The first exposure I had to thinking about movies as more than just pure spectacle was watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert flay each other over who liked what movie and why on their weekly television show, Siskel & Ebert. The cultural impact of Siskel & Ebert is enormous–just think of how saturated “two thumbs up” is in our pop-culture lexicon–but Roger Ebert had a more personal resonance to me as a film writer working on his turf in Chicago. Read more »
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First, the definition of heckler by someone who has been heckled in a variety of forms over a range of media, from real life to electronic.
A heckler is anyone who disturbs your shit.
Disagree? Fine. Everyone gets to have an opinion, even dumb ones (just like we’re free to judge those opinions as dumb). But don’t interrupt someone who is speaking. This is what I like about the internet—as gross and ragey as commentary can get, it is literally impossible to interrupt someone. I find writing to be a much more civil exchange, even at its most uncivil, than stand-up comedy ever was. Here on the internet, I write something, like this, and then you respond. And then I can either respond or not, depending on my level of motivation, conviction of belief, and the relative interestingness of whatever a commenter has said in response to my initial thought. Even if it’s to be yelled at, I can’t be interrupted here. In turn, I can’t interrupt anyone who would take the time and comment/email/tweet me. Everyone gets their say. Read more »
This is going to get very nerdy.
The L stop near my home in Chicago is plastered with Avengers posters in advance of the movie hitting theaters on May 4. As I was studying the display, I thought about how much Scarlett Johansson stands out, and no, not just because her little gun looks ridiculous next to Thor’s hammer and Iron Man and The Hulk. No, I was thinking about how, as the only woman featured in the marketing campaign, Johansson solely represents what women will be in Joss Whedon’s version of the Avengers universe (good thing Whedon has a history of creating intricate, strong female characters). What I get from Black Widow, the superhero Johansson plays, in the ads is “sexy but functional”. Her leather body suit, though tight and unzipped, doesn’t actually show any cleavage. It’s no more exploitative than Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye costume or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor getup, which leaves their awesome guns bare.
The other woman featured in The Avengers, though not in the advertising, is SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother)—you can see a clip of her here. And that’s pretty much it. Two women. I’m sure that Gwyneth Paltrow will make an appearance as Pepper Potts at some point, but she’s not featured throughout the film like Black Widow and Agent Hill. Then I started wondering if that was an issue, that there are only two women in The Avengers. Comic books are and always have been ripe with interesting, strong female characters. Having only two in the movie seems like tokenism—here you go boys, here are some hot chicks to look at. But then I thought about the five X-Men movies and realized that though they feature a plethora of female superheroes, most of them are useless. Storm is so awesome in the comics that I always wanted to be her when we played X-Men as kids, but in the movies she’s best known for Halle Berry’s series of increasingly awful wigs. The best we got from X-Men was Jean Grey and Mystique and that’s, well, two.
So it’s quality, then, not quantity when it comes to female superheroes in movies. I’ll take two great heroines over nine useless bimbos any day of the week. But why is it so important that we have “good” female superheroes? Well, empowerment, sure. Twenty years ago when I was a kid (OMG I’M OLD), no one ever challenged my right to run alongside the boys in the neighborhood, pretending to shoot lightning bolts out of my hands. But looking at it now, I think who we’re really empowering with female superheroes are little boys. They grow up reading comics featuring an array of strong, ass-kicking women who may be scantily clad, but they’re also shooting death lasers out of their eyes and sometimes they even save—or defeat—the heroes. Boys grow up accepting that women can be beautiful and badass, and that they are equal partners in whatever death-defying heroics you’re reading about that week.
And as for the “scantily clad” bit, yes, female superheroes are inherently sexual. For the most part, they’re drawn by men for the male gaze. But in the realm of the comic book, it doesn’t feel like objectification. If in The Avengers movie we’re treated to the sight of Johansson’s jiggling breasts, it comes simultaneously as she beats the shit out of a couple dudes (while she’s tied to a chair). It says, “Yes, boys, my boobs are bouncy, but I can choke you out so watch yourself.” It’s the unification of female power and female sexuality and it presents it in a way that does not scare boys, but subconsciously programs them to find strength and independence sexy and desirable. I might be reaching, but when I think of the comic geeks I know and the kind of women they’re attracted to, I think there’s something to it. They grew up reading about these incredibly self-determined women and now as adults, they’re to a one attracted to free-thinking, independent women. It’s not universal I’m sure—nothing ever is—but it can’t hurt that boys are exposed to a system in which female power and sexuality are treated as inherently the same.
The man directing The Avengers, Joss Whedon, is a comic geek from way back and he’s built his career on strong female characters like Buffy. Even though I’m not a huge Johansson fan, I’m interested to see how Whedon makes use of her in The Avengers, especially since she was little more than an eye-candy afterthought in Iron Man 2. It’s only 66 seconds, but the clip of Black Widow linked above made me happy. There’s some wry humor, sure, but the key to me is the reason she’s on the phone. Hawkeye (Renner) is in trouble and the Black Widow needs to go save him. This is exactly what I’m talking about. There’s Johansson with her boobs out, but she’s also being set up as the savior of an equally powerful male counterpart. It’s a very fine line to walk between celebration and exploitation but I feel like Whedon is managing it. And that’s why I’ll take The Avengers and its two female superheroes over anything starring a bunch of pointless dolls. At her best, the female superhero shows us that a woman can be beautiful, sexy, and desirable while simultaneously being independent, strong, and capable.
Because men aren’t the only ones who can be pervy. We like to look, too. And turnabout is fair play. So I asked for your suggestions and added in some of my favorites and here we have it, the first ever celebration of the Female Gaze, Cinesnark style. And for the three dudes reading this—um, fun?
And I really don’t want to be one. I consider myself a feminist in that I am a woman who thinks that women should be able to do whatever the fuck they want with themselves and have equal access/opportunity as men. But I don’t like getting militant about it, because that’s usually when people start writing you off as a nut and rolling their eyes and generally tuning you out. But sometimes, no matter how hard I try to keep an even keel, eventually the effect of a hundred slings and arrows reaches the point that there’s nothing left but the Boudicean rage of a thousand years of repression and oppression. On that note, let’s talk about Vanity Fair.
Sexism AND racism – it’s a two-for-one deal!
Vanity Fair takes a lot of shit for being a super whitebread publication that has several annual issues pertaining to the entertainment industry and then failing to reflect the ever-increasing diversity of those entertainments. Put simply: They always put white chicks on their cover with a token woman of color thrown into the background on the inside flap. Today VF has released their May issue, which is dedicated to the “Ladies of TV”, and they put a not-white person (Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara) on the cover…and then stripped her down and stuck her between the sheets. Overall, this VF cover shoot is very…booby. The ladies on the cover—Vergara is joined by Juliana Margulies (The Good Wife), Claire Danes (Homeland) and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey)—are tucked into sheets with cleavage busting out, or, in Dockery’s case, bare back exposed. The inside cover fold-out is an equally egregious offense—a collection of women posed in vintage-inspired lingerie, boobs out.
Giving credit where it’s due, this is one of the most diverse spreads VF has done in recent memory, which isn’t really saying much, but let’s take progress where we get it. