thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

Fighting Clean: xoJane and Its Discontents

In reproductive health on October 30, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Sarah Todd

Fighting can be great. To me, a thoughtful debate between well-matched opponents is far more productive and engaging than a lecture by even the most knowledgeable of speakers. I’d rather hear Hamilton and Jefferson go head-to-head, and sort out what I think for myself in the process, than hear either one of them give a monologue. In this example, I guess I’m assuming that either I live in colonial America or time travel has been invented. I’ve been singing 1776 to myself a lot lately.

In a good fight, people have to reason their way through their positions, reflect on their assumptions, respond to the arguments of their opponents, and perhaps adjust their views to incorporate new information. It’s argumentative writing 101, as all the comp instructors out there can attest (holler!). Unfortunately, the internet hasn’t figured out how to fight too well just yet. Read the rest of this entry »

How to be awesome like Katniss Everdeen

In gender, girl culture on October 30, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Melissa Sexton

For Halloween this year, two of the GLG writing crew dressed up as Katniss Everdeen.  As my friend Brian said at the party, after he recognized my mockingjay pin with delight, “I’m surprised there aren’t more Katnisses.  I mean, I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it’s the obvious thing to be!”

Perhaps you are not as familiar with Katniss as we think you should be, and perhaps you don’t know why she is the obvious character every girl wants to be when putting on a costume. One of the reasons I ended up loving my costume, despite its limited recognition value, was because it allowed me to proselytize for The Hunger Games hard core and explain to strangers and old friends that Katniss is the most kick-ass heroine who survives a post-apocalyptic dystopian society by drawing on her own inner strength as well as the hunting skills that previously enabled her to provide for her family.  The movies are starting to come out next year, and trust me – once the films hit the public eye (and if the films manage to keep so many of the things I and many people I know love about Katniss) everyone will be wishing they could be Katniss.

So why do we love Katniss with such universal passion? [Behind the cut, I've separated my lists into spoiler-free and spoiler-filled categories so those hoping to read The Hunger Games trilogy needn't worry about finding out too much!]

Read the rest of this entry »

The Secret Circle Roundtable, Season 1 Episode 7: “Masked”

In teen soaps on October 28, 2011 at 5:28 pm

This week on The Secret Circle, Cassie throws a Halloween party replete with kidnappings; Faye wears a daring top and Diana wears some rad fake teeth; lots of people bleed, one person dies, one person burns, and one person gets a concussion (Cassie’s grandma, hope you’re okay!). Read the rest of this entry »

The Secret Circle Roundtable: Season 1, Episode 6, “The Wake”

In teen soaps on October 25, 2011 at 7:01 pm

This week finds our young witches mourning (or oddly not-mourning) the death of one of their own; reconfiguring with the appearance of a new circle member; and ducking witch-hunters. These kids can’t catch a break. Read the rest of this entry »

How to be awesome like Abby Sciuto …

In Uncategorized on October 22, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

For those of you out there who are not NCIS fans … Firstly, go home, turn on TNT around 5pm, and it is bound to be on and featuring Mark Harmon in all his glory. But this is about Abby Sciuto (Pauly Perrette) and her amazing and delightful and brilliant character. She is the forensic scientist of the NCIS team with multiple degrees in hardcore scientific things; she is has a grand Goth aesthetic and sometimes sleeps in a coffin; is on a bowling team with nuns; and is generally super cool (as is the other main female character on NCIS, Ziva David who is a badass former Mossad assassin. The women of NCIS are often awesome, I think) and I would kind of love to be friends with her. So here are a few tips on how to be awesome like Abby …

Have a PhD in Chemistry or something along those scientific lines but also an MA in criminology because you are badass.

Drink tons and tons of large caffeinated drinks that look like they are slurpies (Caf-Pows on the show). As a consequence, you might be super excited about everything and a little manic, but that’s okay because that’s how Abby is.

Wear crazy cool boots all the time and get a spider tattooed on your neck.

Be an amazing friend and care about your team, like they are your family.

Always wear your hair in two braids (or pigtails) and have great bangs. Such great bangs.

Never let people underestimate you. Nope not ever.

Drive a bright red Ford Model B (yup that’s right a car from the 1930s).

Have some super awesome computer hacking skills.

Be a forensic specialist with NCIS and solve murders all the time.

Have a stuffed hippo named Bert that makes farting sounds when you squeeze him (whom you occasionally perform CPR on).

Be fluent in sign language (a skill she developed it turns out as both her parents were deaf).

Give lots of hugs even to people who are not big huggers (For example, Gibbs played by Mark Harmon).

Be really respected and adored by your co-workers. Abby is beloved and trusted by her whole team who rely on her big time and all the time.

Be good at bowling and like to play on a team with nuns.

And I’m pretty sure there are a million other ways in which Abby is awesome, so if you are so inspired, add away!

Pretty Little Liars Roundtable: “The First Secret”

In teen soaps on October 21, 2011 at 10:18 am

Our beloved PLL came back for one very special Halloween episode! And now, the long wait till January begins…

1) Thoughts on a episode-long flashback for the PLL ladies?

Phoebe: I do love a great flashback episode! I rather enjoyed this episode, although it was rather scary. Especially that creepy person in a creepy mask that was following Ali and the girls around. Also, how scary was the twin story?! So creepy. And Ali really comes off in this episode, more than any others before I think, as terrifying. We really see the way she manipulated the girls, which seemed somehow attached to the fear of being tormented by our currently masked scary person.

