Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Women of Westeros: The Ladies of Game of Thrones- Part 1

     I have to give credit where credit is due: Game of Thrones is an amazing TV show, and the books the show is based on, the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, are just as amazing. As a general rule, I'm not an avid reader of fantasy. It took me years to even get around to reading the Harry Potter novels (and of course, I devoured them once I did.) Game of Thrones was just wrapping its glorious third season when my husband and I started watching the show, and we got addicted almost immediately. Now, 2 episodes away from the Season 4 finale, I am simultaneously anxiously awaiting the final episodes and already dreading it being over. It's baffling and horrifying that I'll have to wait until spring of 2015 to be reunited with some of the best characters on television, and continue the struggle for power that has all of Westeros locked in a gory war.
      The author of the series, George R. R. Martin, once famously said of his female characters, "I'm of the controversial opinion that women are people, and people are interesting." This conviction is highly admirable, and apparently very rare. None of the women of Game of Thrones are props or can be summed up as "Someone's Girlfriend" or "Someone's Sister." Even if they are those things, they are their own entities, and they have their own desires and wants, personalities and conflicts, and their own ways of struggling for their own power. The medieval-inspired world of Westeros and its surrounding lands are not kind in their treatment of women. Women only have power if they are married to, fathered by, or mother to a man who already has it, and rape and violence toward women are considered an unfortunate but unavoidable aspect of womanhood. The show is not kind in this regard; it has been heavily criticized for its use of rape as a plot device, and it's often deeply unpleasant depictions of violence against women, particularly when that incident of violence is not present in the original source material. Despite that, the women in the show find their own ways to vie for power in a man's world, and it makes them deeply fascinating and some of the best characters on TV. Here are my top favorite women of Game of Thrones.
       For those of you who are not caught up on your Game of Thrones, or just need to be given a brief recap of what this complicated series is about, Westeros is made up of several powerful families: the wealthy and influential but ruthless Lannisters, the honorable but flawed Starks, the batshit crazy Targareyens, the powerful Baratheons, the brooding Greyjoys, and the well off, clever Tyrells. These families are supported by smaller families (the Arryns, the Boltons, the Tullys, etc.) The smaller families choose to align themselves with one of the larger ones in times of war in exchange for more power or influence. The problem is that whichever side you choose, there are inevitably other families who now consider you an enemy, and in the Battle of Five Kings, having more enemies than allies deadly. 

*NOTE: This is posted as of the 8th episode of Season 4. SPOILERS AHOY.*

12) Lysa Arryn
House Arryn: As High As Honor
Lives In: The Eeyrie, a well-gaurded mountain keep that is shielded by 100 warriors at any moment

Crazy Aunt Lysa. We scarcely knew ye, before ye were flung out the moon door by your murderous husband so he could actively pursue your beautiful niece because she looks like your sister, whom he's always loved. (And that's one of the most subtle plotlines on GoT!) Though the family lines of Westeros are as complicated and tangled as the earphones you found in your jacket pocket from last winter, Lysa Arryn's origins are a bit more simple. Originally born of House Tully, Lysa is Catelyn Stark's sister. Lysa was married to Jon Arryn, whose mysterious death, presumably at the hands of the Lannisters sets the story in motion. Always considered "eccentric," Lysa has now delved into full on insanity. She's hypocritical, neurotic, obsessive and overly protective of her 10 year old son, whom she babies to the point of continuing to nurse him from her own breast. She is originally introduced to the story when she attempts to frame Tyrion Lannister for the murder of her husband Jon Arryn. She is unsuccessful, but it is revealed in later seasons that she herself poisoned her husband to win the affection of Petyr Baelish, the Master of Coin. Petyr, however, has always loved Lysa's sister, Catelyn, who married Ned Stark. Unfortunately, it is through Petyr Baelish that Lysa meets her end- when she becomes jealous of the attentions that Petyr showers on Catelyn's beautiful daughter Sansa, she threatens to throw Sansa through the Moon Door (an opening in her floor that hovers over a 1000 foot drop, which is used primarily for getting rid of unwelcome visitors and enemies.) Petyr, having married Lysa and officially claimed himself as ward of the Eeyrie, rids himself of his crazy wife by dropping the most epic truth bomb ever: "I have only loved one woman my entire life. Only one. Your sister, Cat," and tossing Lysa out the moon door to plummet to her death. 

11) Shae
House: Unknown
Lives in: King's Landing, the Capital of Westeros

Shae's origins remain a mystery, but since she spends most of her time on the show as Tyrion Lannister's prostitute/girlfriend, we can say safely that she's currently on Team Lannister. Shae is headstrong, sassy, and loyal to Tyrion... or so it seemed, until she testified against him for murdering King Joffrey in Season 4. This seemed to be an abrupt departure from her usual character, and it caught several viewers off guard. Despite their class differences, Shae has always seemed to legitimately love Tyrion and he clearly loves her. There is great danger in him being in love with and intimately connected to a prostitute with no family name- Tyrion has loved women of the night before, only to have his powerful father Tywin Lannister destroy them to spite his son. Shae has always been depicted as above all of that. She refuses to divulge much information about where she is from or how she came to be a prostitute in King's Landing, but we've always felt that she had noble intentions. However, all good things must end, particularly in Westeros, where you legitimately can't get too attached to anyone. When Tyrion is framed for the murder of King Joffrey, Shae is brought in as a surprise witness.. for the prosecution. There, she tells what is mostly the truth, including their intimate secrets together, framed in the worst possible light. It is a damning testimony. For that reason, Shae is low on this list. She's not as annoying as Crazy Aunt Lysa, but anyone who betrays Tyrion Lannister is not ok with me. (We don't know why she did what she did, but I'm going to hope that she was being coerced by Tywin Lannister and had no choice but to do so to protect herself, and not that she simply turned on Tyrion when he sent her away from King's Landing for her own safety.)

