Who’s Afraid of Shirley Jackson?

‘Shirley’ imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption.

Anyone who’s watched five minutes of The Handmaid’s Tale is keenly aware of that show’s success falling entirely on the actability of Elisabeth Moss’s face. It’s excellent at hiding secrets. When her eyes need to read emotionless her mouth takes over… she smirks, snarls, exhales cigarette smoke not through pursed lips but by jutting out her lower jaw. If a smile sneaks through, she swallows it. It will be to your delight that Shirley contains much of the same, for similar and somehow even darker reasons than the Hulu show.

A viewer could be forgiven for confusing Moss’s age in Shirley, because for someone as hardened, bitter, talented, strained, and achieved as Shirley Jackson you’d imagine her to be much older than her 35 years at the time she wrote Hangsaman. (Presumably the novel she’s writing in the film. Though never specified, the general premise and a scene with three Hanging Man tarot cards suggest as much.) Though the actor is barely older than this, the performance reads much older, as though Moss was playing some decades her senior. She is weathered, lowering her vocal tone in line with Jackson’s penchant for smoking, though she’s not physically aged to look older.

But Moss’s Jackson reads “old” simply because the male gaze hasn’t struck her, simply because we’re not used to seeing women like this. Her breasts sag and her tummy bulges. She looks wrong in a red lip. She is not of her surroundings… or is she? She looks and acts as though she’s been chewed up and spit out by the expectations of post-war, American dreaming New England. Her mental illness(es) are a part of her whole person, which by nature is not for the consumption of men. Such is the sexualization of women in the language of film that “crazy” rarely translates as more than Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The only exception to this may be Misery, but even then, her un-sexuality is a plot device to keep her as neutral and unthreatening as possible.

Shirley Jackson is not neutral. But she is unconventional. Unconventional in the way that women are not allowed to be when placed out of the male gaze because of the inherent danger they exude, a danger both alluring and repulsive to those around her. Shirley imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption. She’s the embodiment of the first day you realize the patriarchy is real, when the bottom falls out from under everything you once saw and now you see it everywhere. She infiltrates minds. The dean of the English department confesses that after reading Jackson’s work he imagines taking his own paper weight and bashing his head in.

A premaritally pregnant Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) in her sweater set is ripe for becoming Shirley’s newest vessel. Rose is caught between both the horny, debauched underbelly of academia (members of which are often jerking each other off both figuratively and otherwise) and the smothering nature of the time period, with an evolved sexuality of her own that buzzes at the edges of her scenes. If not for Shirley, Rose would have become like all the university wives, both victims and contributors to their fates.

If Shirley is of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lineage, Rose acts as more Nick than Honey to Jackson’s Martha. She both torments and nurtures Rose, using Rose as a filter through which she can process both her emotions and her intensely engrossing work. Through Rose, Shirley is able to shed a layer of neurotic skin, appearing whole, almost relieved when done. Through Shirley, Rose becomes unconventional. She is now the terrorist, able to infiltrate minds, needing to shed her own skin. And on and on the cycle goes.

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Keeps Its Woman Difficult

That McCarthy plays Israel with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.

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The title for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, shared with the Lee Israel memoir from which it is adapted, may be a quote attributed to famed writer Dorothy Parker. Or, it could be a complete fabrication derived from Israel’s imagination, as she chose Parker as one of the inspirations for forged letters, which she sold to collectors under the guise of authenticity. So adept at forgery was Israel that she claimed she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker. 

Though she started forging these letters for money, the whole enterprise is an exercise in the lengths to which people will go for success and admiration. Israel (Melissa McCarthy) had been a successful biographer, but became so overcome with anxiety that she fell into a permanent state of writers’ block. She confesses in the film that she doesn’t find herself very interesting, and so she plays Cyrano for herself: using her words and wit to impersonate those who already have success and admiration. 

Israel’s relationship to the writing community is fraught; she doesn’t play the game but still wants recognition for showing up. Her wryness, smarter-than-thou resentment, and general misanthropy are the oil to the water of those donning turtlenecks and pronouncing the “bra” in “macabre” at book parties. “Oh, to be a while male who doesn’t know he’s full of crap,” she laments at Tom Clancy’s prosperity while wallowing in her lack of it. 

But it’s unclear why she even wants to be a part of this world. The critique of the world of literary letters is the film’s most fruitful and least explored theme as it applies to Israel’s life. There’s a strong sense that buyers and collectors believe only what they want to believe; that the finding and possession of letters from famous writers grants them access to an elite world that they’d otherwise have no access to. Their pretentiousness comes from a desire to co-opt the fame not of others’ work but of their lives, and to claim ownership over a small slice of history. 

And isn’t this exactly what Israel is doing in her forgeries? We see what she does, but not how she feels: in the act of forgery, pawning off her work then spending the money she got for it, but rarely any sense of pride or accomplishment, however twisted it may have been. Israel doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and seems to only be doing this for money, though we know that that’s not wholly true. The film acts as Israel would in this way: it purposefully doesn’t show us her inner thoughts and keeps her innermost self secret. 

Though it can be argued that withholding Israel’s motivations is meant to maintain Israel’s air of enigma. Can You Ever Forgive Me? establishes Israel as someone with loose moral standing from the beginning, as we witness her stealing a coat from a party out of spite. Her frequent alcohol-induced benders result in her losing her job and causing undue harm to others. That McCarthy plays her with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.

With very little backstory, Israel is presented as a character full of flaws with little in the way of redeemable qualities, and impressively, the film doesn’t provide Israel an excuse for her behavior. As far as we’re aware, she didn’t have a difficult childhood, she wasn’t abused in her past or present, or allowed any other cop-out for an anti-hero, and yet she’s allowed to act as badly as she will. The movie makes no attempt to redeem her personality or behavior because it understands that it doesn’t have to. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is perhaps the only piece of film since the television show Girls that not only allows but embraces its leading woman to be insufferable and unpresentable and filthy. Israel apologies for her actions but not for who she is. 

At her own admission, Israel confesses that by committing herself to forgeries gave her a way out of doing real work. Actual writing meant, she said, “opening myself up to criticism, and I’m too much of a coward to do that.” This resolution offers a refreshing sense of ownership, though her spiky personality keeps her redeemability forever in question. Israel finds herself without losing herself, however unpleasant that self may be. 

‘The Wife’ Perpetuates an Unhelpful Narrative

It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like “The Wife” comes along. 

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Something that the comedy sketch show Inside Amy Schumer often took pleasure in was skewering Hollywood for its many and varied expectations for women. One of the more pointed jabs took aim at the Best Actress category at the Oscars, in which Schumer and four other actresses (all of whom happen to be Oscar nominees or winners) play wives on the phone with their husbands, crying for them to come home. It may have been a direct dig at American Sniper, but its overall influences were broad: the roles women often play in Hollywood films are the emotional support for successful men.

And that was back in 2016, when that slew of problematic men had yet to be taken down and before #MeToo hit. It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like The Wife comes along.

At the top of the film, writer Joseph Castleman (played in age by Jonathan Pryce and in youth by Harry Lloyd, both of whom happen to be Game of Thrones bad guys, which likely doesn’t help this character’s case) has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work. He attends many gatherings congratulating himself, at which his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), stands at a distance, being talked to about furs or salons or shopping, admiring the genius that she gets to remind to wipe the crumbs out of his beard because he’s a grown ass man who can’t remember to do simple fucking tasks without her help.

She’s the wife that is thanked endlessly in her husband’s speeches, sitting demurely and smiling graciously. She’s the wife being cheated on with younger women seduced by Joseph’s clout, many years after being one of those younger women herself. (He used that all-too-familiar incongruent teacher/student dynamic to land Joan while she was a co-ed in his university lectures, all while he was married with a kid.) She’s the wife who gives much of herself for her husband to shine.

There’s a moment in The Wife when Joan says to Joseph’s wanna-be biographer over a slightly illicit drink: “Please don’t paint me as a victim. I’m much more interesting than that.” Because she’s Glenn Close, and because Glenn Close plays Joan with the poise and stoicism of a marble sculpture, you believe that her assessment of herself is right, that she is more interesting than a victim. You believe all subjugated women are more interesting than the pedestal on which their successful husbands lean, too tired to stand from the praise that other successful husbands are heaping onto them. (Or, perhaps, in a #MeToo world you want to believe all this to be true.) So why doesn’t Joan’s movie know that she’s more than a victim? Especially when she also says things like “I don’t want to be thought of as the long-suffering wife,” and is given scant opportunities to prove herself otherwise?

Because she is a victim. She’s a victim of the misogyny, internalized or otherwise, of the 50s and beyond that crushed her writer dreams so hard that (surprise!) she’s been the writer of Joseph’s books all along! Joan made a career of ghostwriting while her infantile husband did the “woman’s work” of the home, all so he could reap the glory. And, ultimately, he does, because Joseph dies of a heart attack shortly after Joan expresses discontent of all of the years where he took the credit for her work. She decides to stay silent about it, after a lifetime of sacrifice, allowing Joseph to maintain his legendary status even in death. And with that impossibly magnanimous gesture, the film seems to think it’s proven Joan’s personal agency.

Logistical issues notwithstanding (how is it possible to claim ownership over 40 years’ worth of work when the one guy who could back you up is dead?), by Joan keeping her secret, The Wife allows for the problematic man to be redeemed over the long-suffering wife. Yet again. It perpetuates the notion that a woman’s emotional labor is enough, that her long-suffering means SHE’S the one with the REAL strength and determination, even if she goes entirely unrecognized. SHE’LL know it was all worth it in the end, giving that Santa Claus grin to the heavens as her husband is praised for her work even in death.

The narrative would be more insulting if it weren’t so tired, and at this point in our cultural consciousness, just unhelpful. The very week The Wife premiered, Louis C.K. decided to shove himself back into our lives, seeming to believe that enough time has gone by for him to kick-start his path to redemption. As Roxane Gay put it, these men “have fallen from grace, but they have had mighty soft landings.”

What would have been lost in an ending to a film called The Wife where she is the one who is redeemed?

The frustrating subtext in this film’s release is that Glenn Close is already on the award season short list. One imagines the clip that is played of her performance to be one of Joan’s moments of clarity, when she defies her husband and the patriarchy in a fiery piece of monologue, and will get lauded by the live audience for playing a defiant woman with agency. But outside that clip, she’s still just the wife on the phone.

When ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Became Grief Porn

That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

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Just a week ago, it was announced that MGM, the production company behind Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was pairing with online wine retailer Lot18 to release a collection of wines inspired by the popular series. Per People, you could get one of three varietals, each branded with a character from the series. There was an Offred Pinot Noir, an Ofglen Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Serena Joy Bordeaux Blanc, each cheekily described with adjectives like “powerful,” “daring,” and “austere,” respectively. It was a kitschy move, one that invited viewers to enjoy the fall of democracy and enslavement of women with wine, but be sure to enjoy it with their wine.

It was also a thoughtless move that was not lost on many a viewer. Less than 24 hours later, the Handmaid’s wine collection was pulled after an uproar over the tone-deafness of the campaign. Put most succinctly by one Twitter user:

Lot18 is a company that happened to already have several collections of TV- and movie-inspired wine, but neither Outlander nor Master Chef have enjoyed success due in part to the degradation of the American sociopolitical landscape and legitimate fear for what rights may be stripped away because of it. That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

We don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale for fun. We don’t feel good about the world after we’re done an episode. We’re incensed, deflated, despondent. So why do more and more of us subject ourselves to this world of infinite despair? Because we need it.

Even when we try to march, donate, and vote, often it never feels like enough. We can’t be human beings in the current American climate without feeling guilty. How do we get up and do work, or go food shopping, or get pedicures, or wash our cars, or mow our lawns, knowing that human rights atrocities are happening in our midst at the exact time we’re living our lives? It’s a deep helplessness that seeps into our days, because not far there’s always a smartphone to remind us of what’s happening.

Even when we try to avoid the news, we know we’re avoiding the news. We’re actively pushing away the truths of our times in order to go to work, get food, and mow the lawn, because we have the privilege to do so. We of the cisgendered, heterosexual, white, middle class demo have the privilege to feel guilty, and not worse.

So we watch The Handmaid’s Tale. We watch our protagonists get beaten, raped, degraded, mutilated, humiliated for nearly thirteen hours a season, all for the sake of self-flagellation. Because we need something fake to point at and say, “Hey! See? It can happen!” as we sit in the real world that we can do so little about.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to use art to indulge in despair. The relief it provides is as cathartic as a good cry. But despair is rarely rewatchable, so in order to be most effective it has to be done extraordinarily well. I’ll never forget the image of Nora being trampled on by a mob in The Leftovers, or the other ghost in A Ghost Story, because of how deeply those stories burrowed into the despair center of my brain. But I may never watch them again, even though they’re both excellent pieces of film. Because when would I willingly put myself through that again? A Tuesday evening? A Saturday afternoon?

The Handmaid’s Tale implored you to indulge in despair every Wednesday for twelve weeks, because you needed it to feel like a sentient liberal. You needed it to feel like a feminist, or an activist, or a revolutionary, when everything else felt like it was keeping you down. And it knew you would watch.

It’s cynical, sure, but this is the Handmaid’s Tale that Hulu created on the heels of a tyrant coming into power: a show that wishes to commiserate in our grief, then offers us a sliver of hope, only to push us into deeper grief, and back around again. It fed off our desire for programming to reflect our time, then created a second season to keep our despair centers pulsing.

But with its second season, the show began sacrificing narrative logic for the sake of greater despair:

June spends months reading and editing Serena’s confidential government documents. She didn’t internalize a single fact about Gilead that she could use to her advantage, but Serena was beaten for her transgression.

Serena unites the wives of Gilead so that girls may read. We don’t learn about these characters through this radical shift in ideology, but Serena loses a finger for breaking the law.

Emily is placed in a home with an unusual commander who gives her beer and spares her the “ceremony.” Emily stabs Aunt Lydia, kicks her, and pushes her down the stairs.

This season was short-sighted, doubling back on itself every couple of episodes when progress had the opportunity to grow, because progress is hope and hope is impractical in a show that ran out of its source material after one season. And so Handmaid’s is caught in a hellish cycle of its own making: grief, hope, more grief, repeat.

Perhaps that’s why the unequivocal best part of the season was watching a villain gain empathy. Serena broke the cycle because there was redemption in her struggle. She was always the unintended consequence of her own making, but this season she came to terms with her choices, and used what little power she had to try and create change. Even when she failed, her tragic irony propelled an otherwise skulking season of television.

Just like misunderstanding our desire for dystopian wine, those responsible for The Handmaid’s Tale misunderstand our reasons for watching. They think that all we want to see in this world is pain, when what we’re really searching for in that pain is insight into how to process these atrocities, and how to push through.

Because so little of consequence happened in this season, it’s hard to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale knows what it’s going to be in its third season. Maybe it can rise above a sophomore slump. Maybe it’ll keep spinning its wheels. But, like those midterm elections looming ahead, we may be able to count on some change.

‘Dietland’ is Weighed Down by Plot

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Don’t ever say marketing doesn’t work, because an Instagram ad for this show got me. It was an animation, where body bags with labels like “Comedian” and “Politician” on them were falling to the ground, and I thought, “Ooh! Topical!” My algorithm’s really working.

The first two episodes of Dietland premiered on AMC this week, and I’m skeptical. The show works best when it’s leaning into satire, like the line that an unironic weight management leader says to Plum, the main character, that she should “break all those bad habits. Like eating.” It was a line so expertly hit that barely read as a punchline. But Dietland seems to want to take a more plot-heavy approach with the inclusion of a vigilante organization called Jennifer, on top of an ex-weight-specialist-turned-therapist, on top some workplace police investigation. See? Heavy.

All of these things are also happening all at once, so most of the episode consist of Plum walking around a city, being bewildered by strangers, and asking questions of them. Mostly, the episodes feel like pilot-itis. A lot of seeds are being sewn, so the show may require a little more patience than I’m willing to give.

I’m mainly unsure of the treatment of Plum’s weight. A show with a title like Dietland means we’re in for a lot of fat-stigma-confronting, but those stories are often very tired. Because fat people, specifically fat women, are marginalized, storytellers tend to feel the need to overcompensate with a lot of fabulousness and loud displays of confidence. A woman shows up late to the Waist Watchers (cute) meeting that Plum is attending, and when she’s chastised for not hating her body enough, launches into a rant about how much she loves her body. Her speech peaks with a strong grab of her crotch (I’ve never seen a woman do that.) and a proclamation that she gets all the dick she needs.

No, our protagonist isn’t like that, but there’s a yet floating around that sentence. It’s the kind of fat character treatment that, however well meaning, always translates as a little preachy and a lot pandering. Is it empowerment, or is it disingenuous to feel the need to have a character like that in the first place, when it is not likely any woman’s reality?

I was reminded of a pin I saw recently by the illustrator Adam J. Kurtz. It was a pink triangle with the words “GAY AND BORING.” He explains:

The pink triangle has been a symbol of gay pride and activism for decades, and thanks to those who came before us, LGBTQ folks now have more rights than ever before. The work isn’t over, but we’re getting closer and closer.

One of those rights is the right to be BORING AS HELL. Sure, we’re fantastic, sassy, fabulous, and all those exciting words. But we’re also just plain old people who wanna stay home and watch TV while scrolling Instagram explore page on the couch next to our partner… and that’s our right too.

Do women have to be fat and fabulous? Can’t they just be fat and boring?