Monday, July 18, 2016

HIATUS: Ghostbusters, Iceland, New Job, and More!

Okay chickadees, it's official. After months of job-hunting and looking for the absolute perfect fit, after getting rejected from all of the universities I applied to and having to deal with the ensuing mild depressive state, and after a whole hell of a lot of "what on earth do I actually want to be doing with my life/time?" searching in the past six months, I would like to announce that I, your fearless leader, have a job. And I'm really excited about it.

It's not, as I thought it would be, a writing job, but instead a more practical office management-y job working for a non-profit here in Boston. I'm really glad to have it and I can't wait to get to work and feel like I'm helping save the world just a little. But. There are some downsides to suddenly having full-time employment again.

You might have noticed that the blog hasn't been updating as much as usual for the past few months. That's nothing against any of you, but rather a reflection of my life. It's been busy around here. Insanely busy. Between my job search and all my freelance gigs, as well as caring for my family and a few fun little crises that came up, I just haven't had the time to consume much media, let alone write about it. I haven't been posting because, by and large, I haven't had anything to say.

All of this (and the fact that I leave this afternoon for a long-in-the-works trip to Iceland) means that I'm putting Kiss My Wonder Woman on hiatus until September. I want to give myself time to enjoy this vacation then time to really settle in at work. I'll be moving around then too, so I want to be able to focus on the real-life problems in front of me without worrying that I'm not updating enough.

I will, however, be back.

I wondered about this for a long time, actually, if maybe it was time to hang up my hat and give KMWW a break. If not getting into grad school wasn't a sign that I ought to do something else with my time. But having really considered it and thought it through, I've realized that, no, I like it here. I want to stay.

This is thanks in no small part to all of you - your comments (the nice ones), your funny emails, your genuine interest in the topics we discuss. You've made this site a place I want to come back to, so thank you. 

It's also, though, because I saw Ghostbusters this weekend and I realized that as much as I sometimes get tired or feel like I've said everything that I could possibly say about media and pop culture, there's a reason we do this. It's to make movies like Ghostbusters.

I'm not going to do a full review here (maybe I will when I come back in the fall), but suffice to say that Ghostbusters was great and it reminded me why what we do here on KMWW is important. A movie like this couldn't have happened ten years ago, maybe not even five years ago, but now it can and that's awesome. Like the franchise or not, this is a movie about four brilliant women working together to save the world, not a romantic subplot or sexualizing comment in sight. Three of them are in their 40s. Two are plus-sized. One is African-American. One is (probably) gay. Together they save the city because the city needs to be saved.

And all along the way they get to be funny and gross and stupid and ugly and insecure and angry and violent and obnoxious. They don't have to be hot for the movie to work, in fact their hotness is in no way relevant to the plot. Their story is about women fighting to be taken seriously in a world that wants to discredit them, and I genuinely got swept up in it.

(So if you're wondering if you want to see Ghostbusters, please do.)

Watching Ghostbusters reminded me that the entire reason we talk about movies on here, the reason we talk about any pop culture, is to make stories like this possible. By drawing attention to the gaps in our cultural consciousness, we make room for stories like this to be made and to succeed. I'm not saying that KMWW was responsible for Ghostbusters, because I am not filled with delusions of grandeur, but I am saying that what we do is important and worth doing.

Anyway. All of this is to say that for a variety of reasons, KMWW and I are going on hiatus. But we'll be back. I've already started collecting things to talk about again, from Jillian Tamaki's Super Mutant Magic Academy to this awesome French spy show called Au Service de la France to Ghostbusters and Star Trek and Suicide Squad. I'm going to miss all of you, and I appreciate you sticking with me through the crazy.

See you on the other side.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Masculinity Monday: Worf, A Man (Klingon) of Honor

Today's Masculinity Monday comes to us from guest writer Trey Stewart. Trey's previous posts for us include SFC Fridays on Nimah and Raina Amin and Alex Parrish from Quantico, as well as a recent post on the importance of The Flash's Joe West.

In my first ever post for Masculinity Monday I talked about (non)toxic masculinity as reflected in the three main male characters from Star Trek: The Original Series. Today, I am shifting gears to the Next Generation era to discuss Klingon masculinity as it is embodied in Worf (Michael Dorn). Since his debut in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Worf has been a space-time explorer, diplomat, and influential figure in Klingon politics. Worf has been described as the ultimate Klingon. 

But he's also been a fascinating character to consider as an example of how to live in a hyper-masculine society. And on top of all of this, he appears to our eyes to be an African-American man, despite the science fiction conceit that Klingons don't adhere to human concepts of race. So here we have a large, physically imposing black man from an alien warrior race acting out and thinking through the ramifications of modern masculinity. I think you can see where we're going with this.

Before I share what makes Worf an interesting portrayal of masculinity, though, I should probably give you a bit of background on the Klingons in case you aren’t as obsessed with Star Trek as I am. Basically, it's interesting to look at Worf, the ultimate Klingon, as an expression of masculinity because Klingon society is in essence a big bubbling stew of traditional masculine stereotypes. Klingons are known as the prototypical proud warrior race. They are barbaric and have an aversion to both bathing and doctors. Klingon gender norms dictate that everyone grows up to be a warrior. Nonetheless, Klingon society is highly patriarchal.

The Star Trek franchise covers an in-universe period of 228 years of contact with Klingons. During this period of fake history in a made up story, the Klingon Empire was somewhat in decline. A few decades before humans made first contact with the Klingons, the warrior caste gained control of Klingon society. This fact shapes both Star Trek humanity’s interaction with Klingons and Worf’s upbringing as a Klingon. So.

