Archive for category Women/ feminism

STEELE INTERVIEWS: comedian [and founder of stand-up showcase Broad Appeal] Christa Weiss


I met the very funny, smart and lovely Christa Weiss when she was performing at V to Shining V. Graphic designer by day and stand-up comic at night, Christa Weiss started Broad Appeal– a comedy showcase that consists primarily of female comics–a year ago. Broad Appeal celebrates its first anniversary at The Armory in Somerville, Mass. on Thursday, October 8, 2015.

Amy Steele: How did you get into stand-up? 

Christa Weiss: I’ve watched standup since I was a little kid and I’ve always loved writing & performing. Standup always seemed kind of inaccessible to me when I was younger because I grew up in a smaller city and had only seen it on tv. The first comedian I saw live was John Stewart in a giant ampitheater. It was amazing but actually pursing standup seemed impossible. When I moved to Boston I started going to live shows regularly at the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square. Seeing comedy in intimate setting made me realize it was something I could realistically pursue. I started going to open mics and got addicted immediately.

Amy Steele: What do you like about being a comedian?



Christa Weiss: I love writing and performing and being able to say exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it. I work in a creative field during the day, but my work is largely dictated by what my clients want, so it’s really nice to have full creative control. I love silliness but I also want that silliness to mean something. I love being able to combine the two. 

Also, many of my closest friends are comics and it’s nice to be surrounded by a community of like-minded weirdos. Comedy is kind of the Island of Misfit Toys or the new punk rock, depending on how optimistic you’re being. 

Amy Steele: It’s been discussed often that women aren’t funny although Tina Fey, Margaret Cho, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Nikki Glaser, Mindy Kaling and tons of others make it clear women are definitely funny. Still late night talk shows, stand-up and the comedy world remain dominated by men. Why? (As an entertainment/music critic I think women aren’t appreciated in many areas of entertainment though stand-up seems particularly harsh.)

Christa Weiss: Haha. People are defiantly a lot more vocal about their opinions of female comedians. (Fuck you, the Internet. Go call your Mom.) I think there are a lot of reasons. In general, if a woman wants to go into the performing arts they generally lean more towards theater or music. I think that’s mostly personal preference. On top of that there’s a lot of logistical things. Being in a male dominated environment can be very intimidating to some people. The college I went to was 75% male so that was never really an issue for me. 

I think the gap is starting to close, which is great. There are more women doing comedy than ever. However, that’s not always represented on stage or TV. I think a lot more people realize that women can be funny to more than just other women, but the entertainment industry is a business, and not one that particularly wants to take risks. If a straight white guy always brings in money, I don’t think think they see the need to change the formula. 

Amy Steele: Why did you start Broad Appeal? What has the reception been like?

Christa Weiss:
A few reasons. There are a lot of really strong female comics out there and I really want to showcase their talent. A lot of places are afraid to put more than one or two women on a show, for fear that it’ll be too….womany? Unfortunately, this means there’s less work to go around. It seems crazy to me, but you’ll almost never see a show with the acts 50% male and 50% female without someone making a big deal about it.

I thought it would be fun to do a reverse of that- book mostly women and one or two ‘token males.’ I wanted to create a female-focused show that guys would also want to go to. Sometimes all female shows have a ‘girls only vibe’ which is fine, but if you want to prove that women are funny its not a great idea to not bother inviting the part of the audience you’re trying to prove something to. 
I’m happy to say that the show has been really well received by both men and women, comics and audience members alike. I make it a point to showcase strong acts with unique points of view and none of that ‘fighting with my husband about leaving the toilet seat down’ type of thing. I get a broad (HA!) audience of cool open-minded people from many different walks of life, which is exactly what I was going for. 

Amy Steele: What can people expect at the Broad Appeal anniversary show on Thursday?

Christa Weiss: I run a showcase style show, with a female headliner. We’ve got an amazing lineup for Thursday with Bethany Van Delft, of Comedy Central and NickMom. We’ve also got Dan Crohn from Last Comic Standing as well as several fantastic comics who’ve been in some amazing festivals like the Boston Comedy Festival, WICF, The Seattle International Comedy Festival and Bridgetown. 

The Women in Comedy Festival (WICF) will be there recording the show and doing interviews with the comedians after the show. We also lightly sexually harass the male comics but they all know what they’re getting into and it’s all in good fun. Also there will be candy. The candy bowl is very important.
Amy Steele: What challenges do women in comedy face?

Christa Weiss: Comedy is hard for everyone, male and female. I think the challenges you run into as a female comic are a little different. You have to work a lot harder to get people to take you seriously. If you’re the ‘token female’ on the show you kind of represent all women, which means there’s a lot a pressure to do well. If a guy bombs, he sucked, if a woman bombs all women suck. 

Amy Steele: Which comics do admire?
Christa Weiss: Maria Bamford, Chelsea Peretti, Patton Oswalt, Mike Birbiglia, John Stewart, Sarah Silverman 

Amy Steele: What comedy specials and sitcoms would you recommend?
Christa Weiss: Maria Bamford’s Special Special Special is amazing. Instead of being filmed at a club, it’s filmed at her house and the only audience members are her parents. [AS note: directed and produced by Jordan Brady who also directed I Am Road Comic. Read my interview with Jordan Brady.] Feelin Kinda Patton by Patton Oswalt is one of the first comedy albums I got really really really into. The movie Sleepwalk With Me, directed/written/starring Mike Birgbilia is based on his storytelling and gives you some great insight on what it’s like to be a comedian. [AS: agreed. Very good.] The Sarah Sliverman Program is ridiculous and amazing and if you’re into history, Drunk History is hilarious. I’m also a big fan of animated stuff, so I love Home Movies, Bob’s Burgers and Rick and Morty. 

Broad Appeal Comedy Night One-Year Anniversary takes place Thursday, October 8, 2015 at 8pm at Arts at the Armory, Somerville.

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Lifetime TV news: Grace of Monaco, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe coming in May

Lifetime has several movies this spring with impressive casts that fit right in with Lifetime’s roster of movies about broken women, struggling women, mentally ill women and women who give up careers. Wonder how Nicole Kidman feels about her film airing on Lifetime? Wonder if she’ll promote it.


Grace of Monaco
premieres May 25
starring: Nicole Kidman; Tim Roth; Paz Vega; Frank Langella; Parker Posey

Originally screened at Cannes Film Festival, Grace of Monaco will see a small-screen release in May. Academy Award® and Golden Globe® Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman stars as Grace Kelly. The film covers the professional and personal struggle for the former Hollywood actress as she contemplates her decision to retire from acting forever while the future of Monaco hangs in the balance.

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The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe
premieres May 30 and 31
starring: Susan Sarandon; Kelli Garner; Jeffrey Dean Morgan; Emily Watson

Based on J. Randy Taraborrelli’s New York Times bestseller of the same name, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe begins with a portrait of a young Norma Jeane Mortenson as she battles a lonely and loveless existence with an absent mother. She soon reinvents herself as Marilyn Monroe to become the symbol of an era. A complex woman quite different from her public persona, Monroe faces mental illness as well as failed marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller and a complicated relationship President John F. Kennedy.

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Women’s History Month: Recommended Documentaries About Women

Here are some recommended documentaries about women. I posted another list in 2014.


Miss Representation (2011)
Director: Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Kimberlee Acquaro
90 min
Rating: A

Explores how the mainstream media’s often disparaging portrayals of women contribute to the under-representation of females in positions of leadership. In the United States women aren’t represented in government as in other countries. Women make up 51% of population but only 17% of Congress. 67 countries have had a female president or prime minister but not the United States. There’s less focus on looks than on intelligence in the media.

“If women don’t stand up for each other then no one else will. No one’s going to look out for the interests of women except other women.” –Lisa Ling

dark girls

Dark Girls (2011)
Director: D. Channsin Berry, Bill Duke
71 min
Rating: A-

examines prejudices dark-skinned women face throughout the world, includes the roots of classism, racism and the lack of self-esteem within a segment of cultures. Thoughtful, provocative and detailed.

Paper bag test: “if you were lighter than a brown paper bag when you were considered beautiful, smart. You passed that test.”

“If I had a little girl, I didn’t want her to be dark like me.” So sad.

A black guy says: “dark-skinned women look funny beside me so I’d rather date a light-skinned woman. Yeah light-skinned

One of the most popular products in the third-world is skin-lightening cream. Twice as many white women get married as black women.

“I am so happy that there is a woman who is dark-skinned in the White House and she’s the first lady.”


A Girl and a Gun (2012)
75 min
Director: Cathryne Czubek
Rating: B+

Guns symbolize power and danger but mostly in the hands of men. These women are an interesting cross-section using guns for various reasons: personal protection; hunting; military and for fun [gun ranges]. It really shows safety, practicality and both sides of the gun control issue. There are many incidents of deaths through gun accidents. One woman is in prison because she “snapped” and killed her girlfriend with a gun. Another woman shot an intruder, lives in the rural Oklahoma and carries guns for protection. Shows media portrayal of sex appeal with women and guns. Provides pros and cons and reality of women carrying and using handguns.

“I know a lot of people don’t approve of this. It just makes sense to me.”

A Massachusetts Tai Chi instructor: “people ask me how I came to own a handgun. I tell them I have felt the fear.” In Massachusetts it’s legal to own a gun but not a taser.

Another woman who’s getting her gun teaching license and shoots at a range: “We’re not having a gun in the house. It’s just too attractive for friends coming over . . . for teenage boys . . . for showing off.”

women art revolution

Women Art Revolution (2010)
83 min.
Directed by: Lynn Hershman-Leeson
Rating: B+

Renowned artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson spent 40 years gathering interviews and news footage for documentary profiling the feminist art movement, which seeks to empower female artists and improve their access to male-dominated art spaces.

“It was hard to get women to come out as artists.”

“My work had been marginalized,” artist Martha Wilson, who opened her own center to exhibit marginalized work.

“The feminist art movement was always incredibly heterogeneous and was richly conflicted and that’s what made it the most important political movement in the art world.” –Dr. Amelia Jones, art historian.

buying sex

Buying Sex (2013)
75 min
Directed by: Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nason
Rating: B

Buying Sex is about the debate over pending reforms to Canadian prostitution laws. The filmmakers compare the decriminalized prostitution model in New Zealand and the criminalized prostitution model in Sweden.

“Sex is a commodity.” –Valerie Scott, sex worker and advocate. “I do not believe all sex workers are delusional.”

“We have a lot of models. They can work for themselves, they can work in managed brothels or they can work on the street.” –Catherine Healy, National Coordinator New Zealand Prostitute Collective.

One sex worked in NZ says: “you need impeccable grooming and a really strong stomach.” And: “I’ve got my degrees. I felt more used and exploited with a minimum wage job where I got 10 minute lunch breaks than doing this and doing what I want.”

A former Canadian sex worker says: “If there was no male demand no women would’ve been on the street. I wouldn’t have been on the street.”

no woman no cry

No Woman, No Cry (2010)
70 min
Directed by: Christy Turlington Burns
Rating: B

Investigates maternal mortality through this documentary, which profiles several pregnant women from around the world whose lack of access to basic health care and nutrition places them and their unborn children in unnecessary danger. There are cultural, economic and social barriers to giving birth throughout the world.

1/22 women die in pregnancy or childbirth in sub-saharan African.
1/5 women of reproductive age have no health care in the United States.

“Here in U.S. where providers and services are abundant, healthcare is anything but free.”

In Bangladesh, 90% of births occur outside a hospital. “If a woman cannot give birth, the fault is on the woman. In one village there is 19 local terms for infertility but for men there are only two terms.”

its a girl

It’s a Girl (2012)
63 min
Rating: B+
Directed by:

–examines the cultural traditions that surround widespread female “gendercide” and violence toward women in India and China. A woman in India has strangled eight of her daughters after birth. She says: “Why keep girls when raising them would be difficult? I felt we could keep it only if it was male. I would kill it if it was female.” Baby girls have less value and are aborted, killed after birth or abandoned. In 1961 the dowry system was outlawed in India but it’s still practiced and that places a lot of pressure on families.

The male: female ratio throughout the world is about 105: 100. In China and India it is 140: 100

If only someone could explain that men determine the sex of a child. It’s NEVER the fault of a woman because she doesn’t have a son.

In 1979, China adopted the one-child policy. If your first child is a girl you can have a second child. China has the highest female suicide rate. 500 women kill themselves daily in China.
Because the ratio of male to women is now so skewed there’s an increase in sex trafficking and child brides.

sexy baby

Sexy Baby (2012)
84 min
Rating: B+
Directors: Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus

–examines what it’s like to be female in today’s sex-obsessed culture from the viewpoints of three very different women–an ex adult film star, a 12 year old girl and a 22 year old yearning for “normal” genitalia. The film star wants a family, contemplates how her porn experiences affect her today and may affect her children. The 12 year-old seems like she’s 19. She’s very smart and worldly but also obsessed with looks and Facebook and internet connectivity. The 22 year is getting labiaplasty because she feels her labia is unusually large and that without the surgery she’ll never be able to function normally.

Ex film star Nakita: “That’s what porn sex is. It’s sport fucking.”
“Regular guys are trying to pull porn moves.”

12-year-old Winnifred: “We are the pioneers.”

“I cry because I’m not the way I used to be. I’m not interesting anymore.’

“Facebook is literally 30% of my life and it shouldn’t be. We make ourselves seem like w’re down to fuck. It doesn’t shape how you actually are and how you end up in real life.” [think I was really shocked to hear a 12-year-old say this. Have my nieces been having sex since age 12? I had sex at 23—a late start—but by choice.]

22-year-old post labiaplasty: “I feel more motivated to do the things I want to accomplish.”


Women Aren’t Funny (2014)
78 min.
Rating: B+
Directed by Bonnie McFarlane

–comedienne Bonnie McFarlane talks to comics, people on the street, club bookers and promoters to find out why people don’t find female comics funny. She sheds light on many stereotypes about female comics in the male-dominated industry. She interviews comics such as Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, Chelsea Perretti, Michael Ian Black, Artie Lange (comes off as the total sexist a-hole I thought he was), Colin Quinn.

brave miss world

Brave Miss World (2013)
Rating: A
Directed by Cecilia Peck

Linor Abargil– Israeli Miss World winner 1998– survived a brutal rape months before being crowned. Now in law school she travels the world talking to survivors. In this documentary the rapist faces parole, Linor is getting married and she’s also become an Orthodox Jew. Interesting because her family is secular. This documentary serves to help her face the rape and its aftermath as well as helping others in the process. It’s simultaneously sad and empowering.


Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004)
76 min.
Rating: B+
Directed by: Shola Lynch

New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. In addition she became the first black person and women to run for president in 1972.

“The only thing that I have going for me is my soul and my commitment to the American people.” –Shirley Chisholm

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book review: How to Grow Up

how to grow up

How to Grow Up By Michelle Tea.
Plume| January 2015.| 304 pages |$16.00| ISBN: 978-0142181195

Rating: 3.5/5*

“If your path into so-called adulthood has been more meandering and counterintuitive than fast-tracked, then this is the book for all of you, my darlings.”

“Those ten years living below poverty level would likely be unacceptable to someone reared in a wealthier environment, but I always expected I’d be poor. I hadn’t expected to be able to build a life around being creative, and I really hadn’t expected to ever make a living at it.”

The Chelsea, Massachusetts native writes about her prolonged move into what many deem adulthood—the societal check-list sort—buying a home, having a successful career, not living paycheck to paycheck and being in a stable adult marriage that maybe includes marriage and a family. As a fellow GenXer I understand the protracted route. Not knowing exactly what you want to do or where you want to be. Not knowing how to become who you want or how to be who you are and make money. All real worries. Plus roadblocks both mental and actual. In her youth, Tea worked lots of odd jobs. Some places fired her and some she quit. She learned from it: “I realized that having a job to fund your life’s purpose was every bit as important as being ready to quit your job when it got in the way of your life’s purpose.”

How to Grow Up is a series of essays that connects Tea from her childhood in working-class Chelsea to her happy marriage in San Francisco. She discusses meditation, Buddhism, healthy eating, feminism, writing, working out, being a creative type and finding love. Tea writes: “At forty-three years old, I think I’ve finally arrived, but my path has been via many dark alleys and bumpy back roads.”

In “You Deserve This” she writes of her awful apartment experiences–places chosen for locations and cheap rent. Most of us urban dwellers have had relatable experiences. I’ve moved annually. I could probably write a book about it. She writes: “It was as if each new apartment would elicit from us the harmony we lacked, each new house key a metaphorical key, too, the elusive key to making this thing work.” Also this wise statement: “By the end, I knew one thing for sure. Whatever relationship you are in right now, that is the relationship you’re in. You’re not in the future awesome relationship that may never happen. You’re not in the possibility of it, you’re in the reality of it.” So live in the moment. Get out if it’s bad. Seek therapy if you can.

Redefining feminism I understand. I had a millennial tell me that she felt guilty getting a pedicure and felt it was an anti-feminist thing. Tea explores Botox, anti-aging creams and other beauty products in “I’m So Vain.” She states: “When feminism felt like it was bumming out my reality, it was time to redefine what a feminist was.” At the base level feminism means equal rights for women in all aspects of society. Of course after Patricia Arquette’s wonderful speech about pay inequity at this year’s Academy Awards, she’s been called out for not being inclusive enough, overlooking that fact that she brought up the subject at all. It’s become that this white woman cannot speak for all of us. I would like women to just support other women.

Her relationship with veganism, being a Buddhist and eating healthy carries complicated explanations. In “My $1,100 Birthday Apartment” she said: “There was not a moment of hesitation about which purse I desire. It consisted of the slashed, long-haired pelt of some poor animal I hoped had died a natural death, not that I thought too much about it.” So she knows that likely that animal did not die a peaceful death for your designer bag. That dichotomy. Eating animals does hurt the animals and the environment and one’s health. All things that at various times, Tea says she cares about. She writes in “WWYMD: What Would Young Michelle Do?”: “I still wonder about my ability to love and emphasize with animals and yet eat them. It seems a disconnect must be in place, a kind of denial, but the more I probe, the more I believe it’s not denial but acceptance. I am a feeling, loving human who lives off the meat of other feeling, loving animals.” And then: “But somewhere along my stumble to adulthood I began to realize that, while it was important, food tasting good was only part of it. It should also be good for you, and maybe even be produced in a way that doesn’t harm working people or the planet itself.”

She starts to loosely practice Buddhism like most Americans who practice Buddhism. Buddhists are vegan. Not many Americans have the willpower to be vegan. One of the tenements is not to kill anything. She finds that meditation helps her greatly: “So Buddhism didn’t get me high, and it didn’t make me stop hating my ex. What it did do is show me exactly where the problem was located: in my mind. Which was great, because my mind, unlike my ex, was something I had some control over.”

Tea chooses not to be involved with anyone with depression and that’s her prerogative. Many people want to stay away from the crazy of mental illness. It takes a truly compassionate person to date someone with mental illness. Of course no one can prevent being mentally ill. Tea says in “Beware of Sex and Other Rules for Love:” “One standard that took me a while to wake up to was, no depression people. It was tricky in many ways, the deepest being that depressed people were my type, and for a long time, I didn’t even know it. Depression is like a haze, a cloud or an aura that surrounds certain people.” She meets a woman who complements her personality and loves her as is. They marry. Of Dashiell she writes: “As someone who likes to say yes to lots of things, especially odd clothes and home décor sourced from dusty thrift shops, I have been blessed to be with someone like Dashiell, whose dial is set to no.”

Although slow to start in which I had my doubts I ultimately truly liked my first Michelle Tea experience. I will seek out another of her memoirs. Some essays are more interesting and stronger than others but ultimately How to Grow Up is worth reading.

–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Plume.

purchase the book: How to Grow Up: A Memoir

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J Mitchell [Working Stiff]

Released last year, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies and the Making of a Medical Examiner by Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell is one of the most riveting, darkly humorous and moving memoirs I’ve ever read. I rated it *****/5 stars and placed it on my 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2014 list. It details the two-year medical examiner residency in New York City for Dr. Judy Melinek.

working stiff

“I was happy for the first time in nearly a year– but scared too. I had learned only what kind of doctor I did not want to be, and was convinced no hospital would take me as a new resident in any specialty now as I was damaged goods. The happiest I’d been in medial school was during the pathology rotation. The science was fascinating, the cases engaging, and the doctors seemed to have stable lives.”

Dr. Melinek started her medical examiner training two months before the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It’s engrossing, detailed and macabre. Dr. Melinek wrote it with her writer husband T.J. Mitchell. The two met while undergraduate students at Harvard. There are chapters detailing poisons, accidental deaths, suicides, murders, maggots and bugs [“Stinks and Bones”] and the somber process of identifying bodies [and body parts] after 9/11.

I’ve worked in healthcare and almost changed careers to become a nurse. I’ve worked in all types of settings with patients from babies to the elderly. The medical world and pathology intrigue me. After meeting Dr. Melinek through twitter, she and her husband T.J. answered a whole bunch of questions I sent their way. And disappointingly skipped my more pressing questions about poisons and suicide.

I sent a lot of questions and said it was okay to skip some. Disappointed that questions on poison, alcoholism, suicide were skipped. also this one: you are “less comfortable with houseflies, and leery of cats.” Please explain. Also this one: description of people jumping from the World Trade Center is the only account like that I’ve read. Well done. What was the greatest challenge of DM01? How did you handle it?

Guess I’ll just have to do more googling or hope that one day I can interview Atul Gawande, M.D.

Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell

Judy Melinek, M.D. and T.J. Mitchell

Amy Steele: I was riveted by this book. There are lots of books about medical students. Particularly first-year residents. How do you think yours stands out?

Judy Melinek: When I was in medical school I read them all – House of God by Samuel Shem, all of Perri Klass’ books, Oliver Sachs—these books inspired me as a physician and an author. They made me realize that in writing about my experiences I could keep my humanity intact, and by reflecting on the joys and tragedies, I became a better, more empathic doctor.

Working Stiff fits the doctor-memoir genre, but it stands out in some ways because of the singular experience I had in New York City during a historically turbulent period: 9/11, the anthrax attacks, the crash of American Airlines #587 in Queens. Most forensic pathologists in the United States might deal with one major terrorist threat or disaster in their lifetimes. During my fellowship year, the New York City OCME faced several. Working Stiff is also unique in that it focuses on the training of a medical examiner, instead of on celebrity deaths or who-dunnit cold cases. Since T.J. and I opened the story at the very beginning of my forensic training, we could take the reader along as I learned death investigation from Dr. Hirsch and the staff at the New York OCME.

Amy Steele: Did TJ ever NOT want to hear one of your gory days on the job?

T.J. Mitchell: No, my dilemma was worse than that. I thought I did want to hear Judy’s stories, and usually I would find her day’s cases fascinating. But every once in a while she would come out with a nightmare humdinger. The problem is, Judy wouldn’t know which stories a civilian like me would find nightmarish. And once I’ve heard it—well, you can’t unring a bell. There’s a good reason why we titled the first chapter “This Can Only End Badly.”

