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Does Amber Tamblyn’s ‘Era of Ignition’ Ignite Your Flame?

Actor Amber Tamblyn is aspiring to something deeper than just the chronicle of herself as a young ingénue who came of age as a TV star in her memoir, Era of Ignition. In our politically tumultuous times, does she succeed?

Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution
Amber Tamblyn
May 2019

In the lead up to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s 15 May 2019 signing of the most restrictive anti-abortion measure since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision effectively decriminalizing the procedure, all signs leading to this dangerously decisive step decidedly backward were probably too obvious to notice. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp became the sixth state leader (the fourth this year alone) to sign a “fetal heartbeat” bill, prohibiting abortion upon first detection of a heartbeat. Missouri’s Governor Mike Parson, aided and abetted by his Republican-controlled House, soon followed suit. The spark that had been lit by a movement to control, restrict, dictate, and mandate the reproductive rights of all women in this country long before Roe . Wade and ever since only grew stronger, especially when delivered in the stentorian tones of the primarily male leaders who rallied for, passed, and signed these measures into law. The one exception, Alabama’s female Governor Kay Ivey, was even more ominous in her declaration that:

“…this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamian’s deeply held belief that every life is precious & that every life is a sacred gift from God.” – “Alabama governor signs near-total abortion ban into law“, by Kate Smith (CBS News, 16 May 2019).

Those reading this article wishing for an immediate dive into the merits of writer/activist/actor Amber Tamblyn‘s memoir, Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution might wonder if they’ve instead stumbled into a discussion of current political events. What we know of texts written within the first years of a movement is that they sometimes get caught up in their own sense of self-importance. We can see early on that Tamblyn is aspiring for something deeper than just the chronicle of herself as a young ingénue who came of age as a TV star on the early 21st century show, Joan of Arcadia (CBS, 2003-05). In her late 20s by the time the show started, Tamblyn could still play much younger, and that role embodied the sort of hybrid spiritual/secular feminism in the scared years after 9/11. She writes:

“Being unsure seems to be the only framework most women have to see their bigger picture.”

This seems to be Tamblyn’s point from the start of this book. She understands many will question her authoritative credentials on the status of Next Wave Feminism in Trump’s America, and she never manages to find an absolute center from which to steer this ship. Is it a Hollywood memoir of a young TV star’s political awakening? Yes. Is it a carefully cited product of research that tries to find common ground between race, sexual origin, and economic class within Feminism? No. She has more trouble with the latter, but the reflections on art, process, and identity from her perspective are compelling.

Tamblyn reflects on a producer friend who told her that “…women are taught to confuse intuition with anxiety, and I believe this is true at any age.” Tamblyn spends the early parts of this book exploring what it means to be an artist, how some of the most sexist terms to describe art from women (“sophomoric, sentimental, quirky”) have been a toxic way to discourage women from having an equal seat at the artistic table. She notes, convincingly, that women artists are unfairly stigmatized in that their work is more often than not always going to be judged and measured against other women. She asks men reading this book:

“…When was the last time something you made, did, or said was compared to the work of a woman?”

Tamblyn’s points are clear and effectively argued. Forget the fact that she grew up in the industry. Her father, Russ Tamblyn, was a fresh-faced male ingénue in Robert Wise‘s classic 1961 film, West Side Story, and her mother an equally accomplished (but less recognized) artist. She notes that men in positions of power rarely choose to exhibit films made by women for “…fear of being replaced…marginalized.” One line early on will cut close for those still enamored of some male literary lions of the ’90s:

“Even women characters that are written by men end up sounding more like men- like a sixteen-year-old Jonathan Franzen fantasy rather than an actual woman.”

Tamblyn is clear to note that no movement will succeed unless and until the participants make a concerted effort to be allied with each other. No matter how many times she has been told to manage expectations or consider alternatives or just be grateful to be in the game, Tamblyn seems to be arguing that she still deserves a seat at the table and a room of her own. Where Virginia Woolf chose a tragic way out when no option seemed open, Tamblyn sees a glimmer of hope:

“The success was in saying yes.”

The reader familiar with Tamblyn’s career trajectory will be relieved to read early on that she understands just as well not every woman has had such opportunities. She has been able to leverage her tenure in the entertainment industry to bring her projects to fruition, but the struggle continues. She’s arguing for the right not to put one’s self or allow one’s self to be placed upon a high pedestal of achievement and to succeed (or fail) on gender-neutral standards.

Hilary Clinton plays a huge role early in Tamblyn’s narrative, the failed US Presidential campaign of 2008 and the catastrophic (and perhaps always disputed) 2016 loss. Clinton will likely remain a divisive figure, and that may be her biggest asset. She’s living proof that the women’s movement never has and will never speak as one voice. Tamblyn wisely brings in some expert testimony from friends here as well, just when the reader might be wondering if “white privilege” and gender fluidity within feminism will be addressed. The reader interested in an honest political autopsy of the glaring failings of Clinton’s 2016 campaign in its final stages won’t find it in this book. Instead, the political focus is on the male gaze, gender perception, and glass ceilings that still hold firm.

In the wake of Trump’s election and his slow, deliberate rise to power, Tamblyn notes that male politicians have rarely experienced attacks based on their gender and that the common refrain from women disenchanted with Clinton was that she was “…not who I imagined.” The way images of women politicians have been misrepresented have expanded beyond Clinton and effected Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among many others. Tamblyn and her husband, comedian David Cross, would get into heated debates about the merits of Clinton’s candidacy and the way she presented herself. Tamblyn closes chapter 8 with a tough and cold eight points on “Requirements for a Woman to Become President of the United States”. From body language, facial tics, and any display of vulnerability through voice, it’s all clearly detailed.

Sexual assault comes into play after the release of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, and Tamblyn recounts the reaction to her public disclosure of sexual assault: “Trump’s words had blown us all wide open.” She’s late in pregnancy with her first child and feels her baby kicking as she watches the 2016 election results. Two weeks away from delivering that baby, she defies doctors’ orders and participates in the Washington, D.C. Women’s March. Here, Tamblyn’s words are clear and strong:

“Women’s bodies have always been the prisoners of wars we did not wage…of ownership choice, sexual violence, fantasy, and definition…and we have been prisoners of the war on creative expression…”

Later, she concludes that “…Donald Trump’s election was the grenade that exploded us into a second civil rights movement…Hillary Clinton’s loss was the pulling of that grenade’s pin.”

The first half of this book suffers somewhat from Tamblyn’s tendency to reference a study here, a study there, without citation. That she excludes any in-text citations or a bibliography does not make this book illegitimate so much as a little shaky before it finds its strong legs, if you will. This happens in Chapter 11, where she notes that women are “…more likely to be afflicted by mental health problems than men… twice as likely as men to experience anxiety disorders.” The mixture of a February 2017 delivery of her first child, postpartum depression, and the birth of the #MeToo movement in October 2017, make for a difficult narrative that Tamblyn carefully pulls off, and her reflections are interesting:

“I was the seasoned soap opera starlet, the incidental ingénue, the accidental adolescent actress turned adult apparition…I was the girl lost amid privilege and invisibility…”

Tamblyn is careful throughout this book, and honest, as she methodically goes through issues with Trump and the #MeToo, and #TimesUp movements. Her honest self-reflection on these general issues here are important, but it isn’t until she gets to the goal of recognizing white and black feminism and uniting them that the reader will see this as a strong book, with or without the tags of citations or appendices. She devotes eight pages to poet and professor Airea D. Matthews “In Response to Sister Solidarity”, followed by a 20-paged transcribed interview with nonbinary trans author and activist, Meredith Talusan. Both discussions are important and enlightening, though Tamblyn jokingly notes in the latter that she will only have two cis male readers. The clarity is strong, however, and the inclusion of race and gender is important. Tamblyn notes:

“…Who hates women more than Donald Trump does? Other women.”

Tamblyn ends by noting that progress is a process, and there is work toward improvement to be done by all parties. She honestly reacts to well-publicized details such as husband David Cross’s comments about actress Charlyne Yi (see ” David Cross Accused of Racist Behavior by Charlyne Yi“, by Matt Fernandez, Variety, 18 October 2017) and the hopeful ending (a letter to her daughter) is one part Hollywood sentimental and three parts honestly effective:

“Remember that the anxiety you’ll inevitably feel someday, the isolation you will carry, the stories you will tell, and the silence you will store is not part of some curse.”

Do the anti-abortion efforts of May 2019 have an immediate connection with Tamblyn’s arguments? Had Era of Ignition been released earlier, her arguments would be just as sound and sharply felt. In the fortuitous confluence of real-life events unraveling at a fever pitch in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri and these foundation years after the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, Tamblyn’s book is elevated, if only by its aspirations. This is not damning with faint praise. Tamblyn’s fierce anger is focused and that she manages to remain controlled and calm makes this memoir even more important as a strong and vital voice in an essential call for change.

As a report from the front of this war as it’s still happening, Era of Ignition suffers from its desire to be both an academic treatise on feminism and a Hollywood memoir. Tamblyn would have better served this subject matter had she focused on the former and perhaps served solely as an interviewer/idea facilitator for the many other women she brings in to help tell her story. Somewhere within this text is a superb dispatch from a cultural/gender war still pending. Tamblyn attempts to create a balance between confessional memoir and objective feminist theory/political commentary, but she never quite achieves that goal.