. She asserted her independence and decided that no one would stop her from doing the right thing. Not to mention that she led a mission to remove a crazy dictator. How much more proof does she need that she is worth something?

How much evidence do any of us need?

(Image #1 courtesy of metropolismag.com; #2 courtesy of blogs.houstonpress.com; #3 courtesy of fanpop.com; #4 courtesy of wicked.wikia.com)