Author Archives: melissahillman

We Have Seen the Enemy

 

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This is America. (Source: amreading.com)

Another school shooting means yet another young white man who has been radicalized by extremist right-wing thought and convinced that murder is the answer. Nearly every one of these domestic terrorists is white, male, and connected to the alt right, red pillersIncel, MGTOW, MRA, or PUA, groups that specialize in wound collecting, in blaming women, people of color, Muslims, and LGBTQ people for every difficulty, real or imagined, urged on by the larger right wing that now thrives on hatred of these groups. Although the right wing at large is still pretending offense at being called “racist” or being called out for abandoning civil rights, their every decision belies that, their every decision is designed to marginalize anyone who is not white, male, cishet, Christian.

The right wing at large, having lost sight of its principles, having gorged itself on propagandistic media that labels any American to the left of Ted Cruz the enemy, feeds this wolf at their door, and we all see it– WE ALL SEE IT– yet they continue to pretend it’s not happening. They hold the highest positions of power in our government while they feed these wolves, they remove roadblocks to getting them weapons while they give the subsequent dead nothing but their “thoughts and prayers.” They, in short, are training and arming young men to fight a war against diversity.

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This is America.  (Source: Chicago Daily Herald)

They will not win. As desperately as they’re fighting, as bad as the gerrymandering that keeps them in power (for now) is, we outnumber them, and this rising generation, this beautiful, magnificent, historically diverse rising generation, is going to yank this nation forward. Is already yanking this nation forward.

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This is America.  (Source for top photo: outinsa.com; source for bottom photo: towelroad.com)

Angry white men: We are not your enemy. We are America. You cannot stop the rising generation from being browner, queerer, & more fierce than we were. No matter how many young white men you convince the world has wronged them & the answer is murder, YOU CANNOT STOP THE FUTURE. It’s already here.

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This is America.  (Source: Atlanta Black Star)

I’ll leave you with some poetry, because art heals. Here is Elisa Chavez‘s great poem, “Revenge,” written in November 2016.

 

Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.

I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;

I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,

because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming.
You just delayed our coronation.
We have the same deviant haircuts we had yesterday;
we are still getting gay-married like nobody’s business
because it’s still nobody’s business;
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic
for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing,
and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it:

we didn’t manifest the mountain by speaking its name,
the buildings here are not on your side just because
you make them spray-painted accomplices.
These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck.
Even the earth found common cause with us
the way you trample us both,

oh yeah: there will be signs, and rainbow-colored drum circles,
and folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them
but I won’t, because they’re my family,
in that blood-of-the-covenant sense.
If you’ve never loved someone like that
you cannot outwaltz us, we have all the good dancers anyway.

I’ll confess I don’t know if I’m alive right now;
I haven’t heard my heart beat in days,
I keep holding my breath for the moment the plane goes down
and I have to save enough oxygen to get my friends through.
But I finally found the argument against suicide and it’s us.
We’re the effigies that haunt America’s nights harder
the longer they spend burning us,
we are scaring the shit out of people by spreading,
by refusing to die: what are we but a fire?
We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,

of course I’m terrified. Of course I’m a shroud.
And of course it’s not fair but rest assured,
anxious America, you brought your fists to a glitter fight.
This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw.
You cannot deport our minds; we won’t
hold funerals for our potential. We have always been
what makes America great.

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Juanito Bandito: Wholesome Family Racism

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TJ Davis as Juanito Bandito in a PR shot from Who Shot Juanito Bandito? (Source: The Pickleville Playhouse)

I’m old enough to remember Frito Bandito. I was a preschooler but I remember it well. He was a racist stereotype– a Mexican “bandito” character always trying to steal Fritos. When the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee complained about the racism, the Frito-Lay Company (then, as now, owned by PepsiCo) first tried (obviously unsuccesfully) to tone down the racism, then, when complaints continued, retired the character completely. The entire lifespan of the character was just four years, ending in 1971. When told by Latinxs that the character was racist, Frito-Lay responded by retiring the character.

That was 47 years ago. Today, in 2018, a young white man named TJ Davis is performing a character he has named “Juanito Bandito,” and his response to being told by Latinx people that the character is racist? Telling them they’re wrong.

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TJ Davis. (Source: teejdavis.com)

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Davis writes and performs the Juanito Bandito musical comedies, in which he wears a black wig and a big, stereotypical black mustache, puts on an exaggerated Latinx accent, and performs as a character whose name is so close to “Frito Bandito” it’s impossible not to call it– and the longstanding racist faux-Mexican “bandito” character for which both are named– to mind. The word “bandito” is Spanglish, an Anglicization of the Spanish word “bandido.” “Bandito” specifically refers to a Mexican bandit, a racist stereotype popularized by generations of western films and television shows.

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A PR shot from Who Shot Juanito Bandito? (Source: The Utah Standard-Examiner)

A Latinx theatre artist, Jazmyn Arroyo, privately contacted Davis to express concerns about the racism inherent in such a performance. Instead of responding to her privately, Davis published her email without consent on his blog and made an embarrassing attempt to excuse his character with every timeworn argument you’ve all seen a million times from white people called out for racism. When that post received exactly the reception you would imagine, Davis took it down and replaced it with the huffy insistence that “Juanito Bandito” is “Spanish (from Spain)” and adds the contradictory claim that “JB is not a stereotype of any race or culture.”

Davis’s entire 940-word original response, as well as the shorter replacement, all boil down to “You’re wrong. It’s not racist,” which is an incredibly common response from white people confronted with their own racism. In his initial blog post, Davis hits every common trope of white fragility, from the old classic, “You’re just taking this wrong way” to new favorites like “Racism exists and is terrible, but this is totally not racism.” He works in some whitesplaining, claiming that the accent isn’t racist (“There’s something about hearing familiar words or phrases spoken in a different, not grammatically correct manner that really tickles our funny bone”) and trying to show the difference– to a theatre professional, mind you– between “stereotype” and “character”:

The Bandito productions have nothing to do with race or nationalities.  An intelligent person who has attended any of the shows would agree that Bandito does not “get laughs by perpetuating negative stereotypes.”  Bandito is not a stereotype.  He’s a character.  One that I identify with quite deeply.  He’s serious, he’s silly, he’s mean, he’s kind, he’s arrogant, he’s self-conscious, he sings, he dances, … he even raps!  He’s not a stereotype of ANY race or nationality.

……… “he even raps!”

Of course, he also includes the familiar “I have Latinx friends and they’ve never complained.”

The point here is that he’s exhibiting racism while trying to prove he’s not racist. A Latinx person tells him that his portrayal of Latinx people is hurtful to Latinx people, and his response is, “You’re wrong.” Davis is claiming he knows better than Latinxs do what does and does not hurt them. That level of paternalism is only possible if you truly believe you are in some way superior– smarter, more insightful, more knowledgeable. When a child fears a haircut will hurt, as adults we feel comfortable telling them it will not. When a Latinx adult tells you something hurts, what makes you feel comfortable telling them it does not?

Despite his protestations, it’s hard to imagine that Davis, in the ten years he’s been playing this character, has been so far removed from his own American culture that he has no idea what “bandito” refers to, particularly considering that he often bills Juanito Bandito as an “outlaw” and an “infamous villain.” It’s hard to imagine anyone living to adulthood in the United States without being aware of the racism inherent in the “bandito” stereotype. It’s hard to imagine any adult believing that just saying “Spanish (from Spain)” can eliminate the meaning of the word “bandito” or the generations of racist mockery of Latinx people through exaggerated accents and fake mustaches.

It’s hard to imagine because the racism in Davis’ shows does not stop at the Juanito Bandito character.

Take a look at this poster for Davis’ 2015 show, Juanito Bandito in the One with the Monkey. Look carefully at the “monkey” character on the right. Look at the wig the white actor playing “Chester the Monkey” is wearing.

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If you would like to see more of this character and the very human Black braids he’s wearing, he’s featured in this promo video for the show. Here’s a synopsis of the show from a review by the Utah Theatre Bloggers Association:

The story focuses on Juanito’s desire to transition from a Western gunslinger to a high-profile rapper. Unfortunately, he realizes that most rappers have already made the change from criminal to musical artist, so instead of falling into the ever-growing sea of non-originality, Juanito decides he needs a shtick. So, naturally, he finds a dancing monkey.

A dancing monkey played by a white man in Black braids, meant to provide credibility to a “bandito” rapper played by a white man, in a show that states that most rappers were once criminals IS AS RACIST AS RACIST GETS.

Davis defends the obvious racism of Juanito Bandito as “wholesome family fun.” In inimitable American fashion, you can be shockingly racist, but you still qualify as “wholesome family fun” if you don’t say “fuck” or acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ people. If you want to see some of this “wholesome family fun” for yourself, there are plenty of videos on YouTube.

I don’t doubt that TJ Davis considers himself a good guy, and thinks he’s not racist. He did his LDS mission in Guatemala and no doubt met people there he still considers friends. But nothing changes the fact that these shows are racist.

TJ Davis, you have every right to write and perform racist shows. Racist speech is still protected by the First Amendment. But own the racism. Don’t tell Latinx people they’re wrong about what Latinx people find hurtful. Tell them the truth: You’re making money so you don’t care if the cash cow is racist.

But if you do care– if you don’t want to perform racism– then don’t perform racism.  You could retire Juanito Bandito and let him rest in obscurity with his near-namesake, Frito Bandito. You already have a following and a venue; you could write a new show without any racist characters in it and a new starring role for yourself. But whatever you do, please start listening to people of color. It is difficult and frightening to speak out about racism because the response is so often like yours– rejecting, arrogant, condescending, oblivious. White supremacy is fighting hard against diversity and equity in America right now. People are suffering and dying over these issues. The very least you can do is listen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why Didn’t She Just Say No To Aziz Ansari?

 

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The internet is blowing up with speculation about the Aziz Ansari allegation posted in Babe. People are desperately seeking to define it. Was it sexual assault? Was it not? The thinkpieces are already rolling out. People are boiling over with excitement to lay some of the blame on the young woman, Grace, for not rejecting Ansari forcefully enough. I’m seeing reasonable people somehow imagining that a 22-year-old woman could gather her resolve, push aside all her cultural training, and tell an older, wealthy celebrity, in no uncertain terms, NO.

I say “push aside all her cultural training” because women in our culture are trained from birth that men are fragile, emotional creatures who cannot withstand the slightest discomfort or rejection from women, and men prove that to us over and over and over.

How, you ask?

Like this:

These Fourteen Women Were Brutally Attacked for Rejecting Men

Nearly Half of All Murdered Women Are Killed By Romantic Partners

Black Woman Attacked, Beaten Unconscious After Rejecting Man’s Advances

Rejecting Men Has Deadly Consequences

Woman Beaten After Rejecting Man’s Advances

Man Strangles and Kills Teenager for Rejecting his Marriage Proposal

11 Black Women Who Were Killed for Saying “No”

#YesAllWomen: A Short Fuse Between Rejection and Violence

Young Mum Battered in Nightclub After Rejecting Thug’s Advances

NYC Man Who Attacked Asian Women Blamed Them for Rejecting Him

When Women Refuse

Man Confesses to Killing Woman Who Didn’t Want to Date Him

Man Viciously Attacks Woman for Refusing to Give Him Her Number

Female Tourist, 60, Repeatedly Punched in the Face After Rejecting Sexual Advances

Female Comic Brutally Beaten After Rejecting Men’s Advances

Irish Woman Beaten and Left in French Street for Rejecting Advances

When Men Attack the Women Who Reject Them: Terrifying Accounts from Their Victims

Pregnant Woman Slammed on the Ground, Stabbed, After Rejecting Man’s Advances

This Is What Happens When Women Reject Men Online

Man Sexually Assaulted Woman After Kiss Rejection

People are defending Ansari for not being able to “read her mind,” but completely miss the fact that she could not likewise read his. Women are attacked every single day for rejecting men. How was she to know if Ansari was going to be gracious or shout profanities at her, push her to the floor, spit on her, or kick her (literally) out of his apartment? I’ve had all that (and more) done to me as a young woman by men. Did every man I encounter do that to me? No. Was I able to know, in advance, who would push me violently and who would walk away? Also no, especially not on a first date.

Women are attacked every single day for rejecting men. For every story that makes the news, there are a thousand you’ve never heard of. It’s not just obvious douchebags or “men like that” (whatever “that” is). Women are attacked by men who are “nice guys.” Women are attacked by men who swear publicly they would never hit a woman. Women are attacked by men who are wealthy professionals. Women are attacked by older gentlemen. Women are attacked by celebrities.

I could not be less interested in Aziz Ansari and young Grace. This is just celebrity gossip unless we’re using this one story as an example of several larger issues that must be addressed in our culture.

  1. Men attack women for rejecting them so often that woman are terrified of rejecting them. This is a problem in a world where clear, enthusiastic consent is a must.
  2. You must get clear, enthusiastic consent before you put your hands on somebody. That burden is on the active party, not the passive one. The active party could be male, female, or nonbinary. If you’re going to put your hands on someone, it’s your job to get consent, not their job to stop you mid-grab and say no.

Let’s stop this victim-blaming nonsense. Women have every reason to fear giving that clear, unequivocal, forceful NO you’re all blaming Grace for failing to give. You put us in a no-win situation. If we fail to say no, we end up forced to do things we don’t want to do when you’re too inept and/or selfish to get clear consent. If we do say no, a large percentage of you attack us, and we have no way of knowing in advance.

Stop attacking women who reject you. Give us no reason to fear saying NO.

UPDATE: This piece from KatyKatiKate, “not that bad,” is well worth your time.

 

 

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Robert Brustein Doesn’t Understand Consent: The Dangers of the White Male “Genius”

As a very young woman, I haunted thrift stores, which, in those days, were chock full of amazing finds. Thrift store book sections filled my library, and I would buy anything related to theatre and devour it to supplement the reading I was doing in my theatre classes. Eventually, a slow, sinking realization started creeping in at the edges as I read book after book by theatrical “geniuses,” all white men. I remember paging through Robert Brustein’s Theatre of Revolt thinking, He does not consider women people. 

Many woman in theatre will recognize this feeling. It’s the same feeling we get reading Jan Kott, Harold Bloom, and a host of other “geniuses.” These 20th century white male “geniuses” write about theatre as if women are invisible, decorative, or existing in service to men. They interpret female characters through the lens of white male dominance, and see female characters as essentially about the men in the play. Jan Kott, for example, writes that Desdemona must have “something of a slut about her” because so many men are attracted to her, a complete misreading of the text.  Bloom’s sexism, racism, and classism (“capital is necessary for the cultivation of aesthetic values”) are well documented; he believes that “isms” (examples he gives include feminism, African American studies, and “transgenderism”) are ruining literature. Brustein dismisses Nora in A Doll’s House in Theatre of Revolt because he believes her “conversion” from a “protected, almost infantile dependent” to an “articulate and determined spokesman for individual freedom” is unbelievable, missing entirely that the “infantile dependent” was a character Nora played for Torvald. He was unable to see past that character because he was as taken in by it as Torvald is. When she finally drops the act, both Torvald and Brustein are surprised and disbelieving. White male genius under white male supremacy is all too often hobbled by its inability to see past its privilege and understand that its reasoning is faulty.

Theatre education is still dominated by old white men of a single generation. Bloom is 87. Brustein is 90. Kott would be 103 if he were still alive. Grotowski would be 84. Brockett would be 94. Johnstone is 84. Brook is 92. I could go on and on. It’s not that old white men have nothing of value to contribute. These men have had valuable, positive impacts on our field. Yet we must also admit that several of these men have also, simultaneously, had problematic impacts on our field. Decades of theatre students have been taught dramatic theory and criticism that has been narrowed and hobbled by its belief in white male supremacy. We were taught theatre criticism that took it as read that theatre was by, for, and about white men, and that everything else required an adjective– “feminist theatre,” “Black theatre”– and was relegated to the margins, often literally, pushed to a sidebar in a book while the main body of the work got on examining “real theatre”– theatre by, for, and about white men. We were told to “look past” the sexism and racism, that it was just “the time,” as if the sexism and racism are croutons we can pick out of work that is otherwise genius, as if the sexism and racism don’t dramatically limit the scope and understanding of parts of the work.

We have formed the very basis of theatre criticism on white male supremacy, teaching decades of students that white male-centered criticism is the backbone of the field and that anything else is a specialization, an extra. We teach this to the students who grow up to run our industry, and then we wonder why they hire so few women and people of color to positions of power, then we wonder why granting orgs give most of their money to theatres headed by white men, then we wonder why major publications hire mostly white male theatre writers and editors, then we wonder why universities hire more men than women and more white people than people of color for tenure-track positions.

Then we wonder why Robert Brustein, one of the most powerful and influential members of our field, goes on Facebook and posts garbage like this:

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We wonder why someone whom we consider a “genius” has so little understanding of the basics of consent. We wonder why someone whom we consider a “genius” has so little understanding or respect for women as people.

Every word he’s ever written was framed within the idea that white men were the pinnacle of creation, standing at the center of all narrative and all analysis. Do we really wonder, then, why he doesn’t understand the difference between sexual harassment and an extramarital affair? And do we really wonder why there are people in our industry actually defending this nonsense?

The statement itself is a mess. He begins by whining about the way evil women are ruining the legacies of the men who harassed and raped them, imagining that women are unfairly “proscribing the achievements” of these great men.

Then he brings up the witch hunts. This analogy, usually coming from men accused of sexual harassment (or about to be), has become the most tiresome cliché of the moment, deeply sexist and utterly inaccurate. Brustein, however, takes this misunderstanding even further. He begins with the fact that women burned at the stake for witchcraft were innocent victims, but then goes on to claim that, in the sexual assault allegations of today, “the witches are doing the hunting,” clearly stating that innocent men are being accused and destroyed, and that evil women are to blame.

I don’t believe he actually meant what he wrote when he wrote it initially. I’ve read Brustein, and I believe he lit upon what he thought was a clever turn of phrase and used it without thinking too deeply about what it might actually mean. When he was rightly called out for it, he deleted it. Ah, we all thought, he’s showing glimmers of understanding. Then he quickly added it back in.

The painful “witches” comment almost overshadows the faulty reasoning of the rest. He rails against imaginary people who are demanding we stop reading Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Plato. He rails against imaginary people who would raze the Presidential libraries of Clinton and Kennedy and replace them with placards stating, “These men had extramarital affairs.”

The fact that he cannot distinguish between sexual assault and consensual extramarital affairs is the heart of the post. It encapsulates Brustein and his sociohistorical context perfectly. Though he pays lip service to the need for sexual predators to be punished, he worries primarily about the experience of the man. Female consent is immaterial, as he hysterically imagines men ruined for consensual affairs as a logical outcome of exposing sexual predators. The distance between a consensual affair and a rape are not material to him, and in all cases, the legacy of the man is more important. Sexual predators “should be punished,” but “let’s not forget the difference between private behavior and public achievement.”

You cannot decouple “private behavior” from “public achievement” because both come from the same world view. Despite Brustein’s hysteria, no one is suggesting we destroy all existing work by men. We must, however, provide appropriate context for that work.

Brustein’s silly Facebook statement represents something much larger– a limited understanding of the world that informs a great deal of the critical writing of a number of white male “geniuses” of his generation. No one is suggesting we should stop teaching the critical writing of 20th century white men, but it needs to be decentered and contextualized. Teaching young men they are rightly centered in all narrative considerations has created a culture from which we are struggling to emerge.

White men in positions of power unconsciously apply different criteria to evaluating white men (and white male characters) than they do women and people of color. They promote young white men with little experience on their “promise” and reject women and people of color as “not ready.” They dismiss female characters as “unlikeable” and worry about whether characters of color are “ethnic enough.” Whenever I speak out about the overrepresentation of men in tenure-track positions, multiple men tell me that I’m wrong because they’ve “lost” positions to women, as if their anecdotal experience of the world is definitive despite the data. This reflects exactly what we teach when we teach critics like Brustein and Bloom without context– that the male experience of the world is the definitive experience of the world, that all narrative is understood by placing a man at the center and relating everything and everyone else back to him.

Worrying about preserving the legacy of abusive men is foolish. We already knew the work of these men is flawed by the same sexism that led them to choose sexual assault. We must stop pretending that this is “important,” “genius,” “canonical” thought and instead appropriately contextualize it within its time and place in conversation with the thought of women and people of color. I see the way this new generation of women and people of color in education are approaching the work, and I want to cry with relief. We need more, and more, and more. We must move women and people of color out of the sidebar and into the canon, and demolish the concept of the privileged white male “genius.”

 

 

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Why So Many Men Hate the Last Jedi But Can’t Agree on Why

 

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Carrie Fisher and her daughter, Billie Lourd, as General Leia and Lieutenant Connix, in a PR shot for The Last Jedi taken by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair

NOTE: Many spoilers.

My feed (and yours, I presume) has been filling with people, mostly men, denouncing The Last Jedi for all sorts of reasons. Here are a few I compiled out of my own feed over the past week:

It’s too draggy and long
It’s too fast-paced
It is magically both draggy and fast-paced
It’s too much about one family
It’s not about family
The plot is terrible
The plot is fine but the acting is terrible
The plot and acting are fine, but the pacing is terrible
The plot, acting, and pacing are fine but the characterizations are terrible
It needed more humor
It needed less humor
It needed a different kind of humor
Not enough character development
Too much character development
The stakes were too low
The stakes were too high
It’s too much like the original trilogy
It’s not enough like the original trilogy

Hm.

Usually, when a film is genuinely bad, we’re all in agreement about at least a few areas of obvious badness. There’s not much controversy about the general awfulness of Jar Jar, Hayden Christiansen’s acting, or the wooden love scene dialogue of the prequels. Sure, there’s the occasional outlier insisting they love Jar Jar, but on the main, these are obvious, agreed-upon flaws. Yet there’s no agreement about The Last Jedi. Instead, I’ve seen dozens of contradictory opinions, and at least half of them are stated like this:

“I’m fine with female-driven films, but I just hate this particular one for reasons.”

The Last Jedi has become the Hillary Clinton of filmmaking.

Yes, WE ALL KNOW YOU HAVE REASONS. So many reasons, all of which were no problem when they were part of male-driven films, but are now somehow egregious, film-ruining faults. And yes, we know you all know a real, actual human female who ALSO TOO did not like TLJ so HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY BE ABOUT GENDER EVER QED.

It’s about gender.

And, because these issues are intersectional, it’s also about race. Here’s why so many men hate The Last Jedi and– not coincidentally– why I love it.

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Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi

ROSE TICO. Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose Tico, has been harassed and threatened by angry internet men, so this seems like an obvious place to start. What do so many men hate and fear about Rose Tico? In short, Rose Tico is played by a woman of color and isn’t constructed solely to please the men in the audience. She wears practical work clothes, not Hollywood’s version of “practical work clothes” for women (skin-tight coveralls with a low-cut top). The camera didn’t linger over her ass as she bent over; she doesn’t suggestively hold her tools. She’s not presented as women are usually presented– from the straight male characters’ point of view, as a proxy for the straight male audience members’ point of view. Forthright, awkward, brilliant Rose Tico is presented as a real, well-rounded person exactly the way we portray male characters. For a woman of color in a mainstream film, this is remarkable.