Prior to Worf’s introduction, Star Trek had not done much to explore Klingon culture. Klingons were basically communists in space. They served in the original series, which aired in the commie-phobic 1960s, as a sort of catch-all villain. They were meant to be threatening and menacing and uncomplicatedly bad, a convenient fall guy who was always stirring the pot. But when Star Trek: The Next Generation came around in the 1990s, the Cold War was over and people were willing to consider a more compassionate and comprehensive view of Klingon culture. Hence how Worf became a part of the crew and the show took on a long storyline about the integration of the Klingon Empire into the Federation. 

I know. That's a lot of nerd.

So Worf was born on the Klingon homeworld. At age five, he moved to the Khitomer colony. Khitomer had been the site of the signing of the treaty that made the Federation and the Klingons allies. Shortly after Worf moved to Khitomer the colony is attacked by aliens. Subsequently, humans raised him. This means that our hero is a child of cross-culturalism, and it also means that for all that Worf fits the masculinity prescribed by Klingon culture, he wasn't entirely raised in it. And that's important.

When we meet Worf aboard the Enterprise at the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation, then, he has spent most of his life among humans. His parents had tried to honor his Klingon culture, but Worf gives the impression of having something to prove. At this point he is a junior bridge officer. He spends most episodes just suggesting that the Captain should be more aggressive in dealing with his problems. 

But Worf is not just a warrior. Even in his early experiences aboard the Enterprise we see that Klingons, and therefore Worf, have a code of ethics centering on honor. Early in his time on the Enterprise, the best way to describe Worf is insecure. He doesn’t seem quite confident that he is a real Klingon and this affects his sense of his own masculinity.

Worf’s first step toward becoming his own man occurs when the Enterprise makes contact with a Klingon sleeper ship (the crew had been in suspended animation for decades) that was launched when the Federation and the Klingons were still at war. At first violence seems like the only way to keep the Klingons from attacking the Enterprise and nearby Federation outposts. Surprisingly then, Worf is the one to diffuse this simmering threat in a way that is both completely non-violent and also pretty tricky. 

He comes up with a plan in which he and the half-Klingon emissary that had been sent to help resolve the situation pose as the captain and first officer of the Enterprise. In this temporary position of command, Worf is able to talk the Klingons out of attacking. The emissary then supervises the Klingons' assimilation to their new time period. By showing these Klingons that a fellow Klingon now captains a ship for the Federation, he is able to grant them representation and a feeling of acceptance, making them able to put down their weapons and end the war.

Worf’s influential role in Klingon politics begins to evolve here, and it continues when a rival Klingon, Duras, accuses Worf’s father of assisting the aliens that attacked Khitomer. In the process of fighting these allegations, Worf exposes a cover up of the true traitor’s identity. In other words, Worf discovers that his fellow Klingons were not as honorable as they seemed. It's a hard blow for a man who has built his entire life on believing the best about his race. Suddenly Worf is forced to accept that while there is a lot of good in Klingon culture, it's not all good either. And if he wants to be an honorable man, that's great, but he's going to have to decide what honor means for himself.

While violent, Worf’s involvement in Klingon politics is motivated by a sense of honor as an abstract moral principle. To a degree, Worf’s actions can be seen as steering Klingon society back to the way it was before humans made contact with the Klingons. By doing this, he attempts to right the toxic elements that have crept into their culture without allowing the society to go back to its old isolationist ways. Worf’s life provides some insight into confronting toxic masculinity both within a society and from the outside.

During much of Worf’s life, Klingons were more focused on maintaining a reputation of strength than the ethical demands of honor. As a result, the Klingons suffered through a civil war, engaged in a needless conflict with a neighboring power, and abandoned longstanding alliances. Klingon masculinity during this period was both unhealthy and similar to the “traditional” view of masculinity in contemporary US society. 

While he doesn't talk much in terms of masculinity exactly, Worf’s status as an insider in Klingon culture makes him well positioned to confront its toxic elements. As a man also raised outside the society though, he's better able to identify what those toxic elements actually are.

In a word, Klingon masculinity is fatalistic. If I were Worf’s commanding officer, I could see myself having some direct but respectful conversations with him about matters such as women’s roles, the value of medical care for a warrior, and the drawbacks of ritual suicide. Worf has contemplated suicide on at least one occasion. It's clear that Worf has some ideas and cultural beliefs that don't jibe with our ideas of what makes for a healthy society.

But it's not all bad either. That's what's so interesting about Worf. Because he is able to pick and choose through Klingon culture to find what is worth preserving, we get to see that there really is value there. Sort of like how we, in picking and choosing what to keep of American traditional masculinity, find lots of things not worth losing just because there are other things we need to cut out.

It's also important to think of Worf as a character with his race worked in. Like I said above, the color of Worf's skin doesn't matter in the story of the show as Klingon's don't ascribe to human racial differences, but it does matter in the context of the show being on television. Just like Worf's representation as a "captain" in the Federation helped those stranded Klingons assimilate, seeing him on the television screen every week helped African-American kids see themselves reflected in the culture.

Worf's struggles to understand and appreciate Klingon culture, as well as his struggles to fit in on the starship, find romantic love, and navigate his own past and family history, all make for a compelling story about redemptive masculinity. But they're also all stories that feel familiar to African-American audiences watching this strange, gruff, alien man working through his problems. Worf matters because he represents so much, and he's worth celebrating because he doesn't just sit in this stew of complexity. He gets up and makes his own understanding of honor. He learns how to be a good man and a good Klingon and how to be both at once.

Thanks to the reboot, we don’t know much about Worf’s future, but in the old timeline we know that he has a good life. Following his time as an ambassador, Worf serves on the Enterprise-E, the successor ship to the one shown in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Beyond that, depending on the timeline, Worf is either a general, colonial governor, or member of the Klingon High Council. Whatever he is doing, he is serving with honor. 

Trey Stewart has his PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alabama. He recently started his own education research consulting/tutoring business.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Fourth of July with the Captains America, Patriot, and Miss America

Well chickadees, we've made it to the middle of the year. Good job to all of us. It was hard and sometimes the downright shitty state of the world made it even harder, but we made it here. In the United States today is our "Independence Day", and whether you think there's any basis in this particular date or the specifics of how we celebrate* or not, today is a pretty good day to think about the bigger issues in life.

