Category Archives: Hollywood

Obvious Child and the Plight of the Abortion Story

When I started thinking about this week’s Role/Reboot essay on Obvious Childthe “abortion rom com” starring comedian Jenny Slate, I started out by trying to come up with a list of contemporary mainstream abortion stories from TV or movies. Without googling or wikipedia-ing, or weighing in on the quality of these stories, here’s what I came up with:

1. Parenthood (Drew’s girlfriend Amy)

2. Grey’s Anatomy (Cristina Yang)

3. Friday Night Lights (Becky Sproles)

4. House of Cards (Claire Underwood)

…. what else have you got?

I watch a ridiculous amount of TV, so the fact that I can only come up with four…. well, that leads me to the point of my essay. For a thing that is extraordinarily common and affects literally millions of women (and also their partners), we have sooooo few examples in mainstream pop culture exploring these decisions. Obvious Child is a good step, but it’s only one story, and it’s the easiest story to get pushed through the pinhole that is a Hollywood approval process: it’s about a pretty, upper-middle class white woman. Valid story? Absolutely. The only story? The most common story? Absolutely not.

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Related Post: Abortion stories

Related Post: Huffington Post and the changing iconography of the abortion debate

 

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Moms on the Tube

“I don’t really watch TV.”

THIS BAFFLES ME. I mean, obviously, to each his or her own, but I just love television so much that when I hear this declaration (less and less frequently, according to my unscientific and entirely anecdotal experience) I’m as shocked as I’d be if someone said, “I don’t really eat cheese.”

Wait, what? Some people don’t eat cheese?

I kid. But in all seriousness, deciding to give up cheese or TV would be a fucking heartbreaker of a Sophie’s Choice in my world. But in the end, the cheese would have to go, because the satisfaction of a hunk of brie is temporary,  but the joy of a ten-year relationship with my shows (or 8-episode relationship for these new miniseries deals) gives me stuff to chew over for weeks and months to come.

This week for Role/Reboot, in honor of Mother’s Day, I wrote about the range and variety of TV moms. June Cleaver is out, Cersei Lannister is in. Is that a good thing? Read on!

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Related Post: Moms and body image, from Mika Brzezinski to Jennifer Weiner

Related Post: True Detective and the male gaze.

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True Detective and the Male Gaze (Alternate Title: It’s No Fun to Be a Killjoy)

true-detective1This is a post about True Detective. There will be no spoilers.

You know…when I finished the final episode of True Detective, HBO’s bromance about a pair of mismatched Louisiana cops investigating the ritualistic cult killings that have long been buried by Bayou water and Spanish moss, I didn’t know what I thought. I knew that Matthew McConaughey acted the shit out of that part, and so did his ponytail. I knew that I admired the show’s gorgeous cinematography, great soundtrack, and brilliant pacing. I appreciated the creative timelines and complex, layered storytelling of the editing team. I know that this show was well made.

But the more I tried to articulate to other people what I liked and disliked, the more I realized that everything I liked was shiny surface crap, and everything I disliked was meaty substance. I read a lot of internet commentary, some that declared it a masterpiece, and some, like Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker essay, that pointed out how shallow these eight episodes really were.

Let’s start with the “woman question.” Why? Because this is a blog about feminism and gender and media. Duh. Don’t like it? Leave.

The ratio of real female characters with feelings/opinions/emotions to naked prostitutes/strippers/floozies with no feelings/opinions/emotions is 1 to about a billion. Even the director, Cary Fukunaga, answered the woman question similarly in a NYMag:

“I mean, it’s true: the show wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. That’s not necessarily a factor by which we should measure everything. It’s a story about two guys and that’s what it focuses on. It certainly does not focus on the women characters other than what it needs to to service the Hart story line.”

[As a reminder; the Bechdel Test isn't a test of quality (good movies fail it, bad movies pass it). It is merely a test to see whether there are women of substance in a piece of media who exist as three-dimensional, autonomous characters who act with agency.]

Now, does everything have to pass the Bechdel Test? No. There is a place for bromances and buddy comedies and bachelor party narratives and war stories and sports tales and all of the other types of male-centric content. Those are good stories to tell. Remember Rescue Me? I loved that show. Ender’s Game barely passes it and that’s one of my favorite pieces of writing ever.

The problem is most of the stories that get told fail the Bechdel test, especially the “prestige” stories, the well-funded stories, and the oft-cited-as-art stories. So yes, it’s okay that True Detective, specificallydoesn’t pass Bechdel, but no, it’s not okay that so much of what is viewed as quality misses this most basic of thresholds.

Moving on. So, if I’m okay with the lack of substantive female characters on TD, where does that leave us? Male gaze. Sigh. Man, do I hate this one.

As a refresher, when we refer to “the male gaze,” we mean media that is created from a uniquely male point of view that typically uses aesthetic strategies that objectify women, reducing them to body parts and/or exaggerating sexuality, beauty, and femininity over a comprehensive set of human traits. It can be as simple as a camera shot that lingers on the breasts of an actress. It can be the ratio of male to female nudity (ahem, Game of Thrones). It can be anything that stylistically indicates that this content was made by men, for men, to the detriment of women.

Think about how we meet Maggie, Marty’s wife (played by Michelle Monaghan) in the very first episode of TD. She’s lying in bed on her side, facing away from the camera, butt exposed. We literally see her semi-naked body before we see her face, hear her voice, or know her name. Similarly, the first dead victim we meet is naked, which is crucial to the plot,  but the camera lingers on her ass, panning up and down her body. It is gratuitous as hell, unless you enjoy seeing naked female butts.

As Emily Nussbaum puts it, “TD was about the evil of men who treat women as lurid props, but the show treated women as lurid props.” Or, as I put it to a friend via gchat today, “it’s like… you don’t get props for being like RAPISTS ARE EVIL if in your very structure and dialogue and character, you are contributing to the culture that objectifies women and enables rape culture.”

You are either part of the solution or you are part of the problem. There is no neutrality, no “I’m just making a bromance cop show! This has nothing to do with gender politics!” I mark that position invalid; if you think you are contributing to the TV canon of greatness, then you don’t get to opt out of this conversation.  You will be judged on how you portray women and girls, as you should be. We are half of the goddamn population. That doesn’t mean you need to portray us as saints or angels, only that a show that visually treats women like objects doesn’t get to play the anti-rape culture card. Even if you catch the “bad guys” in the end.

Related Post: The Game of Thrones rape scene

Related Post: Strong female characters? No thanks.

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Game of Thrones and “Sex” on TV

cerseiIf you are all up in the guts of the Internet where TV and commentary collide, you have already read a novel and a half of haterade about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. For long, articulate, backed-by-evidence arguments, see Margaret Lyons at NYMag and Sonia Soraiya at AV Club

Before I tell you why I’m pissed, let’s back up:

Mother daughter conversations about sex can are awkward enough even if one of them, ahem, doesn’t write about it on the Internet. My mom and I are what you might describe as a classic second wave/third wave duo. We agree about 85% of the time, and usually differ, if only slightly, on sex-related topics like pornography and prostitution. In short, I usually err on the side of who-am-I-to-tell-her-what-to-do-with-her-body? and my mother usually errs on the side of contributes-to-a-culture-of-oppression-and-objectification. We’re both right, obviously, and one day we’ll find the middle ground.

So anyway, last week, my mom emails to complain about “sex on TV.” She lists House of Cards and House of Lies as two prime examples of shows that only feature what she describes as “I don’t even know what to call it, but sex from what I call a degrading position.” I often approach other people’s sex lives–even fictional other people–from a to-each-her-own, doesn’t-look-fun-to-me-but-who-am-I, anything-goes-between-consenting-adults angle, wary of condemning someone else’s good time lest someone try to rain on mine.

The problem as I see it is not that this specific type of sex is what we see on TV, it’s that this is the only type of sex we see on TV. Specifically, it is the only type of sex men see on TV. They aren’t watching Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, or Nashville, where sex is sometimes “animalistic” to use my mother’s word, but is also sometimes gentle, sometimes kind, sometimes romantic, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes between strangers, sometimes between lovers, and sometimes even features sex acts that most women enjoy.

But that is not what we get on TV that men watch. We get mostly rough sex. We get mostly condom-less sex. We get very little cunnilingus, very little foreplay, very few indications that female characters are enjoying themselves in the least. And while I do not in any way want to shit on the the specific kind of sex that any particular person is consensually enjoying (if that is your thing, knock yourself the fuuuuuck out), I do find it highly problematic that we get such a narrow sliver delivered to us with our HBO Go accounts and “prestige” TV.

[Spoiler Alert]

So. Game of Thrones.  In last night’s episode, after Joffrey’s gruesome wedding death, Cersei’s private moment of mourning was interrupted by Jaime, who, angry that she’d been cold-shouldering him, raped her on the floor of the temple where their dead son was displayed. As many others have said, I’m not outraged that a rape was depicted, if that’s what was intended for legitimate storytelling purposes, but I am very much outraged that some people, director included, don’t seem to think this was a rape scene.

What the fucking fuck do you think is a rape scene? To these not-a-rape-scene advocates, was that supposed to look like sex? Because it didn’t; it looked like rape. Kicking. Crying. Begging. Verbal “Nos”. Requests to stop…. Clue me in to which part of that looks like consensual sex…

And therein lies the problem. When depicted “sex” looks too much like rape, it makes some people–young people, dumb people, angry people–think that rape looks like sex. It makes them think that an initial “no” or “stop” or “I don’t want to,” will, with enough pressure, become a “fine, okay, I guess this is happening.” But that is not a yes, that is not consent. Are there non-verbal ways of giving consent? Absolutely. But “No, stop, stop, it’s not right,” as Cersei said, is not one of them.

This shit is all related. The American University Epsilon Iota emails that were released this week. Darren Sharp’s admission of “non-consensual sex”. The joke of a process that female soldiers have to endure to report assault. The fact that teenaged girls think that unwanted groping is just part of dating. The abhorrent Mixology joke about finding girls drunk enough to “smash out.”

It’s not all Game of Thrones’ fault, obviously, but as of 24 hours ago they are the latest guilty party. Rough sex and rape are not part of some gray area where we throw our hands in the air and yell “IT’S JUST SO HARD TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE.” Rough sex is something adults agree to and reinforce with positive words like “yes,” and “I like that.” Or they agree on safe words. Or they have conversations prior to getting busy about what they like and dislike. Though the play might be physically rough, they approach with a mutual respect.

Rape is where one person has sex with another person who does not want them to.

Why is this so hard?

Which is all to say, sometimes my mom is right.

Related PostGame of Thrones vs. The Wire

Related Post: Strong Female Characters? No thanks.

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10 Years Too Late: Views on Veronica (pt. 1)

veronicaYou guys, I’m finally doing it. The kickstarter funded Veronica Mars movie was the extra little push I needed to finally, ten years later, take up with that girl-detective everyone loves so much. I’m about a week behind the Vulture training schedule (and yes, this is 2014 and yes, I am a millennial content-addict, so yes, there is a training schedule to watch a now-defunct show in anticipation for its crowd-sourced feature debut). I just finished season 1 and I’m crashing hard towards the finish line, loving every minute of it.

What follows may contain some spoilers, but it ended ten years ago and I will not apologize if you are similarly behind the times as I am.
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What is Veronica Mars? It was created by author Rob Thomas, who wrote a fomative and entirely forgettable book about a struggling teen called Rats Saw God. I don’t remember anything about it except that for a brief period of time, it was very important to me.
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VM stars everyone’s favorite sloth-lover, Kristen Bell, as a 17-year-old high schooler who moonlights as a private investigator. In the first forty minute segment, we learn that Veronica’s best friend was murdered, her sheriff father ID’d the wrong guy and lost his job, her mother took off, and her boyfriend dumped her with nary a word. Oh, also, at a party she was roofied and raped but she doesn’t know by whom. It’s a lot, and the ongoing mysteries of the murder, the disappearance, the date rape, and the dumping unravel over the next 22 episodes.
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riversI just saw a picture of two rivers outside of Manaus, Brazil, that collide without intermingling for three miles. Coffee colored water runs up against milky tea and never the twain shaill mix; It is as freaky and beautiful as anything I’ve seen in a while, and that’s kind of how I feel about Veronica Mars.
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On one side of the divide is dark, heavy shit, where the stakes are high as hell. A manipulative teacher seduces a student and she ends up pregnant and ostracized. The class asshole’s father, a movie star, beats him with a belt behind closed doors. A slew of co-eds from the local university turn up dead, strangled by a guitar cord.
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On the other side, a perky blonde teen finds lost dogs for classmates, investigates falsified drug tests for athletes, and rescues the nerds from the bullies with nothing but her wits and a giant camera. All the while, she navigates the normal pitfalls of adolescence, awkward ex-boyfriends, catty girls in bathrooms, the ever-churning rumor mill, and the tension between the haves and the have-nots. It’s in that fluctuating line where  dark and light crash into each other that Veronica Mars comes out smarter, funnier, and edgier than everybody else.
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It’s a little bit Rori-Gilmore-at-Chilton meets baby-Sydney-Bristow meets Harriet-the-spy with the guest star roster of your dreams. Adam Scott, Leighton Meester, Max Greenfield, Krysten Ritter, Aaron Paul.
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I’ve got 17 days to watch about 30 more episodes, think I can do it?
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Highs and Lows of the Oscar Short Films

Until recently, the short film portion of the Oscars was the section during which I usually went to get snacks because honestly, who cares about these unbeautiful people and their “movies” that no one has heard of. NOT THIS YEAR, FRIENDS! This year, I have actually seen the live action short films that are up for golden statuettes, and boy, do I have feelings about them.