The other source of frustration for me in listening to Judy talk about her day at work was that she seldom delved into the things I wanted to know about. Where did this happen? What became of the perpetrators? How did the cops feel about the whole thing? Her focus is the story the body tells about the cause and manner of death, period. Plus, as we quote her telling me in the book, she’s a busy lady. She has new cases every day, and doesn’t spend time lurking around the homicide division or the DA’s office gossiping about open cases.

Still and all—I wanted to hear them. I just can’t help myself. They’re compelling, the stories my wife tells over the dinner table. I had a ball writing Working Stiff.

Amy Steele: You’re in the minority with couples where the husband stays at home with the children. So yay to feminist advances for one. What challenges do you face? How do others react?

T.J. Mitchell: Things have changed since I first started as a stay-at-home dad fifteen years ago. I used to have to explain to people what that meant. Now there are plenty of SAHDs out there—and some very talented and funny bloggers and authors have written about the job’s challenges. I found those challenges to be minor, really—or, I guess it’s more accurate to say, the unique challenges were minor. All parents face the same obstacles, and the ones I faced as a man that a woman wouldn’t face were easily overcome. Usually they had to do with persuading well-meaning older women that I really did know what I was doing, alone with a baby or three. A lot of that unsolicited advice involved hats, and whether they should be on or off, and whether they were too warm or not warm enough for the weather.

For the past ten years I’ve also been extremely fortunate to be a stay-at-home dad in the city of San Francisco. I started to notice soon after moving here that nobody ever asked me that irritating question I had to field on playgrounds and in grocery stores in Los Angeles and New York most every day: “Is it mommy’s day off?” That’s because, in San Francisco, a man with a baby or three might not have a mommy involved in the family equation. The very question would entail a faux pas. So I, as a straight man in a parenting role that reverses the normative gender expectations, am a beneficiary of the gay civil rights movement.

My biggest worry never materialized. I feared, early on, that our kids would either spend all day pining after their absent mother, or fail to bond with her in the same intimate way that kids who spend all day with mommy would. Neither of these things happened.

Amy Steele: Does seeing all you’ve seen make you extra cautious? You mention: “Wear your seat belt when you drive. Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise. Watch your weight. If you’re a smoker, stop right now. If you aren’t don’t start. Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad.”

Judy Melinek: It doesn’t make us extra cautious. It makes us realistic and appropriately cautious. We subscribe to raising independent “free-range” children. We don’t stress out about giving our children the freedom to bike or walk to school alone, or take public transit across town, because we know that they are safer walking and riding the bus than they are being driven in a car. We freely discuss the effects and dangers of drugs and alcohol, and we don’t shy away from talking about death or suicide. They are entering their teen years, and open discussion with your kids about these serious topics allows them the freedom and comfort to trust you with their own struggles, or when they encounter a friend or classmate who needs help.

T.J. Mitchell: Plus, when Judy tells our kids or one of their friends, “Don’t do that! I know someone who died that way,” they listen. She has gold-standard street cred when it comes to safety.

Amy Steele: I’ll admit to you I DO NOT wear a seat belt even though six years ago I flipped my car on black ice. Right over. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. I crawled out the broken window.

Judy Melinek: That is a really dangerous and bad idea. It also has financial consequences for you and your family because if you were going to get injured or killed in an accident, your injuries might be determined to be your own fault because you were not using the safety equipment as required by law. Wearing a seatbelt is a habit, and, like any habit, if you just build it into your routine, clicking it in place as soon as you get into the vehicle, then you will stop even thinking about it. Once you get used to it, if you then forget to put it on, you will see that you start to feel uncomfortable—like you are going to fly out the window even at a brief stop.

[note from Amy Steele: Of course I USED to wear a seat-belt and drove with one for years. Then I stopped using one. So being a habit or not doesn’t matter. I actually feel anxiety with the seat-belt on, like I might get stuck. I can’t even remember when I stopped wearing one.]

Amy Steele: What are the leading causes of death you see?

Judy Melinek: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and often kills people suddenly, through heart attacks and strokes. I find that it is not uncommon for folks to ignore the signs of a heart attack (chest pain, shortness of breath, arm pain) or stroke (dizziness, numbness/tingling, partial paralysis) because the pain is not that severe and they don’t actually feel all that bad. By delaying medical attention they are much more likely to die. It’s really important that all men and women over the age of 40 familiarize themselves with the symptoms of heart attack and stroke and seek immediate medical care.

Every day at the Coroner’s Office we have one or two cases of overdoses, either from prescription drugs, street drugs, or alcohol. A really common way for addicts to die is when they get out of rehab and relapse, they take the same quantity of drugs that they took in the past, but because they have lost their tolerance, they end up dead. In my opinion, it should be mandatory for rehab centers to educate them about that on discharge and provide them with reversal agents.

Amy Steele: How did you decide what stories to tell in the memoir? When writing did you have a gross-out level in mind. Some readers are clearly more squeamish than others.

T.J. Mitchell: At first I was concerned about the gross-out level, but very quickly I found that I just had to tell Judy’s story the way she lived it. If we tried to tone down the more macabre elements of that life we wouldn’t be telling the truth, and telling the truth is the first requirement of narrative nonfiction.

We decided which stories to tell based on the requirements of narrative nonfiction, too—the narrative part. We wanted to use stories that advanced the story and illustrated the science, while holding the reader’s attention. Our collaborative process served us well when it came to the more complex case studies. We worked as a team to make sure the science was solid and the storytelling was straightforward and engaging.

Amy Steele: How do you determine time of death?

Judy Melinek: Time of death is very tricky and depends more on the scene and circumstances than on hard science. We ask when the person was last seen alive and we figure out when they were found dead, and in all cases they died sometime between then. It’s not rocket science. Sure, things like body temperature, rigidity (stiffening of the body after death), lividity (pooling of blood after death) and decomposition can be used in some cases to narrow down a time interval, but none of these methods is scientifically foolproof, and all are highly dependent on the ambient temperature. It always cracks me up whenever the pathologist on CSI or Law & Order definitively says, “She died between 9 and 9:30 PM.” A half hour window? It’s more likely for me to say to the real-world cops I work with, “Based on the body temperature she likely died sometime between 9 PM and midnight, but it could be more or less, and don’t quote me on that or write it down because I don’t want to have to defend that in court.” Too wishy-washy for a TV drama, but that’s the way it is in reality.

Amy Steele: What is the strangest cause of death you found? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve found when you’ve opened someone up on the table?

Judy Melinek: I always get asked those questions and I don’t know what to say. “Strange” and “weird” are relative, and while in Working Stiff I describe the piercings and tattoos that initially took me aback when I found them hidden under decedent’s clothing where the sun don’t shine, these things don’t faze me any more.

My favorite tattoo was on the buttocks of a chronic alcoholic. It said “Your Name.” I figured that he had it put there so that he could cadge drinks in bars this way:

Dead Guy: “Hi. What’s your name?”
Stranger: “Sean.”
Dead Guy: “What a coincidence! I have your name tattooed on my ass!”
Stranger (Sean): “No you don’t.”
Dead Guy: “Bet you ten bucks.”
Sean takes the bet. Dead Guy drops his drawers. He collects his money.

Amy Steele: You said: “I always will wait until I’ve removed the brain before I dissect the neck, because by then all the blood from the skull and face will have drained out leaving a clear view of the long, flat strap muscles on the front of the throat.” How did you develop your process—by doing or are you taught a specific protocol?

Judy Melinek: Training. At the New York City OCME I was given a checklist and body diagram and taught how to fill it out as I examined the body both externally and internally. The check list keeps me on task and reminds me to check all surfaces, and by following the same protocol on every single case I don’t miss anything. The checklist and diagram have changed a bit over the years, with different headings and check boxes based on the individual agency I work for, but it has a front and back outline drawing of a human body with room for me to draw in any injuries, medical devices or findings. Protocols are important in every specialty of medical practice, forensic pathology included.

