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.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Gender and Queerness in Matilda

It seems somewhat incongruous for my first real post on my largely TV themed blog to be about something which has been adapted into everything but a TV series, but this been running around my head for a while and I wanted to get it down onto virtual paper while it’s still fresh.

First let me start by saying this has probably already been said. I haven’t checked but I assume there’s already been much written about the queer themes in Matilda, it seems far too obvious for no one else to have noticed. However, if I only wrote about things which I thought no one else had written about I wouldn’t write about anything at all. So here goes:

I was obsessed with Matilda when I was a kid. I watched the bright green VHS tape over and over again to the extent that my family no longer let me choose which film to watch lest I make them watch it for the tenth time that month. I loved the movie and I loved the book. To my six year old self, Matilda was my reflection on screen. I was a bookish kid; I learned to read early and prided myself on being able to read two levels above my year group in school. I remember walking across my primary school hall from the infant classrooms to the junior library and feeling dwarfed by the shelves. I was also convinced I was going to be a prodigy. I was sure that someone would recognise my genius in an area I had not yet discovered myself. Of course I was delusional; I could read well for my age but that was about it. In any case, Matilda fed into my childhood fantasy of somehow being special, and my bookishness being part of that. None of my friends read like I did, my brother was more interested in sports – I had Matilda as a role model of sorts, as someone who read and as someone who triumphed because she was smart. Now, as I was at the time only six years old, I also genuinely believed that I could at some point develop magical powers and spent vast amounts of time glaring determinedly at a glass of water, trying to make it tip. Needless to say, this never worked. I also remember being further convinced of this kinship because in the movie, when trying to make her parents send her to school Matilda tells them she was “six in August”. The first time I watched the film, I too had turned six in August. Clearly we were long lost twins.

So Matilda was kind of my jam when I was young. It’s been a while since I re-watched the film and I haven’t read the book since I was a kid, but recently, what with the stage musical being a hit and the reunion photos surfacing online, I started thinking more about the story in all its forms from my now much more well informed perspective. Specifically I wondered whether there was any other reason why I loved the story so much, other than my strong identification with the protagonist. This train of thought led me to realise just how queer the story of Matilda is and how, for a children’s story published in the 80s and a kids’ film released in the 90s, it flagrantly subverts the heteronormative family dynamic. This essay will focus on three main points; Miss Trunchbull as the evil lesbian stereotype, Miss Honey as a possible queer character, and how the ending of Matilda rejects heteronormativity.

So Miss Trunchbull right? Obviously as a six year old child watching Matilda the movie for the first time and later reading the book, I didn’t see in Trunchbull what I do today as a queer 20 year old with a degree in reading into things. I also didn’t see the problems inherent with her character as the villain. She was an evil headmistress and nothing more. Now, thinking back, Miss Trunchbull is pretty obviously a subtextual lesbian character. She is resolutely unmarried, to the extent that she is offended when Miss Honey’s rhyme for remembering how to spell “D-I-F-F-I-C-U-L-T-Y” only features wives – “Why are all these women married?!” This statement also marks her out as a feminist, rejecting traditional gender roles, but I’ll get back to that later. Trunchbull is also consistently portrayed as overtly masculine presenting. She competed in strength based athletics like the shot-put, javelin and the hammer throw, she’s large and robust – able to pull her broken down car back to her house by a rope and wrench a padlock and chain from a door with her bare hands. In the film, when Miss Honey mentions Trunchbull replacing her father’s portrait with one of herself, Matilda replies “Whoever painted that must have had a strong stomach, a really strong stomach”. Trunchbull is coded as ugly by virtue of being “unfeminine” – it’s important to note that this portrait features her as an athlete, displaying her strength, at her most masculine. She wears breeches under her coat, dressing mostly in blacks or browns. This masculinity is emphasised further in the stage musical where the character of Trunchbull is played by a man. Essentially, Miss Trunchbull embodies many qualities of the stereotypical “bulldyke” and is of course the villain of the story. Not only is she unmarried, she doesn’t wish to be and resents the institution itself. She is assumed to have killed the patriarchal figure of Miss Honey’s father, who is also, assuming from the difference in surname, her brother in law. Trunchbull rejects both patriarchy and femininity, bemoaning the lack of unmarried women in her niece’s rhyme and expressing her disgust at Amanda Thripp’s pigtails. Remove the violent child abuse from the equation and Trunchbull could be seen as a radical feminist – ensuring the children in her school are taught that women don’t need to get married and liberating Amanda Thripp from her mother’s enforcement of schoolgirl femininity through her hairstyle.

Of course Miss Trunchbull is not a villain because  of her gender subversion (and supposed lesbianism – working on the concept that most Hayes Code era queer female characters were coded as queer by their happily unmarried status) but that subversion does sit alongside her villainy and often interacts with it. She uses her hammer throw technique to launch Amanda Thripp over the school fence and is frequently shown as menacing because of her sheer strength, size and masculine “ugliness”. What makes Trunchbull a villain, and a despicable one at that, is her hatred and abuse of children. She runs a school despite this hatred, seemingly only for the opportunity to torture the children in her care. She’s overwhelmingly strict, enforcing bizarre rules so she can either make her pupils miserable or punish them for being happy. Her abuse is physical, making use of her strength and stature. When her relationship to Miss Honey is revealed, it is heavily implied that she subjected her to severe physical abuse as well. There is a shot in the film version at the end of Miss Honey’s flashback as she tells Matilda the truth about her childhood, where Trunchbull aggressively grips the child Jenny’s shoulder – the first indication that Miss Honey suffered physical abuse at the hands of her aunt. This is made explicit later in the film when, during the final confrontation between Trunchbull and Matilda in the classroom, she grabs hold of Miss Honey’s arm and growls “I broke your arm once before Jenny I can do it again”. Miss Honey then reclaims her arm and retorts “I am not seven years old anymore Aunt Trunchbull”. The revelation that Trunchbull broke her seven year old niece’s arm, implicitly on purpose, coupled with the fact that Miss Honey refers to her by her surname instead of Aunt Agatha, shows the extent to which her abuse of children reached. She clearly imposed her dogmatic regime of violent punishment over all children in her care, even her own kin.

Such extreme violent abuse of children is shocking in itself, but it remains subversive that it is a female character who is the abuser. To an extent Trunchbull is seen as more evil because of her gender. In the same way that juries are more likely to give a longer sentence to a female murderer than a male guilty of the same crime, women are largely expected to be less aggressive and far less violent than men. When a man hits someone it is seen as part of his masculinity, he is admonished for losing control – for letting his nature overcome his nurture. When a woman commits a violent act she is analysed far more, the implication being that something must be wrong with her biologically or that her social environment was somehow harmful. Society believes that violence in women is unnatural which is why we have such a morbid fascination with female serial killers – and why as a child you’re told to seek a woman’s help over a man’s if you ever get lost. Crucially in regards to the character of Trunchbull, women are seen as having a natural affinity for children. Society expects women to be maternal caregivers at a basic biological level. It’s why women are expected to have children and stay at home to mother them, and it’s why any woman who doesn’t want children is dismissed as just not “feeling the pull yet”. When women commit violence against children society is shocked three times over. Firstly by the inherent shock of someone hurting a child, secondly by a woman being violent and finally by a woman who would hurt a child – a woman supposedly without this “natural” maternal instinct. Child abusers are universally reviled but female child abusers are seen as far more fascinating than their male counterparts. There are very few studies looking into the causes of paedophilia in men yet the media often fixates on the motivations of female abusers who are often portrayed as either having been controlled by their male accomplices or as victims of abuse themselves. Society needs an explanation for how a woman could hurt a child whereas if a man does it, he’s just evil. It is because of this gendered expectation that Miss Trunchbull is such a formidable villain. She subverts gender roles completely, both with her masculine presentation and through her disavowal or lack of maternal instinct. She is not only a happily unmarried woman without children of her own; she actively despises children and takes pleasure out of physically abusing them.

Miss Trunchbull is not only terrifying because of her status as a female child abuser; she is also rendered horrific because of the gender subversion this enhances.  Barbara Creed wrote this ridiculously fascinating book on female imagery in horror called The Monstrous Feminine (this book is amazing and you should read it, if not only so you can join me in spotting vaginas in every movie monster’s face). In it she talks about how any breakdown of the gender binary can be seen as monstrous as it threatens the other binaries we take for granted. When gender is subverted, as with the character of Trunchbull, heteronormative society’s view of reality is skewed, the boundaries start to disappear and certitudes are rendered meaningless. In a world where Miss Trunchbull exists, anything could happen.

Positioned in direct opposition to Miss Trunchbull is her niece and Matilda’s teacher Miss Honey. Miss Honey is everything Miss Trunchbull is not – a point explicitly made in her introduction via the narrator in the film. She is warm and kind; she loves children and is physically frail. The original illustrations in the book by Quentin Blake further emphasise this physical difference in stature. Trunchbull is tall, fat and muscular whereas Honey is thin and elegant. As with many of Dahl’s characters, their names also codify their personalities – Trunchbull seemingly a portmanteau of “truncheon” and “bull”, implying corporal punishment and mindless anger simultaneously and of course Honey meaning sweet and, perhaps crucially, natural. You don’t have to look hard to see the striking differences between Trunchbull and Honey as gendered. Whereas Trunchbull is coded as masculine through her strength, clothing, physicality and personality, Miss Honey is ever feminine; clothed in floral dresses, her hair worn long and loose. Miss Honey wears glasses, a cinematic trope used to let audiences know she is intelligent right from the off. Her power lies in her intellect and her compassion which contrasts with Trunchbull’s disregard for intelligence and use of physical power. The message of the story of Matilda is essentially that smarts win out over strength. The precociously intelligent Matilda and the equally clever Miss Honey use their wits to outsmart Trunchbull and end her tyranny. More specifically though, Miss Honey nurtures Matilda, helping her to develop her intellect and powers and therefore facilitating her victory. Miss Honey’s strength comes from her maternal instinct and her love of children. This contrasts directly with Miss Trunchbull’s attitude. Trunchbull is demonised because of her disavowal of maternity; Miss Honey is glorified because she embraces it.

This could be seemingly a simple reinforcement of traditional gender roles; Miss Honey as the heroic mother figure embracing her femininity against Miss Trunchbull the gender subverting masculine villain. However, I think the reality is far more complex. Again, if we look back to Hayes Code era representations (when Hollywood had to conform to certain “morality” codes, preventing the inclusion of openly queer characters in film) many female characters were subtextually coded as queer by being shown as happily unmarried. These characters were usually secondary to the main female protagonist who would be engaged in a romantic storyline with the film’s lead male. Of course not all unmarried female characters are lesbians, but it is interesting to look at the figure of Miss Honey as a possible queer character especially considering her opposition to Miss Trunchbull. Miss Honey lives alone in a tiny cottage, she is resolutely a “Miss”, having no love interest or romantic storyline and the only male figure in her life is her dead father Magnus. She is not only single, but she never mentions wanting a man in her life either. She isn’t a Bridget Jones kind of figure, always longing for a heterosexual relationship; rather she seems content without a partner, happily independent and paying her own way. If we take Miss Honey as a queer female character her positioning as a stark contrast to the perhaps more obviously, stereotypically lesbian Miss Trunchbull takes on an extra layer of complexity. The narrative is no longer simply glorifying heterosexuality and demonising homosexuality. Miss Trunchbull’s lesbianism is in effect nullified. She’s no longer evil because she is queer; she’s evil because she is butch. In Matilda, homosexuality is acceptable but gender queerness is not. Rejection of femininity makes you evil; embracing it makes you a heroine. This concept is reinforced by the representation of Matilda’s mother who is also shown to be non-maternal, being far more concerned with money and television than her daughter’s wellbeing. Mrs Wormwood’s selfishness makes her a bad mother – when a woman has children she is expected to always put them first, in the eyes of society she stops being a woman, an individual, and becomes only a mother, there solely to take care of her children. Mrs Wormwood’s disinterest in her daughter (coupled with her “white trash” appearance in the film) renders her unfeminine and therefore villainous. She is positioned with Miss Trunchbull as a woman who rejects expected aspects of her femininity and is therefore shown as an antagonist.

An analysis such as this suggests that Matilda is inherently problematic in its representation of gender and those who reject constructed gender binaries. However the ending of the story is unmistakeably queer. Matilda leaves her heteronormative family unit with a biological mother, father and brother, to be adopted by a single, possibly queer woman who she is completely unrelated to. This is the happy ending. Matilda is inarguably better off with Miss Honey, a single adoptive mother who understands her far more than her own biological parents. This seems especially significant now, what with the main argument spouted by opponents of equal marriage being something along the lines of a child needing a mother and a father to be well adjusted. Of course this argument is total bullshit – it relies on the idea that marriage is solely for raising children, ignoring all childless married couples, besides if the GOP were so concerned about every child having a mother and a father they would ban single parenthood, embrace contraceptive pills and abortion rights and steal children away from widows. Everyone knows how preposterous this argument is now, everyone knows it’s just a smoke screen, just spin – “we don’t hate gay people we just want to protect the children”. But considering the time at which Matilda was written and the time when the film was released this conclusion was somewhat revolutionary. Dahl was saying that children aren’t always better off with their own parents, sometimes the heteronormative family unit doesn’t work, straight parents can be bad parents and children can be happier without them. The image of Matilda joyously roller-skating around the living room of Miss Honey’s reclaimed family home flies in the face of the traditional family unit. This single, potentially queer woman is a better parent for Matilda than her own biological, decidedly heterosexual mother and father.  Here emotional kinship is better than shared biology, blood is not thicker than water, nurture wins out over nature. And that’s huge, that changes things. Especially when the classic fairytale villain is the stepmother – the imposter, the woman who isn’t related to the hero and so cannot connect with them.

Perhaps it was somewhat of a trade-off. Dahl had his decidedly queer ending but he had to reinforce gender stereotypes elsewhere. Matilda could live happily ever after with an adoptive single parent who she has far more in common with than the people who conceived and birthed her, but Miss Trunchbull had to be a gender bending villain. The heteronormative family unit could be breached, its homogeny denied, but gender roles still had to be prized. A woman can live without a man but she can’t be a man.  A single independent woman can be a hero but only if she’s a mother figure. You can blur the gender lines but only if you demonise it. In order to offer an alternative to the heterosexual happy ending, Miss Trunchbull must be sacrificed for her unsanctioned masculinity.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013


Hi, my name is Jasmin. How are you? When I was trying to come up with a name for this blog – something punny and clever whilst still encapsulating my basic premise, harder than you’d think – I considered including my name in the title. I like my name, it’s fine. My mother claims to have picked it from the Isley Brothers’ song Summer Breeze which is a useful bit of small talk, even if it’s not entirely true. And although I never once have been able to find the correct spelling (without the usual “e” on the end) on any personalised tat from gift shops, and people will inexplicably pronounce it Yasmin even though it clearly begins with a “J”, I am perfectly happy to be a Jasmin. However, as an avid watcher of American TV – something which will largely be the focus of this blog as it is, largely, the focus of most of my life – I have come to realise something about the name “Jasmin” across the pond. Characters named “Jasmin” seem to have a reputation. They are rarely protagonists and mostly appear as either strippers or personality-less party girls who sleep with the main character’s boyfriend (Parenthood being a rare exception). There's no judgement here, I respect each of these fictional characters' rights to use their bodies in whatever way they choose. However as an introverted soon to be 21 year old lesbian from Lincolnshire who will never sleep with any of your boyfriends, I felt like using “Jasmin” in my title could be misleading to international readers. Or those who base their views of the world on television, like me, anyway.

I thought I’d better introduce myself, seen as otherwise I’d have to think of an actual topic to start with and that seems even more difficult than coming up with a name. As previously mentioned, my name is Jasmin, I live in Lincolnshire with my parents (I know, so cool) and have recently finished university. I made the somewhat baffling decision to study in my home city of Lincoln, a place which struggles to live up to the noun “city” seen as it’s essentially one really long street with a steep hill at the end, literally called Steep Hill. Lincoln is a city because we have a cathedral, which is about the only notable thing about Lincoln. It’s a very interesting building, however, having lived in Lincoln for almost 21 years and visited the cathedral on trips pretty much every school year, it somewhat loses its charm after a while. There’s only so much interest a massive church can hold to an atheist who’s seen the thing hundreds of times. Lincoln is the proud owner of four Costas, three sex shops, a grand total of fifteen tattoo parlours and a canal boat that doubles as a pole dancing club. For a city that somehow feels the need to have four Costas on its one long street, we only have one cinema. I’m telling you about my home city because I want you to understand what I suspect is one of the main reasons why I spend so much of my time indoors, engrossed in the fictional lives of TV characters. It’s simply because there’s nothing to do here. Lincoln is small and it is boring. It’s very pretty and tourists love it but living here is dull. So until I manage to somehow detach myself from my home town and start living the life I’d like to lead, I will instead use television to escape my mundane suburban existence.

I studied Film and Television and English (a course title with an irritating number of “ands” in it) at the University of Lincoln. I have just finished my course and will graduate with First Class Honours in September. So of course I am starting a blog because that is what unemployed graduates do. I have been blogging for a few years over on Tumblr at and will continue to do so whilst writing here. My tumblr however will mainly consist of links to this blog interspersed with reblogs of gifs of lesbian TV characters and Parks and Rec. I love television. I love movies too, and books. Essentially any type of media which allows me to immerse myself in fiction is pretty high on my priorities. Having spent three years studying all three of these things I decided – pretty much in my first year actually – that I wanted media  to be the basis of my professional life as well as spending my free time at the cinema and holed up in my room watching Netflix. 

The dream - or as I intend to now refer to it so as to make it seem more realistic, the ambition – is to be a showrunner, to make television in the US, preferably in New York. There are many reasons why I want to make television, reasons which I will most likely go into in later posts, but one of the main reasons is also why I wanted to start this blog. Television is the most powerful tool of social change we have in modern Western society, I would argue even more powerful than the internet (think about it, when have your grandparents last been on Reddit?). Almost every home in the UK of the US has a television, people watch TV all the time, even if they just have it on in the background. It’s one of the most useful methods to proliferate a message or a point of view, which is why the industry is funded so much by advertising. Television has been at the forefront of most of the significant changes in public opinion in the past few decades. Ellen coming out in The Puppy Episode, Willow and Tara kissing in The Body, frank discussion of female sexual pleasure on Sex and the City, The Cosby Show – all of these things and so many more helped change public opinion far more than any grassroots feminism/gay rights/anti-racism campaigns could hope for. These were stories piped into every home in the US (and the UK) with a television set regardless of race, sexuality or gender. They made the unfamiliar seem less scary – lesbians were no longer “those people” they were Ellen Degeneres, they were Willow and Tara – and they changed how audiences thought and behaved in their real lives away from the TV. Television is important. Television is an art form. Television deserves, and needs to be criticised in the same way people would talk about films or literature. I want to make television because I want to change the world and I think that’s the best way I could do it. I want to make television because I think a lot of shows are problematic and I want my shows to be better, both in quality and in representation.

And that’s why the focus of this blog will be mostly TV. I will be including films pretty regularly also, and books occasionally, but I will mainly be writing about television past, present and future. I want to assess television critically as well as discussing its entertainment value. As for this blog’s title – The Second Screen – yes, it’s a somewhat pretentious nod to Simone DeBeauvoir’s feminist masterpiece, whilst also taking note of television’s somewhat marginalised status amongst academic criticism. The focus of the long form critical posts I write on here will be mostly feminist and queer readings of television and pop culture. I hope they’ll be entertaining and most of all I hope they’ll be accessible.

I’m going to warn you right now - as you have probably noticed due to the length of this first post – I am not a concise person. When I write, I write a lot. I am verbose and I rarely edit. I expect that most of the things I write on here will be long, some may be rambling. I hope that they’ll also be interesting enough for you to carry on reading. For this reason (and also because of my intense fear of failure) I’m starting off by only committing myself to one post every week.

So yeah, that’s about it. The Second Screen – long, occasionally rambling, hopefully entertaining posts about television, films and pop culture from a queer feminist perspective. Tell your friends. Please don’t be mean in the comments.