Friday, February 27, 2015

What 'Agent Carter' Did and Why We Need More Of It


In all of the hullabaloo over Parks and Recreation ending (my own hullabaloo included) we kind of glossed over the other show that ended, at least for now, on Tuesday night. That's right, Agent Carter finished its first season this week, and I think it's worth taking a moment to look back and ask, "So, how did it do?"

The answer of course being that it did really freaking well and you should have been watching it. If you were watching it, good job.

Look, as I'm sure you all don't really need reminding, Agent Carter isn't just a really cool show about one of my favorite characters, it also represents the first major female lead project of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At least of the MCU that started with Iron Man. This show, which some felt they could dismiss by pointing out that it's just a hiatus-filler for the less-than-stellar Agents of SHIELD, is in fact a huge stepping stone for Marvel's representation of women. And the people making the show were clearly aware of this. There was intentionality here.

The show, Agent Carter, is loosely based on the Marvel short of the same name. In the short we got to see fifteen minutes of Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell, reprising her role from the Captain America movies) acting as an agent of the SSR. She took on a mission, recovered a briefcase, beat up some bad guys, and in the end she got to start SHIELD. Awesome. The show then took that same presmie - Peggy as an SSR agent fighting both sexism and bad guys and eventually founding SHIELD - and developed it more.

So the show starts out in 1946. Peggy and her fellow soldiers are home from the war, but it's not as easy for her be a badass woman in peacetime as it was on the front. Now that she's home, Peggy is relegated to the office secretary, and her male coworkers are openly dubious of her claims to have served with Captain America. She's seen as some floozy who got her job because of a favor, and no one really pays attention to her.

Peggy's bored and angry and feels useless, which is a ripe combination for Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, also reprising his role) to waltz back into her life and give her a job to do. See, his vault of inventions has been pilfered, and he needs Peggy to retrieve them all before they can be sold on the black market. After all, he's Howard Stark, and he's invented some pretty dangerous stuff. He'd go himself, but the American government, including the SSR, has declared him a traitor and is ready to prosecute. So Peggy's on her own.

Well, almost on her own. She'll have the help of Howard's butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy). And while Peggy and Jarvis are less than thrilled with each other at first, their blossoming friendship becomes one of the highlights of the show.

Essentially the show follows Peggy as she works behind the SSR's back to recover Howard's stolen inventions, acting as a literal double agent and occasionally committing treason, but all in the name of the greater good. There are some snags along the way, like when she discovered that Howard and Jarvis weren't telling her the whole truth, or when the SSR realized what she was doing, but the majority of the season was about Peggy clearing Howard's name and in the process remembering how fun it is to be a badass special agent.

What makes the show remarkable and more than just eight episodes of perfectly watchable fluff, is how strongly the writers, actors, and directors grounded us in Peggy's life. And not just in the cool espionage aspects of it, but in the daily, sometimes sad reality of what it meant to be a woman home from the war in 1946. We see Peggy struggling to make and sustain human connections. 

We see her boil over with rage that she can't express when her coworkers disregard her time and again. We see her frustration not just with her own lot, but with those of the women around her. Colleen, her first roommate, was scared she'd be fired from her job at the factory so that the job could go to a returning soldier. Peggy's best friend, Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) deals with constant, unremitting sexism at her job, and while Peggy can do a few things, she can't fix it all. The show put us directly in Peggy's life so that we couldn't avoid seeing her struggle.

Here's why that matters. Since Agent Carter is Marvel's first big female lead project, it has the impossible task of setting the tone for everything that follows. Not maybe intentionally or even consciously, but it does. That's how this always works. So in making this show, the writers and actors had to be super aware that their portrayal of Peggy's character was going to become the baseline for understanding female characters.

That's why it matters so much that we don't see a redacted version of Peggy's life. We don't see a glamorized, all espionage, all car chases version. We see a version where Peggy lies about getting her period so she can take the afternoon off work. We see the version where she spends so much time tracking cases at night that she neglects her friendships. We see the intractable sexism in the workplace because we as an audience desperately need to understand where someone like Peggy is coming from. That way we can see where she's going.

It's intentional, and it has to be. That's how we're going to get compelling, developed female heroes later on.

And the intentionality of the way women are shown in the series doesn't just end with Peggy. We also get to see women of all different types, and, crucially, women who are integral to the plot. Yes, there's Angie, who is lovely and wonderful and fleshes out Peggy's external life, but there are also women in the espionage plots, and that matters too.

We've got Rose (Lesley Boone), a seemingly benign telephone operator who actually serves as the entrance point for SSR headquarters and has a gun she's willing and able to use to protect that entrance. Miriam Fry (Meagan Fay) might just be Peggy's landlady and occasional pain in her butt, but she's also central to several of the storylines. And of course we can't forget "Dottie Underwood" (Bridget Regan), Peggy's housemate turned Russian assassin.

All of these female characters serve to give the show a sense that yes, Peggy is exceptional, but she's not the exception. There are other women in this world, ones that Peggy knows and speaks to and who sometimes she has to fight. It makes it clear that Peggy's world is not one where she is the only woman who does things, and that matters a lot going forward.

But perhaps for me the most meaningful moment of the entire series happened at the very end of the last episode of this season. Throughout the season we've seen Peggy struggle with sexism in the workplace, rage against being forced to fill the roles that her male coworkers and supervisors think she should play, and generally being tossed around like a toy no one wants.

In the final episode, Peggy is vindicated and, as she predicted, all the men she works with are forced to see her value. But then the curtains draw back and a group of bureaucrats comes in, ready to congratulate and applaud the hero of the day - her coworker, Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray). Jack has a long moment wherein we wonder if he will tell the truth and admit that it was all Peggy all along, and then he doesn't. He just takes her credit and walks away.

We expect Peggy to be enraged, to be spitting bullets, like their fellow coworker, Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj), is, but she's not. And when Sousa demands to know why she's not more upset, Peggy's answer is kind of the best thing ever.
I don't need a congressional honor. I don't need Agent Thomson's approval, or the President's. I know my value. Anyone else's opinion doesn't really matter.
It's an amazing quote because this sets the tone. It shows very clearly that even if Peggy did originally want her coworkers to respect her and that was what she was doing all this for, she's past that now. She doesn't need anyone to tell her she did a good job because she knows she did. She knows exactly who she is and what she's worth, and no one can take that away from her.

This quote matters so much going forward. Like, so much. It matters because it sets up the idea that female heroes do not have be the counterparts of male heroes. They don't have to win our approval or cater to our needs or beg for our opinion. They can just be, take it or leave it. It's confidence, and it's awesome.

If you haven't watched Agent Carter yet, I really strongly recommend that you do. It's good television. Really good. And it tells a story we haven't gotten to hear before. But more than that, it sets a tone for Marvel's future that I think is the best possible tone we could have. A future where we're not super concerned with making sure female characters have "earned" their place, or where we stress over whether or not they're likable or sexy. A place where women are people and our stories are worth telling. I'm grateful for that.

And I'm also grateful for an entire season of getting to see Peggy Carter fight by just hitting people with the nearest available object. Let's get this show renewed so we can see what she's going to smack someone with next!

Also more Angie and Peggy shenanigans please.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Find Your Team And Get To Work: The 'Parks and Rec' Finale

[Look, this whole thing is going to be SPOILERS, so let's get that out of the way straight off.]


Be who you are. Find people you love. Do something that matters. Together.

If you took nothing else from the six awesome seasons of Parks and Recreation, it's clear from the finale that those three things are what the writers, actors, directors, producers, and everyone else even tangentially related to this show want you to understand. Those little tidbits of advice are the central strain of every storyline in the final season, as well as the thread that pulls together all the characters in the last episode. 

The last episode finishes out the storyline of the sixth season which found Ben and Leslie moving to Washington DC for new jobs in Congress and the National Parks Service respectively. April and Andy are also moving to DC so that April can start her new career at a non-profit, and because the idea of those four living more than a couple minutes away from each other would have been too much for our little viewer hearts to bear.

Meanwhile, Tom is marrying his awesome girlfriend Lucy and they're working together to expand his restaurant business. Donna and her new husband Joe are moving to Seattle, and Garry is now Pawnee's Mayor, if only interim. Only Ron's life is staying mostly the same, but with all his friends moving away, it's not hard to see that Ron's going to need time to adjust.

So the final episode brings us back to where everything started, in the Parks Department bullpen, for "one last ride." As in, the group having a little party before they all go their separate ways. But when a concerned citizen comes in complaining of a broken swing in one of the parks, the whole gang swings into action to fix the swing and along the way we get flash-forwards of where all of our favorite characters end up.

It's sappy and earnest and unrelentingly sweet, and I wouldn't have it any other way. This show isn't How I Met Your Mother to pull the rug out from under us at the last minute, and it's not even Friends, to keep us guessing up until the last minute. Nope. This is Parks and Recreation, the show that made "nice" into a comedy staple. The last episode might not be laugh out loud funny, but who cares? I don't need it to be. 

Instead of being funny, what the episode really does is reassure us that even though our favorite characters are splitting up for a time, going in different directions, pursuing different dreams, they're all going to be all right. More than all right, they're all going to be together. Ultimately, that's what the finale is about. 

Donna and Joe move to Seattle, sure, but when Donna wants to talk about starting a foundation to fund after school programs at the local schools, April is just a phone call away. April and Andy might be figuring out this adult thing on their own and mostly making a good show of it, but when they need advice and role models, they can go over to Ben and Leslie's for dinner and really talk.

You can count on your friends to be there, the show reminds us, whether it's at the release party for your book on how to turn failure into success, or at the birth of your first child, or to help you find a new job and career even late in life, or, eventually, at your funeral. Your friends are there for you. They're the ones you do your life with, the people you call and deliberate over decisions with, the ones in the audience when you do something amazing, the ones who buy you ice cream and provide hugs when it doesn't work out. There's something very magical about Parks' emphasis on friendship, and I'm quite sure it's what we all love most about the show.

I mean, how many other shows are there on mainstream television right now that are completely and totally about the importance not just of friendship, but of goal-oriented friendship. Because that's what the relationships on Parks are. They're not just buddies or pals or even friends, they're coworkers, in the truest sense of that word. They're a group of people who have decided to do something important together, and who will spend the rest of their lives doing that thing.

I've been really privileged over the years to be a part of a lot of different groups like this. I'm lucky. But the thing that I've found in my wanderings is that the friendships you remember, the ones that last and linger and that turn into the people you can't imagine your life without, are always the ones based around something else. Something bigger than just you. They're the friendships that aren't just about each other, they're about doing something together. Being on a mission together. Having a plan. It's you against the world, and gosh dang it, you're going to win!

That's what makes a friendship into something like what the Parks and Rec characters have. Time, yes. Commitment, totally. Genuinely caring about the other people, hell yes that's important. But above all else, I would actually say that what makes friendships able to last, what makes for relationships that span continents and lifetimes, is a common goal. It's the work. The work is, ultimately, what brings us together. A work worth doing.

Which brings me back to the Parks and Rec finale and why it brought me, and probably you if you're being honest with yourself, to tears. In the final speech of the episode, which spans Leslie talking over decades and different life situations, she explains that a work worth doing and people you love to do it with is pretty much all you need in life. "Find your team," she says, addressing a college commencement crowd in her illustrious future, "and get to work."

