Tag Archives: movies

You Don’t Have To Be Pretty – On YA Fiction And Beauty As A Priority

23 Mar

“I’m not trying to be self-deprecating,” I say, “I just don’t get it. I’m younger. I’m not pretty. I –”

He laughs, a deep laugh that sounds like it came from deep inside him, and touches his lips to my temple.

“Don’t pretend,” I say breathily. “You know I’m not. I’m not ugly, but I am certainly not pretty.”

“Fine. You’re not pretty. So?” He kisses my cheek. “I like how you look. You’re deadly smart. You’re brave. And even though you found out about Marcus …” His voice softens. “You aren’t giving me that look. Like I’m a kicked puppy or something.”

“Well,” I say. “You’re not.”

Veronica Roth, Divergent

This handful of sentences, spoken by Divergent‘s protagonists Tris and Four, might be some of the most revolutionary words ever written in a young adult novel. In fact, they’re pretty incredible no matter what the genre. These words may not look like much, but trust me, they’re actually pretty mind-blowing when you really think about them.

Let’s just take a moment to digest what’s being said here, shall we?

Tris, Divergent‘s heroine and current YA dystopia It Girl, has just kissed the boy she likes. He’s a few years older than her – in fact, he’s her instructor – and, although it’s been clear throughout the book that she has a total lady-boner for him, she didn’t think she stood a chance. Throughout the book she and others consistently describe her as homely, skinny and flat-chested; she herself says, “I am not pretty – my eyes are too big and my nose is too long,” and one of her antagonists, catching a glimpse of her naked, crows “She’s practically a child!” Among her peers, she either fades into the background or else becomes a target because of her apparent helplessness and vulnerability. In short, she’s a real Plain Jane.

Having the female protagonist of a young adult novel believe that she’s ordinary-looking, uninteresting and unnoticeable is nothing new. In fact, it’s a trope that’s been pretty widely covered throughout the genre — from Katniss Everdeen to Bella Swan to Hermione Granger to Mia Thermopolis, it seems like just about every heroine needs some convincing to realize how beautiful they are. Because, of course, they are beautiful — though often the character requires a makeover before she herself and the world around her (except, of course, for that One Special Boy Who Always Knew) realize her true beauty. Think of the scene when Katniss first arrives in the Capitol, when they shave off her body hair, tame her eyebrows and slather her with makeup. Or the part in The Princess Diaries when Mia takes off her glasses, straightens her hair and poof, she’s a babe! Or else Hermione’s appearance at the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when she puts on a fancy dress, bewitches her frizzy hair into submission and suddenly gets everyone’s attention. The message that we get over and over is that beauty, even hidden beauty, is somehow part and parcel of being an exceptional, successful young woman. And of course every girl longs to be pretty, right?

But not Tris.

Tris is pretty matter-of-fact about not being beautiful; she mentions it once or twice, but it’s not pivotal to her character. She doesn’t seem to give her appearance all that much though, probably because she has other, more pressing concerns like her own survival. She does get a makeover of a sort, but not one that especially improves or feminizes her appearance. Being pretty is not a priority for Tris and, amazingly, her prettiness is not a priority for her love interest either. Look at the words he uses to explain why he likes her – smart and brave. These attributes are the reasons that he wants to be with her, not her appearance. Of course he finds her physically attractive – he does say that he likes how she looks, after all – but that’s not her main appeal for him. He’s more drawn to her because of what she does rather than how she looks. And that is pretty amazing. Having a plain, ordinary-looking female protagonist whose looks don’t, at some point over the course the book or movie, wind up being “fixed” is something I have actually never seen before.

When we talk about women’s appearance, we often get hung up on the idea that all women deserve to feel beautiful. Many initiatives meant to empower women hinge on the concept that all women are beautiful in their own way. The message is that though we might not all be super model material, each of us has our own special brand of prettiness. This is thought to be helpful in deconstructing the beauty ideals that our society for women – the idea that “pretty” only comes in a package that’s tall, white, skinny and blond – and is often embraced as part of feminist ideology. But while I know that the intentions behind this message are good, I can’t help but feel that it’s not a very healthy thing for young girls to be hearing.

The problem is that when we promote this idea that all women are beautiful, what we are really doing is emphasizing that it is important for women to be physically attractive. We are telling girls that, as females, the way that they look is a huge part of who they are – that we expect prettiness from them, and that we expect them to want it. Even if we don’t mean to, we are still attaching a high value to physical appearance. And that’s messed up.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for people feeling good about themselves and being comfortable in their own skin. I want everyone to be happy with how they look. But I don’t want girls believing that feeling pretty is equal to or more important than feeling smart, competent or powerful. I also don’t want them to think that not feeling beautiful or not putting a premium on their own beauty means that there’s something flawed or unfeminine about them. Instead of living in a world where every woman struggles on a daily basis to find something attractive about herself, I would rather live in one where women are told that it’s fine not to care about how they look.

I know that this has been said before, but it bears repeating:

Girls, you don’t have to be pretty. Your sex does not place you under any obligation to feel beautiful. You are so much more than your appearance.

We never say that all men deserve to feel beautiful. We never say that each man is beautiful in his own way. We don’t have huge campaigns aimed at young boys trying to convince them that they’re attractive, probably because we very rarely correlate a man’s worth with his appearance. The problem is that a woman’s value in this world is still very much attached to her appearance, and telling her that she should or deserves to feel beautiful does more to promote that than negate it. Telling women that they “deserve” to feel pretty plays right in to the idea that prettiness should be important to them. And having books and movies aimed at young women where every female protagonist turns out to be beautiful (whereas many of the antagonists are described in much less flattering terms) reinforces the message that beauty has some kind of morality attached to it, and that all heroines are somehow pretty.

Can we please change the script here? Instead of saying that all women deserve to feel beautiful, can we instead say that all women deserve to feel smart? How about all women deserve to feel respected? Or all women deserve to feel capable? Let’s tell women that they are something, anything, other than pretty. Because seriously, we deserve to be so much more than just pretty.

Divergent-roof-jumping-scene

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Intersectionality and Art

10 Sep

My friend Audra asked the following question on her Facebook a little over a week ago:

“Which do you think is worse: intentionally only ever buying art* made by women, or accidentally only ever buying art made by men?”

Now, just to clarify, I don’t think that either is worse, because I don’t think that either of those things are bad or wrong, necessarily. But I do think that it’s super important to look at how and why we consume media. I also think it’s necessary every once in a while to take a long hard look at the media choices we’re making, and ask ourselves whether or not we are making conscious decisions about the type of artists that we are supporting and promoting.

This point was driven home today as I took a short break from the enormous tome that is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (because what better time to tackle this beast than on a 60-hour train trip across Canada?) to read Dave Egger’s introduction to the book. In this brief five-page preface, Eggers manages to name-check the fourteen following artists:

Thomas Pynchon

Elmore Leonard

Jonathan Franzen

William Gaddis

Saul Bellow

William S. Burroughs

Fred Exley

Marcel Proust

Stephin Merritt

Howard Finster

Sufjan Stevens

Jack Kerouac

William T. Vollmann

Michael Apted

You’ll note two uniting features about everyone mentioned this list – they are all white, and they are all men.

Now, I don’t think that Dave Eggers only reads books by white dudes. In fact, I happen to know that Eggers both reads and promotes books by all kinds of non-white-dude writers. But I can’t help noticing that when he’s talking about the crème de la crème, when he’s mentioning the artists to whom he’s comparing a book that he claims will, ultimately, leave you a better person, they are all. white. men. Every single last one of them.

And I don’t think that the exclusivity of this list is intentional; I don’t think that Eggers really thinks that men are better writers than women, or that white folks are better writers than people of colour. But what I do think is that it’s really, really easy to fall into the trap of only consuming art made by white men. I mean, it’s the status quo, right? You go into a bookstore and almost all the featured books are by men (although, being in Canada, I have to admit that they pretty much always include at least one Atwood because it’s the law or whatever). Only four women have ever been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director; only one has ever won. If you’ve ever been in a comic book store, you know how hard you often have to dig to find something by a woman, let alone a woman of colour.

And it’s like, sometimes I just feel invisible, you know? I mean, I’m really just starting out and I haven’t even published my first book and in spite of that I have a fairly decent online following and I am super grateful for that and I’m luckier than a whole lot of people, but. BUT. I feel like I’m always going to be excluded when it comes to these types of lists. I’m never going to be allowed into the Old Boys’ Club (because then it wouldn’t be a boys’ club, duh), or if I am permitted to join in every once in a blue moon, I’ll be treated as a pet, a sweet little thing, a curiosity, and never, ever as a serious writer. And this exclusion won’t be malicious, and it won’t be intentional; it’ll just be because my name (or any other woman’s name) will never be the first (or even fourteenth) to spring to mind when a man is coming up with a list of his all-time favourite, greatest, most influential writers.

And that sucks.

So let’s take a moment to share our favourite not-white-dude artists, and maybe (hopefully) we’ll all come away with some new and exciting books, movies, paintings, sculptures, songs, television shows, etc, to check out.

Here’s my list:

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

persepolis-1

Haim:

Margaux Williamson, Teenager Hamlet

margauxwilliamson_TEENAGERHAMLET_600g

The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham

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Ginger & Rosa, written and directed by Sally Potter

* Any form of art or media, be it literature, visual art, film, music, television, etc.

Three Memories

17 Mar

1. It’s a grey, dreary Saturday afternoon in early August, 1997. I’m at my friend Liz’s apartment; she’s throwing me a party for my fifteenth birthday. It’s not a big party – more of a get-together, really, with a handful of friends sitting around on Liz’s living room floor. Somebody has brought the obligatory cake, and there are gifts, too, but those are beside the point.

My real birthday present is that Liz has somehow convinced her mother to rent Trainspotting for us. Not only that, but her mother has actually left us alone to watch it.

I have been dying to see this movie ever since it came out the year before. I own the soundtrack (well, I own a taped copy of the soundtrack that my friend made for me). I have postcards showing scenes from the movie stuck on my wall. I’ve cut out every interview with Ewan MacGregor that I can find and pinned them to my bulletin board. My friend Emily somehow saw Trainspotting in theatres (in spite of the fact that she was too young for its R rating), and I’ve made her give me a play-by-play of all of its scenes.

I am so fucking ready for this.

I sit there and watch the fuck out of that movie, my fingers dug deep into the grey pile of the living room carpet. I drink in everything, even, maybe especially, the things that I don’t understand. I don’t flinch away from the achingly awful, sometimes sickening parts that I later won’t be able to watch as an adult. I watch this movie like I’ll be writing a final exam in which 100% of my grade is based on a essay regarding Mark Renton and his life choices.

I am fifteen. I am a virgin. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette, never mind fucking around with heroin. I don’t cut class. I don’t break my curfew. I try so hard to be good.

But in my whole life I have never had something speak to me the way Mark Renton’s opening monologue does:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons.

Because already I know that I’m not going to choose any of those things. I don’t know what I want in life, but the list of things that I don’t want is long and involved. I’m fifteen, so compromise doesn’t yet exist.

I am going to take the fucking world by storm, and I am not going betray any of my values along the way.

2. It’s a bright spring day in 2003. I have recently sort of, maybe started dating my friend. We have been on one, maybe two dates, but we haven’t kissed yet. He comes over to my house and we watch my favourite movie, The Red Violin. I lean against him and put my head first on his shoulder, then on his lap. I am so tentative, so nervous.

I am so in love with him.

Afterwards, he walks me back to the Dalhousie campus. I have to go work at the school call centre, where we try to convince alumni to donate money to the university. We end up wandering over to the stairs leading up to the Grad House (a misnomer of a pub where undergrad students are totally welcome) and I stand on the second step, so that I’m the same height as him.

Suddenly, he leans in and kisses me, then grabs me and spins me around until we’re both dizzy and giggling.

“Well, that makes things less awkward,” he says.

I bury my face in the front of his coat. I can’t stop smiling. In that moment, everything is sharply, painfully perfect. It doesn’t matter that in a little over two months’ time we will end up lost in a blind alley of shortcoming and fears and hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter that our friendship will end, not even with a bang, but slowly, painfully, spluttering and gasping to its death over the course of the next two years. It doesn’t matter that he will break my heart, not just once, but over and over.

It doesn’t matter, because even if someone had told me all of the awful things that were to come, I still wouldn’t have traded that one wonderful moment for a calmer, happier, but ultimately emptier world.

3. It’s a hot, sunny summer day in 2004. I am wearing a brown tank top and a skirt that my aunt bought me for my birthday. The skirt, which hits just below the knee, is cream with a brick-red pattern of swirls on it; it’s made of jersey cotton, which means that it moves with and clings to my body in the best way possible. The waistband is a thick elastic, in the same brick-red colour, and it dips down into a v in the front. I love the cut of this waistband an unreasonable amount.

I am walking next to Citadel Hill in Halifax. I have my discman in my purse, and I’m listening to my roommate’s copy of Hawksley Workman’s (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves. Specifically, I am listening to Striptease. The sun is hot on my face and shoulders. My hair hangs long, dusty, tangled down my back. I am swaying my hips, wiggling my shoulders.

For the first time in a long time I feel perfectly at home in my body. I feel sexy, in a dirty, earthy way. I feel like someone who might be desirable.

I look down and notice that my skirt has slipped enough to show off the top of my black thong. I barely pause for long enough to hike my skirt back up, and then I keep going.

renton_tracks

Rape Culture (or, Roman Polanski, I can’t even)

11 Oct

There are few things in life that make as incredibly, blindly, need-to-punch-a-wall-right-now angry as Roman Polanski. Any mention of him makes my blood boil; even just having someone tell me about one of his movies leads to me shouting obscenities for a significant length of time. So imagine how I felt when I saw the following headline on Yahoo News:

Former teen who had sex with Polanski writing book

The article then goes on to say that,

Polanski … fled the country in 1978 on the eve of being sentenced for unlawful sexual intercourse with Geimer, 13 at the time

Let me just sit here a moment while your head explodes a little.

Let’s get a few things straight: Roman Polanski did not have “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13 year old girl – he raped her. The victim, Samantha Geimer, testified that the sex was not consensual; in fact, according to her testimony, she explicitly told him no. And you know what? Even if she hadn’t told him no, it would still have been rape. Even if Polanski hadn’t given her alcohol it would have been rape; even if he hadn’t drugged her it would have been rape; even if  she had said yes it would have been rape.

Know why? Because she, a vulnerable 13 year old girl faced with a millionaire film director in his 40s, was subject to an extreme imbalance of power. As Geimer said in her testimony,

We were alone and I didn’t know what else would happen if I made a scene. So I was just scared, and after giving some resistance, I figured well, I guess I’ll get to come home after this

She didn’t fucking know what else would happen if she made a scene. Here was a girl, who had been given champagne and qaaludes, who was faced with unwanted sexual advances from a man more than three times her age, a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was afraid for her life.

What Polanski did was rape. I don’t care that he was later offered a plea bargain (because Geimer’s lawyer did not want her to have to endure a trial) that lessened his charges from rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor to the much shorter and nicer-sounding unlawful sexual intercourse. I don’t care that the only thing Polanski plead guilty to was said charge of unlawful sexual intercourse. I just don’t care.

Let’s be really clear on one thing here:

Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13 year old girl.

Roman Polanski raped a 13 year old, plead guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” and, when he realized that he was facing jail time, fled the country. He continued to make movies, continued to receive the financial backing and participation of major studios and A-list movie stars, married a woman 33 years his junior, and had two children. He has suffered basically zero consequences because of what he did.

This is what rape culture looks like.

Rape culture means that we refer to children who were raped by celebrities as “former teens” (what the fuck does that even mean?), and use terms like “unlawful sexual intercourse” instead of “rape” when describing what happened to them.

Rape culture means that Johnny Depp, Adrien Brody, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Catrall, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Helen Bonham Carter Walter Matthau, Harrison Ford, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley are, by appearing in and promoting Polanski’s films, all tacitly saying that they are just fine with the fact that he raped a 13 year old girl.

Rape culture means that a lengthy list of celebrities, many of whom I used to admire, have publicly defended Polanski.

Rape culture means that Whoopi Goldberg has gone on record saying that what happened wasn’t rape rape.

Rape culture means that so many people are willing to ignore what Polanski did because they just want to sit back and enjoy his movies without having to feel guilty.

Rape culture means that a young girl’s life was destroyed, while her rapist went on to win Oscars for his movies.

Rape culture means that we live in a world where celebrities, the media, and even our friends and family normalize, excuse and condone rape to the point where a rapist can continue to live a happy, normal life with very limited consequences.

Look, I’m not normally the type of person who can’t dissociate an artist from their art; I still love Picasso, even though he treated women terribly. Ditto for Ernest Hemingway. Truman Capote was pretty awful, especially to my girl Harper Lee, but I can still read Breakfast At Tiffany’s and love every word of it. I recognize that the art and beauty a person creates are separate from who they are.

But I will never, ever see a Polanski film. I will not in any way, shape, or form give my tacit support for what he did.

I will not knowingly participate in rape culture.

Samantha Geimer in 1977

Edited to add: A few people have brought up the 1969 murder of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and the fact that he is a Holocaust survivor.

A bit of clarification – I am aware of both those facts. I do not like the fact that people use them as an excuse for what he did. I am certain that Polanski was deeply, irreparably damaged by these events. That being said, he made a CHOICE to rape Samantha Geimer. He was conscious of his actions; he even underwent a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation after his arrest. I do not think his past can be used as an excuse or justification.