Tuesday, February 9, 2016

'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' Is Actually Pretty Good

I know, I know, we've all been burned before. After such mediocre blah-fests as Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Hansel and Gretel, Witchhunters, a genre mashup like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn't exactly get the heart racing. It more seems like a tired retread of ideas that didn't work any of the times before. You'd be totally forgiven for assuming that this movie is entertaining garbage at best and humdrum boredom at worst. You would, however, be wrong.

The thing to remember in this case is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn't just yet another version of the "something classic + something schlocky = weird new story" formula. It's the great granddaddy to them all. Or at least to this current generation. Based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen), the film is based on a book that came out in 2009 and really kickstarted this fad. 

As the originator, then, it's worth noting that this story does the mashup better than most others. The Jane Austen story about love and the struggles of propriety is thrown into stark relief by the surprisingly complex zombie narrative with which it shares the book. Both are well done and interesting plots, and the sum total is actually greater than its parts. In other words, both the book and the movie are really good.

I'm not saying that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is about to win any awards here - especially since most critics are reacting to it like reframing Austen is akin to puppy-murder - but it's a fun, ambitious movie that tells a really good story. And, to be honest, that's really what I'm looking for in a movie.

The basic plot of the film is this: in the past hundred years, England has gone from being the strong nation a the heart of an empire to a shambles, destroyed by a ravaging zombie outbreak. The zombies were contained for a time with the building of "the great divide" - a massive trench surrounding London and "the inbetween" - and the intentional fortification of the landed gentry inside their homes. Most of the poor have been turned into zombies, if only because they lack the means to barricade themselves away, and England itself stands on a precipice. There are very few people left, and those who remain have trained themselves in the deadly arts and zombie hunting.

This is where our heroines come in. See, while the world is going through a horrific zombie outbreak that could spell the end of the world as they know it, polite society carries on. Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) still desires that each of her five daughters make a good match with a wealthy husband, even if her daughters spend a lot more time sparring and killing zombies than they do practicing their needlework.

The romance continues on about as you'd expect it to, just with more zombies. Jane (Bella Heathcote) and Liz (Lily James) are spotted at a party after Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) and Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) come to Hartfordshire. Mr. Bingley is immediately smitten with Jane, but Mr. Darcy says some not very nice things about Liz, causing her to run off in anger. 

Here is where the story goes off script a bit, though, with zombies suddenly attacking the ball and Liz and her sisters getting together to fight them all off. It's a satisfying moment when Colonel Darcy, famed veteran of the zombie wars, realizes that his skills aren't needed here and the women have taken care of the mess before he can get his jaw off the floor.

The whole film wraps together the harsh realities of this new world with the classic tale. Darcy and Liz spar, figuratively and literally. Jane's ride through the rain where she gets a cold and has to stay with Mr. Bingley is complicated because they think she might have been bitten and infected. Wickham (Jack Huston) is a regimental not in a battle against the colonies or France, but against zombies. Mr. Collins (Matt Smith) patroness is still Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey), but now she's a famous zombie hunter. And so on. 

You already know the story of the romance, and it continues without much alteration, but what makes the story here really work is how that romance feeds into a larger plot about the zombies. While everyone is getting mixed signals and misinterpreting situations, Liz stumbles across a number of very concerning events, all of which signal that the zombie war is about to end. For good.

First she spots a group of four men with top hats in a cemetery - a fact that is innocuous until she sees a painting of those same four men as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Then there's the church of St. Lazarus, a place Wickham brings her, where she finds still-rational zombies curbing their urges with pigs' brains and prayer. Then there's her teamup with Wickham to convince Lady Catherine to help them reason with the "zombie aristocrats" - those zombies who have kept their rationality and could hypothetically curb the appetites of the other undead.

Naturally Lady Catherine doesn't go for this, and it leads into Darcy and Liz's famous showdown, followed by his explanation of why he hates Wickham. In this version, however, the focus isn't so much on how Wickham was horrible to Georgiana (who never actually appears in the film), but rather on how he intentionally infected Darcy's father with the zombie plague, forcing Darcy to kill his own father. Gross.

The final act where Wickham runs off with Lydia is made all the more terrifying as we understand that he's not done it for money or to shame the Bennet family name or even for sex: he's using Lydia as bait to force Darcy out into the inbetween and a horde of zombies. This is also right before the last bridge connecting the inbetween and the rest of England is blown up - if Darcy doesn't make it back in time, he'll be lost forever. Oh no!

Only, and this is why I actually really liked this film, Darcy isn't the one who figures all of this out. Liz does. She and Jane go riding off to save Lydia, along the way reuniting Jane and Bingley, and when Darcy goes off on his own to save Lydia, Liz follows right after and saves his life. It's the rare movie with a badass leading lady that isn't afraid to make her more badass than the male hero on occasion. 

I'm not going to spoil the ending - there is a rather large twist in there, though it's not unforeseeable - but suffice to say that this is the rare mashup that genuinely works on every level. Liz's independence and firey spirit is only enhanced by the addition of weapons and combat training, and Mr. Bennet's (Charles Dance) refusal to talk about marrying off his daughters makes even more sense in a world where we might not get another year, let alone have to worry about inheritance laws. 

The best part is how Pride and Prejudice and Zombies throws the ridiculousness of British regency-era social codification into high relief. 

It's impossible not to laugh a little at Caroline Bingley's (Emma Greenwell) snobbery, considering that the world is literally coming to an end! The idea that people are still carrying on talking about how much money someone makes per year and who's parents own what when there are zombies eating their way through whist parties is so incredibly human. I think that's what I love about it. Screw all those apocalypses where people band together with no regard for racial or social distinction, this feels all the more depressing and real. No one can even let go of their pride long enough to save the world.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is by no means the best movie you'll see this year, but it is still a movie worth seeing. It's fun, for starters, and in a way that doesn't apologize for its content. It's not a movie that's trying to make you feel bad for liking it. I mean, zombies, heroics, and a little bit of kissing? I am happy to admit that these are all things I can appreciate in a film. It's a nice combo. 

It's a not a movie based on ironic like for something, which is impressive considering that I'm pretty sure that's how the novel happened in the first place. But this story is inherently earnest. It's schlocky, yeah, but it's having fun with itself and clearly trying to make a really compelling story. For the most part it succeeds, too, which is all the more to its credit.

Basically what I'm trying to say is that if you're feeling burnt out on the whole mashup genre, that's completely understandable, but consider giving this movie a try anyways. It's an ensemble of fantastically kickass women, it passes the Bechdel Test handily in like the first five minutes, and you're faced with the uncomfortable realization that one of the characters you know and love very well might die before the end of the story - it's just that kind of movie.

It probably won't win any awards and I doubt this movie will make enough money for the studio to decide it needs a sequel, but for my dollar it was well worth seeing. A lady-centric story that never compromises its femininity for its lethality and a lot of great one-liners. You should probably check it out.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Masculinity Monday: Terry, the Captain, and 'Brooklyn 99'

Last week in Masculinity Monday: Black History Month Edition, we talked about Malcolm from Jessica Jones and how, while he's still an interesting and well-acted character, his storyline reinforces rather than examines harmful stereotypes about the black community. So this week we're going the opposite direction and we're going to discuss two male characters, and a show, that go out of their way to deconstruct myths about black masculinity. I'm talking, of course, about Terry Jeffords, Captain Raymond Holt, and Brooklyn 99.

If you're new to Kiss My Wonder Woman, you might not yet be aware of how stinking much I love Brooklyn 99. It might be only in its third season, but we've already written enough articles on it to sink a ship. Seriously. It's getting weird.

The reason I've gone so overboard in examining this show mostly comes down to how, well, good it is. Far from being the obnoxious "white guy is always right" star vehicle for Andy Samberg it originally appeared to be, Brooklyn 99 has evolved into a fascinating show where intersectional feminism is the norm, the characters love and support each other even while making silly bets against one another, and crime gets solved no matter how much literal garbage they have to dig through to do it. 

In other words it's a good show that does a good job with racial, gender, and LGBT+ representation, and it's downright shocking how well they manage to be funny without ever getting mean.

The basic premise of the show is this: it's a sitcom about cops. That's about it. But, more specifically, the show follows the detectives of Brooklyn's 99th precinct. Their cases vary wildly from important murder investigations and drug taskforces - even undercover missions in the mafia - to tracking down missing grandmas and figuring out who has been painting penises on their squad cars. The show starts when the detectives meet their new Captain, Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), a rule-loving, by the book cop who has finally risen to his dream job. Holt is determined to whip the 99 into shape, even if they all hate him for it.

Fortunately for us and the show, what really happens is a mush of Holt becoming more relaxed and personable as he begins to bond with and appreciate his team, even joining them in some of their sillier moments, and the detectives rising to Holt's challenge, becoming the cops he knows they can be. It's all very inspiring and also very funny, which is why the show works so well.

Okay. That's the background. What really sets Brooklyn 99 apart as a show, however, is not so much the setup as it is the diversity of the cast and the show's emphatic refusal to make cheap stereotypical jokes about race, gender, or sexual identity. Of the seven main characters, only three are actually white, while two of the detectives, Rosa Diaz and Amy Santiago are Latina, and Captain Holt and his sergeant, Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews), are African-American.

Obviously it's these last two who I want to discuss today, but it's worth taking a second to recognize that this racial breakdown, innocuous as it actually seems, is actually pretty revolutionary when you look at it. Not only is it a lot less white than your average show of this type, it's also willing to risk the terror of having two Latinas and two black men. 

It's rare for a show to be willing to put two people from any single racial category together on the same show for fear that it will become a "Latinx show" or a "black show". The decision for Brooklyn 99 to ignore this piece of conventional wisdom is therefore pretty surprising and very refreshing.

But let's get down to actual brass tacks here: why are Terry and Captain Holt such interesting examples of black masculinity? Well, to put it simply, they both shatter our expectations for what African-American men are "supposed" to look like on TV.

We'll start first with Terry who visually fits with a certain stereotyped understanding of black masculinity but personality-wise couldn't be further from it. See, Terry Jeffords is a big man. Really big. He's tall and strong and covered in very impressive muscles. This fits with our expectation that black men be inordinately athletic in comparison with men of other races and could easily have played into a stereotype about how black men are all brawns and no brain. Fortunately for us, the show doesn't go there.

Instead of playing Terry's physical perfection as a simple fact of his black male athleticism, the joke is actually that Terry is not a naturally fit person. We are told as early as the pilot that Terry used to be quite obese and has used diet and exercise to reach his current state. It's a plot point in most of the episodes that Terry exercises constantly and prefers eating yogurt and shopping at Farmer's Markets. He's not naturally buff because he's black, he's a man who has put a lot of honest effort into getting into shape. So there's that. (Also there are several episodes where he backslides and starts gaining weight again, which are both funny and also incredibly honest in their portrayal of food addiction.)

The show goes even further than this, though, when it comes to Terry's attitude towards getting in the field. Our stereotypical inclination would be to assume that Terry is aggressive as he is buff, which is to say very. As usual, the show doesn't take the cheap shot. Instead we get a long and interesting plotline about how Terry doesn't go in the field anymore because since the birth of his twin daughters, he's been terrified of getting hurt and leaving his babies without a father.

Not what we expected, right? Not only does this storyline end up being way funnier than any jokes about Terry being hyper-aggressive would have been (a gigantic man hyperventilating as he tries to remember how to aim a gun at a target), it also opens us up to a whole new character dynamic: Terry as devoted and involved husband and father.

