A Word About a Girl

In the past year and a half while A Girl Walks Into a Book has been maundering towards publication (did I mention it comes out TOMORROW?) I was bracing for the editor or the marketing or publicity department to want to change the title. We’ve got girls on trains and with dragon tattoos and kicking hornet nests, knowing too much, drinking the moon, walking into bars, out of bars, in pieces, at war, with no name, of the Golden West, in white dresses, from the sea, you get the gist. Apparently male authors tend to kill off title girls, whereas female authors who were girls once themselves tend to survive.  Some have strong feelings about calling women girls. There is of course, the TV show Girls.

I feel a certain pressure to “earn” a spot in the “Girl Titles For Good Reason” column instead of being like “Those Other Girls” which of course reflects a national (global?) habit of scrutinizing anything it seems like a significant number of girls and women are doing and putting a stop to it if possible, or at least making us all unsure of which side of the line is the “Good” side.

For a while I called my book The Brontës and Me. Then My Life in Middlemarch came out. H is for Hawk was taken and also I don’t know any hawks personally, so that and any avian-thesaurus riff on it was out of the question. One day during the writing of the book formerly known as the Brontës and Me, I was taking a shower after a hike in the woods spent talking to myself about Shirley and how much I like it and how weird it is. And suddenly, A Girl Walks Into a Book popped into my head, and it stuck. My agent liked it. My editor liked it. As far as I know the publicity team had no objections. So we kept it.

It’s not because I am Baby Jane Hudson and trapped in an infantilized girlhood, or because I think it’s cute to refer to grown women as girls, or because marketing demo research told me it was more likely to succeed than That Nutso Brontë Lady. (Is it too late to change it to that? It is, right? Damn.) It’s because when I picked up Jane Eyre for the first time, I was a kid who barely understood “being a girl” at all. And somewhere amidst those infinite rereadings and researching dives and heartsick movie binges, I came out a woman on the other side. Or I’m bound to, at any moment. Here’s hoping.

Anyway, I hope you’ll all pick up the book this week, or come to a reading–so far I have events and readings planned in DC this month (May 23rd at Busboys and Poets!) and NYC next month. I’d love to meet you, sign a book, send you off with one of the gorgeous bookplates my friend Molly illustrated for me.

cover again



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Men accelerate, women steer

I once went on a date with a guy who, when I told him we were moving a little fast, said he thought his role was to hit the accelerator, and I would be the one to brake and steer. I should have ruled the date DOA and left immediately, but of course I did not walk away. I dated him for days after that. 
In October of 2006, I was sexually assaulted in a Manhattan bar and in a friend’s apartment afterwards. The situation was complicated by alcohol and my undiagnosed mono but mostly it was complicated by a guy walking a hiccuping, stumbling girl from bar to bar not knowing that being totally incapacitated (and mine were more like rolling blackouts–I would have flashes of time like a strobe light on a slow timer, so I could tell him “whoa how did we get here? I don’t remember that at all) meant I was not capable of consenting. I joked with him in the morning. I joked with my aunt the next day. I joked on this blog right after that. It was not funny. 

When I was 12 and riding the metro to summer Shakespeare camp a man with a bicycle started hitting on me in a low voice as we waited for the train. I told him I was 12. He said oh well. And kept talking. 

During my trip to India I was walking on the street in front of my guest house when two guys on a motorcycle zoomed by and circled back to grab my ass. They barely slowed down. 

I learned to say no abruptly. I was walking with a date and he saw a woman dancing in a bar. He asked what would happen if he just smacked my ass right there on the street. And I ran. I ran into the subway and I made it into a car and I blasted a song I can no longer listen to all the way home. He asked me to meet him a few days later so he could explain and I went even though his stupid remark had galvanized my already-brewing indifference and I no longer wanted to date him. I did not learn to say no perfectly. 

I say all this to say the last two days have been miserable. I have been nearly submerged by physical sensations I remember from years of being whistled at, called to, groped and harassed. Person after person quoting line after line from the world’s worst candidate’s blathering grotesquerie. These days have been miserable for a lot of women, whether like me they didn’t learn to say no for years, or they were beset by men who didn’t know to ask for a yes, or worse, knew and didn’t care. 

And then there’s the added indignity that GOP and media talking heads alike sat by and endured every racist, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, derogatory attack Trump has thrown but THIS ONE, the one that threatens us as possessions, as your wives and daughters, that starts the deluge? It comes on the heels of a dual-pronged insult that the media weighed before deciding calling a beautiful woman fat was worse than calling her “housekeeping”. Because the value of Alicia Machado that needed defending was her beauty, not her race?

