I was so, so sorry to hear of the death by gunshot wound in an apparent suicide of linebacker Junior Seau, who played for the Patriots between 2006 and 2009. It’s too soon to know whether Seau’s death is linked to brain injury—the Boston Globe points out that Seau appears to have shot himself in the chest rather than the head, as did late Bear Dave Duerson, who wanted to preserve his brain for scientific study—or a sad conclusion to other troubles. Seau was hospitalized after falling asleep at the wheel in 2010, and arrested on assault charges. No matter the cause, it’s sad to see someone who gave me so much pleasure leaving football to something other than a happy, fulfilling retirement.
I’m literally hopping up and down with excitement to talk to y’all about The Avengers—I’ll have a review on Friday that can act as an open thread for discussion over the weekend and spoilerific post about the movie on Monday. But to pass the hours until the movie hits theaters, and to continue our conversation from yesterday about The Avengers and The Dark Knight it’s worth checking out Adam Rogers’ long piece on Joss Whedon and the process of making The Avengers, perhaps the first time Whedon’s been able and allowed to relax into a well-oiled machine that had no interest in letting him hoist himself on his own petard. He also has an overarching theory of why Marvel movies are working, while DC Comics movies, with the exception of Batman, have had such trouble:
Not incidentally, these were all characters from comics published by Marvel. The characters from competing comics company DC—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the Superfriends—were lying fallow, even though the corporation that owns DC also owns Warner Bros. Pictures. Marvel, on the other hand, was doing so well with its A-list characters that in 2005 the company took the bold step of financing its own theatrical releases. It would translate its characters its own way.
Spider-Man had been indentured to Sony, and the X-Men and Fantastic Four were already at Fox, but the remaining roster of potential movie heroes was still plenty deep. First up: Iron Man, an alcoholic gazillionaire playboy who builds his own rocket-powered exoskeleton. Then there’s the Hulk, a brilliant scientist who turns into a massively strong, uncontrollable green monster. Oh, and Captain America—a supersoldier from World War II brought into the present—and Thor, a hammer-wielding Norse god with superpowers and family drama that makes the real housewives of Atlanta look like the Osmonds. Unlike the gleaming, godlike DC heroes, Marvel characters are more likely to regard their powers as a curse than a blessing; great power has a pesky tendency to come with great responsibility. And that makes for pretty good movie plots.
I think there’s something to that. But of course, Marvel movies do have gods in the form of Asgardians, and some of the pleasure of watching Thor and Loki duke it comes from seeing gods behaving badly, of seeing these brawls play out on the largest possible scale. I wonder if the secret overall is that, on-screen at least, the Marvel heroes have tended to be funnier and more self-deprecating than the DC heroes, which is not precisely the same thing as angsty. There’s something inherently ridiculous about a god in a pet store, or a rich kid reacting in amazement and pleasure to his new toys, to the fact that he can fly. Acknowledging that absurdity is a useful nod to people who aren’t lifelong geeks, but are letting themselves be talked into drinking the Kool-Aid. And the transmutation of anxiety and darkness into comedic gold is basically Joss Whedon’s sweet spot.
Batman’s owned the flip side of that joyful ridiculousness, a sense of deviance: Gotham residents may not be right about the precise ways in which Bruce Wayne’s head isn’t right, but they’re not wrong that there’s something wrong with him. That comfort with painting the hero as a bit too dedicated, acknowledging our unease, may be why it’s worked better than say, Green Lantern or Green Hornet. One way or the other, the movies seem to require a deep tonal commitment to work.
Since Glee‘s debut in 2009, one of the major criticisms of the show has been that it’s immoral. Glee has been criticized for the racy photoshoot its stars, who play high schoolers though they’re of legal age, did for GQ, for its relatively realistic portrayal of teen sex and drinking, for its well-developed gay characters and most recently, for its sympathetic treatment of a new transgender character. Most of these criticisms say more about the people mounting them than Glee itself. But over the past two seasons, it’s become impossible to escape the conclusion that Glee is an immoral show, but not for the reason cultural conservatives believe. It’s become a show that’s not just sloppy but exploitative and manipulative of serious societal issues and human experiences. And it’s time to walk away, even for hate-watching purposes.