Actually, I'm going to give you the whole speech. Because to be totally honest, I don't think I can say it any better no matter how hard I try. It's a speech that starts with Leslie talking about deciding to run for Governor of Indiana, then morphs into her commencement speech, and finally really feels like Leslie is speaking directly to the audience:
When we worked here together, we fought, scratched, and clawed to make people's lives a tiny bit better. That's what public service is about. A small, incremental change, every day. Teddy Roosevelt once said, "Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." And I would add that what makes work worth doing is getting to do it with people that you love. 
I started in my career more than thirty years ago, in the Parks and Recreation department, right here in Pawnee, Indiana. I've had a lot of different jobs, including two terms as your governor. And soon, a new, unknown challenge awaits me, which, to me, even now, is thrilling. Because I love the work. Not to say that public service isn't sexy, because it definitely is, but that's not why we do it. We do it because we get the chance to work hard at work worth doing alongside a team of people who we love. So I thank those people who've walked with me. And I thank you for this honor. 
Now. Go find your team, and get to work.
Crap. I teared up a little just typing that. But you get what I mean, right? The whole premise of the show is laid out there, clear and simple and obvious for anyone to see. This whole show hasn't been about making us laugh, even if it did (a lot), or about the foibles of small town government. It's always been about people who care a lot about what they do and making sure that what they do matters. I think that's important. I appreciate it.

But more than just making sure that what you do matters, I love that this show has taken the time to show all of us how much better life is when we do it together. How much more fun it is to make the world a better place when we do it with the people we love. 

And, I think it's worth noting, that the reason all of our favorite characters go on to be successful is not a quirk or just wishful thinking. It's because they have each other. Because they can call each other in the middle of the night to make business decisions or figure out their lives. Doing life together makes you better at doing life in general.

I don't want this to be something that makes you feel bad if you don't have that super awesome group of people surrounding you who love the work and love you. What I'm saying is, if you don't have that already, make it. Find something you love doing and invite other people to do it with you. Sure, you're not going to like everyone, but I've found that having a common goal makes you love people you didn't think you would and frankly makes it easier to have deep relationship with people. It's Community 101. When we work together, we care about each other more.

So find your team. Get to work. Whatever that work is that you find worth doing. Do it, and find some people to love who'll do it with you.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Oscar Fatigue, Frustration, and an Announcement

Dear White People
Dear Readers.

I'm kind of over the Oscars. Aren't you? While I was still excited to tune in on Sunday night to see the dresses and the suits and hear the jokes and see people who make the movies I love being friends with each other and all that good stuff, the actual ceremony itself left me cold. Sure, there were amazing performances. Common and John Legend absolutely nailed it with their song "Glory". Lady Gaga sure pulled it out with her tribute to The Sound of Music. And Neil Patrick Harris apparently really likes puns.

But the awards? Not something I cared deeply about. My investment went about far enough to make me feel pretty good about having predicted most of the major awards, and no further. The simple fact of the matter is that I have only seen two of the eight films nominated for Best Picture (Selma and The Imitation Game), and that wasn't for a lack of opportunity, it's from a lack of interest.*

And that's a problem. Not just because I and pretty much everyone I know was deeply uninvolved in this year's awards, but because that seems to suggest that the Oscars themselves are becoming irrelevant. That as they perpetuate themselves, old white men nominating old white men in old white movies, they sort of shove themselves off the side of the world while we all vaguely watch them fall. Is this a bad thing? I'm not sure.

Top Five
I am sure, however, that Sunday night's show did not represent the best of filmmaking last year. Sure, some of the movies that were up for awards really were amazing. A lot of them were incredible feats of skill and worthy of recognition. But there were also a lot of other movies that came out in 2014, movies that were also of great skill and emotional weight and worthy of recognition. Movies that didn't get nearly the credit they deserve.

It might seem petty to complain about the Oscars not noticing my kind of movies, but I swear it's not. Because while, yes, I wish that more movies that I am vaguely interested in would get nominated for Oscars, it's more complex than that. The Oscars now represent the highest virtue to which a film can aspire. Getting an Oscar completely validates a movie that might have flopped at the box office or floundered in development for ten years. It highlights the importance of artistry and talent over money and payouts. It delivers prestige and honor to a studio for making movies that take risks and dare and are good.

I love the idea of what the Oscars represent to Hollywood. What I hate is what they've become. An industry. A tired factory that churns out "great man" biopics every December. A way for studios to write off their losses and wave around a little trophy that expresses how artistic they are, how above the crass monetary angle they feel. Getting an Oscar is a way for an actor or director or producer to claim that they're "legit". But it's also a way to reward a single film or person and cover over the way Hollywood has abused all the films and people like them.

In short, I love the idea of the Oscars. But I freaking hate the reality.

Under the Skin
Didn't you feel it too? The drawling sameness of the movies nominated this year? The slow realization that almost all of the films nominated for Best Picture were about a troubled (male) genius struggling to make his vision a reality while the whole world works against him. 

He might be crazy or socially maladjusted or kind of a jerk but in the end he's still a genius at whatever it is he does. They were all stories of great men doing the kind of things men do. Stories about white masculinity (for the most part), and what it means to be a man.

None of them were really new or surprising or fresh. Well, I mean, I really loved Selma, but you get what I mean. They were all good, well made movies, but the best? I'm not so sure.

So what am I getting at here? Why complain about this, especially now that it's over and done with? Why bother at all?

Because I still think that awards shows matter in the way they create a non-monetary goal for films to aspire to, and because I quite frankly want some recognition for the many films of 2014 that didn't get their moment in the sun, I am proposing we make our own awards. That's right, Kiss My Wonder Woman is creating our very own awards show competition: The Undies. As in, the underappreciated films of 2014. Get your mind out of the gutter!

We're going to have our own party because they won't invite us to theirs, and the movies we focus on are going to be the ones that the Oscars, and to a lesser extent the others awards shows, completely missed this year. The hidden gems. The brilliant performances in weirdo box office flops or giant action tentpoles. We're looking for greatness wherever it dwells, and we're not going to stop until we find it. And since greatness knows no gender or race, we're going to look at a much more diverse range of films and performances than the Oscars bothered with.

The Book of Life
The Undies will be an invitational voting competition. I'll get to what that means in a minute. Films will be sorted into five categories: big budget, mid-range, micro-budget, foreign language, and animated. Big budget films are films with a production budget of more than $100 million. Mid-range films had a production budget of less than $100 million but more than $10 million. And micro-budget films had a budget under $10 million. I feel like the foreign language and animated categories are self-explanatory. 

Each film category will have five films in it and the voters will then vote for the very best. Those best film winners from each category will then be entered into one super category and only one film will emerge victorious! Sound fun? Well, hang on, there's more!

We're going to need voters if this is going to work. Lots and lots of voters who are willing to see at least five movies and give some real critical thought to which one of those films is objectively the best at telling a story that is moving, innovative, and that adds something new to our perception of the world. Film is incredibly subjective, so we need lots of help to do this right.

Because it's a bit of a time commitment to watch all these movies and think hard thoughts about them, each voter gets to pick which category they would like to vote in. So if you pick "big budget", you're going to commit to watching the five big budget nominees and nothing more. If you want, you can also elect to vote in the "best overall" category, but then you're committing to watching those five movies as well. Got it? Good.

Clearly you all now want to be voters for The Undies! How can you make that happen?

By emailing us at kissmywonderwoman@gmail.com. This is how we're going to send out the final lists of nominees, keep track of who's voting for what, help you find a copy of the films to watch, etc. So if you want to vote, email in and let us know. (It'll also help keep this from being invaded by trolls, because that's always a possibility.)

Any questions? If so, shoot us an email or list them in the comments below. And because I know you're all positively pining to know, here are the first draft unrefined lists of the nominees for each category:

Interstellar
Big Budget
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part One
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Edge of Tomorrow
Interstellar
Guardians of the Galaxy
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Maleficent

Mid-Range
The 100 Foot Journey
Big Eyes
Snowpiercer
Gone Girl
Wild
Unbroken
Pride
A Most Wanted Man
Top Five
Under the Skin
Lucy
A Most Violent Year
Rosewater
Snowpiercer

Micro Budget
The Babadook
Belle
Belle
Dear White People
Obvious Child
The Skeleton Twins
Only Lovers Left Alive
Nightcrawler
Beyond the Lights

Foreign Language
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Girlhood
Ida
Two Days, One Night
Leviathan
Two Days, One Night
Jai Ho

Animated
The Book of Life
Song of the Sea
The Wind Rises
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
The LEGO Movie

If you have any additions or suggestions, put the in the comments below. And if you want to be a voter, shoot us an email at kissmywonderwoman@gmail.com, and tell us what category you want to vote in!

The Babadook
*Actually, that's not entirely true. I did want to see Birdman, but it was gone from my local theater before I got to it. But none of the others really grabbed me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

'Fresh Off the Boat' and the Necessary Other-ing of White Culture


At last I am back from my unexpectedly extended hiatus! Sorry about that folks. I spent the first week, as planned, traveling and visiting with my family in the cold, barren wasteland that is New England right now, and then I spent the next week at home in my nice cozy apartment coughing up a lung because I got bronchitis. Fun!

So for those of you keeping track at home, I spent the past two weeks asleep. Almost entirely. I'm not kidding. Between my family unanimously deciding to make me take Dramamine before any and all car rides longer than an hour and then coming home and being on Nyquil all the time, I have spent the last two weeks almost entirely either in a drugged stupor or actually asleep. And now I feel very rested. So there's that.

The other benefit of my accidental convalescence is that I finally got to check out some of the shows piling up in my Hulu queue, such as today's topic, Fresh Off the Boat. Hooray for sick days!

For those of you who've managed to miss all the angry headlines flying back and forth, Fresh Off the Boat is the new ABC sitcom based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang's memoir of the same controversial name.* It's semi-biographical, like Everybody Hates Chris or All-American Girl, following the Huang family in 1995 when they moved from the strong Taiwanese community of Washington DC to Orlando, Florida.

The main character is eleven year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang), the black sheep of his family. Eddie is deeply resentful of having to move from his old life in DC to the Florida suburbs. He's an outcast at school and faces the usual middle school horribleness, as well as some actual overt racism. His younger brothers, Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen), adapt quickly and well, but Eddie continues to struggle. So he takes refuge in hip-hop music and basketball culture - and fights with his parents over his right to be his own person and not necessarily assimilate into Taiwanese immigrant culture or white culture.

Meanwhile, his parents, Jessica (Constance Wu) and Louis (Randall Park), are betting everything on Louis' dream: to own his own restaurant. He wants the American dream. He doesn't want to keep selling furniture for Jessica's brother, so Louis has mortgaged the family's future and bought "Cattleman's Ranch", a generic steakhouse in Florida of all places. He has dreams and plans and he wants something great for this family. And Jessica, for the most part, supports that.

I saved Jessica for last because out of all the characters, Jessica is the one I relate to most. Like, I get her. She's less than thrilled to have her life uprooted and moved to a part of the country she hates in order to support a future and dream that seems ever more tenuous and financially unsound, but she does it anyway. She loves her husband. She's not going to go quietly, but she does go, and she makes the best of it when she gets there.

