Category Archives: Film

A Memo to Gatekeepers Regarding Whiteness

Bitter Gertrude is thrilled to host our first guest blogger ever, the brilliant Ming Peiffer! 

 

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Dear People In Positions Of Power,

When you decide to NOT produce a white artist’s work do NOT tell them it’s because they are white.

Using POC as scapegoats for why you can’t program a white artist’s work not only devalues the POC work you are (finally) giving a chance to see the light of day, BUT it also absolves you of your responsibility and complicity in creating an unfair media world that portrays the world as white and not how it actually is. You’re basically saying, “Normally this would be given to a white person but look where we are! We just can’t! Maybe the pendulum will swing back next season!” And you’re not paying attention to the fact that it “normally going to white person” is not normal at all. And is a prime example of systemic racism and systematic erasure of POC and “Other” voices. (It also signals to me that somewhere you believe this is a passing fad instead of real institutional change you are embedding.)

Moreover, it’s re-enforcing the false narrative that whites are not succeeding right now. C’mon. Look at the TV. Look at your seasons. Look at the rest of the country. Look at the president.

White people are doing fine.

It is certainly easier to blame a faceless POC than hurting the feelings of a white artist you have a relationship with but y’all need to pony up and take responsibility for the necessary and commendable changes you ARE making in your programming and explain to them that your definition of “worthy” work has expanded and that their work simply did not make the “worthy” list this year. And that your previous definition of “worthy” was racist. Was white.

DO NOT MAKE IT SEEM AS THOUGH DECISIONS WERE NOT RACE-BASED BEFORE.

They were race-based before, you just couldn’t see it.

Do the work people in power. You might have to have some hard conversations and disappoint some of your friends but it’s better than creating more animosity towards POC and spreading an abhorrently false narrative that their whiteness is what’s keeping them from success.

It’s hard to be honest but it will be worth it and everyone will make better work because of it.

 

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Ming Peiffer is a playwright, screenwriter, and activist from Columbus, Ohio. Her play USUAL GIRLS will be produced at the Roundabout Underground as part of their 2018/19 Season. Her work has been developed and/or presented by New York Theatre Workshop, Roundabout Theatre Company, The Kennedy Center, Ensemble Studio Theater, HERE Arts Center, The Flea, The Wild Project, New Ohio, Soho Playhouse, The Gene Frankel Theater, C.O.W., Theater for the New City, FringeNYC, Horsetrade Theater, Yangtze Repertory, among others. Awards/Fellowships include: NYTW 2050 Fellowship, The Kennedy Center’s Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award Recipient (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), The Relentless Award Honorable Mention (USUAL GIRLS), The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center NPC Finalist (USUAL GIRLS), Playwright’s Realm Fellowship Semi-Finalist, Princess Grace Award Semi-Finalist (i wrote on ur wall and now i regret it), Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award Finalist. In TV/Film, Ming has been a staff writer at Netflix and Hulu, and is currently developing her own series with Color Force and F/X. Additionally, she is adapting Weike Wang’s “CHEMISTRY” into a film for Amazon and a comic book into a series for AMC.

More about Ming Peiffer here

(Top image courtesy of Creative Commons license CC.BY.3.0; bottom image provided by author)
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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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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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“Why Do You Have to Make Everything Political?”

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Quote from the artist Ai Weiwei (source: @aiweiwei_art)

“Why do you have to make everything political?” This is a common question my fellow white people like to ask when someone offers a cultural critique of a popular musical, film, video game, or TV show. “It’s not political! It’s just a cute story about a boy and his dog (or whatever)!”

All theatre is political theatre. All films are political films. All games are political games. All TV shows are political TV shows. Let’s break this down.

What does it mean for something to be “political?” Let’s start with the obvious: the dictionary definition is useless for navigating complex social issues. Dictionaries are written by people, not by Lexica, Infallible Goddess of Language, and are updated all the time as usage changes. Dictionaries are vital and have important uses, none of which include wielding a dictionary definition as a sword to demarcate the limits of a complex social issue. I love you, dictionaries, but for this, I need to set you aside and dig deeper. I need to look at context.

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Lexica has better things to do than write your dictionaries, mortals (photo: ela-e-ele.com)

When people say “Why do you have to make everything political?’ they’re using “political” to refer to the social messaging that’s inherent in any work about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, size, class, religious minorities, etc. Let’s cut to the chase: They mean, “I do not wish to examine the ways in which this work depicts and/or impacts marginalized people in our culture.”

All plays, films, games, and TV shows are political because they are about people in relationship to each other and to their social context, and because they are created within a social context, not in a vacuum where symbols and metaphors are wiped clean of all meaning. All works contain messages about privilege, about marginalized people, about who is important and who is not, about who we should take seriously and who we should laugh at, about which issues facing our culture are serious and which are easily dismissable or even comical. Social messaging is inescapable in the narrative-based work of theatre, film, video games, and television, whether you choose to examine it or ignore it.

In order to ignore the social messaging in a work, you have to be able to ignore it and willing to ignore it.

A film that people consider “universal” and “apolitical” is a film that neatly and seamlessly reinforces dominant culture and privilege. People with privilege see depictions of that privilege as “normal,” “wholesome,” and “apolitical” in ways that it’s impossible for people without that privilege to do. There is no “apolitical” work; there is only work that reflects the world view of cultural privilege back to those with cultural privilege, who see that as “normal” and unmarked by any particular political point of view. Those without that privilege hear the political messaging loud and clear.

Is the Harry Potter series “apolitical”? Why was the character Lavender Brown cast with a Black actor in every film, then recast with a white actor when the character became Ron Weasley’s girlfriend? People make all sorts of excuses for that (“They had to recast when the part had lines and they just happened to cast a white actor”), but I have 20+ years experience in casting, and I know that excuse is nonsense. More importantly, the casting of a tiny character might seem like a minor detail for white people, but you aren’t the young Black girl in the audience picking out the few Black faces in a film series that you love, only to see her replaced by a white girl when she finally becomes part of the main story.

Why do people claim that Disney films have recently “become political,” decrying the supposed “liberal messaging” in films like Zootopia, Frozen, and Mulan, but are just fine with the sexist messaging of older princess films (“Your happy ending is to marry some dude; no other plans or ambitions you have matter enough to mention”). Little Mermaid is considered “apolitical” but contains an uber-sexist narrative where a young woman must remain silent in order to “win her man,” and the “happy ending” is leaving her home, family, culture, and entire lower half of her body behind to be some douchebag’s wife. That is obvious political messaging, but messaging that supports the male cultural privilege we consider “normal,” so we don’t read it as such.

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Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher at Star Wars Celebration in 2015. (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Was Star Wars truly apolitical before The Force Awakens‘ Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) sparked male outrage about “feminism taking over Star Wars“? Because I seem to recall mainstream filmmaking’s first self-rescuing princess (played by the late great glorious giver of no fucks, Carrie Fisher) grabbing the blaster out of Luke’s hand, flatly stating “Somebody has to save our skins,” and ordering Han Solo “into the garbage chute, flyboy,” then killing Jabba her damn self with the chain he used to enslave her as a bikini-wearing sex doll. Yet the original trilogy centered around a straight white male, Luke, so the films still read as “normal” and “apolitical” to white men, despite many young women reading that message loud and clear. But it was the 70s and early 80s, so, despite the obvious feminism baked into the character of Leia, her strength could be read as just another part of her allure to men as she was detoured into a romance with Han Solo and stuffed into an objectifying gold bikini. (“Keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley.) Rey and Jyn are standing on the ground that Leia broke. Neither one is detoured into a romance or forced into a bikini (so far, at least), so there’s no way to silo them into the archetype “Hero’s Girl,” making the internet’s various fuckboys very angry while most men were, evidently, thrilled by both films.

“Why do you have to make everything political?” comes in various specific flavors, one of the more popular being “Why do you have to make everything about race?” The same principles hold; race is an aspect of every social encounter and every work of art is created within a specific cultural context– films are created by specific people, not found on the forest floor during JJ Abrams’ morning constitutional.

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“Holy shit, dude! Is that Episode 8?!” (source: nonabrooklyn.com)

If you are white in the US, chances are watching an all-white film does not register to you as “political,” but people of color will notice they have been completely left out. White people react with anger upon the release of a single Black-centric superhero film yet see no problem with the dozens of superhero films that leave out people of color or relegate them to minor roles. Those nearly all-white films did not register as anything but a realistic depiction of the “normal” world to those white people, yet the Black world of Black Panther– the fictional African nation of Wakanda– is “too Black” and therefore “too militant.” The trailer is typical superhero film fare, just with Black actors as the heroes. See for yourself:

It’s impossible to imagine what is “militant” about that trailer unless you believe every other superhero film is “militant.” It’s impossible to say that a film with Black leads is “too Black” unless you see the world as normally white, unless you see heroes as normally and naturally white.

“Why do you have to make everything about race?” Because WE make everything about race by creating, spreading, and aggressively protecting the racist idea that “white” is the world’s normal, default setting, and that anything else is special, distinctive, and added to a white world by white benevolence. When a box standard superhero film that runs on the same kind of ass-kicking imagery every other action film runs on is scary and “militant” because the good guys are Black, you are making it about race. People of color think about race all the time because of the shitty, racist ways we treat them, not because they had some secret meeting one day in 1953 and decided to invent identity politics to vex us.

I’m not here to snottily insist that “your fave is problematic.” I am right there with you. My faves are problematic. But instead of getting defensive, we need to be realistic about the ways in which media carries narrative and shapes our culture. No one is proposing detonating every existing copy of the original Ghostbusters or melting every copy of GTA into a gigantic plastic statue of The Spirit of Feminism. What I am proposing is that we be realistic about the impact that the works we consume and create have on marginalized people, that we listen to marginalized people when they talk about this rather than get defensive and argue, that we commit to getting better at this the way all artists are already committed to getting better at our art in every other way.

Tl;dr: “Why do you have to make everything political?” “Why do you have to make everything about race?” It already is. We’re just pointing it out. Don’t blame the person pointing at the pothole for the pothole’s existence. Instead, let’s work together on building better roads.

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Do Black Lives Matter at Your Theatre? In Your Films?

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Philando Castile in a yearbook photo. He worked as a nutrition services assistant for the Saint Paul Public School District.

I had intended to write about the Philando Castile verdict. Philando Castile was murdered because an officer claims he believed Castile was reaching for his gun when he was reaching for his ID as instructed. That officer walked free. Had Castile been white, I believe that officer would have heard and believed him when he said he was reaching for his ID, and my plan was to write about the narratives we put into the culture that created the officer’s belief that Castile was dangerous.

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Charleena Lyles, in a photo released by her family.

Before I could even sit down to write the piece, Charleena Lyles was killed, and Seattle police responded by issuing a statement bragging about their “deescalation training,” as if to say, “We tried deescalating, but it didn’t work! We simply had to shoot and kill a tiny pregnant woman holding a knife. We were scared for our lives!” Yet somehow, when it’s a white woman with a knife– or a GUN– officers aren’t scared at all. Billings, Montana. Chattanooga, Tennessee. What creates that difference?

Radicalized white men are one of the most violent groups in the US, yet violent white men are routinely deescalated. Take a look at this photo AP released, taken at a white supremacist rally in 2015:

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A protester confronted a man– a man at a white supremacist rally celebrating the Confederate flag, so basically a hotbed of radicalized white men– and the white supremacist reaches for his gun. The officer’s reaction? Look at his face. He seems to be saying, “Whoa there, buddy. Calm down, sir.” The officer clearly believes the white supremacist poses no immediate danger. A white man literally reaching for a gun does not alarm an officer, but a Black man reaching for a wallet does. What creates that difference?

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Tamir Rice in a family photo taken shortly before his death.

Tamir Rice— a child with a toy gun in a park near a youth rec center– was gunned down by an officer within two seconds of police rolling up. Two seconds. The officers did not take any time whatsoever to find out what was going on, let alone deescalate. It’s pretty hard to be an active shooter when your gun is a toy, and Ohio is an open carry state, so he had every right to hold a gun in public. Then those officers let this child bleed out on the ground while they chit-chatted and waited for the ambulance instead of providing the medical assistance that could have saved his life. Those officers walked free without even so much as a trial, even though the entire incident was videotaped. The person who called 911 told the dispatcher that the gun was likely a toy and that Tamir was likely a juvenile, but as soon as the dispatcher heard “Black male,” she categorized it as an “active shooter” and gave it the highest priority code. Why did the dispatcher automatically assumed “Black male” meant “DANGER,” and why did the officer gun down a child in cold blood before even taking a second to assess the situation? The answer is of course “racism,” but where does that racism come from?

Every time a Black person is shot by police, even when the Black person is unarmed, complying, has their hands in the air, or is just going about their business, the officers say they “feared for their lives.” Look again at the officer in the photo above apparently saying, “Whoa there, calm down, buddy” to the white supremacist. Why isn’t he fearing for his life? Why do officers routinely fear for their lives when faced with a Black person but so seldom fear for their lives when faced with a white person?

 

Our culture is saturated with the narrative “Black = DANGER.” As content creators and gatekeepers, white people used that narrative to justify slavery (stating that if slavery ended, former slaves would erupt in bloody uprisings and chaos), and after the passing of the 13th Amendment, which limited slavery to convicted criminals, we use it to justify the mass incarceration of Black people. We flood our culture with these narratives, either through the content we create or through the content we choose to produce. It is one thing when a Black person writes a song that speaks the truth of the violence in their own lives. It is entirely another when a white gatekeeper gets wealthy by producing only songs that depict Black men as dangerous. White people have profited both culturally and financially from the brutalization and murder of Black bodies for centuries, and we have created and carefully maintained a narrative superstructure to justify it.

It takes one generation growing up with a narrative trope to see that narrative trope as “natural.” Spinning out from the narrative trope “Black = DANGER” are the racist cultural notions that Black people are tougher and do not feel pain like we do; Black people commit more crimes; Black people ruin property values; Black fathers abandon their children. Our culture is saturated with these slanders, and they are quite literally killing people.

When a police officer makes a split second decision whether to fire his weapon or to say, “Whoa, there buddy,” he has to deal with a lifetime of inundation with the trope “Black = DANGER,” as well as a lifetime of inundation with the trope “white people are basically OK,” which not only dictates how Caucasian-appearing people are treated but also fuels white resistance to our complicity– all our complicity– in the systems of oppression that maintain white supremacy.

My fellow purveyors of narrative, we can either work intentionally to disrupt these tropes or we can work to reinforce white supremacy. There is no in between.

When Tim Burton cast his film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, he cast all the roles with white people except the villain, who was Black. There was an outcry, and the predictable fragile white reaction– “It’s just a movie,” “He should have artistic freedom.” Of course he has artistic freedom. We all do. But don’t we also have a responsibility to understand and control the messaging we put out in the culture? We vet our work in every other way, so what makes race different?

We can actively fight white supremacy with the narratives we put into the culture, or we can continue to be complicit in creating the culture that leads to the deaths of people like Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and so, so, so many others. It’s not enough to just cast Black artists and produce Black work (although that is an excellent start). White supremacy itself needs to be pulled up from the roots because we are hurting all people of color.

Native American people are murdered by police at an even higher rate than Black people (as a whole; Black men 15-34 are killed at the highest rate), a direct result of the centuries of dehumanizing stereotypes we put out specifically to ease our consciences about treating Native American people like vermin to be exterminated or expelled, like savages to be civilized, like magic spiritual conduits that exist for the benefit of white people. From Moby Dick to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the trope “I exist to take white people on a journey TO THEMSELVES,” centering white people in Native lives, has permeated our culture. And in the case of TNG, it pains me to relate, the Native character below (from the 1994 episode “Journey’s End”) was a white guy in disguise all along! The white actor playing The Traveler (Eric Menyuk) soon replaces the First Nations actor, Tom Jackson. This example is the ultimate in cultural appropriation– a white dude appropriates a Native body and Native culture to bring another white dude spiritual enlightenment, then they both abandon the Native village in peril, because it’s “not their fight.” I love you, TNG, but this was egregious, even for 1994.

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Shut up, Wesley

The dehumanizing tropes we create and disseminate through our plays, films, TV shows, video games, books, web series, music videos, fiction, and nonfiction are quite literally getting people killed. I wrote this earlier, for my article about Tim Burton, and it still applies:

When we talk about police “retraining,” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives – which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before Black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better.

Narrative is the most effective way to create cultural shifts, which is why it’s the favorite tool of politicians. Our narrative-based industries are the biggest bats and loudest loudspeakers in our culture. We are numerous and powerful. All we have to do is agree to approach our work with intentionality.

Examine what messages your work puts out into the culture, both in its processes and its product. Who are you hiring? Who are you casting? What stories are you telling, and how? Whose work are you choosing to support?

We examine our products and our processes in every other way. We always create with intentionality, so adding “examine messaging about race (and gender, ability, etc)” isn’t burdensome. We have the power to change the culture; in fact, nothing else has ever done it. Every cultural movement, for good or for ill, had a master narrative at the back of it, created by artists and writers. Examine the master narratives behind the work you produce, because they’re there, whether you examine them or not.

 

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Eleven Tropes I No Longer Have Time For

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photo by Tom Hilton

1. The adults keep brushing it off, but a group of boys (plus one underdeveloped female character who has 14 lines total) know better! It’s up to Our Young Heroes Who Are Mostly White to make the adults realize something’s really going on, and save the day while they’re at it! LOL, stupid adults.
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2. Because we’re SO NOT RACIST, the judge, the doctor, and the president are all Black men, but every other character is white, and those three guys have a combined total of 9 lines. But look! THE JUDGE IS BLACK. See? That’s good, right? Right?
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3. The only Black woman is Sassy Store Clerk With Two Lines who unknowingly imparts wisdom even though she is framed as uneducated and basically worthless compared to Our White Hero, yet because Our White Hero listens to her advice (despite its wacky Black vernacular! LOL!) we’re so not racist! She could be a maid, a prostitute, or maybe, if she’s lucky, an office underling! (Repeat as necessary for every other version of the Magical Person of Color, LGBTQ person, and Person With Disabilities.)
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4. Sure, she’s tough (and also sexy-deadly), but under that tough, sexy-deadly exterior is a REAL WOMAN just ACHING to mother a child. IT SECRETLY DRIVES HER. “She is human after all,” thinks Our Hero, as he watches her display the one emotion she will ever display in the entirety of the piece. “She may be a highly trained, sexy-deadly killing machine who dedicated her life to her career, but all she REALLY wants is a baby.”
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5. Black people yearn to be accepted by white people. IT IS THEIR EVERYTHING. Thanks to Our White Hero, it can happen!
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6. It’s a caper! The characters are Our Hero (white male), Crazypants (white male), The Handsome Scoundrel (white male), Toughest Guy (token Black dude), and Nerd Expert (white male). Introduced later in the film: The Girl, whose character is “boobs.” But we’re TOTALLY NOT SEXIST, because she has a skill! It’s MASTER OF DISGUISE! So she can put on revealing outfits and sneak the guys into the building by distracting the guards with boners!
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7. People with diseases are HUMAN PEOPLE who have love and maybe even sex, but die at the end so Our Hero can learn something about Life.
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8. “Just give him a chance!” This is the entire film until she relinquishes access to her vagina.
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9. He’s such a COOL DUDE that he has TWO WOMEN who are attached to his arms as decorative objects. He has SO MUCH PENIS it merits TWO saucy lady persons whose tragic brain injuries have resulted in a lack of all communication but giggling. Masculinity is measured by how many saucy lady persons attach themselves to you like jewelry for your strolls and party posing behaviors.
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10. The White Guys Plus One Black Dude are on a caper or Important Mission™! But one dude’s girlfriend keeps calling, wanting to know where he is and what’s going on! LOL! Stupid lady person! Better lie to her and say “Nothing, honey! Don’t you worry about it!” “But I hear gunfire in the back—” “EVERYTHING’S FINE!” Then his cool awesome guy friends throw that cellphone out the window! That’ll show her for not staying in her place!
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11. LOL! Fat people want love and sex! Haha, Our Hero has one ACTUALLY TALKING TO HIM right now! LOOK, SHE THINKS SHE’S PEOPLE!
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The Bechdel Test and White Feminism

I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”

This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.

First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.

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Alison Bechdel. Source: Out Magazine.

The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.

The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.

And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.

Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.

The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.

If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.

We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.

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Kamal Angelo Bolden as Chad Deity in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in the Victory Gardens/Teatro Vista co-pro in Chicago, 2009. Photo: Chicago Theater Beat

We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.

To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad DeityThe Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.

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Mason Lee in the Off Broadway production of The Year Zero, 2010. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.

I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.

We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.

Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.

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not how it works

You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.

There’s no test.

Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.

Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.

 

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“Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use To Defend The Indefensible

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“Leap into the Void,” Yves Klein (photographed by Harry Shunk), 1960

When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”

The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. 

The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.

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Subtle. 

This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.

The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.

The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.

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Land that I love. (Source: berkeley.edu)

So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist?  We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.

That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.

This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.

Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.

This is, of course, bunk.

For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the  church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.

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Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production. 

There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)

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Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3, who lost his husband to a Collector attack.

While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.

There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”

For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside  all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.

Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.

There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.

 

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