Sarah: I was delighted to have a flashback episode where Ali got to be a more central character. I think it’s really helpful to see more of what life was like for the PLLs when she was around. Also, I think it’s a good way to extend the life of the series. If the show backtracks like this sometimes, it gets to develop a richer back-story and open up some new mysteries without falling into common mystery-based double bind of either telling us who the killer is and losing its engine or dragging out the mystery for way too long and driving fans up the wall. Flashbacks all next season would be okay with me!

2) What are your thoughts on meeting Jenna? Her relationship with Ali? And her and Mona’s introduction? Also, who was the better Gaga?

Phoebe: As for the Gaga competition, I’m not gonna lie, Jenna totally won that contest, as Mona duly noted. Jenna looked so great! And so weird and different without her giant sunglasses. Also, it was fun/interesting to see where that rivalry started … AND her and Mona’s introduction … Wow! I feel like that was some sort of huge hint, but I am wary of presuming too much about PLL as they are so sneaky with their red herrings. But I feel like we have all talked about suspecting Mona and we know that the cop and Jenna are in on something. Thus, that made me think, are all three of them working together?  Also, I found myself liking Jenna a lot in this episode, particularly when she told Ali that she wanted to choose her friends.

Sarah: Ha I agree, Jenna was by far the better Gaga (and SUPER-hot, no?). I was really interested to see how her personality must have changed since the accident—here she’s much lighter. She’s got Ali’s determination and queen-bee personality, but she seems less desperate than Ali too. With Ali, you can see all the work she puts into being in a place of power; old Jenna seems like she might be able to do it kind of effortlessly. I was also really excited about her talking with Mona—they would both have good reason to want to team up against Ali.

3) How scary was the creepy costumed person? Also, who do you think it is?

Phoebe: SO scary and that there were randomly so many people in the same costume suddenly was strange and a very creepy twist on the Thomas Crown Affair’s final scene (with the bolo hats … such a good scene!). So, I think that it is clearly someone in the circle of people we know, or at least that the girls are supposed to know. And I think that because at the end, when the person in the creepy costume takes off his/her mask, seemingly he/she belongs at the party/nobody is shocked, otherwise they wouldn’t reveal themselves. Right? But as of yet, I have no good guesses. Unless it is Garrett? But it seems too early for that, because the Jenna/Ali rivalry is just getting going.

Sarah: Oh man, I hated that baby doll-burlap costume of my nightmares. But I think practically everybody is the creepy costumed person, right? We know Lucas and Noel were both wearing that costume, and people like Mona and Ian also could have easily slipped the robe and mask on over their other costumes. Also, I don’t think we saw Jason at the Halloween party, so I’d put him down as another possible candidate.

4) Twins! What did you think about the scary twin story, coupled with the revealing of the doll from the story being real, and also the sanitarium truck, and threatening notes to Ali from A? Does Ali have an evil twin?

Phoebe: So I am convinced that Ali has an evil twin. And I re-watched the pilot last night after the new episode, and there is this one moment where Spencer is staring out her window and she thinks she sees Ali and the next shot is blond hair in a window as the person disappears from Spencer’s view. Evil twin? Perhaps! But also, I thought that the twin story that Ali tells in this episode, was perhaps a true story (minus the killing) of Ali and her twin, especially because we see that doll that is in the story later on when Ali pulls her creepy secret box out of the heater grate. Same doll = true story, yes? Maybe? Anyway, I am totally convinced that A is at least in part something to do with Ali’s creepy background … which she kind of is an emotional terrorist…

Sarah: Good detective work, Phoebe! I’m very much on board with this sleuthing, I think it’s all adding up to a real twin story. (Also: interesting, between the doppelganger storyline on Vampire Diaries and the twins on Ringer and The Lying Game.) Maybe the person throwing down with Ali in the haunted house was actually her twin, too!   Read the rest of this entry »

Suburgatory: When Abercrombie Attacks

In girl culture on October 20, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Sarah Todd

What teenager hasn’t hidden out in the biggest high school bathroom she can find, luxuriating in reading a book away from prying eyes? Who among us hasn’t rolled her eyes at blondes who can’t blink (too much mascara) and at jocks humping lockers in the hallways? To people who are lucky enough to have escaped such fates, these descriptions may sound like teen movie clichés. But as someone who attended a small, preppy, wealthy, hugely white Midwestern public high school until age 16, I feel like I can say: The blondes who can’t blink are very, very real.

The new ABC series Suburgatory knows from high school horrors. The half-hour comedy/terrifying flashback-inducing documentary of my teenage years tells the story of a 16-year-old girl whose single father transplants her from a happy New York City life to the suburbs after finding a package of condoms in her dresser drawer. Jane Levy plays Tessa, a red-headed, sarcastic heroine who greets each new Stepford-like vision with perfectly raised eyebrows. Inside, she’s sprinting toward the nearest Metro. Jeremy Sisto plays her dry yet sweetly befuddled father. Among those rounding out the cast are Cheryl Hines of Curb Your Enthusiasm as a perky suburban mom with a heart of gold and Carly Chaikin as her daughter, the popular, mean, permanently bored Dalia, whose personality Tessa accurately described as being as flat as her hair.

Suburgatory has plenty of fast-paced quips and sly visual jokes (a glimpse of a glee club with members who, from the neck down, look very much like the cast from Glee, the flowers on bathroom windowsills and student desks). And Tessa has the makings of a great heroine in the Daria/Lindsay Weir/Emma Stone-in-Easy A mode. But as the show finds its voice, I’ll be curious to see if it will keep playing quite so safe, and so conservative.

For one thing, there’s that unopened package of condoms. It’s easy to imagine a dad–particularly a single dad–getting freaked out by finding his teenage daughter with them. But deciding that the box of condoms means they’re packing up their Manhattan life and moving to the suburbs seems like kind of an over-reaction. If she was doing drugs or if she’d gotten pregnant, maybe you could see a worried father dialing U-Haul. But those kinds of plot points seem like they’d be too edgy for this show. Tessa objects to the pristine, bland, conforming nature of the suburbs, but Suburgatory itself is pretty clearly targeted at the very audience it satirizes–there’s a reason it airs in the same family-friendly line-up as The Middle and Modern Family.

It’s also notable that the audience never finds out what Tessa was doing with the box of condoms–is she sexually active, or did she have them just in case? Is there a specific someone, or was she just trying to be prepared? The only further comments about the box come from Dallas, who seems willing to believe the story that Tessa was holding them for a friend. Whether or not viewers are meant to go along with that belief is unclear, but it was interesting that the show felt it needed to give viewers that kind of out–perhaps so as not to upset the abstinence-only set.

I also worry that Suburgatory has a bit of Glee‘s mean-spiritedness. Glee often gives viewers whiplash: one minute cruel comments from Sue or Santana or Quinn or whoever are punchlines, the next there’s a lesson of the week encouraging tolerance and acceptance. These lessons nearly always ring false, because moments earlier the show was effectively asking the audience to laugh with the bullies.

Hopefully, as Suburgatory develops it’ll get rid of uncreative joke-cliches about weight and sexuality (like how the girl who is supposed to be overweight but actually isn’t overweight isn’t allowed to eat dessert, or how gay men wear sweaters knotted around their necks and lesbians are vegetarians) and include more jokes that are genuinely original and funny–and a more diverse cast who can offer new twists on Tessa’s outsider perspective.

When Suburgatory does avoid cliches, it’s pretty great. Dalia’s deadpan delivery of the line “Sucks your mom died, bi-yatch” was just the kind of moment I’m looking forward to seeing more of. As the two teenage enemies stand in front of a dressing room mirror, wearing matching outfits with furry pink vests and sparkly sequined goggles, you can see our city girl realizing just how far from home she really is. She tells Dalia her mom’s not dead. Dalia barely notices.

Guilty Pleasure

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2011 at 8:11 am

Chelsea H.

 

As a follow-up (of sorts) to Phoebe’s lovely discussion of communal TV watching yesterday, I’d like to offer this, sent to me by a friend (thanks, S!):

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/10/guilty_pleasures_why_i_watch_bachelor_pad_.html

As someone who felt relief in finding compadres with whom to watch my  “shameful” shows (ANTM, Project Runway), and someone who occasionally changes the channel lest her husband see which brand of reality she is watching while alone (What Not To Wear, Bad Girls Club), I can see his point.  Previous to finding my small show communities, if my little predilections were revealed in public somehow, I explained them by claiming to watch for aesthetic values (the photoshoots in ANTM, the couture in Project Runway, the food in Top Chef).

But I’m not sure I agree with his thoughts on why we actually watch reality tv: “We say we watch them because it’s like a “train wreck,” or because they “make us feel better about ourselves,” but really we’re perpetually intrigued by, and obsessed with, the lurid toxicity of fame, which is reality television’s only true subject.”

Thoughts?

Community TV, or Television as Community

In TV History on October 18, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

While preparing to teach my introduction to television class this weekend, I kept thinking about this great comment one of my students made last week about how television was a community event in its early days. Today we rarely think of it as such, despite the fact that I am quite convinced that television is very much still a community event, and dare I say perhaps more than ever.

Television became a mass medium in the mid-1950s, and its early years were defined by group gatherings around the TV set, groups gathered in bars to watch sports, and appointments with favorite shows. With televisions still on the more expensive end of the spectrum (perhaps like iPads now), families who could afford a set might invite friends and neighbors into their living rooms, thereby creating the first mini home theaters. As such, television was at its very outset a community event. But also importantly a family event, as it was marketed and geared towards gathering the family together around the actual set itself. Sometimes, I like to think about how the introduction of television into the domestic space had, what I imagine to be, a pretty big impact on how the living room was put together; things like TV tables had to be invented, as did TV dinners. But moving on … television and community.

Despite television’s early community orientation, what we often hear today is the refrain of television as something we do alone, and as something that prohibits and precludes us from having conversations (mind you these discourses existed early on too alongside others which proclaimed television as a vast wasteland). However, what I have found, in my television watching experience, is mostly the opposite: television remains, quite often, a community event. While I do indulge and often rejoice in watching television all by myself, for example, I watch The Sing Off alone, as despite how awesome I think it is, many of my friends seemingly disagree. But, I love watching in groups and almost only watch comedy with other people.

Not only do I adore this brand of watching, but I have weekly dates with my girlfriends to watch specific shows. For example, Monday night is saved for Gossip Girl, usually replete with wine and some healthy gossip and some ogling at Chuck Bass (oh he is so dark and swarthy and hot, is a little how it goes). And when GG is not on, we gather to watch Pretty Little Liars on Tuesdays. Safe to say I am not the only one who watches this way; I have friends that gather to watch Top Model on Wednesdays, and I have another friend who powered through The Wire (on DVD) with a group of friends who met weekly to watch together until they finished the show.

