Jen Girdish

Writer, editor, reformed shut-in.

In Lieu of a Better Plan

Greetings_from_Washington,_PA

Driving home this weekend, I passed a billboard on I-70, five or so miles outside my hometown, selling something called FracWear. Tagline: “We Keep You Clean.” Washington is a small Western Pennsylvania town that had been the heart of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791, and not much else until it became an epicenter for fracking a couple years ago. 2011 was the first time in fifty years that Washington hadn’t lost population.

I went home to see my grandmother after she had broken her right hip. She’s 94 and about 80 pounds, and this is the third time she’s fractured something. Every time I helped her adjust her legs on the couch, my spine tingled. I was terrified that I would break her even more.

We’re all worried about her appetite, so I made an extra effort to bring her things that she would want to eat. She had spent fifteen years being teased by rumors of an Olive Garden coming to Washington. She likes their eggplant parm. They finally built one a couple of months ago, next to the new Max and Erma’s, which is next to the new outlet mall, which is across the street from the new casino/racetrack/four star restaurant.

When I was in high school, no one moved to Washington. You had to drive 45 minutes to the good mall. There weren’t many places to hang out underage, so I usually camped out in the back section at Eat ‘N Park on Fridays so my friends could smoke. Now, there is every chain restaurant you can think of, and you don’t have to drive far to find a decent pair of jeans.

Washington was only a place you moved away from. I moved to Texas when I was 21 to get as far away as I could manage.

When I’m home, I usually end up meeting friends who stayed in town at TGI Friday’s. But this time, we decided to go somewhere for a drink “that isn’t new” and ended up at the restaurant we used to frequent in high school when we wanted to be grownup. There was a 30-minute wait, and the bar was also full, but my friend knew the host. He somehow relocated a couple at the end of the bar, and we snuck into their seats.

Everything is full in Washington now. The bars are full, the restaurants are full, the parking lots are full. John Waters couldn’t find a hotel room. The rental market is impossible. There aren’t enough apartments to house all of the men who have come to drill, so a few golf courses are renting out spaces in their parking lots for RVs. I saw signs in the lawns of East Maiden—the fancy part of Washington—renting out rooms in their homes.

The bar was full of men with short hair eating dinner alone. My friend and I gossiped about the people in high school who had cheated on their spouses, and which people are still obsessed with their high school crushes. After ten minutes, a couple stood behind me, chatting, and my friend leaned over and whispered, “Notice the accent.”

I braced myself. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a Texan accent. The guy ordered a Shiner, but they didn’t have it. He ordered a Lone Star, but they didn’t have that either. He finally gave up and ordered a Bud Light.

I remember being in a similar state of shock when I moved to Austin a decade ago, trying to order a beer at Lovejoys or the Showdown. Places that aren’t even around anymore as Austin is going through its own kind of development boom.

My friend has been trying to sell her house for over a year. She’s had two previous offers, and they’ve both backed out. But now there’s a real offer, and she has to move out by the end of March. They don’t have a new house to move into.

There are about 10 houses on the market in all of Washington County. People are buying up all the available houses and turning them into apartments for the influx of drillers. There’s barely anything left, especially houses attached to land. Everyone is leasing or selling their mineral rights because they don’t want to be left out. In lieu of a better plan, she and her boyfriend are moving into her parents’ house for a month or so until they can find something.

Washington is now a great place to sell things.

When I drove back to my grandmother’s condo on top of South Main Street, I passed an even-stranger thing besides a Texan: a traffic jam. Cars were lined up on Park Avenue trying to make a left turn into downtown. The headlights went all the way around the bend, past the road that leads to my old house, past my high school. It reminded me of the hundreds of car headlights in the last scene of The Field of Dreams, when Kevin Costner knows he has saved the farm.

But instead of lining up to restore a past, as they were in the movie, these cars are lining up to help take apart the land and drink our mediocre beer.

The Pit of Olivia Dunham

By the end of June, some of my favorite female characters on TV will have wandered into the sunset of cancellation. Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope–whose Parks & Recreation is unlikely to be renewed after this year–have been a rallying point for feminists who want to see someone like themselves when they turn on the television. The one I’m going to miss most, though, is going away tonight, and you may have never had a chance to meet her.

Fringe, a show that has hung on for five years in spite of low ratings and a miserable timeslot, is airing its final episodes January 18, and it features the most underappreciated female hero on television.

Anna Torv plays Olivia Dunham, an agent in the FBI’s “Fringe” division, a special branch that investigates a pattern of unnatural events. She’s assisted by Walter Bishop—an LSD-loving mad-scientist who put “the pattern” into motion by traveling to a parallel universe to kidnap the parallel version of his dead son—and Peter Bishop, the son from a parallel universe. Oh, and when Olivia was a child—nicknamed Olive—Walter did experiments on her that give her occasional superpowers.

