Kimmy Schmitt, Trauma, and Brightly Colored Cardigans

Content warnings: sexual assault, abduction, mental health

The first time I watched “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt,” I didn’t love it. I was studying abroad in Turkey at the time and spending a lot of time alone—and, though I didn’t know it, I was still processing a lot of my own anxiety and trauma, which manifested mostly in wearing dark colors and writing slam poetry.

So I didn’t find Kimmy particularly relatable.

But then season two came out, and I went to a lot of therapy (those two things were simultaneous but unrelated), and finally I get it. Revisiting the show through the Mental Dam has been a delight.

The premise, for those of you who have not born witness to Tina Fey’s legendary career, is that the show follows Kimmy Schmitt’s move to New York after being liberated from an underground bunker where she was held hostage for twelve years. She quickly accumulates a sort-of-community of funny and complicated friends, and as in all of Fey’s work, quirky adventures ensue.

Certainly, Kimmy is a female character written by a female person. That said, she’s not exactly an everywoman. Kimmy is unrelentingly positive, trustingly clueless, and wears her heart on her sleeve. I know few people who see themselves in her, and that’s probably for the best, since she’s pretty annoying. The brilliance of this character comes not in how she deals with every day, but in how she deals with trauma.

The bunker itself is presented in a pretty light, comedic way—every flashback scene that takes place there has at least one big punchline, and references to it are mostly jokes. Nevertheless, there are definitely allusions to how dark and terrifying that period of Kimmy’s life likely was, including forced labor, torture, and possibly sexual assault.

What this show does best is present trauma as part of a survivor’s life. Some days Kimmy seems fixated on the bunker, some days she avoids the topic, some days it just doesn’t come up. She knows who she can talk to for support and who she can’t. She has certain strengths and coping strategies—as well as fears and triggers—that originate from her experience and change the way she interacts with the world. Fey’s (and Robert Carlock’s) absurdist humor flows from everyone who enters Kimmy’s world, but paints this part of Kimmy herself as deeply real and powerful.

And as Kimmy herself says: “I survived. Because that’s what women do. We eat a bag of dirt, pass it in a kiddie pool, and move on.” (Season 1, Ep. 8)


Lenu and Lina- A Real Look at Friendship

by Crysta Jarczynski

It took me about a year and a half but I finally finished The Neapolitan Novels  by Elena Ferrante. They are four novels that follow the protagonist Elena (Lenu) Greco through her life, starting in a poor neighborhood in Naples, and how it is influenced by her best friend, Raffaela (Lina) Cerullo. The novels include such a large cast of characters that Ferrante lists everyone and their relations at the beginning of each novel- in case you lose track.

Elena and Lina are both very intelligent girls and they are drawn together by this shared trait. While Elena continues her education through high school and college and becomes a well-known author, Lina’s parents do not allow her to continue past grade school and she stays in the neighborhood for her whole life. Both women have vastly different experiences of success, romance, motherhood, and coping with living a live surrounded by violence. Their friendship is far from perfect; like many lifelong friendships they grow apart and back together multiple times throughout the novels. Their relationship is influenced by jealousy from both parties- Elena is jealous of a natural intelligence and control over others that Lina seems to possess while Lina is jealous of Elena’s upward mobility and the distance she’s created between herself and the neighborhood. They both see the other as more powerful. The story is told only from Elena’s perspective, so as readers we never really get to know for sure what is going on in Lina’s mind, except what she shares with Elena and sometimes that’s very limited. But Elena is a champion speculator.

I loved these books because I think they provide a very real representation of friendship- nothing is romanticized. It’s complicated and messy. I’ve found in my life that friendships can often be more difficult to regulate than even romantic relationships. With a partner, there’s at least an expectation for a certain amount of transparency and a degree of closeness. Friendships can range from acquaintances to sibling-like relationships. While we look for a partner and work with that person to make sure we’re on the same page and have the same goals, we expect friendships to develop organically. There are potentially a lot more unspoken hopes with a friendship. And while romantic relationships that are not working generally have a clear end, friendships that are dysfunctional can sometimes drift apart with unresolved issues, or stay close which is sometimes worse.  All in all it’s socially acceptable to talk about the relationship with a partner; it’s often socially awkward to talk about the relationship with a friend.

I don’t think it has to be this way, and personally, I’ve explored defining the relationship with some of my close friends- asking what kind of friendship they were hoping for and seeing if it lined up with what I wanted. It was awkward, but the couple of times I’ve tried have yielded two close friendships.

Lina and Elena don’t talk about their relationship, even though the reader gets to hear many of Elena’s theories about why their friendship is the way it is. We get to be with Elena and sympathize with her, celebrate her successes and feel her loneliness. They’re beautiful books about complicated women. I loved them and have to read them again.




Those Figures Are Really Hidden All Right*

I really didn’t think Hidden Figures (2016) was going to qualify for Mental Dam–which pissed me off because it’s supposed to be so good and so powerful. But at the last minute I realized that the screenplay was co-written, and that it was all adapted from a book written by a woman. So. Written by a woman/gender non-conforming person? Check. Starring a woman/gender non-conforming person? Triple check. Proceed.

I saw the movie tonight, at the end of a stressful week, with four other women from my mentoring organization, at the AMC Loews on the Boston Common (this is NOT a plug for them, by the way. Who the hell charges $14 for a movie ticket? In my day we payed a goddamn nickel for the ticket AND a little plastic baggie of loose cigarettes.) The movie was a community experience from the outset. I was so engaged, as was everyone in the audience–we all gasped and laughed and applauded together throughout, which was such fun.

hidden figures.jpg

Without spoiling too much–which is going to be the greatest challenge of my young life–I have to tell you that this was one of the greatest movies I have seen in a long-ass time. I’m not really a crier generally, but I sobbed straight through the whole thing. It wasn’t that it was sad, and in fact it was overwhelmingly an uplifting movie. But these women went through so damn much and worked so damn hard.

a) Racism. Seriously, can that guy from the Big Bang Theory pull the stick out of his butt for one second and look Taraji P. Henson in the eye? Most of the racism wasn’t a surprise, though it still felt so shitty. But honestly I think the worst was all these white folks (looking at you, Kevin Costner) who think they’re so wonderful for treating these three women like human beings. Yeah, of course you should shake their hands and be grateful for their math and say things like “we all piss the same color”, but that passive positivity doesn’t make you a hero. This isn’t about you.

b) Sexism. Great so when people weren’t looking at them sideways for being Black, it was for being female? And they referred to them as “girls”? Again, no surprise, and obviously very on-theme for 1961, but come ON.

c) When was the last time you saw three Black women in starring roles portrayed as confident, complex, and awesome at math/science? It’s been a while. Which I think was part of what overwhelmed me so much about this movie–seeing these women inhabit a world of their choosing even when things weren’t perfect, at NASA and at home, was such a gift. Their friendships, their families, and their ambitions were never at odds. They were never jealous or resentful of one another. They never asked whether or not they could have it all. They just went out and got it.

d) Janelle Monae is the hero that America needs, though certainly not the one it deserves. The woman is  i c o n i c.


*I actually don’t get that play on words, really. Like I get that the women are important figures hidden in history, but I think it’s also a math joke? Which is not my thing. Yikes.


Baby Come Back


I have been waiting patiently for  Playing House to come back. Its long hiatus makes me worried that even though I heard ages ago that it was renewed for a third season, it has in fact been cancelled. Well rejoice! I just read an article about an interview with Keegan-Michael Key that took place on the set of the filming of the third season of Playing House. EEEEEEE!!!!

If you’ve never seen it, Playing House is a lovely sitcom created by real life best friends and comedic partners, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. The series opens with Emma (St. Clair) returning home for her best friend Maggie’s (Parham) baby shower. While she is there, Maggie discovers that her husband Bruce has been having an online affair and they decide to get a divorce. Emma quits her high power job in China to move in and help Maggie raise her baby. It’s a beautiful, hilarious, wonderful show, with a positive view of female friendship- something that is hard to find in a lot of other TV shows and movies.

And now it’s coming back! Binge watch the first two seasons in preparation. And if you can’t get enough of St. Clair and Parham, check out their podcast Womp It Up!a spin-off of the Earwolf podcast Comedy Bang Bang. They are such lovable weirdos.


We Had a Lot of Fun, We Had a Lot of Money

I’m not a romantic, but Obvious Child (2014) is the kind of rom com that makes me wish I was. Some poop humor, some wine, and an abortion on Valentine’s Day? I think I’m going to swoon.

Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre (and based on her earlier short film of the same name), Obvious Child is a story about abortion that is not ~about abortion~. Which I love. Abortion access is important for people whose pregnancies are results of rape or incest, for people who don’t have the means to raise a safe or healthy child, and for people who are pregnant and just don’t want a baby right now. It’s not a big deal. And this movie doesn’t make it one.

Jenny Slate’s character (yeah, this movie has Jenny Slate in it. Are you sold yet?) gets pregnant after getting dumped and losing her job and really, more than anything, this is just a movie about a really tough time in a person’s life and how she gets through it with family and friends and humor and, again, wine. Abortion or not, she is all of us in orange crocs.

I’m not here to tell anyone what to think about abortion. It’s a personal choice–one that some take very seriously, and some don’t. But I am here to say that everyone deserves to make that choice for themselves. And I am here to say that that choice defines you no more or less than every other little detail that adds up to your life; your poop jokes or your failures or your favorite pasta sauce. Anyway. It’s a good movie.


Winter’s Bone

Oh boy. Ree Dolly. This weekend I watched Winter’s Bone starring Jennifer Lawrence as a 17 year old living in Missouri and keeping her family afloat. She is playing caretaker to her little sister and brother (6 and 12 respectively) and her mother who is suffering from debilitating mental illness. Things are going just north of awful for her, when she finds out that her dad, Jessup, is out of jail and has a court date coming up and if he doesn’t show up, they’re going to lose the house. Ree goes on a hero’s journey to find her father and keep her family alive.

Ree makes her way through her father’s connections. They are all related by blood and by business and that business is methamphetamine production. As Ree walks from house to house, relation to relation, I noticed that at each turn she was met by a woman. The women in this film- from her best friend Gail, to Jessup’s ex-lover, to her distant possibly great aunt (?) – act as gatekeepers for the unpredictable, violent, and temperamental men in their lives. They are constantly trying to intercept Ree and make her requests more palatable to their male counterparts.  I was reminded of an article I recently read about how women are expected to manage not only their emotions but the emotions of the men in their lives as well. It’s a movie filled with women enduring the abuse and anger of their men and using the little power they have to keep Ree away or in line or beaten down under the guise of doing it for her own good.

In the end, Ree’s fearlessness yields results.  She starts to figure out that Jessup was murdered for snitching, but she earns the respect of his murderers by not snitching.  The women reward her by taking her to cut off her own dead father’s hands as proof that he’s dead and she is allowed to keep the house. Actually I don’t even think it was necessarily fearlessness. It was just survival. In order to survive she had to keep moving and pushing. She had nothing to lose.



“May Have Become a Lesbian” Is Super Weird Phrasing

Me: Oh my god. Are Thelma and Louise gay? They’re totally gay. Or, like, queer, because sexuality is a spectrum and attraction is complicated and Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt but I’m pretty sure they’re in love.

Also me: God, Helen, why can’t you just let it be a story about female friendship and powerful women? Every time there are close female friends in movies or TV everyone immediately assumes that they’re gay and that’s fucked up because it assumes that women can’t have close platonic friendships and also fetishizes queer women and you shouldn’t make assumptions or label anyone because what does it matter?

First me: Um it MATTERS because representation is important and having women who don’t conform to heteronormative standards of attraction in a movie in 1991 is a huge step towards breaking down binary conceptions of sexuality.

Other me: I just think it’s not fair to assign sexuality labels to people who haven’t identified publicly or make assumptions, and characters kind of don’t count but it’s still good practice to just be open-minded and accept without judgement any way that a person chooses to be or present or love.

Steve Harvey: Let’s see what the audience had to say about it.


First me again, smugly: And you can’t argue with Susan Sarandon. It’s just not done.

Murder As a Literary Theme

My brain is all over the place today because this is the first time I’ve had full-caffeine coffee in three weeks so please bear with me as this post is about to be an Honest-To-God Disaster.


Two media things I have been absolutely tearing my way through:

1. My Favorite Murder with Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Okay so let me preface all this by saying that Crysta and I have gone back and forth about whether or not true crime podcasts count for this project. Lots of them (Criminal, MFM, In the Dark, etc.) are created and hosted by inspiring, badass women, but most of them feature men because most murderers are men because ~toxic masculinity~ and ~society~ and stuff. We eventually decided that women who are telling these stories are adding their perspective to the genre, and because they’re true stories it’s not fair to completely exclude true crime from this project, but there are definitely arguments both ways and we’d love to hear input.

Anyway. MFM. Unbelievable. Terrifying. Hilarious. I’ve always been a fan of true crime–the Boston Strangler killed someone two apartments above mine, which is quite literally my favorite fun fact of all time.

Things the show does not do well: Not much. They’re a little flip at times, particularly around mental health and sexual assault (which come up a LOT in MFM, so if that’s triggering for you please avoid this show). That said, they don’t treat anyone with kid gloves, so I wouldn’t really expect them to make an exception.

Things the show does well: Georgia and Karen are awesome and definitely hashtag friendship goals (and also hashtag anxiety goals? Idk, I relate to them a lot). They do a great job of talking about victims and survivors in an awestruck and respectful way, and when they talk about perpetrators they are compassionate but never forgiving, which I really love and respect. Overall, they tell stories in an evenhanded and non-exploitative way–as one survivor said when she wrote in to them, they tell stories of death and survival in a way that doesn’t make you fearful, but makes you appreciate life. There is something powerful and feminist in their narratives. I love this show.

2. The CW’s Jane the Virgin (some spoilers ahead, but honestly you won’t understand them so you should just read it anyway)

Okay so full disclosure I’ve already watched this all the way through (new episode January 23 I’m so excited I’m nearly in tears), but I restarted it with my dad–I was honestly so shocked and grateful that he sat through two episodes with me (little does he know that this afternoon I’m gonna make him sit through two more). The first time I watched it, the whole series took me two weeks. TWO WEEKS. And I wasn’t on vacation or anything, I was still living my life full-time. I am a menace to society.

Things the show does NOT do well: Everyone in this show looks like they stepped out of a fucking Banana Republic catalog. I’m not kidding you. Which is fine–it is a telenovela on a major network and I like Banana Republic–but I would love to see a few more characters who live outside of traditional gender presentation. I don’t think it’s that much to ask to have a non-binary or gender-non-conforming person. JUST ONE. Or just like someone with a facial piercing or a dude with long hair or a woman who wears pants. Maybe Mateo will grow up to use “they/them” pronouns. Probably not, but a girl can dream.

Things the show does well: Everything else. Positive and diverse representations of Latinx people? YES. Normalization of lesbians? YES. Strong female lead? YES. Murder? YES. This show is so fucking funny and overdramatic (never in my life did I think I would be so excited about a surprise identical twin or drug lord plastic surgery), but the best part is that it makes you rethink normal. In the first episode, Rafael tells Luisa to “go home to your wife”–and I got nervous, because I immediately assumed that they were going to make her sexuality some big thing. But they didn’t. They made her being in love with a drug lord the big plot point. And then I felt silly for having even been worried.

The other thing I love about this show is the reversal of traditional masculinity. Rogelio is technically the patriarch, but he’s such a silly little narcissist–from day one Alba is clearly the head of the family. Rafael and Michael are totally at Jane’s beck and call, and she perpetually puts herself, her family, and Mateo first. The men in JTV ultimately orbit around a series of powerful Latina characters who, in every plot line except the accidental insemination, dictate their own destiny. It’s dope and everyone should watch this show, I’m not kidding.


Money Problems

I have a lot of anxiety when it comes to money. It’s not like there’s a shortage in my life- I’ve always been good enough at keeping enough to feed and clothe and house and entertain myself enough. There’s enough.

The problem is that generally 99% of the time I feel like there isn’t enough. When I picture myself failing at life (like once a day…that’s normal right?) I see an old me with no family or friends living in ramshackle hell hole with mice and empty ramen containers everywhere. But that’s just not accurate- I’ve always been able to find work, I’m pretty okay at making friends, and I DON’T EVEN EAT THE RAMEN THAT COMES IN STYROFOAM CONTAINERS! I get the kind in the bag.

Anyway, that’s a money script that my brain likes to read through. I know this now because of an amazing podcast I just started listening to. It’s call Bad With Money With Gaby Dunn and if you or anyone you know feels weird of uncomfortable about money, you should listen to it. Each week Gaby explores different aspects of her relationship with money. The first week, Gaby talks with her parents about their relationship with money and explores how their attitudes have informed her attitudes. The second week she talks with a financial psychologist* who helps her figure out what kinds of money scripts she’s reading off of in given situations.

I’m only 4 episodes in and every single one gives me something to think about. I sometimes literally hold my breath while selecting “Make A Payment” on my credit card page or logging in to my student loan website. Listening to Gaby walk through her anxiety about money helps me feel like I can breath normally and get to a point where money can just be a part of life as opposed to a scary “don’t look to long” mess.

I’m currently listening to “Tokens for your Tokens” where Gaby is talking with Roxane Gay– author of Bad Feminist– about her relationship with money and how it’s changed throughout her creative career. They discuss how society expects folks from marginalized groups to work for little or nothing aside from exposure and how that’s a crock of shit. Based on future episode descriptions, Gaby will be exploring lots of different angles including economics in relation to ability, Hollywood and paying women (super relevant to this blog!), money and relationships, and job hunting.

Bad with Money with Gaby Dunn is nonstop gems. Have your pens and notebooks ready.

*My partner teases me that every time I hear about a different profession on TV or podcasts or wherever, I immediately wish that was my career. Well…I WANT TO BE A FINANCIAL PSYCHOLOGIST SO BAD! It sounds like a very cool career.