Orange Is the New Black and Diverse Ensemble Casts

I’ve been binge-watching (is that what it’s called?) the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black for the last week, especially since I just moved to a small Midwestern town and my laptop is one of my only pieces of furniture. It’s great. It’s hilarious, the characters are super compelling, the actresses are beyond amazing. It’s an almost all-female cast. It has a great Regina Spektor opening which is NONSTOP IN MY HEAD (“Taking steps is easy / Standing still is ha-a-ard!”).

The series follows the trials and tribulations of protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Smith-educated wasp in her late twenties or early thirties who, while ostensibly living a stable yuppie life with her clean-cut Jewish writer fiancé (Jason Biggs), once had a serious relationship with a badass lesbian drug smuggler (Laura Prepon) which resulted in her transporting drug money across the ocean. Now, years later, she’s been convicted and is serving fifteen months in minimum security women’s prison. We see her voluntarily “surrender” to the prison, looking extremely out of place and comparing her new prison-issued slippers to Tom’s shoes.

Immediately, she’s thrown into a world of bizarre rules, barter systems, creative use of commissary resources, pronounced racial divides, and variously corrupt prison officials, and must learn to navigate it, to often humorous, sometimes tragic, effect. Plus—fun pre-prison flashbacks that spotlight a different character each week.

The thing about this series, and the reason that it’s been the subject of a lot of interesting conversations since it began, is that it has a lot of problems, but it has a lot of really good things. And all of it is worth discussing.

One of the biggest complaints: Despite the fact that nearly one in 100 adult Americans is incarcerated (!!), making it a huge part of the American landscape, we only hear or care about this experience when our protagonist is an upper middle class white lady who totally doesn’t belong there. It’s all a fluke! It’s like a prison ethnography for all of us on the outside!

There have also been complaints about the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. Piper discovers immediately that the prison population is essentially self-segregated along racial lines: the whites, the blacks, the “Spanish,” and the others (mostly represented by a mustachioed older Asian lady with poor English skills, one of the show’s more obvious stereotypes). “It’s tribes. It’s not racist,” says Morello (Yael Stone), a white inmate. And to be sure, the black and Latina inmates occasionally appear as racial caricatures. But the interesting thing about the show’s dynamic is that the very fact of the environment’s extremely racialized structure allows these caricature  moments to be “surface,” to be othered perception or extreme self-awareness (as with Tasty’s impassioned defense of fried chicken in her WAC campaign speech). Racial stereotypes show up on the show, but the story doesn’t stop with the stereotype—you keep learning about and fleshing out even those who may have seemed one dimensional, and you do it in a setting that is hyper aware of the social realities of race.

As for Piper’s privileged status: creator Jenji Kohan recently gave an interview with NPR in which she called Piper her “Trojan horse” into the more interesting, more diverse show setting of a women’s prison. Translation: she sold it with a white middle-class protagonist but doing so allows us to access to poor minority characters as well as issues specific to being in the prison system. I feel like this is both a sad acknowledgement of the reality of the television landscape (shows with minority leads, especially ones representing a lower-class background, have much more difficulty getting aired), and a canny way of working the system to still tell really great stories about minority women in prison. Some of the show’s best characters are the supporting ones: the aforementioned Tasty (Danielle Brooks), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), and, notably, Sophia (Laverne Cox), a transgender black woman played by a transgender actress—still a rarity on any kind of TV.

In this, “Orange” reminds me a bit of the often terrific ensemble cast of “Lost”: a white romantic triangle at the forefront (Jack, Kate, Sawyer) but a giant diverse supporting cast who got significant screen time and complex parts to play (most notably, Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as Korean couple Jin and Sun, and Naveen Andrews as former Iraqi Republican Guard officer Sayid; though, to be fair, Andrews is British of Indian background in real life, continuing a long tradition of Indians playing Arabs).

Perhaps an interesting counterexample to this white lead, diverse ensemble phenomenon can be found in Shonda Rimes’ “Scandal,” starring the amazing Kerry Washington. "Scandal" has been much touted as having the first black female lead on network drama since 1974. Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, is the epitome of power and grace, a major player in D.C. politics. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum refers to the show as a “post-racial fantasy." Basically, in the “Scandal” universe, race is never an issue. As such, it’s groundbreaking, but it’s simultaneously status quo-reinforcing. In some ways, “Orange” is the opposite of that.

While it’s screwy that television and media still work this way, and while there’s plenty to criticize about a show like “Orange Is the New Black,” I think we should still celebrate its small victories. And hope that its good qualities are pointing our media landscape in new and ever-better directions.

Chilly Winter Books for Hot Summer Days

what are you reading randon

Randon Billings Noble is a creative nonfiction writer living in Washington, DC.  A graduate of NYU’s MFA program and a former teacher of writing at American University, her work has been published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review;  The Millions; Brain, Child and elsewhere. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, and was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to be a resident at the Millay Colony for the Arts. You can follow her on Twitter at @randonnoble and read more of her work at ww.randonbillingsnoble.com

During the dog days of summer it’s easy to get impatient with the weather and yearn for brisk October days and snowy December nights.  But reading these three wintery novels may help you keep your cool – and appreciate the warmth of August while it lasts.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Mabel and Jack have started over, moved to Alaska and tried to leave their past (their stillborn child, their family farmland) behind them.  But their longing for a child will not leave.  In a fit of fun they build a child from snow … who may come to life.  Mabel knows a version of this story – a fairy tale written in Russian, a language she can’t read – but even with her knowledge, can she keep the child she has grown to love?  Or is a springtime melting the child’s only fate?  Ivey’s novel is a retelling – of sorts – of the classic fairy tale but with twists and turns all its own.

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Mostly set during one Midwestern winter, Blankets, a graphic novel, is the extended coming of age story of a boy raised in a rural, highly religious household.  Craig suffers from a harrowing betrayal of his brother as a child and terrible ordeals at school and at church, where his drawing is misunderstood at best and seen as a sin at worst.  Enter Raina: a beautiful girl he meets at church camp, a girl with her own burdened past.  Their relationship grows and he goes to Wisconsin to visit her for two weeks over winter break.  Those two weeks will leave him changed forever …

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

Naturalist Erasmus Wells boards the Narwhal in search of botanical and animal specimens more than adventure.  But when the expedition’s commander – and Erasmus’s sister’s fiancé – forces them to winter over in a sea of Arctic ice, each crew member is tested in ways he could never predict.  Are they in search of Franklin’s lost crew?  Are they trying to find an open polar sea?  Or does Zeke have other ideas about what he means to accomplish so far from home?  And if they ever return, how will Erasmus reconcile what he has learned during his terrible ordeal with the happiness of those closest to him at home?

Reading about Alaskan winters, Midwestern blizzards and an ice-locked ship stranded in the Arctic will have you grateful for 95-degree days and 80-degree nights as well as eager to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate and another good book come winter.

Book Trailer Number Two: Maxed Out by Katrina Alcorn

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Though she lives across the country from me, I was able meet Katrina Alcorn a few days after agreeing to do the trailer for her memoir, Maxed Out; American Moms on the Brink (Seal Press). When I sent her my mailing address for the deposit she said, “Oh! You live in Brooklyn? I’ll be in Brooklyn tomorrow!”

We met for coffee at a light-filled, white-washed cafe, recommended by my cousin, who always knows all the cool places.

Our conversation was of a piece with the cafe: pleasant, airy, invigorating. I walked home feeling so inspired and hopeful. The mid-morning sun was golden on the low buildings on Smith Street. As I walked home it slowly gave way to raw late-morning brightness shining on the buildings next to the BQE.

I hope you like the trailer. I had fun making it. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

Below, a few deleted scenes that I really liked but that didn't fit into the final piece. (Funny how that's so often the case. A painting teacher in college called those little precious bits cherries and said you have to be brutal and paint over them.)

Male Authors, Female Authors, and Serious Literature

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I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, and having done so, felt more equipped to ponder a rather inflammatory statement he made last September regarding perceived difference in treatment of women authors’ work in relation to that of their male colleagues.

Jodi Picoult had tweeted the following: “NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.”

Ostensibly, she was criticizing the fact that while her books covered similar ground as Franzen’s, they were treated very differently by publishers and critics alike. Even the cover designs send out “chick lit” signals, while Franzen’s look more “serious author consider this for an award please.”

It could have been left at that. But Jeffrey Eugenides, himself an acclaimed male author, felt compelled to chime in. In an interview with Salon, he called Picoult’s complaints “belly-aching” and said, "I didn’t really know why Jodi Picoult is complaining. She’s a huge best-seller and everyone reads her books, and she doesn’t seem starved for attention."

Here’s where I’m like, hold up, Eugenides.

While it would be unseemly for Picoult to complain about any lack of commercial success, there is a difference between that and critical success, aka being taken seriously as a writer. I’m not super familiar with her work, so I don’t actually know how good of a writer she is. But—at the very least—she is Ivy League-educated, very prolific, and sells millions of novels, albeit ones that must single-handedly keep a lot of hand models specializing in soft lighting and tender gestures in business.

And therein can lie part of the problem. A book’s marketing goes a long way in determining its reception. If the publisher thinks a book will sell to a middle-aged, light-reading crowd, they’ll commission cover designs and blurbs that appeal to said crowd. While such marketing is often astute, it also precludes the possibility that those books will ever be Taken Seriously.

And as author Maureen Johnson recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “The simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality.”

Eugenides may or may not be right that Picoult herself has nothing to complain about. But his casual shrug-off of any kind of gender gap in the promotion and reception of modern literature seems at best naïve, at worst super male privilege-y.

I like Jeffrey Eugenides a lot. I’ve read all three of his novels, and interestingly all of them devote major page time to female characters in mostly sensitive and nuanced ways. The Virgin Suicides is told from the point of view of a chorus of neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the five sisters of the tragic Lisbon family. While the boys never truly understand the girls’ pain, there is a deep cosmic sympathy that courses through the narrative—even as the girls remain inscrutable, it is always understood that they are flawed breathing human beings.

Middlesex (which I reviewed on my book blog) is an epic chronicle of Cal Stephanides, born Calliope, a hermaphroditic boy who spends the first fourteen years of his life as a girl. Again, while hardly an LGBTQ anthem, the book deftly deals with the fluidity of gender and sexuality, as well as the persistent presence of “Cal” in both a female and male body.

It wasn’t until I read his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, that I could see where Eugenides might go wrong. The narrative is told from three points of view, your classic love triangle between Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. Mitchell, like Cal, has a lot in common with Eugenides himself and is fully fleshed out. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder, and his passages are often gut-wrenching. But Madeleine? She’s kind of a privileged, boy-crazy twit. It’s not that she’s entirely unsympathetic—but she’s uninteresting, un-fleshed-out, and seems to exist (even with omniscient narration) as the cardboard fantasy of Mitchell’s ill-advised romantic desires.

Further, and here’s where the irony gets delicious: The Marriage Plot’s title and content could have lent themselves to the most chick lit-y of marketing campaigns. Madeleine is an English major obsessed with Austen, and though somewhat subversive Eugenides’ narration does self-consciously follow the old marriage plots within his modern (and postmodern) 1980s setting. Yet the cover for his book, the blurbs, and its placement in the bookstore are all miles away from Jodi Picoult’s stuff. Is this the proof he needs that male and female authors’ work are often given unequal treatments? Could a woman author have written something called The Marriage Plot about a college girl in love and been taken seriously as Literature? It’s debatable, but it's doubtful, and it’s definitely worth asking.

For more on this thought experiment, I highly recommend that you check out Maureen Johnson's May 2013 Huffington Post article, which showcases the results of her Twitter project to “gender-flip” famous novel covers—including The Marriage Plot.

This Actually Happened

loud and clear this actually happened

The Postal Service only released one album, a decade ago this year. There is no progression---no growing with or apart from the artist, no moment they went mainstream. It's weird to be old enough now to do things purely for nostalgia's sake. But, I have a feeling that's why most of us were there. That album was a sound marked with a date-stamp, a frozen snapshot of something we once loved.

Before Ben Gibbard started the second song he spoke into the microphone: "this actually happened."   The song was about a dream he had, and maybe that's what he was referring to.

Or, maybe “this” meant sixteen: a kind of affirmation to everything that had unfolded ten years ago, including the  minute, somewhere in there, where I put a burned cd into the slot of my car stereo, the words Give Up written with sharpie. That time is so far gone that it has been reduced to a few choice scenes and heavy emotions that feel too ungrounded to have actually occurred. But these songs are a relic---existential proof---of the summer I sat on the end of a dock in an Oregon town with the first boy I ever truly wanted and a bottle of raspberry Smirnoff that tasted nothing like the sugar syrup smell. Each time I hear a song from that album (usually now on a cafe playlist of muzak) a few disjointed scenes are unearthed and they are, inevitably, of summer.

There's something about this season that makes the people and places linger in our memories with all the shadowy contract of a sun high over-head. They become inky outlines in our mind, of short-lived loves and seasonal friendships that occupy a disproportionate share of my memory.

Over the balcony, a thousand heads glowed below me, and I wondered what they remembered. I couldn't see their mouths, but I could hear them singing along to the final words of the final song, “everything will change”---like a mantra said over and over. It was a message to each of us, ten years back, feeling as if the afternoon was forever. We didn't know then about the way things fade. Or that the summers would become flickers inside us, and the music would keep them alight.

 

Introverts on the Internet

I was on my way to a first-time meet-up with some women I’d been admiring quietly online for a while. I loved their work and believed so much in what they were doing. And then, when the opportunity arose to meet in real life, well, it seemed too good to be true. Of course I would go. Except, the thought of meeting in person also set my already overactive worry machine spinning. I’m sure most anyone would get butterflies at the idea of meeting her idol. But it was deeper than that. It was the worry about kale in my teeth or saying something awkward, but it was also the worry about being disappointing or disappointed.

And so, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do: I phoned a wise friend for advice. Here is what she said.

Arrive early, and pretend that you’re the hostess. Make it your job to make sure everyone else is having a good time.

At first, it seemed counterintuitive. What about being fashionably late? Isn’t it awkward being the first one to arrive?

I took her advice, though, and it worked like magic. I arrived at the hip (and rather intimidating) bar just as the door was being propped open. I gave the bartender a shrug—“I guess I’m early?”—and played musical chairs among all the empty stools until I found the one I liked. After perusing the menu for a long while, I knew just what to order and what to recommend.

By the time the others began trickling in, I felt at home, and I wanted to make sure everyone else felt that way too. I made a point of saying warm hellos and of staying late for the last warm goodbyes. For the whole middle of the event—the part with overlapping voices and jostling for attention—I was a quiet observer, taking note of social dynamics and the ebb and flow of conversation. Meaningful bookends to the evening were my first priority.

In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, she recommends a similar approach to parents of introverted children. When it comes to large gatherings, she says, “It’s much easier to be one of the earlier guests, so your child feels as if other people are joining him in a space that he 'owns,' rather than having to break into a preexisting group.”

I’ve taken this advice to heart for in-person gatherings, but I’ve often wondered what to do about introversion online. Unless you’ve just started your very own community with yourself as the first member, it is nearly impossible to ever feel that you’ve joined an internet community or conversation early. How often have I come across a blog post that’s months old but feels as if it’s speaking directly to me, right now. Then, my excitement gives way to disappointment as the end of the article begets a “conversation” in the comments that’s 800-posts long. My initial impulse to respond and connect over the topic is shut down by the sense that the party was way too big, and more importantly, is long over. How could I possibly come up with anything interesting to contribute?

It happens too with online communities. An internet space you’d never heard of catches you off-guard, and you smile with anticipation while creating an account. But the process culminates in one of those inevitable “Who to Follow” pages, complete with an illustrious welcoming committee of celebrities and internet personalities. A rock lands in the pit of your stomach. Oh, no! I’m already late, and everyone else is already here.

I felt that way when I first joined Twitter. I remember remarking aloud that it felt like shouting in a crowded room. Why is everyone yelling? I thought. I couldn’t actually hear them, of course, but something about the fast-paced stream updating in real time seemed loud and overwhelming. It was as if I were standing on the sidelines of a chaotic race, looking hard for an opening to join in too.

It took some listening and observing, but before long, I caught the rhythm of the conversation. Fast forward to today, and Twitter is just another one of the many ways I communicate. It has its own rituals and idiosyncrasies, like any community, but by now, it feels familiar. I wonder, though, about my fellow introverts, especially those on the sidelines of internet conversations, waiting for an opening or an invitation to participate.

If the internet had a doorway, I’d love to stand at the entrance with a sign that says, “Welcome, quiet people.” We could gather at the entrance to stare at each others’ shoes and then work up the courage together to make our way toward all of the commotion. I’d want to make sure that every voice was valued, even (and especially) those who need some time for reflection before jumping into the fray.

Annie Oakley: Sharpshooter. Gunslinger.

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I don’t like guns. I don’t like the sound they make when they go off, and I don’t like what they tend to stand for politically. I also don’t like that a man who killed a teenager with a gun can be found innocent of manslaughter and then walk away with the same gun.

But before I digress. I do like Annie Oakley.

Maybe it’s because she kicked ass with guns, but there’s something empowering about Annie Oakley’s whole image. Poufy ‘80s (1880s, that is!) dark hair crammed under a cowboy hat, silk bandana, Old West petticoat, giant rifle. Spontaneous idea: let’s revive the Old West genre with her biopic! It would definitely be better than The Lone Ranger.

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses in Ohio in 1860, to Quakers from Pennsylvania. Her father died when she was very young, and then her stepfather died not long after, so she learned early on how to hunt, trap, and shoot to support her large family. In no time at all (here’s where I picture our new biopic’s training montage—maybe set to Mumford & Sons?) she was a sharpshooting expert.

When she was fifteen, Annie entered a shooting contest against Francis “Frank” Butler, a 25-year-old Irish immigrant and former dog trainer, and won. A year later, they were married, and then they began performing together as professional markspeople. So romantic!

In 1885, the gun-happy lovebirds joined Buffalo Bill’s famous traveling show, performing for adoring fans across the United States as well as European royalty (Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm, and the King of Italy, among others).

In 1898, Oakley wrote to President McKinley to suggest that women would make a great addition to the U.S. Army, should hostilities break out with Spain (they did): “a company of fifty female sharpshooters” was ready to be committed to the service, Oakley wrote. McKinley probably never wrote back, the jerk. Side note, women weren’t allowed in combat situations in the U.S. armed forces until this year.

Another interesting anecdote about Oakley (that might make it into our movie, and would definitely ensure that it passes the Bechdel Test): she had a rivalry going with another female sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s show named Lillian Smith. Lillian was younger than Oakley and may have attracted more attention because of this. Oakley even left the show for a short period over the tiff. You could write this all off as cattiness, but it was probably equally a function of tokenism; what, audiences couldn’t accept two female sharpshooters in one show?

Speaking of movies, Annie Oakley was in the eleventh movie of all time. Think about that: the eleventh. (After commercial showings began in 1894.) Thomas Edison shot a short film called “The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West,” starring Annie and Frank. In the film, they shoot various objects against a black background for about twenty seconds. Must have been pretty exciting, considering there, you know, weren’t movies yet. You can view it online.

Oakley continued to perform and shoot to the end of her life. She died in 1926 at the age of sixty-six. Her longtime husband and performing partner died just eighteen days later. Frank and Annie were then buried next to each other. So. Romantic.

If anyone wants to volunteer to write a script for Annie Oakley: The Movie (a reboot, if you will; there have definitely been Annie Oakley movies in the past), let me know. Just try not to make it anything the NRA could use.

To Whom Do You Give Your Joy?

loud and clear joy

For two years after college I was a restaurant hostess. And every night, at ten o clock, I would walk down the delivery hall, swipe my punch card, put on a pair of sweat pants over my tights and few minutes later fall into a bus seat for a ride over the bridge and into my north side neighborhood. A smile of acknowledgment to the bus driver was the last sputtering of any niceness I had left---god help any poor soul who asked for change or stranger who wanted to chat while sharing the seat. Nope. Nu-huh. I was done---fresh out of politeness or civility (and genuine care?  I ran out of that a few hours ago.) More than once I feared coming into contact with a disguised sorceress on public transportation who would "see that there was no love in my heart" and hex me into a Beauty and the Beast situation.

At the end of days like that I didn't even recognize myself. I'm a total bleeding-heart type and usually unfailingly pleasant, to a fault. If I learned anything from those soulless nights it's that emotional energy is limited. Despite our best efforts, it's possible to get to a point where there isn't anything left to give. I think back to times when I've cried myself out: heaving sobs eventually subsiding into a wave of calm. Or, when a breathless announcement falls into its own kind of script: "yes, I'm just so excited!"

A few months ago, I misread a line in some self-helpy thing that left a question that's stuck with me. Who do you give your joy?

I think most of us have a mental speed-dial list of people we turn to in a crisis. It's a small handful of people who understand our worries and validate our fears and even in our most hysterical moments respond with "oh yeah, that's totally reasonable." I trust these friends  in the deepest way possible. I give them the parts of myself that I'm not proud of and that only show up with my heart-of-darkness at 10pm on Trimet.

But, the list of those who receive my for joy is different. I give a little of it, all over (and sadly, perhaps the least of it to those who take my tearful phone calls.) I so value my relationships with emotional intimacy---the rare moments when I can truly turn in off and just let it all out---that I forget about the good stuff. I give the most of my joy to those in that "middle area" of friendship, relationships full of love and admiration but also the secret desire to keep myself together to keep them around.

This is compounded by the fact that many of those we are closest to in our hearts are actually a few thousand miles away. It's easy to lose sight of the daily lightness, because we need them so much for the weight of things unresolved in our hearts and we only have so much phone time during a lunch break.

All of this is to say, I want to allocate myself differently---to share the easy joy of newspaper articles and nailpolish colors and to make more calls beginning with "remember that time . . ." and ending in a giggle fit. I want to be better at giving the best of me to those who love all of me, regardless.

 

The 88 Cent Tote Bag

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I am getting married in a few weeks, and my partner and I are trying to find something to give to people as favors, their prize for coming to our wedding. Our budget is approximately one dollar per person, which rules out the fancy vegan chocolates, the tiny succulents in little tin pails, and pretty much most things I’d want to buy or they’d want to own.

I finally came up with the idea of buying cheap blank tote bags and block printing an image on them. I knew how we would present them, rolled up and tied with twine and a little tag that would say “Thank you for coming.” I could picture their future lives, like so many given-away kittens, hanging out in pantries, in the kitchen, at picnics.

I searched the internet, ruthlessly turning down totes that cost $1.86, or $2.35, and finally found some for under a dollar. I started the purchasing process and got to the part where it totalled the shipping costs: $26.45. “Well I bet I can find a coupon for that!” I thought, proud of my thrifty nature, and opened a new tab to search for coupon codes. I found a couple of dead links, and a few wedding boards featuring former brides complaining about the low quality of the tote bags from this particular site. I looked at one woman’s sad photo comparing the actual quality of the bag she received with the image on the website, and I started to freak out.

This tote bag was almost certainly made by someone working in a sweatshop, I realized. Which is obvious, given that it costs 88 cents, but which I’d been avoiding until that moment. If I’m not willing to pay a fair price, who do I expect to make up the difference? The employer? The government?

The cognitive dissonance between my vision of sweet, hand-printed gifts lovingly tied in twine and the reality of the product I was about to buy made me feel dizzy. I want to give people something I made, but who made this tote bag? And how many other tote bags did they make that day, and how were they paid for it, and what was the ventilation like? What is their name and what is their life like and what were they thinking when they made it? One thing is for sure, they were not thinking about me or the guests at my wedding. Suddenly this "personal" gift started to seem extremely impersonal, and probably immoral.

I realize that it is somewhat ridiculous to fixate on the tote bags, when I have no idea where most of the things I purchase, for the wedding or otherwise, were made—or rather, I do have an idea, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in an intergenerational feminist craft collective made up of my friends and loved ones.

Sometimes I buy things that cost $1 because they’re a good deal even though they smell like plastic and sadness, and sometimes I buy locally-sourced, organic things for too much money. Either way I hate myself a little bit.

In my dream world, we would all make most of what we use, either buying or making the materials to do so. If we wanted to buy something, it would be for a fair price, and it would be because that thing was special or beautiful, not because we didn’t feel like taking the time to make it ourselves. Things wouldn’t be cheaper to throw away than to repair. We would value the time and labor it takes to make something.

I realize that I could make my life more like this if I tried. Instead, I live in a city and buy cheap crap quite regularly.  I am often extremely happy to walk down the street eating a 99 cent popsicle with 35 ingredients.

But aren’t weddings about trying to live out our romantic fantasies of how could be? Isn’t that the point of saying the nice words and wearing the special outfits and getting everyone you love together in one place? Some fantasies include riding in a limo and wearing a diamond ring. My fantasy includes not buying 88 cent tote bags. I know that I can figure something out that will be just as cheap but that won't make me freak out. For better or for worse, I'm going to live the tote-less dream.  

Strong LGBT Characters and the Potential of Media

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Last week marked a historic turning point for the LGBT community in America, with the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and California’s Prop 8 paving the way for greater equality in marriage, and possibly in general. It wasn’t entirely shocking, as polls have shown a steadily increasing support throughout the country for gay marriage over the last several years: over half of Americans now support it. At the same time, the sheer rapidity of this acceptance is noteworthy. Ten years ago, pro-equality Americans were in the minority, and gay marriage seemed like a distant dream. Now, as long as things continue as they have been going, it’s more a question of when than whether. To me, it seems like partial validation of my (and this column’s) underlying theory that media—particularly positive media portrayals—can go a long way in shaping our society’s understandings of minority groups. This is not to say 1) that the LGBT community has achieved all of its goals or “made it”, or 2) that LGBT representations in TV and movies are not often problematic. But familiarity, kind of, breeds acceptance. As one-dimensional or stereotype-y gay characters often are, their very presence banishes the alternative: the shadowy negative archetype that might otherwise persist in sheltered people’s minds.

When did the sea change begin? First: remember when Ellen Degeneres coming out was a huge deal? She was on the cover of Time magazine. Her sitcom struggled with this new plot twist, and was eventually canceled. Her burgeoning (?) movie career (including a romantic-ish comedy called Mr. Wrong) kind of stopped. Over the course of the 2000s, however, she’s made a major comeback and is now one of the absolute queens of daytime TV.

In the meantime, a whole crop of other “gay” shows has hit small-screen success. “Will & Grace” (which even Joe Biden noted as an influencer of American opinions on LGBT issues), “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and everything on Bravo since, “Glee,” “Modern Family,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The New Normal.” Also, the coming out of mainstream, broad-appeal celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Anderson Cooper. LGBT characters and people became, in a way, normative. What would have been shocking to middle American sensibilities in 1990 was required viewing by 2010.

Not to say there aren’t problems with the ways that many of these shows represent gay characters. The gay stereotype of the flamboyant, effeminate white male who loves Broadway, fashion and tiny dogs, and who has the bourgeois upper middle class budget to indulge such hobbies, is, maybe, overrepresented in media—any other “type” of gay character is underrepresented. There should be more gay characters of color. There should be more lesbians (that aren’t there just to generate ratings amongst hetero male viewers), as well as bisexual and transgender characters—you know, the L, B, and T that are usually overshadowed by the G. There should also be LGBT characters with a range of personalities and interests that don’t reinforce our gendered notions of how gay men and women “should” act.

That's the second part of my theory, I guess: first, representation. Then, range.

For now, though, here’s to Kurt, Blaine, and Santana from “Glee,” Cameron and Mitchell from “Modern Family,” Callie and Arizona from “Grey’s Anatomy,” Will and Jack from "Will & Grace," Willow and Tara from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Xena and Gabrielle from "Xena: Warrior Princess," Lafayette, Jesus, and Tara from “True Blood,” and all the others who have, in their own, potentially small way, helped LGBT identities become mainstream.

In fact. Can I double thank Lafayette? Because he’s one of my favorite things on TV.

Who are some of your favorite LGBT characters and TV personalities? Have they changed the way you think about LGBT issues?

One Big Awesome Tide Pool.

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, Last week I started working on my first podcast. It’s a new sub-project of my documentary film Stories From The Green Cabin. The podcast is a little silly, really. It asks people to talk about their work as if it were a wilderness. Say, for example, that someone is an essayist. The podcast asks them: What would essay writing look like as a physical place? Is it like a lush rain forrest, a freezing tundra, or a beautiful, peaceful field?

Then more questions along those lines: What is in an essayists backpack? Do you need a map, or is there a clearly marked path? Is it lonesome or are there lots of others like you?

What is the most dangerous animal to an essayist? (The Internet? An empty coffee cup? Self-doubt?)

What’s in your canteen? (Tea? Coffee? Whiskey?)

What’s your advice to a newly exploring essayist? How important is it to go to school or have a guide before venturing into this wilderness?

What would a Girl/Boy Scout style badge for your work look like?

I’ve had this podcast idea for a long time. I had been listening to shows online about writing, pop culture, science, international news, cooking , etc. Eventually I started using the Sticher app on my phone, which helped me burn through even more podcasts while walking my dog, sitting in traffic, or riding the train. Most of the shows were great. I loved them. Two of my favorites were The Dinner Party and Hash Hags. I liked the content and the hosting of Hash Hags, the theme and the structure of The Dinner Party. I wanted to listen to a show that combined the two, but couldn’t find one.

So I bought a bunch of audio equipment and told a few close friends about my idea.

Then I let the audio equipment sit unused on my bookshelf for almost six months.

Then I emailed Elisabeth and Miya and said “Hey, I have this idea for a podcast, can I share it on Equals?” They said yes.

Then the audio gear sat on my bookshelf for another month.

Something was wrong.

My desire to produce a podcast was there but wasn’t strong enough to justify a stand-alone project. The podcast didn’t have a home within Stories From the Green Cabin at that point. Would I really want to create a new website and media presence to support this podcast? I wondered. Would I really want to bother my friends about having them as guests on a silly little side project without knowing where it was all headed? There were so many people I wanted to talk to about their work but there was little reason for me to set aside the time in my schedule to record, edit, and promote this quirky program.  It seemed to me, at that point in time, that the podcast idea was just a distraction.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was halfway though an application for a summer media program*, that I realized how the film and podcast were linked. Applying for something always has this clarifying affect on my work. Regardless of whether or not I secure the grant or get accepted into the residency program, the structure of an application always demands a simple, straightforward explanation about the project in question.

The boundaries an application presents in format and word count always leave me with a better understanding of what I’m really up to. This time around I came to see how both the podcast and the film satisfy this intense curiosity I have about identity, creativity, and work. It seems so obvious now, but just months ago I couldn’t make that connection.

When I was little I was obsessed with tide pools. They felt like mini-oceans suddenly and perfectly contained for observation. Every once in a while a big wave would come and wash all of the little tide pools into one big awesome tide pool. I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement when connecting the film and podcast. For a long time I was just waiting for the next big idea wave, I guess, when all it really took was filling out that application to change the tide.

*The program I applied to (and have since enrolled in) is hosted by AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) and Uniondocs in Brooklyn. It’s called the Full Spectrum Storytelling Intensive. For any freelance radio or film producers out there, check it out---there are still a few spots available!

 

The Volume of Silence

In 2010 Marina Ambrovonic had a retrospective show at MoMa, as part of the retrospective she performed a new piece: The Artist is Present.  I don’t know why I was unaware of this show while it was occurring, but I only recently heard about it.  The Artist is Present invited attendees to sit across from Marina in the gallery and share a moment of silence.  Just sitting in silence.  The piece spawned facebook groups and blogs devoted to photos of the participants.  People smiled, people cried, people looked confused.  Marina was serene.  She was present.  It’s amazing and beautiful even to read about.

I wrote my final paper in my Modern Art class on one of Marina’s performance pieces.  I can’t honestly remember which one anymore, it was second semester of my senior year and I was more focused on my thesis than any other papers. But I remember parts of the research; I remember reading about her previous pieces, notably walking across the Great Wall of China to break up with her longtime boyfriend.  Marina and Ulay were/are both artists, they performed and worked together during the 70s and by all accounts were a passionate pair. When the relationship was no longer working, they decided to set off on a journey: they each started at a different end of The Great Wall and started walking.  In the middle the met, hugged, and said goodbye. The second half of the walk was the start of the next Journey.  After that moment in the middle of China, the said goodbye and didn’t make contact with the other again.  Until Marina’s retrospective, when Ulay came to participate in The Artist is Present.

This is one of the most beautiful, most touching things I have seen. It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch.  I’ve changed my desktop background to a still shot, to remind me.  Remind me of the beauty of passion and the importance of the journey.  Remind me to look into someone’s eye, to try to truly see. Remind me of the volume and multitude of things that can be expressed without speaking a word. It touches my heart.

 

Lemon

Two memories.

1) 3rd grade. My friend Rebecca’s mom was an artist, like my mom, and she did a painting for our class based on Charlotte’s Web. I wanted everyone to know that my mom was an artist, too, so I suggested to her that she should paint our class a picture of the Boxcar Children (you know, in her spare time). She told me that she was sorry, but she couldn’t ever seem to get excited about making things that were other people’s ideas.

2) Junior or senior year of high school. Sitting on my bed, looking at an art school course catalogue, and thinking, “All of these majors look really cool...except for graphic design. I would never do that.” The page about the graphic design department had an image of a lemon. I recoiled from it the way one might a person whose behavior reminds you too much of your own secrets—the kind of reaction so strong it deserves to be examined, but usually isn’t.

I spent most of my life assuming that no matter what kind of artist I was, I would never, ever be a commercial one. Like, it would be much better to work at a job I don’t care about at all, than to compromise the purity of my artistic expression.

I came of age, after all, during the grunge era, and if I learned anything from Kurt Cobain (and from my mom), it was to avoid being a sell-out.

Now it’s 2013 and lo-fi has become an aesthetic found in car commercials and Taylor Swift videos, twee is an insult, and punk is an exhibit at the Met. Sleater-Kinney broke up and Carrie Brownstein is on TV making fun of the hegemony of the DIY aesthetic (“put a bird on it!”) We’re in a brave new world, people.

The friends I have who make art either:

a) Are commercial artists in one way or another (even if they also have a fine art practice)

b) Are part of academia

or

c) Feel like they have no idea how to make a living as an artist, and have a job doing something else.

I’m not sure if this is just me growing up or an actual cultural shift, but I do feel like the successful artists I’m aware of these days seem less like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites and more like Ben Stiller in Reality Bites. I mean, it’s easy to make fun of the Ben Stiller character because he kind of betrays Winona Ryder and he's such a people pleaser, but...he’s trying. Ethan Hawke is just stealing candy bars and making fun of her dress and sitting around the house acting like he’s above it all.

I’m almost done with the book trailer I’ve been working on—someone else’s words, someone else’s story, but my aesthetic and my visual interpretation. The overall “voice” of the project isn’t purely mine, but I believe in it to the extent that I feel good about putting my name on the finished product.

I’m thinking about that lemon. I remember the paper, it was matte. I remember the colors, yellow and green. It was a nice lemon, you know? You can do a nice still life painting of a lemon and photograph it and make a cool graphic image of it. You can do whatever you want with that lemon. It's a lemon, it's not going to get mad at you.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading samantha

Samantha Marie Bohnert enjoys the snow, words, adventures, writing letters and finding something new to dream of daily. She has been a writer since she could put pen (or pencil) to paper, and is inspired by many things, from the way the light hits her toes in the morning to the sounds of her surroundings. She lives in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio; a city that has kept her heart safe and follows her wherever she goes. Her love for coveting what is beautiful—and sharing that beauty with those around her—brings her happiness, always. The other day I was at my father’s pool, and I handed him a library book­–the standard, crinkly plastic-covered kind that smells like books from decades past­­–and after barely looking at it, he asked, “Do you still read?” Now, to any innocent bystander, a question like that would imply that not only did I used to read, but that I had also forsaken it long ago. But I knew the true meaning behind his inquiry: he wanted to know if I read with the same ferocity, dedication, and irreverence to my surroundings as I did in my youth. I was never a social child, and one would assume I lacked a nose because it was buried amongst pages during all waking hours. This was the girl my father knew well; a girl who preferred the company of fabricated strangers, and who could tune out any cacophonous setting. But that behavior is now a faint memory, as is my ability to regain that type of unwavering focus.

No one would suspect a lack of reading in my life; I have two bookshelves packed to the brim in my home, and I recently checked out five books from the library. But I have a terrible secret . . . that aforementioned book my dad shied away from? I haven’t even cracked it open. And one of those bookshelves is reserved exclusively for authors whose words I have never read. Please accept my apology Dostoevsky, Eugenides, Rushdie, but not Proust; I am saving the first volume of In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) for my own, personal column: “What Are you NOT Reading, Probably Ever.” From what I’ve gathered the work is every avid reader’s kryptonite, mocking him or her from the bedside table. I’ll get there when I get there, okay? I have even dedicated a special section of my blog to that ominous bookshelf called “Shelf Life.” And before you ask, no I haven’t finished the book mentioned there, either. But I digress. I am not some hoarder collecting books uncontrollably. My intentions are pure and true, but if I am being completely honest with myself, I buy books and wear out my library card because that is what happens when you love something so deeply. You immerse yourself in it, let it envelope you, let it overtake whole areas of your life (and apartment.)

My entire life has been spent coveting words, yet there was a significant and somewhat detrimental lull in the time I spent with my paged companions. I was growing up, exploring other interests (gasp!), and somehow I strayed. The only books I read in my undergraduate program were literature of a certain century, and graduate school was an amalgamation of rhetoricians classic and contemporary. Needless to say, I was pigeonholed. Maybe it was self-inflicted, but that is not important, nor relevant at this time. What is important is that I pushed away that past love of mine for something else, but as my life settles and my mind regains clarity, all I crave is a book that allows for the rest of the world to just…fall away. So I buy and I borrow; I read reviews of any published work that have just one thing about them that grabs my attention. It is a slow process, and I have to tell myself that I am not that wide-eyed girl with a wealth of time and freedom. And I certainly cannot just read anything anymore. I want to read words that move me, that cause a reaction. I once vowed that any book I started I would always finish, no matter how abhorrent. However, there have been certain stories I have read recently that are difficult to stomach. I proceed with trepidation and hope always, always that I will feel what I used to. I think I am getting there through the briefest of moments that occur in between wading through less than desirable writing. So fret not, fellow bibliophiles, and please explore those moments from the past year. Also, thank your lucky stars that I am not writing as my 12-year-old self; at that age I read more than 100 books in a year. Nowadays, I am lucky to get through 100 pages, so my list is much shorter. Enjoy.

L’Etranger (The Stranger) — Albert Camus

The Fifty Year Sword — Mark Z. Danielewski

Hannah Coulter — Wendell Berry

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — Dave Eggers

A Map of Tulsa — Benjamin Lytal

On Beauty — Zadie Smith

Currently, I am reading Whole, a non-fiction work by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and in a bold, yet silly move, I am simultaneously working my way through The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Check in with me in a few months, where you will probably witness me crying amidst a circle of unread books. Like a champ.

The Diary of a First Time Filmmaker

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, I am making a film. Does that make me a filmmaker? I'm not sure how this all started.

I guess it began back in August last year when I traveled from Virginia to New York to go to that blogging conference. I wasn’t much of a blogger, really. I was mostly unemployed, living in a dank hunting cabin that was infested with stink bugs and a rowdy squirrel family, and feeling mixed up about my next step in life.

I had hoped the cabin would help me make progress towards my goals. I hoped blogging would magically make me more dillegent in my writing practice. I hoped I would find a way to get out of coffee shop and retail jobs for good. The blogging conference was my first real step towards what I wanted to be doing with my time.

Don’t get me wrong, Diary. There’s nothing wrong with working in retail or pulling shots of espresso to get by. I still work in the service industry to pay rent. It was just that I didn’t know how to balance that work with the work I wanted to be doing in writing and filmmaking. The cabin gave me time to apply to writing residencies. It gave me the safe feeling I needed to share my work with someone other than my writing partner.

My time at the cabin also gave me some perspective on other work I had done that hadn’t been a good fit. I had worked as a production assistant on commercials, documentary films, industrials, and reality shows. But I think it was a safety net to work those kinds of jobs. I wanted to be close to filmmaking, but I never actually made any films. I was close to something I loved, but not actually embracing it full on. I enjoyed working in production but I wasn’t sure it was helping me find my voice. It wasn't much different than working at a coffee shop or in retail.

At the blogging conference, just like when I had worked on production gigs, I struggled to explain my story. I was a complete failure at “branding” myself in a way that made any sense or felt honest. Freelance production assistant/barista/salesperson? Aspiring director/editor/ writer? I didn’t know what I was about, let alone what my blog was about. Was it about my move to the cabin? About my budding interest in food? My pets?

It mostly became about my pets. 

I had a hard time connecting with people at the conference because I was so confused by my own blog. One person I did connect with was Lisa Weldon. We met at a small group session about writing book proposals based on personal blogs. The content of the workshop went in one ear and out the other, but Lisa’s story stayed with me. After the session I introduced myself and wrote a little note on a piece of paper with my contact information since I didn’t have any business cards. I also wrote “you’re awesome!” because, well, she is.

After a few weeks back at the cabin thinking about why I liked Lisa’s story so much, I emailed her and asked if I could write a screenplay about her experience. Lisa had walked every block in New York City the summer before and mastered social media in the process. She said yes.

Eventually I realized that reaching out to Lisa about her story was also a security blanket of sorts. I thought if I wrote about a compelling story that had really happened I’d have justification to write a screenplay. None of my own ideas could be good enough for a script, I figured, I needed someone else to help me along.

Lisa encouraged my writing through emails and calls. We even hung out in her hometown of Atlanta so I could do research for the screenplay. But then a funny thing happened. The story stopped being mostly about Lisa’s trip to New York two years ago, and started being about our relationship. We sent each other drafts of stories, sample chapters, and general positive vibes about our respective creative ventures. We stopped talking about the screenplay, and started talking about a documentary.

Now, almost eight months later, I’m almost halfway through with a short documentary — my first film — about Lisa and a few other talented people who shaped my time at the cabin.

I find it hard to think about what the filmmaking process has been like so far.

This is all I can think of:

At the cabin I used to sit on a concrete bench beneath a rotting old walnut tree. I’d look out across the flood plain and watch deer flicker through the trees. I would watch groundhogs perk up on their hind feet, nibbling grass and rolling their wary glistening eyeballs back and forth across the field. I’d watch birds, those bright little singing kites, gliding through currents of sky.

Making my first film feels something like watching a wild animal from far away. Maybe it's the not knowing what will happen next. Sometimes the deer disappear into the trees, other times they freeze, heads perked up like the wary groundhogs. And sometimes the birds take off over the ridge and soar higher into the clouds, higher than you'd think a bird could go.

Zelda Fitzgerald: Flapper. Artist. Author's Wife.

historical woman

In our ruggedly individualistic culture, I often wonder: what is it like to be famous because of the person you’re married to? To appear in the press, go down in history books, as “so-and-so’s wife”—to never, ever be mentioned without your spouse as starting point or explanation? In some ways, I think it must be harder even than being a nobody, like the rest of us. At least we can pretend at the idea of absolute autonomy, that we achieved what we have on our own. Even if you’re nobody, you are your own nobody. You’re second to nobody.

Zelda Fitzgerald, whose life reads like an exciting tabloid drama (and who, clearly, would make the best E! True Hollywood Story), is one of those, a Somebody’s Wife. Her Somebody is renowned Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. You know, The Great Gatsby guy. That book you had to read in high school that you still kind of remember and is now a Baz Luhrmann movie. Their life together was glamorous, whirlwind, tumultuous, and ultimately short-lived. It reads like an American Greek tragedy. And while F. Scott had some tough breaks, I have to say, I really feel like Zelda had it even tougher.

Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayres, came from a prominent family in Alabama. There were senators, judges, etc. amongst the men in her family, so she was definitely your classic, privileged Southern Belle. However, it seems Zelda was a little, I don’t know, spunkier than her fellow SBs: drinking, smoking, seeing boys. That might have been why F. Scott was so taken with her upon their first meeting—he probably recognized a kindred spirit.

As soon as F. Scott’s first novel, Tender Is the Night, was published, he and Zelda were married. In no time, they were the It Couple of the 1920s New York (and later Paris) party scene. They drank. They cavorted. They spent money. They fought. It was all very Great Gatsby. Also, as you probably saw in Midnight in Paris, they were friends with many other American artistic luminaries: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas.

As her husband’s star was on the rise, Zelda threw herself into her childhood passion, ballet. It was a little late in life to start a career as a dancer, but for a while she devoted herself wholly to the art. It didn’t come to anything. Later, she would also take her shots at both painting and writing. The gist is, she seems to have been pretty good at all three. But what kind of career could the hard-partying wife of a super-famous hard-partying author really expect to have?

And eventually, even her role as Famous Wife wasn’t going too well. The drinking and fighting started to dominate a little too much of the couple's time. They both had drinking problems; they both had affairs. Zelda’s emotional health declined. She did one stint in a sanatorium (old-timey rehab) before checking into a psychiatric facility, which she was in and out of for the remainder of her life. She died in 1948, in a North Carolina hospital, trapped in the building when a fire burned it down. Terrible way to go, and first on my list of two tragic famous people psychiatric ward deaths (the other is composer Robert Schumann).

Only more recently has interest in Zelda’s artistic output been renewed, both her paintings and her 1932 semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz.

Zelda’s story, for me, brings to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s amazing, amazingly creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a confined housewife slowly goes mad in the room where she spends most of her time, and which was based on Gilman’s own experiences with mental illness and marriage. Zelda and Gilman’s heroine are different, sure—one was stuck indoors in the 1890s, the other was liberated and living it up in the 1920s literary party scene—but that stifling quality of being forever in the shadow of your male partner, constantly searching for that space that through your accomplishments you can call your own, seems in line on an emotional level with that more, perhaps, timeless female struggle. Maybe that’s why Zelda’s story still resonates today.

Leela and Lois: The Strong Female Character in the Male-Centered Animated Comedy

strong female characters

I watched an episode of “Futurama” recently (this isn’t an uncommon occurrence), and in it the whole staff of the Planet Express is stranded on a barren island that has begun to go through robo-evolution, starting with prehistoric robot sludge and yielding robot dinosaurs and then robot cavemen in a matter of hours. Fry, Leela, Amy, Hermes, the Professor, and robot Bender are reduced to wearing tattered clothing and sleeping in a cave. Leela and Amy, in particular, come out looking a little Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., practically busting out of their rags—yet when they’re kidnapped by a couple robo-cavemen, like modern, empowered women, they take care of it themselves while the (generally weaker) male characters equivocate about going to save them.

This was kind of “Futurama” in a nutshell for me. Leela’s bodacious bod and the extent to which it is occasionally revealed is a small reminder that this is a male-created series with a largely male audience. Yet on the whole, I find Leela to be a really positive, self-sufficient female character, particularly in what can be a male-centric genre. For comparison, let’s look at “Family Guy.”

Seth MacFarlane’s pop reference-laden, kinda fratty animated series has a lot in common with “Futurama.” Their demographic target audience is roughly the same (“Futurama” is a little nerdier). They’ve both been on since the late ‘90s, with a hiatus in the middle (“Family Guy” went off the air between 2001 and 2005; “Futurama”’s was longer, between 2003 and 2010). They’re both, essentially, cartoons for adults.

I find that “Family Guy” has moments of real brilliance, particularly in its early episodes. I love the observational humor on human behavior, and some of the culture references are hilarious. It can be really, really smart. But it can also be really, really stupid—and worse, it casually drifts into racist, misogynist territory pretty regularly---see worst repeat offending character Glenn Quagmire. In that, the show's humor is a clear reflection of the personality of its creator, Seth MacFarlane—see the controversies raised by his Oscar-hosting turn earlier this year for evidence. He lives to provoke, even though his non-provoking material could stand perfectly well on its own-- see his awesome turn hosting “Saturday Night Live” last fall, for evidence of his talent.

The main female character on “Family Guy,” Lois, isn’t a bad representation of womanhood per se. She’s pretty tough, fairly well drawn character-wise, and often the voice of reason. But, besides for the fact that she’s surrounded by often offensive material, she also ultimately falls short compared to “Futurama”’s Leela.

Why is Leela awesome? Well, for starters, she’s a statuesque purple-haired one-eyed mutant in a tanktop and combat boots. She can kick the ass of any other character on the show. She’s the object of affection for the dim-witted protagonist, Fry; she only occasionally returns these affections, you know, when she feels like it. But there’s something really sweet and authentic in their relationship, and in Fry’s devotion to her. It’s not just lust, nor is it perfunctory or idealized. Throughout the series, Fry is really, believably in love with Leela.

In fact, the nature of Fry and Leela’s relationship is a microcosm for the overall tone of the show. While “Futurama” definitely deals in gross-out humor and sophomoric jokes, the core attitude is never mean-spirited and almost never offensive (I only say “almost” because while nothing comes to mind, nothing is never offensive, right?). The characters, no matter how colorful, have a genuineness—their hopes, their actions, their relationships.

Also, there has been more than one “Futurama” episode that’s been an actual, real tearjerker. One of these is an episode in which the foster home-raised Leela discovers that her birth parents are below-ground-dwelling mutants who gave her up for adoption in the hopes of giving her a better life, and with whom she is reunited after years of separation. The episode ends with a montage of young Leela growing up, going through various life situations, and in all of them, unbeknownst to her, her mother and father are watching over her, looking out for her, and occasionally plucking her from imminent danger. It’s pretty much as heartwarming as TV gets.

So not only is Leela kick-ass in the vein of Buffy, Starbuck, and the Bride, she also belongs to a cartoon universe that treats its characters with sweetness and respect—as much as is possible with animated screwup robots, lobster people, mutants, and cryogenically frozen humans. All of this is pretty sorely lacking in its male-centric, purposely-offensive “Family Guy” counterparts (see also: South Park, American Dad, Daniel Tosh’s horrible Brickleberry). In my books—both the feminist one and the general one-- “Futurama” wins every time.

Addendum: A quick Google image search to find a good Leela picture for this post has yielded a further discovery: that no matter how awesome and feminist a character Leela is, the reception of her by the largely male audience can still be as creepy and fetishizing as anything. It was actually really hard to find a non-sexual image. Sigh. I guess it still beats Family Guy rape jokes.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading

Erin Riley was born in Los Angeles, spent some time living in Maine and Boston, and currently lives in the Scottsdale, Arizona.  She has four kids—two grown up boys (men, really) and two little girls.  Riley graduated from law school, but doesn’t work as a lawyer.  Her real training is in philosophy, but as everyone knows, the call for professional philosophers has really dropped off in the two hundred years or so.  She recently started a blog, Ordinary Good Fortune, as a forum for her musings about everyday life.  She loves to write—almost as much as she loves to read, which is a lot---and would someday like to achieve the goal outlined in her third grade career day essay and be “the authoress of many, many books and stuff.”  For the time being, she tries to squeeze in some writing between getting her little girls to eat their dinner and clipping money saving coupons.  She’d also like to let everyone know that she is the woman who is married to the best guy in the world. She sincerely hopes everyone else is very happy anyway, though.

Here's the thing you should know about me and books:  I read a lot.

I wasn't always a promiscuous reader.  At first, I was a serial monogamist, a dedicated lover of an author or series of books.  My first serious involvement was at six, when my mom introduced me to Nancy Drew.  This was after a brief, unsatisfying, encounter with the Bobbsey Twins.  I could never really get close to them though, because, honestly, two sets of fraternal twins (one blond, one brunette) solving the candy-coated mysteries they stumbled into at ski lodges and amusement parks?  It seemed pretty far-fetched to me.  I felt like I was being lied to.

So my first true literary love was old-school Nancy, the motherless daughter of a kindly lawyer. She was an independent lass out on her own much of the time in the surprisingly dark underbelly of her idyllic town, River Heights, where there were plenty of diverted inheritances to restore and missing treasures to recover.  Not only did each book keep me going from chapter to chapter (these were the first books I read by night-light glow after I was supposed to have gone to sleep) but the series kept me moving from book to book.  I hungered for the next time I could read Nancy again.  I didn't feel like I was fulfilled until I gone through every volume I could  wheedle my parents into buying.  When Nancy and I were through, I fell for Encyclopedia Brown.

I wasn't satisfied for long though.  I got my own library card and soon, the Mission Viejo main branch was knowingly facilitating my year-long liaison with Agatha Christie.  I met Poirot on the deadly, fast-moving Orient Express, and Miss Marple in a cozy yet dangerous vicarage in the English countryside.  I devoured book after book.  I even read the Tommy and Tuppence stories, mixing it up with the bright young things of London in the 1920's.  By the time the Babysitter's Club and the Sweet Valley High series were luring YA readers in my suburban neighborhood, I was already plowing my way through Harlequin Romances, and I had started to seek fresher, more adult thrills---Stephen King and Nora Roberts and other prolific authors cranking out book after book. Even though they didn't stick with the same characters, I could still be faithful.  I proved my devotion over and over as I moved on to classic literature, having it on with Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, even Henry James, sipping tea in the drawing rooms of country homes and working in the sculleries of forbidding manors and setting off on European Grand Tours with the richest and poorest of relations.  Even when they didn't appear on my summer lists of required reading for high school.

But soon, even though I still went everywhere with a "good" novel tucked into my bag, my head was turned  by the new fiction that flowed freely in the Brat Pack era---Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis---you know the types. I worked in bookstores then, and before I knew it, I was heavily into Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie and Michael Chabon.  I cruised the reviews looking for something  hadn't seen before. Then, I began to really play the field. I read memoirs and literary nonfiction. I did what I hadn't thought possible:  if a book didn't really do it for me, I'd dump it for a new one.  I'd start several books at a time, lead some on and then shelve them for months or callously return them, unfinished, to the library from which I'd borrowed them.   I could still fall in love, of course, drawn in slowly by little details, then driven to stay up all night to feverishly finish a novel, work and kids be damned.  I'd witlessly sleepwalk through the next day just to reach the conclusion of my latest literary conquest.

As real life got more hectic, I found myself inescapably drawn to short stories and essays.  Maybe it's all the time I've spent in college and grad school.  When you always have something you're supposed to be reading, like tort cases or comparisons of the good life according to Plato and Aquinas, free reading is totally cheating on your required material. Reading a short story from a collection now and then is like flirting with that cute guy at the office, where you giggle and twist your hair and enjoy a flushed, provocative moment. It gets you in the mood for some real action with your steady, serious partner. But reading a novel is like having an affair, somehow leading a double life because you become so deeply involved, you neglect your main relationship. These things often end in tears.

So what am I reading now?  Short stories, baby.  And essays.  I still read novels of course, but it's always  the same:  I tell myself I'll go slowly, but I become involved to the exclusion of everything else, staying up late to finish and swearing that I won't do it again---for a while.  But I'm so easily drawn back in.  I just can't help myself.  I'm obsessed by good prose, in whatever form I find it.

A few story collections I'm currently enamored with:  What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander;  The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham; You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett;  and Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, both by Karen Russell.  I've also recently loved Eat, Memory:  Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times, edited by Amanda Hesser; Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford and Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple.

Right now, I'm in the middle of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, edited by Nell Casey.  Yeah, I'm reading all of them at the same time.  Don't judge---like I said, I just can't help myself.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading erin

Erin Anacker is a recovering web designer and a people enthusiast. Over the last year, she has transitioned pixology—her nimble little business—into a place encouraging entrepreneurship, developing community, and supporting women in graphic design. With a passionate voice, she seeks to empower others and initiate authentic conversations around design and entrepreneurship. Her recent ventures include GLIMPSE, a magazine featuring independent, female designers; and Women in Design (co), a website selling curated collaborative artwork by a rotating selection of female designers.

Erin is an avid outdoor adventure seeker and an intentional wine drinker who is shamelessly independent, and most of all, sassy.

It was with every fiber of my ten-year-old body that I resisted any form of reading. I especially hated reading aloud. What’s the point? I already know how to read. Why continuing doing the most boring thing in the world? Plus, I was terrible at it. “Sounding it out” is quite possibly the worst advice you could give a kid learning written language, English spelling being unpredictable and inconsistent.

I was an incredibly energetic, sassy, and silly kid. I really didn’t have time to read. There was so much more of the world calling for my active participation. Why sit passively when I could play spy games with the other ninjas and spies of the neighborhood? (FYI, the sweep of street lights are force fields.)

Unfortunately, reading did not come easily for me, physically or mentally. It was hard to sit still. To pay attention. To have patience for the slow passing of words and for my own clumsy navigation. I’m fairly certain this had little to do with my innate abilities and everything to do with a lack of inspired teaching.

However, I made my way through high school without too much struggle—just a few frustrating, tear-filled, late nights when my mom would stay up late to help me write papers. My parents saw my issues with reading as more critical than I remember them to be. Thank goodness. I’m not sure how, but I know my path would have been different. They enrolled me in the reading program at Sylvan Learning Center my sophomore year. Though there was no “aha” moment or ignition of enthusiasm for reading, I got better at it.

Fast forward to my first college paper. I failed, miserably so. I continued to struggle with grasping more than surface-level plots, especially in times of strain and panic. A blank screen at 11:30pm the night before the paper was due didn’t exactly set me up for success. Luckily, my professor—who remains one of the more influential—took a special interest in me. With his encouragement and belief in my potential, I began to read with more clarity and understanding, and even, a bit of interest.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I really struck up a love affair with the written word. I wonder if I was just a late bloomer. Something did change around age 26. I felt my mind expand and engage with the world in new way. Now, at age 29, I’ve read more than 50 books in the last two years, as opposed to the two or three of years past.

Just last winter, I picked up The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamond Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, recommended to me by my friend Sarah Bray, a fabulous lady and voracious reader. The Zanders present a new way of approaching relationships, creativity, and self-engagement. Their framework forces a fundamental shift, questions the assumptions our brains have fixed as truth, and introduces world-altering objectivity where anything is possible.

I am particularly enamored with this book. In fact, I am going to read it again—absorb the pages into my life. What I love most about the content is the idea that we can become what we have always dreamed. In the deep veins of possibility, we can love and create. In the most real way, we can grow into our potential. We can even learn to enjoy something we once resisted and overcome the insecurities that once held us back.

Librarian Love

librarian love

I had an intimate relationship with my librarian as a child.  Now, before you get all sexy secretary on me,  I’m talking about the holding-books-for-me-she-thought-I’d-enjoy, not-telling-my-parents-when-I-check-out-Flowers-in-The-Attic-twice-in-a-row kind of relationship.  The stacks, the stacks, my childhood church, with the librarian as High Priestess, where I spent countless hours literally sticking my nose in books, drinking in the wood and verbena smells like a wine taster with a big sloshing glass of cabernet.

Nearly every day I would ride my bike to the library, run in, plop a stack of torn-through paperbacks on the librarian’s desk, and ask, “What cha got for me next?”  Often she had some held for me, other times she’d sigh and say, “I can’t keep up with you, kid, I got work to do!” all while smiling and pointing me to the fiction section, where I’d invariably pick up the next in Stephen King’s autour, receiving no judgment from said librarian that I was reading horror instead of Little House on the Prairie.

When I got to high school, and found the librarian a wacky, neglected lady, who would draw little aliens on my bathroom pass during Study Hall, and just yearned for someone to take her up on her offer to show them how to properly cite a reference in their term paper.  I started doing my homework in her office instead of at my desk, because she was one of the few faculty members who wasn’t afraid of my teen angst, manifesting itself those days in tangerine hair that fell over my scowling eyes in ways that made most shopkeepers in our suburban enclave follow me around their stores.  But the librarian, an outsider herself for being too quirky and well-read for acceptance at pep rallies and the local Ruby Tuesdays, could care less if I had painted my fingernails black and invited her to the Hatebreed show at the VFW.

When I reached college, I’d realized that a first name basis with a librarian was a shoo-in to your name at the top of the list for reference texts, which I needed desperately because I couldn’t afford to buy all the books on my syllabus.  I showed up with a plant for the librarian and was shortly sitting behind the desk, eating donuts and discussing C.S. Lewis versus J.R.R. Tolkien.  College was the place where I finally found “my people”, and could not consider myself an outcast anymore, in need of a lonely librarian for a friend.  It was then that my librarian relationship shifted from a Fairy Bookmother to a more utilitarian one, based on need for books rather than a place to land.  I started to realize that the reason I loved the library so much as a child was that it was one of the few places it was socially acceptable for a child to be alone in.  Now that I was grown, I had the freedom to go anywhere I wanted by myself, no longer needing the watchful eye of the librarian to guard me from the dangers of life outside the shelves.

These days, as a parent, I rely on the library for a place to take my child on rainy days, singing I’m A Little Tea Pot and exploring their selection of Sendak and Taro Gomi, introducing my child to every librarian we see.  It’s paying off.  My two-year-old recently saw the librarian at the farmer’s market, and it was like she had a celebrity sighting to the magnitude of a tween seeing Justin Beiber at Starbucks — “Look! Look!” she desperately pointed, her face a mixture of shock and delight.  The wizened librarian came over, patted her afro and said, “I’ve got those Charlie and Lola books waiting for you when you come in next.”  And I felt the circular nature of books, calling to me, calling to my daughter, calling to all of us, “come join our world of words!”