Barrelhouse Reviews: Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister

Review by Katie Booth

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It’s emblazoned in the memories of those of us following the Kavanaugh hearing: two women—Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher—cornering Arizona Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, holding it open while they confronted him, yelling, sobbing, insisting that he recognize their pain. “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” shouts Gallagher, as Flake slowly lifts his eyes. “…Don’t look away from me! Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me—that you’ll let people like that go into the highest court in the land!”

Later Archila told the New York Times, “I wanted him to feel my rage.” 

These women weren’t alone in their fury. Across the nation, we watched on our televisions and computers and phones; we felt the keening rage of these women.

 Since the hearing began, I had been avoiding the news. Or rather, I’d been carefully modulating it, taking it in small doses with long breaks between. It wasn’t conscious, not exactly. It was more like second nature; I could feel it scraping against some old wound, some old rage. It had always been there, I knew, but I wanted to keep it at bay. Christine Blasey-Ford remained calm, kept up a cool veneer. She would help me maintain my own. But then the elevator, the rage.

 This rage has captured us and knocked us down. In Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Rebecca Traister explores it as part of both a national history and a contemporary reckoning. “What happened in the second decade of the twenty-first century,” Traister writes, “is that women began to rage publicly in ways that made them audible to one another; we began to hear one another and understand that we were not as isolated in our rage as we had been led to believe.”

 Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.

 Traister’s primary work is un-erasing this rage.

 The focusing thread of Good and Mad is the 2016 election and its aftermath, which threw this anger back into the spotlight, but Traister also contextualizes it historically, exploring events like the triangle shirtwaist factory fire, Shirley Chisholm’s presidential bid, and the Seneca Falls convention. She contextualizes anger in other identity issues, especially race but also, to a lesser degree, class. Early in the book, Traister writes, “We must train ourselves to even be able to see and hear anger from women and understand it not only as rational, but as politically weighty.” Her call is to bring about this transformation in an audience that has been witness to this anger as it has become more and more visible: a sea of protestors in Washington, the days after Trump’s inauguration; two women cornering a senator in an elevator; dozens of women representatives dressed in “suffragette white” for the 2019 State of the Union address.

Traister is performing a sort of archeological dig for anger—finding it in places where it surely always lingered but was also often dismissed, recast, or unseen. That’s one of the great challenges of a work like Good and Mad. It is a study of an oft-invisible thing. There are risks in studying an invisible things, and there are times when Traister writes anger into a historical event without much evidence. But more often she makes the erasure of anger evident, as she does when she writes about Rosa Park’s history as an anti-rape activist. Parks wasn’t just some tired woman, as she is so often painted. She had been an activist long before she refused to move to the back of a bus, and she was angry—though this history is often revised out of the story.

Similarly, Traister tells the story of Mamie Till insisting on having a public, open-casket funeral for her son, Emmett Till. Traister points out that Till is often pictured by her son’s casket or grave, weeping and consumed by grief, but Traister suggests that Till’s acts leading up to these pictured moments suggest that there is something more than just sadness in her actions:

“What we are never trained to consider is that alongside her sorrow and suffering was a burning rage. Lamentation and sadness do not drive a woman to fight for her son’s body, to vow to smash open his casket, to commit the crimes done to his body and face to eternal memory, to make damn sure that the world has to look at the same image of racist brutality that has been visited on your family and your life.”

Lifting this anger out of historical stories and re-presenting is important—if complicated—work. Traister runs the risk of glorifying or encouraging anger, as some critics have suggested. But to fault her for this is to miss the bigger point. Though anger is the very spine of this book, her message is obviously not a call to violence or aggression, nor a pass on complex thought or deliberation. Traister doesn’t say that anger is the primary effective way to create political change—but her book is still often summarized that way. Her counterarguments don’t draw from arguments of nonviolence or pacifism; rather, Traister places herself in opposition to those who would erase or diminish or distort the perception of women’s anger. To reinstate women’s anger as viable and powerful, even central, is not to promote anger but wholeness: Women being recognized as having anger, and the potential to wield it, is fundamental to power.

In the weeks following the Kavanaugh hearings, I was a wreck. To say that I was unproductive is an understatement, and to say that it was a matter of will would be inaccurate. My whole self had slid into an old pain and shut down inside of it. It was then that someone sent me a New York Times article by Rebecca Traister: “Fury Is a Political Weapon. And Women Need to Wield It.” The piece is adapted from the book, but framed by the context of the Kavanaugh hearings. In it, Traister recounts the anger as performed by both Kavanaugh and Lindsey Graham as “an exceptionally clear distillation of who has historically been allowed to be angry on their own behalf, and who has not.” She also delves into the misunderstood nature of women’s tears, which often express not sadness but fury. She does not turn away from that fury.

She writes, “If you are angry today, or if you have been angry for a while, and you’re wondering whether you’re allowed to be as angry as you feel, let me say: Yes. Yes, you are allowed. You are, in fact, compelled.”

Being angry doesn’t mean acting impulsively, violently, or thoughtlessly. Anger, for Traister, is about being awake to the world around you, to your own responses, to the reactions of people who have been systematically hurt for generations. In that post-Kavanaugh moment, Traister recognized my anger for what it was—not sadness, not woundedness, not weakness, but rage. Being seen in this way can be almost comically powerful.

This is not Traister’s only accomplishment, though. If one of the greatest powers of Traister’s voice is her ability to remind us of our unity—and the power of an angry and united majority—the other great power of her voice is to remind us of the ways we’ve betrayed each other, of how precarious our unity is. There are many ways that this betrayal manifests, but predominant is the betrayal of black women by white women. This betrayal has a long history in the women’s movement, a history that Traister catalogues throughout the book. After the 2016 election, as many white women have realized that they need to be move involved, she warns of the significant risk of repeating this history. This betrayal is a path that is practiced and familiar to many white women; she urges caution with this moment: “… the opportunity is not simply to be angry on their own behalf, but also at the injustices faced by other women who experience those injustices in part thanks to the very mechanisms that protect and enrich those white women.”        

She points out that the earliest iterations of the #MeToo movement have been focused on abuses of power that have harmed white women in predominantly white industries, “while too little attention was paid to factory workers, tipped employees, women in the service industries, and low-wage employees, among the most economically precarious, therefore the most vulnerable to harassment, and also far more likely to be nonwhite.”

And so this book is both a historical primer and a calling-out, a step toward the undoing, a history that lets very few people off the hook. Instead, it capitalizes on our obligations to each other moving forward, demanding recognition of stories that have been obscured, and accountability both on the parts of those who obscured those stories, and those who have never questioned them. The excavation of this anger allows the everyday woman, often seething in unseen anger at everyday discrimination, to see herself in history’s great historical figures and change-makers, to understand her link to other women within her immediate identity-sphere while challenging her not to dismiss the anger of women outside of it.

Central to this is the argument that women’s anger has the power to change the political landscape. It’s hard to look at the images of the State of the Union Address, in which a sea of women representatives dressed in suffragette white, and not think that anger was part of what brought them there. It’s hard to see Nancy Pelosi’s snarky applause to Trump and not see anger as part of what motivated it. And it’s hard, too, not to think of the way Pelosi blocked that very speech just weeks before. And when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cites Traister as she deconstructs women’s anger as a motivating force not just broadly in this moment as woman after woman announces her candidacy for president, but also historically as white women supported both the Ku Klux Klan and the erection of confederate statues. This anger is complicated, and Traister doesn’t deny that. This book doesn’t tell women to be angry; instead it encourages women to put to productive use the anger we already have. More than that, it insists that we all recognize and legitimize anger from women.  


