All Hail the Queens (Beauty Shop, Miss Congeniality 2, Destiny’s Child, The Ashlee Simpson Show)

I’ve got female camaraderie on the brain and so, it seems, does everyone else. In researching the the Mitford sisters (amazing in their own right), I’ve also stumbled upon The Furious Lesbian, the badly titled (and rendered) biography of Mercedes de Acosta, a humorectomized if bold-as-love playwright and dyke at a time when most people didn’t even know the word lesbian, let alone utter it. A pining sadsack overall, de Acosta did know to hold real salons for the ladies, a tradition that should be immediately resuscitated — and not just on L Word nights.

On a more prosaic level, girls are doing something besides preening for the shall-we-say proverbial male gaze over at MTV. In the constant loop running of The Ashlee Simpson Show, Jessica Simpson freaks out not on behalf of her shoes nor her circus dog Daisy but her little miss sis botching up the Orange Bowl. “Oh, gawwwd. Take care of my sister! Please take care of her.” The most selfless and certainly the most authentic moment captured on video of this decade’s worst Daddy’s Little Girl, it renders Barbie nearly human. (Nearly, mind you; there’s a lot of plastic on that carcass).

Then there’s the Destiny’s Child song, “Girl.” The video is sure-fire. Open-eyed and earnest, Beyonce’s a human embodiment of lipgloss: jailbait-style sexy despite that too-slick veneer. She’s one of the few singers working the Hot97 circuit right now who actually sings from her belly rather than through her nose: Her “Work It Out” holds up against the finest her R&B; mothers ever let loose. Plus she still sings with Destiny’s Child even though she’s clearly making enough bucks on her own. The video itself, a Sex and the City homage to their enduring friendship, breaks me up even when I’m rushing in the morning. Decked out to the nines, the three prowl the city and counsel each other on their lousy relationships in that always-affecting minor key they sing in so gustily. Some lyrics:

Take a minute girl, come sit down
And tell us what’s been happening
In your face I can see the pain
Don’t you try to convince us that you’re happy

Girl, you don’t have to be hiding
Don’t you be ashamed to say he hurt you
I’m Your Girl, You’re My Girl, We’re Your Girls
Want You To Know That We Love You.

This time round, it’s the boys who are but mere eye candy, secondary to the primary relationship that’s being serenaded: the girls’ friendship. Um, is this MTV?

Actually, these moments speak to a little women’s-women trend found on mainstream movie screens right now, too. Take the largely unanticipated success of the Queen Latifah vehicle Beauty Shop, all about a you-know-what and starring and produced by Dana Owens herself. Or the anticipated but largely undeserving success of that piece of you-know-what Miss Congeniality 2, starring and produced by the Sandra Bullock, the reigning queen of the normally endearingly bad movie.

Congeniality is by all rights too lousy to waste much time discussing. Suffice it to say FBI Agent Bullock finds herself with a bad-ass partner (Regina King, who almost emerges unscathed from this clunker), and hijinks and shenanigans ensue. Also William Shatner is involved and the climactic scene takes place in a pirate theme park. Ye gods. Note please that pirates and William Shatner rank lower (or is that higher?) than stand-up in the comedy hierarchy of crap.

Beauty Shop is a much more entertaining way to fritter away two hours. Alicia Silverstone sports a wicked bad hillbilly accent and drops it like it’s hot; Alfre Neward drops Maya Angelou lyrics and African fabrics while she fries hair; Kevin Bacon drops an Austrian accent as a stylist adding a whole new family tree to his six degrees of separation (soooo much easier to connect him to Snoop Dog now). Latifah herself is easy-peezy as an Atlanta-based stylist who opens her own shop with a loan teased out of a follicly challenged bank officer’s split ends. She brings along her high-end white clients to her black neighborhood and supports a musically talented daughter’s high-priced education while she rescues her shiftless sister-in-law from a slide into street-walking. Oh, and she conducts as an afterthought a highly unconvincing love affair with jazz pianist Djimon Hounsou. (It’s always highly unconvincing when Latifah kisses boys.)

Weirdly, both movies buckle under a burden rarely found in Hollywood vehicles: overearnestness. True, the writing stinks to the high heavens of the unmistakable fragrance of Scripts By Committee 101. (Motto: Let no plot device remain unturned.) But the real problem stems from how every scene doggedly imparts some kind of lesson a la Davey and Goliath,though they’re hardly lessons little Davey might deliver. More like Gals! Women friendships deserve loyalty! and Hey, sister, men aren’t the be-all-end-all! or, best of all, Mentoring younger girls is fun!

I complain not about the lessons, only that they are so unsubtly delivered. Nor do I complain that the men in these features are mostly auxiliary; it’s absolutely refreshing for women’s friendships, autonomy and (dare I say it) solidarity to live at the center of not one but two films gracing the malls across the US right now. Five minutes of the rarified drek of Sin City, in which testosterone overload (and Tarantino and Rodriguez’ self-indulgence) distorts every character, even the females, reminds us how a few too many good intentions aren’t that bad a thing these days. (Why exactly are cats like Tarantino and Rodriguez counted as edgy when they so gleefully reinforce the status quo?)

