Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year, Same Old You

Much as I love the Holidays I won't lie to you, I don't like New Year's. It's not because I don't like the notion of change, renewal, or a sort of rebirth almost, but what I like least of all is the notion that who you are right now isn't enough and that the person you might become will be better than the person you see when you look in the mirror this morning. By those standards none of us will ever be enough, for ourselves, for our friends, family, society, whatever it may be. We judge and measure ourselves based upon an image of personal perfection that we'll never be able to live up to because when tomorrow becomes today you're going to be just as critical.

When all the inevitable motivation posts hit the web today through the end of the week titled "New Year, New You". Don't read them. I can guarantee not one of them is going to tell you something you didn't already know, be it about yourself or about the world or about what you need to do to change the person you're tired of being. What's most important is that you know the person you are right now, in this moment, is enough. They're enough to make the change.

We have no other option than to live in the present. Make amends for any of your past wrong doings but carry no regrets. The past is the past and will never catch back up to the present. It's time to let it go.

Make plans for the changes you'd like to see in yourself but know that those changes will not come tomorrow. Change is the result of hard work plus time, and time is always a variable. Whatever this change is you want to see in yourself in the new year know that it might not come in a week, in a month, even in an entire year, but it will come. What's important is to continue working hard toward it. The work is what's important, not necessarily the change.

What humbles men and women is not the rewards for their work, but the work itself. The quickest way to cause someone to lose their faith is to answer all their prayers. When someone has everything they want, what need have they for faith, for God, for anything? You must remain hungry for change, constantly. The only way to remain grounded, humble, and successful is to never stop working as hard as you can toward whatever it is you want and to never give up. If you obtain the thing you're working for, set a new goal. Life's not done with you yet. There's only one end and none of us want to meet it prematurely. So until that end arrives, stay hungry. Always.

Know that you can never be anyone other than who you are in the present, so you have no other option than to either be pleased or displeased with that person. Simple as that. If you can't be anyone else then work on ways to love yourself more because you deserve to be loved, not just by others but by you. No one will be a harsher critic or a more proud supporter of you than yourself.

In life you're either going to be your own best friend or you biggest enemy. Quit working against yourself and get out of your own way when oftentimes it's us standing in our own path to success. There's a talented, powerful, incredible individual inside each of us and you've got to let them out, but first your biggest enemy needs to get out of the way and if they don't you've got to force them aside. Break down walls, kick through doors, burn down buildings of the mind and spirit if that's what it takes to locate and bring out the you, you truly can be. Stop at nothing, and I mean nothing, to find that person. They're only hiding because you put them there. Because you were afraid. The first step toward true change is overcoming your fears. Fear can keep you hungry but it can also get in the way. Find the balance.

Be prepared and grateful when you fail, it's a learning experience. Failure is not the end and it isn't necessarily a step backward. Failure is fuel for the fire. It'll burn, it'll hurt, and it might scar, but it's a visual and visceral reminder of what you've learned on the road of life. And this road is not comfortable or easy either. It's bumpy, rocky, jagged, and switch backed. If the road to change and subsequently the road of life were a straight shot it'd be boring and you'd be a single celled organism. But you're not. You're a living, breathing human being. Be glad that you are capable of making mistakes and rectifying them. Crazy as that sounds it's a sign that you're special and different from the rest of the animal kingdom. If you stumble or fall, bow your head, grit your teeth, and get back up. Every day is not you working closer toward the end, it is you beginning your journey anew with each dawn. Recognize that and be glad for it. The past is gone and the future will never come. All you have is who you are right now.

If you have a desire to make changes in your life, cast away the notion of the "New Year, New You" which is dreadful for your psyche and your health. If you want to make a change, don't wait for January 1st or for Monday or for the first of the following month. Change starts now. Not tomorrow, not next week, and not five minutes from now. Throw away your New Year's resolution and make a resolution for life. Remember in life that the only constant is change. So why resist it? They say "be the change you want to see in the world", but don't neglect yourself trying to please everyone else. Most important on the road to change is the self must come first to give you the proper perspective on how to change the world. If you can't change yourself how can you expect to change anyone else?

If your resolution gets off track, stop. Don't just blindly barrel on down that road until it becomes a dead end and you're forced to turn around and come back. If you're trying to work out more, lose weight, eat better, study more, drink less, be a more devoted spouse or partner, whatever it is, if it gets off track stop and reassess. Take your lumps but buck up and keep the faith. If you remain hungry, you'll always find a way back onto your resolute path.

The value of your life is not necessarily measured by your successes but by how you respond to your mistakes.

Be where you are right now. Be present. Be mindful. Be grateful for your life and take heart knowing the person you will become is not imaginary. That person is you right now, but you've got to work to reveal them. Every successful woman and man started as a massive slab of marble. The beautiful sculpture lies waiting inside to be revealed. It's there. I promise. Maybe it's only an idea or a concept at the moment, but you've got to start chipping away at the exterior in or to reveal it. Achieving a higher sense of self and purpose is not an ethereal reward bestowed upon you from the heavens after the work has been done, you've got to give the rewards to yourself.

If God truly does has a "plan" for us, it's up to us to make that plan. No one else is pulling your strings. You have free will. It's up to you to decide whether or not that's a blessing or a curse.

There is no heavier burden to bear than that of a great potential. Feel it. Let it tear you, rip you, and take you down. Feel it's weight as it crushes you. That's good. That's fire. That's your fire. That's the weight of the amazing person you can become. Now bite down, brace yourself, and stand up. Don't try to put the fire out because it burns, fan the flames and let it scorch the person you used to be. From those ashes will arise the person you know you can become.

This person you're destined to become is locked away inside and only you have the key. They're not waiting for the world to change around them, they're not waiting for your family to change or for your friends to change, they're waiting on YOU to change. Make the change, unlock the door, and let them out.

Live a life others would want to read as a book.

Happy New Year everyone. Don't wait until tomorrow. The future is forever becoming the present. Live in it and be happy with who you are now because that person is enough, but know each passing moment is a step further on your road to becoming your best self. It's going to hurt and it's going to be hard. Good. If it were easy we'd all just quit.

Don't forget that cliches exist because they're truthful. Like all the cliches you just read above.


Monday, December 1, 2014

I Am a Poor Boy Too...

I am a poor boy too…

One of my least favorite Christmas songs for the majority of my life has been “The Little Drummer Boy”. I can’t really explain why. Maybe the constant ‘parumpumpumpum’ing got on my nerves. I never really like the Rankin and Bass animated short because, even by its standards when made in 1968, it still looked cheap. But as I grow older Christmas has come to mean many different things for me, as it should for everyone. Obviously each year I write a lot about it. I find that there are few other times that inspiration strikes as strongly. Maybe Halloween. Maybe Summer. Alright, maybe I just love Christmas.

But recently I was listening to what has become my favorite rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” by Josh Groban from his CD Noel. Something about the fullness of that version (probably the bagpipes) just lit me up and I couldn’t help but get teary eyed. And I think it was because that had been the first time I really truly listened to the lyrics. And I don’t mean listen as in heard them, I’ve had the words memorized since I was six, but I mean this is the first time the words really landed and had an impact of me, now some twenty years later.

Regardless of what you believe I think it’s still possible to let yourself be affected and even changed by the simple, relatable nature of different belief systems. I may not classify myself as a Buddhist or a Taoist, but I have read and studied them a great deal and allowed them to resonate with and affect me. At Christmastime, there tend to be three camps of folks who discuss “the true meaning of Christmas”.

  1. Far right/ extreme Christians who feel it’s only about Jesus’ birthday and celebrating anything other than that is wrong and sinful and if you want a TV for Christmas you’re selfish and if you sit down to Hanukah dinner with your neighbor you’re running the risk of blasphemy and also Santa is a rearranged anagram for his true identity: S A T A N.
  2. Cynics and “rationalists” who think Religion, and Christianity in particular, is stupid and that Linus’ speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas is preachy because Christmas is actually and amalgamation of traditions stolen from the Pagan Holiday celebration Yule so you should feel stupid for believing in magic or miracles and grateful to them for believing in reason and science and making your better by posting photos from the “I F*cking Love Science” Facebook page explaining away silly beliefs and informing you that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is, in fact, God’s true secret identity.
  3. People who just like to be happy and want others to be happy and do their own thing so they’re pretty chill about whatever goes on during the Holidays.

I like to think I fall into the third camp. But we’re all familiar with the other two and probably want to beat our heads against a wall when the Holidays come around.

The point to that mini rant is to explain the perspective that, hey, it’s Christmas, so let’s just relax. You can find value in all walks of life and all belief systems. So long as no one gets hurt, you do you BooBoo. You don’t even have to believe Jesus was a real guy to be affected by his story or by the story of those who came to celebrate his birth. History suggests a lot of contrary things about the birth of Jesus, mostly that he probably wasn’t even born in the Winter. But the nature of embellished stories can still inspire people to feel something deep and poignant, and sometimes even blatant fiction is the best driving force to get people to do something good for their fellow man. And that is the story that goes along with the The Little Drummer Boy.

Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of a kid with a drum. But as the song goes, the little drummer boy hears of Jesus’ birth and decides he will go see the child and celebrate his birth because the rumor is he’s going to grow up to be someone pretty special.

Let’s let the little drummer boy’s story speak for itself through the song’s lyrics.

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.
Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?
Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.


I spent that brief moment above justifying that it’s okay to believe whatever you want because I’m asking you to let yourself be affected by the real heart of this song. It’s going to require some of you going with me on a hypothetical journey, but I find life is a lot easier and certainly a lot more beautiful and rewarding when we do.

If you’d heard the news that the savior of all mankind had been born and all your friends were tugging at your arm saying, “Come on! Come on! We have to go see him!” What would you do? Would you drop everything you were doing and go? Or would you balk and think, “But I haven’t a gift to bring that fit to give a King.”

A lot of the time, regardless of belief, our human nature has us telling ourselves we’re not worthy. We get self conscious and scared and second guess who we are, how we’ll look, what we’ll do or say; especially at times like Christmas, when expectations seem so high.

It might seem surprising but I really don’t like getting gifts. Christmas, Birthday, whatever it is, I really feel strange when someone gives me something. I have trouble receiving them because I immediately think to myself, “Oh no! What will I get this person in return?” And it’s a terribly selfish way to act since most of the time we give things without expecting anything in return. That’s the true nature of giving. I also clam up because I’m not terribly clever at coming up with what tangible gifts to get people. I measure my ability to give in the time spent with people. Good conversation, enjoying food and drinks together, laughing, singing, joking, whatever it may be. That’s my favorite type of giving and receiving; simply spending time with the ones you love.

And so the little drummer boy had the same dilemma. What do you give to the baby who has everything? He is the son of God after all, what could he possibly need? And if you go empty handed you run the risk of looking foolish standing next to three wise men who’ve brought along frankincense, myrrh, and even gold. Better not to go then. Better not run the risk of embarrassing yourself and embarrassing God by not bringing his son something he deserves. You’re just a poor boy with a drum and tattered clothes. Surely you are a disgrace in the presence of the Lord.

Most of us wouldn’t go. It’s like feeling like you can’t go to church because you don’t own any nice, expensive, or fancy clothes. It’s not taking a chance because you’re afraid of failure and embarrassment under the judging eye of someone or something “Holy”. But the most important thing to remember is that God is not human. God doesn’t wear ties or suits, dresses or skirts. God doesn’t collect physical possessions and has no use for them. So why on earth would we think that what we offer up as our gift to God should be something tangible? It isn’t to say it’s wrong. The idea is that you simply give from your heart, the best way you can. You give openly and freely because you love God, not because you are afraid of him. So many cultures used to, and still do, offer up animal sacrifices to him. But God doesn’t want bloodshed. God wants your love. God just wants you, whoever that person may be; man, woman, or child, straight, gay, or transgender. If you’re giving from the heart, no gift is too big or too small. We are all equal in the eyes of God.

But the little drummer boy remembered, “I do have something! I have my drum! I’ll play for him on my drum!”

And so he traveled far, a dangerous journey for such a young kid, in order to reach the child everyone had been talking about. And he stood quietly behind all those who came to praise the baby. They laid down their gifts for him, some extravagant, some small and meager, and finally, when all eyes turned to the little drummer boy he stood there in silence, holding his drum.

“Little baby,” He said as he approached the young Jesus, not worrying himself with many of the judgmental eyes that were on him. The whispering voices could easily be heard. Some thought he was cute, others felt he sullied the Lord with his presence. But, much as children do, the baby Jesus had no need for judgment. Neither did his parents Joseph and Mary. They had both come from immense poverty and traveled a journey similar to the drummer boy’s.

“I am a poor boy too.” The drummer boy said as he observed Jesus’ tattered and plain surroundings. He was born in a barn! The drummer boy thought the son of God would’ve been born on a golden throne, in a castle, surrounded by servants, money, and feasting. But here he was, surrounded by farm animals, lying in a pile of hay. It brought a strange joy to him as he spoke.

“I have no gifts to bring.” The drummer said timidly, looking from Jesus to his parents. “But…” he stammered. “Shall I play for you? On my drum?”

Mary nodded. And he played. The little drummer boy played his best for the baby Jesus because it was all he knew how to do. He had no money, hardly any clothes, and certainly not much respect in the eyes of the elite, but he did have a little drum. And he could play it well.

And as he played, something amazing happened. The baby Jesus, the son of God, God himself even, smiled at him. He smiled at the little drummer boy and at his drum because this gift had been more than enough to give. His talent, something given from the heart, was worth more than anything else he could’ve given, more than all the riches on earth.

And many years later, that baby who grew into a great Rabbi would impart the same lesson to his disciples, the lesson taught to him by a poor, honest, worthy little drummer boy.

“Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.’” Mark 12:41-44

Christmas, whether or not the story of Jesus’ birth seems relevant to you, is about giving. Not just giving in the hopes of appeasing or giving out of obligation, but giving from the heart. Any gift given from the heart is a worthy gift, and any person not willing to recognize that a gift they receive, although meager, coming from their givers heart is a person who is not worthy to receive such a special gift. It doesn’t mean they can’t be worthy, but it means their focus is on receiving only tangible things, things that, if they were to burn to the ground, would be gone forever. As that little baby would one day go on to say:

"Don't store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” – Matthew 6:19-21

Gifts that come from the heart cannot fade. Even if they are physical items, the spirit within them will never die. Even if a photograph is lost, a painting is destroyed, or a house is toppled, the spirit lives forever. The little drummer boy is proof of that.



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Classic Feminist Cinema, 3 You (Probably) Haven't Seen

I took a feminist film studies course when I was in college and quite enjoyed it. I don't think I had any expectations since I was still fairly new to film theory at the time. In the years since, obviously, I've become a rabid cinephile, especially of the classics. From that course I learned a great deal about women in film and to this day much of it still determines how I break down and analyze films. But the further I delve into the greats that made Hollywood the legend it now is the more I feel modern audiences take little time to appreciate the women who not only made Hollywood incredible amounts of money but also had to fight tooth and nail to get to where they were and have even a shadow's amount of power compared to the men of the same Hollywood era.

So many of these actresses are not forgotten but more-so neglected by a majority of today's male and female audiences as they find more interest in pictures like Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Divergent, or even Twilight. I think that's perfectly alright considering we're all a product of our times. And though I do think all those films have their merits (yes, even Twilight) and can do wonderful things for young girls, just like in the textbooks there's a lot of  history to be found on various subjects in the movies. I still hold to the fact that things are better today than they were 50 or more years ago, especially in Hollywood. (I said better, not perfect.) But there's a lot to be learned from the women that starred on the silver screen long before J-Law and Cate Blanchett.

I think we Universally reflect this attitude that the discrimination we face today is as bad if not worse than it has been historically and I think that's just how everyone feels when they're young and opinionated. But if we could go back into time 50 years you'd find a much harsher, more rule laden world than what we have now, especially for women and minorities, and especially for their roles in Hollywood. Actresses like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball just to name a few. (And there were many.) Davis, for instance, had so much star power in getting big pictures made that she was dubbed "the fifth Warner Brother".

Barbara Stanwyck was reviled by many "traditional" men and women of the time for playing characters that were transgressive and encouraged women to be in possession of their sexuality.

Frank and Ernest comic strip writer Bob Thaves famously said of Ginger Rogers and her in comparison to her screen partner Fred Astaire that, "Sure he was great. But don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels."

Myrna Loy famously lobbied against racism and against discrimination in Hollywood. "Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant?" She asked MGM execs in 1934. "How about a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?"

 Lucille Ball was THE first female studio head in Hollywood. It doesn't get bigger than that.

To really put things in perspective, Katherine Hepburn, who said she was "unaware that women were a second rate sex," was one of the first female screen legends to make women wearing pants popular. She said, "I realized long ago that skirts are hopeless. Any time I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt I say, 'Try one. Try a skirt.'" Her biographer Christopher Anderson said, "She is the person who put women in pants, literally and figuratively. She is the greatest star, the greatest actress that Hollywood has ever produced."

I think many actresses today are furthering the effort of equality in cinema and in Hollywood. Cate Blanchett's recent Academy Awards acceptance speech wonderfully reflects that women "are not a 'niche' audience." I'm fairly certain that the only people who don't like Jennifer Lawrence are crazy people and her attitude toward the Hollywood elitism is refreshing and real.

I think much of today's Hollywood royalty, like those who came before them, are just as powerful, interested, and passionate about pursuing equality in film. I don't seek to diminish or lessen the importance of women in contemporary cinema but rather illuminate the classic actresses I grew up watching whom I really love and value for being some of the first to start shaking things up and pave the way for the women of today.

Baby Face (1933)

Widely regarded as an early protofeminist film (the movement before it had the name, recognition, and steam it does today), Baby Face is a wonderful pre-code (The Hays Code) picture about Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), a former speakeasy bartender who's often forced by her father to sleep with his customers in order to keep his business afloat. Upon learning of her power over men, Lily makes a break for New York City in order to use her sexual charm to climb her way up to the top of a the Gotham Trust.

What's tricky with proto-feminism films is that on the surface or based on an initial summary they come across as being wildly sexist. Often times these were men telling tales of women the ways they wanted so the feminist perspective in classic cinema isn't as it is today, which can be portrayed by women for women or by people who truly understand the movement. Classically, you're looking at men, or women with pen names or acting as a background influence, trying to make statement that turns a traditional genre on its head. Proto-feminist cinema falls more under this type of film making or storytelling.

Baby Face is reflective of early feminist films because it treats Lily as its hero. Unlike some films of the late 70's and 80's which seemed to reflect this sort of "revenge on or punishing of women", classic films like Baby Face were profound for treating the female protagonist exactly the same (or as close as it could come) as it would a male. If, hypothetically, it were a film about a man sleeping his way to the top there would be little rancor for a character like this. A male audience would likely cheer him on for being "a man" and women would be further forced to remain silent and accept the discrimination in practice that a man is just allowed to do these things and a woman is not. So Baby Face was one of the first of its time to really empower a woman with her sexuality the way men have been portrayed as being empowered with theirs. No one questions a man's sexuality (unless it concerns homosexuality) in film because he's "cool", "suave", and "manly".

And Barbara Stanwyck doesn't play a sort of Glenn Close ala Fatal Attraction here. She's not crazy or insane or a temptress seeking to upset a "perfect" family. Fatal Attraction is a prime example of a setback in feminist (the revenge on women themes I mentioned above) cinema since Michael Douglas' character, a seemingly happy, perfectly content married business man, is tempted by Glenn Close who seeks to destroy his marriage and his family since she is so wildly obsessed with him. Eventually (spoilers) she wants to kill them all and boils their child's pet rabbit in a pot. Unsurprisingly the film ends with Close dead and Douglas' wife and children forgiving him, smiling, hugging, happy it's all behind them now. All is well THE END.

Close's character in Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest, is completely unsympathetic because she is completely crazy. She's also the mouthpiece for a male film maker who displays little regard for women in film and considers the independent, working, business woman (like Alex) to be insane and the complacent, innocent housewife (Douglas' wife Beth) to be the "ideal woman" who loves and forgives her man no matter his transgressions. So in films like this the concept of women being on an equal playing field as a man is first punished and then these "dangerous" women are put in their place, which is six feet under.

Baby Face uses Lily in the complete opposite way Fatal Attraction uses Alex Forrest. Lily is a victim of abuse and has long suffered at the hands of her father and his customers who've raped and assaulted her. She's grown a hard shell because of it and, rather than consider herself a victim and act helpless, she takes her revenge out on men. It's a nice flip from the traditional more commonly held gender roles in film. And this revenge isn't psychotic or crazy but clear and calculated and there is an end to these means. She isn't just sort of skipping along the busy streets of New York, willingly giving herself to anyone who'll have her, no, she's playing Chess with the rich businessmen of the big apple and she's the Queen, the most powerful piece on the board and taking the pawns one by one.

The film also portrays these wealthy businessmen as idiots and fools who let the blood rush to their penises rather than their brains. But, in all honesty, that's much the reputation that these type of men really do have. Society embraces and allows men to mistreat women, but if a woman commits the same act she's immediately Hester Prynne. Even the bible condones a man divorcing and remarrying but a woman who has been divorced is committing adultery if she remarries. I'm sorry, what?

So it's easy for Lily to climb her way up the ladder because she's the only one with any real power in the film and is thus it's hero and protagonist. The men she seduces and soon replaces are old white men from old money or young white men from old money. None of them show clear skills or business savvy, rather they represent how much of the outside world views the heads of big business; as rich, greedy know-nothings.

But, as is true to form of most all classic films, Lily finds her man. Most modern audiences would consider this a betrayal to the grounds its laid as a feminist film, but context is key with any argument, especially one being analyzed historically as the beginnings of a movement. And it's one of the reasons people avoid studying classic films with a feminist eye, because they don't consider them valid to the contemporary argument. But we have to remember that, without films like these, the contemporary argument would be very different and likely not as powerful. The idea of Lily, basically, winning the game of chess and empowering herself is achieved. She has everything she wants and needs. Though even someone seeking self empowerment or self actualization can understand that no human being, male or female, deserves to be destroyed in order for us to get what we want. Because of this Lily is the perfect example of a proto-femnist film hero. She's not so callous or selfish or insane that she's willing to go down with the ship so long as it means killing all the evil men on board. She is a real human being with a heart and a conscious and she uses them. Some of the men she's toyed with have died as a result of her and she doesn't consider herself completely innocent. And she understands that this sort of thing can't go on forever or else she will become the same type of person who abused her in her past. So rather than become her own worst enemy she falls in love instead.

That might sound simple and like a typical male film maker tying a neat little bow on a cute kind of, sort of feminist picture but when you consider what it means for the films that would follow, it's truly ground breaking. The film was even cited as one of the top ten main reasons why the Hays Code was enacted in the first place. Because it was edgy, brave, and displayed the sexual empowerment of a woman, society wanted it, and all films like it, gone and forgotten because they were "dangerous" and "bad" for the public. Simply because of the fact that it still exists and can be studied as a prime example of early feminist cinema shows you can't keep a good film down and that, in the long run, you cannot suppress a powerful and important movement.

The Thin Man (1934)

Few films truly define what a modern genre has become as much as the "screwball comedy". The way most audiences think of comedies today, especially romantic comedies, fundamentally come from screwball comedies. I read a nice definition of the genre recently that really hit the nail on the head, and that is a male-female dynamic in which the female dominates both the relationship and the male and in turn challenges his masculinity. Beautiful.

A lot of films in this genre are flawless and each of them would make prime examples of early feminist films, particularly It Happened One NightMy Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, and The Philadelphia Story to name a few personal favorites. All of these display strong female protagonists acting opposite men often regarded as "strong" or "masculine" and rob them of the way they're used to being treated by women who often belittle them amidst a slew of funny mishaps and errors that cause the two to fall in love.

As is typical of all films, not just the classics, a love story is often a key component to the screwball comedy. Falling in love or finding love at the end of a film was, and still is, a sure fire way of allowing the audience to leave the theater happy. I've heard a lot of arguments, especially in regard to feminism in films, that falling in love with a man or vice versa can cheapen the argument or themes of empowering women because settling down with a man means trading in your independence for complacency. Personally, I think love stories are equally relevant to feminist cinema as non-love stories simply because, you know, people fall in love a lot. It's kind of an important component of living life and creating a film that the majority of your audience can agree with. Valid arguments can be made around the block for each different way of thought, but for the sake of classic feminist cinema we sort of need to be okay with it here, like in Baby Face, because History has already happened and we can't go back and make it different.

The Thin Man, however, is a little different in that the film's protagonists, Nick and Nora Charles (played by William Powell and Myrna Loy), are already husband and wife. So during their mishaps and adventures and sleuthing, they don't fall in love for the first time. However, what I think is so wonderful about the film, and its franchise as a whole (they made 6 total), is that the two are always falling in love all over again. Not that it's lost and regained but that they appreciate, value, and cherish one another and recognize each other as equally important components of their marriage and their success as a crime solving couple. However, on the surface, the films don't paint Nick and Nora as being equals. In fact Nick is often guilty of locking Nora in cars or rooms or trying to find other ways to leave her out of the crime solving in order to keep her safe. But true to screwball comedy form, Nora always finds a way back to the adventure and to solving the mystery or bringing the film to its resolution.

Since sexism seems blatant on a surface level it shouldn't be surprising that on a subtextual level it's truly Nora who pulls all the strings, much as all the female protagonists in screwball comedies often do. Without them, the men would crash and burn and fail and its the absolute truth. You know the scene in the movie 300 in which, before making the ultimate decision to start a war, Leonidas looks to his wife first and only upon her nod does he shout, "THIS IS SPARTA!" and kick the Persian messenger into the big well? It's like that except without all the yelling and bloodshed. On the surface, all these handsome, suave, fancy, strong, manly men are nothing without their better half, she who truly holds all the power. Without a woman who rationalizes reasonably, kingdoms would fall and people would suffer needlessly. Or mysteries would go unsolved.

Myrna Loy, despite starting her career as a typecast vamp style temptress (often playing Asian characters even though she was not being Asian) eventually became the top of the town, being dubbed "Queen of the Movies" in a 1936 poll taken by movie goers. In part it was because of her character in The Thin Man which came out only 2 years prior. Nora Charles is the real brains behind the operation and often the reason the mysteries she and her husband are investigating are solved and her real life counterpart is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons they franchised the series into 6 Thin Man  pictures.

Myrna Loy and Barbara Stanwyck are probably my two favorite actresses primarily because of the power they have on screen. They own themselves, their sexuality, are whip smart, and have the ability to make men feel smart or stupid, worthy or worthless with only a flash of their eyes. The films they were in, whether they were intended to be this way or not, are structured around them and the power they hold over their male counterpart. Particularly in The Thin Man, Myrna Loy's Nora Charles


Born Yesterday (1950)

My absolute favorite. Partly because of how much I love Judy Holliday and mostly because it's quite an important and well crafted picture. Holliday won the Oscar for best actress with her fun, quirky, ditzy performance as ex-showgirl Emma "Billie" Dawn, the girlfriend of wealthy but uncouth tycoon Harry Brock. Harry's making a run for a top spot in Washington politics and is finding his mistress an unfortunate drag on his plans since to the rest of the upper crust she comes across as an uneducated no nothing bimbo. But we find that couldn't be further from the truth when Harry hires newspaperman Paul Verrall to tutor her and Billie takes to her new-found intelligence like a duck takes to water, eventually doing what we've been waiting for her to do, stand up for herself against the oppression of both Harry and the upper class.

Judy Holliday was fairly typecast, not unlike Marilyn Monroe, as the ditsy blonde and Born Yesterday is partially responsible for that since it was a role she originated on Broadway. In reality, however, she was whip smart and even famously channeled her character of Billie when being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee about her involvement in, or knowledge of any of her friends' involvement in, the Communist party. She essentially acted her way out of actually testifying, playing the ditsy, dumb Billie instead of Judy Holliday herself. Because she appeared to know so little about anything, she was not pursued or black listed like some of her fellow actors were.

Born Yesterday is like a movie from the future. It's so spot on in its themes and tones that the same exact film could be released this weekend and be equally as effective. But what's most effective about the film is the unabashed oppression by men in places of power against their "dames". When treated like they're not supposed to know anything or that they have a lesser place in society, many women end up believing that of themselves. This is Billie at the start of the film. She knows little of the real world or how politics work because she's been arm candy her whole life. And since she appears so ditsy at social gatherings since she can't carry on an "intelligent" conversation then it creates a problem for the politician types who are looking to make a name for themselves.

But the film goes to show that intelligence is something everyone has, especially in their own individual way. And that oppression can be the greatest cause for ignorance. Billie appears ignorant and unintelligent at first because she's been a victim her entire life. Men have treated her poorly and as a former showgirl it's not hard to imagine the way other people looked at her and perceived her. When people say things about you long enough to start to believe them. Not until Paul begins to tutor her does she understand that she isn't just a "dumb bimbo", but a human being who has value, one capable of believing and doing whatever it is she decides to do.

When Billie finally rises up against Brock it's one of the greatest, stand up and cheer moments in cinema history and is a moment that will stay with me forever.


These are just three of the many, many films out there showcasing powerful, talented women from Hollywood history. There may be more to come from me on it in the future, but if you were looking for a good jumping off point in your exploration of classic feminist cinema, these are an excellent place to start.