Category Archives: Criticism

When articles matter

I watchedLittle-Princess-book-cover a few minutes of the Shirley Temple adaptation of A Little Princess the other day and noticed that the version is actually called The Little Princess, unlike Burnett’s original. That slight edit is probably appropriate for a Shirley Temple vehicle, what with her being America’s singular little princess, but it’s certainly unfaithful to the spirit of the original book, which suggests that the power of imagination can make any little girl a princess. In spirit, A Little Princess isn’t all that dissimilar to Disney, although Burnett’s vision of universal royalty has to do more with politeness and largess than sparkly dresses and princes. (Come to think of it, princes don’t appear anywhere in the book.)

Here are a couple of quick examples:

  • “If I WAS a princess—a REAL princess,” she murmured, “I could scatter largess to the populace. But even if I am only a pretend princess, I can invent little things to do for people. Things like this. She was just as happy as if it was largess. I’ll pretend that to do things people like is scattering largess. I’ve scattered largess.”
  • “It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one.”
  • This used to interest and amuse her more than anything else; and queer and fanciful as it was, she found comfort in it and it was a good thing for her. While the thought held possession of her, she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her. “A princess must be polite,” she said to herself.

As Sara convinces herself and others, including a stupid, fat girl unfortunately named Ermengarde and a scullery maid named Becky, it’s possible for anyone to imagine herself into a princess. In fact, the phrase “the Princess Sara”, with that key definite article, is most often used in mockery by people who don’t understand the imaginative possibilities of the word (Lavinia, Miss Minchin).

But there are limits to Burnett’s democratizing, indefinite vision of royalty: Sara’s inner nobility wins her diamond mines and a substitute father, while the scullery maid has to settle for being the personal servant to a near-princess.

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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: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

This-is-a-Happy-MarriageAnn Patchett’s collection of essays, The Story of a Happy Marriage, at first seems to lack a certain coherence that you would want in a collection of essays, which she acknowledges in the introduction with the reasonable explanation that, for years, she supported her novel-writing by simply writing whatever other people wanted her to write in whatever style they wanted.

Upon closer investigation, however, it turns out that Patchett’s essays do have a consistent underlying theme: the experience of being herself, whether or not that experience is particularly interesting or thoughtful. Take, for example, her essay about learning to love opera. In it, we learn almost nothing about why she likes opera, but we do learn about her desire to “collect” it:

What chance did I have for proficiency when there was so much I hadn’t seen?

The second season of Met simulcasts was for me a breakthrough in the language I so desperately wanted to speak.

A real opera fan, the kind who is born into it, revels in obscurity. They are choking on Carmen. … Remedial fans like myself who have long lived with the burden of limited access are always playing catch-up. In the past, when I was out of town and had the chance to see an opera, I would choose, say Madama Butterfly over Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, because I was trying to lay down the bedrock of my education. (I still haven’t seen Rigoletto, for heaven’s sake!)

But who can blame her? The essay was written for Vogue, exactly the sort of publication that would be interested in someone’s account of trying on–wearing, so to speak–a cultural experience unavailable to the general public.  

At times Patchett does approach self-awareness. In another essay about–of course–learning to be a writer, she remembers one of her teachers telling her to be smarter:

He told me I was a good writer, that I would never get any substantial criticism from the other students in the class because my stories were polished and well put together. But then he told me I was shallow, that I skated along the surface, being clever. He said if I wanted to be a better writer, I was the only person who could push myself to do it. It was up to me to challenge myself, to be vigilant about finding the places in my own work where I was just getting by.

Patchett is certainly a clever and well-educated writer, but her writing overwhelmingly gives the impression of a facile and superficial intelligence–not that she couldn’t be smarter but that, as this quotation suggests, no one has ever quite pushed her enough. Take State of Wonder, the only one of Patchett’s novels that I’ve read, under slight duress for a book group. (I started Bel Canto years ago but couldn’t get through more than a few pages. At the time I figured it was my fault.)

Coming in with low expectations, I liked State of Wonder more than I thought it would but found that it relied on a whole slew of uninterrogated shorthand (jungle/ race/ fertility/ etc) and was annoyingly focused around a glib and obvious set piece at–what else?–an opera house in the middle of a jungle that simultaneously called up Fitzcarraldo, The Heart of Darkness, and Orpheus and Eurydice without adding much to the conversation: exactly the kind of clever, shallow intertextuality that offers the appearance of meaning without the substance.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Ann Patchett. She’s a talented, skillful writer who provides something with great resonance to many people, which is precisely what I found most interesting about her essays: how resolutely, emphatically middlebrow they are, how they seem calculated to please the NPR-listening, just-educated-enough audience to whom she sells books. To appropriate a phrase, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, like Patchett’s other books and, I suppose, like Patchett herself is basic–well put together, inoffensive, fond of borrowed thought, and best read with a pumpkin spice latte, while wearing a scarf, in front of a fireplace.

#soblessed.

The Fault in our Families

I read The Fault in Our Stars this weekend, primarily from about 5.30-7.30 A.M. on Saturday morning while Abby was still sleeping, for once in her life. I did cry a lot thinking about what it would be like to have my child die of cancer, but it mostly irritated me, probably because I could see that I would have been its target audience about fifteen to twenty years ago, when, like the kids in the book, I was convinced I was smarter and savvier than the adults around me.

Aside from the ridiculously tone-deaf dialogue, here’s my major gripe: neither of the main characters have siblings. Not a big deal? Narratively, a very big deal: giving a couple of cancer-ridden teenagers siblings would be to admit that, just maybe, someone else might love them more, know them better, and have more claim on their final days or weeks than the teenager who’s known them for all of a few months.

There’s a moment when–spoiler alert, but you know how this ends, right?–Augustus is dying, and his grown half-sisters show up to fawn over him. Hazel gets all mentally snippy about them calling him “our” Gus as though they’ve taken possession of him, but COME ON HAZEL. Just because they’re grown-ups doesn’t mean they don’t know how to love–and if Augustus had siblings living at home, we might have to accept that their grief would overshadow hers.

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Seriously, let it go

disney-frozen_elsa-wideEveryone (and by everyone, I mean a small portion of the Internet) is going on and on about whether Disney movies, and specifically Frozen, and even more specifically “Let It Go,” are secretly pro-gay propaganda. To which I say: obviously they are, if by “pro-gay propaganda” you mean that they forward a generically digestible message of self-acceptance and self-actualization.

The problem with insisting that “Let It Go” is a coming-out anthem is that, as an interpretive move, it replicates the errors of undergraduate literary criticism by insisting that texts are encoded messages that can be unlocked with a secret key, like a treasure map or a cipher. Even a mediocre-but-catchy Disney song is more complex than that. Personally, I find it more compelling as an expression of puberty–moving from the trope of virginal and untouched childhood to the so-called “natural” rhythms of womanhood (“I am one with the wind and rain”, and so on), but I’m certainly not going to deny anyone their interpretation.

Instead, I would suggest that reading Disney movies as pro-gay is just a little tired. It’s much more interesting to turn the analogy around–to reverse the vehicle and tenor–and say that “gayness” is the dominant trope of 21st century America. Thanks to a long tradition of American Protestantism, we’ve been conditioned to value a radical individualism that insists each person has a unique soul and a special set of gifts (a “talent,” in the Biblical language of Milton; a “power” in the language of today’s oh-so-popular superhero movies). In fact, by denying her family in order to live true to her own principles and values, Elsa is actually performing the radical severance that Christianity requires: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” In the logic of the movie, she’s mistaken, but I think the comparison stands. 

“Let It Go” might be a coming-out anthem, but only because it uses the tropes of coming out as shorthand for self-acceptance. It certainly says something about contemporary culture–both religious and not–that sexual behavior is the most available way to represent being true to one’s self.

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An engaged audience is a disengaged public

Chris asked me the other night what I thought the opening of House of Cards was telling us, and in fact I think the credits are telling us quite a lot. They’re crystal clear and sped up: we see cars flashing through the capitol’s arteries, clouds contracting and expanding across the sky, trees quivering, day turning into night.

