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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “A Little Romance” (S1, Ep. 13)

In today’s episode of The Great Golden Girls Marathon, we find out that Rose has begun to fall in love with one of her colleagues at the counseling center, a certain Jonathan Newman who, it turns out, is a little person. Shenanigans ensue, of course, especially when Blanche invites Rose’s beau over for dinner.

As it would come to do with several other minority identities, The Golden Girls does a fairly nuanced job of portraying Jonathan as simply a person like anyone else. He is intelligent and well-spoken with a wicked sense of humour. However, he is also flawed and rather intolerant in his own way, as evidenced by the fact that he can’t continue his relationship with Rose due to her non-Jewish identity. Of course, the thwarting of their romance is quite in keeping with the series’ investment in ensuring that we in the audience understand that it is the relationship among the four women that takes center-stage.

Certainly, there are parts of the situation that cause us to laugh, but I would argue that we are not invited to see Jonathan’s short stature as the source of the humour. Instead, it is Blanche’s awkwardness and inability to cope with it that incites our laughter. Jonathan is so clearly comfortable in his own skin that he throws her own awkwardness into sharp relief.

This episode also featured two notable guest stars:  Billy Barty and the renowned psychic Jeane Dixon (both of whom appear in a dream sequence of Rose’s that is as ridiculous as it sounds). Of course, this wouldn’t be the last time that the show would feature famous personalities and actors, and that roster would come to include such luminaries as Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, and so many others would grace the stage.

This is one of those early episodes that does not, as of yet, dive headfirst into the political as would come to be the case in Seasons 2-6 (I’ll get to the final season at some point). Instead, it relies on a typical sitcom setup to make a larger point. It’s a subtle point, certainly, but it does help to illustrate just how versatile The Golden Girls was and how even at this early stage in its development the show had already managed to hone the sharpness of its humour.

Up next, the women dive into some murky moral ground when Dorothy finds herself having an affair with a married man.

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Ramsay Bolton/Snow and the Complicity of Violence in “Game of Thrones”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the show follow.

Like millions of other TV viewers, I have long since grown tired of Ramsay Snow (lately Bolton), one of the few unambiguously evil characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones. While I think that Iwan Rheon deserves a lot of credit for bringing this character to chilling life, I think the writers have made a bit of a misstep by having Ramsay be so straightforwardly bad (and I blame Martin for this as well). Frankly, I’ve been hoping for his death since at least last season, and even somewhat before that. One can only tolerate pure evil for so long.

Fortunately, the most recent episode of Game of Thrones gave us what we have been asking for:  Ramsay Snow, defeated by his fellow bastard Jon and ultimately fed to the dogs that have been his preferred weapon for far too long. In a wonderful bit of poetic justice, it was our own beloved Sansa that was the instrument of his death and who delivered a chilling curse upon him in his final moments. While this was preceded by a wonderful scene in which Jon pummels his enemy into near-oblivion, it was really the (mostly unseen) mauling that packed the greatest punch and that proved the most satisfying.

There was something intensely, viscerally satisfying about seeing Ramsay receive the punishment that he so richly deserves. It was hard not to feel one’s heart pounding with exhilaration as Jon Snow pummeled the man responsible for the gradual descent of the North back into chaos and barbarity, and  I literally felt my body responding with a queer sort of thrill when that dog began licking his face and finally made the lunge, my skin crawling with a mingling of visual (and sensual) pleasure and revulsion. There is something particularly heinous and terrifying about the thought of being eaten alive by dogs, one’s body and being rendered into nothing more than a body.

Of course, part of the reason for this affect has to do with the many, many, many things that Ramsay has done to the characters that we love. His callous murder of Rickon in this episode alone would have been enough to enrage those who remain loyal to the Starks, but let’s not forget the fact that he gelded Theon (after months of torture), killed the wilding Osha, and fed his own stepmother and half-brother to his dogs. If anyone in this series deserved this horrible way of death, it was Theon.

And yet…and yet. Despite my cheers and thrills at seeing this bit of justice, a little voice in the back of my mind kept reminding me of my own complicity in the vision of violence and torture that Thrones continues to feed us. How was it possible, I ask myself, that I, a relatively enlightened and reasonable person, could find myself so thrilled at the sight of horrific dismemberment? Was the fact that Sansa was finally able to reclaim a bit of her agency really enough to justify this mental behaviour on my part?

It’s hard not to read Game of Thrones in light of the fraught political climate in which we currently live, in which emotion and passion has come to dominate rational discourse and enlightenment. Given that, I find my responses to this scene in Thrones even more disturbing, and this realization has reaffirmed my fervent belief that now, more than ever, we must indulge the better angels of our natures. Otherwise, we all risk becoming no better than the monsters, like Ramsay, that we have struggled so mightily to overcome.

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Review: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014) and the Disappointment of Nostalgia

Okay, I have a confession to make. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a small (which is to say, enormous) obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I saw all of the films, and I even went to the third one in theaters and enjoyed it (and if you’ve ever seen that film, you know how big of a deal that is). I watched the cartoon series religiously on Saturday mornings, and I spent enormous amounts of my Parents’ money on collecting the plethora of action figures that glutted the market. Then, sometime around 1995, I sort of fell out of love with them. I didn’t move into hatred or active dislike; I just didn’t watch them anymore.

Since then, I’ve seen several iterations of everyone’s favourite mutants make the rounds of popular culture. Up until now, I’ve managed to not see any of them, but I finally gave in and decided to watch the first film of the newly-rebooted series. The series is basically an origin story and includes all of the requisite characters:  Splinter, the four turtles named after Renaissance, April, and of course the Shredder. I’ll spare you the plot, mostly because it falls pretty squarely into many of the other origin stories laid out in earlier iterations.

The first half of the film is, perhaps unsurprisingly, utterly ridiculous in both conception and execution. Somehow, April manages to forget that she was intimately involved in the creation of the turtles, as she was always at her father’s lab during their creation. And, of course, somehow Eric Sachs, one of the film’s two villains, has been corrupted and led astray by the Shredder. So many things happen in the first half, but so few of them make any sense, and while this can be overlooked in some films, here it is definitely a significant flaw (among many others).

Fortunately, the latter half of the film largely dispenses with the narrative and just gives in to the spectacle and the action. Now, I know that this is not every critic’s cup of tea, but if you accept that part of the purpose of the action cinema is to inspire in the spectator a feeling of bodily control and power (Richard Dyer has a fascinating essay on this subject), it becomes much easier to give in and have fun along with the characters. Whatever the film’s other significant flaws, its cinematography in the action sequences is fluid and delightful.

The greatest tragedy of the film, however, is that the characters that should be its center are annoying (Michelangelo) or largely forgettable (Leonardo and Donatello). The exception is Raphael, who actually gets a bit of character development; indeed, I think the film would have succeeded more had it focused on his own journey from disaffected and alienated brother to part of a team. The film gestures toward this, but it really doesn’t have the narrative complexity or skill to be able to pull off this particular storyline with any grace or thoroughness.

On a larger level, I’m not entirely sure that the spirit that originally motivated the films and TV series of an earlier decade can really be translated into the present. Given that one of the producers of this film was Michael Bay, it’s no surprise that subtlety went right out the window, but even I was a little blown away by the too-muchness of Shredder’s mechanized armour and the hulking muscularity of the superheroes (to say nothing of the truly bizarre and not-very-good CGIed Splinter). Of course, the Turtles were never known for their subtlety or their nuance, but at least there was something joyous about their antics and their humour. This film, however, gives in to all of the basest impulses of its presumed adolescent audiences (including the obligatory flatulence joke), though these always seem to fall flat.

My final evaluation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? A complete and thorough….eh. It’s okay, I guess. Or, as I would put it to my students, it’s thoroughly okay. I’m still up in the air about seeing the sequel, though luckily I believe it will be coming to the local dollar theater. I’ll also admit that the fact that Bebop and Rocksteady, along with Krang, will be putting in appearances makes it somewhat more appealing.

I guess the most frustrating thing about the film is that I really wanted to love it, and I just didn’t. Part of that, certainly, is my own nostalgia for the original. An equal part, however, is the failure of the film to succeed either on its own terms or as a throwback to an earlier time. Who knows, maybe the sequel is better.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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Weekly Rant: Being Queer as a Political Act

I’ve spent the last week struggling with the events of Orlando. Not since I was a teenager and fully realized the import of Matthew Shepard’s death have I felt this way:  angry, terrified, and deeply, ineffably sad. How is it possible, I find myself wondering, that in 2016 I should still feel like my life as a queer person is somehow worth less than my straight friends? How is possible, I ask myself, that a group of young queer folks could be gunned down in cold blood in a gay bar? How?

However, in the days since, I’ve become increasingly convinced that if the massacre has done anything, it has ruthlessly torn away the myth that we are living in the golden age of assimilation, when we have all been thoroughly incorporated into the fabric of American society. We queer folks have made some tremendous advances in the last year, and we shouldn’t forget that. However, if we had believed that the legalization of same-sex marriage was the apex of our political struggles, the events of a week have ago have put the lie to that myth. We may have gained some legal power, but we are still systematically marginalized.

One can see this in the way that the mainstream media has already co-opted what is most certainly a queer tragedy and spun it neatly into already-existing discourses surrounding terrorism and gun control. The issue for is not that these aren’t important and pressing issues; it’s that the importance of this event for LGBT+ folk gets subsumed into a set of issues that mainstream American political culture is infinitely more invested in and feels comfortable discussing. Furthermore, it just highlights, again, that we as a culture seem utterly incapable of thinking about the ways in which different issues intersect. Oh, the pundits and thinkers pays lip service to this sort of intersectional thinking, but then they immediately retreat into their comfort zones. If you want to hear substantive and meaningful discussion about what this event has meant for queer people, and especially queer people of color, then you should check out a program like Code Switch (a great podcast in its own right, I might add), which recently released an episode focusing on the intersection of race and queerness in the aftermath of Orlando.

This event has also reinforced for me the necessity of collective spaces of queer mourning. As an academic and someone who spends a great deal of their time thinking through the complexities of these sorts of issues, I understand the impulse to seek out explanations, to find some way of making sense of what has transpired. At the same time, I think we queer and feminist scholars do ourselves a grave disservice if we retreat too quickly into the academic and the cerebral. Instead, I strongl believe would do better to truly engage with our feelings and affects. These are our queer brothers and sisters that were slain in that night, and acting as if the incident is a mind puzzle to be unlocked does little either for us as mourners or for those who lost their lives.

Just as importantly, this has also reinforced my long-standing philosophy that being queer (a designation I utilize to include all variants encompassed by the LGBT+ communities) is, in itself, a political act. The legalization of same-sex marriage a year ago suggested that, after years of agitating, the assimilationist wing of the movement had at last emerged triumphant. HRC and others like them might have been excused for believing that they had succeeded in their (laudable if somewhat limited) mission of integrating queer folk into the fabric of mainstream society and politics. Now, however, we know that these efforts were in their origin always limited. If we want to make this world a safer place for queer folk, we must consistently, every single day, work against the systems of normality and exclusion that have made this event possible.

If you think that being gay is just being part of your identity like eye or hair color, I can only say, without equivocation, that you are wrong. Look around you, and you will see that your life, your love, and your family matters less than our straight fellows. One need only look at the recent wave of “religious freedom” and “bathroom” bills spreading like a poison through state legislatures to understand that the LGBT+ community is under direct and vitriolic attack from the American Right. If we do not stand up for ourselves, if we do not denounce the infuriating hypocrisy of those who send their “thoughts and prayers” with one hand while propagating hate-filled legislation with the other, then we will be swept into the dustbin of oblivion.

The battle lines are drawn, my friends, and the time has come to decide which side we are going to take. On one side are those who will stop at nothing to ensure that their vision of “morality” and “ethics” is forced onto the rest of us. Religious zealotry has taken many forms in 20th and 21st Century America, and we must do everything in our collective power to ensure that it is does not have any more of a chance to spread its noxious poison into our political and cultural institutions. The American Left has been negligent in the last 30 years as these groups have exerted an influence far exceeding their actual relevance, and that must come to an end.

On the other, however, are those who remain invested in making this a safer and more just world. This isn’t just a matter of who you love–it is far more complicated and urgent than that. There is a war against our very identities currently underway. To ignore this fact would be to perpetrate a grave injustice against those 49 innocents who lost their lives in an Orlando gay club (and don’t get me started on the way in which some members of the media insist on referring to as a generic nightclub). If we want to survive, we have to fight.

And we have to–WE WILL–win.

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Custody Battle” (S1, Ep. 11)

In today’s entry in the marathon, we talk about yet another bit of family feuding, this time between Dorothy and her younger sister Gloria. When Gloria–with all of her money–comes to town, she can’t resist showing off how much she has in comparison to Dorothy’s own rather meager circumstances. The real strain comes, however, when Gloria seemingly convinces Sophia to move back with her to California.

As always, the relationships among and between women remain key to the narrative tension of the episode. Dorothy and Gloria have clearly always struggled with their intertwined feelings of antagonism and affection, each jealous of the what the other has been able to accomplish. The irony, of course, is that each of them, to an extent at least, looks at herself as a failure. Dorothy struggles to break out of the never-ending cycle of being a substitute teacher, while Gloria recognizes that her primary role, that of wife and California socialite, has left her feeling somewhat empty and frustrated. Thus, their mutual antagonism stems as much from their own self-perceived failings critical judging of themselves as it does from any feelings of genuine resentment toward one another.

This episode also brings out the by turns fraught and loving between Dorothy and Sophia. While it is clear that they care for and love one another deeply, there is no denying that the former has begun to chafe under the (s)mothering influence of the latter. She wants to have her own space, but she also wants to have Sophia available when she needs her guidance and emotional support. But then, isn’t that how it always is with our mothers? We love them, but sometimes they drive us mad with their constant attempts to run out lives. In my view, it is exactly this contradictory and tense relationship that makes the mother/child bond one of the strongest that human beings experience.

It’s a neat little fact that Gloria, unlike some other members of the Dorothy/Sophia extended family, doesn’t make another appearance until Season 7 (when she is portrayed by a different actress). Of course, she is mentioned, quite a lot, by Sophia, usually in an unfavorable light to Dorothy. Indeed, the relationship between the two sisters seems much genuinely warmer than it will be in the later episode (in which it is much more straightforwardly antagonistic). It’s actually rather nice to see the ways in which the two sisters have genuine affection for one another, at least in this early episode. Furthermore, Gloria’s acknowledgment that Dorothy is and always has been the more responsible one, again reinforces the idea that their relationship is at once closer, and far more complicated, than it appears on the surface.

Next up, Rose begins a romance with Dr. Newman, the little person with whom she works. This raises all sorts of questions about whether Rose can indeed put aside her reservations about his size and marry him, as well as how we as a society view these physical differences in our everyday life.

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Film Review: “The Witch” Explores the Dark Side of Colonial America

Fair warning, some spoilers for the film follow.

I remember hearing very good things about the horror film The Witch, but somehow the stars never aligned and I did not have a chance to watch it. Fortunately, I have no rectified that situation, and I can say without reservation that it is one of the finest horror films I have ever seen.

It is the 17th Century, and the young woman Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) joins her father William (Ralph Ineson), mother (Kate Dickie), and her younger siblings Caleb, Mercy, Jonas, and baby Samuel. When the titular witch kidnaps the baby and uses him to restore her lost youth, she sets in motion the gradual dissolution of the family into madness and despair, death and chaos.

Now, let me clarify. This is not one of those blood and gore spattered butcherfests that passes for horror in this day and age (not that there’s  necessarily anything with that). This is horror in the old-fashioned, psychological sense of the word, where we in the audience know little more than the characters themselves do. We are sutured largely into two perspectives, that of the increasingly bewildered William and the increasingly frustrated (yet also bewildered) Thomasin. Though the camera offers us periodic glimpses into events that occur outside of their ken, these are rare, and for the most part we remain as bewildered and frightened by this inhospitable world as our protagonists.

As any good horror film director knows, 90% of the effect can be created through the effective use of music and sound, and that is certainly the case here. The score makes extensive use of strings, which often lilt and careen wildly from dark and somber to screaming and frantic. The fact that these shifts often occur without narrative explanation makes them all the more unsettling.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about the film was the way in which it brought out the reality that, for these early settlers, England is still in living memory. The old country is, for Thomasin at least, a space of lost innocence and security, a stark contrast to the brooding world that she currently inhabits. It is significant, I think, that she asks Caleb whether he remembers a patch of sunlight that occurred in their old home, and while he does not recall it, it occupies a singularly important place in her own memory.

This early America is a space full of dark, forbidding power, where the wild has not yet been tamed and where the devil is, in fact, just waiting to strike down the unwary. The events that unfold–the death of Samuel, the grisly deaths, the dissolution of the family, the revelation that the goat Black Philip is indeed the personification of Satan–all occur without a great deal of narrative explanation. Oh, there are hints at why this particular family has been singled out, such as when Caleb seems to have a moment of lust toward Thomasin, but for the most part these horrifying events seem random.

Further, what makes the film so unsettling is how much remains unresolved and unexplained by the end of the film. Who (or what) was the witch of the title? Was she merely some misunderstood and abused young woman driven into the wild, where she was ensnared by the Devil? Was she, like Thomasin, profoundly alienated by the culture in which she lived and sought out the only source of power available to her, no matter what the cost? This is my own personal preference, given that the film ends with Thomasin at last embracing the promises held out to her by Philip and joining in with the other witches that have gathered in the forest. While unsettling, this last moment is in many ways a reclamation of the agency that she has struggled so mightily to attain.

The Witch definitely belongs in that pantheon of what I consider some of the finest horror films, those films that really tap into the darkest, most visceral parts of our collective psyche. It draws on the great fears that still haunt us–the porousness of the family, the potential uncanniness of our own progeny, the intractability of the religious unconscious–to both expiate our collective sins an experience an utterly alien and terrifying world.

Score:  10/10

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The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “The Return of Dorothy’s Ex” (S1, Ep

Welcome back to the Great Golden Girls Marathon. In today’s installment, we take a look at the second episode in which Dorothy’s ex-husband Stan appears. While he is ostensibly in town to take care of some business with Dorothy, he ends up revealing that his new wife Chrissy has left him for a younger man. To make matters even more complicated, he also confesses that he still has feelings for Dorothy. While she feels tempted to return to her old life with him, she eventually turns him down, and he returns to Chrissy.

On one level, Stan is certainly the most insufferable type of man imaginable. He seems curiously out of place in his own life, perpetually struggling financially, always on the hunt for a younger woman. All of which, of course, just points to his own insecurity as a man. He has, in many ways, largely failed to do exactly those things that American culture expects its men to accomplish. He couldn’t even manage to hold his marriage together (though we don’t find out how spectacularly he failed at that until several episodes later).

And yet, despite all of that, Herb Edelman brings a certain charisma, one might even go so far as to say charm, to Stan. He should be utterly unlikeable, and yet he always manages to bring life to the episodes in which he appears. I suspect that a great deal of this has to do with the undeniable rapport and chemistry between Bea and Herb, who really do manage to capture the mix of dislike and affection that a couple married for 38 years would exhibit. And that makes sense; after all, 38 years is a very long time to be in a life with someone. They built their lives around each other, and while Dorothy has clearly begun to rebuild hers, Stan cannot quite cope with the reality of this new era. When even Chrissy leaves him, he goes back to Dorothy. He realizes, unfortunately too late, that she is the one that he really and truly loves.

One can’t blame Dorothy for finally deciding that she cannot go through with this particular iteration of her relationship. Sure, there are deep connections–both financial and emotional–that manage to rope them together (as we saw way back when Stan first appeared at Kate’s wedding), but she also knows that they can never recapture the magic of what they had when they were married. As I’ve learned the hard way, there are some wounds that go too deep to ever fully be healed, no matter how much we might wish that they would. That, for me, is one of the saddest things about the show:  despite how much they clearly love each other, Stan and Dorothy will always remain a tale of almost. They almost made it, but ultimately it just can’t work for them.

Next up, we meet yet another member of the family when Dorothy’s sister Gloria shows up, and a tug-of-war between the two sisters ensues.