Monday, November 30, 2009

Build a Better Chick Flick: Good Heavens, Miss Sakamoto, You're Beautiful!

I admit it. I love the trope of ugly, dorky girl turning into a sexy head turner. It's the equivalent of the rags to riches story, or the underdog team winning their sports game. It's my Bad News Bears, Mighty Ducks, or The Secret of My Success. I'm aware that I'm smart enough to know better. But I can't help it. So, let's break it down.

Cool new haircut, and a side order of make up. My first mentor was Mary Anne Spier. When her father let wear her hair loose instead of in pigtails, it was a symbol of how he finally saw her as mature, instead of as a Laura Ingalls Wilder clone. And in my fave BSC book of all time, Mary Anne's Makeover, when she chopped off all her hair without a second glance and applied a little eyeliner, I knew the truth. A makeover really can change your life. As I've posted before, I blame Mary Anne (and Mia Farrow) for why I keep thinking I can pull off a pixie hairdo. But mostly Natalie Imbruglia--damned Torn video showcasing her spunky but vulnerable charm.

(Il)legally Blonde. There IS a corollary to this, however. If you decide to go blonde to revamp your personality, it almost never works. See Brenda Walsh of 90210, Margene Heffman of Big Love, Mallory Pike of the BSC, and every damned girl I see on the subway who neglects to dye her eyebrows along with her head hair. Why does it never work? Because blonde is just too gorgeous for words. (See Serena van der Woodsen, Kelly Taylor, and Stacey McGill.) Uppity non-blondes need to learn that acquiring golden tresses is the equivalent of new money trying to get itself invited to the country club cotillion.

Clothing makes the woman. The great equalizer. Andy taught us that access to Nuclear Wintour's fashion accoutrements can turn even a size 6 into hotness.

The thigh high chocolate brown leather boots are shorthand for she's a sexy working girl. The short skirt says, "I'm flirty and fun" but the blazer says, "I'm classy and I don't need to show cleavage to get a second glance." And the accessory says, "I ate a shitload of asparagus, crapped it out and put it on a stick for everyone to see." Who needs personality when you've got Chanel?

Weighty issues. See Monica Gellar, Marty Sherman in the fat camp episode, and those assholes in the "One Rule: Obey!" ads that are ruining everyone's Internet experience. Yeah, this one's not too helpful if you're already thin but not fashionable or hot.

I have confidence in me. You don't really change anything on the outside, but you're really confident on the inside and your inner light shines through. This one usually only works if you're already jaw droppingly gorgeous and the rest of the cast has been paid off to pretend they don't think you're attractive until, say, sweeps week. Like Joey Potter in the beauty contest who finally caught Dawson's eye with her caterwauling rendition of On My Own.

The best way of getting confidence, based on Bridget Jones's Diary and Georgy Girl (Bridget Jones before there was Bridget Jones) seems to be having at least two guys pursuing you at the same time. It more than makes up for a few love handles here and there. Even if one of those guys is James Mason.

And just look at the titular character in Stephen King's Carrie. Despite being the school punching bag, when she put on a ball gown and went to the prom on the arm of the high school answer to Robert Plant, she was seen as gorgeous. (And personally, I think the bloody revenge only enhanced her attributes but I'm a sucker for the Medea type.)

However, this was always my least favorite way of being seen as hot. No matter how much confidence can transform you from nottie to hottie in literature, it rarely works in a more visual medium. Jenny Humphreys in the book version of Gossip Girl was a short, curly tressed big breasted cutie pie who eventually became sexy due to her confidence and associations with other cool kids. In the TV show? She's already Serena van der Woodsen's understudy. And despite the opening lines of Gone With the Wind ("Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm"), it doesn't make much of a dent when you take a look at Vivien Leigh.

How lovely to be a woman. Sometimes, blossoming from awkward child into glorious womanhood is enough. The baby fat rolls off, the braces come off, and the boobs come on.

Sometimes, though, puberty isn't enough, and a sexual awakening is needed. Like Susan Sarandon's character in Witches of Eastwick. Sure, she did the hat trick of removing her glasses, and letting her hair down, but most importantly, she simmered with the kind of sex appeal and inner confidence you only get from red hot intercourse with the devil.

The feminist part of me that says that men shouldn't reawaken women, that we should discover all that for ourselves hates this meme. But the part of me that still loves Sleeping Beauty and lip gloss loves it.

Men never make passes at girls who wear glasses. Glasses are shorthand for smart and unappealing to men. I could regurgitate that Laura Mulvey essay on the male gaze I read when I saw Vertigo in film class, but I'll spare you. Rachel Leigh Cook, Meg Cabot, Meg Murray, Toula Portokalos, and even Daria taught me all that I needed to know (though in her defense, Daria went back to bifocals). And part of me remains convinced that this is why Mallory Pike never attained true gorgeousness (well, that and the fact that she was never permitted to reach an age where she's getting attention from more than just the Humbert Humbert type).

The eye of the beholder. So everyone thinks you're ugly. Just go someplace where you're the ideal. Hey, if the Twilight Zone taught me anything, it was cultural relativity (and I thought that's what college was for). Some cultures prefer voluptuous pale skinned gals, others prefer tanned slim hard bodies, and still others prefer jowly piggy faces. (But they all go nuts for Pamela Anderson.)

And where else but among unwashed hipper than thou artsy Boho types could Helena Bonham Carter be considered the crown princess of hottitude? My forays into the counter culture that is New York City (read: Williamsburg) have taught me for every girl who idolizes Beyonce or Kate Moss, there's an unwashed poseuse who spends about ten cans of Bedhead a week to look like this:

I think I'll put Leslie Hornby (aka, Twiggy) in here. Twiggy growing up was seen as skinny and odd looking but in the sixties became the face of fashion. If I wanted to be uncharitable, I'd point out that she surfed the growing waves of anorexia, but why inflict my cynicism on my hapless readers?

When all else fails, disrobe. Hey, it worked for Ms. Gypsy Rose Lee, Linda Lovelace, Dita Von Teese, and almost every greasy haired, pasty skinned, "voluptuous," hipster I encountered on the burlesque circuit. Sure, men seldom make passes at girls with big asses, but if said ass isn't ensconced by anything as prudish as a pair of Levi's, you're in.

Sometimes you don't have to take them all off--you just have to wear fewer garments and the ones you do wear just need to be tighter. (See Olivia Newton John's transformation in Grease.)

Gypsy is both an example of disrobing and of gaining confidence and learning to believe you really are pretty, in the Joey Potter tradition. I do have to say, if you can go through life not realizing you're beautiful when you look like Natalie Wood or Katie Holmes, you probably need to be in a self-esteem class with Michael, LaToya, and Sadako herself. As moderated by Mr. O'Neill, of course.

I want to say one word to you...Plastics. Sometimes getting a makeover from Molly Ringwald, Cher Horowitz, or Carmindy isn't enough. Sometimes you need to call in the big guns. And surgery's nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes something's just missing. Like an extra eye or an end stage nose.

I'm going to put Meg Cabot's Airhead in here. (Getting your brain transplanted into the body of a supermodel will one day be the ultimate surgery.) When you take this together with the Uglies series by Scott Westerfield, and Number 12 Looks Just Like You, it's hard to believe we won't all be supermodel clones in some far off year. Though personally, I found the "Different body" thing to be kind of a cheat. Like hiring about eight ringers as consultants so you can win your company's softball game.

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow bloggers and readers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pretty Dead

Meet Charlotte. She's a blonde haired blue eyed svelte beauty. She gets compared to Gisele Bündchen regularly. She's got all the right clothes and accessories. She's also a vampire, but please--don't use the "v word," as she puts it. All the boys want her and all the girls want to be her, which seems to make her the Ann Margret of the undead set. Charlotte's got a husband, William, an amoral sexy Byronic cad who turned her into a vampire a hundred years ago, whom she's now fleeing. Plus, she's got a sweetly naive high school best friend named Emily, now dead. And Jared, Emily's boyfriend who Char's now in love with. And oh yeah, turns out Emily's not exactly dead...she's...undead. And I thought life was hard enough when you were just the other kind of v-word.

So...what happens when Francesca Lia Block jumps on the Twilight bandwagon?

That fateful conversation between Francesca Lia Block and her trusty editor:

Editor: So we were thinking of doing something Twilight-y. Except edgier and hipper.

FLB: But I've never worked with vampires before...I'm more into gorgeous skinny girls with fairy wings who wear too much eyeliner.

Editor: Don't worry. That'll go over fine. Make your main character beautiful, but to keep up with the whole Bella Swan ideal, give her a few great qualities that could be flaws.

FLB: Like, she's really tall and thin, but back in the 19th century when she first became a vampire, that wasn't considered beautiful?

Editor: Perfect! Oh, and make sure that her breasts are just a little too big for her tiny waisted frame. God, I love that flaw.

FLB: This whole drinking people's blood thing sounds a bit icky, though...

Editor: Nah. Veganpires are in. The kids love socially conscious vampires--they drink animal blood or synthetic blood or something. Why don't you write it so your main character gets a constant supply of cow's blood on the black market. The black market part sounds edgy, the fact that no one's killing humans will make sure it goes over well in the heartlands, and you won't even offend the Jews and Muslims because it's not pig's blood.

FLB: What about the whole sleeping during the day thing. Sure, my characters wake up late but sometimes they go to the beach at dawn to surf.

Editor: Haven't you read Twilight? When you want to break a rule of traditional vampire lore, just have your character chuckle, look wistful, and say something like, "Ah yes, a bit of vampire mythos from one of your human films. If only being a vampire were really like that." Just make sure they don't sparkle. Meyers and her people have patented sparkling.

FLB: Maybe my character could just...wear a lot of sunscreen?

Editor: One more thing. We're really trying to court the kind of girl who's not usually into vampires, so try not to use the word "vampire" too much. Use "the v word" or have your main character say that she's not really into labeling herself. We want our average reader to be the girl who watches Top Model and spends more time in Sephora than in Hot Topic. What can you do for us?

FLB: Stop comparing my protagonists to Nefertiti or Aphrodite and start name dropping Kate Moss and Gisele? And mention some lip gloss shades?

Editor: Franny, you're on fire. Pretty Dead is going to do for vampires what Weetzie Bat did for weird alternative chicks in love with their gay BFFs.

Attributes of a Francesca Lia Block -pire.

Coffins are NOT a girl's best friends. Char: "I sleep in a big bed with a headboard of an antique silk Japanese wedding kimono, embroidered with flowers and cranes..." (Oh yeah? I sleep in a racecar bed!) Charlotte sometimes thinks she'd like to climb into her Louis Vuitton trunk at night, but she wants to appear normal.

"I never" PSYCH! Early on in the book, Charlotte and her manpire William kill to live. In the present, though, Charlotte drinks cow's blood to live. She also eats real food on occasion--like very rare steak. She even imbibes red wine. When your character has more lax standards about drinking blood than Audrey II, you know you're in trouble.

Let the sun go down on me. Nothing bad happens to these vampires in the sun. They don't even sparkle. But they do take care to wear layers just in case, because you never know with vampires (or volcanoes). And I wasn't joking about the sunscreen remark earlier.

Pretty vampire. At one point, Charlotte's process becomes reversed and she starts turning human. During her re genesis of that mortal coil, she breaks a nail that won't heal! And she even gets a zit. Vampires, on the other hand, have impossibly clear skin and great bodies and they never get wrinkles. They're like 90210 or Melrose Place characters. They get to hang around while the world gets bombed (London and Hiroshima circa WWII) and watch while suffering no ill effects. (Hell, even 90210's Kelly Taylor suffered some minor burns after that rave episode that put her self esteem in major jeopardy.)

We never smudge our eyeliner or mascara. Vampires can't cry! They don't even cry blood like in True Blood. Charlotte will always have that perfect smokey eye. Normal girls with their pores and emotions just can't compete.

We don't have to stay undead. Charlotte doesn't even have to deal with the fact that she'll be alone when all her mortal friends and loved ones die because she gets to go back to being a normal girl at the end of it. (Her vampire husband reverses the process so that Emily can turn into a vampire, but Charlotte has to go back to being human.) So Char gets the fun "staring into the abyss" part of being a vampire without the long term soul sucking loneliness. Or as I like to refer to it: angst-in-a-can.

Living in a material world. Vampires get more options for sexiness. No more limiting themselves to Morticia Addams or Elvira for fashion icons. Charlotte's got a house full of sexy red dresses, Chanel No. 5, gladiator type sandals, and make up galore. Charlotte spends most of her century with William feeding and wearing cool decade appropriate outfits. (Did you really think FLB would miss up an opportunity to have her main characters dress like Marilyn and James Dean in the fifties, or John and Yoko in the 70s?) And when Char sees that her best friend Emily has come back to life, her reaction isn't, "Holy shit, are they appealing to the zombie demographic, too" but rather, "Her lips were painted red...I even thought I recognized the shade. M.A.C. Viva Glam."

If you're wondering what makes an FLB-pire all that different from Tyra Banks that time she went postal in season 4 of AMNT...good question.

Beep beep! Plagiarism alert!

There are just so many people that I can think of who might want to sue Ms. Block. That either means she has no new ideas of her own when it comes to vampires or that she's really got her finger on the pulse of young undead America.

The producers of True Blood. Look at those lips.

Except you could tell that HarperCollins was really courting the young teen demographic. Instead of blood red lipstick, we have pinkish lip gloss sheen with a gold shimmer. The teeth are biting into a red and white mint that's dissolving into blood. In other versions of this book, the mint is black and white and there's no blood. (Why, you may ask? So this book would appeal to both the goth crowds who think that the only thing more romantic than blood is dying of TB in a sanatorium, and the kids who just purchased their first Bettie Page t-shirts at Hot Topic but are scared off by bodily fluids.)

The Estate of Francine Pascal. Charlotte has blue eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean. Come on, FLB, couldn't you have thought of something a little bit darker? She's a vampire, not a Bratz doll. How about "eyes as deep, dark and menacing as the Black Sea at dusk"? Whoa. That was easy. Too easy. Urge to stop snarking and start writing vampire fanfic, rising...

Diablo Cody. FLB: "Teenage girls are powerful creatures. They want what they want and they will do what they must to get it." The line in Jennifer's Body that goes, "Hell is a teenage girl" is equally trite, but at least Diablo got there first. (FLB, you do get points for knowing better than to try to lift the inane lines "Honest to blog" or "Oh my god, Move on dot org!")

Britney Spears and whoever got blackmailed into directing her Lucky video. Charlotte says, "People want to be me. But I am like that [Chinese goddess statue] lying prone in my bedroom. No one understands the extent of my loneliness." To be honest, I preferred, "She's so lucky / She's a star / But she cry cry cries in her lonely heart...Why do these tears come at night?"

Prosaic Prose
  • Charlotte has reservations about killing people, so the vampire William makes a speech about why it's okay to kill people to satisfy the bloodlust. Yes, this is before Charlotte decides to only drink cow's blood. The vampire Bill plays the amoral Lestat to Charlotte's sensitive Louis:
We must make the best of it. We must love our victims, honor and respect them. We give them meaning. We give them value. By dying this way, their lives have purpose.
This almost makes Mufasa's insipid reply to "But Dad, don't we EAT the antelope" seem deep. Vampire William, do you guys also make sure to use every part of the human after you drain it for blood?
  • Jared begs Charlotte to make him into a vampire, and she replies:
I will not pierce your neck like a barbarian...But my body senses your need, like a mother with a newborn.
Char, if you weren't a vamp, I'd be begging you to get your tubes tied.


I know as a teenager that I was pretty lame. My idea of being a vampire meant seducing pre-24 Kiefer Sutherland while living in a coven that featured Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Richard Gilmore. I thought Cry Little Sister was a great song. And I thought vampire chokers were the height of good taste. Yup, I was a square.

With all that in mind, I still feel comfortable condemning Charlotte and William to the trash heap of vampire fiction.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

BSC Mystery #9: Kristy and the Haunted Mansion


This was one of the stories I found really creepy as a kid, and even creepier as an adult. Kristy and Bart (her sort of kind of maybe love interest) have put the best players from both of their baseball teams (the Krushers and the Bashers) together to form the Krashers and they play against another rag tag team in a town thirty miles over. Charlie drives Kristy, Bart, and some of their team members and equipment in a van (four Bashers, Karen--insert shudder--David Michael, Jackie, and Buddy). On the way back from the game, there's a storm and they get lost. Outside this huge old mansion known as the Sawyer House, a couple of bridges wash out and so they're stranded. The caretaker who lives in a little old cottage lets them stay up in the old house till morning. Everyone's worried back home because there's no phones to call and it's back in the day before you could just use your crackberry to Twitter: "Staying in a creepy old house with my older brother, my beard, and eight kids, one of whom is Karen Brewer--someone kill me, kthnxbai."

The house is a bit spooky because the electricity is out and there are rumors of ghosts. Doing some snooping (newsclippings and an old diary), the kids find out that a young woman named Dorothy Sawyer used to live here. She wanted to marry her fiance, Will Blackburn, whom her father didn't think was good enough for her. She planned to run off with Will one night outside the creek and elope but she never showed up and was presumed dead (drowned, one assumes).

Kristy and the others figure out that the old caretaker is Will and they ask him what's up. He explains that he moved back here and bought the house as a way of keeping his love for Dorothy alive. Too bad you're separated by oceans and time from another literary loon who'd be perfect for you. Miss Havisham and Will would make quite a couple. I've really got to start up a Missed Connections page on the blog.

Kristy goes back home and a week later the BSC has a sleepover. Karen, bitch that she is, stole a snapshot of Dorothy and brings it up to Kristy's room to show the others because she's figured out who Dorothy is. Turns out she looks just like the woman who owns the Stoneybrook sewing shop and Mary Anne agrees. The next day, the sitters go to the sewing shop to ask Dorothy about what's going on and if all goes well, play matchmaker between her and Will.

Dorothy explains that she ran away because she was afraid Will would make her live the conventional boring existence of a housewife in a pre-Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan world: "I didn't have to answer to any man: not Father, not Will. For, as much as Will loved me, I knew he would have given me the same sort of life that Father had...I knew it was wrong to let them think I was dead, but it was the only way I could see for me to take control of my life." This is what happens when you base your strong willed female characters off of Aladdin's Princess Jasmine.
  • When the kids meet up with Dorothy, they think that she should tell Will she's alive. She smiles, thinking it'll give him a surprise and that she'll do it. Yeah, that won't traumatize him even a little. Dotty, you creep, you're probably planning to give him a heart attack so you can take over your old house, hire the kids who weren't good enough to be Krashers as your Oompa Loompa-esque minions, and make cutesy kitschy craft items galore with an even lower overhead than an Indonesian sweatshop.
(Claire, Margo? "Crap" has a "p" in it.)
  • This book was ghostwritten by Ellen Miles. I'll refresh your memory--she normally writes a series called The Puppy Place and no, it's not as cutesy wutesy as it sounds. It's worse. It makes Pound Puppies look like that show on Animal Planet with all the hoarders who collect dogs.
  • And yes, this time, I know Ellen didn't farm out any ghostwriting to a hip twentysomething aspiring writer. If some young hipster with more TV knowledge than sense had written this book, Dorothy would be a really awesome old person, like a former hippie who ransacked a Nuclear Power Plant back in the day, now going under the alias Muddy Mae Suggins to escape the fuzz. Or she'd be Dr. Ruth. Or Carol Kane's character in The Princess Bride. But no, Dorothy comes back to Stoneybrook and takes the absolute hippest, coolest job that Ellen and Ann M. could think of. She owns a sewing supply store. It's called Sew Fine. Not even the Widow Towne or Nannie, the resident Stoneybrook biddies, could top that.
  • You know how we associate some of the books with food? I always associated Island Adventure with candy bars, Stacey's Emergency with homemade brownies, and Jessi and the Awful Secret with Burger King. This one sucks in terms of food. Will gives the kids some apples, bread and a jug of water instead of readimade pop tarts and double chocolate Oreos. And since it's Ellen Miles, not Peter Lerangis writing, you just know that the bread was whole wheat and that those apples weren't even Granny Smith. If the BSC members weren't such goody goods, instead of solving old people love affairs, they'd go back the next weekend to egg and TP Will's house. But no. They had to go and create an American version of As Time Goes By.

  • I wonder how that meeting between Will and Dorothy will go. "So, Dorothy, how's your life been?" "Wonderful! I've been around the world several times, met countless suitors whom I've all turned down, and seen all kinds of thimbles from around the world. How about you?" "My collection of gnarled apples that look like you is almost've got that going for me."
  • Dorothy thinks she's so empowered because she ran away and let all her friends and loved ones think she was dead. When I reread that, I had the same reaction as when I found out that damned Lindberg baby wasn't kidnapped at all and really ran off to start a career as a baby model for Gerber.
  • Babysitting! On the fateful night that Kristy's missing, Claudia's babysitting for the Newtons. She shows up wearing a tie dyed shirt. Since it's raining, she's covered in colors and has to call Janine over to bring her fresh clothes. Not shown: Stacey's commentary on Claudia's wardrobe malfunction.
Claudia: "Well, I just made the outfit myself, and I guess the dye didn't hold--"

Stacey: "Gee, Quinn Claudia, it's almost like you're saying that people don't need to buy out Bloomingdale's to look good."

Claudia: "No, Stacey! I just meant that since..."
  • Claudia doesn't lose another opportunity to mock Janine for being smart. When she's worried about Kristy, Janine comments that Kristy will probably be fine because she's so intelligent and resourceful and Claudia eyerolls because Janine thinks intelligence can solve any problem. Duh, Janine. Wearing a cute pink tank top with matching pink elephant studs in your ears is the best way of coping in a crisis when you're stranded in the rain. Besides, popular people don't need to be intelligent in a crisis.
  • Later, Janine has no idea what to do to make baby Lucy stop crying, so Claudia suggests Cheerios (oh, Claud, bleemers and compulsive eating are right around the corner for you, aren't they?). Janine responds with, "'She'll get milk all over herself'" and Claudia smiles thinking that Janine may be booksmart but she sure doesn't know kids. Ann? When I last met you, you said the child you'd must love to spend time with was that five year old Dexetrin addict on last month's Toddlers and Tiaras ("She could be the next Gabby Perkins!"). And Ellen, the last time you spent any meaningful time with an actual puppy was the cover shoot for one of your books where you tried to stick a tutu on a bulldog who promptly peed all over it.
  • Claudia almost doesn't take that sitting job, FYI, as she's so worried about Kristy. But she does because she knows Kristy would have made Claudia eat her own head been upset and told her it was unprofessional. BSC Uber Alles!

Ann M. and Ellen have no clue what feminism really means. Not a clue. That's how they created a character like Dorothy, who thinks that being a strong woman means pulling a Falcon Heene and making your family and friends worry while you go off and have fun. Note to Ann and Ellen: those self involved, "I just need to find myself on my parents' dime in an Indian ashram/hitchhiking around the country/in the loft apartment of every guy in the East village" that you knew in college were not feminists. When I e-mailed Ann about this, I got a smug response about how Amelia Earhart disappeared and isn't she a feminist? Oh, Ann and Ellen, I'll send you guys copies of The Second Sex and Vindication of the Rights of Woman--review before you create another adult female character ever.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Sitcom Secrets: Lies My Fictional Teacher Told Me

Hey, fans. I've covered siblings and college so far. Now let's look at what you have to do to be a great teacher (and what you have to do to be a mean, evil one).

Above and beyond
. These are the ones who go above and beyond teaching. Who take kids into their very homes and lives. Like Mr. Katimski who took in gay student Ricky after his aunt and uncle kicked him out. Or Mr. Turner who adopted Shawn Hunter, let him keep a barnyard animal in his two room apartment, and saved him from a cult, thus proving himself a superior human being to any of the parents or mentors in the lives of Squeaky Fromme or Leslie Van Houten. Illustrating that no good deed goes unpunished, Mr. Turner got into a motorcycle accident in the season four finale, and then by senior year, he was never spoken of again, presumably wished into the cornfields.

Too acerbic, without love. The teacher who doesn't try to teach a lesson. Or who teaches a lesson that may serve you well but sure doesn't make you feel good. Like Dawson Leery's film teacher Ms. Kennedy, a former Hollywood screenplay writer, who tells Dawson his little semi autobiographical film Creek Daze sucks triceratops balls. (The lesson here being both that it's really sad when a TV show needs to do the show within a show gag by season 2 and beware bitter Hollywood roadkill on the wrong side of thirty.)

Or Mr. Kowchevski teaching the kids that hard work and stick to it-iveness are nothing compared to natural talent by demoting poor sweet Millie to second string when Lindsay came back to Mathletes.

Or Professor Kingsfield (The Paper Chase), who taught James Naughton that having a photographic memory doesn't mean you belong at law school. (To be fair, James Naughton did technically prove Kingsfield wrong when he later successfully defended both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly.)

Never gonna give you up. The teacher who follows the students everywhere. Ordinarily this would be creepy. (Mr. Rosso, with his singing Alice Cooper songs to try to reach these freeakz, was definitely borderline, as was his constant stalking of Lindsay Weir to woo her back into the smart kid fold. Mr. Rosso, let's face it, she's just not that into Mathletes, AP English, or you.)

Mr. Feeny, however, takes it to an art form and it isn't even a little bit weird when every year, he's somehow teaching the kids or being their principal or going back to college with them.

You can't change the system. A teacher wants to make a difference. How? The answer is always by shaking things up. Sometimes with feminism. Sometimes with rock and/or roll. Usually with a slab of humor and a dollop of sensitivity. Of course, as soon as the administration gets wind of Teacher X's unseemly ways, he/she is summarily fired (out of a cannon, into the sun!), giving the students a chance to rally to his/her side in protest. After said teacher is reinstated, he or she immediately resigns, making the students wonder what the fuck it all was for. (What WAS it for? I don't know, but it probably makes for a good college app essay.)

I always wondered why it was that a bunch of entitled, zip-code blessed students could manage to get Donna Martin to graduate but poor Marcie Lewis couldn't get her favorite English teacher back and Principal Green had to resign from Capeside High.

A teaching staff of mavericks. When the teacher shakes things up. To eleven. Think Harry Senate shooting off a gun with blanks during class. Or Eric proctoring Mr. Feeny's citizenship class mock exam and having the students rip up their test papers. Or Ms. Frizzle and her mantra of "Take chances, make mistakes, and GET MESSY!" In an age of hand sanitizing every five minutes and coughing into elbows, you just know she'd be 86ed within minutes, and her "Ms." appellation probably went over like a lead balloon.

Inner City Blues. Plucky white teacher heads into the inner city to try to inspire minority kids. (Or, in the case of Sidney Poitier, dignified black teacher heads into the London School system to reach out to white kids.) So how DO you reach these kids? Montages with touching songs in the background. With Lulu singing To Sir, With Love, Coolio rapping Gangsta's Paradise, and Mr. Mister performing Stand and Deliver in the background, not even the surliest, most disadvantaged kid can stay cynical for long. (Unless you're Seven of Nine, in which case you don't need anything but your fine self.)

Don't drink the flavor aid. These teachers don't just inspire their students to action. They're more like cult leaders. Actually, there's only one teacher whom I can think of who really fits into this category, and that's Irene from Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan. In addition to teaching, she also runs an organization called Daughters of Eve which is like Take Back the Night, an evening with Dworkin, MacKinnon, and Brownmiller, and a bra burning protest rolled into one.

It's meant to be a feminist organization for very smart or talented female students but turns into a manhating extravaganza (otherwise known as a misanthropaganza) with the Daughters sabotaging male students' lab work...and murder. On the plus side, Irene is one teacher who wouldn't get pissed off at the "filthiness" of burning a sanitary napkin in the classroom fireplace (and in fact would probably celebrate the idea of Patriarchy being Subverted through a Feminine Taboo).

Your hard work pays off. The teacher who's really hard on you, who works you like a dog to test your mettle. Like Prof Stromwell kicking out Elle and her cute heart shaped notebook for not doing the reading which only spurs her onto greatness.

And of course, the quintessential example. The strictest teacher of all time--but who gets the job done, ultimately. Whose students are always prepared. I'm talking of course about Nigel Ratburn.
Hey, it's because of him that the kids got to be on the Let's Talk to Some Kids segment of Magic Toolbox, and don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about--no one's too old for Arthur. No one. Arthur is the dark secret of every painfully hip Generation Y-er. Yes, I know you all like to think that the only kids shows you like are the cool, ironic ones like Transformers or He-Man or Jem and the Holograms so you can snark on the bad animation. You're not fooling anyone.

Prove me wrong, kids! The teachers who assume you have no future. Like Mr. Strickland deeming both George and Marty McFly "slacker!" They exist solely so you can show up twenty years later with a wealth of accomplishments to gloat over while they're still bitter and bald--like your very own sci fi book, or the knowledge that you're responsible for inventing skateboards and inspiring Chuck Berry to write Johnny B. Goode.

Here are some things that are absolutely necessary if you want to be a good cool teacher.

Sitting backward in a chair

It's how you show that you're on the level and hip, but still able to rap with your students, one on one.

First name basis only

"Don't call me Mr. _________--that's my father's name!"

Ripping things up

Nothing says stellar teaching record like defacing other people's property. See John Keating having Dr. Wilson, Ethan Hawke and the rest of the dead poet society members rip up part of their English textbook. Or Angela Chase's teacher Mr. Racine who threw the kids' horrible creative writing assignments out the window to make a point. Or Eric Matthews proctoring Feeny's class.

Giving up something important

Like if you leave your high powered job as an attorney or i-banker to teach, it shows that you're really giving back, and that teaching truly is a vocation. Like Ms. Cook in Boston Public. (The writers conveniently omitted the part where Ms. Cook was disbarred for burning down a 9/11 memorial and had to take a job teaching in the inner city to pay last month's Prada bill.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sitcom Secrets: Mighty Morphing Siblings

In a sitcom, siblings are magical and can pop up, disappear, reappear, and do all kinds of bizarre tricks. Don't believe me? Take a look for yourself.

The Anti Chuck Cunnigham. In real life, you can't spontaneously get an older brother or sister. I don't care what they told you at the Big Brothers and Sisters of America. You only get new siblings who are younger than you in real life. I always wished for an older sibling, though--an older sister whose clothes and makeup I'd rifle through or an older brother who would beat up on any guy who dared to stand me up. (Having a younger sibling does have its perks, though--like the time I convinced my little brother that whiplash is when you get into a car accident and your neck falls off.)

But when you're in sitcom land, all bets are off. The best excuse for a spontaneously appearing older sibling is that they were away at school all this time and no one thought to mention them. Chip Crosswire of Arthur and Sondra Huxtable I'm looking at you.

Gretchen Witter also gets a nod because even though Pacey's older sisters are mentioned in a generic sort of way, we never get a real mention of her till season four when they retconned a whole "Gretchen was Dawson's absolute first love, before Jen or Joey, back when he was a horny preteen" to give Dawson something to do when Joey and Pacey were getting it on. Gretchen's also a reverse anti Chuck Cunningham because after she's had enough of Dawson, she returns back to Fictional U, never to return again.

Half brother (or sister) from another planet. This occurs when you realize that one of your parents has been catting it up on the side.

Like, if you're Shawn Hunter, you can go from having an off screen never seen older sister to having a cute, rich half brother from your father's first marriage which he decided not to say anything about for no real reason. And not just any half brother--one of the Lawrence brothers. And what luck--the one who didn't have "Whoa" as a catch phrase and who somehow wasn't traumatized by at one point having Sally Field as a mom and a cross-dressing, voice-acting, Scottish nanny for a dad. I used to pray that my dad had an undisclosed marriage that resulted in an older half sibling for me when I was a young teen, never realizing the icky Joe Jackson esque implications of it.

Or you can get really if your philandering dad had an affair with a carnie who rolled into town years ago. And the carnie gave birth to your half-brother who's the CEO of his own car company and who came up with an invention that translated baby speak.

Of course, it can also be sort of creepy. Like if you're the sexy blonde character at Capeside, and a blonde hussy with a pixie cut and a penchant for wearing bikini tops in New England autumnal weather shows up to bewitch, bother and bewilder every male thing in sight. (And to reveal, eventually, that Jen Lindley's mother gave up a child for adoption. Stupid B-plot that never went anywhere.)

Evil parents. If you have a long lost sibling, don't you think this is the kind of thing your parents should have maybe kind of brought up? Like Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap and her parents who split up, each taking one twin girl until the two girls reunite as teenagers at summer camp, plotting to get their parents back together. (And no, despite my pop culture savvy, I refuse to pander to the young uns by replacing "Hayley Mills" with "Lindsay Lohan." Oh, fine, I will say this--back when Miss Bliss was Disney's Lindsay Lohan.)

As a child, I wondered if I too had a hidden away sibling because my parents weren't telling me something. But no. I didn't find anything incriminating when I searched the attic (after wearing out my copies of Face on the Milk Carton and Claudia and the Great Search, natch). No weird papers or notes. Not even a bucket of half eaten fishheads.

Aging at the speed of life. Sitcoms also taught me that it doesn't matter if you hate changing diapers or dealing with tantrums. You'll never have to. Audiences love cuddly babies but they grow weary of two and three year olds (Full House fans and pedophiles aside). After all, you need to be at least five to be able to coin your own catch phrase. Hence, the freakiness that was Nicky Banks and Andy Keaton, both of whom aged so fast that they either had the aging disorder that Robin Williams had in Jack or their moms had affairs with Klingons (which would explain why they axed the first Mama Banks).

Back in the closet. If you have a particularly boring sibling, sometimes the powers that be intervene and wish those worthless sibs into the cornfield. Like if you're Chuck Cunningham but Ritchie already has an older male influence in his life. Or if you're Nebula "Stop the War" Lawrence and you were only a walk on one joke character (and you were basically collateral damage when the writers decided to retcon that pesky "Topanga's family is a bunch of dirty hippies" trait). Or you're Judy Winslow and the producers of Family Matters erroneously think that Steve Urkel is cute and/or hilarious enough to carry the show and that they can 86 the adorable more laid back version of Rudy/Olivia.

However, my least favorite version of this is Phoebe Buffay's long lost brother, Frank, who appeared with his post menopausal wife asking Phoebe to be a surrogate mother for them, and then never appeared again. There was even an episode where we don't see Frank, but where Phoebe has to babysit for the triplets she carried and birthed. Frank, you deadbeat brother, you pretty much owe big sister Pheebs a kidney and a lung if she wants it. (I guess choice movies like The Other Sister and Lost in Translation made Giovanni Ribisi too good for the small screen.)

Did you cut your hair? You look...different. Off screen demands can lead to actor replacements. Cory Matthews got a new and (in my opinion, more obnoxious) actress to play the younger sister. I guess the old Morgan wasn't growing up cute enough for their liking. And of course, let's not forget Roseanne and the two Beckys. I never knew why they didn't do the same thing on Full House. So many opportunities to stop paying the Olsens a double salary and bring in an adorable four or five year old. (Hell, a twelve year old Macauley Culkin in drag would have been cuter than those two radioactive Cabbage Patch creatures.)

But to be fair, there was probably a good reason for it. You know how much the blind/deaf organizations are complaining about Helen Keller in the new revival of The Miracle Worker being played by a non disabled actress? You just know that the deformed lobbyists would have been pissed if Michelle had been played by a non-troll.

mary kate olsen, full house, troll doll

It'll bring us together! If you're just not sure your families are blending well, there's always one way to ensure that everything turns out fine. Pump out a baby! It'll belong to both of you and bond with both sets of siblings. See Lilly from Step by Step and Erin Silver from 90210 (the latter currently slutting it up on new 90210). Adopting a kid from Vietnam also works fine (see the Brewer-Thomas family). This usually works, oddly. I have no idea why--babies and toddlers are the greatest anaphrodisiac since imagining Patty and Selma naked.

Late in life sibling
. Even if you're over 40 and you've told all your drinking buddies you're an only child and that your dad is dead, you can always gain a sibling late in life by leaving your Boston bar based sitcom and setting up shop as a radio shrink in Seattle. Best of all, he'll love all the same pretentious crap as you.

The Brady Bunch from hell. I sure do love mixed families. Stepkids galore! And there's always a sexually charged atmosphere when two adolescents come into the same family. Josh and Cher. Kelly Taylor and David Silver (granted, one sided). Marsha and Greg. (Hey, I know nothing really happened but unless E! True Hollywood Story has been lying to me, more than one director had to throw some cold water on Maureen and Barry and tell them to project a brotherly/sisterly vibe that wasn't straight out of V.C. Andrews.)

Honorable mention to Bill Henrickson for saddling Sarah, Ben, and Teeny with five extra siblings, two extra sort of moms, a bundle of opposite sex issues that their significant others will be untangling for years to come, and in the case of his third kid, a horrible non-name.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Build a Better Chick Lit: College Life

I'm starting a new blog feature--posts where I break down the cliches that I love to hate about certain books/movies/TV shows. I call it: Build a better chick lit. Here's the college edition.

I used to love reading books and watching TV shows and movies about the college experience. It's so...collegiate. It's a world unto itself. Where it's always fall and professors are always throwing intimate parties at their houses and the lessons we learn in books somehow always reflect upon real life. Where there are mixers and box socials galore. As may be obvious, I'm telling this from the POV of the female protagonist since the whole Animal House frat boy thing has been done to death. Here are the staples of college life as told through fiction:

Bitchy roommate. If you're a freshman, you get usually stuck with a roommate, and she's not just a bitch. She's a rich bitch. She spends her time analyzing the different levels of sarcasm ("I love your new top!" versus "I love your new top--I wish I could get away with shopping at the Salvation Army"). She's got a thousand pictures on her wall of her and her blonde cute female friends in a variety of places from St. Tropez to Asspen. And, as I learned from Prep, she's got the perfect cute flowered bedspread which marks her as part of the upper echelon of society.

World weary 21 year olds. Our main character, if she's a senior, spends the bulk of her time talking about keggers of years past in a world weary tone of voice that suggests that she's been there, done that, and had the hangover to boot. Like Chloe (she of the novel Chloe Does Yale written by Yale's real life former sex columnist, and yes, I can think of at least two things wrong with that title, too) who regales us with stories of how as a freshman, she was declasse enough to go to a dive bar in four inch heels and a tight pair of jeans in the same tone of voice that Kanye probably uses to describe how he wore an off-white vest his first time at P. Diddy's White Party.

What, me study? No one ever studies unless a test or paper is impending and it's 85% of your grade and you're going to flunk out unless you make haste to the library. Anybody who so much as glances at a syllabus early in the semester may as well move into the Lamba Lamba Lamba house, stat. No normal student has time to study in advance.

Like Charlotte Simmons (of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, a screed against college students who dare to have fun), who was too busy spending the weekend shedding her hymen all over a hotel's posh sheets after the fall formal to bother with writing an essay until the morning it was due. And of course, there's always a mad dash at the last minute because no else seems to have perfected the time-out that Zach Morris made famous (maybe he had it copyrighted).

I used to think this was just something to be found in the annals of fiction. But one of my suitemates senior year left off her entire thesis till the last few weeks of the semester and as a result subsisted on Pilsbury ready made cookies every night so she'd have time to work on her paper. As soon as you see that detail in a movie somewhere, you'll know I'll have sold my screenplay.

Always a Mary Anne, never a Ginger. This one's mainly related to books. The main character's never drop dead gorgeous. Sure, they'll get Scarlett Johansson or Amanda Seyfreid or Julia Stiles to play her in the film and the girl on the cover will always have a bitchin' bod. And she's never ugly (in fact, she's usually pretty cute), but she's meant to be an Every Woman type and she knows it. She'll drop so many lines about being self-conscious about her body that the woman settling in to read will feel justified turning off the treadmill and picking up a pint of the chocolate swirl strawberry ice cream. So we have Chloe, despite her charming silhouette on the cover, angsting over her excess fifteen pounds at Yale's Exotic Erotic (aka, the Ivy League's answer to Hefner's scantily clad Valentine's Day party), or internally sighing over having to go to the gym to compete with the anorexic automatons.

Of course, when it comes down to the big date or the important formal, the protagonist always pulls out all the stops to look incredible. But at 9 am when she's late for her English discussion group, she's a sweat pants wearing, flat-haired, bleary eyed hot mess.

Star pupil. Somehow, professors will be in awe of our heroine's shining intellect based on the fact that she did the assigned reading. (Hey, every other student on campus is busy sexually servicing barnyard animals.) If she not only did the required reading but read a couple of articles on the syllabus that were just "recommended", well, expect stars to fall from the sky, along with coveted research positions that most grad students are giving their eye teeth for. If Charlotte Simmons and little Joey Potter had been real freshmen given such coveted job offers, they would have been found on campus so badly mutilated by jealous overworked TAs that no amount of candlelight vigils and Take Back the Night marches would bring them back.

Orgy porgy, orgy porgy! When they're not pulling all nighters and studying under trees, college students enjoy a non-stop orgy lifestyle. Nowhere is that true more at The Rules of Attraction's college, Camden, where the semi conscious sex with townies is the average loss of virginity scenario, where smeared ketchup at the dining hall reminds them of the weekly abortion being procured by someone somewhere on campus, and where everyone's bi because it's just easier that way.

I have to admire Tom Wolfe for managing to make his book something more than Animal House lite. I have a feeling that when he prepared for Charlotte Simmons, he knew he'd have a hard time making his fictional DuPont seem more depraved than anything Bret Easton Ellis cooked up. So while I might ordinarily have responded to the detail about the drugged girl being carried off on frat boy's shoulder while feces trickles out of the leg of her pants with "Ewww, Tom, why couldn't you have written about a girl who was fed roofies laced with Pepto!" I suppose I have to give him his dues.

Culture clash. Because college is so debauched it would make Caligula, Hunter S. Thompson, and Hedonism-bot all cluck their tongues and say, "In MY day..." most writers rely on the innocent outsider who's supposed to gape at the horror of it all. Tom Wolfe once again wins because you can't get much more horrified than Charlotte Simmons' indignity at seeing a scantily clad actress on the cover of a Cosmo magazine left in the common room.

Here I have to give Prep (boarding school, not college, but still) some love because while it's all too easy to make your heroine head for the fainting couch every five minutes, the protagonist here felt some major culture clash for a pretty good reason--they're all east coast summer home owning types and she knows it.

That's sexual harassment, and I can take it. No girl seems to get out of college without at least one rape attempt on her resume, if she's halfway decent looking, three if she's a real looker, and one per season if she's Kelly Taylor. And professorial misconduct is absolutely de rigeur. Charlotte Simmons shocked me by getting quite bit of unwanted male attention from students but never from a prof. Joey Potter and her English professor made out a little, but that was okay because he was cute and so beloved by students that he often had to pull a Dr. Jones to get away from all his adoring fans during office hours. (Yes, I'm serious.) Topanga got a creepy come on in her dorm room from a prof played by Fred Savage (hey, that's what you get for passing up Yale--you could have been Harold Bloom's lovething, but no, you had to settle for sexual harassment from Kevin Arnold, Ph.D.).

These professors make Clarence Thomas look like a choirboy. After a steady diet of sitcoms and chick lit, I assumed that I'd have to show up to my first college lecture with RapeX and mace.

O Captain, my Captain. There's always that professor who mentors the main character(s), inspiring them to do lame but camera-friendly stunts when said teacher leaves, like rising on their desks screaming "O Captain!" or riding their bicycles after their teacher's departing car (that's Mona Lisa Smile, for those of you who had better things to do than go to the movies in 2004). For those of you wondering how you make that kind of effort if the teacher doesn't get kicked out, you're not paying attention. Good teaching means getting fired by a square administration who just doesn't get it. Anybody who actually stays and teaches clearly has never asked themselves the question, "How do I reach these keedz?"

Once again, much love to Prep for having a teacher character whom the rich bitch set mocks for her poor fashion sense and who clearly is trying to be that kind of mentor to protagonist Lee Fiora but pretty much just makes her life miserable.

One book to rule them all.

So, which of my favorite books/shows make the cut in terms of being the most cliched of all? We can rule out Chloe Does Yale. It fails at portraying college as anything close to depraved on the first page when the campus sex columnist won't even flash a freshman a single breast for free admission to the naked party (damn you, glossy pink cover, for promising something you failed to deliver!).

Bret Easton Ellis's The Rules of Attraction rocks the debauched, world weary characters, but fails on the teacher/class front because everyone's too jaded to care about GPAs or mentors.

I Am Charlotte Simmons comes close but it's ultimately College FAIL because Charlotte Simmons' self deprecating quotient is lacking. Charlotte is quite attractive and knows it. In fact, in one chapter when she and another character are commiserating over not having boyfriends and being on the fringes of the college scene, Charlotte's new friend mentions that she wouldn't mind trading legs with the dumb bimbo flirting with the stupid jock. Charlotte thinks to herself, "Wait till you see my legs"--sorry, babe, you haven't learned to internally either deprecate the paucity of your tits or the overabundance of your thighs.

Sadly, I think Dawson's Creek comes closest--we've got the debauched school party scene from the POV of the sheltered smart girl (consisting mostly of Joey at a party staring disdainfully at the cleanest, most candle/incest lit frat bathroom in the entire world while sighing over erstwhile lover Dawson at a "wild party"), the smart girl acing every hurdle in her path, the vaguely inappropriate professorial relationship, and the rich roommate. Though Joey is clearly a hottie, she still gets all her self deprecating points because, as people are always telling her, "'re beautiful, and you don't know're smart and you don't believe're the kind of girl that other girls get compared to."