Songs for the Struggling Artist


Tricksy Feminists

In college, we made a show called Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage! which I started thinking about after reading Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I was just going to write a quick little review of Fleishman Is in Trouble for Goodreads but then I started thinking of that show and what we were trying to do with it, which was going to need some explaining, and then I started thinking more about the novel, which began to make me mad and voila! – blog post.

I’ll start with this show. I made it during a guest semester I took at a state university. I’d spent three semesters at Sarah Lawrence College and while my education was aces, I was longing for a social life, so I decided to take a break from my progressive elite education and go to some parties (as well as classes, sure) in Virginia for a semester. That transition was a kind of a feminist wake up call. I’d gotten used to a place where feminism was a default position and I was absolutely shocked by the retrograde patriarchy still in place at this state college. I joined a rebel feminist group and we decided to make the show, to give the place a real consciousness raising because whooo boy, did it need one! We put “Live Girls On Stage” in the title because we were worried about preaching to the choir and we hoped we’d bring in a few frat bros by suggesting we were a burlesque show rather than a feminist collective. We thought we were pretty clever. We put paper dolls of Barbie dolls on our posters. We thought that we’d change the world with or little feminist variety show. I’m both very proud and very embarrassed by this venture now. I’m bringing it up because of this little Live Girls trick. Did it work? Of course not. Though we did sell out, which was better than most of my subsequent feminist work. But I’m thinking about it because I feel like there’s something similar at work in Fleishman Is in Trouble.

I read this book because it was advertised to me on the Guilty Feminist podcast. It was billed as an hilarious feminist novel. That’s catnip for me. Of course I was going to read an hilarious feminist novel.

You may, at this point, not be surprised to learn that I found this book to be neither hilarious nor particularly feminist. They Live Girls Onstaged me and I fell for it. I don’t blame the Guilty Feminist podcast. They need advertising dollars as much as anyone and I can imagine how this happened. Someone on the marketing team thought this book was kinda feminist and googled all the places they might be able to place some feminist ads and the job was done. But, oh, oh, did I feel like a frat boy who thought he’d come for burlesque and got a bunch of show tunes and sketches instead. I’m going to give you some spoilers now – or really a spoiler. One might call it the twist of the book. If you want to skip these next seven paragraphs to avoid this reveal, please feel free. I think knowing what’s coming might actually improve the experience of reading it but…it’s up to you.

The book begins with the story of a man who is in the process of divorcing, dating and doctoring. It is a bit how I imagine a Philip Roth or John Updike novel. (I’ve never read either as I am not at all interested.) It’s the story of a wealthy man on the Upper East Side of Manhattan who often feels he is not wealthy enough. He describes himself as a hero of a dad and his ex-wife as a useless soul-less social climber, who disappears on him. It’s all narrated by his female friend, who used to work at a men’s magazine so she’s practiced at getting into the heads of men.

Then, about three quarters of the way through, the narrator of the book runs into the ex-wife and we get a sense of the time-line we just experienced from her perspective. Surprise! She’s not the monster her husband made her out to be! The book finishes with a kind of alliance between the women and a little rant about how bad marriage and middle age can be for women and then the narrator takes a taxi back to her husband, from NYC to the suburbs of NJ.

I THINK this is being marketed as a feminist novel because it tricks us into thinking it’s a man’s story at the top and then TRICKSY! It turns out to be a woman’s. And the guy who seemed like a sort of good guy is kind of a dirtbag. SURPRISE! You’re NOT seeing Live Girls Onstage like you thought! It’s a consciousness raising instead! It’s Tricksy Feminism, trying to convert the unconvertable. If those frat boys only knew what it was really like to be a woman, they might not be such sexist pigs!

If we get men to read a story about a man, they’ll keep reading to learn about a woman’s perspective of the same stuff!  We’ll sneak some women’s issues into that Phillip Roth novel! We’ll raise their consciousness without them even knowing! Tricksy!

But the thing is – none of those issues that the woman face are dealt with in a particularly feminist way. None of them ever rallies together with other women to make a change. They deal with sexual harassment and discrimination. They deal with sexist and dehumanizing medical treatment and generally struggle with some old school Simone de Beauvoir Second Sex shit. But no one seems to know that feminism exists. It’s a weird world without any real social movements. It’s a world where someone experiences overt sexism and no one will name it. Feminism isn’t just women having lady problems. It’s a social movement in which people work together to make our world more equitable. This book had nothing to do with that as far as I could see.

For me, the book was mostly largely about rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan having a lot of privileged problems. Was it compelling? Sure! It’s very well written so you couldn’t ask for better fiction about the ennui of a particular kind of privileged life. If you want to know about the inner lives of women who choose their pilates classes based on maintaining social ties, look no further. You’ve found your book. Even the women in this book, in the middle of realizing all the betrayals of sexism and such, never get beyond themselves to even consider attempting to make a change. They don’t have a feminist awakening. They don’t decide to organize. They don’t start to examine their own privilege – not their racial privilege, their economic privilege, not their abled privilege, none of it. If there’s any feminism in the book at all (and I’m not convinced there is) it is not intersectional.

I keep thinking of the end of the book when the narrator takes a taxi back to her house in New Jersey from NYC. I think it’s supposed to be a romantic gesture? But all I can think of is how expensive that taxi ride would be and yet it’s not even a whisper of a thought for this character.

Roar! The Women’s Thing! Live Girls On Stage was a sophomoric feminist show. I was literally a college sophomore when I made it. I’m fairly certain we didn’t change anyone’s mind and only expressed a bunch of things that were hard for us (mostly white) ladies. It was a little tricksy but mostly harmless and possibly a fun night out. I feel like Fleishman Is in Trouble is similar. A little tricksy, mostly harmless and a fun read. The trouble is in the marketing. There were live girls on stage but they really weren’t what I had in mind.

I’m about the same age as the characters in this book so I have a sense of the world they grew up in. I know there was feminism in that world, for example and it’s clear to me that characters that don’t have their feminist awakening until their 40s are characters who ignored or rejected feminism in their youth. If you’re not discovering sexism until your 40s, you’re late. You’ve very late. I mean, get to the party when you get to the party but you are very late.

But one thing I know about the party from our collective college years is that in some places, the party was already in full swing, had already evolved and was searching for ways to grow and the party at the other college was just getting into gear. It was in its sophomore stages and needing a jump start. When my friend and I would walk into our Sociology of Women class at that state college, our teacher would say, “Here come the radicals!” And let me just say, as much as I enjoyed that greeting, I was VERY FAR from being a radical then. (“Couldn’t we do it in a nice way? But I don’t want to upset anyone! I don’t want to take anything away from anyone! I just want a teeny tiny itsy bitsy bit of equality, please. If it’s not too much trouble.”) Anyway – what I’m saying is that it’s all relative. At Sarah Lawrence, I was a pretty run of the mill every day sort of feminist, at the state college, I was a radical. Maybe for the characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble, this sort of naming of women’s issues IS radical. It’s first stage feminism. It’s late to the party feminism but fine, I guess.

Yes. This is the poster. Yes I still have it.

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Learning Funny from the SNL Ladies
September 25, 2014, 9:30 am
Filed under: comedy | Tags: , , , ,

The Women of SNL was a Special featuring the ladies from Saturday Night Live over the show’s history. While watching it, I was suddenly reminded of when my friend and I started an improv group in college. We wanted to practice some of the skills we were learning in our comedy class, so we booked the student run space and gathered a small group of interested improvisers. We tried things we’d only read about in books and explored things we’d done in class.

We went to a college where the male to female ratio was 1 to 3 but somehow in our little group, we had more men than women. We all improvised enthusiastically for a few sessions and then someone pointed out that my co-founder and created almost exclusively male characters. At the time, I was mystified by this habit. We were feminists at a (mostly) women’s college, why did every character come out that way?

Watching the Women of SNL, I had an insight into the why of that pattern. We grew up with very few funny female character models. Funny defaulted to male. I was a dedicated SNL watcher in my youth and at the time, there were very few signature female characters – aside from the ones in drag. (a la “The Church Lady” or Terry Sweeny’s Nancy Reagan)

The women that were on during my formative years were funny in relationship to men. They weren’t the stars of their sketches. They were written into the roles of bimbos, prudes and nags. You can see how they could have been so much funnier if anyone had known how to write actual women for them.

Watching the survey of the women of SNL all pressed up next to one another revealed how much of a difference there was in the newer generations of women on the show. Tina Fey’s position as head writer surely has to be credited with some of the monumental change between those seasons. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Kristen Wiig all took on female characters in a way that no one had been able to before them. Particularly radical to me, was how often these female characters are in relationship to one another. They were in sketches with other women. SNL started to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors in their era. There are whole worlds of women that had never been on-screen before and it was inspiring to see them.

Watching the SNL special made me wish I had grown up watching women like Wiig, Fey, Poehler, Dratch and Rudolph for inspiration. I envy the young women who have grown up with them to look toward. I think they must have a much clearer sense of what’s possible, of roles they could play and how to be funny and still be a woman.

I heard a film critic talk about the definition of good satire as something that should always punch up. He said that the best satire targets the guy at the top. I think for me, in college, taking on male characters of any kind felt like punching up. There weren’t enough women in power to feel like I could punch up to a female character, I guess. Funny defaulted to male then, even as a woman and I’m so grateful to see that it doesn’t have to anymore.

SNL ladies

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