Let’s Do The Twist!

People love to update old classics with modern twists and sensibilities. But be careful—it isn’t always so easy.

Take the Veronica Mars episode “One Angry Veronica.” Based on the timeless 12 Angry Men, Veronica gets jury duty and seems all too ready to dismiss a latina woman’s claim that she was assaulted by two white, well-off boys (09ers, as the show calls them) until one jury holdout makes a compelling case. After that it’s Veronica’s job—as teenage detective and jury foreman—to convince the rest of the jury to vote “guilty” on the two boys in question. vm_2x10

The “twist” is that this time instead of the defendant, a latinx person is the plaintiff, with the justice system still “working” to defend the actual (white) perpetrators of the crime. Problem is, there’s a big difference between 12 Angry Men’s use of the criminal justice system vs. Veronica Mars‘. For starters, the film had the “innocent until proven guilty” quality, where jurors are instructed to only convict if there’s no reasonable doubt in their minds. The entire movie centers on the bug of reasonable doubt spreading from one juror to the next until the climactic monologue that convinces the lone hold out. In Veronica Mars, it’s much less interesting—both legally and narratively—for the hold out to say that she has an inkling of the defendants lying to cover their ass; they’re not supposed to be guilty until proven innocent. I see what the writers were trying to do here, commenting on the racial and class divides in Neptune, but it’s not the update to 12 Angry Men they seem to think they’ve earned.

Same with Selfie, a single-season show starring John Cho and Karen Gillan in a modern retelling of My Fair Lady. Only this time it’s Eliza Dooley; a self-absorbed, social media obsessed pharmaceutical rep; and her straight-laced boss Henry Higgs, who she enlists the help of to assist her in learning there’s more to life than likes and shares.

selfie-castOnly here’s the thing: In My Fair Lady, Eliza was treated poorly because she was lower social class, and her manners are a reflection of that. Ass that he is, Henry Higgins’ “project” was ultimately set out to make high-society London the butt of the joke; he wants to illustrate the fact that the only thing that separates someone like Eliza from the upper-class is properly taught speech, an accent. His “experiment” is a stupid bet, but it also inherently implies that Eliza is worthy of good treatment.

Unlike Selfie, which instead of commenting on how a relatively arbitrary indicator of social class (speech) is used to artificually elevate one class over the other, is basically just saying that heavily gendered and youth-bent personality traits have no place in successful society.

While perhaps neither of these transgressions are so egregious that they can completely spoil what are essentially jumping off points, it’s as if the writers have a woeful disregard for the way the originals intended to jump off to. Ultimately their “twists” aren’t really twists are all, just poor adaptations.

 

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When silence is deafening.

Leslie Jones has had a rough summer. Between the launch of her well-received (if not high-grossing) blockbuster, a renewal of her SNL contract, and her invitation to the 2016 Olympics she’s had a great summer. But she has had a rough summer. And it’s all thanks to trolls.

et_071016_lesliejonesscandalhuluIt started when Ghostbusters was released, and Jones began receiving a near constant barrage of hate-filled messages. When she decided to not hide the racism and sexism she received on social media any longer, it drove her off Twitter for a few days. And then just today her website got hacked, with malicious hackers posting photos of her and her passport/driver’s license, and even her phone number.

On Twitter it’s lead to an outpouring of sympathy, anger, and love for Leslie. But none from her coworkers. And that silence is speaking louder than anything else.

At worst they’re turning their back on a co-worker who’s on the receiving end of a firehose of personal, harmful attacks just for starring in the same movie they did. The most optimistic way to look at it is that, as her friends, they are reaching out in real life and ways more effective and out of sight of the public than social media. Perhaps they’re doing so to not wade into the fray or paint a target on their own backs (or, as high-profile women on social media, simply turn around so people can see it).

But how can that be the best case scenario? How can we continue to accept the barrage of sexism, racism, and hate spewed at women—and in particular women of color—on social media as a “norm”? Why do companies seem to think that this isn’t a flaw only a byproduct?

What luck, for these trolls, that they are able to just represent the status quo and not stand out as a black woman. What luck. What a fucking curse.Lemonade Gif smashing window

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.

Through Confirmation Bias Glasses

Everyone’s got it. You form an opinion, you see a pattern, and your brain starts working to confirm it. Most of the time it’s no big deal. But it can be dangerous as soon as you encounter anything that seems to fall in an “other” category.

