Global warming autumns are now so common that I no longer find it odd to be wearing a tank top and shorts on a September afternoon (whether it is appropriate for a 29-year-old to don such an outfit is another question entirely). Apparently, television and film are mirroring this climate trend because we are still mired in the late-summer pop cultural doldrums despite having already celebrated Labor Day. Now is, therefore, the perfect time to delve into those books, films, and lesser known television shows that can sustain us until Mad Men returns and the Oscar season officially begins.
Months must pass before we learn if Don Draper has returned to his philandering ways. In the meantime, we can geek out on tales of mid-century work culture (because who doesn’t want to do that) with this memoir of a 1960s Ogilvy & Mather copywriter who rose to become creative director when most women still couldn’t wear pants to work. The first half of this slim volume fulfills the promise of the cover’s sexy silhouette. We hear lurid tales of office boat orgies and sex contests, in which men and women vied to be crowned the most fuckable employee. Sounds delightful. We learn that women were fired if they married a fellow employee under a policy termed “nepotism” (which obviously didn’t apply to the sons of CEOs) and pregnant women not only wouldn’t have a job after leaving the hospital but were also expected to quit at the first hint of a baby bump for fear of making (male) clients uncomfortable. Pregnancy was apparently as scary as menstruation or Russia. During her fertile working years, Mass couldn’t offend this old boy’s network for fear of being labeled a scold, but she unfortunately hasn’t lost this antiquated mindset: she doesn’t regret opposing the Equal Rights Amendment because she still believes women need to “earn” their rights. Moreover, even as she recounts despicable acts of sexual harassment and discrimination, she defends these piggish men as though historical context can justify all behavior. While Mass may not be the most sympathetic figure, she does offer a detailed glimpse into a fascinating era while embodying the duality of figures like Peggy and Joan. She’s an intelligent, ambitious woman who can never fully escape the mental shackles of male corporate culture.
After I binge watched the first season of Downton Abbey, Netflix kindly recommended that I spend another four hours watching North and South, a BBC miniseries based on the 1855 Elizabeth Gaskell novel. While it’s set in Victorian England and includes no sex with Turkish gentlemen, it’s still reminiscent of Downton Abbey in that it is centered on class relations and is also surprisingly sensual despite the high necklines—also, Mr. Bates is in it. Initially, I assumed I would be watching hours of “dark satanic mills” and Dickensian debtors’ prisons—and there is a bit of this—but Gaskell’s universe is not a simple Manichean world of good workers and evil bosses. While the story’s ultimate conclusion may be a bit simplistic (and the evils of colonization and other forces underlying British capitalism remain hidden), Gaskell still presents a progressive worldview, arguing for greater workers’ rights and the ethical responsibilities of owners. Additionally, she creates a smart, bold, and attractive young heroine, Margaret Hale, who has more in common with Elizabeth Bennet than Estella Havisham. Mr. Thornton—the surprising romantic hero—is a mill owner who first enters the mini-series while accosting a smoking worker; he, therefore, doesn’t seem like the type of man you would normally root for unless you REALLY like Ayn Rand novels (and are currently wearing a Paul Ryan button). However, Mr. Thornton’s complex relationships with Margaret, his mother, and the mill workers reveal contradictory but often good intentions (e.g., he accosted the worker because the man’s cigarette could have started a fire and killed everyone). North and South seriously considers the inequity of early industrialism while also recognizing the cultural advancements created through the growth of capital. It’s a more complex cast of characters and sophisticated worldview than anything one will find in Downton Abbey—and Mr. Bates is much less annoying when wearing a cap.
