In the controversy over Lesley Arfin’s pattern of racially-inflected remarks, a lot of folks have asked why Lena Dunham hasn’t spoken up or taken decisive action to remove Arfin from the writers room. To a certain extent, it may have been because there was nothing she could do: the first season was in the can, and until there was a second announced, there wasn’t a writers’ room to rejigger. But now that there is, it would be helpful if Dunham publicly explained why she hired Arfin in the first place, what Arfin contributed to the first season, whether Arfin will or won’t be back for the second season, and why she made that decision.
io9 has a great interview with Brit Marling, the writer and star of low-budget sci-fi movie Sound of My Voice, which, as I told y’all on Friday, I liked very much. I wanted to pull out part of the interview where she talks about how frustrating it is to come up against the same obstacles and challenges for female characters—particularly the tendency to use sexual assault as a default major obstacle for a dramatic heroine:
When Zal and I write [the two wrote Sound of My Voice together] sometimes you find yourself in a passive position. And you have stop yourself: “I set out to write a story about a strong woman acting with agency. And now here I am having her be sexually assaulted by somebody so she can achieve something else.” You have to tell yourself to stop.
And you realize that so much of this stuff is the same narrative being recycled over and over again, because a lot of it is happening unconsciously. We consume, we watch, we take it in, we create, it’s this negative feedback cycle. When I see things like Bridesmaids I get really excited. That film was really subversive and widely consumed and entertaining, but also saying really interesting things on female friendships and weddings. It was making fun of it all, that was refreshing, I hope we see more of that…
As an actor, that’s why I started writing. I came out to LA and I would read these things, you are hard pressed to find a script where the girl is not sexually assaulted or raped or manipulated or a sex toy — an object of affection. It’s always about the way men are looking at her. And cinema, traditionally has been about how men are looking at women. I do think we’re breaking that up now with more female directors, I think we’re starting to see the female gaze.
I think this is right. I should say that I have no problem with works that deal with women getting raped that are explicitly about examining the consequences of sexism. One of the reasons that the arc of Sons of Anarchy where Gemma is raped is so powerful is that it’s about the way she and everyone else around her deal with their internalized sexism: the men who rape her think she is a weak spot for the motorcycle gang she’s affiliated with, Gemma thinks her husband will put her off because men need to “own their pussy,” and her husband seduces her back to disprove that assumption. Similarly, as I argue in this book chapter I have coming out about A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, I really believe a lot of that series is about tying together sexual assault and monstrosity.
But rape doesn’t only happen to women, and it’s not the only thing that happens to women. You can lose your job, your house, your car, your kid, your best friend, your business, your family, your faith, your following, your office. If men are reaching for the worst thing that can happen to women and choosing rape out of a deficit of imagination, then that’s having a character be sexually assaulted for shock value. If you want to tell a story that’s about the worst thing that happened to a specific woman character, you should be thinking very specifically about her and less about your and the audience’s default answer to a question.
Maybe it’s just where I am in my own life, but it seems like all the actors who are slightly older than I am, who several years ago were making movies about dating are now making movies about getting married. Jason Segel and Emily Blunt are in The Five-Year Engagement, which I hope to catch this weekend. Alison Brie is getting married in Save the Date, and Lizzy Caplan is thinking about it. Kirsten Dunst and Caplan are panicked about their singleness in Bachelorette, which is supposed to be a more caustic riff on Bridesmaids. And Judd Apatow, who several years ago was making movies about people coming together as families, whether the main character becomes a stepfather like in The 40-Year-Old Virgin or an accidental father in Knocked Up, is now making movies about middle aged parenting with This Is 40, his look at the married couple who were supporting characters in the latter movie:
I can’t quite decide what I feel about this yet other than vaguely apprehensive. Is this going to be a self-improvement comedy? A tragedy about holding a family together? Where do these people get all this time to self-improve? Don’t they work? And is this what it really feels like to be 40? I sort of thought 40 was going to be awesome.
Were you planning on cutting the cord on your cable as soon as Hulu signed a few more content deals and let you watch your favorite shows the day after they aired? Think again. The New York Post reports that Fox is renegotiating its deal with Comcast in a way that would require Hulu to require users to prove that they already subscribe to cable in order to get access to its content. The authentication system would likely work the same way: users would log in to Hulu with their cable company logins, rather than with a Hulu ID. Fox is already somewhat more restrictive about its content than the other major networks (with the exception of CBS, which puts almost none of its content on Hulu and declines to stream many episodes at all). Currently, you have to have Hulu Plus to stream Fox shows the day after they air. Otherwise, you have to wait a full week to watch the shows supported only by ads.
