Criticism, feminism, Lana Del Rey, and Joss Whedon

It is hard to create and easy to tear down. It is all too easy to mock a piece of art, and all too much fun, especially when you are paid by the word. Everybody is somewhere on the continuum of creativity, whether it’s writing novels, Vimeo movies, Twitter haiku, of Facebook bon mots.  And in this environment of rich mediocrity, I do think that criticism performs a valuable role: it helps us to interpret the works around us and it does help guide us toward what is relevant, what is unusual, what is exceptional, when there is just far too much to attend to.

But what troubles me is the fashion to simply rip anything apart, because it’s fun, and it’s especially fun if it’s a girl. Let’s start here, with Cracked’s “Hollywood’s 5 saddest attempts at feminism“. The implication is that Hollywood writers have attempted to sprinkle some feminism-dust in their movies in order to broaden appeal and boost box office takings, and that they have failed in doing so because — well, they are all men. You could certainly argue about Hollywood’s troubling images of femininity and masculinity, but Cracked isn’t: they are discussing particular characters as failed cynical attempts to manipulate you. Since I’m not paid by the word (and you’re not paid to read), I’ll just look at one.

Cracked describes the character of River Tam in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (TV series) and Serenity (follow up movie):

Since Firefly was created by Joss “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Whedon, it’s pretty much assumed that all the female characters will be ground breaking paragons of feminist virtue. Maybe this is because Whedon genuinely respects strong female characters, or maybe he’s intimidated by a cult fanbase that demands every show of his have another Buffy in it.

Despite River’s inherent ass-kicking abilities, she rarely uses them to the benefit of the crew. The character has been driven insane by her experiences, and therefore she spends most of her time saying crazy things and throwing up in her brother’s bed.

In fact, protecting River forms the backbone of no less than five out of thirteen episodes, plus the theatrical movie. That’s an awful lot of rescuing for a feminist hero.

Let me work through the many problems here.

Whedon is well known for writing interesting, complicated female characters. Each of these characters have strengths and weaknesses, and each battle monsters both within and without. Indeed, all Whedon’s works are explorations of identity — hero or anti-hero. Many of his character flip back and forth.

It’s quite true that River is a variable character. Despite very rare outbursts of spectacular violence, she is mostly weak, confused, afraid, and a bit crazy. She is not in control. She is not what I would describe as a strong feminist character. But then nobody said she was.

Worse: Cracked completely ignores the other two genuinely strong female characters in Firefly / Serenity: Kaylee and Inara. Both these characters make their own choices, and live with them. They are active agents in their own lives, and they are strong.

Kaylee is the crew’s engineer: she is plainspoken, straightforward, and always positive. She loves her job and she loves the engine room. She wears overalls, plus grease on her face. But on the other hand, she has decorated her cabin doorway with fairy lights, and she is beguiled by a voluminous pink ballgown. Her job takes her to the frontiers of civilisation, dirty, in danger, and not feeling particularly feminine.

Figures – first time in the Core, and what do I get to do? Dig through trash. Why couldn’t he send me shopping at the Tri-plex, or… Ooh! Synchronizers!

She is living with her choice. She is clearly a strong character.

Inara is a high-society courtesan. Once or twice she is called a whore, but in this world she actually moves as part of the social elite. She is influential, relatively powerful, and always in control. She has chosen her role, and she is almost always in command of social situations. She is another strong female character.

So: River, Kaylee, and Inara, and Cracked selects the weakest and most damaged of the three to attack. This is a straw person argument.

But are Kaylee and Inara feminist role models?

Well, bearing in mind that Whedon is in the entertainment business, nobody wants to watch a “paragon of feminist virtue.” A paragon is a point: there is no room to move. An interesting character makes choices, good, bad. What made Buffy so interesting were those choices, those mistakes, how she lived with her choices, how she changed her mind, how she was forced to make choices that no other character had to make. In a fantasy world, she was very real. And anyway, what does feminist virtue look like? There is no singular pointy definition of that. At best, one can only participate in a dialogue.

Emma Hart puts it like this:

If you wear a dress, you can’t be strong. If you have short hair, wear trousers and smoke cigars, you can’t be a woman. Increasingly it seems that the only way to guarantee not being accused of “not being able to write female characters” is to actually not write female characters.

I want deep characters, of any gender and sexual orientation.

What exhausts me about these arguments over strong, feminist female characters is that they’re all based on this idea that some women are realer than others. Some count more. . . . We all bloody count. There isn’t a list of traits that make a female character “feminist”. Just make her a fucking character. Make me care. [link]

Now let’s move on to Lana Del Rey. The haters love to hate, Lana Del Rey specifically. Simon Sweetman said this:

I have to call bulls**t on this; I am calling artistic fraud – tantamount to charlatanism. There’s nothing to see – or hear – here. You should move on. Lana Del Rey is nothing. She will shortly be touted as everything. [link]

Sweetman mentions Lana’s name change from Elizabeth Grant, describes her as the bored daughter of a millionaire (“Daddy probably paid for new lips to give her a new look. He probably paid for a better producer to try to give her a better sound.”).

One commentary cherry picks her Twitter feed to assert that it is impossible to tell the difference between Lana Del Rey and the infamous pro-horse spam bot, @horse_ebooks:

Amidst the embarrassing-for-everybody controversy over her Saturday Night Live performance, her lips, her name, her dad, her shelved first album and whether or not she actually likes video games (per an MTV interview: nope), the stone that is her Twitter feed has largely been left unturned. It’s full of perky @ replies, album news and the sort of “meaningful,” punctuation-challenged platitudes that you generally find on the Facebook walls of people who had kids right after high school.  [link]

On the matter of her lips, here is a snippet of interview:

Yeah, there’s a lot of speculation about your lips.

I can tell that’s going to be a fucking problem. I didn’t sign up to be famous, I just wanted to sing. It’s so annoying, but what am I going to do?

Are your lips real?

I haven’t had anything done at all. Anyone who’s known me will tell you that. I’m sorry, but I was living in a trailer park for a few years. I didn’t even have enough money to buy Cocoa Puffs. It’s not like I crawled from under the bridge and got surgery. I’m quite pouty. [Laughs.] That’s just how I look when I sing. [link]

The bottom line is: it doesn’t matter whether her lips are real or not. It doesn’t matter if she changes her name. It doesn’t matter what her daddy earned. It doesn’t matter whether she actually plays video games. It doesn’t matter what her Twitter feed says. Cher’s Twitter feed is full of deeply superficial drivel, but it doesn’t matter.

There are a few commentaries that are kinder:

Lana Del Rey is an artist, a story teller. She is not a historian, she is not a politician, and she is not constrained by rules of truth and authenticity. She is perfectly within her rights to experiment with her identity, just like David Bowie and Bob Dylan. Oh . . . but then they were men.

Who knows whether Lana Del Rey will amount to anything, but for now her visions of youthful nihilism, of romance in the face of a world that wants nothing from you and has nothing to offer, have some meaning.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: A Top Ten List of Stuff I Never Get Tired of « Geeky Girl

  2. I think Lana Del Rey can be all the things you mention (“artist, a story teller…”), the only problem is that when you dig a little, she comes across as a cynical corporate attempt to produce whatever “indie” is supposed to be. It’s not that the songs are BAD, it’s just that behind that voice, so wracked with experience, there’s nothing but a machine. And that’s what people disliked, I think.

  3. I think that’s probably true. However, I think that behind the machine is an artist (I am not precious about the term artist, and think it applies to anybody who thinks they are making art, regardless of quality. So the quality of her work, to me, is not relevant). And I think she is probably trying to do something genuine. But I do find her songs to be over-produced, and some of them make me cringe.

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