Mirror Mirror

                                “She wins who calls herself beautiful and
                          challenges the world to change to truly see her.”
                                     Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

There have been countless retellings of the Snow White story over the years. American’s are most familiar with Disneys 1937 animated version based on the Grimm Brothers’ story of Little Snow White.  Snow White was Walt Disney’s first motion picture hence marks the birth of the original Disney Princess. The Snow White story is my favorite of the all the princess tales because it explores a fascinating aspect of female gender privilege and power: beauty. It also is a classic mean girl tale ever so relevant considering the incidence of bullying in our nation’s schools. Mirror Mirror is Disney’s updated version of the classic tale and might be the studio’s first successful attempt at creating a feminist fairy tale.

The basic premise of the story is the same but with a few modernized plot lines: the Queen (Julia Roberts) has manipulated her way into power and is taxing her citizens into poverty in order to maintain her lifestyle. Her obsession with her own vanity and jealousy over the beauty of her step-daughter, Snow White (Lily Collins) drive her to order that the girl be taken to the forest and killed.  Snow White is set free by the huntsman ordered to kill her and left in the woods where she befriends a crew of dwarf bandits. 7 to be exact.  On is the smart one. One is the mean one. One thinks he’s a wolf. And then there’s the creepy one. Seriously, one of the dwarfs hits on her the whole time and it gets a little weird.  Snow White realizes the conditions of her kingdom and enlists the bandits to help return the money to the people. It’s all very Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Oh yeah, and there is a Prince (Armie Hammer – who is just about as cute as his name). Plus, a beast that lives in the woods.

Director Tarsem Singh creates a handful of visually enticing moments but everything evokes the feeling of something we’ve already seen.  Guests of the Queen resemble residents of The Hunger Games’ Capitol. In Singh’s version The Queen walks through her mirror into this odd other world where she enters an igloo made out of straw and converses with her own reflection – which looks like an Austen character painted white. It’s very Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings. The effect of it distracts from the poignancy of the message – that vanity is our greatest weakness. The evil of Roberts’ Queen is less sinister more jovial heartlessness rooted in sincere delusion – a cross between Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada and any one of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

The best part of Singh’s re-visioning is Snow White herself. Reintroducing the original Disney Princess in the image of what an actual princess might look like – a political figure, heir to a throne, fighting for her country – is a welcome change to the traditional character who had very little personality beyond beauty. In fact, Snow White 2012 is immediately introduced as curious and thoughtful, if not a little naïve. On her 18th birthday she sneaks off castle grounds into the town and returns with opinions and accusations about how the Queen is ruling the kingdom. It marks a significant identity shift, a coming of age moment when she steps into the skin of the woman she is to become: a leader.

Similar to Katniss Everdeen, another brave teen girl on the silver screen right now, this Snow White is not a helpless child or a detached beauty queen. She doesn’t frolic around the woods singing and chatting up woodland animals until her Prince comes to rescue her. For both of these girls, beauty, as well as romance, is a luxury.  It’s just a distraction from the reality of their lives – survival, protection and helping their country. It is a powerful message for both girls and women; a reminder that we can easily become our own Evil Queen so committed to our vanity that we have less time, confidence and energy to do what’s really important in our lives.

Cross posted at Sadie Magazine.

Note: If you are interested in another unique perspective on Snow White try author Gregory Maguire’s adaptation,  Mirror Mirror.

Katniss Everdeen: Girl

Adrienne Rich died today. I saw the news as I was editing and preparing to post this article. The following quote informs exactly what I was exploring when writing this piece and what I seek to communicate to all the girls out there on the verge of losing themselves and those who may never find out.

“No woman is really an insider in the institutions fathered by masculine consciousness. When we allow ourselves to believe we are, we lose touch with parts of ourselves defined as unacceptable by that consciousness.”

The Hunger Games debuted the first of the trilogy’s film adaptations last weekend to record-breaking success. It had the highest grossing opening weekend for a film that wasn’t a sequel. The top two are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and The Dark Knight, which makes THG the highest grossing opening weekend for a film with a female protagonist! I have been doing a lot of thinking, talking and reading about THG and I am writing this because I am disappointed in the lack of discussion around gender. Many are celebrating Katniss for being a gender-neutral character and the conversation seems to be defining gender-neutral as meaning boys like her, too. In order for this character to be gender-neutral it would have to not matter that she is a girl. And, to the citizens of Panem, or in the Arena, maybe it doesn’t. But, for American audiences, it does. And here’s why.

1. Female protagonists are few and far between

In both literature and film males vastly outnumber female protagonists. Studies have shown that, while females regularly view movies with male leads, males are less likely to view films with a female lead. From personal experience, as someone who seeks out female driven stories, I can say I have read way more books with interesting female characters than seen films, especially in the teen genre.  Considering the harmful effect media images have on girls specifically, it is extra important that Katniss has become a film character accessible to girl viewers.

2. Katniss is a girl created by a girl

Just as it is for characters, gender disparity is present in the creation of these characters. Men out number women in all areas of publishing as well as producing, directing and writing films. This has resulted in what researchers have coined the “male gaze” meaning all characters, whether male or female, are created from the male point of view and satisfy a heteronormative masculine desire. Men and women have different experiences in the world that are directly related to their gender and this makes their perspective vastly different. A hero is defined as an ordinary person in extraordinary situation. When creating a hero Suzanne Collins chose a girl to be that extraordinary person and in doing so created an entirely different narrative. A girl’s story.  The more these stories are told the more our ideas about gender and gender roles change and then maybe it really won’t matter that she’s a girl.

Note: Suzanne Collins also wrote the screenplay – double bonus for Hollywood!

3. Katniss redefines “girl”

The cultural standard of human behavior is defined by the behavior of men. This is something feminist scholars, activists and others work to disrupt however we still exist in a reality where woman is defined as “other” and “different.” It is usually these differentiating characteristics that we devalue. Because Katniss is a girl every time she operates outside a traditional female assigned behavior she challenges a stereotype and every time she participates it adds value to the female experience. It also fully reflects one of the primary tenets of feminism: the freedom to choose. When we put a girl like Katniss on the screen – one who is tough, resilient, strong, caring, loyal, loving, protective, responsible, focused – she creates a new image in which girls can see themselves. She also presents a new image in which boys see girls –as individuals worthy of being friends with rather than sexual objects for them to play with.

4. Katniss is a fighter

I am a big believer in teaching girls to fight (and NOT WITH OTHER GIRLS!) Now, you may hear this and think of a physical response. And you know what, sometimes that is part of it. What I am really talking about is inspiring the fight inside a girl to be brave, to be strong, and to persevere. As a culture, we teach that to boys but we teach girls to depend on someone else, to let someone else fight for them. Or we teach them not to care. We distract them with things like clothes, make-up, and boyfriends. Katniss learned to fight out of necessity but she never compromises her integrity when doing so. In fact, being a girl, influences not only how she fights (with her head and her heart) but also what she is fighting for (ultimately, freedom for Panem and all its citizens).

5. Katniss is motivated by love

An essay by Mary Borsellino had me thinking about Katniss as a character who is motivated by love and the political implications of those choices. Because love has traditionally been assigned as a female emotion, a female character has more agency to act with love then a male character. When they do, it activates a non-traditional power source to which women have access and thus the potential to instigate change. This translates to the real world as well but, as history has shown us, women are often afforded more opportunity when following the dominant pattern of success (if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em). This is usually because female associated behaviors such as love, compassion, relationships are also seen as weaknesses. However, successful leaders who usurp this model have often been male such as Ghandi and MLK Jr.  Because she is driven by love – supporting her family, honoring Rue’s death, saving Peeta’s life – Katniss emulates a new way of doing that disrupts the culture of competition that measures success by individual achievement rather than what is good for the whole. Because she succeeds, her story tells us that it’s OK love and, on another level, that it is OK to be a girl. Both strong messages that we could all stand to be reminded of more often.

The thing is, Katniss Everdeen is a unique representation of girlhood that is far more common than Hollywood would have you believe.  Her presence in the pop cultural landscape is important, especially in a medium that legions of teens have access to, because she is changing the way we view youth, culture and gender.

