In 1973, Yoko Ono sang that “all day long [she] felt like smashing [her] face in a clear glass window.” She goes on, bemoaning her mom's eating disorder and her dad's alcoholism like a disgruntled teen, but that initial statement of her desire has always seemed like a pretty perfect, simple synthesis of a craving that lives in a lot of women — to smoosh or smash an outwardly pleasant façade and dirty up something clean in the process.
It's precisely the sort of behavior that's unacceptable for “the girl” — the fun, flirty feminine trope so often presented in popular culture — lest she be subject to taming, usually by a male counterpart. In her new book, You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks & Other Mixed Messages ($16.95, Mariner), former L.A. Times film critic Carina Chocano delves into pop culture and blends our collective history with her own to examine the ways in which women — and people's perceptions of what women should be — are shaped by what they see on screens and read in books. The girl isn't real — so why the hell is she so pervasive?
Chocano's book is funny and exasperating and full of revelations and epiphanies. She begins with the unlikely discovery that, as a grown woman with a child, she relates to the titular Victorian girl in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. She moves on to examine her affinity for Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives and, later, her aversion to Judd Apatow's 2007 comedy Knocked Up, which she'd been reluctant to express as a film critic just because she's a woman. In the chapter entitled “Big Mouth Strikes Again,” she recalls the sensation of being a paid professional sharing her thoughts and opinions on the internet: “I was always too big or too small, like Alice, and forever being told, in one way or another, 'Eat me.'”
If being a woman means being obligated to play a game you can't win because the rules keep changing (and not arbitrarily), Chocano's book is something you'd be wise to read while you catch your breath between rounds of disorienting blows to the head. We asked her some questions via email about pop culture, double standards and the ouroboros nature of the culture war.
What was your favorite piece of pop culture that you consumed in order to write the book?
It's kind of hard to say. First, I thought about the TV shows and movies that I loved as a kid, then went back, watched them again, and read all about them and about the time when they were produced. In that sense they were all favorites. But I'd say The Stepford Wives is way up there. It just holds up really well. Not only is it incredibly clear-eyed and on point as a satire of patriarchal attitudes toward women but it also has a lot of emotional resonance. It's creepy and ambient and stylish and weirdly nostalgic for me all at the same time.
You revisited a number of films and television shows for your research, too — what was most different on fresh viewing?
Well, the younger I was when I first saw something, the more uncritically I consumed it and internalized it, the more it became part of me. So going back and revisiting things I loved as a kid, the experience was always somewhat clouded in nostalgia and affection. In choosing what to write about, I looked for things I remembered loving and being obsessed with but that I also remembered made me feel uncomfortable or sad. I looked for that tension. Still, it took multiple viewings and a lot of reading, both about the movie or show and about the time period when they were made, to start to see them clearly in a new way. At the same time, some of the stuff I thought of as contemporary really shocked me going back. For example, Friends seems incredibly retrograde to me now.
How about a top-five list of sources of a feminist education for young women?
There are so many things to read and watch. I'm partial to going way back. I saw an amazing BBC documentary series by Amanda Foreman called The Ascent of Woman, which I think is just required viewing. It deals with the circuitous history of women's place in society since antiquity and across cultures. The most interesting thing about it to me was the relationship between private property and the subjugation of women. I also think everyone should read Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman for a sense of how long we've been fighting for the same things — it was written in the late 1700s but so much of it resonates with contemporary attitudes, especially about the relationship (again) between money and women as commodities. This one is controversial, but I do recommend Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique for the way it breaks down the mainstream pop culture “idea of woman.” As a media critique of the capitalist womanly ideal, it's brilliant and groundbreaking. I love Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex for the existential feminist take. I recommend bell hooks' Reel to Real, for her insights on how movies affect spectators, in particular black women, and John Berger's Ways of Seeing for a Marxist unpacking of how we look at art, especially at art in the age of mechanical/digital reproduction. There are so many, though.
When you were reviewing films at the L.A. Times, were there any movies that you had to give a decent review because they were technically well-made but that you really hated from a woman's perspective?
I never really looked at it that way. I don't separate form from content when looking at films or any artistic production. To me, those things are inseparable. If anything, I tend to give a little more weight to content than to form. A movie that's technically well-made in bad faith is probably my least favorite kind. I like stories that endeavor to tell the truth in an original way.
What's the most egregious double standard women are up against today?
Hard to pick just one! There are so many. Maybe the biggest one is that if you don't speak out against injustice you are considered weak or complicit, but if you do you are toast.
What's next for you? No pressure. You just released a book. Seriously, congratulations. But do you have anything on the horizon people should know about? Where can people read more of your writing?
Thank you! I need a nap. Well, I'm a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, where I mostly write “First Words” columns. It's a column about what a particular, trending word says about the cultural moment. I also write for Elle, Vogue, Rolling Stone, the California Sunday Magazine and others. I'm hoping to get going on a novel I've been wanting to write for ages, and would really love to write for some limited-series original dramedy on a streaming service about refractory ladies. So … call me!
I had sort of an epiphany while reading: So forces that claim they are for a conservative agenda (i.e., sending women back home to tend to the children) are the very same forces that have fought mercilessly to promote corporate capitalism, which has effectively prevented one-income households from even being a thing anymore. So, like, right-wing males created their own culture war. I mean — am I off here?
I think you're right on the money. But it's also a Moebius strip of never-ending bullshit, because at the same time, it is 19th-century industrial capitalism that invented the concept of the middle-class woman staying at home in the first place. It's the capitalist gendered division of labor that created the housewife, and the capitalist focus on the bottom line that made her unsustainable. It's so snake eats tail.
Carina Chocano discusses You Play the Girl with Kristina Wong, Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; Thu., Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m.; free, book is $16.95. skylightbooks.com.