In sooth, very few movies or TV shows like Beauty Shop exist. As pat as its storyline is, that this film roates around a widowed black mom supporting her family by launching her own business successfully and treating her employees, neighbors, and (most shockingly) her mother-in-law with love and respect is fairly revolutionary. Yes, it’s the black movie equivalent of vanilla — the film’s biggest dramatic conflict comes in the handy package of a beautician shop inspector — but the point driven home over and over is more piquant: that the true gauge of female success is the degree of integrity she preserves daily. Maybe, if we get adjusted to that idea, it will eventually transcend being such a gimmick that it subsitutes for actual plot. (The few other mainstream movies that convey similar messages — Legally Blonde, the Where’s-Waldo lesbian drama Fried Green Tomatoes — smack of the same saccarine.)

But as long as social (and familial) conditioning still dicates that when the going gets tough, the tough collapse into the nearest sperm donator’s arms like a 19th century maiden with the vapors, and so long as the merging of a financial object and a sexual one still masquerades as valid grounds for marriage, such doggedly earnest movies prove useful anyway. No matter how kind and patient your sweetheart is, boy or girl, there’s no beating the strings-free support of your long-time girlfriends, the ones who’ve witnessed you pick yourself up from a fall enough times to be able to remind you that you can do it again — and to dispense that all-elusive uncomplicated hug. Short of that, if all your girls’ time is now claimed by the likes of little people and husband people, apparently right now there are them screens, silver and small alike.

I clamor to them.

My Inner Norma Rae

For the bulk of my working life, I’ve been a freelancer. Early on, I realized I didn’t dig having the parameters of my life dictated by fluorescent lights, cubicle walls, petty middlemen, and rush-hour traffic, and figured there had to be a better way to make a buck. I’d paid my way through college by working as an artist’s model and as a waitress, and swore that I’d only work jobs that in some way made use of my degree once I received it. I’ve always kept to that, and as a result have been a freelance editor to pay my bread and butter ever since I quit working at the garment workers’ union — which, as it turned out, treated its employees roughly as badly as the errant shops that we were always laboring to organize.

But ain’t that always the way?

Truth be told, I don’t really dig editorial work that much anymore, at least the kind I’m doing still. For in order to remain free-lance, I’ve persistently avoided any upward mobility. Eventually, if you’re good enough at your job, you get offered a higher, steadier position. I’ve never taken one simply because the claustrophobia of someone else dictating the tenor of five days of every week far outweighs the allure of a regular paycheck. Not to mention that managing editor gigs and the like always entail a level of bureaucracy to which I’m hardly suited.

The result, of course, is that I still do a hell of a lot of copy editing to pay my bills. And the more I work as an actual writer, the more this editing feels like a distraction that I resent, one too close to my actual work to not drain it in some way. I slog on, because after a decade, it’s the only way I know to make a quick buck. Back in the day, I mostly separated church and state by editing architectural publications, and I still don’t ever edit at publications for which I wish to write seriously. I’m convinced no one trusts the creativity of someone who’s carefully excised their extra commas. Now I tend to work on publications in the entertainment industry that keep me informed about the shite that I write about and occasionally provide useful contacts.

For the last few years, I’ve edited in various capacities a television magazine owned by a well-endowed if nefarious company that can certainly foot my bills. The work is mostly easy and typically relevant to my own field, and if the prose is too slick and the office politics totally dysfunctional, I can keep mum since I know I’m only there a few weeks at a time. More importantly, it’s financed my life as it’s paid a very handsome rate.

So what do you do when it suddenly doesn’t?

For the last few months, I’ve not been paid by those guys. I know what happened: My overworked boss forgot to submit the invoices for my compensation. And once he realized it, he was loath to shuttle my paperwork through because he was loath to highlight how irresponsible his actions were, either to me or to his supervisor in turn. The result of that small act of selfishness has been that I’ve been unable to pay my rent let alone go out for dinner. Not getting paid for two months of work has meant that I’ve had to clear through my scanty savings, borrow money, impair business relationships based on the good faith that I pay my own bills on time, worry my parents who are old enough so they deserve to not worry about their oldest daughter. My life has been on hold.

As a freelancer, you always do have to be on your best behavior. If you prove too much trouble, you can simply not be rehired come next month. It’s certainly not in your best interest to roll heads if you want to keep a gig, and until I wasn’t get paid for my work, I had no intention of letting go of this cushy situation. I’ve been practically the only freelance writer I know who carries absolutely no debt. So in my repeated inquiries, I tried my best to be super polite, all while my savings account has steadily dwindled.