While Eddie is the main character in name, with his character doing the voice over and serving as the central character for dramas and conflicts of the show, it's really Jessica who acts as the series lead. She's the one who, as a first generation immigrant, has to grapple every day with her mixed feelings about her newly adopted country. Louis is all about America and the American dream, while Emery and Evan are almost scary good at assimilating into the white culture of Orlando. So it falls to Jessica and Eddie to figure out who they are in this place. How does one be "in but not of" a prevailing culture?

The show deals with this in a surprisingly compassionate and compelling way - arguably the only way to really tell this story. Instead of taking the usual tack of showing how weird the Huangs are for not assimilating to white culture, the show places us as the audience directly with the Huangs and instead others the white culture. It shows us exactly how weird white culture looks to other eyes, and points out all the stuff we take for granted but is actually kind of insane.

It also shows us the daily negotiations that the Huangs must make in order to reconcile themselves to a white culture that doesn't really want them unless they assimilate. Louis wonders if business would improve at his steakhouse if he hired a white guy to be the front man. Are people not coming in because the feel weird seeing Asian faces in such a white place? Eddie's demand to have "white people lunch" - by which he means Lunchables - reveals that he's found it inconvenient to own his true identity as the child of immigrants. It's easier for him to identify with any other culture, like bonding with other students over Notorious BIG and bringing Lunchables to school.

Jessica's perspective on this, a kind of exasperated determination, makes her sympathetic to the viewer, but also keeps the show from letting anyone off the hook. Jessica's not going to pull her punches. She's going to point out all the weird crap that white people do, and she's going to make it completely clear that it's a white people thing, not a universal truth.

In the first three episodes alone, Jessica rants about the abhorrence of having to make conversation with someone holding a baggie full of dog poop, rails against the terrors of buying "white people food" at a giant supermarket, and desperately tries to decipher an elementary school that "doesn't do grades". They're all cultural negotiations that are honestly pretty distinct to white culture but that we as white people have come to think of as "universal". They're not. That's just us, guys. We're super weird.

But like all other kinds of privilege, white privilege is almost impossible to see until it's pointed out to you. How can you understand that your culture is not the default until you see it through someone else's eyes? We white people have the "benefit" of an entire entertainment industry telling us that our culture and habits are totally normal and everyone else is weird for "deviating" from that "standard". That is not true at all. White people have a culture, and it's shows like Fresh Off the Boat that help show what that culture looks like by giving us a family of people on the outside looking in and going, "Ew. Weird."

I love that.

Seriously! I love that Jessica Huang refuses to conflate "white culture" with "America". She's all for her husband pursuing the American dream, but she doesn't want her son to be ashamed of bringing her Taiwanese cooking to school for lunch. As she says at one point, commenting that Evan's friend gave him string cheese and he appears to be lactose intolerant, "His body is rejecting white culture, which makes me kind of proud."

It's not that she hates white people, it's that Jessica sees no reason why white culture should matter more or be more influential than her own culture - that of the Taiwanese immigrant community. She misses being surrounded by a culture that feels more familiar to her. She misses the Chinese market in DC, she wants to try to haggle over prices at JC Penny, and she thinks that school is way too easy for her kids. Jessica loves America, yes, but she isn't sure if she likes white America. And that's a really important distinction to make.

It's important not just because it forces white Americans like myself to open our freaking eyes and see that we live with incredible cultural privilege, but also because it allows us to have a conversation about what "American culture" actually is. I mean, for so long we've been pretending that American culture and white culture are the same thing, but they're not. So what is American culture?

I'm not answering that here, mostly because I don't know, but I like that the question is being asked now. After all, by the year 2050, America will officially be more not-white than white, and I think that's awesome. Diversity is great. But before we get there, it'd be good to figure out where we're going. Jessica Huang's America is different from my America, and that's awesome. But there must be a lot more Americas out there that I have yet to see. I want to see them. I think it matters.

But, to start with, let's all agree to watch Fresh Off the Boat and other shows like it, shows that insistently show Americas we might not know as well, that don't cater to a white audience, and that openly admit to the ambiguous nature of the immigrant experience. Fresh Off the Boat might make you feel uncomfortable sometimes, especially if you're white. Watch it anyway. It's good for you.

I mean, it doesn't hurt that it's also a freaking good show. Great comic timing, well-written jokes that don't rely on tired stereotypes or plotlines, and some seriously classic physical comedy. And you can even count on it for some truly heartwarming episode endings that make you feel good about the world. So, funny? Check. Heartwarming? Check. Challenging the cultural status quo? Checkity check. What more do you need?


*"Fresh Off the Boat" is sometimes used as a slur against recent immigrants, but there is also a movement to retake the term as a way of referring to the cultural experiences of first and second generation immigrants. I have no strong feelings on this debate. I'll let people far more qualified than me figure this one out.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

HIATUS: Touring the Snow Drifts of New England Until Tuesday


Carry on without me, internet. I'll be sipping hot cocoa, letting my brother-in-law do all the shoveling, and basking in the love of my wonderful family for the next week. Also I'll probably be cold and covered in snow, but let's focus on that other stuff first.

So have some gifs and a lovely week. I'll be back on Tuesday.

There'll be a little bit of this...

Plenty of this...
Definitely this...

Hopefully even some of this...

And the whole thing will feel like this.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Just Because 'Jupiter Ascending' Is Bad Doesn't Mean It's Not Fun


I want to get one thing clear before we get going. I do not, under any circumstances, think that Jupiter Ascending is a good movie. Like, no way. Not even a little bit. It's awful. This does not, however, mean that I think you shouldn't go see it. You should. It's awful and cheesy and dumb and you need to watch it right now because it's going to bring you so much joy.

Was that confusing? Well so is this movie.

