Pop Culture Bubbles

Words about Pop Culture

Month: November, 2013

Thoughts on the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Trope: Part 2

            The forest opens up a lot of thoughts.  Thoughts are much more exciting with trees.  Because you’re in a forest, there are a lot of trees to think about, especially as you head up the trail, your feet sliding a bit along wet copper leaves.  But today, hiking in the forest, I thought about how:

                The MPDG  Trope is ALSO sexist toward men.  It says men are useless.  It says there is nothing redeeming about a man in one’s life except the qualities “awakened” by the MPDG.  In my first essay on this topic, I discussed MPDG’s inability to change, because the assumption is that she’s already perfect.  By the same token, a man is hopeless until she comes and changes him, and he has nothing whatsoever to offer her.  Fuck that too!  We’ve all raged against the irrepressible smile that defines the MPDG, but I’ll add some fire to the passivity that has to be in place in order for the MPDG to ‘take effect.’  Now we have a woman who’s not allowed to get angry, not allowed to be upset, not allowed to, essentially, be real about her happiness and fulfillment, and we have a man who has to remain so static and worthless that all he’s got to draw her in are his looks.  Ah, the MPDG trope:  It harms us all.

                Here’s to abandoning all that Light/Dark talk in favor of a shifting spectrum of emotions in so many dizzying shades we can’t stop to name them.  Here’s to taking lessons from the crazy whole roots on the sides of fallen trees and the bright green moss that announces their presence and leaves you to take it in in clear air, at modest but grand-feeling elevations.  We can all be scared into starting our lives, but it’s still only something we can do.


Bigger Bites of Youthful Loves: The WB (I know! oh god!), Celebrity Encounters, and Pop Solace

Why did any of us watch Seventh Heaven?  It was nigh-inconceivably bad, every one of my friends who shared my inclination to watch at seven o’clock on Tuesday nights was vocally aware of this.  Eye candy, however, is a balm to the stomach-knots of an insecure adolescent, and when I look back on the show, that’s all I can think of to have pulled us in:  The smooth looks of older-brother Matt who bore no resemblance to the boys we went to school with, the glossy lips of then-newcomer Jessica Beale, who I wonder now if I had something of a crush on.  Maybe we watched because we saw how determined this show seemed to be to make some sort of impact, and we wanted to see if it was actually possible.

                It did teach me about Holocaust-deniers, a group of people I hadn’t known existed until then.  Unfortunately, an episode memorable for its otherwise-effective moments was unintentionally comical in an instant I never quite got over.  The show’s forgettable middle-child comes home from and announces to his minister-father that “Larry’s dad told him that the Holocaust never happened.”  The minister, in his sagely paternal voice that had become a trademark by then, responds succinctly, “Larry’s father obviously has a problem.”  Seven o’clock was typical dinner hour, and my father was always remarkably generous about giving me TV-authority when the show was important to me, even if inexplicably so.  “Larry’s father obviously has a problem,” my dad couldn’t help repeating, mocking of course, not the issue, but this approach which was somehow both hamfisted and not enough.  Seventh Heaven, however, had a way of resolving-at-the-end-of-the-hour that made The Brady Bunch look like they were in perpetual conflict, so we can rest assured that the genuinely moving instance of a Holocaust survivor recounting her story as a class presentation (for which many parents were present) effectively woke up Larry’s father and did something to mitigate his obvious problem.

                My problem, however, persisted:  I was still watching this show.  On an episode about sexual harassment the maternal component of this family’s sagely compass comes to the fore in a line that, once again, sounds even better coming from my dad.  Placing her hands protectively on her youngest daughter’s shoulders, the mother looks her square in the eye and says, “In a perfect world, a girl would be able to walk down a dark alley in a miniskirt and a tank top.  But it is not a perfect world, and a girl can not walk down a dark alley in a minkiskirt and a tank top.”  Once again, way to hammer home a message while somehow totally eschewing authentic dialogue about a very real problem.  Not even the good looks of reoccurring cast member Andrew Keegan could justify adherence to a narrative that relies on this kind of writing. But, ultimately, television relies not on writing but on Viewers Like You, and in retrospect I resent my compliance:  The WB understood that I would watch a program I was only peripherally invested in as long as I was promised the stories that pulled me in and got me afterwards, and so they made sure to follow Seventh Heaven with the stuff that really mattered:  Dawson’s Creek.

