Playing the Girl: Ten False Starts (After Janet Malcolm)

By Karen KarboFebruary 18, 2018

Playing the Girl: Ten False Starts (After Janet Malcolm)

You Play the Girl by Carina Chocano


YOU PLAY THE GIRL: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages, Carina Chocano’s memoir/pop culture takedown of the way women are characterized by the media, was released on August 8, 2017. It was the time before #MeToo, when sexual assault and misconduct was a well-kept open secret, when powerful men could freely grope, pinch, pat, squeeze, and jerk off in front of women with no fear of reprisal. Way back then, the book seemed like a smart, entertaining, and mostly disciplined rant about something second-wave feminists have been kvetching about for years: the way women are portrayed on TV and in the movies — routinely cast as bimbos, sex objects, sacrificial wives, and mothers. The limited menu has not changed much over the years: If the woman isn’t stupid, sexy, or selfless, she is inevitably portrayed as a full-on bitch or bunny-boiling psycho-killer. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but despite top-notch polemics like You Play the Girl, this isn’t about to change any time soon. For every Wonder Woman, there will still be hundreds of All the Money in the Worlds, co-starring Michelle Williams as “the devoted mother.” The only time The Girl is permitted to be fierce, fearless, and bad ass, is when it comes to advocating for her child.



The Girl, as Carina Chocano defines her in You Play the Girl, her new collection of essays, is

whatever the hero needs her to be in order to become himself […] The Girl doesn’t act, though — she behaves. She has no cause, but a plight. She doesn’t want anything, she is wanted. She isn’t a winner, she’s won. She doesn’t self-actualize but aids the hero in self-actualization.



I began writing this essay on November 9, 2017, the day The New York Times reported that Louis C.K. was accused by five women of sexual misconduct. I didn’t get far, setting it aside for a few weeks to nurse a low-grade flu and deal with Thanksgiving. I opened the document almost three weeks later, on November 29, the same day Matt Lauer was fired from NBC, and Garrison Keillor, erstwhile mayor of Lake Wobegon (where the women are all strong and the men are all lacking in impulse control) got the boot from public radio. Al Franken had been accused of being a complete idiot, posing for a picture of himself mock-squeezing the breasts of fellow USO entertainer Leeann Tweeden as she dozed; something most people felt he never would have done had he thought he would one day be a United States senator and not headlining at the airport Marriott during his golden years.

I had a mild relapse. During my 72 hours of rest and plenty of fluids, The New York Times ran a piece opining on “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido.” Not a day later Jessica Valenti smartly slapped this notion up the side of the head with her piece for the Guardian, “Male Sexuality Isn’t Brutal by Default. It’s Dangerous to Suggest It Is.”

A day later, an op-ed piece somewhere or other, proclaimed the backlash against “believing women” had already begun. None of this was directly related to You Play the Girl, yet tangentially, it most certainly was. Again, I put my essay aside. I’d had my ass squeezed, my boobs ogled, and been on the receiving end of any number of unsolicited views of erect penises, and like so many others, I’d said nothing. Like so many others, I didn’t think there was any point in saying anything. This was just men. This was just how they behaved. Pointing it out would cause a woman no end of trouble. Whereas it had never caused men any trouble at all. Now, that had changed.



The question animating You Play the Girl, Carina Chocano’s new collection of essays, is how do women negotiate a healthy identity in a culture that portrays us mostly in relation to men. How do we define ourselves, find happiness, manage our relationships, when there’s a giant mother ship of impossible expectation parked over our lives? As Chocano writes in her introduction: “[T]here’s nothing like trying to live up to an impossible standard to keep a woman in her place.” Part of this standard, she reminds us, is constantly monitoring ourselves for too much self-reliance, competitiveness, ambition, aggression. Just writing that sentence gets me a little het up, something women must never be.

The author is both a brilliant, funny analyst, and a terrific yarn-spinner. Her personal initiation into culturally sanctioned femininity begins with her grandfather’s collection of Playboy magazines. “[H]e had them bound by the dozen into leather-bound annuals with gold-embossed spines, and arrayed them on a low shelf behind the poker table like a set of handsome encyclopedias. They imparted a pervy yet learned vibe to the room.” She rightly observes that the pictorials were “all culture, no nature.” With their ridiculous settings, props and “yarn-ribbon pigtails,” and accompanying biographical data (height, weight, measurements), Chocano received the message that girls had more in common with “the taxidermied animals at the natural-history museums” than with men, their living, breathing Homo sapiens counterpart. That these artificial-seeming girls were also deemed to represent the height of sexiness — the most desirable quality to which a female should aspire — further complicated matters.



Carina Chocano’s investigation of the perverse way women are portrayed in pop culture in her new book, You Play the Girl, is rooted in her own experiences as a film critic at the Los Angeles Times, and a TV critic at Entertainment Weekly and Salon. Because she is a woman, she was assigned all the chick flicks and princess movies. I was also a film critic for a brief time, for The Oregonian, and my experience was similar. My beat was any film featuring princesses, mean teens, or noble heroines who sacrificed everything for love — girls, in other words. (Full disclosure, I also snagged assignments for the surfing documentary Riding Giants and the Metallica-goes-to-group-therapy movie Some Kind of Monster, which I considered a triumph.)

The Girl is a male construct, yet assigning editors always seem to assume that lady critics will better appreciate movies in which we figure. An interesting paradox, since women know The Girl is a lie. We know that we have selves apart from the hero, personal missions, goals, passions, complex feelings, the capacity to rage that scares the bejesus out of everyone. We know this, and yet we’re also able to lose sight of it. We’re not immune to Julia Roberts’s dazzling smile in Pretty Woman, or to fantasizing, just for a moment, how wonderful to be an adorable young hooker with a tumble of glossy curls with young Richard Gere at our beck and call. Of course, we all know this is nonsense.

Or do we?

Chocano has a gift for the devastating bon mot. She writes: “You could choose to be a person or you could choose to be loved.”

Fantasy hooker gigging in her bubble bath: definitely loved.

Beady-eyed female film critic scribbling in the dark: a woman in full, probably unloved.



In her impassioned essay collection, You Play the Girl, culture critic Carina Chocano recounts a time when she was a student in Paris. She read Tropic of Cancer, and found she loved the book. She loved Henry Miller. She also loathed Henry Miller. She learned, among other things, that to be a questing female, to yearn to be an artist, which is in every way the opposite of being The Girl, was to learn to love art and culture by half measures. There was always some part of a book or movie which denigrated women — denigrated you — and your choice was to shove it back to the far reaches of your mind, or submit to self-loathing.

“We see the gap between reality and the distorted representation of reality, and we understand it’s lying to us. We don’t renounce it, we just note we are noting it. We mock it.”

Thus, what she dubs, “the complex mental adjustment” involved in living with sexism.



On January 15, 2018, Bari Weiss wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times about comedian Aziz Ansari’s disinclination to read the cues of “Grace,” a young woman who kissed and told about her crappy date with him for a cheesy website called The headline in the Times read “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader.”

Setting aside the fact that “I’m not a mind reader” is the go-to excuse a lot of guys use when they simply don’t want to expend any effort trying to understand a woman — actually, I can’t set it aside. Writers don’t craft their own headlines, so it’s not Weiss’s fault, but c’mon New York Times, why are you giving a tacit wink to that time-honored male excuse? I’ve had conversations with men where I literally say, “No, I don’t want to do that, I am unhappy,” to which they reply, “Well, I’m not a mind-reader.”

I digress. My point: Men are perfectly good mind readers when it suits them. Reading another player’s tells during a poker game, anticipating an opponent’s fake cross-over dribble during a pick-up basketball game — if a man can read minds during these occasions, I certainly expect him read my mind (i.e., my facial cues, body language and listen to any hesitation in my voice) while trying to gain access to my Garden of Venus. Little boys grow up shoving worms in our faces, just to watch us recoil; they might do well to recall that expression when they thrust their tongues down our throats.

I’d wager that part of the reason the Ansaris of the world don’t believe they need to take their partners’ reactions seriously is because they all grew up watching TV and movies where women played The Girl.

The Girl, as Carina Chocano explains in her new book You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages, exists to be won by the hero. She had no serious needs of her own, no real agency. The Girl is

whatever the hero needs her to be in order to become himself […] “The girl” doesn’t act, though — she behaves. She has no cause, but a plight. She doesn’t want anything, she is wanted. She isn’t a winner, she’s won. She doesn’t self-actualize but aids the hero in self-actualization.

Lindy West, writing in The New York Times two days later, remarked: “When I was in my 20s, a decade ago, sex was something of a melee. ‘No means no’ was the only rule, and it was still solidly acceptable in mainstream social circles to bother somebody until they agreed to have sex with you. (At the movies, this was called romantic comedy.)”

But note: Romantic comedies, also known as chick flicks, are rarely movies men watch willingly. It’s common Hollywood wisdom that girls will see any movie their boyfriends want to see, but boys will not return the favor. “It’s an old story with a recurring theme,” writes Chocano, “this idea that there is no audience for films about women, unless the women are abstracted to the point that they no longer resemble people.” The same is true for books: women read books by both sexes, but most men who read aren’t interested in books written by women. What men are interested in — setting porn aside (as if) — are movies starring men, in which women play The Girl.

This raises the question: Are men prone to sexual misconduct because they’ve spent their lives consuming entertainment in which women play The Girl? In that role, after all, women are meant not to win, but to be won. Winning, men are taught, includes courting and wooing, but also cajoling, coercing, and sometimes forcibly taking. Sex is not a matter of seduction, but being as persistent as a cold caller about to default on his mortgage.

In the long piece on Grace and her wretched date with Ansari, no mention was made about her TV and movie viewing habits. She met him at an Emmy Awards after-party, so it’s safe to assume she was no stranger to The Girl. After their dinner date, once they got back to his apartment, he had one thing on his mind. Other op-ed writers have wondered why she just didn’t get the hell out of there, but I get it. She liked him. He was cute, a celebrity, a self-proclaimed feminist. Maybe, if she graciously demurred he would get the point, apologize for his bad behavior, and morph into Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.

But Ansari just wanted to get laid. This is an observation The Dame would make. Barbara Stanwyck, let’s say. She’d smirk and take a drag off her cigarette and point out that men always want to get laid. Getting laid is pretty much their default setting, and expecting anything else is naïve. If Ansari tried that nonsense on Barbara Stanwyck, she would have thrown a drink in his face, stalked out, and hailed a cab. Unlike The Girl, The Dame is a happy warrior in the battle of the sexes.



Before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October 2017, the key takeaway of pop critic Carina Chocano’s You Play the Girl, published a scant two months earlier, seemed to be the corrosive effect of passively absorbing the often conflicting, sometimes downright misogynistic, images of women in pop culture. We binge-watched The Bachelor at our own peril. Even beloved classics were toxic. The Philadelphia Story, according to Chocano, floats the notion that “the frillier, flightier, wilier, sweeter, gentler, kinder, bitchier, more nurturing, scarier, more insecure, and more insincere a character was, the more of a ‘girl’ she was.”

By comparing ourselves to The Girl (born of the male imagination) and finding ourselves forever wanting (because women aren’t like this), we were the authors of our own neurosis and misery.

Then came the cavalcade of famous gropers and pussy grabbers, thigh and ass squeezers, compulsive exhibitionists and masturbators, the date rapists and business meeting rapists, the famous men who have done what famous men have always done, but have had the misfortune to live during the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp.

In what journalists are now referring to as the post-Weinstein era, when every day brings new and often many allegations of sexual misconduct, there may be a more insidious reason why men, who still run Hollywood, let’s not bother to put a fine point on it, feel compelled to tell endless stories featuring The Girl.

when I first started to work as a movie critic, in 2004, it was probably the worst time to be writing about movies. I found myself spending hours in the dark, consuming toxic doses of superhero movies, wedding-themed romantic comedies, cryptofascist paeans to war, and bromances about unattractive, immature young men and the gorgeous women desperate to marry them. Hardly any movies had female protagonists. Most actresses were cast to play “the girl.”

The Girl keeps the notion of complex, flesh-and-blood women at just enough of a remove to justify the things men do to her. If she is an abstraction only there to serve, a one-dimensional construct without needs and wants of her own, then how can she mind if she’s misused and abused? That women also enjoy movies and TV shows featuring The Girl, further muddies the water. By accepting — and even mirroring — The Girl roles created by men, are we tacitly reinforcing male assumptions that we are not just okay with being objectified, but seeking it?



Can’t we just turn off the TV or stop subscribing to Netflix? Wouldn’t that solve the problem? No one is pressing us to go see the latest movie co-starring The Girl. It’s not as if we’re Alex in that famous scene from A Clockwork Orange with our eyes pinned open, being forced to watch. My friend Laura grew up in a house without TV. She excelled in school, became a veterinarian, then a realtor/novelist. She’s stylish, shockingly well read, and can negotiate the hell out of a deal. She seems enviably unconflicted about what it means to be a woman in the world.

To stop consuming pop culture, however, would obviate the need for a book like You Play the Girl, critic Carina Chocano’s razor-sharp collection of essays …



“Women are all female impersonators,” proclaimed feminist Susan Brownmiller. The statement was made at a time when pretty much everyone agreed that women were born to manipulate, sob, perfect a pot roast, vacuum the shag carpet, maintain a 23-inch waist, and require a man to kill a spider. What Brownmiller failed to elaborate upon is how we went about perfecting that act.

In her new collection of essays, You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages, Carina Chocano scrutinizes not just her own experiences growing up absorbing the messages of pop culture, but also that of her small daughter. Her small daughter is smitten with princesses, as are millions of other small daughters. I can only think this is generational. The classic princesses I grew up with — Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella — were dull and boring. Any girl who was pressed into an itchy dress and patent leather shoes, and instructed to sit with her hands folded in her lap listening to the adults talking about boring adult things had a taste of what princess life was like.

Now, apparently, there’s a lot more swashbuckling princess action. Chocano drills down into the mixed message of Frozen with the dogged persistence of the best PhD candidate in the class. I didn’t see Frozen. I had no desire to see Frozen. People tried to explain Frozen to me, and what Elsa was letting go — her fake personality. She got to be free to use her powers! But she could only do it away from civilization. And there’s the message all over again: if you’re female and you want to embrace your true self, you’ll have to go it alone. The only way a woman can expect to be loved and accepted is if she agrees to live up to the expectations of men; which is to pretend to be Less Than.

In this way, Carina Chocano deconstructs our influences now and then. We picked up some information from our mothers, but we also took cues from everyone from June Cleaver and Lucy Ricardo to the cavalcade of Real Housewives. We also somehow managed to go along with the life of Jeannie; she possessed actual super powers yet happily agreed to be held captive in a bottle and called her dopey astronaut owner “master.” Samantha Stephens, the star of Bewitched, was a witch who preferred to repress her powerful ability to do magic, and instead play be a proper housewife married to Darrin, an average lunkhead in a gray flannel suit. The show ran from 1964 to 1972. I used to watch it with my mother when I was in grade school. Even she, a proper American housewife, knew the premise was ridiculous. As she said, blowing smoke rings, “As if I’d give up wiggling my nose for all that.”


The author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, Karen Karbo is best known for her Kick Ass Women series, the most recent of which is Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring LifeHer new book, In Praise of Difficult Women (National Geographic), will be published later this month.

LARB Contributor

Karen Karbo's first novel, Trespassers Welcome Here, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and a Village Voice Top Ten Book of the Year.  Her other two adult novels, The Diamond Lane and Motherhood Made a Man Out of Me, were also named New York Times Notable Books.  Her 2004 memoir, The Stuff of Life, about the last year she spent with her father before his death, was an NYT Notable Book, a People Magazine Critics' Choice, a Books for a Better Life Award finalist, and a winner of the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-fiction.  Her short stories, essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Elle, Vogue, Esquire, Outside, the New York Times, and other magazines. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and a winner of the General Electric Younger Writer Award.  She is most well known for her best-selling Kick Ass Women series: How to Hepburn, published in 2007, was hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as "an exuberant celebration of a great original"; #1 ebook best-seller The Gospel According to Coco Chanel appeared in 2009. How Georgia Became O'Keeffe was published in 2011 and Julia Child Rules, appeared in May 2013.  Karen grew up in Los Angeles California and lives in Portland, Oregon where she continues to kick ass.


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