We talk a lot about overly cozy relationships between business and government, and about the creep of cost-saving measures like products into art, lending it a corporate cast. But it’s rare to see something as blatant as TLC’s planned show about Southwest Airlines. I’ll reserve final judgment until I see the show, of course. But it does seem to me that if you want to make a show about the experience of air travel as a whole, you need to include a lot of people who aren’t employed by specific airlines, particularly air traffic controllers, Transportation Security Administration officers, and ground crew, who are not always affiliated with specific airlines. And it seems like good documentary principal, even if you wanted to make a show about what it’s like to run an airline, to include representatives of multiple companies so viewers can see what the common challenges are and what problems are specific to individual companies and their policies. I understand the desire to make cheap entertainment: these aren’t easy times. But extended looks at individual businesses risk coming across as boring commercials, a la DC Cupcakes, a veteran of the same network.
Up at The Loop 21 today, I consider the right not to be dignified in entertainment:
It’s natural to react to allegations that you are less than the normal, and to prove that you’re not just trying to be equal but better than the normal: more serious, more composed, more sophisticated, and yes, more dignified than the people who are degrading you. Condoleezza Rice told People magazine that when she was in college, she told a professor, “I speak French, I play Bach, I’m better in your culture than you are,” in response to the professor’s citation of a racist scientist who said that black people were biologically less intelligent than other races. It’s the need for that sort of refutation that animates a great deal of Sidney Poitier’s career—he could tame classrooms full of London students, outclass white newspaper publishers and gallery owners, and solve murders that white detectives couldn’t, even under constant threat.
Similarly, Tom Hanks’ performance as Andrew Beckett, a gay man suffering from AIDS and fired from his law firm in the movie “Philadelphia” is a sharp rebuke to the idea that it’s his bigoted heterosexual coworkers who are the true grownups. Members of the firm try to embarrass Beckett, setting him up as incompetent, suggesting he’s responsible for his own illness. But his resilience proves that having sex in a movie theater is less a cause for shame than being an ignorant bigot.
Equality means that not every role has to contribute to a single overwhelming message, that folks get to be individual, rather than collective. There’s nothing wrong with playing dignified roles. There’s nothing wrong with playing gooftastic, or criminal, or insecure roles. It’s when you can only do one that we have a problem.
Noah Berlatsky and I have a running and I think generally friendly disagreement over the Twilight books, but I don’t really appreciate him strawmanning me and other female critics in what I think is condescending piece about the relative merits of Katniss Everdeen and Bella Cullen-nee-Swann and lecturing us on femininity. According to Noah:
Critics have expressed the Katniss-would-beat-the-tar-out-of-Bella dynamic in various ways…Alyssa Rosenberg laments, “Bella’s overriding passivity,” while Yvonne Zip at Christian Science Monitor enthuses that “Katniss is too much of a fighter to go serenely to her death.” Bella, on the other hand, is stereotypically girly, and as Melinda Beasi argues, even women and feminists (especially women and feminists?) are nervous about being “associated with anything ‘girly.’” Thus the appeal of Katniss, who is a badass. Because whether it’s in a fist fight or in the hearts of critics, butch beats girly every time.
The relative discomfort with Bella, then, can be seen as reflecting a larger discomfort with femininity. That discomfort is prevalent not just among men, but (as Melinda Beasi says) among women as well. In fact, feminists have long struggled with how to think about and value femininity. Second-wave feminists (to generalize wildly) tended to be down on the feminine; they saw frills and pink and bows and childishness (or even, in the case of radicals like Shulamith Firestone, pregnancy itself) as part of the patriarchy’s effort to infantilize and denigrate women. Third-wave feminists, on the other hand, have been (in general) more interested in reclaiming the feminine. For writers like Julia Serrano in Whipping Girl, the negative association with femininity is just another way through which the patriarchy devalues women…
And yet, for all the critical accolades…is masculinity really categorically better and more feminist than femininity? Would we really rather have our 17-year-old daughters kill dozens than have them carry a baby to term? Certainly, there are aspects of The Hunger Games that make the butch ideal seem problematic at the very least…At the end of Twilight, Bella actually does get power. She turns into a vampire who has the physical and magical wherewithal to save her entire family from death—not to mention flatten Katniss with a flick of her perfect pale sparkly wrist. Katniss, conversely, finds that what she desired all along was domestic bliss with her nice-guy suitor and a bunch of kids running around the cottage.
