Masculinity in crisis: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Trigger warning: this essay has mentions of suicide, self-harm, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

From the cultural grapevine, I came to be aware of The Catcher in the Rye as both a young man’s coming-of-age-story and, through fraught and bitchy Twitter threads, that liking this novel, in particular men liking this novel, was a hallmark of being a ‘nice guy’ or possessing generally bad literary taste. I don’t take my cues from what my fellow literature graduates lounging about on Twitter say is good or worth reading, but I can honestly say that I did avoid The Catcher in the Rye until recently. I am a big fan of American Literature and writers: Maya Angelou, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Maggie Nelson, Nathaniel Hawthorne are big favourites,  and the length of Salinger’s novel is hardly anything to get stressed about. Yet, the novel does carry somewhat of a baggy reputation for centring on a privileged young man getting into scrapes in New York and being generally ‘rebellious’. Like Jessie Thompson, in an essay for Penguin, it didn’t necessarily feel like a priority for me to read it.[1] That was, until, my boyfriend told me it was one of his favourite books. In fact, the first time I had a conversation about The Catcher in the Rye was with a friend at university; he said that it was the sort of writing that made him want to write. How could it be that two men I knew well, trusted their opinions, could like a novel that was elsewhere reviled and pointed to poor cultural taste?

At the beginning of the summer, I read the novel for the first time. What I found was sardonically funny, obviously full of angst, but also a profoundly moving piece of writing. I read the story of a young man who feels at odds with the world around him, who sees education as pointless in a world of privilege and bullshit; who suffers from intense self-hatred, and finds his only solace in the company of his sister and some nuns. Although Salinger has Holden Caulfield compare himself, through negation, to David Copperfield, the nineteenth century figure he reads most as an iteration of, I would argue, is Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Of course, the plots of these novels are very different, but the same disillusionment seeps through both. Where, however, Raskolnikov fashions his antipathy, anger and resentment into murder, Caulfield directs his inward; as much as he hates the world and the people in it, famously using the moniker ‘phonies’ to describe people throughout the novel, he struggles with himself the most. So much so, he tends towards self-harm: having obsessive thoughts about being shot (‘what I’d do, I’d walk down a few floors- holding onto my guts, blood leaking all over the place’), purposefully winding people up so that they’ll hurt him (the fight with Stradlater on p.39 sees Caulfield provoke a violent response for two pages), and wandering around Central Park in the freezing cold having wet his head, thinking about his dead brother Allie, ‘pneumonia and dying’.[2]

Not only did this novel move me, but it became obvious that reading it was vital. I have long joked about ‘masculinity in crisis’ when I see or experience sexist behaviour, and I think it is as important to laugh at the likes of Donald Trump as much as to resist and protest him, his disgusting ideologies and all that he represents, with anger and derision. However, it is important that we do have serious, constructive conversations about masculinity and what it means to be an emotionally healthy man. In The Catcher in the Rye Caulfield is explicit about his depression, stating that ‘what I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window’. It could not be clearer that Caulfield does not see his life as worth living. Furthermore, towards the end of the novel, after hastily leaving his old teacher Mr Antolini’s apartment after an incident verging on sexual harassment, Caulfield reveals that ‘when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it’.[3] It is heavily suggested here that he has suffered sexual abuse and harassment as a child which, along with the trauma of losing his brother and seeing a fellow student kill himself, serves as an understandable and very deep root for his depression and disaffection. This novel is not the ramblings and larking about of a ‘rebellious’ teenager, even though it is at points dry and funny; it is about a young man struggling to cope with a plethora of horrifying events. It surprises me that the novel has been, by certain factions, culturally maligned; almost in tandem with the way in which men’s mental health has been diverted from and underplayed since time immemorial.

And yet, what is so beautiful about The Catcher in the Rye is that in spite of Caulfield’s trauma and his anger with his peers and the adults in his life, he evidently cares a great deal about his sister, Phoebe, and children in general. Phoebe is integral to Caulfield’s happiness, and he finds support and comfort in her: ‘Old Phoebe didn’t say anything, but she was listening. She always listens when you tell her something’.[4] Phoebe is presented as an old soul in spite of her youth, who will give him the space and time to talk and be heard. He refers to her repeatedly throughout the novel, even buying a record for her pre-emptively, before accidentally breaking it. He tells her that the only thing he ‘wants to be’ in life, is stood at the edge of a cliff:

‘What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day’.[5]

Caulfield effectively tells Phoebe that he wants to act as some kind of protector or safety net, preventing children from falling to their deaths whilst they are running around and having fun. In spite of all of the pain he carries around with him, Caulfield is ultimately someone who wants to help, who wants to be of service to others, in particular those who are young, innocent and temporarily free from the trappings and traumas of adulthood. It is a really noble aspiration. This cements the idea, for me, that this is a novel about a young man having serious difficulties orientating himself in a world that has made him suffer, full of people who do not acknowledge his and, most likely, their own pain.

*

When I first planned to write about The Catcher in the Rye, I thought a worthwhile comparison could be made with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel with a challenging and dark insight into depression, trauma and recovery in a young woman. This novel shook me, scared me and deeply connected with me when I first read it in 2014. I think it is important that if we take the representation of mental illness seriously in The Bell Jar, the same gravity should be extended to The Catcher in the Rye; it should not be undermined because it focuses on the suffering a young, white man. When we are living in the middle of an epidemic of young men taking their lives, understanding the root cause of such terrible pain is essential.[6] As such, I am reluctant to draw the two into such a completely direct conversation here, because I do not think it is wise to compare and contrast the experiences of mental illness between men and women in the space of a blog post. The roots of both, I believe, lie, to an extent, in the way in which patriarchy and capitalism prioritise a rampant toxic hyper-masculinity that leaves no place for the more traditionally feminine realm of feelings and emotions. Compounded with trauma, loss and the myriads of emotional pain that a human being is able to experience, depression and anxiety abound. Of course, men and women experience all of this in different ways, and it is important to remember and honour that distinction. Luckily, something else came along only this week that offers a much keener opportunity for comparison of masculinity, whilst also, clearly acknowledging Plath and the experience of women.

NFR

On 30th August 2019, Lana Del Rey released her sixth studio album Norman Fucking Rockwell! It is brilliant in so many ways and whilst I’ve loved all of her work, her interplay of satire and authenticity in this album is at its most sophisticated. Upon listening to it, I noticed that the people and relationships she discussed were separated and mingling between several positions. We had Del Rey’s typical ‘golden bad boy’ and ‘a sad girl in a mess in a party dress’ dynamic; we also have a withering partner who half-lovingly mocks her ‘man-child’ partner who indulges and wallows in his own misery, blaming his bad poetry ‘on the news’.  But we also saw something more obviously serious. We have repeated references to a man struggling with his wellbeing and sense of self in ‘California’, a man who pretends to be stronger than he is, who wishes he was ‘doing better’. In the same breath Del Rey presents a woman who is a fixed point of strength and comfort, telling him ‘And honey, you don’t ever have to act cooler than you think you should / You’re brighter than the brightest stars’. She acknowledges the pressure that this man is under to appear and conduct himself in a certain way in the world, in particular as a strong, cool man who has no insecurities or worries. She is there to tell him, from a position of acceptance, that he is OK, just as he is.

Del Rey expands on this further, and gloriously, in ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’. She tells her partner ‘You lose your way, just take my hand / You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again / Don’t look too far, just where you are, that’s where I am / I’m your man’. This is such an important, playful line because she holds the position of a healthy, anchored woman in this relationship, and yet refers to herself as ‘your man’. It harks to the Leonard Cohen song ‘I’m Your Man’, where Cohen unpicks what it means to be a man in a romantic relationship, by effectively declaring to his partner that he’ll be anything she wants him to be: ‘If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man’. Of course, in a healthy relationship, such a degree of self-effacement is problematic, but Cohen’s play with what it means to be a man is nevertheless important. What both singers suggest is that what it means to be a healthy man is a lot more fluid, and maybe, perhaps, feminine, than a dominant patriarchal culture suggests. By feminine, I don’t mean necessarily a defined gender category, but something more archetypal: that which is nurturing, loving and spacious; as opposed to the masculine that is determined by boundaries, order and discipline. All of which, I might add, are absolutely fine and necessary. However, when what is masculine is privileged and prioritised culturally and societally, these morph into authoritarianism, perfectionism and aggression and their offsets: disdain for emotion of any kind, depression, isolation and alienation. In Norman Fucking Rockwell! Del Rey suggests that the conception of hyper-masculinity that her lovers struggle with can be deconstructed; similarly, she presents herself, in these songs at least, as an embodiment of both masculine and feminine, yin and yang; a grounded, integrated woman in a position to offer support, understanding, protection, love and hope. Again, I want to emphasise that this is not a limiting conception of what it means to be a woman or a man, but are archetypal facets that exist in and embody all human beings, no matter which gender you identify with.

As such, we can see that it is, perhaps, not an accident that Holden Caulfield turns to the comfort of his sister and some nuns during his deepening existential break down. As esteemed Jungian psychotherapist Marion Woodman suggests, over centuries we have culturally disavowed, repressed and persecuted the feminine; and yet, the feminine is what we need and yearn for to bring balance to the patriarchal shit show that continues to cause such violence and misery. It was so in the 1940s of The Catcher in the Rye as it is today, as explored in Norman Fucking Rockwell!. After meeting the nuns and giving them money, Caulfield says:

‘I couldn’t stop thinking about those two nuns. I kept thinking about that beat-up old straw basket they went around with when they weren’t teaching at school […] that’s what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway’.[7]

He compares the nuns with other women he knows, his mother and his friend’s mother, who would not get involved with any charity work akin to the nuns’ collecting, if it meant standing out in the cold, being bored or not getting any recognition for giving up their time (or, as Caulfield describes it, ‘the only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass’). I would argue that Caulfield feels sad because the nuns, their charity, their kindness to him and their interest in literature (all displayed in the previous chapter) are marginalised and excluded from ‘swankiness’; the trappings of patriarchal capitalist society, with its expensive restaurants, and its hierarchies predicated on wealth and social class. Furthermore, on a deeper level here, I think he mourns the superficial incarnation of femininity in women that props up the hyper-masculine status quo that being ‘swanky’ represents. He feels sad that the simplicity, honesty and good faith of the nuns is not rewarded or as valuable as status.

Of course, Del Rey’s conversation about masculinity and femininity does not end with ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’: she pertinently turns her attention to the specific suffering and demons that women carry with them. In the album’s last searing and deceptively simple waltz ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’, she references The Bell Jar writer by name, as she has been ‘ tearing around in my fucking night gown /  24/7 Sylvia Plath’. Like The Bell Jar, which is full of the vague promises offered by fashion magazines, internships, graduate school and ski trips (the ‘swanky’ mentioned in The Catch in the Rye), in this song Del Rey references the vacuous but toxic draw of superficial perfection: the world of debutantes, pink dresses, bright smiles, yachts and all. She does not find belonging in that world, instead finding home on the stage. And yet, she softly sings that she is ‘A modern day woman with a weak constitution, ’cause I’ve got / Monsters still under my bed that I could never fight off /A gatekeeper carelessly dropping the keys on my nights off’. This suggests that in spite of the work she has done to represent everything that a modern woman should- success, renown, independence, sexual freedom and financial stability- she is still plagued late at night or when she feels emotionally and spiritually weak by the monsters under her bed. The insecurities, fears, shadows and darknesses of psyche that, to an extent, we can never fully get rid of. The song is a defiant ode to the womanhood that is so rejected in patriarchal culture, but also a tentative and terrified look into the malevolent eyes of the difficulties, restrictions and fears women live with and have learnt to internalise.

I believe that The Catcher in the Rye and Norman Fucking Rockwell! speak to each other well on this important issue of masculinity and male pain. I consider the two to be allies in this regard. I think it is important that both texts highlight the potential of the feminine to relieve suffering: if men and women are going to be free from both subtle and overtly blatant violence and injustices of patriarchy, a re-examination of what it is to be a man is essential, which involves re-integration of the much maligned feminine (think about every single time a boy has been told not do x ‘like a girl’). I think a cultural re-reading of The Catcher in the Rye would be extremely useful, so that we can collectively learn not to minimise men’s pain, reducing it to ‘rebelliousness’ or simply angst. Furthermore, I think it is important that Del Rey has made the effort to distinguish clearly between the different types of male and female pain, whilst presenting so many positions and perspectives on her album. She has been careful to not pit men and women against one another, weighing one type of pain or suffering as more important, which I think is a very mature and brilliantly-handled.

 

[1] https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2019/jun/i-thought-catcher-in-the-rye-was-just-for-obnoxious-teenage-boys.html

[2]The Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger, (London: Penguin, (1958) p.93; p.140

[3] Ibid., p.174.

[4] Ibid., p.151.

[5] Ibid., p.156.

[6] ‘Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male’ https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/suicide/ [accessed 4th September 2019].

[7] Ibid, p.103.

First Response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 2/2

Part Two: Tarantino’s representation of women

To continue my exploration of expectation in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, (my critique of the ranch scene can be found here) I would like to discuss an aspect of the film that received a lot of traction in the run-up to its release and occupied commentators afterwards.

During the film’s promotional tour at Cannes Film Festival, a clip from Once Upon a Time’s press conference went semi-viral. It featured a journalist asking Quentin Tarantino about Margot Robbie, having been in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and I, Tonya being given few lines as Sharon Tate in this film. The clip can be seen here. Tarantino unequivocally ‘rejects [the] hypothesis’ and Robbie answered that she ‘appreciated the exercise’ of using alone-time on screen to construct a character as opposed to being presented always in relation to or through interaction with others. This did little to convince some commentators upon the film’s release, including Clémence Michallon at the Independent, who concluded that Tarantino’s lack of dialogue for Robbie was indicative of Tarantino’s male gaze subsuming everything, which was both ‘insulting’ and ‘boring’.[1]

This has been a sticky issue in my thinking about the film. I am, as many of you aware, a big advocate for women being given nuanced, interesting characters in film. Having said that, I am not a strict disciple of the Bechdel Test, whilst I appreciate its importance as a basic bar for storytelling and representation on-screen.[2] (For the record: this film does pass the test). I really enjoyed Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, but it’s true that Robbie does not say much and this is slightly uncomfortable: Sharon Tate does little more than put music on, drive around in a delightful Porsche and dance about. I can absolutely appreciate the criticism; however, I think this is, ultimately, a simplistic argument, given the self-reflection at work in the film and because of the way in which Tarantino uses the film and its setting to play with history and expectation.

Similarly, I think it is important to highlight that having dialogue in a film does not necessarily save women from poor representation (see my footnote on the Bechdel test). The journalist at Cannes suggested The Wolf of Wall Street as a film where Robbie was given plenty of dialogue to work with, and yet Martin Scorsese’s representation of her was sexualised beyond belief. Robbie was front and centre of Suicide Squad as Harley Quinn, and yet here too she was hyper-sexualised and Zac Snyder gave her little to work with beyond that. Michallon at the Independent makes the case that in Once Upon a Time, Tarantino uses Robbie as Sharon Tate to convey a deified form of femininity: ‘a luminous, kind, generous angel of a woman whose heart seems wide open to the world. It’s a flattering depiction, for sure, but it’s also terribly reductive […] a lifeless, perpetually cheerful doll’. I would argue, in the first instance, that the fact that we see these former attributes as reductions is a damning indictment both of the nastiness we tolerate in society and the way in which we accept being open-hearted and kind as completely unrealistic. Sharon Tate was described with reverence by the likes of Mia Farrow and was famed for her generosity and kindness, there is no reason why this should not be significant in Tarantino’s representation of her here. Secondly, I would like to argue that through the film’s use of history as a fluid play-thing, Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate were not reduced within the narrative of the film, and that in more ways than focusing on one female character, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood waves in an empowered cohort of women and womanhood.

One of the most important parts of Michallon’s argument is that Tate does not experience any kind of personal growth and that ‘watching people just live is boring’. Of course, this is an extremely personal assessment: I happen to be an enormous fan of films where not a lot happens and what we are offered is an in-depth character study. What is so ironic about this claim, however, is that in real life, we cannot watch Sharon Tate live and we haven’t been able to since 1969. This is singularly important in the film. We might complain that not a lot happens because she spends a day on her own and she doesn’t talk to anyone, but there is some joy in watching a woman on a solo trip to the cinema (an exercise I would recommend all women indulge in/challenge themselves to at one point or another), enjoying time with her friends, dancing and having fun and preparing for motherhood when we know in real life that Tate was robbed of the chance of being able to do this. Furthermore, we are offered nuance in the dialogue-less-ness: in her interaction with a female hitchhiker, Tate drops off the woman, wishes her all the best on her ‘adventure’, thus suggesting that she spent the majority of the journey listening to someone else’s story; we are offered actual footage of Sharon Tate in the cinema that Robbie’s Tate watches, forming homage, an opportunity for self-reflection and, for us, a melancholy funhouse mirror of reality. It is an echo of the fact that this film plays with history, something that will be completely apparent by the end of the film.  Alternatively, although Tate is depicted as loving and loveable, the interpretation can be made that she displays smugness, vanity and happy-go-lucky privilege in her life as a white, blonde, beautiful woman; a kind of flip-side to the open-heartedness and generosity that some find so problematic. One way in which I think the film could have been improved is if Tate had had some kind of hand in killing the hippies in a badass, heavily pregnant way. And yet, just maybe, the best thing to do for a character who in life was a victim to such appalling violence, was to keep her removed from it.

pregnant

This is where bittersweetness seeps into the film: we know that in real life, she does not survive that night in 1969, and neither do her friends. When she offers Rick Dalton the opportunity to come into her house after the pool party of hippy carnage and the end titles begin to materialise on-screen, we know that we have reached the fairytale territory that only Hollywood can give us.[3] Primarily, it is Tate in the position of power: she is the one who could be a useful contact for Dalton, who spends most of the film choked up and flailing about, and not the other way round. She is the valuable, influential and powerful contact to have in the industry, not the male television star.  Additionally,  and similarly to seminal Tarantino revenge film Inglourious Basterds, which re-writes the history of the Second World War with Hitler and his cronies getting an epically fiery bloody death at the hands of escaped Jew Shosanna, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood we are offered an alternative reality where Charles Manson’s blood-thirsty hippies don’t butcher Sharon Tate,  but get their comeuppance at the hands of Brad Pitt and a cute dog, and Sharon Tate herself is in a position to offer help and support to Rick Dalton in the loving and kind way that we have come to expect from her. Tarantino offers us a moment where history was very different: where bad guys are punished, the good survive and everything should have been OK.

And yet, despite the satisfying end that is put to the hippies, the heroics of Cliff Booth and his dog and the hilarity of the flame-thrower in the garden shed, the ending here is poignant and sad, as opposed to the jubilation and bad-assery of Inglourious Basterds . The camera lingers on Tate, Dalton and Tate’s friends from afar, as they introduce themselves and discuss the attack. Their conversation is barely audible, and the camera stays put, almost from a high CCTV angle, as they slowly follow one another into Tate’s house. A lot of space is created between the actors and the camera and, ergo, the audience watching. It enables us to sit within this strange liminal space where we can enjoy and revel in what we have just witnessed; but the distance cultivates a sense of knowing; a knowing that this did not happen. Tarantino wrote that Sharon Tate stayed alive and continued to live her beautiful life, but we know that she didn’t, murdered as she was in the most horrifying and violent way. Pertinently, the camera then stays on Tate’s Porsche and the other cars they have in the driveway, using the visual metaphors to reflect the power of the Hollywood machine to re-write and re-create things as we want them to be. Hollywood is itself a vehicle for change, for creativity and for embracing life over destruction; or, at the very least, offering the façade of that. It has a twofold power to reflect change and to exact change; to re-write history but also to ensure that the future is safeguarded. Ultimately, in this case, Sharon Tate can only stay alive in the movies.

Hollywood’s role in the film is developed and explored in numerous parts of the film, in particular with regard to the representation and role of women. Importantly, and as mentioned in my critique of the ranch scene, Cliff Booth does not have sex with Pussycat, the underage hitchhiking hippy with impressive underarm hair, in his car. This is not what she expects or, perhaps, what the audience may expect, particularly as this is a dynamic that has pervaded the film industry for as long as Hollywood has been functioning. Harvey Weinstein was a producer and collaborator with Tarantino for every single film he has written and directed, so the significance of this scene cannot be overstated.

Trudi

Similarly, one of the shining stars of the film comes in the form of Trudi, played by the delightful Julia Butters. At only 8 years old, Trudi almost steals the film and her character is one of the standouts amongst a cast of standout performances. Her endearing and academic approach to the craft of acting is refreshing, powerful and leaves Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton’s a gibbering, insecure wreck. Indeed, his entire self-worth on the set of the Western they are shooting together boils down to what Trudi thinks of his performance and his ability to achieve the performance, in particular through knowing his lines. In the scene where he gives himself a rollicking in his trailer, he mentions Trudi, berating himself to not show himself up in front of her. She, because of her commitment to her work, her ability to interpret and understand story, her thorough approach to research and her interest in the wider industry, is made out to be a force to be reckoned with. As with the subversive ranch scene, where Tarantino constructs the difference between psycho-killer hippies and the misunderstood, kooky youth, and thereby critiquing snowflakism, in Trudi we see the highest hope for future generations in film and beyond: doing their research, speaking their minds and not limiting themselves to who they think they should be. At the end of a long scene they shoot together, Trudi, who we know at this point Dalton completely respects and admires, tells him that he just put in the best acting performance she has ever seen, and Dalton immediately chokes up. His belief in himself completely stems from the way in which he is perceived by this precocious, wise and talented young girl and he can barely contain his emotion at having shone in her eyes.

As such, I believe that the argument that women are reduced in this film is not a very convincing one. Sharon Tate does not speak much in the film, it is true; but her role in the film, sensitively portrayed with the respect of Tate’s family in mind as much as for Tate herself, is to celebrate life and the power we have to construct our own narratives. If she had been killed at the end, then she would truly have served as a lifeless doll; but she lives, and she is glorious. She is not part of the overall plot because the plot is about two menopausal men trying to stay relevant. Robbie’s Tate does not have that concern and has ample time to while away the time, with added luxury of being on her own, both during the film and, thanks to the film’s revision of history, we can assume after the credits have rolled. To compound this, we have Trudi, a bright spark for the future who has plenty to teach the struggling Rick Dalton; and a man in Cliff Booth who respects the boundaries of power, age and experience by not taking advantage of a young girl. Tarantino has never shied away from giving audiences strong female characters, but in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood he provides a much more subtle offering, playing with our expectations and using a variety of characters and dynamics to do a great justice to the women of the film and the actors who play them.

 

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino’s male gaze in ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ isn’t just insulting – it’s profoundly boring’, The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-quentin-tarantino-sharon-tate-margot-robbie-lines-a9061446.html [accessed 12:05, 19th August 2019].

[2] The Bechdel Test, created by Alison Bechdel, suggests that to pass a basic representational threshold, films must have more than one female character, the female characters must speak to one another and the female characters must speak to each other about something that does not involve a man. Of course, many culturally celebrated films do not pass this test, but then neither do films like Gravity, A Star is Born and Arrival, in spite of the lengthy screen-time afforded to women and where the quality of the female characters is exceptional. Equally, there are many female-centric films where women have plenty of dialogue and on-screen time, but their lives and conversations revolve around men.

[3] I want to add here that the irony of Dalton proclaiming earlier on in the film that he is ‘one pool party’ away from Roman Polanski and then fighting a hippy with a flame thrower in his pool becoming his ticket to friendship with Tate, is just hilarious.

First response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 1/2

Part One: The Spahn Ranch scene

I went to see ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, on the 14th August 2019. As soon as the credits began to roll, opinions began to surface from cinema-goers around us:

‘It wasn’t very ‘Tarantino’ until the end’.

‘I wanted more of Margot and Leo together’.

‘Nothing happened’.

