January 16, 2012
I meant to write a comment on D. R. Haney’s post “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” from the day that I read it nearly three months ago. I wanted to compliment the writing. Praise the unrushed development of the ideas. Express the jealousy I felt as Duke explained what particular movies had meant to his developing sense of identity. There was no repertory theater within a hundred mile radius of where I grew up, and the flicks that hit the two screens in our small town in the 1980s were at very best of dubious merit. Never mind Shampoo and Taxi Driver. Halloween 3 would come and sit in the theater for weeks, without Halloween 1 ever having been there. Duke’s piece made me wish that hadn’t been the case, and that I had developed an interest in film, which I never really did.
Before I started hanging out at TNB, I seldom commented online, but I’ve come to believe in the comment culture here, to feel stingy if a piece lingers with me and I don’t express that. And although I remember it having been a busy day when I read “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” I still would have managed to share a few sentiments if admiration and longing had been my strongest reactions. But alongside my appreciation, I had a gripe with the essay: I did not like the way Duke spoke of Princess Leia. He mentioned her name only once, in a single sentence supporting his claim that Star Wars was steeped in simplistic nostalgia, but I knew it’d take me more than that to defend her honor and my point of view. Here’s what he had to say:
Star Wars was presexual; where its source material, the comic books and Saturday-matinee serials of the postwar era and before, featured unwittingly kinky bondage scenarios and suggestively attired women, the body of Princess Leia was covered in loose-fitting white from neck to toe, while her breasts were bound and moved, symbolically, to the mounds of hair that framed her face—look here, not there!
To which I wanted to respond: Back off my role model, horny bastard! Get your kicks somewhere else!
But that’s not the way we comment at TNB.
And besides, I was worried about seeming a dunderhead ideologue who could only respond to a rich essay with a one-note gripe.
Sure, I could have also made it clear that I have nothing against horny teenaged boys, that I really liked the way Duke situated himself and his burgeoning sexuality in analysis of film history, but rolling out a carpet of obsequiousness before a tentatively voiced concern is such a lame comment format. I’d have to construct it carefully to avoid that.
So you see, before I even wrote a word, the comment was getting too long to slip in during a hectic workday.
Although I missed the most recent golden age of filmmaking by being born what I’m guessing is just a few years after Duke, I was lucky enough to be nine years old when the first Star Wars movie was released, the perfect age at which to see it. Oh my God was I bowled over, most especially by Princess Leia. I remember my heart thumping from her first appearance. I remember the abandon and joy I felt the summer of ’77 running around the neighborhood with my pigtails wound around themselves and my light saber in my hand. I have never loved a film character more.
Did the fact that her tits were on the side of her head instead of pushed up and out of her shirt affect my reaction to Leia? Did it affect my sense of myself? Both seem possible. Likely even. It might have gained a massive number of adult viewers, as Duke points out, but Star Wars was in fact a kids’ movie. Sexing up the princess would be taking her from girls like me and giving her to the boys and men who got every other character in the movie in any case. Who got every active character in every movie, it seemed to me then, every role in the war- and cops-and-robbers games we played as kids.
There is essentially one female character in Star Wars, and she has to carry the weight of signifying sex? Because that’s what girls are good for?
Anyway, female flesh doesn’t equal real heat or depth. Although I didn’t recall that Carrie Fisher was tarted up as a sexy slave girl in The Return of the Jedi until she reappeared that way in the Star Wars sticker book my son acquired thirty years later, I saw that movie in the theater when it was released, and it let me down. And not just because I had outgrown the role-play stage. Despite the addition of cleavage and thigh in Return, there’s cultural consensus that it’s vastly inferior to the original Star Wars.
And then there’s Revenge of the Sith. I went to see it with my husband when we were visiting his parents in a Pennsylvania town even smaller than mine. The grandparents were babysitting, so yes, we were adults bloating the box office of a kids’ movie without the kids in tow, but, as in my youth, the choice was between that and something like Halloween 14. To compensate for –or celebrate—not acting our age, we smoked some pot in the near-empty strip-mall parking lot before entering the theater. This’ll be fun, I thought, as the music swelled and then quieted, and breathtaking Natalie Portman filled the screen. If I recall correctly, like Leia in the first movie, she was dressed in robes, but we could see her pregnant belly. Girlfriend had done it at least once, as I used to say to my child self about my neighbors after learning how babies were made, so in that sense she was signifying sex, or her sex, anyway, and the other thing girls are good for. She was also incredibly lame.
Look, I’ll admit it. Sometimes it gets tiring being a feminist, especially when it comes to cultural criticism. It’s not cool. People are sick of it. I get sick of seeing the world through that lens. But world, you give me little choice! Comparing the lone lady in the last Star Wars film with the original Princess Leia, the Susan Faludi-style backlash against feminism was so obvious as to be comical. At Queen Amidala’s first lines of spoof-worthy dialogue, I laughed popcorn out my nose.
In my theoretical comment to “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” which grew longer the longer I procrastinated writing it, I had more to say about Star Wars, about Natalie Portman versus Carrie Fisher, about how weird marketing is when it comes to the little kid/big kid/grown-up thing. I was going to talk about how my son came to the Star Wars franchise, and how I felt revisiting the original movie with my seven-year old beside me. “She’s so cool,” I told him when we cued up A New Hope and Leia appeared on-screen. Excited by the rare chance to connect with popular culture, to bond over it, I couldn’t shut up about the one character whose likeness I had ever begged to have on my lunchbox: “She’s so cool she’s so cool she’s so cool.” Maybe if I said it enough it would have a subliminal effect on him years later; I’d plant the inkling that the pretty sexy princess girl is not the only or best kind, that she shouldn’t necessarily be automatic girlfriend material.
Because here’s another thing I wanted to say in my theoretical comment: Are you boys even sure what you’re asking for when you’re asking George Lucas to put the x in sexy? I know that the spirit that has led me to my best libidinal adventures is more closely connected to the one that rises at the sight of Princess Leia than the one that has moved me at times to put on short, tight clothes and totter about in the hopes of attracting attention.
Well, it appears I did manage to say some of that after all, but as I’ve been mulling over Star Wars these past months, my thoughts on it have mixed with other obsessions that I’ve wanted to write about, namely, Kate Zambreno’s novel Green Girl and, more recently, the brouhaha around Marie Calloway. In my mind I’ve started essays on both those topics, but as it’s taken me this long to say: “Nice piece, Duke, except for that thing about Leia,” I think I’d better try my best to touch on all three at once. And they do relate.
Green Girl, a stunning novel about a pretty young American woman adrift in London, is reviewed well on The Nervous Breakdown and elsewhere and holds layers of interest and meaning. My conversation with myself about it has been all over the place. Here, I just want to touch briefly on the role film plays in the book and with regard to the characterization of the main character, Ruth.
From the first page, Ruth is framed in the context of film. She doesn’t fully even exist in her narrator’s mind—“She is without form, and voice, and darkness upon the face of the deep” —until a reference to captured image is found: “I look at a Diane Arbus photograph of a young Mia Farrow. Perhaps this is Ruth. My actress.” The first scene in which Ruth appears opens with the line: “The establishing shot.” The book continues, often through the use of epigraphs, to contextualize hapless Ruth within the history of beautiful women in film.
And Ruth sees herself in these terms. “Liberty is my Tiffany’s, she thinks. She had just seen the film in a matinee.” Everyone tells her she looks like Catherine Deneuve. “In fact, she has heard this so many times before that now she finds herself playing Catherine Deneuve, her impenetrability.” She gets her hair cut like Jean Seberg. She and her friends gaze at movie queens on screens for hours, and as she moves through the city she sees herself through the lens, through others’ eyes, existing only there, fed by this and hating it, the disjunction of being seen and complimented as pretty pretty pretty when she’s feeling so deeply otherwise. But that’s her role. That’s the available and desirable and limiting role. A thread in the novel is Ruth’s envisioning of her own violent demise. She sees herself as being mutilated in various ways, as pretty disposable female characters are so often in movies. One of the epigraphs:
“Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” –Alfred Hitchcock.
Ruth, like the young Duke, like so many others, imagines her life through film, takes her scripts and cues there, looks there to find herself. Despite my own general disinterest in the medium, I went to an arty college and met other arty sorts who dragged me to see all the iconic movies mentioned in Green Girl: Repulsion, Belle de Jour, Breathless, Poor Little Rich Girl. “Look at Jean Seberg,” I was instructed reverently by girlfriends and boyfriends. “Look at Edie Sedgwick.” And yes. Oh my god. They were so beautiful. They stirred many feelings, chief among them, wordless yearning. And a sort of violence. Even the creator of Ruth, the sympathetic narrator, also wants to poke her and rip her head off.
