The Carrie Diaries

Sex and the City the television series ended six years ago. One might find this hard to believe, considering the characters and the lavish lifestyles they live have been far from gone in the mainstream media. The latest installment in the SATC enterprise is The Carrie Diaries,  author Candace Bushnell’s young-adult novel that introduces audiences to Carrie Bradshaw as they’ve never seen her before – 17, virginal and unsure of how to fulfill her dream becoming a writer. The young Bradshaw struggles through adolescence the same way her adult self struggled through her 30s, and with just as much, if not more, wit and insight. It’s easy to see how Carrie became Carrie as Bushnell chronicles a very real, and entertaining, teenage experience using the skills we’ve come to know her for: realistic dialogue, relatable, yet flawed, friendships and capturing the excitement and emotion the first moments of love.

As a feminist scholar and critic, and an advocate for girl-friendly media, I was plagued by very familiar annoyances in the reading. Although adult Carrie admits in SATC (season 4, episode 17) that her father left when she was a toddler, Bushnell posits high-school Carrie as the eldest of three girls being raised by their father since their mother died a few years earlier. Although a single dad raising three young women is certainly an alternative to the status-quo, it is not more or less feminist than a mother, working full time and raising 3 daughters. And in the case of the latter, it provides something very important missing in both fiction and film – positive female role models.

 The debate over Bushnell’s characters and their choices has been raging since the debut of the original series. In The Carrie Diaries, the author offers her own feminist commentary that is neither subtle, nor convincing. In a chapter dedicated to Carrie’s discovery of feminism, the 12 year old visits her local library to see her mother’s favorite (fictional) feminist Mary Gordon Clark speak. The young Bradshaw is chagrined by the woman’s gruff and judgmental manner, leaving her to ponder “How can you be a feminist when you treat other women like dirt?” An excellent question, though I’d be interested in asking Bushnell “Why all feminists must be represented as angry, elite meanies?”

 Unlike her adult counterpart, whose friendships offered support, honesty and resilience in the face of obstacles, the high school Carrie is surrounded by a group of friends that are competitive, highly emotional, or just plain bitchy. Her most passionate moments include falling for a narcissistic, but gorgeous guy who eventually cheats on her with her best friend, developing her voice as a writer with the support of the Brown-attending George, and eventually being published in the school paper, with the help and support of the paper’s editor – her friend’s boyfriend.

 As lover of pop-culture and an advocate for media literacy among the youth, especially girls, I was encouraged to find the positive elements of a story that will surely resonate with a large audience. Although Carrie’s mother is absent in reality, she is ever present in the lives of her daughters, all of which are struggling to maintain her legacy while evolving into who they will be as individuals. The biting, yet quirky, humor that endeared me to Carrie on SATC punctuates the tensest moments in the novel as Carrie offers teen-appropriate insights like, “Funny always makes the bad things go away.” Unfortunately, comparing the young Carrie to the character she became on the series leaves me no less than disappointed. The Carrie created here comes out an evolved and matured being, moving forward into the next phase of her life, something that was remiss of her character when the SATC series ended, and further exacerbated in the following two films. In fact, I’d favor a film version of The Carrie Diaries over both SATC films.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference, Love YA Lit

Bella, Realized?

Bella Swan has never been a character I’ve related to. She’s frustratingly timid, overwhelmingly insecure, and apparently has no interests or hobbies aside from her obsession with Edward Cullen. Sure, she’s had her redeeming moments, and yes, it was Bella who saved Edward from exposing himself to the Volturi in New Moon. But it wasn’t until the final moments of Eclipse that Bella became someone I can respect, and even admire.

The Twilight Saga has been heralded by many as a positive step for women in Hollywood, primarily credited for its representation of the female gaze. While I find this argument both positive and necessary, it is also problematic because it operates around a binary understanding of gender; if men do something this way, women will flip it and do it the opposite way. Feminist research and scholarship aim to disrupt this way of thinking and urge us to seek alternatives by exploring the gray area. It is in this gray area that Eclipse offers the most feminist perspective of all the Twilight films yet.

Consider the term twilight as a useful analogy: the time between day and night that can’t be classified as either, but is rather a little of both. The same is true for Bella’s struggle throughout the series, and it is never more apparent than in Eclipse. She is human, but has never felt at home in that world. With Edward, and the Cullen Clan, she feels things she hasn’t felt before: real, strong, and capable. But as any card-carrying feminist knows, leaving your “natural” world, seeking alternatives, and disrupting the status quo is never easy, and never without doubt.

Unfortunately, for Bella, her doubt comes in the form of a warm-blooded, hot-bodied fella, her best friend Jacob. While most of the film, and nearly all the witty dialogue, focuses on the jealousy and tension between Edward and Jacob, in the end it is Bella who makes the choice. And as she articulates at the close of the film, her decision is not based on pleasing Edward or Jacob, or anyone else for that matter, but rather on fulfilling her own desires.

Cinematically, the film has found balance amid the Hollywood effect; Eclipse lacks the low budget kitsch of Twilight without falling victim to the highly dramatized vampire visuals, and indulgent makeup, of New Moon. Though it is full of action and violence, the filmmakers should be commended for opting away from blood and gore, and instead crystallizing the vampire skeletons so they shatter like glass.

There are quite a few threads of social commentary being made throughout the film that offer plenty of fodder for further analysis, primarily around issues of choice. The ongoing battle between the dark-skinned, warm-blooded Quileutes versus the cold, soulless White people is an easy analogy for colonization. But when Jacob is injured during battle, Dr. Cullen is not only allowed on the Rez, but genuinely thanked by the tribe. We also learn the sad and violent story of Rosalie’s turning, and are provided insight into her disdain for Bella. “None of us chose this,” she reminds her, offering a subtle but important acknowledgment of the privilege of choice, and the power of having one.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

A Bromantic Attempt at Feminism

Aldous Snow (Russell Brand)—the uber-sexual, tongue-in-cheek (and anywhere else you’ll let him stick it) Brit-rocker introduced to audiences in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall—is back in the latest film from yet another member of the Apatow Film Club for Boys. Based on characters created by Jason Segel, and written and directed by Nicholas Stoller, Get Him to the Greek is an often-comical, always offensive satire of the music industry, rock ‘n’ roll culture, and America’s reverence for all things celebrity.

Capitalizing on the fervor ignited by Brand, Get Him to the Greek succeeds in blurring the line between reality and fiction through inclusion of an original soundtrack and videos (performed by Brand and co-star Rose Byrne) and cameos by more than one recognizable pop artist and media outlet. Brand is refreshingly genuine as a privileged star struggling to gain control of his life, while Byrne offers hilarious support as Snow’s ex-wife and musical partner, Jackie Q. Effortlessly, she rivals Brand with her own sincere wit as she admits on Showbiz Tonight how bored she is with her husband’s sobriety.

I expected to like this film, and I did. Stoller bravely explores intimacy among men and, similar to I Love You, Man, his manuscript explores the complex dynamics of male relationships by offering glimpses of sincerity, vulnerability, and affection, elements often ignored in favor of more acceptably masculine attributes. However, as is often the case in Hollywood, without being well-versed in feminist values, what is meant to be ironic instead reinforces stereotypes and makes it that much harder for girls to be in on the joke.

Some attempts at humor are more problematic than others. While attempting to wrangle Snow in Vegan and escort him to New York City, music intern Aaron (Jonah Hill) is ordered by his boss Sergio (Sean “P Diddy” Combs) to have sex with a woman he’s just met, Destiny. Actually, Sergio commands Destiny to “[t]ake this man into the bedroom and have sex with him,” and she readily complies. What follows is a pointless scene in which the petite Destiny forces the hefty Aaron to have sex with her. He says, “No.” He “protests.” (In reality, he could have easily tossed her off him.) Finally, he returns to his friends and announces, “I think I was just raped.” They laugh, and so does the audience. Gross.

In a perfect world, we can laugh about anything. Considering the world we live in, however, perhaps the more appropriate question is “who is allowed to laugh about rape?” When victims speak out with humor about their own lived experience, they are ridiculed or shamed, but when white men in Hollywood poke fun, its satire. Satire, by definition, is an exaggeration that is so far from reality that it is ridiculous to even consider. (The punchline to this joke being how ridiculous and non-threatening rape is for men – that men can’t be raped.) Unfortunately, this moment in Get Him to the Greek reinforces cultural myths surrounding the acceptance of rape. Instead of calling attention to the cultural, systemic, powerful epidemic of sexual violence, the “joke” nullifies its severity by applying it to the most powerful social group (white men).

The film industry is a site where creative potential can be harnessed to provoke meaningful change, and this band of brothers has the ability to lead the way for other Freaks and Geeks. But if we don’t start getting some feminist minds in on the action, these bright men are headed straight for the John Mayer Celebrity School of Shame.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

was that supposed to be funny?

