I had a lovely time at SXSW talking Islam and pop culture this spring, and I’m hoping to head back next year. Slate’s proposed a panel involving me, Slate editor Hanna Rosin, The New Republic’s Noreen Malone, and Girls executive producer Jenni Konner talking sex and raunch involving women on television. If it happens, I think it should be a good conversation. In between Louie, Girls, Don’t Trust the B—- In Apartment 23 and movies like Bridesmaids, I think we’re at an interesting moment where female characters are playing with dignity, instrumentalism and aggression in sex in challenging ways, and the reaction to these sex scenes and approaches to sex demonstrate how early we are in these sorts of conversations. If the right to be undignified without having it reflect on every member of every group you’re a part of is a marker of true equality, then this conversation gets at something particularly important. If you agree, I’d appreciate it if you’d take a moment to support the panel through SXSW’s Panel Picker. And if we get to go, I’ll be sure to arrange a meetup in Austin, especially now that I have a better sense of the city.
Via Deadline, it looks like the rights to Daredevil are going to revert back to Marvel and to Disney after Fox killed an effort to reboot the franchise. The fact that the rights to certain key properties, including the blind Hell’s Kitchen lawyer, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men are held outside the company has always been one of the challenges to Marvel’s consolidation of its empire, and one of the reasons we saw a Spider-Man reboot this summer. Continuing to make use of the characters is the way outside companies keep their claim on Marvel characters live so the rights and the profits don’t revert back to Marvel and Disney.
I’ll be curious to see what, if anything, Marvel does with Daredevil. I’ve always thought the planned Marvel-ABC television show would be best off in a procedural format, both to lure in audiences who aren’t sold on superhero stories but are willing to test another lawyer, detective, or cop show, and to save money—if you can keep your hero in the office, courtroom, and street, you don’t have to invest quite as much in special effects and major action sequences. Daredevil, like She-Hulk, would be a fine contender for that kind of show, though I’d hope given the current Avengers lineup and Joss Whedon’s involvement with the television show, that they’ll choose a female character instead.
And I continue to think it would be smart of Marvel to develop a lower-budget, grittier run of hero movies, or a cable show that intersects them, a part of the market that’s open now that the adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers appears in limbo at FX. With Daredevil back in the fold, you could have an overlapping New York universe that includes him, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in Harlem, and Doctor Strange down in Greenwich Village. Marvel has always been woven deeply into the fabric of New York. The Avengers are disconnected by virtue of Tony Stark’s globetrotting, Bruce Banner’s time on the run, Black Widow’s missions, and the fact that Hawkeye and Captain America are buried in institutions. A lower-budget franchise, whether on the silver screen or the television, could root a separate set of characters deeply in a place, making their approaches and personalities facets of the city. That kind of storytelling always served the Law & Order franchise well, and with those shows cancelled or in their twilight years, there’s a place for a great new New York crime-solver, as well as for a different sort of superhero story.
There are a lot of terrific online sitcoms and dramas coming online every day, which is a blessing. But it can be hard to hunt down the best of that content across all the platforms where it lives. So every Wednesday, I’ll bring you a roundup of the best of online television that I’m watching in a given week. And if you have recommendations for shows I should be watching, let me know.
1. Husbands: Season 2 of the marriage equality sitcom from Brad Bell and Jane Espenson begins today as our newlyweds, baseball player Brady and unemployed actor Cheeks start navigating what boundaries look like in married life. And if you need a refresher, check out my behind-the-scenes look at the series and the challenges and opportunities of making television for the internet.
2. My Gimpy Life: There are a lot of funny, unsentimental comedies about people with disabilities in the pipeline, including The Sessions, the Oscar-bait movie starring John Hawks as a polio-stricken man who sets out to lose his virginity in his thirties and FX’s upcoming sitcom Legit, which follows the misadventures of three men, one of whom uses a wheelchair. Actress Teal Sherer beat them both to the punch with this funny, spiky series that’s as much about how Hollywood works as it is about navigating life while using a wheelchair:
3. H+: Bryan Singer returns to some of the themes he explored in his X-Men movies in H+, a series about a world where humans have adopted computer implants in their brains—but the man who invented the technology has vanished and whistleblowers are warning of ominous consequences. The show looks terrific, and I think has a chance to be one of the first great online dramas:
4. Lauren: Lots of online television shows are distinguishing themselves from network fare by bluntly confronting social issues. Lauren, one of a number of series from the WIGS channel, which focuses on female characters, is taking on rape and the chain of command in the military:
The bridge is yours.
-Yay for Seth Green back on my television.
-Hollywood just wants to make sure you get your share of self-published erotica.
-In which I actually enjoy a Maxim photo spread.
The last year’s seen a lot of efforts to interrogate the way superheroines’ bodies are posed and presented, whether it’s artists drawing male superheroes in the same skin-revealing costumes and poses as Wonder Woman or Jim C. Hines’ series of pictures where he posed like heroines on the cover of urban fantasy novels. Now, Ultraculture, as an illustration of its Captain America: The First Avenger review, has taken to Photoshop to show us what it would look like if a superhero’s comic physique could actually be expressed by a live human being. The results are…unsettling:
If depictions of superheroines reduce them to their breasts, buttocks and vaginas, this kind of illustration turns a human being into a vast, undifferentiated cut of meat. The effects are different, of course. Our positive association with musculature means we can still praise the person who acquired it, which is how we ended up with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a major cultural and political figure, rather than reducing him to parts of his wildly-enhanced body, while a tight focus on accentuated female body parts tends to minimize the humanity of the woman they belong to. But this kind of distortion is still unsettling, whether the person it’s done to is male or female. An overemphasis on traits society have decided are positive and admirable can be limiting and overwhelming, too.
Google’s announcement last week that its search algorithm will begin downgrading the search rankings of sites that have been hit with numerous claims that they’re violating copyright that have determined to be valid has been treated in some quarters as if it’s a worrisome surrender of a commitment to a free and open internet. But its decision to play ball with copyright holders doesn’t actually strike me as particularly surprising. And if its policy works as designed, it could provide incentives that would be a useful alternative to legislation.
It’s not particularly surprising to me that Google would come around to factoring valid takedown notices into its search results given the extent to which Google wants to be a content company just as much as a search company. On YouTube, Google’s response time to takedown notices is astonishingly fast—it’s not as if Google is new to responding to copyright violation complaints in a forum where it’s in the company’s interest to make content providers feel comfortable hosting their material there. Google Play may not be a seriously-established competitor to iTunes or Netflix yet, but the division is signing and promoting new content deals on a regular basis. And long-term, that’s probably a focus that makes sense. I have to think that Google can make more money from long-form video advertising on licit content in front of YouTube videos and from its share of download sales than it can from passive display advertising on illicit torrent streams. Google will always have interests in internet freedom, because access is a big part of how it makes money. But the company has long had some interests aligned with Hollywood’s, and is moving increasingly in that direction.
Then, there’s the question of incentives. One of the biggest arguments by cyberlockers and other sites that end up with users who distribute some illicit content is that it’s not fair to characterize them as primarily piracy sites. Google’s new policy gives them an incentive to prove their intentions by getting serious about removing illicit content, banning users who are repeated infringers, and making running a clean locker a competitive advantage. Now there’s no question that there are risks of false positives, and groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are right to keep an eye out for abuse of takedown notice abuse. It will be interesting to see if Google balances this algorithm change by bumping down the priority rating of copyright holders who file bogus or harassing takedown notices repeatedly—good incentives should work in both directions. But a focus on incentives, and on driving users to licit, quality streams of content, is where this debate should be.
The Walt Disney Company is famous for its notoriously strict dress codes for both employees of and visitors to its theme parks. It took until this January for park employees to win the right to grow beards and goatees. The guidelines for Disney World note that “Guests wearing wedding attire are discouraged from entering the Theme Parks.” And now, the Company is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Imane Boudlal in a suit that alleges that Boudlal was fired for wearing a hijab at work. The company has countered that they gave her opportunities for different positions where she would have been permitted to wear her hijab, presumably those that didn’t involve interacting with customers in public. This seems likely to play out in court.
According to the standards set out by the Equal Employment Opportunity Opportunity Commission, Disney will have to prove that it would be an “undue hardship on the employer’s operation of its business” to let Boudlal wear a hijab in a position where park visitors would be in a position to see her. But more to the point, these allegations highlight what counts as normal and what counts as distracting in the homogenized vision of the world of Disney. The overall ethos of the “Disney Look,” the basic covenant governing dress code for Disney employees is “a classic look that is clean, natural, polished and professional, and avoids ‘cutting edge’ trends or extreme styles.” If conservative religious dress isn’t considered “classic,” “polished,” or “professional,” that says a great deal more about the people making the judgements about what those terms constitute than about anyone who wants to wear a hijab or a yarmulke. We are, after all, talking about a place where people go to pose with people in giant chipmunk suits.