The Postfeminist Gift of Gwen Stacy, or Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG!

When my 4-year-old son asked me if I would take him to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) on Memorial Day, I’ll admit that I wasn’t even aware the sequel (to the reboot) had been released. I was also unaware that X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) or Captain America: Winter Soldier (Joe Russo) were playing in the same theater. I guess I’ve lost my taste for super hero films. I used to love them. In fact, when I was 13-years-old I became obsessed with Batman (1989, Tim Burton). I had posters and collected trading cards and listened obsessively to the soundtrack:

My interest in films like Tim Burton’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was due less to their super hero antics (the amazing weapons, the acrobatic fight scenes, the spectacle of urban destruction) and far more to do with the idea of normal people who feel an obligation to act on the behalf of others. Because I loved these dark, brooding, almost-noirish heroes, I forgave these films for their lifeless female characters. Or rather, I never thought much about them. I never once identified with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) or Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). I didn’t want to be rescued by Batman (Michael Keaton) or Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), I wanted to be Batman and Spider-Man and rescue folks myself. Now, it’s no secret that super hero movies have a major gender (and race and ethnicity and sexuality problem). Almost all of the major stars of the super hero franchises are white, heterosexual, cis men. And after a while, the white male fantasies of control and power over a chaotic and inherently evil world were no longer interesting to me. I stopped going to see super hero movies.

Though I did not see the first film in the franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than 142 (!!!) minutes of CGI fight scenes, smashed cars, franchise-building, and pretty girls who need rescuing — and that’s exactly what I got. Now I don’t want to shit on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). She’s adorable. Her outfits are amazing (amazing!).  She’s the valedictorian of her graduating class. Her hair curls in all the right places. She snagged a sweet job (internship?) at Oscorp Industries immediately upon graduating. She wrinkles her little nose when she laughs. She even got into Oxford to study sciency stuff. She also uses her knowledge of high school science to help Spider-Man magnetize his web shooters, a key trick allowing Spider-Man to wrangle with Electro (Jamie Foxx).

All of these character traits and plot points appear, on the surface, to elevate Gwen above the usual superhero girlfriend role. Indeed, when Gwen finally decides to leave New York for England (Oxford! Science stuff!) Spider-Man cribs a move from Charlotte’s Web, by writing the words “I Love You” in giant web-letters. He then tells Gwen that he will follow her to Oxford. He will follow Gwen anywhere. He will be her trailing, Spidey-spouse, doing fixed term work across the Pond. OMG, swoonsville, right ladies?

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Image source: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/

Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG.     Image source:
http://i.dailymail.co.uk/

But even as someone who knows nothing about the Spider-Man I  know that shit is not going to happen. Spider-Man cannot give up his gift, his “great responsibility,” for the love of a woman. He can’t be secondary because he’s primary. He’s the protagonist. And Electro is totally sucking up all of New York City’s power so Spidey basically says “Now I’m gonna tie your ass this police car with some of my webs. Bye.”

This enrages Gwen, who is all “Fuck off, Spider-Man,” because she is a modern postfeminist woman (with GIRL POWER!) and she makes her own choices, and no one, not even fucking Spider-Man, is going to tell her what to do. She yells something to this effect and it is adorable but pointless because as we all know, this is not Gwen’s movie. Still, Gwen pulls out some scissors or a Swiss Army knife or something and hacks away at those sticky webs and then shows up at the big show down between her boyfriend and Electro at some magical place in New York City where all the electricity is kept. Gwen uses her vast knowledge of New York City’s power grid (what?), to help Spider-Man destroy Electro and save New York City from a black out, which is a super dire situation because then planes crash.

Despite Gwen’s key contribution to this epic CGI-battle, the whole scene felt a lot like the scene at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) when a little boy, dressed up in a Spider-Man costume, attempts to face off against an Oscorp-generated villain, Rhino (Paul Giamatti). It’s admirable and it’s adorable (his costume is too big for him!), but ultimately, we take a deep sigh of relief when Spider-Man finally appears on the scene, thanks the little boy for his bravery, pats him on the head, then delivers him into the arms of his weeping mama. Gwen is like that little boy: we admire her, she’s adorable and brave, but ultimately, she needs to move aside so the real heroes can do their work. Superheroing is a (white) man’s game. It is not for women and children. It’s not for poor, lonely, invisible Electro either.

This became most apparent in the final battle of the film between Spider-Man and the newly villainized Harry/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan, looking like a cracked out, lost member of One Direction). Because although Gwen reminded Spidey about how magnets work and knew how to access New York City’s power grid (again, I must ask, how does an 18-year-old who jut started working at Oscorp know this?), she is, at the end of the day, just a woman. And a woman’s main value in cinema, especially a summer blockbuster reboot of a successful comic book franchise, is in her to-be-looked-at-ness. That is, Gwen’s purpose is to be an object of the Gaze: Spidey’s gaze, Green Goblin’s gaze, and the audience’s gaze. Her greatest value and power in the film lies in what she means to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Gwen’s photograph appears all over Peter’s bedroom. She is an image to be adored. She is Peter’s everything. She is his crime-fighting muse. After they break up, Spider-Man sits atop New York City buildings, stalking watching Gwen going about her day. We watch her too. Her outfits are amazing.

Gwen exists to be looked at and she exists as an object of exchange. Harry/Green Goblin values her only because Peter values her. That is, Gwen’s worth is determined by the men around her. As Gayle Rubin argues in her seminal essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975):

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If Harry possesses Gwen, he can exchange her for something he values, in this case, the blood of Spider-Man (which Harry believes will save his life). Gwen gains nothing in this exchange of her body (other than, she hopes, the opportunity to remain alive) because she is the object, the gift, that the powerful white men toss back and forth like a beautiful little rag doll. In the film’s (almost) final battle scene, Harry, now in full Green Goblin mode, scoops up little Miss Gwen and carries her off to a Dangerous Place. Spider-Man, predictably, chases after his love, intent on both saving her life and stopping Green Goblin.

And so, near the end of Spider-Man 2 we find ourselves in a familiar situation: our beautiful damsel, our muse, the gift/ransom exchanged between two men (one selfless, the other selfish), is literally dangling by a string. Here Gwen becomes more valuable than ever because she is now the audience’s gift. Because we identify with Spider-Man, the protagonist, Gwen’s peril is intended to fill us with the worst kind of dread. If she dies, how will Spider-Man feel? I mean, it’s gonna really fuck him up, right? Gwen’s life is the film’s climax.

And when that thin cord of webbing snaps and Gwen begins her freefall through one of the many dangerous old warehouses that seem to lurk around every corner in super hero movies, we are meant to feel the weight of her loss. She is falling away from Peter Parker, our proxy, and his loss is our loss. We see the terror in Gwen’s eyes (good acting, Emma Stone, seriously) and we know those eyes will haunt poor Spider-Man for months or even years. So much good brooding is head! And when Spider-Man cradles Gwen’s lifeless body in his arms, seconds after it hit the ground with a sickening crunch, we can only wonder about the impact of this death on our hero.
Here the film offers us a series of flashbacks of Peter’s time with Gwen, happy times when they were eating frozen yogurt and standing atop bridges and going to interviews at Oxford in very, very tiny skirts. Each of these flashbacks are shown from Peter’s point of view. We see Gwen through his eyes: as he watches her or goes in for an embrace. Because even in her death montage, Gwen has no subjectivity. Her loss can only be registered as Peter’s loss. She is forever the object of his longing gazes. We see Peter go to the graveyard season after season, all to the detriment of his important super hero duties. Here again, Gwen’s value is only in relation to how she impacts Spider-Man’s ability to be Spider-Man.

Look, I get it. The movie’s title is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not Gwen Remembers How Magnets Work or Gwen Goes to Oxford. Of course every supporting character’s role is there to do just that — to support the story of the Amazing Spider-Man. But I suppose it’s Gwen’s postfeminist accoutrement that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I almost wish Gwen were more helpless and passive, stupider and more frightened. But it’s the fact that Gwen is so damn capable: she’s pretty and smart and plucky and brave and has the love of a good man. She is living the postfeminist dream (until she dies, that is!) and for that, she gives the film an appearance of some kind of gender equality. “Look, she helps Spidey! Look, she’s pursuing a career!” At the end of the day, these stories belong to the same white men they’ve always belonged to.

This is how summer blockbusters work. They are not for me. They are for white, heterosexual teenage boys. The rest of us are just there for the ride. We, like poor Gwen, are hanging by that slender thread of webbing, hoping Spider-Man can hold on to us just a few minutes longer before we’re dropped to the ground.

 

My Mom’s 2014 Oscar Picks

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Most bloggers publish their Oscar picks hours, or at the latest, days, after the nominations are announced. Because that’s when most people are interested in hearing about Oscar picks — before the Oscars. But Nana and I aren’t “most bloggers.” Sure, we’ll give you our Oscar picks, but we’re going to publish them just hours before the actual ceremony. That’s because Nana and I like to throw caution to the wind. We’re free-thinkers. We’re iconoclasts. We’re rebels. But mostly? We’ve both been really, really busy the last few months and didn’t have the time to sit down and discuss our Oscar picks today, the day of the big O.

Amanda: Okay, Nana, so we don’t have a lot of time because we sort of waited until the last minute — we were both trying to see as many of the 2013 films as we could. So before we begin our conversation, in the interest of full disclosure, I think we need to tell our readers what movies we haven’t seen. I’ll start with mine: The Wolf of Wallstreet (Martin Scorsese), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), Philomena (Stephen Frears), Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass). So there are quite a few holes in my ballot, I’m afraid. What about you?

Nana: Wow. Well, you’re going to have to see those.

I know, Nana, I know.

The movie Her (Spike Jonze) is the one Best Picture nominee that I have not seen.

That’s the only one?

Yep.

Wow. Good job, Nana. 

Thanks.

What are your picks for best actress in a leading role?

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Frankly, all five of them were very, very good. I enjoyed all of their performances. But, by far — and it will be an absolute crime if she does not win — the best performance was by Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen). Her role was so interesting: it was a woman who had experienced great wealth and then lost it suddenly, and it really affected her mentally. To watch her try to cope with life from one extreme to another was fascinating. She’s just absolutely gorgeous and she’s  such a wonderful actress. At the end you almost just had to cry with her.

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Almost! Well my pick is definitely Sandra Bullock in Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron). Now I did enjoy Amy Adams in American Hustle (David O. Russell) and it was a hard role because she was playing alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly had the showier role. But I think she made her character matter in that film, and she made me care about her. But still, I have to stick with Sandra here because it’s very difficult to carry a performance by yourself, when you have no humans to interact with, to play off of. Her costars were the films’ special effects. I thought she pulled off the complexity of emotion you need in a controlled role like that. She made me care about the human element in a film which is otherwise about how insignificant humanity is.

Oh I enjoyed that movie, though I did find it almost silly in areas.

What do you mean?

I mean the whole thought of a person being alone in space and what she was going through. A quarter of the way through I almost turned it off.

Wow.

I also watched it on OnDemand at home, so that may have something to do with it.

Ha, yes. What are your picks for best actor in a leading role?

Again, all five were superb (except for Christian Bale, I disliked American Hustle tremendously, I thought it was a stupid movie). As you know, I am such a fan of Leonardo, and I was pulling for him to win up until last night, when I finally watched Dallas Buyer’s Club (Jean-Marc Vallee). But now I think, without question, Matthew McConaughey* must win. He was phenomenal.

TORONTO

Because he lost a ton of weight?