It’s a hyperreality that, taken together, reads as a distancing mechanism. It aestheticizes the show, stripping meaning from the content of the scenes in just the same way that the show itself does. As more than one critic has pointed out, the people of House of Cards are more like chess pieces than characters: agents without agency, pieces the writers move around in order to simulate the prestige dramas of cable networks in the same way that the House Whip moves magnets back and forth to signal the shifting allegiances of a political body concerned with power rather than efficacy, with form rather than content.

House of Cards is a show for generation willing to be outraged but not to act out that outrage. It’s designed to provoke audience engagement, which is precisely the opposite of political engagement. We discuss the political machinations and policies on comment boards and at wine parties instead of discussing actual politics, not apathetic but disenfranchised. Policymic has concluded that we’re not a democracy; House of Cards proves it.

In fact, we could say that House of Cards represents a certain kind of hollowing out: it removes the core of the prestige dramas it strives to imitate, creating a simulacrum of a show rather than the show itself. In a post-industrial America, with a hollowed-out middle class, a hollowed-out economy, and a hollowed-out infrastructure, House of Cards might not the kind of TV show we need, but it’s certainly the kind we deserve.

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Trendspotting

formula feedingI’ve been doing a crash Google course in decision-making over the past three days, in the process of which I ran across both the Good Judgement Project and Penelope Trunk’s piece on trendspotting. Setting aside the absurdity of comparing the anecdotes of a deliberately trollish blogger with the measurable statistics of a researcher-led project, both the blog article and the judgement project pointed out that, given access to the same information, some people are better than others at forecasting. It’s unclear why, but my off-hand thought is that forecasting success depends on the same skills that underlie “intuition”: implicit recognition memory and the ability to spot patterns.

In any case, my only real claim to trendspotting bona fides is that I bought a pair of platform flip-flops a few weeks before everyone else in my high school did. That said, here are two random trends that I predict will be big in 2015:

(1) Formula feeding in the upper middle class. Research is increasingly showing that breastfeeding isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be, unless you’re talking about cracked nipples. (Just to be clear, I nursed my daughter for 26 months.) Upper middle class white ladies are urged to lean in, which is generally incompatible with extended breastfeeding unless you’re literally Sheryl Sandburg and can force your employees to meet you at your house. Added to that, evangelical mommy blogs are spending a lot of time talking about breastfeeding. Conclusion: formula feeding will become a way of signaling that we’re all much too busy and important to nurse.

(2) The name Jane. Fancy nineteenth century names have been back in for a while now–Penelope, Eleanor, and Charlotte are all name that we considered for our kid–so naturally normcore names are next. Once Kate Middleton names her kid George, can the world be far behind?

 

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From naturecore to normcore

Liz Lemon is my fashion icon #kiddingnotkidding

The New York Times’s example of normcore

The New York Times, of the “find three people and call it a trend” approach to style journalism, has up today a lengthy meditation about “normcore”: does it really exist, or is it simply a big in-joke? Is it a trend, or is it, in Alex Williams’s words, a “hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum”?

A little backstory: the word “normcore” was apparently invented by a firm of brand consultants, who wrote up a description of the so-called trend in a report as part of a London-based art project. In this articulation, normcore was supposed to be a “sociological attitude” rather than a “fashion trend”: in other words, normcore dosen’t signal a specific style so much as a stance, a way of participating in the mainstream rather than deliberately seeking subculture expertise and identification. One journalist cited in the article dismisses the idea that normcore could be a trend, because the whole point of normcore is that you dress to fit in, not to stand out: you wear a trucker hat to a NASCAR race and JINCOs to a rave.

Setting aside the irony of the New York Times conducting an ontological investigation into the nature of trends, the article misses a key assumption of fashion theory: there’s no such thing as outside fashion. “Normal” clothes don’t exist in some a priori mall that the Liz Lemons of the world inhabit and that hipsters can access when artisanal pickles become too mainstream. There’s no difference between “sociological attitudes” and “fashion trends”; ignoring trends is a trend.

