thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

It’s the Patriarchy, Stupid!: Orphan Black and the Mainstreaming of Feminism

In body politics, feminism, gender, spoilers, Television, TV, Women's health on August 21, 2014 at 8:05 am

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Sarah S.

The Canadian television series Orphan Black begs the question, what if the future really is now? Its central protagonist is Sarah Manning, a British ex-pat, orphan, and grifter whose life changes forever when she sees a woman commit suicide in the subway. The catch? The woman turns out to be Beth Childs, a New York City police detective who looks exactly like Sarah. Given their shared appearance, Sarah decides to assume Beth’s identity and discovers in the process that Beth is not a long lost sister or cousin but that Beth and Sarah are two of several clones. A group of them is only just discovering this truth about themselves, or to use the parlance of the scientists who created them, becoming “self-aware.” The plot thickens as Sarah learns that Beth is under review by her department for shooting a civilian and someone is systematically murdering the clones. In short, Sarah’s life gets very, very complicated very, very quickly.

In many ways, Orphan Black seems like a classic science fiction plot—science is run amok, humans pay the consequences. But wrapped inside this broad perspective is a representation of patriarchy’s effects on women’s lives. Despite their shared genetics, Orphan Black emphasizes the personality differences between the clones, from uptight soccer mom Alison, to brilliant scientist Cosima, to mad, traumatized Helena. (I should note here the mesmerizing performance of Tatiana Maslany, who plays all the clones; she makes you believe each one is a distinct person.) Despite the characters’s individuality, they find themselves equally subject to exterior forces that deem them less than human and therefore able to be owned, manipulated, and objectified.

Two social institutions vie for control of the clones: corporate science and religion. Specifically, the Dyad institute, who took over the clone research and monitors the women in secret, and the Proletheans, a zealot sect that believes the clones flout God’s creative power. For both of these organizations, the clones exist to be controlled and forced to adhere to each group’s worldview. But by emphasizing the humanity and individuality of these women, Orphan Black makes viewers emotionally reject this premise, siding with the clones over the forces that seek to control them. Thus Orphan Black sets up Dyad and the Proletheans as metaphorical stand-ins for the patriarchy, blindly pursuing its own power at the expense of women’s independence and self-actualization.

How to Be Brave: The “Divergent” Method

In dystopian literature, feminism, YA on August 15, 2014 at 7:57 am

Sarah Todd

Too many girls grow up learning that they should be afraid to live in the world. Female action heroes offer us a different vision. When Ripley punches a slobbering alien queen, we see what it’s like to fight back. When Buffy defeats a pack of vampires with witticisms and a series of neatly executed roundhouse kicks, we can imagine our own unlikely victories. When Katniss aims her arrow at a shimmering window in a force field and lets it fly, it seems possible that we too can take oppressive systems down.

Inspiring as these characters are, their heroism can seem a little inaccessible–their ferocity inborn and therefore difficult to reproduce. Ripley is already a tough, no-nonsense warrant officer when she encounters her first slimy spider-creature. Buffy has the physical strength and superb fighting skills necessary for taking on the Hellmouth. Katniss has a rebellious spirit, fleet feet and perfect aim long before she enters the Hunger Games arena.

But for many real-world women, being brave takes practice. After all, women aren’t wrong to be afraid sometimes; the world really can be a dangerous place, and fear can be a life-saving instinct. But our culture is wrong to instill fear in women and then stop there, encouraging us to stay at home with all the lights on rather than empowering us to try to make the world safer for everyone.

That latter possibility forms the core of Divergent, a young adult film starring Shailene Woodley and based on a popular dystopian trilogy by Veronica Roth. The story—a blander, declawed version of the Hunger Games—isn’t going to set anybody’s world on fire. That said, I’ve read the whole series and expect to see all the movies. This is not because they are actually good, but because I’ve yet to encounter another story that engages so directly with the idea of a young woman who teaches herself courage.

Divergent is set in a bombed-out future version of Chicago that’s walled off from all that lies beyond city limits. Society is divided into six factions, according to the quality most prized by each. The Erudite are smarties in lab coats, while people in Candor are honest enough to tell them that lab coats are really unflattering. Abnegation members practice the art of selflessness; Amity types are peace-loving hippies. And then there’s Dauntless—a group of people who pride themselves on being brave, and will do pretty much whatever dumb thing to prove their mettle.

Violently Inclined: On TV’s Obsession with White Male Violence

In race, Television, violence on August 7, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Phoebe B.

It turns out the more televised violence you watch, the more fear of crime you develop—even if that fear is not specific to your life, family, neighborhood. Recently, the Annenberg School (USC) released the results of a study on TV violence. The study, as reported by Deadline Hollywood, “confirm[s] the effects of TV on people’s fear, but do not support the idea that people think there is actually more crime in their neighborhood.”

The study’s release was perfectly timed with Emily Nussbaum’s wonderful essay on FX’s television adaptation of Fargo. “How good does a violent drama need to be to make the pain of watching worth it?” Nussbam asks. She concludes, ultimately, that Fargo is not quite good enough to endure the violence it showcases. In a TV landscape where depictions of violence are replicating like zombies on The Walking Dead, Nussbaum’s question and the Annenberg study results are particularly pressing.

The problem is not, though, just the prevalence of violence on TV. Rather, it is the kinds of violence and victimhood that are emphasized: programming revels in white male violence, exploring it in excruciating detail, while other forms of violence and their consequences are dismissed or ignored. I wonder, not about the cause and effect of violent white male TV depictions, but rather about the culture revealed in contemporary violent shows and in our fascination with fantasies of white masculinist violence propped up, too often, by both the protection and murder of white women.

It is not, then, simply that viewers experience increased levels of fear, but the ways in which that fear is framed, narrated, and told is of particular importance. The first time I remember the effect of violent media narratives was during the child abduction scare of the 1990s, initiated at least where I lived by the gruesome disappearance and murder of Polly Klaas.

Klaas’ abduction out of her Bay Area bedroom window and subsequent murder made national headlines and evoked terror in then-pre-teen me. Her abduction incited a media circus and a nationwide hunt; ultimately, her murder played a role in the passing of California’s controversial three-strikes law.

The media narrative surrounding Klaas’ abduction drew on age-old scripts of the white “Dead Girl,” whose murder usually both incites a narrative and serves as the justification for violence. The dead girl plot is not, however, inherently a bad thing, Sady Doyle suggests, because when the dead girls talk back, when they are allowed their own voice, they become complex and active characters rather than ghostly projections of male fantasy.

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