History as Farce? Tarantino’s “Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”






Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood has been acclaimed as Tarantino’s valedictory love letter to Hollywood, his “Tinseltown valentine,” but also denounced as belonging to the “Manson-sploitation” genre. Invoking the “Once upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” intertitle of the first “chapter” of Inglourious Basterds as well as the titles of two Sergio Leone’s westerns, Tarantino’s new film reminds us that we are in the realm of make-believe, invention, and playful artistry. Anything can happen, including the “happily ever after” of the Hollywood dream factory. History can be rewritten, and what was first tragedy can be repeated and, at least at the movies, turned into farce.

“Once upon a time”: that’s how we signal a story. We are about to leave the here and now for the domain of the counterfactual, the great “What if?” There are, of course, variant forms. In Haiti, a storyteller will chant “Krik” and the audience responds with “Krak”—we are ready to hear your tale. And in Majorca, a storyteller will begin: “It was and it was not.” What you are about to hear is both true and untrue, a big old lie (that’s Zora Neale Hurston), but one that captures a higher truth about who we are. Or as Milan Kundera put it, in a meditation on painting delivered by one of his characters: “On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath the unintelligible truth.”

But Quentin Tarantino and fairy tales? In Django Unchained, a film that seems far removed from the world of fairy tales, it is something of a surprise to discover a Sleeping Beauty subtext. Recall that Django’s wife is named Hildy, or Broomhilda, and that we first see her locked up in an underground chamber, her punishment for trying to run away. Naked, dehydrated, immobilized, and painfully vulnerable, Hildy lives up to the name given to her by German slaveholders. Recall Brunhilde’s punishment for disobeying her father Wotan: he narcotizes her with a “sleep-thorn” and surrounds her with a ring of fire, sealing her off from the world until a man who does not know fear will rescue her.

Inglourious Basterds is just as allusive in its use of fairy tales. After all, it opens with Beethoven background music and gives us a kick in the head with the cold-blooded shooting of a Jewish family, hiding underground from the Nazis, reminding us of the German genre that captures beauty and horror with unparalleled expressive intensity. And fairy-tale tropes appear in the film with chilling force, most prominently when Colonel Landa interrogates Bridget von Hammersmark and asks her to try on the incriminating shoe in his pocket. Presto, the shoe fits and the actress must “wear it,” Landa declares, after placing her foot in the shoe and then lunging on her to strangle her to death.

Perhaps those fairy-tale tropes are part of the nostalgic sensibility attributed to Tarantino, a filmmaker who is “profoundly and passionately conservative,” as A.O. Scott aptly put it, capturing elements of both self-indulgent regression and archival aspiration in the filmmaker’s imaginative universe. But there is more to Tarantino than that. Fairy tales are there to be rescripted, reinvented, and made new by each generation, and Tarantino does just that. They give us the tried and true, but they also stage the fears that haunt us in the here and now. The symbolic has always enabled us to navigate the real, and, since it is often larger than life and twice as unnatural, it can have a cathartic edge, the therapeutic power ascribed to symbolic stories by Bruno Bettelheim, when, in The Uses of Enchantment, he urged parents to read their children fairy tales, no matter how dark and unforgiving the violence in them.

The movies are, in many ways, our new folklore. Films tap into our collective desires and anxieties in the same way that stories once told around the fireside, in the fields, and in spinning rooms once did. They engage with all the social and cultural contradictions that are in our DNA and, they enable us to talk about those contradictions in ways that may not resolve them but at least rein in their toxic effects.

These days, in an age when we casually invoke the term “meta” to describe nearly every entertainment, we are also interested in what goes on behind the scenes as well as in the sensibilities of the filmmaker/auteur who can no longer be detached from what he directed. And here’s where even the darkness of Tarantino turns a shade darker, when we begin to wonder whether his cinematic violence is truly therapeutic and whether in the many public calculations of its cathartic value there may not also be a missing loss.

In a review of Tarantino’s film, Anthony Lane closes with concerns in an otherwise reverential viewing. Two things “freaked me out,” he confesses. “One was the sudden, insane burst of brutality that is inflicted by men upon women. And the other was the reaction of the people around me in the auditorium to that monstrosity. They laughed and clapped.” (Here, I’m reminded of gleeful reactions of audiences to the ending of Get Out, but that is another story.) Is this preposterous violence, so over-the-top vintage Tarantino that we double over with laughter rather than cringe in fear? Its hard not to notice that excessive force is trained largely on the female Manson acolytes, one of whom perishes after her face has been smashed into every surface and object available, the other of whom shrieks and screams while the fire from a flamethrower slowly consumes her flesh (it’s almost impossible not to think of the witch in another famous German fairy tale).

Tarantino is never shy about piling on, and you almost need a scorecard to keep track of the many noxious women in Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. There is the hectoring wife of the stuntman played by Brad Pitt, a woman right out of Hitchcock’s playbook who was more than likely (justifiably, as the snippet of her shrill outburst suggests) murdered by her long-suffering husband. There is the creepy precociousness of the “actor” (that’s what she calls herself), Julia Butters, whose soulless ambition turns an eight-year-old girl into a threat. And then there are the Manson minions, who eerily resemble Hitchcock’s avian killers in their power to silently and menacingly appear out of nowhere, vulture-like in the way they stare down their prey.

It took the #Metoo movement to reveal that what may appear to be standard-issue misogyny, culturally symptomatic rather than personally motivated, can be more than that. Recall Uma Thurman’s New York Times Op-ed, in which she revealed the abuse to which she was subjected while filming Kill Bill. Among the scenes was one in which she had a chain wrapped around her neck and appeared to be choking. Here’s Tarantino’s defense of how the scene was filmed, “I can act all strangle-ey, but if you want my face to get red and the tears to come to my eye, then you kind of need to choke me. I was the one on the other end of the chain and we kind of only did it for the close ups. And we pulled it off. Now that was her idea.” Was it? During the making of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino decided that his hands, rather than Christoph Waltz’s, would be filmed in the strangling scene. “Look, I’ve got to strangle you,” he told Diane Kruger. “If it’s just a guy with his hands on your neck . . . it looks movie-ish. But you’re not going to get the blood vessels bulging, or the eyes filling with tears, and you’re not going to get the sense of panic that happens when your air is cut off.”

“I always believe in following the advice of the playwright Sardou,” Hitchcock long ago declared. “He said ‘Torture the women!” . . . the trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.” Nowhere is Hitchcock’s sadism more evident than when seated in the director’s chair. While filming The Birds, Hitchock had no reservations about sacrificing Tippi Hedren’s personal safety to cinematic realism and “integrity.” The two-minute assault scene in that film required a full week of eight-hour days, days that left Tippi Hedren on the brink of emotional and physical collapse. “Miss Hedren was placed daily in a cage-like room . . . and two men . . . opened huge boxes of gulls which they threw directly at her, hour after hour. . . . Eight hours daily , for an entire week, she was subjected to this nerve-wracking experience. Birds flew at her, and birds were tied to her.” As she herself tells it, “Finally, one gull decided to perch on my eyelid, producing a deep gash and just missing my eyeball. I became hysterical.” In a final stroke of irony, on each day of shooting, representatives from the Humane Society were present to ensure that the birds were not mistreated.

Cinematic violence, in other words, inevitably seeps into the real world, in ways that are not always easy to calculate. Yet do we now want to police directors, demanding an end to imaginative work that may need what Shakespeare called violent delights to capture the attention of audiences and, more importantly, to remain authentic and true to its time and place?

Can we let Tarantino off the hook? After all, he may be doing nothing more than offering a meditation on how the success of Hollywood films is fueled by mayhem and violence. Or he may be delivering a message on how stuntmen take all the risks and save the day while actors lounge in the pool. Is he mocking the way we cheer on the tough guy who will snuff out the killers (using their tactics)? Or is he revealing how a violent killing spree can be turned into just another day at the office, with the fading TV star played by Leonardo DiCaprio casually and happily accepting an invitation to socialize with Sharon Tate and her friends as charred and battered corpses are driven off in ambulances? Tarantino may be giving us the fairy tale we deserve, even as he mischievously critiques the medium in which he operates and the illusions in which it traffics. Reminding us of our desperate need for scapegoats, he shows us what hypocrites we are when we preach the gospel of kindness and empathy to our children.

Like every good fairy tale, Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood gets us thinking more and thinking harder about who we are and about why violence in the movies is, as Tarantino once put it, “cool,” even when real-life violence is “one of the worst aspects of America.” What does it say about us when we cheer on the stuntman smashing faces into walls and the Hollywood star extinguishing life with his flamethrower and then recoil in horror when we wake up to headlines about another shooting spree in America?


Scorn’d Women Getting Even: Maleficent, Dr. Foster, and now Daenerys

Image result for dr. fosterBeginning in the 1970s, rape moved to center stage in cinematic culture (I Spit on Your Grave, Act of Vengeance, Extremities), and what critic Carol Clover refers to as “rape-revenge stories” began to proliferate. Today we seem to have turned a corner, with new plots: this time “betrayal-revenge stories,” with the the “Woman scorn’d” (as William Congreve put it in his 1697 play The Mourning Bride) as the motor of the plot.

Case in point, Netflix’s Dr. Foster, which opens the second episode of season one with Suranne Jones (who plays Gemma Foster) reciting Congreve’s lines:

Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.

Congreve’s wisdom has become proverbial “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” (or did he appropriate the proverb?) and here is where online definitions become helpful, with the proverb meaning  that “a woman will make someone suffer if they reject her” and “women can be particularly furious and emotional when angry” (implying of course that they get even crazier than angry men). Gemma Foster enacts that proverbial wisdom, and the Dr. Foster becomes almost unwatchable in Season 2, when Gemma descends into extreme madness of the suburban sort.

We’ve seen this same behavior, which I call the Maleficent Syndrome, in Robert Stromberg’s 2014 film, starring Angelina Jolie (soon to become “The Mistress of Evil” in a sequel).  There it is Stefan who betrays Maleficent, cutting off her wings in what has been called “a metaphoric rape” Angelina Jolie confirmed this view when she noted, in a BBC interview, “We were very conscious, the writer and I, that [the scene] was a metaphor for rape.”

Image result for maleficent

Still, it is the fact of Stefan’s abandonment that enrages Maleficent, turning her into the Evil Queen of the Moors and leading her to put a curse on King Stefan’s daughter, Princess Aurora.

And now we have scary Daenerys, scorned by Jon Snow, on a rampage, going full mad queen as she rides her fire-breathing dragon, engaging in what gives the term scorched-earth policy a new depth of meaning. No—Daenerys Targaryen And Her Failures Are Not 'Bad For Women'

There may be a shift from revenge-rape stories to tales of betrayal and madness, but there is a constant that remains: Hell hath no fury like a woman.

Arya Stark as Classic Horror’s Final Girl

Game of Thrones s8 e3

If you want to see how much Game of Thrones fans loved Arya Stark’s sleight-of-hand before slaying the Night King in the godswood with a Valyrian steel dagger, just go on Twitter and look at how often her face has been superimposed on basketball players making breathtaking stealth moves before a stunning slam dunk.  Entertainment Weekly reports that Maisie Williams was worried that fans would “hate” how the Battle of Winterfell was resolved and conclude that Arya “didn’t deserve it.”

The show prepared us for the finale all along in a variety of ways, one of which was the scene showing a terrified Arya making her way through the library, trying her best to elude the White Walkers lurking in the stacks. (Did anyone else have a flashback to Jurassic Park, with a terrified Tim and Lex hiding from the raptors in the kitchen?) Here we have the “distressed female” of classic horror, the survivor known as the Final Girl, who is “chased, cornered, wounded” and whom we see “scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again,” as Carol Clover puts it in Men, Women, and Chainsaws. She is the one who looks death in the face and finds the strength to slay the monster.  Even as she is terrorized and tortured, the Final Girl rises to the challenging terrors that no one else was able to face down.

And while we are at it, did anyone else notice the striking resemblance between Max Schreck in the German horror film Nosferatu (1922) and the Night King?


Stones of Patience: Silence and Storytelling

The Patience Stone movie

Golschifteh Farahani in Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone

Stones of Patience are a rarity in European and Anglo-American folklore, though the German phrase about something being capable of moving a stone to tears or making a stone empathetic (etwas könnte einen Stein erbarmen) tells us much about the power of stories.  These stones can be found in the folklore of many cultures, with a Persian tale, for example, called SANG-E ṢABUR (a story that inspired Rahimi’s 2012 film).  The patient stone in the title represents the most empathetic listener imaginable. Collecting all the compassion that has been squandered in the world, it absorbs suffering as it listens to the tribulations of those who must bear an intolerable burden of misery. The patient stone sacrifices itself, willingly bursting into pieces by taking on what would otherwise crush its human interlocutor.  Do I need to ask in how many ways this is relevant to last week’s hearings?