                Even as a fourteen-year-old, I understood that Dawson’s Creek was making every effort to cram as many question-marks and exclamation points into its humorously overdramatic first season as was possible, but I wasn’t cool enough for my social drama to be stories, It was just frustrations and outbursts, so I gobbled up this teenage-consumer bait, because, I reasoned, it was almost as exciting as having a posse of real friends.

                In the first episode alone, a high-school student becomes sexually involved with his teacher, the main character’s mother is found to be having an extramarital affair with her coworker,  the female protagonist’s father is revealed to be in jail for cocaine possession, and the love interest, who lost her virginity at age twelve, is found to have been sent to the Creek by her father, who essentially disowned her after walking in on her having sex, so she’s constantly having her atheism affronted by her conservative Christian grandmother, whose other granddaughter fares not much better because of her out-of-wedlock child and the committed interracial relationship that spawned it.  On a laughably, infuriatingly monochromatic TV program, it’s even more inexcusable that the single non-white character who was constantly pointed out as such spawned no dialogue whatsoever about race, but at the time the fact that the kids all used such big words was a bigger point of attention than anything the words did or didn’t describe.  But at the time, I didn’t see the stories as missing anything.  The surprises, and the actors, were fodder for more teenage conversation than seems kosher to admit now.

                One of such conversations that kept coming up with my closest friend (with whom I was united in more than pop culture obsession and a crushing feeling of isolation at our respective schools, but that too), was the introduction of a new character named Andy, played by Meredith Monroe, and how she was so adorable we basically didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  That same weekend, my friend was coming to visit me for the famous and long-awaited Halloween ball held by Anne Rice in the Masonic Temple. 

                My dad, my best friend, and I were driving, as so often we did, through the French Quarter, looking for a place to park so we could get out and walk around.  We saw a woman who looked strikingly like the character whose praises we had just been singing at the top of our teenage voices only several days before.   My dad rolled down the window.  “They think your friend looks like the girl from Dawson’s Creek,” he said to the group.  I was mortified, hissing “Dad!” in that desperate way teenagers do when trying to stop time.  My magic failed though; they heard us, no matter how many times I scolded in the same minute.

                “She is,” came the casual response.

                My tuned changed instantly.  “Wait, she is?” An apology to my dad might have been in order here, but I didn’t think of that.  “Can we meet her?”

                They generously, and smilingly, said of course we could, and my dad pulled over so we could brush with the stars.  “This is Kerr Smth,” Meredith said, pointing to a tall, model-faced man with spiky black hair and an unassuming smile. “He plays my brother Jack on the show.”  My best friend and I were stunned.  Jack looked so awkward on Dawson’s Creek, but the force of the star power in front of us was staggering.  I murmured something far too enthusiastically about not having recognized him.  He was later to become a focal point of the show’s first-ever gay storyline, but, before any of that came to the front, Jack’s main point of interest was his developing attraction to the show’s main female character, Joey. As a fan,I couldn’t resist the chance at some inside info.

                “So, Jack likes Joey, right?” I asked.

                Kerr nodded with a confident smile that makes me wonder in retrospect whether he had any inkling of where the character was about to go in future seasons.  “Yep,” he said.

                “So….are the two of them ever gonna…you know….”

                Before I could scrape together any semblance of eloquence, he replied, “next week,” instantly making me giddy.  This having been the most spontaneous possible celebrity encounter, neither my best friend nor I had anything expected to sign, and I don’t remember which of us had the ingenuous idea to halve a stray envelope.  Meredith and Kerr generously signed the envelope twice, one for each of us, and I vividly remember the inscriptions that made rest of my year.  Meredith wrote, “Enjoy the season” (done!) and Kerr wrote, “Great meeting you!” with an exclamation point to which I’m sure I ascribed undue significance. When I brought that to school the next day, I was saved, for a little while, from how going to school usually felt.

Quick(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #4: Tori Amos

My mom owned a Tori Amos tape before I did.  When I was ten, that fearless shrieking and those bizarre lyrics (“you think I’m a queer! You think I’m a queer! You think I’m a queer! Well I think you’re a quee-ah”) scared the shit out of me.  But four years later I needed it.  And there were other things, now, to be afraid of.

                I bought Little Earthquakes and, like so many people, loved the album beyond all rationality.  I had never heard a harmony quite like the bridge from “Silent All These Years,” which seemed to speak to me, a redheaded outcast, in a way no one else would think to:  “Years go by if I’m stripped of my beauty I’m the orange clouds raining in my hand.”  Though it would be a long time before I saw any beauty to be recognized, I definitely felt like an orange cloud melting through my own fingers sometimes, stained with the natural auburn that I had always wished was blond, or, lately, black.

                While I was pouring over other women’s looks, wishing I could change mine, my best friend was garnering massive attention over long-distances with her wit that was sought-after in online chat rooms.  By the time she next visited me in New Orleans, she had an online boyfriend who lived in Tennessee. They had never met, and he had never seen her, so it was time for her to take some erotic-as-we-could-get-away-with photos to show off her wiles.  This is what friends are for.

                We closed the door to my bedroom, with its incongruous floral comforter, and I put Tori Amos’s “Leather” on repeat.  The CD player obeyed, and the song’s darkly playful, lascivious, old-time-honky-tonk sound filled the room as I photographed my best friend in various flattering positions and revealing outfits.  A gymnast from an early age, I had always envied her flexibility and, even more to the point, her mythically long legs.  She wore my favorite dress, a velvet number with black lace straps that shimmered all the colors of autumn, from dark brown to gold to deep, deep red. I don’t think anything was coming into question as I took those photographs.  I grew up enamored with pretty girls, after all, and none of it meant anything.  Even as she wore short shirts that showed off her model abs, and even as I noticed them and captured them on film, none of it seemed…consequential.  I was doing her, well, more pointedly him, a favor, and yes, our photosession successfully seduced the boy in Tennessee.  They hadn’t changed anything in me, though.

                I had a dream about Tori Amos.  No sexually-oriented questions had been asked of me before that.  In the dream, she and I were under a blanket, a deep red one, and the image is with me as though it was an event from an hour ago, rather than a dream from over a decade gone.  “I’ve never kissed a girl before,” I said, and she took out a rose.  I licked it.  Then I woke up.  Later, I was in another friend’s bedroom and stumbled upon a book of dream symbolism she had.  Eagerly, I looked up “rose,” and freaked out internally over its listed counterpart:  vagina.  All the beautiful women I had looked up to seemed to take on a more vivid shade, a more urgent role:  what was this, my many attractions I had never thought about sexually but now couldn’t seem to stop?  I remember permitting myself to fantasize about a woman, someone I only knew in passing in New Orleans, and how I physically let go, melting from the inside just having thoughts without stopping them. And how, in a city like my native home, could I keep from noticing the power of the female form?  There were idols everywhere: a woman I was once convinced was a fairy from another world who had long, deep-blue hair down to her ankles, a torch-singing mistress of wigmaking and make-up selling who seemed responsible to my youthful head for any prettiness in the world, Tori Amos with her raw breaths, unbarred voice, and the unparalleled lips that produced the sounds, her red hair that almost made me proud of mine.  And there was my own friend, with the legs I couldn’t suddenly just not notice.

                But there was another world set apart from this realm of endless awkward.  It was a world that only seemed to be frequented by people who were not me, and in it, everyone talked who they wanted to talk to and said what they wanted to say and went where they wanted to go and reality didn’t choke on itself as a result: the world of rock concerts.  One day, my personal cosmos broke open, and I was allowed into this world.  Tori Amos came to New Orleans, and I went with — not one of my not-quite-friends at school, but someone who Knew Something about all this:  my dad’s employee, Meredith, who was in college.  I don’t remember who asked who, but I do remember talking to her about poetry and mythology in several conversations that confirmed what I had always been told but needed to know:  There is life outside of high school, a whole wondrous mess of it.

                When I think about getting dressed for the evening, I can see my bedroom as though I’m in it.  The bulletin board is still bright with magazine covers baring portraits of Gwen Stafani, and my goth sensibility is nowhere on the walls; it’s in my mind and heart, however, which have been beating to the rhythms of vintage Tori lyrics and Anne Rice storylines for a while now, and I’m well aware that my hometown’s famed above-ground cemeteries are the perfect place to, in young Tori’s words, “dance in graveyards with vampires ‘til dawn.”

                Had I ever been spiritually freer than I was in the car with Meredith, on the way to that show?  The knowledge that in just a few hours I would be several feet away from Tori Amos, and the just-as-surreal understanding that right now, I was in a car with no parents, just one supercool girl in college, who was telling me about college classes and college books you read and college relationship problems!  We had the same songs we put on repeat in hours of need!  I could to her campus poetry reading if I wanted to (and I totally did! And it was amazing!)!  Life was real.  She was real.  And Tori Amos was real.

                None of the people who shared the stadium with us looked real, though — everyone was a magnificent Gothic creation, all black tulle and shimmer, elaborate wings. I felt like I was on another planet, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life kissing its inhabitants. I remember a girl named Mika in a thick, iridescent rhinestone collar who knew Meredith, and a woman in a black ballgown with a gallantly commanding presence who joked that her cigarettes got their own chair.  Most of all, though, I remember the rapture, the audience’s as well as mine, during “Father Lucifer.”  I remember the twisting, jerking insistence of “Spark” and the cathardic, teasing pulses of “Raspberry Swirl.”  I don’t know how long it was before Tori closed with “Winter,” teaching me what it feels like when hundreds of hearts simultaneously fill to breaking.  When I went to bed that night, I had in my head the vivid image of the two-handed kisses she blew to us all, of her grin and her passion.  Yes, she was real.  And for the moment, there were no questions.  Orientation was simply grateful and alive, nothing to fear.

Quick(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #3: Shirley Manson

When I was a child, I had long, long red hair.  Elderly women in grocery stores stopped me and fawned over it.  I heard “I love your hair,” so often, but I hated it.  Hated hated hated it.  Who had red hair?  I wanted to be blond. Blonde meant sexy and fun and wanted.  I knew who Jessica Rabbit was, but that didn’t tell me anything about red hair’s relation to my own head, my own mind; every portrayal of a stereotypically sexy redhead just made me feel uglier.  Further away from woman.  Further away from worth.  Not because I thought worth meant sexy, but because I looked at myself and felt nothing.  Nothing but the wish for change.

                When I was a teenager, a band came on the scene, perfectly manufactured but I didn’t know that then and it probably wouldn’t have mattered.  They were called Garbage — apparently a reclamation of someone’s assertion that they “sounded like Garbage.”  Their lead singer was a Scottish woman, whose voice mesmerized me.  Fearless and strong, seductive and smoky.   Never had a voice taken hold of my internal organs like that, shook them and filled them with something I simultaneously feared and needed more of.  Her name was Shirley Manson, and she had red hair.

                I wanted her and I wanted not to want her and I wanted to be her and I felt like I already was; a complicated relationship, to be sure.  I thought that if I lined my eyes with thick black kohl and cast off my hideous school uniform and dressed the way I wanted to dress and moved the way I wanted to move — without hindrance, without any kind of metal assistance — I would uncover in myself something she had.  What that voice did to me when I heard it — well, I didn’t know women could do that to me.  She made me feel fierce, like I could be a Dominatrix if I wanted to (at fourteen, surrounded by goth boutiques and gay kink shops in pre-Katrina New Orleans, I was just learning what that word meant, and I liked it).  She also made me feel like I could take orders from her, and that that would be amazing, liberating, right somehow.  I toyed with these thoughts until they became too vivid, too much.  I couldn’t look at them in my own handwriting, the way I’d been unafraid to record Christian Bale fantasies of yore.  But she had red hair, and that, I never let myself forget.  My room was papered with pictures of her, suddenly, magazine covers triumphantly torn to decorate my walls and remind me what it could mean, what it NOW meant, to be a WOMAN WITH RED HAIR.  Someone asked her about it in an interview, and I don’t remember the question, but she answered, without shame, “the pubic hair is really beautiful.”  I didn’t even know people were allowed to say that!  I didn’t think anyone could think it.  At fourteen I had no basis for comparison, but I knew enough to know that it was rare and I was a freak.  Beautiful??  Is it that easy?  We can just say beautiful and allow it?

                It’s taken a lifetime for me to figure out what allowing means.  It’s not about someone else granting permission, though, something I had to accept when my ultimate self-acceptance icon did the unthinkable:  she dyed her hair blonde.   Not only that, but she spoke triumphantly about the bleaching process, just the way I might have if someone offered me the chance when I was a kid.  “There will be no more red hairs in Shirley World,” she declared on her blog, and I ripped my posters from the wall, tears of betrayal soaking the paper. 

                I understand now why people need change.  It’s not fair to ask someone else to be something you need, and feel like your world’s been shaken when they take a step in another direction.  Shirley never asked me to hate my hair or love my hair, to accept myself or not to.  She simply got in the studio and unfurled that stones-wrapped-in-silk voice onto a few records.  Whatever other people may inspire in us, they remain people.  There are no untouchable symbols, there is no unchanging ideal.  We’re all moving and unpredictable.  That is, and should ever be, our right.

Quck(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #2: Ani Difranco

In 1997, You could count the number of male attendees at an Ani Difranco show on one hand.  When I was fourteen, I was thrilled to be at the House of Blues with one of these rarities, a friend of my dad’s emloyees who was, at the time, the only other person I knew who shared my passion for Ani Difranco’s music.

                I had discovered her through an incongruous vehicle: Seventeen magazine.  Their blurb for the newly-released Little Plastic Castle intrigued me, and I had no idea what to expect when I checked it out.  What I got was something I’d never heard before but wanted, needed more of –namely the politically-charged spoken word that had a more rhythmic, melodic feel than the limited amount of rap music I had been exposed to by that point.  It wasn’t just the choice of talking rather than singing, but all the strange, nuanced sounds her voice was twisted into as she spoke, the human voice was suddenly palpable, pliable, an instrument that I felt I had strung wrong, up until that point.  I listened to Little Plastic Castle voraciously, playing it for my younger cousin when we went to visit family friends in St. Louis.  “She’s not really singing,” my cousin said, when I played her my particular sonic obsession, “Fuel.”  “That’s the point,” I told her.  “She’s doing something better.”

                DiFranco had well established her album releases as about one per year since 1989, so even then it was overwhelming to find a place to start as a burgeoning fan.  Still, I occupied all the listening stations I could at record stores whichever city I happened to be, and when it was announced that she’d be returning to New Orleans (where she now lives) for a show at the House of Blues, I was elated.  I remember looking out into the audience and seeing a woman with angel wings inked into her back –a striking image in the era before such body art became ubiquitous.  I understood concerts as a different world from the one that caused all the frustrations outside the venue.  We were a group of people drawn to so many qualities in the same art form, and something about that revealed our human connection more starkly, more necessarily, than anything I’d yet experienced.  There was something like love understood between all of us, and no tiny screens existed to take us out of each other and prioritize the connections we already had.

                  When she unleashed the songs I’d never heard, I still felt like I knew them, like my body had found rhythms it could keep up with and really know.  It would be years before I became a regular performer myself, but on Austin stages I felt, just for a few hours a week on end, that this was in fact a power not singular to one person’s gift, but something we could all tap into if that’s how we wanted to trust our ideas.  Ani Difranco’s music, its fearlessly personal nature and its bare acknowledgement of larger systemic wrongs, taught me to trust my ideas, that there was a lot in ideas.

                When she sang “Adam and Eve,” I saw something in her face, something that that I didn’t remember ever seeing except in my dad, when he played his guitar and sang.  I wonder if what distinguishes a musician from someone who sings is, for the former, the song is a creature, a companion of sorts that needs you, and something like neglect and suffering will transpire if the creature is not shared and set free.  I am, I am, I am, truly sorry about all this, aren’t words that do their every justice on the page, but as Ani sang, I saw, felt, and momentarily became that creature: the entity that is a song.  At the time, I hadn’t heard many feminist declarations up until that point, and the lyrics: “I did not invent this game, I did not name the stakes, I just happen to like apples, and I’m not afraid of snakes” made a lasting impression.

                My best friend couldn’t get enough of Ani Difranco either.  The lines blurred between my playing her music for the first time and the immediate ignition of her obsession: she went on to catch multiple live shows, in several different cities, while amassing an album collection that, I was ashamed to say, far outnumbered the portion of her ouvre that I owned.  Still, we obsessed together, and, on our annual visits, alternated between dancing and sheer awestruck sighing.  Difranco was the first woman my best friend ever expressed real sexual attraction toward, and that was…well…what was that exactly?

                I was sixteen and living in Chicago when she decided to come visit me for the extra benefit of seeing Ani together at the Aragon ballroom.  All weekend we spoke with surprising flippancy about the possibility of finding a girl at the concert to make out with, so we would know what it was like, and all weekend, I wondered.  But I didn’t like to tell myself just what I was wondering.

                The Aragon Ballroom is a majestic venue — one of Chicago’s most beautifully preserved examples of architecture from the1920’s.  Ornate and mesmerizing stone faces adorn the façade, and the inside, with its marble columns and celestially high ceilings, is no less impressive.  Ani permitted us to join her in singing one of her oldest and most beloved songs, “Both Hands,” and the chorus had all the sweet melodic reverence of a church choir; we weren’t going to mess up this chance!

                More raucous was the encore, and, during “Shameless,” my best friend danced her heart out, beautiful legs as radiant as ever in her adventurously short black-and-white mod dress.  Difranco pounded a hand-drum as she bounced around the stage, holding it between her thighs as she kept the beat.  “I wish I was that drum!” my best friend said to me.  Whooooooah.  Just how gay had Ani turned her?

                Not gay enough to excite the gaydar of any of the girls around us.  Was she disappointed?  When we got home, we were too excited to sleep, so we decided to watch a movie.  I think I just blurted it out, telling myself that everything that takes place after midnight qualifies as a dream.  “Would you ever kiss me?”

                “Awwwwwww!”  I still remember the tone; I’m guessing that many a teenaged boy has been simultaneously endeared and frustrated by such surprise, such flattery that you’ve been thinking about something that the person you’re talking to has never considered. 

                “Yes, I would kiss you,” she said at last.  “You’re cute.”

                “Well…like…maybe…I mean, since, you know, this was supposed to be the weekend we did that, with someone, and we didn’t…so…maybe we should?  Like, just so we could say that it happened?”

                There was a pause, surprisingly void of tension, though my stomach twisted anyway.

                “The only reason it would be too weird is because we’re such good friends,” she said.


                And the movie began.  (I can’t say the Miramax logo doesn’t still make me just a teensy bit nervous.)  But I remember the ride to the airport when she left, that we locked hands in a way we never had before, making gratuitous and comfortable physical contact that helped us declare the miraculous.  Nothing has been made weird by this.  We parted on a note of such ease and love, it’s a wonder I ever feared honesty again.

Quick(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #1: Poppy Z. Brite

The first time I read a Poppy Z. Brite book, I was sixteen.  Like all worthwhile vamp novels of the 80’s and 90’s, they took place in my native New Orleans.  But Brite’s weren’t the smoldering, porcelain, seduce you with our erotic words and dripping suggestions Dead Lovers that sustained purely on the life force of human blood.  These vampires had the earthly abilities to guzzle bottle after burn-in-the-throat-bottle of chartreuse, eat cupcakes and lick sugar from each other’s fingertips, and, most importantly, have hard, hot, nothin’-metaphorical-about-it gay sex.  They could, and they did.

                Not all of PZB’s novels were vampire books.  There were healthy doses of traumatized human murders healed through (sexual) connection, incestuous twins, epic drug trips, paranormal experiences, kink underground social scenes, and rock and roll.  The blood, spit, and semen that held it all together was a lush, vulnerable prose that I chased and devoured for years.  When, in Lost Souls, Brite described New Orleans air as, “hot and wet like a kiss,” I suddenly loved the humidity that makes my hometown unbearable to non-natives.  In high school, someone asked me how my weekend was, and I proceeded to answer that this one of the most exciting weekends of my life, before I realized that all my adrenaline and enthusiasm had amounted to one thing: reading Drawing Blood over the course of two days.

                I loved the drag queen in The Lazarus Heart and immediately recognized her as an integral New Orleans spirit. I sat on the cream-colored couch in Garden District Books, a shop specializing in local authors, and devoured Plastic Jesus, Brite’s adventurous take on John Lennon’s imagined love affair with Paul McCartney.  When Brite left dark fantasy behind for a series of lusty, crime-ridden stories set in New Orleans’ unparalleled culinary world, I read no less voraciously, thrilled when Prime was released as the follow-up to Liquor, at the center of which novels are Ricky and G-man, two renowned chefs who’ve been together as a couple since their teenage years.

                It’s been over ten years since Poppy Z. Brite has written a novel, but the intervening years have allowed readers to be a part of the more intimate aspects of the author’s life.  Brite’s blog, Dispatches from Tanzanikya, became a portrait of a city shattered after Katrina hit, and remains one of the most vivid chronicles  of a city resurrecting, transforming, mourning, and healing.  Readers and fans who have followed the author from early days were aware of Brite’s assertion that, despite his female biological body, he has always understood himself as a man.  The blog also chronicles his hormonal transition from female to male, as well as the cataclysmic shifts in his personal life, such as his separation from his partner of twenty-two years, and subsequent relationship with a celebrated gay New Orleans photographer.  Poppy Z. Brite is now Billy Martin, and his meditations on the nature of love and home radiate a strength and heartbreak that is every bit as compelling as a novel, no less replete with the raw eloquence that allows a writer to connect with a reader, and for readers to connect around the world as a result.

                At this new phrase in life, Martin finds himself not immersed in the world of words, but that of color, texture, and sculpture.  After making a career on the remarkable tangibility of imagined settings, Martin now paints visceral, highly textured paintings, inspired by a mélange of uniquely New Orleans macabre, personal experience, and religious symbolism.  He also creates wonderfully unsettling mixed media work that draws attention to the still-vital issues the news media has left behind, such as the stirring Oil Spill.

                Recently, I purchased one of Billy Martin’s paintings.  Nothing quite summed up what I was feeling at the time like this raw heart and exposed bone, and the well-meaning phrases surrounding them that did nothing to soothe the scorch.  Through a complicated mail mix-up, the painting never reached me, and Martin generously asked what he could do to “make it right,” including a refund offer, or a print of the piece.  Personally, I was glad to have bought dinner for an artist that had done so much for my soul as I was growing up, so it wasn’t money I wanted.  Already, he had been willing to sell me a $50 painting for $30.  He always couples his pricings with, “or best offer,” but in my case, he didn’t even wait for a higher bidder.  “If you need this painting badly enough (it’s a visceral one), I’ll sell it to you for $25 plus s/h,” he said.  Billy Martin knows what art is for.

                When I didn’t receive a reply to the question about commissioning a work for the price I paid, I worried that I might have asked an insulting question.  Yesterday, I was ecstatic to receive an email saying that Billy thought he’d replied to me ages ago, and would be happy to do a commission for that price; he’d even throw in a print of Oil Spill, which I had told him struck me deeply, at no extra charge. 

                With changes in life come changes in one’s artistic needs, and I’m steadily healing  from the metaphorical exposed bone that drove me to feel such a connection to Martin’s The Cure for Pain 2.  Assimilating the love and grief over two close loved ones that died over the same weekend — one, gradually, expected but no easier, and one a sudden shock, leaving behind a destructive housing situation that was born of weaknesses I once thought were strengths, reconfiguring my finances out of sudden necessity, but also determination and focus.  I asked Billy Martin if I could commission, I am truly home.  “Whatever that means to you,” I said.

                I’m just figuring it out myself.  While I understand that it’s a wrought theme for any New Orleans native these days, and that continuous life transitions render it even more so, I’m hoping that the idea’s catharsis potential will be helpful to us both.  There’s something so comforting about knowing that someone whose work has meant so much to you for so long is going to connect to what you’ve been thinking about all this time.  I haven’t had words to describe the madness of Winter 2013, and I deeply respect Martin for turning to the visual realm for expression.  Moved by his generosity, I filled my partner in on the email I’d received, explained who Billy Martin had been to me and why I was excited for this art to come.  “You talk like you know him, hon,” my love said.  I thought about it and realized that while there is no way I could truly know this person from where I stand now, I have, like so many others, been following deeply personal aspects of his journey for a long time now.  By the same token, his books have stretched my ideas, altered some of my perceptions, and, let’s face it, gotten me off, for years.  That’s not knowing, exactly, but it sure feels that way.  Isn’t it part of what art is for?

Thoughts on the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Trope

I was born a MPDG, and I blame it on the following films:  The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins (thank you, Julie Andrews!) and Pollyanna.  These were all films about magical women coming into the lives of crotchety men and bringing them light, bringing them love, bringing them hope that opened their hearts, and I watched them over and over as a kid — over and over and over.  And over.  And over.

