Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Love Stories of Gina Prince-Bythewood: LOVE AND BASKETBALL and BEYOND THE LIGHTS

I have the privilege of living within walking distance of one of the oldest art house theaters in the country, Harvard Square's Brattle Theater. I don't take advantage of this local treasure nearly as often as I could, but when the Brattle announced a partnership with the Roxbury International Film Festival and The Color of Film to screen a series called "In Our View," featuring films directed by African American women, you bet I put the dates down in my calendar. One date especially: this past Saturday, when the repertoire series focused on love stories.

During the first snowfall of the season, I walked into Harvard Square in my mittens and gloves and sat down in the quiet theater for an amazing double feature, the first and the most recent films by director Gina Prince-Bythewood: Love and Basketball (2000) and Beyond the Lights (2014). As an article about the series on Vanyaland points out, only 12.5% of film directors who released a feature film during 2013 and 2014 were people of color; just 1.6% were women of color. So it's pretty rare to get the chance to view two such films, back to back, and to get to marvel at the talent, beauty, and skill of some pretty amazing black women on display, not on tiny television but up on a large screen.

Even more of a treat was the feminism that played front and center right alongside of actresses Sanaa Lathan (Love & Basketball) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Lights), a feminism that played out not just in the romantic relationships at the heart of each film, but also in the larger family and social dynamics in which these two young women live.

Love and Basketball traces the "four quarters" of Monica Wright's relationship with Quincy "Q" McCall, from the day in 1981 when Monica's family moves into a well-heeled LA neighborhood next door to the McCall family to the days in 1993, right before the adult Quincy is set to marry another woman. Q's first sight of eleven-year-old Monica is as an androgynous kid who asks to join the basketball game, a game of which Q is the obvious leader. When Monica doffs her cap after Q says "yes," he and his two friends can't believe the long-haired girl who is revealed has the least chance of hanging with them on the court. Especially not Quincy, whose father is a professional basketball player and who is determined to follow in that father's footsteps. "I'm gonna be the first girl in the NBA," Monica declares; "I'm gonna be in the NBA, you're gonna be my cheerleader," Quincy counters. But Monica proves more than able to hold her own, frustrating Quincy to such a degree that he finally shoves her off the court, scraping her face roughly on the grass. Monica's mother and sister fuss about the injured Monica in the bathroom in their new home, not able to understand why she can't just act like a girl. But when they finally leave her to herself, Monica breaks into a smile. She's a ball player, and now has the scars to prove it.

The two neighboring families arrange for Quincy to take Monica to school (love those banana bicycle seats!), during which cocky Quincy asks Monica if she wants to be his girl. She agrees, they seal the deal with a kiss (5 seconds long, which Quincy counts off on his fingers), but when he insists that she has to ride behind him on his bike, their short-lived pre-teen romance descends into a punching, rolling wrestling match.

icing each other's injuries
Through the rest of middle and high school, Monica and Quincy focus on playing basketball, warily eyeing each other from across the small patch of grass that separates his bedroom window from hers. Prince-Bythewood highlights the differential treatment families and the culture at large gives to female vs. male athletes: Monica is labeled as having a "bad attitude" on the court because of her drive, and gets penalized by the refs for showing her emotions or acting the least bit aggressive on the court. The same actions make Quincy into a big man on campus. Quincy also has the girls buzzing around him like bees, while Monica never dates. Quincy's mom warns him against being taken in by a grasping girl, while Monica's bemoans her youngest daughter's tomboy ways. Would it really be that hard for her to stop slouching around in sweats and spend more time styling her hair?

But the ballplayer in each of them can't but respect the skill and determination of the other, and by the time their college plans are finalized (Quincy gets to announce at a press conference which of many schools that have been recruiting him he will choose; Monica waits and waits for a single letter offering her a place at a school with a women's basketball program), the two finally find their way romantically to the other.

