Friday, 7 March 2014

Dallas Buyer’s Club: Hollywood Hypocrisy in Queer Representation

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for too many films to list.)

Last Sunday night Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Oscars for their work in the movie Dallas Buyer’s Club – based on a true story about a man who contracts AIDS in the 1980s and turns to drug smuggling to treat his condition because the drugs with the best chance of prolonging his life have not yet been approved by the FDA. McConaughey won Best Actor in a Leading Role and Leto Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Neither actor’s acceptance speech mentioned the real life people their roles came from, the impact the AIDS crisis had on the queer community (or even AIDS itself) or the hardships that trans people faced back then and now. Contrast this with the speeches of the stars and creators of 12 Years A Slave who all paid respects to Solomon Northrup, Patsey and anyone who experienced – and is still experiencing – slavery, and you start to see why people aren’t all quite so happy to see McConaughey and Leto be so commended.

The trouble started a while back when Jared Leto started winning awards and making speeches which revealed his ignorance of the trans experience. It’s easy to understand the crushing disappointment when the chance to draw attention to a real issue in today’s society is botched so badly or in the case of The Oscars, ignored completely. No one is saying that either actor gave a bad performance, or that their awards were undeserved, however their success this past season shines a light on the hypocrisy that has been plaguing Hollywood for decades: that of awarding straight actors for playing queer roles whilst simultaneously black balling openly queer actors and pressuring the closeted ones to stay quiet. It’s also yet another example of queer stories being told through a straight lens – another AIDS film which focuses on a straight male lead whose homophobia is challenged and eventually tempered when he is forced to spend time with queer AIDS sufferers (See 1993’s similarly Oscar winning Philadelphia).

Firstly I want to focus on the issue of straight actors playing queer roles – or more specifically the disparity between the celebration of queer roles as played by straight actors and the lack of openly queer actors in Hollywood.

Jared Leto is just the latest cisgendered actor whose role as a trans character has been critically praised and garnished with awards. Hilary Swank won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman was nominated for the same award for her role in 2006 as a trans woman in Transamerica, Jaye Davidson (who is gay, but not trans) received a Best Supporting Actor nom for his role in The Crying Game and, to bring this up to date, there is considerable buzz surrounding Jeffrey Tambor’s role as a trans woman in the new Amazon Prime series Transparent. I can name five cis actors praised for their performances as trans characters off the top of my head, yet I can only name two trans actresses – Laverne Cox, who is best known for her work in television on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, not (yet) Hollywood film, and Harmony Santana who starred in the low budget indie Gun Hill Road. My inability to name more than two trans actresses – and any trans actors at all – may of course be down to my own ignorance, however my point still stands. If I, as a keen cinephile and queer person, can only bring to mind two trans actresses the average straight person with no exceptional interest in films, TV or LGBT issues, may not even be able name one. There is a clear imbalance here – Hollywood celebrates trans characters but not trans actors. The fiction is admirable, award worthy, the reality is seen as something to be ignored or in some cases actively shunned.

The numbers are even more disparate when we compare straight actors awarded for playing queer roles against openly gay Hollywood actors. (Firstly a proviso: my repeated specification of “Hollywood” is used in order to distinguish big money, widely released films and Oscar nominees from low budget, small release indies and television – where queer representation is much more prolific if not quite as widespread and unproblematic as we’d like. What I refer to as a Hollywood actor is, to me, someone who is often in contention for big roles in big money films, an “A Lister” if you will.)  Until last month I could only think of three openly queer actors who are big names in Hollywood; Jodie Foster and Ian McKellen – who have both taken more of a backseat recently – and Zachary Quinto – whose only major film role has been in the Star Trek franchise. On Valentine’s Day this year Ellen Page joined the list. (Note, I haven’t included Angelina Jolie here because I’m not sure rumours of her bisexuality were ever really confirmed so I can’t in good conscience describe her as openly queer.) Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Philip Seymor Hoffman in Capote, Sean Penn in Milk, Christopher Plummer in Beginners, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain, Ed Harris, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore for The Hours, Greg Kinnear for As Good As It Gets, Colin Firth in A Single Man, Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Anette Bening in The Kids Are All Right, Catherine Keener for Being John Malkovich, Charlize Theron in Monster and Salma Hayek for Frida – all nominated for Best Leading or Supporting Actor/Actress at The Oscars, all played by straight actors. That’s 16 nominations and I am almost certain I have missed a few.

The trend is again clear – Hollywood likes gay characters not gay actors. It is also important to note just how many of the films listed were based on true stories and that the vast majority of the queer characters end up dead. Brandon Teena was raped and murdered for being trans. Tom Hanks’ character in Philadelphia succumbs to AIDS like Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club and Ed Harris’s Richard throws himself out of a window to escape the same fate in The Hours. Jack Twist dies at the end of Brokeback Mountain – officially from an accident changing a tire but it’s suggested he was really beaten to death like the man in the story Ennis told him, Virginia Woolf puts rocks in her pockets and wades into deep water. Natalie Portman’s Nina dies of a possibly self inflicted stab wound in Black Swan and Harvey Milk is assassinated.  Christopher Plummer’s character in Beginners is dead even before the film begins and only appears in flashbacks, and Aileen Wournos is executed for the murders of six men. The closest any of these characters really gets to a happy ending is Greg Kinnear’s neighbour not being quite as awful to him anymore – and even he had to endure a savage beating to get there – or Nic’s reconciliation with her wife in The Kids Are All Right, implied with a hand clasp in the closing shots.

This biased celebration of films where the queer character dies is hugely problematic. Of course with the films inspired by true life events, this ending is unavoidable, but one does have to wonder why Hollywood doesn’t want to turn any triumphant queer stories into movies instead choosing to focus on the tragic and the maudlin. The broadcasting of stories such as Brandon Teena’s to a wider audience is of course commendable but the question persists: how much of a line in the sand are you drawing when you don’t consider a trans actor for your trans role?  The fact remains that the lauding of so many films where queer characters meet an untimely end creates a biased representation of the LGBT experience. Those who are less likely to seek out queer cinema specifically, and so will only really register the films that everyone is talking about, get a particularly dark picture of what it means to be queer. There’s a reason that even the most supportive parents are often worried or upset when their child comes out, they’re scared that being queer means we’re going to die of AIDS, get killed or commit suicide seen as they’re the only fates Hollywood affords us.  Representation needs to be more than just fictional or dramatized real life tragedy. We need to see queer people being successful, not just queer stories and we need to see queer people who live.

This is not to say that straight actors shouldn’t play queer roles, they should of course have as much right to them as queer actors have to straight roles. However it’s plain to see that queer actors just don’t get cast in lead straight roles in Hollywood. There’s a kind of unspoken idea that queer actors just can’t convince as straight, that the public knowing that part of their personal life will infiltrate their experience when watching the film and any heterosexual romance will feel fake. This of course is total bullshit, it’s an excuse so that producers don’t have to admit their own prejudices, or perhaps more accurately, their own fear of other people’s prejudices and the financial impact that may have on ticket sales. This creates a catch 22 which results in the dearth of queer actors working in Hollywood. Straight roles go to hetero actors and cis roles go to cis actors because queer people “just wouldn’t be convincing” but then gay roles and trans roles go to straight actors as well, because the queer ones aren’t big enough names to carry a niche movie into a wider market.

Take as an example The Kids Are All Right. Co-written and directed by Lisa Chodolenko – an openly queer woman who took inspiration from her own use of a sperm donor to start her family with her wife – the film was nominated for four Oscars in 2011 and starred Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the leads, a lesbian couple who deal with the fallout when their children decide to contact their donor father. Without its high profile leads, the film would most likely be a small critical success, popular with critics and queer audiences but not given a wide release, funded to the same extent or backed for awards season. Queer films about queer issues with queer creators are often consigned to a niche market. They’re popular within the LGBT community and may become classics of a sort amongst a queer audience. Films like But I’m A Cheerleader, Itty Bitty Titty Committee and Weekend all fall into this category and also, notably, all star openly queer actors. However, if you’re looking to broaden your film’s audience, get a bigger distribution deal and a wider release you have to make compromises and one of those compromises is often the casting of a big name actor, who as we have established earlier, will most likely be straight. Now on the one hand, this is seemingly a hit worth taking, a queer movie being seen by a larger audience means more people are exposed to queer issues which can only be a good thing. However, this shutting out of queer actors from the only roles Hollywood seems to think they’d be convincing in is only perpetuating the lack of real life representation on the red carpet. If queer actors are not cast in queer roles, they are far less likely to ever be considered for straight ones.

