I’ve been reading Andrea Barrett’s Servants of the Map, and loving the way its stories proceed (as with almost all her work) from a kind of gloriously confident supposition that everyone—especially all women—have at least a latent aptitude for and natural interest in science, one that needs only a spark of awareness or inspiration to set it ablaze. Barrett’s characters are only ever ill-suited to a branch of science, never the entire discipline—maybe they’re destined to be botanists rather than cartographers; practical physicists rather than theoretical; autodidacts rather than post-doc fellows. But all these people love science, in a way that feels jarring and unrealistic only for however long it takes the reader to realize that it isn’t, at all—that they’ve been confusing the lack of fictional representation of female science-enthusiasts, especially in historical fiction, with reality. I'm far from a hard scientist myself, but I do love pop science, and even though I recognize kindred spirits again and again in Barrett’s characters, I still had to learn by degrees to see them as “realistic.” To be a woman with many kinds of ambition or desire is to be conditioned to see yourself as unrealistic, because if you were real surely you’d be represented in the books, movies, and TV shows you’re tearing through.
On that note—this week saw the Ghostbusters reboot and was thrilled and inspired not just for little girls (and boys) but for myself. I’m past the age at which the film could have become my world for the summer, my full obsession—but unfortunately I’m not past the need to see examples onscreen of women not sexualized, not distracted by romance or body image issues or self-doubt in their competence. I’m not saying Ghostbusters was a perfect film, but there’s a list a country mile long of tired tropes it proved aren’t necessary, aren’t even vaguely missed, in a female-driven action movie. None of the Ghostbusters had to dress up male-gaze sexy and perform some elegant subterfuge as part of The Plan. None of the Ghostbusters paused breathless in the middle of a fistfight to explain that she had learned to wrestle because she had three brothers. The jumpsuits were not rubber. These gestures seem small only because they're so rarely made.
By chance this was also the week I saw the Takarazuka Revue perform Chicago as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This company, started over a century ago in Japan as a tourist-drawing foil to Kabuki theater, puts on megamusicals and revues with women in every role. Takarazuka’s Chicago was as glitzy as anything on Broadway and unabashedly silly, everything done with a wink and an extra layer of meta-fiction glossing the show’s book—but at least for me, these extra touches added more than they distracted. To see a woman winking and smarming as Billy Flynn, women dancing Bob Fosse as Roxie’s “boys”; women lusting after women and teaming up with women and murdering women and touring the vaudeville circuit with women—and not one curiosity drag showpiece but a stage full of them, company and principles, butch and femme and, most often, slipping along the spectrum between—that would have meant something to me, as a kid. It meant something to me now.
Takarazuka’s Chicago is silly and fun; Ghostbusters is silly and fun. These things are pop and fizz and, enjoy them though I do, they probably won’t stamp a lasting mark on my writing technique. But beyond craft, they’ve reminded me of the heady power of representation, especially in super-saturation. It’s not that, if you’re part of a marginalized or minority population, not every time you recognize yourself on screen or stage or page has to be as part of some surreal speculative world or revenge fantasy. But sometimes it can be helpful to let that kind of story play out—whether it’s objective in the work, or something you’re projecting as an audience member—so you can see what the fantasy is, and what you can do to achieve it. (Or how much bigger you should dream. It’s always puzzled and haunted me that 9 to 5, the ultimate misandrist revenge fantasy, ends with such modest “success,” the women’s gains so depressingly, well, realistic.)
In introducing Chicago and Takarazuka, one of the players described the all-female casts as a window into “a dream world beyond reality.” My feminism isn't against men, nor is it against male actors or characters—there were plenty of each to appreciate throughout the week, whether in Barrett's stories or Ghostbusters or Takarazuka—but the supersaturation of women in these works, women I recognized and admired and felt I hadn't seen enough of in fiction before, gave me a kind of high that I imagine is what it feels like when you're on a steady, complete diet of media that seems to have been designed with you in mind.
"Oh," sing Velma and Mama Morton in Chicago, "There ain't no gentlemen that's fit for any use." It's not that, of course. But what a quiet, powerful thrill, to be able to accidentally read and watch only in this particular matriarchal mode all week long. And whether you're gleaning craft advice or not, whether it's NBA-winning fiction or a summer blockbuster, it's inspiring to be reminded that it's in our collective creative power to make more of this kind of art, to give others this same feeling.