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For Write to Marry Day:
When the courts shot down San Francisco’s bold move to legalize gay marriage nearly five years ago, I wrote a post on an Ani DiFranco livejournal community telling a simple story from my childhood. Now that gay marriage has been legalized, and people would like to take it away from those I consider my friends (so of them such precious friends that I consider them my family), I want to tell it again because I think it’s a poignant image of what No on Prop. 8 means to me.
Picture two little girls. One of them is me; the other is one of my two best friends. We must be about twelve as this story begins. She and I had met in the fourth grade and had been inseparable ever since. We went to dance class together. We did each other’s hair. She introduced me to Billie Holiday, and I introduced her to Donna Jo Napoli. We had always been at once precocious and ridiculous–upon hearing that Silly Putty had been invented in an attempt to find a substitute for rubber, we bought some and experimented upon it with lemon juice and vinegar, hoping to take it that one extra chemical reaction step and save the planet. Together we read the feminist puberty books our mothers had given us, giggling about the idea of sex. Classic girlfriends.
In any case, this one day, which has stayed in my memory ever since, we passed by a shop that had wedding dresses in the window. I pointed one out, admiring its simplicity. She had a different favorite; she wanted a froofier dress. As we walked along, we described our dream dresses, our dream weddings. We fantasized about honeymoons in Venice or Capri. Of course, you could argue that we were two young girls brainwashed with the idea that marriage was the key to some kind of ultimate fulfillment, but ignoring that, it was a pretty cute scene of two twelve-year-olds acting, well, twelve. Marriage at the time was something very intangible, something that ended most movies. Though even then we knew that marriage was not about a dress, the dress was a symbol of something beautiful.
Years later, my friend came out of the closet. Nothing changed. But for some reason, people don’t seem to realize that the woman who’s been in a very committed, loving relationship with another woman for the past six years is the exact same person as the little girl who wanted a glittery wedding gown and dreamed of taking a honeymoon ride on a gondola through enchanted canals in the moonlight. It’s a sad image, really: a girl dreams of a wedding, and then grows up to realize that it can never be hers because the law sees her love for her girlfriend as somehow degenerate.
It’s so strange; we were such similar little girls, and now, in many ways, similar women, and yet, there are people who would consider our marriage dreams to be very different. Because I am straight and she is not, there are people who would consider mine to be “cute” and hers the prelude to perversion. Could you have guessed who was who just by looking at us at the time? Could you have guessed who was who just by hearing the dreams?
When I think about prop. 8, first and foremost I think of my friends and then I think of this story. I think of people telling perfectly normal individuals that they are somehow abnormal, that their desire to fall in love and get married is disgusting. I know this story perhaps does not offer compelling legal reasons–it’s a story from my past, one that holds personal significance for me. However, for me prop. 8 is a personal attack. It is an affront against some of my closest friends and beloved relatives. For me, this is both about general human rights and people I love very dearly.
This is not about abstract ideas; this is about real people. VOTE NO ON PROP. 8.
Just take a look around Portland, San Francisco, New York, or London: the Slow/local/sustainable Food movement is making a dent in the food market. Powell’s has a special display in the cookbook section dedicated to literature that has come out of the movement. Just leaving my apartment, I pass by Burgerville, a Northwestern burger chain that prides itself on using local ingredients and sustainable methods. The UK TV’s food channel has the “Local Food Hero Award,” a reality tv show which awards businesses that specialize in local foods. San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market is becoming a major tourist destination in the city, as is the farmer’s market in New York’s Union Square. Organics are everywhere from Walmart to Safeway. It’s gotten to the point where even McDonalds is trying to play the game with its “What We’re Made Of” (link to McDonald’s website. Sorry.) advertisements, which attempt to portray the company as being conscientious of its suppliers (Check out “From Farm to Restaurant” section, which has suspiciously been “coming soon” since June.). This approach is the herald of a new era for fast food: adapt or strike back.
Unsurprisingly, fast food isn’t going down without a fight; while McDonald’s plays the healthy game, other chains, such as Burger King and KFC have a new strategy: they are positioning themselves as being the anti-snobs, the every day guy. Though they never explicitly mention Slow Food or any other related movement, these companies directly target them, dismissing them as stuck-up and out of touch with the average consumer.
About a year ago, Burger King came out with “Manthem.” The idea was to play off of the 70’s women’s movement. They had men singing out to the tune of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman,” proclaiming liberation from the oh-so terrible oppression of their girlfriends’ “chick food” (vegetables, quiche, and tofu), which was simply not filling or manly enough for them. At core, their strategy was to turn health concerns into a gendered issue. Lyrics such as “I will eat this meat, until my innie turns into an outie” conflates any worries we might have had about the healthiness of fast food with the American obsession with thinness. This, suggests Burger King, is a girlie worry; so go head, eat our meat.
But the commercial goes even deeper than that–Burger King also associates women with the upper (or upper-middle) class as it celebrates men as being working class heroes. The only female character (aside from a few sprinkled in for decoration) in the commercials tries to force her boyfriend to eat dinner at a fancy, snotty restaurant. Chick food, apparently, does not come cheap. Is the whole association ridiculous? Clearly. But Burger King is out for working-class men (and a few women who proudly disassociate themselves from the snotty health-obsessed.), which, as you’ve probably noticed from this election’s obsession with “Joe Six-pack,” is the current image of the stereotypical American middle class.
This trend is still out there in KFC’s latest ad series: The $10 Challenge (link goes to the commercial, uploaded to Youtube). Here, a mother and her two kids attempt to make a fried chicken dinner on a $10 budget but with the current high cost of food, have to resort to going to KFC. The pristine supermarket, with its brick walls and green accents, cunningly emulates Whole Foods or other “foodie” grocery storie; KFC wants us to believe that that wholesome home-cooked meals that the food movement champions simply aren’t feasible in our current economy.
Fortunately, judging from the reactions I’ve seen both in the YouTube comments and the wonderful world of food blogs (which, granted, tends to be biased against fast food. See here and here.), KFC has misread the market. In fact, the backlash against this campaign is so strong that googling “KFC $10 challenge” leads to critical articles and forum postings but nary an official link. As one YouTube commenter (using the name lvingwell) suggested, “Any frugality 101 student could whip this challenge in a heartbeat!” . At the same time, I think these commercials point out an issue that we food activists have a difficult time dealing with: even as we push for better food, we are also pushing for more expensive food. Even before the market crash, this was an issue, and it’s only getting worse.
Fast food is tapping into the cracks of Slow Food’s marketing technique. The food movement has become an upper class movement; even the blog “Stuff White People Like” (which could just be as easily known as stuff yuppies like) has farmer’s markets on its list (As a side note, McDonald’s launched a campaign for their southern chicken sandwich featuring Black actors at the same time as “What We’re Made of.” Though the WWMO commercials don’t actually have any actors in them, I have to wonder whether they saw it as attracting a “White” market as a counterpoint to their southern chicken.). The elegant cookbooks offer recipes that even I, a foodie who doesn’t flinch at the thought of making Thai green curry entirely from scratch, probably wouldn’t make. Fast Food may be playing dirty, but they’re playing off of real issues.
And so, this is why I’m heartened to see advertisements on buses and the MAX for Oregon-based programs that make it possible for food stamps to buy fruits and vegetables. This is why I support the efforts of Ann Cooper, a school lunch reformer who does her best to make sure kids get nutritious, balanced lunches. If the food movement stays a movement for the privileged, it’s going to fizzle. If we move in new, more comprehensive directions, we’re actually going to change things.
So many people, myself included, just can’t resist a modern retelling of a fairy tale. I don’t know what it is about them. Maybe they feed our inner children. Maybe it’s because we, like the characters in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, realize that “happily ever after” can’t be the whole story. Or maybe it’s because at some point in some conversation someone inevitably brings up that Grimm’s fairy tales weren’t even meant for children at all, and we start wondering about the scandalous content of the originals. In any case, when I saw Year of the Fish advertised at Portland’s Hollywood Theater, I knew I had to check it out. Sitting in a near-empty theater, happily drinking my cup of lemon ginger tea, I found myself thoroughly engaged, caught-up in the dangerous, quasi-magical New York of the story. And yet, rapt as I was, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie had outgrown its source material. “Year of the Fish” is full of tantalizing complexity that it often leaves unexplored; it offers you breadcrumbs of possibility but then reverts back to being a fairy tale.
Taking the Chinese legend of Ye Xian (known as the Chinese Cinderella) and setting it in New York’s China Town, writer and director David Kaplan combines on-site shooting, high-tech animation techniques, and a talented cast to create a kind of magically realistic modern fairy tale. Trying to adapt New York City to anything magical always stands in great danger of falling into the cliché on the one hand, or implausible on the other. Too many people have waxed poetic far too many times about its combined beauty and danger; others see it as a place that is almost too full of real life. Impressively, Kaplan manages to balance these two sides of New York so that neither feels out of place. The animation is beautiful; although the stills on the website look like poorly photoshopped images, in motion the colorized photography takes on a soft, stylized quality that compliments the hazy reality of the story.
He also adapts the Cinderella story perfectly to his setting, making it work in a way that actually manages to feel new. Ye Xian is a young Chinese immigrant who is trying to earn money to pay for her father’s medical bills. Unfortunately, she finds herself in debt to Mrs. Su, the owner of a “massage parlor.” Horrified at the prospect of doing sex work, Ye Xian attempts (unsuccessfully) to leave, and as punishment, must do all other work around the parlor: cooking, washing the floors, doing the laundry, scrubbing the toilets. As in the Chinese legend, Ye Xian receives a magic fish from Auntie Yaga, a legendary witch based from Slavic mythology who helps or harms seemingly on a whim. Will these dubious helpers be the key to uniting Ye Xian and Johnny, a young Chinese-American jazz musician? And even then, can love free her from her debts?
For a Cinderella story, Year of the Fish is impressively unafraid to show some of the terrifying conditions an immigrant might face in Chinatown. In addition to massage parlor prostitution, Ye Xian also encounters sweatshops, gangs, and exploitative contracts. The real tragedy of Ye Xian, the movie suggests, is not the actual work she ends up doing (this is far preferable to the alternative), but the powerlessness of her situation and the situation of (most) of the other girls who work for Mrs. Su. Even though the movie never “punishes” the system nor spends too much time dwelling on the horrible reality that Ye Xian’s peers have been unable to escape from, it does offer us a few shocking moments, designed to make the viewer think, that manage to be amongst the the most moving in the film.
In one particularly haunting scene, one of the other girls at the parlor, Katty, tries to reassure Ye Xian about doing sex work: “The first time is terrible. And the second time… that’s terrible too. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth. But the sixth time, the sixth time isn’t so bad” (quote inexact). The resignation in her voice and her matter-of-fact demeanor make a huge statement without feeling out of place in the story. Another troubling moment is the one glimpse we get into Auntie Yaga’s frightening sweatshop, which stayed with me throughout the rest of the film, even if Ye Xian explicitly refuses to comment on it.
In fact, it’s almost disturbing to watch Ye Xian’s unwillingness to make explicit moral judgments on the desolation surrounding her, instead focusing on her own personal choices (aka- She won’t engage in sex work herself, but she feels no particular drive to tackle the system for the sake of the other girls). This moral silence mirrors the approach of the movie itself: Year offers windows into the unspeakable, but refuses to speak about it. For the most part, this works as a powerful technique that calls upon the audience to respond; however, I found myself troubled by this approach at several points in the movie. Auntie Yaga’s sweatshop workers, uncomplaining, help Ye Xian dress for the New Year’s party (the equivalent of the Prince’s ball), but aside from that, they never speak. Unlike Ye Xian, they remain as silent as they were before the movie gave us a glimpse into their world. I kept wishing these women had a voice too, even if this perhaps did not fit the Cinderella story.
And, ultimately, this silence was my primary reservation about the film. Even as he dares to bring up taboo subjects, Kaplan keeps holding back in order to fit his story into the Cinderella tale. When Johnny and Ye Xian find each other at the end, the dark world of exploited immigrants is placed aside with so little fuss that I found it jarring. While most of the film felt like its own cohesive unit with Cinderella as its muse, the ending tied everything with a neatness that reduced it to merely being a modern Cinderella. The end’s conclusion about the power of love feels less real than Auntie Yaga, less real than the magic fish. I was willing to overlook other fairy tale elements, but since Kaplan has so clearly set his story in a world that does not guarantee “happily ever after,” a happy ending cannot come without some kind of price. I found it implausible Ye Xian would simply leave that world behind without a look back (what about Katty?) or without emotional scarring. Ultimately, the movie underestimated its own potential for sophistication.
Of course, the movie had its other flaws, most notably an overly-simplified look at what second-generation youth face in trying to build a cultural identity (Am I betraying my roots if I date a Caucasian? If I live outside of China Town?), but in the end, Year of the Fish manages to be both charming and dark, both real and mythical. Kaplan has achieved the difficult task of successfully revamping a classic story and making it his own. But despite its billing as a fairy tale, the movie truly shines when it is at its most daring. I just wish it had trusted its own potential to be richer than the mythology it draws from.
Hello, my name is Steph. I am a recent college graduate just moved to Portland, Or., armed only with my wits and a bachelor’s in English, a degree that pretty much means that I’m a professional reader of subtext. And that’s what I do: I look at pop culture, high culture, low culture and read what’s there.