Archives for category: Movies and Television

James Worsdale hasn’t been able to so shamelessly dabble in postmodern-gender musings in years and he kind of maybe definitely loves it.

I open this review with a presumably cringe-inducing question to the reader, is there a difference between “a strong female character” and “a strong character who happens to be female”? An admittedly antifeminist distinction to draw and work around, I know. And a distinction that still leaves a serious representational deficit in both categories. But I promise I won’t leave it at that. Is there a way to create a character that seems to inhabit a space more within the latter of those categories, but through learning from those in the former, subverts the very logic that that question posits itself in and around? And through introducing such a character into this binary framework, who adapts to it while muddling it, isn’t that introducing a character that subverts and undermines the very logic of patriarchy? That logic that feminism seeks to draw attention to and resist?

From a recent Canonball-induced craving for a reinterpretation of and greater appreciation for strong female characters, alongside increasing evidence of the feminist messaging and framework this film was based in and around, I excitedly went to see Hanna this past weekend (and fortunately was one of many who chose to do so) and was in awe of how well it fulfilled the need for feminist reclamations in both the action and fairytale genres, artfully choreographed a tale of determination despite violent chaos and crushing disillusionment, and created a desexualized, brilliant and focused heroine.

A brief plot synopsis for the unaware (and plot spoilers intentionally kept to a minimum): Hanna (Saoirse Ronan…a force of nature this young lady) is a teenage girl living with her father, Erik (Eric Bana) in the woods, undergoing physically and intellectually intensive training for an ambiguous purpose. You quickly gather that Hanna is a genius, transitioning flawlessly in conversation with her father from English to German to Spanish so on and so forth, and has learned all she knows from her father’s rigorous teachings with the ultimate intention and interest of survival. Adapt or die. She informs her father that she is ready for life on the outside, what that entails is unknown at this point.

Erik shows Hanna a switch to flip and lets her know that when she does, they will come and find them, and he and Hanna’s plan will commence. You hear the details of their plan as Erik grills Hanna on her back story and route to their end destination, which will bring them together at a recreated home from one of Grimm’s fairytales. Declaring herself ready, she flips the switch and the race begins. Erik flees, according to plan, and a team of soldiers arrives at the home in the woods to seize him. You gather from back story at this point that Erik is a rogue agent of sorts and he and Hanna were in hiding from Marissa Weigler (a cartoonishly villainous and ginger-haired Cate Blanchett). Holding Hanna in an interrogation cell, she lets the people she’s speaking with know that she needs to speak with

Unsure of what she will do, they send in an impersonator, on whom Hanna demonstrates her strength and agility in an act of vengeance. Escaping the unit she takes her and her father’s plan to the next level and shows Weigler just how little she can afford to underestimate her. Hanna turns out to be in Morocco, where she befriends a girl (the first she’s seen since her mother’s death when she was a baby) and her family who react to her eccentricity welcomingly. The differences in viewpoints and expectations also provide for some moments of humor.

Here the narrative reaches a very interesting point in that Hanna’s made sense of existence on the outside through her father’s teachings, largely through his reciting fairytales to her, though with the ubiquitous message of survival as the priority. In this sense, her interactions with this family and her suddent presence in this conventional world reminded me of another fairytale adaptation, Enchanted. Though, I assure you, in this fairytale, Hanna does not end up with McDreamy. Hanna gathers from this family real feelings of friendship, sisterhood, and family outside of the narrative she had built her life in and around. This paralleled with Wiegler’s relentless hunt, as well as some harsh realizations that I won’t reveal, unravels the thread of Hanna’s fairytale narrative and shatters her illusion. Though despite this inevitable disappointment, Hanna perseveres, always remembering to prioritize survival above any lie.

Lindsay’s question still remains surrounding the perceived necessity for masculinization and militarization of female heroines to be ordained into the canon of “strong female characters.” But I went into this movie already thinking that Hanna was a kick-ass character for reasons other than kicking-ass. Hanna is “not just an avatar for an idea” but is presented with enough nuance and complexity that her presence transcends the phallogocentrism and the conflating of strength with masculinity. Once she enters the sphere of “the outside” her femininity is omnipresent and appreciated, though it does not hold her back from asserting herself and it does not pin her down in interpreting herself. She comes from a place where her gender does not define her, but her survival does.

When she enters the outside, however, her existence as a woman is read by those surrounding her as presumably weaker and submissive (particularly in an interaction with a young Spaniard that is at times romantic but ultimately hysterical and empowering) but she utilizes the same survival mechanisms she learned from her father to do just that, to survive. She doesn’t use her femininity, she barely even considers it. She is here to survive, her survival is her existence. This feminist, dare I say, post-female interpretation of herself was the intention of director Joe Wright, saying, “I think the character exists outside of gender, in the same way that perhaps an angel does; and partly because I didn’t want her to exist within the kind of binary-opposition thinking. Her personality as a female is not reliant on there being a male.” So is Hanna a post-female feminist heroine? You will have to go see and decide for yourself. But as I said, regardless of where you categorize her, Hanna will survive, despite just missing your heart.

Mia, on what she knows best.

If you are a loyal reader of this blog (You are, aren’t you?), then you’ve probably noticed that every third post or so, I manage to sneak in a “LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT BRITISH FILMS BASED ON BOOKS” moment. I will not apologize for this. I refuse to apologize for my love of books come to life. Also: pretty costumes. As such, I was delighted a few weeks ago to see that The Awl featured a list of 10 British costume dramas you should check out. To which I reply, belatedly, “Yes, yes, but there are more!”

So, take it from someone whose default Netflix recommendation is for “British Period Pieces with a Strong Female Lead Based on the Book” – here are some recent adaptations that do justice to their lady-penned books.

Wuthering Heights, 2009

The only other adaptation I’ve seen of this Emily Bronte book is the 1939 feature film starring Laurence Olivier. Which, you know, swoon. But it’s a tad too 1939-Hollywood-melodrama for my taste. Because what I really want is 2009-British TV-melodrama. And this version delivers. Seriously, watch the trailer: watch Heathcliff lay down in the coffin with Cathy’s boney remains. I dare you not to cry three to five times during your viewing.

Cranford, 2007

Now that you’re emotionally drained, you’re probably in the mood for something cozier. Something starring, say, Judy Dench. Well. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is pretty much as cozy as it gets. I mean, sure, there’s a bit of class struggle and some gruesome scenes of 19th century surgery. But the miniseries abounds with small-town gossip and restrained humor. Extra points for portraying a society in which women play pivotal – and powerful – roles.

Persuasion, 2007

Persuasion might be my favorite Jane Austen novel, and this TV movie is among my favorite Austen adaptations. (Okay, yes, if this were Literature Adaptations for Beginners, I’d probably include the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice. Because, swoon. But we’re more Advanced here, aren’t we?) This is a story about second chances and growing older – it’s not Austen’s cheeriest story from the outset, but it is very funny, and though the story is predictable, it’s the sort of predictability that’s very satisfying from a love story. Also this is one of the better love letters in literature; please direct similar epistles to me to @canon_blog.

I Capture the Castle, 2003

Now, while I love a good 19th century period piece, I’m also quite fond of early 20th century period pieces, since I’m a fan of industry and innovation and looking at outfits that I could maybe incorporate into my own wardrobe. I’ve mentioned Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle here before – I just can’t say enough good things about this coming-of-age story about a girl and her wacky family who live in a crumbling castle in 1930s England. Then some Americans come to town. And love! Love is in the air!  But we also learn a lot about ourselves. Playing the lead role is Romola Garai, who also stars in another classic novel adaptation or two that you should see.

Which favorites did I miss, readers? Are there maybe movies based on books by women who aren’t British? (Yes?) Please share.

In which Lindsay reveals that her muscles are made of CGI.

Hollywood hates women” is the line going around this week, thanks to Tad Friend’s New Yorker piece (sorry dudes, behind a paywall) about comedienne Anna Faris and the commentary (which I like to call “Internet dust”) it’s kicked up. Though it’s nice to see this conversation taking place in the mainstream media — and Friend’s article is thoughtful and refreshingly plaintive (“Studio executive believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view, particularly if that woman drinks or swears or has a great job or an orgasm.”), it all just prompts me to say, “Well yeah, duh.” Those of us who follow the Women and Hollywood beat know the drill: every year or so, we are treated to one of these State of the Lady in Hollywood exposes, replete with all sorts of quotes and statistics that make us feel totally helpless, and then up from the comments sections spring all sorts of well-intentioned but maddeningly vague rally cries about how we can make it better. “We just need more strong female characters!”, goes one of these refrains. And Hollywood, on the rare occasion that it acknowledges the sound of tiny people shouting, replies with a wave of its hand, “Strong female characters? We’ve got those! Have y’all seen Tomb Raider? And…like…Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life?” Which makes obvious something that we’ve always known: Hollywood has no idea what a strong female character actually looks like.

Blockbuster Hollywood’s idea of a Strong Female Character involves some kind of hybrid between brute, male strength and hyperfeminized sexuality: an Uzi-toting Rosie the Riveter with a 16-inch waist and CGI boobs. In recent years, Hollywood has inundated us with representations of this particular vision of strength, from the aforementioned Tomb Raider (and, for that matter, the entire cult of personality surrounding Angelina Jolie) to Charlie’s Angels to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle right up to Sucker Punch (the latter of which Sady Doyle terrifically skewered in an Atlantic piece last week).

The problem with this definition of “strength” is that it’s rooted in the patriarchal notion that bigger is better, might is right, and that “weakness,” its opposite, is inherently feminine. For these characters, strength is one’s ability to step in line with a paradigm that is already tainted with misogyny; feminine strength is one’s ability to, in the elegant words of pop phenom Jessie J, “do it like a dude.” (Interestingly enough, this is also the problem that Anna Faris and others experience in the realm of comedy; in Friend’s article, a director praises her for not being “light and sweet…she’s funny like a guy would be funny.”) Once those muscles have been sufficiently flexed, the only “feminine” traits that these Strong Female Characters are allowed to exhibit are those which have been pre-approved by the patriarchy; so, namely, CGI boobs.The Strong Female Character is not one who’s able to provide a personal revision as to what strength is and what it looks like, but one who’s able to successfully navigate the narrow channels in which she’s allowed to be visible in the mainstream Hollywood film.

So if we can’t look to Hollywood for unproblematic views of female strength, can we find them instead in the margins? Not really, says Elizabeth Greenwood, who recently proposed that indie cinema kind of hates women too. In an article entitled “Why So Many Boring Women in Indie Film?” she implicates a number of supposedly more enlightened films for portraying female characters as “meek,” “mild” and “utterly forgettable”  and accuses both male and female filmmakers of “hav[ing] shown little regard for their young female protagonists as people.”

It’s a brave and noble piece, one that articulates something I’ve felt but haven’t quite been able to name — but I only agree with her to a point. First of all, I’ll acknowledge the false dichotomy I’m setting up between “Hollywood films” and “indie films” here; in film as in music, “indie” is no longer synonymous with a  counterculture or a space in which the greater forces of sexism and other forms of oppression are challenged (plus, most of the films she mentions have relatively huge budgets and big names behind them). Greenwood calls out some female characters whose one-dimensional emptiness I find worthy of critique, from the title character in (500) Days of Summer to Michelle Williams’s Cindy in Blue Valentine. But I think she’s too quick to lump a large and varied group of films together — and in some cases her definition of “boring” relies on yet another preexisting paradigm.

“Some of the women Greenwood calls out as boring are deeply sympathetic, brave characters, even if the people around them on-screen don’t always see them for who they are,” Alyssa Rosenberg writes in a response to the original piece. She goes on to defend some of the characters Greenwood initially criticizes. Margot Tenenbaum, for one, she sees as a character who hides her inferiority from those who seek to externally define her. (And of course she’s successful. “What do you know?” her husband is asked right before seeing a dossier recounting the secrets about her love life. “Very little, I’m afraid.”) I’ll extend the defense along to Greta Gerwig’s Florence in Greenberg, a film that Greenwood also faults. Having seen the film twice now, I find Florence’s inarticulateness hugely sympathetic and relatable — even though she’s not a “strong female character” in the sense that she’s ambitious, has a “good job” or could kick your teeth out. Her tangential anecdotes and eccentric sense of humor don’t serve to fetishize her into the film’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but rather convey a disconnect between her and the rest of the people populating her world.  And in contrast with the film’s titular male protagonist, something about her has stuck with me. As my friend Kristen said upon rewatching the film last week, “That movie really should have been called Florence.”

So then, if it’s not the machine gun or the combat boots or a well-articulated interiority, what exactly makes a strong female character? Is it the character’s ability to evade a simple answer to that very question? Maybe. I’m not even sure. But, paradoxically, I have always felt a weird strength in not feeling sure, so maybe there is potential in that: characters who appear before us in the process of working things out. Or maybe, better yet, the word “strong” is too entangled in false, rotted-out visions of masculinity to ever do us any good. To end Hollywood’s hatred of women, I don’t think we don’t need more strong female characters — we need a complete reimagining of what strength is.

Mia and Lindsay discuss the latest film adaptation of that book which, contrary to popular belief, was not written by Jane Austen.

Lindsay: This weekend Mia and I took a Canonball Field Trip (an activity we previously would have referred to as “hanging out”) to see Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre. And having a few days to reflect, we’re prepared to share our thoughts. Mia, have you readied your arsenal of “Reader” puns?

Mia: “Reader, I loved the movie.” “Reader, I gave it two thumbs up.” I’ll trust our readers to insert the proper puns as our conversation continues.

Point is, this was one of my favorite Jane Eyre adaptions that I’ve seen. As I said to Lindsay as we were exiting the theater, even though some parts of the book were omitted – including, notably and lamentably, the scene where Mr Rochester dresses up as a female gypsy – I feel like this film captured the emotion of the story. And that includes humor, which I’d never seen so well-executed in a Jane Eyre adaptation. How did you like the film?

Lindsay: Sorry to disappoint the readers who are looking for some Siskel & Ebert style carnage, but I loved it too. I think we both agreed that one of the film’s biggest strengths was the way it played with the novel’s chronology – using what you rightly identified last week as the most boring part of the novel (St. John and the pious cousins) as a frame story rather than an unwelcome and overly coincidental tangent in the narrative. And Fukunaga’s approach to the novel’s chronology also echoes the refreshing way he approached the source material in general: with neither stuffy reverence nor over-the-top, Baz Lurman-style modernization. It felt like a film that really found a happy medium between those two impulses.

Mia: Agreed. And while we’re going over the basics, I guess we’ve got to talk about whether the actress who plays Jane was plain enough? My feeling is no; no actress is ever plain enough to fulfill all the plain fantasies I’ve had about Jane’s plain, plain face. That being said, Mia Wasikowska is a bit of an unconventional beauty so I guess we can sort of pretend she’s unattractive. Perhaps more importantly, though, she’s actually young, and she played Jane a bit less stiffly than I usually imagine the character – which is good; she seemed like a real person.

Lindsay: Yes, I agree that Wasikowska struck just the right note of plainness, thanks in part to her vaguely Kirsten-esque ‘do. But we were also joking earlier about how frustratingly unavoidable the “Is she plain enough? Or is she too pretty?” question is when discussing the many actresses who, over the years, have played Jane. The terms of the discussion are kind of dumb, but at least in this case they’re often also applied to the male protagonist, to whom Jane refers at least once in the book as “ugly.”

Mia: True! And, if we were having that discussion, I might point out that this Rochester (Michael Fassbender) was way too handsome. Even after he was in that awful fire, he just looked like some skinny, bearded dude who just biked to some house party you’re at. I guess unattractive romantic leads are too subversive for such a widely released film? But there are some aspects of this film that are noteworthy. Mostly, all the reviews have been talking about how the director is a man whose last film was not, in fact, a costume drama. Do you think people are more inclined to take this Jane Eyre seriously, as a result?

Lindsay: Hmm, that’s a tough one. Upon leaving the theater, I had this weird inclination to applaud Fukunaga for perhaps challenging gender stereotypes and providing a sensitive, personal take on what’s traditionally been seen as a “women’s story.” But then I was like, “Wait a minute, basically every other adaptation of Jane Eyre was directed by a man, too!” Hollywood certainly tolerates men telling women’s stories much more readily than women telling men’s stories – just think of the recent hubbub surrounding Catherine Hardwicke saying she wasn’t even allowed an interview when she expressed interest in directing The Fighter.

Mia: That’s a good point. And, while on one hand, I’m suspicious of the sentiment behind reviews that applaud Fukunaga for making the film dark and un-costume drama-y (read: not a “woman’s story” which are less important than men’s stories and are therefore alienating toward male viewers), on the other hand, I have to agree that Jane Eyre is better dark because it should be dark. Because a woman’s story can be dark! I think he does a wonderful job of making that apparent. And if he wins over some unlikely viewers in the process, I’d say it’s as much a testament to his vision as it is to Bronte’s story.

