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Author: Victoria Olsen

Wonder Women and Fearless Girls

It’s turning me into a shrew. All around me there are women going crazy for Wonder Woman and I don’t get it. I’m out of it, again, when I wish I could celebrate too.

wonder woman image
courtesy of allthingsclipart.com

I had my suspicions before I even saw the film on Sunday for Father’s Day. The word of mouth was so excited (“I heard it was so good!”), even though it seemed like just another action flick. And then it started breaking box office records and everyone was over the moon: “see! a woman director and a female superhero can make money too!” When the high-brow reviews were also enthusiastic I started wondering if the film were that rare cultural phenomenon that arrives in a moment when it can’t be touched…. The zeitgeist just gives some things a pass. This must be one of them.

Because it’s not that great. It looks okay. The acting is good, though Chris Pine is a baffling romantic lead. He’s got some comic timing and good looks, but he’s not charismatic. The story and screenplay are downright bad: predictable and heavy-handed, filled with stereotypical bad guys and side kicks. Admittedly, Gal Gadot is as good as she can be. She’s wonderful at fresh, wide-eyed puzzlement. I kept wondering where I’d seen that particular facial expression until I realized it was on Geena Davis’s Thelma. She too sold a certain naivete that was based on inexperience, not stupidity. But a little more worldliness might come in handy in a superhero.

Which is what makes me so cranky. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is strong in battle, fierce in her defense of the helpless, and unyielding in her pursuit of peace even though she’s still burdened with all the traditional expectations of femininity: niceness, beauty, innocence, and a kind of blandness that is incapable of offending anyone. Even her mild forms of disobedience — sneaking off to train before her mother lets her or escaping with Chris Pine’s Captain Steve Trevor to end the war to end all wars — feel like a predetermined part of her “heroine’s journey,” not an assertion of any kind of will of her own. The heroine’s story, however, must include love so even Wonder Woman gets an understated hetero romance, which becomes the frame for her character’s growth.

Two particular scenes demonstrate the film’s ambivalent message about women. In one, we see the status of women in Edwardian England through Diana’s clear eyes as a foreign (almost alien) visitor. It’s not just the corsets that are and are not “armor” but her very presence in a governing chamber that is shown to be absurdly shocking and disruptive. That’s great visual storytelling — as is its opposite scene, when Wonder Woman bolts out of the trenches and crosses the barren No Man’s Land (ha!) to lead the Allies to an unexpected victory. Here again she’s fresh and energizing: where there was a stalemate, a settling into (literal) ruts, she brings change and vigor, swatting away bullets with a flick of her wrists and catapulting into the air.

women on Wall Street
The Fearless Girl on Wall Street

Shouldn’t this be good enough? Maybe. A similarly ambiguous story played out recently on Wall Street in the Fearless Girl statue that now faces down the Charging Bull on lower Broadway. Sculpted in bronze by Kristen Visbal, the statue was installed on International Women’s Day in February by State Street Global Advisors as a publicity campaign to promote women in finance. Since then it has been an enormous success: tourists flock to take selfies with the spunky girl and one article estimated it had generated over $7 million dollars in social media and advertising for the firm. While many viewers read her as a diminutive symbol of female empowerment, others have balked at this young girl as the face of feminism. Yes, she stands her ground against a wild animal but she’s a child. While Charging Bull‘s artist Arturo DiModica protests that his bull was never meant to represent masculinity, a State Street Global representative insists coyly that the Fearless Girl “wasn’t intended to be confrontational.” This is exactly the kind of hedging one’s bets that happens in Wonder Woman too. Apparently we love girls and princesses who assert themselves, as long as they only do so in art. As one Salon writer argued about Fearless Girl, the real problem is “treating girl power as a suitable stand in for actual feminism.”

Why am I surprised? You can’t get more mainstream than Hollywood and Wall Street. But the popular response to both works has been so over the top that it’s an unsettling reminder of how low expectations have fallen. Is it too much to relate this to the crushing disappointment of Hillary Clinton’s loss at the polls? Why wouldn’t we rather celebrate these ambivalent fictional heroines than wrestle with the misogyny that real women face in our real world all the time? Wonder Woman begins and ends with a working woman in her office, but the setting has been idealized: no coworkers, no bosses, no partners to negotiate power with. Last week someone temporarily turned The Fearless Girl statue into a Wonder Woman — and all she needed was a tiara.

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Victoria Amongst the Victorians

Angel of the Nativity; Julia Margaret Cameron (British, born India, 1815 - 1879); Freshwater, Isle of Wight, England; 1872; Albumen silver print; 32.9 x 24.3 cm (12 15/16 x 9 9/16 in.); 84.XM.443.3
Angel of the Nativity by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872; albumen silver print.

