After the hour

“Children, there will be tears.” -The Hour (TV show, 2011-2012)

The Hour, a BBC television series, is one of my favorites to re-watch, despite the fact that it was cancelled after two excellent seasons. The first season is set during the Suez crisis and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It follows the lives of Bel Rowley, producer, and Freddie Lyon, home affairs correspondent, for a nightly news program called The Hour. Bel got the job Freddie wanted, and she tries to prove that she deserves it. The fictional news program gains momentum as the season progresses, eventually becoming a serious and respected source of current events.

Freddie is in love with Bel, but Bel has commitment issues and fools around with unavailable men, including the married presenter for The Hour, Hector Madden. Although the romance plays a big role in the series, these characters are also grappling with larger issues. In a time when women’s roles were changing, Bel sees marriage and children as the potential end to her career ambitions, so she avoids any romantic relationship that could turn serious. She is career-focused first and foremost, which is refreshing. Hector wants to be taken seriously and not simply be the handsome face of the show. Freddie doggedly pursues the truth in his reporting, completely disregarding his personal safety in the process.

A subplot follows the death of a debutante, whose family Freddie lived with during the war, and involves Soviet spies and intrigue and something (or someone) called a Brightstone. The reveal of the real spy in the sixth episode surprised me, though, when re-watching, I felt as if I should have guessed. The plotting is at times over dramatic, but the characters, their interactions with each other and their motivations and goals, are what makes the show great.

Not only does the show have top-notch acting and a set of likable but flawed main characters, the supporting characters are compelling as well. Hector’s wife, Marnie, is sympathetic and gets her own storyline and fictional cooking show in the second season. Isaac, Freddie’s assistant, has aspirations of becoming a comedy writer. A press advisor for the prime minister, Angus McCain harbors a secret that could ruin his career and send him to jail. Although McCain is an antagonistic figure, his personal life lends his character a broader spectrum, shading what could have been merely a villain into a balanced character.

The real star of the supporting cast is Lix Storm, played brilliantly by Anna Chancellor, a hard-drinking (“Whiskey is God’s way of telling us he loves us and wants us to be happy”), independent woman who is often found in the office during the weekend. She covers foreign affairs and is intelligent, witty, and tough. Like Bel, she struggles at times with what it means to be independent, with retaining a sense of herself as a woman and as a journalist.

I highly recommend this program for anyone who likes a good period drama. And always remember: no one will want to steal a yellow lamp.

Review Fridays: The Bell Jar

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” –The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is perhaps best known today for her poetry, her tempestuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes, and her tragic suicide at the age of 30. She has achieved a status of legend that lends itself to erasing her person as if we are entitled to speak for her. After her death, vandals regularly scratched out the “Hughes” on her gravestone. Hughes was criticized for, among many accused wrongs against Plath, destroying one of her diaries, for publishing a censored version in 1982, 18 years before the complete, unabridged version was made available in 2000. People read her journals and make of her what they will.

When The Bell Jar was originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, the reviews were not kind. It is a book about a young woman, and books about young women by women tend to get thrashed in the press as trite or not significant of notice. The female experience, particularly one involving mental illness, is something taboo. The Bell Jar is about a time when women were starting to experience a duality, with expectations of being pure when men were not held to the same standards, of having options of going to college and having a career balanced with the pressure of also having a family and children and caring for them.

The story follows the largely autobiographical Esther Greenwood who is spending the summer in New York City after winning the chance to intern at a magazine. Esther is a brilliant student and holds a scholarship at her college. But she is starting to realize, as she is shunted from one event to another that summer, that something is wrong. She does not know what she wants to do with her life. There seem to be countless options, those around her are pulling her in opposing directions, and she no longer sees a clear, obvious path in front of her. After years of collecting prizes and accomplishments, the future seems like a blank.

Added to that, she is feeling a bell jar descend upon her, distorting everything. It is one of the starkest descriptions of mental illness, going first to a doctor who does not seem to understand or care about her, incorrectly done and therefore torturous electric shock treatments, watching the clock hands turn every night while being unable to sleep. It is not until a botched suicide attempt that Esther finally gets the help she needs.