10) Arya Stark
House Stark: Winter is Coming
Currently In: The Eeyrie, but heading toward Braavos

I know a lot of people would be surprised to see Arya Stark so far down on the list. Ned Stark's youngest daughter is quite the fan favorite due to her bloodlust and gradual transition from spunky tomboy to coldblooded killer. I like Arya, but she lacks some of the depth I see in the other characters; much of that is due to her age, but much if it is just due to the writing being a little less subtle than it is for the other characters. With that said, Arya has taken a fascinating route to where she is. After Ned Stark is beheaded by King Joffrey in Season 1, Arya is smuggled out of King's Landing and dressed as a boy to disguise herself. Most of those in King's Landing presume she is dead, and has been for several years. She has encountered all sorts of misfortune- being shuffled along with a group of vagrant boys, becoming a servant to  Tywin Lannister himself, losing several of her friends, and being mere moments away from being reunited with her mother and brother, only to be present when they are both brutally slaughtered. For all of season 4, she has been travelling the Riverlands with Sandor Clegane, the King's Hound, whom she loathes. He is holding her captive, and intends to ransom her to Lysa Arryn, her aunt. To say that Arya's life has been tragic is a colossal understatement- not only did she watch her father die at the hands of a boy she hates, she has also lost her home, her family name, and her mother and brother to that same man. She's very much a wondering vagrant, and all this misfortune has caused a rage to build inside of her. She's always been tomboyish and impatient with the frilly, unimportant tasks assigned to women, but now, having been in the company of men almost exclusively since she escaped from King's Landing, Arya has taken on the wrong man's bloodlust. Before bed every night, she repeats the names of those she wants to kill, almost as if in prayer. Thus far, she hasn't gotten a chance to knock many names off her list, but with the skillful, cold way in which she can dispense of a man now, it's hard to imagine she won't get her chance.

9) Melisandre
House: Baratheon, through allegiance. Birth origins are unknown.
Currently in: Dragonstone

In the Battle of Five Kings, Stannis Baratheon was the antagonist, and the loser. After his brother King Robert's death, his alleged "son" Joffrey inherits the throne. However, we know- and most of Westeros knows- that Joffrey isn't Robert's son. He's the inbred son of Robert's wife, Queen Cersei, and her twin brother Jaime Lannister. With this in mind, Stannis Baratheon feels entitled to the throne as the next in line, since Robert sired no trueborn heir. Thus, the war of Kings is declared. Stannis, a brooding warrior-type with a rigid sense of a duty and a scowling face, declares war on King's Landing and is promptly defeated, and has spent most of this season sulking in his dark, batcave-like castle on Dragonstone. There with him as always is Melisandre, the high priestess of the Lord of Light, whose iron grip on Stannis' mind has grown firmer. Melisandre is another female character whose origins are mysterious- it seems to be a running theme amongst the female characters that as long as no one knows where you come from, it's easy to get where you want to go. The men proudly tout their family names, but the women are quieter in that regard. It seems to be easier to get what you want if no one connects you to your powerful (or completely powerless) brother, father, or husband. Melisandre, forever cloaked in scarlet from head to toe and sporting bright red hair, is like a beautiful Rasputin, and she has the entire castle fooled. The deeply devout servant of the Lord of Light (one of many competing gods that those in Westeros defer to,) the Red Woman is forever a flea in Stannis' ear, whispering words of glory and honor, all as long as they play by the Lord of Light's rules. The Lord of Light seems to be a vindictive son of a bitch: he demands absolute belief and complete faith. Anyone who disbelieves, or even questions, should be liberated and cleaned of his mortal shell by fire, and when she isn't hovering over Stannis filling his mind with zealous thoughts, she's making examples of peasants by setting them ablaze on pillars by the sea. Melisandre's tricks of the trade are partially mysterious, and partially completely obvious. She seduces Stannis and keeps him blinded, not only by her promises of victory, but by her sexuality, as well as a serious of magic tricks used to convince him of her god. There are several indications that the Lord of Light is real- unlike the many other gods in Westeros (the Old Gods, the New Gods, the Drowned God, the Seven Faces of God, etc) the Lord of Light has actually shown himself. He eliminated one of the 5 Kings vying for power in Westeros by killing Renly Baratheon, Stannis' own younger brother, who also wanted the throne. But it's hard to tell whether Melisandre really is the holy priestess she claims to be, or if she is simply pulling everyone's leg. She's got the entire castle fooled- even Stannis' devoted wife, Selyse, completely agrees with Stannis cheating on her with Melisandre because it is the "will of the Lord of Light, and nothing done in the name of the Lord of Light can be a sin." Melisandre is the rare woman in Westeros who has complete, untamed power- the only problem is that it exists only as long as she has Stannis' undivided attention. And Melisandre seems to have no intention whatsoever of letting that go.

8) Brienne of Tarth
House: Stark, by loyalty and sworn oath
Currently In: Has just left King's Landing in pursuit of Arya Stark, to try and honor her oath to Catelyn Stark and retrieve her daughters, Sansa and Arya Stark

Brienne of Tarth is not just one of my favorite characters on Game of Thrones, she's one of my favorite characters on television. Brienne is a grand woman, not just in her incredible size and height, but in her extraordinary strength of character. Originally in the service of Renly Baratheon, who was vying for the throne in Season 2, Brienne finds herself unable to protect the king from Melisandre's evil magic and, distraught over the king she loved, swears herself to a new ally- Catelyn Stark, who was aligned with Renly in the war before he died. At this time, Catelyn has taken Jaime Lannister captive, and when she realizes that the gallant female knight is as noble and honorable as she is skillful in battle, she entrusts her with returning Jaime to King's Landing to ransom him for Catelyn's daughters, Sansa and Arya, whom she believes are trapped in the Capital. It is on this journey that we come to love Brienne. Jaime is a smarmy asshole who routinely insults, belittles and antagonizes his transporter. He goes for the low hanging fruit- he calls her a lesbian, a man, and generally annoys her so much that she ends up showing her cards and revealing her true skill: Brienne is a masterful swordswoman. She is as strong, as skilled, as dignified as any knight living, and she begins to win Jaime's begrudging respect. We love Brienne because she is completely devoted to her cause- in Renly's service, she was completely faithful, and when he was no longer around, she pledged her allegiance to the Starks. Despite multiple challenges and risking life and limb, she honors her vow, and has stayed faithful to Catelyn Stark's wishes long after her death. Brienne also has interesting roots. Her father is the lord of the Sapphire Isles, so she was born to some nobility. However, she has eschewed the life of the Lady of the Manor to pursue her passion of service and knighthood, and by all accounts, her family has been quite supportive of this. Despite her great strength and skill, Brienne is the epitome of class in most situations: loyal, intelligent, above reproach, deeply respectful, and possessing a wit as sharp as her sword.

7) Olenna Tyrell:
House Tyrell: Growing Strong:
Currently In: King's Landing

Olenna Tyrell is without a doubt the smartest person in King's Landing, and the most fearless. The matriarch of the powerful, wealthy Tyrell family is not intimidated by anyone, not even by the bane of most Westeros nightmares, Tywin Lannister. She easily holds her own against him, and even manages to put him in his place a few times. Snappy, saucy, and just downright sassy, Lady Tyrell is well aware of what's going on- she knows that it is better to have powerful-but-untrustworthy allies than powerful-but-untrustworthy enemies, which is why she agreed to an arranged marriage between her granddaughter Margaery and King Joffrey Baratheon, Tywin's grandson. She finds great humor in the lengths that the nobles in King's Landing will go to for power, gain, or just to stay in Tywin's good graces. She's very protective of her family and proud of her wealth, but she's also leery enough to know when to play the Game of Thrones and who to keep close. Did I mention she's also a coldblooded killer? Lady Olenna, upon realizing that her granddaughter is betrothed to a sadistic monster of a king, decides just to get rid of the little twerp altogether. With Petyr Baelish's help, she poisons him at his own wedding, an unheard of atrocity in a land where it is expressly forbidden to harm a man once he has become a guest in your home. (Though we'll talk later about how well that went over for Robb and Catelyn Stark.) When she later confesses to Margaery what she's done, she doesn't bat an eye. The little beast needed to be out of the way, and now he is. It's about protecting the family, and nobody guards her family more fiercely than Olenna Tyrell.

6) Ygritte
House: Outlander of the Free Cities
Currently In: the North, headed toward the wall for the Battle of Castle Black

Unlike the others on this list, Ygritte has no House and no affiliations. She's a Wildling, a member of the 'free people' in the North who actively eschew the laws and stuffy proprieties of Westeros. The Wildlings operate independent of the rest of the land, and live a life that's arguably more natural: they kill what they want to eat, the sleep with whomever they want, and they roam wherever it pleases them. The hypocritical aristocrats of King's Landing consider them something akin to animals; the Wildings believe they're just ahead of the curve.  Ygritte lives with her band of Wildlings "North of the Wall," meaning a 700 foot wall of snow and ice that guards the perimeter of Westeros. It was erected in olden times to protect Westeros from the monsters and frights that live on the other side, and the Night's Watch, men elected or sentenced to live a chaste life of guarding the wall, are there to make sure they stay on the other side. Jon Snow, the bastard son of Ned Stark, joins the Night's Watch in Season 1, and in Season 3 is captured by the Wildings. They want to march on the Wall and try to cross to seek vengeance on those who have blighted and rejected them, and while in captivity, Jon meets Ygritte. She's completely independent, feisty, sure with an arrow, and very amused by the pretentious nature of society life that Jon describes. She lives a very uninhibited life. She speaks candidly and openly about war, sex, and bodily functions, and irreverently mocks parts of Westeros life held sacred by Jon Snow. She is the first to directly challenge his nobility and his vow of chastity, which he holds as one and the same, and ultimately she influences him to lose his virginity to her. However, Jon is still the noble son of Ned Stark, sworn to the brotherhood of the Night's Watch, and she's still a Wildling. As soon as Jon is able to escape to the wall and warn them of the impending Wildling attack, he does, leaving lovelorn Ygritte all alone... and very, very pissed off. This season, Ygritte is in full Woman Scorned mode. She was vulnerable to him, and he left her. He was more devoted to his damnable honor than his love for her, and she is hellbent on making him pay for it.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mad Women: The Ladies of Mad Men

