Saturday, February 7, 2015

8 Things You Can Learn From Silver Screen Goddesses

Sometimes I see my preteen or teen relatives on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, and wonder what advice I'd give them, if they actually wanted it. And they probably don't. I'm a 26 year old crone to them - I mean I might as well be 40, but...if they asked for my advice I might refer back to my teen years of the early and mid aughts.

I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman or how I should behave or dress differently than I had at age 11 or 12. I think most girls feel fairly confused, but none of my friends showed it. They were so eager to become “sexy” women, and no matter how unsure they may have been, they seemed very confident in their heavy eyeliner, white eyeshadow and body glitter.

The spray-tanned skin and blonde, stick straight hair popular among teenage girls of the time was definitely not my aesthetic, however. I soon felt like a fraud, but wasn’t quite sure how to change it, because I had no idea what “kind” of woman to be.

Then a glorious thing happened.

I began immersing myself in the world of classic movies. I saw these women on screen and aspired to be like them – mature, poised, intelligent and stylish as hell – very unlike the current role models I had (cough, the women of The Bachelor). They were the first version of an empowered and glamorous version of womanhood I became exposed to.

I took note of everything, from their mannerisms to their style, and soon I became obsessed. I started saying things like “Don’t worry, I’ve got alotta lettuce” when I purchased tickets at the local movie theater with my friends. This was embarrassing for my friends, obviously. I bought clothes at thrift shops– a black coat with a white collar that I belted and made believe was Coco Chanel-worthy. I even put rollers in my hair to achieve a waterfall of soft curls.

^ My older Joan Crawford look

So, with no further ado, here is everything I learned about how to be a woman, or rather how to be my own woman, courtesy of  ‘30s,‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood:

1.  Marlene Dietrich.

Genderbending is sexy. There’s nothing wrong with a woman with a little swagger in her step, especially if that woman is you. Wear hats. Enjoy a nice blazer. Mix up your week by mixing androgynous days with pinup girl days and everything in between.

2. Barbara Stanwyck.

You’ve gotta have moxie. So you’re not probably qualified for that raise or that job or that fellowship or that award. Apply anyway. Then when you meet with your boss or supervisor or grant-giver, they’ll say, “Well I don’t know, X, Y, Z is true, but you got moxie, kid. So you’ll get A, B and possibly C.”

It hasn’t always played out that way in my life. But hey, when it has happened, it’s been worth the effort. Also, find some way to incorporate the term “racket” into your everyday language. “So, Bill, now that you’re out of the journalism racket, does that mean you’re getting into the PR business? I’m sure you’ll make alotta lettuce. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get hitched to a hot tomata.”

You should probably watch “Ladies They Talk About” if you want a better idea of how to be 1930s prison inmate tough.

3. Betty Davis. It’s okay to be emotional, or maybe even a trainwreck, now and then. It gives you depth. You’re a complicated woman. Make announcements to your party guests that drama awaits. Realize, far too late, that you’re in love with a man who was loved you for many years and have the guts to admit that to yourself, and him.

4. Rosalind Russell. Have quick wit. Be a “newspaper man.” Being beautiful or emotionally vulnerable or tough is great, but without humor and intelligence, you’re a bore. Wear tall, impractical hats – they will improve your humor as well as your stature.

5. Lauren Bacall. Be languid and mysterious. Have a deep voice. Make people wonder if you’re affiliated with the mob. You should always keep people guessing. I did it by alluding to criminal activity by omission and smirks. I was actually a pretty good teen, by some standards, but no one was the wiser.

6. Eartha Kitt. Have the face of a cherub but the eyebrows of an evil queen. Don’t feel guilty about acquiring lots and lots of nice things. Be Catwoman.

One of the many things I love about Eartha Kitt is her rejection of the way people stereotype women who crave material wealth. Women are portrayed as vain and men are considered ambitious. Eartha Kitt did not need a man, because she was too busy admiring her beautiful furs and terrorizing Gotham City.

7. Joan Crawford. Even if you’re 5’5, you can give off an air of authority with massive shoulder pads and heels. I thought Joan Crawford was an Amazon until Robert Osborne shattered that illusion. However, as a 5’3 woman, I felt slightly comforted. Today I own a Zara blazer with massive shoulders and my closet is filled with pencil skirts, so, lesson learned.

8. Katy Jurado. Have the kind of eyes that can burn a hole straight through someone’s soul and make themselves question their whole life purpose. When I first saw her in “High Noon,” I wondered how someone’s eyes can be so many things – kind, judgmental, wise and most of all, entrancing. I only hoped to convey that kind of depth, that smoldering yet distant stare when smelly freshman boys asked me to pick up the pencil they deliberately dropped on the ground in front of them. I like to think I did, because no freshman boys ever attempted that trick again.

An attempt to dress as Katherine Hepburn for Halloween (see the freckles)

The sad truth is that despite all of the hurdles real women had living in the '30s, '40s and '50s, their movie characters were far more independent, complicated and ambitious than the women I see in movies today. That's why I clung to these movies - they represented the woman I wanted to be, but also the actual grown women I already knew. My mother, my aunts, my cousins, women who were interesting and complex but weren't reflected in television, movies and music. Luckily, I think we've taken a step forward after the backlash. Beyonce and Nicki Minaj in music, Ruth Wilson, Viola Davis, Elizabeth Moss and Gillian Anderson on television and Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Lupita Nyong'o and Amy Adams in movies, represent modern day heroines. Still, if you ever feel uninspired by the fashion of today want to take style cues from the these ladies, you can't go wrong.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

If You Accuse People of Having "Daddy Issues" You've Got Issues

I’ve been trying to process the term “daddy issues” for a while now. The term came to my attention again when I saw the headline of a piece criticizing a feminist writer on my Twitter feed, and then, suddenly it showed up everywhere – in comments on feminist pieces, in movies and television shows – in Netflix comedy specials. It’s a way to close down the conversation and put the focus on something entirely unrelated to the issue you’re actually discussing. Instead of talking about reducing sexual assault and possible solutions, we end up focusing on what may or may not have been someone’s childhood experience with their father.

See also: Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you have kids? Are you pretty? Are you young? Are you skinny? The answer to all of these questions if the answer is no: Then whatever you have to say is invalid.

And a lot of the time, our mistake is to defend women accused of being spinsters, or ugly or old, by saying “No, she is married with children,” or “Yes, but she looks great for 52! I doubt you’d pull it off.” But obviously, that’s not the point. Tina Fey’s being married, Ellen Degeneres’ having a spouse, Janet Mock’s being beautiful and [insert any young feminist writer out there] being 20-something will not somehow inoculate these women from criticism. If a prominent feminist writer embodied near physical, emotional and mental perfection in terms of what straight men find acceptable, she would still be roundly mocked as an ugly man-hating harridan.

But the term hits harder for me because until now I didn’t realize I had either ignored it or unintentionally supported it myself instead of confronting the term altogether. I’ve seen that term hurled at women, and thought, “Ha! No one could accuse me of that.” My dad wasn’t only there for all of my childhood, which is a very low bar for fatherhood but nonetheless one men are taught is acceptable, but he taught me to embrace both traditionally feminine and masculine interests. Not only did we fish together, but I scaled and gutted the fish with him. He helped my mom cook and clean, and not simply by doing chores occasionally to congratulate himself on an egalitarian marriage. He was the only example of an equal partner I had growing up in a rural town where most of my friend’s dads expected their wives to be more traditional.

So, of course, I’m proud of this. And I’d love to write a piece just to thank my dad for being himself. But I have so many friends and relatives who grew up without fathers, or with fathers were present sometimes but not always. I imagine that going on about how my father helped me develop into a well-rounded, opinionated woman may somehow suggest that if you didn’t have a father growing up, you ended up missing something you can never get back or that you were irreparably harmed in some way. We love to talk about the role fathers have in their children’s lives, whether a son or daughter, but we always focus on the gender part. Fathers will improve their sons lives by teaching them “correct,” (respectable, benevolent sexism) manhood and improve their daughters by giving them enough confidence to avoid emotionally attaching themselves to other men “too soon” or god forbid, sexually attaching themselves to too many men in order to win the approval they never had. So goes the tale.

Fathers should be valued, not as men, who presumably have more social capital than mothers or instill fear in the men their daughters date, but as another human being who can give their child love and attention (as well as some dough for that child to live on). When we talk about motherhood, we talk about everything humans do to nurture and support other humans, but with fathers we focus on this very narrow part of someone’s growing up, a part that never necessarily had value to begin with, and is toxic at worst.

So then it’s no wonder misogynists would throw that particular insult. The only role they see for fathers is in teaching their children gender roles. And if a feminist writer is making her rejection of traditional gender roles known, she obviously didn’t have a father, since that is all they consider fathers good for. They don’t think fathers do the things mothers do, such as take them to school in the morning, make sure they get to a doctor’s appointment or tell them they’re proud of them. They tie a woman’s sexuality to her father, going back to a time when daughters’ sexuality was owned by fathers. It’s a an archaic mindset, and yet, with a little help from Freud, it’s so commonplace.

That’s why I shudder to think of the times when I was way too proud to have a father, rather than to have a great person in my life who helped me through difficult times and was there to congratulate me during the good ones. Not to mention the fact that women without fathers are considered doomed, when plenty of children would do well not to have some fathers, or mothers for that matter, in their lives, and instead have supportive, stable and kind family, biological or not, mentors and friends. I grew up among family and friends without fathers, or with fathers who could not seem them regularly. As a child, it never occurred to me that they were in a bad situation or that I should feel mine was better. They usually seemed happy, and for those who weren’t, I didn’t assume their fathers were the reason.

It wasn’t until I became older that I learned people were shamed for not having fathers in the household or in their states for that matter, or that families were considered incomplete or broken without them. It wasn’t until my early junior high school years that I learned girls faced a particular, sexualized shame for not having a father married to their mother, much less one who wasn’t around at all. There’s a suggestion there, part of which reminds me of a man at a bar backing down at the mention of a boyfriend but not a woman’s refusal: “Oh, so a man doesn’t own you and therefore protect you? You must be up for grabs. You must not be worthwhile to one man, so I’ll treat you as if you are subhuman.”

The phrase also serves as a way to bring a conversation back to men, and more importantly, women’s dependence on men for social acceptance. And in one sentence they use this rhetorical device to shame women who didn’t have their fathers in their lives growing up, as if it were something they deserved or a fact they should be ashamed of. For this reason, I’ll never see the casual use of “daddy issues” the same way again or enjoy seeing some feminists talk about their awesome dads as a response to those barbs, because that’s not the point.