On that note, I want to put the Bronte-Austen comparisons to rest. I was ranting earlier about the number of reviews I’ve read that call Jane Eyre the original chick lit novel. Which is like, no. And I’m not denigrating chick lit, because the genre’s legitimacy is a whole other conversation. I’m just saying, if you’ve read Jane Eyre, you MIGHT HAVE NOTICED that it’s not a light story.

Lindsay: Hear, hear. And I like that point so much that I am just going to quote what you said in an email to me earlier: “I think the Austen comparison that comes up again and again (hell, I just used it) is telling: there’s not enough room in our English-speaking cultural history for more than one female author from the 19th century. People assume that Jane Austen’s witty, middle class stories are the history of all women from the entire century.”

And, personal tangent alert, I bought into this thinking well into college. I personally have never been an Austen fanatic, and my freshman year of college I had to take a British Lit survey. When I saw Charlotte Bronte (who I’d never read, mind you) on the syllabus, I distinctly remember turning to a friend of mine and saying, “Oh, GOD.” I was also contemplating changing my major at the time. Well, suffice to say, I resisted my bratty, defeatist urge to drop the class. I read Shirley. I loved it. My prof did a queer reading of one of the scenes between Shirely and her female cousins and my bratty little 18-year-old mind was blown out the back of my skull. And then, Reader, I declared my English major. Point is, I feel like we are culturally primed to lump “all those female authors” together rather than tease out their differences. Sort of like, I dunno, women?

Mia: It is a truth universally acknowledged that all women are the same. That’s a great anecdote though because I feel like one of the wonderful things about feminism is that, once you start questioning everything as you’re bound to when you become a feminist, you realize all the cool woman-centric stuff you’ve been missing out on. Like Charlotte Bronte, for instance.

Lindsay: Although. There are admittedly genre conventions to some of these novels, and especially their contemporary film adaptations. At the risk of sounding like the President of the Dana Stevens Fan Club (which is RIDICULOUS; as I am merely the Treasurer. James, you’re late on this month’s dues!), I enjoyed her take on the film, especially for this assessment of Rochester: “if Fassbender took the low road and chose to make a career as the thinking woman’s literary dreamboat, I wouldn’t complain.” Which leads me to ask, Mia, is there reverse sexism going on in the way modern women respond to this familiar trope? Is the Thinking Woman’s Literary Dreamboat (see: Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, and feverish adoration thereof) merely the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in drag?

Mia: Hold on, I have to watch this Rickman video in its entirety before I can formulate an opinion.

Well, my feeling is that the Thinking Woman’s Literary Dreamboat tends to be a more developed character than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. He tends to have a backstory and a life outside of our female lead, which is perhaps a result of how society was and is structured: men went out and DID stuff, while ladies stayed home. Whereas the MPDG exists only as a wacky foil to the male lead. That being said, I do think we might crush on these dreamy male characters to a ridiculous degree. And I include myself in that group. I’m just sayin’ that Mr. Rochester probably isn’t the kind of guy you should waste your energy on. Because if a guy will lock his first wife up in the attic, god only knows what he might do to you.

Lindsay: Truth. Well, Mia, I hope we’ve convince people to go see this movie and perhaps even to think more critically about the way they talk about Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and the TWLD. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to run off to go dress up like a gypsy and read Colin Firth’s palm so that I can tell him he’ll soon fall in love with a plain but spirited  feminist blogger. (OK, that’s a lie, I’m actually about to go cut an Alan Rickman fan video to the tune of an Evanescence ballad.)

Mia: Let’s hope the next Jane Eyre film stars Alan Rickman. Until then, readers, may you find no madwomen in your attics.

Lindsay: And may your rich uncles bequeath you all exorbitant sums of money at the most convenient of times. Until next time, dear Readers.

In which Mia is visited by the ghost of Jane Eyre past.

All right, gang. This post is for the nerds. And by nerds, I mean the kind of people who pregame the release of the new Jane Eyre adaptation by staying in on a Saturday night to re-watch the 1944 adaptation (starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine) because it’s a CLASSIC. You know the person: the kind who keeps getting distracted during the movie because they have to pause every few minutes to email their blogging partner urgent comments like, “The opening credit sequence is in the form of turning pages in a book, which is one of my favorite opening credit cliches.” Because it’s true! I wrote that! Let’s talk about Jane Eyre, nerds!

Now, true Eyre fans (Eyre-heads? Do I dare?) will be as mildly outraged as I was to realize that the film opens with “Jane” reading aloud from the first page of the book, which is not, in fact, the first page as Charlotte Brontë wrote it. The screenwriters, in their infinite wisdom, replaced Brontë’s famous, evocative first line (“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”) with this winner: “My name is Jane Eyre.” Surely, I should have heeded this as foreshadowing of the over-simplification of the story that was to come. (Fun fact: The screenplay was co-written by Aldous Huxley. Do you know how hard I’ve tried to come up with a pun about this? Not very hard: Brave New Jane Eyre, indeed.)

To be fair, this adaptation is pretty serviceable, as far as adaptations from the Golden Age of Hollywood go. The screenwriters cut out the most boring part of the book (pious cousins UGH) and added in a ton of fog machines. But I have to question some of their choices. For instance (and this was another urgent e-mail), they cut out the character of Miss Temple, Jane’s kind school teacher – who I ADORE because of that one time she gave Jane and Helen Burns (played in this film by a young Elizabeth Taylor) extra-thick slices of cake as compensation for the fact that Helen was dying or something – and replaced her with a kind male doctor, who seems to be an amalgamation of several of the book’s characters. “What was the point of that substitution? OTHER THAN SEXISM, that is,” my outraged e-mail read.

But I know there’s only so much they could fit into a 90-minute film. The essence of the story is what’s most important, so this is what really puzzled me: according to my extensive research, the film’s tagline reads: “A Love Story Every Woman would Die a Thousand Deaths to Live!” Um, no. And this is where I think the Jane Eyre detractors (or, should I say, the people who criticize the book without having read it) always get confused: Jane Eyre is not, say, Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, you’ve got your smoldering, mysterious hero who’s really rich and kind of an asshole. Except we learn at the end that he’s not actually an asshole. But he’s still really rich and looks like Colin Firth and totally wants to marry me, er, Lizzy Bennet. I’m not sure what dying a thousand deaths entails, but it would maybe be worth it to live at Pemberly?

Not so for Jane Eyre. This book is BRUTAL. There’s that time that Jane is locked in a POSSIBLY HAUNTED room as a child; she’s pretty much starving for her entire adolescence, and then her best (and only) friend DIES; fast forward a few years, and she learns that she can’t marry the love of her life because he’s already married and concealed this fact by locking his insane wife in the attic (WHOOPS); then Jane wanders the moors and nearly starves to death AGAIN; then she inherits some money and finds out she actually has some living family, but of course, St. John is SO BORING and righteous; and then – and only then – is she able to reunite with her true love, who is, at this point, maimed and living in (even greater) seclusion. Do you, ladies, really want to live that life?

Of course this adaptation barely shows Jane’s struggle. Never has a starving woman wandering the moors looked as fresh and dewy as Joan Fontaine. And we don’t even get to see the madwoman Bertha Rochester – she is a menacing, faceless threat, presumably too hideous, too distracting from the plot’s central love story. But, as countless bloggers (and, one would assume, scholars) have recently noted: the appeal of Jane Eyre isn’t strictly in the love story. And this is where I think 1944 Hollywood underestimated its female audience and felt the need to turn this powerful story about the road to self-love and self-discovery into a schmaltzy love story. Joan Fontaine’s Jane isn’t the passionate, fiery, yet plain and chaste character Brontë intended; instead she’s the classic Hollywood love object: beautiful and quietly elegant with starry-eyed adoration for her leading man.

It’s this implicit insistence – so prevalent in our culture – that women only buy stories about (hetero) love that bothers me. I mean, sure, there’s a love story in Jane Eyre, and it’s a great love story. But, for me, it’s always been more of a coming-of-age story, a woman who is the culturally unfortunate combination of “poor, obscure, plain and little” attempting to assert herself in a world where the poor, obscure, plain and little are usually ignored.

This is all a long way of saying that Lindsay and I are going to see the new adaptation this weekend, and our greatest wish is for it to capture the passion and the pain of book in a way that the 1944 film did not. As you may know (laying all my nerd cards on the table now) I’m a huge fan of British miniseries based on classic novels; I’ve seen my share of Jane Eyre adaptations, and when you’ve got four to twelve hours to fill, it’s no surprise that you’re going to come away with a film that’s pretty faithful to the original book. The challenge is to convey the power of Jane Eyre in a feature-length film. By all accounts, the new adaptation lives up to our expectations and pays appropriate homage to one of the best English novels of the 19th century. Well, the sure-to-be feverish emails between nerdy feminist bloggers will be the true test! Check back next week for the Canonball review.

In which Lindsay and James talk Oscars and end with an earnest plea: “Let’s never speak of this night again.”

Lindsay: Zzzzzzzz.

James: Lindsay! Wake up! The Oscars are over! I think you dozed off sometime after the third Melissa Leo “fuck” joke!

Lindsay: ACK, sorry James, I’m just now rousing myself from a daze induced by this year’s painfully dull telecast. Or by those brownies that James Franco dropped off at my house before the show. Either way! Well, I hardly have to ask, but how are you feeling about the show now that we’ve had a full day to reflect?

James: I feel a feeling that I haven’t felt since the anxiety nightmares I suffered during my middle school production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, except if my sweet and shy friend who didn’t even make the chorus was Gwenyth Paltrow, and everything gay was edited out.

It’s also similar because of all the agonizing over getting young people to come out and appreciate the performance when really we should have just focused on getting our moms to enjoy it.

Lindsay: Apt. Which I think speaks to what I saw as the night’s main theme: the harder the Oscars tried to cater to any “niche”-demographic-that’s-not-really-a-niche-demographic (young people! or women! or, to quote Anne Hathaway, “LESBIANSSSSS”!) the more they ended up looking painfully out of touch with said demographic. We can parse all of this from a feminist perspective in a moment, but first: did you also find yourself wishing midway through the show that Anne Hathaway and James Franco would magically morph into Sandra Bullock and Robert Downey Jr.? Could one of those Inception effects specialists have pulled off that kind of wizardry? Or perhaps Charlie Sheen? I hear he’s a warlock!

James: Do you have a subscription to MY MIND!?

All I was thinking while Sandy did her little Actor in a Leading Role banter was, “This would be the perfect opportunity for her to redeem herself for winning an Oscar she didn’t deserve for playing a condescending comparatively uncomplicated overprivileged white woman.” And RDJ2 with the navy suit and white on white tie/shirt combo, I was into it.

Lindsay: In a Better World, as they say.

James: I will say this of the hosting though, I fear more about the generalizations that will now be surmised about our generation from the hosts’ performances than I fear for the effect on the hosts’ careers themselves, you follow me?

Lindsay: I do. As if the Kirk Douglas set needed more fodder for their assumptions about Facebook turning our brains into oatmeal, I’m afraid that we young folk will be answering for Hathaway and Franco’s universally acknowledged faceplant for some time to come. Which leads me to bring up — as there’s no avoiding it – Franco. Is it just me, or do you find nothing at all challenging or subversive about his “performance art,” if we must call it that? And do you think the fallout from this show (and his bizarrely benign crossdressing moment) is going to finally make people stop trying to talk about him on such a conceptual level?

James: The thing is I don’t know that people really do talk about him on such a conceptual level, however, he’s more associated with that conceptual level. I mean, I was a very big fan, but recently, and I won’t pretend Sunday didn’t have a large part to do with it, I’ve become a bit tired of his high-brow attention-whore antics. Journalists like to draw attention to how, “He does it all!” But the bottom line is he does it all with a resounding mediocrity at best. He’s just hot and good at branding himself as playfully intellectual without having to do anything of substance to back up the laurels he rests on. (Though let it be known that he is really fucking hot.)

Lindsay: No one’s denying. But the reason I brought up the whole Boy Who Cried Performance Art thing is that I can imagine James Franco taking out a couple of Glamour Shots-esque “Consider” ads in Variety and everyone seeing it as some brilliant commentary on modern celebrity. But then Melissa Leo does these (admittedly totally, gloriously wacky) ads and the world is thrown for a loop. Am I wrong to smell a little gender bias here?

James: It could be that, though I’m not sure as to how much of the hoopla surrounding those ads was actually from the Academy’s reaction and how much was the media creating that reaction to heighten drama and build a narrative in a year where all of the major categories were so anticlimactic. This year, in particular, I’ve felt like I’d like the Oscars so much more if I didn’t read anything about them before. And that may seem obvious, but this illusion of a horse race driven by the media is exhausting and cheapening of the whole process.

But what I will say is between her fur-clad “Consider” ads and her Maleficent costume sprayed in gold paint and covered in doilies, Melissa Leo is America’s newest fashion it-girl!

Lindsay: Or its greatest performance artist. Melissa Leo is Banksy?

James: That would be something!

Lindsay: Well, before further grievances, let’s count the night’s small blessings. For only the third time in history, Best Foreign Language Film went to a female-directed movie: Susanne Bier’s In a Better World. (Though: in due recognition of literally the one and only subversive Oscar nomination this year, Team Dogtooth!) Also one of the producers of Inside Job was a woman. And Lora Hirschberg won for Sound Mixing, an historically male-dominated category. And, um. A woman who won an Oscar for playing a transperson shared the stage with a woman who won an Oscar for directing last year. The Oscars are really progressive, yeah?

James: Progressively irritating. It felt so clear that Hilary Swank’s grandiose introduction of Kathryn Bigelow was an extension of the pat-on-the-back the Academy is giving itself for honoring a woman with the Best Director Oscar, an extension of that unwarranted self-satisfaction and a distraction from their return to the status quo. Which, I feel it appropriate to say, is also what they were doing in having Halle Berry do the extension of the In Memoriam to Lena Horne, congratulate themselves by honoring a woman of color in film while distracting us from pointing out they honored ZERO PEOPLE OF COLOR THIS YEAR.

But, as you said, small blessings. Though it was truly devastating to watch the mesmerizing Annette Bening lose for a fourth time, I am very hopeful for the good things Portman’s new focus on production will bring to women. Between her speech at the Spirit Awards Saturday night and what she’s said in recent media profiles, I’m excited for what opportunities she will bring as a highly respected and intelligent woman in show business aware of the industry’s sexist infrastructure and interested in and proactive about working through that.

Lindsay: And I was pleased to see the Times remind us of the oft-forgotten fact that Natalie Portman can not only blind us with Rodarte, but also with SCIENCE. And I agree with you and Melissa Silverstein in noting that these overt acknowledgements of both Horne-by-way-of-Berry and Bigelow came off, in typical Oscar fashion, as weirdly self-congratulatory and only heightened the absence of black people and women in the winner’s circle. The Bigelow moment was particularly ironic, coming as it did right before the acknowledgement of this year’s five (white, male) Best Director nominees, and winner Tom Hooper’s acknowledgement of the “triangle of manlove” shared between him, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. But at least when Hooper thanked Helena Bonham Carter for staying out of the way of said triangle, she gave us fodder for the best gif of the night.

James: May God save that Queen! I think what The King’s Speech and the overall feel of the show taught us was that maybe the Oscars were a great year for lesbians, but they’re almost always better for kings.

Before we wrap up, we have yet to discuss the musical theatre major Adderall-head who fluttered about wearing a lot of expensive gowns. And no, I don’t mean Christian Bale.

Lindsay: Oh, Anne. While admit that I don’t understand why Hathaway seemed to be channeling Tracy Flick from Election and that at times she was downright painful to watch up there, the male/female pairing and the contrast of the hosts’ rather traditionally gendered personas make the critiques of their respective failings potentially really sexist. Already Franco’s just the brunt of a bunch of played out stoner jokes, but Hathaway’s “irritating” or “obnoxious.” Or, worse: the Times said Hathaway emphasized “the frequent industry argument that she lacks chemistry with her male co-stars.” Ouch. I’m not exactly out to defend her hosting chops, but I’d like to see a level playing field in the critique of what I thought was an equally bad job by both.

James: Well said, Lindsay. I think that overall the Academy should have learned that if you take something that is essentially old and stuffy, it’s best to just let it be that way. Trying to make yourself seem “hip and edgy,” by having younger hosts and repeating the words, “hip and edgy” will just make your viewership bored and uncomfortable, especially if you’re doing it while simultaneously awarding something like The King’s Speech, which is the furthest from edgy of all the nominees. Don’t futilely strive to look younger Oscars, Billy Crystal’s suspiciously lineless face has got that schtick covered.

Lindsay: But as a closing thought, I’ll say that given the pretty tepid crop of nominees this year, I was pleased with The King’s Speech‘s victories (though, as I’ve stated before, its problematic representation of women actually didn’t keep me from loving The Social Network too). While it was all too easy to view The King’s Speech as the preferred film of the stodgy old establishment, I found both Colin Firth’s performance and David Seidler’s script to contain some of the most quietly complex statements about masculinity in any film I saw this year. Firth’s “lefthanded/righthanded” speech can easily be read to have a subtext speaking about the dangers of perceiving identity – and gender — as a collection of binaries. And as much as I hated the phrase, I still preferred that triangle of manlove over any other bromance I saw in a theater this year.

James: Indeed. Now I can’t wait to look forward to weekend trips to the movies where I’ll watch Nic Cage kick ass in Drive Angry and then wind down by sneaking into Rango.

Lindsay: Yes, James as always it’s been a pleasure talking Oscars with you, but especially after this anticlimactic year I’m relieved to see the season come to a close. For the next couple of months at least, I think it’s time for us to make like Jean-Luc Godard and not give a shit about the Oscars at all.

James Worsdale isn’t close to being sick about talking about the Oscars but he is sick of explaining to people why he cares so much. IT’S ALL FUN AND GAMES PEOPLE! (Or is it?) He’d also like it if you followed him on Twitter.

This Sunday, the beloved Annette Bening is among the nominees for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the 83rd Academy Awards. She will be recognized for her role in The Kids Are All Right as Nic, the lush, lesbian matriarch of a family in crisis, dealing with infidelity incited by an interloper threatening the stability and well being for a unit already existing in quiet peril. Her performance in this movie, widely regarded as a milestone in progressive representationsthough not necessarily by all, is similar to her role in her also Oscar-nominated turn as Carolyn Burnham in 1999’s American Beauty: charming, saddening and disgusting us all with a marvelous subtlety and memorable harmony. Though she is expected to, again, lose, to Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Bening’s Nic joins the bevy of lesbian characters honored by the Academy with nominations and defies the derogatory tendencies tied into those characters’ psyches by their sexuality.

Through the Academy’s history, there have been six actresses nominated for playing lesbian characters, three in the leading category and three in the supporting. This is not including Bening’s most recent nomination which would make it seven:

Leading Actress:

Judi Dench as Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Charlize Theron as Aileen in Monster (2003)
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002)

Supporting Actress:

Julianne Moore as Laura Brown in The Hours (2002)
Jessica Tandy as Ninny Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)*
Cher as Dolly Pelliker in Silkwood (1983)

*Although in the case of this example, the characters’ sexualities are so coded that acknowledgment of the lesbian undertones in the film could be remiss to many.

Four of the six aforementioned characters (played by Dench, Theron, Kidman and Moore) fit the lesbian archetype of the woman woebegone and warped, turned wicked by her desire and her, presumably conditioned, reaction to it and its implication. Dench’s Barbara Covett perhaps most aptly embodies this offensive stereotype, sinisterly plotting to usurp her coworker Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett…that Dench, what a cradle robber) from her marriage by manipulating information she has concerning an affair Sheba took part in with a student. Driven through this nefarious plot by her loneliness and denial, Barbara is a pitiful character who at the film’s end is implied to be rekindling this cycle of abuse. It was played wonderfully by Dame Judi Dench and, if you’re able to remove the political implications of the character itself, her performance deserved lauding and attention, but it is, at the very least, frustrating that lesbian characters honored by the Oscars are almost always negative and homophobic representations.

As a relevant side note, it is also important to acknowledge that all of these characters are white women, a bias probably more attributable to white privilege’s deeply embedded presence in the Hollywood infrastructure  than to homophobia in the black community and black cinema. As Vito Russo says in his cinematic queer manifesto originally from 1981, The Celluloid Closet:

“Homosexuals are convenient scapegoats but their shabby treatment is only the most ostentatious part of a wider problem – that the diversity of American life has never been reflected in popular films. There are virtually no black faces on the American screen, and those we see are the faces of clowns.”

Paula Patton’s role in 2009’s Precious as Blu Rain, the lesbian alternative schoolteacher who knows her way around the welfare system and how to work around its shortcomings, is the only recent black lesbian representation I can think of in a majorly released film that gained Oscar attention. Hopefully good things will come from Dee Rees’s Pariah, recently premiered at Sundance and earning accolades and attention and a distribution deal from Focus Features, centered around a black lesbian girl from Brooklyn coming of age and coming out. A new story told with sensitivity and nuance, something to look forward to.

Before Bening, the exception to this trend was in Cher’s (SWOON!) portrayal of Dolly Pelliker in Silkwood. Russo writes of Dolly:

The only major character in a mainstream film to achieve this level of casual realism in recent years was Cher’s Dolly Pelliker in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood…With its portrayal of Dolly Pelliker and her girlfriend Angela, Silkwood is the best example we have of a film that is not about lesbianism yet presents lesbian characters who are perfectly integrated into a story without condescension, explanation or self consciousness of any kind…Dolly is different but conceived as a family member, in direct contrast to the portrayal of most gays as alien to society and to the individuals around them.

It would be interesting to know how Russo would feel about Annette Bening’s Nic, a good 26 years after the book originally came out. And even if Nic is a metric of queer progressivism’s success, if her existence as a mother is necessary to the cultural acceptance of her character and is indicative of a new trend furthering the conflation of womanhood and motherhood…  but I digress.

When compiling research for this post, there was an abundance of information and analysis chronicled about gay male characters who had been honored by the Oscars but less so about lesbians. This discrepancy is probably due to more gay male characters having been written and, more paramount, having been featured in films that garnered distribution and viewership. Hollywood’s sexism is no secret and that bias infiltrates queer representations as well. This is not to say that gay male characters have fared much better fates than their lesbian counterparts. Most if not all of those representations have also been largely troubled as well. But here I’d like to focus more specifically on the issue of lesbian representations at the Oscars as to avoid losing my point by ignoring issues of intersectionality.

Why does this even matter? Aren’t the Oscars just, to quote Lindsay, “the ultimate pageant of Hollywood hegemony?” Aren’t homo award show enthusiasts generally relegated to the ranks of fashion correspondence and even then that’s only gay-male-inclusive? In many ways, yes, that is true. The Oscars are driven by capital and the problems that accompany forces capitalistically driven. But the Academy Awards do matter in their potential to serve as a vehicle for visibility, empathy, and insurance towards cultural relevance. If more lesbians’ and other queer folks’ stories are told, respected and honored, it will be easier to combat attitudes that drive institutionalized bigotry and ignorance. People make sense of their lives and the lives of others through art, including and especially movies and media. If stories aren’t told with sensitivity and accuracy then prejudiced representations of them will prevail.

James Worsdale sincerely hopes that, if no one else, Liz Lemon is immune to baby fever.

In the most recent issue of The New Yorker, Tina Fey published a pleasantly surprisingly honest testament of her experience as a working mother and the tiresome and antiquated double standard she is confronted with in balancing her family and professional lives. I wish I could link it here but it’s a piece only available to subscribers. I suggest that you go and purchase the issue because they seem to have been compensating for some recent shortcomings in printing this and a great piece by Rebecca Mead on George Eliot (not to mention a juicy page-turner expose of Scientology!).

The piece is a humorous articulation of Fey’s frustrations, particularly when faced with “the rudest question you can ask a woman, ‘How do you juggle it all?’” This inordinate interrogation is still a commonly faced manifestation of societal burdens of family planning and child-rearing being placed on women. It feels redundant at this point to indicate how men are significantly less frequently (if ever) posed with this dilemma as they are entitled to “have it all” as the outcome of such a life is always vaguely referred to. Much of this comes from our culture’s incessant insistence on conflating the constructions of womanhood and motherhood. They are one in the same as the latter fulfills and completes the former. This does not nearly occur as concurrently in our ideas of manhood and fatherhood.

For example, think of the tabloid narratives that build our image of Jennifer Aniston’s existence. She’s pregnant! She’s adopting a baby from Mexico! She’s so lonely! This preoccupation with the childless single woman as an incomplete and unsatisfied entity, despite her, in this case, earnings of $24.5 million in her film career alone is one rooted in and perpetuated by sexist and heteronormative thinking.

Fey’s piece on the double standard and our culture’s dilemma of balancing a family and work as unique to women has been explored through contemporary cinema, most memorably in the 1987 Nancy Meyers film Baby Boom starring the greatest actress of our time Diane Keaton (love). In it, corporate powerhouse JC Wiatt is about to become partner of her business and is driven and completely consumed and defined by her career, fulfilled, but consumed. When a distant cousin of hers dies in a tragic accident, she inherits Baby Elizabeth and is heaved into motherhood. Extremely hesitant to her new role, JC comically and clumsily navigates her way to capability and enjoyment of her new identity as a mother, but is forced to make career-killing sacrifices in the process. Eventually she is able to reconcile her business savvy and her newfound maternal instinct and she creates and heads the enormous growth of a baby food company made from apples from her orchard at her newly acquired Vermont cottage.

At the time the film was lauded by critics and feminists for illustrating the dilemma posed by the new woman’s career mobility and biological determinism, now as much as ever, seeming like a ticking time bomb. But the movie definitely preaches the idea that a woman is not fully satisfied in her life without experiencing motherhood, even when she is thrust into that role having expressed aforementioned lack of interest in it. (This is a set up repeated in later films like 2007’s No Reservations or the most recent Life as We Know It.) Satisfied, childless women either do not exist or are just lying to themselves.

Fast forward 20 years from Baby Boom and we have 2008’s Lorne Michaels production Baby Mama starring maybe-probably feminist comedy writer Tina Fey. If you’ve seen both of these films then you’ll know that the answer to Dana Stevens’s question of, “Have our ideas about working, parenting, and the formation of alternative families really changed so little since 1987?” is, unfortunately, no.

In Baby Mama we have Kate (Fey) who is a 37-year-old very successful single woman who opens the movie with her baby fever setting her into full-on hallucinations during board meetings where all of her co-workers appear as infants (a vision that, I imagine, can take an unfortunately low degree of imagination to create, am I right working people?).

After consulting several condescending specialists, Kate opts to go to a high-end surrogacy clinic and accepts the first applicant, Angie (the delightfully cartoonish Amy Poehler) to carry her baby. Kate and Angie’s interactions play on Kate’s tightly-wound neuroses mixing with Angie’s low-brow and laid-back childishness.

Things get complicated when you discover Angie had been a bit disingenuous about the pregnancy and whose baby it actually was that she was carrying, all the while Kate grows closer and more confident with her decision to go with Angie. This is all going on while there is a budding romance between Kate and Rob (Greg Kinnear), former attorney and owner and manager of a local juice bar. The ending? Forget it. Just awful. To quote Stevens again:

Baby Mama‘s overdetermined happy ending — I won’t give it away, but you’ll know in advance anyway, thanks to half a dozen cues — does the movie’s theme a disservice by copping out on the whole notion of alternative family…what at first appears to be at least a mildly subversive vision of sexual politics soon reverts to an endorsement of heterosexual and biological norms.

Films like Baby Boom and Baby Mama paint this picture of this modern working woman’s paradox, having so many opportunities available to them in the workplace but only available when huge sacrifices are made. It is the aforementioned conflating of womanhood with motherhood that drives that paradox and so narrowly constructs the possibilities for women to ascertain fulfillment in their lives. It creates and moves forward this middle class anxiety that, despite the advances of feminism, still prevails in our cultural thinking.