Life in college isn't as easy as either of them had imagined, though, especially when Quincy's beloved father proves to have feet of the stickiest of clays, and Monica chooses to put her own ballplaying above Quincy's needs. Quincy's punitive reaction might have led to a "oh, you should have made a different choice, girl" kind of message, but instead, Prince-Bythewood takes the opposite stance. And at the film's end, guess who is playing professional ball, and who is holding the baby and cheering on at the sidelines?


Beyond the Lights ends with a similar scene: British pop star Noni Jean singing her solo heart out on a stadium stage, with new love Kaz standing in the wings, cheering her on. But Noni's journey to that triumphant moment is more emotionally fraught than was Monica's. The daughter of a black father who abandoned her white mother, Nona has been the means through which Macy Jean has tried to prove that she's not the nothing everyone said she was when she had a black child out of wedlock. Acting as her manager as well as her mom, Macy and Noni's record label have propelled the sweet-singing Noni into a sexualized pop sensation, pairing her in duets with a white working class British rapper (Kid Culprit) to worldwide acclaim. But on the very night she and Kid Culprit win a major award, she sits on the edge of her hotel balcony, daring herself to jump off.

Her mother's frightened scream brings the LA police officer guarding her door rushing in. Soft-spoken Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker) talks Noni off the ledge with the words "I see you," something Noni is not at all sure anyone else can or does. But when Noni's handlers convince him to attend a press conference during which Noni describes the incident (caught on film by paparazzi) as an "accident," Kaz is disgusted by the lies. Kaz, like Noni, has been groomed from a young age, but for a far different role: major in political science, serve as a police officer, then segue into a political career. Kaz's police officer father warns him against getting involved with the volatile pop star, but the vulnerability and sadness that he saw behind the sex and chains and purple hair keeps drawing Kaz back.

Noni's record label, though, would far prefer that she continue her "fake/real" relationship with Kid Culprit than date a cop. Noni's attempt to go her own way leads to pretty disastrous on-stage consequences; though Kid says he's not hurt by Noni's push for independence, it's obvious that he's come to rely on the way that pop culture uses the symbolic (and often actual) subjugation of female black bodies to make working class white males feel empowered. And he punishes her for it, in the ugliest of manners.

In the aftermath of this debacle, Kaz "kidnaps" Noni away from all her handlers, and the two drive to Mexico with Kaz's dog. There, they rest, have sex, tour the local markets, and basically give themselves the freedom to act like two people falling in love. Two of the most poignant scenes occur during this "happy idyll": Noni cuts out the hair weaves that hide her naturally curly hair, as if she is cutting the chain-bedecked, sexually provocative black girl trying to evoke the look of a white girl strand by strand. And at a Karaoke bar, Noni sings an a capella version of Nina Simone's heartbreaking "Blackbird," a song we earlier saw the young Noni sing during her first talent show as a child.

But when Noni's impromptu song is caught on video and goes viral, will Noni be sucked right back into the maelstrom of pop stardom, a maelstrom that leaves no room for anyone, not even Noni herself, to be seen for who she really is? Or who she wants to be? Is Noni destined to live out Simone's anthem: "So why you wanna fly, blackbird / You ain't never gonna fly"?

I couldn't help but think of the definition of feminist romance that Aya de Leon, my fellow presenter at this past October's Boston Bookfair, created: "A feminist romance is one in which the male romantic lead decides to step away from the male privilege granted him by patriarchy and get behind the goals and beliefs of the woman he loves." I can't think of two other films which embody this principle more clearly than Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights.

Love and Basketball Trailer:

Beyond the Lights trailer:

Photo credits:
Love and Basketball
Kissing: YouTube
Icing: Twitter
WNBA: Giphy

Beyond the Lights
press conference: LA Times
Noni and Kid Culprit: Collider.com
Concert: Huffington Post

Friday, December 8, 2017

Disability and Historical Romance: Mary Balogh's SOMEONE TO WED

Protagonists with physical and/or emotional disabilities appear far more often in the Regency romances of Mary Balogh than in the books of perhaps any other historical romance writer. By my count, of her 86 novels published to date, at least thirteen feature a main character with a physical or mental impairment of some sort; other books (Slightly Married, Simply Perfect, A Secret Affair, and probably a few others I'm forgetting) include secondary characters with disabilities of various sorts. Some back of the envelope math suggests that characters with disabilities feature in almost 20% of Balogh's books.

Some critics have found Balogh's engagement with disability issues worthy of praise. For example, Reviewer Caz on Romantic Historical Reviews writes of Balogh's Survivors' Club series, which features protagonists who have all been seriously injured (physically and/or mentally) by war, "In each case, the author has approached her characters' injuries and disabilities sensitively and un-sentimentally, showing how difficult it has been for each of them to regain anything resembling a normal life following their terrible experiences." And although scholar Ria Cheyne cautions in her article "Disability Studies Reads the Romance: Sexuality, Prejudice, and the Happily-Ever-After in the Work of Mary Balogh" that she is not "aiming to fix these novels as 'positive' representations which should be played on some hypothetical list of 'acceptable' representations of disability" (212), her discussion of Balogh's Slightly and Simply series does argue that Balogh's romances with disabled protagonists "offer significant opportunities to challenge negative stereotypes around disability" (201-202).

In contrast, Meoskop, reviewing The Arrangement (book #2 in The Survivors' Club series) on Love in the Margins, finds Balogh's depictions more than a bit lacking: "There are authors that do disability well, and then there's Mary Balogh. Her disabled characters are more Matt-in-Downton-Abbey than Harold Russell." Her review concludes with a clearly ironic recommendation: "If you love inspiring stories about disabled veterans and the wives that don't leave them, then The Arrangement will hit all your Inspirational Story buttons."

Though Meoskop doesn't spell it out, she clearly objects to the way that Balogh's portrayals of the disabled barely skirt, or fall into, the trap of "disability as inspirational" for the non-disabled reader. As Deborah Davis on the Abilities.com web site writes,

Many disability advocates have expressed disdain for being viewed as "inspirational" in popular media and reject the premise that this emotion adds any positive value to their status. This often-used description associated with able-bodied individuals' emotions in connection with accomplishments or just daily living of those with disabilities is seen by some in the community as separating, objectifying, condescending and regressive in terms of equality and inclusion.

(Check out this great post on Everyday Feminism, "7 Reasons to Stop Calling Disabled People Inspirational" for more on what has come to be called "inspirational porn").

All of the above is to tell you that I come with a lot of backstory to my reading of Balogh's latest, Someone to Wed. Its heroine, 29-year-old Wren Heyden, has been a recluse for the majority of her life, and wears a veil to cover her face whenever she goes out in public. Wren has just completed a year of mourning for her aunt and uncle, with whom she had made her home since the age of ten. Having inherited her uncle's glassworks manufactory, Wren is now wealthy—wealthy enough to buy herself what she longs for, but believes she could never win or earn: someone to wed.

For Wren is "severely, cruelly marred" by a large purple birthmark on the left side of her face, which covers her from forehead to jaw (Kindle Loc 317). Although the descriptive words in quotations are the thoughts of the novel's hero upon first seeing Wren's face, they could just as well have been Wren's. For while her birthmark is not a physically incapacitating disability, some unnamed abuse Wren experienced because of it during her earliest years has created in her a major emotional disability: "In my own person I am not marriageable," she tells Alexander Westcott, the new Earl of Riverdale, the third man she's "interviewed" for the position of spouse.

In her joint review of the book on Dear Author, reviewer Janine points to structural similarities between Someone to Wed and Balogh's 1997 novel, Indiscreet. For me, though, the more telling comparison is to Balogh's 1993 category Regency, Dancing with Clara, which also opens with a disabled heroine who wishes to marry. In the twenty four years between the publication of these two novels, how had Balogh's depiction of disability changed? Had any of the insights of Disability Studies, which call attention to the problematic ways that the disabled are often "othered" and marginalized in popular culture, filtered into popular consciousness?

