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Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48847321

Film Review: “Ghostbusters” (2016) and the Deconstruction of Masculinity

From the moment that it was announced, the reboot of Ghostbusters attracted all of the vile misogyny that has taken root in that nebulous, noxious space we call the internet. Everywhere you looked there were the usual suspects decrying the film because it dared to cast women in the lead roles, because heaven forbid we allow women the opportunity to headline an action comedy. It was, truly, one of the ugliest and most unpleasant internet spectacles I’ve seen.

Well, as I like to say, fuck the haters. Ghostbusters is a surprisingly clever, funny and, dare I say it, nice film, and that is something of a pleasant surprise. I won’t spend too much time rehashing the plot (since, let’s face it, we kind of know already), but let’s just say that it deftly interweaves the action and the comedy, with some genuinely funny and eye-popping moments.

While the plot slips a little too easily into the sort of blockbuster, CGI-fest that has become all too familiar in today’s Hollywood, the performances are what really help the film hold together. I actually think it was a good choice to have Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig tone down their usual over-the-top or excessive performances, as this allows both Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones some room to shine. There is definitely a great deal of chemistry among the four leads, and there is a lot of room for growth if the (hopeful) success of this film leads to further productions in the franchise. One can definitely see how they could build upon these relationships to make some truly great (or, well, great for this genre) films.

What really fascinated me about this new iteration of Ghostbusters, however, was its relationship to masculinity. The primary antagonist is a (unsurprisingly entitled) misfit named Rowan, who embodies all that’s wrong with that particular type of self-important, self-aggrandizing masculinity. What’s more, there’s a particularly potent image at the end involving a non-so-symbolic moment of castration (which I won’t reveal because of spoilers). The film invests a great deal of narrative energy in revealing to us not only how ridiculous masculinity can be, but also how easily it can be punctured and rendered (relatively) harmless.

And then, of course, there is the overt sexualization of Chris Hemsworth. Of course, this was bound to happen, as he has sort of made his career out of being a beefcake, but it also reveals the extent to which he seems to be consciously aware of his star text. As one of my students pointed out recently, it seems Hemsworth has reached a point where he has begun to poke fun at his own male body persona. It’s kind of refreshing in a way, though of course it does come with its own set of problems. But, I will say, there is nothing quite like seeing Chris Hemsworth dancing; who knew that he had such good moves?

Is Ghostbusters a perfect film? No. But it is enormously entertaining and genuinely (if not uproariously) funny. Don’t get me wrong:  there are many moments of genuine humour in this film. It’s just that they aren’t of the gut-busting sort, and for me that’s totally fine. What’s more, it’s a film that seems to have a good heart, and in that sense, it is a very sincere film, and there are, in the final analysis, worse things to see during the summer film season. It has a little bit of something for everyone, and it hits most of the notes quite well.

And, on the political end of things (because really, isn’t everything political in some form or other?), can I just say how great it is to see an entirely female-led film in the summer season? Even if I absolutely hated this film, I would still recommend that others go see it, if only so that studio brass would finally realize that women can actually lead a film. One would think that the success of Bridesmaids would have made that fact plain, but we all know that Hollywood is notoriously slow to adapt to change and include any form of diversity. So, if you care about such things, and if you want to see a pleasantly entertaining film in the bargain, then treat yourself to a night out to the movies and go to see Ghostbusters.

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Film Review: “The Boss” and the Triumph of Neoliberal Postfeminism

I went into The Boss expecting to be hugely entertained by two of my favourite contemporary actresses, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell, and I wasn’t disappointed in that aspect (for the most part, anyway). However, the film as a whole failed to hold together in an effective way, due in no small part to a rather cobbled-together script, and the more I thought about it afterward, the more unintentionally absurd the narrative came to seem. Even more importantly, I began to realize that beneath its surface message of female empowerment lurked an unfortunate reliance upon the neoliberal/postfeminist myth that the key to women gaining equality is through buying into the capitalist system.

The film centers around Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), a powerful executive whose financial success belies her troubled personal past, in which she was shuffled from foster home to foster home. When she is arrested for insider trading, she loses her fortune while her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell) must find a new job in order to support herself and her daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson). However, Michelle is not content with her lower station, and so she schemes with Rachel and a reluctant Claire to rebuild her fortune on the back of the latter’s phenomenal brownie recipe.

Even this cursory plot summary reveals the extent to which the film indulges in (and encourages us to indulge in) the neoliberal/postfeminist fantasy that the key to empowerment is not through challenging, much less overturning, the current capitalist system. Instead, women can gain empowerment if they are willing to  learn the rules of the system and play by them. This not a feminist utopian tale, but a postfeminist one, for the film suggests that it is important for a woman to claw one’s way to the top of the system. Even more bewilderingly, it only cursorily acknowledges the fact that women remain vastly unrepresented within the realms of business, and while it could certainly have attempted to address that in a meaningful way, it refuses to do so. (And let’s not even get started on the idea that we are being led to identify and root for a member of the 1%, in 2016, the year of Trump and Sanders).

And it is also worth pointing out that the fortune they manage to raise stems from baking. It certainly feels like the film wants us to see their claiming of the kitchen space as a site of female monetary empowerment as a good thing, but for me it just feels slightly regressive. Could they really not have thought of another way for the women in this film to make money?

All of which is not to say that the film isn’t funny (which is, after all, one of the primary goals of a comedy film). McCarthy, as always, delivers her own particular brand of physical comedy, though it is notably toned down from many of her earlier performances. I have always found McCarthy to be a tremendous and genuinely good actress, someone whose range is far greater than her material typically grants her (Bridesmaids, Spy, and The Heat being notable exceptions). Here, she actually gets something of a compelling backstory, as the introductory sequence makes it clear that she never had the family that she so clearly desired. Further, she brings a genuine emotional depth to this seemingly very shallow and unthinking character.

There is also an undeniable chemistry between Bell and McCarthy, and it is this relationship more than anything that provides something of an antidote to the film’s otherwise regressive postfeminist politics. The characters come to deeply care for one another, and it is their extraordinary bond that provides what little narrative coherence the film has to offer. Indeed, I’m not sure that, had it not been Bell and McCarthy in the lead roles, the film would succeed even as much as it does.

The film does have some other very notable flaws. While Peter Dinklage is undeniably one of today’s finest actors, he is criminally misused in this film, relegated to a frankly pretty absurd and not at all compelling caricature of his usual roles. To my mind, it’s actually almost criminal how much his talent is wasted in this film, proof that, until better film scripts come his way, he should stick with Game of Thrones or risk having his (well-deserved) reputation as a genuinely good actor tarnished.

The greatest failing of The Boss, however, is its script. There are parts of that simply do not make sense, and the film attempts to paper over them with thin threads of narrative causality. Again, McCarthy can largely keep this train rolling along on her own, but there are even aspects of her character and her decisions that don’t entirely make sense. And the final “action” sequence in which the heroines manage to recapture a contract is absurd (and not in the good, clever way) right down to its roots. One wonders whether the screenwriters had ever read even the most basic guide on plot and narrative coherence (the answer is clearly no).

The Boss is an incredibly flawed film, both in its plot and in its politics. Nevertheless, it is amusing, so if you can bring yourself to ignore the negative parts of the film, it is worth watching. Hopefully, though, McCarthy, Bell, et al will be able to find a stronger film for their considerable talents on their next outing.

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Film Review: “Spy”

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

If there is one actress working today who deserves the title of comic genius, it wold have to be Melissa McCarthy.  From a supporting character in Bridesmaids and a successful role in television as Molly in Mike and Molly, she has become a powerhouse, able to carry a number of films on her own.  Among these I would count Spy.  Although the film stars some truly exemplary comedic talent, it is McCarthy who really makes the film special, bringing her own particular charisma to the role and in the process offering a potently feminist challenge to the spy genre (long one of the most chauvinist of film genres).