The summer of 2012 was the summer of Girls. Okay, maybe only if you live on the East Coast (or perhaps only if you live in Brooklyn). Neverthless, from Hannah’s uncertain declaration that she was “a voice of a generation” to the final image of her eating cake on an empty Coney Island beach, viewers discovered a new pop cultural landscape, in which women have imperfect bodies, serious entitlement issues, and intense yet thorny female bonds. I should now recommend the novel How Should a Person Be, but this recently published book deserves its own post, so I’m instead encouraging all Girls fans—casual or otherwise—to stream Lena Dunham’s earlier film, Tiny Furniture. The predominant Girls themes—millennial entitlement, awkward sex, and complex female relationships—lift this film above the standard indie fare, but the real reason to spend another ninety-eight minutes with Dunham is the film’s depiction of a suffocatingly close, emotionally violent, and profoundly tender mother-daughter dynamic. Aura, played by Dunham, returns from college to the Soho loft of her mother—a divorced and very successful if slightly pretentious photographer. In a perfect snapshot of the millennial inability to face post-college life, Aura literally throws a temper tantrum when scolded by her mother, shoving a stack of books off a table while whining incoherently. Remember, she’s 21. But her mother isn’t blameless; she wants Aura to become an adult, yet she refuses to treat her like one or push her out of this liberal, artsy, well-lit nest. Even though she supports her daughter’s ambitions, she cannot help but be suspect of work created by an artist so reminiscent of her younger self. Aura ends the film cuddling in bed with her mother and teenage sister. Despite the hostility dripping from this estrogen-laced family unit, they all require the intense physical and emotional contact that can only exist in such a uterine space. However, this childlike utopia can only exist at night; Aura needs to crawl out of the maternal bed and find your own room—just like her mother did.
No young adult novel has yet achieved the perfect tone, pacing, and voice found in the first Hunger Games book; nevertheless, the success of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy has sparked the publication of some very well-crafted dystopian tales of strong women battling corrupt systems—obviously an improvement over books featuring bland young women constantly falling down while staring at their boyfriends. In one of the better YA dystopian series, Lauren Oliver details a North America in the not-so-distant future, in which love has been defined as a disease akin to madness—termed deliria. All eighteen-year-olds are consequently required to undergo an operation rendering them immune to this, supposedly fatal, disorder. After a recent breakup, I found myself wondering if this fascist government may be onto something, but, alas, the story of seventeen-year-old Lena reminded me that I should probably resume online dating. Unlike Bella Swan (who does have the better name), Lena’s story is ultimately not about the boy who eventually “infects” her; it’s about personal revolt and the necessity of pain. Romantic love obviously plays a significant role in a novel about a government defined in its opposition to romantic love, but Oliver is intelligent enough to expand the definition of love: she highlights the love of friends, the love of family, and even the love of simple pleasures like running. Lena’s most engaging relationship is not with the floppy-haired, slightly bland boy from “the wilds”; it’s with her best friend Hana—a beautiful, rebellious young woman who would probably have been a more interesting love interest (but that’s another book). By focusing as much attention on the friendship as on the romantic relationship, Oliver suggests that all bonds of affection are sacred. We are definitely not in Forks, WA.
5. The Slope
Who doesn’t enjoy mocking the pretensions of people who honestly believe the environment will improve if they don’t use a plastic bag? Now, I must admit that I do carry around multiple reusable bags at all times (who knows when the need for groceries will arise), and I do gasp in horror when a grocery clerk attempts to wrap my salmon in a plastic bag (i.e., a dolphin killer). And yet, I thoroughly enjoy Portlandia’s satire of those suffering from first-world problems. But Portlandia doesn’t return for months, and I live in Brooklyn, so I was delighted to discover the web series The Slope, which skewers people who live a little closer to home. The series’ tagline is “superficial, homophobic lesbian,” which is all you really need to know. But I will continue talking about it anyway because I keep can’t stop rewatching it (each episode lasts about five minutes). Detailing the relationship of a white, well educated lesbian couple in Park Slope, the series ridicules your classic Slope targets: the father who allows his daughter to wander into the street because he doesn’t want to interfere with her self-growth, the thrift store that makes you feel ashamed for imagining that they might want your gently used sweaters, the food co-op with incredibly strict rules, and lesbian couples who get into fierce arguments about whether or not you can “reclaim” the word “cunt.” While Portlandia’s sketch format fits its hipster aesthetic, I’m a sucker for narrative, so I enjoy The Slope’s sequential structure. The dysfunctional relationship between the more stable, mature Ingrid and the fabulously self-involved Desiree, who makes incredibly offensive claims that are all “okay” because she is a Persian, liberal, bisexual Park Sloper, is so funny because it’s so exactly what’s happening outside of Gorilla Coffee right now.