One can never truly pinpoint what feminism looks like. Sometimes it’s the faces of celebrities, proudly claiming the “F” word; sometimes it’s a swarm of protestors gathering on the National Mall. And sometimes it’s a crown of broccoli asserting its dancing ability to a bullying stalk of asparagus. In her latest work, “Was That Supposed to be Funny,” Brooklyn based cartoonist/blogger Lauren Barnett uses personal anecdotes as well as personified vegetables to invite the reader into her quirky, droll mind.

While the comic does not serve as the site for feminist criticism, Barnett’s presentation of her own experiences as a woman offer fertile ground for exploring the cultural constructs that pervade the female experience. The title alone, inspired by a 6th grade note between the author and a classmate, conjures memories of bra-snapping boys, sexist teachers, landlords, and doctors plus a lifetime of pop-culture references in which the joke is on us. While hunting for an apartment, she is nearly scammed out of her $500 deposit, and completely scammed out of the apartment. One is left to wonder, would the apartment have been secured if the  boyfriend for whom she is going to share it with had been the one handling the shady broker?

 The most poignant, and strangely hilarious, moments are Barnett’s inclusion of actual diary entries from her adolescence, written verbatim, and brought to life in black and white illustration. Watching Jaws, a 9 year old Barnett is saddened by the death of “the pretty girl” and later makes history as President of the United States, Niki Taylor, supported by her secretary, and best friend, Cindy Crawford. Barnett’s work is a charming and unique representation of the third wave of feminism and a generation of women no longer succumbing to silence. In a country where women are still outnumbered, and underpaid, by men in a number of fields including publishing, animation and comedy, Barnett bravely inserts her voice into the dialogue. The result is a sublimely feminist, refreshingly entertaining and utterly relevant documentation of one woman’s world.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference

Afghan Star

Directed by

One of my favorite bands, The Avett Brothers, have a lyric in one of their songs claiming, “May you never be embarrassed to sing.” Since viewing Havana Marking’s documentary, Afghan Star, this lyric has been on repeat in my brain, reminding me, as Star aptly illustrates, if embarrassment is all that we have to risk, then we are risking very little. In her feature length directorial debut, Marking journeys into recently independent Afghanistan to explore the newly created television program “Afghan Star.” Following four contestants as they compete for the $5000 prize, Marking exposes the inspiring and passionate citizens of a country shrouded by war, violence and tyranny. The film opens with a close-up of two little boys. One, whose face and eyes appear to have been violently damaged, sings sweetly into the camera and when he finishes the other states simply “If there was no singing the world would be silent.” From this point on Star weaves a complicated narrative that instigates dialogue about the power of having a voice, and the ideologies that determine what voices are heard and by who.

In 1996, the Taliban rule in Afghanistan created a ban on music, dancing, and singing. The ban was lifted in 2004, but as history has taught us all to well, a change in politics doesn’t always result in changing people. Most of those interviewed in the film, from the shows producers to townspeople, equate singing with freedom; however the concept of freedom is abstract and intangible. It is defined within the boundaries of Afghan politics and Islamic religion, leaving little room for the inclusion of Western liberties and autonomous behavior. This is most evident in the subtle, yet disturbing, fulfillment of traditional gender roles. Both of the male contestants whom Marking chooses to focus on are met with great hope and respect by their communities. But when interviewing the families and supporters of the female contestants the responses are overwhelmingly concerned and fearful, or rife with ulterior motives. As the male contestants campaign openly in public and receive adoration from fans, the women are hidden by their burqa’s, unable to be reacognized. The contradiction is striking, yet the women are complicit and seemingly unaware of their alienation. However, the most drastic display of sexism occurs when Setara, one of the two female finalists and by far the most dynamic of all the contestants, is eliminated. While performing her final song, Setara “dances” on stage while also allowing her head scarf to fall revealing her hair. The result is scorn from her fellow competitors, eviction from her apartment and death threats so fierce and overwhelming, she fears returning to her hometown.

For those of us in the West, Afghan Star presents a thoughtful exploration of the life we so often take for granted: freedom of speech, the privilege of choice and the unnecessary luxury of television and its star making programs. But, above all, this film is a riveting reminder of the power, freedom and endless possibilities we hold in our voice and that no matter how we  may use it, we must never be embarrassed to sing.

Cross-posted at Elevate Difference