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“I guess you go too far when pianos try to be guitars” — it’s a classic Tori Amos quote, and far be it from me to decipher any Tori Amos lyrics (oh don’t get me wrong; I love me some Tori.) but I find this quote to be particularly interesting and evocative. I looked up her own comments on the song, which added an interesting dimension to the lyric:
The line, I guess you go too far/when pianos try to be guitars is just about never being enough. I felt that with my instrument sometimes, wanting to be Jimmy Page. You can only be you. A lot of times it’s never enough for people.”
And I started thinking about gender. Now there’s nothing inherently gendered about playing guitar or piano: Joni Mitchell, Joan Jett, and Ani DiFranco all rock(ed) the guitar scene. Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and Billy Joel are piano men. Nevertheless, I think these instruments get gendered. For some reason I cannot fathom, all the indie rocker guys singing with intentionally rough/scratchy/stylized voices are don’t usually get dismissed as trying to be Dylan or a 60’s music throwback (or if they are, it’s considered a positive thing), and yet, you can’t be a woman with a piano without the Tori Amos/Sarah McLaughlin/your music is so 90’s comparison. I realize that there are exceptions to this (Regina Spektor seems to be doing pretty well for herself, thank god!), and so I’m going to full-out admit that I understand that there’s some generalizing involved. But that’s not the point…
Now, I love me some guys with guitars, but I also love some women with pianos. So I’m going to talk about two women with pianos who deserve your respect and your ears: Vienna Teng and Terami Hirsch. Are they trying to be “guitars”–make those kind of musical waves? I don’t know, but they do rock.
Vienna Teng is a Taiwanese-American singer-songwriter from the SF Bay Area (yay!). After graduating from Stanford, she went into computer engineering, only to give it all up to pursue her music. But before I get going on her music, let me get to the instance that inspired this post in the first place. Back in May, Vienna Teng launched her fourth album “Inland Territory.” I started searching for reviews of the album and came across this piece from Paste Magazine, which struck me as incredibly lazy. Not only did the author not bother to make sure he wrote down the track titles correctly (He called “White Light” “White Lie,”) but he also introduced the article with this rather telling statement:
With her nimble piano arpeggios and Lilith Fair balladry, Vienna Teng casts a backward glance during Inland Territory, a retro-minded release anchored in the legacy of Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and other mainstays of the mid-‘90s female-songwriter boom.
It honestly felt to me as if Mr. Leahey heard the piano, thought “Lilith Fair,” assumed he knew what “Lilith Fair” meant, and shut his brain off. To be fair, Teng, in general, makes deceptively simple music. Upon first hearing it, you’ll probably think, “Well, this is pretty.” And it is. She creates lovely, stirring piano melodies. But just because something sounds pretty and has a woman singing it, does that mean we can assume what the content is and shut our brains off? Have we really reached the point where melody translates to shallow except when Sufjan Stevens sings “Chicago”*?
If he had bothered listening to the album, Leahey would have heard songs exploring people’s willingness to ignore world events, mistakenly believing that what happens in “3rd world countries” has nothing to do with them (“Radio”.) He would have heard a vignette from the point of view of a teenager in a hypothetical future in which Americans are sneaking over the border to Mexico, hunting for work (“No Gringo.”) He would have heard a song from the perspective of her Taiwanese grandmother, an attempt for her to understand her grandmother’s harsh criticism of her musical career while still portraying her grandmother as a brave, sympathetic individual who had to flee oppression in her homeland (“Grandmother Song.”) Throughout her songs, she puts on a variety of masks and personae to talk about contemporary issues, identity issues, and, yes, love. When she addresses political issues such as immigration (or gay marriage, as she did in her song “City Hall” off of “Dreaming Through the Noise,”) she focuses on the people these issues effects, forcing herself and others into the shoes of someone they may or may not find easy to relate to. I fail to see what’s so “retro-minded” about this kind of approach.
And that’s the thing about Vienna Teng: she seems so easy to dismiss, and this makes it all the more important that we don’t. Honestly, I think it’s because her music is irresistibly pretty that we allow it to succumb to our worst prejudices; at first even I was inclined to assumed that there was nothing behind the lovely, swirling piano. But pretty doesn’t have to mean hollow, and in Teng’s case, it certainly doesn’t. She’s a fantastic artist and performer, with remarkable empathy and sensitivity. I absolutely adore “Inland Territory,” but really, you can’t go wrong with any of her albums. I linked to her site above, which has some streaming music, and you can also check out her myspace.
As little-known as Vienna Teng is, singer-songwriter Terami Hirsch is one of the most obscure artists I listen to. That’s a fact, not
a bragging right–in fact, I wish she weren’t so obscure. Terami is a little difficult to classify. Though she’s piano-focused, she works with synths and keyboards to make highly textured, layered songs with mysterious lyrics. Her albums sometimes feel dark and heavy, but part of the heaviness simply comes from the digital layering.
I first fell in love with the song “Little Light,” off of Entropy 29. It felt like the theme song for an as-of-yet unwritten heroine of a dystopian tale. I know that is a terribly vague description; this is why I don’t describe music often on this blog–I simply don’t have the technical vocabulary to explain it. However, the rest of the album had such a specific mood to it that I found I could only listen to it when I had the energy to give it its deserved attention. A Broke Machine, her latest album, is no lighter, but perhaps more sophisticated and beautiful. Then again, I might be biased because it contains my favorite song of hers, “The Collector” (I’ll go back to that in a moment.)
I’m going to talk about “The Collector” in specific because I think it’s the closest I can come to encapsulating exactly why Terami fascinates me, despite it being more accoustic than her other songs. From the swirling piano intro, to the verse-chorus structure, there’s something instantly familiar about the song; it reminds you of a love ballad. And yet, something’s wrong. Maybe it’s the tone, the frightening lyrics, the sheer… obsessiveness of it.
Why can’t I let it go?
I’m tired of impossibilities
Chasing down a ghost
To pin it like a butterfly
And hang it on my wall for beauty
I was running through the noise
Playground photographs of me
Chasing down the boys
And tripping over shoelaces
I’ll hold them down to touch their beauty
Oh, I collect what I cannot hold
I collect what I ache for
I collect what I can’t let go…
I collect all I can!
It’s utterly creepy (and I do not condone unwanted touching of anyone, even if it’s children playing with each other,) but, ultimately, that’s what makes this song so interesting. It’s a broken love ballad, trying to contain beauty. And yet, there’s something so relate-able about this character, wanting to be closer to, to encompass what she finds beautiful/sexual. It’s disturbing, but thought-provoking, and utterly addictive to listen to. Some of her songs, of course, have a more of a sense of renewal: “A Hundred Flowers” has a sense of renewal; “There’s a Garden” is about remembering the happy person trapped within you during a bout of depression. But all of them twist your expectations. They are meticulously crafted little gems.
Unlike Teng, I think Terami is probably overlooked because she’s simply not commercial, despite the obvious care she takes in designing every aspect of her albums (down to the cover art!). And, you know, that’s not a criticism; plenty of people make music that’s difficult to get into. You can listen to Entropy 29 on her main site (linked above,) or check out her Myspace page for songs from A Broke Machine (yes, including “The Collector”.)
Sorry for the less-than-analytic post, but I’m tired and brain dead; I just wanted to post this before moss started growing on the mirror. I’m here, and I’m thinking, but I am but one woman, and occasionally susceptible to writer’s block. Hope everyone out there and reading is well!
*Disclaimer: I love Sufjan Stevens too.
There is a woman whom I have long considered my adopted younger sister–I use younger instead of little because she is taller than me and a Freshman in college, which hardly seems little anymore. Her older sister and I grew up together, making mud pies, pretending to be Smurfs, mermaids, Star Wars characters. Recently on facebook she posted a link to a really interesting slam poem by a Jewish woman. I will not post the link because the youtube comments (which delve into such non-topics as “Anti-Semitism no-longer exists” or “ISRAEL,” which has nothing to with the poem.) make me utterly nauseous, but I will quote from it (yes, I agree it’s problematic for a blogger to get so squicked out by youtube comments feeds. But I am.):
You’re Jewish? Wow, you don’t look Jewish, you don’t act Jewish.” And they say it in this tone that sounds like they’re complimenting me! Well this is what I say back: “What does Jewish look like to you? Should I fiddle on a fuckin’ roof for you? Should I humor you with ‘oy vays’ and refuse to pay!?” (Vanessa Hidary, “The Jewish Mamita”)
The poem made me smile, partially because of its content and because it’s always nice to see someone younger than you whom you care about so much find art that helps them be comfortable in their own skin and unapologetic. But it also gave me the courage to write this post, which I had hesitated writing because I thought it was too angry or too in my own head. It reminded me that these issues of identity are important to discuss or else we’ll keep rehashing them and comments like “You don’t look Jewish” will never get examined.
I recently saw a film called Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and starring Joaquin Phoenix. If you ask my flatmate (with all due respect to my flatmate who understands my point of view on the movie but is better able to distance himself from the subtext in it), it is a film about bipolar depression as it relates to a young man’s life and how he places these urges on two lovers. If you ask the majority of critics who reviewed the film, it is a struggle of a broken young man trying to decide whether to rebuild himself in the image of a safe bourgeois man or a fucked-up rebellious artist. I saw it as neither.
I had a very emotional reaction to the flick, which made me hesitate to write about it because I agree with my flatmate; the film works as an exploration of bipolarism (I disagree with the critics, who seem to be using bourgeois as an unconvincing synonym for “Jewish tradition.”). The problem is that the film uses a narrative that I’ve heard too many times: Do I marry the “nice Jewish girl” my mom adores, or the alluring non-Jewish woman as a rejection of all the tradition my parents raised me with? In this narrative, both women get shafted, portrayal-wise (and keep in mind as I discuss this narrative, I do not intend to imply that any of these stereotypes are true about either type of woman because, really, neither type “exists” in a real, generalizable sort of way. Nevertheless, people do it anyhow, and so I must debunk it using their language.)
Because everyone seems to like this movie besides me, writing this has been simultaneously cathartic and isolating. I think it’s important to discuss how these subtle messages work, even if they’re something that most people watching the movie wouldn’t even understand. I felt as if the film was producing Morse code blips that only I could hear, reminding me exactly of “who I’m supposed to be.” And no one else heard. Also, before I really begin analysis, I’d like to note that for me liking or disliking stories is such a complicated thing: I can admire the way something is filmed, but hate its plot. I can love a plot but hate an ideology. And, in this case, I can appreciate what a film is trying to be and feel that it can’t be that (at least for me) because I absolutely abhor its methods. Too often, I think, when someone says that they’re uncomfortable with the racial/gender/etc. subtext of a story, the response from people who don’t really want to listen is, “So you want to ban it?!” or “What about this other story which is worse!?” or the ever-popular, “Freedom of speech!?” We forget that sometimes there’s quiet outrage, gray areas of emotion, and confusion as to how something that does some things so well can make you feel so rotten.
Two Lovers is about a man in his early 30’s named Leonard Kraditor, recently moved back in with his parents after a suicide attempt and a bipolar flair-up. He works at his father’s dry-cleaning business, which is about to be merged with the family dry-cleaning business of the wealthier Cohen family. Both sets of parents entertain the idea of their children marrying to seal the deal, a move that Sandra, the Cohen’s daughter, whole-heartedly embraces (and seems to before she even meets him), and Leonard seems too broken and aimless to resist. Or, at least, he would be, if he did not run into Michelle, the free-spirited but emotionally-damaged non-Jewish woman.
And this is where the film lost me because it started to mock me.
Most people have heard of the stereotype of the JAP, or Jewish American Princess. Not many people think of her counterpart, the “nice Jewish girl” as being a true and damaging stereotype. I don’t think I even fully realized she existed until fairly recently. She’s subtler and difficult to explain because, at first, it seems to be a complimentary stereotype. Nevertheless there is a sense that this girl somehow is not a real woman. As I said, difficult to explain, but let me try.
When Michelle first walks into Leonard’s family’s apartment, she acts as if she’s walking into an alien world. “Look at all these pictures!” she exclaims of the flat, which is the very model of a Jewish immigrant home: full of photos of relatives and ancestors, dusty books, and a prominently displayed menorah (I don’t get it either. The Reader did this too, and I didn’t get it then either. I think it’s the universal movie symbol for “a Jew lives here”). “Oh! Is that Yiddish?” she asks, pointing to Hebrew writing. She doesn’t even know what a dreidel is. A dreidel. Yes, this woman lives in Brooklyn. Yes, this film takes place in 2008, though it really doesn’t feel like it, most of the time. This moment of othering is vital to setting up Michelle’s character as everything that Sandra is not. It sets the foundation for Michelle’s allure: by showing Leonard as being somewhat exotic (but not in a sexy way, because film rarely portrays stereotypical Jewish masculinity as such [CF- Woody Allen]) it emphasizes how exotic she is to him.
Michelle is blond. She invites Leonard to go clubbing with her. She has expensive tastes. She, herself, is damaged, and according to the narrative, seems to require a man to take care of her, to save her from her occasional drug binges: a manly man (more on this later). From the very moment she walked on screen, a song I hate started echoing in my head, an obnoxious song from Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway hit, The Last Five Years. The song is called “Shiksa Goddess” (On a side note, I hate Brown’s work. My dislike for it grows whenever I try and convince myself that so many intelligent fans can’t be wrong. But I’ve yet to be convinced that his lyrics truly speak to the human experience in the way all his fans insist to me that they do.) The song goes like so:
If you had a tattoo, that wouldn’t matter.
If you had a shaved head, that would be cool.
If you came from Spain or Japan
Or the back of a van–
Just as long as you’re not from Hebrew school–
I’d say “Now I’m getting somewhere!
I’m finally breaking through!”
I’d say “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!
I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”
Why yes, this is supposed to be a funny song. Why no, the lyrics don’t make sense. They raise many important questions such as: Why would coming from Japan and Spain be equated with the back of a van? What’s wrong with coming from Spain or Japan anyhow? Why do these lyrics scream “I wanted to rhyme something with ‘van’ so I chose ‘Japan’?” (This, aside from the other, more serious problems that I’ll get to in a second, is one of the primary reasons why I dislike Brown’s work.)? The shaved head, I admit, is not traditionally feminine, and considering that he’s listing a tattoo as being such a big deal, I suppose it makes sense that this would typically be a deal breaker for him.
But I digress. The bothersome gist of this song can be summed up in the phrase, “Now I’m getting somewhere.” The next verse goes on to list the boring girls he’s dated with nice Jewish last names who brought him to Shabbat dinner at their houses. These women are boring, attached to their families. Dating them is not “getting somewhere.” There is something so unsexy about it that at one point the singer portrays this string of “Nice Jewish Girls” to “wandering in the desert.” And in a line that I’m sure is supposed to feel at once kinky and oh-so-clever because it references Passover, he proclaims that he wants to be her, “Hebrew slave.” Nothing kinky about Shabbat dinner, I’m afraid.
I know the song seems to have nothing to do with the movie, but the two seem to have the exact same attitude; they believe in the same false dichotomy of their female dating options. The allure of the non-Jewish woman is so universal throughout Two Lovers that every single Jewish male in the film gives Michelle the once-over. Michelle is the mistress of a banker, revealed through subtle cues (his mother lives in the same neighborhood as Leonard’s parents, to the last name Blatt), to be Jewish, who uses her as a substitute for his (presumably) Jewish wife and family. When Leonard’s father first sees Michelle, his eyes bug out. Yes, the film also portrays Michelle as being troubled, slightly ditzy, and occasionally a drug addict, but she’s somehow the more authentic woman. She’s the embodiment of freedom.
Contrast this with Sandra. Sandra is an extension of her family. She first becomes interested in Leonard because she saw him dancing with his mother around the dry-cleaners and thought it was sweet. Almost every outing they plan together somehow involves her family. Although she invites him out for a drink once, she has to cancel because of her father’s birthday party. She instead invites him to the party and suggests that maybe afterward they can get a drink. While Michelle urges Leonard to be an artist, Sandra urges Leonard to be the “artsy” photographer for her brother’s Bar Mitzvah.
But the unattractiveness of Sandra goes beyond this: while Michelle needs a manly man to take care of her, Sandra’s kind of love promises to be maternal, stultifying, allowing him to continue to wallow in his childishness. When she buys him a gift for his birthday, she gets him gloves, because she noticed that he didn’t have any and didn’t want his hands to freeze. “I want to take care of you,” she tells him, “I feel like I understand you.” She feels like she understands him because Leonard, himself, is a stereotype of the emotionally stunted, childish, depressed Jewish man. She is willing to mother him and his children.
So in the context of these differences to me, which were so blatant, so obvious, and so painful to hear (One gets tired of hearing that she is a mere extension of her family and unsexy for it, you know?), I was flabbergasted that the only review I could find that hinted at the Jewish cultural subtext in the film was the The New York Times. I bristled when The Boston Globe remarked of Sandra, “The casting of Shaw renders Sandra, a mother-figure with need issues of her own, simply too attractive, too confidently sexy, to represent the bourgeois compromise Leonard is afraid he might have to make with his future.” While it seemed to recognize the stereotype (too sexy, indeed!), it didn’t seem to understand the real implications behind it. Bourgeois has nothing (or very little) to do with it.
But the NYT review didn’t help my restless mind at all. Critic A.O. Scott simply mentions that Leonard’s story follows the American Jewish male predicament: “He struggles with the conflicting demands of filial duty and the longing to strike out on his own. He wants to be a good son, but he also wants to live a life of danger, freedom and impulse. Does he stick with his own kind and risk suffocation, or does he risk rootlessness in pursuit of liberation?” Ignoring the fact that Scott misses that Jewish women face this question too, there is just something utterly problematic and hurtful in embodying this choice in two rather unflattering depictions of women.
Though critics feel that the characters are solid, and perhaps in the case of Michelle and Leonard, they are, but Sandra has nothing beyond her family and mothering instinct. At one point in the film, she mentions, “I understand if you don’t like me in that way. A lot of men don’t.” (a statement which is later contradicted by her father, who mentions, rather anachronistically, that she had many suitors. I almost wanted to break out into “Matchmaker!” I wonder why this bizarre marriage-exchange aspect of the film went largely unnoticed by critics because I certainly didn’t get it.) My heart was further broken by the post-coital conversation they had, Sandra offering to leave before Leonard’s parents come home and realize what was happening, and Leonard’s quip that they would probably be overjoyed (I think it was something about picking out baby names or wedding invitations, but I can’t remember so I don’t want to quote). Marrying the “Nice Jewish Girl” is part of your duty to your family. She is someone you settle for.
In some ways, the depiction is almost more angering than that of the JAP. To me, the JAP is at least vaguely ridiculous, but then again, I say this as someone who grew up without knowing what a JAP was until I was about 14 and panicked when I heard my east coast cousins ranting about them because I thought they were racist and hated Japanese people. The Nice Jewish Girl damages me more because she is believable and can eat my self-esteem. As I sat there in the theater, I wanted to scream, “I get it!” at the top of my lungs. As Leonard blew off Sandra to meet up with Michelle and her adulterous lover (awkward!) at a very fancy restaurant and walked by the Christmas tree not very subtly plopped in the background, I wanted to shout, “Okay! Okay! I get it!” You’re trying to tell me that I am not sexy; I am motherly. I am not exciting; I am safe. I am not an individual; I am an extension of my family.
This is where people will accuse me of overreacting, and so I will say, “No, I understand that the film did not literally mean that all Jewish women are like Sandra.” But when a narrative about Jewish family life and tradition gets played again and again, it’s easy to get tired of it. When no one “like you” is ever portrayed as the pretty, sexy woman, it’s easy to get tired of it. I wouldn’t say Two Lovers was obnoxious, over-the-top, or excessively offensive in its use of an old narrative, but it did make me wonder when filmmakers who want to talk about Jewish identity as a facet of their film will find a new way to talk about the dilema that does not reduce their people to ideologies, stereotypes, and not-women/men.
Can we excuse reducing people to theme? The NYT ignores this tired portrayal of Jewish femininity because it’s “a classic dilemma.” And yes, it is a classic dilemma for any minority to figure out how to balance individuality, tradition, and being a product of two cultures. I understand, believe me, that the “marry/date a nice Jewish (blank)” is a refrain that so many Jewish youth hear, and so it is so easy to place all your identity issues into the question of marriage, as ridiculous as it may seem when you step back and realize what you’re doing. But there are causalities in the process. Perhaps if I could be convinced that Sandra Cohen was ever meant to be a real character, I would change my mind with Two Lovers‘s handling of these problems.
So when my best friend’s little sister posted the video link, quoted it proudly, I felt a sense of relief. It was, in a sense, our own personal (by which I mean, my friend’s and my) equivalent of “This is want a feminist” looks like campaign. My friend’s little sister is what a Jewish woman looks like. My best friend is what a Jewish woman looks like. I am what a Jewish woman looks like. We are part of a tradition, but we are not merely extensions of it. We are complicated too, thank you very much.
When I need a bit of a feminist pick-me-up, I love watching Sarah Haskins’s “Target Women.” Because I do this for a pick-me-up, I always try and not commit the grave sin against my poor brain of reading the comments thread. But sometimes I’m a backslider. This week, when checking out the hilarious episode mocking VH1’s “Tough Love,” I came across this comment:
Feminism isn’t dead but it does get drunk and confuse itself with women doing things as poorly as men . A woman doing the same weak version of a job that men do isn’t a feminist, just a hack .
It should have been easy for me to dismiss this comment as someone engaging in the good old “This is objectively bad!” to make themselves feel better for disliking something. It’s just easier to say, “I don’t like this because it’s bad,” than admitting that it’s just not to your taste (I think we all do this sometimes, when “well it’s just my opinion” seems far too weak to convey how truly bad we think something is. I’m certainly “guilty” of it, if it’s something to be guilty of. And on some days I’m not so sure it’s always a mere defense mechanism.). But the comment wouldn’t get out of my head. It rang and rang in there until I was forced to admit that it’s a thought I’ve had too, though not directed at Sarah Haskins.
I think back to my time as an English major, specifically my time sitting in Intro. to American Literature, slogging through the writings of the Puritans (who, admittedly, didn’t interest me anyhow). As the Great Canon of English Literature has fallen from grace (and rightfully so,) because of its rather homogeneous, white, male voice, English scholars have done their best to diversify the Canon. Some have called this method “Just add minorities and stir,” and it has made many people, progressive and conservative alike, wonder if some writers are now being taught for diversity’s and not quality’s sake. I never felt this more keenly in American Literature, when we discussed the poetry of Anne Bradstreet.
All through that reading assignment, I seethed. I hated her writing–I found it trite, boring. It included the line “My love is such that rivers cannot quench” for Pete’s sake! Why? I thought Why is her poetry so famous? I tried to share the enthusiasm of another feminist in the class to no avail. I felt that I was expected to look to Anne Bradstreet as an inspiration because she was a woman, a Puritan woman, who got published. Instead, I felt she got undue recognition because the Canon needed more women.
I felt terribly guilty for this. I redoubled my efforts to take Bradstreet seriously; I attempted to read her poetry aloud in a tone that wasn’t singsong (I failed miserably. See the aforementioned line.). But nevertheless, I couldn’t help but compare her poetry to her contemporaries and find it lacking. I tried to justify my disdain by pointing out that other women wrote better poetry in the 17th century: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, for example, a Mexican nun who also lived in a culture that tended to see intellectualism in women as no better than witchcraft. But even as my gut feels justified, I know that the comparison is unfair: the women came from different cultures, and just because I think one is a better poet than the other doesn’t necessarily render Anne Bradstreet bad. Just because that, in addition to a few explicitly feminist pieces, Sor Juana writes about everything from the metaphysical, to love, to Greco-Roman mythology doesn’t make Anne Bradstreet automatically boring because, in addition to one incognito feminist piece, she writes about her devotion to her God, her husband, and her job as a Christian housewife (Granted, my problem with Bradstreet is more that I don’t think she wrote about them well, but it’s more thematically powerful in the context of this post if I leave that out.).
Nevertheless, this realization didn’t stop me from feeling self-righteous anger. “Adding women to the Canon because they are women doesn’t further feminism!” I would grumble to anyone who asked me my opinion on Bradstreet. People generally agreed with me. I still don’t necessarily think I’m wrong, and, to this day, I’ve yet to find anything interesting about Bradstreet. It’s the same argument many feminists use (fairly, in my opinion) to remind people that just because Sarah Palin runs for Vice President doesn’t mean we have to support her, and that just because Twilight was written by a woman about a woman (? arguable.) and then turned into a film directed by a woman doesn’t mean that we have to pledge our undying love. But I do think things are a little more complicated than I make it out to be sometimes.
One of the things I’ve written about many times before on this blog is that when women want to write, perform, or otherwise create media, society still sees them as women before it sees them as artists. But there’s more to this than just that: we (and I mean everyone) also judge women for what genre they choose to work in.
Traditional feminist wisdom holds that there are two ways women can make art: we can either appropriate male forms, or we can create our own. The difficulty with creating our own is that, because it deals with women’s issues, men and other women often don’t take it seriously. The difficulty of appropriating male language (…music, painting styles, comedy, etc.) is that audiences are quick to call femininity a gimmick. The problem with creating our own is that it forces us to buy into cultural definitions of what is feminine. The problem with appropriating “male” forms is that it supports the idea that masculine is somehow equivalent with unisex and devalues the feminine. Catch-22. What do we do?
When I first opened this blog, one of the articles I was eager to write was entitled “Writing for Women.” The thesis was to be, essentially, “I hate chick lit. I hate the very concept of chick lit. Any genre that shares its name with a type of gum isn’t literature!” When I was sharing my ideas with my friend, a fellow writer and armchair philosopher whom I respect very greatly, she asked me some rhetorical questions that complicated my very black and white view of the issue (Her favorite philosopher is Socrates. Is anyone surprised?). You see, this friend is a closeted devotee of The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. “It’s not that I think they’re great literature,” she told me, “They’re not. They’re just fun. But it made me realize that chick lit. is a genre used for women to speak to each other. The men in the books were caricatures, cardboard cutouts. They weren’t meant to be real, unlike the women of the book. It’s supposed to be a world men can’t inhabit.”
I thought about this a lot. I still objected to the idea that women’s writing had to be about romance and weight loss, but, at the same time, is it possible for women to write a book about family, sisterhood, and mothers and have it be taken seriously by the book world? I tried to think of a book of the sort that wasn’t treated as either chick lit. or “whiny feminist literature” (a genre that I don’t actually believe exists, but you try convincing some people that Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood have the ability to appeal to everyone.)
Oh I argued with her. I mentioned that there’s no equivalent genre for men. I claimed that the existence of the genre makes it more difficult for women writers because we fear that whatever we write will be stuck in that genre (I still hold this as a possibility.) But I couldn’t shake a lingering doubt from my head that I was calling this writing trite because it dealt with what is the reality for many women who do follow current feminine norms. Maybe it does nothing to challenge it. Maybe it’s poorly written (I don’t know. I haven’t really read it.). But am I being unfair to dismiss it as a stain on all women’s writing?
One of the things we prize most in our artwork is universality–that everyone can relate to it. Shakespeare we hold to be the greatest of authors, and when we question why, the first answer people will give you is “universality” (Anthropologists will tell you otherwise. I don’t think this detracts from Shakespeare’s greatness.). Even as scholars argue whether universality is a myth or not, the reality is that as long as we hold “universal” to be a criteria of good art, art written by members of “minority” groups suffer because people tend to see their art as specific to their group. White, straight, cis, (I could go on…) men writing about men’s issues does not face the same “universality” penalty that others’ doesn’t (I think I’ve mentioned this before) . So one has to wonder that if well-written “chick lit” exists out there, is it dismissed as “chick lit.” for not being universal? Or does its unwillingness to be universal disqualify it from being literature?On the other side of genre fiction, I recently read the book Queenpin by Film Noir Scholar, Megan Abbott. If you want to read a straight-up, hard boiled as Sam Spade eating a hard boiled egg Noir book, I’d strongly recommend it. I, on the other hand, was disappointed.
I had been excited at the prospect of reading Noir from a feminine perspective because the genre is so masculine. Scholars widely regard the Eve-like (or is that Lilith?) figure of the femme fatale as an embodiment of the contemporary fear of female sexuality and “The new woman”: the women who had joined the workforce during WWII, taking over jobs that men once held. These women had both financial power and manipulative sexual power. They traversed into the public sphere with ease. The femme fatale provided a universal scapegoat and outlet. So, therefore, I was excited because Abbott writes from what seems the femme fatale’s perspective. I was excited to see how this would change and rearrange the genre. I was disappointed when it didn’t.
In a set-up so perfectly embeded in the Noir genre, I could see the diagrams my Noir professor drew on the board to describe the inner turmoil of Walter Neff, the main character of the classic film Double Indemity, who must choose between the male influence (a friend of his from the insurance agency) and the evil femme fatale (who convinced him to commit murder to win her sexual favor), the main character must choose between her female mentor, a gun moll who has taught her the art of surival in the masculine realm of the Las Vegas underworld, and the “homme fatal,” a failed gambler who encourages her to betray her mentor. I didn’t find the homme fatal’s charms alluring, but then again, the idea that a femme fatale could actually convince a man to go against his morals because of her beauty is a very strange idea when you look at it objectively. I mean, the old “men can’t control themselves when faced with breasts” is an excuse hurled at everything in our culture, so perhaps having a woman act the same about a man is radical in its own sense, but I’m grasping at straws here.
It’s interesting to take a critical look at my assumptions. Though Abbott is, in fact, a scholar, and particularly interested in gender, I had no reason to assume that just because she was a woman that she would somehow re-invent Noir. She set out to write Noir fiction; the fact that it blended so seamlessly into the genre is to her credit (now whether it makes sense to write pure noir as opposed to playing with the conventions of a really restrictive genre is a completely different, non-gender-related story.). Why should I expect her to stick in feminist commentary? In other words, why was I expecting her to write Noir as a woman? And why was I so disappointed when she didn’t?
When we see women working in genres or realms that are traditionally male-dominated, we still carry expectations of how they’ll approach their work, and that they’ll approach it differently from men because they are women (and not because they are individuals). I don’t know which male counterpart the commenter on “Target Women” thought s/he was comparing Sarah Haskins to. This is partially because I view “Target Women” as at once occupying a traditionally male realm and working within an explicitly female genre. While “Target Women” can be watched and enjoyed by anyone, it deals strictly with women’s issues, the messages we get, and the questions we hold about our own femininity. At the same time, its format is familiar to anyone who enjoys “The Daily Show.” Do we owe it to Sarah Haskins to ask ourselves whether we like her show just because no one else is doing it? I think so. That doesn’t mean I agree with the commenter–I think she does a good job, too (not that I’m the grand arbitor of what is funny or anything like that.)
I suppose you’re expecting me to write some grand proposal of how we should judge women working in gendered genres, but any proclamation I could possibly come up with would be filled with contradictions, problems and pitfalls. I’m certainly never going to become a huge fan of “chick-lit,” but I still mourn the fact that the trend in short story writing these days seems to be to emulate Hemingway as much as possible. I’m not going to suddenly cheer on Anne Bradstreet when I have Sor Juana to fawn over. But if we can learn anything from the way we look at women creating their own genres or trying to appropriate traditionally masculine ones, we learn that it’s still difficult for women to create without facing a lot of “political” questions of what it means for them to choose that particular method. Whew. You probably could have guessed that without reading the whole article. Sorry.
So how do we unisex genres? And do we even want to unisex genres?
To quote a 1950’s instructional video: What do you think?
You might wonder why I’m deciding to talk about Vadim Glowna’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties, a film which you probably haven’t heard of (I hadn’t until last night,) you probably will not see, and has very little effect on our pop culture. Critics, on the whole, despised it. My friends nearly fell asleep during it. I must admit that it succeeds so well in being utterly unlikeable without analysis that it doesn’t need a cultural critic to tackle it further.
Nevertheless, I cannot resist. Glowna, in making this movie, seems to think it’s okay to have women suffer humiliation and sexual abuse all in the name of being a symbol of youth. He thinks that he can dodge moral questions about the way women are being used in his film in the name of “high art.” And I just have to call Glowna out on it.
The House of the Sleeping Beauties tells the story of a man in his mid-60’s named Edmund, who has seen his life as a pit of emptiness and despair ever since the death (suicide?) of his wife and young daughter. His friend Kogi, recommends that he visits a strange not-brothel in which old men can sleep next to beautiful young women. The women have been put to sleep with a drug so potent that nothing can wake them until the drug has run its course, and they will remember nothing of the night.
Of course, the clients are not supposed to do anything besides sleep next to the women, cuddled up to them. But that whole “won’t remember anything bit” proves to be too tempting, at least for Edmund (who has the audacity to insist that he is different from the other old men who frequent the establishment.) He spanks them. He shakes them. He suckles their breasts (“You smell like milk…”). He fondles their vaginae, justifying it with the ridiculous excuse that their apparent arousal is equivalent to consent. And, at one point, when one of the women rolls over to face him, he calls it “an invitation,” and takes her virginity. All the while, the women lie there, prone, naked, and very asleep.
Glowna does not seem to have a problem with this. If he does, he does not see it as being important enough for the film to even address. As Edmund waxes philosophical about his past, his approaching death, and his Oedipal Complex, he never ever wonders if what he’s doing might be sexual harassment. The film itself never judges him for it. I sat there, waiting for the film to even reference its most obvious issue. And it never does. Somehow this film thinks the fact that the women won’t remember a thing justifies sexual abuse and rape.
Instead, Glowna seems to think that a pretense of art and poetry can transform the ugliness of the situation into something beautiful and erotic.
When an old man touches a woman like this, it is a lamentation, nothing more.
This line sums up the fundamental flaw in the film’s logic: Just because the caress may have transcended beyond the sexual to Edmund does not actually mean that it has actually transcended beyond the sexual. I feel absolutely ridiculous having to write this next sentence, but: Just because a woman is asleep does not suddenly relieve her of her personhood. I don’t care if it’s a movie. I don’t care if Glowna symbolically plastered the film with paintings of naked women (The models were awake while being painted, and consented to be painted. A painting, on the other hand, is not a real women.) as if to try and move the sleeping beauties from the realm of mortality and into the realm of art. He’s done them no favors. No one can use a real, breathing person as a symbol or as a work of art and expect the audience to forget that s/he is human. Yet, for some reason I cannot fathom, Glowna thinks he can. Rape, by any other name, is still rape.
Fans of the Dresden Dolls and frequenters of the feminist blog-o-sphere will already be familiar with the
clash between Amanda Palmer and Roadrunner records. Actually, I’m not too fond of the term “clash” in this situation because that would imply two parties on the same level disagreeing over a point, but it’ll do in a pinch. For those of you unfamiliar, after releasing a music video for her new single Leeds United (link goes to youtube), which features her bare belly, the Roadrunner Records executives told Amanda that “there were certain shots that they wanted to either cut completely or digitally alter to ‘be more flattering'” (source: Amanda Palmer’s official blog). Fortunately for us, not only has Amanda Palmer herself taken a stand against this, but also a group of her fans have started The Rebellyion. In protest against Roadrunner’s idiocy, the hundreds of fans who joined the Rebellyion have submitted photos of their bare bellies in all of their un-edited glory. I’m not focusing on the Rebellyion in this post, but I’ve got to give them a nod here. I’m glad that something so positive has come out of this.
But I think there’s even more to discuss here. The record company’s decision itself, though it bothered me, didn’t necessarily shock me. There are plenty of horror stories about artists on major record labels from Kenna (who, despite the acclaim of fellow artists and producers, had to fight to get any radio play because his work was difficult to categorize) to Sara Bareilles (whose hit single “Love Song” came out of being frustrated with Epic Records demand that she write another love song for her album) constantly having to fight to keep their artistic visions alive while very conservative record executives panic over what will sell. Though this pushes the line even there and reveals how truly fat-phobic our culture is, what really shocked and disgusted me were some of the other comments that Palmer revealed on her blog:
“I’m a guy, Amanda. I understand what people like.”
And, at a later meeting:
He said he thought it was a shame that someone as smart and talented as me could not make a commercial record that they could sell. And he thinks that someday I’ll see the light and write some better songs.
The comment, “I’m a guy. I know what people like,” is the most revealing piece of this entire dialogue. It gets at so much of the struggle that female artists have to deal with just to get our work out there. As I like to put it, it’s the problem of being told that people actually mean humankind when they say mankind when a lot of the time they don’t. There is this ever-pervasive idea that if you write for women, you are not writing something commercially viable. Men write for everyone, women for women (I mused a little about this in my Wordstock Reflections post, if you’re interested in reading more about this point.). Thus, men are expected to have more commercial knowledge.
I support the rebellyion wholeheartedly (yay!), but, in the end, this goes beyond the belly. I agree that it is disgusting that our society has such a distorted view of beauty that an unedited belly has apparently become disgusting for the masses, but there’s a part of me that is concerned that the record company’s marketing even has to reach Amanda’s belly. This goes into the state of our culture’s reception of female artists. For cis-men, it is far easier to leave their bodies behind and become voices, words, and brush strokes, or, if they don’t entirely lose their bodies in the process, they can at least move fluidly between sex object and artist (I guess maybe there can be some argument in the cases of heartthrobs such as John Barrowman, David Duchovny, or the whole slew of 90’s boy bands, but that’s neither here nor there, and I’d need an entire separate post to analyze them.). Women, according to our culture, are always attached to their bodies in some way. It brings back memories of sitting in high school English classes and having to hear the harsh commentary the boys would make about Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton’s appearances. In Spanish class, they acted like Frida Kahlo’s unibrow was an affront against their eyes and their hormones. It’s enough to make any girl despair not only about her body image, but what would happen if she dared tried to write or paint; especially if her work brought up her body at all.
I always think about it like dressing for a job interview. When my (male) flatmate dresses for a job interview, he focuses on looking neat and polished. He worries about whether he is over or under-dressed. When I dress for a job interview, I start by worrying about these same things, but then I get to my chest. I always spend a good chunk of time staring in the mirror wondering if the shirt I am wearing is modest enough or if it is so modest that I look frumpy and unapproachable. Women have to work not to be taken sexually, and, a lot of the time, if you’re being taken sexually, you (unfairly) run the risk of not being taken seriously.
Amanda, as a performing artist, is proud of her body (and she should be!). I’m not arguing that it would be better if we had no idea if she looked like, if she just sang from behind a curtain. I don’t think she’d enjoy that anyhow. She sings about relationships, sexuality, masturbation; her body is an important part of her music in a very positive and empowering way. The problem here is the record company’s inability to see her as more than her body (or, if they do, as more than her body and a money making machine.). So many of female artists who are in the mainstream–I’m using a very simple definition of “mainstream” that has nothing to do with people arguing about selling out or who is or isn’t indie (aka-I’m not talking Tori Amos, Sarah McLaughlin, or anyone like that)–are designed simply to be only the sum of their bodies. Think of The Pussycat Dolls; their name and, as far as I can tell, all their songs are designed to make you focus on their bodies. Their physical form is more important than what they’re singing. If you want to sell a ton of records in a brief burst, I guess they are who you want. This, of course, has nothing to do with art, which shouldn’t surprise anyone by now, but that’s just the way it is (note that whenever I say, “That’s just how things are,” I don’t mean it as the conclusion of an argument nor as a preclusion of much-needed change. Maybe this is how things are, but that doesn’t mean it’s the way things have to be.). So, from what we can see here, aside from a misogynistic fear of women who make angry music, part of what makes Amanda Palmer’s songs “difficult to sell” in the minds of the record company is her refusal to use her body how they see fit. I even wonder if they would mind her anger if she allowed the record company to airbrush her image (probably not, but I’m angry now, and so I’m going to speculate in ways that are not particularly kind to the record company.).
Roadrunner Records is not only perpetuating horrible body-image issues and suggesting that a very attractive woman is unfit to perform un-airbrushed, but they are also denying the worth of Amanda Palmer as an artist outside of the confines of her body and the worth of her fanbase as a commercial market. I know, I know, music is art, art shouldn’t be judged on marketability, but it is a little insulting that the very loyal fans of the Dresden Dolls/Amanda Palmer (I don’t know much about it, but I do know they have a very active fanbase) are considered unimportant from the record company’s point of view. And it is even more insulting that Amanda’s song-writing skills mean nothing in comparison to her having a round belly.
We’ve all heard the phrases for female indie/alternative musicians: chick rock, a girl and her guitar/piano. Descriptive, yes, but you always get the sense that someone’s saying that they’re oh-so precious, precious being used in that grating way creative writing teachers enjoy springing on you when they think that your story veers dangerously close to resembling a Norman Rockwell illustration. In short, so many female musicians get dismissed as not being serious artists before anyone even hears them, which is a shame because many of them are wonderful (and some aren’t, as with any group of artists.) Rather sad, don’t you think? So let me introduce you to one. By far one of my favorite “indie” folk/rock/alternative singer-songwriters is Noe Venable. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of her; really, no one has heard of her outside of dedicated fans and the San Francisco music scene (although now she’s at school in Massachusetts, so maybe she’s getting some publicity over there.).
Sometimes I think becoming a fan of a musician is a little like falling in love: people hear a song they like, and it decides to follow them home. Next thing you know they are buying every single album by that artist, shelling out money for fan club memberships, and reading a year’s worth of blog entries. For about a month or so, no one can touch that artist’s brilliance, but soon the novelty wears off they get comfortable with him or her and settle down. The insatiable lust tapers off into something more comfortable. My fascination with Noe’s music was never like that. Honestly, the first time I heard her song “Boots” (from the album of the same name), I knew that I was listening to something brilliant but couldn’t enjoy it. I found her voice jarring and fragile. Nevertheless, the song wouldn’t leave me alone. It demanded to be listened to, begged for second chances. Believe me, “Boots” definitely deserved a second chance.
Noe is vibrant, thoughtful, irreverent, and tender. One minute she’ll be singing a mysterious song of personal transformation, the next she’ll be comparing a sunset to cunnilingus. The beautiful, the erotic, the terrifying, the esoteric, and the ugly all have a place in her world, which makes it all the more satisfying and real. Nowhere is this more apparent than on her fourth album, Boots. Noe says of Boots:
In so many of my favorite stories these troubled men dream of finding a woman to save them. You read stories like that and you’re troubled, and you start dreaming of the same thing. Then one day you wake up and say, wait, I am the woman in those stories. But I’m troubled! So now who’s going to save me? I think that’s where Boots begins.
I think most fans prefer “The World is Bound By Secret Knots,” which is also a fantastic album, but “Boots” is my personal favorite. Even the first two songs on the album alone work together to produce a stunning musical portrait of the disparity between projected and personal identity. The first song, and title track of the album, is sung from the point of view of a woman who relies on a pair of boots for strength when dealing with the dangerous realities of her world:
I go to the corner where it all goes down
and I do things I’ll regret but not right now
they say “angel, you been here before”
yeah, I had my boots to carry me
just like Pandora with her box
I let everything out and spin around
and when they come to me, it’s like a river to cross
but I have my boots to ferry me
I’d like to see my eyes in someone else’s face
I’d like to see my face on a magazine
the things I want, the life I need
my boots keep me between
The end of the song fades into an acapella section which soon melds organically into the softer, gentler guitar intro of the second track, “Prettiness.” It is unclear whether the narrators of the two songs are intended to be the same or different, but both women are equally aware that while the personae created by the clothes they wear may be fragile and false, they have everything to do with the way people treat them:
I have never been one for prettiness prettiness
thinking of lace ’bout makes me puke
but the thing I just bought has a little bit little bit
I’m putting it on and I’m thinking of you
when I was a child I followed some holy men
going into woods to do their work
I had an overcoat on just to cover me cover me
listening for anything I might learn
and there were stars up in the heavens
and if they caught me, what could they do?
they did not know I was a woman
at least I didn’t think they knew
It would be, as one of my friends suggests, so easy to dismiss this as another woman singing about cutesy things, using boots and lace as metaphors for what kind of woman she is. But the use of clothing here is both deliberate and clever. After all, no matter your gender, clothing is a major part of the creation of public image. Noe has done a fantastic job capturing the dilemma so many women (and men) face in deciding how to present themselves, the tention between who we are, who we have to be to get the job done, and who we could be.
When I think of these songs, I picture characters like Dana Scully on the X-Files. I see my mother back when she was trying to apply to medical school, and had to deal with interview questions such as, “How do you feel taking a man’s spot?” I remember an article I read about women in academia who faced a nightmare getting dressed in the morning because no matter what they wore they either seemed too frumpy, frigid, or sexy to be taken seriously. All of these women have (or had) to somehow transcend their gender in order to be taken seriously for the work they do. Women who want to “see their face on a magazine” or dream of being able to “follow some holy men,” have to craft their personae very carefully. In both the literal and symbolic senses, we have to know when to wear lace and when combat boots. To be taken seriously as a tough woman, as a smart woman, we have to put on androgynous boots, try to be just asexual enough without losing female identity. Therefore, when we do show a little bit of lace, ask to be seen both as brilliant minds and as potential significant others, we risk losing our boots, our symbols of strength and courage. We risk becoming mere sex objects. And it’s scary. At the end of “Prettiness,” as the instrumentation swells, only to suddenly vanish beneath her voice, Noe asserts, “He does not know I am a woman, | But I think I might want him to know.” The risk, trust, and self-confidence embodied in that statement is at once incredibly powerful and relatable.
Not all of Noe’s songs are about gender identity. In “Strange Companion,” she sings from the point of view of a car who witnesses the brutal murder of its owner. In “Prayer for Beauty,” she daringly asserts that a belief in the potential for beauty is necessary to combat ugliness in the world. In “Juniper,” she sings from the point of view of a child who feels most at home amongst the branches of her favorite tree. Noe treats all of these subjects and characters with thought-provoking insight and fantastic (mostly) acoustic accompaniment. Her music is truly a treat for both the mind and the ear.
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.