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.”