What I See When I Look at Cherie Currie

     Foxes (1980) opens with a shot of a bare foot hanging off of a bed. After panning up the body of a sleeping young woman, the camera travels throughout her room, charting the detritus of adolescent life; pink plastic curlers, makeup, half-eaten Twinkies, Clearasil, and pictures of John Travolta and KISS. Four girls are entwined in sleep. It is a peaceful scene, filled with both the immediacy and nostalgia of youth. It is a fleeting moment of calm and a testament to the intimacy of adolescent bonds. The moment is shattered by an alarm clock radio, a token of reality calling the girls back from dreams and illusion. Three of the girls wake up and grudgingly set their sights on the fourth girl, still in a deep sleep. “Oh Christ. We gotta wake up Annie,” one girl says, exasperated. They begin to discuss the girl: she had been out late last night, was she drinking or on Quaaludes? “She was sick all over some guy’s car,” a girl mentions. They set the radio next to her head, raising the volume. Still she sleeps. They grab a glass of water, sprinkling some on her face. She continues to sleep. Jeanie, played by Jodie Foster, throws the remaining water on her face. She awakens and sleepily addresses the girls gathered around her. This will be the last moment that she is in repose for Annie is a force, an agent of chaos. She is kinetic energy. Wherever there is screaming, giggling, crashing, or breaking, there is Annie.

     Foxes is the story of four adolescent girls, dealing with all of life’s dysfunctions, while living in an intoxicating but unforgiving landscape, one that dwarfs them both physically and emotionally. Parents are dismissive and absent at best, jealous or abusive at worst. The girls find solace with one another, as they dream of finding a house for themselves, creating the home that they never had. Annie is played by Cherie Currie. Though not the protagonist of the film, she is the fixed point around which everyone and everything orbits. Throughout Foxes, Annie refuses to be contained. She rushes from dirtbag older men to drugs and beer, searching for that quiet, that stillness, that sense of contentment with herself. Despite, or maybe because of, her chaos, the girls become the main support in her life, as they all daydream of making a world all their own, where they are together and they are safe. Annie is simultaneously a warning and a lesson and an ode to reckless youth. She is a fictional character, but she is also Currie’s own youth in an all-girl teenage rock band and she is also a part of my youth.

     When Currie was fifteen years old, she auditioned for and became the lead singer of The Runaways, a group that included a young Joan Jett. They sang about rebellion and desire, and being a teenager in an era when rock and roll reigned supreme. There was a simplicity to their songs, but also a vitality and immediacy. There was a thrill in hearing young women defy expectation, reveling in a hedonistic world that was usually only accessible to women as groupies. Currie had power. She would strut around the stage in a corset daring people to look at her, proclaiming her viciousness, discarding convention. It was a confrontation with her own sexualization. It was brazen. It put her in control. The band was only together for a short time, but the repercussions of the world that Currie was thrust into would affect her for years to come. There was rampant drug addiction, alcoholism, and stories of sexual assault. It was a brutal world that Currie was forced to navigate alone. But the energy, the sense of caustic abandon, that Currie brought to The Runaways was the energy that she would later bring to the character of Annie.

     I think about Annie often because a part of me was her—the part that hurtled towards destruction without really wanting it or knowing why, the part that was feeling and reacting to the depths of an unarticulated rage inside of me by seeking to destroy it. In my early twenties, I was careening daily, hourly from one bad habit to another, drinking until I was senseless, feeling my life whirling into chaos, feeling as if I was powerless to stop it. I became a chore to the people around me, I became the person who had to be taken care of. My emotions and self-loathing were driving everything. I would repress all of it until I exploded—breaking things, lashing out at people, passing out, falling down, or wandering off in the middle of the night. My memory is spotty at best, but what is forgotten has been filled in with shame and guilt. Guilt that I had no right to be this way. I was a relatively well-adjusted young woman who had lived a life of comfort and stability up until this point. I was a healthy, fairly attractive twenty-year-old with no responsibilities, but I hated myself and so I went out. I went to parties, I went to bars, and I did whatever I could to forget myself for a moment. What started out as a little healthy rebellion careened out of control in a way that I couldn’t understand because I was never sober enough to question the events of the previous night or the thoughts running through my head. Always having been shy, I was now riddled with anxiety, and things became dark and messy and it all spiraled long before I could articulate what it was that was wrong. It descended into chaos before I realized that I could stop it and then finally I did. 

     So, when I think about Annie and Cherie Currie, I also think of my younger self. When I think about Annie, I can’t help but think about the walls that we put up in order to appear strong when, in truth, we are so painfully vulnerable. I think about how those walls, those inadequate coping mechanisms, alongside the fear of being seen and its twin loneliness, can come to dictate a life so completely. I think of carelessness, of the thrill and danger of rushing into chaos with the utter calm of a person intent on making their inner turmoil a physical presence. I think about how life can so quickly become dictated by rage and sadness, to the point that nothing else can get in. So Annie is special to me. Annie feels like me. When I see her head lolling about, when I see her murmuring inaudibly, her eyes hazy and unfocused, I see a former version of myself. I see a girl longing for stability, clarity, and the warmth and safety of her friends (a feeling I didn’t know for I had become so emotionally isolated). I feel the pain that she radiates, the pain forcing her to ricochet from one amusement to another in order to outrun herself. I want her to find peace because I know what it is to want that peace, even though you have no idea what it might look like, even though you appear to actively disdain it. I see a girl trying to define herself within the world, just as I too was wondering who I was or who I could be. I see the senseless recklessness of my own youth, but I also see my own survival, the triumph over my rage. I see how different I am from my former self, how much I’ve grown, but I also see how important it is to never hide from this former self. It will always be a part of me; that hurt, pain, and fear that was so scary to me also made me learn so much about myself and it should never be forgotten. Annie helps me remember this. 

Natalie’s Tigers and the Isolation of Stardom

     The girl reclines on a poolside lounge chair reading a script. Having paused, she raises her head. She is deep in thought. It seems a relatively commonplace photograph of a starlet: a young woman in repose while also at work. It illustrates the promise of Hollywood; of stardom, wealth, and ease. The image of effortlessness belies the labor of acting, of fame. There is, of course, one unusual element: the girl is surrounded by stuffed animal tigers. The girl is Natalie Wood—the child actress turned ingénue turned well-respected actor turned icon of tragedy. It was not uncommon for Wood, a young woman at the time, to be photographed clutching her tigers to her body or placing them around her as she performed various tasks. When I saw these photographs for the first time, I became fascinated with what they could mean within the history of Wood’s life as well as the larger history of Hollywood itself. They are playful and fun, but they are also dark and upsetting, a meditation on loneliness and trauma passed off as lightness, as the mere childishness of a charming young woman. 

     The troubled child star has long been a cliche, but, as with many cliches, there is a kernel of truth to it. Natalie was an example of this. From a young age, her mother, armed with sheer determination and a fortune teller’s assertion that her daughter was destined for greatness, moved the family to Los Angeles to pursue Natalie’s career as an actress. The mother, domineering at best, abusive at worst, pushed Natalie to approach men that she believed could better her career. Natalie’s career became the predominant concern of the family and everything else, including the other children, was neglected. In this atmosphere of intense scrutiny, even Natalie was neglected. If she was not satisfied with the emotional resonance of a take, Natalie’s mother was known to force her into moments of emotional distress, reminding her of traumatizing events in her life in order to make her cry. According to biographer Suzanne Finstad, it was then that the boundaries between reality and fiction began to blur for Natalie. Never allowed to spend time with children her own age, Natalie never developed a sense of self outside of the characters that she played. Her identity became wrapped up in the stories that defined her work. She became unable to discern reality from fantasy, life from movie-making. And so singularly focused was the mother on living through her daughter’s successes, that she failed to see the girl in front of her.

     Later, as a young woman, Natalie was subjected to many of the horrors that have long been a staple of Hollywood. On the set of Rebel Without a Cause, her director, Nicholas Ray, positioned himself as a mentor to his young stars and used the excess of time spent with Natalie, who was then sixteen, to initiate a sexual relationship. He was forty-three years old and the affair was unquestioned—an accepted secret on the set. 

    As she grew older, she knew that sustaining her career meant navigating the tricky transition period from child star to mature actress. As such, she was seeking roles that would showcase her range and ability. She had, once again, been put in a position where she had to prove herself. One night, Natalie had a meeting in the hotel room of a famous and well-respected actor. He told her that he had a possible role for her. He had been an idol of hers since childhood. She went to the hotel room and he raped her, telling her that if she ever spoke about it, he would end her career. She would never publicly name her attacker, but she would be forced into his presence at parties and movie premieres. Natalie had been robbed of her choices, her options, and her agency. The studio surely would have protected him and discarded her; she was, after all, only one of thousands of potential starlets. This trauma is what actually lived behind the illusion of elegance that Hollywood projected of itself. Natalie was just one of the many women sacrificed to bolster the illusion—pain and suffering became the price of that specific artificial beauty.  

     Natalie Wood’s story is an exercise in extremes; a childhood sacrificed for a heightened, superficial world, a world that she had been forced into by a mother who was anything but nurturing. It soon became the only reality she knew. Her life and her identity were never truly her own and she struggled with them for the remainder of her life. She was forced to endure a long succession of people who preyed upon her and they were often the very people who were supposed to protect her. Hers is also a story that serves as proof that the Hollywood dream is no more than a fabrication, a glimpse of beauty that can come crashing into a life with unrelenting force. She was the image of the ideal, the non-threatening girl next door. Armed with large, expressive eyes, she became an image of sweetness without substance, of a body without a self. She became Hollywood’s dream of itself, all of its aspiration, its hopes of grandeur and triumph. But much like Hollywood, there was a hidden reality, a darker reality—a collection of secrets lying below the surface. And Natalie Wood is that reality. She is the history of Hollywood, in all its worst impulses and all its most egregious violations. 

     When I see these photographs I think of this other story, the one that took place far away from the glamour, the lights, and the artifice. At first glance, they might signal the remains of a whimsicality, of a sweet girlishness. But to me they seem to be so much more than that. They demonstrate darkness and frailty, the need to be comforted and seen, the ways we cope or fail to cope, and the basic necessities of existence that, in an attempt to seem strong or invincible, are often deemed unimportant. I see a beautiful girl trying her hardest to find some lasting solace, some companionship. But I also think that these photographs are an indispensable part of her legacy. To me, they offer a more intimate glimpse into her life than any other photograph taken of her. A far cry from production stills or studio sanctioned dates, these images show isolation. They show a person dealing with the trauma of their life in any way possible, grasping for peace. They show a person. A real person. Not an actress and not a role, but the one thing that Natalie Wood had wanted to be so badly for her entire life.

Finstad, Suzanne. Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography. New York, Broadway Books, 2020.

“Little Darlings”: A Celebration of an Imperfect, Unidealized Adolescence

     The moment their eyes meet, they despise one another. An empty seat on a bus to summer camp turns into the site of a brawl, prompting hysterics from the surrounding girls. They are natural competitors—one athletic and scrappy, the other rich and aloof, and both with something to prove for they are at an age when every interaction is a chance to show yourself to be either more worldly or more worthy of admiration and terror. We are now entering the world of teenage girlhood where sophistication and cynicism are social currency. In Little Darlings (1980), the dialogue and poses of youth mirror the feigned sophistication of early adolescence, the posturing and one-upmanship of girlhood. Reminiscent of a Judy Blume novel, but with elements of summer camp farce, complete with food fights and a stolen condom machine, the film follows Angel, played by Kristy McNichol, and Ferris, Tatum O’Neal, as they compete to lose their virginity by the end of summer. 

     From their initial meeting, the bond between Ferris and Angel is one made up of competition, slights, and petty jealousies. It is a relationship charged by animosity. They are adversaries and the girls around them, excited by the rivalry, stoke this animosity. It begins, however, to evolve, ever so slowly, into esteem, respect, and mutual regard. They are the same; their fears, trepidation, joys, and envies are the same. What at first seemed to be the vast difference in their upbringing and personalities doesn’t seem by the end to be such an unbridgeable gap. Their competitive edge is dulled by the realization that being really truly known, seen, and understood by another person far outweighs the temporary credibility either of them could garner from winning the bet. 

     The poignancy of the film lies in its illustration of the bonds of girlhood, so obsessional, so immediate, convoluted, and melodramatic. These are the formative years when you are able for the first time to see a self differentiated from the bonds of your early life—a solitary self— at the same time that another person becomes a part of you so necessary as to be almost like air. Little Darlings creates this tension, this joyful abandon, this discovery of oneself within the world. Throughout the film, the girls navigate uncharted territory, discovering the contours and complications of the world and, as they grow up, who they are within that newly discovered world. Ostensibly a story about a bet between Ferris and Angel, the film deftly explores the nuances of female friendship, the subtle gradations and moments of enlightenment and trust that make up the basis of a new selfhood and a new deep bond. 

     As Ferris and Angel compete, the rest of the girls, an incongruous, clique-less group thrown together solely by summer camp, become divided as they vie for the position of confidante, the role of more knowledgeable older sister, counseling Ferris and Angel on how best to seduce the boys they have set their sights on. Of course, it’s all an act. It’s all just formidable teen girl bravado, a smoke-screen of dramatics to hide the vulnerability of youth and the all-consuming desire to be acknowledged and thought of as indispensable in a world of ever-changing enthusiasms. Quoting Shakespeare, claiming that your favorite movie is Last Tango in Paris, even going so far as to say that you’ve gone to the theater many times to see it, it’s all an elaborate act, a series of references that, to the girls, connote essential and yet forbidden knowledge; a kind of cultured, mimicked womanhood. But, in the process of coaching and competing against each other, they bond. This facade of faked sophistication begins to melt away as friendships between all of the girls begin to grow. They are restored to the giggly, mooning, deep introspection of early adolescence. The attempts to replicate what they see as femininity, attempts that have grown out of their obsessions with boys, sex, and their bodies, are left behind. Through their acceptance of themselves and one another, they are able to inhabit the carefree world of girlhood for a little while longer, fending off the adult world in favor of that of dreams and imagination. 

     When I watch this film, I can’t help but be reminded of the childhood and adolescence that Tatum O’Neal herself never had. By the time she was ten years old, she had starred in, been nominated, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Paper Moon (1973), prompting the cruel resentment and retribution of her father, actor Ryan O’Neal. She was subjected to a world of abuse and neglect and forced to take on responsibilities such as the care of younger siblings. She was born into a family plagued by rampant drug addiction and a competitive edge that sometimes took the shape of physical violence. A place lacking in emotional support, Tatum was firmly on her own. She was born to a life that seemed, from the outside, to promise so much, to be a gilt edged dream, but that turned out to be an unending nightmare. She, unlike the girls in the film, was forced to contend with the trials of an adult life while still a child.

     I know, of course, in the more reflective, logical part of my brain, that there is no corollary between film and life; that an actor can summon reserves of empathy or emotion that he or she cannot muster or even fathom in real life. That is the beauty and the art of acting. I know this. Really, I do. But when I watch Tatum O’Neal in Little Darlings, when I see her opening up to her peers, when I see her bonding with other girls over camp related mischief, when I see the older coach she’s pining over carefully sending her on her way after she tries to seduce him, I can’t help but hope that it’s happening to the real Tatum, the one so beleaguered and isolated by the trauma inflicted on her by her parents and an exploitative community. I can’t help but feel a sliver of hope as I watch the film that, much as the girls’ sense of self begins to grow alongside the feeling of finally being seen for who they are, something similar may be happening to Tatum. I dream of her finding solace in the ways that Ferris and Angel find solace in that vulnerable time, with each other and within themselves. I imagine that I am seeing some sort of healing happen—that watching the film is offering her the chance at a safer narrative through some kind of impossible alchemy. It’s impractical and it’s absurd, trust me, I know. But, maybe there is something special about this film. Maybe it’s the feeling of hope that what is happening to the girls in the film could also be happening to some small, damaged, and partially forgotten part of ourselves; that it is making clear a formerly hidden piece of ourselves that is also striving for recognition and healing through the bonds we make with others. Maybe it’s reminding me that we cannot and should not be alone. Or maybe it is, after all, just a summer camp movie.

Switchblades, Drag Races, and Rumbles: On the Juvenile Delinquent in American Cinema

     I was young when I first saw West Side Story (1961). I was captivated by the colors, the romance, and the choreography that so elegantly depicted the inner turmoil of the characters. As much as I was drawn to the doomed romance, as much as I tried to will a happier ending with each viewing, the thing that always stuck with me were the juvenile delinquents themselves, their untamed anger and resentment, their pure passion. They were misfits and so I loved them. As I grew up, I became casually aware, through Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the James Dean infatuation required of my teenage years, that West Side Story was not a solitary case. Rather, it was a response to a larger social phenomena and a clear descendant of a genre of films made in the previous decade—the juvenile delinquent film. 

     During the 1950s, the juvenile delinquent became one of the most potent images of dissatisfaction and destruction. The era was filled with fear about what the juvenile delinquent meant and many films, in a bid for relevance, sought to tackle what was rapidly becoming one of the most pressing social issues. These films usually fell into one of two categories and had very different approaches to their subject matter. Big budget studio productions, which starred recognizable actors, took their subject matter very seriously, and saw it as their duty to educate the public on the growing threat of juvenile delinquency. Many of these films begin with an introduction that rolls onto the screen with the credits. In these introductions, the films assert that although the audience is watching a work of fiction, the problem of delinquency is real. They speak of juvenile delinquency as an “infection”, an illness or disease spreading rampant throughout American communities. The alarmist rhetoric of these introductions thus position the film as a piece of almost documentary-type social realism, a public service announcement made for the benefit of its audience, all adults. But for all their moralizing and hand-wringing about the state of the youth of the country, what these films failed to do was adequately express the ways in which institutions, previously believed to be unshakable, were failing the youth. Contrary to the random and seemingly senseless violence that the juvenile delinquents of these films enacted, the reality was that the things that the older generations had previously regarded with respect and loyalty, praise and veneration, were failing them and they knew it. They were able, in that prescient way that adolescence has, to see that the institutions that their parents had respected almost to their own dissolution, were false, and they acted accordingly. In contrast to this attempt to document, condemn, and restore order, the low-budget B films on the same subject were meant for one thing only—entertainment. These films were marketed towards the very teenagers they depicted and their sole aim was money. Youth was a new market to tap into. These films were usually made as part of a double feature, the purview of the drive-in, and other places of mid-century adolescence. Juvenile delinquent movies thus served a dual purpose as both entertainment and as warning and signify disparate concerns: the delinquent as social ill in contrast to the booming commercial value of the delinquent and the teenager within society. 

     In Blackboard Jungle (1955), a young and idealistic teacher named Richard Dadier, played by Glenn Ford, joins the staff of a high school where juvenile delinquency runs rampant to the point that the other teachers have become resigned to their apathy. The film opens on a schoolyard, ringed by a wrought-iron gate. Within the gates, the students, mostly boys, are seen rough-housing and dancing. There is a frenetic, manic, and uncontrollable energy to them. A woman walks by. She is blonde. Dressed in a blouse buttoned up to her neck and a skirt. The boys instantly notice her. She is beautiful. They push themselves into the gate, hands reaching out to her, whistling. Her pace quickens, her fear palpable. She seeks escape from the scrutiny, the threat. So begins a trend within the film—exposing the predatory behavior of the boys and their threat as one specifically aimed towards women. This continues in a later scene when a young female teacher is almost raped by a student and again when Dadier’s wife goes into early labor because one of the boys is sending her anonymous letters insinuating that her husband is having an affair. Within this film, women stand for the trappings of society, the morals, the structures that appear to keep everything in place. They are wives and mothers or they work, but only if they are young and unmarried. They symbolize the home, the family, stability, respectability, purity—the very things that were so venerated by mid-century America. If the juvenile delinquent poses a threat to them it means that, by extension, he is posing a threat to the morals and ideals ingrained in our society. The juvenile delinquent thus becomes an existential threat to the very fabric of mid-century life. They were striking out violently at the most deeply held beliefs and structures and had to be, within the confines of this film, restrained and altered back into respectable boys. 

     But this was an alarmist film based on an alarmist principle—that there was a new random and senseless violence of the youth that led students to attack teachers in alleyways and steal full delivery trucks. And thus, everyone was frightened—the juvenile delinquent appeared to pose a threat to all the notions that the older generations had grown up with. But more than that, I think many of these films signify a shift in culture as represented by the juvenile delinquent. The juvenile delinquent is emblematic of changing social values, shifting demographics and interests, as can be seen, for example, in their veneration of rock ‘n’ roll, a music that shocked their parents. Rock ‘n’ roll is the ultimate symbol of rebellion, it always has been and it was for the juvenile delinquents. They heralded the beginning of a new conception of adolescence—the first true teenagers. Previously, teenagers had just been thought of as children who were believed to be children until they were adults. There was no in-between stage where they were regarded as anything else. As the 1950s wore on, a new set of pastimes and media was directed solely at them, and the youth of the era was able to express themselves in myriad ways that had never been available to them up until that point. And because of that, they became repression completely discarded. Refusing to remain unheard, the frustrations of an uptight era were now let out in a resounding howl that, in turn, shaped the way we, today, view an entire era.

Samantha Stevens: A Witch Stuck in Sitcom Suburbia

Bewitched seems almost destined to have become the perfect vehicle for nostalgia, a standard mid-century suburban sitcom that managed, through humor and the supernatural, to play on the very underpinnings of 1960s life. It exposed the things venerated for making a life worthwhile, that appeared to be synonymous with contentment; the hopes of a perfect life all wrapped up in and around the perfect home, the white picket fence, the loving husband, and a particularly boozy cocktail hour. It is into this world that our witch, Samantha Stevens, is thrown after her marriage to a mortal man, Darrin. When, on their wedding night, he finds out that Samantha is a witch, he makes her vow not to ever use magic again. He forces her to give up the thing that differentiates her from other wives, all in a bid for normalcy—that ever so sacred and amorphous thing that plagued the 1950s and 1960s. It is into this world that Samantha willingly goes, and it is through her that we see the folly and vapidity of the suburban American dream. 

     Socially and culturally, the witch has always been the perfect encapsulation of our society’s fears about womanhood and power. She functions outside of the norms of propriety. She is able to wield the kind of power that women are seldom allowed. She is a force that must be controlled and contained; something unusual that must be stripped of its authority, and rendered ineffective. It is through her that the conventions of society are undermined. It is in the form of Samantha, however, that we are given the opposite of this standard view of the witch. Samantha is typically feminine and demure. She is the perfect pastel wife, who appears to fit into this notion of the idyllic American life. She is the dream girl for the common man, with one small hitch; a hitch that threatens to expose the not-so-normal life that Samantha and Darrin have built for themselves. 

    Throughout Bewitched’s initial run, from 1964-1972, Samantha and Darrin’s dream of suburban abundance and normalcy was consistently undermined. The show functioned by putting a woman, who had extraordinary powers, into one of the most restrictive and uniform environments possible, and the writers knew that. This conflict was at the core of the show, with everything built up around it. Without these competing powers battling for dominance, there would be no friction. Samantha, a powerful witch, has decided, at the behest of her husband, to give up magic, to sacrifice a piece of what makes her unique, in order to have a normal life. And she agrees because, as she tells her mother, she wants that life; that world of normalcy and false appearances appeals to her, that world of Donna Reed and Leave it to Beaver-esque sitcoms, of which she has now become a part. She wants all of the trappings of the American dream, as it was understood in the 1950s and 1960s, but she is never quite able to give up witchcraft, it is as much or more a part of her as the drive towards conformity. The trappings and conventions of suburban life are put into relief by Samantha’s inability to adapt to them. This is not the world that she was raised to inhabit, as her family, and especially her mother, Endora, continually put into relief, seeing her new role as a kind of oppression and resenting her husband for it. Even as she wants these things—the husband, the children, the appliances and the attendant cooking and decorating that make a perfect home—she is not equal to the task of housewifedom: the menial, convoluted, and stifling tasks that signify in equal measure her privilege and her subjection. It is entirely too proscribed a life for her, as signaled by the situations she continuously finds herself in.

     An early episode opens on Samantha in the kitchen. She has been tasked with putting together a dinner party for Darrin, his boss, and a potential client. Even though she is uncomfortable in the kitchen, she never complains or resorts to magic. Even through this discomfort, she hosts the party with a steadied and performed ease, the transformation from witch to suburban housewife seemingly complete. She is now the image of desired womanhood and she functions for Darrin as such. She has become merely an ideal that he attempts to pass off onto the rest of the world, an image that lends him, as an advertising man, an air of legitimacy and it is clear that this is the thing most important to him. It is clear that his comfort, his joy, and his aspirations are the basis of Samantha’s new existence, and the conflict between that and her former life as a witch come into relief when a client begins to drunkenly harrass her. Knowing no one will believe or protect her, she turns him into a dog. Darrin eventually stands up to the client, but it is clear that Samantha knows on some level that she, as a woman, is on her own. It is what she represents that is so appealing to men, including Darrin, not who she is. The darker side of the 1960s is shown by the writers and, in their own alchemical way, turned into humor. Bewitched is a flawless piece of reinvention, where the dominant notions of existence and conformity are reinforced and the specter of empowered womanhood in the symbol of the witch is complicated and made more palatable. Samantha doesn’t relish her power, but rather, is embarrassed by it and the complications that arise because of it. She is still able to use witchcraft, but it is all under the guise of attempting to fit in. She does it for the sake of normalcy, for the sake of Darrin, and for the sake of the illusion that he has built. She has been made into the perfect suburban woman.

Showgirls: A Fable of Excess

     This year I saw Showgirls (1995) for the first time. I decided to make it a whole experience. I bought myself lox, bagels, champagne, and then watched the film, absorbing and reveling in its excess, marshaling a minute amount of its decadence into my own, incredibly confined life. I did this because I knew that, if anything, the film was an exploration of decadence and decadence was its apparent sole purpose. The film explored a decadence of experience, of emotionalism, of materialism, of sex; a world of extremes, of misogyny and corruption. It was a world that simultaneously depicted, critiqued, and encapsulated all of these things, leading to incompatible and often confused conclusions about the film’s purpose.

     Showgirls, often cited as one of the worst movies ever made, follows Nomi Malone, played by Elizabeth Berkley, as she navigates the entertainment world of Las Vegas. Beginning the film as a stripper, we are led to believe that Nomi is a dancer and a true, uncompromising artist. She aspires to leading a revue similar to the one led by Cristal Connors, played by Gina Gershon, her nemesis/mirror image/sexual obsession. Berkley’s performance is one of the things most often derided when the film is discussed. Nomi is explosive, her reactions extreme. She often screams, tearing away from real or perceived slights, from her subjection to a narrative crafted by someone else. According to a Rolling Stone article, however, her style of acting was very intentional. In the article, Paul Verhoeven, the director, is interviewed, saying, “People have, of course, criticized her for being over-the-top in her performance. Most of that comes from me. I pushed it in that direction. Good or not good, I was the one who asked her to exaggerate everything—every move—because that was the element of style that I thought would work for the movie.” If we believe that Verhoeven is telling us the truth, we have a possible set of intentions for how the film was supposed to be read. I see Nomi and her reactions, her overzealous and uncompromising passion, as a kind of compliment to the extremes of the locale. Nomi and her responses mirror the excesses of Las Vegas, a place where extremes hold sway. She is as difficult to contain as the city in which she has chosen to pursue her dreams. The spectacle of Las Vegas becomes the perfect backdrop, a kind of metaphor or mirror to the spectacle of desire, the rituals wherein we, as a society, covet and then degrade the female body, all in the name of entertainment and power. To the men that surround her, Nomi is as much a spectacle as the city itself is.  

     On the one hand, Showgirls appears to be an exploration of misogyny; of American society’s treatment, exploitation, and dueling fascination and disgust with the female form. It appears to interrogate our cultural preoccupation with sex, making us confront the ways that sex and desire are viewed, manufactured, and performed. All of the men are sleazy. They gleefully profit off of women and their bodies. They lie about their relationship to power and their use of it for their own gains. Herein lies the awareness of the film. There is Zack, played by Kyle MacLachlan, an entertainment director who feigns ignorance of the power structures that keep him in women and a life of decadence, Andrew Carver, a vicious rapist, and Tony, a producer at the Stardust, whose disgust for the women in his show leads him to humiliate them on stage, critiquing their appearance, their intelligence, and even going so far as to offer them ice for their nipples. These men are all different degrees of the same  monster and the film is very clear on that fact. They profit off a system where Nomi’s body is on display. While Nomi fights for her autonomy and the validation that she is not, as she fears, a whore, these men exploit her for money, sex, and power. But while the film exposes these standards and damns the men who uphold them, it is also undeniably built upon these same standards. The film delights in the demeaning asides and violence done to its women. It almost appears to revel in the breach of basic morality that the film embodies. But this is one of the things that makes the film so complex. It isn’t clear about what message it is sending. With lines like, “In America, everyone’s a gynecologist” we are shown a world both outrageous and aware, both disgusting and honest about the way these men see women’s bodies, as objects to gawk over and examine, clearly defined as something they can or should be able to take possession of. It is this mixture of shock, awareness, and blatant disregard, much like society’s appraisal of the female body, that makes the film so unendingly confounding. But ultimately, the film revels in the transgressiveness of itself, the violence and sexualization of the women in the film and thus, a film about misogyny also becomes a document of the misogyny of the creators. 

     It is clear, from past films, that Verhoeven, himself, didn’t have the best history with women. In a Vanity Fair excerpt of her book, Sharon Stone describes the infamous interrogation scene from Basic Instinct (a 1992 film also directed by Verhoeven), in which Stone crosses and uncrosses her legs, exposing herself to the men in the room and, by extension, the audience. According to Stone, Verhoeven convinced her to take off her underwear because of a lighting issue, reassuring her that nothing would be seen. She was understandably shocked when she saw the finished film. It is clear that in an attempt to push the boundaries of conventional American film, Verhoeven was more than comfortable sacrificing his actress. This anecdote is, I believe, important in a discussion of Showgirls because it shows the basic disregard that Verhoeven has for his actresses, a disregard that registers as voyeuristic, even as it attempts to justify and dismiss its own voyeurism as cultural critique; choosing basic shock, titillation, and outrage over the safety of those who are investing trust in him as a director. It is through these vehicles that he examines the intersections of sex, fame, and desire in America, often blurring the lines between the intentions of his films and the reigning notions, Verhoeven’s own notions, about women, the female body, and his own power as a director. 

Showgirls is a story about fame, excess, materialism, and greed; a film that serves to both expose and exalt these things, leaving the audience in a dizzying profusion of aesthetics. It is a complete and glamorous contradiction. It delights in all of these things, sacrificing clarity for image. Verhoeven creates a visually stunning but damned world, a world forced to consume itself, leaving no one innocent or unscarred by the violence of its own image. We are shown the extravagance of the locale, an extravagance of emotion, and an extravagance of desire. We are shown a world that both exposes and revels in its misogyny. And that’s why Showgirls is so captivating, because it is all of these things and none of them; it tries, it fails, it tries again. It is simultaneously aware and oblivious. It is captivating in its confusion. But it puts on a good show—honestly, it puts on a beautiful show.

Stone, Sharon. “‘You Can’t Shame Me’: Sharon Stone on How Basic Instinct Nearly Broke Her, Before Making Her a Star.” Vanity Fair, 18 Mar. 2021, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/03/sharon-stone-on-how-basic-instinct-nearly-broke-her.

Wood, Jennifer. “‘Showgirls’: Paul Verhoeven on the Greatest Stripper Movie Ever Made.” Rolling Stone, 22 Sept. 2015, https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/showgirls-paul-verhoeven-on-the-greatest-stripper-movie-ever-made-54740/.

Reconsidering a Scene: Carrie and the Horror of Adolescence

     I’ve always regarded Carrie as one of the few films able to effectively capture the fear and horror of being a teenage girl. Regardless of the fact that it was written and directed by men, it was able to understand the confusion and ferocity of youth. However, there was always one moment that gave me pause, a scene that always appeared to me to be completely divorced from the rest of the movie. 

     The title sequence of the film follows a scene in gym class that shows us how much of an outcast Carrie White is within her high school. As we travel inside the school, a lilting, romantic music floats in, signaling the romance and possibility of youth, a contrast to the horror that is to come. The camera has followed the girls into the locker room. There are girls in various states of undress and the camera follows as they playfully hit one another with towels. They run around laughing or stand confidently in their underwear discussing the gravest topics of the moment. The camera lingers on them, while the music swells. The steam from the showers creates a kind of hazy fog, a sense of the unreal. They are engaged in various customs of femininity, in primping and makeup application. It is very clear that we have entered the world of girls, but it is a world mediated by the camera, and thus by men and it is through these men that they are idealized. It is an image of a soft femininity, heightened by the steam and the music. The camera traces its way through the masses of girls until it lands on Carrie, alone, in the shower. The camera lingers on her in the shower, fragmenting and closely observing the separate parts of her body: her arms, her torso, her legs, her breasts. She, too, is being idealized. The sense of peace is suddenly shattered when Carrie sees she is bleeding. Not understanding what menstruation is, she runs into the crowd of girls begging for help. They start mocking her, throwing pads and tampons at her and yelling “plug it up”. Thus begins our understanding of the horror of Carrie’s life, the horror of the despised girl. We have shifted away from this idealized world of the girl so fast it could give us whiplash. We are now firmly in a story about the fragility and dread of adolescence, a film about the mocked and maligned girl. 

     This title sequence, this gaze-induced lingering celebration of the body, takes the viewer completely by surprise. It is never repeated. It is completely separate and at odds with the rest of the film, thematically and tonally. It is a kind of calm before the storm, but it fixates on the very characters it professes to care about, reducing them to mere bodies, a list of fragmented parts and behaviors that don’t quite come together to create a whole. 

     The remainder of the film goes on to document with nuance the stresses and fears of adolescence, of fitting in. It catalogues the fear of a changing body, and thus a changing and somewhat unknown place within the world, the fear of abusive parents or boyfriends, and of expectations of beauty; expectations that, within the confines of this title sequence, the camera reasserts. While the film explores these and their effects on Carrie, it loses its credibility by asserting the very expectations it appears to want to address. It is a story about power and powerlessness and how these two can collide suddenly and dangerously, but what wrecks that illusion is the title sequence, because in it there is no power, except in the gaze of the camera.    

Female-centered horror is so effective due to the fact that it is on the female body that we put the weight of the unknown, the supernatural. Traditionally, what is more controlled? What could be more haunting or more transgressive than a girl who refuses to follow social norms? It is the clash of the rigidly structured and constructed body against the wild unknown of the supernatural. The novel, written by Stephen King, on which the film is based, explores this more than the film, asserting that in the fraught time of adolescence a girl is more likely to exhibit supernatural powers, in this case telekinesis, because of the intensity of her experience. Her body dictates this power, drawing her closer to the supernatural. Carrie professes to be a story about the horror of adolescence but strips that away as early as the opening sequence in favor of gazing upon women’s bodies, romanticizing and idealizing them.

Sterling Hayden: The Romantic Trapped by the Leading Man

“Lost, indeed! Don’t talk to me about finding yourself. Only as you are lost is there any hope for you.” -Sterling Hayden, Wanderer (x)

     Sterling Hayden was always the tough guy. Hired time and again to portray gangsters and the seedy underworld they inhabited, he often, through voice and gesture, was able to imbue this world and these characters with nuance and depth. He was able to create portraits of men, haunted and desperate for the past. With grace, he portrayed men whom society had deemed dangerous, giving them space and a voice, and challenging the narratives that society and Hollywood had been disseminating for decades. It was the sensitivity of his every movement that made these characters unforgettable. It is probably 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle for which Hayden is best known. In it he plays Dix Handley, a petty criminal whose whole adult life has been a prolonged attempt to get back to some sense of peace, to a bucolic past of fields and horses, to recapture a beauty and an innocence that has been lost. Beneath all the posturing, his past lends his life meaning. Hayden plays this masterfully, his performance a seeming indictment of society and the censors that would damn all filmic criminals to execution for their misdeeds, no matter how insignificant. He lends Dix a startling humanity that skewers the way in which Hollywood dealt with crime and its villains. It is a master class in turning the status quo on its head, interrogating the stories we tell about ourselves and others. And it makes sense that he was able to do that. He had always been an outsider in Hollywood.

     Sterling Hayden always said that he went into acting just to buy a boat. While indifferent to acting, sailing was his true passion. It is this disinterest that made Hayden a good star. Reluctance, while bad for the psyche, is good for the star. It shows in their work. They are enigmatic, they project an indestructible aloofness to their audience. He was clearly a man not made for Hollywood, but for adventure. A romantic, in the true sense of the word, in his later years he was surrounded by books of poetry and was known to quote from them extensively. Having traveled throughout the world seeking adventure, he cultivated an almost Hemingwayesque persona for mischief: at fifteen, he was aboard a fishing boat and by World War II, he was parachuting into war zones. Sailing seems to have been an extension of this, the wildness and ambiguity paired with the euphoria of danger, autonomy, and control. On a boat, Hayden was in charge of his destiny, not so in Hollywood. It was a place of facade, a place where, especially during the 1940s and 1950s, the actor was indebted and subservient to the studio. He went from extreme freedom to the rigid and uncompromising control of the Hollywood studio system. This went, quickly, from merely uncomfortable, to dangerous. 

     During the 1950s, with anti-communist sentiment high, the House Un-American Activities Commitee, or HUAC, became one of the most powerful and feared organizations in Hollywood. Actors, screenwriters, directors, and many others were called before the Committee for alleged communist ties and were forced to either name other known Communists or face an unofficial but powerful blacklist. Hayden, who joined the Communist Party in his youth, was soon called to testify. What he did next was the thing that plagued him for the rest of his life. He named names. Although the names he mentioned were already known to the committee, he was filled with a regret, the depths of which he could never pull himself out of. He spoke frequently on this point in his later life, not in an attempt to absolve himself, but rather to speak frankly about the cost to himself and others of this action. He seemed to forever damn himself. He was hired for many films after his appearance before HUAC and, seeing these films as payment for his testimony, decided to leave Hollywood.

     “Pharos of Chaos”, a 1983 documentary, gives us a glimpse of Hayden’s later life, after his self-imposed exile from Hollywood. Living on a barge outside of a small Parisian town and plagued by alcoholism, Hayden is shown at his most frank. The film is composed of moments that together form one of the most unflinching surveys of a man’s life. To a young man asleep on a boat, Hayden recalls having said, “Strange that you can’t see. What a terrible affliction.” While a story of a different time, I believe this statement means much more because Hayden is a man who sees everything. He is a man tormented by his faults, whose clarity of vision has caused him to demand so much of himself. He is a man whose perception has made him solitary, who has failed to find comfort in the ideals of a modern homogenized society. He is a man of awareness and it is this that has made his life so poignant and so hard. Building your life the way you want it, surrounded by the things that you draw beauty and inspiration from, does not necessarily mean that you are able to escape the ways that you have let yourself down. This is what we see when we see an older Hayden, a contemplative and pained man, constantly at odds with himself. Here’s the thing though, to have the vulnerability to accept that you did wrong is to show what true strength is. And here, again, we see the outsider and the mentality that characterized Hayden. The honesty. He wanted to show people what the world had been and what it had momentarily turned him into. 

