Book Review: You Play the Girl

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By Cristina Rodriguez

Television and films are rife with intrigue, betrayal, shenanigans, tomfoolery, and chaos.

This combination usually results in some of our favorite (toxic) Hollywood classics. You may recognize the format: confident white buff-muffin man sets out to prove, with his mess of contradictions, that his dead-eyed but beautiful love interest can truly begin her life now that he has arrived. A real love story.

Before I go on, I should say this: I am not oblivious to the damaging effects of patriarchal ideologies. I took a women’s studies class in college. I read The Feminine Mystique and even underlined some shit. But I would be a liar and a fraud if I pretended I didn't love me some problematic-ass sitcoms and movies.

Listen, life is long and the days are hard. I’m not ashamed to say that sometimes I need a laugh in the form of a Real House Wife throwing her prosthetic leg across a dinner party table (Google this gold and thank me later). So when Carina Chocano’s collection of essays, You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages was released last year, I was hesitant to read it.

What could this book teach me about the patriarchy that I don’t already know? The reality is, we are living in a post-Weinstein era, where pussy grabbers, creepy Petes, and date rapists are controlling the script, both literally and figuratively. Which is why, with that in mind, I decided to dive into Chocano’s pop culture criticisms because if this book can offer a way to deconstruct the mess that is media and female identity and promote women’s equality, then I’m going to lean the fuck in.

From popular Disney princesses to desperate housewives, Playing the Girl aims to expose the ways media has shaped our limited definition of what constitutes an acceptable identity for a woman.

You can comply to traditional gender roles and be labeled innocent, beautiful, and virtuous, or stray from patriarchal rules, instantly becoming the “Madonna” or “whore.” This guarantees you will most likely die before the end of the movie. And if you’re a woman of color…well sorry boo, you never really had a chance and you’re probably not the lead. 

Chocano’s compelling inclusions of her own formative experiences with pop-culture prove that no one is immune from the mixed messages and oppression that is male dominance. Films, television, and advertisements become cautionary tales, and Chocano’s work reads as a way to move beyond the patriarchal programming. For feminist advocacy to continue to move forward, she infers, we need to understand and resist, individually and collectively, the way the patriarchy is attempting to control our narratives.

Did this collection of essays shatter my ideals about popular media or dismantle the patriarchy? No, but what can you expect in less than 300 pages? Do I wish someone would have given me this book during my reckless teen years? Absolutely.

Reading this collection of essays is like getting an introduction to feminist theory and criticism all at once, while being surprisingly readable, relatable, and entertaining. Had I read this in my youth, I might have spared myself the energy and embarrassment of trying to mimic the personalities and outfits of my favorite Laguna Beach cast members and I don’t know, formed an identity based on things I was actually interested in (I loathe flip-flops and going to the beach is basically begging for a UTI). But I digress.

At the end of the day, what I know is that it’s okay to love Pretty Woman or Sleeping Beauty, but the framework that shapes your identity can, and should, be something written and directed by you and only you. And while we’re at it, features you in the starring role.

Carina Chocano will discuss her book, You Play the Girl, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 22, at The Wild Detectives. 

Book ReviewsLauren