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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)

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)

This is Janis. She’s almost too cool to function.

“Boys fuck things up. Girls are fucked up.”

–Louis C.K. 

Get in, losers! We’re going to discuss Mean Girls!

In honor of this genius movie’s upcoming 10th anniversary, I am going to analyze an Outside Girl that is so obvious that she is actually easy to overlook: Janis Ian. This character was created by the amazing Tina Fey and portrayed by the equally inimitable Lizzy Caplan. I’ve watched Mean Girls at least once a year since I saw it on its opening weekend (at the probably-too-young age of 12), and I cannot believe that Janis was not my favorite character from the beginning. Because she is definitely the smartest, funniest and most powerful character in a movie with a bunch of strong, funny, intelligent women. Hell, it was even written by one. I mean, just consider the line “You smell like a baby prostitute.” It’s brutally honest, unnecessarily graphic and is aimed to deflate someone’s super-sized ego. What’s not to love?

If you are not (and never have been) a teenage girl, let me clue you in on something that should not be a secret: it sucks. Speaking your mind marks you as crazy, bitchy or, my personal favorite, “someone who can’t take a joke.” It doesn’t matter how smart, athletic, creative, nice or otherwise gifted you are; if you are not pretty by conventional standards, your romantic stock automatically plummets, along with your self-esteem. Oh, and your “best friends forever” often turn out to be your worst enemies. With all of this information, it is a mystery to me why there are always reporters with extensive research stories with the same, groundbreaking conclusion: aggression is not an exclusively male trait.

Although Mean Girls ends with a funny and disturbing physical fight/riot among all the female junior class members, most of the movie portrays what psychologists and sociologists call “relational aggression.” This is how you work out your issues in ways that slowly destroy your friendships instead of openly expressing your emotions. The more acceptable definition, according to Dawn H. Currie and Deirdre M. Kelly in Girlhood: Redefining the Limits, is “related to indirect aggression that includes covert behaviour…that allows the perpetrator to avoid confronting her target, and to social aggression as behaviour that intends to damage self-esteem or social status within a group…” Instead of just coming out and saying what they want, girls often resort to underhanded methods to work out their social problems. Our culture’s version of femininity “emphasizes the importance of relationships in women’s lives,” so actually having it out with a friend seems much less appealing than bitching about her behind her back and solving virtually nothing. And the sick thing is that we know we are being passive aggressive, but it physically feels like we have no other option.

The reason I consider Janis an Outside Girl is not just because she understands that clique culture and Girl World both are really, really messed up.  Instead, I like her because she is the only teen girl in this movie that strays from relational aggression without being instructed to do so. Ms. Norbury leads a workshop to try and build up the high school girls’ self-esteem and strengthen their communication skills and mutual trust. Unsurprisingly, Janis steals the show. (“It’s probably because I’ve got a big, lesbian ca-rush on you! Suck on that!”) Her honesty and willingness to verbally express her grievances separate her from the crowd in a healthy way. Often, being an Outside Girl means being lonely and feeling misunderstood. In Janis’ case, her outsider status could save her thousands of dollars in therapy bills. Because there is no way Regina, Gretchen or Cady will grow up to be well-adjusted. Karen won’t grow up to be well-adjusted either, but she is too stupid to notice. So I’m gonna call that one a draw.

I also like the character of Janis (and I could go on about this forever) because of her relationship to the LGBTQ community. Janis’ best friend and confidant is Damian, who is openly and proudly gay. Janis is not a lesbian, but her peers mock her as butchy because of the way she dresses, her friendship with Damian and because she takes female friendship very seriously. This is another super fun aspect of being a teenage girl. If you are independent , don’t smile constantly, publicly identify yourself as a feminist or have a close female confidant then, duh, you’re gay! In the eighth grade, a hurt Janis confronted Regina about her friend’s neglect and how she felt like she came in second to Regina’s new boyfriend. And Regina, being a relational aggressive, told Janis that she could not come to her pool party because girls would be there. In their swimsuits. It would have been pandemonium, obviously.

In any case, Janis is on the outside because of her clear, assertive communication skills, her willingness to align herself with other outcasts, and because she deviates from accepted gender norms and cannot prove she is not a lesbian. But I don’t think it matters too much to her. She realizes that the Plastics are psychotic Barbies. Like I said before, she is the best character in this amazing movie. And she is the one who really wins in the end:

Do you have any favorite Janis moments? Which Mean Girls line do you use on a daily basis? It would be so fetch if you left your opinions in the comments!

