August 15, 2010 § 4 Comments
The last couple of posts have been about women in film (and the occaisonal woman who directs/shoots/produces films). If I am lucky, I will be one of those women in front of the camera. If I am even luckier, I’ll actually enjoy the project that I’m shooting.
That’s the challenge of being a woman in the performing arts field, who is also a feminist. So much of the available jobs in TV/film/commercials are total and complete crap. Because plays are so expensive to produce (a three-person play with one set will cost at least six figures to produce in New York), casts are shrinking, and so are, you guessed it, roles for women.
One of our first assignments in our Acting For The Camera class was to talk about our classmates’ “types”. My professor was straightforward about what we would be most likely to be cast as [Evidently, I'm a quirky "character" type, who would be good in Meg-Ryan type roles]. Frankly, I don’t always appreciate it when people tell me, as a 20-year-old student, what I’ll likely be doing, based on my looks, for the majority of my career. And this year, the projects I filmed included:
-A wheelchair bound wife, having difficulty handling her disability.
-A bobby-soxer in the Fifties.
-A vagabond, living with a collective of people out of the bed of a pickup truck.
-A German prostitute.
-A cancer patient who makes a suicide pact with another cancer patient
Ie, things not in my supposed “type”.
At my first college, I saw talk of “types” totally destroy my classmates, who were convinced that they would not be able to do anything other than what another classmate or professor suggested. There is nothing more tragic in my mind than a bunch of 18-year-old college students that have been convinced that they cannot do anything other than one specific “type”.
As I think about my post-graduate opportunities, I’m leaning more towards jobs not directly related to performing arts, but ones where I could use some of my strengths that I’ve learned as an actor. Why? Because I would have more freedom than having to go on audition after audition, only to be told that I’m “not right for the job” because I am short/have red hair/do not look like Megan Fox.
One of the best things that I learned at my previous college was to make my own work, rather than waiting for good work to come my way. That has to be the future for film, television, and theatre if we want to see things other than Two and a Half Men and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
I don’t want to be in the position to have to take the horribly sexist commercial/sitcom/film gig because that is the only work available for me. I’d rather break out, and set my own rules, than be stuck having to follow the rules of an industry that occasionally produces brilliant work, but is so stuck in a mentality of “if it doesn’t make money, it will fail” that they keep on doing the same thing, with the same shitty stereotypes, over and over again.
Plus, why would I want to work in the same industry that still employs Charlie Sheen?
August 12, 2010 § 4 Comments
One of my favorite comics is the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, partially because it’s about the importance of stories. There’s a part in the sixth book where Despair, one of the godlike personifications of human beliefs known as the Endless, mocks protagonist Dream for only being able to give stories and ideas. To prove his point, Dream takes a man who has lost everything and gives him a dream in which he is Emperor. With only the idea to guide him, the man lives the rest of his days in happiness.
An archetype, of course, but it’s also a metaphor for how we use fiction to describe and create meaning in our own lives. This is one of the reasons I see it as so important to have a diversity in our fiction that begins to approach the diversity in real life, and to have fiction that tells stories that don’t simply reinforce stereotypes.
One example, from my own life: When I was in my early teens, I loved post-apocalyptic fiction. I loved the idea of self-sufficiency, of rebuilding a world, of trying to piece together history from the remnants of a society. However, as I read more, I started to realize that the stories I was reading rarely featured women in any more than peripheral roles, and, in fact, seemed to be all about how there wasn’t even a place for me in this world.
For me, it all came together when I read Stephen King’s The Stand and came across this bit:
[T]he Women’s Credo, which should have been hung in the offices of Ms. magazine, preferably in needlepoint, was just this: Thank you, Men, for the railroads. Thank you, Men, for the automobile and killing the red Indians, who thought it might be nice to hold on to America for a while longer, since they were here first. Thank you, Men, for the hospitals, the police, the schools. Now I’d like to vote, please, and have the right to set my own course and make my own destiny… And what was there to say? Nothing… Now all that had changed, in a matter of weeks it had changed — how much only time would tell. But lying here in the night, she knew that she needed a man. Oh God, she badly needed a man.
