A big revelation hit the wire yesterday. Belle de Jour -- a writer named after the film by Luis Buñuel -- came out of the literary closet. She's the British woman who anonymously blogged about her time as a London call girl, wrote books about her experiences, and saw them morphed into television form with the Billie Piper series Secret Diary of a Call Girl.
Her name is Dr. Brooke Magnanti, and as the Times describes: "Her specialist areas are developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and is now working at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health. She is part of a team researching the effects of exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos on foetuses and infants." Not quite what you were expecting, eh? Over the years, many have sworn that she couldn't be real. She must be a figment of some man's imagination, writing to make sex work look glamorous and ease the mind of lonely types who buy their sexual gratification. But here she is, 100% woman, 100% real, adept not only at the written word, but also medical pursuits.
On the one hand, I worry that this will inspire Hollywood towards a new torrent of prostitution-laced fare, adding to a business that's already over-saturated as if every Jane, Sue, and Mary have a side gig giving sex for cash. The biz already has more than enough of it, and they really don't need extra encouragement. On the other hand, I find myself enamored with her guts and how perfectly she challenges assumptions on sexuality, intelligence, and artistic flair. Naturally, this made me think about the women of film who defy convention.
Hollywood is a strange little system. For the most part, the biz likes the femmes tidy and neat and sometimes sinful -- beautiful and bubbling faces who can bring on the romantic laughs and rip out the gut-wrenching tears. Strength in talent is admired, but Ms. Actress should be able to bite her tongue, weather torrents of physical criticism, and go with the mainstream flow.
Yet this is the same business that considers Katharine Hepburn to be the greatest female star of all time. Yes, she earned four Oscar wins our of twelve nominations, one win out of five Emmy nominations, and eight Golden Globe nominations, but she was also a woman who defied actress expectations. She was a notorious nonconformist, a female rebel in Hollywood, and even earned the nickname "Katharine of Arrogance." She was the outspoken pantsuit-clad woman who bit her thumb at dresses and skirts, and was free of makeup and traditional floofy femininity. Her entire image rested on defying convention, and she was, and is, loved -- not by some small liberal Hollywood clique, but the world at large.
The powers that be might not want to deal with such a thorn, but they can't deny the power that convention-defying women bring to the craft -- a welcome respite in a sea of romcoms and eye-gougingly terrible female characterizations.
While not solidly in Hollywood, I'd be remiss not to mention Oprah Winfrey. Just a year after she started The Oprah Winfrey Show, she played Sofia in The Color Purple and earned herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But of course, her fame is mainly relegated to the talk show empire she built for herself. I've got my problems with her work -- most especially guests like the Berman sisters and their pill-pushing BS about the female orgasm -- but you've got to give her props -- not only for transcending any antiquated notions about race, but also getting a lot of anti-word people reading classic literature. That little sticker might annoy literary fiends, but it's opened up a world new-fangled world of reading to a set that probably wouldn't bust beyond fluff and reality TV.
But I don't want to seem like I'm suggesting that women must be larger than life to defy convention. Each slice is significant, and a group of smaller accomplishments are just as important as a large, well-known singular chunk. Otherwise, they're just some sort of shocking exception to the rule.
Sarah Polley defied all Disney child star conventions when she battled the Mouse House over the right to wear a peace sign to protest the Gulf War at the age of 12. Gurinder Chadha found international fame bringing race issues to the forefront with her smash hit Bend it Like Beckham, while also continuing to tackle the theme in smaller scale fare. Michelle Yeoh moved from prima ballerina and beauty queen to kickass, international female action star who does her own stunts. Samantha Morton has made a name for herself as both super-talented and fearless. Margaret Cho took all of the ridiculous Hollywood pressures heaped on her in the beginning and made a career chastising them and standing up for diversity. Kathryn Bigelow didn't sell out to fluff fare to gain fame. She continued to do what she loved, no matter how shocking it still seems to many. (Woman + Action + Horror? No way!)
Let's face it -- Hollywood would be boring without these women. Now if only we could get the biz to recognize it and find joy in it, rather sticking with postmodern pastiche where cinema appropriates coolness and shuffles out blandness, I'd be happy.
In an effort to give love to all those wonderfully unique women, who are your favorite convention-busting Hollywood women?