Monday, December 24, 2012

Feminist Spectator at New Address . . . Reminder

Just a reminder that The Feminist Spectator has migrated to Wordpress.

New posts (and the archive of all old posts) can be found at

Sign up for notification of new posts with the "follow" button on the new site.

Recent posts on:

  • Hello I Must Be going, an indie film starring Melanie Lynskey
  • Nashville, the TV series starring Connie Britton
  • Children of Killers, a play by Katori Hall
  • Liberal Arts, Josh Radnow's indie film
  • Lisa D'Amour's Pulitzer Prize finalist Detroit at Playwrights Horizon
  • Bachelorette, the film version of the hit stage play
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild, the magical realist film about the Louisiana delta

Thanks for reading The Feminist Spectator.

All best,

Jill Dolan

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sign up for The Feminist Spectator at its new location

Just a reminder that The Feminist Spectator has migrated to Wordpress.

New posts (and the archive of all old posts) can be found at

Sign up for notification of new posts with the "follow" button on the new site.

Recent posts on:

  • Lisa D'Amour's Pulitzer Prize finalist Detroit at Playwrights Horizon
  • Bachelorette, the film version of the hit stage play
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild, the magical realist film about the Louisiana delta

Thanks for reading The Feminist Spectator.

All best,

Jill Dolan

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Chely Wright, Wish Me Away

The Feminist Spectator has posted a new item:

"Coming Out Stories: Chely Wright, Wish Me Away" . . . 

Chely Wright is a country music singer who debuted in 1994 and achieved her life’s dream by becoming part of the Grand Ole Opry tradition, recording several Top 40 and number one songs, including “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.”  In 2010, she publicly came out as a lesbian, after 20 years of maintaining the [...]

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Many thanks for reading,
The Feminist Spectator

Shameless Self Promotion . . .

. . . with information about the reissue of The Feminist Spectator as Critic and about The Feminist Spectator in Action, a forthcoming book of feminist criticism I'm publishing with Palgrave Macmillan can be accessed on the new Feminist Spectator site at

Be sure to sign up to follow the blog on its new site.


The Feminist Spectator

Thursday, May 24, 2012


The Feminist Spectator has posted a new item, 'Scandal'

Shonda Rimes’ new television series arrived at its first season finale last week, after a terrific premiere and seven-week run and the promise of renewal for a second season.  Kerry Washington stars in the first series to feature an African American woman in the leading role since 1974, a fact of network history that seems [...]

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Diversity Drama in the 2012-2013 Season

Hi, Friends, this is a redirect to the new blog site at  Do sign up to follow The Feminist Spectator there.

The Feminist Spectator has posted a new item, 'Diversity Drama in the 2012-2013 Season'

I'm coming late to the controversy over the resoundingly white male-written and -directed season announced for the Guthrie next year, in part because I'm tired of hearing myself rehearse the same old indignities at these repetitive insults to women’s artistry and integrity.  Reading the many smart excoriations of Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling’s defensive protestations [...]

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Smash and Broadway

The Feminist Spectator has posted a new item called "Smash and Broadway."  Here's a teaser:

Smash ended its first season this week, and has been renewed for a second, minus Theresa Rebeck, its creator and original show runner (and one of the only women playwrights to be produced on Broadway).  Too bad that Rebeck is losing such a high profile, visible perch from which to write for television, but maybe [...]

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Thanks for your interest and support as The Feminist Spectator migrates.

My best, jd

(The Feminist Spectator)

Monday, May 07, 2012

George Jean Nathan Award . . . and New Web Site

The ceremony at which I received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 2010-2011 was staged in Prospect House at Princeton University on April 28, 2012.  Cornell professors Roger Gilbert and Ellen Gainor (who kindly nominated me for this honor) presented me with the actual award, after which I delivered the following remarks.  My words were followed by a panel discussion about theatre criticism, gender, and blogging, the audio transcript of which I hope to post shortly.  Once it's transcribed, I'll add it to The Feminist Spectator site.

This post also marks the launch of my new web site.  At the Nathan Award event, Helaine Gawlica, my archivist and webmistress, presented the new site.  I want to thank her for her work migrating The Feminist Spectator from Blogger, and for designing the look and architecture of the new site.  I'm very pleased to move The Feminist Spectator into its next iteration.

To read the post, see The Feminist Spectator at its new site, When you arrive, be sure to click on the "follow" button in the bottom right hand corner of the window to receive posts when they're published, or add the new site to your RSS feed (the link is available at the very bottom of the opening page).

Thanks to all of you who've been loyal followers of The Feminist Spectator on Blogger, which will now remain as an archive of the original blog.  All future posts will be found on the new site.

Join me there!

My best,

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Lena Dunham on Girls

Lena Dunham’s HBO series has been hailed for its sharp, insightful snapshot of 20-something young, white, straight women navigating their New York City lives in a post-Sex and the City moment in which (Bridesmaids aside) nothing has really seemed to catch the zeitgeist from a women’s perspective.

Dunham, who plays Hannah, the lynchpin of the quartet of friends on whose overlapping lives and close-knit friendship circle the series will focus, shines with a particularly smart, offbeat on-screen charisma.  She radiates intelligence in a way that few women on television do, with the exception of Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie, Julianna Margulies in The Good Wife, or (sometimes) Laura Linney in The Big C.  In some ways, Hannah reminds me of Jane Adams’s character in the much-missed Hung (also from HBO).

Hannah is not a waif-like, flighty young woman, but someone with dreams, desires, and something to say.  Her body size doesn’t conform to conventional impossibly thin standards, which means her clothing (she remarks how expensive it is to look “this cheap”) hangs differently around her.  Her haircut doesn’t seem outrageously expensive and she doesn’t seem to wear make-up.

In other words, her appearance immediately breaks the mold of most young women seen on television and in films.  And even though she comments on her weight and her clothes, bemoaning how they don’t hold up to the ideal, it’s still a pleasure to be invited into the life of a normal-looking woman.

Her friends, though, conform more closely to typical beauty and behavior standards.  Marnie (Allison Williams), Hannah’s roommate, has long brown hair and a svelte figure and, in the pilot, bemoans the excessive attention of a hovering beau.

Allison Williams as Marnie

Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), their motor-mouth, hyper but earnest friend, is also thin and attractive, if slightly more “ethnic” (read Jewish; her last name is Shapiro).

Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna

And Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna’s British cousin, is chic and sophisticated—or at least her accent makes her sound that way.  Jessa, it soon turns out, is also pregnant, so her body looks strangely more like Hannah’s.

Jemima Kirke as Jessa

Rebecca Traister, writing admiringly of the show in Salon, notes how these four women’s primary intimacy focuses on one another.  In the show’s opening image, Hannah and Marnie spoon in bed together as the alarm goes off in the morning.  Marnie, it seems, wants to escape the smothering embrace of her boyfriend, which she had accomplished the night before by hanging out in Hannah’s bed watching Mary Tyler Moore show reruns and falling asleep.

Later, the friends bathe together, Marnie shaving her legs wrapped in a towel and Hannah lounging naked beside her, eating a cupcake for breakfast.  But even though Hannah mentions that she’s never seen Marnie’s breasts, Marnie demurs, insisting that she only reveals herself to people she’s having sex with.

And thus my basic hesitation with Girls so far.  I love the focus on female friendships, which we so rarely get to see on television (Sex and the City aside—I was never a fan.  And I long for Alicia and Kalinda to be friends again on The Good Wife).  But much of the Girls pilot works overtime to secure these women’s heterosexuality.  Marnie and Hannah have slept together, but we’re not to mistake them for lovers.  Later in the episode, another of the friends makes a crack about lesbians (clearly, I’ve blocked it out) that’s meant to underline, again, that she’s not one.  And despite Hannah’s penchant for having sex with inappropriate male partners, same-sex choices don’t appear to cross her mind.

If these women truly are intimate with one another emotionally and logistically, I’m not sure why sexual relationships between them have to be so quickly foreclosed.  For young women who are sharp, sophisticated, and observant about social mores and patterns, such heteronormativity bespeaks a limited imagination, a cultural palette that fails to explore the full spectrum of human relationships.

Hannah’s tryst with Adam (Adam Driver) in the pilot has provoked some viewers with its awkward, explicit sexual nature.  Adam drives their exchange, telling Hannah how to position herself, taking her from behind, and clearly using her for his own enjoyment without either one of them appearing to be very concerned with hers.  Hannah talks throughout the sex, asking him if she’s doing what he wants and explaining why she’s not interested in being penetrated anally.  He finally asks her to be quiet, shutting down her ruminations and, it seems, her sexual agency.

Perhaps this is how Hannah prefers to have sex.  Fine with me.  But as a television representation, it sends a certain message about how women prioritize (or not) their own desire.  Hannah, of course, knows that she’s compromising and apparently, in future episodes, is caught in the typical muddle of nice guy v. bad guy boyfriend dilemma.  Girls wants to represent women and their desires differently, which I admire.

Of course, I’m basing my impressions on only the first episode.  I’ll keep watching and hoping that the show gains a confidence that will let it leave aside its implicit homophobia and think more openly and creatively about how intimacy among friends—and sexuality among women—can be expressed.

The Feminist Spectator

Girls on HBO, Sundays at 10:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The FS Suggests . . . Split Britches gets the Booth Award

FYI, Split Britches will receive the Edwin Booth Award from the Theatre Program of the CUNY Graduate Center today.

I'm sure it'll be a wonderful conversation.  See the link for details.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence in her iconic pose as Katniss in The Hunger Games

How sweet is the taste of a movie with a female heroine heralded as the top-grossing non-sequel film debut weekend of all time?  And how sweet is it that The Hunger Games, the adaptation of the first novel in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy about Panem, a dystopian country that sacrifices its children for the amusement of its privileged leisure class, is a faithful, stirring, smart film that doesn’t pander to either sentimentality or sensationalism in translating Collins’s politically nuanced story to the screen?

Starring Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) as Katniss Everdeen, the trilogy’s heroine, The Hunger Games creates a rich material world for a story imagined so vividly by so many readers.  Director Gary Ross and his production designers realize the fictional country’s twelve dispossessed districts and its excessively decadent capitol in a way that convinced me it was just as I’d pictured it as I read the novel, captivated by Collins’s narrative.

Katniss hails from District Twelve, where coal mines provide the Capitol with energy and the district’s residents with straitened lives of near-starvation and strife.  Katniss breaks the repressive government’s strict rules by sneaking through the district’s boundary fence to hunt for food with her friend, Gale (a handsome, stalwart Liam Hemsworth).  Her father died in a mining accident; his sudden death left her mother catatonic with grief and unable to care for Katniss and her younger sister, Prim.

Katniss the hunter

Ross’s film establishes in deft strokes that Katniss is an accomplished hunter with a keen understanding of the woods in which she and Gale poach.  Wearing threadbare clothing and scuffed boots, she strides through the hills and trees (Ross filmed around Asheville, North Carolina) and confidently wields a bow and arrow to bag birds and the rare deer.  She and Gale have an easy camaraderie that comes less from romantic attraction than from similar survival instincts, the confidence of being good at what they do, and the imperative that they provide for their families.

Katniss and Gale in the woods before the reaping

In other words, The Hunger Games breaks stereotypes almost immediately by representing a friendship between a young man and woman that’s not based on facile heterosexual romantic rituals.  The stakes for Katniss and Gale are much higher—they could be killed for leaving the district borders, but they risk their lives to put food on their tables.

Their lasting bond is broken by the annual “reaping,” when two children between 12 and 18 from each of Panem’s districts are chosen at random as “tributes” to compete in the televised gladiatorial competition known as “the hunger games.”  In District Twelve, the children assemble in the town square wearing their best clothes, shirts and pants and dresses of worn, graying cotton, while the Capitol’s bubble-headed representative, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), parades before them in garish shades of pink and red.  Her excessively colorful outfit, make-up, and wig set her off as outlandish in the district’s drab landscape.

The garish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Katniss at the reaping

To begin the reaping, Effie plays the videoed reminder that the Games were established to assert the Capitol’s political primacy, after the districts tried unsuccessfully to rebel against its hegemony.  Before she picks the names of the unlucky tributes, Effie unctuously pronounces her benediction:  “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

When Prim is selected as the female tribute, Katniss desperately volunteers to take her younger sister’s place, and is promptly caught up in the horrifying preparations that propel the tributes into the fabricated arena where the games take place.  Along with the male tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids are All Right), Katniss travels by train toward the glittery, surreal capitol.

En route, the two District Twelve competitors are groomed for the games by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), District Twelve’s only previous winner.  His drunken apathy is downplayed in the film adaptation; as soon as he recognizes Katniss’s gumption and talent, he’s persuaded to be the mentor he takes much longer to become in Collins’s book.

Harrelson as Haymitch

Likewise, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the stylist who helps Katniss and Peeta make an impression on the Capitol denizens and the nation’s audience in the televised interviews before the games begin, demonstrates immediate sympathy for his tributes’ plight.  He signals his antipathy for the brutality of the whole proceedings even as he helps Katniss establish her infamy as the “girl who was on fire” in the pre-games parade.

Kravitz as Cinna in a pre-games benediction

In these preliminary scenes, before Ross brings us to the central agon of games in which 24 children and teenagers are meant to murder one another until a single victor remains, the director and his cinematographer show us District Twelve and the Capitol from Katniss’s point of view.  The reaping, for instance, rushes by in a blur, capturing moments and faces in fragments that seem almost Expressionistic as they look so resolutely through Katniss’s anxious eyes.

The kinetic editing and point-of-view shots help create an atmosphere taut with tension and fear, and beautifully capture Katniss’s confusion and terror (and intelligence) as she’s escorted by Peacekeepers (who look like soldiers from the Star Wars films) into the custody of her handlers.

By giving us visual insight into Katniss’s emotional vulnerability, Ross humanizes a heroine whose inner dialogue we can no longer hear, as we could reading Collins’s prose.  [Spoiler alert.]  Katniss’s strength enables her to survive the games, but it could also make her appear unsympathetic and impassive.

In fact, Mahnola Dargis, writing for the Times, found Lawrence’s performance “disengaged” in just this way.  But the film itself addresses this quandary; Katniss isn’t cut from gregarious cloth, and refuses to pander to the television viewers even when her life depends on it.  Similarly, Lawrence doesn’t play to Ross's camera; hers is a nuanced and, I think, strong and successful performance of Collins’s signal heroine.

Instead, Ross uses his camera to bring us closer to Katniss’s feelings, while letting her retain the dignity of her strength and her intelligence and, in some ways, her privacy, despite the intrusions of rabid spectators into her life prior to and during the games.  For example, in moments of duress in the arena fabricated and controlled by the “Gamemaker,” Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the television director who engineers the games much like Ed Harris’s producer character manipulated the world of The Truman Show, we see flashbacks to earlier moments in Katniss’s life that help explain her resolve.

Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, with his fabulous beard

We see her father descending into the mines, and then watch a fiery explosion that implies his death.  We see her mother descending into madness.  We see Katniss's prior relationship with Peeta, the baker’s son, who defies his hateful mother by throwing bread meant for their pigs in Katniss’s direction, as she hovers in the rain outside the bakery, hungry and watching.

And when Katniss is stung during the games by horrifying “tracker jackers,” an insect engineered by the Gamemaker with stings so painful they bring on hallucinatory episodes and sometimes death, we see the venom’s effects on Katniss from her perspective.  Blurred, tunneled images capture Peeta’s distorted voice shouting at her to run, and the woods rushing by in a swirl of surreal light and color.  All of these filmic strategies place us squarely behind Katniss.

Ross and his team tell the story with a dynamic style that moves it inexorably forward, even in scenes that might otherwise be static.  The whole thing feels like a chase film, in which Katniss and the other tributes are being followed and watched not just by one another, but by the eyes of the state, which are always focused on them.

For instance, when Katniss first ties herself to a branch high in a tree on her first night in the arena, she hears a mechanical noise, and realizes that what she took for a knot in the tree trunk is actually an embedded camera.  As she peers into it curiously, Ross cuts to people watching “at home,” in large crowds outdoors in the districts, or on make-shift screens in their homes.

The Capitol’s technology invades their lives not for the pleasure of information and communication, but to insure its own hegemony.  This is technology as tyranny, the flip side, Collins suggests, of the high tech revolution as empowering.

In the book, Katniss’s inner monologue was protected from the ravages of such state surveillance, so the reader was insured a counter-point to the intrusions of President Snow and his minions’ power.  The Hunger Games on film, though, is also about watching.  The film’s spectators, too, have a kind of power over Katniss and, not insignificantly, over Jennifer Lawrence, the young actor chosen for a role that will rival Bella’s in the Twilight series for fan and media attention.

I read a snarky piece on The Daily Beast that suggested Lawrence was being ungenerous about her fame, self-deprecating and diffident.  I didn’t see the David Letterman interview to which the article mostly referred, but it sounded to me like Lawrence has taken a page from Katniss’s playbook, which is partly what makes her so wonderful in the role.

Lawrence is rarely off screen during The Hunger Games.  But her emotional presence is carefully modulated.  Rather than playing a more conventional girl—although the dystopian Panem begs the question of what a “conventional” girl would look or act like in such a hard-scrabbled existence—Lawrence plays Katniss as tensely coiled and focused physically and mentally on outsmarting the other tributes and, eventually, the Capitol’s manipulators.

Katniss in the arena

In Lawrence’s keen interpretation, Katniss is a reluctant heroine.  She won’t pander to the Capitol’s media or its cameras in the ways that Haymitch, her perceptive mentor, suggests might be necessary for her to actually win the games.  If spectators empathize with or come to favor a tribute, they send help into the arena, little metal parachutes with containers full of much-needed medicine, food, or supplies.

Katniss is forced to think through the costs of her refusal to perform as a more typical, coy, feminine girl, but her continued unwillingness to capitulate makes her an important role model for what will no doubt be legions of the film’s teenaged girl fans.  Ross carefully establishes Katniss’s foils—the girly-girl tributes from the other districts who interview with the games’ television host, Caesar Flickerman (a terrifically campy Stanley Tucci, in a blue wig and practically Elizabethan garb).

Although they prove themselves to be quite tough in the arena, for their interviews most of the other girls wear sexy dresses and assume flirtatious manners. And during the games, they combine forces with the alpha males, playing the Bonnies to their Clydes.  These female tributes are also lethal—especially Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), who throws knives—but they’re represented in relation to their young men.

Katniss can’t even fathom such gender performances or alliances.  Her subsistence-level life has taught her only to survive, and has stripped away the niceties of human interaction to a central, necessarily suspicious core.  Gale is the only person she trusts, with whom she can briefly let down her guard as they talk, before the reaping, in the woods.

But even there, Ross disallows any hint of romance.  Theirs is a relationship built on trust and need and a long-standing regard and love.  Only when Katniss leaves for the games, and her relationship with Peeta is broadcast around Panem, does Gale realize he’s jealous.  His own embarrassment and confusion makes him sweet and rather feminine himself.

Peeta, on the other hand, quickly understands that playing to the crowd might curry important favor.  He waves to the Capitol fans who watch their bullet train enter the city, crafting a charismatic smile to wear for them.  (Hutcherson’s appealing, low-key magnetism is perfect for the self-deprecating Peeta.)

He insists on taking Katniss’s hand and raising it in a show of victory as their chariot rolls through the gigantic presentation hall at their pre-games debut.  As their clothing flames behind them, he tells Katniss the fans will love their daring, and he’s right.  Katniss suspiciously jerks her hand from his, but he persuades her otherwise.

Katniss and Hutcherson (as Peeta) train for the games

When, during his own interview with Flickerman, Peeta declares his love for Katniss, it’s not immediately clear if he’s playing to the cameras again or if he means it.  The rest of the film hangs on this ambiguity.

But if Peeta is wily about winning through an appeal to spectators, Katniss’s survival skills keep her firmly enmeshed in the immediacy of the arena’s challenge.  How wonderful to watch this girl-hero read the woods, feeling the soil for moisture, crushing leaves in her hand and releasing them to see how the wind blows, using her bow and arrow to bag food and, in the end, to protect herself and Peeta from the remaining tributes.

How lovely to see Peeta hang back behind her as they move through the forest, Katniss with an arrow cocked in her bow for their mutual protection.  How amusing the hear Peeta joke that he’ll take the bow to hunt, and to watch Katniss’s incredulous reaction.  How nice to see the girl save the boy, helping him into a sheltered cave when he’s hurt, risking everything to get medicine for him, and masterminding the actions that in the end will save them both.

Lawrence plays these actions with an understated performance that’s alive with nuance.  Her face registers everything, but in subtly expressive ways—with the twitch of an eye, a small compression of her lips, a hard-won smile, a flicker of confusion.  Her pre-games interview with Caesar Flickerman is a marvel of acting as reaction.  Katniss is startled and confused by the audience’s uproarious response to her answers to his questions, but she doesn’t have the vaguest idea how to play to their affections, as she’s been tutored.

Tucci as Flickerman and Katniss in her pre-games interview

Lawrence works for every smile Katniss musters.  Wearing her red, off-the-shoulder gown, offering to model its fiery train for Flickerman, wearing make-up that’s alien on her face and a hairstyle that’s foreign to her, Katniss looks like a girl in the drag of femininity, trying to work it as ridiculously as Sandra Bullock playing Miss Congeniality, but with much less comedy and much higher stakes.

Katniss’s final confrontation with President Snow (Donald Sutherland, oily and reptilian as ever) models a chilly resistance and promises quite a David v. Goliath confrontation as the trilogy builds momentum.  Lawrence’s performance is clear and strong; she does Katniss justice by acting with economy and reserve.  Katniss’s inscrutability serves her well among her enemies and the film’s spectators; it keeps her mysterious, unpredictable, and interesting.

Much has been made of the story’s violence, especially among young people forced to murder one another by heartless manipulators.  Although the film is tense with the sounds and ever-present threat of bloodshed, remarkably little of it is actually seen on screen.

The initial bloodbath at the cornucopia, when the tributes are first delivered to the arena, is cut in rapid sequences in which, once again, the briefly pictured parts—of faces, limbs, actions, objects—come to stand for the whole without directly representing the killing. 

Occasionally, one of the more vicious tributes is seen murdering someone, but usually at a remove.  Katniss and Peeta are rarely shown directly inflicting violence; their humanity is always evident and operative.

Ross also keeps sentiment at bay, even in the more emotional, moving scenes. Katniss takes young Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a tribute from District Eleven, under her wing, after Rue helps her escape from the “career” tributes who’ve surrounded the tree in whose branches Katniss keeps herself safe.  Their relationship mirrors that of Katniss and Prim.  Lawrence and Stenberg play their scenes together beautifully, creating a warmth and connection that belies their murderous environment.

Amandla Stenberg as Rue

That Katniss cares for Rue until her bitter end, and uses the occasion of her tragic death to gesture in solidarity to her comrades in District Eleven, begins the insurgency that grows through the rest of the trilogy.  Here, too, Lawrence productively underplays Katniss’s defiance, emphasizing her hesitant heroism.

