The Celluloid Glass Ceiling: How Patty Jenkins Became Our New Super Heroine

Last weekend, Warner’s Wonder Woman broke a box office record. It’s the first film directed by a woman to crack $100 million at the box office. It also revealed a long suppressed, dirty secret of Hollywood; the celluloid boardroom is just as sexist a the rest of corporate America. And it took a film about a strong woman directed by a strong woman to show us that.

Last year, only 7% of the 250 highest-grossing films were directed by women, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That number has fallen 2% over the past two decades. Even though women consistently take home directing prizes in prestigious festivals like Sundance for art-house films, they’re largely boxed out of the most lucrative genres.

I don’t think Patty was raised by Amazons or wears body armor (except maybe in the boardroom) but she had to overcome a lot of obstacles to make this film happen, including replacing another director (Michelle Maclaren) to make the first major superheroine movie in over a decade. The last attempts were Catwoman and Elektra: both films were directed by men, got poor reviews, flopped at the box office and convinced studios for several years that female superhero movies just “don’t work.”

Ironically, Patty nailed it by not shying away from Wonder Woman’s (played by Gal Gadot) fragile, “more feminine” side. The film opens with our young heroine, Diana, true to the legend as a girl being raised by women on a remote Greek island. The notion of a young, fearless girl being trained by strong-willed mother figures is a powerful, irresistible trope that has long languished in Hollywood’s overtly sexist “princess mentality.” The notion that a superhero can only recognize her superpower from a male dominated myth, is refreshingly obliterated by the first ten minutes of the film.

When the young Diana finds herself in the middle of World War I, confused and fragile, I marveled at how far we’ve come from the TV cartoon icon of the 1970’s. Diana doesn’t look tough and voluptuous the way Lynda Carter did; she looks tough, and lost. By avoiding all the distracting modern gadgets that fuel modern superhero movies, and placing it in a backdrop of history’s most bloody and pointless war, we see a real woman, who must use more wits than magic to overcome a fear many women have: that their power and drive will undermine a real, romantic relationship.

The casting of Godot was brilliant and is true to form for Jenkins as she’s adept at turning incredibly beautiful women into real human beings (She directed Monster, starring Charlize Theron). Godot isn’t really beautiful until she gets knocked down and punched in the face. Then she becomes the kind of woman who baffles and enthralls her love interest.

For her achievement, Sally Jenkins stands alone, but I don’t think this film could’ve gotten a green light were it not for our begrudging acceptance that gender roles are complex, too complex for your typical “Blockbuster.”

Hollywood, despite all it’s liberal progress needs to realize that sex and gender are still worlds apart and exploring this divide will make future “superhero movies” into films about real women who realize their extraordinary power comes from within.

Why We’re Afraid of Fearless Girl

Happy May 1st.

Who’s your favorite “Fearless Girl?”

If you know my book, Cease & Desist, you know my favorite FEARLESS GIRL is Cease de Menich. But, I want to know who you’d chose to be your favorite FEARLESS GIRL. Maybe she’s a friend from school who’s done something awesome. Maybe she’s one of your kids? I’ll be asking that question all this week on my blog. Please tell us what it takes to be a FEARLESS GIRL in our society today.

On Wall Street there’s a bronze statue of a girl who looks about the same age as the sixth graders in the middle school that I teach. She looks pretty fearless as she’s standing up to a raging bronze bull; and she’d better be, it doesn’t take much to see that bull represents men, greed and the lack of women in positions of financial power. The artist Kristen Visbal, maintains that the statue of a child posed with her fists on her hips represents “the power of women in leadership.” Many feminists who don’t like the statue claim she’s a cheap corporate-centric ploy to hide the real issues like equal pay and reproductive rights (the piece was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors).

Everyone loves the image of empowerment represented by a girl standing up for herself in the ruthless, financial jungle our world has become. But, how would some of us men feel if it were a woman standing there? Pretty intimated, right?

But the problem goes deeper than that for men, women and children.

We aren’t just angry at Fearless Girl. We’re afraid of her, afraid for her. We’re afraid because we know in our hearts her future is imperiled. She doesn’t stand a chance alongside a President who is being mocked as “the pussy-grabber-in-chief”; but also brags his daughter (or is that his wife? Even he often gets them confused) is a model–not just for the latest issue of Maxim–but for longer maternity leave. Will our fearless young women be devoured by the wave of sexism that many attribute to the presidents base? Hilary Clinton recently claimed that she lost the election because of misogyny, that America is threatened by having a woman in the oval office. I don’t believe that a majority of us feel that way. I watch young girls stand up for their rights every day in my classroom.