Betty Draper Francis

Betty Draper Francis is the proverbial desperate housewife. Beautiful and ornamental, Betty was raised to do exactly what she ultimately did: she married a handsome, successful and wealthy man and had children with him. Her mother, stringent in her training, taught Betty all of the fine aspects of nurturing a husband, and when Betty, who started her life as a print model, married Don, I’m sure she felt she had landed the jackpot. However, wife-and-motherhood has proven to be a letdown, leaving pretty, empty-hearted Betty dejected, alone and confused as to where her life went wrong.
       At the beginning of the show, Betty shows all the signs of being fairly  content with her life. She dotes on Don, as much as her rather unfeeling nature will allow her anyway, and she pays at least halfhearted attention to her children. However, Betty is all to aware that while her husband is a great provider, he is a serial and unrepentant philanderer, and it is never fully revealed exactly how much she knows about her Don’s affairs. She is tight-lipped, silent, and cooperative, making her an seem rather like a catatonic person who moves around every so often. She has been rigidly trained against seeming whiny or needy or demanding of her husband, and so keeps any and all legitimate emotion to herself. She seems icy and unfeeling due to this, regardless of the fact that at the beginning of Season 1, she has just lost her mother and the loss has grieved her sorely. Because of her ideal of a wife, she is unable to reach out to Don to console her and comfort her, and so sits and seethes and drowns in her despair. Even when she reaches out to a psychiatrist for help, she is treated like a second-class citizen. The psychiatrist repeatedly reports what Betty says to Don, since there were no confidentiality laws that covered women in that time, and the psychiatrist offers Don the standard diagnosis for women at the time: ‘hysteria.’ He likens her to a child with raw, irrational emotion, even though Betty’s issues (grief over the loss of her mother and a feeling of emptiness due to lack of a purpose and a loving support system) are entirely legitimate. As Don and Betty’s marriage collapses, Betty seems to become colder and more bitter- even during the good times, she he only seems half invested. When a spark of happiness arrives- Betty is offered another modeling contract, a profession that she always loved- Don shoots it down and forbids her. In his mind, it isn’t the sort of profession someone with a wife and children should pursue. This is the nail in Betty’s coffin. Her despair worsens and grows until finally she begins giving Don a taste of his own medicine.
       Betty eventually has an affair with and marries Henry Francis, a local politician. During their brief affair, Betty feels that she has simply married the wrong man and that the life she was trained for could be blissful if she only was with Henry. Because of this, she ultimately divorces Don and marries Henry, only to face the same problems over again. While Henry is more faithful and more doting than Don was, Betty still carries quite a chip on her shoulder from her previous marriage. She broods, sulks, and makes demands, all the while not feeling any less gypped in her existence.
       Don and Betty have three children: Sally, Bobby, and Gene. Betty is a cold, unfeeling mother who snaps at her children and dismisses them easily, never seeming to get any enjoyment out of them. She is particularly harsh on Sally. Sally looks remarkably like her mother, and often feels the brunt of her mother’s disapproval and disdain. Sally is frequently spoken ‘at’ instead of spoken ‘to’ by her mother, and is treated as a general nuisance, although to the audience, she seems like a pleasant child.
        For me, the definitive Betty moment came during the middle of the third season. Betty has just been offered the modeling contract and forced to turn it down, at the same time that she has discovered more about Don’s affairs. During the middle of the day, she wanders out into the yard wearing her housecoat and smoking a cigarette. She carries a gun under her arm, looking around the yard with a mixture of disgust and complete apathy. She looks up into the sky and notices birds flying overhead. Never dropping her cigarette and as quietly and smoothly as anything, she raises the gun and starts firing openly at the birds. If she can’t fly out of here, neither can they. 

Peggy Olsen

Peggy Olsen is in many ways very much like Joan, and yet fiercely unlike Joan at all. Both are strong minded career women who have the intelligence and charisma to keep up with the boys. The difference is that while Joan thrives on keeping her ladylike demeanor intact, and therefore is stuck in the secretarial pool, Peggy willingly chunks her feminine side out the door and breaks the glass ceiling in two.
      At the beginning of the show, Peggy starts as a secretary; she’s awkward, unattractive, and gawky, and quickly becomes a joke amongst the philandering male employees of Sterling Cooper. Joan takes the girl under her wing, telling her to ‘get undressed, and put a bag over your head with eyes cut out of it. Stand in front of a mirror and determine what your biggest strengths and weaknesses are.’ For Joan, the only way to get ahead is to be sexy and appealing. Joan attempts this for a while, but finds she isn’t good at it, and so takes a different approach. For a while, she tolerates the catcalls and  blatant sexism in the office, wearily but patiently, but never seems to be much good at being a secretary. She finds their lifestyle strange; the higher ups at the office drink all day, smoke excessively, come and go more or less as they please, and seem entirely hedonistic in their approach to business. To Peggy, who has been raised a staunch Catholic, this is a strange world. She begins an affair with Pete Campbell with leads to an unexpected pregnancy. This is a defining moment for Peggy. Her mother wanted her to go away and raise the baby. Peggy chose to give the child to her sister to raise, and therefore returns to Sterling Cooper as before, worn and regretful, but determined.
      During a random poll of the secretaries in a lipstick campaign, Peggy shines. The men in the office realize that she is excellent at copywriting, and rather against character, agree to give her a copywriting position. Peggy is the first woman to take this job in the history of Sterling Cooper, and this rankles Joan. Now not only is Peggy Joan’s superior, but Peggy is much younger and less attractive. That she should succeed where Joan has been unable to angers and shames Joan to the core, and the two of them have a tense, professional-but-certainly-not-friendly relationship.
      As the show progresses, Peggy becomes bolder in her relationship with her male cohorts. They treat her with respect, but only so far as feels necessary. They acknowledge that she is good at her job, but still look at her as if she is a duck who has learned to speak French- a novelty, not the standard. She continues to take their teasing with a kind of passive patience, but chooses to fight back when she feels it necessary. After a while, Peggy begins to assimilate into the group. She drinks as heavily and as frequently as they do, she becomes interested- although someone vaguely- in the burgeoning hippie/beatnik scene, and she has several relationships with men and even a slight fling with a woman from Grenwich Village. She also becomes an obsessive workaholic. She stays at the office hours after the others leave, drinking and smoking pot all the while. Everything else has to take a back burner, particularly her relationships with men. She has lost more than one lover over her inability to leave work at the office, and it hasn’t seemed to make her any happier.
       Don treats Peggy as one of the boys, but seems to be harder on her. He constantly pushes her to do better, keeping his praise minimal and his criticism handy, even as he secretly admires her talent. This is hugely frustrating to Peggy; she admires her boss and wants his approval, and his seemingly constant rejection irks her. However, it drives her to work harder and to do more, which was Don’s intention in the first place. In many ways, Peggy is the modern woman, or the beginnings of the post-modern feminist. In the era before the women’s liberation movement, young Peggy Olsen is on the brink of change, and I feel that as the season continues, she will become a very polarizing character in her attempt to be a small woman in a big man’s world. 

   Joan Holloway Harris

My favorite character is far and away Joan Holloway. Although they are all complex, interesting characters, Joan carries a certain complexity that is rarely offered on television, particularly in female characters, and her rise and fall in the industry are quite fascinating to watch.
     Joan is the office manager at Sterling Cooper, and later at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Aside from being the head of the secretarial pool and the general ruler of any and all females working in the office, Joan is also the resident sexpot. She is always impeccably dressed to show off her ample figure and she shows no qualms in using her sexuality to advance her career or her personal goals. However, she is far from an ‘easy’ character. There is a method to Joan’s madness. She uses her feminine wiles because she knows it works. She is fully aware that this is a man’s world, and in order to succeed in it, a woman must cooperate and play her part to the fullest. She doesn’t argue or pursue confrontation, due to the acts being ‘unfeminine’, and is ever ready to assist the men in the office regardless of what is going on in her personal life.
      This is a double edged sword for Joan; for one thing, the men at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce trust her and rely on her wholeheartedly. They genuinely respect her knowledge and her power, and openly acknowledge that not only is she good at her job, but that they cannot function without her. They collectively love and admire her and are more open with their praise of her work than of any other woman in the office. However, this does come with a price. Joan has hit a glass ceiling that she cannot break out of. Aside from being extremely efficient, Joan is also highly intelligent. At one point, she shows legitimate talent during a pitch for a television advertisement, and due to a lack of staffing, is put on the job. Unfortunately, as soon as man is hired to take on the job, Don quips, “You don’t have to do this anymore, Joan. We have Freddy for it now. Thanks a lot.” It never occurs to Don that Joan may have liked this position, or to hire her to keep doing it. She is the Secretary, and while she’s a damn good one, that is all she will ever be. For the men in the office, not only is Joan needed in the position she is in, but there should be no reason for her to want to do anything else. In her pursuit of her ambition, and yet her willingness to remaine ‘feminine,’ Joan has slammed against a ceiling she will never break.
       Joan isn’t without personal demons as well. Though she begins the show in a passionate affair with Roger Sterling, leading to an illegitimate child, Joan eventually marries an army doctor and for a while, is proud of her decision. She is a loving and doting wife to him, despite the fact that he is often cold and abrupt, even abusive, towards her. In her mind, marrying a successful, abusive man is far better than not marrying at all, and this continues throughout her husband’s deployment in Vietnam. When he returns and states that he is choosing to re-enlist, Joan has had enough. She acknowledges that he doesn’t love her, and that she would be better off without him. For Joan, this is a remarkable breakthrough. Despite being sharply intelligent and cunning, Joan is trapped in a ‘woman’s role,’ and during this season, is learning the perks and consequences of the choices she has made. 


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Nina Sayers (Black Swan)

   For Nina Sayers, perfection is not an ideal: it is the only acceptable option. She doesn't strive for it the way most people do; most people would like to be the best at what they do, but accept that perfection isn't attainable 99% of the time. Nina, however, doesn't feel that way.
    Nina Sayers is a ballerina in a prestigious company. The director, Darren Aronofsky, takes no great pains to make the world of ballet seem glamorous. It is a world of high stakes, taxing physical pain, and extremely high expectations. In the film, toes crack a little too hard against the floor, ankles with deep veins seem a bit too tight, and emaciated frames seem to stretched, too otherworldly to be healthy. This is not a world of pink tutus and make believe, but backbreaking, difficult, highly competitive work.
     Aside from the physically draining aspects of her job, which Nina seems to genuinely love, there are the mentally painful parts. Nina is naturally shy, timid, and over-sheltered. She has lived with her mother, with whom she has an eerily co-dependent relationship. Even thought Nina must be at least 24 or 25 years old, her mother still insists on helping her undress every night. Her mother gave up her own career to give birth to Nina, and never seems to have gotten over the loss. She sits in her room and paints self portraits of herself in her younger days and cries, and when she isn't doing this, she is barging into Nina's room, forcing herself into aspects of Nina's life and career, and depriving her of any privacy.  They live in a tiny, claustrophobic apartment stuffed full of memories of Nina's childhood. There is no mark of evidence that this home is inhabited by a forty-something year old woman and her adult child. 
     Because of her upbringing, Nina is timid, quiet, anxious, and highly critical of herself, qualities that are only exacerbated by her work. Her ballet instructor is by turns sexually abusive and neglectful. He approves of her technical skill but harasses her daily about not 'losing herself' in her work and 'letting go and just feeling it.' For over analytical Nina, this is an impossible demand. She has no idea how to go about it, and when he offers her the coveted role of the Swan Queen, which requires a softer, more timid persona as well as a lustful, bold one, Nina is unable to please her director with her interpretation of the evil twin, the Black Swan. This constant criticism, self doubt, and the extraordinary pressure pushed on her from one hundred directions ekes into her already fragile mind, and Nina begins to crack.
     There has been much discussion over exactly what Nina's diagnosis is, because the film goes through no great pains to tell us. As the pressure mounts on her, Nina resumes an old habit of self injury, scratching herself at night. She constantly picks at her skin and pulls at her cuticles until they bleed, and in her quest for perfection, seems to have an eating disorder. As her mind dissolves, she begins to hallucinate. She frequently sees violent and terrifying scenes which are not there, such as the prima ballerina stabbing herself in the face with a nail file or a horrifing monster roaming around the ballet studio. Throughout the film, it is difficult to determine what is real and what isn't, just as it is for Nina.
      One of her main sources of anxiety is Lily, a fellow dancer who has all the passion and abandon that Nina lacks. Nina becomes increasingly paranoid that Lily is after her, that she will do anything to take her spot as the Swan Queen, and her paranoid delusions begin to run her life. Some say that Lily was never a real person to begin with and that Nina's sick mind invented her, but I don't believe that's true. I think Lily is a real person who is genuinely nice, but also very talented, and Nina perceives this threat to be the worst.
       Much has been made of the infamous lesbian scene between Lily and Nina and whether or not Nina's repressed homosexuality had anything to do with her mental breakdown. I definitely think that the repressed home environment has lead to a great lack of sexual awareness or sexual maturity in Nina, as is evidenced in other parts of the film, but I don't believe she was in love with Lily. I believe the fantasy about sex with Lily was more of her weak mind trying to become something it isn't. Nina is not passionate and bold and lively, as Lily is, but she desperately wants to be, and so, as she slowly loses herself and her sanity to a role which demands more sexuality from her than she's ever experienced, her brain translated this pressure into a lesbian fantasy. However, as with many things in the film, this is entirely my interpretation and others view it differently.
       Many psychologists have praised the film's portrayal of someone's first psychotic break, and say that it is the most accurate movie as far as the person's feelings and mental capacity they've seen. However, they seem to agree that Nina has no set diagnosis. Many say it is impossible for Nina to have all the characteristics she has in the film, such as hallucinating so vividly that she harms herself, as well as an eating disorder and a history of abuse and a smothering household, and also be as high-functioning as she is. So the film gets no points for accuracy as far as a certain diagnosis. However, I find this to be one of the film's better traits. We have no idea what is happening to her, just as she doesn't. Nina is losing her mind, and it is frightening and sad, and that's all we know. That is all she knows. We are privy to someone who is dying of a mind that cannot take anymore, and that is a great tragedy, just as this is a great, compelling film. If you haven't experienced 'Black Swan,' make a point to: it is one of the great tragic films of our time.

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Lisa Rowe (Girl, Interrupted)

   If there’s one type of character I like, it’s a crazy bitch. Women who are insane, scorned, vengeful, or just not quite all there tend to be my favorites. (There are no fewer than 5 on this list, depending on who you ask.) However, the Crazy Bitch that tops them all is definitely Lisa Rowe, a reckless young sociopath who delights in chaos, disorder, and the power she has over others. The film is ‘Girl, Interrupted’, based on the novel of the same name by Susanna Kaysen. As an avid fan of the book and the film, for very different reasons, I feel that I understand Lisa better than someone who has only watched the movie. Much was made over the character that Angelina Jolie created, (she even won an Oscar for her fearless, disturbing performance), but Lisa Rowe was a real person, who really did live in a mental hospital for a while, and that is infinitely more exciting.
      Lisa is a side character in a story that is mostly about Susanna, a young girl growing up in the late sixties and discovering that life is kind of difficult. She has suicidal thoughts, is recklessly impulsive with her sexuality, has problems with drugs, and has an overall gloomy outlook on life. She is the complete opposite of her mother, a bubbly socialite who wants Susanna to get married and settle down. Susanna is a writer, and as is the wont of many writers, tends to brood over her problems until she finds herself so isolated and desperate that she attempts suicide. She is then committed to a mental hospital for ‘a rest’, and ends up staying there for six months. At first, she is horrified; the women around her show various levels of being ‘crazy,’ from anorexia to nervous disorders to homosexuality to catatonia. She feel starkly out of place, and even refuses to admit that she actually tried to kill herself. Her first night at the ward, she encounters Lisa, who has been caught from her second or third runaway attempt and has been returned to the ward by force.
       Lisa is wild, reckless, impulsive, violent, magnetic, and cold. She speaks without a filter, seems to be indiscriminate with her sexual encounters, and can and will bully the other inhabitants of the ward to get her own way, or just to frighten them. None of the others cross her; they respectfully, if begrudgingly, grant her enough space. She has proven time and again that she has no sense of morality, no impulse control, and no conscience, and while she is mostly just mean-spirited and not outright harmful, one easily gets the sense that harming someone wouldn’t bother Lisa at all.
      Throughout the course of the film, Susanna moves from being afraid of Lisa to genuinely admiring her. While Lisa’s diagnosis seems to be sociopathy, Lisa doesn’t see it as a sickness. As far as she’s concerned, she’s just free of societal conventions. Crazy people can do whatever they want and they can get away with it, because they’re crazy. Susanna envies this quality; Susanna dislikes the clean-cut, prissy society she was born into and longs for the freedom to disregard the conventions expected of her and do her own thing. Lisa’s magnetic personality attracts her, and at one point, she even develops sexual, and possibly romantic feelings for Lisa. Lisa seems to regard Susanna with some sort of friendship, but also a complete detachment. She seems to like her, but the viewer does not get the idea that if Susanna were to disappear, Lisa would not notice or care. The one person Lisa seems to truly respect is the head nurse, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who is the only person in the hospital whom Lisa cannot manipulate.
        In a dramatic departure from the book, Lisa and Susanna escape from the ward and plan to move to Florida, to play Cinderella and Snow White in Walt Disney World. They stay at the home of a very disturbed former patient (Brittany Murphy), who was released from the hospital due to her father’s influence, not due to her health. Lisa bullies the girl so painfully and so cruelly that she inadvertently contributes to the girl’s suicide, and then feels no remorse in stealing the money out of the dead girl’s pocket. This is a wakeup call to Susanna; she begins to lose her respect for Lisa and realize that Lisa is ill, that this is not something to aspire to be, and that she is not safe in Lisa’s company.
       The interesting part about Lisa's interaction with the other patient is her tactic for hurting the girl. She doesn't say anything untrue; in fact, she says what everyone else would say if they lacked a mental filter.  The whole ward has known about the girl's unstable persona, as well as her uncomfortable and entirely too-intimate relationship with her father, they just have the good manners not to discuss it. Lisa doesn't. Lisa brings up very plainly that the reason the girl's father moved her into a house and out of the ward is so he can have better access to her, and that the girl actually craves her father's attentions. These accusations, disturbing and terrifying to most, seem all too true to this girl, who doesn't admit to or deny any of these accusations. To this end, Lisa isn't cruelly manipulative: she is cruelly honest. 
        In the book, it is written that Lisa has a history with hard drugs, and when another girl named Lisa is admitted to the ward and claims to be a junkie, Lisa Rowe has to establish her dominance by challenging the new Lisa’s authenticity as a ‘shooter.’ She badgers the new Lisa so shamelessly that she unhinges the new Lisa's self-awareness, and she begins to doubt herself and her own history. Lisa Rowe does this just to provoke her and establish herself as the superior Lisa. Eventually, the new Lisa is released, and as Lisa Rowe returns to the ward from another escape attempt, she ominously quips, “I saw the new Lisa. She’s a real junkie now.”
          The heart of ‘Girl, Interrupted’ is about the legitimacy of some mental illnesses. Susanna herself carries the label of ‘borderline personality disorder,’ a disease whose symptoms sound remarkably like every teenage girl in the world. Lisa’s diagnosis of sociopathy, or as we call it now, antisocial personality disorder, seems only to exacerbate a culturally unacceptable free-spiritedness, as well as an impulsive sexuality that didn’t fit in with the norms of her world. Are these characters crazy? The film, it seems, would have us believe so. The book, on the other hand, isn’t certain. The real Susanna Kaysen wrote that she ran into Lisa many years after leaving the ward and discovered that Lisa had a child and was holding down a job. Was she truly insane? Or did the world she lived in create a monster for her, from her, without giving her a chance? It seems that Kaysen believes the first: as she notes with some wry humor, “Every window in Alcatraz has a view of California. Just as you can see us, we can see you."

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Mary Hatch (It's a Wonderful Life)

    Mary Hatch is something of an anomaly on this list. While it seems that I tend to favor crazy people, backstabbers and spitfires, Mary is a ‘good girl’ in the black-and-white-movie-era meaning of the word: she’s a homemaker, a lover, a mother, a doting wife, and the backbone of a very good man who leans heavily on a very good woman to love him and help him.
       ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is mostly the story of George Bailey, the hero, a man whose daydreams of life and grand ambitions have little reality in his day-to-day struggle. Determined, clever, and enterprising, George starts his life as a young man full of vision and enthusiasm, who wants to travel the world, have grand adventures, see the pyramids, and live the high life. This is in stark contrast to his small-town, middle class upbringing. His father runs a small Building and Loan, a business George detests, though he loves his father dearly. At the untimely death of his father, George takes over the Building and Loan to keep it from falling into the hands of Mr. Potter, the veritable Ebenezer Scrooge of the town who hates everyone and owns everything. Thus, the stage is set for George to become the Everyman. He lives a life he finds shameful, but keeps selflessly pushing through, never realizing how many lives he has touched with his devotion to everyone’s dreams but his own.
        Mary grows up with George as the little sister of one of his childhood friends. She has loved him for years, and when they are reacquainted as young adults, he begins to return her affection. Mary is bubbly, smart, deeply goodhearted, and not without a clever streak. Though she is in most ways the definition of a proper lady, she has a lighthearted spirit around her that occasionally enjoys being shocking. At first, George doesn’t want Mary’s affections, though he cares for her deeply. He has never wanted the married life, and has always snobbishly seen it as best fit for those with no other ambition. However, he can’t stay away from her, so in one very famous scene, he walks into Mary’s mother’s home to visit her, but won’t admit that he desperately wanted to see her, and so shuffles around her house aimlessly, grumbling in disgust of his own weakness. Mary is currently being courted by a wealthy suiter named Sam, someone her mother loves, and when her mother demands to know what George Bailey is doing in the house, Mary calls out, “He’s making violent love to me, Mother!” and enjoys the look of embarrassment on George’s face.
        Mary’s main ambition in life is to marry George and have a family with him. This definitely wouldn't fly as the leading lady’s main goal today, but it was considered highly acceptable at the time of the movie’s release. Therefore, Mary is a homemaker. George works, and Mary has children and keeps house, but also takes time to volunteer for the war effort and make as many contributions to the community she loves as she can. She is the solid rock that George leans on as he shoves through a life he hates, and while she understand that this isn’t the life he would have chosen for himself, I don’t believe she understands until the crucial moment just how disappointed George is with the lot he’s been given. However, there is nothing more fierce than the love of a loyal woman, and at the end,  George finally appreciates the treasure that Mary is, and the great joy she has given him. The movie is rife with heavy sentiment and is known one of the sappiest films of all time, but we revisit it for a reason: there is no one in this world who wants to feel that their life has been worth nothing, and we all want to realize that we have indeed had a wonderful life, even if only because of the great people we have been fortunate enough to love.

Monday, February 20, 2012

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: June Carter Cash (Walk the Line)

          I accept that I may be cheating a bit here, since June Carter-Cash was a real human being and "Walk the Line" is based on the love between her and her husband, Johnny Cash. However, I feel that Reese Witherspoon was able to make June believable, sympathetic and genuinely likeable, and so was able to build a good character, as well as pay homage to a human being with music in her soul.
        "Walk the Line" is mostly about Johnny and his struggle with drug addiction, his failed first marriage, and his great love, June, who tours with him and a ragtag group of soon-to-be icons, like Jerry Lee Lewis and a young Elvis Presley. While Johnny grew up living a type of hard, back-breaking farm life that today's country singers cannot fathom, June was born into showbiz; her whole family travels the country singing in sold out theaters, and as Elvis tells Johnny backstage one night, "She's been singin' longer'n you and I have been alive. They used to have her a crib at the Rhyman." Since June has grown up before an audience, she has a carefully guarded personality that she hides behind a ditzy, lighthearted stage persona. While the stage June is fun-loving, confident, and goofy, the backstage June is a more sensitive person with some lingering insecurities. She admits to Johnny one evening that, "Let's face it, John. I"m no singer. My sister Anita's the one with the pipes. That's how come I learned to be funny, so I'd have something to offer." June has consistently had to fight her older siblings for the spotlight and as such, feels she has little to offer outside of being silly and entertaining. She has taken this insecurity into two failed marriages, unheard of and quite scandalous at the time, and become the dark mark on the name of the famous Carter family.
      Johnny falls for her almost instantly, and with good reason. Both aspects of her nature are appealing and Reese Witherspoon does a superb job in making this woman relatable and real. She loves Johnny, clearly, but she refuses to accept his drunken, drug-ridden antics. She tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she "refuses to be that little dutch boy with his finger in the dam no more."
     As June's love begins to save Johnny from himself, we notice how strong she is. She has made some mistakes and carries a burden of lifelong fame and unfortunate self criticism, but she is very goodhearted and genuinely kind, making her a flawed but lovable character. Of course, by the end, Johnny proposes to June onstage, after asking many times before, and she finally says yes. While this may seem like a trite Hollywood add-on, this is a true story. Johnny really did propose to June during their famous duet, "Jackson" onstage, and the pair lived together quite happily for thirty five years before June passed away in 2004. Johnny followed her four months after, presumably from pining for her so much. I suppose that is the great message of this film: no matter who you are or what baggage you carry, you can find true love, just like this amazing (and very real) pair.

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Cruella deVille (101 Dalmatians)

   You know you're evil if you have a whole song devoted to the subject. Enter Cruella deVille, the most fiendishly fabulous villain in the Disney canon, who has an entire song devoted to her delightful wickedness. 
      The only thing Disney does better than princesses is villains. While their heroines are often bland do-gooder types who lack any real impression on the viewer after the movie is over, Disney creates villains with style, flair, motive, and really definable characteristics. Cruella is one such person; she is wildly flamboyant, theatrical, self-indulgent, and demanding, like a hybrid of Norma Desmond (more about her later) and Bette Davis in her 'All About Eve' days. She makes her grand entrance by throwing open a door and prancing inside, saying, "Anita, DAAHHLING!" When Anita asks how she is, she answers with the most diva-esque answer possible: "Miserable, dahhling, as usual. Perfectly wretched," while sweeping around the room like a furry hurricane. (I've always wanted to use that line in a social situation.) She smokes a cigarette that looks like it is leaking green slime and slings it carelessly around her, uncaring about its affect on others. To boot, she actually wants to murder (and SKIN) hundreds of puppies. There are Disney villains who kidnap, steal, lie, kill, and all sorts of other horrible things, but killing puppies? This is just an evil of an inconceivable ilk. 
       The thing that always interests me most about Cruella is how she stands up against the sub-protagonist, Anita. Anita is a beauty and seems to be happily married to Roger, the songwriter who pens the tune about Cruella. She's nice, but pretty bland. From what we know, she likes dogs and is a housewife, standard fare for the time the film was released, but it seems she doesn't have much to do. She even has a housekeeper. What does a housewife with a housekeeper and no children do all day? Cruella, on the other hand, seems to have a very busy life. Of what, we aren't sure, but she sweeps in and out rather importantly, constantly has new clothes, has a luxurious life of comfort and some importance, and doesn't seem to have a husband or any family at all. In that way, she is the self-made woman in a time that these were fairly rare to come by. (That she is the villain is of some concern, but I'll let it go due to the time period.) 
      Not much is known outside of Cruella's great desire for furry luxury. We don't know her backstory, except that she and Anita were 'schoolmates' (although they never looked like they were in the same age bracket to me,) and once she loses the puppies in the end, we assume she just stayed in that snowbank and cursed out her henchmen and cried on her muffler for all eternity. However, I'd like to think that at some point she developed a new fetish. Like maybe leather.
       Cruella as a leather fetishist? That's a whole different story that Disney might should keep its clean hands free of.