thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Dark Catharsis of Lifetime’s “Unreal”

In Uncategorized on August 5, 2015 at 11:07 am
IS NOTHING SACRED?

Get it.

[spoilers everywhere!]

Sarah Todd

In Unreal’s season finale, everyone screws each other over. Friends betray friends. Someone gets left at the altar. Someone else plots to get his ex institutionalized. A woman and her cheating fiancé are bent on mutually assured destruction. One character gets double-dumped. The message to viewers is clear: Love is a joke. Trust no one.

That’s dark stuff. Yet I came away from the episode of Lifetime’s freshman drama, which takes place behind the scenes of a Bachelor-esque reality series, feeling somehow … cleansed.

Critics including Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson and Slate’s Willa Paskin have argued that Unreal features television’s first fully realized anti-heroines. This is true. But what’s even more remarkable is the show’s vision of a specifically feminine nihilism. Whereas anti-hero shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are replete with guns, drug kingpins, strippers and other signifiers of a violent crisis of white masculinity, Unreal imagines the feminine crisis as residing in the breakdown of human connection.

Even in the twenty-first century, many women are taught to believe that only the bonds of heterosexual marriage can save them from turning into lonely, embittered social rejects. Meanwhile, a lot of women have also internalized the hostilities of living in a patriarchal culture and walk around all day worrying that deep down inside, they’re really horrible people. Unreal shows how pop-culture products like The Bachelor prey on these insecurities while turning women into their worst versions of themselves. It asks viewers to look straight into a black-hearted abyss–all with no small amount of affection for its warped women, and tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Mazel Tov, Cindy: On Orange Is the New Black’s New Jewish Convert

In race, TV on July 6, 2015 at 6:51 pm

Cindy

Sarah T.

The most moving story about faith you’re likely to see on a television series this year starts with a kosher meal and ends with a small-scale prison break. At the center of it all is Orange Is the New Black’s irreverent Cindy Hayes (aka “Black Cindy”), who would seem to be an unlikely candidate for finding religion. What kind of spiritual seeker announces her decision to convert by shouting “Where my dreidel at” in the middle of a cafeteria?

Well: a wonderful new Jew, is who.

Cindy’s surprisingly joyful journey to Judaism stood out in a series that has featured many other stories about how people use religion to justify oppression, exclusion and manipulation. This season, the Netflix series skewers a flower-child cult that swindles naïve believers and a present-day prison sect that appears harmless but winds up forcing an already-depressed inmate into further isolation. Traditional religions also come under scrutiny. In a flashback, one woman’s father forbids her from running track to get a college scholarship, calling her uniform indecent by the standards of the Nation of Islam. A Christian father threatens his young daughter with the prospect of eternal damnation for sneaking a taste of mashed potatoes during grace. In all of these cases, belief itself isn’t the problem. The danger lies in people who want to wield it as a weapon.

In the midst of these darker tales, Cindy stumbles into a spiritual awakening. And the very qualities that would seem to make her resistant to faith—her deep-rooted skepticism, her refusal to take anything seriously—turn out to make her feel right at home with Judaism.

How to be Awesome Like Cimorene

In books, feminism, gender, girl culture, How to be Awesome Like, YA on June 11, 2015 at 7:17 pm

 

 

Chelsea H.

One of my favorite things about being an adult is rediscovering beloved books and characters from childhood. Now in my 30s, as I’ve read back through some of my favorite YA books I’ve noticed a penchant for a particular sort of female character: girls and women who were not content to work within the confines society (or men) laid out for them, or girls and women who made a difference to the outcome of the story, not just as the arm candy of some dude, but who saved the day themselves, or were necessary components in the shaping or reshaping of the world they inhabited.

This leads me to Dealing with Dragons, the first of Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. The kid inside me almost bursts with excitement to introduce you to Cimorene.

Cimorene is a princess, and though she grows up surrounded by all the typical fairytale commodities – a prosperous kingdom, attentive parents, golden-haired sisters, etiquette lessons, a handsome prospective suitor – we know by the end of page one that she hates the whole deal. As her adventures progress and she interacts with talking animals, dubious magic, wizards, a feisty but pragmatic witch, and of course, the titular dragons, a number of qualities stand out about Cimorene that make her unabashedly awesome.

Note: many of these qualities are developed considerably as the book progresses, but a number of them are apparent even within the first chapter or two. I’ve tried to restrict my examples to just these first few chapters to avoid too many spoilers, so you can go out and read this immediately and not have any of the delightful surprises ruined. So, that settled, here’s how to be awesome like Cimorene:

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