Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Oscars, 2012

Opening of the show at the theater formerly known as Kodak

What’s a feminist spectator to make of an awards show that honors films that have so little to do with women behind the camera or as central to their stories?  Other writers have detailed the appalling lack of women nominated for Best Director this year, after Kathryn Bigelow’s historic win for The Hurt Locker in 2011.  God forbid a pattern should emerge of even nominating, let alone awarding, work by women directors.  In my alternate reality version of the Oscars, Dee Rees (Pariah) and Maryam Keshavarz (Circumstance) would both be on that list.

Instead, Academy voters nominated nine films for Best Picture, only one of which has anything remotely to do with women.  And that’s The Help, a movie whose racial politics are so compromised that it’s difficult to applaud its nomination, though its actors were uniformly excellent.

Frankly, Viola Davis was robbed by her friend Meryl Streep, who won her third Oscar for Best Actress.  That Streep should win for playing Maggie Thatcher as some sort of pseudo-feminist heroine, instead of Davis winning for bringing dignity and empathy to Aibileen, an entirely oppressed African American maid working in the heart of the pre-Civil Rights racist South . . . that’s just cruel and unusual.

Viola Davis, whose Oscar show hair style prompted a surprising amount of comment

Streep was right when she anticipated that people watching Sunday’s telecast would say, “Aw, no!  Not her again!”  But when she won a Golden Globe for her role this year, Streep named her fellow nominees with admiration.  She even mentioned actresses whose glorious work wasn’t nominated (including Pariah’s Adepero Oduye).

A not particularly gracious Streep

Instead of repeating that generous gesture at the Oscars, Streep smugly brushed off imagined objections to her win and didn’t even nod at the pack of excellent actresses she bested for the award.  She did embrace Davis on her way to the podium, but some more sincere public recognition of her steal would have gone a long way.  Even her pithy and earnest speech about the importance of friendship was too oblique to acknowledge the surprise of her win over Davis.  When will Davis, even with her talent and stature in the industry, again be cast in an Oscar-worthy role?  We can only hope soon.

Also robbed last night were Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig, whose biting, knowing, hysterical screenplay for Bridesmaids deserved recognition.  Sure, Midnight in Paris, which did win, was clever and even heart-felt for the typically more cynical Woody Allen.  But how predictable for him to write still another movie about a younger version of his anxious and conflicted self.  And how predictable for the Academy to acknowledge him again (even though he never attends the show, nominated or not).

Kristin Wiig, robbed of a Best Original Screenplay Award by Woody Allen

When have we ever seen characters like those Mumolo and Wiig wrote for their comrades in Bridesmaids?  When have we seen a woman conflicted about losing her best friend to the bridal industry and social prerogatives of marriage?  When have we seen a story about women so invested in being “the best friend” that they practically fist-fight to speak into a microphone at an engagement party?  When have we seen a stocky, pearl-and-bowling-shirt wearing woman seduce a man pretending he’s not an air marshal on a plane?  Or seen women getting sick every which way in the bathroom of a bridal shop?  So much of Bridesmaids was refreshing because it was told from a smart, talented, desiring, and ambivalent woman’s point of view.  Why wasn’t that story honored by the Academy?

Perhaps because it turns out that most Academy voters are white men whose median age is 62.  A recent Los Angeles Times study found that 94% of voters are white and 77% are male.   Of course that crowd will nod instead to Woody Allen.  Of course they’ll honor other stories about boys and men, like Hugo (however sweet), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (however sad), War Horse (however wrenching), The Artist (however quiet), Moneyball (however smart), The Descendants (however noble), and Tree of Life (however oblique).  Even in the Oscar show’s montage curated to demonstrate how much we love the movies, all the clips showed either heterosexual love scenes or men racing to get themselves out of trouble.

The only girls or women in evidence outside of those embracing men in the montage were Linda Blair, layered in her extreme exorcism make-up, and Meg Ryan, doing her extremely fake public orgasm in When Harry Met Sally (a rather self-serving scene for host Billy Crystal).  This, then, is how we love women in the movies?  Only if they’re in love with men, possessed by demons or by sex, or completely absent?  Please.

I liked the interstitial interviews with actors and filmmakers on the Oscar show, in which they described when they began to love the movies.  But only Reese Witherspoon seemed to get any screen time there, among a host of men telling anecdotes.  At least a few women got to speak to their work during the production clips, for which short quotes from interviews with nominated artists played alongside images from their films.  Those moments brought dignity and respect to the profession, in stark contrast to the ubiquitous, mindless prattle between presenters who can only seem vacuous in that context, regardless of their intelligence.

(But even those short clips elide the fact of women's lack of advancement in the film industry.  Martha Lauzen's recent study about women and the "celluloid ceiling" reports the dismal percentages of women producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 films of the year.)

The Christopher Guest crew’s funny spoof about focus groups, in which the assembled tweaked The Wizard of Oz out of its Dorothy, offered the best writing (and some of the best performances) of the Oscar show evening.  The standing ovation for Octavia Spencer, winning for her performance as The Help’s stalwart Minnie, was moving, but I wish she’d won for better material than the stereotypically sassy maid who’s redeemed by the socially mobile white woman who tells her story.

Spencer embraced by Davis after her award was announced

Watching Beginners’ Christopher Plummer accept his award for his fine performance as a gay man coming out late in his life was heart-warming.  But his win for playing gay didn’t make up for the fact that no one awarded this year thanked same-sex partners or referred in any way to queer lives.  Along with women, LGBT folks were invisible in the show (unless you count the vaguely homoerotic flying men in suits in Cirque du Soleil’s strangely out-of-place spectacle).

I’m glad The Separation was the first Iranian movie ever to win a Best Foreign Film award.  But the film’s wife/mother in the story is demonized for wanting a better life for her daughter, and for precipitating another woman’s tragedy by “abandoning” her own family.

What kind of message do these awards send about women?

Billy Crystal's opening number

Finally, here’s Billy Crystal, trotted back out to host the show for the ninth time.  How self-congratulatory of him to structure his entire opening monologue about whether or not he should accept the invitation to host?  His shtick all evening seemed to me like Jewish minstrelsy.  We won’t even mention his blackface routine as Sammy Davis Jr. alongside Justin Bieber in that silly, manufactured scene from Midnight in Paris.  Crystal shrugged his shoulders like a low-rent Bob Hope and tried to raise eyebrows that looked paralyzed by Botox.  Crystal seemed a parody of himself, a canned, predictable, self-immolating copy of the quick-witted, genial host of shows past.

I’ll just keep hoping that next year, things will change.  Maybe Tina Fey and Kristin Wiig will write and host the show.  Or maybe they’ll write and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer will host.  Or maybe Janet McTeer and Glenn Close will do the honors, dressed in matching tuxes.

And maybe the nominated material will be rich examinations of the lives of women, people of color, and LGBT people, as well as straight, white, male people.  Wouldn’t it be nice to hear and see stories that say something we haven’t heard before?

Eternally optimistic,
The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Queer Dance at U of Michigan

I was in Ann Arbor last weekend for the first-ever conference on queer dance, co-organized by Clare Croft (whose dissertation I was pleased to advise at the University of Texas at Austin) and University of Michigan dance professor Peter Sparling.  Two days of panel discussions, workshops, and film screenings were capped each evening by a program of performances that showcased some of the most interesting work in the field, and that read back nicely over the days’ discussions about how we define, study, and create queer dance.

Presented in the Betty Pease Studio Theatre at the University of Michigan (whose Department of Dance and an impressive number of other campus units hosted and sponsored this landmark event), the performances offered a fascinating mélange of bodies in motion, choreographed abstractly or in snippets of narrative scenarios brushed with wit, beauty, and grace.

Diverse across gender, race, ethnicity, and the performatives of sexuality, both performance evenings played with the known tropes of queerness, referencing the familiar without being predictable.  For instance, the drag duet called “TheCherdonna and Lou Show,” performing out out there (A Whole Night Lost), might have reminded spectators of drag queen and drag king performances, since the two performers were costumed and made-up in the over-emphasized gender accoutrements of out-sized masculinity and femininity.

But that both performers were women and that their duet was funny and entirely unexpected, lent the act a freshness and surprise that made it memorable.  “Cherdonna,” the femme (I guess you would call her), towers high above “Lou,” the “butch,” whose slight form is nevertheless appealing, with her drawn-on beard and moustache, her bowler hat, and her plaid suit.  Cherdonna wears a pleated white dress, high heels, and an even higher bouffant hairdo that poufs memorably over her head while she dances.

Both performers’ faces are made-up in the clown-like lipstick, eye-shadow, and colorings reminiscent of the late Ethyl Eichelberger or Taylor Mac, a kind of Godspell-esque presentation of outré gender that’s both funny and queer in this context.  The dance shows the duo as a couple whose affection alternates with rage and who finally pull (obviously fake) knives on one another, stabbing their partner and themselves in rhythm to light-hearted music danced with whimsical steps.  The piece is a hysterical, warm commentary on relationships and Cherdonna and Lou’s bodies and movement styles muddle anything we might presume as binary gender.

In her conference welcome speech, Croft situated the panels and the performances in both a personal and critical lexicon that refracted usefully across the two days.  She shared an anecdote about the first time she was ever called “queer,” which was in a dance class when she was eight years old.  A little friend turned to Clare with haughty antipathy and called her the name.  Croft said she thought for a moment, and then told her friend that if “queer” meant “strange,” she stood guilty as charged, proudly claiming her difference without at that point needing to carry what later became its sexual baggage.

The sweet and funny story linking queerness to a profitable strangeness echoed throughout the conference, in Cherdonna and Lou’s odd couple and in other equally generative performances of unaligned, cock-eyed, off-kilter gender and scenarios of sexual desire which, by accumulation, demonstrated “strange” as a really useful way of thinking about embodied queerness.

In her too-short discussion with the performers after the final evening’s presentations, Croft also noted that what distinguished much of the dance we saw together was that the performers looked back at the audience, an invitation to intersubjectivity that might in itself be particularly queer.

In fact, the conference’s first panel, “Queer Nations/Queer Boundaries,” included papers by Ramón Rivera-Servera (Northwestern) on dance floor gossip in queer Latino/a clubs; by Nic Gareiss (University of Limerick) on being a queer performer in traditional Irish dance; and by Sara Wolf (UCLA) on artist damali ayo’s performance of a public claim for race reparations.  All three papers teased out the specific queerness of public intimacy.

Gareiss described how the popular Irish dance form (marketed especially to tourists) interdicts the exchange of queer gazes by insisting that the male dancers look either at their female partners or out at the audience but never at one another.  Gareiss demonstrated his queer resistance to these constraints, showing a clip of him dancing solo, accompanied by a male Irish fiddler, in which he seemed to be performing the step dance directly for his musical accompanist.  The personal yet public performance exchange rewrote the more frontal and certainly more heterosexual conventions of the dance.

Likewise, Rivera-Servera’s ethnography described what he called queer world-making through gossip on the dance floor.  He suggested that gossip creates a profitable friction around what can be a too homogeneous notion of latinidad.  He quoted informants who watched and critiqued sotto voce one another’s dancing from the sidelines, pointing out the differences in styles across the ethnic diversity inherent in a pan-Latino community.  Gossip about movement, Rivera-Servera proposed, nuances what might look like a shared politic.

This public intimacy and useful parsing of queer differences seemed very much evident in the performances as well as in the papers.  Jennifer Monson and DDDorvillier presented RMW(a) & RMW, a piece they first performed together in 1993, revived in 2004, and have presented once a year or so since.

In the first half of the two-part dance, they wear wigs and make-up reminiscent of Cherdonna and Lou’s, the drag-like/clown-like, exaggerated eye-makeup and inked outlines that signal overt gender performance and that point in a Butlerian sort of way to gender as a surface rather than a depth.

Monson wears a black and white, short print dress and blond wig, while Dorvillier cavorts in an oversized lime green shirt and pink gym shorts, wearing a curly black wig.  The two women dance in parallel, taking turns performing more angular and abstracted movement while the other sets a timer and then watches her partner dance.

As Rivera-Servera pointed out to me later, the scene is vaguely cruise-y, as it seems like they’re purposefully performing for one another.  It’s certainly seductive; one of the performance’s pleasures was how keenly Monson and Dorvillier watched one another.  It occurred to me that we rarely see lesbians looking at one another in representation.  How pleasurable it is for queer spectators to witness that gaze exchanged.

The two switch places by mirroring one another’s last gesture as they then take over the solo.  With their increasingly rigorous movement, their wigs fall off and are kicked aside.  As this first part ends, Monson and Dorvillier lie on the ground with their costumes pulled up toward their chins, their bare torsos and buttocks making funny sucking sounds against the dance floor as the lights fade out.

When the second part begins, the pair appear dressed in matching white t-shirts and rolled-cuffed jeans and jackets that soon come off.  They proceed to dance one of the most erotic, athletic duets I’ve ever seen two women perform.  They rarely (if ever) lose contact during the piece’s second half, climbing over and across and around one another’s bodies in a tangle of limbs and muscles and desire that was thrilling to watch.

In one glorious moment, Dorvillier climbs up Monson’s legs and torso and stands on Monson’s flat back, balancing precariously but somehow surely.  This second half builds to a wonderful deep kiss, and then Monson and Dorvillier literally lock lips, remaining attached at the face in this extended erotic contact as they keep moving their bodies around and about and over and under one another.

Part of what was moving and lovely about this piece, in addition to its frank woman-on-woman sexuality, was that the two dancers are squarely middle-aged.  Breathlessly watching them perform such virtuosic athleticism felt like an affirmation of persistent lesbian desire.

By “persistent,” I mean continuing over time—that is, knowing that Monson and Dorvillier have performed the piece for almost 20 years demonstrated that time can be a medium in which a relationship like this—physical, affective, aesthetic—can grow, change, and continue with a queer sort of commitment.  Such persistence, and such lesbian/queer relationships, are too often disappeared (and I mean that as an active verb) in live performance and representation.

In fact, Hannah Schwadron (UC-Riverside) gave a wonderful paper about the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan earlier that day in which she argued that it refers to lesbian sexuality only to deny it, just as the film also “disappears” Jewishness through the conventions of white-encoded ballet (and the Anglicized names of its stars:  Natalie Portman, née Hershlag; Mila Kunis, born Milena Markovna Kunis; and Barbara Hershey, born Barbara Herzstein).

Given how often especially middle-aged lesbians are forced into invisibility in mainstream and even queer representation, watching Monson and Dorvillier so palpably, frankly, and beautifully create, explore, and perpetuate a queer desire felt exciting, as well as deeply political.

Other performances were equally provocative and generative.  Remnant Hit/fix, by performer/choreographer Amy Chavasse, set more quotidian movements to various texts and songs, as Chavasse addressed the audience with a frank and ingenuous tone.  She seemed to talk personally, but as in many of these pieces, the status of “autobiography” was difficult (and somehow unnecessary, finally) to ascertain.  To finish the piece, Chavasse selected a woman out of the audience to sit on a stool across from her and listen to Chavasse’s final monologue.  Again, the public intimacy was moving and compelling to watch.

Cositas, choreographed by Joel Valentin-Martínez, presented dancer Javier Marchán-Ramos in a tight-fitting red satin ball-gown with a corset-like closure laced up both his chest and his back.  He entered from downstage right, and slowly crossed upstage left, trailing the exceeding long train of his dress behind him.  Part of the simple dance's allure was the suspense over how long his train would actually be; the end didn’t appear until Marchán-Ramos was practically on the other side of the stage.

In addition, because of the dress, the corset, his carefully coifed dark hair, and his rather coy gaze, Marchán-Ramos’s gender read as ambiguous and mysterious.  He’d glance over his shoulder at spectators as he crossed the stage, but it wasn’t until the piece’s second part, when he gathered the dress in his arms and performed more athletic movements, did a more familiar performance of masculinity emerge.  The performance seemed to glow and practically shimmer with the richness and clarity of its images.

In her solo Walking the Line, excerpted from her longer piece SILO/SOLO, choreographer/videographer/performer Andee Scott accomplished one simple, enormously provocative movement.  Naked from the waist down, Scott slowly moved from center stage to downstage center, walking out of the stage's darkness into the light of a projector that made her bare torso, chest, and neck into a projection screen.  The moving image reflected in sharp, bright light and vivid color showed Scott wearing a full white dress, dancing alone in a rural landscape between two low hills.

Although the projected image extended only from one side of her body to the other, the vibrant scene seemed full of freedom and light.  Watching Scott’s video play across her chest and collarbones made for a very vulnerable, tender moment of performance.  Rather than narcissism, which could be expected from a dancer projecting herself onto herself, the image conjured the sublime liberty of solitude, of nature, and of self-expression.

Watching Scott use her skin, unfettered by modesty or convention, reminded me of Peggy Shaw performing To My Chagrin, in which she projects a video of her then-small grandson, Ian, playing by himself, across her bare breasts.  As in Shaw’s piece, Scott’s represented not just intimacy but heart, love, and closeness that seemed wonderfully generative and physically and emotionally generous.  That Scott stood quite still and half naked in the moment of performance, and used her body to represent a moment of past or prior movement, also seemed to queer her dance.

Nudity appeared fairly frequently in these performances.  The first evening began with dancer/choreographer Gina Kohler’s dream [factories].  Kohler was pre-set in the Pease Studio, sitting naked on a drop cloth center stage, methodically pouring beet juice meant to represent (I assume) blood over her white body.

As she emptied the deep red liquid from jars over her head and across her limbs, Kohler slid her body across a shiny, slippery piece of Mylar or something that she’d placed in the middle of the cloth.  The red liquid pooled around her as it ran off her skin, leaving rivulets of red across her face, torso, arms, and legs.  As Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” played, Kohler spun around on her back, flipped to her stomach, looked out at the audience, and twirled some more before she finally stood up.

The performance reminded me of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.  Although Kohler didn’t pull a text out of her vagina, as Schneemann did in the ‘70s, the evocation of blood beckoned to the same kind of insistence on the difference of the female body that Schneemann performed in the 70s.  Here, Kohler was joined on stage by another female performer, dressed in briefs and a bra in a bathing suit sort of costume, covered with gold paint and glitter and wearing a unicorn on her forehead that she caressed and pointed with throughout the piece.

Although the second dancer (Sara Procopio) never directly interacted with Kohler, she represented an onstage spectator for Kohler’s bodily acts, directing and refracting our gaze.  A male collaborator (Eric Kohler) trained a video camera on Gina Kohler throughout this first part of the piece, projecting a live feed onto a screen upstage that focused on her face or body parts as she moved.  His filming also seemed to both direct and to interrupt our gaze, yet rather than representing “male” power over Kohler’s female body, his camera seemed to offer just another way for us to look at it.

In the second of the three-part piece, Kohler strapped on a harness and transparent acrylic dildo and danced to Leonard Cohen’s “I am Your Man.”  The movement here was both more every day and more frontal, and necessarily more symbolic and abstract.  Seeing a naked woman dancing with a dildo on, regardless of what it’s supposed to mean, is pretty powerful in performance and forestalled whatever claims of female essentialism might have been evoked by the blood and beet juice scene.

