Category Archives: popular culture

In Defense of Marie Calloway

Marie Calloway has recently achieved notoriety as the pseudonymous author of Adrien Brody, an autobiographical story about her sexual encounter(s) with a modestly famous New York writer. The original version of the story was first posted on Calloway’s Tumblr, but later retracted because it revealed the real identity of “Adrien Brody.”

Marie Calloway

from mrstsk.tumblr.com

Calloway’s story has been met with a mixture of interest and vitriol. The main detractors claim she lacks talent and berate her for her desire for recognition of her talents. They state outright or imply that her reported behavior is slatternly. The fact that her desire for attention is only equal to that of “Adrien” is given little, if any, weight.

It’s true that the original interest in Calloway’s story was due mainly to its unflattering (but not unaffectionate) reportage on a well-known figure. Attention persisted because the story is insightful and well-written, and because Calloway was all too happy to defend herself and her intellect.

Adrien Brody doesn’t merit ongoing attention because (some) readers know Brody’s real identity, but because the piece itself is sharp, its unapologetic author both vulnerable and shrewd. During sex, Calloway’s choice of conversation topic is remorselessly bookish:

He started to talk about things.
“I always feel weird talking during sex,” I said.
“But that’s the best part,” he insisted, grinning.
“Let’s talk about Gramsci,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, and we did.

Adrien Brody is well-structured (very Ford Maddox Ford): we are placed in the action; the background is woven into the story; requisite development, climax, ending). Calloway’s voice is as blunt and incisive as Mary Gaitskill’s narrators in Bad Behavior. Here’s a little excerpt from the short story Secretary (this takes place just after the narrator’s boss non-consensually spanked her while she read aloud and cried):

I went to my desk. He closed the office door behind him. I sat down, blew my nose and wiped my face. I stared into space for several minutes, every now and then dwelling on the tingling sensation in my buttocks. I typed the letter again and took it into his office. He didn’t look up as I put it on his desk.

A lot of people want to rip Marie Calloway to shreds. She is a spectacle because she has made herself vulnerable; her transparent desire for affection entertain in part because it is sad, and frightening, and such a very perfect reflection of so many people’s desires. As though a desire to be told that you’re worthy makes someone lesser. It does not, but in extreme cases, it may yield weird results. Adrien Brody is one of those.

As I read blogs and articles that pillory Marie Calloway I am reminded of the way those who had little or no stake in the JT Leroy case condemned Laura Albert. They despised the way Albert yearned for, then coveted, the vicarious attention she received for her talent. They assumed she wrote as JT for the attention, or for the fame, and not simply because at some point, it made sense for her to “be” JT.

It comes back to Andy Warhol, a man whose profound obsession with recognition was rooted in his own profound insecurity with his appearance (and his uncertainty of his own worth or worthiness).

There is always a great deal of anger directed toward those who want fame and pursue unusual means to attain it. Warhol is loved and hated in equal measure, and for a time Albert faded into disgraced obscurity (but she’s coming back!). One may or may not enjoy their output, but whether they hunger for fame should have little to do with it.

Speaking of hungering for fame: I have yet to read anything that confirms that Marie Calloway wrote the original Adrien Brody (before the Muumuu House edits) as a coldly calculated move to draw attention to herself. Calloway had already been published on Thought Catalog. She already wrote and posted autobiographical stories on her Tumblr. As far as I know, the primary version of Adrien Brody was posted in that context. In an interview she says that she was “excited” about the story, but that could as easily be attributed to the content as the (potentially fallacious) assumption that it would bring attention.

The personality cults of girls with Livejournals (or, more recently, Tumblrs), have finally spilled into the mainstream. Yes, Adrien Brody is self-absorbed, but there is something fascinating, something profoundly intimate, about directed self-absorption. As they grew older these women tucked their insecurities and meditations safely away behind Friends Only posts, presuming that need and confusion were unacceptable traits in anyone past the age of 19. Something was lost, then, in the fear that honesty could only be permissible in juvenilia.

Marie Calloway intentionally lets the raw edge of her damaged youth show. Yes, her writing is solipsistic, but the solipsism is intentional and affecting. It’s involving and cleverly rendered and happily, because of a certain Adrien Brody scandal, there’ll soon be more of it. I hope her stories stay keen.

Addendum: The more I think about it, the more I think Marie Calloway might be a hoax, a pseudonymous personality and not just a nom de guerre. What proof is there that the letter to The Hairpin was real (or even that the original Tumblr post existed)? It’s interesting that people are asking “Who is ‘Adrien Brody’?” but not “Who is ‘Marie Calloway’?” We’re quick to assume that she is who she claims to be, despite her affiliation with people dedicated to adopting multiple online personas and staging publicity stunts (Momus and Tao Lin). It seems equally likely that Marie Calloway is who she claims, and that she isn’t who she claims. It doesn’t matter all that much. What’s really interesting is the way she and her writing have been treated, validated, invalidated, et cetera, based on assumptions about her identity and motives.

