Britney Spears: The Danger of Fame and the Power of Vulnerability

     Most of my days are suffused with a broad kind of sadness, a sadness that is made up of worldwide panic, and mixed with a personal anxiety that my, at times, recognizable and yet endlessly incomprehensible routine could stretch into the foreseeable future. It is a large amorphous sadness that lies in wait, ready to be triggered by the most unexpected, seemingly mundane events or memories. For me, the last few days have been punctuated by a particular sadness borne of nostalgia and the remembrance of cultural misdeeds. What I was feeling was melancholy at the rediscovery of Britney Spears. As with many days during the pandemic, I found myself researching random events or phenomena and this time I was drawn to the controversy surrounding Britney Spears and her conservatorship, an ongoing saga since 2007. As I found myself looking through Spears’s Instagram, I felt a deep well of sadness for what we, as a society, had put her through. As I viewed the heroic, unflagging optimism with which she still chooses to meet us, I realized that I was looking at, not merely a pop icon, but a woman whose truthfulness and idealism is an inspiration. In a post dated September 16th, 2020, Spears captions an image “Ask yourself today … am I truly happy ??? What makes you happy … coffee [coffee emoji] early in the morning ??? Dancing for hours ??? Making lots of plans for the day then canceling [woman shrugging emoji] ??? Whatever it is …. I am trying to find more ways to give myself more self-love ….. and feeling confident in my divine feminine body !!! I experience so much joy and passion ….. and always try to find ways I can demonstrate that to you all !!! I hope you are also finding ways to find joy and happiness… GOD BLESS YOU ALL !!!!”

     There is a sensitivity and a relatability to these posts, as if a dreamy-eyed friend is reaching out to you. Her Instagram account is filled with images of flowers, tea cups, kittens, and fairies. It is a place infused with hopeful wonder; a kind of prayer for the world to be a little kinder, an incantation for idealism, as if dreaming a little beauty into the world can be the thing that sets you free. Contrasted with her early career and the way the world treated her, it is a poignant reminder of the frailty that each one of us holds within ourselves, a reminder that behind the impenetrable facade of the pop star, there is a deeply sensitive human being (a thing that we often forget). It is a thing that, in mid-2007, was far from anyone’s mind as we all gleefully consumed the emotional and mental breakdown of Britney Spears. I’d like to say that this occurred during the early years of modern celebrity and that the boundaries were not yet drawn between the public and the private; that we were merely craving an inside look at the lives of the people who shaped our culture and our world. In short, I’d like to be able to say that we just didn’t know any better. But we did know better, or, at least, we should have known better. We had already had to contend with the public ridicule and humiliation that had swallowed the lives and careers of women such as Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Courtney Love, and Anna Nicole Smith. We had been through it before. We had watched on as women who failed to live up to all of the myriad and often contradictory expectations that are put upon women were mocked and became mere punchlines as they navigated drastic and often dangerous circumstances. We watched on, delighting in their pain and refusing to accept their stories of abuse and trauma, refusing to see any vulnerability, as if accepting their precarious position would force us to come to terms with our own, a thing that we could not allow ourselves. We had been through this all before. Britney was no new phenomena, yet we let it happen again. We voraciously consumed her pain and laughed at her for signaling a humanity, a crack in the image that had previously seemed impenetrable. But we’ve always had a morbid fascination with the destruction of the perfect image, relishing the details of the downfall, perhaps because it makes us feel superior. Think of Marilyn Monroe, in many ways a parallel to Britney in terms of fame and public persona. We relish the image of Monroe because she is forever beautiful and young. In other words, we relish her because of her tragedy, because she did not survive. 

     According to a Vox article that lays out the details of Britney’s conservatorship, in 2007, when she shaved her head, she was heard “telling a nearby tattoo artist that she was sick of people touching her hair…” For anyone who was alive during this period of Britney’s all too public life, the image of Britney shaving her head is an infamous one, etched into our consciousness with the guilt borne of moments too intimate for our knowledge. For it is with simple statements such as this that we realize the true toll of our obsession with her. We realize the depths of our entitlement, as if our love for her music decreed that her pain was our property as well. So, of course she attempted to force a distance between her and the ravenous consumption of her image. It was an act of desperation for peace, for a moment of silence against the roar of our derision, it was Britney attempting to place a barrier between herself and her image and, for a moment, it must have felt like a revolution. It was a drastic attempt to carve out space for herself in a world that wouldn’t allow her to be a complex woman, that only allowed for the exploitation of her image. Imagine for a moment the horror of Britney’s daily reality, the excessive scrutiny and the endless parade of people pawing at you. Escaping by almost any means necessary becomes an instantly understandable, even recognizable, desire. 

      Britney Spears has always been resolutely all-American; a promise through which we, her audience, could hone all of our aspirations about love, womanhood, and success. She was the image of perfection for so long, that the fracture seemed somehow both inevitable and cataclysmic. But even though this, she is also the image of the survivor. The image of resolute optimism. And even after we betrayed her with our ridicule, she offers us a glimpse of her dreams, of life as she prefers to imagine it. For that we should feel extremely lucky because it is a sweet dream of a simultaneously simple and magnificent life, graceful, innocent, and excessive in its girlishness. Sometimes it is necessary to retreat into these created worlds for our own safety, a fact that Spears’s Instagram feed appears to acknowledge. Britney’s tale is one of resilience, but it is also a cautionary tale about fame and the ways in which we, as consumers, relate to fame. All too often, we end up feeling entitled to the pain and suffering of our idols. It has been thirteen years since Spears had to retreat from public life for a brief time and I want to believe that we have changed as a society, but the truth is, if it were to happen tomorrow, to another pop star, I fear that we would not act any differently. We can see Britney and her story as a plea that we strive to be better, because we need to be better. We were given the perfect pop star, and instead of protecting her, we tried to destroy her. 

Grady, Constance. “Why Britney’s Fans are Convinced She’s Being Held Captive.” Vox. Last modified August 19, 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/21328341/britney-spears-conservatorship-explained-free-britney. 

Spears, Britney (britneyspears). “Just a Touch of Rose [red rose emoji]/ Ask yourself today … am I truly happy ??? What makes you happy … coffee [coffee emoji] early in the morning ??? Dancing…” Instagram, September 16, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/CFNPd6nAWlr/?igshid=fh8ispkuibdl.

The Empty Promise of Nostalgia in the World of “Twin Peaks”

“When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first and the wind rises and then all goodness is in jeopardy.”

-The Log Lady to Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, 1992. 

     A profound nostalgia for an imagined past and an invisible but omnipresent force control and shape the small town of Twin Peaks. It is a place where contemporary life fuses seamlessly with an idealized mid-century sensibility. The notion of mid-century normalcy has been exposed as a fraud, but the myth is persistent, as is this town’s insistence on preserving its particular brand of pristine Norman Rockwell-style Americana. But what the town refuses to admit is that when you give yourself over to nostalgia, a darkness borne of unresolved conflict and trauma often thrives. In an early episode of Twin Peaks, whose original two seasons aired from 1990-1991, Sheriff Harry S. Truman explains to FBI agent Dale Cooper, an outsider, that there is some unknown but powerful force that lurks in the woods surrounding Twin Peaks and that it is the necessary price for the town’s very specific eccentricities, it’s idealism and quaintness. Inherent in this is the notion that for something to be perfect, there has to be a darker truth that is obscured, that we sacrifice a very real knowledge of ourselves and of the larger world in order to keep the simplicity of a different time. But it is this dichotomy on which the show’s aesthetics are built; the beauty and simplicity of nostalgia, of the American mid-century suburban dream in contrast with the darkness that comes of such an intense and self-imposed blindness in a drive towards normalcy. The show is aware of this dichotomy and exploits it, marking the suburban home as a place of horror, not comfort. Throughout the original run of the series, we are shown the disintegration of this very specific, very stylized American dream, but it is in other Twin Peaks-related media that David Lynch, without trepidation or restraint, explores the true human expense of such saccharine dreams. 

     The nostalgic aesthetic of Twin Peaks is nowhere more evident than with the styling and characterization of the women. In their saddle shoes, calf-length tartan skirts, and houndstooth suits, they seem to reference a mid-century simplicity and austerity along with a notion of 1950s young womanhood that prides itself on innocence and virtue, a young womanhood both exemplified by and condemned in the figure of Laura Palmer. It is a town steeped in a past dominated by the image of the white picket fence, but as we now know, the white picket fence did little to protect those who erected it from deep-seated discontent and rampant emotional and physical violence. Similarly, the inhabitants of Twin Peaks, who yearn for the days of the white picket fence, find themselves contending with the failures of such an ideal, finding themselves with only a useless fence with which to trap themselves alongside these very real dangers. It is a nostalgia that hides the realities of adultery, rampant drug use, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. 

     The price of this false ideal is interrogated further in two pieces of media created in relation to Twin Peaks. The feature-length film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and the novelization The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990) explore in stark terms the human expense of the world that Lynch and Mark Frost created without the benefit of quirky, endearing characters. These works explore a more nuanced world in which pervasive Lynchian dream logic crashes menacingly into the all too real trauma of a world so hell bent on revering the empty symbols of Americana that it leads to the suffering of those who spend their lives in service to such illusions. The film and book are an exploration of what Americana really means; what it stands for and what it obscures. Without the trappings of nostalgia, we are left with the discomfiting presence of the overwhelmingly impoverished, the unwanted, the decrepit, and their suffering. We are forced to face the senseless violence that is America and we are forced to accept that Twin Peaks is, without a doubt, a part of this America. In Fire Walk With Me, a kind of prequel to the series, we are shown Twin Peaks as a claustrophobic world from which Laura Palmer cannot escape. It is a complex and frightening world, where she is forced to face an ever-present violence. She, in turn, becomes as frightening and erratic as she possibly can be in an attempt to challenge danger, to challenge death. She channels her grief into her own self-destruction, craving it as much as she fears it. Her grief and her anger is so immense it pours out of her, threatening to destroy her and those around her. These are very human explorations of trauma and their every manifestation, and Lynch offers us no reprieve, no moment of levity in which to turn away from this young woman’s suffocating pain. We are drawn into this claustrophobic world with Laura, her pain surrounds us. The film gives us Laura Palmer not as symbol, but as human being; her image is no longer a blank slate onto which all of the other characters project their own needs and desires. We are shown a girl with a complex and troubling inner life. We see her suffering plainly in the routine that is her daily existence. She is never able to escape herself. Forever banished is the notion of Laura as the symbol of the sweet, beautiful blonde, the girl next door, the homecoming queen. She is no longer the uncomplicated face staring out of a picture frame, a frame which, within the series, serves to highlight the confines of her life and her story. This indelible image, with its literal framing, bars anyone from truly seeing her trauma. They are instead dazzled by the seemingly sincere smile that emanates from the photograph, by the facade. These are the confines under which she herself struggles as she strives to find a sense of safety in herself, in her life, and in those around her, a sense of safety that she is ultimately never able to find.Twin Peaks allows us a glimpse into the dream of America, a dream that offers so much and continuously fails to deliver, a dream which, contrary to its image, serves to hide deep wells of horror. With the companion piece, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we see the suburban dream opening up into a vision of hell, a destructive force rendered in powerful imagery. In this film, Lynch appears to be saying, in as strident a way as he possibly can, that your particular brand of nostalgia will not protect you, it will not save you, and may very well kill you.

