To the Bone: Authentic or Irresponsible?

TRIGGER WARNING: I will be discussing eating disorders throughout this post.

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Photo: Netflix

Unless you have been living under a social media rock, you’ll be aware that Netflix released To the Bone, its controversial new movie about eating disorders – the first feature-length film on the subject – last week. To the Bone has been at the centre of an online shit-storm ever since its release, and to Google it is to see a stream of think pieces denouncing it as irresponsible and unrealistic side by side with those calling it authentic and moving.

So, which is it?

After watching it and spending much of the past week thinking about it and discussing it endlessly with my friends/anyone who will listen really, I remain unsure. Prior to watching, all I had read were negative reviews, so I went in with the expectation that I would finish it feeling disgusted and low-key bad about myself. Instead, I found I did not hate it.

And so I wondered, am I wrong? So I did what I always do when I find myself mired in problematic subject matter. I read a bunch and asked everyone who would have the conversation with me: What do you think?

The answer? It’s complicated.

The biggest problem that comes up, particularly with the representation of eating disorders on television but also mental health problems more generally, is the issue of glamorisation. It’s uncomfortable but true that as a culture we imagine certain kinds of self-destruction as romantic: drug addicts make the best music, OCD is a great personality trait in a detective and suicide is the hallmark of a great female writer. Equally, a beautiful girl starving herself to death because she just can’t see what everyone else does has its own tragic appeal. And, in as much as Lily Collins’ portrayal of Ellen in To the Bone fits that ideal, with her smart humour and artistic talent, the film is not innocent of this. But as much as Ellen’s character plays to that pre-existing ideal, Marti Noxon, the writer and director has made efforts to undermine it by displaying some of the decidedly un-glamorous side effects of starving yourself to death: the excess hair her painfully thin body grows as it struggles to keep itself warm, the bag of vomit Ellen’s roommate in her treatment facility keeps hidden under her bed and the abject horror of her loved ones when they see her emaciated body, to name a few. Whether or not those efforts are enough is a difficult question to answer.

A lot of negative reviews have picked up the dominance of thinness in the story as a reason why To the Bone is so potentially damaging. Though it’s true that thinness is central, the film also addresses the fact that eating disorders aren’t just about controlling weight, but controlling feelings. For many people, their disorder is way of channelling feelings that they can’t cope with – which is why Luke (yep. There’s a boy in this movie dealing with Anorexia – another aspect of the film I was a fan of) points out that childhood sexual abuse is such ‘a big thing among rexies.’ While I think the film could have got into this more, it did shed some light of the potential reasons behind Ellen’s disorder (her family are a total disaster, her mother also struggles with her mental health, etc). It also demonstrated this through the means of romance – which a lot of people took issue with, but was one of the parts of the film that actually worked best for me. To get in a romantic relationship is to feel all the feelings – they are unavoidable. To an expert avoider like Ellen, this was completely terrifying and her acknowledgement of that terror was a big moment for her and a step toward recovery. She needed to feel all the feelings.

However, it’s also true that the extreme bodies shown in To the Bone are not representative of what many people struggling with eating disorders actually look like, though the effects on their health are equally as devastating. The emaciated bodies that are the predominant idea we have of what an eating disorder looks like discourages many who have such a disorder from seeking help because they don’t believe they are sick enough. In this sense, the film absolutely perpetuates the single story of eating disorders. Christina Grasso wrote a fantastic piece about this over at Style Caster that I highly recommend.

So I’ve ended up right back where I started: on the fence. There were moments in this movie that felt achingly authentic, right next to others that, on reflection, I feel uncomfortable with. On the one hand, I take the information that this is a story that Marti Noxon wanted to tell about herself as someone who once struggled with an eating disorder to mean the film has nothing but good intentions. On the other, the cynical part of my brain worries that perhaps that fact is held up as a means to preclude criticism.

I would like to think that the conversation will grow and that To the Bone will be a story of what it’s like to have an eating disorder, rather than what so often happens, and it becomes the story. Either way, I feel it’s one with value, as a discussion starter and simply, a film.

Have you seen To the Bone? What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s great, terrible, or are you on the fence?

 

 

 

 

 

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Feminist TV Shows

Feminist TV is hard to come by. Even in shows featuring the coveted ‘strong female’, she is often the only woman in sight, as if multiple women would somehow disorient us. There is a particular sort of joy that comes in the discovery of truly feminist television. We may not be constantly judging scenes on whether they pass or fail the Bechdel test, but there is a certain comfort when they do. It comes from not having that annoying voice in the back of your head pointing out that the only women in the room are two dimensional and passive. That voice is rarely absent. When it is… it makes for some joyful viewing. I often watch these shows with a silly grin plastered across my face.

Orphan Black

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This show smashes the very concept of ‘limited roles’ to pieces. It’s about clones. All of the main characters are played by the same woman, the insanely talented Tatiana Maslany. The other thing? They are all complex and weird and unpredictable. Each takes the stereotype on which she is loosely based and twists it into something unrecognisable. The sisterhood that develops as the show does, the love and tensions between these women, are thrilling to watch.