Bio: Katie Booth’s work has appeared in Aeon, Catapult, Harper's Magazine, Kaleidoscope, NPR's The Pulse and Vela. Her work has been highlighted on Longform and Longreads, and her essay "The Sign for This" was selected as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2016. She has received support from the Edward Albee Foundation, the Blue Mountain Center and the Massachusetts Historical Society, and was a 2017-18 John W. Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. She grew up bilingual and bicultural in a mixed hearing/ Deaf family. Her first book, The Illusion of Miracles, about Alexander Graham Bell's lifelong work to alienate Deaf people from Sign Language, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in 2020. Learn more at katiebooth.net.

 

Barrelhouse Reviews: Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland by Duke Haney

Review by Laura Gill

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I watch the Academy Awards every year, and every year, the Academy Awards tries to recruit more people like me—consistent, loyal viewers, who will watch the show despite its flaws. Every year, the producers fall short. But this past year has been particularly fraught. First, the Academy floated the possibility of a Best-Popular-Movie Award which fell flat on its face when a public outcry questioned the grounds on which they might judge a movie’s “popularity,” and that the Academy inadvertently appeared to concede that “Popular Films” are less artistically-valid than less popular ones. So they nixed that idea, and then put faith in their host—Kevin Hart, a young, black comedian who does star in “popular” movies and television—but when Hart’s homophobic tweets from ten years ago resurfaced, another public outcry  ensued. He stepped down. Their final effort was to remove certain categories from the televised show—among them editing, hair and makeup, and cinematography—to which the public, and many people in Hollywood, responded with more outrage; are these categories lesser than? All the while, despite pandering on the part of the Academy, there is little expectation that the Oscars will ever succeed with younger audiences—people who find their content on YouTube, Snapchat, and Netflix, another controversial subject since the ostensible frontrunner for Best Picture for the longest time was a Netflix release, ROMA. That it lost to Green Book is another controversy altogether.

The continued outcries from what one might call Academy Award “traditionalists” resonate with many of Duke Haney's concerns in his essay collection, Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland, published this past December, which is a lament for an old-fashioned style of film he sees as being replaced  by lesser works of art. In the first essay, he sets up this take on the current state of culture, thinking that we’ve lost certain reverence for the art of film  (the kind he considers worthy and worthwhile) , and with it, certain cultural touchstones of our past. While he likely wouldn’t necessarily be up and arms about the Academy Awards given  his knee-jerk contempt for modern Hollywood film, he is—as perhaps many in the Academy are—disturbed by what he sees coming into its place: short, consumable narratives for kids. Indeed, he sees this everywhere, not just in film. An anecdote about Norman Mailer illustrates this—according to Haney, that there are no young people today who, upon meeting a writer like Norman Mailer would have minds “nuanced enough to critique a literary lion.” Mailer has lost what he calls his “army,” replaced by a “hive mind stuck in chrysalis.” To which I ask: So? That sounds like is great news! Let the hive minds lead away from Mailer, towards, say: Hilton Als, Rebecca Solnit, and Claudia Rankine.

Haney’s reverence for Mailer is just the beginning of a series of essays that relish the hyper-masculinity of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He seems to find it immensely unfortunate that Mailer has been pushed aside ‘simply’ because he was known to be “obnoxious, violent, egoist.” Instead, he wants us to remember that Mailer was “perhaps the most important American writer of the sixties,” a claim built on the preposterous assumption that if one chooses not to read Mailer because he was an “obnoxious, violent, egoist,” it’s a travesty. In fact, the book is riddled with kinds of claims about people's worth, impact, and value—and the ones with value are mostly men, with a penchant for womanizing. While the aim of the essays is to explore the varied lives and complicated legends of some of Hollywood’s most remembered, and in some cases most forgotten, stars, all the while exploring Los Angeles and its role in shaping these characters, most of what comes through instead is the romanticization of a past that even Haney acknowledges is problematic. But instead of addressing those troublesome components,  Haney pokes fun at them or ignores them entirely—sometimes wishing he could have a slice of the good old days back, as if to say: get another writer like Mailer, or another actor like Marlon Brando. In other words, reading these essays feels a lot like  entering a boys club where you’ll be ridiculed if you don’t laugh at the penis joke, or looked at with disgust if you say you admit that not only did you take years to listen to it, you also don't even like Graceland!

Somehow, his worst tendencies come to light with a figure Haney claims to love: Marilyn Monroe. Haney dwells on the fact that many people thought she was never a good actress, instead finding her annoying, daft, and hollow. Tennessee Williams allegedly said that “Marilyn’s mind was a desert, a drought, with tiny compartments devoted to clothes, makeup, stardom, and fucking. That is all. That is absolutely all.” Haney reflects that “this blistering assessment might sadly have rung true to Marilyn at her most insecure,” that “acting, then, may have terrified Marilyn because it could expose her as the hollow shell...she suspected herself to be.” But though Haney claims to find her a great actress and a great artist, why he might feel that way is entirely unexplored. Instead, he spends his time exploring why people were critical of her, and how she might have been critical of herself. The lack of scrutiny for the criticism she received is misogynistic and cruel, at best. For Haney, Monroe herself is peripheral. The talk of the town is all that matters.

Perhaps it is understandable that Haney doesn’t dive in. Not every essay needs to unravel every aspect of a person and in Marilyn’s case, perhaps there’s a point to be made about the criticism she garnered that goes beyond the fact that she was a woman. And yet—when put next to an essay with this sentence about Elizabeth Taylor—“not that she was really an actress; if not for her spectacular looks, she would have never starred opposite Brando, Dean, and Clift”—any benefit of doubt one may be willing to extend to Haney dissipates. And it doesn't stop there. In another essay, he objectifies a woman he meets on his journey to find a medium for a seance for Jim Morrison: “it was instantly clear that she was in fact part Indian—she reminded me of a half-Iroquois acquaintance—and I guessed her age as fifty, though most would probably guess younger.”. Another essay, dedicated to his admiration for Elizabeth McGovern, relishes in a rumor about her farting on stage and a declaration from a friend he refers to as  “The Captain.” First, “The Captain” tells him McGovern "has beautiful breasts” and then Haney chooses to bring the commentary back around (or, perhaps The Captain does, but in either case, it’s completely unnecessary) when he asks about her again a page later, and “The Captain [affirms] his [own] judgment of her breasts.” Captain’s objectification of McGovern is comical, but Haney is entirely comfortable letting such objectification slide. It’s all mostly material for a gossip rag than an actual problem.

To be fair, Haney is aware  that such criticism is coming. His final essay about Stephen Cochran, where the title “The End of Cock Run” really says it all, Haney addresses the fact that he nearly didn’t write about Cochran because “he was always a dicey subject,” he was worried he might be “accused of condoning him by simply writing about him” without “ [waving] the progressive flag.” But yet again, Haney flat-out romanticizes Cochran. He’s not simply writing about him. On one of his favorite scenes of Cochran’s from the movie Private Hell where Cochran plays the bad guy Haney writes: “the clincher for me was a later scene in which [Cochran] confess(es) that he [is] stuck on Lupino and slap(s) her when she refuse(s) to reciprocate.” Haney revels in the acting, not the person or even the action itself, but later, Haney reveals just how much Cochran’s on-screen persona was connected to the man himself, a man accused of the assault and abuse of women, among other crimes. Haney knows that Cochran is, as he says, a “pig and a covert coward,” but he can’t help saying that perhaps he was a “more nuanced pig than most.” One may be forgiven for questioning if Haney truly has moral qualms about his subjects, if his disclaimers are just editorial intrusions designed solely to avoid harsh judgment.

Viewership for the Academy Awards hasn’t gone down simply because it’s long. People are over the spectacle because even as the show tries to include more voices, it’s still mostly an old white man’s show. Like with Haney’s material, even as they try to celebrate groundbreaking work, the limits of real change creep in and make themselves known in the show itself.  Only two years ago we witnessed  Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty accidentally award Best Picture to La La Land instead of the rightful winner, Moonlight. It was hard to watch on a number of levels, partly because it’s painful to watch a mistake on live T.V., but mostly because it was hard to watch two stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood accidentally awarding a film about a white couple singing and dancing to jazz while trying to make it in L.A. over a coming-of-age story about a black, gay boy in Miami. But at least Moonlight actually did win! At this most recent spectacle, there were a few innovative, thoughtful movies being celebrated—ROMA, The Favourite, and Black Panther—but it was a film perhaps consciously designed to revel in the white savior trope that won Best Picture. Seeing the three, older white men accept the award for The Green Book was enough to tell you that even if it hadn’t been a movie that, as Jenni Miller wrote was a “movie about racism made by white people, for white people,” it was one; the old guard still has the lens, and they won’t let it go. As many people have said more eloquently, and with a good dose of wit: both of those moments were metaphors for the larger reality of Hollywood. (Said Best Adapted Screenplay winner, Spike Lee, whose classic Do The Right Thing was defeated by Driving Miss Daisy in 1990 and whose BlacKkKlansman lost to Green Book 29 years later: “every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose.”)

Haney’s approach is another metaphor.  The serious flaws he discusses seem like quirks, not questions that merit important engagement. The lack of self-reflection about Hollywood’s past are, thus, immensely frustrating; here is an opportunity to reflect the dark, disturbing underbelly of Hollywood, and here is a writer who is too sheepish to examine it. Haney, in fact, seems charmed by his own masculinity. One can't help but feel like having gotten stuck in the corner of the bar, in a conversation you thought might be interesting while the man keeps talking, and you can’t get a word in. Anyone who has been in this situation knows it’s easier to nod your head and smile, but one doesn't have to do that when they read, and so, I didn't.

Perhaps Haney could have taken a page out of one of his heroes, Marlon Brando’s, playbook, when, not only did Brando not accept the Academy Award for The Godfather, but he had Sacheen Littlefeather—President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee—do so in his stead. She read a statement about the treatment of American Indians in film, and on “television in reruns” to boos and cheers. Brando, far from unproblematic himself, used his platform to ask Hollywood to look forward at least once—vigorously. But Haney is committed to the rerun. Worse, he finds himself immune to the insidiousness of the stereotypes they promote. And all that does is add weight to the parts of our past we’re hoping to reject.

 


Bio: Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. She received her MFA from Bennington College, and her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart and is working on a book project about traveling to author's homes across the country. 

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Beast's Heart by Leife Shallcross

Review by Ann Davis-Rowe

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THE BEAST’S HEART / Leife Shallcross / February 12, 2019 / 416 pp / Paperback / $15.00 / Ace / 978-0440001775

We all know Beauty and the Beast, whether from the Disney cartoon, the Disney Broadway musical, the Disney live-action film, Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, or one of the other numerous retellings of the original French story published in 1740 – although that in itself was based on other stories dating back some 4,000 years.

Leife Shallcross brings us yet another variation of La Belle et la Bête, this one from la bête’s side (in case the title didn’t give that away).  While a creative take, it’s also an immediate uphill battle for the author because everyone knows the story.  Plus, Beast isn’t exactly the most likeable of heroes, anti- or no; after all, as all versions of the story go, his curse derives from his haughty and disdainful nature.

I’m sure you already know the plot here: young woman gives up her freedom to save her father’s after he stumbles upon a mysterious castle in the woods. I did appreciate some of Shallcross’ attempts to make her retelling original. Whereas Disney’s Belle is bookish and isolated, Shallcross’ Isabeau falls more in line with the original Beauty, a jill of all trades who is responsible for family housekeeping thanks to her pretentious elder sisters.

I enjoyed how Shallcross introduced the sisters, here named Marie and Claude, as one-dimensional side characters, then built them into more well-rounded women. However, the description of their sisterly teasing about their respective gentlemen callers quickly grew repetitive.

Also repetitive were the descriptions of how Isabeau and Beast spent their days. I get it; Isabeau agreed to spend a year with Beast, so a year must be transcribed. Goodness knows my days and nights are largely spent going from the office to the couch, lather, rinse, repeat. There are character and relationship developments built in to Isabeau and the Beast’s music and reading sessions and walks and dinners, but at times it did feel like it took a year to read them.

Emma Watson, who played Belle in Disney’s live-action film, eloquently argued against Beauty and the Beast as a story of Stockholm Syndrome, saying that Belle kept her independence and wasn’t afraid to challenge the Beast’s hissy fits and demands. Shallcross’ Isabeau does that as well, as Beast – again, repeatedly – points out her defiance and fondness of teasing.

However, even in doing so, we see how Beast is always looking to have the upperhand instead of building a partnership. When Isabeau falls asleep while he reads aloud a botanical book she picked out that didn’t entertain him, “Feeling somehow easier, now that I had gained this advantage over her, I smiled in amusement and continued reading, thinking of how I could tease her when she awoke.”

Also, more than anecdotes of Isabeau’s spunkiness, we’re often given lengthy descriptions of her bad moods and melancholy, of nights full of nightmares and the resulting insomnia causing her great distress that only the Beast can soothe. While Shallcross shows Marie and Claude becoming whole characters – through Beast spying on them, which is a whole other issue – we only see Isabeau becoming more dependent on him.

Granted, he is the narrator, so he is the hero/victim of his own story. Beast wants Isabeau to be dependent on him, so that’s what he focuses on accomplishing. However, it felt like a great disservice to Isabeau. Essentially, all we are told of her is that she selflessly cared for her family and then for Beast. Pretty, moderately talented in music and drawing, and servile. What more could any man ask for?

Which brings me to my biggest beef. Beast is apparently supposed to be our hero, not just the hero of his own internal narrative, when it turns out that he was cursed by a fairy because he was cold and distant and haughty. In Shallcross’ version, he acted this way because he was afraid of following in the footsteps of his father, a lecherous drunk.

The young man saw how using women was a terrible thing. So, rather than attempting to be a better man than his father, he just ignored women altogether.

If Beast were living today, he’d be the dude arguing that “we can’t talk to women at all because #metoo.” We’ve already seen this sentiment expressed on Capitol Hill and in other industries, termed  “The Pence Effect” on Wall Street, where employers are essentially prohibiting women from advancing because they’re afraid to be alone in a room with them.

Once I had this realization, it was much harder to ignore the fact that Beast doesn’t actually evolve. He quits walking on all fours in the forest and moves back into his castle in an attempt to regain some semblance of humanity, but that doesn’t change his beastly attitude toward women. I couldn’t ignore that Isabeau is reduced to early Betty Draper, decorative and inoffensive, and we should be grateful he loves her despite her moods. I mean, when she finds the music room, she quickly gives up on the harp and lute before re-devoting her musical studies to the virginal - “...she began to dabble on the other instruments, but the virginal remained her favorite.” I’m not even looking up how popular that sort of keyboard was in France in the late 1700s because come on.

If Beast had learned from his mistakes, if he had grown spiritually to see that he was a conceited ass before, I would have been perfectly happy. I’m sure Shallcross and other readers will think it is a plucky little twist giving Beast more of a backstory and, well, heart. And I am willing to admit that I am probably biased here, due to my ever-increasing frustration with rich men of European descent who never seem to own up to the mistakes of their youth.

But to blame Beast’s curse not on being afraid he would turn into a monster like his father - to insist that he was really a victim all along and that mean old fairy should have known better - that I just can’t swallow.  It made what was a sweet enough, if slow and derivative, book turn to ashes in my eyes. That fairy tale is already visible across our news outlets too much, and this princess is having none of it.

 


Ann Davis-Rowe has been a voracious reader from a very young age and holds a Masters degree in Library Science. She's also a secretary, actress, home cook, and co-guardian to the snuggliest puppies around. www.AnnDavisRowe.com