I wrote favorably about Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s feminist bookstore sketches for their Web series ThunderAnt some time ago. And I was certainly excited to hear that IFC picked up their show Portlandia. Having reserved commentary on the first season until its completion, as I like reviewing at least an entire season rather than have the pilot represent a television show, I’m glad the show has been renewed. This is especially smart on IFC’s part, as the sketch series’ proclivity for eating its own (in this case, hipster bon vivants) is a savvy way for the network to tap into its target demographic (hipsters love to eat their own). But I recommend it with two reservations. For one, I’m not sure it has much else to do but lampoon liberal dogoodery. For another, I’m defensive against Portland.
Let’s address my second point first, as it’s petty. I’m from Houston and have lived in Austin for nearly ten years. It’s no big secret that Austin and Portland have a faux rivalry. If the two cities could, we’d probably erect a civil war involving bicycles and beard-growing contests. Athens would probably swoop in and crush both of us.
Now, I should say that some of my favorite people represent Portland. Bitch, a publication to which I subscribe and occasionally pays me for freelance work, resides there. The folks on staff are really nice. I will be covering the music portion of SXSW for them and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. I hope that half-week is filled with breakfast tacos and Lone Star. What’s more, the city was well represented in the media studies graduate program I attended. There were three folks hailing from there in my cohort (I called them the Portland Contingent), and two others who started their respective MA and PhD programs during my second year. They’re lovely people. Two of those girls I consider friends for life who I know I would’ve sat with at lunch if we knew each other in high school. But upon several occasions I’ve been audience to overtures of Portland’s superiority, to which I often felt compelled to say “You think you’re better than me? You ain’t better than me.” Also, “Say hi to your mother for me.”
Apart from intense civic pride, my acrimony is somewhat unsubstantiated. For one, despite being the best place for porch drinking, I know my city isn’t perfect. Among other things, we need more vegan eateries and we need to be nicer to queer people. We’re also a blue oasis in a big red war zone. Furthermore, I’ve never actually been to Portland. I made a connection from PDX to Eugene for Console-ing Passions last spring, but I didn’t poke around during my three-hour layover. For one, it’s a hassle to get back into an airport. For another, I don’t have a sense for the city’s geography–basically all I know is that Food Fight, Powell’s, and Voodoo Donuts are “somewhere”. Finally, I ran into Kristen of Dear Black Woman, who was also presenting at the conference. As she’s a fellow southerner and one of my favorite people, we chatted while waiting for our flight. Actually, we almost missed it because we were laughing so much. Seriously, they had to call us over the intercom to get us on the plane.
Portland defenses aside, my criticisms with the show extend deeper than civic rivalry. I will say that Portlandia does a good job putting the show in a specific place. Portland’s geography takes on a character in the show, giving scenes a sense of place and community. In the second season, I wonder if this show will be able of accomplish what SCTV (and its sitcom successors The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation) set out by building a show and its characters around a specific town and its inhabitants. I recognize that recurring characters–as well as links–can be the bane of sketch comedy’s existence, though Portlandia already has the feminist bookstore owners. As a fan of The State, I know that MTV’s mandate for recurring characters and catchphrases became a snarky in-joke which led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not suggesting that Portlandia follow these tropes in sketch comedy. But a strength of the series is its specificity of place and it’ll be interesting to see how it will expand and elaborate on this in the ten-episode second season.
However, my main problem with Portlandia is that I don’t think it has much to say. This ultimately detracts from the show’s established sense of place. While the show foregrounds its location, many of these scenes could play out in Austin, Madison, Athens, or other cities “where young people go to retire.” Portlandia has yet to discover what makes itself special and hasn’t been able to diversify its subject of interest. This is what’s keeping it from translating well from YouTube to television network.
Though there are funny scenes, the comedy tends to play out in obvious ways that don’t do enough to deepen or expand upon its basic premise. As of now, the show really only has one joke: hipsters sure are quirky. It plays this out in several ways: putting birds on craft items, having hotel staff trash a swanky lobby to impress a visiting band (played by chums James Mercer, Corin Tucker, and Colin Meloy), bike fights, dumpster diving, technology rabbit holes, Harajuku girls marveling at tiny coffee cups, locavorism, photoshoots for alterna weeklys, feminist bookstore owners astounding would-be clientele with their inefficiency, and a woman fretting over how to make the box that her partner’s strap-on was mailed in environmentally safe. But the joke is ostensibly the same each time and lacks any spirit of invention or criticism. Apart from having an at-times wobbly sense of sensitivity toward ethnic groups and trans men, I think it makes cheap potshots that don’t reveal any bigger truths about the communities they’re sending up. Compare a scene in Portlandia to this gem from Mr. Show. It may seem unfair to compare the first season of a show adapted from a Web series to one of sketch comedy’s standard bearers, but I think this scene neatly encapsulates much of hipster culture’s sense of entitlement and obscurity fetish. It plays for laughs, but lends some critical vigor to its subject. It also mocks the comic’s persona, which is something Armisen and Brownstein only attempt at.
