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You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages Paperback – August 8, 2017
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From the Publisher
A Conversation with Carina Chocano
We asked the author of YOU PLAY THE GIRL about feeling like Alice in Wonderland and more
How did your daughter’s fascination with Sleeping Beauty inspire you to write YOU PLAY THE GIRL?
I first thought about writing You Play the Girl a decade ago when I was working as a movie critic. I was watching too many mainstream movies about guys and their adventures, in which the female characters only seemed to be there to cheer them on or scold them. After a couple of years, I started to feel like a lab rat, ingesting toxic doses of this dominant fiction. I read an interview in which Isla Fisher complained that in Hollywood, all the comedic parts are written for men and 'you play the girl.'
I wanted to write about all of this, but I became pregnant with my daughter, and it felt too bleak to take on then. Then when she was about three or four, she became obsessed with Sleeping Beauty. Reading it again and again, I started to see the princess character as a pawn in a battle between the prince and the evil fairy, witch or queen. The fact that the princess was always unconscious, trapped or victimized in some way made me want to take a closer look at what popular stories teach girls about agency, power, and desire. It made me want to shake Sleeping Beauty awake.
What are the parallels between your experiences as a critic of pop culture and Alice in Wonderland?
I don't remember reading Alice when I was little, but I do remember disliking certain things about her. She seemed pushy, arrogant, critical, emotional, too much in the way girls are warned against being. But when I finally read it, I recognized myself. I'd spent the better part of a decade in darkened screening rooms immersed in stories that didn't just fail to reflect my experience, they denied it. Spending hours and hours down the rabbit hole of pop culture made me feel gaslighted, dismissed, and discounted by all these strange, mad, illogical creatures—just like Alice—and that it was stories like these that had taught me to dislike curious, outspoken, uninhibited girls like her.
What can films (both highbrow and lowbrow) tell us about our culture’s perception of gender roles?
Movies (and TV and most media narratives) tell us what the culture thinks about gender at a given time, but they also help shape it, which is why it's important to pay attention to who is telling the stories and why. But movies are so collaborative that sometimes you get conflicting voices. Sometimes, an old movie that feels conservative on the surface can actually be quite subversive, while a movie that feels irreverent on the surface can be ideologically very conservative.
What do you hope readers take away from YOU PLAY THE GIRL?
I hope it validates their own experiences and that they recognize themselves. We are bombarded with stories made by corporations from the time we're born, but we don't spend a lot of time thinking about thinking about them critically.
One of iBook's "Best Books of August"
One of Publishers Weekly's "Books of the Week"
"Carina Chocano's You Play the Girl reads like a war cry. With dazzling clarity, her commentary exposes the subliminal sexism on our pages and screens."
—O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE
"If Hollywood's treatment of women leaves you wanting, you'll find good, heady company in Carina Chocano's essay collection, You Play the Girl. Why, Chocano asks, does the ingenue have to choose between marriage and death?"
"In Carina Chocano’s whip-smart new book You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages, she analyzes the 'girls' of pop culture across the decades, from Bewitched to contestants on The Bachelor (and its fictional counterpart, UnREAL) to the princesses of Frozen. Through cultural commentary mixed with personal reflections, Chocano explores the ways on-screen women have influenced her life and the way she sees the world. A-."
—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, "Best New Books"
"Brilliant and insightful...You Play the Girl stands apart from others in the genre [...] by dissecting pop culture through the lens of a mother watching her young girl try to make sense of the world. The result is a heartfelt look at the complicated messages women receive, and argues that gut feelings about these messages should be carefully examined. Chocano persuades the reader that the media we absorb around us does matter, and shapes how we feel about ourselves. And she deftly shows how books, TV, and film that have been labeled “empowering” for women [...] often have hidden agendas."
“The cultural formulas that Chocano identifies are frustrating, but her readings don’t deny them their fun…In the tradition of a long line of women writers, Chocano wants to make sense of this sort of enchantment and understand what kind of education it is offering up, and to whom.”
—NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"Chocano's book is funny and exasperating and full of revelations and epiphanies...If being a woman means being obligated to play a game you can't win because the rules keep changing (and not arbitrarily), Chocano's book is something you'd be behooved to read while you catch your breath between rounds of disorienting blows to the head."
"Pop-culture critic Carina Chocano’s smart, colorful, and compelling collection of essays, You Play the Girl, unpacks the ways movies, TV, and advertising sculpt perceptions of who and what women can and cannot be. Chocano achieves the right mix between personal essay and clear-eyed criticism, between high culture and low (discussion of Virginia Woolf leads into the 'Ghostbusters' reboot and the attendant trolls). We get a sense of her formative pop-culture experiences ('The Philadelphia Story'; 'Bewitched'; 'Flashdance') as well as dips into feminist history and the tension between being yourself and being a person people are comfortable with. 'You could choose to be a person or you could choose to be loved,' Chocano writes. It is not a pessimistic collection, but it shows that the myths and narratives of female identity are still in place and largely shaped by men."
—THE BOSTON GLOBE
"If you're ever at a party with author and former BUST columnist Carina Chocano, sit down next to her. In her first book of essays, the pop-culture critic tells her story of girlhood through the lens of the films and TV shows that made her realize she never actually wanted to play 'the girl'...Chocano's life advice doubles as a recommendations list....What makes Chocano so enjoyable to read is that, for better or worse, she revels in what she watched as a kid, and she'd like other women to do the same."
"Pop culture critic Carina Chocano understands that how women are represented in movies, TV shows, books, memes, and music is reflective of how they’re treated in real life. That’s the driving force of her witty essay collection...In You Play the Girl, Chocano examines everything from Pretty Woman to Frozen to I Dream of Jeannie, and makes it clear that although women are bombarded with imagery that may be warped, we have the fortitude to dictate who we are outside of who we’re told to be."
—BITCH MAGAZINE, "10 Books You Must Read in August"
"Chocano brings to bear her experience as a widely published journalist and critic (of books and film) in this collection of essays examining what it has meant to be the 'girl' through decades of pop culture, from Playboy magazine to Thelma and Louise to Frozen. It's not exactly news that women are most often relegated to secondary character status - reactors rather than actors - but Chocano's mix of memoir, humor, and insight nevertheless strikes chords."
—OMNIVORACIOUS (The Amazon Book Review), "The Best Nonfiction of August"
"'The girl' is not something that Chocano will abide without a fight, which is exactly why she's written the book on why it's time for the trope to retire. You Play The Girl rattles the cage of how female characters have long been typecast within inherently sexist plot lines. Over the pages of Chocano's essay collection, she digs into the stories we’re used to seeing Hollywood produce, year after ear, and applies a critical lens to the subject matter that will make you, dear reader, see it in a way that you never have before."
"In You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages, Carina Chocano expertly dissects the identity of 'the girl.' Chocano shows us how from the second we’re born, we’re told what girls are and aren’t — and how those messages shape our identity whether we want them to or not. Come for the pop culture references, stay for the deep discussion about how complex women actually are IRL vs. on the screen."
—HELLO GIGGLES, "8 new memoirs that you need on your nightstand"
"Longtime arts critic Carina Chocano's incisive, hilarious, and timely take on the depiction of women and girls in pop culture manages to be both deeply personal and universally relevant. With keen insight and biting humor, Chocano assesses the relative impact of various female archetypes—and delivers an explosive critique of sexism and the power of mass media. You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks & Other Mixed Messages is like a long talk with your smartest, most impassioned friend."
—iBOOKS, Best Books of August
"Chocano draws out brilliant insights from across the decades...witty and sharp...[Chocano] weaves her observations into a fascinating history of women’s economic and social progress."
—THE SUNDAY TIMES (UK)
"Whip-smart...Remarkably comprehensive and enjoyably associative, the essays move quickly from the haunting performances of French actress Isabelle Adjani to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie as allegories for the potential of powerful women to 'wreck civilization'...Incisive and witty...these essays will appeal to anyone interested in how women’s stories are told."
—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, starred review
"[Chocano] interweaves relevant personal stories from her childhood and adult experiences with and entertaining and insightful review of female characters from the last 50 years of pop culture, including television, film and literature. Chocano not only looks back at her own experiences, she also writes emotionally about the realities of the world that her young daughter faces today. Each piece combines numerous, well-connected examples from the author’s extensive knowledge of pop culture, with an analysis of a theme related to the various aspects of women’s lives: work, relationships, marriage, sexuality, motherhood, and even math. As a result, the essays have a sound research foundation and are well documented. VERDICT: This entertaining, engaging, enlightening tour of the portrayal of women in pop culture will appeal to general readers and researchers in a variety of cross-disciplinary fields."
—LIBRARY JOURNAL, starred review
"A sharply perceptive look at the myths that constrain women."
"You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano blew my mind. Like a goldfish realizing that water existed, I instantly came alive to the air and the atmosphere of how my Otherness informed my girlhood. Each and every message of being asked to stand still so that I could be seen by the cultural product of male-made entertainment made me scream with recognition. In particular, the Flashdance chapter time-travelled me back to my youth, but holding hands with a clear-eyed, brilliant, hilarious friend. Re-looking at Stepford Wives, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched and all of the other hypnotic suggestions about my supposed woman-hood made me feel alive and energized and ready to topple the patriarchy. The world is changing for women and girls and here is one of the first steps—going back to do archaeology about what the heck happened to us, how we got colonized. If information is power, You Play the Girl is a superpower."
—JILL SOLOWAY, writer, director, and creator of "Transparent"
"Carina Chocano is a brilliant thinker, a dazzling stylist and an intellectual in the truest sense of the word. An important critical work as well as an entertaining personal story, You Play the Girl looks at old archetypes in new and often astonishingly insightful ways and establishes Chocano as a unique talent and crucial voice in the cultural conversation."
—MEGHAN DAUM, author of The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
"Carina Chocano unearths the little horrors of our culture's pervasive, insidious sexism in essays so brilliant and witty you'll wish her book would never end. Chocano is one of our sharpest, most original cultural observers, and You Play the Girl is as engrossing as it is unforgettable."
—HEATHER HAVRILESKY, author of How to Be a Person in the World
About the Author
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I was hoping to find some essays in this collection I could use in a first-year college writing class, to show how to develop and argue ideas - but also to generate discussion. But, I don't think I have the nerve. This collection probably assumes more knowledge of pop culture/movies/etc than students generally have, and she is writing at a high level. So, upperclassmen and grad students? Absolutely. First-year students, maybe not.
I think any reader who is ambivalent about pop culture will like this. Reader's who want to be challenged about how movies impact our beliefs *should* read this. Will they? I don't know. I guess that's the problem - I was totally on board with Chocano right from the start, but I'm not the one she needed to convince. But when I try to argue some of these points with my students, I can use the basics of her arguments as my starting point, even if I don't use the essays. I especially liked her criticism of the word "journey," which I hear a lot and can't stand.
Well-written, thought provoking and interesting.
YOU PLAY THE GIRL is a collection of essays about women in pop culture, and some of the confusing or even downright negative messages that these female representatives send to the populace. Chocano spans an impressive range of material. Just a few of the topics she hits on: Playboy Bunnies, sex dolls, Stepford Wives, Amy Schumer's Trainwreck, the Ghostbusters reboot, Flashdance, Pretty Woman, Katharine Hepburn, Mad Men, Maleficent, and the Desperate Housewives, just to name a few.
Sometimes these pop-cultural essays make me side-eye the author a little because two bad things can happen (apart from the book just being generically bad for purely technical reasons): 1) the essays are tone-deaf and either miss the point, or spend far too much time circling around it, or 2) the essays are unoriginal and make points that you could find on any blogspot or wordpress-type blog *cough*.
NOT SO, HERE!
In YOU PLAY THE GIRL, Chocano writes with vivid freshness, delivering new insights to books and movies you may have seen or watched dozens of times and never really thought deeply about. She talks about feminism, she talks about sexism, she talks about motherhood, adolescence, sexuality. There is so much ground covered in here, and I spent several nights last week getting only about 4 hours of sleep, tops, due in part to my inability to put this book down.
I really recommend this if you're a feminist or a pop culture enthusiastic. This author is just fantastic and has such an amazing way of writing in clear and concise terms. If she published another collection of essays like this, I think I'd buy it in a heartbeat.
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
5 out of 5 stars