I would like women to be in charge of everything, please. More specifically, feminists, because despite the myths that tortured lackwits like to perpetuate, feminism is supposed to be a philosophy of inclusion. If anyone deserves it, everyone deserves it. (We do this imperfectly, particularly at its intersections with race and class, and we should do better). So we will not take everything from you, men, provided you learn to share. We may take your jobs. We need to work on our corporate takeover skills. But maybe our deficiency there is actually deliberate. Leading a big company is something a lot of men do while cheating on their wives or abusing their employees, neglecting their families and expecting them to be satisfied with perks and societal standing. A lot of business guys are total assholes. Maybe you can keep that. 

Maybe we can be satisfied with the entire legislature, executive and eventually, judicial branch. We will be in charge of the accelerator for social programs and education and healthcare and veterans affairs. Maybe you can steer. Though I confess it is difficult for me to think of a single legislative priority men could push for that women would not have already covered. You will not be allowed to propose or fund abstinence education. You will not be allowed to restrict our access to abortion. You will not be allowed to fund military expansion at the expense of infrastructure. You will not say a word about our breastfeeding or our bathrooms. You will not utter the phrase “boys will be boys” while excusing rapists from your courtroom to go home to their enabling parents. We will not need you to draw our attention to police brutality or mass incarceration because our attention is there already. 

I suggest you get really good at child rearing and domestic shit, men. Get invested in your local PTA to channel all those ambitions and need to be useful. Raise your kids. Find space elsewhere. Women have had to manage and funnel and subdue our desires for years. Hundreds of them. You can do it too. 

This week in the writing center I worked with three young women searching for a feminist toehold in the Odyssey. I walked them through close-reading an excerpt and making an argument for what that passage contributed to the work as a whole. And once they got that down, I challenged them to speculate on what this new understanding offered the reader. 

They had not yet learned that asserting women’s place in academia, in the canon, often means reinterpreting works so revered as to be set in stone. It means being irreverent, it means being skeptical. For if you can find evidence for your argument that Homer was actually trying to say women are more dynamic and powerful than men know, that men should recognize women’s intrinsic complexity and worth, if he was saying that thousands of years ago?

None of you have any excuse. 

Lest you walk away from this believing that something is being taken from you, I remind you instead that something has been given to you. You have the opportunity to speak up and make the world safer for women. Challenge your buddies. Challenge your rivals. Challenge sexist advertising and policy and catcalling and legislation. Challenge it. And if you are the one who needs to be challenged, challenge your damn self. Ask yourself why you only heed a call to arms when it’s issued on behalf of your wives and daughters and mothers and sisters. Vote for women. Support their candidacies. Support their legislation. Believe them when they tell you they have been groped or stalked or assaulted. 

I am a wife and a daughter and a sister but when my skin crawls and my body aches and my mind shuts down, it’s not because of the men in my life. 

It’s because there are men on my subway, at my corner, in my world. It’s because I’m a woman. 

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Why is Pitch So Awesome?

Pitch, the new scripted baseball drama on Fox that tells the story of the MLB’s first female pitcher, Ginny Baker (Kylie Bunbury). After being trained and groomed by her father, Ginny was scouted and came up through the minor leagues with the San Diego Padres, and the pilot opens on the morning of her first major league start.

Baseball feelings follow.

If you are a person who loves baseball, you will like this show–it’s funny, it’s quick, it’s poignant, and it’s devoted to its characters. Ginny’s the A story, sure, but there’s also her manager, Amelia (played by Ali Larter), her minor league teammate Blip (Mo McRae) and his wife, Evelyn (Meagan Holder), the Padres owner (Bob Balaban!), her father (Michael Beach), her brother, and my favorite of favorites, ZACH MORRIS HIMSELF as the team’s aging catcher, Mike Lawson. Amelia sought Ginny out after her marriage exploded to give her life meaning, Mike is clinging to his career and mourning his own failed marriage, the dad from The Wonder Years is about to get fired as the team’s manager for pigheadedly “well-meaning” sexist remarks–Pitch has a deep bench, is what I’m saying.

Mark-Paul Gosselar is UNRECOGNIZEABLE. Maybe it’s the beard, the lack of bleach, the absence of a giant cellphone, but he won me over before I even realized who he was. He’s sincere and open as a narcissistic war horse who nonetheless becomes one of Ginny’s allies(and channels the somewhat inevitable implicit romantic tension he and Ginny have into an hook up with her manager, whoops). He’s still the jackass from math class who makes you laugh despite yourself

And surrounding it all are little girls and young women, watching from the stands, tearing up as they reach for autographs, screaming and cheering and watching. This show is anchored in the gaze of the young women looking for their place in baseball–and existing, as it does, in the real world where Jessica Mendoza is giving women a presence in the playoffs, and Kelsie Whitmore, 17, and Stacy Piagno, 25 are making history, it is giving us a glimpse of what’s to come.

