Thursday, January 24, 2013

I'm Not Here to Look Pretty

"Sorry to spoil those lily-white hands of yours, love, but you're a member of the working class now. You can forget about looking pretty."

A Little Princess

I was sick last week.

Stomach bug. Nothing serious. Just a few days of gastrointestinal misery, as happens to the best of us on occasion. It didn't prevent me from going to school, though it seriously decreased my enjoyment of wallowing in education, which is usually my very favorite thing to do.

While I was at school, sick and miserable, I kept catching glances of myself in mirrors, windows, and computer screens. I looked pretty awful.

I don't know about any of you, but when sick I have no desire to expend energy in prettifying myself. I don't even want to expend the energy needed to maintain prettification (i.e., remembering to not rub my eyes because I'll smudge my makeup and cause ten minutes of miserable stinging). It was impressive that I'd managed to make it to school at all, and even more amazing that I'd managed to change into something other than my pajamas. But still, I felt unhappy. Self-conscious. Guilty, even. Like the feeling that you get when there's a group project due and you haven't done your part. I felt like I was publicly letting down the university by appearing on campus looking like a sickie. I felt that I owed apologies to my classmates and professors by offending their eyes with my unbrushed hair.

And then something occurred to me. You know what? You're not here to look pretty.

The more I thought about it, the truer it became. It is not, in fact, my job to look pretty. That is not any part of what BYU expects me to do. They expect me to teach my class and grade their homework. They expect me to show up to my seminars on time and prepared. They expect me to learn stuff, and publish it as commendable research that will reflect well on the university. All of these things are my job. Being pretty is not part of that. If I were a model, it would be different. If I were a salesperson of any kind, that would be another story. If I were a dancing girl outside a Korean electronics store, a waitress at Hooter's, or a news anchor, then yes, 'pretty' would be part of my job. But I am an academic. My job is to work.

And then I took it further. If I'm not on campus to look pretty, is there anywhere that I go where prettiness is the expectation? Church, I thought. But . . . no . . . I'm at church to worship, serve, and edify. 'Pretty' is not part of my obligation to God. Dressing neatly and respectfully? Yes, sure, that's expected. But my physical attractiveness has no bearing on the quality of my worship and shouldn't impact the worship of those around me.

When I'm hanging out with my friends, am I there to look pretty? Certainly not. I'm there to have fun. I enjoy the company of my friends whether they are wearing makeup or not; I can only assume they feel the same.

When I'm dancing, am I there to look pretty? Not at rehearsal. I'm there to work. For performances, yes, but I'm there to look pretty as a Romanian, Croatian, or Bulgarian. American beauty standards don't come into play.

When I attend weddings? Maybe. To some extent. It is my job not to stand out in any photos. I accept that responsibility.

When I go to the opera? Absolutely. Dressing to the nines is de rigeur in that particular time and place.

But in the ordinary course of things, my day-in, day-out life, I am NOT here to look pretty. That is not my job. I have plenty of jobs to do, and my ability to do them is not affected at all by whether I look like a movie star or a hobo. I'm an academic. A teacher. A member of society. Not a painting, a potted plant, or a string of Christmas lights. I'm a student and a scholar, a friend and a sister, a designated driver, a cheesemaker, a lifeguard. I'm not a piece of modern art with delusions of grandeur.

So I'm taking the time I've been spending on makeup and I'm devoting it to reading 18th century plays. That is all. 

Teacher. Part-time.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Do You Hear the People Sing?

I've never liked Les Misérables.

This is not because I have anything in particular against it, in any incarnation. It has done me no harm. But throughout my life people have been shoving it at me, or me at it, and that will wear on anybody after a while.

It started when I was maybe ten years old, and my very first Best Friend, Katherine Rose Clarkson, asked me if I liked laymiz. I assumed it was a kind of food. She soon set me straight and played for me 'At the End of the Day,' of which I could understand not a word. I smiled and nodded. Very nice, said I. Very . . . fancy.

This wouldn't be that big a deal if it had only happened once. But it never seems to stop. There is a certain kind of girl who, upon meeting me, immediately wants to know if I like Les Mis and, upon learning that I've never seen or cared for it, proceeds to A. tell me how great it was that one time she saw it in (fill in city here), B. summarize for me the psychotically complicated plot, and C. play or sing for me her favorite song. 

I smile and nod. Very nice, say I. That sounds great.

All three of these things have slowly begun to annoy me more and more. In the third place, I freely admit that much of the music in Les Mis is very pretty . . . but I'm not a musician, nor a trained singer. I find pretty songs to be utterly boring. I love, love, love songs filled with emotion and personality, that tell a story, that transport me to somewhere else, but no song in Les Mis has ever done that for me (Except 'One Day More,' the day that I learned it was actually about Return of the Jedi). They are always just pretty songs, sung by people with pretty voices. And the kindly offered plot summary helps not at all, because . . . 

In the second place, Victor Hugo does not condense well. At all. 

Really, not well at all.

His novels are massive epic brick-books that skip all over France (and sometimes several other countries) and jump huge blocks of time at the drop of a hat and add characters without warning or restraint. The fact that anyone managed to fit a Victor Hugo novel into a three-hour production is a miracle. Fitting that three-hour production into a ten-minute synopsis is never going to be effective. And the summaries always have this flawed underlying assumption, which brings us back to . . .

The first place. I am so happy that you got to see Les Mis onstage in London. Or New York. Or Los Angeles. Or Antwerp. Or Montreal. Or Minneapolis. Or New Delhi. Or wherever. But the assumption that someday I, too, will have that chance, and your quick synopsis will be fleshed out into a full story and I will finally appreciate what you're talking about, is painful. It is an unconsciously done, but unsubtle reminder, that you (or your parents, or grandparents, or boyfriend, or whoever) have the disposable cash to buy multi-hundred-dollar tickets to professional theater productions, which I do not. And never will, if all goes well and I realize my dream of becoming an underpaid academic with no health insurance and a car held together with duct tape. 

So all my life I have smiled and nodded through summary after summary of Les Mis, and patiently listened to one song after another, and listened appreciatively to gushing reviews of how so-and-so playing this that or the other character was just amazing and how I just have to go see it. 

Then I saw the movie. 

It was kind of an accident. New Year's Eve Day, I was semi-stranded at the mall after conducting an optometric investigation (which is a story for another post) and thought to myself, Hey, what the heck. I'll grab a plate of pasta and then go see Les Mis, in honor of my upcoming unemployment. After all, so much of my life has been spent listening to snippets and summaries, I might as well have a look.

I saw it. And I loved it.

I was transported. I was in tears. The music broke my heart and knit it back together again. I loved the richness of the characterization and the vivid portrayal of the history and the deep and beautiful Christian metaphors. I went through half a packet of tissues. I loved watching Anne Hathaway descend into rage and despair and heartbreak and then be lifted up by a sliver of hope as she lay dying. I loved watching Helena Bonham Carter be cynical and coarse and ridiculous and manipulative. I loved watching Russell Crowe watch his comfortable paradigm of perfect, infallible and uncompromising justice crumble before his eyes. I loved watching Hugh Jackman struggle to choose between his need for survival and his need to redeem other people as he once was redeemed. Whoever the young actors were playing Cosette and Gavroche, I loved them, too! 

I left the theater feeling absolutely bouyant. I'd finally caught Les Mis fever. I was humming the tunes and vowing to learn the words so that I, too, could sing them. Some part of me wanted to climb up on something tall and scream "AUX BARRICADES!" (Of course, there's a strong streak of Frenchness in me, so this is pretty normal in any case.) And I was eager to meet up with all my Les Mis-loving friends and finally share in their transports at this astonishing piece of musical theater.

They hated it.

They hated it!

Because it seems that Anne Hathaway ruined her big number by crying in the middle of it, and Hugh Jackman ruined everything by being at the top of his range, and Russell Crowe ruined all of musical theater and most of western civilization by doing . . . something. I'm still not sure what. Anyway, it was horrible. A travesty. Nothing like when they saw it in New York. Or London. Or Shanghai. Or wherever.

Pictured: The End of the World as We Know It.

I was crushed. I wanted to take my Russell-Crowe-contaminated Les Mis and wrap it up in my favorite blanket and hide under my bed with it, where I could love it in shame and secrecy. 

And then I started thinking, and I started to get mad. 

Because, really, what the heck? Okay, so you may think that the film version wasn't as good as the stage production. Fine. I do this with book-to-film adaptations all the time. The difference is that people can get hold of the book, for free, and read it so that they can either agree or disagree with me. Access to books is not limited by socioeconomic status in this country. Access to live theater is. A more apt parallel would be me arguing 'You know, the play is absolute crap compared to the original book IN FRENCH. Translations are a waste of time. If you don't love the French version, you obviously have no taste." I don't say this because I know full well that reading Victor Hugo in French is an experience only available to a limited number of people, so I can't hold it up as the standard by which all other experiences should be judged. 

Is the issue here Russell Crowe's voice, or is it that this formerly once-in-a-lifetime, break-the-bank, utterly exclusive experience is now available to anyone with six bucks for a matinee movie ticket and another dollar fifty for bus fare? God forbid that the unwashed masses should get their hands on Les Misérables. It might give them ideas.

I loved this movie. I thought Russell Crowe did a beautiful job. I enjoyed watching his performance, and learned a great deal from it about the nature of justice and goodness. Who cares if it wasn't "as good" as whoever-the-heck else played the part in the West End? I'm never going to be able to see that, so I don't have to care. And no one is going to make me.

Do you hear the people sing? They wanted to see Les Mis. And now they can.