Read an extract – ‘Hierophany’ – from the Sunday Times bestseller Enchantment: Reawakening Wonder in an Exhausted Age, by Katherine May.
“”Follow along as PEARL iZUMi athlete, Marley Blonsky takes on her first century ride in the Gravel Graceland of Emporia Kansas.
I always felt like an imposter, having never actually ridden a century in my entire cycling career. I set the goal of completing the Unbound Gravel 100 and wasn’t entirely certain I could do it. While maintaining a 10mph doesn’t sound that hard, I really like to take breaks while riding – Marley.”
What are you listening to 🎧, reading📚, or watching 📺 this weekend?
Beck, a woman of indeterminate age (possibly between 28-35), in a slouchy bathrobe with a pizza motif, drives to the mailbox at the end of her not-long driveway, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. The scene is set for this story of a single mother who has lost her way following the death of her own mother a few years earlier. She lives in her father’s basement. Shares a bed and late-night cookies with her son (also of indeterminate age between 10-14). And fights with her younger sister, who has just earned her certificate to teach their mother’s native tongue, Kanyen’kéha (the Mohawk language) and is moving out of the family home to fuel her independence. Meanwhile, Beck fuels herself on donuts and 5-sugar-5-cream coffees. Even after she suffers a diabetic coma, Beck has trouble finding reasons to take care of herself. Until she’s visited by the ghost of her distant ancestor, the legendary marathon runner Tom Longboat, the first Indigenous runner to win the Boston Marathon in 1907 (60 years later, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run Boston). Longboat becomes Beck’s running coach. And running, of course, is a metaphor for Beck’s belief in herself, and not just herself, but also her heritage.
Run Woman Run braids together the threads of Beck’s unwillingness to face the reality of her health; Longboat’s dry humour and encouragement, as he guides her toward her running heritage; and her rediscovery of the gift of her mother’s language. I was about to write, “slowly, Beck learns to believe in herself again.” But actually, things happen in movie time. The film flirts with cliché, as Beck determines to train for her first marathon in one month. There is the anticipated montage of training scenes, rain or shine. The loneliness. The despair. The hope. There’s a cute scene of Beck getting tangled up in her first running bra. That still happens to me sometimes, when the straps get too fancy. There’s the how-will-she-ever scene where Beck is driven to the finish line of her first 10k in a golf cart. And there’s the inevitable disbelief of her family.
Beck perseveres. A short month later she runs 26.2 miles alone (well, with the ghost of Longboat and the felt pen drawings and names of kin she’s covered her arms and chest with to remind her of who she is running for–more on that in a moment), on a course she’s mapped out herself, starting and ending at her father’s house. At the finish line, aka the mailbox she once drove to in her pizza bathrobe, she is greeted by her family with love and hugs. The romance hinted at halfway through the movie fizzles, as it should. Beck must believe in herself first.
While I didn’t love the film, I appreciated the quiet victory, the characters (each one of whom was just trying their best) and the gentle touch with the trauma at the core of the film.
And, there was one element that frustrated me. It is this: what finally motivates Beck to start running is when her son moves out to live with his father again Her son can’t bear the fear of waking up again beside his mother in a diabetic coma. Before each training run, Beck writes Eric on her heart and shoulder and arm to remind her of why she’s running As a woman without children, I wonder, what does a woman without children do? How does she find the will to live after tragedy?
As I mentioned, on “marathon day”, Beck draws felt tip pen tattoos all over her arms, to represent each person she is running for. It’s Longboat who has to remind her that she also needs to run for herself.
Indeed. Why do women always have to be pushing themselves for others and never for themselves? Are they, as individuals in their own right, not worth it? I don’t mean that we should not desire to serve others and the world. I believe that we are here to offer our contribution. And yet, I want, too, that women value themselves. I wanted Beck to run because she was worth saving, not just because she was someone’s mother and her son needed her. I have a dream that women have worth far beyond their parental status (just as men have always had). I’ve written about my own choice not to have children here.
