Archive for the ‘Anti-Heroines’ Category

Ava Gardner adopts the confident poise of a non conformist

A lo-fi internet connection coupled with inventory lapses in both Laser and HMV has left me with a hard-nosed jones to watch Mogambo, the 1953 flick starring Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Clark Gable.  After reading Ava Gardner’s memoir Ava: My Story, where she highlights the role in terms of one she wore as a second skin, as I turned the page I needed to see it like yesterday.  (Plus the book is worth reading because it’s filled with vivid detail, including Gardner’s descriptions of the arguments if not battles she carried on with third husband Frank Sinatra, as well as candid assessments of the first two marriages to Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw. Gardner’s memoir is so juicy it should come with a napkin). What most peeks my interest about Gardner’s recollection of Mogambo is that the storyline takes a radical departure from the Hollywood playbook wherein so-called ‘Bad Girls’ such as her character Eloise Kelly seldom land the man and have the happy ending.  Eloise, a tippling fast-talker, lands her guy over the prim Linda Nordley, played by Grace Kelly. (Have to admit that I was never a fan of Grace Kelly.  If she were on the Hollywood scene today, she’d be the type to marry Tom Cruise.  She’s creepy and bloodless onscreen).

Traditionally, celluloid narrative arcs set for the ‘Bad Girl’ stock figure dictate she never gets the guy in the fade out.  Trangressive women onscreen have existed to receive punishment, comeuppance, even death in order to underscore the normative morality culture proscribes, as the stuff of which conservative gender roles play a significant part.  Whether uppity, slutty, boozy or back-talkers, all such offending women have been served a lesson on film.  Cinema screens have produced a sizeable catalogue of Bad Girls in need of correction, from Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora’s Box (1929); Bette Davis as Julie in Jezebel (1938); Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen in The Women (1939); Elizabeth Taylor’s Oscar winning turn Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1959) (a film which she—to her credit—referred to as a ‘piece of shit’); Ava Gardner later in Night of the Iguana; up to the plot resolution of Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends, audiences have become primed for the Bad Girl to be issued a smackdown before the final scene.

There are two qualifiers which offer an alternative ending for Bad Girls on film: mistaken identity or reform, resulting in vindication or transformation for the lady in question. Rita Hayworth as titular Gilda set the gold standard for the conception of Emma Stone’s character Olive in Easy A,or other films featuring the message about the danger of hasty judgements of a lady’s character, but only when she hasn’t actually earned the defamatory slut shaming.  Then there’s the case of reformed Bad Girls,those ladies ranging from Eliza Doolittle to Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman who share the same reformation-as-fairy tale ending, which reminds the Bad Girls that they just have to become whatever a man wants in order for their happy ending to be realised.  Cue the eyeroll, right?

The elusive fourth option, to stay a Bad Girl and still get the man seems the point of Mogambo.  Maybe we need to gather to screen this rare gem?

So what about an Anti Room Film Club?

Anyone interested in meeting up to screen and discuss classic films?

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A week ago it was my grandmother’s birthday.

Nanna lives all by herself in a little council flat in central London, a flat with a tiny paved square in front which is filled with carefully tended pot plants, like a leafy bubble in a grey, concrete world. I phoned her, as you do, and my timing was spot on, because she’d just put her birthday lunch in the oven – a pork chop with stuffing, roast potatoes and veg followed by her homemade banana custard, which she’s dished up since I can remember – and so I caught her sitting down, which must have been a first. Perhaps she’s slowing down, but then I guess that’s allowed at 93.

My grandmother, Florence Heathcote, during her military days.

Everyone marvelled at Queen Elizabeth, but she’s a mere sprightly, well-cared-for 85.

Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman, my grandmother, born Florence Alice Rose in 1918, now Florence Heathcote. She looks like all grandmothers should in her pastel polo shirts, with a halo of soft curls – washed and set at the local salon on Thursdays – and spectacles permanently on her nose. But her eyesight isn’t failing at all. No, she already had glasses in the picture I have of her  during World War Two. In it she’s wearing a tie, a uniform and a military-style peaked cap set at a jaunty angle – “ooh, that was very naughty of me,” she chuckled when she gave me the photo – but then this portrait was an official identity photo, taken when she was serving in the Royal Air Force in Bombay in 1943.

Her ration card shows that she bought a surprising number of cigarettes. I’ve never known her to smoke but maybe she did back then, or maybe she had a thriving micro-business selling on fags to the troops. I like to imagine she had a naughty side like that, something to match her non-regulation hat angle. Oh, and she bought a lipstick on her ration card too. Good woman.

She remained in active service until 1951, rising to the rank of Sergeant, then went back to Britain and worked, quietly, stoically, for the telephone company until she retired. She married my granddad several years after his first wife – my mother’s mother – died too early, and never had children of her own. She happily took on all of us though, crocheting us dresses, hoarding Dolly Mixtures for my mum, and arguing with my dad about politics. We went to visit her once and couldn’t get up her street because some mad IRA chap was waving weapons about. We went around the back way and had to crawl under the windows in the stairwell so he wouldn’t see us.
Well, that’s when she wasn’t visiting us in South Africa bearing gifts of Smarties (in tubes!) and ever-more pastel crocheted jerkins, before patiently potty-training my sister, or cheering on Manchester City or gardening or making lemon curd or shouting at the cricket on telly or striding about the lakes and parks of the world, reminding children not to talk with their mouths full. She threatened to tie my legs to the chair for swinging them at the table.

One of Nanna's newspaper cuttings. (Yes, that's her in the background, but don't tell.)

I went to see her last year, and she met me at the door holding a walking stick, but her grip on it was so light she could have been Liza Minnelli interrupted during a (gentle) tap-dance to New York, New York. Her legs “aren’t what they used to be” she said, although when I left she walked me all the way to the canal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left her stick at home.

I turned to shout goodbye from the banks and she stood on the bridge, firm and unswerving, waving until we rounded the bend, and I felt tearful, knowing she was 92 and wondering if I’d see her again.

But still, now 93, she continues to walk everywhere, taking her wheelie shopping bag for her groceries and wool. The wool is very important, because she keeps her fingers nimble knitting hats for premature babies. She makes baby blankets for charity too. Sometimes stillborns get buried in her warm hats, she told me, clearly a bittersweet point of pride to a lady who has lived for so long.

The day previous to her birthday she made herself a pile of her favourite lemon biscuits as a treat, and her beloved Manchester City winning the FA Cup was her own personal birthday present. Not that she watched the match though. “I couldn’t,” she said, “The stress would have killed me.”

She’s of another era entirely, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but perhaps that was my fault, my unyielding temper, because she’s still mentally flexible. When I called she was delighted to hear from me and chatted brightly about everything, from her much-loved new HD satellite telly (she’s a demon with technology) to her great-nephew, who’s “unf… gay”. “Oh dear, I nearly said he’s unfortunately gay, but we don’t say things like that anymore,” said Nanna. “He lives in Manchester with his partner, and they’re happy, which is all that matters.”

Yes, she’s still completely mentally flexible, able to oust her prejudices and bend to changing times, even graciously accepting that her favourite great-niece has moved in with a chap. “Her father was a bit upset,” she said, “But I told him that people do things differently nowadays, and it’s their world.”

There won’t be a big obituary in all the papers or a state funeral when my grandmother eventually dies – possibly years after me at the rate she’s going –  and nothing will be said of her in the history books, even though she’s surely quite remarkable in this age of gimme and impatience and fame. So, while she still lives, I feel the need to shout that she’s an inspiration and a marvel, both her and the others that remain of her generation, the formidable, useful, capable, polite, principled, quietly noble generation, the generation that did what had to be done, that Just Got On With It, the generation that “looked after number one” very last of all.

We should treasure them now, and learn from them while we still can.

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A few weeks ago I met a delegation of Swedish journalists on a visit to Dublin. Fresh from a visit to the Irish Times offices, they remarked on the fact that there seemed to be very few women in the newsroom. They pointed out that in Sweden, men and women are so evenly distributed across the workplace that equality is something that’s hardly even discussed any more. It’s taken for granted. Inequality is a historical curiosity, or something to be noticed in other countries.

I’d been thinking about this, off and on, when I first heard that Easter Sunday would see the publication of a biography of Rachel Beer. Beer (born in 1858) was the first woman editor of a national newspaper in Britain; actually, she edited two papers at the same time – both The Sunday Times and The Observer.

