Man, does this make my nerdy lady heart sad:
“I’m nice men” is such a sexier play than accusing a woman who keeps turning you down and cares about politics of frigidity.
Man, does this make my nerdy lady heart sad:
“I’m nice men” is such a sexier play than accusing a woman who keeps turning you down and cares about politics of frigidity.
I’ve been mildly curious as to what Kal Penn was going to do with himself after he left the White House other than continuing to cash large checks for playing an amiable stoner, and now we know! He’s just sold a single-camera workplace comedy where the workplace is the United Nations to NBC. This should be reasonably exciting for a couple reasons. First, NBC has the workplace comedy thing down pat, and with Parks & Recreation, has experience with workplaces that also happen to be bureaucracies.
Second, the United Nations is deeply marginal in popular culture. It’s periodically shadowy or dangerous, as in the Left Behind books and movies or The Art of War (Wesley Snipes has worked for a surprising number of government or quasi-governmental agencies on film); scandal-ridden, as it will be in the upcoming Rachel Weisz human rights vehicle The Whistleblower; or marginal and ineffective, as in Armando Iannucci scabrous black comedy In the Loop. But unlike, say, the NYPD or the FBI, we don’t have a pop culture trope about how the UN is supposed to function despite the fact that, for all the criticisms leveled at it, it’s a reasonably important gatekeeper in world affairs and thus should probably play a more significant role in our security-oriented popular culture.
And finally, there is a real virtue to people who have actual knowledge about how government works imparting that knowledge to people who make our popular entertainment, or in Penn’s case, being someone who has worked in both government and entertainment and thus has a sense of what might translate in both directions. I’m not saying our pop culture needs to be spinach, but having drama with real roots can eliminate plausibility problems, convey accurate background information in situations where it’s important not to dramatically mislead the audience, and make it possible to land punches of social criticism and satire harder and with much greater accuracy. Complaining about the UN as a world government is both misleading and not particularly illuminating. Poking the institution where it needs tweaking and showing off the breadth and complexity of its work and internal politics is well worth doing and much more interesting.
In light of some recent conversations we’ve been having, I broke out the question “What is the point at which depictions of domestic or sexual violence become gratuitous?” There’s no question that this is a personal question, one that’s particularly inflected by individuals’ experiences with sexual assault and domestic violence and their relationships with folks who have experiences sexual assault and domestic violence, but I got back a lot thoughtful answers from folks about where their lines lie. And I wanted to share some of them from Google Plus and elsewhere.
From Yashoda Sampath:
In lit, if it doesn’t drive a character or the story forward, then it’s gratuitous. Period. If it’s described in unnecessarily loving detail, it’s gratuitous. How do you judge whether it meets those conditions? It differs from person to person…That said, I think this has something to do with the real world. You will never run into aestheticized action violence in the real world, but you are very likely to encounter, be a victim of, or know someone who is a victim of sexual/domestic violence. Because being raped is a real fear, people are more disturbed by it than if their city was blown up, which is not a real fear for most in the Western world in spite of outlier attacks.
From Jason Kuznicki:
Depictions of sexual violence do have to meet a different standard. That’s because nonsexual violence often serves just as well to advance the plot as the author appears to have conceived it. In these cases, we should doubt whether specifically sexual violence is appropriate, particularly if the sexual component has no discernible relationship to the plot.
Why? To give an analogy, suppose it were a literary convention that no one, in whatever era, could ever be stabbed with a knife in fiction. It always, always — always — had to be a broken-off wine bottle.
This would be an incredibly stupid convention. Why would it exist? For no reason that I can imagine. But why does the convention exist that women get raped? Sexism, a reason I can definitely imagine. Unless the author is clearly interested in exploring the theme of sexism, a rape scene is likely to be gratuitous, or just a re-inscribing of a convention every bit as dumb as, but far more distasteful than, the wine-bottle stabbing bit.
I’m still making my pokey way through Portal, but in an effort to further education myself about the theories behind games, over the long weekend, I read Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken. As someone who never particularly thought the genre of self-help had much to offer me, I can safely say it’s the best self-help book for workaholics, particularly those who work in creative fields, I’ve ever read. But while I’d like to believe the book’s larger message, that the mechanics of gaming can help us solve widespread societal problems, I finished it with a lot of questions.
First, the self-help bit. Much of the first section of the book is based on two concepts: fiero, “the Italian word for “pride,”…adopted by game designers to describe an emotional high we don’t have a good word for in English.Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity,” and flow, a term coined by a happiness researcher to describe “the satisfying, exhilarating feeling of creative accomplishment and heightened functioning.” For me, these two concepts and an observation McGonigal quotes from psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith that “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression,” are the best explanation I’ve ever seen of why blogging is so addictive and so satisfying, and why if we’re actually in a Freelance Revolution, it makes sense. Writing blog posts, when I’m in the zone, is a form of flow, creative accomplishment in bite-sized chunks, each of which presents its own opportunity for fiero (not that they’re always actualized, but the potential is there). It makes sense to me that folks would want to seek out this kind of work environment, where they get to try different kinds of things and pursue different kinds of highs from each task.
Noah Berlatsky thinks it’s kind of dull when characters are singled out for no particular reason in young adult novels:
Now, in light-hearted fare like Tintin or the How to Train Your Dragon books, the fact that the unassuming main character keeps stumbling into Very Important Situations is part of the lark. Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, though, both have pretensions — and thus, inevitably, both series struggle more and more under the weight of their own preposterousness as they go along. Voldemort’s elaborate plan to enmesh Harry in the tri-wizard tournament, or President Snow’s elaborate plan to enmesh Katniss in the Hunger Games again…they both make little sense from the perspective of an actual villain who wants the protagonist dead. You want to kill someone, you kill them; you don’t construct an elaborate game which takes a whole novel to elucidate.
But elaborate games make a lot of sense from the perspective of the watching demiurge who wants the protagonist to have a chance to demonstrate his or her glorious bravery and wit and angsting. Along those lines, when Ron gets all pissed at Harry because Harry is always in the thick of everything and it’s not fair, you can’t help but feel that the kid has a legitimate grievance. It really isn’t fair — and the fact that it’s such flagrant special pleading incidentally makes it a lot less fun to read. Harry doesn’t need superpowers because he’s got the greatest power of all — that of a rolling Mary Sue ex machina.
I agree that it becomes tiresome after a while when a villain just can’t finish a fairly vulnerable hero off. But the reason I singled Katniss and Harry out in the post Noah’s responding to is that I think chosenness is one of the biggest strangenesses of our political system. Whether it’s the fact, as Ian Millhiser wrote last week in what should be a must-read post, that our judicial nomination process is designed to prevent people with actual opinions and prior substantive work from reaching the highest benches in the land; the fact that our presidential candidates are more products than they are people, the relationship between merit, experience and ascendency feels distorted and irreversible. Characters like Katniss and Harry help us reckon with the arbitrary events that elevate our leaders, and reconcile ourselves to the idea that sometimes the best we can do is mobilize hard behind what we’ve got.
The bridge is yours.
-Telling people they can’t ask why showrunners were fired probably isn’t going to make those questions go away.
-Glad to hear Community‘s getting gayer, even if not in the core cast.
-It’s too bad that an Al Jazeera reporter got kicked out of a Texas football game.
I missed this piece by Carina Chocano from a couple months back about how much she hates the short-hand “strong female character,” but I wanted to come back to it because I think it dovetails with some conversations we’ve had about plausible female action heroines and how to make female characters seem “strong”:
It started, innocuously enough, with lunch in the kitsch-yet-sinister town of Celebration, where we hoped to be lucky enough to experience a postprandial, regularly scheduled fake snowfall. It took a darker turn after we piled back into the S.U.V., headed to their house to pick up the guns and drove to the indoor gun range. As Rush Limbaugh fulminated at top volume, I slumped in the back seat like a sullen 13-year-old, a gun case resting heavily on my lap, and wondered how I had arrived at this place. What did it mean that I was here? Could I be here and still be me? Who was I? Within about 15 seconds of stepping inside the shooting range, before the guy behind the counter could take my gun order, I burst into tears, ran outside and spent the next couple of hours alone in the car reading Jane Austen.
So here is the question I’m posing: If this story were a scene in a movie, and the movie were being told from the point of view of a young woman, would you describe that protagonist as a “strong female character”? Or would you consider her to be weak?
If weak, would you find it possible to relate to her on the basis of something other than her sex characteristics? Or would identifying with this “feminine” behavior threaten your sense of self, whether you were a man or a woman? Would you consider the scene funny, or not, and if not, why not? And what would a “strong female character” in a movie have done in this situation, anyway? Toss off an epigram and then shoot the radio? Reveal a latent talent for martial arts, jump the rifle-range counter and start pummeling the guy at the desk? Confidently march out the door to the strains of a Motown anthem and never look back? And what would she be wearing? Would boots or stilettos need to be involved? Or would flip-flops or ballet flats be O.K.?
I guess I agree that it might be more useful to have a broader definition of Well-Developed Female Characters, of which Plausible Female Action Heroines is a subset. A movie that’s stuck with me for years is In Her Shoes, the adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s novel of the same name, in which Toni Collette plays a successful professional woman who’s had her self-confidence repeatedly sabotaged by her spoiled, manipulative, but also illiterate younger sister, played by Cameron Diaz in one of her best performances. Neither character is a particularly good person, but the movie holds them responsible for their actions and helps them both to grow. Collette’s character needlessly sabotages a relationship with a man who genuinely loves her, and works to find and address the reasons she’s pushing him away. Diaz’s character, after burning her bridges, goes to live with her grandmother in a retirement community, learns to read, figures out what she wants to do with her life, and makes genuine amends to her sister. Both could easily be stereotypes, but they’re shaded with a specificity that makes them pop off the page. That they don’t start out strong and confident doesn’t matter, because their arcs are interesting and realistic. Ditto for Bridesmaids, which is a story of someone who’s been dealt two knockout blows in short succession finding her way back to herself and to being a decent person again. Annie doesn’t need to be perfect to be compelling.
And it’s worth considering that Plausible Action Heroines don’t all have to present the same way. One of the things I liked a great deal about Avatar: The Last Airbender was the way Katara’s healing powers, a more traditionally feminine water tribe skill, were presented as equal and complementary to combat skills. Similarly, the Kyoshi Warriors have a fighting style that turns feminine accessories like fans into key weapons in their arsenal. When Sokka meets them, he has to be more feminine, rather than less, to become a more skilled fighter. If we had more portrayals of traditionally feminine skills and attributes as sources of strength and power, I think showing women as strong when they take on traditionally male attributes or roles wouldn’t feel like lazy shorthand and instead could be part of a Balanced Action Diet. We need Michelle Yeohs, Sigourney Weavers, and Hit-Girls along with our Angelinas.
This sort of thickheadedness is possible only if one has missed that the composition of the working class hasn’t changed since “All in the Family”. “Reality” shows aside (but how about Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs”?), the top televised fiction programmes are police procedurals like NCIS and CSI and so forth. Cops are labour, right? My favourite network show at present is “Parks and Recreation”, which is a workplace comedy about government employees. Public-sector workers are workers, basically indistinguishable for bricklayers and teamsters, right? Which I guess means that David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously-published novel about IRS employees, “The Pale King”, is a piece of literature about “the lives of working people”. Or if office jobs aren’t Steinbeck enough, try novelist William T. Vollmann’s recent work of literary non-fiction “Imperial”, which gets intimate with the way we live now if we work illegally on farms in California or in Mexican maquiladoras. One of my favourite recent graphic novels is Benjamin Percy and Danica Novgorodoff’s “Refresh, Refresh”, an adaptation of Mr Percy’s stunning 2005 Paris Review story of the same name, about working class teens and their fathers at war in Iraq. It’s not even hard to point to someone “who makes art out of working-class lives by refusing to prettify them”, if one actually pays attention to contemporary literature, film, and TV.
Thinking about this and my debate with Josh Eidelson from back in July, I think there’s a definitional problem. It’s true that we have a lot of mass pop culture (I’m thinking mainly television and movies here, since books are, unfortunately, mostly niche phenomena these days) about the work lives of working-class people. What we don’t have a lot of is pop culture depictions of what it’s like to be not just working-class but poor inside the office and outside of it. We’re good at lampooning the deadening nature of low-level white collar jobs, but less good at looking at what it’s like to get benefits or deal with scheduling a parent-teacher conference around shift work. I remain unconvinced that there’s a big underserved audience for the latter kind of show, but I think it’s a differential difference that’s worth acknowledging. We’re into working-class shows if we can admire the work itself, or laugh sympathetically with the characters as a way to ease our own pain, but our pop culture is less engaged with the less conventionally heroic aspects of being poor.
Florida Rep. Allen West’s fringe anti-Muslim beliefs are a well-established fact, whether he’s doing events with anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller, smearing his Muslim Congressional colleague Keith Ellison, or saying that Islam is an inherently violent religion. So it’s not surprising that he’s commemorating the 10th anniversary September 11 by hosting a screening in congressional offices today of Sacrificed Survivors, a wildly misleading documentary about the efforts to build the Park51 community center produced by the Christian Action Network.
The movie’s anti-Muslim slant is predictable. CAN started in 1990 as an anti-gay rights organization (the Federal Election Commission sued the group for violating election law during the 1992 presidential race, though the case was later dismissed). But it switched targets after September 11 and produced a thinly-sourced jeremiad about the risk of homegrown terrorism called Homegrown Jihad: The Terrorist Camps Around the U.S. in 2009. The group paints the threat of radical Islam as so severe that in its 2008 tax year IRS 990 filings, it explains that while it keeps “other governing documents, certain written policies, and financial statements” at its Virginia offices, “due to the sometimes antagonistic and hostile nature of its’ enemies and opponents to the organizations’ views & purposes, requests to view those items are considered on a case by case basis before inspection privileges are granted.”
Sacrificed Survivors: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Mega-Mosque presents a paranoid and self-justifying worldview, where the only people allowed to have opinions about the uses of Ground Zero are anti-Muslim survivors or relatives of September 11 victims; where the efforts to build Park51 explain larger failures to redevelop lower Manhattan in the wake of the attacks; and where no Muslim can possibly have compassion for September 11 victims or number among them. Some of the more disturbing anti-Muslim sentiments in the movie:
Islam is inherently violent. “Many Hindu women were raped. This is part of Islam,” declares Narain Kataria, president of the Hindu American Intellectual Forum, a hardline group that’s protested the auction of paintings by an Indian artist and speaks out against the influence of Islam in India. “Now you tell me. Any Muslim majority area, can you go there? Can you walk there? Are you free there? Do you feel safe there? The answer is no,” Arish Sahani, the group’s vice president chimes in.
All Muslims share the beliefs of the September 11 hijackers. “The same ideology that drove, that spurred the 9/11 terrorists, to have that same ideology two blocks from where…so many innocent lives were lost, it’s very offensive,” says FDNY Lt. Jim McCaffrey in an interview. The movie expresses absolutely no nuance about the diversity of Islam or the possibility of conflicting religious interpretations, making all Muslims guilty by association.