A Body Hair Experiment
A Body Hair Experiment: An Intimate Lens on Gender is a thought-provoking mix of visceral photographs and elegant prose. This exceptionally perceptive photo essay features photographs by O Zhang and text by Eli Cohen. Cohen reflects on the always tense relationship that body hair has with the human body and, via his experiment, highlights how body hair is acceptable on certain bodies and (mostly) unacceptable on others.
The experiment had Cohen completely remove all the hair on the left side of his body only, leaving the other half naturally hairy. He mentions that hairlessness was never an option for him, not even the rejection of it. His lines on how he had never viewed himself as a subject of desire make the readers question how society terms certain bodies as constitutive of being desirable and others as not.
Preceded by Zhang’s close-up of a man’s stomach (one hair-covered arm angled towards the tuft of pubic hair in presumably an act of concealment) and succeeded by spliced halves of a close-up of the nipple—one side completely hairless with the pores sharply defined and the other with wiry black-grey coils, the question of subjects of desire also gently extends in the reader’s mind to body parts significant of desire. Cohen’s wondering about the ‘feminine choices’ regarding body hair and the natural extension of perceptions of women who choose to make a feminine choice shows us just how insidiously notions of seriousness and frivolity are tied up with femininity.
I am giving A Body Hair Experiment: An Intimate Lens on Gender by Eli Cohen and O Zhang 5 out of 5 stars— Zhang’s gorgeous photography graphically brings home the reality of gender norms being broken and unsettles ingrained notions of gender-specific beauty practices. Cohen’s writing and his musings on what this act of deliberate part-hairlessness and part au naturel involves—from the physical sensation of smoothness, of hairiness, of the preparation, of the embracing, and of the disconcerting sensation of unevenness—invite readers to the possibilities of body hair while also highlighting the strong cultural notions it carries.
Posted in Book Reviews, Five Stars
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She Had a Lot of Secrets
Mademoiselle Alice tells an intimate tale that takes readers on a personal journey through life and love. What was the inspiration that made you want to turn Alice’s life into a story?
I spent three years writing a history book called Alice & Eiffel, A New History of Early Cinema and the Love Story Kept Secret for a Century. As soon as I finished it, my girlfriends said: “We want a novel!” Alice wrote a memoir that is very cryptic, only 120 pages. I felt that she had a lot of secrets which she alluded to, particularly about her father, her experiences at the convent, and her relationship with Eiffel.
Why did you choose to write the novel in the first person?
When I started the novel, I spent several months writing Alice’s story in the third person, but it felt distant. I felt like I was flying over the rooftops, getting an occasional peek through a crack in the curtains. The novel didn’t start to come to life until I switched to first person and told it from Alice’s point of view.
Being basically kidnapped from her grandmother’s home at four and then being dropped off at the convent at six were the heartbreaks in her childhood that most captured my imagination and sympathy. Then of course when her father died when she was seventeen, that was the coup de grâce for her. In her memoirs she began with “My destiny was no doubt traced before my birth,” and I think she was referring to the early connections between her father and Eiffel since Eiffel really did go to Chile the year before she was born.
Alice Guy Blaché was a pioneer with so many accomplishments. What was the one thing that surprised you the most about Alice?
The biggest surprise was that although Eiffel was wildly successful and a very attractive person, Alice is more compelling. I think the story-telling gene that she developed was a result of her early experiences and not a function of ambition to make it in the movies which did not exist when she started.
The first film she wrote and directed, La Fée aux Choux, remains iconic in symbol and mystery. In one minute she tapped into the deepest themes of human experience: romantic love, sexual attraction, and family. We know it when an artist touches that chord, cuts to the core of something deep.
The temptation with a biography of a famous or accomplished person is to stack up their achievements in an intimidating tower. You can do the same thing with Eiffel. Would you like to read about all forty of the bridges he built culminating in his famous tower? That has been the outline of all the biographies about him. They don’t get close to the real person.
What kind of research did you have to do to maintain the historical accuracy of the book?
I look up all kinds of quirky things. It is not at all efficient, but you have to cast a very wide net. I read French and American newspapers from 1890s through the 1920s, and it is surprising what you run across, such as a column entitled “What makes a woman charming?” The old newspapers reflect how people thought back then. The phrase “gender roles” wasn’t coined until 1955. In Alice’s time, being a wife and mother were a woman’s duties, not roles she chose. The “old maids” were viewed as having missed the boat of life.
What is the next story that you are working on and when will it be available?
I am working on scripts for Mademoiselle Alice. I think it would make a good television series starting with the California Gold Rush. Many people came from France to California during that period and I believe Alice’s father was among them. Everyone wonders how Alice was able to do cowboy and western films. I think it was in her DNA.
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A deeply evocative story inspired by real events: the love affair between two unforgettable people—Gustave Eiffel, the builder of the Eiffel Tower, and Alice Guy Blaché, a pioneer in the art of cinema. Mademoiselle Alice steps out of the shadows into the reader’s mind as an endlessly intriguing and entirely relatable young woman. Told through Alice’s eyes, we get to know her, her family, and Monsieur Eiffel. Eiffel is not looking to fall in love—he is a widower who has everything—wit, wealth, fame, and brilliance. He was a friend of Alice’s father who died when she was seventeen, and the story she tells of falling in love with him is funny and emotionally intimate. Alice and Eiffel forge an enduring romantic and intellectual bond. But while she wants to marry him, he refuses because he is so much older than she is. Out of her desire to have a family, she marries a handsome Englishman and travels to the United States, where she works with D. W. Griffith and then opens her own film studio. Some of her emotional experiences find expression in the scenarios she writes for film. Her relationship with Monsieur Eiffel continues on in her mind and leads to some surprising developments. Mademoiselle Alice tells us much about women’s lives during the silent film era in France and the United States. Combining a biographer’s knowledge of her subject with the novelist’s gift for narrative, Janelle Dietrick has crafted a novel that will capture the interest of every reader.
Posted in Interviews
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Witch Heart follows Jan as she returns to West Point under a cloud of suspicion when several people are killed in unlucky accidents. What was the inspiration for this 3rd book in the Gray Girl Series?
The Gray Girl series (Gray Girl, Area Bird and Witch Heart) is mostly inspired by my experiences as a cadet at West Point from 1981-1985. Jan Wishart’s adventures are embellished, of course, but many of the events are authentic or realistic to what we experienced at that time. Being labeled a “witch,” for instance, certainly happened to some women then. Recently, we have seen examples of derogatory “labeling” used on outspoken and/or ambitious women.
The novel starts out at Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, GA. What experience do you have with the military. Anyone in your family serve?
Well, as stated above, I attended West Point in the early 1980’s. After that, I served five years as a missile maintenance officer in the Army. As part of our training, I attended Airborne School during the summer before cow (junior) year, which follows the storyline in Witch Heart. I wrote most of the Airborne School chapters based on memory. However, I cheated a little and looked at Youtube videos. I also consulted a few friends who went through Airborne training. One of my beta readers was stationed with the 82nd Airborne for a few years.
The book tackles the social issue of women serving in the military. How do you see women in the military and what is a common misconception you’ve come across?
Women have only added value to the military, as they have in all areas where they have been allowed to compete. One common misconception that seems prevalent is that standards had to be lowered for women to enter the military academies. What is surprising, however, is that ALL standards have gone up since women have been admitted. There’s probably a social-gender dynamic that might explain this reality, but physical and academic standards began to rise considerably with the admission of women cadets.
Jan is a well developed character. What were some obstacles that you felt were important for the characters development?
I wanted Jan to be a good person, but flawed. In other words, I wanted her to be authentic. I think hearing her internal dialogue (which is more prevalent in the first two books) is both an obstacle and an opportunity to bring a character to life. The reader sees her inner self, knowing her mixed emotions and the biases that she carries with her. You don’t really hear the inner voices of the other characters, but hopefully, using dialogue and actions, you get a feeling of the well-developed relationships and personalities.
Where does the story go in the next book and where do you see it going in the future?
Jan has to finish West Point. So, the final book in the Gray Girl series will be about her firstie (senior) year. She will encounter another major problem at West Point which can only be solved with the help of her friends and collaborators. This one, if I can pull it off, will involve international espionage—or something like that. I hate to say too much until it’s written because often times the book takes on a life of its own—and I never really know what’s going to happen until it does. It’s called writing.
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“Jan Wishart starts cow (junior) year at West Point in Airborne School. Terrified of heights, she narrowly escapes an accident that later turns deadly for another jumper. With a third death in as many years associated with her, Jan returns to West Point under a cloud of suspicion. Ominous signs left for her to find cause Jan to lose a precious and necessary requirement for survival at West Point: sleep. With her mental state in question, a masked intruder makes nocturnal visits to her room. Or is she imagining that? Events escalate to the point of no return for Jan and her two best friends. When they swear an oath of loyalty to each other, they have no idea how much it will cost to fulfill that vow. Leadership always requires sacrifice. So does loyalty. And sometimes, one virtue must yield to the other.”
Posted in Interviews
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