Soon after Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile‘s theatrical release, my friend Jamie compared me to Julia Roberts’ protagonist Katherine Watson, a firebrand Wellesley art history professor who demands that her female students see themselves as more than just potential wives and mothers. The film takes place in 1953 and the main character is a career feminist. In late 2003, I was a college junior coming into my own as a feminist and debating whether to pursue a career in the academy. It was a flattering comparison, an affirmation of what Jamie saw in me. But I was weary of the comparison. For one, I was circumspect about the film’s politics. How was feminism being defined, or was it even considered at all? How might Mona Lisa Smile reaffirm formative texts like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and suggest that equity should only be achieved for upwardly mobile, college-educated, straight white women?
These concerns were magnified on Oprah when Julia Roberts, accompanied by many of the film’s younger cast members, asked why women should choose between families and career when they can have both. Certain kinds of women, Julia. Usually women who are born into at least some kind of privilege. Many women, including single mothers, mothers seeking higher education, women working multiple jobs, disabled women, queer women, and working class women, might not consider the roles of motherhood, wifehood, and professional fulfillment simply as a matter of choice. Julia Roberts was speaking from a place of excessive privilege. Thus, speaking for multiple groups of women who occupy a panoply of privileged and marginalized positions as one monolith who can simply choose family and career registered to me as smug and clueless. It was almost as disingenuous as the scene in Erin Brockovich where a firegrand legal assistant informs a family that they will be getting part of a settlement from a lawsuit against PG&E. The family receives around a million dollars. According to the titular heroine, this is apparently more than her clients’ children and children’s children will ever need. Roberts, the actress who delivered those lines, reportedly collected a $12 million paycheck and was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood at the time.
I finally watched Mona Lisa Smile over the weekend. I was in the middle of grading and putting together delivery and listening exercises for the public speaking course I’m teaching this year. Earlier that day, I conducted a music history workshop for Ladies Rock Camp in Madison and continue to struggle with how to reconcile to issues related to age, gender, and racial disparities between campers and subject matter. I always try to assert a feminist identity as an instructor. I believe in putting theory into practice. If teaching is in fact a performance, it is important to model certain kinds of behavior for your students. I’m instructing 26 students this semester. All but two are freshmen, six of them are male, and two of them are black girls. The delivery exercise involves reading pop songs and poems in certain styles, and I spent a lot of time determining what material I’d use. They can choose from the riot grrrl manifesto, a Gossip song, a Langston Hughes poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and Taylor Swift lyrics, among others. The listening exercises will incorporate speeches from Mean Girls, Rushmore, and Wattstax. My hope is to embed a certain politic without calling attention to it. At least not yet. I intend to drop the “f” bomb during the persuasive unit.
Theoretically, this is a part-time job. I am also in course work and on two editorial boards. I am also involved with undertakings related to my school work, including some writing opportunities and a collaborative event I’m in the process of putting together. Friends require attention, as well as sleep, doctors’ appointments, haircuts, and regimented social time. All of these moments present opportunities to reinvest in my politics in both small gestures and larger projects. A discussion of Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon in my film score class requires addressing the filmic and cultural functions of Audrey Hepburn and her character’s relationship to music in some way, and may require a post since class discussion focused almost entirely on formal elements without any real effort on my part to reroute the conversation. These aren’t complaints. These are responsibilities.
I didn’t hate Mona Lisa Smile as I thought I might. It’s a good “gateway” movie for folks who are receptive to mainstream feminist ideology, even if the f-word isn’t used explicitly. Given that Kirsten Dunst was dating Jake Gyllenhaal at the time but cut her hair to look exactly like then-BFF Maggie, I wonder what queer dimensions we might find in certain friendships within and outside of the film. I’m also curious about how marriage is challenged as an institution in the film, alongside sexist, condescending perceptions against housewifery and motherhood. I’m also interested in the ways in which the film sought to hail an audience and contemporize the period in some way. Tori Amos’ musical cameo is one such example. Yet at the same time, I’m bothered by the song selection. Amos appears as a jazz singer performs “You Belong to Me.” Originally written by Pee Wee King, Chilton Price, and Redd Stewart from the perspective of woman missing her lover while he is stationed overseas during World War II, the pop standard ultimately became about a wayward traveler devoted to his or her partner, regardless of how exotic locales might create distance. Listening to Amos deliver the line “See the marketplace in old Algiers” during a WASPy wedding reception in a film that takes place a year before the launch of the Algierian War bothers me.
I wonder how the film could possibly feed into the project of historicizing women’s rights and social progress, something that has been taken up in efforts as diffuse as the American Girl book series, HBO’s recent documentary on Gloria Steinem, and the documentary on the women’s rights movement included in the second season DVD for Mad Men. Yet at the same time, I’m troubled that we, once again, focus on social progress through the eyes and experiences of privileged white women. I have yet to watch Pan Am or The Playboy Club, but I’m concerned that I will see this circulate once again. As a feminist who works with Girls Rock Camp and at a university with predominantly white students who live in a city that supports establishments with “color-blind” dress codes, I worry that these efforts are insufficient even if we consider the function of strategic marginalization. Mona Lisa Smile foregrounds white female privilege, not only focusing its attention on Wellesley MRS degree seekers, but by placing its young ensemble in an art history class. Such intellectual pursuits were, and to a certain extent remain, analogous to finishing school. Though the field of art history continues to be reinvigorated with scholarly assertions informed by feminist and queer ideologies, that type of education is often employed at dinner parties. Just ask Betty Draper. But I’m more interested in what Sheila, Carla, and my students have to say about a Jackson Pollack painting.
Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).
I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.
However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.
1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.
I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.
2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.
There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.
Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.
I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?
Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?
In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.
3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.