The film, which is an original science fiction piece from the minds of Andy and Lana Wachowski, is very had to summarize, but I'll do my best. The story follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), an undocumented Russian immigrant who lives with her mother and cleans toilets for a living - the American dream! Her life is dull and miserable until one day she tries to sell her eggs for cash and nearly gets abducted by aliens. Fortunately, a different alien, Caine (Channing Tatum), rescues her and they go off on a cross-country road trip of exposition.

It turns out that aliens are after Jupiter because she is the genetic reincarnation of the deceased matriarch of a very important space family. Said family is one of industrial, capitalist space vampires who harvest DNA or genes or souls or something from planets and then bathe in them so as to stay alive forever. And they see no moral problem with that because they themselves planted life on those planets in the first place.

Earth, it seems, is one of those planets, and its owner, Balem (Eddie Redmayne at his scenery chewing-est), wants to harvest it right now. But before he can do that, he has to kill Jupiter, because as his mother's reincarnation, she is entitled to an inheritance. And that inheritance is Earth. Because of reasons. Shut up and don't try to introduce logic into this movie.

Balem's siblings, Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth) both make their play to get Jupiter, and therefore her inheritance, on their side, while Balem keeps trying to kill her and Caine generally moons around repressing his love for Jupiter while angrily challenging everyone to a fight. Jupiter herself is mostly a macguffin meant to keep the plot, such as it is, moving, and there are no less than two sequences wherein Caine must race to stop Jupiter from doing something stupid and arrives just in the knick of time.

In the end, and trust me this really isn't a spoiler because I promise none of this plot matters at all, Jupiter manages to survive her space adventure and returns home to her argumentative Russian family, having decided that her life really isn't so bad. Plus, now she has a hot space boyfriend and secretly owns the planet. Not bad.

Like I said, the plot is definitely not this movie's strong point. What it does have going for it is, first, that it's absolutely gorgeous to look at, and, second, that it is the most entertaining experience you can have in a cinema right now. No, it's not good or even comprehensible, but it is savagely fun. Why? Because this movie has no idea what it is, and that is not a bad thing. Here is a list of things that actually happen in this movie:

-There are space bees that have been trained to recognize royalty. For some reason.

-Titus tries to marry the reincarnation of his mother.

-A space werewolf fights a dragon in an exploding DNA refinery. In space.

-Sean Bean plays a soldier who is part bee (named Stinger). Stinger betrays our heroes because his daughter has space cough and he needs space medicine to save her.

-There is a ten minute sequence of Jupiter and Caine navigating the space DMV.

-Two androgynous bureaucracy robots get into a staring contest.

-Jupiter mops up Caine's injury by sticking a sanitary napkin to it.

-Caine's motivation in the film is to get back his bionic angel wings which were taken from him.

-Jupiter is kidnapped no less than five times. Possibly more. I lost track.

And so much more.

My point here isn't that Jupiter Ascending is a good film, because it very patently isn't. Rather that good and entertaining are not necessarily the same thing. I might still be confused on what the actual plot of that film was, but I had a hell of a time watching it.

And to some extent, it is worth mentioning that there are some themes, and by and large they're compelling ones. Jupiter starts the film as an openly materialistic and relatively shallow person. She's obsessed with getting her way to a new life, because she's deeply dissatisfied with the one she has. Which is fair, because her life sucks. But as she discovers that she's space royalty and heir to a great fortune, Jupiter matures and discovers that being rich comes with its own set of problems. At the end, she's genuinely grateful for what she has and realizes that her life is actually kind of awesome.

I mean, the end of this movie is that our heroine goes back to her job cleaning toilets and arguing in Russian with her extended family, but there's something satisfying about how subversive that is. The whole film is, after all, a critique of capitalism*, and it's very pointed to see that in the end, Jupiter gives up all the wealth and title to live humbly as a maid because she has determined this is the better life.

No, it's not particularly subtle, but it is a nice message. Wealth and fame really aren't all they're cracked up to be and you're probably much happier cherishing what you have. It's nice to see the movie not pull any punches with that message, or try to get past it in some way. It makes for a strange ending, but a satisfying one.

For that matter, while the whole plot feels contrived and incredibly convoluted, the romance between Jupiter and Caine is remarkably sweet. Dumb and badly written, but sweet. Caine insists that he and Jupiter can never be together because she's so much better than he is (because she's royalty), while Jupiter just absolutely insists that there is no issue here and Caine should kiss her right the hell now. She is not subtle about how much she wants him to get over the whole class differences thing, and it's great. Just because it's not well written doesn't mean it's not fun.

It's clear, at least to me, that no one really knew what to do with this movie, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. While this film could definitely use a good editor and clearly has about three different stories vying for dominance, it's also a really unique vision and the kind of imaginative, lush, creative science fiction we all keep saying we so desperately want.

Yes, Jupiter is a total damsel and frequently a macguffin, but we do see the film through her eyes and that's pretty cool. Sure, Caine does a lot more to advance the plot than she does, but we're still talking about a giant Hollywood film based around a woman.

Also, it passes the Bechdel Test in the first ten minutes of the film and has really compelling female character sprinkled throughout the narrative. So while it's not taking Hollywood by storm or anything, this is a movie that cares about diversity at least a little (most of the main cast is white, but the supporting cast is solidly mixed) and has done some tiny things to change the status quo.

To a large extent the film works because the cast is so darn good. Mila Kunis totally sells it as Jupiter, clearly infusing her own actual experiences as a Russian immigrant into the role, because Jupiter is way more compelling and complex than she has any right to be. Kunis even goes so far as to make her character dry witted where the script might make her seem dumb, and overall saves her character from being just another blank face or "neutral mask". Channing Tatum isn't setting the world on fire with his portrayal of Caine, but he does a good job with some very silly material and reminds us all that he can be a good actor when he wants to be.

Even the minor characters, with the exception of Eddie Redmayne who was just having a really weird time in this movie, are great. Maria Doyle Kennedy and James D'Arcy are fantastic and tragic as Jupiter's doomed parents, and Vanessa Kirby is freaking hysterical as a rich woman whose house Jupiter cleans. Nikki Amuka-Bird does a great job humanizing her character as the space cop charged with protecting Jupiter, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is equally good as the nefarious space assistant arranging Jupiter's demise.

And there's something so viscerally satisfying about this story, such as it is. Sure, it's basically a teenage girl's first novel made into a multi-million dollar movie for everyone to see, but that's not really a bad thing. Yes, Jupiter is a Mary Sue, as in a perfect character who is clearly a wish fulfillment fantasy for the audience, but then so is Batman. And yes, the character designs and whole thing where every alien is just a person with some animal traits spliced in is silly, but who cares? It's fun. Just because something is generally associated with teenage girls and/or is a wish fulfillment narrative doesn't mean it's bad or not worth watching.

But all of this gets away from my larger point, which is that Jupiter Ascending is a gorgeous, delicious trainwreck of a film that you should absolutely go see.

It's not even because I think that you'd have fun laughing at it, like I did with the Twilight movies, or even that I think you'll enjoy hating it. Rather, I think that this movie is entertaining the way that abstract art is entertaining. There's a lot of pretty stuff to look at, many fun and/or funny things happen, and at the end your stomach will hurt from giggling and you will feel incredibly good about yourself and the world. No, you won't have any idea what just happened or how the heck this script got approved by a human being who could read, but that doesn't matter. You won't care. You'll still be smiling too hard to even notice.

And isn't that what movies are for, anyway?

Not judging, but was Eddie Redmayne on something while they were shooting this movie?
*The Abrasax empire, as in, the industrial empire that Jupiter's past self made, is literally built on human death and destruction. They harvest the poor and sell them to the rich so that the rich can live forever while the poor die. It's not a particularly subtle metaphor.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

'The 100' and the Untimely Death of Wells Jaha


Watching The 100 last night, in between all of my gasps and squeals and general loudness because I freaking love that show, I was reminded of a fact that I've held to be true for a while: Wells Jaha really shouldn't have died. Wells Jaha should not be dead. And the story has suffered because he is.

For those of you who are utterly baffled, let me explain. The 100, like I've gushed before, is a CW show currently airing that's based on a book of the same name by Kass Morgan. It's set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the human race was nearly wiped out by a nuclear war almost a hundred years ago, and the main survivors of that war were the people living on space stations in orbit. Those space stations came together to form The Ark, and since then the people of The Ark have been trying to find a way to go back to the ground. Their biggest problem was that the ground was still soaked in nuclear radiation.

At the start of the series, though, they've decided to see if people can live on the ground anyway. The Ark's life support systems are failing and they don't have much time left, so they send one hundred juvenile prisoners down to Earth and monitor their vital signs in the hopes of discovering whether or not it's survivable. 

The answer? Yes and no. I mean, it's not going to kill you with radiation, but there's plenty of other stuff down here that can kill you just as well. Grounders, Mountain Men, Reapers, radiation crazed wildlife, acid fog, horrible hurricanes, starvation, infection, disease...and that's just the first season.

Our main characters on the show are Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) and Bellamy Blake (Bob Morley), two of the people sent to the ground. Clarke is the daughter of two high ranking officials on the Ark and as such is called the Ark's "princess". Her crime was that of treason: when her father discovered the flaw in the Ark's system that was going to kill them all he tried to go public, and she tried to help. He was executed but she, because she was a minor, was held indefinitely in solitary confinement.*

Bellamy Blake, on the other hand, is neither a prisoner nor a member of the Ark's elite. He's a janitor who shot the Chancellor and snuck onto the drop ship going to the ground. The reason he did all of this is because his sister, Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos), was one of the juvenile prisoners being sent down. Her crime being her very existence, as all families on the Ark are only allowed one child. The dynamic between Clarke and Bellamy, who have radically different views of the world and humanity but somehow work really well together, is the subject of my first article on this series, actually.

Wells Jaha (Eli Goree), meanwhile, is also introduced as a main character. He's the prince to Clarke's princess: the son of the current Chancellor on the Ark (Thelonius Jaha, played by Isaiah Washington), he and Clarke were childhood friends until they had a severe falling out right before she was arrested. The reason is unknown for like half an episode, and then it's revealed that Clarke blames Wells for her father's death and her incarceration. She's absolutely sure that Wells is the one who told his father about their plan. And Wells doesn't deny it.

But even if Clarke is holding a grudge, we figure out pretty quickly that Wells is a genuinely good guy. He got himself arrested when he found out his father was sending down a drop ship of prisoners, because he didn't want Clarke to have to go alone. When they land on the ground and chaos breaks out, Wells tries to maintain order, albeit unsuccessfully. He alone takes the time and effort to bury the two boys who died during landing, and even rescues their shoes, understanding those to be a precious commodity down here.**

Clarke can rail and rant at him and all Wells does is take it. Even when they're trapped in an abandoned car while they wait for the acid fog to clear and Clarke gets drunk on old whiskey and screams at him for literal hours, Wells says nothing. He just takes it. He's in love with Clarke, yeah, but he's also clearly a really good person. A born leader. He thinks things through, he contemplates the important details, and he tries to make sure everyone is taken care of, even when they blatantly hate him.

And they do, for the record, hate him. Literally everyone on the ground hates Wells' guts because his father was the one who sentenced them to die here. His father is the one who had their mother/father/friend/etc executed because they broke some stupid rule. His father is the one who sentenced them to spend their youth in jail. His father is no one's favorite person, and so Wells isn't either, because he's the one they can reach.

So for three episodes we get to see Wells as this really compelling character. He's brave and generous and wonderful and kind and everyone despises him. Eventually we even find out that he wasn't the one who told his father about Clarke and her dad's treason. But he's taken the blame for it because he knew that Clarke would be happier if she could blame someone. He's literally that wonderful and amazing. And smart and good at tactics and protective, and pretty much the single best person on the show. So obviously, he dies.

In the most traumatic possible way, too.

See, there's this other character, Charlotte (Izabela Vidovic), who we meet early on as well. She's very young, much younger than anyone else - probably twelve - and both Clarke and Bellamy take a parental eye to her. She's having a hard time being on the ground and we're also told that she had a really hard time up in the Sky Box too. She has nightmares every night, can't sleep, and is forever reliving the horrible moment when her parents were arrested and executed. (Her crime is that she assaulted a guard when they tried to take her away.)

She sees Chancellor Jaha's face in her dreams every night and she's tormented by her memories. A sweet girl, but definitely one with some issues. Clarke tries to teach her about moving on with her life now, and Bellamy tells her to slay her demons (metaphorically). But Charlotte takes those two pieces of advice and turns them into the worst idea ever: killing Wells so that she can sleep.

She does. She kills him. It's horrible. She just slips a knife in his neck, sobbing about why she's doing it, and then Wells is dead. And sure, the following storyline is really interesting, as the kids at first jump to the wrong conclusion and actually hang the wrong kid for Wells' death before being struck by the problem of punishing a genuinely mentally ill child for murder. It's a compelling story arc, but it's also horrible. Charlotte eventually solves the problem for everyone by killing herself. It stinks. I cried.

The biggest tragedy for me is that now we don't get Wells anymore. We don't get his character on the show, and that seriously blows. It's a big problem narratively, and it only gets worse as time goes on. The problem is that Wells' death reduces him to a touchstone for the other characters. He becomes a symbol of his father's failure, of Clarke's inability to forgive people, and for Bellamy's failure to save Charlotte from herself. 

But if he'd lived, he would have had the opportunity to become a character who still stands for all the stuff he stood for in the beginning, and who speaks reason and logic into Bellamy and Clarke when they start to go a little overboard. He could and would be the one trying to make a peace treaty with the Grounders. He's the one who would try to find common ground with the adults on the Ark. Or, he's the one who would have been leading a quiet rebellion inside Mount Weather. 

Because Wells wasn't there, because he was dead too soon, other characters have had to step in and essentially tell his storylines. So Finn (Thomas McDonell) became the voice of pacifism and peace and common sense, despite that not making a whole lot of sense with how his character was introduced. 

He was supposed to be the fun, kind of irresponsible guy. And while I get that being on the ground meant they all changed as people, his character does a complete turnaround super early on in the season.

Later, Wells would have been the one helping Clarke get supplies, or helping Bellamy strategize. He would have absolutely opposed them torturing the grounder in the drop ship, and his dissent would have made for a much more powerful narrative. Wells' character fills the holes that exist in Clarke and Bellamy's power structure and narrative arc, and while the story tries to patch that up with Finn, making him the voice of dissent, it doesn't work.

Also, with Wells' death, we lose the real opportunity for him to call out his father on all the crap he's done. You just know that after hearing Charlotte's story and the stories of most of the kids on the ground, Wells would have something to say to his father about the way he's ruled the Ark all these years. Furthermore, Wells would take great issue with the choices his father has made since coming to the ground and would probably yell at him a lot over the thing he did in this most recent episode!

In short, we missed a lot, not having Wells. And that super stinks. Not just because the narrative has suffered for it, or even because it would have been perfectly possible to pull off that same storyline and just have him in a coma rather than dead, but because Wells Jaha was a kind, generous, wonderful young man, and he was pretty much the perfect stereotype buster for representations of black teenage boys.

I'm not saying that John Mbege (Aaron Miko) and Nathan Miller (Jarod Joseph) are bad representations. They're just less developed and less central to the narrative. It was super cool for the first few episodes to think that this was going to be a story where the central decision making team of the show was going to be a woman and two men of color (Clarke, Bellamy, and Wells). 

Even better, it was really awesome to see that Wells was going to be the one standing for peace and understanding and taking a reasoned approach. Basically the opposite of how black teenage boys are usually shown by the media.

But that didn't happen, because he died. Instead, the character who got to be the one "in the right" all the time was Finn, a white guy with a pretty stereotypical and arguably dull view of the world. It could have been much better than that, and I'm not just saying it because I never personally like Finn much.

I get that the writers wanted to establish the stakes of the show early on, to tell a really hard story, and to show that no character is safe. But come on. Did we have to kill the black guy first? Seriously?

It's Black History Month right now, as I've said all week, and so I thought it was time to talk about Wells Jaha. Not because he's historical or really all that important in the grand scheme of things, but to look at the way things might have been if his character had been allowed to live. To stop for a minute and realize that it didn't actually have to happen this way. Choices were made, and those choices were, frankly, bad. Wells Jaha should not have died and Eli Goree should still be on this show. That's just a fact.

It may not change anything to write this now, but I hope that next time you see a story where a black guy dies and didn't have to, that you get mad. That you question it. And that you seriously wonder what would happen if we just let them live.


*The Ark's policy is that first time offenses are punishable with death, since space is harsh and there are limited resources. First offenses for minor result in imprisonment in the Sky Box until they turn eighteen, at which time their case is reevaluated and either they are placed back in general population or killed. Fun stuff.

**And on the Ark, actually. One of my favorite details on this show is how realistically worn everyone's clothes are. Since the Ark had no means of production, all clothing has been passed down or stitched together from whatever clothes were available a hundred years ago. Every person has only one outfit and those clothes are clearly very old. And before any execution, the condemned take off their shoes and outer clothing so as to preserve precious resources. It's just a really interesting and well done touch.