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Utopia Deferred: Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Having been awoken from a recurring dream of a bizarre Wonderland, a young girl asks her father whether she is going mad. Her father assures her that she is, but, smiling gently, tells her that “all the best people are.” This is an auspicious beginning to Tim Burton’s new Disney film, Alice in Wonderland (2010), which celebrates eclecticism, imagination, courage, and rebellion, drawing on the familiar and ever-evocative characters of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland books (and also Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland) to reinforce a message that is, up to the penultimate scene, utopian. In the final scene, the film inexplicably belies its previous message and replaces it with empty rhetoric.

Alice enters Wonderland.

19-year-old Alice enters Tim Burton's Underland.

That Burton decided to focus on many of the more utopian aspects of the story—frequently repeating the idea that one may “believe six impossible things before breakfast” and that “all the best people” are mad, the film glories the untamed imagination and fully recognizes its potential to cause social upheaval and positive, humane change. Indeed, in the end none of the film’s characters are slain save the Jabberwocky (though the audience is denied the thrilling “SNICKER SNACK” that traditionally accompanies the Vorpal Sword’s fatal blows). Even the cruel Red Queen is spared; she is, however, banned from the kingdom, and chained forever to her equally unpleasant steward, the treacherous Knave of Hearts (played by a delightfully creepy Crispin Glover). The White Queen transforms the entire kingdom into a peaceful, human, and equal place—a mad utopia, but a utopia nonetheless.

The ending, however, belies the rest of the film—Alice chooses to go home instead of remaining in Wonderland. She spurns her loathsome suitor’s offer of marriage but decides to follow her father’s footsteps as an entrepreneurial explorer, expanding business into new lands and distant countries (specifically China). In the end, the film suggests, the most important thing is not humane change but potential for exploration and boundless personal and financial gain. Through its rather heavy-handed use of a visual caterpillar (The Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar, to be exact) transformed into a butterfly in the final scene of the film (the butterfly soars over Alice’s shoulder as she strides confidently toward the bow of a ship that will take her to China), the film suggests that Alice’s real destiny, in fact her happiness, self-expression, and true freedom, are inextricably bound to explorations via venture capitalism. Indeed, her imagination seems more contained, more limited than ever—it has been “domesticated.”* Of course, the domestication of the imagination is par for the course with Disney—and Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is, after all, a Disney film.

By borrowing the penultimate act of The Wizard of Oz (in Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland Alice is given Jabberwocky blood which allows her to be transported home, if she so chooses), Burton reasserts the utopian implication of Frank L. Baum’s novel and of the various Oz films—that home, the real world, can be improved, and made better. However, Burton’s Alice hopes not for improvement of overall conditions, but only for the limited improvement of her own personal life. As Jack Zipes writes in Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tales, Baum lost faith in the utopian American dream over time; in the final Oz books, Dorothy decides to remain in Oz forever, having no use for the vast, unresolved social and economic inequalities of her original home in America.

Alice in her armor.

That Burton’s Alice is blind, even indifferent to greater social concerns. Although her adventurous actions would have been unusual, even subversive for a woman in Victorian England, viewed in a contemporary context her decision to use her imagination in order to succeed in business perfectly corroborates the myth that iconoclasm, risk-taking and hard work create not just success but also joy. Moreover, the film equates the genuine social parity and happiness achieved in Wonderland with the boundless expansion of business and personal wealth—implying that the latter (personal wealth/gain) creates and support the former (social equality), despite the fact that inequality—especially economic inequality—is entrenched in American society. We need utopian stories to help suggest fresh ways of addressing social imbalance. As Jack Zipes says, “I find our reality so disturbing, so unfulfilling, so corrupt, and so barbaric that I began conceiving alternatives to our social condition. All good literature provides hope, but the best of fantasy literature provides extraordinary hope, and I guess that is what I am after — extraordinary hope.” That’s why the conclusion to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland upsets me so deeply—it lacks the extraordinary hope present in the rest of the film.

A quick look at recent fan fiction based on Burton’s Alice in Wonderland reveals that large portion of the fan fiction written about the story either change the ending so that Alice remains in Wonderland or send her back to Wonderland after she becomes discontent with her drab life in the real world. Perhaps we’re all holding on to that extraordinary hope after all.

*The “domestication of imagination” is a phrase that Jack Zipes uses many times over in his books.

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Female Competition, Snow White, and Monster-in-Law

Despite being almost universally panned by critics (the film has a 14% rating on rottentomatoes.com), the 2005 comedy (often inexplicably described and marketed as a romantic comedy) Monster-in-Law still succeeded domestically and internationally, grossing $23 million during its opening weekend (source: boxofficemojo.com). I believe that the film’s undeniable financial success is directly related to its repetition of plot devices and motifs that have concerned people for centuries: namely, fierce, even violent competition between younger women and their older counterparts—often stepmothers (and what is a mother-in-law but a chosen stepmother?). And what story epitomizes this struggle more than the famous tale of Snow White?

