The Queen of the Night

The movie Amadeus has a lot to say about what it means to be an artist. We are shown two men who work in the same medium -- music -- but whose approaches to their art are dramatically and tragically opposed. Our narrator Salieri is religious, rigid, a trained expert with an almost mathematical approach to composition. Unfortunately for Salieri, he lives in a time and a city contemporary with the legendary Amadeus Mozart, a man of such natural genius that he waves a hand and perfect constellations of notes appear on the page. As depicted in the film, Mozart is childish, lecherous, rebellious, heedless, and completely, ridiculously talented. Salieri descends into an increasingly vicious spiral of bitterness and envy; Mozart's naïveté and blind enthusiasm lead him headlong into danger and misery and one of the saddest screen deaths you'll ever see. The trick, of course, is that a great artist must be both Salieri and Mozart.

Screenshot from Amadeus showing Mozart and Salieri. A box next to Mozart reads: brilliance, boldness, openness, passion. A simliar box beside Salieri reads: discipline, training, determination, form.

You've got to have talent—but you've also got to have the discipline to use that talent as best you can. Imagine what Salieri could have done with Mozart's gift for easy composing. Imagine what Mozart could have done with Salieri's drive and ability to focus (and climb the social ladder in the imperial court). Mozart squanders his potential literally farting around Vienna, and dies with one of his greatest works unfinished. Salieri labors too much over the form of his pieces: they sound difficult and forced and even semi-idiot emperor Franz Joseph can tell something's missing.

Mozart is able to find artistic inspiration in everything. A cruel tirade from his mother-in-law becomes one of history's most well-known coluratura pieces, commonly known as the Queen of the Night aria (though technically she has another aria in the opera as well):

It's a beautiful, impossible set of notes and it gives me chills every time I hear it. Especially because set designers usually pull out all the stops for this one, as in this design for an 1815 production of The Magic Flute:

Blue dome with stars, and tumultuous orange clouds below. A black-robed queen with crown and scepter is enthroned on a crescent moon.

Look at those colors! The celestial dome of stars above and sunset clouds of chaos beneath! The weight of that tiny black figure in the center! I could stare at this painting for hours.

Naturally, I've been dreaming of a Queen of the Night-inspired piece of jewelry for some time now. It'll probably have to be several pieces, because there are too many possibilities of color, shape, and style that I want to explore. (Same goes for Botticelli's Birth of Venus, which I've turned into a bangle, a pendant, and three necklaces so far.)

But I have to start somewhere, and I still have that stash of crystal I mentioned before, so we're going to start with something simple.

Pendant made from a series of Swarovski rivolis in dark and pale blue. Silver and blue beaded bezels mimic the progression of the phases of the moon, and bronze peyote strips connect the rivolis to one another in series.

It is -- not bad! A little imprecise in its execution. I need to pay better attention to my bezel maths and try to either center things more concretely or lean into the zig-zag. But the moon-bezel idea worked out rather well, so that part of the experiment is a success!

Until next time I shall, like Salieri, endeavor to practice.

Roads Not Taken:

  • I could not think of a proper rope to match this pendant. That needs fixing in future iterations.
  • The astronomical color palette is satisfying, but I can't help wondering what the gradients would do in flashy pinks and greens and golds.
  • Turn this pendant sideways and make the center sizes larger, and you'd have a pretty stunning bracelet. That might be the thing I try next, to be honest -- a full silver/white/AB moon in the center, and smaller, darker moons fading away to either side.

The Calculus of Medical Notes: Disability and Higher Education

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.

A Bechdel Test for Historical Romance

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.



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.

Now Put Your Hands Up!

So lately there has been some discussion on the internet about Beyoncé, and whether or not "Single Ladies" is a feminist anthem or a pseudo-feminist anthem or just, you know, a really catchy number with some top-notch choreography and an alluring bionic hand.

A lot of this discussion -- both in the recent AV Club article and in The Sexist -- centers around the word "it" that you are instructed you ought to have put a ring on. From Amanda Hess:

Beyonce uses the dual “its” to objectify herself on two levels: first, as a sex object; second, as a wife. Beyonce asks her man to mark his territory by putting a “ring on it.”

According to the AV Club:

Beyoncé is just a passive “it” that can be claimed with a ring, and that even if the relationship is already bad, that ring has the talismanic power to guarantee a happy ending. Not to mention the idea that a ring will give the unnamed man in the story sole, permanent possession of “it,” since he’s basically just planting his flag in his claimed territory.

That's a lot of interpretive weight to put on a single flimsy pronoun. If we're going to really lay the hammer down grammar-wise -- oh, do let's! -- there are plenty of other things that support the idea that this song has a feminist slant. Beyoncé spends a lot of time telling her ex what he can and cannot do now that they're split: "Now you wanna trip . . . Don't pay him any attention . . . You can't be mad at me." Note that the ex is not allowed to actually trip -- he no longer has the right. He wants to trip; Beyoncé won't let him.

It does get a little weird in the bridge, with this line: "Say I'm the one you own." But there again is the imperative verb, and it is followed by a threat: "If you don't, you'll be alone." The ex's claim to own Beyoncé somehow does nothing to lessen her autonomy in her own mind. There's a little hint of BDSM play here, the verbal equivalent of being handcuffed to a headboard: Beyoncé wants to be a little owned. So play the game her way or she'll ditch your ass.

As for the new fling, he is an accessory like her lip gloss and designer jeans. Twice Beyoncé tells her ex, "Don't pay him any attention." She refuses to let this become a dude-versus-dude match, a competition between the ex and the new guy where Beyoncé is a property that can be earned. She always brings it back to the ex's failings in his relationship with her, before this new guy was ever around: "Cause you had your turn / And now you're gonna learn / What it really feels like to miss me."

One of my favorite moments in the video is when Beyoncé literally brushes off the new guy as unimportant:

The video really does make this all about Beyoncé. She is the entire world -- there is no one else here, no ex, no new guy, no set or props even. There is no dude here to enjoy her sexy dance -- the camera doesn't even care about the backup dancers (who are Beyoncé clones). And yeah, the video is sexy -- because hot damn, Beyoncé can move. Her body is powerful, strong, in constant motion. She displays her control of her body as much as she displays her body itself.

The editing style -- editing being the visual equivalent of grammar -- is part of what makes Beyoncé seem so powerful here. The takes are really long for the choppy ADD world of music videos, and there are plenty of tiny barely visible jump cuts that exist to make the takes seem even longer than they are. Mostly the stays moving, bobbing slightly forward and back and turning occasionally so that the viewer is constantly forced to reorient on the figure of Beyoncé, always near the center of the frame. When the camera does zoom in for close-ups, they focus exclusively on her face.

For contrast, let's look at two other megahits whose videos are polar opposites of "Single Ladies" (assuming things can have more than one polar opposite BEAR WITH ME HERE). The first: Britney Spears' 10-year-old (really? wow) "Oops! . . . I Did It Again" video.

Here are three stills:

Science Fiction Double Feature

From a slow-motion shot -- and this is the entire frame.

Britney's face is reflected in the screen of his helmet! Aaaa!

This is so male-gazey that it creeps me out. Shut your face, astronaut man!

Viewed after "Single Ladies," it's like watching a train wreck -- quick cuts, shots of Britney lolling on a bed making orgasm-legs, slow-motion shots of just her body in red vinyl, extreme close-ups of various parts of Britney's body, the smiling astronaut and his NASA buddies for whom she's putting on a show. Britney doesn't so much dance as strike a series of poses. And there's at least three of her: dancing Britney (full shots), singing Britney (shot from the boobs up), and lounging Britney (flat on her back and shot from above). You never know where Britney "really" is and you don't know what Britney really wants -- which of course is the upshot of the song, after all.

An even more extreme example is provided by the opening thirty seconds of Kanye West's "Gold Digger": The lingerie-clad woman is reduced to a series of images of her parts: face, boobs, hair, ass, all overlapped at seizure-courting speed. (And then the parade of pin-ups begins.) As for Kanye, he doesn't even turn toward the camera until about halfway through the video. Makes me wanna do this the whole time:

You show him, bubblegum-tongue lady.