When an ex-boyfriend visits her at a time that she is feeling more like herself, he asks her if it was his fault. But, as Esther’s doctor vehemently explains to her, it is not anyone’s fault. The bell jar descends unexpectedly and cannot be lifted without treatment and support from others. The optimistic tone of the ending feels especially bittersweet knowing Plath’s ultimate fate.

The Bell Jar is Plath’s only published novel. It remains, years after its publication, a message of support and hope and sympathy to young women who may not know what they want to do with their lives and to those who feel the bell jar descending.

The Wonder Woman Pose

“And so I want to say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it. Do it enough until you actually become it and internalize.” -Amy Cuddy’s TED talk entitled Your body language shapes who you are (Filmed June 2012)

Imagine that you are on a bus or train or any other public transportation that involves close contact with others. There is a window seat, which you snatch up, and the vehicle slowly gets more and more crowded. Someone takes the seat next to you, a man (it is usually a man who does this, to you, a woman) who sits with his legs far apart, his arms stretched out. The contact makes you uncomfortable, so you attempt to scrunch yourself a little more towards the window. He uses that opportunity to take up more space. You, too polite and hating confrontation, simply stay in your awkward hunched pose and try to ignore it, but you feel small and sort of insignificant.

Whether consciously or not, taking up more space is a power play, a way of asserting dominance.

Take a moment to watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about how body language affects how powerful you feel. It is worth the time to realize that something as simple as how you sit, how you present yourself to others in your posture can affect how you feel about yourself.

I tend to slouch and make myself smaller when I sit. Crossed legs and arms. Hands kept closely to my body. I easily give way on buses when someone sits next to me and attempts to stretch out. I did not realize, until I watched that video, that when I shrink physically, it also happens mentally. It is as if I am backing away, going into protection mode, feeling unimportant instead of powerful and confident.

Cuddy suggests that a simple change can improve confidence. Stand with your hands on hips, feet apart, chin up. That is called the Wonder Woman pose after the superhero. It’s as simple as that. If you do not want to do it in front of others, go to the restroom and, just for a few minutes, stand in the pose. It is feels a bit strange at first, but it makes a difference.

After I first watched the video, I did this for a few minutes each day, but then I stopped and sunk back into a lack of confidence. I felt like an imposter. I felt like I did not deserve to feel so confident. I wanted to shrink back into myself. Change is such a nebulous concept that it can take a few tries to really get it. I want to be the one in class who gives a brilliant comment, like the student Cuddy talked about, instead of the one who says nothing and is invisible. Saying that is what you want to be is easy. Making the faking a habit is the hard part.

Whatever your goals, fake it until you become it. And each day it will get a little easier until it is a part of who you are.

Not even a hairpin

“Nowhere is it written that you can’t do it.” –My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I am currently reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. No one knows precisely who Ferrante is, so closely does she guard her identity. Discussions of her novels are untroubled by what she looks like or sounds like, how she appeared at book signings, what she was wearing. She is a shadowy figure, but one that you feel as if you know as you read, a writer who is good at getting into the middle of emotions and describing them elegantly. And there is plenty of drama. As I am reading, I keep thinking that it is like a working-class, Italian Downton Abbey, rawer, more violent, but careening from one big event to another.

The prologue begins in present day with Lila disappearing without a single trace, not even a hairpin left. Lila’s son, Rino, calls Lenù asking if she has seen her. But she hasn’t. In fact, Lenù has been expecting something like this to happen for a while, and she realizes that Lila has overdone it again, has overachieved by vanishing so fully. Angry at her friend, she decides that if Lila wants to try to disappear then she, Lenù, will simply write about her, write about everything, to make Lila’s existence permanent again.

As children, Lila and Lenù are constantly pushing each other, whether competing at school or daring each other while they are playing. Lenù sees Lila as her brilliant friend, the smartest in the class. Lila can learn new concepts effortlessly, and, when she writes a book at a precocious age, Lenù is half-admiring, half-envious of her friend’s talent. Lenù wants to do everything Lila does. However, as the story progresses, I am starting to question which is the brilliant friend. Lila seems to view Lenù as her brilliant friend as well, someone she can’t keep up with since Lenù will be continuing her studies while Lila’s family won’t allow her to do so. Although the story is told from Lenù’s perspective, it can be inferred that Lila must be jealous of Lenù as well.

Being friends with another person for such a long period of time is difficult. The friendship is based on something you might not even remember (How did you meet, again?), maybe something that is currently not a part of who you are, but you maintain the friendship because of the history. Ferrante is clearly someone who has experienced all of the ups and downs of a lifelong friendship between two women. The men in their lives seem by-the-way in comparison.

Any woman who has been friends with someone for as long as Lila and Lenù can attest to the fact that some days that friend is the most important person to you, sometimes you can’t stand her. Sometimes the relationship becomes fraught with jealousy, but there is still that person, that constant companion, who you know will always be there when you need them. The immediate reason for the friendship seems to have disappeared, but still you need each other. I am enjoying the book so much because it reminds me of how important my friends are in my life.

So far, it has been a brilliant book about brilliant friends, both of them brilliant to each other because of their presence in each other’s lives.

Just as you are

“I like you, very much. Just as you are.” –Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001, Movie)

Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of the few movies that I like better than the book. It perfectly captures the life of an awkward, verbally incontinent, 30-something woman and her struggles to establish a successful career while dating someone highly unsuitable. There are parts of the book that I quite like (Singletons! Hurrah!), but Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant are so perfect for their roles and the script is so charming that it makes me not regret the changes from the book.

The movie opens with the new year. Bridget is going to a party at her parents’ home where she meets Mark Darcy, a successful barrister. With a name like Darcy, it is safe to assume that she will hate him immediately, yet it is equally true that she will be mistaken about her first impressions. She begins flirting with her boss, Daniel, and begins an unsuitable relationship with him. However, despite the prominence of the romantic plot lines, it is Bridget alone who carries the story.

She is no Elizabeth Bennet. She is not particularly eloquent. But she shows a great capacity for growth. In the end, she stands up for herself, gaining a new job and an important television interview in the process. And she did it by being herself. She is not an elegant woman of the femme fatale sort, who woos and tosses aside men as she chooses, but she has a great group of friends who care about her. She does not project an image of absolute perfection. Flawed, Bridget does the best that she can and tries to be kind and, above all, is herself despite what other people may think of her.

This is not a groundbreaking movie in terms of cinematography, pushing the borders or introducing something new. Instead, it is a funny movie about a likable woman in a world where, even today, there is a shortage of movies with women protagonists. It is the story of a woman who finds someone who loves her precisely for who she is, who does not expect her to change, and, in a way, I suppose that is groundbreaking.

What I like most of all is that sense of being true to herself. Despite Bridget’s attempts at self-improvement, she does not allow it to change her inner sense of self. There is a scene where she ditches a collection of self-help books and replaces them with new ones. However, she does not need them. Guided by her own internal compass, she navigates her way to a happy ending, even if it does involve an embarrassing public speech. That is who Bridget is, though, and it makes the ending that much better.

This movie offers a reaffirming message in terms of making decisions. Just be yourself, however flawed, and be persistent and focus on what is truly important to you. You will eventually find the right place where you will be accepted, just as you are.

Spinning yarn

“Miss Tarabotti felt such rules did not entirely apply to her, as she was a spinster. Had been a spinster for as long as she could remember. In her more acerbic moments, she felt she had been born a spinster.” –Souless by Gail Carriger

During my first semester of college, I took a women authors course. The first assignment was to form groups, read a critical essay, and make a presentation about it. After reading the article, the three of us began discussing it. One of my group members was silent, her brow slightly furrowed, afraid to ask a stupid question. Finally, she lifted her eyes from the article and said, “Something confused me. What is a spinster? Is that, like, someone who spins yarn?”

Looking back on that, I feel like my classmate came from a privileged place. She had lived in a world where her own worth was reinforced, completely separate from a man’s, equality always assumed and never questioned. Where she came from, no one slighted a woman for being unmarried, no one told her that she had to be married or else face inevitable labeling with a negative word. What a world, I thought as I explained it to her, where I could find someone who was free from centuries of misogyny.

By that age, I was very familiar with the term spinster. With all of the wisdom and sureness of an eighteen-year-old, I knew that I never wanted to get married or have kids. My favorite time period of literature was nineteenth century, and I had worked my way across Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, Louisa May Alcott and George Eliot. I was quite familiar with the term spinster, what it meant, what it implied, what damage it could do, but I chose to reappropriate it and make it my own. At eighteen, I embraced the term and used it to describe myself and felt a fellowship with those women described in the article.

The term spinster is tricky because it implies a lack of value in the marriage marketplace. Women, especially in the early nineteenth century, were dependent on men when they did not have a fortune of their own. Jane Austen knew this all too well. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet sisters would be left penniless if their father died, turned out of their house by a male relative. The Dashwood sisters meet that fate in Sense and Sensibility. Though Emma does not feel the pain of poverty in her self-titled novel, Jane Fairfax knows that she will need to sell herself into the governess trade if she does not marry well.

Jane Austen had at least one proposal of marriage, from a Harris Bigg-Wither, which she accepted one night then declined the next morning, having thought better of it. She did not marry from choice. Men have the privilege of being a happy bachelor. Women are thought to be a scorned spinster, whether they remain single from choice or not.

Will there ever be an age where the word spinster is thrown aside and forgotten? Perhaps not, but as my classmate showed, it is not such a silly thing to think may happen.

Setting Goals

“Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.” – Middlemarch by George Eliot

Today, Eliza Berman posted about a LIFE photo essay from 1969 concerning how lady authors should market themselves. The natural reaction is one of outrage, but is this really so different from how women in today’s marketplace are taught to portray themselves? Actresses, performance artists, and all types of celebrities who just happen to be women are jettisoned off to a place of Otherness where they can become famous through showing more skin.

Recently, actress Rose McGowan called out a Hollywood casting notice for its description of what to wear to the audition. There is a certain expectation that our society holds for women. While great advances have been made in just the last century, we still live in a world where young girls are sold things that are pink and glittery and socially constructed as girlish, while boy sections have trucks and cars and action figures. Boys are taught to be tough and to do things. Girls are taught to take care of dolls with unrealistic figures and to make them, and the world around them, prettier.

You can argue about whether we are naturally born to gravitate towards one or the other, but there is no question that the programming starts early, from the first few years of life, and continues throughout adolescence. Advertising, movies, TV shows all perpetuate the stereotypes of what is appropriate for each gender.

While it is disgusting, it is the framework of the society in which we live. How far we are willing to beautify ourselves in our quest for success affects all aspects of our lives: careers, what partners we can attract, whether others will be willing to listen to our messages.

When things like this get me down, I remember the women throughout history who have smashed expectations to make life their own. For example, George Eliot. There is still, even today, a fascination over what she looked like. Mary Ann (or Marian as she later spelled it) Evans was a Victorian woman who lived an unconventional life. By contemporary accounts, she was not attractive. But she was a woman who made her voice heard through her intelligence, hard work, and persistence. She grew from a prickly, defensive, cutting young woman into one of the most generous and empathetic authors since the invention of the novel. Middlemarch is a masterpiece which puts the marriage plot on its head by marrying off the heroine in the first part and showing the disastrous results of her marriage throughout the rest.

This is a post about setting goals, but not in the conventional way. There will always be the list that has been created for us that we can follow tick by tick, collecting checkmarks in place of happiness. I can’t tell you what goals to have, only that they should be your own, and that no one else should dictate to you what composes success or what you should look like, act like, or sound like on the basis of gender or race or any other identifying characteristic.

Goals are a tricky thing, hard to identify for the lost, hard to wade through when considering the expectations of others. However, I think that, together, we can change societal expectations and create a more accepting world. Change takes time and patience, but it is a good goal to have.

Allons-y,

Pippa