The Wednesday Five: Sylvia Blogs, Why Hollywood Men Prefer War, and Giving Up Life As a Blonde

March 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsmakers

Our spring-is-coming highlights include a list of snazzy-but-appropriate workout gear, a meditation on life after blonde, and a final post-Oscar howl about misogyny in the film industry.

  • At Amid Privilege, Sky Peale is Giving Up Blonde, Or…. and trying to decide what kind of post-blonde to be. Now that she’s grown past her youthful blonde stage, Peale finds multiple role models in her blog-peers: “I may go gray, like Ms. Givens of Trend Wisely, Donna of Rock the Silver, and Madame La Streep……. Join the ranks of Alice Bradley at finslippy, and Anne Kreamer, who wrote Going Gray. Rock the Silver is, of course, a blog often about going gray.” We suspect she’ll rule, no matter what she chooses.
  • “In our culture, there is… just a weird anxiety around women.” Last week, as we were all shaking off our Oscar hangover,  Melissa Silverstein found these refreshingly frank words from this NPR chat with The Kids Are Alright director Lisa Cholodenko. Without rancor, Cholodenko suggests why Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker might have had an easier time in the award: “It’s just easier to uphold, like, male heroes and men things. And that’s just kind of how it is. I think we’re getting better, but I think it’s just deeply rooted…Because when you talk about the Kathryn Bigelow film, I mean, I think something that was tremendous was that she really did get into male psychology and sort of the male experience in such an authentic way.”
  • Last fall, we caught up on the travails of Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy. Last month, however Guernica tracked her down and ran this detailed, wide-ranging interview with the intriguing title “The Un-Victim.” Her life, says Roy, doesn’t really include a typical day: ” I don’t have a regular day (or night!). It has been so for years, and has nothing to do with the sedition tamasha [spectacle]. I’m not sure how I feel about this—but that’s how it is. I move around a lot. I don’t always sleep in the same place. I live a very unsettled but not un-calm life. But sometimes I feel as though I lack a skin—something that separates me from the world I live in. That absence of skin is dangerous.”
  • OK, spring has made us all swear we’ll work out. But we know we should be careful about workout clothes. Luckily, Fab Over Fifty’s Linda Cohen has come up with workout wardrobe suggestions, answering concerns like “I need workout pants that are comfortable, but aren’t ratty college sweatpants” and ” I need a yoga pant that won’t highlight my lumps and bumps during downward dog.” Click over for selections and prices that won’t break the bank.
  • We all knew about Nicole Hollander’s Bad Girl Chats, but did you know that her character Sylvia has her own blog? Asked for her favorite books, she at first demurs: “It’s true I get everything I need from television. Do you have a pen? Here’s my list. Mystery (Inspector Lewis, Sargeant Hathaway, the new Sherlock Holmes); International Mystery: Wallander in English, Wallander in Swedish. The Mentalist,  Justified, The Good Wife…” but goes on to explore the latest gender-gap news, this one in literature and pointing to a Laura Miller piece in Salon: “ It suggests that women are underrepresented in the literary world because men don’t care what they write about. Is this true?”  Sylvia asks, however, that our comments on the subject go to Nicole’s site and not her blog: “I hear she likes to read them …. I, however, am too busy watching television.”

Now Online: Nicole Hollander, Sylvia, and “Bad Girl Chats”

November 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Humor, Tech

Attention all fans of “Sylvia” and cartoonist Nicole Hollander: Bad Girl Chats is up and running! If you caught our interview with Hollander this past summer, you probably read about her plans for the blog, and its brilliantly simple concept: “Sylvia and Nicole talk.”

Here’s what Nicole had to say about the blog in a recent email to WVFC.

This blog is what I have been looking for forever, but we didn’t have blogs forever and I needed the assistance of a spirit guide in the form of an under-30, young woman web strategist to get me there.

Why do I love blogging? All those thoughts about everything I read and see and think… don’t need to be formatted into a cartoon strip but can come directly out of my subconscious, get edited—slightly—and appear on the page, immediately.

No waiting for 4 weeks (the amount I have to be ahead in the strip—and I still do do the comic strip). I have 35 years of comics to choose from as just the right visual comment to go with the blog.

I am a happy woman!


Now Playing: The Plath Mystique

October 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Poetry, Theater

Is the Sylvia Plath mystique finally waning?  For those of us who came of age in the 1960s—or at least those of us who thought ourselves to be sensitive and literary back then—Plath, the brilliant poet who committed suicide when she was just 30, was the epitome of everything we imagined we were: smart, talented, sexy enough to get the cool guy, and yet tragically misunderstood.

