Posts tagged gender
I’ve been both ill and snowed-in this week. Therefore, I’ve seen a few movies of late. Here are some short thoughts.
Blue State ( 2007 ) Breckin Meyer is Bleeding Heart Liberal John, who promises on TV that he’ll move to Canada if Kerry loses the 2004 election. He is joined by Anna Paquin as the cute but guarded Chloe. John is more than a bit preachy, but luckily Meyer carries it off well — he’s annoying about his views, but in the disbelieving desperate way, that gets explained well throughout the film, and it captures the disbelief and despair of the time. Anna Paquin plays cute but world-weary rather than falling into a Garden State-esque Manic Pixie Dream Girl role which is so common for romantic comedies.
100 Girls ( 2000 ) — Tries to examine the conflicting cultural factors surrounding gender in a feminist age, dating, and love. College freshman Matthew (Jonathan Tucker) is trapped in a dark elevator of a girl’s dormitory and meets/sleeps with the ‘love of his life.’ In the morning, he is left with only a piece of her underwear. Matthew spends the year trying to re-connect with the girl, learning and discussing with the camera topics like feminism, masculinity, gender, dating and love. The discussions of gender and love make this more of a meta-romantic comedy, examining the process and the biases as the story plays out. The end product is laudable for its effort if not the execution.
Kung Fu Panda ( 2008 ) Jack Black is the voice of Po, a panda who has grown up on legends of kung fu, but is stuck working at the family soup restaurant. Meanwhile, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) eagerly awaits the appointing of the Dragon Warrior, a prophesied hero who will be entrusted with the ultimate kung fu secret. His students, the Furious Five (Tigress, Monkey, Viper, Mantis, Crane–the five animals of five animal kung-fu) vie for the honor and the burden of the role. When Po is revealed as the Dragon Warrior, Po learns the difficult truth of Kung Fu and the other martial artists re-think their preconceptions as Tai Lung (former disciple of Shifu) escapes his prison and returns for vengence and the Dragon Scroll. Kung Fu Panda is a rare film that succeeds as both an Anthropomorphic Animal Comedy and a Kung Fu Movie. Black is more lovable than annoying, and the moral lessons throughout are clear but not annoying. An unexpected gem of a film.
The Dark Knight ( 2008 ) Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman returns as Batman (Christopher Bale) is trapped in an escalating conflict between the Joker (Heath Ledger) and White Knight District Attourney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckart)–who is dating Bruce’s former beau Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Dark and tense, emotional and psychological, Ledger and Nolan give us one of the all-time most compelling versions of The Joker. The Joker, Dent, and Batman pull and push one another, vying for the fate and soul of Gotham. One of the best films of the year, and one of the best if not the best superhero film of the decade.
Smart People ( 2008 ) Dennis Quaid is Professor Lawrence Wetherhold, curmudgeonly widower English professor at CMU. Ellen Page (of Juno fame) is his too-perfect teenage daughter Vanessa. Balancing out these two is Thomas Haden Church as Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck. Chuck tries to lighten his family up, while Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of Wetherhold’s, tentatively makes advances. Lawrence and Janet stumble through the early stages of romance while Chuck’s efforts to get Vanessa to loosen up escalate beyond his intent. A contemplative study of people smart enough to be idiotic around other people and the more ‘normal’ people who love them.
Wristcutters: A Love Story ( 2006 ) Surprisingly uplifting for a story about the limbo-world where suicides go to live out some kind of purgatorial life. Patrick Fugit is Zia, who kills himself after being dumped by his beloved Desiree (Leslie Bibb). Zia is joined by his fellow suicide Eugene on a cross-country quest for Desiree, who Zia learns has ‘offed’ as well. They are joined by Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who would be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if the suicide-world weren’t one completely bereft of smiles. A stealth/slipstream speculative fiction story about depression, suicide, and finding hope in the depth of darkness.
Gray Matters ( 2006 ) A Coming-Out story wrapped in a Romantic Comedy. Sam and Gray Baldwin (Tom Cavanagh and Heather Graham) are a joined-at the hip duo, actually brother and sister. When they make efforts to find love and distinct lives, Sam meets Charlie and the two have a whirlwind romance that goes from meeting to betrothal in one date. Gray and Charlie get on swimmingly as well–too well in fact, as Gray realizes she’s fallen in love with Charlie as well. The Romantic Comedy between Sam and Charlie is really just the inciting incident for Gray’s own story of self-discovery, as she comes out to herself and then her family, learning to find the balance between maintaining her close relationship with her brother but also searching for love on her own. More than a little cheesy, and mostly un-nuanced in its depiction of lesbianism, but it is one of many small steps towards normalizing GLBTQ culture in the US — Gray’s homosexuality is never condemned, but accepted by her family, work, and therapist — the conflict for Gray is with her own doubt, and in the confusion and hurt feeling between her and her brother.
In the hopefully-not-too-distant future, I want to do a Ethnographic/Cultural Studies project on romantic comedies and how members of Gen X/Gen Y use/are effected by Romantic Comedies in how they approach/consider love, gender, and romance. This intention makes watching only-passable romantic comedies much easier/justifyable.
Written and directed by Michael Showalter, The Baxter is a romantic comedy about romantic comedies, where Showalter plays CPA Elliot Sherman, a decent but boring man who is doomed to be a “Baxter.”
Baxter n. “A good but dull man who is not the right partner for the female lead of a romantic comedy. The Baxter is left at the alter when the leading man makes the dramatic return to win over the leading lady.”
Elliot has been stuck as a Baxter several times over the course of his life, and spends the film trying to shake the Baxter curse. Showalter displays great familiarity with the genre conventions of the romantic comedy, employing several classic motifs with Elliot and company being more conscious of the narrative structure that they’re fitting into.
Elizabeth Banks plays Caroline Swan, Elliot’s latest romantic interest, whom he meets the same day as Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), who is hired as his temporary secretary. Justin Theroux rounds out the cast as Caroline’s old flame, Bradley Lake.
The plot is as predictable as any romantic comedy, and it’s this predictability which the film siezes on to set itself apart from the majority of the instances of the genre. The humor in the film is often understated, doesn’t go as far into slapstick as films like The Wedding Crashers or There’s Something About Mary, instead falling more into the Indy aesthetic of small moments with awkward but charming people.
The moral of the story is that the reason the Baxters get left behind for the romantic leads is bravery, the bravery/bravado/foolishness to do those big stupid romantic things like standing outside her house with a boom box, flying to Portugal to propose to her at work, doing a rain dance to make it rain, ask her to dance during the last song of the night, etc.
The Baxter urges us to take a chance, to put ourselves out there, to make the big romantic gesture. not necessarily because the gesture works on its own, but that spontenaity and the willingness to be vulnerable will be what puts you in the situations to fall in love and win someone’s heart.
But even a romantic comedy about romantic comedies is still fitting into a formula, as do other meta-romantic comedies like Hitch. The Baxter says that we can change our archetype within the romantic comedy structure, we cannot escape it completely. Sherman only gets his happy ending when he realizes that he’d been living the wrong role opposite the wrong leading lady — which is only enabled by having the ‘right’ leading lady in his life to be able to make that realization. Without the ‘meet cute,’ the story cannot get moving, the real romantic comedy cannot begin.
For the people still looking for the person who stars opposite them in the romantic comedy of their life, these stories serve as consolation. They are a cultural promise that says “Do not despair. The right person is out there, and when you meet the right person, whackiness may ensue but if you put yourself out there, the two of you will have your happily ever after.”
Is this ultimately a healthy message that these films send? Stories can be many things to many people — and for some they are consolation, for others passing entertainment, but they feed into a larger cultural mythology about how romance and relationships work.
We’re seeing more women in the protagonist romantic lead role of the genre, as the person who has to make the romantic gesture and put themselves out to get hurt or get what they want. Gender equity in whose responsibility it is to initiate a relationship goes part and parcel with third-wave feminism, but cultural forces haven’t just dropped away to allow this gender parity to take place — everyone has expectations influencing their decisions. Lingering double-standards position a sexually-agent male as a ‘go-getter, a virile man,’ while a sexually-passive male is ‘effeminite.’ But on the other hand, a sexually-agent female is a ‘loose woman’ while a sexually-passive female is ‘in her place,’ is being ‘proper.’
It’s good to have meta-narratives critiquing the assumptions of narrative genres, but when you engage a genre, you are often stuck feeding into the expectations of that genre or reacting against them. Finding the middle ground more akin to Jose Esteban Munoz’s notion of disidentification, where a critique can be made and self-definition be made manifest, that is much harder, but it’s the path that each of us live day by day, taking the narrative tropes and stories that make up the fabric of our cultural canon and working them in and out of our lives.
This application and analysis of narrative is a necessary part of being a functioning being in society, but like any crafts-person, the better the raw material we have to work with, the more effective tools we can make for understanding and confidently and successfully moving through life. What if more romantic comedies had strong elements of how-to videos, teaching body language, conversational techniques, and real-life appropriate methods for putting yourself in situations where you are more likely to meet people with whom to make a connection? All of this would of course have to be done under the aegis of entertainment so as to be more widely distributed and more appealing to people who want to find love but are for one or another reason unlikely to purchase or investigate ‘how to’ manuals for dating. This brings us back to aesthetics and the reasons why people seek out romantic comedies. Not everyone is looking for advice from them, but perhaps a few people could find it, given the right film/show/narrative to provide it.
Now I’m not saying that all romantic comedies should be didactic dating how-tos with a thin plot, but it’s important for creators to be aware of the cultural/psychological effect their narratives have on the way people experience and understand life. The stories available to us inform what we imagine as the range of possibilities in what has (and therefore can) be done. It’s the approach I try to take with my own work, and in my research, I plan to investigate that part of the creative process as well, setting aside ‘the author is dead’ in favor of ‘the author is very much alive’ — there’s a maxim in writing that says ‘write the novel that you want to read’ — we write for many reasons, and exorcising our demons or exploring psychological possibilties are among them.
Ethnography can go in a lot of directions, and one of the things I want to do with my career is to see how working with people at all levels and stages of the culture-making business in addition to audiences and those who take narratives and transform them to their own ends (fan-fiction, vidding, etc.) can lead to a greater overal understanding of the cultural process of making meaning and understanding the world.
There are a lot of things that media can do. It can inform, entertain, challenge, distract, instruct, condemn, rally, terrify, delight.
And of course, there are people in control of media distribution, company programming execs, network censors, etc.
Which means that sometimes, a show will come along to challenge our pre-conceptions and investigate difference, a show with the potential to display and normalize a valid but-often-misunderstood way of living and instead, it will get left out in the cold.
I can’t know for certain why Pretty/Handsome wasn’t picked up from its pilot (barring interviewing those who made the decision), but I can guess, and I can talk about what we could have had. Because even if the show doesn’t run, we have the pilot, and it’s enough for a good bit of discussion.
Pretty/Handsome is a pilot created by Nip/Tuck director and writer Ryan Murphy for FX. Hollywood pitch would be “American Beauty meets Transamerica.” It stars Joseph Fiennes as Bob Fitzpayne, a gynecologist with an affluent family, a beautiful dedicated wife (played by Carrie Anne-Moss), and two sons–a child genius and a nearly-college-aged lacrosse star.
Bob is also a transsexual, and his family doesn’t know. The main action of the show hinges on the growing tension of keeping this aspect of his life and personality secret from his family as he is faced with a challenge at work that brings issues of gender/sexual identity, community status and bigotry into the fore. Bob is presented with a FTM transsexual who needs a gynocologist to treat him for an unknown issue. The stir that having a male transsexual patient in a gynocology clinic in Small Town New England stands as the example of the social pressures and bigotry faced by trans people everyday. Bob’s wife Elizabeth is un-satisfied with her marital sex life, but is too committed to Bob and her family to leave. As she says in the pilot — “You can leave and be alone, or stay and be lonely” — she’s chosen the latter. Genius son Oliver is too precocious for his own good, combining hyper-intelligence with youthful curiosity and libido to get himself into trouble, while older brother Patrick’s future is threatened by a teen pregnancy and being ‘dragged down’ by a dead-end girlfriend (dead-end according to everyone but Patrick, of course).
In just a pilot episode, the show clearly sets the stakes of the interpersonal and sociological drama, and they are high. It’s intense the whole way through, jumping from dynamic to dynamic, but the leads are all compelling in their flaws, and in no place is Bob reduced to the stereotype of a transsexual. Bob gets a taste of what it would be like to live and be seen as a woman, even for just little snippets of time, and it helps him re-connect with his wife (which of course makes for a larger turn as he reveals the fact that he would rather be a woman all the time) Bob is a person with a secret and enormous pressures to keep that secret, bound up with gender expectations, societal expectations, familial expectations, and more. Given chance to unfold the story, we could have seen a maturely depicted narrative of a transsexual taking the steps towards unifying the person they see themselves as and the body they have/the way they are seen.
Instead, we got a pilot, and won’t get any more (unless the show gets picked up elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem likely as is).
I strongly believe we need shows like Pretty/Handsome. Television as a delivery mechanism has a lot of space for genre and content, and I would hope that in-between Survivor and Hardball and Chuck and Monday Night Football, we’d have room in our televisual field for shows that tackle important social issues through the lens of fiction. One of the important things media exposure does is normalize things. It also provides validation through representation. I don’t have much trouble feeling like a valid social being, because straight white males in their mid-twenties are frequently depicted on television and in film, especially in the West/1st world/Global North. But you don’t have to go too far back to see an American TV/film world where white people were the only ones depicted with any kind of real range and breadth. Even still, we have certain stereotypes that practically everyone are forced into.
Having a(nother) show (done well) that depicted a rounded individual who happened to be transsexual, working through the issues involved with being in that fringe group and dealing with very real social pressures could go quite a ways towards helping show transsexuals as people. Just people, like you or me, with a particular set of challenges in life that they have to deal with.
But luckily, in the current age, pilots like this get leaked and scholars like me can talk about what could have been, and use opportunities to bring up the issues when they might not otherwise occur (in the field of American TV/film/new media). Watching TV shows isn’t enough by itself, of course, but it can sometimes open a door for someone to re-examine their pre-concieved notions and provide room for further consideration and dialogue.
Re-post review #2 with more commentary at the end.
Misborn is Campbell-nominee Sanderson’s second novel, and the first in an unknown-length series in the Final Empire. Basic premise: A thousand years ago, a prophesied hero emerged to save the world from ‘The Deepness’ — he did so, then proceeded to take over the world and be a jerk to everyone. The ‘skaa’ peoples were enslaved (note the extra vowel. According to EU Star Wars Corrolary #1, it means they’re all clones. It also means they are not in fact a whole race delineated by their taste in music.) and the Epic Hero turned Lord Ruler sets up shop as absolute dictator with rival noble families serving as his aristocracy.
Mistborn follows street-urchin turned Magic Wuxia asskicker Vin and Charming Rogue Revolutionary Kelsier as they fight against the Lord Ruler and his creepy-as-hell Steel Inquisitors, Terminator-like folks with steel spikes through their eyes.
The magic system of Allomancy is one of Mistborn‘s strengths. Allomancers come in two types — Mistings and Mistborn. Allomancers can burn metals in their system to invoke several different abilities. One enhances physical abilities, one enhances senses, others let Allomancers push and pull on metals (to achieve wuxia-esque jumpy mobility), and so on. Mistings can only burn one metal, while Allomancers can burn all 10. Guess which type our heroes are? The multi-metal-burning, wuxia-style jumping around no-metal-blade using types, of course!
It’s a solid ride, with well-realized characters and one of the more believable romances that still uses standby tale types. I got all the way to the end before realizing that there are only a handful of female characters in the novel with speaking parts.
Please pardon this digression while I rant:
ATTENTION, AUTHORS! — Just because (one of) your lead character(s) is male/female, doesn’t mean you can then get away with having (almost) no other relevant/prevalent male/female characters in the novel! Aside from Vin, there are about 4 important female characters in the novel, 2 of which are already dead, and one of whom serves no more purpose than to be a gossip.
This example brings up a piece of folk wisdom regarding gender representation. There’s a saying which holds that a small proportion of women in a mixed gender group will seem only slightly imbalanced, and a group with 40% of women will seem women-heavy to many. This brings us back to the default-ness of the male gender in many/most societies, and our lingering biases in how people react to women taking action, taking charge, or taking center stage. Many/most geek cultures have been traditionally male-dominated, while some geek cultures have traditionally been female-dominated (fan fiction writers, especially slash fan-fiction communities).
As the demographics change, with a larger number and larger proportion of women in many geek cultures, geek culture must deal with this unconscious bias, as well as the fallacies of tokenism and the valorization/objectification of the beloved minority. Companies/cultural producers take advantage of the demographic, putting attractive geeky women in positions as hosts/objects of fandom, e.g. Blair Butler in G4TV’s Fresh Ink series about comic books. On one hand, it’s good to see women as well as men in positions of note within geek communities, as cultural producers, consumers, or critics. On the other hand, it’s important to look behind the surface and ask questions about intent, motivation, bias and market forces. A female possible host may be just as knowledgeable about the subject as a male possible host, but by selecting the female host, the producers/network/etc. is both giving a woman the chance to exert agency/power in the culture, to give a different perspective, but they are also likely making that decision to further their own profit agendas by playing to demographics. None of these decisions are simple or without nuance.
In closing, I’m glad that Sanderson chose to portray a complex, fleshed-out female lead, but I’m unhappy that in exchange for that one well-developed character, he seems to have neglected to populate his story with more than a tiny handful of other female characters of note.