If we're looking at negative media stereotypes about black men, the idea that all black men are bad fathers or absent ones is a particularly pernicious one. Terry contradicts that idea full stop by being a very involved father and a very loving husband. When his wife wants to go on an experimental diet because she's worried about her baby weight, Terry tells her he doesn't care what she weighs but goes on the diet with her anyway. When his daughters Cagney and Lacey are trying to get into preschool, Terry doesn't just do research, he freaking bends over backwards to make sure that his babies get into the best possible school they can. Why? Because his girls are going to be co-presidents one day, dammit.

It's this kind of involvement and obvious love that is so lacking in media portrayals of black fathers (and frankly fathers in general). Terry's not afraid of coming across as feminine or weak - he even at one point shouts about how "Terry is in touch with his feminine side!" His favorite pastime involves bubblebath and a glass of wine. He might get frustrated while trying to put together a Fairy Princess Castle for his daughters, but that's only because his hands are too big for all the tiny pieces.

In other words, Terry Jeffords is a complex and really compelling image of black masculinity. He's strong and emotionally aware to a level much greater than anyone else in the precinct, and did I mention he's smart? He's super smart. He literally hangs out with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, that's how smart he is. One of the storylines in season three involves Holt pushing Terry to take the exam that will allow him to advance to lieutenant, the next step towards Terry getting his own command. 

Terry's incredibly good at his job, whether it involves catching bad guys or making sure that his "stupid grown up kids" aren't fighting and are doing all their work. 

It would be fair to call Terry the "mom" of the precinct, and what's even better is that Terry would view that as a compliment not an insult. He respects the hell out of women, and is constantly advocating for his detectives to be more emotionally sensitive in their work. Basically, Terry is one walking example of how you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. More than that, though, he's also a clear sign that the writers of Brooklyn 99 have chosen very intentionally to deconstruct all of our preconceived notions about black masculinity. Which brings me to...

Captain Raymond Holt is a character we're all expecting to understand without much explanation. He's the tough no nonsense black guy in command, right? We've seen this trope a million times - and why does every disaster movie insist on having a black no nonsense president in it? - so there's no way that Captain Holt could surprise us. Except there totally is. Didn't you read the introduction to this article?

Rather than being an amalgamation of all of our ideas of what a black man in power is supposed to look like, Raymond Holt really is his own character. He has flaws and faults and quirks, just like the rest of us. What the show does incredibly well is show us this facade, the stoic commander, and then show us what's going on behind it. It does this in a couple of ways.

First off, the most immediate thing to notice about Captain Holt is how deadpan he is. It doesn't matter if he's ecstatic with joy or in the depths of despair, his face pretty much never changes. It's enough to become a long-running joke, where the other members of the precinct will try to guess what his mood is and are always way off. But what's interesting here isn't how Holt is all stoic and stuff - we're used to our fictional black leaders being too manly for emotions - it's how Holt doesn't think of himself as emotionless.

That's a really important distinction. See, the joke isn't that Holt is holding in his feelings, it's that no one can tell what they are. He's expressing them all right, but they're just very very very subtle. Presumably. As a point of note, we discover soon in the show that Holt's husband, Kevin (Marc Evan Jackson) can tell what Holt's mood is and is actually just as deadpan. So the joke isn't that Holt doesn't have feelings or that he's too badass for them, it's that no one can read him. He's not the joke - everyone else is.

This may seem simple, but it's actually a very different way of looking at black masculinity. Typically stereotypes can go one of two ways with black men. Either they are characterized as being hyper-emotional, prone to flying off the handle at the simplest things and hard to reason with, or they're shown to be too noble and good and righteous for feelings. Like we're talking stereotypes about hotheaded gangsters versus stereotypes about magical negroes. Holt, thankfully, fits neither of those stereotypes, instead forging his own path.

He's not the type to blare his emotions all over everywhere, and his feelings certainly aren't what one would consider over the top and out of control. I mean, he is a man whose idea of romantic language is stating the technical dictionary definition of marriage. He cries over statistical analysis. He's a giant nerd is what I'm saying. But he's also not a man who is pushing aside his own feelings so that he can help some nice young white man learn a big moral lesson. Sure, Holt does teach Peralta (Andy Samberg) the occasional moral lesson, but he doesn't sacrifice his own personhood to do it.

Instead of being a conventional trope that dehumanizes him as a black man by making him either less or more than human, Holt's personality and relative lack of emotional expression just makes him kind of weird. It's the sort of interesting personality quirk that's read as funny and offbeat in a white character but in a black character is subject to dozens of thinkpieces and deep introspection. Holt's a person, and his personality is just one aspect of that.

Admittedly, his personality does make him come off as rather severe at times, what with no one ever knowing if he's smiling or not, but the show undercuts any attempts to idolize Holt by making him just as petty and human as everyone else. He might be deadpan, but he's also kind of childish in the best possible ways. He enters into ridiculous bets with Peralta over who is a better detective. He can be persuaded to use dramatic codenames and say catchphrases when he captures a bad guy. He takes hula hooping classes with Kevin and is happy to taunt Peralta with this information. Holt's kind of a goofball, even if he refuses to let anyone see it.

Hell, speaking of petty, the most worked up we ever see Holt is when he's tangling with his arch-nemesis, Madeline Wunch (Kyra Sedgewick). Wunch and Holt have known each other for years and loathed each other almost as long, and seeing the normally staid and rule-abiding Holt break down into awful elementary school level taunts is both hilarious and sobering. It's a reminder that he's very human at the core of things, and it's also very funny.

Okay, so definitely Holt is an interesting character because of how he subverts our expectations of what a "black leader" or "exemplary black man" should look like. But we can't talk about Holt without talking about the fact that he is also an out black man and a man who has been openly gay in the New York Police Department since the 1980s. That's a huge part of his character. At the same time, a big deal here is that it's not more of his character. Holt's being gay is a fact about him sort of like the fact that he loves fancy wine and quantifiable data. It informs his character but doesn't define him.

It's also worth noting that this is another place the show manages to mine humor from an unlikely place: it honestly tells the story of what it was like for Holt to be a black, gay cop in an openly racist and homophobic police department and manages to make it funny. 

Only we don't laugh at Holt, we laugh at everyone else. We laugh because they can't recognize how obviously superior Holt is as a detective, and we laugh a little bit at his afro and mustache that he wears in all the flashbacks. But mostly the point here is how well the show manages to explain the gravity of Holt's past while also not letting it turn him into a tragic figure.

This is one of the other really common tropes with black characters, especially black men who've been through some level of adversity in the narrative. Frequently the story will turn them into nobly suffering victims, people defined by what has happened to them. Or, even if it allows them to get past it, it still makes these people into characters who only every think about racial injustice or inequality or important big things and who never punch the air in triumph because they accurately predicted one of their coworkers was stuck in a line at the bank.

Holt is nothing like we expect him to be because our expectations are flawed. Instead he's a well-rounded and interesting character. That's good writing. It's also good humanizing - by making Holt more than just one more heroic but cardboard thin picture of a black man in power, Brooklyn 99 gives a realistic portrait of one particular man. There's a lot of value in that.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Brooklyn 99 doesn't cut corners when it comes to representation. It's a show not only committed to diversity in its casting but also in its characterization. The people on this show are more than just laugh factories with nothing behind them. Terry and Holt in particular are nuanced and important representations of healthy black masculinity, a black masculinity that has been intentionally interrogated and studied. 

These are characters we can appreciate because, while they have flaws (like all good characters), they're complex enough to still be compelling images of what it looks like to be a black man in today's society.

Brooklyn 99 is great. If you aren't watching it I sincerely urge you to get on that. But if you take away nothing else from this article, please understand this: it's not just good politics and good representation to make your characters unique and non-stereotypical. It's also good humor. And since this is a sitcom, I feel like that's a pretty big deal.

It's just so good.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Garnet (Steven Universe)

It may seem like a little bit of a cheat for the first Strong Female Character Friday of Black History Month to be about a character who really isn't African-American technically speaking. And that's true. Steven Universe's Garnet is not African-American. She's an alien, one of the Crystal Gems, who is functionally immortal, thousands of years old, and lives in the small town of Beach City so that she and her friends can protect the Earth from alien threats. So, strictly speaking, not technically black. She's more of a dark fuchsia.

But there is a very good reason to talk about Garnet and characters like her during Black History Month. Simply put, while Garnet is not actually African-American, we are meant to read her character that way. She was intentionally designed and cast so as to appear like a black woman. It's no accident that her voice actress is the noted British singer-songwriter Estelle, a prominent black woman. It's no accident that Garnet's character design gives her what appears to be a shaped afro and traditionally African facial features. They didn't whoops into making her, is what I'm saying. We're meant to look at Garnet and think of her as a black woman, and that's a great thing.

It's great because in our culture, black is rarely if ever seen as the "default setting". When we're told to just imagine a person, our culture tends to assume said person is white. As in, you're white unless specified otherwise. This is frustrating in and of itself, but it gets worse when extrapolated into storytelling. In science fiction in particular, this unconscious bias means that most aliens are "white" or white appearing, meaning that this standard is reinforced and people of color are given fewer avenues in which to see themselves as the heroes.

In other words, Garnet is great because she's an alien who just so happens to look like a black woman and it's no big deal. That's just what she looks like. She's cool and powerful and strong and interesting and also visually identified as being of African descent. That's what I'm getting at here.

For those of you who don't watch Steven Universe, though, I'll back up and give you some context. Steven Universe is a lovely Cartoon Network show about a little boy, Steven (Zach Callison), and his three guardians, all of whom are special magic aliens who protect the Earth. Steven's mother was also one of these aliens, called Crystal Gems, so he is part alien and has inherited his mother's powers. He's raised partly by his human father, Greg Universe, and partly by the Crystal Gems, who teach him how to use his powers for good and how to become the superhero he was always meant to be. It's a very sweet show.

Each of Steven's "mothers" has her own distinct personality and powers - Pearl (Deedee Magno) is a precision fighter and brilliant scientist who also hates things being messy and probably fits our most stereotypical idea of what a mom should be; Amethyst (Michaela Dietz) is wild and chaotic with a fighting style to match, preferring to hoard piles of literal garbage and do whatever she feels like whenever she feels like it, making her more of a big sister than mom; and Garnet (Estelle) is the strongest physical fighter of the group, also the most mature, but with a wry sense of humor and deadpan delivery that makes her incredibly memorable.

Given their differences, it's not shocking to learn that the Gems work best when their strengths compliment each other and give Steven a really supportive and nurturing home life. But then again, sometimes they clash and everything is a mess.

Back to Garnet, it's worth talking a little bit about her background here so we can discuss why her status as a coded African-American woman is so important. Garnet is a little different from the other Gems, a fact that is implied early on but we don't really come to know fully until the end of season one. 

Namely, Garnet isn't exactly one Gem, she's two. She's the fusion of Ruby (Charlyne Yi) and Sapphire (Erica Luttrell), meaning that Garnet is her own person, sort of, but she's also the physical manifestation or the relationship and love between Ruby and Sapphire.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that Ruby and Sapphire's fusion, the fact that their relationship is so stable and strong so as to create Garnet for thousands of years, is incredibly rare. The other Gems who don't live on Earth view Garnet as an oddity at best and an abomination at worst. It's weird to them how Garnet is going around and functioning all the time, even though we the audience, having been with Garnet since the beginning, see nothing out of the ordinary.

I mention all of this because it's relevant backstory for the character, but also because it adds more complexity to her character and more diversity to the representation of African-American woman this show is creating. See, Garnet is presented from the beginning as being above all stable. She's so stable. She's the stablest. And this is not a characterization of black women that we're actually used to seeing. Black women are more typically portrayed in the media as being emotionally unstable or volatile, or else "strong black women" who can never break and feel emotion and have weak moments.

Garnet is neither of these stereotypes. She's very calm most of the time, with a sort of understated personality, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have feelings. She can be angry or sad or happy or whatever without falling into these character tropes about "mad black women". She's just Garnet, wholly herself, a character with enough development to stand up against any external definitions.

We need more of that.

I also want to look at Garnet's relationship with Steven, which tends to contradict the usual stereotypes about black women and their children. While Steven is not biologically her child, it's inarguable that Garnet cares for him and sees him as her own. It is then noteworthy that Garnet as mother is very different from the trite ways that the media commonly portrays black mothers. 

She's not overtly affectionate, but Garnet is very happy to be silly with Steven. She cares about him so much, but she also makes sure to let him off his leash to play and have fun and be a little boy. She worries too, but she trusts Steven to make the right decisions.

In other words, Garnet as mother is just as complex as Garnet as person, a fact that I find really wonderful when I look out at the landscape of overly simplified characterizations and racist shorthand that makes up so much of television.

Again, though, I have to come back to how Garnet is an alien who physically presents as African-American, because I think that's really the key takeaway today. Garnet's physical coding as a black woman creates the idea of intergalactic diversity. The concept that aliens, like humans, have a wide variety of forms and all of them are beautiful. Logically speaking, no, there's no reason why Garnet should look like a black woman. But neither is there any reason for her to look like a white woman or an Asian woman or so on. By making Garnet physically appear African-American, the show opens up the idea of what the "default" can be.

By that I mean that Garnet's appearance and intentional casting is a way for the show to signify that black people matter. Making this badass, deadpan snarker of a alien look like a black woman is a way to expand the conversation on what and who black women can be. Garnet's physical presence is entirely irrelevant in the story, but it's massively important to us in the audience. That's all I'm getting at.

Garnet is beautiful and funny and strong and an expression of pure love, the kind of person we all kind of want to grow up to be. I don't think it's an accident that the minds behind Steven Universe chose to make her look the way she does, and I'm incredibly grateful that they did.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Introducing the 2015 Undies Short Lists - Calling All Voters!

Chickadees. The time has come, the time of year that you were all totally (possibly) waiting for. It's time to announce the short list for the 2015 Undies Awards! 

Like you might expect, it wasn't easy making a list of the twenty-five best underappreciated movies of the year, but with your help and with a slightly alarming amount of time spent watching movie trailers, the list is ready. It's a pretty cool one, too, with films that run the gambit of racial diversity and sexual expression. And as we know from last year, anything goes in this competition. You guys are the voters, which means that whatever you come up with is what we're going with.

So if you want to be a voter in the 2015 Undies (#helppicktheundies), here's what you need to do!

1. Pick a category. It's unreasonable to expect all of you to watch all twenty-five films, and frankly I don't need your deaths on my hands. One to two categories is all that can be reasonably expected of a person.

2. Email me (kissmywonderwoman@gmail.com) and tell me which category you picked. This helps me make sure we have enough voters in each category, help out if you have trouble finding the movies, and keep track of who's votes are in.

3. Watch the movies and vote!

That's it. Simple, right?

So with no further ado, here are your lists - complete with links to the relevant trailers. These movies are ones that critics or awards shows or audiences just didn't show enough love to this year, and it's our job now to figure out who deserves to be crowned the Best Underappreciated Film of 2015. Let the Undies begin!

Big Budget:


Micro Budget:

Foreign Language:

The Good Dinosaur (technically not out on DVD until 2/23)

Oh, and just for the record, I've double checked and every single one of the movies on this list should be available in the United States (sorry people from other places) - between RedBox, Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, and local rental stores, you should be able to find it. Let me know if you can't and happy viewing!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

RECAP: Strange Empire 1x09 - Someone Hand Over the Dynamite

If, thematically speaking, Strange Empire has been building all along towards the creation of a society where the people with no power and no standing in "civilization" are the ones calling the shots, then this episode was a huge step in that direction. This week it was all about power struggles, specifically the struggles of men as they fought over resources. The women, by and large, this week were trying to support their men or else go behind them and make a better way. In the end, what mattered here were the people who were willing to go against conventional power structures and make a new path - which is an important step if you're going to make your own society out in the middle of nowhere. 

Just saying.

I've noticed that this show really does go in cycles, so while last week was kind of a down episode, setting up lots of plot points, this week was all tension and action - the main plot was about the continued fight over Slotter's mine. John Slotter continues to really not want to pay people what he ought and to not want to buy them good wooden beams either, hence why Caze and the miners went on strike. But Slotter also doesn't like dealing with Ling and his Chinese laborers either. Oh and the white miners and the Chinese laborers really really hate each other right now.

In the middle we have Kat, desperately trying to keep the peace, and Rebecca, whose devotion to medicine knows no racial bounds. Isabelle was obviously on her husband's side, though she did wander over to Ling a few times, while Mrs. Briggs* was firmly with Caze and the white miners. Which is unsurprising as Mrs. Briggs has been known to get a little bit racist at times. And by a little bit I mean super duper racist.

This episode, like always, was split into a bunch of different stories, with the main arc involving most of the characters but a few tangential pieces there too, like holding patterns for storylines that will come up later. So, big story first then we'll look at the little bits:

Obviously this week we're all about the mine. Last episode ended with a fight breaking out as the Chinese laborers broke the white miners' strike and crossed the line to start work in the mine. This episode picks up a few days after that, with wounds healing but tensions still super high. The basic gist is this: the Chinese laborers are making good progress on the mine, which is good because John and Isabelle need that thing cranking out profit yesterday. John's father, Cornelius, is coming soon to check on his investment and collect on the loan he signed over to Isabelle. She's anxious that they don't have the money to pay for it, which would be disastrous for her and John.

John starts the episode in high heaven because he has workers in his mine, his wife is (probably?) pregnant, and things are finally going his way. This good mood slowly dissipates over the course of the episode.

Kat is furious that no one is listening to her try to make peace, while Caze and Ling both plot against each other. The tension hits a breaking point when Caze, another miner, and Neill (Kat's son) ambush a Chinese worker coming through with the dynamite needed to get at the seam of coal. They steal the dynamite, but in the altercation Neill gets jumpy and shoots the Chinese laborer. Obviously this is not good.

Ling and his men bring the man to Rebecca, obviously, and she does her utmost to heal him, ignoring the literal shouts and accusations yelled at her as she lets them in. Basically, by agreeing to heal this man, Rebecca is being a "race traitor" and seemingly siding with the Chinese laborers instead of the white miners. 

Rebecca doesn't care because, as you might have guessed by now, social norms aren't her favorite thing in the world. She even says as much to Ling when he asks what she'll do now that her husband is dead, how she will find a proper life: "Proper life seems not to suit me." Right on. Oh, and we learn in this sequence that Rebecca is fluent in both French and Chinese (Cantonese, I think). Because Rebecca is amazing.

Anyway, just across Janestown, it seems that Caze and his men have a co-conspirator. Mrs. Briggs is actually the mastermind behind a lot of this, and she's happy to hear that the dynamite was stolen and hid. She's less happy to hear that Neill is devastated to have shot someone and is terrified that he might have committed murder. She basically tells him to swallow his feelings and buck up, which is not the nicest thing to do in this situation.

Tensions ratchet even higher when Ling, after conferring with his mother, decides to press John Slotter harder now that he has the advantage. He orders his men to stop work on the mine, hoping to get more ownership from John. John has already, if you recall, agreed to give Ling twenty-five percent ownership. It looks like Ling is after as much as he can get - he even says as much, explaining that he wants everything John Slotter has. 

Which brings us to Isabelle. John's not above using his wife to get results, so he sends her over to negotiate Ling back down, knowing that Ling has a thing for her. What he doesn't know is that Isabelle has a thing right back. So he sends Isabelle over to negotiate, figuring that this solves all their problems. Isabelle and Ling get to have a sexy rendezvous with the veneer of politeness and everyone is happy. Mostly.

What this interlude really shows us is that, archaic desires to "own" Isabelle aside, Ling does get her in a way that John Slotter really never has. He understands her as a person, not a trophy. He even tells her that, "It is in your nature to belong to yourself." He then goes on to offer to make her an empress, a woman to be worshipped and adored. "The world you were meant to rule is not yet built." 

That's just a super interesting line, especially when said by a Chinese immigrant to a mixed race former-prostitute. They both understand power and ambition, and they both understand what it means to have doors shut in your face. I can see why they want each other.

Back in camp, Morgan has overcome their** awkwardness towards Rebecca to come warn her that the people in Janestown are about ready to turn on her. Rebecca really isn't interested in caving to the racist beliefs of the people around her, but she is willing to think about safety. Together she and Morgan bring the man to the Chinese camp, taking him into Ling's house to care for him there.

Rebecca and Ling have yet another of their really profound and interesting conversations while they care for the man, with Rebecca explaining that she would very much like to visit China someday. Like he's trying to prove that he gets all the good lines this episode, Ling bounces back with one hell of a line that might as well be the show's motto: "The lives of women are the same the world over. Stay here, doctor. The world will come to you."

Ugh. Writers, you are absolutely killing it this episode. So good.

Anyway, while all of this is going on (and while Kat and Isabelle raise eyebrows at each other on the edge of the Chinese camp), Caze and his miner friend are getting down to business. Bad business. They set dynamite charges around Ling's house with the intent of killing him and ending this feud by force. I guess they don't care that Rebecca is still inside? You would think they have enough self-preservation to not want to kill their doctor, but whatever. They're being idiots.

The dynamite goes off and everyone runs to Ling's house. Rebecca and Ling carry the injured man out and they're clearly fine, but a second explosion sends Ling racing back into the house while Morgan holds Rebecca back. He comes out slowly, holding his mother's body. She couldn't get up and run, because of her feet, and so she had nowhere to go. She's dead.

Kat, Rebecca, and Morgan, as well as all the Chinese workers watch as Ling cradles his mother. Then Isabelle comes back over and goes to his side. They mourn his mother together as Caze watches from the bushes, horrified that he killed an innocent woman he never even knew existed. It's a touching, tragic human moment, and then John Slotter sees his wife holding another man while he cries and we know bad things are coming.

John's really not a man burdened with an over-abundance of sanity to begin with, so he doesn't take this realization very well. He assaults Isabelle while she's bathing, telling her that she's dirty now because Ling touched her hand. It's full on domestic abuse, not that there's anyone Isabelle can really tell about it. Well, she could tell Kat, who would love to have a reason to hurt John Slotter, but Isabelle isn't the type to do that. She'll wait and bide her time.

Franklyn Caze isn't the best of men - despite being better than most of the men in Janestown because there is a really low bar here - but he has enough conscience left to feel bad over killing a woman he didn't even know existed. He goes to Mrs. Briggs for comfort, and gets it. Also he gets sex, because their longstanding flirtation chooses the world's most inappropriate moment to burst into sexytimes. Mrs. Briggs is unsure at first because she believes sex outside of marriage is a sin, but Caze convinces her without making it feel coercive, and they presumably do the do. Again, not sure I'd be in a sex mood after all of this, but sure. Whatever.

Over in Kat's tent, her daughters are as mysteriously absent as they've been all episode, but Neill is there, finally back in his mother's tent. He's been crying too, and Kat immediately wants to know what's wrong. Neill finally confesses the truth: he's the one who shot the Chinese laborer. Kat knows that, really, this isn't her son's fault. He's just a kid getting swept up in problems he doesn't understand. So she decides to end this once and for all. She makes Neill tell her where the damn dynamite is.

Kat's solution to their problems? She stands out in a field and shoots some of the dynamite to get John Slotter's attention, then drags both Caze and Ling out to the house to discuss terms. While the men bicker outside, the women confer inside. Mrs. Briggs, Isabelle, and Kat all discuss the real terms of this ceasefire. Mrs. Briggs will talk Caze down in his demands, Kat will bring Ling around, and Isabelle will keep John in line. Got it? Good.

Unfortunately, while Caze is brought around, Ling is still mourning his mother and unwilling to compromise. So, halfway there. The white miners go back to work in the mine, John Slotter agrees to better timbers, and Kat gives back the dynamite. The Chinese laborers go back to working on the railroad. 

The next day sees Janestown roughly returned to rights. The miners are going back in and peace is finally here. Mrs. Briggs is hella awkward towards Caze, and basically tells him it was a mistake and she's not doing that again, but I feel like we could have anticipated this. He goes into the mine, slightly dejected, and then all hell breaks loose.

By that I mean that there's an earthquake, or seems to be, and everyone feels it. They all race over to the mine where, sure enough, the thing has finally collapsed, trapping miners inside, including Caze. John Slotter stares out at the mine as it slowly dawns on him that he's not going to be able to come back from this. There's no salvaging this situation. And we pan away to the woods where we see Ling staring at the mine with really big eyes, saying that this was for his mother. Well that's not good.

Okay. So clearly this was the bulk of the episode. There was really only one storyline that got left out, since for once nearly everyone was involved in the main plot. The one outlier? Mary Colacutt. 

You may remember her as the girl whose child was bought by the Slotters and is being passed off as their own. They sent her off to town last episode so she could get a job and not hang around being suspicious all the time, but Mary pops back up this episode. She's walked all the way back because she claims she could hear her baby crying.

Ruby Slotter, the Slotter's housekeeper/cook/confidante/ambiguous family member, likes Mary but is totally aware that Isabelle doesn't want her around. Sure enough, as soon as Isabelle sees Mary she tells John to get rid of her. Since John is an inherently violent person, he interprets this as "have her killed right away." So he does. He threatens Chase Sloat, one of his henchmen, to kill her. It's a hard scene to watch, as Chase is (presumably) mentally ill and John just walks all over his needs and wishes, telling him to kill the girl or find somewhere else to live. Even when Ruby begs him not to, Chase is still determined to follow orders.

As you might guess, though, the story goes all Snow White from there. Chase likes Mary, so when he brings her out to the woods to kill her, he can't do it. Instead, he sets her free and brings her bloodstained dress back to John Slotter as proof. The blood on her dress was actually from a rabbit, but how will John ever know? Oh, and Mary and Chase are super cute in a creepy way, neither of them the picture of mental health and stability but somehow they work together really well. They have sex in the woods and I have a sneaking suspicion this relationship might not be over and done with.

That was this week's episode. No Robin and Kelly, no Miss Logan or Fiona Briggs, and no real development in the Rebecca/Morgan storyline to speak of. This week was all exposition all the time, an episode to get us closer to the inevitable ending of the series where, John Slotter's iron grip on Janestown finally lifted, the women and people of color and disenfranchised people of the earth are free to set up their own society.

Just a few points before we go. First, out of all the characters in the show, I think it's a little frustrating that so far Ruby Slotter is the only one we've never seen get her own story. We know very little about her, aside from her apparent ability to make friends with just about everyone, and she only ever appears as the background to someone else's plot. 

I do think it's interesting from a cultural standpoint that Ruby always wears a headcovering in the Slotter's house but has her natural hair uncovered when outside, but I'm not sure if this is significant in any way. Similarly, I'm not sure how intentional it is to have a black woman working for and with a light-skinned mixed race woman of a higher social class, but it does make for an interesting storyline. 

Second, Rebecca is quickly becoming one of the coolest characters on the show. I mean she already was, but now she's rivaling Kat in her levels of awesome. She speaks a ton of languages, fears nothing, doesn't care about gender or race or sexual orientation, and is generally a time traveler trapped in the past but determined to change it for the better. Rock on.

Third, it's a show of good writing that Strange Empire is exploring the different levels of disenfranchisement that occur in a society like Janestown. It's actually looking at intersectionality and issues of patriarchy. For instance, the white miners are more disenfranchised than John Slotter and in some ways have fewer rights than the women but in other ways have more. The Chinese laborers are hated for their race, but Ling has more political power than pretty much anyone else on the show. Kat is allowed to intercede between people because as a half-Indian woman she is considered beholden to no side but her own. It's just super interesting.

That's all for this week. I hope you're all enjoying this show as much as I am. I think it's the kind of prestige show that we really need more of: too complicated to fit the normal bounds of genre and style, and too interesting to want to put down. More please.

*Apparently Mrs. Briggs' first name is Sybil? I think I heard Caze call her that at one point, but I'm not sure. I understand that she must have a first name, and I totally get that it would be weird for Caze, her pseudo-boyfriend, to call her by her husband's name, but I kind of forgot to wonder what her first name might be. Sybil. Huh.

**We're using gender neutral pronouns for Morgan now because I frankly have no idea how Morgan's gender identity shakes down in a modern context. I rather doubt Morgan does either. So, in lieu of further clarity on the situation, we're going with neutral.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'True Story of the Three Little Pigs'

I don't know what it is about The Story of the Three Little Pigs, but for whatever reason, this fairy tale more than any other has been subject to retelling over and over again. We're never really satisfied with the story as it is in its original form, and so we go out of our ways to make it into something new every time. That's kind of weird, right? We don't do that as much with any other fairy tales I can think of. Sure there are revisionist versions of just about everything, but the main focus with The Three Little Pigs seems always to be in changing the actual meat of the story. The pigs aren't the good guys or the wolf is a pacifist or everyone is just being mean all around.

No other story in our language of fairy tales and fables gets messed with quite like The Three Little Pigs. And I'm not sure what that really says about us. On the one hand, it might say some really good things. The story is, after all, a pretty simple tale of how if you don't properly prepare for the future you're screwed - but somehow we've shifted it into being a view on the human condition, with each new version espousing a new idea of humanity and morality. Which is weird, right? That's weird.

Obviously today I'm talking most about The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. The story, which first came out in 1989 and became a pretty instant children's classic, is a retelling of the original story only from the wolf's point of view. It's not the nice sanitized version, either, where the pigs run away from their houses before the wolf can blow them down. This is a story where the wolf comes and does indeed blow the houses down and then eat the pigs - it's just that in this version we're led to question why the wolf did it.

According to our hero, Alexander T. Wolf (or A. Wolf), the only reason he was out and about that day was to borrow a cup of sugar to make a birthday cake for his dear old granny. He happened to have a cold too and was feeling kind of sneezy. When he came to the first pig's house he wasn't there to eat him, he just wanted that cup of sugar. But the pig, who was very rude, refused. Then the wolf just happened to sneeze and his sneeze was so powerful that it blew the house down. With the house gone and the pig lying there dead in the rubble, the wolf figured it would be a shame to leave him there and decided to eat him. And so on for another house until he winds up at the house made of brick where his sneezes do nothing and he's arrested.

What's interesting here is that the wolf doesn't really deny the specifics of the story. He did go up to the pigs' houses and he did huff and puff and blow them down before eating the pigs, but he maintains that this was not his intention. He didn't mean to kill the pigs, so he can't be blamed if he kind of sort of did, right?

That's what I mean about these stories becoming inadvertent explorations of us as a culture. In the original version the crime the pigs commit that allows them to die is that they didn't plan ahead and make their houses out of something stronger. They took the easy and convenient path and paid the price. The wolf really isn't a character in that version, he's a consequence. The virtuous third pig is the one who took the time to make sure he was doing everything right - he's the character we actually get to know.

In this version, however, the crime the pigs commit is really rudeness. If they'd given the wolf sugar when he asked for it, the wolf contends, he wouldn't have still been there and sneezed in such a way as to blow their houses down and kill them. So here we see that being rude is the ultimate sin.

Now, granted, the wolf is a really unreliable narrator - we have no idea if he's telling the truth about his intentions or not - but that still makes this a fascinating story. Here the focus is off of the pigs and onto the wolf. We're looking at the personhood and motives of a character who previously had no development to speak of. It's a classic case of a modern retelling flipping the script and giving us a more complex view of the villain. 

Like what Grendel does for Beowulf, only much sillier.

The thing is, as much as all of this is very very silly, I think there's a fair amount of value in it. Yeah, the wolf is a very unreliable narrator and probably lying, but there's something important in showing kids that a story has more than one side. The idea that the wolf might not just be the bad guy likely hasn't occurred to them, and teaching children that there is complexity in every case is very valuable. Perhaps where this is better examined, though, is in the children's play Blame It On the Wolf by Douglas Love.

I remember this play in particular because my sister's girl scout troop (of which my mother was the leader) performed it when I was little. I sat there in the public library event room and this play freaking blew my mind. Why? Because it's play in which hordes of fairy tale character get together and put the wolf on trial. Ostensibly he's on trial for eating Little Red Riding Hood's granny, but they bring up basically every bad thing a wolf has been blamed for doing in a fairy tale. The wolf's defense? Bad press. When bad things happen it's more convenient for people to have a scapegoat, so they pick him. They blame it on the wolf.

For five year old Deborah this was earth-shattering. It had never occurred to me before that people might not be automatically telling the truth about things like this. I mean, I definitely had lied before and was pretty adept in trying to shift blame around, but somehow I thought this was a new idea that I'd come up with. It was really surprising for me to see this from a different perspective, one where the person being blamed was actually there to defend themself.

It's a valuable life lesson: the people who get the blame are often not the people who deserve it, and blame, like most things, can be swayed by money and power. I'm not saying that your kids should immediately become politically disaffected and jaded, but I do think it's worth introducing them to these concepts before they're adults.

Why? Because kids aren't idiots and they're apt to figure this out on their own eventually. Introducing them the concept early on gives them a framework through which to understand the petty injustices and big freaking miscarriages of life. Moreover, stories like this teach a child compassion. It's easier to be compassionate to someone everyone else is turning on when you have a concept already of how that story can go. Stories like Blame It On the Wolf and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and even The Story of the Kind Wolf help kids to recognize when they are allowing stereotypes to cloud their judgment.

More and more our society is one in which the blame is something determined by who has the most money and the best story - that's not okay with me. If we want a generation that values justice, then we have to allow children to understand that the official story is not always the correct one and that there's always worth in listening to someone else's side. Sure these books are silly, but they're also helpful.

I, for one, could do with a world where the wolf gets to give his side more often.

Especially one this funny.