Oh goodness, no. It was the role: this pathetic man who tried desperately to secure a life for himself and had nothing but his weekly paycheck, which always went towards gambling and women. And then the one thing he prided himself on was his sex drive, and how frequently he has sex with women, and then it turns out he has HIV.  And then, of course, his friends turn against him. Then, he tries to desperately to bring these drugs into the country, which have been banned by the FDA. Just a fascinating story.

*Note: Nana keeps calling him “Matthew McConnelly”

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Well, Nana, as you know, my pick has been, and remains, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). In some ways, it’s a similar role to the one played by McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club: a man who finds himself in a horrible situation, a life or death situation, and how does he negotiate that, how does he keep himself alive? For me, I thought it was a very subtle performance — Michael Fassbender had the showy role in this movie — but this actor was expressive and restrained at the same time.

For example, there’s one scene, about halfway through the movie, where Solomon attends the funeral of an older man who has died from heat exhaustion or malnutrition — the result of his status as an enslaved worker. At first, Solomon remains silent as the other slaves sing a funeral dirge. His mouth is tight and his eyes are distant. The director uses a long take here that focuses on Solomon’s face and these subtle degrees of change — the camera stays with him through the entire song, it never cuts, never looks away. But over the course of the song his face makes these micro adjustments. He begins to sing along, half heartedly. Then he begins to sing in earnest. For me, this was the moment when Solomon decided he was going to continue to commune with his own humanity. He was going to mourn this man’s death and recognize that  death matters, even though he is in a seemingly hopeless situation. He could have gone two ways — go numb or continue to feel. He chooses to continue to feel here, which is arguably the tougher choice. To convey that with no dialogue? That’s an Oscar, Nana.

Oh, I agree, he did a great job.

What are your picks for best supporting actress in a leading role?

June Squibb, in Nebrasksa, was one of my favorites. At eighty-four years old, she’s just incredible. But she won’t win. My pick — and I don’t know if she’ll win because she’s so hot right now — and that’s Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle. The only saving grace in that film is Jennifer Lawrence.

Oh I agree with you on that point…

I don’t really think she should have won last year (for Silver Linings Playbook). But for this role? If she doesn’t win, I think it’s because she’s so pretty. People don’t want to like her.

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This is a tough one. I can’t pick between Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o. The reason why I’m on the fence is because I think these roles — in a lot of ways — are serving the same function. There are a lot of parallels between Rosalyn and Patsy: they’re both women who have little to no control over their own lives. Their actions and their livelihoods are controlled by men. And the outcomes of their lives are both very much tied to their bodies. Rosalyn’s only power is in her sexuality — in her sloppy up do, her ample cleavage, and her nails that smell like flowers and garbage — and she uses that to get what she wants. But for Patsy, her sexuality is a liability. It’s the reason she is repeatedly raped and why she becomes a target for the jealous wife of her rapist. I think that illustrates, ironically, the way white privilege functions in the cinema: female sexuality  is empowering for powerless white woman and destructive for the powerless black woman.

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What are your picks for best supporting actor in a leading role?

Ohhh. Absolutely Jared Leto. The way he talked, the way he walked. There was such love in him. And everybody loved him, except his family. Not only was he very sick with AIDS but he was so addicted to cocaine and heroine and whatever else he was taking…And then the scene where he had to put on a men’s suit to meet with his father?

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Yes, that was one of the more poignant scenes in the film. When we see him that suit — with no make up, no color — he just looks so despondent, like it’s killing him to be dressed that way. 

When you see the relationship between Rayon and his father you can see why he turned to drugs — his family didn’t accept him. And then when he knows he’s about to die and he’s looking in the mirror and he says “When I go to heaven, I want to be pretty.” Oh God.

Yeah, I think he’s my pick, too, Nana. So let’s wrap it up: what is your pick for best picture?

I am still in favor of The Wolf of Wall Street.

WHAAAAAAT?

Yes.

You’re blinded by your boyfriend [Leonard DiCaprio].

[Here Nana precedes to trash other Best Picture nominees and we argue a lot]

The Wolf of Wall Street had everything: it had incredible acting, it had — if they want the sex thing and naked bodies — it had that, it had humor, it had a fascinating story. It was just extremely well done. I’m going with The Wolf of Wall Street. 

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Okay, so you know I haven’t all of the Best Picture nominees, but I am going to stick with my original pick in this category, 12 Years a Slave. My reason for that — and we’ve discussed this before — is that my criteria for Best Picture is that the whole be greater than the sum of its parts. So a Best Picture winner has to have great performances, beautiful cinematography, a strong script, etc. But then, the picture itself has to be more than that. For me, this movie has been long overdue. I know there have been movies about slavery made in the past, but no other film, in my experience, has delved into the subtle and ongoing damage that the institution of slavery has created in this country like this film has. We see how slavery impacts the relationships between African American men and women — how they are both suffering but in such very different ways (for example, getting rape versus watching helplessly as someone gets raped, those are two very different kinds of horrors). We also see how it impacted the relationships between the male and female slaveowners — how the white mistress was powerless, except when it came to the slaves, the one arena in which she could flex her muscles and exert power. We see that in the scene where Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) throws a crystal vase at Patsy’s head. I found those scenes to be so much more devastating than the more overtly violent moments. I think America desperately needed this movie to be made.
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Okay, so my final question for you is this: are there any movies or performances that weren’t nominated that you feel should have been nominated?

Hmmm, you know the one film I was surprised didn’t get anything is The Butler (Lee Daniels). I was surprised it didn’t get more. Did Oprah get anything for this?

Nope.

Oh wow. Well the lead, Forest Whitaker, was superb. The role he played — from when he was a little boy and his father was shot in the fields and his mother was raped — and he goes on to get a job in the White House. I really thought that film was wonderful, Not sure why it was snubbed. Also, All is Lost  (J.C. Chandor). Poor Robert Redford.

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For me this year’s big snub was Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine). Spring Breakers failed to find it’s audience because on the surface it looked like a fun teenpic about “good girls gone bad” on Spring Break — this misconception about the film was encourage by the foregrounding of its Disney princess stars — Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens — and the images of neon-bikini clad revelers that accompanied advertisements for the film. The folks who were drawn in by the ad campaign got a very different picture: a borderline-experimental meditation on capitalism, whiteness, femininity, and the affectless violence and sexuality of contemporary visual culture. So, in other words, not a light film in the least. In fact, I just taught this film in my course, Women and Identity in American Cinema, and one thing my students mentioned is that they didn’t believe that the film’s young stars — particularly Selena Gomez — were even aware of the kind of film they were starring in. Instead, the women acted as they always do — as the beneficiaries of white privilege, immune to critique, physical harm (except for a single gunshot wound), or laws. One of my students explained it this way on our class blog: 

While the girls do little, they are rewarded nonetheless, whether their efforts were good or bad. This allows the “white privilege” of the girls to be seen more like armor because they act as though nothing can touch them, they are invincible– immortal. They’ve been taught and proven right many times (robbing a restaurant, etc.) that there are no consequences for them…That is the role whiteness plays in this film, the illusion of immortality and security.

Beyond it’s cunning commentary on race, Spring Breakers offers up one of the best performances of the year with James Franco’s turn as Alien, a cornrow-and-diamond-grill-wearing drug dealer/wannabe-rapper. My students all agreed that Franco definitely knew what kind of movie he was acting in (one student noted “I mean, he has a PhD”). Yeah, that’s the kind of movie this is — the kind of movie that may require one of its actors to have a PhD in order to fully understand the meaning of his own character.

As Jeffrey Sconce notes, Alien is a tragic figure in this movie. While the pretty white girls he brings under his wing are just “playing” at being gangstas and “bad bitches,” this world is his life. When he delivers his “Look at my shit!” speech he means it. He loves his shit and he believes his shit makes him important. But it was the acquisition of so much shit (specifically, the deadly duo of Candy and Britt) that leads to his ultimate demise.

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Other snubs? I loved Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach), and really, I feel that film deserved more recognition overall. Also, Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), which was a visceral counterpoint to the more philosophically-inclined Her on the subject of online intimacy. 

Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig in Franes Ha

Well, Nana, thanks for talking with me again. Your fans thank you.

Me, Nana, and my daughter celebrating Nana's birthday in NYC last month.

Me, Nana, and my daughter celebrating Nana’s birthday in NYC last month.

Race, Feminism and Intersectionality

Baby, you know I love you. I do. I think about you all the time, even when I’m too busy to spend time with you.

But, baby, sometimes Mama likes to write for other blogs. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t love you anymore — I will always love you best. It’s just that sometimes Mama needs to do some talking with other people on the internet, people who may not follow this blog.

But I don’t want you, my small but wonderful readership, to feel left out, so I’m posting that piece here. It’s a conversation that I had with Dr. Kristen Warner about the intersections of race and feminism in light of many recent examples of the disconnect between white women and the black bodies they appropriate for their art. Kristen’s suggested title was “Intersectional Solidarity or Knowing when to Tell Folks to Take a Seat” but alas, The Blot changed it. Can’t win ‘em all, baby.

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You can read that one here.

And please, baby, go on over there and comment and get this conversation started. Don’t be mad at Mama, now. She loves you.

GHOSTBUSTERS as Neoliberal AltAc Fantasy

Normally, I’m not a big fan of rewatching films I’ve already seen. I have to do so much rewatching for my classes and for my research that in my free time my goal is to see new stuff. Nevertheless, over the last few months I’ve been rewatching some favorite films from my childhood, like Home Alone (1990 Chris Columbus), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, Chris Columbus), Teen Wolf (1985, Rod Daniel), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes), Karate Kid (1994, John G. Alvidsen), and Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross), with my own children and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve (mis)remembered those films. When I rewatched Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, I was shocked by how my memories of that film were so conditioned by its theatrical trailer. The scenes that I found myself remembering before they happened — Robin Williams asking Harvey Fierstein to make him a woman, Robin Williams throwing a piece of fruit at Pierce Brosnan’s head, Robin Williams’ rubber breasts on fire — were the scenes that were featured in the film’s trailer:

As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with commercials, with flow, and I watched these commercials over and over, even when I didn’t actively watch them (because I was fighting with my brother or gabbing on my sweet cordless phone). These scenes travelled through my brain repeatedly, wearing a groove, making themselves at home. Robin Williams’ burning rubber breasts are a permanent part of my memories.

But it wasn’t just frequent exposure to trailers that shaped my memories of these films — my memories have also been shaped by the way I watched movies as a child, that is, by my child-self’s attention span. A few weeks ago we decided to screen Footloose for our kids, reasoning that its numerous dance scenes would make up for its snoozer of a plot about an uptight preacher (John Lithgow) who won’t just let those kids dance! But my husband and I misremembered the film — there aren’t that many dance scenes in the film. And when those kids aren’t dancing? Well, the film is pretty boring. Our kids (and our neighbor’s kid) were antsy throughout, only pepping up when a dance number came on. Then they would leap off the couch and dance furiously until the narrative started up again. So perhaps they, too, will misremember the film when they’re old like me, filing away the “good stuff,” the dancing and the Kevin Bacon, and forgetting the boring stuff.

What I’d like to talk about in this blog post, though, is my experience of rewatching a beloved film from my childhood and realizing that the film my child’s brain watched is very different from the one I watched as an adult. I’m talking about Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman). I remember being 8-years-old and actively anticipating the release of Ghostbusters, a movie which was most certainly a must-see for the elementary school set. Like most kids my age, I was obsessed: I watched the sequel and the Saturday morning cartoon, ate my Slimer candy, and of course I drank my fair share of Ecto Cooler .

