Cheers to You, Dr. Lilith Sternin

Greetings, CineDump!

I know I’ve been gone a long time, and here I am, walk of shame ready, shoes in hand, half-empty Lonestar (the national beer of Texas, partners) in hip pocket, and nothing to give you but a hard time. 

I’ll be real with you for a minute: As my oh-so-witty, boozy film reviews last year might have revealed, I had some shit to get in order. While said shit is still highly disordered, there is one thing I can offer all the people who come clicking back hoping we have more delightful ramblings like Endless Poetry-- an elegy of praise for my first feminist icon, the freakish, the fictional, Dr. Lilith Sternin (sometimes) Crane. 

You see, the only things I’ve discovered in a solid calendar year since I took my unearned sabbatical from CineDump are this: 

  1. Everything you don’t mourn comes back hungry (I’ll get to that later)
  2. You have to find the root of the infection

Number two of my year-long quest for absolution came courtesy of a nearly life-threatening gum decay which the constant diet of Jack, Jim, and Shiner, sweet Shiner, has done little to aid. As I lay writhing in superhuman agony on a dentist’s chair while a gorgeous Lupita Nyong’o look-a-like drilled into my tooth and watched fountains of disease spurt into the sanitized air, I, like sexy, emotional ubermensch Don Draper, realized two very important things: It’s not the tooth that’s rotten, and dentists in the DFW area are incredibly exquisite (Have you seen those Sexy Teeth billboards? What the hell is going on? Do we have a burgeoning beautiful dentist industry out here? The Postmodern daughter-of-a-bitch in me wants to go off on some Pynchonian pornographic rampage, but I digress…).


So, CineDumpers, the thing you and I both didn’t want: the root of the infection. 

If you’re still on this site, chances are, you live in the realms of the unreal, to borrow from my creepier compatriot Henry Darger. How knows what sent you into these shadowy hinterlands, and honestly, on most days, who cares? Maybe, like me on my best days, you’re a pretty successful, well-adjusted, tax-paying member of the Greatest Country on Earth. Maybe you carry off that persona almost perfectly, and maybe, for most of your life, you’ve gotten away with it. 

But if, like me, you’re happier in your deranged paracosm than in the brutal, non-stop warfare of daily life, there’s a reason for it. For me, it was ugly and simple and kind of a source of never-ending shame for me: 

I hated being a woman. 


Because I grew up in a small community, because I was largely isolated, because the only images I ever saw of women were mincing, male-worshipping, crazed cum-servants. I spent hours with movies and books (my greatest vice) that told of dynamic, strong, courageous men...and the weak-willed, dick-dependent women who trailed along or waited, screaming for rescue.   

Yeah, I was a gender-traitor in the best way. I thought of myself as dominant, unbending, strong, and smart, all the things I thought women weren’t supposed to be. I started to hate everything that even faintly vibed of femininity. I did for a long time. 

But then, like all acts of grace, the unexpected happened. 

I met Dr. Lilith Sternin on Nick at Night’s nonstop, scorched earth, blitzkrieg approach to sharing once-beloved sitcoms with the bright, young things of the 1990’s. 

Oh, Dr. Lilith Sternin…


Excuse the school girl theatrics, people of CineDump, but I was a schoolgirl then, and an innocent, Dickensian, deceived one at that--

I had never seen a woman like Lilith. She was pale, harsh, and never, ever apologized for what she said, thought, or felt. 

She was presented to viewers as a freak--in the world of cringing Dianes, fertile, fervently Catholic Carlas, and eternally insecure Rebeccas, Lilith was a force unto herself. She wore clothes that made her feel comfortable even though they weren’t sexy and were, in fact, the exact opposite of stylish, she campaigned for Fraiser’s affection not because she was incomplete without him, but because she wanted him, and best of all, she was a kick-ass, ball-busting, take-no-fucking-prisoners academic who wasn’t afraid to shred any theory, thought, or idea that didn’t hold up to the indelible perfection of her intellect. 

Of course, this is what I saw as a lonely, alienated young woman wracked by guilt, desire, and crazed by an undiagnosed (and therefore, untreated) mental illness (OCD, for anyone who missed the poorly written but deeply felt post about Split). The writers and producers of the show obviously wanted Lilith as comic relief to Frasier's unending misery: a bitter, dried-up shrew who offered our hapless co-star nothing but misery. 


Oh, but what woman was ever presented on primetime like her, the original Brainy Bitch, the Dominatrix (complete with harsh hairstyle and unsmiling command), the calm, quietly chaotic, passionate woman who dared to be so like the male characters, who revelled in their flaws with self-parodic grandiosity, she ultimately had to be banished, hidden underground with a tribe of mole people? 

Only you, Dr. Lilith Sternin, a woman who hyphenated her name (something I later did when I married) because not even dogs are asked to give up the syllables and sounds that define them. 

While Cheers, like almost everything else in pop culture, from the lowest reality TV show to the most rarefied postmodern master-(absolutely-not-mistress)-work, had tried to teach me that to be a Woman was to be passive, inert, an object of quest and fascination, but at the end of the day, a prize like any fluffy stuffed Domo in a claw machine, I have to thank the weirdness, the strangeness, the implacable, at times, mean-spirited intellect in Lilith. Sure, the Cheers writers tried to undo her power in an episode where she becomes erotically obsessed over Sam, the show’s resident bad boy, but even he of the Eternal Priapism trembles before the indestructibility of her desire. Even when Lilith follows the rules of her predominantly male writers, she’s a source of sublime terror, a creature outside of easy, male reckoning.    

Part of my journey back has been seeing that women like Lilith were there all along--of course, easily excluded from tidy narratives of andro-desire. Is this character the most forward-thinking, progressive woman ever portrayed? No. Not by a long shot. But in the dark days of the 1980’s and ‘90’s, a time of power-suits, shoulder pads, and too much neon-lit masculine fear, when rape was a joke for blockbuster movies (I’m looking right the fuck at you, Revenge of the Nerds). Lilith was a light--strong, unyielding, smart, and always ready with a sardonic reply, never an apology. 


I’m not there yet, but cheers to you, Dr. Lilith Sternin, for reminding me the journey I should have taken a long time ago is still worth starting.

Pennie Sublime