Playback Reblog: The Boob Tube

It’s been a LONG time, friends! I hope to make some time to fire up Pop Mitzvah again this upcoming summer, once my first year as a PhD student is over and I have some extra emotional room to blog.

But for now, it is my tasty supreme pleasure to share a short piece I wrote for another outlet – the newly revived Antenna blog at U.W. Madison, now called Playback. As one of the managing editors, I’ll be helping with our editorial calendar and hopefully some podcasts and video essays down the line – but first, a post of my own! Click and enjoy my response to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and more broadly, the way streaming television has extended a conversation about breast exposure and its textual significance across auteurs, producers, marketers, and audiences:

The Boob Tube: Visions of Female Nudity on and Beyond The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

Thanks and here’s hoping for a joyous return here soon.

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The Transcendentl Queerness of “Yentl”

Tell me where –
Where is it written, what it is I’m meant to be?
That I can’t dare to have the chance to pick the fruit of every tree?
Or have my share of every sweet-imagined possibility?

Shalom, ignorant sluts! It’s my personal pleasure to bring you today’s forgotten Hebraic slice of pop culture history, a seminal moment for gentiles and chosens alike.

DID JEW KNOW: 31 years ago today, Barbra Joan Streisand became the first woman to receive a Golden Globe for Best Director. On top of that, Yentl (1983) made her the first woman in the history of motion pictures to produce, direct, write and perform a film’s title role. That’s how Babs rolls.

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Why should you care? That’s a great question, you uncultured swine. On this great day, I want to put a humble spotlight on Yentl, which is one of my favorite movies ever and a huge step forward in feminist filmmaking. Sure, I’m a Barbra obsessive, as is my inalienable right as a walking Jewish cliché. But if you’re interested in queer sexual politics and revisionist history – and especially if you like to sing about them – you must not miss this film.

First of all, it took more than a decade to get Yentl off the ground. Coming off the success of Funny Girl in 1968, Barbra gained the rights to the source material, a short story. “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” is about a young village girl circa 1900 who yearns to become a Talmudic scholar. Yentl loves to learn and disdains women’s work and societal inferiority; as a result, she leaves home, lives as a man, and even takes a wife – all in order to study freely.

For fifteen years – fifteen! – various studios, directors, and even Barbra’s boyfriend discouraged the project, saying that B was too old and the concept “too ethnic.” She managed to secure the directorial seat and creative control from Orion Pictures in the late ’70s, who promptly cancelled the movie due to financial downturn. But she fought. Finally, she took the reins in 1982, shooting the picture in Czechoslovakia for six months and then recording the soundtrack, and finally paying $1.5 million from her salary in order to preserve the budget.

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Yentl was an incredibly long labor of love for Barbra. This was probably because Barbra was Yentl. The hero/heroine of this story is a weird-looking, uncategorizable person with a miraculous gift – Barbra had her voice, and Yentl had her mind. Barbra had built a career on redefining beauty, sticking her proud schnozz through closed doors, and here was a story about doing just that – and a Jewish story to boot. In a way, Yentl is a bit of an autobiography, a reflexive critique on the cultural significance of that voice, that face.

But things get more interesting when one considers the gender/sex politics of the film – and the fact that a lot of B’s detractors argued that she was too feminine to play a trans man. And Yentl was a trans man. The character’s transformation into the male student “Anshel” was only superficially about a change of clothing and a haircut.

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Both in the story and in the film, Yentl declares that she was born into the wrong gender. Such a realization carries a different import in this historical context; in Yentl’s world, qualities like ambition, high intellect, and argumentativeness were strictly masculine. Thus it’s the newly invented Anshel who becomes the true embodiment of Yentl’s authentic self. Barbra was quite faithful to most aspects of the source material, and her film does not shy away from these themes – onscreen, Yentl falls in love with a (male) fellow student, but ends up having to marry her crush’s intended wife in order to keep him close.

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This starts out as a shitty and confusing time for Yentl (who thinks she’s a genderless being in love with a straight man), but it ends up as kind of a revelation. Yentl’s trans-ness is unique in that she adopts male signifiers as a means to an end, but in her performance of maleness, she makes surprising discoveries about her own fluidity. As Anshel, Yentl falls into romantic and sort-of sexual love with the beautiful Hadass, and in turn attempts to “un-gender” her wife. The lines of sexuality and gender that divide these characters become blurry, as they struggle to perform their identities and reconcile their desires.

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I think this is all especially fascinating when you consider the effect that Barbra had on this story, both as a writer and performer. At its bare bones, Yentl is a musical romance, which is one of the most heterosexual and hegemonical and frankly diabolical approaches to pop love. And Barbra is too feminine to pass as male. Her inner monologues are sung in her familiar soprano, and they sound like a woman’s heart as it breaks and soars. On paper, this could easily be a comedy that plays on traditional male-female politics. The thing that really makes Yentl so extraordinary is the gravitas with which all of this comes together. This film is mostly a tragedy. Most spectacularly, it’s a tragedy with a happy ending, and the happy ending is this: Yentl ends up alone.

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This is a great time to mention Mulan (1998), as is any time in the history of times. In many ways, it’s the lighter kids-table version of Yentl – Fa Mulan looks like a man, but remains a steadfast heterosexual woman. Her love interest, Shang, only develops romantic feelings for her after her boobies are revealed in that tent on the mountain. You remember. But in Yentl, Mandy Patinkin’s character is horrified by the homoerotic tension between him and his bro. His sexual crisis is palpable, and it’s part of the reason that he and Yentl don’t work out as a couple in the end. He doesn’t want an Anshel; he doesn’t even want a Mulan.

As a man, as a woman, as a human, the character of Yentl can barely be contained in the boxes available. This is one of those rare movies in which the protagonist searches for love and self-actualization for two hours, and by the time the credits roll, they’re not even halfway there. In fact, even The Kiss is unattainable: the moment hovers, a breath away, then falters.

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All of this to say – Yentl could only ever be made by a woman filmmaker.

There’s a specific taste to this film, a persistent tone of yearning and introspectiveness and bubbling frustration that I find distinctly relatable. Women tend to “get” gender, sex, and selfhood more intuitively, because they’re forced to think about it all the time. It’s tough to put your finger on what makes women tick, particularly creatively, but Yentl sheds a lot of insight into the modern female psyche. Said Babs:

Yentl represents what I believe about life. The Jewish tradition – that love of learning and growing. Yentl starts off in a little village. She takes a path, she crosses the ocean to America. These symbols, mostly unconscious when I shot them, of a growing world, outside and also within one’s self, the opening up of possibilities, of growth…I feel so inarticulate about it because I realize looking at the film now, how many things were subconscious, you know?

What I find so cool about this movie it’s that it’s very tropey (see: musical romance) as it completely mutates familiar tropes. It’s also my belief that only Barbra could have made this film as effectively as she did, because she herself is a mutated trope. All her wrongnesses are somehow right together.

These are protestors who believe "BARBRA WAS ROBBED" of a 1983 Oscar nom. Their cause is just.

These are protestors who believe “BARBRA WAS ROBBED” of a 1983 Oscar nom. They stand for truth and justice and they are great at alliteration.

Now, Yentl is by no means perfect, but it’s close. As a product of the 1980s, its progressiveness is pretty groundbreaking. Without getting sentimentl (that title pun keeps on giving!) I also think it really stands the test of time. So if you haven’t seen, go ahead and light a candle in the dead of night and fire up that laptop. The forever-classic “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” might help you motivate, so I’ll go ahead and throw it in here.

P.S. Barbra Joan Streisand has also had a #1 album in every single decade for the past six decades.

P.P.S. That is insane.

P.P.P.S. I am insane.

Femme Originale: “The Wolf of Wall Street” vs. “American Hustle”

The MPAA story with Wolf of Wall Street keeps extending into this bigger conversation. One of the things that occurred to me recently around this as well as American Hustle is that we have so few movies about charismatic but monstrous women. We are so far behind in storytelling that we’re still begging for heroic stories about women. Before long we may even get the right to tell epic stories about colossal anti-heroines.
– Jill Soloway

This is what one of my favorite writers had to say about the current state of affairs in U.S. cinema. Go read her interview about the MPAA double standard in cases of extreme vulgarity – in this case, between Soloway’s film Afternoon Delight and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Soloway made a much quieter film about gross, foul-mouthed, powerful, human women called Afternoon Delight and she had to jump through giant flaming hoops of sexist fire to avoid an NC-17 rating. Obviously Soloway’s no Scorsese, doesn’t have his clout or his supernatural status, but that’s part of it too. What female does? When will she?

New year, new hopes, my friends. I want to open a conversation about gender and movie magic, and two 2013 films that might look the same at first glance.

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After I watched The Wolf of Wall Street, I discussed it with a friend who’s a huge Scorsese fan. We came to the conclusion that this isn’t really a Scorsese movie. Not only because it’s not very good, but because it’s unoriginal and bloodless. Scorsese is a MAN who knows MEN; in the 1970s and 1980s, his work had a big-dick-swagger, style, and a loud pain that makes it timeless to me even as it offends my feminist sensibilities. Back then, Scorsese’s biggest sin was ignoring women. I can live with that. He had things to say about masculinity, flesh, war, desire, living and dying, and made art.

Not the case in TWoWS. Protagonist Jordan Belfort is no Henry Hill or Travis Bickle. He has no history. He has nothing to say. He’s a boy and the most complicated thing about him is his addictive personality, an issue treated with peculiar kid gloves. This film is inconsequential, juvenile, and muddled. There are so many women that they’re impossible to ignore, and none of them are remotely important or watchable.

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I’m not saying that this film has nothing going for it. It’s really funny. It’s funny for guys, about guys, by guys, and women will laugh at it too because we’ve all learned to ridicule ourselves and identify with the patriarchial complex. I’m really not trying to get all liberal arts college on this either. There’s something so delicious and addictive about identifying with the male gaze. The roots of that yumminess are quite sinister, but I’ll take it anyway. If I stop trying to LOVE MYSELF SO MUCH, if I stop SEARCHING FOR FEMALE EMPOWERMENT, I can let go and admire Leo’s surprising physical comedy:

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And I can cheer for newly-minted serious actor Jonah Hill, who finally broke through the Superbad ceiling this year, proved his chops, and kind of stole the show:

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And I can feel Matthew McConaughey’s Texan warmth spread out from somewhere underneath my sternum and give thanks for his mere minutes of screen time. He’s like, the best part of this movie! Cue Dazed and Confused voice: “I love my female fans, man. I get older and they stay the same age.”

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But the laughs feel icky in my chest, because they usually come at the expense of stupid sluts with impossible boobs (NO ONE’S AREOLAS ARE EVENLY MATCHED AND TAN). And when they don’t, they come from vicarious pleasures, easy pleasures: a spectacularly photographed yacht, a beautiful suit, a manic pep talk fueled by Quaaludes and a hungry pack of stockbrokers with white teeth and shoulder pads. There’s no ending or resolution, either. There’s no comeuppance. And I don’t mind if a film has no moral center, as long as it has a POINT. And TWoWS doesn’t. This film is nonstop entertaining, it is stunning and fast-paced, and it’s a total nothing. A lazy concept and a surefire crowd-pleaser.

So when I get into the “movie headspace,” that transcendent mental leaning-in, I feel so guilty because I’m loving what they want me to love. I’m loving to hate myself. I’m learning to accept myself as a side character, comic relief, sexual relief, decoration, the weak emotional blind spot of the hero upon which I should be concentrating my attention.

And what I should really be thinking is:

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American Hustle came out around the same time as TWoWS, and for all intents and purposes they appear to come from the same tried-and-true POV (and are meant for the same demographic). I suggest that AH is a better film that actually belongs in, and to, 2014. It’s not without its problems: AH is populated with a small cast of male and female quirk factories, and the women tend to be a smidge crazier than the men, with more predictable repressed trauma. But the characterization of these protagonists – indeed, even the fact that this film has four equal protagonists, evenly divided amongst the genders, and they’re all anti-heroes – makes me feel much better about laugh-choking on Sour Patch Kids in front of this screen.

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Director David O. Russell, unlike Scorsese, is of the moment. He needs new, he is new. Although he can fall into the familiar trap of “broken man who just needs the love of a complicated woman” (side-eye, Silver Linings Playbook), I think he cares more about the human soul than the male ego. He just loves weirdos. And for this reason, I love American Hustle. Everyone’s weird and no one is an idiot. Like TWoWS, this isa story of loose morals, sex, and American crime, but the audience is not talked down to. I don’t need glittering, vapid vaginas or bumbling cops to remind me that I need to keep my eye on the slick main man. I need nuanced characters everywhere, I need interlacing stories and confused sympathies. AH is never dumbed-down to keep us invested, especially at the expense of its women. It is a complete story, not simply an attraction starring another Man We Wish We Could Be.

What I like most about this film are the infinite neuroses. Everyone has deep-seated social nausea, but they desperately yearn to be cool and to be loved. Like Jennifer Lawrence’s character Rosalyn, whose beauty and youth do nothing to abate her misanthropy:

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But she’s not the butt of the joke. She’s funny and ridiculous, but we don’t think she’s a lame pair of tits as opposed to Bradley Cooper’s effortless cool or Christian Bale’s molten sexy. These are real emotions. These are fearful, sweaty, private emotions, and a girl’s allowed to have them. Where AH‘s women are flawed and awkward, their male counterparts rise (or fall?) to meet them:

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What a dweeb! There’s nothing automatically desirable about the men in this film, any more than there is about the women. Sure, J-Law and Amy Adams look sexy, but not frighteningly sexy. Not smooth like reanimated Barbie corpses. And I swear to you, I’m not taking some tired tack like THERE’S WOMEN IN THIS FILM AND SOMETIMES THEY DON’T WEAR MAKEUP, THEY ARE REEEAL WOMEN. I know that skin-sans-foundation does not a feminist movie make. But the fact that these two female protagonists are fucked up personally, not stylized, sometimes messy, oddly charming, is a non-negotiable GOOD THING. And the best GOOD THING about this movie is that it succeeds without taking the easy way out and demonizing, victimizing, side-lining, or otherwise bullshitting its women.

Again, don’t let it off the hook entirely. This is still a mainstream pop film made to sell. When there’s sex, we still have the old trope of Unsure guy With Voluptuous Prize. It may be consensual but our gaze still wanders to the Amazing Adams Ass:

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But this ass is not magic. It doesn’t save Hero/Anti-Hero from himself; it doesn’t distract him to the point of failure, it doesn’t make us like him better. It’s not his ass to own; it’s hers to give. Feminine wiles don’t magically rescue the day, and then fall back into irrelevancy. The visual appeal of American Hustle doesn’t even lie with its women; when my senses were delighted, they were drinking in sumptuous ’70s colors and costumes and deep disco grooves. I was laughing at Bradley Cooper’s elaborate perm and reveling in the period-piece silliness without feeling bad about the souls the filmmaker crushed to get there.

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I love to lose myself in a movie. We all do, that’s why we spend the equivalent of three meals on a ticket and deal with the politics of battling strangers for the spare space on an armchair rest. A film consumes. It’s a virtual reality. Almost an out-of-body experience, because in the dark, when the 25-foot moving image of the human being is all you have, you become that character and you live that story. It’s pretty much exactly like the best psychotropic drug (or so I’m told, she chirped innocently). And even though there are many things I love about being female and negotiating that subjectivity, I also love to be a man. And when I pay for that privilege for 2 hours, it better make me think and feel something I don’t already know. Why make a movie if it isn’t new in some small way? Why invent histories and lives for the express purpose of feeding reality back to us?

tumblr_myn19qc2QS1rfaqfjo2_500To come full circle: that’s what I love about Jill Soloway’s quote, way back up there before you involved yourself in my written thought-barf. She wants what I want and what you want – a female anti-hero, larger than life, full and bursting with complexity, none of which has to do with her tan areolas. She can love sex, she can want babies, and she can fall in love, but we should treat those facets of her personality with the same wanton dismissal that we’re taught to treat female characters with now. And this is a serious, urgent problem to be solved by today’s filmmaker. If this anti-heroine is successfully written and performed into fruition, then we’ll all finally get The Woman We Wish We Could Be.

I want a bad woman. Not badass, but bad. Rotten in some way, but wonderful. Maybe beautiful. Or some version of it. Mouthy, mean, miserable, too much, all of the above. And I want her many feet high, filling a screen, thousands of frames, hours of her. I just want a new story. And we are at the cusp, I feel it. The only thing we need now is the courage to tell it back to ourselves.

Jessica Lange Has More Sex in One Neck Wrinkle Than You Do in Your Entire Body

There have been three iterations now of American Horror Story, and Jessica Lange has slain them all. I honestly believe that this miniseries would have collapsed into a supergay, supergray pile of smoldering pop culture ashes – trademark Ryan Murphy Mediocrity – had Lange not taken the helm of those three ships.

They are the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria of horror in the 2010s. And AHS both reinvigorates and redefines the genre for television, thanks to the stewardship of one of the most complex and beautiful actresses we’ll know this lifetime. Now that I have time to catch my breath after the mid-season finale, I think it’s high time that we talk about Lange’s work on the show: her old-school approach, her centralized embodiment of AHS‘s changing sexual and psychological themes, and the way she both resists and embraces The Age of GIF.

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Way back when, AHS: Murder House featured Lange as Constance, a potent but underused side character who provided a certain regal Southern spice to the LA-ness of the season. This first AHS hinged mostly on a teenage love story and the deep, soaking sense of disquiet that one feels in both a haunted mansion and a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family. It was a campy debut. The season worked pretty well as kind of a Dark Shadows homage – the main family unit was eclipsed by a much more vibrant and intriguing cast of sidekicks, drifting in an out of episodes through a Revolving Door of Bitchery.