A Woman of the Land: Beauty and Wilderness in Powell and Pressburger’s “Gone to Earth”

We first meet Hazel Woodus, played by Jennifer Jones, among the rolling hills of the English countryside. She is a force among the elements. A proto-Kate Bush or a Catherine Earnshaw, wild and desperate, running along the moors. She is one in a lineage of literary women who find solace in the land, a woman for whom the landscape has become a symbol of her passion and inner turmoil. Hazel lives with the spirits of these women, whom society has doomed and nature has rescued. Her very soul is as wild as the country in which she resides. Hazel derives her power and conviction from the earth around her, from it’s beauty, superstition, and folklore. Her eyes sparkle with defiance. They are filled with dreams of the land, they hold her hatred of society, riches, and convention; the things that hurt her beloved land, her beloved animals. When we first see her, she is barefoot, her clothes are tattered, and her hair is windswept and tangled. We hear the sounds of a hunt and are shown various animals running to hide as their world quickly descends into hell. Hazel runs determinedly along the steep and craggy hills. She has rescued a fox who becomes her constant companion. We have been shown the thing that differentiates Hazel from the rest of the community. We have been shown the ways in which humans have forced nature to yield to their own wasteful enthusiasms, but Hazel is here to preserve and treasure what she can.

The central struggles of Gone to Earth, released in 1950, are the dichotomies of nature and civilization, of society and wilderness, of the superficial and the essential. Time and again, Hazel finds herself up against the strictures of society and, noting their cruelty, she refuses to participate in them. She follows her intuition, she follows beauty, and, while the community whispers about her follies and derides her wantonness, the men find her captivating. And here, again, we are met with the “civilizing” influences; the men who attempt to tame her, who mention beating her into submission, who attempt to give her religion or beautiful dresses, as if taming her were a form of love, as if altering her appearance and her conception of the world were love, as if slowly drawing her away from the land, the thing that has formed her and fed her, was love. She is a woman who derives power from nature, from superstition, from Foxy, her feral counterpart. These men, in attempting to separate her from this power, effectively kill her.

Made in England by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the film’s lush and menacing depictions of nature, with oversaturated and beautiful color, make for a particularly evocative film. It is with their direction that the land and Jones begin to fuse. They are growing out of one another. She is among the broken and rattling trees, among the steep rocks and hills, she becomes a part of them so completely, she is the landscape. In less imaginative hands, the depiction of this connection would most certainly have fallen short.

     Gone to Earth is the story of Hazel as she moves through the world, from her father’s house to her marriage with the minister to her brief adultery with a country squire. It is the story of a small town, with all it’s manufactured intrigue and gossip. It is the story of nature and desire and nineteenth century mores. It is the story of abandon. Hazel is a woman who doesn’t quite fit into this world or into this time. She is a woman of conviction, whose every belief and superstition is played out, even to her detriment. Hazel feels at times like a clarion call for the untamed woman. She is unburdened by society’s conventions, preferring the fierce, unsteady, and darkly beautiful land. She feels deeply, her acknowledgement of her own interiority, derided by the community, gives her strength, as does their derision. It is once she tries to leave this behind, that the trouble begins, because, ultimately, she belongs to the earth and the earth, the film appears to say, cannot be controlled.

Hollywood: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Last American Dream

When, on December 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald took his last breath, he left behind a college-aged daughter, an intermittently institutionalized wife, a failed career as a screenwriter, and an unfinished novelization of his time in Hollywood, in addition to his better known work. His final novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, is a thinly veiled account of the studio system based on his time as a screenwriter. It is a fragmented novel. But it still holds that prescient Fitzgerald wisdom, that ability to capture so exquisitely the mores and style specific to an era and a place with language so sparse and yet so sharp and insightful. It is a novel eternally in progress, but it is as scathing as any account of a cynical and superficial ecosystem.

The novel follows producer Monroe Stahr, a fictionalized Irving Thalberg, as he maneuvers through the daily difficulties of running a studio. Stahr is a hero, a moral man with convictions, pride, and a generous helping of ego, a man whose scruples run the studio just as much as he does. Fitzgerald struggled in Hollywood and his experiences with producers were not wholly positive, but in Stahr he created the ideal, the heroic success story. The whole world is at Stahr’s beck and call, but to him, love and genuine human connection is elusive. It is with the subtitle of the novel, A Western, that we first become aware of Fitzgerald’s conception of Stahr. With just such a wording, Fitzgerald is able to harness the iconography of the trailblazer, the myth of the lone genius, of a wilderness just waiting to be tamed by some resourceful man, by someone, it becomes clear, that is like Stahr. Hollywood is our last great American myth and Fitzgerald is here to expose and celebrate it as such. Early on, we are taken on a tour of the studio, in which we are shown the duties of a producer, as well as a glimpse behind the beauty and glamour. We are shown a world in which a starlet is not an untouchable and elevated deity, but a mere woman in “a low gown which displayed the bright eczema of her chest and back. Before each take the blemished surface was plastered over with an emollient, which was removed immediately after the take. Her hair was of the color and viscosity of drying blood but there was starlight that actually photographed in her eyes” (50). The glamour is disrupted, the ideal is shattered, but the underlying power of the myth of stardom remains partially intact.

Fitzgerald’s experiences in Hollywood are background throughout the novel; a dull but persistent whisper in which we are shown a more comprehensive view of the author in later life. Fitzgerald’s issues stemmed from his inability to grasp the conventions of script writing. He dedicated himself to learning; screening movies and keeping copious notes about the medium, but he was ultimately unable to transfer these into a cohesive script. His dialogue was too wordy and pretentious, too literary in scope and failed to capture the natural rhythms of speech that are so necessary in film. Often, his work was rewritten by producers to make it more manageable. Ultimately, he was shuttled between studios because his work was unusable. But during this time, Fitzgerald was becoming more aware of the system in which he worked. This knowledge served him as he began his novel. It is clear that Fitzgerald understands Hollywood and the studio system and speaks of it with an unguarded intimacy. It is a world of appearances and hearsay, a world guided by beauty and populated with gossip. As with his most famous protagonist, Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald is positioned on the outside, forced to be merely a spectator amid the opulence, the facade of decadence and glamour, and he is able to see the small human dramas that pervade the studio; the life behind the screen.

Throughout this novel, we see two of America’s most enduring legends, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hollywood, brought together and laid bare. We are shown these legends, both emblematic of America’s greatest conflicts, decadences, foibles, and beauty, and we are forced to contend with the reality of their existences. We are given a privileged glimpse into private worlds and handed shattered illusions by the man who knew best how to shatter the illusions we hold most dear, the illusions of ourselves, our society, and of the beauty that we mistakenly believe has no cost. Despite the fact that the novel is unfinished, this is clear: Fitzgerald populates every character, every word, and every syllable of The Love of the Last Tycoon and The Love of the Last Tycoon encompasses all Fitzgerald was and all he worked for.


Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1993.

Unlikely Icon: The Honesty, Vulnerability, and Strength of Margot Kidder

To watch Margot Kidder is to be charmed by Margot Kidder. She is equal parts shy, brash, and, at times, so frank as to be bordering on lewd. I recently saw her on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, which aired on August 3, 1970.  After being introduced, she saunters onto the stage in an exquisite empire waist dress with a Juliet sleeve that looks as if it was found in a thrift shop. She takes her place next to Cavett and his other guests, Janis Joplin and Gloria Swanson. Almost immediately, she pulls her legs up onto her chair and into her body, and we see that she is barefoot. It is this small movement that signals to me her sense of her own body. There is a self-consciousness in the gesture, an awareness of herself in space, and it was this that I was drawn to. It is a normal, but deeply intimate movement, a testament to her own interiority. Throughout the show, she is quiet but persistent in her commentary, prompting a conversation about women’s lingerie in which Swanson takes credit for inventing the panty girdle. Cavett blushes and, through all of this, Margot giggles, surveying the awkwardness with glee. She is not completely self-assured, but she is present, never evasive. She is vulnerable, but what exactly makes her vulnerable is a mystery. She seems almost ethereal, but her motions are those borne of insecurity and awareness.

In the wake of this interview, Margot appeared in some of her most memorable roles, in films such as Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1972), Black Christmas (1974), The Amityville Horror (1979), and, in the film she is most remembered for, Superman (1978). Margot Kidder is an exquisite actress. She has a control and a vulnerability that is incredible. She imbues her characters with the same relatability that can be seen in her interviews, and it was this relatability that was such a large part of her public persona. She seemed to be accessible and completely human, not solely an aspirational figure of glamour, the kind that stars are traditionally made to become. The reality was darker than that. There were struggles that we, her audience, could not even fathom, but she was always willing to give so much of herself to demand what was right.

In the process of researching Kidder’s life, it was, once again, an interview of sorts that caught my attention. In 1976, Kidder posed for Playboy. Her agreement to appear in the magazine was contingent on being able to write the article that appeared alongside the photographs. In this article, she railed against the magazine and its effects on women, especially young, impressionable women. She recounts the time when, at 14 years old, she first became aware of the magazine. She speaks of the way it caused her to analyze every inch of her body, how she was made to feel inadequate as she looked at the women who were the supposed images of perfection, and how, trying to fashion herself after these women, she had always found herself lacking. Her goal in doing this was to shatter the illusion that the magazine cultivated. She wanted to show what a real body looked like, to expose the real toll that these images have on women, and to restore some power to women whose lives are, from a young age, dictated by magazines such as these. She states, “Hopefully, these pictures are of a real honest-to-God, in-the-flesh, fucked-up-like-everybody-else human being. At first, I said no to Playboy, pleading male chauvinism. Finally, I said yes in a fit of missionary zeal. I’ll show them what a real body looks like, I thought to myself. I’ll be brave and outrageous and get the photographer to show me in all my imperfect glory… But maybe I chickened out. When the contact sheets came back from the lab, I put huge Xs through the pictures that I thought made me look lumpy. However, halfway is better than nothing. If you’re 14 and reading this, take solace: You probably look a lot better than you think. And nobody looks like Miss January.” With these words, she alters the discussion. She has refused to be passively consumed. She has allowed women into a discussion about their own bodies, one that had, for so long, been dominated by men. Kidder ends the piece with a critique of her own vanity and selfishness when faced with her image. But in this, she unfairly maligns herself, for, with this article, she has done a rare thing within the pages of Playboy; she has managed to wrest power from the men who have wielded it for decades and has given it to the women who were most impacted by the images the magazine propagated. She has opened the magazine up to the impact it has. For this alone, she is a legend.

It is this insistence on honesty, this frankness, this willingness to be vulnerable and uncomfortable that is so appealing in Margot Kidder. This is what makes her stand out in a sea of performers, many of whom were more prolific during the 1970s and 80s. She was aware of the forces that had impacted her life, the standards and the powers that had hurt her and many others and she strove to expose them, to render them false and rob them of their power. She was not required to do this, it would probably have been more acceptable for her to refrain, but she did it because it was necessary. It is this challenge that I believe is inherent to Kidder. You see it present throughout her whole life; this desire to hold power accountable in any way and with any platform she has at her disposal. This was a woman who lived her convictions and her power was immense.


Brosnahan, Chris. “Margot Kidder: Playboy 1976,” Medium. May 15, 2018. https://medium.com/@ChrisBrosnahan/margot-kidder-playboy-1976-e532241cc56.

Jayne Mansfield and the Shaming of a Sex Symbol

It is impossible, or, at the very least, irresponsible to look at a creative output or filmography and not look at the time in which it was created. This is true of anyone’s work, but it is especially true in regards to sex symbols. Through their work they tell us about social mores, the boundaries of propriety, and what femininity is composed of in a particular era. Personally, when I see the performances of women who are considered sex symbols, I am filled with a subtle but distinct thrill, a feeling of joy in response to what I see as the transgressive nature of their work. These are women who delight in overstepping the boundaries that society has built, whose very personas and existences are built to shock. These are women who refuse the mid-century notion that womanhood is domesticity and matronly care. That is, I believe, the essence of their longevity; this ability to harness symbols and mores of femininity and twist them into something so extravagant and irrational that they become a kind of retaliation against the status quo. Thus, their images still seem fresh and exciting even today. These women, Jayne Mansfield included, use depictions of femininity that are reductive or based on the tropes of mid-century womanhood and in taking them to an illogical extreme, are able to turn the image against their audience, the very men who desire them. It is in this that I see a very meticulously cultivated and potentially transgressive image.

In her work, Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties, Martha Saxton offers us a different interpretation of the role of the sex symbol in American society. Saxton chronicles the life and  rise of Mansfield as a cultural juggernaut whose image was integral to a post-war sense of fecundity and wealth. She assesses, with precise detail, the notions of femininity, womanhood, and sex that were so pervasive in this era as to give rise to Mansfield and many other bombshells. It was, after all, the era of the bombshell. Saxton is adept at describing American society in the 1950s, with all its double standards based in purity and conformity. She relates this to Mansfield and her persona, exposing her as an outgrowth specific to that era and its preoccupations. She works to expose the fraud of 1950s womanhood, but manages to damn Mansfield for pushing against these very strictures. I see her analysis of Mansfield’s life and work as particularly reductive. Saxton characterizes Mansfield as fickle and not particularly interested in anything or anyone unless it had monetary or concrete value in terms of her career. Where one could interpret Mansfield’s approach as an example of her business savvy, Saxton reduces Mansfield’s actions to that of an insatiable exhibitionist, whose endless exploitation of others and cold calculations are the legacy of her work. In this, Mansfield’s intelligence is undermined. The book was as exhaustive in its appraisal of societal norms and conventions as it was short sighted in its assessment of Mansfield and her ability to cultivate a persona that was a force within mid-century America.

One of second wave feminism’s blind spots in relation to femininity and its construction has to do with bombshells. As with Saxton’s work, many scholars fail to acknowledge the hard work and ingenuity of the women who work within this mode. They are able to take the tropes of femininity, often degrading, and take them to their most absurd. In this, they expose the construction. They render it, and by extension society, ridiculous. These women are often underappreciated masters of comedic timing and manipulation of mores, especially the hypocritical ones, the ones that showcase a simultaneous revulsion and preoccupation with sex and its every manifestation. Rather than completely writing off these creations, can’t we also see them as potentially subversive, as images that take control of the narrative, that masterfully wrest control of the image away from the traditional image-makers, men?

Saxton’s book often refers to Mansfield’s shameless need to promote herself. Mansfield was known for constantly using gimmicks to get the media’s attention. Saxton finds this disgusting, trashy, and abhorrent. But why do we never reframe this narrative? She is an actress. She is an actress whose worth is tied up in her appearance, as an actress’s worth often is. She thus has a finite amount of time in which to achieve the success she desires. She understands this. She takes action to maximize the time she has, capitalizing on her beauty and allure. Every actor does this. So why do we hate and antagonize her for it? She got the media’s attention and she did it largely on her own. By those terms, we should be praising her for her savvy handling of media and audience expectations. But we don’t. We decide to find this display, when coming from Jayne Mansfield, pathetic.  It is a double standard that is stifling, one in which Mansfield could never win. Typecast as the dumb blonde, all of her actions were interpreted to uphold this narrative. The construction of her own persona and the savvy with which she handled the media is rarely mentioned in conversations about Jayne and it should be because the dominant narrative of Mansfield, the dumb blonde, and the creation and handling of her career, much of which she did herself, do not add up. But what it boils down to, in this case, and in many others like it, is that here is a woman so brazen, so unapologetic in her rush to fame, so openly desirous of success, that we, as a society, object. We don’t like to see anyone, especially women, plainly lusting after the fame and adoration of millions. We don’t like to see a woman’s longing as fully and obviously as all that. If a woman has aspirations, they should be hidden, not brazenly bandied about in a bikini. Mansfield’s goals were as obvious as anything. It is transparent in all her publicity and even by today’s standards, that transparency is shocking. It is a woman working hard and demanding the things she desires from a society that would rather not pay her desires any mind, a society that would rather restore Mansfield to the role of desired. This blatant aspiration is not particularly acceptable, there is too much obvious want there, it is too plain. Better, as a woman, to be quietly dissatisfied, than to be openly desirous of anything.

By the end of her work, Saxton has begun to acknowledge Jayne’s drive for fame and the difficulties inherent in sculpting just such a persona. Saxton is able to acknowledge Jayne’s hard work and the astuteness which contributed to her success, but it is too little too late. Saxton has spent the whole book denigrating Jayne’s contributions to film and to the public discourse on fame and sex. It is not a wholly positive contribution, but it should be acknowledged that a woman saw the mores, took them, manipulated them, twisted them to extremes, and was able to take a subjugation and turn it into a position of power. Saxton derides her for her choices, chastises her for stupidity, real and feigned. But really, if we are talking about Mansfield, we are talking about a woman who saw a system that privileges men and was able to take it and manipulate it so it worked for her. That should not go unnoticed or unrecognized. That takes intelligence. We should not conflate a persona with a person and we should not shame the person for the damnable strictures put upon them by society. That is, after all, the work of a sex symbol. Women like Mansfield and Monroe took something they recognized as artificial, namely the way that womanhood and femininity are conceived of, and exposed its artificiality by taking it to its most absurd conclusion. To not see a kind of power there is to wholly miss the point.


Saxton, Martha. Jayne Mansfield and the American Fifties. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.

Growing Up Huston in “A Story Lately Told”

“Dad couldn’t bear cowardice. Acts of bravery came high on his register. He expected us [his children] to take informed chances. If you had balance and followed the rules of safety, such as learning how to roll with the punches, the chances were that you would survive. Risks were fun: that jolt of fear and then the sudden thrill of having it behind you.”

-Anjelica Huston, A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, pg. 63.

Famous familial dynasties make up fascinating environments. These larger-than-life characters often mimic, but never fully embrace traditional familial behaviors. They often tend toward the dramatic or the spectacular. They exist apart from but are wholly entrenched in the pettinesses of interpersonal relationships and everyday life. They often loom over our cultural, social, or political landscapes, but we are rarely given a nuanced glimpse into the lives they lead. In A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, Anjelica Huston offers us access into the lives of the Hustons, a filmic dynasty of devoted creatives and independent eccentrics whose influence stretches all the way back to the 1920s and the work of her grandfather, Walter Huston. But the tale is ultimately Anjelica’s. It is the story of growing up as a Huston, of both embracing and pushing against the legacy of her nearly mythic father, director John Huston. It is the story of a woman forging her own identity, one that is both distinctive from and linked to her larger family.

     A Story Lately Told is a mesmerizing journey through the youth of a woman whose life was undoubtedly impacted by the gregarious and unrelenting presence of her father. Anjelica regales us with descriptions of houses, of interiors so lush and filled with the artifacts of adventurous lives that it seems, at times, as if you are walking through a fairy tale, a dream so full, so opulent, and so well composed that it charms and beguiles you. Huston is able to strike a chord of honesty amid all this adventure and luxury. It never seems excessively out of touch. She is self-aware. She is recounting the world around her, and the world around her was constructed to be a reflection and extension of the exciting, adventurous, and creatively awe-inspiring films, life, and principles of her father. It was an atmosphere, with all its inspiration and manic artistry, that embodies her father and his films. The houses were decorated and the family was being raised as if it were an extension of his films. Anjelica recounts stories of the illustrious persons she met unknowingly. She tells stories of performing plays for Peter O’Toole, running into Montgomery Clift on the set of one of her father’s films, and an incident where John Steinbeck played Santa Claus at a Huston family Christmas gathering. These men are stripped of their legendary status, they are mere mortals wandering around the set that is Anjelica Huston’s life and it is a pleasure to see them there.

The book details the complexities of having a father with such a distinctively domineering and gregarious character. As Anjelica grows up, she struggles to make space for herself, to cultivate an identity in the shadow of her father. It is not all a fairy tale, it is the story of a domineering man who expects considerable talent and ingenuity from all those around him, including his children. As Anjelica matures, she begins to realize that it is imperative that she carve out space for herself. She rejects acting, against her father’s expectations. Instead, she pursues modeling, working with some of the most innovative photographers and fashion houses of the 1960s. Here, in this world, she is able to carve out a niche for herself that was solely her own, made up of her own ambition, her own talent, and her own passions. It is not a place where she is forced to rely on or acknowledge her father or his influence. It is all her own.

Anjelica Huston’s A Story Lately Told is the story of the magic of a life surrounded by beauty-by art, music, antiques-and its contrast with the harshness of the real world. It is the story of the calm beauty of a created world and the shock that occurs when the real world comes crashing into it. It is the story of a family both impetuous and imaginative, charming and volatile. It is the story of a woman’s journey to selfhood, a story of her determination to assert her own identity in the morass of personality and myth that make up her father. It is both a love letter to her youth and upbringing as well as to the father that while often difficult, was, ultimately, an immense and essential presence in her life.

John Anjelica Huston

Huston, Anjelica. A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York. New York, Scribner, 2013.

 

Learning From the Irrepressible Optimism of “Dodsworth”

“But what it boils down to, well, I’ve been doing things myself for a long time now. I thought I’d give things a chance to do something to me.”

-Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936)

There is a scene at the beginning of Dodsworth that is the perfect expression of Samuel Dodsworth’s character. Dodsworth and his wife are on an ocean liner bound for Europe. While speaking with the captain, Dodsworth is told that from their current location they can see Bishop’s Light, a signal that indicates their proximity to Britain. Dodsworth, beside himself with excitement, runs to the deck to see the light. When it flashes across the ocean, he rushes inside to tell his wife. She shakes it off, not realizing the importance of the light. To Dodsworth, it is a symbol of a new life, of adventure, of romantic idealism. She, of course, sees only a light. Therein lies the film’s conflict.

Dodsworth is the story of a marriage, of a man and a woman realizing that at some point, without their knowledge, their paths diverged. The film opens with Samuel Dodsworth, played by Walter Huston, having just sold his company, Dodsworth Motors. We see him gazing out the window at the company he built over the span of twenty years. From these introductory moments, it is clear that he is a man who feels deeply, one who is not flippant with any decision or any emotion. He is a man in grief. All of this has been precipitated by his wife, Fran. Having traveled throughout Europe during her youth, she craves a return journey. To Fran, Europe is synonymous with the last moments of pure, youthful, uncomplicated joy in her life. She has persuaded him to go to Europe to chase this feeling of youthful bliss. Dodsworth recuperates from his pain by throwing himself enthusiastically into all Europe has to offer. He is beautifully impulsive in his desire to see the sites and to learn all that he can. These experiences give him sustenance. As they travel throughout Europe, they are faced with the realization that Fran’s motivation in returning to Europe, her need to chase frivolity and seduction, is an attempt to outrun her fears about age and mortality. This tears Fran and Samuel apart. She finds his joyful idealism increasingly nauseating. He, in turn, is annoyed with her excessive materialism and pretensions. He wants to see it all, to immerse himself in all the experiences available to him. This causes the final rift between them.

The character of Samuel Dodsworth resides in the pantheon of idealistic, romantic protagonists who are at odds with society. He sits alongside characters like Larry Darrell from The Razor’s Edge (1946) or Mac in Local Hero (1983). These are men who seek out a life that is not dictated by societal mores. They are men who, thrown head-long into conflicts that alter their values, are forced to search for meaning in the beauty around them. They are men who were not aware that they could build a life on more than money and prestige. When they begin to sense a life outside of these constraints, they grasp for it wildly, ultimately finding true contentment. Dodsworth, without his auto company, is free to explore the world and everything that it evokes for him. He is able to slow down in order to find excitement and joy in the mundane. He throws himself into this education without another thought, finding wonder, pleasure, and, by extension, himself. It is the story of the disintegration of a marriage, but also of the growing identity of a man who, until now, had thought that his life and identity were tied up solely in productivity and monetary gain. It is a reminder that in a largely aspirational, acquisitive world, there is still joy to be found in small things.

For this film, Huston reprised his role from the stage, as is clear from his intimate knowledge and understanding of the character. He is at once grave and cheerful, idealistic and practical. He is a man searching for answers to questions he had previously ignored. He is inquisitive and full of joy. He is rendered beautifully by Huston, who lends him both gravitas and relatability. We are drawn to him, we want him to find peace and contentment. This is a film full of what could only be described as moments of silent, unadorned beauty, moments that are not overly sentimental or saccharine, but vital and urgent. Dodsworth seems to be telling us that within a world as complicated and overwhelming as this one can be, the simple kindnesses of idealism can offer you not only solace, but inspiration for how to live the rest of your life. As we watch Dodsworth on his journey, we are inevitably drawn back to that early scene on the deck of the boat. We hope that Dodsworth is always able to keep that sense of unbridled joy and optimism within him, we hope that he is never forced to conform to his wife or society’s expectations, to the fatal pairing of happiness and monetary success. We hope that he is able to see Bishop’s Light in everything.

 

“West of Eden” and the Myth of Paradise

“Hollywood is very powerful, and very real. No matter how make-believe it is, it is real, and it moves and shakes and it is not something to mess around with. It is a real force.”

-Wendy Vanden Heuvel, quoted in West of Eden: An American Place, pg. 309.

     West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is an oral history that attempts to take on some of the most pervasive myths from one of the most influential parts of American society: Hollywood. To do this, Stein charts the history of five influential families, whose personal histories intersected the history of Los Angeles, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape. Eden follows the familial sagas of the Dohenys, the Warners, Jane Garland, Jennifer Jones, and the Steins. Stein forces us to reckon with the repercussions of fame and money, the pain they cause and how that pain can be transferred through generations. In a place where fame, money, and prestige are lauded above all else and are set up as the sole worthy objective of a life, we are shown what their actual price can be. We are shown people throwing their lives towards this objective, attempting to reinvent themselves in order to fit the role of the mogul or the starlet at the same time as we are shown people attempting to escape, to formulate lives that are not dependent on these powerfully pervasive notions. Take, for example, the story of Jennifer Jones and her family. Stein begins the story with Jones visiting her grown son at a campsite in Trancas Canyon, where he lives with his family. Having experienced firsthand the damage that a life in Hollywood can inflict, Bob Walker, the son of famed starlet Jennifer Jones, decided to search for a different kind of life. With this framing, we are then taken back in time and shown the history of the Jones family in Hollywood. These details force us to assess the real effects of a world based solely on appearances and wealth. With this framing in place, we are forced to come to terms with and assess the world of Hollywood, an alleged paradise that has failed to live up to its promises of joy and fecundity.

Oral history as a format challenges the way we look at truth and at stories. It is, by its very nature, a convoluted, intricate endeavor. When we read an oral history we are forced to contend with the emotional investments of all of the people that make up a story. It is an exercise in empathy that complicates the dominant narrative by further exploring the way time, place, and perspective influence a narrative. It is a way of telling a story that demands that the reader be able to hold multiple and sometimes contradictory statements to be true simultaneously. Stein uses this form because it lends her the space to examine larger concepts on a more intimate scale. The rhythm and pacing of the oral history differs vastly from that of traditional historical or nonfiction accounts, including an engaging interplay of stories. As Stein proves in this work, it is a form of storytelling, not merely a form of dictation. It involves an understanding and formulation of multiple thoughts that express bigger concepts. Stein uses every minute detail in the stories these families tell about themselves in order to express the nuance and character of a place, using these histories as a kind of stand-in for a larger historical inquiry.

Trying to capture the essence or aura of a place is a massive and seemingly impossible task. It is history with too wide a scope, but Stein is able to do this by consolidating the story of Los Angeles into the stories of five families and the ways in which their lives intersected with and permanently influenced the landscape around them. From the oil industry and the founding of the city with the Dohenys to Jack Warner and the formation of Warner Bros. and Los Angeles’s most enduring industry, the legacies and myths of Los Angeles are explored. West of Eden: An American Place seeks to chart and define power and the ways in which it impacted the landscape physically, psychically, socially, and culturally. Throughout West of Eden, Stein shows how hollow myths feed off the aspirations of the people who seek them out until they are left empty, the effects of which can be seen for generations. Stein shows how lives are transformed by a toxic sludge of expectation, unfulfilled hopes, and the glorification of these pervasive myths. Stein’s explorations show the way the facade is kept up by exposing what the myths really mean and what they are really made up of, which, as it turns out, is very little; merely some old photographs and ephemera that all serve to bolster an ideal that is much more complicated and dark than its image would have you expect. This is all Hollywood is. What is real, Stein seems to say, is the human price of this illusion.

 

Stein, Jean. West of Eden: An American Place. New York, Random House, 2016.

Facing the Unknown: Occult Horror and the Upheaval of the 1960s and 70s

Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially not horror films. Horror and its creators have always been adept at synthesizing our most innate fears, writing them onto the supernatural and offering us momentary catharsis. Sometimes, however, the fears are more situational than they are innate. Sometimes horror serves as a reflection of a society’s fears and values. It is impossible to see the films being produced and disseminated from the late 1960s and into the 70s and not notice a trend. There is an emphasis on witchcraft, covens, satanic cults, the devil, vampires, astrology, and demons. It stretches across all media, from the high-budget and exalted to the low-budget and barely remembered. But it all feeds from and into a mutual obsession. When you think of the ongoing and often necessary upheaval that characterized the 60s and 70s-the exposure of Watergate and the release of the Pentagon Papers, the Vietnam War and the resulting protests, the feminist and civil rights movements- the films of this era make a bit more sense. They are all filled with a disquiet; a sense that the world is not what it was previously believed to be, that institutions can no longer be trusted, and that one’s place in society is not as secure as once thought. And that’s where horror comes in, because with massive upheaval comes deep and complicated anxiety that often can’t be fully articulated or understood, anxieties that then get digested into the culture and writ large in metaphor. In this case, the metaphor is covens and satanists, the occult, and supernatural phenomena.

It is not exactly a stretch to notice a parallel between the threat of the coven and the threat of feminism. These two groups rely on gatherings of women who challenge the status quo and find strength in the companionship of other women. It is a threat to power, to the established modes of power, and to those who hold the power, namely men. Beginning in the 1960s, as an outgrowth of the nascent feminist movement, women began seeking solace and an understanding of the mutual conditions of sexism in what were referred to as consciousness raising groups. These groups encouraged women to speak about their lives in order to cement the idea that women were not alone in their experiences of sexism. Through discussion, they sought to expose the structural realities of misogyny, showing attendees how their personal experiences related to a larger world. What the horror films of this era do is relocate the fear and the threat that was posed by groups such as these onto the supernatural. To do this is to render them evil and thus punishable. It is a way to regain control without ever having to admit that you were losing it.

Similar concerns arise when you look at the prevalence of the satanic cult in horror films of the 1970s. Films like Race With the Devil (1975) highlight the fear that there is someone out to get you and although there is no way to understand who or what your attacker is, they are nevertheless all around you, posing a threat to your way of life. This notion of the unknown but hostile and ever-present enemy is one that seems to have clear origins when we think of the chaos of the seventies. Hippies and other counter-cultural movements that were a challenge to the very fabric of American society and life were omnipresent. Additionally, it was not uncommon in this era for reckless and ill-conceived revolutionary groups to make bombs and distribute them at will. The resulting chaos, fear, and extreme violence of an unknown enemy could be seen as one of the origins of this trope. Similarly, in these films the violence of the satanic cult is always highlighted, for example the ritual killing of a woman through which the plot of Race With the Devil begins. For a society coming to terms with the irrefutable knowledge of violence on a scale not previously known or even imagined, but now impossible to ignore because of a televised war and the senseless and sensationalized murders at the hands of the Manson Family, it was necessary to transpose the threat, to create a dichotomy of good and evil that would explain ever so simplistically the complex world unfolding around them. These films gave the audience a definable evil outside of themselves so they didn’t have to think critically about corrupt systems or their complicity in them. It was a way to make sense of a traumatized and uncertain world, to regain composure after the initial shock of discovering a senselessly violent world. As these films asserted, the threat is everywhere but it is often indistinguishable from the mundane.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker premiered in 1972 as a television movie that was later adapted into a series. It focused on a reporter who solved mysteries with an occult undertone. In this I see a desire to explain the incomprehensible. To me, Kolchak is a manifestation of the uncertainty of the times. The show starts with a murder or an unexplained event. Most people shrug it off and move on, but Kolchak investigates and finds an explanation for these things. Everyone ignores him, but he knows the truth. This desire to apply some kind of order in a completely chaotic world is emblematic of the fear and anxieties of the era. Here, as in other occult horror films, we see real fears being translated into something supernatural that can then be solved and the threat eliminated. In a time when everything felt newly horrifying; an endless war, people being shot and beaten by police and soldiers, and institutions and authority figures caught disseminating falsehoods, to say it was a moment of great upheaval could be seen as an understatement. But, in moments of great upheaval, we often create metaphors to deal with our panic. In this case, it was the occult.

Much like the era they were created in, these films are essentially pessimistic. Even when they end with evil vanquished, the victory feels hollow. It came at a great price and while the feeling of immediate threat is over, it has opened the possibility that all manner of unknown horror could spill into our lives at any time. The audience, now more uncertain than before, knows that there is no way to go back and pretend that they didn’t see the things that they have seen. These films offered explanations as a temporary balm for the unshakable realization that nothing is ever knowable and that we are hurtling through a life that has no predetermined order and over which we have no control.

Art is often a reflection of our greatest concerns. It is a way to process our fears, insecurities, ideals, and passions. From a distance, it can be a way to understand people, a place, or an era. Whether it is exalted portraiture or the films of a low-budget studio that is simply catering to thrills, it makes no difference. These things are artifacts of us and they will always show our imprint. This is particularly true of the surge in occult horror in the late 1960s and 70s. Films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Race With the Devil, Satan’s School for Girls (1973), The Sentinel (1977), Suspiria (1977) and television shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) show us the anxieties of an era and the desire to make sense of a world that has seemed to descend into absolute, utter, and irredeemable chaos.