The real problem isn’t just emanating from the oval office. The truth is, Fearless Girl doesn’t stand a chance against the mixed messages the media sends all young women. We want our daughters to be strong, but don’t we also want them to look gorgeous in revealing bikinis? The media thinks so. And the truth is, we who call ourselves “feminists” don’t even know what that word stands for anymore. The most progressive and intelligent young women I talk to at my school don’t consider themselves feminists, because they think it stands for a woman who doesn’t like men and doesn’t enjoy being herself.

To speak against feminism is to speak against basic human rights. But it’s time for someone to admit that the type of feminism that once worked–or at least, forced people to take notice–has changed. Young women aren’t weaker than they were a generation ago, but they’re a lot more confused about how their voices will be heard. Fearless Girl doesn’t just need a woman mentor, she needs an interpreter who can help separate the truth from the bull. 

Our Bold New Virtual World.

When we read something outlandish in a novel, we think that could never happen in real life, and we break that willing suspension of disbelief that makes reading fiction so enjoyable. When we witness a horrible event in real life, we doubt our senses, and a part of our brain tries to convince us that what we’re seeing isn’t entirely “real.” Scientists say this is the way the brain protects itself from the enormity of horrible events. The soldiers who were the first to discover concentration camps at the end of World War II felt this. Many people who watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center, felt the same way.

Questioning  “reality” is an essential part of our education, I tell my students. The internet is far from truthful. Fake news is the latest example of a reality that many people have come to accept as part of the unreal world we live in. But the problem goes a lot deeper than most people think; young people have trouble determining what’s real because they were brought up on video games and reality TV that achieves verisimilitude with a seductive allure to the senses that few great novels can achieve, at least, for those who don’t make reading a habit. What happens when your sense of reality becomes so blurred with the virtual you stop questioning the real all together? What happens when RealityTV becomes interactive and you’re allowed to tell willing participants what you want them to do and say?

A lot happens and none of it is good. Soon young people won’t just be temporarily duped by the unreal, they’ll be convinced it’s the way life works. Interactive, RealityTV will soon present programming that will allow people to vote for and recommend real sex and real violence.

Can’t we can put a stop to this? Not necessarily. Remember the only censor for live, streaming digital, broadcast is you the viewer. You can turn the channel. You can write your congressman. Or maybe what’s coming will appear so horrific that you’ll convince yourself that it can’t possibly be real.

There are laws against that sort of programming, aren’t there? Maybe, but tell that to a young person that’s been given an order to do something that could make them the Queen Bee or most popular boy to millions of viewers. Should we hold young people responsible for “following orders?” And some of those orders will probably be given by adults who are watching and want to see them “go all the way.” Remember, those people in the Milgram experiment were just “following orders.” So were the Nazis. In the coming months you’re going to see this sad reality come to pass. I’m writing to ask you to do two things when you witness the real and try to dismiss it as just a virtual photo-shopping of the perverse.

First. Don’t blame young people. Sure we’d like them to read more and question authority. But young people didn’t create these games. We did.

Second. This bold new world of interactive entertainment isn’t going to go away. There may be finger-pointing and hand-wringing by concerned adults at congressional hearings. But in the end, the only censors will be those of us with the courage turn the channel.

 

 

 

 

You Have No Other Choice But To Continue…

…That was the order given to the test subjects who administered a nearly lethal electrical shock to unwitting “learners” in the Milgram obedience experiment, administered over fifty years ago, at Yale University.

Over sixty-five percent of the test subjects followed the order to deliver the shock.

John Milgram’s conclusion: Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being.

So, who do young people obey today?

A parent, a teacher, the POTUS? Most teachers agree that the new authority, the new big brother–is the media itself; and the media has gotten good at promising young people that they too can become accepted, even famous, so long as they conform to the marketable stereotypes; so long as they try to emulate the queen bees, the jocks, the cool people at school.

What would you be willing to do to join the in-crowd?

What if you had the power to select the coolest, the strongest, the most beautiful kids who appear on interactive TV? What if you could watch them have sex and harm each other for all the world to see? Sound Dsytopian?

Welcome to the brave new world of interactive, digital broadcasting currently in production by established Hollywood studios. The future has arrived and it looks horribly seductive. I write about the technology, reality and the enormous power the studios will have once these next generation reality shows come to life.

My book, Cease & Desist , chronicles the next generation reality show, called “Reality Drama” in which the viewers are allowed to award the participants for having sex and committing real acts of violence. I don’t write Science Fiction. I write contemporary YA, and the “fake” show I present in my book comes from research I’ve done into shows that will be launched in the next six months. They will debut on WebTV, which has no censors.

But that’s absurd, the authorities wouldn’t allow real sex and real violence.

Wanna bet? Wake up America. We’re living in a world where the realistic can be digitally altered so that it appears an illusion. We’re living with an administration that looks like the most unreal reality show we’ve ever see.

Mark my words: in six months, you’re going to see reality like you’ve never seen it. You’ll be watching interactive WebTV, with real sex and real violence and most of all NO real censors. And hopefully you’ll be asking what I’m asking now: who has the authority to stop this? No one, the producers are saying, or, we all do–we all have the option to censor ourselves: just turn the channel. They’ve been saying that for years. Has it ever really worked?

As a teacher, I know what’s going to happen when these shows generate a congressional hearing. They’ll be hours of hand-wringing and finger-pointing and in the end, we’ll blame young people for not being more sensible, not being more “adult.”

But before you point your finger at young people, take a moment, and put yourself in their shoes. Their “reality” has been skewed by realistic computer games they’ve been playing since before they could read—it’s easy to push a button and obey the new rules, especially since–just like the participants in Milgram’s experiment, they’re really just obeying orders, (and the actors on the screen are just “acting,” right?)

We can’t blame young people for following orders, for trying to be survivors in the social battlefield our schools have become. (And the studios are banking on the fact that parents will be watching too.) And when this seductive dystopia arrives, no congressional hearing or concerned parents group will have enough power to stop it–because we value our “freedom” too much.

We live in a free society only we all know it isn’t free. We do what we’re subliminally told by the media. And the media wants our girls to be sexy and our boys to be blood-thirsty. Hollywood doesn’t want you to read my book, Cease & Desist, because Cease & Desist is a wake-up call.

If you think C & D is merely farfetched fiction, please write me so I can name a few of the shows that you’ll probably be talking about next year around the water cooler at work.

Our online lives have always been a losing battle between freedom and censorship, and since we obey an unseen authority, we’ve never really been “free.”

As Aldous Huxley warned us many years ago: You pays your dues. You makes your choice.

Trump l’oeil–What Happens When Dystopia Arrives Too Soon.

In my headline, I’ve borrowed the French idiom, trompe l’oeil–“something that misleads or tricks the senses”–to make a point about what we’re experiencing in America today. We love this notion of being “tricked” in painting and fiction, and maybe art’s greatest contribution is to fool our senses long enough to get us to believe something that can’t possibly be real.

But what happens when reversals to our core principles such as equal rights, healthcare, and immigration happen so quickly that the righteous anger we feel when our freedom is threatened just isn’t enough?

We’re in a state of shock. The center cannot hold. Those values we thought were rock-solid are being destroyed and that makes us feel as if our reality has become, well, unreal. When are reality becomes unreal we turn to fiction, specifically dystopian fiction, because fiction is what we need to confront all those issues that are too difficult to take “in real life.” Sales of the classic dystopian novels–1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, are on the rise.

Dystopian fiction is deeply, cathartically, satisfying. Don’t we all love to read about a world in distress? A world that’s really a wake-up call for all those things we need to avoid. It’s all fun and Hunger Games so long when we close the book we can return to our safe, not-too-troubled world.

What if we woke up and found the most unreal dystopia we could possibly imagine right at our door? (Remember dystopia is only dystopia so long as it stays in the future.)

What we’re feeling now isn’t just righteous anger, it’s fear.

Whenever I turn on the TV, it feels as if I’m watching a reality show that can’t be real. That would be a great compliment to a fiction writer who strives for verisimilitude. But it’s real. At least that’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves.

The YA novel I wrote, Cease & Desist, was supposed to be dystopian, but most of its far-fetched notions will be commonplace by the time you read it. Soon you’ll be able to watch young people have sex and harm each other on digital, interactive, WebTV. You’ll be able to vote on who’ll be the winner, the same way the mob chose the winner in the Roman Coliseum.

Do you think I’m making that up? Think again. The future is coming at us way too fast, and we’ve got to stop it before more people get hurt.