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Chapter One

 From “Queen of (Shakes)teen” to Girls Gone Mild : Trends in Female Teen Identity Formation

Julia Stiles's Star Body and Teen Identity Formation

According to her official fansite, Julia Stiles was born March 28, 1981 to John, who taught second grade in Harlem, and Judith, who made and sold ceramics, both of whom are “true radicals of the Sixties” (“Biography”). She grew up in a loft in SoHo that doubled as her mother's studio and therefore, “there was a constant stream of artists and aficionados of all races passing through.” By mentioning these facts about her “early years,” the site sets Stiles up as a free-thinking activist, even as a very young child. (“Biography”). The site continues its framing of Stiles as socially aware almost from birth by mentioning that she wrote letters to then-New York City major Ed Koch requesting more garbage receptacles for her local streets at age six. As the biography continues through her adolescence, it mentions that she “spent a lot of time writing” and “was a keen student of everything,” then gives way to a sort of prophecy in hindsight as it mentions that “she became infatuated with Shakespeare, actually placing a statue of 'the Bard' in her room. Odd, you might think, for a young girl - but then this young girl would star in three Shakespeare adaptations before she was 20” and become a new “Queen of Teen” as a result (“Biography”). She seems to have been nutured specifically for a career not just in performance, but in a performance informed by activism and an appreciation for high class art, as her “infatuation” with “the Bard” seems to connote.

On the one hand, this fansite biography paints Stiles as almost fated for greatness: born to parents who both supported and participated in the arts and raised in the politically aware and creatively rich environment of New York City, she had no choice but to be precocious and vastly intelligent. This is where the bias of the composer of the biography begins to make itself evident. It is impossible she was actually “a student of everything,” as the site claims, for example. The biography is not content to attribute Stiles's success to merely an accident of birth and environment, however, as is evident when it leads up to the beginning of her acting career by saying:

At 11, Julia's precociousness, her New York sass, her penchant for letter-writing and the notion instilled in her that she could do anything came in handy. Having been thrilled by a performance there, she wrote to the director of the experimental off-Broadway La Mama Theatre, enclosing photos of herself dressed up in different costumes and asking if they had any parts for child-actresses. And, as it happened, they did. (“Biography”)

This excerpt emphasizes certain character traits that were either essential to her or cultivated by her parents and/or the environment in which she was raised by mentioning that “Julia's precociousness, her New York sass, her penchant for letter-writing and the notion instilled in her that she could do anything came in handy.” It also attributes Stiles with a fierce independence that makes her stand out. It seems unrealistic to assume that many eleven-year-olds would have enough self-confidence simply to take pictures of themselves and ask theatre companies to hire them, sight unseen. While the positive spin of this biography is clearly at least partially due to the fact that it was written by someone who admires both Stiles and her body of work to a great degree, it is still worthy of analysis because it clearly maps traits that she is known for as a celebrity (she is politically aware, intelligent, independent and fiercely self-motivated) back to their apparent cultivation in her childhood.

While celebrity personae (especially those marketed to teens conscious of the latest trends) are arguably ever-evolving, certain personae are worth closer analysis due to their functioning as representations of identities worthy of imitation during the time of their popularity. I will refer to these personae as “star-bodies,” using the term coined by Angela Keam in her article “The 'Shakesteen' genre: Claire Danes's Star-Body, Teen Female Fans, and the Pluralization of Authorship,” wherein she makes it clear that the body she is discussing “is both professional and corporeal”--there is a certain blending of the perception of the actor's body of work and her physical body or her as a person. Julia Stiles represents one of these bodies because of her dominant presence, not just in teen films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but in a certain kind of teen film: adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, or “Shakesteen” films, to use another term coined by Keam to describe this popular turn of the century trend (Keam 2).

From 1999-2001, Stiles starred in three of these films -- 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You (Dir. Gil Junger), 2000's so-called “slacker Hamlet” (Dir. Michael Almereyda) and 2001's O (Dir. Tim Blake Nelson). The fact that these three Shakesteen films placed Stiles on the celebrity radar of American teens sets her up as a different kind of teen actress: one who connotes the consummate Shakespearean actress: academic, talented, and highly cultured. The fact that these films are adaptations marketed primarily to American teenage girls in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, however, also makes Stiles a different kind of Shakespearean actress. Unlike Sarah Berndhardt or Ellen Terry before her, Stiles conceives of a more modern Shakespearean heroine; one that is independent, that questions the way the world around her is constructed, and, above all, one that is informed by feminist politics. Several of Stiles's non-Shakespearean film roles have also contributed to the perception of her persona as one that embodies this type of empowered, intelligent contemporary femininity, most notably 2001's Save the Last Dance (Dir. Thomas Carter), 2003's Mona Lisa Smile (Dir. Mike Newell), and the forthcoming filmic adaptation of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, in which she has signed on to play Plath's fictional counterpart, Esther Greenwood. In this chapter, I will examine Stiles' star-body as constructed by her roles in these films as a force in the formation of teen identity. Additionally, since Stiles's prevalence in the teen market tapered off in the early 2000s, I would also like to examine a more current trend in female teen identity formation—one that presents itself very differently than and is being marketed as reactionary to the type of teen identity represented by Stiles in her heyday as “queen of teen:” the modesty movement (“Biography”).

Stiles's Star Body Part One : Feminism

Gil Junger's 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You was Stiles' first starring film role as well as her first Shakespearean adaptation. In it, she is Katerina “Kat” Stratford, a senior at Seattle's Padua High School, whose classmates commonly describe her as a “heinous wench,” if her guidance counselor is to be believed. Like her namesake in Shakespeare's play, she rebels against social conventions, but she does so by opting out of her high school's dating culture, much to the dismay of her popular sister Bianca. Their father, an obstetrician who says he's “up to [his] elbows in placenta,” and, as such, has an extreme fear of his own daughters turning into the teen mothers he sees every day, takes advantage of Kat's choice by forbidding flirty Bianca from dating until her sister does (10 Things I Hate About You). Later in the film, the audience learns that Kat's choice to abstain from dating stems from a regretted sexual encounter with Joey Donner, the very boy whom Bianca desperately wants to date. Kat tells Bianca that that event changed her outlook on life, saying, “After that I swore I'd never do anything just because 'everyone else' was doing it. And I haven't since” (10 Things I Hate About You). In addition to showing that she is comfortable going against the status quo to suit her personal principles, this admission exhibits that Kat both is able and finds it necessary to exert control over her own sexuality, rather than letting it be dictated by a patriarchal power structure. In keeping with Kat's choice to go against the status quo by refusing to participate in her high school's mechanism of normative relationship structure, the filmmakers use a number of obvious cues by connecting her with artifacts of twentieth century culture that carry strong feminist connotations. to. One character remarks to another that “she prefers angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion” and cites Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos as examples, Kat is seen reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and she has a discussion about Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique with the boy who is paid to date her so that Bianca can go to the prom. Each of these things is typically associated with feminism and is not necessarily either negative or positive. After hearing what kind of music her sister listens to and that she doesn't date, however, another character asks Bianca whether Kat is “a k.d. lang fan,” thereby insinuating that Kat is a lesbian and, in so doing, relying on the negative stereotype of the angry lesbian feminist.

In addition to being associated with cultural artifacts that have come to be representative of the feminist movement, Kat thinks of herself as a social activist. She suggests to her friend Mandella that the two of them boycott their school's prom because it is an “antiquated mating ritual,” and Mandella responds to the idea of a protest by saying, “Oh, goody! Something new and different for us!” (10 Things I Hate About You) This exchange both reiterates Kat's disdain for traditional gender roles and, because of the sarcasm with which Mandella delivers her response, lets the film's viewer know that Kat stages protests frequently (and most likely requests her friend's involvement just as frequently). Later in the film, when her English teacher asks for opinions on the assignment that they have just finished (reading Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises), Kat laments “the patriarchal values that dictate [her] education” and asks him why their curriculum does not contain more works by female authors. He responds, “I know how difficult it must be for you to overcome all those years of upper middle-class suburban oppression. Must be tough. But the next time you storm the PTA crusading for better... lunch meat, or whatever it is you white girls complain about, ask them why they can't buy a book written by a black man!” (10 Things I Hate About You). This exchange makes Kat's penchant for protesting clear once again while also suggesting that, even as she claims to be oppressed as a woman, she is not aware of the social privilege afforded her as a White, educated woman. Many Womanist and Black Feminist thinkers have expressed this view of White feminists, most notably Kimberle Crenshaw in her discussion of the “theory of intersectionality,” in which she posits that the oppression faced by Black women is compounded due to its overlapping in the areas of race, class, and gender (Crenshaw). While the film does still set Kat up as its protagonist, this exchange humanizes her by suggesting that her understanding of her world is limited by her own standpoint. In turn, Stiles is also humanized and made more approachable even as she is marked as socially informed. Because Kat is flawed, even less socially conscious viewers of the film can relate to her without feeling guilty about their lack of involvement.

In 2003, Stiles co-starred in another film that claimed to espouse feminist politics: Mona Lisa Smile, directed by Mike Newell with an all-female principal cast including Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kirsten Dunst, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Marcia Gay Harden. The film is set in 1953 and tells the story of Katherine Watson (Roberts), a California feminist who “is not married because she chooses not to be,” accepts a post teaching Art History at Wellesley College, and, upon discovering that it is “a finishing school disguised as a college,” seeks to change her students. Stiles plays student Joan Brandwyn in the film. Joan is set up from the film's beginning as the student most likely to break out of the patriarchal society in which “Wellesley girls” appear to be groomed to participate: in the film's first shot of her, she is smoking a cigarette. This is a symbol of defiance of social norms because, while many of the film's young women smoke, it is not an acceptable practice in social situations outside the college's walls, as etiquette and poise teacher Nancy Abbey (played by Marcia Gay Harden) says several times in the film (Mona Lisa Smile). After the first shot of her, the next thing the audience sees Joan do is lead the rest of her classmates up to the door of the college's main hall, knock, and ask for entrance, proclaiming: “I am Everywoman!” (Mona Lisa Smile).When asked her purpose for wanting to enter the hall, she responds, “To awaken my spirit to hard work and dedicate my life to knowledge” (Mona Lisa Smile). It is significant that the film frames Joan as spokeswoman for her peers in this scene, just as the words she speaks are significant to her character. When taken together with the previous shot of her smoking, these three things make Joan a woman who is intelligent, driven, slightly rebellious, and not afraid to either go against the status quo or act as a leader. Not only does the character of Joan as read by her opening scenes resemble the star body of Julia Stiles herself, she also appears to be the perfect protegé for Katherine Watson within the universe of the film. Watson herself seems to think so, and takes Joan under her wing, encouraging her to apply to Yale Law School after Joan reveals that that has always been her secret dream. Joan gets accepted to Yale, and it is here that her character's dilemma takes shape: she must either negotiate the demands of law school while being married to her “Harvard sweetheart” Tommy Donegal, or choose between law school and marriage (Mona Lisa Smile). Joan discusses this problem with Katherine Watson after Katherine visits her with applications for law schools that are “close enough to Penn (the school to which Tommy has been accepted) to have dinner on the table by five” in order to enable her to “do both” (Mona Lisa Smile). In this discussion, Joan both establishes her own agency in making the decision to forgo law school in favor of marriage, and seems to be accusing Katherine of being close-minded in her desire to impart her feminist beliefs on her students. Joan's agency and her accusation of Katherine are most evident when she says the following:

I know what I'm doing and it doesn't make me any less smart. You stand in front of the class and tell us to look beyond the image, but you don't. To you, a housewife is someone who has sold her soul for a center hall Colonial. She has no depth, no intellect, no interests. You're the one who said I could do anything I wanted. This is what I want.  (Mona Lisa Smile)

In establishing the agency of a female role that is traditionally thought by many feminists to be unwittingly maintaining and enabling the patriarchal status quo as well as claiming that those who claim feminist beliefs often overlook the standpoint of the individual in favor of furthering a larger political agenda, Joan is prefiguring the views of many of the participants in the social movement popularly labeled as “the opt-out revolution.” In the New York Times article that brought the phrase into national parlance, Lisa Belkin defines the majority of this movement's participants as the women who have benefitted from the gains of Second Wave feminism by earning admittance to prestigious (and previously all-male) universities, risen in their respective professional ranks, and then made the active choice to “opt-out” of the workforce in favor of marriage and family (Belkin), much like Joan does in the film.

According to her official fansite, Stiles “considers herself something of a feminist” because “she won't take roles where all she does is fancy a boy.” The site accepts this definition of feminism without questioning it. It also mentions her involvement in a 2002 production of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues as proof of her personal feminist politics (“Biography”). Though those things have feminist connotations, the site's view of feminism seems to be reductive at best. Its first point of reference represents an entire social movement using very specific cultural shorthand without explaining the significance of the latter within the former. Its second point of reference reduces women to their sex function. Both approaches are problematic.

Many scholars and critics of both 10 Things I Hate About You and Mona Lisa Smile think that both films share the same reductive view of feminist politics. In her article “Taming 10 Things I Hate About You: Shakespeare and the Teenage Film Audience,” L. Monique Pittman argues that “[the film] works hard to soften the obvious gender inequities of [Shakespeare's play], but in many ways silences honest and serious debate about gender in the process” (Pittman 146). She argues that the film does this by appropriating the rhetoric of choice and applying it to conformity, as I have previously mentioned, and says that this appropriation ultimately results in the assignation of agency “in the most traditional of ways—to the young men determining their destiny and coming of age,” though the film purports to be about “the young teenager capable of defying all social structures and forging a self in complete freedom from the world” (Pittman 145, 6). In other words, though the film appears to support the individual agency of its teen characters, it actually reinforces traditionally hierarchized gender roles that privilege male individuality and give female characters agency based on that of the males with whom they are in romantic relationships. In addition to its focus on agency, Pittman's article is particularly relevant to my examination of trends in teen identity formation because she includes and analyses responses to the film given by her own high-school English students, only two of whom (out of the thirty-five total students asked to write responses to the film) noticed that “gender roles are set up and played into, rather than looked at and examined” (Pittman 150, excerpt from student essay). Pittman concludes that “the ways in which the film manipulates its audience to embrace longstanding stereotypes of gender declares the success of the film in addressing its target audience” (Pittman 150), thereby claiming that commodification and maintaining the status quo go hand in hand, and even suggesting that one necessitates the other. Because it will always be more marketable to be rebellious, however, it benefits those in power (in this case, filmmakers and studio executives in charge of marketing and advertising) to frame conformity as non-conformity.

Most critics of Mona Lisa Smile's portrayal of feminism see this framing as the root of the film's problem, like The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, who calls the film “a desperately insincere lite-feminist version of Dead Poets Society” (Bradshaw). Stiles herself responded to those who criticized the film's feminism in the very same publication, in an editorial entitled “Who's Afraid of the 1950's?” In the article, Stiles first explains the impetus for her writing it by recounting a meeting with a fan who told her that she “hated” both her performance as Carol in David Mamet's Oleanna and her performance as Joan Brandwyn in Mona Lisa Smile. Stiles assumes that the woman disapproves of Joan's choice to be a homemaker rather than attend law school and goes on to say that she “found the stranger's commentary curious, given that her vitriol was directed towards diametrically opposed representations of women [because] Joan is a conformist by nature, while Carol is unrelenting in her non-conformity to the point of being a masochist” (Stiles). She then transitions into a response to Cherry Potter's Guardian article “Frocks and Feminism.” In the article, published a mere three days before Stiles's own, Potter denigrates the “spate of Hollywood retro movies” that, despite their feel-good messages, seem to “forget feminism,” and instead, “seduce their audiences” with aesthetically pleasing period details, Mona Lisa Smile among them (Potter). In both assuming that her audience desires a simply-resolved film that follows the formula of “an unthreatening after-school special - like those television shows geared toward children, where the idealized protagonist makes the right choice, to set an example for viewers to follow,” and not returning to the fan's initial complaint, but instead, using the anecdote as a way to respond to what she obviously views as a direct affront, Stiles appears to be talking down to the audience of her films. Indeed, she goes on to mention that the film would have only appealed to “those already familiar with feminist theory,” were it not for the “pretty frocks” and other details of which Potter espouses her disapproval.

Additionally, Stiles places herself on the privileged side of the intellectual deficit she laments in her target audience in several ways throughout the article. First, her title, “Who's Afraid of the 1950s?” seems an echo of the title of Edward Albee's landmark play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which in turn, forces a mental connection to the writings of Woolf herself (probably most specifically to “A Room of One's Own,” in this case), a great deal of which dealt with issues of burgeoning feminist politics. The rest of the article reads like a college term paper, with Stiles first grounding the film in the sociopolitical and historical milieu “just prior to the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique,” citing that the film's characters experience “the malaise that Friedan outlined in that ground-breaking text,” and ultimately arguing that “to show a group of young women in the 1950s so quickly ascribing to a modern sense of empowerment would be historically inaccurate,” and that contemporary feminists should be able to look beyond one-dimensional labels pertaining to female roles, and in doing so, “challenge the notion that being a feminist is in opposition to being feminine” (Stiles). Stiles's diction and references to landmark feminist writers and texts mark her as academic and knowledgeable in the article, distancing her from her (apparently less academic and knowledgeable) audience just as her abrupt change in the focus of her argument at the article's beginning does. Additionally, her conclusion is that the important thing about feminist politics is not the choice that a woman makes about her social role, but instead, the fact that she has multiple valid choices available to her both aligns her with Joan and makes her seem open-minded and progressive.

Stiles' Star Body Part Two: Positive Social Message

In addition to marking herself as feminist in both her roles and her personal life, Stiles has also come to represent a broader tolerance of other occasionally controversial social issues, particularly in her involvement in two onscreen interracial relationships in Save the Last Dance and O, both released in 2001 and directed by Thomas Carter and Tim Blake Nelson, respectively. In Save the Last Dance, Stiles plays Sara Johnson, a ballerina forced to live with her father on  Chicago's South Side after the death of her mother in a car accident. Once there, she falls in love with Derek Reynolds, a street-smart African American hip hop dancer. Their relationship causes controversy within their high school, where Sara is accused of “taking one of the good [men]” and depriving the school's African American young women of a way out of their poor neighborhood as a result. Derek is an aspiring doctor and, over the course of the film, gets accepted to Georgetown University's pre-med program (Save the Last Dance).

Sean Patrick Thomas, the actor who played Derek, appeared on nationally syndicated radio show Loveline, hosted by comedian Adam Carolla and addiction medicine specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky, on January 15, 2001. Carolla and Thomas had the following conversation about Stiles:

CAROLLA: Sean is in this with Julia Stiles, who's now everywhere, by the way. Every time I turn on the TV, I see her. She has a good look. It's kind of a hot chick that you can get look. [...]

THOMAS: Ah, man. She's a cutie, man.

CAROLLA:[ ...] She's just got--she's good-looking, but she looks like you could get her. There's something very appealing about that, as opposed to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who's real good- looking and you can't get her. I think I could get Julia. Or at least--
PINSKY: In your mind.
CAROLLA: In my mind I could, and that's--
THOMAS: I don't know about that , man. She's a tough nut to crack, definitely.
CAROLLA: No, I know. I know I couldn't. I'm just saying--
PINSKY: Don't take him literally. Please.
CAROLLA: No, I'm saying, the attraction--there's certain women who are very attractive because they have a beautiful but almost common look that looks like the common man could be seen with her. She's very beautiful but does not have that hifalutin' look. You with me on that?
THOMAS: I guess so, but I think she could have it if she wanted it. She just doesn't choose that aesthetic for herself, you know what I'm saying?
CAROLLA: All right, well, we'll just agree to disagree about that. (“Guest: Sean Patrick Thomas”)

This conversation is telling regarding the formation of Stiles' star-body for several reasons. First, the conversation verifies Stiles' celebrity (Carolla says she is “now everywhere,” in other words, she has a large public presence in the time at which he is speaking). Second, it places her as a certain kind of celebrity. She is coded as attractive and desirable, as all celebrities are in some way, but the specific kind of attractiveness attributed to her is important. Carolla differentiates between Stiles and more glamorous or “hifalutin'” celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones, which codes Stiles as attractive in an approachable way that is more edifying to the common man's view of himself, when he says he “could get her in [his] mind.” Thomas agrees, but adds that Stiles projects that sort of attractiveness, not because she is not as attractive as celebrities like Zeta-Jones, but because she “doesn't choose that aesthetic for herself.” He gives her agency over her star-body with that statement. Finally, it is important that the conversation and the comments within it are made both by people who know Stiles primarily by media coverage and professional reputation (Carolla and Pinsky), and by someone has worked with her on a film and, as such, knows her professionally and, at least to a certain extent, personally as well (Thomas). Therefore, the fact that there is commonality and synthesis between the two parties' views of Stiles says that her constructed star-body and her personal life share certain characteristics: approachability and a certain amount of control over her own public perception.

Stiles extended that control over her public image to the social issues within Save the Last Dance when she hosted an episode of the popular sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live on March 17, 2001. As is typical for each of SNL's weekly celebrity guest hosts, Stiles opened the show with a monologue. Also typically, the monologue begins with the host commenting seriously on how grateful he or she is to have been asked to host the show, or with the guest host mentioning whatever project they are promoting in conjunction with their appearance. Things quickly take a turn for the comedic, however, when the host is interrupted by one of the show's regular cast members, who then proceeds to make light of either the project being promoted, the celebrity themselves, or some combination of both. In Stiles's case, the latter is true. After she begins the monologue by announcing that she is proud to be a part of the show's landmark 500th episode, Tracy Morgan (a male, African American cast member) joins her onstage, saying that he loved Save the Last Dance. Morgan then proceeds to try to convince Stiles to rendezvous with him after the show is over. He notices the studio audience and tells them that “a black man gettin' together wit' a white lady...ain't no show (“Julia Stiles' Monologue”). When Stiles responds that they are, in fact, on a television show and that she was merely acting a part in a movie in which she played a woman in an interracial relationship, Morgan continues to try to convince her to meet him later, saying that, “Once you go black, you never go back!” and accusing her of having “jungle fever.” Stiles chides him for referring to “a horrible stereotype,” and then Morgan apologizes and asks her to dance. She still refuses, citing that she is “a nineteen-year-old college student [whose] parents are watching,” while he is married and has children. She then stage-whispers, “I'll meet you at Twin Donuts after the show,” they dance together, and Stiles ends the monologue by announcing that episode's musical guest, as is custom to the show's format (“Julia Stiles' Monologue”). In this brief sketch, Stiles both makes light of and reaffirms her star-body. She self-identifies as both actress and college student, thereby pointing to her celebrity status and public association with academia, and differentiates between herself as a person and the roles she embodies, only to erase that distinction by the monologue's end. In doing so, she shows that she is conscious of the public's perception of her as well as comments that she is not self-important and does not take herself too seriously. By calling Morgan's exaggerated black patois and racial cliches stereotypical, she appears socially conscious. Again, the fact that he convinces her by the sketch's end does not negate that perception, but instead, makes it appear that while she is open-minded, she is not so politically correct that she is unable to joke around.

Also in 2001, Stiles continued acting the part of a woman in a controversial interracial relationship as well as took on another of Shakespeare's tragic heroines when she played Desi Brable in O, an adaptation of Othello set in Palmetto Grove Academy, a South Carolina prep school. It is an interesting coincidence that the name of the updated Desdemona character is a near-anagram of the word “desirable,” since Desi represents fulfillment of desire within the film. She is popular and beautiful, the daughter of the dean of the school, and girlfriend to Odin “O” James, Palmetto Grove's star basketball player. Other than Odin himself, Desi seems to be the only character within the film willing to question socially constructed norms regarding race, as in a scene near the film's beginning when, after Odin asks her to “play black buck got loose in the big house” while the two are in bed, they have a conversation regarding who is and is not allowed to use the word “nigger” (O). While Odin accepts his ability to employ racial slurs as innate to his condition as a black man, Desi sees this as problematic, and seeks to understand O's standpoint by having a conversation with him. None of the film's other characters question socially constructed norms in this way. While these script choices were doubtless made by someone other than Stiles herself, her enacting them adds to her star-body's association with forward thinking and the questioning of social norms.

Stiles' Star Body Part Three: Academics

Stiles' final role requiring her to craft a modern interpretation of a classic Shakespearean heroine2 was as Ophelia in Michael Almereyda's Hamlet (2000), which transplants Shakespeare's power struggle from the castles of feudal Denmark to the steel skyscrapers of the Denmark Corporation in twenty-first century New York City[1]. As arguably the most well-known of the Shakespearean tragedies, Hamlet certainly has academic connotations. These connotations deepen when considering the involvement of Stiles specifically, as the film's release corresponds with her enrollment at Columbia University, where she eventually graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English Literature in 2005. In the film, Stiles's Ophelia is doomed from the start, as the first solo shot the audience sees of her is in front of a large waterfall. That immediately calls to mind Ophelia's eventual death by drowning. From that point on, most of Ophelia's scenes contain water of some form or another. One of them, in which Polonius brings her to Gertrude and Claudius to inform them of the concerns he has about her relationship with Hamlet (corresponding to Act 2 scene 2 of Shakespeare's play) even goes so far as to have Ophelia fantasize about drowning herself, as if to speed up what we as the audience know is inevitable (Hamlet). Because this continued theme is established at the same time Ophelia is established as an individual character with the first shot of her by herself onscreen, she is always already dead in the context of the film. Even Stiles' official fansite supports this reading, as its only comment about her involvement in the film is that she “dies quite beautifully” (“Biography”). Thus, even as Stiles is a modernized Ophelia who wears urban clothes and carries a messenger bag as she rides her bike through twenty-first century New York City, she is simultaneously a sort of “everyophelia,” going beyond her own performance of the character to instead represent what it is to embody that character, and, in so doing, reminding the audience that many others have played Ophelia before, and many more will likely follow after. In being associated with a performance that includes this kind of Postmodern metanarrative, Stiles's star-body developed a deeper signification of Academia.

While she has certainly broadened her repertoire in recent years to extend beyond the limits of teen films, Stiles' most recently-announced upcoming project - a filmic adaptation of Sylvia Plath's fictional autobiography The Bell Jar - builds on the aspects of her star-body that her earlier career helped establish. Stiles is reportedly playing the lead role of Esther Greenwood, Plath's fictional counterpart (The Bell Jar). According to her official fansite, Stiles herself co-optioned the film with indepent production company Plum Pictures, and will act as an executive producer (“Biography”). If true, this action seems to suggest not only that Stiles's star-body as socially conscious academic feminist is a fairly accurate one, but also that it is in keeping with the way she wishes to be publicly perceived of her own volition and because of values she wishes to support; not just as a marketable image or persona that fits what sells well at any given time.

The Modesty Movement

Julia Stiles is no longer primarily considered a teen actress by virtue either of her own age or that of the target audience of her more recent films; moreover, the type of teen identity that I have thus far examined as represented by Stiles and her ilk seems to have faded out of fashion at least somewhat in recent years. In contrast, the most current ideological trend in teen identity formation directly reacts against to the type of teen identity marked by Stiles' star body (one that signifies third-wave, sex positive feminist politics): the so-called “new modesty movement” (Shalit 1999). The most vocal champions of this movement by far have been Wendy Shalit and Laura Sessions Stepp. Both have published books that have come to represent the tenets of the modesty movement and its subscribers, with Shalit writing both A Return to Modesty: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue (1999) and Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Claim It's Not Bad to Be Good (2007) and Stepp writing Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both (2007). I will focus on Shalit's work in my examination rather than Stepp's because, while Stepp's book focuses on the preexisting “hookup culture” to which the modesty movement reacts, Shalit's work actually defines and explores the historical and sociopolitical roots of the modesty movement itself.

First, the movement markets itself as a reactionary one. Shalit makes this clear in the titles of both of her books. By addressing a perceived need to “return to modesty” and “rediscover” it, Shalit implies that it was lost through some sort of wayward shift in mores, and that a cultural change is necessary to remedy this shift. She repeats that reactionary theme and focuses it on a particular part of contemporary culture she finds morally reprehensible in Girls Gone Mild. In order to understand the cultural commentary within that book's title (or, indeed, to write/perform it as Shalit did), one would have to have at least a passing familiarity with the Girls Gone Wild video series, directed and marketed by Joseph R. Francis and boasting over seventy titles, most of them multivolume. by Vanessa Grigoriadias describes Francis and his company as follows in her article “Wild Thing: Inside the Girls Gone Wild empire” :

Joe Francis has a gift. He can make more than half the girls he meets take their shirt off. He can make half of those girls take their panties off, too. He can make a straight-A student, prom queen, wife- and mother-to-be go outside a club with him, lift her skirt and show him the goods. All it takes, Francis has found, is a camcorder and one magic line: "Do any of you girls want a T-shirt?" The shirt is nice enough, a little white cotton tank with the logo of Francis' company stenciled on the front in red: girls gone wild. It's a brand that's become ubiquitous thanks to the late-night TV commercials selling the video series that Francis dreamed up. His company doesn't release sales figures, but it's been estimated that it sells 2 million tapes a year -- 2 million hour-long looks at naked college girls set to bad club music, costing anywhere from $9.99, to $29.99 for the wilder "uncut" versions (Grigoriadias).

Though he has been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission no less than six times since 2000 for “unfair and deceptive acts or practices and consumer redress,” Francis himself frames his seemingly exploitative business venture in terms of empowerment and freedom of choice, saying that “the girls don't need much convincing to do their part” and “To a lot of young women, it's titillating to break the taboo and all the more thrilling to think that millions of people might see them doing it” (Grigoriadas).

It is this association of unlimited sex with empowerment that seems to concern Shalit and Stepp. Indeed, Shailit questions this association as it exists specifically within the Girls Gone Wild video series in the preface to Girls Gone Mild. First, she asks, “What does liberation mean to you”? (Shalit 2007 xi). Then, she addresses the problem of “our Girls Gone Wild culture” in a discussion of Debbie,

who experiences regret after doing a 'scene' for a Girls Gone Wild video. Her regret was not that the producer, Joe Francis, has made millions by using girls like her, while all she got for disrobing was a t-shirt. Rather, Debbie was upset about 'not doing it right' when, for some reason beyond her grasp, she couldn't get excited during the proceedings. (Shalit 2007 xii)

Shalit concludes that the ultimate problem is that “Debbie is publicly sexual while remaining utterly alienated from her own sexuality” (Shalit 2007 xii). In this excerpt, Shalit seems to place the blame for this negative trend in female teen sexuality on “culture,” which, as a culprit, is nebulous at best. Upon further examination of the passage, it appears that Shalit also sees a problem with the girls' perceptions of appropriate sexual response/behavior (as made evident by the disbelief with which she imbues the section about Debbie's disappointment with herself for being unable to “get excited during the proceedings”), as well as with the marketing of these skewed perceptions, which serves to fill the pockets, not of the girls themselves, supposedly empowered and enacting their freedom of choice, but of Joe Francis and his staff—all of whom are male and required to sign a contract stating they will remain single as long as they are under his employment (Gregoriadas). Thus, the problem is that what is marketed as a liberating practice that allows girls to express their sexuality on their own terms actually functions as reinscribing a traditional mindset of patriarchal sexual control. In Girls Gone Mild, Shalit states that it is her aim to:

search for an alternative to our Girls Gone Wild culture. It's about finding a way to acknowledge sexuality without having to share it with strangers. It's about rediscovering our capacity for innocence, for wonder, and for being touched profoundly by others. My goal is not to attack those who want to be 'wild,' but rather to expand the range of options for young people, who I believe are suffering because of the limited choices available to them. (Shalit 2007 xii)

As a part of her desire to “expand the range of options for young people,” Shalit launched her website, ModestyZone.net, in 1996. ModestyZone claims that it is “for good girls in hiding everywhere,” and operates in conjunction with Modestly Yours, “a group blog by women who value modesty in its various forms” (ModestyZone).

While Shalit certainly discusses a culture different from the one encouraged by Francis and his empire in her book, it is worth noting that the culture she encourages bears certain similarities to the one against which she claims to be reacting. First, Shalit must agree with Francis's assertion that the notion of social rebellion is inherently attractive to girls in their teens and early twenties, as both her webspaces frame modesty as the newest form of social rebellion through both their content and their layout. For example, one of ModestyZone's monthly features is the “Rebel of the Month.” In keeping with Shalit's characterization of modesty as being in direct opposition to the rebellion that typifies popular sexualized culture, the site claims that its rebels “make [1950s icon of teen rebellion] James Dean look like a chipmunk” (ModestyZone). The association of modesty and rebellion continues with an added dimension on Modestly Yours, where an animated sidebar contains an advertisement selling copies of Girls Gone Mild. In the first frame of the ad, the book's title is written in capital letters in shades of neon pink and green, with the final word backed by a flashing yellow shape that looks as if it is supposed to resemble an explosion. In the second frame, a picture of a copy of the book sits below neon pink, flashing type that tells the site's viewers to “Be daring. Keep your shirt on” (Modestly Yours). The colors, mock-exploding graphic, and text instructing the site's visitors to “be daring” in opposition to a culture that tells them they must take off their shirts in order to fit in and/or be thought desirable are obviously meant to present the modesty movement as avant-garde. Since the medium through which this message is being conveyed is advertisement, the notion of modesty becomes a commodity. Indeed, the online modesty movement relies upon commodity for its impact, with Shalit's webpages offering endorsements of and links to a number of websites that sell modest clothing, accessories, and swimwear. A few of the young entrepreneurs of these online businesses, such as Christa Taylor and Mary-Margaret Helma, have also been profiled as “Rebels of the Month” (ModestyZone)[2]. This specific commercialization of alternative femininity seems necessary in a capitalist society, because these young women and others like them are using their personal talents and resources to fill what they see as a void left by the larger fashion establishment. Much more disturbing, however, are the products approved by Shalit in the ModestyZone store. These products are not filling a perceived cultural need like the ones designed and marketed by modesty-minded clothiers, but instead, seem to serve as a forum for Shalit (and her designers?) to comment on the evils of contemporary culture and to enforce her viewpoint with the help of antiquated gender stereotypes. For example, the website's unofficial mascot appears to be a cartoon cow named Bessy, who appears on several of the items for sale in the ModestyZone store. The fact that the modesty movement is a culturally reactionary one is made evident yet again by t-shirt designs featuring a blushing Bessy bending over to place her hands over the place where her udders would be, were they visible. Above her, a caption reads, “got modesty?” (ModestyZone). This design combines a fairly harmless cultural signifier with one that is much less so. First, the lowercase lettering and design of the caption is obviously meant to recall the popular “got milk?” campaign of the mid- to late 1990s. The harmful cultural signifier appears when the metaphor of milk and cows is applied to the site's target audience of young girls to arrive at the antiquated pro-virginity maxim “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” When read this way, the site's products do not empower young women to rebel modestly, but instead, they reinforce norms of patriarchal sexual control while making these young women think they are going against the status quo. Indeed, many women who self-identify as third wave feminists see the proponents of the Modesty Movement as “feminists who aren't,” as Julie Craig labels them in her article “I Can't Believe It's Not Feminism!” (Craig 116). In it, Craig criticizes Shalit and her supporters for benefiting from the gains hard won by their feminist foremothers while still encouraging a life lived under patriarchal control -- “a have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too whine that few realistic feminists have the time or patience to indulge” (Craig 124).

With both parties claiming female empowerment as their goal and saying that the other camp is operating under delusions of false control, with whom should their shared target audience (and society at large) agree? It is possible that that is not the right question at all. Consider, for example, Randall Patterson's article “Students of Virginity,” in which he interviews Janie Fredell, a Harvard University senior and a member of the student virginity club True Love Revolution (TLR). In the article, Fredell (who has garnered no shortage of praise from the contributors at Modestly Yours for her openness about her commitment to virginity) explains that she decided to join TLR after one of their socials was ridiculed in The Harvard Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper. Fredell says she was motivated to respond with an editorial because she believes “it takes a strong woman to be a virgin” (Patterson). After that editorial was published in The Crimson, Fredell gained notoriety on campus, which soon spread across the country as the story got picked up by other media sources, ultimately culminating in the event Patterson recounts as the conclusion to his article: a debate between Fredell and Lena Chen, a fellow Harvard student who is also a campus sex blogger (Patterson). According to Patterson, both Fredell and Chen are poised and articulate in the debate itself. Each espouses the desire for female empowerment, and though they differ in the ways they think that empowerment should be arrived upon, the women agree to respectfully disagree (Patterson). Given that both women seem to have acted with maturity and intelligence during the debate, Patterson's respective descriptions of them are disturbing. He meets the women for lunch when he conducts their interviews, and describes Chen as “a small Asian woman in a miniskirt and stilettos who ate every crumb of everything, including a ginger cake with cream-cheese frosting and raspberry compote,” while Fredell, “when the dessert menu came, paused at the prospect of a 'chocolate explosion,' said, 'I may as well — I mean, carpe diem, right?' And then reconsidered — she really wasn’t that hungry” (Patterson). Here, Patterson delivers descriptions of the women's eating habits with an implied nod to their respective sexual attitudes: Chen, liberated sex blogger, eats “every crumb of everything” including a dessert, while Fredell, self-flagellating virgin, denies herself the dessert she really wants, which interestingly contains the word “explosion” in its name, no doubt causing the reader to connect this to the other kind of “explosion” Fredell regularly denies herself. Despite the fact that both women cite a common goal and treat one another with respect, Patterson's tongue-in-cheek, and I would argue, patronizing, conclusion insists on leaving a binarily-opposed image of them, thereby forcing his readers to choose to side with either the madonna or the whore and leaving them no middle ground for mutual respect. It is this attitude that causes me to question the root of the current divide between two camps of young feminists. Perhaps the problem is not that it is impossible for them to get along. Perhaps the problem is that it is of the best interests of the patriarchal media machine to keep one side from ever calmly relating to the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Though Hamlet was released before O, it was filmed after it. O was originally scheduled for release in April 1999, when it was delayed and eventually dropped by its original producers, who were reluctant to release a film that contained a school shooting in the wake of the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, CO. The film was eventually picked up by Lions Gate, who released it in 2001.

 

[2] Christa and Mary-Margaret's clothing and designs can be found at www.christa-taylor.com and www.luthientinuviel.com/custom_modest_clothing.htm, respectively, while their “Rebel of the Month” profiles are at www.modestyzone.net/rebels/taylor.htm and www.modestyzone.net/rebels/helma.htm . Note that Mary-Margaret's online handle, “luthientinuviel” is a reference to JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, therefore, her desire to promote modesty could possibly have religious roots.

 

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