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Constance was a good character, if not great: steely, mean, witty, miserable. Lange worked hard to nuance her despite her limited screen time, and by the end of the season it became clear that she was a fan favorite. The majority of viewers were 13-24, and had never heard of her beforeAfter Murder House, Jessica Lange the former box office star was a sensation again for the first time since the late ’80s, and even more surprisingly, television served as the pile of ashes from whence her phoenix arose.

Much of Constance’s storyline on Murder House revolved around her self-delusion, her armor-building in the face of her decaying youth and beauty. Think flashbacks. A lot of flashbacks. Lange is pretty amazing at playing these emotions as an elegant but aging former sex symbol; perhaps this is why her turn on the next season, AHS: Asylum delved into this theme so heavily. Asylum was, of course, the coming-out party for one of the most sensational, powerful, and disturbed women I’ve seen on a TV screen: Sister Jude.

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It’s hard not to celebrate that kunty Lange-tongue, but that right there is TERRIBLE writing. Even so, Lange managed to twist every clumsy feminist zinger into a deadly barb, every over-the-top freakout into a very human implosion. Sister Jude is the protagonist of Asylum, more than any of its younger, more “attractive” cast. This character developed in such a stunning way over the course of the season. Jude’s storyline was one of moral redemption, female strength, time’s slow attack on beauty, and sexuality disfigured by guilt and social pressure. And let me tell you, Murphy and Co. only know how to write that stuff in broad strokes. That’s all they know how to give an older actress to do. This performance was all Lange, all blunt honesty disguised as acting.

It was hands-down the most terrifying season. It was a true achievement of horror, especially when it came to the visual effects. Lange was often photographed with monstrously detailed lighting. But the strength in her eyes and body made Sister Jude fearsome, not grotesque. Age was slowly overtaking her physical beauty, but Jude’s raw open heart gave the character a certain incandescence that was at once so painful and so sexy.

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On the occasions we saw Sister Jude out of her nun’s habit, I was often struck by Lange’s allure. She played a kind of smoky-throated classiness that flirted with vulgarity, an unattainable kind of Old Hollywood confidence. Honestly, I’d never seen anyone be so sexy past age 60. It was a golden, electrifying, sobbing sort of sexiness. The thing is, Lange’s performance in Asylum is one that many of her peers could not have delivered. This actress’s eyes were wide open as she fell down fame’s gaping maw; now that she’s back on TV, you can feel a certain sad wisdom radiating from her, a really angry hurt. Sister Jude makes me regret how easily I disregard the spirituality and sexuality of non-Millenial women. There is nothing old about Lange, just old-school. Just real. Sister Jude is a great embodiment of aged female power in an moment of fickle young women too confused to take control of their bodies and lives. This character wonderfully illustrates that time does not degrade a woman, but the people around her surely do.

Of course, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t toss in a video of the cast performing “The Name Game.” Asylum may have been the scariest season, but it also has its fun moments and occasionally recalls the delectable camp of Murder House. Let’s play a game:

Which brings us to the current season, AHS: Coven. This isn’t a bad season, per se, but I think the showrunners got a little spooked by the mature-skewing extreme darkness of Asylum and were not sure they could keep the momentum going for the Tumblr generation. Thus Coven was born: a superficial, exciting, bright teenage supernova of witchy little bitchies whose post-modern malaise bleeds through every captioned GIF. Coven is no world for a classy faded starlet. But still, Lange uses her character, Fiona Goode, to excavate that generational divide and bring the youthful exploits of the titular coven full-circle. Fiona is another meditation on feminine power, on sex, and on heartache, nursed over long decades.

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I can’t stop watching Jessica Lange cry, honestly. Like the two Lange AHS femme fatales before her, Fiona is a failure and an egomaniac, a tragic creature who seesaws between self-loathing and self-worship. She is constantly at war, and so tired of disappointing herself and everyone around her. The party’s long over and she doesn’t know how to deal. And Lange makes it so real and so sad. When her eyes brim over, there’s a twingey reminder that Fiona’s story is pretty universal for the bad bitches of the world who have been passed over by their friends, their lovers, and their admirers.

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Coven takes this theme to an obvious place, pitting Fiona (the Supreme witch) against a pack of skinny blondies whose rising power threatens to eclipse her own. Fiona feels her mortality quite acutely, as she not only has a rapidly metastasizing gut cancer, but also an addiction to glamour. She lived fast, but refuses to die young. Or to die at all. Ever. This leads her to murder the seductive little whore Emma Roberts, in a bid to preserve her waning beauty and stop the young girl from draining her supernatural hotness. Of course, we all know where that girl-on-girl crime leads…to the biggest TV meme of the year.:

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Now, Coven is campy, but it’s not the trope-saturated, inky-dark kind of camp of Murder House. This is a very distinctly 2013 camp, aka boring camp, where ladies just snipe at each other and claw for the alpha position. It would seem that R-Murph is starting to devolve and do what he does, where he writes for some weird gay stereotype audience that watches All About Eve once a week. And even though Fiona suffers along with the rest of characters, whose writing grows more anti-feminist and pedantic with each passing episode, Jessica Lange continues to do Her Thing.

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Her impulsive, highly sensual relationship with serial killer The Axeman makes Fiona into a self-immolating stick of hot dynamite. One moment, we’re watching her decrepit cancer-ridden body crumble, her hair fall out and her papery lips tremble; the next, we’re seeing a grown tiger spread her limbs across black satin and purr with desire. Lang is still playing with the image of the mature woman, accepting of physical death but not nearly as amenable to the sexual death, the death of the soul.

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I guess I’m just awed by the fact that Jessica Lange still has so much in her, and that she is able to give it so generously when most of her scripted lines are a commentary on her own changed appearance and relevance to her audience. As an actress, she’s able to use the exhaustion and the exploitation and the violence of fame in such an interesting and multi-faceted way to inform her performance. Thank goodness someone cast her in such an incendiary project, in something that required grounding and grit to make it a true success. Horror is a tough genre: it requires the players to vibrate on an extra-human level, with the volume turned up on the joy and the pain and the sexy. This is what makes the frightful moments so delicious. Horror is feelings, universal truths, turned upon us in the most terrifying way possible. Lange innately understands this. She’s the most beautiful walking wound I’ve ever seen.

So, AHS fans, tell me: which was your fave season? Which Jessica Lange creation resonated most with you? And what should happen to Fiona when Coven resumes this January?

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Scandal: Oh…IT’S HANDLED

I’m not caught up yet, but I couldn’t wait another EH-SECOND to EH-BLOG about ESCÁNDALO!

(Scandal. Talking about Scandal here. But I think the Spanish gives it a nice zing).

I live in the real world, okay? And by that I mean, I live on Tumblr. I’m not stupid. I knew this show would get me eventually. It was just a matter of when. And then two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, I knew it was time.

By Sunday, I was done with Season 2 and shopping for cream-colored business suits. #shutitdown

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Oh, Shonda Rhimes, you beautiful fucking monster showrunner. With sexy men and powerful women dangling from your soapy puppet strings. How do you do the things you do? This show is the LIVING END! Let me tell you all about why it’s such a significant beacon in our current TV landscape, and why primetime romance-political-thriller-dramas on ABC need not be discounted on the basis of their questionable pedigree.

So many layers going on. “Masculine” vs. “feminine” approaches to political quagmires: the stereotypes, the subtleties, and the frustrations wrought by the power dynamics of gender. Racial fault lines, and their significance in a professional landscape founded on pragmatism and not justice. The curious game of identity: how one’s self-worth and life’s purpose may be manipulated with loyalty, that most lethal of tools. Yeah, there’s a lot of naked skin-slapping and DUN-DUN-DUN plotting going on, but that’s what makes Scandal such a tasty dish. You’re caught up in the fun, and you’re learning some hard truths about women, color, women of color, leadership, and this seedy-ass nation of ours. It’s a wonderful tapestry of intellectual titillation, and pulp of the thickest and finest variety.

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For starters, no one but Kerry Washington could have played the part of D.C. “fixer” and White House guardian angel Olivia Pope. Her mouth is always saying no, but her eyes are always saying let’s go. Washington has this rare combination of angular coldness and newborn vulnerability that make her a walking puzzle. Sure, she overacts sometimes, but that’s because the script can be twisty and over-the-top. She’s completely committed to this TWO FUCKING FEET ON THE GROUND character, who I would assert is a lone gunslinger kind of protagonist.

Olivia is a problem-solver, but an emotional cipher, a problem herself, and she refuses to be solved, categorized, and subsumed by anyone. She is first a hero/leader, and second a human being with a backstory. In my mind, that’s classically a man’s role – that’s the kind of hero we see in The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes or Justified‘s Raylan Givens. That kind of role grounds a show in simmering steady power. Don’t worry, viewer – your lead character will never let you down, because they do not know weakness like the rest of us. And Lord give me strength, that role is being played by a black lady. WHITE HOUSE? Not so much, anymore, now that Olivia owns its #1 tenant. CAN YOU FEEL THE LIGHT ON YOUR FACE? THAT’S PROGRESS! THAT’S GOOOOOD TV!

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That brings me to President Fitzgerald Grant, played to foxy perfection by Tony Goldwyn. If Olivia Pope has one so-called “weak spot,” it’s the President (and as weak spots go, girl I will give you that one). The only time we ever see her resolve shatter is when she’s faced with the awesome love and the tight body of The Leader of the Free World. But this relationship is markedly different, set apart by the flipped power dynamics inherent in Scandal.

We must posit Olivia as the gunslinger, and thus Fitz as the damsel in distress. He is her Achilles heel – a slightly less rounded and complex character whose purpose is often to upset Olivia’s well-laid plans with EMOTIONS. The guy is the girl here, you see? The President is the piece on the side. Our love interest, Fitz, is helpless to do anything but worship Olivia, and he even prepares to give up his position for her. On the other hand, our female protagonist never feels the need to choose between power and love. She just isn’t built that way. Can you pick up what Shonda is putting down?! Refreshing, like a sex shower in the White House!

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And the physical chemistry is undeniable, my friends. We’re allowed to have our cake and eat it too with this show. No one’s ashamed of their bodies or their sexuality or their agency or their moral underbellies. It’s a festival of characters just speaking their truths.

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Besides the unorthodox and ground-breaking relationship between these two lead characters, there’s also a lot more going on with the background crew. Olivia has a whole team of “fixers” – they’re fine for comic relief and short diversions from the more important plot lines, but I prefer not to write about them because they don’t really exist as signifiers. They don’t really say as much as Olivia and Fitz do, in a meta sense. But you know who does? Fitz’s wife, the First Lady Mellie, who again subverts classic female representations and brings really delicious Bitch game to the trope of The Bitch Wife.

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Time and time again, Mellie is confirmed by other characters to be super-intelligent, a clever political climber who realized too late that the post of First Lady is a trap. She never apologizes for her lack of maternal instincts. She manipulates her husband and the White House team deftly and without second-guessing herself. She shows a soft spot for Fitz, but it’s minute in comparison to her many hard spots, and she never hesitates to use  her position. By this, I mean she knows very intimately the intersection between her femaleness and her thirst for power. She knows the public function of her image, evidenced by her ruthless use of a fake miscarriage story and her stellar ability to perform marital affection for the press. She’s kind of the only character who gets that EVERYONE in politics has to be a whore, and she gets shit on by the more idealistic characters for it. Mellie is a straight Queen Bee, who is again a female character more nuanced than the President. She really gives Olivia a run for her money in terms of mettle and moxie. A fascinating anti-hero, or villain, depending on the angle from which you look at her.

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And then there’s Cyrus, the right-hand man of the president. Just wanted to touch on him briefly, as his sexuality is quite significant as well. He is perhaps the darkest character, a man who is completely addicted to the rush of running a country behind the scenes, and he does not hesitate to order the odd assassination or shakedown when necessary. Cyrus is a total grey area – we see him feel loyalty and affection for his husband James, and his best friend Olivia, but we also see him drink in violence like a fine wine, and betrayal like a yummy aged cheese. He is tortured by his gayness, as well, and always seems to be one step shy of accepting himself and allowing his marriage to deepen in trust. Cyrus sees himself as a monster, and is thus a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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I think it is SO FUCKING INTERESTING to watch the interplay between Cyrus’ human urges to protect those he loves, and his more buried, fiery urge for power and immortality. This here is another character who helps unveil the great complexity of “making history” – he feels, in large part, that his sexuality has much to do with his inability to live forever as a Great Man, so he contents himself with doing the darkest deeds possible so at least he has a hand in the making of Fitz as the Great Man. And his status as a man who loves a man isn’t really beaten to death in storylines about anti-gay protests or bullying or all that tired poop, which I really appreciate. This is just another relationship, with its creepy nooks and crannies and its painful realities and its sometimes epic, sometimes clumsy romance.

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ALSO really interested in the race conversations that seem to be ramping up as we move into Season 3. What I like about Scandal is that Olivia’s blackness is a significant, but not end-all-be-all facet of her identity as a character, her place in the show’s universe, and her position in the great pantheon of TV heroes. We must address it, but not dwell on it, because it would be a disservice to this strong character to dissect the ingrained self-doubt and trauma that racialized society can rain down. There is, of course, this infamous scene between Olivia and her dad, which gracefully bring to the forefront a theme that we viewers need to be reminded of.

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Lest we forget, Olivia Pope is TWICE as impressive as you thought she was, because the shit she’s dealing with goes way deeper than presidential sexytimes and misogyny. I feel like I don’t need to expound more on the point – this is just another beautiful instance of Shonda Rhimes’ artistry as a “showrunner for the people.” She’ll tickle your naughtybone, but she won’t let you get away with the pleasure scot-free. Characters, especially black female characters, do not simply exist on Scandal to entertain, but to forcibly illustrate the complex matrix within which we all operate and fantasize.

Am I glad I hitched my wagon to this star. ESCÁNDALO SIEMPRE. Can’t wait to see what juiciness awaits us in the coming episodes! Any thoughts? Comment me, gladiators!

I Watched All of Sex and the City and All I Got Was This Lousy Blog Post

Generally I write stuff when I’m inspired, but I feel like it’s just my civic duty to let the world know that I finished the entire run of Sex and the CityWhy did I do this? Because there are many episodes of it, I like boobs, and hate-watching is my “me time.” I just refused it for SO LONG that I figured it was time to bite the bullet. There’s bar trivia to win! I can’t be missing out on crucial late-90s/mid-2000s television. Also you might be aware of my ongoing project: Watch Everything HBO Has Ever Produced. But I’m tapped out now. I’m going to hurl if I hear one more Carrie narration: “I began to wonder…”

Usually when it comes to female-centered content, I have much to observe, but SATC is a useless trifle of a show. It’s really only worth it for Kim Cattrall’s deliciously campy sexbomb Samantha Jones. Carrie is a self-obsessed little bullshitter, Miranda is a joyless working-woman stereotype, and Charlotte is a perpetual virgin. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s truly witty bitchery peppered throughout, but that’s because this series was created by a rich New York gay man. If there are really any revelations about sex or humanity contained within SATC, they are shallowly rendered and applicable only to the emotionally needy upper crust. Ugh. If I’m going to binge on something, make it steak. Not frosting. I feel ill. I swallowed all of it so quickly! THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!

Anyway I thought I’d make the most out of this assignment and offer you the public service of a Samantha Jones GIF collection. If there’s one thing I can get behind, it’s an unabashed dirty mouth and a confident woman treating her body like a wonderland. If I got one thing out of SATC, it’s this: sex and shame must be mutually exclusive for the soul to be whole. And now all I can think about is holes. Bless you, sweet Samantha.

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Are you thinking to yourself, “Wow, Leah is really running out of things to say between episodes of Breaking Bad?” You’re right on the money. Wait till you see what I come up with next week. I now live in the bottom of the barrel.

Check My Flow: The Camp Gyno

THANK YOU. Thank you, whoever wrote this commercial, thank you to the channels that are airing it, thank you to this sassy little child actress (who needs to teach me a thing or two about how to scream “VAGINA”).

Tampon commercials are infamous among the worldwide cult of women, for their pathetic attempts to sanitize the period and convince ladies that IT’S NOT PAIN, IT’S OPPORTUNITY!

CRAMPS = SALAD AND COCKTAILS. PERIODS = VOLLEYBALL. UTERUS = GARDENING.

I really do not know one female who doesn’t begin to slow-simmer upon hearing the insipid “Have a happy period.” You are selling fallacies, Kotex! You do not live on this planet, Tampax Pearl!

This commercial is like the best thing to happen in the realm of menstrual advertising (I know because I have my associate’s degree in menstrual advertising). Here we have precocious tomboyish pre-teens, wailing at each other and clutching their aching abdomens. Ah, sweet reality. Also, they are admitting that candy is as essential to your cycle as a heating pad. GROUNDBREAKING.

No more infantilizing and condescension. Bless you, Camp Gyno. Bless your little crampy heart.

viva

Rock She Wrote

A review of the book Rock She Wrote, edited by Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell, which chronicles women of many musical worlds.

I’m your wild girl.

“The crater is gone. The dark hole in my soul is filled with the screams of the mob. I don’t need my mother…I’ve got rock and roll authority now!” What is so remarkable about hers and other pieces is that they manage to meld the mythology of the rock star and the ideology of female subjugation into some weird world of Franksteinettes – women who haphazardly hack at their socially assigned identities until they cobble together something new, frightening, and magnetic.

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