Ripley's Game

  • Jul. 21st, 2010 at 9:17 AM
my_daroga: From Powell's "Peeping Tom" (camera)
Last night on All Things Considered, I heard a story called Heroine Chic: When Star Power Trumps Gender. It was about how certain film roles, even iconic ones, were originally written for men but became vehicles for female stars: Weaver in Alien, Jodie Foster in Flight Plan, Jane Lynch in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, to name a few. It mentions that being tough or funny is necessary for a genderswitched role, and also that it almost NEVER goes the other way. Men never take roles written for women.

What they did not mention was the overwhelming reason why this is. Which, for me, is what's actually interesting about this story. The reason women sometimes get roles written for men is because all roles are written for men by default unless the theme is explicitly woman-centric. That is to say, the default position for "action hero" or "working person" or "courageous lawyer" or "stranger coming to town" or "person with dark secret" is male. Women's roles, as leads, are wives, mothers, teachers--if you're writing about a child or about a certain kind of relationship, chances are it'll be a woman you're writing about. Everyone else? Is a guy unless someone decides Weaver or Foster or Jolie are a big enough star to transcend that default. (Obviously there are exceptions. But I don't think this is a controversial opinion.)

This is fascinating to me, and very frustrating. I always loved Alien because Ripley is so great, so unexpectedly a woman (when dammit, I shouldn't be trained to find it unexpected at all), and her heroism is very natural. She's not a superwoman who has had powers conferred upon her by The Watchers' Council someone who can't figure out how else to make a woman powerful. But see... She is, after all. She is, because that part was specifically written for a man until a powerful white guy decided to confer it upon Sigourney Weaver.

It puts a different spin on things, to know for sure that these parts were written for men. To know that the only way to get a female hero or double-agent or even pot-smoking boss is to write a man, then concede that a woman might be able to pull it off. And the thing is, the roles mentioned up there aren't even necessarily masculine. There's nothing in them that requires them to be thought of that way. These aren't Rambo or Patton or anything where you have to stretch your imagination or even go against society's roles. It just seems to be the only way for the predominately male-driven Hollywood machine to get into a female zone: write as if everyone's a man, and then, when Tom Cruise is busy, see if you can find a woman with enough B.O. cred to overcome this apparent inability for people to see past that default.

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Living with Severe Disfigurement

  • May. 7th, 2009 at 10:54 AM
my_daroga: Mucha's "Dance" (Default)
Living With Severe Disfigurement on Talk of the Nation.

This is a fascinating segment inspired by Connie Culp, the first recipiant of a face transplant in America. They talk to a man who was born with a facial disfigurement who now performs as a motivational speaker, and he points out something very simple, which I paraphrase:

All of us feel disfigured, and those that are obviously so carry the weight of that fear for everyone else.

Now, I don't mean to belittle the experience of real people by comparing it to the obvious fictional situations you know this made me think of. It makes me a little uncomfortable that the first thing I think about when I hear about operations like this is a pulpy post-gothic horror novel. I feel like a fangirl I saw once on a board saying "ZOMG JUST LIKE ERIK!!11!" about something that was clearly a personal tragedy. However, I think it's especially important for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking and writing and caring about characters like Erik or Quasimodo or even those less afflicted to understand the experiences of real people--and that there are real people. The above statement gives us a clue about why we respond the way we do, in real life and to fiction, though I think most of us probably have slightly different reactions to each. And I thought a few of you might be interested in this piece.

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my_daroga: Mucha's "Dance" (fantomas)
The Pew Research Center and NPR have just released the results of a poll which raises some interesting questions. What's being pulled out most is the idea that class, rather than race, is what segregates America these days; 37% of black people say that the values held by poor and middle class blacks have grown more different over the last five years. Likewise, 37% of black people also question "black" as a single racial identity. It's not a majority, but it's more than it used to be. A growing number of black people agree with Bill Cosby that it's not racism, but black people who are bringing themselves down.

What makes this interesting to me is the touchy ground where race and class meet. I can't speak to the numbers here, and I'd be ill-qualified to answer these questions or speculate about the results. But I do know that the most prevalent form of racism I've seen in my immediate life is the kind leveled by black people against other black people for acting "too white." A few years ago I was being trained on the job in an environment where I was the only white girl, and my trainer had to endure taunts like, "You better go listen to some James Brown, get that Elvis out of your system" because she was, apparently, talking like a white person in order to communicate with me. (As an aside, that was by far the most pleasant work environment I've ever been in, and I really miss those guys.) But it seems to me the "you're not black enough" argument is losing relevance in a world where black identity isn't tied to a certain lifestyle or income bracket. Where no two people can define "black identity" the same way.

Some really interesting semantic debates could open up over whether X is "racism" or "classism." Racism is still prevalent in our society, but the line where it becomes classism is fuzzy. Where, for example, should we classify criticism of hip hop culture? And would it be different depending on the race of the critic? Is it more excusable to be classist, because it ignores the race question? Or is that a smokescreen, "the new racism"?

I'm not even going to try to answer that. What's interesting to me is that this has become a question at all. Will it change the dialogue about race and culture and class?

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