Reluctantly Betty Draper

I was Betty Draper
Everyone loves Peggy and Joan. But it’s “Mad Men’s” brattiest, least feminist character I really identify with



“Are you going off to be a Mad Man?” I asked my husband as he downed the last of his coffee, slid his laptop into its case, and headed for the door.

“No,” he said, giving his shirttail a final tug. “But I’m about to be an Irritated Man.”

I can’t blame him. Since “Mad Men” entered the cultural consciousness, I have harassed my husband, an advertising creative director, with a multitude of questions, mostly of the facetious variety. “No,” he replies, with diminishing patience, “I don’t start drinking at 10 a.m., I’m not allowed to use my expense account for prostitutes, I don’t compulsively pat the bottoms of secretaries at work. We don’t even have secretaries anymore. That’s a profession whose time has passed, like silversmiths and fletchers and the people who make barrels.”

“Coopers,” I say. “A person who makes barrels is called a cooper. As in Sterling Cooper.”

“I have to go,” he says. “I’ll be home late. Don’t wait up.”

“Bye, Don,” I say as the door closes. I turn to my cat. “Sally,” I say sharply, “bring me my cigarettes from the bedroom. Then go watch TV.” The cat stares at me for a few moments before contorting her torso to delicately slurp at her own anus, an entirely appropriate response. I wonder how many hours it will be before I can reasonably head for the liquor cabinet.

I’m not actually crazy. (I may be a little OCD about pop culture.) Deep down, I know that the liquor-soaked miasma of Sterling Cooper has about as much in common with my husband’s office as “Dynasty’s” Denver-Carrington has with BP. My husband, despite an appreciation for a well-mixed martini and a mildly sadistic gruffness with underlings, is not Don Draper; Don Draper, for one thing, would never leave the house with toothpaste in his beard. The only thing that has really made him be like Don was that for so long, I felt like Betty.

Women of my generation weren’t raised to be Betty. Our mothers, the trailblazers, told us we could be anything we wanted to be — brain surgeon, judge, astronaut. The possibility of becoming a housewife seemed scarcely a step up from being a prostitute or a drug mule: a cautionary tale, something you could grow up to be, but only if you were too lazy or stupid or unlucky to become president of the United States. It was the option for people who didn’t have any options, and if you did have options — if, for instance, you had good parents and a good education and hadn’t been raised to be some kind of veiled brood mare on a fundamentalist religious compound in the desert — then you really had no excuse. Every other young woman I know seems to identify with Peggy Olson, pluckily battling her way up the corporate ladder, or perhaps more poignantly with Joan Holloway, a confident, organizational superhero destined never to get her full due. Everyone also seems to be of the opinion that Betty is a vain, spoiled brat that they want to smack in the face.

When I first started watching “Mad Men,” during the show’s second season, I wasn’t technically a housewife, but being a writer can feel eerily close sometimes — the endless stretch of days spent puttering half-dressed through the silent apartment, the ever-growing list of errands and things to pick up “as long as you’re home”; each quart of milk and bag of dry cleaning a tangible reminder that you don’t have anything better to do. My first book, for which I had such high hopes and such good reviews, was threatening to sink without a trace. Every day, while my husband was at work and the industrious, overachieving Peggys of my acquaintance were off conquering Manhattan one legal brief at a time, I sat at my sad little desk in the corner of the living room, working joylessly on underpaid freelance assignments and watching, with not-so-quiet desperation, my Amazon rating plummet (my people are not Nordic). A high-class problem, sure, but sometimes the worst heartbreak comes wrapped in the prettiest package, and if Betty Draper’s generation was indoctrinated never to admit to disappointment in marriage, mine was just as trained not to admit disappointment in a career. And above all, I had to hold on to my career, because without it, what was I? A housewife. A failure to feminism, to my mother, to myself.

So I felt that I understood Betty Draper, even in her less than flattering moments. I empathized when she snapped at her children, and I understood her preening, designed to elicit the admiration of men and the envy of her friends. I understood the icy rage when she coldly offered her cheek to Don to kiss in the mornings. It wasn’t because of the lipstick on his collar or the empty bottle of rye — or at least, not just because. It was because he got to go off to be busy and brilliant and essential, while she got to stay at home, lining the drawers with stupid contact paper. The Drapers’ spats reminded me of the fights I had with my husband when I asked why he was at work until 2 in the morning, why it seemed he had to leave the country three weeks out of the month. “You don’t understand,” he would answer angrily. “You don’t have to be financially responsible for another person.” And I would shout back, more furious with myself than him: “God! Don’t you think I wish I was?”

The climax of my Betty Draper overidentification came near the end of last season, in the episode called “Souvenir,” when Don goes to Rome on business and takes Betty, who, like me, lived in Europe in her very early 20s, a time she spoke of with obvious wistfulness. Removed from suburbia, she transforms into a knowing cosmopolitan sophisticate, revisiting not only the woman she once was but also the one that, under different circumstances, she could have become. In the episode’s last scene, the Drapers have returned to Ossining, N.Y. (is it really a coincidence that Matthew Weiner chose for their home a town most famous for its maximum-security prison?) and Don, his face full of hope, presents Betty with the titular souvenir, a gold bracelet charm shaped like the Colosseum.

Betty says: “Now I’ll have something to look at when I talk about that time we went to Rome.”

A bracelet charm. A trophy decorating a trophy; an adventure, an identity, reduced to something cute and useless, like a purse for a doll.

I cried for almost two hours after that episode. I felt that nothing I had ever seen on TV had captured my personal experience so profoundly. And then, all that crying must have dislodged some kind of obstruction in my brain, because I suddenly remembered something I hadn’t since the Season 3 premiere:

Betty Draper is a fictional character.

One day, Betty Draper will be a crossword puzzle clue, and I will still be (God willing) a living, breathing human. This was not 1963. I wasn’t trapped. I had options. I had a career (if not, exactly, a job), a husband with a verifiable birth certificate, and a fairly healthy grasp on my emotional life. There was no need to avenge myself on innocent birds or dining room furniture, or leave a man I hardly knew for another man I hardly knew expecting a different result — the very definition of insanity, and, as I mentioned earlier, I am not crazy.

Life is full of disappointment, but my disappointments were my own, not assigned to me by a team of Cheever-wielding scriptwriters. I found this idea oddly liberating. If I had put myself in this funk, I could get myself out of it. All I needed was to cut out the Richard Yates, quit drinking in the middle of the day, and for “Mad Men” to take a well-deserved hiatus.

Besides, I have a feeling Season 4 is going to be all about Trudy Campbell.


Rachel Shukert is the author of Everything is Going To Be Great and Have You No Shame. Her YA series Starstruck is forthcoming from Random House in the spring of 2013. She lives in New York City.

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Emma Thompson interviews are a joy forever

Monogamy is an ‘odd state’, Emma Thompson says

By Hannah Furness, The Telegraph, October 3, 2013

Monogamy in the modern day is an “odd state”, the Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson has said, as she argues it is too easy to be “caught by the happy-ever-after ideal”.


Thompson, star of Howards End, The Remains of the Day and Love Actually, said there could be “other models” for romantic happiness, as she admitted relationships are “very hard work”.

Speaking during a webchat for parenting website Mumsnet, the actress suggested there could be “another model that is three relationships over the three stages of your life”.

Thompson, who separated from Kenneth Branagh in 1995 after drifting apart, is now married to actor and producer Greg Wise. The couple have one daughter and a son; an orphan and former child soldier informally adopted from Rwanda aged 16.

The actress has now answered questions from members of Mumsnet about her latest book, The Christmas Tale of Peter Rabbit, how to foster a love of reading in children, feminism and her work on-screen.

When asked about her role in film Love Actually, where her character discovers her husband is having an emotional affair with a younger colleague, Thompson said: “That’s hard for me to imagine – being able to have a relationship like that whilst living at home. It seems odd to me.”

“However,” she added, “I do think that monogamy is an odd state, and actually I think it’s an odd state for women. I think that we’re locked into certain ideas and certain romantic ideals that have shaped our thinking about relationships for some time.”

“And I do sometimes wonder about whether there are alternatives, and about whether our fury and rage and disbelief and horror about infidelity is quite realistic. I, of course, have got the t-shirt, so I understand the feelings very well but I think as I get older and think about long-term relationships, I do see that they can change.” Thompson said she had watch “lots” of friends in changing relationships, adding: “We all live so long now!

“I sometimes wonder whether, whilst there is of course a completely wonderful monogamous model, that we’d all love because it feels safe and secure and there’s probably less work, than say another model that is three relationships over the three stages of your life. Your young life, your middle life, and your late life. All I’m suggesting is that there are other models and I’m also suggesting that we’d been a little bit caught by the happy-ever-after ideal.”

“All the fairy stories end when people get married and go off into the sunset, there are very few stories that deal with the nuts and bolts and actualities of serious relationships.”

She added: “I think that relationships are very hard work, that we can take our eyes off the ball very easily, I think that children can be a huge strain on relationships – it depends on what kind of relationship you have.”

The actress also spoke about misogyny in the film industry and the lack of role models for young women in a “cult of celebrity” and “emptiness”.

Saying she now visited schools to speak to girls, she said she had been “taken aback and saddened” to hear how difficult it was to find “people who are speaking with any kind of muscular integrity and intelligence” in the media.

She added there was still “a lot of misogyny in the film industry”, with older women losing jobs once they hit the menopause. “I tend to think if you’re going to do anything in this industry you just have to be so much better than the guys, and then even if you are, there’s resentment,” she said.

“Stories about women are so rare. Films about women are so rare. We just have to keep writing them, and we just have to keep trying, whilst remaining aware of the huge challenges.

“I’ve travelled around a lot and spoken to a lot of women in a lot of different places and lines of work, and it seems clear to me that the world is simply not woman-friendly at the moment, and there’s a great deal of work to be done on many fronts.”



Emma Thompson gives ‘snobby’ young actors a masterclass in red carpet drama

By Hannah Furness, The Telegraph, September 13, 2013

Actress Emma Thompson has given the younger generation a masterclass in selling their films, as she claims some of the new generation are “a bit snobby” about putting in the hard work of publicity.

… The good-natured actress went on to dance her way down the red carpet before appearing at a press conference to share the secret of her success.

When asked why she felt so comfortable in front of the camera, Thompson told an audience she believed the relationship between actors and the press was “important”.

Saying she believed some young actors are “a bit snobby about doing press” and thought they were “above it”, she advocated her peers to publicly get behind their own films.

She added she would always tell young actors to imagine their Hollywood blockbuster was their first performance at the Edinburgh festival.

“You go up the Royal Mile with a drum and you bang that drum and you say, ‘I’m in this show,” she said. “It’s really good, come and see it.’ That’s what you do.

“And if you don’t do that, no one will come and see your show because there are a million shows and there are a lot of people who are better than you. So you better get out on that street with that drum.”

She added: “Explain why you love your show. Say why you think it’s good. Be behind it . . . And if you can’t be behind it, don’t do work you don’t believe in.

“This is a job. Make it fun. Make it fun for other people, make it fun for yourself.”

She added she felt “passionate” and “very strongly” about the issue.


Emma Thompson: My life in pictures

Daily Mail, February 5, 2010

1966: I grew up in London with my parents, Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law, both actors, and my younger sister, Sophie. It was very happy. We were encouraged to be calm and tender, and were taught manners.

When I was seven I had my tonsils out, after which I was given a box of sweets, which I wasn’t usually allowed. For some reason our nanny ate them. I was so upset, I took my sister and we ran away from home.

We went around the corner and ate sandwiches behind a tree. It was the naughtiest thing I ever did.

1979: I studied English at Cambridge. I was rather quiet socially  –  when I was a young woman, I was not a great joiner of things.

I identified quite strongly with outsiders, with people who were left out instead of included, which is strange because I ended up being in a job in which I am given quite a lot of attention.

1982: My father died when I was in my early 20s, and Mum, Sophie and I are very close  –  my father’s death threw us all together.

We’re quite a strong little triumvirate, and probably a little alarming to outsiders as we never stop screeching with laughter. My mum and sister are both very funny, but I still think you need the male principal in there.

1983: Joining the Cambridge Footlights changed my life. After graduating, we worked up in Manchester for years doing sketch comedy together. In fact, I originally thought I was going to be a comedian  –  useful training for serious acting.

1989: I met my first husband, Kenneth Branagh, when we appeared together in the TV series, Fortunes Of War.

I fell in love with Ken because he was like my father, very funny, very witty, a self-made man from a working-class background who had taught himself to get on in life. He also has a beautiful voice  –  as did my Dad.

1993: When Ken and I were married, he was always working and I was always saying, ‘Let’s have a life.’ But he wouldn’t stop.

In marriage, you should never just trundle along  –  that’s when problems start. Remember to go out for dinner if you haven’t seen each other all week, and make regular dates.

I’ve had my heart broken so many times and it’s the most painful thing in the world, but you do get over it.

1999: Ken and I split up in 1995. Not long after that, I met fellow actor Greg Wise on the set of Sense And Sensibility, and our daughter, Gaia, was born in 1999.

My goal is to be an ordinary mum, not one who spends so much time away working that, when she is with her child, their time together is so precious she can’t relax. Why have a child at all in that case?

2003: Greg  –  whom I married when Gaia was four  –  is possibly the most decent person I’ve ever known. He’s kind to everyone; kind to the roots of his being. Plus, we both like to go to bed early, which helps!

But there’s a catch  –  Greg is astoundingly thrifty. If I buy anything, I lie about it, hide it, or stain/chip it slightly and claim it was 75p in a charity shop. I have managed to introduce three pairs of shoes, a handbag and a fedora, all by Donna Karan, using this ruse.

2003: I was very vocal in protesting against the Gulf War. I think there’s a lot of emotional disconnection in the world these days, as well as a lot of cynicism in the media, and it worries me.

I think that anyone with any sort of voice has a duty to plug into what they think needs to be said, and say it.

2005: I’m fascinated by power. I always think, ‘What would I do if (like Tony Blair, who I met to promote an Aids charity) I was in charge? What decisions would I make? Which bits of me would bend under the strain?’

2009: In 2003, we adopted a Rwandan refugee, then 16, called Tindyebwa Agaba. Tindy is very much a rural boy from a small community. He likes London, but he also loves to get away to the country  –  to go to a place where you can’t have airs and graces.

We’re very proud of him  –  and were especially proud when he graduated in politics from Exeter University.

2009: In the recent film An Education, I have a small part as the headmistress of secondary school. I only spent a day shooting it. I was playing the sort of role I am not often asked to play, which was a really sadistic, anti-Semitic woman. It was strange playing a character who is so bigoted, but I had a scarily good time doing it.


Posted in anglophilia, fairy tales, heroines, hollywood, inspiring, matrimony, motherhood, writerly lives | Leave a comment

The Evolution of Princess Stories

Lectures from “Fairy Tales: Origins and Evolution of Princess Stories”

A woman like a princess in an vintage dress before the magic castle

Princess stories have been popular for centuries and remain so today around the world; we’ll dive into what these fairy tales mean, and trace the history of these narratives back to their source material, examining contexts all along the way. We’ll borrow tools from cultural studies, literature studies, and film studies to help us analyze these phenomena and what they mean to our society.  Many of us may associate princess stories with modern-day products (much of it marketed to small children) or with Disney movies and theme parks. We’ll examine these current versions of fairy tale mythology as well, using our new interpretive tools to uncover not just what’s been changed in the moral and message of the narrative, but what the stories mean as told now.

– Dr. Kevin Yee, Dr. Shelly Stewart, University of South Florida

See: USF Offers Its First MOOC. And It’s a Fairy Tale Subject!















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Keeping Merida “brave”

What’s wrong with Disney princesses?

A small victory for Merida doesn’t change the company’s dysfunctional branding



If there’s one thing you can count on Disney for, it’s creating strong leading female characters in its movies – and then reducing them to wide-eyed idiots in their merchandising. The Belle who obsessed on books and the Tiana who scrimped and saved for her own restaurant, the warrior Mulan and the wise Pocahontas – they’ve all been reduced to flowing hair and off-the-shoulder dresses and coy looks in their post-cinematic incarnations. But when the mouse tried to give its “Brave” heroine Merida a “Stepford Wives” makeover, it finally went too far.

Last week, Disney announced that it was adding the headstrong, flame-haired heroine to its “Princess” collection. But it was the revamped image of Merida — her waist nipped, her eyes elongated, her messy tangle of hair a sexy tumble, her plain dress a shimmer of bling and her trademark bow and arrow nowhere to be seen – that set parents’ jaws dropping. Disney blandly told Yahoo Shine that “Merida exemplifies what it means to be a Disney Princess through being brave, passionate, and confident and she remains the same strong and determined Merida from the movie whose inner qualities have inspired moms and daughters around the world.” But it didn’t quell the disgust.

Fans quickly launched a petition against the “skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance” Merida, asking Disney to “Keep Our Hero Brave!” And in an email to the Marin Independent Journal, “Brave’s” Oscar-winning co-writer and co-director  Brenda Chapman — who originally envisioned Merida as “a different kind of princess,” said, “There is an irresponsibility to this decision that is appalling for women and young girls. Disney marketing and the powers that be that allow them to do such things should be ashamed of themselves … I think it’s atrocious what they have done to Merida. When little girls say they like it because it’s more sparkly, that’s all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy ‘come hither’ look and the skinny aspect of the new version. It’s horrible! Merida was created to break that mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance.”

And so, while not acknowledging anything weird about its clumsy attempt at restyling, Disney quietly put the original messy, freckly, slightly overbitey, “strong, fearless, adventurous” Merida on its Princess page. She’s definitely the “one of these things that’s not like the others” among her sultry cohorts, but it’s a difference that’s beautiful. Of all the princesses, Merida is now the one who most looks like a normal teenage girl, with an open smile and a gaze that’s bright and direct – a far cry from the creepily “Hello sailor” action the other ladies are working.

But this isn’t quite a victory for substance over sexualization. Think Disney’s going to stop rolling out the Merida merchandise, including the shiny, glossy action figure, now? Doubtful. More than the Merida issue, though, there’s the whole bizarre, absurdly lucrative, damn near inescapable Princess Industrial Complex itself.

I have two daughters who have spent many happy years playing dress-up and skipping off to school in tutus. I am a girly girl myself; a woman who owns her own tiara, and who recently had lunch with someone who said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in pants.” But there’s something deeply disturbing and wrongheaded about the Disney princessization of American girlhood. The princesses, in their merchandise state, aren’t heroines. They’re just strange, sparkly happy endings. Not to be a buzzkill, but you do know that Belle, in her poufy yellow dress, is a prisoner, right? And that the pink-clad Ariel lining the toy aisle has recently sacrificed her power of speech? I’m just saying, context.

And if the chipper image of these pretty, happy princesses is a little out of whack, even odder is the more recent deluge of baby and toddler merch, known, freakily enough, as “My First Disney Princess” toys. Yep, skilled, smart characters are being shrunk down to helpless infants. Now baby Cinderella is getting married. And Baby Ariel has legs. Legs. I don’t even understand that. Your inconsistency is vexing, baby princesses!

The message – one that is now rammed down our daughters’ throats from birth, literally – is not one of effort or even action. Princesses don’t become princesses; they simply are princesses, even as babies. That Disney has left Merida relatively alone in one small corner of its brand doesn’t change that. There’s no narrative, no adventure, in the Disney princess world —  just the simpering image of pretty girls with crowns on their heads. I just hope that no matter what Disney tries to pull, we as parents and consumers don’t forget the stories behind those princesses. Because in the movie, when they try to cram Merida into that lovely blue gown that her doll counterpart now smilingly sports, she grouses, “Curse this dress.” And she stretches herself right out of it.


We Need More Movies Featuring Strong and Smart Girls

via, January 22, 2013

I can’t agree with all points raised in this TED Talk* — The Wizard of Oz movie doesn’t deliver exactly the same feminist message as the books — but I love that Stokes’ talks about how movies can help teach boys to be inspired by girls. The white male normative tales don’t allow much room for learning about anyone other than white men. And this world is mostly filled with people who aren’t white men. So, you know, we need some new stories, and fast. Creating more movies with strong female characters is good for boys and girls, and for society as a whole.


Where Are the Girls in Children’s Media?

by Laura Beck,, January 30, 2013


Lack of representation in media is a big problem for women, and it might be an even bigger problem for girls. With so much of today’s children’s media aimed at boys, it can be hard for girls to know where they belong in the equation. Many mainstream kid’s movies go out of their way to hide or obscure their female protagonists — if they even exist in the first place. Stories that do show strong girls and women are often marketed with a strong “girl power!” angle, which often excludes boys from watching (girl power = girl movie) and thereby learning to recognize and respect how great girls are. Even worse, many of the most famous female-centric stories feature the same tired characters and tropes — damsels in distress or an icy bitch queen. These stories go out of their way to make their female characters either unremittingly holy or unquestionably evil. It brings to mind a quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “If woman has no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person…infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme…But this is a woman in fiction.”

All in all, not a great message for girls.

Margot Magowan writes about the “girl gone missing” topic quite often, and recently tackled a slew of children’s movie posters from 2013.

She finds:

Of the 21 movie posters for young kids, only 4 appear to feature a female protagonist; 16 appear to feature a male protagonist and 10 of those movies are named for the male star. In one case, “Peabody and Mr. Sherman,” the movie is titled for its 2 male protagonists.

That’s quite a gap. One that makes no sense, especially considering so many of the characters are CARTOONS. Cartoons that could easily adapt to feature a strong girl story, but instead rely on the same bullshit as adult movies. Very creative, everyone. Great job.

Of course, Magowan recognizes that she can’t judge these movies because she hasn’t seen them yet — but she makes a strong argument for movie posters as their own media. “Even if a kid doesn’t see the movie, she sees the ads everywhere. She hears the movie titles,” she writes.

She continues:

Of the 4 starring females, just two are titled for that star. It’s the small budget 7 million film from Moscow, “Snow Queen”, that was brave enough to name its film after a female. “Frozen” is the title chosen for Disney’s version, the same movie studio that changed “Rapunzel” to “Tangled,” to obscure its female star. Fittingly, in the poster for “Frozen,” the woman’s image also fades into the background.

Both “Dorothy” and “Epic,” buffer the female on the poster with males, Epic with a constellation of them and “Dorothy” by listing no less than 7 males at the top of the poster.

Of course, not only is the amount of featured women small, but the ones who do make the cut are not always the strongest characters. There are the obvious problems with prejudice, but there’s also the character who Magowan refers to as “Minority Feisty.”

I’ll let her explain:

No matter how many Minority Feisty there are in an animated film, they are represented as a minority. The irony is, of course, that females are not a minority, not a special interest, not even a fringe group. Females are, in fact, half of the population. Girls are half of the kid population. Why aren’t they represented that way in movies made for children?

I call the Minority Feisty “Feisty” because that is, invariably, the adjective reviewers use to describe the “strong” female character in an animated film. “Feisty” is diminutive. It is what you call someone who plays at being powerful, not someone who is actually powerful. Would you ever call Superman “feisty?” How would he feel if you did?

The role of the Minority Feisty, like a cheerleader or First Lady, is to help the male star along on his important quest. Children need to see females front and center, as protagonists, as the heroes of their own stories.

This character is particularly troubling because there’s often no boy feisty version in programs targeted at girls — most likely because it’s assumed boys don’t watch girls shows. So, Minority Feisty is added to boy movies to give girls something, and everyone’s happy. Except boys are very rarely afforded the opportunity of seeing positive portrayals of strong girls. The girls they know are always along for the (boy’s) ride.

You might even add to this and say that by showing boys these female portrayals, you are building a very disturbed image of who and what women are. Since young kids are forming their first opinions around much of the media they consume, what message does that send boys? If the only representations of women they see plastered all over town are pristine princesses, untouchable crazies, or obliging cheerleaders — what are they supposed to think?

No, movies, TV, and their surrounding media — not only posters but fast and packaged foods, diapers, clothing, toys, etc. — cannot make up for shitty parenting, but it can make it more difficult to raise boys who view girls as fellow human beings.

As for how it leaves girls feeling, this is probably something many of us can relate to. As a child, I strived for the perfection of a Disney Princess, perhaps subconsciously knowing I’d never achieve that, I started imagining myself in the shoes of more adventurous male characters. I’ve talked to many women who’ve had similar experiences, this sort of transference. Lacking decent female role models, it’s not surprising many girls live stories through the eyes of boys and men.

There’s a passage in Margaret Cho’s hilarious 2002 autobiography I’m the One That I Want that talks about this in terms of race. This is paraphrased, but she basically says that, as a young girls, she couldn’t wait to grow up and become white like everyone on TV. Heartbreaking, and I think this experience resonates with many people. When you don’t see yourself reflected in media, you push yourself into it.

Now, a personal anecdote. I have a friend who’s a writer working in children’s TV. She’s constantly taking meetings and pitching stories, and she told me when she first started in the business, she pitched stories with girl leads. However, after being told to change the protagonist to a male character more than a few times — and once being told to actually turn the movie into a live action rom com for adult women!? — she now pitches almost entirely male-driven stories. And guess what? She’s selling.

This can probably best be explained by demographic expectations — we know girls will watch movies with boys in them, but are told boys don’t want to watch the girlie stuff. That might be true, but only because of the strict rules for girl’s characters and stories. They have no agency within this world. Until we get more girls as strong leads in stories that cater to all kids, how can things change? This is a serious question, it’s not rhetorical.

Magowan powerfully concludes:

As you look at the posters below, ask yourself: Who looks like the star/ leader/ protagonist of this movie? What would this poster look like if the positions, number of male characters, and title references were switched to female characters? Why are females, half of the kid population, presented as a minority in children’s films? Why is the imaginary world, a place where anything should be possible, sexist at all?

These are all good, fair questions in need of answers and accountability.

Reel Girl’s Gallery of Girls Gone Missing From Children’s Movies in 2013

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The Romance Resurgence: reactionary modern love stories

Love, Actually: How girls reluctantly endure the hookup culture

By CAITLIN FLANAGAN, The Atlantic, May 11, 2010


IN CASE YOU haven’t noticed, millions of girls are in the midst of a cultural insurrection. Armed with the pocket money that has made them a powerful consumer force since the 1920s, girls have set their communal sights on a particular kind of entertainment, and when they find it, they transform it into a commercial phenomenon that leaves even the creators and marketers of that entertainment dumbfounded. What do these girls—with such different backgrounds and aspirations, foreign to one another in so many respects—demand right now? The old story, the one they were forced to abandon for a while, but will be denied no longer: the Boyfriend Story.

They find it in High School Musical and in the Twilight series; in the music of Taylor Swift, and even in Glee, which goes to the greatest lengths to prove itself a convention-defying, diversity-championing instrument of the Now, but which only proves, episode after episode, that the reason many teenyboppers and gay boys form such fast friendships is that their hearts are in the same place: in the gossamer-wrapped quest for true and perfect love. Rachel may have two daddies, but when she crushes hard on her dreamy chorus teacher and expresses it in a duet of “Endless Love” with him—and when an equally besotted guidance teacher airs her own feelings for the man in the form of “I Could Have Danced All Night”—well, when that happens, we are definitely back in Kansas. Taylor Swift’s songbook, filled with lyrics composed by the enchantingly shy 19-year-old, might have been written for Doris Day. One of her biggest hits is about unreturned love for a boy who has fallen not just for the wrong girl, but for the wrong kind of girl—a Veronica, not a Betty; a Ginger, not a Mary Ann:

She wears high heels, I wear sneakers;
She’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers.

As for High School Musical, you have to chew through four solid hours of the trilogy—and an imagined year and a half of the main players’ secondary education—before the star-crossed lovers even share a kiss. It is supposed to be a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, but in the 400-year-old original, the main characters take only four days (and, theatrically, three and half hours, tops) to fornicate, initiate a murder spree, run away from home, break their parents’ hearts, secretly marry, and then off themselves. Compared with High School Musical, Romeo and Juliet is a Tarantino spectacular.

Why are so many teenage girls so interested in the kind of super-reactionary love stories that would have been perfectly at home during the Eisenhower administration? The answer lies—as does the answer to so much teenage behavior—in the mores and values of the generation (no, of the decade) immediately preceding their own. This tiny unit of time is always at the heart of what adolescents do, because as much as each group imagines itself to be carving new territory out of nothing more than its own inspired creativity, the youngsters don’t have enough experience to make anything new—or even to recognize what might be clichéd. All they know is the world they began to take notice of when they turned 12 or 13; all they can imagine doing to put their mark on that world is to either advance or retreat along the lines that were already drawn for them.

Even Woodstock is an example of kids getting together to do the next, precisely logical thing based on exactly what came just before them. The most transgressive moment on Yasgar’s farm wasn’t the moment when Country Joe got the kids to scream “Fuck the war” (while the Army choppers bombed them with blankets, water, food, and flowers). It was when Sha Na Na took the stage in gold jumpsuits and confused everyone by playing “At the Hop.” Sha Na Na understood what the freaks didn’t: that they all were already being usurped, that youth is a river that can’t be stopped, and that right in the middle of Woodstock, the next new thing was already struggling to be born. Music is the prow of popular culture, and Hollywood follows as fast as it can. Only four years after the orgy in the New York mud bath, George Lucas gave the next crop of kids American Graffiti, and the youngest once again turned. What else could have followed Woodstock—the total embrace of free love, and everything good and (especially for girls) bad that came with it—other than a full embrace of the supposedly most sexually boring and intellectually repressed time and place of the 20th century, 1950s America?

What might we expect as the next thing for today’s girls? They just spent the better part of a decade being hectored—via the post-porn, Internet-driven world—toward a self-concept centering on the expectation that the very most they could or should expect from a boy is a hookup. We didn’t particularly stand in the way of that culture; we left the girls alone with it, sat idly by while they pulled it into their brains through their ubiquitous earbuds and their endless Facebook photo albums and text messages. We said, more or less, “Do your best.” And then we gave them iTunes gift cards and Wi-Fi connections in their bedrooms, and we warned them about dangerous online trends only after those trends had become so passé that we could learn about them on Dateline. And now the girls have had enough. We’ve sunk pretty low, culturally speaking, when we’ve left it to the 14- and 15-year-old girls of the nation to make one of the last, great stands for human dignity. But they’re making it, by God.

A book that can help us understand the world that girls are trying to destroy—or least escape—is the novel Testimony by Anita Shreve, the events of which resemble a notorious incident that took place in the ancient world all the way back in 2005.* The location was Milton Academy, outside Boston, and the incident in question was a sex party, one that involved five boys and one girl in a locker room. Understanding the exact nature of what transpired would require the combined talents of Caligula, Atticus Finch, and Naomi Wolf. On a less teleological level, suffice it to say that the encounter was brief, was (in practical terms, if not in legal ones) consensual, involved oral sex, and seemed to suggest—both to the administrators of Milton and then to the millions of other adults who followed the story once it became national news—that the end of the world was at hand.

The Milton incident had been addressed in a nonfiction work with the unlovely title Restless Virgins, written by two young women, Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley, who had themselves graduated from Milton only six and seven years earlier, respectively, and who were so shocked by the particular incident—and by the subsequent revelation that it represented a new pattern of behavior at their alma mater—that they spent two years conducting interviews with a number of Milton students on the periphery of the event, including several members of the ice-hockey team.* Their book shed little light on what had really taken place, however, in part because of the narrow focus that its authors adopted. Still young themselves, they centered their attention almost entirely on the perspectives of the students, as though by plumbing the narcissistic reaches of the pubescent mind, one might discover anything beyond the faintest echo of the larger forces that shape adolescent behavior. Furthermore, the kids whom they endlessly interviewed seem to have been eager to spin some wild yarns for their two attractive adult inquisitors. Even if all of the stories inRestless Virgins are true—a supposition that requires you to believe it was common practice for a typical Milton girl to have group sex with an audience watching—their cumulative effect is neither illuminating nor even terribly interesting. Shreve’s novel is a different matter.

Written by a bona fide grown-up (the author turned 63 last fall), Testimony gives us not just the lurid description of what a teen sex party looks like, but also an exploration of the ways that extremely casual sex can shape and even define an adolescent’s emotional life. One-night stands may be perfectly enjoyable exercises for two consenting adults, but teenagers aren’t adults; in many respects, they are closer to their childhoods than to the adult lives they will eventually lead. Their understanding of affection and friendship, and most of all their innocent belief, so carefully nurtured by parents and teachers, that the world rewards kindness and fairness, that there is always someone in authority to appeal to if you are being treated cruelly or not included in something—all of these forces are very much at play in their minds as they begin their sexual lives.

In Testimony, the sex party occurs at the fictional Avery Academy; Shreve imagines Siena, the girl at the center of the event, as a grifter, eager to exploit her new status as victim so that she can write a killer college essay about it, or perhaps even appear on Oprah. For the most part, the boys are callous and self-serving.

Shreve writes boldly about the ways that male adolescence differs from female, especially in the way that boys suddenly become so much larger and stronger than girls, lending every sexual encounter the potential for menace and domination. As the headmaster muses about his charges,

There was a subtle moment in time when boys turned into men, and it had nothing to do with age or facial hair or voice timbre. It had to do, he had decided—and he had seen this happen hundreds of times over the course of nearly twenty years in a secondary-school setting—with musculature, the set of the jaw, the way the male held himself.

Boys spend their middle-school years being dominated by the lionesses of their class, who are taller and bigger and who establish the social order and harass the boys with their endless flirtations, which half the time the boys couldn’t care about any less. But things change in high school, dramatically. One of the main reasons we object so strenuously to events like the one at Milton is that we don’t want hulking boys manhandling girls. We want them to know better.

When I was a teenager, in the late 1970s, part of my mother’s ongoing plan to keep our relationship in a state of maximum anxiety included sneaking up on me and then delivering some report on the nature of human sexuality. I’d be shampooing the dog or pouring glass beads into a groovy Makeit & Bakeit window ornament, and all of a sudden—from right behind my shoulder, and in the same conversational, non-insane tone of voice in which a normal person might have asked, “Do you want me to get the flea dip?”—she would announce, “Never marry a man because you want to have sex with him. Just have sex with him.”

If she had attempted to pull out one of my molars with a pair of pliers, I could not have greeted these advances with more hostility and undisguised horror. The dog would bound out of the sink or the beads would spill, I’d say something wounding to my mother, she would sigh, and an hour or two later, she’d track me down and look out the window in a vague, troubled way, and then let me have it, really show me how it felt to have such a rude and ungrateful daughter:

“I thought I’d make stir-fry tonight,” she’d say. “In the wok.”

I’d hand it right back to her, let her know exactly how frightened and confused I was about sex and how furious I was that she hadn’t found a way to talk to me that wasn’t so uncomfortable and incomprehensible:


This was how it was, during that endless, unhappy adolescence: my mother desperately trying to warn me of all the heartbreaks and dangers of womanhood but being too ambivalent about her mission to undertake it in a rational manner; my freaking out; and then the two of us working to turn back the clock, to bind ourselves back together as little girl and mother. She would cook me up a special treat or plan an excursion or let me pick out new wallpaper for my bedroom. For my own part, each stir-fry and trip to the Concord Mall for nightgowns or sandals felt like a betrayal of the worst sort, because in those days I really was thinking a lot (as my mother suspected) about initiating a sexual life, which made taking her gifts seem like an act of deceit. Could I have the secrecy, adulthood, and risk of sex and also the pink dotted-Swiss dressing gowns and special blueberry-pancake breakfasts of girlhood?

I could. That’s what she was trying, so unsuccessfully, to tell me. She wanted me to know that she would still love me, and still be my mom, even after I started having sex. A new time had come in the history of American girlhood; we were going to be part of it—we were going to help build it, even with our miscues and quarrels and thwarted attempts at communication. I was going to get to be a daughter living at home, studying for algebra quizzes and putting Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo on my mother’s grocery list, and also a young woman beginning a private and womanly sex life. I was born in 1961: girlhood had come to a brand-new moment.

I grew up, I went to college and then moved on into adult life, and my mother became one of those kindly, kooky older ladies whose dedication to volunteering at Planned Parenthood bordered on the unseemly, given the distance between their age and their own need for the services provided. She was part of a generation of women who helped build an infrastructure not just of attitudes but of medical services (from birth control to abortion) rendered to teenage girls and built on a host of assumptions: that a girl is capable of great sexual desire, and that this desire should not cause her to lose her chance at an education or an independent life; that a huge number of modern mothers were committed to helping their daughters incorporate sexual lives within a normal teenage girlhood, one in which sex did not cleave the girl instantly and permanently from her home and her family. These mothers were willing to run as much interference as was needed to make these things possible—with dads, who tended not to be as enthusiastic about the prospect of a cherished daughter’s becoming sexual; with PTAs, which often balked at the kind of sex education these beliefs would require; with the long-entrenched double standard that said a boy could have sex and retain his good reputation, but a girl who went all the way was ruined.

But no matter how forward-thinking, no matter how progressive, those long-ago women might seem to us now, they shared one unquestioned assumption about girls and sex, a premise that, if expressed today, might cast doubt on one’s commitment to girls’ sexual liberation: all of them, to a woman, believed in the Boyfriend Story. This set wasn’t in the business of providing girls and young women the necessary information and services to allow boys and men to use and discard them sexually. Their reaction to the kinds of sexual experiences that so many American girls are now having would have been horror and indignation.

Today’s teenage girl—as much designed for closely held, romantic relationships as were the girls of every other era—is having to broker a life for herself in which she is, on the one hand, a card-carrying member of the over-parented generation, her extended girlhood made into a frantically observed and constantly commemorated possession of her parents, wrought into being with elaborate Sweet 16 parties, and heart-tugging video montages, and senior proms of mawkish, Cinderella-dream dimensions—and on the other hand she has also been forced into a sexual knowingness, brought upon her by the fact that, beginning at a relatively tender age, she has been exposed to the kind of hard-core pornography that her own mother has probably never seen; that her earliest textbooks on puberty have included, perforce, eye-opening and often upsetting information on everything from the transmission of HIV to the range and expression of sexual orientations; that she has been taught by her peer culture that hookups are what stolen, spin-the-bottle kisses were to girls a quarter century ago. She is a little girl; she is a person as wise in the ways of sexual expression as an old woman.

Two divergent cultural tracks regarding girls and sexuality have developed in this country. At one extreme, in not-insignificant numbers, you have evangelical Christians who have decided to demand that their children—and in particular their daughters—remain virgins until marriage. Until very recently, this would not have even needed to be put into words; it was the shared assumption of most Americans, and everything in the culture—from mainstream entertainment to religious doctrine to the most casual remarks passed from mother to daughter—supported it. But by now it is a minority opinion, and so the evangelicals have created a vast, explicit, and (from the outside, anyway) somewhat unseemly culture to communicate the goal to the teenagers of the community. At Purity Balls, fathers pledge themselves to the protection of their daughters’ virginity; True Love Waits campaigns carry the message from teens to teens; abstinence-only education programs flourish in parts of the country where there are high numbers of evangelicals, because of the value they place on virginity.

At the other extreme—with very little middle ground—are girls growing up with scant direction or guidance about their sexual lives, other than the most clinical. Is it any wonder that so many girls are binge-drinking and reporting, quite candidly, that this kind of drinking is a necessary part of their preparation for sexual activity? Unlike the girls of my era, who looked forward to sex, not as a physical pleasure (although it would—eventually—become that for most of us), but as a way of becoming ever closer to our boyfriends, these girls are preparing themselves for acts and experiences that are frightening, embarrassing, uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. These girls aren’t embracing sex, all evidence to the contrary. They’re terrified of it.

And for all of these reasons, we can hail Testimony as a book that bridges the values of girls’ desire for committed relationships with the realities of the sexual era in which we live. Because at its real center isn’t the sex party, but rather a lovely relationship, one between characters named Silas and Noelle. They are good students, well-liked by their teachers, and perfectly suited to fall in love, which they do. Testimony, it turns out, is a Boyfriend Story. In fact, its weakest prose—of the kind associated with the teen novels I devoured as a girl, not with the mature fiction of a major American novelist—is also its most compelling, as it describes the shy beginnings of their love affair and the careful ways in which they earn each other’s trust. And unlike the forever-chaste characters in High School Musical and Taylor Swift’s songs, they have sex.

As Noelle recounts it:

I discover that making love is not one moment or two. It is a hundred moments, a hundred doors that open, doors to rooms you have never been inside before … Even the soreness is a door, one that I have never been through … I lie in Silas’s arms, feeling the soreness, and I think that I have crossed over into being a woman.

The mystery at the heart of Testimony is that Silas ends up destroying his relationship with Noelle—and much more than that—by taking part in the sex party. The reason for this turns out to be a bit overdetermined (wresting a novel out of ugly incidents like that at Milton would have been impossible without some bit of business like this*), but lends the book an element of real tragedy, which is what the current hookup culture seems to be, at least for the girls growing up in it. I would encourage every parent of a teenage girl to give her a copy of Testimony. Certainly, it contains several passages that are bleakly obscene. But it also offers girls the exact kind of story they want to read, and it sets that story not in the arcadia of a sanitized high school where emotion is sublimated into show tunes and production numbers, but in the midst of the very real pressures and temptations that they are trying so hard—and with so little help from us—to resist.

There might seem something wan, even pitiable, about all these young girls pining for boyfriends instead of hookups. But the wishes of girls, you have to remember, have always been among the most powerful motivators in the lives of young men. They still are.

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The Damsel in Distress trope, alive and well

Tropes vs Women in Video Games

by Anita Sarkeesian,, March 7, 2013

Dante's Inferno (2010)'s Beatrice Pontinari

Dante’s Inferno‘s Beatrice, 2010

As a trope, the Damsel in Distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must then be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.

Of course, the Damsel in Distress predates the invention of video games by several thousand years. The trope can be traced back to ancient greek mythology with the tale of Perseus. According to the myth, Andromeda is about to be devoured by a sea monster after being chained naked to a rock as a human sacrifice. Perseus slays the beast, rescues the princess and then claims her as his wife.

In the Middle Ages, the Damsel in Distress was a common feature in many medieval songs, legends and fairy tales. The saving of a defenseless woman was often portrayed as the raison d’être – or reason for existence – in romance tales or poems of the era involving a ‘Knight-errant’ the wandering knight adventuring to prove his chivalry, prowess and virtue.

At the turn of the 20th century, victimized young women become the cliche of choice for the nascent American film industry as it provided an easy and sensational plot device for the silver screen. A famous early example is the 1913 Keystone Kops short “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life” which features the now iconic scene of a woman being tied to the railroad tracks by an evil mustache twirling villain.

Around the same time, the motif of a giant monkey carrying away a screaming woman began to gain widespread popularity in media of all kinds. Notably, Tarzan’s love interest Jane is captured by a brutish primate in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 pulp-adventure “Tarzan and the Apes.” In 1930, Walt Disney used the meme in an early Mickey Mouse cartoon called “The Gorilla Mystery.”

But it was in 1933 that two things happened which, 50 years later, would set the stage for the Damsel in Distress trope to become a foundational element in video games as a medium. First, Paramount Pictures introduced their animated series “Popeye the Sailor” to cinema audiences. The formula for most shorts involves Popeye rescuing a kidnapped Olive Oyl.

Second, in March of that year, RKO Pictures released their groundbreaking hit film “King Kong” in which a giant ape abducts a young woman and is eventually killed while trying to keep possession of her.

Fast forward to 1981 when a Japanese company named Nintendo entrusted a young designer named Shigeru Miyamoto with the task of creating a new arcade game for the American market. Originally, the project was conceived of as a game starring Popeye the Sailor, but when Nintendo wasn’t able to secure the rights, Miyamoto created his own characters to fill the void, heavily influenced by the movie, King Kong. The game’s hero “Jump Man” is tasked with rescuing a damsel, named “The Lady” after she is carried off by a giant ape. In later versions she is renamed “Pauline.”

Although Donkey Kong is perhaps the most famous early arcade game to feature the Damsel in Distress it wasn’t the first time Miyamoto employed the trope. Two years earlier, he had a hand in designing a 1979 arcade game called SheriffIn it a vague female-shaped collection of pixels, referred to as “The Beauty”, must be rescued from a pack of bandits. The hero is then rewarded with a “smooch of victory” for his bravery in the end.

A few years later Miyamoto recycled his Donkey Kong character designs; Pauline became the template for a new damsel named Princess Toadstool and “Jump Man” became a certain very famous plumber.




Annex - Wray, Fay (King Kong)_13

Anita Sarkeesian’s video series “Tropes vs. Women” examines tropes in the depiction of women in popular culture.

“Tropes vs Women in Video Games” explores how the Damsel in Distress became one of the most widely used gendered cliché in the history of gaming and why the trope has been core to the popularization and development of the medium itself.

Posted in fantasy, heroines, princesses | Leave a comment

Where are the complex heroines?


From Joss Whedon 22/08/13 Entertainment Weekly interview:

We also prodded Whedon, who pioneered the modern teenage vampire saga with The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for how he felt about the Twilight films and The CW’s The Vampire Diaries.

“A small part of you is like: ‘Well, you know, I did that first. I liked that band before they were popular,’” he says. “The thing about Buffy for me is–on a show-by-show basis–are there female characters who are being empowered, who are driving the narrative? The Twilight thing and a lot of these franchise attempts coming out, everything rests on what this girl will do, but she’s completely passive, or not really knowing what the hell is going on. And that’s incredibly frustrating to me because a lot of what’s taking on the oeuvre of Buffy, is actually a reaction against it. Everything is there — except for the Buffy. A lot of things aimed at the younger kids is just Choosing Boyfriends: The Movie.”


I hate Strong Female Characters

By Sophia McDouGall,, 15 August 2013

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

I hate Strong Female Characters.

As someone spends a fair amount of time complaining on the internet that there aren’t enough female heroes out there, this may seem a strange and out of character thing to say.

And of course, I love all sorts of female characters who exhibit great resilience and courage. I love it when Angel asks Buffy what’s left when he takes away her weapons and her friends and she grabs his sword between her palms and says “Me”. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I love Zhang Ziyi’s Jen sneering “He is my defeated foe” when asked if she’s related to Chow Yun-Fat’s Li Mu Bai. I love Jane Eyre declaring “I care for myself” despite the world’s protracted assault on her self-esteem. My despair that the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman is long and loud.

But the phrase “Strong Female Character” has always set my teeth on edge, and so have many of the characters who have so plainly been written to fit the bill.

I remember watching Shrek with my mother.

“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.

She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”

No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.

The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” Sometimes the phrase “not your typical damsel in distress” will be used, as if the writing of pop culture heroines had not moved on even slightly since Disney’s Snow White and as if a goodly percentage of SFCs did not end up, in fact, needing to be rescued.

This is true, and yet it’s not all of the truth.

Are our best-loved male heroes Strong Male Characters? Is, say, Sherlock Holmes strong? In one sense, yes, of course. He faces danger and death in order to pursue justice. On the other hand, his physical strength is often unreliable – strong enough to bend an iron poker when on form, he nevertheless frequently has to rely on Watson to clobber his assailants, at least once because he’s neglected himself into a condition where he can’t even try to fight back. His mental and emotional resources also fluctuate. An addict and a depressive, he claims even his crime-fighting is a form of self-medication. Viewed this way, his willingness to place himself in physical danger might not be “strength” at all – it might be another form of self-destructiveness. Or on the other hand, perhaps his vulnerabilities make him all the stronger, as he succeeds in  surviving and flourishing in spite of threats located within as well without.

Is Sherlock Holmes strong? It’s not just that the answer is “of course”, it’s that it’s the wrong question.

What happens when one tries to fit other iconic male heroes into an imaginary “Strong Male Character” box?  A few fit reasonably well, but many look cramped and bewildered in there. They’re not used to this kind of confinement, poor things. They’re used to being interesting across more than one axis and in more than two dimensions.

“Of course I’m strong, I’m an idealised power fantasy, but the most interesting thing about me is that, on the inside, I’m a dorky little artist,” says Captain America sadly, sucking his stomach in.

“Does it still count as strength if I’m basically a psychopath?” inquires James Bond idly, lounging against the box wall and checking his cuffs.

Batman’s insistence that he can, must, will get into the Strong Male Character box comes close to hysteria, but there’s no room in there for his bat ears and cape and he won’t take them off.

The Doctor, finding that this box is in fact even smaller on the inside, babbles something incomprehensible and runs away.

The ones that fit in most neatly – are usually the most boring. He-Man, Superman (sorry). The Lone Ranger. Jack Ryan, perhaps. Forgotten square-jawed heroes of forgotten pulp novels and the Boy’s Own Paper. If Strong-Male-Character compatibility was the primary criterion of writing heroes, our fiction would be a lot poorer. But it’s within this claustrophobic little box that we expect our heroines to live out their lives.

Let’s come back to Sherlock Holmes. A better question would be – “What is Sherlock Holmes like?”

He’s a brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, polymath genius.

Adding the word “strong” to that list doesn’t seem to me to enhance it much.

And what happens when we talk about characters that don’t even fit the box marked “hero”? Is Hamlet “strong”? By the end of the play, perhaps in a sense he is, but it’s a very specific and conflicted form of strength which brings him peace only at cost of his life. Richard II, on the other hand, is not only not “strong”, he’s decidedly weak, both as a human being and a king. Yet some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, the most intricate meditations on monarchy, are placed in this weakling’s mouth. He has no strength, but he does have plenty of agency. The plot of the play is shaped around his (often extremely bad) decisions. In narrative terms, agency is far more important than “strength” – it’s what determines whether a character is truly part of the story, or a detachable accessory.

And all of this without taking into account the places where the Strong Female Character may overlap with the stereotype of the “strong black woman”, when myths of strength not only fail but cause real harm.

Chuck Wendig argues here that we shouldn’t understand “strong” as meaning, well, “strong”, but rather as something like “well-written”. But I simply don’t think it’s true that the majority of writers or readers are reading the term that way. How else to explain the fact that when the screenwriters of The Lord of the Rings decided to (clumsily) expand Arwen’s role from the books, they had her wander on screen, put a sword to her boyfriend’s throat and boast about how she’d sneaked up on him? (It took Liv Tyler to realise later “you don’t have to put a sword in her hand to make her strong”). Why else did Paul Feig, as Carina Chicano notes here, have to justify the fact that Bridesmaids hinges on a complex, interesting female character who appeared rather weak?

And even if this less limiting understanding of “strong female character” were the common reading, doesn’t it then become even sadder and even more incomprehensible that where the characterisation of half the world’s population is concerned, writing well is treated as a kind of impressive but unnecessary optional extra?

Of course, there are characters who’ve clearly been written with SFC-compatibility in mind, who nevertheless come at least halfway to life. Captain America’s Peggy Carter, along with Iron Man’s Pepper Potts, are much the best of the Marvel love interests. Peggy shoots Nazis. She never has to be rescued or protected by Captain America or anyone else. She has a decent amount of screentime. Her interesting status as a female British soldier in World War Two is not actually explored, but implies a compelling back story and an impressive depth of conviction and resilience, and her romance with Captain America is never allowed to undermine this. While her role is clearly ancillary to the male hero, it’s not so much so that she feels defined by his presence; it’s possible to imagine a film about her – a woman determined to overcome everything in her path to fight the evils of Nazism. Most importantly to the character’s success, she’s played by the superb Hayley Atwell.

She’s introduced briefing a number of potential recruits to the super soldier programme. This is the scene clearly written to establish Peggy’s SFC cred, and it unfolds like this: One of the recruits immediately starts mouthing off at her, first insulting her accent and then, when she calls him out of the line-up, making sexist, suggestive remarks.

She punches him to the ground.

Later she discovers Captain America being kissed by the only other woman with a speaking part in the film, who has no other role except to kiss Captain America. She outwardly maintains her composure until Captain America is handling his iconic shield for the first time, and its perhaps-impenetrable qualities are briefly discussed as well as the fact that it’s just a prototype. Peggy suddenly fires off several shots at Captain America, so that he must raise the shield (which does, thankfully, stop bullets) to avoid being killed.

Both scenes are framed as funny and impressive.

You can make a case for the punch, I guess – it’s wartime, she hasn’t got time to pussyfoot around with sexist idiots, she needs to establish her authority hard and fast – but it’s still escalating a verbal conflict to fairly serious physical violence within seconds, and it’s hard to imagine a male character we’re supposed to like being introduced in the same way. The second scene, though, when considered without the haha-what-a-little-spitfire framing of the film, becomes outrageous. Shooting a gun, without warning, at your love interest who has a shield you do not yet know can stop bullets (and what about ricochets?!), because you’re jealous? Or for any reason at all? What the hell, Peggy?

That a female character is allowed to get away with behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem – if you’re MRA minded, anyway – an unfair imbalance in her favour. But really these scenes reveals the underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand. She’s in a hole, and acts that would be hair-raising in a male character just barely bring her up to their level. The script acknowledges and deplores the sexism the character faces in her very first scene – but it won’t challenge the sexist soldier’s belief that women don’t belong in this story by writing any more women into it. Not women with names and speaking parts, anyway.

I’m sure someone will claim here that this would have been simply impossible, because everyone knows there weren’t any women in World War Two, so, firstly – oh, PLEASE. Secondly, German women had done pretty well in the sciences before the rise of Hitler. Why couldn’t Erskine, the sad German scientist whose serum transforms Steve Rogers, have been gender-switched for the movie? Howard Stark, father of Tony/Iron Man, gets a cameo – couldn’t his future wife Maria appear too, grinding edges on that shield or something? What about the tower keeper who was guarding the supernaturally powered Cosmic Cube – did he have to be a man? Couldn’t the Red Skull have recruited a few evil women for Hydra, too? As it is, with when one recognises that sole responsibility for representing her gender and tackling sexism rests on Peggy-the-character’s shoulders, that her actions are outlandishly large to compensate for all those other women who simply aren’t there, some of the strain and hyperbole in her characterisation becomes more explicable.


The Strong Female Character has something to prove. She’s on the defensive before she even starts. She’s George from The Famous Five all grown up and still bleating with the same desperate lack of conviction that she’s “Every Bit As Good as a Boy”.

When I talk about this, people offer synonyms; better, less limiting ways of saying the same thing. What about “effective female characters”, for instance? But it is not enough to redefine the term. It won’t do to add maybe a touch more nuance but otherwise carry on more or less as normal. We need an entirely new approach to the problem, which means remembering that the problem is far more than just a tendency to show female characters as kind of drippy. We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.

Switching back and forth between Captain America and Richard II may be rather odd, but I want to do it one more time point out two things that Richard has, that Bond and Captain America and Batman also have, that Peggy, however strong she is, cannot attain. They are very simple things, even more fundamental than “agency”.

1)      Richard has the spotlight. However weak or distressed or passive he may be, he’s the main goddamn character.

2)      Richard has huge range of other characters of his own gender around him, so that he never has to act as any kind of ambassador or representative for maleness. Even dethroned and imprisoned, he is free to be uniquely himself.

It’s rare enough for a female character to get the first, and even rarer for her to get the second. Just look at the cast list of 2010’s Salt, say. Angelina Jolie plus dudes.

Nowadays the princesses all know kung fu, and yet they’re still the same princesses. They’re still love interests, still the one girl in a team of five boys, and they’re all kind of the same. They march on screen, punch someone to show how they don’t take no shit, throw around a couple of one-liners or forcibly kiss someone because getting consent is for wimps, and then with ladylike discretion they back out of the narrative’s way.

On the posters they’re posed way in the back of the shot behind the men, in the trailers they may pout or smile or kick things, but they remain silent. Their strength lets them, briefly, dominate bystanders but never dominate the plot. It’s an anodyne, a sop, a Trojan Horse – it’s there to distract and confuse you, so you forget to ask for more.

Let us remind ourselves that the actual goal here is not the odd character who’s Strong or Effective or anything else. It’s really very simple, but it would represent a far more profound change than any amount of individual sassy kickassery can ever achieve, and would mean far fewer posters like those above.


What do I want instead of a Strong Female Character? I want a male:female character ratio of 1:1 instead of 3:1 on our screens. I want a wealth of complex female protagonists who can be either strong or weak or both or neither, because they are more than strength or weakness. Badass gunslingers and martial artists sure, but also interesting women who are shy and quiet and do, sometimes, put up with others’ shit because in real life there’s often no practical alternative. And besides heroines, I want to see women in as many and varied secondary and character roles as men: female sidekicks, mentors, comic relief, rivals, villains. I want not to be asked, when I try to sell a book about two girls, two boys and a genderless robot, if we couldn’t change one of those girls to a boy.

Finally, when I think of what I want for female characters, I find myself thinking of what the performance poet Guante wants for himself, in this poem where he rejects the limitations of the insulting commandment “Man Up”. So if he’ll forgive me for borrowing and paraphrasing …

I want her to be free to express herself

I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women

I want her to be weak sometimes

I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power

I want her to cry if she feels like crying

I want her to ask for help

I want her to be who she is

Write a Strong Female Character?


Posted in heroines, talkinboutmygeneration, vampires | Leave a comment

Through the eyes of a Bling Ring-era teen

Memoirs of a Valley Girl Malcontent

by Katie J.M. Baker,, May 29, 2013


One August afternoon when I was fourteen, my friend and I somehow acquired enough cash to rent a white stretch limo for an afternoon to drive us around Calabasas, the affluent San Fernando Valley suburb that spawned and still comfortably hosts the Kardashians. A few years after our impromptu joyride, the “Bling Ring” teenagers would sneak back to their parents’ Calabasas homes after stealing millions of dollars worth of high-end stuff from the unlocked estates of Us Weekly favorites like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. That afternoon, all I knew about Calabasas was that it looked even more antiseptic from behind tinted glass. Not that I was really in a contemplative mood.

The details are hazy — I can’t recall what inspired us to rent a limo or how we paid for it, just that it was neither my idea nor money — but I remember slipping into the long, slick car around the corner from my friend’s house in a shabbier area of the Valley and driving twenty minutes to pick up another girl at Calabasas High School. The two mocked me for slinking down into the cushions in case my mother happened to drive by and glimpse her daughter chilling in a stretch limo during rush hour traffic. They preened using the car’s various shiny surfaces as if we were about to arrive somewhere other than from whence we came. I slouched the entire time, terrified.

Nancy Jo Sales’ The Bling Ring (an extension of her 2010 Vanity Fair article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins”, which inspired the Sophia Coppola movie opening next month) will delight those who consider “true crime” novels and tabloids guilty pleasures, but a less commercially enterprising editor (or one with a sense of humor) might’ve titled it The Calabasas Spring. The teenagers ran glamorously amok during 2008-2009, just a few years before Occupy Wall Street. These bratty, comically entitled teens didn’t intend to be revolutionaries, but they still represent the inverse extreme of the movement that would rise soon after. Some young people are mobilized by class anxiety/resentment to protest that shit’s fucked up and bullshit. Others apparently become so desensitized by the programming that they want to step into the television.

I binge-read The Bling Ring on a recent flight from New York to Los Angeles. I was going home to visit my parents in Encino, the suburb nestled between Calabasas and L.A. proper where I grew up. The book triggered traumatizing Valley Girl flashbacks, the sort that hit me on the rare occasions I find myself in a shopping mall surrounded by the brands I was peer-pressured into worshipping by my private school classmates during my adolescence. A friend of mine who was unimpressed by the book told me it’s naive to take a Vanity Fair writer at face value who argues that it “may be too easy to blame pop culture and the media for promoting the ‘value’ of fame,” that “movies and TV shows and popular music are often more of a reflection than an engine of cultural trends.” And sure, it’s less than radical to connect a growing national obsession with fame with a growing national obsession with wealth. But Sales’ overarching point — or, at least, the one that resonated most for me — is that the Bling Ring kids craved acknowledgment and acceptance more than wealth or fame; they wanted to feel famous because they wanted to feel rich because they wanted to feel loved.

Maybe I’m projecting. I, too, was a dissatisfied Valley Girl who grew up coveting Juicy Couture velour tracksuits instead of questioning their exorbitant price (and dubious aesthetic value) because I hoped the right brands would lead to solidarity. No, I wouldn’t have stolen Lindsay’s custom-made black mink coat. I wasn’t that brave. When all the trappings of fame are just a few freeway stops away, going out and trying to grab some for yourself seems somewhat reasonable, if not exactly laudable. It seems like a solution, anyway.

When the media first got tipped off to the Bling Ring, “everybody wanted them to be like kids onGossip Girl,” Sales writes. But she found that “the kids weren’t as rich as everyone seemed to want to believe… it seemed they lived more like typical teenagers. They were better off than many kids, at the dawning of the great recession; but they didn’t appear to be wealthy in the way of the new elite class that had been engaging in the regulated accumulation of capital for the better part of three decades. They weren’t as rich as other people in Calabasas, or their victims, either. Which made them wannabes.”

I never told my high school friends about the limo afternoon (my cohort was a friend from summer camp) because they would’ve considered the whole escapade rather gauche. The girls in my grade weren’t into bling tourism. They were the daughters of Hollywood agents and production company CEOs, and they favored boring but incredibly expensive stuff: Tiffany heart bracelets, Prada purses, Earl jean jackets. Dry-cleaning was key, as was replacing your Ugg boots annually so they wouldn’t scuff or smell. I started to fetishize glossy, clean objects with smooth edges even though I had always preferred chaos: tangles of costume jewelry, clashing prints. Before I entered high school, my favorite “fancy” outfit was a electric blue leopard-print furry tube top. Soon, I was begging my mother to buy me simple black dresses from Theory that she wouldn’t have splurged on herself.

My first serious boyfriend’s stepmother was related to one of the founders of Juicy Couture. When we kissed for the first time, I texted my friends that I had hooked up with the “Juicy guy,” as if he was a prince of merchandise. I think I subconsciously hoped I could marry into his lineage and erase all my shameful memories, like the time I was called out for carrying a fake Kate Spade cherry-print clutch that my grandmother had purchased for me in a downtown alley. “That’s not real,” my lab partner informed me. “Kate Spade doesn’t make that pattern.”

I saved up my allowance for months to buy those sweaty Uggs and scoured Loehmann’s for half-priced Marc Jacobs miniskirts. I never questioned whether I actually liked the spoiled princess aesthetic, because everyone wanted to wear these brands, including the teen celebrities we saw everywhere: Hilary Duff at house parties, Shia LaBeouf at school sporting events, Lindsay Lohan at Starbucks. Growing up, it was not an abnormal occurrence to be reading an article about Mary-Kate Olsen in Us Weekly while getting a manicure three feet away from Mary-Kate Olsen.

There’s a lot to unpack about fandom and celebrity in The Bling Ring. What came first: the celebrity or the fan? What constitutes a fan these days, anyway? Audrina Patridge and Lindsay Lohan released security footage to TMZ after they were robbed so that their fans could help nab the thieves like loyal little elves. “She’s a little obsessed girl,” Patridge said of one Bling Ring member. There’s a thin line between being obsessed enough to help a celebrity solve a relatively petty theft but not so obsessed that you don’t want to be her real-life confidante.

And what constitutes a celebrity? Sales notes that the Bling Ring celebrity targets were not only rich and famous but that “nearly all of them had been in movies or on popular TV shows about people who were rich and famous or wanted to be rich and famous.” They were hot and loaded, but not particularly talented. The Bling Ring’s Nick Prugo said his codefendant (and suspected ringleader) Rachel Lee stole from these specific celebrities because she wanted the lifestyle “that we all sort of want.”

I graduated high school in 2005, a few months before the launch of celebrity gossip behemoth TMZ and three years before the Bling Ring would rob Paris Hilton’s house for the first time. I sold all my designer merchandise to secondhand stores during my first Thanksgiving break back home and used the money to buy books I could talk about with my new friends, who were more concerned with paying their tuition than affording real Kate Spade purses. I forgot about the time a friend invited me to her Beverly Hills mansion after school on a rainy day and, en route, stopped by a boutique to pick up an entirely new outfit, without trying it on, because her clothes were damp. I forgot that I was awestruck by the pit stop rather than disgusted.

Prugo, who was allegedly coerced into confessing by his sleazy lawyer, said he helped orchestrate the Bling Ring’s robberies because his partners in crime were his first real friends. Sales’ book implies that the other teenagers — even notoriously sketchy Alexis Neiers — had similarly tragic textbook motivations. Again: they wanted to feel famous because they wanted to feel rich because they wanted to feel loved.

“You get the limo out front,” Miley Cyrus, a Bling Ring target, sings in the theme song to Hannah Montana, the Disney TV show about a high school girl who lives a double life as a famous pop star that made Cyrus a household name. “Yeah, when you’re famous it can be kinda fun.”

Sales wants us to see (and lament) the connection between growing up watching TV shows about accessible tween celebs who “get the limo out front” and feeling entitled to a limo of your own, to living twenty minutes from celebrities who Tweet and Facebook their whereabouts and don’t bother to lock their front doors to going on over.

I see it. I never went on over; most of us wouldn’t. But I grew into the type of young adult who casually dabbled in Occupy instead of casually flipping through tabloids. I’m not much of a revolutionary either way.

I don’t know why some kids break the law to embody their anxieties instead of revolt against them. All I keep thinking about is the Sisqó sticker that’s still stuck to my bedroom mirror because my best friend in 7th grade told me he was hot. I was never a fan of the “Thong Song” singer. But I still can’t get it off.

Posted in consumerism, girl culture, hollywood, talkinboutmygeneration | Leave a comment

A prof’s observation of the Millennial college experience

I don’t hate millennials anymore!

So they don’t know John Hughes or the Cure or have a generational identity. This Gen Xer now sympathizes with Gen Y

BY ,, May 25, 2013


Like many of my colleagues in the American academy, each fall I consult the Mindset List for entering college freshmen produced annually by Beloit College of Wisconsin. Designed to identify “the experiences and event horizons of students and . . . not meant to reflect on their preparatory education,” the list is marked by a frequent use of “always” and “never,” reminding us that many cultural and experiential commonplaces for those writing syllabi are foreign, inscrutable, and sometimes ancient history to the syllabi’s intended audience. On the list for the class of 2013, three facts controverting my own early experience catch the eye: one demographic, one geographic, and one pedagogic. First, in these students’ lifetime, “Smokers have never been promoted as an economic force that deserves respect.” The Marlboro Man never galloped across their television screens, nor will they recall Virginia Slims’ women’s-lib-hijacking “You’ve come a long way, baby!” advertising campaign. On the geographic front, the Soviet Union never appeared on their map, and thus “Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Latvia, Georgia, Lithuania, and Estonia have always been independent nations.” No Cold War–era living in the shadow of the bomb, no anxiety of “The Day After” variety for these students; they have lived instead with the horrifying shadow of 9/11 falling over half of their lives.

As a member of Generation X (b. 1970), I have long attributed the difference between my contemporaries and the Generation Y, or Millennial, students I teach (born between 1979 and 2003 or so) as one of substance and content. As I saw it, the “event horizons,” cultural benchmarks, references, and commonplaces that constitute Generation X’s intragenerational language and cultural formation were not on Millennials’ radar. I have taken to creating my own set of benchmarks to note the important-to-me facts and experiences that will never be true for my students. For instance:

• On “Sesame Street,” Elmo has always been a major presence; Roosevelt Franklin, never.
• Millennials never held a tape recorder next to an LP player to record a song.
• AIDS has always been a global, predominantly third-world epidemic, rather than a mysterious disease decimating the gay community and cutting a deadly swath through America’s fashion, art, and creative worlds.
• During the Millennials’ college years, a large percentage of their communication will occur via text messaging, e-mail, Facebook, and cell phones. As an undergraduate, I had access to none of those technologies.
• They have no idea who the Solid Gold Dancers were.
• They never had to await their once-yearly chance to watch “The Wizard of Oz” or “The Sound of Music” on network television, preceded by the familiar, spinning “Special Presentation” logo.

While I could to some extent quantify the differences, the chasm between my cultural literacy and theirs (which is not to call either party illiterate, just differently schooled) nonetheless baffled me. As one of Generation X’s hallmarks has been a continual engagement with popular culture, I fancy that I am (to some degree) familiar with my students’ reference points. I have not seen “Twilight,” but it is difficult to avoid knowing Robert Pattinson’s every move. Lady Gaga I regard with a mixture of horrified fascination and respect for her arch cultural commentary. For six seasons, I obsessed over “Lost” and wept prolifically through the last episode. Like my younger students, I send text messages, check Facebook incessantly, and relish certain favorite viral videos and Internet memes. But despite keeping relatively current with the pop culture my students also share, I cannot for the life of me determine what will be culturally relevant to them. Thanks to DVD re-releases, I can now count on their familiarity with “Schoolhouse Rock,” but the Golden Age of Hollywood is generally a great unknown. When teaching excerpts from Susan Bordo’s “The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private” a few semesters ago, I had to explain to my class who James Dean was.

I was stunned. Didn’t everyone know James Dean?

When I was their age, a college freshman, I papered my small campus with memorial signs in the early morning of September 30, 1988, the thirty-third anniversary of his death—the kind of dramatic and expressive but anonymous gesture to which I was given in those days. In my college dorm room, his famous image looked out from postcards, posters, and calendars. And yet some of my students had never even seen his brooding, unmistakable visage?

Another example would seem to second the notion that Gen X and the Millennials have merely been steeped in different cultural waters. On the first day of class each semester, I ask my students to list on a three-by-five card their contact information, major, hometown, clubs/activities/athletic teams, favorite book, film, and music. Despite being an English professor, I am most interested in the third of that triad. I hope against hope each semester to see listed the Decemberists or Nick Drake or Sigur Rós or even U2. What I get instead is a lot of second-rate hip-hop, former American Idol contestants who’ve landed recording contracts, or—worst of all—“I listen to anything.” One semester a young woman who indicated English as a potential major also listed Britney Spears as one of her favorite musicians. I said to her, “Is that ironic?”

“What do you mean?” she replied.

Oh, that’s right, I thought. Millennials don’t do irony.

Perhaps unfairly, I want my students to define themselves personally by defining themselves musically. I want them to care deeply for one band or musical genre over another. A lot of my cultural bonding with friends occurred because of music. One always knew who had been at the big rock show the night or weekend before, because everyone wore concert shirts to school the next day. The coolest kids at my school were the skate punks who listened to the Dead Milkmen and Anthrax and 7 Seconds. In high school, I found it difficult to be good friends with people who couldn’t appreciate the Cure. At my high school proms, it was my friends and me who took over the dance floor at the opening riff of the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster”—after sitting down through all of the Taylor Dayne, Bob Seger, Miami Sound Machine, and Tiffany preceding it. Underground music in the 1980s truly was an alternative to the likes of Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Debbie Gibson, and the proliferation of syrupy romantic duets (like “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing”). Marked by “deep,” literary, or socially conscious lyrics, melodic buildups that defied the three-minute pop format, innovative vocals, and like as not a British pedigree, alternative music was a revelation to me and my left-of-center peers. Millennials, on the other hand, “do not have a generational music.”

Given this anecdotal evidence, it is tempting to believe that the sum of the generation gap between us can be encapsulated by a “content item” like “The Breakfast Club”—a sacred text for Generation X (and for a long time my half-serious litmus test for friendship), the alienation of which does not generally reflect Millennial experience. In reality, however, the difference is one of method and mode; not only have the “experience boxes” of Millennials been filled with different content, the manufacture of the boxes themselves has followed a process as deliberate and structured as the formation of Generation X was laissez-faire, relativistic, and nonintentional.

Thus the third Mindset List item to catch my attention actually carries more significance for the classroom than the first two. Because “American students have always lived anxiously with high-stakes educational testing,” there are no casual assignments, exams, or requirements in the classroom for these young learners. They are more dutiful and thorough than they are risky and innovative. The truth of this statement on the Mindset List lies at the heart of my students’ approach to learning—and I happen to have another anecdote beautifully illustrating this very point.

On the last day of a particularly “tough sell” class of freshman core literature, after reviewing for the exam I told my students I wanted to read them Marge Piercy’s poem “The Art of Blessing the Day” as a benediction of sorts. One of the better students in the class, a lovely young woman who had engaged the semester’s work with intelligence and enthusiasm (despite a documented learning challenge), nonetheless raised her hand to ask . . . you know what’s coming . . .

“Do we need to know this poem for the exam?”

I was less bothered by the question than by its source. The student (I’ll call her Alice) was exemplary in her class preparation, depth of inquiry, and innovative approach to assignments. She had written a sensitive and penetrating character analysis on one of the course novels at midterm; she exhibited a marked leadership role in discussion and class activities within that reticent group. If even Alice, who appeared to appreciate the course on its own merits, was thinking such “mercenary” thoughts, so to speak, what might be on the minds of the students with a lesser degree of interest and engagement?

Deploying this incident as illustrative of my teaching life would be more than a little bit misleading. Since beginning my tenure-track assistant professorship in English, I have had many classroom moments for the ages—like the informal jam band that appeared on the last day of a writing class when I asked students to “bring something to share.” (One of the band members wasn’t even in the class.) Or the student who wore a T-shirt bearing the Thoreauvian mantra “Simplify, simplify, simplify” on the day we discussed “Walden.” Or the voracious appetite shown by an entire class of English majors for the sensuous interpretive delights of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market.” And yet, Alice’s cut-to-the-chase question reveals the implications of that third Mindset List point. The dominance of both standardized testing and outcomes-based education in the public schools has to a large degree formed students into results-oriented educational consumers. Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has researched Millennials, technology, and learning and claims that institutions will need to change drastically to meet the needs and expectations of this rising demographic. Outlining this generation’s lifelong access to choice and customization, Sweeney writes, “Millennials expect a much greater array of product and service selectivity. They have grown up with a huge array of choices and they believe that such abundance is their birthright. . . . They desire ultimate consumer control: what they want, how and when they want it.” In tandem with the control requirement, Sweeney argues, are expectations of flexibility, convenience, instant access, and constant feedback.

But the wish for customization does not translate into a desire or a need for complete freedom. Millennials are more comfortable with structure and continuous feedback than with an open-ended, blank-canvas situation. In a writing assignment, Millennials appreciate a choice of questions (to which they always adhere faithfully) but would be terrified if I said, “Write an essay on a topic of your choosing using a text we have read this semester.” They have not been trained or prepared for such an endeavor. The same characteristics that marked their upbringing inside of protective structures that did not allow them to fail (T-ball and standardized testing) have shaped their expectations of college. They neither seek nor anticipate the version of higher learning depicted in the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” a song often heard drifting across the quad during my college years:

I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin, and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry, or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
I got my paper and I was free.

I hold up this stereotype of college—an addled, existential wrestling with knowledge among arcane intellectuals—not as an ideal, but as a dramatic foil to Millennial expectation. Their generational confidence, optimism, and highly developed sense of teamwork did not set them up for a prostration of any sort. In “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” Neil Howe and William Strauss credit this emerging generation of upbeat, tech-savvy high achievers with reversing the disaffected youth topos of the James Dean variety that has dominated teenagehood since its cultural inception in the 1940s. (Maybe that’s why my students don’t recognize him.) While I admittedly find Howe and Strauss a little bit rah-rah about the Millennials, the writers’ combined approach of research and anecdote is thorough, effective, and not inaccurate to my experience. Millennials have proven themselves to be “good kids”—polite, positive, dutiful, conscientious, and bright. At the Catholic university where I taught for five years, students exhibited a high level of interest in service, social justice, and charity. There was a striking lack of rebelliousness, “bad attitude,” negativity, and existential angst.

Also apparently missing from the Millennial generation are an appreciation for irony, an individualistic self-concept, and the kind of originality born of feeling alienated and out of place. Where is the Sylvia Plath-obsessed would-be writer who shopped quite happily at the Salvation Army? Or the rabid Monkees fan who idolized the 1960s and lit her basement dorm room with a lava lamp? Or the poet/actor/playwright/jack of all literary trades who could mimic anyone and came back to teach at his alma mater? My initial reaction to teaching the students at my first institution was to think, “I don’t look out there and see myself—or for that matter, anyone I went to college with.” The longer I teach, the more I realize that, well, I wouldn’t. They are not us. The cultural trappings, I am beginning to understand, are just the outward signifiers of generational otherness. The most pervasive differences are those of upbringing, attitude, and educational approach.

Furthermore, a recent epiphany has caused me to realize that many of the elements, dynamics, and features of my pedagogy are quite the opposite of what the research indicates is optimal for my students. As a professor of English, I place a huge premium on form and genre, and on a piece of literature’s relationship to culture. I lecture very rarely (to the dismay of more than one student, if course evaluations are to be believed). I decline to give my students a tidy takeaway from a text, preferring instead to explore various meanings and encourage their development and defense of an interpretive point of view. Shaped perhaps by the pervasive moral relativism of my 1970s childhood, that feature of my teaching often sits poorly with students who spent many years learning “the test” and earnestly desire “the right answer.”

In order to gain some insight into how my teaching style and their needs for learning might be in opposition, I turn to our respective generational characteristics. My Millennial students came of age with a parenting ethos, educational environment, and political climate much different from mine. To invoke some large-scale stereotypes, I was a latchkey kid; they were over-scheduled. I was well into adulthood on 9/11; the freshmen of fall 2011 were younger than ten years old. I was edified and liberated to learn that media- perpetuated images of female perfection were impossible and destructive; my female students today are “so over the body image thing.” While I remember the occasional standardized test, the curriculum of an entire year did not stand or fall around it, as my students report it did for them.

Yes, we are different. But not—I think, irreconcilably or unproductively so. Considering how my students have been taught to learn, to encounter culture, to absorb texts has caused me to reflect on my own enculturation, the prelude to my formation and practice as a university professor.

Before I launch into the story of my own learning, a disclaimer: Even as I attribute to Millennials a set of generational characteristics, I acknowledge them as unique individuals. Just because they have been encouraged to focus on outcomes and numbers, they are not one-dimensional. Although they differ greatly from me and my fellow Gen Xers, I have no wish to suggest they are shallow, inferior, or lesser. I enjoy my students a great deal and have very cordial extra-classroom relationships with many of them, but I do notice our cultural and generational differences coming into opposition in the classroom. This memoir-cum-analysis of mine, then, is part of the task of understanding and embracing that wise (but often difficult) truth: teach the students you have.

* * *

I was born in 1970 to a college English professor and junior high school English teacher who had met in an English graduate class at Michigan State University. Ergo, a bookish household was going to be a given for me. While my public education in two Massachusetts towns was just fine, the luxury of time to browse my parents’ library constituted as much of my learning as anything I picked up at school. My mother and father must have kept Time-Life Books in business, collecting whole series like This Fabulous Century (my brother and I nicknamed them “the decade books”) that explored the culture and events of twentieth-century America in ten-year increments. Reading these, I learned what a lunch menu from 1910 might feature, memorized the order of Liz Taylor’s husbands, opened pages onto photos of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, semiclad revelers at Woodstock, and Ethel Rosenberg. The World of Michelangelo, The World of Matisse, The World of Duchamp, The World of Picasso (and similar volumes of the works and milieus of seminal male visual artists) provided my art historical education. I would lose myself in those books, moving through phases of taste and attraction over the years: a little frightened as a young girl by Picasso’s distorted faces, I gravitated toward the tableaux of gods and goddesses by Titian and his contemporaries. Like the culture at large, I participated in the French Impressionist craze of the early 1980s, but by age fifteen I had cast my lot with modern art and developed a deep preoccupation with all things Warhol.

Paging through the black and white images of “The Torch Is Passed: The Associated Press Story of the Death of a President” added another layer to my cultural understanding. I found the only color pictures—gorgeous Technicolor portraits of Jack and Jackie Kennedy—arresting and unspeakably beautiful. Though Camelot’s allure and the shock of November 22, 1963, predated me, I nonetheless felt something of the era’s glamour and devastation both. Thanks to several perusals of Life Goes to the Movies, I recognized the famous faces of Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, and Ann-Margret. These books of my parents schooled me in visual culture, high and low, current and past. But my point here is less what or how much I might have learned than that I had the time in which to learn it. No one suggested I read these books; they were just around, and I found my way to them, returning and returning because they fascinated me so. In my remembrance, I had worlds enough and time to luxuriate in leaf after leaf after leaf of images.

Nor was I only reading: I took piano lessons, sang in a children’s chorus, watched enough TV to have a major crush on Davy Jones, and roamed the woods around our cul-de-sac with the neighborhood kids. More than once, my mom packed a lunch for me so I could spend all day in the tree house at the end of the street with the other kids. I don’t recall my parents expressing any fear for my safety or a need to know my exact whereabouts every second.

Between my childhood and my students’, a number of shifts in parenting culture did away with the relaxed ease that characterized my generation’s elementary school years. I sense that my students did not the have the same amount of freeform browsing, playing, and exploring time that was the norm for children when I was growing up. The Baby Boomers’ intense desire for children and late-1980s fears around missing children, teen drug use, and other potential hazards turned many a 1990s mother and father into “helicopter” parents. According to Howe and Strauss, this protectionism came to rest on one generation but not on the one preceding it: “America’s most vexing social problems invited leaders to start drawing a triage line between the two generations then cohabiting the pre-adult age brackets: older Gen X teens, who were beyond hope, and younger Millennial children, who were redeemable.”

If national fear and a great deal of parental investment led to the protection and sheltering of this generation, a second trend joined it, further curtailing the amount of unconstructed time allowed my current students. The “baby brain” research emerging in the late 1980s encouraged classes, activities, and other stimulation from the womb on, along the lines of the “Mozart effect.” The desirable environment became a structured, programmed one, leading to the phenomenon of the overscheduled child (who became the overachieving high schooler and the overcommitted college student). These trends reflect “the urge to shape [Millennials] into a better and smarter generation than the Gen Xers whose lagging achievement prompted the ‘Nation at Risk’ report [in 1983].” As a demographic, Millennials became in some senses a receptacle for the aspirations, hopes, ambitions, and fears of late twentieth-century America—a heavy burden to carry. No wonder these young people often feel a tremendous pressure to achieve.

If Gen Xers lacked attention from the culture as a whole, we also escaped any potentially crippling expectations. As a generation from whom little was expected, we cultivated an aleatory, “slacker” ethos—well depicted in Richard Linklater’s film of the same name. As a slacker student, I tended toward a kind of laziness in which I played to my strengths. I worked hard in the classes I liked and cared about, and did minimal work for those I didn’t. I stayed up all night to finish Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry” for my Renaissance lit course but skipped Cells and Systems to drink frappes at the campus snack shop—much to the detriment of both my GPA and my figure. I knew I was a decent writer, and so I relied on that ability to cover a multitude of sins (such as thin content or a missing thesis). I did not work up to my potential in many classes because I wasn’t motivated to do so. Unlike my students, many of whom feel they must achieve on a high level no matter what the subject, I felt completely at liberty to take my education á la carte, picking and choosing what I deemed useful or relevant and getting by in all the rest. I cultivated no competition with others, possessed no sense of how my courses might prepare me for a career, experienced no desire to get my general educational requirements “over with” so I could “get on with my major.” Talented with a pen and addicted to literary angst, I knew I would find a home in an English department. I figured the rest would follow.

I worried little about grades in high school and college, and it was only in graduate school that I worked up to potential at last because my courses were finally all literature and writing. But in college, when my advanced composition instructor revealed that I had a mere B+ at midterm, I was shocked and sobered. Didn’t she know who I was—the best writer in my high school class (so I thought at the time) and the recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English Achievement Award in Writing? Still, I never, never would have questioned her expertise or her rationale for grading. She was a writing specialist; if I had a B+, there must have been a good reason for it, as disappointed as I was. While I wasn’t thrilled with a series of C+ grades I received in freshman and sophomore years, I did well enough in other courses to graduate with a decent 3.36 or so. That was good enough for me.

Mine may have been the last generation that didn’t expect (or even feel the need) to graduate college and enter the workforce with any sort of a status job. Generation X may even have been the last college-going group to major in “impractical” humanities in large numbers. My college friends were, by and large, music performance, English, or history majors. I even recall a James Taylor–loving philosophy major down the hall. A few of the most practical were in early childhood education, on track to receive their teaching certification. Now one might argue that my particular cadre of friends will reflect certain values and proclivities apart from the generational, but if I tick off their professions as adults, a healthy percentage work within the humanities, educational, or nonprofit sectors rather than in corporate culture. Leaving aside the dozens of Gen X academics I know, I count among my friends and acquaintances a historic preservationist, a park ranger, a couple of ministers, a working screenwriter/published novelist, a harp retailer, two artists, at least three professional actors, and many, many teachers. A close friend, married to a Presbyterian minister, has a master’s degree in Biblical Hebrew and a second in education and worked most recently as a grantwriter for a nonprofit organization. One college classmate, a political science major and sometime actor, has since become an Episcopal priest. Another friend—one of only a handful working within his undergraduate major field—actually majored in recreation and leisure studies (and don’t think he didn’t take some ribbing for that!). Generally unpressured by high parental expectations, free from the outcomes-based “standards movement,” Gen Xers experienced a relative freedom to explore various disciplines and to “follow our bliss” rather than focus on career goals. Our work lives, rarely permanent, a patchwork of talents and experiences, reflect the “nomad” status of our generation. As nomads, we are “cunning, hard-to-fool realists” and know when the time comes to move on professionally.

My students tend in quite the opposite direction: extremely goal oriented, procedure conscious, and career driven, they often astound me with their calculated, organized approach to selecting courses, securing internships, and planning for their work lives. Howe and Strauss claim of the Millennials that “the majority of today’s high school students say they have highly detailed five-and ten-year plans for their future. Most have given serious thought to college financing, degrees, salaries, employment trends, and the like.” The Millennials are far more structured and disciplined than Gen Xers ever were. When I give an assignment or announce an extracurricular event or speaker, out come the planners and calendars (a fact this somewhat haphazard individual finds impressive). In the process of completing an assignment, the young men and women in my classes send lots of midstream e-mails about details of production and procedure: “Should I do a complete Works Cited page for the sources I have used in my PowerPoint?” They really want to produce a correctly done final product.

If they have followed the essay prompt to the letter, addressing each suggested point or approach as if it were required; if they have met the length requirement; and if they have few grammar mistakes, they expect at least a B, if not higher. Such is the legacy of outcomes-based education. Millennials have been taught to “the test”: figuring out what the situation requires and then delivering accordingly. “The test,” however, measures factual knowledge and applicable skills; “the test” does not measure imagination, innovation, or originality. While I carefully construct essay questions to be a diving board of sorts into students’ own imaginative responses, I must acknowledge that what I look for and value in their writing may never have been taught them. Assignments are, to them, a means to securing grades that translate into high class ranks and competitive GPAs, rather than vehicles for a deeper understanding of ideas or texts. In the race to achieve high marks, however, “It makes no difference that grade inflation is continuing its three-decade-long climb since the 1960s. . . . So many A’s merely magnify the penalty of the occasional B or C. This is how the ongoing grade inflation is reinforcing the Millennials’ fear of failure, their aversion to risk, and their desire to fit into the mainstream.” Viewing Bs as average and Cs as punitive, Millennials have difficulty seeing themselves as the bell of the well-known curve. Students play it safe, particularly on writing assignments, because “a risky and creative project cannot earn a grade above an A—but, if it misfires, could easily result in a lower grade and blight a transcript.” Innovation and originality often get sacrificed at the shrine of the bitch goddess Grade Point Average.

While I regret their obsession with letter grades, I cannot blame my students. My admittedly lax attitude toward my own marks was probably the luxury of a less competitive time, a less career-driven era. For this reason I may be out of sympathy with the Millennials’ intense preoccupation with GPAs. In any case, grading constitutes my greatest area of struggle as a teacher. My evaluation process would be a lot simpler and less anxiety-ridden if I knew I would never be gainsaid by any student. With this, as with the other areas of my analysis, reasons for the difficulty lie on both sides of the generational divide. As a Gen Xer, I am distrustful of authority for authority’s sake. Not disrespectful, but distrustful. That I would be uncomfortable with my own professional authority is hardly a stretch. I make use of a relatively easygoing demeanor in the classroom, faithful to the “older sibling” view Millennials typically have of Gen Xers, who are “more fun to be around” than Boomers. When that easygoing personality then turns around and “grades harshly” (as the course evaluations so often say), the students feel—somewhat understandably, perhaps—surprised and maybe even a little bit betrayed.

My students’ attitudes toward my authority have been tempered by the twin forces of consumerism and the self-esteem movement. As I discussed above with the essay prompt, Millennials expect to get what they pay for. If they are paying what they deem to be the price (of time, of effort, of intellectual currency) for an A or B, an A or B is what they expect. Like the well-trained consumers they are, they will inquire after any less-than-satisfactory result. While it may be the case that they merely seek further clarification and do not intend a challenge, I have difficulty with their frequent questioning— in part because I feel only just barely comfortable with the task of grading. Selecting a single symbol to communicate several weeks of a person’s presence in class, attempts at communicating, and intellectual effort strikes me as deeply arbitrary at best—and demeaning and reductivist at worst.

The extreme goal-oriented approach of the Millennials often requires some persuasiveness on my part to forget about assessment and just enjoy the narrative ride. I suppose that I have bought into the “Dead Poets Society” version of an instructor, one capable of rousing even the most complacent into passionate engagement with literature. (Although set in the 1950s, that film strikes me as reflecting a very Gen X notion of culture as subversive and empowering.) Thus I cannot help but think that if I were just entertaining/ committed/caring/engaging enough, the students would all have a huge meta-noia about literature—maybe even about the grading system. To that end, I try to create an atmosphere in my class of comfortable discourse, a safe environment for skeptical and unconventional interpretations alike. I would be perfectly satisfied if every class meeting were an unstructured exploration of meaning sparked by (but not necessarily limited to) the readings. But there is that pesky little matter of grades—anathema to me, both carrot and stick to them—and I must take into consideration their need for constant feedback and their fixation on that arbitrary alphabetic signifier.

Now somewhat sadder but wiser about my students’ attitude toward their educational endeavors, I will confess that for several semesters I did not follow what I now understand to be wise advice from Michael Wilson and Leslie Gerber: “Our experience is that today’s college students do not function well in courses with loosely organized, schematic syllabi. We suggest that instructors deliberately over-estimate the desire of students for clarity—and resist the temptation to regard those students as somehow deficient in character for the fervency of such a desire.”

The seeds of these words found fertile ground in my understanding, to be sure. I know from experience that transparency makes me a more effective instructor. And yet I wrestle with a strong sense of rightness and propriety and a belief in high academic standards. I don’t think everyone’s artwork should get hung on the fridge, so to speak. I believe in freshman, JV and varsity teams; I believe in honors classes. I believe in one valedictorian—not in thirty students being accorded that status, as occurred within one Texas high school’s class of 2010. And Chris Healy, an associate professor of computer science at Furman University, agrees. “It’s honor inflation,” he says. “I think it’s a bad idea if you’re No. 26 and you’re valedictorian. In the real world, you do get ranked.” Millennials raised in an “everyone wins” environment will not be prepared for the highly competitive workplace into which they will graduate. They are legion (as indicated by those rejected labels “Baby Boom Echo” or “Boomlets”), but there are fewer jobs now than ever since the Great Recession. Competition is a hard fact of life—a fact that the conditions of their upbringing have delayed for many Millennials, but against which Generation X sharpened its self-reliant entrepreneurialism.

This ethos of equality and mainstreaming has also dealt a significant blow to nonconformity. Gen Xers took pride in distinguishing themselves—at least from other social groups—embracing the semiotics of dress, body language, and style marking them as preppies, jocks, burnouts (denim-jacket-clad smokers who listened to hard rock), skatepunks, alternakids, or theater geeks. For the most part, my students do not seem interested in standing out or differentiating themselves. Thus there is no “fringe” to appeal to. Nowadays, the alternative is the mainstream: “indie” culture is no longer underground, sub rosa, or on the margins. I have a hard time understanding my students’ contentment with wearing clothes, sporting hairstyles, carrying bags, and wearing shoes similar—if not identical—to everyone else’s. I worked hard to look on the outside as different and alienated as I felt on the inside. For me and my friends, to conform was to sell out. Furthermore, I wanted to be noticed—and since I didn’t expect to get a second look for my beauty, I used my wardrobe. From high school into my early twenties (especially my year of British affectation abroad), I gravitated toward the funky, the army surplus, the oversized, the Euro-leaning, the vintage, rather than the pretty or the feminine. A thrift shop polyester pink dress with Dr. Martens boots? Check. Black tights with white machinery gears labeled “Wheels of Industry”? Check. A used German army jacket still bearing the name “Hindinger”? Check. I listened passionately to the Smiths, the Cure, Kraftwerk, and Echo and the Bunnymen because they weren’t on the Top 40 charts. I papered my dorm room with art posters and pages from the New Yorker and an unusually beautiful black-and-white shot of Marilyn Monroe. I was a culture hound and an intellectual, dammit! And the nongirly, left-of-center manner of dressing I adopted, the décor of my rooms, the music I swore by all trumpeted my difference.

Culture was code, a shorthand by which we understood each other. If someone could quote all of a John Hughes film to you, that told you something about him. A person dressed as a hippie was declaring a musical taste and an ethos as well as a fashion preference. With rare exceptions, I don’t see my students using culture as an identification badge. Sure, they watch, listen, and read (and they enjoy it), but they don’t seem to look to music or novels or films for identification. Culture is entertainment (and plentiful), but generally not salvation or even revelation. For cultural production to function as code and for such code to be decipherable, everyone has to have drawn from the same media pool, watched the same sitcoms, considered the same movies iconic and quoteworthy, listened to the same bands. The Millennials, especially those born in the 1990s, have had access to such a vast proliferation of cultural forms—network and cable TV shows, Internet sites, video games, YouTube videos, downloadable music, and so on—that the once usual phenomenon of shared media experience has become splintered and fragmented. Notable exceptions exist, of course, among them “The Daily Show,” Olympic coverage, the “Lost” series finale. But if we accept Richard Sweeney’s assessment that Millennials “have no generational music,” might we also assume that they lack generation-defining film, television, and cultural experiences as well?

And where does that disbelief in culture as revelation leave literature? The college English classroom always seemed to me to be the refuge of the sensitive, the disaffected, the alienated, the misunderstood. English majors were always quirky, nerdy, knowing, or a little subversive, and quite often cooler-than-thou. In my textual pedagogy, I cannot necessarily rely on the appeal of an antihero—nor can I expect that students will experience a particular sentiment or idea that seems to break through the static and speak precisely and passionately to or about them. For whatever reason, Millennials don’t seem to value that singularity as my generation did. Told from the beginning they were special and raised in a climate of protection, attention, and privilege, perhaps they never doubted their worth. Indeed, “most first-year college students arrive not as inwardly tormented Holden Caulfields but as self-assured go-getters.” If that is indeed the case, then more power to them.

This opportunity to write and reflect on the teaching and learning of Millennials has coincided beautifully with my own slow understanding of the slippage between Generations X and Y. Over the course of my pedagogical encounters with this generation, I have shuttled between frustration and bafflement, moving gradually toward understanding and sympathy. From the beginning, however, I have appreciated their enthusiasm and positivity. Millennials tend to be cheerfully “game” to do what one asks of them, particularly if it is a little unusual, makes use of technology, or applies a pedagogy that “relates to them.” Despite the pressure and anxiety that often characterize their schooling, students take their learning seriously and are generally willing to invest in the educational endeavor. Granted, they have made different investments than my generation, more toward the sciences and professions and less in the humanities, but it gladdens my heart to see so many young women interested in and talented at the sciences. In a recent honors class, one of the two finest essays in the class integrated our literature course texts with the Federalist Papers. The young woman who authored it, while deeply interested in political studies, opted instead for a mathematics major because she “missed calculus.” This young student’s bright, well-rounded competence and love of her studies is not untypical of her generation. I put all of my eggs in the English basket, but these Millennials diversify.

The subtitle of Millennials Rising, “The Next Great Generation,” associates the Millennials with the G.I. or “Greatest” Generation of Jimmy Stewart, John F. Kennedy, and Katharine Hepburn. For Howe and Strauss, Millennials carry potential as a generation to fulfill the “hero” archetype, given their great store of positive energy, enthusiasm, technological savvy, resourcefulness, teamwork, and acceptance of diversity. If the predictors are right, Millennials will earn a place in history like the G.I.s and the “Republicans” of Thomas Jefferson’s era, a generational type “that does great deeds, constructs nations and empires, and is afterward honored in memory and storied in myth.” I would be very glad to see the students I teach emerge as a major force for good and lasting improvement in society. As their predecessor—albeit one from a “youth generation widely deemed to be disappointing”—I am tasked with the important work of facilitating the Millennials’ written expression, adding to their imaginative understandings, and introducing them to a few rich texts beloved by me for expressive language or insight into the thorny human condition. I in turn can learn much from their goodwill, acceptance of difference, serious investment in learning, and lack of interest in linking identity to alienation. In Howe and Strauss’s generational taxonomy,

Every generation, including Millennials, possesses biological parents spread over the prior two generations. . . . Throughout American history, however, the rearing of each new generation has always been dominated by the elder of two parental generations. . . . [Members of the Silent Generation] like Norman Lear and Jim Henson set the tone for Gen X kids during the 1970s (though Boomers were then raising plenty of late-wave Xers). Likewise, Boomers like Steven Spielberg and Laura Schlessinger are setting the tone for today’s kids (though Xers are now raising plenty of late-wave Millennials). Gen X will in turn set the tone for the batch of kids coming after the Millennials—and Millennials for the batch after that.

One day, not terribly far in the future, this article will be dated, the Millennials having all graduated. The entering freshmen in my classrooms will no longer be part of the Millennial generation, but children for whom Gen X has “set the tone.” Generation X’s (post-Millennial) children have yet to be named, labeled, categorized, or predicted. Who they will be as learners, as thinkers, as people is yet to be known. Will they be easier for Gen Xers to connect with in the classroom because we have already taught them as parents? Assuming I am still teaching, I will have the opportunity to engage with them in intellectual work, to read the Greats with them, to discuss the social problems of the day with them. Will we have imparted to them enough of our own sensibility that they will bear the traces of our own cultural engagement? What about Gen X’s tone-setting will they have sculpted themselves against? What will be their hopes and expectations for the college experience? I figure these children, first born in 2005, will be arriving on college campuses about 2023. I’ll talk to you then.

Excerpted from “Generation X Professors Speak”.

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The end of celebrity

From “The World Needs More Gwyneth Paltrow

by Jonathan Naymark,, May 3, 2013


The past few weeks have been busy for America’s most contentious celebrity: Gwyneth Paltrow. PEOPLE Magazine named her the world’s most beautiful woman, while readers of Star Magazine voted her as its most hated. Certainly the two aren’t mutually exclusive but they do speak to Paltrow’s divisiveness as a public figure. If anything, it seems sad that IN TOUCH readers decided that Paltrow was more reprehensible than Chris Brown, a man who violently beat the sh-t out of girlfriend Rihanna, as well as Jesse James, the jerk who cheated on America’s sweetheart, Sandra Bullock. Unlike either of these two misogynistic assholes, what has Gwyneth Paltrow done to any of us except wear a hideously coloured Pepto-Bismol pink dress to the Oscars? I ask you, who amongst men has never once been led astray by a personal relationship with Ralph Lauren?

But still, Gwyneth Paltrow gets a real bad rap – ironic, because Gwyneth Paltrow can actually rap. For proof of Paltrow’s linguistic talents – there’s a YouTube of her breaking into an impromptu, profanity laced version of the classic NWA song Straight Outta Compton. Not that it has helped her street cred – gossip columnist Ted Casablanca infamously nicknamed her Fishsticks Paltrow for being incredibly cold, much too thin and overly white-breaded.

I’ve never quite understood the exact reason why hating Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle newsletter GOOP has become a veritable side industry for bloggers and the media at large.

At its core I suspect that most people hate Gwyneth because she continues to stay unapologetically unapproachable even as she attempts to sell herself as a lifestyle guru. Watching her easily maneuver from a conversation about NWA to conversant Spanish isn’t something that most aspire to – it just seems widely out of reach.

I do understand the confusion of her persona – on one hand Gwyneth self identifies as “just like us”, saying, “I’m just a normal mother with the same struggles as any other mother who’s trying to do everything at once and trying to be a wife and maintain a relationship”, and yet on the other hand, she knows that she truly isn’t a middle American suburbanite with a Target Red card: “I am who I am. I can’t pretend to be somebody who makes $25,000 a year.”
Gwyneth taketh, but Gwyneth also giveth.

While Hollywood often fetishizes the girl next door, Paltrow, Steven Speilberg’s god-child and the daughter of director Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danner, is the girl next door only if you happen to have grown up in a seaside Santa Monica mansion. With her multilingual talents, backyard pizza oven and best-friendships with Beyonce and Jay-Z, it’s as difficult to like Paltrow as it was to like the really nice, popular, rich girl you went to high school with – the one who invited you to sushi lunch just so she could lecture you the difference between sushi grade tuna and how her father took her to Japan in grade five. And yet as much as that girl was insufferable, you desperately wanted her attention.

Therefore the common problem of hating Gwyneth Paltrow, GOOP, or her two cookbooks, all of which are filled with photos of her cherubic and cloyingly named children (Apple and Moses), is that such mockery misses the point.
First of all, Gwyneth is impervious to your criticism. As you sit and stew about how obnoxious she is, Paltrow is happily serving organic spelt pizza, made in the aforementioned backyard wood-fired oven, to Jamie Oliver on a random Tuesday night while sipping Chablis that her friend, a Spanish sommelier, picked out specifically for her.

Secondly if you’ve taken the time to add up how much her spring wardrobe essentials cost ($450,000 as eNews did), you are not, nor will you ever be in Gwyneth Paltrow’s league. When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that, “[The rich] are very different than you and me,” his reference point was old monied elites who didn’t question why their shirts were always monogrammed.Being out of touch is Gwyneth’s resting position. She can’t help it – she was born that way.

As G herself said, upon the launch of GOOP: “I have this incredible, blessed, sometimes difficult, very lucky, very unique life, and I’ve gotten to travel all over the place and to work and live in different cities. … So I started accruing all of this information to share it.” If anything, Gwyneth, and her bible GOOP are really just modern day versions of Christian moral uplift, or the 21st century digital version of how upper class women viewed charity in the early 20th century. Moral uplift and charity were typically how the elites provided guidance to the unwashed mashes. Like the temperance movement and other progressive causes, taken up by wealthy, white women in the early years of the 20th century, which exported values masquerading as charity, GOOP is simply a similar form of charitable uplift. Just as Andrew Carnegie built libraries as a way of disseminating education, Paltrow is sending e-newsletters helping us nourish our inner aspect. While Upton Sinclair fought for proper meat packaging, Gwyneth is helping us pick out French skin-care solutions and spreading her “proper” values one shake of fleur de sel at a time.

Certainly, this may mean that Paltrow is annoying; however, hating Gwyneth Paltrow is risky business. In reality, such criticisms misunderstand the very fundamentals of celebrity culture. Before the era of reality TV stars, before Snooki and even before Jessica Alba started hocking natural diapers on the Internet, celebrities, by definition, were otherworldly in their existence. And while many may find her hard to handle, Gwyneth Paltrow is a celebrity in the truest sense of the word. In fact, Paltrow may be the last celebrity in an era which is actively redefining just what celebrity means.

The proliferation of magazines like US Weekly and websites like Perez Hilton have worked to bring celebrities “closer” to the public. Combined with the feeding frenzy of the paparazzo, celebrities can no longer control their brand image. The constant need for content to feed social media, bloggers and old school media alike has slowly encroached on the dividing wall that once existed between a celebrity and their audience. Whereas once celebrities lived on a hill perched high above their adoring fans, celebrities today have become “just like us”, spotted in tracksuits pumping gas.

This desire to know infinitely more about the private lives of celebrities, coupled with the media’s fulfillment of these needs, has broken the essential tenet of what a celebrity once was. By having to continuously expose their lives in order to feed the fan (and therefore continue their own manifestation of celebrity) we have broken the illusion of celebrity.

The rise, if not the creation of contemporary celebrity culture, has much to do with the history of Hollywood itself.  The original Hollywood studio system that rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s was the product of Jewish immigrants who were quick to become the business minds of early Hollywood. Of the 8 major studios, 6 were founded by Jewish immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe. Their contribution to the Hollywood aesthete was driven by business sense, creating films that reflected American values, but also their desire to divorce themselves from their religious and cultural past. As contemporary North American society has secularized itself from its puritanical forbearers –filmmakers (with the exception of wack-jobs like John Travolta and Kurt Cameron) followed suit; replacing the emotional and spiritual mores of religion with celebrity culture.

In Hollywood the cult of celebrity replaced the yoke of religion.

The concept of celebrity isn’t entirely foreign to civil society.  Before mass media celebrities existed, religious figures or monarchy were themselves pseudo-celebrities. Ironically both maintained power and standing by connection to religiosity. The divine right of king sustained the monarchy, while priests were famous simply because of their connection to God. Throughout its history, fame has been seemingly predicated by the very fact that “celebrities” were almost otherworldly.

However, the last decade has not been kind to this definition of celebrity and fame. The loss of control of the studio system coupled with the demands of modern media has meant that the celebrity is under siege. The illusion of celebrities to appear perfect no longer exists.

It is this illusion that Gwyneth is peddling via GOOP. What incenses the general public about Gwyneth Paltrow is exactly the reason that she is a celebrity – your life is not her life. Your spring wardrobe will not cost what hers did. But, most importantly, nor should it. Modern celebrities, like kings and high priests before them, are (or were) celebrities because they are somewhat unachievable. If we continue to break this one true rule of celebrity, we risk the destruction of the very fundamentals of celebrity culture.

1259555512308213773medieval king and bishop

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