Leading Ladies

I first saw Leading Ladies a little over a year ago, when it screened as part of the 2010 lineup of New York City’s LGBT film festival, Newfest.  Enamored with the film, I interviewed one half of its directing team, Erika Randall Beahm (who co-directed the film with her husband, Daniel Beahm) for a piece originally featured in the now disbanded and archived online feminist collective, Elevate Difference (formerly Feminist Review).*  Leading Ladies continues its festival circuit, appearing next at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival on September 9th, and is now available on DVD.

It may seem quite an impossibility, but the film Leading Ladies is, simply put, a quietly revolutionary dance musical. While most dance musicals (think Dirty Dancing, Save the Last Dance) center on the boy-meets-girl heterosexual love match, Leading Ladies is a beautifully wrought girl-meets-girl story. It is simultaneously a dance musical, coming-of-age story, and coming-out narrative. The power of the film comes from its ability to maintain the generic conventions of the story while completely rejecting the hetero-normativity that is typically the narrative thrust of the genre. What’s perhaps even more amazing is that Leading Ladies succeeds at thwarting convention within a conventional structure while simultaneously being a whole lot of damn fun. Lesser films would sink under such weight.

Helmed by first-time directors Erika Randall Beahm and Daniel Beahm, this joyous film tells the story of the Campari women. The matriarch of the family is ballroom-dancing stage mom Sheri, played by Latin and Ballroom Champion Melanie LaPatin. Sheri has two daughters: like-minded drama queen and dancing champion Tasi (Shannon Lea Smith), and Toni (Laurel Vail), Tasi’s practice partner and the wallflower of the family. The film centers on Toni’s relationships, particularly with the emotionally volatile Tasi, and an unexpected romantic attachment to Mona (Nicole Dionne), a bubbly and outgoing woman Toni meets at a dance club. While LaPatin’s acting is a bit stiff, Smith’s neurotic and self-obsessed Tasi is played to high-pitched perfection. Vail might be the real star of this film, however, as she says more with her eyes than many actors can express with a word. She artfully plays the Ugly Duckling, the quiet witness to familial squabbles and the glue that keeps the Camparis together.

Leading Ladies has an ebb-and-flow, alternating between slow and quietly stirring scenes and vibrant, fast-paced dance numbers (most notably a hysterical and boisterous number set in a grocery store). The heart of this film beats loudly and quickly, and it leaves the viewer invigorated and deeply moved. To learn more about her hopes for the film, its generative process, and the ideological concerns that lead to its creation, I recently spoke with co-director Erika Randall Beahm.

Beahm co-wrote the film with Jennifer Bechtel, a friend and LGBT youth advocate in Champaign, Illinois, and Bechtel was struggling to find mainstream films that spoke to the young gay community. As Bechtel and Beahm perceived it, most gay and lesbian cinema tends towards violence or explicitness, while mainstream cinema features gay characters as “the sidekick.” Beahm and Bechtel thus sought to create a “family-centered gay and lesbian film for the mainstream market.” Their hope is that Leading Ladies provides gay youth with a positive portrayal of gay romantic love and thus “open a dialogue within themselves” and perhaps between gay youth and their families.

The film eschews aggressive and explicit representations of gay love for a romantic and “joyful falling in love which… straight kids get to experience in movies all the time.” Indeed, Leading Ladies treats its same-sex couple as any movie musicals’ heterosexual pairing: they meet, they dance, they fall in love. The romance is beautifully articulated through an artful juxtaposition of two dance sequences. Toni and Mona’s meeting is shot like a typical dance movie sequence—bright lights, loud music, and overhead shots looking down on the dancers. This film could be Dirty Dancing, if it weren’t for the same-sex couples dancing on stage and in the audience. Indeed, this is the goal of the film: to illustrate that dance (and by extension, romance and love) is the same for same-sex couples as it is for heterosexual partners. Toni leads Mona through a raucous, enthusiastic dance, and as convention dictates, the two find love while dancing. In a beautiful inversion of this sequence, we next find Toni in Mona’s lush apartment, where the more romantically experienced Mona takes the lead in the dance of romance. The lovers’ embrace is gorgeously shot in sensual blush tones and shadow.

For choreographer and dancer Beahm and youth musical programmer Bechtel, dance served as an obvious choice of backdrop for the love story. Beahm choreographed the film’s dances with Melanie LaPatin and Benji Schwimmer, the former So You Think You Can Dance! winner who also plays Toni’s best friend in the film. For Beahm, dance has an inherently transformative power: “There’s this kind of kinesthesia with dance that gets people to literally be moved on a physical level, and I believe also on an emotional and intellectual level.” The love scene between Mona and Toni, for example, is highly choreographed to match the non-diegetic music; Beahm suggests that this emphasis on “energy shifts… and the musicality” of the scene helps the spectator “lose sight of this being a gendered duet, and it just becomes two people moving together, falling in love.”

By emphasizing the movement and musicality of the scene, then, Beahm hopes to ease the fear of spectators who are uncomfortable with same-sex coupling and perhaps open a space for internal dialogue within the spectator: “For people who might have a hard time seeing two women… make out, it becomes this kind of transference of two bodies going through these really emotional and tender but also choreographed spaces, and so gender becomes less important.” By shifting the spectator’s focus from gender distinction to the movement of the body the film illustrates how little gender matters and how love—like dance—is a universal language. Thus the film utilizes dance to open up a space for shifting “people out of the fear they may feel if they’re watching from an outside perspective.”

Though the idea of dance as a catalyst to ideological and personal transformation may seem unusual, Beahm is quick to point out that dance has often added a “queer element” to the movie musical. In West Side Story, for example, the spectator sees groups of men “snapping and skipping” and yet the dance isn’t “sexualized, it’s charged and it’s activated.” Dancing is particularly subversive in moments of unison dancing, she suggests, when members of both sexes dance the same movements, suggesting a unity of the sexes and the democratization of the body. Leading Ladies takes this democratization one step further, rejecting the hetero-normative ballroom dance structure of male lead and female follow and replacing it with same-sex couplings. In doing so, Beahm simultaneously feeds off of the democratizing nature of dance while rejecting the rules of a dance form that reinforces gendered performance.

It is the inherent queerness in dance that Beahm finds so appealing and in tune with her views on feminism. For her, dance and feminism are “compatible” because they are both “hard to pin down” terms; their “slipperiness” as terms allows them to create spaces for dialogue and questioning. She likes her feminism to work “from the inside out,” enjoying the notion of becoming part of a system, and breaking it down from within. This is why her personal mantra is the cheeky suggestion to “wear pearls to the country club and then talk dirty.” Ultimately, Leading Ladies represents a filmic expression of this mantra—by placing non-conventional characters within a conventional generic structure, the film wears its pearls but then lets out a glorious, enthusiastic expletive as it sits down to dinner. Swearing has never been so much fun.

* My thanks to the editorial collective, particularly Mandy Van Deven, for allowing me to re-post this review, and for providing a space for constructive and instructive discussions of difference.

“Hail to the V”: A Second Look

Last week I posted a response to the Summer’s Eve ad campaign “Hail to the V,” focusing on the television spot “The V.”  This week I take a longer look at the full campaign, including magazine and web ads, and the Summer’s Eve website. While my post last week centered on “The V,” news outlets, blogs, and even comedy television shows (thank you, Stephen Colbert) have been abuzz with their distaste for the campaign’s other ads.  These ads have since been pulled from rotation after complaints of sexism and racism.  Thanks to Adweek.com, you can watch them here.

The ads feature hands acting as virtual, ahem, vagina puppets speaking to their owners(?) about vaginal care. The most offensive ads feature a black and Hispanic character; the Hispanic character says “Ay-yi-yi” and breaks into Spanish partway through the commercial, while the black character talks about hair maintenance and says things like “Lady Wowza.”  I’m pretty sure the racist elements speak for themselves–I can’t imagine someone watching these ads and not being offended.  The ad agency responsible for the campaign, The Richards Group, responded to inquiries from Adweek.com saying, “We are surprised that some have found the online videos racially stereotypical. We never intended anything other than to make the videos relatable, and our in house multi-cutural experts confirmed the approach.”  I’ll give the ad agency a little bit of credit here–they tried to inject a taboo subject with a little whimsy and cheeky humor–but vagina puppetry is something that, as Stephen Colbert put it, “you can’t unsee”, and I can’t believe that The Richards Group saw nothing wrong with a black vagina sporting an Afro and talking about “my boo.”

The racist ads have since been pulled from the Summer’s Eve website, though a white talking vagina still welcomes visitors to the page while referring to itself as “the wonder from down under.”  The website itself has some actually helpful and redeeming aspects, including segments that provide information about vaginal health.  The “ID the V” section allows the user to test their knowledge of the female genitalia by naming its parts, while the “Get Educated” section has a fun (albeit horribly named) “Vagina Owner’s Manual” that explains how best to keep your vagina healthy, what happens during pregnancy, and even encourages women to see their gynecologist for a yearly exam.  The website also includes an article called “The Vagina–Shifting the Conversation From Taboo to Celebrated,” by Dr. Carla Stokes, who runs a non-profit focused on empowering young girls. (According to this press release, Dr. Stokes is a “partner” in the brand.) Perhaps the Summer’s Eve people should have taken their own quiz, however, since the products they advertise are meant for use on the vulva, and not in the vagina.  As this fantastic article articulates, “Regardless of what one might think about the value of or necessity for these femcare products, an advertising campaign for such products must convey accurate information. Like where to use them.”

