Tag Archives: brainy women

Smiling at Strangers

5 May

2000irises: Smiling at Strangers

This piece originally appeared on Smartly Chicago:

Smiling at Strangers

At 21, with just $600 in my pocket and the full wind of naïve bravado at my back, I moved to London alone. This dumb fearlessness served me quite well in London, but not without cost. London aged me, taught me fear, and gave shape to my own limitations in a way I’ve been working to undo ever since.

One night, about 11 pm, I was walking the 2 ½ miles from SoHo back to the hotel in Paddington where I lived and worked, when I was approached by an elderly man. I walked the same route several times a week, and by then I knew to be alert and careful: walk purposefully, head up, never make eye contact. Never, ever smile at strangers. Aside from the plentiful homeless, no one ever said a word to me on the street. I was justifiably leery when the man stopped me, but he only handed me a bloom – just the bloom – of a small red carnation and said “Cheer up, love, night’s still young.” Then he smiled and continued on his way. I cradled that flower in my hand all the way back to my tiny room. I hoped it would live for a while, but you know it didn’t.

As soon as the man spoke to me, I realized I’d been walking about London for months with a fierce, cold expression on my face. This ferocity ran so counter to my ordinary cheerful, friendly nature that it disturbed me. I had to consider if my love of London was really worth such a sacrifice.

This transformation began as soon as I arrived in London. Fresh off the airplane, I settled into a window seat on the Tube with my considerable luggage flowered around me. I donned my earphones and cued up my portable CD player (cutting edge technology in 1994.) A man took the seat across from me. As he sat down, I looked up and smiled – just a polite “hello” smile. He smiled back, and I looked out the window.

A moment later, he tapped my arm and smiled at me again – a huge, inviting grin. I smiled weakly, nodded, and pointedly went back to looking out the window. A few minutes later he tapped me yet again and smiled. This time I didn’t respond, but I knew he was staring at me, grinning like an idiot. I hoped he would get off the train soon. Then he touched my knee. I frowned and shoved his hand away.

I resigned myself to hauling my luggage off at the next stop to wait for the next train. When we slowed for the station, I stood up, but he stood too. Then he leaned down and kissed my cheek. I was too astonished to react. I just stood there, horrified, frozen. Finally, another man realized what was happening. He shouted “Hey!” and loverboy dashed off. This was the moment I realized I might have gotten in over my head.

You would think I’d have learned my lesson after that, but I didn’t. All over London, men reacted very differently to me than any American man ever had. While, thank God, no one else ever touched me, I’m not used to drawing strangers’ attention, and it took me far too long to figure out what I was doing wrong. I was smiling at strangers.

Perhaps I overcompensated then, disconnecting from others completely in exchange for an imagined invisibility. The old man made me realize I wasn’t invisible at all – just afraid and angry: angry at myself for having been naïve, angry at the world for being dangerous for women. I wanted independence so badly that I fooled myself into believing I was invincible, and when I realized that wasn’t true, I mourned.

I still miss my stupid moxie, the beautiful illusion that I could do anything at all – the same necessary, optimistic lie we still teach our daughters. I would get on that plane to London again in a heartbeat, but if I did so now, I would have to take my fear with me. Heavy luggage indeed.

photo by d’n’c


Ink Stains and the Brainy Girl

31 Mar

2000irises: Ink Stains and the Brainy Girl — A review of webcomics

In honor of Dilbert creator Scott Adams’s recent coming-out as an asshat (be sure to click through and read Adams’s original post!), I thought it might be therapeutic to take in some truly wonderful, original, creative comics by and featuring brainy women.

If you haven’t spent much time exploring the almost infinite world of web comics, it can be somewhat daunting. In the interest of avoiding another Irene Adler-sized post, I’m only going to tap three examples here, but consider this the first in a series of posts about web comics. The traditional comics publishing world may still be a boys’ club, but online, anything goes.

I credit my first recommendation to my supersmart and oh-so-cutting-edge friend Ifreet, who is a kind of awesome magnet. She always finds the coolest stuff ages before I do. I literally keep a notepad out when she’s around because she’s always pointing me to things I need to see, hear and do. (I still owe her my first-born child to pay off my Sassy Gay Friend debt.)

–Lately, Ifreet has been raving about 2D Goggles or The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua. I cannot second her rave enough.

In 2D Goggles, Actual Real Life friends Ida Lovelace and Charles Babbage – Victorian mathematicians, scientists and engineering vanguards — team up to fight crime (by which they mean street music and poetry.) Some of the best things about this comic:

  1. It’s pretty: Frenetic drawing style paired with keen composition, technical know-how, and an eye for meaningful detail.
  2. It’s funny: Sassy dialogue, pop culture references and bad puns aplenty.
  3. Footnotes: Oh yes girls and boys, Padua is good at research, and she really, really wants us to get her in-jokes. I get smarter with each installment. (I cannot say the same thing for Dilbert. *ahem*)
  4. Hyperlinks: Wanna learn more? Padua hyperlinks like a maniac: primary sources, secondary sources, visual inspirations, tangentially related nonsense, completely unrelated nonsense – it’s all here for the clicking.

The nice thing here is you can begin at the beginning and you don’t have thousands of comics to read through before you get to the newest installments. The episodes run concurrently, and each has its own arc.

–Next up is Bite Me! by Dylan Meconis.

Ifreet may have told me about this little gem, too, but I kind of forgot and later rediscovered it on my own. What’s it about? Glad you asked. It’s about Vampires! and the French Revolution! It’s sophisticated, funny, and has some kick-ass lady vamp types.

I’m a sucker for kick-ass lady anythings, really. Buffy is a personal hero. But, honestly, I’m suffering from vampire burnout. Too much Buffy, perhaps. More likely too much Twilight, Vampire Diaries, Being Human, etc. I’ve always been a fan of the vampire trope, but it’s pretty much circled the drain since Anne Rice. Thankfully, Meconis avoids falling into the current “tortured vampire” cliché – the one that pits the “I’ll eat anything that moves” vampire against the “God I love/resent/desire fragile humanity” vampire. The vampires here are mostly cool with being vampires and are on the run and having fun. Flying heads! Funny Hats! Robespierre! Go vampires go!

Ms. Meconis began this comic in high school, because she had, as she says, “a burning desire to simultaneously make fun of A Tale of Two Cities and Interview With the Vampire.” She actually completed Bite Me! in 2004, and now publishes a newer web comic called Family Man, which I also highly recommend.

–And finally, we have Subnormality.

Subnormality is the kind of comic where you read through all the panels, and then you have to go back and look closely at the art because it’s peppered with funny, sad, lovely details you probably missed the first time. Most of the episodes are one-offs, but Subnormality does have a recurring character in the form of a 3000 year-old sphynx. She wanders around a modern metropolis trying desperately to understand why people live and feel the way they do. She bumps up against contemporary social constructs and wonders why human beings’ priorities are so screwed up. It’s sharp at times, almost cynical even, but mostly Subnormality is poignant and has a very curious, quite gentle approach to talking about human frailty. “Sexier Than” actually made me cry. (Yeah, I’m a sucker.)

The artist/author of Subnormality is Winston Rowntree – the pseudonym for a guy who earned my eternal devotion by plainly declaring, “I’m downright feminist.” Many of the characters in these strips are women, and he writes women well. He writes men well, also. And sphinxes. And monsters. And so on. Mr. Irises introduced me to Subnormality, and it’s only loyal gratitude that keeps me from writing Winston Rowntree daily love letters. Well, that and my pride.

If you’re interested in exploring further, here are just a couple more sites where you can find other female-friendly web comics:



Feministe’s 10 Webcomics You Should Read

If you have more suggestions, I’m all ears.

Brainy Women at the Rock-A-Hula Luau

2 Feb

2000irises: Brainy Women at the Rock-a-hula Luau

As you no doubt remember, when the new school year opens on Grease 2, our heroine Stephanie (Michelle Pfeiffer) has spent her summer pumping gas and wriggling out of the arcane social contract tying the Pink Ladies to the T-Birds. She’s managed to shuffle off her toad of a boyfriend and repeatedly insists to anyone in earshot that she will not go back to dating just any idiot who comes along. She’s a free woman now, and she’s going to hold out for a guy … with a motorcycle. Whatever. She exclaims this new manifesto while dangling from a ladder, which I respect, singing “No ordinary boy, no ordinary boy is gonna do, I want a rider that’s cool.”

Then she dances off across the parking lot doing this weird little hopping step. As you do.

Stephanie doesn’t have to wait long for her “dream on a mean machine.” Moony uber-dork Michael (Maxwell Caulfield) devotes himself to fulfilling Stephanie’s every desire and winning her heart. By day he does her homework; by night he’s a self-taught Evel Knievel in a leather jacket and a shiny black helmet.

But, oh the angst! Which identity will Stephanie really fall for: Shakespeare

or Cool Rider?

Stephanie’s no dummy. “Are you crazy?” she says, “I got two for the price of one!”

That pretty much sums up my feelings about pop culture.

I love stylized spectacle. I love fast-paced glamour and excitement. I love catchy tunes, throbbing beats, flashy choreography and over-the-top costumes. I’m a magpie: I want shiny colors and dancing lights. I thrill to thwarted romance and sparky dialogue. I love to laugh. I love to sing. I love to watch other people laugh and sing.

But sadly, spectacle just isn’t enough for me. I don’t buy it for long. I get bored. Stephanie’s interest in Michael would have died out instantly if he’d turned out to be only Shakespeare (too brainy to identify with) or only Cool Rider (all flash and daring, but little substance.) I feel the same way about mainstream entertainment. I want excitement and fun, but damn if I don’t want substance too. I am a Brainy Woman, I’m overeducated, and I really just want to be surprised. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Imagination, craft, and (dare I say it?) genius aren’t only found in high culture. I do enjoy literature, foreign film, fine art, and so on, but brilliant, thoughtful entertainment is possible beyond PBS, and sometimes it’s even more fun because it’s unexpected. Furthermore, as a Brainy Woman, I get really jazzed when the mainstream meets feminism. I am constantly on the lookout for nuanced female characters, television shows and movies that pass the Bechdel Test, and work created and inspired by other Brainy Women. It’s unfortunate we have to look so damn hard for these qualities in pop culture, but finding them is like discovering buried treasure.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge anyone their guilty pleasures. I’ve been known to devour paperback romance novels, dial into American Idol, and download Katy Perry. (What? I like “Hot and Cold,” okay?) But while I think these things are fun and diverting, none are exactly inspiring. I want to be inspired. (I blame the Master’s Degrees. Once you’ve got a graduate degree in English, your only option is to laser it off. )

All this meandering exposition is actually leading to an explanation of what I intend to do with this blog. I mean to seek out examples of witty, intelligent, women-positive pop culture and write about them. This is a worthy challenge because mainstream entertainment, even when intelligent and women-positive, is rarely unproblematic. When we talk about 30 Rock or Lady Gaga or The Hunger Games, we need to think about what makes them smart as well as how they could go even further.

What I’m not interested in doing here is an all-encompassing feminist critique of pop culture. For one thing, several magazines and blogs already do that very well – far better than I could. (See my blogroll.) For another thing, like most Brainy Women, I despair at the pervasive misogyny of our culture. Analyzing and dissecting culture is a crucial but never-ending, often grim, thankless task. Such critiques are essential to fostering feminist consciousness and debate, and I enjoy reading them, but just thinking about single-handedly undertaking such a task in my tiny little blog exhausts me. I think this explains the intense burnout rate among feminist bloggers. I can think of six misogynistic things I’ve seen today. If I tried to research and explicate the constant barrage of anti-women messages and images, I would be full-on depressed within a week. I don’t want to ignore them, but I don’t want to focus on them either.

So, instead of studying the pervasive misogyny of the entertainment industry, I’m going to look for the glimmers of light in the fog. I do hope you’ll help. And then, at the end of the day, we can have a luau.

(Also, for the record, Grease 2 absolutely does NOT meet the Brainy Woman requirements. But I like it anyway. Don’t tell.)

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