It doesn’t sugarcoat it–Ginny has to contend with scrutiny, hostility, and her own doubts. Just like Jessica Mendoza deals with constant twitter abuse and men who cannot handle the sound of a woman’s voice explaining  things about baseball.  When we first meet Ginny in the pilot, she’s focused and detached and cooler-than-life, and then we see her go through a day of media circus and her first major league start (and meltdown), and battler her way back for a second start. She’s human. She’s fiery and warm and cool and vulnerable. Pitch will not pretend this is easy. It would be insulting if they did (not to mention bad television to start with a triumph and just…keep triumphing. Rocky I had to happen before Rocky IV could end the Cold War, you know?). And the world of sports fans and sports media is both exultant and devastating–as are her teammates.

Women know this about sports. We know that the sports world simultaneously mocks us for not joining in and resents us when we do. We’re supposed to be the arm candy that ferries snacks and beer to the man cave and only blocks the TV if it’s on a commercial. Sure, women trounced the male athletes in the Olympic medal count, and women’s soccer is so much better than men’s soccer that if the gender was reversed every player’s name would be a household one, and female athletes have been leading a wave of support for Kaepernick’s protests. But somehow this myth that women are not capable of playing or interested in or relevant to sports persists.

Pitch has the potential to be an essential step in dismantling that fiction. This show is so good because it acknowledges the real world dynamics that women face in male-dominated sports and models how a woman can face them, withstand them, change the tide. AND it acknowledges the range of tools that we’ll need to do it.

My favorite scene in the pilot is when Ginny finally meets Mike Lawson on the field, who she idolized as a kid. They engage in ballplayer banter–“Would it be inappropriate to say you might be the second prettiest teammate I’ve ever had,” “It would. Second prettiest?” “Yeah I was in this charity softball game with DiCaprio. Beautiful eyes.” and he slaps her ass. She challenges him and cites her own credentials to shut him down. He fires back that he “is an ass slapper” and if she’s on the team, he’ll treat her like he treats everyone. She has a choice here. She has to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of the power dynamics, take the hazing or reject the hazing, be Cool vs be Angry, and know that whichever she chooses it’s a compromise.

And she pauses. “Young DiCaprio or Old DiCaprio. Young DiCaprio fine, he’s probably prettier than me, but Old DiCaprio looks like a fish.”

I love how she pivots to somewhere in between. They could have made it one-note, or hokey, or humiliating, or focused on the teammates watching. But instead it’s all about her and Lawson finding their footing. And then she slaps his ass on the way out.


Pitch is thoughtful, and well-written, and tackles rape culture in sports, and gives us our Triumph of the Human Spirit tears, and our I Sucked at Kickball feels, and our Baseball mood swings (made all the more intense by the DEVASTATING events of Wednesday’s game. Whatever. Baseball sucks).

But now I have Pitch! and I can love it for as many episodes as Fox gives us. If you’re not watching, you should be.

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A Girl Walks Into a Book

Hi! It has been um, two years since my last blog. In that time, I completed grad school, gotten married, completed my thesis on those happy-go-lucky Brontës, began an adjunct teaching career, concluded an adjunct teaching career, returned to publishing and writing center consulting, finished my book, AND SOLD IT!

A Girl Walks Into a Book is forthcoming from Seal Press, May 16, 2017!

I hope you will all buy it, read it, and steadfastly ignore me when I tell you, blushingly, oh no that’s fine you really don’t have to. You do have to. Please. If you don’t mind.

I’ve come a long way from the college kid, novice New Yorker, not-quite-Brooklynite  that I have been on this blog at various times. But I really miss the spontaneity, the rambling about things, the life-narrative that emerged when I was recording the details of daily existence here! It’s why we love to hate blogs, I know, but it’s also the fun thing about having one. I retreated to my old private Livejournal at times during the past few years but most of my connections there are now on Twitter, or Facebook, or even passed beyond the reach of wifi or keyboard (some of you may remember Meopta/Meoskop from the comments here. I miss her most of all). If I want to go back and see what I was thinking two or five or ten years ago, there used to be pages of updates, round-ups, memes, lists etc. And the past few years are a bit opaque without these signposts.

So, look for more from me here in the near future! I hope! I’m watching Pitch and have so many feelings!