Wow, I thought. I really don’t stand a chance. And all my self-confidence, all my cocky willingness to take on a lawless society, started to go the way of the wife in The Road, who kills herself rather than face a world that’s (naturally, McCarthy imagines) for men. It wasn’t just that King shouldn’t have written what he did (although as I recall he’s admitted that he has problems writing female characters); it was also that there were virtually no counterexamples. Every story I read was about the same men facing the same world.
This is why these things matter, and not just for women. Every time a trans character is featured only as a joke, or characters of color are relegated to the sidelines while the white lead gets the love interest and the good lines, somebody is getting the message that in an ideal world, they’d obligingly cease to exist.
At this point, somebody usually cries censorship, which isn’t the right idea at all. It’s not about trying to legally or coercively stop people from creating stories with the same leads and stereotypes as always, it’s about trying to convince people that they can do better, and that the stories we tell, or the lack thereof, have consequences.
Most of all, it’s about telling people that they shouldn’t have to try to write the same characters as John Updike or Cormac McCarthy in order to be taken as writers of “universal” stories.
In a writing class I took in college, I went about halfway through the course before realizing that all the men were writing exclusively male characters, and I was nearly the only woman writing mostly female ones. There are a lot of potential reasons for this, but the consequence was that, as a whole, we were perpetuating the same stories we’d grown up with, the ones with women as objects of desire at best, invisible at worst.
And so, as a final exhortation: While the last generation of writers and editors might have already set their preferences (not that there aren’t already some great examples of both who are working against those), we’re the next generation, and we’ve got the choice to start fresh. There are a lot of societal factors working against us, but if we start writing (and keep writing) people as people, with cis white men as only a subset of the whole of human experience, we’ll get somewhere.
Because stories matter.
And what matters more is that we’re the ones writing them.
August 12, 2010 § 6 Comments
The film industry has a lady problem.
Genuinely challenging and original leading roles for women are scarce, roles get smaller as women grow older, and many, many serious films that get serious nominations do so because serious men are at the center, experiencing serious, manly situations. No matter how progressive and lefty Hollywood likes to think it is, it is still slave to the power and influence of strict gender roles.
But film is an art form, and no matter how commercialized and consumerist this particular art form may have become, there are still those films that will challenge gender roles, challenge assumptions, and challenge the audience. But what does a feminist film look like?
Is a film that deals explicitly with the struggles of women in a patriarchal society instantly feminist? The Piano, a movie by Jane Campion, is often hailed as a feminist filmmaking feat, and although it’s a picture that I adore, I hesitate to agree (spoiler/vast oversimplification of plot ahead!). A mute woman leaving one repressive relationship by leaping into the arms of a man who essentially forces her to pay for her beloved piano with her sexuality hardly registers as a feminist statement for me. Nor does having a woman behind the camera guarantee a feminist success. Hollywood gave itself a good pat on the back this past March for giving a best directing and a best picture Oscar to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman ever to win either award. While such a feat is undeniably something to get excited about, her winning would have been much more of a true feminist victory if her film, The Hurt Locker, weren’t a prime example of one of the aforementioned serious manly man movies (a pretty overrated and unoriginal serious manly man movie at that).
In popular culture, women aren’t treated like people, but rather like women. Someone is a man until proven otherwise. Women, despite being pretty much half of the population, are viewed as the “other.” As a result, there are limited roles that they are allowed to occupy, and unjust stereotypes that they are expected to fulfill. Therefore, the films I consider to be truly feminist are the films that do treat women like people, that allow their female characters to take on roles filled with tension and anger and adventure and excitement that female characters are so often denied.