In many ways, this confirmed what I thought the whole film was reaching towards: expectation. Or rather, the dismantling and reflection upon what we want and what baggage we bring with us to a cinematic experience. The film focused on a number of things: the film itself, Tarantino as writer and director and Hollywood as a mechanism for hopes, dreams and ideology. In many ways, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was a perfect fit within Tarantino’s oeuvre, offering many moments of self-reflection, humour and a fluid sense of history. In two parts, I would like to discuss some important aspects of the film that stood out upon my first watch of the film: in the first, I offer a close reading of the ranch scene half way through the film and in the second, I challenge some of the commentary regarding the representation of women in the film, in particular Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.

Primarily, I think it is important to acknowledge what I thought was problematic about the film and made for uncomfortable viewing. I was not a fan of the exchange between Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee. I found Pitt having to take his fake hair off before their fight absolutely hilarious, but I did not think the representation of Lee’s karate fighting, including all of his sound effects, were the homage that Tarantino claimed they were.[1] It fell into the realm of mockery, in the same way that Kill Bill Volume Two descends into a kung-fu farce for a while. Any subtlety around these moments in both films is lost, and Lee is reduced to a laughable caricature. Similarly, I found the storyline of Booth killing his wife and getting away with it in slightly poor taste. Arguably, there is almost a Gatsby-esque ambiguity to this story: even with the flashback of Booth and his annoying wife on a boat, it could be argued that this is an event fabricated through rumour and speculation of extras and film crew, neither confirmed nor denied. Yet, with the number of women who are killed every week by a partner or former partner still not being treated as seriously as the social issue that it is, including the fact that funding for domestic abuse charities in the UK comes from the luxury tampon tax that menstruating women are subject to, I am not sure that ambiguity on such a subject should be pissed around with.[2]

There are many aspects of the film where Tarantino is playful with expectation, in a script that is often light-hearted, funny and self-deprecating in a way that we have not seen Tarantino play with before. Primarily, there are the references to feet all over the place: Pussycat’s feet squished against Booth’s windscreen; Sharon Tate’s bare feet in the cinema; Squeakie Froome using her foot to point Booth to George Spahn’s room etc. Tarantino’s foot fetish is something of Hollywood legend and the fact that there were so many shots of feet in this film suggests that he wanted to take the piss out of himself and the rumours for as long as he is able to. Similarly, there was the mention of Spaghetti Westerns not being worth Rick Dalton’s time: Django Unchained is famously an homage to the Spaghetti Western genre also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who was nominated for an Oscar in that role, who here plays Rick Dalton. Additionally, the long, weighty scenes spent filming Dalton’s Westerns, and Dalton’s typecasting in Westerns in general, perhaps pokes fun at the fact that Tarantino’s last film, and the film that succeeded Django Unchained, was The Hateful Eight, another Western that had a Roadshow running time of over three hours and was described as sluggish, slow and boring by many critics.[3] Tarantino doesn’t let himself off the hook in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and the film feels, in many ways, humorous and self-aware as a result. It doesn’t perhaps command the edginess of Pulp Fiction or the epic odyssey-feel of Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained, but the humour is still on-point and the effect is a lightness that has rarely shown up in Tarantino’s films before, where crime and violence is purposefully more prolific and commonplace.

The part of the film that most demonstrates Tarantino’s toying with expectation comes when Cliff Booth is taken to the Spahn hippy ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The scene is already set for expectations and stereotypes being toyed with as Booth rejects the sexual advances of the hitch hiking hippy Pussycat on account of her age. She reveals that she has performed all sorts of sexual favours for men who have picked her up in the past. The couple have chemistry and Booth has signalled his interest in the number of times he spots Pussycat around Hollywood prior to their actual meeting; however, this white middle aged man decides to go no further with her when the sexual opportunity is presented to him on a plate. For a cinematic white alpha male to turn down a spontaneous encounter feels pretty progressive: James Bond certainly wouldn’t have done. It seems here that Tarantino is playing with what we expect from white leading men in Hollywood and, in turn, the representation of women, which I explore more deeply in my next essay. In a film that has ‘Treat Her Right’ by Roy Head and the Traits as its first soundtrack listing (with lyrics like ‘If you want a little lovin’ / You gotta start real slow / She’s gonna love you tonight now / If you just treat her right now’) Tarantino is offering something more progressive in the realm of relationships between men and women. It is appropriate that the stereotype of the older man involved with a younger girl is subverted, especially in light of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and Hollywood itself becoming the epicentre of the worldwide #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

margaret-qualley-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-700x321

Once at the ranch, Tarnatino sets a ghoulish and eerie scene, with waifish young women and long-haired men looming about evidently having drunk the Manson Kool-Aid. Tension builds as Booth pushes to see his old colleague George Spahn, whom he suspects has been overruled and overrun by the hippy family. We are told, however, that he is ‘napping’.  A woman called ‘Gypsy’, played by the infamously controversial Lena Dunham, seems to be in charge of the place; George’s house is a dirty hovel; and Dakota Fanning, playing Squeakie Froome, is formidable with her piercing eyes, her commands and her commitment to watching television. Booth doesn’t take no for an answer and enters George’s room where… George is napping. George wakes up, becomes pissed off that he has been woken up, seems to be absolutely fine and wants to go back to sleep so he can watch television later. Tarantino builds up a big expectation that there is something rotten at the ranch, that George is probably out of his mind and that a big bust-up or reckoning is on the cards. However, everything is fine. Weird but fine. Squeakie is freaky, but she’s fine. She doesn’t lie to Booth about George being asleep and she is as ruthless about what she wants as Booth is himself. With Lena Dunham hanging about, in her first major on-screen role after the divisive and complicated Girls, we assume that there must be something questionable going on. Her casting in this part of the film feels almost deliberate precisely because she irks people and makes people uncomfortable. And yet, she is relatively harmless.

Similarly, and moments later, we begin to expect a big bust-up between Booth and Tex, a male hippy on a horse who is summoned back to the ranch after Booth beats up a guy who burst his tyre. Tex epically races back to the ranch, Tarantino giving him lengthy screen time as he rides through the canyon, providing beautiful wide panning shots of him galloping in the sunshine, as per the Westerns parodied at the beginning of the film. Unfortunately, he arrives too late because Booth has already driven off, happily listening to the radio. Over the course of his writing career, Tarantino has never shied away from surprising us with violence or building up action to a violent crescendo; yet, in the instance of Tex in particular, the time for violence to erupt is slightly out of joint. This is an opportunity for violence to bubble up into a lengthy fist-fight or shoot-out but he arrives too late. As such, I would argue, the opportunity for violence to be delivered to us on a plate is purposefully missed. Tarantino attempts to frustrate what we come to expect from a Tarantino film by holding our lust for quintessential Tarantino violence at bay. Booth beats up a hippy for puncturing his tyre and he kind of deserves it. Beyond that, there is nothing superfluous.

Furthermore, I would argue that casting the likes of Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning to lead an anonymous cast of slightly weird but, in the moment, harmless characters, is a nod to cultural anxiety held around youth. Lena Dunham is interesting casting because she is held simultaneously in high regard and disdain by the viewing public; Fanning, on the other hand, has successfully navigated child stardom, has a brilliant reputation in the industry and has many impressive performances to recommend her.  In a time where Millennials and Gen-Zers are treated with disdain for their focus on the climate crisis, identity politics and everything a conservative older generation decries as snowflakism, Tarantino delivers a bunch of layabout hippies who, in this moment, are weird but ultimately fine. The familiarity and renown of these actors in particular helps to convey and play with this. Of course, there is the spectre of Charles Manson looming over the hippies, but Tarantino makes the point to distinguish between a misunderstood misfit youth and actual psycho killers. To cement this, he uses another surprisingly familiar face: Maya Hawke, daughter of famous Tarantino regular Uma Thurman. [4] Hawke plays Flower Child, a member of the hippy group who abandons the three murderous ‘pig-killing’ hippies (whose exchange reminded me of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction), steals their car and leaves them in the lurch. Using such a recognisable face to play a weirdo but who wants no part in violence and carnage helps Tarantino to establish this spectrum of youth and to play with our assumptions and expectations. There are always going to be weirdos and arseholes, but not all of them are going to go on a killing spree; we may expect certain behaviours and outcomes from a group of people, or violence in a Tarantino film, but that is because we bring our own baggage of what we want and what we think with us wherever we go.

