Thursday, April 26, 2012

Broadway Ticket Giveaway! Peter and the Starcatcher!

When's the last time you believed you could fly?

On the wings of your imagination, on the words of a story, on the whimsy of a theatrical experience?

This morning, I had the pleasure of watching my son's fourth grade class perform their class play - an interpretation of the Persephone myth. The Greek gods and goddesses wore white sheets and headdresses made of glitter and styrofoam. Charon the ferryman to the Underworld rowed a painted cardboard boat that kept eluding his grasp and falling down. My son, who was Zeus, held a teeny tiny Thunderbolt that I think was made of Reynolds Wrap. And of course, the stage backdrop - a garden of Spring flowers - was painted by all the children.

It was a fantastic, heartfelt, delicious production. At one point, the boy playing Hades hit one of the three boys playing Cerebrus, the three headed dog of the Underworld, in the head with a plastic bone. At another, one of Persephone's handmaids told a (somewhat incomprehensible) joke about a Greek chicken crossing a road. The passage of ages was signified by Cronos, "goddess of time," who very dramatically kept turning a homemade hourglass made of glued together plastic bottles that I'm pretty sure once held Gatorade.

It's this same childhood jubilance and imagination that's so beautifully captured by Broadway's Peter and the Starcatcher .(The show, now at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, is based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's novel  Peter and the Starcatchers from Disney-Hyperion. The book is a prequel to the Peter Pan story, which imagines how Peter, Hook and all the rest came to be who they are).

I had the pleasure of seeing this production when it was off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop last year. There were many things to love about the show : the over the top antics of the flamboyant, vocabularily challenged pirate, Black Stache (Christian Borle, now of NBC's Smash), the machinations of the rather manly nanny Mrs. Bumbrake (Arnie Burton), the jubilant competitiveness of the intrepid thirteen year old heroine Molly Astor (Celia Keenan-Bolger), who is a born leader and knows it (a little too well). At the time, I wrote:

Do I believe in Tinkerbell? Well, not so much since she sold out and went all merchandise-y and commercial on us. But will I clap to show I believe in Black Stache and all his theatrical cohorts? I will, and I did, and I do believe - I believe in pirate divas, I believe in hairy men playing mermaids, I believe in political jokes mixed in with tender, heartbreakingly awkward first kisses.

And as it turns out, I still believe. I still believe that, in this age of glitz and technological wonder, a Broadway production can be about storytelling, and whimsy, and the relationships between characters and an audience. I believe that rotating stages and explosions and extravagant costuming can't hold a candle to a show which uses pieces of rope, toy ships, ladders, umbrellas, and actors' bodies to create sets, a show in which everything from shower caps to mustard spray bottles to kitchen vegetable steamers to cheap paper fans from Chinatown help transform men into mermaids.

In the end, what Peter and the Starcatcher remembers is that storytelling, like childhood itself, is about imagination. Not glitzy sets, not pre-packaged images, not shock and awe. By giving the production itself a hand-made, home-made feel, this show reminds us of the wonder and delight of  childhood theatrical performances -- whether from elementary school, with the clothes from Grandma's attic, or in the endless green grass of your neighbor's summertime backyard. The show invites us all in, to enter Never Land, to return to the space within and among ourselves where we are still the Boys and Girls Who Never Grew Up.


So... to celebrate this wonderful show, I will give away a voucher for TWO TICKETS TO PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS which must be used before JUNE 1, 2012 to one whimsical and imaginative winner!

To qualify to win  - all you have to do is to leave a 1-4 sentence comment below in which you imagine the 'prequel' to your favorite childhood story. I'll choose one winner at random and publish your story story at NOON EST one (1) week from today (May 3, 2012)!

So... For example, here's my 'prequel' to Alice in Wonderland: The Pink Princess was a pacifist. She loved planting flowers, and painting, and playing cards. Until one day a white rabbit came by, ate up her whole garden, trampled her paintings, and left tiny, stinky pellets on her decks of cards. Her rage swelled her, until she was no longer the pink princess, but a Red Queen, shrieking to all who came near, "off with their heads!" 

Get it? Fun, easy, whimsical, right?

To increase your chances to win - Blog, Tweet or share on FB about the giveaway and leave the trackback! (If a winner doesn't respond with in 48 hours of the announcement, I'll chose another winner at random!)