Last year I took a moment on this blog to write about patriotism and what it means for me to call myself a patriot. Now, to the outside world I think I don't really come off that way. I'm deeply critical of my country, I refuse to say the pledge of allegiance, and I spent most of high school and college marching on Washington. By conventional wisdom I'm not much of a patriot, and by conventional understanding I probably shouldn't be super into the Fourth of July and Independence Day.

But here's the thing: for me patriotism is about believing that your country can be better than it is. It's about the kind of love that demands more, that demands the object of that love be more and strive for excellence. I love my country, and that's why I protest and I criticize and I write thinkpieces and I sign petitions. I want my country to be what it promises, to really be the "land of the free and the home of the brave" and I refuse to be satisfied with where we are now. 

We can be better, and we have to be.

I thought long and hard about what, if anything, I should post for you today, and eventually it came to me that the best way I can think of to celebrate not just America but the America that ought to be is by looking at the heroes we've chosen to represent us. The characters who fit into our collective imaginations and wear our stars and stripes. Our Captains America if you will.**

Obviously we have Steve Rogers, the original Captain America, to start us off. Steve might be currently getting dragged through the mud in the comics (yuck), but let's remember that his story is one of the son of poor Irish immigrants overcoming his physical disabilities and the systemic classism and anti-Irish racism of the time to be a hero and fight for his country. Even though his country wouldn't fight for him.

But we also have Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson wielding the shield too. Bucky who underwent years of brainwashing and torture to come out the other side as a man still capable of standing up to be a hero. He represents our resilience as a nation and our ability to heal. Sam Wilson, on the other hand, represents the best of us, plain and simple. A civil rights activist and para-rescue soldier, Sam embodies everything that does make America great right here and now. Our strength, our compassion, our willingness to listen and fight for what's right.

It doesn't stop there either. Peggy Carter has now picked up the shield and the legacy to become an alternate-universe Captain America in the upcoming videogame from Marvel. The story has her undergoing Project Rebirth when Steve is assassinated before he can undergo the treatment. Peggy then becomes a symbol of what it means to be a woman in this country, an immigrant who has chosen her nation and committed to it, a woman who refuses to let anyone stand in the way of her desire to fight the good fight.

We also have Isaiah Bradley, the first black Captain America, the man on whom Project Rebirth was tested before it even got to Steve Rogers. Isaiah might have been forgotten by history, but he still fights, he still does the right thing, and he teaches his children and his grandchildren to do the same. He even inspires his grandson, Elijah Bradley, to take up the family tradition and fight as Patriot. 

And last but not least there's Miss America Chavez, the Afro-Hispanic teenager who in a lot of ways best expresses what it means to be a patriot today. America doesn't always like her country, but she loves it. She fights for it even while she fights it. She might be young and kind of brash sometimes, but she's go
t a good heart. She's and Eli are the next generation of the stars-and-stripes superhero collective, and while they're angry about the injustice of their country, they also know that it's always worth it to try to make your country better.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.

*Mostly by drinking, overeating, and blowing things up. It's how we celebrate literally every holiday. We celebrate the start of Lent this way.

**After much deliberation and discussion, the verdict is that the plural of "Captain America" is "Captains America" like "Attorneys General" or "Surgeons General". Thanks, The West Wing!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Jen Barkley (Parks and Recreation)

Truth be told, I'm ambivalent about having kids. While I actually really enjoy children in small doses, and I did spend a couple of years interacting with them in very large doses, I don't know if that translates into wanting to be a mother. Most of the time I'm more worried about getting my own shit dealt with - I don't know if I want to spend five years worrying about literal shit.

On the other hand, I'm not entirely against the idea. I know I'd be a good mother, I know I'd probably even enjoy it most of the time.* But does that mean that I need to plan my life as if I'm going to have kids on the off chance that I either wake up one day with some serious baby-fever or I wake up pregnant? I'd rather not. I don't want the CGI baby from Ally McBeal to haunt me for the next ten years. That thing is horrifying.

In times like this and with questions like this, my general go-to is fiction. Isn't that true for everyone? I look around and see if there are any stories that will help me figure it out, help me figure out how I feel and what I want and if it's okay for me to feel and want those things. Unfortunately, when it comes to this issue, the examples I can find are alarmingly one-sided.

I'm definitely not the first person to point this out, but as far as I can tell, American media must have a vested interest in a population boom. How else can you explain the fact that there are almost no (zero, zip, zilch, none) female characters on mainstream television shows who just plain don't want kids.

There are characters who tragically can't have kids, characters who never thought about it mysteriously end up with kids, and characters who don't want kids but then get pregnant and change their minds immediately, but when you try to sit down and think of female characters who straight up do not want children, the mind draws a blank. Even more, it's bafflingly difficult to think of characters who don't want children and are never told that they're wrong for thinking that. Characters who even dislike children but aren't the villain.

Like I said, alarmingly few of those.

No, instead we get tropes like the busy career woman who doesn't like children and can't play with a kid when presented with one but who by the end of the season or the movie or whatever is all over kids and loves them and is happily engaged in good, moral motherhood. We get women who seem to have made their minds up about this kid thing only to be told, effectively, that no, they were wrong, and the story is going to make sure they regret their terrible kid-hating ways.

Hell, accidental pregnancy is an entire genre now, with whole stories devoted to forcing women to have unplanned children that they must by narrative constraint adore and fall in love with the fathers of. Aside from Obvious Child, which was great and you should totally watch, movies and television almost refuse to tell the stories of women who don't want to have children and then just don't have children. Literally all of the female friends on Friends either did get pregnant or wanted to and adopted instead. I'm just saying.