One of the biggest structural problems with Glee has always been its attention deficit disorder. Major life events and hugely consequential actions pop up without warning to provide drama in episodes and then vanish whether they’re resolved or not, never to be mentioned again. Most of the time, that gets dismissed as laziness, the result of a fragmented writing room, an inevitable consequence of Ryan Murphy’s style. Murphy gets a lot of credit for sensitively portraying the lives of sexual minorities in particular. But it’s time to start calling him what he is: a cynical exploiter of oppressed people who has very little actual interest in actually exploring their experiences in rich, complex, compassionate ways.
Last night’s episode of Glee was a disgustingly egregious example of this trend. In this hour, we learn that McKinley High’s football coach Shannon Beiste has been hit by her husband, a football scout whose initial appearance served mostly to escalate the rivalry between Coach Beiste and Jane Lynch’s cheerleading Coach Sylvester and has rarely been mentioned again. We know that Coach Beiste fell so hard for her husband in part because she’s often felt unlovable, but their relationship plays essentially no role in the show, and Coach Beiste is not a character whose inner life the show consistently explores. So when we found out that he was hitting her because “He had been bugging me all weekend to do the dishes, but I forgot,” and that, “As soon as it happened, right away he was so sorry, and started crying and begging me to forgive him,” after a bad, and horrendously inappropriate rendition of “Cell Block Tango,” the development came out of nowhere. Glee wouldn’t do something this bad to a character the show actually has something invested in—God forbid we explore teen partner violence, a subject that after Yeardley Love’s killing at the hands of her ex-boyfriend George Hughley at the University of Virginia might be worth discussing with these kids. No, instead Glee inflicts something dreadful on a character who’s there solely to elicit reactions from the main cast, the show beats up on the masculine woman who fears she’s unloveable.
And then, having made her a victim, the show can’t even handle it in a genuinely serious way. The plot became the B story to Kurt and Rachel’s NYADA auditions. There’s no question that those scenes are an important moment and one the show has been moving to for more than a year. And it definitely reflects teenaged myopia to privilege that event over a subject as serious as domestic violence. But there should be a distinction between the show’s priorities and its characters, a test the show failed miserably last night.
The bridge is yours.
-Mo Ryan talks to Amy Poehler and the results are predictably awesome.
-Please, let the Beach Boys resist a hologram Dennis Wilson.
-Game of Thrones beer is fine, but I really just want my Dornish wine, please.
-Eva Longoria is pretty great.
-I would like Cheryl Cole’s neon pumps, please:
At the beginning of this year, when I looked at the female comedic archetypes the television season had given us in a highly-touted year of funny women, and that it was teeing up to deliver, there seemed to be four clear categories: the Woodland Creature for those wide-eyed innocents like New Girl‘s Jess and Are You There, Chelsea?‘s DeeDee, the Crude Broad for 2 Broke Girls‘ Max and the titular character in Are You There, Chelsea?, the Rueful Blonde, which includes Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23‘s June, GCB‘s Amanda, and House of Lies‘ Jeanie, and the Somewhat-Wise woman, embodied by Veep‘s Selina Meyer. The truth is that, despite their differences, the members of these clubs have more in common than they are different. They’re all conventionally attractive, set-upon—though not precisely in the manner of the screwball heroine—and in a hurry. They, and babes like Whitney Cummings with legs for miles and the quirk slapped on like eyeshadow, don’t pose much of a challenge to our sense of what women can, and should be.
I was thinking about this in the context of the news, presumably leaked by NBC itself, that Sarah Silverman’s untitled comedy pilot and Roseanne Barr’s Downwardly Mobile, about the recession-wracked residents of a trailer park, aren’t testing particularly well and may be in danger of not getting picked up. And I was thinking of that news in the context of our discussion about Girls, and whether we’re ready for female anti-heroes who are anti-heroic because they’re passive, or whiny, or weird, not because they act like decisive, evil men.
Roseanne Barr and Sarah Silverman in real life, and Lena Dunham’s character on Girls, Hannah Hovarth, don’t act like the women who fall into those four categories. Barr isn’t wafer-thin (she never was), and she isn’t one of those Hollywood women who’s aged into Blythe Danner-like pale, imperious elegance. She’s outspoken about gender and class, attractive traits in an industry bound by iron bands of sexism and wealth. But her Twitter feed can be weirdly combative, her run for the Green Party presidential nomination an odd distraction in a year when she also was supposed to be serious about getting a follow-up to Roseanne off the ground. Some days, Roseanne feels more like Amy Jellicoe, the naive corporate drone who constantly runs up against her own limitations and self-created obstacles in HBO’s Enlightened: it would be nice to root for her, but she’s making it awfully hard.
Silverman’s less hard to reckon with, but she’s just as challenging. Though she’s attractive, she often dresses as if to consternate fashion commentators (a trait I find somewhat endearing). She’s 41, an in-between age when actresses are often no longer treated as if they could sexually appeal to anyone, but before they’re old enough to be grand dames, liberated from their attractiveness and freed to be spymasters or schemers. On-screen, she tends to play either tightly-wound parodies of hard-charging women, whether as producer Alexi Darling in the movie adaptation of Rent, or Patti, Mike White’s horrible, careerist girlfriend in School of Rock, or unsettling naifs like her self-absorbed character in The Sarah Silverman program, who makes Hannah Hovarth look like a model of charity and selfelessness.
And though the debate over Girls has died down somewhat, there are clearly a lot of people who remain very angry with Hannah, who are appalled by her poor choices, insist that Dunham shouldn’t get credit for displaying a body that’s so far from the Hollywood norm, angrily reject the idea that people could have sex that bad or make decisions that emotionally awkward. This discomfort can get ugly, but it’s also very interesting in a world where we’re supposed to sympathize with characters who fret about invisible imperfections, who are allowed, even expected to be humiliated before they can be resurrected for our enjoyment and moral satisfaction. You can make terrible, naive life choices, whether you’re a drunk like Chelsea or blind to your husband’s massive embezzlement scheme like Amanda, but as long as you’re gorgeous and fairly conventional, your wounds will be cooed over, rather than publicly sowed with salt. It’s like how Hollywood likes female geeks as long as the only signifier of their geekdom is a pair of glasses. We’re not conditioned to emotionally attach to women who are genuinely weird.
In addition to the relative genericness of their presentation and general demeanor, the ladies of network television comedy may have gotten a lot of screen time, but they didn’t do much original with it. The closest Jess came to transgressive on New Girl was dating her students’ father. Chelsea’s Female Chauvinist Pig on the show that bears her name is enough of a trope to have a book dissecting the phenomenon she represents. Max’s sour diner waitress on 2 Broke Girls could be the granddaughter of cranky counter gals who have been slinging hash since time immemorial. Talking about her lady bits and their needs doesn’t actually mean she’s treading new territory. GCB‘s Amanda may fight her battles with barbecues and church solos, but they’re the same old wars between mean girls who can’t let go. On Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23, June is one of an infinite number of eager strivers in New York. Her roommate Chloe may be the closest thing to a truly original, transgressive character in the crop, a fiancee-seducing, lesbian-faking psycho who sets her father and her roommate up to help them rebound, a Bizarro-world version of the cult of self-help. But while Chloe is a manic, evil delight as played by Krysten Ritter, she’s not precisely convincingly real. Whitney, which seems doomed given Whitney Cummings’ commitment to a new talk show, posed the most believable challenges to the standard sitcom arc for women: two couples on the show entered and broke off engagements, and rather than being shattered by those decisions, seemed fine. The weddings, it turned out, were eclipsing the work of building their actual relationships. It’s sad that this counts as a major departure from the script, but in this field, I have to give it high marks.
My hope is that as we assess this year of television ladies, the relative success of some of these shows serves as a thin edge of the wedge to get some women on television who are genuinely weird or unusual, rather than just performing slight deviations from the norm. Silverman and Barr may not make it on to NBC this year. But Girls will be back on HBO, keeping the hope for women on television who are awkward, and angry, and not conventionally attractive, and entitled—and in other words more like some of television’s most profitable men—alive. If the only kind of women who can be funny on television can all wear the same size dress and hit the same comedic beats, this year of sitcom women hasn’t won us very much at all.
When Luck was cancelled in March, I wrote that it would be nice if we could get as upset about the health and safety of reality show participants as we do about animal cruelty on set. The New York Times has a disturbing new report about the state of horse racing in New York state that serves as an upsetting reminder that there are people inside the industry who don’t care very much about the fate of the animals they’re entertained by and make a great deal of money by racing even when it’s clear that their bodies are broken, the rot at the snapping point disguised by drugs:
“The horses go perfectly sound right up to the second they snap their leg off,” Mr. Clifton said. The following day he came back with a warning: “If we have one more horse break down, we are going to have a major problem on our hands.” That night, riding in the fifth race, Mr. Clifton heard a bone snap and saw another jockey, Ricky Frazier, vaulting off a horse named Laughing Moon. Mr. Clifton yanked his own mount, but they still went soaring over Laughing Moon. Within minutes, Mr. Frazier was in an ambulance and a veterinarian was administering a lethal injection to Laughing Moon, the ninth Gill horse to die racing in 10 months.
That is when the jockeys decided to take a stand: They would not ride in any race with a Gill-owned horse. Their boycott cast a harsh light on the Pennsylvania Racing Commission and Penn National Gaming, which owns the track.
“It wasn’t the commission or the racetrack or anyone with any responsibility for horses and riders who took action,” said George Strawbridge, a prominent breeder and owner. “It was the jockeys who feared for their life. That’s not a shame. That’s a disgrace.”
The fact that inspections of horses at the track before they race aren’t standard from state to state, giving owners like Michael Gill, the one described in those paragraphs, the ability to essentially go shopping for venues where they can race unhealthy horses, is deeply upsetting. I’m not saying horse racing needs to be federally regulated. But it’s hard to believe that track owners and racing commissions couldn’t come to relatively standard conclusions about the desirability of keeping horses from getting unrepairably injured on the track if only in the interests of keeping jockeys safe. And anyone who thinks watching animals hurt themselves dreadfully is part of the entertainment might want to take a careful look at themselves.
I spent a bunch of last week immersed in the music of my youth and today’s for a piece in The Atlantic on boy bands, specifically The Wanted and One Direction, which are taking teenage girls’ radios (or whatever the newfangled equivalent is) by storm. Our default assumption tends to be, I think, that boy band songs are substanceless trifle meant to make girls feel all lovey-dovey. But listening to this stuff through the years is a reminder that when boys talk to girls about love, even and maybe especially in commercial packaging, things can get awfully creepy.
Take the Monkees “Daydream Believer,” which is kind of breathtaking in its condescending dismissiveness. The girl in question is a “daydream believer / and a homecoming queen.” She couldn’t possibly have real concerns:
Then, there’s the Jackson 5′s “Stop (The Love You Save),” which is literally slut-shaming from the lips of a kid who’s too young to be having sex:
From my own era, ‘N Sync’s “Girlfriend” is textbook negging. “Does he even know you’re alive?” are not words to make a woman feel treasured—they’re words to make her vulnerable:
And the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” is the weirdest, neediest thing of all time, the inverse of wooing, paired with a truly terrible attempt at a “Thriller” ripoff:
I don’t know what it says about how conditioned preteen girls are that we listen to these songs and hear professions of adoration. Clearly, the only solution is to hook the young women in our lives up with Boyz II Men sooner: