Sunday, November 30, 2014

November Spawned a Monster

I didn't write a Theater Pub column this Thursday, because of Thanksgiving. And also because the editor needed to run the VERY VERY SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT that after a hiatus of a year and a half, Theater Pub will return to presenting free live theater in San Francisco bars as of January 2015. (HUZZAH!)

Four weeks before that, I wrote a column that I didn't link to at the time, because I realized I was kind of phoning it in. ("Horror Vacui," from October 30. Read it if you want to read my thoughts on some memoirs I've read recently, or what I did the night the Giants won the World Series. Gosh, doesn't that feel like ages ago?)

But two Thursdays ago... ah, two Thursdays ago, I wrote what is now the most-read (and I believe most-commented) piece in the history of the Theater Pub blog. I took blogger George Heymont to task for failing to perceive the clearly feminist message of Megan Cohen's "Centaurs, or the Horse's Ass," which had greatly affected me when I saw the script in its Olympians Festival staged reading. Heymont responded in the comments section and the back-and-forth got pretty heated.

I attended all of the readings of the 2014 Olympians Festival and it seemed like one of the key themes this year was female anger. Maybe that's appropriate: Stuart Bousel likes to point out that the Greeks had a lot of female monsters, more than most other cultures. The entire final week of the festival was devoted to female monsters, and other plays re-imagined the centaurs, Geryon, and the Minotaur as female. The spontaneous applause that broke out after a feminist rant in Veronica Tjioe's Minotaur play was one of the most satisfying moments I've had in a theater in 2014.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Autumn is for Gothic Fiction: "The Woman in White"

I often try to read some classic Gothic or horror fiction during the autumn months -- it seems like the right time of year for it. This year, my decision to start reading The Woman in White in late September also had something to do with the fact that I'd just gotten dumped by a fellow who loves to read but hates nineteenth-century novels. (I'd always tell him that he didn't know what he was missing.) What better way to start the healing process than to read a book that my ex wouldn't like?

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Woman in White could easily have been a run-of-the-mill Gothic potboiler about a scheming baronet out to steal the fortune of an innocent young lady, but it rises above the mundane thanks to Wilkie Collins' gifts for atmosphere, humor, and characterization. As in Collins' The Moonstone, the story is related in a series of first-person narratives; some of the narrators are sympathetic and relatively "normal" (upstanding Walter Hartright, courageous Marian Halcombe), while others are wildly eccentric and unreliable (selfish hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie; jolly megalomaniac Count Fosco).

The notes to the Penguin Classics edition say that when the novel was published, several gentlemen wrote to Collins and asked if he'd based the character of Marian on a real-life woman, because they wanted to marry her -- which gives me a much better opinion of Victorian gentlemen than I had possessed hitherto. Marian is intelligent, passionate, brave and hard-working -- but she is ugly, and she constantly reproaches herself for being too headstrong. To learn that some Victorian readers preferred stubborn Marian to her conventionally sweet and docile half-sister Laura is very heartening. And perhaps it's what Collins wanted, too; after all, the novel suggests that Laura could have avoided many of her tribulations if only she'd stood up for herself.

Sir Percival Glyde, the fortune-hunting baronet who marries Laura, isn't much of a villain -- he comes across as a whiny brat. But his crony, Count Fosco, is a magnificent creation. Singing opera, eating bonbons, petting his white mice, and cooking up dastardly schemes the whole time, he's truly a villain you love to hate. Wisely, Collins has Fosco narrate one of the later sections of the novel, and makes his downfall (rather than Sir Percival's) the book's climax.

Collins wrote in his preface to The Woman in White that he thought a novel would succeed only if it presented interesting characters. This long, twisty, absorbing mystery story admirably bears out his theory.

Previous marissabidilla posts about reading Gothic fiction in the fall:

Vampire City by Paul Féval, October 2013
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, October 2010

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Everything's Coming Up Rosie: Overthinking My Halloween Costume

For Halloween this year, I dressed up as Rosie the Riveter. So did a lot of other young women in San Francisco. There were two other Rosies at the Halloween party I attended on the Potrero Hill edge of the Mission; two other Rosies on the subway platform as I was coming home from work. (This embarrassed me so much that I quickly scooted down the platform so we wouldn't all wind up in the same subway car.) I was filled with a mix of pride at having successfully embodied the Zeitgeist and shame at realizing I was less clever and distinctive than I thought I was. And, naturally, I began to over-think the larger sociological forces that might have led to this spate of Rosies in San Francisco this Halloween. My conclusions:
  • Ease of putting the costume together. The day before Halloween, I wasn't even sure that I would dress up -- and then I realized that I had all of the components of the "Rosie" costume already in my closet.
  • Applicability to women of all ages, races, and sizes. Unlike many costumes, you don't have to have a certain body type or hair color to be recognizable as Rosie the Riveter -- all you need is the red bandana and blue work shirt.
  • It's an explicitly feminist costume that enables you to demonstrate how you're not into the whole "Halloween as an excuse to wear lingerie in public" thing, but it still allows you to look attractive -- wear red lipstick, show off your muscle.
  • Millennial-generation nostalgia for the "Greatest Generation" 1940s. Think about it: we fetishize handicrafts and the artisanal; we name our Etsy stores after our grandparents; we put up "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters. I also saw a lot of A League of Their Own "Rockford Peaches" this Halloween -- a costume that occupies a comparable place in our cultural iconography to Rosie the Riveter.
  • Amy Poehler's character on Parks and Recreation dressed up as Rosie the Riveter in 2012. I don't watch Parks and Rec, but you can't underestimate the influence of pop culture.
I also thought about how, when I moved to San Francisco six years ago, it seemed like every young woman dressed up like Frida Kahlo for Halloween, but I didn't see any Fridas this year. Could there also be a cultural significance in the shift from Frida to Rosie over these six years?
  • Dressing up as Frida Kahlo does require you to possess certain physical characteristics: you've pretty much got to have long, dark hair. And, if you are brunette but not Hispanic, you may also worry that dressing up as this iconic Mexican artist constitutes cultural appropriation. At least when you live in a city that is so consumed with debates over gentrification.
  • There was a big Frida Kahlo exhibit at SFMOMA in 2008, which might have contributed to all of the Fridas I saw that Halloween.
  • Frida and Rosie are both feminist icons, but they represent two different kinds of feminism. Kahlo's art often depicts the female experience as one of pain and suffering. (My most-read post of all time is called "Must a Female Artist Suffer?", written in response to the 2008 Kahlo exhibition.) Rosie the Riveter is about rolling up your sleeves and getting shit done. Which seems in tune with the forcefulness that feminism has attained in the last half-decade.
  • Six years ago, fashion was much more in tune with Frida's boho style than with Rosie's utilitarian workwear. But now, the tide has shifted. Clothes have gotten more minimalist, more tomboy. Call it a shift from Anthropologie to J. Crew. I didn't own a "Rosie the Riveter" blue button-down six years ago, but now it's one of my favorite shirts.
Mostly, though, I'm amazed at how a pop-culture character, intended to boost home-front morale in a war that happened 70 years ago, can resurface in 2014 and embody current cultural trends. This autumn has been marked by intense, Internet-fueled anxiety over various aspects of feminism and an even more fraught anxiety over the sociological category of the "basic bitch." If feminism (a radical ideology) is the thesis and basic-bitchness (the unthinking acceptance of feminine tropes) is the antithesis, a Rosie the Riveter Halloween costume is the synthesis. She's the feminist icon that everyone can embrace. A basic costume for basic, feminist girls like me.

Photo of me as Rosie at my office Halloween party taken by my colleague, Abdul Bassa.