In the third part, Kohler executed jumping jacks non-stop while Cohen’s “The Future” played.  For the length of the song, she faced the audience and scissored her arms and legs together and apart while the unicorn-wearing dancer watched.  The endurance test left her breathless.

Although dream [factories] didn’t necessarily cohere (these three moments were extracted from a longer piece), each individual image was arresting.  Kohler’s matter-of-fact stage persona undercut the sensationalism of her nakedness and of the dildo.  She looked out at the audience throughout, engaging us with a kind of butch dare.

Because she wasn’t wearing clothes, I wondered how she performs her gender off stage, since so many of our cues for reading gender are determined by sartorial choices and the movement styles they dictate.  But throughout the piece, her gaze back at spectators read to me as butch, which worked in a productive tension with her naked female body.

Nakedness and gender and sexuality conjoined in Kohler’s dream [factories], in Monson and Dorvillier’s RMW, and in ThomasDeFrantz’s collaborative performance, Theory-ography 4:  We Queer Here!  Generated with a group of six local Michigan students and DeFrantz’s own students, Theory-ography was the most text-based and post-modern of the performances.

The performers collected index cards from spectators before the piece began, on which they invited the audience to write an instruction or a description that the dancers were later asked to embody.  Early in the piece, DeFrantz read out a card that commanded, “Disrobe.”  Most of the performers stripped off a layer.  When DeFrantz again commanded “disrobe,” James Morrow, the one man in the performance, went all the way.  His nakedness was disarming and charming.

The dance here was improvisational and angular, much of it rooted into the floor in emphatic and erratic movements for which the performers hurried across the stage or threw themselves onto the ground.  Watching Morrow’s penis flopping happily against his stomach, and watching him seem to feel liberated rather than embarrassed by his nakedness, was quite lovely.  His naked presence also echoed Kohler dancing while wearing the harness and dildo from the evening before, and commented profitably on the construction of sex.

The woman of color performing in Theory-ography stripped down to her underwear when DeFrantz announced the instruction to disrobe, revealing that her breasts were bound and that she was wearing black “men’s” jockey shorts.

That they did take off their clothes proved these two performers, in particular, generous and acquiescent, but somehow also full of agency.  They inhabited a physical sexual difference with élan, once again unruffled by the audience’s gaze.  These performers gazing back, or inviting what performance theorist Dwight Conquergood called “co-presence” with spectators, felt rather happy and comfortable.

Theory-ography was one of the more cerebral performances at the conference, but these two gender/sexuality representations warmed what might have otherwise been a playful but “cool” piece.  José Muñoz’stext about queer utopia didn’t sound particularly illuminating as the performers took turns reading from his book into a microphone.  But as they called out “Queer me” to signal they were ready to switch narrators, passing the text among the performers made it multivocal in interesting ways, and the fact of reading it, in itself, seemed generative.

Likewise, that one of the performers always trained a video camera with a live feed on the proceedings made the piece a multi-layered experience.  And the text projected over the feed—such as “where is queer,” “queer is here,” and other verbal interrogatories and assertions—offered another level of wondering that made the performance fun and self-reflexive.

Perhaps because the conference attendees were also for the most part participants (since most people presented papers or performed) and perhaps because we saw two nights of performances after two days of panels, workshops, and screenings, the audience for these pieces felt like a community of sorts, however “imagined.”

Watching performers whose nakedness seemed matter-of-fact and comfortable; whose virtuosity, regardless of age or ability, seemed admirable; whose queerness (or not, since finally, who can tell just by looking at someone moving?) seemed multiple and fluid; the richness of these experiences created a temporary public of people buoyed by witnessing, creating, and thinking about queer dance.  I appreciated every moment.

The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty as duelling Marilyns in Smash

With only two episodes aired, it’s difficult to say where exactly Smash, the new NBC series about backstage Broadway lives, will take us.  Executive produced and so far written by playwright Theresa Rebeck, the show responds to Fox’s Glee by embedding lavish musical numbers in its story of a lyricist-songwriting team creating a Broadway show about Marilyn Monroe.  The plot line so far addresses the intrigue that surrounds producing, casting, and directing such a behemoth.

Of course, the whole thing is an elaborate fantasy.  First, Angelica Huston (whose once expressive face is now, sadly, barely mobile) plays Eileen, the sole producer of the new musical.  In reality, Broadway shows are littered with people whose financial investments, if nothing else, give them above-the-title producing credit.

Second, Rebeck’s script for Smash has streamlined the process so that in just two episodes, the dynamic music-and-lyrics duo Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle) have moved from the glimmer of an idea into staffing and casting the show.  In real life, a project like this would be workshopped for years and involve a zillion people before it arrived at the point where Smash picks up.

Christian Borle and Debra Messing as the musical's authors, Tom and Julia

But here, by the second episode, Eileen has encouraged the director, Derek (written as a sexy sleaze and played by the British actor Jack Davenport, late of FlashForward), to do a quick workshop production and then get the show on Broadway’s boards.  Would that it were all so easy!

The musical’s partners are played with verve and somehow, believability, by Messing (cast as Rebeck’s doppelganger) and Borle (who last season played a superb Prior in Angels in America at the Signature Theatre Off Broadway).  So far, Borle has little to do as Tom but basically play out-and-proud gay.  He flirts with his impossibly cute but untrustworthy assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), and lobbies for his friend, Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), to get the lead in his show.

The show’s conflict comes from the competition it manufactures between its would-be Marilyns, two talented young women with very different looks and takes on the iconic star.  Hilty (Wicked and 9 to 5), a bona fide Broadway performer both in actuality and in character as Ivy, represents the body-type.  She’s blond, buxom, and can belt with the best of them.

Hilty as Ivy, the Broadway veteran

Former American Idol star Katharine McPhee plays Karen Cartwright, an untested young woman from Iowa (of course), whose brown hair and slight build make her less recognizable, at first, as the curvy, breathless 50s personality who seduced Joe DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, and President Kennedy.  But in the show’s intercut fantasy sequences, dolled up in the right costume, wig, and make-up, Karen passes for Marilyn very well indeed.

McPhee as Karen, the Midwestern novice

The first two episodes have careened along on the suspense of who Derek would cast as the musical’s lead.  He summons both young women for private meetings, calling Karen late at night and requiring that she come to his (mouthwateringly lavish) apartment for a private audition.  In the first episode’s most unlikely scenario, she goes, and somehow maintains the upper-hand in a situation clearly constructed for sex.

Derek tells her he needs to “see everything,” and she changes in his bathroom into a large, white, man’s shirt, then performs the equivalent of a private lap dance and signature Monroe-style song.  At its end, she tells Derek that’s all he’s getting, and leaves his apartment unscathed (though it’s unclear whether he respects her for her fortitude or loathes her.  He must ultimately respect her, because he calls her back and lets her continue the audition in public).

Karen lap-dancing for Derek at his apartment

Hilty’s character, Ivy, is less reticent when Derek makes his moves.  They’re working alone in a rehearsal hall when he asks if he can let down her hair (literally) and then frames her blond locks around her face meaningfully.  The next scene shows them rollicking naked in bed together.

All this reaffirms the stereotype of the Broadway (and Hollywood) casting couch, the mythic place where powerful men have sex with desirable and desiring young women to authorize and launch their careers.  Because Karen has a boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey, who plays a functionary at the mayor’s office), and because she’s rejected Derek’s advances, she’s portrayed as the ethical, fresh-faced, unspoiled young thing from the flyover states.

Ivy, on the other hand, is already performing in a Broadway show.  Her friends are gypsies, the corps of performers who sing and dance in musicals and make their living as unknown but employed and talented company members.  Many of the men are gay, and in Smash, that stereotype holds fast.  One of Ivy’s friends is hired to dance in the Marilyn musical’s rehearsals, and passes information on to Ivy about Karen, her competitor.  Since Ivy is already part of Broadway culture, she’s portrayed as wiser to the ways of the world and more willing to play what Rebeck describes as the professional theatre’s necessary games.

Subplots abound here, all meant to humanize Julia, the Messing character, who is the show’s lead.  Julia and her husband, Frank (Brian d’Arcy James), live in a comfortable brownstone with a huge kitchen, huge bedrooms, and a huge patio or porch off its dining room, its real estate representing another of the show’s fantasy aspects.  He stays home to supervise the household and their teen-aged son.  Julia is the family breadwinner, although in the pilot, she’s supposed to be taking a break from her professional work to concentrate on her family’s child adoption process.

Frank’s disappointment in her decision to develop yet another musical instead of being available for the social workers and other bureaucrats who fill the U.S.-China adoption pipeline establishes another plot conflict that will no doubt play out this season.  Julia balances on the precarious edge between being a good artist and a good wife/mother and Smash tries not to judge her for putting her work first.

But by the second episode, the balance shifts, as Julia reveals her deep emotional commitment to the adoption and Frank wavers, admitting he wants to go back to work as a science teacher and that he’s afraid he’s too old for a new baby.  Watching how this dilemma plays out along or against typical gender expectations should be interesting.

Smash is fun television, and the musical numbers, which so far represent more of a tease than the series’ meat, are energetically choreographed and beautifully performed.  Smash has an impressive pedigree; it’s produced by Steven Spielberg in conjunction with a number of Broadway notables, directed by the very talented Michael Mayer, and cast with some of the best actors in New York. 

