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Out of the Vinyl Deeps

May 27, 2011 | by

Ellen Willis in 1981. Photograph by Jade Albert.

I have never particularly enjoyed rock criticism. It has a tendency to read bombastic, and the references feel dated almost instantly. None of this is true of Ellen Willis. When I first started reading her a few years ago, I wondered if I liked her writing simply because we share the same gender; now I think I like her because she was right.

Willis, who was a native of Queens and a Barnard graduate, was hired by The New Yorker as the magazine’s first pop-music critic in 1968. Her tenure lasted seven years, and her column, Rock, Etc., covered everything from The Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell to the birth of punk and Bette Midler.

Her criticism could be feisty (Carly Simon’s “wide-eyes lyrics inevitably aroused my class antagonism”) or dismissive (The Velvet Underground’s eponymous album was “all about death, junkies, Delmore Shwartz—stuff like that”), but it was always sharp (Elvis was “John and Paul in one package”).

She understood fandom and feminism equally—something all too rare in the present, where music criticism is still dominated by men. Willis was able to love Patti Smith as a rock-and-roll heroine but criticize her identity. She found Smith’s “androgynous, one-of-the guys image” to be problematic. “Its rebelliousness is seductive, but it plays into a kind of misogyny that consents to distinguish a woman who acts like one of the guys (and is also sexy and conspicuously ‘liberated’) from the general run of stupid girls.”

Which is why it’s so unfortunate that she stopped writing about music in the early eighties. She felt like music had lost its edge after punk. She certainly didn’t disappear—she taught at NYU, wrote nonmusic criticism, and occasionally chimed in with a review of a Bob Dylan album when she felt like it—but her legacy became somewhat obscure. Her death from lung cancer in 2006, at the age of sixty-four, only made it worse.

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Notes From a Renaissance Faire

September 8, 2010 | by

At Ren Faire, all women are wenches. But the constant sexual innuendo is tiresome.

I remember a woman with a pear nestled between her breasts. That’s what most traumatized my pubescent self the last time I went to a Renaissance Faire, somewhere in Marin County circa 1989.

I’m here to report that nothing has changed two decades later at the New York Renaissance Faire: all women are wenches. T-shirts that read “Boss Wench” and “Wench Magnet” greet you as you enter the Tudor-style gates.

This is the kind of place where it’s always acceptable to just throw on a corset. “People should just admit they want to come just to wear a corset,” says Emily, one of the friends I dragged along with me, as she eats a turkey leg. In fact, the line between fetishwear and Ren Faire costumes is alarmingly thin; the chain mail shop sells armor fit for battle, but it seemed to be doing a much more brisk business in belly chains.

What I was even more confused by were the horns, raccoon tails, and fairy wings on sale, as if Renaissance England was some sort of catch-all fantasy world where Magick Reigns. Weren’t there a lot of nuns per capita in the renaissance? I didn’t see a single nun, nor one Queen Elizabeth, though I did spot several pirates (it was Pirate’s Weekend at the Faire), a sole leper, many gypsies, and a few teen boys in black robes that inspired me to write “heavy goth element” in my notes.

Ren Faire is supposed to be lusty and ribald, but the constant and unsubtle sexual innuendo is tiresome. “No one eats sausage like Austrian women,” says one of the seventy-five actors, this one dressed as a drunk Austrian noblewoman. Her maid, who is flirting with a group of men in Ed Hardy t-shirts drinking mead, says, “I always swallow, never spit.” The sleaziness never really lets up. “I see you like my balls,” one vendor at a glassblowing booth called out to me. I don’t think that was very period appropriate.

Personally, I was much more excited at the prospect of being a maiden for the day. There was hair braiding from a shop called Rapunzel’s, which mildly piqued my interest, but what I was really after were the floral garlands. I spent at least ten minutes trying on a variety of them—fake yellow flowers, fake blue flowers, feathered—as a moon-faced teenage girl helping me told me very solemnly, “I’m here for thee.” I went with a leaf-wheat-baby’s breath combo, hoping I resemble a Botticelli even though I’m wearing cut-off denim shorts.

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Are We Afraid of Daria?

July 29, 2010 | by

A week ago, I asked where all the Darias had gone. The Internet, much to my delight, provided a litany of suggestions as to where to find the intelligent, prickly, but lovable teen archetype in pop culture.

There were characters mentioned from shows of the recent past: Veronica Mars, Maeby from Arrested Development, Rory of the Gilmore Girls, Lindsay from Freaks and Geeks, Claire of Six Feet Under, Kat from 10 Things I Hate About You. More currently, there’s Will from Huge, Alex on Modern Family, Alex on Wizards of Waverly Place, Becca from Californication, April from Parks and Recreation, Darby from Hung, or any character played by the Twilight actress Kristen Stewart. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon was even thrown out by a few commenters as a grown-up version of Daria.

