Songs for the Struggling Artist

Something About Juliet, Naked

Despite generally being a Nick Hornby fan, I resisted reading Juliet, Naked for a while because of the title. When I finally read it, I remember being glad that it wasn’t actually about a naked woman. I remember liking it but I’m fairly certain I was in a different decade of my life then.

After watching the film version, I find I’m curious to re-read the book – to find out if it’s as problematic as I found the movie. I was going to say “sexist” instead of “problematic” but I’m not sure if the movie is as sexist as the world is. It just highlights some of the ways the world is sexist and it’s problematic for me because it’s also a bit seductive.

Ethan Hawke plays a rock star who has gone full Salinger and fallen off the map. Chris O’Dowd plays the leader of his fan club and Rose Byrne plays Chris O’Dowd’s girlfriend. It’s a funny little music love triangle, that deals with fandom, art and change. Chris O’Dowd is clearly the Baxter and Ethan Hawke is the sexy grandpa and who will Rose Byrne choose? Spoiler Alert: It’s Ethan Hawke. As every Gen X-er knew she would. Because Ethan Hawke is the Gen X dream man, even as he lies in his hospital bed, surrounded by all his ex wives and neglected children as a man who has always been a troubled cad. He’s just become a grandpa and he’s grappling with all his past mistakes and boy, does that guy come with a whole train full of baggage. As a woman who is only a few years younger than Ethan Hawke, I found myself wanting to warn the younger Rose Byrne character to steer clear. Don’t do it, Rose! All that baggage might seem like it’s fun to overcome from where you’re standing now – but you’re not going to change him!

But it’s Ethan Hawke. So you sort of get it. Yes that guy is trouble but he’s trouble in a way that seems fun. He has a heart attack and terrible relationships with all but one family member but still a charmer. He’s a heck of a project for a guy in his late 40s.

But the thing that troubles me is that there is no comparable story with a woman in her late 40s. No younger man comes along to absolve her of all her past sins and to help her make a come-back.

In the Juliet, Naked film, there was nary a woman over 35, as far as I could tell. Maybe one of his exes for a few seconds but mostly not. The lead romantic interest had to be young because she wants to have a baby and the drive to have a child is what drives a large portion of the plot.

And I don’t know, I guess I agreed with cranky grumpy face O’Dowd’s character who’d just rather not have kids. And I’m mad that there are never female characters who feel that way. There’s something in the way movies always talk about this that makes it feel like it is a woman’s innate natural desire to reproduce and if she doesn’t, it’s because some uptight man, like Cranky Grumpy Face, is in the way.

The movie of Juliet, Naked tweaks the standard romantic comedy story just enough to feel like it’s subverting the genre while it actually reinforces it. There’s just no way we could ever see its opposite. It’s the same reason the gender swap of High Fidelity doesn’t really work. Because those types are so strongly gendered and any reversal just makes it clear that is not a world we live in.

There are so many barriers in the way of gender swapping Juliet, Naked. Let me pitch it to you and notice where all the stops are. In it, I’ve recast Ethan Hawk’s character as Parker Posey, an indie Gen X dream girl. Byrne and O’Dowd have just switched roles here. SPOILERS implied.

Chris O’Dowd is feeling unfulfilled in his life and relationship. He wants kids but his long term girlfriend, Rose Byrne, doesn’t. Rose Byrne is a mega fan of a Patti Smith-like reclusive rock star, played by Parker Posey. Parker Posey had a number of artistically successful albums and then disappeared. The mystery of what might have caused the disappearance keeps Rose and her fellow fans very busy on message boards. Then someone sends a demo copy of Posey’s hit album to Byrne – but O’Dowd hears it first. He listens to it before Byrne and declares it not as good as the finished album. Then Byrne hears it and falls in love with the rawness of it. There is conflict – but they both write reviews of it and Posey emails O’Dowd to tell him he’s right.

Posey and O’Dowd start an email relationship wherein they confess their baggage. Posey’s is that she has had and abandoned four children, and is finally giving motherhood a go with her 5th. She becomes a grandma when one of her erstwhile kids has a kid and so she comes to the country O’Dowd is in. Then she promptly has a heart attack.

O’Dowd comes to the hospital and discovers the noisy family who have come to see her. Posey invites herself to his house to recover from her heart attack. A romance blooms between the young O’Dowd and the aging Posey.

Do you see how this movie is sort of impossible? I mean, I’d watch it – because I love Parker Posey and it would be super weird but also, it would be super weird!

But whatever, you know, man, whatever. The movie is problematic, so what? So what? I don’t know so what. For me the so what is that there are so many things about this movie that I liked, so many twists on the romantic comedy structure that I found it very compelling and it is its compellingness that makes it especially problematic for me. I felt sucked in by it and melancholy when it was over. I wanted those crazy kids to get together! Do they?

But should they get together? No. I don’t think so, actually. I think Ethan Hawk’s character should get together with a woman his own age and not go around fathering any more children.

And Rose Byrne’s character should hook up with some nice man who’ll make her dinner and worship the ground she gorgeously walks on. I mean. I don’t know. There was just something about this movie that so insidiously cracked open the seams of the genre while also making me feel the usual things this genre makes a susceptible person feel. I don’t like being a susceptible person and I felt like this movie made me succumb to its charms – and then left me in the record bin, nostalgic for some lost time and also like, disappointed.

I can’t recommend this movie, obviously. But if you watch it, please tell me. I feel like I need help sorting out the box of problematic things it revealed. And by problematic, I might mean sexist. 

Here’s Parker Posey in a photo via WikiCommons by Tabercil. Don’t you want to see her play Ethan Hawke’s part just to see what would happen?

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Juliet Capulet, Feminist Role Model
August 31, 2016, 10:29 pm
Filed under: feminism, Shakespeare | Tags: , , , , , ,

While working with some 9th graders on Juliet’s “Gallop Apace” speech in Romeo and Juliet, I opened the door for the students to tell me what was happening. They worked it out faster than most groups do and quickly leapt to interpretation. One girl reported that Juliet was scared to have sex for the first time. I asked her to tell me where she saw that in the text and the line she pointed to means nothing of the sort.


In response to all of this, I did something I try to never do when teaching Shakespeare. I declared a meaning. I declared that, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be a stitch of fear in this speech. I felt bad about denying this girl her interpretation (which, let’s face it, is, of course, really about her own fears) and felt like I’d dropped my teaching ball a little bit. It happens. And when it does, rather than put myself in the corner for failing to live up to my own standards, I try to figure out why I slipped.


My guess is that this is an example of my Shakespeare teaching agenda intersecting with my feminist impulse. This culture tells girls that sex is the most important thing and simultaneously suggests that it is something to be afraid of. The cult of virginity is such that many girls come to believe that sex is something that will be painful and irrevocably transforming. The good girls, the nice girls, the one’s many of us identified with, wouldn’t WANT to have sex! Gasp! Horror! We’re nice girls! We don’t have DESIRE.


But here is Juliet. No fear. Just desire. Just excitement. She knows she’s supposed to put on a show of disinterest about her feelings for Romeo – but she doesn’t. In the balcony scene, she dismisses propriety and coyness and she’s like, direct. “Dost thou love me?” She then suggests they get down to getting married ASAP. Once she’s married, all she wants is for night to come so she can be with Romeo. And maybe it’s not explicitly sexual. Maybe the consummation of the marriage isn’t what she’s looking forward to. But in any case, she wants Romeo. She wants Romeo as soon as possible. Even if she hasn’t the slightest clue about sex (which I doubt, she was raised by the Nurse – who does not hold back in discussing the body) she is till clear that Romeo is what she wants.


And then of course, they do consummate the marriage, and she is very satisfied with whatever happened in that exchange and she does not want it to end. Juliet has desire upon desire and she (mostly) gets what she wants. She’s a feminist role model.


I am so very tired of this culture telling girls that they must be sexually attractive but not sexually active. I am weary of girls twisting themselves into knots to be appealing objects while simultaneously negating their own desire. We, as a culture, need to learn how to allow girls to be sexual subjects, to take ownership of their bodies and their desire.


There are a lot of women working in this arena. There are Ted Talks. There are academic papers on sexual subjectivity. There’s an anti-slut shaming podcast. We have Caitlin Moran advocating for Lady Sex Pirates. There’s an expanding sense of changing how we deal with women’s sexuality. It’s hugely important work. But it feels as though it will be a while until this sort of things makes its way down to girls who are coming of age now.


Meanwhile, there’s Juliet Capulet, a character that almost every girl in high school will encounter. And yes, that 400 year old character had to get married to enjoy her sexuality and yes, it’s true, ends up dead. But not as punishment for sexual transgressions (as many more contemporary stories would have it.) Juliet models an enthusiasm and yearning that is culturally significant, even now, so many years after she was written.


That’s why I tripped over myself a little bit on this topic. It was all a little bigger than I was prepared for. I couldn’t not advocate for Juliet’s desire. Juliet’s desire is as boundless as the sea.


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