It can be hard to be a lady who likes sci-fi/action. You can be accused of fake geekery, and there aren’t a wealth of female characters to can relate to. When I was two or three, before I knew what the male gaze was, I decided I didn’t want to be Princess Leia. I didn’t want end up in a metal bikini, chained to a grotesque looking predator who licks his lips at me. I would rather wind up frozen in carbonite—in all of my clothes.

As I grew up watching the Sci-Fi/Action classics that dominated the 80s, all the men on my television seemed to have more fun than their female counterparts: Luke, Han, Superman, Kirk, Marty McFly, Indiana Jones.

As a six-year-old, seeing myself in only the male roles caused its own problems, it became especially more complicated as I got a little older. I wanted to make out with and be Luke Skywalker. How does that work?

There are a lot of reasons to love Fringe. Its charming character affectations, its retro tech, its new tech, its pulpy-ness, its fudgy science, its attention to the tiny details between universes, its homages to classic sci-fi, and the bravado of a show that’s not afraid to take narrative risks.

When it started, Fringe was somewhere between an X-Files rip-off and a case-of-the-week CSI with Pacey Whitter. But I knew when I happened upon Fringe at the end of its first season that Olivia Dunham was going to be something to watch.

For some, Fringe is the story of a mad scientist who broke two universes to save his son. But alongside that, Fringe concerns itself exploring the idea of identity and relationships. What does it mean to be a person in a different universe, or in a different time or timeline. What is at the core of ourselves? And, for me, it’s especially at its best when it explores the core of woman who is trying to hold her world together within those shifting structures of time and realities.

There are a lot of reasons to love Olivia, and there are a lot of Olivias to love.

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Season One Olivia is slow to develop, like most characters in a first season. Several critics complained that Olivia was “too wooden,” “too cold and distant.” That old male adage that if a woman is reserved, she’s not feminine. And paradoxically, within the season she’s chided by her male boss Agent Broyles (Hello, Cedric Daniels from The Wire!) for being too emotional in her work. Olivia responds with a speech that started my long-lasting lady crush:

“I understand that you think I acted too emotionally. And putting aside the fact that men always say that about women they work with, I’ll get straight to the point. I am emotional. I do bring it into my work. It’s what motivates me. It helps me to get into the headspace of our victims. See what they’ve seen. Even if I don’t want to, even if it horrifies me. I think it makes me a better agent. If you have a problem with that, sorry. You can fire me. But I hope you don’t.”

Olivia eventually learns that it’s precisely her “feminine” fear that fuels her super power. Her physic abilities enable her to switch between universes and control objects around her—including controlling Peter like marionette in Season Four. Her power is especially heightened when she’s afraid.

It’s rare in action genre films for a female character to openly show her fear—a feminine trait usually associated with weakness—and to use it to fight or do her job better. With apologies to Buffy, Agent Scully, and Ripley, usually female protagonists are outfitted with “male” emotions to make them seem tough. I love that Olivia subverts feminine signifiers and uses them for strength.

Season Three Olivia is my favorite Olivia. She spends the first half of the season trapped in the parallel universe, while her Earth-2 counterpart—Fauxlivia—impersonates her back in our world. Torv’s performance casually draws the contrasts between the two. Fauxlivia is THE SEXY ONE. She wears her ginger hair down with bangs, and she dresses like a more stereotypical post-apocalyptic lady solider style: Leather jacket, combat boots, a pithy quick swagger. When Earth 1 Olivia—Ourlivia—has to live in Fauxlivia’s life, she has to lose the boxy FBI suits and her no nonsense ponytail to impersonate her. In a lot of ways Fauxlivia is Olivia’s better-adjusted self. She was never experimented on as a child, she has friends who care about her, a boyfriend, her mother is still alive.

When Fringe started, the show seemed to struggle between keeping Olivia in her sensible boxy suits and exploiting Torv’s odd beauty. The show invented reasons for her to go into a sensory deprivation tank—forcing her to strip into a bra that’s just as utilitarian as her pants suit. Involving Fauxlivia in the main plot resolved this dissonance, allowing the producers to make Olivia’s steely demeanor an asset they could contrast with her freer counterpart.

Even when impersonating the more solemn Olivia, Fauxlivia tries to spruce up Olivia’s life. She begins the romantic relationship with Peter that the two of them could never quite get going, she keeps her bangs, talks about music, goes to a bar without being on an assignment.

When Olivia saves herself and goes back Earth-1, though, she goes back to her old clothes, her old hair color and style. She blames Peter because he couldn’t tell who she wasn’t, and ends the romance. Olivia is Olivia. She rejects the sexy–she may deal with fringe on a daily basis, but she doesn’t want it on her head [1]. As her hair grows back to it’s normal state, you can actually see where her bangs stop and the rest of her hair keeps going in her ponytail. It’s such an important, careful detail of her sense of self, and her pain.

And, though some critics found it too much, at the end of Season Three Anna Torv gets to do a truly creepy impression of Leonard Nimoy when he inhabits Olivia’s body because a bell and something call soul magnets. This wayward plot line exemplifies that Anna Torv deserves most of the credit that Olivia’s character is so lovable. Even when a Fringe scene is at its most absurd—and Fringe can push the boundaries of absurd, I mean, LOLOLOLOL SOUL MAGNETS—Torv brings Olivia’s warm and humanistic side to it.

Plenty of critics have voiced problems with Fringe’s insistence on making the show’s “science” so dependent on love. Sometimes, they say, the show forgets that it’s a show about a scientist who loved his son enough to invent a way to move through universes, and instead features cases of the week where love itself causes the paranormal disturbances. But I don’t have a problem with that, because the impetus of Fringe is based on an act of love, and emotion is what separates the humans from The Observers, a race of hyper-rational humans from the future who take over Earth 1 in the final season. [2]

But, I’m a huge Fringe apologist. It’s hard for the show to really, truly, deeply do me wrong as long as in the hour has Walter mis-pronounce Astrid’s name, make an absurd culinary request, and get a little too excited when he dissects someone.

While Fringe is leaving on its own terms tonight, Olivia doesn’t have that privilege. Amy Pohler and Tina Fey have some say in how their characters make an exit, Anna Torv doesn’t. And it shows in this final compressed season. Her character has been sidelined for much of the 13 episodes as it tries to wrap up the ends and the themes that it started when it was just a lowly X-Files ripoff with a former heartthrob from Dawson’s Creek.

Season Five has taken away a lot of her agency, or at least her visible agency. She spends a lot of the season waiting. The whole gang is in a dystopian 2036, after The Observers have enslaved the planet. Walter and Peter are freed first, but Olivia spends much of the first episode frozen in amber in a creeper’s living room—albeit in all of her clothes. She has to wait for someone else to free her. She then spends the next several episodes waiting for Peter, who has implanted himself with tech that gives him super-powers, making her super powers practically irrelevant.

Olivia doesn’t sit around and play with her hair while others fix things. She doesn’t back down when she has a hunch. She’s the one who has real honest-to-god super powers (as far as this TV world goes). Season Five mostly forgets all this, and takes her from a protagonist to a supporting character.

The only glimpse of what Olivia Dunham used to be like is in Episode 5.6. While inside a pocket universe, she grabs the collar of an observer and pulls him through a portal back to the real universe while simultaneously shooting him. It’s just an annoying reminder of how much fun she used to have.

livy

Over these past five seasons, Olivia’s been kidnapped in a parallel universe, hooked up to numerous mind-reading machines, inhabited by Leonard Nimoy, tortured, shot and killed in two different timelines, and turned into a coffee table. I hope that in the last two hours they can give her a send off worthy of all that fun.

That doesn’t mean a happy ending. I don’t especially want Olivia to live happily ever after—one of the lessons that the characters of Fringe learn over (and over) is that happiness (or love) sometimes has to be sacrificed for the greater good. I want Olivia to be the one who saves the world, and not a piece of furniture.

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[1] Bangs joke!

[2] Some critics might argue, “But the impetus of Fringe is based on an act of love that’s executed through Science, and now it’s just supernatural!”

But I would say, “But even in the early years of Fringe, the science really needed scare quotes, it really pushes the definition of science!”

And they might say, “But! Fringe doesn’t even abide by the rules they set up for their own world of science!”

And to that I would say, “Yes.”

New piece on This Recording

 

I wrote about Explosions in the Sky, female friendship, and the nature of grief for This Recording.

In its eight-something minutes, “Your Hand in Mine” manages to capture the transformation of grief and hope. It seems to understand that the earth can shatter in good ways and bad ways.

 

 

2,190 Days

My dad died six years ago today at 6 p.m. in the Pittsburgh VA Hospital. I usually commemorate December 18 with some whiskey, a screening of Blue Hawaii, and a little crying in public. But this year, I’m at the dermatologist, trying to figure out why my eczema is getting worse, and generally, why my skin has started to look like a dried lemon peel these days.

My dad distrusted all doctors. They were all “too smug,” or they didn’t listen to him, or they told him to stop doing things he would never stop doing. Once, he rigged the emergency exit next to his hospital room—during one of his many heart procedures—so that he could still take smoke breaks. Hospitals are the worst place to stop smoking, he would say.

He was always “firing” doctors for telling him to quit smoking.

He especially hated following orders when it meant cutting things from his life: red meat, butter, alcohol, slowing down. My father did everything as quickly as possible. If he were going to get up to go the bathroom, he’d wait until he could run three errands on the way there. It was more efficient that way. So that’s how he ended up on a ladder, fixing a lose satellite dish instead of waiting for the repairman, which caused the heart attack that eventually killed him.

When I turned 31 almost two years ago, I was afraid that I had inherited all the worst pieces of my dad. My cholesterol was a hundred points over “mildly elevated,” I broke out in hives, I started fainting. I fainted in restaurants, at home doing the dishes, in the middle of a Smashing Pumpkins reunion show. I had to talk myself into believing that while we have the same nose and the same dark circles under our eyes, the inside is different. My heart is not the same as his heart.

My dermatologist’s picture is in a rotating slide show on the lobby’s flatscreen. He looks like a poor man’s John Krasinski, but with giant horse teeth. He has the same knowing smirk at the camera, except he and I aren’t in on the same joke, and there’s no particular joke I would care to be in on with him.  I can’t help but think, as I flip through my New Yorker waiting to be called, that he looks a little too smug.

A Primer on Writing about Domestic Violence

Since the news cycle started when Kasandra Perkins was shot nine times by her boyfriend Jovan Belcher, I feel like I’ve wandered into the Red Room in Twin Peaks. Everyone is speaking in a shady language, and no one is addressing the obvious question.

Over the past four days, I’ve increasingly felt like I’m about to flip my shit, lose my mind, go over the bend, etc. Y’all,  how many ways can I say that this fills me with Eleanor Holmes Norton-style rage until you get it? This kind of reporting is unacceptable.

No one in the media—or, specifically, the media reporting this story—knows how to discuss domestic violence. Most pieces focused on the “trauma” of Belcher committing suicide, Bob Costas made the story about gun control, and Deadspin published a bunch of quotes that called Perkins the catalyst. Even Ben Greenman at The New Yorker, who I love, tweeted that he couldn’t believe that everyone was talking about concussions and not about steroids. No one mentioned domestic violence.

It took days for someone to write about his history of domestic violence, and even then it was called “trouble at home.”

This (lack of) coverage particularly hits home because I used be a public relations specialist at a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City. I know this community.

There’s a better way to cover a problem that hurts a woman every fifteen seconds in this country. Let’s all get out of the Red Room.

1. If you are writing a story about someone killing or abusing their partner, you are writing about domestic violence.

Call it what it is. Mention those words. If we only report these acts as random or solitary incidents, and not part of a long entrenched history of partner violence in this county, then you aren’t giving the full weight of how insidious and ingrained this problem is in our culture.

Do not speculate about “what could have caused this” without mentioning domestic violence. When the violence is only directed at one person—the partner—he is not out of control, he chooses to be violent and who he is violent with. Belcher did not shoot his mom, or the security guard, or anyone at the stadium. He only shot his girlfriend.

2.  Do not report from the lens of the abuser.

If you are reporting about a murder-suicide, lead with the murder.

If you are reporting about a murder-suicide, do not focus on how the suicide could have been prevented, focus on how the domestic violence could have been prevented. Let’s be honest, there wouldn’t have been a suicide if there hadn’t been a murder. The victim did not get to choose.

If you mention the abuser’s name in the first sentence, mention the victim’s name.

Do not write a headline calling the victim a baby mamma, or only show pictures of the abuser in your slideshow.

Interview someone from the victim’s side; don’t dredge up the abuser’s high school coach just to get a quote about what a great guy he was.

Don’t make domestic violence about gun control.

Do not heavily quote someone who just shot a family member as being a “family man.” YOU ARE NOT FAMILY MAN IF YOU KILL YOUR FAMILY.

3.  If you report from the lens of the abuser, you are participating in victim blaming.

When you quote at length from the abuser’s friend’s account of the incident, talk about the victim’s college transcripts, or her employment record, you are participating in some good old-fashioned victim blaming. This is not “getting the other side.” There are not two sides to domestic violence.

When you report that a “heated argument… stemming” from something the victim did, and you mentioned that it happened right before the incident, you are also participating in good old-fashioned victim blaming. Your syntax is suggesting that SHE was the catalyst. Especially, if you report that the victim “had been drinking” and “came home late.” Newsflash: These are not reasons to kill someone.

When you highlight that other people involved in this incident did not feel threatened—especially if those people are three men in the NFL—you imply that this was just the victim’s problem.  

4. Educate yourself.

Do some research, interview some domestic violence experts, or at least Google some statistics. If you do even a small amount of research, you might be able to say something about *why* this happened, instead of quoting friends and colleagues who say he was “everyone’s favorite player” and “didn’t see this coming.” Domestic violence is not inexplicable. It’s a product of someone controlling and dominating another person. It’s perpetuated by a culture of entitlement and misogyny, and we keep that kind of culture alive when we don’t call it what it is.

Here are some statistics that you might find one Google search:

5. Don’t feed the “it came out of now where” storyline.

If you do your research, you might find that abusers are really good at hiding their abuse. They often isolate their partners from support systems. A major reason that victims are afraid to leave their abusers is because they are afraid no one will believe them. You can be involved in “charity work” and still abuse women. You can be poor, wealthy, educated, lazy, successful, “articulate,” religious, and still abuse women.

6.  This is not a women’s issue.

A friend of mine said that he would not expect a Sports Illustrated article to be “heavy on domestic violence coverage.” What he meant was, this isn’t a Sport Illustrated issues. But because sports culture can breed an environment that glorifies control and power, it is especially important for a sports-focused publication to call this domestic violence. This is the second time someone affiliated with the Chiefs shot his partner and committed suicide. In four months.

This is a sports issue. This is an every-single-one-of-us issue.

Whether you are writing for ESPN, Gawker, The New York Times, you should be talking about it. The readers of sports publications may never have been confronted with the real issues of domestic violence, and it’s important to stick it in front of their noses. If someone hears “a defensive lineman shoots himself,” they might automatically assume it’s an injury-related suicide. It’s a journalist’s responsibility to fill in the details, and tell the full story.

Until we as a culture figure out how to teach men (and women) a healthy way to process emotions—and that we do not have the right to control, abuse, or kill our partners—this is going to be a familiar headline.

7. Most importantly, mention where victims of domestic violence can get help.

All you need to do is copy/paste this: If you, or someone you know, is a victim of domestic violence, call the National Hotline at 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224.

Relationships are full of compromise.

Me: Just so you know, this movie has a high probablity of me elbowing you every five minutes and saying, “That’s my favorite thing about Pittsburgh!”

 

Michael: That’s fine. I’ll just elbow you and say, “Hermione would never say that.”

 

Me: Compromise.

Don’t forget about Georgia: Some thoughts on gender and the Pitchfork People’s List

There was a lot of chatter about the Pitchfork People’s List only having a 12% female participation rate, and 0% of female solo artists appearing in the top 50 albums. Some I agree with, some I don’t. Jody Rosen at Slate called the list a scandal because it was largely white and largely male, though, he notes, nothing about this list is surprising to anyone who reads Pitchfork.

He’s right, it’s not. There’s no question that music nerdom and the “indie” music industry is a white boy’s club. I dare you to find someone who doesn’t agree. Do it! I’ll wait.

There’s no question that it’s a huge problem.

Rosen counts two records by female artists in the top 50 of the People’s List, and 23 in the top 200. He notes that he “makes room” for co-ed bands like The xx, Beach House, and Portishead.

Rosen’s list is more crazy-making to me than Sleater-Kinney not showing up on the People’s List at all.[1] It doesn’t help this huge gender imbalance in rock to discount females playing in mixed-gender bands—or, to even “make room” for them—because when you do that, you automatically count their contributions as male. Do female musicians in mixed-gender bands not count as much as the men? Do you think that the ladies in these bands are just following the men’s lead? Do you assume that one girl in a band is there to be that girl in the band? Do you think we all have too much sperm in the brain?

This kind of thinking just perpetuates the boy’s club mentality, and is yet another kind of gender stereotype in rock: that women are there to look pretty. They’re with the band, not of the band. It’s a really reductive way of thinking about female participation in rock.

I don’t know what 23 records made Rosen’s count, but is Yo La Tengo one of them? Does Georgia Hubley–one of the founding members who sings, plays drums, and writes a lot of the songs–not count because she’s married to Ira? What about the ladies in Broken Social Scene? What about Meg White? Do we write off half of the White Stripes because Jack taught her how to play the drums? The Arcade Fire? When you say that you’re making room for Beach House, are you trying to make room for the possibility that Victoria Legrand’s contribution isn’t as valued as as Alex Scally’s?

If you’re not going to count those records as female artists, then you can’t count them as male either.

I counted 46—with my own murky gender math—which is in no way a great number, but it’s better than 23.

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[1] I mean, what the fuck, guys.