Monthly Archives: August 2014

Progress is not yanking women around with hooks

RoustaboutElvisThe other night Chris and I watched about half of the 1964 Elvis (and Barbara Stanwyck) vehicle Roustabout. I had lots of thoughts about this movie (it doesn’t really hold up), but what really struck me was how women are very casually treated as men’s property. Here’s a list from just the first half hour:

  • The conflict is set up by Elvis driving his motorcycle alongside a car to sweet talk slash harass a girl riding with her dad. The only one who finds this inappropriate is the dad; Elvis, the girl, and the dad’s employer (Barbara Stanwyck) seem to find it perfectly normal  
  • Elvis abruptly and aggressively kisses the young female lead without any visible hint from her that she’d like to be kissed
  • Elvis and another carnival dude HILARIOUSLY steal towels from two women who are showering
  • A carnival game huckster snags a woman with the hook of his cane and forces her to listen to his pitch

None of these incidents is particularly threatening, and they’re all presented as light-hearted hijinks in a movie that, as far as I can tell, isn’t particularly interested in gender–which is exactly what I found so noteworthy. These are all microaggressions against the bodily (and mental) autonomy of women, presented in a completely casual and straightforward way that a mainstream movie today would never attempt. (The towel-stealing scene could easily show up in a teen movie, but the perpetrator wouldn’t be the movie’s protagonist, unless it was some sort of a reforming-the-rake narrative.)

It’s at least a little encouraging, particularly in a bad-news week, to know that, despite rape gifs and Twitter, I generally don’t have to see women pulled around by hooks unless I actively seek it out. 

Book Review: The Time in Between, Maria Duenas

the time in betweenMaria Duenas’s The Time in Between has a fantastic premise–a dressmaker who escapes from Franco’s Spain is recruited to be an English spy–and, from what I can tell, is deeply researched. The problem is the main character, who is buffeted by political and personal currents she doesn’t and chooses not to understand, and undergoes a maturation from naive young girl to self-assured spy that takes place almost exclusively through a wardrobe upgrade. As far as character arcs go that’s good enough, but it does mean that she spends most of her time in the book insisting that she can’t possibly do the thing that she then goes on to do. 

She also seems unable to make decisions for herself. Here’s a typical example:

“But for that we had to wait a few weeks yet, or six or seven. And over that time, things happened that–yet again–transformed the course of my life forever.”

“Things happen” to Sira; she doesn’t make them happen. There’s a rather obvious analogy being drawn here between sewing and nation-building: stitching together fabric into a dress, stitching together shifting alliances into a nation, and so forth, which works reasonably well except that, by this logic, Sira is the one being dressed rather than the one making the dresses. When we get to the end and find her resolving “to stop going blindly down the paths that other people had set for me”, we wonder why that’s not the book Duenas wrote.

(I say “we” but really I mean “I”–this book has been a bestseller in Spain, has a miniseries on Hulu, and seems to be a runaway hit on Amazon. YMMV.)

What made the book interesting to me was Duenas’s choice to repeatedly skip over large chunks of story. More than once, the I-narrator (Sira) will jump ahead a few days or even weeks in the story, sometimes then giving us the backstory and then sometimes not. Since the book is already quite long, the point of these gaps is probably in part to hurry along to the more exciting sequences, like a truly nerve-wracking trip to sell illegal guns or the escape from some assassins on a train–Duenas is excellent at creating tension–but the effect is curious given the book’s title. In fact, we continually skip over the time in between, which are the moments when Sira actually makes decisions, like the choice to accept a spy mission that propels the narrative forward once again.

In other words, we skip over the actions that bring the story into being, which I think is what gives the narrative its somewhat distanced feeling of retrospection. It’s more of a historical than an individual voice, one that suggests we can’t ever quite plumb the personal choices that bring the historical into being. The time in between is both the time that matters and the time that, to this narrator, is non-narratable–which is, perhaps, the difference between history and historical fiction, and why The Time in Between is uncomfortably poised between both.  

Other Reviews

  • Kirkus, which calls it a Horatio Alger story wrapped in a lace mantilla, which I think is inaccurate–the primary feature of a Horatio Alger story is will and conviction, both of which Sira seems to lack
  • Publisher’s Weekly, calling Duenas a writer to watch–probably true; this book hits all the right book-club notes and I would definitely recommend it to a certain type of reader