Ms. Magazine


_JWG8561‘Tis the season when theaters across the country announce their 2014-2015 seasons. Two plays continue to dominate the boards, just as they did last year: David Ives’ Venus in Fur and Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. These shows played off-Broadway in 2010 and 2012, respectively, both transferred to Broadway and both have been top choices for artistic directors across the country ever since.

The bajillionth time I saw that one or the other of these plays will be/have been part of a regional theater’s season, I had to ask myself,  What is it about these plays that makes them necessary art right now? Will they help promote the theaters’ stated missions of diversity and attracting new audiences? Are they about healthcare? Immigration? Gay rights? Gun violence? Unemployment? These are issues concerning all Americans these days. Plays about these topics might actually be timely in New York and Los Angeles and D.C. and San Francisco and Nashville and Dallas and Minneapolis and Chicago and Seattle and Milwaukee and Portland.

But neither of these two popular plays are about any of those things. They are both written by white dudes and  feature middle- and upper-class, educated white characters. And both plays contain characters who work in the theater. In other words, the plays are set in the same worlds occupied by the mostly white male artistic directors who love them, which may explain why they all find them so relevant. But I’m not so sure that they are that relevant to a theater audience that is 68 percent women (at least in London), and they certainly won’t bring in the young, diverse audiences that theaters claim to be devoted to attracting. Oh, but Venus in Fur does have a dominatrix. So there’s that.

_JWG8917Meanwhile, genuinely relevant, quality plays are being written by women all over the country. Deborah Salem-Smith’s play Love Alone, for example, is an intimate play about family and grief that also manages to take on gay rights and medical malpractice. The story centers on three women at totally different points in their lives: Helen Warren (50s), her daughter Clementine (20s) and Dr. Becca Neal, a 33-year-old anesthesiologist. When Helen’s partner of 20 years, Susan, dies while undergoing minor surgery, Helen and Clementine have to learn to live without her, while Dr. Neal has to deal with her first “bad outcome”–the loss of a patient on the operating table.

The brilliance of Smith’s play is that it works on both personal and political levels. Helen and Clementine go through the same thing every mother and child go through upon losing a family member: They cry, they laugh, they yell and, in the form of a lawsuit against the hospital, they seek an explanation for a loss that can probably never be satisfyingly explained. Witnessing these deeply human experiences allows audience members to empathize and identify with the characters, so that when they discover that Helen–not having been married to Susan–does not have legal standing to hold the hospital accountable, they understand on a personal level how deeply unjust marriage inequality is.

In what must feel like a rare gift to the women in Love Alone, all three characters have complete story arcs that make them more than just wives, mothers and daughters. The loss of Susan changes Helen, who had never been the kind of person who seeks revenge. It changes Clementine, a rock-’n’-roll performer whose music becomes quieter and more introspective. And Dr. Neal goes from being cold and distant (she experiences the tragedy primarily as a threat to her career) to being compassionate and able to accept responsibility.

Love Alone, which premiered at Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island in 2012, will open its second production on March 1 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C. Smith shared with me her goal in writing the play:

I really wanted to write a play with a 20-something female who is not in a love story, because I don’t see that person on stage enough, and I think 20-year-old vibrant women have a ton going on in their lives. They’re not just trying to kiss someone.

Smith’s previous plays did not contain gay characters, but as her children have grown older she’s begun deliberately writing them and deliberately addressing issues relevant to gay families like her own:

I started to have a growing realization that as our children are getting older and they start coming to the theater, I want them to see our family on stage. The other motivation was that when we talk about marriage equality in our country, we tend to overlook that the biggest cost of having a lack of marriage equality is on children. Because a lot of gay families now have children, and you put those children in a really perilous positions when you don’t empower those parents to make choices for the family.

_JWG8833I spoke with the director of this production, Vivienne Benesch, about how she thinks the play will resonate with a North Carolina audience:

I hope and expect that it leads to a very genuine conversation about an important topic–marriage equality–that may not even be in the zeitgeist of that community in the way that it should be. I’m also excited to be doing it in the Research Triangle and the medical community, because they understand the ethical tightrope that medical professionals have to walk.

Relevance to the community in which it is being produced? Check. Written by a woman, featuring women characters that can be cast with any ethnicity and therefore add diversity to a theater’s season? Check. Appeal to a young audience by featuring live rock music and projected music videos? Check. No wonder artistic director Joseph Haj decided to produce it. He put it this way:

Deborah’s play is beautiful. Full stop. That’s why we programmed it. It offers aesthetic diversity, a diversity in point-of-view and diversity in style from much of our other work. We’d be crazy not to want that for ourselves. It’s actually that simple. Running a theater is monstrously difficult. Including women and people of color as playwrights and directors is not one of the hard parts of the job.

PlayMaker’s 2014-2015 season includes 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog and Trouble in Mind by the late Alice Childress, who is African American as well as a woman. Of course the season also includes Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike. Given Haj’s genuine dedication to diversity, maybe at least he, unlike everyone else across the country, won’t cast it entirely with white folks.

Love Alone runs through March 16.

Photos by Jon Gardiner

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CRK-1Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

At a recent panel on diversity in Southern California theater, several of the artistic directors on the panel trotted out familiar platitudes about their commitment to diversity, their willingness to challenge their audiences with plays about people that don’t look like them and their desire to build a more diverse audience. Yet these same artistic directors run theaters that still devote the majority of their resources to plays written and directed by white men.

Given the astonishing range of theater being made by women and people of color all over the country (see here, here, here and here, to name just a few plays), the reluctance of major theaters to walk the walk they talk is increasingly at odds with the reality of American theater as a whole. Yet somehow, the argument is still being made that there just aren’t plays out there by women and people of color that are ready to be produced in the big time.

Well, I’m starting a binder. Binders of plays, binders of playwrights and binders of women and people of color currently writing and directing in the professional theater will be available to any leaders who continue to protest, “I want to produce a diverse season, I just can’t find any plays.” I’ll start the list with two–you add on in Comments.

After, all imageJennifer Berry’s After, All, which opens February 14 at the Carrie Hamilton Theatre as a guest production of The Pasadena Playhouse, explores the nature of female friendships through two women in their 40s who were brought together by circumstance and torn apart by loss. The play explores marriage, motherhood, divorce, mid-life career changes and the particular kind of intimacy that women share. Berry, who is directing the play herself, shared,

Women’s friendships are close, so I find what we tell each other, what we keep secret, what we show, really interesting to write about. Women raise their children side-by-side. If you go check out any park in Los Angeles, you’re gonna see a bunch of women sitting their with their kids talking, and usually it’s not the kids that they’re talking about. They’re usually talking about their lives and their secrets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe play not only provides roles for two women in their 40s, it also shows us these women free of any male gaze. Though men are spoken of and are part of the characters’ lives, the audience engages directly with these women as people rather than through their husbands and children. Accordingly, they talk about much more than husbands and children. Berry again,

One of the women says things that nobody else will say: We’re just friends because of circumstances. Some of it harsh, but a lot of it is real. It’s what two women, closed in a room together, would say to each other if they knew this is the last time you were going to see this friend that you loved so much.

Though the production is taking advantage of the opportunity to market the play specifically to women and their friends (the matinee on Sunday, February 23, offers a two-for-one deal to women who come together), nothing about the play actually makes it niche. After all, the Western canon contains a number of plays about men that are not presumed to be of interest solely to men. With plays about men by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett,  Sam Shepard and Edward Albee, audience members can simultaneously empathize with the characters as humans and understand the role that sex and gender play in defining them, regardless of whether they share that character’s sex, gender or ethnicity. The same is true of After, All.

Note to artistic directors: The actors in After, All could be women of any color. So go on, make it a two-fer.

On February 22, Closely Related Keys, written by Wendy Graf and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, will open at The Lounge Theatre in Hollywood. Graf’s play takes place in New York and centers around Julia, a young, successful lawyer who suddenly finds out she has a half-sister in Iraq. When that sister shows up on her doorstep, Julia and her estranged father are forced to confront their past and their own prejudices.

Rich Schmitt Photography 002Graf, who is Jewish, has written a number of plays with Jewish characters and themes, but she also writes characters with cultural heritages different from her own. No Word in Guyanese for Me is about a lesbian Muslim refugee from Guyana. Leipzig  features an Irish-Catholic family in Boston. Though this production has a black family at the heart of its story, with Julia being in an interracial relationship with a white man, director Finney told me,

Anybody could tell this story or play this story. The core of this family could be anyone. The biracial relationship, the betrayal of the father, the multi-cultural child and the foreign element could be told by anybody and the story would remain the same. This is not a play about the African-American experience. This story is very contemporary and is about the interconnected world we live in.

Finney’s resume is as diverse as Graf’s: She has directed plays by and about African Americans, Latinos and Japanese people:

My job as a mythmaker is to tell the emotional truth of that story—to tell a story that helps us navigate our time. Emotions see no color. Storytellers who transcend race consciousness, who transcend gender consciousness, are doing the due diligence of transformation in our artistic world.

ShirleyJoFinneyAnd yet, Closely Related Keys is as firmly grounded in the details of the cultures it represents, as it is in the basic humanity of its characters. As the family drama unfolds, the truth of America’s relationship with Iraq, past and present, is illuminated, as well as what changed (and not for the better) for women in Iraq when we deposed Saddam Hussein. One moment in particular could have been pulled straight from the feminist blogosphere: When Julia attempts to get her Muslim half-sister to put on an American dress, her sister firmly rejects the idea, arguing, “I would not feel like me.”

After, All and Closely Related Keys are just two new plays by women being done in one city in one month. Others premiere all of the time in cities across the country. What new work have you seen that would refute the notion that big theaters are trying but just can’t find plays by women and people of color to produce?

The thicker our binder gets, the fewer excuses established theaters will have to produce seasons without gender parity and ethnic diversity. They claim they want their stages to look like the world we live in: Let’s hold them to it.

After, All runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. from February 14—March 16 at the Carrie Hamilton Theater at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Closely Related Keys runs on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m/ and Sundays at 4 p.m. from February 22—Mar 30 at the Lounge Theatre in Los Angeles.

Perry Ojeda and Patti Cohenour in South Coast Repertory's 2014 p

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

The great Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer wrote her most famous story, “The Light in the Piazza, ” while living abroad. She had left the small town in which she grew up, Carollton, Miss., on a Guggenheim Fellowship for Italy. There she also wrote The Voice at the Back Door, about race relations in the South. This novel provoked the disapproval of her parents and her community.

As racial tension reached a boiling point, Spencer’s father had chosen to align with segregationists. Even her mother, who used to read to her and encouraged her to write, was appalled that her daughter had written so honestly about race in the South. The Voice at the Back Door was voted as the Pulitzer Prize winner in 1957, but rather than give it to her, the Pulitzer board decided not to bestow a prize that year.

Rejected by her parents and under constant pressure to stop writing, Spencer (who’s still with us at age 92)  spent the next 25 years living in Europe and Canada. It is, perhaps, this distance that allowed her to write a deeply personal work about the strength it takes to defy the “moonlight and magnolia” romanticization of the white Southern patriarchy. The Light in the Piazza was Spencer’s first story about a woman, and for the rest of her career she continued to write specifically about women who break the rules.

The Light in the Piazza tells the story of Margaret Johnson, who has taken her mentally challenged daughter, Clara, on a trip to Italy. Clara falls in love with an Italian man, and Margaret must determine whether to let her daughter marry him, in defiance of her husband’s wishes. The story was made into a Tony-Award winning Broadway musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel in 2005. The musical is currently running at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

Clara, whose disability is described vaguely as an inability to mature emotionally, clearly stands in for a young Spencer who, by virtue of being a writer, an artist and a woman with ambition, was marked early in her life as “different.” Like Clara, Spencer met the love of her life in Italy. Like Clara, Spencer’s father was not in attendance at or supportive of her wedding. But whereas the fictional Margaret chooses to endorse her daughter’s choice and enable her marriage to her lover, Spencer’s mother was as almost as uncomfortable with Elizabeth’s choices as her father was.

In The Light in the Piazza, Spencer has envisioned a world in which her mother’s support of her youthful creativity–her “difference”–continued into her adulthood. In reality, Spencer rarely visited Carollton, and her husband and her family never got along. But in the musical, Margaret Johnson manages to defy her husband and empower her daughter to follow her heart, come what may.

Patti Cohenour and Erin Mackey in South Coast Repertory's 2014 pIn a new documentary about her life, Landscapes of the Heart, named after Spencer’s autobiography, the writer cites a class she took in college in modern literature as a major inspiration. The modern sensibility of the The Light in the Piazza story is mirrored in the modernist music composed by Guettel, who is the grandson of Richard Rodgers. But unlike the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Guettel’s songs aren’t hummable. They are closer to something by Schoenberg: cascades of sound that never quite resolve. For the most part, it works–the music illuminates the refraction of identity at the heart of the story and hints at a musical realization of light.

Though Margaret makes the choice to defy her husband and support her daughter, the story ends without any real resolution as to whether Clara will actually be okay. Likewise, this production doesn’t quite complete itself; I didn’t even realize the finale was happening until the curtain call began.

As adorable as Clara and her Italian lover are, the story is clearly about Margaret. It is the mother’s choice whether or not to support her daughter’s rebellion that constitutes the central action of this story–not the innocence of her child or the sexy young man with whom she falls in love–making this an unusual plot for a Broadway musical. The modern music adds to the challenge of crafting a crowd-pleasing show, and the South Coast Repertory production suffers from a lack of focus on the central conflict. Moments that could have served to emphasize the central character’s rebellion– such as the revelation that she has her own savings account and the fact that she shares an illicit kiss with the married father of her daughter’s lover–are glossed over in favor of the younger characters’ love story.

The success of The Light in the Piazza (it won eight Tony Awards) proves, yet again, that stories by women–even women in their late 40s!–do sell tickets and do make great art . I look forward to a production of Light in the Piazza directed by a woman (both the Broadway and the SCR directors are male) that places Margaret firmly at the center of the story. Clara’s storyline may be unresolved, but Margaret has made her choice. She has said, essentially, “Fuck the patriarchy.”

The Light in the Piazza runs through February 23 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA.

 Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR

Katherine Hepburn's Best Actress Oscars, for" Lion in Winter" and "On Golden Pond"

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

Jake Flanagin at Pacific Standard and Victoria Dawson Hoff at Elle recently floated an interesting idea: The Oscars should be entirely segregated by gender. Their proposal would create categories such as Best Female Director and Best Female Writer in addition to the already segregated acting awards.

Though this would lead to recognition of more women working in the field, it wouldn’t solve one of the Oscars’ main gender problems: the Academy Award for Best Picture. Most films are produced by teams of both men and women, making segregation in that category impossible. And yet, the Best Picture category is where we can see the clearest evidence of the Academy’s preference for male-driven films. Only three of the nine films nominated this year even have women in leading roles: American Hustle, Gravity and Philomena.

Perhaps as significant as the lack of women characters is the treatment in these films of women’s bodies. The main female character in Her is not even human, allowing the film and its central relationship to avoid dealing with the messy reality of  women with bodies. In Dallas Buyer’s Club, one of the two female-gender-identified characters is played by a cisgender man, effectively replacing a body that would raise interesting questions about the difference between sex and gender with one that is much easier to understand. One cannot help but wonder, if a trans actor had played the role, in which category would she be eligible for a nomination?

Where women’s bodies are present in these films, they are almost always objectified through an emphasis on their sexuality. In The Wolf of Wall Street, one woman has sex on top of a pile of  money (the actor says her back was covered with paper cuts after filming) and another woman literally wears money. One could argue that these moments are PHILOMENA-poster-773x1024-504x667designed to reveal the callousness of the male characters, but in imagining and glamorizing a world without any female characters who aren’t objectified, the film ultimately endorses its characters’ worldview. The main female character in 12 Years a Slave is literally a possession, and she is repeatedly raped. Unlike with The Wolf of Wall Street, which encourages the audience to identify with criminals, 12 Years a Slave invites us to sympathize with the victim rather than the perpetrator. In this way, the film does at least provide a critique of turning women into objects, rather than an endorsement.

American Hustle provides the clearest example of Hollywood’s inability to deal with women’s bodies without sexualizing them.Though most of the fashions in which the male characters adorn themselves–from the polyester to the conspicuous chest hair to the hairstyles–are quite unsexy, the women are dressed in ways that reveal their every curve. Though plunging necklines were popular for evening wear in the era portrayed in the movie, women also wore formal dresses that, by today’s standards, look like your grandmother’s nightgowns. During the day, women wore button-up shirts with large collars; the most popular woman’s outfit of the decade was the pantsuit, and hair was more commonly worn natural than elaborately styled.

It makes sense for Amy Adams’ character to wear a dress cut down to her belly button to the disco, but when her character impersonates a British aristocrat, it would have been more logical to have her button up. She would still have been sexy and her talent would have shone just as brightly without an outfit that invites the viewer to spend most of the scene staring at her boobs. Similarly, the notion that a troubled housewife would wear her hair in an updo all the time is incongruent both with Jennifer Lawrence’s character and with the style of the time.

blog-gravity-poster-sandraThe contrast between the body of Christian Bale’s character and those of his lovers is especially striking. Whereas Bale’s character has an outside that matches his inside–his corrupt, conniving character is manifest in his weight, physical health and  unnatural hairpiece–Adams’ and Lawrence’s characters are gorgeous despite their twisted insides. I would love to see a version of this film in which the women’s bodies, the clothes they wear and the hairstyles they sport are as reflective of their unsavory inner selves as the men’s are.

Only two of the nine films nominated for Best Picture are genuinely about women, and the difference in how women’s bodies are treated in those films versus the other seven is telling. Sandra Bullock spends much of Gravity in shorts and a tank top, yet at no point is she sexualized. One might note that she looks strong and healthy, but one’s eyes are not deliberately focused on her breasts either by her costume or the camera. The unnecessary addition of [SPOILER ALERT!] a lost child to Gravity betrays Hollywood’s inability to portray women without reference to their biology, but even the final shot in which the camera slowly pans from Bullock’s feet to her head is much more about showing her strength than it is about showing her girl parts.

Philomena is a film centered around a woman’s reproductive past, yet it trounces the competition in its fully human representation of a woman character. Unlike  Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, Judi Dench is old enough to conceivably be the woman she portrays. Close-ups of her face make no attempt to hide signs of age, revealing a beautiful woman whose wrinkles only make her intense emotional experience all the more gripping. Though the film is about the woman’s search for her lost child, the woman herself MV5BMjExMTEzODkyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU4NTc4OQ@@._V1_SX214_is far more than a mother on a mission. She loves her children, but she also loves sex. She’s a woman of faith, she’s openly accepting of gay people, she loves to read and she makes friends everywhere she goes. This is not to say that every female lead in every movie needs to be a saint;  most real women are not. But is there any other female character in this year’s nominees for Best Picture about whom the audience learns so much and in whom they become so deeply invested because of whom she is instead of what?

You might question whether the absence/objectification of women’s bodies in this year’s Best Picture nominees reflects on Hollywood or the culture as a whole. None of these films would necessarily be problematic on its own—12 Years a Slave in particular performs the important function of detailing the violence under which female slaves really lived and showing slave owners to be as oppressive as they really were. What is telling is the presence of so many films that either elide or sexualize female bodies in the category that presumably represents the best of the best.  The Academy clearly has a critical preference for movies about men, with women present primarily as wives and sex objects.

Though segregating awards by gender would up the profile of women working in Hollywood, it would also perpetuate the notion that there is something fundamentally different about work created by women and work created by men. And it would not solve the fundamental problem at the heart of Hollywood: Movies about men are more highly valued than those about women.

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

imageDuring my years as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I took as many classes as I could in their well-reputed women’s studies department.

When I was required to take a sociology class, I took “The Foundations of Feminism.” For my philosophy requirement, I chose “Philosophy of Feminism.” A literature class focused on works by women exposed me to Toni Morrison, Erica Jong and Ann Petry, among others. So I have always considered myself well-grounded in the history of women’s liberation and its major players.

Nevertheless, when I saw Jennifer Lee’s documentary Feminist: Stories of Women’s Liberation at a recent screening hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!), I was amazed by how much I didn’t know.

The film deals with the feminism of the 1960s—usually referred to then as the Women’s Liberation Movement, or, somewhat disparagingly, as Women’s Lib—from the origins of the Second Wave as part of the Civil Rights movement to Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique to the protests at the 1967 Miss America pageant. Despite my studies, I had never heard of the Redstockings, a group whose name derives from a combination of bluestocking, a term for “intellectual woman,” and “red” for the revolutionary left. The Redstockings were critical of the National Organization for Women for focusing on institutional reform at the expense of male-female relationships, of radical feminists for advocating a separatist women’s culture and of socialist feminists for focusing too much on class.

I was also unfamiliar with WITCHes—sometimes the acronym of Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, sometimes standing for Women Inspired to Tell Their Collective History, sometimes meaning Women Interested in Toppling Consumerist Holidays, as well as any number of other meanings. The WITCHes represented the kind of socialist feminism to which the Redstockings were opposed; nonetheless, like the Redstockings they were known for staging street theater protests against capitalism, for reproductive rights and against patriarchal constructions of marriage.

Filmmaker Lee does an excellent job of covering disagreements within the movement. She discusses the major criticisms of The Feminist Mystique, which, like Lean In, primarily applied to white women of privilege. I also learned that Friedan and some other early Second Wave leaders were desperate not to have their movement associated with lesbianism and gay rights—something that is thankfully not the case today.

Lee took nine years to finish the film, which contains interviews with Friedan, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (the Washington, D.C. delegate to Congress), Aileen Hernandez (the only woman to serve on the first Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), Kathie Sarachild (a leader in the consciousness-raising movement and Redstockings member), Frances M. Beal (cofounder of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and more. The film also offers footage and still photos of major feminist events of the period.

Lee created the documentary in bits and pieces while working full-time as a feature film editor and raising a child. Her primary motivation was to document the amazing women who worked so hard to ensure the freedoms that her daughter and other young women might otherwise take for granted. Lee told me she believes that knowledge of our feminist past can transform our perception of our feminist present:

I was a young teenager during the Women’s Liberation Movement, so I knew as I went through life that I had this powerful sisterhood of feminists in back of me. I may not have known their names, but it was a vibrant movement that told me that if something sexist happened to me, I had women to help me and to pick me up if I got knocked down. And that’s something worth remembering. From the legislative successes to the social successes, that’s something that needs to be remembered by girls and women and boys and men. If we know that positive things happened that we’re all living with today, I think that will begin to change the shape of the word feminist.

Whether you think you know everything there is to know about the women’s movement or have yet to look into the history of our feminist forebears, Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation is well worth a watch.

Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation will be screened on December 5 at the AMC Loews Village 7 in New York City at 7:30pm. The film is available for public as well as classroom screenings. Contact Jennifer Lee here to purchase a copy.

DSC_0045Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

Originally published by Ms., Sociological Images, and The Huffington Post

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, but also what men fear about women and women’s sexuality. Writing the book in 1973 and only three years out of college, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. Carrie is woman feeling her powers for the first time and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.

– Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to 7167066734_95a0688a25signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.

The rise of Second Wave feminism in the ’70s posed serious threats to the patriarchal order–as well it should have. But even for those who think change is not only necessary but good, change can be pretty scary. This, with a hat tip to the universality of being bullied, is one of the reasons Carrie scares everyone.

While men in the ’70s felt threatened by the unprecedented numbers of women standing up for themselves and attempting such radical social changes as being recognized as equal under the law, women themselves must have felt some anxiety that the obstacles to fully realizing themselves might be too big to conquer. The story therefore resonates with men in terms of the fear of (metaphorical) castration prompted by changing gender roles, and with women in terms of the fear that no matter how powerful we become, social forces are still so aligned against us that fighting back might destroy not just the patriarchy but ourselves.

Feminism was not the only thing on the rise in the ’70s: so was Christian fundamentalism. In 1976, the year that the original movie debuted, 34 percent of Protestant Americans told the Gallup Poll that they had had born-again experiences, leading George Gallup himself to declare 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. In fact evangelism, then as now–when 41 percent of Americans report being born again–was one of feminism’s more formidable foes, one of those very social forces that would rather destroy women than see them powerful.

The triggering event of Carrie–the infamous shower scene–is a product of the meeting of these two forces. Because of a fundamentalist Christian worldview in which menstruation is not simply a biological process but rather evidence of Eve’s original sin being visited upon her daughters, Carrie‘s mother does nothing to prepare her for getting her period. When she starts bleeding at school, Carrie naturally panics, and as a result faces the scorn of her peers–who laugh at her for not knowing what’s happening–and the scorn of her mother, who believes that “After the blood the boys come. Like sniffing dogs, grinning and slobbering, trying to find out where that smell is.”

I can’t believe I’m about to go all Freudian here, but for the male viewer the shock of seeing unexpected blood between one’s legs clearly represents a fear of castration–a literal embodiment of King’s anxieties about feminism. From the woman’s perspective, the menstrual blood obviously signifies Carrie’s maturation–coming into her power–which has been marred by fundamentalism.

10304319383_31b0b70ec7Without making the new remake of the movie any more violent, director Kimberly Peirce emphasizes the imagery of this inciting event by adding waaaaay more blood to her Carrie. When Carrie gets her period in the shower, there’s more blood than in Brian De Palma’s film. When Carrie gets some of that blood on her gym teacher, which happens in both films, Peirce adds more of it, and the camera lingers on it longer and returns to it more often.

When Carrie’s mother locks her in the closet, Peirce has the crucifix bleed–something that doesn’t happen in the first movie. The blood of the crucifix connects Carrie’s first period to the suffering of Christ, deepening the relationship between debased femininity and religion.

Then, when Carrie gets pig blood dumped on her head at the prom, there’s not just more of it in the second film: Pierce shows the blood landing on her in slow motion three times. This final deluge of blood echoes a scene that Pierce added to the beginning of the movie, in which Carrie’s mother endures the bloody birth of her daughter. Carrie, then, is essentially born again at the prom, and the devastation she wreaks can be read as a result not of her feminine power but of the corruption of it by religion.

Peirce told Women and Hollywood that her goal was to make Carrie as sympathetic as possible. She removes the male gaze aspect of the original shower scene, in which many of the girls are naked and the long, slow shots of Carrie’s body are rather pornified. She makes sympathy for Carrie’s primary nemesis at school pretty much impossible by changing her from an angry girl in an abusive relationship to a sociopath without a conscience. In the new film, Carrie even has the strength to challenge her mother’s theology. Her prom date is more likeable and Peirce uses his death–something De Palma doesn’t reveal until the end–as further motivation for Carrie’s rampage.

None of this changes the fact that Carrie dies at the end, but it does foreground the idea that the message doesn’t have to be that powerful women are indeed dangerous. It can be that fundamentalism is dangerous to women.

If you’re a feminist, I say go see Carrie. Watching her be destroyed–but not without taking out a lot of the patriarchy with her–and then, as a viewer, emerging again into the sunlight unscathed, allows feminists to process some of our deepest fears about what we’re up against. Then we can get on with making the world a place where religious beliefs don’t corrupt our sexuality, where women don’t have to destroy themselves to be powerful and where women’s equality doesn’t trigger men’s fear of their own doom.

Photos courtesy of Jade and thefanboyseo1 via Creative Commons 2.0

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. For more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwo, Three, and Four.

photoOriginally published by Ms.

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of rape and rape culture …

When Jessie Kahnweiler started talking about making a comedic short film called Meet My Rapist about her personal experience with rape, everyone from friends and family to Hollywood insiders to feminists wary of offending victims urged her to rethink the idea. A P.R. consultant urged her to at least change the title to something less alienating, but Kahnweiler, who attributes her chutzpah and sense of humor to her Jewish heritage, told Ms. she wouldn’t budge:

That’s the problem, that we’re scared to say the word rape in the title of a film. That’s why I had to do it. We should talk about it. It needs to be a conversation. We’re not going to be able to make any progress if we don’t open up a conversation.

Meet My Rapist, available on YouTube (and embedded below), does not actually tell the story of Kahnweiler’s rape, which occurred eight years ago. It deals with the aftermath—her ongoing attempt to process and move on from the experience. She plays herself, while her rapist—a red-hooded and bearded fellow whose face the audience never entirely sees—hovers in the background of several scenes, in one distracting her during a job interview, in another watching as she tells a friend what happened. At one point he even joins her family at the dinner table. In the course of the film we see her experience dismissed by everyone from the friend, who doesn’t take the news very well, to her own therapist, who tells her “to get the fuck over your shit.”

Clearly, eight years later, Kahnweiler’s rapist still haunts her. Yet a trope which could easily be the center of a horror movie manifests in this film as a humorous device, essentially making rape culture the butt of the joke. Kahnweiler says this is part of a conscious effort to complicate rape narratives:

The way that we deal with rape now is so simple; it’s either victimhood or blaming or anger, or it’s like ‘Yeah, totally, rape is bad. I don’t really need to see it or talk about it or learn about it because rape is bad.’ Well, duh.

The matter-of-fact nature of each scenario and of Kahnweiler’s dealings with the people around her, who simplify and co-opt her experience to the point of absurdity, imbues the piece with an irony that not everybody understands. But response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive:

I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people saying, ‘I didn’t want to have anything to do with this movie and then I decided to watch it.’ They say, ‘I don’t know how to feel but I’m feeling something. It’s just doing something to me.’ They like that it’s complicated.

photo

Asked how she feels now that her personal life has been made public, Kahnweiler, who communicates as much with gestures as words, said,

I have had to talk about it a lot more, but it’s also made me go in a lot more and realize I don’t have to justify every point of the story. It feels super real, it feels really scary, it feels really illuminating, it feels really intense, it feels really sad and it is kind of all those things at once. Some days it totally makes sense and other days it totally doesn’t make sense. So I’m kind of just allowing myself to be in it rather than judging it. Which is hard for a Jew [she laughs].

Preeminent Jewish comedian Mel Brooks has said that he made it his lifelong mission to make the world laugh at Hitler because “there’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule.” Kahnweiler’s film aims as high–to rob rape culture of its power by making us laugh at it. She may have a hard time not analyzing herself, but clearly turning tragedy into comedy is in her blood.

Photos of Jessie Kahnweiler by Eduardo Mayen (top) and Holly Derr (bottom).

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

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