Monday, September 22, 2008

Review: "The Women"

At one point in Diane English’s debut film “The Women” (based on a 1939 film adaptation of Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 play), Sylvia (Annette Bening) explains why she’s not interested in marriage: “I am the man I want to marry.” Out of context, such a line would seem to make this movie a promising contribution to this blog’s main query—what if we were to detach the role of wife (or husband for that matter) from the institution of marriage? Could such carefully policed gender roles be peacefully elaborated beyond our culture of heteronormativity and the marriage imperative? This film says decisively, “no.” The heroine Mary Haines (Meg Ryan) discovers her wealthy stockbroker husband is having an affair with a Saks perfume “spritzer girl,” Crystal (Eva Mendes). On the advice of her mother (Candace Bergen), Mary initially decides to play it down, to visit the family beach house in Maine with her 13-year-old daughter rather than confront her husband. Later on, after the inevitable confrontation occurs, Mary uses her fury over this betrayal to fuel what turns out to be a simplistic journey to self-realization. Aided by the sage advice of Bette Midler’s character (whose near-cameo function was ruined for this old fan of the "Beaches" soundtrack by an offensively bad hairdo), “be selfish,” Mary farts out a line of her own fashion designs, which of course turns out to be an overwhelming success. The risk that launches her hip new career proves all too sexy and appealing to her estranged husband and he begs for a second chance. The message seems to be: find a self for yourself and you’ll find yourself a spouse too.

The film is full of exasperating messages about "Women": we are interested only in shopping and manicures, charity and romance, gossip and cat-fighting. We are wealthy enough to support all these habits. Mary's 13-year-old daughter insists that she is fat, refuses to eat a cookie, and smokes cigarettes to kill her appetite. When this pint-sized Pandora confronts her mother's best friend Sylvia about the starving models featured each month in the fashion magazine she edits, Sylvia shrugs off the hypocrisy, telling the girl something vapid like "life's complicated darling." Pandora's box turns out to be a vacuum; one wonders why the writers even tried to go there. In fact the entire film appears to have been made in the spirit of patriarchal capitalism--empowering its female protagonists only enough to oppress other women by convincing them to consume (i.e. shop) and not to consume (i.e. eat): Sylvia runs the fashion magazine, Jada Pinkett-Smith's totally unconvincing lesbian character dates an emaciated supermodel who's angry because she's so hungry, and Mary designs a line of dresses which appear to be sized in the negatives judging from the models on the runway at her debut fashion show.

While the film is just another repetition of the marriage imperative (even Sylvia—who could have been her own husband—has met a man by the end of the film), it is also pretty unsatisfyingly normative about marital affairs. Any deviations from “blissful” monogamy, like Steven Haines’ affair with Crystal the perfume girl, are forgiven in the end. It turns out everyone has been cheated on, and that it’s OK. In a surprise twist at the end, Debra Messing’s overly fertile character Edie Cohen (the scene takes place while she’s giving birth to her fifth child) reveals that she had an affair on her husband sometime in between the second and third baby, and he forgave her too. It took some time, she assures her best friends in between pushes, but he got over it. It is true: marital affairs are so common that they should not merit threats of presidential impeachment, and it is also true that affairs do not always signal the end of a marriage. But in a film that wants so badly to be a paean to female friendship, a celebration of a Rosie-esque “We Can Do It” trope of self-empowerment, why be so approving of affairs? Is it possible that by norming the marital affair—announcing its acceptability as the form of deviation from heterosexual monogamy—other alternatives to heterosexual monogamy are once again firmly marginalized, if not demonized? The film seems only superficially to dwell on the real question of whether Mary should forgive her husband. We never meet him. In fact, those crafty writers made Steven Haines out to be the victim of the conniving Eva Mendes (who looks terrific in lingerie, as is to be expected). She’s hunted him down like a lion chases prey on the African veldt (and it is no mistake that they chose a Latina and dressed her up in leopard print Manolos to represent “the hussy,” right?). The close of the film takes one final stab at Crystal the mistress—by turning her into a lesbian. The message, to me anyway, is clear. And my message to you is skip this movie altogether. It may have been topical in 1939, when some high society ladies may have required Luce’s lucid analysis, or at least a little of the “right-hand ring” business, but not anymore. We know we can do it, the question is, will we?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Breakfast of Champions

Vegetable Cheese Strata is a sort of "everything but the kitchen sink" dish. I clean out the fridge making it, plus it's a tasty way to use up the stale remainders of the "good bread" (a.k.a. artisan) from the Tall Grass Bakery in Ballard or Essential Baking Company in Fremont.

The night before your Breakfast of Champions, saute together in butter/olive oil the following:
1.5 cups mix of chopped onions, shallot, scallions + 1 clove garlic
1 head of broccoli, chopped
whatever random leaves of kale you have aging in the fridge
lots of mushrooms, sliced
When these are soft and the mushrooms have released their juices, throw in 1 cup (or so) of sliced bell peppers (or roasted peppers). Saute a little longer.
Throw in fresh herbs: rosemary from the yard? basil from the farmer's market last weekend?

In a separate bowl, whisk together 6 eggs, 1.5 cups of milk, some salt and pepper. From I also learned that it's a good idea to add a couple tablespoons of whole grain mustard and several dashes of Tabasco.

Chop up your stale good bread into 1" cubes (or thereabouts). Pull out your beloved casserole dish. Mine is a Pfaltzgraff Brown Drip from a garage sale. Spray the inside with cooking spray. Layer the bottom tightly with bread cubes. Spread a layer of half the sauteed vegetables on top. Sprinkle about 1 cup of shredded cheese (parmesan and cheddar are good starts--but this is an opportunity to use up the rest of whatever you have in the fridge--use your mental tastebuds to avoid a serious cheese clash) on top of the vegetable layer. Repeat the layers a second time: bread, veg, cheese. Pour the egg mixture on top, evenly. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, pull the Strata out of the fridge and put it on the counter, preheat the oven to 350, and go take your shower. 20 minutes later, put the Strata into the oven (uncovered at first) and leave it in there 45-60 minutes. When it's done baking (you may have needed to put the lid on the casserole for the last 10-15 minutes to prevent over-browning the top), pull it out and let it sit with itself for 10-15 minutes. Then dig in! This type of breakfast is sure to make your day more pleasant.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Victorian Matrimonial Advertisements

I've been reading an article called "The Advertising System" from the Edinburgh Review (February 1843). The author's general complaint is that folks resort to all kinds of gimmicks, scams, and untruths to sell their products. Then he turns to matrimonial ads and, once again, Victorian England becomes totally fascinating from an anthropological perspective. Check it out:

'WANTED --A Young Lady, about 17 or 21 years of age, as a wife. She must be well acquainted with the necessary accomplishments of such; she must understand washing and ironing, baking bread, making good coffee, roasting beef, veal, &c., boiling a fowl, broiling a fish, making tarts, plum-puddings, and desserts of all kinds, preserving fruits and pickles, expert with the needle, keeping a clean and snug house; must know reading, writing, and arithmetic; never been in the habit of attending the ball-rooms; she must have been taught true and genuine principles of religion, and a member in a Church of good standing. She must not be addicted to making too free use of her tongue, such as repeating any report that is injurious to her neighbour; or using any taunting language to any person about her house. Any lady finding herself in possession of the above accomplishments, will please address to ALPHONSO. It will not be required that she should exercise all those requisites unless a change in fortune should take place, at which time it will be necessary, in order to live with such economy as to prevent a trespass on our friends, whose frowns and caprices we otherwise must endure, which every man of noble mind will despise. At present, she shall have a coach and four at her command, servants in abundance, a house furnished in the first modern style; shall always be treated with that tender affection which female delicacy requires, and nothing shall be wanting that will be necessary to contribute to her happiness.'

So let me get this straight: the young lady needs to be capable of drudgery in the off-chance that Alphonso loses his estate? And if his fortunes do go down the drain, does the tender affection that female delicacy requires go with them?

'RUN AWAY FROM PATRICK M'DALLAGH.-- Whereas my Wife, Mrs Bridget M'Dallagh, is again walked away with herself, and left me with her four small children, and her poor old blind mother, and nobody else to look after house and home, and, I hear, has taken up with Tim Guigan, the lame fiddler--the same that was put in the stocks last Easter for stealing Barday Doody's gamecock. --This is to give notice, that I will not pay for bite or sup on her, or his account to man or mortal, and that she had better never show the marks of her ten toes near my home again. PATRICK M'DALLAGH.
N.B. --Tim had better keep out of my sight.'

I'm so curious about the lame fiddler who steals gamecocks on Easter Sunday. Whatever did Bridget see in him?

'To be SOLD for Five Shillings, my WIFE JANE HEBBAND. She is stoutly built, stands firm on her posterns, and is sound wind and limb. She can sow and reap, hold a plough and drive a team, and would answer any stout able man that can hold a tight rein, for she is damned hardmouthed and headstrong; but, if properly managed, would either lead or drive as tame as a rabbit. She now and then, if not watched, will make a false step. Her husband parts with her because she is too much for him. --Enquire of the printer.
N.B. --All her body clothes will be given with her.'

I've been trying to come up with a comment about this one for the past eight hours. I think the ad pretty much says it all.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Tilth Ratatouille

This afternoon I needed a break from the article I'm currently working on: "Lady Montagu's Smokers' Pastils and The Graphic: Advertising the Harem in the Home." I decided I'd had enough of theorizing about an anachronistic celebrity endorsement used to sell floral breath lozenges to genteel Victorian ladies. So I went to Seattle Tilth's Harvest Fair. Look at some of the beauties I picked up: heirloom tomatoes, little stripey eggplants, and a couple random sweet peppers all from Alvarez Organic Farm.

I threw the eggplants, one purple pepper, a few roma tomatoes, and some garlic cloves into a bowl with olive oil, basil, salt and pepper, and I tossed. Then I roasted this mess in a 400 degree oven. Meanwhile, I opened a bottle of Bung Dog Red from Bonair Winery. As long as we're doing produce from Yakima, might as well do wine from the Yakima Valley too, eh? I chopped up some onions and mushrooms and sauteed them together in a large wok-type pot in olive oil. When the vegetables were done roasting I threw them into the wok-pot along with a splash of Bung Dog Red.

While the ratatouille simmered I made some bowtie pasta. I mixed the stew up with the pasta and added Parmesan. Then I treated myself to a super large bowl of this Tilth Ratatouille because it's fuel for the Iron Girl Seattle Women's 10k race tomorrow morning!