Oh yeah, and they’re trying to bring down the evil corporation that’s trying to have them killed. What’s not to like?

All of the straight men in Orphan Black are under written idiots. This is a deliberate choice. It is a device to point out the limited roles we give women in television. It is also there as a means of showing how men – even when they are idiots, still work within the privileges afforded them by a patriarchal system. If you’re interested, there is a really great article about this aspect of the show over at Slate. The author refers to men as ‘like so many walking erections.’ It’s a must read. Trust me.

Scott and Bailey

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This is a cop show from the UK. Generally speaking, I’m not really into crime shows. Usually because – in the UK, anyway – they are about men, and at a certain point I just got bored of that, you know? Then my brother introduced me to Scott and Bailey. I refused to watch it for ages, because I assumed I wouldn’t like it for aforementioned boredom reasons. How wrong I was.

All of the positions of power in this show are occupied by women. Scott and Bailey are police officers, their DCI is a woman (played to absolutely freaking perfection by Amelia Bullmore, who is also a writer for the show), as are all other heads of departments they encounter. In addition to the women in this show being epic badasses (which they all are), they deal with what are actually some pretty real issues – whether or not to have kids, how to balance work and motherhood (we don’t like to talk about it, but sometimes you can’t), how to deal with the creepy guy who you slept with and who is now kind of stalking you.

Every episode of this is gold. I don’t know that it’s watched much outside of the UK, but it totally should be.

Jessica Jones

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I love Jessica Jones deeply but it has ruined Marvel for me forever. Now I know that they can do better, the utter shit show that is female characterisation in the Avengers movies has become totally unacceptable to me (before I was doing that thing where I pretended I didn’t mind because I loved Robert Downey Jr. so much. I totally mind.).

The entire first season of Jessica Jones is a repeated stabbing of the patriarchy. It covers topics such as abusive relationships, sexual violence and PTSD. It studies women’s agency, and how it can be taken from them. It places a woman as a central character, something Marvel has never done before. Jessica doesn’t spend the entire show being sexualised (cough – Black Widow – cough) – in fact she spends it wearing a pair of jeans so comfortable looking I have been searching for a similar pair ever since. She is an active character coming to terms with the actions of her abuser even as she seeks to bring him down.

It is excellent.

But I will warn you, it will totally un-do all that work you did trying to convince yourself that Black Widow was kind-of-maybe-sort-of okay.

Scandal

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Olivia Pope. Need I say more?

Yes. You might notice something about this list so far. All of the characters I have talked about are white ladies. While there is a growing feminist movement in TV today it is by no means intersectional, a fact that is disappointingly predictable.

But it’s not all bad. Shondaland, exists, after all.

Olivia Pope is a fixer. She sees your problem – a dead body, an unfortunate affair, some illegal action – and she can make it go away. By any means necessary. Growing up, Olivia Pope’s father drilled into her that as a black woman she would have to work twice as hard for half the power. She took that to heart, and if there is one thing Olivia Pope can do it is this: she can work you under the table. She wants power and she is willing to sacrifice anything to get it.

A guy kidnapped her one time. It was super traumatic. He’s dead now. Olivia smashed his head in with a chair.

Olivia Pope breeds presidents. And then she runs the White House without them even noticing.

Olivia Pope is unbeatable.

 

Sweetbitter

‘You will develop a palate. A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.’

This is how we meet Tess, the 22-year-old narrator at the heart of this stunning debut. Shot like a bullet from a mundane past, she’s left a place that feels like nowhere to live in a place that feels like the centre of the universe. Living alone in a New York rented room, she lands a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant and begins to navigate the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a ‘backwaiter’, on and off duty.

As her appetites awaken – for food and wine, but also for knowledge, friendship and a sense of belonging – we see her helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle. A rich novel of the senses – of taste and hunger, seeing and understanding, love and desire – Sweetbitter is ultimately about the power of what remains after disillusionment, and the transformation and wisdom that come from our experiences, sweet and bitter.

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I have put off writing this review for a couple weeks because I had no idea how to do this beautiful book justice.

I read it slowly. I kept having to pause and reflect because sometimes Stephanie Danler’s words hit me so close to home, I cringed.

This book epitomises post-university, early twenties life.  The cluelessness and the certainty, the moments of blinding arrogance followed by days of crippling doubt. The desire to just run the fuck away.

‘I was never good at the future. I grew up with girls whose chief occupation was the future – designing it, instigating it. They could talk about it with so much confidence it sounded like the past. During those talks, I had contributed nothing.

I had visions, too abstract and flat for me to hold on to.’

There is an undercurrent of insecurity running across the four seasons of Sweetbitter. At the beginning, it’s the spontaneity of the thing. Tess got too bored and left home without a whole lot of preparation. When she arrives in New York, she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. It takes her a day longer to arrive than she was expecting. On the first attempt they wouldn’t let her in. She didn’t know about the tolls.

Then it’s busy restaurant life which her small town coffee shop job could never have prepared her for. It’s trying to learn in a busy restaurant kitchen without getting in anyone’s way – an impossible task. It’s the needing to know about wine when she’s never had any reason to know about wine. It’s the humiliating herself in front of customers.

Later it’s the boy who shows loves by bullying her. It’s the mentor who might actually be the devil. It’s the question of how much cocaine is too much.

‘Maybe you don’t have to compromise yet, but you’re going to have to choose between your mind and your looks. If you don’t, the choices will become narrower and narrower, until they are hardly even choices and you’ll have to take what you can get. At some point you decided it was safer to be pretty. You sit on men’s laps and listen to their idiotic jokes and giggle. You let them give you back rubs, let them buy your drugs and your drinks, let them make you special meals in the kitchen. Don’t you see when you do that, all the while you’re… choking.’

The narrative of this novel is relentlessly present. I have never read such a complex character who’s back story we learn so little of. Tess and her dad aren’t close. We know that Tess’ mother left the family and never came back. We see Tess do the same thing.

But she doesn’t dwell in it.

We don’t know what she studied at college, whether she has any friends outside of those she’s made in New York.

The present is only ever moving forward and it allows for you to have experiences in sync with Tess. There is no constant anticipation of events. There is only the time in front of you, as Tess tells it. This means that the weirdnesses of the novel, specifically Tess’ relationship with her newfound mentor, Simone, build so gradually that you don’t even realise you’re uncomfortable until as if from nowhere you want to toss the damn book across the room.

Simone manages to be both all you’ve ever wanted from a person – someone intelligent and well-travelled taking a special interest in your personal development – and a total nightmare who will abandon all you’ve built together when you become an inconvenience. Simone is a foil to Tess. She is confident, capable and mysterious to Tess’ insecure, lost, open book. Then, as we learn more about her she becomes hopeless next to Tess’ unbreakable velocity. Trapped by a past – and a place – Tess will ultimately shrug off.

There is also a temporariness to the narrative that appealed to me. Despite the moment-to-moment storytelling, the whole thing is written in past tense. Even as you first learn of them, you know that knows these people, this place, are not lasting pieces of Tess’ life. It is fleeting and kind of meaningless. But that’s okay. Life is pretty meaningless, in the end.

What struck me, reading Sweetbitter, if that if nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do*. And Tess does. And though she ends up battered and bruised and in her words ‘fucked for a long, long time’, there is no doubt that she will keep doing, keep living, keep going.

And there’s something in that. What that something is, we get to decide for ourselves.

*totally a quote from Angel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top 10 TV Women

I watch a lot of TV. We all know this about me.

If a show doesn’t have at least one (though of course ideally, many) awesome female protagonists, however, I’m just not interested.

So, for anyone looking for something new to watch, or suffering from a lack of amazing women in their TV staples (a common problem), I present you with a list of a few of my favourite ladies. A fantasy bachlorette party, if you will.

Jessica Jones

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She lives to kick rapist butt and show Marvel everything they’ve been doing wrong. I really can’t stress enough how much you should watch this show. Especially if superheroes ‘aren’t your thing’.

Buffy

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Balancing being a teenage girl with being The Slayer is hard.

Leslie Knope – Parks and Rec. 

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She’s a feminist with a to do list.

Olivia Pope – Scandal

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Scandal is my new love. It’s pretty much entirely because of Olivia. Olivia Pope solves problems. She always knows what to do, how to think on her feet. When she wants to make people listen to her, that’s exactly what they do.

My only issue with Olivia is her choice of men. I hate Fitz. I have tried not to but every time he makes this face I want to tear my own eyeballs out.

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Olivia Dunham – Fringe

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She’s the only secret agent I can imagine building a pillow fort with. After we had dealt with all the alternate universe monsters, obviously.

Peggy Carter

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Killing it with her 1950s fashion choices? Yep. Fighting misogyny? Yep. Generally an awesome lady?  Absolutely.

Gina Linetti – Brooklyn Nine Nine

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Someone once told me that I have exactly the right amount apathy (which, lol. But anyway…). That’s because they hadn’t met this woman. She does apathy like no one else. It comes from knowing in your heart and nobody in your life is as great as you.

She’s totally right by the way.

Cookie – Empire

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You want this lady on your side.

(We haven’t had season 2 in the UK yet. No spoilers, please.)

Helena – Orphan Black

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Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know, I have kind of a soft spot for a crazy murderer (fictionally speaking). Helena is the most loyal, sweetest crazy murderer of the lot.

Caroline Forbes – The Vampire Diaries

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Despite some unfortunate storyline choices*, Caroline remains the heart of TVD as far as I am concerned. The whole place would fall apart without her. Caroline is a woman who knows what she wants, and will not hesitate in yelling until you give it to her.

*I really can’t stress enough how much I hate Caroline’s pregnancy. I get that Candice had a baby, but Jake and Amy aren’t having a baby on Brooklyn Nine Nine just because Melissa Fumero is pregnant. Caroline could have carried around a weirdly gigantic bag, or stood behind strategically placed objects the whole season! We wouldn’t have minded!