Girls’ Best Friend

GPB cafe

“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a romping example of female agency in limited circumstances. These women work and play together, wresting their power and pleasures from the hands of men with relish.” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes upends tired sexist tropes, indulges the female gaze, and showcases fierce female friendship. My new essay, today at The Toast!

of one’s own

My beautiful, sleek MacBook Air is really and truly dead, and I would like to memorialize my fallen friend.

If that sounds over-emotional, I can understand. But it was a gift from The Fella, who saved up for a whole year to surprise me with it. It was both a huge (expensive) treat and a symbol of faith in my writing. He knew that I needed my own computer, not the one we shared for years, and when I could not even afford to dream of it, he made it happen.

No longer having to share a computer was, for me, the modern equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s “a room of one’s own” — it gave me all the breadth and time I needed to grow as a writer, to value my own work as much as my husband’s (paying) writing, and to let my instincts and impulses move me to write more than my (and his) schedule.

On that MacBook, I wrote my first published article. On that MacBook, I stored my first paying contracts and received my first money for writing. On that MacBook, I earned my first income in several years. On that MacBook, I learned how to edit photos to accompany my first published recipes. On that MacBook, I applied for a dream job, a job so far beyond my then-current hopes that I assumed I was applying just for practice, and on that MacBook, I learned to my astonishment that I got it.

That MacBook gave me freedom and hope and opportunity. I am so grateful for it. I know it’s just a hunk of metal and plastic and circuits, and now that’s all it will ever be, but it was also a little box of dreams. And I made them come true.

effrontery for old men

cormacmccarthy
[image from The Toast]

He could not vary the length of his utterance and he could not cow himself to the laws of punctuating or naming for the ease of some imagined imaginary reader. It was cold in the writers room and he would make no fire. No fire to warm his cold hands where the skin cracked and bled against the typewriter keys, no fire to warm his heart to any but the white man who stood all but nameless at the center of his story, a pole on which the gaunt remnants of a person draped in the sepulchral twilight as the sun went down. Went down for the last time maybe, he didnt know.

the mother of all fears

Bunny Lake dolls

“Movies about mothers – mothers’ relationship with their children, children’s relationship with their mothers – can trade in easy sentiment or melodrama. But motherhood isn’t all swaddling and coddling and comfortable archetypes. In the rough terrain where a woman becomes a mother, she can feel she’s been corralled, her personality, her persona, her entire independent self suddenly defined largely by her actual or idealized connection to a child. These three thrillers tap into the poignancy and pressures that many mothers face, digging into the complicated web of social expectations in a world that both mythologizes and devalues motherhood, while translating the everyday tensions of caregiving into the language of the fantastic and the grotesque.”

Today at The Toast, my essay about motherhood as depicted in Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Others, and El Orfanato.

Dial M for Motif

Dial M scissors“Superficially, Dial M for Murder (1954) looks unambitious, a simple stage-to-set recreation of Frederick Knott’s hit play. Even Hitchcock, perhaps disingenuously, described it as a phoned-in effort knocked off between the location shooting of I, Confess and the elaborate staging of Rear Window. But the tightly-staged thriller bristles with symbols of objectification and possession, reducing Margot Wendice to a property passed from hand to hand, from man to man, as readily as the key around which the plot revolves.”

Today at The Toast, my analysis of symbols in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

a man without a family

[note: This isn’t pretty and polished. I’m hammering out rough ideas about True Detective, specifically examining the gender roles of the show and how they are apparently employed as a plot point. This is written after S1E6 aired, and I’m curious to see how it lines up with what we’ll learn in the last two episodes airing in March. Next: the overlooked girls of the Light of the Way School.]

Detective Martin Hart of HBO’s True Detective immerses the show in his literally paternalistic view of the world. in the first few minutes of Ep1, “The Long Bright Dark,” he describes several types of cop, wrapping up with “There can be a burden in authority, in vigilance, like a father’s burden. It was too much for some men.”

Marty neatly pierces his father-in-law’s rants about The Young People Today as old-fogey self-centeredness, but hours later he’s incapable of seeing his own self-centered assurance that his wife and daughters exist only for his comfort and convenience. After cutting short their planned family day, Marty stands by and complains while Maggie makes dinner. Having finally deigned to spend some time with his wife and daughters, he’s upset to face criticism at home, “the one place where there’s supposed to be peace and calm!” Maggie retorts “Who told you that? It’s not always that way. It’s not supposed to be,” but Marty continues with staggering assurance, “It’s supposed to be what I want, it’s supposed to help me.”

For years, Marty luxuriates in the unthinking privilege of believing that his wife, his daughters, his home life all revolve around his pleasure and convenience, as well as the larger conviction that women exist to serve, or service, men. Maggie and Audrey both clearly, concisely refute that idea, but Marty never seems to take it in. He can’t hear what’s spoken to his face, and he can’t see what’s right in front of him.

Marty muses “past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” In context, he’s talking about his partner, Rust Cohle, but ss Rust points out “People that give me advice, I reckon they’re talking to themselves.”

Marty has become that bad thing, a man without a family. His wife manages to break the cycle of adultery, forgiveness, and reconciliation that has kept her trapped in their marriage by herself transgressing, and so egregiously that Marty cannot overlook or forgive it. She breaks off from him, and given Audrey and Maisey’s hostility and distance toward Marty in their teen years, and their later invisibility, it seems unlikely that they have much relationship with their insensitive, condescending, absent, neglectful father.

He does concede sorrowfully that “the solution to my whole life – that woman, those kids – was right under my nose, and I was watching everything else,” but Marty doesn’t seem to have internalized that harsh truth. Like most of the truths Marty hears about himself, it runs right off his back, even when he’s the one uttering it. Even after his wife forces an irreconcilable split, Marty comfortably invokes family – lumped in with “routine,” especially the busywork of running his own PI and security business – as a sustaining force keeping him active and engaged rather than an enterprise worthy of his attention and nurturing love.

Given his bedrock belief that women exist as accessories and ancillaries to their men, it’s no surprise that Marty also tries to prevent his young girlfriend Lisa from sleeping with other men, even if he has to frighten her into chastity. When we first see Marty visit her apartment, he breaks confidence about the ongoing investigation, urging Lisa to stay home, to stop going to bars and on dates, lest she be murdered like Dora Kelly Lange.

Lisa doesn’t seem fazed by her lover comparing her modest outings to the hazards brooked by a truck-stop sex worker with a handful of drug habits and several criminal acquaintances. She points out that Marty’s trying to have his cake and eat it by keeping her cloistered and waiting for him without making any commitment to her. Marty counters “What good is cake if you can’t eat it?”

Jan, the proprietor of the bunny ranch, immediately pegs Marty as a man keen to control women’s sexual agency. When he spouts outrage at the presence of an underaged sex worker on the ranch, she characterizes his indignation as “holy bullshit” that’s based not on the young woman’s sexual victimization but on her audacity in using sex to make money and control her own destiny rather than performing it as a favor owed to men. “Girls walk this Earth all the time screwing for free. Now, why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you. It’s ’cause suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.”

Marty’s speech to the two young men caught in a car with his daughter Audrey suggests there’s truth in Jan’s assessment. Just before delivering a brutal beating, Marty taunts them from outside the jail cell, concluding “A man’s game charges a man’s price.” He’s explicitly posing sex – even with his underaged daughter – as a sport for men, and with a price exacted by men.

His logic twists around in a self-serving loop: when he spends his nights getting drunk and banging his girlfriends, he rationalizes it as a necessary release that a police officer, tasked with terrible duties and witness to unspeakable horrors, must take release and catharsis where he finds it “or where it finds you. I mean, in the end, it’s for the good of the family.”

Marty explicitly compares his duties as a lawman to his responsibilities as a father, and it’s no stretch at all to imagine that this includes a responsibility to provide release for those in authority and to cover it up for the good of society, the larger family of humankind.

Rust Cohle’s view of the same question is bleaker. As he tells his drug-supplier, the “Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I could do terrible things to people with impunity.”

Marty Hart’s taxonomy of police is brief and vivid: “We all fit a certain category – the bully, the charmer, the, uh, surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage, the brain.” From the first moments, I was convinced that the end of Marty’s list described himself and his partner: the man possessed of ungovernable rages and the brain. We’ve since seen Marty’s furies given free rein, and seen Rust’s homespun nihilism and seemingly meticulous attention spin its web around suspects and interrogators alike. Next, I hope to outline the ways in which both Marty’s passions and Rust’s obsessive study both overlook the crucial points of their shared case.