To learn more about Peter and the Starcatcher, follow the show here:

Good luck everybody!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Dead Woman on Mad Men: Violence, Women, Media

(image courtesy of NY Daily News)

I know I'm a week late to be writing this post on the April 8, 2012 episode of Mad Men. You know, the one where Don Draper gets the flu (emphysema? cancer?) and goes home from work, only to have sex with an ex-girlfriend, and then, oh, yea, kill her and shove her dead body under the bed?

Yea, that one. I'm still freaked out by it. (Even though, like a classmate's bad story in a writing workshop, you eventually find out it was all 'in a dream.')

In fact, I was so bothered by the 'dead girlfriend under the bed' episode that it took me until this week's much less disturbing show - one where violence occurs where it ought to (between two dorky men who challenge each other to fisticuffs in an office boardroom) to be able to write about it.

But back to the freaky dead woman in the bedroom.

So this sexually aggressive woman, this stereotypical 'other woman,' who tempts the unwilling (not!) Don into a feverish quickie, is then killed by the hands of her lover in some kind of a symbolic cleansing of his multi-amorous past. Don's changed! He's passed through the fire and fever and 'killed' his Lothario self! He may need to murder women to do it, but he can be monogamous now!

Yet, symbolic or not, it's still exquisitely horrible to watch a woman be murdered by her partner. The fact that we have to watch Don have sex with a woman, only to put his hands around her throat and choke the life out of her isn't clever writing, it's distressing and disturbing. The fact that we have to watch a woman struggle and die, and then watch her body carelessly shoved beneath the bed as Don goes back into a feverish sleep, is part and parcel of a broader culture that accepts, nay, glorifies violence against women and girls.

I know, I know, the scene was supposed to in some ways to mimic the horror of the Chicago Nurse Massacre, the historical event that haunts the characters in the whole episode. (Check out this 'horror stories' round up of the episode on  But even the fact that the murder was all in Don's feverish imagination didn't really matter to my outrage. Like Ginsberg, the one character who refuses to oggle photos of the dead Chicago nurses in the episode, I found the killing of Don's ex-flame particularly disturbing. Perhaps even more so because it was in a dream. Because, by making it a dream, the writers are able to avoid any symbolic or actual repercussions for Don.

Violence against women continues to be rife in movies and magazines, on billboards and television. In her "Killing Us Softly" video series, Jean Kilbourne has shown, time and again, how women and girls' bodies are used in advertising in ways that promote a culture of violence against us in real life. In fact, the fetishization of sexualized violence against women is widespread - from images in advertising to music videos to television to books. Just consider this disturbing round up of such images at Sociological Images (NSFW, TRIGGER WARNING) or this one challenging the the use of dead looking girls on YA book covers.

Writers live within sociocultural and historical frameworks, I get that. But whether we write YA stories or hit AMC television shows, those who wield the pen hold a mighty responsibility - to support prevalent oppressive tropes, or to undermine them.

Dead (looking) women are sexually passive, and part of the lure of these images may be that very passivity. Which is why the graphic murder of Don Draper's sexually aggressive girlfriend, however it symbolically fits into Mad Men's story arc, is part and parcel is a culture that punishes women for transgressing their passive sexual roles, a culture that sexualizes and fetishizes violence against, and even murder of, women and girls.

The thing that bothered me the most about this episode is that it is written in such a way that we, the audience, were meant to cheer for Don. Cheer for him turning a new sexual page, cheer for him choosing to remain faithful to his new bride, cheer for him symbolically murdering his past lovers, cheer for him being able to do so with total impunity.

The dead and discarded woman written into (and just as quickly, out of) last week's Mad Men was part and parcel of a media culture that celebrates violence against women and girls. And that's something that I can't cheer about.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Butterflies, Slumdogs and Tiger Moms: Asian American Women and the Rescue Narrative

“Can we try it more mysterious, with that mystique from the East?
… Channel a late night sex chat ad
… Maybe go back further into your heritage … A little more ethnic.”
Remember those racist-alicious ads from Michigan senatorial candidate Pete Hoekstra, the ones where the docile, limpid eyed, bike-riding Asian woman thanked “Debbie Spend It Now” for spending so much American money that she singlehandedly ruined the U.S. economy while giving more jobs to China? Well, that Sinophobic Super Bowl ad promptly inspired several spoofs including this one from Funny or Die, and this clever one from Kristina Wong that I found recently on Disgrasian.

In it, Wong plays an actress obviously starring in a “Debbie Spend it Now”-type commercial. The disembodied (presumably white, male) director’s voice is off-camera, insisting that Wong play her role with more ethnic “authenticity.” At one point, he asks her to read the lines like her mother might. When Wong delivers the lines in an American accent, the frustrated director corrects, “But that’s the same as you read it last time, is that how your mother talks?” Wong nods, deadpan. “She was born in San Francisco.” Later, he reminds Wong that she is “in a rice paddy.” To which she exclaims, “Oh, I thought we were in Runyon Canyon.”

Kristina Wong’s spoof speaks to the continued conflation of Asian American and Asian identity. No matter how many years, or generations, we’ve been in this country, we Asian Americans remain ‘contingent citizens’ and ‘perpetual foreigners.’ (You’ve heard the question: “Where are you from? … No, where are you really from?”)

Wong’s spoof also speaks to the sexualized, passive tropes surrounding Asian American womanhood. In a recent talk I gave for Wellesley College’s GenerAsians Magazine, I suggested that three tropes still seem to encapsulate much of how Asian American women continue to be perceived:

Butterflies: This Madame Butterfly/Miss Saigon trope of submissive-Eastern-femininity-waiting-forlornly-for-her-Western-lover-to-return, has a not-so-hidden sexual undercurrent. Don’t be fooled by her shyness; she’s lush, lavish, and sensual beneath the surface! This is what I affectionately call the “Kama Sutra” underwing of the butterfly (and in so doing, bring South and East Asians into the same awesome disgusting trope).

The passive-yet-sexual butterfly is easily seen in all sorts of modern cultural spaces, including Asian and Asian American book covers, as demonstrated by this helpful instruction manual constructed by Sociological Images. My favorite tip is Element #2: “Fans (preferably held so as to partly obscure a woman’s face (or genitals), and if you can get blossoms on the fan, you get bonus points).”
Courtesy Red Light Films, HBO/Cinemax Films

Slumdogs: Funny how these tropes go along animalistic lines, right? Okay, maybe not so funny. Anyway, this second trope is the one modeled on the ever popular fascination with “poverty pornography,” as exemplified by Slumdog Millionaire and other films. Like the butterfly trope, the Slumdog fundamentally undercuts Asian women’s agency.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Racialicious!

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom: Christopher Healy Interview and Giveaway!

As a mother of a daughter (and a son), I’ve long been aware of this country’s ‘princess problem’ – the cultural stranglehold of a certain franchise of princesses on our culture’s collective psyche. I’ve also been aware of resistance to this type of pink, tiara-ed narrative of girlhood — through organizations like princess-free zone or even this viral video of 5year old Riley sounding off about big business, the color pink, and gender marketing.

But much to my chagrin, nay, shame, I’ve really never given a second thought to this issue through the eyes of the concerned princes. I mean, what must it be like, as a fairy tale character, to be so completely overshadowed all the time by princesses like Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty? To be made essentially anonymous, stripped of your individual and autonomous identity, and lumped together with every other Prince Charming of legend and lore?

Luckily, the wildly talented Christopher Healy is coming to the rescue of neglected princes everywhere with his hilarious and imaginative forthcoming The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, May 2012).  I was lucky enough to read an ARC of the novel and interview Christopher; and one of you will be lucky enough – just by leaving a comment below – to win a signed hardcover copy of his hot-off-the-presses forthcoming book! (unless you have some kind of aversion or allergy or something to laughing – in that case, please DON’T leave a comment. Because this book will make you laugh – and laugh a lot!)

But first, the most awesome interview of this most awesome author, in which he reveals which Prince Charming he is most like, why he has a soft spot for witches, and what really “ooks” him out as a writer of fractured fairy tales:

Question: Christopher, your book has four main protagonists – Frederic, Gustav, Liam and Duncan — all former Prince Charmings (er, I mean, Princes Charming. As your character Duncan would remind me, the noun is made plural, not the adjective).  Where did you come up with their off-kilter personalities? And tell us the truth – which one is closest to your own?

Christopher: Well, the original fairy tales don’t give us much to go on, but it was still important to me that my princes’ personalities made sense with what little we do know of these guys already. I asked myself, for instance: What do we know about Cinderella’s prince? He can dance. He’s sophisticated. And he’s got noble ladies swooning over him. But beyond that, we don’t know much. So I took what Charles Perrault gave me, and got creative with the rest. From that starting point, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that Prince Frederic is probably not very outdoorsy, perhaps a little too focused on his fashion choices, and (to put it mildly) not the most daring guy in the world.

I did the same for all the princes. Rapunzel’s prince wants to rescue her, but never thinks to get a ladder — so Gustav is the kind of guy who rushes into things without thinking. Sleeping Beauty’s prince actually rescues an entire kingdom in his story, and gets major kudos for it — so Liam bases his entire identity on heroics and has a bit of an ego about it. Snow White’s prince gets lucky by wandering through the forest and stumbling upon a bewitched princess to kiss — so Duncan is a carefree oddball who spends a lot of time walking the woods by himself, just waiting to see where life takes him next.
And while there’s definitely a little bit of Duncan in me, the prince who most represents me is Frederic. As a child, I shunned cotton candy because it I was afraid it would make my hands sticky. That says it all, really.

Question: Your book plays with the princess stereotype as well. How did you decide on your princess’ personalities?

Christopher: While I did work to make sure that my princesses were different from previous depictions of those same characters (especially their film incarnations), I crafted their personalities the same way I did the princes. I built them out of the original stories.
Cinderella worked hard labor for years, so she’s tough and strong. Rapunzel has the power to heal people with her tears (in the original tale), so here she’s got a bit of a savior complex. Sleeping Beauty was hidden away and catered to for her whole childhood, and has thus ended up somewhat spoiled.

And Snow White, just like her prince, spends a lot of time wandering the forest and chatting with wildlife, so as it turns out, she’s actually a good match for Duncan.
But those were just starting points for the princesses. The ladies come into the spotlight a whole lot more in Book II, and the further changes you’ll see there should come across as a natural evolution for the characters. 

Question: Usually, middle grade novels need middle grade-aged protagonists.  But except for Liam’s younger sister, and a juvenile delinquent of a robber baron, none of your characters is kid-aged (and in fact, two are married). Was this a deliberate decision? Did you ever consider making them younger?

To read the answer to this question and more, and to enter to win, visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Betty Draper's Fat Suit and Other Ageist Travesties on "Mad Men"

Full disclosure first: I am a Mad Men addict. I love the show, its period costumes and sets, its take on the social and political changes of the 50’s and 60’s, and most of all I love that sexist, chain-smoking adver-jerk Don Draper and his square cut Dick Tracy jaw.

So, I write this rant as a fan. (Warning, spoilers ahead if you’ve DVRed this past Sunday’s episode but haven’t yet seen it.)

But what I have to ask is this: What in the world was with Betty Draper’s fat suit? (er, Betty Francis’ fat suit, whatever, I refuse to recognize that boring new husband of hers.)

I get it, the show is feeling its age. This season’s opener last week was all about babies, domesticity, and motherhood in a way it’s never been before. Which, despite the strange giant close up of Joan’s son’s diaper-creme-y bottom, was a terrific change from the show’s usually male-centric, work-centric world. And now this week’s show was all about aging: Roger feels his age as Pete edges him out as top-wanker at the office; straight-laced Don gets pegged as a narc by the weed smoking 60’s youth at a Rolling Stones concert; even ingĂ©nue Peggy (*Shock! A woman gets hired as a writer in advertising!*) gets moved over by a newer, younger, weirder, ethnic-er copy writer (*Shock! An African American women named Dawn is Don’s new secretary AND a Jewish copy writer is hired for the racistly-named Mohawk Airlines account!*). And just in case you couldn’t put all the generation gap pieces together for yourself, the episode ends with the song, “I am sixteen, going on seventeen,” from The Sound of Music. 

But really, Mad Men writers? The female version of Roger’s impotence and Don’s ‘out of touch-ness’ is the fact that Betty got really heavy? I understand that you had to deal in some way with actress January Jones’ pregnancy – but instead of shooting her from the waist up or making her carry lots of shopping bags, you decided to put her in a horrible, unrealistic fat suit, under tons of weird latex and makeup in order to make the point that “middle aged” (how old is she now? 30?) women “put weight on more easily and have a harder time taking it off”? (Not to mention that atrocious tent-like pink housedress that had me running for the Visine! My eyes!) And then there were all those food-shaming shots of her eating Bugles (straight out of the bag!) and two whole helpings of ice cream. I mean, really?

Not only should the Mad Men writers, makeup and wardrobe team be seriously reprimanded for this choice, but they should perhaps be forced to watch (several times over) Gwyneth Paltrow’s fat-suit wearing cinematic splash Shallow Hal; perhaps back to back with those atrocious “investigative reports” on sizeism by the likes of Tyra Banks.  

Fat suits are nothing new in Hollywood, and for a while there it seemed that every supermodel/entertainment reporter/size zero actress was donning one in order to experience “real life” people’s pain. (At least Renee Zellwegger, when she played Bridget Jones, really put on the weight). The critique that Gwyneth Paltrow’s fat suit wearing film generated is the same as I have for Mad Men’s treatment of Betty. In an insightful 2005 MTV article on fat suits in Hollywood, Karl Heitmueller writes,

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Adios, Barbie!

Monday, April 2, 2012

NYC Teen Author's Festival: All that and a Bowl of Awesomesauce

Hey fellow writers, you know all those cute sayings meant to encourage you to finish writing/editing your dang novel/script/story: Shut the Barn Door and Write that Sucker, What are You Waiting For? Butt in Chair.  Stop Piddling around on Facebook and Write Your Novel?

Well, I've been trying, I really have. But this past Saturday, the edits were making me crazy. I'd rewritten the same paragraph a thousand different ways and it was still terrible. The well was empty. The Butt and the Chair were both aching.

So I decided to spend some energy to get some energy. And thank goodness I did.

The NYC Teen Author's Festival never fails to energize and inspire me. Last year, I attended several amazing sessions including a panel called "I think I love you, but maybe I don't." This year, I walked in on a panel discussing grisly murder and death and YA novels, and stayed for a session on turning points in character lives moderated by the most fantastic E. Lockhart, as well as a series of readings looking forward to the fall.

Highlights this year:

1. Hearing Jess Rothenberg read from The Catastropic History of You and Me, a book with a most-est hilarious-est protagonist voice. Consider, for instance, the following literary deliciousness: 

“Love is no game. People cut their ears off over this stuff. People jump off the Eiffel Tower and sell all their possessions and move to Alaska to live with the grizzly bears, and then they get eaten and nobody hears them when they scream for help. That’s right. Falling in love is pretty much the same thing as being eaten alive by a grizzly bear.”

Fantastic, yes?

2. Learning, thanks to the awesome Daisy Whitney, author of The Mockingbirds, that there is apparently a slightly more expensive version of Scrivener which not only helps you organize your novel, but actually writes your novel for you.

I need to be getting me some of that. (Note aforementioned terrible editing happening right now)

3. Hearing the most splendid David Levithan (1/2 author of my most favorite book Will Grayson/Will Grayson -- I mean co-author, obviously, but I think 1/2 author sounds cooler. I'm feeling it may be one of those new phrases that catch on. Maybe.) read from his forthcoming book, about a kid who occupies different teenage bodies every day. I'm not sure why this poor fellow is doomed to this Quantum Leap-esque life (fellow ladies from the 80's did or did not Scott Bakula rock your world back then?),

but I can't wait to read it.

4. But most best-est experience of the day, I mean, all that and a bowlful of awesomesauce best-est, was hearing an author I haven't had the pleasure of yet reading, Stewart Lewis, read from his novel You Have Seven Messages, and then -- get this -- sing the song he wrote to go along with the book!

If you do nothing else for yourself today, please, fellow writers, click on Lewis' singer-songwriter-author page, scroll down a little, and listen to this song he wrote and sang. It's fantastic. Made me want to hold up a little flickering lighter, like at a concert. (Or maybe, look sadly out of my floor to ceiling window...) More authors should sing awesome songs to go along with their books...


So am I a bit more creatively filled up after this weekend? Certainly. Will it translate into a better day of writing and editing today? I certainly hope so. But if nothing else, NYC Teen Author's festival gave me a few more authors to read, many more sparks of inspiration, and an increased sense of humility and gratitude for belonging - however peripherally - to this awe-inspiring community of creators and writers.