Amy Steele: Besides examining dead bodies on the scene, what must MEs look for at a site?

Judy Melinek: It’s different in every case. When I get to a scene, the first thing I do—before I go in, even—is talk to the family members or witnesses, or the police officer at the scene, to hear the story or stories of what happened. How was the body found? Who found him? What is his medical history? If it’s a homicide, then generally I have to wait for the crime scene unit to photograph the scene before I can even go in.

But for all death scenes, when I do go in, I don’t go straight to the body. I look around the place: Is it clean or cluttered? Are there blood stains anywhere? Does anything look disturbed or out of place, like there was a struggle? What is the person’s lifestyle? And I open closets, medicine cabinets, look on side tables and in the trash bin. This is how I train new death scene investigators. I tell them, “You don’t want the family to find the empty pill containers and suicide note after you have already left.”

Amy Steele: You’re now a forensic pathologist. How did your ME training prepare you for your current career?

Judy Melinek: The training I went through at the New York City OCME [Office of Chief Medical Examiner] really prepared me for the basic day-to-day challenges of doing autopsies, communicating with cops and family members, and testifying in court. What it didn’t prepare me for was the working world of political pressure, internal squabbles, and petty bureaucracy. That I learned on the job when I moved on, because as fellows at the OCME we were well insulated from all that nonsense.

Today I work as a forensic pathologist at the Alameda County Sheriff Coroner’s Bureau, and I also testify as an expert witness in legal cases as an independent consultant. I find that, like in many professions, keeping in touch with colleagues in my field via e mail and professional conferences has been then best way to stay up to date and to learn how to handle the ethical and political challenges of a career in a high-profile public role.

Amy Steele: Congratulations on selling the rights to the memoir and developing a TV series. How will First Cut be similar and different from the book and similar to your own experiences?

T.J. Mitchell: The TV deal you refer to is for Working Stiff.

First Cut is something else, a work in progress right now. It’s our next book together, this time a novel. First Cut is smart forensic detective fiction, with a protagonist based loosely on Judy, and with cases taken from her own experiences—taken from, but not reproducing exactly. The story traverses the familiar territory of the noir mystery novel, but with a uniquely heightened degree of verisimilitude that derives from Judy’s real work in death investigation both inside and outside the autopsy suite. We’re collaborating again as we did in Working Stiff, and are having a lot of fun writing First Cut.

Amy Steele: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

purchase at Amazon: Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

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IN THE REALM: women in film on DVD

there are quite a few great films out there on DVD/Netflix. highly recommended. Here’s a round-up.


Kelly & Cal [2014]
starring: Juliette Lewis, Jonny Weston, Josh Hopkins
directed by: Jen McGowan
written by: Amy Lowe Starbin
rating: A-

Juliette Lewis [Kelly] is fantastic as a former punk rocker turned suburban mom. Kelly’s not thrilled to be so isolated and away from her friends and life in the city. She’s second-guessing being a mom and thinking about her lost youth. She befriends a neighborhood high-school student named Cal [Jonny Weston]. A bond develops between the two over their love of music and art. It’s sweet and genuine.


Hellion [2014]
starring: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins
written and directed by: Kat Candler
rating: B+

This one is dark, harsh and sad with outstanding performances by Aaron Paul [Breaking Bad] and Juliette Lewis. It’s about a teenage boy [an impressive Josh Wiggins] who’s behaving badly after his mom died. Such awful behavior that he’s jeopardizing his younger brother as well.


Lucky Them [2013]
starring: Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church
directed by: Megan Griffiths
written by: Emily Wachtel and Huck Botko
rating: A

In a stand-out performance Toni Collette plays the superbly flawed GenX music critic Ellie Klug. Ellie’s still figuring it all out. She hooks up with artists she interviews. She’s messy. She’s unapologetic. And it’s absolutely fantastic. As a music critic I could see myself in this character. Her editor [Oliver Platt] assigns her a story about her ex, a renowned musician who disappeared a decade ago. She takes along a strange old friend Charlie [Thomas Haden Church] who plans to film a documentary about her search for the elusive Matthew Smith [Johnny Depp]. It’s funny, smart, moving and one of the best films I’ve seen about music journalism in a long time. At one point, Charlie and Ellie are talking about how it’s impossible that Charlie doesn’t like music. She says that she’ll play him music at her place. He admits that there is one Canadian artist he likes.
Ellie throws out a few artists like Rufus Wainwright, as she’s all about alternative music. Turns out it’s Bryan Adams.


Maidentrip [2013]
directed by: Jillian Schlesinger
rating: A

Just see this inspirational documentary about a brave teenage girl, Norwegian Laura Dekker, who at 14 sets out to become the youngest person to sail around the world alone. It’s filled with a lot of footage that Laura shot by herself on the boat. Also interspersed with some interviews and her background into how she got into sailing. She’s a fun teenager. When she lands in one country she colors her hair from blonde to red. She meets cool people along the way, makes stops in beautiful places like Cape Town, St. Maarten, the South Pacific islands and Australia. She enjoys her solitude and grows up out on her own. A beautifully edited must-see documentary that shows just what girls can do when given the opportunity.

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Choice Quote: Kristen Stewart on Feminism


“That’s such a strange thing to say, isn’t it? Like, what do you mean? Do you not believe in equality for men and women? I think it’s a response to overly aggressive types. There are a lot of women who feel persecuted and go on about it, and I sometimes am like, “Honestly, just relax, because now you’re going in the other direction.” Sometimes, the loudest voice in the room isn’t necessarily the one you should listen to. By our nature alone, think about what you’re saying and say it—but don’t scream in people’s faces, because then you’re discrediting us…

“It’s the overcompensation to where our generation goes, “Relax,” because it’s been easier for us, and because we don’t have as much of the anger, so it’s like we can’t get behind it and it’s a bit embarrassing. But that being said, it’s a really ridiculous thing to say you’re not a feminist.”

from Bustle October 13, 2014.


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STEELE INTERVIEWS: singer/songwriter Lilla

Lilla pic

Recent Berklee College of Music graduate Lilla possesses a powerhouse, enthralling voice. She blends blues/soul with gorgeous, moving results. Lovely melodies and thoughtful lyrics. Her upbeat and rather mindful impassioned album, The Awakening, is out now. Lilla self-produced the album and she recorded at several studios including Bob Marley’s studio, Tuff Gong, in Kingston, Jamaica and in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She’s a poised, sweet-tempered and fascinating woman. Fantastic spirit. Smart. Centered. In October she’s opening on some West Coast dates for Mos Def and reggae artist Hollie Cooke [daughter of the Sex Pistols’ drummer].

We sat down at Pavement Coffee recently to chat. We spoke for well over an hour and if I didn’t have to go somewhere, we could have talked for longer. Candid conversation about all sorts of subjects ranging from her Berklee education to women in music.

Amy Steele: What drew you to the soul/ R&B music?

Lilla: I can thank my mother for that. I grew up listening to all Motown. The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson. a lot of Jimi Hendrix too. People associate Jimmy with rock but before that he was raised on the blues circuit. He’s definitely got a lot of soul and blues in his music. My mother always had something playing. That’s what she grew up listening to and I can see why. I appreciate the Motown music more than a lot of what’s out there.

Amy Steele: Before you came to Berklee, you played piano at a young age. Did you teach yourself to play piano?

Lilla: I grew up with a piano in my house and I used to always go and mess around on it. I tried to take lessons at age 8 or so and the teacher told my mom, ‘she doesn’t need to take lessons. She can figure it out by ear.’ Which is good to an extent but I wonder how I would’ve turned out if I had had lessons since the age of 8 versus learning to read when I got to Berklee. I never knew how to read until then. It’s definitely good to have an ear for stuff to figure it out and play it but it’s also good to be a good reader and know your music theory. I feel confident now that I know it but I didn’t know it until I studied it in school.

Amy Steele: You also sang in a choir. Is that when you realized you could sing and liked to sing?

Lilla: I thought it wasn’t until high school that I got serious about singing and knew I wanted to be a singer. Before that I was really into dance—modern, tap, ballet. Little kids have dreams that are valid but they’re also all over the place. In high school I joined a gospel choir. And that just really got me. The power of the music and all the harmonies. Strong singers. I don’t practice a particular religion but the spirit of the music moved me so much, I became really passionate about it.

Amy Steele: What did you study at Berklee?

Lilla: I went to Cal State Long Beach for two years before attending Berklee because I got a pretty good scholarship there. I planned to get all my liberal arts [requirements] out of the way and then just go take the music classes somewhere else. Berklee only accepted part of those so I almost had to start over.

I studied professional music. That was my degree. So basically you get to tailor your own degree with professional music and you get to dip into the other degrees. If you know what you want to do, know what classes you want to take and what you want to learn to do then it’s good. I took some jazz composition because I have always been in love with jazz singing and writing and composing. I took some production and engineering so I could be more self-sufficient.
Before I came to Berklee I got very frustrated working in the industry with producers and having to depend on someone else without a huge budget to entice them. Your projects get put on the back burner. Ideas get forfeited. It was something I wanted to learn. If I have a project I want to do, if I have to, I want to do it all on my own and not depend on anyone else.

I took some piano classes, a lot of jazz techniques. I thought that would help the music I wanted to play. I took a couple of songwriting classes. I got some good things from them. I took a lyric writing class which helps when you’re writing and you get stuck so they showed me ideas to get out of that. But the songwriting department wasn’t really for me. I took a cool performance class with a professor named Lawrence Watson called “Foundations of Singing with Soul.” So we did all kinds of really awesome music.

Amy Steele: How do you think studying at Berklee has helped you now?

Lilla: I feel more confident when I’m having to see a project through or having to communicate with other musicians. The thing that made me want to go to Berklee was when I had an idea in my head and wasn’t able to bring it to life. Now I feel like I’m much more confident in bringing a song in my head to the world and making it real. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be. They say music is a language and the better you can communicate your ideas, the better your art will be. I really think it helped me to do that.

Amy Steele: How do you write your songs? What’s your process?

Lilla: Sometimes I’ll hear a melody or a melody with words in my head. Sometimes I hear them in dreams. Other times I’ll just be messing around on the piano and come up with a cool melody or progression and I keep playing through that and some lyrics will come. Sometimes someone will bring a composition to the table and I’ll be inspired by that. Or I’ll be on the guitar strumming some chords. It’s never one way. It’s usually the music inspires the lyrics and the melodies.


Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?

Lilla: Something that people sing along to and I’m speaking as a singer. When I say sing along to, they can hum the melody. Something that sticks it in your head. Also something people can connect with.

Amy Steele: You have a lovely voice and you have so much range in all the songs how did you develop the range that you have?

Lilla: I think I always had the range and I account that to swimming. I used to be a competitive swimmer. One of the things I would work on that we worked on while I was swimming– we would try to breathe the littlest amount possible as you can. So I would swim the length of the pool and breathe once down and back. A lot of times the way I look at being able to sing dynamically and having a good range is using your body. It is not just your voice that does this thing. you’re using your diaphragm, your abdominal muscles, your lungs to project the notes.

Part-time I teach voice lessons and everybody wants to expand their range. it is a pretty common thing to develop further range. I really work on developing these muscles around here [indicates her abdominal region]. So they’re not really singing from here [gestures to throat] they’re using their whole body. But I did study in college. Berklee makes you take voice lessons and I had some great teachers.

Amy Steele: How do you maintain your voice?

Lilla: I try to keep my cardio in good shape. It is really amazing I could show you what I show my students. When you realize how much of your body you can use, your lungs go all the way back here. When you think about singing from there it gives you so much power. I try to either swim or jog or do something to keep my cardio strong to keep that power.

Amy Steele: You hear a lot about singers losing their voice or having to drink a lot of tea. But you are using your whole abdominal and lung area.

Lilla: It takes a lot of strain off the voice– not that I’ve never gotten hoarse. but for me it is very important to not stress your voice out. There are times you are singing every day for weeks and you can’t afford to lose your voice. The things I always tell my students are: 1) warm your voice up before you sing. Your voice is a tender thing it’s like any type of muscle; 2) to maintain a healthy lifestyle not drinking or smoking a lot; and 3) rest.

Amy Steele: It seems like a lot of singers smoke.

Lilla: Even if I’m in a room with smokers, before they outlawed smoking indoors, my voice would be gone if I were playing around smokers or people were smoking. Some people sing through the smoking. Adele smokes but then she had nodes on her vocal cords and had to come off tour. Also another thing is not screaming over the band, making sure you can hear yourself over the band. A lot of time on stage it is really hard to hear. Our ears the louder things get the harder it is to hear. After a while your ears get used to it.

Amy Steele: What is different when someone sees you live?

Lilla: I would hope that live it is more dynamic. they can feel more emotion, more connection. but also I love it when you go to a live show and wow it’s just like the record or when you go and it’s wow look what they did with that. That’s so cool and it takes another dimension. I love being able to connect with people and being able to meet and talk with people after the show.

Amy Steele: Someone suggested that I do a podcast. I’d love to do something just focused on women in music.

Lilla: That’d be cool. I’ll help support that any way I can. I know tons of amazing women in music.

Amy Steele: I don’t always cover women of course but I’ve been a feminist since fifth grade and always have that feminist viewpoint. Of course there are men that are feminists. That would exclude a lot of bands if I just covered women.

Lilla: Women need the support. Even at Berklee it was 80/20: the percentage of men versus women. The amount of women in the industry it’s hard. I would love to have some women in my band. It’s the ratio of women in the industry vs. men in the industry. If you look at statistics, I’m more likely to end up with men in my band.

One of my goals is to set a good example for women and try to let them know that you can do your thing and not have to depend on other people and you also don’t have to sell your body, your soul and yourself. If that’s what you believe then it can be done. When I first started I was a little naïve. I was 19 or 20 in L.A. thinking I’m going to meet some producer and after so many people saying they’d do things and it would fall through, I realized I have to do this. No one is going to do this for me. If I want my career to happen I’m the one who has to push it.

Women go through a bit of a power struggle. I’ve even dealt with musicians who because I was younger than them and a girl would try to push me. Now I get more respect.

Amy Steele: Do you think those are the biggest challenges being a woman in the industry?

Lilla: The biggest is I think people not taking me very seriously. Or also people having ulterior motives but I’ve learned to spot those upfront. You get one chance with me. If you don’t come through and you’re not professional, I’m moving on.

Amy Steele: As a music journalist I deal with some of the same issues. It’s definitely 80/20 men to women. I get tired of hearing the opinions of 30- or 40-something white guys.

Lilla: I know. Even with managers and producers. I would love a woman manager. They’re rare. I would love someone on my management team to be a woman. They understand more.


Amy Steele: Why did you call the album The Awakening?

Lilla: One of the first songs and the one I get a reaction to most is “Wake Up.” It’s kind of the title track and the other title track is called “Sunrise.” The point of my life when I was releasing it and I was finishing school and there were a lot of changes. I was realizing a lot of things about music and the industry and the work we’re creating and putting out into the world. Music will last forever. How I want to contribute. I was doing a lot of touring and doing a lot of new age, conscious festivals. Getting into yoga and meditation. If I have a choice on how I can affect the listeners I want to have a choice. It’s the transition between the last few years and now. Growing up, maturing and seeing things through new eyes.

Amy Steele: Let’s talk about how you developed some of the songs.

“Wake Up”

That song literally wrote itself. I hit record and pretty much sang the whole song. I changed some lyrics later to make it clear about what I wanted to say. I was going through a phase where there was a lot happening. There were a lot of bombings in the Middle East and we were supposed to be out of Iraq but we weren’t. I was angry about that. It’s is this a dream or was that a dream. All these things happening. Good and bad. Positive and negative.


I wrote after I went to New Orleans which was after Katrina and I was dealing with how to find a way to musically help me. I didn’t know anything about how to get your music out there and how to get a following. So I went to New Orleans and I was shocked about what the musicians were doing despite that. Through all the darkness there was this light. This Amazing music, history, culture, vibrance. Sunrise is after the dark night there’s always going to be a sun.


When I was living in L.A. I started recording with friends who did hip hop. It was conscious hip hop talking about real things. Society and culture and things that need to be addressed. (She’s done a track with Talib Kweli!) when I was in L.A. I did a track with Daz who was one of the members of the Dog Pound, one of Snoop’s group. We did this song together. A couple years later in Portland I saw him backstage. So I was backstage with Snoop Dogg and all them and people probably thought “she’s hanging out with all these guys backstage.” Some guy started telling people rumours about me. He said I went back to their hotel. I never went to their hotel. So you can tell how this got started. He said/she said. Who cares anyway. You’re not my man. You’re a friend. If we’re leaving somewhere together we’re not going home together. It was kind of a tongue in cheek way of responding.


Memoirs I wrote with my friend Lisa who is a good friend of mine. You know when you find those people who can finish your sentences for you. The minute we started working together we wrote songs and songs and songs. Someone gave us an instrumental and one night we came up with this song. Kinda the idea of having a crush on somebody and not being able to tell him how you feel. Whether you’re afraid of rejection or you like having a crush on him because it’s simpler. Being afraid to put your feelings on the table, that’s what that’s about. And I recorded that with a sweet sweet Jamaican rhythm section.

“I Changed My Mind”

Getting to that place where you’ve given to someone and they’re not giving anything in return. And putting energy into a black hole and saying I’m going to give that energy back to myself. A lot of times when you meet someone you don’t really know how things are going to go and after awhile it becomes not a two-way street. It’s a lot about yourself. You have to be sure number one is okay or you have nothing to give. You have to be sure your dreams are met or you’ll have nothing to give away.

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purchase at Amazon: The Awakening

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Comparing and contrasting Bad Feminist and Unspeakable Things: feminist essays by two generations of feminists


“No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.”
—Roxanne Gay

unspeakable things

“Feminism is not a set of rules. It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to go around. There is an abundance of liberty to be had if we have the guts to grasp it for everyone. Feminism is a social revolution, and a sexual revolution, and feminism is in no way content with a missionary position. It is about work, and about love, and about how one depends very much on the other. Feminism is about asking questions, and carrying on asking them even when the questions get uncomfortable.”
–Laurie Penny

Two well-known feminist authors/columnists, Roxanne Gay and Laurie Penny, released essay collections. Roxanne Gay is a GenXer and has much more life-experience than 27-year-old Laurie Penny. Although with all her protest and underground movement experience, Penny might think she has more life experience. Gay is American and makes her living as a cultural critic and teacher. She grew up in a mostly white town with a middle-class upbringing. Penny is British with a career as a political reporter. She’s a contributing editor at New Statesman and editor at large at the New Inquiry. Penny seems to do a lot of protesting, squatting and couch surfing.

Both women write essays on what it means to be a feminist, on various women’s issues such as contraception and pay equity and a feminist perspective on various news and pop culture items. Both are serious about being feminist and about the importance of feminism in today’s world. With different writing styles—Gay tends to write with humor and a cheerier flair while Penny utilizes a more aggressive approach– they both present a clear message about the urgency facing feminists today. Read both works. They’re well-crafted, dynamic and provocative particularly for any woman who’s ever heard a man say “Oh you must be some kind of feminist.”

Being close in age to Gay, I could relate to nearly everything she said– except that I never read Sweet Valley High. I was reading other books. I was riding ponies and horses. Penny represents the newer generation of feminists who embrace lifestyles and methodology that I’m not used to. In fact, Penny had this to say: “The young women of today know far better than their slightly-older sisters who came of age in the listless 1990s how much work is still to be done, and how unglamorous much of it is. They know how bloody important it is to talk about power, and class, and work, and love, race, poverty and gender identity.” I could’ve stopped reading right there. Listless 1990s? I was in my 20s and it was a fantastic time. I’ve identified as a feminist since 5th grade and have been active and outspoken about my feminism all along. I found this a bit dismissive and offensive. What happened to sisters supporting sisters? Gay writes in “How to Be Friends with Another Woman”: “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses—pretty but designed to SLOW women down.”

Gay breaks down Bad Feminist with these sections: ME; GENDER & SEXUALITY; RACE & ENTERTAINMENT; POLITICS, GENDER & RACE; BACK TO ME. Essays within each section. Penny has five chapters in Unspeakable Things: Fucked-Up Girls; Lost Boys; Anticlimax; Cybersexism; Love and Lies.

“I get angry when women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism because I see a disconnect that does not need to be there. I get angry but I understand and hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.” —Roxanne Gay

Gay has a penchant for pop culture and some feminine frippery, thus she labels herself a bad feminist. Can you be a feminine feminist? Can you like looking pretty and favor the color pink. Is a feminist a sell-out if she wants to be taken care of by a man. If she wants the support and constant of a serious relationship. If she doesn’t want to know how her car functions, sometimes fakes orgasms and closes her office door for a good cry? Gay likes watching reality shows, listening to questionable hip-hop and picking apart cultural phenomena. In clear, strong words she thoughtfully writes about Chris Brown, the song “Blurred Lines,” The Hunger Games, The Help, Django Unchained and Fifty Shades of Gray.

“A culture that treats women as objects, that gleefully supports entertainment that is more often demeaning toward women than it is not, that encourages the erosion of a woman’s autonomy and personal space, is the same culture that elects state lawmakers who work tirelessly to enact restrictive abortion legislation.”

In the essay “Girls, Girls, Girls” she discusses the Lena Dunham vehicle Girls as well as women on television. “Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right. It is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly—girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience.” She also adds: “There are so many terrible shows on television representing women in sexist, stupid, silly ways. Movies are even worse. Movies take one or two anemic ideas about women, caricature them, and shove those caricatures down our throats. Indie films provide the most expansive and feminist representations of women. Unfortunately Hollywood’s a sexist environment and there are less female writers, directors and producers making films and television programs than men.

Gay writes about serious matters such as violence against women in “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” where she addresses society’s desensitization. “While there are many people who understand rape and the damage of rape, we also live in a time that necessitates the phrase “rape culture.”) As I read about her dislike for the term triggers in the “Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” I fervently nodded in agreement. “Trigger warnings also, when used in excess, start to feel like censorship. They suggest that there are experiences or perspectives to inappropriate, too explicit, too bare to be voiced publicly.” In “When Twitter Does What Journalism Cannot,” Gay says: “Social networks are more than just infinite repositories for trivial, snap judgments; they are more than merely convenient outlets for mindless joy and outrage. They offer more than the common ground and the solace we may find during culturally significant movements. Social networks also provide us with something of a flawed but necessary conscience, a constant reminder that commitment, compassion, and advocacy neither can nor ever should be finite.”

In the essay “The Alienable Rights of Women,” Gay accentuates all the issues with birth control and women’s constant fear that we’ll lose every personal right for sexual freedom we possess. “Birth control is a pain in the ass. It’s a medical marvel, but it is also an imperfect marvel. Most of the time, women have to put something into their bodies that alters their bodies’ natural functions just so they can have a sexual life and prevent unwanted pregnancies.” Penny too tackles the attack on women’s bodies. She writes in “Anticlimax:” “The backlash against abortion access and contraceptive availability is a sexist backlash, rooted in fear of female autonomy and hatred of women’s sexuality.”

Both women are avid readers and both women like Kate Zambreno. I have Green Girl sitting here and must read it soon. Of Green Girl, Gay writes: “She wants to put her fist through a window but doesn’t because she knows that’s not what is expected of a green girl. She knows she is beautiful but does not necessarily feel her beauty inside. Throughout the novel, these tensions are brightly exposed over and over. At times, the novel makes it seem that to be a green girl is to be in a rather hopeless predicament.” Of Heroines, Gay writes: “They say that every writer has an obsession, and in Heroines, that obsession is reclamation or, perhaps breaking new ground where women can be feminist and feminine and resist the labels and forces that too often marginalize, silence, or erase female experiences.” And in explaining how her career intimidates men, Penny writes: “I would have understood what Kate Zambreno means when she says, in her marvelous book Heroines, I do not want to be an ugly woman, and when I write, I am an ugly woman.”

Women must be likeable which usually means not being terribly outspoken, loud or opinionated. And who wants to be like that? Both Gay and Penny often felt like (and sometimes still do) outcasts for various choices, career goals and how they express themselves. From “Not Here to Make Friends”: “As a writer and a person who has struggled with likeability—being likable, wanted to be liked, wanting to belong—I have spent a great deal of time thinking about likeability in the stories I read and those I write.” An unlikeable man in literature becomes intriguing, dark, compelling. An unlikable woman on the page remains perplexing, a complete outcast and rather hopeless. In her essay “Fucked-Up Girls,” Penny discusses her struggles with an eating disorder and the rampant desire for perfection combined with society’s unrealistic expectations for women. Penny writes: “Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable; hunger for anything, for food, sex, power, education, even love. If we have desires, we are expected to conceal them, to control them, to keep ourselves in check. We are supposed to be objects of desire, not desiring beings.” Dark prospects indeed. The pressures of being female. She adds: “The perfect girl is a blank slate, with just enough personality to make her interesting enough to take to bed.”

Penny has been a young activist in various political movements such as Occupy and she pays careful attention to address gender, race, sexuality and class structure. She focuses on her activism and the underground cultural movement. The radical methods to address conflict and issues in our culture. She elicits a call to action for men to become involved in the feminist movement in “Lost Boys.” As someone who’s been cyberharassed for four years, I took solace in a kindred soul in Penny. In “Cybersexism” she boldly and rightly states: “The Internet creates offline prejudices and changes them, twists them, makes them voyeuristic, and anonymity and physical distance makes it easier for some individuals to treat other people as less than human.” She adds: “Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to abuse and silence others with impunity.”

The veracity of Penny’s ideas on independence and not giving in to societal expectations to couple up, have a monogamous relationship are poignant and quite how I feel as a never-married, childfree by choice feminist of 45. The entire chapter “Love and Lies” is a brilliant turn-about on societal expectations for coupling, for love to be the ultimate goal for everyone’s happiness and to sustain one’s own self and one’s own interests to be satisfied. This IS OKAY. Penny writes: “But I refuse to burn my energy adding extra magic and sparkle to other people’s lives to get them to love me. I’m busy casting spells for myself. Everyone who was ever told a fairy tale knows what happens to women who do their own magic.” And this: “We are all encouraged to feel sorry for ourselves if we are single, to consider ourselves incomplete, but women in particular are urged to consider themselves inferior if their time is not spent comforting and cosseting a man, and ideally children too.” What a sad sad thing. You’re still single? How about people’s obsession with Renee Zellweger, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston finding the “right” man, get married and procreating. It’s revolting and we need to revolt against it. Fight. Speak up. Be yourself and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re less than.

Laurie Penny reads at Harvard Book Store on Friday, September 26, 2014 at 7pm.

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxanne Gay. Publisher: Harper Perennial [August 2014]. Feminism. Essays. Paperback. 320 pages.

RATING: ****/5*

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA [September 2014]. Feminism. Essays. Paperback. 288 pages.

RATING: ****/5*

Review by Amy Steele

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Bad Feminist
by Roxane Gay

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book review: Tomboy


Tomboy: a graphic memoir by Liz Prince. Publisher: Zest Books. Graphic/memoir. Paperback. 256 pages.

“A boy can be celebrated because of his personality and talents, regardless of how he looks. In fact, talent can make a guy attractive who may not be by traditional standards. But a girl is usually only popular if she looks good.”

An outstanding, contemplative examination of identity, status and fitting in. Liz Prince is a talented cartoonist who takes us back to her childhood to examine her choice and comfort in being a tomboy. At a young age, Prince rejects standard female looks and prefers to dress like a boy. Shiloh Jolie-Pitt anyone? She chooses to wear a hat, blazer, jeans and t-shirts to dresses and skirts. Of course she gets picked on in elementary school without really understanding why. She states: “I didn’t even know what a tomboy was until I started school and was expected to follow the “rules of gender.” She prefers what we consider boys’ toys and games and most of her role models were boys like Huck Finn, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones. She wants to be a boy instead of a girl because even in elementary school she knew that boys might have it better than girls. Prince suffers intense bullying for not looking like the girl her classmates expected her to look like with long hair and soft edges. She plays on the little league baseball team and also joins a girl scout troop.

As Prince becomes a teenager she grows confused as she’s a girl who wants to be like a boy and dress like a boy but she’s not gay. She’s attracted to boys. This throws another loop in her quest for identity. Like many teens she struggles for acceptance and for a boy to like her. I wore pink in high school and never had a boyfriend so I can relate. She worries about puberty—getting her period and developing breasts. She’s extremely body conscious. She notes that she started feeling dislike for girls and their girly ways. “For boys, there seemed to be more options available: there were more ways to be a boy and still be accepted whereas the popular girls all seemed to be cut from the same cloth.” So true.

I always preferred skirts and dresses and still do. I still defined myself as a feminist in fifth grade. I don’t recall a lot of girls wearing dresses when I grew up but I did. It’s my style. It’s what I’m most comfortable in. When I wear jeans I just don’t feel like myself. But I had wavy hair, unruly hair in the 80s and most girls and teens had straight hair. I fought my hair for many years until my senior year when I gained a slight bit of self-confidence and started to go with the flow regarding my hair. Clearly many adults never wear skirts and dresses but wear makeup and clothes that accent their femininity. Outside of fancy events and modeling shoots, I’ve never seen Gisele Bundchen wearing a skirt. She’s generally in jeans. But no one would confuse Gisele for a boy with her long hair, curvy body and makeup.

Being critical only suits one’s own egoism. There’s not many ways to tell who someone is based on her personal style and looks. Don’t put people in boxes. Don’t be so quick to judge someone based on her appearance. It’s about personality, capabilities, desires and communication. The way someone dresses is completely personal expression and comfort.

Boys and girls accuse Prince of being a lesbian or not liking boys. “The stereotype of the butch lesbian has plagued me my whole life but I don’t dress like a boy to attract girls. I dress like a boy because it feels natural to me.” A friend of Prince’s mom, Harley, runs a zine and asks Prince to contribute. Harley is this “cool” childfree adult who takes an interest in Prince’s desire to be a graphic/ comic artist. She’s also the first adult to explain to Prince about societal expectations for boys and girls. Through Harley, Prince realizes that it’s not girls per se she dislikes but the way that our society expects girls to act and dress. Thus a young feminist is born. Prince changes to a more progressive school where she doesn’t feel so out of place with the other “misfits:” Goth kids, punk kids, a hippie, a nerd. She also does an internship at an art collective and meets some cool kids there.

Another graphic memoir that’s stand-out poignant and provocative is Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me. This is en par with that in quality and meaning. Tomboy is a fascinating meditation on identity through fantastic cartooning style. Sometimes amusing. Often heartbreaking. Always honest. An important read for all ages.

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Zest Books.

Liz Prince will be reading at Trident Booksellers and Café on Thursday, October 23 at 7pm.

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purchase at Amazon: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

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