Archive | May, 2012

The Beauty of the Olympic Body

31 May

Heptathlete and Olympic hopeful Jessica Ennis was recently denounced as “fat,” by a senior official at UK Athletics. The 26-year old is in the top 10 in her field worldwide, making the sprinting, hurdling, throwing woman likely in pristine and elite physical condition.






Two-time Olympic Gold-winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington has announced that she is abandoning her Twitter account during the London summer Olympics because of the near-constant abusive criticism she receives concerning her appearance and personality.                                           

What is going on here? What is at stake for random Twittering fools and members of UK Athletics with these forms of criticism? To judge a gold-medal winning swimmer for her “beauty”–whatever one’s particular standards of such may be, is totally and utterly irrelevant to her profession, public persona, and place in the world. To refer to a woman who likely engages in extreme physical activity for several hours a day, at least six times a week, as “fat” is foolhardy, false, and suspicious.

Further, how can this type of misogynist criticism be anything other than destructive when these women are preparing for some of the biggest competitive events each will face in their lifetimes? In addition to their daily training, mental and emotional preparation, and publicity events, they must also be expected to act and look as if they are in a beauty pageant? Hateful nonsense.

The day I hear tell of Bernard Lagat’s weight being ridiculed, or Michael Phelp’s attractiveness serving as indication of his physical and athletic greatness, is the day I win Miss Universe.


Joan and the Jaguar

30 May

This Sunday’s episode of Mad Men–entitled “The Other Woman”–concentrated on the career paths of three of its central female characters: Joan, Peggy, and Megan.  Though all 3 face significant choices and pitfalls, I want to focus on Joan’s trajectory in particular; she is the most consistently interesting character in my mind, and the majority of the critical response since Sunday has been concerned with her experience.

I do not want to summarize the episode’s content, there are plenty of TV review guides available on-line for that. Instead, I want to try to parse out how Joan’s plight and her responses to it are depicted. 

Tiny briefing: Faced with another opportunity to land the Jaguar account, SCDP is informed by a mid-level player on the Jaguar team that he will not sign on unless he is provided with Joan as a “date.” Too easily, the men of SCDP go along with this indecent proposal, and its then suggestion to Joan conveys this clearly. Weighing her options, gazing into her future as a single mother, office manager and working class woman, Joan appears to realize that it is ultimately in her best (i.e. pragmatic) interests to accept the ugly, fat, married, car dealership owner’s offer (i.e. ultimatum).

Simultaneously, the “creatives” at SCDP are producing their successful Jaguar pitch, tagline–“Jaguar: at last, something beautiful you can truly own.” This ominous-sounding propriertary declaration appeals to the Jaguar executives, and SCDP rules the day. Joan’s prostitutional sacrifice undoubtedly helped the agency’s odds, and as they celebrate Joan smiles at no one in particular and looks more sphinx-like than ever.

Dozens of critical responses have appeared after Sunday’s show, the lion’s share in agreement at “The Other Woman”‘s brilliance–or at least its functionality as entertainment: 

Emily Nussbaum decides that, although she does not believe that Joan’s decision was “realistic,” she still concludes that “as TV, it worked.”

Matt Zoller Seitz interprets the episode as just one more evocative example of women’s near-constant objectification as the Other in relation to the male, and how women are forced to both constantly negotiate with and transcend this, in symbolic, structural, physical, literal, cultural and material ways.

Samantha Zalaznick concludes that Don Draper is steadily losing all his women:   

NPR columnist Linda Holmes, who states that although “The Other Woman” may be a highpoint for some, for her it is a “serious and profound misstep.”

Why has one episode generated so much chatter? Is the indecent proposal itself so shocking? Is the fact that Joan is finally getting some serious airtime that is producing all the excitement? For me, “The Other Woman” brilliantly represented the general allure of and pleasure from Mad Men that I almost always receive. Its 60’s setting allows it to depict scenes that we–the contemporary audience–all recognize but happily believe to be in the past. But then, the images, the trauma, the emotions linger, leaving me/one/us to wonder…are things really so different?

