Anna Rose Holmer’s ‘The Fits,’ Gendered Merchandising, and “Collective Girlhood”

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I don’t remember the first time I saw Cinderella, myself (the “good” version, the Disney animated version, the version that will — for better or for worse — be the stalwart ambassador for the original seventeenth century French text). But I do remember it as a redemptive tale; an empowering story of one woman’s pursuits for due recognition and respect, against the tide of other, vindictive women threatened by her beauty. Wikipedia characterizes the story as “embodying a myth-element of unjust oppression/triumphant reward,” which, for all intents and purposes, is correct. And that sounds perfectly wonderful. But in the fifty-some-odd years since the film’s release, with the second and third waves of feminism having crashed ashore in the meantime, the conventional canon of princess stories and fairy tales has ebbed away from the cultural zeitgeist and is, for lack of a better analogy, sitting semi-irrelevantly in some murky tide pool a stone’s-throw-or-so away. A movie like Frozen, a Princess story that was successful in virtually every sense of the word, danced around the tropes, but taught young girls a modern premise in a classical costume: young women don’t need men to be happy, that fear of their own power is the enemy, and that — to lean into a new argument altogether — ladies, against any impulses otherwise, need to stick together.

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“Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation” mandates Beyoncé, the Gen Y successor to Gloria Steinem (just kidding lol), in her very much hit “song,” Formation. A message of solidarity amongst strong women? Sure, that’s something I think we can all get behind. BUT, does brandishing the the notion of  women-banding-together undermine the confidence or salience of a young woman as an individual?

Our cultural ideals about women, and the idea that they — if you can believe it — actually shape young girls’ capacity for success at young age, has auspiciously become an open dialog in the past few years; don’t call her bossy, don’t just tell her she’s pretty, just let her do her own thing and figure it out herself. Hurrah hurrah, as far as I’m concerned. Girls can be heroes too, lest anyone has forgotten. But there is an opposing force in all this: during one of my recent binge-a-thons of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, and the spectacular volume of advertisements that inevitably go along with it, a motif began to emerge in the very gendered marketing of children’s toys.

After the hours of Sturm und Drang trying to figure out how to disable Skylanders Superchargers ads, I eventually waved my white flag and relegated myself to be marketed to. And to my surprise, there was a perniciously coded theme in the way these products are exhibited, or rather, in the way they’re divided between girls and boys.

As Lego has illustrated in this very much girl-free ad, “You’re going to need a bigger imagination” when it comes to their using their interactive products. And, most notably, not only is it a product angled towards boys, the ad itself features but one intrepid boy, which we’ll get to shortly. But the general premise is that with Legos, anything is possible. You just have to learn to use the tools you’re given and apply your ingenuity and creativity to make a successful product and experience.

And the forward-thinking minds at Crayola have brought us another — really fucking cool, honestly — harness of innovation with their Easy Animation Studio. Where, again, young kids (boys, here) can take basic raw materials and make dynamic pieces of home-spun animation to (according to the ad, anyway) share and post online. So in essence, Crayola is selling a product that guides creative, male youngsters in generating public-facing pieces of their own resourceful craftship for online consumption. And while this particular ad features a two-boy lineup, it’s important to note that — at explicit mention — the product is designed primarily for use by an individual.

Finally, the modern, stylish, tablet-controlled world of Anki Overdrive racing cars make quite plain that a spirit of healthy competition is fun, celebrated by your contemporaries, and a natural impulse of the male gender. Because, as we’d all imagine, the second a girl gets her hands on one of those things, some sludgy mound of Sephora goop would drip onto the controls and short out the controlling tablet (gross, etc.).

Innovation, creativity, public awareness, competition and individual drive are ideals that, empirically, are the meat and potatoes of successful adults under the American ideal. So why, WHY, is this concept being sold to young kids as a gendered idea?  To turn — rather sharply — to the female side of these campaigns, there’s one subtle through-line that troublingly connects the slate of merchandise of 2016 for ladies. As you’ll eventually notice from, say, this oddly disturbing My Little Pony ad, girls’ toys are always — seriously, always — featured as being enjoyed by small groups of young girls. Whether it be some miraculously modern interactive new toy like a plastic device that makes head bands or the apparently-still-a-thing Barbie Malibu Beach House that retails for a cool $100, the ads pointed towards girls echo one message very loudly: young girls are the most happy and successful when they’re getting along with groups of other like-minded girls.

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Is that the real world over yonder?

Further to the “Collective Girlhood” of the experiences in these ads, the social interaction of these girls is, starkly, a performative endeavor. Products for girls are largely cosmetic and designed to be regarded, decorated, but seldom interfaced with outside the realms or make-believe and role play. This is not a new idea, or anything that hasn’t been discussed ad nauseam, but stacked specifically against that of the boys’ products, and given the scope of available technology in 2016, why are the tools, messages and products offered towards young girls so…the-same-as-they’ve-always-been?

To roll back to the y-chromosome side of the scale, we’ve seen that boys’ merchandise is marketed to boys as individuals. This is instilling the notion that when boys grow into adults, they need only their own individual grit, drive and passion to unlock the success they desire. Whereas girls are left to aspire to, I don’t know, finding the cutest romper to rock at their husband’s office mixer.

In The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer’s stunning debut film (go see it yesterday, if you haven’t already), a young girl follows her peers into a bizarre, dark, and oddly thought-provoking moment of personal discovery. Ostensibly a bit of a tomboy, Toni (the movie’s lead and vanguard) initially spends most of her time training in the boxing ring with her brother after school. Beguiled by the neighboring girls’ dance troupe, she joins her fellow female classmates and invests her time instead to practicing their routines, and discovering her body in the process.

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Toni and the other unseasoned underclassmen recruits are, understandably, pretty unwieldy with their bodies on the outset given their tender age, and given the rigor of the style of dance they’re practicing. But, and this is what makes the film so head-cockingly interesting, the story stays the course on Toni’s journey. While the film is about a young girl trying to fit in among her peers, nothing ever becomes about the behind-the-scenes mudslinging, or about the pressures of how vicious tween girls are. It stays honed on Toni’s pursuits, her assiduous push against the limitations of her own body, and, yes, her general rumination on how she fits in amongst other girls in her age bracket. But as Holmer has said herself, Toni is for the most part, “self-isolating” in her journey.

When the older girls in the troupe start having sudden, seemingly epileptic episodes, one by one, with no rhyme, reason, or explanation (OMG get the double-meaning with “FITS??”), the color of the story suddenly becomes darkened by fear, anxiety and anticipation. But as this mysterious seizure epidemic sweeps through each of the girls in the group, generally oldest to youngest, Toni realizes from their accounts that the “fits” aren’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the girls reports to feeling very serene during her experience with the fits. And suddenly, Toni actually wishes to get her own time at bat. And when she — inevitably  — does, it sweeps her into wave of nirvana, with surges of fantasy, ecstasy, exaltation (you get it). Toni is in fact so exalted by her experience that she physically levitates, to the astonished shock of her classmates. The film ends with this blissed-out moment of enlightenment.

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Holmer on the set of The Fits

Beyond that, though, the plot/premise/allegory of the film is left pretty spaciously to interpretation. All of the boxes of the “Collective Girlhood” experience can be checked here — a young girl shaped by her desire to fit in, pursuits of performative hobbies, and ensemble characters — but what this film focalizes extends beyond the notion of girls’ inherent or conditioned gregariousness, because Toni’s journey is a personal one, a unique one, that’s set against the backdrop of peers. Her “self-isolating” odyssey is an inward-looking one, exemplified by how tightly the film follows her, both narratively and photographically. But what Toni does gain from her collective experience (assuming for now that “the fits” are rooted at least in part in the ills of puberty) is a sense of awareness and acceptance of her body, and of her womanhood, in the coming of age of it all. It’s a story about fostering an individual awakening in a collaborative context.

And this collaborative sense echoes in the filmmaking process itself, as Holmer has told Vogue:

One of the amazing things about this process has just been about defining our style of leadership, and filmmaking. When you get that chance to run a set, how are you going to run it?

The beauty of what collaboration can achieve—that’s been the most profound experience for me as a director. Embracing the collaborative aspect of filmmaking elevates the craft to a place that as an individual artist you can’t access. It’s very powerful that so many people on our team call it “my film,” “our film.” That makes me the most proud.

So, in watching Toni’s “collective” coming of age, thinking about collaboration as a pervasively female practice, and looking at The Fits as among the most well-received films of the year while being helmed by a first-time female director in an industry with such a talked-about dearth of female directors, I think it’s safe to say there’s something we can learn here. In a near-future that’s looking to be dominated by emerging entrepreneurship, crowdsourcing, and ever-proliferating technology that makes remote collaboration more viable, maybe we can take a cue from the T-shirt and assume the future really is female. Perhaps the ruthless, dog-eat-dog quest for a one-captain ship is being outmoded, and perhaps Cinderella’s beauty-shaming evil Step Sisters have had time to change their tune in support of their ilk.

Anna Rose Holmer is well on her way to joining a new age of filmmaking auteurs, but she certainly didn’t do it alone.

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The Unsung Nudes of ‘Orange is the New Black’

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As much as I’m sure we, collectively, would love to deny it, the American people are a shameless bunch of puritans when it comes to the brass tax and Standards and Practices on television and in the media. Which is why, perhaps, every time Janet Jackson “accidentally” flashes a nipple or Eva Longoria has a wardrobe malfunction on the red carpet, we latch onto it like jackals (not literally in the case of the nipple, obviously). I would seriously doubt that the majority of American citizens are disgusted, not in principle but on visceral reaction, to seeing a naked body. If they did, then I don’t think private fetish clubs and Hustler Magazine would be such thriving institutions in our National economy. But for us, Americans it seems, sex is only appropriate in the private sector, but is not meant for public consumption. Unless it’s a Budweiser commercial.

So, in cable television, where there is little to no enforcement of any Production Code vis a vis instances of nudity, how is it treated, artistically? Cable programming runs the gamut as far as “taste” goes, but in general it’s a safe bet that most shows on HBO or Showtime are going to feature a lot of naked bodies (by virtue of the fact that they, well, can). And taste in the presentation of nudity sometimes runs counter to exploitation. I would argue that HBO’s Girls is one of the more exploitative showcases of female nudity on television right now, though not necessarily in poor taste; Lena Dunham’s “fictional” alter ego Hannah Horvath is, as every media outlet has covered by now, constantly naked on the show. Notably, ONLY Hannah is consistently naked on the show. I personally couldn’t be more supportive of Lena Dunham taking her clothes off as much as she wants. I think even by the firestorm of jeerers that have rushed to criticize her for being “shameless” about her nudity, she has opened up an important dialog — “Why is this shameless? Because she’s not skinny? Because she’s a woman who’s not subjugated by her nakedness?” etc. But ultimately, in a sense, her bearing her body so frequently is actually hyper-exploitative. Her naked body has become such a talking point and public concern that it feels less and less artistically relevant to the show the more it’s featured. On one hand with Girls, a show thematically about Millennials who are kind of awful but do whatever they want and that’s okay because Jezebel said so, it’s fitting that Hannah’s nudity would be exploited as a way of making a political point. But for me, most of the time when Hannah is nude, the scene becomes about her nudity. Her naked body feels deliberately placed and designed to be remarked upon. If even by the way the shots are framed, her body dominates the shot. It’s a post-Third Wave Feminist “so, what?” moment when she tears off her top. It’s also a necessary one.pingpang21
Netflix’s original piece of programming, Orange is the New Black, tackles female nudity in a much more delicate way. Never have I seen a show where starkly naked female bodies have been so natural to the story that I genuinely forget they’re there. Being set entirely in a women’s minimum security prison, seeing ladies in the buff was pretty much inevitable. And it’s proven to be a pretty common occurrence amongst both seasons of the show. But there’s a sense that the nakedness is somehow sidestepping any kind of gratuitous exploitation. In a recent interview with Vulture, Lorraine Toussaint (Vee, on the show) talked about bearing it all on camera:
 
I don’t do that. I don’t want anyone looking at me going, “Oh my God, she’s so brave!” [Laughs.] Dear God. No. No. No. And then I thought, There’s no way around this. There’s no way this woman would be self-conscious. There’s no way. If I wore underwear, it would actually draw more attention to the moment. How do I do this as simply and as unselfconsciously as I’ve done the rest of Vee? Then I thought, Okay, we gotta do this.
 
This from a 54 year old woman says a lot. It bespeaks a dedication to authenticity on the show. The characters might be, at times, wildly exaggerated, but there’s never the sense that any one is compromised in the interest of being “TV Friendly”. Vee’s naked body is treated very tastefully in this scene. She is in bed with her surrogate son, reeling after an ethically questionable romp in the sack. But only a part of her body is shown. She’s under the sheets and her breasts are shown but are framed so that they’re either partially obscured by the angle of the shot or by the sheet itself. This is also the case when Taryn Manning’s character Pennsatucky is nude in bed in a scene from the previous season. Their bodies feel natural which I think is key. The scene informs the need for nudity and not the other way around.
 
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Taryn-Manning-nude-topless-Orange-Is-The-New-Black-s01e12-1 This question of being natural and authentic with respect to female nudity extends even in the characters’ level of comfort in their own body. By example, during season 2, the radical activist and generally annoying character of Brook Soso markedly decides not to shower in an act of protest. When she inevitably starts to smell, she is browbeaten by the guards and other inmates to bathe until she’s literally hauled into the shower by force. She screams and howls and literally breaks down crying when forced to strip down in the communal shower. What this ends up being is a character-revealing moment — while Soso is a headstrong, obstinate and unwavering zealot, she consistently finds the harsh realities of life catching up with her. She’s a young girl who’s been incarcerated for dedication to her political beliefs, but she’s also a young girl who, like many others, isn’t fully comfortable with her own body.  Even Taylor Schilling’s principle character Piper, during season 1, immediately hides her breasts when confronted in the shower by her then nemesis Pennsatucky. While other, more seasoned veterans of the institution are completely comfortable showing it all, there is an nod that body consciousness is a very real part of life for many young women. But even by making this point, the show avoids an “Afterschool Special” moralistic slant. Even Schilling herself has stated that she has had issues with her body in the past. But the characters on Orange is the New Black speak for themselves. Whatever timely cultural archetypes are represented on the show, they feel shaped by the characters’ specific story.
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bloody hell! That’s a naked woman!

While no one has an especially strong case for Orange is the New Black being a universally realistic sketch of modern prison life, the show maintains a strong respect for both its characters and its actors for the sake of telling a compelling story, nude or otherwise. I wouldn’t say this is an unprecedented concept, arguing that HBO’s Oz did the same thing some decades earlier for men, but in a world where naked women are either the subject of salacious fantasies or conservative backlash, it’s nice to see the female form, more or less, for what it is.