So. This is a long intro. And I'm not trying to imply that there's anything wrong with actually wanting to be a mother. I have a few friends who always wanted to be moms and now they are and they're super happy about it. Hey, whatever works for you. I'm just saying that while the world needs mothers, it needs aunties and friends and sisters and people who can't stand kids too. There's no shame either way.

Which brings us, finally, to today's strong female character: Jen Barkley from Parks and Recreation, one of the few female characters I can think of in American pop culture who can't stand kids, never wants them to even touch her let alone call her mother, and who is never ever punished for this. 

In fact, contrary to the usual model where a woman who hates kids must learn to love them or else be the villain, Jen Barkley is a confident, sexy, accomplished woman we're supposed to admire and enjoy. And she really hates kids.

I love her.

If you're not familiar with who Jen Barkley is, though, you're forgiven. A minor character who pops up from season four onwards, Jen (Kathryn Hahn) is a political consultant working out Washington DC who is hired by Leslie's opponent in the race for city council. While Leslie and Ben do manage to beat Jen in that election, it's pretty close and leaves them all with a lot of respect for each other. Jen then offers Ben a job working in DC with her on a Congressional campaign and appears off and on throughout the rest of the show.

In season six, she shows up to give Leslie the pep talk of all time about her political future, concluding with the oddly inspiring line, "You can trust me, because I don't care enough about you to lie." And then in season seven, she blows into town to convince Ben to run for Congress himself and run his campaign. That's where most of our material comes from.

See, when Jen shows up in season seven, it's been a few years since she last really saw Ben and Leslie. No big deal normally, but in this time the Knope-Wyatts have actually had triplets, adorable children who are now rambunctious toddlers. Good for Ben and Leslie, who love having children and are super stoked, but less good for Jen Barkley who hates kids and has to maneuver through a house that looks about as disgusting as you can imagine the home of three toddlers looking.

Jen isn't quiet about her disapproval here, though it's worth noting that she never directly shames Ben and Leslie for their choices. 

She makes a lot of comments about being "so happy with my choices", but she doesn't openly tell Leslie she should have tied her tubes or anything rude like that. Instead, she just takes this opportunity to celebrate her singleness and her joy at definitely not having any children.

Parks and Recreation as a whole, actually, is the rare show that manages to avoid insisting that all of its female characters love babies. While Leslie and Ann do both definitely want children (and while the show does become increasingly heteronormative and "pair the spares" as time goes on), April struggles with her feelings about maternity and Donna (who is getting her own article soon, don't you worry) never mentions wanting kids and as far as we can tell never has any. 

So this is a show that respects a woman's right to choose if maternity is right for her or not, and even what flavor of maternity to go with. Leslie goes the sitcom route of just finding out she's pregnant at one point, but Ann actually meticulously plans on her pregnancy and for a long time actually intends to go it alone via artificial insemination. Right on.

Still, even with these other characters taking main stage, there's still room to appreciate the relative uniqueness of a Jen Barkley. I mean, she doesn't just not want kids, she really doesn't want kids. She even occasionally seems confused about what kids are. And yet she's never punished for this. We're not told that Jen is heartless or awful, we're not meant to find her off-putting or harsh, she's just a very competent, intelligent, funny woman who thinks the idea of squeezing a watermelon-sized spawn through her vagina is horrifying. And I kind of can't blame her.

I don't mean to imply that her distaste for motherhood is the only interesting thing about Jen Barkley either. It's also worth celebrating that in her we have an awesome recurring female character who is straight up badass. She's a smooth political operator who charges $1200 an hour just to give advice and who routinely works on national campaigns. She loves what she does, and she doesn't apologize for who she is. She's the kind of confident that makes me want to sit up straight, put on my best death-laser facial expression, and get shit done.

I'm focused on the kids thing because right now, that's what I need a character to be for me. No, me having kids or not isn't a particularly urgent issue, but it's something I think about. A lot of people do. And as much as I enjoy the hell out of Jane the Virgin, sometimes you want a nice sour taste to counteract all that sweet. Sometimes you just want Kathryn Hahn stomping loudly across your television screen reminding you that not everyone likes children and that is perfectly okay.

What I'm saying is that Jen Barkley hates kids, and I love her for it. 

*No one enjoys parenthood all of the time. No one. No. One.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

'The Prince and Me' Is a Horror Movie for Single Women

I remember how in 2004, when The Prince and Me came out, my heart would flitter-flutter at the idea of a charming European prince like Eddie coming into my life, seeing my nerdy, over-achieving glory, and loving me for exactly who I was. Only unlike Paige Morgan and her weird end-of-movie freakout, I wouldn't run off to finish college. Nope. I would marry my prince and enact social reforms in our charming European country and live happily ever after. When this movie came out, I was all over it. I was sold. Now, however, I'm really not so sure.

See, it's been twelve years now since The Prince and Me graced our theaters, and the world and I have changed a fair bit. I'm no longer the secretly romantic high-schooler dreaming of a happily ever after with some prince - not to say that I've given up on romance, just that my idea of what romance is has changed a lot. Forget last minute racing to the airport to catch the love of your life, I want someone who will love me even when I fart during the dramatic part of a movie. Real love, you know?

But while I have matured in the years since I last swooned over Prince Eddie, the film and its three straight-to-DVD sequels have not. Nope. Upon realizing it was on Netflix and gleefully rewatching this old favorite, I have to conclude that teenage me was, well, kind of an idiot.

This isn't a good love story at all.

In fact I might go so far as to call it awful. For all that it has some mildly progressive moments - the girl being the one to make the grand romantic gesture, having the couple break up for amicable career-related reasons, etc - the general message and tone of the movie is at odds with these inchings towards feminism. For the most part this is a movie about a independent woman who don't need no man realizing that actually she really really does need a man and she needs this man and all of her friends and family who discouraged her from seeking a career other than marriage were stupid and dumb.

Worse, it seems to suggest that being in love is basically the same as having great chemistry. That people fall in love when "sparks collide" and not when they, you know, share some basic interests and can have a conversation that doesn't involve arguing or making out. Paige's own mother goes so far as to sit her daughter down and tell her, "Chemistry isn't just a class, kiddo. And you two have it." Because heaven forbid her only daughter do something irrational like not try to date the guy she can only barely stand but definitely wants to bone.

Okay. I've gotten too far in here, and it's time for the few of you who haven't seen this mess of a movie to catch up. So here's the deal.

Eddie (Luke Mabley) and Paige (Julia Stiles) are worlds apart. Eddie is the crown prince of Denmark, a playboy heir to the throne who takes absolutely nothing seriously and is a terror to his parents. Paige, on the other hand, is a serious, dedicated pre-med student who works so hard she's even in the lab right up until she has to go get changed to be the bridesmaid in her friend's wedding. She's a country girl from rural Wisconsin who dreams of working for Doctors Without Borders. They don't have a lot in common.

But all that changes when Eddie watches a few too many Girls Gone Wild videos (yes, really) and decides to enroll at the University of Wisconsin in the hope of meeting lots of nice MidWestern girls who want to take their tops off. Literally this is the plot. So he takes leave of his royal heritage and goes undercover as "Eddie" instead of Prince Edvard, with only his manservant Soren (Ben Miller) for company.

Naturally our two leads have to meet and be overwhelmed by sexual tension. That's how this works, right? So when Paige and Eddie first clash at the college bar, we are supposed to know immediately that they're meant to be. Even though their first scene together has Paige rightfully dousing Eddie in a high-powered spray of soda. The plot rom-coms along from that meet-cute until Paige succumbs and takes Eddie home for Thanksgiving, giving in to her family and friends' pressure and kissing him. Romance!

The romance naturally can't last, though, because that would be a short movie. So it's only days later that Eddie is outed as the Prince of Denmark. He and Paige break up because he lied to her and then he's recalled to Denmark because plot. Paige quickly realizes that she made a mistake - because she has to talk about Shakespeare and that makes her understand that romance is real and love and kisses and etc - so she races off to the airport to get a plane to Denmark. Her friends even come along and help her pay for the ticket. Cute!

Once in Denmark, the tables turn and now it's about Paige trying to fit into Eddie's world. Paige, who is a strong independent woman who don't need no man (and who just got into Johns Hopkins for med school so she really shouldn't be here), now has to learn how to be royalty. She and Eddie are very shortly engaged, she has to try to bond with her frosty mother-in-law, and she learns how to be a princess. Because Paige and Eddie are meant to be, obviously, she succeeds in all this with only a little bit of charming clumsiness and tomfoolery.

Alas, their happiness cannot last. Despite being destined in the stars and being really good at making out with each other and arguing, Paige and Eddie really don't have anything in common with each other. Like at all. Paige leaves and goes off to med school like she always should have and we're supposed to mourn these star-crossed lovers. How sad that they don't have the rest of their life to be bound together in incredibly public matrimony to keep on arguing and making out and having no other noticeable hallmarks of a healthy relationship.

The end, of course, has us wondering if just maybe these crazy kids can't make it. Eddie, now the King of Denmark, shows up at Paige's college graduation to see if she'll marry him after all. Because they belong together! He doesn't care that she wants to help needy people by being a doctor in developing countries - he loves her anyway! 

So, to recap, this is a movie about two people who have absolutely nothing in common falling in love because they're super attracted to each other, breaking up because they have nothing in common twice, and then get back together because despite Paige's protests all she really needs in the world to be complete is a man.

There's a montage in the movie where we see Eddie and Paige having lots of deep conversations, but we don't hear any of them. We literally have no idea what Eddie and Paige see in each other besides the "spark". I mean, we know from a few scenes that because Eddie met Paige and her normal family and peers scrambling to make a living in rural Wisconsin, he's all up on politics now and cares about what happens and is a much better person, but that's not a relationship builder. It's great, don't get me wrong, but it's just one part of their interaction. 

Paige, meanwhile, seems to have no logical reason to love Eddie. I mean, yes he's very handsome and I guess he helped her understand Shakespeare, but that does not a life build. What do they have to offer each other besides some kissing in the starlight and a really solid fling? It's not that I hate romance or my soul is dead, I just don't get it. Why are these two people together? As far as I can tell, it's mostly because everyone tells them that they should be.

And if you view it in that lens, this story is basically a horror movie. Just replace the cute soundtrack with some shrieks and ominous tones and what you have is a terrifying tale of a man and a woman almost being trapped in a life neither of them seem to really want just because everyone else thinks it's the right thing.

I mean, remember the structure. We first meet Paige on the day ones of her best friends gets married. She's sitting at a table with one of the other bridesmaids, discussing how she's alarmed by seeing all her ambitious friends fall into marriages of convenience. The looming horror comes when she discovers the woman she's speaking to is also about to get married. Paige is literally the only single person she knows from her friend group.

Then at college, we find that Paige's friends who are funny and sweet are also obsessed with making sure that ambitious, go-getter Paige doesn't go and get. They want her to find a man and "be happy", with the underlying implication that Paige's ambition to go to a great med-school and save lives is lame and a sign she's not really living.

Seriously the whole movie is like this. Paige is a lone voice in the wilderness, daring to suggest that she doesn't need to be married to be happy. But then she meets Eddie and falls for him despite their absolute lack of shared interests. Then she's racing across the ocean and getting engaged that afternoon. She goes from utter disinterest in marriage to planning a wedding in two months.

When Paige comes to her senses and realizes she won't be happy as Eddie's trophy Queen, we should be cheering that the girl in the horror movie decided to go out the front door instead of walking upstairs. It's basically the scene where the heroine finally drives away, mass murderer in the rear-view mirror, panting for breath and sobbing at her close call. The final scene where Eddie comes for her is like the tag at the end of a horror flick where we see the monster isn't dead after all.

Look. It's not that I think marriage is awful or bad or a terrible idea or the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone. It's that I think this marriage is a terrible idea and the worst thing that could happen to Paige and Eddie. I know we're supposed to root for them and think they're perfect for each other, but they're really really not. They're just two skinny, tall, conventionally-attractive white people who dislike each other enough for it to come off as sexual tension.

I'm all for romance, but I like romance that makes sense. Romance where the people involved get each other and support each other and have something else to do in the 95% of their time when they aren't making out. Paige and Eddie don't have that, and heavy-handed metaphors about butterflies in jars aside, their relationship never really makes sense. These aren't two people who should get married and spend the rest of their lives together, these are two people who should catch up on the phone ever year or so and hang out at the ten-year reunion.

I want to get married someday. Probably. But I don't want to get married because I feel like I have to or I'm not living my life right. I don't want to ever fall into the trap of believing that marriage is my only path to a complete life. I already have a complete life. I'm good. I don't need that, and I'd rather wait for a relationship that makes sense for me than jump into one that seems perfect on paper. That's all.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Masculinity Monday: The Boring, Stable Other Guy in 'Ant-Man'

I'll be the first to admit that the masculinity on display in most of Marvel's Ant-Man isn't exactly exemplary. As presented by Hank Pym and Scott Lang, masculinity seems to be all about imposing your will on the people around you. Hank and Scott might be great superheroes, but they're pretty crappy husbands and fathers, for all that the story seems insistent on putting them on a pedestal and granting them amnesty by way of Hope's forgiveness. On the surface, the masculinity of Ant-Man is pretty freaking bad.

So it should come as some surprise, then, that there's another masculinity lurking underneath, one that is healthy and supportive and good, if not entirely endorsed by the narrative. I'm talking about the masculinity of the minor characters in Ant-Man. Particularly of Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), the man Scott's ex-wife wants to marry, but also of Scott's former cellmate and his partners in crime, Luis (Michael Pena), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (T.I.). They might not be main characters, and they might even be slightly maligned by the other characters, but the masculinities that these characters present are, by and large, really healthy.

And that's, well, interesting. It's interesting to see a story where the main male characters are exemplars of white privilege and little else but the supporting ones are pushing back against gender norms. And it's also interesting to think about why these are the characters on the sidelines, why the "other guys" are so often healthier and more compelling than the leads. 

Why we're supposed to hate Scott Summers and love Wolverine even though Scott Summers is the one who stuck around to build a life with Jean Grey. Why we're told that guy in the committed relationship standing at the altar isn't as important or manly as the weirdo on rollerskates busting in to "steal" the bride.

Today I want to talk about the other guys.

We'll start with Paxton, a character who gets very little love in Ant-Man but absolutely deserves our respect. So let's set the scene here: imagine that, in the course of your day as a police officer working in the San Francisco Bay Area, you meet this awesome woman. She's funny and smart and has a whipcrack retort to any joke you can think of. 

You're totally into her. And then you find out that she's recently divorced and has a toddler at home. Not only that, but her ex-husband is currently in a federal prison because he broke into a multi-national corporation in a misguided Robin Hood attempt.

What do you do? You're a cop, so it's not really your wheelhouse to date the ex-wife of a convict. Also you don't have any children of your own and dating a woman with a little kid is a big commitment. Sure you like this woman, but is she really worth it?

If you're Officer Paxton, then your answer is yes. Absolutely she is. Not only that, but if you're Paxton then you don't just date this woman, you become involved in her life. You love her daughter and you treat her like your own. You parent, with late nights and nightmares and potty breaks and birthday parties. You work at this. You build a life with the woman you love and you ask her to marry you. You love that little girl and you try to raise her right.

Then let's imagine that the ex-husband is getting out of jail. You're not worried that your fiancee now is going to go back to him - that ship sailed a long time ago - but you worry about that little girl. How is this man going to fit himself back into your lives? Is he going to try to take her away, take away the child you think of as your own daughter? Is he even going to be safe to be around?

Again, if you're Paxton, you don't deal with this by beating up Scott Lang. You don't yell and scream at him, you don't make a scene, you don't badmouth him to his daughter. You don't invite him to her birthday party, sure, but you don't make a fuss when he does show up. Instead you support your fiancee when she sets good and reasonable boundaries. You worry, but you keep it inside. When your worst fears come true and it seems this guy still hasn't turned from his life of crime, you don't gloat, you don't threaten, you're just disappointed. You really did want Cassie to get to know her father.

Okay, now that scumbag somehow escapes from prison and straight up disappears for weeks. You're terrified the entire time. What if he's coming for Cassie? What if he's going to kidnap her? What if he's a danger to Maggie and you? 

And still you don't badmouth him to Cassie. You don't tell her that her daddy is a crook and that she should hate him. You try very hard, in fact, not to turn her against her father. You want to believe the best even as you prepare for the worst. And when the worst finally comes, you're able to step back and let this loser, who is apparently some kind of superhero, save the day. You're even willing to bend a few rules and let him get away afterwards.

Paxton is an awesome guy. Seriously, he is the kind of man we should be holding up and saying, "This! This is what a respectable, decent, honorable adult looks like!" And yet the movie wants us to hate him. Or maybe hate him is too strong. But it certainly wants us to enjoy his misery. We're supposed to cheer when Cassie glowers at him and hopes he doesn't find her probation-skipping felon of a father. 

We laugh when he's pulled away from investigating an actual crime that is definitely taking place because the heroes are joyriding in his car. We roll our eyes at how ignorant he is to the larger problems at stake as he is baffled by the tank bursting out the side of a building.

We aren't supposed to like Paxton because we're supposed to like Scott instead. But when you hold these characters up side-by-side, it's no contest whatsoever on who is the better human being.