Take Wendy and Lucy, the beautiful 2008 film directed by Kelly Reichardt. The story follows a woman named Wendy (Michelle Williams) as she travels to Alaska in a run down car with no other company than her beloved dog, Lucy, who seems to be her only friend in the world. Wendy is down on her luck, with a cold demeanor and a butch presentation – not the type of character Hollywood usually likes for its delicate lady-flowers. She’s constantly faced with the brutality and indifference of those around her, and experiences incredible sadness and incredible courage as she teeters on the edge of despair. Wendy is a feminist character in that she’s allowed to be distraught. Ugly. Imperfect. Strong. Impatient. There is none of the naiveté that young women are automatically presumed to have, no distracting boyfriend story, nothing that shouts “THIS CHARACTER IS A WOMAN, IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW IT, AND WE WILL DO THIS AND THIS TO HER JUST SO YOU REMEMBER THAT SHE’S A LADY.” She’s a person, with as many flaws as merits, and is treated and examined as such.
In most action movies, women are hot and kind-of-smart-but-not-too-scary-smart babes who come second to the big macho male action star. Not so in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. The central character, The Bride (Uma Thurman), wakes from a coma, then embarks on a violent killing spree, mowing down those who so brutally betrayed her and put her there. The Bride is driven by unabashed, unrelenting ruthlessness – a quality that is hardly traditionally “feminine.” It’s not the bride’s violence and need for revenge that makes her feminist (violence is never, ever the key to true empowerment), but rather the fact that she’s allowed to be so filled to the brim with drama and tension and genuine rage. Women are told to be complacent and submissive, things that The Bride is absolutely not. The morality of her actions is questionable, to say the least, but she sure does rip apart many traditional and annoying notions of femininity during her bloody quest for vengeance.
Movies made for little girls are often about princesses, and tend to equate being rich and married with being beautiful and worthy (I’m lookin’ at you, Disney). Hiyao Miyazaki is, essentially, the anti-Disney – the protagonists of his anime films are little girls, but instead of falling in love or finding happiness through material possessions, they go on adventures. They explore. Satsuki and Chihiro, of the films My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, are curious and bold. They exemplify genuine compassion and bravery, but without submissiveness or naiveté. The word that you could best use to describe all of Miyazaki’s heroines is “independent” – a feminist word if I ever saw one (hell, he even manages to give the Little Mermaid story a feminist edge in Ponyo).
Women are conditioned and told to strive for “perfection,” to be beautiful, gentle, submissive, and not to cause trouble. But women are human beings, and human beings do cause trouble. When a character breaks the unfair rules of the patriarchy, when she allows the audience to see her during her ugly, human moments, when she can be “unlady-like” and still be a protagonist worthy of our compassion and our sympathy, she’s a badass, gender-role-fucking feminist.
July 22, 2010 § 10 Comments
This morning, I went to my local Health Department in order to get tested for HIV. It was free, quick, and I tested negative. I also managed to curb-check the family station wagon on my way there, and so explaining to my parents why the steering was messed up wasn’t fun.
There was one thing that irritated me, though.
The nurse who administerd my test reacted very negatively when I explained that my boyfriend was bisexual. She said that it was very plausible that he was lying to me about his sexual history, and that he should get tested for HIV right away.
I was a little dumbstruck, but in no mood to piss off the person responsible for performing an accurate test.
When will we get it through our heads that gay/bisexual man does not equal “lying asshole who has every single STD known to humanity”? The main reason why I decided to get tested was not because I suspected that my boyfriend was lying to me, but because I was concered that any of my straight exes may have had an STD they had not told me about. In middle school, my health teacher stressed that HIV/AIDS wasn’t a “gay disease.” In high school, my gym teacher said we shouldn’t worry about HIV because only men who have sex with men are at risk. I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only person who received mixed messages about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases while they were growing up, and these mixed messages are what lead to people making inaccurate assumptions.
I’m lucky that my parents and friends are very supportive of my relationship, but I also have to wonder if there more people like my nurse out there: Well-meaning people that are convinced that my health is at risk because of who I am dating, or that I am kidding myself because bisexual men don’t really exist and I’m just dating a closet case, or that because of who I’m dating I am somehow “unclean” and unfit to give blood, despite the whole being HIV negative thing.
In 2005, researchers at Northwestern University did a study on male bisexuality, and came to the conclusion that male bisexuality didn’t exist. Their justification was that the men they study only reacted to images of gay porn, and they didn’t find any men who were a “3” on the Kinsey scale (ie, equally attracted to men and women). So evidently I’m dating someone who doesn’t really exist.
There aren’t a whole lot of examples of bisexual males in pop culture. David Bowie is currently married to Iman, but I am as much of a supermodel as my boyfriend is a rock legend. Bryan Safi did a hilarious “That’s Gay” segment on how TV shows like to have a stereotypical “gay best friend,” whose gayness is suddenly cured when he falls in love with an (unrealistically hot) woman. The only woman in TV/film who dated a bisexual man that I’ve ever seen was Velvet Goldmine‘s Mandy Slade, who was portrayed as a coke-snorting basket case. The film is quite good, albeit campy, but it’s sad that the only example of a woman dating a bi man in film winds up “paying” for it by ending up divorced, lonely, and miserable.
Network and cable news shows like to occasionally bring up the “down low lifestyle” as their “scandal of the week,” which is 500 different kinds of irritating, because it combines racial panic with gay panic: “Oh noes! Look at all of these black men! That have girlfriends! And occaisonally have sex with other men!” PANIC TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Society likes to categorize women by their relationships with men. Realizing that people can make sweeping judgements about me just because I’m dating a bi man only reinforces my belief that such categorization has got to stop. Plus, it would be nice to be able to give blood again.
July 14, 2010 § 2 Comments
I am supposed to be loud. When people find out that I am the daughter of immigrants from Latin America, they expect loud. They expect sass and then some. Maybe they get that from me and they are satisfied. I am supposed to be loud, but I am not supposed to be heard. I am supposed to provide the right kind of Latina loudness. The kind that is laughable, almost comforting to the people who can be assured that they are of a higher, more polite and less loud, class. They question my Latinaness, they wonder aloud why my English is so good. They exclaim: “But you don’t look Latina!” So where do I begin my lecture, my crash course on the history of Latin America and the presence of Latinas in the U.S.? How do I begin to discuss the politics of my very existence?
There are things I’m not supposed to be. Sometimes I take pride in my sass, my loud laugh and bursts of enthusiasm. Most of the time, though, I think about what these things cover up. The silence that is louder than the laughs and the Spanglish. The silence that we are forced to carry with us and use as a response to the injustices and the inequality we face everyday. Our silence is supposed to meet the overt sexualization we are subject to, the sass and volume stops when it is time to discuss the conscientious exclusion of our cultural contributions. The brazen charges of “show me your papers” are meant to go without a response.
That’s what’s been bothering me lately, this pressure to move away from the stereotypically contrived notions of what I’m supposed to be as a Latina. Not to mention the pressure to end the silence that I can feel weighing on me. This is why I particularly hate the unfortunately pervasive loud Latina label, or the similarly infuriating sassy Black woman stereotype. This isn’t to say that loudness, sass and enthusiasm aren’t wonderful, but I’m sick of ignoring the silence that we are relegated to. I am especially sick because of the atrocities we are supposed to be silent about. I will not stay silent about the murder of Oscar Grant and I will not stay silent about Embarizona. So I’m trying to learn to speak as loud as I laugh and live outside of the loud Latina paradox that social notions have created for me.
July 5, 2010 § 1 Comment
This is a guest post by Julia Landauer, a competitive racecar driver.
If you were to ask the average person on the street what they think of when they hear the words “woman” and “racecar,” many would first think of umbrella girls, and then: “That chick that races, what’s her name? Danica Patrick.” Though this might seem like a gross generalization, I’ve found it to be the case. My name is Julia Landauer and I’m a professional racecar driver. I am a NASCAR-licensed stock car driver, racing late models in Virginia. And I am a Stuyvesant High School graduate, raised in Manhattan, headed to Stanford in the fall. I am not what you think of when you hear “woman” and “racecar.”
I have been a woman in a man’s world since I started go-karting when I was ten. The funny thing is that I never saw myself as “the girl racer” – instead, I saw myself as just another racer. That is, until I was around fourteen, when I became the youngest female winner in the Skip Barber Series, and later that year I became the first female champion of the series. It was than I realized that I was getting publicity not because I was a racer that won, but because I was a girl that won. And such a title is like a double-edged sword. On one hand, I get more immediate attention because of my gender. On the other hand, I have to fight rampant biases against women. “Women can’t drive.” “Women aren’t athletic.” “Women should be nice.” Well, let me tell you something, you can’t be nice on track and expect to win.
By the time I was fifteen I had established myself as a championship-winning racer, both in karts and in cars. But that didn’t mean people weren’t still seeing me as “the girl racer.” At a national go-kart race in Pennsylvania, a fellow racer who is a year younger than me was a little over-aggressive, so I returned the favor. He and his dad were both furious, but in reality I just returned the bump, and that’s how everyone except those two saw it. His dad later said to me, “You know, no one’s going to want to be your friend if you bump people like that,” in a condescending tone fit to address a five year-old. I laughed in surprise and responded, “Well, I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win races.” The answer surprised him, but I think I made my point.
That being said, being a woman does gives me a better chance of being successful. There are lots of male racecar drivers, but only so many female ones, and NASCAR is looking for their first successful female. I know this and other people know this, so I have to use my femininity as a tool. (But I will steer clear of the ever-assumed sleeping-with-the-team-owner-for-a-ride plan. I’d rather earn my ride.)
I don’t like that people always focus on the differences between men and women, especially in racing. Heck, if the names weren’t on the cars, you’d never be able to tell if the racer inside was male or female. At the end of the day, I just see myself as another racer, gender aside. There was an article recently in The Atlantic called The End of Men, talking about how in many fields, women are actually surpassing men with their achievements. This was interesting to read because it still is sexist, just this time in favor of females. I see no reason why women and men should be treated or rewarded differently, but for some reason, they are.
I would love to see the day when there are as many females in the field of racing as there are males. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll see that day. My greatest wish for my sport is for competitors and audiences to disregard the gender of the racer, and acknowledge the talent of the driver. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen any time soon either. Until then, I’ll continue developing my tough skin, and charge to the front because I am a champion, not because I am a female.
June 12, 2010 § 11 Comments
In my Shakespeare class, our final paper was on Shakespeare’s epic Hamlet and out of all the choices of topics we had to write about, I chose Ophelia. During our unit on Hamlet I found myself surprised over and over again by how intensely many people seemed to hate her. (And I don’t use the term hate lightly, I mean they despised her!) “The play would be the same without her!” “She doesn’t DO anything.” “She’s way too passive!” At one point, I ended up in a very impassioned debate outside of class against five other classmates. Guess who the one person that liked Ophelia was?
To be sure, Ophelia is a passive character, but for some reason that fact doesn’t cause me to loathe her. Weird.
I wrote this paper as a sort of defense, if you will. I think that Ophelia’s passivity stems from her environment and that the truly tragic thing about her is that she knows no other way to act. She is one of only two females drowning (forgive the pun–I’m tired) in an overpoweringly large cast of males. She has no support system that encourages her to act on her own and every man around her somehow feels the need to tell her how to behave. But I won’t lay out my thesis right here and now. You can click below to read the full paper.
I figure at least one reader must be a Shakespeare buff. Enjoy!