Unfortunately, the website does all the (vagina) talking but none of the walking.  It reinforces the taboo it pretends to reject by disembodying and mystifying the female sex organ, and placing its power squarely within its ability to arouse the opposite sex.  It’s not particularly empowering to praise the vagina for its ability to “make men drop to their knees.”  Statements like these imbue women with value only through their relationship to–and indeed, the denigration of–the opposite sex, and in relation to the sex act itself.  (Statements like this also negate or, at the very least, ignore alternative sexualities.  The website does not mention lesbian or bisexual health or sexual activity.) Advertisements like the one here, featuring Helen of Troy, suggest that her impact in mythology is due to her genitals–that not simply her beauty (or god forbid, something like her intelligence or sense of humor) would be enough to earn her a place in mythology.  Furthermore, the tone of the ad suggests that women should be proud of the vagina’s ability to yield violence among men (an idea furthered in the “The V” advertisement discussed previously.)  The equation of sexuality and violence is troubling, to say the least.

Ultimately, Summer’s Eve is trying to pull a fast one on consumers, using pseudo-feminist rhetoric to imply that being a woman is simultaneously awesome and also requires a regular dose of ‘freshening up.’  Your vagina may help launch a thousand ships, but it’s still damn dirty.  And that’s the real shame in the “Hail to the V” campaign.

An Examination of the “Hail to the V” Campaign

*This post is the first in a series on the new ad campaign from Summer’s Eve.

Recently I was made aware of the newest ad campaign for the Summer’s Eve feminine products line, entitled “Hail to the V.” I learned about this campaign after a female family member called me to tell me about the “offensive” ad she had just seen with her husband; she asked if I, the “resident feminist” of the family, also found the campaign offensive.  (I do.)

The commercial shows us a series of supposedly powerful women through time–a Cro-Magnon woman holding a baby, a Cleopatra figure standing before a cheering crowd, an Asian woman watching two men fighting for her, and a Medeival-era princess character overseeing a joust.  The Carmina Burana-esque music tells the viewer this is an epic–a tale of events that have occurred throughout history.  The following is the full text:

“It’s the cradle of life.  It’s the center of civilization.  Over the ages, and throughout the world, men have fought for it, battled for it, even died for it.  One might say it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.  So come ladies, show it a little love!  Cleansing washing cloths from Summer’s Eve: Hail to the V.”

What is this thing that men are willing to kill for? Vagina.

According to a statement by Angela Bryant, the director of feminine care for Summer’s Eve, the campaign is about “empowerment, changing the way women may think of the brand, and removing longstanding stigmas: Summer’s Eve is not a means to confidence, rather it’s a celebration of confidence, of being a woman, and taking care of their bodies.” Bryant is speaking here of the full campaign, which includes print ads, this television spot, and a website accessible here.  (I should note that some of the problems discussed regarding the television ad are handled more satisfyingly by the website; I will discuss this in my next blog post.) Bryant is right to identify the stigmas associated with female genitalia–in many cultures it is considered taboo to talk about female genitalia, sexual pleasure, and menstruation. The silence surrounding the vagina leads to its mystification–it is foreign, unknown, unthinkable.

In theory, speaking about the pleasure and power of the vagina can mitigate its taboo-ness. Simply speaking about the taboo is not helpful, however, when the words spoken are not chosen carefully.  Though you could argue that the obvious confidence of the women depicted represents a rejection of “longstanding stigmas,” the message of “empowerment” is depleted by the commercials obvious reinforcement of the mystification of the woman and female genitalia.  The tagline “Hail to the V” asks the viewer to essentially worship the vagina, an idea that is certainly prevalent in popular culture (I’m reminded of a scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin when the title character is told he is “putting the pussy on a pedestal.”)  While I’m certainly not offended by the idea of appreciating a woman, I do take offense to the ideas that 1) she should be appreciated for her genitalia, specifically, and 2) her genitalia should be worshiped as this unknowable “it”. By centering on the vagina itself, the sense of the whole woman is lost; it is not the woman who is “the most powerful thing on Earth,” but merely her sexual organ. The women depicted are devoid of strength, personality–indeed, personhood–and are represented merely as bearers of powerful sex organs.

There’s something inherently, well, icky about the whole thing.  The women in this commercial are celebrating the fact that their vaginas are apparently so incredible that men will kill each other for…what exactly? The beauty of the vagina? Its ability to create life? Or, more likely, the chance to have sex with it?  After all, the commercial isn’t really selling the power of “it,” but of what “it” can do.  What Summer’s Eve is really saying is that men have been fighting over the chance to have sex with pretty women’s vaginas for centuries.  The vagina–and therefore the woman it represents–derives its power from the woman’s refusal or acceptance of a male sexual partner.  Not a particularly empowering sentiment, is it?

And can we talk about the fact that all of the men in this commercial are trying to prove their right to access our vaginas by attacking each other with giant phalluses?  Or the implication that women will grant access to their vaginas to men who successfully kill the other men vying for access rights?  Is this, as Summer’s Eve wants us to believe, woman power?

No thanks, Summer’s Eve–I prefer using my vagina for good.