Love Life Advice from Beyonce

Yes, yes, we all know about “to the left, to the left” and “all the single ladies.” But if you listen to Beyonce’s oeuvre in its entirety as I have, thanks to a borderline obsession and a lot of workouts, you will find she has a very clear, complete philosophy on relationships that goes beyond great kiss-offs. A few of our favorite tips, as only Beyonce can give them:

From “Ego,” lines to use on the man you’ve got your eye on:

Some women were made
But me, myself?
I like to think that I was created
For a special purpose
You know?
What’s more special than YOU?

Well, you got the key to my heart
But you ain’t gonna need it
I’d rather you open up my body
And show me secrets you didn’t know was inside
No need for me to lie.

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Why Do Ladies Love Woody Allen?


220px-Woody_Allen_(2006)I’m not talking about romantic love, though he seems to do almost bafflingly well in that department, too. Here, I’m interested in something else: Funny female writers and filmmakers have tended, more often than random chance would dictate, to be strongly, obviously influenced by Allen, moreso than any other male auteur I can think of. Why would this be?

I’m talking, first and foremost, about Nora Ephron, one of Allen’s most direct, unapologetic cultural descendants. When Harry Met Sally is essentially trying, hoping to be a Woody Allen movie. It succeeded at this goal, of course, and transcended it, but it would have been happy — and rightfully so — being a very good Woody Allen imitation. From the dialogue to the uptown New York social circles it moves in to Meg Ryan’s wardrobe (what’s up, Annie Hall?), it’s a beyond-competent love letter to Allen. But I see traces of Allen in Tina Fey’s wordplay, Mindy Kaling’s zippy dialogue and surreal hijinks, Lena Dunham’s unflinching take on messy relationships and neuroses, and Elizabeth Meriwether’s quirky heroines and awkward sex scenes. (Last night, I re-watched the New Girl episode in which Jess and Nick try to have sex but fail because they shatter Schmidt’s fish tank. Brilliant.)

It’s strange to realize how much influence Allen has had on women-centric entertainment, given his own problematic relationship to women being played out over and over in a lot of his work. When he’s not reveling in the glories of much, much younger women, he’s fetishizing the whole lot of us, worshipping us to the point of unknowability. He basically invented the now well-known archetype of the manic pixie dream girl.

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Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, and the Evolution of Girl Humor

600x400_insideamyschumer2Given the early coverage before the debut of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer this spring, I figured we were in for another dirty-girl comedian — Schumer was most often compared to Whitney Cummings and Sarah Silverman. I don’t dislike either of those ladies, but both of them, when at their best, retain the whiff of women trying to make it in a man’s comedy world. Of course, it is a man’s comedy world, and I can’t blame them, and I loooved every bit of the shock value of The Sarah Silverman Program. (I also happen to enjoy the show Cummings co-created, 2 Broke Girls. We won’t talk about Whitney.) Cummings and Silverman do the comedy equivalent of business women wearing hyper-masculine, shoulder-padded suits in the ’80s as they fought their way to boardroom levels: They made it in an astonishingly male-dominated profession by out-boying the boys.

Schumer and the also-rising talent Mindy Kaling represent a subtle shift, however, from Cummings and Silverman. They don’t shy away from indelicate topics like sex or body humor — because most modern women are a few steps beyond Jane Austen-style manners. But they don’t try to beat the guys at their own game, either. Kaling showed with her Fox sitcom The Mindy Project this season that she can do a killer awkward-shower-sex scene and poke elaborate fun at women’s love-hate relationship with romance. Schumer’s show, which is wrapping up its first season, takes a similarly female approach — not “female” humor like an eye-rolling Cathy comic strip, but humor that’s simply unique to a heterosexual person with a vagina coming of age during the early 2000s. She gives us a sketch on, for instance, “porn from a female point of view,” which shows mostly how ridiculous (and occasionally gross) sex is for women, all hairy chests coming at them and being slammed repeatedly from behind. This stands in stark contrast to those “porn for women” send-ups that show men with waxed chests doing housework. Because, ha ha, women have no desires beyond a clean house! Schumer acknowledges both female desire and the silliness of what we must endure to fulfill it. And don’t even get me started on the sketch about the guy who falls in love with her because of her terrible perm. You just need to see it.

In fact, you just need to see both The Mindy Project (now in summer reruns!) and Inside Amy Schumer. They both make great summer viewing.

HBO’s ‘Love, Marilyn’ Gives Us a Thinking Sex Symbol

LoveMarilynAll hail Marilyn Monroe as the thinking girl’s icon trapped in a sex goddess’ body.

Feminists have long been fascinated by the life and death of the self-made siren, who came from nothing and became anything Hollywood wanted her to be so she could rise to fame. (Gloria Steinem wrote a book about her at the peak of her own notoriety as a women’s lib leader.) What Hollywood wanted, of course, was a sex symbol of mythic proportions, and it got just that from her. If it also wanted a source of endless material for years after her death, it got that, too: Reams of books have been written about her from every vantage point imaginable, from Steinem to Joyce Carol Oates to murder conspiracy theorists to Norman Mailer and the many men who admired her. Smash dedicated two ill-fated seasons to a fictional musical about her life. Michelle Williams, Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, and Madonna are among the many who have played the star in one way or another.

What’s well-covered territory feels fresh again in HBO’s new documentary, Love, Marilyn. I started watching it out of a sense of obligation, as a feminist and pop culture writer. But I came away feeling, for the first time, what it was like to be Marilyn, a sensation strangely absent from every other depiction I’ve ever seen. I loved Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, but even that performance, which depicted her exquisite sadness and loneliness, still couldn’t convey to me why she was so sad and lonely. It also couldn’t show me how smart she was, and, perhaps more poignantly, how smart she wanted to be in a world that wouldn’t let her.

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‘Wolf of Wall Street’: Wither the Ladies?

Oh my goodness, did I swoon with the rest of the internet upon the release of the first Wolf of Wall Street trailer. DiCaprio being the actor I love! McConaughey being the comeback, rom-com-free McConaughey I love! Scorsese! That dancing, that monkey! Jokes, money flying, high drama, the inevitable crash you know has to come, etc. Please swoon with me if you haven’t already, or swoon again — you know you want to:

So here’s where I’m a downer about this: As soon as you come down off the sugar high of that kick-ass trailer, you realize that the only two women you see in this thing are objectified eye candy. Granted, you can tell that this reflects the sensibility of the world the film is depicting; you don’t come away thinking Scorsese is a massive misogynist as much as an unfortunately accurate chronicler of Wall Street. It’s the same problem Social Network had a few years ago, when one of its most shocking details was its lack of smart female characters, just as discussions about the lack of women in tech really took off.

And so I wonder: Is there a similarly rollicking, real-life story featuring mostly fascinating female characters that we’d like to see hit the big screen? Bling Ring seems like a start, of sorts — we don’t need the women to be admirable, since the men in these films (particularly Wolf of Wall Street) are hardly role models. Betsy Israel’s Bachelor Girl, about the history of single women, provides some prototypes. (I might even suggest the female writers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured in my book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, if I wanted to be particularly bold.) I’m a fan of Jessica Mitford, a social activist and journalist in the ’40s and ’50s known as “the queen of the muckrakers.” I can’t believe there hasn’t been a huge, showy Dorothy Parker movie. But it’d be cool to see some more modern kick-ass women on the screen as well. Any ideas?

Why We Need More Naked Women

It says a lot about the state of our relationship to our bodies that I cried from watching this simple video (embedded below) about a simple photo project: Jade Beall is putting together a book of real, untouched black and white photographs of real women’s bodies. Looking at these gorgeous images, with all their supposed “flaws,” you realize how seldom we see other non-model women’s bodies. You also realize how critical it is that we do so.

We’re so used to thinking that women’s bodies are for straight men’s enjoyment that we forget there could be real advantages to presenting images of the naked form outside of Victoria’s Secret ads and Playboy pictorials. This is where women’s bodies, and even sexuality, truly becomes empowerment. I recently did a boudoir photo shoot with my sister, Julie, who runs Chicago Doll Photography, and it is empowering, as a real woman, to treat yourself like a model in the good ways. You don’t have to objectify yourself to feel the effect; there’s simply a power in treating yourself as worthy of being photographed this way, as if you are as “beautiful” as those VS models. It starts sounding cheesy pretty fast here, of course: You are beautiful! You do deserve it! That’s only because the ad industry has taken these images and these ideas from us and used them to sell products to us that supposedly make us more beautiful since advertising began.

This is why we called ourselves Sexy Feminist — because feminism like this is sexy, and wonderful, and delicious, not because we’re trying to be sexy to straight men. This is what the female gaze looks like, cast upon other female forms:

Watch the video, donate money, volunteer to pose, spread the word, buy the book when it’s out — we should all do whatever we can to support The Beautiful Body Project, and anything else like it.

Why I Loved ‘Behind the Candelabra’

behind-the-candelabra-michael-douglas-matt-damon1Most critics reviewing HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra mentioned director Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant decision to temper the flamboyance of Liberace’s life with a gritty and unflinchingly realistic framing of the story. Even the slightest tic toward taking the movie over the top could’ve felt like farce, and besides, there was plenty of over-the-topness in the story — the sets, the costumes, the plastic surgery. Maybe Soderbergh overcompensated a little, thus sapping a bit of the joy Liberace clearly took in sparkly and ornate things. But I liked his approach more than the alternative.

Because he shot it like any straightforward, serious biopic, he instead brought out both the intimacy and the intensity of Liberace’s relationship with Scott Thorson. He also, through that relationship, focused on the politics underlying their lives, and thus the lives of many gay men in the ’80s. The closest they could get to being married was for Liberace to adopt Thorson, a bizarre realization that ought to send everyone running to do whatever we can to get gay marriage legalized. And how heartbreaking to see people still trying to pretend, even after Liberace’s death, that the great love of his life was a woman! There’s something so devastating about not being acknowledged for your place in your great love’s life — even as an ex-spouse, you get some recognition at the funeral for your loss.

And, oh, the vanity! Being gay and famous made Liberace, and thus Thorson, as vulnerable to the pressure to be beautiful and young as women are. I loved the brutal cosmetic surgery sequences — I couldn’t even watch them, which I think is a good thing. We too rarely acknowledge how painful cosmetic procedures are — calling them “nips” and “tucks,” cutesy names that make us forget that this is major surgery. Not to mention that this is the creepy end result. Something about seeing men go through this on screen makes a difference, too, highlighting the inherent weirdness of it all because we’re not as used to it.

Most of all, the film normalized even a rather bizarre relationship between two men, something we could stand to see more of as we march toward the (hopefully) inevitable breakthrough of legalized gay marriage.

Celine Dion, Feminist?

_23_-_dion_07_0655_fnl_2Among the last words you might think of to describe Celine Dion is “feminist.” Feminine, for sure, perhaps to an embarrassing degree for a lot of us. (Not that femininity is embarrassing, as much as our traditional ideas about femininity — that is, the bald expression of FEELINGS — make us squeamish.) She has always been all grand feeling, exposed nerve endings, belting at the top of your lungs and “diamonds are forever,” right? But I just finished this book about her, called Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, and it will change your life if you are a critic; it also hints at the possibility that Celine could be a feminist, especially when she’s working in her native language, Quebecoise French. I’ll just quote the book here, which you should totally read:

Céline’s albums since Let’s Talk About Love have gained some restraint, the singing and arrangements have become more up-to-date and “tasteful.” Her latest French release, D’Elles, goes very high-culture, even intellectual—it’s a concept album in which all the lyrics were provided by female journalists and novelists from Quebec and France. (One review was titled, “I Am Woman, Hear Me Think.”) At the 2007 Oscars, she was asked to sing a new piece by the renowned (and cosmopolitanly hip) Italian film composer Ennio Morricone, who was receiving a lifetime-achievement award. And her next album might go even further. Titled, warningly to fans, Taking Chances, it is rumored at the time of this writing to include songs by the rock band Evanescence, ex-Eurythmics musician Dave Stewart, the R&B artists Ne-Yo and R. Kelly (who’s built up cachet with the loony audacity of his musical soap opera, “Trapped in the Closet”), producer The-Dream (who made Rihanna’s massive hit “Umbrella”) and, most unlikely of all, that chart-topping studio avant-gardist, Timbaland. It is almost as if Céline has figured out how to be cool, American-style.

I don’t know if Celine will ever be 100-percent cool, or feminist — but we should all give her a chance. I love her song “Taking Chances” — how about you?

Revisiting Sleater-Kinney

2311I’ve had a few Sleater-Kinney songs in heavy rotation on my iPod for years: Every time I go to karaoke (which is a lot), I’m bummed that I can’t sing “You’re No Rock ‘n’ Roll Fun,” which should really be mainstream enough for such treatment. But alas, those lists where great pop songs go to die/live forever are apparently no place for such punk spirit. Just one more way these ladies don’t get their due — you can get every Green Day and Sum 41 and even Sex Pistols song you could possibly want to croon along with. But it’s also just one more way these ladies get to retain their sense of infinite cool.

I will admit to my own mainstream, semi-uncool reasons for having recently gorged on Sleater-Kinney downloads on iTunes. Mainly, the IFC comedy sensation Portlandia ignited my intense girl crushery for Carrie Brownstein — I haven’t wanted to copy everything a pop star wears/does/thinks so badly since I plastered my walls with Debbie Gibson posters. From there, I got into her current band, Wild Flag, which is, obviously, awesome. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Brownstein work a stage with her guitar. And now I’m mainlining old Sleater-Kinney.

For the uninitiated, Sleater-Kinney came out of the Pacific Northwest’s intersection of grunge and riot-grrl movements, combining the best elements to produce the kind of polished pop-punk the best of the ’90s and aughts bands brought us. In this case, the pop punk just happened to come from three chicks: Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss. Their lyrics were as cleverly post-modern as Nirvana’s, maybe even more self-aware: “So you want to be entertained?/Please look away/We’re not here ’cause we want to entertain/Please go away/Don’t go away.” And they did meta as well as, if not as often and self-consciously as, Fall Out Boy. From “Turn It On”: “Don’t say the word if you don’t want it done/Don’t tell me your name if you don’t want it sung.”

While they certainly address female-oriented issues sometimes — the infectious “One More Hour” pines for a lesbian relationship without making a spectacle of it — their revolutionary quality came mostly from showing girls could play with the big boys without compromising their feminism or femininity. Any girl listening to any Sleater-Kinney today would come away with one message: We are as capable of shredding and wailing as any dude currently blowing out the speakers in his parents’ garage.

Barbara Walters: The Real-Life Mary Richards?

abc_barbara_walters_thg_130128_wgI grew up idolizing both Barbara Walters and Mary Richards. I moved to a big city, became a journalist, and lived the better part of last decade as a single, independent, successful (if I do say so) career woman. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think it’s the power of great role models.

Of course, one of them is real, and one is the fictional lead of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But having written a whole book about that show, I often find myself wondering what Mary would be up to right now if she were real. The fun of the game is that my own imagination can choose whatever it wants, and what it chooses mirrors what I really want to be like in 10, 20, 30, or 40 years. As Barbara Walters announced her retirement this week, I knew: This was Mary’s retirement. This is exactly what she would be doing right now after a long, groundbreaking career. She’d be signing off her successful talk show, leaving it in the care of her hand-picked co-hosts.

What’s astounding about Walters’ career is that, between her and Mary, she’s the real one — and yet she also did everything Mary did, but years earlier. She came up through the secretarial pool behind the network news scenes, just like Mary, and eventually broke through the male-dominated newsroom, just like Mary did. She then became a writer and segment producer (like Mary) doing “women’s interest” segments on the Today show. Soon she was on the air, which I believe was only a matter of time for Ms. Richards. She scaled great heights from there, becoming the show’s first female co-host, then nightly news’ first female co-anchor on ABC.

I encountered Walters in the ’80s through her riveting interview specials with celebrities and heads of state alike. I fell in love with her ability to coax a story from anyone. I studied her tactics. You don’t ask people, “Why are you crazy?” you ask them, “What is your response to critics who say you’re a little eccentric?” Sometimes, you soften the blow they know is coming: “A lot of people are wondering about your divorce, of course, so I have to ask: What happened?” Other times you rip the band-aid off: “Did you sleep with the president, or not?” I use many of her tricks to this day (though I have never asked anyone what kind of tree he or she would like to be). She made me want to tell people’s stories, and doing emotional interviews became one of my specialties at Entertainment Weekly, which made me proud. I learned to make people comfortable, while still maintaining my journalistic integrity, by watching Walters.

I also learned that “female” doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean “not serious.” Because she was a woman, but a pioneering one, she managed to mix traditionally “female” topics — celebrity, fashion, feelings — and “male” ones — politics, war. This eventually led to one of the most innovative shows on television — yeah, really — The View. For 16 years now, her daytime talk show has mixed co-hosts of various races, backgrounds, political affiliations, and ages to discuss everything from reality TV to presidential elections. It’s become a must-visit show for both starlets and political candidates. And the show has one unifying message: Women’s voices matter.

We’ll miss you, Barbara. Thanks for making the world safe for Mary Richards, me, and all the women like us.

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