Monday, September 25, 2006

Rise and Shine and The Closer

First, The Novel

I’m usually quite a big fan of author Anna Quindlen. I read her op-ed columns “Life in the 30s” and “Living Out Loud” in the New York Times in the 80s and 90s, and remember feeling so heartened when she was appointed the managing editor. Her columns were full of self-reflexive, humane and even feminist thinking, usually about difficult subjects like the ethics of journalism and a reporter’s place, interviewing, for instance, a family who’d just lost a child in a violent death. I looked forward to her insights, her humor, and her rather quotidian humanity, which her words always elevated to an exemplary level.

I’ve also been a fan of her fiction since she left the Times to write fulltime. One True Thing and Object Lessons, her first novels, were excellent reads, if a bit melodramatic and predictable. Black and Blue was a vivid depiction of an abused woman running away with her son. And Blessings, her most recent novel, was a lovely story about an unlikely couple raising a child unexpectedly left in their care. So despite rather tepid reviews for her latest novel, Rise and Shine, I read the book.

The story concerns two sisters, one a famous television talk show host on the level of Katie Couric, the other a social worker who heads a non-profit that serves women and children in the Bronx. At the story’s opening, the highly successful Megan gets into trouble by cursing a morally suspect guest on her show. Thinking her mic is off, she calls him a “fucking asshole,” since he’s left his wife to marry the surrogate they’d hired to carry their child.

Much of the book illustrates how one false move can topple even the most miraculous career. The media circus around Megan’s mistake prompts her to retreat to Jamaica, where she stays in a remote but comfortable home with a view of the ocean, nursing her wounds and (theoretically) getting in touch with her true self.

Her sister, Bridget, who narrates the story, is younger and was once washed up, until Megan insisted she pull herself together. After some time as an artist and a waitress, Bridget finds her calling working with abused and homeless women and children of color.

When Megan leaves town, Bridget takes Megan's son Matt under her wing, and he, too, finds his higher self with Bridget’s organization, driving women and children to appointments. Working with little black kids who come to love him, Matt is the young white hope. Close to the end of the story [spoiler alert], he’s shot by an irrational and soon repentant African-American teenager jealous of Matt’s relationship with an African-American girl from the projects where they live.

The shooting, of course, brings Megan back from her self-imposed exile in Jamaica, and resuscitates her career, since the shooter asks her to come meet him in the projects and bring him to the police. She delivers him with aplomb in front of national television cameras—even though he nearly killed her son, and in fact left him a paraplegic—and insists that he not be hurt, which turns her into a martyr and returns her to her status as a must-watch “it” girl in the bottom-feeding culture of wealthy Manhattan.

On the level of literature alone, the novel disappoints. The dialogue sounds stilted and self-conscious, with none of the warmth and truth that Quindlen’s characters usually display. The awkward talk could be a result of the first-person narration by a character who’s ultimately not that interesting; it could be the Manhattan setting, which might be too close to Quindlen’s own milieu to let her stand back and see it artistically. While parts of the book want to critique the social-climbing back-stabbing fickleness of rich and famous New Yorkers, the book also seems enamored by this culture, and never really launches an incisive analysis.

As a result, even the “good” characters appear blind to their own excesses—or rather, blind to everything in the city that’s not about them. Bridget, for instance, works alongside and with almost exclusively women of color. But rather than drawing out their characters, these women remain wholly subservient to the white women’s story.

Tequila, the most egregiously colorful character of color, is a caricature of the large, hands-on-hips, self-righteous, big-hearted, effective, and sassy middle-aged African-American woman. She listens in on Bridget’s phone calls, and manages to find information not available to other people. But although Tequila has her talents, she has no real life in the story, except when she’s assisting Bridget, who’s her boss.

When Megan flees to Jamaica to lick her wounds, she’s cared for by local people of color, who drive her around the island and cook for her, then eventually follow her back to New York to work for her there. Megan’s old servant/assistant is passed along to her sister when Bridget has twins. People of color in this story are narrative chattel, exchanged to further the lives of the white people in whose power they bask but never share.