(Image #1 courtesy of scriptsit.tumblr.com; #2 courtesy of rottentomatoes.com; #3 courtesy of wemediacritics.blogspot.com; #4 courtesy of rottentomatoes.com)

What’s in a name? Quite a lot.

“Imagine being born with a name like Miles Davis. You’ve already got it made.”

–from Trumpet by Jackie Kay

During my second year of college, I went to Ireland for spring break. I returned with a souvenir pin bearing my mother’s maiden name.  According to the back of this pin, her former surname is Gaelic for “troublesome” or “light-haired.” Coming from a family of sarcastic blondes, I was delighted to learn that little fun fact. Really, it shouldn’t matter to me one way or another. It isn’t my last name and I could just as easily be a pleasant (ha!) brunette. But our names–whether we acknowledge it or not–influence our identities and even our dispositions. In short, our names are more than something listed on our birth certificates.

Alike of the film Pariah (which you need to see) knows something about the complexity of identity. She is a seventeen-year-old poet and Brooklynite who also happens to be a lesbian. Her sexuality is never really the driving conflict of the film. Alike knows who she is and accepts it. The problem is that her parents refuse to see or support her sexuality. Her constant shift from the person she wants to be (complete with a girlfriend and masculine clothing) to the person her parents expect her to be (complete with a pink, clinging shirt) is the movie’s main source of tension.  Like so many other girls on this blog, Alike is caught between her parents’ ideologies and her own evolution.

I could go on and on about how Alike’s constant clothing changes symbolize her struggle, but I would probably bore you. Anyways, everything you need to know about the protagonist’s journey can be found in her first name. It is pronounced ah-LEE-kay, but is also visually semantic. For all you English majors out there, the OED defines alike as “Of two or more things: like one another, similar, of identical form or character.” Alike’s gruff-but-loving father and her flinty, worried mother have certain standards. They want Alike to adhere to the strict gender code that other teen girls seemingly follow without issue. Arthur and Audrey  see that Alike is physically uncomfortable in frilly clothes. They sense that her friendship with another girl from their church congregation is more than platonic. But they simply cannot handle it. Despite alike‘s coded meaning for conformity, their individual daughter will never act exactly as they planned.

For she is Alike with a better, bolder pronunciation. She deals with heartbreak, isolation and insensitivity from her parents, but you can’t help but feel happy for Alike throughout the movie. Even though she has to hide herself from her parents, Alike is decidedly living on her own terms. After an intense verbal fight between Alike, Arthur and Audrey, Alike decides to move out and attend a prestigious writing program on the other side of the country. Film critic Stephen Holden argues that “Alike does a better job than many young women of negotiating life…while protecting herself until it is time to break free.” That is true–to an extent. I am just as excited for Alike as Holden is, but her identity is not as simple as free/not free. Like her name, Alike’s role as an Outside Girl is up for multiple readings and interpretations.

Yes, Alike’s decision to break away from her family is agentic, independent and the best decision for her. But I have to mention that her otherness is not fully self-inflicted. Most of the other girls I have discussed on this blog are white and upper middle class. They have the freedom to buck tradition for awhile and can return to the status quo if they ever need to. However, Alike’s outsider status is threefold and the most complex: she is black, she is gay, and she needs to get away from her family’s constraints and gender policing. Yes, her family is middle class, but there is a distinct urgency to the way her parents behave. Arthur perceives Alike as “Daddy’s little girl,” but her burgeoning masculinity is a threat to his own. Audrey is so afraid of what other people will think that she sees Alike’s sexuality as a personal affront. How can she build a happy life for Alike when her daughter insists on wearing butch clothes and actively “turning into a man?”

I don’t say any of this to undermine Alike’s journey. The truth is that choosing to walk away from your social circle (with the full knowledge you can waltz right back) is another unfair privilege of being white or having money. Alike is a great character who decides to leave her community instead of waiting around to be pushed away. If I was in her position, I would do the same. But it is important to note that this isn’t just another case of getting bored and making a change in your life. This is a case of leaving everything you love behind and knowing full-well that it is for good. Director Dee Rees might have named the film after a social outcast, but I probably would label Alike “Brave as Hell.” Then again, her awesome name already says it all.

(Image #1 courtesy of en.wikipedia.org; #2 accessatlanta.com; #3 courtesy of usatoday.com)

Orange you glad you resisted?

“Something has changed within me/Something is not the same/I’m through with playing by the rules/Of someone else’s game”

“Defying Gravity” from Wicked

In sixth or seventh grade, I woke up.  I wasn’t in a coma or anything; I just had the mini-epiphany that hits the more sullen of tween girls. I suddenly stopped buying into the notion that I should be like anyone else in my class, that I should believe everything my teachers told me, that I should pretend to listen to anything I thought was stupid. I started wearing what I thought was cute (as opposed to what was popular), stopped applying lip gloss and refused to style my hair. As you can imagine, black nail polish and Dr. Martens were involved. How did I make good on this quasi-nihilistic vow? I received straight A’s throughout middle school/high school, graduated salutatorian of my class and left for college. I don’t really sound like an Outside Girl, do I?

But I do have a point here. In a chapter of Girlhood: Redefining the Limits, researcher Rebecca Raby concludes that “resistance among girls and young women is likely to be hidden or c/overt–subtle and located in private spaces of interaction.” As you might have noticed, the Outside Girls practice active resistance to societal dictates, gender norms and peer pressure. But they also are undeniably intelligent and often use the system (i.e. school and family) to their advantage. Admittedly, some of these girls wear their disdain on their sleeves. But the majority of them use education and other culturally-approved institutions in order to flout how little they care about fitting in. In other words, they rebel in sensible and discreet ways.

Alex Vause, a.k.a. the coolest character on Orange is the New Black*, is a drug dealer. A really, really good one, despite the whole getting caught thing. Some of you might think, How is a goth-chic dealer working the system in a legitimized, secret way? I will tell you: Alex finds white, privileged, bored young adults and recruits them to be her street dealers/smugglers. Her genius of using rich white kids to move heroin (because our “justice” system is still hopelessly racist and elitist) is her exploiting others to manipulate the system. Yeah, I know that sounds underhanded and Bluth-esque, but if you watch the show, there is no way you would root against her.

Jenji Kohan, the creator of Orange is the New Black and the dearly-departed Weeds, is famous for “putting well-behaved middle-class white women in the middle of stories that typically feature rough nonwhite men,” as Mike Hale‘s succinct review puts it. And it’s true. Nancy Botwin sells marijuana to preserve her McMansion lifestyle and Piper Chapman goes to prison because she was restless after college. (What’s more exciting than smuggling drug money at the request of your kingpin girlfriend?) Kohan creates these characters and is famous for giving them recognizable motivations that land them in seemingly-foreign locations. I can’t help but wonder if Alex herself is a microcosm of Kohan’s creative agenda. Alex uses entitled white girls to do her bidding in OITNB‘s universe; Kohan uses entitled white women to entertain,educate and subvert her audience’s preconceptions. It’s not so different when you think about it. Another similarity between them: totally bitchin’ glasses.

Alex was not always working the system, but the viewer understands exactly why she wants to. After being rejected from the tiny monsters that are fifth grade girls, being denied the fate that Piper takes for granted (“no moolah, no school-ah”), and meeting a father that brings new meaning to the term “disappointing,” Alex wakes up. She is not normal, and pretending she is is a waste of time.  Why should she follow societal norms when conventional people are such dull sheep? Other girls enacting resistance to accepted ideologies might pretend to respect their parents while simultaneously breaking every curfew. A few girls could go all Breakfast Club, be the leaders of mean-girl cliques while hiding their consciences. Others, like me, might do well in school to ensure they will one day escape their hometowns and nightmarish high school experiences. Admittedly, few will look as cool as Alex when they are working the system over. Even with the presence of shiny black nails and combat boots.

And, yes, I know that distributing heroin in bulk will not win you any morality prizes. It hurts too many people. Yet, I admire Alex for using spoiled brats to get what she wants. I also love that she is so matter-of-fact about her crimes, her jail time and her passion for her profession. Her work allowed her to travel all over the world, gave her first-class mind something to do and was thrilling for her. She knows what she did is wrong, but she did it by finessing a flawed-as-fuck system. I know it is weird for me to champion a drug dealer (well, maybe not that weird), but I can’t help it.  I love Alex Vause because she woke up the moment she met her deadbeat dad. Instead of trying to play a rigged game, she created one with rules of her own.