But on the recent opening night of Three Women, the only known play that Plath ever wrote, the small, 99-seat theater where it was appearing was more than half empty. Six silver-haired baby-boomer women sat in the row in front of me, chatting excitedly before the show began. But I later saw a couple of them dozing off, even though the play—originally conceived as a trio of interlocking monologues for BBC radio—lasted only 45 minutes.

More people turned out—and were more attentive—for the other play that makes up the mini-Plath festival running at Manhattan’s 59E59 Theaters through the end of this month.  That show, Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, a multimedia fantasia about Plath’s life, won a Fringe First Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The different responses to the two plays is how it has been so often with Plath: people tend to be more interested in the drama of her life than in her work.

For those who have forgotten—or perhaps never knew—the details of Plath’s life, here are the rudiments of the story: Plath was born and grew up in Massachusetts. She published her first poem by the time she was eight. She went on to Smith College and eventually won a coveted spot as one of the guest editors who interned at Mademoiselle magazine each summer.

But during her Mademoiselle summer, Plath overdosed on sleeping pills and underwent shock therapy. She recovered enough to graduate with honors from Smith and won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge University. There she met and married the handsome and equally gifted British poet Ted Hughes. They had two children and Plath published a collection of poems but continued to struggle with depression, finding it hard to balance work and caring for the kids.

Things got worse when she discovered that Hughes was having an affair with one of her best friends. They separated. Throughout the troubled times, Plath poured her feelings into her writing. But the depression eventually overwhelmed her. On February 10, 1963, she put her children to bed, put her head inside the kitchen oven, and asphyxiated herself.

That, however, was just the beginning of the story. The Bell Jar, her fictionalized account of her experiences at Mademoiselle and in the mental hospital, was published within months of her death. Two years later, Ariel, a collection of poems—most of them written during the last weeks of her life—was published. The confessional nature of the books and the dramatic circumstances of her death set off a frenzy of interest. In 1982, her book The Collected Poems made her the first poet to be posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

But long before that, Plath had been adopted by feminists as a cautionary example of what can happen to thwarted female artists. Hughes was quickly castigated as the chauvinistic villain who had oppressed her, a belief that was further affirmed six years after Plath’s death, when the woman who had caused the breakup also asphyxiated herself.

The Plath mystique continued to grow. A collection of her letters, edited by her mother, was published in 1975. Her journals, partly edited by Hughes, came out in 1982, and an unabridged edition appeared in 2000. Over the years, scores of other books and countless articles have been written about Plath and Hughes, including Birthday Letters, a collection of 88 poems that Hughes–who in later life became Britain’s poet laureate–published about their relationship in 1998, the year he died. There were poems by their daughter Frieda. Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed Plath in the 2003 movie Sylvia.

Despite my own literary yearnings, I’ve never been much for poetry. But I discovered The Bell Jar when I was in college, instantly identified with Plath’s surrogate heroine Esther Greenwood, and became fascinated with the author. Others may have wanted to know what happened in the final hours before Marilyn Monroe died, but I longed to know about those final moments in Plath’s life.

The young performance artist Elisabeth Gray apparently shares that obsession. Gray, who like Plath is an American who studied in England, was commissioned to write a play for a symposium on Plath at Oxford in 2007. The result is the one-woman show—inexplicably written under the pseudonym Edward Anthony—that is set inside the poet’s mind during the final ten seconds before she dies. The actress is already on stage when the audience enters, kneeling in front of an oven into which she’s placed her head. “Oh no, they’re turning Plath into a joke,” said the friend who went me with to see the show.

There are, in fact, quite a few funny bits. The character (Gray couldn’t get permission to use Plath’s name, so she substitutes Esther Greenwood’s instead) has a surreal conversation with the oven. Gray supplies all the dialog, mumbling melodic nonsense for the oven’s lines. Esther’s hallucinations appear as deadpan videos projected on a screen at the back of the stage. But the underlying pathos of Plath’s life breaks through as the events move toward the inevitable climax. Gray’s play tells the same old cautionary story, but tells it cleverly and affectingly.

That, alas, is not the case with Three Women. Set in a maternity ward, the play features a woman who goes through childbirth, another who miscarries, and a third who delivers a child but leaves the hospital without it, having given the infant up for adoption. The young actresses try their best but all three performances come across as little more than earnest audition pieces.

And they’re grim. Whatever the woman’s circumstance, she finds herself miserable. The one who gets to take her baby home does have a few seconds of happiness as she marvels at the extraordinary creature she has created, but then begins to wish that the child were more ordinary so that the Devil will be less attracted to it. The only redeeming grace for fans of Plath’s poetry is that the play is written in verse. But they can get that sitting at home reading one of her collections—and maybe sipping a glass of wine to ease the gloom.

It’s hard not to wonder how Plath’s life would have turned out had she lived. She’d be 78 next week, on October 27.  Would she, like so many of the rest of us, have made peace with her demons?  Might she have thrived in an environment more supportive of creative women? Or was dying so young and so dramatically a good career move, the thing that’s kept her alive in the public imagination?

I had thought that the small audience and the polite applause for the Plath plays meant that the fascination with her might be fading. But between the time I saw the first play and wrote this piece, news came that a previously unknown Hughes poem had been discovered, one that directly addresses Plath’s death. Within a week’s time, more than 500 stories about it had been published around the world. The mystique lives on.

NYC Alert: Nicole Hollander Speaks!

September 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Books, Humor

Maybe you’ve been a fan of Nicole Hollander’s comic strip “Sylvia” since it first appeared in the 1970s. Or maybe you simply enjoyed the trademark blend of banter, wit, and warmth that Hollander displayed in her recent WVFC interview.

Whatever the reason, if you’re a “Sylvia” aficionado in the New York City area, here’s your chance to join Hollander in celebrating her latest book of collected comic strips,The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama. Hollander will be appearing this Thursday, September 23, at 7 p.m. at the NYU Bookstore (726 Broadway, Manhattan). For more information, check the NYU Bookstore listings.

Sylvia Speaks! The WVFC Interview with Cartoonist Nicole Hollander

August 22, 2010 by  
Filed under Books, Humor, Pleasures

It’s now three decades since Nicole Hollander’s cartoon character Sylvia—beloved by comic-strip aficionados and feminists alike—first shared her wisecracking, dry-as-a-martini observations on life, politics, and the male of the species. To celebrate, The New Press has just published The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama. Hollander joined us for a wide-ranging conversation about writing, smoking, The Woman Who Is Easily Irritated, and the challenge of creating a topical comic strip four weeks in advance.

How did Sylvia begin? Where did she come from?

She goes back to my mother and her lifelong girlfriends, Olga and Esther. The three of them met when they were teenagers and they all got jobs together selling magazine subscriptions door to door. And then they all married guys from same social club. They were three of the funniest women you can imagine.

I wanted to show the importance of friendships for women. That’s what keeps you going, that’s what gives you more than sustenance. It gives you pleasure.

Physically, Sylvia is modeled after Esther: bedroom eyes, very sexy, very witty. High-waisted with long legs and big breasts. But mainly it’s the attitude. My mother and her friends were very quick. Sylvia is like a 1940s dame, just like they were.

There’s an image in the book where my father—who was self taught because he had to drop out of school very young—is doing a crossword puzzle and he says to my mother, ‘What’s the name for a male swan?’ She had perfect timing, so she waits—and then she says, ‘A swine.’

So how could I do other than love words with the two of them as my parents? And to be political as well.

Where do the politics come in?

My father was a union member—he believed in unions. My mother worked for hospitals, she was always taking people home. This attitude that Sylvia has—and my attitude—is that politics is something that always has to be examined and watched with a very wry attitude. But if you do a cartoon, it also has to be funny. So I play with words, I play with her response. And she often undercuts her response to be ironic, and to give it a bit of a twist.

Then of course, I’m a feminist, and that [situation] hasn’t changed a heck of a lot, either. Incrementally, women have more opportunities now, but I think we’re still second-class citizens. You see it whenever women run for political office, the way that they’re attacked.

Everything that Sylvia hears on the television is true. I take everything from reality. And then she provides both the attitude and the commentary.

Almost everyone who’s written about the book has mentioned that when you see something in politics or government over a long period of time, you can see that our government has done the same thing over and over again. It doesn’t learn, no matter who’s in office. We don’t learn from anyone else’s mistakes, either.

[For proof of that, see the strips included in this story. Although all three read as though they were done in the past year or two, they date from (top to bottom) 2004, 1992, and 1995 respectively.  –Ed.]

About how old did you imagine Sylvia to be?

I was 40 when I started the cartoon strip. I imagined that she was ten years older, and that she would always be ten years older than me. But I couldn’t keep it up. I didn’t want to make her look old. I didn’t want to maker her look like the smoker she was, with wrinkles around her mouth. So she remained young. It was a complete turnabout. She remained exactly the same as when I created her, and I got older.

She’s still smoking.

She’s the last woman in America to smoke. And people complain about that. Every once in a while someone rediscovers it and says, ‘How can you do such a thing?’ And I say, ‘I created that character. That’s what she did. And that’s who she is.’ You’d have to kill her off to make her stop smoking.

She does occasionally blow [bubblegum] bubbles.

The other thing is that we live in a toxic environment. It’s easier to say, ‘Oh, cigarettes, we have the scientific evidence.’ But our environment is poisoning us in every possible way. It just feels better to say ‘This is the one thing that’s doing it.’

And yes, I know it’s terrible to smoke. But no, I’m not going to change her.

And she has a very unhealthy diet. She has this wonderful daughter, who I created to have a role reversal. So it’s Sylvia, the mother, who is completely irresponsible. And it’s the daughter who, I’m sure, balances the checkbook and keeps the accounts. And just in general tries to make her more healthy, at the same time keeping her supplied with doughnuts.

“Sylvia” is such a news-oriented strip. How far ahead are the cartoons done? How do you work with that?

I’m four weeks ahead with the cartoon strip. That means that if I pick something in the news to talk about it has to be an issue that’s going to around, or at least one aspect has to stay around. For instance, when all these men in government have to resign because they’ve done something so outrageous that even the president that they’re serving under finally has to get rid of them. They never say, ‘I screwed up. I’m corrupt.’ They say, ‘I’d like to spend more time with my family.’ There are certain themes that you can just use again and again, and you can see an issue in that way—so that it lasts, so that it has legs.

Of course, I’ve been caught when something big happened and I was four weeks ahead and I made the wrong call.

Over the years, you’ve introduced other women characters into the strip. How did that come about?

When I want to write about something, I often think about who’s going to say it. Sylvia has a certain way of attacking a problem. The Woman Who’s Easily Irritated immediately is furious and goes into a rant about something. So that’s her place and her attitude. And she has this wonderful husband, who’s always there waiting with a Valium or a martini to calm her down.

And then I have two women who talk over a table with food. That’s really my mother and her pals. Because that’s what I originally thought of the strip as being about: what women say when they’re talking alone together and really relaxed.

Another character who has a really important place is Mary Frances. Mary Frances’s adventures are the only continuing adventures. She’s always tired of her profession. She must have had dozens of different ideas of what she would do for a living. It goes from being a cat psychic to being a bodyguard that watches these guys who’ve committed financial crimes. She stays with them so that they can get out on bail. I mean, this is a very obscure thing, but it actually exists—there is a job like that, where you keep track of them and you live with them until they come to trial. So Mary Frances usually has three or four strips in a row. And she’s the only character that’s like that.

Then there’s the Woman Who Lies in Her Journal. I think she’s the newest character. She was created so I could write about something that had already happened—a way of outsmarting the strip’s four-week lead time. Sometimes you’ll hear her say, ‘Oh, I’ve been trying to get Sarah Palin for weeks.’ That’s a way of taking something that happened in the past and bringing it into the future. The time element is played with. So she’s calling Sarah Palin a month after Levi and Bristol getting back together hits the news. She’s calling her and saying, ‘I’ve been trying to get in touch with her. Finally I got her.’ And then she’s able to say what I would have wanted to say in a daily, if I was up-to-the minute.

What is the comics and cartooning landscape like now for women?

Space is very tight in newspapers. I don’t see new women getting in. But I see that women are making other places for themselves. I see that there are women who are doing online cartoons. I don’t know how they make a living from it, but they are online. I see that women write humor. And I see that women do stand-up.

Writing was always a good thing for women, because you could do it on the sly, in between doing everything else. Writing was always the place where you could hide your gender identity and make a success of it.

The younger generation—of which there are many under me—have their different ways of coping, and of being incredibly creative, and of caring for other women. It’s just that I would think it shouldn’t still be such a big job, that it should be such an effort. That there should be more equality than there is.

Among everyone, of course. To be old in this country, or black, or gay, or a woman. At the beginning of the book I say, Getting old in America: Best to do it somewhere else.

France, maybe? But I wasn’t smart enough to learn the language.

What do you enjoy about this time of life? What do you find challenging?

I find that having this book is just a great pleasure. I mean, it was really hard to do. I had to go through thousands of cartoons, reorganize them into categories, throw some out, and do it over and over again. But it’s a tangible record of what I did all these years. And that has given me enormous pleasure.

And look, I’m still doing what I love to do. Which is playing with words, playing with politics, and taking something which is serious and making it funny. I get a chance to do this puzzle. Now, I won’t say that it doesn’t drive me nuts to have a deadline every week, and to be making less and less money. But when it comes down to it, the pleasure of figuring out how to transform the words into a political statement and a humor statement is something that you don’t get tired of.

What’s next for you and Sylvia?

I’m going to be doing a blog in which Sylvia and Nicole talk. We think we’re going to call it Bad Girl Chats, after the two women in the strip.

Is it online yet?

No, but it will be. Check at, or the Sylvia page on Facebook.

Thanks so much! And congratulations again on The Sylvia Chronicles.