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What a difference an almost-year makes! I’ve started collecting my clips over here at this Tumblr yonder, resolving to blog there and failing utterly. I’m mostly on twitter and instagram, save the 3 weeks I took off for a Book-writing intensive, that partly paid off but then partly… well…


Let’s just say the biggest piece of advice I’ve often heard and frequently ignored is “PROTECT YOUR WRITING TIME.” Teachers tried to tell me, established writers tried to tell me, friends tried to tell me, and you better believe Charlotte Brontë tried to tell me. So, this summer began in a flurry of proctoring law school exams, freelance editing, laying very still and recuperating from 3 months of puppy-related sleep-deprivation, then teaching a summer high school creative writing workshop (where for the first time I let my guard down and bonded with my students and it was AMAZING), and then my BFF was in town…but then I had a month, a whole month, in which to do nothing but work on my book (my 14 page essay is a BOOK NOW, you guys! And I went to Haworth and did research and everything but I digress).


And the first week was phenomenal. I deleted twitter and instagram from my phone (I kept FB so I could post Brontë quotes and um, become reobsessed with FB) made progress, I chalked up hearty word counts, I edited with discipline and judgment. And then the second week…I had to go back to the books, and transfer from writing/editing mode into research mode. It was bumpy. And then family came into town and disrupted 2 days worth of writing. And then petty little editing projects “Oh it won’t take you more than a day” started to creep in. And then E and I went to the beach. And then E went out of town for 4 days and I reinstalled twitter to fight the loneliness. But then I got to go to the Morgan Library and do some more first person research! Which now I have to transfer back into a writing mode to infuse into my book and. And then my fall syllabus was due today, so I spent this week equal parts working on it and procrastinating. Oh and did I mention I decided to start up a dogsitting/walking business amidst all of this? DISRUPTIONS EVERYWHERE. 

My writing tracker looks like this

7/21/14 8:30 – 1:00 1053 Welcome back. Critical heritage! 65,106 66,159 WH/AG critics
7/22/14 8:30 – 2:30 2116 Critical adds, mostly 66,159 68,275 215 Spotty work habits!
7/23/14 7:30-1:30 with breaks! 1906 Criticism, WH – Villette (reviews!) 68,275 70,181 10:30 – Dog business
7/24/14 7:45-11:15 1090 Criticism, letters, Villette–Haworth 70,181 71,271 217  
7/28/14 11:00-1:30 589 Notes on each chapter, snapshot, added Haworth rainbow 71,271 71,860 220 Made appt request for the Morgan library! 8/8
7/30/14 7:30 825 Letters 71,860 72,685 222 Embarassing work day.
8/1/14 7:30-10:15 176 Runthrough-beginning through Innocents abroad 72,685 72,861 Back to the grindstone, dammit
8/5/14 8:00 1004 Letters; most words added aren’t mine 72,861 73,865 stay awake!!!!
8/6/14 8-11; 5-7:30 1139 Research paper; Letters 73,865 75,004 229
8/7/14 9:00

Sigh. I got basically a week and a half of work out of my book-month. I’m trying to elbow out all of next week. I really need to have absolutely nothing else on my plate. Once school starts there’s, you know, school and thesis advisor conferences and a freelance project I took on that involves developing and editing a book on workplace writing skills. And I can be derailed by something as simple as proofreading a blogpost for someone else, so I need to have no errands, no appointments, no obligations to really PRODUCE as the professional writing types say. 


Protect your time, writing types.

A dog can help you think while you walk them but they will not help you re-energize at night. In the afternoon, mid-draft, sure. They’ll knock you out for 4 hours and you won’t know what hit you. 


That said, Roxy continues charming. For those first few months she was waking up at 5 am every day, at which point I’d drag us both to the couch to cling to an extra hour of sleep, but she seems to be gradually growing out of it. She even slept in until 9:00 while Eric was out of town. She plays well, sleeps well during the day, her separation anxiety is way down thanks to the judicious deployment of canned food involving pumpkin bits and gravy.


And Twitter and Tumblr and FB and uh, real life, know all about this but psst, WordPress! We’re getting married! The wedding-planning is done! I just need to uh, finish making invitations to the post-nuptials dinner and send them. I made the process very difficult for myself so it’s entirely my fault that it seems too daunting to bother with. The joy of planning a small elopement-style ceremony and a dinner with family afterwards is we get to separate all (well..many) of the opinions and expectations that surround a wedding from our actual vow-exchanging, and then provide an evening for our loved ones that is just about celebrating this new be-unioned-state. 



Guardians of the Galaxy was awesome. I wish Gomora could have done a little more but I really, really liked it.

Maleficent was also great–the visual homage to the original animated film were beautifully done. 

I’d convinced myself the second Avengers movie was out already and I had an opinion on it, but this seems to have been a hallucination. 

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Dazed and Schooled

Yesterday marked my first ever (..this semester) Tuesday that was not Just a Recovery Day From Monday And Or Stressful Weekend Travel. I have been molding young minds for approximately 5 weeks now and I love it. They’ve just gotten their first essays back and are preparing to embark on outlining their second essays. I like the prepping, the teaching, the grading, and the conferencing. I really like chalkboards.

I love the whole rigmarole so much that my hydra-headed nest of a 5 year plan has gone from “I don’t know maybe trying to write for TV or tutor or run creative writing workshops or teach high school or just copy edit while I finish my Brontë book project and make comics and sell crafts on the side God can we just have a baby so I don’t have to think about any of this THX” to…..

“Teach here for my two year appointment (try to segue into a fulltime gig for afterwards), turn in my thesis, adjunct for no more than a year or two while finishing/shopping my book (and freelancing so I can eat, and stuff), then begin applying for fulltime writing faculty positions.” 

So blammo. Sorry, people who follow my blog for whom I am extremely grateful, for my lack of blog-focus. I won’t pretend I didn’t have time to post here–I beat Lego LOTR basically by myself last month. But it’s hard to operate on multiple channels simultaneously. It was easier when I was younger and fancy free, I guess. Plus I wasn’t living with a partner and trying to be a grownup (we cooked actual dinners involving ingredients and heat this week! TWICE! Things are going really well. In non-food areas too). 

I think it may be about time to retire this here forum and set up shop on a Professional Type Blog, with my full name on it, where I can post clips and blog about my book project in a manner likely to attract positive professional attention, even. I’m still on Twitter, and maybe will start using Tumblr more often. Right now it intimidates me because I am inept.gif 

Anyway. Thank you for reading and being around. I wrote this thing at The Toast, in case you missed it 🙂 

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Hostility and the Feminist Critic

It’s no secret this blog ‘o mine has been receiving some undeserved neglect these past few months. Summer’s been busy, with the writing and the teaching and the moving to Inwood to live with a partner for the first time, and the writing and the teaching and the sudden unalterable nonbudging of a body allowed to be at rest for the first time since starting the second year of grad school. So I’ve been posting less and doing other stuff more (including publishing other places, working on my Brontë thesis, teaching a graphic novel class, and planning a trip to Haworth, woooo), and yet I still get the occasional comment from someone Googling through.

Most frequently it’s been comments on this post, in which I playfully excoriate Oblivion, by and large the stupidest sci-fi adventure featuring two Tom Cruises I’ve ever seen. 

Because I made the decision to critique it while being a woman possessing feminist views (despite also possessing a love of sci-fi, stating my love of sci-fi, and linking my frustration with this film to the climate in which it exists), the most lengthy comments I’ve received have been from Dudes Who Have a Problem With My Tone.

I’m not surprised, just curious. It’s no secret that some men don’t like it when the ladies get mouthy. Even the dude who likes to brand himself as the most feminist male feminist to ever feminist has issues with women’s anger (I have issues with him, also, and not to victim blame but if he could stop talking over his shoulder about how he’s really done this time, feminists who don’t drink his koolaid could get on to other, more interesting, less Schywzer-y things).

At first I rose to the “you’ll never publish this” bait and published them. Then, I looked at the annoying debate I’d been drawn into, accompanied by insults (gotta love a troll who tells you you’re imagining misogynistic sentiment in the media, probably because you’re a PMSing feminazi) and condescension and atrocious grammar. And I deleted them. And it felt better. I get to choose who speaks to me publicly in this space, and I prefer to approve people who are saying nice (even not necessarily complimentary) things.  So if you’d like to disagree with my critique, by all means do so, but if you can’t do it without being an offensive asshole, believe me the rest of the Internet is happy to accommodate you so you should take it up with them. 

But the frequency of these comments, appearing as they do on my super opinionated posts, has me thinking, what is it about a woman being pissed off that prompts douchebros to weigh in telling her not only that she’s wrong about the movie, but about misogyny in general. “Misogyny doesn’t exist, you stupid bitch, so stop complaining and go take some midol” is not exactly, not precisely the way I’d go if I wanted to convince me of anything. 

I’m allowed to be tired of objectification. I’m allowed to be tired of trivial female characters. I’m allowed to be tired of men getting all the good parts and women’s adventures being invisible once they graduate out of midriff tops. And I’d be hard pressed to see how my being tired of this shit affects you at all. If all that macho woman-erasing hullabaloo is your bag, congrats. The mainstream action movie industry is super on your side. What is the point of barging in here to tell me I’m stupid for even asking to see something original instead of something recycled in a Sarlaac’s intestine? 


Besides, I never review movies when I’m PMSing. I’d get chocolate all over the keyboard. Obv. 


PS, thanks for the recommendations, most recent troll, to other, less misogynistic movies. You’ll note I never said they didn’t exist, or that I hadn’t seen them. I agree, the 5th Element was pretty rad, and I like Mila Jovavich. But dude, Oblivion blew, and fuck you too. 

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What are musicals for: A Study in Contrasts

This weekend I had the opportunity to see both Spider-Man, Turn Off The Dark, Julie Taymor/Bono’s Busch Gardens entertainment homage, and Pitch Perfect, an ode to collegiate acapella starring Rebel Wilson and Anna Kendrick. As someone who counts musical theater as one of my first languages, I had Many Thoughts and Feelings about them both.

For what it’s worth, the fragments of Julie Taymor’s vision I could see added up to a musical I would have watched, little as it had to do with Spider-Man. The rest of it, the presumably signed-off-on-by-Marvel part, was no better than what I remember from years of amusement park stunt shows.

Because the makers didn’t seem to know what anybody liked about:

  • Comics
  • Musicals
  • Stunt shows and/or the circus
  • Words

In comics, we draw to express what we see and what we can’t say. In musicals, we sing to expose the raw emotional subtext of what we can’t say. In stunt shows, you want to see people trained to do cool things actually do cool things. The show’s makers were in a tug of war over whether to go for stylization (with comic-drawn backdrops and lots of posing) or emotional realism (MJ’s 2 minutes of backstory) and the result had neither. I expected comic book dialogue. What I didn’t expect was songs that were so aware of their irrelevant and meaningless lyrics or a book confused about its place and time. You may either have cell phone and facebook jokes OR you can put your steno pool in the 40s. You may not do both. We use words to EXPRESS THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS in ways that are resonant to ourselves and others! Not to fill up time, copy-and-paste from pop culture, or populate our power-ballads with vowels.


And then I saw Pitch Perfect, which got middling reviews, had mediocre dialogue (acascuse me?) and a Final Draft Screenplay Template Plot, but still gave me goosebumps more than once. I watched it the same way I often watch Glee, doing something else until the musical numbers came on. What it did, and what I liked about Stomp the Yard, Center Stage, Dance Academy (Aussie series of awesome schlock and excellent young ballet) etc, is use its musical content to tell a story, to show an evolution. In this case it was the introduction of mashup technology into college acapella groups…which actually probably predates the technology of mashing-up, but w’evs. There is just something about the texture of close harmony and vocal percussion and pop music that connects somewhere inside my rib cage.

Plus the goal of the movie was clearly to get high school choir nerds excited about playing college ball (evidence: HS-level vomit humor, the culmination of the heroine’s romantic relationship in a kiss). The performances were the most dynamic part, and the movie passed the Bechdel Test over and over because the leading ladies were way more interested in their actual interests (whether DJing or singing), than in hooking up with dudes. Anything that reassures kids who might feel like outsiders that they are actually on the inside of a much cooler crowd (and has a beat you can dance to) I am down with.

And the thing is, that’s supposed to be the point of Spider-man too (at least in its reboot incarnations), that Peter Parker, Scrawny Nerd, Photography Enthusiast, became magically stronger and cooler. But the opening bullying scenes were so cardboardy and hollow, the song was even called “bullying by numbers”. Having a high school boy who gives a presentation on spiders and chemistry (that actually is boring if you’re not privy to the airborne Arachne) and gets called a “loser” a bunch of times before one of the saddest dance fights I’ve ever seen….there’s nothing to hold on to, nothing to identify with. We don’t even learn anyone’s name other than the head bully.

Becca, the heroine of Pitch Perfect, is into DJing. Her romantic counterpart wants to score movies, and accepts his TurboNerd roommate. Fat Amy calls herself fat so “thin bitches” don’t do it behind her back. The movie had some unfortunate token POC/LGBT casting (one Asian girl, one Black lesbian, and one Indian dude who raps do not diversity make) and all the white tenors with brown hair were hard to tell apart, but ultimately it was trying to promote acceptance, and it was able to do it in a relevant way.

The makers of Pitch Perfect knew what people like about college rom-coms, about Glee-style musical numbers, and about girl-powered competition flicks. So I liked it. The makers of Spider-man only know what people like to see when they’ve sought air conditioning to escape the heat. So once I cooled off, I had nothing to hold on to.

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Whedon, Shakespeare and Much Ado

I was as excited for this movie as it is possible to be — I remember when Whedon hinted at shutting his friends up in his house and filming it, I remember when the cast leaked out, I am a big fan of Shakespeare adaptations generally, and Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare comedy, despite all its deficiencies, because Benedick and Beatrice are my favorite Shakespearean couple, bar none. And any devastated fan of Angel was eager to see Wesley and Fred back together, sadder but wiser and less possessed by an alien ice thing. So I was bouncing in my seat as the opening credits rolled. 

And I did like the music (put together by Joss and Jed Whedon), the physical comedy, Joss Whedon’s ridiculously gorgeous house, and the development of my favorite subtextual theme, that B&B had a previous relationship that soured and just needed nudging to give it another go (so much more plausible than the instant just-add-water love….).

I thought Sean Maher was good as Don John (although my god the handsome man needs to close his mouth between lines sometimes), and the direction of the scene where he initially misleads Claudio (Fran Kranz) about the Duke’s wooing of Hero was very finely done, highlighting that Claudio tends to fly off the handle about lots of things, which makes The Great Wedding Shaming more plausible as well. 

That said…. it left me a little flat. I felt like it lacked energy, in part because of the black and white palette, some too-leisurely editing, and partly because…well…the accents were so American. Whedon’s got a great eye for gorgeous scene-setting, but the pace and momentum were lacking for me. Setting it contemporarily when clearly everyone was hooking up behind the scenes meant it was extra-tricky to understand why it was so important that Hero be a virgin. And worse still, because it was so hurriedly put together, I felt like Amy Acker and Alexis Denisoff, though at their best in scenes with eachother, just weren’t quite up to the task. They’d learned the lines but hadn’t had time to absorb them, to be able to convey images with their text, to bring the archaic rhythms to life. Denisof seemed self-conscious during the necessary monologuing, and Acker wasn’t much more at home. Hero is a thankless role, and Jillian Morgese’s main achievement was in looking an awful lot like Amy Acker. Reed Diamond’s Don Pedro was convincing but a little wooden.

Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry, resolutely attempting to evade Michael Keaton’s shadow, was funny but similarly lacked precision on the punchlines (his buffoonery with Tom Lenk was delightful, however). When 2/3 of a character’s speech is malapropism, the language needs to be even more sharply articulate, and I felt like he was giving it Captain Hammer diction instead of the more classical sharpness you’d expect/hope to hear. 

I finally breathed a sigh of relief when the Friar stepped in to officiate the wedding (Harold!). Shakespeare is in an English accent what opera is in its original language–at ease, at home, and fluent. That’s simplistic, I know, and I have seen adaptations where Americanization didn’t bother me, but I wanted fireworks and what I got were sparklers, some of which glowed brighter than others (Clark Gregg was perfect — I could hardly tell he was speaking Shakespeare at all; his castmates could take notes). It has to be hard to go up against Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson at their best, and I’m glad Whedon tried. I hope he keeps it up and works his way through the entire canon–his Antony and Cleopatra would really be something. 


I want to draw your attention to this casting-in-progress for a film adaptation of Into The Woods.  Singing, like Shakespearean acting, is hard. Only people who have proven themselves good at it, really, should get to do the movie versions. Nothing against Chris Pine, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Blunt, or James Corden, (Johnny Depp I will never forgive for butchering (…) Sweeney Todd or participating in The Lone Ranger), (Ms. Streep may of course do whatever she wants), but PEOPLE WHO AREN’T SINGERS ARE BAD CHOICES FOR MUSICALS. Grumble. 

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Thresholds and the hierarchy of media criticism: Arrested Development and Stefon Edition

A night or two ago, amidst much anticipation for the new Arrested Development episodes, someone I respect retweeted comments from somebody expressing frustration with the omnipresent Arrested Development fawning; she had been thoroughly disgusted by the transphobia and homophobia in the show, and found it exasperating that so many people who wanted to consider themselves LGB and Trans allies were willing to set aside those concerns to enjoy the show. This commenter admitted she hadn’t noticed them before becoming trans herself, but now that she was aware, she found it impossible to watch Arrested Development and wanted to make it clear to other prospective allies that sure, they could watch it anyway, but she’d be judging them and wanted them to know they were being hypocrites, now that they’d been alerted to these attitudes.

This reminded me of an experience a few weeks ago when plenty of Twitter (including me) was mourning the departure of SNL’s Stefon, and another person I respect said that he was glad to see Stefon go because of his repeated slurs against people with dwarfism. And I agreed about the dwarfism – every time Bill Hader peeked out between the hands pressed to his face and said something about “midgets” I cringed, because a) I don’t think jokes about dwarfs are funny and b) it wasn’t necessary to the jokes he was telling (which Bill Hader didn’t see ahead of time) that the slur be included. It was just for the shock value of it. What I loved about Stefon was the way Hader reliably and irrepressibly broke character during his appearances. Since the SNL writers put jokes Hader had never seen before on the prompter, he frequently got tickled while trying to perform them and would giggle helplessly into his hands, and I’m a sucker for performers who break down and laugh. In this case, that outranked my disapproval of the word “midget”.  The person speaking up on Twitter and Facebook has a daughter with dwarfism, and nothing’s more important than that. Rightfully so. After I read his comments, I agreed with him. I likely wouldn’t have enjoyed Stefon as much had he kept reappearing.

Opening my eyes to an ableist/sexist/transphobic/homophobic flaw is usually needle that punctures the balloon. I loved Friends, but when I rewatch now I’m constantly cringing at the casual homophobia and anti-fat humor that is lazily spread all over it. Sex and the City was thoroughly ruined once I moved to New York and it sunk in just how whitewashed the whole thing was. So when I was watching Arrested Development reruns yesterday, I was listening actively for transphobic attitudes I’d missed at first. I knew mostly what she was talking about — Henry Winkler’s character patronizes cross-dressing prostitutes, at one point Tobias goes into a wig shop and is assured that “TVs” shop there, Michael assures his family that Rita is not a man and Gob says “as far as you know.” There are plenty of jokes that betray the fact that the writers are not thinking of the Trans community as viewers whose feelings might trump the laugh that comes from putting something inappropriate in a Bluth mouth (. . .).

And there are plenty of issues that I have that instinctive repulsion for, where a very little _____-ism crosses the threshold into intolerable and I switch off the show and refuse to watch it. Jokes at a rape victim’s expense, obviously, and jokes about alcoholics (not made by alcoholics). It’s also true that not every portrayal of an attitude indicates approval of it.  Obviously we know Barry Zuckercorn’s internalized homophobia is a character flaw, it makes him laughable (and later we see him thrilled about having gay sex). Lucille Bluth’s xenophobia contributes to her character’s cartoonish awfulness; she’s critical of her daughter’s body and weight; maybe we laugh as we cringe because we relate to it. Tobias’ closeted identity and freudian slips are comedic because he is bombastic and silly, plus his family knows the truth anyway. I can see how somebody who’s living in the closet because they fear their family/community’s reaction could find those jokes upsetting, but that person is not actually the target of the joke.

I’m not going to go through every joke and try to justify each one — who’s the object, who’s the subject, what the writers’ intent was, how even though it uses ____ as a punchline, it’s not really laughing at that, it’s laughing at people who think like that… — that rhetorical device is usually used in an attempt to diminish someone’s pain or explain why their feelings don’t matter. If I want to be a better ally, I have to be willing to consider feelings other than my own about a sensitive subject. When someone from a particular community watching a show feels the jokes are targeting them, and is hurt by that, that’s result of a choice the writers made and they have to live with it. And when I recommend the show to someone, I might say “the attitude towards X sucks, but the rest is funny enough to make up for it” (I have this problem with Archer, which is ridiculously offensive but occasionally the timing is so good it hurts).

When I’m writing TV someday, I want to make sure that none of my jokes are lazy, that my intent is clear, and that I don’t exercise any of my privilege as a mostly white, higher educated, middle class ciswoman to make jokes at the expense of someone who doesn’t deserve it or can’t defend themselves. And I get to use my vulnerabilities to make jokes at my own expense, that other people might not appreciate because they cope with that vulnerability in a different way.

My policy, even with shows I love, is that there’s a threshold for bad/hurtful jokes. One or two usually bounce off the doorjamb — humor is subjective, one bad apple doesn’t have to rot the whole barrel, I felt guilty for laughing but I laughed so the joke “worked” — but a habitual pattern that targets a group in my hierarchy of identity or allies, and yeah, the show’s ruined.

And that’s a decision everybody has to make for themselves.  Nobody has to make my battle theirs. If I can make a persuasive case that a joke represents an antagonistic attitude, and not just an observation about oppression that exists whether or not someone makes it a punchline, someone might agree with me and a show might lose a bunch of viewers just because they couldn’t resist one more tired “Bisexuals, they never make up their minds, amirite?!?!” jab. Or someone might value the construction of the joke above the content of it, or be so attached to the characters that they’re willing to forgive a joke in poor taste. Or they might not care that someone’s making fun of bisexuals because they’re not bisexual so we’re on our own. Everybody has a different threshold, a different perspective on their allies, on what community is “theirs”.

I really want to be a good ally. I want my feminism to be intersectional. I don’t want to be someone who gives a favorite show a free pass to avoid criticism. I want to be critical and I want to be demanding. And I want to give Arrested Development the chance to show us that in ten years off, it has sharpened its humor and refocused on targets that deserve it, targets that don’t receive abuse and mockery from every corner anyway. Because it is a damn well-written show, with interwoven jokes that span all three seasons. Some of those jokes are bad ones, and it does affect my ability to enjoy the show as whole.

But Natalie, I wanted you to know that I heard you, you got me thinking, and to say thanks for speaking up.

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