WHY IS THIS SO GREAT? Or … is it? This might cause eyerolls as a “great sentence” pick. It’s not what most would call high literature, and likely will be breezed by in a fast read. Some might even call the cliche cops.

But consider it in context: It closes the fat fifth paragraph (the nut graf, in this case) of a New York Times piece about “gender flipping” – the trend of casting women as leads in makeovers of popular Hollywood comedies. It’s the key line that takes the reader from the opening anecdotes into a deeper exploration of politics and gender. It’s what I think of as the “turn” in an essay. Yet the pop culture tone of the sentence is right in step (pun intended; and if you don’t get it, wait a few sentences) with a story about the entertainment industry, and about women. That makes it a pitch-perfect line that summarizes the point of the piece: that even when cast in raunchy, goofy, bad-boy roles, women must still somehow rise above and remain good girls.

But what really makes the sentence tap dance is the quick twist on that well-worn but equally pitch-perfect quip from Ginger Rogers, who always got second billing to matinee dance idol Fred Astaire: I do everything the man does, only backwards and in high heels.” Her moment of sass has become a feminist calling card, perhaps to the point of cliché. And we all know that clichés are death to original and literary writing ­– unless and until they are twisted, just the right way, to make both fresh, and to layer them with historical and cultural meaning. Then they can be witty and fun – a daring little dip in an otherwise predictable waltz. (The dare, of course, is that you fall flat on your tender ego.)

I expect some will argue that this particular word play leaves out anyone who doesn’t know the original words it plays on – so anyone who has never heard of Fred and Ginger, much less watched them dance cheek to cheek. Literary, cultural and historical references require more and more thought in a multicultural, multilingual world where young people get to choose their own channels. To test whether this was one of those missteps, I asked a couple of 30-something friends – one Asian-American, one Ukrainian-American – whether they understood the line. Both had heard vague echoes, somewhere, sometime; they felt they were supposed to know its origins ­– though neither did. But both understood, exactly and immediately, what it meant in the context of the story. They might not have read it with the same glee I did, but they weren’t left out of the joke.

 

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment