Tuesday, January 27, 2009

girls gone brando

Is there such a thing as a feminine slob? Can slovenliness be equivalent to femininity in the same way it is aesthetically approved as masculinity? Granted, in this age of metrosexuality, males are exposed to certain amount of body fascism as well. Still, for everyone who finds disgusting Vince Vaughan’s weight gain and bloatation in the last few years (what my friend Tracy S. calls “going Brando”) there is a whole gaggle of people who find it cute, a throwback to bear culture. Is there a feminine equivalent of bear culture? I’m not talking about a female equivalent: there are plenty of people who find fat women sexy. I’m wondering if the act of letting go—not just in weight, but what “weight” represents—can ever be the basis for our understanding of femininity.

Femininity is not only something that is visually recognizable (long hair, red lips, skirts, etc.) but a process of creating that physical appearance. And that process, or way of achieving body, has traditionally been about not letting things go but reigning things in, controlling things of the body. Think corsets, stilettos, hair spray, brassieres, anorexia. In the opening of her novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Mary Gaitskill gives a very succinct description of femininity through a still-life of one hand-written index card tacked on a crowded laundromat announcement board:

“It was written in rigorous, precise, feminine print on a modest card displayed amidst dozens of cards, garish Xeroxed sheets, newsprint, and ragged tongues of paper.”

Femininity has been like this index card: a rigorous and precise language that holds fort against the garish and ragged slobbering of the world surrounding it. But this is the way that femininity has been taught to us for centuries. Can femininity ever develop a less restricting and more fluid relationship with slovenliness?

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I was struck by a particularly stunning image last week in the first episode of the 6th and final season of the lesbo-drama, The L Word: Jenny Schecter (my name-sake and inspiration, played by the divine Mia Kirshner) hangs out in her house in her black bra and half-slip, even receiving a visitor in them.

In this scene, Jenny is visited by the ex-girlfriend of Shane, who gives Jenny a leather jacket belonging to Shane containing a love letter. Because Jenny has recently decided that she is in love with Shane, she takes the jacket, promising to pass it on. Of course she doesn’t. She walks around holding the jacket, opens and reads the letter, and then promptly throws it into the attic with a satisfied bang of the trapdoor.

I’m still sucking on the beauty of this sequence. It’s nothing shocking or new to see a woman on a cable television show in her underwear, but there is something primally and primly raw about Jenny. It’s partly that she’s wearing not the requisite sexy black lace thong or panty (worn by most of her cast-mates) but a dowdy but comfy-looking half-slip that more resembles a pair of men’s swimming trunks than women’s underwear. But mostly, it’s that Jenny is hanging out in her underwear. There is nothing sexy written into the script of the scene. She’s not about to have sex, she’s not had sex. She’s not doing anything in particular at all. The coffee table supports an empty wine bottle, and is otherwise cluttered with crap. Jenny looks beautiful and feminine, but the action she takes to achieve that look is not the traditional one of control and rigor, but a letting go: she’s kind of being a slob. Jenny’s hanging out in her bra and half-slip moves with a stylized nonchalance that reminds me of Marlon Brando hanging out in his t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire. This is Jenny Schecter going Brando.

Jenny may achieve the nervy femininity of Vivien Leigh, but she gets there by being Brando.

To think about Jenny’s femininity as a result of her going Brando becomes more interesting in light of the context of the show as a whole. The L Word is politically problematic for sure, and the emblem of that for me is Max, its FTM transsexual character. Max was initially brought on as the show’s lone butch, but within weeks, it was decided that being a good butch dyke is a slippery slope to just becoming a male. So Max became a tranny. Which would have been fine, but last season, the show had to continue its excision of female masculinity from lesbianism by turning Max into a faggot tranny: he starts dating a gay man. The last straw was the most recent episode aired this past Sunday, when Max finds out that he is pregnant. And he and his gay male boyfriend decide to keep the spawn, be a happy family.

Gag. Max and his boyfriend represent for me the dead-endedness of gender fluidity. Max is so obsessed with achieving a certain masculinity but he’s doing it all in a traditionally feminine discourse of body-control: top surgery, endless push-ups, taking testosterone. So much so that when he stupidly messes up (he expresses dumbfounded confusion at his pregnancy: he’s been having unprotected vaginal sex with his boyfriend and assumed he couldn’t get pregnant because he’s been taking testosterone. HELLO??????), the result is that he lands in the most traditional and physically binding of feminine identities: motherhood. So he has a beard and hard pecs: how does that help us re-conceive the binaries of gender when his own dumbness has prevented him from escaping the normative inevitabilities of his femaleness?

Jenny is Max’s opposite. “Masculinity” is the yoking of certain behavioral traits to humans with penises. While Max is attempting to resemble a human with a penis, Jenny is practicing the behavior of human with penises while dismissing the importance of the human penis. In her “Brando” scene, her swaggering achieves not a butchness but a high femmeness. And that femininity actually renders her more “masculine” than the most masculine dyke on the show.

This seems an important lesson to me. In becoming a girl, I don’t want to be applying to regressive tropes of femininity. I want to think about how my history as a boy has already prepared me for the future kind of femininity that Jenny Schecter suggests. So I wander around my place, unkempt bangs jabbing my eyeballs, no half-slip but black nylon shorts, no bra but an old tattoo, no leather jacket of a beloved but one still with memories of beloved...but that’s another story, for another day.


Tara said...

Gorgeous, Joony! I think when Janeane Garofalo first started appearing on Letterman and doing all her material about girls/women and weight, that was a huge sorta middle-finger Brando-ing gesture. She would sit slumped in the guest chair, awful posture, full of sardonic commentary about how girls need more pressure and hostility toward their bodies. It was sublime. Early 90's, I believe. Maybe mid.

men_in_full said...

I think there *is* a female "archetype" for "fat woman letting go," maybe even a kind of "female bear," but it's pretty archaic. For instance, I'm thinking of Gunther Grass's character "Fat Gret" in his 1977 novel The Flounder as an example. Fat Gret is a nun who has huge appetites (for both food and sex), and does exactly what she wants, when she wants it - neither the Church nor the inherent limitations of medieval society keep her down.

Chaucher's Wife of Bath is like this too - she hasn't "let herself go," exactly (she's just older), but she is fat - and also amorous and independent.

There's Mistress Quickly in Shakespeare - she gets cleaned up a lot in Merry Wives of Windsor, but in the Henry IV plays she is for all practical purposes the mistress of the Boar's Head brothel side of the establishment, as well as one of Falstaff's former lovers. I don't recall her specifically being called out as fat, but Judi Dench played her in the film Henry V and "filled out" the character quite nicely.

Modern - not so much. We do get the lecherous old witch Nanny Ogg from Terry Pratchett's "Discworld." But in visual media (movies, TV), forget it.

I'm not sure how much these characters have "let themselves go," as much as they simply don't play along with the "traditional" image of meek, mild, submissive, relatively asexual femininity.

Anyway, very interesting remarks.