It’s how police officers overwhelmingly suspect people of color of crimes, even when the cops are 50 percent people of color themselves. It’s how shows like Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat can become the black or asian (respectively) family show, even when their families are closer to the average American family unit than Modern Family. It’s also how you get reporting like this, from The Mary Sue about the rumors that Sony is passing on the Ghostbusters sequel because the first one lost them money:

In fact, within the body of the article it reports that Sony has made no such decision either way, but weirdly connects that to its other Ghostbusters plans in order to draw conclusions:

Sony won’t comment on whether it has banished a sequel to the netherworld, but perhaps tellingly, a rep says the studio actively is pursuing an animated Ghostbusters feature that could hit theaters in 2019 and an animated TV series,Ghostbusters: Ecto Force, which is eyeing an early 2018 bow. Both are being guided by Reitman, who firmly is back in charge of the Ghostbusters empire via Ghost Corps., a subsidiary with a mandate to expand the brand across platforms. (It was former Sony film chief Amy Pascal who first embraced Feig’s vision for the live-action reboot, not Reitman or Rothman.)

Now, we’ve known about this upcoming Ghostbusters animated film since the end of 2015, and reported on the film finding a director in March of this year. Yet, with the sly phrase “perhaps tellingly,” this article presents its existence, as well as the existence of Ghost Corps. as a direct result of Ghostbusters’ box office. Ghostbusters was also a Ghost Corps. project! And yet, if you were to read this with no other information or context, you’d think that Ivan Reitman had nothing to do with Ghostbusters as a film, and created Ghost Corps. as a response to its failure.

What’s “telling” is the unnecessary dig at Amy Pascal, separating Reitman and Rothman from her as if Reitman didn’t also produce this movie. Why did that need mentioning? Oh right, because we want to make sure that people know that it was the woman in the equation who thought this movie was a good idea, and let’s all remember she’s not working there anymore. What’s frustrating is that a female writer wrote this piece.

Confirmation bias can be a tricky drug to get a handle on. It takes constant checking of what we know to be true versus what we believe to be true. And it causes real damage, from police brutality all the way to showrunners and directors of color who feel afraid to make experiences around their lives (as opposed to white lives) because then it “wouldn’t be universal.”

And the fault can be spread everywhere: Even when critics, for instance, are trying to build momentum around a show lead by women or POC, they often do so at the sake of its universality. It goes from being the critically acclaimed new show on the block to the critically acclaimed girl show coming out. And in that sort of instance, anyone involved in making it who is that characteristic (girl, POC, LGBTQ, etc.) becomes implicated in its success—and more notably its failures.

Amy Pascal greenlit hundreds of movies during her time, will she be held to the fire on Spiderman: HomecomingFuryJames Bond? Probably not.

Too often creators are conflated with the works they’ve done, if they’re anything aside from a straight white guy. Don’t let confirmation bias lead you to misunderstand what they’re doing.

 

 

 

All the ladies, who independent

In the wake of a couple, disastrous pieces written by male journalists about female movie stars—one on whether Renee Zellweger was the same person if she’s changed her face and voice, the other that starts with a lecherous lede on Margot Robbie—there’s been a lot of examination of what profiles of celebrities mean, how we talk about famous women, and why we need to do better. But I’ve also heard a lot of runarounds.

“The piece was bad, but I’m uncomfortable with straight-up banning men from writing about women.”

“What’s the big deal? They make their living with their face, it’s fair game.”

“We write about male actors’ bodies and faces all the time anyway.”

Here’s the thing: We don’t; not nearly in the same way, to the same degree, or placed within the same societal context. And while no one is suggesting that a ban on men writing profiles about women is something that could actually happen, it is worth interrogating what people mean when they suggest it.

They mean that they’re tired of profiles being written about women in a way that no women would ever write it. Not because all writers are special snowflakes whose words are delivered by their individual Pokemon of creativity, but because there are things men just won’t pick up about writing for, and about, women. I can ask any woman in my life and they can tell you the difference between a female character written (or shaped) by a woman, and one shaped by a man. Sometimes it’s the little details—The demented takedown of the “Cool Girl” trope in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—other times it’s the whole shebang that gives it away (most comic book “empowered” ladies).

Take Harley Quinn: A long, tortured history has lead her to become what many view as one of the most flawed and engaging comic book women ever. She’s strong, she’s grown into and away from an abusive relationship, she’s sexual, she’s fun. But in the hands of male comic book writers and directors she’s merely strong, fun, and—perhaps most prominently—sexy.

“Margot Robbie does have fun with the character. When the film gives her room to breathe she nails Harley’s acrobatic and madcap personality. But the movie refuses to reckon with the clearly abusive nature of her relationship with the Joker (played by Jared Leto), who spends the film trying to save her,” writes Angelica Jade in Nylon. “[Director David] Ayer can’t help gazing at her body and having characters remark on how hot she is…Instead, Suicide Squad is more content to ogle her and have her shoot off one liners that act as paltry representations of agency and humanity. ‘I sleep where I want, when I want, with who I want,’ Harley says to a guard early on in the film before licking the bar as a come-on. It’s a frat boy’s idea of empowerment.”

It’s that difference that men—even well-intentioned ones—can’t often pick up on. It’s the difference between a fictional comic book character being forced to wear skimpy clothes while crime-fighting and Beyonce choosing her next leotard for a performance. Both exist within the male gaze, but only one is able to exist (at least somewhat) independent from it. uh-your-final-warning-you-know-i-give-you-life-you

‘Cause we are sisters

As Frozen moves off the throne of “most recent animated release that’s taken over our toys, our vitamins, and ourselves” and moves into production on Frozen 2, I’m starting to see a lot of people talking about how Frozen was never the best sister story from Disney anyway. Lilo & Stitch was.

Here’s my rebuttal: They both are.

As a middle sister who grapples with depression, I understood all too well the mixture of shame, embarrassment, and sadness Elsa felt when she hid herself (and her powers) away from Anna all those years. I knew the feeling of thinking that if you could just get yourself under control you could release yourself from your self-made prison. And my sisters knew the feeling of having a sister hide out in her room. sisters

For all you can say about Frozen‘s rushed plot or some of the worser songs of the Disney canon, sitting in the theater I recognized the feelings there—I felt the feelings there, for the characters and for myself. That’s good work.

But I’m also a sister who’s got a good 15 years on her youngest sister. As we watched her celebrate her ninth birthday this week, I saw the same spark and creativity that painted Lilo’s world; the zest and kindness she feels towards everyone and everything she wants to welcome into her fun. When I rewatched Lilo & Stitch recently, it hit me that I understood Nani’s sense of responsibility for her younger sister. Sure my parents are still alive and I’m not tasked with raising her, but this situation is much more relatable to me than it was when I first saw the film 14 years ago. deja-vu-the-recycled-feminism-of-disney-s-frozen-2710c683-a042-479f-b873-43cc3c563cd6-png-37570

That the feeling rung true to me 14 years prior and still now, as I am closer to that possibility (and hopefully not too close) shows the strength of the connection built there.

To me, neither of these films are better than the other—at least, not on the grounds of their sister work. There’s an argument to be made that Frozen was able to be celebrated because it was about two white girls, even if it somewhat recycled the feminism of Lilo & Stitch. That shouldn’t be unexplored. But to me that doesn’t make Frozen bad, or redundant. These are two, distinct and graceful stories about sister love. Here’s to many more.

Bad, maybe. Fleshed out, for sure.

We aren’t living in an age of “bad mom” culture. We’re just seeing more experiences.

Back in the day there were three channels. Then there were more. But over the decades while the number of options increased exponentially, the number of experiences we saw on screen did not. Especially for women, and notably for moms.

We got dead moms, good moms, absent moms—but few of these tropes, let alone the shows that make them, focused on the moms point of view. Like many other things in the age of Peak TV and 21st century culture, we’re getting more stories and removing the barriers for representing them.

I love my mom; she’s one of the most amazing women I know, and certainly my favorite mom. But I can’t pretend to know everything that happened in her life, how she feels always, and what her life is like when I’m not around. A show based around me featuring my mom is much different than a show centered on my mom.

mila-kunis-and-kristen-bell-break-all-the-parenting-rules-in-the-bad-moms-trailer

Mila Kunis, Katharyn Hahn, and Kirsten Bell get to be “bad moms” who hang out with each other and sometimes prioritize themselves over their kids. Jane Villanueva gets to make choices to be around Mateo while her Mom gets to make choices that seem irresponsible. Lorelai Gilmore gets to be her daughter’s best friend and Rayna James gets to build a thriving career. 

Don’t mistake expanding the narrative for simple mud-slinging at the women who raise us. Let them have a chance to tell their story now.

Framed

Stranger Things is the hit of the summer (if such a show can exist anymore). It’s talked about by everyone, seemingly everywhere you go—maybe even in the upside down place! But it’s also just the latest in a long line of sci-fi that perpetuates classic privilege structures.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed Stranger Things a lot. But it’s also one more nostalgia-laced artifact popping up in 2016. This year there’s a lot. It seems like a convenient way to get back to “the good ol’ days,” without having to say “I don’t want to take on the burden of diversity and inclusion in my pop culture.” Returning to the 80s is a prime way of achieving just that without having to explicitly not make room for more, let’s say, liberal ideals.

Paying serious homage (like Stranger Things) or rebooting shows whole brand (Boy Meets World, X-Files, Fuller House) from bygone eras in the name of nostalgia is essentially making pop culture great again—with all the baggage that phrase carries with it. The philosophy is not inherently misguided, but may and often gets a hall pass to ignore people or issues that were invisible in the 80s, 90s, and even 2000s.

It’s something that pops up a lot in science fiction: The framing of the narrative or reality of a given world is used to cut out and around marginalized people. The X-Files came out in the 90s, before modern campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite or Peak TV which have allowed for more voices on TV. But even there the show is framed so that viewers take Mulder’s less desirable traits—bullheadedness, propensity for throwing himself into danger, and (perhaps most importantly) skepticism towards Scully’s ideas and credentials—as all in the service of the greater good. The audience doesn’t have to acknowledge that Scully has been fighting this fight all her life to get preeminently educated and informed. Mulder knows about aliens! Which are real! Don’t interrogate any internalized misogyny any closer.

Two words: Really Mulder?

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Bad news: Your “universality” is rife for reboots

Sorry “Ghostbros,” but you can’t have this both ways.

We live in a world where there’s a certain kind of default that’s so ingrained in us it takes some work to root out. That default is white, male, straight, or some combination of these traits. Critics can rant about the dangers of “identity politics” all they want, but the truth is—at least for now—Hollywood sees these as not just safe bets but as the basic. And those outside the scope who aren’t represented, just have to accept it. In fact, we’ve been subconsciously training for this our whole lives; grafting bits of ourselves onto characters who don’t look like us, delighting at the little nuggets that dig deeper.

Which is why the gamergate threats of rebooting female comedies to give us a taste of our own medicine is so off-point. As I’ve written before, stories about women, people of color, LGBTQ people, etc. are naturally imbued with another layer of storytelling. Historically comedies with mostly female cast members are about characters in specifically gendered situations. “9 to 5”; “Clueless”; “Mean Girls”; “Legally Blonde” all exist because the protagonists are female, and dealing comedically with how that affects their world. You can lift these stories and gender-swap them (You could argue that’s what “Horrible Bosses” did with Charlie Day’s storyline) but it would remove the foundation of the gender dynamics from the story.

Male stories, on the other hand, not so much. The stories are built to be “universal” even if they aren’t actually trying to represent anyone. There’s no gendered byproduct to an all-male ghostbusting team. It’s inherently designed not to be; it’s just the default.

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So as “Ghostbusters” (2016) continues to rake in cash and goodwill, let some men stew in threats about gender-flipping their own reboots. Frankly I’d love to see you try. By design it won’t be as easy—though, they’ll probably have an easier time with studio heads.

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#InternationalWitchesDay

I really enjoyed The Witch. It’s the kind of horror movie that doesn’t go for jump-scares, but creeps under your skin and makes itself at home for days after you’ve seen it. But there’s one thing that bothers me about it.

There’s a lot to pick apart in this “New England folktale,” but one of the key components was Thomasin’s role in the family, and in the greater world. She attracts Caleb’s wandering gaze, her mother’s ire, her father’s goals of “bounding Thomasin out.” It’s possible to read The Witch‘s folktale as one that delivers Thomasin from the evil (or at least mistreatment) of her family to a happier life. The movie distinctly notes that Thomasin is budding into a woman, and while her family isn’t sure how to handle her the witches of the forest are. They see all she can be.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 1.59.37 PMBut that’s only insofar as the movie allows us into her mindset. At the end when we see her make her choice to “live deliciously” as Black Phillip/the Devil offers her it’s bittersweet and triumphant: Her family has died around her (or whatever happened to the twins), the farm fallen to ruin, and she has no where to go where she won’t be punished for crimes she did not commit. And so she chooses witchcraft, and becomes more happy and free than we’ve ever seen her. It’s a happy ending, if the movie pivots itself around her.

While The Witch seems to take pride in not answering all our questions (sometimes justly so) it also leaves us unclear on where Thomasin’s headspace really is: As her brother’s adulthood starts to observe her own, as her mother takes out her anguish on her, as her father lets her take the fall—does she know? Does she care? As Angelica Basten wrote for Vague Visages “We watch many figures gaze upon Thomasin, but never are we privy to her gaze.” It’s a subtle shift in construction, but it’s something that, as Basten writes, might not be so foreign or extraneous to a female filmmaker.

It’s the sort of thing that’s so unappreciated, almost always unnoticed. It wasn’t until yesterday’s #BitchFlicks chat, when they asked how film could change if schools emphasized women’s film history. More people would start to realize the singularity of our film narratives; how few stories are told from a woman’s gaze and how conditioned we are to see men’s as “normal.”

It’s exciting to see a woman throw off the shackles of “the norm” and accept the freedom offered her, even if that comes in dark, mysterious ways. The Witch is a great example of that. I just really hope that was intentional.