When Scott goes to Cassie's birthday party and Maggie lays down the law, he doesn't exactly react in the most responsible way. Instead of understanding where she's coming from - that he has never been a father to Cassie and before he can be a part of her life he has to prove he's stable and safe - he decides that he should pull a quick heist and that will solve all his problems. Paxton, meanwhile, is working his job every day, coming home every night. We don't know a huge amount about him, but we can infer from his relationships with Maggie and Cassie that he's a good fiance and father figure. He's responsible. He's there.

And yet, like I said above, we're not supposed to like Paxton. Why? Because Scott is fun. Paxton's not fun, he's all boring and an adult all the time. Scott is fun. He's witty and quippy and he gets into hilarious scrapes. You can bet that Hank Pym never thought about recruiting Paxton to be his expendable fall-guy. Scott is charming and clever and looks good with his shirt off. What else could we possibly want in a male lead?

By contrast, Paxton is kind of lame. He's not particularly funny, he's not quick, he's dependable and solid, which is great in the real world but might as well be a capital offense in the world of movies and television. In other words, Scott is what we're supposed to think healthy, cool masculinity looks like. Paxton is what it actually does look like.

Plus, like I said above, it's not just Paxton. Scott's three criminal friends might be, well, criminals, but they're also interesting cases of non-normative masculinity. Sure it's only bits and pieces, but it's definitely there. Luis, for example, is the kind of guy who brags about stealing two smoothie machines and goes to contemporary art exhibits and wine tastings with his cousins. 

Kurt and Dave are silly goobers who talk about Titanic and giggle at each other and never even imply that they would use violence on someone. The three of them might be very minor characters, but they're just developed enough to suggest a rich inner life where posturing masculinity has no place. They're all very comfortable in themselves, and that's worth celebrating.

But really I want to talk about Paxton and Scott here, and why we're supposed to love Scott and tolerate Paxton. Why Scott is the hero and Paxton is the guy who gets in the hero's way. Scott might have a character arc where he "becomes the hero that Cassie always thought he was", but Paxton already was that hero, and it's a damn shame that we're not supposed to acknowledge that.

I guess what it comes out to is a fundamental insecurity on the part of the filmmakers and Scott himself - the idea that Scott Lang can't be a hero and can't be our favorite without us tearing down the only real male competition he has in the film. If the movie admits that Paxton is a great guy with a really good point, then Scott doesn't look so good, and I guess they're not confident that we'll still want to watch Scott become a superhero. Maybe? I think that's it?

All I know is that I am quite frankly sick of the Scott Langs of the world. I'm over the overgrown manchild who doesn't understand the gravity of his situation. I'm over Paul Rudd, who is probably a fantastic actor but has been playing the manchild for so long I'm not sure I believe he can be anything else. I'm over the idea that stable and secure and responsible is boring and should be mocked. I'm just plain over it.

I want a guy like Paxton. That's appealing to me. Sure I want a guy who can make me laugh, but it's a lot more important to me that I find someone who will be a partner to me. Who will sit down while we write out a budget and who will clean the kitchen with me and who will stop at the grocery store to buy more aspirin. I'm not looking for a Scott Lang who is always coming up with crazy schemes. I want boring, because boring means, more often than not, a level of intimacy and commitment that we never see the Scott Langs of the world approach.

Ant-Man is a fun movie, in large part because of Scott's antics. But I think there was room for a better movie here too, one where Scott admits his flaws and the movie doesn't feel the need to drag Paxton down to lift Scott up. Still, even as it is, Ant-Man does give us a picture of what it means to be a committed and loving father and husband. It's just definitely not the main character.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Whitney Frost (Agent Carter)

The second season of Agent Carter was not the show at its best - we all kind of know that. For all that there are only two seasons of the show, it's not hard to see that the second season was when the network shoved its hands into the work and tried to make the show more like what they thought people would like. It didn't work and now Agent Carter has been canceled, which sucks.

I could absolutely write an entire article on why the second season was a disappointment - even if I did definitely enjoy elements of it - and how ABC seems to not understand what made Agent Carter popular in the first place, but that's not what today is about. Instead, I want to take this Strong Female Character Friday to talk about the one part of the show that was absolutely perfect: the villain.

So Agent Carter follows the espionage adventures of Agent Peggy Carter from Captain America. It's a show that feels like a bunch of 1940s spy movies all strung together, and it's super fun and clever and occasionally silly. The first season saw Peggy (Hayley Atwell) trying to figure out who framed Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) for treason all while she battles the entrenched sexism of her job in the SSR. 

The second season saw Peggy flying out to Los Angeles, this time on official SSR business, investigating a mysteriously frozen lake and eventually getting caught up in a Nuclear-Age science fiction thriller. It also saw her beset by male love interests, probably the network trying to distract the viewers from the vague homoerotic tension between Peggy and her best friend Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) in the first season, but that's beside the point.

While the first season made a villain out of shadowy Russian organizations and institutional sexism, the second season points its barb more sharply at the beauty industrial complex and Hollywood in particular. Our villain is both a symbol of this culture and a victim of it, a woman told all her life that her only value is her looks who goes very literally mad because of all the years she was told not to use her brilliant mind. 

I'm talking, of course, about Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett). Born Agnes Cully in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, Whitney Frost spent her whole life being told that she couldn't have the life she wanted because she was a woman. She had no power, constrained by her gender but also by poverty and classism. Her mother had to sleep with their landlord to keep the house and always told her daughter to smile because men like to see a pretty face. 

Even though Agnes was a brilliant mathematician and scientist, she was rejected from the University of Oklahoma on the basis of her sex. There just wasn't room for a woman as smart as her in the world to use her brains.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when Agnes Cully is approached outside a movie theater in 1934, she is exactly ready to be told to go into modeling and acting, ready to be told to "Smile" and change her name and give up all this ugly physics nonsense. So Agnes Cully becomes Whitney Frost and the greatest mind of her generation goes slowly crazy.

I feel like that should be established. Whitney Frost was more than a little bit unstable before the whole Zero Matter thing happened. It was just the giant ball of goop that pushed her over the edge.

Having been told her entire life that her value was wrapped up in her looks and not her mind, it's not shocking that when Whitney discovers Hollywood is getting ready to pass her by she gets angry. She's worked too hard to become a star and she's not ready for them to tell her she's too old to reap the benefits. 

But she's also figured out how to get what she really wants too - through her husband and using him as a shield, Whitney has created a scientific corporation to use her brilliance. It's there that she discovers Zero Matter and her life reaches its seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Really all of this just brings us up to the first episode of season two - we meet Whitney Frost as Peggy becomes involved in the case and starts to suspect that Whitney knows more than she's telling about the mysterious death of a scientist in Isodyne's labs. Slowly we and Peggy learn how much Whitney has been pulling the strings all this time. And it's cool because Peggy, who has spent so much of her life being the only woman in the room, suddenly is facing up against another woman, this one smart and tough and capable like her but with a completely different worldview and value system. It makes for good television.

The basic gist of Whitney's arc in the second season follows her after she's caught in an explosion of Zero Matter and finds that a tiny bit of the matter has embedded itself in the side of her face. At first horrified that her face - her most important asset - has been damaged, Whitney slowly comes under the influence of the Zero Matter and discovers that it is hungry. It wants to eat things. Living things. So she goes around for a while killing people and sucking them into the black scar on her face. 

But even that's not enough. Soon Whitney is consumed by her need to get more Zero Matter and more power. She tries to set off a nuclear explosion, kills even more people, and even tries to rip a hole in the fabric of reality. She pushes out everything in her life that isn't her relentless quest for more power, and in the end she has nothing left. It's just her and her fractured mind sitting in front of a mirror at the insane asylum. A pretty unpleasant end.

The unpleasantness of her ending is, however, more based in how tragic her fall really is. I mean, this is a woman who should have been hanging out with Einstein and Oppenheimer but was told she couldn't be smart because she was already pretty, and who learned the hard way that the only way she could get power was by force.

Hell, when Peggy offers to help her and save her from the violent end that Whitney must know is coming, Whitney responds, "Fix me? Why would I want to be fixed? I have never felt more powerful in my entire life!" 

And it makes sense. This is a woman who has been disempowered all her life - of course she's going to grasp onto what she sees as her one chance to taste real power. With Zero Matter she can push past all the sexist expectations and the life she's been forced into. With Zero Matter she can be whoever she wants to be. Zero Matter doesn't care if she's a woman, it only cares if she can use her mind to rip open a hole in the universe. Zero Matter doesn't care if she's a movie star, it's just hungry.

The best villains are the ones who you know are wrong and bad and terrible but who you kind of want to win anyway.

Okay, so there are a lot of reasons why Whitney Frost is a pretty logical choice for a Strong Female Character Friday. Obviously she's a complex and interesting female villain whose conflict is firmly rooted in real life sexism, so that's fascinating to start with. But more of her value also lies in how Whitney Frost, as a woman undone by her own intellectual hubris, is a rather unusual figure pop culture.

Victor Frankenstein might have set a precedent for male scientists being undone by their own greatest creations (though he's certainly not the first male figure like that in literature), but our culture is relatively lacking in female characters who go that route. Whitney Frost is in a lot of ways unique - it's rare to see a woman so powerful and smart and damaged that her own brilliance effectively eats her alive. Women are rarely written smart enough for this, but they're also rarely given such powerful stories. As in, stories where they have that much power.

And for all that Whitney Frost's life is very much a story of a woman who lacks power in her life because of her sex, it's also a story about someone who does gain amazing and awe-inspiring power. Whitney Frost is very powerful. She's just also deeply unhinged and dangerous, two more things that women rarely get to be without being also fixated on a man. 

In terms of the show itself, the flaws of season two really pale in comparison with its strength. By pitting Peggy Carter against Whitney Frost, the show tells a story about different female responses to institutional sexism. Sure, the rest of the plot got bogged down in love stories and an over-reliance on people's desire to see Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy) being British and silly, but the core of the second season was a power-play between two women too often underestimated, and that's great.

It also gets even cooler when you realize that Peggy and Whitney are really mirror images of each other. Peggy might have grown up in an upper-middle class family in the idyllic British countryside while Whitney grew up as the misunderstood poor white trash daughter of a single mother, but they are both women told from the get-go that they shouldn't rely on their minds but rather their pretty faces. Peggy was lucky in that she had a brother pushing her to ignore those voices and strike out on her own anyway. Whitney wasn't nearly as fortunate.

In seeing Peggy and Whitney go head to head, especially given what we've already noted about how Peggy refuses to see other women as competition and rather as potential allies, we get to see two competing views of how to be a smart woman in a world where women aren't supposed to be smart. Peggy has lived her life by throwing herself bodily at the glass ceiling, enduring the bruises and then throwing herself back against it. 

Whitney, on the other hand, has preferred to comply on the surface and reap the benefits, all while she still tries to push through behind the scenes. They are two very different strategies, and a lot of the joy of Agent Carter's second season is watching the two women acknowledge this in each other.

I don't look at Whitney Frost and see a character I want to be, not like I do with Peggy. Instead, I look at her and see a character I could be. I see a woman who is so tired of fighting expectations that she just gives in, and I see a woman filled with rage when she finds that giving in to expectations isn't any less exhausting than fighting them. I get Whitney Frost. I wish I didn't, but I do. And I think that as a character, she might just be the best thing to come out of Agent Carter's season two.

So here's to you, Whitney Frost. I'm sorry you went literally mad with power, and I hope that someday we'll get to see a female character who is brilliant and powerful and doesn't get undone by her own creation. But I'll still be grateful for you, the woman who proved you don't have to be a dude to go full Frankenstein and who showed exactly why you shouldn't tell women on the street to "Smile!"