What I See When I Look at Cherie Currie

     Foxes (1980) opens with a shot of a bare foot hanging off of a bed. After panning up the body of a sleeping young woman, the camera travels throughout her room, charting the detritus of adolescent life; pink plastic curlers, makeup, half-eaten Twinkies, Clearasil, and pictures of John Travolta and KISS. Four girls are entwined in sleep. It is a peaceful scene, filled with both the immediacy and nostalgia of youth. It is a fleeting moment of calm and a testament to the intimacy of adolescent bonds. The moment is shattered by an alarm clock radio, a token of reality calling the girls back from dreams and illusion. Three of the girls wake up and grudgingly set their sights on the fourth girl, still in a deep sleep. “Oh Christ. We gotta wake up Annie,” one girl says, exasperated. They begin to discuss the girl: she had been out late last night, was she drinking or on Quaaludes? “She was sick all over some guy’s car,” a girl mentions. They set the radio next to her head, raising the volume. Still she sleeps. They grab a glass of water, sprinkling some on her face. She continues to sleep. Jeanie, played by Jodie Foster, throws the remaining water on her face. She awakens and sleepily addresses the girls gathered around her. This will be the last moment that she is in repose for Annie is a force, an agent of chaos. She is kinetic energy. Wherever there is screaming, giggling, crashing, or breaking, there is Annie.

     Foxes is the story of four adolescent girls, dealing with all of life’s dysfunctions, while living in an intoxicating but unforgiving landscape, one that dwarfs them both physically and emotionally. Parents are dismissive and absent at best, jealous or abusive at worst. The girls find solace with one another, as they dream of finding a house for themselves, creating the home that they never had. Annie is played by Cherie Currie. Though not the protagonist of the film, she is the fixed point around which everyone and everything orbits. Throughout Foxes, Annie refuses to be contained. She rushes from dirtbag older men to drugs and beer, searching for that quiet, that stillness, that sense of contentment with herself. Despite, or maybe because of, her chaos, the girls become the main support in her life, as they all daydream of making a world all their own, where they are together and they are safe. Annie is simultaneously a warning and a lesson and an ode to reckless youth. She is a fictional character, but she is also Currie’s own youth in an all-girl teenage rock band and she is also a part of my youth.

     When Currie was fifteen years old, she auditioned for and became the lead singer of The Runaways, a group that included a young Joan Jett. They sang about rebellion and desire, and being a teenager in an era when rock and roll reigned supreme. There was a simplicity to their songs, but also a vitality and immediacy. There was a thrill in hearing young women defy expectation, reveling in a hedonistic world that was usually only accessible to women as groupies. Currie had power. She would strut around the stage in a corset daring people to look at her, proclaiming her viciousness, discarding convention. It was a confrontation with her own sexualization. It was brazen. It put her in control. The band was only together for a short time, but the repercussions of the world that Currie was thrust into would affect her for years to come. There was rampant drug addiction, alcoholism, and stories of sexual assault. It was a brutal world that Currie was forced to navigate alone. But the energy, the sense of caustic abandon, that Currie brought to The Runaways was the energy that she would later bring to the character of Annie.

     I think about Annie often because a part of me was her—the part that hurtled towards destruction without really wanting it or knowing why, the part that was feeling and reacting to the depths of an unarticulated rage inside of me by seeking to destroy it. In my early twenties, I was careening daily, hourly from one bad habit to another, drinking until I was senseless, feeling my life whirling into chaos, feeling as if I was powerless to stop it. I became a chore to the people around me, I became the person who had to be taken care of. My emotions and self-loathing were driving everything. I would repress all of it until I exploded—breaking things, lashing out at people, passing out, falling down, or wandering off in the middle of the night. My memory is spotty at best, but what is forgotten has been filled in with shame and guilt. Guilt that I had no right to be this way. I was a relatively well-adjusted young woman who had lived a life of comfort and stability up until this point. I was a healthy, fairly attractive twenty-year-old with no responsibilities, but I hated myself and so I went out. I went to parties, I went to bars, and I did whatever I could to forget myself for a moment. What started out as a little healthy rebellion careened out of control in a way that I couldn’t understand because I was never sober enough to question the events of the previous night or the thoughts running through my head. Always having been shy, I was now riddled with anxiety, and things became dark and messy and it all spiraled long before I could articulate what it was that was wrong. It descended into chaos before I realized that I could stop it and then finally I did. 

     So, when I think about Annie and Cherie Currie, I also think of my younger self. When I think about Annie, I can’t help but think about the walls that we put up in order to appear strong when, in truth, we are so painfully vulnerable. I think about how those walls, those inadequate coping mechanisms, alongside the fear of being seen and its twin loneliness, can come to dictate a life so completely. I think of carelessness, of the thrill and danger of rushing into chaos with the utter calm of a person intent on making their inner turmoil a physical presence. I think about how life can so quickly become dictated by rage and sadness, to the point that nothing else can get in. So Annie is special to me. Annie feels like me. When I see her head lolling about, when I see her murmuring inaudibly, her eyes hazy and unfocused, I see a former version of myself. I see a girl longing for stability, clarity, and the warmth and safety of her friends (a feeling I didn’t know for I had become so emotionally isolated). I feel the pain that she radiates, the pain forcing her to ricochet from one amusement to another in order to outrun herself. I want her to find peace because I know what it is to want that peace, even though you have no idea what it might look like, even though you appear to actively disdain it. I see a girl trying to define herself within the world, just as I too was wondering who I was or who I could be. I see the senseless recklessness of my own youth, but I also see my own survival, the triumph over my rage. I see how different I am from my former self, how much I’ve grown, but I also see how important it is to never hide from this former self. It will always be a part of me; that hurt, pain, and fear that was so scary to me also made me learn so much about myself and it should never be forgotten. Annie helps me remember this. 

Natalie’s Tigers and the Isolation of Stardom

     The girl reclines on a poolside lounge chair reading a script. Having paused, she raises her head. She is deep in thought. It seems a relatively commonplace photograph of a starlet: a young woman in repose while also at work. It illustrates the promise of Hollywood; of stardom, wealth, and ease. The image of effortlessness belies the labor of acting, of fame. There is, of course, one unusual element: the girl is surrounded by stuffed animal tigers. The girl is Natalie Wood—the child actress turned ingénue turned well-respected actor turned icon of tragedy. It was not uncommon for Wood, a young woman at the time, to be photographed clutching her tigers to her body or placing them around her as she performed various tasks. When I saw these photographs for the first time, I became fascinated with what they could mean within the history of Wood’s life as well as the larger history of Hollywood itself. They are playful and fun, but they are also dark and upsetting, a meditation on loneliness and trauma passed off as lightness, as the mere childishness of a charming young woman. 

     The troubled child star has long been a cliche, but, as with many cliches, there is a kernel of truth to it. Natalie was an example of this. From a young age, her mother, armed with sheer determination and a fortune teller’s assertion that her daughter was destined for greatness, moved the family to Los Angeles to pursue Natalie’s career as an actress. The mother, domineering at best, abusive at worst, pushed Natalie to approach men that she believed could better her career. Natalie’s career became the predominant concern of the family and everything else, including the other children, was neglected. In this atmosphere of intense scrutiny, even Natalie was neglected. If she was not satisfied with the emotional resonance of a take, Natalie’s mother was known to force her into moments of emotional distress, reminding her of traumatizing events in her life in order to make her cry. According to biographer Suzanne Finstad, it was then that the boundaries between reality and fiction began to blur for Natalie. Never allowed to spend time with children her own age, Natalie never developed a sense of self outside of the characters that she played. Her identity became wrapped up in the stories that defined her work. She became unable to discern reality from fantasy, life from movie-making. And so singularly focused was the mother on living through her daughter’s successes, that she failed to see the girl in front of her.

     Later, as a young woman, Natalie was subjected to many of the horrors that have long been a staple of Hollywood. On the set of Rebel Without a Cause, her director, Nicholas Ray, positioned himself as a mentor to his young stars and used the excess of time spent with Natalie, who was then sixteen, to initiate a sexual relationship. He was forty-three years old and the affair was unquestioned—an accepted secret on the set. 

    As she grew older, she knew that sustaining her career meant navigating the tricky transition period from child star to mature actress. As such, she was seeking roles that would showcase her range and ability. She had, once again, been put in a position where she had to prove herself. One night, Natalie had a meeting in the hotel room of a famous and well-respected actor. He told her that he had a possible role for her. He had been an idol of hers since childhood. She went to the hotel room and he raped her, telling her that if she ever spoke about it, he would end her career. She would never publicly name her attacker, but she would be forced into his presence at parties and movie premieres. Natalie had been robbed of her choices, her options, and her agency. The studio surely would have protected him and discarded her; she was, after all, only one of thousands of potential starlets. This trauma is what actually lived behind the illusion of elegance that Hollywood projected of itself. Natalie was just one of the many women sacrificed to bolster the illusion—pain and suffering became the price of that specific artificial beauty.  

     Natalie Wood’s story is an exercise in extremes; a childhood sacrificed for a heightened, superficial world, a world that she had been forced into by a mother who was anything but nurturing. It soon became the only reality she knew. Her life and her identity were never truly her own and she struggled with them for the remainder of her life. She was forced to endure a long succession of people who preyed upon her and they were often the very people who were supposed to protect her. Hers is also a story that serves as proof that the Hollywood dream is no more than a fabrication, a glimpse of beauty that can come crashing into a life with unrelenting force. She was the image of the ideal, the non-threatening girl next door. Armed with large, expressive eyes, she became an image of sweetness without substance, of a body without a self. She became Hollywood’s dream of itself, all of its aspiration, its hopes of grandeur and triumph. But much like Hollywood, there was a hidden reality, a darker reality—a collection of secrets lying below the surface. And Natalie Wood is that reality. She is the history of Hollywood, in all its worst impulses and all its most egregious violations. 

     When I see these photographs I think of this other story, the one that took place far away from the glamour, the lights, and the artifice. At first glance, they might signal the remains of a whimsicality, of a sweet girlishness. But to me they seem to be so much more than that. They demonstrate darkness and frailty, the need to be comforted and seen, the ways we cope or fail to cope, and the basic necessities of existence that, in an attempt to seem strong or invincible, are often deemed unimportant. I see a beautiful girl trying her hardest to find some lasting solace, some companionship. But I also think that these photographs are an indispensable part of her legacy. To me, they offer a more intimate glimpse into her life than any other photograph taken of her. A far cry from production stills or studio sanctioned dates, these images show isolation. They show a person dealing with the trauma of their life in any way possible, grasping for peace. They show a person. A real person. Not an actress and not a role, but the one thing that Natalie Wood had wanted to be so badly for her entire life.

Finstad, Suzanne. Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography. New York, Broadway Books, 2020.

Switchblades, Drag Races, and Rumbles: On the Juvenile Delinquent in American Cinema

     I was young when I first saw West Side Story (1961). I was captivated by the colors, the romance, and the choreography that so elegantly depicted the inner turmoil of the characters. As much as I was drawn to the doomed romance, as much as I tried to will a happier ending with each viewing, the thing that always stuck with me were the juvenile delinquents themselves, their untamed anger and resentment, their pure passion. They were misfits and so I loved them. As I grew up, I became casually aware, through Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the James Dean infatuation required of my teenage years, that West Side Story was not a solitary case. Rather, it was a response to a larger social phenomena and a clear descendant of a genre of films made in the previous decade—the juvenile delinquent film. 

     During the 1950s, the juvenile delinquent became one of the most potent images of dissatisfaction and destruction. The era was filled with fear about what the juvenile delinquent meant and many films, in a bid for relevance, sought to tackle what was rapidly becoming one of the most pressing social issues. These films usually fell into one of two categories and had very different approaches to their subject matter. Big budget studio productions, which starred recognizable actors, took their subject matter very seriously, and saw it as their duty to educate the public on the growing threat of juvenile delinquency. Many of these films begin with an introduction that rolls onto the screen with the credits. In these introductions, the films assert that although the audience is watching a work of fiction, the problem of delinquency is real. They speak of juvenile delinquency as an “infection”, an illness or disease spreading rampant throughout American communities. The alarmist rhetoric of these introductions thus position the film as a piece of almost documentary-type social realism, a public service announcement made for the benefit of its audience, all adults. But for all their moralizing and hand-wringing about the state of the youth of the country, what these films failed to do was adequately express the ways in which institutions, previously believed to be unshakable, were failing the youth. Contrary to the random and seemingly senseless violence that the juvenile delinquents of these films enacted, the reality was that the things that the older generations had previously regarded with respect and loyalty, praise and veneration, were failing them and they knew it. They were able, in that prescient way that adolescence has, to see that the institutions that their parents had respected almost to their own dissolution, were false, and they acted accordingly. In contrast to this attempt to document, condemn, and restore order, the low-budget B films on the same subject were meant for one thing only—entertainment. These films were marketed towards the very teenagers they depicted and their sole aim was money. Youth was a new market to tap into. These films were usually made as part of a double feature, the purview of the drive-in, and other places of mid-century adolescence. Juvenile delinquent movies thus served a dual purpose as both entertainment and as warning and signify disparate concerns: the delinquent as social ill in contrast to the booming commercial value of the delinquent and the teenager within society. 

     In Blackboard Jungle (1955), a young and idealistic teacher named Richard Dadier, played by Glenn Ford, joins the staff of a high school where juvenile delinquency runs rampant to the point that the other teachers have become resigned to their apathy. The film opens on a schoolyard, ringed by a wrought-iron gate. Within the gates, the students, mostly boys, are seen rough-housing and dancing. There is a frenetic, manic, and uncontrollable energy to them. A woman walks by. She is blonde. Dressed in a blouse buttoned up to her neck and a skirt. The boys instantly notice her. She is beautiful. They push themselves into the gate, hands reaching out to her, whistling. Her pace quickens, her fear palpable. She seeks escape from the scrutiny, the threat. So begins a trend within the film—exposing the predatory behavior of the boys and their threat as one specifically aimed towards women. This continues in a later scene when a young female teacher is almost raped by a student and again when Dadier’s wife goes into early labor because one of the boys is sending her anonymous letters insinuating that her husband is having an affair. Within this film, women stand for the trappings of society, the morals, the structures that appear to keep everything in place. They are wives and mothers or they work, but only if they are young and unmarried. They symbolize the home, the family, stability, respectability, purity—the very things that were so venerated by mid-century America. If the juvenile delinquent poses a threat to them it means that, by extension, he is posing a threat to the morals and ideals ingrained in our society. The juvenile delinquent thus becomes an existential threat to the very fabric of mid-century life. They were striking out violently at the most deeply held beliefs and structures and had to be, within the confines of this film, restrained and altered back into respectable boys. 

     But this was an alarmist film based on an alarmist principle—that there was a new random and senseless violence of the youth that led students to attack teachers in alleyways and steal full delivery trucks. And thus, everyone was frightened—the juvenile delinquent appeared to pose a threat to all the notions that the older generations had grown up with. But more than that, I think many of these films signify a shift in culture as represented by the juvenile delinquent. The juvenile delinquent is emblematic of changing social values, shifting demographics and interests, as can be seen, for example, in their veneration of rock ‘n’ roll, a music that shocked their parents. Rock ‘n’ roll is the ultimate symbol of rebellion, it always has been and it was for the juvenile delinquents. They heralded the beginning of a new conception of adolescence—the first true teenagers. Previously, teenagers had just been thought of as children who were believed to be children until they were adults. There was no in-between stage where they were regarded as anything else. As the 1950s wore on, a new set of pastimes and media was directed solely at them, and the youth of the era was able to express themselves in myriad ways that had never been available to them up until that point. And because of that, they became repression completely discarded. Refusing to remain unheard, the frustrations of an uptight era were now let out in a resounding howl that, in turn, shaped the way we, today, view an entire era.

Showgirls: A Fable of Excess

     This year I saw Showgirls (1995) for the first time. I decided to make it a whole experience. I bought myself lox, bagels, champagne, and then watched the film, absorbing and reveling in its excess, marshaling a minute amount of its decadence into my own, incredibly confined life. I did this because I knew that, if anything, the film was an exploration of decadence and decadence was its apparent sole purpose. The film explored a decadence of experience, of emotionalism, of materialism, of sex; a world of extremes, of misogyny and corruption. It was a world that simultaneously depicted, critiqued, and encapsulated all of these things, leading to incompatible and often confused conclusions about the film’s purpose.

     Showgirls, often cited as one of the worst movies ever made, follows Nomi Malone, played by Elizabeth Berkley, as she navigates the entertainment world of Las Vegas. Beginning the film as a stripper, we are led to believe that Nomi is a dancer and a true, uncompromising artist. She aspires to leading a revue similar to the one led by Cristal Connors, played by Gina Gershon, her nemesis/mirror image/sexual obsession. Berkley’s performance is one of the things most often derided when the film is discussed. Nomi is explosive, her reactions extreme. She often screams, tearing away from real or perceived slights, from her subjection to a narrative crafted by someone else. According to a Rolling Stone article, however, her style of acting was very intentional. In the article, Paul Verhoeven, the director, is interviewed, saying, “People have, of course, criticized her for being over-the-top in her performance. Most of that comes from me. I pushed it in that direction. Good or not good, I was the one who asked her to exaggerate everything—every move—because that was the element of style that I thought would work for the movie.” If we believe that Verhoeven is telling us the truth, we have a possible set of intentions for how the film was supposed to be read. I see Nomi and her reactions, her overzealous and uncompromising passion, as a kind of compliment to the extremes of the locale. Nomi and her responses mirror the excesses of Las Vegas, a place where extremes hold sway. She is as difficult to contain as the city in which she has chosen to pursue her dreams. The spectacle of Las Vegas becomes the perfect backdrop, a kind of metaphor or mirror to the spectacle of desire, the rituals wherein we, as a society, covet and then degrade the female body, all in the name of entertainment and power. To the men that surround her, Nomi is as much a spectacle as the city itself is.  

     On the one hand, Showgirls appears to be an exploration of misogyny; of American society’s treatment, exploitation, and dueling fascination and disgust with the female form. It appears to interrogate our cultural preoccupation with sex, making us confront the ways that sex and desire are viewed, manufactured, and performed. All of the men are sleazy. They gleefully profit off of women and their bodies. They lie about their relationship to power and their use of it for their own gains. Herein lies the awareness of the film. There is Zack, played by Kyle MacLachlan, an entertainment director who feigns ignorance of the power structures that keep him in women and a life of decadence, Andrew Carver, a vicious rapist, and Tony, a producer at the Stardust, whose disgust for the women in his show leads him to humiliate them on stage, critiquing their appearance, their intelligence, and even going so far as to offer them ice for their nipples. These men are all different degrees of the same  monster and the film is very clear on that fact. They profit off a system where Nomi’s body is on display. While Nomi fights for her autonomy and the validation that she is not, as she fears, a whore, these men exploit her for money, sex, and power. But while the film exposes these standards and damns the men who uphold them, it is also undeniably built upon these same standards. The film delights in the demeaning asides and violence done to its women. It almost appears to revel in the breach of basic morality that the film embodies. But this is one of the things that makes the film so complex. It isn’t clear about what message it is sending. With lines like, “In America, everyone’s a gynecologist” we are shown a world both outrageous and aware, both disgusting and honest about the way these men see women’s bodies, as objects to gawk over and examine, clearly defined as something they can or should be able to take possession of. It is this mixture of shock, awareness, and blatant disregard, much like society’s appraisal of the female body, that makes the film so unendingly confounding. But ultimately, the film revels in the transgressiveness of itself, the violence and sexualization of the women in the film and thus, a film about misogyny also becomes a document of the misogyny of the creators. 

     It is clear, from past films, that Verhoeven, himself, didn’t have the best history with women. In a Vanity Fair excerpt of her book, Sharon Stone describes the infamous interrogation scene from Basic Instinct (a 1992 film also directed by Verhoeven), in which Stone crosses and uncrosses her legs, exposing herself to the men in the room and, by extension, the audience. According to Stone, Verhoeven convinced her to take off her underwear because of a lighting issue, reassuring her that nothing would be seen. She was understandably shocked when she saw the finished film. It is clear that in an attempt to push the boundaries of conventional American film, Verhoeven was more than comfortable sacrificing his actress. This anecdote is, I believe, important in a discussion of Showgirls because it shows the basic disregard that Verhoeven has for his actresses, a disregard that registers as voyeuristic, even as it attempts to justify and dismiss its own voyeurism as cultural critique; choosing basic shock, titillation, and outrage over the safety of those who are investing trust in him as a director. It is through these vehicles that he examines the intersections of sex, fame, and desire in America, often blurring the lines between the intentions of his films and the reigning notions, Verhoeven’s own notions, about women, the female body, and his own power as a director. 

Showgirls is a story about fame, excess, materialism, and greed; a film that serves to both expose and exalt these things, leaving the audience in a dizzying profusion of aesthetics. It is a complete and glamorous contradiction. It delights in all of these things, sacrificing clarity for image. Verhoeven creates a visually stunning but damned world, a world forced to consume itself, leaving no one innocent or unscarred by the violence of its own image. We are shown the extravagance of the locale, an extravagance of emotion, and an extravagance of desire. We are shown a world that both exposes and revels in its misogyny. And that’s why Showgirls is so captivating, because it is all of these things and none of them; it tries, it fails, it tries again. It is simultaneously aware and oblivious. It is captivating in its confusion. But it puts on a good show—honestly, it puts on a beautiful show.

Stone, Sharon. “‘You Can’t Shame Me’: Sharon Stone on How Basic Instinct Nearly Broke Her, Before Making Her a Star.” Vanity Fair, 18 Mar. 2021, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/03/sharon-stone-on-how-basic-instinct-nearly-broke-her.

Wood, Jennifer. “‘Showgirls’: Paul Verhoeven on the Greatest Stripper Movie Ever Made.” Rolling Stone, 22 Sept. 2015, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/showgirls-paul-verhoeven-on-the-greatest-stripper-movie-ever-made-54740/.

Sterling Hayden: The Romantic Trapped by the Leading Man

“Lost, indeed! Don’t talk to me about finding yourself. Only as you are lost is there any hope for you.” -Sterling Hayden, Wanderer (x)

     Sterling Hayden was always the tough guy. Hired time and again to portray gangsters and the seedy underworld they inhabited, he often, through voice and gesture, was able to imbue this world and these characters with nuance and depth. He was able to create portraits of men, haunted and desperate for the past. With grace, he portrayed men whom society had deemed dangerous, giving them space and a voice, and challenging the narratives that society and Hollywood had been disseminating for decades. It was the sensitivity of his every movement that made these characters unforgettable. It is probably 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle for which Hayden is best known. In it he plays Dix Handley, a petty criminal whose whole adult life has been a prolonged attempt to get back to some sense of peace, to a bucolic past of fields and horses, to recapture a beauty and an innocence that has been lost. Beneath all the posturing, his past lends his life meaning. Hayden plays this masterfully, his performance a seeming indictment of society and the censors that would damn all filmic criminals to execution for their misdeeds, no matter how insignificant. He lends Dix a startling humanity that skewers the way in which Hollywood dealt with crime and its villains. It is a master class in turning the status quo on its head, interrogating the stories we tell about ourselves and others. And it makes sense that he was able to do that. He had always been an outsider in Hollywood.

     Sterling Hayden always said that he went into acting just to buy a boat. While indifferent to acting, sailing was his true passion. It is this disinterest that made Hayden a good star. Reluctance, while bad for the psyche, is good for the star. It shows in their work. They are enigmatic, they project an indestructible aloofness to their audience. He was clearly a man not made for Hollywood, but for adventure. A romantic, in the true sense of the word, in his later years he was surrounded by books of poetry and was known to quote from them extensively. Having traveled throughout the world seeking adventure, he cultivated an almost Hemingwayesque persona for mischief: at fifteen, he was aboard a fishing boat and by World War II, he was parachuting into war zones. Sailing seems to have been an extension of this, the wildness and ambiguity paired with the euphoria of danger, autonomy, and control. On a boat, Hayden was in charge of his destiny, not so in Hollywood. It was a place of facade, a place where, especially during the 1940s and 1950s, the actor was indebted and subservient to the studio. He went from extreme freedom to the rigid and uncompromising control of the Hollywood studio system. This went, quickly, from merely uncomfortable, to dangerous. 

     During the 1950s, with anti-communist sentiment high, the House Un-American Activities Commitee, or HUAC, became one of the most powerful and feared organizations in Hollywood. Actors, screenwriters, directors, and many others were called before the Committee for alleged communist ties and were forced to either name other known Communists or face an unofficial but powerful blacklist. Hayden, who joined the Communist Party in his youth, was soon called to testify. What he did next was the thing that plagued him for the rest of his life. He named names. Although the names he mentioned were already known to the committee, he was filled with a regret, the depths of which he could never pull himself out of. He spoke frequently on this point in his later life, not in an attempt to absolve himself, but rather to speak frankly about the cost to himself and others of this action. He seemed to forever damn himself. He was hired for many films after his appearance before HUAC and, seeing these films as payment for his testimony, decided to leave Hollywood.

     “Pharos of Chaos”, a 1983 documentary, gives us a glimpse of Hayden’s later life, after his self-imposed exile from Hollywood. Living on a barge outside of a small Parisian town and plagued by alcoholism, Hayden is shown at his most frank. The film is composed of moments that together form one of the most unflinching surveys of a man’s life. To a young man asleep on a boat, Hayden recalls having said, “Strange that you can’t see. What a terrible affliction.” While a story of a different time, I believe this statement means much more because Hayden is a man who sees everything. He is a man tormented by his faults, whose clarity of vision has caused him to demand so much of himself. He is a man whose perception has made him solitary, who has failed to find comfort in the ideals of a modern homogenized society. He is a man of awareness and it is this that has made his life so poignant and so hard. Building your life the way you want it, surrounded by the things that you draw beauty and inspiration from, does not necessarily mean that you are able to escape the ways that you have let yourself down. This is what we see when we see an older Hayden, a contemplative and pained man, constantly at odds with himself. Here’s the thing though, to have the vulnerability to accept that you did wrong is to show what true strength is. And here, again, we see the outsider and the mentality that characterized Hayden. The honesty. He wanted to show people what the world had been and what it had momentarily turned him into. 

     There are many ways that the HUAC hearings killed people. Some were more obvious, like suicide or stressed induced heart attacks, and others were more subtle. Hayden’s is an example of the latter. The gnawing and overwhelming guilt, the sense of personal devastation at the loss of one’s morals, and the deeply held conviction that there is no returning from that loss. The refusal to learn how to live with yourself after you have let yourself down. It is a devastating thing to think about. The drinking to mask the despair, the loneliness, the knowledge that you are not the person you hoped you would be. But doesn’t the honesty about what he perceived as his failings actually show fortitude and awareness? Isn’t that what makes a person powerful? I think he would heartily disagree, but how are we supposed to change ourselves and the world if we can’t even accept our own failures. Maybe he never found peace with himself, in fact, I’m sure he didn’t, but at least he was honest, to himself and to his audience, and in that he showed strength. It was not the strength of the tough guy from the movie, but real human strength, the kind made up of fragility. It is the kind of strength that we should actually mean when we talk about strength and it made Sterling Hayden who he was.

Blank, Manfred and Wolf-Eckart Bühler, dir. Pharos of Chaos. 1983: The Criterion Collection, 2016. DVD. 

Hayden, Sterling. Wanderer. Connecticut: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018.

Elizabeth Taylor: The Persona and The Public

     When my Mother was young, she crept into the dining room where her Mother was, deep in conversation with a neighbor. At the mention of Elizabeth Taylor, my Grandmother turned up her nose, shook her head, and, in a voice dripping with derision, called her “the sexy witch.” With this off-hand statement my Grandmother seemed to have encapsulated her worldview. In saying it, she set herself up in opposition to whatever she saw as the threat of Elizabeth Taylor, of glamour. It seemed to be an incantation for her own place in the world, no matter how small or filled with turmoil. Taylor was the image of sensuality and luxury, of unabashed desire, and my Grandmother was a woman in and of small town Oregon, a woman for whom these things did not only not apply but to whom these things would have been seen as truly forbidden. They were of two completely different worlds and that, with resentment and resignation, is what my Grandmother latched on to. 

     Elizabeth Taylor is a true movie star, a woman whose image is indelibly linked to the studio system and its old elegance. She was a woman whose many transformations, from child star to mid-century ingénue then, finally, to decadent, tempestuous artist, could never destroy her. She was resilient, never acquiescing to demands, but always countering with her own. She was a woman full of empathy and compassion, whose ability to care for those she saw as the victims of an uncaring society, was vast. She was accustomed to luxury and she reveled in it, in diamonds and in fury. She was a force of emotionalism, in her films and out of them, and all of these things conspired to make her, according to the negative view of my Grandmother, “the sexy witch.”

     But what made Elizabeth Taylor the “sexy witch” is what made her great. She was uncontrollable, frank, and unapologetic. These personality traits were cultivated, alongside scandal, throughout her career. Maybe the first time the public truly turned on Taylor was in 1959, when she began a very public affair with the very married Eddie Fisher. His wife, Debbie Reynolds, was fashioned by the press into the all-American sweetheart, the poor angelic woman, the pious and devoted wife, left unceremoniously by her husband. Taylor was vilified. The dichotomy was cemented: the naïve, blonde wife and the harlot, the seductress, the wanton homewrecker, who seemed to feed on immorality, sex, and a general disregard for others. She became the enemy of all wives, of Americana, of the suburban dream. Taylor, for her part, decided to lean into the role that had been written for her. In an interview, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper questioned her about the affair and Taylor responded with, “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?” (Longworth). She was unabashed and while under fire from conservative pundits and the culture at large, she dug in her heels and seemed to say what no one else had dared say: that, as a woman, she had desires and that they were foremost and, further, that she would not be shamed by them. She was bold, she was unapologetic, and she emerged triumphant, gaining her fourth husband and a Best Actress Oscar for BUtterfield 8 in 1960. This was the Taylor that people saw when they went to the movies. The public who read the newspaper and the movie magazines knew all of the details of the scandal and projected this image onto her. And Taylor, who refused to conform to the few acceptable notions of femininity available to her at the time, reflected this in her very public life and in her films.

     And then, a few years later, on the set of Cleopatra, she began an affair with her co-star, Richard Burton. When the affair became public knowledge, the studio sued both Taylor and Burton, citing morality. To the studio, Taylor and Burton’s behavior on set damaged the film’s value. But what the studio didn’t seem to acknowledge was that it added to Burton and Taylor’s allure. All of this was widely commented upon by newspapers, gossip columnists, and the general public. Together, they had become a cultural force. Here, again, Taylor seemed to court intrigue and salacious rumor and emerge from it all even stronger. Throughout her life, she was married and divorced eight times (twice to Burton, whose tumultuous nature was well-documented). Some of her later films even highlight her growing frankness and apparent abhorrence for convention. In The Sandpiper (1965), where she was once again paired with Burton, Taylor plays Laura, a single mother whose son is forced to go to a parochial school. She is a free-spirited painter who lives by the ocean and shirks convention. She is tied, metaphorically, to the place she inhabits, the wild untamed power of Big Sur. Burton, as the headmaster of the school, soon becomes enamoured with Taylor, learning that following convention for its own sake can itself be a kind of sin, wherein there is no room for the human spirit. Laura is undeniably free, and so is Taylor herself. Taylor’s public persona and knowledge of her personal life is brought along to add depth and nuance to her character. The scandals of her life are addressed and seemingly justified within this film. 

     Given all of this, I don’t think my Grandmother’s response was unusual. Many women probably reacted to Taylor this way. Partly because she seemed to threaten the very foundations of their lives and marriages (the monogamous husband and the devoted, yet unsexual wife), and because she is all of the things that they were not allowed to be. She reveled in her sexuality and when its particulars were made public, she decided to revel in that too. Rather than apologizing, she made light of the things that were designed to harm her. She became something difficult to contain, something wild and willful. Women can’t be that, society continued to say. (My Grandmother, for example, was ostracized in her small town religious community for getting a very necessary divorce.) But Elizabeth Taylor was that and to many women, whose firm belief in a system that had not only trapped them but forced them to celebrate their submission, grew to resent it. To be a part of so rarefied a world, so insular and protected, that all of your scandal, all of your supposed misdeeds only added to your allure, was unacceptable. My Grandmother seemed to resent that mobility, that world of apparent ease, a world with which she, on some instinctive level, knew that she would never have any common ground. These shows of emotion, these tempests, were something a small town American woman was not allowed. To express your needs, however minuscule or life-affirming, was akin to selfishness. Taylor was the opposite of that and she loved it. I only wish that women like my Grandmother could have seen that, could have found some solace in it rather than resenting and attempting to harm it. I wish that they could have been allied, their views on their femininity not something to fight over, their respective places in the world not something filled with resentment, but with support and understanding. Rather than lashing out at the things that were holding her in an impossible place, she chose to do so to Elizabeth Taylor and I get it, I really do, but it also makes me kind of sad. There are things that she could have learned from Taylor: how to be thorny, what it means to persevere, how volatility can be beauty and boldness can be life giving, how society will not protect you and decorum will destroy you. If she wasn’t forced to hate her, I think she could have loved her.

Longworth, Karina. “You Must Remember This: How Elizabeth Taylor Won Her Oscar.” Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2015/12/elizabeth-taylor-and-eddie-fishers-affair-and-taylors-oscar.html

On Holly Madison, The Girls Next Door, and Debunking One of Our Greatest Misogynistic Legends

     In March of 2021, after living for a year in the relative isolation of a pandemic, when the look of my face in the mirror had become overly familiar and overly scrutinized, when the relief of a vaccine rollout was paired with an anxiety that seemed to whisper to me daily that now, in this final stretch, irony dictated that I would contract Covid, I began to watch the Playboy Mansion centered reality television show, The Girls Next Door. It was a welcome distraction, an extreme of a different variety. Instead of the world that I was dealing with daily, I was pulled into an extreme of denial, of control, of questionable sexual politics, all played off as the risqué and off-color jokes of a frivolous era. But it was when Holly Madison, known as Hugh Hefner’s number one girlfriend, said, “I don’t get jealous of other girls, because I was… raised in a cloning lab to be the perfect woman for Hugh M. Hefner…” that I really started to pay attention. It was a case of a thinly veiled joke that doesn’t quite land, one delivered with the eerily unwavering eyes and flat voice of someone numbed or held hostage by their experiences. It was a joke that appeared to speak to a truth that has been barely hidden, socially accepted, and yet rarely discussed. A joke that appeared to deflate the myth of Playboy. 

     The Girls Next Door aired from 2005 until 2010 and followed the misadventures of Hugh Hefner’s three girlfriends and their lives within the Playboy Mansion compound. While ostensibly a story about the growth and identities of three women, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson, the show functioned as a fairly obvious PR stunt that served to reinvigorate the Playboy brand while also dispelling any unsavory stories or connotations that it had acquired since its inception in 1953. Sure, the show trafficked in often sophomoric humor about sex and gender and, much like the magazine, was built upon women’s bodies, but all of these things seemed to underline the accepted myth that the Mansion was a place of fun where inhibition had no place and, further, that posing for Playboy was, in fact, a form of liberation. It was this format and these jokes that were meant to overshadow the serious rumors and allegations that have dogged the magazine and Hefner for decades. In the world of The Girls Next Door this darker side did not exist. Or, at least, it didn’t until 2015, when Holly Madison wrote a memoir entitled Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny. With the publication of this memoir came the revelations that were often obscured by myth, the things that we knew instinctively, but never with any clarity. For Madison, the experience of Hefner and the Playboy Mansion was one of constant humiliation, verbal abuse, manipulation, and impossible body standards. But this of course makes perfect sense. We are dealing with a brand built on women’s bodies and the scrutiny placed upon them. A brand whose use of women renders them almost completely inconsequential; one that views them as mere objects to obtain in the quest to become the ideal man, a man based and built around Hefner himself. This tenet is essential to Playboy and can be seen everything, particularly in the composition of the notorious Playboy centerfold. One of the most crucial elements to a centerfold is an object that insinuates the presence of a man (a tie, a glass of whiskey, a cigar or pipe) placed in the background. This object implies that a man is never far away, that he is the true subject and spectator, while the woman a mere object. The woman, the actual woman, whose body is there, is rendered inconsequential, a mere adornment for the lifestyle of the man. And, unsurprisingly, that is much the way that Madison describes her time at the Mansion. 

     In Down the Rabbit Hole, Madison draws parallels between her time at Playboy and the fairy tales and fables embedded in our society. In doing this, she is exposing the fantasy as an illusion, and a detrimental one at that. Rather than living in lush and uncomplicated luxury, as the show would have us believe, we are shown a portrait of a man threatened by his own mortality and fear of inadequacy, whose massive ego was so burdened by his image that he insisted on parading around with a brood of women who could easily have been his grandchildren. She describes a man who lashed out regularly, creating a culture so isolated and so toxic, it was barely livable. Within the Mansion, there were strict regulations (a nine p.m. curfew, for example), an endless fund for plastic surgery that would render women nearly indistinguishable, and an insular world where women were pitted against each other for Hefner’s affections and approval. It comes as no surprise that Hefner is a misogynistic bully, but Madison’s account is noteworthy for its proximity to the world she is depicting. Throughout the book she details the mental and physical effects that living in such extremes can have on a person and as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of what this brand, this show, and this story meant in the larger context of our society. It seemed to me to become not just about Holly Madison, who is a captivating and sympathetic protagonist, but to be a kind of illustration of the hurdles that face all women, a manifestation of our society’s most deeply held beliefs. The television show, as I viewed it in 2021, appears to have, despite Hefner’s best, and worst, intentions, become a sinister document of the ways in which women are forced to contort themselves to fit into very narrowly defined forms of femininity, dictated to them solely by male desire. Under all the manufactured glamour and seemingly dizzying excitement of a life of material excess, there was an underlying darkness that appeared to say, above all else, that this act of contortion, this manufactured beauty, will not protect you. The empty look in Madison’s eyes when delivering her lines, the hollow laugh, hinted at a reality darker than the show would admit. 

     Within the television show, I saw all the goals of the magazine realized, the surface celebrated, beauty venerated and accepted as depth. With Madison’s book, I saw the image of the magazine, of Hefner, and its effect on society, in a much clearer way. I began to think of it as an example of the ways in which women are meant to carry the emotional and existential baggage of a society. I thought of how we are often saddled with the responsibility of conforming to and alleviating men’s pain and if we honestly address the distress and humiliation caused by this position, we are usually met with accusation and disbelief. Madison forces us to confront these troubling patterns. Further, we are forced to come face to face with the absurd societal notions that conflate beauty with safety and value. Engaging with Madison’s story, we confront the pervasive myth that beauty grants women safety from predatory men, that beauty means one can’t or will not be exposed to pain and suffering, that beauty implies virtue and the idea that certain people, depending on their image or their actions, are more deserving of our sympathy than others. Holly Madison, through her work, complicates all of these ideas and chips away at some of our culture’s most stubborn and strongly held myths, allowing us a vision of vulnerability and honesty that can change the way we perceive and tell women’s stories. 

Britney Spears: The Danger of Fame and the Power of Vulnerability

     Most of my days are suffused with a broad kind of sadness, a sadness that is made up of worldwide panic, and mixed with a personal anxiety that my, at times, recognizable and yet endlessly incomprehensible routine could stretch into the foreseeable future. It is a large amorphous sadness that lies in wait, ready to be triggered by the most unexpected, seemingly mundane events or memories. For me, the last few days have been punctuated by a particular sadness borne of nostalgia and the remembrance of cultural misdeeds. What I was feeling was melancholy at the rediscovery of Britney Spears. As with many days during the pandemic, I found myself researching random events or phenomena and this time I was drawn to the controversy surrounding Britney Spears and her conservatorship, an ongoing saga since 2007. As I found myself looking through Spears’s Instagram, I felt a deep well of sadness for what we, as a society, had put her through. As I viewed the heroic, unflagging optimism with which she still chooses to meet us, I realized that I was looking at, not merely a pop icon, but a woman whose truthfulness and idealism is an inspiration. In a post dated September 16th, 2020, Spears captions an image “Ask yourself today … am I truly happy ??? What makes you happy … coffee [coffee emoji] early in the morning ??? Dancing for hours ??? Making lots of plans for the day then canceling [woman shrugging emoji] ??? Whatever it is …. I am trying to find more ways to give myself more self-love ….. and feeling confident in my divine feminine body !!! I experience so much joy and passion ….. and always try to find ways I can demonstrate that to you all !!! I hope you are also finding ways to find joy and happiness… GOD BLESS YOU ALL !!!!”

     There is a sensitivity and a relatability to these posts, as if a dreamy-eyed friend is reaching out to you. Her Instagram account is filled with images of flowers, tea cups, kittens, and fairies. It is a place infused with hopeful wonder; a kind of prayer for the world to be a little kinder, an incantation for idealism, as if dreaming a little beauty into the world can be the thing that sets you free. Contrasted with her early career and the way the world treated her, it is a poignant reminder of the frailty that each one of us holds within ourselves, a reminder that behind the impenetrable facade of the pop star, there is a deeply sensitive human being (a thing that we often forget). It is a thing that, in mid-2007, was far from anyone’s mind as we all gleefully consumed the emotional and mental breakdown of Britney Spears. I’d like to say that this occurred during the early years of modern celebrity and that the boundaries were not yet drawn between the public and the private; that we were merely craving an inside look at the lives of the people who shaped our culture and our world. In short, I’d like to be able to say that we just didn’t know any better. But we did know better, or, at least, we should have known better. We had already had to contend with the public ridicule and humiliation that had swallowed the lives and careers of women such as Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Courtney Love, and Anna Nicole Smith. We had been through it before. We had watched on as women who failed to live up to all of the myriad and often contradictory expectations that are put upon women were mocked and became mere punchlines as they navigated drastic and often dangerous circumstances. We watched on, delighting in their pain and refusing to accept their stories of abuse and trauma, refusing to see any vulnerability, as if accepting their precarious position would force us to come to terms with our own, a thing that we could not allow ourselves. We had been through this all before. Britney was no new phenomena, yet we let it happen again. We voraciously consumed her pain and laughed at her for signaling a humanity, a crack in the image that had previously seemed impenetrable. But we’ve always had a morbid fascination with the destruction of the perfect image, relishing the details of the downfall, perhaps because it makes us feel superior. Think of Marilyn Monroe, in many ways a parallel to Britney in terms of fame and public persona. We relish the image of Monroe because she is forever beautiful and young. In other words, we relish her because of her tragedy, because she did not survive. 

     According to a Vox article that lays out the details of Britney’s conservatorship, in 2007, when she shaved her head, she was heard “telling a nearby tattoo artist that she was sick of people touching her hair…” For anyone who was alive during this period of Britney’s all too public life, the image of Britney shaving her head is an infamous one, etched into our consciousness with the guilt borne of moments too intimate for our knowledge. For it is with simple statements such as this that we realize the true toll of our obsession with her. We realize the depths of our entitlement, as if our love for her music decreed that her pain was our property as well. So, of course she attempted to force a distance between her and the ravenous consumption of her image. It was an act of desperation for peace, for a moment of silence against the roar of our derision, it was Britney attempting to place a barrier between herself and her image and, for a moment, it must have felt like a revolution. It was a drastic attempt to carve out space for herself in a world that wouldn’t allow her to be a complex woman, that only allowed for the exploitation of her image. Imagine for a moment the horror of Britney’s daily reality, the excessive scrutiny and the endless parade of people pawing at you. Escaping by almost any means necessary becomes an instantly understandable, even recognizable, desire. 

      Britney Spears has always been resolutely all-American; a promise through which we, her audience, could hone all of our aspirations about love, womanhood, and success. She was the image of perfection for so long, that the fracture seemed somehow both inevitable and cataclysmic. But even though this, she is also the image of the survivor. The image of resolute optimism. And even after we betrayed her with our ridicule, she offers us a glimpse of her dreams, of life as she prefers to imagine it. For that we should feel extremely lucky because it is a sweet dream of a simultaneously simple and magnificent life, graceful, innocent, and excessive in its girlishness. Sometimes it is necessary to retreat into these created worlds for our own safety, a fact that Spears’s Instagram feed appears to acknowledge. Britney’s tale is one of resilience, but it is also a cautionary tale about fame and the ways in which we, as consumers, relate to fame. All too often, we end up feeling entitled to the pain and suffering of our idols. It has been thirteen years since Spears had to retreat from public life for a brief time and I want to believe that we have changed as a society, but the truth is, if it were to happen tomorrow, to another pop star, I fear that we would not act any differently. We can see Britney and her story as a plea that we strive to be better, because we need to be better. We were given the perfect pop star, and instead of protecting her, we tried to destroy her. 

Grady, Constance. “Why Britney’s Fans are Convinced She’s Being Held Captive.” Vox. Last modified August 19, 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/21328341/britney-spears-conservatorship-explained-free-britney. 

Spears, Britney (britneyspears). “Just a Touch of Rose [red rose emoji]/ Ask yourself today … am I truly happy ??? What makes you happy … coffee [coffee emoji] early in the morning ??? Dancing…” Instagram, September 16, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/CFNPd6nAWlr/?igshid=fh8ispkuibdl.

The Empty Promise of Nostalgia in the World of “Twin Peaks”

“When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first and the wind rises and then all goodness is in jeopardy.”

-The Log Lady to Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992. 

     A profound nostalgia for an imagined past and an invisible but omnipresent force control and shape the small town of Twin Peaks. It is a place where contemporary life fuses seamlessly with an idealized mid-century sensibility. The notion of mid-century normalcy has been exposed as a fraud, but the myth is persistent, as is this town’s insistence on preserving its particular brand of pristine Norman Rockwell-style Americana. But what the town refuses to admit is that when you give yourself over to nostalgia, a darkness borne of unresolved conflict and trauma often thrives. In an early episode of Twin Peaks, whose original two seasons aired from 1990-1991, Sheriff Harry S. Truman explains to FBI agent Dale Cooper, an outsider, that there is some unknown but powerful force that lurks in the woods surrounding Twin Peaks and that it is the necessary price for the town’s very specific eccentricities, it’s idealism and quaintness. Inherent in this is the notion that for something to be perfect, there has to be a darker truth that is obscured, that we sacrifice a very real knowledge of ourselves and of the larger world in order to keep the simplicity of a different time. But it is this dichotomy on which the show’s aesthetics are built; the beauty and simplicity of nostalgia, of the American mid-century suburban dream in contrast with the darkness that comes of such an intense and self-imposed blindness in a drive towards normalcy. The show is aware of this dichotomy and exploits it, marking the suburban home as a place of horror, not comfort. Throughout the original run of the series, we are shown the disintegration of this very specific, very stylized American dream, but it is in other Twin Peaks-related media that David Lynch, without trepidation or restraint, explores the true human expense of such saccharine dreams. 

     The nostalgic aesthetic of Twin Peaks is nowhere more evident than with the styling and characterization of the women. In their saddle shoes, calf-length tartan skirts, and houndstooth suits, they seem to reference a mid-century simplicity and austerity along with a notion of 1950s young womanhood that prides itself on innocence and virtue, a young womanhood both exemplified by and condemned in the figure of Laura Palmer. It is a town steeped in a past dominated by the image of the white picket fence, but as we now know, the white picket fence did little to protect those who erected it from deep-seated discontent and rampant emotional and physical violence. Similarly, the inhabitants of Twin Peaks, who yearn for the days of the white picket fence, find themselves contending with the failures of such an ideal, finding themselves with only a useless fence with which to trap themselves alongside these very real dangers. It is a nostalgia that hides the realities of adultery, rampant drug use, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. 

     The price of this false ideal is interrogated further in two pieces of media created in relation to Twin Peaks. The feature-length film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and the novelization The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990) explore in stark terms the human expense of the world that Lynch and Mark Frost created without the benefit of quirky, endearing characters. These works explore a more nuanced world in which pervasive Lynchian dream logic crashes menacingly into the all too real trauma of a world so hell bent on revering the empty symbols of Americana that it leads to the suffering of those who spend their lives in service to such illusions. The film and book are an exploration of what Americana really means; what it stands for and what it obscures. Without the trappings of nostalgia, we are left with the discomfiting presence of the overwhelmingly impoverished, the unwanted, the decrepit, and their suffering. We are forced to face the senseless violence that is America and we are forced to accept that Twin Peaks is, without a doubt, a part of this America. In Fire Walk With Me, a kind of prequel to the series, we are shown Twin Peaks as a claustrophobic world from which Laura Palmer cannot escape. It is a complex and frightening world, where she is forced to face an ever-present violence. She, in turn, becomes as frightening and erratic as she possibly can be in an attempt to challenge danger, to challenge death. She channels her grief into her own self-destruction, craving it as much as she fears it. Her grief and her anger is so immense it pours out of her, threatening to destroy her and those around her. These are very human explorations of trauma and their every manifestation, and Lynch offers us no reprieve, no moment of levity in which to turn away from this young woman’s suffocating pain. We are drawn into this claustrophobic world with Laura, her pain surrounds us. The film gives us Laura Palmer not as symbol, but as human being; her image is no longer a blank slate onto which all of the other characters project their own needs and desires. We are shown a girl with a complex and troubling inner life. We see her suffering plainly in the routine that is her daily existence. She is never able to escape herself. Forever banished is the notion of Laura as the symbol of the sweet, beautiful blonde, the girl next door, the homecoming queen. She is no longer the uncomplicated face staring out of a picture frame, a frame which, within the series, serves to highlight the confines of her life and her story. This indelible image, with its literal framing, bars anyone from truly seeing her trauma. They are instead dazzled by the seemingly sincere smile that emanates from the photograph, by the facade. These are the confines under which she herself struggles as she strives to find a sense of safety in herself, in her life, and in those around her, a sense of safety that she is ultimately never able to find.Twin Peaks allows us a glimpse into the dream of America, a dream that offers so much and continuously fails to deliver, a dream which, contrary to its image, serves to hide deep wells of horror. With the companion piece, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we see the suburban dream opening up into a vision of hell, a destructive force rendered in powerful imagery. In this film, Lynch appears to be saying, in as strident a way as he possibly can, that your particular brand of nostalgia will not protect you, it will not save you, and may very well kill you.

Jayne Mansfield and the Shaming of a Sex Symbol

It is impossible, or, at the very least, irresponsible to look at a creative output or filmography and not look at the time in which it was created. This is true of anyone’s work, but it is especially true in regards to sex symbols. Through their work they tell us about social mores, the boundaries of propriety, and what femininity is composed of in a particular era. Personally, when I see the performances of women who are considered sex symbols, I am filled with a subtle but distinct thrill, a feeling of joy in response to what I see as the transgressive nature of their work. These are women who delight in overstepping the boundaries that society has built, whose very personas and existences are built to shock. These are women who refuse the mid-century notion that womanhood is domesticity and matronly care. That is, I believe, the essence of their longevity; this ability to harness symbols and mores of femininity and twist them into something so extravagant and irrational that they become a kind of retaliation against the status quo. Thus, their images still seem fresh and exciting even today. These women, Jayne Mansfield included, use depictions of femininity that are reductive or based on the tropes of mid-century womanhood and in taking them to an illogical extreme, are able to turn the image against their audience, the very men who desire them. It is in this that I see a very meticulously cultivated and potentially transgressive image.

In her work, Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties, Martha Saxton offers us a different interpretation of the role of the sex symbol in American society. Saxton chronicles the life and  rise of Mansfield as a cultural juggernaut whose image was integral to a post-war sense of fecundity and wealth. She assesses, with precise detail, the notions of femininity, womanhood, and sex that were so pervasive in this era as to give rise to Mansfield and many other bombshells. It was, after all, the era of the bombshell. Saxton is adept at describing American society in the 1950s, with all its double standards based in purity and conformity. She relates this to Mansfield and her persona, exposing her as an outgrowth specific to that era and its preoccupations. She works to expose the fraud of 1950s womanhood, but manages to damn Mansfield for pushing against these very strictures. I see her analysis of Mansfield’s life and work as particularly reductive. Saxton characterizes Mansfield as fickle and not particularly interested in anything or anyone unless it had monetary or concrete value in terms of her career. Where one could interpret Mansfield’s approach as an example of her business savvy, Saxton reduces Mansfield’s actions to that of an insatiable exhibitionist, whose endless exploitation of others and cold calculations are the legacy of her work. In this, Mansfield’s intelligence is undermined. The book was as exhaustive in its appraisal of societal norms and conventions as it was short sighted in its assessment of Mansfield and her ability to cultivate a persona that was a force within mid-century America.

One of second wave feminism’s blind spots in relation to femininity and its construction has to do with bombshells. As with Saxton’s work, many scholars fail to acknowledge the hard work and ingenuity of the women who work within this mode. They are able to take the tropes of femininity, often degrading, and take them to their most absurd. In this, they expose the construction. They render it, and by extension society, ridiculous. These women are often underappreciated masters of comedic timing and manipulation of mores, especially the hypocritical ones, the ones that showcase a simultaneous revulsion and preoccupation with sex and its every manifestation. Rather than completely writing off these creations, can’t we also see them as potentially subversive, as images that take control of the narrative, that masterfully wrest control of the image away from the traditional image-makers, men?

Saxton’s book often refers to Mansfield’s shameless need to promote herself. Mansfield was known for constantly using gimmicks to get the media’s attention. Saxton finds this disgusting, trashy, and abhorrent. But why do we never reframe this narrative? She is an actress. She is an actress whose worth is tied up in her appearance, as an actress’s worth often is. She thus has a finite amount of time in which to achieve the success she desires. She understands this. She takes action to maximize the time she has, capitalizing on her beauty and allure. Every actor does this. So why do we hate and antagonize her for it? She got the media’s attention and she did it largely on her own. By those terms, we should be praising her for her savvy handling of media and audience expectations. But we don’t. We decide to find this display, when coming from Jayne Mansfield, pathetic.  It is a double standard that is stifling, one in which Mansfield could never win. Typecast as the dumb blonde, all of her actions were interpreted to uphold this narrative. The construction of her own persona and the savvy with which she handled the media is rarely mentioned in conversations about Jayne and it should be because the dominant narrative of Mansfield, the dumb blonde, and the creation and handling of her career, much of which she did herself, do not add up. But what it boils down to, in this case, and in many others like it, is that here is a woman so brazen, so unapologetic in her rush to fame, so openly desirous of success, that we, as a society, object. We don’t like to see anyone, especially women, plainly lusting after the fame and adoration of millions. We don’t like to see a woman’s longing as fully and obviously as all that. If a woman has aspirations, they should be hidden, not brazenly bandied about in a bikini. Mansfield’s goals were as obvious as anything. It is transparent in all her publicity and even by today’s standards, that transparency is shocking. It is a woman working hard and demanding the things she desires from a society that would rather not pay her desires any mind, a society that would rather restore Mansfield to the role of desired. This blatant aspiration is not particularly acceptable, there is too much obvious want there, it is too plain. Better, as a woman, to be quietly dissatisfied, than to be openly desirous of anything.

By the end of her work, Saxton has begun to acknowledge Jayne’s drive for fame and the difficulties inherent in sculpting just such a persona. Saxton is able to acknowledge Jayne’s hard work and the astuteness which contributed to her success, but it is too little too late. Saxton has spent the whole book denigrating Jayne’s contributions to film and to the public discourse on fame and sex. It is not a wholly positive contribution, but it should be acknowledged that a woman saw the mores, took them, manipulated them, twisted them to extremes, and was able to take a subjugation and turn it into a position of power. Saxton derides her for her choices, chastises her for stupidity, real and feigned. But really, if we are talking about Mansfield, we are talking about a woman who saw a system that privileges men and was able to take it and manipulate it so it worked for her. That should not go unnoticed or unrecognized. That takes intelligence. We should not conflate a persona with a person and we should not shame the person for the damnable strictures put upon them by society. That is, after all, the work of a sex symbol. Women like Mansfield and Monroe took something they recognized as artificial, namely the way that womanhood and femininity are conceived of, and exposed its artificiality by taking it to its most absurd conclusion. To not see a kind of power there is to wholly miss the point.

Saxton, Martha. Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.