Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

So I just saw this film, without knowing much about it except that it's about misfits and stars Ezra Miller and David Bowie's 'Heroes'. That was enough for me. And honestly, if that was all that was good about it, it would have been plenty. But man, does this film have more going for it than that. (Spoilers ahead.)

This isn't a perfect film. But what is? The best compliment I can give Perks is that it is complex enough that I'm willing to give it a bit of a pass on the places where it falls down. It has more than one gay character. It has two kisses between male characters; one of the kisses is between a straight character and a gay character, and the straight character doesn't freak out or question his sexuality or respond with violence or disgust or anger. It has a suicidal character who has more than one dimension. It has sexual abuse of a boy by a woman. It has complex family relationships, full of love and casual cruelty and support and abuse. It has friendships. Real, messy friendships. And real, messy sexuality.

And on top of all that, it has Ezra Miller as Dr. Frankenfurter. I actually squeaked in the cinema. That's two of my favourite turn-ons in one delicious parcel!

One of the things I didn't like as much is the treatment of women. Although there are some beautifully nuanced portrayals in this film (Emma Watson is really, really good) and a host of good female characters, some of the details were a bit frustrating. Sam, Emma Watson's character, suffers from standard girl trouble: she used to be a slutty slut. We don't get all the details, but basically she spent 'freshman year' not studying, getting drunk at parties, and sleeping around. She suffers from cripplingly low self esteem, which results in her dating people who "treat [her] like nothing". Charlie, our hero, is the only one who loves the real her, and we know that he'll treat her right. Charlie moons after her for the entire film, selflessly helps her with her studies, evil-eyes her boyfriend and complains to people that she isn't dating him, despite the fact that he's never asked her to. I call Nice Guy-ism.

Charlie's one-time girfriend, Mary-Elizabeth, has her own girl-problems. From being a snappy, bright, independent girl, she morphs into a jealous, possessive, nagging shrew the moment she starts dating Charlie - which happens after they've kissed once and Mary-Elizabeth announces that Charlie is her boyfriend. Their relationship ends when Charlie is dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, and unthinkingly kisses Sam instead of Mary-Elizabeth. Patrick, Sam's step brother, tells Charlie that it would be best if he just stayed away from the group for a while, since there is "history" between Sam and Mary-Elizabeth - history that apparently involves guys liking Sam better than Mary-Elizabeth. Charlie, who has realised that one reason that he is currently fairly stable is that he has a good group of friends, suffers a rapid decline when he takes Patrick's advice and returns to being a loner.

There are other factors involved, of course, in Charlie's breakdown, but one thing this careful chronology encourages is the belief that these silly girls and their silly jealousy have contributed to Charlie's deteriorating mental health. I'd say that Charlie brings it on himself, by callously kissing one girl in front of the girl he's dating, but Patrick makes it clear that Charlie must exile himself not because his behaviour was insensitive and wrong, but because the girls are going to be unnecessarily dramatic about it.

I really don't have the energy to detail all the sexist tropes this film utilises to talk about women. For something that's otherwise so progressive in terms of gender and sexuality, it's a real disappointment. But there are other problems too.

1) I counted one person of colour who spoke during the entire film. I didn't even see any non-white people in crowd shots.

2) Everyone is thin and beautiful - not unexpected in a teen film (or, sadly, any film), but still disappointing.

3) Everyone is incredibly rich. The kids buy each other suits and typewriters for Christmas, and have free run of enormous mansions where no parents are seen. Nobody has a job, or talks of getting one. You know how ridiculously rich they all are, because nobody mentions money. There isn't even a token poor character to throw the others into relief. It's as if nobody even notices how ludicrously privileged these kids are - not the writers, directors, actors or characters. It's bizarre.

4) The bulimia joke. Early on, Sam tells Charlie that she's not a bulimic, she's a bulimist. What does that mean? "It means she believes in bulimia." She loves bulimia! That might be acceptable if the film went on to explore Sam dealing with bulimia, but it doesn't. It's never mentioned again. It's just a throwaway line, perhaps to show how quirky and cool they are, perhaps to show how screwed up Sam is. I think that's pretty screwed up in itself.

It's disappointing that the film falls down in so many ways, because in so many other ways, it is groundbreaking. The main character has dealt with death and suicide and sexual abuse by his aunt. Can we talk about how rare that is? I'm not sure I can remember another instance - in a teen film, no less - of a woman sexually abusing a little boy. Charlie's parents are appalled and disgusted and heartbroken, but there is no question that they believe him. I think, for this alone, I can forgive this film a multitude of sins.

And, on top of all this, it's a really moving film. The themes are complex and emotional and frightening, but there are moments of pure joy in the film, and moments of pure love. It's messy and grim and optimistic and terrifying. I'm no film critic, but I really enjoyed it and I think it's got some really important things to say.

I still wanted it to be better, though. One of the problems of engaging regularly with this kind of criticism is that I've been infected by more-ism. The status quo is not enough. Better than the status quo is not enough. I want more. I expect more.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Do I Look Fat?

Otherwise known as, Was-I-Just-In-A-Sitcom? or How-I-Totally-Failed-To-Be-A-Fat-Ally-And-Was-Subsequently-Really-Bloody-Ashamed-Of-Myself.

Recently I worked at a place from which I've been absent for three weeks. It was lovely to see some people (and not so lovely to see others!), and I had a lot of catching-up kind of conversations with both people I'd call friends and people I'd call colleagues. I had one such conversation with a woman which was interrupted when I had to go do some work (shocking), and when I next saw her she said "So, Ollie, do I look fatter to you?"

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Secretly Straight

I'm not going to say much about this piece from Sunday's Observer. I'm just flagging it up here because I think it's one of those things that's in a nice middle-class newspaper as a nice middle-class sermon on tolerance and open-mindedness. And it makes me sick.

Essentially, Timothy Kurek was homophobic as hell until one of his friends tugged at his cankerous, rusty heartstrings with her story about being kicked out of her home when she came out as lesbian. For some reason, his best response to this (admittedly devastating, but sadly all too common) tale was to pretend to be gay for a year in an attempt to "walk in the shoes of a gay man".

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Outed by Facebook

Oh my god, this. A story about how two sets of parents found out their children were gay due to the vagaries of Facebook's labyrinthine privacy settings.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Gendering Sports

Recently I have gone back to judo, a sport that I trained in until I was 17, and have only sporadically revisited since. It's been a long time, and I thought I anticipated the challenges of returning to it. I anticipated that I'd get horribly out of breath, and struggle to remember techniques, not to mention their names. I anticipated that my adult body would take longer to adapt to and recover from training than my adolescent body had. What I didn't anticipate, although I perhaps should have done, was how engaging with sport would highlight my gender.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

National Coming Out Day

I wasn't going to write anything about National Coming Out Day, because I've always found myself fairly ambivalent about the whole thing. Then I read this post over at Black Girl Dangerous, which is a really fabulous tumblr filled with radical politics, particularly the kind that's of interest to queer and trans* people of colour. I often find the writing there challenging and inspiring and difficult and brilliant, and this piece is no different.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Review: Wimbledon

Released in 2004, Wimbledon stars Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany as entrants to Wimbledon, she being young and ambitious and brilliant, he being 'old' and past-it and intending to enjoy one last Grand Slam as a wildcard entrant before retiring from professional tennis. Spoilers ahead.

I was really enjoying this film until about halfway through. There was a questionable scene at the beginning, where Peter Colt (Bettany) arrives at the Dorchester hotel and is given the wrong key, and walks in on Lizzie Bradbury (Dunst) in the shower. Instead of him being shocked and appalled and getting out of the room as fast as humanly possible, and Lizzie being angry and indignant, she smirks vampishly and displays her body unashamedly for Peter (if not, thankfully, for the camera). Peter stutters and stumbles and does his best Hugh Grant impression, hilariously getting his words mixed up so he accidentally says to her "good body" instead of "good luck": a classic error that could have happened to anyone. I know I always mix up those two words.

So far, so predictable. But that didn't make me angry, it just made me a little tired. He invades her privacy, she giggles and enjoys the attention. What made me really, truly angry was where the plot went from there.

Lizzie comes on to Peter, who can't believe his luck when she makes it clear that she'd like to have sex with him, mostly (as she also makes clear) because she believes "fooling around" on the night before a match improves her performance the next day. The two of them have sex; they have a montage; Lizzie's father/coach/owner warns Peter off Lizzie; Peter punches Lizzie's arrogant ex-lover in the face; Lizzie and Peter run away to Brighton and have lots of sex and pretend tennis and breakfast in bed. Then Peter's brother sells a photo of the couple to a newspaper, and suddenly the house is surrounded by press, and Lizzie's father arrives to shepherd her back to London. Lizzie, hiding, overhears her father's monologue to Peter about how Lizzie needs to remember her lifelong dream of winning Wimbledon, and how she's throwing it all away by falling for Peter, because actually liking someone means that her game suffers. Lizzie comes out of hiding saying "I still want it. I want to win Wimbledon. I'm sorry", and she leaves with him to return to London and training while Peter trails after them:

"You're gonna go?"
"Yeah. He's right. I'm sorry."
"Wait a second. Lizzie? Lizzie! Lizzie, this is ridiculous, you're a grown woman and you should be making your own decisions - 
"This is my decision! We can be together after the tournament."
"After the tournament - ! What does that mean, you can't just switch me on and off like a bloody lightbulb - I'll call you at the hotel."
"I'm sorry kid. When she's with you she just - can't play."

And so, back to the tennis. Peter, long assumed to be past it, has been playing surprisingly well in this tournament, and has enjoyed two shock wins to reach the third round, where he will face highly-ranked Englishman Tom Cavendish. In his first round match, he fought back from two sets down after seeing Lizzie in the crowd watching him, the day after they have first slept together. This becomes a trope for the two of them, but it only goes one way: Peter gains strength from her support, but we never see him attend Lizzie's matches - not until things have fallen apart. In this third round match, Peter is playing terribly and is on the point of losing when Cavendish injures himself, allowing Peter to capitalise on his advantage and secure his place in the semi-finals. Meanwhile Lizzie, whose matches have had a tiny amount of screen time compared to Peter's, is assumed to be a sure-thing, and has been whipping through her matches with ease. Now, however, despite assuring her father that she's focussed and that "he's out of [her] head", she is listening to Peter's match on the radio in the car on the way to her own match. After winning his match, Peter goes to watch Lizzie's, and happens to receive some top-quality counsel from his sponsor:

"Me, I hate making a decision. Like right now, I'm very very afraid. If you don't see that girl again it's gonna mess with your head, it'll screw up your confidence, on the other hand I'm terrified, I'm petrified if I tell you where that girl's camped out her father's gonna fire my ass." 
"Where's the girl camped out Ron?" 
"32 Kensington Place. First floor apartment. I made a decision."
"Me too."

Ron, who sponsors both athletes, has for reasons passing understanding chosen Peter over Lizzie. Lizzie is young and ambitious and has potential. This tournament is Peter's last hurrah: he has already announced his retirement. Professionally, the decision to help Peter win makes no sense at all for Ron. The only reason it does make sense is if Ron wants to help Peter get laid. Which it does. We cut straight from that shot into one of Peter breaking into Lizzie's house, surprising her in bed. Once again, instead of screaming blue murder and telling him to get the hell out, she looks slightly annoyed before calmly accepting the fact that Peter has just invaded her privacy yet again - not to mention committed a crime. Here's how it goes:

"Peter! What are you doing here?"
"That's an excellent question. The sad fact of the matter is, I can't seem to get through 24 hours without you."
"I've missed you, Peter, Peter Colt."
"You have?"
"But I need you to go."
"No, you need me to stay."
"Peter - "
"Peter - "
"Lizzie. People have fallen in love before, you know."
"Oh, is that what we're doing here?"

Giggling and kissing. Joke. Heavy breathing. Cut to the next morning and Peter leaving without waking Lizzie to go to his semi-final match. At Lizzie's match, things start to go wrong when a string on her racket breaks, and she is distracted by a man yelling at her and brandishing a newspaper with Peter's photo on the front and the words "Lover Boy". Lizzie loses her match. Peter wins his.

Peter does seem to care that Lizzie has lost, and accepts, however minimally, that he may not have acted in her best interests. But when they argue about it, he doesn't apologise for putting his needs ahead of hers, or for not respecting her wishes when she leaves him or when she tells him she needs him to go. Instead, the argument is a chance for us to see that Lizzie is a heartless woman who only cares about winning, and to whom "Love means nothing" (her words). The two part on bad terms, and Peter skulks tragically about the place until it's time for his final.

And who is Peter playing in the final, but Lizzie's arrogant ex-lover, wunderkind Jake Hammond who, in the tunnel, says to Peter with a shrug "I tried to warn you about her." The kid is clearly a nasty piece of work, displaying unpleasant gamesmanship and not seeming to care when he hits a ball boy in the face with his serve, something which has previously distinguished Peter from his competitors: he is a nice man, and when Hammond shows a callous lack of care about injuring a small boy, he gets angry. This doesn't improve his game, however: Peter only manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after Lizzie arrives to give him a pep talk during a rain break when he is 2 sets and 5 games to 1 down. She has come to help him win after hearing his tear-jerking pre-match speech about how love - meaning Lizzie - is the only reason he is in the final at all, and how truly sorry he is for having let her down. She was about to board a flight back to America, but instead she rushes back to Wimbledon to tell Peter she loves him, and when he apologises for his behaviour, she tells him "Forget about that! This is about you. Go out there and decide who you are." She also tells him how to read Hammond's serve, allowing Peter to come back from certain defeat. When it's looking dire, right at the end, Peter once more catches Lizzie's eye in the crowd, giving him the strength to play a blinding final point to win the championship.

There's an awful lot to hate about this plot, and a large part of it is how it revolves around Peter rather than Lizzie. This is inevitable, since Peter is the protagonist - we are with him from the beginning of the film, and Lizzie is the love-interest rather than getting equal billing. On the other hand, Lizzie's tennis is so completely sidelined by Peter's that it's rather sickening. As I have said, her matches get a tiny amount of screen time compared to Peter's, and the fact that she has to be knocked out of the tournament is galling: not only does she have to lose in order to prove that it's true that she can't focus on both love and tennis, she also has to lose in order to be free to be there for Peter when he needs her. She couldn't have counselled him through his final if she was focussed on her own, could she? The bludgeoned-home message is that love is damaging to Lizzie's tennis. It is clear that having sex is helpful to her - she describes it as relaxing, and when she and Peter are just having sex before their matches, everything goes well for her. It's when the narrative shows us that they are falling for each other that Lizzie's tennis starts to suffer, whereas love only improves Peter's game. When things start to go wrong between them, however, Peter's game suffers whilst Lizzie's remains stable. Lizzie loses after they have reconciled - after Peter has broken into her house and told her that they're falling in love.

Yet more galling is Lizzie's treatment as a possession of the men in her life. Throughout the film Lizzie is controlled by her father, and although she rebels against him it's only in order to spend time with another man who wants to dominate her attention, sulking when it is refused. Peter, for his part, wants Lizzie to make her own decisions, but only if she makes the decision to stay with him rather than go with her father. Then there's Hammond, who is set up as a possessive ex-lover and, on discovering that Lizzie and Tom are sleeping together, tells her "I thought all those things they said about you were just rumours, but you really are a cheap little - " and that's when Peter punches him in the face. Lizzie, incidentally, is excited by this, telling Peter that nobody has ever fought for her honour before, and that she kinda likes it. It's telling that this is the man that Peter has to beat in the final. It's almost as if he has to prove that he's worthy of Lizzie, because of course women don't like losers. It's ok for Lizzie to lose, though, because Peter's last hurrah is far more important. And, after all, he does make it clear that, now that the important stuff is out of the way, he's ready to make Lizzie's career his priority:

"There's so much I want to say to you!"
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Oh yes you are. You're going a long, long way!"

And in the voiceover at the end, over cute montages of Peter and Lizzie playing tennis with two little blond moppets, we learn that Lizzie did win the US Open. And Wimbledon. Twice. So that's ok then. She's allowed to succeed in her career - as long as she has succeeded in love first.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Menswear Sucks

I think this a great article, thoroughly and eloquently detailing the painful double-bind of rigid gender roles, the ways they hurt people of all genders, and how this filters into sartorial choice. I have no bones to pick with the article; I simply want to expand on my own thoughts on the issue here, particularly the idea that "menswear sucks".

As a 'female-bodied' person who embraces a whole range of clothing options, I can tell you that clothing sucks in many ways. If you want to wear a men's shirt whilst sporting some major breasts, prepare for a long, dispiriting search. If you want to wear men's trousers whilst wielding some major hips: ditto. If you want to wear women's shoes whilst bearing particularly wide/long feet: ditto. If you want to wear a dress and you are particularly tall/short: well, you get the idea. The fashion industry (and this is as relevant to George at Asda as it is to Marc Jacobs) caters to one kind of body: the kind that is 'in proportion'. Sometimes it doesn't even do that. If you're of average height and thin, you're perfectly catered to. If you're above-averagely tall and thin, you're fine. If you're below-averagely short and thin, you're probably ok, but might struggle in some places. If you're fat, no matter how tall you are, you're going to struggle a lot in most places. And this doesn't even begin to engage with the radical notion that not all bodies are thin or fat in the same ways. I'm not sure how it plays out with 'male bodies' and men's clothing, as I haven't had that experience personally, but I can tell you that searching for any kind of clothing as a 'female-bodied' person is fraught with difficulties.

You might have a big rib cage and small breasts: wrong. You might have wide hips and narrow thighs: wrong. You might have a tiny frame and a large arse: wrong. None of these body shapes, as common as they are, will make for a stress-free shopping trip. You know that ubiquitous bit of advice, dress for your shape? Wear things that flatter your body? Well, if you want to do that (and not all of us do), it starts with wearing clothes that fit you. And for some people, that is nigh on impossible. I, for example, have never bought a pair of trousers that I didn't have to shorten in some way, either with a turn-up or a sharp pair of scissors. And I'm barely below the national average in height. And that's not even a major problem, unlike, say, not being able to find a shirt that fits both your chest and your stomach. My sewing skills are not to be sniffed at, but that kind of alteration is beyond me. Don't forget that we're just talking about clothes that fit, here, not clothes that you require or clothes that you like. It's a minefield, is what I'm saying.

What I want to add to Greta Christina's excellent article is this: menswear doesn't suck - or not nearly as much - if you're not a man. Regardless of the fact that a lot of menswear doesn't fit me terribly well, I can wear it and be thought of (I hope!) as cool and quirky - at least sartorially so. When I wear a men's shirt and tie combo to work, I get compliments - especially when it matches my nail polish! This despite the fact that often my breasts make a mockery of the nice straight lines of a good men's shirt and tie. The sexist assumptions which lead to the poor clothing options in the menswear departments of most highstreet shops extend past the boring clothes themselves to the people who wear them. I could wear the exact same thing as a random office guy, and despite the fact that it probably looks better on him, I would be the one attracting glances and comments, gracing magazine pages with my 'quirky' looks, being thought of as fashionable / stylish / trendy. He would just be a boring office guy in a boring office suit.

Lest you think this is just because of interest in the transgression of boundaries, the same treatment is emphatically not extended to men who borrow garments / styles from traditionally female attire. That guy would probably struggle to get or keep a job, whereas I could waltz into any office in the country dressed in a suit and tie with impunity. Sure, depending on how I did it and what I look like, I might get called a dyke or have my gender identity questioned, but that's not going to be the end of the world for me. Men who transgress into female sartorial territory are at far more risk in all sorts of ways than women who transgress into male territory.

I don't want to get into a big thing about femmephobia, transphobia and transmisogyny, although frankly each of those topics could keep me going for weeks. I'd just like to point out that, although menswear seems boring compared with womenswear, the real restriction lies not with the clothes themselves but with the people who wear them. A boring suit on a woman is not boring, whilst a boring suit on a man is. This is sexism. Yes, it's sexism that also hurts women - as Christina explains, men get boring clothes because women are expected to care about fashion and appearances and, thanks to the complementary model, men are therefore not - but this is an issue that does hurt men.

I can't help but feel that I'm not adding anything to Christina's excellent argument. I'm simply expanding on her points, and agreeing all the way, and yet I still feel somewhat defensive. I guess what I really want to do is defend the clothes themselves, particularly since I like to wear some of them. They don't suck. They don't. Society sucks. Sexism sucks. Femmephobia and transmisogyny suck. Menswear is great; we just think it sucks because we are conditioned to see men's fashion as an oxymoron, as ridiculous, as laughable and pathetic and queer. Well, this queer likes men's clothes. And the problem is not in my boring clothes. It's in your boring mind.