But Daria was the protagonist and the show was about her. While it’s reassuring to know that wry, disaffected teen girls do exist on screen, nearly all of the characters mentioned here are ancillary to a peppy, pretty protagonist. They're the token angry girl who provides a laugh or needs a makeover. MTV had its own Daria-type in its recent reality series My Life As Liz, though my twelve-year-old pen pal Bella told me the show rang false because Liz “is only an 'outsider' and an 'underdog' because she shops at Goodwill, listens to indie music, likes Star Wars, and reads comic books.” Daria didn’t identify with outcasts as some kind of hollow aesthetic choice—like shopping at Urban Outfitters as opposed to Abercrombie and Fitch. She was an outsider because she didn’t fit in at school, in her family, or in the world at large. And yet, it was her outlook that defined her position, because none of her problems were situational. As our commenter AAP212 notes, “The best part of Daria was always the subtext that her life really wasn’t bad at all. She had a great best friend. Her family was together and at least half-cared…The cool kids were annoying, but entirely harmless. The joke beneath the surface always seemed to be that Daria really didn’t have that much to complain about.” Daria’s greatest enemy might have just been her own angst.

“Teen girl snark has softened, yes, but it’s still there,” Claire Grossman wrote, in her response to me, on Double X. I would argue that it’s the softening that’s the problem. Daria was allowed to show off an extraordinary amount of bitterness that, while true to the teen experience, is almost never reflected in mass culture. Perhaps part of that was because she was a cartoon. Like Enid Coleslaw, the ornery heroine of Daniel Clowes’s nineties-era comic (though later adapted into a live-action film), Ghost World, teen girls are afforded more cynicism when it's colored in between the lines.

Of course, Daria herself was something of an anomaly even in the nineties. There was no Daria on Friends or E.R. or Seinfeld, some of the era’s most highly rated television shows. As commenter itsonreserve rightly noted on Jezebel’s post: “I was a Daria when Daria was a Daria, and I don't recall living in happy paradise where logic and sarcasm reigned supreme and life was full of candy canes.” She’s correct. There is no golden age where Darias reigned supreme, which is why so many of us can catalog every sarcastic teen girl character of the last few decades.

“We remember 'Daria' fondly because it seemed to get that selfish, self-dramatizing, low self-esteem mindset of adolescence just right, but played it wittier than we ever were as teens,” Gary Susman wrote on TV Squad. No matter where one falls in the high school hierarchy, we have all felt like an outsider at one time or another. Such is the eternal appeal of teen culture to adults: we can watch all the drama and self-obsession from our adolescent years at a safe—and sage—vantage point. So I wonder why this archetype isn’t more prominent. Perhaps the question isn’t where have all the Darias gone, but why are we so afraid of them?

Marisa Meltzer is the author of Girl Power and How Sassy Changed My Life.

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Where Are the Darias?

July 22, 2010 | by

Daria went off the air in 2002, but where did she go?

Daria, the MTV nineties-era animated sitcom, was not the first show to tell the high-school experience from the point of view of the outcast. It just happened to be the most emboldening. In Daria Morgendorffer, adolescent girls (and fans of any gender or age) could use an outsider unafraid to be herself. Today, that archetype hardly seems to exist.

Daria dwells near the bottom of the caste system—somewhere between the geeks and art kids—at her suburban school. With her round glasses, sarcastic monotone, and chunky black boots, she is equally disaffected and defensive—an outsider who's smarter than most everyone in her town. In the pilot episode, she quips, "I don't have low self-esteem, I have low esteem for everyone else.” Of her peers, she explains: “I'm not miserable, I'm just not like them.” Her lack of pep makes her an outcast not only at school, but at home, where she’s the black sheep to Quinn, her younger, more attractive, and socially ambitious sister. But Daria is no loser; she stands up for herself, doesn’t care about the social hierarchy, and has no trouble speaking her mind or talking back. She has a sidekick and confidant—Jane Lane—and while Jane’s brother Trent is something of a crush for Daria, boys are far from the main topic of their conversations.

Daria's character originally appeared as a foil to the characters on Beavis and Butthead. In the extra features of the DVD, Glenn Eichler, the executive producer (who's now at The Colbert Report), said that “MTV was looking for a show that would appeal to its female viewership.” After all, this was the bikini and booty-shaking Spring Break era of MTV, and as another writer mentions, the network wanted a show that would make girls appear smart. The creators of Daria cast around, looking at other teen characters on television—Darlene Conner from Roseanne, Angela Chase from My So-Called Life—and noticed something: teen girls were portrayed as fully realized people, and not mini-adults.

So where did all the Darias go? Eight years after the show went off the air, the super-smart, dry, withering, righteously angry girls are largely absent from pop culture. For every sassy adolescent as played by Juno’s Ellen Page, our current teen cultural landscape is clogged with heroines whose principal interests, as on Gossip Girl, are status and men. It’s a transition that happened gradually from the late nineties to the present: There was the dry-humored Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the earnest clique on Dawson’s Creek, Mean Girls, the teen magazines that brazenly suggested $400 APC wedges for fifteen year-olds, the endless YA series that read like junior versions of Danielle Steel novels. Read More »

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