December 2011

Roxane Gay

features

Garish, Glorious Spectacles

The green girl likes to watch herself suffer.

Green Girl, Kate Zambreno

In her groundbreaking book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler asserted that gender is a performance, an unstable identity that forms through how it is performed over and over. She wrote, “Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts. The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” While our conceptions of gender have evolved since the publication of Gender Trouble, there is a lot to be said for Butler’s theory, particularly when it comes to the ways in which women, knowingly or unknowingly, perform femininity and the ways in which women are sometimes trapped by how they are expected to perform their gender.

The best word to describe Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl is searing. The novel is at once a compelling narrative about a young American woman living in London and an indictment of what ails our culture -- rampant consumerism, shallow human connection, and, most of all, the cult of beauty and the unbearable and impossible constraints of gender -- a culture where women wear their faces as masks, their bodies as shields.  

If, as Butler believes, gender is a performance, Green Girl is a novel about a young woman who is learning how to perform her femininity, who is learning the power of it, the fragility of it. Her education is, at times, a painful one. The green girl is as vicious as she is vulnerable and Zambreno is unflinching in exposing this viciousness and vulnerability in her protagonist. Green Girl reveals the intimate awareness many women have about the ways they are on display when they move in public, about the ways they perform their roles as women. “The awareness on the train, the fashion show. The men are always looking with their flirty eyes. One can shop but does not have to buy. But sometimes life in the spotlight can be difficult. Sometimes she wants to be invisible.”

Throughout the novel, there is also an awareness of how sometimes, women perform their roles. They play the part of girl. The performance, at times, overshadows a woman’s identity and stands in place of her identity. As Ruth realizes, “Sometimes she is struck by the sense that she is someone else’s character, that she is saying someone else’s line.” The green girl also does one thing and feels another because, “The passivity of the green girl masquerades as politeness.” She wants to put her fist through a window but doesn’t because she knows that’s not what expected of a green girl. She knows she is beautiful but does not necessarily feel her beauty inside. Throughout the novel, these tensions are brightly exposed over and over. At times, the novel makes it seem that to be a green girl is to be in a rather hopeless predicament.

Ruth is a shopgirl, responsible for selling a perfume, “Desire.” She is always on display at work while also part of the scenery. One morning at work, she observes a group of teenage girls: “The girls slinking up the aisles have a rehearsed quality to them, their purses positioned just so on their shoulders, their eyes downcast yet somehow watchful. They cannot escape this self-awareness. They are playing the role of young girls, girls younger than Ruth.” There is an irony in Ruth’s observations. Throughout the novel, she plays the role of the young woman and her self-awareness (and at times, self-loathing) is palpable and as inescapable of the self-awareness she sees in those teenage girls.

Zambreno artfully demonstrates the self-absorption and vanity of the green girl, her insecurities, the mask(s) she wears, her conflicting desires. At times, Ruth wants to shield herself from the gaze of strangers. She closes in on herself, tries to occupy as little room as possible whether walking down the street or taking the tube. At other times, she wants to be seen, desired, loved. She is, at one point, willing to exploit herself to an unnamed former lover: “She prays to be preyed upon. She is a deer standing in the middle of the forest road, knees buckling, begging for a predator.” Ruth, it would seem, wants everything, all at once.

Though this is a novel about women, there are, indeed, men in Green Girl: the man at work Ruth longs for, the brutal former lover she longs for, the seemingly platonic lover she longs for until they consummate their relationship at which point she longs for something else. Ruth has desires but those desires seem largely removed, lacking in immediacy and rarely do those desires come into sharp relief. When Ruth has sex, it is often in a detached manner, her partners rather incidental to the act, Ruth herself incidental to the act. Ruth has an assignation with a bartender in the supply room of the bar, her detachment finely honed. “She is the voyeur of herself,” Ruth observes. And later, when Ruth and the bartender are fucking, “She has seen it all before, as if in a dream. But she is not really there. Not really.”

In Laugh of the Medusa, Hélène Cixous states that, “Woman must put herself into the text -- as into the world and into history -- by her own movement.” Green Girl is fascinating for the ways Zambreno puts woman into the text, physically and emotionally. “Ruth wants to escape. She wants to escape outside of herself. Everywhere she goes she wants to confide: Do you know what it’s like not to be able to shake your own quality? She doesn’t want to live. She wants to lose herself, lose herself in the crowd. She is somehow numbed to the horrors of everyday. Images, other images haunt her brain. The violence of life, she observes blankly.”

More than anything, Green Girl is relentless in what it reveals about the green girl and her inner life, the emptiness and loneliness, the naked violence of it, how she must swallow it, “deep deep inside.”

***


If Ruth is woman as green girl rising, Maria Wyeth in Joan Didion’s equally searing Play It As It Lays, is the green girl as she falls, the green girl as she tires of playing the part of girl, the green girl as she decides to stop playing the part of girl because she no longer has any need (or, perhaps, desire) to do it. Even though Play It As It Lays was published in 1970, little, it seems, has changed when it comes to woman as spectacle. Maria Wyeth is tormented and a bit tragic but she also has a tenacity about her. The novel chronicles Maria’s descent into madness after having an abortion at the bidding of her estranged husband; her descent is more controlled than you might imagine.

Play It As It Lays reveals a complex web of relationships between Maria and her husband Carter, their friends Helene and BZ, her lover Les Goodwin, her former lover, Ivan Costello and it also reveals how these people break themselves against each other in rather terrible ways. There is also a young daughter, Kate, suffering from an unspecified condition and living at a facility away from home, a daughter Maria openly yearns for and is the one person, throughout the novel, for whom she demonstrates genuine affection.

Maria, as the never-quite-model-and-actress, is also always on display and aware of it, craving it as much as she despises it. Living in Hollywood, she is, like Ruth in the store where she works, just another part of the scenery of desperate and drugged women who, as Maria refers to her own beauty, “looked all right,” and move through their lives playing the proper parts. Like Ruth, Maria is self-absorbed and selfish but she has a stronger awareness of these flaws. Whereas Ruth often felt like she was someone else’s character, Maria, as an actress had opportunities to become someone else’s character to similar effect. When watching a movie she starred in, Maria observed, “In fact, she liked watching the picture: the girl on the screen seemed to have a definite knack for controlling her own destiny.”

As a fading green girl, Maria remains detached. She loves her daughter and mourns her mother but, as with Ruth, most of her relationships are approached clinically, with a bemused detachment. She rarely indicates a genuine interest in preserving her marriage and has little tolerance for the men in her life. When her lover, Les, has left three messages, she asks her answering service to tell him she hasn’t picked up her messages because, “She had nothing to say to any of them.” After she has her abortion, she meets Les Godwin and he asks what’s wrong with her, she says, “I am just very very very tired of listening to you all.” What the people in her life label, throughout the novel, as insanity or selfishness, reads quite clearly as weariness -- a weariness of playing her part properly, of being on display, of being the ingénue and good green girl.

The literature of abortion is complex. Certainly, there are novels like Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion and Irvine’s Cider House Rules, among others. These literary treatments often struggle to strike the proper balance between narrative and political message. Didion’s treatment of the subject is far more nuanced -- the message does not subsume the story. This is a story about abortion but it is also the story about what happens to the green girl who changes but does not necessarily become any less powerless, empty, filled with longing.

During the procedure, Maria is dispassionate about what she is going through. “No moment more or less important than any other moment, all the same: the pain as the doctor scraped signified nothing beyond itself, no more constituted the pattern of her life than did the movie on television in the living room of this house in Encino.” It is only after, when she realizes she has, perhaps, done something she would rather not have, that the emotional significance of what has happened begins to affect her and even then, she does not seem to know what to do with those emotions so she dulls them through the liberal use of barbiturates.

Even though her desires were often muted, Ruth had them. She longed for things even if she did nothing to pull those things closer to her. Maria Wyeth longs for things she could not possibly reach for -- a dead mother, a sick daughter, an aborted fetus. The green girl’s desires change, take on a greater, more intimate significance.

There are many similarities, subtle but noticeable, between Ruth and Maria. For example, like Ruth, Maria seems willing to make herself prey, willing to be woman as victim. In a parking lot where a group of boys are vandalizing cars, Maria walks right toward them. “She kept her eyes steady, her place even, and when she found herself unlocking the car under their blank gaze it was with extreme deliberation. As she slid into the driver’s seat she stared directly at each of them, one by one, and in that instant of total complicity one of them leaned across the hood and raised a hand in recognition of what had passed between them, his palm out, inscribing an arc in the still air.”

Toward the end of Play It As It Lays, Maria has a one night stand with an actor she doesn’t even like. Maria is as dispassionate as Ruth fucking the bartender as she lies still beneath the actor. When he falls asleep, Maria takes his Ferrari and drives to Vegas near where she is pulled over by a highway patrolman for speeding. The agent she shares with her husband, Freddy, comes to rescue her and finds Maria, “still wearing the silver dress and she was still barefoot and her face was streaked with dust.” On the flight back to Los Angeles, Freddy says he doesn’t understand girls like Maria. He says, “I mean there’s something in your behavior, Maria, I would almost go so far as to call it… Almost go so far as to call it a very self-destructive personality structure.” Maria doesn’t bother to respond.

We are left with Maria Wyeth in a psychiatric facility. She has committed a terrible crime. The people in her life think she is crazy, selfish, self-destructive. You get the sense Maria is probably the sanest person in her sad group of lovers and friends. She wants nothing more than to get out and take her daughter and raise her. As the fallen green girl, Maria knows something Ruth could never know. In trying to explain herself, Maria says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.”


***


If Ruth is woman as green girl rising, if Maria Wyeth is the green girl as she falls, the women of reality television are the green girls interrupted, green girls at their most garishly exposed, cut open for the cameras, performing the best and worst parts of themselves for attention, to be seen, for love, to be adored, for fame, to be wanted.

Reality television often gives the impression that like gender, the whole of life is a performance. The Los Angeles mansion or the tropical jungle or the fading rock star’s tour bus is the stage, and what a stage it is -- brightly lit, lurid, encouraging us to see the garish spectacle of life at it’s most artificially real. I watch it all -- the faux highbrow fare of Bravo, the booze-soaked MTV programming, the glossy competition shows on CBS, the sleazy exploitative fare of VH1 and even the off brand shows on lesser cable networks like Bad Girls Club and Sister Wives.

No one shines more luridly on this faux real stage than a woman. Whether it’s a modeling competition, a chance to compete for love, a weight loss show or a look into the lives of an aging magazine publisher’s harem, women are often the brightly polished trophies in the display case of reality television. The genre has developed a very successful formula for reducing women to an awkward series of stereotypes about low self-esteem, marriage desperation, the inability to develop meaningful relationships with other women, and an obsession with an almost pornographic standard of beauty. When it comes to reality television, women, more often than not work very hard at performing the part of woman though their scripts are shamefully, shamefully warped.

Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer Pozner, is a very smart book that skewers reality television for its sexist, racist, and dehumanizing tactics in nearly every genre of reality television. While I think of myself as media literate and a feminist, I don’t know that any book I’ve read this year has made me as uncomfortable as Reality Bites Back for its incisive examination of what I have often thought of as harmless entertainment programming. I had to question what it says about me that I take so much pleasure in the drama of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or the drunken, weave-snatching antics of Rock of Love or Flavor of Love, that, I, like many others, take pleasure in what Pozner brands, “the cathartic display of other people’s humiliations.”

In her analysis, Pozner reveals the many tropes reality television exploits -- women as “catty, bitchy, manipulative, and not to be trusted,” for example, and how these tropes are coded into every aspect of these shows from marketing to how the shows are scripted.  The green girls interrupted are manipulated into becoming the worst versions of themselves and while certainly, anyone who goes on a reality television show in this day and age has a certain level of reality sophistication, one gets the impression, from Pozner’s critique, that these green girls do not have the intimate self-awareness of a Ruth or a Maria Wyeth. They don’t have an opportunity to develop this self-awareness because the reality of reality television is so heavily constructed these women can only be aware of the artifice surrounding them and the parts they are scripted to play within that artifice.

Perhaps no reality television better exemplifies the green girl interrupted, the green girl wholly aware of the artifice surrounding her and somewhat complicit in maintaining that artifice, than VH-1’s now defunct “celebreality” shows Rock of Love and Flavor of Love. In Rock of Love, women vied for the affections of fading rock star Bret Michaels while in Flavor of Love, the women vied for the affections of has-been emcee Flava Flav of Public Enemy. In each of these shows, the women deftly play the part of bad (green) girl or good (green) girl or good (green) girl gone bad -- each pretending the former star is the center of the romantic universe amidst freely flowing alcohol, forced interactions designed to create artificial but vicious conflict, writhing on stripper poles, and other luridly spectacular scenes. In Flavor of Love, the women don’t even keep their real names. Instead, Flav, as the women call him, assigns each woman a new name of his choosing because he cannot be bothered to see the green girl interrupted for who she really is. The names range from the silly (Smiley) to the degrading (Thing 1 and Thing 2). The show’s artifice allows these women easily to step into constructed identities through this renaming. The women are undoubtedly exploited, but they often seem resigned to it and willing to revel in that exploitation rather than challenge it.

In both shows, across multiple seasons, these green girls interrupted go through the motions of looking for true love with men who are, themselves, contributing to the artifice by spouting hollow sentiments and platitudes as a means of seduction while metaphorically winking at the camera to let us know they know how unreal their reality is. The exploitation, and these women’s participation in it, continued when many of the women from both shows went on to appear on spinoffs with equally artificial premises like Rock of Love Charm School, Charm School with Ricki Lake, I Love Money, several shows for former Flavor of Love contestant, “New York,” and on and on. On each of these shows, these women rarely demonstrate any self-awareness. Instead, they reveal how intimately aware they are of the artifice around them and what that artifice will bring them (attention, a modicum of fame, money). These green girls interrupted are the parts they must play, and within the context of these shows, they do not evolve beyond those roles. They remain interrupted.

If reality television has any connection to reality it is that women are often called upon to perform their gender, whether through how they present themselves and their sexuality, how they behave, and how they conform (or don’t) to society’s expectations for women. The repetition of gender acts in reality television becomes grossly stylized through artificially tanned skin, elaborate hair extensions, dramatic make up, surgically enhanced bodies, and chemically injected faces. The acts become grossly stylized through bad behavior, often carefully orchestrated by producers. Under the persistent glare of the camera, these women have little choice but to sacrifice themselves for our entertainment. The women of reality television are, perhaps, the greenest of girls, women who revel in watching themselves suffer because they have been so irrevocably interrupted they do not know what else they should do. We can’t look away. These women, these interrupted Ruths and Marias -- look at their ruin. They are such garish, glorious spectacles.

At the end of Green Girl, Ruth wants some kind of rebirth, some way of making herself clean. She wants to “smash that thing that houses me inside of myself.” She decides, “I want to go to a church and direct my eyes up high and open my arms open my arms up to the ceiling. And scream. And scream. And scream.” She wants to scream in both agony and ecstasy. She wants to lose herself as much as she wants to find herself. The same thing could be said for Maria Wyeth. And, perhaps, the same thing could be said for the women of reality television as they break themselves against each other, against the camera, against the ways they are expected to perform their gender. What may be most terrifying is just how real reality television may be after all.