Rather than waste time on the ones that registered only briefly, here are the first three:

1. The Voorman Problem  (aka A Few British Actors You Sort of Recognize Explore God Delusions and Make Belgium Disappear)

2. Helium (aka A Kind of Roald Dahl-esqe Story About a Dying Child and the Power of Imagination, James and the Giant Peach Meets Up)

3. Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa (Do I Have to Do Everything?) (aka 7 Minute Video Interpretation of the Ongoing Conversation ‘Can Women Have it All’?)

 So, this is where it gets juicy:

4. Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) –  My initial feelings of distaste for this Spanish short about a generic bloody conflict in a generic Africa starring generic generals and generic child soldiers has blossomed into full-fledged fury that I was subjected to it for 25 full minutes. The more I think about it, the more wrong it feels and the angrier I am that rather than condemning it for it’s “single story of Africa” we are lauding it with nominations.

The film depicts two Spanish doctors trying to get past a road barrier in the African bush somewhere (seriously, they give us no clues as to where this is supposed to be or when), when [SPOILER ALERTS: I'm going to spoil everything and I don't even care] shit hits the fan and they are kidnapped, beaten, and forced to kneel in the dirt while the local homicidal maniac of a general instructs the local child soldiers on how to be real men and murder interlopers. When the male doctor is killed, his girlfriend/wife is raped by one of the leaders before escaping during a bullet-laden blitz that kills basically everyone in the camp except her and young boy. She handcuffs herself to the kid, drags him into a truck, and drives him off to the city. Cut to that boy, a decade later, reading to a large audience of presumably-Spanish students about his experience as a conscripted soldier. His white savior stares back at him with tears in her eyes as she witnesses her good works in action. Fade to black.

I’m being kind of harsh. Maybe too harsh, but it really was that bad. Torture porn plus an uncomplicated, unexamined white savior narrative = lazy and dangerous storytelling.

avant5. Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Everything is Lost) On the other end of the spectrum from Aquel No Era Yo, I absolutely loved this French drama [SPOILER] about a mother in the last, desperate hours of planning and preparation before she leaves her abusive husband. While this could have skewed towards a general, reductionist overview of the Horror of Domestic Violence (kind of like how Aquel decided to address Horrifying Violence in Africa and How We Can Save the Children), Avant instead fleshed out the micro-universe of this particular woman, her children, and her friends. Under this super tight magnifying glass, her trauma is local and concentrated, amplifying the impact of the story far beyond the 20 minutes it was allowed.

Aquel felt like someone sat down and said, “I want to make a really dramatic, really suspensful, really terrifying, really emotional short film….hm…you know what would be uber terrifying? Watching a white doctor get raped by scary black men! And then she’ll overcome it, and oh man, the tears will be intense! Yes!”

Avant felt like the filmmakers did the reverse. They wanted to tell a very specific story of a suburban mom of two who, by all outward appearances, is living a perfectly ordinary life but secretly negotiates fear and pain every day. Turns out everyday violence can be every bit as suspensful as African warlords with big guns.

Related Post: On why “Strong female characters” is a useless designation.

Related Post: Your recommended viewing if, like me, you suffer immense media FOMO.

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The Short Haired Lady

I told my friend the other day that I was obsessed with Robin Wright’s hair on House of Cards and she replied, “Yes, because you’re obsessed with your hair.” Right. Nothing like a little self-adoration disguised as celebrity worship! The truth is, I wrote a whole essay on it this week for Role/Reboot

I was inspired by the mostly-excellent Laurie Penney New Statesman explanation about why men’s rights activists* are so revolted by women with short hair, but I also wanted to talk about how transformative my short hair has been for me and my presentation of self. That’s not to say that short hair functions like that for all women, nor should it, only that it was a big step in reconciling the way I look on the outside with the way I feel on the inside. For me. 

And this isn’t a tirade against beauty products or beauty culture, only against the expectations and assumptions of beauty products and beauty culture. On the flip side of the equation, I have found a deep and unshakeable love for getting my nails professionally manicured. After 25 years of literally never painting my stubby excuses, I have found that the ritual of a weekly manicure is something I enjoy on an aesthetic and emotional level. I would deeply resent anyone telling me that polished finger nails are a requirement of female professionalism, but as a form of self-care and an hour of quiet alone-time, I find it incredibly rewarding.

Anyway, after those digressions, enjoy a few more thoughts on hair:

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*If you’re not familiar with the term, “men’s rights activists” are not as benign as they sound. While there are certainly worthy rights of men for which to advocate (say, the presumption of equal parental custody), MRAs, as they are known online, are trolls who believe feminism has deprived them of their right to fuck any women they like. Read more about them here, but I will not be linking to any of their content.

Related Post: I get pitches from beauty product companies

Related Post: On wrinkles and Love Your Body Day

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