My friend Ryan has a great post up challenging the accepted wisdom that individual episode recaps ought to be the dominant form of television criticism, and calling for other changes in the way critics conceive of themselves and their obligations to readers. I’m particularly sympathetic to this part of the essay:
Fuck objectivity when it comes to criticism. Seriously. There’s a difference in being able to look at a piece of television objectively and writing about it as such. Instead of hiding personal biases, opinions, and history, these should be part of the critical process. In order to differentiate yourself from other critics, readers should be able to feel that whatever they read from you comes from a place of truth. Whether or not they agree with your assessment is largely irrelevant, and out of your control. But the authenticity of the piece is something you can absolutely control. Owning up to one’s shortcomings is just another way of providing context to the review. Above all, people should be able to identify a piece by you with the byline removed. By letting yourself into the piece, you’re giving yourself a voice online. Trying to be “objective” will only make you sound like everyone else. And who wants that?
Obviously I’m totally biased here, as someone who spends a lot of her time arguing that the politics of culture deserve pride of place alongside aesthetics. But I also think critics have an obligation not simply to disclose what their preferences are, but to engage in a vigorous debate about what constitutes quality. When The Sopranos debuted, an experiment in making viewers relate to and invest in a repulsive criminal who was also a family man was an intriguing experiment. Now, anti-heroes are a dime a dozen and the simple act of going dark doesn’t get you originality points. Similarly, something like Breaking Bad may be part of the anti-hero canon, but it feels like it’s raised the bar for cinematography on television: the way it uses light and color make me look at everything else differently. These norms shift over time. Getting a gay hairdresser in a movie might have been revolutionary in 1985. But it doesn’t cut the mustard now if you want credit for inclusion. We should be laying down a lot of markers, all the time.
Last night’s Glee came with a lot of hype attached, both from the Parents Television Council, which was freaked out by the prospect of teenagers! Losing their virginity! On a mainstream television program! That’s discussed consistently from its first episode! and from gay advocates who were excited to see an emotionally developed plotline about gay teenagers having sex for the first time on a popular show.
If anything, I think the show sort of subverted both of those expectations, ending up chaste and sweet to the point of saccharine. All the characters who had sex for the first time decided to do so from a place of love and commitment. The show was very careful to equate Kurt and Blaine and Rachel and Finn, shooting both couples in essentially similar positions of repose, clasping hands the same way, and similarly clothed. In a way, I think it’s more useful to make the couples as similar as possible, rather than focusing on the mechanical differences between the way they’re going to get down. Given that conservative stereotypes about gay men in particular focus on the idea that gay people are promiscuous and emotionally detached, tenderness is more confrontational to those beliefs than actually shooting a sex scene.
Glee‘s also had a sort of weirdly nasty attitude towards people who have reached adulthood without having sex along the way. That may not be the majority of Americans’ experience, but it does happen for people. And rather than the 40 Year Old Virgin approach, which involved some ribbing, but also a clumsy but good-faith effort to get the titular virgin laid and to explore his feelings and anxieties about sex, Glee‘s tended to treat Emma, its main adult virgin, as if she’s pathological. Her OCD treatment happens almost entirely off-screen, and is framed as if it’s mostly in service of Will finally getting to have sex with her. By contrast, I thought the show did a really nice job with Coach Beiste last night: Dot Jones sold the hell out of what it must be like to have just given up on participating in part of the human experience.
I’m almost done with the second season of Sleeper Cell, and it’s fascinating how much the show changes from the first miniseries to the second. Where we initially got to know the members of the first cell through a combination of frantic action and hanging around, the second cell’s sort of presented to us as a packaged deal and we don’t get to know them as well as people. But more importantly, the second season raised some interesting questions for me about how we address Islamophobia and torture as practiced by the United States government, and how to best build villains that let us condemn those attitudes and behaviors.
There’s the contrast between Darwyn’s three case agents. Ray’s well-intentioned, but not particularly ideologically engaged: to him, terrorism is a crime and it doesn’t seem to be particularly important to him to learn about Islam as a motivating force for that crime. Patrice actually knows a lot about Islam — she’s more knowledgeable about and respectful of mainstream Muslims than Ray is, but she’s also more militant than Ray about fighting extremist forms of the faith. She’s willing to put her body on the line to try to kill extremist Iraqi insurgents. And when she’s killed by those same kinds of extremists, they’re murdering not just another foot soldier, but someone who was working on eliminating the misunderstanding between non-Muslims and Muslims that is jidhaists’ most powerful recruiting tool. Warren Russell, the case officer who replaces Patrice, is all too easy to dismiss as an arrogant, inexperienced ass even though his skepticism of Darwyn’s faith is probably a realistic portrayal of what happens when you go through the FBI’s Islamophobic training regimen. And presenting his distrust of an entire faith as a deeply ingrained institutional problem rather than as something only jerks fall prey to would be more useful and disturbing, an actual spur towards reform rather than an isolated incident.
Similarly, I have mixed feelings about the way the show presents Farik’s torture at American and Saudi hands. At one point, one of his interrogators complains that torture isn’t consistent with U.S. values but that it’s something the country’s been forced into by terrorism. Of course it’s true that the greatest victory Osama bin Laden won on September 11 was suckering us into giving up on core American values, but that’s only part of the story here. I don’t really think there’s a question that there are people who believe that torture should always have been part of the menu of options for the military and law enforcement, and who saw the September 11 attacks as an opportunity to tear down rules against torture. The key is how to get folks to recognize both that streak of thinking and the wrongness of it. If you’ve got a cackling, black-hooded dungeon master representing that position, it’s easy for audiences to turn away in revulsion and reject it as implausible.
Just a reminder, we’re doing a screening of Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss tomorrow in Washington, DC. Details on how to RSVP are here. And we’ll head over to the second-floor bar at the Gallery Place Clyde’s to discuss the movie after the screening is over. Next week, we begin our conversation about women and the death penalty, and we’ll be watching and discussing Patty Jenkins’ Monster.
One of the things I’ve found interesting about John Grisham’s work is the extent to which he’s shifted from telling stories in which his main characters, who tend to be straight, white men, do the right thing when faced with criminality, to stories in which those same straight, white men end up joining social justice movements. Rev. Keith Schroeder’s journey in The Confession is identical to that taken by Michael Brock in The Street Lawyer: two men who believe they’re not directly influenced or threatened by injustice find themselves in the path of its unintended consequences, and come to believe that their sense of remove is unsustainable. There’s no question that these kinds of stories risk becoming The Help redux, tales about white saviors who rescue disadvantaged people from problems they’re unable to work their way out of. But in Grisham’s stories, his white boys tend to fail: an execution takes place, a homeless family freezes to death. The work these men end up doing is within movements, not at the head of them.
But it’s the things that bring them to consciousness that matter. Because while The Confession is far from Grisham’s best novel, it’s about a critically important problem: the profound need many people have to believe the criminal justice system works, and how it makes them violently resistant to the prospect that it errs, and that people can die as a result of those mistakes. Read more
One thing that came up with varying degrees of productivity in last week’s post about Donald Glover’s casual misogyny, and that was raised in the reaction to some comments that made Doctor Who‘s Steve Moffat the target of online ire was the that individual women behave in really rotten ways, and so shouldn’t rappers et. al. be able to complain about it? And of course the answer is yes. A lot of great art has come out of women doing men wrong and vice versa. The trick is to do it without suggesting that all women are golddigging bitches, or declaring that as reparations, you ought to be allowed to go out and have sex with absolutely anyone you please without having any obligations to anyone you sleep with. As with most things, revenge and complaints about being mistreated make for better art the more specific and creative the narratives get.
1. Use a specific name: The single best example of how to do this right comes from a woman, the great Erykah Badu. “Tyrone” uses specific names to call out individual perpetrators of generic behavior. “Now every time I ask you for a little cash / You say no but turn right around and ask me for some ass” or obnoxious famewhoring are sins lots of people are capable of perpetrating. But by calling out a specific person for committing them, the audience can absorb the idea that these are bad things to do to a partner, and even join in the condemnation of Tyrone’s pal, without tuning out because they assume they’re being accused:
2. Use singular pronouns: Maybe I missed this, but apparently some folks thought Cee Lo Green’s “I’m over that snooty golddigger” anthem “Fuck You” was sexist. I’m not persuaded by that argument: it may be unattractive that some people date or marry based on what their partners can provide for them, but it’s undeniably true that some do. That said, the fact that the song’s set up so Cee Lo is talking to a specific person for most of it, and talking to one other person in the “fuck her, too” line. It ends up reading as specific and appropriately targeted anger rather than a generalized condemnation of women in general:
3. Use specific anecdotes: Now, I’d never say that Kanye West has uniformly charming attitudes about women or anything. But he tends to use very precise details in songs about his conflicts with women. In “All of the Lights,” which I love, he explains that “Restraining order / Can’t see my daughter / Her mother, brother, grandmother, hate me in that order / Public visitation / We met at Borders / Told her she take me back / I’ll be more supportive”:
It’s the combination of Borders, which gives us all an immediate imaginative hook into the scenario, and the hierarchy of folks who hate him that make this something more than a generic complaint about a custody dispute. It’s funny and sad all at the same time. Even if I think Kanye sounds like a creep, the shame of only being able to see your daughter in public at a chain bookstore resonates.
Similarly, there’s that verse in “Golddigger,” a much less sensitive and more paranoid song about the dangers of sleeping around when you’re rich and famous, where he says, “I know somebody paying child support for one of his kids / His baby mamma’s car and crib is bigger than his / You will see him on TV any given Sunday / Win the Superbowl and drive off in a Hyundai / She was suppose to buy you shorty TYCO with your money / She went to the doctor got lipo with your money…18 years, 18 years / And on her 18th birthday he found out it wasn’t his.” The verse makes me feel gross because I’m embarrassed by the prospect that any woman would do something like that. It’s a horror movie. But the specificity is precisely what makes it frightening — unlike the idea that all women are out to get at Kanye’s money, the idea that one woman could do something like this is plausible and unnerving:
4. Unless you’ve suffered a completely inexplicable driveby wrongdoing, admit culpability and build a narrative. OutKast’s “Miss Jackson” is a perfect non-sexist She Done Me Wrong song in almost every way: specific names, a single woman (bringing this nicely full circle, Erykah Badu), singular pronouns when you’re not using a name, marvelously illustrative details. But it’s also about a relationship where both parties failed. “I wish I could / become a magician to abracadabra off the sadder / Thoughts of me, thoughts of she, thoughts of he / Askin’ what happened to the feelin’ that her and me / Had, I pray so much about it need some knee pads,” Andre reflects. The Big Boi verse that follows is intensely bitter, claiming that “Jealousy, infidelity, envy / Cheating, beating, and to the Gs they be the same thing,” but even if his sins are exaggerated, he doesn’t really deny that they’re real:
When Chris Hayes tweeted that Darrell Hammond’s interview with Terry Gross was “almost too much to bear,” I honestly thought he might be exaggerating. But he’s right. Hammond’s incredibly brave and forthright about what it’s like to live as a survivor of what sounds like insanely traumatic abuse and to work at a very high level while struggling with the mental illness caused by that abuse. And his description of his cutting is precise and painful — and should put to lie the idea that something that’s all too often dismissed as overdramatic acting out by teenage girls is either minor or confined to women:
HAMMOND: I don’t know if I can describe it any better than that. I mean, I was disoriented and frightened, and I was feeling every single thing that happened to me – you know, when I was in the kitchen once with my mother. And I’m not a doctor, so I can’t describe what flashbacks are as well as, perhaps, they can, but it is like you’re living it again.
So if you make a small cut, it creates a new and more manageable crisis than the one that currently has you lying on the…
GROSS: Let me stop there. You’re talking about cutting yourself …
GROSS: ..with a razor.
GROSS: So I interrupted you. You’re saying it does what?
HAMMOND: Well, it creates a smaller, more manageable crisis than the one that has you gripping the carpet.
GROSS: So like, the physical pain distracts you from the mental agony?
HAMMOND: I think so. I think that might be a fair assessment of it, yeah.
GROSS: So you take out a razor and start cutting your…
HAMMOND: I don’t start. It’s just a little (makes noise) – just enough to, you know, draw red and create a crisis that’s manageable, you know.
GROSS: So are you concerned at that moment, what if I bleed onstage?
HAMMOND: No, I mean…
GROSS: In the practical realm.
HAMMOND: No, at that point, I’ve been doing that since I was 19 years old. So I’m pretty good at managing it.
GROSS: So that you don’t really show blood?
HAMMOND: Not through my clothes. I mean, it’s easily bandaged.
This sort of got lost in our conversation yesterday, but now that Brett Ratner has done the classiest thing he’s accomplished and ages and pulled out of his Oscar producing gig after making remarks insensitive to both gay people and the craft he purports to work in, I’m curious to see who the Academy picks to replace him. What would have been interesting about Ratner actually doing the job is it would be an acknowledgment that Hollywood’s biggest celebration of itself is about its actual core values — popular and commercial success — rather than its stated core values — artistry, innovation, and social progress. As much as I’d like to see a reconciliation between those two sets of values, if Hollywood’s going to stick to the former, I’d rather be honest about it. Maybe have some explosions and Eddie Murphy in a body suit that makes him look like a heavy woman. And then force a lot of folks in uncomfortable designer clothes sit through it for four hours live while the rest of us watch them get bored, uncomfortable, and a little sick from movie theater popcorn in the comfort of our own homes. That seems about fair, doesn’t it?