This is especially difficult for trans actors, for whom “convincing” can be a contentious issue in their personal lives as well as professionally. Trans actors need to be sought out to play trans roles in order to pave the way for the possibility of cis roles being given to them as well. Not only would this create more visibility for the trans community and hold up vitally needed role models to young trans people, it would also prevent the kind of misinformation and confusion evident in Jared Leto’s speeches about “the Rayons of the world”. A trans actress with a real understanding of the trans experience would be far better positioned to educate uninformed audiences and would therefore be a far better advocate for the trans community. Leto does not understand how to talk about trans issues and his choice to ignore those who have tried to explain this to him indicates he doesn’t really care to learn. The wider audience for trans issues that was seemingly afforded by casting a well known cis actor, has not materialised. Instead those with a limited knowledge of the trans experience were only fed more ignorance and distortion, more trivialisation and focus on anatomy, this time from a seemingly trustworthy and educated source.

What needs to change is not excluding straight actors from queer roles altogether but making it easier for queer themed movies to cast queer actors if they want to. Producers need to be willing to fund films with openly queer leads and awards season needs to start recognising more independent films (rather than the cursory token indie they seem to include for appearances sake and that never actually wins anything). The issue comes down to money - of course it does, it’s Hollywood – queer films are deemed risky and queer actors even riskier. Producers don’t want to chance their money on projects which might not make a profit and anything that is seen as the slightest bit controversial is far less likely to be funded. It’s the same reason why cinemas are full of superhero movie franchises and animated sequels, Hollywood loves a safe bet. The industry needs to start making films for art’s sake again, rather than for profit. It needs to start trusting its audience more and it needs to recognise that the tides have changed. Queer people are no longer the pariahs we once were,  we’ve come a long way and studies have shown that homophobics are in the minority. Essentially, the potential ticket sales lost from homophobes boycotting a film for its queer content or queer lead would be negligible, and more than made up for by the potential ticket sales gained from queer audiences grateful for the representation. The bottom line is that we need to see real life representation in Hollywood, we need to stop being told that our identities are only ok if they are fictional, if we are characters rather than people.

It is not only the lack of queer actors in Hollywood that Dallas Buyer’s Club’s recent success highlights. It also shines a light on another disappointing trend, that of the Oscars rewarding films about queer issues that ignore queer people altogether. Dallas Buyer’s Club is set in 1985, at the heart of the AIDS crisis yet focuses on a straight white male, leaving queer people as secondary characters in his story. AIDS is the biggest tragedy to hit the LGBT community. Queer people were dying in droves, and the lie that AIDS was solely a gay disease – exemplified in its former name GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) – attached a stigma to being queer whose ramifications are still felt today. It’s due to this stigma that gay men are still not allowed to donate blood without being celibate for a year, despite the fact that now statistically heterosexual people are far more likely to contract AIDS than queer people. AIDS was and still is a huge burden for the LGBT community. It killed us back then and its legacy is still oppressing us today. Yet the two major films about AIDS that were celebrated by The Academy both focused mainly on its impact on heterosexual characters.

 Both Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club and Joe Miller in Philadelphia are straight, openly homophobic characters whose knowledge of the disease is limited and influenced by their prejudices. Woodroof contracts AIDS and is forced to associate with queer sufferers through his drug smuggling enterprise; Miller – a lawyer – takes on Tom Hank’s Andrew Beckett as a client and helps him sue his former employers for unlawful dismissal after he is set up and fired for having AIDS. Both characters’ homophobia is “cured” throughout the courses of their respective films as they learn that queers are people too and befriend their corresponding “enlighteners”.  Both Woodroof’s friend Rayon and Miller’s friend Beckett die at the end of the film, giving the heterosexual characters chance to show just how much they’ve changed by weeping at their bedside or having an epiphany about the value of life over money. It’s plain to see that Hollywood is interested less in queer stories, than how queer issues affect the straight, homophobic, everyman.

Hollywood’s treatment of queer stories in this way is similar in process to the white-washing of the stories of people of colour. One example that springs to mind is the casting of Angelina Jolie in the film A Mighty Heart. Jolie played the character of Mariane Pearl, journalist and a woman of colour whose husband was kidnapped and killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. The film was based on Pearl’s memoir and a white woman was cast to play her. Hollywood clearly found the story captivating enough to turn into a film, but was scared that casting a woman of colour as a woman of colour might damage their profits. Another example would be the casting of Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind in the role of real life El Salvadorian Alicia Nash, or Ben Affleck playing Tony Mendez who is of Hispanic descent in Argo. Hollywood likes these people’s stories, just not the colour of their skin.

Not only does Hollywood cast white actors to play the roles of people of colour in the same way that it casts cis actors to play trans characters, it also has a nasty habit of using “white saviour” characters to tell the stories of minorities. The Help focused on a privileged white woman helping black women working as maids in the south of the early 1960s. It is Skeeter’s story, the black women are features who show her benevolence and cast her as the sympathetic non-racist in a bigoted society. At the end of the film Skeeter gains success as a writer off the back of her book “The Help” which is made up of the stories of the black maids, including those of the secondary characters Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen is fired from her job because of the stories she told Skeeter leaving her separated from her charge, unable to pay her rent and left to move in with Minny who already has a large family to support. Aibileen’s circumstances are largely side-lined, the focus squared instead solely on Skeeter’s happy ending to the extent that Aibileen is shown to not be concerned at all about her recent unemployment, only proud of her friend’s success. This trend is also seen in the “inspirational teacher” genre where upper class white teachers like Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, Antonio Banderas in Take The Lead  and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds save largely black and Hispanic  inner city kids from gang life. Instead of focusing on the people of colour these issues are actually happening to, Hollywood instead prefers to show how racism affects white people or how white people can help people of colour escape the vicious circles that institutional racism so often forces them into.

Now of course the effect of Hollywood whitewashing the stories of people of colour is very different from the way that it “straight-washes” queer stories. Queer characters cast with heterosexual actors are still queer whereas representation disappears altogether when characters of colour are cast with white actors. However parallels can still be drawn between the two. Hollywood takes advantage of the drama created by racism and homophobia whilst still eschewing queer actors and actors of colour and in some cases queer and non-white characters as well. The awards success of queer films like the ones previously listed is hollow. It’s The Academy’s attempt to show they’re not bigoted, to pay lip service to the stories and experiences of queer people without actually making any attempts at real representation. The same can be said for the success of films like The Help and Driving Miss Daisy whose black characters are all supporting roles and are, tellingly, all servants to the white lead characters.  

Hollywood is not only giving queer roles to straight, cis actors – and so excluding queer actors almost altogether - it is also giving queer stories to straight characters and diminishing representation even more so in the process. 

One film that may be set to buck this trend is the upcoming Freeheld. Based on fact, and developed from the Oscar winning documentary short of the same name, Freeheld tells the story of police lieutenant Laurel Hester who, dying of cancer, fights to be able to leave her police pension benefits to her partner of five years Stacie Andree – a mechanic who the board of freeholders do not recognise as her legal partner. The film version is set to star Julianne Moore as Hester, and Ellen Page as Andree. Page has been attached to the project for years and has often stated in interviews that she was working to get the film financed. Freeheld will be a film about queer issues, focusing on two queer main characters and starring an openly queer actress as one of its leads. Having already won an Oscar as a documentary, the story is likely to be in consideration for awards season again if the film lives up to its predecessor. The state of queer cinema in Hollywood might seem a little unpromising right now, but with Freeheld finally on its way and Ellen Page finally out of the closet this may be about to change.

Freeheld could break a little of the glass ceiling preventing queer actors from working in Hollywood and also bolster the numbers of breakout films about queer issues that actually focus on queer people.  Of course this can only happen if the film is any good and if it gets enough funding for a wide release. If not, it will just join films like Pariah, Gun Hill Road, Weekend, But I’m A Cheerleader and Tomboy – celebrated by LGBT audiences but remaining unwatched by bigger, heterosexual crowds. I’m hopeful though, Ellen Page usually makes good career choices and I trust her judgement that this is a film worth making. I’m watching this space. 

Thursday, 20 February 2014

On Ellen Page

First, I have to start with an apology. I haven’t updated this blog in an absurdly long time and I am rather annoyed at myself for this lapse in productivity. I have my excuses – I worked as a Christmas temp over the holidays in a department store and that basically drained all my energy and my creativity – however my real reason for not updating, for not writing anything in months, is that I just haven’t found anything to write about. I am the worst kind of perfectionist – the kind that would rather not do anything at all than do something that doesn’t meet the standards I set for myself. I write better, and more easily when I care about something, when something makes me feel. I write at my best when I have to, when something just won’t leave my brain until I get it down on paper – or online as in this case – and for the past few months nothing had really made me feel like that.

That is until now.

Or to be more accurate, until last Saturday – the day after Valentine’s Day and the day I woke up in my girlfriend’s bed, logged onto her laptop and saw Ellen Page’s wonderful speech at the HRC’s Time to Thrive conference in which she came out as gay. Of course I know this is somewhat old news now at least as far as the internet is concerned and believe me I would have written this sooner if I hadn’t been spending a blissful long weekend at my girlfriend’s house until Tuesday evening. However, the extra few days have been helpful. I’ve stopped hyperventilating for one – when I saw the video my girlfriend was out at work so I had to excitedly hug her laptop instead so as to regain control of my body. I’ve also had chance to make my thoughts more coherent which anyone out there reading this should be thankful for because otherwise my first post on here in five months would have been largely incomprehensible and completely overpopulated with exclamation marks.

So here it is – my delayed reaction to Page’s speech, her coming out and why it most definitely does matter.

There’s a term “The Glass Closet” which is used to refer to people – largely those in the public eye – who are widely known to be queer but who have never really come out; they’re still in the closet but everyone can see them there. Jodie Foster, up until her speech at last year’s Golden Globes, was regarded as being in the glass closet and yes, to an extent, so was Ellen Page. There had always been rumours – as there always are when you’re a woman in Hollywood who doesn’t dress like Hollywood wants you to – and there had long been an acknowledgement within the queer community that those rumours were likely true. Regardless of that though, I, like many others had never expected Ellen Page to come out, at least not now. Coming out in Hollywood is just not done. Even Jodie Foster never said the words “I’m gay”.

This shouldn’t really have to be said, but clearly for some it needs explaining – coming out, regardless of how many people know or have assumed, regardless of rumour or open secrets, is always, always a big deal. It is always brave, it is always important and it always matters. It matters to the person doing it and it matters to the LGBT community. Every time someone comes out there is one more person in the world who is saying they’re not afraid anymore, one more person whose voice joins the cause, who’s standing up for their right to be exactly who they are and be loved for it.

Ellen’s speech was clearly, painfully personal. Her nervousness was palpable, as was her relief in that sigh after she said those two words which for so many people are so hard to get out. I know that sigh, that’s the sound I made two years ago when I told my parents the same thing. My coming out was far less eloquent and largely consisted of violent sobs – not because I was sad, but because I was scared. I am lucky enough to be part of a family who I knew would not be angry when I told them. I knew I would not be disowned or thrown out of the house, I knew I would not be sent for therapy or made to pray for healing. I knew all of this but that did not stop me from being terrified – terrified that my parents, the people in the world who were supposed to know me the best, would think that I’d been lying to them and would feel like they did not know me anymore. I can only imagine the bravery required to stand up in front of a room full of strangers and say the same thing, knowing that it would be broadcast worldwide to anyone and everyone who cared to press play. There is a strength in being that open so publicly which I cannot even fathom. Even without the potential of negative consequences, it is still an incredibly brave thing to defy someone’s expectations, to say that you are not what everyone thought you were. It still requires an immense amount of self assurance and courage to even say that to yourself,  let alone to someone else – or in this case millions of someone elses. This is why I am so confused and angered by the smattering of comments by queer people implying that because they already knew or had already assumed, that somehow it wasn’t important. We have all felt that nervous, that scared and that relieved. On a personal level coming out can mean everything. Before I came out the first time – because yes, you don’t just come out once – (to my best friend, over MSN which now just makes me feel old) I felt like I was disappearing. I was so insulated, so scared of anyone finding out, I had so cut myself off from everyone, so surrounded myself with lies and assumptions that I was scared I would collapse in on myself. I wasn’t me anymore; I was the image I wanted to project of me. Telling someone, finally saying “I’m gay” changed everything. I defy anyone to watch that speech and think that those two words weren’t important. You can see the weight lift off her shoulders, you can see the relief in her entire body when she said what she’d been scared to say for so long and was met with a standing ovation. You can see the importance there, you can see how much it meant.

There also seems to be a certain amount of confusion, or misunderstanding of the culture surrounding homosexuality in Hollywood. The average straight white male internet commenter trying to hide their homophobia in “who cares?” type language seems to think that it is easy now, to be out and gay in the industry. It’s show business right? Everyone’s gay. I would challenge those people to name another out gay woman with the same profile as Ellen Page. Name any out gay woman starring in a blockbuster like the X-Men movies. There are none. Jodie Foster is the only other A-list movie star I can think of who represents gay women and she rarely stars in films anymore. At her peak Jodie Foster was closeted, she came out publicly when she was 50 after winning the Cecile B. DeMille award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. Ellen Page has just come out in the midst of her career. She is a household name (I often gauge how well known an actor is by whether my brother knows who they are and he’d recognise her immediately) and her career has really only just started. She was first really noticed on an international scale in Hard Candy which premiered in 2005. After first appearing in the X-Men franchise as Kitty Pride in 2006’s The Last Stand, her next big hit was Juno in 2007. Despite the major success of that movie, she was still largely an indie actress – someone people knew about but who starred mostly in independent films which mainstream audiences failed to notice – until her role in Inception in 2010. Starring in one of the most anticipated and successful blockbusters of the year capitalised on her indie cred, making her name not only associated with smaller independent projects but also tying her to big money and big returns. After the reinvigoration of the X-Men franchise with the success (both commercially and also, crucially, critically) of First Class the next big X-Men film is both hotly anticipated by audiences and expected to be a huge success financially by the studio. With a massive movie such as this on the horizon, coming out was by no means a safe option. Hollywood may seem like a safe haven for gay people but in fact it’s just as homophobic as any other industry where public opinion drives sales. Hollywood has a long standing reputation for allowing its stars to do whatever they’d like in private but when it comes to being out of the closet there are many a cautionary tale. Ellen DeGeneres was black listed when she came out. Her show was cancelled and she was criticised for being “too gay” by both industry types and fellow queer stars alike. DeGeneres was punished not for being gay, but for refusing to hide it anymore. There is a culture of silence in Hollywood, a culture that tells you to hide your sexuality in order to be successful. Page alluded to this in her speech, along with expectations of beauty and appearance. There is seemingly an idea that openly gay actors cannot convincingly play straight characters. This of course is bullshit – Neil Patrick Harris has played Barney Stinson, a character whose personality is centred almost entirely on his heterosexuality for eight years whilst still being an out and proud gay man. Portia De Rossi played Lindsay Bluth on Arrested Development – again a character whose heterosexual promiscuity formed a large part of their storylines. The entire point of being an actor is playing characters who are not like you – no one finds Wolverine unconvincing because we know that Hugh Jackman doesn’t really have adamantium claws. This idea, this lie, exists solely to scare queer actors into keeping their sexualities quiet. The studios want non-controversial stars in their movies, they want safe bets, and they don’t want to lose the far-right audience. Coming out in Hollywood is still a huge risk. Page has not only opened herself up to criticism from homophobic internet commenters, but has also exposed her career to potential setbacks. The fact that took that risk in order to be honest about who she is and to be visible is incredibly brave and I can only hope that the industry has changed more than it seems.     

Ellen Page talked about how important it was for her to come out personally but the main focus of her speech was how vital it was for her to be out publically. I have always admired Page for her commitment to social change, the way she consistently talks about feminism in her interviews and her passion for eco-activism. Because of this I had always thought that if she were to come out it would be because of a sense of responsibility and she did not disappoint. She understands how important it is for LGBT youth to have representation and you get the distinct sense from her speech that she felt like she would be doing a disservice to those young people if she was not part of that. Page has always kept her private life away from her public persona – a necessity if you are a closeted celebrity. When she mentioned “lying by omission” in her speech I was reminded of an interview she did on Craig Ferguson where she spent the whole time talking about asparagus – it was amusing but you could tell the lengths she was going to to avoid any mention of her personal life. Her speech reminded me somewhat of Lana Wachowski’s acceptance speech when she won the HRC Visibility Award back in 2012. She talked about being a private person, but feeling the need or the responsibility to sacrifice that privacy so that others could see someone like them in the media. In an ideal world an actor’s sexuality would be irrelevant. We do not live in an ideal world. We live in a world where queer kids kill themselves at 13 because they can’t take the bullying anymore. We live in a world where you can still be fired for being gay in 29 states, where you can be killed for being gay in Uganda and where the police in Russia can legally turn a blind eye to any crimes committed against gay people. We live in a world where the average life expectancy of a trans person is 23 and where trans people have a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered. Our world is far from ideal and so we need representation. We need queer people in the media so that we know that we’re normal, so that the 13 year old kid googling how to tie a noose can see that gay people can be happy and successful and, most importantly, loved.

Ellen Page’s speech said far more than just “I’m gay”. It said being in the closet is hard, it hurts and it fucks with your head but you can live through it and be happy on the other side. It said that yes, people will want you to change, people will want you to pretend you’re something you’re not and it will be difficult knowing that you’ll never be able to meet those expectations, but it’s the expectations that are wrong, not you. It said that yes, people are going to make you feel ashamed, going to try and tell you to hide who you are but those people are wrong and being proud is so much healthier than trying to fit into the box they made for you. It said it’s ok, you’re not alone, I’m here too and I know it’s hard sometimes and I know it’s scary, but everything really can be ok. It was a hand reaching out into the dark and finding another, small and shaking, and holding on for dear life. Because that’s what we’re dealing with, that’s what people seem to forget, it is life or death for us. Representation is literally vital.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Miley and the Virgin/Whore Dynamic

First of all, I have been remiss in posting on this blog recently. This is mostly because I’ve been busy graduating and trying to find a job but also because I haven’t found a subject I’ve wanted to write about enough to feel like the post would be good. I write at my best when I’m passionate about something, or more often, when something pisses me off.

So, to Miley Cyrus.

This isn’t really a post about Miley Cyrus herself. I’m aggressively annoyed every time anything like this happens – someone does something remotely controversial and “news” outlets everywhere keep on writing about it long after the story is dead. I’d love to not write about this, I’d love to live in a society where people don’t care about this kind of thing. But, unfortunately, culture is so often dictated by the masses and the masses care about this, so it becomes important to discuss the real issues in play here.

The majority of the coverage of Miley’s VMAs performance and her new music video has ranged from misogynistic slut shaming to people “genuinely concerned about her welfare”. People seem to either think she’s a harlot or that she’s “going through something” when in reality it’s probably neither. Miley Cyrus is just doing what everyone expects her to do. She’s doing what society wants her to do, being the person society needs her to be for her to stay interesting, stay relevant. All these “think-pieces” about her mental state or whether her performance was “inappropriate” are just reinforcing the virgin/whore dynamic which so insidiously and wholly permeates every aspect of our culture and our society. To be a woman means treading a fine line between these binaries. It means picking and choosing which one would best suit the situation, which one will get you judged the least. Miley spent years playing the virgin as a child star surrounded by sexualised images of women and being prevented from actually coming of age in her own time in order to continue the success of the franchise. She’s not a child star anymore, so what is there left for her to do? What else can she be now other than “the whore”? The public has been objectifying and sexualising her way before it was legal or decent to do so, but now she’s taking that into her own hands, now she’s sexualising herself, now she’s choosing to be naked in a music video or to dance provocatively onstage, now she has agency, the very same people who posted the egregiously creepy and borderline paedophilic “all grown up” articles as soon as she hit 16 are denouncing her for being a slut. Denouncing her for doing the thing they wanted her to do, for being the person they forced her to be.

This isn’t even new. It’s been going on for decades. It happened to Drew Barrymore, it’s the entire reason for the movie Spring Breakers and now it’s happening to Miley Cyrus. Every time a female child star stops being a child she is shunned for becoming too sexual, too wild, too much of a “whore”. Drew Barrymore stopped being Gertie, stopped being the girl the patriarchy wanted to take care of, to protect, and started being a woman, started having power, having agency, and so she was denounced. Miley Cyrus stopped being the wide-eyed country girl and now society has no idea how to handle her. The world is scared of women with power and Miley – rich, famous and only 20 years old – has a hell of a lot of it. So they put her in her place, they dismiss her as a slut, as someone having a breakdown, rather than confront the possibility that perhaps this woman who can and should do exactly as she pleases, is merely playing the game by the rules they invented for her. It’s telling that the words being thrown around about Miley are the two most commonly used insults to dismiss women or to “put them in their place”. Slut- a word with no real meaning intended to shame a woman into hiding her sexuality, or perhaps more accurately, only showing it to the male using the slur – chastises her for owning that which society commodifies anyway. Crazy tells the world that she is not worth paying attention to, that her voice shouldn’t be heard.

This issue is overwhelmingly gendered. Male child stars come of age by taking on a serious role – Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, Josh Peck in The Wackness – whereas female child stars must exhibit their sexuality to mark their transition into adulthood. The attention paid to Lindsay Lohan and more recently to Amanda Bynes, rarely centred on their substance abuse issues or their criminality but instead revelled in stolen upskirt photos and explicit tweets. Society is both fascinated and repulsed by female sexuality, especially that of women in the media whose lives have been public since they were children. It is interesting to note the recurrence of comments akin to “what must Billy Ray think?” in all the talk about Miley Cyrus, the media themselves acting like an overprotective father abhorred by the idea of their “little girl” growing up. In a society where adult women are reduced to their sexuality, how else could Miley show the world she’s no longer Hannah Montana? The world gave her no choice but to trade on her sex appeal and then demonised her for it.

This double standard forced upon women invades every aspect of female life. You are expected to wear make-up but then chastised for trying too hard. You are expected to look “attractive” when you go out but are reprimanded for taking too long to get ready. You are told you must be beautiful but when you make the effort to conform to their ideal, you are ridiculed for your work. Women have too many shoes, too many clothes, too many beauty products but the world tells us time and time again that without those things we are ugly and if we are ugly we are worthless. We are expected to be sexually available for any male who wants us, expected to take street harassment as a compliment and never turn down a come on, but if we adhere to those rules we’re whores who’ll put out for anyone who asks. As Ally Sheedy’s Allison so succinctly puts it in The Breakfast Club “Well, if you say you haven't, you're a prude. If you say you have you're a slut. It's a trap”.

Society fetishizes innocence which is both a linguistic oxymoron and an impossible reality. Catholic school-girl porn, the demonization of female pubic hair and of course the afore-mentioned “all grown up” articles, all make youth, and by association virginity, desirable yet when a woman who society is used to seeing as a girl wields her sexuality like a weapon she is shunned, painted with a red A and assumed to be mad. The camera sexualises women no matter their age. The media asked why Jodie Foster’s parents would let her play a prostitute at 13 but no one questioned the director or the writer for creating a character sexualised so young. Taxi Driver is a classic and Bugsy Malone is still performed in schools. Similarly no one directed their ire towards Robin Thicke, the 36 year old married man writing songs about date rape, using women as objects and simulating anal sex with a 20 year old on stage. No one asked about the VMA directors, or those responsible for putting the show together, no one blamed the guy directing Wrecking Ball. They blamed the woman, and they blamed her for becoming what they all wanted her to be.

Of course there are issues surrounding cultural appropriation and the racism involved in Miley’s VMA performance but I am nowhere near qualified enough to comment on them. These issues however are of course not what the media is focusing on. The world is just yet again punishing a woman for owning the sexuality they define her by and it’s sending a sickening message to women everywhere: your sexuality is not your own, and as soon as you claim it for yourself, as soon as you try to take control of the identity we’ve forced upon you, we’ll hound you for it. 

Saturday, 17 August 2013

I Don’t Fucking Care If You Like Her: The gendered double standard of likeability in television.

Everyone knows there’s a huge disparity between roles for men and women in TV and film. We’ve all seen the stats – 80% of the speaking roles in movies this year were male, there are more non-human roles on TV right now than roles for women – and it doesn’t look like much is going to change in the next couple of years. To find female led films you have to steer away from the blockbusters and look towards indie film and to find the TV show with the most female cast and crew you have to go to Netflix and watch Orange Is the New Black. Major corporations just don’t want to invest in women or in female led projects. This trend is maddening and I have taken it upon myself to enact my own small, personal protest and make sure my money only goes to films with female leads. This hasn’t been a difficult choice to make as I’m finding myself increasingly disinterested in the dude-oriented blockbuster fare filling my local cinema regardless of my feminist sensibilities. This isn’t to say that I won’t watch any male led movies, just that I won’t be seeing them in the cinema. I will not be funding the erasure of my gender on screen any more.

This abject lack of women on screen is a huge problem, but there is another, more evasive issue plaguing female representation in film and television – the issue of likeability. There has been an overwhelming trend recently – in television especially – of unlikeable male characters, of stories revolving around men who are serial killers or drug dealers, men who live squarely in the moral grey. These characters like Walter White, Dexter Morgan or the definition of the anti-hero cliché Ray Donovan, are not supposed to be liked by the audience. It is the show’s goal to make these characters relatable, to make you root for them despite your better instincts, to show the complexity of the world’s villains, whilst ensuring their characters remain just as selfish, violent and sociopathic as they began. Another example is the NBC show Hannibal whose eponymous character is both a serial killer and a cannibal yet has earned the sympathy and borderline obsession of many of the show’s fans. Sherlock Holmes is a sociopathic narcissist, self-absorbed and arrogant, yet he is seen by the audience as complex, interesting and layered. It seems with this type of programme that the more unlikeable the protagonist, the more skilled the writing and production team are seen in order to get the viewer to sympathise with them. If you look over the most highly praised TV shows of the past decade, an awful lot of them revolve around unlikeable male leads and are praised for their deft handling of difficult subject matter and construction of a compelling anti-hero. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House – all celebrated for their complicated male leads.

However, this is entirely not the case when it comes to female characters.

There are very few outright female anti-heroes on screen in the vein of Walter White and Dexter. Unlikeable female characters tend not to be psychopaths or murderers, rather they are average people with difficult personalities. There are not many of them, but they exist and they are almost universally derided. Take Lena Dunham’s Girls for example. Leaving out the racial diversity issue (which I have discussed in this previous post: along with why I feel the backlash was mostly caused by misogyny) the main problem Dunham’s critics seemed to have with Girls was that the characters were unlikeable and “too privileged”. Now I’ve never seen anyone complain that Batman was “too privileged” or that Superman “only got where he was because of his parents”, but that’s another issue for another post. What those critics didn’t seem to understand was that Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna were supposed to be unlikeable, they’re supposed to be self-involved and annoying and naïve – they’re 20 somethings, we’re kind of like that. Hannah Horvath never murdered anyone like Dexter, she didn’t rape anyone like Walter White raped his wife on Breaking Bad, she hasn’t eaten any corpses like Hannibal and she’s not even as selfish and narcissistic as Sherlock Holmes yet her unlikeable qualities render her unwatchable, unrelatable and badly written. Girls is brilliantly written and Hannah and her friends are endlessly watchable. They are far more realistic than the male anti-heroes flooding our screens, they are far more relatable but their gender means that audiences will always expect them to be likeable and will be angrily disappointed when they are not.

Another current example is the character of Piper Chapman in Orange Is The New Black. I’ve already written extensively on Orange on this blog but Piper’s character warrants a mention here too. I’ve seen so much criticism of her character online, about how self-involved, naïve and privileged she is, without anyone noticing that she is supposed to be that way. People seem to think this was a mistake, that no one could ever have intentionally written a woman to be annoying or unlikeable whilst still making her the protagonist. Women are allowed to be unlikeable as long as they are the villains or figures of hatred. Female characters are allowed to be selfish and annoying if they are the nagging wife or girlfriend of a “more relatable” male lead, they are allowed to be sociopaths or violent as long as they are the antagonists who a male (or occasionally female) hero has to destroy, but if the women are themselves the protagonists or the heroes of the story they must be immediately likeable and perfect. Piper’s annoying traits, her naivety and her privilege are crucial to the story OITNB is trying to tell – the story of a woman who thinks she is a good person, imprisoned and forced to confront her flaws and her privileges. Just because a character is the lead of a programme doesn’t mean they have to be liked by the audience, their position as protagonist doesn’t mean they have to be perfect, always do the right thing and never annoy anyone. This has been proven by the success of the anti-hero trend with shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter and The Sopranos. A main character can be contrary to every social value we hold dear but still be compelling enough to make us watch the show and even begin to understand their motives – as long as that character is a man of course.

This double standard is also visible in cinema. There are a raft of unlikeable male anti-heroes in recent films; we all know how much I hate Wolverine but he fits this category regardless of my personal loathing of his character. There’s Batman too – both despite their general hero status are gruff, anti-social, emotionally stunted loners who are decidedly unlikeable personality wise, yet they loom large in the box office and in popular culture. However, when Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman released their second feature together after Juno – Young Adult starring Charlize Theron – it was largely ignored by audiences, and critics, although mostly positive about the film, almost all commented on the unlikability of the main character Mavis Gary. Mavis is a distinctly awful person. She was the girl you hated at high school and she never grew out of the bitchy mean girl mould. Mavis ghost writes a series of relatively unsuccessful YA books and feels she is hugely superior to her former classmates because she moved to the city and has a white collar career. She is lazy, addicted to diet coke and the film follows her as she attempts to seduce her old high school boyfriend away from his wife and newborn child in order to, as she puts it, “save him” from his dull suburban life. Mavis Gary is not a good person, she is not someone you would want as a friend or even someone you’d ever want to encounter, but she is a good character. There are people like Mavis Gary in the world, you can see how someone might end up like that, she is complex and interesting and her story is compelling and darkly hilarious. Yet for many, a female character as unlikeable as her was a dealbreaker, especially as (SPOILER ALERT) she doesn’t end up changing a bit in the end. Young Adult was nowhere near as successful as Juno or as talked about as the notorious (but in my opinion still great) Jennifer’s Body which both featured markedly more affable female leads. In contrast, the Batman movies got more popular and more lucrative the darker and more morally questionable his character became, and Wolverine’s brand of brooding anti-heroics continues to sell out theatres.

It’s clear there’s a huge double standard here. Audiences find unlikeable male characters complex and fascinating, they praise the writing and production behind them and, in some cases, manipulate the source material in order to render that character as “just misunderstood”. Look at the way that Loki, the villain in both Thor and The Avengers, has been glorified by the fanbase. In Thor he’s jealous and petty, motivated by revenge and sibling rivalry. In The Avengers he’s a Hitler figure, bent on dominating the people of Earth as his minions. Loki isn’t even the protagonist here and he’s still forgiven for the unlikeable parts of his personality and his villainous actions. The audience still tries hard enough to understand him, to relate to him, that they twist his character and his story into one of a misunderstood outcast bullied by his favoured brother and largely just mischievous instead of evil. Hannibal – of the NBC series rather than the movies, probably because Anthony Hopkins isn’t as attractive as Mads Mikkelsen – is undergoing the same kind of treatment at the moment. Viewers seem willing to go to lengths in order to turn unlikeable male characters into someone they can root for, or at least someone they can understand, so why not with female characters with the same – and in most cases less severe – undesirable traits?

I would argue that this disparity is all down to the way women are viewed in society as a whole. The patriarchy renders us as objects for male consumption. We are viewed as accessories or rewards for men and are reprimanded or shunned when we don’t fit that mould well enough or reject it altogether. Unlikeable female characters are rejected for the same reason that we don’t see fat women on screen, for the same reason why actresses are photoshopped to death on magazines and why words like “friendzone” exist. Female anti-heroes are admonished for the same reason why women are harassed on the street and then vilified if they turn down a man’s advances. The patriarchy requires women to be desirable to men, more often than not at the cost of their own identities and freedoms. We are expected to change ourselves in order to become more attractive to men and those of us who choose not to comply with these expectations are demonised by society at large. So, art mimics life and life mimics art. If a woman’s sole purpose is seen to be as a prize to be won by a male or as an object to enhance the male’s experience, a woman on television is treated in the same way. For the same reason we never see ugly women on screen (although I would argue that beauty is really only what we’re told is beautiful and not in any way empirical) but actors like Steve Buscemi have made a living out of being creepy looking, female characters are expected to be amenable, to be nice, to be someone a man would want to spend time with. Men are allowed to be assholes because a man’s life and purpose is his own. Women have to play nice because why else are they there in the first place?

In a time where it is hard to even get a likeable female led show on the air, it must be even harder to get a programme to series where the lead woman is allowed to be imperfect. When the attitude is “why does there need to be a woman in it?” as if, yet again, the male is default and female representation is merely tokenism despite us making up more than half the population, one can only imagine the difficulty in convincing a studio to invest in a female character who isn’t likeable. There are however critically successful unlikeable female characters to act as precedent, even if their flaws aren’t anywhere near as severe as their male counterparts. Jenna Maroney  of 30 Rock is a vapid narcissist with violent tendencies and a propensity to threaten suicide for dramatic effect. She was a constant highlight of a series already full of brilliance and was largely loved by critics and the show’s niche audience alike. Nurse Jackie is the only series I can think of with a true female anti-hero as the protagonist – Jackie Peyton being a nurse with a severe addiction to prescription meds who bends the rules in order to help her patients whilst cheating on her husband with the pharmacist she manipulates in order to get her drug fix. Weeds could be another example – Nancy Botwin starts off as a mother trying to do the best by her sons but loses track of her morals as the series continues and has some decidedly undesirable character traits. The short lived but critically loved HBO series Enlightened featured Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who suffers a breakdown and returns from a retreat determined to force her new “enlightened” philosophy into her old life. There are examples of unlikeable female characters being enjoyed by fans and critics, however it’s telling that all these examples are either comedies or comedy dramas. Perhaps it’s only ok to be unlikeable as a female character if that character’s purpose is to make viewers laugh. Are women ever allowed to be both assholes and taken seriously?

A show which exemplifies this double standard is HBO’s Game of Thrones. GoT features many unlikeable characters, the worst offenders perhaps being Joffrey and Cersei Lannister. Joffrey is universally despised but he has reached the status of “the character you love to hate” whereas Cersei, his mother is largely just plain hated. I love Cersei – perhaps marginally down to the fact that, as a lesbian, I am obliged to love everything Lena Headey has done since Imagine Me & You – but also just because she’s such a bitch. She’s not a likeable character; she had an affair with her brother and gave birth to his son who she turned into the insufferable and vindictive person he is, she instructed her brother to throw Bran out of a window when he saw them fucking in a tower – a fall that ends up rendering him a paraplegic – and she’s consistently cruel to her brother Tyrion and to Sansa who she forces to be betrothed to her son. Cersei is an awful person, but she is a good character. She’s a powerful woman in a man’s world and her actions and personality are easily justified when you consider the sacrifices she has to make to be as powerful as she is. It’s certainly less of a stretch to put yourself in Cersei’s shoes and understand where she is coming from, than it is to turn Hannibal Lecter into someone who is just misunderstood. And yet, Hannibal has thousands of fans singing his praises online and Lena Headey is called a bitch at fan conventions.

Women are not only expected to be physically attractive to men in order to “deserve” their place on TV, they are also expected to have an attractive personality as well. Male characters are allowed to get away with rape, murder, drug dealing, incessant infidelity and rampant narcissism, whereas woman have to be pleasant and affable in order to be tolerated on screen. The role of anti-hero is almost exclusively reserved for men, and for white men at that. There is an argument to be made that it is the whiteness as well as the maleness of characters like Walter White and Dexter Morgan that allows audiences to sympathise with them. A black or Latino meth dealer might not be so well received. So while we’re stuck in this trend of “complicated” protagonists, it seems the only complex characters we’re likely to see are white males, thus further erasing women and people of colour from our screens.

As is often the case, I feel an Amy Poehler quote is useful here. As recounted in Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Poehler responded to the light-hearted criticism that a joke she had just made wasn’t “cute” so the person in question (I think it was Jimmy Fallon) didn’t like it, with “I don’t fucking care if you like it”. It’s already evident that a protagonist needn’t be likeable in order to be interesting. That logic now needs to be applied to female characters and fast. So the next time you hear someone complain about how Hannah Horvath or Piper Chapman just isn’t likeable enough, paraphrase Amy – I don’t fucking care if you like her, she’s interesting and that’s all that matters. 

Friday, 2 August 2013

How X-Men: Days of Future Past Crushed My Dreams

Whilst spending the week of San Diego Comic-Con at home in Lincoln observing the festivities enviously online, I read the news from the Marvel panel about the new X-Men movie Days Of Future Past and wished even more that I had been there.

I was looking forward to this movie for many reasons; I was happy that Bryan Singer would be back as director, I was pleased it would be including characters from the original trilogy as well as First Class, but mainly I was happy that Ellen Page would be reprising her role as Kitty Pryde and from the title of the movie, it looked like she’d be driving the plot. Full disclosure: I haven’t read many X-Men comics. I’m reading the new all female series, I’ve dabbled in X-Men Noir and the Civil War event and I plan on reading Joss Whedon’s run once I can afford the omnibuses. I’m not well versed in the comic lore but I do make a point to read about the comics’ canon before I watch the movies based on it. So, after the announcement of Days of Future Past as the title of new X-Men movie I did some research and was really happy with what I saw. In the comics Days of Future Past features Kitty Pryde going back in time to warn the X-Men of the Sentinel ruled future so they can manipulate the past and therefore stop the future from happening the way it did. This arc was hugely popular with readers, it seems largely down to the heavily featured fan favourite Kitty Pryde.

The news of this arc being the focus of the new movie was brilliant. Not only would the plot be focused around Kitty Pryde – a character universally loved – but this would be the first superhero movie in recent times to feature a female character in a starring role. Of course X-Men is an ensemble series and has always featured female characters in its films. However, despite the fact that the first film included Rogue, Storm and Jean Grey the events of the plot were inarguably centred around Wolverine. X2 similarly focused on Wolverine as the main hero and his journey to uncover his past, and X-Men: The Last Stand managed again to keep focus on Wolverine and his relationship with Jean Grey despite its overabundance of characters. Every X-Men movie so far has featured a male character who drives the plot along, ending up becoming the lead and leaving the others in the ensemble as back up. X-Men First Class was similarly about the two male leads Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, their friendship turned rivalry and subsequent development into Professor X and Magneto. This isn’t even including the two Wolverine spin off movies; X-Men Origins: Wolverine and this summer’s The Wolverine. If we count those films as part of the X-Men umbrella, Wolverine has five movies where he is either the star or the main focus of an ensemble film, he even stole focus with his brief one line cameo in First Class. So, considering the last female fronted superhero film released was 2005’s Elektra – itself a spin off featuring Daredevil’s love interest in a starring role rather than an original concept – and all the previous X-Men movies revolved around male characters, it was way past time we had an X-Men movie whose plot was driven by a woman. So I was pretty psyched for Days of Future Past a superhero movie with a female lead played by all round badass Ellen Page.

And then SDCC happened and all my hopes and dreams were crushed. You see, having announced that the new film would be adapted from the Days of Future Past arc and let all of Kitty Pryde’s fans believe that she would lead the film, the producers revealed at their hotly anticipated panel that it would in fact be Wolverine who goes back in time in the movie not Kitty. So, Fox/Marvel decided that five films weren’t enough for Wolverine despite the fact that his last two solo efforts bombed both critically and at the box office. The next X-Men movie will be just another male fronted superhero movie. I wouldn’t be quite so pissed off if the writers had chosen a canonical Wolverine arc to adapt. I would have been disappointed, I would have sighed in dismay at the unoriginality and the perpetuation of the cinematic boys club which seems especially prevalent in superhero films, and I probably wouldn’t have seen the movie. However I wouldn’t have been angry. My anger stems from the fact that not only did Fox/Marvel decide to give Wolverine another movie to star in, they stole the storyline from a female character in order to do it. Days Of Future Past is a fan favourite arc and its success is largely down to its focus on Kitty Pryde, another fan favourite. The movie version has taken Kitty’s story and erased her from it, giving the starring role to a male character instead and relegating her to the helper role in his hero story. In the comics it is Wolverine who helps Kitty Pryde travel back in time. In the film these roles are reversed. Todorov’s narrative theory lists “The Helper” as a recurring character in the archetypal hero story. The Helper gives the Hero something they need to succeed in their quest, furthering their development into a hero and helping them achieve their goals. In the comics Kitty Pryde is the hero, going on her journey to save the world. She is helped by Wolverine who assumes this lesser role in order to further her arc. It seems the people behind the film version of Days of Future Past just couldn’t handle a female hero story, so demoted Kitty Pryde out of her own story and gave it to Wolverine instead.

This action speaks volumes about how women are seen by the film industry and, specifically by the superhero film industry. To them we exist as plot points, as side characters to inspire or aid the male hero. We are love interests or sexual objects, we are evil temptresses or damsels in distress. In best case scenarios we are back up, the sidekicks or the people fighting in the background whilst the male hero takes out the main villain and completes his hero journey, usually ending in a kiss of victory from the cardboard cutout female love interest. We are not the heroes, we do not propel the story, we are passive, not active. Things happen to and around women, we do not make things happen ourselves. We do not save the world, we are only there to fuck the men who do.

Even in the last two female superhero movies we’ve seen in the past decade, the main characters have fit these stereotypes. Elektra was Daredevil’s love interest who he tried and failed to save, making him even more determined to defeat both Bullseye and The Kingpin. Her solo movie centred around her crisis of conscience when her job as an assassin after her resurrection requires her to kill a teenage girl. Her womanly maternal instincts take over and she decides to protect the girl instead, then falling in love with her father and becoming a protective mama bear figure and renouncing her former ways. Catwoman is best known as Batman’s “evil temptress” foe turned love interest and occasional sidekick. The much maligned Halle Berry movie featured her discovering her sexuality, turning from bookish, restrained Patience Phillips into the overtly sexualised, seductive Catwoman. She then defeats a female villain – Sharon Stone playing the head of a cosmetics firm who is obsessed with youth and beauty. It seems even in superhero films where a woman is the protagonist, we are still forced into the roles the industry has set out for us.

Not only is the fact that Kitty Pryde has been ousted from her own story arc heinously misogynistic in itself, we only have to look at the character who has replaced her to see that it’s not just a lack of female heroes the industry is perpetuating, it’s the abundance of hypermasculinised ones as well. Wolverine is the epitome of the male power fantasy. He’s testosterone incarnate, a literally animalistic male who seems to only have two emotions – clichéd anti-hero brooding and angry screaming with his claws out. Every movie poster for his films shows off his muscles telling us without doubt that Wolverine=strength, and male strength at that. His claws are obvious phallic symbols and any trace of homoeroticism  is denied by the inevitable arbitrary female love interest who exists solely to prove his heterosexuality/ heteronormative masculinity. Wolverine’s films are typical of the superhero movie market today as every film’s narrative seems to be an affirmation of the protagonist’s heterosexual masculinity. They almost all involve big, muscular, often bearded men fighting other big, muscular, often bearded men, blowing stuff up and saving/kissing the girl in the end. The studio’s choice to make Days of Future Past about Wolverine tells us they are happy with the way things are. It says unequivocally that superhero movies are for men, that their storylines are exclusively male power fantasies and that the female fans of such films cannot and should not have a protagonist they can relate to.

I mentioned at the start of this post that the SDCC panel where this news was announced made me want to be at Comic-con even more. I would have loved to be at that panel and to be able to ask the writers and director why they chose to give Wolverine a sixth film instead of doing something new and having a female lead. I would have loved to have seen them try to answer that question without revealing the real reason behind the decision – good old misogyny – and I would have loved to have been able to point out that this is a problem. You see, after this announcement was made I expected to see more outrage. I expected to see more people like me, angry that studios would rather take a popular female led arc and turn it into a male led film than try and make a movie with a female protagonist. I expected more. I got nothing.

I can imagine the kind of reasons the studios would give. I can imagine the bullshit they’d roll out in defence of this move, it’s the exact same crap we’ve been hearing for years. It’s the same reasons DC give for making a Superman/Batman crossover movie before giving us a Wonder Woman film. “Women don’t read comics/watch superhero films”, “Female led movies don’t do well at the box office”, “A Wonder Woman movie would be tricky to do”. It’s all lies. Women read comics, women see superhero films. We’re 51% of the population and we’re at least 50% of the comics buying, cinema going audience. Female led films do just as well as male led films at the box office, there are just a hell of a lot less of them. Studios will use films like Elektra and Catwoman as examples of how female superhero movies don’t do well. They’ll ignore films like Daredevil, Superman Returns, The Green Lantern, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3 and the two Wolverine solo efforts as just bad films, as the exception rather than the rule. Two bad female led superhero movies means all female superhero movies are bad whereas nine terrible male led superhero movies (and countless others I haven’t mentioned) are just mistakes. Non genre female fronted successes like Bridesmaids or Pitch Perfect are largely ignored as exceptions and one offs rather than as examples of how hungry female audiences are of representation. The studios will do anything other than admit that they should be making more films about women, even ignoring the success of female led films in favour of trotting out the same old clichés.

It’s the last quote about Wonder Woman though that pisses me off the most and that I think really gets to the core of why we aren’t seeing superhero movies with female protagonists. That quote is paraphrased from something a DC exec said at SDCC about why we have yet to see a Wonder Woman movie. If I remember correctly “tricky” was the exact word he used. The male executives, writers and directors of superhero films (because, yes they are almost all male) genuinely don’t know how to present a woman as a hero. They can’t imagine how a female might save the world, how a woman could fight bad guys and protect the innocent, how a male character could be the love interest instead of the hero. The thing they think would be “tricky” in making a Wonder Woman movie is essentially how they can create a female character who stands on her own, whose story doesn’t revolve around a stronger male, who isn’t there to be objectified. The men in charge of making superhero movies do not know how to create a female subject. The idea of a film where the men in the audience are asked to identify with a female hero instead of to objectify a female love interest is terrifying to them. They can’t see themselves identifying with a female protagonist so they can’t imagine any man doing so either. The studios don’t dare make a female superhero movie because they’re terrified they’ll lose the misogynistic male comics reader fanbase they imagine they have. The studios think their audience is full of MRA, fedora wearing douchebags who complain about “fake geek girls” and “getting friendzoned” and they know that asking those people to identify with a woman would horrify them. The fact is they’re wrong. That section of the superhero movie fanbase is very small and the audience they might lose in confronting that section’s misogyny would be outnumbered by the audience they would gain by offering female viewers a woman to cheer for. The studios would rather play into that kind of misogyny and alienate female viewers than challenge it and try to change the discourse.

Days of Future Past has now not only followed the trend of guy centric superhero films, it has actively chosen not to feature a female lead in her own story. I was excited not only to see Kitty Pryde head up the first female focused X-Men movie, but also to see Ellen Page be the star of the first female led superhero movie in an awfully long time. It would seem apt for Page to take on this role as she’s an outspoken feminist who has frequently spoken out against the male domination of the film industry. She recently worked with Brit Marling another actress who was so fed up with the lack of decent roles for women in Hollywood she decided to just fucking write her own and she does it damn well too. I was psyched to see a feminist in a role which would counter the overwhelmingly male trend and stand up as an example of how to write female heroes. And yeah, I was excited to see Ellen Page kick some ass. But, of course, that would have been too good to be true, and instead we have yet another X-Men movie of Wolverine being angry, yet another superhero movie perpetuating heteronormative masculinity and yet another movie with a male lead. If I had been at that SDCC panel, I would have liked to ask Ellen Page how she felt about this. I can’t imagine she was all too pleased to find out her character was being side-lined in her own story arc to make way for another male centric movie.

And so I will probably be avoiding Days of Future Past when it is released in cinemas next year. Although I usually aim to see all of Ellen Page’s movies at the cinema and I’d love to see more of Halle Berry’s Storm and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, I don’t know whether I can bring myself to give money to a film which screwed over its female audience so blatantly. I imagine I’d spend the whole film mourning what could have been if Marvel’s properties weren’t split and Joss Whedon was overseeing this film as well. I can’t see Whedon, a champion of female heroes and a noted fan of Kitty Pryde let the film demote her to a secondary helper role. Just think, we could have had a Kitty Pryde movie written, directed by and starring proud feminists leading the charge into female fronted superhero films. Instead we have this. Wolverine stealing the spotlight for the sixth time.

I can’t be the only one bored of this.  

Monday, 29 July 2013

The Emmys

Sorry this post is late, right now in the UK we’re in the middle of a heat wave. I do not do well in heat so this week I don’t have the mental faculties to write anything in depth. Hopefully, if it stops being so insanely hot, next week will return to normal service (although Sunday is my 21st birthday so it may be a little late).

Today I want to talk about The Emmys. The nominations for this year’s Emmys were released this month to a decidedly unenthusiastic public and a lot of very angry Orphan Black fans. Here are my thoughts on the categories I care about:

Best Actress in a Drama Series:

Vera Farmiga for Bates Motel
Michelle Dockery for Downton Abbey
Claire Danes for Homeland
Robin Wright for House of Cards
Elisabeth Moss for Mad Men
Connie Britton for Nashville
Kerry Washington for Scandal

Who I think Will Win: Claire Danes for Homeland

Claire Danes is the predictable choice as she won for Homeland last year and the Emmys do like repeating themselves. She’s brilliant in Homeland and the show is great so the award would be deserved even if a little obvious. If they wanted to go a little more left field this year they might go with Kerry Washington who knocks it out of the park every week in Scandal. Out of all the nominees I’d love to see her win. As much as I adore Connie Britton and her magical hair, Nashville just isn’t great yet and the nomination seems like an apology for never recognising the genius that was Mrs Coach from Friday Night Lights. Elisabeth Moss is also a possibility; she’s been nominated twice before for Mad Men and this might be the year they finally give her her dues.  Bates Motel and House of Cards seem too obscure to win for their first seasons and I can’t see the Emmys giving an award to the British Downton Abby over their own homegrown talent.

Who Should Win: Tatiana Maslany for Orphan Black

In yet another example of the Emmys completely ignoring science fiction, Tatiana Maslany was snubbed this year as the committee haven’t even acknowledged her extraordinary performance in BBC America’s breakout series Orphan Black with a nomination. In Orphan Black Maslany plays seven different characters, all clones whose various environments and upbringings have made their personalities different although their genetics are the same. Maslany not only plays these seven characters individually, she often plays them in the same scene opposite other characters who are also played by her. For a large portion of the series Maslany plays one character – Sarah – who is pretending to be another clone – Beth. This kind of multi-layered performance is common in Orphan Black where many of the clones pretend to be other characters throughout the series. Maslany’s performance is not only a technical marvel – requiring great skill and intelligence – but it’s also intensely likeable. She imbues even the deranged serial killer Helena with a sense of depth and charm rendering her endearing and sympathetic despite her violence. I can’t be the only one who really hopes Helena survived that finale. It’s an outrage that the Emmy’s ignored her performance(s) and if I was in charge I’d give this award to her and make sure she got seven statues.

Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series:

Anna Gunn for Breaking Bad
Maggie Smith for Downton Abbey
Emilia Clarke for Game of Thrones
Christine Baranski for The Good Wife
Morena Baccarin for Homeland
Christina Hendricks for Mad Men

Who I Think Will Win: Maggie Smith for Downton Abbey

Everyone loves Maggie Smith. In the words of Avery Bishop “She is a treasure!” And the US does seem to be obsessed with Downton Abbey. Though I’m not sure it will triumph over American shows in the other categories it’s nominated in, I think this might be where the Emmys gives it recognition.

Who Should Win: Christine Baranski for The Good Wife

I love all the characters in The Good Wife even the ones I’m supposed to hate. It’s just that good. Even amongst such stiff competition Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockheart is one of my favourites. She manages to be both formidable and lovable at the same time. She’s a powerful independent woman, a liberal feminist who sticks to her convictions and has a photograph of her with Hillary Clinton behind her desk. Baranski makes her seem like both someone you’d want on your side in a court case and someone you’d want to get day drunk with and rail against the patriarchy.

Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series:

Margo Martindale for The Americans
Diana Rigg for Game of Thrones
Carrie Preston for The Good Wife
Linda Cardellini for Mad Men
Jane Fonda for The Newsroom
Joan Cusack for Shameless

I’d be happy for any of these actresses to win but my hopes are pinned on Carrie Preston for The Good Wife. I have loved Linda Cardellini since I first crushed on Nurse Sam Taggart in ER when I was about 14. This intensified when she played every bookish young lesbian’s hero Velma Dinkley in the Scooby Doo movies and I was completely head over heels by the time I finally got around to watching Freaks and Geeks last year. I’d be overjoyed if she won but I haven’t seen Mad Men yet so I can’t in good conscience root for someone whose performance I can’t evaluate for myself (although I’m sure she rocked it). So Carrie Preston. As aforementioned my love for The Good Wife knows no bounds. It’s horribly underrated and it’s one of the best drama shows on TV right now. Carrie Preston’s recurring guest role as eccentric but brilliant lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni is just one of its many, many delights. I’m always happy when I see her name in the opening credits as I know she’s going to be hilarious and something clever is going to happen. Preston gives her an otherworldly quality, like she’s functioning on a completely different plane to everyone else where all her oddities make sense. It takes a great performer to make an impact on a show with such a strong core ensemble and Carrie Preston is memorable even amongst the host of brilliant guest stars The Good Wife manages to wrangle. I’ll be cheering in her section.

Best Drama Series:

Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
Mad Men

This category seemed notable to me because I usually have an opinion on the big awards and this year I honestly couldn’t care less. Every choice here seems predictable, like a list you’d come up with if asked what the most obvious choices for the Emmys would be. There’s nothing inspiring here, nothing which I want to root for. Breaking Bad – although I’m sure it’s technically very good – bored me intensely, so much that I barely made it through the first season. Downton Abbey seems to only be nominated because of the US’ bizarre obsession with British period dramas which seems to stem from a lack of their own more distant history to explore. Sure, people here in the UK like it too but it airs on ITV, a channel renowned for being completely average and barely registers on my radar. If the Emmys wanted to award some quality period drama they should have looked to Canada’s Bomb Girls which is quite frankly amazing, gave the world the sheer brilliance that was Betty McRae and will be sorely missed. Again, I’m sure Game of Thrones is still as good as its first season (the only season I’ve managed to watch so far) but it’s somewhat dismaying to see that the only genre show to get Emmy recognition is made, of course, by HBO. It gives the impression that the Emmys only see quality in genre programming when it goes out of its way to seem “adult”. Game of Thrones definitely deserves its nomination but it’s a shame that it seems like it’s the only fantasy show that will ever be taken seriously by the committee. Homeland is also a solid show which I really enjoyed but I don’t feel like it did anything particularly new this past season. Season two was good, Claire Danes is brilliant and they managed to retain the tension they built up in the first season – which seemed like an impossibility seen as the main plot “Is Brody a terrorist?” was concluded in the first season’s finale. Homeland is a good show but I’m just not raving about it anymore. I haven’t yet seen either House of Cards or Mad Men but from what I have seen they both seem to fit the mould of programmes the Emmys take seriously and neither premise has me all that enthused. I’m glad that House Of Cards’ nomination shows that Netflix’s original series are being taken seriously as it gives me hope for Orange Is The New Black to get some recognition next year, but overall I’d have loved to see shows like The Good Wife and Orphan Black on that list.

Best Actress in a Comedy Series:

Laura Dern for Enlightened
Lena Dunham for Girls
Edie Falco for Nurse Jackie
Amy Poehler for Parks and Recreation
Tina Fey for 30 Rock
Julia Louis-Dreyfus for Veep

Here is another category where I’ll be happy whoever wins. I never got into Enlightened but I’m told it improved vastly from the godawful pilot I saw and I know its fans will be happy with the nomination especially considering its cancellation earlier in the year. I love Girls (insert lesbian joke here) and Lena Dunham is a major hero for me. Her speech at the Golden Globes last year made me cry and I’m happy to see her get recognition for her truly original work despite the misogynistic backlash she’s received. I devoured the first two seasons of Nurse Jackie and am waiting impatiently until I have enough money to buy the others on DVD. Edie Falco is brilliant and the character of Jackie Peyton is a brilliant and sadly rare example of a rounded female anti-hero on TV. I’d love to see Tina Fey win again for the last season of 30 Rock and although I’m yet to discover most of Veep’s brilliance for myself, all the gifs I’ve seen on Tumblr suggest it’s every bit as good as I’ve heard. My choice for the win though is of course Amy Poehler. It’s insane that Parks hasn’t been nominated for best comedy and it would be insulting if she didn’t win after they’ve snubbed her so many times. Her Leslie Knope is a shining beacon of joy amongst the rabid cynicism which runs through most sitcoms today and she really deserves an award.

Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series:

Mayim Bialik for The Big Bang Theory
Jane Lynch for Glee
Sofia Vergara for Modern Family
Julie Bowen for Modern Family
Merritt Wever for Nurse Jackie
Jane Krakowski for 30 Rock
Anna Chlumsky for Veep

For me the only winner here is Jane Krakowski. She’s owned Jenna Maroney for seven seasons and her performance in the final season was stunning. She’s the only person who could make me cry over the line “these were the best days of my flerm” and it’s insane that she hasn’t been awarded for Jenna before. I’ll miss Liz Lemon terribly now 30 Rock has gone but part of me will miss Jenna and her Mickey Rourke anecdotes even more (even if she’s really never met him). I love Merrit Wever in Nurse Jackie and I’m pleased she’s nominated but if I’m honest I’ll be incredibly disappointed if anyone other than Jane Krakowski wins.

Best Comedy Series:

The Big Bang Theory
Modern Family
30 Rock

Who I Think Will Win: 30 Rock

30 Rock is one of the best comedies of the past decade and it would be ridiculous if the Emmys didn’t recognise its final season. The last thirteen episodes were 30 Rock on top form and the double finale episode was a masterpiece. They should go out on a win.

Who Should Win: Parks and Recreation

Words are not adequate to describe the sheer ire I felt when I saw The Big Bang Theory had been nominated for best comedy and Parks and Recreation had not. Parks is the best comedy on television hands down, there’s no argument against it. This travesty is enough to call into question any judgement made by the Emmys for me. They clearly have no idea what they’re talking about.

In the words of Ron Swanson “Awards are stupid.”