Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

The Harvey Girls, Judy and the Limits of Camp

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Illustration found here

Every Millennial at one point or another will have to answer the inevitable question, “Are you a hipster?” (Every Millennial who wears glasses and has some sort of interest in the arts, at least.) I faced the question at a wine party last year and replied in the negative. I admitted some of my fashion choices may fall in with the cliché of the hipster (though I never succumbed to skinny jeans, aviators or wolf sweaters), but my music taste is much too ‘top forty’ and my personality too earnest.

“Oh, come on, Max!” my friend Amy shot back. “You’re such a hipster! You read the New Yorker.”

“Since when is that a hipster publication?” I cried. “It’s not VICE.”

“The hipster thing wouldn’t be VICE anymore,” someone else chimed in. “It’d be the New Yorker.”

Obviously, we settled nothing that night. I bring this up to illustrate that identities are complicated and how others see you is often vastly different from how you see yourself. While I will continue to shriek in protest against the label ‘hipster’ until my dying breath, there is one label I’m totally at ease with.

I’m gay.

And I use that word purposefully. I’m not a ‘man who sleeps with men’. I’m not ‘attracted to masculine performance’, as one guy I met convolutely defined himself.

Every generation has to redefine sexual identities for themselves and it’s a wonderful development the struggle for equal rights has expanded to include lesbian, bisexuals, transgender, two-spirited and intersex individuals, among others. (Lesbians were a part of the gay rights movement from the very beginning, but men managed to hog the spotlight. It’s what men do.) A scan of news headlines, from Russia to Uganda to Toronto’s City Hall, demonstrates the fight has only begun.

But speaking personally, I like the word ‘gay’ and I’m proud of gay culture and history. All sorts of pieces have claimed the death of that word or identity, from Foucaultian academic treatises to blog posts. But I’m not done with it yet. If anything, like the child of immigrant parents, learning about gay history and culture helps me feel connected to my past forebears. It helps me understand who I am.

For example, learning about gay history put my camp humour into perspective. I can’t tell you if I was born with it or it was somehow learned (these are debates too big for WordPress) but I do know from a young age I acted with a little camp performance. By ‘camp’ I don’t necessarily mean effeminate, although that’s part of it. Rather, it’s living life as though you were on stage, doing things as though they were in quotation marks. There’s a home movie of my little brother and me sitting on the kitchen floor, banging on coffee tins with wooden spoons as if they were drums. When my mom asks me what I’d like to play, 6-year old Max taps his fingers on his chin and looks off dreamily.

“Let’s see,” he says, overacting the process of thinking. “What should I play?”

In contrast, when it’s my brother’s turn he immediately starts banging the wooden spoons like he’s Animal from the ‘Muppet Show’.

Performativity is a part of how I speak to this very day. Every third sentence that comes out of my mouth is in quotation marks. Sometimes they’re direct quotes from movies or TV, but mostly they’re the type of thing you’d hear in fiction. I’m asking the listener, with exaggerated language and tone of voice, to understand I mean them as clichés.

On occasion, this habit gets me in trouble or someone fails to understand the joke. It’s probably more difficult when English isn’t your first language. When I lived in Dublin I worked with a girl named Daria who was from Mongolia. She spoke English very directly. Once she told me, “I didn’t like you at first, but now I like you.”

When I got a minor promotion at work (I don’t even think a raise was part of it), I turned to her and, waving my head around flamboyantly, said, “Now that I’m the ‘coffee master’ for the café I don’t want you to treat me any differently. I’ll never forget where I came from. I want you to know that, truly.”

She stared at me blankly. “Why are you saying this?”

Camp is very complex to define, but one of the most succinct summaries comes from Steven Cohan, author of ‘Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical’: “Camp can be defined as the ensemble of strategies used to enact queer recognition of the incongruities arising from the cultural regulation of gender and sexuality.” In an era of deep oppression, camp allowed gay men to both engage with the discriminatory dominant culture while mocking it in a manner invisible to outsiders. Sociologist Esther Newton, who interviewed drag queens in Chicago and Kansas City in the 1960’s, said the main tenets of camp are incongruity, “its subject matter”; theatricality, “its style”; and humour, “its strategy.”

By treating a minor promotion at Starbucks as a Broadway star would talk about landing the lead role, her name emblazoned in glittering lights, I gently mocked the absurdities of being a minimum-wage-earning barista. Camp also might explain why, when I have to be assertive, I imagine myself as Joan Crawford, Margaret Thatcher or Elizabeth I (as played by Cate Blanchet), rather than any of the aggressive male personalities available. I’m playing at being angry so I can float above it.

Which leads me to Judy. In first year university I read Gerald Clarke’s biography of Ms. Garland, ‘Get Happy’. I became a bit obsessed with her and I couldn’t figure out why. I grew up on MGM musicals it’s true, but I watched ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘American in Paris’ far more than ‘The Wizard of Oz’. (Gene Kelly’s ass is just as likely to turn you gay as anything Garland ever did.) Perhaps, I thought at the time, I related to Judy’s personal struggles, often the explanation people give as to why gay men appreciate her. At the time I was a popular undergrad with many friends but no boyfriend, which sometimes plunged me into feelings of loneliness and unattractiveness. Judy Garland was loved by countless fans but never felt intimately loved enough. It’s a human tragedy with no solution.

Lastly, as a cultural history buff, I liked the era that Judy’s career spanned and the change you can see in American pop culture from Rooseveltian patriotism to 1960’s cynicism. (It’s probably a good thing that near the end of her life Garland was fired from ‘Valley of the Dolls’ in which she had been cast as Helen Lawson, a cruel caricature of herself. It may have damaged her reputation in the manner Joan Crawford’s was bludgeoned by Faye Dunaway’s wire hanger.)

But ten years on, after watching ‘A Star is Born’ every year and reading everything I could get my hands on camp and gay history, I think I have a better explanation. Judy Garland performed with a camp attitude, including her over the top singing style and her delivery of lines as though they were in quotation marks (which of course as scripted lines they were). Her singing voice gave more emotion than her films usually called for, while her awkward, fidgety acting suggested discomfort with the Ohioan girls-next-door she was often asked to play. Unlike Joan Crawford, who is appreciated as camp but not a camp performer herself (her caramel voice always oozed sincerity), Garland wins out with gay audiences because she seemed in on the joke.

Why Judy performed this way is up to debate, although I think Roger Edens, musical arranger, gay man and longtime friend of Judy who taught her how to sing for the camera, along with Kaye Thompson, another music arranger and author of the Eloise books, who taught her how to move, have a good deal to do with it. Garland was a mimic who entertained her friends by impersonating people they knew. Not hard to imagine, given all the gay men surrounding her (including a couple husbands) that she would start acting camp.

I like the Garland-as-camp-performer theory better than the Garland-as-sad-sack-and-gays-are-also-sad explanation because it gives Judy agency. As well, it explains why gay men who grew up long after the Stonewall riots, when camp was supposed to disappear with the smashing of closet doors, might still be interested in her. (I know I’m not the only one.) As David M. Halperin wrote in ‘How to be Gay’, times have changed but little gay boys still need strategies to cope with and find a place within a dominant heterosexual culture.

Re-watching films I’d grown up with I saw Garland’s campiness over and over again. I also saw myself. In ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ Judy’s character is a lovesick teenager and the part would have been dull if played by another musical actress. Director Vincente Minnelli got mad at Judy when they started filming for mocking the lines. The story goes that Judy eventually came to trust Minnelli, turned in a sincere performance and the pair ended up married. But watching the movie now I see traces of Garland’s tongue-in-cheek attitude, as though she’s whispering to the audience, “Oh, as though I’m supposed to be silly teenager from Missouri!”

Before a dance, while Judy’s character Esther and her sister are getting ready, she folds her hands and says in a matter of fact voice: “I’ve decided I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.” Her sister is scandalized and says you’re not supposed to kiss until after you get engaged. (It’s supposed to be 1904.)

“Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off,” she claims.

“Personally, I think I have too much bloom,” Esther says as her sister walks away. “Maybe that’s the trouble with me…” She then pinches her cheeks (turn of the century rouge) and flutters her eyelashes at herself in the mirror in a mock pretty-girl flirtation. She then drops the mask, sighs at herself and gets up from the desk. It’s the type of thing I’d do.

 

But there are limits to my fandom. Judy couldn’t single handedly rescue every picture. I finally made it through ‘The Harvey Girls’ (1946), a movie which I tried to watch years ago but gave up after it completely lost steam after its big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” musical number. Set in the 1890’s, and oh you should see the size of their puffy sleeves, what little story there is centres on a group of waitresses for the Fred Harvey restaurant company, the first chain restaurants in America. (Sadly, unrelated to the hamburger joint Harvey’s.)

According to the film’s introduction, “When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Sante Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had know… the Harvey Girls…these winsome waitresses conquered the West as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons…Not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.”

‘It’s a good thing the land was empty for all these white people to come and serve beefsteak,’ I thought. Then in the big “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” number, when all the “winsome waitresses” arrive at the sleepy cowboy town of Sandrock to bring civilization and coffee, the filmmakers dare to include Native Americans as extras, or at least actors meant to be Native Americans.

‘Oh,’ I said to myself. ‘There’s the civilization that white people eradicated by way of railroads and chain restaurants!’ As the Native American extras bob around merrily to the song, the women sing about all the different states they’ve come from. They’re in the Old West to be waitresses but really to be wives, and the cowboys of the town leer at them approvingly while tightening their brightly coloured handkerchiefs.

‘But wait,’ you ask. ‘Weren’t there women in the town before?’ Not really, unless you count sex workers as women. The movie is from the 1940’s so it doesn’t call them sex workers. But at the end of musical number the waitresses look up to see a group of feather headdress-wearing, corseted showgirls glaring down at them like vultures from the balcony of the saloon. These are the ‘bad girls’ who entertain the single men with booze, gambling, and whatever else. They’re threatened by the arrival the Harvey Girls, who may marry their customers and straighten out the town. The extinction of their way of life, and not that of the Native Americans, is the subject of the film.

The most fun casting is that of the head bad girl. She’s played by Angela Lansbury, who puts on a tough, world-weary accent. (Sadly, they dubbed her singing voice. It would have been fabulous if she had performed her songs like Mrs. Potts!) She gets the best outfits, though—sequined monstrosities that make her resemble a Christmas tree. MGM let the gay men in the costume department go a little far. 

As Judy becomes a Harvey Girl and their schoolmarmish boss instructs them on always having a clean apron (they look like freakin’ nuns) and the rules of costumer service, I rolled my eyes and shouted at the screen, ‘Oh, shut up!’ When Garland and Lansbury start competing for the same man you can’t help but route for Lansbury. Who decided that a movie about goody two shoe waitresses was more interesting than one about showgirls?

Most disappointing, Judy doesn’t subvert any of her characters lines, nor does the film undermine any of its sexist and racist themes. In real life, Fred Harvey chose the prettiest girls as waitresses (something the film implies), which doesn’t seem that far off from pimping. He also hired actors to play Native Americans to provide ‘local colour’ for tourists. While it was still going on, the Old West had to be faked for white audiences. Even for MGM of the 1940’s, this is an insanely conservative Americana movie, managing to combine Manifest Destiny, fast food, and the post-WWII move to shove women back into the home.  

I would love to remake ‘The Harvey Girls’ as a stage play/drag show, using the same songs and basic plot but with the opposite point of view—the ‘bad girls’ as the protagonists and the priggish waitresses as the villains who ruin all the fun. Although there may be some movies, Judy or no Judy, that are beyond rescue. 

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Miss Piggy Turned Me Gay

Muppet-Film "The Muppet Movie"

I’m sorry to disappoint you but Bert and Ernie are not gay. They’re not. When Jim Henson and Frank Oz created them for Sesame Street they were intended as a tribute to the grand tradition of mix-matched comic duos—Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Felix and Oscar of ‘The Odd Couple’. The fact that in the decades since people have come to view them as a gay couple says more about the normalization of homosexuality and the decline of the comic duo than anything intended by the Children’s Television Workshop.

“They’re puppets,” explained Steve Whitmore, who’s performed Ernie since Henson’s death. “They don’t exist below the waist.” But denials have only added fuel to the fire. With a smirk, gay men enjoy ‘outing’ these symbols of childhood with the same relish they used to reserve for ‘outing’ Hollywood actors. With a continued dearth of same-sex role models in popular culture Bert and Ernie have been enlisted as gay marriage symbols, appearing on placards, buttons, and t-shirts. Men dressed in Bert and Ernie costumes have even been married at gay pride parades. When it came to celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act last June The New Yorker chose not an image of a flesh and blood couple but an illustration of the two Muppets cuddling.

It’s not just allies who suspect same-sex shenanigans at 123 Sesame Street.

“Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom,” claimed the Reverend Joseph Chambers on his radio show. “They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics… If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”

The Reverend clearly knows nothing of the show or, for that matter, fashion. Ernie has only ever worn horizontal stripes. Bert, being the more practical one, wears vertical, along with a very 1970’s turtleneck. As for being effeminate, Ernie is a disorganized mess while no stylish gay men would allow the caterpillar that stretches across Bert’s forehead to go un-tweezed.

Bert and Ernie sleep in separate beds, are rarely physical with each other, and never say lovey-dovey things. In fact, they seem ready to murder each other most of the time. (“Sounds like a lot of couples I know,” I can hear you saying.)

But everyone has it wrong. Bert and Ernie are meant to teach children they can be friends with people different from themselves. There’s nothing ‘gay’ about them, save for Ernie’s love of bubble baths. If Reverend Chambers is really worried about kids being introduced to queer culture he needs to move past Bert and Ernie. He should condemn an entirely different show and an entirely different Muppet.

It was Miss Piggy who turned me gay.

Despite the celebrity cameos and pop culture spoofs, ‘Sesame Street’ was always meant for children, but Jim Henson was weary of being seen as a kids’ entertainer. It took years for him to get it on the air but ‘The Muppet Show’, which ran from 1976 to 1981, was meant to correct this misconception. Henson sought to prove a show with puppets could have universal appeal.

Like Walt Disney and the creators of the Warner Brothers’ cartoons before them, Henson and his Muppet Workshop forgot to create female characters. (When a girl was needed on ‘Sam and Friends’, Henson’s first TV show, he’d throw a blonde wig on Kermit. If only Reverend Chambers had seen that!) There was the odd exception, such as a purple Muppet named Mildred who, with a perm and cat’s eye glasses, resembled a Fraggle librarian. But at the beginning ‘The Muppet Show’ was an overwhelmingly male affair with male characters performed by male puppeteers. Like a true star Miss Piggy would have to invent herself.

The Muppet performers had used a homely lady-pig puppet in a few TV specials but she lacked a name and distinctive personality. Before the first season of ‘The Muppet Show’ Muppet designer Bonnie Erickson replaced the puppet’s beady black eyes with large blue ones and dressed her in a silk dress with lilac gloves. A permanently attached handkerchief was used to conceal the puppet’s arm rod. Paying tribute to Peggy Lee, Erickson named the puppet Miss Piggy Lee, but the ‘Lee’ was swiftly dropped to avoid offending the singer.

Initially Miss Piggy lacked a distinctive voice. Frank Oz and Richard Hunt shared the responsibility of performing her, with the latter giving her a flouncy British accent and a stuffy, Margaret Dumont-ish character. But as Oz gradually took over, Miss Piggy’s personality asserted itself.

During one rehearsal, Henson and Oz were working on a scene in which Piggy slapped Kermit. Oz thought a karate chop was funnier, paired with a dramatic “hiii-yah!”

“Suddenly, that hit crystallized her character for me,” Oz told the New York Times. “The coyness hiding the aggression; the conflict of that love with her desire for a career; her hunger for a glamour image; her tremendous out-and-out ego…” As they say, a star was born.

Befitting a diva who stepped out of the chorus, Miss Piggy soon took over. With practically no other females to compete with (other than the androgynous guitarist Janice, originally designed as a big-lipped tribute to Mick Jagger) Piggy would grow in stature to become the only woman the Muppets needed. Her costumes multiplied. Her production numbers became more elaborate. She peppered her speech with ridiculous bastardizations of French, a habit perhaps inspired by the legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Miss Piggy thought nothing of throwing herself at male guest stars, or stealing scenes from great beauties like Raquel Welch.

Pigs, despite their documented intelligence, are thought of as dirty, rotund, and as far away from showbiz glamour as possible. But as a little kid I never took Miss Piggy as a joke. I accepted her beauty and elegance sincerely. For me, she was the star she believed herself to be. This was perfect training for my eventual love of drag queens, who also don sequined gowns, feather boas, and demand you take their star personae seriously.

Miss Piggy taught me that femininity and glamour are constructs. They are costumes anyone can wear providing you have the right attitude. I was a slightly effeminate little boy who collected ‘My Little Ponies’ and owned a pair of Jelly sandals. Miss Piggy showed it was okay to be girly, that there was even power in being feminine.

Of course, simmering just below her fuzzy peach surface, Miss Piggy had a well of anger and aggression that busted out in karate chops, punches, and kicks. When she got mad, Frank Oz lowered her voice from its regular high-pitched coo to a low, gruff, streetwise snarl. Being a lady is all well and good, but when the going gets tough, the pig gets rough. A lilac glove can sometimes conceal a fist.

Miss Piggy is a pushy, bullying, manipulative, insecure, egoist. There’s more Diana Ross in her than Peggy Lee. She should be unlikeable.

But she has one trait that humanizes her. She loves Kermit. He’s her Achilles Hoof. Her love for him is pure, passionate, and pathetic. She humiliates herself over and over just to get his attention. As Frank Oz said, quoted in Brian Jay Johnson’s new biography of Jim Henson, “She wants that little green body so badly.” And Kermit, for the most part, brushes her off and ignores her. Loving someone incapable of reciprocating is a tragedy every queer person who’s fallen for a heterosexual can understand.

Miss Piggy eventually snagged Kermit via a surprise wedding at the end of ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’ (1984). The ceremony was performed by an actual New York city minister and in the years since puppets and performers alike have enjoyed teasing fans about whether the characters are ‘actually married’ or not. Either way, the union of frog and pig and the nullification of their romantic tension brought a symbolic close to the Muppets’ Golden Age.

I love Miss Piggy, but I realize her characteristics as I’ve listed them aren’t exactly those of a role model. With her diva behavior and camp aesthetic, Miss Piggy is a throwback to the closeted gay world before the Stonewall Riots, when queer men worshipped Mae West and a sharp, sardonic tongue was their only weapon. By the time ‘The Muppet Show’ was at its height, gay men had already moved on to body-building and Donna Summer. Perhaps this is why Pride Parades feature Bert and Ernie and not Miss Piggy. Miss Piggy, with her exaggerated femininity, barely concealed aggression, and pining love of a ‘straight’ man, reminds gays of their past. Bert and Ernie as a committed couple is a more useful symbol for gay activists still fighting for same-sex marriage, even if it is a projection of fans. Puppeteers aren’t the only ones who can pull the strings.

Carrie’s Apartment

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In a city of famous buildings, the one I wanted to see didn’t actually exist.

Officially, the address of this New York landmark is 245 East 73rd, but this location is as fictional as 123 Sesame Street. (Ernie and Bert’s building being the other make-believe brownstone I still somewhat believe in.) Even though I know deep down ‘Sex and the City’ was a TV show and Sarah Jessica Parker is an actress (and a savvy one at that, parlaying the fashionable series into a series of perfume and clothing endorsement deals), the apartment of the character of Carrie Bradshaw, where she sat by the window, with her lap top, yearning, will always hold a place in my heart. It is the quintessential New York flat; with piles of books but no kitchen table, it is the writer’s dream abode.

I had been to New York three times already but had never made the effort to find Carrie’s street. Partially, this was because those earlier trips were with my father, who could only, due to the potty mouths of the female characters, appreciate ‘Sex and the City’ from afar. But more likely I was not prepared to give into that level of obsessive nerdiness.

Now, going back to New York at the age of 26, I know myself. I may not own a T-shirt that says “I’m a Carrie” (and not just because HBO doesn’t sell them in men’s sizes!) but I can admit I’m a ‘Sex and the City’ obsessive.

Although five different locations were used for the outside of Carrie’s apartment over the run of the series (and the interior was a soundstage), a general consensus emerged among the experts (fans on the internet) that the main, and most picturesque, location was on a little street in Greenwich Village.

I drew a map in my notebook, along with the location of Magnolia Bakery, the shop which, after being featured on the show, did so much for the sugary cupcake-mania we are still immersed in. I got lost on my way there, and not even on the subway.

While I’m on the topic, the New York subway and I are not friends. I like to think of myself as a metropolitan person, one who has successfully navigated the public transportation systems of London, Paris and Barcelona. But in Manhattan, trapped underground, I had to sit with my subway map open on my lap, like a country rube, double-checking where I was at every, single stop. Like I said; not friends.

But no, I got lost in the Village, ending up at a weird, triangular intersection which, despite seeming important, I could not locate on my map. After a couple circles, once I was finally back in chartered territory, I treated myself to a diner lunch which was so massive, so New York City big, that I didn’t eat dinner.

When I found the street, it was more lovely than I imagined. With trees on both sides and turn of the century brownstones, their stone steps elegantly spilling out in front of them, I agreed with Carrie’s own observation that it was like walking in the New York of Edith Wharton.

When I arrived at the house, two young women were there already, snapping pictures. Embarrassed to be seen doing the same thing as them, I kept my distance. (Maybe I’m not as comfortable being a nerd as I thought!) After they moved on, I approached the steps where Carrie had emerged so many times to greet Mr. Big waiting in his limo on the street.

A metal chain prevented one from walking up the steps and attached was a sign. Diplomatically, it read: “Dear people taking pictures: please remember this is a private residence. You are welcome, but be respectful. No sitting on the steps or loud noises. Thank you.”

I was suddenly flushed with an emotion close to shame. This was a real home to real people, probably a family, and because it was used as a pretend home for a fictional character, bus loads of people are going to come by and be invasive until the show slips from syndication. The house means much more to the people who now live in it than it does to us ‘Sex and the City’ fans. Carrie’s Apartment, the idea of Carrie’s Apartment, is a place in our minds, not a location on Google maps.

So I took a picture and walked away. 

Tattoos, Beards and the Importance of Diversity

As every generation comes into its own (and correspondingly, gets old) the decade that they grew up in returns, recycled for its non-ironic nostalgia. The Gen X characters on 1990’s ‘Friends’ cracked jokes about 1970’s ‘Happy Days’ (itself a tribute to the 1950’s).

Around 2000/2001, everyone started wearing shoulder pads and humming ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as though the 1980’s were an epoch recently uncovered from an archeological dig.

Now, my generation is using online social media outlets that didn’t even exist ten years ago to celebrate the 1990’s, from ‘Romy and Michelle’ on Tumblr to ‘Clueless’ on Youtube. The pace of revivals is becoming so fast, I wonder if we’re not far from a future in which a trend can be appreciated as brand new and retro simultaneously.

One thing I remember from the 1990’s and early 2000’s are my notebook doodles: intricate spirals; flamboyant fleur-de-lis; ladies in hats and outlines of five-pointed stars

I began to think I might like a tattoo of a thick outline of a star, in black or blue, on my arm, or maybe my hand. Clean, simple, a bit of a pun (I had already started to think of myself as a reincarnated Old Hollywood starlet in a modern Canadian boy’s body). My mother had half-jokingly informed my brother and I we weren’t allowed to alter our bodies, so I kept my plan in my back pocket.

But then, part way through university, I realized I had stopped doodling stars and that they were no longer a symbol I particularly embraced. I now associated them with emo culture (this was right before the term ‘hipster’ would begin it’s long-lasting but embattled empire). I was definitely not an emo.

Not only did I not get my star tattoo, but I was scared away from the idea of tattoos in general. If my feelings about a symbol could change over time, how would I know that I wouldn’t get sick of a design I happened to like at a specific moment?

Another thing I remember from the 1990’s: everyone cared about body dysmorphia for about five minutes. The cover of ‘Time’ magazine questioned the skinniness of models, the words anorexia and bulimia entered common parlance, and Callista Flockhart, star of the formerly popular show ‘Ally McBeal’, made an effort to be photographed eating.

But then it seemed to go away. The beautiful Kate Winslett was ridiculed for her weight, but before she slimmed down everyone moved on to worrying about kids finding internet porn. At a pretty young age, I learned a valuable lesson: it’s not enough to point out a problem and complain. Society is not going to change itself. You have to roll up your selves and make it happen.

That is one of the reasons I am so proud to work for WORN Fashion Journal, an independent fashion magazine dedicated to promoting different kinds of beauty. (Please watch this video about WORN and our exciting next step.)

The work is by no means done for changing the definitions of female beauty, despite the current issue of ‘Vogue’ congratulating itself on no longer featuring exclusively “waif” models. I find it depressing when I happen upon a Tumblr, often curated by a young woman, who, given the opportunity to select any image from across the internet without interference of editors or advertisers, reuses the same type of pictures that are not only fictive and damaging, but clichéd and dull: skinny blond white girls, looking bored.

But at least we’ve reached the point where even Anna Wintour has to talk about different kinds of female beauty. What I noticed recently, in magazines, on Tumblr, in the general pop media landscape, is the powerful prevalence of certain kinds of male beauty. In particular, photography that has pretensions of being arty and stylish almost always feature skinny guys with wide eyes and sharp features. Shot in black and white, these boys smoke cigarettes and stare off into the middle distance.

In contrast, musclemen with the same six-pack torso we’ve come to expect when a Hollywood actor lifts up his shirt are portrayed in sports illustrations and Romance novel covers as active, assertive and engaged with the camera. This muscleman-twink dichotomy is especially prevalent in the gay world, in which our free glossy weeklies, while ostensibly celebrating diversity, promote guys who look like young Zack Morris or older, shirtless Zack Morris.

And here’s the really sad, creepy thing: most of us can be rational media observers and realize that not everyone looks like Keira Knightley or Chris Evans. But we internalize these beauty standards, and because they have been so normalized, we treat them as normal.

I did not realize how depressed and ashamed of my body I was until I first opened the (sadly now retired) Butt magazine, and saw erotic photographs of gay guys whose bodies were, using the polite term that our culture promotes, as ‘imperfect’ as my own. Other men have love handles! Other men don’t wax their asses! It was like a weight lifted off me. It felt like, “Thank you! I thought I was going crazy!”

Things are getting better. Gay Bear culture celebrates, indeed, fetishes, older, bigger, hairy guys. And I’ve noticed, even on the covers of those superficial queer weeklies, a ‘browning’ of their models who increasingly have Middle Eastern/Mediterranean/Semitic features. And an outlet like Tumblr is great for things like this. If you’re not getting what you’re interested in from the mainstream media, promote it yourself. Like I said before, don’t complain. Replace!

Indeed, on the gayer than gay Tumblrs I follow, I noticed a new kind of archetype of male beauty: dark features; scruffy beard; tattoos; and thick-framed glasses, implying a certain lack of vanity as well as bookishness. There is even a Tumblr specifically called ‘Tats, Beards and Glasses’. The photographs of these men didn’t exaggerate their Aryan perfection, but rather highlighted individual facial features like full lips, freckles, scars and blemishes.

I was drawn to these pictures, although I didn’t immediately understand why. I also, for the first time since I was 21, began to seriously reconsider getting a tattoo, maybe a retro-inspired sailor design, an anchor or a red rose.

Then two realizations collided in my brain with the impact of a car crash. These glasses-wearing, bearded hunks looked like me! And a lot of them have tattoos! A tattoo would help me look even more like the guys that I see celebrated online, the ones who are presented as sexy, cool and desirable.

Strangers online demonstrated that I could be considered attractive in a way supportive friends and lovers never could. This is why we must keep pushing for diversity of all kinds in media. When people see themselves reflected back to them it can leave a mark as permanent as a tattoo.

Maybe mine will have a heart with the message ‘Sorry, Mom! Blame Tumblr.’

White Boys

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As anyone who follows my Tumblr knows, I enjoy bright, vibrant, over-saturated colours which would not look out of place in MGM musical fantasias. Canary yellow, emerald green, royal blue, flamboyant fuchsia: these are the hues I gravitate towards and wear. But as a former academic, I am comfortable acknowledging grey areas in life. Every person on this earth is different, with unique experiences and insights. If you ever think you have all the answers you are more stupid than someone who has everything wrong. I sincerely believe that even the strictest beliefs can mellow over time and that we’d all do a lot better if we pontificated less and listened more.

But I’ve been told that my acknowledgement of grey areas doesn’t fit comfortably with our digital age. Opinions on the internet are as black and white as the pixels you are staring at. For some, it’s not enough that I previously wrote about how blogging may be hurting writers. I should have written “blogging is silly and a waste of time!” or, alternatively, “yay for blogging!” That would make it better, or at least got more hits (which, in the world of blogging, is the same thing). The habit of taking one extreme side of an argument in order to get people mad and drive up clicks has caused me to abandon one snarky columnist after another. I don’t respect that world view, nor do I respect those writers.

All that being said, I thought I would try my hand at writing a ridiculously oversimplified diatribe based on my observations and recent conversations with friends. To segue rather awkwardly, I will introduce another colour: brown.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least by my friends and readers) that I have a fondness (I don’t want to say ‘fetish’) for men of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage. It is forgiven that my friend Jess Bartram has never made me the ‘I Heart Brown Boys’ t-shirt she’s promised me for by this point it would be redundant.

For the record, I don’t ONLY date brown men and would gladly meet, date and enter into a relationship with any kind of guy, except for vampires. I’m over them.

But the interest seems to go both ways. My big ex-boyfriend was white, but my two second longest relationships were with an Iranian and an Indian. When I do online dating, ethnic men seem to be more responsive to me and eager to meet up.

It works in person, too. When I meet friends of friends, or when, good heavens, someone tries to set me up, white guys are not particularly interested in me. When I get crushes on guys who are superficially like me (white guys from middleclass Ontario backgrounds, interested in leftwing politics and the arts) the results have almost always been a disaster. I naively believe they will like me back, but it usually ends with me throwing myself at them, being turned down and us settling on being friends, with varying degrees of awkwardness.

For my own piece of mind, I want to believe the myriad excuses that it has nothing to do with me: “I’m not into dating right now”; “I’m still getting over my ex”; “I’m really messed up about sexuality.”

“Fine, fine,” I say, while thinking, “Okay, get over it.” Then I’ll meet a Pakistani guy, raised by a conservative Muslim family, who came to Canada by himself and has to balance being an ethnic minority within a sexual one (and the other way around), and we have a hot, passionate love affair. Why was that easier?

White boys have issues and, despite being one myself, I don’t have a simple explanation.

Maybe Canadian born and raised gay guys are less comfortable with themselves than our community’s rhetoric encourages us to be. Maybe the brown men I have dated are more courageous, which is why I was able to meet them in the first place. Maybe white guys are more idealistic (or spoiled), holding out for the great love affair with the six packed-guy the movies promised them.

Or maybe white guys are more difficult because they don’t like sex that much.

It doesn’t seem to be only gays. I have a good friend, an attractive, smart, interesting girl who, on top of all that, would make an amazing girlfriend for straight guys (she likes beer and hockey). But the stories she tells me of having to work around all sorts of white boy neuroses in order to hook up makes the mind reel.

Feminism has given women the freedom to own their sexuality, but it doesn’t mean they want to be the ones always chasing.

Popular culture always warned us to be weary of men. Girls had to watch out to not be used and thrown away once a guy’s enormous sexual appetite was filled. (Here is another crossover with gay guys: watching the original British ‘Queer As Folk’ as a teenager, I thought that I too would have an older man scoop me up on my first visit to the village and have his nasty way with me. Never happened.)

Maybe it’s not true. Maybe the old stereotype of Irish guys, that they were more interested in drinking at the pub with their mates than having sex, is true of all white men. Although that’s a slander against Irish blokes, as my experience in Dublin was much different from my cold times at Toronto bars.

I don’t think it’s biological. If white guys liked sex as little as that they’d be in as much danger as extinction as panda bears. Despite what the Tea Party may think, that isn’t the case. Evolutionarily, you’d assume sex shouldn’t be as complicated for humans as it is. I don’t know if I think it’s too much ego or too little, but I think we could all use a little bit of loosening up. Not becoming total slags (unless you want to), but opening oneself up to opportunities and saying ‘yes’ to new experiences.

It sounds like I’m trying to get with a straight guy. I’m really not. I have enough problems with the gay ones.

 

Testing, Testing

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the room was filled with gay guys. I was on Church Street, after all. Men of different ages and ethnicities stood around, studiously ignoring each other. I took in the assembly of Abercrombie and H&M to see if there was anyone I knew, but even if there had been I probably wouldn’t have raced over, arms a-stretched, bellowing, “Hey girl, how are you?!”

For I wasn’t at a gay bar on Saturday night: I was at the Hassle Free clinic to get tested for HIV.

I am a single, gay guy living in Toronto. I go on dates. I try to enjoy my life. While I always practice safe sex and have never been with someone who is HIV positive, I believe that getting tested is what a responsible person does. If you describe yourself as HIV negative, you have to occasionally make sure you are. In the past, my family doctor had just thrown the test in when she’s taken my blood and I hadn’t thought much of it.

But this time felt different. It had been over a year since I was last tested and there had been some men in that time. I knew, rationally, I had no particular reason to worry, but the prospect of the test weighed down on me. For one thing, as I get older, I find that I worry about illness and death a lot more. And not just my own: nowadays I get paranoid every time one of my parents goes to the doctor.

Last year, when I felt a mole on my back, the two month wait for my doctor’s appointment was agonizing. After telling me I had nothing to worry about with the mole, she added, “I do want you to get those two spots on your chest checked out with our skin specialist, though. You always wear sunscreen, right?”

“Yes,” I said, defensively, before thinking, ‘There was that one time, in India…’

(The spots were fine.)

The other problem is, I have too many fictive stories in my head. While it’s good that TV shows, movies and books have dealt with AIDS, when it comes to my own life, instead of embracing the most likely scenario, my mind jumps to dramatic plotlines out of ‘Angels in America’. It’s the equivalent of people who are scared of flying because of movies in which planes burst into flames. The fact that one of the safest places in the world you can be is in an airplane makes no difference to them.

“If you are worried about it, just get tested,” a friend of mine said.

“But I don’t want to wait for a doctor’s appointment,” I whined.

“Then go to the Hassle free clinic. They have a five minute HIV test.” My friend, who is currently in a three-way relationship with two handsome bearded men, is more privy to this kind of information.

“I didn’t even know that existed. Welcome to the future.”

“Yeah, to get that test, they ask you to make an appointment,” he went on. “I think you should, even though I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Despite his admonishments, as the day of my appointment approached, I was nervous. I couldn’t stop picturing, after the test, the doctor pulling me into the little room to talk. Would I faint, like Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’. In an episode of ‘Queer As Folk’, a main character gets tested after having unprotected sex in an orgy but finds out, miraculously, he’s still negative. In the same scene at the hospital, a man who presumably didn’t get the same result is comforted by a friend. The main characters look sympathetically at the two softly crying, before they exit, never to be seen again.

The night before my test, I went out for ice cream in the Annex with my old friend Laura, who is almost finished the tortuous odyssey of becoming a doctor. I thought if anyone, Laura, rational to the extreme, would allay my fears.

“Statistically, the chances are very small that you’d have anything,” she said. “But it’s good you’re getting tested.”

I stopped licking my Butter Pecan.

“That’s it? I thought you’d say I had nothing to worry about.”

“Sorry, Max, you probably don’t. But I’ve been trained to never promise people anything.”

‘I need to get this stupid test over as soon as possible,’ I thought.

I learned later that the reason it was all gay men in the waiting area was that the clinic has male and female hours. After I filled out the requisite forms, I pretended to read my book, but really I was thinking about the people around me. How many of them expected bad news? How many had already received bad news? After having read Randy Shilts’ ‘And The Band Played On’ about the development of the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s, I thought about how lucky we were to have the resources and the knowledge whose absence destroyed a generation.

“Max?”

It was a middle-aged South Asian man in glasses holding my newly-created chart.

“Sorry it is so crowded today,” he said. “We are understaffed.”

“Did somebody call in sick?” I asked, partly joking.

“Yes. Two people. Please have a seat. So, because of that, I will be doing your tests, but as I am not a doctor, I cannot do all of them.”

“Oh,” I said. “Which ones?”

“HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea–those are all fine. I can’t do a genital or anal exam.”

“That’s fine,” I sighed in relief. “I don’t think I need those.”

Then, there was a bunch of questions. It’s weird to describe your sexual history in stark, no-nonsense terms to a stranger. I kept wanting to go into deeper contexts about my ex-boyfriends: “Okay, the thing with that guy was that…” But the man seemed pleased with my answers.

“Given your history and your precautions, I would be very surprised if we found anything today,” he said, preparing the needle.

“So…are you a nurse?”

“No, I am a counselor who is trained to administer tests. Can I have your hand please?”

“I’m not going to look, okay?”

“That’s fine. It’s just a light prick.”

“I know. I’m not scared. It’s just that, when I got tested for mono at the end of high school, I almost fainted. First, the nurse asked, ‘Mono, huh? Been kissing lots of girls?’ Which was so inappropriate! I remember joking about it, saying that if I was being tested for HIV, would she have said, ‘HIV, huh? Been screwing lots of gays?’ (In reality, I had probably been coarser in my phrasing, and used two F-words.) And then, because it was taking longer than I expected, I glanced down at my arm, and saw the blood filling the needle. And my vision went all white, all I saw was light, and I started yelling, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see!’ So I had to lay down for awhile.”

“Okay, done,” he said. “Now I just need to take this sample to the other room and I’ll be right back. One line means you’re negative, two lines, positive.”

“Kind of like a pregnancy test.”

“Yes, but like I said, I doubt you’re positive.”

‘Stop saying that!’ I thought.

Then he left me alone. Here it was, the part I had feared: waiting for the moment of truth. But I was no longer scared. Partly it was the man’s nonchalant attitude and his freedom to say things that doctor’s aren’t allowed to say. But I also think my own rationality had kicked it. I trust science and facts, not gut feelings and phobias. I understood the dangers and had taken the right precautions. As Laura had said the day before, the advantage of having been careful is you don’t have to worry as much. I felt a bit silly for creating drama entirely within my own head.

I have been very fortunate in my life. Many have been less so.

“Good news!” the man announced as he came back in. “Like I thought, one line. Here! See? You’re fine.”

“Good.”

“With your habits, I see no reason for you to get tested any more than once a year, or once every two years.”

“Okay.”

“One last thing. I would like you to fill this cup with a urine sample. Up to this line, but not past it! Leave it at the front desk and we will test for everything else. We will call you if we find anything, but like I say, I don’t think we will.”

“Still best to be safe,” I said, collecting my things to leave.

“Yes. Goodbye.” he said, scribbling on my chart, continuing with his busy day.

Has Blogging Spoiled Writers?

Back before we gave into our computer overlords, when people flirted at bars and used the telephone to invite their friends to parties, no one had personal websites. If you had a problem with something, an opinion you needed to get off your chest, you could write an angry letter or go on Speakers Corner. Those were your only options. To have an outlet for your thoughts and, of equal importance, a captive audience, was a privilege that only professional writers and award-clutching actors enjoyed.

That began to change in 1994 when Justin Hall, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, began sharing increasingly intimate details about his life on his website Justin’s Links from the Underground. At first, only the technologically skilled knew how to create ‘web logs’, but as the number of free blogging services grew, so did the democratization of the ‘Information Super Highway’. We became the Blogging Generation.

We blogged about a lot of things: we blogged about ‘Star Wars’; we blogged about our pets; we blogged about attempting every recipe of Julia Child’s. A lot of what we blogged about was ourselves. It wasn’t that we were terribly self-involved so much as one’s thoughts, dreams and anecdotes are the closest things to grasp. Blogging began a rhythmic chant of the first person pronoun ‘I’.

I was like that when I started blogging. During my university years, on my Live Journal (doesn’t that take you back?) I wrote a lot about my friends and relationships, including some ill-considered things about my ex-boyfriend. Even the name Live Journal encouraged the kind of self-confession that a previous generation had been happy to keep in a locked diary.

How could I not over-share? Years of ‘Sex and the City’ had made me want to be Carrie Bradshaw, tapping away at her laptop by the window, condensing all her and her friends’ romantic entanglements into pithy, one-paragraph-long ‘columns’. (My ‘SATC’ obsession also explains how I dressed back then, a sort of ‘gay boy Carrie who binged at Value Village’.)

I blogged on and off for years, starting new ones for different stages in my life, like being a graduate student at the University of Toronto and moving to Dublin, Ireland. While my early blogs must have had charm, for I had devoted followers not all of who were my friends, looking back I can see that they lacked focus. Bouncing around from politics to TV shows to the bar I had gone to the night before, the only thing that tied them together was my personal voice. And if you weren’t familiar with me, why would you care?

That was one of the first lessons I learned when I started taking journalism courses at Ryerson. Also: the importance of the first sentence; the ‘nut graf’ (the paragraph which sums up your point and could be taken out of context); the trick of twisting or subverting your argument in the conclusion. I’ve tried to apply those lessons to this blog, making every post “about something”.

At the same time, I started at WORN Fashion Journal, going from an intern to an editor in about a year. There, I wrote about glasses and plaid jackets and nail polish, and three feature articles (my third, about drag queens’ wigs, comes out in October). Through the helpful machinations of my editor, I took David Hayes’ Advanced Feature Writing course and learned about structuring, interviewing, transitioning between paragraphs and pitching to magazines.

David attempted to give us some insights into the mysterious depths of ‘What Magazine Editors Are Thinking’, which is something you never have to think about with a personal blog. All you have to know is what you think about something. Editors don’t care about how you feel about it. They need to care about how the topic fits into the publication, what the style will be like, what the subscribers and advertisers will think, will there be good pictures. Personal voice is a plus, but can you, as the writer, have the voice of the publication?

A better symbol, or cautionary tale, for our generation is not Carrie Bradshaw with her columnist salary, but the perpetually underemployed Hannah Horvath on ‘Girls’, an aspiring writer who only seems to write Tweets (but with the added twist that the ‘real’ Hannah, Lena Denham, has already written a TV series and a couple films).

At the end of the course, I felt like Eliza Doolittle at the conclusion of ‘My Fair Lady’, when she’s not quite a lady but can’t go back to being a street urchin flower girl. My sights have been set higher. My dreams are bigger. I have the email addresses of some editors and sometimes they write me back. And while I still haven’t had my break through into the freelance world (my invitation to the palace, if you will), I continue to think of it as not if but when.

I had to learn is what a lot of young bloggers have to learn when they try to transition into professional writing: that the ‘I’ which was useful on WordPress becomes like an anchor holding you back. Blogging is good for instant satisfaction (just press ‘post’ and you’re done). It’s much easier than the painfully time-consuming process of writing a pitch and wooing an editor. But if you want a wider readership, if you want to get published and actually be, y’know, paid for your writing, you have to learn two basic tenets of life: it’s not all about you and things take time.

And, yes, I wrote this on a blog. Pretty ironic. I just couldn’t be bothered to write a pitch.

It’s Time to Play the Music…

After years of mounting expectation, overanalyzing every rumour and leaked tidbit of info on the web, die-hard fans finally got their chance to relive their childhoods. Some waited for hours outside the theatre in costumes or clutching beloved retro toys. The excitement was mixed with fear Would this new movie rekindle the magic of the original 1970’s-1980’s triad of films? Or would it be so disappointing that their love would turn to bitter hatred, forcing them back to the message boards to tear the new annoying characters to shreds.

We all know how it turned out for Star Wars fans in 1999 when the release of ‘The Phantom Menace’ “ruined their childhoods”, making George Lucas, once their idol, more despised than a Sith lord.

Jason Segel, the lovably goofy actor and screenwriter who took on the task of reviving the Muppet franchise, had reason to be nervous. Muppet fans, like their Star Wars equivalents, are paradoxically desperate for new films, yet stubbornly protective of the characters and their fictional world. Which Segel understands, as he’s one of the biggest Muppet fans of all.

The new Muppets movie (simply titled ‘The Muppets’) would not have happened without Segel’s nerdy persistence. After the success of his film ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’, Segel met with Disney, which owns the rights to the Muppets, and expressed interest in bringing Kermit, Miss Piggy and the whole gang back to the big screen.

As Segel tells it, Disney wasn’t overly enthused but left the door open, so, to goad them along, Segel hyped the film in interviews as though it was already in production.  Classic three- minute clips from ‘The Muppet Show’, random before ‘random’ was a thing, were tailor-made for Youtube. Disney decided to give it a shot.

The Muppets have been leaderless since Jim Henson, their creator and the source of their soul, died of an extremely rare bacterial infection in 1990. The Muppets were in three later feature films and several TV specials and appearances, but they lacked the zany spark that had made them household names in the late 1970’s. The characters worked best as underdogs; their Vaudevillian theatre on TV was always falling to pieces, and in the early movies they were often a ragtag group of performers who wanted to make it to Hollywood or Broadway to “make millions of people happy,” as Kermit put it.

But in the 1990’s and 2000’s, the characters were already a band of celebrities, inserted into Dickensian or pirate costumes for ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ and ‘Muppet Treasure Island,’ just like Mickey, Minnie and company. Fans knew the Muppets were drifting, directionless.

By handing over the Muppets to Segel, Disney gave the keys to the kingdom to a fan. What results is a film not just for and about Muppet fans, but one which symbolically recognizes and atones for the Muppets losing their way.

Muppet fandom is introduced early in ‘The Muppets’. We meet Gary (Segel) and his brother Walter, an adorable yellow Muppet with a face more expressive than most of the famous Muppets we’ll see later. (Perhaps this is why Kermit the Frog was destined to be the most famous Muppet. His flexible felt face shows far more emotional range than the more-structured heads of Miss Piggy and Gonzo.)

No explanation is given or needed for how a human could have a Muppet brother, but that doesn’t stop Walter from being bullied by kids and feeling left out. As they grow up, the brothers bond over late-night viewings of ‘The Muppet Show’. Seeing his own kind on TV makes Walter feel a little less out of place.

Gary and Walter live in a place called Smallville USA which, judging from the candy-coloured costumes and Norman Rockwell street scenes, appears to exist in the mythologized 1950’s. The classic Muppet movies borrowed nostalgic troupes from Old Hollywood (Miss Piggy tap dancing in an Art Deco restaurant worthy of Fred and Ginger in ‘The Great Muppet Caper’ comes to mind) but Smallville’s naiveté seems too deliberate and ironic to be appealing.

No matter. Walter, Gary and his fiancé Mary (Amy Adams) quickly catch the Greyhound to Los Angeles. Walter wants to see the “Muppet studios”, the supposed location of the original Muppet theatre. They find it derelict and vacant, the psychedelic-painted bus from ‘The Muppet Movie’ rusting on the lot. The empty lot becomes a metaphor for the characters and fans alike. The viewer is left to wonder if we abandoned the Muppets, or they abandoned us.

Walter sneaks into Kermit’s old office, which is treated with the awesome reverence of King Tut’s tomb. On the wall hang photographs of the frog with various celebrities, a prominent spot given to one of Kermit with a smiling Jim Henson. The implication is clear: without this soft-voiced, bearded man, the Muppets have been as forgotten as this cobwebbed old room.

While in the office, Walter overhears the plan of evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who is notified by Statler and Waldorf that in a week’s time he can buy the theatre and tear it down to pump for oil. (Maybe Cooper’s character should have been a Wall Street banker, but that might have been a bit too political for Disney.)

The plot lays itself out as simply as any Mickey and Judy ‘backyard musical’. The whole gang reunites for one more show to save the theatre. Located in a Norma Desmond-type mansion, the frog leader is reluctant to get involved.

“I guess everybody kind of forgot about us,” Kermit says, and if that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, his following song to paintings of Fozzie, The Swedish Chef and the Electric Mayhem Band definitely will.

It’s clear Segel is pandering to Muppet fans, but so what? Unlike fans of sulky teenage vampires and dreadlocked pirates, we never get pandered to.

Kermit comes on board, of course, and gets the old gang together, which leads to the movie’s funniest strings of jokes. The humour is obviously indebted to ‘The Simpsons’ and even ‘Family Guy’, with the sort of meta-movie jokes that peppered the original films. “May I suggest,” asks Kermit’s robot assistant, named Eighties Robot, “that to cut down on time, we resort to using a montage?”

Once reunited, our gang of furries faces another challenge. “I’m going to level with you,” Rashida Jones, as a TV producer tells them. “You guys aren’t famous anymore.” A “hard cynical time” needs “hard cynical entertainment,” she says, and shows a clip of the #1 show at the moment, ‘Hit My Teacher’. The Muppets are underdogs again, Kermit forced to give inspirational speeches about believing in oneself and “making people happy”.

Here an interesting split happens. While Walter, Gary and Mary are from idyllic Smallville and still sincerely love the Muppets, LA is apparently in the modern world, where people compulsively text message, Selena Gomez is a star and “hard, cynical entertainment” beats sentimentality to a pulp. Perhaps the Jason Segel sections of the movie would be more relatable if, rather than living in a camp ‘Leave it to Beaver’ fantasy, he and Walter resided in the real world and needed the fuzzy comfort of the Muppets to cheer them up.

As they repair and clean up the Muppet Theatre (“You guys are the Muppets,” Gary says, “You do stuff like this to music!”) we get reacquainted with a bunch of characters not seen since the end of the Muppet Show. Muppet nerds like myself will be pleased to spot crooners Wayne and Wanda, the Beautiful Day Monster and the gigantic blue Thog. You can picture Segel stamping his foot and telling  the Henson company, “No, no, no! I don’t want any new ones! I want all the old, weird monsters that used to be on the show!”

Turns out that the “standard Rich and Famous contract” Kermit signed in The Muppet Movie (for Orson Welles no less) releases ownership not just of the Muppet Theatre, but of the Muppet name itself, which Tex Richman intends to sell to the Muppet tribute band ‘The Moopets’. How hilarious that, in a film produced by Disney, the greedy villain wants to acquire the Muppet name and use it for his own purposes.

Miss Piggy, who at first holds out from the reunion (she’s a big time fashion editor in Paris), eventually returns, complete with Zac Posen outfits and a different hairstyle for every scene. She and Kermit, all their differences resolved, reunite on stage for the finale.

The songs, written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret Mackenzie, are serviceable, but how can they compete with ‘Moving Right Along’, ‘Together Again’ and ‘The Rainbow Connection’.

The highlight of the new show is Camilla the Chicken singing, or rather clucking, Cee-Lo’s ‘Fuck You’ in showgirls’ feathered headdresses. Catchy, unaccountably funny and with the right level of “WTF?!” randomness, it’s just the kind of number that made the original Muppet Show popular.

For a movie tasked with paying tribute to the original TV series and movies, acknowledging the gap in years and popularity, and reviving the brand with spunky humour and a fresh take, it’s impressive the film doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Rather, it’s as light as a marionette. The audience I was part of was thrilled.

Having captured the viewers and paid tribute to the Muppet fans and creators alike, Segel could move in new directions with a sequel. ‘The Muppets’ could be the start of a new era for Kermit and company. But the film also works as a coda, a fitting farewell to cherished characters who, like Henson, have a “gentle soul and a wicked sense of humour.”

Private Parts

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, although recent years have provided a number of exceptions. Figures as varied as Al Gore (former V.P. and failed presidential candidate, now international environmentalist icon), Steve Jobs (Apple founder, then Apple exile, then Apple savior) and Rosie O’Donnell (interrupting her sporadic career as a bubbly daytime TV host with bouts of angry activism) all demonstrate why the obsessives who update Wikipedia biographies get so little sleep.

And while an actor would love to get a regular part on a beloved, long-running TV series, it is a mixed blessing: with fame and financial security comes the straightjacket of being trapped in a specific character in the public’s mind. While Kramer, Niles and Phoebe may now exist only in reruns, they cast long shadows on the careers of Michael Richards, David Hyde Peirce and Lisa Kudrow.

It’s probably why Sarah Jessica Parker, who had an interesting if not A-list movie career as a young character actress prior to ‘Sex and the City’, has had a difficult time since taking off her Carrie Bradshaw shoes. In her latest film ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ she played a financial advisor who was also a mother, two positions very difficult to imagine Sarah Jessica/Carrie filling.

But, as the giant ‘Sex and the City’ nerd that I am, I only want the best for those ladies. So when I first spotted the fabulously art deco posters for a revival of Noël Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ starring Kim Cattrall (alongside ‘Due South’s Paul Gross), I felt it my duty to attend.

I should admit, though, that, unlike a lot of gay boys out there, Cattrall’s Samantha was never my favourite. I related to Carrie’s romantic yearning and idealism about how life should be (as well as her occasional incoherent incompetence) and cheered on Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda as she provided the show’s feminist voice and demonstrated that beneath toughness can be insecurity. But the cartooniness of Samantha (her porno situations, her over-acted orgasms, the garishly bright colours of her outfits) seemed to personify the worst things people thought about the show.

But my Mother (yes, my Mom and I stay up late watching old ‘Sex and the City’ episodes together), noted an occasional softness in Cattrall’s performance. As the oldest character she suggested a wisdom and far-sightedness the other ladies’ in-the-moment reactions lacked.

When I bought tickets to ‘Private Lives’ for the two of us online, my Mom made me paranoid that Cattrall might sit out some performances. While I understand that every actor needs an understudy and that ‘the show must go on’, as the date of the performance drew nearer, I feared that little piece of paper stuck in the program which would inform us that “Sitting in for Ms. Cattrall…”

There’s the paradox of it: while I support Kim Cattrall moving on with her career and playing different parts, I, like many people at the theatre, bought tickets because I was familiar with her from TV. She could win the Nobel Peace Prize and in the first paragraph of the news story would be the sentence, “best known for her role as Samantha Jones on ‘Sex and the City’…”

The rain was pouring down as people crowded under the illuminated marquee of the Royal Alexander theatre. As we stood in the lobby, Mom in a scarf and me in a bow tie (my nod to the fashions of the 1930’s), we flipped though our programs.

“Oh no,” Mom said, discovering a little slip of white paper.

“At this performance,” it read, “due to the indisposition of Paul Gross the role of Elyot will be performed by Gareth Clarke.”

I audibly sighed. “Thank goodness it was just him,” I said.

“I’m disappointed,” my Mom said. “I wanted to see Paul Gross.”

The play itself is a painfully witty and sophisticated concoction, at once as classic and of its time as a 1930’s martini glass. It begins on a luxurious hotel terrace in Deauville, France. Two couples are celebrating their honeymoons next door to each other. The audience learns that the wife of one pair, Amanda (Cattrall), and the husband of the other, Elyot (not Paul Gross), were not only both married before, but married to each other. When they discover one another what follows is one of the funniest exchanges of awkwardness and mounting anger ever put on the stage, and it reminds one how much sitcoms owe to their drawing room comedy forebears.

Most of the past revivals of ‘Private Lives’ have stuck to the dry, deadpan delivery of Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward in the original production. (Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery even based their performances for the 1931 film version on a recording of that show.)

Cattrall delivers her lines both broader and more realistically, speeding up when she’s upset and occasionally dropping into a demonic shriek when muttering something nasty. Her voice, which sometimes sounded stagey on ‘Sex and the City’, fits nicely with a British accent. (Cattrall was born in England, but grew up in British Columbia.)

It must be noted that Cattrall, who’s playing a part she’s twenty years older than, looks beautiful and incredibly youthful on stage. Although she spends much of the play in dressing gowns, when she steps out in a bias-cut gold evening column, you could almost hear the audience gasp.

And since we’ve admitted and accepted that Kim Cattrall will never fully escape Samantha Jones, what is it like to hear Coward’s sophisticated lines (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”) coming from the mouth which once declared, “My boyfriend has the funkiest-tasting spunk”?

With Cattrall in the role, we can better see Elyot and Amanda for their modern hedonism, contrasting with the boring traditionalism of their new spouses. Elyot has a speech defending treating life “flippantly”, which could almost be a founding manifesto of Camp, and Amanda keeps up with her desires to be “wild”. Dare I even suggest that there are some proto-Samantha lines, such as when Elyot claims it’s natural for women to have less affairs and Amanda shoots back, “It’s useful for men for women to have less affairs!”

As they took their bows, Cattrall grabbed Clarke’s hand and allowed the cast and audience to give him a special round of applause, to which he humbly nodded. As a survivor of stage and screen, she knows that, as difficult as it is to be in the shadow of a TV character, for an understudy to emerge from the shadow of the absent star is even harder.

Jessica Rabbit

I love this photo of a Barnum and Bailey circus performer in 1946. Isn’t she pretty? And her fur is as sweet as cotton candy. It reminds me of a photoshoot you’ll see in the upcoming WORN Fashion Journal No. 13. There’s more pics like these, and many others of equal interest, on the How To Be Retronaut blog. I have been wasting a lot of time there.