First, there’s something really profoundly weird and limited about this definition of femininity — and condescending in the piece’s sense that a totalizing devotion to motherhood, to relationships, to sex, to girliness is the only, or most worthy, definition of femininity. The second-wave feminists who produced Our Bodies, Ourselves may not have done the research into a groundbreaking medical text that changed the relationship between women and the medical establishment while wearing pretty dresses*, but that doesn’t mean that their work wasn’t deeply attuned to the feminine. Creating space for women’s voices in hip-hop, and suggesting that women have something specific to offer the form, may not be explicitly attuned to the state of romantic and sexual relationships, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an exploration and assertion of the feminine. Choosing to have a baby even if it means you have to be on bed rest or endanger your life might mean you’re devoted to motherhood, but it doesn’t actually make you more of a woman than casting off your cloak to duel the holy hell out of Bellatrix Lestrange or climbing into an exo-suit and doing battle for a little girl’s life — and by extension, the continued existence of the human race.:
There’s been much controversy about the decision to remake the manga and animated movie Akira with a white cast for American audiences. And the latest is that Kristen Stewart has been offered the role of Ky (Kei in the original). Now, as amused as I am by the prospect of America’s Vampire Sweetheart playing an anti-government terrorist (though what do you bet her stance is watered down?), the offer raises an issue for me. Do actors have any sort of responsibility when they’re offered work that furthers bad trends in the industry?
Now, correct me if I’m wrong in any of what follows. But Kristen Stewart has plenty of work right now. She could probably politely turn this down, saying she needs to, I don’t know, do a lot of publicity for Breaking Dawn, or Snow White and the Huntsman. She could probably even turn the role down less politely and suggest that they hire an Asian actress for the role. Is she absolutely obligated to do that? Probably not. If you’re the lynchpin of a massively profitable franchise, there are a lot of people who are going to want in on your bankability, irrespective of the artistic considerations. But that doesn’t mean that you’re required to take all the offers that you get. And if you want to be considered just on the merits of your performances, you’re not required to use your influence for anything. But if you want to be acclaimed as a person, or as a force for good within the industry, I don’t know if it’s enough to wait until you have your own production company, or until you direct your own movie in your thirties or whenever. At the end of the day, this is is capitalism. You’ve got the right to take those parts and make that money. But if actors, etc. would like to be considered ethical, to be role models, to be using their powers for good, I think it matters as much what they do on the job as what they do with the money they make from it.
In light of yesterday’s conversation about rappers’ personas, I was interested to read this profile of Odd Future in Spin. Two things stuck with me. First, there was Syd tha Kid’s decision to formally come out with her video for “Cocaine.” I think Julianne Escobedo Shepherd may be somewhat overstating the importance of that decision — Odd Future, for all their critical acclaim, aren’t exactly a mainstream hip-hop group. And more importantly, given the differences in the way gay men and lesbians are perceived, I sort of suspect that — Fat Joe’s protestations to the contrary — it will take a gay man who is a significant, established, mainstream star coming out to really change hip-hop’s attitudes towards gay people.
The other thing that caught my eye was two paragraphs towards the end of the piece:
In a few days, though, Tyler will release a video for “Bitch Suck Dick,” Goblin’s most lunkheadedly brazen song. It’s an absurd, spoofy clip featuring, among other things, Jasper rolling around in a tracksuit and Lionel ripping apart his shirt. “It’s an ignorant-ass song,” says Tyler, anticipating backlash. “If I’m not listening to cheesy indie-jazzy rock shit, I’m listening to ignorant-ass rap shit like Waka Flocka and OJ Da Juiceman. And I made a song that sounds like that energy, but in my world. I think making a song about punching a bitch in the face is funny, because if you’re a regular person, just hearing that is fucking crazy, and 90 percent of the people know I’m just fucking around.”
But as Odd Future’s new projects are released — and as they become an ever bigger force in hip-hop — will his approach shift away from contrarianism and provocation? “Talking about rape and cutting bodies up, it just doesn’t interest me anymore,” he says, contemplative and sincere, looking directly into my eyes, now sitting cross-legged on the hotel bed. “What interests me is making weird hippie music for people to get high to. With Wolf, I’ll brag a little bit more, talk about money and buying shit. But not like any other rapper, I’ll be a smart-ass about it. Now it’s just girls throwing themselves at me and shit, but I got a girl back home. People who want the first album again, I can’t do that. I was 18, broke as fuck. On my third album, I have money and I’m hanging out with my idols. I can’t rap about the same shit.” The look on his face is uncompromising. The man knows where his power lies.
The thing that’s intriguing to me about this on a structure-of-humor-level is the assumption that people hear lyrics about, say, abusing women, and assume they’re funny or crazy because they’re implausible. I don’t believe Tyler or anyone else in Odd Future goes around assaulting people in their private lives. And I would really like to live in a world where the societal taboo against domestic violence or sexual assault was so high, and education and enforcement were so good that the prospect of a man abusing a woman was genuinely ridiculous. But we don’t actually live in that world. I don’t think that, say, rape jokes are an impossibility. But it’s hard to argue that you’re raising the bar, being “not like any other rapper,” if your edgy jokes mostly reinforce tired fallacies.
All that said, if Tyler and company are moving beyond “talking about rape and cutting bodies up,” I’m curious to see what he does next — and if the strong sense of identification fans have with the group will give Odd Future permission and space to do things that are genuinely daring. Turning Syd into an out lesbian hip-hop superstar beyond the group’s critical acclaim would be awesome. Ditto for speaking some actual truths about sex and gender.
The bridge is yours.
-May 6 will be my favorite day of 2012.
-If I was a star Japanese pitcher, looking at the available evidence, I’d probably want to stay in Japan.
-HBO GO may finally be available to all HBO subscribers.
-Time to start playing with Google Music.
-Really excited for the Star Trek sequel.
Hendrick Hertzberg joins my call for more Revolutionary War movies, saying in particular that we should have a definitive Alexander Hamilton biopic. I agree, though I might recommend an adaptation of David Liss’s The Whiskey Rebels instead of a more straightforward approach. But I also think this points to a larger problem: we need a more creative approach to biopics that’s oriented towards truly great stories instead of just the most famous people who a talented actor would enjoy impersonating. To wit, ten suggestions from American history.
1. Harriet Tubman: The Underground Railroad is one of the coolest things to happen in American history, and it’s only part of what makes Harriet Tubman awesome. Tubman made 13 runs on the Underground Railroad, an act of outrageous courage given the fate that would have awaited her as a conductor were she ever caught. She was the first woman to head up a Union military expedition—which involved guiding ships past a river Confederate forces had mined—during which she helped free more than 700 slaves. And she did all of this despite having seizures and headaches. And it might be fun to see Viola Davis cut loose a little bit post The Help, or to see C.C.H. Pounder deploy her glorious steeliness on an iconic portrayal of Tubman.
2. Ida Tarbell, Ida Wells and Nellie Bly: I’m a sucker for movies about journalists, and these three women are best in class. From Tarbell’s investigation of Standard Oil, which set the standard for document-based investigative journalism going forward; to Wells’ reporting on lynching in America; to Bly’s expose of the state of mental health treatment for the poor, all three were absolutely fearless, telling stories about bureaucracies and norms and prompting reform or efforts at reform. Too often, journalism movies and television shows have to gin up absolutely ridiculous plots to up the stakes—sorry, State of Play, I love you, but it’s true. But sometimes journalists go where the government won’t, even within our own country, at considerable risk to themselves. All three roles would be juicy, but I’d particularly like to see Kerry Washington, so wonderful in The Last King of Scotland, play Wells, who was just a few years younger than Washington is now when she gave her seminal speech on lynching.
Colin Miller, a professor at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago who’s been kind enough to riff off some of my Pop Culture and the Death Penalty Project posts, points out something fascinating: if you’ve been impacted by a movie about the death penalty, you can get kicked off a jury:
In Blackmon v. State, 7 So.3d 397 (Ala.Crim.App. 2005), during death-qualification, two juror were struck because they indicated that The Green Mile had an impact on how they view the death penalty. Fictional films might distort factual reality. They might distort legal reality. They might simplify complex issues. But they matter…Based upon the work of the Innocence Project, most people know that many convictions are houses of cards built on faulty eyewitness identifications and coerced confessions. And while many might not be aware of the current public defender crisis, surely it has seeped into the public consciousness that impoverished young defendants with neophyte lawyers are receiving something less than the Platonic ideal of representation. A juror is death-qualified when he is willing to impose the death penalty. But is that juror qualified to deal with the consequences of his decision to impose death? What if a witness for the prosecution recants his testimony? What if an alibi witness appears? What if DNA evidence points to another suspect? What if this evidence comes after the execution? Is the juror qualified to deal with his choice to impose death? Is anyone qualified?
If there’s anyone in the audience who’s worked a death penalty case, on either side, I’d be curious to hear if it’s come up. But it’s a reminder of something important. A lot of our conversations about pop culture presume that it’s either not very good at making a definitive case for issues, or that it gets bogged down when it goes too didactic. It’s worth remembering that pop culture can play a useful role in complicating issues rather than simply clarifying it. Casting doubt on accepted wisdom is at least as important a as writing party platforms.
I am obviously favorably disposed towards Brave, since it’s beyond time Pixar had a female main character, but I’m extra-pleased that it seems like Merida is going to be a bit like Arya Stark, minus the horrible brutality and plus a giant bear:
That said, I’ve got a few concerns. The flashing-someone-via-kilt and people running into things gags have a bit of an unfortunate Dreamworks vibe rather than Pixar’s emotional sophistication. And hopefully we won’t get too much goofy and historically dubious riffs on the Scottish. But I’m encouraged by the idea of a price to be paid, of something mysterious in the woods beyond just a bear. It’s going to be years before we find out what happens to Arya, but in the meantime, I’m excited to see what kind of life Merida can build for herself outside of the structures of noble womanhood.