I knew very little about the film going into it, which is how I like to see movies (and theatre) when possible.
Of course it almost goes without saying that it was uniquely compelling, expertly acted, piercingly disturbing, inexplicably heartwarming and everything else you have come to expect from such, dare I say it, masterful players. The Oscar bees are already buzzing about Joaquin’s Resurrection, and rightly so. But what I’m interested in today is not so much the film itself as much as my peculiar experience of viewing it.
As I was contemplating the evening on my way home, I was struck by a startling yet fascinating thought that was striking precisely because it felt vaguely familiar, remembered from the deep, buried recesses of my psyche. (Recovering such memories for the purposes of psychological and emotional healing is an important concept in this film.) Ready for the thought?
Sometimes I wish I were a man.
I know it was National Coming Out Day yesterday, and I know I’ve seen a few breakdowns for transgendered, male-female spectrum-y type roles this week but no, the thought was not rooted in any confusion of sexual orientation or gender identity.
At least not ‘gender identity’ in the way that it is typically understood.
What I knew my subconscious-made-conscious meant by that was manifold:
- I wish I could have the friendships men have.
- I wish I could tell the stories men tell.
- I wish I could shoot the breeze with PT and JD about our peers, our dads and the Old Boys in Hollywood and feel like I belonged there.
- I wish I could play a complex hero like Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) or a mentor like Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but I can’t because those stories don’t WORK with women.
I mean, surely I don’t believe that…right?
But, it’s true! I hear myself fighting back.
You just wouldn’t find that same depth of relationship if it was two women. It would be softer and sillier…and written off as just a…chic-flick, right? And if only one of them was a woman, it couldn’t work either! If Freddie was Francesca, then the story would become this subservient submissive relationship bordering on Fifty Shades of Grey territory – and the undertones would be necessarily sexual, accidentally anti-feminist. And if instead a great artist like Philippa Someone-ina was the mentor, then Joaquin would be condemned to creating a whole Freudian mommy-figure-worshipper. And her critics would necessarily become witch-hunters. No, no, it just couldn’t work.
Now, I’m of the particular ilk of feminist that believes women and men have different, though equally valid, stories to tell and different though equally valid ways of telling them. I don’t know if our kind of feminism has a name anymore, as it’s not my tendency to organize and it’s been a long time since my Radical Theatre class at Lancaster University (kudos to the amazing drama department for even having a course like this - one of the true highlights of my study abroad year in England).
But to hearken back to these insidious thoughts of my childhood now, as an educated, independent, professional woman in New York City in 2012…well, that’s problematic in a number of ways.
I had barely learned to read properly when I became obsessed with Greek mythology, inspired by a children’s illustrated compilation that I think was given to me by my parents. This was much more interesting to me than my children’s version of the Old Testament, which as far as I could see was about a lot of sand and angry people. Nevertheless, those definitive texts were pretty clear about who was and who wasn’t qualified to be a hero, save a nation and be gifted cool superpowers like the use of lightning bolts…
I declared that when I grew up I would have five sons (because I was still at an age where I thought motherhood was just What Women Did - it didn’t occur to me until much later that I had the choice to opt out.) I don’t know if I ever vocalized the reason for this, or if I was ever asked. Perhaps I just thought it was understood: I wanted to have boys because girls were boring and men could be presidents. Obviously. And I wanted to raise Greatness.
Note I did not grow up in…communist China, for example.
Far from it, in fact. I was born amidst the birkenstocks and bookworms of Princeton, New Jersey and relocated to a suburb of Toronto after kindergarten. I was raised by typically liberal Jewish parents - like the ones you see in all your favorite comedies of my generation. I was dragged along to feminist revisionist seders and encouraged to bring a friend of a different religion to every holiday. I felt like the coolest kid in school when Miss Saigon premiered in Canada, and somehow someone found right there in the playbill an archive photo of MY MOMMY as a teenager, being dragged away by cops, cigarette in one hand, saying “NO TO VIETNAM!” (The original photo caused quite a stir in her immigrant family when it adorned the front page of The Toronto Star at the time. I believe her father ordered a big brother down to the city to collect and deposit her back in their northern mining town. I guess he was unsuccessful, because here I am today.)
I was the youngest of three daughters, scheduled approximately five years apart as that was supposed to be ideal for child psychological development. A bit of a daddy’s girl, my father and I used to play catch in the park, where I reveled in the fact that I was more athletically inclined than my older sisters. I asked him once if he ever wished I was a boy, since I was the youngest and would have been his last chance at a son, passing on the family name, etc…I think he is still laughing about that till this day. My dad was never a particularly blokey bloke. He fixed stuff every now and then, but he never drank or watched sports, and he always seemed to remember everyone’s preferred tampon order whenever he popped out to the drugstore.
So where did I learn that boys were more interesting than girls? When did I decide that all the protagonists of my short stories and poems would all be men…or was that just…assumed? And did I even notice that that’s what I was doing? I used to lament the fact that there were so few Ken dolls released compared to the number of Barbies out there. An emerging storyteller that took casting in the doll house very seriously, I just didn’t know what to do with this surplus of women as there were only so many supporting roles to go around.
And yet, why have I always been so horribly offended by the color pink, and why does my deep aversion to it persist so much till this day? (Truly, even as I write. the pink post-its on my desk make me slightly uncomfortable.)
Was there something in the water?
In a way, of course, there was. And is. And this cocktail is eloquently distilled in Miss Representation (the documentary whose journey I follow and regularly recommend and reference though, oddly, haven’t actually seen myself...yet.)
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
I think I was about ten when I completed a voracious mission to read all of Shakespeare’s comedies, partly because I was precocious and enjoyed them but mostly because I wanted everyone to think I was precocious enough to enjoy them. The seminal films of my childhood were Gulliver’s Travels and Pete’s Dragon, both of which I watched over and over again until the VHS was damaged beyond repair. It occurred to me recently that my pervasive love of travel and adventure may be attributed to those early influences – or perhaps my affinity for those stories is simply an indicator of a genetic predisposition to such a lifestyle. As a vegetarian, I tend to avoid contemplating chickens or eggs in too much depth.
I once played King Lear in a drama class workshop in high school, and I distinctly remember feeling a mysterious sense of loss when it was finished, “knowing” that I would never have the chance to play such a glorious part in the professional theatre. That was before I had ever heard of non-traditional casting as even an option, let alone a movement. In fact, shortly thereafter I was cast as “Man” in Morris Panych’s 7 Stories for my senior show. I loved shocking the audience by prancing around in a bowler hat and tux…but something in me knew this was only half a treatment for my growing unease.
When I look back at the stories I loved to read, see and tell, I consider that perhaps it was just a matter of curiosity rather than sexism. I was not a boy. I liked boys. I wanted to know more about them, and thus boy-centred stories were naturally more appealing to explore, right? And yet somehow I knew that the world at large agreed with this basic ‘truth’ of the universe and it is this feeling that struck me, in the most unexpected way, after last night’s screening.
So what was the precise source of my discomfort and...dare I say it, envy? Which exclusive bond had ignited this peculiar wistfulness in me: was it the camaraderie between the two leads or between the two real-life directors in the Q & A?
Demme wanted to talk a lot about Ernie Anderson (P’s father), and they shared a nostalgic moment remembering the way the Good Ol’ Boys (Ernie and the core group of voiceover artists) would hang around outside the studios together.
Yet I know that this question and its answer are two sides of the same cuff link…and that this has been the case for a very, long time. Though perhaps not able to articulate it, as a child I understood that on stage, on screen and in the studio, God was crowning the good with brotherhood and some of us weren’t allowed in the treehouse. Period.
Interestingly enough, I was invited to this screening courtesy of my membership in New York Women in Film & Television, an incredible organization of female leaders and visionaries in the entertainment industry. I had previously been a member of their sister chapter in New Zealand, which was instrumental in shaping my positive experiences with the community throughout my three years in Auckland.
It feels like every week I hear about a new non-profit cropping up to address all this “stuff”, none of which I know all that much about due to aforementioned reluctance to organize. There’s the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and Amy Poehler’s tweens on Smart Girls At The Party. Then there’s The White House Project who focus on twentysomethings and redressing their perceptions of women in the media. (So I guess I wasn’t the only five-year-old hoping a successful son would be my VIP pass to the White House...)
I’ve always been a proponent of focusing on the solution rather than the problem, which is perhaps the reason why I (ironically) have not yet found an activist group that appeals to me and resonates with my worldview. In fact, I usually find articles such as this one incredibly boring and redundant. I recently had a drink with a fellow NYWIFT member who is a lot more passionate about these issues, and she quoted Gloria Steinem while lamenting to me that women of my generation “are not angry enough!”
Indeed, I confess that I am not as angry as most Feminist-with-a-capital-F-types seem to want me to be. In fact, I am not really angry at all.
So why write?
Because I couldn’t help but notice certain members of the crowd as we poured out of the theatre. It was one of those pan-guild events, hosted I believe by the DGA. I could see the inspiration in the eyes of many of the young men, completely floored by the opportunity to spend their Thursday with not one but two of their cinematic heroes.
I know a couple of such young men myself who would have given their right rib to be there and in fact, it was almost for their sake that I dragged myself to the event, despite the first signs of a cold and almost debilitating PMS. Had I not had their voices in my head, I would have been much more comfortable at home in bed with WIGS – though I would have missed out on a spectacular evening.
And as I noted the exuberance in this next generation of Odyssei, one thing was clear: we hadn’t been at the same party.
And so I write. Because somewhere out there an eight-year-old is combing the halls of Toys "R" Us in search of the next Ken doll with which to craft her opus. She’s already ripped the head off Barbie and painted the dreamhouse blue, as her parents smile at each other and boast about her creativity to their friends.
She just might grow up to be president one day...