Archive for March 31, 2014

Taking up space:
Why plus-size actors on television are important

For a period of my life I was told by my peers and by society that I was always in the way.

Being bigger means taking up space, space that belongs to people who are thinner, blonder, and supposedly prettier. Even in the body-positive movement, anti-fat-shaming activists are often told they take up too much space. 

I’ve had some experience with this myself.

In my university’s campus-wide newspaper, a recent cover story featured a thin girl who shared her feelings on thin-shaming, saying that these campaigns make her feel bad about being thin. But the article missed its mark, not because her feelings aren’t valid, but because it fat-shames those who aren’t thin, not to mention the fact that it was the first body-positive piece on the front page of the paper and did not even touch on fat-shaming except as it compares to thin-shaming. 

I replied with a very agitated letter-to-the-editor, and almost immediately someone else replied with another saying that my letter was thin-shaming yet again. 

And the accusations didn’t stop there.

I was bombarded by people who claimed by “have class” with the young woman featured in the story, and they all swore to me that she’s not dumb, which I never even implied, and that she must have been misquoted or something. I felt like I had to defend myself every five minutes.

I felt, once again, like I was taking up too much space.

But I really wasn’t because what I had to say was a valid representation of how I have felt all my life—first as a girl who was never less than chubby and now as a woman who always seems to get in the way.

Taking up space on television

This is why shows like The Mindy Project, Girls, and My Mad Fat Diary make me feel so good about everything. They force viewers to look at their bodies, bodies that have likely been ridiculed by the community of misogynistic, body-shaming bullies that exist in this country.

Now that viewers are being made to look at women like this has made me feel more comfortable in my own body. 

As a woman who has been made fun of for her weight, one of the biggest things I have battled with is my sexuality. How can I be sexy when I don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model? How can anyone love a body that rolls and folds and flaps and jiggles? My body even made me question what was wrong with guys who were attracted to me. I actually thought only a screwed-up guy would think fat is cute.

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Rae Earl the author of the book, My Mad Fat Diary, that the television show was inspired by.

But women like Kaling and Dunham either disregard that idea or take it and flip it on its head.

In one Girls episode, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham’s character) wears a neon string bikini the entire episode—allowing the viewer to see cellulite everywhere on her body and watch as the bottom of her suit rolls up her butt. Despite this, I realized she looked just as good as everyone else in the episode.

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Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in tv series Girls

Actually I thought she looked better.

In that moment, I not only wanted that bikini, but also wanted to wear it everywhere  I went—even when I didn’t have to.

While Hannah is prancing around half-naked on Girls, Rae on My Mad Fat Diary has a romantic life with boys her age that like her for who she is. She doesn’t only have sex; she is also admired by so many male characters that it makes me feel simultaneously envious and proud. Rae thinks that boys won’t like her because she’s brash, loud, funny, and fat, but actually that’s why they like her.

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Sharon Rooney as Rae Early in the tv series My Mad Fat Diary

In the “Inappropriate Adult” episode, Rae is sexually harassed by a guy she’s been seeing, and he tells her that she should appreciate his coming on to her because no one else will think she’s attractive. She responds so brilliantly because she tells him off and leaves the party. She didn’t break down and she acted with such strength that I cried for the rest of the episode because I knew, if that were me, I probably wouldn’t be as strong.

In the show, Rae chooses when she wants to have sex. Sometimes it’s not always the right choice, but it’s the result of her self image rather than being because of a poor body image. We also realize that a poor self image is the reason her skinny best friend has problems and makes the wrong decisions too, showing us that thin women can struggle with insecurity too. It also shows that insecurity goes beyond looks sometimes. 

Ultimately the popularity of these shows—and their characters’ bodies—allow women to take up the space they need to feel whole. 

And that means, for once, I want to take up space, I want people to tell me, “You’re in my way. Move, fatty,” so that I can respond by taking up more space on their favorite TV channels, their favorite TV shows, their favorite award shows and in their water cooler conversations, their text messages, their blogs, their Facebook cover photos.

I want them to see me so they know that their ridicule and bullying has not stopped me from being talked about, praised, criticized, and acknowledged.

After all, if we don’t take up that space, who will?

—by Leah Railey

What is so different about Frozen?

Elsa and Anna as children

Elsa and Anna as children

Before I watched Frozen I wondered what makes it such a big deal. The movie was talked up by friends who are feminists and associates that who aren’t very feminist at all.

Finally a movie that resonates with so many different people! It must be worth watching, right? I decided to take a look for myself.

During my first viewing, I hoped to understand the significance of the very Aryan main character, Elsa. But, after watching the movie, I still didn’t understand why she’s the focus of the promos when she isn’t even the focus of the movie, but instead follows her sister Anna.

It actually made me angry that this character was featured more in promos than Anna, who is brunette and not as princess-like as Elsa.

Interestingly, Elsa’s conventional blonde hair and blue eyes actually sets her apart from the people in her kingdom. This begs the question, why couldn’t the filmmakers represent her differences in a way that is not something I already see everyday? What if she had darker skin or a thicker body? What if she didn’t look like every Disney princess out there and that was what made her different?

After watching the movie I thought it was cute, but there were only two parts that really stuck with me: the scene in which Anna sings “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman” and the scene in which Elsa sings “Let it Go.”

“Do You Wanna Build a Snowman” shows the isolation that Elsa is required to have from her sister after she has hurt Anna. It shows a female relationship that is flawed in a heartbreaking way as it shows the two inches away from each other but separated by walls both physical and metaphorical. The scene’s emotion is so strong in a subtle way that shows the relationship the sisters have with each other.

“Let it Go” was a scene I had seen several times before. The song is beautiful and strong and empowering. In this scene Elsa becomes liberated. Her secret sorcery is out and known, and, therefore, she is free. This song encourages people to be open about who they are, even if they’re told it’s not right or accepted. This scene is something I wish I could have seen when I was younger. Even as a twenty-one-year-old feminist I still empowered just from singing along with the song. If the movie ended at this scene, I probably would have been as crazy about Frozen as most of my friends. I wasn’t convinced that this song was the most empowering moment of the film, but I also could not read anymore into it on my own. I took to the internet to see if I was missing some larger message.

Much to my surprise the movie has been seen as having a strong pro-gay sentiment in many scenes. Some critics talk about the ways in which Elsa’s ice sorcery is a metaphor for sexual orientation; they also talk about the many ways in which this movie promotes female strength and independence and suggests that princesses can be seen as leaders rather than just as arm candy for princes.

In many ways this movie is progressive and asks us to take a second look at it, the movie’s purpose extends beyond sisterly relationships and after a second glance that becomes a little more apparent.

And that makes me think, maybe this movie isn’t so bad after all.

But not quite.

What if Elsa looked like this?

What if Elsa looked like this?

Women of color are non-existent in this film. The main female characters are the same women who we’ve seen in princess movies for decades. It is great that Disney has made a princess that actually intends to rule, but there isn’t the slightest allusion to princesses in other parts of the world that might provide a bit of diversity.

Ultimately, Disney has failed to create a female character that is actually relate-able. You can find alternatives to Elsa all over the internet. How interesting would a race-bending Elsa be?

My next problem with the movie is that there are so many men. The movie is about sisters, but unnecessary male character still get about the same amount of time on screen as Elsa and Anna. Anna needs men to help her get to her sister. Elsa is the only one who doesn’t need a man; instead she makes a monster to protect her from the “bad guys.” The movie is still reinforcing gender roles as it has in many other Disney movies.

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed the movie for the most part, but there was always something missing, something that didn’t hook me the way I was hooked with Brave or even Tangled.

This movie may have been the most progressive movie to come from Disney, but I would say it’s far from the best movie I’ve ever seen. I would say that you should go see it for yourself and decide if it really is the most influential Disney princess movie you’ve ever seen.

Oscar wrap-up, part two: Why we need to talk about Kim Novak

The Oscars were just over a week ago, but I’m still talking about them because I haven’t gotten around to talking about the appearance of Kim Novak, and I feel I must.

If you don’t know, Kim Novak was one of the most sought-after starlets of the ’50s and ’60s, starring in dozens of films, most memorably as the object of Jimmy Stewart’s obsession in Hitchcok’s Vertigo.

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And if you weren’t watching the Oscars a week ago, you may not know that Novak, now 81 years old, appeared there as a presenter, but was almost unrecognizable because of the amount of work she’s had done on her face in order to appear much younger than she is.

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When Novak walked on the strage, gripping the arm of her co-presenter, Matthew McConaughey, like she might either fall over or fall apart without him, a hush fell over the Dolby Theatre as everyone in the audience—and all of us watching at home—realized that Novak had decided she would rather her skin appear smooth and artificial than wrinkled and old.

It was honestly the saddest moment of the whole night.

And, in that moment, it hit me that this is what we do to women in this country—we teach them that their value is derived solely from their physical appearance, we teach them that it’s better to look unreal than to look elderly, that it’s better to look plastic than wrinkled, that it’s better to hide who they are than to be themselves.

As Oscar Host Ellen Degeneres jokingly said, “I’m not saying movies are the most important thing in the world. I’m not saying that—because the most important thing in the world is youth.”

In that way, Kim Novak’s appearance at the Oscars last Sunday sums up everything that’s wrong with our expectations for American women, who are taught over and over again that looking young and pretty is a goal worth achieving at any cost.

A cost Novak seems more than willing to pay.

And I’m terrified that I’ll see her choices repeated over and over and over again on the faces of the women around me as time and science march on.

I was lucky enough to be at the beach yesterday, and the middle-aged mother sitting next to me was literally wearing a string bikini.

A leopard-print spring bikini.

I was pretty sure she was around my age, and sure enough, later in the day, I heard her say that she “wasn’t forty YET.” (I’m 43.)

Despite the fact that we are virtually the same age, this woman had the body of a twenty-year-old. Her upper body was flawless—with sculpted abs, a flat stomach, and toned arms—and her legs had only enough cellulite for someone who was really looking to notice.

Still, though a part of me admired her discipline—you don’t keep a body like that into your 40s without a hell of a lot of trips to the gym—I didn’t envy her. Because all I could think was that her charade would soon be coming to an end, and when it did, she’d have to face the fact that she wouldn’t be young forever.

I worry, too, that such a realization will send beautiful women like her straight to the plastic surgeon where they can be nipped and injected and tucked until no sign of their aging appears. But no sign of their former selves either.

Despite this, I can’t help but note that Novak—and other women in Hollywood like her, who have chosen the plastic surgery route over the age naturally route—are the ones who aren’t really working as actors anymore.

maggie

Though you wouldn’t know if from the pictures above, at 82, Maggie Smith is only one year older than Novak, and despite the fact that she has chosen not to hide her age, she continues to work with much success.

Judi Dench, 79, too has embraced her age, and her career is thriving…

Judi Dench

Though younger than Novak, Smith, and Dench, Susan Sarandon, 67…

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and Diane Keaton, 68, have done the same…

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So if the women who are getting work in Hollywood are the ones who are not afraid to age naturally, I can’t help but wonder why Novak—and others like her—are so afraid to do so that they engage in such risky behavior.

Perhaps looking into Novak’s past will give us the answer.

When Novak was twenty, the modeling agency where she worked described her this way: “Hands, marginal; legs, hefty; neck and face, flawless.” Pretty soon “studio executives made her cap her teeth, bleach her hair, shrink her body with a strict diet and exercise regime, and perpetually paint her face with the help of a personal makeup artist.” And Novak’s agent used to “read her every bad review she got. And she got plenty; Novak was never a darling of the press. If she tried something dramatic, she was wooden. If she did a sexy role, she was too heavy, too dumb. When she went to the Oscars one year and posed on the red carpet, one columnist sniped that Novak was ‘aping Marilyn’s every move.’”

It’s not hard to understand why someone whose been put through that kind of scrutiny would be afraid to be herself. My God, it seems that Hollywood probably destroyed not only Novak’s self-esteem but her looks as well. Perhaps the reason that actresses like Dench and Smith were never obsessed with staying young is because their faces were not as famous as Novak’s in their youth.

And maybe what we can learn from Novak is that, unless we stop worshipping at the alter of youth and physical perfection, then we all run the risk of some day, like Novak, falling victim to the belief that there is only one kind of beauty.

It’s sad to admit, but it seems that Novak has suffered such a fate.

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Oscar wrap-up, part one: The world is round, people!

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The Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night closed out a film season that, for me, seemed to go on and on and on.

But the night was anything but an afterthought since, thankfully, two insanely awesome things happened…

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1) A deserving film—12 Years a Slave—won the Oscar for best picture. This almost makes up for Crash beating Brokeback Mountain. Almost.

and, more pertinently,

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2) Cate Blanchett gave the speech of her life, castigating Hollywood for their absurd sexism and calling for more female-driven films. She hinted at this idea the night before at the Spirit awards, saying, “there is a myth that female-driven movies don’t make money.”

And at the Oscars she called out those “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”

Of course, Blanchett could not be more right.

Not only is the earth round, but audiences DO want to see movies about women. And everything from The Hunger Games to My Big Fat Greek Wedding proves it.

Despite this, in 2013, only 28.4% of speaking roles in top 100 films went to women.

And if we don’t have more films about women, we’ll never be able to feel good about ourselves or our bodies because we will always feel like we’re playing second-string to dudes.

And, really, isn’t it finally time that we let go of the idea that men are more interesting, important, and movie-worthy?

Not only do we need more films about women, we also need more films made by women. As Brapointed out on Twitter last Sunday, there weren’t ANY women nominated in the Directing, Cinematography, Film Editing, Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects categories this year, AND no women has EVER been nominated for the cinematography award.

This doesn’t really surprise me.

I’ve worked on a few short films myself, and on each of those films (including one made by a female Academy Award winner) only men were allowed to operate the camera, as if it were made of some anti-woman Kryptonite.

Again, women are never going to have a positive self-image if we aren’t allowed to contribute to the images we see on our screens.

Blanchett’s speech and 12 Years a Slave’s win weren’t the only high points on Oscar nights. A few other highlights that are good for women and the way we see ourselves…

1) After the male-centric hero montage, Whoopi Goldberg said, “Not all heroes wear capes and masks. Sometimes they wear ruby slippers.”

whoopi

2) Thankfully, there were no songs about boobs.

3) The Oscars were MUCH more inclusive this year, giving awards to more than one token person of color, highlighting the role of women in film, and even featuring presenters from movies that weren’t up for Oscars. Maybe the Academy is finally getting it. Maybe.

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4) Ellen challenged the notion that women should be judged by the way they look by rejecting the idea that a female host must change her outfit at every commercial break. Instead of constantly showing up on stage in one stunning outfit after another, Ellen only changed only from a black tux to a white one and back to black again, and then commented on the change, saying in a matter-of-fact voice, “Oh, yeah, I changed clothes” as if it were the least important thing in the world, which obviously it is.
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5) On a related note, let’s not forget that Ellen Degeneres is a lesbian who doesn’t even wear dresses, thereby shattering the myth that beautiful successful women in Hollywood must wear evening gowns and be seen on the arm of a smoking hot guy. In case you missed it, the world really is round.
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6) Ellen also shattered the myth that celebrities never eat junk food and that they have no problem sitting at a bloated awards ceremony without food by ordering pizza and serving it to everyone from Meryl Streep to Jamie Foxx. As Ellen pointed out, the Oscars are a lot like The Hunger Games: “Everybody’s starving, there are cameras everyone, and Jennifer Lawrence won last year.”
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7) Oh, and speaking of Ellen, she killed it. That selfie was especially brilliant because it showed us—perhaps for he first time in Oscar history—celebrities acting like real people rather than depicting them as cardboard cut-outs who look and act perfectly all the time.
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Overall, it was a good night, but there are still some things to fret over. Tune in soon for more.

Minutes before the Oscars, I’m still re-thinking my love-hate relationship with the Red Carpet

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The Academy Awards start in two hours (on ABC), and the E! pre-show starts any minute.

My DVR is set to record! I’ve got my evening cleared of obligations! I’m ready!

But as much as I love oohing and aahing over everyone’s looks on the Red Carpet, I hate the tools of objectification that come with it—the GlamCam, the Mani-Cam, the Glam-O-Strator, the 360-degree Room, and all the other we’re-judging-you bullshit.

(E! is even premiering a new camera tonight—the “Fashion Turn,” an all-glass box that spins the actress standing in it around in a circle so we can see every detail. Puke.)

Why can’t we just look at their dresses, appreciate them, and move on? Why do we have to deconstruct every stitch, every hem, every piece of bling?

Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that much of the head-to-toe critiquing that happens on the Red Carpet is overkill.

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In the Entertainment Weekly‘s recent Oscar issue, Academy Award nominee (and former winner) Cate Blanchett (shown above with fellow nominee Lupita Nyong’o) bemoaned the way women are objectified on the Red Carpet, explaining that the reporters will actually ask her how she’s doing and then PAN THE CAMERA DOWN HER BODY. Blanchett is not at all pleased by this behavior, saying “With Bradley Cooper and Ben Stiller, they keep talking to them face-to-face. Why are you talking to my shoes?”

I could not agree more.

That’s why I was thrilled when Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss flipped off the Mani-Cam at the Globes this year.

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At the same time, I’m not one of those people who is willing to boycott awards’ pre-shows on the grounds that the Red Carpet reduces women to their looks.

So where does that leave me and other fans of the Red Carpet who still want to resist the notion that it’s acceptable to treat women like pieces of meat?

I suppose the answer is that, if we’re going to keep watching (and I know I definitely am), we have to counter the constant scrutiny and objectification by critiquing the people holding the microphones in any social media venue we can find. Let them know when they suck, and praise them when they actually get it right. And hope that maybe just maybe they’ll start to grow and learn.

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