We all know who The Girl is. She holds The Hero’s hand as he runs through the Pyramids, chasing robots. Or she nags him, or foils him, plays the uptight straight man to his charming loser. She’s idealised, degraded, dismissed, objectified and almost always dehumanised. How do we process these insidious portrayals, and how do they shape our sense of who we are and what we can become?
Part memoir, part cultural commentary, part call to arms to women everywhere, You Play The Girl flips the perspective on the past thirty-five years in pop culture, providing a firsthand chronicle of the experience of growing up inside this funhouse. Read an exclusive extract from Carina Chocano’s brilliant new collection of essays below.
My daughter, Kira, has heart bedtime stories almost every night since she was born. By the time she turned eight in 2016, she was surprisingly up to date on early Peanuts comics, the collected novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Spider-Man cartoons from the sixties, the existential adventures of Frog and Toad, the collected oeuvre of Roald Dahl, Star Wars through the ages, mother-and-daughter versions of the movie Annie, and Ghost- busters past and present. I didn’t set out to lead her on a tour of my literary coming-of-age, nor did I anticipate, on revisiting them, that I would recall the stories I’d loved as a kid more vividly than actual events from my childhood. But that’s exactly what happened. At times, I’ve questioned my motives. What did I think I was doing? What were my intentions, exactly? Was I introducing things to her, or introducing her to me? What if I was trying to introduce myself in her somehow, via her eyeballs and ear canals, like an airborne brain spore? Could that still be considered educational, or was it just creepy? Was I like every other parent, or like a parody of a hipster caregiver in a Portlandia sketch? Was that just how culture works?
Once, when Kira was five, I presented her with a beautiful, too- expensive illustrated copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I accidentally let it slip that I wasn’t sure whether I’d read it before. She smelled a rat—probably because I was, in fact, proffering a rat. For one thing, we’d already established a system of recommendation rooted in unregenerate nostalgia, not pedagogy. For another, she’d already seen the animated Disney movie and read Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, the Little Golden Book based on the movie, and she hadn’t liked them any more than I had at her age. But I was curious. I had the pressing feeling that the original had something urgent to tell me. So, I insisted, and Kira relented, but a few pages in, she shut me down and demanded I read Sleeping Beauty instead.
The version of “Sleeping Beauty” we owned also happened to be the Little Golden Book version, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the one based on the movie featuring a Goth-Barbie Princess Aurora, the silly-goose fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, and the sophisticated supervillain, Male cent. Kira was crazy about Sleeping Beauty. She could not get enough. We read the story every single night at bedtime, sometimes twice a night, for a year. She memorized it by heart from start to finish and insisted that I pause just before the part where Male cent crashes the christening, so she could recite the lines. Every night, Kira gravely pronounced Maleficent’s fatwa on the princess, followed by her parents’ alarmed reactions.
“Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her nger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, and d-i-i-i-i-e-e!” (she said in Male cent’s voice).
“Oh, no!” (she said in the queen’s voice).
“Seize that creature!” (she said in the king’s voice). It was fun.
Her dad, Craig’s, theory was that Kira loved Sleeping Beauty be- cause it ends with the cursed princess Aurora reuniting with her parents after spending sixteen years in hiding with the fairies. Being welcomed home by her father, King Stefan, and her mother, the queen, who is nameless but alive (which is more than can be said for most princesses’ mothers), was the real happy ending. This made sense to me; five-year-olds want nothing more than to be autonomous and free, but also safe, cherished, and loved—just like adults. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. I kept pushing for some stunning pre-school insight, some apocalyptic nugget of truth that would reveal all. Like, why did she like Sleeping Beauty so much? What about her did she rate so highly above the other princesses? I liked to imagine that it had something to do with her ultimately defying a death sentence, or maybe that Kira was unconsciously attracted to the power of the rebel fairy. But my daughter’s answer was always the same: Sleeping Beauty was the prettiest. And it was true. She was. And really, what else was there to go by in a heroine? She had the longest, blondest, most owing hair. Her dress had the fullest skirt and the most sharply drawn-in waist. Other than that, she was young, innocent, passive, naive, vulnerable, submissive, op- pressed, kind to animals, handy with a broom, persecuted, and exploited — which is to say indistinguishable from the rest. An impotent pawn in a power struggle between the king and an “evil” fairy or “wicked” queen, who was always defeated in the end. She spoke very little, and when she did, she did so softly, never stridently. She sang sweetly, worked cheerfully, and suffered nobly and exquisitely. We’re taught since birth to associate prettiness with goodness and worth. It’s a hard lesson to unlearn. When I was little, I liked Sleeping Beauty best because she was the prettiest, too; because I recognized her as the feminine ideal. I understood that she was not descriptive so much as prescriptive, that she was not so much the hero of her own story as the grail.
After Kira fell asleep that night, I finished reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was shocked by how familiar the story felt, how deeply it resonated. Alice was moody, snobbish, high- handed, judgemental, and quick to anger. She asked too many questions and had a real problem with authority. She was an emotional eater who anxiously scarfed whatever anyone put in front of her. She acted like she was entitled to things such as explanations, respect, and a nice house with plenty of toys to play with. She took offence easily and often felt sorry for herself. She was opinionated, argumentative, and self-absorbed. She was nothing like the heroines in fairy stories — nothing like the princess, or the girl. No wonder I didn’t like her. Compared to Sleeping Beauty, Alice was a monster. She was just like me.
Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were nothing like my life. So why were they so familiar? I’d never fallen down a rabbit hole into a strange, incomprehensible land, except, you know, when I had. I’d had an absurdly peripatetic childhood and experienced more culture shock by the time I was Alice’s age than most people do in a life- time. Then, as an adult, I’d spent almost a decade as a pop-culture critic. During the last four years, I spent most of my waking hours in darkened screening rooms. When I first started to work as a TV critic, in 2000, it was probably the best time to be writing about TV, and when I first started to work as a movie critic, in 2004, it was probably the worst time to be writing about movies. I found myself spending hours in the dark, consuming toxic doses of super- hero movies, wedding-themed romantic comedies, cryptofascist paeans to war, and bromances about unattractive, immature young men and the gorgeous women desperate to marry them. Hardly any movies had female protagonists. Most actresses were cast to play “the girl.”
“The girl” was the adult version of “the princess.” As a kid, I’d believed the princess was the protagonist, because she’d seemed the most central to the story. The word protagonist comes from the Greek for “the leading actor in a contest or cause,” and a protagonist is a person who wants something and does something to get it. “The girl” doesn’t act, though — she behaves. She has no cause, but a plight. She doesn’t want anything, she is wanted. She isn’t a winner, she’s won. She doesn’t self-actualize but aids the hero in self- actualization. Sometimes, I’d sit in the theater and feel mounting despair and think, Why do you keep telling me this? Why are you talking to me this way?
You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano publishes on 24th August 2017 and is available to pre-order now.