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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At The Movies: This Is Us (2013)

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This Is Us

★★★☆☆

2013 • 92 minutes • Columbia

I learned about Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction via Arabelle Sicardi’s Twitter feed, which, since she delivered it with images of Zayn frolicking with dogs, was one of the better ways to learn about the news.

“Oh, no,” I moaned. “This is all my fault. I start researching One Direction conspiracy theories and the whole damn thing’s gone up in flames!” (I soothed myself via Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” for the rest of the afternoon.)

A week prior, Captain Cinema and I had watched A Hard Day’s Night, finally utilizing her Hulu Plus subscription for something other than classic Saturday Night Live. A Hard Day’s Night could not be a more joyous film; energetic, wry, and just getting better with age. If you haven’t watched it or just haven’t watched it recently, please go do so at your earliest convenience. I think it must be very good luck to start off spring with a picture like that. (I’m aware that the spring solstice was in March, but, as an early Aries, I more or less believe that spring starts after I’ve gotten my tax refund, Easter candy goes on sale, and I’ve eaten my birthday cake.) It got a conversation about boy bands going, which, naturally, led to the both of us independently deciding that we should watch One Direction’s feature film debut, This Is Us. Conspiracy theory research followed.

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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: Girl Walks Into a Bar

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Girl Walks Into a Bar
by Rachel Dratch

★★★½☆

2012 • 272 pages • Gotham

Hear ye, hear ye—my Saturday Night Live fandom has only grown more passionate over the last two years. Captain Cinema and I have at last escaped Chevy Chase on our tour of the entirety of the show, I may or may not finally satisfy my morbid curiosity about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and I am starting to feel like I’m ready to crack open my pristine copy of Live From New York to read it chapter by chapter. And so begins my descent into the various literary offerings concerning Saturday Night Live and its children.

Rachel Dratch predates my Saturday Night Live cast; I began watching in 2007 (and thus will always have warm, fuzzy feelings about Casey Wilson, so, you know, Gone Girl was fun) and began watching seriously in 2010. But even though she left the show in 2006, I was always aware of her through her most famous character, Debbie Downer, the occasional E! rerun of early aughts episodes, and being regaled with several repeat performances of “Lovers” on my college trip to Ireland. Not so much through her post-Saturday Night Live work, which is a shame, since she’s a delight.

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Review: Bad Feminist

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Bad Feminist
by Roxane Gay

★★★★½

2014 • 336 pages • Harper Perennial

In Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, you will find three versions of the eponymous essay. The final product opens the collection and two of its preceding drafts close it. They’re different enough that it doesn’t feel repetitive, but bookending the entire collection with them makes perfect sense. It shows how rocky the terrain of our current culture is, humanizes the writing process (which can feel sterilized in the seemingly permanent spaces of either the Internet or print), and drives home Gay’s point: that she “would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all” (318). For Gay (and, I would hope, for us all) being a feminist is an active process.

To be a feminist in the digital age is to be easily able to find both your community and those who would stand against you—even (and perhaps especially) those who also consider themselves feminists but are not committed to the cause as to a version of it that benefits them. There’s always that moment when a new acquaintance brings up Caitlin Moran and I tense up, wondering if they, too, subscribe to the same kind of cissexist feminism that doesn’t believe in intersectionality. To quote Flavia Dzodan, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” I have, in my long time on the Internet, sought out, found, stumbled across, and otherwise just looked up to find myself in complex feminist (and if not explicitly feminist, feminist-minded) spaces that have much more to teach me than I have to teach them. Reading Bad Feminist, I was reminded of nothing more than that online feminist universe that I haunt, to the point that discovering where versions of the collected essays had been previously published in the acknowledgements read quite a bit like my Feedly.

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At The Movies: Saturday Night (2010)

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Saturday Night

★★★½☆

2010 • 90 minutes • Focus Features

Here’s the wonderful thing about nonfiction: as long as you’re interested in the subject, the piece itself doesn’t actually have to be that good. If it’s truly awful, of course, then it’s bad, but passion—from either the creator or the consumer—can elide a multitude of sins. Mark Cousins’ epic documentary The Story of Film might turn off some viewers with his voice, but I have grown incredibly fond of his soporific Irish cadence. (To the point of an impression. Ladies.) Case in point: James Franco’s Saturday Night.

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Review: Watching TV

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Watching TV
by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik

★★★½☆

2003 • 508 pages • Syracuse University Press

As I have mentioned time and again, my parents’ relative disinterest in American pop culture was one of the dominant flavors of my childhood. Attempting to piece a picture together out of the fragments that grabbed my attention yielded a particularly blinkered education, an education heavily focused in Pokémon and completely lacking anything on film, music, comedy, or television. (I mean, I did figure out that shows aired in a consistent fashion on the same channels eventually. I’m not going to tell you how old I was, but I will tell you I learned to braid hair at the age of eighteen, so that should give you some idea.) That utter lack of any context for American media from the end of World War II to roughly 1995 is something that haunts me, in a friendly fashion. Upon discovering that I was a fan (which is to say, that I am someone who thrives on a critical engagement with pop culture) during a seminal screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I vowed to correct this painful oversight. (Some might say that I am pursuing the impossible goal of American pop culture omniscience. Let’s just say that I’m a mad social scientist.)

To this end, I have curated extensive lists of movies, albums, and television shows to watch. Of the three mediums, however, I’ve found television to be harder to come to grips with. I can’t just make a list and plow through it; there’s just too much of it to do that, even if I just narrowed it down to something simple, like “NBC sitcoms.” I mean, I’ve been working on Star Trek: The Next Generation for over a year and I’m still only in season four. I may be proof that you must be taught how to marathon.

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Review: You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me

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You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me
by Nathan Rabin

★★★½☆

2013 • 272 pages • Scribner

As I’ve had the opportunity to cultivate my current lifestyle of constant media consumption (dimmed only slightly by the enjoyable necessity of full-time work), I’ve developed certain rituals about how I consume what. (I have an anxiety disorder and I was raised by ex-Catholics. It’s be expected.) I watch films in total darkness, helped by New York’s absurdly early sunset these days. Television programs can be watched in any lighting conditions, with varying attention levels based the program. (Gotham? Appointment viewing. Late Night with Seth Meyers? Keeps me from falling asleep while I do my makeup in the morning.) Even prose, which I previously prized for its ability to be consumed anywhere, now takes center stage during my commute.

However, I’ve come to realize that prose is not prose is not prose. I’ve known for a while that I consume print prose and digital prose differently, whether or not the text in question originated as print or digital. But the context of a writer’s development is also a factor. For instance, especially in light of today’s book, there’s the AV Club versus the Dissolve. The Dissolve is an unofficial offshoot of the AV Club, sprung from both a desire to focus exclusively on film and, I deeply suspect, a desire to write personally about films in a way that the AV Club’s house style for major features discourages. If something as small (if ragingly important) about what viewpoint to write from can influence a writer, then it’s easy to see how a medium can affect them. There are plenty of writers who can capably switch writing mediums without a hitch, or even just impose their voice on any form that takes their fancy.

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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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