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This past Saturday we rented Ghostbusters, made some popcorn, and invited another couple and their son to watch it with us (at this point my child-free readers might be asking themselves: is this what Saturday night looks like when you have young children? Yes it does, child-free friends, so please, practice safe sex). As we all sat down to watch the movie, the first thing I remembered about the film, or rather what I had forgotten about the film, is that before they become “Ghostbusters,” saviors of New York City (and by extension, the entire world), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are actually professors at Columbia University, studying the paranormal.

Pointless brain research. Image source: ghostbusters.wikia.com

Pointless research.
Image source:
ghostbusters.wikia.com

I had completely forgotten this but the moment the film cuts from a frightened librarian to the interior of a Columbia lab where Bill Murray flirts with a student participanting in his ESP tests, I turned to my children and declared “The heroes of this movie are professors, kids, just like Mommy!” The friends who were over are also professors, in Biology and Geology, so they were also excited for their son to see professors doing cool shit in a movie (this rarely happens, as you all know). After we watched the scene in which the professors are informed that their grant has been terminated, my daughter was confused “What just happened?” she asked. I explained, “It would be like if Beth’s boss took away her corn fields or if Eric’s boss took away his rocks.” Then my husband piped in “Or if someone said Mommy couldn’t watch movies.” Rocks and corn are not ghost busting, but they’re more tangible than the study of film. Nevertheless, this answer satisfied my daughter.

As I watched Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler pack up their offices and their life’s work and leave Columbia’s grand campus, I thought about the current state of academia and then, I began to watch Ghostbusters in a different way. Instead of watching the fun, comedy-horror-blockbuster of my youth, I found I was watching a vision of the future of academia, a fantasy of the Alternative-Academic career, one based wholly on the market value of the university professor’s research, rather than the broader, and somewhat less market-driven value of the professor’s ability to instruct students in that research and to engage the public in those findings.

Hello Professors! Image source: www.clearancebinreview.com/

Hello Professors!
Image source:
http://www.clearancebinreview.com/

When the professors leave academia they are not ghost busters. They’re just unemployed PhDs, which, as we all know, are a dime a dozen. What transforms these useless, unemployed academics into Ghostbusters? An ancient Sumerian god named Gozer the Gozerian, who wants to destroy New York City! These professors are literally the only people in the city who can do this job. They actually have ghost busting equipment: proton packs (for wrangling ghosts), ghost traps, and an Ecto containment unit on hand. I mean if there’s something strange in your neighborhood who are you gonna call? I don’t need the 1984 Ray Parker Jr. hit to answer that question, because the answer is, naturally: GHOSTBUSTERS! The university may not value these men, but the good people of New York certainly do. Their research will save the world! Does your research save the world? Mine sure doesn’t!

So you see, these professors have a real value. As soon as their first commercial airs, glimpsed (fortuitously) by beautiful Dana Stevens (Sigourney Weaver) just before she finds a demon in her fridge, the phone at Ghostbusters central never stops ringing. In fact, the Ghostbusters have so much business, they must hire a fourth ghost buster, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson). My childhood memories of this film have Hudson’s character, aka the “black Ghostbuster,” playing a much larger role, perhaps because he gets more screen time in the sequel? But during this viewing at least, I was surprised by how little screen time he gets. His character truly feels like an afterthought, like a producer said “You better get a black guy in there somewhere” and so they threw him in at the last minute. But I digress. All of this is just to say that business is booming at Ghostbusters and the men are finally getting the chance to prove the value — the real, incontrovertible value — of their life’s work. The market says so.

In this neoliberal (a term I use here to reference the broader trends toward the privatization of higher education) fantasy of higher education, academia within the walls of the academy is stifled and limited. But once professors are freed from the constraints of the Ivory Tower, with its navel-gazing and its pretentiousness, and are placed at the mercy of the market (aka, “the real world”), they can demonstrate the true value of their research and their pedagogy. Professors should be training our college graduates for real jobs in the real world. After all, isn’t the whole point of a university education to create future workers, future entrepreneurs, future moneymakers? Sure it is.

But what happens next? What interrupts our fairytale of flourishing academics? It’s the goddamn Environmental Protection Agency, that’s who! Walter Peck (William Atherton), the EPA representative, is the film’s heavy. I remember hating this character when I was a kid. “Why won’t he just let the Ghostbusters do their jobs? Doesn’t he realize the fate of the city is at stake? Regulation is the worst!” Peck wants to investigate the environmental impact of the Ecto containment unit, which, I have to admit, looks super shady. I wouldn’t want to live downstream from the Ecto containment unit, but if I had to choose between living with Gozer and living with Ecto in my water? Bring on the Ecto cooler! Screw the EPA! Regulation, boo, hiss!

In the final scene of Ghostbusters, all four men (yes, even Winston), are cheered by New York City residents who are grateful that they’ve been saved from the wrath of Gozer. I told my kids “Look, they’re cheering for the professors!” And then the four adults in the room laughed for a long time.

My kids laughed too. They were delighted by the film, just as I had been as a kid. But this time around, Ghostbusters gave me pause. The narrative hit a little too close to home because I am acutely aware of the market value of my degree and my profession. My Governor tells me my work is useless and elitist. So I’m waiting for the day when this dystopian future is upon us, when the key master finds the gate keeper, and we’re all packing up our offices,  just waiting for a chance to prove our true worth.

I Sat Through all of the 1D Documentary and All I Got was this Lousy Blog Post

Image credit: Zap2it

Image credit: Zap2it

7-year-olds are cultural omnivores, taking in everything around them. It’s only later that they sort through what they’ve accumulated to figure out what they like and don’t like. Right now, my 7-year-old has been soaking up a lot of music, trying to figure out what she likes and what she doesn’t. She wavers between two basic categories of pop music — what we call “love songs” and “heartbreak songs.”

