ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Imperfect Male Artist: From Pablo Picasso to Kanye West, We’re Still Fascinated by Jerks

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Imperfect Male Artist: From Pablo Picasso to Kanye West

Soon after David Bowie’s death, many bloggers expressed unease at valorizing a man who slept with 15-year olds, pointing out that Bowie was yet another
“problematic fave,” the go-to internet term that can be used to describe
anything from a mild social gaffe to a history of sexual assault. Like
clockwork, Bowie defenders asserted that the 70s were a different time and place and that the “baby groupies” who Bowie slept with don’t express that what they experienced was rape at all.

Like most Internet Wars, the focus quickly became about the individual—whether we should herald Bowie for his tremendous legacy, or condemn him as a rapist. Both Erin Keane at Salon and Jia Tolentino at Jezebel stressed a more nuanced look at the complicated issue of separating art from artist, while in his essay, “Celebrity deaths and the ‘problematic fave’: Enough with the moral tug-of-war between “hero” and “villain” legacies,” Arthur Chu fell back on a stand-by argument about bad men who make good art:

“So yes, in a way I am saying that if you’re a fan of the awesome feminist triumph that is 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” then you owe something to the horrific abusive racist bigot Mel Gibson. You don’t have to like him or “forgive” him, but if he hadn’t been there–and I’m not just arguing in terms of acting talent but in terms of all his deep and wide-ranging flaws–then a great work of art might not exist.”

Chu’s argument, that bad behavior, though not exactly excusable, is often inextricably wed to the production of art is deeply embedded in our culture. The idea that artists in particular must be permitted to be “bad”—that the artist must, in some ways, be allowed to be overly dramatic or reckless, or self-injuring, or obsessed with alcohol or drugs or sex, in order to be a creative powerhouse, is a mainstay in popular discourse.

After all, many of the most challenging and talented artists we still today herald
are men who, in their personal lives, were outright jerks: from Pablo Picasso to
Kanye West, from Ernest Hemingway to Roman Polanski, we not only tolerate male “bad behavior,” we often see it as the necessary backdrop against which male artists create.

For all the talk of the current age of outrage culture—how it’s changing the face of online discourse or demanding that certain ideas should be censored—the reality is that we live in a culture that continues to praise macho artistic swagger. We tolerate Roman Polanski’s and Woody Allen’s sins, precisely because there seems to be a prevailing attitude that if they were different, better men, they might not be as actively creative. Likewise, we tacitly permit Kanye West’s wildly misogynistic tirades against his ex Amber Rose, as well as his odd ongoing feud with Taylor Swift, precisely because his brand of in-your-face bravado is seen as an element of his innovative albums.

Where do women fit into this culture? If in today’s world the male artist is still heralded for dangerous and destructive “risk-taking,” the female artist is generally heralded for being a role model. Artists like Beyoncé are required to not only produce work that is compelling and edgy, but to also appear effortlessly poised and perfect while doing it. If today’s female characters are allowed the latitude of being jerks like never before, the creators of series like “Transparent,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Scandal” are also expected to be Hollywood’s moral compasses, ushering in a world of greater representation, better public policies, and feminist awakenings. The female artist who has “lifestyle problems” ranging from addiction (a la Britney Spears), to shoplifting (a la Winona Ryder) to violent behavior (a la Amy Winehouse) is seen in need of reformation, a “trainwreck” who must be saved. This is in stark contrast to Hollywood celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray, whose colorful pasts, and even run-ins with the law, are seen as edgy and endearing, rather than deeply troubling.

The attitude where “male artists will be male artists” is an unsettling double
standard. In some cases, the tacit acceptance of male artists as likely to be a
bit rough around the edges is harmless, but in others, as is the case with
stars like Charlie Sheen and Woody Allen, the result is a long line of women
coming forward with claims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Moreover, the conversations we are having online tend to focus on demonizing individual men, rather than discussing a culture in which an artist like David Bowie traveled in a world where bedding 14-year old groupies was considered normal, or a world in which R. Kelly is laughed about rather than looked at with true disdain.

I think one reason Bowie fans felt so exhausted by the discourse surrounding his relationship with young female fans, is that it felt like a “gotcha” moment,
rather than a serious discussion about the ways that our culture permits,
excuses, or even pressures artists to behave in certain ways. It’s not fair to
expect celebrities to be “perfect” but it’s equally strange to see predatory or
abusive behavior as arguably normal. While some who protest the double standard are eager for the day that women are given equal opportunity to engage in the same antics that many male artists do, without judgment, I think a more revolutionary change would be to live in a world where kindness is seen as cooler than cockiness, and a world where we can distinguish between behaviors which are quirky and offbeat and those that really do hurt others.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Women’s Bodies and the Outrage Machine

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Women’s Bodies and the Outrage Machine

nullIn 2007 I was working part time in a Borders bookstore while completing my MFA. It’s not uncommon in service jobs that customers will say completely strange, off-putting, or frustrating things, but one comment clearly stands out to me as most painful. Two men were standing at the register, chatting and looking at the magazines, one of which featured Jennifer Love Hewitt on its cover, wearing a black bikini and swimming in the ocean. She was smiling broadly and looked like she was having fun, even though all the recent articles about her pointed out that she had clearly gained a lot of weight.

The men laughed at how fat she looked, and then one looked at me. “Remember when she was young? She used to look like you. Nice and thin.”

The men were probably in their thirties or early forties and not in very good shape. One had a beer belly that very clearly hung over his jeans. I didn’t know what to say. In a world where the customer is always right, well-meaning managers will do anything to placate a difficult customer, rather than come to workers’ defense. And in this particular case, the boorish comment was even meant to have been softened with a supposed compliment. But underneath that compliment was also a very clear warning—that gaining weight or getting older was clearly a hilarious and utterly unacceptable thing for a woman to do.

I thought of this experience when reading about the hostile barbs and insults hurled at Carrie Fisher for recently daring to resume her role of Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even though her body had changed as she got older. The response was uncomfortable precisely because the later film was deliberately crafted in order to show Leia growing up, going from princess to general, changing her hairstyle, sharing a bittersweet moment with Han Solo, who had also aged, but who received no contempt from audiences when he did not remain a young heartthrob.

We tend to think of media as something we passively accept, rather than actively engage, even though the advent of social media has obviously changed that dynamic significantly. Our constant interaction with media images, from tweets, to blog posts, to internet think pieces, would, on the surface, seem to assume that we are more sophisticated media consumers than in the past. But I would argue our relationship to images has stayed relatively the same as always; only now we spend even more effort contorting ourselves into the same images we see on the screen, editing our faces, Photoshopping thigh gap. We torment each other more directly with the comforting shield of anonymity. Social media hasn’t humanized actors; it’s dehumanized the rest of us, turning us into easy targets and prey.

Issues of body image are not new. Every semester I have a new class of students, and every semester I have several young female students who want to write about body image. “There’s so much pressure today,” they say. “Being a teenage girl is the worst thing in the world.” They don’t think about whether women in their 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s worry about the same things. They seem confident that eventually this specific kind of pain is going to stop.

Every year reveals another ad campaign intended to supposedly make girls and women feel more confident, to make women feel less like failures. We get realistic Barbies, and dolls with less makeup, and then with more makeup. We get memes and hashtag campaigns. We get girl power anthems. We get Notorious RBG. We get Star Wars films with girl heroes and princesses who become generals. But the problem is still there.

The cycle of shaming women and then exalting them when they refuse to be reduced to exceptionally limited views of beauty is exhausting, and it’s not getting us anywhere. I feel terrible that I don’t feel liberated by Carrie Fisher’s response, because I do admire her tremendous resolve to not let other people bully her online. But I think the problem is bigger than Carrie Fisher, who was lauded when she was younger for dieting and working out to fit into that famous gold bikini, and was likewise encouraged to diet for her role in The Force Awakens. It’s bigger than Beyoncé telling us to “feel ourselves” and then also appear in an advertisement for her new vegan diet. It’s bigger than the exceptionally talented Jennifer Lawrence consistently getting roles to play women 10-15 years older than she actually is, at a time when women only a little older than Lawrence talk about struggling to find roles. It’s bigger than Oprah encouraging women to love their bodies and then expressing how ashamed she feels of her own.

Outrage culture makes some people feel empowered to effect social change through collective criticism, demands, and boycotting. But the reality is that cultural change takes time and, for issues related to women’s bodies in particular, things haven’t changed very much since the advent of the Mad Men era.  We still want to be beautiful and loved. We still want to be seen. We carefully craft our own image so that we can be Instagram-perfect, so that we can all be like movie stars in our own personal magazines.

For some bizarre reason, a few months ago I found that someone, somewhere, had signed me up for a subscription to Teen Vogue. I’ve been incredibly amused. I’ve been saving the magazines, curious to see what teen girls today are like, and I find it a bizarro version of what being a teen girl actually felt like. After all, in the magazine, everyone is beautiful and popular and pretty and has nice hair. Everyone looks like they are having the time of their lives.

Of course, being a teenager was often awful and none of us felt beautiful or cool, at least not all of the time. But riffling through Teen Vogue as an adult, I am struck with a strange sense of nostalgia for a teenage life I never really experienced—a world where youth is constructed as eternally beautiful and joyful. Often, these magazines sell feminism as much as they are selling makeup or fashion. The magazines’ editors seem to have incredibly short memories, forgetting that many of the fashions we are being sold as new have actually been around for years. After all, it’s the illusion of newness that sells articles. Perhaps that’s why when so many headlines have praised Fisher for her “revolutionary” statements, I remain relatively cynical. Until “body positivity” isn’t sold back to us as a new kind of consumer culture fantasy, nothing is actually going to change.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Inside Out’ and Today’s Reductive Emotional Landscape

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Inside Out’ and Today’s Reductive Emotional Landscape

nullIn 1943, Walt Disney Studios released a cartoon called ‘Reason and Emotion‘ which depicted man’s inner life as a battlefield between sensible Reason, portrayed as an elegant little man with a suit, tie, and glasses, and wild man Emotion, portrayed as a small caveman. In the cartoon, Reason and Emotion battled for control inside a man’s head, seen in silhouette, with Reason confidently driving in front and Emotion dejectedly confined to the backseat. When Reason spies a beautiful young woman on the street he suggests being respectful, while Emotion attempts to take Reason’s place at the wheel by encouraging cat calls and whistles. When the camera zooms inside the young woman’s head, we see a similar scenario, with Reason portrayed as a prim and proper woman with glasses, while Emotion, with her loose hair and short skirt, tries to take control of the wheel, so that she can get dessert, ruining poor sensible Reason’s diet.

It’s clear that our cultural attitude about the role of emotion (as well as gender roles) has evolved significantly since 1943. Pixar’s latest film, ‘Inside Out,’ portrays a world where the emotions—Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Joy—play equal and important roles in helping Riley, the film’s young heroine, navigate the world around her. The film starts with Joy taking the helm, but ends with the express argument that as 11-year old Riley grows up she will need to confront new situations, and that each emotion will play an important role in helping her to navigate this new landscape.

Critics have rightly gushed over ‘Inside Out’—at Slate, Amanda Marcotte notes how wonderfully universal the film’s themes are and also points out the strong feminist undercurrent about how girls shouldn’t be encouraged to mask their feelings and put on a happy face.  Many critics also note the sheer gorgeousness of the Pixar world inside Riley’s head. Anthony Lane at The New Yorker declares, “On the scale of inventiveness, ‘Inside Out’ will be hard to top this year. As so often with Pixar, you feel that you are visiting a laboratory crossed with a rainbow.”

If the world of ‘Reason and Emotion’ portrayed a landscape where emotion was seen as dangerous, the world of ‘Inside Out’ portrays a world where emotional lives are stunningly compartmentalized. Core memories, portrayed as brightly colored orbs, are located at the forefront of Riley’s mind, while older memories are either stowed or thrown away into a vast sea of memories that no longer seem to matter. Riley’s overall quality of life and personality is based on the health of each of her core “islands”—one is based on family, one on “goofball,” another one sports. These islands are surprisingly fragile, completely disintegrating when Riley encounters a situation that is hurtful, or frightening, or frustrating. When Riley’s core memories are threatened after she moves from Minnesota to California, feelings Joy and Sadness must begin an epic quest to place them where they rightfully belong.

Riley’s emotional world in ‘Inside Out’ is portrayed as inherently fragile; her “islands of personality” for example, are portrayed as actual physical islands made of real raw materials that crumble and break and disappear forever when Riley’s trust in those worlds is diminished. This physical representation of memory is shaped by our current cultural moment as much as Disney’s 1940s portrayal of reason and emotion was.  After all, Riley’s increasingly complex collection of memories looks a lot like the way we collect and store memories online today, with happy ones on proud visible display on our Facebook timelines and Instagram accounts, and sad ones minimized, covered up, or pushed to the side.

In ‘Inside Out,’ all of our emotional worlds seem dangerously close to extinction. Each of Riley’s personified emotions is reactive when encountering a new situation. Anger blows his top. Disgust turns up her nose. Fear flails around terrified. The film’s core message, that emotions, even Sadness, who at first seems quite useless, play key important roles in helping to maintain Riley’s emotional stability, seems in some ways to reject the notion of reason whatsoever. When entering the heads of Riley’s parents, for example, we see older, wiser “mom” and “dad” versions of these same five emotions, each of whom, often to comical effect, struggles with many of the same feelings that Riley does.

‘Inside Out’ illustrates how we live in a world that is on the surface much more open to the complexities of our emotional inner worlds than was the 1943 world of ‘Reason and Emotion.’ And yet, in many ways ‘Inside Out’ also reflects just how reductive today’s emotional landscape ultimately is. In today’s current cultural climate we are rarely given the latitude to express a complicated emotional response to something we read and see. The world of social media encourages knee jerk reactions—a like, or dislike, an outraged tweet. We’re allowed to feel the same five emotions that Riley experiences—joy, fear, disgust, sadness, and especially anger, but are rarely encouraged for sharing emotions that are too complex to boil down to a hashtag. We live in a world where emotions are plentiful, but they are also stock responses that don’t allow for very much in the way of nuance.

In the end of ‘Inside Out,’ Sadness saves the day, as Riley is able to express the complex emotions of nostalgia and grief, which are depicted as an intermingling of joy and sadness, and Riley’s core memories are allowed to shift hues from purely golden to shades of blue. But the final scene is a bit more unsettling, as Riley’s emotions consider a far more advanced motherboard, along with a large red button labeled, “puberty” that has yet to be pushed yet. While ‘Inside Out’ presents emotional growth as a natural transition from childhood to adulthood, it also presents a relatively modern cultural attitude that expressing emotion, even emotions that can be upsetting or unpleasant like fear, anger or sadness, can actually be a good thing. As a parable for coming-of-age in a digital world ‘Inside Out’ also suggests that we are still learning how to communicate our emotions to one another in ways that help us establish dialogues, as opposed to emotional battlefields where feelings are often wielded as weapons to protect ourselves or hurt the other person.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

Watch: Why ‘Mad Men’ Is a Personal Experience

Watch: Why ‘Mad Men’ Is a Personal Experience

Mad Men is a show about the odd relationship that human beings have with the past—our desire to escape coupled with our desire to hang on. On Mad Men nostalgia is dangerous, deceptive, illusory.

When Mad Men first came out eight years ago, friends hosted theme parties with tailored clothes and twist and shout dances, bars had Mad Men themed events, with cocktails named after the characters, clothing stores like Banana Republic opened up their own Mad Men themed clothing lines.

Over the course of the last eight years we’ve acknowledged the casual sexism and racism of the 60s, while also distancing ourselves from it. I ran into people at parties who swooned over Don’s primal masculinity, who laughed at sexist and racist moments, as if they were an inside joke.

Mad Men’s construction has always been seductive, all the beauty and sex and money and cars. We keep coming back even after we see that its an illusion, when Don’s house is emptied, when Betty is diagnosed with cancer from those same cigarettes we couldn’t help thinking were beautiful and sexy and dangerous in all the best ways.

Mad Men has always also been a mirror, forcing us to look at our own choices and see how deeply they are marred in the culture we live in. I was first introduced to the series by an ex who smoked cigarettes and loved whisky and cinema and sad films as much as I did. When we fought I often felt like one of the women of Mad Men, desperate to keep up appearances, to hide tears with makeup, to throw used liquor bottles in the trash. I’ve seen myself in every female character on Mad Men: when Betty shot those birds, when Joan knocked her fiancé out with her flowers, when Sally got those go-go boots.

But I didn’t think of these women when I left that relationship and started my life ostensibly over; I thought of Don, those empty shots of office rooms and open highways, of New York skylines and the California sun.

Despite strange protests that Mad Men is really all about the women, the truth is Mad Men has always been about Don. No character on Mad Men is capable of evolution the way that Don is, if not for himself than for the advertising culture he lives for. The ending of the series is ambiguous—does Don find peace? Does he use his experience in California as the foundation for a beloved and manipulative Coca Cola ad that defined the 70s?

The final episode of Mad Men reinforces the show’s allure for me, as well as its fundamental tensions. I’m still half in love with and half terrified of what I’m being sold. In the beginning Don tells us that, “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” By the end, Don is moved to tears by the unmemorable man named Leonard who explains how deeply unloved he feels even though he knows the people in his life who he cares about are trying. Don’s response to Leonard’s opening up is the exact opposite response he received when he opened up about his own past at the Hershey pitch the previous season, when he was basically fired from his position for opening up about a past he is deeply private and emotional about.

Don has tried to fill a void in his heart with any number of vices. It’s telling that when Don calls Peggy, he doesn’t lead with his secret past, but the myriad ways he has been disloyal to the people he truly loved the most. “I broke all my vows.”

We can’t help being who we are, even when who we are is so deeply shaped by the culture we live in. In some ways, the hippie retreat is a relief and respite from the stiff, unfeeling world of advertising that Don comes from. But, at the end of the day, it’s just peddling another set of wares. Does Don’s meditation forgive him of his sins? “You always run away,” Peggy tells him over the phone and it’s true. If anything, the hero of this series is Sally, dutifully cancelling her trip to Madrid, so that she can help her mother and brothers at home.

But that’s not who we are poised to identify with at the end.

Though Mad Men has always fiercely critiqued the patriarchy, it is also very much the product of the time in which it was created. For the past eight years we have seen many series featuring a white, male antihero who finds some kind of redemption—steely, hard eyed, with an emotionally soft core. The women in these series have been given a far greater capacity for rich interior lives, but we also are still poised to see other women in the series as mere objects. We view these women through the eyes of the ad men themselves, the camera panning up and down legs, breasts and other disembodied body parts, whether in pencil dress or mini skirt.

To be a woman on Mad Men is to endure hurt after hurt, and brief moments of sisterhood and solidarity. At the very end, Peggy is afforded a possibility for romance that is still predicated on a man wanting her, rather than someone she has been overtly longing for. At the very end, Joan makes a decision, but finds she can’t have it all either.

At the start of Mad Men, I hated Don—I couldn’t stand his smugness, his womanizing, his lies, his cruelty in the workplace and at home. But after watching this show for eight years I began to see myself in him in small ways, especially in moments where the façade of ease would break.

Many of the reasons I will mourn the end of Mad Men do feel intensely personal. If you watch something for eight years, even something you felt profoundly ambivalent about, you’ll eventually start to have feelings for it, or at least for the YOU that was watching it. A lot has happened over the last eight years. I lost friendships, gained them and lost and gained them again. I started and left different jobs. I lost my grandparents. I mended my relationship with my parents. I learned to love in new ways, to love more deeply, and more carefully. I felt my soul crack open and felt parts of me sewn shut, and then I let parts of myself be open all over again. At the end of Mad Men, Don is the same person he was at the start, older, wiser, slightly changed, but still with that same wonderful, terrible core. Our identity is as malleable as we let it be, except when it’s not. By the end of the series we still want more, but at least we’ve learned to listen.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

Serena Bramble is a film editor whose montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Women in Noah Baumbach’s Films: Gentleness as Strength

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Women in Noah Baumbach’s Films: Gentleness as Strength

nullIn Noah Baumbach’s most recent
film, ‘While We’re Young,’ the smartest person in the room is Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a talented
ice cream maker and the young wife of an ambitious young film director named
Jamie (Adam Driver), who, we find out later on, is also stealing many of her ideas. While the
film on surface is about aging and art, a major subtext of ‘While We’re Young’
has to do with the ways that gender dynamics shape relationships. After all,
even though there is a twenty-year age gap between Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), and Jamie
and Darby, the men in both couples push away the possibility for true
collaboration with their wives.

In A.O. Scott’s review of the film,
he argues that gender is a major blindspot in Baumbach’s films. He comments on
the fact that Baumbach, like many other male film directors, treats ambition
like it’s “…a guy thing. Men make movies. Women make ice cream and babies, or
help the men make the movies.” But where Scott sees a pat dismissal of the
female experience, I think Baumbach is actually doing something more
challenging with his female characters. In a world where we often doubt whether
female characters can still be perceived as “strong” if they long for romance
or babies, Baumbach offers a vision of femininity in which there is power in being

Films like ‘The Squid and The Whale’, ‘Greenberg,’ and ‘While We’re Young’ are fascinated with the lives of men who are
often disdainful of their female companions, too self-absorbed to acknowledge
them as having an interior world that is equally as complex as their own. 

In ‘The Squid and The Whale,’ for
example, we see husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels), expressing contempt for his ex-wife’s
burgeoning literary accomplishments as he flounders and fails to write a
successful new novel. The father’s frustration with his wife’s success
manifests as misogynistic instructing of his own son, Walt. He implores him not
settle down too soon, and seems to be unimpressed by the looks and talent of
his son’s girlfriend, who is portrayed as exceptionally warm, smart and kind,
actually reading the books her boyfriend professes to have read.

Likewise, in ‘Greenberg,’ Florence (Greta Gerwig),
the young housekeeper who is trying to figure out life, is portrayed as far
more stable, dependable, smart and interesting than older and supposedly wiser
Roger (Ben Stiller), who suffers from extreme anxiety, and just as extreme narcissism. It is
clear throughout ‘Greenberg’ that Florence could do a lot better than Roger, but
the criticism that Florence is not a developed character, or exists merely to
inspire change in Roger, seems patently unfair. Throughout the film Florence is
portrayed as bright and vivacious, though she is very insecure, and the film
begins and ends by focusing on her perspective, rather than Roger’s.

As a feminist critic I’ve been
taught to be wary of female characters like Florence, young, talented and
beautiful, yet strangely vulnerable, and willing to put up with a lot of male
bad behavior. We’re in an anti manic pixie dream girl moment, perhaps the
backlash from a few years where every female character on screen seemed to have
a bit of manic pixie dream girl magic about her. Initially meant to describe a
particular type of inspirational female character who existed to help a male
narrator along his journey, the term came to mean any female character who was
portrayed as quirky, gentle, and offbeat. 

Even the creator of the term,
Nathan Rabin, would eventually apologize for inadvertently creating the clichéd buzzword.  In his 2014 piece for Salon, he argues that
the term is actually being used to devalue female characters, rather than
criticize the limited roles that women have on screen. The term manic pixie
dream girl is used to criticize a particular kind of girl, one who likes Zooey
Deschanel bangs, and kittens, and quirky, gentle things, like knitting and
xylophones and pretty art.

In short, the term has evolved as a
kind of catch-all to dismiss female artistic potential. Youthful male energy is
cast as exhilarating, creative and powerful, while youthful female energy is presented
as lacking gravitas. (A male ice-cream maker with the kind of talent Darby
exhibits would be presented as a talented businessman, not a burgeoning
housewife, as AO Scott suggests in his review.)

As Eva Wiseman argues in her review
of Miranda July’s latest novel, ‘The First Bad Man,’ female creative talent is often dismissed
with words like quirky, as if liking glitter and kittens is antithetical to
producing work that is serious and substantive.

She says of July’s novel, “Loneliness is not trivial. Death is not cute.
To call stories like this quirky is to admit that you haven’t really listened.
Occasionally a male artist is labelled quirky, but usually because his style is
perceived as feminine. ‘Surreal.’ In fact, male artists who are similar to
July, whose work is unusual and prolific and who divides critics, are likely to
be labelled geniuses. A genius, perhaps, is a male artist whose work is
difficult to define. While with a female artist we have the word right here,
ready. It’s ‘quirky’.”

Later in her article, Wiseman goes
on to suggest that the use of manic pixie dream girls in films contributes to
invalidating the importance of female creativity. In reality, I think it’s the
disdain for femininity that leads us to assume that delicate female characters
are unworthy of respect or recognition. The female characters in Baumbach’s
films may often be dealing with men who have the potential to lash out and be
abusive, but that doesn’t mean they are shrinking violets.  At the end of ‘The Squid and The Whale,’ a son
who idealizes his father learns to see their divorce from the perspective of
his mother. At the end of ‘Greenberg,’ Florence listens to a rambling message
from Roger. At the start of the movie she pleaded with traffic, “Are you going
to let me in?” In the end, she is the one who gets to answer that question.
Will she continue to date Roger? Will she let him go? Florence’s becoming aware
of her own power is just as important in the film as Roger coming to terms with
his being an abusive jerk a lot of the time.

A look at Noah Baumbach’s women
would be incomplete without a consideration of the brilliant and beautiful
film, ‘Frances Ha,’ a film that is first and foremost about female friendship. In
it, two young women, Frances and Sophie, grow together and apart from each
other, as they each struggle to make it, both professionally and personally, in
New York. In one of the most moving and memorable moments in the movie, Frances
drunkenly describes what she wants out of a relationship to a few acquaintances
she has just met at a dinner party:

“It’s that thing when
you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and
you know it… but it’s a party… and you’re both talking to other people, and
you’re laughing and shining… and you look across the room and catch each
other’s eyes… but—but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely
sexual… but because… that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and
sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that
exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s
sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we
don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s—That’s what I want out of a
relationship. Or just life, I guess.”

Towards the very end
of the film, Baumbach presents a scene at a party celebrating Frances’
choreography for a modern dance show, where we see Frances and Sophie lock
eyes. “That’s Sophie. She’s my best friend.” While a show like ‘Girls’ often
paints girliness as vapid or cruel (we spend a lot of time waiting for Hannah
and her friends to grow up and stop being girls, after all), ‘Frances Ha’ insists
on a vision of female friendship that is imperfect, but also genuinely tender.

There were echoes of
this kind of gentle warmth in another one of my favorite films about women’s
lives and relationships, ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ (another film about women
directed by a man) where the young lovers meet again, years later at an art
show. At a time when many feel skeptical about the ability of male artists to
effectively convey the female experience, I remain heartened by the idea that
the creation of interesting, complex characters is not limited by one’s
experience of gender. At a time where “strong female characters” are still
often thought of in regards to the “warrior” archetype (the Ripleys and
Furiosas of the screen), it’s refreshing to see a portrayal of femininity that
doesn’t need to be pumped up or loud or physically powerful. It just needs to
be genuinely human.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: How ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Skewers Empowerment Culture

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: How ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Skewers Empowerment Culture

nullBack in the early 2000s, a friend and I worked together on
creating a musical medley based on all our favorite songs. We featured artists from
Ani Difranco to Radiohead. Our favorite silly addition was a song by Ja Rule
and Ashanti called “Mesmerize” which was utterly and fantastically terrible. In
my favorite line of this atrocious song Ashanti sings about how, for a woman,
love is always pain, to which Ja Rule sweetly and patronizingly replies, “It’s
a man’s world. But I understand.” 

Barring the fact that these lyrics seem like a complete non
sequitur, the assertion that female pain is a kind of status quo smacked deeply
of condescension. The fact that this catchy and absurd song got airplay
multiple times a day, as if we all could seemingly care less about what a dumb message
this was sending us, made it feel as though it were actually benign.

I laughed when I first heard the lyrics. I grew up in a home
where a woman’s identity was measured by suffering. In the world of my mother’s
telenovelas, women were constantly
beating their breasts and crying and cursing the heavens. To be a woman was to
endure various pains—the pain of childbirth, the pain of philandering boyfriends
and husbands, often the pain of domestic abuse. Young beautiful women
experienced pain at being harassed, and older, less beautiful women faced
instead the pain of invisibility.

I think for a long time I felt that if I could be as “American”
as possible I could be free from this old-fashioned and debilitating portrait
of what it meant to be female. After all, in America I received lots of
messages of “girl power.” But these messages never seemed to reach the women of
my generation, myself often included, and, ten years later, many of my young
American female students are consumed with the same fears and kinds of sadness
that I tried to shut my eyes to when I was young. They worry about how they
look, and if they are likeable enough. They worry about if they are too girly,
or not girly enough. They worry about whether they’ll be objectified or
ignored. Room after room of young women who feel no more empowered than I did
at their age. Room after room of young women who laugh off a sexist song
because it just hurts too much to actually confront what it means.

The Unbreakable Kimmy
is about a woman who was kidnapped by an insane preacher when she
was 14 years old, and held underground in a bunker for 15 years. When she
emerges she’s ebullient. Her personality is infectious. Her desire to rebuild
her life and not be seen as a victim is palpable. In the opening credits, we
get this nifty autotuned theme song with the catchy lyrics, “White dudes hold
the record for creepy crimes. But females are strong as hell.”

This idea of female strength and solidarity pervades the
entire series, as Kimmy offers words of wisdom to her boss, Jacqueline, who is
struggling to come to terms with her life after her divorce. “I survived,”
Kimmy opens up to her, “because that’s what women do. We eat a bag of dirt,
pass it in the kiddie pool and move on.” In one episode, Kimmy attempts to give
a pep talk to a bunch of women awaiting plastic surgery. In another, Kimmy
helps rescue a bunch of women from an exercise-based cult.

One of the most subversive things about The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the way the show satirizes the way
that survivors are often victimized by a culture that cares more about juicy
details than actual healing. The show also demonstrates how the “women are
strong” narrative that emerges from this culture might not be as feminist as
one might hope. On the one hand, the narrative of female strength frees women
from the stereotype of femininity as weak and submissive. On the other, it
presents female strength as deriving entirely from the ability to endure
patriarchal injustice after patriarchal injustice over and over again. In this
way, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also
skewers “empowerment culture,” from the girl power ethos of the 90s to today’s #yesallwomen
activism. Women in empowerment culture band together out of necessity, not
necessarily because they have a lot in common as individuals, or truly want to
be friends, or comrades in arms. The four “mole women” could not be more
different from each other in interests, attitudes in life, cultural background,
or intellectual ability. Similarly, Kimmy and Jacqueline bond over their
identity as women and survivors, but could not be more different in about every
other way imaginable.

Over the last several years, funny women like Tina Fey, Amy
Poehler and Amy Schumer have been heralded as ushering in a new wave of
feminist comedy. I feel lucky to be living in a time period where women’s
rights provide a topic of popular conversation, but I can’t help but also sometimes
feel frustrated by the popular response to shows like these, where we’ll laugh
at how terrible sexism is but feel powerless to actually change the current
culture. While humor is an effective way to get people to think more critically
about sexism, I also worry that many people are completely content to laugh and
then go along with the status quo.

And sometimes I do feel like a “humorless feminist” when it
comes to certain topics. I don’t think domestic violence or rape or eating
disorders are funny. When people talk about women’s strength as coming from
surviving these types of experiences, the only thing I can think of is that
dumb Ja Rule lyric from over a decade ago. It’s still a man’s world. I don’t
want to be told I’m strong anymore. What I want is for the culture to actually change.

In one of my favorite moments in the series, Kimmy’s close
friend Titus offers to be in charge of music for her birthday party (all of
Kimmy’s musical knowledge is based on 90s hits from when she was barely out of
middle school). After playing a bunch of house music, Kimmy asks for some music
with lyrics and gets the charming little ditty, “I beat that bitch with a bat,”
of which there is both a club version, and slower acoustic version. It’s
shocking and funny and ridiculous, except that we’ve all been to a party like
that, where we’ve heard similar kinds of lyrics. We laughed at it until we
didn’t, and then the words just faded quietly into the sound of everything

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Transparent’ and the Drive for More Progressive Media

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Transparent’ and the Drive for More Progressive Media

nullIn the first season of Transparent,
Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), the central protagonist of the series, is in the process of coming out
as transgender to her adult children. In an effort to claim an identity she has
long tried to hide from public view, Maura packs a few things and moves from
her comfortable, beautiful house to a small LGBT friendly apartment complex
called the Shangri-La. In one episode, Maura comes home to find a huge party
going on next door. After trying to politely request that they turn their music
down several times, Maura is exasperated. Using her shoe to bang on the wall
separating their apartments, she calls them “motherfuckers” and “faggots.”

What to make of Maura’s use of this homophobic slur, as a
testament of exhaustion and frustration? This scene occurs shortly after Maura
is insulted and humiliated by a woman who yells at her, calls her a pervert,
and demands that she leave the ladies room.

Maura’s use of the term “faggot” in this scene is deeply
affecting—it’s thoughtless, a knee-jerk response to dealing with a situation
beyond her control. The term is not used a way to reclaim its power; she’s
furious and she wants to hit her neighbors where it hurts. The fact that
someone for whom LGBT rights are deeply personal errs in how she uses language
at a moment of exhaustion and pain is not meant to portray Maura as a
hypocrite, but as someone who is human. In a culture where racism, sexism, and
homophobia are rampant, it’s easy to fuck up.

One of the things I love most about Transparent is the tenderness with which Jill Soloway treats her
incredibly flawed characters. Often, the ease with which characters say cruel,
dismissive, or disrespectful things to one another is downright shocking. Each
of Maura’s children is portrayed as self-absorbed, and the manner in which
Sarah, Josh, and Ali come to terms with their father’s transition is deeply
flawed. All three children make jokes about how “weird” the situation is. Josh
tries to learn about the trans community from a porn site and Ali attempts to
learn about what it means to be transgendered from pursuing sex with a trans
man she meets at a gender studies class.

In his now famous article for New York Magazine, “Not a Very PC Thing to
,” Jonathan Chait argues that the emphasis on being politically correct is
hindering free thought and expression. A lot of very intelligent articles have
been written discussing the ways that Chait ignores how PC language functions
as a way to protect the most marginalized members of our society. But I also
think it’s important to consider how PC language also doesn’t always achieve
its immediate goals. People can parrot any number of PC terms while still
having perfectly lamentable ideas; genuinely sensitive thinkers may, as
Benedict Cumberbatch recently did when he used the term “colored” to refer to
black actors, make deeply regrettable mistakes.  Language can be deliberately wielded as a
weapon. It can also be unintentionally hurtful. The fact that celebrities,
writers and actors are pressured to think critically about their word choice in
today’s world doesn’t mean that we are being censored. It demonstrates that we
as a society are moving in the direction of empathy. 

Nonetheless, while today’s Internet landscape is obsessed
with words, our insistence on shaming others online as the primary means to
correct mistakes doesn’t necessarily encourage sensitive thinking. The age of
Twitter is an age of slogans, of a politics predicated on being “with us” or
“against us.” You don’t have to know very much about a cause or social issue to
use a hashtag. Real change won’t come from socially ostracizing allies who make
mistakes. It comes from cultivating empathy, from showing people just why
certain terms are dehumanizing.

Online progressive spaces spend a lot of time dissecting the
many problems in the media representation of marginalized groups. Recently, The
Representation Project released a video entitled “Demand Better Media in 2015”
which shows an assorted medley of media wins for women, as well as a variety of
examples of places where media failed women. The clip ends with a cry for us to
demand better media, as well as a list of helpful links that we can click on to
support media that “got it right,” or complain about the media that “got it

Indeed, women make up a tiny percentage of artists, writers
and producers. We need to hear more diverse stories, to tap into women’s
potential, as Emma Watson recently called for in one of her “He for She”

But some tenets within this call for justice do seem
problematic. Who is the arbiter of what types of violence on screen and in
games are harmful or not harmful? The notion that video games cause violence
has been disproven in countless studies at this juncture, and many of the
scenes of violence that The Representation Project pins down as bad for gender
relations, like Grand Theft Auto, could certainly be viewed as satire
intended to get us thinking about the media we are consuming. Others also seem
a bit unfairly cherry-picked. Sons of
, which was picked apart for reinforcing harmful ideas about
masculinity, has featured one of my favorite characters, Gemma, a complex
female protagonist, who turns what it means to be an older woman going through
menopause on its head. And, of course, there are constant debates about whether
or not Game of Thrones is “good” or
“bad” for women. The series has presented varied depictions of female power,
while also depicting what would have been very real concerns for female
characters in this particularly violent fantasy world—the threat of sexual

I don’t think we can achieve parity by getting rid of media
that doesn’t neatly fit into a neat, progressive checklist, especially since
art may present racist, sexist and homophobic language in order to deconstruct
it. It’s important for us to make a distinction between language that condones
hate, and art that uses this kind of language deliberately in order to
interrogate the status quo. 

It’s also important for us to remember that learning to be
conscious of our choices is a process that takes time, energy, and, often,
involves making mistakes. In Jon Ronson’s aricle, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up
Justine Sacco’s Life,” Ronson describes how today’s shame culture has both
positive and negative ramifications. Our ability to expose and denounce racist
and sexist beliefs helps to hold people accountable for saying terrible,
dangerous things. But it has also contributed to a culture where shaming is
considered perfectly acceptable. In his article, “The Anti-Vaccine Movement
Should Be Ridiculed, Because Shame Works
,” Matt Novak claims that shaming can
be a quite effective means to promote social change, as long as we shame
movements, rather than humiliate individual people. This distinction seems to
me to be an important one. In today’s world individuals who are caught saying
terribly offensive things are often publically crucified and while humiliation
can certainly frighten some individuals into using more appropriate language,
it doesn’t dissolve hate. One only has to look at the endless barrage of
harassment, including rape and death threats, that many online feminist writers
receive, in order to see hate speech online is thriving.

triumphs in part because it highlights how gaining empathy is in itself a
process. Maura is gentle, dignified and strong, but earlier episodes show her
making complicated decisions and various mistakes. Maura’s children are
portrayed as selfish, but also genuinely caring. Ali objectifies the men she is
dating and uses them for sex, but she also deeply cares about her stepfather
Ed. Sarah is completely self-involved and impulsive, but she is also the
sibling most genuinely empathetic with her father’s transition, rallying her siblings
to be supportive as well. Josh is temperamental and a womanizer, but you can
also see glimpses of how he wants to be a better man.

Soloway has faced scrutiny for making certain choices, like
hiring Jeffrey Tambor, rather than a trans woman, to play Maura. Soloway has also
been criticized for sharing a photo on social media, which combined images of the
Kardashian family and an advertisement for Transparent,
in reference to speculations about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity. Her
apologies fell on deaf ears to some, while others view her acknowledging her
mistakes as genuine. This type of real-life dialogue mimics the content of the
show itself, which emphasizes that individuals have the potential to change,
evolve, grow, and learn. Transparent
shows us a world where people are often not getting empathy right, but also
shows us a world where we have the power to learn from our mistakes and become
better, more empathetic people.

succeeds because it goes beyond today’s hashtag activism to show us a nuanced
portrait of one trans woman’s experience of coming out, and one family’s
experience adapting to that change. The show’s depiction of today’s world is
fraught with contradictions: Maura has the freedom to be herself in a way she
never could have in the past. She explains to her daughter, “People led secret
lives. And people led very lonely lives. And then, of course, the Internet was
invented.” But, of course, the world has changed a lot, and also very little,
as Maura faces everything from awkward stares to outright discrimination. Her
children love her, but are also confused and are often incredibly insensitive.

Transparent shows
how the cultivation of empathy is in itself a process, a societal one, and also
an individual one. Unlike a show like Mad
, where stylized scenes often give in to nostalgia, while still
criticizing the world of the 60s, Transparent
pushes back against any sense of wistfulness. In the opening montage,
images from the past dissolve into scenes from the present.

When discussing their father’s new gender identity, Josh
wonders, “What does this mean? That everything Dad has said or done before this
moment is a sham? Like he was just acting the whole time?”

“It just means we all have to start over,” Ali replies.

In my favorite scene of the series, Maura lights Shabbat
candles for the first time, a Jewish tradition reserved for the mother of the
house. I love this scene because it highlights the wonderful juxtapositions
that characterize the entire series—the desire for tradition, stability and
wisdom leads each character back to a faith that is literally thousands of
years old, but each character is also constantly reconciling this drive with
the recognition that these traditions need to evolve in order for them, and for
us, to truly thrive.

Arielle Bernstein
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

WATCHABLES Podcast #1, Feat. Arielle Bernstein and Mike Spry! From Beyonce to BOYHOOD to BIRDMAN To…

WATCHABLES Podcast #1, Feat. Arielle Bernstein and Mike Spry!

nullWe’re proud to present the first installment of Press Play’s new podcast, Watchables! This segment features our columnists Mike Spry and Arielle Benstein; future installments will bring Seth Abramson into the mix! On a semi-regular basis, the brave podcasters will discuss anything that’s… well… watchable, from film to TV to viral videos to Instagram. Today, Bernstein and Spry ruminate on their favorite things from 2014. What does this mean, for them? It means Beyonce meets Boyhood meets Birdman meets Obvious Child meets John Oliver meets… well, you’ll see. (Note: it was recorded some time ago, so forgive some references to certain holidays that might cause a slight time-machine effect.) The link is at the bottom of the page. And: if you need a visual reinforcement for some of the watchables discussed, we’ve provided a couple of those as well!



explorer is, often problematically, a part of America’s cultural heritage. We
still revere early American colonizers like Christopher Columbus in the same
way that we idolize the modern American cowboy. The explorer is portrayed as an
admirable adventurer in America’s literary landscape too, from Henry David
Thoreau’s Walden to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. We cheer on the male leads
in films ranging from Indiana Jones
to Lord of the Rings, from children’s movies like The Lion King, to dark dystopian
landscapes like The Road.

does it mean to be a woman in this largely male-dominated history? In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell
argues that the hero’s journey is universal and serves a fundamental
psychological purpose, in that it allows us to overcome our demons, to pursue
our passions, to become who we need to become. But Campbell also argues that
women have a distinctly different journey, one that is turned inwards, rather
than outwards. He attributes this to basic biology—that boys need to do
something external to symbolize the transition to manhood, while girls simply
don’t have to. He argues that a girl’s natural biological changes are the only
ushering she needs into womanhood.

deeply resented reading Campbell’s descriptions of what it meant to become a
woman when I first read The Power of Myth
in high school. I didn’t feel like changes in my body made me any more prepared
for adulthood. I longed for experiences that would catapult me out of my
childhood and into the world.

about girls and women have changed substantially since I was a young girl
hungering for female characters with agency. The influx of female heroes during
the past several years has ushered in a kind of mainstreaming of female power.
Today we have heroes like The Hunger
Katniss Everdeen, and shows like Orange
is the New Black
, where the lives and experiences of women are central.

many female travel narratives are often presented as the domain of the
pampered. Movies like Eat, Pray, Love
and Stealing Beauty showcase the
female journey as pure escapism, in which a privileged white woman gets to take
a journey of personal fulfillment, a voyage that is often maligned in our
popular culture for being vapid and self-absorbed.  

Wild, though still tinged with a soft Oprah self-help glow, is
doing something fundamentally different—reimagining the female journey as
existential quest. 

on her memoir by the same name, Wild
is about a woman who takes risks and makes choices in struggling to find a way
out of her grief after the death of her mother, the self-described love of her
life. Along the way she develops a heroin habit, cheats on her incredibly
patient and loving husband, and decides, ultimately, to walk the Pacific Coast
Trail alone as a symbolic gesture to try and reclaim a sense of self. The story
is often told in flashbacks—scenes from when Strayed was a child and a teenager
and early twenty-something, scenes from her young marriage and its
disintegration, scenes of Strayed’s ensuing addiction to casual sex with
strangers and drugs—with moments in the present as Strayed overcomes hurdle
after hurdle of being alone in the very literal wild.

the real life author, is a fantastic writer, and while the director of Wild, Jean-Marc Vallee, strives to
capture her tone through voiceover, I found myself longing for Vallee to translate
Strayed’s experience to film with a greater emphasis on the images she
encounters on the way. Vallee’s storytelling throughout tends to be overly
directive, from the opening scene where we hear Strayed’s heavy breathing in
the background and assume she is having sex, only to find her struggling to
remove an injured toenail at the top of a cliff, to the use of an elusive,
beautiful fox following her around her journey. In scenes like these, Vallee
directs how we should feel emotionally and how we should view Strayed’s
character, as well as her journey. Witherspoon is a talented actress and
Strayed’s memoir is so ripe with emotion that I felt the film could benefit from
more subtlety and a greater focus on the landscape itself. Often I wanted us to
be given the space to really discover ourselves in Strayed’s journey.

course, this was probably a challenging film to make, not least of all because
of the gender of its brave protagonist and the fact that we often don’t see
female characters as being naturally relatable. Many film reviewers, myself
included, could not see Wild without
considering the novelty of the solo female traveler. In “Why Every Man Should
See Wild
,” Julianne Ross talks about ways in which the film is instructional in
showing men the way that sexism and micro-aggressions from men impact the
experience of solo female travelers. And I was impressed by the nuance with
which male reviewers like Andrew O’Hehir noted how the experience of travel is still
very gendered in today’s world. “There
are times in every woman’s life where her safety depends on the goodwill, or
just on the whims, of men. That can only be exhausting and depressing,” he
reflects in his review for Salon. 

Some reviewers have still struggled with empathy. David Denby, in his New Yorker review, focuses on the shock
at how small Reese Witherspoon is, how she “doesn’t have the muscular legs of a
hiker,” even though it’s clear from the film that Strayed outlasts several more
experienced male hikers on the trail. (And he also, unnecessarily, fixates on
the fact that Witherspoon’s Strayed is tiny, while the real-life writer Strayed
seems “big-boned.”)

That a woman could be at the center of that kind of narrative is
exciting, but the way we talk about that narrative is also still relatively loaded.
I sometimes worry that we simply don’t have a vocabulary for talking about this
type of narrative without positioning woman as the “other.” Today’s Internet
culture has created rich discussions about the ways in which white, male
protagonists have historically been positioned as the default, but the creation
of special interest groups on the web also seems to play directly into that
belief. When my Facebook newsfeed is covered with articles telling me what 10
female writers I had to read in 2014, I am proud that women are getting the
attention they deserve, but I also can’t help but feel disappointed that women
and minorities still need to be separated out in order to get the recognition
they deserve.

One of the reasons that Strayed’s Dear Sugar column at the literary
magazine The Rumpus was so successful was that it was anonymous—we
couldn’t be sure of the gender or age or ethnic background of the columnist,
even as those details slowly emerged over time, over the course of every
column. In the end I don’t want Strayed’s story to get attention because it
could be seen as instructional or representative of women’s experiences more
broadly. I want us to tell women’s stories because they have teeth. 

While viewers may be surprised to see a petite woman on the trail alone
in Wild, Strayed’s arc is less about
portraying the female experience specifically, than showing us how the female
experience is a human experience. The
most poignant scenes in Wild showcase
Strayed’s regrets. In flashbacks, we consider her sadness about moments when
she was dismissive towards her mother, or treated her with condescension or
disrespect. We empathize with Strayed about whether she should have shot her
mother’s beloved horse, when they had no money to take it to a vet. I wanted
Strayed’s journey into the wild and back to civilization to interrogate these
moments more fully, for us to spend less time thinking about how a petite
blonde could survive on the road, and more time thinking about the ways we are
each forced to contend with a world that takes away as much as it gives.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

Watch: The Inherent Vice in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films: A Video Essay

Watch: The Inherent Vice in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Films: A Video Essay

his career, Paul Thomas Anderson has focused on human vulnerability. Films from
Punch Drunk Love to Magnolia to The Master to Inherent Vice to There Will Be Blood portray love as equal parts tender and strange. The
protagonists of Anderson’s films struggle with a range of
vices, from drug and sexual addiction, to anxiety and depression, to megalomania,
to gambling, to rage, to straight-up greed.

uses vice as a way to explore different dimensions of human sadness. Each hero
is promised some kinds of greatness—Barry Egan wants to achieve success by collecting
frequent flyer miles from pudding box tops in Punch Drunk Love. Dirk Diggler hopes to keep up his fame and
recognition by virtue of his enormous package in Boogie Nights. Troubled Freddie Quell hopes to find both freedom
and family when he meets his mentor, the cult leader Lancaster Dodd, in The Master.

I was
first introduced to the world of P.T., as I affectionately called him, when I
watched Boogie Nights in a dingy
college dorm room, my sophomore year. There was a painting of an ocean on the
wall and a bottle of melatonin on the dresser, a tiny hand-me-down television
we borrowed from a friend that still played VHS tapes. At the time I spent full
days writing poems and songs and learning to be an artist and a writer. I was
smart, but I often didn’t live up to my potential and I wasn’t a particularly
good student. I have many good memories, but I have a lot of sad ones too. I
struggled throughout college with an eating disorder, I often had a strained
relationship with my parents, I rushed headfirst into a relationship that
taught me everything there is to appreciate about young love, and everything
there is to be wary of too.

In my
last year of college I’d walk past the elementary school at about noon every
day, on my way home from getting out of morning classes, and I’d see a sea of
children playing just over the horizon. My painful memories from college seem
blurry and imprecise, but images like these remain clear. At the time I didn’t
know it, but moments like these were slowly carving out my heart into the shape
it was meant to be.

P.T. Anderson strikes such an emotional cord in me because I discovered him at
a time when I was first learning to push back against cynicism. The truth may burn in a P.T. Anderson film, but even when it
does, we learn not to regret the scar. The
worlds that he explores are darkly sensual, hardboiled and masculine, but
softness and light always seem to linger somewhere in the periphery: sunlight
arching over an oil rig, a harmonium found next to a warehouse. We focus on tear-filled
faces throughout Magnolia, but the
final shot was still a close-up of a crying woman’s smile.–Arielle Bernstein

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and
content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films
usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as
the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which
boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.