Tarantino is at an interesting point in his career where he can toy with being self-referential and also with the expectation of what we think we are going to get with a Tarantino film. He has a backlog of material with which people are extremely familiar and, as such, he can and does frustrate and toy with what he has constructed for us to want over the thirty years he has been writing. The ranch scene isn’t explosive and I can see how people might interpret that it all falls slightly flat and underwhelming, because nothing actually happens. However, with beautiful irony and in a way that builds up to the later chaos, this scene is rich with posturing, preconceptions and imagery, and I think that is perfect story-telling within the world of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In some ways, this is a sunny, light and hopeful film and Tarantino leaves out violence until it is truly necessary at the end of the film (and he really goes to town with it in the best possible way). But that does not mean that the rest of the film is passive and blank: it seethes with tension, with frustration, weirdness and curiosities. As I will explore in my next essay, it is also tinged with undeniable melancholy and bittersweetness. Whatever expectations we have of a Tarantino film are healthily disrupted by the ranch scene in particular and I think it is a brilliant move on Tarantino’s part.

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino Defends ‘Arrogant’ Portrayal of Bruce Lee in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’’, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/quentin-tarantino-bruce-lee-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-1203299921/ [accessed 17:07 19th August 2019].

[2] ‘The women killed on one day around the world’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-46292919 [accessed 21:24, 20th August 2019].

[3] https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_hateful_eight/reviews?type=top_critics [accessed 21:22, 20th August 2019].

[4] I want to show an awareness here that Maya Hawke’s presence in the film is an interesting one, considering her mother’s estranged relationship with Tarantino, who forced her to drive an unsafe car during the filming of Kill Bill. Click here for Thurman’s interview with the New York Times detailing the incident as well as the harassment and violence she was subjected to at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino’s financier and creative partner: ‘This is why Uma Thurman is angry’, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/opinion/sunday/this-is-why-uma-thurman-is-angry.html [accessed 21:46, 20th August 2019].    

Abyssal Cuteness

This essay was first written and published on Everyday Analysis in 2014.

One of the latest videos to go viral in recent weeks (note: this video was also published in 2014 and now has 42,195,765 views) centres around a young girl howling with despair at the thought of her baby sibling growing up, and her own fear of dying ‘at one hundred’. You can watch it here and by clicking on the image below:

Abyssal Cuteness

The general cyber consensus of this video is that this is a moment of undeniable ‘cuteness’, a claim that is perpetuated by saccharine blogging sites who share the video, for example ‘Hello Giggles’. ‘Cuteness’ may, perhaps, warrant its own analysis for its pervasive presence on the internet, with the innumerable animal/baby/animal and baby/ baby and animal and baby animal videos that continue to appear on social media. Here, however, I would make the case that the video captures an abyssal moment in this girl’s life where, like King Midas capturing Silenus the companion of Dionysus, we learn that ‘the very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing’.[1] She does not want her brother to grow up and stop being ‘little’, and she simultaneously bemoans her own inevitable aging that will ultimately lead to her death.

The terror and horror of her and her brother’s existence is conveyed not through her language but in a choking cry half way through and at the end of the video, which the subtitles describe as ‘inaudible’. She is audible, because we can hear that she makes noise, however the noise she makes in her terror is seemingly outside of language and also beyond our ability to articulate in language. The girl, therefore, embodies the Dionysian impulse where, as described by Nietzsche, ‘the whole excess of nature in pleasure, pain and knowledge resounded to the point of a piercing scream’.[2] Her panicked coughing moan is the expression of her pleasure at the baby’s ‘cute smiles’, her affection for him, which is repeatedly conveyed in her kissing his forehead, and her pained fright at her recently acquired knowledge that both she and him are aging and finite.

This expression of the Dionysian that sees the girl intoxicated by the truth of her existence and thrown into self-oblivion is, however, still engaged in a dialectical tension with its alter drive, the Apollonian, without which it could not emerge. Nietzsche describes the condition of the Apollonian as ‘an existence in which everything is deified, regardless of whether it is good or evil’.[3] Although in western culture we no longer exist with a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods, I argue that an economic system of consumer capitalism sees every literal ‘thing’ similarly deified, spawning an exuberant culture of commodities which construct and offer identity. This is prefigured in the video in the princess dress that the girl wears, an item that enforces societal norms of gender and hierarchy which, therefore, enables a moderated self for the girl to be constructed. The Dionysian impulse that envelopes her destabilises this appearance of heteronormativity which appears to have structured her life.

With reference to Raphael’s painting Transfiguration, Nietzsche suggests that the Apollonian and Dionysian are reciprocal and depend upon each other. This is achieved because the Apollonian gives way to the Dionysian, which is redeemed with the reinstatement of the sublime Apollonian image. In this video, the re-establishment of the Apollonian, which has already been prefigured in the girl’s princess dress, comes in the way this video has been elevated to a position of ‘cuteness’, from the comments on YouTube to the chat shows that have had ‘exclusive’ interviews with the girl post-abyss. Whatever ‘cuteness’ may mean, the perpetuation of this word perhaps allows people, or more specifically adults, to semi-patronisingly reflect on this girl’s struggle with the chaotic state of her existence in this abyssal moment. However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that ‘cute’ has also become a barrier for those whose lives are too structured by the Apollonian culture of ‘things’, and who resist the tormenting Dionysian impulse that, we have come to understand, is never too far away.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy trans. Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.27.

[2]Ibid, p.32.

[3] Ibid, p.27.

Love Note series – Bonus Disney Women

This little Disney series has been so much fun that I felt that I needed a bonus post. Today, I’ve decided to give some honourable mentions to Disney women who have enriched the stories they are in, have given fantastic comic relief and whose characters have become even more indispensable with every new viewing.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, Sleeping Beauty, 1959

It pained me that in Maleficent, one of Disney’s best re-makes/re-tellings out of the thousands they’ve done, these women are reduced to squabbling, dim, clueless fairies. Of course, in the 1959 version, they also squabble and are crap at not using magic, see exhibits one and two:

Flora and Merryweather.gif

Fauna eggs

Yet, the three of them also end up holding the entire world together. They offset Maleficent’s curse on Aurora by ensuring she falls into sleep instead of death, they put everyone else to sleep, they fly to Maleficent’s castle to release Prince Philip even though it terrifies them and then help him to bring about Maleficent’s downfall. They are constantly busy saving the world and everyone in it and are integral to the film’s action. As such, Fauna, Flora and Merryweather ensure that in spite of some of the other problematic tropes in Sleeping Beauty, this animated film actually has the highest amount of female dialogue in the whole of the Disney oeuvre.[1] That is something pretty special.

 

Magnificent Marvellous Mad Madam Mim, The Sword in the Stone, 1963

This small dumpy woman, with her bright pink dress and purple hair, may not look like trouble but she is as feisty and frightening powerful as they come. I think of her as a pre-cursor to Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus in many ways.

Mim sick

Winnie

Mim is ridiculous, darkly hilarious and appeals to all that is gnarly in ourselves. Obviously I don’t make it a habit to ‘destroy’ cute little sparrows for fun; but I find it funny just how funny she finds herself. She takes absolute delight in being grisly and her cackle cracks me up every single time. She is magic’s counter-balance to Merlin’s honourable, good-natured and learning-outcome wizardry, displaying considerable power and resolve. She doesn’t win the wizard’s duel, and rightly so, but she sticks two fingers up to Merlin’s borderline self-righteousness and I find her very enjoyable viewing.

Mim sunshine

 

Lady Kluck, Robin Hood, 1973

Klucky

Lady Kluck, or Klucky, is the real star of this film. She is Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting and her contributions to the friendship and film include terrible badminton technique, Prince John impersonations, dancing and of course, her willingness to get stuck into a barney. She is loud, rambunctious, has a fantastic Scottish accent and her fearlessness in a punch-up is inspirational. Her best line comes during the carnage of the archery competition where she tells Maid Marian to ‘Run lassie, this is no place for a lady’, before rolling up her sleeves and slamming the Sheriff of Nottingham and a bunch of rhinos. This chicken is no wet hen and has excellent gif game.