Viola and Charlie face off.

In his book Why Fairy Tales Stick, Jack Zipes asserts that the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—a story about a stepmother so jealous of her young and beautiful stepdaughter that the older woman tries to murder the younger multiple times—has permeated our cultural.* Zipes believes that Snow White has spread like an epidemic (i.e. he thinks the tale is a meme) and reminds readers that the original literary fairy tale is “the subject of numerous valid and sometimes insipid interpretations” (Zipes, 134). He goes on to say that not only does the tale underscore rivalry amongst women which feminist critics suggest “results from a patriarchal culture that pits woman against woman for the favor of a male” (Ibid) but also goes on to suggest that basic reproductive imperatives drive some female competition, writing that, “if we assume that females are deeply concerned with finding the right male for reproduction and with producing children who will carry on the woman’s genes, and that they will employ their traits to succeed and survive, we can see how relevant the message of ‘Snow White’ is and how it raises important moral issues for culture” (135)**. Moreover, Zipes goes on to suggest that the older queen considers Snow White dangerous “because she [Snow White] foreshadows what will happen to the queen in a patriarchal society when she will no longer be beautiful and fertile” (Ibid), i.e. the queen will be rejected, stripped of resources, and possibly killed.

The Wicked Queen (Stepmother) has poisoned Snow White.

Monster-in-Law (2005, directed by Robert Luketic) opens with a brief reference to magic—a daily horoscope (which is implied to have some inherent value, wisdom, or predictive ability) leads Charlie (Jennifer Lopez) to find her very own “perfect” lover, a brain surgeon (har) named Kevin (Michael Vartan). Their courtship is shown only briefly on the screen, just long enough to insist that both characters are adorably loving and kindhearted (and also bland as hell). The next scene turns to Kevin’s mother, Viola (Jane Fonda), a high-powered TV personality who interviews A-list stars, important politicians, and high-profile religious figures—until she is suddenly replaced by a younger presenter. Viola promptly has a nervous breakdown which lasts several months. However, the viewer doesn’t see this—the film skips straight over Viola’s potentially grim mental problems to her release from a wealthy private psychiatric care facility. She seems relaxed, even happy—grateful, she says, to still have her relationship with her son, which she values far more than her job. Simultaneously, she is portrayed as overbearing—smothering her frustrated (but, notably, passive) son with an excess of daily phone calls.

Viola’s calm is soon shattered when she finds out her precious son has taken a girlfriend. The oblivious Kevin sets up a lunch date so that his mother can meet Charlie. From the very first, things are strained—as soon as Kevin and Charlie park in her driveway, Viola begins spying on them from a window, remarking of Charlie’s summer dress “Oh, so we’re playing dress up,” in a tone that would be sinister, were it not for the pale surroundings and cartoony music. In this scene Viola is dressed in a business woman’s pantsuit; in the following scene, when she greets Michael and Charlie, Viola appears in full summer regalia, including a hat, bright red lipstick, dress with a full skirt and petticoat, and pert white cardigan. Viola greets Kevin with an incestuous kiss on the mouth (Kevin looks shocked and wipes her lipstick off his lips with bemused dismay) and pretends not to notice Charlie until Kevin pointedly introduces the two. Viola manages to keep her cool and play nice (as does the unsuspecting Charlie), until, seeing (or assuming) that the two women are able to get along, Kevin decides to propose to Charlie. This sends Viola off into her mansion, where she has a very telling episode: trying to access her new postfeminist therapy coping skills, Viola sits on the floor of a posh living room decorated in cream. The camera gives us a long shot, plenty of distance to take in a supposedly humorous scene: as slapstick, playful music and predatory bird calls play in the background (the latter are a poorly-conceived attempt to invoke ritual or the occult) Viola waves a white feather and begs some non-specific entity to rid her of her “bad karma,” and, more tellingly, her “wickedness.”

"Wicked" Viola "playing dress-up" to rival Charlie.

This verbal reference to the queens, stepmothers, and ogres of fairy tales (the word “wickedness” is rarely used in quotidian speech) is the first in a chain of events that demonstrate just how much Monster-in-Law borrows (unconsciously, I think) from Snow White. Not only is Viola “wicked” by her own admission and an “old slut” (in the world of her assistant Rub [Wanda Sykes]***)—words that have strong fairy tale connotation (Perrault revealed the sinister meanings behind “slut” in his version of Little Red Riding Hood—in which the younger woman not only replaces the older woman [her grandmother] but also drinks the older woman’s blood and eats her flesh); additionally, Charlie is an orphan just like Snow White and Cinderella, who are portrayed in most versions of their tales as partial or full orphans (the biological mother is always dead, and the father is either dead or indifferent). Charlie lacks a surrogate family, although she does of two friends, one of whom plays the token gay friend—a stock character typical to at least the past decade of romcoms (not that Monster-in-Law is a real romcom). Moreover, the love interest and son of the story, Kevin, is largely absent from the film itself; as one reviewer notes, Kevin is not so much a character as a plot device (the only thing the audience knows about him is that he is wealthy and has a prestigious occupation). This is also true of the prince in Snow White and similar tales, who do nothing more (and have no more personal characteristics) than help to create a resolution in the tale.

Throughout the film, Viola psychologically and physically abuse Charlie—she even beats Charlie in two scenes, one in which she pretends to be asleep and having a nightmare, and the other in which the two women slap each other repeatedly. Viola even halfheartedly tries to poison Charlie by feeding her nuts (which Charlie is allergic to)—the fact Ruby persuades Viola to retract this attempt to maim or kill her future daughter-in-law does not detract from the stark symbolism. This is not a film about minor rivalry—the themes of older-versus-younger-woman are deadly serious, despite their comic treatment.

In the last third of the film, Charlie becomes aware of Viola’s desperate attempts to sabotage her impending marriage; at this point, Charlie takes agency and begins to attack Viola with psychological and some physical force (for example, she drugs Viola with sleeping pills—a type of temporary poisoning). One might initially mistake Charlie’s agency as a new theme; however, as Zipes reports that in newer versions of Snow White, “many writers indicate that the competition has become much fiercer and that younger women are initiating the rivalry and eliminating older women and even their mothers before the latter take initiative” (136). This becomes clear when, upon Viola’s pretended collapse in a restaurant, Charlie responds to other diners’ cries of “Is she dead!” with a muttered, “It couldn’t be that easy.” Behind the humor of the films lies a darker truth about resentment and violence amongst some women.

The film’s resolution comes in the form of Viola’s mother-in-law, a woman as cruel and demeaning to Viola as Viola is to Charlie. It is at this point that I hoped Charlie and Viola would reconcile, realizing that their competition for Kevin’s attention was unnecessary, and that they could create a unique yet fulfilling family unit by cooperating and supporting one another, rather than vying for Kevin’s love. Instead, Charlie reinforces the old lessons of Snow White (the wickedness of the older woman) by declaring that Viola has “won” and that she will call off the wedding; with Ruby’s input, Viola realizes that she only wants Kevin to be happy (but what does she, Viola want?) and hence ensures that Charlie and Kevin go through with it. In the process, Charlie insists that Viola limit her access to Charlie (phone calls are to be made only once a day) but that Viola be an active participant in her future grandchildren’s lives. Thus the film suggests that the conflict of participation for male attention can be diffused by the creation of more offspring, thereby furthering both Charlie and Viola’s need for attention, love, participation in a caring family dynamic, and the direct continuation of their genetic lines.

The Wicked Queen admires herself in the mirror: a little self-interest at work (illustrated by W. C. Drupsteen).

This clearly differs significantly from most versions of Snow White, in which the stepmother disappears or is killed or, in the nastiest versions, is publicly executed by dancing to her death in red-hot iron shoes. However, while the tentative cooperation of Charlie and Viola signal an end to the film, they fail to directly answer the fundamental anxiety raised in so many relationships between younger and older women. As Zipes writes, “the morality of [contemporary interpretation of] the tale has less to do with the punishment [of the stepmother] than with posing the dilemma that most women feel even today. How do you fulfill natural inclinations and attract a partner (either for reproduction or sexual gratification) without killing off the competition that may undermine your self-interest?” (Ibid)

Put another way, how can women relate to each other in a way that is both honest and expressive of self-interest and also inclusive? Monster-in-Law attempts to answer this question both in a postfeminist manner (“if it’s what the man wants then it is what I want”) and also in a potentially more radical way (Charlie trying to create a family unit in which the needs of both women are acknowledged and met). However, it is myopic to assume that traditional relationships and family can peacefully and satisfactorily resolve the social and, potentially biologically (although also, therefore, potentially mutable) sources of tension between older and younger women. It is time for film and fiction to create new endings.

*This is not to say that the eponymous Seven Dwarfs lack either appeal or memetic quality–indeed, they recur in nearly every telling and interpretation of the tale and are compelling (if often mysterious) characters in their own right(s).

**I’m  not convinced that we really can assume that “females are deeply concerned with finding the right male for reproduction and with producing children who will carry on the woman’s genes, and that they will employ their traits to succeed and survive.” There’s an inherent assumption that all people share certain biological and genetic motivations related to reproduction; but this doesn’t allow for genetic anomaly, or for the potential for social environments to alter beliefs, behaviors, and imperatives. I think it would be accurate to say that this is a biological feature in enough women’s lives–not just domestically but internationally–that creates the moral tensions that create continued interest in the Snow White tale (and by association, Monster-in-Law).

***There are several disappointingly tokenized characters in Monster-in-Law–primarily Ruby (Wanda Sykes), who has once again been typecast as the Sassy Black Sidekick, and Remy (Adam Scott), the Affluent Gay Best Friend Who Appears To Have No Interests Or Needs That Do Not Pertain To His Straight Female Friend.

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“Fear of Fairytales” and the Myth of a Blithe Childhood

We draw many modern symbols (tropes, perhaps) from folk and fairy tales. Look, for example, at horror films: they’re rife with werewolves, zombies, and vampires, all of which come either from folk tales or from subsequent adaptations that have gained an increasingly large audience over time (for example, Dracula – not the original vampire tale, but probably the best-known). Horror aside, children and adults alike are familiar with the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella, stories that were initially transmitted through oral retellings, and were eventually recorded by Charles Perrault in the 17th Century and, later and more famously, the Brothers Grimm in the 19th Century. There are novels whose plots have also spread memetically1, such as the story of Frankenstein, and invented fairy tales like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. Many of these stories seem to have a universal quality, as in the case of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the basic structure of which (girl or children in the woods, grandmother eaten, wolf plays villain) can be found not only in Europe but across the world. (The best example of this is the Chinese tale Lon Po Po2.)

Even when the folk and fairy tales that survive and rivet audiences end happily, they usually contain dark elements: Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are both eaten by a wolf (who is either simply menacing or a frightening rapist3, depending on the version of the tale), Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents, Cinderella is abused by her step-family, Anderson’s little mermaid is mute, perpetually feels she is walking on knives, and commits self-sacrificial suicide at the end of the story, and Doctor Frankenstein’s rejected creation becomes internally as well as externally monstrous and eventually kills the Doctor’s beloveds. The disturbing elements of the stories help them stick, because they describe some of the most painful, scary and inexplicable experiences in human existence: death, abuse, abandonment, betrayal, unrequited love.

Many contemporary versions of these same popular fairy tales have been neutered, ostensibly in order to spare children the very fear that makes the stories memorable. The alteration of fairy tales is the topic of a recent Boston Globe article titled “Fear of Fairy Tales”, which appeared with the tag line: “The glossy, sanitized new versions of fairy tales leave out what matters: the scary parts.” The article’s author, Joanna Weiss, asserts that fairy tales have been heavily revised in order to increase their commercial value, because selling a vague and cheerful “pretty lady” doll is considerably easier than selling a instead a bruised, timid, or soon-to-be devoured one. According to Weiss, this type of marketing appeals to the “lowest common denominator” and hence, sells more easily. However, the tone of and content of the article change when the topic of Weiss’s own daughter arises. Weiss writes that she has told a less frightening version of the Little Red Riding Hood story to her four-year-old daughter, one “in which Granny isn’t eaten by the wolf, but is conveniently out of the house when Red Riding Hood pops in.”

That statement raises a larger question: why do adults change the fairy tales in the first place? Although the commercial appear of the neutered fairy tale is undeniable, it is unrelated to the hesitance of adults to expose their children in any way to In “Fear of Fairy Tales” Weiss briefly sites David Bickham 4, a researcher at the Center on Media and Child Health as stating that “kids are already exposed to plenty of violence.” Subsequently, Weiss moves on to write about the Disney Princess brand. However, I remain stuck on the idea that children somehow can’t handle a disturbing fairytale. After all, as Weiss writes that researchers have found that “some of these metaphors [mostly the sex-related ones]…will fly over the youngest kids’ heads.” (Many adults worry that the “youngest kids” are those more deeply and negatively impacted by violent media.) Weiss also paraphrases then quotes Jack Zipes: “he has seen young kids latch onto the classic, dark versions of the tales. Some of the most disadvantaged students, he says, ‘really relate to us, because we’re telling tales that they experience in their homes.’” If children are genuinely able to filter out many of the perturbing metaphors and retain only those aspects of the stories that have parallels in their own lives, then why the panic over the fact that fairy tales sometimes also contain sexual metaphors5 and some violence, particularly when the violence mirrors the actual, real-life experience of children.

Adults have their own neutered fairy tale about what childhood is like, as common alterations to the classic fairytales demonstrate. This fantasy about childhood relates not only to what adults think of kids, but also to adults’ deep longings about their own lives and the nature of the world. The Disney Princess line extends not just to children around the world, but also to adults as well. Weiss writes, “To little girls, these fairy tale heroines are pretty ladies, nothing more. And perhaps to adults, too. Disney has introduced a line of Disney Princess costume wedding gowns, designed, [Kathy] Franklin [Disney’s vice president] says, ‘for women who have always dreamed of their wedding as the day they’re a princess.’”

This marketing suggests something bigger about American culture (the root of the Disney Princess brand): that adults have their own specific ideas what childhood should and can be and also whether – or more accurately, how – it can be reclaimed. Both childhood and adulthood are marked by the acquisition of material goods. Sometimes the accumulation of objects accompanies internal maturity (or the lack thereof), but many times it is irrelevant. Nonetheless, society continues to associate maturity primarily with material gain. So it follows that many adults seem to hold the infinite, nonsensical hope that creating an external living environment that looks like a fairy tale will cause the promises of that tale – happiness, safety, a lack of poverty, sickness, even the evasion of old age and death – to come true. It’s one of many reasons for the American obsession with gross wealth (although obviously those who are materially deprived have other and more pressing reasons to value easy access to money and possessions). If you wear Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” dress the caption beside it must come true: “With a single kiss, Sleeping Beauty’s dream comes true. She finds her prince, falls in love and discovers that she’s already a real princess.” Never mind the desperation, jealousy, and violence present in the original version of the story.

As adults strive to fulfill their childhood fantasies, both literally and vicariously, through media6 – fantastical wishes built on fiction, which are never replaced when adulthood turns out to be a disappointment – they also try to bury their fears. Simultaneously, we adults forget that our current fears are just twisted, or inflated versions of the same fears we had as kids, the fears that the scary parts of fairy tales let us know were real and mattered; the fears that fairy tales told us that we were not alone in experiencing and not too pathetic to cope with (even if coping simply meant bravely facing something like the eventual inevitability of death). There were things moving in the dark beyond our eyes, and we knew that. As children fairy tales helped us put names and faces to the scary part of the world, the part adults often refused to own up to because they believed that if they admitted the world was frightening that it would become too terrible, incomprehensible or tragic to manage.

However, the adult version of childhood is not always an attempt to deny the difficulties of actual living or ignore real fears and dangers. There is also often a sweetness to the adult interpretation of the kid’s world that comes from a genuine desire to protect children from the pain that the adults faced while they were growing up. A good example of this sweet, albeit potentially ineffectual care is the practical suburban fairytale presented in “The Wizard of No”, a quirky anti-smoking educational video made in America in the mid 80s. The Wizard of No is a charming and magical oddball who helps the prepubescent protagonist of the film bolster his flagging self-esteem and say no to tobacco. If only self-esteem could be created with a pat on the back and an encouraging word, reified by a parade behind a strange but kindly man in a blue wizard hat! It’s such a lovely, cheerful fantasy, one that acknowledges the realities of peer pressure within a safe bubble of. If anything, “The Wizard of No” illustrates – in vivid colors, with blue capes and silver stars – the sort of world adults wish they could give to children and teenagers. It’s a world free of distracted or abusive parents, where there is no such thing as a lack of school funding or dearth of available jobs, where cruel peers, death and sex simply don’t exist. It’s unbelievably safe, demonstrating the way in which either adults recall childhood as a time of wonder or wish their childhood had been better, gentler. It also seems ineffective, although I wish it weren’t. If only bolstering a child’s self-esteem were as simple as putting on The Wizard of No for 19 minutes. But children know the actual world is different – more frightening and sometimes more wonderful. In the words of Robert Crumb (excerpted from “The R. Crumb Handbook”):

“Adults were hiding something from us. And that’s such a fascinating thing, the adult interpretation of the kid’s world. A world artificially sweetened for kids, full of things kids were supposed to like and want. We sat in front of the television Saturday mornings and looked at kids’ stuff. The shows tell kids that life could be fun and exciting, but the unconscious message was that the adult world is strange, twisted, perverted, threatening, and sinister.”

As a kid I sensed the dangers of the world, often without being able to articulate them. The fairy tales that stuck with me most were not the nice, neutral Disney versions, but the more bizarre and sometimes violent tales – Hansel and Gretel, Anderson’s Snow Queen and Elfin Hill, the underappreciate story of Mr. Fox (a steady favorite from age 10 onward), and Lon Po Po (I didn’t come to appreciate Little Red Riding Hood until I encountered the Charles Perrault and Angela Carter versions of the tale).

The original fairy tales often warn kids and adults alike about the pains and foibles of being human. Adults should heed these lessons. The actual pains of life and adult misinterpretation of the ways in which children perceive such difficulties is far more likely to hurt children than sad or violent themes in fairy tales. In fact, those fairy tales may help children cope when adults are ineffectual or unavailable.

Long live the old stories.

1 Jack Zipes writes at length about the memetic nature of fairytales in his book “Why Fairy Tales Stick.”

2There is an excellent picture book version of Lon Po Po available written and edited by Ed Young.

3The original Charles Perrault version of Little Red Riding Hood is more or less an extended metaphor for rape.

