19 October 2011

True Blood's Pariah, America's History, and Black Women's Representaitons

There has been a great deal of hate poured on Tara as a character on the show True Blood on HBO in the form of multiple Facebook groups dedicated to hoping she dies, and blog posts complaining about her. Did I mention Tara is a strong, outspoken, often justifiably angry, and determined Black Female character? Sigh.

I found the most cogent and sharply examined analysis of the hatred Tara receives so far in a blog post about "Strong Female Characters" at TigerBeatDown.com. Demanding a full reconsideration of what it means to be "strong" in the context of these cinematic and visual media, the author calls upon us to consider why to be "strong" is good for White women - historically rooted perceptions of weakness and and wilting-Lilly quality as natural - and why it is always perceived as very bad for Black women - historically grounded perceptions of Black women as inherently masculine, animal like, the diametric opposite of all that is wonderful and White. Therefore, a strong White woman is good and show's gumption, a strong Black woman is annoying.

Unfortunately, I found this analysis through the link in a Think Progress blog posting about why the brilliant critique at Tiger Beat Down was wrong because Tara is unloved due to being "Static" not due to being Black. If I wasn't also reading Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Roberts and Hortense Spillers' Black, White and In Color, I might not be quite so imbued with excitement over TigerBeatDown's insight and anger over this blogger's shortsightedness and seemingly ill-intentioned attack. But alas, reading the history of Black women's treatment within the U.S. will do that to you. But that aside...

As is too often the case, liberal, well educated, White women still refuse to believe race can play a role in the abuses suffered by a Black woman and other Women Of Color because it would force a questioning of their own relatively privileged position within an extant representational/power hierarchy, within an evolving cultural milieu, and within a functioning historical narrative that prizes their supposedly inherent positive attributes to the detriment of Women Of Color who are perceived as all that is opposed and awful. After one too many frustrated flipping of pages, figurative and literal, to escape their narrow thinking, I decided to answer the lunacy of this blogger, and have included the content below:

Alyssa, your comments about Tara with regards to race and her representation on True Blood go from unfair to downright vicious - especially growing as they do out of a desire to declare the profound and insightful commentary at TigerBeatDown.com to be false. You state:

"It’s that the character never grows, and exhibits consistently poor judgement [sic], sabotaging a potential relationship with a nice, stable man and taking up with a former criminal, seeking protection with and then falling under the spell of a powerful, chaos-inclined magical entity, and then when she gets therapy and rebuilds her life outside of Bon Temps, sabotages it again for no discernable [sic] reason, taking up with a genocidal witches’ coven."

What character on the show miraculously evolves as you would demand of Tara? NONE. Part of the show's allure is the constant danger and impulse of so many characters to constantly make decisions which place them in mortal danger. Thus you could create a list like the one you spill over Tara for any of the other characters on the show! The only one to demonstrably change in any real way is Eric, and only because he suffered a witches curse, now his memory is back and lord knows if he'll stay all sweet.

Everyone on the show consistently makes bad decisions - Sookie can only love men who desire to eat her. She slept with Eric! He's hot, but vicious. She didn't pick the hot, available, stable werewolf, but instead the crazy, scary vampire. Or how about Arlene who went from a serial killer to a mildly deranged military vet. Or Sam who consistently does the Wrong thing - whether killing folks in the past or kicking his brother out when what his brother needed was stability, a place to call home without dog-fights, and someone to call him on his BS for a change.

But even if we only consider what you are asking of Tara and not her characterization compared to others (even if I think the comparison is sufficient to show similarity, but in the interest of answering the insulting length of your demands...) there is still something amiss in your desire to declare Tara "Static" if we consider what you list as the reasons why she is a static and hated/unloved character:

1- Who is this nice stable man she sabotages a relationship with? Who on this show has ever been shown to truly be stable at all? Maybe werewolf man, but then he does change into a beast when the full moon pops up.
2- Are you really beyond the ability to understand or see the desire of a child of an alcoholic single mother (with no other family) to take advantage of the shelter and care being offered by a woman with so much to give and other people in need under her care? Can you truly be faulting Tara for being bewitched? Do you fault everyone else for their bewitchment as well? And are You Really asking Tara to have been psychic and discerned that the nice lady was really a maenad intent on destroying her life? Because I refuse to believe that someone who went to college would expect precognition of a Black female character as the grounds for the character to be considered 'dynamic.'
3- If you do not know why Tara sent her girlfriend away - to avoid her being hurt/killed - and believe the show's creators so inept as to have had her take up with the coven for no reason - if you watch the show, there is a reason - then I don't know what to say.