Klucky funny

 

Kala, Tarzan, 1999

Kala

Disney as a creative institution is famous for severely lacking in representations of secure, loving mother figures. When Tarzan was released in 1999, Kala was brought to us by the divine Glenn Close, and became the overdue motherly role model that we had all been waiting for. At the beginning of the film, Kala goes through the unspeakable trauma of her baby being killed by a ferocious leopard called Sabor. When she hears Tarzan’s cries across the jungle, she discovers him alone, his parents also having been killed by the leopard. She rescues him and resolves to protect him from the dangerous world around him, whether that’s from leopards and other predators, but also the hatred of Kerchak, Kala’s partner who refuses to acknowledge Tarzan as his son. Kala’s love is boundless; she brings Tarzan into the safety of the gorilla family, teaches him that he isn’t as different to her as other gorillas make him out to be, and also embraces the grief-stricken realisation that she will have to let her son go. For me, this scene is up there emotionally with ‘Baby of Mine’ in Dumbo. Kala is warm, kind, brave and nurturing and definitely deserves some recognition.

Kala and Tarzan

 

Mama Odie, The Princess and the Frog, 2010

Gumbo

Mama Odie is a blind witch lady living in the bayou outside New Orleans, who Tiana and Prince Naveen visit to solve their frog problems. Mama Odie is friends with Ray and his firefly family and relies on the help of a snake called Juju to get around the place. The two form an excellent double act as Juju doubles up as a walking stick, plank and sous chef as Mama Odie makes her magical, clairvoyant gumbo. I think she’s brilliant because she introduces us all to the idea that what we want and what we need are very different things. I believe that what we think we want lies firmly in the realm of ego; it is often short-sighted, ruled by fear, lack and longing. What we need is something more deeply personal and actually evades us a lot of the time: the need for connection, boundaries, and the key self-awareness to know what makes us feel safe, comforted and loved. Mama Odie, with wit, an excellent gospel song and tons of energy makes that abundantly clear, paving the way for Tiana to reject Dr Facilier’s soul-selling proposition at the end of the film.

Mama Odie and Juju

 

[1] Female Dialogue

Love Note series – Meg

Meg, Hercules, 1997

Hercules Meg

Hercules really is the unsung hero of the Disney oeuvre (if you excuse the pun). This film is a fun anachronistic re-telling of the Greek myth, which introduces Ancient Greece and its mythology to gospel music, American consumerism (Thebes is the Big Olive and Hercules fronts an Air-Herc mosaic advertising campaign) and Danny DeVito as Philoctetes. It also introduces us to Megara, whose friends call her Meg, or at least they would do if she had any friends.

Have nice day

Now, if you are familiar with the original Greek myth, you will be aware that Hercules actually kills Megara and all of their children when he is driven mad by Hera, thus initiating himself into completing the twelve arduous labours to redeem himself. Disney devolved significantly from the ancient myth, for obvious reasons, and instead of killing Meg off, the animators created a super sassy, fabulous woman who also has her fair share of emotional wounds to negotiate and free herself from. Meg combines witticism and fiery comebacks with deep-rooted pain and vulnerability. Prior to the main action of the film, we learn that she sold her soul to Hades, the god of Death no less, to save the man she loved, who then dumped her for someone else. Ouch. I mean, we’ve all had bad experiences in our love lives, but that is as about as shit as it gets.

Meg Wounded

Meg’s journey, in many ways, sees her learning to open up her heart and allow herself to be emotionally healed enough to accept the love being offered to her by a kind, emotionally available man who really bloody likes her. This may sound a bit patronising, melodramatic or wishy-washy, but is there any arena in human experience that feels as vulnerable and, sometimes, scary as being in a safe, loving relationship, especially when situations you have found yourself in previously left you hurt, distrustful and determined to close yourself off? I’m not sure. Meg is determined to keep up her walls up and her heart closed to Hercules, whose honesty and desire to help other people makes him one of Disney’s most endearing men. Ultimately, Meg proves that she is one of the most fearless Disney women when it comes to love. She throws herself under a column to protect Hercules when he is at his most vulnerable, putting her own life on the line for him; who then puts his life on the line to save her soul from the Underworld.

Now, I’m obviously not suggesting that we all start throwing ourselves under collapsing buildings or finding our way to Hell for the people we love, but if we look through a metaphoric lens here, I think there is very little difference. Healthy, loving relationships, no matter if they’re with a romantic partner, family or friendships, are absolutely worth protecting, require commitment to your own inner work and wellbeing, even if that means dragging yourself through the depth of your own personal hell to deal with issues like trust and intimacy, and embracing your loved ones with an open, accepting and trusting heart. If Meg taught me anything, it was about freeing yourself from the chains of low self-esteem; that the idea of a femme fatale can be a veneer for a huge amount of insecurity and emotional damage; and that allowing yourself to be loved fully by good, kind people around you, is the scariest but life-affirming thing in the world.

Love Note series – Mulan

Mulan, Mulan, 1998

Mulan with shan yu sword

Mulan holds a very special place in my heart. She begins the film as a slightly disorganised, hapless, disgrace (by ancient Chinese standards) and then channels her strength, determination and courage into saving the whole of China from the Huns, both as a soldier and, when she becomes a disgrace again for doing that, in a traditional hanfu dress. Even from a short synopsis, we can see that over the course of the film, Mulan effectively redefines what it means for a woman to bring honour to her family in China, and shows that placing women in arbitrary boxes based on gender and capability is not in the interests of individual women or society as a whole.

Mulan and Little Brother

One of the things I love most about Mulan is that she is resourceful, a creative thinker and easily comes up with ideas and solutions to benefit herself and others. Over the course of the film, we see her attach a bone on a stick for her dog Little Brother to chase whilst simultaneously spreading chicken feed; out of her whole army unit, she is the first to understand how to use two weights to climb to the top of a pole and retrieve an arrow; she uses a cannon to trigger an avalanche that destroys the vast majority of the Hun army whilst saving the lives of all of her comrades; and she devises a plan to rescue the Emperor by having her mates drag up. Her ingenuity coupled with the strength and combat skills she acquires (in particular during the song ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ where the main refrain is ‘we are men’, the irony of which is amazing), make Mulan an incredible force to be reckoned with. No wonder she seems so threatening and at odds with the confining moral and social standards that prevail.

Mulan Climbing

Like Pocahontas and Esmeralda, Mulan also conveys incredible emotional sensitivity. She communicates with her dragon guardian Mushu, has a precious relationship with her horse Khan and is a deeply reflective individual. Her greatest desire, apart from saving the life of her father who is too old to fight in a war, is to become comfortable with her own identity. Her journey over the course of the film is to work out how she can be in the world and be comfortable within herself, whilst also serving the needs of her family and making them proud of her. Whilst, as is archetypal, she is met with set-backs and obstructions, where she takes the opportunity to assess what she has done and who she is. Ultimately though, her self-perception and her own sense of failure all fades in the wake of her needing to make a choice to do the brave and right thing, which she almost always does.

When shit hits the fan with Shan Yu and his allies surviving the avalanche and moving to attack the Imperial City, Mulan doesn’t think twice about gathering herself together and going to raise the alarm and fight back. In doing so, she carves out a place for herself and ultimately earns the respect and gratitude of an entire country. As such, Mulan shows us that in spite of the negative voices around us and within us that tell us that we are not good enough, that we don’t belong and that we have nothing to contribute to the world, we should stir up enough courage to carry on anyway. Ultimately we are defined not by who we or others think we are, but by the actions we take and the way we conduct ourselves in the world. If we live by this principle, of trying to be good and doing the best we can no matter whether it’s fighting in a war or feeding some chickens, that is enough. The rest of the world will fall into place around you.

Crowd bwing to Mulan

Love Note series – Pocahontas

Pocahontas, Pocahontas, 1995

download

Pocahontas is vastly underrated and one of my all-time favourite Disney films. I was transported from the very opening shots: America, covered in woodland and accompanied by indigenous drumming, makes me think of how truly astounding the continent must have looked and been before the environment and its native people were decimated and destroyed by white European colonial invaders. Pocahontas is not only an incredibly bittersweet interracial love story, but is a strong rebuke to colonialism and a love letter to Native American culture. Indeed, Russell Means, who voiced Pocahontas’s father Chief Powhatan, remarked that this film is the greatest representation of Native American culture and life ever seen in a Hollywood motion picture.[1] The screenwriters’ and animators’ attention to detail is second-to-none: from casting Native American actors, using indigenous language in the script, the inclusion of intricate jewellery and body art down to the positioning of the teepees at the beginning of the film, which all face in the same Eastern direction as they would have done in the seventeenth century, this film gives a sensitive and conscious platform to a beautiful culture. And at the figurehead of it all we have Pocahontas, described by the animators as Disney’s first depiction of a woman, not a teenager, in the animated title role.[2]

Pocahontas and John SMith

It does seem that Pocahontas operates on a different maturity level to most of the Disney princesses that precede her. I think this may have been because she was an actual historical figure, so extra sensitivity was required in the representation of her and her story, despite the heavy poetic license taken in the film. She risks a lot for the sake of a man she has fallen in love with, but the price for that isn’t losing her voice or developing Stockholm Syndrome (I’m so sorry Beauty and the Beast fans, I still cannot deal with that relationship dynamic!). She is presented as spiritual, closely connected to the animals, plants and people around her, demanding respect for her community whilst showing fascination for John Smith’s. She prevents a war and helps guide both sides to a place of tentative love and acceptance over hatred. And yet, she still manages to keep things light-hearted and sassy, as the situation requires.

Pocahontas lol

I love Pocahontas because she is playful, free-spirited and boundlessly curious. I love her relationship with best friend Nikomma who will happily tell her when she’s being a show off, which reminds me very much of my own relationship with my sister (I’m the show off). Indeed, my sister and I used to pretend to be Pocahontas and Nikomma when we were playing outside in the garden or on the beach (I was Pocahontas and Nicole was Nikomma, naturally). Pocahontas is deeply in tune with nature and her inner world, looking to the plants and animals around her, as well as her dreams for guidance and comfort. Her relationship with Grandmother Willow reminds me of mine and my sister’s relationships with our own beloved Grandma, and I love that she is willing to sit crossed-legged in front of her Elder to ask questions, heed advice and dialogue with her so that she might cultivate her own inner wise Self. Indeed, in many ways Grandmother Willow is Pocahontas’ inner wise Self, it depends on if you believe if she is actually real or just a figment of her imagination.

Pocahontas

Nowhere is this exploration of wisdom and connection with the natural world better explored in the film than during the song ‘Colours of the Wind’, written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The song is accompanied by some of the most stunning animation that Disney has ever produced, and sees Pocahontas effectively deconstruct racist colonial narratives of who is considered civilized and who is considered savage. It is beautiful because the pithiness of the white colonial small-minded and deeply destructive dualistic ideology is visually dwarfed by the outstanding and overwhelming beauty of the natural world and the deep connection that Pocahontas sings of. My favourite line is ‘Come run through the hidden pine trails of the forest / Come taste the sun-sweet berries of the earth / Come roll in all the riches all around you / And for once, never wonder what they’re worth’. In other words, get over your racist capitalist bullshit John Smith and connect to something more powerful, more beautiful and more unifying.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [09:19, accessed 2nd July 2019].

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [12:53, accessed 2nd July 2019].

Love Note series – Disney Women (part one, Esmeralda)

Before I went on holiday last week I had a burst of writing energy and, before I knew it, had four posts ready to be published. They are quintessential Harping On taking-silliness-seriously, and I am very excited to provide a little bit of light relief for myself and anyone reading this. I didn’t post last week because I was busy reading, swimming and sunning myself (more thoughts on that coming soon), so I hope that this Love Note series will more than make up for it.

As some of you will know, Disney holds a particularly big place in my heart. Fantasia is one of my top five favourite films of all time; Disney films in general are veritable nostalgia-fests when you need them; they provide the ultimate songbook for shower sing-a-longs; and can be hot topics for debate whenever the situation arises. Deconstructing Disney has long been one of my favourite past times (see here for an example), and I think it is a worthwhile endeavour. Like the fashion industry, such is the Walt Disney company’s power and reach that whatever its commercial and creative decisions, both good and bad, it affects us all even if we don’t care about them. I’d rather keep my eyes and ears open to Disney and what they are doing than to keep myself ignorant.

In light of this, and on a lighter note, I have written my series of blog posts on four of my favourite Disney leading women. They are each inspiring, interesting and courageous in their own ways and have taught me a lot about what it looks like to be a woman with conviction, especially in the face of patriarchal bullshit. I hope you enjoy them!

First up…

Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996

Esmeralda featured image

Harping On legend has it that when I met Esmeralda at Disney World on my 5th birthday, I ‘lost my shit’. Esmeralda was very, very important to me. I had two Esmeralda dresses, a Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame pencil case, an Esmeralda doll and a tambourine. She was my absolute hero. She stood up to a repressed, privileged prick, Claude Frollo, who spent his entire life and career persecuting Roma gypsies like her, and actively abused and encouraged abuse of Quasimodo, whose mother he kills at the beginning of the film, who then hides behind his rampant sexual desire for her by calling her a witch. Like I said, a prick. She derides Frollo for his cruel treatment of those who are vulnerable and refuses to back down when told to do so. Esmeralda is uncommonly brave, standing up for what is right even though it comes at a great risk to her own personal freedom and safety.

Esmeralda

One of the most moving parts of the whole film comes during her song ‘God Help the Outcasts’, with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Whilst every around her prays for glory, wealth and fame, Esmeralda declares:

‘I ask for nothing, I can get by

I know so many, less lucky than I

Please help my people, the poor and down-trod

I thought we all were children of God’.

Here, she clearly declares that she doesn’t want to ask for anything for herself because she knows of people who are much more desperate and worse off than she is. Esmeralda is selfless in spite of her own hardship, putting the needs, trials and suffering of her community before her own.

What is interesting is that whilst she addresses ‘God’ throughout most of the song, Esmeralda actually begins the song by speaking directly to a statue of Jesus. She demonstrates that in spite of the way she stands up for others and for what she believes in, she has internalised some of the xenophobic elements of medieval Paris, providing the caveat:

‘Yes I know I’m just an outcast

I shouldn’t speak to you

Still, I see your face and wonder

Were you once an outcast too?’

It is a moment of complete vulnerability as she enters a conversation with Jesus and subsequently God, a divine power that is bigger than her and whose help and comfort she needs. By adopting the language of her persecutors, with the label ‘outcast’, it suggests that she holds an internal belief that she is not worthy or good enough for finding refuge in prayer or communicating with God so candidly. However, she then goes on to draw a line of comparison between the two of them, demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of Christian doctrine by suggesting that because Jesus was also considered an ‘outcast’ in his time, and especially in the run-up to his death, then it must be appropriate for her to speak to him. He was vulnerable, tried to help the needy and stood up to and threatened power structures, just she like she does. It is a beautiful, heartfelt moment, giving us a window into her internalisation of her ‘outcast’ status as a gypsy but also her ability to appeal to that which is vulnerable and considered by society as ‘unworthy’ in others, thus rendering everyone truly equal.

Esmeralda’s kindness and humility, coupled with her fiery resistance, her don’t-give-me-shit attitude towards future honey Phoebus, and her divine friendships with Quasimodo and goat Djali, make her one of Disney’s all-time greats. She is one of the most important and indispensable characters in the story and a true inspiration. She taught me that resisting injustice and standing up for others who are more in need of help than I am requires an immense amount of courage and bravery; never easy to do, but important beyond measure.

Esmeralda and DJali

Love Note – Graphic Novels

The world is full of dark, difficult and complex issues that need to be sensitively and appropriately discussed. War, genocide, abuse, loss and our hopes of building a better life for ourselves are all incredibly difficult conversations that need to take place: but how? Is there are right way to talk about these things? How can we ensure that we get the greatest insight into the emotional and critical upheaval when unimaginable things happen? This is where art and literature have always been important. Film, visual art, poetry and novels have always helped to expand our understanding of what it means to experience life and all of the social, political and archetypal challenges that we face. Representation of experience is crucial in helping us to understand the world around us, but when what we are talking about is so traumatic or challenging, it is even more important to think about how these are presented.

Graphic novels, otherwise known as comics, are an almost niche area of textual production that are, in my opinion, some of the best media for representing conflict and its fallout. Edward Said, in his tribute to Joe Sacco’s Palestine wrote that:

‘In ways that I still find fascinating to decode, comics in their relentless foregrounding […] seemed to say what couldn’t otherwise be said, perhaps what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and re-shaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures. I knew nothing of this then, but I felt that comics freed me to think and imagine and see differently’.[1]

Graphic novels help us to ‘see differently’ because they are a hybrid form that combines accessible, but no less wonderfully ambiguous and complex, art with punchy storytelling. They give an imaginative and, at times, extremely personal telling of stories, bringing drawings and language into conversation. Fragments of images, language and spatial organisation on a page builds an almost compulsive narrative that can at once expose and explode systemic injustice and power structures (what are complicit with Said’s ‘ordinary processes of thought’), whilst also attempting to make sense of the personal experience within them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most famous graphic novels are autobiographical memoirs, which focus on the experience of the individual against the backdrop of something much greater and, oftentimes, misunderstood or difficult to represent. We have two confusing and compelling worlds clashing, the public and the private, and the graphic novel attempts to navigate us through both.

I find reading graphic novels to be an incredibly immersive and compelling experience. I recently finished reading Malik Sajad’s Munnu and had to share my thoughts on this text and some of my other favourite graphic novels. These texts take us to the depths and fringes of human experience, re-write what we think about the world, countries within the world, and the people within them. They blow open preconceptions and stereotypes that we are fed, and my understanding of conflict and world history, is all the more rich and nuanced as a result.

Maus, Art Spiegelman, 1980

 

Maus

 

Maus is one of, what I consider to be, the Holy Trinity of graphic novels. It portrays Spiegelman as a young cartoonist, interviewing his father Vladek about his experiences during the Holocaust. The comic charts Vladek’s survival of Nazi atrocities, but also portrays Spiegelman’s oftentimes strained and difficult relationship with his father. The two regularly butt heads in ways family members often do when a deep amount of love and respect is patched over with trauma, neurosis and unrealistic expectations. Notably, the characters in Maus are all presented as animals to represent their different ethnic groups: Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as Germans and Americans as dogs. One of the panels that stood out most to me is one that presents Spiegelman himself wearing the mask of a mouse, sat at his desk, talking about the opportunities that have come with his novel’s publication. Around him are littered the bodies of Holocaust victims.

maus2

This panel suggests that through the production of Maus, Spiegelman has assumed almost unwanted ambassador status for his presentation of Holocaust testimony. The artificial mouse mask, tied at the back of his head, points to the idea that in the telling of this story, he has almost performed his Jewish identity, and become a spokesperson for Holocaust victims and survivors in the process. He has achieved acclaim and appreciation off the back of so much death and horror, signified by the cadavers gathered around him and his drawing desk, yet still struggles to maintain his sticky relationship with his father. As a result, the dissonance between his success and the emotional burden his success has become weighs heavily on him, entangled as it is with feelings of guilt, misplaced responsibility and fraudulency. The Holocaust is such a difficult and upsetting subject to discuss and represent, and Spiegelman demonstrates great sensitivity and self-awareness in his handling of such a traumatic and barbaric event. The novel is not only a historical document of his own father’s survival, but also provides a platform for conversations about how we successfully represent the un-representable, and all the responsibility that brings.

Palestine by Joe Sacco, 1996

palestine cover

The second graphic novel in the Holy Trinity follows a Joe Sacco, an American journalist, travelling to Palestine and the Gaza Strip to witness and interview oppressed Palestinians during the Intifada. In the West we are given a very limited idea of the history and lived experience of Palestinians under Israeli occupation on the West Bank. This graphic novel has been hugely influential in its multi-dimensional perspective of conflict; and especially those conflicts that receive little traction in the news or are obscured by global and media power players. Sacco gives voices and faces to the seemingly unending hardship on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip that easily bypasses the consciousness of many in the West. The violence and terror that Palestinian men, women and child experience on a daily basis is front and centre of Sacco’s novel, as he tracks his own journey from bystander and objective interviewer, to witness.

 

Palestine

 

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, 2000 and 2014

Persepolis cover

This novel is the third graphic novel in the Holy Trinity. Persepolis blew open what I knew and understood about Iran and Iranian history. As far as I was aware, when I first read this novel in 2010, Iran was a rogue bogeyman country, intent on making nuclear weapons to blow everyone up and destabilise the Middle East permanently, and that was the way things were and the way things always had been. As with my original perceptions of the Palestinian conflict, this graphic novel proved this idea of Iran to be completely limited and short-sighted. Through the story of her family and childhood, Satrapi presents Iran as a vibrant, secular country before the Islamic Revolution, and depicts the horror of war as Iran and neighbouring Iraq are drawn into a deadly conflict. She presents the oppressive practices and rules enforced in school and in public, in particular regarding women’s rights, whilst struggling with her own direction in life, with her time in Europe marred by racism and homelessness.

Persepolis

Persepolis is a coming-of-age story like no other, offsetting universal teenage angst and confusion (the start of The Vegetable chapter with panels of Satrapi’s face changing through puberty spoke to me like little else) with religious extremism and Western xenophobic bigotry. The novel provides both creative freedom for Satrapi to explore her own personal story and to shine a critical light on the injustices and pervasive power structures that successfully control people in both the East and West. At the same time, the graphic novel, with its black and white colour scheme and regular panels, successfully conveys the claustrophobia of living in a world where you are penned in by cultural expectations, conflict, bigotry and your own demons.

embodiment-1

 

Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Malik Sajad, 2015

Munnu

In the tradition of Maus, Persepolis and Palestine, Munnu follows the coming-of-age of the eponymous Munnu, the youngest member of a family living and hailing from war-torn and devastated Kashmir. In a similar vein to Maus, Sajad uses animals, specifically Kashmiri deer, to highlight Kashmiris’ endangered status as a free and independent people. The novel balances the intricacies and tensions surrounding the conflict and hypocrisies between Kashmir and India, Kashmir and Pakistan and amongst Kashmiri resistance groups, whilst also exploring family, existential anxiety and trauma as a result of conflict, and the power of cartoons to grant personal freedom. The final panel is particularly unnerving and unsettling, and I was most touched by young Munnu grappling with his fear of death. Munnu also critiques the West’s seeming inability to comprehend the severity of the conflict in Kashmir and its ineffectiveness in using diplomatic pressure and might to bring about a resolution.  I recently discovered that Munnu has not been published in India, which is very telling about the current tensions unfolding in Kashmir as a result of the occupation and how powerful, and thereby threatening, this graphic novel has been in exposing them.

eu-embed-sajad-malik

 

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Kate Evans, 2015

51DFPaAiudL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_

Rosa Luxemburg is a giant of the Left and nowhere else has her life and work been so beautifully presented and so articulately explained than in this graphic novel. Luxemburg’s philosophy that Marx was not beyond criticism, even though she took her political and economic position from his work, is a lesson for us all: nothing is beyond critical interrogation, especially the people we most admire and whose thinking has been the most influential for us. The concise and accessible exploration of Luxemburg’s philosophy includes her radical pacifism: my favourite panel coming with Luxemburg’s response to the First World War: head bowed, she is disturbed and weighed down by the destruction and wanton chaos of a war that will end nowhere and will result in the deaths of millions of working class people. Evans also gives us an insight into Luxemburg’s personal life, the incredible obstacles she overcame to become a writer and political leader, and her relationships with close friends, family and lovers along the way. This graphic novel, and its subject matter in Luxemburg, is absolutely inspiring.

RedRosa_extract_TheNation_img

 

Other graphic novels to explore:

Dragonslippers: This is what an abusive relationship looks like, Rosalind B. Penfold, 2006

Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloenecker, 2002

Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, Kate Evans, 2017

Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds, 2007

 

 

 

[1] Homage to Joe Sacco, http://journeyofideasacross.hkw.de/anti-narratives-and-beyond/edward-w-said.html [accessed 22/05/2019].