I think there is something really interesting about this phenomenon, one enabled at once by DVD and DVRs, but also that at times still sticks to the appointment television format, wherein we base our schedules around the TV schedule. In part, I can say that we watch on primetime’s schedule to avoid spoilers, but also as a means to participate in the online television community: read recaps, write recaps or blog posts, read reviews, etc. It is the online water-cooler, something I am certainly not the first to note. But we also watch together because we do not all own TVs, much less have cable subscriptions. Thus, like earlier generations of TV watchers, our need to come together stems from the economics of television, and cable specifically.

This is all to say, that I firmly believe in television as community and as many critics before me, such as Stuart Hall and Lynn Spigel, note a site or location of cultural struggle. So not only, do our ritual meetings around Gossip Girl bring us together in front of the television to chat, think, gossip, and watch, but they also connect us with other communities online. In this way too, texts like Gossip Girl are those very sites of cultural struggle in which virtual and real life communities work out questions of race, class, gender, among many other things. Thus, television is, more I think than ever, still very much a community event despite the increasing privatization of watching content on smaller and smaller screens.

The Secret Circle Recap, Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5 (“Heather” & “Slither”)

In Secret Circle, teen soaps on October 18, 2011 at 6:59 pm

This week we recap times two! On the agenda, Heather and demons, Nick’s untimely death, more demons, wonderful grandmothers, and so many mysteries!

How scary do you think TSC was in the Heather-demon episode, on a scale of one to ten? Is the show scarier/darker than you expected?

Phoebe: I would say it was an 8, but maybe a 10 on the Secret Circle scary chart. I thought the Heather with demon situation was scary but so intriguing and added an extra layer to the mystery, which was rather intriguing.

Sarah: I agree with Phoebe’s rating. I normally don’t expect to be scared by CW shows—Buffy’s special effects were way too ridiculous to be fearsome, and Vampire Diaries is suspenseful but rarely chilling. But seeing Heather-as-demon levitate and chase Cassie really freaked me out. I think it bodes well for the series’ range, but badly for my ability to watch the show without hiding under a blanket.

Why do you think Heather went with Cassie’s mom that night? And now we know Cassie’s mom was good, yes?

Phoebe: Now I am thinking she went because she believed in Cassie’s mom or something and that Cassie’s mom was it turns out really good and not evil, as it was perhaps suggested last week. But she bound the demon and that seems like a good and nice thing. Or, maybe Heather already had the demon in her when they went to the shipyard? Or maybe they summoned the demons in the ship yard and Heather and Cassie’s mom went there to stop it? I don’t know! I want to know more …

Sarah: I think it seems like Heather went with Cassie’s mom because she wanted to support her best friend in preventing whatever dangerous ceremony was about to take place—which means that both Heather and Cassie’s mom were good. My guess is that they arrived too late, and the demon had already been summoned and entered Heather. Cassie’s mom couldn’t get rid of the demon, but she could stop the pain/torment by effectively sedating Heather.

What do you think about this evil demon apparently summoned in the parents’ binding ceremony? Did they intentionally summon the demon? What is its story/purpose? And, does this mean that the parents were always out to practice black magic, or was black magic an unintended consequence of the quest for more power?

Phoebe: I am so curious about this issue … It seems that the binding had already happened and they were toying with their magic and got intrigued, as a teen might, with black magic. I can imagine teen witches getting curious about summoning demons and then not able to foresee the consequences and still not wanting to ask their parents for help. It seems very much like teen life but with the added power of witchcraft things. But clearly, I think the parents got into black magic, but then maybe as we saw last week did not want it around anymore. I want to know more!!

Sarah: I think you’re right, Phoebe, that the parents were experimenting but not necessarily intending real harm when they summoned the demon. It seems likely that they didn’t understand what the consequences of their actions would be but were excited by the idea of getting more power and exploring their dark sides.

How great are television grandmas?

Phoebe: I love love television grandmas and particularly Cassie’s grandma. But it reminds me of how great Hanna’s grandma is on Pretty Little Liars. So great! She is so strong and badass and amazing. And she brought so much power into the room and commanded so much attention and respect and also is so supportive of Cassie. I <3 her so much.

Sarah: I concur. It’s so nice to see strong older female figures represented on television (not that the grandma is actually very old at all, she’s probably about 50 aka not anywhere near grandma-age in my family. But when you’ve got Cassie’s mom having a baby at roughly age 18 max I guess that makes sense). But yes, the grandma is awesome, and I’m relieved that she and Cassie are talking more openly about witchcraft now. I hope that openness doesn’t mean the bells are tolling for her!

What do you think about Nick’s untimely death?

Phoebe: I am so sad! i was loving the relationship between Melissa and Nick and how it was developing and I was sure that the grandma would bring Nick back to life in the same way that Dawn brought the school president back to life. But alas, not yet! Ugh. I was so interested in that story line. And also, what about Melissa’s possession? That was crazy! But also, I am really glad they did not kill her off as she rocks my socks, particularly as we are seeing her come into her own.

Sarah: I can’t believe Nick is really dead, and so early on in the series—it seemed like the show was really developing his character and his relationships with Melissa and Faye, so it was surprising to see him killed off. Assuming he doesn’t come back, though, I can see how his death may act as a catalyst for our other characters. Melissa will be grieving, Faye will be comforting Melissa, and Adam/Diana/Cassie will be trying to figure out a way to prevent such a death from happening again. I’m also interested to see whether Nick’s death will weaken the circle’s power—based on the dance episode, it seems as if one member’s death lessens the strength of the whole.

How do we feel about Charles and Dawn now? Post-killing Nick …

Phoebe: I feel SO conflicted. Like at once they did it to help Nick sort of, but also to protect the kids and themselves. Also, I feel like Charles is clearly interested in Dawn and so there may be some post-kill blossoming romance which seems weird. And interesting too that their crystal didn’t work and now what will they do? And I want to find out why they are so into getting their powers back I understand if you know once you were a witch and now you’re not and that that would totally suck. But, I feel like they have some super secret plan that we are not yet privy to.

Sarah: Yeah, I like that the show is deepening the complexity of those characters. Clearly they (and especially Charles) feel terrible about Nick’s death, but at the same time they’re guilty of causing it—not only because they drowned him to try to rid him of the demon, but if Dawn really wanted to be a hero she would have let the demon enter her instead of Nick. I think Dawn ultimately looks out for number one (and Faye, as an extension of number one). She’s not necessarily out to kill without discrimination, but most other people seem negligible, at least thus far. Charles, on the other hand, seems more conflicted—particularly when it comes to the kids.

When are we going to find out what happened the parents in the fire?!

Phoebe: I want to know SO badly. And I guess this is kind of covered by the other questions but I just want to know! But I also thought it was interesting that we learned that Cassie’s grandma did not know what happened with her daughter (Cassie’s mom) and so that now she seems not to be holding things back so that is interesting potentially …

Sarah: Yeah, my number one question is what happened that caused the death of one parent minimum per kid. And good point about the grandmother—it’s helpful to know that it’s as much a mystery to the elders (at least to a certain extent) as it is to the youngest generation.

Ashima and Obe: Should We See Race/Class/Gender on the Rock?

In gender, race on October 14, 2011 at 12:31 am

Melissa Sexton

If you had asked me what film would have been most likely to get my mind seriously cranking on issues of race, class, and gender, I would not have thought it was going to be the 2011 Reel Rock Film Tour.  A yearly redux of climbing films, heavily sponsored by gear vendors and climbing organizations, the Reel Rock Tour has a kind of anti-establishment, counter-cultural appeal, but not necessarily the kind to bend gender expectations or advocate for class consciousness.  I’ve only dipped my toes into the pool of climbing culture, so I can hardly speak with great knowledge; but climbing seems like a no-nonsense, do-or-die realm that would like to pretend it doesn’t care about race, class, or gender. Those who know me are not surprised to see that I’ve toyed with climbing – it appeals to all my gender insecurities and issues with toughness.  Climbing rewards strength, endurance, and the ability to fight through pain. Climbing is one of those weird, ambiguously gendered spaces…because, to a certain extent, there is no gender in climbing. If you can send a climb, you’re awesome, and your gender doesn’t matter. Elite women climbers exist and can outclimb many a man.  But…if you hang out near the bouldering wall in your local rock gym, you’ll probably see what a boys’ club the climbing world can still be.  And often it’s a white boys’ club. To pretend that there is no race or gender in climbing is naive. And indeed, while I really enjoyed a lot of the films in the 2011 Tour, most of them would reinforce gender stereotypes about the climbing world: nary a woman to be seen, except a few that hang around the camps of the kooky guys – guys that oscillate between, on the one hand, sentimental visions of home while they’re on death’s doorstep atop some mountain in Pakistan – and, on the other hand, a perpetual adolescent desire to defy death through flat-out stupidly risky behavior. There are uber-competitive guys racing for climbing speed records, ripping their skin to shreds and throwing safety out the window, posing for bare-chested photos before El Capitan and veiling their competitiveness between platitudes about peace and wilderness escape. Like I said – I loved and enjoyed these films, the way I love and enjoy Moby-Dick and Walden and William Faulkner. Because the wilderness enthusiast and wanna-be climber in me can outweigh the gender critic, and I can revel in physical performance, wild landscape, intellectual quandaries…I love these places because I can embrace the fantasy they provide, a realm where you’re judged solely based on your mettle.  Yet I can also see the holes in these visions, the way even the “pure” realm of the rock is a constructed space that favors certain people, relies on certain resources for access, rewards certain kinds of attitudes about ability and embodiment.

But then, halfway through the line-up, there was the film “Origins: Obe and Ashima,” which might be one of the most interesting commentaries I”ve seen on athleticism, race, and gender ever…because it hardly makes these things an issue, while featuring them front and center. It tells the intertwined story of two elite climbers – Ashima Shiraishi, a 10-year old Japanese climber from New York who can finesse her way up bouldering problems that would make the bare-chested boy-climbers at the bouldering wall blanche…and her coach Obe Carrion,  once a teenage kid from the bad part of Allentown, PA who got out and made a name for himself through climbing. I can’t figure out exactly what his ethnic background is, but in an interview with FrontRangeBouldering.com he identifies as a minority, though only to mention that it’s “cool” with him to be a minority in the climbing world. I point out this race issue to highlight just how much the climbing world downplays issues of race and gender. What is remarkable for both of these climbers is not their race – in what I assume (correct me if I’m wrong – my evidence is entirely anecdotal) is a predominantly white sport in the United States. Instead, Obe is revered for helping to make bouldering a legitimate sport, and this short film further applauds him (and rightly so) for taking all his competitive spirit and climbing passion and using it to help kids learn to climb at an elite level. What is remarkable in Ashima’s case is not solely gender, nor race – it is, instead, that she is (at the time of the filming) a nine-year old girl. Her youth is her most remarkable attribute.