As a young woman, Beer deliberately delayed marrying, because she didn’t want to land up with someone who was interested only in her fortune (her family, the Sassoons, had amassed quite a pile through the opium and cotton trades) or in squashing her independence. She ended up marrying (for love) financier Frederick Beer, who inherited the Observer from his father. (Why has no-one ever written a will leaving me even, say, a local freesheet?) He’d converted from Judaism to Christianity, which caused Rachel’s mother, and other members of her staunchly Jewish family, to refuse to see her.

At any rate, Frederick installed his wife as editor of the Observer in 1891. It wasn’t just a rich woman’s hobby – there was no fooling about on the fringes of her husband’s work for Rachel Beer – but a real job. She wrote news copy and editorials, and sniffed out stories even though as a woman she was unable to gain access to the spaces where news stories developed: the House of Commons and the exclusive city clubs where gossipy politicians, tycoons and male editors sculled madeira and snorted snuff. One of her great scoops was persuading Count Esterhazy to admit to the forgery of the letters which had led to Captain Dreyfus’s conviction and life imprisonment for treason – ultimately Dreyfus was released and Esterhazy was court martialled.

In 1894 she bought the Sunday Times and edited it simultaneously with the Observer, but by 1896, Frederick had become seriously ill with tuberculosis, and by 1903 he was dead. His death devastated Rachel, and her family reported her behaviour as being increasingly erratic. They had her sectioned (always so convenient), the newspapers were sold, and she lived in care for the rest of her life.

No woman was to edit a Fleet Street newspaper for eighty years after Rachel Beer. It’s about time we took our hats off to her. This biography, First Lady of Fleet Street The Life, Fortune and Tragedy of Rachel Beer by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, was published on 24th April.

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Most tips about dating targeted at single women amount to a Sisyphean course of self-improvement, whether the focus is on their appearance as complicit with the beauty mandate or with interpersonal skills such as listening and hobby development, all are designed to make women a better match and ring ready, which culture has emphasised since they were knee-highs.   Instead of regarding every date as a potential Prince Charming, it might be more useful to utilise the Rochester Rule as a primary criterion for finding a good man.  Put simply, Charlotte Brontë’s novel unintentionally illustrates how much one can learn about a man from the way he treated women in past relationships, only her titular Jane Eyre was too much of an inexperienced sap to give the evidence full consideration.  When you have a man’s track record to consult, do so with the knowledge that he’s not going to be an entirely different man with you.  You can anticipate who he was with other women will remain consistent in the current relationship.  In the case of Brontë’s Edward Rochester, a man who locked his wife up in the attic for a decade, just to keep control of her dowry, Jane would have to wonder what he’d do once she became inconvenient, put on some weight or asked too much of him.  Marry him?  Reader, she should have busted ass for the nearest exit.

Edward Rochester stands as a familiar romantic figure in popular culture.  He’s usually attractive but in an unconventional fashion.   A Rochester presents himself as a ‘deep’ or ‘tortured’ soul, a misunderstood genius, a man prone to emotional outbursts, passionate exclamations and who makes wild demands on a lady.  After the 19th century original, there were several other men who fit the Rochester template, a leading man who should give women pause, including Charles Boyer in the classic Gaslight, Orson Welles, Ted Hughes, probably Richard Burton, Ike Turner, Charles Bukowski and Jack Nicholson.  The Rochester type gets off on treating women like crap, by building himself up through reminding women how little they matter in the end.  With outsized ego and a dissembling manner, Mr. Rochester manipulates women while remaining oblivious to the distress he causes.

Scarlett Johansson should take note of the Rochester Rule now that she’s moved in with Sean Penn.  Any dude who imagines a divine intervention in terms of licence to blow rails and buy women, where god commands:  ‘you’ve tortured yourself enough.  Two hookers and the eight ball are inside’ (starts 9:16 mark) probably isn’t going to cozy up to monogamy, especially when he likens it to self-imposed water boarding.  Penn rates close to Charlie Sheen’s level of wacked out entitlement, public rages, a total disregard for a woman’s well-being, with only a slight differential of talent in his favour.  Ms. Johansson, go ahead and have your fling, but do it without the mistaken belief that you can heal or redeem him.  Robin Wright tried that route and looks positively shell-shocked as a result.  Vagina ain’t the Red Cross, ladies.  Let the Rochester type save his own damn self.

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Self-portrait with Monkeys (1943) - Frida Kahlo

Who needs or wants to know about the inner workings of other people’s relationships? About the minor detail of their lives? We may not need to know but we certainly want to know about some couples. Often the stormier the pairing, the more drawn we are to the drama. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, for example; or Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Iconic Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are a good example of a couple that excite curiosity. And because of their meticulous recording of their lives through art, as well as some artful myth spinning, we know a lot about a lot of their life together. They married each other twice. He – and then she – was serially unfaithful. Between them they notched up as lovers famous communists and actors, painters and photographers, including Leon Trotsky and Paulette Goddard. Rivera even had an affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina.

A joint exhibition of Kahlo’s and Rivera’s work was launched on Tuesday night at IMMA in Dublin. It is comprised of masterpieces from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman. At the opening we were treated to Mexican beer and margaritas and even a sparky mariachi band, who had their Irish-based compatriots singing along with gusto. The great hall was thronged with people, excited about this particular exhibition making its way to Ireland. It is a splash of carnival in a dull, grey country and we surely need that.

Our new Arts Minister, Jimmy Deenihan, gave his first major public speech since his appointment and he mentioned several projects with enthusiasm: a new Centre for Literary Excellence in Dublin; he also plans to set up an Arts TV Channel and he is going to prioritise arts education in primary schools. All good news.

Frida Kahlo lived her life in pain and her colour-rich paintings are an autobiography of her love-hate relationship with her physical self, her love for and nurturing of Diego, and her missed chances at motherhood. Rivera’s work is more monumental and political – they were both Communists – and his palette is often more muted than his wife’s.

Kahlo’s self-portraits – and there are many – are compelling: her gaze is head-on and she is often dressed in the vivid Tejuana style of dress she adopted, with elaborate neckpieces and braided hair. My favourite of these is Self-portrait with Necklace, a quiet, earlier piece, though the exhibition includes more well known works such as Self-portrait with Monkeys. Rivera’s stunning Calla Lily Vendors is also on show; he was a painter of the people and he delighted in ordinary scenes of workers going about their business.

The exhibition contains – as well as paintings – drawings, photographs of the artists, diary pages with sketches, collages and lithographs. It is a rich collection of artworks and there is no doubt that thousands of people will flock to it over the next few months, and so they should. It is well worth the trip to see such iconic work ‘in the flesh’.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Masterpieces of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection runs until the 26th June at IMMA. Admission €5, concessions €3.

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In Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana an undercover agent, Beatrice, is sent from London to assist Wormold.  On her first night in Cuba she goes out to the most popular nightclub in town and douses a prominent policeman in soda water.  When our (anti)hero chastises her for making herself so conspicuous, she replies with a wonderfully insightful piece of human observation: “Nobody will ask questions any more about who I am. They have the answer.”

Just as Beatrice became “the woman who siphoned the policeman”, Beatrix Potter is the author of the Peter Rabbit books, and Florence Nightingale is the “Lady with the Lamp”. Right?

However, there is more to these two famous women than is commonly known: both of them were talented scientists.

Beatrix Potter didn’t only draw rabbits in blue jackets, she also made careful drawings of her observations down the microscope – at the time the only way to record microscopic images. Through careful observation and experimentation she was one of the first to discover that lichens – those flaky, crusty things you see growing on tree bark and rocks – are not one organism, but two organisms, a fungus and an alga, living in a close, symbiotic relationship.

Unfortunately, she was seriously discouraged in her career by the scientific establishment. As a woman she was not permitted to present her own work to the Linnean Society and had to send her uncle in her stead (the Linnean Society eventually apologised in 1997 for how they had treated her). Beatrix put away her microscope, and focussed instead on her children’s stories.

Florence Nightingale’s story is different in that she was recognised during her lifetime; it seems it is only in retrospect that we have simplified her biography to “Lady with the Lamp”.

The woman who invented nursing did much more than dab an occasional brow and console the dying.  She revolutionised hospital care and crucially demonstrated the importance of hygiene and sanitary practices in patient outcomes. This was at a time when reputation and standing were the most convincing attributes someone could possess, neither of which Ms Nightingale had in abundance.

How could this unconventional person, who happened to also be a woman, persuade the medical establishment to alter their practices?

Florence Nightingale harnessed the undeniable truth and clarity of carefully collected and presented statistics to demonstrate the clear benefits of proper sanitation. It sounds obvious to us today, trained as we are from childhood, that washing your hands, keeping wounds clean, and household sanitation are important for good health, but at the time it was not accepted that there were microscopic things on your hands and on other surfaces that could make you sick.

Florence Nightingale’s work collecting, analysing and presenting statistics was brilliant, and succeeded in convincing the skeptical medical establishment of the importance of santitation.  In recognition she was made the first ever female member of the Royal Statistical Society, and we continue to benefit from her careful work today.

I was delighted to learn all this, only quite recently, and to discover that these women, whom I thought I knew so well, were far more inspirational than I had realised.  Both of them unconventional, intelligent, and ahead of their time.

Occasionally it’s worth remembering to look beyond the simple biography.

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    Lady Gaga is a Madonna fan. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has a) heard her new, predictably controversial single, a catchy homage to Madge by way of a Vogue/ExpressYourself mash up or b) looked at her, at any point since her explosion onto the music scene.

    Don't go for second-best, baby...

    To be fair, Gaga isn’t the only young pop starlet to wear her Madonna inspiration on her sleeve; the grand dame of pop music, Madonna’s influence spreads far and wide. It is almost impossible to avoid comparisons with her if you are female, vaguely edgy and playing the pop music game. This can’t be good for the self-esteem of those concerned because to be brutally frank, there is but one Madonna and she is force of nature.

    I was too little to appreciate Madonna’s ‘old school’ hits the first time around. My poor mother refused point blank to let me put the Immaculate Collection on my Santa list. I do believe were her exact words on the matter were, ‘why would you want to listen to that wan?’ She may or may not have blessed herself for good measure.

    It wasn’t until university that I got my proper introduction to Madonna. Oh sure, I knew the songs – who didn’t – but beyond that, I never gave Madonna a second thought and certainly not in terms of feminism, until she popped up on a course I was taking at university about subverting popular culture.

    At first, I was dubious. To me, Madonna was as mainstream as Adidas tracksuits and cups of tea. She was just another bubblegum pop star who made millions and liked to take her clothes off. So what? But as our lecturer encouraged us to scratch the shiny often very sexy veneer of Madonna’s music, something began to emerge, something that made me spend what little money I had on the Immaculate Collection (CDs were not cheap at the time and illegal downloading was the stuff of fantasy) which I listened to on repeat for a month. In short, I fell in love with Madonna. Here are 3 reasons why:

    Sick of hearing songs about female ’empowerment’ that involve buying things, crying about lost loves and using your booty to get his attention? Then you need Express Yourself, the message of which is simply: value yourself as a human being. Expect your partner to do the same. If he can’t, you’ll be better off alone. (Don’t expect this one to feature on a rom-com sound track any time soon)

    Who says a pop song can’t be serious? Case in point: Papa Don’t Preach. Plenty of pop songs are about sex; very few are about the realities of sex gone wrong and even fewer again are about a young woman facing up to a difficult situation in a world that just does not want to know. The lyrics are as relevant now as they ever were which sadly says a lot about how far we haven’t come.

    On occasion, you might like a bit of sexy music but not obviously sexy music where the singer is shrieking about LOVING SEX, especially with WHIPS, CHAINS, TENNIS BALLS or whatever you might have lying around the house (Rihanna, I’m looking at you). Justify My Love – a song so sexually charged it will have you aching and blushing at the same time, without a tennis ball or whip in sight.

    In terms of subverting popular culture, you could type about Madonna all day long from Sex to the Blonde Ambition Tour (Marilyn but with muscles) and her pop star status aged fifty-something. Likewise, the many gems on the Immaculate Collection are worthy of repeated listening and consideration (sorry Mum!). She has released many albums since, whose merit or lack there of is certainly up for debate.

    The final Madonna moment I’ll leave you with is from the album Music, released in 2000, 10 years after the Immaculate Collection. Gaga et al would do well to remember that while performance art can be fierce fancy and wild, often what is most powerful and sometimes most shocking is using a deceptively simple pop song to hold a mirror up to our grubby world and telling it like it is. Just ask Madonna.

    Madonna/ What It Feels Like for A Girl

    What’s your favourite Madonna moment?

    Mary McGill likes to talk. Thankfully, she gets to do that most nights, hosting i102104’s talk show. She also likes to write, read, travel, listen to music, speak French (badly), laugh a lot and look on the bright side of things – most of the time.  She believes tea is the balm of life and if you make her a nice, strong cup, she’ll love you forever. You can tweet Mary here @missmarymcgill

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