The greatest TV show of all time*

*well, at least in my subjective opinion. Yours may differ.

Warning: this post contains a mild Mad Men spoiler about the career path of one of the main characters. 


I’ve always been more of a movie person than someone who’ll sit down and watch a TV series in one go. I love the big screen and a movie requires less time investment than watching hours upon hours of one series. But I’m not here to discuss the merits of movies over TV, or vice versa.

I just finished marathon-watching the whole of Mad Men for the first time: all 92 episodes from June to August. Now it’s over, I’m missing my nightly fix of a few episodes watched back to back. After spending all that time with the same cast of characters, watching them grow and change, I think any other series will be somewhat underwhelming. After all, Mad Men is regarded as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It’s pretty hard for anything else to live up to that, right? Continue reading

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Books I Read in July

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Naples, Italy. Photo credit: Montse Monmo

In July I started reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Set primarily in Naples, the four-part series follows two friends — Elena Greco and Raffaella (known as Lila) Cerullo — from childhood through to their sixties.

These books are bestsellers and have drawn global acclaim, but one of the great mysteries behind them is the true identity of the author. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, and there has been a lot of speculation about the person behind the nom de plume.

Last year, the New York Review of Books published a piece by an Italian journalist who claimed to have outed Ferrante’s identity. Given that she published her books with the repeated desire to remain anonymous, I feel that the media frenzy over uncovering her identity is in poor taste. It’s certainly unusual for bestselling authors to avoid publicity, but Ferrante clearly has reasons for wishing to write under a pseudonym. Continue reading

“Never, dear. Men don’t say that”

London Underground subway

The London Underground. Public domain photo by Maria Molinero.

A few days ago, I was on the Tube — the London Underground subway. Somewhere between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square on the Piccadilly line, I apologized to a fellow passenger for being in front of the doors when she wanted to get off at her stop: “sorry, I’m in the way.”

I wasn’t expecting her response. She put her hand on my arm and, in a North American accent, said emphatically: “Never, dear. Men don’t say that.”

It made me smile because it was one of those brief interactions with strangers that you don’t expect, and also because her words rang true. I tend to apologize a lot and I probably say “sorry” too much. But I’m not sure that it’s entirely a result of being a woman. Continue reading

Disney’s Loss of Innocence: language, race and gender in children’s animated movies

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Disney Orlando castle at night. By Veryhuman (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of my peers grew up with Disney animated movies. They watched the classics — The Lion KingPocahontasBeauty and the Beast… I didn’t. To this day, I’ve seen a grand total of two Disney animations: Dumbo and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, yes, I know. I haven’t seen The Lion King, or Bambi, which is sometimes marked out as an oddity if it comes up in conversations with friends, as though I’m confessing an eccentric habit.

Disney’s movies are a fond presence in millions of childhoods throughout the world, and beyond (last year, a friend asked me if I wanted to go and see Cinderella with her. I suggested Far from the Madding Crowd instead). But these movies aren’t as child-friendly and full of innocent wonder as they seem. In fact, they have some symbolism in them that is pretty downright disturbing.

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Movie review: Joy (2015)

The recently-released movie, Joy, is the third collaboration between director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Loosely based on truth, it tells the story of Joy Mangano, a struggling single mother who became an entrepreneur and founded a business empire worth millions of dollars.

Sounds glamorous? When I first heard about this movie, I had no idea who Joy Mangano was or what this invention, now worth so much, entailed. The trailer doesn’t give anything away, but on closer inspection it turns out that Mangano achieved her wealth by inventing….a self-wringing mop.

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The “Suffragette” Controversy

Suffragette is not an easy movie to watch, and nor would you expect it to be: scenes of police brutality amidst peaceful protests, the gruelling life of London’s East End factory workers, force-feedings of imprisoned women…

The movie opens with a few lines of text, informing us that women have campaigned peacefully for the vote for decades, but they had been ignored and ridiculed. We see the suffrage movement through the eyes of one fictional woman, Maud Watts. She is reluctant to join the cause at first but is encouraged to take part by one of the women who works with her.

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Advice For Young Academics

#AdviceForYoungJournalists was trending on Twitter this morning and a spinoff hashtag, #AdviceForYoungAcademics, started. It reminded me that the idea for this post has been brewing in my brain for a while, but I haven’t found the time to blog since early January: a partial explanation for my hiatus is the beginning of the Spring term and the deluge of reading, writing and class-attending that it entailed. The other reason is that I spent two weeks in a coffee haze, writing a research proposal to apply for grant funding for my MA and Ph.D. On Friday, I heard that I have been officially accepted for a Master’s degree, to be followed by a Ph.D. This is very exciting! Now I have to wait a couple of months before I hear about whether I am awarded the funding. The grant is competitive and there is one place available. In the meantime, I don’t have much time to think/worry about it, because I have 9,000 words to write over the next few weeks.

Regular Cultural Life readers will know how much I am enamored by academia, which brings me to the point of this post. Before Christmas, I checked out Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, from my university library. Although it isn’t related to my academic field of linguistics, the title attracted me because I have an interest in how smart women are portrayed. Also: yes, I read academic books for fun. I checked this book out during winter break, so I think that probably makes me a nerd by default.

Geek Chic is a collection of chapters about the portrayal of intelligent women in popular culture and the media. This includes fictional women, such as “Beauty and the Geek: Changing Gender Stereotypes on the Gilmore Girls” by Karin E. Westman, and real-life women, such as, “Heckling Hillary: Jokes, Late Night Television, and Hillary Rodham Clinton” by Jeannie Banks Thomas. I didn’t read the book from cover-to-cover, instead I picked out the chapters that were most interesting to me. That’s one of the great things about an academic anthology of different chapters: you can pick and choose the parts that are the most interesting and relevant.

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I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Leigh H. Edwards, entitled “Dangerous Minds: The Woman Professor on Television”. Edwards writes about how women in academic careers are portrayed on screen in the dramas Jack and Bobby and The Education of Max Bickford. Unsurprisingly, the dramas portray female academics who achieve success in their professional lives, but at the same time they are “condemned for how they depart from traditional gender roles in their private lives” (Edwards, 2007: 122). Edwards’s chapter highlights the “continuing structural inequities for women in higher education” and the fact that many female graduates “[jump] off their career track to be stay-at-home mothers”. Note that Edwards is not judging women who choose that path, she is highlighting the problems and issues that many women face in their careers. This is an ongoing issue, as posts on the excellent Tenure, She Wrote blog show.

I am surrounded by intelligent, academic women in my university department and I respect them greatly for their knowledge and enthusiasm. I am at the beginning of my academic career and I am fortunate in that sexism directed at smart women isn’t something that I have personally encountered, although I know it exists. Just yesterday I read a chapter by Louise Mullany entitled “Gendered Identities in the Professional workplace: Negotiating the Glass Ceiling”, which is about how language can be used to reinforce and spread gender stereotypes in the business world. Mullany (2010: 183-4) cites Kanter’s (1977) four categorizations of gender identities that are often imposed on women in business: the ‘mother role’ (i.e., “stereotypically feminine”), the ‘iron maiden’ (“characterised […] by the performance of masculine speech styles”), the ‘seductress’ and the ‘pet’. If a woman tries to fulfill both feminine and masculine roles, it can result in a “double bind” (ibid.). This, to me, speaks volumes about how the media widely portrays women as unable to fulfill dual roles: duality is frowned upon.

Judgments are commonplace – I have heard them even within my family – about women who decide to fulfill dual roles. It seems to me that women are subject to more judgments about their choices in their personal lives and the chapter by Edwards in Geek Chic describes how the dramas she discussed portray a “dynamic in which women must excel in their career but replicate the nurturer-caregiver role at home, part and parcel of an effort to ‘have it all'” (Edwards, 2010: 124). These shows, and popular culture in general, rarely show women who pursue a professional career and a private life, without resorting to drug use or having their marriages fall apart. Rather than depictions of ‘mommy wars’ and judgments designed to induce guilt in working mothers, I’d rather read about professional women who manage just fine. As a post from Tenure, She Wrote aptly says: Daycare is not a bad word!

Public domain images source:  Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

Public domain images source: Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

I am a young, aspiring academic; therefore, I guess I’m not best qualified to give advice. But I think it’s always good to reflect on your experiences, however old you are. A few of the things I’ve learned so far are:

1) Doing your own research and conducting fieldwork is a wonderful thing.

2) Hard work does pay off. When I look at my post in October, I was starting out on a project and felt somewhat downcast at the time. A few months later: I finished the project, which was very rewarding, and achieved an excellent grade.

3) Always be engaged. If something bores you, look at it from another angle and find what is interesting about it.

4) Prioritize! Start your most important papers/projects/essays etc. early. I like to start early and brainstorm, as it allows time for ideas to percolate.

5) Find your rhythm: when do you work best? For me, it’s the early morning, so I do more intellectually taxing work in those precious hours between 7 – 10 am.

6) Be determined! Everyone doubts themselves sometimes: it’s not a weakness.

Do you have advice for young academics? What do you think about the stereotypes and categorizations that are frequently imposed on professional women?

The references for the books which contain the chapters mentioned in my post are:

Inness, S. A. (2007). Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Llamas, C. and Watt, D. (2010). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Books and movies to look out for in 2015

There are numerous book and movie releases which I am looking forward to in 2015. Here are some of them, which you may like as well.

MOVIES

An adaptation of Suite Française, the novel by Irène Némirovsky. Némirovsky’s novel has an extraordinary story behind it: the author was killed in Auschwitz, but her two daughters survived the war and her elder daughter, Denise, kept the Suite Française manuscript for fifty years: it was too painful to read and they assumed it was their mother’s journal. Eventually, Denise examined the notebook and discovered the novel: in 2004, it was finally published. Although it is unfinished (Némirovsky had planned a series of five novels), it is a powerful and compelling read. I look forward to seeing the movie version.

Another 2015 movie is a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which will be released at the beginning of May. The last big-screen adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd was in 1967, starring Julie Christie. I checked it out on Wikipedia and the 1967 film poster is cringe-worthy, from a feminist standpoint: “A willful passionate girl and…the three men who want her!” This outdated tagline reveals attitudes towards women at the time: the tagline and illustrations portray Bathsheba Everdene, the protagonist of Far From the Madding Crowd, as a nonsensical, wayward girl.

However, she is a wealthy, independent woman, prone to remarks such as “I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry — at least yet” (ch. 4). While she does eventually marry, her life isn’t defined by men: she is unusual in a Victorian novel in that she runs her own farm and makes decisions about who she hires. This 2015 version stars Carey Mulligan as the heroine, which is a good casting choice in my opinion. The trailer shows striking cinematography, but Bathsheba surprisingly has no lines in it. It is difficult to judge from a short trailer, but I hope the movie does portray her independent spirit.

BOOKS

Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, has written a new novel. Set in the 1940s, At the Water’s Edge is a love story with an unusual backdrop: Maddie and Ellis Hyde are high society siblings who are disowned by their father. They then travel from Philadelphia to Scotland, where Ellis decides to try to do what his father failed to do and find the Loch Ness Monster, and “Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants” (quote from Goodreads). I read Water for Elephants and enjoyed it, so I look forward to reading more of Gruen’s writing.

At the Water's Edge (image source

At the Water’s Edge (image source

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: this collection of short stories gives fictional portrayals of the lives of “almost famous” historical women, from Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister. It sounds like an interesting read!

Almost Famous Women (image source

Almost Famous Women (image source

What new book and movie releases are you looking forward to this year?

Jane Austen and the importance of reputation

For Day 16 of Zero to Hero, the challenge is to write a personalized interpretation from today’s Daily Prompt. Technically speaking, it is now yesterday’s prompt because this post is a day late. But better late than never, right?

The prompt: Do you have a reputation? What is it, and where did it come from? Is it accurate? What do you think about it?

Because we can do anything we like with this prompt, essentially anything about the theme of reputation, I’m not going to talk about me. Instead, we’re going to time-travel a couple of hundred years to nineteenth century England. In a little village named Steventon nestled in the rolling hills of the southern county of Hampshire, one of the world’s best-loved authors lived and wrote. At that time, she wasn’t well-known and published her books under the pseudonym of “A Lady”. Today, millions have read her works. Her name is Jane Austen.

As readers, our own personal experiences influence our interpretations of what we read. Although that holds true whatever we read, when we read books set in other times and places I think it is very advantageous to have an idea of the context of time/place. Things which seem anachronistic or outlandish in the twenty-first century did not in the nineteenth, especially the rigid societal rules which governed a woman’s choices and reputation during the time in which Austen wrote.

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain).

Jane Austen, in a watercolor painted by her sister in 1804. (Photo credit: Wikipedia. This image is in the public domain).

For me, as a fan of Austen’s novels, one of the delights of reading classic literature is being able to look through a window into another era. Social etiquette was much more complex in Austen’s time than it is now and women were constrained by the expectations of a patriarchal society. As Anne Elliot succinctly says in Persuasion: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands” (ch. 23).

Strict standards of decorum applied and if a woman seriously transgressed the boundaries, it was bad news for her reputation. Austen does not shy away from depicting improper behavior according to the standards of the age. In Sense and Sensibility, the spirited Marianne rebels against the social customs of the time. She “pointedly refuses to conform to false modesty in courtship” (Todd, 2007: 301) by traveling alone with her suitor and corresponding with him via letter. But in doing so, her reputation is put at risk.

Why does it matter? A good reputation was everything, especially in the close-knit social circles of the Georgian middle and upper classes. A woman would provoke gossip if she danced more than two consecutive dances with the same partner, unless she was engaged or married to him. Young unmarried women were not allowed to be alone with male company: they had to be chaperoned. Society placed so many restrictions on women during this time, in terms of manners, conduct, education, professions, clothing and pretty much everything else.

Costumes from Jane Austen film and television adaptations

Costumes from Jane Austen film and television adaptations – photo copyright Grace @ Cultural Life (2013)

Women were effectively competing in a marriage market and if they did not marry (Austen herself remained unmarried), the choices were limited and poverty was never far away. As Austen said in one of her letters, “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor. Which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony.

I enjoy Austen’s sparkling prose and her well-written characters and I love watching adaptations of her novels. It is very easy to look at her world through a rose-tinted view. The film and TV adaptations of Austen novels are always lovely to look at; everything is very pretty and perfect and there is always a happy ending. But realistically I wouldn’t want to live in her era and be compelled to follow the regulations of society with hardly any freedom to choose my own future.

Bibliography

Todd, J (Ed). (2007). Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The problem with feminist characters

During the past few days, I have read at least two or three separate articles on why Katniss Everdeen is such a great female role model. Katniss is the lead protagonist of The Hunger Games series of books and films. She is a very human character with flaws and vulnerabilities. She is also determined, strong and she does things on her own terms. In her fictional dystopian universe, a futuristic imagining of the United States, inequalities between social classes are a bigger problem than inequalities between gender.

The most recent movie, adapted from the book, focuses partly on revolutions and uprisings in the twelve districts which are controlled by the totalitarian regime of the Capitol. And Katniss’s refusal to define herself by relationships with men, unlike some other mainstream franchise characters (Bella Swan, I’m looking at you), has led to her character being acclaimed as a pop culture feminist role model.

Photo credit: © 2013 - Lionsgate Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

Photo credit: © 2013 – Lionsgate
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

The issue of gender discrimination in film is nothing new. The Bechdel test was developed in 1985 and it scores movies and other works of fiction based on the criteria that “it has to have at least two [named] women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man” (Bechdel Test). Recently, a few independent Swedish cinemas have started rating the movies they show and giving them a grade based on whether they pass the Bechdel test. I think there are flaws with this: a movie can still be sexist or demonstrate gender inequalities even if it contains two female characters who talk about something other than relationships. But it does highlight the fact that a lot of movies are based on models of gender bias which do not fit the feminist ideology of equality. Perhaps needless to say, The Hunger Games passes the Bechdel Test with an A grade.

However, the fact that we need to make a point out of having strong female characters demonstrates that we have a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great to have feminist characters, especially in mainstream franchises. But I think the fact that we have to make such a big deal out of it is representative of a wider problem: of inequalities which still linger. It highlights the issue, at least in my eyes, that it is necessary to define characters by feminist and non-feminist. By all means, we still need to work towards equality but I hope that it will become standard for women to be represented in all forms of media without gender discrimination. Only then will we know that true and meaningful progress has been made.