Just a Pretty Face

Some of my collection, including my lovely vintage doll, Charlotte.

Some of my collection, including my lovely vintage doll, Charlotte.

Recently I’ve seen a lot of venom directed at Barbie across various mediums, interspersed with one article arguing against the idea that playing with the doll increases body insecurities and the risk of eating disorders.  Admittedly, like all corporations, Mattel brings a lot of its trouble on itself.  But does an 11 1/2 inch doll with tits really prompt girls to hate themselves?  I’m fat.  I’m a feminist.  I had numerous body insecurities growing up.  I have opinions.

My first Barbie-style doll was a black Miss Flair… she was probably bought in 1993 or ’94.  I named her Julia.  My first Barbie followed soon after, and then a Ken.  About that same time my dad acquired a tape of Tex Avery cartoons, of which, one of my favorites was always “Swing-Shift Cinderella,” starring the even more impossibly proportioned Rita Hayworth-esque dame from “Red Hot Riding Hood.”  I was fascinated by Red.  She was gorgeous; she sang well, and she could handle herself pretty well against the ravenous Wolf (that’s how Grandma described him).  I asked my mother if I would look like Red when I grew up; she said no, Red was a cartoon character.

I applied the same lesson to my dolls.  I would probably have learned it anyway.  My baby brother arrived July of that year, and he in no way resembled the handful of baby dolls in my room.  Toys and real life were mutually exclusive.

Admittedly, it’s just my experience.  My body insecurities came from people rather than toys.  But beyond the body image thing, there’s still a lot of rather myopic hate thrown at Barbie.  A couple years ago I came across this book called The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie— a history of the doll, and the controversies surrounding her.  Some were pretty ridiculous, such as is Barbie an assimilated Jew (because the Handlers were Jewish)?

No.  Barbie is a plastic doll.  She’s not a Jew, a Christian, or any other religion.  She was invented because Mrs. Handler’s daughters preferred grown-up paper dolls to baby dolls.  It wasn’t meant to be political, or scheming to make people unhappy.  She just happened to observe what was liked.

Anyway, that was a commercial break.  The question you really want answered is whether Barbie is feminist or not.  And different feminists will tell you different things.

Yes, Mattel has slipped up a lot– pretty much all companies be they toy or entertainment have.  But Barbie is more than just a pretty face in that regard.  The Handlers put her into space before the US sent its first female astronaut skyward.  She has also been a teacher, a doctor, an army medic, as well as all the careers people are inclined to sneer at (ballet dancer, model, etc.).

And the inclination to sneer at Barbie for being too pink or two feminine complicates the problem further.  The problem isn’t pink– it’s pink being the only choice.  And that wasn’t always the case.  Until the 1980s, Barbie had a much broader palette.  For that matter, when she was first created, her appearance was much more cartoonlike (like Red), unlike the levels of “realism” Mattel strives for today.

Body image is a genuine problem, as are eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but I feel that pointing the accusing finger at Mattel and Barbie is simply putting a bandage over the bigger issues.  Mental illness, eating disorders included, is still incredibly stigmatized and difficult to treat because most insurance plans don’t provide sufficient coverage for a patient to get the therapy they need.  Also body insecurity is not the sole cause of eating disorders.  Famous anorexic royal, Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary was trapped in a loveless marriage, bullied and sometimes locked in her apartments for days by her mother-in-law– what she ate, and how she made ready were the only aspects of her life she had real control over, and very quickly sank into that mental illness.

Then there’s the beauty paradox.  Too much of a woman’s worth is placed in what she looks like, that’s elementary, but the beautiful don’t necessarily get ahead.  Attractiveness is also a liabilty in that if one is beautiful, people will likely assume that that woman isn’t smart, that she’s shallow, or can’t be a good mother.  Barbie falls victim to that.  The viral video of kids playing with the “average Barbie” doll features one child saying that Barbie looked like she wouldn’t have a job.  Adults say the same thing.

There’s a lot of sexism in her criticism.  Even feminists who don’t like Barbie occasionally fall into that bad habit.  Admittedly, though, it’s a tough one to break.

So, should Barbie continue to be demonized as corrupting girls with her tits, dooming them to a life of misery, and mental illness?  No.  Is she a bright and shining example for young girls everywhere?  Probably not.  Though she has a very impressive history and makes many children happy when they act out her various adventures.  But she’s a doll– just a pretty face if you will, even though there’s a lot of brains behind it.  When there’s a problem, we need to use our brains and solve them instead of looking for something to blame.


They Didn’t Need Words

From "He Who Gets Slapped."  Look at that face.  You can feel the shock and hurt.

From “He Who Gets Slapped.” Look at that face. You can feel the shock and hurt.

This morning as I was reading the arguments on Facebook over whether the Best Actor Oscar was placed in the right pair of eager hands, I thought of Lon Chaney– the Man of a Thousand Faces.  In the 1926 movie The Unknown he played Alonzo the Armless– a circus knife-thrower, who, you guessed it, had no arms.

Except he did.  He just hid them because his deformed thumb linked him to a murder.  Until he decided to have them amputated for real later on, and….

What has this to do with the Oscars?  Nothing, really.  Lon Chaney played physically disabled characters sometimes, but the Academy Awards hadn’t been invented yet.  And given the studio he worked for, it was unlikely he would have ever received an Oscar had he lived.

But I thought of the actor, and the power of his various performances.  No matter how often the unmasking scene in his Phantom of the Opera has been spoofed– the actual scene still packs a punch.  Along with the rest of the movie– come to that.  Some of his films are so bizarre they defy categorization, but he always knew how to grab the audience and hold on– no one could write off his characters as stick-figures in greasepaint, or whatever he did to create his fabled thousand faces.

So what?  People sneer at the idea of silent films, and revel in the talkiness of today’s media.

And yet…

Five years ago, my dad and I were roadtripping to my undergrad college, so I could move in.  My time to check in at the dorm was 9 a.m, so we stayed overnight at a Comfort Inn.  The next morning, we partook of the free continental breakfast, and Dad, noting that no one was actually watching the Fox News broadcast, changed the channel to Turner Classic Movies.  The morning’s movie was He Who Gets Slapped— a Lon Chaney movie about a humiliated professor who becomes a circus clown after his academic career goes up in smoke.  An astonishing thing happened.

The room got quieter, and people started to watch the movie.

Dad and I finished our breakfast, and went back upstairs to get our stuff together, check out, and get ready to go.  It probably took fifteen, twenty minutes.  While I rearranged the load in the car, Dad stuck his head into the breakfast room one last time– it was still fairly quiet, and people were still watching Lon Chaney.

It was astounding.  And even though it was an isolated incident, I think it still speaks to the power of cinema and adds some validity to Norma Desmond’s ravings in Sunset Boulevard.  “We didn’t talk talk talk!  We didn’t words– we had faces!”

So they had, Miss Desmond.  So they had.

This year’s Academy Awards garnered a lot of criticism– a lot of it I agree with.  There’s a lot to do to make them a better media experience, but the whole Academy might want to take a look at the past and see how movies were made before talkies came in.  How characters were developed, and how messages were relayed… there’s a lot in the past that we’re not proud of (check out Selma and The Imitation Game for details), but there is good there, too.  And we can learn from it all.  As a matter of fact, we should.


Knit Up Some Heat

The contents of my knitting bag.

The contents of my knitting bag.

As the temperatures linger around zero then get blown into the negatives, I have to express my gratitude for the ladies who taught me to knit… my aunt, the authors of that kiddie knitting book whose names and title I’ve long forgotten (sorry), and former fashion design teacher who figured out why none of the knitting patterns were working for me.  (My family knits in the Continental style, apparently, while the patterns were meant for the English method.)

It can be rather an expensive hobby, yes, but it’s useful.  Especially when you’re freezing your ass off in 20 below.  I said that already.  But there is a lot to be said for a lapful of knitting, a Netflix queue, and a nice mug of tea or cocoa.  Especially if that piece of knitting is a shawl (prayer or otherwise), long scarf, or patchwork afghan.  Admittedly the latter is something of a cheat, since you knit the patches then sew or crochet them together to get the final product.

If you already knit, you know what I’m talking about.  If you don’t knit… well, you should learn!  Only not from me.  Get thee to a library, go!  Get thee to a library and put but books in thy pockets.  Knitting books, to be exact.  Find a nice book with clear instructions and good diagrams.  Also find an experienced knitter who can demonstrate the process.  Those diagrams, useful though they are, can only take you so far.  The yarn will tangle, stitches will drop, and in those cases, experienced hands are what you need.

Oh, and keep them away from toddlers.  I remember my dad putting an early knitting attempt of mine on the frame of the dining room doors in order to keep my at the time, very small brother out of it.

As for other words of advice– yes, even with the experienced helping hands, you will have to unravel your work and start over.  Those first two rows are always tricky.  And the first thing you knit may come out rather odd.  My first knitting project somehow turned out triangular.  Don’t ask me how I managed to do that– I have only suspicions.

Look on for patterns and community.  I don’t keep up with it anymore, but it was a lot of fun for a while.  I have friends who still use it, and they are always happy with what they find.

And finally– once you’ve really got it, the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment makes all that frustration and reworking worth it.  Experienced knitters… you knew that, but now I’ve reminded you.  You’re welcome.


The Twilight Zone

Cue the awesome music.

Cue the awesome music.

Last night’s adventure on the highway made me remember the old Suspense and later Twilight Zone episode, “The Hitchhiker” originally written by Lucille Fletcher.  So, with that in mind, I decided to list some of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes for your delectation and delight this rather snowy Ash Wednesday.

Here they are, in chronological order.

1. Perchance to Dream– can dreams really kill you?

2. The Four of Us Are Dying– a con-man with the ability to change his face takes on the lives of dead men

3. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street– this turned up in all our lit books, but that doesn’t change a thing

4. The After-Hours– maybe obsolete today since stores never close, but still damn creepy

5. The Howling Man– you can never keep the devil locked up for long

6. Night of the Meek– the Christmas episode

7. The Invaders– a tough frontier woman defends her homestead from invading aliens

8. It’s a Good Life– the evil child before it was cool

9. Jess-Belle– what price will you pay for love?

10. The New Exhibit– a museum attendant gets too fond of his charges

11. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet– don’t watch this on an airplane (stars William Shatner)

12. Living Doll– a really creepy episode with one of Serling’s best webs of family tangles

13. The Masks– a dying ghoul gets revenge on his greedy heirs (the only episode directed by a woman, Ida Lupino)

Yes, sometimes Serling wasn’t exactly subtle in his writing (see “The Masks”, for instance), but if The Twilight Zone weren’t great enough to remember, nobody would care about his politics.  He had the ability to thrill, scare, inspire, make us care about the fate of his protagonists, and he had a gift for creating characters that were more than stick figures. And there were lots of really talented people involved with the series, so it had star power, too.

Now I’m off to investigate Night Gallery, where Serling really got in touch with his dark side.


Of Measles, Clowns, and Creation

Because I couldn't find the one of two-year-old me showing off my bandages.

Because I couldn’t find the one of two-year-old me showing off my bandages.

The recent measles outbreak in the US made me recall a story from my parents’ courtship– when my dad got measles.  They were in graduate school, and often studied together at my mom’s apartment.  One night my dad came over and complained about this horrible headache (note, my dad is one of those men, who, when he voluntarily takes aspirin, you practically have to have the coffin ready); Mom took his temperature and sent him home.  The next morning he called and said he thought he had measles.  She went to his place, took one look, and said “yep.”  She had had them as a kid.  Thinking about it now, I realized that if Dad had measles in grad school, other people must have.  So I Googled it.  “Measles Outbreak Ohio Colleges 1989-91” came up so fast it was scary.

Like the current epidemic, this one was caused by a lack of vaccines, or I think, failure to take the booster, so immunities among children weren’t as strong.  And people my dad’s age, who had just missed the advent of the vaccine as kids and not caught in the meantime, were collateral damage.

My dad was horribly sick.  He ran a pretty high fever, had a constant headache, not to mention the rash.  When he started talking about the movie Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Mom almost called 911.  Later, when they bought their first VCR, one of the first tapes he bought was that movie– just to prove he hadn’t been delirious.  I don’t know whether measles is one of those diseases where it gets worse as you age, but apparently he had it pretty badly.  My mother, for her part, doesn’t even remember the period of time where she was sick with it as a kid.  And that’s saying something, given that my grandmother poured her into a bathtub full of cold water and ice to bring her fever down, and fed her nothing but ice-cream in order to keep weight on her (it was only partially successful, too).

Why the hell would anyone want to see their kids go through that?  Why would anyone be against preventing that?

I know the arguments.  “Vaccines cause autism.”  That’s bullshit.  That doctor was a fraud, and has a lot to answer for.  You can read up on that pretty much anywhere.

Also, if you’re so ableist that you’d rather risk the life of your child, other people’s children, and potential children (measles is often catastrophic for fetuses), instead of raising a child with a developmental disability then you probably should rethink some of your priorities.

Another argument I hear a lot is “it’s unnatural.”  Well, to quote The Lion in Winter, “What is natural?  Where poison toadstools grow, and babies are born with crooked backs, who are you to say what is natural!”  Indeed.  There’s a bit of speck and log there, but beyond that, we humans have been practicing immunization for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  The ancient Chinese came up with the earliest form of smallpox vaccine, and it was a variation of the nasal sprays sometimes used today.  If it wasn’t natural, very few of us would be here today.

“But something could go wrong!”  Yes.  Something could go wrong.  You could find out the hard way that your child is allergic to eggs when they go for a shot.  But they could just as easily find that out after gobbling down your scrambled eggs at breakfast.  They could have some other reaction to the vaccine, yes, but that can happen with any medical procedure.  One of my uncles almost died from a root canal.  I had a very nasty reaction to augmentin when I was a kid.  But he still goes to the dentist, and I still take antibiotics when necessary– just not in that family.  There’s risk attached to everything– you have to weigh it, but considering what our ancestors went through with measles, whooping cough, polio, and the like, vaccines are worth it.

And then there’s religious objections.  I’ll stick to Christianity for my criticism, since that’s where I’ve encountered this resistance.

God gave us brains!  We’re supposed to use them!  It’s part of taking care of creation– if we’re all dead from preventable diseases, we can’t be good stewards.  Though, I suppose, if we had used our brains as God intended, we’d still be in Eden.  Anyway… we’re supposed to pray and ask for divine help, yes, but we’re also supposed to take initiative and do what we can.  St. Paul issued a very harsh rebuke to one of his churches that just stopped working and started waiting for the end of the world.  That’s pretty close to not trying to solve any of our own problems and expecting the Trinity to do it all.

In other words… get your shots.  Get your children vaccinated.  Get your pets vaccinated.  We’ll all be happier and healthier for it, and Creation will be better tended.  Everyone wins.


An Act of Vampiric Penance Part III

I think I’m starting to get the hang of this whole penance thing.  It’s hard work, as much as I want to carry it out.

In Part II I explained why Bram Stoker’s Dracula upset me so much.  Now I will rhapsodize about the people I had the urge to light candles for during the movie– Bela Lugosi and Peter Cushing.

Norma Desmond would be proud.

Norma Desmond would be proud.

There is no doubt that Bela Lugsoi is the iconic vampire– even the iconic Dracula.  The accent, the elegance, the slicked-back hair and intent eyes… he didn’t need buckets of stage-blood; he had his face!  And voice– that was a quintessential part of his characterization, but it would have worked had the movie been silent.  Lugosi had a wonderfully expressive face, and when he looks at a character, the audience always knows whether he wants to simply drink their blood, kill them in a particularly messy way, or make them Bride #4.

He also managed to simultaneously be menacing and appealing.  One can see why Lucy would be drawn to him (especially compared to the English men around her), but also why Mina would be nervous from him from the start.  Even if we hadn’t already seen what he had done to Renfield in Transylvania.

Moreover, he was consistent in that characterization.

And that was the end of the Count.

And that was the end of the Count.

Now to Cushing.  As van Helsing, he brought a new level of energy to the part that many try to emulate, but few could match.  He was also very serious, even harsh, but was just as capable of calming the little girl that vampirized Lucy had taken– giving her his coat and telling her it made her look like a teddy bear.   Like any good doctor, he knew how to use the bedside manner. This version of Dracula’s nemesis could even make a joke (telling the hotel valet that the voice on the dictophone was just him talking to himself), though one got the impression that van Helsing had little time for such things and preferred to be slaying vampires.

Admittedly, the physicality Cushing brought to the part proved problematic for the series, as the studio felt it had to “outdo” each installment, and the results quickly became preposterous.  However, that is not his fault, nor does it take away the power of his performances in Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula.  Both reveal a man of great intellect, strength of character and body, willpower, yet still some fallibility (see Top 10 Vampires #9 A Baroness Meinster).  He wasn’t a cloud cuckoolander, nor was he a nightmare-fuel attendant.  He juggled the very difficult task of ridding the world of monsters while still being able to function in polite society.

His presence is still quite large.  It’s the pictures that have gotten small.

And that’s that.  Now for that Coppola wine.


An Act of Vampiric Penance Part II

Bram_Stoker's_DraculaSo here I am, part two of my penance… trying to argue what’s wrong with Bram Stoker’s Dracula without getting too hysterical or only spewing venom.

Anyway, first and foremost– I don’t like the look of the film.  It’s a personal thing, and that’s an answer my film prof would never accept.  I guess I find the vivid color and id-black shadow combination rather distracting.  It worked in Batman the Animated Series, but not for a live-action movie.

Secondly, the premise.  Dracula does not need to be anyone other than Dracula– even dear old Vlad the Impaler.  (Making him Judas Iscariot for Dracula 2000 was even worse, but we’re not talking about it.)  He is the world’s most famous vampire and can, if you’ll pardon the expression, bloody well stand on his own without the Turks, Crusades, impalings, and other crimson disjecta membra that the old monarch was famous for.  Dracula the vampire was a person who led such a horrible life that he was cursed in death to become a vampire– sure, there’s plenty of room for imaginative backstory, but that’s not what the focus should be on.

Thirdly, well, I have to pick on my S.O. here.  His defense of the movie was that it was “an original take on a story that has become stereotypical.”  Well, he was right inasmuch as that the story has always been stereotypical, no matter who was telling it.  In 1931 the white actresses for the Lugosi version wore fairly high-necked, long-sleeved dresses, while the Latina actresses for the Spanish language movie wore slinky, low-cut numbers.  Going back to the original novel look at the “natives” of Transylvania– the peasants, the gypsies, the Slovaks.  Plenty of stereotype there, and the 1992 film is guilty of perpetuating it.

And speaking of stereotypes– let’s talk about the women in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Yes, Dracula is looking for his lost love instead of preying at random; that trend started in the ’70s.  Yes, Mina finishes the vampire off.  Orson Welles already did that, admittedly for radio, in the 1930s!  Then there’s the quasi-canon Nosferatu movies– in both of which did the Mina character do the vampire slaying.  Don’t talk like Francis Ford Coppola was the first to do it!  And the vampiresses…. there’s a way to play up the erotic side of vampirism without turning it into porn, but this movie certainly forgot how.

Every female vampire is the most broad, disgusting, sexist stereotype of what a “slut” is… the brides, Lucy, and even Mina, with their heaving bosoms (which aren’t always covered), constant moaning and squeaking, making out with each other….

And now I come to van Helsing.  Now, in Coppola’s defense, comedy-relief in Dracula movies has a very checkered past.  In 1931, it was dreadful.  In most of Terrence Fisher’s Dracula movies (with the exception of Horror of Dracula) the comedy fell flat.   And I don’t even remember what was supposed to be funny in the 1979 movie– maybe just how repulsive Harker was.  I don’t know.  But back to van Helsing– making him the comedy relief in this movie was just a mistake.  When Mel Brooks says something like, “She was in pain, so we cut off her head.”  It’s funny.  Not necessarily so when the movie is meant to be all dark and serious.  Then there’s the matter of having van Helsing sniff Mina and begin waltzing her around when the first met, and do that weird undulation when he tells Quincy that Lucy is “the bitch of the devil.”  If it’s meant to show that he’s not so different from Dracula, it doesn’t quite work, and it rather undermines his position as the expert.  I won’t go into how Mina nearly seduced him.

Now for the Count himself.  This movie is just confused about what it wants to do with the old bat.  Is he young or old?  Is he a wolf-bat or human?  Is he evil or tragic?  Is he appealing or repulsive?  They never pick one.  Yes, he changed ages in the novel, but it was basically 50-50: old in Transylvania and young again in England– consistency that this movie lacks.

Finally, my biggest complaint.  Dracula is a rapist.  I mean, yes, we all sort of knew that (what else is biting someone on the neck and forcing them to drink your own blood), but this movie, I feel, crosses a line by having him, and his brides, sexually assault their victims, too.  We’re obviously supposed to feel repulsed when the wolf-bat creature rapes Lucy, but the other instances of that, like with the brides, or what Dracula does in human form, seem exploitative.  Hypnotism and magic do not equal consent, and I’ll return to my earlier porn comment.