Tag Archives: Literature

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)

Broadening their horizons outside the classroom

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
–Oscar Wilde

Those of you who have been paying attention know that  the Outside Girls are smart. But we have not really discussed the nature of their intelligence or the education that they seek. Oftentimes these girls excel in school and other traditional academic settings. However, they also have the potential to supplement their learning through slightly less orthodox outlets. Case in point: Rory Gilmore of Gilmore Girls and Jenny Mellor of An Education:


These two Outside Girls have more in common than their prep school/plaid skirt experiences; they are also two women who not only extracted themselves from the social scene, the took themselves out of the stereotypical type of schooling. Their intelligence is integral to their characters, and that means they have capacity to learn from themselves.

Before you superfans argue with me, I’ll cop to this: Yes, Rory Gilmore attended fictional (I hope) Chilton and Yale. She was seemingly on the beaten path. But consider this. Rory learns a lot from her classes and instructors, but I would argue that she learns even more on her own. If you ever feel you need to bolster your own brain power, just try to keep up with her reading list. Rory is more social than most of the other women on this blog, but she does remove herself from her peers, especially when she reads. As Anna Viola Sborgi notes, “the experience of reading is very private for Rory, who uses canonical examples of high literature to forge an identity and shape a world of her own, one that might seem detached from the more tangible world of face-to-face social relations.” Rory is wholly dedicated to her formal education, but she has made an even bigger commitment to herself. As her allusion-packed graduation speech emphasizes, Rory learns just as much from her bookworm tendencies as she does from Chilton.

Switching gears from Rory’s literary prowess, Jenny of An Education learns on her own in a different way: she grows up. In the course of one movie, she has sex for the first time, becomes engaged, travels abroad, goes to a dog track and realizes that people are often not what they appear to be. Of course, she only aims to go to Paris, experience culture, music and art, and lose her virginity. But her education consists of more than that.

If you think that she is a passive bystander in this situation, you should think again. As A.O. Scott describes in his review of the movie, “[Jenny] is deliberately and systematically…seeking out what the vestigial Victorianism of her era would see as ruin.” She rejects (at least for a little while) her traditional education, her family, her socioeconomic class, her friends and their ideologies (including the whole pure-as-the-driven-snow thing). Jenny follows the mysterious, charming and creepy David to new experiences and new forms of learning. When she finds out that David is not the man she thought him to be, she returns to her life and her original goal: Oxford. Like Rory, Jenny does fill the role of the quintessential smart student, prestigious university and all. But she also values educating herself through travel, art, adventure, sex and what she thinks is love. Oh, and the coolest beehive-and-dress ensemble since Marge Simpson:

These two characters take the initiative to break with their peers and formal education in order to teach themselves. Their patterns and interests are somewhat different, but their outcomes are the same: school is great and but learning on your own is better.

(Image #1 courtesy of bookreviews.me.uk; #2 courtesy of cnn.com; #3 courtesy of hitthefloor.com)