It's Only Natural

It’s Only Natural?

Ask any woman, and she can testify to being constantly bombarded with unsolicited input about her appearance.  Strangers feel free to tell her to smile when she walks down the street, for example, showing how her physical appearance is fair game for anyone in public to discuss.

The obsession with beauty is disturbing–”specifically, the standards required of femininity,” which goes beyond random bystanders demanding a smile. The entire advertising industry relies on female insecurity to flourish. Companies come up with anything, find any Achilles’ heel to sell something that’s supposed to make a woman feel better about herself.

Although a positive backlash seems to be building–one that is often seen in Twitter’s trending topics–it seems oddly similar to the approach of advertisers, even if no one’s profiting. The trend is a reminder of “No Make-Up May,” the movement proclaiming girls should go without cosmetics for a month (followed up by “No Shave November,” in which girls are encouraged to go au natural). Clearly, everyone should have the confidence to do as they wish with their bodies, but these sorts of responses can be just as irritating and patronizing in their own way as what advertisers market.

Few of us have won the genetic lottery, looking great without any sort of physical enhancement.  Most women have to do something in order to feel comfortable with themselves. Yes, it’s regrettable that people feel so insecure that they take drastic steps to alter appearances, but the truth is, there have always been standards of beauty, differing according to time and place.  Such standards create a hierarchy organized around looks. Everyone is judged in comparison to others, and sometimes in comparison to pictures (photographs or paintings or sculptures in the past) that are altered beyond human normalcy.

I doubt I’m the only woman tired of being instructed about how I should look. I’ve accepted that advertisers are constantly inventing new crap to try to shill me, but as individuals, we can learn to be less judgmental.  If someone wants to paint herself head to toe in make-up, that’s her prerogative. If she wants to wear none at all, same. If she wants to grow hair in places you wouldn’t or wax herself bare, that’s no one else’s business. Why do we create “trends” that focus on women and appearance?  It’s reinforcing the idea that we are merely something to be beheld, not sentient, thinking beings.

Now if someone is altering herself so drastically it harms her physically more than helps psychologically, intervention might be called for. There needs to be a balance between physical safety and comfort in our own skins.

Of course, these ideas can–and are!–applied towards males, too. Advertisers target male insecurities, as well. However, being a woman is all I’ve known and experienced.

What I’ve learned is this: Confidence is the best style, anyway, and it never goes out of fashion.


Orange is the New Oz

Orange is the New Oz

Typically, incarceration is commonly more associated with male behavior–after all, more men are locked up in the U.S. than women. However, the association may also be because we rarely hear about women “misbehaving” unless it’s something titillating to men (see: Desperate Housewives).

While watching Orange is the New Black (OITNB), I was struck by how different it is to see a show in which 90% of the characters are female. Obviously, because the show is set in a women’s prison, there are more female characters. The male characters are background players. The last time I had this pleasant surprise was when I saw Bridesmaids. I know women can be fucking hilarious, I’m glad we’re finally getting more avenues to show this off.

Watching OITNB, I kept thinking back to Oz, the gold standard of prison shows. Although OITNB has some very dark elements, the show never gets as dark as Oz; simply there’s less violence. The prison portrayed in OITNB doesn’t have death row inmates or lifers, so inmates plan to leave prison eventually and thus have more incentive to be on good behavior.

OITNB is also completely about the prisoners’ experiences, whereas Oz balances the perspective between inmates and their watchers in the prison.  In that regard, Oz comes off as more idealistic because few prison workers in OITNB are sympathetic. The show reinforces ideas of women frequently trading sex for what they want, even from corrections officers. On the other hand, Oz is much more rampant with sexual assault and rape but typically between inmates. Sexual assault is used as a weapon in Oz, whereas sexuality is used as currency in OITNB. This doesn’t make the latter morally okay because there is still a coercive and exploitative factor to using sexuality, but it gives at least the illusion of choice.

The lack of a narrator in OITNB is welcome.  In Oz, the narrator inmate is only sometimes involved in story lines and otherwise is just there, but the theatrics and writing are over-the-top, conflicting with the gritty, realism of Oz. In OITNB, the individual inmate’s history is explored with the camera cutting to a character’s past. Not spoon-fed the way Oz does it, and it’s a more organic and satisfying way to tell a story.

OITNB is based upon a real woman’s experience, but people should still consider “characters” and events that transpire “story lines” because the audience ingests the show the same way they do fiction. Even in the darkest parts of the show, the humanity of each character is never quite lost in OITNB, whereas, in Oz the prisoners (and sometimes other characters) are often depicted as barbaric animals instead of humans.

I’m hoping this forward-thinking show helps broaden the concept that movies and shows primarily about and featuring women can be enjoyed by almost everyone. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, we can obliterate the notion and term “women’s films” and the stigma that goes along with men watching and relating to them, too.

Different Directions

Different Directions

About two years ago, I found a documentary on Netflix that affected me in a way that no other film has since. The film is entitled Marwencol, and it drew out an enormous spectrum of emotions in me right away.

The plot is essentially this: an artist (Mark Hogancamp) overcoming a traumatic brain injury finds solace and healing by creating a model world, painting figurines, and creating myth-like stories that occur in the miniature world of Marwencol. The film cannot have more levels if it were fiction rather than reality. To begin, he literally lost all his memories, so painting people he knew and making them exist in his world is a way of putting them back in his life and in the forefront of his mind. Along with so much of his life, he lost his ability to draw and paint, but his creative will propelled him to create another world.

A way to pass the time when he was healing, his hobby became an addiction. He bought models nearly daily, painting them and giving them backstories. Creating a model world became his own personal therapy. But director Jeff Malmberg, saw his model world as something else. He saw art.

The story of Mark Hogancamp is amazing, awe-inspiring, and beautiful, and I highly recommend you see the documentary. Lately, what I’ve been thinking about (a movie like this sticks in your brain for years) is not about this incredible artist but actually about the director.

In a world where a man gets beaten until he’s lost his identity, it’s hard to have faith in humankind. The film’s director conveys the pain and trauma Hogancamp experiences yet never pushes him to a place where he is uncomfortable. He doesn’t exploit the violence of the act that caused Hogancamp’s life to change or make it the focal point of the film. Maimberg could have very easily made a successful, sensationalist film.

The director also didn’t make the movie about himself, which a lot of documentarians are guilty of doing. He technically “discovered” Hogancamp, something anyone should be proud of, but it’s just a connected dot in the story. Malmberg is the narrator, and a character within the movie, in a way I think Nick Carraway is in The Great Gatsby. Both men interact with and affect the storyline, but they also tell the story, and it feels as if they’re sitting next to you, ushering the narrative. There are a lot of documentarians who can’t seem to get out of the camera view–Werner Herzog, for example, is notorious for this kind of narcissistic behavior.

What I admire most about the filmmaker is that he is as earnest about Hogancamp’s world as is Hogancamp. This film isn’t about a middle-aged, brain damaged man who still plays with dolls–it’s about an artist reconstructing his world, his sense of self, and his whole life. Malmberg was just along for the ride, and fortunately for viewers, his camera was, too.

Of Kissing Girls

Of Kissing Girls

Five years ago, I Kissed A Girl by Katy Perry came out. I instantly hated the song. I found the song annoying, and it bothered me on a deeper level. Though, at the time, I didn’t think about it enough to delve into why. Now, I realize there are many reasons the song perturbed me. First, it’s disingenuous. I read an article that asked Perry if she’d ever kissed a girl. The pop star responded that she hadn’t. That fact alone didn’t really bother me because I don’t think art (if we’re being generous here with the term) has to be one hundred percent truth.

Songs tell stories, even if they’re silly, catchy, or auto tuned. Songs also communicate and often reinforce certain ideas that are already floating around. For example, the song is dripping with a sexuality that is attempting to attract men. By using the falsity of a lesbian encounter; essentially, Perry seduces a male audience while sending a message that female sexuality exists solely for male pleasure. It’s dishonest, and it’s capitalizing upon something that ultimately exploits women and the queer community.

One redeeming quality about the song, although far outweighed by the negative implications, is that it at least puts the concept of bisexuality or queerness in the spotlight, even if it’s in the most superficial way. Nowadays, kids grow up, and may think you’re either gay or straight. Bisexuality is something that is acknowledged but not necessarily taken seriously, oftentimes even by the queer community. There are running jokes about how bisexuals are “greedy,” or how bisexuality is a college phase. If you’re born the way you are, which most progressives think is the case, then you don’t “magically” turn bisexual overnight.

This year, another female pop star, came out with songs about bi-curiosity and bisexuality. Her name is Kate Nash. She’s not as famous as Katy, but I respect her a hell of a lot more. Her album Girl Talk is angrier and more passionate than any of her other albums. I realized midway through the album, in many of the songs, she sings about being in love with another girl, or in a relationship with another girl. Again, it doesn’t actually matter if this is true or not. What matters is that she’s writing these songs, or stories as I call them, with authenticity. Authenticity in your writing shows respect for yourself as well as for others. Her songs are about loving someone and that someone happens to be a woman. The queer aspect is a footnote, not the chorus.

Love transcends gender. Love is deep and wide, stripping away the roles and bullshit forced upon us.

So kiss a girl if you want, or don’t kiss her. Kiss her and find out you don’t like kissing her all that much. Kiss a hundred people, or go home and stay in bed and watch Netflix, and don’t kiss anyone at all. Be proud to be yourself, be authentic in your craft, and please don’t exploit other people for the sake of making a buck.

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