I’d Rather Be A Murdress Than a Murderer

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Sarah Gordon as Grace Marks [Image Netflix]

Around four years ago I published my very first post. It was a book review of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, one of my favourite books. Now a mini-series inspired by the book is coming out in September and I am so excited. So excited that I wrote a bit for MoviePilot about it. 

 

You can check out the piece and watch the trailer here.

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Julie Kavanagh – The Girl Who Loved Camellias (2013)

16030646I’m not quite sure what compelled me to pick up this book. It tells the story of Marie Duplessis, one of the 19th century’s most well known courtesans from her difficult upbringing to her rise among the Paris elite. Made famous by her beauty, Duplessis’ story is much better known through the novel, play and opera that made her a cultural icon.

In her colourful biography, Kavanagh seeks to look at who Marie Duplessis actually was not the woman portrayed on the stage. Duplessis was much more calculating and manipulated that she is portrayed as. This will be disappointing to those readers looking to find some integrity behind Marie as her letters to various suitors and willingness to do anything to get ahead show that Marie was quite calculating and her one true love always remained money.

Kavanagh is actually quite sympathetic to Marie however using her hard upbringing as an explanation for her behavior later in life. The daughter of wretchedly poor peasants in Normandy, her father an alcoholic peddler, Marie’s early life was definitely not easy. After moving to the city and working as a laundress however Marie (formally Alphonsie) began to gain notoriety for her looks and realized she could make money and succeed being “kept” by another man. Her love of material good strong, Marie elected to this option.

This was a good book but I wish that Kavanagh had spent a bit more time setting the scene in 19th century Paris. I loved learning about Marie Duplessis but would have loved to know more about her historic context and the world of high class courtesans in Paris.

Lisa See – China Dolls (2014)

18404427In defining this book I would say that it was totally and wholly expected. It’s one of those historical fiction novels that you pick up in an airport for a pleasant, although unremarkable read. Maybe some will disagree with me, but there wasn’t anything in this book that really stood out for me; nothing took my breath away.

Essentially the book takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown just before the United States enters the Second World War. Following three characters; Grace, a young Chinese girl from the mid-west who has run away from her abusive father; Helen, a young Chinese widow from a prominent family; and Ruby, a Japanese girl posing as Chinese, Lisa See tells a story of fame, female friendship, and betrayal set against a looming war. All three work as dancers at a nightclub each pursuing their own dreams, and quite unsurprisingly their lives are turned upside down when Pearl Harbour is bombed.

The characters were charming although one-dimensional, and it was easy to see where the story was going from the start. Maybe I’m asking a bit too much of the author or expect too much from the fiction that I read but overall this book was good, but nothing special.

John Krakauer – Under The Banner of Heaven (2003)

KrakauerReligious fanaticism is something that interests and intrigues many people because more often than not it is something so far outside their own experience. In his book, John Krakauer looks at radical Mormons who have done unspeakable things in the name of God specifically looking at the double murder committed by Ron and Dan Lafferty.

Krakauer manages to weave together a number of stories in his work; the history of the Mormon Church, the contentious battles over polygamy; the rise of more radical factions; and finally the details surrounding the brutal murder committed in 1984. The Mormon Church makes up a strange part of American history and had been a subject of persecution, mockery and ridicule. Krakauer sidesteps this and focuses on how dangerous religious fanatics can be, especially when they believe God has told them to murder.

While the chapters surrounding the history of the CHurch and competing ideologies were interesting I found myself most intrigued by the chapters dealing with the Lafferty’s defence. Ron Lafferty refused to plead insanity believing so firmly that God had ordered him to kill their sister-in-law Brenda and infant niece, Erica. This cause a lot of stir among the American public; how can you claim that someone who speaks to God is insane without condemning others (albeit others who do not kill) who claim the same thing.

It was definitely an interesting book, and brought up a lot of questions surrounding just how tricky it is to persecute and hold religious fanatics accountable for their actions. Tragedy is always intriguing especially when it is so far outside our own experiences. For some however, this story probably hits quite close to home.

Suggested Listening: https://bitchmedia.org/article/popaganda-episode-cults

Why I Cried During Wonder Woman

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Princess Buttercup No More

 

This article also appears on Creators.Co

I went to see Wonder Woman the week that it was released and was immediately struck by how absolutely average it was. (Bear with me here). Superhero movies normally have a very prescribed formula, something that doesn’t appeal to me quite as much. Wonder Woman follows this formula through the origin, the journey and the final battle with a villain making it a very standard typical superhero movie. And that is what is so remarkable.

The fact that a female-driven movie followed the same structure and performed just as well as male-driven one is groundbreaking in and of itself. While there was a lot of hype surrounding the movie and a lot of wonderful reactions to it, the movie is largely entertaining and incredibly accessible to various audiences. Like other block buster action movies it seemed to drag at some parts but was overall satisfying. So why was I so emotionally wrecked by it?

I cried. A lot.

Looking online, this seems to be a common theme. Women are finding themselves emotional and crying during the battle scenes like when Robin Wright kicks total ass as Diana’s Aunt Hipployta or when Wonder Woman marches across No Man’s Land. There’s an emotional catharsis here. I doubt anyone would argue that Robin Wright’s character in House of Cards is not strong, she very clearly is, but it’s a different kind of strength. One that is more reserved though nonetheless important. There’s been a growth of these kinds of strong women in the media but there is something different about seeing females in positions of physical strength. I could have watched the Amazons fight all day.

There is the emotional catharsis of seeing women depicted in such a strong way and there is relief at how the movie is doing justice to the story; it lived up to the insanely high expectations set for it. For me, the most emotional part was seeing Diana as a young girl watching her Aunt and the other Amazons fight, wanting so desperately to be one of them. I was an emotional puddle thinking about the young girls who will see this movie and be inspired by these amazingly powerful women on the screen. It’s the same reason I get emotional when I see little girls dressed up as Rey or as characters from Ghostbusters. Representation matters and this movie shows why. In the wake of its release teachers and parents have shared their stories of young girls wanting to be Wonder Woman.

Diana is the perfect hero to accomplish what she does. She’s a fighter but she also stands for love and justice. They were a bit heavy handed with Wonder Woman’s message of “true love conquers all” and many reviewers complained about how saccharine it is. This message however, isn’t a bad one to be teaching young people, and is very true to the original Wonder Woman in the comic books. I keep hearing friends of mine complain about this and I’m tired of trying to defend it so I’ll just say that it didn’t bother me. (What did bother me was the character of Chief. It’s great to see a Native American actor represented on screen but the whole characterization was reductionist and made zero historical sense to me, but that is a whole other article. In the sequel, because there will be a sequel, let’s hope the demigod theories are confirmed).

I’m not, nor have I ever been, a huge superhero fan. Maybe if a movie like this had come out when I was younger I would have been. Not that I grew up in a barren wasteland devoid of any female role models. As I mentioned Anne Shirley was a heroine to me, as were the traditional “smart girls” like Hermione Granger and even Rory Gilmore to an extent. This speaks to my outlook on life and experience as an academic nerd. Not everyone is me and not all girls will relate to the same female characters that I did. It’s been said over and over, but I’ll say it again, representation matters and Wonder Woman is bringing us one step closer to a more well rounded pop culture environment for women and girls.

Elizabeth Abbott – The History of Celibacy (1999)

51W7SE0QGHLIn today’s world where we spend a majority of our time being exposed to sex whether through popular culture, advertising, or online dating apps, it’s easy to think of celibacy as something restricted to the past or the very religious. In her book however, Abbott traces the fascinating history of celibacy from biblical times through to the present day looking at the way that abstaining from sex has been used to both control and empower people.

She follows a rather traditional trajectory, looking at celibacy from the earliest days of human memory through its embracing by Christianity up to the present day. The first half of the book was a bit tedious for me, but only because I never found myself that interested in early modernity. For me the most interesting discussions were surrounding the 19th century modes of respectability for both men and women. Women were supposed to be chaste, but men also had to embody “masculine Christianity” balancing masculine impulses with Victorian respectability. She also discusses the 19th century movements in America started by Sylvester Graham and John Kellogg who used food to try and control (and diminish) libido.

She definitely spends more time exploratory chastity from a feminine perspective which is understandable given the way that history has played out, but I would have loved a bit more of a discussion on the masculine dimensions. After seeing Spotlight I was looking for more of a discussion of clerical celibacy, which took up only a small portion of the overall work.

The history of celibacy is a broad and very dense topic to attempt to explore in a single book. Each chapter of Abbot’s could have been a volume of work unto itself. This is a good overview and jumping off point for those looking to learn more about celibacy and the way it has been prevalent through history.

The Problem With Anne

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This Post Contains Spoilers for the Netflix Series Anne With an E

Much has been written about the joint CBC-Netflix show Anne with an E, with many reviewers feeling as though the series has ruined the magic of the book. (Magic that was in contrast, encapsulated by the 1985 movie). Like many young girls growing up in Canada, Anne holds a special place in my heart and I was sceptical about the iteration of her story. (I did not watch the American version starring Martin Sheen or the BBC Version). This deep-seeded love of the free-spirited Anne is the reason there was so much backlash against the grittier story Director Niki Caro decided to bring us. I however, don’t mind a darker Anne.

From the opening credits set to The Tragically Hip’s Ahead by a Century I had tears in my eyes. This was going to be a Canadian-driven production and it would be true to the story. I fell in love with Amybeth McNulty and the casting of R.H. Thompson and Geraldine James as Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert respectively was likewise on point. The sweeping picturesque scenes filled me with a warm appreciation for my country and I was totally engrossed in the story. Even Anne’s flashbacks, which signal a dramatic departure from the original tone of the book and 1985 movie, moved me. It’s realistic for Anne to have suffered from PTSD as being an orphan in the Maritimes at the dawn of the century would not have been easy. I was willing to accept this artistic choice, but then they changed some fundamental things.

My one main problem with the new series is that the creators lack a full understanding (as I see it) of what made Anne so inspiring. As a young girl I wasn’t outright bullied with name calling or threatened with physical violence, but I was a social outcast. I knew I was different from the other girls in my class because I loved to read and I loved to learn. I was an awkward looking girl with little interest in boys, or at least they had little interest in me. For me, my sense of who I was came, and still does come, from my academic achievements. Characters like Anne, Matilda, and Hermione got me through my rougher years in grade school and taught me that things get better; smart girls can rule the world.

In the new series, Anne isn’t the brightly shining student she is in previous incarnations. Yes, she loves to read, but when it comes to math she seems to fall behind. She even drops out of school for a while due to unrelenting bullying, something unheard of for the Anne Shirley I know and love. I understand trying to make Anne a more sympathetic character, someone other kids being bullied can identify with, but this series weakens her, especially in her relationship with Gilbert Blythe.

In the book, and 1985 movie, the entire relationship between Anne and Gilbert is founded on an intense academic rivalry. He is a charming blowhard who Anne has no romantic interest in until much later on in their lives. In the Netflix series, Gilbert initially meets Anne in a forest after he rescues her from a bully threatening to harm her. The series rewrites their relationship turning Gilbert into an sensitive brooding boy who can bond with Anne over their shared orphan-ness. The series turns Anne into a damsel in distress which is an interesting choice, given that the rest of the time the series seems hell-bent on convincing the viewer she is a feminist icon.

The thing is, Anne already was a feminist icon. Not because she is inspired to “be her own woman” by Aunt Josephine, or because she bests a bully telling her to literally “get back in the kitchen.” She was a feminist icon because she took school seriously at a time when women weren’t supposed too. The need to “better than the boys,” that innate feeling, is one that will resonate with many young girls whether is be competing with men at school, with sports, or at work. I could write at length about how hard it is for women and girls in higher education and the workplace because young girls are taught to be nice while boys are taught to be brave but I won’t do that here. (Reshma Saujani did an amazing TED Talk on this subject).

The competition appears mid-way through the series but doesn’t feel authentic to me. It’s forced and is simply a means to the end: The two are a romantic pair from the start and Gilbert is later removed entirely from this academic setting. The two trade barbs but do so cautiously in a way that highlights a different connection between the two, one based on an emotions rather than on one of intellect.

Previous versions of Anne never let anything hold her back, she knew she was smart and went for it even though she was constantly having to prove herself as a woman. She’s a feminist icon because she’s a fighter. She fights to stay at Green Gables; she fights for herself in school and repeatedly ends up at the top of her class gaining a scholarship and attending university despite all the societal pressures working against her. When she ultimately ends up with Gilbert it is only after years of academic rivalry out of which grew a deep mutual respect for one another.

The series overall isn’t bad. It’s worth it for the artistic shots of Ontario and PEI alone, and puffed sleeves and raspberry cordial still play prominent roles. For anyone watching for the first time however, I urge you to go back and either read the books or watch the 1985 film version. I am interested to see if they do another season and if any of these aspects of Anne are reclaimed. I recognize that this is my own personal bias but she was an idol for me, someone I looked up to and wanted to be. Girls, and boys, being introduced to Anne today deserve to have her as their role model too. To ignore Anne’s intelligence is to do her a complete and total injustice.