So, for example, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”? That’s a love song, of course:

And Adele’s “Someone Like You”?:

So much heartbreak.

I explained to my daughter that sometimes the distinction between “love song” and “heartbreak song” is difficult to discern. The other day I introduced her to one of my all-time favorite “heartbreak songs,” the Bob Dylan classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But before I played her the original, I played her this cover (which I love):

After a few bars she looked confused, “This doesn’t sound like a heartbreak song,” she told me. “I know,” I said, “but you have to listen to the words.” So I played her Joan Baez’s cover and we both closed our eyes (really, we did) and listened:

“So long honey, baby
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye’s too good a word, babe
So I’ll just say fare thee well

I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You coulda done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”

We talked about the meaning of that last line — “But don’t think twice, it’s all right” — and whether the singer really meant it or not. Was it really “all right?” My 7-year-old thought not. She asked to hear the original:

“That was so much sadder,” she told me, and then added “I like this one the best.”

My daughter’s into love songs and heartbreak songs but she also inherited her mother’s love for kitsch. So it follows that the 7-year-old is really into Toto. We have a boom box/I-Pod combo in our kitchen and on most days my daughter can be found scrolling through song titles, searching out her favorites, and singing along. She’s been singing “Rosanna” so often lately, in fact, that she’s taught it to her best friend during their shared 20 minute commute to school. I feel a little bad about this — like I’m passing my kitsch-love on to my child who is then passing it on to her friends. But Toto has taught my daughter a valuable lesson and it is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover, or “Oh My God, is this what Toto looks like?”

Like this:

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and this:

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and this:

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Isn’t that a great lesson? But then I told her: though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,  a pretty face doesn’t hurt things either. That brings us to the main topic of today’s blog post: One Direction.

You were getting worried, weren’t you, that I pulled a bait-and-switch and that this blog post was actually a think piece about listening to love songs and heartbreak songs with my kid and not a review of the new 3-D hit, One Direction: This is Us ?

Relax. I got this.

My daughter has been marginally interested in One Direction for about a year now. We first discovered “What Makes You Beautiful” in the summer of 2012 and the song soon made it’s way onto the holy I-Pod. From there it was a slippery slope to kitchen floor dance parties during which we loudly sang the chorus:

“Baby you light up my world like nobody else,
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell,
You don’t know,
Oh, oh,
You don’t know you’re beautiful”

We all sang along and we loved it. We had no choice: completely ignoring “What Makes You Beautiful”‘s lyrics, which validate the persistent popularity of “Who me? Pretty?” female characters like Twilight‘s Bella Swan, the feeling of the song is infectious. I mean, as a love song it’s pretty fantastic. But that’s not why I took my daughter to see One Direction: This is Us on Labor Day. The decision was made, rather impulsively, last week, when One Direction went on the America’s Got Talent results show in order to promote the film and perform the single “Best Song Ever”:

When the One Direction boys — Harry, Niall, Liam, Louis, and Zayn — walked on stage my daughter was immediately enchanted even though I was sure that she had never heard “Best Song Ever,” the song they performed (which incidentally, is not the best song ever — it’s merely “okay”). She’s not a 1D fan (and neither am I) but she was mesmerized. We both were. We were entertained.

As soon as the performance ended there was SO. MUCH. SCREAMING and then a trailer for the 1D movie. I turned to my 7-year-old daughter, because, really, we had no choice in the matter. There is no reordering of events that would conclude with us not seeing One Direction: This is Us. “We’ll go Monday,” I say.

***

New Direction, pictured with Simon Cowell on The X Factor Image credit: zimbio.com

New Direction, pictured with Simon Cowell on The X Factor
Image credit: zimbio.com

One Direction: This is Us is not, technically speaking, very good. We hear the boilerplate narrative — a story of five ordinary boys who tried out for The X-Factor, lost, then found themselves with a recording contract and 10 million records sold. We learn that the boys “can’t believe!” they’re famous. They lean over balconies to control the volume of their swooning fans’ screams like orchestra conductors. This happens multiple times and it’s meant to show us that One Direction is REALLY FAMOUS. In many countries. Can you believe it? The boys — who genuinely seem to like each other — even have an earnest chat around a campfire about their fame and what life will be like when the fame is gone. It’s like having a chat with One Direction’s publicist. And no, I wasn’t expecting more than that. Because why would One Direction want to derail this train? I’m onboard — toot! toot!

There are a few moments, of course, that disrupted this master narrative, and I’d like to think that Morgan Spurlock (he of the brilliant, important Supersize Me) temporarily awoke from the lobotomy that must be responsible for the rest of the movie and decided to do something interesting. For example, in many scenes we see the boys playing the role of merry pranksters (and how we all do love the antics of young white males!): running away from body guards who then have to chase them (because it’s their job) and toss them over their shoulders, and plant them back in safe territory. The bodyguards tell the camera that boys will be boys, and that this is life on tour, but I detected weariness in their eyes. Those eyes are saying “Enough already.”

http://giphy.com/gifs/W0AuVJgtxfz44

And in at least one scene I’m pretty sure Harry Styles is very drunk — which is the only whiff of alcohol in the film. These boys sleep, call their mums, get mobbed by fans, and fret over who they can trust to really like them for who they are and not because they’re celebrities. But they don’t drink and they don’t have girlfriends (only exes). Fiances certainly never appear. There’s also a touching scene in which the boys’ mothers look over the merchandise on sale at a concert venue. One of the mothers purchases a cardboard cut-out of her son, Liam (I think? It’s so hard for me to keep the names straight), because she explains (with tears brimming in her eyes!), she never gets to see him in person. Later in the film, Liam (or maybe Louis?) goes home for a visit and is surprised to find himself already there. I enjoyed these moments, because they felt real to me, and I need that realness in a documentary.

Image credit: EW.com

Image credit: EW.com

There was also this scene in which Simon Cowell is explaining how One Direction’s popularity was due in part to British girls and social media. We then see footage of different excited fans bragging about how many tweets they wrote about the band. They are so very excited and earnest about their role in 1D’s success. They’re certain of it. And, for a moment, I feel their power. In the next shot Cowell says he can’t explain the band’s appeal among girls because: “I’m not a neuroscientist.” Spurlock then cuts to a white-coated doctor holding a model of the human brain. The nueroscientist points out how certain kinds of music cause the brain to release dopamine. “They’re not crazy,” he says, “just happy.” In other words, One Direction: This is Us is validating this particular kind of fan love — a love that is so often invalidated.

Dina Gachman chronicles her experience watching the film over at The Hairpin and describes the fans this way:

“I should stop being so judgmental.

Their fans are insane.

These fans really love them.

Pre-teen girl lust is the most powerful force in the universe.

I hope they’re saving their money.”

Yes, they are powerful. In One Direction: This is Us we meet a girl who says “They sing our feelings.” It was around this time that I started to think maybe all this movie needed for me to enjoy it was to remember that word: happy. It was also around this time that my daughter leaned in to me and whispered “I don’t really see how this is a movie.”

What I think she meant is, One Direction: This is Us has no real story, and what it does tell us, we already knew. But that doesn’t matter. When, towards the end of the film, Harry finished singing a love song (does it matter which one?) and looked out at his audience of screaming fans and also at me and my daughter, and he told us all: “I want to kiss every one of you!”  I believed him. Not because I want to actually kiss a child who is, seriously, young enough to be my son. No, not that. What I mean is: I believed the dream of the love song and the heartbreak song and of someone singing your feelings.

A True Story About Being White

Editor’s note: I apologize for my long absence, dear readers, but I started a true story blog back in May, Tell Us A Story, and that has monopolized all of my summer blogging time. I promise to return to this blog in the fall, with my usual posts about film, TV and popular culture. In the meantime though, I have a different kind of true story to tell.

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After the devastating ruling in the George Zimmerman case I read a post by the Crunk Feminist Collective in which they asked:

“Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. Six white women (some say five) decided that a young Black man was responsible for his own murder, and they believed that a young Black woman could not be a credible witness. Where is your (OUT)RAGE?! Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, that not only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors? Where is the accountability? Where is the allyship? Why AGAIN do we have to ask you to show up? It is time for y’all to do the work. We refuse. We are tired. We are choosing to take care of ourselves and our communities. “

I took these words personally because these words are personal. They are directed at me and they fill me with shame. So I am trying to not be silent. With all the talk this summer about what it means to be a young black male in America, I thought I would write about what it means to be a young white male in America. I’m going to tell you a story about my son and being white in America when it’s dark outside. It isn’t much, I know, but it’s what I have right now.

***

My husband and I are both originally from the Northeast (New York and Pennsylvania, respectively) but we currently live in North Carolina, due to the somewhat bizarre and unforgiving nature of the academic job market. Don’t get me wrong, I have actually come to love many things about my new Southern home: the heat, the complete absence of winter, the way people wait and hold the door open for you, even when you are a good fifty paces behind them. I even like being called “ma’am.” But there are drawbacks to our Southern location. Obviously, North Carolina’s stance on marriage equality, abortion, voter rights, religious freedom, etc.. etc. is garbage. But that’s a different post all together. The other problem with living here is, of course, that my husband and I are 400-600 miles away from our families. This means that we travel a lot, especially in the summertime. This is a story about one of those trips.

A few weeks ago my husband and I packed up our minivan and our kids and headed for central Pennsylvania. We take I-95 North, a highway which always seems to be plagued with construction, traffic delays and accidents, which means that a trip that should take 6 hours often takes 8 hours. To avoid these delays, we usually try to drive during off-peak hours, leaving around 6pm and arriving around midnight. On this particular trip, my husband and I were delighted to be getting off  the D.C. beltway, onto 270, around 10pm. That meant we would reach our beds by 11:30pm. We were in the midst of high-fiving each other when our 3-year-old son, who only speaks in capslock, announced “I GOTTA MAKE POOPY.” Our faces fell.  270 exists to get people on to and off of the beltway, not for potty breaks. All of the nearby exits led to gated communities and medical parks. There would be no easily accessible bathrooms for many miles.

“Hey buddy, can you try to hold it for a little bit?” my husband asked. “SURE” yelled our son. But ten minutes later he bellowed “I CAN’T TAKE MUCH MORE OF THIS,” a turn of phrase he has recently learned and which he tries to use whenever possible. We sighed and took the next exit, knowing that locating a bathroom at 10 pm in the Maryland suburbs was going to be a challenge. We drove for miles and miles, seeing nothing. “I NEED TO GO POOPY” the 3-year-old periodically reminded us. “I know, honey, we’re trying.” Finally, after 15 minutes of frantic searching, we spotted a group of men playing baseball in front of what appeared to be a recreational center. I suggested we check it out, reasoning that these men would probably need a bathroom break at some point during their game. But as we drove through the complex we could find nothing. “Not even a port-a-potty?” I lamented. “I WILL GO IN THE PORT-A-POTTY” said the 3-year-old. “I know buddy. But there’s no port-a-potty.”

As we were about to turn around and leave, our goal of reaching bed by midnight now a distant memory, I saw a woman sitting in an SUV, talking on her cell phone. “Wait! Look over there! I’ll bet that woman can tell us where a bathroom is!” My husband stopped the minivan and I grabbed my son and headed over.

At this point, I should probably tell you a little bit about my son. My son is adorable: he has big blue eyes, curly brown hair, and a friendly smile. People go apeshit for my son. They stop me in grocery stores and on the streets to comment on his appearance: “Look at those curls! Look at those baby blues!” It happens so often, in fact, that it embarrasses me. I don’t say that to brag, because I have nothing to do with his good looks (he looks nothing like me). And he has nothing to do with his good looks either. He was just born that way. He’s lucky.

