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PLL Roundtable: “Surface Tension,” Season 2, Episode 7

In girl culture, Pretty Little Liars, teen soaps on July 31, 2011 at 9:18 am

This weekend, Sarah is out on the town in New York! Thus, the lovely Melissa is back to answer some pressing questions on last week’s PLL. Read on for PLL slumber parties, chatty parents, drugged lotion, awkward dinner parties, and much more!

What do you think about the Hanna-Emily never-ending sleepover storyline? Which PLLs do you think would be the best and worst roommate combos?

Phoebe: ooh great question! So I think it will either make or break their friendship, plus I like A’s take on it, that under one roof they are easier to terrorize. or, are they?! Maybe, they’ll be better at communicating and make a better team. Also, I think perhaps Aria and Emily would be good roomies, and I feel that though I love spencer, she is a little intense and thus hard to live with perhaps. 

Melissa: I think it was surprising how quickly Emily became uptight, chipper, and controlling – ie, her mom!  It always struck me that Emily was fairly laid back and it was her mom that brought all the anxiety to their household.  But now we’re seeing this other side of her.  And the whole narrative about her replacing Hannah as “favorite daughter” seemed tense and fraught.  Hannah already feared that fate with her dad’s new family; now from her own friends?  I also wonder if there’s an element of jealousy there as the two Ali favorites stay together.  I think of all people I would think Aria would be the best roommate – and you all know she’s my least favorite because I find her boring.  But I think boring is exactly what you need in a roommate.  She’d be out chasing men and I’d say yes, mmmhm, and just do my thing.  I love Hannah, but she would make me bonkers.  I’m with Emily on this one – but then, having shared rooms with siblings my whole life, I can only too well relate to the singing sister that just won’t shut up when it’s study time.

Suddenly, in the last two episodes, the parents of the girls are actually talking to each other! Why have they never communicated before? Do you think they’re getting closer to figuring out the existence of A?

Phoebe: I was so excited about this! particularly, the introduction of the parents into the mystery story, and particularly Ella as she  seems the most proactive and concerned. Also, what is up with Spencer’s dad?! Did he kill ally? And what about his total dislike/hate for Mrs. DiLaurentis and Jason? I somehow am starting to think that parents are more involved than we have been led to believe.  

Melissa: I think that Hanna’s mom pointed to why the parents are starting to talk now more – their first attempt to collaborate was a disaster. I also think that they were all convinced that the girls were nutbars and were treating them like little girls when they tried to separate the girls after therapy, but Ian’s death suddenly made the whole murder even more sinister.  They have no reason not to trust the girls now.  But that opens up the scary world – if the girls were right about Ian, what else might they be right about?  I think that the smart parents – Aria and Hannah’s moms! – are realizing that something worse than a year-old murder is going on in the girls’ lives.

How will Caleb’s grand theft auto past be reemerging in future plotlines?

Phoebe: Good question. I thought that was a hilarious revelation and a little odd as it felt a smidge like they just decided that for this episode. Perhaps they will come looking for him? And cause trouble? They can’t have anything to do with A, or can they?

Melissa: BAHAHAHAHAHA.  This was the worst teenage boy secret past ever.  I didn’t believe it at all.  It made me question Caleb all over again.  Perhaps I’m too skeptical, but it just felt like such a line: Oh Hanna, I know right from wrong now.  Because I stole cars once.  True, that didn’t stop me from spying on you last year – but I know some things.  I’m curious as to his sudden urgency for jobs and cash.  What does Caleb really want, and why does it involve him getting confrontational with fellow students?

Okay.  So A is putting something in Emily’s lotion that makes her shoulder hurt.  WHY?  What.  The.  Heck.  Strangest thing ever.  Is she trying to ruin her chances as a swimmer?  Keep her busy?

Phoebe: Right?! Super strange and perhaps yes to ruin her chances at swimming and Danby. Super super strange! But I seriously have no clue what is going on with the lotion situation …

Melissa: I have no answer to this question.  It seems like she wants to either keep Emily preoccupied or keep her from qualifying from too good of schools.  Unless A is trying to drive Emily to seek medical attention and then she will end up at a doctor that will channel some sort of information to A…is anyone else remembering the GG plotline where Dr. VanderWoodsen makes Lily fake-sick-with-cancer to get back into her heart?  Maybe this is something along those lines, and A’s trying to get closer to the girls that way.  Or maybe the stuff in the lotion is making Emily uptight and more like her mom.  This was my favorite plotline of the show – dramatic shoulder rub with painful grimace and close-up shot!  So many seemingly meaningful shots of Emily putting lotion bottles in bags and lockers!  NEEDLE IN THE LOTION AT THE END!!!!!  Hahahaha.  At least, unlike LOSTPLL keeps the promises it makes via foreshadowing shots. 

I felt no real sense of danger for Spencer, which is funny, given the jumpy cuts away from the cop car.  What number was on it?  Did that matter?

Phoebe: I don’t know. But I oddly felt a sense of danger, also I think Garrett is so creepy! And I’m so glad the girls finally realized that they could no longer trust him. And also, I felt like she was in danger from her dad, when he got angry at her about the hockey stick. Which also, what about the hockey stick? That was a weird flashback … with Ali and learning to play field hockey, and such a weird interaction with Jason. And I feel like the stuff with Jason is a total red herring and a little too heavy handed at times. PLL is so smart, why so heavy handed?

Melissa:  I think Spencer will be okay because she is the best of the girls at coming up with plans and lies.  Well, Hanna is really good at lying too.  But if anyone can talk her way out of a cop car with Garrett, it’s Spencer.  Also, did you notice they were sitting right outside the pawn shop where she hocked her sister’s ring?  I do think Garrett could be a danger, but I just don’t think he’s a physical violence type danger – could he have killed Ali?  We have no reason to see why yet, unless it’s because he loved Jenna and was mad at Ali for what she did to Jenna…Sigh.  I’m glad the girls are finally figuring it out too.  I couldn’t see this misdirection playing out much longer.  Spencer keeps making the same mistake with the cops!  She keeps going to them with information and then getting screwed.  It’s gotta stop!

Will Aria Choose Fitz or Jason?

Phoebe: Great question! I am rooting for Jason as I feel like they have such great chemistry! And he is the bad boy and mysterious and kind of hot stuff. Ezra kind of paled next to him this week I thought. Go Jason!

Melissa: My vote is Fitz.  Yeah.  Who woulda thought I’d ever say that?  Not me.  But I was rooting for him during all the mildly hilarious awkward dinner party scenes, while also thinking I’m really glad I didn’t have to go to grad school with him, because I don’t think I could have handled that practiced look of innocence and slight bewilderment across a seminar table from me.  Good lord, man.  She seems to be leaning towards Jason, though, which is intriguing.  I don’t think Jason did it.  I think he knows something, though, or is going to find something in the house, or at least knows that he should find something in the house.  Maybe he was looking for the field hockey stick.  Don’t know why, but since this episode established that the stick was once in Ali’s house, that seems possible.

Clearly Spencer’s dad knows something.  Does he think Spencer killed Alison?  Does he know who did?  I’m still guessing Melissa.  I bet Melissa did it with her own field hockey stick.  I don’t even know if she played field hockey.  I can’t remember.

Phoebe: So from this episode I think Melissa did in fact play field hockey, as that was her old stick that Spencer gave Ali. But I also feel like their dad has something to do with it, or knows something. And why would Melissa kill Ali? I feel like we need more info about Melissa in flashbacks, which we haven’t gotten enough of yet. But I also want to know more about the DiLaurentis mom and Spencer’s dad, also, what is the deal with what Hanna’s mom said about Spencer’s dad? That he can buy off anyone … that seemed telling of something. Also, don’t you think that perhaps Hanna’s mom was behaving a little suspicious in regards to Ella, when she asked if Ella had talked to anyone yet? A little suspicious, I think.

Melissa: So many good questions in response to this question, Phoebe.  I could imagine that Melissa killed Alison and her dad knows and is trying to protect Melissa – protecting Melissa seems to be a hobby in Spencer’s household, even though that girl is manipulative and creeptron.  But why would Mrs. D be mad?  Did they agree to cover up something involving Melissa and Ali?  Was Jason involved?  Maybe Jason saw something involving Melissa and Ali and GOT DRUGGED BY LOTION so that he forgot.  Just speculating.

Why is Mike breaking into houses?  Is he on the case too?

Phoebe: I totally think Mike is on the case, as he is only breaking into houses of people that have to do with the main plot/Ally’s death. Maybe he is trying to help Aria out … or knows something we don’t know yet. Because his breaking in seems to be such a weird subplot!

Melissa: I think Mike is half on the case.  Maybe he, like Jason, knows that he’s looking for something but doesn’t know what.  He’s only broken into houses associated with the A scenario.  He had those weird conversations with Ian last season that made Aria all concerned.  He’s really angry about something and it’s not just his parents’ divorce.  Alternatively, could Mike be A?  He pushed Aria.  He was wearing all black.  I don’t know, guys.  I think Mike finding Jenna’s thing and pushing Aria to figure it out is significant, but I can’t figure out why.

What will the girls do now that they know they can’t trust Garrett?

Phoebe: I don’t know, but I am so glad that revelation happened! Garrett is so sketchy and way to go Mike in stealing the vase! I feel like the girls realize they can’t trust anyone, except maybe Aria’s mom. I think Ella is reliable. But it was about time the Garrett plus Jenna situation was outed. Also, where is Jenna?! I miss her creepiness …

Melissa: Hopefully, their plan will involve Hanna’s flask, some crazy fashion, another cute girlfriend for Emily, and some synchronized text reading.


Interlude: Brownies, Diets, and the Women who eat them.

In gender on July 28, 2011 at 9:10 am

Chelsea Narr Henson

Hi, GLG!  Sarah kindly allowed me a spot to write a guest post, so let me introduce myself.  Like these other awesome ladies, I’m a PhD student in English lit.  I also write about food and recipes elsewhere on the internets.  I don’t usually write about television.  I prefer to yell at it.  Unless there is food on it.  And then I’m typically more interested in the food than in the medium from which it is displayed.

But here’s the thing: unless I’m watching FoodNetwork, the place where food shows up more often than not is in commercials.  And that means, as I tell my students all the time, that there are going to be biases associated with it.  Sometimes it will flat-out be representing the food as more eat-able than it really is.  But sometimes, as in this case, it involves the way the commercial is written and shot.  I couldn’t find the commercial posted online, so we’ll have to work from my memory of it.

(Nota bene: I’m not a film scholar chick, so forgive my lack of appropriate vocabulary for particularly film-y things…)

The ad begins with a determined-looking, pretty blonde woman, probably early 30s, walking quickly and purposefully through a grocery store.  She’s wearing a pencil skirt and heels, and doesn’t stop to take anything off any shelves.  She heads straight for the end of an aisle where a beefy looking guy – a bouncer, of sorts – stands with his arms crossed in front of a ceiling-to-floor red curtain.  He seems as though he will stop her, but she waves him aside and goes through.

While this scene of what seems to be female empowerment is going on, the voiceover for the ad announces that now, something formerly off-limits, something that could never be thought about before, has become approved for consumption for people on diets.  As the woman pushes her way through the curtain, the voiceover reveals this secret taboo, this wondrous, mysterious no-no, is a brownie.  A 90-calorie brownie.  The shelves on the other side of the curtain are stacked with boxes containing these snacks, and we can see them pictured on the boxes: tiny squares that look more like foam rubber or molded plastic than delectable fudgy chocolate treats.

Once within the curtain, we see a club scene: people dressed up, jumping around and dancing, multi-colored lights flashing and disco balls hanging from the ceiling.  There is at least one tray full of the brownie treats being held up and passed around.  The woman we’ve been following happily joins the dance party, and the voiceover tells us encouragingly, no, joyfully, that brownies are back on the dieter’s can eat list, and they can be found in your local supermarket in the granola bar aisle.

Does this seem innocuous?  The first time I saw it I thought nothing of it.  The second time I saw it I started noticing some things that bother me a little.

As far as I can see, there is one man in the dancing scene of the ad.  One.  Everyone else rejoicing over this product is a woman.  Further, they are all relatively young and dressed to the nines.  Does this mean only women like brownies and would therefore care about them being available in a low calorie incarnation?  Not true, I say: my husband loves a big, chewy brownie.  Does it mean only women go on diets?  The very next commercial might be for Hydroxycut or similar, which would disprove this one as well.  Here’s where I think it gets more insidious.  Does it mean only women have to restrict themselves to certain types of food?  Or does it mean that if you’re a woman who enjoys an occasional brownie, you ought to start thinking of yourself as doing something wrong?  Really, the commercial seems to urge, if you’re taking good care of your body and keeping it thin and trim, brownies should have been off limits to you until now.  The man in the party scene, incidentally, is about as far in appearance and habit from the uber-masculine bouncer as you could get.  He might be a hipster, he might be metrosexual, but more likely (I think), he’s styled to look somewhat effeminate, so it turns out it’s a “girls’ night” complete with a token gay guy – and lord knows he hasn’t had a brownie in ages either… until now, that is!

Further, let’s consider the big bouncer that the woman steps casually past at the beginning of the commercial.  Sure, he plays into the club vibe the ad wants to invoke.  It makes sense for him to be there, guarding the red curtain, but what does that mean from an over-analytical perspective?  This woman wants to do something taboo.  She wants to eat this delectable snack hidden away.  He is there to prevent her from indulging, even though, as the commercial so helpfully reveals, what she’s after is only 90 measly little calories.  So here, it would seem, even though we now know this dessert is not so bad for the woman in search of a trim figure, this guy still doesn’t want our girl to have any.  He would rather block the door than allow her this small indulgence.

Finally, there’s the issue of placement.  The voiceover tells us not only how fantastic it is that these brownies are 90 calories a piece; it also tells us where we can find them in the grocery store.  They are shelved with the granola bars.  It’s like that final wink: even if you’re a woman, and you’ve not eaten a brownie in 3 years because you’re trying to stay trim for your next upcoming high school reunion, so that Joe Quarterback will finally, finally notice you after all these years, but now you feel like it might be okay to indulge by picking up a pack of these 90 – just 90! – calorie brownies, they don’t get shelved with the cookies or the baking mixes.  No, they hang with the granola bars.  Now, on top of being delicious and formerly forbidden and reserved for those women who can’t resist partying over chocolate, they are also a health food.  Don’t worry, girls, they aren’t really even brownies!  They’re just like granola bars.  They must be good for you, because stuff with low calorie counts is good for you, since it helps you be thin.  And thin is good.

To sum up, what this commercial teaches us is as follows:

1.) most young attractive women either are, or should be, on diets.

2.) indulgence is a bad thing, because it means you won’t be following your diet.

3.) men wouldn’t want you to indulge, because then you wouldn’t be as attractive as you could be, since you’d probably gain weight.

4.) men don’t need diet brownies, unless they are those kind of men (by extension, perhaps, men don’t go on diets?  And why not?  Surely they, too, feel the pressure from society/people they want to seem attractive to?).

5.) even if you are going to indulge in this new godsend, no one will judge you, because in addition to being low calorie, it’s actually a healthy snack.

Girls!  Can’t we just feel beautiful and accepted AND enjoy some good old dessert if we want to?  Come over.  I’ll make brownies.  And they won’t come from a 90 calorie box.

Now you know why I yell at the TV set.


Addendum:  Just saw this commercial again and noticed something I forgot to mention.  As the dance party progresses, the curtain is moved aside slightly and who peeks through?  Two teenage boys dressed as supermarket janitorial staff.  They look in voyeurs to the scene, seeming both slightly shocked and a bit bashful about their actions.  Are they turned on by these dancing, brownie-eating women?  Are they horrified at the taboo being broken?  What does it mean that they are staff members with somewhat undesirable jobs?  I can’t decide what effect this additional moment has on the message of the commercial.  How would this be different (or would it?) if the voyeurs were attractive male grocery store customers instead of janitor kids?

Musings on Missing Television

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2011 at 1:54 am

Phoebe Bronstein

This week I am in Australia for a feminist television conference, Console-ing Passions, and truth be told it is a really fun conference. Plus this year, it is in Australia so I can’t really complain. But the result is that I’ve been listening to a lot of papers on television and also spending a lot of time thinking and talking about TV. Sadly, this means that I have not watched television all week, which seems weird. And quite frankly I miss it. Not in the way one misses people or puppies or cats, if those are your thing, but I still miss it.

Perhaps it is a weird thing to miss, but I think it is that I miss my alone time, my time spent relaxing in front of the TV and hanging out with the dog, or the times that I get inspired to write because I’m watching some awesome or crazy show. For me, not watching television feels oddly the way I used to feel when I would go without reading for some time and the way I imagine others feels when they too go without reading: uninspired, bored, in need of diving into someone else’s story for awhile.

Thus, this week I have rather little to say about what’s on television given that I have only watched The Bachelorette and that took a solid two hours to download and as I write this, I am patiently awaiting the downloading of Pretty Little Liars. However, realizing what I was missing yesterday I watched a few episodes of Season 2 of The Wire and then eventually the latest Bachelorette, which was hometown visits. Hometown visits are not my favorite episodes, they are more sentimental and melodramatic, and mostly not as awesome. Plus nobody seems as drunk as usual, which makes the show much less fun. And in this particular episode, I felt super bad for (spoiler alert) Ames who got kicked off. I think he really liked Ashley, poor guy.

Flash forward a few days and after the success of downloading PLL and the Bachelorette, I am on a kick and now feeding my TV addiction via iTunes downloads. Perhaps not the most economically sound solution, but I think it is keeping me sane. So yesterday, during a much needed break from the conference and after a panel on women in crime television, I wandered back to my hostel to watch the latest episode of The Closer and Switched at Birth. Then upon reaching Sydney, I watched Drop Dead Diva and the new show Alphas, which feels like a not as great version of Heroes. And finally, I watched last week’s PLL, replete with its crazy fashion show. Clearly, I am addicted to my stories. But they are awesome (don’t worry I am definitely getting out and about and seeing Australia too).

Generally, I don’t like watching television on my computer, but as it stands my computer is clearly the best option given my old school TV replete with VCR is at home in Oregon, and my computer is highly portable. Thus, I am grateful for downloads, although sad that I can’t watch Hulu or Netflix outside the USA. But I feel like I have learned something about both my TV habits and reliance on the medium this week. A few years ago, I might have been saddened by my reliance on television, and my pure enjoyment of it, but now I love it for more reasons than I have room or care to admit here.

However, among these reasons is the community created by television, something the conference made quite clear. But also we watch often together, or alone and participate in communities online, or talk to our friends afterwards. It is fun and exciting to guess what will happen next, to wait in suspense, and to fill in those narrative gaps. Despite decades of slamming TV for killing our brains, TV makes us think and makes us talk. It is only mind numbing when we let it be, when it washes over us, and even then I am not completely sure that it can wash over us. So perhaps this post is a defense of TV to all those out there who still turn their noses up at television or announce with pride that they don’t watch TV. Seriously, turn it on, check it out, it is pretty awesome.

Competition? Why Yes, She Would Love Some: Nicki Minaj in “Haterade”

In gender on July 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Sarah Todd

Competition? Why yes, I would love some.

– Nicki Minaj, “Check It Out”

When Nicki Minaj enters a song, it’s like all the doors of a house blow open. In Gucci Mane’s laid-back “Haterade,” she’s not going for fireworks as in “Monster” or “Roman’s Revenge”; her rapping is quick and clipped, as if she’s making an effort to keep her cool. Even before she starts rapping, she’s sucking in breaths between her teeth, because nothing is more frustrating than being underestimated.

The in-your-face-haters spirit of her opening lines–“This one goes out to all of my critics / Don’t you feel stupid? Look how I did it”–has a long history in hip-hop. Think of Biggie, dedicating Ready to Die to “all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin’, all the people that lived above the buildings I was hustlin’ in front of that called the police on me when I was just trying to feed my daughter.” When everyone else expects you to fail, some swagger upon proving them wrong is more than warranted. Moreover, there’s a reason braggodocio is so fundamental to hip-hop: if no one else will tell you you’re awesome, you have to tell yourself. But Minaj’s response to her critics’ low expectations is particularly interesting given her status as the only big female star in current mainstream hip hop.

As Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote earlier this summer in Thirteen, there are plenty of talented female rappers out there; however, the mainstream music industry’s cards are stacked against them. Despite such commercially successful female rappers like Queen Latifah, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown, and Monie Love, hip hop is still perceived as a masculine genre–primarily made by men, for men. In “Haterade,” Minaj notes that her spot at the top of the Billboard Rap charts hasn’t been held by a woman in a long time: “It’s been eight years but I broke the record.” It’s an impressive accomplishment, but why did it take so long for a song by a solo female hip-hop artist to get there? Read the rest of this entry »

Benevolent but Fierce: The Glamorous Ethics of Top Model

In gender, girl culture, race on July 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Melissa Sexton

I’m currently teaching a summer section of Writing 122, the second of two freshman composition classes required at my university.  Our discussion today centered around a great article by Steven Johnson called “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” which argues that recent years have seen growing narrative complexity in fictional television shows.  Similarly, Johnson argues that even “bad TV” (think: reality shows) have gotten smarter, since reality shows are often more sophisticated and morally complex versions of game shows.  I expected this article to elicit tons of discussion from my students, but what I discovered was a surprising program snobbery.  My students were already doing what Johnson suggests: they were foregoing simpler reality television fare in favor of “multi-threaded drama” that features moral ambiguity, season-spanning plotlines, and complex structures: think Lost, The Wire, 24, The Sopranos.  When it came time to talk about reality TV, I was the only one that was willing to admit outright love.  For the good of the class, I exposed myself as a long-time ANTM fan.

My outing led to a number of interesting questions about narrative complexity and television morality.  If, as Johnson argues, our dramas are moving away from morally motivated yet formulaic sitcoms in favor of multithread, morally ambiguous, “realist” dramas, is reality television the last bastion of overt TV sermonizing?  If so, what is it that I, a fairly intelligent person despite my students’ censure, love so deeply about reality television?  And is it a redeemable love, I ask myself, taking ANTM as a case study.

Read the rest of this entry »

Pretty Little Liars Roundtable: “Never Letting Go,” Season 2 Episode 6

In girl culture, Pretty Little Liars, teen soaps on July 22, 2011 at 5:21 pm

This week, Phoebe is in Australia hanging out with kangaroos! The amazing Melissa agreed to fill her recapping shoes to discuss terrifying videos, A-conspiracy theories, and insane fashion choices. She also suggests a social activity to rival the awesomeness of glamping: do read on.

“The Bitch Is Back”


Sarah:  Yes! I started feeling like A’s approach to Alison is very contradictory (which has always been true). Like, on one hand A is pretending to BE Alison even though we are pretty sure (?) she is dead, on the other hand, A haaaates Alison and calls her things like bitch and monster and evil.

Melissa: Right. I think A has some identity confusion with regards to Allison. Part of what was so awful about the video is that it first says “The Bitch is Back” and calls Allison a monster, but then A turns around and identifies as Alison with the slide: “My dresses, my rules.” So I wonder: does A hate Allison, or does she just like torturing the girls, and being awful about Allison publicly was an easy way to humiliate them and exert more power over them?

Sarah:  I feel like there are a lot of possibilities, depending on who A is, for how A feels about Alison. If A is Mona for example, the dualism makes sense because Mona would both have some hero-worship for Alison (and thus like being her)  and also hate her (because she was so mean to her). But then, if A is more than one person, that could also explain why there’s so much contradiction.

Melissa: Yes…if A is more than one person, it would also make sense. And Jena could have a similar worship/hate complex, though I’m growing skeptical about her…what happened to her and Cop Loverboy?

Sarah: Yes, good question! I think this is two episodes in a row they’ve been absent. And Jenna in the fashion show would have been awesome; she is FIERCE. Which also wait, can we talk about the fashions?

On the Catwalk of Craziness

Melissa: Hahahaha, the hilarious fashions.  Like…Hanna’s weird hippie-tribal outfit, complete with headband?

Sarah: But WHAT WAS UP WITH THE ARIA-SPENCER DUO FASHION? You know the look I mean, where Aria was like a goth witch and Spencer was like a goth Little House on the Prairie person?

Melissa: This? Yeah, super strange.

Sarah: These are not outfits!

Melissa: Also, when they came out for the second walk and all had their hair suddenly teased, I laughed and laughed. Come on, ABC family – haven’t you watched Top Model? There is no time for hair changes backstage.

Sarah: Right??? I was wondering about the logistics of that too


Sarah: It’s so confusing!  And also because, remember Mona’s glampover where Aria and Emily are so mad about their hair? THEIR HAIR LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE THAT IN THIS FASHION SHOW.

Melissa: Good point. The whole fashion angle seemed quite abrupt to me, actually. Like, where did Ali’s sudden undying passion for fashion come from?  It was the least believable Ali flashback yet, I think.

Sarah: Yeah I think you’re right! I know we’ve seen them trying on clothes together before in a giggly-friend kind of way, but here we were supposed to believe she was like a Fashion Maven versus trying on different shirts from Target with your pals.

Melissa: Yes! I was with the girls on this one – it was pretty darn weird for Mrs. DeLerentis to be like, “I’m going to have 3 bloody marys. You girls unwrap some dresses from my dead daughter…and wear them in public, please!”

Sarah: Hahhaaha

Melissa: Because it’s not like Ali designed them; it sounded like she found them online in the flashback. So, “Please wear these items my dead daughter got on E-Bay. Maybe you could wear Hanna’s E-Bay purses, too.”

Frenemies and Flashbacks

Sarah: HA!  But I thought the flashback was interesting in that it reaffirmed Ali’s relationships with the girls (namely Hanna and Emily), where Ali is semi-flirting with Emily/trying to draw her crush out and then negging Hanna on how she couldn’t fit into her dress. I think Ali had both closer and far more complicated relationships with those two.

Melissa: That’s a really good point. We’ve seen that she was afraid of Spencer; and she seems to have just had a strange relationship with Aria, mostly involving knowing about her dad while also being into older men.  But we’ve seen moments of tenderness and harsher cruelty with both Emily and Hanna.

Sarah: Yeah! I agree 100 percent.  I think Spencer and Aria may have both represented more competition, potentially? Spencer because she’s the strongest; Aria because guys seem to like her almost as much as they liked Ali.

Melissa: I agree. I think that Spencer and Aria both fit in better in the past – Aria had been taught to think for herself, pink hair and all; and Spencer had been taught to fight for what she wanted.  Emily and Hanna had built-in insecurities.

Sarah: Very true.

Melissa: So Ali had to get dirt on Spencer and Aria – involving Ian and Aria’s dad – but she could toy with the other girls more. But also feel safer around them, to have feelings.

Sarah: Right, because the only times Ali has seemed at all human are with Hanna and Emily.

Melissa: Right. It seems like since they are less of a threat, she can sometimes let them in; but she can also be soooo cruel with them. We did see her be a bit human with Spencer that one time she came over late at night b/c of the party at her house…but even then, she didn’t really let her guard all the way down. Read the rest of this entry »

Choosing You: The Bachelorette

In Uncategorized on July 21, 2011 at 7:18 am

Sarah Todd

[Previously: Phoebe wrote about The Big Bad Bentley & The Bachelorette]

I watched my first-ever episode of The Bachelorette at Phoebe’s house earlier this summer. Having never seen the show or its Bachelor brethren before, I was having a hard time getting my television-bearings. It is a testament to Phoebe’s graciousness that she did not go insane in response to my questions. “Is that the host?” I’d ask every time a guy appeared onscreen. I couldn’t tell the host apart from the other dudes; they all have the same teeth. “Do the guys really like Ashley or are they just in it to win it? What if she doesn’t like any of them? What if two of the guys fall in love with each other? What if the host falls in love with the contestant? What’s a rose do? How do they pick the Bachelorette? Do any couples really stay together? War, what is it good for?” Phoebe is a good friend, is what I’m saying, and also, as has been noted by everyone who has ever seen the show ever, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette take place in a bizarre alternate universe that bears no resemblance to what dating is like for normal people.

First of all, there’s no texting, because apparently no one is allowed to have a phone, so people communicate via calling cards on silver platters like in a Henry James novel. Ninety-five percent of dates end with fountains and fireworks and paper lanterns and other things that serve as metaphors for love’s bursting/floating feeling. While out on the town in foreign countries, Ashley and the fellow of the day often stop random strangers on the street and ask them for dating advice, which is a strange way to be a tourist. (“Excuse me, you look wise, how do you get through the rough patches to create a Lasting Love?” “Look lady, I’m just a person eating a sandwich.”) Also, all of the contestants this season appear to be white. I’m not sure if this has been the case in previous iterations of the show, but it’s problematic that the producers, with 30 slots to fill, chose a cast that lacks diversity.

Continuing on the lack-of-realism train, after one or two pleasant conversations and maybe a kiss, Ashley and the guys start throwing around words like “marriage” and “commitment,” which seems a little fast, as does the fact that some of the dates this season have included “pretending to get married” and “taking pretend-wedding photos.” Those are weird activity choices, and they are not fun for anybody unless you are Miss Piggy in The Muppets Take Manhattan. If you are Miss Piggy in said film, Hello! I love your work.

One thing that is realistic about The Bachelorette, however, is Ashley’s low self-esteem. She worries constantly that the guys on the show don’t really like her, or are there for the “wrong reasons” (free publicity for their family businesses/free 15 minutes of fame), or would have preferred a different Bachelorette. On dates, she needs a fair amount of reassurance that people are having fun.  For some reason, the show arranged a roast for Ashley in which she would get affectionately ribbed by her potential suitors: a crazy idea, because her skin is approximately as thick as an onion peel, and also because the affectionate part seemed to get forgotten pretty fast. Unsurprisingly, Ashley did not have a good time.

Ashley’s poor sense of self-worth also seems to have led her to go for Bentley, a dude she had even been warned about in advance by someone going by the improbably Bond-girl-esque name of Michelle Money. (Ashley and Bentley and the host refer to Michelle Money all the time, as if we are supposed to know who she is. Was she on a previous season? Do they just like saying her name? If that’s the reason, I can’t blame them.) I think what happened is that Ashley knew, deep-down, that Bentley was bad news and she said to herself, I deserve to be with guys who are bad news and who will never treat me well, so she decided she really liked him. Ashley! Come back to the light. There are cookies here, and people who are not named after cars.

I say that Ashley’s low-self esteem is realistic not because I think she ought to have low self-esteem; rather, it’s realistic because she represents low self-esteem so well. Lots of awesome people have low self-esteem despite having many great things going for them. Ashley is pretty, fun, a good dancer, and occasionally just goofy enough to make me think she’s got a whole lot of secret quirkiness bottled up. And yet she is convinced that other people—particularly guys—don’t like her, or don’t like her enough.

I think that’s ultimately what’s so compelling about The Bachelorette this season. Ashley’s trying to find a husband (boyfriend? It seems like the proposal at the end should just be a proposal to date each other in real life), while I’m rooting for her to find some confidence. And a husband/boyfriend/person to date too, if that’s what she wants, but it seems like that will probably be easier–and involve fewer tears–once she’s more comfortable in her own skin. I know the show isn’t supposed to be about self-discovery, but a Kelly Taylor “I choose me” moment would be awesome, wouldn’t it? Then again, it would also be awesome if Ashley wore a disguise and went to spy on the other contestants, and if The Mask returned, and if they all had to solve a mystery together. I think I wish The Bachelorette was Scooby Doo. But as for Ashley: I think she’s fine just the way she is, and I hope she ends up believing it as well.

Luna In Space

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Sarah Todd

I’ve never understood why spaciness is supposed to be a bad thing. In high school and college, my French teachers (for some reason it was always the French teachers) complained about my spaciness all the time–to me, to my parents, to the rest of the class. “Sarah est comme Le Petit Prince,” a professor announced mid-lesson during my freshman year of college. “Sa tête est toujours dans le ciel.” I was taking the class with a few other girls from my hall, and as we exchanged bemused looks, I knew I would hear this phrase repeated to me at parties for the next four years. And so it was.

Petit Prince references aside, my French teachers’ frustration didn’t make much sense to me. I wasn’t being disruptive; I was still doing all of my work, still getting As and high Bs. An occasional daydream didn’t really interfere with my learning or with the class. What they found so annoying, I think, was that they could tell I wasn’t paying attention, which they interpreted as a sign of disrespect. But shouldn’t people be allowed to be in charge of their own thoughts? Does the authority of the teacher extend inside students’ brains? Many schools and offices ask people to restrict their thoughts to very specific topics for eight-hour stretches, but this seems like a flaw of the system, not a problem with people whose minds are prone to wandering.

To me, being spacey is like being stubborn; both are qualities that may bug others, but can be positive forces too. If you’re spacey, you’re thinking about stuff that’s not right in front of you. You’re using your imagination, and you’re not afraid to say or do things that other people may find strange.

The wonderful Luna Lovegood of Harry Potter is the best ambassador of spaciness I could ask for. She wears radishes for earrings and expresses her school pride with enormous lion hats. She professes her belief in creatures like Crumple-Horned Snorkacks in a wispy, reedy voice. People call her “Loony Luna,” but if you actually stop to listen to her, everything she says is smart or funny or kind—most often all three, all at once. Take, for example, this scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Luna’s star turn):

Harry Potter: How come you’re not at the feast?
Luna Lovegood: I’ve lost all my possessions. Apparently people have been hiding them.
Harry Potter: That’s awful!
Luna Lovegood: Oh, it’s all good fun. But as this is the last night, I really do need them back.
Harry Potter: Do you want any help finding them?
Luna Lovegood: I’m sorry about your godfather, Harry.
[clasps his hand comfortingly]
Harry Potter: Are you sure you don’t want any help looking?
Luna Lovegood: That’s all right. Anyway, my mum always said things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end.
[they look up and see a pair of her shoes hanging from the ceiling arch]
Luna Lovegood: If not always in the way we expect.

For me, the scene encapsulates everything that’s great about Luna, and all the possibilities that spaciness can open up. Because Luna is naturally kind of vague and far-off, she’s able to shift gears mid-conversation without worrying about whether or not their talk is following a deliberate line. She doesn’t let the tricks other students play on her ruffle her feathers, because she already knows she’s different, and it’s her difference that lets her brush off bullies. She can talk about her missing shoes while telling Harry something else. And she can do it all so gently, and so easily, that Harry finds comfort with her in his grief. Read the rest of this entry »

Pretty Little Liars Roundtable: “The Devil You Know” Season 2, Episode 5

In girl culture, Pretty Little Liars on July 14, 2011 at 8:22 am

This week on Pretty Little Liars: Questionable though fashion-forward funeral attire, infuriating interruptions and makeout music. Also, why A’s possible motivations are as numerous as jellyfish in the sea.

A Is Complex, and Ian Is Dead

Phoebe: So what are your first thoughts about last night’s PLL?

Sarah:  I thought this was a pretty strong episode overall – good plot developments with Ian’s funeral and Emily’s realization that A was sending the texts. And the scene at the end where we see that Ali was alive after the rock-kiss!

Phoebe:  Oh man that was so exciting! I feel like I have been waiting for that for a while now.

Sarah:  Also one of PLL’s scarier moments I thought, yeah? Our foursome was being so brave in looking for A.

Phoebe:  Oh yes I totally agree! And then it was weird to see A’s legs as we almost only get the creepy hands. But at least A was still recognizable all in black. Also, A must have had it out for Ian, which seems strange.

Sarah:  In what way do you think (that it is strange)?

Phoebe:  I mean since clearly A knew Ian was innocent, but was hell-bent on making his life terrible: leading the girls to believe that Ian was the killer (which he wasn’t clearly, but he is still creepy), killing him, and then revealing his innocence. It just seems like A must have not liked Ian very much.

Sarah: That’s a good point! So the reason A had it in for Ian was NOT because he was Ali’s killer, but for other as-yet-unknown reasons.

Girls, Interrupted (Over and Over)

Phoebe:  Also, I wonder what Melissa was going to confess to Spencer before the phone rang? Also, why do people immediately always jump to the craziest conclusion on this show?!

Sarah:  You are so right. It also infuriates me when that happens, and then the other person doesn’t ask them what they were going to say. Like I get that in this case Melissa’s so furious that Spencer can’t ask her to continue right then, but that also happened earlier in the episode where Spencer tried to tell Melissa about her ring.

Phoebe:  Right?!

Sarah:  And then the mom was like, “Help me with groceries?” And I guess Melissa was like, “Hmm whatever super important serious thing that Spencer was about to say must not have mattered.” I don’t even understand the point as a plot device because it’s just a feint at something happening that doesn’t actually happen. But they can’t trick me! Nothing still happened!

Phoebe:  Also, how is A everywhere? Like in Emily and Spencer’s room?

Sarah:  Maybe A is Mike! Since we know he’s into breaking and entering

Phoebe:  See I thought that too when we found out he has a bit of a robbery habit, but then I thought he was a red herring in that we are supposed to believe that, particularly in last week’s episode.

Sarah:  So true. But at this point every viable candidate is a red herring. So some of them must be actual regular-colored herrings.

Death and Romance

Sarah:  Another thing that we absolutely must discuss: Hanna and Caleb 2gether 4everrr. Your thoughts?

Phoebe:  Exactly. I love love them. They are the best.

Sarah:  Me too. Did I mention that I started swooning when the piano music kicked in, before he even knocked on the door? I was like, that is kissing reunion music right there!

Phoebe:  Yes! It was the best.

Sarah:  And, somewhat related, Hanna’s hat at the funeral was insane.

Phoebe:  Yes it was. But I also kind of liked it.

Sarah:  But in a brilliant way, like as a way of dancing on Ian’s grave without the red dress.

Phoebe: I also thought all their black dresses were very cute.

Sarah:  Me too! Though maybe a bit short for funeral-wear. And Spencer was sporting some mad cleavage. Which on one hand, go Spencer, but on the other hand, maybe save it for later?

Phoebe:  Perhaps. Also, Hanna’s cleavage was rocking

Sarah:  I suppose there was much cleavage on display at this serious murderer-funeral event.

Phoebe:  That there was. That there was.

Sarah:  I thought the shot of the four of them wiping their hands clean from the dirt was pretty cool. The camerawork always seems to be at its most interesting when the four of them are together.

Phoebe:  That was grand. As was the pouring of dirt one by one.

Messed-Up Families and Aria Turnarounds

Sarah:  Oh also: I felt like Emily’s speech about how Jason is a creep was uncharacteristically judgmental.

Phoebe:  I agree. She seemed a bit out of it this episode, like less level-headed than normal.

Sarah:  Perhaps she knows something about the stuff with Jason and Ali that the others don’t? Because Ali told her things I don’t think she told the others, so it would make sense.

Phoebe: Hmm you may very well be right. Also, maybe she is feeling on edge post-fake letter from the college. Also, the note that Jason had! And Aria and Jason’s chemistry post-Mr. Fitz leaving!

Sarah:  Yes! In the same handwriting as Ian’s note, right?

Phoebe:  Right?! Also, what’s up with the cop and Jenna? And paying off the dude at the shipping place. It made me feel more like they are A, but I feel like I can never trust my instincts on this show

Sarah:  Yeah, and I’m very curious about what their connection was with Ian. We still don’t know what was in the mysterious parcel Jenna and Ian were trading back in season 1. Oh and going back to Aria, I think she won me over this episode with how hilarious she was in the scene with Fitz’s ex. Her “yeah!” as Jackie took her leave was the perfect blend of uncomfortableness and fake-niceness.

Phoebe: I agree. That was fun!

Sarah: Here it is:  and right at :43. That is the very second that I was converted into an Aria fan.

Visions of Hair-Feathers and Microminis

Sarah: Also, what are your predictions for next episode?

Phoebe: I think and hope for more Caleb and Hanna. And I miss Toby, and Jenna for that matter. So I would like more of the step siblings, and feel like they might reappear next episode. What about you?

Sarah:  I think/hope that we’re going to get more development of Ali and Jason’s family situation, since Jason was making references to his parents thinking the wrong child had died. And since it is a fashion show episode (so exciting!), I predict many outfits for us to fawn over/mock accordingly.

Phoebe:  Oh that’s right! I am excited about the fashion show! Also, I want to know who is creepily living in Jason’s house … was it Ian? or someone else?

Sarah:  I hope there is a crazy relative in the attic.

Phoebe: Me too! A Bertha Mason stand-in … that would be grand.

Good Girls Gone Mad: Music Videos and the “Problem” of Female Rage – Part 1

In gender on July 12, 2011 at 5:47 pm

Melissa Sexton

[Previously posted on my personal blog]

A few months ago, I wrote a post on my old Livejournal account about women and anger.  Specifically, I was responding to a fascinating article in the New York Times about film depictions of angry women.  In this article, brilliant critic Manohla Dargis argues that, It’s tricky whenever a woman holds a gun on screen, even if the movie is independently produced and the director is female.”  She continues, “I complain about the representations of women, but I’m more offended when in movie after movie there are no real representations to eviscerate, when all or most of the big roles are taken by men, and the only women around are those whose sole function is, essentially, to reassure the audience that the hero isn’t gay. The gun-toting women and girls in this new rash of movies may be performing much the same function for the presumptive male audience: It’s totally “gay” for a guy to watch a chick flick, but if a babe is packing heat — no worries, man!”

Whatever we think of women packing heat, I think it’s safe to say that American media is still really uncomfortable with depictions of genuine female anger.  Giving girls guns may be fine, but don’t let the girls fight male sexual domination; that’s just uncomfortable.  (See this other great NYT article on how Pretty Woman ultimately defeated Thelma and Louise in our cultural history).  Just look at the controversy surrounding Rihanna’s recent “Man Down” video.  After reading all the angry arguments against this video, I was expecting blood, gore, naked bodies, terrifying yet glamorous violence (like Kanye’s recent “Monster” video.  Or Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi”).  But no.  “Man Down” is a fairly tame if emotionally devastating video about a sexual assault and a woman’s revenge.  What, I had to ask myself, made the “Man Down” video so wildly controversial?  I mean, it was in rotation on BET, not PBS; was it really any more violent than the usual rap video fare?  As one smart Twitter comment (quoted in the MTV article linked above) stated, “it’s really ironic how women r always exploited n videos … we watch women be raped & murdered. Now a woman flips the coin & look!”  The only thing, I concluded, that made this video uncomfortable was that it dealt with real female anger and the violence that can result from it.  And it didn’t glamorize sexual violence in any way.  Is violence okay as long as it’s between men?  Is sexual exploitation of women okay as long as it is covered up (barely) with rhinestones or push-up bras?  Unlike many music videos, “Man Down” showed not bravado but instead naked emotional vulnerability – a mix of vengeful anger and frightened regret –

paired with a gritty, unglamorous aesthetic.  Female anger?  Female violence?  That’s scary.  To make it this real, in the words of the Parents’ Television Council, “gives retaliation in the form of premeditated murder the imprimatur of acceptability.”

But while we fear such realistic representations of well-founded female anger, anger is such an important source of cultural bonding for women.  Why is it, I asked, that we swim in a musical sea of songs about broken relationships, betrayal, and unfairness, as well as female retaliation and sexual competitiveness, but few of these songs or their accompanying videos has the power to generate controversy akin to “Man Down”?  Musically speaking, this mix of feelings has become a classic in the form of what I’d like to call the “Angry Woman Anthem.”   By looking at a couple of ‘Angry Woman Anthems,” I think we can see that many pop cultural representations of female anger negotiate female anger in ways both pathologically consistent with heteronormative dismissals or co-optations of feminine rage AND really subversive in their depiction of about anger and revenge.

Read the rest of this entry »

In Defense of “Bad Teacher”

In gender, girl culture on July 11, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Sarah Todd

[Warning: Many spoilers ahead.]

With his irreverent wit, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane doesn’t usually seem bound up in concerns about whether movies preserve a certain moral order. So the concluding lines of his Bad Teacher review took me by surprise:

In a line that will freeze the soul of Arne Duncan, Elizabeth is asked, “What went so wrong that you ended up educating children?” But that’s the wrong question. The correct one is: What have you done, children, to deserve Miss Halsey?

Granted, Lane’s trademark snark is still intact here. However, he seems to be making a semi-serious condemnation of the very lazy, very hungover, very bad teaching methods of Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), the protagonist of Bad Teacher. It’s true that teachers in actual schools have serious responsibilities to their students; they have to ensure that kids learn and grow and survive field trips. Teachers in movies, however, operate under no such obligations, which is why Elizabeth gets to feel blasé about kids slinging coleslaw at each other. Anyway, as Bad Teacher notes, it’s not as if there’s a shortage of movies about good teachers. Elizabeth has her seventh-graders watch almost all of them—Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Lean On Me—while she sleeps off the parties of the night before.

Elizabeth, as played with rock-star attitude by Diaz, is the raging id of any teacher who’s ever felt a twinge of frustration with students and co-workers (i.e., every teacher). She keeps drugs and alcohol in the false bottom of her desk drawer. She swears. She embezzles money from a car wash fundraiser. She writes “Stupid” and “Stupider” in red pen on her students’ essays, and teaches her class about To Kill A Mockingbird by throwing dodgeballs at them when they answer incorrectly. (To be fair, she also lets them throw dodgeballs at her when they get an answer right. “Just nothing in the face,” Diaz instructs them carelessly, tossing her blond mane to one side.)

Like Lane, Roger Ebert objects to Elizabeth’s character in his review of Bad Teacher. Comparing the film to the 2003 comedy Bad Santa, he writes:

Its bad person is neither bad enough or likable enough. The transgressions of Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz) are more or less what you’d expect, but what’s surprising is that she’s so nasty and unpleasant. Billy Bob Thornton, as the Bad Santa, was more outrageously offensive and yet more redeemed by his desperation. He was bad for urgent reasons. Elizabeth seems bad merely as a greedy lifestyle choice.

While I agree with Ebert that Bad Teacher could have pushed Elizabeth to be even worse, I can’t help but wonder if at least a part of the resistance some critics felt to the film is in response to a woman behaving badly onscreen, without redemption or punishment. Jack Black played a similarly irresponsible teacher in School of Rock back in 2003, but critics didn’t seem perturbed by his bad behavior. (It’s also worth noting that some critics liked Bad Teacher a lot, including Manohla Dargis and David Edelstein.)

In fact, Elizabeth’s lack of likability is precisely what I think is kind of awesome about Bad Teacher: she doesn’t have to be likable! She doesn’t have a sick family member or a little kid who helps reveal her softer side; there’s no cute puppy waiting for her at home, and no sob story to win our sympathies–unless you count the fact that her fiancé quite justifiably dumped her for being a hustler.

In Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Anna Faris, a screenwriter explains that romantic comedies tend to make their heroines suffer in the first fifteen minutes so that audiences will be okay with rooting for them afterward. It’s depressing to think that our culture demands that women be brought low before they’re allowed to succeed. But Bad Teacher never tears Elizabeth down. If you don’t like her, that’s fine. If you do like her—and I did—it’s because you think she’s funny and a badass as well as, and partially because of, being nasty and unpleasant. In other words, you like her for the same reasons people like Bill Murray, or Spike on Buffy when he’s still evil, or any number of dudes who’ve built their reputations on snide remarks, sneers, and not caring. Would I want Elizabeth to be my friend or teach my (imaginary) kids? Of course not! But luckily this is movie-land, where Elizabeth does whatever she feels like and gets away with it, and that is really fun to watch.

Lane also makes a valid criticism of Bad Teacher‘s sexual politics; in the film, Elizabeth and her archnemesis Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch) compete for the affections of a rich and dorky new teacher (Justin Timberlake). Elizabeth’s main character motivation is to earn enough money to get breast implants so that she can land a wealthy husband. However, these motivations are supposed to be terrible. It’s not as if Bad Teacher is holding up Elizabeth as a role model. For anybody. Ever. And I can see the argument that a superficial woman trying to get together with a rich dude is hardly a cutting-edge or progressive plot point, but it’s worth noting that Elizabeth ends up choosing not to go through with either the implants or the rich dude. The movie doesn’t reprimand her for being a Bad Lady Who Does Wrong Things for the Wrong Reasons either, which is refreshing. She just decides that she’d rather be with a guy who makes her laugh. (That guy is Jason Segel, playing a charming, low-key gym teacher who digs Elizabeth not only because she’s hot but also because she’s pretty cool, if you can look past all the misanthropy).

I  don’t want to oversell Bad Teacher; it’s not like this is the most hilarious movie of the year. I’d probably give it three stars out of five. But if you are a person who wants to see more female-led comedies where women get to break outside the Type-A workaholic box, then it’s a movie worth throwing some dollars at.

What we need in movies—among other things—is more representation of different kinds of people, including but not limited to women. We need movies about businesswomen who don’t have to choose between their love lives and their careers, about mothers whose aspirations for themselves go beyond their families and the front doors of their houses, about women who aren’t conventionally attractive but who somehow manage to find fulfillment in their lives without getting makeovers. We need movies about women who are diverse in age and ethnicity and class and sexuality, who are goofballs and hellraisers and space cadets and femme fatales and nerds and punks and slackers and action heroes. Bad Teacher is just one small step in this direction, but I’ll take one small step over none, every time.

Drop Dead Diva & Lifetime’s Modern Makeover

In Lifetime on July 11, 2011 at 8:02 am

Phoebe Bronstein

I have always thought Lifetime was for the older ladies, but these days something is afoot in their programming with shows like summer hit Drop Dead Diva, the sexy women of Army Wives, Project Runway, and the premier of a new show with Ally Walker, The Protector. I must admit I have never seen Army Wives as it never appealed to me and I haven’t seen Project Runaway since it moved to Lifetime. However, I just watched the first two episodes of The Protector, and it isn’t too bad thus far; then again I am a total sucker for any and all crime oriented television shows.

But my favorite Lifetime show and one my favorite summer shows is Drop Dead Diva. Not only am I a big Drop Dead Diva fan, but I feel like it is a show particularly necessary for the current television landscape. Last summer ABC Family canceled Huge (which made me really sad) and then Marie Claire published Maura Kelly’s upsetting and disrespectful response to Mike & Molly on their blog (read here). That is, the current TV climate is not one that welcomes weight differences and is at times downright cruel. Enter Drop Dead Diva, a show that features and celebrates a brilliant, sexy, and plus size woman as its central character. The show is now in its third season and going strong.

Jane (Brooke Elliott)

So here’s the basic plot: Deb, a skinny model in love with a lawyer, Grayson, dies in a car accident. Deb goes to heaven, presses the return button, and comes back in the body of Jane (Brooke Elliott), a plus size, workaholic lawyer with Margaret Cho as her secretary (Margaret Cho is so awesome). Deb, now Jane, goes to work at the law firm where her now grieving fiancé, Grayson works. Drama ensues as Jane/Deb tries to win back Grayson’s heart, balance her new life in her new body, and all the while rocking her lawyer socks—a feat she accomplishes amongst a myriad of celebrity cameos from Paula Abdul and Wendy Williams to Wanda Sykes. And just in case you thought the show couldn’t get better, the show is sprinkled with fantasy song and dance sequences which showcase Brooke Elliott’s incredible voice and talent. So good!

But here is the thing, in a climate where most of the women of television and particularly those that have their own shows are somewhere in, around, and under a size 2, Jane is an awesome anomaly. She is sexy and the show believes she is sexy. But the show and Jane also struggle (particularly in the first season) with the social pressures surrounding her body although the show is definitely not about weight. It is interesting to note here too, that the last time Margaret Cho was on television she was forced to undertake some serious weight loss, which we all know is really bad for your health. Now Cho is on Drop Dead Diva, a show that celebrates her curvy body.

Margaret Cho as Terry, Jane's awesome assistant

While this is all true and awesome, Lifetime’s own homepage features diet tips for women and the network also airs a show on weight loss geared at women: Cook Yourself Thin. And while roaming around Lifetime’s site, I came across pictures of celebrities who have lost weight, some healthier than others. This photo essay does not appear critical of the Hollywood super skinny aesthetic or interested in weight loss for health purposes. And it seems odd to me that something like this photo essay can coexist on Lifetime with Drop Dead Diva’s emphasis on beauty in all different shapes and sizes. But I guess it all makes sense given the bodies that are front and center on Lifetime’s other shows, such as Army Wives, Project Runway, and The Protector (ie some very thin and fit women).

So yes, Lifetime has definitely gotten a face lift of epic proportions—from made for TV women’s films, which they still show, to snazzy new programming like Drop Dead Diva and Army Wives. The promo picture for Army Wives clearly seems to be looking for sex appeal—something I never thought I would see on Lifetime. As an aside, if Lifetime is a network targeted at women and they are selling the sex appeal of the Army Wives (in their marketing at least), might they in fact be targeting women who love women? As that would be cool. But if not, who are they appealing to? And why doesn’t a network that markets itself towards women have more appealing and strong women like Jane? Also note: the Lifetime website has astrology tabs. Interesting and perhaps a little odd.

This is all to say that Drop Dead Diva is a serious breath of fresh air in a TV and larger media landscape that does not embrace weight differences. Jane is a hardworking and bad ass lawyer, but she also happens to be sexy, sassy, and flirty and sometimes struggles with her confidence (be honest, we all do at times). And she is even, unlike the women of many crime shows, pretty decent at dating and has friends (seriously, lots of friends). So clearly I am a fan and perhaps not as critical as I could be here, but this girl would love to see more shows like Drop Dead Diva. And I will probably now watch anything with Brooke Elliott as she is awesome.

White Boy Tears, or The Tree of Life

In gender, race on July 9, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Chelsea Bullock

I recently saw The Tree of Life. The major selling points for me were threefold: 1) dinosaur, 2) Brad Pitt, and 3) free popcorn.

I loved the film. It is not at all the kind of movie that I can imagine watching every week (see: Center Stage) but it is the kind that sticks. Images, moments, and feelings from it have been bouncing around in my head ever since I saw it. The film has a sticky texture to it, recalling the writings of Kathleen Stewart and Laura Marks. It moves from affective moment to affective moment in a highly pleasurable non-linear way, immersing its viewers in an emotional, tangible, consuming world.

And yet, the delight I felt at the film’s end was short-lived. Once I was liberated from its immersive space, I was able to acknowledge questions the film initiated but never answered.

The main question I have is: would this exact (critically-acclaimed, art-house) film be possible if it was about anyone other than a bunch of white dudes? 

It isn’t an original critique, but bear with me as I sort through. Spoilers ahead.

The film tells the story of a heteronormative, white, middle-class Texas family in the 1950s. There are three sons, a quiet and playful mother (Jessica Chastain), and a strict, music-obsessed disciplinarian of a father (Brad Pitt). The movement of the story is located in the build-up to and fallout that happens around the death of the middle son (pictured above in his mother’s arms). The fallout continues in the oldest son’s (pictured above to the right) adult life where Sean Penn plays a successful yet emotionally broken man.

The Tree of Life doesn’t show any other characters outside of their suburban Texas 1950s life, thus the framing device of Jack’s (Sean Penn) adult life hugely privileges his experiences and feelings. There is a huge amount of time devoted to following the young brothers on their adventures and in their negotiations of domestic life. Jessica Chastain’s character is mostly reserved and wholly devoted to her sons and her husband. There are glimpses of her inner angst and frustrations, but the film avoids identifying with her or delving into her pain in the same ways that it does with its male characters. The film flattens her, which could be attributed to the domestic abuse and grief she suffers from, but that explanation isn’t satisfactory and lets the film off the hook too easily.

The point is: viewers are intertwined in the experiences of the overwhelmingly male cast and I think that director Terrence Malick makes this decision in order to avoid any (feminized) threat of melodrama in his movie about Important (white) Male Pain.

Just as this film had to be about men, it also had to be about white men. Set in the 1950s, I know, but the only bodies of color that appear on the screen are those in a fleeting moment at a funeral and in a more extended scene when Brad Pitt’s character takes his sons to buy barbecue (just kill me now) from a group of black men on a Sunday afternoon.

The main characters pull up to a large yard where a few men stand around a large smoker/grill thing and Brad Pitt tells them he wants a pound of brisket while the film takes a detour around the space where the sons wander freely, staring openly at the (mostly) children of color who stare back at them from their play, sitting, and work. There are no clear cues from the film, visually or aurally, about what is happening in this scene. Upon reflection, it appears mostly as a concession. The boy characters would have known that there were people who weren’t white in their world, but they only had to encounter those people when they wanted to buy some barbecue.

I understand that the struggle with making any film, especially historical ones, is portraying unjust and uncomfortable truths when the story isn’t actually centered on them. However, only acknowledging that struggle doesn’t account for these questions:

Why isn’t that injustice a major focus?


Why is it that there still can’t be a film featuring an African American (or any racial “minority”) perspective that could achieve the same cultural capital and genre-mobility as this one? Why is it that major films in 2011 are still relying on white people to convey a universalized depth and breadth of human experience? Granted, this film has a very specific location and setting, but it is crafted to constantly evoke the cosmic consequences of these characters’ experiences and feelings. These white guys are constructed to represent a universal pain of loss, grief, and growing up. And it was downright convincing to me until I could extract myself from the intricacies of the film which are hugely problematic specifically and in terms of the more general state of culture that they reveal.

At least the dinosaurs are still pretty cool.

Quick and Dirty PLL Recap: Blind Dates

In Uncategorized on July 9, 2011 at 7:47 pm

PLL is so smart: Literary References and Hitchcock

Sarah: Hello Phoebe-Friend!
Starting off: I was so excited about The Great Gatsby reference at the start of the episode with the pair of glasses on the billboard looking down at them right! PLL is obsessed with that book.

Phoebe: I do love how PLL is obsessed with that book

Sarah: AND then I looked up the name on the billboard, Dr Lars Thorwald–who is the murderer in Rear Window! it is a double-threat reference!

Phoebe: oooh so cool! PLL  is so smart

Ian is dead! Long live A!

Sarah: So, let’s go to the biggest bang: what are your thoughts on Ian in the barn!

Phoebe: oh my god! I was so suprised. So so surprised. I totally thought that he was alive and still creepy. But now he can’t be A! Or maybe he was part of the A team … but was betrayed or something. Were you so surprised?

Sarah: I was! I like the idea that he may be part of an A-tag team… I guess it also might make sense if he was not A but was involved with Ali’s murder from the get-go in some way. I’m glad that PLL made that development show-wise though, I think it’ll help push the story forward.

Phoebe: yeah I think you might have a point …

Who Killed Ali? And who is A? We might never know …
Sarah: Did you see the interview with the show creator that said we won’t solve either mystery until the last season?

Phoebe: No! I’m so sad about that … I want to know the end of the mystery! So badly!

Sarah: Me too… we will have a long road ahead it seems

Phoebe: oh my … PLL is so seductive!

Hanna Goes to Therapy and Other Stories

Sarah: In other character storylines, I loved Hanna’s imaginary confrontation with Ali, and the way it was interwoven with the double date. I’m also highly relieved that it looks like she’s on the way to forgiving Caleb.

Phoebe: Me too! on both counts … I really liked the therapist and Hannah situation. Also, I was so surprised that the therapist’s office was trashed!

Sarah: Yeah, I think whoever A is definitely does not like the idea of Hanna moving on and opening up. Which makes sense, because A’s power over the girls depends on how much they allow themselves to be prisoners of Ali.

Phoebe: exactly!

Sarah: since the only reason they can’t tell anyone what’s going on is that they’re afraid the real story of the Jenna thing will get out (and some of their other secrets too).

Phoebe: Yeah I think you’re right except sometimes I am so confused as to why they keep on lying!

Who likes Pottery? Not Aria. But she might like Jason.

Phoebe: Also, aria no longer likes pottery?! And where did Jenna go after last week’s dramatic confrontation?
Sarah: Maybe she quit post-confrontation? Jenna is probably making pottery about anger and betrayal. Which is good, I understand ceramics are very therapeutic that way.

Phoebe: So true! I think Aria could use that therapy too. Speaking of Aria … I did rather like the Aria and Jason pink hair interaction. It made Jason seem a lot less creepy.

Sarah: Yeah, agreed! He was pretty sweet with her, I thought. Isn’t it weird how he’s like, I don’t remember years of my life from when I was Mike’s age? I guess we’re supposed to assume that’s because of partying? But it just seems like spontaneous and convenient amnesia.

What’s happening to Spenser?

Sarah: Oh and also: do you get the sense that Spencer is losing her marbles officially? Throughout the episode she keeps pressing against the wall in the shadows

Phoebe: Oooh no … why did you get that sense?

Sarah: I feel like she’s just become a bit unhinged post-ring-stealing. Or maybe the ring-stealing was a sign of the unhinging. Not that I blame her, I would be going crazy too if my sister’s husband tried to kill me and then disappeared and then came back, sort of. Oh, and seemed to die.

Phoebe: Yes I do believe I would feel strange too.

Final PLL Thoughts & All Star Players

Sarah: Okay chica do you think this is down and dirty enough?

Phoebe: I do think so. Any final thoughts?

Sarah: Oh yes: one of my favorite things about the double date scene was how Hanna was obsessively bringing snacks to Lucas and Danielle, and then recognizing just how much she was being her mother. I totally think they are the same. Hanna’s shoplifting = Ashley’s embezzling, they are beautiful and terrible at having full refrigerators, etc. What about you?

Phoebe: yes yes I agree. And I really really liked that she helped Lucas go on a date with newspaper girl. Adorable.

Sarah: Totally! She wins the episode award in my book.

Phoebe: Definitely. She is the all star player of PLL for me.

Big Gestures, Tiny Phones: Reviewing “The Romantics”

In Uncategorized on July 9, 2011 at 10:34 am

Sarah Todd

Sometimes you watch a movie and you know it’s deeply flawed, maybe even not good at all, but you find yourself relating to it all the same. The Romantics, a 2010 independent dramedy with a 15% rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of those movies.

It would be pretty hard for me to see a movie about a group of seven college friends, now in their late twenties, reuniting for a wedding and not relate to it, I suppose. They feel lost and kind of disappointed? I feel lost and kind of disappointed! They love their friends? I love my friends! They are trying to make it in difficult career paths (writers/actors/professors/etc.)? My friends and I are also trying to make it in difficult career paths! The Romantics is a movie with a very precise target audience made up of people who are more or less me and the people I know. Its cast seems selected to provoke nostalgia for teen soaps of the late 90s and early 2000s: Katie Holmes and Adam Brody are basically playing Joey Potter and Seth Cohen, ten years later. How are they doing? Well, they are both depressed, because everyone in the movie is depressed. (The Romantics itself is not depressing, though. Just strangely disconnected.)

The wedding in question is between Tom (Josh Duhamel), who has fluffy hair and likes to swim, and rich Lila (Anna Pacquin), who is supposed to be intimidating and perfect and rigid. She’s not, though, because she’s played by Pacquin, whose emotionality can’t really be suppressed. There’s a natural quaver in her voice and an expressiveness to her elfin features that betrays Lila’s cool cover. Lila’s maid of honor–and Tom’s former girlfriend–is Laura (Katie Holmes), a sarcastic, outsidery writer. She is easily the most depressed person in the movie. Obviously, she lives in New York.

Laura spends the entire movie in an understandable funk about her ex-boyfriend and theoretical best friend getting married. However, the movie never gives the audience any reason to care, because Laura sucks. She never has any fun, she doesn’t seem to like any of her friends at all, she doesn’t make jokes. It’s also difficult to understand what Lila and Laura see in Tom, who is dull as a tea cozy. His main personal quality appears to be that he is good at swimming, which is very nice for him but not really compelling in terms of characterization. He’s also getting his PhD in English, which one character cites as a draw when she’s giving her toast, but I was just like, maaaan clearly the people in this movie haven’t heard about the job market.

Why do the members of this love triangle like each other at all? I think we’re supposed to think that Tom wants Lila because she’s rich, Lila wants Tom because she wants a husband, Tom wants Laura because she is exciting, Laura wants Tom because she feels exciting with him. But if Tom is the kind of person who would marry for money, why would someone like Laura be in love with him? They don’t seem to have much of a connection. In what is intended to be a dramatic moment, Tom strides passionately toward Laura holding his tiny smartphone aloft, the text of “Ode to a Nightingale” (their favorite poem) on its lit screen. Watching the scene, I started laughing. How is she supposed to know what’s on the phone? She’s twenty feet away! Why doesn’t he just recite it?  I really hope that one day someone walks toward me with a serious expression on their face while just holding up their phone; I will leap into their arms.

Meanwhile, although Lila and Laura are supposed to be close, in the movie they seem basically like strangers. They don’t even speak to each other directly until the last fifteen minutes of the movie, when they start yelling. It’s hard to feel invested in how they betray one another when there seems to be no love lost between them. The stakes of this story are so low, they’re underground.

Yet there are some wonderful moments in The Romantics. Lila spends the night before her wedding sitting at her vanity table, sipping miniature bottles of alcohol and taking dainty puffs of cigarettes–the perfect accessories for her carefully controlled panic. The easy intimacy between Laura and two other bridesmaids as they get ready together in the crowded bathroom, sharing mirrors and plucking their eyebrows, reminds you just how long these people have known each other. Flirting with a married friend (Malin Ackerman), Adam Brody busts a Kid n’ Play dance move, and her delighted laughter as she begs him to do it again tells you everything you need to know about what’s going to happen between them.

I mean, I don’t know. The thing about criticizing movies that are really trying to be movies–as opposed to criticizing movies that are trying to be money trees–is, how are you supposed to forget that people poured themselves into them? Writers, directors, actors, editors, gophers, camerapeople, costume designers: clearly people were trying to make a good movie here, and they even succeeded in places. If you make a movie, and it fails, you still made a movie. That’s incredible, if you think about it. I’ve never made a movie. Maybe I’d like to.

What I’m trying to say is that The Romantics is odd and under-developed. But there’s a scene where the friends (minus Lila) are drinking beers on the beach, the night before the wedding. The water is black and quiet. They’re sprawled out on the sand in their suits and dresses, all of them fairly drunk. They’re teasing each other and saying serious things as jokingly as possible. When they strip down to their underwear, join hands, and run together into the ocean, The Romantics, which is not good, does something that good movies know how to do: it reminds you how being with your best friends feels.

Missing Hermione, Some Reflections on Harry Potter

In Uncategorized on July 9, 2011 at 9:38 am

Phoebe Bronstein

I am sitting at home re-watching the Harry Potter movies on ABC Family in preparation for the last film, which is in theaters next Friday (or for the particularly daring midnight on Thursday). I have seen all the movies, save for the most recent, too many times to count but re-watching them lends me a sense of comfort and happiness. And, like many Harry Potter fans I know I have read most of the books at least twice.

It’s true, I am a serious Harry Potter fan; the kind that took a friend visiting me in New York a few years ago to the midnight release of the newest book. She wasn’t thrilled, but I definitely was and if I recall correctly we got a wand. And then went out to do grownup things like get drinks. What’s not to like? I am not so much a fan because I particularly love the character of Harry Potter, but rather my favorite characters are McGonagall (delightfully played by Maggie Smith in the films), Hermione, and Mrs. Weasley. I also, love Ron but that is another story.

Currently, I am re-watching The Chamber of Secrets and remembering that one of the reasons I do not like it that much is that Hermione gets frozen and is absent for the big rescue. Granted, Harry often finds himself alone at the end, but here it seems different (like in The Sorcerer’s Stone when he confronts Professor Quirrel). So at the end of The Chamber of Secrets, Ron and Harry go down to save Ginny from the giant snake that has been roaming the pipes of Hogwarts (Ginny is Ron’s sister who is also in love with Harry. They date latter on, don’t worry). After a debacle involving a backfiring memory charm, a goofy Kenneth Branagh (I love him), and rocks falling in between the two best friends, Harry moves on solo to save Ginny.

Ultimately Harry finds an unconscious Ginny and must defeat the evil Voldemort (aka Tom Riddle) and a giant snake under Voldemort’s control. So at the end of this particularly Harry Potter, we have two frozen young ladies one of whom, Ginny, must be rescued as the other, Hermione, slowly comes back to life only to have missed all the action. As Harry leans over Ginny (and Tom Riddle asserts that she is fine, but barely alive), it suddenly feels as if we are in a Disney fairytale of the Sleeping Beauty variety.

I am oddly remiss to criticize Harry Potter, but I think here the dynamic that gets set up between the boys on a rescue mission, the absence of the brilliant and resourceful Hermione, and Harry’s romantic saving of Ginny are a little too much for me to handle. What is generally so fantastic about Harry Potter, is Hermione’s resourcefulness and the boys’ inability to survive without her. She is a better wizard than they are, she is way smarter, often braver, more mature, and just generally more awesome.

Without Hermione, this ending just feels strange (granted the crumbled paper in her hand gave them the final clue), which perhaps, as I have said on girls like giants before, is why I am so looking forward to The Hunger Games movie. If you haven’t read the books, they are amazing! In The Hunger Games, Katniss is always front and center and even when she isn’t being her most likeable self, she is a badass. In Harry Potter, Hermione is the favorite of almost all the women I know and the most badass of the three main characters, thus it is frustrating that the books are not really about her. Perhaps this is a marketing concession to attract a broader (ie male) audience (so frustrating). However, what The Hunger Games have shown is that there is a mass audience for awesome and not sexed up women heroines. And for this I am grateful, and I eagerly await more leading ladies like Katniss.

Whose Sookie: Love and Possession in True Blood

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Sarah Todd

“You have been a very, very foolish boy, wasting your time dreaming of impossible things when you speak of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours,’ I should laugh at you both.

His face grew a little white, “What do you mean?” he asked.

– Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Love and sex are a dangerous game on True Blood. Relationships on the show tend to end in blood of either the sticky red or metaphorical variety–sometimes both. This is largely due to the fact that people on the show have mad issues. If you’re a vampire who’s been around long enough, you’re always working an angle. If you’re a new vampire, you’re tortured by desire; all you see is throbbing jugulars everywhere you look. If you’re a shapeshifter, you can’t trust anybody, so you’ll always be hiding what you really are. If you’re a werewolf, you are superhot but you probably have some issues with self-control. If you’re human, you are screwed and I’m sorry.  If you’re witches (warlocks?) like Lafayette and Jesus, I am rooting for you two but with this show’s track record I’m not holding my breath. If you’re a faerie, like Sookie Stackhouse, the whole world wants you/wants to kill you, and the two motives are often hard to distinguish.

On True Blood, to love is to bury. When you love someone, the threat of loss hangs over you. True Blood makes this fear concrete by having its characters lose the people they love all the time, to serial killers with fake accents and pagan sacrifices and revenge plots and even regular heartbreak. To love is to bury: loving someone won’t stave off your demons, or theirs (Tara and Eggs). To love is to bury: you harm the person you say you love when you force them to take on roles you should never expect anyone to fill (Mrs. Fortenberry, Franklin). You can try to bury parts of yourself and your past in the name of love, but when those parts come to light the lies will hurt more than the truth ever would have (Bill, a million times over).

Possessive love is a form of burial; it attempts to suppress the independence of others, the right people have to make their own choices and chart their own paths. When Bill and Eric say Sookie is mine, they reveal just how fundamentally they misunderstand the way life actually works. As Edna Pontellier knew, you can give of yourself, but nobody gets to lay claim to you. The vampires on the show are roughly a hundred years behind the times, feminism-wise,which makes sense because they are totally old. They probably don’t understand smart phones, either.

For a while, Sookie was Bill’s, though she never consented to the title. This meant that other vampires kept their distance and he came running whenever she was in danger. Sookie seemed marginally safer than she would have otherwise been at the time, but as it turned out Bill was also using her for her magic sunshine-blood and keeping information about her own past from her and getting other people to beat her to a pulp so that she would fall in love with him. Bill may have believed he loved Sookie; certainly he regarded her with affection. But because he saw her as his, he believed he had the right to control her life–which wasn’t love at all.

This season, Eric is operating under the same patriarchal-vampiric ideology as Bill, more or less. Naturally he believes that buying Sookie’s house means that he owns her too. His understanding of property rights is somewhat shaky, as Sookie promptly informs him.

Pam, ever the voice of deadpan practicality, tells Sookie that she has to be someone’s if she wants to stay alive, given the hail of bullets she’s constantly dodging. But this is one case where Pam isn’t speaking on the show’s behalf. The past few seasons, Sookie’s been discovering her powers. It’s happening slowly, which isn’t surprising given that until now the entire timespan of the show has taken place within just a few weeks. When she shot light at Marianne in Season Two, no one was more surprised than Sookie herself. She still doesn’t know quite what she’s capable of. I think (hope) that this is the summer we’re going to find out. She’s shaking off the people who thought they owned her; Eric doesn’t even remember who he is anymore, let alone the claims on her he hoped to make.

In the last episode of True Blood, Eric said that there were two Sookies: a human Sookie and a faerie one. In fact, there are even more than that. There’s Sookie the telepath, who was an outcast because she knew what everyone was thinking. There’s Sookie the spunky waitress, Sookie the good granddaughter, Sookie the trusted yet flaky friend. To Bill, she was both a human drug and a damsel permanently in distress. There’s the Sookie some viewers rightly see as “a consummate Mary Sue,” as Molly Lambert explains. There’s the Sookie I keep hoping will emerge, who’s stronger and more powerful than any version we’ve seen just yet.

Pam’s right that Sookie probably does need protection: Bon Temps is one scary place. But what if Sookie turns out to be her own best protector, the most valiant, the most trusted? Given that trouble has a way of finding Sookie, it seems likely that the only lasting peace she’ll ever get is the kind she makes for herself.

Television’s Men of Summer & The Bechdel Test

In Uncategorized on July 2, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

A recent comment on Girls Like Giants mentioned the Bechdel Test and what a great test it is. It goes something like this: for me to see a movie it must have 1. at least two women in it; 2. Who talk to each other; 3. About something besides a man. If a film meets all three requirements then I will see it, and if not then I won’t (although I am perhaps not the strictest on this front). So Bridesmaids passes the Bechdel Test, while The Hangover does not. So I was thinking, why not apply this same test to this summer’s television programming?

So first to apply this to some shows not on this summer. I recently wrote about the women of crime shows from Brennen (aka Bones) on Bones to Dr. Meagan Hunt on Body of Proof. Bones mostly passes the Bechdel test given her relationship with Cam and Angela and they sometimes talk about work. However, I’m thinking Body of Proof does not—Dr. Hunt mostly has awkward but not endearingly so relationships with the other women, including her mother.

But what about the most recent onslaught of summer shows featuring duos (or one trio) of white men? For example, the handsome duo of White Collar; or a similarly handsome duo on Suits, and Franklin and Bash; or the older Men of a Certain Age; the CIA spin on male friendship in Burn Notice (which I can’t stand although I love Bruce Campbell); and the doctor oriented Royal Pains. Shows like Franklin and Bash and their brother ones are all too reminiscent of the buddy film genre which focuses on the relationship between two men oft to the exclusion (and exploitation) of the ladies.

It is worth noting that each of these shows has at least one female side (but recurring) character: Divia on Royal Pains or Diana on White Collar to name two of them. Many of these ladies are women of color, or if they are white then they are brunettes (ie, Fiona on Burn Notice). But one or even two sidekick ladies (not to mention the uncomfortable racial politics) does not a Bechdel Test make. These men of summer shows, like their filmic predecessors, most certainly do not pass the test. Not even close. And there are so many of them!

That said, I should admit I watch all these shows despite that they gloriously fail the Bechdel test. However, part of why I watch is to ogle the cute men (in reverse of the usual ladies on screen and objectified by the male gaze, per Laura Mulvey, situation). For example, con man Neil and FBI agent Peter on White Collar are delightfully attractive; Franklin and Bash are pretty cute too, plus I had a crush on Franklin when he was the stoner Travis in Clueless; and the new men of Suits and the brothers of Royal Pains aren’t bad either.

So at the end of the day, these shows give me an opportunity to do something I have not had much opportunity to do before in television: repetitively look at and objectify cute men. That said, I do wish pretty consistently for more shows that would pass The Bechdel Test, but until then I am all about teen soaps like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, not to mention the Lifetime smash Drop Dead Diva.