And, yes, it matters that she’s a girl.

Inspiration Station

Today marks the end of an event filled week that began last Tuesday with the arrival of my cousin, Janna. Her first visit to the Windy City, the California girl may have been the reason for the unusually warm weather. We celebrated by thrifting in Wicker Park which led to extra early happy hour at Big Star. It has been confirmed by the California native – their margaritas are really, really, really good. Also, best guacamole in the city. 

Janna was in town for the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP) to promote her literary journal, Under the Gum Tree.

I was crashing. First order of unofficial business: attend the keynote presentation by Margaret Atwood. I read The Handmaid’s Tale in my very first Women’s Studies class so this was a really big deal to me. Hosted in the historical Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, Ms. Atwood gave a delightfully inspiring, albeit brief, talk about the difference between “Art” and “Craft.” Giggling at her own jokes and poking fun at her own mortality (“Isn’t she dead?”), Atwood suggested that craft is the tool. Her analogy “If you want to slit someone’s throat you have to sharpen your knife.” Yeah. She’s awesome.

Friday, I was lucky enough to sneak into a panel: Memory Without A Net, and OHMAGOD – my friend, idol, and all around swell gal Kelsie Huff was a presenter! After jumping up and down, hollering and doing some crazy hula-hoop dance inspired by my last name (in the Grand Ballroom of The Palmer House, mind you), I sat down with Janna to enjoy the panel. Holy amazing. There are some kick ass storytellers in this city and they are making shit happen all around town. Kelsie performed a piece from her critically acclaimed solo show, Bruiser: Tales from a Traumatized Tomboy.

The rest of the panel included stories by Dana Norris, Shannon Cason, Kevin Gladish, and Scott Whitehair plus and extended, and very valuable, Q&A. For a list of storytelling events around Chicago go here.
Next, we hit the book fair to promote UTGT and do some shameless self-promotion (so what if I only gave my card to the cute boys.)

For real though, I discovered the local publisher Haymarket Books (not just because he had a beard)and bought a copy of IraqiGirl: {Diary of a Teenage Girl in Iraq}. 

Look for my review coming very soon at Love YA Lit.

Saturday we continued our support of live performance and I introduced Janna to one of my favorite Chicago discoveries: Paper Machete – a live magazine presented 3pm every Saturday at The Horseshoe Bar. IT’S FREE!!! We ended out evening at The Laugh Factory (boo!) compliments of Ms. Ever Mainard (YAY EVER!). I met Ever through the FemCom community and have been continually impressed and inspired by her work. That night she blew off her entire set to riff on a “wolfpack” of fellas spanning the front row. Hilarious.

Lately, Ever has received a lot of attention for the following bit, which I love.

Sunday = Brunch at The Fountainhead because they are the only bar to carry our new favorite beer: New Belgium’s Cocoa Mole. Seriously y’all, this beer will change your life. And, I am not even a beer drinker. Do it.

It was a great visit with my cousin and a great opportunity for finding inspiration and building community. Please follow the links if you want to know more and feel free to reach out to me or Janna or any of the other people/places mentioned in this post. We love to hear from our audience!

Insecurity has got the best of me

As a performer, I’ve recently been exploring stand-up. This is in large part due to Chicago and a class called the Feminine Comique. I discovered this all female class through a Reader article on local stand-up and Fem Com creator, Cameron Esposito. Now taught by the hilarious Kelsie Huff, this class is amazing.

My graduation show was awesome. My set received a lot of laughs and an audience full of friends supported me. A handful of positive open mic’s later and my long dormant creativity was back and ready to find its next manifestation.

I want to write and perform a solo show; I want to collaborate; I want to do a web series; I want to produce a show to showcase other female talent.


Then I went to Cole’s and bombed. In front of Cameron and all the other cool lady comics I want to like me.

Comedy Sportz – same. This time in front of Kelsie and Kristin Clifford.

My set at The Kate’s was well received but sloppy…erratic…

That was January 28 and I haven’t performed since.

What am I so afraid of that I don’t even want to walk into the room? Why do I all of a sudden feel like I am the new girl in the cafeteria with no one to sit with?

I’m too normal. I’m not interesting enough. I’m too pretty. My hair is too long. I’m just another straight girl whining about boys. I’m not as cool as the gay girls with their side mullets and leather jackets. The girls who I long to be accepted or at least respected by. I’m too old. I don’t want to spend all night at the bar hanging with 23 year olds who I can’t help but be jealous of because they’ve already figured it out where as I am just discovering this part of myself. This part of myself that, at 33, feels like it’s too late. And, I don’t want to make jokes or try to make you laugh. I want to make you think. I want to talk about shit that pisses me off. I want to call your attention to stuff that is idiotic, annoying, or just plain fucked up. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s not.

Because, the truth is, I’m not trying to be funny. I’m just trying to be real.

And, that shit is scary as hell.

…but, she’s pretty

So, it’s been all over the media – Karl Lagerfeld called Adele fat!! O.M.G. But, as per usual with the media, Lagerfeld’s comment is only a small blip from a larger quote. Here’s the deal: Karl Lagerfeld, Paris based designer best know for his work with Chanel, was “interviewed” by Metro and I quote interview because the questions Lagerfeld was asked were not printed and I like to know the question so I can better relate to the answer.

According to Metro, this is Karl Lagerfeld on Lana del Rey:

“I prefer Adele and Florence Welch. But as a modern singer she is not bad. The thing at the moment is Adele. She is a little too fat, but she has a beautiful face and a divine voice. Lana del Rey is not bad at all. She looks very much like a modern-time singer. In her photos she is beautiful. Is she a construct with all her implants? She’s not alone with implants.”

The problem here is what is not being said about Lagerfeld’s comments – that the critical response to these remarks has focused on Adele’s weight with no mention of Lagerfeld’s response to Lana del Rey. He calls both singer’s beautiful and Adele’s voice he cites as “divine” – both compliments negated by the fat comment. While critics may think they are doing a service by calling attention to Lagerfeld’s narrow minded view of physical beauty they are also creating a serious backlash that reinforces our cultural belief that being fat is bad (or ugly, unfortunate…you name it we’ve said it). If we want to create a broader standard of beauty that leaves room for diverse body types then we can’t get all fired up when someone comments negatively on someone else’s appearance. Especially when that person has a talent that should make their appearance irrelevant. But, it doesn’t. Instead when we admonish Lagerfeld for his comments we are actually, on some level, agreeing with him. If it doesn’t matter that she’s fat then it shouldn’t matter that he said so – right? Was it obnoxious? Of course. Did I mention he is a fashion designer…from Paris. The man has spent his life in the most exclusive fashion house EVER. Clearly his views on beauty are ridiculously skewed.

But, he saved the worst for Del Rey; her talent as singer was deemed “not bad” and he supported this point by calling attention to the fact that she looks the part. (Yeah, her music sucks but she’s pretty!) Then he questions the realness of her body and finishes up by reminding us that …hey, implants happen. What really concerns me are the implications of his comments about Del Rey. Encouraging girls because they fit a certain standard of beauty is just as problematic as putting girls down because they don’t. Eating disorders continue to be an epidemic in this countrygirls as young as 5 years old are dieting and teenagers are having plastic surgery –  This is real.

Beauty affords you a certain amount of privilege in this world and, especially dangerous, a false sense of power – primarily for women. It’s a tricky argument to even articulate – when you have a socially accepted image of beauty nobody wants to hear you critique it and when you don’t fall into that category it is twice as hard to have your voice heard. What’s worse, as much emphasis as we put on female beauty in this country we match that with anger, jealousy, and suspicion when the beautiful are also talented. Don’t believe me? Take a look at any of the critical responses to Del Rey over the last few months before her album was even released. As NPR journalist Ken Tucker puts it – “There’s something weirdly mean about all the negative press Del Rey has received before Born To Die was even released. It’s like high-school level meanness, directed at someone who wants to be a star and is really going for it. It’s like being punished for ambition.”

The bottom line here is that both these women (in addition to Welch) are artists attempting to share their expression with the world and not simply label-created pop idols. That takes creativity, bravery, and a whole lot of self-confidence.  Here’s to working towards the day when looks have nothing to do with it.