Thursday, 26 December 2019

Christmas won't be Christmas: Little Women

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents": thus begins Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, now turned into a  stylish film by Greta Gerwig, with the four March sisters played by Emma Watson (Meg), Saorsie Ronan (Jo), Eliza Scanlen (Beth) and Florence Pugh (Amy).  This 2019 version is definitely very classy and it captures Alcott's feminist message more explicitly than the 1994 movie, the one with Wynona Ryder as Jo and the wonderful Susan Sarandon as Marmee.
I went to see Gerwig's Little Women this afternoon,  on the day of its UK release - it is a bit of a tradition for me to go to the pictures on Boxing Day, my mother always used to take us when my sister and I were little and I did that with my son too, when he was a child.
Little Women is a much-cherished coming-of-age novel and writer Louisa May Alcott was a feminist and a libertarian. She wrote swashbuckling stories which did not sell particularly well.  Little Women was more or less commissioned and she really wrote it to get out of debt. It brought her fame and financial stability but she did not care much for the novel and used to grow impatient with fans, who demanded sequels.
The interpretation given by Gerwig to this American classic is quite compelling. In the film, Alcott and Jo at some point merge and it seems only natural that Alcott should become a character in her own novel, as the film reaches its conclusion. I will not introduce spoilers, you will have to see the film yourselves to find out.
Gerwig's movie captures all the most important moments of the novel, with reference to both Little Women and its sequel Good Wives.  It does not hold back on the theme of sibling rivalry, definitely present in the book but suitably chastised by Alcott.  Gerwig leaves out all sermonizing and moralising and this makes the movie relevant and contemporary.
The casting was good; I particularly liked Emma Watson's Meg, it was a bit of a surprise to see her in that role but Watson is a very good actor and delivered well. Saoirse Ronan as Jo was just perfect.

As a book, Little Women is part of our childhood; for so many women around the world, the vicissitudes of the March girls, their joys and sorrows, have acquired the status of personal memory.  Alcott's book has a very clear message about women, and financial freedom, which the movie does not fail to convey.  A nineteenth-century woman could only find fulfilment in marriage, hoping to marry money; in one of the best scenes of the movie, an adult Amy tells wealthy childhood friend Laurie (whom she later marries) that as a woman of 'middling talent' she has to consider marriage as an economic proposition.  Women like Aunt March, played in the movie by Meryl Streep, a grand old lady of means, a status conferred to her by birth, were few and far between and the price they paid for their independence was spinsterhood. Thus, despite all their wealth, they were regarded as social misfits.
In our times,  things are better, but only just. As Gerwig said in an interview:
"One of the fascinating undercurrents of the book, to me, is this interplay between art and money. So much of this book is about lack of money and resources, how if you are a woman there is no clear path for how to get them”. I can think of countless times, throughout my life, when I had to contend with my desire to work creatively and my inability to secure resources and I know that being female did not help my endeavours.

I definitely recommend the movie. I also recommend reading the book again. Louisa May Alcott said that Little Women was just some 'rubbish' she 'scribbled' on-demand,  there is in it much preaching, which can be very off-putting - fortunately, the movie avoids it. But Little Women is primarily about these vibrant young women, full of life and resourceful, quite extraordinary in their ordinariness. They are the protagonists of this novel, all four of them: the male characters seem to be there only in a supporting role.
This alone makes Little Women such a wonderful and enduring tale, one which can be revisited again and again. It is meant for women, but it is not only for women.
Last but not least, the book has a message about thriftiness and simplicity, which Gerwig's movie readily picks up and renders beautifully through costumes and domestic interiors. Somehow, this resonates with our contemporary concern with sustainability and upcycling and a desire for a simpler life.

But I shall have to expand on this in a different post.

*** Should you wish to compare the different versions of Little Women made over the decades I strongly recommend this video

Monday, 16 December 2019

Counterfeit cosmetics

If you have not watched the documentary 'Broken', available on Netflix,  I would advise you to do so immediately. Watch especially the segment about counterfeit make-up. It made me think long and hard about what I put on my face and I spent the morning throwing away old foundations and anything I thought might be contaminated or of dubious provenance.
With Christmas coming up, you will probably buy cosmetics as gifts and you may be tempted to buy discounted kits online from Amazon or eBay. Please check everything very carefully and do not be taken in by offers of huge discounts on known brands. Many of these cosmetics are counterfeit, made in China and elsewhere, wherever cheap labour and manufacturing are available. Buying counterfeit cosmetics or buying cheap ones from a brand you have never heard of,  is not on the same level as buying a counterfeit bag. These cosmetics are poisonous.
They are made in appalling conditions, they may contain urine and faeces, as well as poisons like arsenic.  Would you really want to put this stuff on your face?
Thanks to highly irresponsible influencers, many of these counterfeit or little known brands manage to make profits out of your skin. Dermatologists have seen a rise of certain epidermic conditions, caused by products made in unhygienic surroundings.