     There are many ways that the HUAC hearings killed people. Some were more obvious, like suicide or stressed induced heart attacks, and others were more subtle. Hayden’s is an example of the latter. The gnawing and overwhelming guilt, the sense of personal devastation at the loss of one’s morals, and the deeply held conviction that there is no returning from that loss. The refusal to learn how to live with yourself after you have let yourself down. It is a devastating thing to think about. The drinking to mask the despair, the loneliness, the knowledge that you are not the person you hoped you would be. But doesn’t the honesty about what he perceived as his failings actually show fortitude and awareness? Isn’t that what makes a person powerful? I think he would heartily disagree, but how are we supposed to change ourselves and the world if we can’t even accept our own failures. Maybe he never found peace with himself, in fact, I’m sure he didn’t, but at least he was honest, to himself and to his audience, and in that he showed strength. It was not the strength of the tough guy from the movie, but real human strength, the kind made up of fragility. It is the kind of strength that we should actually mean when we talk about strength and it made Sterling Hayden who he was.

Blank, Manfred and Wolf-Eckart Bühler, dir. Pharos of Chaos. 1983: The Criterion Collection, 2016. DVD. 

Hayden, Sterling. Wanderer. Connecticut: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018.

Elizabeth Taylor: The Persona and The Public

     When my Mother was young, she crept into the dining room where her Mother was, deep in conversation with a neighbor. At the mention of Elizabeth Taylor, my Grandmother turned up her nose, shook her head, and, in a voice dripping with derision, called her “the sexy witch.” With this off-hand statement my Grandmother seemed to have encapsulated her worldview. In saying it, she set herself up in opposition to whatever she saw as the threat of Elizabeth Taylor, of glamour. It seemed to be an incantation for her own place in the world, no matter how small or filled with turmoil. Taylor was the image of sensuality and luxury, of unabashed desire, and my Grandmother was a woman in and of small town Oregon, a woman for whom these things did not only not apply but to whom these things would have been seen as truly forbidden. They were of two completely different worlds and that, with resentment and resignation, is what my Grandmother latched on to. 

     Elizabeth Taylor is a true movie star, a woman whose image is indelibly linked to the studio system and its old elegance. She was a woman whose many transformations, from child star to mid-century ingénue then, finally, to decadent, tempestuous artist, could never destroy her. She was resilient, never acquiescing to demands, but always countering with her own. She was a woman full of empathy and compassion, whose ability to care for those she saw as the victims of an uncaring society, was vast. She was accustomed to luxury and she reveled in it, in diamonds and in fury. She was a force of emotionalism, in her films and out of them, and all of these things conspired to make her, according to the negative view of my Grandmother, “the sexy witch.”

     But what made Elizabeth Taylor the “sexy witch” is what made her great. She was uncontrollable, frank, and unapologetic. These personality traits were cultivated, alongside scandal, throughout her career. Maybe the first time the public truly turned on Taylor was in 1959, when she began a very public affair with the very married Eddie Fisher. His wife, Debbie Reynolds, was fashioned by the press into the all-American sweetheart, the poor angelic woman, the pious and devoted wife, left unceremoniously by her husband. Taylor was vilified. The dichotomy was cemented: the naïve, blonde wife and the harlot, the seductress, the wanton homewrecker, who seemed to feed on immorality, sex, and a general disregard for others. She became the enemy of all wives, of Americana, of the suburban dream. Taylor, for her part, decided to lean into the role that had been written for her. In an interview, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper questioned her about the affair and Taylor responded with, “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?” (Longworth). She was unabashed and while under fire from conservative pundits and the culture at large, she dug in her heels and seemed to say what no one else had dared say: that, as a woman, she had desires and that they were foremost and, further, that she would not be shamed by them. She was bold, she was unapologetic, and she emerged triumphant, gaining her fourth husband and a Best Actress Oscar for BUtterfield 8 in 1960. This was the Taylor that people saw when they went to the movies. The public who read the newspaper and the movie magazines knew all of the details of the scandal and projected this image onto her. And Taylor, who refused to conform to the few acceptable notions of femininity available to her at the time, reflected this in her very public life and in her films.

     And then, a few years later, on the set of Cleopatra, she began an affair with her co-star, Richard Burton. When the affair became public knowledge, the studio sued both Taylor and Burton, citing morality. To the studio, Taylor and Burton’s behavior on set damaged the film’s value. But what the studio didn’t seem to acknowledge was that it added to Burton and Taylor’s allure. All of this was widely commented upon by newspapers, gossip columnists, and the general public. Together, they had become a cultural force. Here, again, Taylor seemed to court intrigue and salacious rumor and emerge from it all even stronger. Throughout her life, she was married and divorced eight times (twice to Burton, whose tumultuous nature was well-documented). Some of her later films even highlight her growing frankness and apparent abhorrence for convention. In The Sandpiper (1965), where she was once again paired with Burton, Taylor plays Laura, a single mother whose son is forced to go to a parochial school. She is a free-spirited painter who lives by the ocean and shirks convention. She is tied, metaphorically, to the place she inhabits, the wild untamed power of Big Sur. Burton, as the headmaster of the school, soon becomes enamoured with Taylor, learning that following convention for its own sake can itself be a kind of sin, wherein there is no room for the human spirit. Laura is undeniably free, and so is Taylor herself. Taylor’s public persona and knowledge of her personal life is brought along to add depth and nuance to her character. The scandals of her life are addressed and seemingly justified within this film. 

     Given all of this, I don’t think my Grandmother’s response was unusual. Many women probably reacted to Taylor this way. Partly because she seemed to threaten the very foundations of their lives and marriages (the monogamous husband and the devoted, yet unsexual wife), and because she is all of the things that they were not allowed to be. She reveled in her sexuality and when its particulars were made public, she decided to revel in that too. Rather than apologizing, she made light of the things that were designed to harm her. She became something difficult to contain, something wild and willful. Women can’t be that, society continued to say. (My Grandmother, for example, was ostracized in her small town religious community for getting a very necessary divorce.) But Elizabeth Taylor was that and to many women, whose firm belief in a system that had not only trapped them but forced them to celebrate their submission, grew to resent it. To be a part of so rarefied a world, so insular and protected, that all of your scandal, all of your supposed misdeeds only added to your allure, was unacceptable. My Grandmother seemed to resent that mobility, that world of apparent ease, a world with which she, on some instinctive level, knew that she would never have any common ground. These shows of emotion, these tempests, were something a small town American woman was not allowed. To express your needs, however minuscule or life-affirming, was akin to selfishness. Taylor was the opposite of that and she loved it. I only wish that women like my Grandmother could have seen that, could have found some solace in it rather than resenting and attempting to harm it. I wish that they could have been allied, their views on their femininity not something to fight over, their respective places in the world not something filled with resentment, but with support and understanding. Rather than lashing out at the things that were holding her in an impossible place, she chose to do so to Elizabeth Taylor and I get it, I really do, but it also makes me kind of sad. There are things that she could have learned from Taylor: how to be thorny, what it means to persevere, how volatility can be beauty and boldness can be life giving, how society will not protect you and decorum will destroy you. If she wasn’t forced to hate her, I think she could have loved her.

Longworth, Karina. “You Must Remember This: How Elizabeth Taylor Won Her Oscar.” Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2015/12/elizabeth-taylor-and-eddie-fishers-affair-and-taylors-oscar.html

On Holly Madison, The Girls Next Door, and Debunking One of Our Greatest Misogynistic Legends

     In March of 2021, after living for a year in the relative isolation of a pandemic, when the look of my face in the mirror had become overly familiar and overly scrutinized, when the relief of a vaccine rollout was paired with an anxiety that seemed to whisper to me daily that now, in this final stretch, irony dictated that I would contract Covid, I began to watch the Playboy Mansion centered reality television show, The Girls Next Door. It was a welcome distraction, an extreme of a different variety. Instead of the world that I was dealing with daily, I was pulled into an extreme of denial, of control, of questionable sexual politics, all played off as the risqué and off-color jokes of a frivolous era. But it was when Holly Madison, known as Hugh Hefner’s number one girlfriend, said, “I don’t get jealous of other girls, because I was… raised in a cloning lab to be the perfect woman for Hugh M. Hefner…” that I really started to pay attention. It was a case of a thinly veiled joke that doesn’t quite land, one delivered with the eerily unwavering eyes and flat voice of someone numbed or held hostage by their experiences. It was a joke that appeared to speak to a truth that has been barely hidden, socially accepted, and yet rarely discussed. A joke that appeared to deflate the myth of Playboy. 

     The Girls Next Door aired from 2005 until 2010 and followed the misadventures of Hugh Hefner’s three girlfriends and their lives within the Playboy Mansion compound. While ostensibly a story about the growth and identities of three women, Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson, the show functioned as a fairly obvious PR stunt that served to reinvigorate the Playboy brand while also dispelling any unsavory stories or connotations that it had acquired since its inception in 1953. Sure, the show trafficked in often sophomoric humor about sex and gender and, much like the magazine, was built upon women’s bodies, but all of these things seemed to underline the accepted myth that the Mansion was a place of fun where inhibition had no place and, further, that posing for Playboy was, in fact, a form of liberation. It was this format and these jokes that were meant to overshadow the serious rumors and allegations that have dogged the magazine and Hefner for decades. In the world of The Girls Next Door this darker side did not exist. Or, at least, it didn’t until 2015, when Holly Madison wrote a memoir entitled Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny. With the publication of this memoir came the revelations that were often obscured by myth, the things that we knew instinctively, but never with any clarity. For Madison, the experience of Hefner and the Playboy Mansion was one of constant humiliation, verbal abuse, manipulation, and impossible body standards. But this of course makes perfect sense. We are dealing with a brand built on women’s bodies and the scrutiny placed upon them. A brand whose use of women renders them almost completely inconsequential; one that views them as mere objects to obtain in the quest to become the ideal man, a man based and built around Hefner himself. This tenet is essential to Playboy and can be seen everything, particularly in the composition of the notorious Playboy centerfold. One of the most crucial elements to a centerfold is an object that insinuates the presence of a man (a tie, a glass of whiskey, a cigar or pipe) placed in the background. This object implies that a man is never far away, that he is the true subject and spectator, while the woman a mere object. The woman, the actual woman, whose body is there, is rendered inconsequential, a mere adornment for the lifestyle of the man. And, unsurprisingly, that is much the way that Madison describes her time at the Mansion. 

     In Down the Rabbit Hole, Madison draws parallels between her time at Playboy and the fairy tales and fables embedded in our society. In doing this, she is exposing the fantasy as an illusion, and a detrimental one at that. Rather than living in lush and uncomplicated luxury, as the show would have us believe, we are shown a portrait of a man threatened by his own mortality and fear of inadequacy, whose massive ego was so burdened by his image that he insisted on parading around with a brood of women who could easily have been his grandchildren. She describes a man who lashed out regularly, creating a culture so isolated and so toxic, it was barely livable. Within the Mansion, there were strict regulations (a nine p.m. curfew, for example), an endless fund for plastic surgery that would render women nearly indistinguishable, and an insular world where women were pitted against each other for Hefner’s affections and approval. It comes as no surprise that Hefner is a misogynistic bully, but Madison’s account is noteworthy for its proximity to the world she is depicting. Throughout the book she details the mental and physical effects that living in such extremes can have on a person and as I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think of what this brand, this show, and this story meant in the larger context of our society. It seemed to me to become not just about Holly Madison, who is a captivating and sympathetic protagonist, but to be a kind of illustration of the hurdles that face all women, a manifestation of our society’s most deeply held beliefs. The television show, as I viewed it in 2021, appears to have, despite Hefner’s best, and worst, intentions, become a sinister document of the ways in which women are forced to contort themselves to fit into very narrowly defined forms of femininity, dictated to them solely by male desire. Under all the manufactured glamour and seemingly dizzying excitement of a life of material excess, there was an underlying darkness that appeared to say, above all else, that this act of contortion, this manufactured beauty, will not protect you. The empty look in Madison’s eyes when delivering her lines, the hollow laugh, hinted at a reality darker than the show would admit. 

     Within the television show, I saw all the goals of the magazine realized, the surface celebrated, beauty venerated and accepted as depth. With Madison’s book, I saw the image of the magazine, of Hefner, and its effect on society, in a much clearer way. I began to think of it as an example of the ways in which women are meant to carry the emotional and existential baggage of a society. I thought of how we are often saddled with the responsibility of conforming to and alleviating men’s pain and if we honestly address the distress and humiliation caused by this position, we are usually met with accusation and disbelief. Madison forces us to confront these troubling patterns. Further, we are forced to come face to face with the absurd societal notions that conflate beauty with safety and value. Engaging with Madison’s story, we confront the pervasive myth that beauty grants women safety from predatory men, that beauty means one can’t or will not be exposed to pain and suffering, that beauty implies virtue and the idea that certain people, depending on their image or their actions, are more deserving of our sympathy than others. Holly Madison, through her work, complicates all of these ideas and chips away at some of our culture’s most stubborn and strongly held myths, allowing us a vision of vulnerability and honesty that can change the way we perceive and tell women’s stories.