It makes sense that now is the time Fox would strike. Hulu (and Netflix as well) are early in their efforts to create original content. And while those companies say publicly that their original shows are meeting their expectations, they haven’t been precisely clear about what those expectations were, or whether that means they’re even close to garnering network-level (or even cable-style) audiences for that programming. They’re nowhere near close to telling the television networks to shove it, so Fox is striking in what it sees as one of a few remaining moments of opportunity, especially because it wants to make sure it can retain the cash to pay its retransmission fees. The cable companies need to hang on to their subscribers both to ensure their own profits, and to meet their own outside demands. Until retransmission fees are out of the equation, it’s hard to imagine that this model is going to change dramatically.
The bridge is yours.
-Is the golden age of male full-frontal nudity past? Passing? Yet to come?
-These awesome kids tried and convicted The Hunger Games‘ President Snow of war crimes.
-Which Avenger are you? Someone better be something cool, because you’re pretty much out of luck if you’re a lady.
-The Winchester Mystery House is, in fact, an awesome subject for a movie.
-Oh dear Lord, The Newsroom is going to be unbearably pretentious, isn’t it?
A Conversation With Novelist Saladin Ahmed About Muslim Fantasy, Transcending Tropes and Writing Women
Saladin Ahmed wrote my all-time favorite essay about race and Game of Thrones, so I was terrifically excited to read Throne of the Crescent Moon, his first novel. The first installment in a series, the book follows Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, a hunter of monsters called ghuls who do terrible violence for the men who create them. Raseed bas Raseed, his dervish apprentice, struggles with his religious devotion even as he admires some aspects of the more profane Adoulla’s life and work. The world in which they do their work isn’t ours, nor is the religion that shapes their lives Islam, at least not precisely. But Throne of the Crescent Moon is a riff on and a response to everything from our contemporary conversations about Islam to the tropes of the Western fantasy canon. Ahmed and I talked about everything from his mythological influences to the way he thinks about writing women. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When you started thinking about the novel, I’d be curious what kind of research you did into the mythology? I feel like Western readers are familiar with non-Western myths like djinns as they’ve been shoehorned into the edges of fairy tales, but they’re not often at the center of the frame.
In some ways, it’s two separate questions. What the research was going in was a hodge-podge. Growing up in Arab immigrant communities, my grandmother would, in halting Arabic, try to tell me stories. But [I also read] also translations of the Koran and stuff like that. Some of it was from my heritage. And some of it is integrating bits of, dare I say, Orientalist use of quote unquote Eastern mythologies…It’s very Arab-American novel in the mix of mythology that’s in there. And that made it easier to connect with a Western audience because there are a whole swath of things in there that nerds who read a lot of Western fantasy recognize.
The monster stuff, a lot of it’s my own stuff. The ghuls, which are the main creatures in there, they’re really just using the name. In actual Arab mythology, ghuls are sentient, and they’re dimwitted but cunning. They’re cannibals. I’ve had a lot of people in there use the zombie metaphor for them. They are these kinds of mindless hordes of creatures, but they’re not raised from the dead in the same way. They’re more like golems than anything else. There is probably some intra-Semitic mythology going on there…There’s definitely a take on the djenn in the later books…I’m interested in the theology issues that the Koran has with the djenn.
Similarly, a lot of fantasy relies on readers having some cursory knowledge of European history and geography, like George R.R. Martin’s use of the War of the Roses as an analogue for the concepts in Game of Thrones. What kind of knowledge did you assume on the part of your readers?
It’s a funny thing becuase so many aspects of this book, and discussing this book are counterpoints to European fantasy this and European fantasy that. Most people don’t actually know that much about European history, and most European geography. [In Western fantasy novels] where’s people’s terror of salvation, for instance? That seems like it would be a pretty big thing. I’m pretty much assuming nothing [about what people know]. In some ways, that’s freeing. This is very intentionally not historical fantasy per se, because it felt extremely constraining in ways I didn’t want to be constrained. The kind of straight-up analogues will start to come in more in later books. There’s a central Crusades analogue that will come up in books two and three. And the [series' version of the] standard trope of a dark army that’s on the rise where there will be the final clash will be the Crusader analogue. But hopefully I’m not just flipping the sides. In the Muslim world, [the story of the Crusades is that] there’s these savages that came. That’s not entirely accurate either. It’s proving thorny to write.
Dervishes are, of course, a real thing rather than a fantasy or cultural creation, but it’s not quite clear in the book whether your characters are Muslim or not, or whether they follow an analogous but not identical faith. How much did you want the novel to be directly tied to and function as a reflection on contemporary understandings of Islam?
That’s been probably one of the most interesting things that’s kind of been raised and discussed about this book. Some people reading the book feel like they’re mentioning God every couple of pages, it’s getting annoying. It’s a secular reading that wants an anachronistically secular reading of pre-industrial fantasy world. And there are some people who are reading it who say ‘I expected it to be more Islamic.’ It’s a secondary world. It’s a made-up world. It’s not Islam. It’s not the Middle East. It’s not Earth. It’s a made-up world in the way that Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin, that most people writing today are writing in made-up worlds. It might look like historical periods in our own Earth, but they’re made up. And that’s very intentional. And I didn’t want to wrie a book that’s about Islam. I’m choosing to write a religion that looks like a religion that gets maligned a lot in the culture the book is being read in. At the end of the day, this is an adventure fantasy novel that can’t bear the weight of truly depicting Islam in such a problematic world on its little shoulders.
In preparation for Prometheus, which looks just ridiculously awesome, I’ve been watching the movies in the Alien franchise I hadn’t seen before. And in the course of that, and related futzing around the web, I realized how striking the per-movie numbers were as an illustration of how the economics of blockbusters have changed:
Budget: $11 million ($34.8 million in 2012 dollars)
Domestic and International Box Office: $104,931,801 ($331.5 million in 2012 dollars)
Sigourney Weaver’s Salary: Approximately $33,333 ($105,321 in 2012 dollars)
Budget: $18.5 million ($38.72 million in 2012 dollars)
Domestic and International Box Office: $131,060,248 ($274.3 million in 2012 dollars)
Sigourney Weaver’s Salary: $1 million ($2.1 million in 2012 dollars)
Alien 3 (1992)
Budget: $50 million ($81.8 million in 2012 dollars)
Domestic and International Box Office: $159,773,545 ($261.2 million in 2012 dollars)
Sigourney Weaver’s Salary: $4 million plus a share of box office ($6.5 million in 2012 dollars)
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Budget: $70 million ($100 million in 2012 dollars)
Domestic and International Box Office: $161,295,658 ($230.5 million in 2012 dollars)
Sigourney Weaver’s Salary: $11 million ($15.7 million in 2012 dollars)
Budget: Estimated at $100-$150 million
I don’t think there’s a direct relationship between expensiveness and badness—The Avengers cost $220 million, which doesn’t count the expensive advertising campaign around it, and is just jaw-droppingly great (it is killing me not to be able to talk to you guys about it yet. Friday cannot be here soon enough). But at the same time, you can afford to do weirder things if there’s less money sunk into them. The Avengers kind of earns back some of that freedom—and I think Prometheus does, too—to be funny and weird and interesting and frightening because it’s guaranteed to make all of the money even if it was wretched. But a lot of the time when someone like, say, Michael Bay is in that position, they take precisely zero advantage of it. It’s one thing to be creative because you have to be to have a prayer of getting noticed and loved. It’s another to be creative because you have the luxury to be. On bad days, it seems like everyone else is just checking boxes. But this year feels to me like a time when the movies are new and exciting. I could be proven wrong. But it’s been fun so far.
This post contains spoilers through the April 29 episode of Game of Thrones.
Much of the time, the power of Game of Thrones comes from watching people we love manipulated by forces beyond their control—or by the decisions of those they are powerless to influence. Sansa’s limpid eyes can’t restrain Joffrey’s murderous streak; Catelyn’s choices are subordinated to her husband’s sense of duty and her son’s war; Brienne and Sam can’t help being born into bodies that make it impossible to live up to the ideals assigned to them by station and gender. But this week, we see characters severed from the ties that bound and constrained them by tragedy, mistaken identity, and offers of new opportunities—and as a result, we see them faced with, and in some cases, making choices that will have significant implications for them, and for the world that is being radically reshaped around them.
The first person to be cast into the wind is Brienne, who loses her king and the identity and legitimacy he briefly granted her by making her a member of his Kingsguard, when Melisandre of Asshai’s monstrous offspring murders Renly in his tent. In her grief, she swears “I won’t leave him,” but Cat has to remind her of her choices, and of the necessity of making one, cautioning “You can’t avenge him if you are dead.” Once she’s free from her oath to Renly, Brienne ends up choosing a new liege lord, one that’s both beyond the menu of options Cat saw for her, and that’s in keeping with her strict application of the code of chivalry and flexible thinking about who can embody it. “I do not know your son, milady,” she tells Cat. “But I would follow you if you would have me. You have courage. Not battle courage, but a woman’s courage.”
The latest episode of Extra Credits, the web series about gaming that’s hosted on Penny Arcade TV, is about in-game harassment, and it’s pretty fantastic. The show’s creators said they felt reluctant to speak up until they had proposed solutions. And, in collaboration with a range of experts, do they ever. Among other tools, they propose auto-muting players whose mute rates diverge more than 10 percent from the average, making communication tools a reward players have to earn, and providing publicly available data on guilds and clans that are influenced by individual players’ behavior to provide peer pressure in support of better behavior. And they’re asking Microsoft as the proprietor of X-Box Live to be the first company to step up and provide these innovations. I think these are all great ideas, and I hope they stay on Microsoft and keep us updated with a response.
I’d note, though, that all of these possibilities are circumventable. The most determined harassers and stalkers aren’t particularly deterred by basic attempts to separate them from the people they want to communicate with and intimidate. Determined misogynists can team up in clans and guilds. Technological and market-based solutions are great. But harassment victims should have the recourse to get their harassers kicked out if all other options and the communities fail them, and there should be policies and procedures in place to facilitate that final option when it’s necessary.
After Terra Nova‘s cancellation, I wrote a post bemoaning the idea that science fiction always has to be effects-heavy but suspiciously light on the world building and the consideration of what question said fiction is supposed to pose. A partial answer to my complaints is the new movie Sound of My Voice, which stars Brit Marling as a cult leader who claims to have arrived in Los Angeles from the year 2054, and to be preparing her initiates for a journey back into the future with her. In part, it’s a movie about whether or not we think Maggie is really from the future or not. But in a greater sense, it’s about whether or not we’ll be able to recognize the harbingers of the future when they present themselves to us, or whether we’ll marginalize them as insane, deluded, or pathetic. In neither case does Sound of My Voice have an answer—it’s far too canny for that.
The movie follows Lorna and Peter, a young couple who are making a documentary about Maggie’s cult—though Maggie and her acolytes don’t know it. Ally is a former Hollywood party girl who’s emerged from rehab with a desire for a purpose, if not exactly much sense of what it might look like. Isaac is a long-term substitute teacher whose mother lost her battle with cancer after refusing to be treated with traditional medicine. And while they’re initially suspicious of Maggie—who they meet only after months of preparation and vetting, and after submitting to cleansing, giving up their clothes, and being driven blindfolded to a house somewhere in greater Los Angeles—and they initially find her self-helpy lessons grating (she makes them dance and says things like “I have to exhaust you people to get you to stop thinking and start breathing.”), both of them find themselves profoundly moved and unnerved by her.
Maggie’s power, it seems, lies in making the mundane seem profoundly moving. When she holds a (hard to watch) purging ritual, she encourages her followers to vomit up the food they’ve eaten as a way of cleansing themselves of bad thoughts and memories, Isaac resists for a practical reason: he’s swallowed a transmitter so he can record the events of the meeting through a camera embedded in his glasses, and he doesn’t want to resist being discovered. But when Maggie susses out, at least in generalities, the kind of pain he’s feeling over his mother’s loss, he vomits, too, picking the transmitter out of his vomitus while everyone else is distracted praising him for overcoming such a major psychological obstacle. In another conversation with her followers, Maggie explains that in a war she says is coming “Things come together and they fall apart. It’s a really dark time. My generation’s really comfortable with death…Not everyone has that kind of technology, so there are a lot fewer recorded albums. But every now and then, a song comes along that touches everyone, and it manages to get around.” When her followers beg her for a song, she sings them “Dreams” by the Cranberries, explaining that “It’s made famous by a singer called Bennetton.” Is she just an incompetent fraud, as Lorna suggests? Or truly from a time when our past survives only as Canticle for Leibowitz-like fragments?
Those questions end up dividing Lorna and Peter, especially when Maggie asks Peter to bring a girl from his class, who rarely speaks, constantly wears a red cap, and is building a rather unsettling black Lego city in her bedroom to meet him—and when Lorna is approached by a woman who claims to be investigating Maggie for a variety of crimes. The movie isn’t conclusive as to who’s right, and Marling and director Zal Batmanglij, who wrote the script together, have said they’d like to do a sequel if Sound of My Voice does well. But they’ve laid out their questions clearly, and created powerful senses of menace, hope, and strangeness. And all this without a shot that required special effects, or anything they couldn’t pick up in an afternoon shopping trip.
“Oh I’d be happy if they add the Black Panther and maybe Dr. Strange,” Lee told I Am Rogue during a recent interview. As for which characters he’d like to see get their very own franchise entries, a la “Iron Man”, “Thor” and “The Hulk”: “Those two [Dr. Strange and the Black Panther] and probably Ant-Man, which I think they are working on [Edgar Wright has been indeed been developing a solo Ant-Man flick for several years now]. Maybe I’ll play a little role in that.”
As much as I would love to see this happen, I only would want it to happen if it could be done right. And I’m not sure how Marvel’s formula would handle a black man who’s king of an African empire that’s more technologically advanced than the West, who’s done battle against the Ku Klux Klan and the apartheid regime in South Africa. I got back and forth on this, because I think there’s real value in positive portrayals of powerful black men in our media, but I wonder if a Black Panther movie that’s barred from talking about race would be worse than no Black Panther at all.
This post contains spoilers through the April 26 episode of Parks & Recreation.
One of my friends pinged me last night to say that he thought this episode of Parks & Recreation was my platonic ideal for a half-hour of the show. He’s basically right. Everything from the shot of Jerry watching the debate with the nuns like he’s one of the Three Stooges visiting home to Leslie’s closing statement was precisely my cup of tea. But mostly, I enjoy episodes of the show where all the characters are working on different elements of the same, sprawling project the way they were in “Harvest Festival” or “Lil’ Sebastian,” and tonight’s was one of those.
Episodes like this work because you can shift how much time you allocate between the A, B, and C story without worrying that one throughline will get short shrift. They’re all part of the same enterprise—in this case, making sure Leslie’s debate performance is solid, her spin room is working hard, and a room full of big donors is entertained. Those three setups give the characters room to work on separate issues, like the love triangle between Ann, Tom, and Chris, which has never seemed more plausible or well-executed than it was tonight, or April’s caring about things. But they’re all really part of the same goal, which is something the show does well both because the characters have great chemistry in a lot of different combinations, and because those kinds of big-project stories are both uniquely suited to and illustrate what’s interesting about a bureaucratic organization.
The debate was an interesting moment because it illustrated a problem that Leslie’s campaign—and the show about her—have shared all season: the candidate hasn’t been able to find her stride, even though she’s clearly the most qualified person in the mix. She should be able to nail the debate: “You could debate Newport in your sleep,” Ben tells her. “I have,” she chirps enthusiastically. “I know,” Ben reminds her. “I sleep in the same bed. It’s been hell.” And her opening swipe at Bobby Newport, that he wants to buy the town, is true, and something that will be proven even truer before the end of the evening. But it goes over like a lead balloon. What matters isn’t what’s accurate, or even significant. It’s that Leslie looks mean and negative, when we’ve had four years of television episodes proving that she’s anything but. Conversely, the substance of Bobby Newport’s insistence that “I want your vote because I want Pawnee, and my Dad, to see what I’m made of” is gross when you think about it closely, but it sounds endearing (Ditto on “I guess my thoughts on abortion are, let’s all just have a good time.”), so he gets credit he manifestly doesn’t deserve. Leslie’s closing statement is a party-at-the-lake-house worthy moment precisely because she finds a way to unify the substance of what she’s saying with the style and break through to the audience. It’s the first time she’s really been able to do that since “Born and Raised.”
I think it’s important to note that there’s a difference between this kind of clarity and the belief a lot of pop culture has about politics, which is that rhetorical brilliance breaks all impasses, cows all cynical manipulators of the system, binds up our wounds and leads us into the promised land. Instead, this whole season has been about the fact that while working in bureaucracy can be relatively smooth sailing if you know how everything works and have good systems set up, persuading the public and winning elections is a vastly harder thing to do, even for someone who is essentially smart and personable. People have agendas and senses of themselves that they have precisely no interest in surrendering. This is something that most pop culture fails to grasp. It just assumes that we share values and worldviews, and when we get out of kilter, the only thing that’s required to get us back on track is the rhetorical equivalent of a whack with a wrench. That’s not accurate, and for a storytelling and character-growth perspective, it’s not particularly interesting.
In addition to that wonderful centerpiece, this is a nice summing-up moment for a number of other characters on the show. April admits publicly, or at least to Tom, that there are things she’s invested in, even if she can’t make her arms work right to clean the house in preparation for the fundraiser, confessing “I care about Andy, and Champion, and I want Leslie to win.” In return, she got through to Tom what he’s been incapable of acknowledging before: that he has to act normal around Ann if he wants to be with her, and save pronouncements like “She’s smooth, like a blended whisky,” for Leslie’s spin room. Ron gets to put his manly and musical skills to work hacking into the cable network to save the fundraiser after opening it with the bluntest statement of purpose in political history: “Hello. You are here because you gave us money. Now, we will give you ribs. Also, you will watch the debate. If you like the debate, you’ll give us more money. That is all. Ron Swanson.”
And I just love the idea both that Andy’s tremendous, perpetually-refilled enthusiasm would lead him to step into the void of the cable outage with movie retellings, and that Pawnee’s richest non-Sweetums-beholden residents would be rapt by it. This is a good town, full of good people. They deserve a good City Councilwoman. Knope 2012.
The bridge is yours.
-My beloved editor at The Atlantic is not a fan of The Five-Year Engagement.
-I sort of can’t conceive of how you could spend $58,000 on a wedding dress.
-Marilyn Manson and Johnny Depp cover “You’re So Vain.”
-Hockey’s fight against homophobia.
It took me a while, but I took advantage of a slow Thursday to hit up Think Like a Man. While there’s no question that the movie has elements of an infomercial, in the moments when Steve Harvey isn’t imparting wisdom from various bar-mounted televisions and the characters aren’t discussing his book, the conversations between the characters feel surprisingly fresh, and the stakes of their relationships feel like the real way people sabotage themselves, rather than invented obstacles.
The movie follows a series of friends who happen to represent helpfully-delineated archetypes, and the women they begin to fall for. Cedric (Kevin Hart) is divorcing, a prospect he insists makes him happy, but is actually the source of incredible misery. Zeke (Romany Malco), a former musicians and a consumate player (he irritates his friends by making omelettes shirtless, which in his case would be a killer morning-after move for a lucky lady) meets Mya (Meagan Good), who is fresh out of a series of hookups with an utter creep played by Chris Brown, and intends to stay celibate until she knows that Zeke is serious about her. Dominic (Michael Ealy), an aspiring chef, begins dating Lauren (Taraji P. Henson), a successful career woman and the movie’s worst stereotype. Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara) is happily nesting with Kristen (Gabriel Union, who should play a sometime-stoned semi-nerd more often), forgetting to move forward in his career and decorating like he raided the set of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And mama’s boy Michael (Terrence Jenkins) begins dating single mother Candace (Regina Hall).
There’s also a white character called Bennett, who isn’t featured in any of the movie’s trailers or posters. A happily married man, he hangs out with the main characters at their favorite bar, plays in their thrice-weekly basketball game, observes their romantic travails with tolerant amusement, and periodically dispenses clarifying advice. In other words, he’s a token white friend, a character who serves the same genuinely functional function as sassy black friends and wise black men. Because Bennett’s comfortable watching Oprah (a confession that prompts Cedric to warn him “You gotta say no homo when you say shit like that at a divorce party,” in one of several moments of minor, but sadly realistic-feeling homophobia), which means unlike the men he’s hanging out in a party van with, he’s able to figure out that their girlfriends are relying on Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man for romantic advice. And when Bennett explains, without disclaimer, shame or insecurity that he’s leaving the bar to go home to cook dinner for his wife because, shocker of shockers, he enjoys doing it, it’s a catalyst for the rest of his friends to get their acts together.
My friend Anna Holmes wrote her column for the Washington Post this week about the nudity of Game of Thrones in which I’m the main voice speaking out in the show’s defense. I ended up writing her some long thoughts on the subject, far more than she needed, so I thought I’d condense them here because it turns out, though I’ve written about almost everything else when it comes to the show, I haven’t written about nudity and its uses. So here we go…
When my friend Myles McNutt popularized the term sexposition last year to describe scenes in Game of Thrones where one character explains a concept while other characters have sex unrelated to that conversation in the same frame, he came up with something really funny and useful. But I think people have ended up suggesting that all the sex and nudity in Game of Thrones is prurient rather than relevant. And I feel really strongly that isn’t true.
I’d say I think they’re being somewhat more thoughtful in season 2. There are scenes in season 1 that are just ludicrous—Littlefinger’s yammering around his prostitutes, the Dothraki wedding sequences. That said, I feel nudity is a driver of personality more the show gets credit for in Season 1. I really like the good cheer of the prostitutes bursting in on Tyrion in our introduction to the character. I rarely feel like it’s okay to use female nudity solely to advance our impression of a male character, but given the show’s very impressive investment in Peter Dinklage as a sex symbol, I thought that scene was kind of remarkable. I also liked the scene of Ros flashing Theon as she leaves for King’s Landing, a moment that showed her comfort with her body as a commodity while also reinforcing Theon as kind of a randy idiot. And Dany’s nudity at the end of the finale felt powerful to me for the same reason Margaery’s does: her femininity is as exposed as it can get, which should make her vulnerable, and instead it’s a moment of triumph and dignity for her.
This season, there have been a couple stand-alone examples that have felt particularly important to me. When Theon has sex with the daughter of the ship captain who’s bringing him back to his childhood home on Pyke, the show spends a lot of time lingering on her face and body, neither of which are particularly conventionally attractive. But Theon ends up complicit in our judgement of her. He tells her to shut her mouth so he won’t have to look at her teeth. He ignores her requests to go with him when he leaves the ship, and ignores her when she says her father will punish her for sleeping with him. He’s using her, and assumes that because she’s an ugly girl, she ought to be sexually available to him and grateful for the attention. The whole scene, including her nakedness, is about explaining Theon’s sexual entitlement, his voraciousness, the inflated sense of self that will later lead to his spectacular humiliation.
I felt the same way about Margaery Tyrell’s scene with her husband, Renly Baratheon. The scene starts with him acknowledging how beautiful she is. But he’s profoundly uncomfortable with her naked body, repulsed by the sexual attraction he knows he’s supposed to be feeling. The contrast between her beautiful body and his reaction, which I thought was a really beautiful piece of acting, is part of what makes the scene. The other part of what makes the scene great is her utter comfort in her body, in her nakedness. Margaery may be a woman, and she may be in a situation where most of us might feel sexually vulnerable. But she’s better equipped than her husband to talk about the fact that they need to get pregnant, and quickly, and she’s more at home in her body, what her body craves, and what other people want her body to be used for than Renly is.
Even Melisandre’s sort of cheesy seduction of Stannis Baratheon bears literal fruit in the terms of a quick-gestating smoke monster.
And I thought the scene where Joffrey orders Ros to first beat Daisy and then rape her with a scepter was the perfect example of why people shouldn’t dismiss nude scenes and sex scenes as they come up in the show and forget that they might pay off later. We meet Daisy when Ros is giving her a tour of Littlefinger’s brothel, including scenes where she’s instructing other prostitutes on how to fake pleasure with clients more convincingly. We see Daisy naked in an interrupted tryst with Pycelle, huddling naked on the floor as her client gets his beard cut off and sent to prison, and we see Tyrion pay her off, adding a tip and a smile. These scenes, as well as non-sexual ones like Daisy crying over a colleague’s murdered child, give us a relationship with these small characters (neither of whom exist in the books, by the way). And then we see these women turned against each other, one forced to torture the other at pain of death. Without those previous scenes, Joffrey would be torturing anonymous whores. With them, he’s torturing people. That arc gives Game of Thrones a lot of credit with me. I’m hard-pressed to dismiss a silly sex scene now, because how do I know it’s not going to pay off painfully later down the road?
And we actually don’t see a lot of the female characters nude. Two of them are children. Catelyn is a widow deep in mourning. On a factual note, Lena Headey may be naked less as Cersei because she has significant tattoos and covering them up would be a lot of work, so it may just be a tech thing. Brienne is a knight. Interestingly, we haven’t seen Shae naked at all this season, though she is Tyrion’s lover and a sex worker. I guess I don’t mind seeing women naked at the same time that the show is giving them personality and humanity they don’t have in the novels. The show may make Ros and Daisy naked, but Ros is literally a line in the novels and Daisy doesn’t exist at all. Now, they’re people to us, and hurting them makes us feel pain.
I was at a screening of The Avengers* last night and up late talking about it with some of my colleagues about it after, so shorter thoughts about this than usual. But I thought this episode of Community, a Law & Order parody, did a really nice job of exposing the ridiculous things we let people get away with when they have badges or the power of the district attorney’s office behind them. It’s not like readers of this blog don’t know that I find it disturbing that our cop shows tend to legitimize a certain amount of police brutality when it’s performed by cops we’re supposed to be emotionally invested in. But it’s still really funny to see Troy rage around an interrogation room, insisting “You don’t order ketchup! It’s a condiment!” And it was a treat to see Leslie Hendrix, who played Law & Order medical examiner Elizabeth Rodgers for years pop up to explain “This level of smashing is consistent with someone stepping on the yam after it was dropped” in the same deadpan TV doctors use to give the impression that crime-solving science is precise and unbeatable.
Crime TV may strive for certain kinds of nuance, but it’s always very invested in conveying how powerful the police are. And goodness knows that’s justified—the state hands the police a lot of power, and protects them when they use that. But approaching the police with respect and caution doesn’t mean we can’t look at the power we give them ourselves, and the ridiculous things we dignify. Laughter at the latter is a good place to start.
*Three-word review: it is awesome. More details to come.
With Education Budgets Drained, Atlanta Wants To Use Taxpayer Money To Replace A 20-Year-Old Stadium
In the eyes of its inhabitants, though, the Georgia Dome is old, crumbling, and wholly inadequate, and if the Falcons and the city of Atlanta get their way, the Dome won’t stand much longer — even though it’s only 20 years old. According to new plans announced by the city of Atlanta and the Falcons yesterday, the Dome will soon be replaced by a $950-million, state-of-the-art facility with a retractable roof. The Georgia Dome — built a measly two decades ago — will be imploded, and taxpayers will be footing at least part of the bill, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:
The new plan comes with a higher price. A GWCC-commissioned study released Wednesday put the cost of a new retractable-roof stadium at $947.7 million, up from the $700 million estimated last year for an open-air stadium. Under either plan the public-sector contribution would be an estimated $300 million from an extension of the hotel-motel occupancy tax, passed by the Georgia Legislature in 2010, according to Frank Poe, executive director of the GWCC Authority, the state agency that operates the Dome.
The hotel-motel occupancy tax was originally passed to help finance the construction of the Georgia Dome. It was supposed to expire in 2010, but when the owners of the Falcons threatened to pursue a new stadium in the Atlanta suburbs, the Georgia legislature rushed to extend it so as to keep the team downtown. The extension included an agreement that the Falcons could pursue a new stadium on the same site. Less than two years later, they’re doing exactly that.
The recession and a sluggish economic recovery, meanwhile, crunched Georgia’s state budget and forced deep cuts into areas like education. The state owes local school districts more than $5 billion collectively — Atlanta-area school districts are millions of dollars short. In 2011, the state cut $403 million from its education budget after taking cuts of $300 million and $275 million in the previous two years.
The Falcons want a new stadium because they feel they’re missing out on the riches that come with new skyboxes and luxury suites — amenities the Georgia Dome lacks compared to newer NFL facilities. Still, the team’s value has increased nearly $300 million since owner Arthur Blank bought it in 2002. If the Falcons want a new stadium, they should build one. They just shouldn’t come to taxpayers asking for help.
By now, it’s not exactly news to anyone that major events in culture bring out the ugly on Twitter in a big way, but it still made me so sad to see Bruins fans react to their team losing to the Capitals in overtime on a goal by Joel Ward, one of not very many black players in the National Hockey League, with ugly racist outbursts. Sports history in Boston are a mixed bag when it comes to racial equality. The Bruins were the team that integrated the National Hockey League, and the Celtics were the first integrated National Basketball Association team. The Red Sox were the last Major League Baseball team to integrate, giving Jackie Robinson a tryout only under pressure from the Boston City Council, and when they did bring on a black player, deliberately choose Pumpsie Green, who didn’t have the chops to be a first-stringer. Their loss in the 1967 World Series may have been in part due to the team’s lingering racism and failure to go after the best players. One of the smartest things the team’s current ownership group ever did was decide to discuss that legacy directly and to take actions to rebuild the Red Sox relationship with Boston’s black community. But it’s easier to clean house on an institution than to move all the people with ties to or affection for that institution forward. This kind of reaction is a disgrace to the Bruins legacy, and it might be nice if Bruins players and management spoke up and said as much.
I missed this while I was in a screening, but a reader is kind enough to point out that the Bruins have stepped up with a statement: “”The Bruins are very disappointed by the racist comments that were made following the game last night. These classless, ignorant views are in no way a reflection of anyone associated with the Bruins organization.” Good on them for speaking out, and for naming these kinds of outbursts for precisely the pathetic things they are.
Another tidbit from the interview that struck me was Schur’s saying—prompted by a question from Ryan—that the show would love to be a kind of comedy version of The Wire. I don’t want to overplay that quote; he doesn’t seem to be inflating the show so much as saying that The Wire is a standard to aspire to, and maybe that Parks would like to create the same kind of broad civic world, within the context of a less realistic network comedy. And Parks, as Ryan says, has a much more optimistic outlook than The Wire.
But it’s interesting to see that in the light of our discussion yesterday of David Simon’s disappointment about The Wire’s reception since it’s gone off the air: that it seems to be remembered more as an entertainment than for its specific view of social institutions and the drug war. It’s pretty plain that The Wire did not change American drug and policing policy, but this is also a little reminder that there’s more than one way for a show to be influential. If a show like The Wire has made a little NBC sitcom slightly more thoughtful about how institutions and communities work—that’s not exactly changing the world, but it’s something to be happy about, anyway.
I agree that would be a legacy that’s both entertaining and constructive, especially if it means that more shows look for the realistic drama in existing institutions. Parks & Recreation is different from most shows in that it draws its comedy from lowering stakes rather than artificially jacking them up. The first major conflict the show dealt with was trying to fill in a hole. One of the biggest collective tragedies the characters have experienced was the death of a mini horse. The show doesn’t make fun of the characters for investing so much in relatively small things. Instead, it respects them, and the show’s signature mix of comedy and kindness comes from that framing. If part of Schur’s goal is to use the show to explore more of Pawnee’s bureaucracy and institutions, that’s also a good argument for Leslie winning the City Council race so we can see more of city government.
It’ll be an interesting question whether other shows start drawing the same realistic drama from existing institutional imperatives. That’s probably an easier thing for comedies to do than dramas, if only because the networks have conditioned us to expect such big stakes in the latter. If the President’s mistress isn’t knocked up a la Scandal, a small child isn’t in horrible danger, or the world isn’t at risk, shows seem to feel they’re not doing their duty. I’ll be curious to see what comes of the show that The Wire’s Ed Burns and Amber Tamblyn are supposed to be working on about a school: it’s not in the pilot cycle this year, so we’ll have to see what happens. But one of the consequences of The Wire having a lot of journalists and novelists writing episodes (in additional to the different perspective they brought) is that it’s not like the show spun off a huge number of TV writers who are now selling shows of their own. Its creative influence might be less clear to trace, but Schur can’t be the only one who’s looking to The Wire as an influence, and interpreting that influence in clever and surprising ways.
One of the most notable things about Obama’s appearance on Late Night to me was the moment when he shouted out Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, specifically their sketches centered around a character called Luther, who is meant to be Obama’s “Anger Translator”:
Obama said his staff had brought it to him, calling it “pretty good stuff.” The original sketch appears here:
When I talked to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele in February, I asked them about the origins of the Anger Translator sketches. “It was in the height of the second Birther renaissance,” Peele told me. It felt like there were a bunch of things that were not being said that should have been said…We’re all thinking in our heads what we all hope he’s thinking, but he has to maintain his composure. Key added that “I think [the presidency] is a miserable straightjacket for anybody…The president frames things in a much more 18th-century way, “You’re reasonable people and I expect you to look at facts.” He’ll do that through actions as well as words, and that’s threatening to people.”
I think to have Obama acknowledge that desire, what Peele referred to as “a guiltily orgasmic moment” of watching someone speaking for the president express fierce, funny, frothing impatience with the more insane of his critics, is powerful. He’s not satisfying that urge directly, but in a way he’s putting himself on the couch next to us, looking at his public persona from the outside. He can’t give us what we want, and we might not really want it should such an explosion come to pass. But it’s a riff that suggests, despite the birth certificate press conference and the maddening, infinite patience, he is with us in recognizing the ridiculousness.