Image from BBC

Few among us have the necessary knowledge to understand chemical formulas and chemical reactions. Although there are mechanisms in place to check on what is being imported, it is very difficult to monitor online purchases. In the documentary, a young woman tells you about the time she bought a lip gloss and her lips got stuck because it contained the same chemicals used for superglue! She ended up with wounds on her lips, in the attempt to separate them.
When you buy something that has to be used on your skin, be sensible. Google the ingredients and if the packaging does not convince you, send it back. Amazon has a service to monitor counterfeit goods, although, in truth, it is in Amazon's interest to sell stuff, regardless of provenance. It's what Amazon does: it sells third party goods and they always have a disclaimer.
And please do not rely on reviews! They can be fake and can be bought, just like followers on social media can be bought.
If your cosmetics are over 18 months old, dispose of them. They are liable to contain bacteria.
You would not eat in a dirty place, overrun by rats. Many of these cosmetics are made in places where rats and animal droppings are the norm. Why would you want to put dirty, poisonous stuff on your skin?
I love make-up like many other women and men too. But I love my skin more and I want it to be disease-free.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Once upon a time: the transformation of the fairy Carabosse

Victoria Marr as Carabosse, Birmingham Royal Ballet 2017. Photo by Bill Cooper

Most people have heard of   - though they may not necessarily have seen it -  the classical ballet Sleeping Beauty. A more significant number of people around the world know and have seen Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) and the more recent, supposedly feminist take on the story, Maleficent (2014).
Carabosse in the ballet and Maleficent in the Disney story are one and the same character: they are the wicked fairy who curses Princess Aurora. I will not engage with Maleficent in this post, there have been many articles written about her and the significance of the movie. I particularly appreciated reading the piece by  Samantha Abramovitz, most relevant in that it reminds people of the forthcoming sequel and warns them not to fall for the progressivism of Disney's movies and take it for authentic feminism. 
The retelling of Sleeping Beauty by the French Charles Perrault constituted the narrative upon which Petipa's ballet is based (with music by Tchaikovsky).  Perrault never named his wicked fairy. However,  there is another retelling of this old fairy tale in which the name Carabosse first appears, that of Madame d'Aulnoy, entitled The Princess Mayblossom (La Princesse Printanière).  In this version, she is an ugly former nurse of the king, on whom the king had played a prank when a child. She now turns up at court, uninvited, to exact her revenge - she is endowed with magical powers. The story of Princess Mayblossom somewhat differs from La Princesse au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty). The point here is that until Madame d'Aulnoy took the initiative, wicked fairies were not named at all.  By the time Tchaikovsky composed the music for the ballet in the 19th century, the name Carabosse had taken root. It may have been because the Russian great witch par excellence (note that she is powerful, not necessarily wicked) was known by her name, Baba Yaga, and her fame had travelled from Russia to Western Europe.  
Madame d'Aulnoy and Charles Perrault were contemporaries, both active at the end of the 17th century, straddling into the 18th. Madame d'Aulnoy, even though she enjoyed popularity in her time,  has been totally eclipsed by Perrault and it is only in more recent years that several studies have reconsidered her writing and highlighted her differences from Perrault. Not only did she use sources from the Italian and Spanish tradition, but Madame d'Aulnoy also often turned her heroines into more active ones, occasionally questioning social norms in ways Perrault never felt the need to do.  Another post will dwell on Madame d'Aulnoy as a writer, for indeed, she is most intriguing. 
When it comes to 'wicked fairies' Madame d'Aulnoy concedes that they can be either good or bad (Baba Yaga style, except that Baba Yaga was unknown to her) depending on their mood. But even in Madame's enlightened retelling, Carabosse is as ugly as can be, continuing that tradition of portraying ugliness as the outer form of evil, which has given rise to the abundance of misogynistic portrayals of witches. The  Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition held a few years ago at the British Museum aptly conveyed it. The catalogue by Deanna Petherbridge is still available, and one can access a podcast by Petherbridge here.
Where am I going with all this? I am saying that in ballet, Carabosse has been redefined, updated and given psychological depth by contemporary ballet choreographers. It is more usual to have the role performed by women, rather than men, which was the tradition, though the at-times-over-the -top portrayals of many male performers are still relatively common.

When female ballerinas dance Carabosse, the mime is still the same as in the original ballet (this is a 19th-century ballet with old fashioned mime), but the character becomes tragic rather than the object of derision.  Carabosse has dignity, is majestic. Yes, she indulges in revenge, but one can feel for her.
Who has not ever experienced rage like Carabosse?  Deeply affronted, she decides to take action and confront those who have insulted her.  I love watching how Carabosse appears calm and courteous - her entrance and her bowing to the Queen is very elaborate - while inwardly seething,  giving vent to uncontrollable rage, then composing herself and outlining her revenge plan with glee, only to be defeated by the changes which the Lilac Fairy makes to it - Aurora will not die, she will sleep.  It is not a behaviour I recommend,  but it is so cathartic to watch; it must be a wonderful experience to perform this role - I have found this video of dancer Erica Cornejo (Boston Ballet) talking about how she feels when performing Carabosse. It is worth watching.
Carabosse is the fairy who harks back to mythical characters such as Medea, she who sacrificed her children for revenge - not nice, quite frightening in fact, but then Greek mythology is full of violence and gore and Medea is one of its most tragic figures, at least in the retelling of her story by Euripides.
Carabosse is not just an ugly and wicked fairy to poke fun at, she is an outraged queen.  She deserves some much-needed respect.
 I cannot help having a soft spot for her. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Obsessing over longevity

Jeanne Clement Photo: The Guardian Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Over the weekend an article published by The Guardian about a (pseudo)scientific row over Jeanne Clement, the woman from Arles who supposedly lived to 122, set me thinking about the fascination so many of us have with longevity. It seems Clement could have been a fraud, with her daughter impersonating her, soon after she died, to evade taxation. Yvonne, Jeanne's daughter would have died at age 99. The camps are divided, Jeanne is a cherished national treasure and admitting fraud is difficult in the circumstances.

Jeanne and Yvonne Clement aside, people, in general, are positively captivated with the idea of living a very long life. But why? Would it not be a bit boring to live for well over a century?

Apparently, not. People want to live forever, if only they could.  According to this article, "funded by Silicon Valley elites, researchers believe they are closer than ever to tweaking the human body so that we can finally live forever (or quite a bit longer), even as some worry about pseudoscience in the sector."

The idea is dystopian, frankly repulsive. The complex technology behind such experiments makes this quest for longevity extremely costly and any of its results inaccessible to those who are not super-rich. It is, in many ways, profoundly unjust. Why don't we try, instead, to make the world a better place for the young, who are faced with terrible ecological threats and many of whom live in abject poverty, with very few prospects? A recent science fiction series Ad Vitam (2018) depicts a future world in which giving birth is outlawed, as everyone over the age of thirty can be regenerated. It's chilling.

Longevity and quality of life are intertwined. An often-overlooked side of longevity is illness. people imagine a state of eternal youth, but that is very far from the truth. There is no fun in a life ridden with ailments yet prolonging the life of a very ill person is regarded as mandatory. It is often cruel to do so but this is what those of us who belong to the baby boomer generation are forced (or have been forced) to do with our ill, ageing parents.

Mary Beth Bowen Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

Michael Wolff wrote in 2012, inspired by watching the steady decline of his elderly mother, a poignant piece about the growing ageing population in the US alone: "by promoting longevity and technologically inhibiting death, we  have  created a new biological status held by an ever-growing part of the nation, a no-exit state that persists longer and longer, one that is nearly as remote from life as death, but which, unlike death, requires vast service, indentured servitude  really, and resources.
This is not anomalous; this is the norm."  Strong words, yet they resonate.

We don't allow, by and large, assisted suicide, it is regarded as immoral. I passionately believe we should have a choice. The only one available is VSED, the voluntary stopping of eating and drinking. But that requires an iron will and the death it brings is very slow. It is a wholly inhumane process. I read with great interest about the film made by Mary Beth Bowen about her mother Rosemary's decision to end her life by VSED. I salute Rosemary for her bravery and Mary Beth for having the courage to film her (with Rosemary's consent), at one of the most distressing moments of their lives. VSED is not prohibited by any law but it is inconceivable that this should be the only way to stage one's exit, short of resorting to violent suicide.

I may be in a minority but I do not want to live to a hundred.  Having reached my sixth decade, I want to be able to die when , objectively,  it feels like the only available option (for whatever reason),  and I want this to be as dignitous and pain-free as possible. I might need a friendly medical hand to achieve it. For now, it will remain wishful thinking.