Carina Chocano and the Complexities of Cinematic Womanhood

Literary Essays, Nonfiction

Carina Chocano’s zeitgeisty new essay collection, You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, and Other Mixed Messages, is one of 2017’s must-read nonfiction works.  Featuring twenty thought-provoking essays on topics as diverse as Disney’s FrozenPlayboy, and robotic sex dolls, Chocano’s exquisitely written and impassioned collection is perfect for anyone who might be wondering: “how did we come so close to having our first female president even though The Bachelor remains one of network television’s highest-rated programs?”

Book Photos 004Chocano’s answer lies in the title: girls and women are inundated with mixed messages about what it means to be a girl, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to make the transition from one to the other.  The enjoyment in

reading You Play The Girl stems not from the unsatisfying answer – the media landscape remains harsh for girls and women, no matter how many female-centric reboots of Ghostbusters Hollywood throws our way – but rather from the process, where Chocano excavates a wide variety of cinematic texts in a satisfying way that is guaranteed to leave readers feeling empowered when it comes to understanding the media’s complicity in our cultural desire for “women to blame each other or themselves” (32).

Like many girls, my adolescent self fell into a love/hate relationship with Hollywood; I was simultaneously mesmerized by cinematic portrayals of female adolescence, relationships, and sex while at the same time deeply troubled by the images in front of me.  Chocano, a seasoned Los Angeles-based film and media critic, skillfully puts words to feelings I’ve had for over a decade and, at times, she feels like a mind reader.  In the collection’s first essay, she details her initial exposure to the hypersexualized “Playboy Bunny” and how familiar she found the images: “they [Hugh Hefner’s Bunnies] were naked Barbies with princess personalities, just the pretty, passive, vulnerable, unconscious young girls we’d been trained to recognize as our personal ideal; the sleeping beauties” (10).

The “princess personality” is a recurring theme throughout the book, and Chocano frequently contrasts fictional women who fit the royal bill with Lewis Carroll’s Alice, an oft-justifiably petulant girl who complains and stomps her feet all over Wonderland.  Alice is a deviant among a sea of conformists; fictional girls and women designed purely to instruct their real-life counterparts on how best to make their femininity palatable for any given era.  That Disney’s princesses feel performative and exaggerated is no mistake.

In an essay titled “Let It Go,” Chocano, who is fiercest when talking about Disney’s flagship franchise, writes that “fairy tales set down norms for behavior and make clear the consequences of conforming to or rejecting the established codes of conduct” (210).  In other words, animated classics like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs function as a how-to manual for girls looking to navigate a marketplace where wholesome beauty and niceness are their primary, perhaps only, currency.  There’s a reason Cinderella doesn’t throw down her broom and yell, “THIS SUCKS;” obedient girls take adversity in stride with a smile on their face while waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them.  Alice, who “perceives herself as a subject with inalienable rights” (158), stands alone in her desire to point out the fair and the unfair, the just and the unjust.

If The Little Mermaid (among other Disney Princesses) seeks to imbue girls with a hyperstylized femininity, The Bachelor, a long-running “reality” show produced by Disney-owned ABC, seeks to have the same affect on young women.  Innocent cuteness takes on a new meaning in the Bachelor universe – instead of mistaking a fork for a hairbrush,  Bachelor women all work to make themselves “younger, thinner, prettier, more submissive, more agreeable, and more insecure” (183) – but the core idea is the same.

Chocano points out how the accomplished, cosmopolitan Bachelor women (with careers in nursing, entrepreneurship, and the law) downplay their vocation success to ostensibly become a wife, mother, and glorified housekeeper to mediocre, uninteresting men – as Chocano muses throughout the book, the media doesn’t often portray out society as it is, but how we want it to be.  This is epitomized by The Bachelor.  For example, seventy percent of women with children under the age of eighteen work outside the home (here), despite The Bachelor‘s desire to portray marriage and childbirth – two life events often conflated in the show – as the delineation between girlhood and womanhood.

While Disney princesses and The Bachelor were consistent formative influences on my early-’00’s adolescence, and thus stood out to me in my reading of You Play The Girl, Chocano’s prowess extends far beyond these two franchises.  She describes the experience of watching big-budget action flicks – stuffed to the brim with muscular leading men, bikini-clad trophy girls, car chases, and explosions so unrealistic they become almost comical – as:

being hit repeatedly over the head with a monolithic ideology obsessed with rehearsing its goodness and rightness…no matter how bad things get ecologically, financially, corporately, health care-wise, or inequality wise, our exceptionalism, embodied by a “regular guy” pumped up and morally enraged to mythic proportions, will save us (125).

Chocano proves equally adept at analyzing The Martian as she is Sex and the City, and readers will inevitably connect her thoughts on any given film or series to another not addressed in the book.  While an in-depth look at sixties favorites “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Bewitched” leads Chocano to conclude that “women who wield power openly are bad for business and wreck civilization” (44), I can’t help but apply this sentiment to the media coverage of the 2016 American election, and Clinton’s candidacy in particular.  That “power is perhaps the most unnatural trait for a girl to possess” (214) feels equally applicable to Frozen‘s Elsa as it does to Clinton’s campaign speaks to the depth of Chocano’s work; she is one feminist writer we need right now.

Since my college days, feminist film criticism has been something of an esoteric interest for me. This obsession often becomes repetitive – as any avid reader of a niche genre can attest – but Chocano’s voice is unique and refreshing; each essay offers a new, incisive take on a relevant cultural norm or icon.  Chocano’s analyses extend beyond the scope of the works explored in You Play The Girl but never rely on brash generalizations, while her references are specific without feeling unapproachable.  Readers aren’t required to have an encyclopedic knowledge of films to appreciate this book – Chocano’s truths are ubiquitous and universal in American society.

Therefore, while film and television enthusiasts may be Chocano’s primary audience, her witty, relevant, and concise writing is accessible to anyone interested in the mixed messages Hollywood constantly sends girls and young women.  You Play The Girl forces readers to confront the reality of the media we consume (and often adore) on a daily basis, and I know I’m smarter and better informed because of it.

I Would Recommend To: cinephiles, writers, college students, and frustrated parents of a Disney-obsessed child

Published: August 2017 by Mariner Books

Related Readings: Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay, Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers by Alana Massey, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson

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