The Feminine Tension

I follow a bunch of rad feminist tumblrs, so forgive me if this topic is tapped, but here you go: one thing that’s very interesting to me as of late is the sort of performative femininity pushed in pop-culture. I think that gulf between the “ideal lady” and the awkwardness of trying to be that lady is what makes Anna Faris pretty consistently funny, and there’s a similar tension with Lana Del Rey*, where she’s trying on a costume of blase cabaret singer from 1957 - loving the wrong man, her “daddy,” her “old man” - but she can’t quite pull it off in various ways. A show like Mad Men - even though I feel like it’s mostly, at its heart, about work - is all about that gulf with the female characters, but where it’s most interesting (and has received the most vehement criticism) is with January Jones as Betty Draper. The idea - as a generally accepted thing, let’s say - that January Jones is a “bad” actress, and how that plays into her role, where her marriage is a sham and she’s following the “right” path, but who is she, really? is sort of fascinating.

At some point I would like to write something long-form about this topic. Perhaps not quite at this moment. The short version, I think is that the performance of femininity simultaneously says that “this performance, this striving for some sort of feminine ideal of womanity, is utter bullshit,” and yet, with the attention these women get for striving (two out of the three named have had plastic surgery) for a typical ideal sort of proves that the game is rigged and people will still give you attention and worth based on an amorphous “ideal womanity.” [Early days, early ideas, let’s say.] I also think the backlash to January Jones as an actress and persona is sort of interesting - she’s kind of utterly herself, un-media trained, in a way that indicates the tyranny of being really beautiful, that it overrides needing to make a good impression. Presumably the beauty is the overriding impression. It’s sort of badass, in a way. (January Jones + Meghan Fox in interviews = two sides of a similar coin?)

Some of the outraged vitriol spit at these women (on the internet, mostly, I guess) makes me feel like I just want to give them a hug and full support.

*I am deep within the throes of a Lana Del Rey obsession at the moment, although I suspect it will wear off in a month or so, partially because the album is inconsistent. But the songs I love on it - “Off to the Races” “National Anthem” “This is What Makes Us Girls” - teeter between hilarious and great. The first two are kind of insane, veering wildly from idea to idea. The last one works for me as a portrait of a Twin Peaks-like youth in Lake Placid. It’s gotta be Lake Placid. Lots of hotels with swimming pools.

I’m a pretty good mimic - I used to entertain my elementary school classes with my spot-on Fred Schnieder from the B52s doing “Love Shack,” I’m still pretty good at it - and I tried to sing “Off to the Races” the other day, like Lana Del Rey. I thought I could do it. She’s in my range. It’s really hard to mimic the studio track. It’s a song sung by about eight different women. It would be hard to recreate in a live show. I start squeaking and petering out around “I’m your little harlot/starlet.”

[In France, The House Bunny was Super Blonde. And No Strings Attached was retitled Sex Friends. Hee! And a note: these observations apply to a specific Caucasian Marilyn Monroe/Grace Kelly idea of “womanliness,” but I would love to know how it affects other cultures.]

Recent reading

Books! I love ‘em. Can’t get enough. I had the pleasure of reading several books recently and had so many opinions about them. They’re all worth reading!

Fury, by Koren Zailckas - Zailckas is the author of Smashed: I was a teenage binge drinker (yes, I got the title wrong, but that’s basically the book), which I presume has sold quite a bit, since you STILL see it for sale in the Target book section, and when I heard her next book was called Fury, it was hard not to giggle. I mean, of course you’re angry! You had a binge drinking problem! It was such a neat line, and sort of amusing as a result. Zailckas is from the suburbs of Massachusetts as well, and it was hard not to think, waggishly, that someone could’ve just written: “I was an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts” and there’s your book in one fell swoop.

Those are just my peanut gallery thoughts, anyways. The thing about Zailckas’ career as a memoirist is that she’s a talented, precocious writer and has an ability to pick a super-relevant topic so it’s easy to think, gee, why didn’t I write this book? (Not that I myself would’ve, but a book written by a young woman about drinking and anger - those books were going to be written.) Fury is weirdly self-conscious; more the diary of a hell of a year, it reads like something that’s been written and rewritten time after time after time, and Zailckas tells you about this process in the writing. Her idea was a vaguely academic look at women and anger; but a bad breakup, moving back in with her emotionally closed-off, Yankee-as-heck family, and writer’s block led to something closer to the bone. It was a compelling read, with lots of cited research like an A student, but I was far, far more interested in the drama of her life, and not the remnants of the book she had initially proposed, with some meditation, herbs, and an anger retreat. Things like that. The definitive book on Angry Young Women could still stand to be written, but this was an interesting and educational read.

Along the lines of Smashed, there’s clearly a space available for a woman in her 20s to write the definitive book about hooking up or not hooking up, you know? Like the answer book to that terrible Unhooked that came out awhile ago. I promise you, your book will likely end up in Target if you write the proposal.

Big Girls Don’t Cry, by Rebecca Traister - Interestingly enough, Traister interviewed Zailckas for Smashed, and her take on the author was, “this girl is so angry.” Anyways, Traister’s recent book about the 2008 election, and how Hilary’s inevitability gave way to Obama and oh no, Palin, left me feeling a mess of feelings. The most prominent was a sort of anger at the mess that is the 24-hour news cycle. So little humanity gets filtered through it; a bunch of smart people are just coming up with the most immediate narrative-for-now about people. Hilary got screwed by it, and her handlers ran a terrible campaign; and to relive all the way this potential got squandered is just crushing.

Obama comes off as a bit of a cold fish in this book, sweetie, and Obama supporters don’t say anything concrete about why he would be a better candidate than Hilary. Traister cites a lot of blog-talk and her friends, and that tendency was really frustrating.

Traister spends 5 pages talking about SNL and Sarah Palin, and she could’ve written more. It was pretty fascinating considering the role that SNL played in satirizing the VP nominee, the way that a super pregnant Amy Poehler rapped about Palin’s schtick in her face. It made me love Poehler even more.

The analysis of Palin and feminism was probably the strongest part. Feminism and conservative women is an interesting thing to consider and it could be its own book for sure. Are they two incompatible stances? Are they not? It makes my head hurt to think about it. The chapter on Gloria Steinem’s much-maligned op-ed was good, too. And heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking. It was an interesting, unsatisfying book, and certainly not the definitive look at the 2008 campaign. But my heart broke broke broke for Hilary and her supporters. And I do wish that Obama had picked her as VP. It made me think of what overachieving women have to give up and subliminate in order to achieve, and how it’s hard not to resent the ways the next generation has it easier, and how that can easily lead to intergenerational strife. Worth reading! Get the paperback!

Rat Girl, by Kristin Hersh - I loved this book, but I am a sucker for a couple of things, in particular, books written by members of seminal Boston-area bands. (I also loved Joe Pernice’s It Feels So Good When I Stop, which is about stasis.) What’s interesting about Hersh’s writing - and it’s absolutely the same deal with her music, which is strange and terrifying - is that she has this voice that’s like a new language. She simply puts things in a different fashion. I thought Rat Girl was as raw and real as a My So Called Life episode. Again, it was the diary of a strange year. She finds out she’s bipolar, her band gets signed, she gets pregnant. But there’s something completely new about the way Hersh writes. I felt locked into her feelings, almost like I understood her and almost like she was a completely foreign alien. And on top of it, she has this fantastic relationship with an older woman, the actress Betty Hutton (best known for Preston Sturges’ dirty, dirty, dirty The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), who was taking classes at her father’s college. It’s all so good, down to the Gilbert Hernandez drawing on the cover. Just go read it now.