Author’s Note: If the thing that scares you most is disagreement among feminists, you might not want to read this post—fellow feminist film buff Natalie Wilson gave this movie a glowing review on the Ms. Blog last week. Surely a well-cast hex or two will bring Ms. Wilson over to my side…
I am the first to admit that I set myself up for disappointment with every Guillermo del Toro movie I see by setting my expectations based on Pan’s Labyrinth. It would be hard to repeat such a success, and he hasn’t done so since. Nevertheless, I keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
I’m not saying Crimson Peak was bad. Actually, I thought it was pretty good. But it is about half an hour too long and, contrary to Natalie Wilson’s insightful review, for me it falls prey to too many sexist tropes to live up to Pan’s Labyrinth standards.
In the film, del Toro uses a horror template popularized by Victorian novels: A young woman is taken away by a suspicious new husband to an old castle far away from civilization. As she explores the winding maze of her new multiple-floor prison, she encounters a few ghosts that encourage her to uncover the truth about her husband and his sister.
Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe—best known for her trademark endings in which the supernatural happenings in her castles are explained as misconceptions fueled by fear, shadows in the moonlight and tricks of the impenetrable dark—opined on the nature of fear in this sort of story in an essay called “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” Terror, she asserted, arises from a fear of something about to happen. Horror, on the other hand, is a reaction to something that has already happened. A good Gothic story, then, uses a carefully structured build-up of terror followed by a revelation of horror to achieve its best effect.
Crimson Peak calls upon both terror and horror, but fails to find the right balance between the two. Suspense, shadow and mystery should set the stage for the horrific revelation of the truth. Too much blood too soon desensitizes the audience to the suspense; if you already know what’s behind the door, you’re not as terrified for the ingenue standing in front of it.
Though Crimson Peak is unable to execute the part of the Gothic template that requires suspense, it does manage to perfectly replicate the patriarchal conditions that led so many women to read and write these stories in the first place. Being separated from one’s family and friends upon marriage to a virtual stranger who transplants you to a lonely, cold, falling-down house in the middle of nowhere was not an uncommon experience for the Victorian woman. It’s no wonder that it spawned so many stories of fear.
CrimsonPeak‘s heroine, like so many before her, does have men willing to do anything to protect her, which is lucky for her because her primary response to stress is to dissolve into tears. But unfortunately, in addition to her untrustworthy husband, she also has an evil sister-in-law. Played by an almost unrecognizable Jessica Chastain, the crazy lady who lives in the attic is the real danger in this story. The men, it turns out, are guilty only of doing anything for love.
I can’t help but wonder why del Toro felt this story would resonate today, absent the social conditions that created the fears that Gothic stories originally represented. Are scary houses and ghosts enough to make a story interesting? Or are these patriarchal conditions more alive than I like to think? I don’t suppose many brides get swept off to country castles upon marriage, but regardless of when and where, marriage requires a massive investment of trust in another person, and for some, that can be pretty scary.
So if you want to see pretty cool ghosts that haunt a freaky house with scary corners and corridors, a representation of the fear of totally trusting another person in a Gothic form, and/or Tom Hiddleston, see Crimson Peak.
If you want to see a horror movie that empowers its lead female to make her own choices and save her own life without the intervention of men, then let me know when you find it, because so do I.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the Internet around Halloween without being confronted with those pesky feminist analyses of every goth girl, riot grrrl and geek girl’s favorite genre—horror—SHE’S BACK with that darn FeministGuide to HorrorMovies. And this time, she’s got an international agenda to promote.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish there were an Iranian vampire film noir that combines some real old-school Bram Stoker horror with a commentary on the gendered nature of the danger of walking the streets at night in Iran but also offers a visually stunning representation of violence that simultaneously valorizes and undermines drug/mafia culture in a style that can only be described as Tarantino-esque?”
Good news! There is! It’s called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; it’s written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and it’s available on Netflix. The film successfully blends the shadowy landscapes of Gothic novels, the humor of post-modern horror movies and the nightmare-dreamscape of a Hitchcock film. This is not to say the film is derivative—it is in fact far more than the sum of its parts.
+4 for successful gender-flipping of Gothic vampire tropes
+2 for a total absence of vampires that sparkle in the sun
+1 for humor of the self-referential Wes Craven (may he RIP) sort
+A million for representations of desire that deal simultaneously with its dangers and its pleasures
If vampire movies aren’t your thing, this holiday season you might find yourself wondering, “What other sort of horror film might I view to celebrate the occasion that would not so totally offend my feminist sensibilities that I can’t enjoy the film?”
Might I suggest the New Zealand thriller Housebound. Multiple plot twists will keep you on the edge of your seat—even if you have to pause to make microwave popcorn halfway through—and the evolution of the mother-daughter relationship is truly endearing. Some really great jump-scares combined with a satisfying ending make the film both an effective moral on the importance of trust between family members and a fairly exciting watch.
+4 for a central female figure and central female relationship that doesn’t involve a man
+1 for humor of the just-at-the-right-moment-and-therefore-cathartic-Wes Craven-(may he RIP) sort
For the zombie lovers among you, you might enjoy the Australian film Wyrmwood. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead adds some unique touches to the behavior of its zombies, offers a pretty terrifying take on the mad-scientist trope and gives both the central characters each a hero journey of their own. It’s also pretty funny, and despite the awkward blackouts that make it seem like it was made for TV, it manages to create and sustain fear over time. But I must also attach a feminist advisory to this one: If I were to interview the writer, I’d have to ask, “Did you really have to make the character who was clearly descended from indigenous people a not-so-bright, sex-obsessed stereotype? Really? And did you really have to keep the central female character in what appears to be a see-through teddy the whole time? Really?”
+2 for eco-positive messaging
+2 for female character with badass magical powers
-5 million for racism and sexism
-Another million for not having any relation at all to Wes Craven (may he RIP)
Front page photo via A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Originally published by HowlRound on October 7, 2015
HowlRound readers and social media revolutionaries may remember an event that occurred in our nation’s capital in February 2014 that became quickly known as the Summit. Convened by Washington Post critic Peter Marks around the issue of gender inequity in theatre, a panel of metro-area artistic directors discussed their collectively abysmal records at producing plays by women. As the discussion proceeded, more than one panel member was called out on social media for the tepidness of his/her approach.
Lost in the ensuing shuffle was the fact that the month before word leaked to the press of what would eventually be dubbed the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an entire fall of world premieres of new plays and musicals by women. When the Summit was held, forty-four theatres signed up to participate. The total is now forty-eight, two of which are offering multiple premieres.
Despite the rocky start of this venture, the seven artistic directors from Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company formulated the idea behind the festival. They quickly regrouped and hired coordinating producers Nan Barnett and JoJo Ruf to organize the festival and reframe it as a concerted, collaborative effort to do something about the problem.
Cut to about sixteen months later, and the whole country is abuzz about the Festival, its origins, its possibilities, and its realization of world premieres by fifty female playwrights. I spoke with Ruf and Barnett; Maggie Boland, the managing director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA; and Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth. I also talked with Caleen Sinette Jennings, who is a professor at American University, a founding member of a DC playwright collective The Welders, and author of two premieres in the festival; Jami Brandli, a Los Angeles-based writer and author of Technicolor Life, which will premiere at Rep Stage; and Karen Zacarias, a professor at Georgetown University and author ofDestiny of Desire, premiering at Arena.
Collaboration and Cross-Pollination
Unlike the discussion at the Summit and the media firestorm that followed, producers and artists alike gave positive, forward-thinking feedback, and, on the part of Boland and Shalwitz, were refreshingly self-critical. The story goes that the artistic directors of the Big Seven regularly get together for brunch to talk about the state of DC theatre. Following on the mild success of a citywide Shakespeare festival a few years ago, they began to discuss another collaboration to highlight the range and quality of DC theatre and to promote cross-pollination between artists and audiences.
“I think there was about ten seconds between the idea of a festival and the idea of focusing it on women. It just seemed like a no-brainer to put the focus where we could provide leadership by creating a model of something that could be part of the solution,” shared Shalwitz.
Boland puts the time between inception and definition at closer to twenty seconds, but both she and Shalwitz have found that the simple fact of working on the festival while also planning future seasons has forced them to place more of a priority on diversity. Boland shared:
“One incredible side effect of this citywide conversation is that every single conversation we have internally about season planning and about artistic vision involves a discussion of who are the artists and are we doing enough to represent a diverse set of voices.”
Signature is offering three shows by women this year and Boland expects to continue doing this many shows every year, consciously diversifying in other ways as well. She notes:
“We’re not trying to wear a hair shirt about our past, we’re just trying to do better. We’re trying to look at the talent pool that Signature is drawing from at every level of the organization, onstage and off, and make sure that we’re being thoughtful and specific about having different kinds of humans around our building.”
Yet, playwright Brandli is a little more skeptical, but still inspired:
“I’m hoping that the festival really does cause a ripple effect. I’m not ungrateful at all—this is the best thing to happen to me in a long time. But what I don’t want to hear is, ‘Well you had your festival, so now you can be quiet.’ I don’t want all us female playwrights to have our ‘queen for a day’ moment, but when it’s over, we’re told to go back into the corner, and to not bitch as much if there aren’t as many female playwrights in the next few seasons of American theatre. I’m tired of being polite about it. I know I sound pretty ornery, but you get to a point in your life where you’re like: fuck it.”
Jumping All Together
Shortly after hiring Barnett and Ruf, the Festival consciously included representatives from more than the originating seven companies on committees devoted to marketing and publicity, development, and programming. This resulted in a genuine community-wide effort to celebrate and promote the work of women writers. Sinette Jennings has been in DC since ’84 and from the moment she arrived, she was struck by the collaborative and supportive relationships between local playwrights. She still feels like the Festival is a game changer, saying:
“I feel like part of a mosaic to know that all of these stories are going on at the same time. It’s an amazing affirmation of our talent and the power of our stories. We have artistic directors here who have always gotten it—they didn’t need a festival to recognize the power and importance of women. But this has been a fabulous way to make other artistic directors aware that this wealth of material is out there, and it’s not all touchy feely kitchen sink drama. I’ve got female playwright colleagues who scare the pants off me in terms of how edgy and tough they are. So any assumptions people have about a woman is X, they need to throw that out the window.”
The offerings range from Woolly’s production of Sheila Callaghan’s overtly feminist Women Laughing Alone with Salad, which examines the ways sexually charged representations of women in the media effect both men and women, to a new musical at Signature called Cake Off that tells the story of the first man to win the Pillsbury Bake Off. Then, Zacarias’s Brechtian telenovela is about what happens to a troupe of actors doing a Mexican television series when the women, dissatisfied with the way their roles are written, take destiny in their own hands, and start changing the script.
Although Zacarias, a founding member of Latina/o Theatre Commons, is one of the few Latina playwrights represented in the whole festival, she is still struck by the camaraderie behind the event. She remarks:
“It’s usually a very solitary moment when a theatre does a new play, like you’re the only one jumping off the cliff, while everybody else is doing some golden nugget that you know the audiences will come to. Because we’re all taking the risk at the same time, it takes away the competitive nature of things and everybody just wants to do as well as they can. We’re all jumping off at the same time and we’re hoping that everyone makes a beautiful dive.”
Barnett is already looking to raise money to gather data about the festival and to produce a handbook for cities looking to do something on their own turf. She states:
“I want to know what the long term effects of this are. Three months from now, I want to be able to do a really great analysis of what tickets were sold. Did we accomplish the goal of making people outside of DC aware of how much theatre there is here? Did we get people to go to different theatres than where they normally go? And of course in the long run, are the DC theatres continuing to program more female writers than they were before the festival? Will we see subsequent productions for the plays that were supported by the festival? These are questions that will need to be answered. It’s important to make sure that the lessons learned are shared.”
Ruf added, “There’s already musings happening in Philly, Denver or broader Colorado, and elsewhere. I think that would be phenomenal. This is a first step towards gender parity; I certainly hope that eventually we won’t need a festival and it will happen on it’s own. But this is a good step in that direction.”
Take the Challenge
I’ll be heading to DC in October to check out as much of the festival as I can in one weekend and I’ll let HowlRound readers know whether I find the metro-area to be the Emerald City that I’ve been lead to expect, where every Dorothy has her glittering day.
In the meantime, the effects of the social media revolution that followed the Summit are obvious. Ryan Rilette, Producing Artistic Director at Round House Theatre and the receiver of the most severe Summit-prompted Twitter lashing, issued a challenge on Facebook. He’s willing to buy a drink for any and every one who sees more plays by women this fall than he does.
People, let me hear you say it: “Challenge accepted.”
This article was originally published by Ms. Magazine on July 8, 2015.
A sighting of that rare bird called feminist science fiction is truly a thing to celebrate. It does exist, sometimes by accident (see Alien), and sometimes on purpose (see almost anything by Octavia Butler). With Advantageous, a film written by Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang, directed by Phang and starring Kim, the feminism is entirely purposeful.
Influenced during her studies at Pomona College by the work of such experimental filmmakers asCheryl Dunye and Alexandra Juhasz, Phang has always tried to represent a diverse world in her films and to tell stories about identity, specifically Asian and Asian American identities. Speaking on the phone from her San Francisco office, she told the Ms. Blog that when the Independent Film and Television Service approached her seeking proposals for science fiction shorts, she jumped at the chance to make an Asian American woman the center of the film. When actor Ken Jeong (The Hangover, “Community”) saw the short, he was so moved that he offered to help turn it into a feature, and that feature went on to win the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision at Sundance.
The central character in Advantageous, Gwen Koh (Kim), is the spokesperson and head of The Center for Advanced Health and Living, a cosmetic surgery company that has developed a way for the aged and infirm to move their consciousness into a younger, healthier body. When the center decides that Koh is too old to continue as their spokesperson—just as her daughter is entering an elite and very expensive private school—she decides to undergo the body-changing procedure herself.
In reality, she has been manipulated into making this decision by the real head of the center, played by a (somewhat ironically) beautifully aging Jennifer Ehle. Though this happens in a future in which cosmetic surgery has become much more than a matter of lift and tuck, Koh’s struggle with whether and how to change her body for the sake of her daughter and her career, combined with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the corporation, casts a complicated light on the present struggles of women trying to succeed in both career and motherhood while facing the social pressure to stay young and be perfect.
Not coincidentally, Koh, in collaboration with the company, chooses not only a young body into which to transition, but also a more ethnically ambiguous one (Freya Adams). Phang said that she cast Adams “not just because she’s a great actor, but also because she was able to play someone with a universal look. So the audience has to explore what is it about her that makes them want her to be the look of their company.”
Koh isn’t eager to take the extreme step of cosmetic surgery, so before undergoing the transition she attempts to find work through an agency she has worked with in the past. She discovers, however, that the voice on the other end of the phone is not only not a genuine supporter of her work, but isn’t even human, leading to one of the most profound conversations in the film:
Gwen: Drake, are you human being?
Drake: That’s a funny question. How do you define a human being?
Gwen: Do you have blood running through your veins? Do you get thirsty?
Drake: That is a definition of a human being?
Gwen: I didn’t know.
Drake: That sounds more like a human being. Not to know.
To say that Advantageous is a meditation on the meaning of life sounds cliché, but I can find no more fitting phrase. Both the mother and daughter at the center of the film spend the film’s duration in the pursuit of fulfillment, improvement, and a seemingly ever-elusive kind of achievement, and the tempo of the film ensures that both the characters and audience have plenty of time to think about what fulfillment really means.
Phang considers herself an idealist, and it is true that in this film, to a certain extent, daughter and mother both secure the kind of success for themselves that this near-future world believes to be paramount. But, as with the kind of feminist art that intends to make its audience think, most of the questions about the actual meaning of human existence are left unanswered. The 12-year-old daughter, Jules, (Samantha Kim) states twice—once to her original mother and once to her mother-in-a-new-body—“I don’t know why I’m alive.” Though her mother offers a few answers, and different ones each time, the meditative quality of the daughter’s question and her mother’s answers makes it hard to believe that either finds much comfort in them.
In fact, even the background moments of buildings being blown up by terrorists are greeted not with terror but with an attitude of resignation that such things cannot be helped, and the process of changing bodies is more like the passage of time during sleep than the usual explosive, special-effects ridden climaxes of most science fiction movies. The most gripping moments of the film are found in the reactions of Gwen’s family to the consequences of her choice, beautifully revealing that even in a world where technology has become advanced enough to change the nature of life, being human is still a matter of feeling intimacy, love, and loss, of wanting to understand something that is inevitably just out of our reach and, ultimately, of accepting that no matter how successful or rich you are and no matter how technologically advanced our culture is, being human is mostly a matter of not knowing.
Phang is already hard at work on her next two films: One is a science fiction romance adapted from a play by Dominic Mah called Look for Water. The other is a film about climate change based on the work of real-life scientist Inez Fung, which she hopes will inspire audiences to reengage with climate change issues before it’s too late. She was recently awarded a $40,000 Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant from the San Francisco Film Society to support herself while developing these projects, something Phang told the Ms. Blog she wouldn’t be able to live without:
I am fortunate to live in a time when organizations understand that in order to have sustainable media careers, women need support of some sort. The SFFS has a visionary program called Filmmaker360 that aims to change the representation of women in genre films by supporting women creators, which is a big deal for me and a big deal for women.
(This post was part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game Change, originally published in June, 2015. The following questions informed the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)
JACQUELINE LAWTON:What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?
HOLLY L. DERR: The most game-changing production I ever saw – or at least the one that changed me the most – was Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. I had grown up listening to the soundtracks of classic musical theater because my Mom is a huge fan, but I had this idea that musicals were all fluff with little substance. I remember that the first time I saw Noise Funk, I was sitting in the front row, right at eye level with the dancers’ feet, and I was blown away by their skill. It wasn’t just the artistry that changed me, though, it was the realization that musicals could be as entertaining as a rock concert, as full of history as a college-level class, and as political as anything by Augusto Boal. That’s the kind of work I want to make.
The production I made that changed me the most was my thesis show at Columbia. I had chosen Timberlake Wertenbaker’s New Anatomies because the five female actors in it play characters who are male, female, Western, and non-Western, and because it required me, as the director, to learn about something I knew nothing about – Sufi Mysticism. Well, my timing was terrible, because three weeks before we opened 9/11 happened, and three of the five actors in the show quit because they didn’t want to play Muslims. I was about to cancel the show all together when a friend and dramaturg encouraged me to at least do a reading of the it, and I ended up doing what I called “A Reconstructed Production,” that involved three new actors. Everyone read from their scripts, and we completely redesigned the costumes, the set, and the projections, put me and the assistant director onstage as narrators, and added sketches between each scene that provided context about the differences between Sufism and fundamentalist Islam, the colonization of North Africa, the still-unfolding drama of the attack on the World Trade Center, and the process the artists had gone through in getting the show up. It was a huge lesson for me in never giving up, knowing whom my friends are and listening to them, and using theater to educate, heal, and bring a community together.
JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?
HLD: Shortly after Noise Funk opened on Broadway, I got a job as the assistant to the general manager at The Public Theater. I had been a huge admirer of George C. Wolfe for years, having come up from North Carolina, where I went to college, to see Jelly’s Last Jam and Angels in America, so I was pretty psyched to be working at the institution he was running. The first thing that blew me away about working there was the diversity at every single level. It wasn’t just that the programming was incredibly diverse, from the new plays to the color-blind cast Shakespeare, it was that every department included a mix of people of all colors, ages, sizes, and orientations, and so did the audiences. Today when I hear theater leaders say, “We’re trying to diversify, but it’s hard,” I think to myself, “It can’t be that hard. I’ve seen it done.”
The other thing that struck me about working for one of my heroes was the realization that he’s just a person like everybody else. George is very private and very protective of the space in his inner circle, and though at first I was disappointed that we couldn’t just sit down and shoot the sh*t, the realization that the artists and leaders we idolize are just as human as we are was really important for me. I had a similar experience when, after idolizing Anne Bogart from a distance for years, I finally went to study with her at Columbia and found her to be warm and funny and curious and totally open to whomever is sitting in the chair next to her. I’m lucky now to call her not just a teacher and a mentor but also a friend, and I think her ability to form long-lasting friendships – not networking relationships but actual friendships – with the people she works and learns with is part of what makes her a great leader.
JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?
HLD: Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. (I’ll say it again. Diversity.) Obviously racial/ethnic and gender diversity are a big topic of conversation right now, but I think we need to focus on economic diversity, too. Making a career in the theater almost always involves going to college, having time while at college to do shows instead of work a part-time job, do summer theater programs that cost thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board, and then work for free for years upon graduation. This is a totally untenable situation for someone who doesn’t have family money, and it is the number one reason that the work made in professional theaters is very aristocratic in both subject and tone. How can we tell stories about people whose life experiences aren’t upper class when all of the people making theater are upper class?
JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?
HLD: Economic inequality, both within countries and between them. The distribution of resources in our world is so off, and yet most of the people with the resources don’t even realize it because we don’t see the people who are living without. We live in different neighborhoods, we go to different schools and different parties, we use different medical facilities, and we have different government representatives. If theater can manage to diversify economically – can stop making working for free the price of admission to the profession – we can confront audiences with stories about what life is really like for 98% of people on this earth. Right now theater is a ghetto of privilege, and if we don’t want the world to work that way, we can’t let theater work that way any more either.
Holly L. Derr is a writer, director, and professor specializing in Viewpoints and the performance of gender. Her most recent productions were Harry and the Thief by Sigrid Gilmer at The Know Theatre and her own play American Medea at Skidmore College. Holly holds an MFA from Columbia and has taught/directed at Smith College and The ART Institute, among others. She is an Artist-in-Residence at Skidmore where she will direct Macbeth this fall.Holly is also a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.jacquelinelawton.com