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Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

Breaking Down ‘The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’

In Netflix, race, TV, Uncategorized, violence on April 20, 2015 at 5:00 am


Sarah S.

For me, Kimmy Schmidt came out of the bunker as an incongruous maelstrom—a pickle juice cocktail, fuschia and lime confetti, hail on a sunny day. I was excited for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, show creator Tina Fey’s “television” follow-up to 30 Rock, and it almost immediately presented a combination of the expected and the surprising, the standard and the bizarre.

Ellie Kemper as Kimmy brings an oddball charm to a rather complicated role. Kimmy takes up life in New York City after being rescued from a bunker in which she was held captive for 15 years. She and the other “Indiana Mole Women” were kidnapped and held by a deranged preacher who told them the apocalypse had happened and they were the only people left on earth. So Fey set herself a challenging task: create a comedy about kidnapping, rape, trauma, and the will to survive. Fortunately, Kemper is all in, playing Kimmy as an uncomfortable-but-funny combination of plucky, outdated, dopey, and indomitable.

Kimmy surrounds herself with a motley crew—Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), an aging, trophy wife who hires Kimmy as a nanny, personal assistant, and general underling; Lillian (the incomparable Carol Kane as), a Jewish, New York hippy who owns Kimmy’s apartment building; and Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), Kimmy’s roommate, an impoverished, down-on-his-luck actor (is there any other kind?). All of these characters are stereotypes but with enough twists or charm or combinations thereof to make it work. Titus works the black GBF for all it’s worth and Lillian is a genuine kick in the pants. Jacqueline is a Native American passing for white in order to sustain the materialism she always idolized, an interesting twist on “demanding, clueless, rich white woman”—a character Krakowski has made a career out of playing. These characters aren’t going to change narrative television but they are played and written with enough aplomb to carry them through, particularly as offsets to Kimmy’s quirk.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sit Down, Devil’s Advocates: SNL Tries On a New Look

In misogyny, TV on April 4, 2014 at 11:04 am

Sarah T.

Comedians who employ racial stereotypes, homophobic slurs and misogynistic language in service of their jokes often try to deflect criticism by arguing that comedy is about pushing boundaries. But it hardly seems edgy to insist on targeting people who already occupy marginalized positions in American culture—particularly when the person telling the jokes is a straight white guy, as they so often tend to be. I mean, Daniel Tosh can insist that his rape jokes are about breaking cultural taboos all he wants, but it seems obvious that all the man is doing is reinforcing the status quo.

There are, however, plenty of ways to be funny and fresh about race, class, gender and sexuality without making the jokes come at the expense of people that American culture seeks to disempower. This season, several sketches on Saturday Night Live—a show that has plenty of diversity problems of its own—have explored topics like privilege, white guilt and the problems that arise when people outside specific cultural groups try to appropriate insider language.

One recent example is “Dyke and Fats,” a sketch penned by the two Saturday Night Live cast members who star in it: Kate McKinnon, the show’s first openly gay female comedian, and Aidy Bryant, the series’ first plus-size female hire.

The sketch, which unfolds as a promotion for a vintage buddy-cop TV series, incorporates multiple cultural stereotypes about fat people and ladies who like ladies. McKinnon’s character, Les Dykawitz, is an arm-wrestling cop who keeps a scroll of dog photos tucked behind her police badge. Bryant’s character, Chubbina Fatzarelli, has a string of bratwurst under her badge and slips a particularly juicy-looking hamburger her phone number. (A very smooth move, and one that I will certainly emulate when I come across perfectly crisped French fries in the future.) The show-within-the-sketch has obvious affection for the characters as they bust down doors and use each other’s bodies to roundhouse-kick a semi-circle of bad guys. At the same time, it seems straight out of the 1970s exploitation boom.

But the last moments of the sketch reveal that it has no interest in exploiting the characters’–or cast members’–identities. And any viewers who were watching and laughing because the sketch affirmed their prejudiced beliefs have a knock-out punch coming. Read the rest of this entry »

Musing on the Aesthetics of Comedy, with an Assist from Louis

In books, Television on March 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Sarah S.

Several years ago, in a fiction writing and reading class, I signed my group up to read David Sedaris’ essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”  In this piece, Sedaris turns the frustration, even trauma of learning a foreign language into hilarity. Perhaps ironically, or at least incongruously, our discussion took place on a sunny day, just before the warmth turned to unpleasantness, sitting on a grassy quad under a cloudless sky. (Early summer in Utah is a spectacular thing.) When it came time for the group to discuss the piece, everyone roundly agreed that it was delightful…except for one person. Joel was classically handsome, traditionally masculine, a former high school football star who also worked as an assistant coach for the university team while working on his master’s degree—in English.

“I don’t get why everyone likes this so much,” he complained.

“Are you serious?” I asked, incredulous. “I think it’s brilliant.”

“Why?” he replied. “It’s just funny.”

“Exactly,” I said, finding myself at a loss for better words. “It’s so funny.”

Those words, “It’s just funny,” have haunted me ever since—in a quiet, low key kind of way—because I failed to really defend comedy. As I continued educating myself, I did find defenses of comedy, largely in psychological theories (Freud is fascinating on jokes) or cultural criticism. Both fields analyze what comedy does for us as individuals or as a society. As such, comedy is quite important from these perspectives.

I’ve also heard comedians unpacking comedy as craft. These include the recent double podcast conversation between Aisha Tyler and Kevin Smith or people on speaking about what they do on Inside the Actor’s Studio such as Tina Fey’s recent foray. Such discussions emphasize the thought and deliberateness that goes into creating comedy, elevating it to the same level of artistic creation as anything else.

But while I appreciate and agree with these kinds of analyses, they weren’t what I was ultimately looking for when I felt inclined to defend comedy.  In the end, I wanted to understand and convey something like an aesthetics of comedy. And in my admittedly limited knowledge, I have never heard anyone defending comedy purely as an artistic expression the way we talk about sonnets or jazz or Picasso paintings. Even still, my gut tells me that Sedaris is an important author, a talented author, worth considering as a serious artist. So the question lingered: What is the worth of something that’s “just funny”?


Read the rest of this entry »

The Creative Economics of “Party Down”

In Television on October 17, 2012 at 10:56 am

Sarah T.

Officially speaking, the recession was already off the books by the time I saw it up close and personal.

I left my job at a magazine in New York and started graduate school in fall 2008. By the time I reentered the workforce in summer 2011, the employment landscape had morphed into a new, spooky, twisted-tree country. While I was cloistered away annotating bibliographies and torturing college freshmen with an argumentative essay tool called the enthymeme, the print and publishing industry was busy staging an epic death scene straight out of Hamlet. Plenty of businesses outside my field had shuttered their doors too.

I’d known all this in my reason-brain. But I had to be on the job market myself in order to really understand the economic realities that many people had been living with for years. I felt like bizarro Dorothy, leaving behind the Technicolor lollipops and toadstools of my pre-2008 Oz. In grim old Kansas, the unemployment rate was stuck above 8 percent, and witches only biked to work because they had to sell their cars.

That summer was one of outright panic. I stayed up late into the night revising cover letters and woke myself up at 3:30 am, convinced I’d ruined my life at the ripe old age of 28. I was worried I wouldn’t find a job. But more than that, I was furious at myself for burning daylight. I’d known since I was 12 that I wanted to be a writer—and not the academic journal kind. So what had I been doing in academia for the past three years? Why had I abandoned the thing I really wanted for no good reason, and would I be able to claw my way back? Desperately in need of some laughs, and a way to pass the witching hours that did not involve singing mournful arias with a mouthful of cold pizza, I loaded up Netflix and started watching Party Down.


Starz’s cult series about entertainers-cum-caterers premiered in March 2009. It never explicitly mentions the economy—actors tend to be broke and out of work even when the general coffers are overflowing. But more than any other TV series, Party Down nails the strange despair felt by many a young person in the aftermath of the Great Recession. High rejection rates, minimum-wage jobs, stiff competition, plus the full-time job of stifling the fear that you’ll never succeed: we’re all aspiring actors now. Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Round-Up

In Uncategorized on September 28, 2012 at 8:20 am

Here’s a little weekend reading for our favorite peeps. Did you read something noteworthy this week? Inquiring Giant-Liking Girls want to know — tell us about it in the comments.

Splitsider gathered a roundtable of 14 African-American comedians to discuss “‘Post-Racial’ Comedy in the Age of Obama”

Emily Nussbaum sees some revolutionary possibilities in Switched at Birth‘s representations of disability.

GLG and friends were not too pleased with Ian Parker’s focus on J.K. Rowling’s “heavy foundation” and fake eyelashes in his New Yorker profile of the author of Harry Potter. Nor did we enjoy his apparent desire to diminish the challenges she faced as a single working mother. But what did you think?

Kate Bolick asks why Vogue‘s Edith Wharton spread featured male writers like Junot Diaz and Jeffrey Eugenides, while all the female parts were played by actresses and models.

And in other writing and gender-related news, Linda Holmes at NPR uses Jeffrey Eugenides’ Salon interview as an example of “How Not to Answer Hard Questions” about gender bias.

Wish your dissertation could get the same kind of sympathetic-yet-honest attention as  Project Runway‘s designers do? Academic Tim Gunn is here to help. (Via Sarah S.)

Also via Sarah S: Alyssa Rosenberg has beef with the Hollywood practice of choosing skinnier, less talented starlets to play legendary musicians.

Weight Weight, Don’t Tell Me: Body Image in “The Mindy Project”

In Television on September 10, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Sarah T.

The first comment about weight in Mindy  Kaling’s new show comes at the six-minute mark. “My body mass index isn’t great,” Mindy Lahiri tells her well-coiffed BFF Gwen, “but I’m not like Precious or anything.”

Kaling’s comedic timing is impeccable, but the joke rests on unsteady territory. Sure, Mindy’s being self-deprecating — but the punchline is really about how big Precious is. It assumes that, like Mindy, the show’s target audience of college-educated, middle-class women in their twenties and thirties will laugh at Precious to make themselves feel better by comparison. Of course, there are plenty of viewers who are closer to Gabourey Sidibe’s weight than to Kaling’s — but the show doesn’t seem worried about alienating them.

“No, guys, a culture that tells women they always have more weight to lose is a culture that wants women to disappear,” is not what they are saying. Maybe next episode.

The Mindy Project, as Sarah S. wrote in a recent GLG post, is a funny show with a heroine who,  in the tradition of Bridget Jones, is both together (doctor!) and a lovable mess (drunk bicycle-pool incidents). And like Bridget Jones, Mindy L. is clearly a bit obsessed with her weight. “Do you know how hard it is for a chubby 31-year-old woman to go on a legit date with a guy who majored in economics at Duke?” she demands as a patient tries to drag her away from a promising restaurant rendezvous.

HOW HARD IS IT?” this late-twenties, probably roughly-Kaling-sized viewer thought in a panic. And then I thought, “Wait. ‘Chubby?’ Is this show calling me fat?”

The answer, I think, is: sort of. The pilot mentions Lahiri’s non-stick-figure-size an average of once every 7 minutes. I don’t think Kaling, or the show, is intentionally trying to make fun of bigger people or rile up the insecurities of its audience. But while Kaling is a talented comedian, her approach to the subject of weight sometimes makes me wince. In her book Is Everyone Hanging Out with Out Me, she writes about being a happy and confident size 8. Yet she seems stuck in the body binary she’s protesting:

“Since I am not model-skinny, but also not super-fat and fabulously owning my hugeness, I fall into that nebulous, “Normal American Woman Size” that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a size 8 (this week, anyway). Many stylists hate that size because, I think, to them, I lack the self-discipline to be an aesthetic, or the sassy confidence to be a total fatty hedonist. They’re like ‘Pick a lane.’

While the language isn’t super-clear, I think Kaling means that the stylists, not her, see larger women as “total fatty hedonists.” But there still seems to be stereotyping of plus-size women at work in this passage, as if bigger physical size necessarily corresponds with an outsized personality.

What’s most revealing, though, is that Kaling describes herself as “Normal American Woman Size.” This is key to Kaling’s image as the ultimate gal-pal, the kind of witty, sparkly friend who’s always up for sleepovers and juicy gossip. “She’s become the contemporary Everywoman,” Jada Yuan’s New York Magazine profile of Kaling reports, “both a Mary and a Rhoda.” The central conceit of Kaling’s public persona — as well as of The Mindy Project — is that Mindy is relatable. And unfortunately, in our culture, one of the things women can relate to most is being self-conscious about weight. Read the rest of this entry »

Dan Harmon’s Last Stand: On Community

In Television on May 19, 2012 at 9:36 am

Sarah T.

“Introduction to Finality” wasn’t the last episode of Community, but as of yesterday it became showrunner Dan Harmon’s final outing. Vulture reports that Sony Pictures Television is replacing Harmon with Happy Endings writers David Guarascio and Moses Port.

Happy Endings is a funny show, and I’m sure Guarascio and Port are quite talented. But, at least at first, the choice to grant the low-rated but much-beloved Community another season yet oust Harmon seems to be a real head-scratcher. After all, pretty much everybody agrees that Harmon is the soul of the show. As Harmon himself writes in responding to the news: “I’m not saying you can’t make a good version of Community without me, but I am definitely saying that you can’t make my version of it unless I have the option of saying ‘it has to be like this or I quit’ roughly 8 times a day.”

Without Harmon, there are no adorable 8-bit videogame character and claymation specials. There’s no episode-long parody of Heart of Darkness, no epic paintball games, no magical trampolines, no multiple timelines. Basically, without him the show gets a lot less weird, which is both why Community fans are up in arms over his dismissal and (probably) why network executives fired him in the first place. As long as Community was unpredictable, self-referential, and sometimes inscrutable, it was never going to gain a very large audience. Speaking as a fan of unpredictable self-referential inscrutable shows, it’s kind of amazing that Community and Harmon have even lasted as long as they did.

As disappointed as I am over Harmon’s forced departure, I’m now especially grateful for “Introduction to Finality,” which concluded the show’s third season. The episode would have worked just as well as a series finale, and in light of Harmon’s exit I’ll go ahead and think of it that way. Read the rest of this entry »

The Politics of “30 Rock” and “Parks and Rec”: Macho Men and Powerful Women

In Television on April 20, 2012 at 8:18 am

Sarah T.

“Bitches get stuff done,” Tina Fey proclaimed in a 2008 SNL Update, defending Hillary Clinton against sexist naysayers. A jubilant Amy Poehler grinned and threw signs at her side. The women’s allegiance to one another, and to Clinton, was palpable. Together they formed a triangle of  smart, powerful ladies, ready to catch whatever insults got hurled their way and eat them for lunch.

Four years later, Clinton is a Tumblr-inspiring Secretary of State and Poehler and Fey head renowned comedies on NBC’s Thursday lineup. Like Clinton, their characters Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon make their livings getting stuff done. Both are professional single women in their thirties who keep their workplaces afloat—Leslie through five-alarm enthusiastic productivity at all hours of the day; Liz by harriedly shepherding her coworkers over and around the obstacles they create for themselves.

But it’s their bosses Jack Donaghy and Ron Swanson who are truly brothers from another mother. Jack and Ron like their governments small, their Scotches fine, and their red meat cooked so rare it’s practically bleeding. Their trim haircuts hold effortless swoops. They’re manly, confident, all-American, irresistible to ladies, and politically rightward of their female counterparts.

While Fey and Poehler are the heart of the shows as flawed, lovable protagonists, Jack and Ron are meme-generating myths. Onscreen, they’re universally admired by their coworkers and treated as heartthrobs, their aura of manliness serving as catnip for straight women and gay men (bears!). As “real” men, they’re meant to be a dying breed; therefore Jack always has a video vixen or Fox money bunny on his arm, while Ron makes his friends’ ex-wives swoon. (Offscreen, they tend to elicit the same response—a recent article by LA Times critic  Mary McNamara confessed her undying love for Ron Swanson.) And on comedies that are quick to identify characters’ weak spots—whether lovingly (Parks and Rec) or cynically (30 Rock)—Jack and Ron are rarely the butt of a joke. The character-driven jokes about their personalities and preferences tend to come from their own mouths, not from other characters; their fortress of masculine invulnerability protects them from cutting zingers. Read the rest of this entry »

The Care-taking Women of “50/50”

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2012 at 4:54 am

Sarah T.

All the characters in 50/50 are defined by their relationships with Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a  crinkly-eyed 27-year-old diagnosed with spinal cancer.  Adam’s mom Diane, his increasingly unreliable girlfriend Rachel, his therapist Katherine, and his best friend Kyle orbit him like concerned planets, only rarely coming into contact with each other or anyone else.

The care-taking methods of Diane, Rachel, Katherine, and Kyle are all intertwined with their gender roles: the mom, the bad girlfriend, the love interest-as-therapist, the best buddy. It’s no surprise that Kyle (Seth Rogen) emerges as Adam’s MVP. The women must contend with such a host of expectations about care-taking that they’re bound to pale by comparison.

As a failed caretaker and bad girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard) is easily the most reviled character in the film. First of all, she’s an abstract painter (we know how Hollywood feels about people who like abstract painting!), so she’s supposed to be pretentious and untalented. She won’t go down on Adam, which is a big strike against her. More seriously, she flakes out more and more after he gets sick, arriving an hour late to pick him up from chemo and refusing to accompany him inside the hospital. When Adam explains that she’s scared of hospitals, his fellow chemo patients reasonably point out that nobody actually wants to pad around among IV drips and paper-thin gowns–family and friends suck it up out of love. Finally, when Kyle catches Rachel cheating on Adam with another guy, the film lets loose its fury. Kyle calls her a whore, and later he and Adam destroy one of her paintings with much fire and brimstone.

The audience is supposed to find this revenge as cathartic as Adam and Kyle do — the shrew gets what she deserves! But perhaps thanks to Howard’s complex acting, I had some sympathy for Rachel. Yes, she was a bad care-taker and a sub-par girlfriend. Yet it’s possible to understand how she got so overwhelmed. Read the rest of this entry »

How to Be Awesome Like April Ludgate

In Uncategorized on March 12, 2012 at 6:51 am

Sarah T.

Since my post on Friday played defense (with a few reservations) for Zooey Deschanel’s Jess on New Girl, it seemed appropriate to kick off the week with an appreciation of a character who’s pretty much Jess’s opposite: April Ludgate of Parks and Recreation.

Curb your enthusiasm, please.

What I love about April, as played with quicksilver wit and subtlety by Aubrey Plaza, is how layered she’s become over the course of the series. In early episodes, she’s a sulky intern with a semi-permanent sneer. Frustrated with her small-town Midwestern life, she’s the first to roll her eyes at anyone who displays the slightest sign of sincerity or enthusiasm.

But the warm humanism of Parks and Rec won’t let that kind of blanket negativity stand for long. Part of the change comes as April falls for Andy, a character fittingly described by Margaret Lyons at Vulture as “a human golden retriever.” In contrast to April, Andy exists in a constant state of delighted wonder at the workings of Pawnee, frisbees, peaches, and shoe-shining. His innocent sunniness brings out new dimensions in April: she’s lighter and more free-spirited around him, and touchingly protective. Meanwhile, April both anchors Andy and broadens his worldview.

April’s other relationships cast new light on her character as well. She bonds with her boss, Ron, over a shared dislike of productivity in the workplace. His libertarian gruffness intersects perfectly with her hipsterhood — he’s pretty much her second dad. The show also introduces her sister, nearly identical in both looks and temperament; her doting, bizarrely cheerful parents; and her friend Oren — a tall, pale, raven-like creature who’s constantly freaking everybody out by predicting the dates of their deaths and hiding under tables. Over the course of the series, April has evolved into a richly drawn character: still snarky and sarcastic and a lover of all things weird, and fundamentally good-hearted too.

And so, without further ado, here are a few ways to model yourself after the awesome sauce (April hates that word) that is April Ludgate. Read the rest of this entry »

Defending Deschanel

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Sarah T.

Sometimes we don’t get to choose who we relate to.

As a nine-year-old tearing through The Babysitter’s Club series, I understood that Claudia and Stacey were objectively the coolest characters. (Claudia’s neon-green leotards worn under purple hammer pants! Stacey’s glamorous city slicker past!) But I couldn’t help but love Mary Anne Spier—a shy, big-hearted girl who loved animals and cried at the drop of a hat—the most. It was kind of embarrassing, but there was nothing I could do about it.

When I started getting into music from the 1960s in middle school, I understood that picking your favorite Beatle said a lot about you. A John person was smart and sensitive and revolutionary. A George enthusiast was mysterious and spiritual. Even a Ringo fan was fun-loving and unique. But I liked Paul best despite myself, knowing that it marked me as hopelessly cheerful, daffy lightweight.

Today, I find myself in a similarly uncool, wide-blue-eyed boat with Zooey Deschanel, the star of Fox’s The New Girl. Of course, plenty of people like Zooey—after all, she’s a sunny, funny, beautiful actress who has a hit sitcom on a major network. But she has a powerful band of detractors too. GLG’s own Melissa S. wrote a very eloquent, well-reasoned, non-attacky post on her problems with Deschanel’s character Jess in The New Girl. Many others make their points less diplomatically.

Deschanel critics tend to organize around several arguments. First, they claim, she is cloyingly twee. This is a problem not only because her critics are experiencing cute overload akin to The Berenstein Bears and Too Much Birthday, but because they see her adorkability as retrograde and unfeminist. Her girliness, they argue, places too much emphasis on singing and kittens and other childlike, harmless preoccupations, and not enough on adult, serious-minded matters.

While I understand these concerns about Deschanel, I can’t help but bristle at them. And a big part of that is because I know that I am in possession of many of the traits with which Deschanel-detractors take issue. Read the rest of this entry »

How to be awesome like Georgina Sparks …

In Gossip Girl, How to be Awesome Like, teen soaps, Television, TV villains on March 1, 2012 at 4:07 pm

Phoebe B.

Gossip Girl’s Georgina Sparks (Michelle Trachtenberg) is one of my favorite television villains. We first met Georgina at Constance where once upon a time she was best friends (albeit briefly) with Serena (Blake Lively). These days their relationship, like all of Georgina’s, is fraught at best and enemies at worst. In earlier episodes of the series, Georgina drank too much; hid a man’s death after he died in her and Serena’s presence (something I think she blackmailed Serena about and perhaps also the beginning of the end of their friendship); and convinced Dan he was the father of her child and then abandoned said child (by the by Dan is not the father). Then, Blair exiled Georgina to Russia, which was after Georgina had found God and promptly gotten kicked out of her God-camp, perhaps also at the hands of Blair. And, most recently Georgina ruined Blair’s wedding to Louis. In fact, one of the reasons I think I like Georgina so much, besides that she is hilarious, is that she makes a good rival for Blair as she is perhaps almost as good a schemer.

Georgina dressed as a priest and set to ruin Blair's nuptuals

This season Georgina returned to New York married to a supposedly rich yet not so bright man, Philip, with her child Milo, and on a new mission to stir up trouble on the Upper East Side. And just this week it seems that she was successful. Indeed, Georgina did declare quite happily that it appears that she has just taken “down the entire Upper East side.” We’ve celebrated many wonderful characters and actresses in the “how to be awesome columns,” thus, I thought it was perhaps time to celebrate a good old TV villainess. So, while you might not want to be awesome like Georgina, after all, she is a little evil, here are some tips of things to avoid should you want to stay far away from the villainy behavior that defines Georgina Sparks.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Anti-Stereotype Squad of “Happy Endings”

In gender on February 25, 2012 at 10:38 am

Sarah Todd

When the ABC sitcom Happy Endings first premiered last year, many critics compared it to Friends. Both comedies feature six friends–three guys and three girls–in their mid-to-late twenties who live in a major urban city (Chicago and New York). Both pilot episodes feature a runaway bride whose actions shake up the group dynamic and set the show in motion.

But beyond these superficial similarities, Happy Endings is funnier, smarter, and far more complex. Its often absurd plots center around competitions to determine who’d be the final survivor in a zombie apocalypse and solemn interventions to break a friend of his debilitating addiction to V-necks.

Happy Endings also differs from Friends in its diversity. It’s a show that recognizes the reality that people of various racial backgrounds and sexual orientations might well find themselves living in a major city and hanging out together.

Happy Endings acknowledges difference without falling into the trap of making a minority racial background or sexual orientation a character’s sole defining trait. Brad (Damon Wayons Jr.) is black and Max (Adam Pally) is gay. These identities are a part of their characters, and the show’s dialogue and plots frequently explore what it’s like for Brad and Max to be black and gay, respectively, within their group of friends and in the broader world. But the show also makes them well-developed characters who are many things in addition to these identities. Brad is a delightfully enthusiastic investment banker with a penchant for men’s fashion, romantic comedies, and making out with his wife Jane (Eliza Coupe). Max is a sarcastic and cynical layabout who spent all of last week’s episode transforming into a bear, in a kind of extreme advertisement for the dangers of seasonal affective disorder. (He hibernates in a pile of blankets and gets his head stuck in a honey jar. It Could Happen to You, winter-friends.)

Max evolves into a literal bear-Zach Galifianakis hybrid.

Happy Endings seems interested in creating characters who go beyond defying stereotypes and enter the realm of the anti-stereotype. For example, Penny (Casey Wilson) calls Max “a straight dude who likes dudes” because his messy, gruff, video game- and sandwich-loving personality goes against her idea of what gay men are (or should be) like. He’s so far from the stereotype that his personality actually seems oppositional to it. A first-season episode highlights this point. When Penny tells Max he’s “the worst gay husband ever” because he’d rather watch football than go shopping and brunching, Max finds her a gay best friend who’s more in line with her conceit. Derek is a fun-loving, official Sassy Gay Friend, right down to calling Penny “a stupid clumsy bitch.” (He gets introduced to Penny in this scene at the 30-second mark.) Read the rest of this entry »

“Call Me Doctor”: Rachel Bilson Raps, Girls Like Giants Scratch Our Heads.

In gender, race on January 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Rachel Bilson plays a doctor on Hart of Dixie. Some critics have a hard time buying it.  Last week, Bilson shot back with a Funny or Die video that features her throwing down by… rapping.

Chelsea B. was on the case, writing to some fellow Girls Like Giant-ers:

I feel so conflicted. I mean, it’s a fame thing and I get that Hollywood is weird, but also, watching this and not acknowledging or critiquing the inherent privilege and appropriation is a problem.

Since the rest of us were equally puzzled, we decided to try and sort things out with a good old-fashioned roundtable. Let us know what your take on Dr. Dolce Labcoats is in the comments.

Read the rest of this entry »

Suburgatory: When Abercrombie Attacks

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

Sarah Todd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Many Roles of the Divine Melissa McCarthy

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

Sarah Todd

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

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

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

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

How to Be Awesome Like… Leslie Knope

In Uncategorized on September 24, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Sarah Todd

This post is part of a new Girls Like Giants series, “How to Be Awesome Like…” in which we break down the steps necessary to become more like some of our favorite heroines. Whether it involves getting a sweet army jacket, brushing up on our archery skills, or mastering the art of French cooking, there are many ways to follow in the footsteps of these rockin’ role models. Got someone you’d like to celebrate? Email us at – ST

Previously: Phoebe Bronstein’s How to Be Awesome Like Jessica Fletcher.

Seasons two and three of Parks and Recreation are my ultimate TV comfort food. I like my comedies packed with silliness and warmth, and the show has both in spades. (Season one, by contrast–pre-show-makeover–is pretty depressing. If you’re new to the show and have similar tastes, maybe just skip ahead?)

Post-season one, however, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a huge part of what makes the show work. She’s zany and dorky and kind and loyal and incredibly hard-working, the kind of lady I can only aspire to be. In order to help myself get started in Knope-emulation, I put together the following list. (A future column may also feature another Parks and Rec character, April Ludgate, who is badass in an entirely different way.) And so:

How to Be Awesome Like Leslie Knope

•    Sleep never; have more energy than a bouncy ball after six espressos.
•    Hoard newspapers (lovably) so that your house looks like “a crazy person’s garage.”
•    Refer to bathrooms as “the whiz palace” when you’re feeling nervous.
•    Tell your best friend she is beautiful whenever you describe her, and especially when you are also about to say something she might not like.
•    Love waffles passionately.
•    Fight for what you believe in; never stand down.
•    When crashing boy’s clubs, be sure to announce—loudly and repeatedly—that that is what you are doing just so everyone’s clear. Read the rest of this entry »

Privileged Comedy: Blackface in F/X’s “Louie”

In race on September 18, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Sarah Todd

Louis C.K.’s dark-humored sitcom Louie, which depicts the life of a single-dad comedian raising two daughters in New York City, has earned accolades from critics and devoted fans alike. In general, I think the show deserves its positive recognition–it’s funny and edgy and honest with considerable heart. (Watch “Duckling” and try not to tear up.) It’s also not afraid to take on controversial and uncomfortable issues, usually in a way that’s meant to engage in real–but not humorless–discussion. Which is why I was surprised by the way a recent episode,  “Halloween/Ellie”, handled a character dressed in blackface.

In the first segment of the episode, Louie takes his daughters Lily and Jane trick-or-treating around the city. Lily, the youngest, is costumed as a fairy in wings, a wand, and a puffy vest (fall in New York is cold!). Jane, by contrast, is dressed in a tiny suit, a curly grey wig and beard–and blackface. “Who are you?” asks one storekeeper in a sweet but faltering voice. “Frederick Douglass,” Louie explains. She read about him in school.

As I watched the episode, I kept waiting for Jane’s costume to become an issue. Would another storekeeper, passerby, or fellow trick-or-treater challenge Louie to explain his daughter’s costume? Would the show find some other way of addressing the painful, racist history of blackface? The stand-up routine that precedes the segment helped set my expectations that the show would start a conversation about the costume. Louie explains, “I’ve got two little white girls in my house. When they complain, it kind of drives me crazy, because I know what the world is like around them. They have no idea.” As an illustration, he describes how his daughter complained about the bubble gum-flavored medicine she took to bring down her fever, and compares her situation with that of most kids in the world, who don’t have medicine at all. His point is that his daughters–by virtue of their race, age, gender, nationality, and class–have an enormous amount of privilege of which they’re unaware. Read the rest of this entry »

My Fall TV Line-Up

In girl culture, teen soaps on September 14, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Phoebe Bronstein

I got this idea from one of my favorite daily blogs,Grantland, which did a Fall TV cancellation forcaste. I am super excited for Fall TV Season, so instead of a forcaste for failing, I decided to do a Fall TV Line-Up. So here are a few shows that I plan on most certainly watching (new and old), a few I might watch, and one I will definitely skipping.


The Secret Circle (CW): I just watched the first episode, which is available free on iTunes (Thanks Sarah Todd!). It is Vampire Diaries-esque, but with witches and set in Seattle, apparently the new West Coast home for creepy (ie The Killing and Twilight). I won’t spoil anything from the pilot, but there are teenage witches, romance, dark shadows, and plotting parents. Plus it will be on right after Vampire Diaries, so clearly there is no good reason not to watch it.

Cassie of Secret Circle

Ringer (CW): Okay, so Ringer premiered last night and stars Sarah Michelle Geller (aka Buffy) as both good and evil twins (anybody else noticed a twin/doubles theme on recent teen television? Vampire Diaries, The Lying Game, and maybe PLL if my theories about A are correct). I feel that SMG is all I needed to be sold on this show. Seriously, Buffy’s back and now she has a twin.

Ringer = Buffy v. Buffy. Awesome.

The Hour (BBC): So this Mad Men-esque drama is set in the 1950s newsroom right at the shift from radio to television news. It started a few weeks ago, but I am including it here as it is really good and worth watching. It has a little bit of Mad Men and a dash of AMC’s short-lived but awesome and slowly paced Rubicon. There is murder, there is intrigue, there are great clothes, and rampant1950s sexism. As if that was not enough, The Hour also stars Jim McNulty (ie Dominic West) from The Wire as the face of the news program. Turns out he is British!

The cast of The Hour. Classy, No?

Up All Night (NBC): So I am not usually a fan of sit-coms, however, Up All Night, has such an awesome cast that I feel I will likely break my no sit-com streak. Tune in for Maya Rudolph, Will Arnett, and Christina Applegate. Sounds pretty good, right?

The Up All Night Comedy Team

And a few old:

Vampire Diaries (CW): Firstly, I just downloaded the free catch-up from iTunes and plan to watch it tomorrow before the Vampire Diaries premier. As far as I remember bad things are afoot in Mystic Falls. For one, Stephen is evil again (right?), Elijah escaped with Klaus but was then killed by Klaus (oops), Damon is still smoldering but not dying from a werewolf bite (yay!), and Caroline is still the most awesome vampire around.

Gossip Girl (CW): Even though the old standby wasn’t too great last season, I can’t stop watching it. It did get better near the end after all, when Chuck punched some glass amidst crazy camera angles, Blair officially left him (but will she be able to keep away? I hope so!) and went for the adorable and sweet Prince Louis. Serena stopped trying to be Blair, but not before she had unforgivably betrayed her (right?), and Blair and Dan are still BFFs who watch Netflix together but are not in love. Their friendship makes me happy. Oh yeah, and the crazy cousin Charlie, who was not a cousin! But rather someone, Lily’s sister paid off. So where is Serena’s real cousin? And what is the crazy Charlie imposter going to do now? Reek havoc on the Upper East Side? Most likely.

A few that might grace my TV:

The New Girl (FOX): I will admit I did laugh a lot in the pilot. But I have my reservations … See Melissa’s thoughts on it to see why it is on the maybe list.

Prime Suspect (NBC): Another year, another remake. This year NBC tackles a BBC and Helen Mirren classic. Perhaps it will be good, though I doubt as good as the original. Then again, I am rather partial to British television and the BBC.

Pan Am (ABC): Christina Ricci, Flight Attendants, looks like Mad Men. Maybe, just maybe since I do like Christina Ricci a pretty reasonable amount.

Definitely NOT:

Charlie’s Angels (ABC): I see no good reason to remake this show, which was then a myriad of movies. Thus, no good reason to watch it.

And lots of other stuff too.

Not Such an Easy A: A few thoughts on the Scarlett Letter  update

In race on September 10, 2011 at 10:45 am

Phoebe Bronstein

I finally watched Easy A last night and it was fairly hilarious. That said, I have a few issues with the film, which I will elaborate on shortly.

Easy A is a modern day teen adaptation of The Scarlett Letter with Emma Stone (as Olive) and Penn Badgly (ie Dan from Gossip Girl), and a plethora of delightful and awesome supporting cast members. These include, but are not limited to, Lisa Kudrow as an adultering guidance counselor, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s father and mother respectively, and Amanda Bynes as Marianne, Olive’s bible thumping nemesis. Truth be told, I kind of have a soft spot for Amanda Bynes, which developed somewhere around the time I saw What a Girl Wants and Sydney White. Plus her performance is oddly reminiscent of Mandy Moore in Saved. But moving on.

Easy A is a fun romp through the traumas of the high school rumor mill. Here’s what happens: Olive (Stone) lies to her BFF and tells her that she has lost her virginity, a conversation that is overheard by Marianne (Bynes). Marianne then spreads the rumor all over the school. Next thing we know, nerdy boys want to pay Olive (usually in gift cards and coupons) to pretend that she kissed, went to second base, had sex with them—an endeavor that begins when she agrees to help Brandon (Dan Byrd), who is gay, pretend he is straight by having loud fake sex at a party. The film humorously details the consequences of this lie (ie Olive starts showing a little more skin and then sews an A to all her clothing), which (to fast-forward for a moment) ends with a guy getting the wrong idea and actually trying to pay her for real sex with a Home Depot gift card. Not to worry, she makes a tell-all web cast after a sexy performance with her longtime crush (Penn Badgley), and then they ride off into the sunset on a tractor.

All in all, the movie is quite funny and I found myself enjoying it a great deal. I mean, how can you go wrong with this puritanical plot? However, I was left with a few things that made me both uncomfortable and confused and feel less laudatory, mostly surrounding issues about race.

Firstly, Olive’s family who are white have adopted an adorable second child, Chip (Bryce Clyde Jenkins), who is African American. Perhaps this role was blind cast, but either way, Chip’s difference is constantly asserted in the film. It feels at times as if he is there as a means to show how progressive this particular white family is. Further, in the film his blackness is used to signal that he is adopted. Although his character has very few lines (although is in almost all the family scenes), his presence is always punctuated by dialogue, like “but I’m adopted,” or Stanley Tucci jokingly asking him, “where are you from?” At once, the film signals that Chip would notice that he looks different than the rest of his family and so it does not erase that difference, which seems like a good idea. However, it also uses that difference to signal both the family’s whiteness, but also that they are not the average white family from Ojai, California. But rather, Chip is used to indicate that they are just a little offbeat, in line with Madonna and perhaps Angelina Jolie.

Secondly, the storyline involving Brandon feels oddly frustrating for a variety of reasons. Granted the film takes on bullying, reminiscent of Glee (remember Kurt attempts a day or two as straight and wears a trucker hat to signal it), but the solution Easy A proposes feels strange. Either pretend you are straight to avoid bullying or run away with an older tall black man. Brandon attempts the first, but then decides on the latter, which is accompanied by a plethora of references to Huck Finn (also we see the couple watching an old Huck Finn film together). To me, this feels like a problem. This choice seems to mock stereotypes of the oversexed black buck or at least unsuccessfully try to (for more on this see Donald Bogle’s work). However, by pairing Brandon and his unnamed lover’s story with that of Huck Finn, the film evokes some problematic parallels between these two white and black couplings. By evoking the Twain novel, the film unexpectedly presents a parallel between Jim, who is a slave, and Brandon’s unnamed lover, one which suggests a reading of Jim and Brandon’s lover perhaps as predatory (particularly given the age difference).

Taken together, I think these two instances both function to produce whiteness in the film, at the expense of the black characters. Whereas Chip’s presence signals the whiteness of the family via the reiteration of his difference, so too does Brandon’s unnamed African American lover and his parallel with Huck Finn, suggest both Brandon’s whiteness and a relationship between a white boy and an escaped slave. In both these instances, difference is forcibly asserted, which in and of itself is perhaps not a bad thing, but it is when African American bodies are used seemingly for the sake of producing whiteness. Safe to say, this is nothing new in filmic representations of race, but the casual use of black bodies in Easy A to suggest various things about the white cast seems worthy of pointing out.

Within the scope of the film, the use of Huck Finn fits into the genre of updating and mocking a classic novel. But for the previously mentioned reasons I don’t think it works. I imagine there is much more to say here, but I would be delighted by any or all feedback, as these are just my initial thoughts. Easy A is fine when the plot sticks to the white characters (after all it is the Puritans they are mocking), but its treatment of bodies of color, specifically African American men, is worrisome perhaps at best.

Oh, for a Better Quirky Girl – on “New Girl” and “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Territory”

In gender on September 4, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Melissa Sexton

The commercials have been beckoning to me for weeks, promising that I’m their target audience.  What’s not to love about a sit-com caper that features Zooey Deschanel, the dreamy cop Leo from Veronica Mars (turns out his name is Max Greenfield), and twenty-something screw-ups thrown together by fate in a far-too-spacious-to-be-true city apartment? As if cop-Leo and well-lit apartments weren’t enough appeal, Frontier Airlines’s TV preview on my Denver-to-Grand Rapids leg was the full pilot episode of New Girl. I watched it without sound, as I was too travel-befuddled to dig out my headphones and as I think “guess-the-plotline” is a really fun game.  Once I was home, I eagerly checked out the on-demand preview (with sound this time) (the series airs for real September 20th, I believe).

Unsurprisingly, I’d gotten the entire plot right.

See, here’s the problem I so often have with comedies.  They seem to be driven by stereotypes.  And at some level, I guess, I get why that works.  We laugh because of what’s expected, or something, and they’re categories that we recognize.  Okay, maybe I don’t really get how it works.  I just get so frustrated because I don’t think seeing the recycling of the same old conventional categories is all that funny.  It’s only funny when the caricatures are so poorly done that they miss the mark – hence, the reason I find terrible action movies funny.  But when I’m watching gender/race/class/sexuality caricatures, I get an uncomfortable feeling inside that has very little to do with laughing.  And New Girl thus far relies heavily on caricatures of this type.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Message: Pam, The Office, and Dreams Deferred

In gender on August 12, 2011 at 7:36 am

Sarah Todd

“It’s impractical. I’m not going to try to get a house like that. Um, they don’t even make houses like that in Scranton. So I’m never gonna…” – Pam, “Boys and Girls”

Whatever happened to Pam? I ask this question with all the love and loss it’s possible to feel for a fictional person, because there is maybe no other television character I have ever cared about so much.

Pam, portrayed on The Office with warmth and humor by Jenna Fischer, got to me because she was a woman struggling to stop holding herself back. She had dreams, but for a long time she didn’t believe in herself enough to even admit them. Her tamped-down aspirations manifested themselves physically in the curly locks she kept half-clipped back, a hairstyle that communicated a mild sense of resignation. The one time she let her hair loose, her boss got gross; she reached for her barrette.

Her life didn’t match what she wanted, and her character arc in the early seasons was about learning to take responsibility for changing it. The first, most obvious thing that was wrong was her love life. She was engaged to the lug-headed Roy, her high-school sweetheart, when she was clearly in love with wry and playful Jim. The second thing that was wrong was that Pam wanted a creative career, and the only creative part about her job as a receptionist at a struggling paper company was inventing ways not to die of boredom. 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.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Like Legally Blonde

In gender, girl culture on June 28, 2011 at 8:52 am

Sarah Todd

The other night I was searching for some background television and ended up settling on that old chestnut Legally Blonde. Legally Blonde is one of those movies I’ve kind of absorbed into my system naturally, the way the Swamp Thing absorbs flood waters and human memories. Nonetheless, I’d never developed much affection for it; actually enjoying the movie seemed like too much of a cliche.

But this time around, the Legally Blonde bend and snap scene really got to me. And here’s why: I started thinking about how rare it is to see a big group of women genuinely having fun together in the movies. Films tend to represent female friendship–and women in groups–as fundamentally competitive and/or stupid. Either women are stabbing each other in the back as they jockey for men or jobs or queen bee titles, or else they’re having vapid conversations about bubbles.

But in the bend and snap scene, the women in the salon are being so goofy together, improvising their own flourishes to the routine, and Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle is being so supportive and encouraging and sweetly peppy. There’s no back-stabbing in sight. And while the idea of bending-and-snapping itself could be characterized as somewhat vapid, the whole point of Legally Blonde is that just because people are interested in flirting or shoes or celebrity gossip doesn’t mean they’re not smart.

Some people look down their noses at movies like Legally Blonde–and the interests of  people like Elle–because they think they’re just about dumb girly stuff. But the truth is that our culture positions girly stuff as dumb. In reality, liking the color pink doesn’t make you an airhead, owning a chihuahua doesn’t make you high-maintenance, and belonging to a sorority doesn’t make you mean. Conversely, being interested in subjects like federal interest rates and medieval poetry doesn’t make you a superior human.

People can be airheaded or high-maintenance or mean whether they’re men or women, dressed in powersuits or skinny jeans or nerd glasses or prom dresses. What’s more, Legally Blonde dares to suggest that there may even be value in possessing a knowledge of perming techniques and fashion designers. Like Elle, you might spot a lie or catch a contradiction. You might crack a case wide open.

It’s fine to like Legally Blonde, just like it’s fine to like Pretty Little Liars and 90210. It’s equally fine to prefer Downtown Abbey or The Hangover or The Daily Show or Die Hard or some combination of the above-whatever floats our particular boats. The important thing is recognizing that what we like doesn’t have a one-to-one correspondence with who we are.  For showing that, Legally Blonde deserves some snaps.

Who’s Laughing? Race and Gender in Hall Pass

In race on June 27, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Promotions for the 2001 Farrelly brothers film Shallow Hal probably only appealed to like five people on the planet. I was one of those five people. Somehow I was like, “Offensive-seeming premise check, George Costanza with a tail check, boring Gwyneth Paltrow starring in a comedy check, I’m all in, ten tickets please.” Partly this had to do with my abiding love for Jack Black, which also led me to make one of the biggest film-going mistakes of my life: seeing Year One in theaters. (In my defense, I saw it at the discount theater. In my prosecution, I still put dollars into a person’s hand in order to see Year One, which is just an unfathomable decision any way you look at it. But Jack Black also gave me School of Rock, aka one of my top ten movies of all time. You win some, you lose some.) As it turned out, Shallow Hal was warm and silly and big-hearted, and possibly I still cry at the ending even after having seen the movie at least six times over. I’ve liked the Farrelly brothers ever since; generally, I think, they only make fun of people if they’re going to embrace them.

However, I question what the Farrelly brothers are up to in their most recent venture, Hall Pass. Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis (who I cannot for the life of me tell apart from Ed Helms) star as two hot-to-trot husbands married to Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, respectively. Fischer and Applegate are lovely and funny as usual, and the film treats them with respect by acknowledging that they, too, experience both sexual desire and sexual frustration. Rather, it’s Hall Pass‘s representation of men that seems unfair to all the good husbands out there in the world. Here, Wilson and Sudeikis play crass oglers who are lackeys to their own worst instincts. Their ideas of female beauty are largely limited to thin, white women under 30, and they regularly deride the looks of women who don’t meet those standards. This is exactly the kind of thinking that Shallow Hal challenges, but Hall Pass plays the husbands’ derogatory view of women for laughs.

A related problem is the film’s treatment of race. Sudeikis’s character visits a Korean massage parlor in the hopes of a happy ending and greets a table of women who might or might not be Latina with “Hola,” striking a stereotypical Latin dance pose. Meanwhile, a scene in which Wilson’s character must be saved from a jacuzzi by two naked gym-goers relies on stereotypes of African-American masculinty in full-frontal compare-and-contrast shots. One could argue that the scenes with Sudeikis’s character, at least, are intended to satirize his character’s racial stereotyping rather than to suggest the stereotypes are themselves funny–the kind of technique The Office regularly employs with Michael Scott. However, Hall Pass doesn’t provide its characters of color with the opportunity to reveal the falsehood of those stereotypes, or even to respond to them in any way. They merely play bit, exoticized parts in the husbands’ sexual misadventures.

As a whole, Hall Pass feels far less eccentrically human than other Farrelly films; it’s as flat as Wilson’s pressed khakis. Where did their usual gross-yet-lovable heart go? Potentially, like the husbands, it fell asleep at a Chili’s. Here’s hoping it wakes up soon.