Even Matt, the tragic, selfless white boy, finds his own soul by working with the cute African American children who climb on his shoulders and cling to his pant leg. That he’s shot by those he thinks he’s helping could have been played as a difficult racial irony; instead, Quindlen portrays the incident as somehow inevitable, as though it’s a given that a black man Matt’s age would fire at him senselessly on one of his trips to the projects.

The white people in this novel are the only ones who grow emotionally, intellectually, professionally, or spiritually. The people of color only get to change jobs, working for an interrelated line of white people who can’t see them as anything but people who do a great job answering the phone and driving Miss Daisy around town.

Too bad Quindlen lost her progressive touch with Rise and Shine, and capitulated to New York City as people think it is, rather than how it might be, if fiction were used to imagine other ways for white people and people of color to interact.

Second, The Television Show

On The Closer, Kyra Sedgwick plays Brenda, an Atlanta-born detective who's been transferred to the LAPD to work under a long ago ex-boyfriend who’s now the Chief of Police. Heading the Priority Murder Squad lands Brenda a promotion to Deputy Chief, which her colleagues (many of them men) resent. Over the course of the first season, they grudgingly come to admire her work, and offer their allegiance and respect.

Sedgwick plays Brenda as an unflappable, smart, if rather scattered, working woman. She thinks about several things at once—often, in fact, the murder in question on any given episode is solved when Brenda’s engaged with someone who figures in the subplot rather than the central narrative. Her ability to multi-task and think on her feet is her chief asset as an investigator, hampered only by her tendency to lose personal things and to eat, almost constantly, sugary, high fat foods.

It’s refreshing to watch a female television character who actually eats, let alone to watch one compulsively eating things that no health-conscious, weight-obsessed middle-age woman would ever go near. Brenda’s donuts and cookies and candy, strewn across her desk or flowing out of her purse, seem to help her think; she uses them the way TV characters once used cigarettes. Of course, Sedgwick is slender and pretty—the food she consumes in character doesn’t seem to affect her slim waistline. Unfortunately, under the conventions of the show, this character would never work if she were overweight.

Brenda’s munching is a source of bemusement to her squad, a ragtag group of mostly men in ties who represent the racial and ethnic diversity of LA (and who seem much more weight conscious than she does). Her next in command is an African-American man, having a not-so-secret affair with the only other woman on the squad, who also happens to be African-American.

Two of the other men are white, rather crusty old hands who’ve been there and done that but find themselves constantly surprised by Brenda’s antics and impressed with her results. The last two men are an intellectually curious Asian-American with a penchant for technology, and a taciturn Latino. To a person, they struggle with how to look up to such an unlikely boss, yet each week, find themselves affirming and admiring her skill.

The Closer is one of the few television shows I’ve ever watched that seems aware of how it’s using gender relations. Brenda is portrayed as feminine (Sedgwick is beautiful without really trying) but professional and sadly lacking in fashion sense. Rather than the effortless allure that other female detectives achieve (think, for instance, of Poppy Montgomery’s character on Without a Trace, or even Kathryn Morris as Lilly Rush on Cold Case) and need to work against to be taken seriously, Brenda wears overly flowery, flowing dresses and sweater sets, and looks quite out of place in the hard boiled LA environs she investigates. She’s sexy in an awkward, unself-conscious way that’s much more real than how younger, more purposefully calculated women detectives are usually drawn.

Mostly, Brenda is good at what she does and she knows it. Her interrogation style uses her gender to catch her suspects unawares; her femininity is a tool in her box, rather than something defining. She can turn her feminine wiles on when she needs them to make progress, but the script makes sure the audience knows that she’s making a choice, not falling back on biological destiny. And she makes choices that work against her gender just as often, shouting down suspects and intimidating them as well as any of her male colleagues.

When her very long ago affair with the Chief of Police is rudely announced to her squad by his ex-wife on a recent episode, the moment is mortifying not for the typical melodramatic reasons, but because Brenda worries that her gang will think she got her job only by sleeping with the boss, not on her own merits. This is still women’s concern in the 21st century: that no matter how good we are at what we do, we’re still measured and judged in relationship to men, whether sexually or professionally, or in that episode, both.

Although the multi-cultural face of the squad room might be calculated, the men who surround Brenda are fully drawn characters, each with his own idiosyncrasy, but with something of a heart instead of just a caricatured sketch on which to hang his actions. These people are likable, unpredictable, funny, and smart, and their respect for Brenda is refreshing because the show never takes it for granted. In fact, Brenda earns their esteem anew each episode, not because she’s trying, but because she’s very good at what she does.

That’s a show I can get behind. I was disappointed that Sedgwick didn’t win an Emmy for last season’s work, but perhaps this time around, Emmy Award voters will recognize the layered complexity of the character she’s created and reward her for creating a professional woman whose life seems real.

In reading and viewing pleasure,
The Feminist Spectator

On Teaching . . .

I recently had the good fortune to be selected as a new member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach. I was inducted into the Academy on September 21st; I'd like to share the remarks I made at the dinner:

Thank you so much for this honor. As a theatre professor, and someone who was herself once a performer, I know many people who dream of standing up to say thank you to the Academy. We dream of being in front of millions of television viewers, clutching in our trembling hands a statuette that’s evidence of our value as artists.

I long ago gave up the dream of receiving an Oscar, which never seemed real to me anyway because, truth be told, I was always a better critic than I was a performer. But I think all of us yearn at some point for public recognition from our peers and our community. It’s to our collective chagrin, I think, that teaching remains a mostly private, unrecognized activity.

Lots of people presume to know what and how we teach. Some of those people insist that we’re not teaching enough, or not teaching the proper subjects, or not producing measurable outcomes (as though what students experience when they learn can ever, finally, be measured). We’re often excoriated by those who drive the agenda of education without ever giving us the basic resources for good teaching and good learning. And these folks, of course, would never tell us we’ve done our jobs well.

So we look within for our rewards, and happily, find them frequent and rich. The hours I spend in the classroom always require the best of me—that’s when my mind and my wit needs to be sharpest, when I feel (just like I do at the theatre), that what’s happening in the present of our meeting is the only thing that matters.

In class, I continually take my own measure, as I respond to students’ questions, suggestions, and challenges. In class, I develop my ethical commitments, which often hinge on an instantaneous decision about how to redirect a comment or resolve an incident. I never sweat as much as I do in class, whether the session is going well or poorly, because I’m working so hard mentally and physically and emotionally to weave the threads of anecdote and theory, of experience and knowledge into a fabric strong enough to bounce us into the future.

My last book was about utopia in performance. In it, I argue that our willingness to join friends and strangers in a live, present moment to watch vulnerable actors perform before us creates a rare, precious moment of community. We note a feeling of belonging together, of feeling ourselves lifted temporarily above the present into a hopeful sense of what a better future might be like.

I’m thrilled when I feel that same fleeting utopia in the classroom. I mark when my students and I think so hard together that we hear what musicians sometimes call the “phantom note.” It rises above the chorus of our thoughts as something both apart from us and of us; it creates a common vibration in an often bare, windowless, hardly utopic room.

My students and I are artists, scholars, and citizens all, people with the unbelievable good fortune to think about the magic of the performance we create or study, and how it matters to the rest of our worlds. My students and I are people who desire to see ourselves not just as we are, but as we might be, through the crucible performance provides.

So although I’m not receiving an Oscar today, I’m glad to thank the Academy. I’m more than glad, because I know that teaching lasts longer than performance. Teaching generates those fleeting moments of utopian possibility on a regular basis, semester after semester, year after year. They linger as generative pieces of collective memory.

I’m delighted to join the Academy, and look forward to working with all of you in what I know is our mutual desire for ever-better worlds. Why would any of us teach otherwise?

Thank you.

And thank you all for reading,
The Feminist Spectator