19th century Bath chair
Clara of Dancing with Clara is physically disabled: "crippled," restricted to a wheeled chair, unable to walk since contracting an illness in India as a child (Loc 85). While both Clara and Wren feel that "Only my money can buy me a husband" (Dancing 273), they go about their husband searches differently. Rather than openly declaring her wish for a husband,  Clara allows the gloriously handsome fortune hunter Frederick Sullivan (the villain of a previous Balogh book) to come to her. He flatters her, even tells her that he is in love with her. She knows he's lying (and so does the reader, as we are given his POV, as well as hers). But he's so handsome, and she's so lonely, Clara lets his deceptions go without challenging them, and agrees to marry him. She only tells him to stop calling her "my love" two weeks after they marry, when her own feelings start to become engaged, and his obvious overstatements make her feel as if he is spoiling the good relationship they have started to build. When Freddie gets upset by her request that he stop lying, Clara feels guilty for making him feel ashamed.

In contrast, Wren takes the active, not the passive, role in searching for a husband. It is she who invites Alexander to her home, and she who asks Alexander to marry her. Wren is a businesswoman, not a lady of leisure as Clara is, and she treats the husband search in as businesslike a manner as possible: "Perhaps we could combine forces and each acquire what we want" (263). Though the novel presents Wren's hiding her emotions as a problem she must learn to overcome, her business acumen grants her far more agency than did Clara's passive desires. Wren is also honest with Alexander from the start about what she wants, and what she hopes to gain from him. And he is honest with her about his pecuniary problems, a far different approach than taken by Freddie and Clara.

Both Clara and Wren desire a husband, in part to satisfy "needs," needs of the sexual kind:

She was lonely. Dreadfully lonely. And she had needs that were no less insistent than they could be in other women despite the fact that she had no beauty and was unable to walk. She had needs. Cravings. Sometimes she was so lonely despite Harriet's friendship and despite the existence of other good friends that she touched the frightening depths of despair. (Clara 124)

She had longings and needs and yearnings that were a churning mix of the physical and emotional. Sometimes she could not sleep at night for the ache of something nameless that hummed through her body and her mind and seemed to settle most heavily about her heart. (Wed 431)

But Clara wants Freddie Sullivan in particular, because of his beauty:

She wanted him. Mr. Frederick Sullivan, that was. She wanted all that health and strength and beauty to belong to her. Almost as if she could make them her own, she thought wryly. Almost as if she could transform herself by marrying him. (Clara 327).

Clara, longing to rid herself of her physical disability, imagines that she can "almost" annex Freddie's beauty and health by marrying. Marriage thus equates to being able-bodied, at least in some corner of Clara's mind.

In contrast, Wren is upset when she first meets Alexander Westcott to find he is "the proverbial tall, dark, handsome man of fairy tales" (Wed 448); she would have far preferred a plainer man, an older man, a man, the text implies, against whom she would not feel quite so ugly (Wed 184). Wren is used to being in charge, having a degree of power and control; the text suggests her dismay at Alexander's good looks is a fear of loss of control.

The two books are alike in one important regard: both Clara and Wren engage in satisfying sexual relationships after their marriages. This is in contrast to what Anna Mollow and Robert McRuer argue is a far more "pervasive cultural de-eroticization of people with disabilities" (Sex and Disability 4). But this depiction of the sexuality of the disabled may be as much of a factor of genre as it is a challenge to popular culture norms; sexual compatibility/fulfillment is typically one of several components that are required of any romantic couple who hopes to enjoy a romance HEA. Or in other words, it just wouldn't be a Mary Balogh romance if it excluded sex.

The two books differ as far as which of their protagonists—the disabled or the able-bodied—must learn a lesson, must change and grow, in order for the couple to achieve a HEA. On first glance, it may appear that in Dancing with Clara, it is Clara who has to change: by novel's end, she learns to walk. But the true emotional change comes within Freddie, not Clara. Freddie, a careless, even selfish, rake, a continual disappointment to his family, must learn to put others—in particular, his wife—before himself. This would be a fine, even feminist lesson—if Freddie's lesson did not center around helping Clara overcome her disability.

Freddie encourages Clara to move beyond the protective shell in which her fearful father had always placed her—to consult with a new doctor, to take exercise, to try to move from her wheeled chair. In some ways, then, even though Clara is a protagonist of the novel, she also serves as what Ria Cheyne terms a "yardstick character," a character who exists largely measure the worth of other characters. If you're nice or kind to, or protective of the yardstick character (a kitten, a child, a disabled person), you're a character the reader should admire. This is a problematic construction when the yardstick character is physically, emotionally, or mentally impaired, for the unintentional message is that disabled characters are more important for how others respond to them than important in their own right. From the start of Dancing with Clara, readers are introduced to Freddie as a fortune hunter, a bounder, a self-absorbed man. We come to care for him because he is kind to Clara, and is the impetus to her moving beyond her (falsely imposed) disability and learning to walk again.

Clara's learning to walk again not only rings that suspect "inspirational disabled person" bell; it also suggests that getting rid of one's disability might just be necessary if one is to be fully worthy of love, or is to enjoy love's benefits to the fullest. Abelism is writ large in this earlier book.

Wren, unlike Clara, is the emotional star of Someone to Wed. Alexander begins the story an upright, morally kind character, the kind of person who always puts others first, and this doesn't change very much over the course of the novel. Although he longs to marry for love, he feels it is his duty to marry for money so that he can support the estate he has just inherited. When Wren makes her forward proposal in the book's opening scene, Alexander doesn't immediately reject it; instead he proposes that the two get to know each other a bit first, to see if they could be compatible. And Alexander, the protective, help-others type of romance hero, feels drawn to Wren precisely because of the pain she has suffered in the past. So he ends up getting both to marry for money, and to marry for love, requiring little character change or growth.

In contrast, Wren's character arc includes far more change than Alexander's. Wren's physical blemish, unlike Clara's inability to walk, is not something she can change. And unlike Clara, she never dreams that she can change it, or wishes that she could even though she knows that she can't. But the story does insist that her emotional disability—the abuse she suffered as a child that convinced her never to go out in public, never to mingle in society, never to make a friend beside her aunt and uncle—must and should be overcome. Is this ableism, just writ on a smaller scale than in Clara? Or is this an insistence that viewing disability as only a social construction, and denying the embodied aspects of bodily impairment, is just as problematic? Part of me wants to cheer for Wren as she gradually overcomes her isolation, and becomes incorporated within Alexander's large, extended family. But another part feels more than a bit uncomfortable with the "healing power of love" message. . .

In the Dear Author review mentioned above, reviewer Janine points to her discomfort with what she reads to be lookism, more than (or as much as) ableism, in Someone to Wed. Though on its surface, the story insists that beauty is not skin deep, by dwelling so frequently on Wren's birthmark, and making Wren so isolated because of it, it inadvertently suggested the opposite.

In order to counteract the potential claim of lookism, the story provides a traumatic backstory to explain Wren's isolationist turn. The most problematic aspect of the book for me was this backstory, and its deeply sexist undertones. I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone, but would be curious to hear from other readers what your response was to Wren's meeting/confrontation with a key figure from her past near the book's end.

To sum it all up, then: there are clear and important positive shifts in Balogh's depiction of impairment and disability from 1993's Dancing with Clara to 2017's Someone to Wed. But if Meoskop were still alive and blogging, she'd surely have more than a few scathingly ironic critiques to make of it.

Photo credits:
Inspiration Porn critique: Medium
Bath chair: Wikipedia

Someone to Wed
Berkely, 2017