When her daughter was five, Carina Chocano put Sleeping Beauty on the shelf and cracked open a new bedtime story: Alice in Wonderland. Chocano wanted to see how her daughter would receive the classic–one that she, herself, had not been drawn to as young girl. But the experiment didn’t last long: within minutes, her daughter insisted they return to Sleeping Beauty.

In her brilliant and insightful collection You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages, Chocano uses moments like these to illustrate the messages girls (and women) absorb about what it means to be a girl/woman/wife/mother. Chocano argues that Alice, as a curious, stubborn, and emotional girl presents a more nuanced and multi-dimensional option for how a woman should act. “Popular culture labors to reduce us to ideas every day,” Chocano writes. “As girls we grow up in a kind of inverted media Wonderland that works diligently to erase and replace us with uncanny fantasy versions of ourselves.”

Chocano, a film and TV critic at the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, and Salon, explores these “fantasy versions” in her collection, offering a critical––and personal––take on everything from reality TV to Pretty Woman to Knocked Up.

You Play the Girl stands apart from others in the genre––like Alana Massey’s All the Lives I Want or Anne Helen Petersen’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud––by dissecting pop culture through the lens of a mother watching her young girl try to make sense of the world. The result is a heartfelt look at the complicated messages women receive, and argues that gut feelings about these messages should be carefully examined. Chocano persuades the reader that the media we absorb around us does matter, and shapes how we feel about ourselves. And she deftly shows how books, TV, and film that have been labeled “empowering” for women––like Eat, Pray, Love––often have hidden agendas.

Here is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.


What did Playboy teach you about what it means to be a girl? What it means to be sexy?
It’s such a complex thing. I have very fond memories of my grandfather. He was very OCD and collected the issues annually and had them bound. It was like part of the furniture, proudly on display.

I had mixed feelings because I associated those Playboys with my grandfather. It felt fun and transgressive and all that, but I also remember feeling this horror, this dread, this uncanny feeling of, “Oh God, is that what I am gonna be?” What I’m expected to be? If I’m not that, is it worse?

I had feelings of dread: What happens to you when you grow up? Do you stop being a subject and start being valued as an object? That was the feeling that those pictures gave me. Not just those pictures, but advertising, what was in the culture. When I was sneaking looks at my grandfather’s Playboys, it was 1975 or thereabouts. I just assumed this is the way the world is–this is the way things are.

It wasn’t until I started researching Playboy that I saw how it formed itself in a kind of opposition to what was happening at the time. It hadn’t occurred to me how constructed the idea of masculinity was in Playboy, for instance. I’d only thought about the idea of femininity. It hadn’t occurred to be to think: this is also constructing an identity very much rooted in being able to objectify the opposite sex. It was like twin forces coming up against each other. Almost an ideological tug of war for the “official” version of what reality is really like.

You write about the idea of the invisible man. Can you talk about that?
The idea behind the pictorials was a stark example of male gaze. Anyone looking at it is put in the subject position–so there were no actual men in the picture, but there were little clues that men were around. Like a pipe in the picture.

It’s a sort of a presence that hovered over everything, that permeated it without being visible.

You write that the women in Playboy don’t have a context. That they’re objects. Is there a way to present these women as more realistic sexual beings, with context or experience and still have the same effect?
I’m not sure. The pictures I’m thinking about are from such a long time ago, and I can’t really speak to how it compares now, but I think that’s a really good question. There’s something about the way they were presented at the time that felt very much like, “Here’s this animal in its natural habitat,” you know? A diorama quality. It wasn’t, “Here’s a naked girl.” It was, “Here’s a naked girl to be looked at.”

But there are different ways to present it. It’s always about the point of view. That’s what the book is really about. The point of view of the story is really what kind of gets across and what shapes reality for us.

When the point of view is objectifying, then the pictures are objectifying. And when it’s not, they’re not. So I do think that there are ways to do it, but this is an age-old thing. John Berger even talked about it. The idea that the female form is artistic goes way back, but it’s also just a point of view thing.

How has technology–from looking at photos in magazines to streaming it online–changed what and how people are consuming these images?
A new generation is told, or believes, it’s different now. It’s better now. There’s been progress. I heard that in my generation. When I was right out of college, I felt like it was all done, it was fake, it was all behind us. I did not think that I was going into a sexist workplace. I don’t even feel like you were allowed to acknowledge that.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there is this sort of circular pattern. Young women at the beginning of their career feel the same [as men]. Then, as you get older, the divide starts to become clearer. That’s also when you start to disappear from the culture–you aren’t as listened to as much. It just kind of repeats and repeats.

Obviously, Playboy was so completely innocuous and tame, nothing compared to what a kid can now find on the internet. I have a little kid and I’m terrified that I’m not doing enough, that she could stumble across something that would be really terrible for her to see.

There’s been such a massive proliferation of porn, and it’s different from what it was 30 years ago, 40 years ago. There have been lots of studies on how it conditions people to see sex, even how it affects relationships and expectations. That it has an effect is undeniable.

You argue that the requirements for how women should look have actually become more rigid over the last thirty years. Why is that?
People really do model themselves after what they see. In the nineties, I remember being surprised when people started getting regular manicures and pedicures. That just seemed really regressive to me. I had never seen anybody do that.

Now, you have to spend all this time and money on that constantly. You have to. It just got more and more intense. Waxing and all this stuff became sort of mandatory in ways that I think would have been impossible to imagine 30, 40 years ago.

The idea that you have to live up to this … social media has made it so stark. The amount of makeup younger people wear. I always find it surprising. It’s all for show. We not only consume all this media, but we make all this media. We’re caught in this loop of highly-stylized femininity.

As a woman, it can be difficult to criticize something like nude centerfolds or porn without being criticized as prudish or afraid of sex. But I also remember feeling uncomfortable seeing these images when I was younger, and unsure why.
It’s very hard to explain. I struggled to get at it, and it took a lot of research into what was going on that created these forces. But it’s a problem when you’re saying what’s real to you, and there’s an automatic reaction, calling anyone who tries to talk about this stuff a prude, or is told they’re slut-shaming.

The problem is that there’s a big conflation between women being allowed to be sexual and being seen as sexual objects. Between expressing their sexuality and being sexualized–ideally, for men. But where money is in the equation you’re not talking about sex anymore–you’re talking about transactions.

People got criticized for saying things about Melania Trump. That they’re slut-shaming. But the criticism has much more to do with money than it does with sex.

On the subject of money–you write about the transactional underpinnings in Pretty Woman. Yet some women still celebrate her happy ending as a victory–like, the relationship freed her somehow.
Yeah, it’s really a terrible story. Pretty Woman is a story of a prostitute who’s walking the streets of Hollywood and gets picked up by this corporate raider. The original script was very dark. It was about a guy who picks this woman up and then she lives this life for a week. Then he basically drops her back on the street. For whatever reason, the studio decided to make it into a fairy tale. I think that the impulse to turn the story of a prostitute and a millionaire into a fairy tale is really interesting, really telling and says a lot about the moment that it ushered in into the culture.

The power inequity in it is just enormous. He was like 20 years older, very rich, very powerful. She was seriously disenfranchised. What really puzzled me was: Why is this character a prostitute? Not just an escort, but a girl on the street who has nothing and is exposed to all this danger. Then they basically took all of that away. Took her out of the context and acted like she’s just this happy-go-lucky, well-adjusted person, who can save this guy in return.

The impulse to sanitize it, to plainly state that, was really incredible.

You include your nine-year-old’s perspective in your essays. What are the things that she has learned about “playing” the woman?
Kids are interesting in that way–you start to see the world a little bit fresh through their eyes. I did learn from watching her and seeing how she was reacting. The kinds of questions she had.

We would drive past a billboard where a woman was straddling a vodka bottle, naked, and she’d be like, “What is that lady doing?” And then I’d think, “Right–what is that lady doing?” It opened up questions for me.

If I was upset by things like that before, I tended to think, “It’s my problem. There’s something wrong with me if I’m alienated by it.” Once it’s your daughter, you’re more empowered to feel like this isn’t okay. I don’t want to watch this kid lose her confidence. She was an incredibly confident and outgoing two, three, four-year old and it’s really scary to think that the world is going to teach her to take a step back–to think of herself as less capable, less important, or less central.

At this age, she is pretty immune to it. A few weeks ago, we went shoe shopping and she mentioned to the owner of the store, who was a guy, that it was her dad’s birthday. He said, “Where’s your dad?” and she said, “At work.” He said, “Oh–he’s at work so you guys can be out buying shoes.” I was like, what? I was like, “I’m buying these shoes.” It was really shocking to me–and she was just sitting there like looking confused. Like, “What is this connection you’re telling me to make?”

She’s old enough and smart enough to pick up things and ask questions and you sometimes do see that little bit of confusion in a contradiction. But we’re also living in this good moment for her. Yesterday we were at H&M, and she was like, “Mommy, look at this shirt.” It was a T-shirt that says “feminist” on it. She was like, “You should get this shirt.” I think that that’s great. It’s more out in the open, and she feels more confident.

You write that framing it as a woman’s “choice” to stay at home and raise children, or pursue a career, is misguided. Why is this part of our cultural narrative?
The story that women [should stay at home with children] generalizes based on biology. It’s just not necessarily true for everybody. I have a ton of friends who have kids and work and who feel like it’s important to not give everything up and be in a completely dependent position, or at home with kids all the time.

One of the biggest problems is that it isn’t about choice––it’s about power and equality. We act as though the way that corporations are set up to work and to accommodate families is natural. It’s like it was a rock formation––but it’s not. It’s something that was made, and it can be changed. It should be changed. The Harvard Business School study of people of my generation showed that none of those women [who eventually dropped out of their careers] intended to stop working. Most of them did because they didn’t advance. They were penalized for having children whereas men were rewarded for having children.

Part of the basis for the wage gap is that the corporate wage for males is considered a family wage. That’s the story, but it doesn’t reflect the reality. Sometimes the woman is the breadwinner. Sometimes the parents are single. Sometimes the woman doesn’t have children. The reality does not really conform to this old story.

What about the argument that women “naturally” should want to stay home? That it’s biological? How does this shape expectations?
The middle class family as we experience it today is not really so old. It came with industrial capitalism, and it came with the industrial revolution. Before that, people worked at trades, worked together on a farm, or were making barrels. Or they were rich and nobody worked. But having a man out in the world and a woman at home is a relatively recent invention, just like the middle class.

In order for that to fly, a lot of stories kind of get told around like what women “naturally” want and what mothers “naturally” want. I don’t buy that stuff so much. I think all people want potentially all aspects. Everyone wants love and meaningful work and social connection or family connections. Not everybody necessarily wants children, but part of the struggle for women today––like deciding whether or not to have children–is that it forces you to make choices that people shouldn’t necessarily have to make. Why are we forced to make choices that men aren’t supposed to make?

Women are conditioned to look at like the stages of their lives as these weird distinct phases where one does not follow into the other–because you can’t go from sexy girl to mommy. Everything is compartmentalized. Nothing follows through. Experience and wisdom are like treated like bad things. All the villains are old ladies.

So why does your happy ending have to happen at 23? That’s nuts–you’re barely an adult. It doesn’t make any sense. The only girl that you see is so young, she’s just becoming a person. So why do all those stories end there?