Movie Character Monday / Penny Lane

   Penny Lane flip off almost famous Screen shot 2013-12-02 at 10.53.52 PM

“It’s All Happening!”

Ah, Penny Lane. It was Kate Hudson’s sunflower curls, slow smile and smooth middle finger that were responsible for planting wispy dreams of travel in my head. Almost Famous is the coming of age film about  William Miller, an awkward fifteen year old reporter who goes on tour with a rock band on the brink of fame to write their cover story for Rolling Stone.

Along the way, he meets the luminous Penny Lane, leader of the Band Aids, who explains; “We are not Groupies. Groupies sleep with rockstars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music, we inspire the music. We are Band Aids.”

She is also partly responsible for my favorite scene of all time, ever:

Penny almost wins the fantasy over real life, coaxing William to join with her…“Hey, when we go to Morocco… I think we should wear completely different clothes… and be completely different people.”

pennylane08Kate Hudson Penny Lane

And at fifteen, I may have identified a little too much with her wanderlust reasonings. The story is achingly real for a tale of rockstars, and Penny, in her battle to shut out the real world, epitomizes it. She wants to heal the hearts of rock and roll..only for them to “sell” her for a case of beer. She is a young boy’s first love, but only a summertime lust for a troubled rocker. And if that isn’t the classic love triangle, what is, really?

In a film about being almost famous, nearing the energy… Penny Lane, always just offstage, is the one who steals the spotlight-finally boards her plane to Morocco…and in the end, slips away, leaving behind a trail of rose petals for those to remember her.

Penny Lane Almost Famous

“I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriosuly, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends. “

…Cameron Crowe, who directed this quasi-autobiographical story, created this character (in part) from his friend at the time, Pennie Lane. You can check her out here. 

Why We Need To Talk About Hated Female Characters

BB-S5B-Skyler-590As 2013 comes to end, I’ve seen a lot “wrapping up the year” lists. Quite a few have discussed the most hated characters on television which, surprise, are mostly comprised of women. A recent Buzzfeed article does a take down of 16 characters who were cyberbullied this year, with characters such as Skyler White and Dana Brody receiving a particularly bad lashing.


Why is this important? Why should we care about the “feelings” of fictional characters? They are played by rich and famous actresses, who aren’t under attack themselves (well, often times they are, as topics quickly shift to the actress’ appearance, but more on that later). Why should we care?

Well, two reasons:

1. All Female Characters Represent Women

Whether you like it or not, female characters on television are representing women in society. While this is not an all-inclusive representation, it is one non the less. I hate the statement, “It doesn’t matter, it’s just a movie.”Stories and characters are not just for entertainment. Stories are how we interact with the world, how we live and how we learn.  As the legendary Robert McKee explains,

“The world now consumes film, novels, theater, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s primary source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living.”

Stories matter. Which brings me to my next point…

2. It’s What The Characters Are Hated For That’s Important

If stories help us navigate life, what these characters are being attacked for becomes extremely important.

Internet hate is magnified. People feel they can say extremely vicious things because the platform of a message board holds less weight than an article. However, here, the character hate is about quantity.

“This hatred, as we all know, takes many forms. Name-calling is primary, of course: The characters are sluts, whores, bitches, cunts. They’re ugly. They care only about money. They’re stupid. They nag. You know the words and phrases: It’s just like the way some people talk about women on the internet. And in life!”

homeland Dana Crying

I was having a conversation with a friend (a woman) who was annoyed that a television wife divorced her husband because he was never home. She was a guest character, the male a lead in the series. The wife was so two dimensional it was almost embarrassing, and had about three minutes of screen time total. My friend said, “Ugh, thats so annoying. She should know he would have to work like that when she married him. What did she expect?” She was right, that’s how the audience was meant to feel. There was no backstory, no details of the 30+ years of marriage, just an annoying housewife, giving her husband stress when he is such a stand up guy at work.

While the trend of the white, male anti-hero protagonists continues, I find that the writers often vilify female characters, making them the “annoying moral compass” of the show. Examples include Dexter, (Rita, Deb), and Breaking Bad, (Skyler), whose’ the females are seen as “holding them back”. Anna Gunn, who played Skyler, wrote a great Times article  addressing the hate towards her character.

It makes sense. The protagonist needs a conflict. If all protagonists have “bad” qualities that are metamorphosed into “good” qualities, the “good” conflict becomes “bad”.

Writers are twisting traditional female characteristics to create the opposing want of the lead character. Many wives are hated for being nagging, or worse yet, needing love. “It’s notable,” Gunn wrote, “that viewers have expressed similar feelings about other complex TV wives — Carmela Soprano of The Sopranos, Betty Draper of Mad Men. Male characters don’t seem to inspire this kind of public venting and vitriol.”

Parenthood Jasmine Joy

The article cites another character, Jasmine on Parenthood:

“When are we supposed to think Jasmine sucks, exactly? When Crosby isn’t being helpful with their newborn baby? When Jasmine’s mother needs their help financially and moves in for a bit?….Why would I root for some Peter Pan man-child I would despise in real life? Also, Bryant’s Jasmine is the only adult of color on the super white Parenthood…her characterization is a little tone-deaf, if not sinister.”

Additionally, the most important difference in hatred of female characters vs. male characters is that the hatred immediately becomes about physical characteristics. The article sites many examples, among which, a 17-year-old who endures excessive internet memes about her forehead.  And while Lena Dunham has gotten a lot of flak for almost every aspect of Girls, the episode in which her character hooks up with Patrick Wilson, was “too insane not to mention. Jezebel summarized it perfectly at the time: Basically, because of the actor’s/characters’ perceived looks disparities, the affair was either a Hannah fantasy or Dunham’s.”

The point isn’t that these characters are great and that we should stop hating them.  I, too, often rolled my eyes at Dana’s quivering face. Many are not great, and that’s because the writers write them that way. Not always for the same reason. Sometimes they just don’t “work” after a point in the show, don’t fit into the story or are not well written, or are simply miscast (all film teachers ever with me: “casting is 80%of directing!”).

However, it is important to note why we hate them and if their qualities are accuretly portrayed in a negative light.

Women in TV: A Helpful Graph

Women in TV graph shows gender inequality

Oh, this graph is from Amy Poehler? She’s cool I guess….

Claire Danes’ Cry Face: Audience Dealing With Emotional Acting

claire danes
A good actress is emotional. She has the ability to make you understand what you have not experienced. She makes you pause and think, Wow, that is a phenomenal actress.

But a great actress embodies a character so thoroughly, that you forget she is acting at all. This actress is so articulate in her representation that it is evident physically; looking closely, you can see the many different ways to hold a pinky, hear the subtle quiver in a voice, the changing octave in a laugh.

Actors and actresses have always transformed their bodies drastically for a reputable part. Charlize Theron transformed herself and won an Oscar for her portrayal as the unsightly, hideous serial killer in the aptly-titled film Monster. Yes, these actress are willing to look unattractive if the character description calls for it, a noble cause as any.

However, I have become interested in a smaller, more defined group of actresses: those of whom are willing to look ugly and unappealing not because their character called for it, but because their acting did.

Throughout her career, Claire Danes has been the epitome of an actresses who isn’t afraid to “let go” for a role. The rawness of her acting has not gone unrewarded; she has already won two Golden Globes and two Emmys for the volatile role of Carrie Mathison on Showtime’s Homeland. Yet, her fearlessness garners a contradictory reaction from the public. Danes’ incredibly vulnerable and candid portrayals of the human emotional spectrum has been praised by some and ridiculed by others.

I’m sure many of you are aware of the internet trend called Cry Face.


claire danes cry face

Claire Danes Cry Face Homeland

For those still unaware, it began as a blog called The Claire Danes Cry Face Project, the tagline simply being, “When Claire Danes cries on film, we document it.” Photos, GIFs, and compilation videos of Danes’ most vulnerable moments are captured, shared and laughed at. This trend even manifested in an SNL skit that featured Anne Hathaway portraying Dane’s tearful performances.

As I have written before about accurately placed ugliness, this phenomenon seems to be a continuation of people’s negatively toward female character constructs that are actually messy. Does the Cry Face blog demonstrate our severe dissociate to our own scary world of emotions?

Danes gives a nuanced portrayal of the extremely complex Carrie Mathison, an ultra talented, bipolar CIA agent. The reason that her “ugliness” is important is because when she’s ugly, she is revealing the dark side of herself, which manifests as physical ugliness…. she becomes unattractive in an otherwise attractive role.
Sasha Weiss, writing for The New Yorker, puts it,“A testament to Danes’s knack for self-exposure is her willingness to look ugly—her reedy, boyish frame can become galumphy and graceless, her smooth, radiant face can crumple like a paper bag. This mood-swinging is the essence of her acting, and so it’s also the thing that people like to make fun of.” (1)

Its not only the essence of her acting, but its the essence of her intense and bipolar character. Danes describes her character tenderly,

“I also appreciated the dichotomy between her obvious flaws and transgressions and her strong moral core. For all her recklessness, she is surprisingly earnest and honest. Another fun paradox: she dedicates herself entirely to the noble cause of protecting her country, but she doesn’t do it simply for noble reasons. She is terrified of forging intimate relationships with others—which is, basically, what constitutes a life—because she knows the kind of damage that her condition can wreak. Because she has such an anemic life, it is easier for her to risk losing it on behalf of her cause. While this is an advantage of sorts, she must live with the pain of her loneliness. She is, basically, a classic superhero. Who wouldn’t want to play that?” (2)

Danes is incredibly physical in her acting. Her body can let go to the point where she is literally shaking, her voice perfectly breaking as she desperately tries to convince her agency directors of her theories. She acts without caring about her appearance, without being self editing or self aware.

“I don’t even know how it happens, but I start shaking. My body expresses it. It’s really fun when it starts becoming physicalized. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision. It’s a little mysterious to me.”  says Danes.

This intense vulnerability shows the audience the beauty that it means to be human. Claire Danes truly gives it her all, a full body act that creates a performance so beautiful, so raw, that it alienates some audience members, and perhaps even frightens them. In today’s media landscape, where illusion is a necessity and “branding” trumps performance, complete unadulterated acting is hard to come by.

Perhaps the fact that people mock Danes demonstrates her unique acting abilities. However, are we so used to the polished forms of characters in films that we cannot handle real emotion? I have not seen a more incredible actress on television in a long while. Its interesting that the same person who Obama told, “You are a finer actress than I am President,” is the one that sparked such mockery from the public. While it is not the only element, I think modern audiences have a more difficult time in dealing with a portrait of real emotion. We often place ourselves in the characters we watch, and don’t want to see ourselves be out of control-we don’t want to see the purple veins in our eyelids pop, or have our runny noses linger as we yell. We don’t want to look like Carrie Mathison when we get mad, so we tease what we are wary of.

Cry Face is essentially taking the art of the emotional breakdown and shoving it out of context. This removal, which both degrades and mutes a modern day tragic heroine, shows how we can’t handle the truth of how we see ourselves.


Joss Whedon Is Over The Question: Why Do You Write Strong Women Characters?

In 2006, Joss Whedon, the creator of cult classics Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and the drastically underrated Dollhouse, was the recipient of The Equality Now Award. After honoring his mother, Whedon had a lot to say about the question:

Why do you write strong women characters?

“Why are you even asking me this?! This is like interview number 50 in a row. How is it possible that this is even a question? Honestly, why did you write that down?  Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters? I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored.”

Since the Wonder Woman movie is still astonishingly on hold (article to come), and Whedon’s involvement in the script appears to be terminated, I hope to hear more promising words from him in the times to come.

So, Joss, why do you continue to write strong female characters?

“Because you are still asking me that question.”