Clearly, the reasons you present for why Tara is "static" are really reasons rooted in a desire for her character to be superhuman, infallable, maternal, and rooted in a quasi-behavioral Whiteness which you point out as being necessary for this to be possible. And before you dispute this, you do say:

"Tara’s character [in the novels] is a recovering abuse survivor who’s sometimes brittle because of it, but she’s also a small business owner, a good friend to Sookie (though they have their fallings [sic] out), a wife and mother—and she’s white. If Ball had kept that character development arc, and committed to that emotional growth, but cast Rutina Wesley in the role, I think we’d think Tara is a hero. Instead, he both made her black and an object of perpetual humiliation. If we’re not cheering Tara it’s because the character has no discernable [sic] investment in her own life and happiness."

Now, if you list wonderful things and add, "--and she's white.", then follow by saying, "he made her black and an object of perpetual humiliation", what you are doing, even if inadvertently, is setting up the similarity between the wonderful world of possibility that is White Tara in the book and how awful Black Tara is in the show. You are linking the characteristics to color not for the purpose of clarity, but to further establish why Black Tara is so faulty for this indistinct, intangible but seemingly preferential list of vague plot details. (We'll leave aside discussion for now of all the troublesome undercurrents of your desire to see a Black, single mother Tara character with children.)

Done so casually, this comparison is scary to me. Especially because it renders inauthentic your claim to want to add business-owner as a part of Tara's character to make her better. Oh, and a business-owner without any ups or downs natural to all characters on a show, and with a perfect supportive relationship to Sookie at all times. Perhaps one can fault the show for not giving Tara enough purely self-motivated, self-oriented actions, but to demand perfection is... odd.
And it goes without saying that None of the characters demonstrate a serious investment in their own happiness as far as making good decisions.

When you present such an insubstantial and specious list of reasons for why Tara is hated by so many, and use it as a direct assault on the sound, historically and theoretically grounded arguments of the authors at TigerBeatDown.com, I would question the stakes for you in derailing the cause of honest discourse about women and racial representations on TV. I would question your reasons for trumpeting Tara as "perpetually humiliated" rather than as an able, adaptable, strong, survivor of multiple horrific incidents who still manages to support her friend Sookie by refusing to sugar-coat the truth or allow her to make crazy decisions without reflection. The best moments are when they are honest and real with each other about what is going on, even if one end up angry about it. So again I ask, what is at stake for you in derailing the cause of Honest discussion about these representations the way you are?

27 June 2011

Kerry Washington Lovely in Lift (2001)

Comment in response to Elvis Mitchell's review of this wonderful little film:

Lift (2001) is a sharp, witty cinematic effort, giving us well drawn characters whose lives we care about. Its also a stunning turn by Kerry Washington in a heavy indictment of consumer culture. It is filled with complex and generous portrayals of these characters. And even if the reasons underpinning their desire for the designer goods is something which the audience is expected to know already - which, depending on the viewing audience could determine whether these characters end up stereotyped or understood - the actors still give them such depth one should feel for them.

Elvis Mitchell calls these young Black characters small-minded and short-sighted, but this is an ungenerous read at best and at worst its a rough essentializing. Especially because, at its most poignant, this film proves that ironically, the accusations of otherness slopped onto Black people in the U.S. can easily be disproved when one considers the fact that the All American Love of bigger, better, more, now is shared by White and Black Americans! If nothing else we know that the oppressed, or formerly oppressed, follow the suit of their oppressors, so if we are to nag these young people for their behavior, we must condemn all American culture for making it seem there is nothing in life but to own and have more stuff...

21 June 2011

Jennifer's Body (2009): Misunderstood Brilliance

Jennifer's Body suffers from a few major afflictions: reviews that want it to be something gorier or more evil than it is, reviews that attack it for an assumption of cheap opportunism, and some reviewers that plain just don't understand at all what's going on.

I felt compelled to write this review not because Diablo Cody has created the perfect horror movie, or even one it seems most (male?) horror fans will enjoy. The film does suffer a few moments of seemingly forced dialogue which only works because Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried produce such wonderful performances. The reason why this film is amazing has to do with its being the logical conclusion to or heir apparent to Mean Girls and Chumscrubber: The Perfect White Suburban Female Horror flick. Playing on the suburban malaise and disconnections which sometimes structure empty lives, this film ensures we feel fear at the thought of the dark underbelly of small town American teens! Rather than a rehash, it takes Mean Girls to another level, one where female friendships and rapidly proliferating youthful apathy are revealed to be the true terror and not some indestructible man in a mask.

In dreadcentral.com's review - which at times implies that that the author does not understand even the basics of narrative structure - they accuse the film of being too concerned with seeming important and using a whirlpool as a useless plot device at the film's climax. I argue here that part of what they've missed is that Cody and Kusama are all too aware of both the levity and weight of the film, and have used each element purposefully.

It may not be a strictly feminist horror film - Needy escapes, but after all they do kill Jennifer in the end, bad form! But the film does a great job at revealing the true horror, fear, resentments, distrust, and oppression at the center of so many female friendships!! All women at sometime have thought a friend to be a demon: evil, ruthless, heartless, cruel, and capable of infinite evil. This film is what would happen if one could prove it. Therefore the whirlpool is far from a useless plot point, and is instead a potent visual metaphor for a number of things:

1) The terrible fear most civilizations have of female sexuality as that swirling thing that may have no depths, operates beyond man's comprehension, and can consume infinitely. It is no mistake that one of the film's early scenes is of two men dumping boxes of balls into the whirlpool which are consumed and never seen again. This fear may be represented, to me at least, in somewhat heavy-handed fashion, but I have yet to read a review that points this out, which means folks are missing the significance and it is a cool thing to note!!

2) The vortex that bad female friendships can become, sucking energy, joy, even life out of you even as you find them impossible to escape. See the previous comments about female friendships.

3) Finally, the terrifying depths of female abjection and violation in the face of stronger men. It is no mistake that it is near that infinite whirlpool that the band decides to sacrifice Jennifer. Ostensibly she has to be sacrificed in the name of the band's financial success, but the placement near the whirlpool reminds one of the vast numbers of women who go missing, are raped, assaulted, and abused worldwide and whose cries are either laughed at or go unheard altogether.

Reviewers complaining about the improbability of Cody's language have spent little time around groups of girls age 13 to 19, because the made up slang, the viciousness, and constant pushing and testing is a hallmark of current female interaction - the latter to a disturbing degree I believe. And scenes in the classroom of Jennifer's demon possessed form laughing about death and sadness is not so far fetched in our mass media, rapidly evolving, 24 hour news cycle lives. A reviewer in Australia complained that the movie fails to create anything a viewer could identify with as scary, well he clearly has never been in a female friendship.

If there's anything to truly complain about in this film it is the narratively necessary and therefore inevitable, but ultimately uninspiring demise of Jennifer. In a womanist read of the film, Jennifer lives as most men dream of living: taking on "lovers" when she wants, disposing of them at will, and using their adoration and fear of losing out on the opportunity she offers to suck them dry of energy and leave them empty in her wake. How many films celebrate just this sort of male behavior wherein women occupy cardboard placement in service to men's sexual whims or maternal needs? I adore The Hangover and Swingers, but these films are no friends to women.

Here, unlike in Weird Science (1985), Jennifer as whirlpool does the supernatural selecting and discarding. Her death therefore somehow feels an appeasement of scared male egos - the film's scientists - who really just want that whirlpool to be clarified, contained, and understood. Beyond the usual requirement that horror films punish the bad (often) and save our heroine (sometimes), it seems that Jennifer has to die for her bad friendship, her ruthless high school demeanor, but most importantly for her murder of young men whose only crime was to fall for her beauty imagining it covered a nice person too. Hence the film requires Needy's discovery of the end of the whirlpool, the end of Jennifer's sexually charged rampage through male flesh, the end of male fear of the unpredictable or dangerous in dreamily imagined encounters with strange, hot women. After all, men need to believe there are hot women out there who will sleep with and satisfy them without then eating them afterwards.

What does the whirlpool mean for Needy? In one read, we could say that Needy has discovered her own empowered connection to the whirlpool's violent, powerful possibility - she has become part demon after all, and can truly enjoy her sexuality, refusal to be a victim, and no-nonsense attitude. Now Needy may become the perfect melding of Jennifer's power, sensuousness and self-containment, and her own composed, logical self. Thus, in truly amazing and womanist inspired writing, Jennifer and Needy are two halves of a whole, and the perfect woman is and can be (if she wants) a mix of the sassy and sweet, brutal and tender, powerful and empowering!

However, in a more likely read, the discovery of the end of the whirlpool still harkens back to scary female sexuality since the end of the whirlpool equals the earlier deposited, disembodied balls and an obscenely large hunting knife - castration anxiety anyone? And why does the whirlpool seemingly dump out on the side of an empty stretch of road? A lonely no-man's land, where the next person Needy encounters is a motorist played by actor Lance Henriksen. Yes, Henriksen who has been forever immortalized on celluloid as being the male representation of how terrifying and destructive a force reproduction is - pregnancy is death! BUT this does not spell the complete death knell of womanist/feminist readings, and I would have to really stretch to believe Cody and Kusama did not want a less sad reading of this 'you go girl' flick!

All in all, I found this film full of the necessary frights - that evil friend just might kill me or destroy my life or steal my man!! - really scary moments - groups and solitary men do in fact kidnap and torture women all the time - and legit representations of youthful behavior - I have actually heard dialogue from high schoolers and middle schoolers that eerily resembles this film's dialogue... The film Kick's Ass!!

So reviewers out there, give the film a shot and stop hating just because its "cool" to hate it! The creative minds behind Girl Fight (2000) and Juno (2007) deserve more consideration than you've given them!!

28 May 2011

Hangover II: The Hunt For Greater Offensiveness

In response to The Hangover II's completely tone-less, tasteless, and inappropriate use of iconic imagery, I searched the internet for a review which also mentioned this mis-fire. Here's my comment based on Roeper's review of the film:

Thank God one reviewer has said it! My husband, brother and I thought we were the only ones to notice the horribly offensive and far, far from funny re-enactment of the iconic Viet Nam war photograph of a man being executed by a gunshot to the head during the end credits. While I argued that there is no way Phillips could actually have thought this would be funny and had done it unintentionally (using an image stuck in his head but not purposefully referring to this horrible image), my brother and husband argue that he intentionally used it and thought it would be funny. Regardless, I am happy to hear someone else point out its taste-less-ness and as an end to what had in general been expected and tolerable offensiveness, closing with this intolerable image has left us with a terrible taste in our mouths.

15 May 2011

Pushing Women's Humor Back Into The Stone Age....

Response to Edelstein's review of BrideWars over at NPR:

Dear Edelstein,

As a female-of color-English Ph.D. student with very broad interests and sensibilities, I am having trouble figuring out in what way your 'review' of this film is most offensive! Is it:

1)In its essentializing of the female experience - as if there is some exclusively female frailty that is inherent and prohibitive of certain behavior. In other words, you seem to believe that if men find it funny women can't as well because...?

2)In your presumption that to be Female is to only find specific (what, "ladylike"?) forms of humor funny or acceptable. The scene at the bridal shop became more funny for me than for my husband because he doesn't know the value/cost of bridal gowns (I do) nor the strain women regularly are under Not to allow any untoward smells to escape their person- let alone a food poisoning explosions. For the women of our group, this made the scene a cathartic rush revealing that we too are human... and in pain over that gorgeous ruined gown!

3)Your reduction of Melissa McCarthy's wonderful and emotionally complex performance to one of playing off of her Girth! There was more nuance and grace to her portrayal than you give her credit for, and your review smacks of your inability to see beyond her weight.

Part II:

I'm sorry, but I must make one more comment or suggestion about what makes this review problematic - as 'Analytical Ph.D. Student' I cannot fail to give "suggested reading" if I take issue with an argument.

It seems that at best, this Review would be better described as an ill-intentioned and oddly toned Referendum on what women are or are not permitted to find humorous, or what experiences women are or are not entitled to have/claim as part of their functioning as human beings in an American cultural setting!

I suggest you watch the South Park episode on queefing. (Though unladylike I suppose, there is no other more appropriate and simple word to choose.) I thought they did a great job at highlighting that women have a sense of humor as well that can intersect with bodily (mal)functions.

Women have bodies too, and in some ways are more of our bodies than men are by virtue of our frequent object status. (See fast food places giving girls dolls and boys trucks in kid's meals.)

There is a prim propriety thrust upon women which I am happy to see these hysterical, bright women shake off the yoke of in this film! Please stop trying to tie them back down with antiquated, prescriptive genre titles.

02 February 2011

Subway Stories

Subway Stories is a wonderful collection of short films based on stories submitted by real New Yorkers. Suffice to say the subway offers a prime public forum for discovering all the variations of human behavior, so a film featuring many vignettes about this amazing system, would have to try hard to do a poor job. Luckily for us, this film is a wonderful gem!

I've written on it for a paper in the past, and hope to deepen my discussion in the future. But even after writing on it many times, I never fail to wish I could easily access the information for this movie. IMDB doesn't have the directors separated out according to each of their respective shorts, and there is no summary provided for each short film either. So I have watched the film again and carefully recorded all the information I wish was available.


Subway Stories - structured similarly to films such as Paris, Je T'aime and New York, I Love You - is divided according to director into short films, each with their own title, but strung almost seamlessly together.

"Subway Car From Hell"
Directed by Jonathan Demme, written by Adam Brooks
Acting as bookend narratives which open and close the film, and starring Bill Irwin, this short film follows the attempts of a didgeridoo player to grab a bite to eat and navigate the subway system during a particularly crowded time of the day. Interactions with other people are framed through the actors talking directly into the camera. The second, end clip finds him adjacent to the 42nd Street Shuttle; ironically marking the film's end at the juncture of dozens of trains and subways.

"The Red Shoes"
Directed by Craig McKay, written by John Guare
Starring Christine Lahti, Denis Leary, and N'Bushe Wright, this segment portrays an altercation between an angry wheelchair bound homeless man, and the business woman who he manages to enrage by repeatedly running over her feet with his chair. As another woman becomes involved, things take an unexpected turn into moral quandary, and it becomes clear that the subway-car-bound court of public opinion can as easily convict as free you.

"The 5:24"
Directed by Bob Balaban, written by Lynn Grossman
Starring Steve Zahn and Jerry Stiller, this short follows the conversations between a wary young financial analyst and a seemingly brilliant, wise, older, and allegedly retired analyst who claims working in an office, though lucrative, would take the fun out his predictive abilities. When the older man proposes and investment that appears too good to be true, will the young analyst set aside his fears and gamble his savings on the older man's lucrative proposal?

"Fern's Heart of Darkness"
Directed by Patricia Benoit, written by Angela Todd
Starring Bonnie Hunt as the titular Fern, and with a non-speaking appearance by Mekhi Phifer, this short follows the conservatively dressed Fern, a visitor to the city who is attempting to take the subway, rather than a cab, to a friend's home. Falling victim not to crime, but to her own fears and assumptions about big city people, whether or not they appear different from herself, Fern refuses to ask for or accept help from anyone, and finds herself lost and locked underground overnight.

"The Listeners"
Directed by Seth Rosenfeld, written by Ken Kelsch
Starring Michael Rapaport and Lili Taylor, this short examines the age-old problem of communication in relationships when Belinda accuses her boyfriend of not listening to her. Her angry shift of location to another car, and brief conversation about politics with a suited older man who seems at first to just be friendly, reveals that in the city, listening, hearing, and understanding are far more complicated, communal activities than one might have thought.

Directed by Lucas Platt, written by Albert Innaurato
Starring Mercedes Ruehl as a sensual older woman with unusual appetites, this short asks and answers the question: what does a young man dumped by his girlfriend and beat up by her ex-boyfriend and his friends need to soothe his bruised face and ego?

Directed by Alison Maclean, written by Danny Hoch
Nicole Ari Parker and Sarita Choudhury star in this short as Sharon and Humera, attractive law students heading home after a late night out. Tired and boarding the train alone, although it is far from empty, Humera is groped by two immature, offensive young men. However, the end of this short reminds you that, in a city like New York, appearing to be an easy target does not make one an easy target, and you would be well advised to avoid bothering or abusing anyone.

"Sax Cantor Riff"
Written and directed by Julie Dash
Starring Taral Hicks, and with a brief appearance by Sam Rockwell, this short celebrates the unexpected musical gifts which the subway can give. In overlapping duets between a saxophone player, accompanying first a gospel singer, and then a Jewish singer, one finds the subway to be an underground Carnegie Hall - whether the music is born of the grief wrought by experiencing the death of a parent over a public telephone, or produced by the heart-rending lament of a Hasidic man's unexpected emotional outpouring.

"Love on the A Train"
Directed by Abel Ferrara, written by Marla Hanson
Starring Rosie Perez and Gretchen Mol, this humorous short follows a newly married man who develops an utterly silent, distracting, sensual relationship with an attractive woman on the subway. Although they never speak, they spend their morning commute lightly rubbing against each other, while appearing to only lean against a pole. Will his marriage survive this odd, but addictive morning infidelity? Will he and the woman ever speak?

"Manhattan Miracle"
Directed by Ted Demme, written by Joe Viola
Gregory Hines, world renowned dancer, stars here as a compelling and expressive observer who cannot ignore a woman in trouble on the other platform. With a soundtrack of Vivaldi's Concerto for Cello in D Minor providing atmosphere, he watches with growing concern and fear as a distressed pregnant woman across from him decides whether to commit suicide by jumping onto the tracks. His act of skipping a train to try and gain the woman's attention and keep her from jumping, reveals in part why this short is a worthy capstone to this finely rendered collection.

This information will also be posted at Wikipedia under the pre-existing Wikipedia Subway Stories listing, but until I have a second to enter the symbols so the code works, here it is now!