MORE ROSE TICO. Because she wasn’t shown through Finn’s point of view, the subplot didn’t then become about Finn trying to “win” her, making it feel pointless to people who see a male/female pairing and expect that dynamic. Instead of seeing it as “buddies race against the clock while facing impossible odds,” a very common trope even just in Star Wars films alone (GET THAT SHIELD DOWN), they saw it as a pointless diversion. If Rose had been a male character, this subplot would have gone as unremarked as every other time it’s been used in decades of filmmaking. Because she’s a woman who isn’t presented as an event in the life of a man, she’s everything from a flaw in the filmmaking to an affront to fragile masculinity.

EVEN MORE ROSE TICO. When Rose declares her love for Finn, people complained because it wasn’t presented the way we have come to expect– telegraphed through presenting the female character as the object of male desire. Because she wasn’t objectified through Finn’s admiring gaze, their relationship has been criticized for “lack of sexual tension” and a “lack of chemistry.” If he had been chasing her throughout the film, her declaration of love would have fit neatly into the sexist trope of men “winning” women. Instead, her declaration of love comes as a surprise, but this, again, is an extremely common trope in filmmaking– when the declaration comes from a man. If the sudden declaration of love had come from Finn, it would have passed as unremarked as it has been in literally thousands of films.

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Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) with her first officer (Hugh Skinner)

VICE ADMIRAL HOLDO. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this character, the way she’s used, or her sacrifice apart from her gender. “Why is this random character suddenly in charge? Do we trust them?” could be the plot description of thousands of Hollywood films, but when the character is a woman, it’s suddenly a flaw in the filmmaking. “Why is Holdo’s sacrifice seen as brave and Finn’s seen as foolhardy?” The parallel sacrifice to Holdo is Luke, not Finn. Luke sacrifices himself to allow what’s left of the Resistance to escape, just as Holdo sacrificed herself earlier to stop the First Order from picking off Resistance shuttles one by one, allowing the survivors to escape. The parallel sacrifice to Finn is Poe sacrificing the entire Resistance bomber fleet. Both Poe and Finn ignore orders from women to stand down and escape in favor of chasing glorious, but pyrrhic, victories.

The Last Jedi spends an enormous amount of time and care on the theme “sometimes escape is the more sensible option, and glorious victories too often come at such a high cost they become failures.” Women in the Resistance are constantly fighting against cocky young men chasing glory, constantly trying to save lives that these cocky young men would sacrifice for that glory. This is a film that sees glorious sacrifice as a last resort and escape as a pragmatic and sensible choice. This is a film about discretion being the better part of valor. It doesn’t take much analytical skill to see why some men are so upset by that, and Holdo is one of the characters at the center of that narrative. The other is Leia.

 

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Carrie Fisher as Leia in The Last Jedi

LEIA. I brought a handkerchief to this film specifically because I knew in my heart I would have to watch Leia die due to the loss of the irreplaceable Carrie Fisher. When Leia survived the bridge of her ship shattering, no one was more surprised than I was. The angry male internet was, evidently, outraged because “suddenly” Leia could use the force. Leaving aside the entire EU— the film certainly does– Leia is Luke’s twin sister and uses the force in Empire Strikes BackThe Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi. TLJ is careful to show her taking a breath to prepare the moment before the bridge is shattered, and the effort nearly kills her. In the original trilogy force ghosts, space stations that have the power to destroy planets, and people with powerful telekinetic abilities who still somehow need to fight with swords are all accepted without a peep. A world with exactly zero female pilots, techs, or ground troops is accepted without a peep. A world where Biggs Darklighter’s mustache makes sense is accepted without a peep. But Leia, twin sister to the most powerful Jedi who ever lived, using the force to save her life is evidently a film-ruining moment. Any woman strong in the force without male oversight is a problem for the angry male internet, which brings us to Rey.

REY. The most common complaint from the angry male internet is “REY IS TOO POWERFUL.” She is no different than Luke was in the original trilogy in that respect. She is naturally gifted in the force, just as Luke was, yet Luke’s power is accepted without complaint while Rey is begrudged hers. Luke, a farm boy with no fighting experience, receives a bit of training from Yoda that seemingly contains zero combat skills, then leaves before his training is complete, but is still somehow able to stand against Vader for a lengthy lightsaber battle before escaping. Rey begins TFA at least knowing something about fighting, and is shown practicing with a lightsaber in TLJ. Yet once again, where Luke’s combat prowess was unquestioningly accepted, Rey’s is held up as a flaw in the filmmaking.

FINN AND POE. There’s much to be said about race in the new trilogy. We can always do better, but the diverse Lucasfilm story team, currently headed by a woman of color, is pushing everything in the right direction. What I consider to be the “right direction” is definitely at odds with a sizable number of white men. You’ll see white men all over the Resistance as pilots, techs, bridge officers, and soldiers, but because there are no white male leads by the end of the film but villains, many white men have complained they are being pushed out of the series entirely. They forget that, even now, the vast majority of films star white men, and women and people of color are expected to enjoy those films despite a lack of representation. When women and people of color discuss issues of representation, they’re denigrated as “feminazis,” “snowflakes,” and “whiners,” and even met with harassment, threats, and coordinated attacks like Gamergate. Many white men see themselves as rightfully at the center of all narrative, and believe any narrative that doesn’t feature them as heroes, even when they are featured in supporting roles, has displaced them.

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Oscar Isaac as Poe and John Boyega as Finn in a PR shot for The Last Jedi shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair

While not every white man who dislikes The Last Jedi overtly dislikes its gender balance or diversity, many feel a level of discomfort with this film that they can’t name, and that expresses itself through a wide variety of odd, conflicting complaints about its filmmaking.

What solidifies this for me is the apparent need for men to publicly pronounce their dislike of the film. Hollywood releases dozens of mainstream films a year, and the only films I’ve seen men rush en masse to publicly criticize in the past few years, all for their “flawed filmmaking,” were the all-female Ghostbusters, Mad Max: Fury RoadWonder Woman, and The Last Jedi. I saw hundreds of men openly loving deeply flawed projects like Stranger Things, Deadpool, and the Blade Runner remake. We all love things that are sloppily constructed, politically problematic, or internally inconsistent. Hell, Hamlet is all three of those and you’ll have to pry Shakespeare from my cold, dead hands. But when you see thousands of men all rushing to the internet to publicly denounce something for its “flaws,” all of which contradict each other and all of which are routinely tolerated in male-driven films, including the original Star Wars trilogy itself, something else is afoot.

I don’t think every human who disliked The Last Jedi is an evil, evil misogynist. I do think that we have so deeply internalized sexist narrative tropes that we see them as “correct” and “good filmmaking” while seeing their absence as “flaws.” We read female characters differently than male characters, and we have internalized expectations for female character arcs. Instead of seeing this film for what it is, people are criticizing it for not conforming to the expectations they have of female characters. It’s fine to dislike something, but we should all spend a little more time thinking deeply about why before we charge onto the internet with “I’m fine with female-driven films, BUT . . .”

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Rey on Ahch-To in The Last Jedi

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“This is Not Going to Go the Way You Think”: The Last Jedi Is Subversive AF, and I Am Here for It

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John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi

NOTE: This post is full of spoilers.

“This is not going to go the way you think.” — Luke Skywalker

Star Wars has always had its finger on the pulse of the cultural fear of the moment. In the original trilogy in the 1970s and early 80s, it was The Man– an evil establishment that needed to be purified by a younger generation. In the prequels of the 90s, it was evil corporations secretly colluding with a corrupt government to create endless war.

Now, in early 21st century America, the villain is an unstable young white man who had every privilege in life, yet feels like the world has wronged him. Unbeknownst to his family, he finds and communicates with a faraway mentor who radicalizes him with a horrific, authoritarian ideology. By the time his family finds out, it’s too late, and now this unstable young white man has this horrific ideology, access to far too many weapons, and the desperate desire to demolish anything that he perceives as a threat– or is told to perceive as a threat.

Star Wars has always pushed at the boundaries of its culture. Princess Leia was mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess, and the films were unstinting in depicting her importance to the military strategy of the Rebellion, reflecting an incipient 70s feminism. The prequels were clear that we were all complicit in a corrupt system whether we admitted it to ourselves or not, symbolized by noble Jedi finding themselves leading an army of slave clones that were purchased from part of a massive military industrial complex. For all the films’ faults– and they are legion– this was a stunning accusation, and played to the 90s’ growing concerns of big business’ influence on government.

The new films are again at the vanguard of cultural concerns, but push harder and more subversively than any of the previous films. Above all else, The Last Jedi is about smashing patriarchal white supremacy– smashing it to the ground and starting over– and I am here for it.

While the earlier films were about the need to purify corrupt systems, the new ones are about smashing everything and starting over.

At every turn, the new films are about “letting the past die.” At its most broad and obvious, this means killing off the older generation and handing the narrative to the new. The Force Awakens killed off Han, which was no surprise as Harrison Ford had been badgering them to kill off Han Solo since Empire. Then The Last Jedi turned a hard corner by killing off Luke when everyone expected to lose Leia due to the loss of the great Carrie Fisher. Luke sacrifices himself in one last spectacular moment of force-wielding brilliance in order to save Leia and the Rebellion. This kind of sacrifice is something we’re used to seeing from extraordinary female characters (see every extraordinary woman from Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web to Eleven in Stranger Things). In TLJ, the central white male hero of the original films dies to save an exceptionally diverse, gender-balanced group of people who are, as Poe says, the “spark that will light the fire that will destroy the First Order.” Not “save the galaxy”; not “save the Republic.” This is not about saving something from corruption. It’s about ending the old order and creating something completely new.

As the older generation dies, the older way of doing things dies as well. Luke can’t bring himself to burn down the tree containing the sacred Jedi texts, so Yoda force ghosts in and does it for him, cackling, telling Luke that Rey already has “everything she needs,” then dropping this bit of heartaching profundity: “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” Anyone who has ever been a teacher or a parent understands this most painful and exhilarating of truths, but Yoda says it as the foundational texts of the Jedi order burn (as far as Luke or the audience know at that point). “We are what they grow beyond.” Not just us, but our old ways. Specifically, the old ways of hierarchical privilege.

Luke believes the Jedi order needs to die for this very reason. “The Jedi don’t own the force,” Luke says. The force is in everyone. Leia reflects this as well. “Why are you looking at me? Follow him,” she says, handing leadership to a random pilot who came from nowhere to become central to the Resistance. And although I am the first person to sign up for Team Leia– she was more than worthy of every inch of her power in the Rebellion– the door opened for her because she was part of the royal family of Alderaan. Her mother was the Queen of Naboo. Poe Dameron’s mother was a Rebel pilot. As the Rebels follow Poe, waiting for them on the other side is Rey, whose parentage was the subject of feverish speculation. Certainly she must be someone— she must come from some kind of peerage, pedigree, or privilege to be so special. But she is nobody from nowhere, daughter of unsavory junk traders who sold her for booze and died on Jakku. The force belongs to everyone, not just the pedigreed. 

Privilege is handily dismantled wherever we try to create it. Rose Tico is awed by meeting Finn, now a hero of the Resistance, only to have her hero worship dashed when she realizes Finn is trying to escape. Finn comes from nowhere– one of many nameless troopers stolen as small children. Rose, as well, comes from nowhere– daughter of miners who now works as a tech for the Resistance. Some have criticized the Finn/Rose subplot, but thematically, the meaning is critical– these young Rebels are the new generation who will build the new society on the ashes of the old. They’re played by actors of color. Rose is respected by Finn for her expertise and quick thinking as a matter of course, not as a reveal (“Oh look! The pretty girl is actually smart!” or “That competent person took off their helmet and HOLY CRAP IT’S FEMALE”). When she falls for Finn, it’s not the usual trope of Hero Wins Sexy Woman, and was therefore criticized for being “shoehorned in.” Rose wasn’t wearing a low-cut top; we never saw Finn ogling her; we never saw the camera linger over her ass. We were never given the signals “SEE HER AS A SEX OBJECT,” so her love for Finn is “shoehorned in.” But this is the stirrings of the new society. Any idiot can ogle a woman’s ass, but the man who automatically respects a woman’s expertise is well worth falling for. While Leia and Poe are trying to save the Resistance on one front, Finn and Rose represent what they’re trying to save.

The Resistance is impressive in its casual diversity. Women and people of color are valued for their expertise as a matter of course; nowhere does the film congratulate itself on its diversity by making a huge point of highlighting it, demonstrating white male benevolence by the generous inclusion of women and people of color, positing a white male audience nodding along, agreeing that we are so wonderful for allowing our White Male World to donate a very small corner for the Less Fortunate. The Resistance is naturally diverse, and no one even seems to notice. That is masterfully subversive.

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Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) addressing the Resistance in The Last Jedi

It’s not enough to destroy the old order from without. The Last Jedi demands that we examine our own complicity in the corruption of the old ways. Poe’s belief that all problems can be solved by shooting something down is shown as dangerous when unchecked; it’s the same toxic masculinity wielded by Kylo Ren, and a mainstay of war culture. The film indicts war culture and toxic masculinity throughout. Leia slaps and demotes Poe for sacrificing lives to bring down a dreadnought instead of escaping as ordered (“dead heroes. And no leaders”). Later, after his failed mutiny, she tells him that Holdo was more interested in “saving the light rather than looking like a hero.” But nowhere is the struggle against our own complicity with war culture more prominent than when Benicio Del Toro’s amoral DJ reveals to Finn and Rose that the “worst people in the galaxy”– the wealthy arms dealers who congregate at the Canto Bight casino– make their money selling weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance. 

The Last Jedi has a clear message: The nearly all-white, overwhemingly male, privilege-based way of thinking that celebrates war culture and toxic masculinity and that created the First Order has to go, both in the larger world and as it’s internalized in our hearts and minds, and in its place will be something entirely new, created by diverse young people who are walking away from war culture, walking away from toxic masculinity, walking away from systems of privilege. What new society will they create? We don’t know. But we do know that old ways of thinking have failed us in every possible way. The wisest of the older generation, like Luke, have known this for a long time. The selfish, small-minded, hateful, and power-hungry in the older generation will continue to hunt and seduce the next generation, but the light still stands. No matter how much power they accrue, no matter how many angry young white men they convince we are the enemy, the light still stands. The future is brown, and female, and brilliant, and fierce, does not give even one single fuck about the way things used to be.

Those who wanted a safe and comforting Star Wars movie are understandably upset. The Last Jedi is anything but safe. It’s as subversive as it gets, and I am here for it.

P.S. Dear Lucasfilm:

Please attack cisheteronormativity in your next film.

Cackling Along with Yoda,

Melissa

 

 

 

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How Theatre, Film, and TV Can End Sexual Harassment

During Thanksgiving, I was having a conversation with a very liberal family member. He was adamant that he supported and believed women. Then he immediately went on to tell me that women are exaggerating about sexual harassment. We had had this conversation before. I had sent him links with hard data and links with personal stories. “Did you read the links I sent you?” I asked him. “Yes. I still don’t believe it’s as pervasive as women say.” This man says he believes women, then in the next breath says that he knows better than women do what our lives are like.

A very few, very powerful men have been openly accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. A handful have lost their jobs, all of whom were already so fabulously wealthy that they were working for the pleasure of working. After generations of women* having to endure “but is she lying? She’s probably lying” as the men who assaulted them received fabulous power and wealth, we’re just at the very beginning of believing women. 

Yet we’re already seeing the inevitable backlash– men (and a few women) whining about “witch hunts,” the irony of which is jaw-dropping.

We’re already seeing articles worrying about men being fired without “due process,” which, like the first amendment, limits governmental power, not the ability of a company to fire someone. Conservatives have worked hard enough to make every state an “at will” and/or “right to work” state, so they of all people should know that a private company can fire anyone for any reason in most places.

We’re already seeing men hysterically screeching about being “afraid to talk to women at all,” as if you could accidentally grab a woman’s breasts, shove her up against a wall, and stick your tongue down her throat, as if you could accidentally take your penis out in your office.

And we’re already seeing thousands upon thousands of men who, like my relative at Thanksgiving, believe women only in the abstract, but who actually still believe that they know better than women what women’s lives are like, who believe that their opinions about which women’s stories are “real” and which are “exaggerated” should be given more weight than the millions of women saying “this is the truth of our lives.”

How do we make sure this cultural moment doesn’t backslide into the same age-old sexism we’ve endured for centuries?

Like racism, sexism is systemic, and the response must be systemic. We are all complicit in a system that creates and maintains an environment of harassment, and we must all examine both our complicity and the way male privilege works in our lives.

The men in our culture who are not sexually aggressive had to learn that the culture was lying to them, had to learn that the sexual aggression and conquest mentality they saw glorified in every corner of our culture was harmful. They had to learn how to navigate a culture that expected it of them, and that shamed them for not participating.

Those of us who create the various forms of media that have a powerful hand in shaping our culture are uniquely positioned to change that.

In addition to our own individual work examining our own complicity with fearlessness and examining with equal fearlessness the way male privilege works in our lives, we must look at the work we create and the messages we’re sending into the world. 

In no small part, we, as content creators in theatre, film, television, books, advertising, and video games created this.

We produced Oleanna and pretended it was a “balanced view” instead of a sexist takedown. We looked the other way and hired men we knew were harassers, telling women, “Just don’t be alone with him backstage.” We gave those men positions of power and awards. We regularly produced work that showed women as collectible sex objects. We glorified work that shows men pressuring women to have sex, and then shows those women finally giving in and enjoying it, as if caving to relentless pressure is an expression of normal and healthy female sexuality. We used sexual aggression as a joke. We showed women being raped and in the end, enjoying it.

There are countless films, TV shows, plays, and ads that laugh at attempted rape– or actual rape. That show women enjoying rape. Look at old episodes of MASH, where random men literally chasing weeping, frightened women are given laugh tracks, as if it’s hilarious when a woman is fighting off a rapist. Look at Pepé le Pew. Look at Madeleine Kahn’s character in Young Frankenstein. Look at 80s comedy films. And of course it’s not just a thing of the past. Look at this, this, and this.

Look at the much-lauded Stranger Things. Of course the Duffer brothers rewarded Steve’s sexual aggression by depicting Nancy caving and loving it. In these tropes, it’s common for the girl to be shamed if she refuses (“prude”) and shamed if she caves (“slut”). The Duffer Brothers were heralded for “subverting the trope” simply by delaying Steve’s inevitable shaming of Nancy. Of course, Nancy forgives Steve for her public shaming, just as she forgives Jonathan– with a smile– for stalking her. These (now) 33-year-old male writers have a clear message for 16-year-old girls, and it’s “Male sexual aggression should always be rewarded. You secretly like it anyway, so your discomfort isn’t important.” Later, they pressured an underage actress into an unscripted kiss during shooting, then laughed publicly about her discomfort. And we are still rewarding them.

Our culture has relentlessly shown that sexual aggression is rewarded, and that women who complain about it are just humorless killjoys who should relax and enjoy it.

If we want to change the culture, we must stop trivializing sexual assault and rape in the material we create. Of course we can’t do anything about old MASH episodes or Stranger Things. No one is advocating for banning existing properties, although the male hysteria on this topic would make you believe otherwise.

We can effect change by flooding the culture with new work that doesn’t make light of sexual assault, that doesn’t use rape as a way to advance a male narrative, that doesn’t reward men for sexual aggression. We can flood the culture with work that depicts women as human beings with our own stories and motivations, whether we’re the main character or not.

Imagine a romcom that doesn’t frame stalking as romantic. Imagine a horror film that doesn’t objectify women or punish female sexuality. Imagine material that does not require women to always consider male sexual pleasure, even in the midst of a crisis, that does not require women to laugh along when our assault is the butt of the joke, that does not depict sexual aggression as “natural,” “boys being boys,” or what “real men” do.

We must think critically and fearlessly about the work we write and produce. We must refuse to continue supporting work that rewards and valorizes sexual aggression. How many times have you seen two or three young women with no lines, reduced to breasts and asses, draped across a man simply as a marker of his power? How often have you seen a man depicted as exceptionally virtuous and good simply because he didn’t immediately assault a woman he was alone with? How often have you seen rape used to advance a male plotline (NOW HE MUST GET REVENGE), or to transform an “unlikeable” character into a “good” character (HER TRAUMA HAS FOREVER CHANGED HER)? How often have you seen science fiction where all the aliens are visibly male? (And before you say, “But they’re aliens! Those could be females!” they’re all cast with male actors and discussed using male pronouns.) How often have you seen projects where women are shown only as functions of the male characters (as collectibles, prizes, sex objects, impediments)?

Part of the issue is that women directors and writers in TV and film are rare. In theatre, while the numbers are slowly improving, women writers are rarely produced in larger theatres, and women artistic directors in LORTs and producers on Broadway are exceedingly rare. (That’s so well documented, I’m not even bothering to link it.) We have sexist media in large part because you don’t let us in the room, and when you do, we’re shouted down, ignored, and minimized. (And while this particular post focuses on women, these issues are intersectional, and everything I’ve said here is even more egregious for women of color, women with disabilities, women of size, and gender nonconforming people.)

We make culture. We can change it. Let us in the room. Listen to what we have to say. Examine the work you make fearlessly. Don’t cave to nonsense; hold the line against “it’s just a joke,” “she needs to be sexier,” or “she needs to be more likable– soften her character/shorten her skirt/make her younger/give her lines to a man/make her less angry.” Refuse the conventional wisdom that women can’t be more than 2 out of the 5 main characters without losing mainstream appeal and becoming “for women.” Refuse to make sexual assault a cheap plot device or a joke. Refuse to produce work that glorifies or rewards sexual aggression.

As content creators, when we refuse to support the expectation and glorification of sexual aggression, when we create work that shows women as people who are naturally part of the world, not provisionally part of the world as functions of men, we will be changing the messaging of our entire culture. The majority of our cultural messaging is disseminated through the media– through OUR WORK. Change the media, change the culture.

 

*I am using “women” to mean “female-identified people,” not “cisgender women.”

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What About Franken?

Senator Al Franken is the latest in an enormous string of celebrities and politicians accused of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. I’m not going to list them all here, as that list will surely be outdated the moment I hit “publish.”

Franken himself is accused of an overly aggressive unwanted kiss, a “funny” picture where he pretends to grab the breasts of a fellow USO performer as she sleeps, and grabbing a woman’s butt as he takes a picture with her at a County Fair. There have been numerous calls for him to step down, most notably from the Republican politicians who would benefit from the loss of Franken, while those same Republicans ignore the dozens of women who have accused Donald Trump of much worse.

I don’t think Franken should step down. In fact, I think Franken stepping down is counter productive.

Men– and women– who commit sexual assault should be prosecuted. Rapists should be behind bars. Women should be believed. It’s great that we’re finally being believed (when the perpetrator is a Democrat only). It’s great that rapists like Harvey Weinstein are being exposed.

But Franken is not accused of rape. Franken is accused of the low-level sexual aggression which every woman experiences routinely. Franken is accused of the kinds of things almost every man in the country has done. Our culture not only winkingly allows sexual aggression in men; it rewards it. We teach men to be sexually aggressive by valorizing it in films, TV shows, plays, books, music– you name it. We punish men who openly treat women with respect. The problem isn’t Franken. The problem is systemic.

As is the case with all systemic issues, the problem can only be addressed by a culture shift. We all must examine our complicity. We all must examine the ways male privilege works in our lives. We all must examine the ways we have perpetrated or supported sexual aggression.

Putting Franken on the altar as a sacrifice does nothing for women.  All it does is provide a scapegoat. It enables men to continue pretending this is about a few bad actors who need to be punished. Once a few “bad guys” have been ruined and shamed, men can shake hands and call the job “done,” promise on social media to do better in the future, and nothing changes.

The vast majority of the men doing the same kinds of things Franken has done are not famous. Your wife, your daughter, your sister, are all still slogging through this kind of male behavior every day, and not telling you, because you’ll throw a fit and make her life miserable, or because she brushes it off as the basic cost of being publicly female, or because she feels shamed by it and hides it. I have never reported every single instance of sexual harassment to the men in my life. Why would I?

That silence is part of my complicity in this. My complicity extends in many directions. I didn’t fire a man who forced an aggressive kiss on a woman at a cast party. She and I both were like, “SO CREEPY” and never thought to hold him accountable. Why would we? We expected this kind of thing from men. It was my home, and my theatre company, and I did nothing. 

Franken himself has called for an ethics investigation, and of course I support that. I also support him staying in the Senate unless we apply these consequences in politics evenly. If Franken is forced to resign without the GOP putting similar pressure on Trump, then they’re just using our pain for their own political gain, and should burn in hell for that. (They’re already burning in hell for supporting Roy Moore, whom I do not include in this article, as he is a sexually aggressive pedophile, which is entirely different. He should be fired into the sun.)

But if we demand Franken step down without also seriously examining the systemic sexism that supports this kind of low-level, constant sexual aggression– without every single adult human examining their own complicity in systemic sexism– nothing will change.

You want to be a good ally to women? Start by examining your own behavior. Start by calling out the men in your life when you see their sexual aggression instead of high-fiving them. Start by examining the media you make and the media you consume, and demanding better. The issue is not Al Franken, or any one man. The issue is systemic sexism.

UPDATE 12/6/17: When I wrote this piece, the number of women accusing Franken were two. Now, the number is eight. While I am still waiting for Republican men to be held to the same standards we hold Democrats (the number of women who have spoken publicly about being sexually assaulted by Donald Trump is now 20), I want to repeat that sexual harassment is never OK, and that ALL who harass and assault should be held accountable while we simultaneously respond to sexism in our culture as a systemic issue. Holding men accountable is step one, and Franken, Trump, and every other man who sexually assaults others should, without question, be held accountable.

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Take a Knee, Puerto Rico, and Patriotic Hypocrisy

By now, everyone has heard of Donald Trump’s feuds with the NFL and the NBA. Donald chose to attack professional athletes this past weekend while displaying a total lack of concern about the utter devastation in Puerto Rico from the most catastrophic weather event that has ever occurred on US soil. Does Donald even know Puerto Rico is a US territory? Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa are all US territories– they all pay American taxes but do not have representation in Congress. Washington DC (which has a majority Black population) also has no actual representation in Congress; they have a non-voting representative, and Congress can overturn any law the people there pass. Washington DC and the US territories are suffering under taxation without representation.

Americans are extremely fond of performing their patriotism. “Taxation without representation,” the evil that sparked the American Revolution, is taught to every American schoolchild. This evil the British crown committed upon us caused us to take up arms and fight for our independence. 1776, BABY! PATRIOTISM! THESE COLORS DON’T RUN!

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One of the first images that popped up when I did a google image search for “patriotism”

White Americans love to make a big show about our patriotism. We valorize the protest action called the “Boston Tea Party,” in which the goods of a private business (The East India Company) were destroyed in the night by Americans disguised as Mohawk warriors as a protest against taxation without representation. Today, Americans hold up “taxation without representation” as the ultimate evil that gave birth to our “great American representational democracy.”

Yet we are content to be hypocritical in our treatment both of political protesters and of US territories. Taxation without representation was oppressive enough to go to war; it was considered “tyranny.” We all but worship that war while committing precisely the same “tyranny” today. Puerto Rico has twice voted (2012 and 2017) in favor of becoming a US State. Congress would have to ratify that vote to make Puerto Rico a state, and they have done nothing. Why do we see “taxation without representation” as a nearly holy cause, a cause that was worth fighting our own (at the time) government, but see the taxation without representation we impose on Washington DC and US territories as our right?

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In 1776,  there were an estimated 500,000 African slaves on our soil who were deliberately shut out of the rights Americans demanded for themselves. Those slaves then went on to build a massive portion of the wealth of this nation, enjoying exactly none of it. The slaves and their descendants were denied equal rights in the US for many generations to come. While white Americans saluted the flag and wept about the freedom it represented to them, our very laws denied Black Americans basic human rights well into the 20th century, and, long after (most of) those laws were struck from the books, are still denied equal treatment in application of our laws and in innumerable other ways for which there is a mountain of hard statistical evidence. It is undeniable that there is systemic racism in our country in 2017, although racists do, of course, deny it.

Colin Kaepernick, at the time playing for the San Francisco 49ers, first sat during the national anthem as a protest against racism and police brutality, which overwhelmingly targets people of color. Refusing to stand for the national anthem points specifically to American hypocrisy, to Americans who weep over freedoms they refuse to give to others– freedoms like “justice for all” or “freedom from taxation without representation.”

Despite Kaepernick’s justified grievance against that hypocrisy,  after speaking to former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk Nate Boyer, Kaepernick decided to kneel instead, in order to show respect to the national anthem and veterans while still getting his point across. It was an elegant, quiet, peaceful, non-disruptive protest, precisely what white people always say they want.

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Colin Kaepernick and every other professional, college, and high school athlete taking a knee during the national anthem aren’t sneaking out in the night to destroy private property like the Boston Tea Party’s “Sons of Liberty.” The Sons of Liberty disguised themselves in order to destroy private property as a protest action, precisely like today’s antifa black bloc protesters who cover their faces and destroy property as a protest action. Black athletes and their allies (including many veterans of all races) are just kneeling quietly. Yet white people are furious.

That people are claiming to be upset about disrespecting the flag is preposterous. People violate the flag code regularly without controversy, so it’s just not possible that their furious anger can come from “disrespect for the flag.” Here are some items from the flag code, Article 176, “Respect for the Flag.”

(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.

(h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.

(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.

Nor is their furious anger about the national anthem. The athletes aren’t booing it. They’re not blasting competing music. They are respectfully and quietly kneeling.

The Star-Spangled Banner has only been our national anthem since 1931. NFL players weren’t required to stand on the sidelines during the national anthem until the Obama Administration. If Tim Tebow knelt in prayer during the national anthem, no one would say a word. The problem is not “disrespecting the flag.” The problem is Black dissent. No matter what kind of peaceful protest Black people choose, white people are right there to tell them to get back in line.

The President of the United States claimed that white supremacist protesters marching under literal Nazi banners contained some “very fine people,” and then called NFL players who take a knee during the national anthem “sons of bitches.” This is obvious, open racism, and there are millions of Americans who applaud it.

Millions of Americans see no problem with demanding respect from Black people for a national anthem whose third verse mentions “no refuge for the slave” but “the gloom of the grave.” Millions of Americans see no problem with demanding respect for a national anthem that celebrates freedoms they routinely deny others. Millions of Americans see no problem with taxation without representation for majority non-white populations but hold as nearly holy the idea that taxation without representation was “tyranny” for white people.

What would this nation be like if we actually believed in the freedom, liberty, and justice for all that symbols like the flag are supposed to represent? What would this nation be like if we were as concerned about working towards justice for all  as we are about reverence for a re-written English drinking song and a brightly colored piece of cloth? What would this nation be like if white people were as furious about racism as we are about Black men quietly kneeling?

Click here to learn more about how you can support Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts. Click here to learn more about Puerto Rico statehood. Click here to learn more about the Take a Knee protest. 

 

 

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Stop Telling Me to Watch Stranger Things

This post is full of spoilers, so be forewarned.
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I know I’m late to this party, but the ongoing cult status of the Netflix Original series Stranger Things  (written and directed by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer) inspires men to tell me, a D&D playing, scifi loving nerd, that I would LOVE IT OMG WHY HAVEN’T YOU WATCHED IT all the time. So I did. I watched the whole thing. I wanted to love it. I hoped I would love it. That hope ran aground on Stranger Things‘ predictable sexism.
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The male characters are lovingly crafted and fully detailed. The main hero is a paunchy small town cop whose life is a mess, and not a glamorous mess in the way this trope usually goes. He does save that particular day, but he’s morally suspect and almost certainly colluding with The Bad Guys in some way. His younger narrative counterpart, the teen hero, is an outcast with few social skills and a tendency to stalk pretty girls, yet is still framed as one of the most courageous people in the series. The meganerdy science teacher is one of the best-drawn characters in the whole thing, framed as bighearted, brilliant, and charmingly clueless.  The three main boys are all D&D nerds. One of the actors, Gaten Matarazzo, has a disability, and his character, Dustin, of course has the same disability. This is a massive step forward in casting and something that should be openly lauded, as the disability isn’t presented as “inspirational” disability porn but as just one aspect of his character. The male characters are all interesting and specific.
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Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin.

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The women, however, are generic sexist tropes yet they are continually held up as “strong women,” even “trope-busters.”
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The main female characters are the Distraught Mother (Joyce), the Pretty Young Girl (Nancy), the PYG’s Less Pretty Sidekick (Barb), and the Extraordinary Woman– in this case, an eleven-year-old girl with telekinetic powers, named, irritatingly, Eleven. Without describing anything else about them, and without having seen the series, you can predict how these characters are portrayed and what happens to all of them. The character that pushed me over the edge, however, was the Extraordinary Woman, a type I can no longer stomach.
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Young Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things. She did a fantastic job portraying this character, making her one of the most interesting characters in the series.

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The Extraordinary Woman is a character type who breaks rules and has some kind of extraordinary qualities or extraordinary power. When an Extraordinary Woman is introduced, the Narrative Sexism Clock beings its countdown to her destruction. She is either subsumed within a more ordinary role (she loses her powers, forgetting everything; her narrative is detoured into a romance; she regrets having powers because all she ever wanted was a baby) or she is removed from the narrative entirely, dying or disappearing. Very often, she sacrifices her powers to marry an ordinary man, or she sacrifices her life so that the ordinary male character(s) can live.
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I have watched and read precisely infinity narratives featuring the Extraordinary Woman. From Charlotte’s Web when I was 8 to Stranger Things a few months ago, I have been watching my culture tell me over and over that the best happy ending I can ever hope for is propping up a mediocre white man, and if I reach for extraordinary, I’ll be sacrificed. The most tedious response to this is “Eleven might still be alive.” It reminds me of a class I was in when Thelma and Louise first came out in 1991, wherein I made the very same critique I’m making here. A male classmate responded to me, “You don’t know what happened to them. The car could have gone up.”
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Eleven, kidnapped as a baby and raised in a lab, is the subject of torturous experiments, and is relentlessly pursued by a shadowy government agency when she escapes, yet after her disappearance, no one in the town seems interested in her well-being or current whereabouts, despite the fact that she has living family.

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Eleven sacrificed herself to save the boys whether the men who wrote her decide to bring her back to make more money killing her again or not. Everyone got a happy ending but Eleven. Even if she’s alive, where is she? How is she surviving? She’s a little girl with telekinetic powers, the use of which weaken her considerably (of course), not Bear Grylls. She’s treated like a stray dog. The cop leaves food for her out in the woods at the end as a narrative device to imply that she might yet be alive although we watched her sacrifice herself a few scenes earlier. If the cop thinks she might be alive out in the woods, why isn’t he launching an all-out search for her like they did for the lost little boy?
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Eleven exists solely as a plot device. She is almost entirely mute (because of course she is). She has no needs or desires that anyone cares about. Her safety is ignored at all times. When she disappears in her final burst of power, the entire town shrugs its shoulders. Oh well! Is she dead? Is she in the Upside Down? Who knows! We’ll leave some frozen waffles in a box in the woods just in case. A little boy goes missing and the entire area goes on a massive search for him, but Eleven (and Barb, for that matter) are treated as if their disappearances are about as serious as losing an earring.
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Barb is engagingly played by Shannon Purser, whose performance has inspired a cult following for a character that only appeared in a few scenes.

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Every woman in Stranger Things conforms to a specific sexist trope. Barb is the less pretty friend, so she dies simply to raise the stakes, her death treated as otherwise unimportant. Even her supposed best friend, Nancy, rarely mentions her after a certain point. Nancy herself is a box standard Pretty Girl Gets Tough in Dire Circumstances, immediately recuperated into her relationship with the douchey popular boy at the end. I will hand it to the writers for not pairing her with the antisocial stalker boy, although she forgives him with a smile for taking stalkery pictures of her because the writers are men. But the douchey popular boy is no better. Did it ever occur to the writers that she would be better off without either of these jerks? That she might be remembering Barb in her final onscreen moments? Probably not, because without that recuperation back into a relationship with a man, reflecting the only happy ending possible for women written by mediocre men, Nancy veers dangerously close to an Extraordinary Woman. For Pretty Girl Gets Tough in Dire Circumstances, she can either be shunted back into a “normal” female role (mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter) or die for becoming too extraordinary.
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The mother, who insists her missing son is still alive, is called “crazy” and portrayed as unrelentingly hysterical. When she’s finally proven right, it’s glancingly acknowledged while she’s immediately pushed into the narrative background. She’s literally behind the man when they go into the Upside Down to save her son. We’re at one of the most important climaxes of the series– a moment that vindicates everything the mother has been saying– and she is almost entirely ignored as the scene focuses on the cop’s experience, the cop’s memories, the cop’s heroism. The mother is terrified and nearly panicking, barely holding it together, instead of marching in there, buoyed by her vindication and determined to get her child. Instead she cowers behind a man while we see his memories of characters we’ve never met. It’s weak writing, but it apparently never occurred to the male writers that the emotional center of the scene should be the woman.
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Joyce, played by Winona Ryder, should have been the Big Damn Hero.

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There wasn’t a single plot point I couldn’t see coming from a mile away. That’s not always a bad thing, but in this case, the series was structured as if every plot point was a huge SURPRISING REVEAL and spent far too much time building and building and building to a PLOT TWIST that was already obvious. I was dreading the death of Eleven from the moment she was introduced. I KNEW. How could I not? This is always what mediocre men imagine for extraordinary women.
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I’m not mad that you like Stranger Things, even though we both know the women in the series deserve much better than the writers gave them. Many of you forgive Stranger Things its sexism and obviousness due to the nostalgia factor. And that’s truly fine. But I do not want to watch yet another show where women die to raise the stakes, where a box standard Pretty Girl Gets Tough is considered an achievement, where a woman who is right is called “crazy” and then when proven right, acknowledged with a few quick lines as she’s forced back in the narrative behind the man. I never want to watch another show where the extraordinary woman sacrifices herself at the end to save ordinary men. Never.

 

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