There is no quote from Princess Leia in Green Girl.
Of course there’s not. That can be read as a point. I feel a bit ridiculous to be making one from my 1986 Women’s Studies 101 class with this elegant, avant-garde novel, but, well, a good book works on many levels.
I was fascinated by the nuanced portrayal of Ruth, but she got on my nerves. How could she not? All the ways she was like me at that age. All the ways I could separate or superiorize myself from her. Her passivity. Her lack of cultural interest or awareness. Her wan friendships, worn mostly as accessories. Her masochism manifesting in dreadful boring sex. Her wanting vaguely to scream but shutting up, instead; her silent pouting and bathroom-floor breakdowns.
With Green Girl rattling in my head, I couldn’t help but compare the character of Ruth to the character of Marie Calloway. (Quick primer for those unfamiliar: Marie Calloway is the pseudonymous author as well as the first-person narrator in a story called “Adrien Brody,” which is about Marie going to New York and having an affair with a much older writer who is easily identified as a real person.) Like Ruth, Marie is a pretty young thing seeing herself through the lens, through the gaze. But unlike Ruth, she’s overt and active in that role. “I wanted to keep his attention, so I emailed him again, this time a gallery of photos a friend had taken of me in thigh-high socks,” she writes. “Can you take a picture of me with my phone?” she asks after the man ejaculates on her face. Later, she slaps him. She’s writing the story as she’s living it. Reading it, I was quite engaged. Her actions and reactions were a horror and catharsis and relief. She’s acutely culturally aware, name-dropping authors and intellectual interests and inspirations. And she’s “real.” Instead of blankly mirroring the beauties in Vogue and New Wave films, she’s intertwined in the interwebs.
There have been many criticisms leveled at the story, and the writing, and the writer. The argument by Rae Bryant on this site is among the best I’ve read from a literary standpoint. Roxane Gay’s piece HTML Giant is a thoughtful view from an ethical perspective. But I defend my own interest.
“I was hoping he would say something to the effect of how my looks made it so he was already impressed by me, which would ease the immense pressure I felt to be interesting and witty, (which is what I always hope for from men) but he didn’t,” Marie Calloway writes.
A pretty woman receives more attention in her early twenties than she will at any other time of her life. Wherever she goes, she signifies sex. Lots of people look at her. Lots of people have an opinion about whether she should be wearing more or fewer clothes. Lots of people tug their collar or lick the side of their lips or rake their eyes up and down while they talk to her, and every movie features a character like her (if only she were just a bit more perfect), so it’s easy for her to see herself in those roles. But the message is, if not exactly clear, not entirely opaque, either: She’s a fool if she mistakes interest in her sexuality with interest in herself. Her voice isn’t ready for prime time. She might write laid when it should be lay. She might misinterpret the seriousness of her own material. She might use a redundancy such as “I repeated over and over,” over and over because no one has told her yet why that’s not cool.
Coincidentally, as I was writing this post, I read in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that Carrie Fisher owns no right to her own likeness as Princess Leia. George Lucas gets a cut when she appears in my son’s Star Wars sticker book in her slave-girl bikini, but she does not.
Galaxies away from my own days of sporting lingerie as party wear, I still find myself rooting for the young woman who’s trying to analyze her situation from within the chamber of eyes and mirrors. I find myself adoring Marie Calloway. Perhaps it’s a bit vampiric, my enthusiasm for very young women who are using writing to explore their sexuality—its power, its uses, its uselessness—and perhaps it’s a bit reductively retaliatory, but there you go.
Still, we need more female characters of all types. They should get to signify all types of things. They should sometimes get to keep their baggy clothes on, if that’s what makes them most comfortable when fighting back against evil empires. (And I’m not just saying this because Duke’s piece beat out mine for best TNB post of 2011.)
This is now not only too long for a comment, it’s nearly too long for a reasonable post.
But before I finally let this go, I must sing the praises not only of analyzing from within the hall of mirrors, but of stepping outside it once in a while, of binding breasts beneath a shapeless white robe and letting symbolic ones beam from the sides of your (or your girlfriend’s) head.
Look here, not there.
Girls, young women: May the force be with you.