Ashima and her coach Obe at Hueco Tanks, a bouldering proving ground in Texas

Problem solving. Ashima took a V12 that trip. I can do V1's on a good day.

(Both photos thanks to Climbing magazine).

Both Obe and Ashima are incredible athletes – and even if you don’t climb, you can’t help but be blown away by the amazing things they can do with their bodies.  And as a culture critic, I can’t help but be blown away by their sudden appearance, sandwiched in between testosterone fueled speed races up the Nose of El Capitan, brutal winter brushes with avalanches up Gasherbrum II, and crazy stunt slacklining, basejumping, and high-lining that pushes safety to the side and “the rush” to the forefront:

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the world of Ashimi and Obe escapes the competitiveness or odd relationships between one’s self and one’s body that appear in the rest of the climbing films.  It’s still a tangled ideological web, as it always is. But I’m just saying it’s startling to see a break in the constant stream of young, toned, white male bodies.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to Be Awesome Like… Veronica Mars

In girl culture, teen soaps on October 11, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Sarah Todd

“Veronica Mars,” Wallace proclaims with a grin in an early episode of everyone’s favorite teen detective drama, “you should hear what people say about you!”

Wallace is referring to the swirls of high school rumors that surround Veronica like a vituperative Starry Night, but she really should hear all the great things fans of the show have to say about her. Veronica Mars is a heroine for the ages. She’s tough, smart, sassy (50 points!) and flawed in the very real ways that most non-television characters are. The soul of Humphrey Bogart resides within that 5 foot blonde. What’s more, she’s a shining beacon of hope for anyone who’s ever struggled with self-esteem issues, because if there’s one thing Veronica has, it’s self-respect–the kind that starts with natural strength and gets honed by facing down a whole town that’s turned against her.

And so, without further ado: some ways to do awesomeness, VM-style.

  • Be a protector. Veronica stands up to power (most frequently in the form of Sheriff Lamb and the privileged 909-ers). Not only that, she does her best to convince people to stand up to power themselves. This exchange from “Hot Dogs” provides a great example: here, Veronica confronts a rich, popular guy who’s been picking on a girl who has a crush on him.

Veronica Mars: Did you crank call Mandy?
Dude: What if I did?
Veronica Mars: Well, I wanna congratulate you, shake your hand. Congratulations. You’ve been named the world’s biggest cockroach. This award is given in recognition of your unparallelled lack of decency and humanity. Bravo. You’re gonna die friendless and alone.
Dude: Hey everyone knows you’re the biggest…
Veronica Mars: Shut up! If I want you to speak, I’ll wave a snausage under your nose. If you use Mandy again to try to convince yourself you’re not a loser, I will ruin your life, got it? You got it?
Dude: Okay, geez.
Mandy: I can’t believe you did that…
Veronica Mars: I can’t believe that you didn’t! You want people to leave you alone, Mandy, or better yet treat you with respect? Demand it. Make them.

  • Never let people see their blows land. Whether it’s a big fake smile and a finger gun for Dick after he makes a gross double entendre, a snappy comeback, or simply walking away, Veronica never gives jerks the satisfaction of seeing her get ruffled.
  • If you ever have the opportunity, befriend the leader of the local motorcycle gang. He’ll be good in a pinch.
  • Know how to apologize when you’re wrong. Veronica’s not a perfect character, which is huge part of what makes her so great. She’s overly suspicious of others, big on revenge and payback, stubborn, and a bit bulldozing. However, she’s also a big enough person to recognize that she’s made a mistake and say she’s sorry. Most frequently, these apologies are to her dad or Wallace, the two people who love her best and are–perhaps as a result–most frequently manipulated by Veronica in the name of serving justicce.
  • When people underestimate you, use it to your advantage. People are always dismissing Veronica because she’s a tiny blonde teenage girl (not unlike a certain vampire slayer). But she turns dismissals into a weapon: since nobody suspects her, she’s all the more likely to crack a case. And the satisfaction of proving her doubters wrong gives Veronica extra motivation.
  • Be curious. The secret to Veronica’s success as a detective isn’t her hardboiled demeanor, persistence, or even her quick thinking. It’s that Veronica wants mysteries solved and discrepancies explained. Even when she doesn’t want to work a case, she ends up taking it on just because she wants answers. Her interest in the world around her, and in exposing the darkness underneath, is perhaps her biggest driving force.

What am I missing, Neptune fans? Please feel free to share your own Veronica-like awesomeness tips below.

Psych 101: Doppelgangers and Depictions of Disorders in “The Roommate”

In gender on October 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Sarah Todd

This past weekend, my friend Christine and I watched The Roommate, a deeply baffling movie about a pretty young stalker who stalks other pretty people who look just like her, for no reason the film cares to clarify.

Like 99% of people who saw the movie (rough estimate), we were watching mostly because Leighton Meester—aka our Lady of Headbands and Bon Mots, Blair Waldorf—plays the lovely stalker Rebecca. Hilariously, early on the movie hints that Rebecca is evil in the following ways:

•    She does not like going out to clubs
•    She would like to be called Rebecca, not Becky
•    She ENJOYS CONTEMPORARY ART

Truly chilling stuff. Why Sarah (Minka Kelly) doesn’t realize that her college roommate is bad news from the get-go is a mystery.

Lurkers Love Abstract Paintings

But The Roommate has plenty of other mysteries as well, most of them unintentional. For one thing, according to The Roommate, mental and emotional disorders are nefarious and unknowable, not unlike Mordor. When Rebecca’s mother asks Sarah if her daughter has been “taking her medication,” alarm bells immediately go off for Sarah. Pills are scary, like modern art and full names. Sarah googles the name of the medication and it turns out that Rebecca has… something. (Schizophrenia? Manic-depression? Lisztomania? It could be anything.)  This vague approach is patently ridiculous, but it’s also part of a long tradition of demonizing and mystifying such disorders in film. (Check out Bitch Media’s excellent “We’re All Mad Here” series for much more on this subject.) Read the rest of this entry »

The Many Roles of the Divine Melissa McCarthy

In gender on October 5, 2011 at 8:42 am

Sarah Todd

There are three things I have to say about Melissa McCarthy right off the bat. First, she is hilarious. Second, she is beautiful. Third, I am very glad that she is riding a huge wave of success, from critical raves for her Bridesmaids turn to an Emmy award for Mike and Molly (which by general consensus was really for her work in Bridesmaids, but fine, since it’s unlikely the stuffy old Oscars will toss a nod in Bridesmaids’ direction) to her recent gig as the host of Saturday Night Live. The more often McCarthy shows up on screens large and small, the more the world gets to bask in her charismatic, goofy presence—and that’s an excellent thing.

However, I also think it is important to take a close look at the types of roles that have thus far been available to McCarthy as a plus-size female comedian. Some people, with good reason, have raised concerns that these roles—in particular, her part in Bridesmaids as a tough, sexually aggressive, not-very-ladylike member of the wedding party—rely on fat jokes and stereotypes about overweight women. (On a sidenote, I use the word “fat” in this article either in the reclaimed sense or in order to convey cultural tropes and prejudices regarding overweight people; by no means is it meant as an insult.)

In order to take a close look at these concerns, let’s check out McCarthy in three screen appearances: as Sookie in Gilmore Girls, Megan in Bridesmaids, and in multiple sketches on last week’s SNL. (I haven’t seen Mike and Molly and I have a (perhaps unjust) bias against laugh-track sitcoms, but I’d love to hear from readers about how her role on that show fits into this analysis).

In retrospect, I wonder if Melissa McCarthy was a little bored in her seven seasons as Sookie on Gilmore Girls. As Sookie, she got to be cute and high-energy and quirky and neurotic. But the part didn’t really call for much of a wild side or for physical humor, and it’s now clear that these are two of McCarthy’s strengths. However, one great thing about the way the show depicted Sookie was that her weight was never an issue. I can’t recall a single episode that mentions anything about her body type, or that plays on any stereotypes related to overweight people. Sookie was supposed to be funny and pretty, a great chef, a loyal friend, and a devoted wife and mother, and she was indeed all of those things. Her weight never entered into the discussion of her abilities or happiness. Nor did the show suggest that her weight was a problem to be overcome or a personal failing. Read the rest of this entry »

The Secret Circle Recap, “Loner,” Season 1, Episode 3

In Secret Circle, teen soaps on October 5, 2011 at 8:14 am

Faye for the Win

Phoebe: Can we talk about redeeming friend moments?
Sarah: Let’s! First of all, i think Faye totally wins the friendship sweeps this week (and the awesomeness sweeps).
Phoebe: Agreed.
Sarah: For standing up for Melissa and telling Melissa to stand up for herself, and for giving Nick the what-for.
Phoebe: She was amazing! It was really cool to see girl friends stand up for each other, and to see Faye’s softer side.
Sarah: And also I loved her hilarious and affectionate delivery of the line, “See you losers tomorrow” addressed to Adam, Cassie and Diana. She is such a secret softie.
Phoebe: That was also amazing!
Sarah: And her insight into Nick hating Nick (not Nick hating Melissa) showed that she is good at reading people too. But what do you make of her expression when she sees Melissa and Nick walk away looking cozy? She kind of half-smiles to herself (which makes sense, given her actions making that come about), but then the smile drops and she looks sad. Which made me wonder:
– is she feeling lonely/left out?

- does she wish she were in a relationship?

- is she secretly in like with Melissa?

Phoebe: My gut instinct was that she was missing Melissa, but not that she wishes she was in a relationship with Nick. I didn’t get the she is into Melissa vibe, but I did get the being a teenager and feeling left out when your best friend starts dating vibe. But it is early yet! Who knows what will happen …
Sarah: Yeah, it could be just missing Melissa (or preparing herself to miss her). But I think I really want the show to have a gay character.
Phoebe: Fair enough — we will just have to wait and see.

Murders and Motives

Phoebe: What did you think of this new guy that was introduced? That went after the kids …
Sarah: Hmm well, I’m interested to see what develops re: his relationship with Heather and Amelia, and what happened with Heather at the binding ceremony
Phoebe: Indeed … From the preview it looks scary!
Sarah: But also, something that I thought was confusing was, in the initial scene with Cassie it seems like he still has fond memories of Amelia.
Phoebe: But then tried to kill Cassie
Sarah: WHY DOES HE WANT TO KILL HER?
Phoebe: Indeed it was very confusing
Sarah: I get that he wanted to get someone from the circle to break it. But i would think he’d pick someone else who was NOT the daughter of his old friend
Phoebe: But I think he blames Amelia for what happened to Heather. He says at one point that Amelia sucked her in and did the worst things to her after she started hanging out with the witchy crew. BUT also, that Heather never stopped believing in Amelia—hence why she wound up in the line of witch fire
Sarah: Right. I just hope the show gives us a reasonable explanation for the Cassie-targeting, otherwise it just seems like lazy storytelling.
Phoebe: Although, I surmise it was that she was in the wrong place at the right time, slash that he is super duper resentful of Amelia, hence Cassie was a target. But I think we are going to meet Heather next week. And she looked SO scary!
Phoebe: Also, what did you make of our first glimpse of bound magic?
Sarah: I’m a bit underwhelmed, but I’m sure it will develop more — the magic stuff seems a little hazy right now. What about you?
Phoebe: Yeah I concur, although I loved that paper flying scene in part as it just looked cool and also like straight out of The Craft, and it felt guided by the girls more than the guys—which I also like
Phoebe: Similarly, I am loving (despite that I think she is a little evil) how bad ass the principal is. She just is a take no prisoners kind of witch
Sarah: Yes, I think Dawn’s pretty tough. I like that she took the time out from saving the kids to order the two making out kids back to the gym. Double-duty!
Phoebe: YES. That was perfect, and then the way she threatens the dude who tried to kill Cassie, but doesn’t kill him. And makes it clear to Diana’s dad that they can’t just go around killing people all the time.

Make It or Break It or Decorate It and Then Talk About It Incessantly

Sarah: Also, what did you think of Luke?
Phoebe: I thought his response to Cassie’s not paying attention was kind of awesome. And I sort of want her to give him another shot or rather him to give her another shot.
Sarah: Yeah I’m curious to see if he’ll be a recurring character. He is from Make It or Break It, also, which makes me think he will be back
Phoebe: Oh really? Do you think he will have a gymnastics super power on this show? I would totally support that
Sarah: I think they could totally work in some cool backflips with all that witchcraft.
Sarah: And, did you like how Cassie was acting as if helping with decorations was like a HUGE commitment?
Phoebe: Right?! Did we even see them decorate? Those decorations certainly did not catch my eye …
Sarah: No! It was like three streamers and a balloon. And yet Cassie is using it as an excuse for why not to have a date and that she’s rounding up all of her circle friends to help. Think of better excuses, Cassie!
Phoebe: I could not agree more.
Sarah: Oh and speaking of the dance and of good friendship moments, I thought it was very sneaky (in a good-friend way) of Sally to make Cassie and Adam dance together. And apparently she was psychically conspiring with the DJ to make the music switch to a slow song
Phoebe: I also kind of like Sally and would like to see more of her. But now I am worried that more bad things will happen to Sally if she stays close to Cassie … Do you think there will be any consequences of Sally being brought back to life? We haven’t seen any yet, but Jeremy sees ghosts in Vampire Diaries.
Sarah: I hope so, because that would give Sally more to do (not that she is boring or anything, I’d just like her to have more plotlines).

Social Groups and Social Graces

Sarah: Something else that I’m hoping the show will explore is how other people at the school perceive the circle hanging out together — since it seems pretty divided into two social groups (Faye/Melissa/Nick and Adam/Diana/now Cassie). The audience knows why they’re all hanging out, but I bet the other kids at school would be confused. And I think that’s interesting to think about transgressing cliques and social boundaries.
Phoebe: Good point! I wonder how they will negotiate that too … but also they spend much time all together in secret. I do like the idea of transgressing cliques, but also that it is family-bound transgressions. But also, this was seemingly true for Amelia as we found out in this episode that she was not friends with the witch crew before.
Sarah: That reminds me: so Cassie is supposed to have a loner thing going on and she says she didn’t have much of a social life at her last school (slash any social life). But I find that hard to believe! Like she could well be flinty and whatnot, but she’s still a normal, nice girl. I think she would have had at least a friend or two.
Phoebe: I imagine her having a friend or two but kind of being on the outskirts and being super close with her mom … Also, I feel like I believe it more because Luxe (from Life Unexpected) was kind of a loner/bad girl, and so I feel like my perceptions of her have transferred to Cassie
Sarah: But Luxe had Bug and her BFF!
Phoebe: True … but Bug was terrible! wasn’t he?
Sarah: I could never decide!
Phoebe: But I imagine Cassie as that kind of loner—like a few friends but not popular, and not real social.
Sarah: I can buy that, I just want the show to acknowledge that she has a past beyond her mom. I guess because otherwise her character feels not filled out, and saying that she just didn’t have friends or a life at all before her new town feels like an excuse not to fill in the past more.
Phoebe: Also, it’s understandable if her mom was super suspicious of friends as things went horribly wrong in her circle, she might have passed that on to Cassie?
Sarah: Now THAT would be an acceptable explanation
Phoebe: Well in that case, I say that IS the explanation! That was my guess at it at least or why it would make sense …
Sarah: Okay if they don’t go there, I vote you write to the show and tell them they need to say so
Phoebe: Done and done.
Sarah: In order to appease the angry Sarahs of the audience
Phoebe: That is an important demographic.

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