The closest we come to something resembling the absurdity and critical bite in the first season of Portlandia is this send-up of locavorism. It’s my favorite. If the show could build upon this, we’ll really have something.
Let’s start this post with a bit of name-dropping, since the subject of this entry is a master of the form. When I interviewed Jessica Hopper during GRCA’s SXSW day show, I asked her who she wanted to see. The answer that stuck in my mind was Hole.
For one, her sentiments echoed other folks I spoke with during the festival, including members of Girl in a Coma and Jessalyn at Brazen Beauties, who identified front woman Courtney Love as a musical influence and feminist role model. For another, Hopper’s reason was interesting. She talked about how Love remains one of the few women in rock who is as challenging and uncompromising as some of our dynamic male rock icons. Given the performer’s age and resilience, her trademark queasy combination of feminine excess and supposedly unladylike rage still enthralls many fans. It’s why many of us watched her recent episode of Behind the Music.
I’ll admit that Hole was not on my must-see list during last spring’s festival. This is largely to do with the fact that I tend to avoid most band reunions. I didn’t see The Stooges or My Bloody Valentine when they came through Austin, and I’m not especially interested in seeing Pavement this fall. It’s not that I don’t like these bands. It’s more to do with the disappointment I feel in trying to capture something from the past that can’t be replicated. I missed these acts during their heyday, and I’m not interested in watching them trundle out their hits to an oversized crowd who may have also missed them the first time and now have the luxury of downloading their back catalog. That Love wasn’t playing with any of Hole’s former members — especially co-founder/guitarist Eric Erlandson — seemed to exacerbate matters.
However, the flaw in my argument is the presumption that the act in question doesn’t have new or relevant material to perform. Regardless of what people think of Nobody’s Daughter, it is a new album with a sweet cover that’s consistent with Love’s preoccupation with the dehumanizing aspects of conventional femininity. I’m not certain of the album’s immediate relevance, as the tracks I’ve heard are slightly better than the ones offered on Love’s disastrous solo foray America’s Sweetheart. I also wonder if her following stretches from Gen Xers to younger fans who are as enthusiastic to hear new music from her as they are to discover Hole’s first three albums. I’d imagine that this sort of activity is taking place.
But the real triumph of Love continuing the band seems to rest in the affirmation that maturing female members associated with Generation X still hold cultural relevance and refuse to leave. Love and fans in her peer group have carved a space for themselves in cheap red lipstick. This seems evident in VH1’s decision to use her story to relaunch its pioneering series, which premiered last Sunday. Clocking in at two hours, the episode is itself unremarkable. It hits on familiar plot points and ultimately flatters the subject by glossing over more controversial matters. What was noteworthy about the episode was the suggestion that VH1 was embraced its network status as MTV’s older sibling, acknowledged its target audience, and assumed that Love’s story would speak to its viewers despite many detractors who are appalled that the musician would have the audacity to continue making music.
I should acknowledge that I owe Love some things. Live Through This, an album that got a few of my friends through their awkward teen years, came out the spring before I started middle school and I adored it.
In my post on 120 Minutes, I explained how that program offered me a site of identification at a time when I felt like a complete outcast. Love helped me embrace my fringe status. Her tattered dresses, smeared make-up, visible acne, and barbaric female yawp were a revelation to me. I remember the first time I heard her voice crack when she screamed “what do you do with a revolution?” in “Olympia.” I would later learn that the song was against the homogeneity of the riot grrrl scene.
Like many of my peers, when I was ten, chubby, shy, and unpopular, I really needed to see and hear another strange female music geek with brilliant comedic timing own and confront people with her outsider identity. I needed to see someone else assert themselves successfully in such a public arena to know that I could do it for myself. It’s still pretty incredible to me that she was a pop star at any point, but I’d be fine with more pop icons making out with their female band mates on Saturday Night Live and throwing compacts at Madonna on live television. These antics really puts the scandal of Disney hellcat Miley Cyrus’s ear tattoo in perspective. It almost makes me forget that I was disappointed by how conscious and pedestrian her performance as Althea Flynt is in Miloš Forman’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt upon review, though I feel biopic sprawl is just as much at fault for my dissatisfaction.
In college, I’d get deeper into riot grrrl and take women’s studies courses, seminars, and self-defense workshops. But Love was the catalyst for how I would later define and practice feminism. In fact, on my way home from watching the Behind the Music episode at a friend’s house, a strange guy waiting for a bus tried to get in my car when I was at a stop light. I’d like to think that the poised, decisive manner in which I protected myself and the strength I found to drive home without freaking the fuck out has much to do with Love’s example. Because while Love has contradicted herself many times in her career, she’s always been a survivor.
Much emphasis is placed on Love’s scrappiness in the episode. The majority of the first hour delves into her nomadic childhood, her turbulent relationship with her mother, her delinquency, her stints in group homes, her lack of familial stability, and her need for fame, which manifested itself in the formation of various bands, appearances in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight To Hell, and multiple stints working at strip clubs. This transitions into the formation of Hole, her marriage to Kurt Cobain, the couple’s drug abuse, the birth of their only daughter Frances Bean, the trauma the couple experienced when the child was taken away from them following Lynn Hirschberg’s Vanity Fair profile on Love which alleged the subject used heroin while pregnant, Cobain’s thwarted battles with depression and addiction, her reaction to his death, Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff’s fatal heroin overdose, and the ill-timed release of her band’s breakthrough album.
I was pleasantly surprised that the documentary evinced candor on Love’s clear insecurities with her body and in her relationships with men. Despite her proclaimed assurance, Love is clearly obsessed with patriarchal approval. Her obsession with plastic surgery and dieting is evident, though only explicitly discussed by the subject. She’s particularly hung up on her nose, now winnowed down to a fine point that gives her voice a high nasal timbre. Given her recent comments that she’s good in bed because she’s ugly made poignant these insecuritie, along with Melissa Silverstein’s recent podcast about plastic surgery in Hollywood. Love’s desire to fit in with conventional glamour was always evident, suffusing her kinderwhore look with tension. I was pretty bummed when she let the red carpet dictate her look.
Love also has a long-standing habit of latching onto men for a sense of self-worth, though I did appreciate her left-field admission that she ended her relationship with actor Ed Norton because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her identity as “Courtney Love” in order to become the wife of an A-list celebrity. In addition, I liked that Celebrity Skin‘s softer accessibility was born out of Love’s refusal to do a widow record. Of course, she wouldn’t have formed the band without discovering Patti Smith and Pretenders’ Chrissy Hynde, two artists who instilled in her the power of rock music.
I was curious as to how Love’s notions of celebrity may be antiquated in the wake of a collapsed music industry and fragmented market. While she’s still notorious on Twitter and occasionally gets in the tabloids, I’m of the mind that her ideations of the superstar died with Michael Jackson, which also contributed to his demise.
Finally, I’m interested in what or whom the episode chose to omit, as it primarily features interviews from friends. Hole drummer Patty Schemel is the only member who speaks on the band’s behalf, and nobody talks from Love’s ill-fated Bastard side project. None of Nirvana’s surviving members are present, undoubtedly because of their ongoing fued with Love over publishing rights. I found including footage of Love hanging out with Sonic Youth noteworthy, as there were no interviews with band members. Kim Gordon’s insights would be especially useful, as she co-produced Hole’s caustic debut Pretty On the Inside. However, Gordon believes Cobain was murdered, and veiled references to Love’s potentially amoral quest for celebrity in songs like “Becuz” suggest that no love is lost. I remember hearing in the commentary track for The Simpsons‘ “Homerpalooza” episode that Love was originally cast in the episode, but one unnamed act who was in the episode refused to participate if she was involved. I can’t help but think it’s them.
I’m also curious where Frances Bean is in this episode. After the events surrounding her birth are recounted, she’s largely kept to the periphery and never speaks on her own behalf. It could be an attempt to protect the girl’s privacy. Yet at the risk of pathologizing her mother, I’m of the impression that she’s often eclipsed by Love’s actions and behavior. Mirroring Love’s childhood, Frances was also shuffled among family members, left to her own devices, has a strained relationship with her mother, and wants to pursue music. So I’m fascinated by the cult of Courtney. I value some of her musical contributions and applaud her continued efforts. But let’s root for Frances too.
Recently, I had lunch with a fellow Austin-based feminist and pop culture critic. We were talking about blogs and Web sites we follow and at some point, she mentioned that she doesn’t really follow too many other music blogs because too many of them dwell on Joanna Newsom. Fair point. Tonight, however, I will completely disregard it in order to discuss Visions of Joanna Newson, an anthology about the singer-songwriter Roan Press released earlier this year.
As I’ve indicated a few times on this blog, I have harbored mixed feelings about Newsom. When her full-length debut The Milk-Eyed Mender was released on Drag City in 2004, the genius label was already affixed, most notably by white guy music geeks who seemed far too interested in casting her as their manic pixie dream girl. When I finally worked past the hype and actually heard her, I was instantly put off by a voice I dismissed as pretentiously twee. In short, I would not have been the ideal reader for Visions.
While I have no interest in being any text’s prefered audience, I came around a bit on Newsom. I warmed up to Ys and really liked Have One on Me. Much of my reappraisal of Newsom stems from how the artist talks about herself. I was pleased to find the person behind the guise of her generation’s fairy laureate is a talented, self-aware young woman who can take a joke and doesn’t much take to people calling her voice child-like. And when I finally got past her polarizing voice, I was stunned to find a devastating wordsmith with a keen sense of phrasing. Now that I’m used to it, I really don’t see what all the fuss was about.
So, much as with Newsom’s oeuvre, I attempt to come to this book with an open mind. I admit to having some reservations going in, principally that it would be nothing more than a collection of love letters to the miraculous god(dess)head that is Joanna Newsom, offering much fan boy frothing but little to no critical insight.
Frankly, some of my suspicions were confirmed here. The most discomforting example of idol worship was in Tim Kahl’s arch “Your Feyness,” which reveals that he possesses feelings for a collapsed sense of the artist’s persona and her work that make him feel like a Japanese businessman who buys schoolgirls’ soiled underpants from vending machines. I also bristled when reading Dave Eggers’ re-printed “And Now, a Less Informed Opinion,” wherein he intimates that he hasn’t seen what Joanna Newsom looks like and hope that she’s hideous because her quirkiness would be forgiven by a beautiful face (which, I’d argue, it has). I get that both authors are trying to call into question the sexist impulses of some men’s fan practices, but neither of them overcome it in my estimation.
I was also not fond of tendencies toward formless sprawl and indulgence here, particularly evident in Robert McKay’s “The Awakening of Desire in the Classic Musical Work: A Speculative Exegesis of Ys.” After wading through 42 pages that refer to Newsom as “the Bard,” don’t conclusively argue why we cannot consider the album as pop music, and much philosophical application of four of the album’s five songs, I’m still not sure of the essay’s point. Also, I completely disagree with the writer’s need to set value-based distinctions like high and low art, positioning Newsom as an exemplar of form and composition rather than as the bad object. The only thing I gleaned from it is that the protagonist or dominant theme of one song often makes a small but substantial appearance in the next consequtive track. Interesting point, though given that four of the songs are meant to represent life-changing events in one year of the singer’s life, overlap seems intuitive.
Apart from finding such commentary personally useless, it may speak to my interest in hoping for a more refined and disciplined approach toward criticism away from humanities-based tunnel vision. In addition to narrower focuses into Newsom’s contributions, I was also hoping for inquiries outside the text that consider the cultural and industrial factors that evince Newsom’s artistic relevance in this particular moment.
I will say that some close readings of Newsom’s work were quite valuable. I enjoyed editor Brad Buchanan’s meditation on how Newsom employs both affection and affectation toward similar ends. I appreciated Jo Collinson Scott’s insights on how music invites the process of becoming and inhabiting identities outside one’s personal experiences. I liked T.S. Miller’s essay on “Colleen,” which explores the cultural origins of the folk tale, the feminist implications of naming and transformation, and the etymology of the word “Colleen,” which originates from the word “cailin,” an Irish term for “girl.”
I also valued insights into who the artist was beyond the records and thus found childhood acquaintance Aniela Rodes-Ta’s recollection of coming of age in Nevada City with Newsom to be interesting. I was most invigorated by essays who thought outside the text, like Shayne Pepper’s essay on how The Milk-Eyed Mender critical success generated out of the emerging cultural viability of music blogs as tastemakers, which also created spaces to circulate Newsom covers by reknowned male indie musicians like Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett, The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and M. Ward.
I also enjoyed Lisa Fett’s piece on Benjamin Vierling’s cover art for Ys, which utilized applications of egg tempera in classic portraiture and wove various symbols associated with the artist and the album, while at the same time subtly positioning her in a contemporary context.
After reading, I wondered what insights I wanted included to enrich my understanding Newsom. An obvious absence is an interrogation on Newsom’s whiteness and Northern Californian roots. I wonder how her racial privilege informs her interests in West African polyrhythmic harp playing, Appalachian folk singing, and American hip hop. I’m also curious as to how Newsom negotiates art with commerce, at once diving headlong into recording challenging musical material on an independent American label while licensing many of her songs and becoming a recognized style icon. With so much weight placed on Newsom’s formidable prowess as a lyricist, I’d like more emphasis placed on how she uses humor in her work. While I appreciated the inclusion of poetry inspired by Newsom, I wanted more writers to explore various writing forms in their exploration of her work, perhaps asking the artist to talk about herself rather than observe and weave quotes. Finally, I hope folks avoid the impulse to argue Newsom as exceptional and make more of an effort to put her in a context with other contemporary female artists.
As Newsom evolves, it’ll be interesting to see if she continues to inspire future generations of writers and critics to make their own sense of her and her contemporaries. While at times uneven, the offerings of Visions of Joanna Newsom suggest there’s much left to discuss beyond mere fan boy conjecture.
Recently, my partner got season nine of The Simpsons on DVD. Perhaps suggesting our age, this was the last season either of us watched in its entirety upon original broadcast. We’ve caught episodes from season ten on in syndication, and I marvel at how the show has maximized high definition’s potential. We also saw The Simpsons Movie, which was more remarkable for the assuredly bombed woman who sang loudly to herself, yelled at Maggie for being a “cunt,” and called us “asshats” for telling her to be quiet before being escorted out of the theater. But for both of us, the ongoing series peaked 13 seasons earlier. The show may be sporadically hilarious and subversive, but like many successful television shows that go on for too long, it has also exhausted premises, developed a frantic tone, got further away from the family’s class struggles and feelings of mediocrity that made the show especially poignant in the early seasons, and dispensed with much carefully-crafted character development.
This last point seems especially true of Marge and Lisa Simpson to me. The show was never especially savvy with what to do with the tower-coiffed matriarch, who has dumbed down considerably in my estimation. The show’s predominantly male, Ivy League alum writing staff admit as such in several episode commentaries, noting that they rarely provided her with friends, struggled with ideas for a character so doggedly sensible, and sometimes relied upon female personnel to give her character development and narrative action (ex: season seven’s “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” was written by Jennifer Crittenden).
But the family’s spiky-haired middle child prodigy was always the show’s center for me growing up. What’s more, Lisa episodes were penned by male writers and rank among the best of the series for me, though they tend to focus more on her relationship with Homer than with Marge. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is my absolute favorite, but it’s in rich company with Jon Vitti’s “Lisa’s Substitute,” Dan Greaney’s “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” Mike Scully’s “Lisa’s Rival,” Greg Daniels’s Emmy-winning “Lisa’s Wedding,” and David S. Cohen’s “Lisa the Vegetarian” (note: Oakley and Weinstein were show runners from seasons 7 and 8 and were replaced by Scully for 9-12 to develop the animated series Mission Hill; Greg Daniels went on to co-create King of the Hill and adapted the American version of The Office). So you’ll excuse me if I get snotty and say that Lisa has no business lip-syncing Ke$ha’s butt-stupid “Tik Tok.”
Much of why these episodes work so brilliantly, apart from the writing, is to do with the animators and animation directors working in accord with voice actress Yeardley Smith, whose distinct performance captures so much nuance around the heartache, loneliness, and ironic detachment that often comes from being the kid sister of a popular kid and is too smart for her surroundings. As creator Matt Groening often points out, Lisa is the only character he envisioned leaving Springfield. He and many other show personnel counter this by claiming her as the show’s tragic character whose ideas and actions are often thwarted or go unnoticed. Several smart girls can relate.
However, while I have noticed a slight lapse in Lisa’s all-too-precious perspicacity as the series has gone on, I recognize that she’s still a smart girl committed to change. To echo Jonathan Gray’s claims in Watching The Simpsons, Lisa remains the longest-running feminist character on television.
One thing I especially like about Lisa is her interest in music. Assuredly, she’s motivated in many other areas, including environmentalism, writing, and film-making, among others. But I always delighted in seeing Lisa strut out of Mr. Largo’s band practice while belting out a saxophone riff, as the director clearly doesn’t know what to do with free-thinking talent who have exceeded his teaching abilities. She has also used her musical aptitude toward political change, rallying her father Homer and his co-workers with her acoustic guitar and an impassioned protest anthem when they staged a strike at the power plant for better health benefits.
Having recently watched season nine’s “Lisa’s Sax” (written by past and current show runner Al Jean), I was touched while relearning the origins of how Lisa came to the jazzy woodwind instrument. Unable to afford admission into a ritzy private day care for their accelerated toddler, Marge wracks her brain for a way to encourage her daughter. Homer ends up forking over money he was saving for a new air conditioner when a chance visit to a music store presents Lisa with her artistic calling. I think it was a wise investment.
Today is the first installment of a new series I’d like to start here on musical cameos in movies. It’s akin to the “Scene It” posts, except these entries would only focus on musical artists who make brief but noteworthy appearances in certain movies. At my friend Jacob’s nudging, I thought the perfect inaugural entry of this series would be L7’s supporting role as a rock band in John Waters’s 1994 feature Serial Mom.
First, I’ll preface by saying that I’m not so well-versed in Waters’s singularly tacky ouevre. I saw Hairspray at some point during my childhood. I later watched the remake, which didn’t make me as mad as purists. Sure, the remake was tame. But as it’s also not a remake of the original, but as a reboot of the Broadway adaptation. Thus I don’t think of it as a Waters movie and instead view it as an enjoyable, if defanged, movie musical. I viewed Female Trouble before starting grad school, which I thought was visually arresting and at times wickedly funny, but also plodding and meandering in the second half. I happened on Pink Flamingos‘ singing asshole scene once at my parents’ house, but haven’t watched the rest of Waters’s directorial debut as yet.
I am a fan of Waters, however. He seems like a swell guy and I wish we could be friends so we could watch movies together and trade mix CDs. He’s also the central character of “Homer’s Phobia,” one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons. I can also say that as relative Waters neophyte, Serial Mom delighted me.
There’s so much going on here. For one, it’s of its era. It can easily be read alongside several American movies from the 90s that indict celebrity scandal and tabloid culture, like To Die For, Natural Born Killers, SFW, and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. Kathleen Turner stars as seemingly perfect homemaker Beverly Sutphin, could be lumped in with lethal blondes like Madonna and Basic Instinct’s Catherine Trammell, and has a love for Godfather of Gore filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis that she shares with Waters and her son Chip (Matthew Lillard). And while Sutphin is certainly in a higher class bracket than ABC’s titular domestic goddess Roseanne, several times the movie reminded of season two’s “Sweet Dreams,” wherein matriarch Roseanne Conner wishes for five minutes alone in the bath and dreams of killing her entire family. Both women are well aware of the strain that comes for some women who try to perfectly embody the seemingly natural roles of wife and mother.
No wonder Betty Draper broke a chair on Mad Men. She couldn’t get a hold of Don.
Yet I assumed much of this might be apparent on the surface. I also anticipated that Sutphin’s excessive femininity and blood lust could align her with Kathleen Rowe Karlyn’s construction of the unruly woman. However, I was pleasantly surprised that Sutphin killed largely to protect her family instead of commiting psychotic behavior in response to feeling trapped or tied down by them. Most notably for me, she defends the honor of her daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) by killing her philandering boyfriend. What’s more, her husband, son, and, daughter are ultimately quite supportive of her. So while it’s bad to kill people, I was pleasantly surprised that this killer wasn’t pathologized or villified for her actions. It’s an unsettling sense of satisfaction, to be sure. But it’s comforting to know that Suthpin would only sink her scissors into my stomach if I really had it coming.
I was also pleased by L7’s performance as punk band Camel Lips. True to their name, the members sport considerable ‘toe further emphasized by their stretch pants. L7 confronted many people with its own caustic mutations of conventional femininity. They left David Letterman aroused and startled after an appearance on Late Night.
Leader Donita Sparks also dislodged her tampon and threw it at a disrespectful crowd at the Reading Festival, which I hope is being preserved properly. If Kathleen Hanna’s papers are getting archived, there should be a place for this artifact too. Finally, the band’s interest in surf rock and rockabilly indicate that, much like Supthin’s idealization of the 50s housewife and Waters’s love of pulp and gore, there’s nothing innocent about the past.
So I was originally gonna roll up all cavalier-like and blurt out my opinions on Tank Girl, which I watched for the first time a few nights ago. I had some pre-conceived notions about the movie and what I’d think of it, as the film adaption of the beloved Jamie Hewlett comic is widely regarded as a commercial and critical flop.
Now I’m not entirely sure how to approach the subject matter, because a) I’m not sure how to read this movie, as it is disjointed and oftentimes inscrutable, b) I didn’t realize going into my viewing that several friends were fans of both the movie and the comic, and c) . . . I haven’t gotten around to reading the comic. I’m more than willing to read it, especially since I’m a fan of Hewlett’s work with Damon Albarn on Gorillaz and am interested in their ongoing professional relationship. I simply haven’t had the chance yet, as I just finished Truman Capote’s super-dense In Cold Blood and started Margaret Atwood’s promising The Blind Assassin. If anyone has a copy they’d like to push into my hands, my palms are flat and open.
But I still wanted to see the movie and write about it because:
1. Lori Petty stars as Rebecca Buck and I wish her career had taken off instead of stalling around the time of this movie’s 1995 release. While she’s recently run into some legal troubles and I still haven’t seen Point Break or Prey for Rock’N’Roll, I’ve long had a soft spot for this tough, mouthy, gender-queer tomboy ever since her turn as Kit Keller in A League of Their Own. It’s too bad that she was replaced by Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man and that Gwen Stefani sounds just like her, with both women having more visible, financially successful careers.
2. Speaking of Stefani, did she rip off Tank Girl’s style to cultivate her own look, because oh my damn do they look alike.
But maybe I’m being unfair in pitting Petty/Tank Girl against Stefani against one another and instead should remember the cultural context from which they were formed. I’m reminded of my thesis adviser Mary Kearney, whose dissertation focused on contemporary discourses around girlhood and youth culture. Joy Van Fuqua draws on Kearney’s work in her essay “‘What Are Those Little Girls Made Of?’ The Powerpuff Girls and Consumer Culture.” In her discussion of the show’s popularity, Van Fuqua borrows from Kearney to suggest that, like many other girl characters during the 1990s, Bubbles, Buttercup, and Blossom had to embody both genders in order to succeed in athletics and other male-dominated activities.
3. Speaking of promising actresses, Naomi Watts plays her sidekick and was a total nobody in the states when the movie was originally released. She’s also rockin’ a brunette bob haircut, which I appreciate.
4. Speaking of wacky ladies, Ann Magnuson makes an appearance as a madame who runs a state-of-the-art brothel where folks like Iggy Pop run around in drag and the talent break out into Busby Berkeley-esque routines to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.”
5. Speaking of musicians, the soundtrack is an alternative rock behemoth. Hard to imagine many of the artists represented here got radio play in 1995. Alternative was commercially successful, allowing rock music to splinter off in various, musically diverse directions. Hootie was a major player, but Pulp could get a hit single. Beck was at this point a one-hit wonder, but was working on an era-defining record that would come out the following year. The bubble hadn’t burst yet. Man, 1995 was a strange and amazing time. Bush, Björk, Veruca Salt, L7, Belly, Portishead, Hole. They were all on commercial radio playlists and they’re also on this soundtrack.
6. Speaking of Hole, note that Courtney Love was the movie’s music consultant. Now, I’m not entirely sure what her title means here. Titles like “music consultant” and “music supervisor” tend to be flexible. The latter term is usually held by people who work closely with the director, the editor, and multiple representatives from various record labels, as well as help tend to legal matters like acquiring publishing rights, and clearing songs to be used in the movie and often the accompanying soundtrack.
My hunch is that Love’s duties were picking what songs she liked and would work with the movie, but had little involvement in the production. After all, she was a busy lady who was trying to heal from the death of her husband, raise her daughter, become a respected actress, and headline Lollapalooza with her band Hole. I don’t think she had time to field phone calls with label execs, although I’d like to imagine what those conversations might be like.
7. Oh, and since the first six points all involved women, let’s add the cherry on top. Tank Girl was directed by a woman named Rachel Talalay.
But as far as reading this movie . . . hummina. I don’t know what I saw. I know it takes place in what is now a not-too-distant, dystopian future and involves our fearless heroine leading a rag-tag group of girls and mutant kangaroo boys against a corrupt faction that control the earth’s water supply. Still with me? Here’s the trailer.
So, things I enjoyed or found interesting about the movie.
1. Naomi Watts kicks ass as Jet Girl. At first shy and fretful, she learns to embrace her intellect and technological savvy and develops the confidence to take charge of the crew and help beat the cast of baddies.
2. Tank Girl has strong relationships with Jet Girl and Rebecca, Tank Girl’s boyfriend’s young daughter. Homosocial bonding and female mentorship, holla!
3. OMG, the costumes. They could be a chapter in a dissertation on third-wave feminism’s fragmentive, performative, and self-reflexive relationship with fashion (note: if such a chapter exists, I want to read it). Tank Girl never wears the same outfit or hair color twice, and her wardrobe toys with historical periods, film genres, youth culture movements, often playing with age, gender, and race as well.
4. I can’t tell if Ann Magnuson’s Madame, who briefly kidnaps and attempts to employ Rebecca, is a sex-positive feminist, a critique against the then-timely rise of media’s interest in d0-me feminism, or just morally bankrupt.
And then there were things I hated.
1. While Tank Girl’s costuming is fascinating, that’s really the extent of her characterization. Much of this seems to be the fault of the writing. Petty is engaging enough, but Tank Girl is written as less a complex action heroine and more of a buzzword-and-slogan dispenser. Thus, she brings to mind characters like Itchy and Scratchy‘s Poochie, who was created to make fun of corporate-friendly extreme, in-your-face, subcultural cash cows. Perhaps her perceived lack of depth speaks to the awkward process of adapting a comic book into a movie, but her cinematic flatness betrays the torpedo bras.
2. Tank Girl also kicks a disappointing lack of ass here and has questionable methods. I can’t speak to her defense strategies in the comic, but the movie repeatedly has her lure disgusting men with her feminine wiles. Sometimes they get kicked in the balls, but she still shows them her bra or promises sexual favors beforehand.
3. Man, how did Malcolm MacDowell fool people into thinking he could act? He’s the villainous Kesslee here and is making himself quite the ham sandwich. Some may bring up Al Pacino and note that certain actors deliver progressively broader performances as they age, but I think MacDowell’s accent played a role in snowing audiences as well. I think his Britishness even convinced people he was better in If . . . and A Clockwork Orange than he actually was. Charismatic and handsome? Yes. Once a great actor? I don’t think so.
4. I feel like there’s something racially problematic about the mutant kangaroo soldiers who take up with Tank Girl’s crew. Thoughts?
In short, Tank Girl makes for a maddening but interesting spectatorial experience. Now to get a hold of the source material . . .
Attention holiday shoppers, ’80s nostalgists, and feminist music geeks! Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, and Cyndi Lauper went Barbie for Mattel’s Ladies of the ’80s collection. Apparently this was announced late last month, but I didn’t hear about it until checking Caryn Rose‘s Twitter feed last night.
So, as with most things, I’m a bit ambivalent about this collection. For one, it’s hard for me to imagine pre-pubescent playing with these dolls. Furthermore, with the collection’s bent toward ’80s nostalgia, there’s a good chance that girls today don’t know who these rockin’ ladies are (though I hope today’s parents are exposing their children to this music — I know many of the campers at GRCA this summer knew who Debbie, Joan, and Cyndi were when I taught the music history workshops with my friend Kristen).
I also take issue with how the women’s features have been homogenized to look more like Barbie. While this seems appropriate for Harry, as she has delicate features and was very slender during her days with Blondie, I’d appreciate it if Lauper was curvier and maintained her multi-colored mane. Jett’s costuming is fine, but I’d like her mullet to be more pronounced. Also, get the lady a leather jacket, please. And maybe the rest of The Runaways to reunite with her.
There’s also the issue of price. After a quick glance at Barbie’s Web site, it looks as though the average price for a doll is around $20. While hardly inexpensive for some folks, the retail value of the Ladies of the ’80s collection is $35 a rocker chick. Imagine how the price would go up if they decided to create and market ’80s-era girl bands, like The Go-Gos.
Let’s not overlook race either. It looks as though Mattel only considered white women when selecting the female pop stars that best defined the era. Where’s Janet Jackson or Tina Turner, to name but two examples? Also, I’d like an expansion of the collection to include male musical artists. How about starting with Michael Jackson and Prince?
And finally, there’s the issue of turning these women into dolls at all. Now, I was never much of a doll enthusiast as a girl. I understand that feminist and doll collector are not mutually exclusive identity markers (after all, “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is my favorite Simpsons episode). Still, it’s hard for me to see the collection and not think of how this group of punk-y women and their individual contributions to popular music challenged how women could look and sound in media culture are being normalized and exploited for corporate gains.
But, as Erica Rand points out in her wonderful book, Barbie’s Queer Accessories, the cultural limitations of the doll are defined by the collector, not the corporation.
Here’s hoping that some collectors use their imaginations to maximize these doll’s progressive or even transgressive potential. With any luck, the dolls will have formed a band, cured cancer, come out, gone bald, or dyed green in some homes by the end of the holiday season.