Thursday, November 6, 2008

Picking a Fight With Diablo Cody

My problem with Diablo Cody is not Juno. I loved Juno. The dialogue was “unrealistic” in exactly the kind of exaggerated, funny, sharp way that I know is actually real, after years of being a smart teen and then working with them. I could write an essay about why I think Juno was an important movie, but it’s already been done. A lot. I know Cody wrote an angry blog about all the "haters" who dissed the movie too, but still, she got an Oscar. I’d like to congratulate Cody on the success, and have the context for what I say next be my basic admiration for what she’s demonstratably able to do. Plus, my problem is not about her, at all.

My problem with Diablo Cody is what she did with Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, her “memoir” about stripping in Minneapolis. Why, do you ask, is “memoir” in quotes? Surely this book is about her experience! Well, yes. And No. In fact, my problem is that this book is mostly NOT about her experience. Cody writes like a journalist at a snarky weekly rag: all quip, no analysis. When she veers into the territory of conclusion-drawing, she quickly zooms backwards into description again. And in fact she was praised for this—one reviewer called the book “refreshingly devoid of moral conclusions.” I disagree. The book was irritatingly chock-full of moral conclusions—but they were implicit, assumed, and unexamined by the author. More than exposing some new truths about the industry, the society that has demonized it, or even herself, Cody uses Candy Girl to self-congratulate, not once truly questioning the taboos and stereotypes she carries with her from beginning to end. She’s proud of stripping because it’s hard, and it’s wrong, and she wanted to rebel. She’s proud of quitting because it was the grown-up thing to do. Yawn. Despite the title, I'm not actually trying to fight with Diablo Cody in this review, I'm trying to get at a cultural tendency towards NOT questioning the origin of our opinions, through her demonstration of that tendency in Candy Girl.

Cody never owns her prejudice about the sex industry—she simply assumes that everyone understands why she’s an “unlikely” stripper. Everyone probably does, because of how widespread the stereotypes are, but I'd like to question why. She’s unlikely because she’s educated? Funny? It’s not clear, exactly, since so, so many of the women who work in clubs are as educated as she is (if not more so, in the case of many Brazilian and Russian women who come to the U.S. with higher degrees that suddenly mean nothing in our xenophobic society). Oh wait! I know! She’s unlikely because she was never a victim of sexual assault. (She goes so far as to claim that “most” strippers have some kind of sexual victimization in their pasts. I offer that this might be true in places where the prejudice against the sex industry is highest—namely, Midwest and South? It’s certainly not true in California. She’s proposing that the industry attracts damaged goods, which is the same argument that’s always been made to support a theory of its inherent destructiveness. I think it’s very likely that the industry, where it is most vilified, does attract women who have psycho-sexual problems. In places where it is not so taboo, however, the exact same work attracts plenty of women who aren’t fighting the demons of rape or incest. Causality might be working the other direction, you see.) She does dispel the myth that all strippers are also drug addicts, but doesn’t ever discuss why we’d assume women need to be intoxicated to do such a thing. And, she doesn’t tell us if she was one of those girls who needs a few drinks to get out on the floor, coyly mentioning a few times when she got drunk at work as if it was a rare occurrence.

Cody is obsessed with the issue of why she would be attracted to stripping since she doesn’t fit her own stereotype of who a stripper is. This circular moment is unhelpful to readers who share her stereotypes. Nobody learns anything about how those stereotypes are functioning in the industry, or in the greater society. Also, her ideas about what is damaging to everyone about stripping are fundamentally insulting to those of us who dropped those stories of who enters the industry, why, and what it does to them, long ago. It’s not that she’s wrong about the potential self-esteem-crushing effects of being part of the “girl buffet,” but she doesn’t seem to think it’s possible that one could both strip AND be smart, well-adjusted, and busy with other projects, because she couldn’t do it herself. She calls herself a “nerd” often throughout the book—but she’s not an analytical writer here, she’s just a hipster who likes Star Trek. A real nerd would have taken the experience much, much more seriously, in the middle of all the titillating and disgusting detail. If she'd claimed the book was just an expose, a la Video Vixens, fine. But she makes it seem as though she's thought a lot about it all, and with a critical eye.

