Archive for the 'women' Category

Nora Ephron: Thank you.

In the opening act of Nora Ephron’s semi-autobiographical Heartburn, the main character, Rachel, spends an extended sequence crippled by fear before the ceremony of her second wedding. Her doubts do not lead her to a magical epiphany; she does not ride away on a horse. No one gets off quite that easily in a Nora Ephron movie. Those epiphanies take some work.

Because Ephron was an incredibly honest writer, and unwavering in her feminism, she created female characters we need more of: ones who can be scared and make mistakes but still not lose their dignity; ones whose doubts will not be magically erased upon meeting “Mr. Right”; ones who were weird because people are weird and not because “quirky” is in this season. She has been one of my biggest role models in writing and a vision of how a woman could make it in Hollywood not just as a writer, but as a producer and director and a person with a real seat at the table.

And she was so fucking funny.

I’m extremely sad right now, and I hope that, at the least, Ephron’s passing will be a time when casual fans will examine her career beyond When Harry Met Sally… (no matter how justified we all are in counting it among our favorite films). Let’s ask ourselves how many women who could be contributing on the level of Nora Ephron are not being let in the room yet. Those of us who are women with ambitions to make it in Hollywood, let’s all write something tonight for her.

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Happy birthday, Agnes Varda

If I had one of those fantasy dinner parties where I could invite any five people in the world, Agnès Varda would be on my list. She is someone I admire as a filmmaker, as a woman who made incredible work in her field at a time when few women were doing so, and as a person who just seems to be an utter delight. (Seriously, just watch her 2000 documentary The Gleaners & I…the moments when she enters the picture to contemplate what she’s learning as she makes the film are so warm, smart, and endearing. She’s great.) Agnès Varda turns 84 today, and is still making work that is varied and beautiful.

I’ve written once before about my admiration for Varda’s 1962 film Cleo From 5 to 7. I found this clip today of her speaking sometime in the mid-1960s about her early career, up to and including Cleo. I love what she has to say about its viewpoint:

I actually have not seen much of Varda’s early work, which seems the perfect motivation to have her be a Director of the Month. No, I haven’t forgotten that little project….just got overwhelmed the last couple of months. To make up for April and May, stay tuned for a French New Wave triple-whammy in June: Varda, Godard, and one more I haven’t decided on….Chabrol, maybe? If anyone has a strong opinion, please say so in the comments! There are SO MANY things I haven’t seen yet.

Some thoughts on Top Chef and sexism

I think the judging on Top Chef is sexist.

Some people might disagree with me. Because of the nature of the contest, it’s hard to make the “sexist” call for individual challenges. Any number of things can go wrong for any chef on any day, and the general taste preferences of each judge inevitably come into play. This is part of the appeal of the show: the general unpredictable nature of it. But the overall picture of who is coming out on top in the end demonstrates that something is not right; some other factor besides the element of chance is coming into play.

Allow me to crunch some numbers. Counting those chefs who appeared on the season eight All-Stars edition twice, and skipping the massive two-part “cook your way in” episode that opened this most recent season, Top Chef has had 68 female and 74 male contestants over the course of nine seasons. That’s about 47.9% women at the starting line, where the contestants have already been vetted to the point where we are meant to believe each has an equal chance of winning the season, even though some may be more experienced than others. Yet, only eight out of 27 of the coveted “top three” spots to end each season have been filled by women—about 29.6%. And only one woman has ever won. 11.1%.

(It should be noted that for that season where a woman won, season four, the commonly stated opinion is that Richard Blais was the most talented chef left at the end, and only his crash-and-burn kept him from winning, giving the crown to Stephanie Izard. He was later brought back for the All-Star season for a chance to right this unspeakable wrong. He won.)

I said it was hard to make the sexist call for individual challenges. But the reason I’m writing this post right now is that I’m having trouble not making that call for the finale that aired last night. I won’t deny that the chef who won, Paul Qui, was a formidable contestant over the course of the show. He went up in a final head-to-head with Sarah Grueneberg, someone who had been in the low end of the judging much more often than he had. But the final challenge is supposed to be about only that—just the final meal that’s being served. Each of the two chefs served four courses, to two sets of judges. At Judges Table, each was complimented on their overall menus, nitpicked on a few details, and generally congratulated. However, none of the judges denied that one of those eight servings of Paul’s was a disaster. A failed dish, too overcooked, that even he hadn’t wanted to serve. On the other hand, all eight of Sarah’s servings had been solid, with her dessert hailed as perhaps the best that had ever been presented on the show. I know that reality show editing means that we’re often led to believe that certain contestants will win when that is not the case. But given what we were shown of the judging, and the opinions that were shared, I find it frankly unbelievable that Sarah did not win. And I’m calling sexism.

I’ve seen others write about the subconscious sexism that seems to be factoring into the Top Chef judging overall. The societal picture of a “culinary master” is generally of a male chef, whereas female chefs are more likely to be pictured as the home-cookin’ type that is so popular on channels like the Food Network. Within the competition itself, some women end up following what they’ve been socialized to do for their whole lives, and help others to their own detriment, such as when disproportionately taking on the thankless “front of house” jobs during Restaurant Wars. This all plays into who ends up making it to the final.

When it comes down to Sarah vs. Paul, I feel that two factors hurt her in being denied the title. First, her “likeability.” Sarah rubbed a few people wrong over the course of the season, and was vocal about when others rubbed her the wrong way. Though she’d obviously bonded with the other chefs who made it to the final episodes, she never reached a point of being charming. I don’t in any way think she should have to, but let’s face it—Paul is intrinsically adorable. His handsome-yet-baby-faced vibe and his frequent chatter about just wanting to make his father proud would make just about anyone feel that inner tug to give him the prize. Sarah couldn’t match him in that game. She is an ambitious woman who frequently mentioned that she put off her wedding to be on the show, and in the ambitious woman vs. attractive, vulnerable man showdown, it’s pretty clear who’s got the edge.

The second thing that hurt her—and I believe every woman who made it to that final challenge before her—is that people, in general, have an easier time seeing a woman fail than they do seeing a man fail. Not that making it to the final round of a grueling competition should be seen as a failure, but that’s just it—there’s this overall vibe in society that I notice all the time that seems to say that the more prestigious the prize, the more difficult something is to attain, then the more a woman should be content just to have been in contention in the first place. (See: Hillary Clinton.) The second part of that message is: it’s harder on a man to lose to a woman than it is the other way around. The judges never shy away from showing sympathy for the person they don’t pick to win. Isn’t it easier to have that person be a woman—who’ll surely bounce right back into wedding planning!—than a man whose father whom he only wants to make proud is literally standing right there? Whether they had the conscious thought or not, the saturating nature of societal sexism and the actual factors at play in the room made it emotionally easier to give the prize to Paul, even though he had not performed as well.

Neither of my theories are ones I can prove. But the evidence I was presented with shows that Sarah should have won, and my gut tells me that these factors—these factors that come into play every day, all over the world, for women who are trying to succeed—came into play for her.

I love Top Chef. The challenges can get ridiculous, and I often call the show out on that, but I don’t think I’ve ever missed an episode. For the most part, I really love the judges, too—especially Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons. Can’t get enough of ’em. But the images and ideas society feeds us become ingrained. Sexist bias is often subconscious, and the female judges can let this seep in just as easily as the male judges. I do think that sexism is in play at this point in the judging on this show. The numbers say it, and the judges pretty much said it themselves last night.

Ruminations on fictional female friendships

Throughout my life, I have had a lot of wonderful friendships with other females. Many of these have been very long-lasting; most of the women I spend time with on a regular basis now I have known since high school. I think very often about how fortunate I am to have a multitude of smart, funny, caring, supportive women in my life, who know me so well. So, I’m lucky—but am I abnormal? Is it odd for a woman to have so many other women for real, true, important friends? I don’t think so. But pop culture really does.

I’ve had several conversations with a new friend in my life—Shannon Bowen, one of the Downton Gabby Society Ladies—about the severe lack of accurate depictions of female friendship on screen. Shannon is a writer who believes in producing the product she’d like to see, therefore constructively addressing the problem at hand. (I really hope that a couple years from now you all will be able to see the film version of the comedy script she’s co-written with a female friendship at its core; it’s great stuff.) What she’s trying to do is something we desperately need as a culture right now. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about film and other kinds of literature is because I know that we can draw a direct link between the ideas we are exposed to and the perceptions we have in reality. For that reason, we desperately need more depictions of women that are not about their relationships with men.

I have raged recently in other spaces about the current happenings in government, where certain people feel that they have the right to regulate women’s bodies, to the point of not feeling like women even need to be included in the conversation about it. There are many factors that go into this thinking, from conservative religious views (separation of church and state be damned) to calculated political moves. Perhaps most alarmingly, there are also some far-right female politicians in the mix. I believe that pop culture contributes mightily to the landscape wherein it’s still possible for these politicians, male and female alike, to see women as people who should not have the same voice as men. Whatever the stated or implied thought process for supporting legislation that endangers women’s health, the belief that women should be controlled in a different way than men are is part of it. Meanwhile, the majority of female characters exist only in order to serve a function in a relationship with a male character—his girlfriend; his mother; his sister; his friend who’s always at the ready to discuss his problems. This is if we’re lucky; a lot of films don’t bother too much with female characters at all. It’s why the Bechdel Test, in its simplicity, is so enlightening about the pervasive pattern. Individual films can fail the Bechdel Test and still be great; when almost all the great films are failing the Bechdel Test, that’s when we need to sound the alarm.

People need to be exposed to depictions of women that are about the parts of our lives that have nothing to do with men. This is key to moving our culture toward one where everyone will view women as individuals who have just as much agency and deserve just as much respect as men do, and not see us simply as components in the lives of men. The simplest way to start this, it seems to me, is with better depictions of female friendships. If women’s friendships were portrayed on screen with the same frequency and variety that men’s friendships are, I truly believe it would help in changing the status quo. And of course, it’s important that these are in projects aimed toward both men and women as an audience—in a post-Bridesmaids world, I know we can do it.

In that spirit, here are just a few of my favorite female friendships of film and TV.

Angela Chase and Rayanne Graff, My So-Called Life

As the story of the beginning of a high school friendship, and a friendship wherein it’ll take a little while for either party to understand why she needs the other one so much, nothing beats Angela and Rayanne. In the same series, the equally impressive but not as generally heralded relationship between Angela and Sharon Cherski—friends who have grown apart, though Sharon can’t grasp why—provides nuanced context for Angela’s new relationships.

Monica Gellar, Rachel Green, and Phoebe Buffay, Friends

In its heyday, Friends was a really good comedy. I’ve been re-watching some of it lately in late night reruns, and I’m still impressed by the complex relationships between the characters. The great part about the female friendships on the show is that the conflicts that come up between the women are rarely about such contrived situations as liking the same man (with a big exception for the bizarre episode where Rachel and Monica fight over Jean-Claude Van Damme…). They talk about men, certainly, but usually in the context of helping one another sort through bad situations. And they also help each other often with career problems and family issues. It’s almost like they all have full, multi-faceted lives! Wow!

Sally and Marie, When Harry Met Sally…

It occurs to me that When Harry Met Sally… probably doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. Well, it’s a romantic comedy, so we’ll forgive it that. But even if what Sally and Marie discuss is mostly Harry, Jess, and other romantic prospects, the comfortable, long-standing, caring vibe of their friendship always comes through. It reminds me of certain friendships I have, where every embarrassing detail of life can be shared with no judgment.

Thelma and Louise, Thelma & Louise

This one just has to be a given. Wrapped up in a nifty action adventure, we get the story of two women who would support each other through anything, and their individual and collective realizations that putting up with the status quo is bullshit.

Lindsay Weir and Kim Kelly, Freaks and Geeks

The “two women hate each other before outside circumstances make them friends” trope is problematic (is it just me, or are friendships usually formed when two people meet and like each other?), but one of the exceptions to the rule comes with Lindsay and Kim on Freaks and Geeks. Kim resents Lindsay’s intrusion into her group after Lindsay befriends Kim’s boyfriend, Daniel. The animosity isn’t really about Daniel, though—it’s about Kim’s inability to relate to someone she believes has a much easier life than hers. In the amazing fourth episode of the series, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend,” Kim brings Lindsay home just to show off to her kind-of-awful family that she can make a “normal” friend. The chaos that ensues starts the two girls on a path to a real friendship, where Kim eventually becomes Lindsay’s biggest cheerleader as Lindsay struggles to reconcile her own wants with what her parents want for her. Truly great writing, and amazing characters.

Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane, Daria

Daria and Jane care about a lot of things that typical teenage characters don’t usually get to care about. They talk about how messed up the world is more than they talk about boys (though they do get the boy talk in there), and their senses of humor are sarcastic and snide. The conflicts they face in their friendship often arise because they are still feeling out their own opinions and convictions, and it’s tough to maneuver when those don’t match up. These characters have depth, and we understand why they would be friends.

There are obviously more great examples besides these. Please share your favorites in the comments! My small sample seems to indicate that TV does a better job than movies; am I wrong? Most of what popped into my head was fairly new; what about more examples from before the ’90s? I want to hear your thoughts!

In which I am struck by my own obliviousness

Today over on Twitter, someone in my feed (@alxhuls) had thrown out a request: what are some good film scores for background music while working? He retweeted a response that came in to him (from user @Jim_Lochner) that mentioned scores by Rachel Portman. The two thoughts that immediately went through my head: hmm, have I heard of Rachel Portman? and OHMYGOD have I ever heard of ANY female film composers??

Obviously there are women working as film composers out there. And in my own movie geekdom, I don’t focus on that aspect of film too much—except for the Home Alone score on CD I got as a gift last Christmas (my friends know me well), I haven’t owned a film score since I perma-borrowed my mom’s cassette of Somewhere in Time when I was a moody 14-year-old. I’m not sure why this has never been a bigger part of my film appreciation; certainly I notice bad music, but when the music is good it seems to just fuse with all of the elements and cease to be a concern for individual attention from me. But, despite my tendency to gloss over this aspect of a film, I watch awards shows. I see the composers who do the big films, who get the recognition and the nominations. I know that it’s an important part of the Hollywood machine.

So why have I never noticed the lack of women in the group?

I’m a feminist and a movie fan. These are my two Big Things. I talk about this stuff all the time. I write a column about films directed and written by women! I frequently rant about the abysmal ratios of male to female characters in film! But I had literally never thought about the fact that the film composers getting showered with accolades at the Oscars every year are almost exclusively men.

Written by someone else, someone with a better knowledge of film scores in general, this post could easily be one highlighting all of the great work that I am sure is being done by women, lamenting the lack of attention and the fact that the big jobs consistently go to the same few men. I would love to read such an article. But this post, instead, is an opportunity for me to remind everyone, including myself, that sometimes a lack of diversity is not because of malicious intent, but because of just not noticing. This is even more dangerous, in the grand scheme of things. Things that are “the norm” can blur into seeming natural. Louder discussions—such as about the position of women executives and writers and directors, that I am so fond of talking about—can keep other issues from surfacing. Movie-loving feminists can watch the Oscars religiously and not give a thought to the fact that it’s been eleven years since a woman (yes, Rachel Portman, for Chocolat) was nominated for Best Original Score. If I didn’t notice this while presented with it right before my eyes, is someone (who is probably a man) in the market to hire one individual composer for one individual film likely to give it much thought?

Noticing exclusion, noticing a lack of diversity—it takes work. It takes work because even the most aware of us are inundated with instances of the opposite in a manner that indicates it’s no big deal. That shit gets in your head, whether you want it to or not. I recently had a guy tell me I had “blown his mind” by pointing out that every single one of his favorite books had a male author. That’s exactly how I felt after reading those tweets today. That’s what we’re working with.

Let’s all try to keep it in mind.

 

Happy Birthday J.K. Rowling!

Well, J.K. Rowling’s birthday has been over for hours in the UK, but given that she’s not exactly a regular reader of mine, I’ll send this out anyway without feeling like it’s too much of a faux pas. Wishing a happy birthday to a celebrity one doesn’t know is a bit of an odd phenomenon anyway (and don’t get me started on wishing a happy birthday to dead celebrities…I mean, come on), but I mostly see it as an excuse to send some appreciation out into the ether. And boy, do I appreciate J.K. Rowling.

There is a level on which it seems silly to be so grateful for a series of “children’s books,” but when I think about the hours of emotional experience that have been given to me by the Harry Potter series through its author, it’s really not silly at all. I have always been a person who can care to almost unreasonable degrees for fictional characters, and I love being that way; I love being able to reach those highs and lows of happiness, worry, anticipation, sadness, anger, loss and love in a contained realm, in a way that lets me easily slip back to my regular life, which doesn’t often reach those giddy highs, and where I hope desperately to avoid those devastating lows. That is a huge part of what fiction is about, and why stories are a wonderful, crucial part of human existence.

J.K. Rowling gave me a story that in only a few years, I’ve already turned back to multiple times. She gave me characters I care about fiercely in all of their flaws and glory. She created a world that will remain a vibrant place that I can visit over and over. And she showed the world that a work of popular fiction, near-universal in appeal, could also be a carefully constructed, complicated story told through steady, worthy prose that explores themes that are truly meaningful to our lives in contemporary society—something the Dan Browns and Stephenie Meyerses of our time have not done. She is a brilliant writer of fiction, and I believe with my whole being that no matter what else we face in the world, we need brilliant writers of fiction.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 reached the one billion dollar mark in worldwide box office today, in its 19th day in release. This puts it as the eighth highest box office total of all time, with more countries still to open. There are many reasons not to equate profit with quality, but when I see a franchise I know to be the product of superior storytelling reaching incredible numbers of people, it makes me happy. The very existence of the Harry Potter phenomenon makes me happy, and I so look forward to seeing what its author does next.

Thank you, J.K. Rowling.

Genius dialogue of the day #4

How to be compelling when consumed by love:

How to be eloquent when caught in an irrational jealous rage:

Bright Star, 2009. Written and directed by Jane Campion.


Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

I love Twitter.

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