So it’s 10 pm on a Thursday night in a Maryland suburb and my very cute son and I approach the woman in the SUV. “Excuse me?” I say, tentatively, because she is on her phone “We’re looking for a bathroom?” The woman raises a finger, indicating that she heard me, and says good-bye to whomever was the on the other line. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just that my son really needs to use the bathroom and we’ve been driving around…” “Come with me” she says, leading us to an alley behind the rec center. It is only now that I see that this woman is wearing a blue custodial uniform and a name tag. She works in the rec center and she is going to use her key to let us in. “What good fortune!” I thought to myself.

The alley is dark and garbage cans line the brick walls. “I JUST NEED A PORT-A-POTTY!” the 3-year-old offers. “It’s okay,” I tell him, “the nice lady is taking us to the potty.” We finally enter the building and I immediately see a sign for the women’s locker room. “Thank you so much!” I tell the custodian, as I head inside. “Oh no!” she says, shaking her head, “You don’t go in there. It’s DIRTY,” she explains. I look again at the locker room and see that this is where the rec center staff probably goes to change and shower. “You follow me,” she says, and leads us down a series of hallways, until we reach another set of bathrooms. “See?” she says, “Clean.” I nod and head inside “Thank you SO much!” I repeat. I’m starting to feel a little guilty now, as this is getting to be a lot of trouble for her.

When we emerge from the bathroom 10 minutes later I am surprised to see that the custodian has waited for us at the end of the hall. But of course she had to wait — she let us in with her key, we were now her responsibility. We follow her out of the rec center, and I repeat my thanks. “You feel better now?” she asks my son, smiling, placing her finger tips to his. “Such pretty hair,” she adds. “THANK YOU” my son replies, in capslock. And then we get back into our minivan. “People are so nice,” I tell my husband, as I buckle the 3-year-old  into his carseat. “That woman probably wanted nothing more than to go home, take a shower and go to bed after a day of work, but instead she spent 20 minutes helping a stranger and her son get to a bathroom.” My husband nods in agreement.

As our roadtrip resumed, I continued to think about this encounter and the kindness of strangers. But then I thought about something else. I thought about how this scenario would have played out if I had not been a white woman with a blue-eyed son, emerging from a minivan. You see, this incident happened just 5 days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, in which jurors decided that being young and not-white and male is inherently threatening, that being all of these things meant that Zimmerman had a right to feel threatened by Trayvon Martin and to “stand his ground.” Indeed, if I had I been a young, African American father whose 3-year-old son needed to use the potty at 10pm in some Maryland suburb, I would have had to think twice before approaching this woman in the parking lot. I would have needed to be careful not “scare” her. I would  have needed to demonstrate to her that I was not a threat. And then, maybe, maybe, my son could use those nice clean bathrooms in the rec center.

But of course, I didn’t need to worry about any of that at 10 pm on a Thursday night in the Maryland suburbs. When I approached that woman in her car, I did so without considering my skin color or my son’s skin color. I rarely need to consider my skin color. All I needed to do was be white and the world curved itself around my needs.  And this is how things are going to be for the rest of my son’s life. He is white, he is male, and he comes from an upper-middle class home. The world is open to him — all he needs to do is decide what he wants. I’m not saying that he won’t have struggles. His life will be hard at times, in the way all peoples’ lives are hard at times. But his difficulties will likely be unrelated to his race or his gender. He will be playing life at its “lowest difficulty setting” and, really, good for him. He’s lucky.

The same is basically true for my 7-year-old daughter, though of course, she will have to fight a few battles that my son won’t, just because she’s a woman. For example, when she goes to a pizza parlor to pick up a tray of manicotti, the men who work there will offer to carry it for her, and even after she tells them, twice, that it really isn’t heavy and she can manage it just fine, thank you very much, they will take it anyway and start carrying it to the door until she says, a little too loudly, “REALLY. IT’S FINE. PLEASE GIVE IT TO ME.” And then they’ll hand her the manicotti and wonder, silently, why some women can’t just accept a little help now and then. And she’ll carry the manicotti, which isn’t very heavy (really) out to her car and she’ll try not to be annoyed at those men because they were just doing what they’ve been trained to do, which is to help white women who seem like they can’t help themselves. She is a virtue that requires protection. This is annoying, sure. But her life won’t be too hard, her difficulty setting being only a little higher than her brother’s. 

I’m writing this because I know our world is filled with all sorts of kind people, like that custodian who looked at me and at my sweet boy and decided to help us out, even though she didn’t have to. For the most part, this is how I experience the world and those experiences show me that the world can be a kind place. But as my family and I made our way up 270, I couldn’t help but think of Trayvon Martin’s family, and how different the world must look to them.

This post is a drop in the bucket. It’s an attempt to talk about being white, which is something white people don’t do very often. This post is me being not-silent. Thanks for listening.

Congratulations! It’s a Beautiful Baby Blog!

LAST UNICORN

Some people have their first child and then decide “This is quite enough excitement for me.” Other people think “I want five of these!” It’s the same with long-running projects (kind of). I started this blog back in 2009, as a reward for completing my first book manuscript. Well, two weeks ago I got tenure (yay!) and therefore decided it was time for another present. I decided to start another blog. But instead of raising this blog baby by myself, I decided to enlist the help of two of my dearest friends from graduate school. And I decided to make it a blog about true stories, even though I haven’t done any creative writing since 1999. But don’t let that frighten you away — my coeditors are real MFAs so they’ll keep me in check!

To check out our mission statement, click here.

I’d love it if you’d check out this new blog project, read my first story (posted today!), comment, share and, if you’re feeling frisky, submit a story of your own.

Everyone has a story to tell.

To read “This is a Dead Cat Story,” click here.