Gone fishin’. Back Tuesday, complete with episodes 7-9 of the first season of The Wire and the straight dope on The Amazing Spider-Man. Have a gorgeous weekend.
I’ve sung the praises of Spike Lee’s dramatically misunderstood Red Hook Summer, which I saw at Sundance, before, but now we’ve got a trailer, which gives you some small sense of why the movie, which follows a boy named Flik over the summer he spends with his preacher grandfather, is so excellent:
A lot of what makes Red Hook Summer excellent is the way it incorporates politics into its characters’ conversations, and how its plot points grow out of realistic political and economic issues. Characters talk about unemployment because they, and people they know, are unemployed, and about the pollution caused by docking cruise ships in Brooklyn because their health is affected by it. And Lee draws drama less from emotional contrivance than from the politics of life in gentrifying neighborhoods. Flik and Chazz, a girl who attends Flik’s grandfather’s church, have an ongoing, pranky war with a white woman who has moved into Red Hook and gets hysterically angry when they write their names in the concrete in front of her steps. The cost of Chazz’s asthma medication and the fact that she loses expensive inhalers provokes one of the movie’s dramatic climaxes. Hollywood characters often live in a world that is mysteriously untouched by political systems, economics, bureaucracies, and environmental issues. Spike Lee’s characters actually live in the world.
FX Promised Introspection In Charlie Sheen’s ‘Anger Management.’ It’s Serving Up Vicious, Sexist Trash Instead.
In January, John Landgraf, the president of FX, told the assembled writers at the Television Critics Association Press Tour why he’d decided to give Charlie Sheen a half-hour comedy, in which Sheen would star as an “unconventional anger management therapist.” “I think if Charlie wants to get his house in order, and that includes his issues with substance abuse and his relationships to his own family, it also encompasses his desire to have greater consciousness about his public persona,” he said. “[His character] is struggling to foster for a daughter a positive self-esteem and sense of how to be a woman in society. My opinion is that could be a really good thing. That could be a good thing for Charlie, it could be a good thing for society.”
When I talked to Landgraf after the session to clarify why he’d decided to work with Sheen, given Sheen’s record of violence against women and repeated relapses, he had this to say:
Part of what the show is about, frankly, is a kind of comeuppance. For example, he has a teenaged daughter, he has an ex-wife, his ex-wife has questionable tastes in men, and he was the first of her questionable tastes in men. But now, as a co-parent, he has to deal with a series of men in his 13-year-old daughter’s life, and that’s a kind of comeuppance for him. I can’t know what’s in Charlie Sheen’s heart. I can only tell you that as an artist and as a performer, he made a choice in terms of what he chose to do next that to me is indicative of somebody who wants to grow, and he wants to play a more self-aware, more dimensional character, and he wants to make a more complicated, more nuanced show.
I think you and [Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan] imagine that some of the same things that happened in the past will probably happen in the future, and therefore in your estimation, I’ve stepped into the role of an enabler that was exited by others like Warner Brothers and CBS. And in my estimation, we make a really good show and Charlie grows as a human being…
I don’t lack empathy or sympathy for [Maureen]‘s point of view. But my point of view is I’m not Charlie’s judge, jury, and executioner. I’m not ready to declare him someone who should be banished forever from the public eye and from his work. If he’d come in and indicated no interest and ambition in progressing his work on-camera as well as no ambition to progress his life than I wouldn’t have chosen to get involved with it.
I quote Landgraf at such length here, because I think it’s important that people be clear on what FX said about Anger Management before it premieres tonight. It might have been one thing for FX to have baldly admitted that they signed up Charlie Sheen because they thought that even though his behavior was heinous and the pitch was not even close to their creative standards, they thought he would make a lot of money that would let them support their other programming.They could have even tried to sell the show as a solid but unremarkable sitcom. But instead they said “it could be a good thing for society.” That the pitch was “indicative of somebody who wants to grow…and make a more complicated, more nuanced show.” Sheen himself told Playboy “I’m done playing a drunken, womanizing, immature character. This time I’m playing an adult.” Networks always talk up their new shows. But the gap between the spin that Landgraf gave me and other critics to convince us to give Anger Management a chance and the reality of the show they’ve produced is unusually striking.
The two episodes of television they’re airing tonight suggest one of three options. First, that the spin was always nothing but spin. Second, the episodes that were turned in didn’t live up to the hopes that Landgraf had for the show. Third, and scariest, that they think the episodes they’re kicking off the season with are reflective of those high standards. That option is particularly frightening, given that the second episode of Anger Management is one of the ugliest, most callously sexist things I’ve ever seen on television.
In the pilot for Mindy Kaling’s excellent new sitcom debuting on Fox this fall, The Mindy Project, the titular character, an OB/GYN, tells the son of a patient, a single, observant Muslim mother, to promise her that the family will have health insurance by the time she was due to deliver her baby. It’s a familiar trope in medical procedural shows: a doctor makes the decision to take a patient on who doesn’t have health insurance, frustrating hospital or private practice suits, or a doctor who’s previously worked for wealthy patients has their life and worldview changed by working among uninsured patients and witnessing their normally abysmal level of care. The former reoccurs in almost every medical procedural. The latter was the premise for CBS’s now-cancelled A Gifted Man, where the ghost of a surgeon’s ex-wife encourages him to begin spending time at the free clinic she ran, and it’s at the heart of the USA Network’s Royal Pains, about a concierge doctor in the Hamptons who also runs a clinic for low-income clients.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act today, starting in 2014, there will be many fewer uninsured patients, thanks to a combination of a mandate to purchase health insurance or pay a compensatory tax. It’ll be harder for television shows to generate drama and opportunities for doctors to demonstrate their compassion out of patients who were denied coverage because they had preexisting conditions. In the absence of that kind of emotional stimuli, I’ll be curious to see where medical procedurals turn to generate drama and to generate opportunities to demonstrate human kindness. Will they challenge things like doctors’ lack of engagement with patients, a rebuke to the brusqueness fetishized on House that is not so cute when it happens in person? Shifts in the profession that have made nurses more important and made them key points of contact for patients? The Affordable Care Act will dramatically change who is insured in the United States, but it will hardly eliminate all the issues in our medical system.
But if shows do want to tell stories about uninsured patients in the future, it’ll be interesting to see if they acknowledge that those people are insured for political reasons. As Matt Yglesias explains, the Supreme Court’s decision means that the federal government will be offer states new money to subsidize the coverage of poor patients through Medicaid, but not to penalize states who decline to kick in 10 percent of the cost of coverage themselves. “Since your state’s citizens have to pay taxes to the federal government one way or the other, you’d have to be pretty crazy to refuse the carrot if you ask me,” he writes. “But ideological zeal may well lead some states to turn it down.” Previously, medical procedurals were able to treat uninsured patients like they were an accepted fact of the practice of medicine. Treating them in defiance of commercial pressure allowed television doctors to demonstrate apolitical concern for individuals. And taking as an assumption that a vast tide of uninsured patients would always exist means television doctors are essentially exempt from questioning the larger market in which they operate. But in the future, uninsured patients (who are not undocumented immigrants or prisoners) will not be an inevitable fact of American life—they will be created by the very specific decisions of individual states. Whether any television show will have the courage to identify that fact will be a fascinating question for the genre, which has yet to have a show that does for medicine what shows like The Wire and The Shield have done for law enforcement.
The production cycle in American television is long—but so is the time it takes to implement major societal legislation. I hope there’s a smart writer somewhere out there who is looking forward to the 2014 fall television season and seeing in today’s historic decision an opportunity to reinvent medical procedurals as our health care system undergoes its most dramatic changes since the invention of the form.
The bridge is yours.
-Eight summer love songs for 2012.
-How the Justice Department assigned restitution for actresses whose nude pictures were leaked.
-Life lessons from Nora Ephron.
-New music from Janelle Monae!
-Bryan Cranston will continue to be a wonderful heavy in Total Recall:
A lot of the time, I write about the fact that it’s frustrating that, when pop culture tackles politics, it often reduces complex issues to matters of will and determination. I understand that these reductions are a means to of telling simplified stories, and that they feel good to tell. But it’s a convention that both reduces the actual drama of a story, and blurs the reality of our political system.
But as Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan joked on Twitter this morning in response to the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act decision, “Roberts is the Severus Snape of the Supreme Court.” There are extremely rare moments where enormous political issues hinge on the will of single political actors. And while this is a mixed victory—the narrowing of the Commerce Clause may have wide-ranging consequences—this was, against popular expectation, one of those moments. Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision reaches into my life, and the lives of so many others, and truly made a difference. It’s a reminder that people who write television and movies aren’t wrong to believe that sometimes, the better angels of our nature can govern our nation. But that sometimes, they should save the speeches that turn the tide and the wrenching personal decisions for the good of the nation, recognizing them as the truly unusual things that they are, and understanding that they’re powerful precisely for being so rare.
Well, this strikes me as sadly typical:
[Eidos life president Ian]Livingstone said that the recent controversy about Tomb Raider’s E3 trailer was “quite extreme” and “blown out of proportion.” He went on to say that Rosenberg’s comments were the result of a “live interview that went slightly wrong. Quotes were misinterpreted and blown out of proportion,” Livingstone made the comments during an appearance at the Game Horizon conference in Newcastle, England.
He also said that, while rape may be a topic that can be covered in other mediums, it is a different beast in video games. “I think about my responsibility as a developer – films can deal with these themes, but it’s different in games when the user controls the action,” he said. “We should be celebrating what’s great about the game. I guarantee fans will be delighted with the new Tomb Raider.”
Now, clearly there’s an extent to which Tomb Raider’s president Ron Rosenberg mischaracterized his own game by saying that assailants would try to rape Lara Croft. What Lara Croft faces is not a penetrative rape, but, from what I understand from people who have seen the walkthrough, a sexualized assault that, if the player lets the scenario play through without acting, results in the character’s brutal murder. But people were reacting to the information that had been given to them. And give what they had been told was going to happen was a cliche and often ugly way of giving a female character a “dark” backstory or something to “overcome”, and given that Rosenberg suggested that players would be excited to rescue Lara rather than to embody here, a negative fan reaction seems reasonable. In this, as in so many other cases, telling people that they’re blowing something out of proportion or that their reaction is “extreme” is often just code for complaining that they reacted in a way someone hadn’t be prepared for or that discomfited them. It shouldn’t be that hard to admit you had a communications failure, say that you respect the concerns and feelings of people who found the news upsetting, and that you hope and expect fans will be excited by what they see, and to do all of that without blaming anyone for their reactions. But time and time again, that seems to be a real challenge. Maybe we need walkthrough videos that explain how to level up with an appropriate clarification or apology.
I’ve written before about Beasts of the Southern Wild, the apocalyptic fairy tale about people living outside of the levees in Louisiana, which was my favorite movie at Sundance, remains one of my favorite movies of the year, and stars the most original superhero of the summer in six-year-old Hushpuppy. It’s a deeply, intensely political movie, though not along conventional lines: director Benh Zeitlin told writer Jeremy Butman of his characters, who live through a hurricane and resist efforts to relocate them behind the levees, that “It’s not like the movie is advocating that people not be rescued from disastrous situations. But it’s that condescending notion of, ‘We know better, you should live somewhere safer,’ which definitely infuriated me after the storm and that was a big entryway into the movie.”
I was also intrigued by what Zeitlin said in response to what I think is the most substantive critique of the movie, that it can seem to glorify extreme poverty, an answer that also clarifies the ideas behind his world-building:
The Bathtub is not a place where money exists. The whole idea of the Bathtub is that it’s a society where all the things that divide people have been removed. So there’s no religion, no politics, no money, no one sees race, there’s no rich and poor because there is no currency. So, I never thought about that because to me the Bathtub is this utopian place. And the poverty thing, to me it’s much more like it’s been cut off from the world, and it’s a survivalist place where they have to build everything by hand, they have to live off the earth. You don’t have any commodities to sustain yourself, but to me there’s no poverty there. There’s this ultimate freedom that exists there. But part of it is that when people see a trailer it’s like, “Oh, it’s a trailer. Poor people live in trailers.” That’s how I know it has been looked at, but I think that people are bringing certain preconceptions. When you see a trailer there’s a certain association. When you see black people in dirty clothes there’s an association. Those are things that people are bringing in because they’re used to those aesthetic elements communicating a very specific narrative about misery and poverty. So, it’s not that I don’t understand the reaction, but I don’t know that it’s in there.
Science fiction and fantasy can create new things, of course. But I think it’s easy to forget that they can also help us question the associations we have with images and signifiers, and pose challenges to our visions of what counts as affluence, or comfort, or an aspirational lifestyle. Respecting Hushpuppy means, at least for the duration of the movie, accepting her worldview. As she puts it, “Daddy says on the other side of the levee, on the dry side, they afraid of the water like a bunch of babies…The Bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world…Daddy’s always saying that up in the dry world, they ain’t got none of what we got. They only have holidays once a year. They got fish stuck in wrappers and babies stuck in carriages…Me and my daddy, we stay right here…We’s who the earth is for.”
Jaclyn Friedman has a fascinating column in the Guardian about the fact that even empowered princesses don’t do as much for girls as ordinary-boys-turned-heroes do for boys:
The studio whose most iconic heroes include a toy cowboy, a rat, a fish, a boy scout, and a lonely trash compactor (all male-identified, of course), couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about a human girl without making her a princess. That’s the problem in a nutshell: if the sparkling minds at Pixar can’t imagine their way out of the princess paradigm, how can we expect girls to?
The past decade may have seen a welcome increase in on-screen female action heroes, but we’re still far from gender parity in the genre, and even when they’re not princesses, they’re nearly all trained assassins or Chosen Ones. Joseph Campbell wrote indelibly about the power of The Hero with a Thousand Faces – an ur-hero who’s living a mundane life when he’s faced with a challenge through which he can discover his greatness. It’s easy to see why this matters: everyman hero stories teach every boy that he can make himself great through his own actions, regardless of how dull or difficult the lot in life he’s been handed.
Princess stories – even Action Princess stories – inherently fail the Conrad test.
I do think there’s something really important about teaching girls that the gender norms laid out for them are add-ons, rather than restrictions. Leaching the meaning out of a word like “princess” is a task that has value. But if we’re ascribing strength to states that girls in the audience think don’t apply to them, if the lesson and Brave and other movies is that if your father hasn’t hooked you up with weaponry and training as a child that adventure is still out of site, then we’re winning one battle at the expense of another. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case—the little girls in the audience at the screening I attended didn’t seem to have trouble identifying with Merida. But there’s nothing wrong with empowering girls who aren’t princesses, in making the journey to heroism a little longer, but proving it can still be traveled no matter where in the process you start.
Upon news that the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) commissioners had approved a four-team playoff to determine college football’s national champion Tuesday evening, media outlets were quick to report that the BCS was on its deathbed. “BCS is dead,” the Associated Press said. “Playoff is here, BCS is dead…,” read a headline at CBS Sports. “Ding, dong, the wicked BCS witch is almost dead,” an ESPN columnist tweeted.
Well, no. Not really.
The tradition of the BCS deciding who plays for the national championship using a faulty computer metric is (almost) dead. The worst parts of the BCS, however, are more alive than ever.
The Sugar Bowl earned $11.6 million in tax-free profits in 2007 because it and other bowls classify themselves as “charities.” It is (likely) still a part of the process.
The Fiesta Bowl is taking $6.45 million in public subsidies from the state of Arizona years after it was enveloped in scandal because it showered lavish trips on its sponsors and paid outrageous salaries to its executives. It, too, will likely remain a part of the process.
Virginia Tech, a public university, lost $420,000 playing in the 2011 Orange Bowl. Were it not for Tech’s conference payout, its losses would have exceeded $1 million. Over a three year span, schools lost an average of $331,000 playing in BCS games. The Orange Bowl? Still a part of the process.
Bowl games — charities, they insist — that gave just 1.5 percent of their revenues to actual charities in 2009 and are increasingly dishonest about how much they pay back to schools? Still a part of the process.
And by bidding out the championship game to cities that will spend millions to host it, the BCS managed to throw in another sweet deal to pad its pocketbooks even more.
Under the BCS, bowls and their executives got rich while schools lost money. Your tax dollars paid for it. This playoff, however welcome a development college football fans think it is, doesn’t change that one bit. If anything, it makes it worse.
“That’s the beauty of the new agreement. It works within the bowl system, not outside of it,” ESPN college football columnist Gene Wojciechowski wrote. “Seriously, what’s there not to like? The bowl system lives. The regular season isn’t compromised. Tradition survives.”
Welcome to college football, where the tradition of blatant corruption is a thing of “beauty.”
‘Queen of Versailles’ Director Lauren Greenfield on the Biggest House in America and the Recession and the Rich
Lauren Greenfield’s Queen of Versailles was one of the first movies to sell at the Sundance Film Festival, and one of the best documentaries I saw there. The movie follows timeshare mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie as they seek to build the largest house in America, a palatial mansion they’ve dubbed Versailles. In addition to exploring America’s consumption addictions, Queen of Versailles is also a concise explanation of the roots of the financial crisis: the Siegels’ business relies on cheap credit, both to fund the construction of new timeshare developments, and to get customers to take out loans so they can afford the second homes that are, for them, an embodiment of the American dream. The movie follows the Siegels as they overextend themselves on their home, and as they experience the consequences of their customers’ defaults. It’s a sharp, surprisingly sympathetic story. I spoke with Greenfield about her relationship with the Siegels, American consumption, and how the fate of the 1 percent impacts the 99 percent. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you first get interested in the Siegels’ story?
I’m a photographer also, and I had been working on a project about wealth and consumerism. My last film had been a short called Kids + Money. I was photographing Donatalla Versace. Jackie was one of Donatella’s best customers at the time. I made a picture of Jackie’s gold, blingy purses that ended up being in Time’s 100 Best Pictures. Jackie told me about building America’s biggest house. In [another] picture [Jackie showed her], there were 7 kids on the steps of her private jet. I was also working a project about women and aging, and the fact that she had all of these kids, I was just interested in her as a subject…I was interested in her character as a billionaire. She didn’t act like we expect rich people to act, she didn’t have this protective veil that we expect to come with wealth. There was that dichotomy that, eventually, spoke to me about the American dream and the connection between this house and the American dream.
You mentioned that Jackie was different from other rich people you’d encountered. What was the difference?
In my own work on wealth, when I photographed rich kids in Los Angeles for example, there was a jadedness that I never saw in Jackie. She loves the stuff. She wasn’t part of upper-class society. She didn’t use the money as a way to join a country club with other rich people. She would socialize with people from her family, which was all kind of part of the entourage, and they’re not rich. Her relationship with the domestic staff was non-traditional and non-heirarchical in a way. She didn’t have the protective barriers of wealth. She’s very open, very generous. I saw in her a way to document an inside view of wealth…The thing about Jackie and David is they kind of embody our virtues and our flaws of the American scene…As over the top as Jackie is, I’ve gone to Costco and loaded up on a cart of stuff I did not intend to buy because it’s two for one or bigger is better. I started out with this inside view of the rich, but at a certain point, it turned, and that turned for me when they had to put their house on the market. A lightbulb went on, and I realized they were similar to people that I’d photographed in foreclosure cities, in the crash in Dubai. It became an allegory for the overreaching.
What do you see as David and Jackie’s virtues? Much of the movie is about their mistakes.
I guess what I mean by the virtues is they’re both rags to riches stories. Jackie came from humble origins, was really smart, and then, a flaw of American culture, realized that her beauty would get her further than her engineering degree. David also came from nothing and is totally devoted to his work. In a way, they are success stories. But what they did with their success was build bigger and bigger. As they fall financially, you do see them finding other values. And for Jackie, it wasn’t until the hardships came, that I really saw her as a survivor. In the beginning, with all the stuff, you wonder if you love him for money.
The bridge is yours.
-Why Louis C.K. cast a black woman to play his character’s ex-wife on Louie.
-I will never understand why people fake sources and quotes and think they can get away with it.
-Aaron Sorkin has words for women of my generation.
-Ten forgotten rules for making a good blockbuster.
-Nora Ephron could direct the hell out of a scene as well as write one:
I feel like I’ve been kind of hard on comedians on the blog over the past couple of weeks. So bless Louis C.K. for his appearance on the Tonight Show this week, in which he delivered a terrifically funny riff about why he’d like to be a gay man:
Of course, what the riff is really about is what heterosexual men lose and lose out on in the process of vigorously reinforcing their heterosexuality for the general public: the chance to be enthusiastic, to be affectionate, to wear what you want. It’s a critically important conversation, and I’d love to see more men in positions of power in media engage in it, or even who seemed comfortable enough to stop reinforcing their masculinity for a minute.
I caught up on Avatar: The Legend of Korra, the sequel to the critically acclaimed and totally awesome Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon, about a world where certain people can manipulate the elements, yesterday. Overall, The Legend of Korra is a fantastic second series, and does an excellent job of moving the concepts that the original series laid out so well—that there are benders who can manipulate one element and an Avatar who can control them all—from a feudal setting into an industrialized future, and in giving the original characters descendants who share some of their characteristics while standing fully on their own as characters. One real standout for me was Lin Beifong, the chief of Republic City’s police force. And her arc at the end of the season embodied what I’ve seen as a small trend in female action stars: sacrifice, and a recognition that not everyone can get out alive.
That arc is as follows: Lin, having started the season skeptical of Avatar Korra, who’s been a somewhat disruptive presence in Republic City, has become Korra’s strong ally. After the forces controlled by Amon, a radical who wants to forcibly eliminate the powers of all benders, take over the city, Lin flees with Master Tenzin’s family, determined to protect the last surviving airbenders. And when it becomes apparent that Amon’s forces will overtake them, Lin sacrifices herself. She takes down one of Amon’s ships in a colossal act of metalbending, and when she’s captured, she refuses to compromise. In one of the quietest sequences in the show, Amon takes Lin’s bending from her, the lull in the soundtrack a powerful representation of the sudden absence that has made Lin much of who she is.
The sequence actually reminded me of what I thought was one of the most misunderstood elements of Zack Snyder’s fantasy action movie Sucker-Punch. That film, about girls confined to a 1960s mental institution where some of them are forced to undergo transorbital lobotomies, contains two major sacrifices. In one, Rocket (Jenna Malone) suffers a double death, protecting her sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) from the blast of a bomb in the movie’s fantasy world, and stepping in front of a cook’s knife to save her in the world in which the girls are actually living. And in the movie’s conclusion, Baby Doll (Emily Browning), submits to the lobotomy she’s loathed and feared so that Sweet Pea can escape the asylum. It struck me at the time that there was something uniquely female about recognizing how tightly the jaws of the system were clamped around these girls, the tremendous effort it would take to free just one of them, and the decision by the main characters to prioritize the love between sisters and friends rather than themselves. The uniqueness of that perspective seems to have gotten lost in other critiques of Sucker-Punch, but it’s stayed with me, a specific rebuke by Snyder to the rather manly idea that competence and bravery will see all the main characters through to the end of most action movies, no matter the odds.
Lin has a happier fate in Korra: after communing with her past lives, the Avatar is able to restore her lost powers, and to a certain extent her lost self. But there was no such guarantee when she lept from her safe perch to go up against a system more powerful than she was, and in defense of something other than herself.
I called my mother on my way home from a dinner party last night to let her know that Nora Ephron had died. Or at least, if she already knew Nora Ephron had died, to reassure her that I still had her copies of Crazy Salad and Wallflower at the Orgy, books that I’d sneaked off her shelves years beforehand, and that followed me to college and to Washington, DC. Lots of people are remembering Ephron’s movies, and I’m watching Sleepless in Seattle as I write this, but I knew Ephron as a writer and reporter on media and the women’s movement before I knew her as a screenwriter and director, and it’s hard for me to see her movies in any other context than that writing and reporting.
Ephron wrote powerfully about the culture of politics and the politics of culture. Doing the former, covering the activities of the National Women’s Political Caucus at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami, she captured something about the subordinate position of women in left politics that persists to this day when she wrote that “In a sense, the major function for the N.W.P.C. was to be ornamental—that is, it was simply to be there. Making its presence it felt. Putting forth the best possible face. Pretending to a unity that did not exist. Above all, putting on a good show: the abortion plank would never carry, a woman would not be nominated as Vice-President this year, but the N.W.P.C. would put on a good show.”
She could turn anecdotes into a powerful litany, as she did when writing about the feminist self-help movement in health, which in some cases advocated for untested technologies Ephron found unnerving, even as she said that women had legitimate cases against the doctors who treated them. “Ever week, it seems, I hear a new gynecological atrocity tale,” she wrote. “A friend who asks specifically not to be sedated during childbirth is sedated. Another friend who has a simple infection is treated instead for gonorrhea, and develops a serious infection as a side effect. Another woman tells of going to see her doctor one month after he has delivered her first child, a deformed baby, born dead. His first question: ‘Why haven’t you been to see me in two years?’”
She gutted executives who made dangerous so-called feminine hygiene sprays for injuring women when they couldn’t even say the word vagina. Her assessment that “Washington is a city of important men and the women they married before they grew up” is still one of the most cutting one-line portraits of the nation’s capitol, and one that remains more than a little true. And her profile of Barbara Mandel, the wife of the governor of Maryland who, when her husband decided to leave her for another woman, refused to depart the governor’s mansion in an act of defiance is an amazing meeting point of the domestic, the political, and cultural theater.
One of the reasons I write about culture is because of the way Ephron did it. She profiled the first woman to get close to becoming a professional baseball umpire, in a piece that begins, “Somewhere in the back of Bernice Gera’s closet, along with her face mask and chest protector and simple spiked shoes, is a plain blue man’s suit hanging in a plastic bag. The suit cost $29 off the rack, plus a few dollars for shortening the sleeves and pants legs.” The rest of the piece examines the real price of that mostly unworn outfit. In a visit to the Pillsbury Bakeoff, she wrote about a dated institution’s attempt to jump generations: “There was a lot of talk at the Bake-Off about how the Bake-It-Easy theme had attracted a new breed of contestants this year, younger contestants—housewives, yes, but housewives who used whole-wheat flour and Granola and sour cream and similar supposedly hip ingredients in their recipes, and were therefore somewhat more sophisticated, or urban, or something-of-the-sort than your usual Bake-Off contestant. There were a few of these—two, to be exact: Barbara Goldstein of New York City and Bonnie Brooks of Salisbury, Maryland, who actually visited the Los Angeles County Art Museum during a free afternoon.” In Ephron’s remembrance of reading The Fountainhead, she recalls that “I spent the next year hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or failing that, and architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect.”She understood that cultural details didn’t mean everything, but as with New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff’s stinginess with Christmas bonuses and preference for serving dry roast beef sandwiches to guests, they signified something, and were worth examination.
I’m quite looking forward to Robot & Frank, a story about an aging jewel thief and the robot he’s given to keep him company, not just because of the absurdly terrific cast, or the fact that it’s near-future science fiction, which tends to employ small changes rather than broad metaphors, to sharp effect:
Robot & Frank is a case where the scenario in which the technology’s being employed—to resume Frank’s heist career, and get revenge on the tech nerds who are taking over the local library—is actually more baroque than the technology itself. Japanese companies have long been at work developing robots to assist in many aspects of elder care. Technology companies depend on our ability to develop low-level emotional bonds with technology ranging from Roombas, which act as surrogate pets, to Apple’s Siri voice technology. And the continued work and social lives of aging people, as well as elder care, are major issues that Hollywood almost never has the courage to touch, much less approach from the perspective of people who are aging rather than the younger people who will take lessons from them. I’m almost as excited for a thoughtful, funny, fully human story about retirees as I am to see a movie about robots.
I’ve been watching this season of True Blood, not out of any particular affection for the show, but because I need something to do on Mondays when I’m cleaning out my Google Reader. And while I think overall the show remains not very good (though it is marginally less racist than last season), I found myself unexpectedly struck by two stories in this most recent episode: Salome’s remembrance of being pimped out by her family as a young girl, and Pam’s reflections on how she came to know Eric while working as a prostitute shortly after the turn of the century. True Blood‘s always been a show deeply concerned with sex, but this episode was one of the first times it’s considered the issues that were threaded into Game of Thrones all season, and that reoccured in Deadwood: what happens when women either don’t have control of their own sexuality, and what risks do they face when they turn their sexuality into a commodity.
“We die alone, in the dark,” Pam, still human, told Eric. The pair met after Pam, the mistress of an upscale brothel, discovered that one of the women who worked for her had been murdered by a serial killer. Eric saved her from the same man, and intervened again when he found Bill Compton and his maker Loretta glamoring another woman who works for Pam so she’ll give them consent to drain her dry. Eric’s protective, but even as he develops a tentative relationship with Pam, who, though human is surprisingly accepting of Eric’s unusual abilities, he still holds her at a distance. When she asks him to turn her into a vampire to save her from the fate that awaits both working prostitutes and the women who have ascended to supervise them, Eric tells her that the bonds between maker and made vampire are too sacred to be entered into lightly. Pam remains a disposable to him. Eric may respect her and enjoy her company, but he’s still treating her like a prostitute, a woman who falls into a separate category from women he might actually consider forging a long-term relationship with. Pam forces his hand by slashing her wrists, forcing Eric to turn her if he wants to spend more time with her.
Joanie Stubbs, the prostitute who plays a similar role first in the Bella Union and then in her own establishment in Deadwood, has no such promise of a magical escape, and fewer emotional resources than Pam. When Joanie considers suicide by gunshot, crying out “What am I Lord, that I’m so helpless,” she means it. She’s alone in the room with that pistol. There’s no one to persuade, or frighten into transporting her into a new life. Pam, when she turns into a vampire, is able to reclaim her sexuality for herself, and ends up working with Eric to run a bar where people can meet on equal terms, rather than as client and prostitute, with all the inequalities and vulnerabilities that implies. It may take a while for Joanie to make good on what she tells Cy Tolliver, the owner of the Bella Union, and her former boss, that “I don’t want to run women no more,” but she eventually does. But she doesn’t have the luxury of living from one era into the next, from sexual constraint into sexual liberation.
Over at the Mary Sue, Aja Romano has a terrific piece about the redoubtable culture site TV Tropes’ decision to delete all of its content related to rape and sexual assault on the grounds that it was making it more difficult for the site to retain advertisers. She writes:
Today when you access any of these pages, you’re informed, “We do not want a page on this topic. It does not meet our content policy.”…This problem wasn’t a new one; in January, the Rape Trope index was locked due to Google threatening to block the site’s ad revenue for explicit content. This led to complaints about vanishing hentai tropes, with some users commenting that “creepy content and creepy examples” needed to go, and others questioning whether “creepy content” applied to rape tropes. At that point a user-led effort was made to rename all of the Rape Tropes so that they sounded less rapey (seriously), which rapidly turned into an admin mandate to go through all the renamed tropes and excise all creepiness.
But despite this frantic renaming/excision, either Google brought down the content policy hammer or the admins simply decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting. When Fast Eddie noted the deletion of the trope page, he added, “There is no explanation needed beyond the fact that the topic is a pain in the ass to keep clean and it endangers the wiki’s revenues. We just won’t have articles about rape. Super easy. No big loss.”
Aja’s gone deep on the grostequeries of suggesting that eliminating conversations about rape are “no big loss.” Amy Davidson’s written powerfully in the New Yorker about the extent to which social media helped former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s victims see that they weren’t alone in their experiences. And as long as TV Tropes remains the predominant site for discussion of common story elements in the medium, removing discussions of rape and sexual assault means that when victims or viewers go to the site, they’ll be denied a chance to see the traditions and frameworks that shape their experiences and the stories that touch them.
Now, this is a problem for which Google is more to blame than TV Tropes. TV Tropes is hardly the only site to be affected by Google’s classification of discussions of rape and sexual assault as explicit or obscene, though it’s deeply unfortunate that they decided it was just too much effort to keep an important and powerful part of its site alive.
Rape is obscene. But that’s not because it’s dirty, or sexually alluring, something that needs to—or could be—confined to people at a certain age or a certain stage of life. Rape is obscene because it’s a violation of community norms and standards, not in some settings, but in all settings. It’s a gross, violent attack on the humanity of the victims. I would say rape is an adult topic, but children are victims, too. Part of what’s obscene about rape and sexual assault is that their existence eliminates our ability to let children live in a world that they assume is safe.
Talking about rape may involve talking about sex, but it’s not primarily about sex. A depiction and discussion of a naked woman having consensual sex, and a depiction and discussion of a woman being raped are fundamentally different things, and it’s disturbing that we’d allow algorithms that can’t tell the difference to elide sex and rape. It’s one thing to talk about tailoring content, in news or non-fiction, for ratings or traffic. It’s another to see the structures that governs profit-making online silence a discussion altogether. Ad servers who are literally providing a financial disincentive to discuss rape and sexual assault should be ashamed.
The bridge is yours.
-Do gamers need a bill of rights?
-”Vagina”: apparently, still shocking.
-Well, Dan Rather liked The Newsroom.
-Gallup is starting to examine the relationship between the arts and well-being.
-Yay, new Diamond Rings:
I have a lot of friends who work at The American Prospect, the venerable progressive policy and politics magazine based in Washington, and who until recently, worked at GOOD, the progressively-oriented general interest magazine that laid them off recently. As the Prospect went through a major round of fundraising to pay off its debt and secure financing for another year of operations, and the former GOOD staffers have started a round of Kickstarter fundraising for a project called Tomorrow Magazine, I’ve been gratified to see people come through for both publications. And I’ve been struck by both endeavors as illustrations of the cost of doing quality journalism.
It’s not that I don’t think people know that doing reporting, publishing print magazines, paying reporters’ salaries, and maintaining websites costs money. It’s more that I think these projects have put a precise price tag on that rather nebulous “costs money” assumption. There are twenty two staffers at the Prospect, not all of whom are full time. To pay them, and to keep publishing for another year, the magazine raised $700,000 to cover operating expenses for the first quarter. That is, frankly, not a lot of money: it’s a figure that also presumably needs to cover production of the magazine, freelancers, IT, rent on offices, etc. $700,000 is a large number. But it is not a very large budget for a magazine.
Similarly, the folks behind Tomorrow asked for $15,000 to put out a single issue of the magazine. I assume they’re going to raise a great deal more than that—as I wrote this, the Kickstarter was at $11,174, mere hours after it was posted, and growing fast. But that was an amount of money that didn’t involve compensation for anyone working on the project. It was a figure solely devoted to “production, web design and hosting, tech needs, postage, and one amazing launch party.” Even though the Tomorrow staffers are aiming to make their dream magazine, these are still pretty low-budget dreams.
Not every publication has staffers who readers have a passionate emotional investment in and are willing to support financially. And not every publication needs to get crowd-funded or supported through a combination of foundation and private giving. But I do think that in our conversations about media consumption and supportable business models, it’s really useful to know what the minimum costs of putting out a magazine like the Prospect or Tomorrow, or a television show like Louie, or a great-sounding album are. The more targets we have, the more we can think creatively about sustainable business models that will help us consistently reach them. It’s one thing to want media to be cheaper. It’s another to suss out how cheap it can actually get, and to make peace with that.