In November, Cher scholar Tyler sent me a Bustle.com article about a new novel called Sister Golden Hair from Tin House Books. It's the story about a pre-teen girl named Jesse growing up in the early-to-mid 1970s, a girl who has a celebrity obsession with Cher. One summer, her family moves into a new duplex complex and she must negotiate many things including a new social life, the darker aspects of 70s culture, and her own budding womanhood. I contacted the author of the book, Darcey Steinke, the daughter of a minister and a beauty queen, to talk about how Cher works in the narrative and what Cher's"text" means vis-à-vis our struggles with ideals of beauty, role models and holiness.
Cher Scholar: Sister Golden Hair provides a scrumptious list of 1970s props and cultural artifacts. Some of my forgotten favorites: big pocket combs, the book Sybil, English muffin pizzas, the term “hot mama,” adults sleeping with Noxzema on their faces, past-life repression, Malibu Barbie (a particular influence on me), baby-sitting horror movies (as a result I never was one), hearing the myth about cooking an egg on a hot sidewalk, Mystery Date, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Yahtzee! and, of course, nothing says the 70s more to me than spider plants in macramé holders…or if you were wealthy, gargantuan hanging ferns like those that appear on the back cover of Sonny & Cher’s All I Ever Need Is You record album. It seemed a perfect choice to include Cher as another 70s cultural object. She seemed an organic part of that milieu although she could have had the effect of stealing scenes. Did you hesitate to give your character a Cher obsession or get any pushback at all adding Cher to the mix? How soon in the process was Cher involved?
Darcey Steinke: I always knew when I was going to write a book about the 70s that Cher would be key. She was so much a part of that time for me. Also, she was special in that she both was able to seem like a regular person and also a supernatural goddess. This really confounded me when I was a teen. She was very easy to identify with. Also her songs, particularly "Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves" and "Half Breed," affected me because there was not as much raw sexuality on the radio from a real female perspective at that time.
CS: When she’s 12, Jesse watches The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. She knows personal things about Cher and Cher’s childhood. Through the mid-70s she calls Cher her guru, she sometimes prays to Cher, and Cher continues to be one of Jesse’s celebrity obsessions throughout the book, along with David Bowie. I saw Cher as one of Jesse’s three beacons, (including Bowie and later her English teacher), all whom she feels have a personal life-message to provide her, a kind of spiritual message or glamorous way of being or seeing things. Can you elaborate on Cher’s effect on Jesse’s psyche?
Darcey: I think Jesse sees Cher as a sort of intermediary between herself and God. I think Jesse prays to Cher the way girls of an earlier time might have prayed to a saint, St. Catherine or someone like that. I think that is what celebrity culture is in general, but I think it's rare to have a diva like Cher who seems to be so easily identified with and still so "holy."
CS: In your interview with Bustle you talked about conflating “glamour and holiness.” This reminded me that most white American girls seem in need of a goddess figure. Maybe this is because they haven’t inherited a religion complete with a cast of goddesses, for example in what Latino/Hispanic girls inherit with Mayan and Aztec mythologies. In a story I'm working on, my protagonist has a celebrity obsession with a country singer. It seems like a very modern condition, something that has developed for kids in the last 50 years. Does celebrity obsession work as an anecdote for role models we lack, assuming as you discuss in Bustle, young girls choose a worthwhile idol?
Darcey: You are most likely right that if we had saints or goddesses that seemed real we might not obsess so much on celebrities. When people thought religion was rea, a goddess was close to them. But religion without its supernatural fangs just does not bring them close enough. This I think is why I needed Cher as a kid, to feel that there is a bigger reality out there and that I might have access to it.
CS: Jesse seeks throughout her neighborhood a guru in the flesh. Although she doesn’t find what she’s looking for, she does meet many interesting women. In Bustle, you discuss admiring these flawed, “women with guts,” women bravely trying “to make their lives happen” despite broken episodes in their stories. How does Cher fit into that category?
Darcey: I do think Cher seems like someone who has had a lot of restlessness in her life. I identify with that. I don't know all the details of her personal life. But there is something very scrappy about Cher that has always drawn me. I also feel she is honest about her bad picks, as in men, and sort of self-accepting. I think, like all great pop stars (think ELVIS), what she is really promoting is self-acceptance.
CS: Jesse loves to deconstruct Cher’s voice, which she describes as “thick as syrup” and “low and muddy, with a certain remove.” Jesse says that listening to Cher is almost “a religious experience at night.” In my Cher Zine #2, I talk about Cher’s vocal and theatrical reserved style of performance. How do you think this particular “cool” style and her deep voice contribute to her power?
Darcey: I think her voice is very unique. The way she has such a deep voice. For a women that is rare, right? I remember thinking it has something dark and holy inside it, much more than many women voices I heard on the radio of that time. She also sounded like she was not always singing properly. Like she had taught herself to sing in her bedroom and now was just all over the place on any given song. That I liked too, a feel of restlessness and a matureness that went along with the diva-ness.
CS: There are a few substitute-Chers for Jesse locally: the neighbor Sandy is described as a tiny Cher and like Cher she uses swear words (which strike Jesse as “raw and affecting”). Jesse uses Sandy as a model to practice her walks and hair tosses. As she grows older, when dating Dwayne (who believes he looks like Starsky of Starsky and Hutch), Jesse decides that looking like someone else “makes you smaller not bigger,” the celebrity swallows you up and Jesse wants her own story. Loss of identity seems to be a pitfall of celebrity obsession but one that Jesse doesn’t succumb to. Where is the line between idol worship and locating a guru?
Darcey: This is a big question, right? I would argue that a lot of people do not stick to the line and are just over-involved in the life of rich people in a way that does not help their own smaller lives, that just makes them feel bad about themselves. This is sad. The key is to get something back from the guru, right? Not everything should be going one direction as in praise for a celebrity. It's sort of like what one hopes worshiping God will be like. You hope that there will be praise and worship but that there will also be something coming back toward you. I think Cher's generosity of spirit can be felt, her energy makes a wheel; she is not just an object of worship.
CS: Jesse compares Sandy’s dresses to the flamboyance of Cher’s dresses. Jesse is attracted to flamboyance. She also wants to be noticed in a family where her struggles and feelings are almost invisible. Other marginalized figures have historically been attracted to “diva flamboyance,” (gay men, for instance). How does this flamboyance work in the context of suggesting or aiding a sense of identity?
Darcey: It gives permission for dreaming of a bigger life. I think this is key for people that feel unhappy or un-included in the life they live. Its key to really feel like your life could be bigger.
CS: Jesse notices early on that men seem to be running everything, that they “had wizard power over you” although they are untrustworthy at worst (Sandy’s boyfriend, the crooked “movie casting director”) and flawed at best (her father, Jill’s father). One of the themes of Cher’s life has been, (at least post-Sonny and in terms of outer-appearance), that she is not under the wizard-spell of men. Does this play into her appeal for budding young feminists?
Darcey: I hope this is true. Just because you are not with a man does not mean you might not be obsessing over someone. I think we saw that a lot with Madonna. She seemed to be throwing herself at people all the time. That worried me a lot, how that would play out on younger fans. Cher seems alone. And this is maybe a little sad. But it might be good, too, to see a life lived alone is still a life of great beauty and value.
CS: In the book, Jesse contemplates her dislike of Gregg Allman and she notices who around her likes Gregg Allman (Sheila) but Allman is never connected to Cher. Was that intentional? Do you share Jesse’s (and other fans of the mid-70s) dislike of Allman?
Darcey: The fact Allman ratted out his drag dealer is just crappy. For a lot of us, it was hard to forgive him for that. And also, he seems to sort of drag Cher down. That bothered me at the time. I feel sorry for him now though; once he lost his brother I think he lost his way for along long time. He is forever, in a way, the lost little brother.
CS: In current pop-culture studies, Cher is typically regarded as a guilty pleasure. Years ago, there was an article about how lawyers would identify assumed low-intelligence jurors based on whether or not Cher was their favorite celebrity. (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-jury-consultants/). Pretty insulting, but this attitude is changing. Many smart, literate women, such as yourself, are coming out to identify Cher as an influence and a person of cultural interest. This is partially, I believe, because women who came of age in the 1970s and 80s are now taking the floor. Women our age are more likely to see Cher as a powerful cultural presence and are starting to deconstruct her many, many texts over the last 50 years. In Bustle, you said, “From the 1960s to now you could have a Cher period.” It’s true, all Cher fans entered at a somewhat different point in Cher’s career trajectory. What were your Cher periods and what did they mean for you? What is your sense of Cher as cultural influencer through the last five decades?
Darcey: I owned Cher records as a kid and was in awe of her beauty and her easy sense of humor. I remember watching her on The Sonny and Cher Show and loving her joking with Sonny but also being kind of weirdly proud of her, too. Feeling very connected. As I got older, I have felt less connected and maybe dismayed as well at some of her choices. The plastic surgery is very hard for me. I think the fact she has kept going, however, is the thing I love about her now. What's cool is that she has no single meaning, depending on the stage when you came up along with her you will feel differently about her, but all these stages are equally true. One does not negate the other.
CS: How would Jesse respond to 1980s Cher? The current Cher? Would she still be a fan?
Darcey: I would love to see Cher live which I guess makes me a fan, though I would not seek out the current music. I love her 80s and 90s film work. I think Mask is such a brave film. She was so gutsy in those roles. She really impressed me. She has shown herself to have a wide range in her humanity and this still moves me even if her music no longer does.
CS: For a large part of the 1970s Cher was connected to Sonny; but he isn’t part of Jesse’s obsession. How do both you and Jesse feel about Sonny?
Darcey: I always felt sorry for Sonny. Cher was so much bigger and, to my mind, better. At first, I liked the idea that Cher could be with someone like Sonny; it made me think more deeply about love and partnership, even as a girl. But when they broke up, I saw that to be the better way for Cher.
CS: Does Cher reinforce gender roles or kick them over?
Darcey: I think she does both. She is high fem but almost like a drag queen is high fem.
CS: Does plastic surgery automatically kick Cher out of the feminists club?
Darcey: I have a lot of problems with her surgery. It mostly just makes me really sad. Sad for her as a person. I understand the pressure to have it. Dolly Parton is another singer I admire and has had it as well. But I do see it as caving into the male gaze in a way that I can't really see as empowering, for her or for her fans.
CS: People have very strong feelings about Cher whether they are feminists, reactionaries, liberals or conservatives. Why does she elicit such strong reactions from women and men?
Darcey: I think Cher seems very real. She comes out—like pops out of the celebrity slot so you have to think of her like you would a friend almost. This is what makes her so cool.
About the Novel
CS: I loved how you described in your Q&A conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert that the novel’s arc is not linear but rather following the cycles of Dante’s Inferno. In a visceral way, this mirrors the journey of a young woman, how her investigations of reality are cyclical and they take time. Although I wanted Jesse to leave her bad mentors sooner, (say getting locked in a closet less than twice), I was reminded of my own long and circular journeys. The delays seemed like necessary frustrations. Did you have this structure figured out from the beginning or was that in of itself a journey?
Darcey: I wish we all knew that we should be in healthy relationships where we are loved from early on. But that was not true of me and it's not true of Jesse either. It takes her a while to figure out she should be loved and so she goes through some bad stuff while working that all out. The closet, to my mind, figures into this. The book is set up more like teenage years actually are. Like you measure them by who your friends are and what your attachments were during those years. Like OK, age 14-15 I was friends with Barbara Lemon and we loved John Denver and then it moves on from there every few years.
CS: I enjoy thinking back on all the archetypal traps Jesse witnesses and will try to avoid in the future: men with money will save you; religion, mysticism, or God himself will save you; booze will save you; beauty rituals and popularity will save you; fame will save you; love will save you. Were there traps you wanted to write about but had to leave out?
Darcey: I think emotional addiction is a real trap for girl, too. I touch on that but could done more. Also I think feeling like you can't fail. Female perfection if a trap, too. That one did not make it in.
CS: I loved how you culled out the darkness not only of the 1970s but of being 12 years old. My own 12-13 years were dark. But the novel is also dark for adults finding their ways through the changing roles for men and women. You also explore the moods of a small town and its collective insecurities, as you say in your conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert, the “glamour that gathers around sexuality, violence, drugs and money.” Jesse almost seems to feel loss when she leaves the struggling humanity of the duplex complex. She does not seem entirely saved by a move to the suburban dream. This searching for the safe path through seems ongoing. Do you ever envision Jesse as an adult? Are you still writing her story?
Darcey: Thanks so much for saying this. I do think the period was darker than many allow. I do think the move toward both fulfillment and safely is ongoing. Anyone who has been in a marriage and wanted to get out has witnessed how quickly a safe, nurturing place can turn into one you want to flee. I don't think of Jesse out in the workplace at 50, really no. But I would hope she would continue to be fully alive, to feel her sadness, and be honest about her longing.
CS: I loved the tight depiction of how girls move from “little-girl” interests and into teenage, boy-crazy interests and how this happens literally overnight. “Once a girl went over…” you say in the book. I remember this: once Saturday your friend brings over all her Fisher Price toys to build a village, the next weekend she makes excuses and never comes back to get them out of your basement. The girl went over! Such a bewildering moment if you’re slow. Did you mine much from your own childhood for the book?
Darcey: Oh, I love that you say this. What a great example of what I was writing about. I don't remember in my own case as a quick switch. I was very late to that turn, but I saw it in so many friends and it was painful for me as I felt VERY left behind. It seemed only sad to me, waving from the childhood side.
CS: Your book deals with finding a connection with someone with whom you have something in common. But this takes time for young girls to understand. How do you feel cultivating an inner life for yourself transforms relationships?
Darcey: The inner life is the main thing in life. I feel any outside life is just not going to be great until you are honest about what your heart and soul wants and try to follow up on those things. And it needs to be nourishing, all-through life, with books and movies and art and also maybe gardening and whatever else, travel. So, so important.
CS: Finally, I also enjoyed the rituals of beauty Jesse enacted and her religious favor. I feel this way sometimes about beauty products. There’s an article in Cher Zine 3 about my attraction to and experiences with various Cher beauty products and their infomercials. Rationally, I know these products don’t work. Intellectually I’m not bamboozled by their grand claims. But the rituals and paraphernalia are undeniably fun. What do we tell young girls about this?
Darcey: I have an 18 year-old daughter and I always remember her telling me when she was 3 or 4 to get a certain shampoo she'd seen on TV because "it will change your hair into glitter!" She had bought the commercial hook, line and sinker. I have mixed feelings about this one. If you get beauty stuff to treat yourself and to make yourself happy—that's great. For instance, I love bath salts of all kinds!! But if you have body-shame and you feel you must wear foundation all the time or use thigh cream for stretchmarks then I am not so into it. You should look at the key underneath those issues and free yourself!
CS: And so I have to ask, does cider vinegar really help freshen up dull hair?
Darcey: Vinegar is so magical we use it now in our house to clean everything. So it's a must!
Find out more about Darcey Steinke and Sister Golden Hair at http://www.darceysteinke.com/ or on Twitter @darceysteinke.
Buy the book at your local independent booksellter or on Amazon.