The Recovering Good Girl

The Recovering Good Girl: As we go into full new-year’s-resolution-mode, I.C. shares a powerful and personal story of her journey toward recovery and what it means to go beyond the strictures of the “good girl” and its control.

by I.C.

I have lived my life with a sort of luminous double, a potential self I’ll call the “good girl,” as close as my own breath and as far away as a star.  As I come from a conservative Christian background, in which messages about appropriate feminine traits were inescapable, this imaginary figure gained a good deal of power over me, and I spent many years of my life trying to attain the promise of perfection she held out.  It was a very traditional, even retrograde, type of perfection.  Being a good girl meant being obedient, modest, meek.  The good girl did not speak until spoken to, concealed negative emotions, and if she didn’t have anything nice to say, she didn’t say anything at all.  For those traits, I believed, she would ultimately be rewarded with approval and love. Continue reading “The Recovering Good Girl”


Lana del Rey, Florence and the Machine, and the Performance of Femininity

They thought death was worth it, but I
Have a self to recover, a queen.

-Sylvia Plath, “Stings”


Even amidst the buzz surrounding the release of Adele’s 25 this month, I’m still caught up in two other albums released by major female artists this year. Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Rey both (like Adele) released their third major-label albums in 2015. Florence and the Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful and Del Rey’s Honeymoon each mark a sonic departure from the albums that preceded them.  Beyond that, Florence Welch and Lana del Rey are two of my favorite female artists, and listening to these two albums on constant repeat—Florence’s since May, Lana’s since September—has led me to wonder what these two very different singer-songwriters have in common, and why both have a similarly dark, magnetic appeal for me (and, I suspect, many others).  Placing their latest albums in the context of their work as a whole, I can see that part of what’s intriguing about both of these artists is their blurring of the lines between authenticity and performance, mythmaking and confession.  Both perform femininity and embody it in ways alternately troubling and inspiring.

Continue reading “Lana del Rey, Florence and the Machine, and the Performance of Femininity”

Inside Out and the Politics of Feeling

As pretty much anyone who’s ever met me can attest to, I have a lot of feelings. About everything. I have a lot of feelings about reproductive rights, education policy, the environment; I cry at the end of happy movies and sad movies and at emotionally charged scenes in the middle of movies; since the birth of my niece I even occasionally cry at commercials featuring babies. I’m not quite at Kristen Bell levels of emotional lability, but I’m pretty close. Traditionally, having an abundance of feelings has been associated with a lack of rational thought. Calling someone “emotional” is a hair’s breadth away from calling them “hysterical”; it signals an inherent “femininity,” an inability to think straight. “You’re being emotional” is used to dismiss women, whether they are calling out sexism or arguing about whose turn it is to clean. There are other variants on this theme: “Calm down,” “you’re just overreacting,” and my personal favorite, “is it that time of the month?”

But Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, makes the best argument I have ever seen in mainstream media for the importance of emotions. The main “characters” of the film are the emotions of a cheerful 11 year-old girl, Riley, as she goes through a difficult transition in her life. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) has been at the helm of Riley’s emotional “control center” since birth, but when the family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) begins to take over.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t yet seen Inside Out, go watch it. Bring a pack of tissues. Then come back and keep reading.)

Image from @PixarInsideOut / Twitter.
Image from @PixarInsideOut / Twitter. Inside Out is filled with clever visual gags and references to psychology, including a literal “Train of Thought” and “The Room of Abstract Thinking.”

Throughout Riley’s childhood, we see the way Joy, Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), serve their purposes. Joy guides Riley happily through most of her life. Fear keeps her safe, Disgust stops her from being poisoned – physically or socially — and Anger both alerts Riley to what is unfair and gives her hockey game its verve. But over and over, Sadness is relegated to a corner; on the first day at a new school, Joy gives out assignments to the other three emotions, then draws a chalk circle, ordering Sadness not to leave. But in the tumult of the move, Sadness oversteps her bounds and puts her hands on some of Riley’s “core memories,” turning them from a joyful yellow to a melancholy blue. Sadness doesn’t mean to do any harm, she just does.

Joy and Sadness wind up in a tussle over these core memories, and the two of them are sucked up in a memory storage tube – one of Inside Out’s many clever literalizations of the inner workings of the mind — leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger at the helm. Without Joy or Sadness, Riley becomes listless, irritable and withdrawn. She cries in class and hates herself for it. She snaps at her parents. In a misguided attempt to help bring Joy back into the fold, the three remaining emotions implant the idea – with a light-bulb, of course – of running away back to Minnesota (well, Anger and Disgust do. Fear wisely protests, but holds no sway over Anger). As Riley goes through with this plan, however, they realize their mistake, and try to get her to turn around. But, in a beautiful metaphor for depression, the controls no longer work. Riley is completely divorced from emotion, and in being so, is also completely divorced from reason.

Inside Out is a thoroughly researched film: director Peter Docter consulted at length with two well-established psychologists, Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman. In a New York Times article titled “The Science of Inside Out,” the two UC Berkeley psychologists make a case for the importance of emotion:

“Emotions organize – rather than disrupt – rational thinking…emotions guide our perception of the world… most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Of course, we can get over-emotional, but at their core, emotions alert us to what is happening in the world, and help us navigate our way through. Anger tells us when something is unfair to us, and can drive our sense of justice in the world. Without anger, we are complacent. Fear keeps us from doing things that might get us killed, and without it, we are reckless. Disgust alerts us to foods that might be poisonous, or social behaviors that might isolate us. Joy keeps us going. Of course, there are more than five emotions, but Docter wisely chose to keep the number of central characters low rather than try to achieve full psychological accuracy. The question at the heart of the film is “what does sadness do?”

In their efforts to get back to Riley’s control center, Joy and Sadness fight and separate; Joy falls into the abyss of lost memories. While stuck down there, carefully guarding her bag of core memories, she examines one of her favorites – Riley, buoyed on the shoulders of her hockey teammates, cheering wildly. But when Joy replays the memory (which she does by swiping  – apparently, our memories operate on touchscreens), she sees blue, not yellow. She sees the moments leading up to Riley’s joyful rally with her friends; a forlorn Riley sits on a tree branch, head in her hands. Her team had just lost a big game, and she thinks it’s her fault. First, her sadness draws her parents to her, and then her team.

The people Riley loves and who love her are drawn to her sadness; because of her sadness, they protect her, they lift her up, they bring her joy. This is consistent with what many scientists believe is the evolutionary purpose of sadness and its teary manifestation.

In an earlier moment, Riley’s former imaginary friend Bing Bong is crying candy tears, too overwhelmed with mourning to help Joy and Sadness to the Train of Thought. Joy tries everything she can to cheer him up; she tickles him, she makes funny faces, all without success. Then Sadness sits down next to him. She doesn’t try to cheer him up. She doesn’t tell him not to be sad, or that things will be okay. She just acknowledges how he feels. She acknowledges the very real pain that comes with Bing Bong’s realization that he is no longer part of Riley’s life. She just lets him feel what he needs to feel. Soon, he feels okay again – despite the continuing sad circumstances which lead to his ultimate sacrifice – and is able to help Joy and Sadness on their journey.

“How did you do that?” Joy asks. “He just needed someone to talk to,” Sadness replied, “so I listened.”

As we see in the first part of the film, not all emotions – at least according to common perception – are created equal. Inside Out deals with the way in which Sadness tends to be looked down upon – something also touched upon by Allie Brosh in her chronicle of depression, and our own K.H. in her rocky start to graduate school. Like K.H., I have dealt with my fair share of depression; I have also experienced loss, sometimes of people far too young to die, and its accompanying grief. Often, the most well-intentioned people will say things like “are you feeling better?” or offer a well-meaning “chin up,” “pick yourself back up,” “it’s okay” – anyone who has been sad for a prolonged period of time (or, really, any period of time) has heard these things. Whether they come from a desire to make those around us happy or a deep discomfort with negative emotions, these responses can be damaging.

We would do well to take a cue from Sadness. At times, the best we can do for people struggling with difficult feelings is just sit down next to them and say, “I am sorry this is happening right now. I’m sure it hurts a lot. Take your time. I’m here.” Sometimes we need to know that it’s ­okay to be sad, that sadness is a perfectly logical reaction to some things in life. Sadness often responds best with room to be sad, rather than the frenetic distractions offered by Joy. It is only when Joy herself realizes Sadness’ power that she is able to get back to Riley’s control center, hand the reins to Sadness, and save their girl.

While I applaud Inside Out’s nuanced portrayal of Sadness, the movie did not give Anger the same treatment. And when you are a woman, or a person of color, anger becomes very complex indeed. When you move through a world that sometimes seems to hate you – a world that, at best, can make life very difficult for you – anger is, well, a totally rational response. I get angry when men go out of their way to intimidate me on the street, or go even further and grab at my body; I get angry when politicians who will never have to worry about getting pregnant do their best to strip me of my reproductive rights. How else am I supposed to react?

As E.Y. observed in her piece on #distractinglysexy, the policing of women’s bodies – our clothes, our makeup, the way we walk – is racialized in addition to being gendered. This certainly holds true for emotions, as well. The stereotype of the “angry black woman” forces many black women to be ­extra­-demure, lest they get dismissed – or worse – for expressing even the tiniest hint of anger, no matter how justified. In the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, a narrative of forgiveness – a narrative, that is, of not showing anger – dominated the media. Roxane Gay argues that in looking for this narrative,

The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present… What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution…I, for one, am done forgiving.

On a day-to-day basis, anger (along with fear and sadness) is policed along lines of both race and gender. If you are a woman, and angry, you are irrational. It’s that time of the month. You’re acting like a man (and not in one of the acceptable ways). If you are a black man, and angry, you are a threat. You’re out of control. If you are a black woman, and angry, you risk falling into either or both of the above categories, and getting pegged as an “angry black woman.” Often, it seems that only certain people are allowed to feel, or at least express anger. Of course, those who are allowed to express anger – white men – are not allowed to express “feminine” emotions like fear and sadness.

Our feelings can make us vulnerable, but that vulnerability can enforce a sense of community. And, perhaps even more importantly, without emotions, we are not highly-evolved, perfectly rational Vulcans. We are complacent, we are reckless, we are compassionless. We’re depressed, empty. We need to move beyond the idea that being emotional is “feminine” (as if that’s a bad thing) and weak, and that cold logic is always better. We also need to move beyond the idea that emotions and logic are at odds; one can be both intensely emotional and highly logical.

When Anger and Disgust (Fear is pretty meek) are at the helm of Riley’s command center, they decide she should go back to Minnesota to be happy again. But soon after implanting this idea in Riley’s mind, they realize it’s a pretty terrible one. However, as Riley’s depression worsens, her emotions are no longer able to influence her at all. Despite their best efforts, her three remaining emotions cannot make her turn around. She ignores her mother’s worried phone calls, and on a bus bound for Minnesota, she stares out the window, her face blank.

But just in the nick of time, Joy and Sadness make it back to the “command center.” Joy, having learned her lesson about Sadness’ power, steps back, pushing Sadness towards the controls. As soon as she is at the helm, Riley sits bolt upright, asks the bus-driver to let her off, and runs home as fast as she can, breaking down into tears as she crosses the threshold. At the end of the movie, Sadness saves the day, allowing Riley and her parents to reach a new level of empathy and understanding. Riley continues to be a happy, if slightly more somber, girl whose control center is shared equally by Joy and Sadness (and Anger when she’s on the ice).

Through Joy, Sadness, and the rest of the team, Inside Out provides its young audience with a crucial vocabulary for articulating emotions both celebrated and often unfairly maligned. The ability to discuss the importance of these emotions should not be underestimated—and these emotions, especially anger and sadness, should be divorced from questions of who is “allowed” to feel them.

#distractinglysexy and Drawing the Line

Last week, Tim Hunt surely earned himself a lot of love letters by claiming that women in the lab are distracting—you know, always falling in love with him (I’M SO SURE, TIM HUNT), crying, and other female shit.

(Incidentally, this sparked one of my favorite twitter hashtags of all time, #distractinglysexy, in which women in STEM documented how hard it is to hold tissues and test tubes at the same time! How conveniently a hazmat suit hides tear tracks! Etc. )distractinglysexy1

Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks were infuriating not only on their own merit (or lack thereof), but also because they make me fear that for every lumberingly blatant misogynist speech, there are a hundred Tim Hunts not voicing their misogyny—only thinking it. It was striking in the way he kept claiming he was just “being honest,” and shouldn’t have said those things in a room full of journalists, as if his real mistake was revealing the depths of misogyny in the sciences, not the misogyny itself.

This incident, and the responses to it, are yet another reminder of the way in which women who work in fields dominated by cis-hetero men (ie. most professional fields) must grapple with the policing (and self-policing) of their beauty. It’s no secret that women, whether walking into a grocery store, a first internship interview, or into their own corner office, deal with an overload of information on how to self-present—as competent, as low-key, as anything but #distractinglysexy. How much makeup can one wear in a lab? A boardroom? When does that extra swipe of eyeliner push you from “intriguing” to “overdone”? Like women’s bodies, women’s faces are a battleground where the war over modesty and “appropriateness” is waged.

Thinking about makeup and the performance of appropriate womanhood brings to mind Caitlyn Jenner looking into the mirror at her Vanity Fair cover shoot. Caitlyn Jenner marks a watershed moment in American thinking about gender presentation—as she went from Bruce Jenner, an emblem of masculinity in the Cold War Olympics, to channeling the immediately “legible” femininity of Marilyn Monroe and other screen sirens.

Photo @VanityFair / Twitter
Photo @VanityFair / Twitter

Her revelation to the American public was, of course, not going to be complete without a ‘glam squad’ supplied by a magazine in the business of selling femininity. In the write-up above, Vanity Fair lovingly details the individual products used on Jenner, and quotes makeup artist Mark Carrasquillo in saying,  “‘I didn’t want her to look like a man in a dress. I wanted her to look like a beautiful 65-year-old woman,’ said Carrasquillo—and that is exactly what he achieved.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with Caitlyn Jenner wanting to look like what she considers her most beautiful self. But the discourse surrounding Jenner focused on a very particular image of womanhood, which uses makeup to emphasize the person’s traditional and hetero-acceptable femininity. It thus erased trans-women (and cis-women) who either can’t or don’t want to conform to this image.

From high-school hallways to corporate offices, women walk a thin line between “successfully” inhabiting a beauty standard and stepping outside of it. The margin can be as thin as the missing half-inch of fabric on shorts that get high-school girls sent home. It’s not just about wearing makeup versus going bare-faced, but the ways in which powders, creams, and pigments play back into age-old virgin/whore dichotomies. In these cases, the onus is on women to use their purchasing power to present themselves as willing and able to adapt themselves to “appropriateness.” Sometimes they lack that purchasing power. Let’s not forget that looking “right” for the context is a class-based and racial issue as well, more often than not. To take a prominent example opposed to the more demure examples of Taylor Swift and even Beyonce, Nicki Minaj’s alter ego Roman and her “Barbie” phase were both memorable for their very intentional use of makeup as message. By wielding strikingly artificial pink hair, green eyeshadow, and lacquered lipgloss, Minaj reminded us of the extent to which femininity (especially femininity that dared to be loud, deep-voiced, and not particularly “feminine”) is a performance that others will try to police. This makeup made some people uncomfortable. That, like Nicki’s monster-rap voice, was part of the point. There was nothing “natural” about it.

Photo from | Official Site of Nicki Minaj
Photo from | Official Site of Nicki Minaj

This is not to erase the agency of women who use makeup or choose not to, but to prompt a more thoughtful consideration of the ways in which women are pressured toward the “right kind” of beauty construction. Makeup and the performance of beauty are complicated issues. No amount of misogyny and policing can fully erase the pleasure, for those who love it, of tracing one’s lips with a beautiful, velvety lipstick. These instances remind us that makeup and self-presentation serve purposes beyond “prettiness” as it’s traditionally defined.

And makeup can be a weapon. I wear thick black eyeliner all the way around my eyes these days. This veers just beyond the kind of eyeliner that is conventionally considered “attractive” or appropriate for daytime—except for those who see my eyeliner as an invitation to comment on my “exotic” looks. As a young Chinese-American woman alone in a new city, with a soft-spoken voice and a manner that can come across as naïve and trusting, this eyeliner is my daily ritual of preparation. At least, while others might see me as a quiet, malleable person tapping away silently at a laptop all day, I can look back at them with assassin eyes.

The author in disguise as a lemur
The author in disguise as a lemur

Pretty in Pink: Rethinking Elle Woods

Legally Blonde has a lot of feminist bona fides: it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors; the girls in Elle’s sorority, despite confirming to every other sorority-girl stereotype, are not remotely catty and support Elle in all her endeavors; a working-class woman gets a romance plot with a very conventionally-attractive man; when Elle’s male professor turns out to be more of a creep than a role model, a female professor gives Elle the push she needs; and, in my favorite twist on the modern rom-com, the climactic moment normally reserved for the Big Kiss is taken up instead by Elle, high on her court victory, rejecting Warner and walking into the sunshine happy and alone (she does wind up with a man, but it is in the epilogue and not part of the movie itself). But, for me, the most powerful thing about this movie is the way it portrays Elle’s femininity.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as a feminist. I can’t possibly have known the word as a toddler, but I always wanted to prove I could do whatever my older brothers could, because I needed them to know that girls could do anything boys could do. Despite this, it took me until very recently to identify a subtle, insidious form of misogyny I’d internalized and had been holding onto since childhood: the devaluing of the “feminine.”

The opening sequence of Legally Blonde is all pink products and blond hair. We cut between scenes of college and sorority life – a girl being catcalled by frat guys as she bikes past their house, girls in pink workout gear on treadmills, those Tiffany’s heart bracelets everywhere – and Reese Witherspoon’s silky hair and perfectly manicured hands surrounded by beauty-products and markers of traditionally recognizable, material femininity: Herbal Essences “True Color” Blonde hair-dye; nail polishes; dried roses on a stack of Cosmopolitans; a Homecoming Queen banner; a lovingly decorated “President” sorority paddle. Everything that could be pink is pink, from the bedspread, to the glitter pens used to write on a pink card in a pink envelope, to the doggy-sweater for Bruiser, Elle Wood’s chic Chihuahua.

Just four minutes into the movie, a salesgirl sizes Elle up the way many viewers – my thirteen year-old self included – would: “a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic.” The salesgirl tries to sell Elle a last-season dress as a new piece, and sweetly and swiftly, Elle shows through her extensive knowledge of fabrics and fashion that she’s no easy mark. Immediately, we see that Elle is deeply seeped in all that is considered feminine, but that however frivolous this knowledge is judged to be, Elle’s sharp, legalistic mind uses her extensive knowledge to her advantage in a wide range of contexts. It is not only that her Barbie-esque exterior leads people to misjudge her intelligence; it is part of her intelligence.

Legally Blonde has a lot of feminist bona fides: it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors; the girls in Elle’s sorority, despite confirming to every other sorority-girl stereotype, are not remotely catty and support Elle in all her endeavors;  a working-class woman gets a romance plot with a very conventionally-attractive man; when Elle’s male professor turns out to be more of a creep than a role model, a female professor gives Elle the push she needs; and, in my favorite twist on the modern rom-com, the climactic moment normally reserved for the Big Kiss is taken up instead by Elle, high on her court victory, rejecting Warner and walking into the sunshine happy and alone (she does wind up with a man, but it is in the epilogue and not part of the movie itself). But, for me, the most powerful thing about this movie is the way it portrays Elle’s femininity.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as a feminist. I can’t possibly have known the word as a toddler, but I always wanted to prove I could do whatever my older brothers could, because I needed them to know that girls could do anything boys could do. Despite this, it took me until very recently to identify a subtle, insidious form of misogyny I’d internalized and had been holding onto since childhood: the devaluing of the “feminine.” Since girls could do anything boys could do, why wouldn’t they? Why would I play with dolls when I could collect baseball cards? Why would anyone want to be a stay-at-home mom when they could work?  I was so terrified of being associated with femininity – despite being a fairly shy, soft-spoken kid – that when I was twelve and a friend of mine painted my nails for the first time, I wrote in my diary “I have to go to this New Year’s party with mom and dad. My nails are still painted…I hope everyone doesn’t think I’m a girl or something.” I dressed as male characters for several Halloweens, and when we did our “traveling biography” projects in fourth grade, I dressed as Milton Hershey and learned how to tie my own tie.

In Female Masculinity, queer theorist Jack/Judith Halberstam observes:

[T]omboyism is quite common for girls…[and] we tend to believe that female gender deviance is much more tolerated than male gender deviance…Tomboyism tends to be associated with a ‘natural’ desire for the greater freedoms and mobilities enjoyed by boys. Very often it is read as sign of independence and self-motivation, and tomboyism may even be encouraged to the extent that it remains comfortably linked to a stable sense of girl identity (5-6).

Halberstam argues that this acceptance of female masculinity, of tomboyism, ends at puberty. And, for the most-part, she’s right; once we become teenagers, girls are certainly expected to look feminine. And mainstream culture still expects them to act feminine. But a sizable chunk of counter-culture wants the “best of both worlds.” It wants, in other words, the “Cool Girl” – a trope made famous by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but one that certainly existed prior to her novel.

Photo @GoneGirlMovie/Twitter

Gillian Flynn describes the Cool Girl as

 [A] hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.

This girl, Flynn argues, is a fiction, because, in her words, “no one loves chili dogs that much!” Flynn sees a sad core beneath this persona – “the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be.”

Tracy Moore at Jezebel has a more sympathetic take on the “Cool Girl,” arguing that she is “not a fiction, but a phase.”

Liking beers, hot dogs, sports, partying, and having a general allergy to feelings or Anything Too Serious is not the province of straight men in reality…but generally speaking, it is the cultural province and conditioning of straight men. These are the criteria for general dudeness, and by acknowledging this we must also acknowledge the criteria for general ladyness, which is typically thought of as a softer, gentler, more feelings-driven creature…

So when a woman for whatever reason embraces traditionally straight male interests while retaining aspects of straight female interests, and is hot (she always must be hot)—when she manages, for all intents and purposes, to somehow combine the best of both genders into one bangin’ superpackage of awesomeness—you have what is called a Cool Girl.

From my own experience, inhabiting the role of the Cool Girl is especially appealing to girls who never quite “got” traditional femininity – those of us who, in middle and early high-school, felt out of place, off-kilter, girls whose senses of humor, whose tastes in clothes and movies, whose priorities and hair and just about everything were somehow wrong. Then suddenly, in college, all the things that made me feel like an awkward loser made me feel magical. Girls who “weren’t like other girls” weren’t losers. We were cool. We were desirable. We were special. As Moore writes:

Sometimes it feels good to reject cultural notions of femininity and take up residence on a strange earth and live among the Others—to be told that for a while, you were that sort of girl, the one all the men wanted, admired, and desired, and could never quite grab hold of.

Both Flynn and Moore address the problem of the Cool Girl never getting angry (or never showing it), allowing men to treat her poorly out of a paralyzing fear of seeming clingy or needy. But what is more sinister is that Cool Girl often comes paired with not simply a distaste, but a disdain for all things feminine. For girls who wear makeup all the time (because somehow, the Cool Girl looks hot without trying, or showing that she tries), for girls who want boyfriends, or want their boyfriends to spend time with them, for girls who diet, for girls who drink cosmos or light beer instead of whiskey neat and IPAs, for bubblegum pop, for collections of high heels.

The tendency to think of “masculine” things — emotional remove, spicy foods and hard liquor, movies with car chases — as better, as more legitimate, cooler, than “feminine” things certainly exists outside of the sphere of the “Cool Girl.” Whether we expect women to adhere rigidly to femininity, or to juggle the aspects of the “masculine” and “feminine” that comprise the “Cool Girl,” or do whatever the hell they want, it is rare that femininity itself as portrayed as strength; at best, a very feminine-seeming character surprises us with her martial arts skill or impeccable aim, a sort of Cool Girl cum Femme Fatale, whose femininity masks her inner strength.

Elle is, again, the apotheosis of all things feminine. She wears pink, subscribes to Cosmopolitan, wants to get married – with a big rock on her finger to boot — wears her heart on her sleeve, and spritzes her resumes – typed on pink paper — with perfume. She is unapologetically feminine, and this does not change throughout her story. Nor is it entirely fair to say she “finds her strength” over the course of the film; she certainly learns a lot about herself, discovering that she’ll make a pretty great lawyer and that she doesn’t need a man.

But that strength was always there. In her unique (for lack of a better word) application video to Harvard Law School, she showcases her comfort with “legal terms in every day situations” by responding to a cat-caller with a swift “I object!” Once she sets her sights on Harvard – for admittedly less-than-ideal reasons – she has complete confidence in her ability to get in, and she rocks the LSAT. Over and over, we see people judge her: the salesgirl at the beginning of the movie; Warren, when he dumps her because she’s not “serious” enough for a future senator’s wife; her guidance counselor who doubts her ability to get into Harvard; her classmates and professors when she pulls a pink, heart-shaped notepad out on her first day of class; the judge when she questions [daughter] about her hair-care routine on the witness stand. And over and over, Elle proves them wrong.

On the first day of class, one of Elle’s professors quotes Aristotle in saying “Law is reason free from passion.” Three years later, as she speaks at her class graduation, Elle says

No offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law — and of life. It is with passion, courage of conviction, and strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world, remembering that first impressions are not always correct. You must always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.

Elle brings unbridled passion to everything she does. She will never be “cool,” because in addition to her fabulous pink wardrobe, she will always care, and always show it. While Legally Blonde certainly makes an argument for passion – and against cynicism – it doesn’t enforce Elle’s femininity (it is, however, very hetero-normative and very white). But it does celebrate it. It is a girly movie about girly things, where “girly things” is broadened to simultaneously mean manicures and Prada shoes, and serious smarts, talent, and ambition. Legally Blonde elevates “frivolous” femininity to the level of serious, old boys’ club masculinity – for which there is hardly a better symbol than Harvard Law School.

On Weight and the Pathologization of the Black Feminine

As time went on, I began sitting in front of the television less because I no longer saw people on the screen that looked like me. In their attempt to offset backlash, some networks hired one or two token non-white cast members. Seeing them became an occasion for me to think about how harmful inclusive exclusion is. It was never enough.

After walking home from the bus stop, I threw my backpack on the kitchen floor, reached towards whatever was left in the pantry, and sat, for hours, in front of a large television screen as I did every day. Prioritizing Sister Sister and That’s So Raven re-runs over homework was obviously the responsible thing to do.

What I didn’t realize in elementary school was that each marathon I was invited to sit through threatened to color my world with a white-dominated standard of beauty and value.. Each episode of Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, and The Suite Life reinforced the notion that eurocentrism was ultimately the standard by which beauty needed to measured and upheld. As time went on, I began sitting in front of the television less because I no longer saw people on the screen that looked like me. In their attempt to offset backlash, some networks hired one or two token non-white cast members. Seeing them became an occasion for me to think about how harmful inclusive exclusion is. It was never enough.

As I got older, I no longer searched for remotes with the same urgency and interest as I used to. When Precious was released in 2009, it became clearer to me that my disinterest in pop culture was, in fact, a disinterest in the anti-Blackness that undergirded every facet of mainstream media. But Precious was presumably supposed to provide nuance in an industry and world that was built on the subjugation and attempted erasure of Black women.

“My name is Claireece Precious Jones. I want to be on the cover of a magazine.”

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (2009)
Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (2009)

The school bell sounded as the trailer began for the film. As Claireece walked out of stairwell she was stared at and pushed by other students. Not unlike the majority-white audience who purchased tickets to see the film, the students in the backdrop of the opening scene of the trailer had a desire to see and lay claim to a Black body that did not belong to them. The space that Claireece occupies is one that is imbued with violence and in the opening scene of the trailer Claireece makes it clear to the audience that the violence that the Black Feminine experiences does not render the Black Feminine nameless, silent, or invisible.

Claireece creates an alternative mode of life and sociality for herself by imagining herself on the cover of magazines. In the opening scene of the trailer, Claireece insistently acknowledges her own humanity while others fail to. She imagines a world in which she has full control over when and how she is seen. After several outfit changes, Claireece returns to a world that not only pathologizes her Blackness but also problematizes her weight. And after purchasing movie tickets to see the film, I realized that my presumption about the film was the furthest thing from true. I had anticipated seeing a move that sufficiently represented the nuances of Black sociality but instead, the movie seemed to trouble the binary of spectator and performance.

Every seat in the movie theatre was occupied. I sat behind rows of blonde and brunette white people who seemed all too eager to see Precious and my initial confusion turned into discomfort because I no longer felt safe. Although I was too young to articulate the convoluted feeling I had about sitting next to, behind, and in front of white people to see this film, I was certain that something was not right.

Precious was a box office success grossing over $63 million, receiving six nominations at the 82nd Academy Awards, and overwhelmingly good reviews from critics. The problem is that movies that cast non-white or, more specifically, Black actresses gross $63 million and receive numerous nominations at the Academy Awards insofar as they dehumanize Black women. Black women are consistently nominated for playing nannies, slaves, the sexually exploited…the critical acclaim of their movies is definitely tied to the excess of their on-screen suffering. That is to say that the hyper-investment and interest of Precious is a means by which the general public can continue to work in service of white standards of beauty and human value by reifying the notion that Black women are subjects that the world can dehumanize, commodify, and lay claim to as it wills.

Black women are told that we do not belong on the cover of magazines, let alone the concluding pages that are marked by advertisements. We are told that we taint spaces that are reserved for white women and when self-aggrandizing liberals decide to cast Black women in their films they tell us that we will be cast insofar as we assent to the violence that the role is imbued with. In this case in particular, Gabourey Sidibe is navigating an inclusive exclusion that welcomes her into a labor market that needs her and yet disavows her humanity because she is a plus size Black woman.

This type of inclusive exclusion is a guise that coerces people into believing that fat people and Black people are no longer being dehumanized by mainstream media. Yet their presence depends on their acquiescence to dictated, controlled space. Most of these women in popular culture are being told how and where to exist. When someone is both fat and Black, this becomes even more convoluted because every facet of their identity is denigrated according to white mainstream standards. . Nearly every film, advertisement, sitcom, magazine spread and commercial tells fat Black women that they are subhuman because they do not evoke the right kind of desire, and that they only deserve to occupy cultural space when they suffer.

The oppression of fat Black women through certain types of representation is something that deserves greater attention than it receives. What is often forgotten is the fact that there is nothing pathological about fat Black women. What is often forgotten is the fact that fat Black women exist. And this is the problem. Fat Black women not only exist, but do in revolutionary ways, and deserve to be the arbiters of their own lives, their own performances, and their own representation. That means that we do not have a right to determine for ourselves when it is and is not convenient for us to see and subjectivize fat Black women. In other words, the fat Black woman (the doubly pathologized body) should not just be valorized when an Oscar is on the line.

Gabourey Sidibe for French Elle
Gabourey Sidibe for French Elle

After purchasing movie tickets to see Precious I situated myself in a sea of white people and I felt suffocated by their desire to cathartically look at suffering Black bodies. Theorizing the relation between performer and spectator becomes even more crucial in these circumstances. The violence that was coupled with the collective gaze of the audience hinges on the type of violence Black women experienced in the 19th century when they were forced to be subjects of medical experimentation, sideshows, and museum exhibitions because the white onlookers in the movie theatre viewed Black bodies as propertied subjects to be possessed.

I was reminded of this when a few weeks ago, I attended The Vagina Monologues and witnessed a performer disavow the gaze of an audience that was eager to see and contain her. The performer, a plus size Black woman, was the arbiter of a story that fell on and through ears unwilling to listen to what her performance was imbued with—resistance .  The audience was made profoundly uncomfortable by the fact that the performer demanded to be humanized, but they were even more uncomfortable by the fact that the performer humanized herself and reconfigured what is thought to be a binary opposition between performer and spectator. Before one of the students in the audience began to capture the performance, the Black woman—in anticipation of this violence—unapologetically  embraced the space she occupied as well as her Blackness by centering herself on the stage and shouting.

Despite our intentions, we often find ourselves working in service of white supremacy when we assume the powerful position of the onlooker or arbiter of a performance. When plus size Black women move in violent spaces such as the one the performer moved through, they can choose to negate the ways in which people attempt to see them. So an attempt to capture plus size Black women without their knowledge or consent is an attempt to disregard the work that they do to create alternative modes of existing.

There is also a disjuncture between when, where, and how plus size white women and Black women are seen and “accepted”. While celebrities such as Adele, Rebel Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, and Melissa McCarthy are subject to denigration and ridicule because of their size, Black women like Amber Riley, Monique, Jill Scott, and Rachel Jeantel have to resist a world that not only fails to see them but condemns their existence when it does. For instance, when Rachel Jeantel, 19-year old prosecution witness, recounted her final phone call with Trayvon Martin before George Zimmerman murdered him, the general public was eager to compare her to an animal because of her skin color, weight and speech. Because Rachel did not articulate herself the way everyone wanted her to, the general public delegitimized her testimony and dehumanized her by gleefully shaming her.

MZ 007
MZ 007

Women like Rachel Jeantel, Gabourey Sidibe, Amber Riley, Monique, Jill Scott and Mz 007 give us an occasion to deconstruct normative modes of existing and thinking about subjectivity. Despite the fact that mainstream media tries to control and regulate Black women whose bodies are “unconventional”, these women are among many who remind us what it is to live in, through, and beyond a world that tells us at every waking moment that plus size Black women do not deserve to exist.

%d bloggers like this: