I catch a plane to New York, landing when it’s dark and the city is made of a million lights. I don’t have any luggage and I’m wearing sunglasses at night, floating ghost-like through the neon-bright Arrivals lounge. I have that particular dream-feeling of being totally lost and alone in an unfamiliar plane of existence, but I’m not frightened. This is the way it has always been, and always will be.
I walk through the darkness, until the dawn. I end up on the East Side, at some sidewalk café with a yellow tablecloth, fake flowers in a vase. Someone has left an old copy of The New Yorker, dog-eared and rolled-up on a chair. It has a cartoon on the front, something pithy and political, like Sarah Palin spanking Hillary Clinton on the ass with an auction-house paddle.
Suddenly I’m reading about you in this imaginary Book Review. They’re writing about your third novel in their annual retrospective, calling it a masterpiece. They’re writing about how you haven’t been seen in public for years, like you’re Salinger. No one knows what you look like anymore or if you’re even real. You’re a ghost. You’re literary Jesus.
It occurs to me that we haven’t talked in a while, and that I don’t remember why. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m stoned or because I’m dreaming, but my head is impenetrably foggy.
I get on a train, because in dreams you can travel thousands of miles in minutes and you don’t even need a ticket. I disembark at some tiny woodland stop, a long-abandoned post in the middle of the pine-scented forest where once we hit a deer that disappeared. It feels like I’ve travelled back in time over a thousand years. I walk through the trees for hours, not really knowing what I’m doing. I’m following the sound of you, tracing your memory like breadcrumbs.
I imagine us having a made-up argument about what would’ve happened if Kerouac and Plath had dated. You think it would have been brilliant; I think it would have been terrible. Either way, she was always going to find a reason to stick her head in the oven. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
When I finally track you down you’re living alone in a dilapidated trailer-shack just outside of Emerald. I stole the imagery from that terrible Netflix show I watched about the teenage werewolf but it seems like the kind of Walden palace you might choose to write your memoirs in. You have an overgrown garden of Maryjane and a yard full of antiqued junk, old cars and shop signs and gas pumps, all the relics of a retro Americana you weren’t alive for.
I walk up the steps and rap lightly on your screen door. I can hear the television in the background, playing old cartoons from your childhood on loop. From mine too, though it’s a different kind of ‘hood. That’s the great thing about cartoons. They remind us of the universal values of being a kid. Of being a person.
When you step out to greet me you’re bearded and wearing one of those red-and-black-checked lumberjackets, with faded jeans and Converse. The great hipster survivalist. You’re Holden Caulfield and I’m Zooey Glass, always one hum of the praying heart away from reality. We’re from different worlds written by the same author, slipping beyond the margins of the pages to reach one another.
In the dream, I get that biological sense of being home, of skin fitting skin. How do I know how to imagine it? Movies, maybe. You look at me as if you don’t remember at first, but then you smile and say my name and turn back inside, like I’m meant to follow, even though you don’t say the actual words.
Your cabin is warm. It smells musky, musty and stale. There are cats and books, both wild and plenteous. It’s like a museum of dead authors. The TV is still playing cartoons. You sit down in this faded old grandfather-armchair, pick up your glass of spirit, and silently resume reading.
It feels as if forever has passed since first we met. Then I wonder if we’ve even met at all yet.
There’s another armchair beside you, empty, baring its stuffing. I sit down in it and pick up the book that is waiting there for me.
It is not really what I expected, but I don’t mind. I think I prefer it, actually.
I always secretly wanted to be your Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
I remember all the other times and how real it seemed. We went to a party in the 70s once and Lennon was there. You pushed me against the wall, your fingers riding up my skirt, and none of this really happened at all.
I’ve already forgotten the question I wanted to ask. But when I remember it, I know you’ll tell me that I already know the answer.
So… how’ve you been?
*Blog shakes head like, ‘don’t talk to me, don’t even LOOK AT ME’*
Don’t be like that baby.
*Blog begins weeping*
Oh god, I feel awful. I feel terrible, I really do. There’s honestly nothing I can say. There’s no good excuse for it. I was a coward, an absolute coward…
*Blog looks away, indignant*
I know, I know. I should’ve checked in with you months ago instead of running off to London to lose my head in tankards of wine, but you know me, babe. You know me. This is what I do. I have an avoidant personality. When I can’t handle something I run baby run… like Sheryl Crow ran from Lance Armstrong when she found out that he’d only hooked her in with the whole ‘I had cancer’ thing, and that he was really just a disgusting excuse for a human being.
*Blog looks confused*
I was running. That’s the point. I was running away from Lance Armstrong on a bike and there is a kind of metaphor in there somewhere.
*Blog sighs heavily*
I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch. You must hate me, fucking off without a word after everything we’ve been through together… I know you’ll want to know exactly where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. I know you’ll want every little detail…
But look, look, there’s something I have to say first, okay? Sit down.
*Blog complies, pale-faced*
It’s not that I don’t love you. I do. I’m just not sure if this whole thing is working out anymore. I mean, when I come back here I just feel estranged from you. I don’t know what to say. I’ve changed, blog. I’m a different person now. Your pubescent design, the gif-heavy articles, your obsession with Miley Cyrus… it doesn’t feel all-encompassing in the way blogs are meant to. It feels like the old, creepy, snakey skin I’ve shed and abandoned on your bathroom floor to trip you up when you’re trying to take a piss in the middle of the night. Do you know what I mean?
*Teary-eyed, blog shakes head*
On the other hand, you’re so warm and familiar, blog, like a much-beloved glove, like the well-worn arm of a Slanket covered in cat hair. I have to admit that being back in you… well, it feels just like the old days. It feels like home. You’re not so fancy or professional, but there’s something comforting about the way you’re all tripped-out with my preferences. There’s something encouraging about the way you love me and know me so well. You always want me, blog. You’re always there for me, arms open wide, ready to accept me for all that I am and am not…
Fuck, now I’m really confused. I came here to break it off with you and announce my plans to start over with a new blog on a new site, but now it just seems cruel.
*Blogs begins weeping again*
Don’t cry, baby. I’m sorry. I’ll stay. I’ll stay… Just for one more night. One more night.
In the morning, we’ll talk. Alright? Alright. There’s my girl.
*Embraces blog, stares vacantly at ceiling*
Reviews for Monsters University, the long-awaited sequel to Pixar’s classic 2001 film Monsters, Inc., have been mostly-positive, holding an average rating of 78% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But compared to Toy Story‘s 100%, 78% is Pixar underachieving. 78% is actually their second-lowest RT score, tied with Brave and just ahead of Cars at 74%. Some critics are calling the film average and unoriginal but hardly anyone is talking about the fact that Monsters University, just like its predecessor Monsters, Inc., fails the Bechdel test, along with the majority of Pixar’s back catalogue.
In order for something to pass the Bechdel test, partially invented by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own and later popularised by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, two female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man. Got that?
Two women (with names)
having a conversation
about something other than a man.
If we count ant-hropomorphic females, A Bug’s Life passes the Bechdel test. Brave also passes, as do The Incredibles and Toy Story 3. But Cars, Cars 2, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, Up, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Monsters University and Wall-E all fail. One or two fails would be indicative of the story’s isolated world-view, particularly in the cases of Wall-E and Up, but 10 out of 14 children’s films from the same company all failing this basic test of female representation?
In these 14 movies (not including shorts) there are approximately 291 named individuals, of which 67 are ‘female’. This is extremely rough maths, admittedly. I challenge YOU to count every single character in 14 movies, then work out which ones are specifically named in the film as opposed to in the credits (as well as more complex problems, i.e. how many characters is a Barrel of Monkeys? I went with ’1′.) But yeah, I make that about 23%, which means:
Women represent less than ONE QUARTER of all Pixar characters.
This means that Pixar as a whole horribly flunks the Bechdel.
Historically, equal representation wasn’t a serious concern of the production teams behind animated children’s movies. Disney’s Hall of Fame is full of fail, yet this hasn’t hampered their popularity. Critics’ favourites Aladdin, The Jungle Book and The Lion King all miss the mark while others, such as The Little Mermaid, are highly disputed, hanging on contentious issues such as whether Ariel’s desire to get legs is born more of a need for freedom or her lust for the Prince. Some of this might be blamed on the source material (in this case, folk tales) but with modern adaptations comes freedom to interpret. Many new elements and characters are introduced, so the excuse doesn’t strictly hold. Ironically, it is the films most-often blamed for perpetuating anti-feminist ideas — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty — that pass the Bechdel with flying colours, and these too were based on folktales. In recent years popular animated films produced by other studios, like Wreck-It Ralph, Despicable Me and How To Train Your Dragon all passed commendably, despite some being more ‘traditionally masculine’ in theme (video games, comic book villainy), while Studio Ghibli almost-always gets it right.
So where is Pixar going wrong?
The test doesn’t measure sexism exactly, but female presence. It is a simple method of examining how well women are represented in context. Context is key here. A film that passes the test may still be viewed as sexist, while a film that fails might still be considered to reflect a feminist perspective overall. No one really expects Akira or Watership Down to pass but 2013′s Monsters University has absolutely no reason to fail the Bechdel given its audience and the infinite scope of its setting.
But it does.
FAIL: Monsters University (2013)
Here we have an entire University full of women, some of whom are depicted on the poster, and there’s not a single Bechdel-qualifying conversation amongst them. Like all Pixar movies, Monsters University passes the reverse Bechdel test (two named men discussing something that isn’t a woman), and does so within the first fifteen minutes. Dean Hardscrabble is a two-dimensional stock antagonist who doesn’t deign to speak to any fellow females. There are two sororities full of weird-looking girls that might have been interesting if they’d been developed but none of these women interact with each other or otherwise remain nameless. The best female character is rock-loving Mom Sherri Squibbles but she spends all of her time onscreen with the Oozma Kappa fraternity. No love interests. No female friends. No notable female Scarer in the Scare Programme.
How it could have passed: Dean Hardscrabble instructs Claire Wheeler, Greek Council president, on how the Scare Games ought to unfold. Roz stands off against Hardscrabble during her brief appearance.
Defenders might argue that to apply the Bechdel test to a children’s cartoon is liberal overanalysis gone mad but cartoons matter. They appeal to young people in the most simple and straightforward way; they are representations of ourselves and how we live. Of all possible genres, children’s film is probably one of, if not the most important genre in terms of gender representation. It’s not too big of an ask, surely, that in a film with 20+ characters, two are named females who have at least a few lines of conversation about a non-male subject? Especially when that film is going to be seen by a relatively even split of girls and boys.
Let’s take a closer look at Pixar’s filmography, to see where they got it right and where they got it wrong.
FAIL: Toy Story (1995)
Indisputably one of the most popular movies of all-time, Toy Story nonetheless began Pixar’s Bechdel fail run. Of its approximately 23 characters (see issues above), only 6 are female and only 1 of those is considered a ‘main’ character: shepherdess Bo Peep, who plays the damsel in distress. None of the other female characters in Toy Story speak to each other. At one point Sid’s sister Hannah asks her mother where her Sally doll is. Though this hardly counts as a two-way conversation in any event, Hannah’s mother doesn’t have a name. Once again the reverse Bechdel test passes, this time within the first five minutes. Bo Peep sticks around to flirt boringly with Woody in Toy Story 2 but is eclipsed by the arrival of Jessie. By Part 3 she has been lost, sold or destroyed, her existence reduced to a single line of dialogue.
How it could have passed: During the credits, Molly’s new toy Mrs. Potato Head is introduced to Andy’s toys, including Bo, who makes some comment about MPH’s earrings (a plot point later used in Toy Story 2).
PASS: A Bug’s Life (1998)
Despite actually being insects, the women of Bug’s Life fare pretty well on the Bechdel test. Though the protagonist is once again male, three of the main characters are female — Princess Atta, Princess Dot and the Queen (though whether this counts as a name, I’m not entirely certain) — and by golly, they actually converse with each other. There are also three female supporting characters who are relatively well-defined: Gypsy the moth, Rosie the black widow and Dr. Flora. The matriarchal royal lineage makes a refreshing change, though not if you’ve already seen Antz. It also passes the reverse Bechdel test. With the third highest score for Pixar on Rotten Tomatoes at 92%, A Bug’s Life is one for the studio to be proud of on all accounts.
FAIL: Toy Story 2 (1999)
Toy Story 2 fails almost as badly as its older brother on the Bechdel test, though both are rated as 100% ‘fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes. Jessie was obviously introduced to counteract the absence of a strong female character. She isn’t a love interest, and she has certain quirks and charms that mark her out as more than just Woody’s companion doll. Unfortunately, she doesn’t talk to Woody’s beau Bo, Bo doesn’t talk to Mrs. Potato Head, and Mrs. Potato Head talk to Jessie, which seems like a massively missed opportunity. As it is, the closest Toy Story 2 comes to an actual female conversation is this scene. Like Toy Story, the reverse Bechdel passes within five minutes. In summary, some progress for the franchise but still a fail.
How it could have passed: Bo talks to Mrs. Potato Head during the film’s beginning scenes. At the end of the movie, Jessie is introduced to Bo and Mrs. Potato Head.
FAIL: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Monsters, Inc. is all about male bonding. There are three main characters and though one of them is a girl, she’s a toddler who can’t talk in full sentences yet, which makes her a bit redundant as far as the Bechdel test goes. We have Mike’s clingy snake-haired girlfriend Celia and Roz, the gravelly-voiced, slug-like battleaxe (who, admittedly, is pretty awesome) but they don’t talk to each other, even though Roz and Celia work together in an administrative capacity. Another female member of staff, Mrs. Flint, doesn’t speak to them either. In contrast, there are numerous conversations between male monsters about many things other than women, passing the reverse Bechdel test. (From now on assume that everything passes the reverse Bechdel test unless I explicitly state otherwise.)
How it could have passed: Roz tells Celia to get back to work when she’s haranguing Mike about their anniversary date.
FAIL: Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo introduces one of Pixar’s most beloved female characters: Dory, a Pacific regal Blue. Like Jessie, Dory isn’t a traditional love interest (yes-yes, she’s a fish, I know) and despite her slender frame she is far from being one-dimensional. But Dory is pretty much the only female character of note in Finding Nemo. Whether the film fails the Bechdel hangs on one line of dialogue between Peach (the starfish) and Deb (who thinks her reflection is her sister) in the dentist’s tank, though it’s as part of a group discussion and the answer directed at everyone. If it’s a pass, it’s an extremely sketchy pass. With the entire ocean to play with and a far-reaching plot with plenty of scope, there was ample room. Technically it’s a fail for Finding Nemo, despite Dory’s best efforts to just keep swimming. I hold out hope for the spin-off sequel, 2015′s Finding Dory.
How it could have passed: At some point during their long journey, Dory meets a female fish/crab/bird, who offers her name. Peach offers a witty retort to Deb during her search for ‘Flo’ when the tank is dirty, to which Deb directly replies.
PASS: The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles fuses some femininity into the macho arena of superheroes. While on the surface this ensemble film revolves around Mr. Incredible, the true hero emerges as his resourceful wife Helen, otherwise known as Elastigirl. We also have her shy, sarcastic daughter Violet, who repeatedly saves the entire family, duplicitous ‘spy’ Mirage and fashion designer Edna, all of whom are memorable and well-developed. Supporting characters include babysitter Kari McKeen and Frozone’s wife Honey, whose brief appearances also manage to convey a decent sense of identity. Discussions between Helen and Violet make this film a clean pass, though Helen also interacts with Mirage, Edna and Kari. Second only to Brave, this is one of Pixar’s best Bechdel successes.
FAIL: Cars (2006) & Cars 2 (2011)
I hate the Cars franchise. I think it’s a lazy, flabby exercise in commercialism that lacks the tender spirit of Pixar’s greatest works. That’s why I’ve carelessly combined both films into one entry. They both pretty obviously fail the Bechdel test, anyway. In the original Cars we have one woman central to the plot — Porsche-shaped love interest Sally — plus a few minor stock females who don’t talk to each other. It’s not that Sally is a terrible character exactly, but in the sequel she is reduced to a supporting role and replaced with Holley Shiftwell in a move we’ll call ‘the ole Bo Peep’. Only 1 of 9 main characters in Cars 2 is female. Of an enormous supporting cast of approximately 31, 4 are women (well, women-mobiles). One might argue that the Cars movies are tailored more towards boys but a) who says girls don’t like cars and b) millions of girls have seen both of these films, willingly or not. The Cars franchise is one of the worst Pixar fails for female presence, as well as in pretty much every other category.
How it could have passed: Sally and Holley converse in Cars 2.
FAIL: Ratatouille (2007)
It’s a real shame that Ratatouille fails the Bechdel test. Not only is it a great movie but Colette is a great character and her relationship with the hapless ‘Linguini’ is interesting, inverting the traditional power balance like Wall-E, below. But Colette is quite literally the ONLY real female character in Ratatouille, including Remy’s massive family of rats, which is frankly unrealistic considering the rodent need to breed. Only 3 of 18 named characters are female if you include Linguini’s mother Renata (who is never seen) and food critic Solene Leclair, who has a one-word line. An all-time low, women-wise.
How it could have passed: Colette has a female maître d’/waitress to spar with, or a friend to whom she complains about the male-dominated restaurant industry/Linguini’s incompetence.
FAIL: Wall-E (2008)
Wall-E gives us an atypical, mission-driven heroine in EVE and a plot so brilliantly conceived it won an Academy Award. But it straight-up fails the Bechdel test. There are two female characters, EVE and Mary (the fat, baby-catching lady), who don’t interact. However, if the Bechdel test ought to be ignored on any account, it’s here. There is a distinct lack of named characters in this movie in general. The gender types are also somewhat reversed, with EVE taking on the role of the gun-toting protector. But Wall-E just-about passes the reverse Bechdel test thanks to a brief introduction between Wall-E and Mo, the OCD-bot, as well as the ongoing dialogue between Captain B. McCrea and Auto, identified as a ‘he’. Of the supporting robot ensemble there are sadly no named women, though some of the malfunctioning ‘bots are clearly depicted as female. So in a purely technical sense it’s a fail, but all things considered, a moderately forgivable one.
How it could have passed: Wall-E introduces EVE to Mary and John.
FAIL: Up (2009)
Like Wall-E, Up is a masterpiece. Any film that reduces the viewer to a hysterical gibbering wreck within the first ten minutes can only be considered a highly accomplished work of art. For its understated sentimentality, its unpredictable plot, its quirky humour and the winning odd-couple combination of a old, grouchy widower and a chubby Asian Wilderness Explorer, Up passes every possible movie test except the Bechdel. Ellie Fredricksen is a fantastic heroine full of pluck and simple wisdom but unfortunately she’s dead, and the only person she is seen to talk to is her husband Carl. Other than the revelation that the weird bird Kevin is actually female, there’s absolutely nothing in the way of womanly interaction whatsoever. Nonetheless, any little girl that wants to be a famous explorer will always be a feminist hero in my book.
How it could have passed: I’m coming up blank. Anyone got a good idea?
PASS: Toy Story 3 (2010)
The third installment in the trilogy is Pixar’s highest-grossing film at the American box office and the highest-grossing animated film of all time worldwide. It’s also the only Toy Story film to pass the Bechdel test. We now have three main female characters, Jessie, Mrs. Potato Head and Barbie, and a qualifying conversation in which the other girls console Barbie about being donated. Hurrah! Barbie actually becomes an unexpectedly intelligent and independent character, turning her back on metrosexual Ken’s Dream House when she learns that her friends are being subjugated by the tyranny of Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear. She also surprises everyone by sounding like Thomas Jefferson at the end. A clean pass for the Toy Story franchise, and about time.
PASS: Brave (2012)
Brave is the one where Pixar really gets it right in regards to female representation, creating a wonderfully wayward princess character who defies defined gender roles, competing for her own hand in marriage through the medium of archery. Even better, it passes the Bechdel test within five minutes. It’s actually the first Pixar film with a female protagonist and not a second is wasted on a love story. It’s more ‘Disney’ than any of Pixar’s previous works yet it inverts Disney’s classically established tropes; it is a critique of the conventions of the princess genre. Merida’s conversations with Queen Elinor about responsibility vs. free will make this Pixar’s best Bechdel pass overall. On the downside, it has one of Pixar’s lowest scores on Rotten Tomatoes (78%). Possibly the whole Mam-turns-into-a-bear plot wasn’t for everyone.
At least Pixar are in good company. Of the films on IMDB’s top 250 movie list, approximately 158 fail the Bechdel test. Their lack of named, conversing women obviously hasn’t affected their box office gross or their critical review, thus failing the Bechdel test isn’t an indication of quality. But female directors and screenwriters are decidedly in the minority in Hollywood. That makes the Bechdel test somewhat relevant as a marker if we want to examine to what degree women are underrepresented (or misrepresented) in film.
Some argue that the test is a baseline of basic equality. Others claim the Bechdel is biased and doesn’t represent the full complexity of the issue, or worse, that it is an example of the most rigid and damaging kind of feminist thinking. I’ll admit, in certain Pixar films the qualifying conversations became increasingly difficult to define due to artistic decisions that I, as a film lover and fan of the studio, approved of. Perhaps the Bechdel criteria is too limiting? On the other hand, at one point during this epic stretch of cartoon-based research I entirely forgot that the conversations weren’t supposed to be about men, so rare was it that two women actually talked at all.
Can we say that Wall-E or Up are anti-feminist? Absolutely not. But can we say that the Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Cars franchises are lacking in female characters that interact as intimately as their male counterparts (e.g. Woody and Buzz)? Certainly, yes. If we are debating the qualification of a film based on one sentence between bit parts, as in the case of Finding Nemo, I’m inclined to say that simply isn’t good enough. Though as you can see from some of the suggestions I’ve provided above, even passing the Bechdel doesn’t ensure fair representation for women.
I am intolerant of feminism that picks all the wrong targets for its vitriol, but I can’t help thinking that the Bechdel is a pretty humble request, particularly from a company like Pixar, who are producing children’s franchises worth billions of dollars. Despite giving us some great female characters, I find it surprising and disappointing that so many of the studio’s movies break these basic Bechdel-set rules of female presence.
Ever since I turned 30 on Saturday, people have been keen to know “how it feels” or if I’ve changed at all. Well, on the strike of midnight I rapidly began losing water retention until my body looked like an empty, loose-knit weave shopping carrier. I was overcome by alternating waves of intense joy and despair. My hair began thinning at such a rate that by sunset on the second day, I resembled Prince William. My uterus sent out an emergency flare. On leaving the house, I began shouting at random children to “get off my lawn!” even though I don’t have a lawn. I then made a sexual pass at an old man looking for scrap metal in a flatbed white van. I gorged on confectionery products… while still in line at the supermarket. They asked me to leave, because I was making other people uncomfortable. Finally, a group of kids threw a cat at me.
No really, seriously, “I’m fine”. I don’t feel any more or less of a hopeless, disaster-prone wreck than usual. l still look like you might want to ID me for a half-price bottle of chianti. If anything I’ve been slightly less depressed, probably because I’m finally putting to rest the decade that brought me such episodes as ‘Woken At 6am By Police’, ‘Living In Ex-Girlfriend’s Attic’, ‘Going Bankrupt’ and ‘The Worst Wedding Reception Ever.’ It’s been exhausting, frankly. I’ve been escorted out by security twice*. I’ve moved house over 20 times. I’ve had so many jobs I’ve lost count. Four minor surgeries, seven* failed relationships, two mental breakdowns (at least) and a police caution. While this sad list of life’s disasters might read like the psychiatric particulars of someone with a personality disorder, I’ll have you know that my mother had me tested, and to everyone’s great surprise I came out normal (ish).
* = I might be rounding both of those figures down.
Anyway. The more I got to thinking about it, the more I realised that my twenties were the scene of all of my crowning glories, too. I mean, I puked in front of Amy Winehouse. I went to the Stardust film premiere. I interviewed a disgraced TV psychic. I wrote a sex column. I was briefly on the homepage of The Huffington Post. I finally finished writing that novel. And a bunch of other things I can’t repeat here for fear of legal repercussions…
See? It hasn’t all been bad.
Also, my parents had this sweet-ass cake made for me:
You can’t be unhappy when you have cake.
With this in mind, I have decided to impart the choice wisdoms I’ve gleaned from ten years of mistakes and presented them in amusing gif format. Enjoy!
Your Twenties In Gifs
I posted this on Facebook yesterday and people seemed to appreciate it, so I thought I’d share it with you lovely lot, too:
There is a customer I serve at work, an elderly gentleman who buys a lot of books he can’t read because his eyesight is so bad and his memory is failing. He buys plastic covers for each and every one of these books he can’t read, which he collects in his small flat. It must look like a tiny library. He says he used to know a lot of things about a lot of things but now he can hardly remember what day it is, so these books have become his memory instead. Today he told me that he wants to leave a legacy and since he has no money, he spends all that he has on a legacy of books.
The saddest part is, I don’t think he has anyone to leave his legacy to. According to my colleague he is looking for an organisation to receive his library when he passes.
He buys presents for Chinese immigrant waitresses who are kind to him and feeds a family of feral cats. He used to be a ‘traveller’, he says; now a progressive degenerative disease slowly cripples him.
I want to write a story about him.
I want him to be remembered.
At the MTV Video Music Awards this year, pop stars Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus performed separately, both clad in flesh-coloured bikinis that left very little to the imagination. Miley’s was seemingly made of latex while Gaga was channelling Ariel the Mermaid in nude seashells. Both gradually removed their garments before bouncing around stage in near-nude glory to exultant applause. Gaga’s performance was generally well-received, deemed ‘genius’ by viewers and press alike, yet Miley’s has been the subject of a 21st century witch hunt, called ‘lewd’ and ‘revolting’ and inspiring a tidal wave of moral outrage.
When Miley’s former stage Mom Brooke Shields was asked for her opinion on the scandalous affair, she called Miley’s performance “desperate” while maintaining that Gaga’s was “brilliant; a kind of art”. But what makes Gaga’s nudity art and Miley’s sexual exploitation? What’s the difference?
If we were to criticise the performances on a purely technical level, Gaga’s was vastly superior. Her singing, the choreography, costume, design — it was a much more professional set. But that isn’t the issue. Criticism of Miley’s set doesn’t refer explicitly to her pitchy singing or to the jumbled chaos on stage. The problem is how she was dressed and how she behaved. On face value we might assume that Lady Gaga frolicking in a bikini is somehow more artistically credible than Miley Cyrus bent double while a guy dressed like Beetlejuice takes her up the ass, but the only difference, as far as I see it, is that Miley’s ‘sexploitation’ was more deliberately vulgar.
Can this not be a kind of art, too?
The reason why Gaga is stripping is vague at best. There is undoubtedly some deep pseudo-philosophy behind it, but not even music journalists appear to fully understand her pretentious and oftentimes ludicrous ‘concepts’. Since the song is called Applause, possibly she’s saying that fan-worship makes her feel naked, or that she is ‘nakedly’ giving herself to us? Perhaps she’s making a statement on how female artists are encouraged to bare more and more skin as their ‘star’ catapults — that for all their talent and credibility they are but meat in the eyes of the public? Either way, we are supposed to believe that Gaga’s show of flesh is somehow more edgy and subversive, more empowering and less offensive than Miley’s.
While it may seem like an exercise dreamt up solely to piss off the Parents’ Association of America, the theme of Miley’s performance is much more clear: Miley, wearing a cartoonish swimsuit and Mickey Mouse hairstyle, emerges from the belly of an enormous teddy bear and begins romping around the stage in an over-the-top sexually provocative way before stripping down to her negligee. She’s obviously making some sort of statement about her transition as an artist and a woman. No longer the butter-wouldn’t-melt Disney brat Hannah Montana, Miley is now a twerking, grill-wearing, bodacious bad girl, and she wants us all to know it.
Miley’s performance might be distasteful, it might be objectionable and controversial, but it is no less or more ‘art’ than Lady Gaga’s performance. Prancing around in a bikini is prancing around in a bikini, frankly. It all boils down to the same thing: women appropriating themselves by stripping off. Every time a woman takes her clothes off for publicity — be it a pop star or a member of FEMEN — we are basically saying that our bodies are still our greatest weapon. Being naked is still how we get attention. Perhaps this is true. Neither Lady Gaga nor Miley Cyrus would be where they are today if they hadn’t taken their clothes off at some point. Both chose to strip off on the night of the VMAs. They got naked for naked’s sake. The problem seems to be how obviously this was done, and how ‘tasteful’ it was, like the debate over pornography and erotica, or pole-dancing and burlesque. Though the performer’s intentions and justifications may be different, the end product is still much the same, no matter how we dress it up. It’s titillation. It’s entertainment.
In a sense, Gaga and Miley are making the same point but by taking different roads. What Miley is really saying is: I’m an adult now and I’m going to make my own choices. This is still a man’s world in many ways, and this is how you play the fame game. Perhaps she purposely planned the most controversial performance she could perceive to get column inches. This is show business, after all, and there is no such thing as bad publicity, or so they say. Maybe Miley is cavorting around half-naked for fun, or maybe she is trying to say something relevant about culture and society. It doesn’t really matter. There is nothing new about Miley Cyrus thrusting a foam finger suggestively into her vagina. It’s not shocking. It’s not outrageous. As bandwagons go, this one is tired old hat.
Sure, if I were Billy Ray or Liam Hemsworth, I’d be a trifle embarrassed. The intentionally scandalous stylings were bound to raise eyebrows and attract attention, but where do we draw the line? How do we decide that this performance is unacceptable, yet Rihanna’s S&M is fine to play at your eight-year-old’s birthday party? Why is Miley Cyrus subject to a different set of standards? Rihanna has made a career out of being a bad role model. Her Instagram account is full of bad decisions but her fans worship her because they feel she represents the ‘truth of youth’. Rihanna is relatable in her imperfection and rebellion. She is an icon of the phenomenon of being young and strong-willed and independent. Riri’s motto seems to be “it’s my life, y’all, and these are my mistakes, so butt out”. Rihanna’s much publicised reaction to Miley’s performance is apparently one of distaste and disapproval, which, if true, I find laugh-out-loud hypocritical. As role models go, Rihanna’s reunion with Chris Brown was far more destructive to women’s issues than Miley Cyrus grinding with giant teddy bears.
Miley is rejecting society’s expectations of who and what she should be after years of being moulded and controlled by Disney execs. To an extent, she might be consciously playing up to certain stereotypes. While the ‘adult’ world has exploded in a mushroom cloud of supermorality, outraged that a former teen idol could behave in such a blatantly sexual way, most of Miley’s young fans seemed to appreciate the tongue-in-cheek spirit of her performance. Miley’s moves are already out there. She didn’t invent them. She is merely performing them. Everything Miley did on that stage, real teenagers do at parties all across the world. Perhaps today’s ‘children’ no longer recognise themselves in the super-clean-cut stars of yore. Perhaps they see themselves more in naughty, experimental, fun-loving Miley.
The choreography of Miley’s performance tells a story of coming of age and entering sexual adulthood. Sure, we might not like it. Sure, we might not want our children to watch it. But it’s real, it exists, it’s a part of all that we are. Personally, I found it to be crude, derivative and in poor taste but it was also silly and risque and thought-provoking. I didn’t see a young woman being sexually exploited but a young woman sexually exploiting herself, and part of feminism is accepting that women have the right to conduct themselves in whatever way they please, even if this at times detracts from the overall cause. Maybe all Miley is saying is that it’s okay to be young and have fun and enjoy sex? In itself, this is a powerful and positive reclamation.
This incident also serves as a good reminder of the double standards applied to male and female performers deemed to have ‘young fanbases’. Justin Bieber often dances provocatively, miming sex acts with scantily-dressed dancers. The stars of One Direction seem to freely enjoy ‘mischievous boyish hijinks’, such as when Harry Styles visibly whispered “you’re gonna get so much pussy now” to X Factor winner Matt Cardle. The resulting scandal was barely a fraction of the moral outrage reserved for Miley, who is now being portrayed as some kind of Whore of Babylon, responsible for the downfall of civilisation. Are our young female stars supposed to represent chastity and decency while the young male stars get to enjoy their adolescence without judgment?
Besides, this is the VMAs, a show that has purposely courted controversy for at least the past two decades. If it’s not Britney and Madonna locking lips it’s Diana Ross jiggling Lil’ Kim’s breast. It’s an adult show, showcasing adult music. Granted, adding Selena Gomez and Willow Smith into this mix confuses matters somewhat, but if your nine-year-old is watching the VMAs, the responsibility lies with you to explain the difference between real life and performance art. No, Susie, twerking isn’t acceptable in the playground. Please stick to whipping yo’ hair back and forth. (Not to mention the fact that Susie will probably watch the video on YouTube anyway. Better you explain it than the ten-year-old cousin who just learned a string of graphic words for the female anatomy.)
This ‘Pussycat Doll’ scandal has been snowballing for years. One needs only turn on the radio for confirmation that the majority of popular music is going to be inappropriate, by some degree, for under tens. That’s because it’s not made for them. Naturally, some of it will filter through. Your job as a parent is surely to guide your children through those conflicts in a realistic way, not by putting the blinders on. Don’t try to protect them from the world that waits for them regardless of your good intentions, or they won’t be prepared for it. Educate them and treat them like young adults, allowing them to decide for themselves what is and isn’t moral. This knee-jerk, pitchfork-waving moral mania only elaborates the grand misconception that television and music are perversely sexualising our children. If little girls see Miley Cyrus twerking seductively and want to copy her, it’s a problem to be addressed on a much larger scale. We’re talking about a sociological shift in how we view sex and the sexes in a balanced way. This goes far and beyond what young people are consuming culturally.
Miley’s set was designed to provide a funhouse mirror reflection of modern-day sexuality. Obviously that mirror is two-way, as our culture’s icons shape us and vice versa, but pinning moral responsibility on one individual as opposed to the many is detrimental and regressive. Ultimately, all of this tawdry mulch says more about our society. We are the consumers of this pop culture, which means we have played our part in creating it. The VMAs present a selection of contemporary art and expressionism and if we don’t like what we see we ought to look first at ourselves, as opposed to blaming Miley Cyrus or MTV.