Friday, January 27, 2006

Manipulative Women & Men Who Envy Them

Not long ago, a man of science informed me that women are naturally more manipulative than men. And sure, I imagine that women without more direct means of persuasion (physical force or financial power) might be obliged to be resourceful. It seems only sensible that a woman (without an army or hefty pocketbook) might rely more heavily upon her wits.

However, as it happens, I had the honor of chatting with a few devilish villains recently, and some were put out by women's perceived superiority in the area of manipulation. They were absolutely begging recognition.

Count Dracula, for one, believes that he has set the standard for subliminal seduction, and doesn't wish to be associated with mere brutes or overblown machinery of war. The wicked cads of Richardson's Clarissa and Hardy's Tess, cry out for notice, demanding that they've used many a devious and underhanded trick to trap an innocent damsel.

Austen's Wickham, while a lightweight in this company, insists that his manipulative charms have caused Elizabeth Bennett and her family a great deal of grief, and if he had been less effective, Pride and Prejudice would have amounted to no more than a measly short-story.

I asked them why they believe women receive more credit as shrewd and masterful manipulators, and the Count acknowledged that Lady MacBeth has been a hard act to follow (and no one here volunteered to go head-to-head with her).

Then someone suggested (I'm not sure who - it may have been a subliminal message) that female villains tend manipulate an ally (or henchman) to do their dirty work (as in Double Indemnity) while male villains tend to manipulate their victims directly. After this, a dispute ensued over whether manipulating a powerful ally or a vulnerable victim is a more cunning achievement.

I left while I still could.

Monday, January 23, 2006

I Kiss Jill Sobule

It all started in 1995. My boyfriend made me one of those compilation tapes that (yeah, you know) boys make in those first months of courtship. At the time, I already had a stack of boyfriend anthologies which I could easily have labeled: "Songs My Boyfriends REALLY Liked Which I Had to Endure for the Sake of 'Love.'"

So I dreaded listening to this one. At first.

But as it turns out, this compilation (unlike its predecessors) was actually designed for me. It was a feminist-girl collection. And included The Jig is Up by Jill Sobule.*

Okay, I fibbed. I haven't kissed Jill Sobule. But I did see her recently in a small venue, and she was a revelation.

You see, the thing is (I regret to say) I had kind of forgotten her over the years. She had fallen out of the spotlight; she had gone missing in my mind, and all this time, I have been really missing out.

She still has her girlish voice, girlish figure and girlish energy. Her songs continue to combine quirky images with a magical simplicity. She can move from edgy humor to sweet vulnerability within seconds. One moment, she's dissing Bush in her hilarious song about frustrated presidents (if only Bush had succeeded in Baseball, we all might have been spared!) and the next, she's singing about a teen prostitute in Tel Aviv with graceful, understated poignancy. There doesn't seem to be a subject she won't touch - religion, politics, homosexuality, prostitution, her own feelings of hurt, frustration and anger.

What struck me most, however, was the incredible intimacy and buoyant friendliness she projects to her audience. Her whole manner seems to say: "I'm really glad to be here with you" even if this is a small venue, on a tiny stage - and "thanks for hanging out with me today."

She tried out an unfinished song for us and offered an extraneous verse. She asked us if she could start a song over. She sang a delightfully silly and candid song which has only two lines to it. She even had an audience member hold up drafts of new songs she hadn't yet committed to memory.

Jill Sobule is not afraid to be unfinished. She is not afraid to be both goofy and bold. She is not afraid to be herself, even if she's still trying to figure out who that self is.


* Why was The Jig is Up chosen for me? Well... I grew up on an apple orchard. And I would like to major in something foolish. And disappear, sometimes, when I'm in a bad mood and need to change my attitude.

The Jig is Up (by Jill Sobule)

"If I had a lot of money
I'd move to another country
I'd disappear, not tell a soul, I'd change my name
Or maybe I'd go back to school
Major in something foolish
And I could do it cause I'd have a lot of money
Here I am holding on to childhood's dream
Sitting in my apple tree
Swaying as the branches tremble under me

The jig is up, it's all been played
The well is dry, the bed's been made
The jig is up, the jig is up

Maybe I could jump,
Jump off the Brooklyn Bridge
But I don't live in Brooklyn
And I don't know how to swim
Or I could find religion
go on some kind of mission
Feed the poor, and then I would go to heaven
if I believed in heaven

Here I am, holding on to childhood's dream
Standing on the balcony
Waiting for someone to come and rescue me

The jig is up, the dance is done
The record skips, the song's been sung
The troops have dwindled down to one
The jig is up
The jig is up, the sun has set
The train is wrecked, the sheets are wet
And like I said, the jig is up

Well I can't really disappear
Cause I don't have a lot of money
And I don't really think I wanna
go back to school
But maybe I'm just in a bad mood
And I need to change my attitude
And when I wake up tomorrow
I'll believe in heaven

Here I am, holding on to childhood's dream
Climbing down the apple tree
Waking as you pull the covers off of me
The jig is up

The jig is up, yes it's been tough
The punch is drunk, the shrink is shrunk
It's time to get the baby up
It's off to work let's start the car
We'll turn it over in its grave
And start again its soul to save
The jig is up but so what
We'll fill again this empty cup
The jig is up, the point's been made
Elvis has just left the stage
The story needs another twist
And I have had enough of this"

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Tractor Dreams

I dream of tractors.

I grew up on a small apple farm where a tractor is a piece of the scenery. On weekends, I would toss apples into Dad's hand-made cider-press and I would zoom about on Dad's make-shift tractor.

I drove the tractor without incident until my younger brother grew taller than me. That Spring, Mom was shaken by a premonition that the tractor would mysteriously blow up on me. My safety was at stake, it seemed, when it had never been at stake before. Suddenly, I was much too precious to drive the tractor.

I disagreed. I struggled with my big-little-brother to claim the coveted driver's seat, but my battle was short-lived. Soon after, Dad purchased a larger tractor, a royal blue monster on wheels, and since I was fairly small (and wasn't getting any bigger), I couldn't reach the pedals.

That was that. I had been downsized. Man-made machinery had grown too big for a girl like me. I was sent away from the orchard, trees and greenery, and relegated to indoor, claustrophobic housework.

So you ask, "Why would you even want to drive a tractor?"

And I understand that most people don't see Tractor-Deprivation as tragic. It's not, of course, even remotely related to anything like tragedy, but the end of my tractor-driving days marked the end of an important period in my life; a time when I got to be my father's apprentice; a time before gender dictated my duties.

Also, driving a tractor is an exhilarating experience. You're not forced to follow some well-marked road, but flying over grass, across acres, with the sun overhead and the wind whirling around you. You strike your own course; you navigate around trees and bushes with your own self-made map. You are powerful.

So I ask all writers out there to let us girls steer tractors (or spaceships, if you prefer) on the page - if we can't here - because we ride them in our dreams.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

When 27 is Bountiful: Notes to My English Teacher

In my Junior High journal, I enjoyed an ongoing correspondence with my English teacher, a fiery woman who occasionally wore leopard patterns and looked a bit like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (fake eyelashes and all).

“Oh, Ms. AH! I wrote a novel over the Summer, but unfortunately, I lost all 27 pages of it, and I just can’t bear to start all over again!”

I’m not sure why I thought 27 pages amounted to a novel. I had read novels, certainly, but churning out 27 handwritten pages during my family’s vacation in Maine must have seemed monumental to me.

Ms. AH commiserated. Back then, in the land of childhood, 27 pages were magical.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Women to Watch: Lady MacBeth Gilmore

How many women wield power on television? No, let me rephrase my question – how many women wield power on television without using sexuality?

Television swarms with sexy seductresses. In fact, if you start profiling based on most shows, be wary of any nubile, blond bombshells. They're vixens, apparently, or else, victims. Unless their name was "Buffy."

But under the radar, in a smart, snappy comedy, Emily Gilmore has been rising in power. Played to perfection by Kelly Bishop, Emily is an impressive antagonist. She's shrewd. She's sassy. She's even sympathetic. But what truly sets her apart from other female adversaries?

Sex is not her weapon.

Oh - and did I mention – she’s over the age of fifty. But Emily’s no artifact. She's a vibrant and complicated power-house who can do both right and wrong - knowingly. Unlike Marie Barone on Raymond, Emily doesn’t fool herself into thinking her motives are selfless. She exercises control over daughter and granddaughter without apology. She’s archetypal, really; reminiscent of fairy tale queens who usurp their own step-daughters.

Sure, since she lives inside a comedy, Emily will never compete with Lady MacBeth. But she’s far more convincing and commanding than most desperate housewives. And she’s one of the reasons Gilmore Girls has grown stronger these past few seasons. The show is allowing a grandmother to play the “villain” without playing the “fool,” and it’s working.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Brokeback Mountain: No One Told Me

I feel duped.

No one told me Brokeback Mountain was about me. It was supposed to be about other people, you know, homosexuals. That's the hype, right, two gay cowboys in love.

So why did I see myself in this story? That young girl I was who couldn't imagine escaping the narrow confines of her strict upbringing. That young woman struggling to find her way in a society which promised to prize independence but, too often, rewarded conformity.

When you're stuck inside the status quo, when it's all you know, you've played a part in this film. And I, for one, have acted, at some point, for some person, rather than risk exposing myself to condemnation and punishment.

Brokeback Mountain, with its vulnerable performances and clear-sighted direction, is about our natural human struggle. Our longing to belong pressed up against our longing to be ourselves. Our desire to live peacefully (and safely) pressed up against our need to live truthfully.

This film reminded me that liberty can be a shared delusion. We enjoy certain freedoms, yes, yes, but that doesn't necessarily make us free.