Rss Feed
Tweeter button
Facebook button
Technorati button
Reddit button
Myspace button
Linkedin button
Webonews button
Delicious button
Digg button
September 28, 2011 0

Alicia Elsewhere

By in Gentlemen, Society, Writing

Today I have a guest post up on Overthinking It, where I spend too much time talking about blood and Greeks and heroes in the Harry Potter series. Have a taste!

Voldemort’s mistake is to think that shedding the blood of others will increase his power. In fact, it increases his enemies, as many of Voldemort’s victims have families and loved ones whose grief motivates their struggle against him. As in Aeschylus, there is a moral imperative to avenge a slain or injured relative. It’s as though kindred blood-ties become more activated by violence. This is why Narcissa Malfoy undermines Voldemort’s plans, why Neville refuses to join the Death Eaters and slays Nagini, why Aunt Petunia’s blood is capable of protecting Harry during all those summer breaks between books.

Read the rest!

September 13, 2011 3

Attention, Ladies: Michael Bublé and Josh Groban Battle for Your Love

By in Singing, Voices

Long story short: while driving around, I heard the same two songs back-to-back on the radio. This happened a couple of times. One song made me mad, and the other made me cry. And they’re such an essential contradiction to one another that I’m going to write about it here.

First Song: “Hollywood” by Michael Bublé.

A screencap from the video for Hollywood, with Michael Buble dressed ridiculously as Justin Bieber with a Bieber wig and a bright blue hoodie.

Why is Michael Bublé dressed as Justin Bieber I don't even.

Defining lyrics:

I don’t want to take you dancin’
if you’re dancin’ with the world.
You can flash your caviar
and your million-dollar car
I don’t need that kind of girl.

Translation: dating Michael Bublé is more important than your dreams of musical stardom.

Mr. Bublé burst onto the scene at some point in the past decade as a poor woman’s Harry Connick, Jr., a soulful retro crooner without HCJ’s piano talent or post-Katrina heroism. He’s a safe magnet for your mother’s sublimated desire, which was fine when he was covering classic torch songs and Motown but is much more annoying now that he’s apparently sold his soul to T-Pain for an Auto-Tune.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 13, 2011 1

This Post is About Badminton, Kinda

By in Ladies, Sartoria, Society, The Arts, Uncategorized

My senior year of college, once winter was officially gone, one of my housemates or neighbors bought a backyard games set from Walmart on a whim. And that’s how I spent half my senior year playing badminton.

I’d played occasionally before, like you do as a kid because—let’s face it—badminton has a certain amount of whimsy built-in. Elegant rackets like the wings of dragonflies! A winged ball! That’s called a shuttlecock! That makes a very satisfying thunk when struck in the sweet spot!

We even held a tournament once, though our careful brackets and fabulous prizes quickly devolved into “take a sip of your beer when anybody scores” and “this ribbon says, ‘I Can Dress Myself.’”

There is a very poorly taken photo of me from this time. I have a racket in my hand and am going in for a spike shot. I’m wearing a long-sleeved grey t-shirt and an ankle-length denim skirt that looks as though it was made from a single pair of jeans. (It was not, but such were the fashions of the day.)

And it turns out, this is perfectly in line with the new badminton dress code as described in the New York Times: female badminton players are now required to wear skirts.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , ,

February 17, 2011 0

Intersect Story Map

By in Travel, Writing

Have you guys found out about Intersect yet? It’s a lovely idea for a social space: you write a story from your life, and mark the time and place. Then you can browse around chronologically, geographically, or both—to see what other stories have happened in that place, or what other stories were happening around the same time. It’s engaging, encouraging, and totally addictive.

Here’s a map of my stories so far—I’ve been meaning to add more, when deadlines are not breathing like dragons down my neck.

Tags: , ,

November 6, 2010 0

Pilot Versus Ballerina

By in Gentlemen, Ladies, Society

Sometimes, if you are not a cis white dude, life will up and smack you in the face for not being a cis white dude.

Even if all you are doing is sitting around typing crappy prose on your laptop.

I was doing just that when the love of my life started scrolling through the updated avatar clothing selections on Xbox Live. “Hey!” he said. “They have a cool jobs section!” And for a moment we delighted in the stereotypical avatar costumes: astronaut, farmer, doctor, pilot, professor.

They were so stereotypical that I was suddenly worried. “Switch to my account,” I directed. “I bet you can’t be an astronaut if you’re female.”

“Why would they be different?” he responded. “I bet they are the same.”

We checked. They were not.

Astronaut was the same. Professor had been switched to scientist — in a pencil skirt and lab coat with sassy red flats, rather than a tweed suit and black dress shoes. That raised an eyebrow slightly.

And then, we found ballerina. Ballerina, it seems, had replaced pilot.

You tell me what that plane looks like. Amirite?

You tell me what that plane looks like. Amirite?

And not just one pilot: a male avatar allows you to be either a commercial pilot (spiffy navy blue uniform) or a private pilot (spiffy brown leather bomber and khaki pants).

A female avatar means you can be a ballerina, but not a pilot.

Is this reflective of real life? Maybe if you are a girl and also five years old. But I kind of wanted to be a pilot at age five, so clearly the omgballerina desire is not innate to five-year-old girls.

Let us visit the website for the US Department of Labor! That’s where they keep the statistics.

The number of dancers, male and female, employed in the US in 2008 was approximately 13,000. And this is without knowing how many dancers are specifically ballerinas (as opposed to modern dancers, belly dancers, nightclub dancers, etc.), which is undoubtedly a smaller number still.

The number of pilots and flight engineers, male and female, employed in the US in 2008 was approximately 116,000. That figure is higher almost by a factor of ten.

Exaggerated scenario one: if we assume both professions split evenly on gender lines, then you still have nearly nine times more female pilots than female dancers. It is much more likely that you are a female pilot than that you are a female dancer.

This is not a thing just anyone can do to their spine without years of expensive training.

This is not a thing just anyone can do to their spine without years of expensive training.

Exaggerated scanario two: assume all dancers are ballerinas, which is clearly ridiculous, but bear with me. Where is the statistical point where you have a better chance of being a ballerina than a female pilot? In short, plug 13,000 into 116,000 and see what percentage comes out.

11. Eleven percent. You have a better chance of being a ballerina if less than eleven percent of pilots are female.

Of course, these statistics are just an illustration, because the avatar costumes are not about reality. They are about social norms, and policing gender boundaries. Girls should want to be ballerinas, because ballerinas are super feminine. They shouldn’t want to be pilots (and boys should want to be) because pilots are super masculine.

Feminine, in this case, means: cultured, graceful, thin, and sexually unobtainable.

Masculine, in this case, means: gruff, rational, arrogant, and aggressively sexual.

In addition, as the love of my life pointed out, pilots make a significantly higher amount of money than ballerinas, with a significantly lower chance of on-the-job injury. (According to the BLS, professional dancers have one of the highest chances of being injured nonfatally at work.) So women are expected/encouraged to choose a profession in which they must conform to an impossibly high physical standard, with very little monetary recompense.

I have flown planes. I have taken ballet. Flying is much more fun. I would love to dress my avatar in a bomber jacket and black boots — like I dress in real life.

But apparently that’s not very feminine.

Epilogue

Some facts we learned in the course of tonight’s research:

  • Googling “female pilot uniform” brings up quite a bit more porn than you would expect. Yes, even more than that.
  • Googling “male pilot” brings up a lot of whales (oh, I get it) and no porn. At least, not before I got tired of scrolling down.
  • Googling “manly pilot” introduces you to early aviation pioneer Charles Manly. So that’s pretty neat. No porn, though you do get a cartoon of shirtless anime guys kissing.
  • Googling “man” does not bring up Don Draper in the first three pages. We kinda thought it would.
  • Googling “men” gets three images of Don Draper on the first page alone.

Tags: , , ,

October 5, 2010 0

The Calculus of Medical Notes: Disability and Higher Education

By in Society

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a graduate student teaching assistant in an undergraduate film class at a large state university. You are poorly paid, and entirely untrained. You have a full courseload of your own, and you are teaching a subject in which you have no expertise. Though your union contract stipulates you may only work a certain number of hours per week, this simply means the professors who are in charge of you assume you will work as hard as necessary to finish whatever they assign you within that set length of time. They will expect you to adapt to their plans, and they will not change those plans even if it becomes absurdly obvious that ten allotted hours is not enough time to grade sixty ten-page papers, read all the course’s assigned texts, and create a discussion plan for two class sections.

You are also the first line of professorial defense against the unwashed hordes of undergraduates, and so you are the one the students come to with doctor’s notes, parents’ notes, emails from home when they are sick. At some point, one student will come to you with a note from a doctor or a professor or the school’s disability office. That note will say: there is an issue I am going to have, which conflicts with certain expectations for this class. Will you adapt those expectations?

Strangely, even though you do not have a lot of status with the professor, you have a great deal of power over an individual student’s performance in your class section. You can cut them slack, or let them swing.

And the following calculation plays itself out:

  • The issue is either true or false.
  • You can believe this issue is either true or false.
  • You can adapt or not adapt the professor’s expectations.

Here are the permutations:

  • Let’s say the issue is true. You believe it is true. You adapt expectations (excusing certain absences, extending deadlines, making films available outside of class, and so on). Result: you feel pretty good. These changes don’t tend to impact your own life to a large degree, since you’re not really being graded here and the student in question is. (There are TA evaluations, but it is an open secret that these are just a bizarre end-of-term ritual, the paper equivalent of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.) You have made their life easier, and your own life is not harder for it.
  • Let’s say the issue is false, but you believe (for one reason or another) that it is true. You adapt expectations, and still feel pretty good about the results.
  • Let’s say the issue is true, but you believe it to be false. You adapt expectations because you are lazy and overworked. It’s easier just to give in. You don’t feel as good, but things are easier for your student anyway, regardless of how you feel.
  • Let’s say the issue is true, and you believe it to be false, and in a burst of misguided self-righteousness you refuse to adapt expectations. Your student’s life becomes more difficult as a result, and this disproportionately impacts their grade and even their life outside of class. If you handle this badly enough, your student may complain to one of the many offices that can make your own life infinitely more difficult. If you are enough of an asshole about it, you may be fired or have your funding pulled.
  • Let’s say the issue is false, and you believe it to be false, and you refused to adapt expectations. You may feel smarter for a brief, fleeting second, but mostly you just feel grumpy. Your student hates being called a liar, and resents you for the rest of the term. Nobody’s life is improved.

This equation points pretty clearly in the direction of adapting the class rules whether or not you believe your student: if you give your student the benefit of the doubt, on the whole it will make everyone’s life easier. There is the tiniest chance you are being lied to, but if you had enough pride to care about that you would not be a TA in the first place, working for peanuts, living hand-to-mouth, and walking around like a sleep-deprived, addle-brained, thrift-store-clothes-wearing zombie.

And in my experience, people tend to make up stories about things other than permanent disabilities. Getting sick, cars breaking down, that sort of thing: temporary, designed so you don’t ask any further questions. Casual, everyday excuses which you only see through when you run into them at the karaoke bar later that evening — a fun not-awkward experience for everyone!

Meanwhile, the person who comes to you with the signed doctor’s note about a learning disability that means they would like to be able to take notes on a laptop despite the professor’s vehement statements that this is prohibited — that person is certainly telling the truth. They know that you are likely to ask questions about polysyllabic medical terms and obscure collections of capital letters and precisely what accommodations they require. You will probably have to email the disability office, if your student has not already done so. They know there is a possibility you will refuse to help them, and they know that once they tell  you they are disabled there is no going back. It is a vulnerable thing to confess, and is not done lightly.

So when I read things like this post, which partly deals with ableism in the classroom, I get mad. If you as a professor or instructor have the time and energy to be that malicious, that thoughtless of another human being’s difficulties, you have no business working in higher education. Funny how ivory towers never seem to have elevators or wheelchair ramps.

Tags: ,

September 10, 2010 0

Hamm Reduction

By in Gentlemen, Society, Television

Here is what you discover when you start reading the latest ode to Jon Hamm from Details magazine:

  1. Hamm swears at bikers.
  2. While wearing madras shorts and a baseball cap.
  3. Because they impede him from going 140 in his borrowed fancy car, a silver Mercedes that is not yet available for purchase by the public
  4. While avoiding parking tickets, apparently by the sheer force of Hamm’s manly will
  5. Before returning to the Malibu beach house he’s borrowing for the weekend with the girlfriend who likes all the same things he does, and their German shepherd mix.

Let me stop right there.

In The Mommy Myth, Susan J. Douglas spends a chapter outlining the weird formality of the celebrity mom profile. They read identically: the celebrity mom dotes obsessively on her kids, and even though she’s hard-working and financially independent and has a very visible career, she still thinks her children are her greatest achievement as a woman and as a human being. It’s as though we need to be reassured that when given enough power and money (same thing, really), a woman will ‘naturally’ choose to become a wife and mother (but most importantly a mother).

With Jon Hamm (and George Clooney, and that one time in Vanity Fair with Shia LaBeouf until he became a target for mockery), we get the men’s version: the retro-dude profile. Instead of having adorable children, he is “piecing together his résumé, quietly building a career and a life.” Instead of decorating a home, he is “never in danger of taking the easy way.” His words have “the weight of a benediction” because his is the voice of authority. But of course, he is also Everyman: “Not self-consciously handsome. Not a dick. A normal guy . . .”The Mercedes-Benz fairy tale

Here is the difference between the celebrity mom profile and the Hamm piece: the former is all about the actress’ personal life, her children and her home and her feelings. The latter is about his career, his talent, and his plans for the future. Nevertheless, both the celebrity mom’s maternal warmth and Jon Hamm’s self-assurance are supposed to be ‘natural,’ and effortless. In reality, both gender poses require a great deal of time and energy. Yet the reader is encouraged by the celebrity profile to view this effortlessness as the reason for the celebrity’s prominence, the base of their fame and fortune. For example, this sentence from the Hamm profile:

What’s startling about Draper isn’t just the physical man-ness Hamm projects as the chisel-chinned messenger sent from the past to save us from casual Fridays and Twitter. It’s also the way Hamm imbues everything Draper does with a sense of complicated, conflicted adult-ness.

Real men, you see, are tortured — Don Draper by his false identity, Jon Hamm by the loss of both his parents and his knowledge that his chosen industry is fickle, that he will have to keep on his toes and work hard. Good thing that hard work is an acceptably masculine activity.

Real men are also leaders, particularly of women:

“One of the greatest pleasures of the job,” Weiner says, “has been to see Jon create the character of Don Draper. He’s smart, deep, and a natural leader. I can’t imagine making the show without him.”

It is ambiguous whether “smart, deep, and a natural leader” refers to Jon or his character. And there’s more:

Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, says the whole cast considers Hamm “the leader of our little gang. We do defer to him. If there’s something that we need to fix, we go to Jon.

“It’s funny,” she adds. “There definitely are a lot of similarities between how Jon and I get along and the relationship between Don and Peggy. But Jon doesn’t yell at me as much—thank God. That would be a bit rough.”

That there is a difference between Jon and Don — oh god, are the names really that similar? — the author acknowledges, but only just: “It occurs to me that this is why Weiner keeps journalists off his sets: so nobody will realize that the reason his cast is so good is that the ‘actors’ are actually split-personality cases who’ve fully inhabited their roles.”

Even while the author takes care to note Hamm’s versatility as both a comedic and dramatic talent — coupled with another gushing quote from a woman, Sarah Silverman this time — he is eliding the distinction between Jon Hamm and the character he has helped create:

Hamm tends to talk about the collaborative nature, the teamwork, of showing up and being a part of something. “This isn’t a very solitary experience,” he says. “You can’t just go into a room and act by yourself. You need an audience to play off of, you need someone to write the material.” On cue, Elisabeth Moss, in full Peggy regalia, joins us on the folding chairs. I ask her if there’s a Don Draper School of Acting.

“He doesn’t say too much,” Elisabeth/Peggy says sheepishly.

“Not since you stopped fucking it up and got it right,” Jon/Don says, and they both crack up.

Still laughing, Hamm gets up. As he ambles toward the set, the actors’ reserved parking spots come into view. The SLS, its wings tucked primly away, is shining like some golden trophy in the sun.

Despite the majesty rays there, the article goes out of its way to note that Jon Hamm has not yet achieved instant-recognition celebrity status: the folks at the burger joint he and the author eat at fail to make a fuss over his presence, which leads the author to conclude that Hamm has not been recognized. (Though if Hamm eats there frequently, it might be simple politeness on the part of the employees.) The author connects the two personalities of actor and character in such a way that Jon Hamm is the Clark Kent to Don Draper’s Superman. Only, instead of leaping a tall building, he comes out of the phone booth and shoves a check into his mistress’ cleavage.

The article’s reader is encouraged to think of Jon and Don as two aspects of a single personality. It is Jon Hamm who has brought Don Draper out of the sixties to save us.Jekyll and Hyde: who doesn't want to be that/those guy/s?

Save us from what, though? From “casual Fridays and Twitter”? Really? The messianic tone of the article is all the more unsettling because the threat Jon/Don will save us from is never explicitly named. Though we can guess.

Jon Hamm does seem to have a surprising amount of dislike for Twitter, which seems odd. He feels luckier than “the Twilight kids or Miley Cyrus or whoever” presumably because he is older, and manlier, and thus more able to handle the pressures of public scrutiny. Even as Hamm laments the invasive curiosity of the public, in another quote he states that being a porn star is equivalent to selling one’s dignity — without a shred of self-awareness that he is, after all, a man who is paid to do things with his body while other people watch. Has nobody ever mentioned to Jon Hamm that he and Miley Cyrus have essentially the same job?

To go back to the parallel with the celebrity mom profile for a moment, it’s probably not a coincidence that we specifically frame actors this way. If gender is a performance, who better to embody its most rigid forms than our most well-known performers?

All images via the Vintage Ad Browser.

Tags: , ,

August 31, 2010 0

Nathan Rabin Fails at Modeling and as a Human Being.

By in Gentlemen, Ladies, Sartoria, Society

It may seem like a clever move to self-deprecatingly refer to your own article as a “lousy blog post”, but it doesn’t mean the phrase does not ring true.

If there is one set of ads I would purge from all the internets given the chance (and the POWER), it is the marketing campaign spat forth by American Apparel. They look like the stalkerish photos taken by serial killers and kidnappers, or else they have contorted models into poses that look not merely painful but even injurious, or else they have weird classist vibes that I try very hard not to ponder at any length. They are train wrecks, and so naturally I can’t not look at them.

Which is also why I read Nathan Rabin’s recent AV Club post: “Death by sexy: a middle-aged man in an Eat Pray Love promotional T-shirt auditions to be an American Apparel model.”

I thought there might be some small bit of revelation in it, some piece of information that could illuminate a corner of the world. And there was, but not in the way I wanted.

Looking uncomfortable on a beach -- I could model for American Apparel!

Looking uncomfortable on a beach -- I could model for American Apparel!

Our Author dresses in his worst clothes. He makes fun of the female models while praising their looks, and ignores the male models entirely. He describes the aesthetic of AA ads as being uncomfortably close to child pornography, but appears to have no problem finding this sexually appealing. He talks at length to one hopeful model in particular — and this is where my bit of revelation comes in.

Martha (a pseudonym) is seventeen, and has been modeling for four years. Let that math sink in a little bit. She is described as “Giddy with the hubris of youth,” but she’s not the one throwing Greek tragedy terms around and attending modeling auditions as a whimsical prank.

No, Martha is here to get paid. She doesn’t model full-time, as she’s soon to be a senior in high school, but her mom’s been unemployed for two years and modeling helps pay the rent every month.

Let’s be clear: this girl is helping keep a roof over her family’s head.

Mr. Rabin doesn’t care.

He wants to talk about her photos:

She then rifled through her portfolio. It was remarkable how different she looked in each photo. Her fresh-faced, well-scrubbed look of pure Americana was eminently mutable. It was as if her face and body were unformed and unfinished and could only be completed by a stylist and photographer fitting her into their predetermined vision. She could be whoever they wanted her to be.

In short, she’s a good model. This is her job. Our Author, who is in no financial straits himself and who has already admitted his own inability to look like anything other than what he is (a writer), nonetheless feels perfectly comfortable looking down on this girl:

She noted sadly that Abercrombie & Fitch wanted to buy one of her photographs, but she didn’t have the rights to the photos they wanted to buy; those were held, I suppose, by the photographers who took them or the modeling agency or the clients that bought them.“Shit, man. I could have been an Abercrombie & Fitch model,” she muttered.

I tried to console her. “Eh, I’ve done a lot of campaigns with them. They’re not so great.” But she did not pick up on my sarcasm.

This girl is hard up. She is at a crossroads of several systems that have let her down: the crappy economy, the copyright system that allows other people (very probably male people) to hold the rights to images of her body, images that could have eased the financial burden on herself and her mother.

Meanwhile, over in the Land of Astonishing Narcisissm, Our Author is sad she doesn’t laugh at his joke.

This erasure of Martha and her human experience is a colossal failure on the part of Our Author, both as a writer and as a human being. The whole post started with this paragraph:

It’s hard not to be moved by the print ad’s haunting images of desperation and sadness. Who were these emaciated young people with their gaunt flesh squeezed into gold lamé leggings, their dead eyes pleading for mercy and compassion? Why did a major chain choose advertising redolent of child pornography from the ’70s? Were these runaways all right? Had Charney forced them into lives of prostitution, drug dealing, and pornography? Should I purchase American Apparel clothing, or report its owners and advertisers to the proper authorities?

There seems to be some acknowledgment here that American Apparel models are victims of systemic failure. And — how lucky for his story! — the intrepid journalist’s impression that AA models look desperate and hungry proves to be actually true in real life. This narrative arc should write itself: “I thought Americal Apparel models looked desperate and exploited — turns out, they are actually desperate and exploited.”

But Our Author seems to forget all his concern for these models as soon as he actually meets on in person.

Is that whole early paragraph just a joke? There is a huge disconnect between Our Author’s empathetic response to the pictures early on, and his total disregard of Martha (not to mention all the other models auditioning, who barely rate a description). What exactly is supposed to be the purpose of this piece? Rabin claims that he “wanted to experience the weirdness of an open call for American Apparel models firsthand.” But we don’t hear about anything particularly weird — unless your definition of weird includes Nathan Rabin, a bald white dude who likes movies.

This is what happens once Our Author’s number gets called for the audition:

The gentleman strained mightily to force a smile and nervously asked, “Do you have any questions for us?”

Yes! Now was my chance to uncover the location of the underage models being kept in cages and forced to be sexy 20 to 23 hours a day! I was in a position to demand answers! I was going to take this whole house of cards down with me and expose the shocking, scintillating, titillating truth.

But “Uh, no, I guess not” was all that came stumbling out of my mouth.

It’s funny because . . . because exploitation is funny? Because women in cages are funny? Because a journalist failing to be a journalist is funny? Because there is a gap between Our Author’s lurid imaginings of being a writerly hero rescuing sexy teens and his actual ineffective behavior? Because disappointment on every level is hilarious, apparently?

At press time, the most recent comment was: “Nobody cares and this is a shitty story.” Which sums it up pretty well.

Tags: , ,

August 20, 2010 0

Coverings: Best and Worst

By in The Arts, Writing

Introduction: I read books, and as a consequence I look at a lot of them. I look at more books than I read, in fact! Sometimes looking at books makes me want to say things about what I see. So there will be an ongoing series on this blog to talk about book cover design. And the name of this series is Coverings. Don’t laugh. That took me like ten minutes to think up. You don’t want to hear about the options I discarded.

This afternoon I stopped at the library to pick up my egregiously large pile of books on hold. In the two minutes I spent there, somehow I found both the best and the worst covers I have seen in some time.

Both made me laugh right out loud.

Man, it’s been years since I’ve been actually shushed in a library. That takes me right back.

The first, worst cover: Eternal Kiss of Darkness by Jeaniene Frost.

Hey there, Creepy Stare-y Dude, either you’ve got yourself an old-fashioned nosebleed or you should really wipe the ketchup stains away before you try to seduce the girlfriend.

Add in the inexplicably cliché blue-skinned people (what is this, nighttime in a silent movie? Avatar? when did “blue skin” become code for “scary preternaturals”?) and the magenta text (eye-popping in a bad way) and you have yourself a mediocre cover-turned catastrophe.

I’ve saved the best for last: The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian:

This cover, of course, is so deliberately bad that it turns brilliant. Especially since the obvious mistake in centering that bold sans-serif title underscores the title’s meaning. What’s more, the invisible F has the added benefit of softening what might otherwise be a more provocative and troubling cover. As is, it looks funny, and then sad. Even before I’ve read one word of the novel, the cover has told me a story made of only half a word and a great deal of wit.

Plus: gray. There are very few gray book covers out there. Especially a dull, slate gray like this. It’s unique and impossibly boring at the same time — a perfect combination. I am so excited to read this book that I can hardly stand it — which is precisely as the cover designer hoped.

Tags: ,

August 14, 2010 0

A Bechdel Test for Historical Romance

By in Ladies, Romance, Society, Writing

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bechdel test and what it reveals about the film industry. And there’s been at least one post I could find on a Bechdel standard for video games as well, which is interesting, even though I could dispute a whole bunch of points in the post (such as: whether or not fighting is acceptable as interaction between female characters). And it goes without saying that many movies and games do not pass either the original or Bechdel 2.0.

There’s a recent Bechdel variation for dance music (a song has to be about something other than “drunk behavior and hookups”) and one for the television industry, which says that in order to pass every episode of a show has to have two named female characters who talk about something other than a man.

And then — of course — I got to thinking about romance novels. How might the Bechdel test apply?

Oh, sure, romances are jam-packed with female characters, usually — but usually those conversations revolve entirely around men (or marriage, or babies, which are weak passes for that third rule, in my opinion). And I tend to read historicals and especially regencies, where women’s official lives historically really did center around marriage and family and only the lower classes had that tawdry making-a-living thing to consider but we don’t really write romance novels about the lower classes unless they end up in the upper classes at the end.

Of course, the whole point of the romance genre is the union of hero and heroine, however that is accomplished. It’s important to remember that the hero spends quite a bit of time talking about the heroine with other characters. It’s not like the heroine is a secondary consideration the way a female character can be in, say, an action flick. And so maybe the Bechdel test needs to be tweaked for romance novels the way Daniel Feit tweaked it for video games.

All this goes back to the age-old question of whether or not romance novels are feminist texts, or tools of the patriarchy. Whether they subvert or support gender roles and the accompanying expectations. This question is entirely unanswerable, because for every romance novel that does the former you could name one that does the latter. I have come to believe that reading and writing romance novels are very feminist acts. Because there is nothing that the chauvinistic, patriarchal elements of literary culture devalue more than romance novels and the women who read them. You don’t need me to tell you this — every romance reader has had that moment of revelation, where a new acquaintance sees a shelf or coffee table sporting a sunset-hued, mullet-bedecked, cleavage-revealing cover and gets that “I’m mentally taking a step back” gleam in their eye. They see a romance novel and question your taste, your intelligence, and your connection with reality. This is starting to change, thankfully, but even now the experience is far from rare.

Romance novels are written for women, and by women, and many millions of women get together in the world or on the internet and talk to one another about them. In some sense, then, it hardly matters what the texts themselves say, or even whether they’re any good (and let’s face it, not all of them are).

But sometimes, you read about a hero who’s a little too alpha, or a heroine who’s a little too self-sacrificing, or you start to worry about the dearth of LGBT characters (who tend especially to be erased/effaced in historicals, though increasingly less so in contemporaries) and you remember the rape-y romance days of yore and realize that we should probably still keep an eye on things from a feminist standpoint.

So what would a Bechdel test for historical romance novels look like? One thing the original Bechdel never really gets to address is what counts as a conversation. Imagine two ladies in a drawing room: “Tea? Yes, please. I like your dress . . . So how do you feel about [insert dudely protagonist here]?” Technically a pass — but it feels like a cop-out. Yet a startling number of movies fail even something this simple — which is where the test proves that it is powerful, even when it seems overly simple at first glance. To really separate the wheat from the chaff we need something as revealing about historical romances. Where is the point at which today’s historicals have a tendency to let down modern readers?

Where else? Sex.

I’m going to keep the first rule pretty much intact: a historical romance should have at least two female characters.

The second rule of the original Bechdel, that the two characters talk to each other, may need a little more clarifying when we consider novels, which tend to be much wordier than movies. (Get a load of Captain Obvious here.) It’s nearly impossible to think of a historical romance where two female characters don’t talk to one another, since the divide between gender roles is usually much starker than in either contemporary romances or the modern, real world. We need something more specific.

I would suggest that we begin by considering the absence/insignificance of the Evil Other Woman.

You all know the EOW. She is beautiful, but in a slutty, shameful way, and is frequently described with the word “overblown” or something similar. She’s catty and competitive and gossipy and immoral and blatantly attempting to steal the hero from under our heroine’s nose. Sometimes she’s an ex-lover, sometimes she’s a current soon-to-be-jilted mistress, sometimes she’s just after a man she wants and doesn’t care whom she has to hurt to get him. (One of my favorite tricks of Julia Quinn’s is that the Evil Other Woman in three of her novels is the same woman, Cressida Twombley, née Cowper, and she’s more of a social than a romantic rival.) And usually, when the EOW is around, there is a scene with her and the heroine where she reveals what a completely rotten person she is underneath that sexy façade. I’m not saying a good old-fashioned argument can’t pass this part of the test — I’m as big a fan of the epic takedown of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as you’re likely to find — but it’s critical to note that Lady C. is not a romantic rival, and that most of that conversation is about Elizabeth herself and what she does or does not want. Whereas with the EOW, you get a polarizing, binary system along the familiar lines of virgin/whore, with the hero blithely existing as a prize for women to cut one another’s throats for.

In short, I don’t think that should count. So, part two: two female characters have a conversation that is not about their mutual sexypants feelings for the hero.

And now, the third part, which is the tricky bit. I think even historical romances should be judged on their level of sex-positivity.

There are two kinds of sex in historicals: hero/heroine sex, and the sex everyone else is having (premarital sex, adulterous affairs, homosexual sex, orgies). For the purposes of this analysis, we are going to ignore rape, pedophilia, and the like — because it doesn’t count as sex anyways, does it. DOES IT.

NO IT DOES NOT.

Ahem.

Hero/heroine sex is always good, redemptive, and/or irresistible. If there are hero/heroine sex scenes that are unsatisfying or creepy, these are ‘fixed’ in the course of the plot. (For instance, in Mary Jo Putney’s The Rake, where the heroine thinks the hero is only attracted to her when he’s drunk.) But the sex between secondary characters, or between the hero/heroine and other characters in the past, can be presented as good, or terrible, or dirty, or immoral, or any number of other things. These secondary sexual scenes provide a much clearer window on the sexual morality of an individual book, much more so than the scenes between hero and heroine.

For instance, in a romance I finished recently, a secondary character was being blackmailed by the heroine’s father. The victim’s secret was that his dead older brother, the heir to a title, had preferred to sleep with men. When the heroine learns this, she is shocked and appalled and disgusted. And I felt a little let down, because the heroine and the hero had spent about half the book struggling with their inability to be in a room together for five minutes without clothes flying off and orgasms happening all over the rug. Who were they to judge someone else’s attraction? I know, it’s historically accurate for people of the early nineteenth century to consider sodomy appalling. But we do not live in the early nineteenth century, and there’s plenty of room in romance for a little anachronism. There always has been.

Another example: Cheryl Holt’s A Taste of Temptation, which opens with one of the more tired romance-novel clichés out there: our heroine is applying for the position of governess, and is cornered and groped by the hero’s half-brother. Our hero, despite having just lectured his half-brother to stop groping servants and being such an idiotic horndog one page earlier, calls the heroine a flirt and a trollop and has her booted out of the house without letting her explain that being flirtatious and being grabbed are not the same thing. They never get around to clearing this up, because later they get too distracted by accusing one another of liking sex, as though liking sex were something you didn’t want in a romantic partner. (Side note: while looking at reviews of Cheryl Holt’s other books, I found one that supposedly has a really wonderful historical treatment of a lesbian romance. The book is in the mail, and a report is forthcoming.)

A case on the opposite side: Gail Carriger’s paranormal steampunk romance Soulless, which I cannot recommend highly enough. At the end the sexy werewolf hero ends up sans clothes and surrounded by a coterie of frivolous gay vampires, who keep finding excuses to drop things so he’ll have to bend over and pick them up. And our hero smiles, and knows what they’re up to, and indulges them anyway. Silly vampires, he seems to say — go ahead and ogle. It does not freak me out, or threaten the very fun sexytime I shall have with my soon-to-be-wife.

The third criteria, then, goes something like this: sex between the hero and heroine should not be presented as morally superior to every other kind of sex. Sex itself is not inherently dirty; it is a human need. Hero/heroine sex can still be special and mind-blowingly awesome — because we all like reading about awesome sex — but it is not in a separate, special moral category of its own.

This means: a secondary character trapped in a loveless marriage is not automatically vilified for having an adulterous affair. Homosexual sex is not presented as inherently horrific, or at least it should not horrify our main characters. A hero does not get jealous if the heroine has had satisfying sex before she met him, and the heroine does not consider the hero’s greater sexual experience a moral failing that her true love/sexual purity must correct.

So there we are, a rough Bechdel for historical romance:
1. Must have at least two female characters.
2. Who talk about something other than their mutual sexual interest in the hero.
3. Whose sexual relationship with the heroine is not presented as intrinsically more moral than other sexual relationships.

Authors I can think of off the top of my head who pass this test quite frequently: Julia Quinn, Loretta Chase.

Tags: , ,