Despite this sticky element, I still enjoyed the film. The Facebook page describes the film this way: Run Woman Run is the Indigenous comedy that hits your funny bone the way a donut hits your blood sugar. I didn’t experience the film as quite that much of a jolt. I’d describe it more as an apple—a sustained healthful energy. I learned that Kanyen’kéha has no word for “empty,” which continues to fascinate me. Contemplating a worldview without emptiness is mind expanding.
If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a list of how to stream. Support women in film! And if you watch or you’ve already watched. I’d love to know your thoughts.
Catherine wrote a blog post about Brittany Runs a Marathon without watching it. That was definitely the wiser choice. See her commentary here.
She writes, “So why I am writing about a movie I haven’t seen? Because I think the movie/advertising/fashion/fitness industries have (sort of) taken in the message that it’s not okay to blatantly fat-shame people or overtly identify lower body weights with fitness, success and happiness in life. Notice, I said “overtly” and “blatantly”.”
Catherine goes on to identify “some strong fitspo messages buried (not too deeply) in this film:
Health problems should first be addressed by losing weight
Weight loss is possible to achieve through physical activity
Weight loss makes physical activity possible and easier and better and more fun
Some deep-seated emotional problems will resolve through weight loss and physical activity”
So why did I end up watching it? I sometimes watch “bad” TV or fluffy shows while cleaning. Easy to follow rom-coms? Sign me up! I hadn’t seen the floor of my room in weeks. There were Christmas gifts I still hadn’t put away, clean laundry, bags of gym clothes, yoga mats etc all over the floor, the bed needed making, the socks needed sorting and so on. I needed something longer than a regular half hour show to deal with all of the mess. I needed a movie length thing at least. I thought I could handle the fat shaming and enjoy BRAM for its redeeming features. The trailer looked, as a friend put it, cute. The Guardian called it a fluffy feel good flick. It is not that. By the end, I did not feel good at all.
Friends, it was not mostly cute with a side of fat shaming, which I expected. Instead it was a dumpster fire of stereotypes and it was also super sex shaming. All of this was lumped into criticism of Brittany’s self-destructive lifestyle. At one point in the movie someone opines–in a line that was supposed to save the movie, “Brittany, it was never about the weight.” Instead, “weight” is just a stand in for all of Brittany’s problems. Before fat-Brittany is taking drugs and giving men blow jobs in night clubs and by the end of the movie, thin Brittany isn’t just thin. She’s also turning down casual sex. The friends-with-benefits/boyfriend proposes. There was way too much moralizing about sex and drugs. And I say that as someone who is no fan of drugs or alcohol and is often accused of moralizing in this area.
This happens because Brittany isn’t just a fat girl. She’s a fat girl with low self -esteem. She could have just gotten some self-esteem. But no, she gets thin and then gets self-esteem. She could have gotten self-esteem and demanded equal pleasure in the casual sex. She could have started using drugs and alcohol in a responsible manner. Instead, no. She gets self-esteem, says no to drugs, and holds out for a real relationship.
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t manage the weight-loss plot line well at all.
The Guardian reviewer writes, “The film struggles to square its protagonist’s weight loss with the pressure to present a body-positive position and ensure it doesn’t alienate the very female audience it courts. One minute it’s wryly poking fun at the expense and inaccessibility of gyms, the next it’s fetishistically cataloguing the shrinking number on Brittany’s scales. Indeed, as her body transforms, so does her life. She finds a new job, and supportive friends in her running club; men begin to notice her. Yet Brittany still battles with her body issues, unable to shed her identity as “a fat girl”. There’s a note of truth in Bell’s finely tuned performance as a character whose insecurities have calcified over the years, hardening her to genuine goodwill, which she frequently misreads as pity.”
For the record, fat Brittany is smaller than me. She starts out weighing 197 pounds. Her goal weight is 167. And we can track it because never in movie history has a person stepped on a scale so often.
(A blog reader pointed out a more charitable interpretation of why we see her stepping on the scale so often: “She steps on the scale a lot because she trades in her addictions to drugs and alcohol for an addiction to scale weight loss, which the movie portrays as an unhealthy obsession. What starts out as a good “oh look, I lost this many pounds now!” thing quickly escalates into a dangerous “go for a run, jump on the scale, dislike the number displayed, so go back out to run in the mistaken belief that it will make the number change” cycle. That’s why she steps on a scale so often. Because it’s NOT good that she does it.)
Forget the weight loss and the sex, even the running themes aren’t handled well. Friends tease Brittany when she first starts running because she isn’t a real runner. The longest she’s run is 5 km. Rather than tackling the “real runner” thing head on instead the film has Brittany run a marathon and become a real runner by the friend’s standards. Even her triumphant marathon finish is marred by Brittany’s continuing to run on her (spoiler alert) injured and possibly still stress fractured leg. We don’t know that but we do know she’s holding her leg and crying, running and not able to put much weight on it, and her first attempt to run the marathon was derailed by a stress fracture.
There is nothing to love here. Nothing cute or funny or feel good or fluffy.
Last night we had a special film event, one night only, through “Demand Film.” It’s an organization that sets up film screenings that only go ahead if enough tickets get sold by the deadline. The film was We Are Triathletes and it followed six athletes from four countries as they prep for and compete in the Challenge Roth, the world’s largest triathlon with over 5500 competitors, held every year in Roth, Germany. 2014, the year the film highlights, was the race’s 30th year.
I went with a group of people who have actually done Ironman triathlon events. I ran into a few people who I used to train with when I was doing the fittest by 50 challenge and getting ready for my Olympic distance events back in 2014. I think almost all the London, Ontario triathletes who weren’t training last night were at the movie.
In addition to following a diverse group of athletes–elite and age-group, men and women, and one para-athlete who had his legs amputated as a child, and the first Chinese competitor in –the film fills in some of the history of Ironman, including interviews with legends like Julie Moss, Kathleen McCartney, Dave Scott, and Mark Allen. It also gives great context for and history of the Challenge Roth, which really does sound like an amazing day for athletes and spectators alike.
Going in I had one worry, which is that I would find the film so inspiring that I would want to do something ridiculous like start training for longer distance triathlons (or any distance triathlons). But that didn’t happen. I did find it inspiring. It’s hard not to feel a little kick of motivation watching determined athletes train hard and hearing them talk about what draws them to the event, what race day feels like, and what it means to them to finish (let alone win).
So what happened was this. I am in total awe of anyone who has ever completed an iron distance triathlon. Whether it was the athletes in the film or the people I went to the movie with, completing a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and then running a marathon is an incredible physical achievement. Timo Bracht, who won the men’s elite category at the 2014 Challenge Roth, finished all that in under eight hours (7:56)! Mirinda Carfrae, one of the featured athletes in We Are Triathletes, won the women’s event in 8:38:53. These are incredible times. So yeah: wow.
Despite being in awe and full of admiration, I really don’t have the desire to do that type of training, which the film made clear kind of has to take over your whole life. I mean, I found Olympic distance training tough to sustain, so I can’t even imagine staying motivated to train for an event like Challenge Roth.
But what it did inspire in me is motivation for the training I’m doing now, which is my 10K training. Time is closing in on my September 8th race, where I put my summer of fairly consistent training to the test. I’m not sure if I can but I would love to get my time under 65 minutes. We’ll see.
I think documentaries like this are amazing for showing what humans can do. It doesn’t necessarily mean you want to do exactly the same thing, but it can inspire nonetheless. I remember how Anita used to love watching The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young:
She liked it not because she wanted to do it, but watching the people do it inspired her to want to do her things.
