Commodified Feminism Is Gonna Kill Us

I mean think about it for a second.

How else do we get fragrance creators telling us what female empowerment smells like? Or articles telling us that Stranger Things is “not the feminist show of our dreams?” No duh; that’s why it’s of our dreams. And that’s all before we get into how the article slights teenage girls for making irrational decisions about dating and moms for grieving their missing kids, all the while slamming those teens for wearing makeup and yelling at the moms (cash-strapped and frantic as they are) for not.

st_107-108_unit_0754_r_cropThese are the sort of ghosts of philosophies that
are haunting modern feminism discourse. There is something to be said for the fact that narratives frequently dismiss women who don’t fit a standard (attractive) archetype, or how a character who undergoes abuse is doing so because the creator framed it that way. But there’s a difference between Game of Thrones‘ quick trigger on putting any and every woman through sexual assault, and showing that sometimes teens—even teens who have sex on the regular—can be assholes about people having sex.

To flatten all feminist concepts into basic buzzwords—”slut-shaming,” “looking pretty,” “love-triangles”—ignores not just what feels fresh about shows like Stranger Things who feature an array of female characters, but tramples all over the progress that got us here. In another world Stranger Things would’ve been just about the men in Will’s orbit, finding Will by kicking ass. In Stranger Things, it’s about a community.

Shows aren’t perfect; lord knows Stranger Things wasn’t. Ideologies aren’t perfect. Neither are the people that hold them. But holding things you love to dichotomous standards of “feminist” or “not feminist” is a sure fire way to ruin things you love and feminism.

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The Sum of Their Parts

Warning: I’ve now seen “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and will be referring to parts of the plot fairly freely in the post below. Also MCU is short hand for “Marvel Cinematic Universe” 

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Trailer-3-Team-In-AirOne of the overarching themes running rampant in Joss Whedon’s “Age of Ultron” (and, believe you me, there are many) is about teamwork, and whether it matters how a team is broken down. Fittingly, it’s a similar allegory for how Marvel churns out their films.

Sure, there’s the the criticism that all their blockbusters are homogenous, or that they’re just another cog in the Marvel-complex that demands that all box offices kneel before it. But that’s selling short the true vision of the entire operation, and frankly that’d be a dumbass thing to do.

Marvel is building a universe. An imperfect one, but an awe-inspiring one nonetheless. It’s got action, it’s got chapters, and—in my book—above all, it’s got heart.

Take Tony Stark. When we first met him in the gamble that was 2008’s “Iron Man” he was the man who would shirk responsibility with any chance he got. By the end, he had transformed his PTSD into some serious firepower. That could’ve been the end of the arc (and had “Iron Man” been a bomb it likely would’ve been) but as Devin Farci notes in a post for birth. movies. death., all the movies since then have traced and pulled on this arc in powerful new ways, culminating in the most recent release:

[In “Ultron] when the Scarlet Witch shows Tony a destroyed future, his PTSD kicks in again. It’s important to understand that while standard narratives would have a hero getting over his PTSD, in reality you never do – you just live with it, hopefully dealing with it but never leaving it behind. And that PTSD can return, can rear its ugly head and fuck you up all over again. And that’s what happens to Tony.

Tony’s post-script has now morphed into a new arc. The guy who didn’t give a shit in Iron Man now cannot stop giving a shit. His journey has taken him from shirking responsibility to accepting responsibility to, in Ultron, embracing ALL the responsibility. This is an incredible arc, a profound change of a character who still remains recognizable after all this time.

Writing off any “Iron Man” or “Avengers” flick as just another in the mega-wheel that is Marvel Studios right now as more of the same misses the larger picture—and the profoundly engaging character development that goes on in between (and during) all the fights. iron-man-jericho

And if you read Farci’s piece (which you should, because it’s fascinating; here’s the link again) the roots of everyone’s arcs in “Ultron” can be traced back through the MCU so far (and presumably foreshadow arcs in the next phases as well). Like the titular Avengers, Marvel has built a universe that triumphs in not only its breadth, but in its details as well. As a reader of the comics, it’s the best kind of fan service I can ask for. That they all work within and towards the same vision—building a cohesive MCU—warms my heart.

It’s also the same reason I’m so ambivalent on DC’s offerings. Ever the competitive comic industry, DC has now started building its own cinematic universe, but theirs is without any sort of vision. Thus far the sum of their parts hasn’t been all that promising. Their world so far has been most successful with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and that’s over.

Now they’re starting from scratch while at the same time running to stand still next to Marvel, and it’s got the overwhelming potential to be messy. As Mike Ryan notes for Uproxx, “The Avengers” was a culmination of the story thus far; “the orgasm after four years of foreplay.”

So far from DC’s universe we’ve seen “Man of Steel,” (which admittedly I didn’t care much for), and though it’s unclear how that piece fits into the larger whole, they’re already rushing to put out “Batman vs. Superman,” which will introduce four new characters, not to mention a new face for Batman. It’s messy sure, but if it were all working as part of a larger, coherent sum we could forgive a bit of messiness (I’m looking at you, “Iron Man 2”). But as Ryan notes, it’s not quite that simple:

But the problem is DC doesn’t have a Kevin Feige – a studio head that also has a deep personal knowledge of these characters. I’ve interviewed Feige four times over the last couple of years — the man knows his sh*t. That’s not a ruse, he’s legitimately a fan of these characters. He never speaks like someone coming from the business side of this operation, he talks to you like he’s got the best toy collection on the block and knows exactly how to display them. But the funny this is, DC legitimately has the best toy collection – they have access to every DC character, as opposed to Marvel, who doesn’t. The problem is, they just don’t know how to display or position that collection.

Marvel fan or not, you have to hand it to them for how they’ve built up an empire on solid foundation.

Whedon is a master at balancing while exploring the subtler dynamics of a team, and it’s thanks to his hand that “The Avengers” movies have been able to stand on the shoulders of all the films that came before them. It’s going to be a bit of juggling act to switch up directors now, but with any luck the Russo brothers are up to the challenge of taking Marvel’s vision and weaving it with those character arcs. Because so far all the puzzle pieces have fallen right into place, and they don’t look like that’s going to stop anytime soon.

Hell, they’ve even made “Ant Man” look promising.

antman-thumbs-up1

The Changing of the Nightshift Guard

As one might expect from a 20-something journalist raised in the liberal-hotbed of Seattle, I have been watching comedy news shows since I was a wee lass. “The Daily Show” was there as long as I can remember, catching a peek on my way downstairs as my mom sent us to bed after “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I still remember when “The Colbert Report” was just that guy who produced some of my favorite sketches from TDS (his religion segments are some of my strongest memories from when I actually got to watch the show). And so seeing both Colbert and Jon Stewart step down from their desks is, in a way, a momentous occasion for me.

stewart_colbert_election_2012Not that I’d watched them religiously in the days since. I did get some schooling done. It’s a lot, like Ian Crouch notes for The New Yorker, like your Facebook friends, who you constantly see updates from but rarely catch up with. Because in the vast world that is late-night TV, how many people are skipping their favorite fictional shows for a real talk show, when they could catch the highlights the next day?

These days, the most interesting thing about late-night television is the one thing that it has in common with a Presidential election: the race to fill an open chair. And in both governance and late night, once the work begins many people lose interest. -Crouch

 

That’s the problem with late-night talk shows: very little has evolved since they were invented in the past. And where they once filled a very real purpose, they now sit like a trophy on a mantle. Every once and a while there’ll be a new way to present it to audiences, but it feels to comfortable where it is to make any changes.

Done with confusing (and in the case of my own, weak) analogies? Me too, so let’s cut to the chase: Late-night talk shows have a superfluidity that they didn’t have back in the day. Not only that, but they’re run largely by white men. When was the last time you sat through a whole late-night show—and your grandparent wasn’t there for Letterman’s top 10?

The whole concept of late-night talk shows as a formula has remained very stagnant, and leaves the whole thing feeling very dated.

In some ways late-night has maintained a symbiotic relationship with the Internet; now those famous people who come on to promote things or those extra-funny zingers can go out into the world, beyond the audience who happened to be tuned in at the time. But it’s also removing the need for the show in the first place. These shows could be released exclusively as viral web videos and most people wouldn’t notice a difference.

Seth Meyers Visits "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"So when I tune into find out who the new face is in the changing tide of late-night talk shows, I’m more interested in what fresh perspective they’re bringing to the table. And yeah, a lot of that is whether they’ll be something other than an white, male comedian, but that’s not the end of the discussion (Jimmy Fallon has done the lion’s share of work for bringing fun back to the late-night talk shows), but the sad state of late-night TV is that without diverse voices it leaves a very outmoded doldrum on your TV in the wee small hours of the morning.

Will Colbert’s biting commentary have a place? I hope so. Just like I hope, in a different way, that Trevor Noah will be able to elevate Stewart’s insight to a new level. If there could be more diversity in late-night, there might just be a reason for it to still exist.

Nothing but Netflix

I do love me a good media brawl, and thanks to CBS I’ve got one.

Essentially what happened is that CBS, home to your favorite laugh tracks like “2 Broke Girls” and “The Big Bang Theory,” was one of the many companies in attendance at the UBS Global Media Conference last month. And one CBS exec named David Poltrack took a swing at Netflix, saying that while the streaming/DVD service was becoming a player, it was far from the champion at picking winners.

However, he said, “it has been more than one year since Netflix introduced a true new hit program.”…

Netflix’s “batting average is below that of the pay cable networks as well as the broadcast networks,” Poltrack said.

He added, “They do not appear to have found any magic formula for success in that game.”

CNN story on the matter

Now sure, Poltrack has some points: not all of the shows have been winners, or even goldmines like OITNB or “House of Cards.” “Bojack Horseman,” despite its stellar cast and overall quality got off on the wrong hoof, and hasn’t garnered the same buzz other Netflix shows have.

But doesn’t it just seem petty to pick a fight with a network (for lack of a better term) that’s also hosting your own content? Poltrack goes on to acknowledge the “frenemy” nature of Netflix, but I think he would do well to remember that Netflix–competition or no–is doing plenty of things right.

CBS wtf?
CBS wtf?

For instance, they’re breaking down barriers. “Orange is the New Black” is the most diverse show out there, arguably, and has kicked in a lot of doors, including for Laverne Cox and a wider discussion of LGBTQ and racial issues. “House of Cards” received a whopping 13 primetime Emmy nods for its second season, and lead actress Robin Wright became the first to pick up a Golden Globe (or any major award for that matter) for an online-only television series. Meanwhile CBS is gaining notoriety amongst the online community for its nonstop attempts to pander to the lowest common denominator with its humor and politics.

For a streaming service who only recently crashed on the scene to be making such influential original content? I think Netflix is doing alright. Not to mention that Netflix has produced a number of miniseries, films, and comedy specials with high-profile comedians. And viewers are eating it up: Netflix originals accounted for 1.1 billion of the hours of programs watched on the site. To me, they’re only just getting started.

Because perhaps one of the most important fights Netflix is promoting is the use of windowing, which is when major studios release content in a specific way (Movies then at-home devices, USA then other countries, for example) in order to boost sales and revenue. It’s a holdover from when you couldn’t simply pirate or stream anything you wanted with the Internet, but it often leaves Netflix in a bind (and accounts for why U.S. Netflix is so much more flush than the 49 other libraries they have). When Netflix releases their content it’s everywhere, all the time. When CBS releases their content it’s…well, if I even want to watch it I’ll let you know.

The fact of the matter is, Netflix is more than the sum of its buzz–and not only because they provide consumers with content from all sorts of places. It might behoove CBS and its executives to remember that. And that Netflix has already seen to one titan’s fall.

blockbuster_closing

Notorious Ev-er-Deen

I haven’t seen the latest “Hunger Games” movie. I tend to see things in packs, or at least with my best friend/co-reviewer, and currently our lives are a bit busy to rush out and see things. Additionally, “Mockingjay” was probably my least favorite of “The Hunger Games” novels, because I found the focus to be a bit bizarre.

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_But I am excited to see “Mockingjay: Part 1” because it seems like the media and the movie are finally getting to the essence of the book I’m so interested in: Katniss and her role in the war machine. And so I’ve been following reviews, essays, and any media I can get my hands on that discusses this kernel.

Which is why I was so disappointed when I read the Village Voice’s review, which seems dedicated to wholly misinterpreting Katniss’ character.

I can’t speak for the film, but I’ve always read her as an demisexual (or somewhere on the grey scale) young woman of color, who fights for herself, and–by the time we reach “Mockingjay”–is suffering from some pretty severe PTSD. It’s an element of the books that seems to have been glossed over (perhaps in an attempt to earn a PG 13 rating), but I believe that “Mockingjay” finally delves into Katniss figuring out what role she’s really playing.

Of course she’s not a big picture thinker; you show me a 17 year old who could grow up in a world like that and suddenly think they could concoct a master plan to overthrow the government. Up until now Katniss, who was raised in this totalitarian wasteland and had political messages drilled into her, has focused exclusively on how she can help her family, her friends, and herself. In an odd way this combined mix of passion and naiveté about the players around her make her the perfect face of the revolution.

As the Village Voice writes:

The narrative thrust is simply Katniss shooting several pro-revolution commercials. But it works because we’re fascinated by media fights — thousands occur online every day. Despite the dystopian setting, a story beat where a lullaby that Katniss casually sings on camera ripples onward to become the chant of four dozen civilians marching toward their own massacre feels like both high-concept tragedy and the next evolution of #AlexFromTarget. Turns out when Collins wrote Mockingjay, in 2010, she was predicting not only America in two centuries, but the accidental overnight internet instafame that was just four years away.

Though, again, I haven’t seen the movie yet, this paragraph seems to be so profoundly missing the point. Katniss is not #AlexFromTarget. She did not get her picture taken and let loose the cries of war. Collins was not predicting the overnight web fame, with her book about young people being massacred as the government looks on. “The Hunger Games” did not become a multi-billion dollar franchise by exploiting our love for “media fights.”

As we await the Ferguson decision tonight, many of us are left in the real world wondering what kind of today we live in and tomorrow we’ll wake up to. But it’s clear that the turbulence of Ferguson is more akin to “The Hunger Games'” revolution than #AlexFromTarget ever could be. Writing Katniss off as a mere teenage web star is as inaccurate as saying that Peeta vs. Gale is the focus of the series.

The ramp up after a single tragedy in a sea of thousands is a theme that’s rampant in “The Hunger Games” and an important context for the stage in Ferguson. After all, it’s not Katniss that really starts the rebellion, is it?

 

Breaking bad dichotomies

So apparently Toys R Us sells “Breaking Bad” action figures, who knew, right? Or, more accurately, they used to. Ever since a Florida mom garnered over 9,000 supporters on her change.org petition.

On her petition she wrote:

“Parents and grandparents around the world shop at Toys R Us, online and in [stores], with their children and should not be forced to explain why a certain toy comes with a bag of highly dangerous and illegal drugs or why someone who sells those drugs deserves to be made into an action figure.

“Please sign to join me in asking Toys R Us to stop selling the Breaking Bad dolls and return to the family focused atmosphere for which they are known.”

A point that made “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul cry foul. Paul took to Twitter to condemn the move on Toys R Us’s part, citing the fact that “Grand Theft Auto” and Barbie stayed on the shelves. Which, as Internet comments are wont to do, incited a media cycle of its own. Some supported Paul’s rage against the toy machine, while critics like Mary Elizabeth Williams, took issue with.

Namely the inclusion of Barbie. She concedes that Barbie carries a whole big train of baggage, but what she believes is that young children aren’t (or at least don’t have to be) aware of that.

The whole point of Barbie, unlike the characters on “Breaking Bad,” is that she has a multitude of options in her life. Barbie can be a princess – or a computer engineer. She can be conservative or tattooed.  Pretty sure she’s never been a homicidal drug dealer, though. She doesn’t have to be “damaging,” as generations of women who’ve grown up with her would attest. And she’s sure as hell nobody’s bitch – not even Jesse Pinkman’s.
-Williams for Salon

And I think to a certain degree she’s right. When most kids pick up a doll they are lost in the wonderful freedom of imagination they have. It’s fabulous, what they can bring to a blank slate or even a doll with decades of baggage.

But saying that just because they’re not aware of the messages they’re taking in doesn’t mean they’re processing them is akin to saying that a sponge won’t soak up water if it uses the water for good. (That analogy got away from me a bit, but the feeling is still there).

The reason that we still have racism, sexism, and (more specific to Barbie) plenty of hangups about how women should look is because before people are even talking they are taking in information from their world, and that stays ingrained in their core. It’s not the fact that we can’t identify the problems, it’s that they’re so deep in us sometimes we don’t even realize where they come from or where they’ll lead us.

By saying that Barbie has to be all good or all bad is a false dichotomy, and one that erases a lot of the legitimacy of both sides of the aisle (pardon the pun). Williams is right, that Paul could stand to be a little more aware of the context surrounding dolls, but Paul is right that by removing “Breaking Bad” dolls from stores we’re eliminating all bad from Toys R Us.

For myself, I am a big “Breaking Bad” fan. But when it comes to teaching my baby sister loose morals I think I’ll turn to Jake and Finn rather than Jesse and Walt. Bryan Cranston remains in the running though:

Stay cool Mr. C
Stay cool Mr. C

 

 

Run the World: Why I’m part of the Beyhive

This post is a response to my brilliant friend Eleanor’s post “No Angel: Why I’m not part of the Beyhive.” 

 

Beyonce is everywhere. It’s been almost two decades since she busted onto the scene with Destiny’s Child and she’s still as relevant as ever. Perhaps more so as a solo artist, seeing as how last December she dropped a surprise album that all but broke the Internet. She’s surpassed simple pop star status; she is a lifestyle.

She is no longer merely human, she has been deified. The pop cult has made her their goddess.  -Eleanor Cummins

As I understand it, Eleanor’s problem with this is that she hasn’t done much to earn this. She’s not the first person to build up a business empire, nor does she have a monopoly on fabulous vocals. In fact, considering her ubiquity, Beyonce leads a quiet life, complete with quiet philanthropy.

So if Beyonce really does command a Beygency, why isn’t she using that power for great good?

Neither Eleanor nor I deny she is talented. Girlfriend knows how to own a stage. But unlike Eleanor, I don’t think it’s just because she’s missing an Uncle Ben to sit her down and give her the talk about great power and great responsibility. She’s simply human.

 
Human or Dancer? 

Beyonce has never claimed deity status. She expresses some (I’d argue, well-earned) bravado, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. And though I’d say it’s been a common theme in her work, her latest album contains more glimpses into the inner-workings of Queen Bey than ever.

Her god-status is often expressed by fans often to fully encapsulate how much respect they hold for her. Whether you write it off as hyperbole or not, it speaks volumes of Beyonce’s ability to not only capture but inspire her clientele.

As Eleanor says, much of Beyonce’s power is in her ability to communicate an audience that they are “strong, bold, ready to take on a world that isn’t necessarily ready for them,” which for me indicates that Beyonce’s sway is beyond a dollar amount. Personally speaking, I don’t have a count for the number of times I’ve turned on a Bey anthem to pump myself up. She inspires and commands a higher bar of respect for not just women, but women of color.

 
Coloring outside the lines

Simply existing as a woman of color who commands an empire that could probably defeat a Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae, she is performing an act of social justice. Representation matters, even if the effects of it aren’t immediately apparent. As a pop star, woman of color, and powerful cultural icon she’s not immediately afforded a cone of privacy, and so she owns her image like a boss. She is sexual, sensual, and a sensation, but she is also a mother, a wife, and a person.

 

Yup, these are from the same album.
Yup, these are from the same album.

She is certainly not above criticism. Though I (clearly) am a fan, her self-titled album contains some problematic elements (her husband’s verse that contains reference to domestic abuse, for example). But as a grown woman she addresses these criticisms in her own way: legitimate concerns about her misusing Challenger recordings get a courteous press release, bullshit objections to her being proud of her relationship and her body get called out in musical form. What I respect about Beyonce is not that she is above critique, but that she has a system for evaluating what is worth her responding to, and in what ways, incorporated into her image.

 

Reading the label

As a liberal, 20-something woman in Seattle I’m elated when I see that Beyonce has welcomed the label of ‘feminist’ with open arms. I’m excited when I think about the number of people–young women especially–whose eye balls were seared with Beyonce posing powerfully in front of a huge “Feminist” proclamation at the VMAs this year. This, to me, represents a kind of outreach beyond any dollar amount she could donate.

2014 MTV Video Music Awards - Fixed Show
But I also don’t think Beyonce has an obligation to any sort of proclamation of her beliefs or social justice standpoints. To me, her existence is already a huge statement. When she steps out and really draws attention, there’s an added weight to that because she’s not just throwing her powerful label behind every hashtag. For every #YesAllWomen there’s a #Kony2012.

As an activist myself I can tell you that compromises must be made. There are days when I don’t have the energy to educate someone on why what they’re saying is problematic; conversations I don’t feel like moderating, or places I don’t feel safe calling out the -isms. There are times when I am an activist, but I am not in a place to be active. And the truth of the matter is it’s not my, or Beyonce’s, or Laverne Cox’s, or anybody’s job to be the moderator of social justice.

I love me some celebrities that get down with leveraging their power, but I understand that while on the one hand Jennifer Lawrence is standing up for women and their digital privacy, she is also making offensive claims about how at least the pics show she’s “all lady.” I’m appreciative when those I admire also make a public stand for values I believe in, but I can never expect it of them–and I certainly can’t expect them to own that label with perfection. With the abundance of online social justice communities no one owes somebody a role as educator.

It’s up to Beyonce to use her elevated status for what she wants. She clearly doesn’t play around with her life or her image, and chooses to play most things close to the vest. For me, I’m happy to have a strong woman who–when she decides to–is willing to stand and belt that she was here. Because at the end of the day, she makes me feel like I could run the world.