Madonna: Truth or Dare
1991 • 122 minutes • Miramax Films
Of my problematic faves, Madonna is probably one of the most high-profile. I’m not sure when I fell for Madonna. I know when I first became aware of her—the morning after the 2003 MTV Music Awards, during which she kissed both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during a performance of “Hollywood” staged as homage to her twenty year old performance of “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural MTV Music Awards. What was edgy then (well, edgy to a bus full of middle schoolers in Georgia in the early aughts) is now obvious as queerbaiting.
That’s the problem with provocation for the sake of provocation—it doesn’t age well. See how I recoiled from Madonna’s early nineties ouvre when I finally sat down and plowed through her discography a few years ago. But Madonna has never been just provocation. I enjoy her songwriting, her inventiveness, her willingness to explore, and her ability to stay relevant through sheer willpower. I like strong-minded women, who could have possibly guessed. Nonetheless, as much as I’ve been enjoying her recent work, I have been fixated of late on Madonna’s first incarnation: the club kid captured in Desperately Seeking Susan.
The Price of Gold
2014 • 78 minutes • ESPN Films
Figure skating is the only Olympic sport I’ve ever actually gotten behind, culminating in the 2010 Winter Olympics being a very strange centerpiece to my sophomore year of college. (To this day, I have a macro of a tanning bed bellowing “FEED ME EVAN LYSACEK” that makes me laugh out loud.) Of all the sports represented at the Olympics, it’s the most overtly aesthetic and artistic. It’s also one of the most aggressively coded feminine sports, alongside gymnastics.
That makes figure skating densely symbolic in ways that other sports aren’t (or are in different ways), especially in terms of gender and class. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, two Canadian commentators said that Johnny Weir should take a gender test because his skating style was so flamboyant. (They later apologized.) I remember being particularly fascinated that year with American figure skater’s Evan Lysacek’s performance of gender—a lot of the material surrounding him seemed hilariously anxious to prove his masculine bonafides, especially in counterpoint to Weir. Lysacek won gold that year, soothing American masculinity’s precious nerves.
Similarly, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding rivalry in American women’s figure skating in the early nineties was both about the two skaters and about acceptable performances of gender, class, and physical prowess. On one hand, there’s elegant, graceful, feminine Kerrigan, an ice princess of the highest order. On the other hand, there’s athletic, tomboyish, sometimes abrasive Harding, from the wrong side of the tracks. And then there’s the famous act of violence that linked them together forever and affected their lives in very different ways.
Rock She Wrote
edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers
2014 (originally published 1995) • 496 pages • Plexus Publishing
Have I ever mentioned how much I love reading women’s voices in chorus? I always love learning about women in community, especially when it involves women that the powers that be prefer to isolate, such as Jane Austen in the Western canon (did you know Jane Austen was influenced by Fanny Burney?) or Dolly Wilde as a footnote in Oscar Wilde’s history. Anthologies of women’s writing can sound a little dry, but something like Women in Clothes can be so astonishing just by the sheer variety of voices it entails. Feminine experience is multifaceted, varied—we’re so often denied this truth in even supposedly progressive media that to encounter it all at once is a choice experience.
Rock She Wrote fights back against the (white, straight) boys’ club of criticism by presenting a sample of over thirty years’ worth of writing on rock, pop, and rap. Editors Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, in the introduction, describe both the motivation for curating the collection and the treasure hunt of tracking down authors, soliciting recommendations, and hunting for lost fanzines. (As someone who dreams of discovering some secret trove of eighties Star Wars slash zines, I can relate.) And, blissfully, it’s not just a collection of straight white female authors—women of color and queer women also have their voices represented here.
Forty Million Dollar Slaves
William C. Rhoden
2006 • Crown • 304 pages
It may not come as a shock to you that I am not a sporting woman. I may enjoy sunshine and long walks nowadays (having come to terms with the fact that, in many respects, I am a glorified dog), but, in childhood, I aligned myself against organized sports after a coach mocked me for sulking behind my long hair instead of participating in fourth grade. I deeply suspect that sports is a bit like religion: it really helps if you were in the thick of it as a kid, although it’s obviously not necessary.
So, despite being a pop culture junkie who gnashed her teeth at the demise of Grantland, sports has never been a part of my life. I only understand sports through the lens of fandom (we are not so different, you and I, Cheeseheads), but even that’s through a lens dark with my culture’s toxic narratives about masculinity, violence, and race. But I had no idea how far that rabbit hole went until I came across Adrienne Elyse’s post on Feministing wondering how to square feminism and just plain ethics with sports fandom. What utility does sport serve us as a cultural practice, and why is that utility served with exploitative practices such as looking the other way when it comes to violence against women? In that post, she specifically names Forty Million Dollar Slaves as a good resource into understanding how modern American sports exploits young black athletes.
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe
2014 • 450 pages • Basic Books
Sometimes, I feel for George Lucas.
As a fan, watcher of cinema, and eighties freak, I am, of course, absolutely infuriated by Lucas’ long history of “improving” his films and refusing to release the original theatrical cuts on DVD. (I know, I know, they’re available as “special features” in one of the Special Edition’s DVD releases. But let’s be real, that feels like a slap in the face.) But I do feel for the guy. I’ve always gotten the feeling that Lucas’ career got railroaded by Star Wars in a spectacular way, a feeling that How Star Wars Conquered the Universe confirms.
It’s easy to forget that the story of Star Wars is not just a story of a film franchise and its fandom, but also the story of Lucas’ career up until the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012. But Chris Taylor’s well-balanced How Star Wars Conquered the Universe makes sure to tell all three in remarkably readable fashion. And by readable, I mean that I started tearing up a little when Taylor concludes the book by describing the only things we could know about Star Wars: The Force Awakens: the iconic introduction. Damn you, John Williams! You can get me even when I’m reading something in perfect silence!
by Amy Poehler
2014 • 329 pages • Dey St.
The best story another person tells about Amy Poehler comes from Tina Fey’s Bossypants: it’s the story where Poehler and her BFF Seth Meyers are doing a bit in the Saturday Night Live writers’ room, and Poehler does something gross as part of the bit. Jimmy Fallon complains that the bit isn’t cute, and Poehler drops the comedy to snarl, “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” before getting back to being hilarious and gross. Fey writes about this incident with a peculiar, admiring radiance, like someone writing about the origin story of a beloved superhero, and uses it to jumpstart some discussion about women in the workplace. (The moral of the story? Be more Amy Poehler. This is a very good moral.)
The best story Amy Poehler tells about herself is as follows: during the promotion blitz for Baby Mama (or as we call that movie at the Church of Bowie, Labor Day), Poehler is having lunch with a non-comedian friend. Her face is plastered across taxis and buses and buildings in New York City and her friend is absolutely amazed. He asks her if she can believe that this happening. Yes, she answers—because she’s been working for a decade to get up to that point.
by Adilifu Nama
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.
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?
Reading the Romance
by Janice Radway
1984 • 274 pages • University of North Carolina Press
In Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro’s conversation on genre, Gaiman recalls reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which Lewis points out that the only people who seem to be unduly concerned with people reading escapist literature sound a lot like jailers. Gaiman is misremembering; it’s a Lewis essay (collected in On Stories), but the anecdote is actually Tolkien’s. Accusations of escapism have plagued the speculative fiction genre since… I’m gonna go with mid-century because we’ve had speculative fiction since the dawn of time. (Of course, nowadays it’s compounded by people complaining about speculative fiction isn’t escapist enough by being remotely inclusive. To quote MD Laclan, “if you think Star Trek is apolitical, I cannot help you.”) In fact, I’m struggling through Lydia Millet’s novel Mermaids in Paradise because the main character, whom I gather I am supposed to sympathize with, finds her husband’s fantasy gaming his only major flaw and expresses disgusted bafflement at his hobby. (She gets better, right? Right?) But speculative fiction is so hot right now, with the cultural ascendency of Marvel, Comic-Con, and the like. DC Studios’ woefully grim output is desperately trying to prove a point that we all already know: sf ain’t just for nerds anymore. (Actually, the secret is that we are all nerds for something in this beautiful life. But don’t tell Sadman.)
While speculative fiction is slowly and unevenly lurching to mainstream acceptance, however, its generic sister romance remains an eternal punching bag, even in the wake of the massively popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (I always feel like I end up here, in this particular ditch, trying to defend certain parts of the Fifty Shades phenomenon while trying not to toss my cookies at its treatment of consent and implication that all kinksters are psychologically broken. Woof.) It’s a reputation the genre has suffered from ever since it coalesced into a neat marketing category, as we see in Janice Radway’s 1984 exploration of why women read romance, Reading the Romance.
Saturday Night Live: The Book
by Alison Castle
2015 • 500 pages • Taschen
Having worked in a bookstore, Taschen, the boutique art book publisher, is practically legendary. When I worked at the bookstore, we had a few stands to display art books out of their shrink wrap for customers. The James Bond Archives held court for several months, a gorgeous book so heavy I could hear its fall from clear across the building. I sometimes dawdled and flipped through it, deeply reverent of the paper’s very finish. Taschen books are often about art, but each volume is a work of art in and of itself—the codex itself as art.
So when I discovered that there was a Taschen outpost in New York, I immediately visited. (While Rory Eccleston, my erstwhile laptop, was being held hostage at the nearby Apple Store, I spent a lot of time there.) And it was everything I hoped. Even the paper bags they provide customers to tote their purchases home features art from one of their many art books.
Of course, Taschen books cost a pretty penny, although they do have an annual sale to clear out their warehouse. (Pro-tip: it’s actually better on their website than in the store.) While I always wanted a Taschen, I knew that my first Taschen would have to be worth it.
And then they announced they were doing a Saturday Night Live book for the show’s fortieth anniversary. I took one look at the book’s listing on the sight, starting tearing up because Stefon’s wedding means a lot to me okay?, and decided that it was going to be baby’s first Taschen. On my birthday, I retrieved my copy and carried it home. It took me weeks to open it, because I needed to be in the right space and have time to go over it. (It’s hardly commute reading, as you can imagine.) Which explains why I’m getting around to reviewing it now, in June.
Silver Screen Fiend
by Patton Oswalt
2015 • 240 pages • Scribner
I first heard of Silver Screen Fiend when I couldn’t get to my laptop fast enough to keep Hulu from autoplaying the next segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers at full blast at godawful in the morning. (Why was I watching Late Night with Seth Meyers clips at godawful in the morning? Hi, I’m Clare, I find Seth Meyers personally inspiring, nice to meet you.) And there was Patton Oswalt, promoting his new book and explaining that he should have known the film obsession of his youth was an addiction when he made his date walk back to her car alone at three or four in the morning.
I adored the memoir portions of Oswalt’s last book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. In that book, he absolutely nails the frustration and lack of cultural resources endemic to American suburbia in such an immediate, identifiable way. While the experimental comedy portions of Zombie Spaceship Wasteland rarely landed for me, the vocabulary he gave me that I could apply to my own suburban childhood was massively useful.
And yet, I’ve cooled on Oswalt as of late. Continue reading