In this time of anxiety and turning inward (literally) I’ve been returning to unfinished projects, some which have lingered far too long. One is to write about Carina Chocano’s book You Play the Girl, whose subject is, alas, evergreen.
Chocano—a film critic and frequent writer-about-gender for national papers—offers an astute, well-researched look at gender stereotypes in film and television, layering her own experiences as a journalist, critic, daughter, wife and mother throughout the book.
Her writing is witty, warm and filled with observations that synthesize waves of popular culture within television and film history. Her book is an essential next installment in Film and Television Studies following up on Susan J. Douglas’s critical book, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media.
Chocano’s writing is also rich with examples from her teen and young adult years as she analyzes the culture in which she was raised and the media that emblemize how she learned these roles onscreen.
In four sections, Chocano reviews what sent her “down the rabbit hole”—the title of part one—as she tries to divert her young daughter’s obsession with Sleeping Beauty by buying her a copy of Alice in Wonderland. Chocano muses about the world in which Alice was brought up—where the cult of womanhood and the “angel in the house” defined and confined expectations for women and girls.
From there she begins to coalesce what it means to “play the girl,” as witnessed through her work as a pop culture critic. Centuries after Alice, the onus of societal expectations aren’t necessarily all that different for girls and women—particularly around agency, representation and having real choices.
“All the scripts are for men and you play ‘the girl,’” Isla Fisher says during an interview.
“Girliness” and its performative, often hollow expectations are what Chocano brings to light—both through the media she encounters and within her own life, finding “sublimated sexism” everywhere.
“It was the regressive subtext that seemed to undermine every progressive text” she writes—noting the “double binds and mixed messages” that are all the more dizzying for their gaslit presentation as normalcy.
Here at Ms., our team is continuing to report through this global health crisis—doing what we can to keep you informed and up-to-date on some of the most underreported issues of this pandemic. We ask that you consider supporting our work to bring you substantive, unique reporting—we can’t do it without you. Support our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.
Chocano’s breadth of knowledge is impressively encyclopedic as she tracks a range of cognitive dissonance-inducing examples. Tracking back to Alice’s rabbit-hole adventures in alternate reality, Chocano parses—sometimes through her daughter, sometimes through her own child- and teenhood—how girls fall “down the rabbit hole into an artificial garden where she’ll be taught to submit to the nonsense rules of an unwinnable game… under constant threat of annihilation.”
Chocano first learns about about sex from the leather-bound Playboy magazines her Peruvian grandfather collects. This first introduction to “the male gaze”—around the same time Laura Mulvey was coining this term—occurred just as Hugh Hefner’s empire began to face the advances of feminism. Portrayals of women in the media ricocheted between extremes during this era, and Chocano points out, (telescoping forward), how many of these polarizations are still in effect—particularly as her young daughter internalizes how conventional beauty is lauded.
She astutely tracks how Betty Friedan knew to “play the girl” so she could put forward her “Marxist takedown of patriarchal capitalism” and the iconic second-wave feminist tomes that broke out against the background of Stepford Wives popularity.
Her childhood television viewing—I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, among others—presents a vision of what is available to her as a woman, though alternate narratives begins to push in around the edges.
Chocano charts her awakening to the cognitive dissonance she experiences between what she’s told she ought to want and other impulses through the films that track her adolescence—Flashdance at 15, and later, the triumph of Rosanna Arquette (as Roberta), a New Jersey housewife who rebels against cultural script in Desperately Seeking Susan.
In the context of her chapter “The Eternal Allure of the Basket Case,” Chocano explores films such as Camille Claudel where a main female character is “tipped into madness by a bad boyfriend” and gives attention to other touchstones, such as Sylvia Plath, the iconic The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and contemporary models such as Courtney Love and Kim Richards (of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).
I loved Chocano’s anecdote of studying abroad in Paris and encountering a male Parisian who guesses she’s a writer, then challenges her to prove her lack of bourgeois character by spending the afternoon in bed with him. Her retort that his narrative is wrong — women can be writers and have a life — falls on deaf ears but upends his plan. This desire to argue back brings into relief the invisible infrastructure behind these assumptions and knowing she argued them is gratifying, even if little is changed.
“His story was the official story,” she writes. “His version was the official version, and mine was a rank conspiracy theory…. Why would he give up this position, when all fictions are oriented toward his subjectivity?”
What she pinpoints in this example is what she sees in the media—the struggle of a woman bucking hegemonic expectation and knowing, without any validation, this story is wrong.
In subsections “The Ingenue Chooses Marriage or Death” and “Bad Girlfriend,” Chocano identifies the (limited) choices female characters are given, considering Pretty Woman (with its “wedding-as-a-path-to-fortune” narrative), the iconic Thelma and Louise, and Sex and the City, tracking the rise in cultural interest in these stories alongside her own entrée into advertising, then Silicon Valley, and the sexism that meets her there, while being frank about her financial struggles. Her look at the gulf between Carrie Bradshaw’s likely salary as a columnist and her lifestyle (with exorbitantly priced shoes) gets at some of the broader dissection around the transactional experiences women undertake in terms of living up to an ideal.
“I was so tired of the way female strength was made to look cold and humorless; the way it was characterized as deviant and ‘unnatural’ and always lonely and exceptional. I was tired of the grim undertone of tragedy that lurked under its surface,” Chocano writes of the “strong female character” and how this example feels so lacking.
Moving closer to the present moment, she considers the Real Housewives franchise and what values trump others within its universe.
“For instance, wealth trumps beauty, and husband trumps glamour job. Kids plus husband trump job, too—unless the process of acquiring them leads to a show of one’s own,” Chocano writes, pointing out how “the Bravo housewives have turned the role of housewife into a job whose main purpose is to sell a ruinously expensive and hard-to-support lifestyle to a generation that is at once ideologically opposed to and functionally barred from such a lifestyle.”
Chocano is at her most razer-sharp when she synthesizes how events in her life, such as standing up to boyfriends who are crestfallen by being challenged since this disrupts their image of the perfect girlfriend, to parallels in TV and film.
In Chapter Three she writes, “I come from a line of refractory women adept at dismantling male authority through underhanded mockery and satire” and wonders if, when she started writing as a film critic, she received less hate mail than her (female) predecessor since when she had something “not-nice to say, I made sure to be as funny about it as possible.”
This need for underhandedness is central to what Chocano is ferreting out—mentioning how Katherine Heigl spoke out about the insipid role she had in Knocked Up and its male-centric presumptions (which Chocano saw twice to be sure she hated) and the criticism she (Heigl) received for speaking up.
I loved Chocano’s takedown of the ripple effect of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love empire, where, again, she shows her skill at naming what doesn’t fit when everyone else is beaming approval at this “redemption narrative.”
Like The Bachelor, there’s one storyline—winning love—and if you don’t achieve it (as most won’t, nor afford a year of travel soon after a divorce), then you’re not traveling the right “journey.”
Rounding the book back to her daughter—and the vexed issue of what is imprinted on the next generation of girls—Chocano tackles “the princess problem”—unavoidable after her daughter succumbs to Frozen’s charms. The complicated mixed-messaging inherent in the Disney empire is succinctly outlined—how power is both given and withheld from girls at the same time, only allowable in socially sanctioned ways—a trope that doesn’t seem to wear out.
Chocano writes that Frozen was sometimes seen as a “feminist movie” because it didn’t end with a wedding.
Her retort is “…if anything, it was a feminist movie in that its heroine is being gaslit and put into one impossible double bind after another. It was not so feminist in the way independence is conflated with solitude and loneliness and creativity, and power with madness.”
She traces this through-line in other contemporary films like Trainwreck and Inside Amy Schumer and then back to the retrogressive world of Mad Men—showing how far things have not come along, and noting her vertigo as she realized how false the progressive anthem Free To Be really was.
How women speaking truth is regulated, by whom, and by what sub-degrees, is at the heart of this book.
As a critic, she writes, “I’d have to find a way to be opinionated without being too opinionated, authoritative without being a bitch about it, smart without being elitist, fair without being a pushover,” writes Chocano.
In this land of the “eternal no-win” she writes, like Alice, she was always too big or too small. Chocano’s forte is lasering in on the schisms and cognitive dissonance between the roles women are cast into and the pressure this puts on female agency.
This book is a deep, feminist dive not just into women in popular culture, but into the excruciating hypocrisies that women are forced to smile through when, like in Wonderland, everything is upside down but girls and women are left to question if this is just them since everyone else acts like this reality is normal.
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.