Romanticising Passion

book-spines

Fiction is a breathing, unpredictable creature. It is created by one human being (or several) and consumed by many others (or just a few) but it certainly is something that cannot be controlled. Once it has left its nest and seen the light of day, it will take whatever shape and form it takes, and there is nothing that can predict what that will be. There are so many elements at stake (from media, to society, to historical context, to audience) that will influence it, and it is truly difficult to determine what path each creature will take. Because of the status of fiction, there are stories that become extremely popular (for whatever reason) and that begin to take a form (or, say, a reputation) that creates and feeds a different idea and that result in a different product of what it was originally planned.

         It is safe to say by now that we live in an age where fandoms heavily influence and determine the path of fiction. Fandom is a blanket term I will use to describe “readership” or “viewership”, et cetera. Television shows are not only influenced by ratings (more so than by criticism and awards), they are now sometimes even funded by their targeted audience as well. The way fans respond to particular storylines will determine the direction of those (something I personally find terrifying and that I wish would stop: let’s stop killing these authors), and with that, the readings that the spectators choose to give each specific fiction product, will take a form of its own, one that will be very difficult to shake off. Not to mention the fact that the way these fictional products are created has changed as well, fanfiction is now being acquired by big publishing companies, the concept of self-publication does not sound so crazy anymore, and television shows are not only being funded by spectators but are also being distributed by a wide number of platforms (from paid services such as Netflix, to more public platforms such as Youtube).

             What am I trying to get at? Think about Romeo and Juliet. What do you think about when you think about Shakespeare’s famous play? Do you think about romance or do you think about the demise of two families? Do you think performed theatre? Written text? Film? I mean, Romeo and Juliet were two twelve year olds that met at a party, fell madly in lust, married the following day and died the next. That’s the extent of the story. You can perceive its theme as one thing or the other, but when you look at the facts, you have to wonder what happened for society to take a product about adolescent infatuation and death and turn it into a tale of star crossed lovers. I have obviously heavily reduced the true themes explored in the play, but I am trying to get a point across: Romeo and Juliet is a popularly known product, and most of the time it is inaccurately perceived.

Image4There are a few specific cases which have always struck me particularly, because they seem to have taken a form that detours so greatly from what it is that it continues to shock me that they can be interpreted so differently. For instance, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina* is a very long and rather in depth analysis of the different forms of relationships held within Russian society. It clearly establishes the line between three different marriages (Oblonsky & Dolly, Levin & Kitty, Karenin & Anna) at the same time that it deals with how these marriages deal with extra-marital relationships (Oblonsky and his many lovers, Levin and Levin (sic) and Anna and Vronsky). Each relationship is different, it deals with social disaster and defiance differently, and each example is a further proof of the difference and the uniqueness found in the human being. The novel focuses on all of these relationships and how they both intertwine and affect each other, and it does it almost in equal parts. Vronsky and Anna’s relationship is at the center of the novel and it is clearly a contrast to the rest of the relationships in the way that it deals with something perhaps different to love. It is a tale of obsession – an unhealthy and maddening obsession. An obsession that drives both parties mad, that from the very first moment, starts to deteriorate, destroying more than it can actually take. Whether if these characters willingly and consciously defy society, and how that is explored in the novel, is another story, for another day. What is clear is that Tolstoy clearly deconstructed these relationships to attempt to understand and contrast the nature of love and infatuation, as well as the nature of compromise and commitment. However, one can’t help but thinking about how differently this story seems to be perceived by the popular masses, and one can’t help but wonder if it is all a matter of advertisement or a matter of perception. When did Vronsky and Anna’s story become a tale of cross-star lovers? When was a 900 page long novel about Russian society reduced to the passion between two of its characters? Was it the way it was advertised and sold to modern audiences? Was it the reading it obtained from certain readers, or the reading it failed to obtain from other reading circles? What makes a tale of an emotionally destructive relationship turn into a love story?

                  Image3Another of the most misinterpreted stories of all time, in my most humble opinion, is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It is the story about a broken home with very broken characters that experience all kinds of abuse and despair, where its main characters share one of the most terrifying emotionally destructive relationships ever written, and yet it continues to be perceived, by modern and older readers alike, as one of the most beautiful love stories of all time. As a young and very impressionable literature student, I was horrified when we read the novel for class and I got to know these characters – mainly Heathcliff. I had always perceived him (by what  I had heard other teachers say or what I had gathered from popular culture) as the epitome of the romantic hero, the epitome of the tortured lover… when in reality Heatcliff was the clear definition of an abuser (an abused abuser, no doubt, because Brontë’s work is complex, I am not attempting to deny that) who kept destroying everyone around him, not only those who had not treated him rightly in the past, but especially those who attempted to love or help him in any way.  After reading a lot of critical work on Wuthering Heights, I feel strangely weird writing such a short paragraph and such finalising sentences on one of the most complex characters (in one of the most complex works) of literature, but I believe it is necessary to acknowledge Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship for what it was: a physically and emotionally abusive relationship, which was self-destructive, composed of two characters so self-absorbed in their own obsession for the other, that they failed to see the reality of their context. Still today Heathcliff and Cathy’s relationship continues to be sold as the story of a passionate love affair, and I find it sickening and worrying that we continue to believe in the idea of love as a painful act. What Heathcliff and Cathy felt for each other was not love, it was an unhealthy need for the other, an unhealthy need of possession. Love is about equality and respect and possession should never be a part of such equation.

                 I believe our society has made a special effort in glorifying the pain in love to the point that the lines between love and abuse have started to get blurred. As a society we have a duty to learn to discern between extreme emotion and obsession. It seems to be a very small barrier, but we have to be able to realise what composes each. Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights are not studies on love, but studies on how destructive an obsessive emotion – which might have stemmed from love – can turn out to be.  It is true that art is what we make of it, and we might read whatever we want to read in both these pieces of literature, but I always found it particularly harming that two stories that clearly attempt to point out problematic relationships, have ended up being icons for that which they attempted to denounce.

* I would like to point out Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of the novel, which was an incredible effort and which has been, I’m very sad to say, strangely overlooked by critics and viewers alike. It is an astounding deconstruction of the novel, done in a refreshingly metaphoric way, and I cannot recommend it enough. This adaptation is very objective in its portrayal of these relationships and it does not glorify the love affairs or the tragedies of its characters.

You can read Cristina’s latest article here.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl Trope: The Case of Ruby Sparks

ImageThe term “manic pixie dream girl” is not a new one. Critic Nathan Rabin coined it in his review of the movie Elizabethtown back in 2007 where he explains that a “manic pixie dream girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

You know the MPDG, you have encountered her many times in movies. From Kirsten Dunst’s Claire in “Elizabethtown” to Natalie Portman’s Sam in “Garden State and to a more recent Sam, Emma Watson’s character in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”*. You will recognize her easily. She is free-spirited, quirky, mysterious, likes indie music and her sole purpose in these movies is to make the male protagonist’s life less monotonous and sad so they can figure themselves out. They are female-shaped epiphanies if you will. They are usually created with the idea of making the male protagonist rethink his life choices, this MPDG will teach our hero how to be more easy-going, how to enjoy the little things in life and take himself less seriously so at the end of the movie he will have become the MAN he was supposed to be.  Basically the MPDG is the woman as an idea.

ImageNow, the case I want to discuss today is something different. I watched Ruby Sparks some months ago and I haven’t been quite able to keep it out of my mind. Although I feel (and this is my opinion) that the movie ultimately fails at going all the way through with its message, I think it’s an important movie with a great idea at its core. Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a “one hit wonder” writer who wrote a great book at a very young age and has been trying to write another one and live to everyone’s expectations (and his own) ever since. While trying to come up with this book he starts dreaming about a girl- beautiful, quirky, free spirited…well, you get the gist, right? Calvin thus proceeds to write about her and make her the heroine of his new book. In the process he becomes so enamored of this dream girl that he believes he is falling in love with her. Until one morning he wakes up and his creation, Ruby Sparks (played by Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the movie) herself, is there on the flesh, living and breathing in his living room.

At the beginning everything is perfect. Ruby is everything Calvin dreamt of (because he actually wrote her that way). But little by little Ruby starts to want more. She wants to get a job, she wants her own friends, she wants to test herself…in sum she wants to live her life the way she pleases. But what she doesn’t realize is that she is trapped by Calvin’s idealized version of her so she cannot move forward. She cannot escape it and when she tries to do so things get really messy.

ImageSomewhere in the movie Calvin says about Ruby: “She is complicated. That’s what I like best about her.” He likes her being complicated as long as it’s the cute kind of complicated, you know? He likes the kind of messy that is endearing. Not the real fucked up one which all real people experience. He likes her being complicated so long as it doesn’t actually interfere with his perfect idea of her. She can build play forts, act child-like and jump into beautifully lighted swimming pools at night but she cannot be assertive and make decisions for herself that he does not agree with.

That’s Ruby Spark’s message, I think. Ruby, like everyone who begins a new relationship, starts off as an idea but little by little she becomes real. The first stage of a relationship is obviously going to be great but the natural progression of things dictates that little by little you will get to really know the person you are with. The greatest case against the MPDG is that they don’t grow, change or evolve. They are just a catalyst or a male fantasy in which the woman is forever stuck in that honey-moon phase of the relationship.

ImageNow, while I was halfway through writing this piece I stumbled upon an interview of Zoe Kazan in which when asked about the MPDG trope she said this; “That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. […] I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.”

While I do understand what she is saying and where she is coming from I don’t fully support it. I agree 100% on the fact that not all original and quirky women found in movies are MPDG and we should not try to group them all together. The cases she mentions (and the ones I have previously discussed) have been labelled so without really considering the many complexities of said women. You can be quirky, endearing and original AND be a complex and real woman. One does not exclude the other. But I also think that the trope exists because we’ve seen it in too many movies. It’s problematic and thus it should not be ignored. The problem doesn’t lie with the term, the term in not misogynistic.  What is misogynistic is that female characters are so predominantly featured as nothing else than plot devices.

SprklsAt one point in Ruby Sparks Calvin, struggling with his success as an author and the idea the public has of him, says, “Women aren’t interested in me, they’re interested in some idea of me.” Well that’s really what it’s all about for the MPDG.

Now, while I think that Ruby Sparks creates a great case against the Manic Pixie Dream girl trope, I don’t think it was written with that idea in mind (and the words of Zoe Kazan are a testament to that) and thus that’s why I think it ultimately fails at it. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone but for me, it kind of invalidated the whole premise of the movie and the message that it had so strongly made a case of. At the end the movie ends up being a tad too forgiving of its male protagonist and the viewer is supposed to just forget how poorly Calvin treated Ruby. This is Hollywood after all and romantic comedies do get their happy endings.

*I want to analyze the cases of Summer in “500 Days of Summer” and Clementine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in a more in-depth article further down the road. While I agree that they would fit into MPDG trope at first glance but I think they are set up to subvert it somehow because we are not meant to fully trust the views of the male protagonists of said movies. After all, the first thing Clementine tells Joel in Eternal Sunshine is “I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.”

 

You can read María’s latest article here.

Jane Austen and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

This year marks the 200 anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Because of that, I come with a confession.  This might be social suicide, but I will risk it:  I think Jane Austen is terribly underrated. I truly do. I think that even Jaenites underrate Jane Austen. This isn’t a typo.

             What’s my deal? Do I live in a cave? Am I unresponsive to the events taking place in my surroundings? Look, no. I’m aware Jane Austen is probably the most talked about female classic author. There are so many adaptations of all of her novels that sometimes you wonder if they’re truly necessary (and the answer is YES, by the way: every adaptation is necessary, every reread is necessary, do not ever let the world tell you otherwise). I was about to affirm that Jane Austen is the most adapted author of all time, but a quick Google search told me it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Still, I think that had I told you Jane Austen was, you would have believed me, because it simply makes sense. It simply feels right.

              So why on earth would I say Austen is underrated? Well, nine times out of ten, I will get strange glares whenever I proclaim to the world I LUV JANE AUSTEN. Nine times out of ten, people will believe Jane Austen wrote “those romance novels” and will go away thinking their snarky remarks are… acceptable. Nine times out of ten, a news article or whatever we call it these days will describe Jane Austen as the writer that “knew all about romance, despite being a maiden herself!”

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And that is why it is with great sadness that I said goodbye to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries last week. Because The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is not merely an adaptation of Austen’s work, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries takes Austen’s work a step forward and that is, in my humble opinion, what adaptations should be all about. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has not only adapted Pride and Prejudice to a modern setting successfully, creating a narrative that is both fluid, relevant and realistic, but it also has incorporated the 2.0 era into it, retro alimenting itself, in a very post-modern way (the show exists thanks to the wonderful mediatic world of Youtube, so the show is a big and long love letter to Youtube as a platform as well). It has also managed to adapt the novel culturally and socially into this day and age, and what is more, it has done it right.

pfi_b6ae6a73079d65ff9c582f4f582ea3e9               Pride and Prejudice is a protofeminist novel (protofeminist being understood as a text that contains feminist elements, literary wise, but that was produced in an age when feminism still had no name as such, and had no movement attached to it). As such, the revolutionary tones of Elizabeth as a protofeminist heroine have been translated into today’s settings in Lizzie as well. Elizabeth is a very revolutionary character for the times, this might come out as a shock but there are a few of her qualities as a character that make her so: consider the fact that she rejects Mr. Collins because she dislikes him, when Mr. Collins is actually the only way out of the incredibly poor economic situation of the Bennets. By marrying Mr. Collins, all of her sisters, as well as her mother, would not have had to worry about their future upon their father’s death. By rejecting him, she is refusing to sacrifice her future happiness for her family, as well as refusing to accept to play by society’s rules (those that denied women a right to inheritance, thus forcing them to attach themselves to a man as a piece of property). But that’s not the only thing making Elizabeth a revolutionary character: she is outspoken, critical and opinionated. The Lizzie Bennet’s Diaries’s Lizzie refuses a very juicy job offer from Ricky Collins in a time and age when not only her family but also herself need economic income desperately. But she does not want to “sell herself” to a kind of field she does not like, she prefers to stay true to herself and find her own way, rather than following her family’s wishes. She is also opinionated and outspoken, of course, and refuses to follow society’s rules (which is not seen as clearly as with novel-Lizzy, but can be found in the little details: she refuses to sell herself to a job, she refuses to maintain relationships, as well as forming acquaintances with people she dislikes, et cetera).

The show takes special care for making all of these characters, not just Lizzie, three
dimensional. Each character has their special purpose and even their personal subplots (as can be seen through the creation of additional secondary Youtube channels for certain characters that had a ‘back story’ in the novel but that could not be easily explored in the series). All of these characters have dreams and hopes, they have good qualities as well as flaws.

                   Lizzie wants a future, she wants a career. She moves for her family and friends but she’s thirsty (albeit slightly terrified) for change. She’s professionally driven, and extremely loyal. She’s valuable to herself and wishes to be independent, and she wishes to achieve such independence by herself. But she’s not the only character like that, this adaptation takes special care to make all characters refreshingly modern. Jane herself, who in the novel was described as a lovely creature but that was mostly exploited in regards of her love story with Bingley, is here given a very interesting career, one with which she fights for and one she puts before her love life on a number of occasions. She refuses to put up with the behaviour of those around her (as novel-Jane didn’t, in a way) and puts her own rules when it comes to forgiving and rekindling her relationship with Bing Lee. Lydia, somewhat underexplored and dismissed in the novel, considered the mindless, accelerated and promiscuous sister, is here given a different turn. The adaptation took special care to construct a back story that dealt with her romance with Wickham, giving it a frightening abusive twist (taking a look at the cheerful, lively Lydia of the first episodes, and the Lydia under Wickham’s influence as well as Lydia post-web-scandal was too heartbreaking).

VJIQw3BMyU             Not only our females have purposes, the way in which Collins, Bingley, Darcy and even Wickham are portrayed is admirable just as well. The most obvious instance is Bingley: Bingley’s proposal to Jane was revolutionary because he was marrying for love, to the woman his family somewhat disapproved of. In a modern setting, dating somebody your family disapproves of would not be enough, so what Bing Lee does it not only come back for Jane, he also refuses to confine himself to the family expectations by quitting his medical career, and decides to do things his own way, at his own pace. Only then, when both Jane and Bing have found themselves individually, then, and only then, do they decide to start something together.

               Still, and getting somewhat personal, I have to say my favourite of all is Charlotte. The way in which the adaptation has incorporated Charlotte into the narrative, allowing her to bloom as a character, creating an incredible bond between her and Lizzie and at the same time not condemning her choices, which so easily contrast with Lizzie’s, making her a very driven, loyal, independent, outspoken, successful, unique  and ultimately powerful woman, is simply brilliant.

          I’m afraid there is no short article that could make any justice to this adaptation, I would gladly write a dissertation on it, and even then I would still feel I am leaving details unexplored. But I tried to pick some representative examples to try and explain why I feel the way that I do. As I mentioned, I am a big Jane Austen fan, and as such I’ve seen many obscure adaptations of her work. But, as such a fan, not all of those have been particularly pleasing. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, however, has managed to do beautiful things with Austen’s work, and it has made me incredibly proud, week after week, to see that I am not alone in seeing her work as something other than a prolonged exploration of romance. Austen’s work was about women fighting their environment, and Lizzie Bennet is the proof of that.

          If you are so unfortunate as not having been able to follow this wonderful experiment live, you can change that right now by clicking right here, and starting from the very beginning. Be warned, though, it’s 100 episodes, and you will laugh but you will also cry (and squee, probably).

        You might also be interested in taking a look at Hank Green’s video where he explains the way the idea came to him and the reason why he chose Pride and Prejudice to develop as a web series:

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is a concept that was coined by Alison Bechdel in her comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1985. What the test consists of is of analysing the female presence in a film following three simple steps: First, are there two (named) women in the film? Second, do these two female characters speak to each other? And finally, do they speak about something other than a man?

tumblr_miah09l6nw1qfhzgyo1_500You would think that is an extremely and ridiculously easy thing to accomplish but it is actually not. What I particularly love about the Bechdel Test is that it is a very useful tool to point out the present problem of feminism (and by feminism I mean “equality between men and women”) in nowadays’ society. It is something extremely simple, something that surely happens daily in ‘real-life’ yet something that is difficult to achieve in the so-called representation of society through fiction. Because of the little amount of films being made today (especially in Hollywood) that pass this test, it is impossible to deny that we still live in a society ruled by an industry that continues to tell stories that are told and lived by men.

tumblr_miah09l6nw1qfhzgyo2_500The Bechdel Test, however, is only an anecdote, an easy and fast way to point out a problem. It is true that at the end of the day such a simple test will not be able to deconstruct a film or to decipher what the film truly is about. A film may pass The Bechdel Test and still be incredibly problematic in its portrayal of its female characters, and a film may not pass such a test and still be able to portray a female character in an incredible and necessary way. But it is an interesting concept, because it points at Hollywood filmmakers, and it asks them about the kind of faked reality they are trying to build. It is a reality where women are barely in films as individuals, where there is little depth put into these characters. It is not a problem about the female presence in Hollywood, it is obvious that actresses get work, it is about the kind of characters that are being written, the kind of stories these characters are in.

              What fascinates me the most about The Bechdel Test is that I am a absolutely sure that I have never known a woman that does not pass this test in her real life, on a daily basis. It therefore is not only extremely preoccupying but it seems completely surrealist to me that it seems impossible for the great majority of films produced and released every week, to not even have a scene that contains two women talking to each other for less than two minutes, in the average hour and forty-five minutes of duration of such films.

               The stats at the official Bechdel Test website say that in their database they have 3479 films, out of which 1876 (53.9%) films pass the test completely (that is the three questions/steps). 386 (11.1%) of these films would pass two of the questions of the test, while 852 (24.5%) would pass one of the questions, and 365 (10.5%) films would not even have more than one woman in them. Taking into consideration that during 2012 and only in America 253 films were released, I’d say that doing the math, the problem is still present.

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So, while it may have its faults, I am a great fan of The Bechdel Test, because I firmly believe society can be reformed through fiction, I firmly believe that the first step to reforming society, is reforming such fiction, and if our current fiction cannot even be a representative of our reality, I do not think things are looking particularly well for our future.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Bechdel test, visit the official website, which has a lot of useful information, as well as more statistics. You can also take a look at the video Feminist Frequency did, right here.

Read Cristina’s last article here.

The Cycle of Violence: Can Violence Fight Violence?

After reading Maria’s piece on Ravenhill, we had a bit of turmoil here at Faceless Ladies. Suddenly, we all realised we had things to say as Maria’s questions started burning in our minds. That’s why we decided to do two additional pieces on the topic, call this a Cycle and turn it into a beautiful experiment. Here is Cristina’s piece.

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 Maria and I have been friends for quite a long time now, and as such, we have been theatre (as well as cinema) companions. We have read many books recommended by the other, and we have watched quite a dozen hundred television shows as well. We consume fiction together, and we tend to discuss it at length. The thoughts and ideas she poured into her article are thoughts I have discussed with her on a number of occasions, and something that I always find endearing is that sometimes we take turns: as one talks about her thoughts, and is unable to find the answer, the other nods, knowingly, perhaps muttering several “I knows”. That’s the point, actually: whenever we talk about this topic, we find ourselves unable to find the answers.

Do I think violence is needed to fight violence? No. I am actually an eerie pacifist. However, when it comes to art, I am a true believer of the in-your-face approach. I believe that in order for art to be something more than a “simple” piece of entertainment, that is to say, in order for art to be socially active as well as stirring, it must be direct, raw and most importantly, unforgiving. It must be brutally honest, and truly horrifying.

la-clh1.ca.0f.0903.scarface.0.1-02 (3)In my opinion, that is the only way for art to be completely effective. With such an approach, it will not leave the spectator undisturbed. It will create a need to question, to discuss, to debate… and most importantly, a need to reform. Sarah Kane once said she would “rather risk overdose in the theatre than in life”. That was one of her arguments in her use of violence on stage. She also wrote “I write the truth, and it kills me”. I believe all writers should write the truth, and I believe it should kill them (hopefully, not as literally as it did with her, though).

This belief of mine in the necessity for the horrifying means that I approve of violence on stage. I also approve of violence on the screen and on the page. I believe it’s also necessary to differ between a senseless portrayal of violence and a denouncing approach to it, and, at the same time, I am fully aware that the line between both is extremely blurred. I believe using violence on stage, or rather, say, on entertainment in general, is necessary in order to shock the spectator, in order to provoke a reaction. Without an extreme, unexpected event, the audience can placidly continue with their entertainment without questioning the content they are consuming or the society they are in. The problem, of course, comes with the eternal question: What makes a portrayal of violence denouncing and what makes it senseless? Who is the one to distinguish between both? And most importantly, if we encourage this cycle of violence, can it ever have an end? If the only way to fight violence is with a performance of violence, are we really putting an end to it or are we in fact reinforcing it?

Lisbeth And so this brings me back to Maria’s article. Has our society become so immunised to violence, and specifically violence against women that the portrayal of abuse has in fact become a new kind of entertainment, a new kind of performance? The fact that the portrayal of abuse has increased and has become alarmingly explicit in recent years would perhaps indicate to that. Have creators started to cross the line between entertainment and criticism? Are we, therefore, denouncing and deconstructing the problem at hand or are we in fact reinforcing it? Is the explicit representation of violence truly raising awareness, or is it actually numbing society in the face of such a problem? Are we writing strong women that face their fears and the acts performed against them, or are we writing victims and dramatising their suffering? The fact is that the sides of the matter are not clearly marked, they are in fact composed of very complex elements, and I don’t think there will ever be a clear answer for the questions that I am posing. In my opinion, it is a never ending cycle of violence, one that I am afraid cannot entirely be unraveled. One that seems to have become more complex with time.

In fact, I have the feeling that the use of fiction in order to fight reality is slowly morphing into something else that we cannot yet identify. Martin Crimp put it best in Attemps on her Life:

Seen it- perhaps. But not seen it afresh, not seen it now, not seen it in the context of a post-radical, of a post-human world where the gestures of radicalism take on a new meaning in a society where the radical gesture is simply one more form of entertainment i.e one more product – in this case an artwork – to/be consumed.”

You can read Cristina’s previous article here.

The Cycle of Violence: The Case of Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat

ImageLet me preface this by saying that I don’t think I’m equipped to properly discuss Mark Ravenhill. And yet, in a way, I want to try. I was introduced to his work some years ago when I had to read Shopping and Fucking for a class I was taking at university. To this day I think I still haven’t properly gotten over it. The experience was hard and distressing. In that class we were expected to read the plays and then take it in turns to re-enact some of its scenes. Shopping and Fucking was not one of the plays I got to act on but I remember the experience of watching some of my classmates do it. We were not professional actors, just a bunch of English Literature students trying to understand a text that was way beyond our scope. You could hardly look for what was going on and I remember feeling a mixture of pity and awe for the students who were “on stage”.

So when we went to see the production of Ravenhill’s Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat at the Teatre Lliure in Barcelona I was excited but scared. This selection of seven out of the seventeen short plays written by Ravenhill for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival deals with the personal and political effect of war on modern life and the West’s necessity to sell the whole world into the ideal panacea of “Freedom and Democracy”.

ImageAs I dreaded, expected and hoped, the plays are violent, powerful, incendiary and necessary. They are intense and they rise questions that will nag at you for days to come. They question choices and they discuss themes such as terror, fear, love and death. And most of the main characters are women. So it should come as no surprise, then, that there were a lot of women being killed, tortured, and raped on stage. Right?

After the play ended there was a Q&A with Mark Ravenhill himself. At some point he mentioned that he had written an almost all female play because there comes a time in an actress’s career when no one is offering them interesting roles to play and he thought that was crap. I think that’s commendable and very very true. And yet… I’m not sure if I’m entirely sold. I wanted to ask him why. Why all this violence against women? Was it necessary? Had he really chosen so many women to showcase how strong they can be (which really, they are!) or has it just been established that they will always be the ones being raped, beaten and abused? Five out of the seven plays performed showed some kind of abuse on women. Six if I want to be overtly precise, all of them showing situations in which women are overpowered by men and made to suffer in varying degrees of physical and mental abuse.

ImageNow, I don’t know what to make out of this. These are just questions that I ask myself because I want to understand. Have we reached a moment in time in which violence against women has become the cultural norm? Are we immunized against it? Has the representation of rape and violence against women become so permanent on the media that it just has ceased to surprise us? Or is this a necessary way to denounce a problem? Violence against women exists, and things don’t seem to be getting better so exposing it through art and in the media seems to be the logical way to shed some light into it.

The only way I have of trying to make sense of things is through my reaction to the play and while I thought it was brilliant it also left me emotionally tired and preoccupied. Why are women always on the receiving end? Why can’t we subvert the roles? While it is true that movies, television and even advertising are full of degrading imagery towards women, I had never felt it as deeply as this time. Theatre, in my opinion, always obtains the most visceral reactions.

I don’t think there is a campaign to abuse women on the media or the arts, and I feel like Mark Ravenhill in particular would be the first one to criticise such a thing, but that’s exactly what scares me. It seems that in order to bring attention to it we need to show more violence, and thus the endless cycle of violence can never broken.

You can read María’s previous article here.

Lady Nobody: on Being a Song

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Illustration by Catalina Estrada.

This is a little awkward for me because I swore to God – and myself – I would never write about my own music. But this time it’s for a good cause – maybe even a couple good ones. So I’m going to be talking about my song Lady Nobody. This is without a doubt the most special song I’ve ever written, both for the way in which it happened and for its meaning, obviously. So that’s what I’m going to try to do in this essay: I’ll talk about the magical way in which it wrote itself and about what it means to me. If you’d like, you can listen to it here, before reading and here are the lyrics:

Lady nobody
hiding in your room
Lady nobody
living inside your doom

Lady nobody
guilty of your pain
Lady nobody
always the one to blame

Oh oh oh…

You are free, finally
You can breathe, can’t you see, you are free

Lady nobody
crying out your tears
Lady nobody
life is led by fear

Lady nobody
a story for every bruise
Lady nobody
there is no excuse

Oh oh oh…

You are free, finally
You can breathe, can’t you see, you are free

So, what came first? The title. I remember writing the two words – lady, nobody – on my Blackberry notepad. Just that. I left it at that and then went on to write something else, some other attempt at ‘title-writing’. It didn’t mean much back then.

After a few months, I found myself being out of school for a quarter, during which I had time to just let ideas marinate and sink in. And then it happened. It was exactly as magical and mystical as I remembered it. I sat down and words literally flowed in the right manner, at a steady pace and with a plan. My mind immediately went back to those two words on my phone and I wrote them on top of a blank page on my notebook. The rest was easy, I finally knew who she was, what her place and mission were. Lady Nobody was every abused woman I had read and heard about. The ease with which the song happened balanced the amazing weight it had meaning-wise.

Lady Nobody was born inside of me a long time ago. When I lived in Barcelona I watched the news every single day – a bad habit I have since then lost fortunately – and I remember the disappointment and frustration I would feel watching how every day one woman – or more – would die because her current or ex partner thought she was seeing somebody else, or wearing a skirt that was too short, or because she had talked back to him…or simply because she had uttered a word. That to me was, and is, unacceptable, disgusting, enraging. Every woman who was beaten or died in the attempt of making her voice heard became an amazingly powerful symbol which grew and grew inside of me. I couldn’t stand the thought of hearing about another dead or barely-alive woman. It was something that really hit me, more than I’ve seen it hit other people, for some reason.

Either way, years passed, more women got beaten, stabbed, shot but I couldn’t find the right words to express all my rage and all my empathy for them. That is probably one of the most frustrating artistic processes; you can try and write pages and pages, but sometimes, you’re just not ready for your own words yet. However, Lady Nobody had already been born. I just needed to see her better in my mind. As elegant and graceful as you can imagine but equally denied in terms of her own identity, she was obliterated, made invisible, torn, stripped of her individuality and personality. All women and none at the same time.

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Finally, the day that Lady Nobody flowed out of me, I finally became her in a matter of instants. I was her, something had clicked. I could see her sad eyes and frail appearance; I could feel the fear she felt for her own life, her sense of desperation and entrapment, her physical and emotional pain, her exhaustion, the polluted air she was breathing. The corner of her room where she’d take refuge, the light she’d leave on at night, the concealer she’d use to cover her bruises. And I could see a huge broken heart. I could also feel how brave she was, trying to fight for her right to have a voice. Such a heroine against such a monster. But the key is, I could feel her relief after all, her sense of freedom and how all the pain had proven to be useful to liberate herself, to wake others up, to provide awareness. Lady Nobody had finally attained her freedom; she had been able to speak up with her chin held high. And she had done it through me.

Lady Nobody still doesn’t have a face in my mind but I can hear her firm voice in spite of the abuse she’s had to endure – she is a faceless lady but she is not voiceless. Despite her apparent powerlessness, she is amazingly powerful.

Lipstick and Self-esteem

A previous version of this article was originally published on March 2012, at  The World Occurred.

I don’t use a lot of makeup and the little I use I don’t use very often. It’s because of that that I didn’t own any lipstick until about two years and a half ago.  I was with my friend M and we were browsing through a beauty store. She pointed at a lipstick in a burgundy colour and said “you’d look good on that”. I had only put on lipstick twice in my life, both times for Halloween costumes. So, when M pointed at the lipstick I thought she was mad. When I tried it on and liked it, I thought I was mad. When I was paying for it, I thought I was throwing 10€ to the trash bin. Because, obviously, I was invaded by questions such as “When would I wear that?” “Why would I wear it?” “Who do you think you are?” “How dare you think you can pull that off?”… et cetera, et cetera.

            The fact that I started using lipstick is more significant than the simple fact that I started using lipstick. It represents the loss of a self loathing and self-imposed fear lived with for 25 years. Now, wearing lipstick comes as something strangely natural to me, but if I stop to think about it I see such an action as a clear symbol of the beginning of the loss of my low self esteem. I had been living with it for so long it had become a strange monster that had attached itself to my chest, and was living a very comfortable life off me. Getting rid of that monster was very hard, but a very natural process and at the same time it was very revealing of who I was and who I wanted to be. The fact that not only I bought that lipstick but that I started to wear it out, and that I was no longer afraid of being a girl who wears dark lipstick meant that I was not afraid of being whoever I wanted to be anymore. I was no longer afraid of being someone that other people would judge or dislike, or someone that other people might like and admire. Lipstick was only an insignificant representative of that change. I am not a fan of cosmetics, because they tend to force women to attempt to be a perfected version of someone they are not. I dislike the idea that we have to be perfect (a “perfect” designed by “society”, not by ourselves) by “changing” ourselves every morning. So, what I’m talking about here is not the mere act of wearing lipstick because I believe that makes me prettier or more feminine. I’m talking about the fact of allowing myself to wear something that I enjoy, and doing it for me, without being afraid of what people would say or think. This article is actually about any item of clothing you have ever thought you loved, but that you thought was not for you.

            I think it’s time we start considering these lipsticks and these pieces of clothing not as love affairs with cosmetics and fashion but as love affairs with ourselves.

            Now about a year ago I stumbled across this article which very rightly points out that : “Almost Half Of Women Don’t Like Their Faces Unless They’re Spackled With Makeup”. The immediate and evident first question that comes to mind is: Are ALL of these women BORN with the hatred of their faces? Or are they nurtured to believe they are ugly, and that therefore they have something to apologise for, something to feel guilty about, something to fix, and the only remedy is makeup? Personally, I believe there are many ways to deal with makeup and some of these ways are very problematic, just as others are not. As Adrienne Ressler points out (she’s quoted on that same article) “There is concern, however, when makeup no longer becomes a tool for enhancement but, rather, a security blanket that conceals negative feelings about one’s self-image and self-esteem.”

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I’ve read, or heard many times now, how “men” “hate” “makeup”. Yet I see fashion blogs and beauty videos in which women create the perfect “no-makeup-makeup look” in which it’s all about using makeup to pretend you’re not wearing any makeup. Which is humorous, really. These videos are perhaps shot by women who have developed a passion for makeup, and love it, but “cannot use it” because “men don’t like it”, therefore they develop the perfect way to use makeup so that it looks like they’re not using any. I think it’s very humorous, this whole social legend that “men” “hate” “makeup”. I find it humorous because what “men” allegedly “hate” is the obvious traces of makeup on a woman’s face, therefore what they allegedly hate is to recognise the effort in attempting to beautify oneself. They don’t “hate” “makeup” on women, because I’d venture to say at least 50 per cent of women wear one product of sorts daily. Therefore, I must assume what they really hate is “obvious makeup”. Therefore, the act of recognising that such beauty – to some extent – is not “natural”, is not “real”. Recognising that what they are seeing is “an illusion”, and at some point, it will go. The funny part is that everything is an illusion. Whether you’re wearing any makeup or not, every single thing about you is an illusion to other people. We worry so much about our physical appearance being an illusion, when in reality our performance is rooted somewhere much deeper within us.

               My thoughts on this are that I simply hate to think of a girl who is putting on makeup to impress anybody other than herself. I understand the concept of wanting to look nice, because looking nice helps you feel nice. But you should not want to look nice only for somebody else. I do not care what “men” think of my lipstick. I do not exist for men. I exist for myself. That’s my problem with makeup, because it feels like females are forced to perform themselves for the benefit of their wishful significant others. I hate that idea, I abhor it. And the irony to see all of these women being marketed into thinking they must use makeup in order to be beautiful for men, when in reality, men seem to dislike such an action. I love red lipstick because one day I put it on, looked at myself in the mirror, and loved what I saw. Wearing red lipstick should not be a weapon of seduction. Not of the ‘other’ at least.

            I worry about the fact that some women have such a dependency on makeup that they don’t feel they are valid enough without it, that they feel they’re not beautiful enough, that they must hide their “flaws” behind a “mask”, and most importantly I worry about the fact that women that love something genuinely cannot use it because of what they think other people will think, because they think their chances of being “attractive” are diminished, et cetera. It’s scary, that you cannot wear something you like because “men” won’t like it. I don’t understand it. I don’t enjoy it. I’m not blaming women in here, obviously. I’d raise my fist into the air and blame patriarchy, but the truth is that this is a vicious circle and its beginning is impossible to spot. Because of that, the solution is almost unreachable to me. We are nurtured from such a young age to have the same set of ideas about beauty, that even when you are able to recognise what part of your social thought comes from you, and what part comes from society, re-shaping the patterns is an incredibly complex thing to do.

            I can only say that these are our faces, these are our bodies and these are our lives. So we should do whatever we enjoy with them, because denying yourself the simply, stupid, minimal pleasure of feeling beautiful is simply idiotic. And with this, I attempt to gather both groups: If you despise makeup, don’t wear any. If you like makeup, wear it however you like. It’s as simple as that. No need to overanalyse this any further. If you like a t-shirt, wear it. If you don’t, don’t. Don’t put on makeup because you think other people will find you more attractive. Don’t stop wearing makeup because you think other people will find you more attractive. Don’t let your hair grow because you think other people will find you more attractive. Don’t cut your hair because you think other people will find you more attractive. Do things for yourself, because you enjoy them. Don’t alter your appearance based on social imposition. You only live once, and I am pretty sure when you’re a 90 year old lady on your rocking chair you will not appreciate all of the things you denied yourself of, just because you had the delusion that some boy or some girl would have liked you best that way.

            When I wrote this, I didn’t really have an idea of where I was going with it. Perhaps I simply wanted to justify my love for lipstick, making it clear that I do not wear it for others, but for myself. That I love it. That I don’t think nor care about the effect it will have on my power to attract others, because I know the effect it has on my attraction for myself, and that is enough. That is more than enough. Cheesy as it sounds, lipstick is now a symbol of a healthy relationship with myself.

            There are other articles and campaigns going on online but I my personal favourites are the Beauty Pressure Dove Campaign and Killing Us Softly Part 4.

Read Cristina’s first article on Laura Marling here.

Know more about Faceless Ladies here.

Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

“I turned the pages so fast. And I suppose I was, in my mindless way, looking for a something, version of myself, a heroine I could slip inside as one might a pair of favourite shoes.”

13562049DISCLAIMER: I will discuss the novel at length and this will lead me to reveal big plot developments so beware of spoilers.

 I feel like I need to start by saying I love Ian McEwan. I love him in a way that is difficult to express without turning into a puddle of giggly thoughts. Atonement is one of my favorite novels of all time. Whenever I read one of his books I feel like this is a man who understands human nature. That is why when I read that Sweet Tooth was coming out I was over the moon with glee. But not only were we getting a new book, it was also the first one since Atonement with a female heroine at its center. I was sold.

The basic premise for the book is simple yet deceiving. At a rather young age Serena Frome becomes a low-level recruit for England’s intelligence agency, MI5. She is supposedly hired because she is a compulsive reader (also, because she sleeps with some man?) and thus the perfect under-cover agent to infiltrate the life of writer Tom Haley in whom the agency has invested interests. Once she gets to know him it becomes impossible for her to differentiate her mission from her real feelings as she falls in love with him.

So this is a spy novel with a bit of sexy romance in it, right? Somewhere in the blurb you can even find something along the lines of “espionage is the ultimate seduction”. But is it really? Obviously it is not. What the novel turns out to be is something completely different and so much more complex and important than that. It is about women. It’s about men. It’s about male writers and a woman’s consciousness. It’s about male writers inhabiting a woman’s consciousness and making it their own playground.

From the start something in the novel feels strange. If you are a usual reader of McEwan you can sense it right from the first lines. Serena is intelligent but lacks depth. She is one-dimensional and very simple at times. She likes to read novels. She has a family. Not much of her is known prior to the moment when the book starts. She likes men. Mostly she likes to discuss the men in her life. There are facts and there are actions but there is no true self. She does not seem to grow or change. The façade of the woman is there but nothing true or interesting comes out of her. Which would be just fine in any other novel but this is in no way a character Ian McEwan would create or feel any interest in writing about.

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But of course as the book comes to a close (and much before that if you, like me, know the author) you realize that this has never been Serena’s book. It’s been Tom Haley’s all along. The fact of the matter is that towards the end of the novel Haley discovers that Serena has been lying to him and leading a double life. In order to understand her decisions he has to get inside her head and the only way he knows how to do that is by writing her. So while all along we thought Serena was the one speaking to us it turns out that it was Haley from the start. The real woman exists, but is she at all like Haley invents? Why is this important? I have read reviews suggesting that the “final twist” doesn’t work, that it lacks emotion. But this is not a book about twists. This is not a book about spies. This is a novel about writing and about the male gaze and how male writers write about women, how they try to inhabit and understand them. If Serena seems to be bland and a bit one-dimensional at times it’s because we are just scratching at the base of her true being. And if we always feel like we don’t really know her it’s because we don’t. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Serena is just an ideal; she is not the real woman. We are supposed to be disconnected from her. Once the revelation occurs everything falls into place and most of Serena’s actions start making sense. The adoration she feels for Haley, her pliability, her intellectual inferiority, and the way she seems to enjoy his sexual domination. Once it becomes clear that Serena’s inner consciousness has been rewritten and that it was never her own but Haley’s idealized version of her it all makes sense.

“I was the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form.”

I have no problem with men writing women. Men have written some of the greatest works of literature about women. I also don’t think Sweet Tooth is a critique of that. But McEwan is indeed writing about men and about this idea of what a perfect woman should be like. He is writing about how Serena is just a vessel for a man to channel his own demons. Serena is just another of the author’s creations, a vacant and compliant woman, a doll if you may. Incidentally this is a recurring theme in the book as throughout the novel we can read some of Haley’s stories, one of which is about a man who falls in love with a store mannequin. It is also in these stories that the reader can glimpse the true meaning of what is going on. The stories are powerful, have depth and are hauntingly beautiful and sad in equal parts. These stories show that the writer is not unable to transmit real feelings with his words, he has beauty in him, but in trying to imagine Serena he falls short. He doesn’t understand the woman behind the face. He over-simplifies her interests and misunderstands her actions. He makes her uninteresting and boring. He writes her as he’d wish her to be instead of how she really is; complex and flawed, a real living woman. But he does so because Serena was never the focus of the story, she was only an excuse to write about himself.

While Sweet Tooth does not have the epic scope that Atonement did and it lacks its lyricism and beauty of words (for a reason) I feel like this is a much more important book. It teaches us about the politics of gender. It shows us how deeply men can misunderstand women and how fraught with deceit and wish fulfillment relationships can be. This is a book that demands to be reread and understood.

Author Spotlight: Laura Marling

I am not interested in art produced by women any more than I am interested in art produced by men. The impossibility of women to produce art and be recognised for it does interest and occupy my mind but I do not consider or value art based on who created it. I consider it on what it depicts and represents, and on the power it is able to bestow.

                I never listened to Laura Marling looking for a female experience – that is what I am trying to say. I never felt that her words and her music made me feel particularly identified with her as a female. It was always a matter of feeling identified with her as a human being. Her music is intimate, delicate and raw. I was always fascinated by the fact that she’s such a young woman yet her lyrics are profoundly mature, strangely wise.

                Marling’s first album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was published in 2008 by Virgin Records. She was 18. It was duly noted by critics and fans alike, it was certainly promising, but I doubt by listening to it you could truly suspect what was coming next. The following two albums, I Speak Because I Can (2010) and A Creature I Don’t Know (2011), keep navigating further from that first experiment. It seems somewhat curious, that with each new effort, her music becomes simultaneously more complex yet more simplistic. It seems she is going towards some sort of rhythmic poetry, where she merely mutters her words as a few chords accompany her voice. Her next album, scheduled for a 2013 release, is said to start off with a 30-minute medley. Needless to say, when I read that piece of news I almost wept with joy.

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Her growing fame and critical acclaim, though, have not marred her writing. And I say this because sadly it is what tends to happen after three albums and one too many tours: inspiration begins to lack. Her lyrics are as poignant now, if not more, as they were back when she was a seventeen year old. Reading, listening to her, feels like witnessing her inner growth process, and it is a particularly interesting one. Somebody that wrote ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ at seventeen is most certainly going to keep on doing interesting things by her thirties.

                With my opening paragraph I was trying to make a point. I did not perceive listening to her music as a female experience until I came across ‘To be a Woman’ which was written at some point during 2010 and never made it into an album. It’s one of those golden b-sides or rare tracks, one of those that are just so good you cannot stop wondering why they didn’t make it. Sadly, YouTube is my only source for it, because while it can allegedly be found in the Flicker and Fail single, I am yet to find a digital copy for it.

Call me a freak, but most of the time I treat my music experiences as intimate relationships with my favourite singers. Listening to a song is not merely listening to a song, but having a raw and honest conversation with an intimate friend – in my mind.  Up until ‘To be a Woman’, speaking to Laura Marling was about the contradictions inherent in the human condition, about love and friendship, about acceptance, about terror of the future, about destructive relationships, of letting go of anger, of loving by rage, of being wounded by dust. After listening to ‘To be a Woman’, my perception of all of those gave a turn. The wounds inflicted by dust were now gripped by another dimension.

Perhaps I should stop typing, and let her do the talking.

I feel a bond between us

I have felt like you do

I know better than to take it away from you

I have right

The only one in my life

A right to what is rightfully mine

Untainted, untempting, and sober

I will never touch that skin again

I will never feel that way again

I will never look into the face

Of my father or my friends

And be able to say, I’m okay, I’m okay

I don’t feel pain anyway

Not anymore, anyway

And I’m not dead yet

I could be soon

And all I want to do

Is put my arms around you

Little girl, it’s all so new

Girl, little girl, you need to learn, little girl

Not to take what is mine

I’m not dead yet

I could be soon

And all I want to do

Is put my arms around you

Little girl, it’s all so new

Girl, little girl, you need to learn, little girl

What it is to be a woman

All songs will (and must, I believe) be interpreted differently by each listener. Music, as literature, as any form of art, is put forward by an artist to be interpreted at will by its audience. I do not believe in artists telling me about their own interpretation of their own texts. I do not believe that is the point of art. The point of art is to exercise your right to question life. If you cannot even decide what your favourite song means to you, what kind of freedom, what kind of enjoyment is there? And so ‘To be a Woman’ has been many different things in just a few months to me.

It has been a song of revenge, a song of despair, a song that spoke to others and to nobody. In the end, to me it was a song about myself. A song about the pain of growing up as a woman. About that somewhat inherent pain you feel. About an older self that speaks to her younger self, knowingly, warningly, about a lost pain that will never be recovered and yet will always be present. About the wisdom that is yet to be gained. This is a pain and an experience that I have only seen properly described by Jeffrey Eugenides in The Virgin Suicides and by Sylvia Plath in… all of her work. ‘To Be a Woman’ manages, in a few verses to give us a minuscule glimpse of what the pain of being a woman entails. A pain that is perhaps so intense due to the impossibility to define it, to describe it and to modify it. An uncategorized, untamable experience you can only get to know through your experiencing it. A pain you need to learn about.