“The Other Woman” produced these feelings in me. As I sat watching, wondering how things have changed, if things have changed, in what ways things have changed, a Stella Artois commercial appeared:                                                                                                                                                                        A 60’s French ye-ye song plays as a young, beautiful, long-haired woman showers and readies herself for a party. The segments of her tasks and her body are displayed on several interlocking screens, reminiscent of “The Brady Bunch” introduction, or “The Hollywood Square” game show set; the 2011-made advertisement is intended to signify as “retro,” 60’s cool, and is obviously intended as a kind of reflection of the television show during which it’s airing.  The woman’s all ready to go, a beer is being poured, its foam sliced off the top of its stein, and the advert’s concluding words appear on screen: “She’s a thing of beauty.”

Are Joan and her Jaguar really that distant from the ideas generated in a commercial such as this? Can the tromp l’oeil excuse–that the ad’s merely a component of the show it’s interrupting–really minimize the literal and symbolic segmentation and objectification it’s depicting? And, most uncomfortably, might this commercial’s success indicate that Mad Men might not be quite so subversive or critical or thoughtful as assumed?

Yes, obviously, female executives most likely no longer feel pressure to literally prostitute themselves for promotion; but one of the reasons Mad Men resonates so strongly is because of the power of its scenarios and their symbolism, the way in which each episode can evoke reactions to the past, pondering over the present and wonders about the future.

“At last, something beautiful you can truly own” and “She’s a thing of beauty” are both speaking to the same audience, directed to the male viewer who desires the other (woman).  Both advertisements are produced in 2011, and placing themselves hypothetically in an imagined 1966. So, are the views expressed representative of then or (nearly 50 years later) now?

Football in the Ukraine

30 May

For the second time in a month, protestors from feminist action group FEMEN grabbed ahold of the Euro 2012 trophy cup.

Why are these acts garnering international attention? Well, because the women grabbing one of the world’s biggest football prizes are topless.

Members of the Ukranian feminist collective FEMEN have sweet-talked their way into promotional events for the European championship begining in June across Poland and the Ukraine, proceeding to subvert the events’ activities according to their own agenda. At issue for FEMEN is the likelihood of increased “sex tourism” during the tournament, a crisis that the members of FEMEN place at the forefront of their policy revolution. One of their central platforms is titled “Ukraine is not a Brothel,” and is devoted to the eradication of the burgeoning prostitution industry  in Ukraine, with its “sex tours,” red light districts, and tacit government sanction.

Would the activities of FEMEN receive so much attention if its members were clothed and/or unattractive? Probably not. Or, put another way–would the activities of FEMEN receive a more negatively-slanted form of publicity if its members were clothed and/or unattractive? Most definitely.

This being the case: that a pretty topless woman gains more curiousity and unwavering attention than a clothed ugly woman– can it also be surmised that the likelihood of the topless ingenue’s ire will be more objectively considered? Her rage at the system of female sexual enslavement, subordination and inequality cannot be written off as the irrelevant concerns of a harridan. For she is no harridan! No sir, she is a hot, sexy, skinny, nubile babe.

But, cannot it also be surmised that, in her more naked state, she is not just working within the system but validating it? Does a young beautiful woman with “Fuck Euro 2012” painted across her breasts assist in the destruction of a chauvinist state or a misogynist structure or a sexist sport culture?

A Beard in Cannes

28 May

When the 2012 Cannes Film Festival announced its schedule, a few cinephiles quickly noticed the absence of any female filmmakers in its Competition lineup. The festival screens dozens of films, however there is a many tiered process, in which its prizes are awarded accordingly. The Palme d’Or is the penultimate prize of the festival, the Grand Prix is the de facto second place prize, and the Jury Prize its third place honor. In addition, the festival awards the Camera d’Or to the first-time filmmaker of its choice, and the Un Certain Regard category provides aid and French distribution to films from varying parts of the globe. All this is to suggest that the festival is a many-armed beast, both invoking criticism and repelling it through its large size, ungainly shape and revered history.

In the opening days of the festival, feminist actionist group La Barbe appeared in protest on the festival’s famous red steps, while also circulating a vociferous petition both throughout the U. S. and Europe:                                             At issue for La Barbe is the total shut-out of female filmmakers in the main forum of the festival, which in turn has thrown into relief the festival’s history of male-directed winning and showcased films. The tone of the petition is shocked, sarcastic and aggrieved, addressed to Gilles Jacob, the festival’s president. Remarking incredulously that 4 female directors were included in last year’s Competition, the petition also notes that Jane Campion is the only woman to have won the Palme d’Or (for the 1993 film The Piano). La Barbe concludes its statement by noting that the festival has never had a problem with its inclusion of starlets, listing the several bombshells who have introduced the festival in its last few years.

Despite my own feminist cynical expectations, this claim seemed disputable. After some cursory research I discovered that La Barbe are unfortunately accurate in their claim that Jane Campion is the lone woman ever to be awarded the Palme d’Or. This kind of statistic is shameful, not necessarily because of the exclusiveness it implies, but because there are–and have been–so many wonderful films made by women in the last half century. (I will not bow to cite examples, for as the reader knows from a previous recent post, I feel that the recitation of protested exceptions truly does little to refute existing structures and their rules and ideologies.)

I would like to complicate the argument, however. No doubt, Cannes remains similar to the Oscars in its subconscious prejudices and preferences, hiding under its cloak of expertise and tradition. Further, Jacob’s stated aversion to “quotas” mirrors the French nation’s own refusal to take up or appreciate the uses of affirmative action and inclusionary policies. But any claim of a larger chauvinism manifested by Cannes is offset by the many festival subsets it possesses and presents.

The Festival’s Grand Prix (i.e. second place) has been awarded to a film by the young Japanese director Naomi Kawase; in the 1970’s the Grand Prix was awarded to the woefully little-known Hungarian director Marta Meszaros. The Festival’s Jury Prize (i.e. third place) has been twice awarded to U.K. director Andrea Arnold (who presides on this year’s jury); the Iranian young woman Samira Mahkmalbaf has also been awarded the Jury Prize twice; last year’s Jury Prize went to French director/actress/model/writer Maiwenn for Polisse; and the Iranian-French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi won for her long-form animated film Percepolis. The Camera d’Or has been awarded to 10 female filmmakers since 1985, and since its inception in 1998, Un Certain Regard has been bestowed to 7 female filmmakers.

I list these specifics because I think they are important both to the protests made by La Barbe and others, and to a needed complication of their argument. The many awards and honors that Cannes possesses do much to further the health, exposure and distribution possibilities worldwide. Undoubtedly, the Palme d’Or remains the penultimate honor for any working filmmaker, and its possibility must be available to any working filmmaker–regardless of nation state or sex. However, I would argue that awards such as the Camera d’Or and Un Certain Regard lead to as many possibilities as those connected to the Palme d’Or–they just remain lesser known to the general observer.

I do not agree with Andrea Arnold’s statements last week:, in which she claims that she would be appalled to be bestowed an award based on her sex, for they do little to alleviate the concerns expressed by La Barbe, and shed no light on the problem for those who remain blind to it. As a 2012 Jury member, Jury Prize winner Arnold must remain mindful of the Festival’s foundational purposes, to inculcate and inspire cinephilia worldwide, and to remain a central structural institution in the acknowledgement and distribution of films of all kinds. Selections that fall on the side of uniformity (of any kind) cannot be said to adhere to these tenets.

Post-script: It is important to note that there are at least 7 female filmmakers within the ranks of the other categories in the 2012 Festival–it is only the Competition category that remains completely male.

White Girls

4 May

For the past few months Lena Dunham and her “Girls” have been everywhere: full-page NYTimes advertisements,,,, mid-level culture rags combining their resources and praise to generate so much buzz that a crash could only be expected.

And though the new HBO series is a 30-minute fictional comedy, the degree to which the majority of the critical conversation hinged on its “realness” (one of the Slate podcasts opined that Hannah/Dunham would never say that in real life…), inserted a major dose of dubiousness into the “realness” of the reviewing.

So, as can only be expected following an enthusiasm onslaught, in the past few weeks the critical, feminist, and all-around ecstatic frenzy that is the Girls zeitgeist began to deteriorate. Now, instead of reading excited reviewers gushing over how great it was to see young women in bland Brooklyn apartments with regular bodies and bad boyfriends, the conversation turned to race, and a general bewilderment concerning the lack thereof in a show made in New York City.

All the principal ladies are white, as are their boyfriends, friends, hook-ups and acquaintances. The likelihood of living in an all-white enclave of New York City seemed nill; and therefore, the likelihood of Girls being as radical as originally interpreted began to seem so too. After the bewilderment came anger: if Dunham is as feminist and broad-minded as originally suggested, why does she want to depict and/or live in white-out?

Last week, the NYTimes published a forum in its Room for Debate section devoted to these questions:

Nine writers, actors and scholars discussed their differing responses to the Girls backlash, a few of whom wondering as to why this one 30-minute show–that has only aired 3 episodes as of Sunday, April 29–has produced such a passionate and divergent series of responses. Considering its placement on a premium cable network, at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night, not even halfway through its first season, how can its failings already be so established? How can a single, short story only in its infancy be blamed so loudly for issues that are rampant in the mediums of film and television? And, why are these questions being addressed to quite such a degree now? Where have they been?

Arguably, to some degree, Dunham had hit so many notes so high and well, that her failings surrounding the depictions of race and the choices of characterization made began to be seen in relief. How could she see so well and be so blind at the same time? However, given Dunham’s relentless focus on her character’s privileged background and outsized sense of entitlement, it does not seem too far-fetched to argue that her microcosm of interns and Antioch graduates would consist largely of white kids. For this whiteness to go unnoticed, for its characterizations and homogeneity to be depicted as universal, would serve as massive failings on a show so intuitive, incisive and brutal in other ways. I think the verdict’s still out. Granted, Girls  overwhelming whiteness is inarguable; but what remains arguable is the universality of the standards being applied to it. I say we take these same savvy, insightful and humanist standards and apply them to measure, critique and understand all the other pop culture products rotating around us as well.


Today’s “Fresh Air” episode was composed of a long interview between Terri Gross and Lena Dunham.

Titled “Lena Dunham addresses criticism aimed at ‘Girls,'” the episode was clearly an attempt at both marketing and mea culpa. After a few minutes of banter, Gross asks Dunham directly for her response to the onslaught of media criticism concerning the show’s white universe. Dunham chose her answers carefully, hewing closely to the show’s auto-biographical roots and narrative inspiration, going so far as to state that the 4 characters were all parts of her half-Jew, half WASP self: 2 Jews, 2 WASPS. Problematically, Dunham states that she did not realize the “Girls” near-total whiteness until after she had created it; she did not see its lack of diversity until it was singled out by dozens of critics.

As I listened to the interview, Dunham’s reasoning initially angered me: how could someone  so smart, so heavily educated in the humanities and the liberal arts,  so grounded in the cosmopolis that is New York City be so myopic?

I thought about it for awhile. And then I realized: Dunham’s reasoning provides the penultimate foundation for both the accusation against the all-white world of Hollywood, and the justification for a grounding in affirmative action, and the vehement defense towards the creation and installation of opportunity, education, and inspiration for students and budding artistic creators of all types. What I mean is this: Dunham’s “Girls” world would not exist without Dunham, its implicit and explicit femaleness being directly related to Dunham’s femaleness. The world of American television is slowly changing, with the gradual inclusion of female creators, writers, directors and producers. This very same world will not become more racially diverse until it is invaded by the inclusion of non-white creators, writers, directors and producers.