Lily Burana, who wrote Strip City and is another self-proclaimed nerd-dancer, also struggled to come up with some conclusions about what stripping MEANS to America, even though she worked all over the US and did a great deal of research into the history of the strip-tease. She tried, and, tried hard. It’s not an easy subject, nor is it “shallow,” as Cody claims. While she touches on the issues of female competitiveness and friendship at the club, Cody never discusses one of the most interesting psychological issues of stripping: dissociation vs. sexualization in the act of exhibition. She never once cops to being attracted to a customer—which means she’s lying to us. At least once in that year, there was someone she really enjoyed giving a lap dance to, and whether she felt exultant or guilty afterward would have been a great complexity to her story. She never calls what she does dissociating, although her writing belies it. She’s got a hawk’s eye on the club (the anthropologist/journalist), but forgets to talk about her own true psychological (much less philosophical, intellectual) experience until the very end of the book, when she’s suddenly burned out. How did she get that way? We can’t know, since she represented herself as a tough-as-nails cynic with a perfect boyfriend for the 200 previous pages. She doesn’t let us in to her relationship with her body, save for a few mentions of how her costume changes and a particularly funny and accurate passage about the importance of tanning. She never quite details how her feminist self deals with her stripper self.

Cody was so enthralled by her ability to capture the simultaneous sparkle and grit of her environments that she failed to notice what’s really interesting about dancing for money:
strip clubs are where our national anxieties get deposited. Because of the cultural taboo on women’s exhibitionism, clubs are places where every value we’ve got about sex, gender, money, and “success” collide. Cody wanted to enter this roiling secret world without becoming OF it. She didn’t seem to learn anything, and so the book doesn’t teach readers anything. This made me angry, especially because she’s clearly able to write. She had an opportunity to do something truly revolutionary, and she told a fluffy story about one good girl’s trip to the dark side. This means that nobody has to think about what makes her “good” and what makes stripping “dark.” She might claim that she never set out to do that work, that she's just a storyteller, etc. I think it's cowardly to claim you're an intelligent, thinking woman who's interested in the sex industry and then NOT force yourself to take a stand on what is good and bad about it.

Thankfully, Juno did a much better job of posing a few real questions about our cultural values, although it neatly skirted the real bugaboo of abortion. Since Candy Girl predates Juno, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for another effort that actually challenges—and I think that Cody may be one of those writers who tells more truth in fiction than she can in autobiography. I hope that as she moves forward with her work she shows us the guts and the brains she so vehemently claims she has.


  1. I love this blog, and usually my comments take the Vanessa-is-on-to-something-here-and-let me-jump-on-and-man-the-cannons form. But for once I would like to say Vanessa is wrong. She is wrong to call "Juno" brilliant (is that what she called it? I have blocked it out, I was so shocked). There was exactly one brilliant element to Juno: making Juno 'unconsciously' flirt with the adoptive husband, and become shocked when he acted on her insinuating presence in his house. This was a sophisticated take on the ambivalence and ambiguity of teenage sexuality, jarring with less ambivalent adult intentions.
    The rest, however, was too hip to be anything but cynical. For hip is the acme of cynical. Vanessa calls the unrealistic dialogue 'real' because it reflects the sophisticated modern teenager that she so ably mentors in her various teaching roles. For me, though, it's not so much the unrealism of her snappy, too-articulate dialogue that cloys. It's rather the mezzo-funny, mezzo-critical, mezzo-everything, reminiscent of Eggers. It's funny, and cutting and satirical, but not THAT funny, or THAT cutting, or THAT satirical, because we're all less threatened when they're just smart enough to allow us to call it 'indie', but not smart enough to make us feel dumb. To me, the only justification for unrealistic dialogue is brilliance (Phillip Roth) or gorgeous idealism (Moulin Rouge). As for contemporary teenagers, come on Vanesssa, can you honestly tell me you've known any who are so unaffected by Christian protesters outside an abortion clinic (my wife almost beat them to the pavement), insensitive clerks selling contraceptives, or school peers ridiculing their pregnancy? In the furthest reaches of my imagination I can imagine such a teen, but not one who then, when Cody finds it convenient for dramatic purposes, plays the shy, fumbling standard teen when expressing or receiving affection for the boyfriend or Dad. Cody's unconvincing formula seems to be: extraordinary thick-skinned in political/social situations; insecure in love. Sure, maybe when you're 29...

  2. I'll concede that Juno has a problem with hovering in the mezzanine--the mezzo-everything. But I do think it was important to show a teen with the mismatch of political/social savvy and personal insecurity you so clearly disbelieve. This is one of the problems of being a young person right now--they ARE actually more "worldly" than generations before, but without any more sophisticated psychology. They continually show themselves to know all about safe sex and drug effects and social pressure and the importance of education in surveys, while they also forgo condoms, binge-drink, and cheat more and more on exams, presumably for the same emotional reasons teens have done dumb things in the past. Obviously Juno and her boyfriend (who, in addition to the Dad, was heart in the face of hipness), are supposed to be "different," but in that way they aren't, and I liked that conundrum being represented.

  3. This type of dialogue seems so much more important than work. How are you able to get inane work done? To me it seems so unimportant compared to connection and dialogue. Do you choose your work carefully so that it doesn't seem without meaning and/or importance or have you discovered a way to be efficient and get work done quickly, leaving you more time for your pursuits?