Just back from London, where I saw the new Julia Margaret Cameron retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum— it’s a big show for the 200th anniversary of Cameron’s birth and it focusses on her relationship with what became the V&A (then the South Kensington Museum) and its founder Henry Cole. The V&A was one of the first museums to collect photographs and Cameron’s work was amongst their first acquisitions. Using letters from their collection as well as the photos themselves, curator Marta Weiss makes a great case that Cameron’s so-called “sloppy” technique was due at least in part to her habit of sending her artist-mentor-friends imperfect prints so she could save the better ones to sell. Unfortunately for her, those seconds given to her famous friends (like painter G.F. Watts and astronomer J.F.W.H. Herschel, whose album of Cameron photos is now on display at the Science Museum) ended up in museum collections all over the world — which gave an unrepresentative view of her work. That is not to say that Cameron never exhibited or sold photographs that her contemporaries considered flawed: the soft-focus edges and smeary lines of the “Angel of the Nativity” photo shown here demonstrate how her style emphasized artful composition and emotional effect over technical precision. But this exhibit provides some much-needed context for all the controversy about Cameron’s technique, which inevitably was gendered around her status as an early woman photographer. The catalogue to the show also breaks down the usual linear chronology of her work to organize it around the five surviving letters Cameron wrote to Cole. All in all, the exhibit provides a striking new look at an old “mistress,” to quote a now-old term by art historian Griselda Pollock….

[I’m grateful to the V&A staff who invited me to give a Works in Progress talk there. I uploaded a PDF version of my slides here: Jane and Julia]

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Playing the Orchestra

I saw the new Danny Boyle film at a screening this week. I’m not sure which was more impressive — the film or the Q&A afterwards…. Boyle was there with the film’s editor Elliot Graham and the composer Daniel PembertoMV5BMjE0NTA2MTEwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzg4NzU2NjE@._V1_SX214_AL_n and they talked about their collaborative process in interweaving the three parts of the film. What I loved most about the film was its construction. I’ve admired the beauty and intelligence of Boyle’s films in the past– across a range of genres– but this one impressed most with its structure.

Organized in three parts around three product launches, the film has three different aesthetics that Boyle described in the Q&A. The first section takes place in 1984 at the Macintosh launch and it’s filmed in 16mm that gives it a home-video feel. The second takes place in a San Francisco opera theater in 1988 for the product launch of NEXT and it’s shot in 35 mm with a sharp, documentary focus and a roving handheld camera. The last section takes place at the 1998 product launch for the iMac and it’s shot on digital video, which Doyle pointed out later was a sort of gesture toward Jobs’ technological innovations in the Pixar-produced Toy Story in 1995. Boyle explicitly described this three-act composition in the Q&A as a theatrical metaphor and it works very well to focus what could otherwise be a sprawling narrative or a dull chronological biopic. Boyle then knits the pieces together through a small cast of characters with a few ongoing conflicts– like the ones between Jobs and Wozniak or between Steve and his daughter. This structure gives the film both a sort of universal human story as well as a specific reality in one man’s life.

Jobs, of course, was notoriously difficult and Boyle and the actor Michael Fassbender don’t shirk from his negative side, though the film will certainly be critiqued as a romanticized view because of its warm and fuzzy ending. Specifically, the film emphasizes Jobs’ inability to give credit to colleagues, or even to acknowledge other people (including his daughter). This becomes a sort of megalomania: he’s the god-like creator who sits above it all but doesn’t do any of the actual work. In Aaron Sorkin’s script Jobs describes himself as a conductor, who “plays the orchestra” instead of being a virtuoso musician. Yet throughout the film I imagined asking Boyle during the Q&A how he felt about the obvious parallel between directing a film and running a visionary company like Apple, between him and Jobs. I didn’t have to ask, though, because during the conversation he brought it up himself, admitting that he had none of the actual skills of his editors or composers or actors, but only the ability to recognize and synthesize those skills. It was a remarkable acknowledgment, that revealed both how close Boyle was to Jobs and how very far away. Sitting there at his own “product launch” with three colleagues talking about collaboration was yet another ending to a remarkable film.

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NEW Cameron Interview!

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Kirsty Stonell Walker, biographer of Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Cornforth, on her blog The Kissed Mouth. Our conversation about Julia Margaret Cameron and my middle-grade novel Word Blind  is posted here. Thanks, Kirsty!

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This is a good time to announce that Word Blind is now out on several new ebook platforms. If you’ve read it please consider posting reviews on any of these pages!

Barnes and Noble

iBooks

Kobo

Scribd

Oyster

Page Foundry

COMING SOON: Open Letters Monthly article on the Romance Writers of American convention and the ebook of my biography From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography.

 

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