Review: Teenage

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Teenage
by Jon Savage

★★★½☆

2008 (originally published 2007) • 576 pages • Penguin Books

I always viewed the classical teenage experience as mainstream American media sold it to me by way of Saved by the Bell reruns as pure fantasy. It probably helped that any time Madame McBride caught me watching said show, she would always pause behind me and sigh importantly that it gave my brother “unrealistic expectations about high school.” Between being an angry, nerdy preteen too dumb to realize she was queer and the old McBride gene pool being so Catholic that it just fast-forwards all inheritors through puberty in about a week, none of it seemed particularly relevant to me and my experiences. Even the mischief my alternative kid friends would get up to seemed beyond me: my fear of my mother outweighed any desire for teenage rebellion. It was always glaringly obvious to me, the tallest girl in fifth grade, that adolescence was a social construct.

Of course, understanding that a thing is socially constructed does not mean resolving it right out of existence. (Blip!) As Rebecca Jordan-Young reminds us (while clearing up some misconceptions about gender theory), things that are socially constructed are nonetheless real. We simply have more access and agency in their construction than most social forces would like you to think. For instance, the English language is socially constructed out of historical encounters between several cultures. The English language is very, very real. But its invention and construction is obvious enough that I can yell a lot about how it is absurd that appellation is a word in English but the verb from whence it is derived is not.

So—the teenager, as we all know from the special edition DVD of Back to the Future, was invented in the 1950s for marketing purposes. But that’s only the label for a phenomenon that had always been with the human species.

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Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty

★★★½☆

2014 • 272 pages • W. W. Norton & Company

My entire life, I’ve had what I called “death scares”—existential panic attacks brought on by obsessively thinking about death. (Much like being queer, being what I believe is technically referred to as hellaciously anxious was blindingly obvious to everyone but me throughout my childhood.) I have a very specific memory of having one at the age of twelve, standing in the doorway of my childhood bedroom, staring out into the dark hallway, frozen in fear by the idea that it could all end. As an adult who enjoys her life, they’ve slowed down to maybe two a year (I suspect they’re much more about “WHAT IF I’M WASTING MY LIFE?!” rather than fearing the biological process of death), more if I read too many Cracked articles about unsolved murders.

(By the by, have you ever heard of the 1920s Hinterkaifeck murders? The murderer was probably living in their attic before the murders and definitely living in their house after the murders. Look, if I can’t sleep, you can’t sleep.)

When my anxiety is not in the driver’s seat, though, I have a more holistic approach towards death; after all, contemplating the ramifications of actually living forever renders me near catatonic. Death gives life meaning, to be trite (and quote Hannibal Lecter, that great humanitarian). My mother and I have had long conversations, her enthroned on the structurally compromised orange leather couch that dominates her living room and me lolling on the floor with the dog, about how it’s nothing to be scared of, because it’s a natural part of life and there’s nothing we can do about it. Fear isn’t useful when it comes to death.

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Review: Black Space

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Black Space
by Adilifu Nama

★★★★½

2008 • 200 pages • University of Texas Press

As happy as I am that Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems to be committed to a diverse universe (there’s nary a white dude in the main trio!), I am still infuriated that the production cast Lupita Nyong’o, widely considered an astonishing force of style and beauty (as well as the baby Dazzler of my heart), and covered her up with CGI. And not to play a truly inhuman character who could only be executed with CGI (you can literally do anything; I was campaigning for a sentient black hole), but to play… a humanoid character whose most alien features are a lack of a nose and a long neck.

Ughck.

Covering up actors of color with prosthetics and CGI is, sadly, a trend in speculative fiction films, despite the fact that speculative fiction is an inherently progressive genre. Even my beloved The Lord of the Rings features nearly all of its Maori actors as orcs and Witch Kings. Thor: The Dark World cast Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Algrim the Strong, a dark elf who then goes on to be transformed into Kurse. Even Zoe Saldana, the inheritor of Uhura, one of the most groundbreaking roles in sf television, gets painted green in Guardians of the Galaxy. There is progress—we will soon see Luke Cage and Black Panther join Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—but the conflation of aliens and people of color remains a troubling trend in sf cinema.

Individually, of course, there are always reasons for these choices. I imagine Nyong’o accepted the role because doing motion capture is an exciting and very different way of acting, on top of getting to be in Star Wars. As a white woman who benefits from racial privilege,it’s not my place to speak to that. But I can highlight the larger pattern of seeing, time after time, actors of color asked to play outrageous and othered creatures and ask: why?

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Review: Women in Clothes

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Women in Clothes
edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton

★★★★★

2014 • 528 pages • Blue Rider Press

I’ve started wearing blue lipstick recently. I’ve also started wearing purple lipstick—true, dark, royal purple, not berry or mauve—but they both get the kind of attention I want. With the warm tones in my face neutralized by how dark and cold they are, I look… different. Women are usually pleasantly baffled by it; men are repelled. Cute shop girls ask me where I get it. I leave fantastical, cosmic lip marks on coffee cups and apples. I actually had a teenage girl timidly touch me on the shoulder at a museum exhibit to compliment me on it, staring at my mouth like she’d simply never conceived of the idea before and found something inspiring about it.

What those lipsticks give me is something incredibly rare: power over the way other people see me. As a femme queer, I have so been long resigned to being visually misread that I’ve reached the point of just not caring and doing whatever I want, since people usually just begin and end with my hair anyway. Stumbling across something that disrupts what I had previously believed to be something completely static feels like finding a magic wand.

The decisions we make about what we wear, no matter how conscious or conscious, speak to how we interact with both the outside world and our inner world. Women in Clothes, a massive project undertaken by editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, explores those decisions by asking over six hundred women (and a few male transvestites) what their clothes mean to them. Largely, they used a survey (which you can look at here), but there are also interviews, diagrams drawn by women about their bodies, maps of the discarded clothes left on the floor, and collections of similar clothing owned by one person, just to name a few.

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Review: The Genius of the System

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The Genius of the System
by Thomas Schatz

★★★☆☆

1996, originally published 1989 • 493 pages • Henry Holt and Company

Despite living a stone’s throw away from Atlanta (assuming that you can throw a stone with enough force to make it fly through the air for an hour) as a kiddo, my family never really cranked up the old Turner Classic Movies—or any classic Hollywood movies, really. My mother’s cinematic tastes run towards British film, my father’s cinematic tastes run towards near-future sci-fi, and all their nostalgic childhood movies are French. Which sometimes makes me wonder why I’m so fascinated with Anne Helen Petersen’s pieces on Old Hollywood when I have no context or nostalgia for them. (I’m not a Only Lovers Left Alive-esque immortal pop culture junkie, although I pretend to be sometimes.)

But I think that total unfamiliarity might actually be why it fascinates me. To me, Classic Hollywood feels like a monolith that has always been there. A lot of the world feels like that, sometimes, because I rarely interact with it, don’t have context for it, or whatever. But, as Captain Cinema often reminds me, everything was weird once. The studio system that once dominated all of American cinema no longer exists, shattered into a thousand pieces by the Red Scare, the coming of television, and creative types chafing under the seemingly oppressive regime of the major studios—a designation Thomas Schatz bestows upon Universal, MGM, Warner Brothers, and David O. Selznick’s various independent companies in his portrait of the Hollywood studio system of the early twentieth century, The Genius of the System. This obviously excludes 21st Century Fox, among others, but Schatz points out in his introduction that he had to draw the line somewhere or get bogged down in minutiae when the bigger picture is his entire point.

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Review: Candy

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Candy
by Samira Kawash

★★★★☆

2013 • 416 pages • Faber & Faber

“Do you have an opaque bag?” I asked the Best Buy employee. “It’s a gift for my dad and I don’t want him to see what it is,” I completely lied, and she handed one over. I immediately stowed my true prize inside—an economy pack of Juicy Fruit gum.

I hid it in my nightstand drawer, alongside my copies of Princess Princess. I had two pieces a day, the better to draw it out. It satisfied both my sweet tooth and my constant, anxious fidget, so I could stop picking at my nail beds or sucking on my teeth and gums. I chewed and chewed until I was left with a flavorless, stiff putty. It was a marvelous week, until I came home from school to find my mother ominously still at the threshold of my bedroom.

It was as if Madame had caught me with a stash of hash. It was immediately confiscated, of course, and a sharp eye was kept on my gum consumption. Later, she began to soften, but I still spent many trips to the grocery store reading ingredients off of gum wrappers to her to make sure they weren’t going to give us cancer. Candy always came into my childhood home with suspicion. (Whereas chocolate was only ever suspect for being milk or, worse, white. Blurgh.)

Samira Kawash opens Candy with a similar story: at a playdate between her son and a friend, another parent implied that she was poisoning her child with a handful of jelly beans. The idea that a little candy—a little kid’s fistful of jelly beans!—could ruin her son’s life sat with Kawash, until she became the Candy Professor and started looking into both the history of candy in America and the history of Americans’ relationship with candy.

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Review: Egyptomania

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Egyptomania
by Bob Brier

★½☆☆☆

2013 • 256 pages • Palgrave Macmillan Trade

Captain Cinema and I have reacted to the advertising campaign for Exodus: If You’re From Ancient Egypt, Why Are You White? the same way—pure physical repulsion. (I am very good at scoffing. I’m French; it’s practically a superpower.) A sick, tired, rainy day couldn’t stop me from scrambling off the couch and refusing to watch an ad for it during a therapeutic episode of classic Saturday Night Live; even the arduous physical task of sitting through Interstellar (I mean, I enjoyed the film, I just have trouble sitting down for long stretches of time) couldn’t keep us from fleeing a poster of the damn thing at the movie theater.

It boggles the mind that such a film could not only be made in 2014, but also be so vehemently defended by its creative team. Ridley Scott offered a casually racist explanation for why he, one of the most powerful directors in the industry, could not be bothered to seek Egyptians to play Egyptians, Rupert Murdoch rolled his eyes on Twitter about people not realizing that sometimes white people are Egyptian too (which is technically correct but beyond missing the point), and Christian Bale complained that the color of his skin shouldn’t keep him from playing Moses. It’s such an astonishing display of the kind of entitlement that so many white people in the West bring to the table regarding ancient Egypt despite all basic logic. As a little kid, I was fascinated by ancient Egypt, but as an adult, I’m equally fascinated (and repulsed) by the imperialist and colonial overtones of early Egyptology.

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Review: New York Diaries

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New York Diaries
edited by Teresa Carpenter

★★★★½

2012 • 512 pages • Modern Library

I hate traveling.

While my family, a French-American trio of inveterate wanderers, often and loudly protest that it is genetically impossible for me to be so, it’s true. A substantial part of it is because of the usual complaints about travel—airports stress me out, packing is a nightmare for a femme with size eleven shoes, sleeping in strange beds inevitably hurts my back—but a large part of it is simply being away from my orderly life. I have been told time again (and again and again) that this is the point of traveling: to get away from it all, or, as my father says, changer les idées. But I don’t have an all I want to get away from. And in any case, I completely lack the personal virtues and faculties to engage meaningfully with a specific place in the space of a handful of days.

So I hate traveling. But I love living places. Even during my year in Denver, a city that is decidedly not for me, I enjoyed the slow burn of getting to know it through its neighborhoods, farmers’ markets, seasons, used bookstores, public transit, cold nights, hot nights, roads, sprawling wide open spaces, libraries, my first Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, mountains, and grocery stores (oh, why did I ever complain about the price of Greek yogurt at Safeway? I never had it so good!)—in short, the accumulation of experience that can only come with staying put. When I finally, finally, made the long awaited move to New York, I told Madame McBride two things. First, that when I got there, I was never going to leave. (This has since expanded to a predication of my peaceful death at the age of eighty on the island of Manhattan, after which I will buried like the Vikings of old, complete with funeral pyre, and leave my bafflingly considerable fortune to a pack of exceedingly smug terriers.) And secondly, that I was going to build my life there (here! Oh, how wonderful!) in a such a way that, a decade from now, I will be made up entirely of those little, daily experiences, the same way mountains are made up of rocks.

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Review: The Ten-Cent Plague

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The Ten-Cent Plague
by David Hajdu

★★★½☆

2008 • 448 pages • Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I hate it when mediums and genres are conflated. It smacks of intellectual laziness to me to insist that cartoons are inherently for children, or, in an example more pertinent to today’s book, that comic books are synonymous with superhero comics. Percentage wise, that audience and that genre, respectively, dominate each medium, but they are not inherently better suited to that thing than any other medium. With the cultural ascendency of Marvel and (in my anecdotal experience) an increased interest in comics in general, it’s important to remember the medium’s roots—and the controversy it once engendered.

David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague starts at the dawn of comic books—which starts, naturally, with comic strips in newspapers—and follows the medium through a turbulent period in American history, when comic books were blamed for the supposed onslaught of juvenile delinquency, comic book burnings actually happened (barely a decade or two after World War II!), and comic book publishers were seen as unsavory at best and demonic at worst. And this is all long before Spider-Man took Marvel to the top in the sixties.

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Review: Scandals of Classic Hollywood

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Scandals of Classic Hollywood
by Anne Helen Petersen

★★★★★

2014 • 304 pages • Plume

I am more than tempted to launch into a modified rendition of one of Mean Girls’ most memetic quotes (“Anne Helen Petersen… how do I begin to explain Anne Helen Petersen?”), but it will suffice it to say that Petersen is one of my favorite writers in my field of dreams, media studies. While I focus more on fandom and Petersen literally has a PhD in celebrity gossip, we’re ultimately trying to answer the same questions—what are people getting out of the narratives that they consume and what does that say about our culture at large? Or, in Petersen’s words:

I think that at any point celebrities are indicative of what matters to us at a certain moment. The images are always either acting out or trying to shore up ideologies under threat. You can look at our stars and see the things we’re trying to, as a society, figure out, in terms of femininity and masculinity and race performance and sexuality. The way we talk about celebrities is so illuminating.

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