I’ve always wondered:  Did I aspire to be a MPDG because my idols were, or were these women my idols in part because they were such successful MPDG’s? 

                Mary Poppins obliterated class lines even at the suspected cost of losing her job (she could also FLY WITH AN UMBRELLA so ya know) and Froiline Maria made clothes out of curtains so she could take children on wild, canoe-toppling adventures, and left a convent so she could boink the endlessly dapper Captain von Trapp to her heart’s content, so there’s something to be said for both of these remarkable women (and if you ever read P.L. Trevors’ Mary Poppins series, you know the terrifying nanny is far from being a MPDG!)  But Pollyanna has few, if any, lastingly redeeming characteristics.  Her charms lie essentially in the fact that she’s an optimist and a little girl.  Even as a little girl myself, I was annoyed by her response to learning she needed surgery, which was essentially no response at all.  At nine, I’d had an operation, and something about her unwavering smile struck a very dissonant chord.  So perhaps I was starting to get suspicious of the MPDG trope, but not nearly enough so.

                For years I remained determined  to do what my movie-mentors did, so I set out to find some worlds I could light up, some sadnesses I could heal, some issues I could transform into confidence-fueled strengths.   But no one wanted to sing!  At the end of the faulty scripts of attempted lives throughout my youth, Mr. Banks wasn’t flying kites, Pollyanna was righteously pissed off about her surgery, and rather than singing “Adelweiss” with his beautiful eldest daughter, Captain von Trapp was all too aware that his family was in danger, his brother was essentially a collaborator,  and his country was under siege.  What was I doing wrong?

                The least-discussed problem I see with the MPDG trope is this:  A woman in that role can never come to grips with the hidden sides of who she is.  A MPDG must always smile, brighten, spin the earth, to the best of her limited ability, in a single optimistic direction.  To do this, you have to essentially block out the world.  If you can’t sing a cheerful song about it, it can’t be acknowledged, and that’s no way to prepare for being alive.  It’s not about making the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar, but rather about appreciating the complexities, or even, sometimes, understanding the necessary bitterness, in complicated medicinal herbs, if you’ll forgive the winding metaphor.  Most people living already know this, because it’s a lesson living teaches you, but I think my early efforts to find voids where I could see them and fill them with as much be who you are just as you are love as I could muster, I blocked out so much of what actually helps us grow.  The MPDG isn’t allowed to grow, because the message she carries is supposedly the ‘highest’ in the story.  Other characters grow by learning to be more like her, but the reality of relationship is exchange.  To understand who you can be, you have to come to grips with everything you don’t like, everything you’ve pushed back, everything you’ve denied in favor of some other, more pleasing image.  The MPDG is a pleasing image disguised as truth,  but the truth rarely, if ever, has a damn thing to do with images.  In image is a projection, but three-dimensional human creatures hold weight.  Our needs are complex — and while music is uplifting, conversation can be igniting, and art can change the hell out of us — no one can actually enter your life and, on their own, change it from a prison to a palace.  Some of the scariest traps out there are self-set, and shining a torch on them isn’t the same as setting you free.  Love can do a lot of things, but change comes from ourselves, and the dangerous lesson of the MPDG is that change comes from other people.  Other people’s capacity to teach are limitless — you can’t really be alive (for better or worse) without learning.  But other people can’t make us less stupid or less limited or less anything — we become wiser by becoming wise to our faults, by understanding that humans have faults-by-default and that we never reach a no-more-learning-needed stage, and by bringing our own strengths to the forefront.  There is no beast who’s calling out, with a maw full of glistening teeth, for a beauty to come and break the spell.  The reality is, we’re all capable of being that lumbering body, that rash primal being.  The beauty who seems like she can save us — she is us.   We’re all of it, we’re everything.  We’re the beauty, we’re the beast, and to see each quality in each one is to break open the MPDG trope and admit we have no idea what it takes to get us out of our ridiculous heads, grow the fuck up, and turn into a captain who can shed his military past, move on from his grief, and fall in love again, or a banker who realizes that money isn’t everything, and his kids won’t be kids forever, there to enjoy flying a kite.