Rebeck, the series’ show-runner, is one of the few successful women playwrights who, like Wendy Wasserstein before her, can open a play directly on Broadway.  Her most recent hit, Seminar, which stars Alan Rickman (though Jeff Goldblum has just been announced as his replacement) and Lily Rabe, is a funny, smart play about a creative writing workshop lead by a preemptory, haughty snob.  Rebeck’s ear for dialogue and witty repartee and her talent for slick plotting is unparalleled in the contemporary American theatre.

And Rebeck’s commitment to women playwrights is well-established.  Her keynote for the 2010 Laura Pels Awards excoriated powerful theatre producers and critics for their gender bias and demanded action.  She’s been an outspoken, visible, and powerful advocate.

Sometimes, though, Smash tells stories in which its women are maligned without necessarily critiquing how they’re forced to compromise.  The first two episodes turn on the caricature of the mean-spirited but talented, wicked but sexy straight male director who tests his female stars in the sack as well as on the stage.  The story line forces Karen and Ivy to compete for his attention sexually as well as professionally.  That might be how Broadway business is conducted, but if Smash is a fantasy anyway, why not imagine a different kind of theatre world?

I’ve only seen two episodes so it could be entirely too soon to tell where the story of Smash will take its characters and its audience.  It’s fun to watch a television show that’s actually about theatre, instead of one like Glee in which the musical numbers are justified by the high school club setting.  And it’s fun to see the gay subculture of Broadway represented so nonchalantly. 

The song-and-dance numbers (choreographed by Joshua Bergasse) so far are energetically performed and filmed with high style and verve.  And it’s wonderful to see Rebeck’s name splashed across the credits so prominently.

I’ll stick with Smash, because it’s significant and important that Rebeck is a woman carrying a high profile, big-budget series.  And I’ll keep believing that the women characters will get more complicated and the show’s story lines more nuanced.  Then the show really will be a smash.

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, February 03, 2012


Adepero Oduye as Alike in Dee Rees's Pariah

Dee Rees’s debut feature film is a terrific study of a teenaged girl who identifies as a lesbian, even though she lives under the heterosexual enforcement of an unhappy mother and a warm but philandering father.

Rees’s semi-autobiographical film does a beautiful job of narrating the double-life of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a very smart high school senior who dresses as a conventional girl under her mother’s disciplining eye, but then changes in the bathroom as soon as she arrives at school into the t-shirt and sideways-worn ball cap of the butch lesbian she knows herself to be.

Pariah is a family study and a coming of age film that illustrates the shifting mores of a particular slice of mostly middle-class African American life.  Alike’s sister and her high school peers, for instance, are indifferent to or intrigued by her gender performance, but those of her parents’ generation eye her with antipathy and suspicion.

Her mother, Audrey (beautifully played by Kim Wayans), frantically tries to enforce Alike’s waning heterosexuality, buying her a deep magenta sweater with ruffles down the front that couldn’t be further from her daughter’s self-presentation.

Alike in feminine drag with her sister Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse)

When a dyke club opens across from a bodega that Arthur (Charles Parnell), Alike’s father, frequents, the male customers eye the women who stop by the store with hostility.  One calls out a young woman, who listens to his disparaging remarks and then casually insults him right back, much to the amusement of Alike’s father and his friends.

Although the scene is tense, and pregnant with the possibility for gendered violence, the young dyke saunters out of the store with the upper hand.  The tide of public opinion, Rees suggests, is turning.

Alike’s sister, Sharonda (Sahra Mellesse), teases her older sibling mercilessly.  But when she crawls into Alike’s bed one night for comforting, as they both listen to their parents’ incessant nighttime quarreling, Sharonda whispers, “You know I don’t care, right?”  She isn’t specific, but they both know that Sharonda is talking about Alike’s sexuality.

In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Sharonda bursts into Alike’s room when Alike and her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), are fitting Alike with a large white dildo and harness.  But Sharonda is unfazed and promises not to tattle.  This younger generation makes common cause along a set of new sexual mores—Sharonda is eager to have heterosexual sex—against parents who cling to an older notion of sexual and gendered morality.

Much to its credit, Pariah is a coming of age story, rather than a coming out story.  When Rees first introduces us to Alike, she’s already very clear about her identity, though she’s yet to have sex.  Much of the film details her flirtations with other women, including her devastation at the hands of coldhearted Bina (Aasha Davis), a straight young woman who befriends and seduces her, only to dismiss Alike the morning after.

But Alike’s certainty about who she is—and that “God doesn’t make mistakes,” as Audrey claims and Alike agrees, but from diametrically opposed perspectives—drives her toward her own liberation.

Still, Rees details with compassion the enormous costs that remain for these young women.  Laura, Alike’s butch mentor through the world of clubs and dating, has been kicked out of her family home and has left school.  She lives with her understanding older sister, Candace (Shamika Cotton), both of them struggling to make financial ends meet while Laura studies for her GED.

Pernell Walker as Laura

When she finally passes the test, Laura returns to her family’s home, where her disapproving mother opens the front door warily—and only halfway—listening with stony hostility to her daughter recite her recent achievements and saying not a word in response.  When her mother closes the door in Laura’s face, you can feel Laura’s heartrending loss and humiliation at her mother’s rejection.

Pariah upends expectations by refusing to succumb to genre stereotypes.  For instance, although the bar Laura and Alike frequent is in what Arthur (who’s a detective for the NYPD) calls a “bad neighborhood,” the bar is represented as a place of heightened sexuality, experimentation, and lustful openness, but never as a site of violence or invasion.  The women in the bar create their own space; since the film is set in the present, no police harassment spoils their fun.

Likewise, when Laura and her friends hang out on the piers smoking dope and drinking, Rees construes the public space as open and free, rather than one in which her characters might be victimized.  Laura observes another young woman talking to a john in a car about a potential trick; in a different movie, Laura would start turning tricks herself to help pay her expenses.

But in Pariah, the characters’ grit and dignity insist on hope.  Alike and Laura are smart and capable.  Only their parents’ blindness to a sexual and gendered future in which their choices are acceptable hampers their way.

Because the film is semi-autobiographical, art and creative expression finally free Alike.  Her supportive high school creative writing teacher encourages her to “dig deeper” with her poetry.  After Bina breaks her heart, Alike knows something of love and loss.  Davis plays Bina with a nice balance of cruelty, warmth, and her own sexual confusions.  Her scenes with Oduye, as the two girls are forced together by their mothers and then gradually form their own bond, ring true and complicated.

In the film’s climax, Audrey physically attacks Alike when she admits she’s a lesbian, cutting her cheek with her ring and knocking her daughter to the floor.  But Bina’s cruelty and her mother’s violence only shore Alike’s resolve, and she finds her creative voice.  Her poems express both her emotional pain and her fierce determination and her talent launches her out of her family and into the future.

How lovely to see a film about a young lesbian that ends with a journey toward a life of promise.  It’s worth marking how differently this story can be told in 2012 from the way it was 10, 20, or certainly 30 years ago (think films like Personal Best in 1982, or Lianna in 1983, or even Kissing Jessica Stein in 2001).  And how lovely to see a film about a young lesbian of color instead of the typical young white women moving through this story.

Pariah's advertising tag line offers the dictionary definition of the word:  1.  A person without status.  2.  A rejected member of society.  3.  An outcast.  Rees's film narrates how Alike turns those understandings around one by one.

The actors are uniformly terrific in a cast that should have been honored with one of the many ensemble award acknowledgements going to films like The Help.  Oduye is wonderful as Alike, conveying both her youthful inexperience and her self-knowledge and desire in ways that honor the complex character Rees creates.

Walker, as Laura, brings dignity and depth to a role that could have easily fallen into the sidekick stereotype.  She and Oduye create a friendship layered with loyalty, tinged with lust, and shot through with its own complicated desires, always balancing the power shifts that rock their relationship unpredictably.  Alike, after all, still has parents and a home; Laura has been exiled from a family she clearly still loves.

Pariah’s only less convincing characters are Alike’s parents, who too often seem like vehicles for her story rather than full-fledged people of their own.  Arthur, her father, is successful professionally but unhappy personally.  He’s clearly having an affair and barely tolerates his hovering wife.  Audrey is simply unhappy, and takes out her resentments by berating her husband and too tightly controlling her daughters.  As a mother, she’s a shrewish monster, whose desperate insistence on Alike’s heterosexuality displaces her own failed intimacies.

Kim Wayans as Audrey

Naturally, Alike identifies with Arthur, who recognizes his oldest daughter’s sexuality but can only support her tacitly.  He’s too weak-willed to stand up to Audrey, fleeing instead to solace outside his family and letting his daughters bear the brunt of her wrath.  After Audrey attacks Alike, Arthur begs her to come home, but Alike stays with Laura, firmly refusing, until she graduates high school early and rides off to San Francisco to accept a scholarship at UC-Berkeley.

Her relationship with her parents makes Alike’s story conform a bit too closely to the stereotype of the father-identifying lesbian alienated from a malignant mother.  But Wayans and Parnell bring nuance to these conventional roles, representing as they do a way of thinking about sexuality and gender that, Pariah argues, is becoming quickly anachronistic.

When Meryl Streep won the Golden Globe award as best actress for her performance in The Iron Lady, the gracious actor took the stage and acknowledged not only her fellow nominees, but also Adepero Oduye, who wasn’t nominated for a Globe or for an Oscar.

Streep’s gesture was generous and true.  Pariah might still be in limited release, and might never achieve the box office of a bigger film, but as an artistic statement, it’s vivid and important.  The film was nominated for the 2011 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (where Bradford Young won for Pariah's cinematography) and for various other awards, but escaped notice by the most visible, prestigious committees.

What a shame.  Pariah’s is a story that needs to be seen, heard, and told and told again.  Rees’s version is moving, beautiful, and deserving.

The Feminist Spectator