*If you prefer Crazy-Eyes, Red, Sophia, Nicki, Pornstache, etc., come at me in the comments.

(Image #1 courtesy of weheartit.com; #2 courtesy of hollywoodreporter.com; #3 courtesy of reddit.com)

Death becomes her

“Let’s do some living after we die”

“Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones

Death changes everything. (Yes, thank you Captain Obvious.) But it’s true. When someone close to you disappears, your entire worldview transforms. Ideas that you once took for granted might seem outlandish and ridiculous after a loss. And I speak from personal experience when I say that. In fact, I would argue that there are two versions of us: the people we were pre-bereavement and the people we are now. So what kind of person are you when death is a regular part of your life? Or when death is the way you finance your life? Well, if you are Claire Fisher of Six Feet Under, you accept that darkness without letting it define you. And that’s a difficult look to pull off.

Claire’s father–of the titular Fisher and Sons funeral home–dies in the first fifteen minutes of SFU‘s pilot. Like all people who lose a loved one, this affects Claire. But that is not the catalyst for her Outside Girl status.  As someone who spent her childhood in the vicinity of emotionally-shattered people, Claire attends her own father’s funeral in a state of calm detachment. After all, she sees this stuff every day. Funerals are just another part of Claire’s regular routine, and this prevents her from grieving her father’s death publicly. As this scene would suggest, death itself is the barrier between the youngest Fisher and the rest of the world. Her peers think she is freaky because of her father’s profession and the house she grew up in. Instead of being wounded or feeling excluded, Claire decides to be amused and enjoys being outcast. Why else would she paint her car (a second-hand hearse) lime green?

Avi Shoshana and Elly Teman argue that Claire’s refusal to let constant death ruin her life is proof of the character’s embodiment of the “life-self.” This is a self that “is unchained, liberated, and sexual. It does not conform to societal dictates but follows an original path based on curiosity, adventurousness…and openness.” Claire actively enjoys being shunned by her fellow students, and this independent streak even motivates her to carve out her own identity within the family. In other words, she likes that death keeps her away from other people, but she refuses to let it numb her from happiness or passion. Unlike her mother and brother David, Claire uses the constant death around her as a reminder to live her life by her own rules. She is not bogged down by melancholia, but is itching with the need to experience everything during her short time on earth. This primal drive leads to experimentation with drugs and sex, multiple artistic endeavors, deviation from the expected path, surreal musical performances, and attempts to find connection with other misfits and outcasts.

This isn’t to say that Claire is cold or apathetic towards the loss of her father and, eventually, her elder brother Nate. We do see her mourn in several different instances. But her liveliness, her “life-self” stops her from grieving in the socially predictable way. Instead of crying quietly next to her father’s grave, Claire sobs uncontrollably two years later at her mother’s second wedding. Instead of dressing up nicely to attend her brother’s wake, she shows up late in a T-shirt. Instead of acting like everything is alright after Nate is gone, Claire feels her sadness 100 percent. She shows up to work drunk, she flips her coworkers the bird, and screams at her family and boyfriend. Think of it this way: Claire knows that death is a part of life. But damned if she isn’t going to live her life the way she sees fit before she dies.

And unlike many of her fellow Outside Girls, when Claire breaks away from the crowd, she does not go back. From the first season on, she has a natural suspicion of what other people see as normal and even desirable. When she visits a school counselor, she asks: “Is that the only option? Go to college, get a job so you can be a good consumer until you drop dead of exhaustion? I don’t want that…I just want something to matter.” Claire’s personification of the life-self means that she does not care about conformity and living the life that her parents’ imagined for her. Instead, she cares about making a mark by exploring topics she cares about. Claire flits around from art project to art project; medium to medium; boyfriend to boyfriend; passion to passion; even city to city. In many circumstances, I would categorize someone like her as flaky, immature, and indecisive. But that’s not the whole story. It’s better that Claire tries to conquer as much as she can in her life than being like her father. After all, he only really lives after he is dead.

(Image #1 courtesy of theredlist.com; #2 courtesy of malustudio2.blogspot.com; #3 courtesy of rattytime.wordpress.com; #4 courtesy of hbo.com; #5 courtesy of nevermore1408.blogspot.com)