"Contrive, if you can, not to look hampered in your own cravat"About 180 years ago, Catherine Gore’s 1841 novel Cecil took a nostalgic-slash-horrified retrospective view of the Regency of 40 years earlier, in the same way that we look back at the loose morals and unrestrained public hair of the 1970s. At one point early on, when Gore is still setting up the thematic interests of her three-volume novel, the fashionable Lady Harriet educates Cecil, a young “puppy” who keeps giving her the elaborate compliments that would have been popular forty decades before the Regency, in the up-to-date fashions of the times. As Lady Harriet explains, Cecil’s stiff compliments and stiffer cravat are really not the thing: “We are all pretending to be natural with all our might, till the affectation of nature has become as natural as any other affection” (74).

Hot off a busy decade of writing fashionable novels, Gore understood perfectly well that being “natural” is just another trend. See, being out of fashion isn’t the same as being outside of fashion. You might be out of fashion, but you’re never out of the fashion system; the whole system survives by continually bring in what was formerly out. Normcore is nothing more than Regency naturecore rebranded, the very definition of a trend.

 

 

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Wrecking the Figure/ Ground

Miley_Cyrus_-_Wrecking_BallMiley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” is almost unfairly easy to parody, but over repeated, sweaty listenings–“Wrecking Ball” is the second to last song on my running playlist, when I really need the agony of a failed relationship to keep my feet moving–I’ve come to see it as lyrically, even syntactically sophisticated. (Stay with me.)

In poetry criticism, the “interlocutor” is the person who the speaker implicitly addresses, but let’s just call him “Liam.” In one of the early lines, the speaker sings, “Don’t you ever say I just walked away.” Without punctuation, which I couldn’t find anywhere on the Internet, the line could be read, “Don’t you ever say [that] I just walked away,” or “Don’t you ever say, ‘I just walked away.’” Sure, the first version makes a bit more intuitive sense, but both readings are available: the antecedent of “I” could be the speaker (“Miley”), or it could just as easily be the interlocutor (“Liam”).

And then the chorus smashes (ahem) in, laying out the governing trope:

I came in like a wrecking ball

I never hit so hard in love

All I wanted was to break your walls

All you ever did was wreck me

Yeah, you, you wreck me.

We start off with the fairly obvious simile of Miley being like a destructive force that breaks down the walls of another’s heart and then, almost surprisingly, end somewhere more complicated: by the end of the stanza the wrecking ball is Liam, and Miley is the ruined fortress. The tenors and vehicles are unstable, impermanent. (In metaphors and similes, “vehicle” is the thing whose attributes are being borrowed–in this case, a wrecking ball and walls; and “tenor” is the thing whose attributes are being illuminated by the borrowing–in this case, both Miley and Liam.)

This reading helps clear up a disagreement about lyrics in a later stanza. Some sources give

I never meant to start a war

I just wanted you to let me in

I guess I should’ve let you in

While some give

I never meant to start a war

I just wanted you to let me in

I guess I should’ve let you win

A haphazard Googling didn’t lead me to any kind of “official” source, but, pace Miley’s songwriters, the correct version should be, even if it’s not, the first. That first version cleverly picks up the unstable relationship between speaker and interlocutor, formally constructing the absolute destruction of the relationship that the song describes: a war so intense that at the end it’s not clear which side won, because neither did.

Setting aside any pearl-clutching about the visuals of the music video (which I think are lovely), and the upsetting appropriation of twerking and black women’s bodies in “We Can’t Stop” (which I won’t even try to close-read away), “Wrecking Ball” brilliantly evokes the way relationships feel when you’re nineteen. In the end, the lyrical slipperiness suggests to me that the real governing trope here isn’t the wrecking ball so much as the inability to distinguish between Self and Other–again, stay with me–that, let’s be honest, is pretty typical of intense teenage relationships. The song might be an exorcism of Miley’s past and a middle finger to Liam Hemsworth, but it’s also a lyrically complex exploration of identity and obsession.

Well done, sirs.

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