Ruby Sparks and manic pixie dream girls

Why are women on screen so hopelessly unrealistic? Not always, of course, but I’ve lost count of the number of films and television programmes purporting to show a “real” female character – that is, not  a rom com creation or a fanboy’s pneumatic fantasy – that have gone horribly wrong.

Usually, this involves the women in indie films, where the male characters have been written precisely to go beyond stereotype, yet the women are one dimensional cartoons. Case in point; Zooey Deschanel on New Girl.

As the blogosphere has labelled her, this woman, who is a foil to the agonising male, is a “manic pixie dream girl” (there is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to this). Invariably, this woman is quirky, spontaneous, emotional but adorable; intelligent yet impractical; delightful yet different to everyone else.

She wears oddly-matched clothes, has flowing wavy hair, a small nose and just enough angles on her face to not be conventionally beautiful (but she is attractive nonetheless). She is clumsy, yet endearingly so. She likes obscure music and art, and is outspoken yet accurate in her descriptions. And I’ve never met her in real life.

So it was enjoyable to watch a film that picked up on the failure of male writers to script their dream women in a convincing way. Ruby Sparks, in which a male wunderkind writer (Paul Dano) writes about his dream woman (Zoe Kazan), only for her to morph from mirage to living, breathing girlfriend, features a character that conforms to most of the above specifications.

Of course, she isn’t real; she’s just a composite of what a man thinks he wants and thinks a woman can be. And as the romantic miracle starts to go awry, this becomes clear to the writer and the audience. Written by Kazan herself, the main message of the film is about the possibility or impossibility of changing someone, but the sense that she is challenging the indie film staple – the quirky dream girl – is there too. As is said in the film: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”


Cooking Up A New Curriculum (Huff Post UK)

How do you boil an egg?

It’s not a ridiculous question. In fact, it’s one some of the most well-educated and intellectual people out there would struggle with.

They might be clued up on Chaucer and know Tolstoy to a T, but ask them about baking, boiling or frying and, quite often, they will be stumped for an answer.

I’m generalising of course. It’s not just the straight-A students who lack life skills, it’s everyone.

By the time the national curriculum was introduced in 1988, home economics was “food technology” and regarded as akin to design and technology. Politicians have occasionally brought up a return to practical cooking in schools – Ed Balls prompted much debate with such a pledge in 2008 – but the reality is, too many school-leavers have never been near a saucepan or an oven glove.

It’s not just cooking. It’s everything from changing a light-bulb to cleaning a loo.

As a rent-paying adult in a full-time job, I’ll freely admit that I’m still blurry on the nuances of mortgages, tax bands and interest rates. I’ve spent more hours than Jimmy Wales intended on Wikipedia, familiarising myself with everyday concepts like ISAs or credit ratings. Better that than to admit I’m clueless.

It’s time to address just how clueless we are.

We’re taught “No to drink and drugs” or “Don’t have unprotected sex”, but less time is dedicated to life skills like basic finances, reading the electricity meter or following the instruction manual for IKEA flat pack furniture.

This post first appeared on Huffington Post UK. Read the rest here.

Lost without the web?

Is Lostpedia the greatest invention known to man?

If you’re a Lost fan, one who has undergone five series of agony for what one hopes will be the ultimate payoff, you might well agree.

If you’ve never seen the show, which started back last Friday, or stopped watching so early that you think Jack’s biggest problems are polar bears and Sawyer, then you might think: what?

Lostpedia, for the record, is essentially Wikipedia for JJ Abrams disciples. It’s a forum detailing everything – or at least, almost everything – known about the episodes, the characters and the themes.

Like Wikipedia, it’s user generated which means any crackpot with a theory about why the island moves or who exactly the smoke monster is can post an explanation.

Essentially, it’s the height of geek-dom. Not only are Lost fans fervent followers of a wierd sci-fi show, they actually spend other time reading and talking about it. One way ticket to loserville, right?

Except, if you’ve actually seen the show of late, you’ll know that Lostpedia, and all the other recaps and theories espoused on websites around the world, are pretty crucial.

Lost is perhaps the most complicated and implausible TV show around, and certainly the only one I’ve ever felt the need to ‘revise’ before the start of the new series.

It’s torturous, often not very enjoyable and highly addictive, and it needs the companion guide.

Remember when you studied Shakespeare at GCSE. You read the play, but you’d probably also watch the film version, perhaps see it on stage and invariably refer to the York notes study guide. Lost is exactly the same – you can’t just watch it – which is why it couldn’t have survived without the internet.

Fifteen years ago, Lost may not have made it to series six with so many viewers, not to mention such a high profile, because everyone would just have given up. Oceanic 815 would still have crashed, but you’d never have invested in finding out what happened.

Lost: a series for the online era?

Sure, back in the pre-web days we could discuss a dramatic episode or deconstruct a particularly complicated film. But the opportunity to analyse, and analyse some more, and then some more; that’s a function of the endless beast that is the internet.

For a show so complicated – time travel, good versus evil, a wierd hippie commune, not to mention the Jack, Kate and Sawyer love triangle – if you didn’t have something to help you digest it all, you’d have to give up.

Without the internet, Lost fans would need a help-line with desperate fans phoning up in a panic: “why is Charlie back from the dead, who was Cindy again, when did Adam tell Hurley about the guitar case.”

There are 5,980 articles on Lostpedia – it actually went up by one while I clicked on the site – and the content will just keep on growing. The show, to most fans relief, is ending this season, but it’s unlikely to answer all the questions. According to co-creator Carlton Cuse:

“Obviously, not every question’s going to be answered […] some people are going to be upset that those particular questions don’t get resolved. But we felt that if we tried to just answer questions, it would be very pedantic.”

This will lead to deranged, suicidal thoughts by losties everywhere, but also to plethora of online activity. Mark my words, when the final episode wraps, the internet will be swarming with theories, observations and emoting, not to mention they inevitable fan fiction.

So there you have it; Lost, the official TV success story of the web age.

Ironic really, for a show set on a desert island with little technology to speak of.