Being a woman who already can be perceived (and lo! I hate this expression) as a ball breaker simply by the virtue of taking up a fair amount of space is also a factor. The only way to compensate for being clear and outspoken when you’re working under a male boss is to be not only funny but deferential. In other words, I sweeten my shit up at work.

But when, by Friday, an empty mailbox yawned at me once again, it was clear to me that I’d essentially been working my money job for no money like a stone-cold sucker. By then, I couldn’t breathe for lack of finances. If it endures long enough, the shitty feeling of being super broke when you owe and are owed nags at the back of your head even during sex. It was time to step up the tone and do whatever it took to get paid.

During the process of then going over his head, sweet-talking the secretaries at corporate and leaving frank messages on his superior’s voicemail, I realized how little my boss had actually done to take care of the problem. Eventually he faxed in my invoice, but he only acknowledged to me that he hadn’t done so before when he knew I already knew. God forbid he of his own volition request that accounting expedite the month period it typically takes to process paperwork. Why? Because it didn’t really matter to him that his small carelessness had derailed my whole life unless I made it inconvenient for him.

It came down to me saying I wouldn’t turn in any of the stories that I’d assigned on the magazine’s behalf, that I wouldn’t let any freelancer who I’d trained for them work there again, to writing a shaming letter that would have made George Bush admit he was wrong before they they agreed to fedex my check (and you know corporations can always expedite a check when need be). It came down to me having to reach far back in my bag of tricks and access the shite I learned from the garment workers to get my dollars. It came down to me standing on a table, essentially, with a big sign that read “UNION.”

Oy.

As freelancers, we writers and editors work our asses off for jobs that never grant us insurance, let alone bonuses or vacations. The least these people can do is pay us without making us jump through hurdles. Yet how many of us get paid as regularly or as well as we should? And how carefully do we always broach that subject, fearful as we are of biting (read: irritating) the hand that ostensibly feeds us? Even now, after being treated like a subhuman for months, I’m wary of posting these comments.

I keep thinking on it. I do these stupid small-time jobs so I can finance the rest of my endeavors. If they end up instead depleting me to the point that I can’t get anything else done — and note how infrequently I’ve updated this blog in the last few weeks — what’s the point?

The point is that freelancing as both an editor and a writer has still meant that I could take off on an ill-advised trip when I wanted to, that I could still work out in the middle of the day or have a long lunch with a dear old friend, that I could sometimes stay up till 4 am or get up at 4 am to write. It meant that I didn’t have to answer ultimately to anyone but myself. It meant that I could write about what I wish. But what if, as right now, I can’t sleep let alone write because I’m so worried about how I’m going to pay my electric bill in the next few months? What if I now feel like I’m dancing awkwardly between self-respect and solvency?

We seem to think these days that unions are deeply outdated. We white-collar kids don’t even know our labor rights, let alone insist they be enforced. Most everybody gets screwed in some way by the new companies that look impressive as hell on our resumes. I’ve written and edited for I don’t know how many hipper-than-thou pubs over the last few years that employ college grads for diddly, make us work weekends and nights without any benefits, let alone overtime, pay us when it suits them, drop deadlines like bombs, and remind us how disposable we are when we utter the slightest peep. Email only worsens things, as there’s no excuse in employers’ eyes to not constantly be on call. Most companies, truth be told, should be called LaborViolations.com rather than whatever oblique wordplay they use as their monikers. And all we do is complain over overpriced cocktails without much recourse.

There’s not much room for, you should forgive the term, true bohemia in our current climate even though it’s necessary to create truly original art. I never want to make a ton of cash; I don’t give a fuck about working for all the glossy publications that treat copy like mere captions for celebrity pics. I simply want to lead a life of financial integrity, in which I finance myself, the occasional trip, the occasional emergency, and the occasional loved one who needs my support through work I believe in.

I know how to live on not so much cash; have been practicing that skill forever so that I could pursue a life on my own terms rather than on someone else’s. For I truly believe that only when you lead a life that entails acceptable rather than unacceptable compromise can you excavate your authentic self well enough to write from it.

Sure enough everything happens for a reason, and this experience has helped me affirm that organizer within myself again. Helped me experience anger as a motivating force rather than merely as a sick drain. But I’m devastated that things are still so rough, are only getting rougher in our political climate in which fascism is so glibly confused for patriotism, in which the rights of middle and lower class Americans grow increasingly less germane to the leaders who purport to represent us. It’s time to kick more ass. For all of us to try to use our art and commerce to wake each other up rather than inure us further.

What’s scary, of course, is I don’t know if I can do any more work in good faith for an employer who has shown such disregard for the work I do. I also, simply put, don’t know how else I will live. How I will feed the cats. What’s exciting is now I get to find out. It’s time for me personally to shed my old-school lefty feelings of being repulsed by money, as a friend recently observed, and become truly self-employed. Money can finance wonderful endeavors in addition to problematic ones.

As they say in my country, what the fuck?

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy