The Gendered Representation of Electroconvulsive Therapy

cw: for images of the depiction of medical torture

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Mental illness is rarely depicted in a sensitive way in film, and I can think of few examples of films that are both accurate and ethical, especially in terms of gender.  As a broad category, it is treated poorly in cinema.  A more specific sub-genre or -trope of mental illness in film is the depiction of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).  Supposedly it is so misrepresented in cinema that it necessitates articles such as About To Have ECT? Fine, but Don’t Watch It in the Movies: The Sorry Portrayal of ECT in Film.  Though it seems unanimous that the process is represented as a barbaric, violent, and ineffective one, the way this plays out can be categorized differently often by gender.  After viewing a large number of films which depict ECT, here are the basic tropes which seem to occur.

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Victim as Oppressed Man

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In these films, the victim of ECT is an intelligent, active man, often transgressive or radical in some way.  This type would be exemplified by Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963), Chattahoochee (Mick Johnson, 1989) or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Foreman, 1975).  In these films we have masculine protagonists who could be characterized by their near-hypermasculinity: displaying ambition, initiative, aggression, strong sexual appetite, rebellion, and so forth,  mental illness (if present at all), is associated more with either men other than the protagonist or criminality — in Chattahoochee, for instance, there are numerous comments on how many of the inpatients are overflow from prison.  Care is then feminized: either explicitly (such as in the case of Nurse Ratchet) or through generalization: care is something which is a feminine occupation, distributed by women nurses or by ineffective, relatively impotent men (they are often older, wear glasses, rarely seen doing anything but sitting and hiding behind a desk, with little knowledge of the ‘real’ world or the human/masculine pursuits of the victimized protagonist, and contrast strongly with the hypermasculine protagonist’s vitality), or care is attempted to be distributed by other women (such as the girlfriend in Shock Corridor or sister in Chattahoochee) – in all cases, care is given by a woman or someone without the virility of the victimized man, regardless of if this care is positive or negative.

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These films can be read as poisonously feminized institutions targeting a victimized masculinity, a masculinity which is threatened and threatening to encroaching femininity and feminine power.  When care is seen as positive, such as the love of the girlfriend in Shock Corridor, it is softer than that of the more powerful institution, and weaker as well.  Visually, these depictions will often focus on the face during ECT distorted in pain, violence, disdain, and anger, rather than fear.  In these films, the protagonist is almost never sick, it is society that is sick instead.

Victim as Girl/Child

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In these films, the ECT victim is either a fragile woman, a child, or a man so ‘emasculated’ that he becomes childlike.  In The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948), the protagonist’s neuroses stem from trauma relating to her childhood, which drives her back to a childlike state wherein she cannot accept adult responsibility (namely, married life).  In Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1986), the protagonist is a literal girl whose continued fantasies are at odds with her coming of age, and return her continuously to a childlike state where fantasy trumps reality and thus must be attacked through a form of ‘electric healing.’  In Shine (Scott Hicks, 1996), the protagonist’s mental illness renders him to be little more than a child in a man’s body, with almost no agency or coherence of his own, save flashes of brilliance which stem from his past, sane life and can only come to fruition under the hand of mother-figures.  His problems are attributed in part to issues with his father (so, childhood, and the already feminized ‘daddy-issues’ are present), and as an adult, post-ECT, he turns to the care of women who take of near-maternal roles, even when they are supposed to be romantic interests.

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ECT is used as an entirely ineffective treatment for people who have been rendered childlike through their mental illness, which emasculates them if they are men, or emphasizes girlishness if they are women or nearing womanhood.  The focus is more on the mental illness or perceived mental illness rendering the fragile protagonist a child, rather than the ECT which will never work and is simply a source of terror that cannot stop rampant illness’ mental regression: ECT is only part of the ineffective process which further fractures the broken person, but not necessarily a major focus of the treatment, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Whether the regression of the ill protagonist is seen as positive or negative (the exploration of the inner child’s fun and whimsy such as in Return to Oz or the emasculation of the adult man who cannot live in adult society without a mother-figure’s help as in Shine), ECT is without fail simply a torturous and misguided attempt to delay the regression, which will not work.  Usually these films will promote a different treatment as both more humane or more effective, treatments which can range from the more ‘scientific’ (such as nurturing and semi-romantic talk therapy in The Snake Pit), to love full-stop (as in Shine).  Depictions often place visual emphasis on the fear in the face or the mechanical apparatus which administers the shock, making the process inhumane in a scientific or mechanical emphasis, rather than focusing on the specifically malicious doctor who administers shocks as near-personal attack.  Additionally, in these films the protagonist is most definitely sick (even Dorothy Gale must learn to forget Oz in Return to Oz) but ECT is never a treatment that will help: the need is for something more nurturing.

Victim as Sexy

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The patient in these films will usually have an illness which is based around rebellion, but a feminized one: anti-authoritarianism, alcohol or drug abuse, even political challenge, is added to a rampant sexuality, which is fetishized on screen, and often portrayed by sex-symbol actresses.  In Frances, Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange) endures her first course of ECT after her numerous sexual affairs, nude scenes, and generally inappropriate desires for love and affection, while the depiction of the treatment itself focuses on her shaved, arched legs rather than the face distorted in pain or fear.  The usual distortion of facial features is avoided by the skillful placing of nurses around her body, so that un-beautiful look of pain is hidden, and the fragmented body is the focus.

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Another example of this would be Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted: playing the sexy Lisa who is institutionalized for her wildness and lack of restraint, she is given shock treatments off-screen which are the catalyst for her escape with Winona Ryder’s protagonist Susanna: an escape which involves a kiss between the two women as well as a party where each girl has a hook up, thus attaching the mental illness (and punishment by ECT) to both casual sex and queer feminine sexuality.  In From Beyond, an incident with a machine which excites human sexuality leaves an incapacitated Dr. Katharine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) in the hands of a less sexy woman doctor who threatens her with ECT.  This happens, of course, after the effect of the machine influences her to don bondage gear and red lipstick, and attempt to initiate sex with her co-worker, so the grotesqueness and horror of her treatment is balanced by the previous eroticization of her character, while the emphasis on leather, gag, and straps in the ECT sequence become mirrors of her bondage gear.   In these films additionally, despite an element of rebellion or transgression, the characters are most definitely sick, but again, ECT will not cure them.  In the cases Frances and Girl, Interrupted, this is perhaps because nothing will cure those who receive shocks, while even the insanity-characterized-by-nymphomania in From Beyond is a confirmed insanity which simply could not be changed by ECT as it is derived from an outside source (the villain/monster’s machine): which is to say, that again, her illness would not be curable by medicine.

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When looking into ECT in film, the basic message seems to be that the procedure is presented as a torturous one, which is vastly different from reality.  Doctors don’t distribute it as personalized punishment, muscle relaxants and anesthesia are administered with care to attempt to create the most comfortable experience possible, the treatments are generally done with patient consent, and there are no leather straps or gags jammed into the victim’s mouth.  But a lot of this rhetoric is about saving the image of the doctors and nurses who administer ECT, and the process itself, with little concern to how it involves the patients, especially in terms of gender.  In these examples of ECT in film, one can see that ECT is used to characterize the worst way to treat mental illness, and so can tell us more about mental illness in these films than the ECT itself.  And it tells us that: only white people are really mentally ill.  There might be one or two men of colour present, but they are never the focus, or are much more ‘insane’ than their white counterparts, suggesting a hierarchy where the white man is least deserving of ECT as he is the most sane.  White men who are mentally ill are either castrated children in need of a mother, or just not actually ill, because illness is emasculating, it is stupid, it is weak, and men are not these things.  And women who are mentally ill are also either children, often in need of daddy to save them, or they are nymphomaniacs, with an insanity that leads to sexual inhibition and visual pleasure.  It will not lead to anything truly transgressive, like the non-ill men are capable of, and even sexually it will be strict: interracial relationships never happen, queer relationships are chaste kisses when compared to wilder sex scenes.

The problem with the representation of ECT in film is that it becomes a marker of severity in illness and ‘treatment.’  Rather than focusing on only how this impacts doctors, nurses, and treatments, it is important to look to how these markers are attached to mental illness and that which it attempts to cure, and the gendered ways this manifests itself.  In this manner, ECT films become a microcosm of how mental illness is depicted on-screen, and should be given more attention as such, rather than just for deterring patients from seeking ECT in real life, for this is a basis for general stigma which must be abolished.

 

READING LIST: May 16

As spring finally blossoms, there’s still lots to read! So while you’re spending precious little time inside, here’s what you should check out.

Seen and Unseen: The Films of Marie Louise Alemann

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MADDY: The pleasure of discovery is always dampened when you realize that what you’ve discovered was dismissed from the canon in the first place. Such is almost always the case with female experimental filmmakers, as if the initial medium weren’t niche enough. Luckily, Emily and I had to chance to watch a screening of the films of Argentinian filmmaker Marie Louise Alemann. A significant figure in the Argentinian experimental film scene of the 1970s and 1980s, she is all but unheard of here in North America. Shifting between documenting happenings with her fellow artists Narcisa Hirsch, Claudio Caldini, and others, Butoh performance, criticisms of the dictatorship, and razor sharp depictions of female experience, the handful of Alemann’s films we saw were of a considerable talent. What really struck me was how each of her films were so different from each other, and yet they still made up a consistent whole. The programmer, Federico Windhausen, lamented after the screening that they were not in the order he wanted, but still managed to work. Because of this I made some assumptions about the work – who she collaborated with, how the collaborations worked, when she made it, what her focus was, etc., only to realize that they probably weren’t the right assumptions to make.

EMILY: Yes, one thing I really loved about the scrambled order was that it confused those assumptions. Windhausen mentioned in his introductory remarks that many of the films Alemann directed were filmed by her friends and collaborators, such as Claudio Caldini and Narcisa Hirsch, presumably because so much of Alemann’s work draws on her own embodiment and performance. The last film that we ended up seeing was an untitled one by Juan Jose Mugni, which the program notes inform us was made as a “tribute to Alemann’s face, which she sought to use as an enigmatic and multi-purpose mask in many of her films.” To me this film so clearly showed how Alemann was in control of its image of herself. It did not seem to me to be a series of passive representations of her (something we have been taught to expect in a structure of film production organized around the objectification of women) but rather a vital creative act she directed.* It was to this power that Mugni paid tribute. Maybe I especially liked this because it brought together the site at which I am habitually restricted to searching for women’s creative power in film (the female performance as both enabled and constrained by the conditions of film production) and a host of radical possibilites for that power in an experimental space of collaboration, through which film is given direction and force from both behind and in front of the camera.

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*To direct (per the Oxford English Dictionary)
To write (a letter or message) expressly to.
To address (spoken words) to any one; to utter (speech) so that it may directly reach a person.
To impart, communicate expressly, give in charge to a person.
To keep in right order; to regulate, control, govern the actions of.
To give authoritative instructions to; to ordain, order, or appoint (a person) to do a thing, (a thing) to be done.
To supervise and control the making of a film or the production of a play, etc.; to guide or train (an actor, etc.) in his performance.

How interesting that in the contemporary and classical film industry “direction” is about organizing objects, people, images in ways that collect at the authoritative end of this spectrum of control (think Griffith with his megaphone or, my favourite, Abel Gance directing with a revolver–images of masculine power) while the sense of communication–direction in service of transmitting a message to someone–is subdued, even though that is ostensibly the point of making a movie. Even in movies she does not “direct,” Alemann’s (silent) face and body still direct messages to the viewer and so send viewers in particular directions. Alemann’s wider artistic practice disrupted film direction’s model of gendered authority in other ways, too. I loved the story Windhausen told about how she would teach all of the housewives she met on the beach during her summer vacations how to use their super 8 cameras: she acted as a mentor for films and directors not recognized as “real” films or directors.

MADDY: The close-up of a woman’s face is one of those key cinematic images that just keeps recurring (lately it seems to be thriving in music videos). I’m reminded of early cinema, and Munsterberg’s writings on the close-up. Generally a close-up is a shot that’s used to direct and focus the viewer’s attention on one spot, but is still tied up in ideas of truth and authenticity. If we see the close-up on the face, there is nothing that can hide from us, and there’s the impression that we’re seeing some kind of truth here. But Alemann is much too smart for that. Her close-ups are interspersed with filters (which she controls), paint dripping, and other means of distortion. The rapid cuts, instead of a long take (as is the norm with the close up of the female face) also challenge any passive looking, or any chance of suture. As you’ve said so well already, she is not an object of our gaze, but rather a very stark reminder of who is in control of what we are watching, and by extension how we understand it.

Not to be a gender essentialist, but this feels like a very female understanding of the world. It’s a fact at this point that by constantly being considered objects to be looked at, first and foremost, women’s humanity has become secondary. To take on a project where what one sees is clearly constructed, and constantly being altered, is a very clear challenge to those norms. She has a similar project in Autobiografico 2 (1974), with her face spray painted silver and her body tied up to trees with a coarse rope. There are rapid cuts here as well, but here they slowly reveal information, for example, that she is tied up to trees is only gradually shown to the audience. The initial shots are of her face, and then parts of her body, and then the trees tied up with parts of the rope. As the cuts show more and more, the rope begins to untie itself, and eventually it becomes completely untied. The rapid cutting loosens the ropes that bind her, and also gives and takes from the audience. The pleasure of seeing is postponed, and when we are finally able to see “the whole picture” of her entrapment, she is freed. Though Alemann is tied up, she is control of the camera, and by extension in control of her own experience.

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EMILY: This interplay between performance, direction, and the camera is important in all of the work that we saw from Alemann but I’m thinking of it right now particularly in the context of Legitima defensa (Self-defense, 1980), which was my favourite of all of the films shown that night. In this black and white short, the camera slowly follows Alemann as she circles around a room in an indeterminate location. Alemann’s hair is hidden beneath a white cap and her face is covered with white paint. She confronts the camera with aggressive facial expressions (smiles? grimaces? threats?) and holds a long wooden staff at the ready, presumably for attack. The soundtrack is screams and groans – at least I think so. All I remember is being profoundly unsettled. I loved this movie, first of all, because the intensity of Alemann’s performance in it gave me literal goosebumps. As well, the film was such an incredible exploration of the relationship between the camera and its subject. The camera follows Alemann around, documenting her–this surveillance evoking at once the traditional position of women as the object of the camera’s gaze and the specific political context of Alemann’s life under a repressive and violent dictatorship in Argentina during the Dirty War. In this film Alemann flips the experience of being watched. Her eyes never leave the camera and never blink. With the staff in her hand she could easily break the lens but doesn’t, and the camera follows her direction as it is forced to keep this danger in its sight. She controls its movement. She is flagrantly visible and will not be disappeared, but even though her face is the camera’s obsessive focus it cannot be deciphered under her layers of paint and performance. It was so interesting to see this film in juxtaposition with Sensasion 77: Mimetismo (Sensation 77: Mimicry, 1977) which is about hiding from sight/the camera.

MADDY: I remember being so struck by her eyes in Self-Defense. Wide-open and aggressive, a stark contrast to her white face. She circles around the room challenging the camera, and at times is clearly seen, but against some walls she almost disappears. Still, her eyes remain. Which I think is the key element to both of her explicitly political works: When a corrupt government tries to disappear its subjects, nothing can truly be disappeared. Something always remains, whether it be the person or the actions of the government. In Sensasion 77 Alemann is trying to disguise herself amongst foliage, but also failing. For me, to film someone trying to hide, is a very conscious decision that is inherently critical. I’m trying to hide, but I’m filming it, so there will always be a record of this act. So it is a false hiding, or rather, hiding to show something else.

Windhausen mentioned that Alemann’s group was visited by the fascist government over concerns of subversive works, and after watching these films the artists were left to continue as they were. He noted that the government was afraid of militant works, those that would inspire an uprising. These works, though deeply subversive and critical, weren’t about challenging the government. They’re more insidious, more intelligent. I can see why they weren’t arrested over them, but I think that’s their merit. They’re more about life under dictatorship, the everyday quality of fear and desperation. But both are radical challenges, both in what they depict, and in their very existence.

And I think a woman depicting her everyday existence, under any form of oppression, is inherently radical.

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On Beauty

Can any part of mass culture not be for men, and is it possible for alternative aesthetics of beauty to ever be radical?

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In Gaylyn Studlar’s ‘Oh, “doll divine”: Mary Pickford, masquerade, and the pedophilic gaze,’ she describes how Mary Pickford playing a little girl was powerful not simply as a site of semi-pedophilic enjoyment for men who craved representations of safely traditional girlish femininity as well as the ethical sexual consumption of the girl-who-is-actually-a-woman, but for women and girls who felt dissatisfied and oppressed by adult feminine life.  The girl supposedly is without the same threat from men — the woman has to deal with compulsory (hetero)sexuality, and all the stigma that comes with it.  Particularly in relation to the contemporary rise of the flapper, the ‘sexless’ girl could be comforting.  The adult woman also has to manage family life (children and childbirth, as well as finances, housekeeping, and care-giving to offspring, the husband, and elderly parents); there’s no leisure time, there’s no way to be carefree.  The girl, by contrast, is not restricted so heavily and has the freedom to take up many (often ‘unladylike’) roles.

Regardless of how empowering Mary Pickford could be to women and girls, men were also consuming this image.  Studlar writes:

The idea that Pickford had anything to do with pedophilia would have scandalized her admirers in the 1910s and 1920s. Yet, how often is an “aesthetic” response to an inscription of femininity […] completely unconnected to a sexual one? I do not wish to argue that Pickford appealed to male admirers who were actual pedophiles. What I do wish to suggest is that Pickford appealed to and through a kind of cultural pedophilia that looked to the innocent child-woman to personify nostalgic ideals of femininity.

Little Mary appealed to women in her freedom and charm, but she still appealed to men who praised her beauty and, significantly, her ‘cuteness’ while  enjoying her return to Victorian ideals of femininity and girlhood.  She may have been a comforting alternative for women audiences to the more obviously sexualized feminine roles of the time, but she was not without implication within patriarchal structures of gender and sexuality, and in turn still sexualized by men who equally found her characterization quite comfortable.

Today we have aesthetics like radical softness or bbhoodz which are, supposedly, not about being sexy and consumable for men.  They’re amplifications of personal vulnerability and a reveling in that which is described as ‘unattractive’ (babyish cuteness, expressions of feelings over stoicism — often accompanied by flowers, toys, pastels, gems, and a nostalgic 1990’s look) for individual pleasure.  But it’s not unattractive.  There will always be a pedophilic gaze, and although these aesthetics are not supposed to be ‘sexy,’ they are still popularized as a lot of pretty, soft women, thin and able-bodied, playing at being girls.  There is a reason why the  tropes of the barely legal college student, the sexy schoolgirl, the cheerleader, innocent college girl with her older professor, the ‘teach me daddy,’ the lolita, all exist.  On the level of the individual this is for the singular woman who engages with it.  On the level of mass representation and reproduction (like Mary Pickford) there is nothing about it which would deter a male gaze.

By contrast there is ‘weaponized femininity.’  Long nails, red lips, heavy contour, dark brows — makeup that’s noticeable and unnatural.  Again, this is not necessarily unattractive, even if  it’s not necessarily for consumption by the male gaze: it’s an amplification of femininity usually placed onto the body of the cis, able-bodied, thin young woman, often following certain traditional feminine aesthetics.  It goes against the more popular conception of the natural girl, who is always seen as the ideal: the base of the ‘beautiful girl’ (constructed by society through her visual signifiers of privilege which manifest upon her body) but who doesn’t interest herself in the frivolities of femininity, and doesn’t need to — she’s so pretty she doesn’t need makeup, she’s so naturally thin she can eat pizza and never worry about a diet.  But difference from the natural-girl does not mean unattractive.  Perhaps unattractive to some men, but not unattractive.  And when this is based on a mass level in terms of media representation, is there actually  anything oppositional about these looks, or are they just comfortable alternatives, comfortable for both the women who seek escape from patriarchal oppression, as well as comfortable for the men who consume them?

Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944)

These aesthetics are an unapologetic enjoyment of ‘feminine’ passtimes (beauty, makeup, hair, clothes, emotions, childhood games rather than adult sex or sex for pleasure rather than shamed heterosexual monogamous servitude) in the face of men who want you to be a void who’s favourite activities are watching him play video games and giving blow jobs.  But it’s not ugly, and it’s readily consumable, even if the point is that you’re doing it for yourself (you’re not defined by a man’s interests and tastes) and that in doing it for yourself you’re free to go as excessive as you like (excess only being given meaning by the men who define what ‘natural’ is).  But it’s not ugly — it’s amplifications of what’s desirable.  Perhaps these amplifications go too far for some tastes; often they do not.  Even if the intent is that it’s for you, not for men (no one is supposed to be getting off on it, and men are certainly criticizing it), it’s still consumed by men on a broader level: when something is made for the masses there is no “you,” there is not the same “personal,” and so it cannot be viewed as what makes the single woman feel empowered or good about herself as it is no longer about the single woman.  By no stretch of the imagination are these aesthetics, in the present or in the past, rejected by or attacking masculine consumption of women, even if they seem to try to present themselves as such, even if they seem to try to create safe spaces for feminine expression and pleasure — this expression and pleasure is only valid when men can partake as well.  One cannot escape from patriarchy by hiding within it.

The problem is that these aesthetics are so easily consumable, and even traditional: they go back to, as referenced above, earlier models of femininity.  And they are never ugly.  When one thinks of alternate beauty in cinema, for instance Mary Pickford’s child-woman, one can see how it is, or was, empowering.  Yet it is not detached from how consumable it was by the male gaze.  It is different, and it is comfortable for women, but is just as comfortable for men to consume.  By the same token, the looks that might be considered an excess of femininity (such as Dorothy Malone’s alcoholic nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind, or Ella Raines’ trashy masquerade as she seduces a jazz drummer in Phantom Lady) are still attractive.  They are denigrated, often contrasted with a more natural and manageable woman (Lauren Bacall’s level-headed secretary in Written on the Wind, or Ella Raines’ also level-headed secretary in Phantom Lady), but they aren’t ugly.  Being too sexy, being too cute does not distance a woman from the consumption of the male gaze.

Ugliness is different.  Ugliness is represented in the form of usually older women, fatter women, women of colour, queer women, disabled women.  Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Hatty McDaniel as Mammy in Gone With The Wind, Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: often made monstrous, the ugly woman cannot be consumed by men who have no desire for her and she is punished by a lack of humanity, spit out like something sour and rotting.  Her character is constructed to be rejected by the gaze and she is meant to disgust if she registers as vaguely human at all, but she has no power to reject the gaze herself, and could never of her own accord take up a weaponized femininity or extended girlhood to ‘challenge’ how she is being consumed.  Which begs the question: if you are still being consumed, can you be consumed in a way that is more radical?  The beautiful woman character or figure flaunts her beauty in ways that don’t destroy it; the ugly woman character or figure is not allowed to be human as the male gaze cannot digest her for disgust.

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radical softness vs ugliness!!!!; Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

For women characters, beauty is power.  Beauty is how the male lead notices you, finds value in you.  Beauty is what allows you to have agency within the story.  Beauty is also predicated on systems of oppression: it is about how thin you are, how white you look, if you’re able-bodied, if you’re cis, if you’re straight, if you have the money to keep up your beauty, if you’ve fit into the window of youth which is acceptably beautiful.  Beauty is a small box that many women do not fit into.  So can amplifications of beauty which may make some men uncomfortable be empowering acts of resistance when presented on a mass level?  Can aesthetics which work within consumable standards of femininity and exclude ugly women be broadly empowering?  No.  This is just another way for women to be eaten.  Within media, ugliness in women is debilitating.  It makes women subhuman, makes them worthy of death, and this is well known — why else would we cling to beauty and lie to ourselves that slight differences and emphasis on things which are not ugly (such as youth, innocence, sexiness, or adornment) would give beautiful women agency and power?  When you’ve moved beyond the individual woman’s aesthetic choices to the star (the Mary Pickford, the Dorothy Malone), you are no longer discussing personal empowerment of the singular woman, but about the white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist industry that is cinema (and media) and how this industry desires and devours women.  Beauty is a product of patriarchy and will never be a blanket of safety from it or a tool of attack against it.

#52FilmsByWomen in 2016

A little belatedly, in mid-January I decided to challenge myself to watch 52 films directed by women in 2016: since I talk the talk, this year I am walking the walk and pushing myself to greater gender equality in my viewing choices! I’m a little behind as of right now, but I’m confident I’ll succeed. Here’s what I’ve been watching so far!

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1. The Girl (Márta Mészáros, 1968)

The Girl is the story of a twenty-something orphan in communist Hungary who is on a quest to find her parents. Her journey leads her from Prague, where she works in a factor, to rural Hungary, where a woman who may or may not actually be her mother takes her in for a weekend. Like many New Wave films, the through plot is secondary to the action, and the characterization: Erzsi attends dances, flirts with men, and wanders around. The first Hungarian feature film directed by a woman, The Girl is a beautiful little snapshot into another time and place.

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2. Rich Hill (Tracy Droz Tragos & Andrew Droz Palermo, 2014)

Rich Hill is named for the tiny Missouri city in which it takes place: the film follows three young Rich Hill men at the brink of adulthood as they navigate life in their small town. But the film isn’t a celebration of traditional small town life; these boys all face heavy problems, like trouble at school (that leads to incarceration for some), jailed parents, and no prospects for the future. But the film treats its subjects with absolute empathy, and it’s a painful little peek into the human condition.

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3. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim, 2008)

I generally don’t like films centered on children – although I love kids (I do!), children in movies are usually too precocious to bear, or just plain non-starters. Treeless Mountain is the exception that proves the rule. The film is about two young sisters, Jin and Bin, whose mother is no longer able to care for them in Seoul, so they must move to rural South Korea to live with their alcoholic aunt. The film is told completely from the girls’ point of view – there’s not  scene that they are not in. I was impressed with how well the film captured what it’s like to be a child (the audience isn’t given any information the girls don’t have, though we’re able to understand subtext that they are not), that confusing, wonderful time when anything is possible. From making friends with a disabled neighbor, to starting their own “business” selling charred crickets as a snack, to the final third that left me on the verge of tears the entire time, Treeless Mountain is a sweet, beguiling look at childhood.

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4. 6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)

I liked Hannah Fidell’s debut film A Teacher, and I think Taissa Farmiga is one of the most talented young actresses today (she even made American Horror Story worth watching), so I was excited to catch 6 Years (streaming on Netflix US). Unfortunately, it’s a vapid story about vapid people. Farmiga and Ben Rosenfield (channeling Penn Badgeley on Gossip Girl, yuck) play college students – he just graduated, she with another year – who have been together for the titular 6 years, whose relationship runs into some incredibly predictable roadblocks. Seriously, anyone who thought they were The Most In Love With Someone as a teenager will see where this is going – maybe it’s for a younger audience who won’t just yell “You deserve so much better, girl!!!!!” at the screen the entire time. Lindsay Burdge, who was so great in A Teacher, is the bright spot of the film as a sexy older lady – someone give her a better project, please.

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5. Three Versions of Myself as Queen (Anna Biller, 1994)

Anna Biller is a genius at taking tired tropes and rewriting them for her own feminist purposes, and she does this three times in this inventive, hilarious short film. The first version is Biller as an Indian queen, tired of her mundane life, cheered up by her entourage of brightly colored female friends doing a dance number. In the second version, Biller is literally a queen bee, waiting for a new hive until her worker bees find the perfect, pink home. The third version, and my favorite, starts at a Russ Meyer-esque shindig, where everyone is mod-ly dressed and jamming to some tunes. Soon, the men all become obsessed with Biller, and turn into literal dogs, and a hero comes to save her. At the end (spoiler alert?), though, she realizes that her witch powers are greater than any male hero’s, crowns herself queen, and walks away from the scene to her castle in the sky. This is feminist praxis in action.

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6. Butterfly (Shirley & Wendy Clarke, 1967)

Mother-daughter team Shirley and Wendy Clark collaborated on this very short, very colorful experimental short, which juxtaposes lullabies with the sounds of machine gun fire to protest the Vietnam War. The film is scratched, bleached, and hand-painted to create a disorienting statement on mothers and the anti-war movement. I would absolutely love to see more mother-daughter collaborations!

Things We Currently Love: January 2016

Chelsea

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

I started DS9 last year and found the earlier season a bit tedious, but by season 4 and onwards it’s a very engaging show which has come into its on, so even though I started it in 2015 it’s more of a January 2016 obsession.  I would rank it as below The Original Series, but above The Next Generation.

Coconut Oil

During the winter my skin and hair get extremely dry, and I find that using a regular moisturizer or conditioner isn’t enough.  I leave it in my hair for an hour before showering to deep condition, use it moisturize my body, rub a very small amount over my hair to smooth it while removing frizz and static, use it as a makeup remover, and mix it with a bit of nutmeg as an exfoliant (you’ll smell like a cookie!)  But don’t leave it on your face.

Françoise Hardy/Comment te dire adieu? (1968) – Françoise Hardy

This is the only album I listen to, it’s very comforting.

Cassie

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I’m unsure if it’s fair to put a half-read book on a list of things you love but I can’t remember being this gripped by a book in such a long time. Some may suggest that I’m focusing on the wrong aspect of Yanagihara’s tale but to me, it’s a book all about the gravity of small gestures. (I know this book was on a bunch of Best of 2015 lists, but consider me perpetually late to the party).

Gardening

I’m far from a green thumb and I recently overwatered a large collection of succulents so much they up and died, but I’m trying! And it seems that trying is enough because I find that nothing is quite as calming as being wrists deep in dirt. I recently rescued a pot-bound mystery tree from my late grandfathers property and am eagerly awaiting it’s first bloom so that I can identify it.

The Psychoanalytic Geography of Alan Partridge

We can thank Paul Kingsbury for this gem. I want to highfive Kingsbury a billion times for thinking up something so simultaneously absurd and so completely ingenious. It’s both a crash course in Joan Copjec’s work on Lacan and a farcical new insight into everyone’s most loved/loathed radio show host. Trust me when I say it’s well worth getting behind that paywall. (FWIW Kingsbury’s body of work is actually pretty fascinating).

Hannah

dressing like a pink cloud — I wish to be a pastel ice queen, draped in vintage silks & angora & pale fur. I’ve been snatching up peach-pink & ivory & celadon silk 1930s tap pants, step-in teddies, and slips all winter, and incorporating them into everyday outfits. My best find is an early 40s ivory silk fischer heavenly slip with lace trim — for 20USD! It has pale pink lipstick stains across the bust, but that only makes it more endearing. Winter brings out my inner sloth, all i want to do is luxuriate under soft blankets reading, or don a furry cape, beret, and gloves & go for a very short jaunt in the park when the winter sun is high. Pantone’s choices for colour(s) of 2016 hit me close to heart. Long live pastel!

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soups — With the purchase of an immersion blender, homemade soup has never been so simple. My partner is more of the cook in our house, but I can whip up a mean butternut squash soup sans recipe. My favourite though, is our take on gombapaprikás, using whatever slightly exotic fungi you can find at the international grocery & liberal amounts of Hungarian paprika in a homemade veggie broth. In restaurants, CLT izakaya Futo Buta has my favourite ramen I’ve had in the States: fire & ice — kimchi broth, hot smoked salmon, fresh mint, cabbage, shaved carrot, radish, black sesame. by no means traditional ramen, but so amazingly delicious I wanted to lick the bowl.

“love me forever (chopped & screwed)” – young thug — This song is my go-to for the cool down during my daily dance improvisation lately. The chopped/screwed version gives a wistful lethargy to what was an upbeat, gleeful track. During the recent snowstorm, after a bit too much whiskey, L. put this song on around midnight; I was pirouetting on the ice without making a dent of a footprint, when I slid and fell hard on my right knee & left shoulder. Thanks to the booze, I didn’t feel anything. I still have a gnarly bruise.

Brandi

This January has been a struggle for me. I can feel every drop of the incessant rain in Vancouver and I’ve taken to hiding myself away in my shitty customer service job and my heavy rain boots. In times like these the only drive I have is to consume and obsess but hey, I’m content.

Some of the shit I like this month includes:

Mourning Coup

This month I’ve been listening to Mourning Coup’s debut album, Baby Blue, on (all-consuming) repeat . Mourning Coup, a Vancouver based Indigenous artist with roots in Siksika Nation, vibes a dreamy experimental pop that channels ancestor and blood memory. It’s heavy shit that’s also completely wonderful to listen to.

You can stream Baby Blue for free on soundcloud and buy the LP from No Sun Recordings ($15.00 USD).

otipêyimsiw-iskwêwak kihci-kîsikohk (Metis in Space)

Full disclosure, otipêyimisiw-iskwêwak kihci-kîsikohk (Métis In Space) is a podcast created by 2 of my good friends and listening to it is like a warm blanket. However, the concept and execution of it is so fun and so necessary that I’d be listening to it even if I hadn’t had the privilege of getting drunk with these 2 women in my offline life.

Supported by Indian & Cowboy, this podcast is all about 2 Metis women getting together, drinking a bottle of wine and reviewing sci-fi/fantasy’s use of Indigenous peoples.
I’m eternally sad I wasn’t able to appear on it while I was in Montreal but you can listen to previous episodes/subscribe to new ones here.
Be sure to listen to the episode I was supposed to appear on (Metis in Space: S.2 EP#10) in which they are subjected to Wonderfalls, teenage Brandi’s fav (created by adult Brandi’s problematic fav, Bryan Fuller).

Price-Matching

I used to be a grocery store cashier and apart from being the most miserable job I’ve ever had (including a stint cleaning up chicken blood) it taught me that I should never ever pay full price for something. My cashier job has turned me into one of the customers I used to hate: a line halting, great and terrible price-matcher. But Reebee, a customizable sales flyer and coupon clipper app, makes it easier on everyone to deal with me. Big box and chain stores will almost always price match even if it’s not advertised and I don’t really understand why people won’t do this small time corporate haggling. But don’t worry, I’ve vowed never to pay full price for tampons or bread or junk food ever again in my life.
You can download Reebee for iphone and android here.

Kathryn

01. Leave Me Alone (album), Hinds

For a long time, I wasn’t listening to new music at all and, when I was, I especially wasn’t listening to fuzzy garage pop. I figured I was done with lo-fi pop, that I had all of the lo-fi pop I needed in my life, and that I just didn’t need to go looking for that anymore. So, Leave Me Alone came as the most beautiful, pleasant surprise – dueling female vocals, lovely little guitar lines, rough around the edges in the most delightful way. Hinds reminds me of my favorite rough around the edges group, The Babies & the album opener, “Garden”, is a delightful lost anthem for wayward teens and twenty-somethings. YouTube link.

Paper Girls

02. Paper Girls (comic), Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

I’m obsessed with the brilliant and beautiful art in this comic, set in the suburbs of Cleveland in the 1980s. Vaughan and Chiang get the setting exactly right, but even better than the perfectly rendered split-level houses is the dynamite crew of these tough as nails twelve year old paper girls faced with an unimaginable extraterrestrial threat. Paper Girls is one of those comics that will assuredly be recommended to “people who don’t read comics” & I look forward to seeing it on loads of end-of-year best-of lists in about 10 months.

03. Kristaps Porzingis for Shifman Mattresses (endorsement deal)

There are many things I love about basketball, but my favorite thing is how deeply weird it can be when you shift the focus from the sport to its individual players & this story, which focuses on an endorsement deal between a purveyor of luxury bedding and a 7-foot-three 20 year-old Latvian basketball player is a wonderful example of basketball’s unexpected weirdness and whimsy.

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04. Setting Up My Desk (minor life improvement)

I’ve lived in the same house for over two years now, the longest I’ve lived in any one place since 2005. I’ve gotten so used to precarious and impermanent living situations that it’s hard to think of making space for myself to do anything. But around a year ago, I got myself a desk and this weekend I finally set it up as a proper work space and am now riding that sweet 72-hour high of feeling like I might actually get something done for once in my life.

05. Prince Charming Shower Cream (bath/shower product)

Like many people who have worked for Lush, I’ve soured on much of the company’s rhetoric and question many of their business practices, but I can’t help it – I still have a weak spot for this once-a-year Valentine’s Day product. Prince Charming was reformulated for this year’s line and, at first, I was shocked and disappointed, going so far to tell my former coworkers at Lush that I felt “betrayed,” but it ended up turning out fine. In the bottle, the pomegranate scent is much more up front than in past years (almost unpleasantly so), but once you lather up you smell the grapefruit and mallow root and it’s just a really nice dumb luxury that I look forward to whenever this time of year rolls around. Anyway, as much as I love showering with this I’m still really glad that I don’t work at Lush anymore.

Julia

January was awful, but it’s over. Here are some things I liked.

Casey Mecija

Formerly of Ohbijou and currently a badass, Casey rocks. Not only am I really enjoying her song Palms Out, I’m loving the creative ways she’s promoting her first solo endeavour. She collaborated with digital artist Sammy Rawal to have an accompanying .gif with lyrics for each song. Really well-executed creative concept. She is also one of the many artists to weigh in on important conversations about racism in Toronto/Canada’s music scene, which you should read in full.

Maman Sauvage by Geneviève Elverum (Castrée)

So, perhaps the best thing about January, and about this year, is that I am pregnant and going to meet the baby that is currently percolating in my womb. I have a womb! I am with child! That’s biblical and shit! Since I found out I was pregnant, I’ve been desperately searching for stories by anyone who resembles me in their fucked up relationship to femininity and who never necessarily planned on becoming a parent/mother. I found it in Geneviève Elverum Castrée’s poetry. It’s in French and it’s all about how weird it is to be pregnant and I was sobbing by the end of it. This book feels like it was written to be read by me while pregnant, and I’m so so happy I found it.

(Strangely enough, it was this time last year that I stumbled upon O Paôn, her music, for the first time and fell in love with that.)

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Vintage maternity tags (and the clothes that go with them)

I was lucky enough to find the motherlode of vintage maternity clothes in late 2015, and am happy to finally be forced to wear them. I use the word “forced” because I’m going to keep wearing the pieces from my regular wardrobe that still fit me as long as I can. All the details! The designs! The thinking that went in to making these pieces wearable for expanding bellies and breasts! I marvel at it all. And my favourite is probably the detailed tag designs and ridiculous puns. Coming Attractions, Expectantly Yours, Stork-A-Lure.

Amaka

Hot Pilates

Imagine paying for a service — once you pay for this service, you get to spend an hour in a heated room (generally around 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit) while an instructor enthusiastically yells at you for that entire hour. They shout at you to move your body in various ways: get on the floor. Stand up. Hold a side plank. Do some weird push-ups! Sometimes, you tune them out and want to curl into the fetal position, praying for the madness to end. Only sometimes.
My favorite thing about Hot Pilates is that by description alone, it sounds horrendous. But it’s addictive! For me, no class feels easy, giving me room to improve, strengthen poses, and push through mentally when physically, my body has had it. It’s fun, I promise.

Wearing shoes that make me taller

Being 6’1” matters to me in the way that it has to matter — it’s what people notice about me, and often ask about. My height has been the the subject of debate for folks in denial (why would I lie? Why?), an opportunity to help strangers reach high items at grocery stores, and a great way to be selected early to join a basketball team in high school gym class, despite being…not very good at basketball.
As a tall woman, wearing heeled shoes can be an intimidating feat when you’re already much taller than most people. But in my case, sometimes the purchase of a great shoe is just too tempting. You buy one pair of heeled brogues, and you never look back.
This month, I bought 4 pairs of shoes, all with a slight heel — 2-3 inches, I’d guess. Though my priority with all clothing is comfort, I have begun to love having the option of wearing something that literally elevates me, albeit temporarily.

Not Mackelmore

I do not like Macklemore. I LOVE not liking Macklemore. I really enjoy not liking any of his songs. I am overjoyed when I see headlines that will lead me to articles about him online, so that I do not click on those links. I am not sure if this is breaking the rules, to talk about something that I don’t like. If it is, I am okay with breaking the rules.

READING LIST: February 1

January was very long, but here’s what we were reading.

What have you been reading? Let us know in the comments!