We Are Triathletes was like that for me (but my friend Ed now wants to do the Challenge Roth, so clearly it has a different impact on different people). Here’s the trailer:
What about you? Do sports documentaries inspire you at all? In a particular way? Not at all?
Like seemingly everyone else, I went to see Wonder Woman this past weekend, and I’ve got to say, it is one of my new problematic faves. For a couple of reasons that it’s problematic, see here and here and here. For a couple of reasons that it’s my fave, see here and here and, most importantly:
There are plenty of discussions to be had about this movie, ranging from the sharply critical to the “OH MY GOD THE AMAZONS THO.”
This post will be closer to the latter.
For the uninitiated, the Amazons are a group of women warriors. They are the inhabitants of Wonder Woman’s home, Themyscira, a hidden island where no men live (and is thus a queer culture). The first twenty-ish minutes of Wonder Woman are set in Themyscira, but I could have watched an entire movie set there. The society is peaceful and just. The scenery is beautiful and a complete departure from the gritty, bad-Instagram-filter bleakness we have come to expect from the DC cinematic universe. And we get to watch the Amazons fight a lot. The Amazons place a high value on training for combat; they are fierce and intense and their training is rigourous. I don’t know about you, but I’d be quite intimidated by the sight of a band of Amazons riding toward me at full speed. They are hardcore.
It is unusual and inspiring to see so many strong women depicted side by side in mainstream cinema. Muscular women are often characterized as being overly masculine and unattractive. Though it should be pointed out that most of the Amazons in the film are relatively slender, and it would have been cool to have more diverse body types portrayed, it’s nevertheless refreshing that their strength is glorified, not mocked. The performers are also genuinely strong; many of the Amazons were portrayed by professional athletes, making the group “look like the female version of 300.”
The Amazons (and indeed, the whole movie) made me go back to the gym. Obviously, I’m not a professional athlete. It often feels like an overstatement to call myself an athlete at all. I don’t really follow any fitness regimen to speak of, I tend to have more of a boom-and-bust cycle than anything regular, and I bounce from running to swimming to weightlifting to cycling to yoga and back again with no real structure or plan. This doesn’t really bother me—I just do what I like doing—and when I get bored, move on. Sometimes, I will get inspired to try something new or return to an old favourite (usually swimming, which is my one true love, but often weightlifting/strength training as well).
This time, what inspired me was the Amazons. I couldn’t believe how badly I wanted to hit the gym after seeing the film, and how truly excited I was to work out. I wanted to lift everything: myself, weights, tires. Heck, I would have lifted other people if they’d let me. Let me tell you, during this workout, I Wonder Woman’d HARD, including doubling my personal best for holding plank. (Yes, I’m bragging, and yes, I’m still sore.) Fitspiration, or “fitspo,” isn’t always a good thing, but in this case, Wonder Woman was the inspiration I needed. I wasn’t working out because I thought I deserved punishment, and I wasn’t working out because I wanted to look like an Amazon (although that would be cool). I was doing it because, even though I know the Amazons are fictional, I wanted to be one.
Now, if only I could figure out how to get to Themyscira…
Training in the martial arts can be incredibly empowering for women, as Sam and Michelle have testified. So surely watching movies about female martial arts experts who kick ass must be a truly inspiring and liberating experience?
Well, not necessarily . . .
I was lucky enough to see Dr Colette Balmain from Kingston University speak on this topic recently. Her lecture was called:
Chick Kicks: Bad-ass heroines of Hong Kong Cinema
Colette’s presentation focused on the question:
Are the “kick-ass” women in martial arts movies liberational – or ultimately constrained by patriarchy?
Colette explained that although she was focusing on Hong Kong movies (to fit in with the theme of the conference this was part of), this is a wider question relevant to all martial arts movies.
Colette has analysed a huge number of female characters in martial arts movies. Her conclusion is that:
Female characters in martial arts movies can certainly be transgressive – but it’s always within limits.
Here are the limits she’s identified:
The women in these films tend to be defined by their sexuality – which is typically either very over-stated, or very repressed – there’s rarely anything in-between. For example, in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Michelle Yeoh’s character (Yu Shu Lien) has been tragically denied her love. Colette argued also that when Jen leaps into the abyss in the final scene, this represents the fact that there is literally no space for her, or her desires.
There are often undertones of male castration anxiety within scenes of women fighting men. This might sound extreme, but Colette played us a stunning movie clip from Kung Fu Girl (1973). And because she’d said that, I guess it had primed my mind, and it now seemed startlingly obvious (to me anyway!)
Images of Asian women tend to fall into just two simplistic categories: the Lotus Blossom Baby or the Dragon Lady. Even many supposedly transgressive martial arts heroines ending up falling into one group or other. The typology comes from Renee E Tajima who explains that the Lotus Blossom Baby can also be presented as China Doll, Geisha Girl, or Shy Polynesian Beauty. The Dragon Lady can appear as Fu Manta’s various female relations, prostitutes, devious madams. But there is little in between.
The female characters are often portrayed as being stymied by their out-of-control emotions. Either the woman’s crazy emotions prevent her from reaching Zen-like enlightenment; or the emotions fester inside her, and render her a “poison woman”. A typical example of a “poison woman” is Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Jade Fox is actually played by the same actress as in the clip above –Cheng Pei-pei)
“Bad-ass” heroines are very often either “rehabilitated” by the end of the movie through marriage – or “punished” through exile or death.
The movies often fetishise women’s bodies in a stylised way – Colette explained that The Lady Assassin is a typical example of this.
Carol J Clover’s notion of the Final Girl in horror movies can also be useful for analysing some martial arts films: A common plot line in many horror films is one in which a series of victims is killed one-by-one by a killer amid increasing terror, culminating in a climax in which the last surviving member of the group, usually female, either vanquishes the killer or escapes.
Colette explained that the Final Girl figure has to be asexual and female. This allows the male viewer to vicariously enjoy the feelings of terror, without losing his own sense of masculinity. So the Last Girl is generally not an empowering figure – she is just a symbolic plot device, there for the male spectator. And in any case, she is often helped out at the end, and does not win the battle in her own right.
During the questions afterwards, one audience member asked Colette if it might be productive and healing to just stop talking in terms of gender, and think only in terms of human beings or martial artists, and their respective skills.
Colette and Dr susan pui san lok (another presenter at the conference) advised that this was indeed the ideal they’d like to reach ultimately. But that all the time unhealthy tropes keep repeatedly appearing in these movies, discussions on gender will need to remain out in the open.
Colette said that she has only just started to skim the surface of this fascinating topic, and intends to go into it more deeply for her next project. I for one will be looking forward to her conclusions very much . . . !
The celebrity newsreels were abuzz last week with the news that Renée Zellweger looks quite different from how she used to look. People were shocked and demanded an explanation. Did she go under the knife? Why? And why won’t she fess up to it? The Telegraph asked it most bluntly: Renée Zellweger: Why Does Her Face Look So Different? And of course, readers of People Magazinehad strong reactions, ranging from “leave her alone” to “why doesn’t she just be honest about the work she’s had done?”
At least one article harkened back to what she’d said about cosmetic surgery in the past. Several retrospectives appeared (for example, this), as they so often did with Michael Jackson, tracing her transformation over the years as evidence of an evolving appearance that can only be attributed to surgery.
The whole thing spilled off of the celebrity pages and right into mainstream media. CBC Radio contacted me to ask if I would devote three hours on Thursday morning to make myself available to talk to eight different regional morning shows across Canada, each for 5-7 minutes. Topic: Renée Zellweger’s new look.
While I do have a few things to say about this, I reflected on my schedule. It was packed that day from morning to night. Did I want to spend three hours, from 6-9 a.m., talking about Renée’s new look? Not really. Pass.
What do I actually think about the whole thing? Mostly, the buzz she created by stepping out looking different than she used to is evidence of the prevalence of the policing of women’s appearance.
I agree with Leah MacLaren (who used to have Renée Zellweger as her celebrity lookalike until this week), who says:
Renée Zellweger’s face, just like her body, is entirely her own and what she does with it is none of our business. Given that she’s an actor, it should hardly be surprising (let alone galling) that she might wish to change her appearance to suit her craft. When she gained weight for the Bridget Jones series, after all, we collectively venerated her for it. So why the outcry over her face?
MacLaren thinks the real reason people are so upset is that we don’t recognize her anymore as the celebrity we have come to know. And that’s disturbing:
All the emotional baggage we projected onto her famous squinty-eyed smile is suddenly revealed for what it really is: A complete waste of time and energy. It’s our “Where’s my Renée? Give her back!” moment.
“I’m glad folks think I look different!” she said.
“I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.”
She says that any aesthetic changes reflect her newfound inner positivity and contentment, after having readjusted her work-life balance.
“My friends say that I look peaceful. I am healthy,” Zellweger told People.
“For a long time I wasn’t doing such a good job with that. I took on a schedule that is not realistically sustainable and didn’t allow for taking care of myself. Rather than stopping to recalibrate, I kept running until I was depleted and made bad choices about how to conceal the exhaustion.”
She eventually became aware of the “chaos” and “chose different things”, including a slower-paced, more fulfilling lifestyle.
“I did work that allows for being still, making a home, loving someone, learning new things, growing as a creative person and finally growing into myself,” she continued, noting that she chose to address the speculation because “it seems the folks who come digging around for some nefarious truth which doesn’t exist won’t get off my porch until I answer the door.”
Regardless of any judgemental criticism, Zellweger is more at peace with herself than ever.
“People don’t know me [as] healthy for a while,” says Zellweger. “Perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older?! Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.”
It’s great that she can have such a light-hearted attitude about it all. Because really, it’s no one’s business. I know there are those detractors who say that celebrities have chosen to live in the spotlight, that being subject to public scrutiny is the price of fame. But no one seems to realize that it’s that same public scrutiny that enforces a standard of ageless youth and perfect beauty.
The pressure to stay looking a certain way is damaging enough for women who are not in the entertainment industry. It is unimaginable within that sphere. All you need to do is take a quick look at how leading men like Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford are allowed to age with no repercussion, to see what is different for women. All you need to do is to see how those leading men age into their 50s and 60s are still playing sexy leading men, while their romantic on-screen partners stay 25 and 30 years old, to understand what is unfair here. Have a look to see how many great parts are written for older women. Have a look to see what age actresses are when they stop being cast as the love interest, and start being cast as the mother of actors similarly aged or younger than them in real life (in Riding in Cars with Boys Drew Barrymore played the mother of Adam Garcia, despite being two years younger than him in real life).
Think about the value we place on women, and how easily discarded and replaced they are once their skin starts to sag in a way we find unpalatable. Then think about all those reactions to Renee Zellweger’s face you saw.
We demand that women look a certain way, and we discard them like garbage when they stop. We demand they stay the same, and then we judge them for choosing to use plastic surgery. We comment if they look fat, if they look thin, if they look old, if they look like they’ve had work done. When women try everything in their power to hold onto those brief moments where society found them appealing enough to look at on a screen, when they try to stay looking the same because they know we will discard them as soon as they are out of date, we turn on them then, as well.
Women can’t fucking win, because we won’t let them.
Hutchinson’s list may be highly personal, fine, but it’s also a ‘veritable sausage fest’ (to borrow s friend’s phrasing that I now can’t resist using at every opportunity–thanks Shannon!) You can read it at the link above.
But I have a question: Where are the women?
Here are some of my favourite sports movies that would pass the Bechdel test: