The Princess Trap: Carina Chocano on “You Play the Girl”

Carina Chocano became a film critic for the Los Angeles Times in 2004. She spent her days in the dark, subjected to movie after movie in which women typically did little more than play “the girl.” In her dazzling essay collection You Play the Girl, Chocano sums up the character: “She doesn’t want anything, she is wanted. She isn’t a winner, she’s won . . . She symbolizes something: the thing the hero wants, the thing the old witch tries to keep him from getting.” After the birth of her daughter, Chocano became more and more troubled by how stories portray girls and, in turn, shape them. In the essays, she grapples with her unease, turning a sharp eye to recent movies and TV shows but also to the pop culture, from I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched to Fatal Attraction and Flashdance, that influenced her. Combining memoir with brilliant and entertaining criticism, You Play the Girl illuminates what our culture’s most enduring narratives strive to tell girls and women about themselves. I spoke with Chocano, who lives in Los Angeles, by phone. —Barbara Spindel

The Barnes & Noble Review: Your years as a film critic for the LA Times seem to have had a huge, depressing effect on you.

Carina Chocano: I had been a TV critic briefly at the LA Times. Before that I was a TV critic briefly at Entertainment Weekly, and before that I wrote about TV for Salon. There had been this proliferation of channels and outlets, and TV felt like this very immediate way to talk about what was happening in the culture. Producers and showrunners would be in touch with me; that whole kind of iterative conversation was happening between people working in TV and people writing about TV. When I shifted into movies, I was honored to get the job, but instead of choosing what you wanted to write about, you had to cover everything that came out. It was based on release dates more than anything, so it felt disconnected in a way. The bigger films got the most attention, but the biggest, most mainstream films weren’t the most interesting. It didn’t feel like being part of something exciting — it felt like servicing this huge machine. I think that the time I was doing it in particular was a low point for women in film. A lot of the mainstream stuff I saw, especially comedies, just had a very deadening effect.

BNR: You were particularly bothered by Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up. Would male fantasies like that be less offensive if there were an equal number of female fantasies available to mainstream audiences?

CC: That’s part of it. But the issue for me wasn’t male fantasies, it was the idea that it passed itself off as reality: “Well, this is the way men are, this is the way women are, this is the way the world is.” There was no room for another point of view. I think that’s what made it feel so toxic. A film critic is consuming so much more than the average person. Jessica Chastain was on the jury at Cannes this year, and she made a comment about how she’d never watched so many movies in such a short time period, and it left her feeling upset about the way women are portrayed. That really resonated with me because I think we’re all steeping in this, but when you have that intense exposure, it can become really stark.

BNR: In Knocked Up, in the sequence where Katherine Heigl’s and Seth Rogen’s characters go to a series of OB/GYNs, I don’t recall any of them being women.

CC: That sequence was so odd. It was like a twelve-year-old boy’s idea of what goes on with your OB/GYN. You can find things that are funny about going to the OB/GYN; there’s so much that could be done with it. But it was done from a point of view of absolute lack of curiosity for what the experience is actually like. If you don’t care what it’s like for that human being to go to that doctor at that point in her life, then what are you putting out? How can it be funny? How can it resonate? This is a falsehood that’s put out that excludes women’s experience and doesn’t even bring men into the human experience that the woman might have had. The most common response that a critic gets when you get into something like this is, “Oh, lighten up, it’s just a comedy,” as though you didn’t understand that. But we go to comedies to laugh at our lives, and if you don’t recognize me and if it feels like that negates me, then that has a bad effect over time. It’s a missed opportunity. I don’t understand the upside.

BNR: You write in the book about that feedback, about readers saying, “Relax, it’s just a movie.” But you’re arguing that the culture we consume has real effects on our lives. Like you, I have a daughter, and I also have a son, and the way young children consume culture, watching the same thing over and over, so intently, a hundred times, it’s hard not to wonder how these stories shape them — and to worry about that since a lot of the culture they love has disturbing messages.

CC: Kids ask questions that make things so plain. My daughter would see some poster of a model straddling a vodka bottle, and she’d be like, “What is that lady doing?” And it’s like, what is that lady doing? Like every mother, I’d been like, “no Disney,” and within two years it’s twenty-four-hour Disney. She was like, “Why are all the bad guys girls?” And I was like, “God, why are all the bad guys girls in Disney movies?” The mean old stepmother, the mean old witches, the dead moms. You just see how much of this message is being repeated.

Stories shape our beliefs about reality. We’ve seen it in this election. There’s a reason why Russian propaganda is made — because it works. People use stories to make meaning out of their lives. Stories, I think, are more powerful than facts. With my daughter and a lot of my friends’ [children], they’ll watch certain shows and they’ll start emulating the rhythms of speech — a lot of these shows about very stylized teenagers who are basically parentless and who know better than the adults. There’s a certain cadence and there’s a world-weariness before they know anything about the world. This is just very powerful.

BNR: When my kids were watching the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows in particular, they would say something, and it would turn out to be a line that they’d heard on a show.

CC: That’s happened to me so many times! I’d say, “Where did you get that?” “Oh, that’s a TV show thing.” I find it really troubling that your smart, sensitive kid is suddenly parroting these lines written mostly by middle-aged men whose attitudes about girls and boys are a little jaded. For me, having a daughter was a confirmation of what had been a feeling of discomfort. Trying to figure out what was bothering me became more stark when I saw this little human being influenced despite my efforts to shield or guide her.

BNR: You write about the cognitive dissonance that women face when their ideas of themselves have changed but they come up against the reality that the world’s ideas about women have not. You refer to Free to Be You and Me, saying it told you that you could do anything, but you learned later that it wasn’t yet true.

CC: Part of what inspired the book is that I remembered my early childhood media as being pretty progressive. There was a lot of influence from the women’s movement in children’s media in the ’70s. My early childhood it wasn’t all pink and blue, it was orange and brown. The kids were all dressed the same. The toys weren’t as gendered. That was a big shock for me when my daughter was born — the onesies were pink with rhinestones, and they’d say “princess” or “future trophy wife.” This would not have existed in my childhood, and it felt very regressive.

During the primaries all these stories started to come out [that] young feminists hate Hillary Clinton, and I was like, “Oh no, this is the thing that always happens.” I remember being in my twenties in the ’90s and having that same feeling of “Oh, everything has changed now, so I don’t want to relate to older women because this doesn’t apply to me anymore.” So we keep going through this cycle of young women believing that they have an equal playing field, and it takes a couple decades of experience to realize “Oh, wait a minute,” but by then the next generation has come along and this cycle gets repeated. Katharine Hepburn felt like she didn’t have to fight for women’s rights because her mother’s generation did. It’s not new. I feel like the culture at large keeps saying these small steps are enough, and then we don’t ever get to real equality. Ultimately the system doesn’t really change.

BNR: You re-watched some of the shows of the ’70s that you loved, like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. One of your takeaways was that “women who wield power openly are bad for business and wreck civilization.”

CC: I loved those shows — I watched them happily and remember them fondly. But then I remember the funny feelings of not understanding what I was, where I fit in, what my life should look like, what path was okay to follow. What is success or failure for a woman? It can become really hard to know. I went into the book with that cognitive dissonance, that confusion.

BNR: How did Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland help you work through some of these ideas?

CC: When I stopped doing daily reviewing and read the book, I recognized my experience in it. I fell down this rabbit hole, living in this alternate world of media for so many of my waking hours. Alice’s emotional reactions to the characters she met felt familiar to me, too. This discombobulated feeling, this feeling of not being right: too big, too small, too this, too that. The sort of gaslighting, the negation of her experience, was so familiar. Reading more about Victorian culture, it was like, this is still the basis of our culture. The idea of the upper-middle-class lady who’s going to get married and have kids and stay home — I think we’re still under the influence of it. That’s still the story of modernity. It even explains things like income inequality: that comes from the family wage, the idea that a man is going to support his family and a woman isn’t. Victorian ideology about gender is very much still alive in the culture.

BNR: Even the idea that the school day ends at 3:00 — there’s an expectation that there’s somebody home to pick up a kid at 3:00.

CC: I rail against that all the time! There’s a huge narrative in the culture that once a woman has a baby she’s going to be at home. It’s not even about choosing not to work: it’s this idea that her time is going to be spent entirely with the baby, with no acknowledgement of how expensive it is to have a baby. Where’s the money coming from? There’s this baked-in assumption about women’s economic dependence on men that we just skirt around. I don’t believe that women are mostly economically dependent on men — I believe that the story is still unchallenged in the culture. And since most women aren’t, there’s this disconnect because you’re like, well, this Hallmark story, is that the reality for most people? Am I unlike most people? Did I do something wrong?

BNR: Years ago, when I dropped my son off at preschool, as I walked out of the building a man fell in step with me and said, “Now that your kid’s in school, you can get a job and make a little money and contribute, right?” It reminds me of something you talk about in the book, the idea of strangers looking at you and thinking they understand you and have you pegged. It’s such a weird feeling.

CC: It happens quite a bit. I’m a writer; I’m not dressed like I’m going to work. A few weeks ago I took my daughter to buy shoes. She said, “It’s my dad’s birthday today.” And [the salesman] said, “What’s he doing?” She said, “He’s at work,” and he said, “Well, daddy has to go to work so you guys can buy shoes.” And I was paralyzed — I was like, “I’m buying her shoes!” Do we ever escape these assumptions? It’s really intense.

BNR: I want to return to the messages you got telling you to relax. You say that feedback felt gendered, that you had to be “opinionated without being too opinionated, authoritative without being a bitch.” In a new book about the making of Thelma & Louise, so many women involved in the movie, even Geena Davis, talked about how much thought they put into how to present themselves to the men above and below them — how to be authoritative but not aggressive, how to fight for what they wanted but still be liked.

CC: That’s so pervasive. We saw that all the way through the election. We’re going to see it again with whoever the next female candidate is. We’ve just had a banner few years with the election, the Cosby trial, the Stanford rapist trial, Gamergate, all the harassment online — it’s a real thing, women being punished for speaking out against injustice. It makes total sense that women have tried to speak in ways that don’t trigger violence.

BNR: Many people continue to maintain that misogyny had nothing to do with the election, that Hillary Clinton was just a bad candidate.

CC: That’s why we talk about being in this post-fact world. How much more evidence do we need? How much more evidence did we need of Donald Trump’s unfitness? How much more evidence did we need of Russian interference? Of bullying online from both the Trump side and the Sanders side? We had all the evidence we needed, but the story of Hillary as a bad candidate, the story of this powerful woman being evil, is just ingrained since we’re babies.

BNR: On the flip side, when you talk about your daughter’s love of princesses, you write that “we’re taught since birth to associate prettiness with goodness and worth.” That immediately made me think of Ivanka Trump — you don’t hear her speak that much, you just see this attractive blonde, and people feel certain that she’s a good person and a moderating influence on her father.

CC: I think it’s Jack Zipes who talks about the king and the princess as a unit in the fairy tale. They’re a dyad. That’s very much the case with Trump and Ivanka. They function as a unit, and then the older woman is the antagonist to that unit.

BNR: And we know who that is!

CC: Right, we know who that is. And Jared is the prince with the dimples. It’s such a classic, dark fairy tale. Hillary was even accused of harming children! It’s straight out of Sleeping Beauty or something.

BNR: Your editor at the LA Times changed your byline from film critic to movie critic to sound “less elitist.” How do you see the role of the critic now, given that we’re in an even more anti-intellectual time?

CC: The only elite that people seemed to be down on at the time was an intellectual elite; you could be an elite athlete and be loved, an elite model and be loved, a rich guy like Donald Trump and be loved. It only applied to a very narrow type of person, and it’s even questionable if you can call those people elite. But it was also a time when newspapers were feeling the pressure from the Internet and trying to adjust. We now live in a world where anyone can rate anything and anyone can comment on anything. It’s a double-edged sword, but I think the role of criticism has come back in recent years.

The role of the critic isn’t to rate something or grade it but to process it. The work of art exists, and then there’s a person whose job it is to have it act on them and to report on that. Good criticism goes hand in hand with art. It helps us to understand the world. I used to say I like to write smart things about dumb things. So many people do that now. You can’t just say, “This isn’t important enough to think about.” A lot of the culture may be dumb, but it’s real, it has an effect, and it is worth examining. The Bachelor might be a dumb show, but it is worth understanding what it’s doing. I’m glad so many publications support that kind of writing and that a lot of people read it and like it.

BNR: Sometimes I watch dumb things just so I can read the smart things written about them, because the reading is as pleasurable as the watching, if not more.

CC: It is! It is pleasurable. I feel the same way. I think the Internet helped open that up, because for all the mean trolls there are also so many smart people that helped show that people do think about their environment.

BNR: At the end, you say that working on the book was transformative. You write, “It remade my relationship with myself.” Can you say more about that?

CC: At the LA Times, being mired in the culture felt off-putting and really confusing. And trying to write about it later felt scary; it was a struggle. When I finally started to process it and research it, it was kind of like a voyage of discovery, and it allowed me to make sense of things that I had never made sense of before.

I believe that there’s such a thing as being able to rewrite yourself. I just reviewed Roxane Gay’s book Hunger. She took certain stories from the culture that might have applied to her and reclaimed them and rewrote herself, in a sense. I was watching Glow last night, the episode where the producer, Bash, is assigning [the women wrestlers] their stereotypes, and he’s like, “That’s just what the world sees with their eyes.” And I was like, “Exactly. This is what they see when they see you.” I think it’s really powerful that more people are able to say, “I’m going to take that back.” That’s what it was for me, a taking back of some of those times when I felt like I was shoved in a role and I had nothing to do with it and I was uncomfortable with it and hated being seen or treated that way. I was able to reprocess it, reclaim it, and flip it.

Familiar stories are really comforting. I understand the appeal of it. But it’s important for people’s experiences to be reflected realistically and from different points of view, especially in the mainstream media that reaches millions and millions of people. I think it has a huge effect on shaping our political reality. There’s often a big disconnect between what we think about how the world works and how the world actually works. It’s mostly women and people of color who are falling through the cracks of that disconnect between stories and reality. This is too important to be in the hands of a very small group of people with a homogenous point of view.

The post The Princess Trap: Carina Chocano on “You Play the Girl” appeared first on The Barnes & Noble Review.

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