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.”

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Orange Is The New Black Is The New Black

Spoilers abound, from the off.

I couldn’t not write about Orange Is The New Black. I, like everyone else with a brain and a Netflix subscription, am obsessed with it. I finished the first season yesterday, having rationed myself to one or two episodes a day from its release. Everyone said it worked brilliantly as a binge watch but I prefer to savour good TV like Charlie Bucket does chocolate. Now I’m done I’m feeling somewhat lost. For the past week it’s been pretty much all I’ve thought about. Like Piper Chapman I too had become embroiled in the prison drama to the exclusion of real life. Now I’m out and, like Taystee, I’ve no idea how to handle it.

We’ve needed a show like Orange for a long time now, for far too long actually, and it couldn’t have had better timing. In a year where 80% of speaking roles in film output were male and television’s second place status was being seriously questioned, Orange stood out from the crowd as both the proud owner of a diverse, overwhelmingly female cast and as yet another example of television doing what movies should be. This is also the year that Veronica Mars got crowdfunded on Kickstarter, proving that the networks don’t always (or in my opinion, often) get things right. Netflix showed once again with Orange that the best, most groundbreaking television is found outside of the networks, proving itself to be the place for risk-taking, original, diverse TV. Orange Is The New Black would have looked very different if it had been made for standard television. Not only does Netflix as a format allow for longer run-times, it’s also the reason why Orange’s cast is so racially diverse and why the show can portray such a frank depiction of female sexuality. It seems completely ridiculous to me that before Orange I’d never once seen a vagina on television, especially when – thanks to Game of Thrones – there’s penises everywhere.

It also seems somewhat strange to be talking about Orange being groundbreaking. Surely, in 2013, seeing that many non-white people on TV shouldn’t be something new. Surely an honest depiction of female sexuality should be old news by now. This should be commonplace, but the fact is it’s not and this is something Orange deals with brilliantly both in world and on a meta-textual level. Amongst the almost universal praise I’ve read online, I’ve seen a few posts bring up the point that it’s a shame that, in a cast so full of non-white characters, the protagonist still has to be white. To an extent, I agree but this isn’t a problem with Orange Is the New Black, it’s a problem with television as a whole. Orange is based on a book written by a white woman and is very specifically the story of a white woman’s experience. You could see this as being a compromise, as the industry only accepting non-white people’s stories from a white perspective or as the industry recognising an audience who would only accept things that way. However, I think Orange is in fact doing something very different and very clever with its white protagonist. Instead of showing her as “the normal” and the non-white characters as “the other” it asks us to identify with the women of colour at least as much, and in some cases more, as we do with Piper Chapman. As a middle class white woman I identify with Piper but not in a good way. I see my bad qualities in her, I see my naivety and my privilege. Through Piper Chapman, Jenji Kohan is asking us to recognise and examine our own white privilege as Piper does hers. In the first few episodes I often found myself having to confront the fact that I would have made many of the same mistakes that Piper did. I too would have studied for prison, I would have been shocked at the self-imposed racial segregation (despite the fact that it seems in Lichfield it’s not about supremacy at all, rather finding a family based on an assumed common experience) and I probably would have inadvertently insulted someone on my first day and received a tampon sandwich for my trouble the next morning. Piper Chapman is not a particularly likeable character, she’s supposed to be like me but like the bad parts of me, like the parts I’m ashamed of. At the start of the series she’s vastly self-involved, she refuses to accept responsibility for her actions and is often accidentally cruel. We watch her be confronted with these unlikeable parts of her personality as the series continues and as she realises that she’s perhaps not the “nice white lady” she thought she was, we (I) realise that too.

Orange Is the New Black reveals its characters’ backstories through flashbacks framed subtly as memory threads throughout the series. In the pilot, when Piper talks in voiceover about how she used to love to wash herself, we see her memories of bathing – one scene with her current fiancé Larry, and then once with her drug runner ex girlfriend Alex – which inform us about her character. We see some of Alex’s childhood, growing up poor with her single mother and getting bullied for not having the right shoes, when she is accused of being a “rich girl” by the hateful Pennsatucky. These flashbacks tell us about the characters’ backstories but also reveal to us their headspace, how they think and why they are how they are. Miss Claudette’s obsession with cleanliness is explained by her past as a scared child sold into indentured servitude as a maid in the US to pay off her parents’ debts, who then becomes the boss of the girls she used to be and kills a man who dared hurt her workers. Sophia’s need for her hormone medication is given further emotional depth once we see how much she sacrificed to transition. Yes, Piper Chapman is the protagonist and we see more of her life on the outside than we do the other characters, but crucially those characters are never relegated to secondary status, they’re never periphery, never supporting players. I care just as much about Sophia and Nicholls and Miss Claudette as I do about Piper and sometimes even more. None of the characters are there as tokens, every woman is fleshed out as a person, as someone with their own story to tell and as someone who never thought they’d end up in prison either. The inmates aren’t even the only ones whose stories we care about, the guards and the administration are shown as human beings with their own motivations as well and of course Piper’s family and friends are rounded characters too. This is particularly hard to do with a large ensemble cast and is one of the reasons why Glee, although inclusive on the surface, fails to reach this level of diversity. No character is on Orange to fill quotas, Jenji Kohan doesn’t just want to seem inclusive, she wants to tell everyone’s story and so far, she succeeds.

The episode which I think best embodies this equal opportunities approach to storytelling is episode 11 “Tall Men With Feelings”. In this episode Piper’s fiancé Larry (who is one of the few characters I really, really hate and not just because he’s a barrier to goddess Alex’s happiness) does a radio interview on NPR where he talks about how hard it is for him to have a fiancée in jail. He constantly appropriates Piper’s experience as a vehicle for his own success as a writer (the main reason for my hatred of him, that and he watched Mad Man without her) and during the interview tells a story from one of his first visits. This story is not his to tell and he reduces all the people we, and Piper have grown to love and understand, to ciphers, to characters in his girlfriend’s story. Piper, having changed somewhat by this episode and having formed connections with these people and grown to understand and relate to them, is horrified and berates him for minimising her experience and offending her friends. During his interview he directly refers to people like Red and “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne as “characters” and he reduces them to tropes with his repeated use of the phrase “the girl who…” through his retelling of Piper’s first impressions of prison. We are reminded here, late in the season, of who Piper used to be, of what she used to think and she is confronted with this as well. We also see what this does to the people Larry talks about. Miss Claudette initially looks angry at Larry/Piper’s characterisation of her as terrifying and Piper’s claim that she “slept with one eye open” for fear she’d kill her in her sleep, but is later revealed to just be hurt that someone she thought was her friend had ever thought of her in that way. “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne’s reaction is perhaps the most heartbreaking. Earlier in the episode we saw Suzanne as a whole person with feelings for the first time during the series. Previously she had just been “Crazy Eyes” who was slightly deranged and couldn’t take a hint when Piper told her she didn’t want to be her prison wife. In episode 11 we see her recognise the boundaries Piper has set for her when she helps her back to her room after she slips and falls. Suzanne explains her mental problems and why she’s allowed to stay out of psych. She asks, with a look of sad confusion, why everyone calls her “Crazy Eyes” and we realise that Piper is the only one to ever call her Suzanne. She is given layers in this episode, Piper and we as an audience start to realise the depth of her personality and Larry’s interview reduces her back to a trope, to an amusing anecdote his fiancée told him about prison, and she lies in her bunk in tears. “Tall Men With Feelings” shows us the importance of being seen as a whole person – we even briefly sympathise with Pornstache, the tall man of the title, when he wonders why no one asks how his day went – rather than just a character in someone else’s story.  In Orange Is The New Black, the characters Piper encounters are never secondary, they aren’t there to impart wisdom and make the pretty blonde white lady a better person. They have their own stories, their own ways of coping, their own reasons for being inside – and the only person who can make Piper better is herself.

This sense of equality is reinforced by the fact that the only person to see Piper as separate from or better than the other prisoners is Officer Healey, who is revealed to be a homophobic villain who singles her out because he finds her attractive. As soon as Piper reveals herself to be more similar to the other prisoners than to him, he drops her as his pet project and punishes her by throwing her in the SHU. He originally thinks that she is like him, that prison isn’t meant for heterosexual white people who made mistakes. He sees her as different to “the others” and as the series develops and Piper realises she’s just like the other inmates, he’s forced to confront this as well. She becomes “the other” to him and is therefore no longer deserving of his help. He ends up leaving her for dead when Pennsatucky tries to attack her in the finale, siding with the lower class white woman with bad teeth over Piper because she hates her homosexuality as much as he does. The only character to see Piper as any different from her fellow inmates is shown to be wrong in almost everything he believes and does. His opinions are ridiculous and bigoted which emphasises the spuriousness of his putting Piper on a pedestal. 

It also seems ridiculous that this is the first time I’ve seen a trans-woman on TV who is actually played by a trans-woman (Laverne Cox) rather than a cis-male in drag or a cis-female like Felicity Huffman in Transamerica. Sophia’s story is groundbreaking not just because trans representation is so rare, but also because she is a trans-woman of colour with a wife and a son whose crime is white collar identity theft. Trans-women on TV are all too often represented as either sex workers or drag queens –implying a less than optimistic life for any trans-woman with stage fright. Sophia was a fireman when she was Marcus, who stole credit cards and identities from the burning buildings she was called to on the job in order to pay for her transition. This is a trans experience we are not used to seeing on television, or anywhere in the media for that matter – an African American trans-woman in a traditionally masculine job, married to a woman who supports her transition despite the risk of alienation from her family and church community and her personal emotions about losing her husband and gaining a wife, with a son, who goes to prison because she stole the money for her operations and medication. Sophia is not a stereotype and her identity is never questioned. Those who discriminate against her are almost exclusively the villains of the show – meth mouth Pennsatucky and Pornstache (who, I feel it right to mention, even despite his crudeness when talking about her with Bennet, still never misgenders her and readily accepts her identity as a woman) – and we as an audience sympathise completely when her hormone medication is taken away from her due to “budget restraints”. Sophia is in prison because of how much she was willing to risk to actualise her identity. This shows us the desperation felt by many in the trans community and also leads to frank discussions of how Sophia’s transition and subsequent incarceration affected her family. We see in flashback Sophia’s wife help her to find the right dress to suit her figure but also beg her to keep her penis. We see her wife struggle to combine her acceptance of Sophia’s trans identity and her wish for her to be happy, with her resentment that she is no longer around to raise their son. These are trans issues being discussed on television in a way I have never seen before. We’re seeing the realities of Sophia’s trans experience portrayed and explored in the same way that we see Piper’s relationship with Larry or Alex’s experience growing up in a low income single parent family. Her trans-ness isn’t stigmatised or singled out for special treatment. Everyone has their shit, everyone has experiences which got them to this point, Sophia’s happens to be that she was born with a penis. She isn’t token trans representation, she’s a whole person with a life like everyone else, and in a landscape with very few trans characters let alone trans characters with depth, that seems revolutionary.

Another character who I’ve never seen properly represented on TV before Orange is Lea DeLaria’s Big Boo – an unashamed fat, butch lesbian. It’s widely known that you only really see classically attractive lesbians on TV – there were no characters like Big Boo on The L Word or Lip Service. For the patriarchy to accept women who love women and therefore don’t need men, they at least need to be attractive to look at so that in some way they are still for men and not their own.  Big Boo is the first truly butch lesbian I’ve seen on television. Shane from The L Word may have worn suits and ties but she was far from butch and still ridiculously universally attractive. Big Boo on the other hand is overtly not for the patriarchy. She’s butch in both her style and her attitude and she too is shown as a character with depth. She’s not just comic relief, a position which stereotypically butch lesbian characters are often relegated to in non-speaking roles as a punchline in a sitcom, she’s a person who we sympathise with when her ex girlfriend seems to no longer care about her. Her bond with the puppy she’s training “Little Boo” is adorable and lets us see past the hardened exterior she is introduced with. There’s a scene which shows her masturbating with the handle of the screwdriver we were led to believe she might use to hurt her ex girlfriend in revenge before her release date. This scene seemed particularly striking to me as both a rare example of female masturbation on television and as a subversion of the type of female sexuality we are usually shown on screen. Female sexuality, and female nudity, are almost exclusively shown in order to titillate men. We rarely see a naked woman shot or lit in a way which isn’t supposed to be sexual (the reason I expect behind the shock of seeing Lena Dunham’s naked body reported by men who’d never been forced to see a naked woman as a subject rather than an object) and women having sex on screen is almost always shot in a way that makes them appealing to men, even – or sadly especially – when that woman is having sex with another woman. Big Boo’s sexual pleasure is entirely her own both because of the fact that it is self induced and because it is clearly not intended to be sexy for the audience – at least not for a male audience anyway.  This scene is both confrontational – making us question the way we see female sexuality – and humanising, as we see Big Boo choose orgasms over violence and her own pleasure over jealous revenge.

Another way in which Orange Is The New Black stands alone in its representation of sexuality is through Piper and Alex’s relationship. At the start of the series Piper claims she “used to be a lesbian”. This rang alarm bells for me as the idea of lesbianism being a phase is a far too often used cliché and is essentially a shitty way of describing bisexuality. Later on though, once Piper has stopped being the person she thought she should be, she explains to her friend at visitation that sexuality is a spectrum, referencing the Kinsey Scale. Piper realises she didn’t stop being queer just because she’s dating a man largely because she is forced to confront her feelings for Alex now they’re in the same prison. Larry, his family and Piper’s friend Poppy all seem confused about her sexuality and how she can be attracted to both men and women at different times. Piper’s brother at one point tells Larry that his problem is the idea that she needs to be one or the other. This is the main reason why people get confused about bisexuality and why many people refuse to believe it exists at all. People like binaries – male/female, black/white, straight/gay – and when something falls outside those binaries it scares them because it threatens their world view, it stops them from being able to see someone as the same or the other and forces them to consider that they might be both, or even scarier, neither. Piper’s sexuality falls outside the binary so Larry is threatened by it, it confuses him, he needs her to be straight or gay, he can’t accept that she might be both at the same time. We as an audience however, are shown that this is entirely possible. We see Piper’s relationship with Larry both in flashback and in present day, and her relationship with Alex, again both her past and present. Both these relationships are shown to be genuine. Piper may have dated Alex for the adventure but we completely believe she was in love. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the season for me was Alex, in tears after her mother’s death, begging Piper not to leave her and Piper going anyway. The phrase “Please don’t leave me” is echoed when Alex is locked in the dryer by Pennsatucky and Piper’s decision to stay this time sparks the renewal of their relationship in the present. We see Piper and Alex’s relationship as just as valid as Piper and Larry’s. In fact, for me Piper’s love for Alex seemed at times more genuine but I am very aware that I’m incredibly biased. Piper’s claim that she “used to be a lesbian” turns out to be just something she said to affirm her new identity as the “nice white lady she was always meant to be”. Before prison she thought she couldn’t be bisexual and still attain her middle class suburban married life with Larry. In prison with Alex she realises it’s not as simple as one or the other, with her it’s both and right now it’s both at the same time. We very rarely see this kind of exploration of bisexuality on television and it’s so refreshing to see it done so well.

I want to talk about Alex because I’m obsessed with her and the way she puts her glasses on but I’m already way over 3000 words and it would really just be me talking about my crush on her. There is so much more that needs to be said about Orange Is The New Black which I don’t have room for here and to be honest I could talk about this show for days. To be really honest I already have. OITNB is truly incredible. It’s original, diverse and groundbreaking in so many ways, but most of all it’s just damn good TV. It’s entertaining, it’s funny and heartbreaking and real and I can’t wait for season two in 2014. Orange Is The New Black I heart you. Please don’t leave me. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Sharknado: What the hell happened to television?

When I was planning this blog I thought I should limit myself to one negative post per month. I want the content on here to be mostly positive, a celebration, a place to inspire instead of bemoan. I find it all too easy to be negative - it’s kind of my default setting - and I thought I should instead challenge myself to focus on the good things.

Then Sharknado happened and I thought to hell with that.

And so here is me complaining for a while.

First I should mention that I have not seen Sharknado, nor do I plan to ever witness it. It seems like the kind of television which could be used to torture me if I ever come into contact with government secrets. I have a rule against criticising things I haven’t seen. I try very hard not to do it, to the extent that I sat through the first two High School Musicals and the first Twilight movie just so I could complain about them legitimately. This post isn’t really about Sharknado. It’s about what it represents, which is a general decline in quality programming on network television (by which I mean general channels funded by advertising, excluding subscription based channels like HBO and Showtime).

It’s easy to forget that SyFy Channel used to be the home of quality genre programming when you look at its productions today. This used to be the channel which gave us Battlestar Galactica, aired Farscape in the US and, more recently made Alphas, Warehouse 13 and Eureka. Now it seems to be mostly populated with reality television and for some bizarre reason WWE wrestling. Currently, the only fictional programming SyFy actually makes itself is Defiance, Haven, Being Human US and Warehouse 13 (which ends next season). If you discount the recently cancelled WH13 and the remake of the British series (and therefore not an original concept) Being Human US, that leaves SyFy with only two original fictional programmes to call its own.  For a television channel which claims to be for science fiction and fantasy shows, having only two original scripted series on your schedule seems a little ridiculous. How can SyFy still claim to show genre programming when the vast majority of its schedule is taken up by reality television? Science fiction and fantasy are as far away from reality as you can get so why focus on reality shows instead of putting effort into new fictional ideas which actually fit your remit? The reason behind this inane decision is, as it always seems to be with television and life in general, money. It’s simply cheaper to make crap reality shows like Ghost Hunters than invest in developing new scripted show ideas. Making reality TV doesn’t involve a team of writers or a long development process, you don’t have to hire actors or, as this is SyFy Channel after all, pay for special effects. It’s cheaper and easier to make crap so networks go that route instead.

It has pretty much always been this way. It’s always been cheaper to make something bad than it is to make sure your finished product is decent quality. Shitty writers don’t need to be paid as much as good ones – or will be more likely to accept a lower wage – crap actors are the same. You don’t need to spend as much on post-production if you don’t care about something looking good on screen. However TV didn’t used to be quite as full of crap shows as it is today, or at least it didn’t seem that way. If it’s always been cheaper to do a bad job, why didn’t networks do this all before? Why did they bother investing money into something good? I think it has to do with the amount of respect a network has for its audience. Back in the golden age of TV whenever that was, reports differ; networks respected their audiences enough to assume they’d just stop watching if the product they delivered wasn’t good enough. The networks were there to serve their audiences and give them quality programming lest they defer to another channel or just switch off altogether and go read a book instead. They expected their viewers to be intelligent, active participants who wanted good TV. This is especially true of the BBC, which is funded by the taxpayer in the UK so had to make sure it was worth the price of the license fee. Networks were at the behest of the viewer, we had the control because they assumed us to be discerning. This, it seems, is no longer the case.

When the craze of reality TV set in, around the introduction of Big Brother in the year 2000, the networks realised they’d overestimated the vast majority of the viewing public. If 4.5 million people would tune in to watch average people live in a house for nine weeks with no script, basic camera work largely done automatically, no real sound design and only editing for the highlights shows, why the hell should they continue trying so hard to make good scripted TV? Why should they pay out money to make quality programming when Channel 4 were getting mega-ratings from cheaply made footage of random people sleeping? Big Brother showed just how stupid we all really are and the networks realised this. So they stopped trying, they stopped respecting their audience and started making crap. And we watched it. Wife Swap, Jeremy Kyle, The Hills. People watched these shows in droves. People tuned in week after week to see constructed “real life” drama which cost the networks a fraction of the price of a scripted show. At least for a while anyway. Then the faze was over, we’d all gotten over seeing average Joes on our screens and were bored of it. The curtain had been pulled back and we’d realised what we were seeing on television wasn’t really reality at all, channels started having to read out disclaimers before reality shows explaining “some scenes have been created for entertainment purposes”. We were all kind of done with reality TV. It wasn’t cool anymore, it wasn’t new. Now it resides as guilty pleasure viewing – we sit watching Real Housewives with the furtive shame of a meth addict getting our fix of schadenfreude for the week. It’s not water cooler talk anymore, at least not with people whose opinions you value anyway. We’ve moved on to greener, more intelligent pastures now. We talk about Game of Thrones, Scandal and Girls. We’re interested in programmes which challenge us, both intellectually and socially, which make us question our ideas about life and society and which require concentration to enjoy. We binge watch, we watch communally and tweet each other in the ad breaks. We’re proud that we watch this kind of television, proud we understand and value the artistry and happy we get to discuss it with others at the click of a button.

But the thing is network television doesn’t seem to have caught up yet. Two out of the three shows I just mentioned are on HBO, a subscription based channel which doesn’t have to rely on adverts for its funding. It’s common knowledge that the best television is coming from this type of channel in the US, that the most original shows are being made by HBO, Showtime and the previously non-ad funded AMC. Along with the Netflix phenomenon, it’s become even clearer that people are willing to pay more for better quality TV. The odd thing is that network television seems to be leaving them to it. The networks seem incapable of making good new shows and keep cancelling their decent old ones. NBC is a prime example. Last season marked the end of both 30 Rock and The Office, two of NBC’s most critically acclaimed, if not always well watched shows. They shortened Community’s run to only 13 episodes, both for the woeful Dan Harmon-less fourth season and the shock renewal upcoming fifth season with Harmon back as showrunner. The only comedy they renewed fully last season from its previous golden Thursday-night-is-comedy-night schedule was Parks and Recreation. Instead they packed their rota with new comedy shows like Animal Practice, Guys With Kids and 1600 Penn, none of which made it past their first season. NBC also cancelled the Matthew Perry led comedy Go On, which seemed to be its only real critical success from the last season, because of less than stellar ratings. Any sensible television fan with an ounce of taste could see this coming a mile off. The promos for NBC’s new comedies reeked of mediocre half-assery. They all looked so terrible and clichéd that they ended up fitting the description given by Kenneth Parcell in the last season of 30 Rock of how television comedy should be – where a man looks at his dog and says “Don’t even say it!”. You can almost imagine the pitch for Animal Practice being something like “See it’s funny cuz there’s a monkey. Monkeys are funny right?” Annie’s Boobs was far too good for that show anyway.

It was glaringly obvious that NBC had become fed up of being the channel critics raved about that got left out of the ratings race. They didn’t like their reputation as the home of intellectual, irreverent comedy that only garnered a niche audience so they catered for the lowest common denominator instead, hoping to entice the idiots away from The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. The very fact that these two shows, and Chuck Lorre himself are still so successful, shows just how far the stupid vote will get you in television nowadays. I mean in a world where Rules of Engagement is still getting made, what hope is there that TV will smarten itself up again? It seems with comedy, the masses appreciate a laugh track. The fact that crap comedy still gets made annoys me immensely on its own. I happen to think that television airtime should be reserved for shows of merit, you should have to work hard to get your show on the air, you should have talent. Getting a show commissioned should be an achievement for good work. However I’d be much less annoyed at the presence of the bad comedies if it weren’t for the fact that they’re destroying the good ones. Community’s fourth season was terrible because NBC fired Dan Harmon. NBC fired Dan Harmon because he wouldn’t make his show more ratings friendly (and because they valued Chevy Chase more than him). NBC wanted Community to be more ratings friendly because The Big Bang Theory aired at the same time and so many people watched that instead. I wouldn’t mind if the shit stuff just stayed quietly in the background, being watched by perpetually high stoners or drunk people, and of course the idiots – but it doesn’t, people watch it, a lot of people watch it. This means that networks renew bad television, shows which people watch half-heartedly, stuff viewers have on in the background because it’s dumb and doesn’t require too much attention. They see the good ratings and renew the crap, they see the mediocre ratings and cancel the good stuff. Bad comedies on television mean that good comedies get cancelled, like Happy Endings and Go On, or changed beyond recognition like Community’s season four. Good comedies getting cancelled means that networks stop making good comedies, they stop trying so hard and do a botched job because they think audiences will lap it up like they do anything that Chuck Lorre makes (I really hate Chuck Lorre). They stop respecting their audience and they stop trying to impress us.

Which brings me to Sharknado and the SyFy Channel. For the past few years SyFy had been developing a trifecta of shows which all shared the same universe. First there was (A Town Called) Eureka, then Warehouse 13 and later Alphas. The common universe was more obvious in Eureka and Warehouse because of their crossover episodes but minor characters from WH13 appeared in Alphas for the eagle eyed viewer to spot. This seemed to be a plan by the channel to build up this shared universe and further tie together the three shows’ mythologies. It was an ambitious and impressive idea, to have three programmes running simultaneously whose storylines could intertwine at any moment and whose characters could appear anywhere in the three series. It also seemed like a clever move by SyFy to attract more viewers to its scripted shows. If you watched Eureka, you should watch Warehouse 13 too because there’s a crossover episode and you’ll understand more of the universe it’s set in. If you watch Eureka and Warehouse you’ll want to watch Alphas too because its storyline might shed light on something in the other two shows. It was a canny way of cross advertising the network’s new content and reduced some of the inherent risk involved when taking on a new original project. But then something went wrong. I was watching all three shows, hoping for something big to happen which explained their connections, when I heard that Eureka had been cancelled. It baffled me seen as they’d just introduced a WH13 character into Alphas and confirmed it too shared the same universe. Why put so much work into that idea and then cancel the show that started it all off? SyFy then cancelled Alphas after only one season leaving them left with only Warehouse 13 from its common universe trilogy. In the past month it was announced that Warehouse 13 is too going to end after its next, fifth truncated season, meaning the ambitious and impressive idea never reached its potential and was essentially a waste of time. 

I enjoyed all three of those shows. They were by no means perfect and both Eureka and WH13 suffered from their family friendly vibes, but the characters were good and I cared about what happened to them. Alphas was an interesting take on the superhero genre and I was looking forward to where it went. Considering again, that this was the network that brought us Battlestar Galactica and was clearly at a time capable of great, adult storytelling, Alphas –the most adult of the three – could have developed into something great. So why cancel? Warehouse 13 especially was SyFy’s most watched show for most of its run and both Eureka and Alphas had their devoted fanbases – Eureka being a geek haven with its guest starring roles for Felicia Day and Will Wheaton. SyFy claimed it was money issues, as they would – that they couldn’t afford such expensive programming when it wasn’t bringing in as many viewers as the other channels. It seems a shame to me that so many networks compete against other channels in the ratings instead of competing with themselves. Surely you want to retain your loyal fanbase more than you want to poach new viewers who probably aren’t interested in your content anyway. This seems especially relevant to SyFy Channel seen as they have always been aimed at a niche, cult audience and would surely be aware that they were never going to beat out the broader ranging channels like CBS or Fox. This brings me again to the fact that SyFy aren’t even really making Sci-Fi anymore – hence the ridiculous name change. They have Defiance and they have Haven but they hardly reach the heights of say Fringe or The Walking Dead. When broader channels are making better niche TV than the channel dedicated to that niche there’s a serious problem and that problem is this: SyFy just doesn’t care about being good anymore.

Sharknado (I hate having to type that so much) is just the latest in the line of the crappy B movie type creature features that SyFy Channel thinks are more worthy of their investment than decent scripted shows like Alphas or Warehouse 13. It follows such classics as Sharktopus, Piranhaconda and Mansquito. These films are actively made to be terrible. That’s their supposed appeal – that they’re bad and everyone knows it. Originally B movies played before the main feature, they were made very cheaply and so were often of bad quality and featured ropey special effects. The appeal of B movies now is their nostalgia, seeing old techniques in filmmaking, laughing at what once was and recognising how far we’ve come. SyFy doesn’t seem to get this, it thinks that people like laughing at badly made films so they’ll make something terrible and people will enjoy it. They get viewers on the cheap and everyone’s happy. But for me it stops being funny once someone actively tries to make something bad. SyFy are investing millions of dollars into purposefully making a lot of awful films instead of trying to bolster their original series slate and make something decent. To me this shows an utter lack of respect for both the medium and the audience. To spend that much time and money to churn out something shitty that people might tune in and watch for a laugh at its poor quality and never watch again seems almost sacrilegious to a medium that’s close to my heart.

It’s a waste of both money and airtime but more importantly it’s disrespectful. Sharknado says SyFy channel thinks you are stupid and you watching it just proves them right. “But I’m watching it because it’s stupid!”, “It’s entertaining because I know it’s bad!” The problem is Neilson ratings don’t measure your intention. They don’t measure how much of a show you can remember, whether you’ll buy it on DVD or how many times you’ll re-watch afterwards. Neilson doesn’t know that you’re watching Sharknado ironically, it just knows you’re watching it. So SyFy gets its ratings for a change. It sees everyone tweeting about their shitty movie and it’s happy it’s trending, it doesn’t care that everyone’s taking the piss out of what they’ve made because that’s what they’ve made it for. Sharknado was everywhere last week, it’ll be forgotten by next, but SyFy will remember the publicity and they’ll remember the ratings and they’ll know once again that they can make bad TV and still get an audience.

Until audiences start demanding better television, and start voting with their remotes, it seems we’re destined to a wasteland of actively terrible network TV. Things won’t change unless we start changing them, and quality TV will continue to be solely available to those who can afford it.