In addition to its progressive and nuanced take on gender, The Hunger Games also presents a sophisticated view of an entirely multiracial future society.  Those with the most state power continue to be white—President Snow (pun intentional, I assume), Seneca Crane, Caesar Flickerman, and the others are all white (and male).

But in the Capitol and in the districts, Ross has careful cast the extras and other characters in a multiracial array.  Every crowd shot is full of people of color as well as people who look white, enough so that the racial and ethnic diversity of appearance is notable.

When Katniss’s alliance with Rue provokes a revolt against the Capitol in District Eleven, Ross films their riots in a style reminiscent of footage of 1960s American civil rights demonstrations.  The Peacekeepers subdue the protesters with water cannons.  People of various races, working together, overturn dumpsters and destroy property.

The scene is shot in a palette of black and white, and the protestors’ anger and determination, along with the Peacekeepers’ might and the general confusion of social rebellion, look very much like images from the 60s.

In addition to its admirable representations of gender and race, heterosexual romance is muted profitably in The Hunger Games.  Katniss’s tenderness is reserved for Rue; their sweet, more emotionally expressive moments are lovely and moving.  Katniss’s rage and grief when Rue dies is her most overt emotional moment during the games.

She also grows attached to Peeta, but because they’re both aware that they’re playing to the cameras, the authenticity of their romantic involvement is always in doubt.

Although by the film’s end, it’s clear that Gale is jealous of Katniss’s relationship with Peeta, and that the sincere and earnest Peeta very much wants to continue the romance they’ve performed, reducing these relationships to “Team Gale” and “Team Peeta” to parallel the Team Edward/Team Jacob triangle of the Twilight franchise is just silly.  The Hunger Games is about much more than a young girl choosing between two very different suitors; it’s about fascism and rebellion, about hope and social critique.

I find myself delighted by the amount of press this film has already generated, most of it positive, for a screenplay co-written (with Billy Ray) by a woman based on her novels, about a young woman whose ethical humanity, physical strength, and emotional intelligence is a terrific model for us all.

Looking forward to the second film (scheduled for Thanksgiving 2013).

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, March 30, 2012

Game Change

Ed Harris and Julianne Moore as McCain and Palin in Game Change

The HBO-produced adaptation of Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s best-selling 2009 book, Game Change centers on the John McCain-Sarah Palin part of the ticket for the 2008 Presidential election.  While the book looked at Clinton and Obama’s dust-up over the Democratic nomination as well as McCain’s eventual fight for the vote against Obama, the film adaptation focuses on the selection and requisite care and feeding of the star personality who became Sarah Palin.

Impersonated with empathetic, uncanny likeness by Julianne Moore, Palin appears in Danny Strong’s script just as she did in Halperin and Heilemann’s book—as an ignorant, child-like woman thrust into the national limelight way too fast, way too soon, and way too recklessly by a campaign trying to “do something bold” to shift attention from Obama’s meteoric rise in popular favor.

With a breezy, rather snarky tone, the book doesn’t waste time lambasting McCain staffers for their lightly vetted choice of the then barely known governor from Alaska.  Based on the numbers game that now determines elections, the McCain campaign realizes that they’ll lose if they can’t close the gender gap that’s opened in the polls.

Although McCain is intent on selecting Joe Lieberman as his “bold choice” for a running mate, to demonstrate that bipartisanship is possible on a presidential ticket, Lieberman’s pro-choice reputation makes him a bad pick for holding onto the far Right voters who are now necessary to secure the Republican base.  (Game Change takes place in 2008.  The present contest for the Republican nomination demonstrates how much farther the extreme Right has thrust itself into the party.)

When Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol), McCain’s national campaign manager, stumbles across a YouTube video of Palin chatting with an interviewer, he’s captivated by her charisma, poise, and attractiveness.  The brief scene underlines that Palin’s competition wasn’t stiff; the other women Davis watches are obviously competent politicians but dreary, uninspiring (and, not insignificantly, unattractive) performers.  Game Change emphasizes that Palin is an adept political actor, following the footsteps of her hero, Ronald Reagan (who was nothing if not a consummate, Hollywood-trained matinee idol).

Davis and other McCain staffers quickly realize that Palin has much of Reagan’s magnetism, and soon, she’s on the ticket, appealing to Republican voters with her “aw shucks” performance of ordinariness.  What soon appalls the McCain campaign is how little real knowledge of the political system supports her sudden appearance in the national arena.

Where the book was a biting indictment of Palin and what it painted as her self-involved, self-aggrandizing machinations, the film adaptation, directed by Jay Roach (Recount), is in most ways kinder to the former governor.  Strong’s script underlines that she never asked for the spotlight, and was invited to take the number two spot on McCain’s ticket without being carefully vetted.

In a scene illustrating her only pre-announcement interview with Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) and Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan), McCain’s most powerful staffers, they ask questions to determine her willingness to play by McCain’s rules and espouse his views (a promise on which she ultimately reneges).  But they never dream that she can’t cite a single Supreme Court case or that she might not know what “the Fed” represents.

The film portrays the McCain campaign’s incredulity when Palin’s real deficits begin to emerge.  Attempting to prep her for debates and interviews on national television, Palin is truculent and withholding, reducing frustrated staffers to providing boilerplate answers to the questions they anticipate will be posed.

But the film suggests it’s not really Palin’s fault that she’s in way over her head.  She excelled as the governor of a small state in which she met voters at the fair with her family (represented in an early scene), and chatted with constituents one-on-one as she took her daughters on the rides.

Moore perfectly captures Palin’s folksy, somehow sincere warmth in those early pre-vp selection scenes, and demonstrates, in her first meeting with Schmidt, that Palin has more steely reserve than first appears.  Her debate prep scenes are both horrifying and pathetic, as Palin sits with a pencil and a notebook furiously scribbling down information that staffers lecture at her.  She seems a reluctant student, but one eager to prove that she can pass the course.

But she passes her way, and becomes the wrong sort of maverick in the McCain campaign.  As she gains confidence from the warm crowds she attracts at personal appearances, power begins to change Palin into a more Machiavellian operative who’s more concerned with her own image than the campaign.  But because Game Change doesn’t hold her entirely responsible for being on the ticket in the first place, even her shift into a more calculated power-grabber doesn’t read as an utter indictment.

In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Moore-as-Palin watches Tina Fey-as-Palin re-perform on Saturday Night Live the real Sarah Palin’s devastating Katie Couric interview.  Moore’s face (as Palin) is a study as she gradually registers that Fey is making fun of her.  Alone in front of the television, Moore carefully builds Palin’s hurt resentment, as she realizes she’s being ridiculed.  The scene humanizes Palin by imagining her feelings as she watches Fey, and helps viewers understand why she soon becomes obsessed with her image and approval ratings.

Game Change also presents Palin’s family respectfully.  Todd Palin’s political peccadillos are washed with a patina of innocence, and even Bristol’s pregnancy seems like just another adolescent indiscretion.  Of course, the story picks up before their lives have been invaded by a rabid national media, but the film depicts the family as sincere and rather naïve, as wounded as Sarah by what they see as the campaign’s and the press’s betrayal.

By giving Palin’s personal life a pass, and through Moore’s remarkably sympathetic performance, Game Change’s discerning critique falls more softly on the mercurial personality quirks of a woman untested in the baiting and switching of hardball national life than it does on an expedient political system driven by television cameras and polling numbers.  The film emphasizes that Schmidt, McCain’s senior strategist, was full of hubris to think that Palin would solve the campaign’s problems, and the movie’s narrative turns mostly on his trajectory.

Played by Harrelson with a swagger that dissolves into humiliation, Game Change traces Schmidt’s horrified understanding of his mistake and the consequences it could have had for the nation had McCain been elected.  The film is bookended by scenes of Anderson Cooper interviewing Harrelson-as-Schmidt about his reflections on the 2008 election after the fact.

Schmidt deflects Cooper’s direct probing about whether Palin was truly ready to assume the presidency.  He does, however, squirm when Cooper reminds him that she was the vice presidential nominee for a candidate who was 72-years-old during the campaign and had already suffered two bouts of melanoma.  These framing interviews are juxtaposed deftly with Game Change’s scenes of Palin stumbling over basic knowledge of the American political system, which allows the film’s critique to laser in on handlers like Schmidt, for whom performance and the superficiality of capturing the camera’s attention was, for a time, more important than anything else.

Game Change chronicles Palin’s change alongside Schmidt’s.  If they start as uneasy allies, by the film’s (and the campaign’s) end, they’re adversaries.  Palin insists on giving her own concession speech the night of the election; Schmidt practically spits at her when he tells her that vice presidential candidates never give such speeches.  For Palin, unburdened by knowledge of precedent, the rules are up for grabs.

Her willingness to put her finger in the eye of Washington went on to endear Palin to Tea Party-ers looking for a heroine.  Her empty charisma and her superficial ease connecting with voters through a medium that looks intimate while it maintains a boundless distance did indeed change the game.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times, published several blogs on the film that address the question of McCain’s campaign staffers’ loyalty.  Bruni argues that if the dirty laundry of necessarily brutal campaign practices is hung out publically to dry, as it is in this film, honorable potential candidates will shy from the most bruising, most prominent races.

But the confidentiality of the political process seems an already dead issue.  What Game Change underlines for me was how mercenary McCain’s male staffers were in playing to the gender gap, choosing a female vice presidential running mate not on the basis of her qualifications, but on her appearance and a charisma they thought would buy votes.

Their thoughtlessness and implicit misogyny (choose a woman, any—pretty—woman) brought the body politic the persistent problem of Sarah Palin, a woman who went on to co-opt feminism for her own selfish purposes, who continues to champion her political ignorance, and who remains the star of a fictional “Main Street” on which “ordinary” American people are white, straight, racist, homophobic, anti-choice, and proud of their political stupidity.

Game Change ends with Schmidt, Davis, and Salter drinking in a bar on election night after McCain has conceded.  They ruefully agree that McCain’s loss let them dodge the bullet that Palin as vice president would have shot into the American political system.  But the film (and the book) also lets them off the hook.  They down their drinks, shake their heads sheepishly, and go off to run other campaigns, bearing no on-going responsibility for ushering Palin so far into political power.

Scary stuff.

The Feminist Spectator

Game Change, HBO and on-demand.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Porgy and Bess

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis as Bess and Porgy

This controversial production comes to Broadway with the baggage of both historical and contemporary critique.  First produced in the 1930s as a “folk opera” by George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, this production, directed by Diana Paulus with a revised book by Suzan-Lori Parks and Deirdre L. Murray, opened August 17, 2011, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where Paulus is the artistic director.

Before he’d even seen the production, Stephen Sondheim excoriated the artistic team for what he found unethical meddling with the Gershwin’s original work.  But as Hilton Als wrote in a lovely background piece and review for The New Yorker, the “original” was full of racism, an artifact of a moment in theatre history when white people represented their skewed vision of people of color for other white people.  Why in the world would anyone want to preserve such original intentions for a 21st century audience?

More than a bit of sexism surfaced in Sondheim’s argument, too.  Here’s a young white woman director and two talented women artists of color engaging one of famous narratives of American opera and theatre, all with an eye to renovating the central character of Bess, the drug-addicted woman whose desires drive this revision’s plot.  Given this refocusing, Sondheim’s unfortunate objections might derive from his personal taste and respect for some artists over others, as well as from his professional investments in preserving the sanctity of the original text.

The Sondheim kerfuffle sent the production to Broadway on a cloud of critique, but from my perspective, this Porgy and Bess provides a transformative theatre experience.  With a simple set by the talented Riccardo Hernandez; unobtrusive but evocative choreography by Ronald K. Brown; a superb ensemble, each one of whom seems to follow his or her own grounded and nuanced narrative arc; and stage pictures that seem organic instead of posed, the production offers a thrilling experience at the theatre.

Hernandez creates down at the heels Catfish Row, in Charleston, South Carolina, with a one-dimensional curvilinear back drop, all corrugated tin and wooden window frames through which light (designed by Christopher Akerlind) projects in geometric patterns that change with the time of the day.  A simple working water pump establishes the outdoor scenes, and performers bring on wooden chairs and crates to give the stage picture levels and textures.

Yet with so few props and such a schematic set, Paulus and her actors create a whole world, an African American community of fishermen and washerwomen, of tinkerers and tradespeople, of grifters and preachers, and of good people and bad.  The ensemble moves constantly, providing a living backdrop to the story of Bess and Porgy’s doomed relationship.

Paulus draws attention to her stars through their costumes.  Bess (the sublime Audra McDonald) wears a beautiful, bold red dress when she arrives in Catfish Row on the arm of her evil lover/procurer, Crown (Phillip Boykin).  Costume designer ESosa leaves McDonald’s arms bare and her breasts heaving over the bodice, accentuating her figure with a high slit up the side and barely supportive straps.  Porgy (Norm Lewis) wears layered, dirty but pure white shirts, which help him stand out among the rest.

Bess's red dress makes her the focus of the stage picture

Although the careful design and direction lets spectators track the show’s central couple, Paulus embeds Porgy and Bess’s story within a lively, close-knit neighborhood both visually and narratively.  Theirs isn’t a singular story, but a relationship aided and abetted by a community that’s very protective of its “crippled” friend.

Porgy, hobbled from birth, walks with a stick and a limp, his hips extended awkwardly and his left leg twisted impossibly.  His disability makes it difficult for him to maneuver more than a few steps without being offered a seat by one of his neighbors.  But Lewis plays Porgy with quiet dignity, not an ounce of self-pity, and a sexy magnetism that makes him the production’s emotional core.

Shortly after he and Bess arrive at Catfish Row, Crown murders one of the community’s men.  To avoid prison, Crown hides out on an island off the coast of Charleston while Bess slowly, hesitantly begins to embed herself in the domestic life of Catfish Row, forming an awkward relationship with Porgy.  When she joins her new neighbors for a picnic on the island where Crown happens to be hiding, and dallies behind when the others board the boat for home, Crown accosts Bess, insisting that she’s still his woman and that he’ll come for her once he thinks it’s safe.

Boykin as Crown with McDonald as Bess

In a scene that could easily be played as a rape, Paulus’s direction and McDonald’s terrific acting indicate that although his physical force makes it difficult for Bess to resist Crown, she’s also attracted by his sexual clarity.  Her desire confuses Bess.  In this production, it’s not her drug addiction that’s her Achilles heel, though that weakness appears at key moments to throw her integrity into doubt.  But it’s Bess’s deep sexuality, her own desire, by which she’s ultimately undone.

In Catfish Row, women are supposed to channel their sexuality into marriage and child-rearing.  The upstanding, loving couple Jake (Joshua Henry) and Clara (Nikki Renée Daniels) represent the ideal relationship, one to which Bess knows she should aspire but can’t quite figure.

Henry and Daniels as Jake and Clara

She holds Jake and Clara’s new-born baby with great wonder and tenderness, staring into its face as though it holds a secret she wishes she could fathom.  And when the couple dies in the hurricane that rocks Catfish Row, Bess insists that their baby now belongs to her.  But exactly this contained and proper domesticity eludes Bess, however truly happy she seems in Porgy’s embrace.

Bess experimenting with domesticity

Although Porgy repeatedly scoffs that “no cripple can hold Bess,” he never really seems to believe it, because the character’s goodness radiates from Lewis’s presence whether or not he’s speaking.  Lewis’s is a smart, clear, intensely human performance, in which the typical pitfalls of the “crippled” character redeeming the “abled” through his unsullied humanity admittedly is present, but not as salient as it might be.  In this revision, his character feels fuller and more fleshed out, and in fact, Porgy doesn’t ever really redeem Bess.  The typical trope is foiled in ways that help play against the stereotype.

Porgy loves and protects Bess, and finally finds his manhood by killing Crown, who continues to appear in their lives like a demon that just won’t die.  After Porgy stabs Crown to death in a stage fight in which they struggle on the ground, the only level at which Porgy might have a chance to even the odds against Crown, Porgy struggles to stand and declares that he’s now a man.

It’s unfortunate that the disabled Porgy distinguishes himself through violence, and that his gentler, more domestic masculinity is pitted against Crown’s volatile force in the first place.  Boykin, as Crown, is a muscular, large, dark-skinned African American man, who presents the character in all his brutal sexuality and contrasts starkly with Porgy’s less stable physical presence.

Even after Porgy kills Crown, theoretically freeing her from the violent man’s hold, Bess is seduced by Sporting Life (played by David Alan Grier as a kind of Ben Vereen-as-the-Leading-Player-in-Pippin spin-off), who tells her that Porgy will be imprisoned for life and that she belongs in a big city.  Sporting Life smoothly urges her toward the boat that’s leaving soon for New York (in another of the musical’s many numbers that became standards in the American repertoire).

David Alan Grier as Sporting Life

Played by the truly astounding McDonald, Bess’s desires muddle her, pulling her from one choice to the contradictory next.  She clearly feels safe with Porgy, but her blazing sexual heat draws her to danger and to a larger palette on which to paint herself.

Bess never looks quite comfortable in the cotton shifts in muted prints and soft fabrics that signal her acceptance into the quotidian life of Catfish Row.  The image of her lush body presenting itself draped in red in those first scenes always haunts her attempt to be just one of the women, to domesticate herself for her own safety and acceptance.

Nonetheless, this production doesn’t demonize Bess and neither does it leave Porgy broken by her disappearance at the end.  He decides he’ll follow Bess to New York to win her back.

What will happen after is anyone’s guess, but that future isn’t as important as knowing that both Porgy and Bess have opted to move out into a larger world, one less predictable, perhaps, one less full of love and care and fellow-feeling than the landscape of Catfish Row, but one in which they can find bigger, more ennobled versions of themselves in which to live.

That, in itself, is an achievement.

The Feminist Spectator

Porgyand Bess, Richard Rodgers Theatre, Broadway.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Cynthia Nixon on Broadway as Vivian Bearing in Margaret Edson's Wit

Cynthia Nixon, playing the lead in the Broadway revival of Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, does a heroic job putting her own mark against Kathleen Chalfant’s signature performance as the dying Vivian Bearing, the professor and scholar who meets the only fight she can’t win in her struggle with ovarian cancer.

In fact, by the time her cancer is diagnosed, Prof. Bearing is as good as dead.  At stage four, the cancer is already metastasizing and her treatment will mostly benefit science rather than herself.  But in perhaps her one selfless choice, according to a script that finds its heroine mostly distasteful, Vivian signs up to undergo a rigorous eight-month treatment that doesn’t save her body, but in most ways saves her soul.

Bearing is hardly a sympathetic character.  By acquiescing to be the subject of research instead of a researcher herself, she learns that there’s more to life than finding new knowledge.  The long hospital stay that ends her life is her last lesson in how to have the relationships that she regularly denied herself, devoting her time to the obscure and difficult sonnets of John Donne instead.

Edson’s play, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, wants to have it both ways.  It indicts a medical establishment that sacrifices the humanity of its patients to its quest for their cure, but at same time indicts its patient, who’s devoted her own life to a similar kind of exacting and dehumanizing (at least in Edson’s version) research.

Chalfant played this sacrificial character with a dignity and nuance that made her a truly tragic figure.  Vivian learns too late in her life that she can relate to people instead of just teaching them, and that human feelings are more ennobled by living them than by engaging them on the page.

Publicity material of Kathleen Chalfant in the 1998 Off-Broadway production

Through direct address to the audience from her hospital bed, Vivian lays out the story of her life and her sudden illness, describing how her father rewarded her zeal for reading, and how her own intellectually significant female professor inspired her to ever better research and writing.  Her tone is mordant and a bit self-deprecating, as though she’s embarrassed to think back on her trajectory from its sorry end.

In the right hands, Vivian can be an engaging and self-aware narrator of her life’s excesses and can suggest that hers are just a different variation on those we all suffer.  But as directed for laughs by Lynne Meadow, Nixon’s Vivian is a bit strident, her humor too forced and ironic, until the morphine finally calms her down toward the play’s end.  She finds her humanity just as the medical establishment reaches the epitome of its objectification of her body.  But Vivian is such an unlikable character until then that it’s hard to see her story as anything but a joke at the expense of a smart woman who’s happily chosen to devote her life to her work, however esoteric.

Prof. Bearing's work is played as too much of a joke in this production

Nixon is a smart performer, and emotionally enough in tune with the role that she does strike nice chords of sympathy with Prof. Bearing.  And clearly the cancer narrative appeals to her.  At a moment when so many women (including Nixon, who’s a survivor) are diagnosed with breast, ovarian, and other cancers, a play that addresses their situation with the frankness of Wit is very welcome on Broadway.

It’s just too bad that Edson asks us to think only about how little agency women have in their own medical care.  That, perhaps, marks her play's age—witness the recent uproar over the lack of women testifying before Congress about their proposed legislation on women’s reproductive health, which might indicate how fed up women have become with just the kind of objectification and powerlessness that Edson’s play indicts.  But a play that also allows audiences to laugh at the righteous pursuit of a life of the mind that Vivian Bearing’s career represents compromises its otherwise feminist intent.

In this Broadway revival, Suzanne Bertish brings terrific verve to her role as Vivian’s inspiring professor.  She relishes the knowledge she imparts to her pupil, and then demonstrates utmost compassion when she finds Vivian again at the end of her life.  When she crawls into Vivian’s hospital bed to read to her former star student, the moment is wrenching, not just because all she has at hand to read aloud is a children’s book she recently shared with her grandson, but because she loves and respects Vivian for who she is.

The professor's compassion at the end bears no moral judgment, which is so palpable in the rest of the play.  She brings only a clear love and felt presence that finally ushers Vivian out of her life and into a kind of peace.

This production ends as the original did, with Vivian’s resurrection of sorts after the death that finally, supposedly, frees her from physical and spiritual pain.  Downstage right, Nixon unfolds from an embryonic ball of limbs and flesh into a triumphal, extended human “V,” naked and, I suppose, liberated.

The moment is a bit too stark for my taste and too symbolic of the empty freedom that Vivian’s release into what Donne called the “pause” that is death brings.  She holds her arms above her head in a peculiar, Pyrrhic victory.  But her naked body seems also to signal how she sacrificed her physical desire for her intellectual ambitions.  It’s the wrong kind of triumph to celebrate, and leaves the play rather hollow at the end.

Nonetheless, it’s good to see Nixon claiming Broadway real estate to perform a serious play written by a woman.  Edson never wrote another play after Wit, and still insists she has no intention of returning to the form.  She continues to teach at an elementary school in Atlanta; Wit was the one dramatic story she wanted to tell.

Given new oncology protocols, the play feels dated, though its critique of medicine’s essential inhumanity remains sadly relevant.  Its portrait of a female professor as brittle and emotionally stunted still smarts.

When do we get to see a story about a smart, talented woman intellectual who’s not punished by a fatal disease?  These stories have been tiresome since Wit was first produced in New York in the ‘90s.

I’m always glad when work by and starring talented women is visible in public forums, but how I wish we could hear stories that celebrate instead of implicitly denigrate their accomplishments, and that let them thrive instead of fade.

The Feminist Spectator

Wit, on Broadway through March 17th.