For centuries, women in fairy tales have made use of veiled speech and clever ruses as they prowled around the margins of storytelling worlds. They engaged in a practice one expert calls idio-narration, talking to themselves as much as to others, using their words to get their story “out there,” even when, or perhaps especially when, no one seemed to be paying attention. In fairy tales, they are often silenced as girls, by fathers, brothers, and other male relatives—in some cases even by creatures exceptionally low in the food chain or high in divine hierarchies. When the princess in the Grimms’ “Frog King” explains why she is weeping, the frog tells her, with an air of authority: “Be quiet and just stop bawling.” “Don’t cry, Gretel,” that’s also what Hansel tells his sister when they are lost in the woods, unable to find their way back home. And the Madonna herself silences the girl in “Our Lady’s Child” when she refuses to admit that she opened a door forbidden to her.

“The Goose Girl,” a story recorded by the Grimms and included in their collection of 1812, reveals the complex ways in which silence and speech operate in tandem to produce self-reflexive narratives that allude to the power of storytelling. A princess traveling to foreign lands for her wedding is betrayed by her chambermaid and forced to tend geese in the kingdom she was to rule. On pain of death, she cannot reveal her true identity. All the while, she retains magical powers, summoning the winds to divert the attentions of unwanted suitors or communicating with the head of her beloved horse, a creature decapitated by the chambermaid. If speech in its most urgent form is denied her, still she finds, as is the case with Cinderella, Snow White, Donkeyskin and a host of other fairy-tale heroines, some consolation in her power to commune with and be at home in the natural world.

It is the father of the prince who, after getting wind of intrigue and betrayal from the horse’s head endowed with speech, proposes that the goose girl tell her troubles to an old iron stove. Once he walks away, the princess crawls into the iron stove and starts “weeping and wailing”: “She poured her feelings out and said: ‘Here I sit, abandoned by the whole world, even though I’m the daughter of a king. A false maid forced me to remove my royal clothing and now she has taken my place with my bridegroom. And here I am, forced to do menial work as a goose girl. If my mother knew about this, her heart would break in two.’” The king has put his ear to the stovepipe and hears every word she speaks. Truth becomes public thanks to an eavesdropper or sympathetic listener, a male intermediary with the authority to validate and air the facts, even when, or perhaps especially when, they are hotly denied. Telling her story, finding the power of speech in what could have been mere breath in the wind, has transformative power.

Our word for silence comes from the Latin silentium, meaning “quiet, still, calm,” a condition of being free from noise. But there is a strong bifurcation of meaning embedded in the term. When we use “silence” as a verb, it signals something imposed or inflicted, yet “silence” is also golden, a condition of serenity associated with physical and spiritual wellbeing. With the writer Rebecca Solnit, we can think of “silence as what is imposed, and quiet as what is sought,” thereby reserving silencing for a coercive form of behavior, one that ranges from the violent cutting out of tongues (paging mythical creatures ranging from Philomela to the Little Mermaid) to the illocutionary force of a command to shut up. Women have always spoken up and acted up, but, as we have seen, they were often silenced in ways that forced expression through artifacts associated with women’s work (like Arachne or Philomela, weaving stories about criminal behavior into tapestries). Or, in acts of desperation, they confided in themselves or inanimate objects, discovering that justice came only when a male intermediary listened in (often in an enclosed space!) and made things better or right.  Today, with new technologies that provide public outlets for telling stories, airing grievances, and exposing injustices, we have established an alternative system that rivals our legal institutions in its power to shame, punish, and chasten. The premium on good storytelling has never been higher, and the challenges that lie ahead remind us of the vexing complexities implicated in the difference between telling a good story and telling one that is true. As always, aesthetics and ethics dance a tango in a drama that is compelling, complicated, and enigmatic to the core.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy and Fairy-tale Revenge

Image result for mommy dearest and dead Erin Lee Carr’s remarkable documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017) contains a remarkable sequence that begins with Gypsy Rose Blanchard, victim of her mother’s need to turn a healthy child into a dangerously ill patient, sitting in Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, eating “some real mashed potatoes.” As we discover, this is a girl who will not know how to distinguish fantasy from reality. “Life is not a fairy tale,” she reflects while awaiting trial for plotting with her boyfriend to kill her mother. “I learned that the hard way,” she admits after she has been charged with second-degree murder.

What fairy tale did she use to make sense of her life?  “I liked the Disney film Tangled,” she tells us.  “It’s about Rapunzel. She’s a princess in this kingdom, and she’s kidnapped by Mother Gothel from her real family.  And Mother Gothel keeps her in this tower for all of her life and tells her ‘Don’t leave this tower’ so that is all she knows. . . . At the end Mother Gothel dies. She got thrown out a window because Rapunzel tried to stand up for herself and leave her tower.”

After years of treatment for diseases like muscular dystrophy and leukemia–diseases she never had–Gypsy Rose finds love in a relationship, one that is once again mediated by fairy tales.  On Facebook, she chats with Nick Godejohn, who persuades her that “every Beauty needs her Beast.”  “We can relate to it from opposites of it, Sweetie,” he tells her.  “I was taught that a woman’s role is to be submissive,” Gypsy Rose declares, “and the man is dominant.”  On Facebook she tells Nick “Well, I’ll be your Belle if you be my Beast in bed.”

Gypsy Rose never had a chance to learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The desperate need to follow scripts that are pure fantasy turned her life into what one officer describes as a “fairy-tale nightmare,” a worst-case scenario that replicated the excesses of fairy tales and never gave her the chance to experience the redemptive therapeutic value of stories understood as story, told in a safe space that creates the opportunity to use the symbolic to navigate the real rather than to model it in ways that turned horrifyingly real.

Words and Weapons

After listening to Emma Gonzalez, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student who survived the Parkland shooting and spoke at March for Our Lives in Washington DC, I began to reflect on all our cultural stories in which women use words and silences as weapons in the service of social justice.  There’s Philomela and Scheherazade, and their life stories set me to thinking about all the ironies embedded in their tales about telling tales, with Philomela turning into a nightingale by Ovid (the female of that species famously does not have the gift of song) and Scheherazade telling stories about licentious women but living in a culture that restricted women’s sexuality.
It is the human condition to live with cultural contradictions, and maybe for that reason it is not so surprising that in the public arena women are raising their voices in protest (Emma Gonzalez’s words became powerful poetry, and I will not forget her “nevers”) while in our popular entertainments, women are resorting to weapons.

There is Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, glammed up with an outfit that has become the source of inspiration for fashion designers. (Don’t forget that one critic viewed The Hunger Games as a fable of what it’s like to be in high school.) Reflecting on the lack of logic in the games, Laura Miller writes:

If, on the other hand, you consider the games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible. Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. 







Then there is Hanna in Joe Wright’s 2011 action adventure film–a genetically modified teenage assassin with bows and arrows and guns.












And Frances McDormand is weaponized again and again.







As is Rey from The Force Awakens, another trickster who is skilled in fighting back, and who has been turned into an action figure.











Female tricksters in stories and myths from times past used words and wit to right wrongs and change their cultures.  These days, when we go to the movies we see revenge plots, with women turning first to arsenals of guns and steel to get even, doubly ironic since that has been the strategy of those to whom women are offering resistance in real life.




At 1:15 in the clip below Robin Williams grumbles about buying gribenes from a mohel (look it up and you will get the bad joke). “It was such a Schande,” he declares, masquerading as a Bubbe.

The German word Schande is one of the most judgmental terms around. It means “shame,” “disgrace,” or “scandal,” and you do not want that word in the same sentence as your name.

The recent revival of  “disgrace” and “disgraceful” in our culture set me to thinking about the efflorescence of blaming and shaming in tweets, headlines, comments, and posts.  I looked up the Google Ngram for “disgraceful” and found that use of the term spiked in 1805 and then again about 1820, and that usage has declined steadily since then, with a small move upward by 2008 (financial crisis?).  [see link below]

Who is to blame for the return of “disgraceful”?  Did it begin with Trump’s tweets calling the acquittal of Garcia Zarate in San Francisco “disgraceful” and a “travesty of justice”? Or his rant about Sessions instructing the Inspector General to conduct a federal investigation:  “Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!”  “Many other instances!” if I can resort to Trump’s twitter-style.

The other side has fought back with its own share of “disgraceful” volleys.  Here’s Michelle Goldberg on March 16, 2018, in the NYT: “A collection of generals, New York finance types and institution-minded Republicans were said to be nobly sacrificing their reputations and serving a disgraceful president for the good of the country.” Or Maureen Dowd the next day, commenting, “Trump & Friends presented this dizzying White House purge as a twisted version of him growing into the job, even as everyone else felt he was going in the opposite direction, behaving disgracefully by 86-ing Rex Tillerson in a tweet and tormenting other staffers he finds annoying or uppity.” And remember John Brennan, erstwhile director of the CIA, tweeting that Trump will take his “rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.”  Close enough.



Perfect Nannies and Other Fairy Tales

I took a break from Barbara Comyns’ The Juniper Tree with The Perfect Nanny, which I finished last night after taking another break, this time from Berlin Babylon.  Am I the only one detecting disturbances in the cultural airwaves, with so many books and films in which children die, sometimes at the hands of their own mother but often at the hands of a caretaker, or, well, a “perfect nanny”?  Disney gave us that wonderful little ditty and now Leila Slimani explores the dark side of the song title–do I need to insert a spoiler alert for a book that begins with the words: “The baby was dead”?

In The Juniper Tree, Comyns makes the fairy-tale connection explicit. And here’s an extract from Slimani’s prize-winning novel: “Louise . . . looks like one of those duplicitous mothers in a fairy tale, abandoning her children in the darkness of the forest.”  Never mind that, in “Hansel and Gretel,” it’s the father who takes the children into the woods–it’s the stepmother who puts him up to it.  Fairy tales give us events that are larger than life and twice as unnatural, but these days, fairy tales come true in our realistic fictions, where we have the chance, not just to witness melodramatic action, but also explore the minds of villains and victims, something the fairy tale rarely does.

More on Berlin Babylon once I have a chance to process a series that is perhaps the most immersive film production I’ve ever seen, which means that it’s all the more wrenching and heartbreaking to witness the violation of what was once a taboo in cinematic culture: the death of a child.  The trope of death and resurrection is evoked repeatedly in this series, and maybe that provides a form of consolation. Characters you think are dead (some long dead) come back to life, and there is even a kind of twisted Sleeping Beauty moment that is easy enough to locate.


Getting Even with Stories


From the New York Times:

Yes, Uma Thurman is mad.

She has been raped. She has been sexually assaulted. She has been mangled in hot steel. She has been betrayed and gaslighted by those she trusted.

And we’re not talking about her role as the blood-spattered bride in “Kill Bill.” We’re talking about a world that is just as cutthroat, amoral, vindictive and misogynistic as any Quentin Tarantino hellscape.

Jessica Chastain responded to Maureen Dowd’s account by tweeting out: When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘phoenix’ moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.

These days, the phoenix moment for many Hollywood heroines comes when they pick up bow and arrows or stockpile an arsenal of guns and steel. Hunger Games and Hard Candy showed us women empowered by their ability to wield weapons and torture men.  (Hitchcock was famously inspired by the words of the French playwright Victorien Sardou, “Torture the women.”)  In Hanna, Joe Wright reinvents Little Red Riding Hood as a genetically modified teenage assassin who reads fairy tales at night and goes out for target practice in the daytime, dressed in pelts. When Buffy, from the popular 1990s TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” dresses up as Little Red Riding Hood for Halloween, she carries weapons in her basket, “just in case.” And packing heat now seems de rigueur in films ranging from the popular Hong Kong subgenre known as “girls with guns” to Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri.

Never mind that women rarely shoot ’em up in real life.  As in times past, women have relied on the brute force of stories to exercise their power. Once upon a time, women did not have many opportunities to broadcast misdeeds. The power of stories was limited to the domestic sphere, to sites of work and play that permitted talk, gossip, chatter, and other forms of verbal improvisation. And even then certain stories—particularly those that featured persecution, intimidation, and other forms of social injustice—were taboo. How could you possibly dare to tell your story? In many fairy tales, we find women who are sworn to secrecy and cannot tell their stories—women who, for one reason or another, fear the consequences of revealing the truth. In a German story called “The Goose Girl,” the protagonist confides in an iron stove (go figure). In the Italian tale, “The Young Slave,” Lisa grumbles and weeps before a doll. Each time, the truth becomes public thanks to an eavesdropper, a male intermediary with the authority to validate and air the facts.

The legendary Scheherazade of The Thousand and One Nights understood storytelling as a practice with the power to transform a culture. To double duty bound, she tells stories not just to save her own neck but also to end King Shahriyar’s reign of terror and change the values of her social world. “I will begin with a story,” Scheherazade tells her sister Dunyazad, “and it will cause the king to stop his practice, save myself, and deliver the people.” Scheherazade’s triple project is ambitious, and she uses the civilizing energy of symbolic narratives not just to arouse the curiosity of the king but also to open his eyes to suffering, social injustices, and the power of compassion. A woman who has read widely in poetry, history, and philosophy, she is “intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined,” modeling for Shahriyar a path that veers away from violence and vengeance.  As an added irony, she is an expert in the art of making things up, but the death sentence hanging over her if she does not “perform” to Shahriyar’s satisfaction is nonetheless very real.

The women capturing the headlines today are not making stories up. They are telling about what happened in their daily lives–a stark reminder that on-screen violence is not so far removed from the horrors of real life.

Our media-rich environment is imperfect, flawed, and full of opportunities for purveying hate speech and falsifying the news. But it has a powerful upside in offering outlets for storytelling and breaking the culture of silence imposed on victims. Scheherazade begins as a victim, but the arc of her story takes her to a position enabling her to speak and become a double agent, liberating herself from a death sentence and saving others from her fate. Transcending the limits of a narrow domestic space through her expansive narrative reach, she embraces bold defiance as she puts her high-wattage stories in the service of a social mission.




Thoughts for the Season on Storytelling and Santa Claus


Image result for santa claus thomas nastNewsflash from Nature Communications.


“Storytelling is a human universal. From gathering around the camp-fire telling tales of ancestors to watching the latest television box-set, humans are inveterate producers and consumers of stories. Despite its ubiquity, little attention has been given to understanding the function and evolution of storytelling. Here we explore the impact of storytelling on hunter-gatherer cooperative behaviour and the individual-level fitness benefits to being a skilled storyteller. Stories told by the Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population, convey messages relevant to coordinating behaviour in a foraging ecology, such as cooperation, sex equality and egalitarianism. These themes are present in narratives from other foraging societies. We also show that the presence of good storytellers is associated with increased cooperation. In return, skilled storytellers are preferred social partners and have greater reproductive success, providing a pathway by which group-beneficial behaviours, such as storytelling, can evolve via individual-level selection. We conclude that one of the adaptive functions of storytelling among hunter gatherers may be to organise cooperation.”

And from Stephen Greenblatt, who drew my attention to the Nature Communications article.

This time of year, the stories that most unite us are fantasies in which we are not (except as small children) asked to put our faith. Unlike, say, the biblical accounts of Adam and Eve and the birth of Jesus, these festive tales generally do not draw masses of faithful who insist as a point of dogma on their literal truth. On the contrary, either our playful seasonal stories are clearly understood from the start to be fictional or, in the case of Santa Claus, they become fictional in time.

Greenblatt writes about the American cult of Santa Claus, and its origins in the verse of Clement Clarke Moore, or possibly a Poughkeepsie poet named Henry Livingston, Jr. But in this season it’s also good to recall that Santa goes by many names: St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Sinterklaas.  St. Nicholas, the man who inspired our Santa Claus stories, was a bishop who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey in the third century. Legend has it that he inherited some wealth, learned about the plight of a poor man with three daughters, and tossed bags of gold through the window, enough for handsome dowries.  The sacks were later said to have been tossed down the chimney (the windows were sealed tight).  Sounds like a fairy tale to me, but more importantly the origin story reminds us that our Santa Claus, rotund and jolly, with a manlo  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017…) and granny glasses is an invented figure, one that we could reinvent if we wanted.

Here’s  a link to a program about White Santas!


And, finally, one last article on the “gullibility” of children about figures like Santa and the Tooth Fairy and about when they embrace an “empirical stance.”


I mention this because my daughter has avoided telling her two-year-old about Santa–she fears Roxy may say “I don’t buy it.”  Richard Dawkins begs to differ–not so sure whose side I take on this one.

“Child brains are gullible,” writes Richard Dawkins, “open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion…wide open to mental infections that adults might brush off without effort.”

But research in developmental psychology tells a different tale. By age 5, children are harder to dupe about the existence of a fantastical creature without some good evidence that the creature really exists; by age 8 or 9, if not sooner, children reject the reality of Santa.