Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, which I saw this afternoon at Netroots, should have been right up my alley. In a conference that’s full of political and policy discussions, of course I was going to make a beeline not just for a movie screening, but for a screening of a movie that insists on the importance of media and popular culture to understanding our politics. And the movie has some intriguing arguments. But mostly, it reinforced a question I’ve really been struggling with about how to do feminist media criticism. It’s really easy to document hideously sexist depictions of women in every form of media, and we do it all the time. But isn’t what we need to figure out how to shift the market so viewers demand different things and companies feel compelled to give them to us?
One thing Miss Representation does well, if all too briefly, is point out that the range of roles women can play, the things women can be, in pop culture has narrowed dramatically since the moments when actresses like Barbara Stanwyck ruled the screen. “We allowed women to really embody all the contradictions of being a human being back then,” one commentator says during the movie. “They could be the femme fatale, and then turn around and be the mother…and we accepted that.” It would be interesting to actually document trends in the number of kinds of roles women could play in movies and on television, and to try to identify moments when the diversity of roles for women contracted. But the movie doesn’t really do that, or explain why what the market appears to demand changed.
More specifically, the movie spends a lot of time linking media representations of women and their ability to run successfully for office. Sure, it’s insane that Geraldine Ferraro’s dress size became part of her biography when she ran for vice president. And there’s no question that women’s looks and their self-presentation become part of campaigns, distracting from real questions of policy positions and competence. But the movie sort of undermines its point when Newsome compares the United States unfavorably to countries like Cuba and China in terms of the number of elected officials without addressing their media culture. Are depictions of women uniformly better in international pop culture than in the U.S.? I kind of doubt it—there seems to be some real anecdotal evidence that one of the problems with getting better representations of women in American movies is that those depictions won’t play well in international markets.
And look, there’s an obvious domestic market for something else, an urgency about it, a sense that women are wounded by our culture. “I don’t know how we survive it,” Margaret Cho says in the movie. “I don’t know how we rise above it.” It’s awful watching a girl crying as she explains why poor self-esteem lead her sister to harm herself. “What can I do so my little sister isn’t getting hurt by the media? What is it going to take for someone to take a stand?” But there’s a sense of surrender in the movie, and the outside campaign attached to the movie mostly consists of trying to get viewers to take a pledge to “see Miss Representation the film, use my voice to spread the word, and challenge the media’s limited portrayal of women and girls.” There’s a call to go see movies made by women, especially on the opening weekend, but it’s part of a quick montage—and it comes mid-way through the closing credits. It would be nice to see something more actionable, whether it’s asking viewers to contribute to a fund to support women screenwriters and television writers who are working on new projects, or to help raise money for distribution of movies that, unlike this one, aren’t getting aired on Oprah Winfrey’s cable network.
At one point, Geena Davis says that the central assumption of Hollywood is that”Women will watch stories about men, but men won’t watch stories about women…Nobody’s ever really proved that that’s true.” The interesting thing about the media moment we’re in right now is that the market might be about to disprove it, whether through the box office success of Bridesmaids, or through the fall crop of television shows created by and starring women. In a way, I wish I could see the movie Miss Representation might have been a year or two from now, when it might have been able to be about a moment when women, and the men who are their allies, successfully fought back. Maybe the moment will fail. But if it works, even in a limited way, we could be at a really exciting tipping point. And if it comes to pass, it’ll be critical to understand the conditions and people who came together to make it happen.
I am always delighted to see critics take children’s and young adult literature seriously, and even more so when it happens in the pages of my home away from home, The Atlantic. Benjamin Schwarz’s assessment of Beverly Cleary is largely persuasive, I think—he argues that the specificity of the early Henry and Ramona books made them immortal in their emotional precision, while the latter books were more general, and thus less good:
The later books explore, although less deeply, much wider stretches of more-serious emotional ground—the kinds of realistic and meaningful situations and themes that experts and educators deem enriching in children’s and young-adult fiction, an attitude no less didactic and deadening than that which informed the treacly, uplifting children’s books that Cleary in her early work was rebelling against. In Ramona Forever (1984), Ramona suffers the death of her cat and worries about being supplanted by a new baby, her father being out of work, and her beloved aunt marrying and moving to Alaska, all in about the same number of pages it took Henry and his pals to build a clubhouse, and for him to have a falling-out and (sadly but realistically) only partial reconciliation with his neighbor Beezus. Many characters in the late novels are flat; most are observed with intelligence, but they’re not inhabited. Cleary gets through the vast territory of her plots by relying on longer, more complex sentences, but while these scoop up the gist, they let the particularity escape.
The one thing I think this neglects is Cleary’s young adult fiction. That’s not unusual—everyone seems to forget that Cleary wrote YA as well as children’s novels. But it’s a shame. Fifteen in particular is perhaps the best novel ever written about that rapidly diminishing period of adolescent life, the moment when love first becomes a possibility, but sex is not under discussion or even consideration. It’s a tremendously vulnerable and tender book, full of the kinds of details that Schwarz praises about Cleary’s early novels. The main character’s rival for the heart of the boy she’s begun dating wears a narrow skirt to a dance rather than a full one; Jane (that is our heroine’s name) orders coffee instead of vanilla ice cream at a diner in an attempt to seem sophisticated; on a date gone miserably wrong, said boy buys the main character a backscratcher in San Francisco’s Chinatown as a way to make her feel better; there is a very funny extended Birnam Wood joke that probably would never go over with contemporary young readers.
It is innocent, but I don’t think that makes it irrelevant. Just because teenagers are more sexually active than they were when Cleary wrote Fifteen, but if anything, that makes books about how to navigate relationships with care, consideration, and honesty much more urgently necessary. A prerequisite to helping teenagers make good, safe decisions for themselves is to help them figure out how to talk to each other.
New York Times media reporter David Carr and editor Bruce Headlam.
As befits its name, Page One, Andrew Rossi’s documentary about the New York Times that opens in Washington this week, asks big questions. Did the Times’ collaborations with and coverage of Wikileaks redeem the paper for its failures covering the leadup to the war in Iraq when it published articles based on bad information that bolstered the case for war? Can the Times survive a drastic shift in the media economy? And if it is to survive, what kind of people will the Times need to succeed in that new environment, where journalists need to move faster on consequential stories while being increasingly responsive to engaged, and often prickly, readers? The movie’s strength is not necessarily that it answers those questions, but in the lens it uses to examine them: the team of reporters at the Times who cover the media: Brian Stelter, the blogger-turned-whiz-kid-reporter and Twitter fiend, Tim Arango, who in the course of the movie moves from the media desk to the Times’ team in Iraq, and David Carr, who came from independent weeklies, to an early web journalism start-up, to the Times.
Carr already had a higher profile than the average Times reporter before Rossi made Page One, in part because of his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, in which he went back and reported his way through his cocaine addiction. But he ends up stealing the movie. Whether he’s mounting a vigorous defense of the Times at SXSW, calling out the staff of Vice magazine for excessive self-regard, or reporting his way through a story that would lead to a major shakeup in the leadership at the Chicago Tribune, Carr’s an aggressive advocate for quality journalism, someone who can champion the Times without being in denial to the challenges the paper and the industry face.
I spoke to him this week after the spat between the Times and its most serious new media rival, the Huffington Post, over which publication has stronger web traffic. Carr says that while he doesn’t think the decision to sell Huffington Post to AOL was a good one because “when you deal with a big blob of media like AOL, they tend to overwhelm you,” it would be unwise to count the new-media giant out.
“I’m sort of done betting against Arianna,” Carr says. “When she first was talking about the Huffington Post, I was at a lunch with her house in Brentwood, and saw all her famous LA friends, and said this is so cheesy, this is going nowhere. She proceeded in two years to build out a huge national brand that cranked up enormous traffic and generated a way of engaging readers and creating community that few of us have seen.” Read more
Update: I messed this up. Isaac says he shot Tupac in 1994, not that he killed him. So we’re not on the verge of solving the mystery. But the question of what would happen if we solved these murders is, I think, still interesting.
I have no idea if Dexter Isaac is telling the truth when he says he killed Tupac Shakur back in 1996 for $2,500. If he’s still got jewelry that could verify his story, I suppose we might have a definitive answer, and fairly soon.
Hip-hop’s an elegiac genre, whether Puffy’s making a spectacle out of his grief over Biggie’s murder, or Young Jeezy is taking a break from a song praising candidate Obama to shout out Pimp C after C’s death due to a combination of sleep apnea and accidental overdose. And rap’s wider public acceptance has always been dogged by the specter of violence, even as the genre’s moved beyond it—arguably the biggest star in the game is a suburban child of professional parents who never assaulted anyone other than a paparazzo, a booking many white stars in other media have to their names.
I wonder if it would make any difference for rap’s public self-presentation and its public image if the two biggest unsolved hip-hop murder cases were closed, and closed definitively. That latter part is probably the hardest bit, right? Conspiracy theories are tenacious, they become more attractive than the truth, and it’s impossible to root them out completely. Suspicions will linger, as Michael Frayn writes in one of the best expressions of forever possible, “until there’s no more uncertainty because there’s no more knowledge.” And as long as there are “conscious” rappers (a side note, that term is awkward, and wants replacing), conservatives will use hip-hop’s ancient history to try to discredit them and their arguments.
But I wonder what it would be like to have at least Tupac’s story laid out in all its prosaic detail. He and Biggie died when I was a tween, just as I was starting to understand that there was such a thing as hip-hop. Their shades have stalked the genre as long as I have known it, their deaths an almost religious mystery. What happens when defining myths become prosaic, the legend of a million-dollar hit turned from gold to lead?
This whole interview with Norton Juster, in which he talks about being in an interracial marriage and how that’s reflected in his fiction, his architectural practice, and his friendship with Jules Feiffer, is awesome and worth reading. In between this and Michael Chabon’s new introduction to The Phantom Tollbooth (which is excellent other than asserting that punning is somehow a male thing), I’m glad to see a surge in Juster-love. But this part of the AV Club interview stood out to me, when Juster says:
I wasn’t very pleased with what they did with the Tollbooth [film adaptation]. One of the problems, and this is very unusual, was that Les Goldman and Chuck Jones were treating it like the Holy Grail and wouldn’t change anything. When you transform a book into a film, there have to be changes. You can’t stick with dialogue the way it is written in the book. You have to really adapt it for the big screen. He was too respectful.
I tend to err on the side of believing that almost nothing is unadaptable. The folks who said Watchmen couldn’t be done were ignoring the fact that, if you cut out the Black Freighter stuff, it’s a very clear and useful storyboard for a very complicated story. But so much of what I love about The Phantom Tollbooth is that it’s self-consciously literary, making literal thought processes and word games. The things that in prose and in the spindly illustrations feel delicate and funny might seem ham-handedly literal on-screen: the idea of Milo flying out of his car and ending up on Conclusions has always felt funnier to me as a mental image than it would be if it was something that actually happened.