4Bickham’s study, the results of which were published in 2004 in an article called “Is Television Viewing Associated With Social Isolation? Roles of Exposure Time, Viewing Context, and Violent Content”), found that “children who watch violent television programs — especially those who watch such shows alone — spend less time with friends than children who watch a lot of nonviolent programs. Although the federally funded study could not determine a cause-and-effect relationship, researchers suspect one exists.” Bickham’s study itself concludes its abstract, “The more time that children spent viewing violent programs, the less time they spent with their friends. While this study cannot determine the direction of effects for this relationship, a cyclical process between violent media and peer integration best explains the findings. To optimize social development and mental health, children’s access to violent media should be limited.” I find the researcher’s “suspicions” a dubious foundation for assertions about the effect of violence on children. The children who spent less time watching violent television also had richer and more involved home lives; their parents tended to be better engaged and regularly demonstrated love and care.

5Admittedly, occasionally folk and fairy tales contain actual sex, as the obscure Peruvian tale of “The Snake’s Lover,” in which a woman is seduced and impregnated by a snake. However, few parents are likely to know of that tale much less read it to their children.

6 By “media” I mean films and books – particularly romantic comedies and action films – that insert the values and security of the sanitized fairy tale into a more adult context, e.g. the desire to be a hero or a treasured princess, both living in a world where they are immensely safe and ridiculously happy and successful in their endeavors. Various genres express these fantasies in different ways. As fantasies they aren’t necessarily bad or wrong, but when they take the place of primary adult goals (and they seem to for so many people), they create a culture in which people are divorced from their true needs and the needs of children. Basic pain in life is considered too cruel, and attempts to minimize it become so great that real, pressing problems, personal and social, are often ignored.

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“If you don’t see it in the work in front of you… your job is to write it yourself.”

“You want to read work that reflects yourself, not necessarily literally yourself, but your perspective, your point of view, and the community around you, and if you don’t see it in the work in front of you, as a writer, your job is to write it yourself. You want to put that world on the page.” –Speculative Fiction editor Sheree R. Thomas on NPR, August 13, 2007

I remember reading a message board discussion about the potential of Fantasy and Science Fiction to champion possible worlds in which race is dealt with deftly, interestingly, unusually – the very context of race and race relations is altered. Power dynamics can be shifted (Martha Jones from Doctor Who and Torchwood, anyone?*), sometimes even made void and null (Ursula LeGuin). The point was that Speculative Fiction (Science Ficton, Fantasy, Horror, Magical Realism, etc.) can offer a more flexible context to present and consider race. Unfortunately, a majority of Speculative Fiction offers little more than dulling doses of “Blandy McWhitey White in Blandy McNeighborhood in America or Blandy McMedieval Europe or Blandy McDefaulty Man in any setting anywhere.”**

Speculative Fiction appeals to the imagination and the unconscious – and therein lies its power. It can be used not only for escapist daydreaming, but for social commentary (which, of course, lots of Science Fiction already is), change, even as a visionary medium. Speculative Fiction can be used to address race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc., all within unusual or altered contexts.

*Actually, Martha’s treatment by the Doctor was always disappointing, but her treatment by the Doctor Who scriptwriters wasn’t (Martha’s character is great, the Doctor is boring and patronizing). The characters of Torchwood appreciate her far more.
**This is the second time I’ve quoted The Angry Black Woman – an excellent blog on “politics, race, gender, sexuality, anger.”

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In Defense of JT LeRoy

Everyone reading this blog probably already knows the story: a 15-year-old boy named J.T. LeRoy who has suffered a life of physical and sexual abuse, been neglected and deprived, worked as a prostitute, and been on and off drugs, emerges into intense fame after the publication of his collections of short stories, all popularly considered to be semi-autobiographical. A few years and many friendships with celebrities later, it’s revealed that the 15-year-old boy doesn’t really exist. In fact, he’s the alter-ego of a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert.

Scandal and mud-slinging ensue. Laura Albert is denounced by The New York Times, not to mention the many authors and movie stars who assisted her ascension to literary fame. Many of those people are angry that they were lied to. They feel betrayed – and understandably so.

But what about Laura’s reading public? I admit, I was once amongst the dewy-eyed fans who packed into overpriced bookstores, wine bars, etcetera to hear minor stars read the reclusive author’s work. I trembled with excitement when I saw an androgynous boy in a blond wig and sunglasses sitting on the stairs (J.T. LeRoy was known for showing up at his own readings “in disguise” and watching). Laura Albert’s Warholian combination of shyness and desire for acknowledgement birthed J.T. LeRoy. I longed to be noticed by LeRoy in a similar withdrawn manner (although I adored him, I never once wrote him a fan letter).

Maybe that’s why I’m not upset by Albert’s ruse – I can understand the feeling of “[being] completely ignored and disregarded and disdained.” That total feeling of invisibility and loneliness wells out of some lack of safety deep inside, like a night when the wind is up and no one is outside, like the concrete slab of clouds in the sky will suck you up and trap you. Sounds crazy, right? I suspect that feeling of an internal vacuum drives a lot of people – not just Laura Albert, but also Hans Christian Anderson and the aforementioned Andy Warhol (to name a couple off the top of my head). I’ve felt that way. But I also fear visibility.

This is the sort of catch-22 that seems to have birthed JT LeRoy.

However, it may be unfair to ask you to be sympathetic to Laura Albert’s cause on those grounds. Laura Albert was and is a mess, I agree. But I also think that whether she’s a mess isn’t really my business (much less in my control), so I’ll reiterate what has been said repeatedly, endlessly, not about Laura Albert but about her writing: the books were marketed as fiction. The books were marketed as fiction. The books were marketed as fiction. Fiction fiction fiction! When asked if they were autobiographical, LeRoy would always insist that they drew on his experiences abstractly. He never suggested that the stories were verbatim, or to be taken literally. The public simply inferred it, and LeRoy/Albert never denied the rumors.

The rumors were never denied because there was some truth to them. Whatever Albert may not be (male, young, living on the street), she has obviously been through some kind of hell – enough so to write short stories that can be acutely joyful and painful to read.

However, these arguments may fail to elicit your sympathy. After all, LeRoy/Albert spent years coyly courting celebrity and soliciting fame.

The books have been attacked because writing of the quality Albert produced is (supposedly) less impressive from someone in their forties than it is from a young street kid. However, sidestepping all debate of literary merit, I’d like to suggest that the books had another value: they were, in some ways, for some people, therapeutic. Not for everyone, certainly. Maybe for some people they were triggering. For others, they seemed silly (I have several friends who would roll their eyes at any mention of LeRoy’s work). However, for some people – especially trauma survivors who had experienced a certain inexplicable type of psychological mangling – the books resonated. They made intrinsic, intuitive sense out of the internal feeling that the wall between sanity and nonsense – or sickness – was broken. To me, and some others I talked to, it felt like someone had written about things we knew – the way trauma twists instinct so that it bends away from self-preservation and toward self-destruction. Albert wasn’t writing down our own experiences – the events of the stories were far worse than anything I ever experienced – but the settings, the descriptions of emotions and tastes and personalities – were pitched with an uncanny perfection.

Other authors – Mary Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper – have written about abuse and lasting trauma with delicacy and a similar dark humor, but no one articulated it quite like J.T. No one was quite so good at writing characters who were both sympathetic and sickening. In Laura Albert’s words, “the characters in JT LeRoy’s books…strive for goodness, even in a world where all their experience contradicts this. I feel that this desire is essential to my story as well. When I would reach a point where I wanted to commit suicide, something gave me hope.”

The stories were and are hopeful. They suggested that even from the dregs of the most awful repeated abuse, a writer could emerge. And they still tell that hopeful story – after all, Laura Albert survived – damaged, maybe, but intact enough to get the story out.

The stories also described, subtly, that abuse could be confused with love, and that children and adolescents could mix up their desire to be loved with their willingness to (in Albert’s words) “serve.” They suggested, that these confusions could be overcome, that in time one could make enough sense of them to write them all down using vivid description. The stories reminded traumatized people that their trauma wasn’t unspeakable and that trauma could escape their bodies if they just gave it vent. Moreover, Albert’s writing showed that even the worst events and people could be seen with wryness and humor, even sympathy.

Or at least, that’s how the stories made me feel.

Yes, LeRoy/Albert’s writing was overwrought, but the experiences described were distressing enough to warrant such a literary style. I no longer feel the intense attachment to J.T. LeRoy/Laura Albert’s books that I once did. However, my feelings didn’t change because of an alteration in the author’s identity. My need for the books lessened because I begin to work through my own trauma. LeRoy/Albert’s books helped me to talk about the trauma I experienced, and get it out. Now I know it’s not unspeakable, and I feel safe much more of the time. I don’t long for the acceptance of ephemeral celebrities as much as I once did (although I admit that I have yet to fully overcome the shameful-seeming Warholian urge). I owe a part of my ability to speak about trauma and to let it subside to Laura Albert’s books. For me, and perhaps for some of the other people who her books imprinted, that means quite a lot more than any public identity hoax.

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Popular text / popular persepctive.

“A text is popular if it resonates with readers. For a text to be popular, its message must fit the discourses used by readers to make sense of their experiences. A popular text reassures the readers that their worldviews (discourses) are meaningful. The satisfaction of consuming popular culture is that of being reassured that one’s interpretation of the world is congruent with that of others.” –The Production of Culture: Media and the Urban Arts (Diana Crane), page 94

Being reassured of the congruency of one’s world view is not the same as being happy about that world view, or gaining any sort of real easement for internal conflict. It’s more like someone saying, “You’ll never be able to fight it, so don’t try,” when what you really want to hear is, “It’s going to be okay.”

Popular is not the same as loved, and reassurance is not the same as genuine security.

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