Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Can Only Death Stop The Simpsons?

Recently, The Simpsons and the world suffered the loss of Marcia Wallace, comedienne who voiced Edna Krabappel. While the staff of The Simpsons have handled it well, giving her a touching chalkboard goodbye, her death has me again thinking about the monster that is The Simpsons's longevity. The show, despite being past its prime for over 15 years, is now on season 25 and Al Jean has announced hopes for at least 5 more seasons after this one. There was a lot of talk about it ending in Season 24 and yet it didn't. Lists have been made about everything that has changed on The Simpsons since the original fans mostly stopped watching. This show is one of the few even that could have been some of the current writers' favorites when they were teens.

But there are more issues with The Simpsons's longevity than simply the fact that the show many of us loved back in the day is going on long without us, like an ex who has a life well after you break up and move to different cities. It goes beyond the inferior quality of most of the episodes and the plain excessiveness of 25 seasons. Now, for the first major time since Phil Hartman, mortality is an issue. Sure other characters have died, such as Homer's mom and Maude Flanders, but they were mostly one-off characters or at least very minor ones. Sure Maude Flanders was the first major death...but even the show mocked how inconsequential of a character she was (and furthermore, the death was due to an actress leaving, not dying):

In many ways, Maude Flanders was a supporting player in our lives. She didn't grab our attention with memorable catchphrases, or comical accents. But, whether you noticed her or not, Maude was always there ... and we thought she always would be.

Now, however, an important secondary character has died - one who has arcs, love stories, multiple episodes, etc. And I worry that, with each year the Simpsons continues, it will get closer and closer to losing other major characters.

Perhaps the most alarming thing about Marcia Wallace's passing is that, for the most part, it wasn't overly alarming. It wasn't like John Ritter's death, or Phil Hartman's. While Wallace's passing was tragic, it was also roughly one standard deviation under the average female life expectancy. In short, she died younger than expected, but she didn't die overly young. Yet she was 45 when she was hired. By all means, the show probably wasn't expected to outlive the actress (unlike, say, the Harry Potter Franchise and Dumbledore's first actor).

I'm putting this image here since mainly cause I love this joke and because it shows how present Krabappel was in that universe

Now the main characters' voice actors are all notably younger. For now. But if the Simpsons keeps going as it seems it might, the show might ultimately have to face not only the death of a supporting actress, but a main voice actor as well. Seem unlikely? 12 years ago, the longevity and the inexhaustible nature of the show, despite its faults, was the subject of a moment of Simpsons self parody. 12 years ago. In short, the show has doubled its length since then. Another 20 years seems unlikely in any other sitcom. With the Simpsons, I'm less convinced of the impossibility.

Why does this unnerve me, aside from the usual creepiness of mortality? Maybe it's because of how the Simpsons carries on and how this event affects it seems like the perfect symbolic portrayal of how we think about life vs. how life actually is. Springfield was always going to have Edna Krabappel. She was there, as permanent as Moe's, Santa's Little Helper, even Bart. And now I'm thinking of a Springfield without Edna Krabappel. And it's reminding me that nothing lasts. Even in this world that gives the illusion of immortality - where the Simpsons can have multiple Christmas, Apu can get married, have children, and watch them grow to toddlers as Maggie remains permanently a baby - characters eventually need to say goodbye, all because their actors are not gifted with the same Wilde-esque pictures that their animated counterparts have.

I know, I'm being maudlin. But maybe it's because The Simpsons's refusal to end seems to be denying us the great pleasure of stories: "And they all lived happily ever after." Edna will never return to Seymour, she won't be with us as Springfield marches on, and as the years go on, she may be supplanted in canon with another teacher. In a scary way, perhaps, The Simpsons in this way might be the most realistic show of all. It has the illusion of narratives and completion, but ultimately like The Sopranos, things do not end - they just fizzle out. Death happens, there's brief (often off-screen) mourning, and life goes on. A character's death does not become the focal point of a story.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Extremely Good Fan Strikes Orange is the New Black

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black.

In her commentary on this past week’s episode of Breaking Bad, Emily Nussbaum brought up the idea of “bad fans”:

All shows have them. They’re the “Sopranos” buffs who wanted a show made up of nothing but whackings (and who posted eagerly about how they fast-forwarded past anything else). They’re the “Girls” watchers who were aesthetically outraged by Hannah having sex with Josh(ua). They’re the ones who get furious whenever anyone tries to harsh Don Draper’s mellow.

She even notes that some shows eventually build their “bad fans” (or Bad Fans) into the shows in some way: Sopranos had the Cleaver horror films, Breaking Bad created Todd who worships Walt, etc.

Of course, the idea that there are Bad Fans necessarily implies there are Good Fans. Good Fans note the subtlety of the show. They see Breaking Bad as the morality tale it is meant to be. They appreciate the familial drama of the Sopranos and enjoy watching the gradual invasion of the feminism and racial politics and Vietnam into Mad Men. They may find the protagonists fascinating or charming, but they never side with them.

In fact, if any show had a Good Fan built into its universe, it would be Sopranos with Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Throughout the show, Melfi seems to flirt with the idea of growing to like Tony as a person, or allowing herself to be taken in by his affability; ultimately, however, she always shocks herself back to reality that he is a mob boss and a Bad Man. Even when she is faced with a trauma (and I won’t go into detail for those of you who haven’t watched it), she considers acting like one of the other characters on the show, only to remind herself of her superior moral compass.

That’s what a good fan does: like the character for his craft and his charm, but ultimately remind herself that she must deplore that character for his morality.

But is there such thing as an Overly Good Fan? Is there a fan so adroit at reading the genre of Quality TV that s/he overreads a new protagonist and ultimately passes the steps of being charmed and evaluating to go to the typical endpoint: despising the protagnoist? In the case of Orange is the New Black, I would say so.

From my current experience, Orange is the New Black does not have a lot of Bad Fans. I haven’t really met anyone who views Piper as the model that all other characters must be judged against, or agrees with Piper's statement that everyone who is in prison deserves it (and has made bad choices), or thinks that prison is a good system.

It has a decent amount of Haters (the paranoid readings of this show are countless). In fact, the only people who take the line about Piper and all others making “bad choices” as the show’s POV (a job that should be left for Bad Fans) are the Haters who do so in order to critique the show.

It has many Good Fans, who grasp that this show interrogates Piper’s POV and racial/class priveledge and that Orange is the New Black does so in order to explore the interiority of other characters of less frequently showcased races and classes.

And then it has Extremely Good Fans. These people hate Piper. To them, she is nothing but a stuck-up, privileged, self-centered rich white bitch. Even very smart, nuanced readers of the show (as shown, for example, here in the last caption in an otherwise brilliant, incisive article) do not like her.

Now Piper has her problems. She’s definitely narcissitic at times, she’s lived a sheltered life, and to an extent gets preferential treatment (until that turns on her). But does she really in fact deserve to be lumped into the same category as the murderous Tony Soprano and Walter White and the solipsistic, avaricious, deceitful Don Draper? Even if she did, doesn’t she deserve at least to get that “We find her really likeable but…” detour that these characters get from Good Fans on their journeys?

It seems as if these fans have taken Alex’s and Larry’s season finale comments about Piper at face value: she is a force of evil narcissism - nothing she suffers is anything but her fault. They disregarded how self-centered Larry is and how Alex had admitted just the prior episode that she’s a “ruthless pragmatist” who ready to sell Piper out. Heck, they even seem to take Piper’s own depression-fueled self-hatred at face value. Ultimately, Piper has earned and deserved all that has happened to her in the first season. She may be the real villain of the show.

Orange is the New Black, a very smart show, a show that almost feels designed for grad students who debate representational politics, to me seems like it has anticipated this reading. And where other shows create avatars for their bad fans after the fact, I cannot help but wonder if Alex, or even Piper herself, become avatars for the Extremely Good Fans. The critiques these two lodge against Piper in the final episodes seem to anticipate much of the internet reaction. But if Orange is the New Black has shown us anything about itself, it's that one person's point of view should never be fully accepted.

Call me crazy (or privileged) but I find Piper to be flawed but sympathetic. She’s not our moral compass by any means. She probably needs a good deal of therapy and the occasional slap of reality. But she’s a pretty real-feeling person who, despite her problems, is ultimately a character I like and want to see turn out okay by the time Orange is the New Black reaches its final episode. So why don’t Extremely Good Fans feel the same way?

One reason simply could be that these fans have gotten too used to Quality TV and immediately assume characters aren’t supposed to be sympathetic or relatable any more. The hatable protagonist is almost formulaic now. And no one wants to be the naive Bad Fan.

Or perhaps Piper starts from a less likeable place. Walter White, for all his problems, may appeal more to a Cultural Studies mindset; he needs to defy The State to cope with Capitalism, whereas Piper’s whiteness is thrown in our face. Walter’s story is about the underdog climbing up; Piper’s is the high being brought down. We’re more used to cheering on the former.

Maybe it’s an unfair comparison since the Extremely Good Fans of Orange is the New Black may be turned off by Mad Men or Sopranos due to all the Bad Fans. Insert your own Apples and Oranges joke here. Maybe it's the fact that we think we know Piper will turn out fine and write a book and sell that book to Netflix (though honestly, by now, considering this show to be in any way a biopic seems to be risking being another Bad Fan). Or maybe, just maybe, we’re just more comfortable with guys breaking the rules.

Whatever the reason, I’m not so ready to leave Piper to the SHU so I can focus on the other characters. In the end, I may be Team Suzanne (and even she thinks Dandelion’s all dried up), but I still need to remember that as wise as she may have sounded that scene (and as awesome as she can quote Shakespeare), she still can get pissed off. She's still written as human. She's still fallible. She's not an author's mouthpiece. She’s a combo of sympathetic and messed up, like most of the other inmates are, thanks to the nuanced writing in this show. And maybe only seeing the former in Piper would make you a Bad Fan…but only seeing the latter, as some of the Extremely Good Fans are doing, just turns you into a Bad Fan by any other name.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Why he keeps answering that question: Joss Whedon and Feminism as Marketing Strategy

Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?

A: Because you’re still asking me that question. – Joss Whedon

If you haven’t seen this quote in some sort of a graphic bandied about Facebook in the past year or so, I congratulate you. Because I can’t seem to escape it.

Recently, there was an impressive piece making the rounds about the problems of Strong Female Characters. Also, the hit book of 2012, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, makes an excellent case against the Cool Girls. I am partially troubled by Whedon because, despite his talk (and to be fair, the fact he often overcomes the Smurffette principal), he seems to be writing a never-ending parade of Cool Girls and Strong Female Characters. They seem to be his concept of feminism's logical end.

What disturbs me more, however, is how Whedon has coopted the language of feminism into a form of self-aggrandizing marketing. He's the Feminist Comic/Nerd Writer. He deserves endless praise for how he dares to write Strong Female Characters. In the end, the above quote (which notably, never actually happened) in its meme form - and the dialogue around it in any Facebook comments section - becomes less a strong statement on the case of feminism and the problems of female representation and power in the media industry. Ultimately, it's more a case of basking in how awesome Joss Whedon is to say it.

[SIDE NOTE: Before I begin this entry, I should note that I am committing two of the major sins of paranoid reading. First and foremost, I’m critiquing something of which I’m not entirely versed. Secondly, I’m critiquing something I don't like much anyway. The first is the more grevious offense (but I have an excuse in a second), the second is more of a pet peeve. I get annoyed paranoid readings of things the writer dislikes because ultimately the thesis seems to be “and here is why I am right for hating it aesthetically, because it is politically bad.” Admittedly, I may be in the minority here.

As for these problems and my issues with Joss Whedon, I’ll try to excuse myself the best I can. Concerning the first, this critique is only about what I’ve seen of his (Avengers, the first eight or so episodes of Firefly, his X-Men run, Alien 3, Toy Story, and Doctor Horrible) and, much more importantly, about his self-presentation in the media. Therefore, this ccritqiue does not apply at all to Buffy or Dollhouse or anything else. That being said, having seen a few movies, about 5 or 6 hours of a television show, and some comics, I feel like I'm at least not a Whedon-virgin.

As for the second, I’ll at least be up front about it. I think Whedon’s work is forever hindered by the fact that all of his characters talk in the exact same register (i.e. like Joss Whedon). This problem prevents me from ever seeing his charactters as people – they can never become more than author avatars (Fiction Suits as Grant Morrison would say). There may be something intrinsically linked with this problem and the problem this blog addresses (i.e. Whedon writes women as men), but that's a topic for another entry I suppose.

Oh, and for anyone wanting to defend Whedon by saying that he did not write all of those Firefly eps, I’m invoking “show runner as TV auteur” theory. Whedon had a large amount of input in those episodes. He gets a fair share of the credit for them; thus he deserves any blame as well.]

I’m sure Whedon’s heart is in the right place. I know he does identify as feminist, which in and of itself is a good thing and not to be undervalued. So what bothers me? Perhaps the fact that his idea of feminism isn’t all too complicated of one…and yet he never shuts up about it. Most interviews with Whedon seem to be about how he’s a feminist…and a man (gasp!), but never really about any of the nitty gritties of feminism. Feminism for Whedon often does not seem to go beyond the point of “Let the lady kick ass.” In Firefly, we have a Strong Female Character (Zoe, playing into many of the stereotypes of Black Women and strength), two Cool Girls (Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Kaylee and Inara, a sexworker who is able to be dignified by Whedon only once he completely untangles sex work from its current reality and removes any complexities in the situation), and one Victim (River). Black Widow is the Cool Strong Female Character. Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde don’t fare much better. And I don’t even remember any details of the love interest form Doctor Horrible.

To be fair, sometimes Whedon evolves from this position to “Let the ladies kick ass, and let there be a more proportionate number of ladies to men as the ass-kicking commences,” and that’s a good thing. But he’s been playing the game this way for 20 years. Isn’t it about time someone who likes using feminism so much as he does starts thinking more deeply about the concept? This form of self-branding that’s probably gotten him a serious amount of cash by politically minded nerd-girls and socially-conscious nerd boys should be more than simply a marketing strategy, right?

Instead, what we get is a Whedon who continues to tout feminism in a reductive manner. This manner would be refreshing to hear from someone just starting his writing career or who up until now has not be reknowned for his takes on female characters. But for someone who has espoused it as long as Whedon, it feels lazy, perhaps even a bit disinterested.

When talking about Avengers, Whedon complains about the lack of female characters he could use. When asked about his being a male feminist, his response is less an attack on the men who would accuse him of playing traitor and more a defense against the imaginary women who think men can’t be feminists. There’s also an odd “transgender people complain too much” comment that weirdly sticks out. And, when asked about the rise of vampire fiction in contrast to his Buffy works, he said, “The Twilight thing and a lot of these franchise attempts coming out, everything rests on what this girl will do, but she’s completely passive, or not really knowing what the hell is going on...A lot of things aimed at the younger kids is just Choosing Boyfriends: The Movie.”

Whedon wants to play Feminist but doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. His confrontations with anything resembling a patriarchy (comic fans' expectations, movie execs) feel just as staged as any of the fights he’s written in which a tall, statuesque woman defeats ten men. He acts as if complaining about the lack of women in the movie he wrote and directed completely exculpates him from any accountability. Again, it'd be one issue coming from an up-and-comer. But Whedon's in a position now where a real feminist would ask himself: "Well, now what am I gonna do about it?"

Currently it sounds like we’ll be getting three new characters in Avengers: Ultron, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. Once more the numbers don’t look all that good for representation. In fact, despite his huffing and puffing, his sequel has the gender makeup of the average summer blockbuster (the Smurffette principal is slowly becoming the Smurfette and Friend one). But couldn’t Whedon, if he cared, do something about it? Rumors existed that Whedon is getting paid 100 million dollars for the next Avengers. He fervently denies this number, but I imagine it’s not too far off. In short, Whedon is a desireable commodity for Disney/Marvel. Why not use that leverage? Ask for more ladies, a lot more, or he walks? Again, not every director needs to do these things. But ones who like to talk on and on about their politics are more accountable.

His male feminist response is almost too odd for response. It feels as if Whedon’s foe there is a branch of feminism that seems more or less gone: i.e. the separatist movement. Not only that, that movement has really not contributed all too much since Whedon started his career. It has and had occasional gasps, but by now the current strain feels more in the root of men acknowledging their privilege before enterting discussion. Why in his answer does he position himself against women even though there's tons of imaginary men against whom he could pitch his answer?

My knowledge of Whedon’s own queer-politics is admittedly too limited to go into here, so I won’t approach that angle for now...except to say it sounded not incredibly ally-like.

And then there’s Twilight. What can be more feminist than hating Twilight, right? Right? Everyone hates Twilight! Except, you know, its fans…most of which are female.

While admittedly Twilight has many problems and is by no means the most exemplary case of feminism, I always find myself a bit unnerved by all the hate it gets. A lot of this goes back to issues of genre/gender that I won’t go into much here, so I’ll just focus on the attacks on it from the Whedonesque POV – i.e. those that are trying to appear feminist.

The issue with these critiques is that they never really take anything resembling sexism or anything resembling a patriarchy to task. They often come down to “Look at the dumb female [fans/writer/protagonist]. [Aren’t they/isn’t she] silly for [liking this book/writing this book/not fighting for herself]?” It’s a criticism that never extends its contempt beyond the female sphere and is content with making women the object of scorn and ridicule. It never questions the larger structures that may create this issue, never wonders why these books are appealing to girls, and how else we may work to improve entertainment beyond shaming the readers and the writer. Whedon's argument sadly seems to be "Ladies, time to man up!"

As for “Choosing Boyfriends: The Movie”…why is choosing a boyfriend necessarily a bad plot? Despite the fact that Whedon adapted a Shakespearean comedy (and that’s all any of them are really - how to pick a mate), he somehow assumes that reducing a female-aimed YA down to one plot becomes immediate shorthand for its inadequacy compared to the endless kicking and world-saving of his narratives. Last time I checked, picking a boyfriend is tough – it’s filled with emotional struggles and self-interrogation and lots of meaty twists and drama. Sure, Twilight or its ilk may not always provide that deepness, but neither does a much of YA literature fully explore such concepts in the same manner that adult literary fiction would (nor does really it need to).

Whedon’s equation of romance with worthless storytelling brings to mind a Virginia Woolf quote:

Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial’. And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.

And this quote really sums up my issue with Whedon as a feminist. His buttkikcing blonde may have been a great first step – but since then he seems to have, in various ways, coasted and boasted. Were he committed to feminism, really committed to it, he would have to take the time to not only consider how to put women into the roles typically inhabited by men, but perhaps to valorize typically feminine attributes. How could he make a sex worker a compelling, dignified character without elevating her to an ambassador? How can he work on less masculine genres and give them the same dignity and nerd-cred that he’s gotten for his other works?

Admitteldy, I am asking a lot of Whedon. But I ask it to him particularly because he truly does seem to want to be a feminist. In twenty years, you would think a feminist writer would have come across this Woolf quote. Or have picked up one of the hundreds of books of theory which try to push past simply the Strong Female Character. So much of writing is research and yet in his interviews and recent works, Whedon shows very little of his, if he’s even doing it.

Of course, there’s always a more paranoid reading. That Whedon really is just branding himself as the Feminist Nerd Writer. It’s possible, and very possibly an aspect, intentionally or not, though even I’m inclined to think he’s being sincere. If so though, I’ll end this essay undercutting my own reading. In this age where feminism is becoming a dirty word, where we have less Leslie Gores singing against male ownership and more Lady Gagas talking about worshipping men and avidly denying the label of feminism, maybe there’s something not entirely awful in even being willing to use feminism as a marketing strategy. Maybe it’s like the ads with same-sex couples in them: certainly a bit of a clever move to tug on the heartstrings of the liberals and get them to open their wallets…but I suppose it’s better than the alternative.

And that’s the concession I’ll give Whedon. If nothing else, at least he thinks feminism can be a marketing strategy. And we could use more of that.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Real Mystery is "Do I even care anymore?" (JJ Abrams, Tomorrowland, and Too-Coy Marketing)

Rant Prologue

This past weekend, I was a good Disney Crazy and attended the D23 Expo in Anaheim. For those of you not in the know, this expo is essentially Comic Con-lite: booths, panels, costumes, and swag on everything Disney (of course, with the company’s ownership of Star Wars and Marvel, it has a decent amount of geek muscle in it by now).

There were a few things I was looking forward to in the convention:

1. The Animation Panel and seeing what Pixar had in store for us with their non-sequel movies as well as learning more about Frozen

2. The Movie Panel and previewing Saving Mr. Banks as well as learning what the heck Tomorrowland is about

3. Richard Sherman and Alan Mencken in concert

4. The Imagineering Pavilion and learning what was on the slate for Imagineering now that Cars Land is a roaring success and all New Fantasyland needs is the finished Mine Cart ride.

1 and 3 did not disappoint. Neither did the first half of 2. But then, there were the other parts….

Somehow, between the 20 minutes at the booth and the 10-15 minutes that Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof talked at the movie panel, I still have no freaking clue what Tomorrowland is about. Instead of, I dunno, showing concept art, talking about how they came up with the story, showing clips, or doing whatever it is that every other film did at the two panels, we were “treated” to an elaborate song and dance about how they found this box in the Disney studios morgue and it was full of stuff, and all the stuff was super secret and all filled with mysteries (photoshopped picture of Walt and Amelia Earheart), labyrinth under Small World, scratched up early laserdisc that showed a pastiche of 50s images of the future, etc.). For those of you not following Tomorrowlnad, this mystery box and its mysterious contents have been all we’ve been hearing about the film since the beginning of this year. There also has been some type of “alternate reality game” involving somebody blogging about her father, but who has time for that? (More on that later)

Eventually, there was also a booth which was mysteriously guarded in a blue tarp and wasn’t revealed till halfway through the convention (which meant hellish lines afterwards). The booth contained an exhibition of “random” artifacts from the box. To tour the booth, you needed to rent an iPad and carry it about as it gave you an audio tour, spending about three minutes on each object. If you took your time at the booth, it could easily take over half an hour…after waiting an hour on line (needless to say, the overly complex nature of this booth made it far more time intensive and with far longer lines than your average movie booth).

And throughout all of this, you still would not know what the movie was about. Is it a mockumentary about espionage and such during the World’s Fair? Is it a sci-fi time travel film? Is it a period piece? Will Walt be in it or has Tom Hanks filled our "people playing Walt" quota for the decade? Who knows…

Meanwhile, Imagineering’s exhibit seemed mostly like a retrospective on their techniques and accomplishements. Except for three things.

1. Cartons saying “Orange Harvest” out of which R2-D2 broke out, wearing a castmember badge.

2. A booth that seemed to be on Animal Kingdom but, according to some reports, actually had stuff on Avatarland.

3. If you asked to “see something weird” you would receive the poster shown at the top of this post.

Orange Harvest is the least egregious of these offenders, almost to be a non-offender. Its placement was obvious, its message clear and already building off prominent rumors. Star Wars Land is in the works. But the other two, combined with the marketing of Tomorrowland, provide the subject of this rant.

Rant Proper

I knew a gal once who would be prone to saying things like this: “Oh I know a story, but it’s so dirty, I really shouldn’t tell it!” After which, naturally, she would wait for people to beg her to tell it. It was a simple, desperate attempt for attention, to make the story seem more interesting than it probably was. And the worst thing you could do was say “Well, if you don’t want to tell it, let’s move on, shall we?”

For years, a marketing trend has gained steamed among Hollywood, thanks mainly to JJ Abrams and his cronies (of which Lindelof is one) that resembles this young woman’s storytelling technique. It asks fans to beg the filmmakers for more information, to do an intense amount of research and devote far too many hours to what is ultimately a wild goose chase, where the most "fans" (and I use this term loosely) can do is speculate, guess, and beg the filmmakers for another labyrinth…all the while having to deal with the creators not giving them even the most basic of information (genre, premise, characters).

As I said, JJ Abrams with Cloverfield and Super 8 is, if not the main culprit, certainly the personification of this problem. He even inexplicably remained coy about the villain of the second Star Trek film even though everyone had already guessed it. Some think that this coyness is exactly what led Into the Darkness to underperform at the box office (after all, we all know the primary antagonist for our average summer blockbuster). Either way, I think it’s time that we tell Abrams and his ilk that we’re changing the conversation?

Why does this bug me?

It assumes I’m a fan and that I care enough to do the marketers work for them. As I said, Tomorrowland is expecting more time from its fans than the length of the movie itself. Similarly, Disney Imagineering was attempting to put me on a quest that would put that for all Hidden Mickeys to shame. Quite frankly, you need to earn it. I don’t watch the DVD extras before I watch the movie. That’s ridiculous. Why should I devote hours of my time immersing myself in a world before I even know if I like this world…hell, to even find out what this world is? Ultimately at the end of the day, while “Shut up and take my money” is an ideal situation for an entertainment company to be in, they should not assume that will be the case. They should be trying to sell me on paying fifteen bucks to see Tomorrowland at the multiplex, not hoping that I will be so intrigued with so little that I will be begging them to take fifteen bucks so I can learn the secret to an obtuse mystery. I don’t have time to do this research, and quite frankly, if you can’t tell me what your movie is even about, there are a lot of other movies for me to choose from. Come on JJ Abrams/David Lindelof…some of us have work in the morning.

Not all mysteries are created equal. Were I to post a blog entry and say, “This next blog entry is about something” I really shouldn’t expect to become an overnight sensation. And were I to, it wouldn’t be earned. What I worry about Tomorrowland, about the fact that it is so incredibly vague, is that the mystery will overpower the story. Super 8, after all (despite the praise it got), was nothing more than

a cheap mashup of ET and Stand By Me. It might have razzle-dazzled some people who were just so happy to solve the mystery of “What’s this movie about?” but ultimately, the film feels hollow and now that the secret's out, will probably not stand the test of time. Similarly, Tomorrowland’s marketing has me less likely to be dying to see this film than I was when the title and creative team were first announced. Similarly, my reaction to the Imagineering poster was not the salivation I had upon viewing each sketch of Cars Land, but something more akin to “What is this shit?”

Of course, this is not to say that there aren’t right ways to do this marketing. After all, everything in moderation…

Not all speculation is bad, but you need to earn it. Obviously, theories about the last Harry Potter books were rampant the second people would finish the latest one. But why is this different than Tomorrowland or Cloverfield? Because Harry Potter as a property had earned the time people would devote to it. It did not expect virgin – nay, potential – fans to act like diehards. Furthermore, the genre/general narrative had already been established (I knew what I was getting into more or less with each HP book) and any questions actually posed by the author for fans to speculate on were relatively straightforward (What is the Goblet of Fire? Who will die in this book?), not overly ambiguous like “Here’s a magazine from the 20s! Here’s a poem that you can get from random words in this magazine! What does it mean?!” (yes, that did happen with Tomorrowland).

I’m not asking for a trailer to give everything away, but I am asking to know what I’m getting into. Marketing is supposed to make you want something, not give you all of it, nor assume you already want it.

Extra world building for those who care is fine. Days of the Future

Past already has a website up for Trask Industries, the company that makes the Sentinels. Even with my “You have to earn it” out of the way, this technique is fine even before a trailer because anyone with Google can immediately find out the general jist of the movie. It’s based off one of the most famous and beloved X-Men stories of all time and probably won’t stray too far from the basic premise. Anything that may want to hide in the recesses of a website then is gravy.

You can have a little bit of a bait-and-switch (like Tomorrowland is doing with the mystery box), but the gag gets old fast. Disney also did this strategy better at D23 with the short “Get a Horse!” For the week or so beforehand, D23 was touting this short as a recovered 1928 Mickey Mouse short. They even brought it out to the animation

panel with the director dressed as and pretending to be a film historian. Of couse, very soon it became obvious what the truth was. Why did this work? Because it did not leave too much time for speculation and frustration. It was a week or two until the payoff. Furthermore, there was actually no perceived mystery. Whereas we all know by now that Tomorrowland isn’t actually about the F&#!ing Box (which I think I may henceforth call it), Get a Horse easily could have just been a recoverd short for the lack of pomp around it. Tomorrowland, meanwhile, has been dragging out the pretense of the F&#!ing Box for eight months and, honestly, I would not be surprised if they do so for the next year.

Call me old fashioned, but in the age of viral marketing, transmedia, and so forth, I still want there at the end of the day to be a basic advertisement at the heart. What is the movie about and why the hell should I give you any of my money to see it? If you can’t answer that, well then, I’ll just change the conversation.

EDIT: I just realized that the photo makes it look like Photography is Permitted in the Tomorrowland booth. There was a no in fat thumb was just blocking it.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Diversifying Your (Artist's) Portfolio aka My Gay Spider-Man Entry

Spider-Man, Spider-Man

Does it with either gal or man

Not restrained by gender

Unlike the author of Ender

Look out! Here comes queer Spider-Man!

Recently, Andrew Garfield made pseudo headlines by intimating that Mary Jane (or MJ) could be a dude for the next Spider-Man film and that Peter could be moving a few spots up on the Kinsey scale. As is to be expected, there were unhappy fanboys. And happy gays. And once more, the internet was at war. Ultimately, Garfield declared that, despite his wishes, there would be no queer Spidey, but people are still talking.

Ultimately, as a gay fanboy and someone who thinks about representation politics far more than the average Joe or Jane, I have mixed feelings about Garfield's ruminations. On one hand, I acknowledge that someone needs to intervene on comic book canon if we are to have anything slightly resembling diversity. Let's face facts:

there have been VERY few iconic characters who emerged after the 60s (the All-New, All-Different X-Men, Venom, and Harley Quinn are the first ones that come to mind). What that means is that most of the staples for superhero movies originated in a time where heroes were predominantly white men and (with the exception of 40s Wonder Woman and, if Dr. Wertham is to be believed, Batman and Robin) heterosexual (not to mention cisgendered). If no one intervenes, we are stuck with endless blockbusters with the diversity of 50s entertainment. Think of superhero movies up until now. Gays are non-existant and women and characters of color are often relegated to the sidelines (Lucius Fox, Pepper Potts, etc) or there's one-per-team rule (Nick Fury and Black Widow). Admittedly, the X-Men films have MUCH better gender stats, but again, that's because they draw heavily from characters which emerged in the 70s and 80s.

On the other hand, Peter Parker is very straight. In fact, he may be the straightest of superheroes. Spider-Man was the super-hero comic most defined by romantic woes - possibly the first major superhero one to focus so intently on

them. Of course, gays have romantic woes...but is being a gay teen the same as being a straight one? Is thinking we can just make Mary Jane into a guy risking universalizing the queer experience? We may live in the age of Glee and Modern Family and I'm sure things are different than when I was in high school, but I still think some things will be the same. Sure, Peter would be bullied as much as he always was, but were he queer and (more importantly) out, his bullying would probably be less likely to make him romantically unappealing to other guys (who would also be bullied) instead of how it's been so far, where he just looked weak to girls. Also, Peter would be more experienced with having secrets and a double life (even if he was out by the time he was bitten) - being Spider-Man would not equal the first time he had to have barriers between him and Aunt May.

In short, diversity is never as simple as "Just add queerness/lady parts/color." Being a minority often

entails a different experience and outlook and that should be incorporated in the character. Batman, for example, might be a great bisexual character. Bruce Wayne always wants to be dominating the headlines as luxurious and decadent - sexually fluidity might help that...and also maybe make Bruce seem more effete so no one suspects he's the uber-macho Batman. In short, some characters can be changed...and some may have a harder time.

Who cannot (without changing the character substantially)? I'd say, for starters, Captain America, Superman, and Thor, as far as gender and race goes...perhaps sexuality as well. [note of course, that there CAN be a variation on any of these long as the author is aware that they may be severely changing the mythos or some of the central character conceits]

Why? Well, for Cap, we need to consider that 1940s America would never choose a racial minority to be their icon, and that Rosie the Riveter occupied a very different spot from Uncle Sam. It'd be a white-washed history if we were to make the US government color-blind. Also...we'd lose something I always love: the irony that Cap is actually the embodiment of Hitler's Master Race.

[Granted, there is a black "Captain America" story - and an excellent one at that (Truth by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker) - but anyone who has read it knows it's not your typical Captain America story (i.e. get powers, represent the US, defeat Nazis).]

Superman is a similar story. He's the beloved of Metropolis, of everyone. Quite frankly, were a woman or a person of color to have that much power, the sad reality is that there would be more suspicion. Lex Luthor would be the norm...not the exception. Is this an interesting story here? Definitely - one that interrogate certain attitudes on race and gender and the foundations of the Superman mythos. But it's not a classic Superman story - and one that might be tougher to sell as the major, mainstream representation of the character for the decade. [However, apparently Man of Steel ends on this note, so maybe this is a moot point.] Also, I would say Lois Lane is so key here that I'd be hesistant to make Clark anything but straight.

As for Thor...yeah, I suppose he should look very Norse. And still be a dude. I'll give some precedence to mythology. Of course, Asgard isn't only white in the movie, so again, maybe a moot point.

But that leaves us LOTS of characters. And major ones at that.

A common retort though would be that fans don't want movies tampering with the characters. Hawkeye is a white guy - to make him an Indian woman or a Chicano trans-man would make him not Hawkeye. He's Clint Barton. Fandom has not been overly quick to accept these types of changes - the lukewarm reception of the Latino Blue Beetle and the now-dead Asian Atom attest to that. In short, some may ask why do Hollywood and the PC police need to mess with things?

The reality is that Hollywood messes with things all the time (to the point that, all my prior exceptions are loose at best). Joker in Dark Knight no longer had an acid-changed face but wore makeup (and thus Batman's creation of Joker was lost). Jarvis is no longer a butler but a computer program. Rogue's big crush is Iceman, not Gambit. And so forth.

Meanwhile in comics, there sometimes is not even an iconic iteration of a character. Is the definitive Flash Barry Allen or Wally West (or Jay Garrick or Bart Allen)? How about Robin: Dick Grayson or Tim Drake? In fact, we've seen Robin change genders in The Dark Knight Returns and briefly in the comics when Spoiler took over the role. Same could be said for Jon Stewart, though he often pales to the love for Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner (but we'll soon get to why Stewart is 1000 varieties of awesome). Psylocke has managed to turn from British to Japanese without even changing her being Betsy Braddock! So maybe comic fans may be more pliable than they or others may think.

[Admittedly, part of this could point to an inherent racism/sexism/heterosexism/cisgenderism in certain areas of fandom, similar to that of the "Rue backlash" from The Hunger Games, that accept certain changes but short circuit at those of identity - particularly of major characters. But I don't want to push that argument just yet. I'll give those areas time to prove me wrong.]

[Also I should probably note that a lot of this problem stems from unconscious chauvinism - basically "write what you know." As one brave fangirl dressed as Batgirl pointed out at Comic Con in 2011 to many DC panelists, the comic world is a boy's club. Particularly, it's a straight white boy's club, despite our occasional Phil Jimenezes and Gail Simones.]

Furthermore, this has already been done, and successfully, in comics. The only reason Nick Fury is played by Samuel L Jackson in the Marvel movies is because Mark Millar and Bryan HItch reimagined him as a black man (who looked remarkably like SLJ) in the Ultimate Universe. Similarly, Wasp (sadly absent from the film Avengers) became Asian and Colossus turned gay. J Michael Straczynski's Supreme Power changes the old Squadron Supreme to essentially give us a tale of a Justice League
wherein Batman and Flash are black...and race is very much foregrounded. This choice was perfect for a retelling of Justice League that was meant to be darker and more realistic. In a series that did not shy away from the government realities in a superhero team, it only would make sense that the racial realities and tensions of superheroes should be considered. The DC Animated Universe's Justice League chose the lesser-known John Stewart (over Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner) as Green Lantern and threw in the double wildcard of Hawkgirl - not only avoiding one of the more famous members, but even choosing her over her "man" counterpart. Stewart's race/class background and Hawkgirl's defiance of gender expectations helped make these characters arguably the two most interesting ones in the Justice League series. And Batwoman has finally returned to the DCU - now a lesbian. Diversity is not only good for politics and morality - it's good for storytelling.

[Of course, writing this made me realize how the transgendered comic fans are still being incredibly ignored in superhero representation. So my apologies for being unable to think of any mainstream success stories on that front.]

In short, if a Justice League movie comes out of the upcoming Batman/Superman film, perhaps it should have a Wonder Woman who looks more like she came from a Mediterranean Island or a Flash who looks less like the typical Wally West/Barry Allen. But also, we need to not only ask "which character can be less straight/white/male/cisgendered," but also why this character should be so and what narrative potentials are possible. Garfield is making a start of this, and I applaud him for not taking comic history as canon, but his comments do not seem to fully consider both the reality and the narrative impact of making Peter queer. Comic characters' identities should shift for diversity, but this diversity should be more than just an accoutrement or a selling point. The diversity should be diversity, not a universalization of such diversity.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Post-Frozen Disney: A Disheartening Prospect

Hello Pop Culture Gone Bad Fans!

It's been a while, hasn't it? But I, like King Arthur, Jean Grey, and Grover

Cleveland, have returned! And instead of ruminating on my absence, why not delve into another pop culture staple, which is almost by this point distinguished by its waxing and waning.....

“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.

Over the past two years, in an attempt to give myself time off from my graduate studies but still assure my grad student brain that I was being productive, I underwent another movie-watching mission (afficinados of this blog will remember the first one in The Kane Mission). This time, I watched all 52 animated Disney movies (as well as all the Pixar ones, but they’re not too important for the purposes of this entry).

What I noticed over this mission is that Disney undergoes cycles of quality. There is, roughly every generation, a period of amazing, highly praised films (usually with a misstep in the midst), one following which consists of decent films that have their fans, their diehards, their haters, and their meh-ers, and then just a period of god-awful. Furthermore, usually this period of quality is prefaced by a film or two that isn’t as good as the high points of this renaissance, but certainly better than the schlock that preceded it.

And all of this should have us very worried for what film comes after Frozen.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Period 1:

Classics: Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi. Even though I honestly can’t stand Bambi, I’m trying to leave my own personal taste out of this asmuch as possible.

Decent films: The South America ones, i.e. Saludos Amigos and especially Three Caballeros (really, it’s the only film people know from the 40s after Bambi)

Forgotten failures: Make Mine Music (again I’m a fan of this one, but let’s be real here), Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time

Period 2:

Preface: Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (not a full-on classic, but definitely has more a seat at the Disney table than Melody Time)

Classics: Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland (arguably the misstep of this period as it was a critical and commercial flop), Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians. Admittedly, some would put these last two in the decent category, but I’m in charge of this list and allowed my little power trips.

Decent films: Sword in the Stone (actually - as with many of the divisive films of the late 90s - there’s no middle ground on this film…people either have it as a continuation of the classics or something akin to shoving a hot coal covered in vinegar in an open wound), Jungle Book, Aristocats, Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers

Forgotten Failures: Fox and the Hound, Black Cauldron. This may seem like a small period, but it actually lasted almost ten years. The lack of animated features in general could be construed as its own aspect of the dark period. Also, The Rescuers may have been a hit at the time and even have gotten a sequel, but it has more or less lost its place in Disney history by now.

Period 3:

Preface: Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company

Classics: Little Mermaid, Rescuers Down Under (Misstep), Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King – duh.

Decent films: Pocahontas, Hunchback, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan. All of these films are fiercely debated. They all have their haters, as well as their fans who think they’re terribly underrated. My theory on this lot is no one likes all five. At most, you like two…maybe three. And you viciously hate at least one of them.

REALLY murky area of decent or forgotten: Fantasia 2000, Dinosaur (well, everyone hates this one), Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis (surprisingly, this has its fans. I blame Joss Whedon), Lilo and Stitch (mainly because Disney has done all it can to shove Stitch down our throats)

Forgotten Failures: Oh this list is fun…Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons. Man, it’s like listing horcruxes.

We are now in Period 4. And it looks a lot like period 3.

We have our preface, Bolt, which like Great Mouse Detective (or Oliver and Company, if you’re a fan of that) is a cute talking animal film that’s far better than you expect it to be but isn’t the huge hit or inducted into Disney canon as quickly as what will follow it.

We have our Princess Fairy Tale musical (after a period of non or less musical films that often take place more in current – or future – time and are less reliant on old classic fairy tales) that really garners attention from the mainstream public back to Disney Animation: Little Mermaid, meet the Princess and the Frog.

We have our second Princess Fairy Tale music that pretty much follows all the rules of its predecessor to equal or slightly greater/lesser success. Don’t let the Oscars fool you: the debates over Little Mermaid vs. Beauty and the Beast are as fierce as those over Princess and the Frog vs. Tangled.

We have our more boy-centric, more adventurey film: Aladdin and Wreck-It Ralph.

We even have an animal-centric, sequel misstep that’s a complete flop in the midst of this renaissance: Winnie the Pooh plays the role of Rescuers Down Under.

And now we have Frozen. Reports on Frozen thus far have been mixed. I’d actually be less optimistic if I wasn’t convinced it will be The Lion King of this period.

But I could be wrong. It could be Pocahontas: a Princessy story…that’s really isn’t exactly right. But even if it is The Lion King of this period…that means Pocahontas is next. We have nowhere to go but down right now.

So what do you guys think? Am I just superstitious? Or are you ready to just hunker down for the next decade or so until another fairytale finally stumbles our way?

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Unsettling Omissions

Obvious statement: there are things to love and things to hate about the new Harry Potter movie. Some changes they made, such as the shield around the castle, were fun and even sensible. Others, such as the omission of the confrontation in the Ravenclaw Common Room and the long, drawn out fight against Voldemort at the end, were disappointing and aggravating. But what disturbs me is what happens when we line certain changes next to each other.

The changed parts under consideration:

- Hermoine speaking to Griphook
Hermoine never mentions to Griphook how she is as much an outsider to Voldemort as goblins are, as she is a Mudblood.
- Neville filling Harry & co. in as to what has happened at Hogwarts
Neville fails to mention how Muggle Studies has changed to how Muggles are inferior creatures. Furthermore, the Cruciatus Curse is used on first years instead of Muggle-born students.
- The Snape flashback
Snape’s anti-Muggle prejudice is omitted, as is his memory of calling Lily a “mudblood.” Instead of becoming a complex, flawed character who is still a bigot, he becomes another savior figure. Lily’s understandable (though tragic) choice to leave Snape is undone and instead she is a fickle girl who goes for the hot jerk. Rowling in an interview said that that was the moment where Snape lost Lily. Thus the film omitted from Snape’s past what was probably its most crucial moment.
- Dumbledore’s backstory
There is no mention of Grindelwald’s backstory, leaving us no idea how Dumbledore got the Elder Wand. Furthermore, this means that there is no mention of Grindelwald’s “Muggles are inferior” beliefs, nor can there be any allusions to Dumbledore’s love.
- Neville’s stand against Voldemort
Voldemort does not commend Neville’s status as a wizard from a pureblood family. Also, Neville gives a long speech about how Harry’s heart lives inside of everyone even if he is dead.
- Luna and Neville end up together
This addition not only is never alluded to in the books, but even goes directly against who Rowling said the two marry in interviews.

Any of these parts taken under consideration individually would seem reasonable perhaps. I might take umbrage (or even Umbridge) at the grotesque mishandling of Snape’s backstory and Neville’s Oscar speech, which was a heavy-handed waste of time that could have better been used showing Harry repairing his original wand, but whatever. However, when all of these are lined up together, we see a systematic deletion of the Pureblood agenda from the last film.

This deletion is pretty surprising, especially when one considers that this is the central ideological conflict of the book series. The final movie would make one believe that the fight is not about a pureblooded Wizard community vs. an inclusive one, but simply the Evil Wizards vs. Harry Potter (as underlined by Neville’s speech).

The bad Wizards must be exterminated so that the good ones may live. Harry never tries to reason with Voldemort. He does not try to get him to repent to save his soul. We do not even know in this version if he casts the harmless “expelliarmus” when he kills Voldemort. Harry in this version is out for blood, as are many of the “good guys.” This film is not one about tolerance; it’s one about cleaning house. It’s not a film about inclusivity; it’s about getting rid of everyone who stands in your way. Even the Malfoys don’t have a place at table in the final celebration.

Why is this film giving up Rowling’s message of tolerance, a message so prevalent in the books I used to accuse it of being heavy-handed? Because, ultimately, this film is a very conservative film. In this climate of tea-partiers running Congress and Mormon vampire tales ruling the box office, perhaps a bleeding heart film about love of those who are different is not the smartest financial strategy. Notice that the filmmakers even ensure that Dumbledore cannot be gay, since he has no one in his backstory with whom to be gay. There must not be the slightest hint of anything that could keep the red states from inflating the box office gross.

Bigotry is fine. It is not a trait of the bad guys. It’s not directed against the good, smart people like Hermione. It is not something that could lose you the love of your life. It will never try to tempt you to the wrong side by telling you that you would benefit from it. Perhaps bigotry is more than fine…perhaps it just doesn’t exist.

So what does the film leave us in its place? The compulsive, aggressive heterosexual coupling we see enforced on Neville and Luna (a single boy and a single girl can never just be friends!). And we now have a new enemy. We have the flamboyant, foppish Other, whose skin and facial structure is very different from the straight, white kids he is terrorizing. Instead of Hitler, Voldemort is everything that Hitler would decry in a frantic speech. He is a freak of nature, a sexual pervert who in a moment of near-pedophilia gets grabby with Draco Malfoy (again, not in the book!). In the final fight, he ties up Harry like a good bondage master and terrorizes the other children with his very large, very aggressive…snake.

Note how daintily Voldemort holds his wand

Thus we have Voldemort as the abject figure. The abject racial other. And the abject homosexual who endangers the future. Lee Edelman in No Future argues that:

…in the uncannily intimate connection between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort [we see in the Child] a Symbolic resistance to the unmarried men…who embody, as Voldemort’s name makes clear, a wish, a will, or a drive toward death that entails the destruction of the Child. (Edelman 21)

Edelman wrote No Future before the final three Harry Potter books were released, three books which turned the tables, making Voldemort the one obsessed with living forever, whereas Harry underwent a thanatopsis. In the final book, we learned that no one should want to live forever, that to be a true master of Death is to accept its inevitability.

The movie however fulfills Edelman’s argument. Harry never really dies. Instead, futurity is hammered into our heads. Neville’s speech leads us to believe that even when hit with an Avada Kedavra curse, Harry still lives. Everyone carries a piece of Harry. Whereas the book had Harry “die” to protect the people of Hogwarts with his love, the film has Harry “die” only to turn every person at Hogwarts into his Horcrux. Voldemort is right; only one person can live forever. That person is Harry. The Child, the eternal enemy of the abject queer, will live forever. Any maturity he gains along the way, from his acceptance of his mortality to his tolerance of his enemies, must be forgotten, just as any of Peter Pan’s memories must be for the sake of his eternal childhood.

Thus, in the wake of the absent messages of tolerance, we see a film made with Death Eater ideology. A film of seeking eternity at the sake of others, a film of expelling everyone who is different from you, a film of victory through brute force, a film of omissions of difference and celebrations of purity. And, to the defense of the filmmakers, it worked. Through such careful planning, they offended no one. The offense is not even clear except when placed carefully against the book. Instead, everyone loves it and the film is on its way to earning enough money to warrant a rather large vault in Gringotts.