The plot, as you might expect, follows a pretty traditional spy thriller scheme.  Susan (McCarthy) is a brilliant tactician and CIA agent; the only problem is that she’s stranded in the basement giving expert advice to Bradley Fine (Jude Law), the sexy man-spy who gets to do all of the exciting stuff (and with whom Susan is hopelessly and unrequitedly in love).  When he is (supposedly) killed during a mission, Susan takes it upon herself to undertake his mission, in the process adopting a number of different (and increasingly hilarious) disguises that serve to desexualize her and render her ridiculous.  Eventually, however, she proves pivotal to the success of the mission–to find a nuclear bomb and prevent it from falling into the hands of a terrorist group–as she thwarts the efforts of both go-between Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale) and mob boss Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, who makes the perfect icy foil to McCarthy’s earthy wackiness).

One of the things that makes McCarthy such a refreshing voice in comedy is that she is not only razor-sharp with her comic timing and delivery (though she has some of the best of both of any actress since Betty White), but also unafraid to use her body in every conceivable way to gain the laughs.  Watching Spy, one gets the sense that McCarthy is one of those fortunate people who is completely comfortable in her body, which I think explains the seamless grace with which she handles even the most absurd of the costume changes in the film, as well as her undeniable sex appeal as she finally eschews the silly outfits in favour of more traditionally glamorous attire.

What really stood out to me, however, was the ending.  It would have been so easy for the film to slip into the expected heterosexual closure, with Susan’s unruly feminine energies safely contained by Fine’s masculine persona, but instead we see Susan walking into the sunset with her best friend Nancy, choosing a girl’s night with her instead of a dinner with the man she loves. Now, I’m not saying that in order for a film to be feminist it has to completely disavow the romantic ending, but I for one found it refreshing to have the two female leads privilege their friendship at the end.

While McCarthy definitely steals the show, I have to give credit where it is due.  Allison Janney is her usual, bitingly witty self as Susan’s superior Elaine Crocker.  Jude Law is his usual suave self, and Jason Statham offers a marvelous caricature of traditional spy/hegemonic masculinity.  And while Peter Serafinowicz’s Aldo is creepily sexual, it is often quite difficult to take him seriously, so that his libido becomes a source of mockery rather than any genuine sexual threat.  In other words, Spy not only celebrates the fiery intellect of women, but sends up the exaggerated (and always faintly ridiculous) male posturing of the spy/action genre.

I normally don’t go see comedies in the theater, preferring to horde my graduate stipend for films that are really going to blow me away with their intense visuality (yes, I admit to being one of those people go goes to see blockbuster films and almost nothing else).  However, I am very glad that I went to see Spy.  Fortunately for the rest of us, McCarthy shows no signs of slowing down, so we can but hope that a few more films of this type will be in the pipelines.  And we can also hope that this may be, not just the Golden Age of the Reboot and Television, but also the Golden Age of Female-Centered Comedy.

Review: “Interstellar”

This is not the 2001:  A Space Odyssey You’re Looking For

Warning:  Full spoilers follow.

I went into Christopher Nolan’s new opus expecting our generation’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey, one of the most visually and philosophically profound films I have ever seen.  Indeed, there are only two films that have really come close to capturing (for me, at least) something of the terrifying beauty and force of the sublime (the other being the original version of Solaris).  Going into Interstellar, especially having paid extra to see it in IMAX (not, alas, on celluloid), I expected something similar, something that would challenge my sense of self, my subjectivity, if you will.

To my disappointment, I got a film that was beautiful in terms of its aesthetics and impoverished in its saccharine, trite narrative and overused trope that love conquers all.  To summarize briefly, Cooper (McConaughey), a retired NASA pilot, is called upon by his former employers to save mankind from an extinction caused by the growing levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere.  He sets off with a team, including Amelia (Anne Hathaway), heading through a wormhole (created by 5th-dimensional beings) that will take them to a galaxy that may contain planets that can sustain human life, leaving behind his daughter Murph (played as an adult by Jessica Chastain).  Eventually, he is able to get in touch with his daughter and avert the extinction of mankind, and at the end of the film he sets off in search of Amelia, who may have landed on one of the other planets and begun a new colony.

There is much to like about this film.  The acting is solid (for the most part), and it seems quite genuine in its attempt to ask some of the larger questions about the nature of time and our relationship to it (see below).  At the same time, however, it relied on far too many irritatingly problematic cliches that Nolan of all people should be able to avoid.  At one point, for example, Hathaway’s Amelia breaks down into tears and explains that love is what has motivated her choice for which planet they should explore, not the objective science utilized by her male co-pilots.  The fact that we as viewers are invited to both question the validity of her emotionality and ultimately take it for granted (she is a woman, after all, and we know what emotional creatures they are), indicates just how shortsighted and annoyingly cliche the film’s gender politics remain.  And, of course, in typical sci-fi fashion, the only person of colour is killed off and forgotten (though this happens fairly late in the film, he’s never fully developed as a character).  White men, as always, get to save the human race, while the women and people of colour get to stand on the sidelines (or, in Amelia’s case, serve as the biological propagator of the new branch of humanity).

To be fair, though, Interstellar is a beautiful film, with absolutely stunning cinematography and composition.  It’s just that the beauty, unlike in 2001, doesn’t really serve to do anything substantive or meaningful, caught up (and bogged down) as it is in the ruthlessly heterosexual love plot that could have come straight out of a screenwriter’s how to manual.  I wouldn’t belabour the unfavourable comparisons to 2001 if the film wasn’t so insistent on drawing attention to that earlier work, but I suppose that’s unavoidable in a film of this scope and with this particular subject.  If you’re going to make an homage, however, you should make sure that it’s at least as good as the original, even if tackling different issues.

As I said earlier, the film raises some compelling questions about time and about our relationship to ourselves.  Perhaps the most fascinating instance of this is film’s use of excerpts from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl, which appear sporadically throughout the film.  For those in the know, this generates an uncanny frisson of pleasurable terror, as we gradually realize that the past and the present have come together and that this world, which lives in the terror of the growing power of dust storms, is what will become of ours.  In the end, however, the neat resolution of the plot undercuts the philosophical complexity that the film might have raised if it was willing, like its predecessor, to eschew the common expectations of what narratives do.  Perhaps, in this era of the blockbuster and the studio assumption that people are idiots who want mindless entertainment, this is all we can expect of a film of this magnitude.

For myself, though, I think I’ll go back to 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

The Subversive Pleasures of “The Golden Girls”

When I was growing up, one of my chief television pleasures was The Golden Girls.  Though I was quite young at the time (I was only a year old when it premiered) those four delightful women still stand out as one of my favourite things about childhood.  As I got older, my appreciation for the series grew, as I recognized not only how powerful these women were, but also how queer-affirming the series was in many ways.  Indeed, it provided me with some much-needed solace during the turbulent years of undergrad.

Then came graduate school, and I started to turn my analytical lens on my favourite series, somewhat afraid of what I might find.  To my surprise, however, I found the series even more subversive than I had remembered, and Kathleen Rowe’s influential book The Unruly Woman finally gave me the vocabulary I needed to elaborate upon the series’ subversive gender politics.  Now I not only felt a deep spiritual connection to these women (especially the oversexed Blanche), but now also recognized the ways in which their actions and speech challenge the ideology that dictates what behaviour(s) our culture expects of elderly women.  These four women refuse to accept the limitations imposed by age, maintaining their sexual interest in men, laughing at themselves, and embracing the earthier, more visceral sides of their aging bodies (the numerous scatological jokes made by Sophia are excellent examples of this).  In short, they are everything that we as a culture train women not to be, and in doing so they call attention to the ways in which those expectations are constructed by our culture.

Viewing this series with my students recently, I was amazed at how well this series holds up, and how the transgressive/subversive pleasures it offers continue to pack a political punch even now, 30 years (30!) after it premiered.  After all, we are continually told that we now live in a postfeminist society in which the strident feminism of an earlier generation is no longer needed nor desirable (nor, some would say, “cool” or “stylish”).  The Golden Girls continues to serve as a potent and powerful reminder of the ways in which women can and do challenge the structures designed to police and discipline their behaviour.

Perhaps most subversively, these women actively desire men without sacrificing their closeness to each other.  In one particularly poignant moment in the episode “Brotherly Love,” Dorothy reprimands herself for letting a man (Stan’s cad of a brother) come between her and her friendship with Blanche.  This is a recurring theme throughout the series, as the women turn to each other in their times of greatest need, recognizing in the process the ways in which men continue to attempt to manipulate them.  In a world in which female friendships are constantly thrown over in favour of competition between women, The Golden Girls continues to reminds us of the power that can be obtained when women both recognize and emphasis their closeness to one another.

Of course, the series isn’t perfect, and it remains unclear to me, even now, just how much it challenges patriarchal ideologies.  The series does end, for example, with perennial spinster Dorothy being married off and leaving the house.  However, I’ve come to realize that it is almost as important to continue finding those points of contention and tension within mainstream culture that pose a challenge, however temporary those challenges might be.  This is not to excuse the shortcomings of the series just because I love it (though that is, I must admit, quite tempting), but instead to argue that there always limitations to just how subversive a text produced by the mainstream media can be.  Part of our job as critics and as consumers, I would argue, is to continue finding those points where the cracks in the dominant ideologies that structure our everyday lives are made evident in these cultural texts.  They might not be perfect, but they can at least give us a glimmer of what is possible if we continue to struggle against the forces, both explicit and implicit, that continue to oppress us.  The Golden Girls, for me, is just one such text.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some binge-watching to do.

What Do Maroon 5 and Camille Paglia Have in Common? Or, How I Know Rape Culture Exists

The answer, surprisingly, is a lot.  Or at least that’s what one might think seeing Maroon 5’s new video for the song “Animals,” as well as Paglia’s recent column for Time.  Viewers and readers alike no doubt emerge from their engagement with these texts with the idea that a.)  Men are primarily animals and beasts, driven by base lusts that cannot be controlled b.)  It is women’s responsibility to learn how to not only deal with but defend against this irredeemable and irrevocable part of man’s nature and c.)  If they can’t, then they should just give in an enjoy the ride.

If it sounds like I’m being snarky, it’s because I am.  When I watched Maroon 5’s video yesterday morning, I was appalled not just by the imagery (which mainly consists of Adam Levine dancing with slaughtered animal carcasses and then making out with his object of affection, which he has stalked and smelled out like an animal, while being doused in blood), but by the suggestion that women secretly love the sexual allure of being stalked by an incessantly and disturbingly amorous man.  Even more importantly, I was struck by the equating of the stalked woman with an animal that the speaker of the song, played by Levine, will hunt down and devour “like animals.”  As Carol J. Adams long ago pointed out in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, there is a deep and powerful cultural connection between the consumption of meat and the perpetuation of violence against women.

Cue Camilla Paglia who, in typical Paglia fashion, takes aim at what she sees as the failings of liberal feminism, namely that it has insulated young women from the “urban streets,” which she argues are full of animalistic men driven by a prey instinct that makes them eternally susceptible to misreadings of women’s sartorial choices and likely to go on a murderous sex rampage at any moment.  As she sees it, our civilization is always on the brink of collapse into animality and chaos, simply because of the ways in which men’s brains are hard-wired.

If this sounds like something from the 19th Century, it should, and Paglia even refers to 19th Century psychoanalysis to bolster her thinking.  To her, there are certain immovable parts of men’s brains that make them inescapably violent and sexual, and we as a society have taught women to ignore these facts at their peril.  Aside from the racism implied in Paglia’s “urban streets” comment, her thinking is both incredibly reductive, discounting any cultural influence on the ways we train our men to behave (after all, if we train our young women to ignore the danger of men, don’t we also train our men to ignore the “fragility” of women?  Clearly, Paglia did not follow her own logic to its conclusion).  Aside from my political differences with the piece, I find it lazy writing as well, an example of lazy public scholarship masquerading as serious engagement with one of the most important and urgent political and social issues of our time.

Though I doubt that Maroon 5 has read Paglia, their most recent video nevertheless serves as a perfect illustration of the way in which her particular brand of thinking permeates our culture, encouraging us to see victims of stalking, rape, and other violent crimes as both asking for it and secretly enjoying it.  The lyrics to the song include the phrase “the beast inside,” implying that there is something deeply and irrevocably bestial about the male psyche.  The fact that the character is played by the undeniably charismatic and attractive Levine makes the video’s vexing politics even more aggravating, as it casts its glamour around one of the most unpleasant, vicious, and downright ugly aspects of our culture, one which we should be doing everything in our power to eliminate, rather than valourize or explain away via outdated and heavily-disputed notions of biological determinism.

If I had possessed any doubt that we live in a rape culture, both the video by Maroon 5 and Camilla Paglia’s deliberately inflammatory and simplistic tract would have disabused me of any such idealism.  We clearly live in a culture in which the objectification of women, and the blaming of women for that objectification, continue to hold sway.  I know that I, frankly, am tired of these pernicious attempts by our culture to convince us that really, deep down, the problems that women face in our society are either their own fault or easily explained away an contained by their erotic submission to men.  As feminists and gender justice warriors, we must continue pushing back against these attempts to blame victims of oppression for the conditions of their subjugation.  We will continue to put pressure on those systems as we work toward a more just and democratic society.  We will not be intimidated by their rhetoric, and we will not be silenced.

Review–“Belle”: A Costume Drama Meaningfully Depicts the History of Slavery

There is a moment in the film Belle where the titular character stares at a painting in which a young black man looks–adoringly?  powerlessly?–up at a white man.  This poignant moment crystallizes many of the issues this thoughtful costume drama raises, including and especially the vexed status that people have colour have occupied in Western society, at once on the margins of representation and yet situated squarely at the center of political and social discourse.  Throughout, Belle effectively utilizes the conventions of the costume drama–the emphasis on female subjectivity and point of view, the conjoining of the personal and the political–to effectively lay bare the convoluted, complex, and paradoxical position that people of colour, especially women, face on a daily basis.

The film centers on Dido Belle, the illegitimate, bi-racial daughter of an English noble whose uncle, William Murray, is the Lord Chief Justice.  Both illegitimate and black, Dido finds herself caught in a paradoxical position within 18th Century English society.  Gradually, however, she finds true love with a vicar’s son while also exerting her influence on her great-uncle, who ultimately renders an important court decision that rings the death-knell of slavery in England.

The key issue of visual representation is a recurring one in the film:  from the time she is a child, Dido remains aware of the marginal status that people of colour have in her society.  They may appear in paintings, and they may even attain their freedom, but they are still below the white people with whom they share the world.  Thus, it is all the more remarkable when William commissions a painting of Elizabeth that will include Dido as a figure in her own right rather than just a support for her white cousin.  Dido, rightfully, recognizes this is a significant step on her great-uncle’s part, an indication of his growing commitment to a measure of racial equality.

Dido is a refreshingly self-aware heroine, showing a piercing awareness of the contradictory nature of her class position.  Blessed by her father with a substantial fortune that renders her an heiress in her own right (in contrast to her white cousin, who is almost penniless), Dido’s racial status means that she will find it difficult, if not impossible, to find a husband that will match her status.  This, in turn, means that, like spinster Aunt Mary, she will be condemned to a life without a man which, in 18th Century English society, is not at all a pleasant prospect.  Belle thus highlights the impossible position that Dido occupies as a result of her gender, her race, and her class, all of which continue to act together to put her in an increasingly untenable position.  Though she is privileged because of her wealth and her class status, her gender and her race intersect with that position to imprison her, as she reminds the vicar’s son when he asks whether her refusal to join him for dinner with the rest of the family is a rejection of his class status.  Dido pointedly reminds him that it is a reminder of her own.  The vexed and vulnerable status she occupies is made even more apparent when a potential suitor for her cousin (played by a sneering Tom Felton), sexually assaults her, in the belief that her raced body is for his consumption.

Yet for all of its attention to politics, the film also points out the immense strength to be found in the bonds between and among women.  Dido remains staunchly loyal to her cousin, even though Elizabeth is not always grateful for it.  Perhaps most powerfully of all, Dido develops a bond with her uncle’s freeedwoman servant, their bonds forged out of a mutual awareness of their liminal status as free women of colour in a society that does not yet have a place for them.

Thus, though it occasionally veers into predictability, Belle nevertheless points out the necessity of an intersectional understanding of social problems.  Gender, race, and class do not operate as isolated phenomena, but instead are mutually constitutive.  As such, it is a poignant reminder of the ways in which these structures and systems continue to have their effects, even in a supposedly post-racial society.  Furthermore, the film is a powerful testament to the fact that Anglo-American media culture may finally be on the verge of being able to talk about the long, horrible, and troubled history of slavery in ways that can be both meaningful and thought-provoking.

“Maleficent”: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I debated for quite some time over whether I wanted to post a review of Maleficent.  Having been thoroughly underwhelmed upon first viewing, I wasn’t sure that it would be worth my while.  However, after some greater thought, I have decided to corral my scattered thoughts about this very scattered film.  Let me state at the outset that I was very excited to see this film as I, like many others, have always thought Maleficent was Disney’s most brilliant and compelling villain.

The Good

As other critics have noted, there is a great deal in this film for both feminists and queers to enjoy.  From the film’s central message about the primacy of female bonding and the dangers posed by psychotic and unrestrained masculinity to the obvious queer appeal of Maleficent (as channeled through Jolie and her costumes) and the story’s emphasis on alternative families, there is much, thematically, to like about this film.  It forthrightly pushes up against all that we have come expect from Disney, and that’s definitely a good thing.

The Bad

However, there were some quite noticeable shortcomings that undercut my pleasure in the film.  If there was one thing that I found signaturely lacking in this film, it was a truly deep awareness of its animated predecessor Sleeping Beauty.  Lush in both its visuals and its sounds, this is a film that well-deserves its place as one of the most aesthetically mature and complex Disney animated creations.  Unfortunately, much of this beauty is either lost or left under-utilized by Maleficent.

Take, for example, Maleficent’s entry to Stefan’s castle.  In Sleeping Beauty, the entrance is as exciting as it is visually well-executed, and Maleficent (voiced by the inimitable Eleanor Audley) manages to alternate between languorous sarcasm and biting venom with aplomb.  All of this seems to have been lost on the writers and director of Maleficent who, while keeping some of the lines and the general gist of the events, subdues everything to the point of blandness.  All of the sound and fury of the original animated film is here reduced to something bordering on the banal.

The Ugly 

There are also some truly cringe-worthy moments in this film, as well as some definite missteps in terms of visual design.  Among the latter, perhaps the most egregious is the decision to have Maleficent possess wings.  While I can understand the aesthetics that this enables–her joyful flight through the Mores is visually spectacular–to me it felt strange and even somewhat ridiculous (especially the earlier scenes).

Perhaps worst of all were the three fairies whose names, I might add, were needlessly changed from their earlier iteration.  Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three of the most dynamic characters in Disney animation history, here become bumbling fools who barely manage to keep Aurora alive.  And they’re not even cute bumbling fools but are instead cardboard cutouts that, while intended as comic relief, end up being annoying distractions.

While I remain disappointed in many aspects of Maleficent, I am still glad that it was made.  When we take into account the recent phenomenal success of Frozen (which has some of the same themes), it would seem as if we may be witnessing a watershed moment for Disney and perhaps for Hollywood as a whole.  However, I have my fingers crossed that the studio’s live-action adaptation of Cinderella, featuring Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine, will do more justice to its villain-turned-hero than this film which, ultimately, does not live up to the reputation of its title character.

Quality Television and the Violence Against Women Problem

If the recent murder spree of Elliot Rodger has taught us anything, it is that there is a massive vein of murderous, violent misogyny simmering beneath the surface of American culture.  Although many men have come forward to disavow the sentiments expressed by Rodger and those like him, just as many have also, somewhat shamefacedly, admitted that they have sometimes harbored similar feelings of resentment at their lack of ability to gain a sexual partner.  Although Ann Hornaday rightly drew attention to the seemingly endless run of comedies that encourage men to relentless pursue and objectify women, I think it is also important to take note of the ways in which quality television not only unreflexively includes violence against women, but positively relies upon it as a means of establishing its “quality” designation.  For my purposes, I will focus on Game of Thrones and FX’s new series Fargo, though the problem of violence against women within quality TV is as far-ranging as the genre itself.

Two disturbing trends emerge from the violence against women perpetrated within these series.  On the one hand, as the Game of Thrones example reminds us, people are willing to go to practically any length to disavow or attempt to water down the importance of the representations they produce, but only after public outcry has practically forced their hand.  As if the infamous scene wherein Jaime rapes Cersei were not bad enough, many of those responsible for the scene, including the director, brushed aside criticisms of the rape scene by arguing that, with these two characters in particular, almost anything that occurs carries with it a sexual charge.  Of course, the brutal rape of a woman who attempts to assert agency is par for the course with HBO and other creators of quality TV drama, but that is precisely what makes this such a profoundly troubling moment in an even more troubling trend in the televisual landscape.  Perhaps things might have been somewhat better if the series had attempted to explicate the consequences of Jaime’s rape of his sister but, alas, it moved on to bigger and better things (which, of course, continued to contribute to its quality designation).*

FX’s Fargo also features the brutalizing of a woman in its first episode, as Lester Nygaard (played with supreme skill by Martin Freeman) strikes his nagging, shrewish wife with a hammer and then proceeds to bludgeon her to death.  Most troubling of all for me as a viewer was the fact that the episode went out of its way to make me loathe practically everyone on screen, including and especially Nygaard’s wife, whose incessant comparisons of Lester to his wife serves to thoroughly emasculate him.  Just as viewers are encouraged to hate (and then, perversely, encouraged to be titillated by the rape of) Cersei Lannister, so are they urged to see Kitty Nygaard’s death as deserved and Lester as the man driven to the edge by a culture that views him as a failure as a man.  Once again, we are supposed to feel sorry for a man who lashes out in violence and murders his wife, all because society’s unreasonable expectations have left him no other way to express himself other than through outbursts of deadly violence.  Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

Just so we’re clear, I actually enjoy watching these shows and that’s part of what makes them so troubling to me as a feminist film critic.  How can I still enjoy a work of fiction when it seems to go out of its way to brutalize and perpetrate violence against women?  Part of the reason, I suppose, is that the “quality” of these TV series often translates into narrative complexity, which in turn enables viewers to provide their own explanations for why this type of violence occurs, reasons that may not be spelled out in the series but are nevertheless made available.  However, such a negotiation requires a certain kind of viewer trained in reading in certain ways, and many viewers would no doubt prefer to take their entertainment at its (problematic) face value.

If we want to seriously address the horrible position that women occupy in our culture–both in representation and in reality–then we need to start thinking about and requiring our representations and our realities to seriously, thoughtfully, and reflexively engage with the status of women in our society.  While TV and film may not necessarily teach young people in a straightforward way, they do gain their intelligibility by both relying upon and emphasizing those most problematic and destructive tendencies in our culture.  It’s high time that we realized that and started to do something about it.

*Note:  It is worth pointing out that Cersei is as unlikable in the original novels as she is in its television adaptation.  The problematic status that she occupies as one of the few women in the series to actually hold a position of political power is a subject for another blog post.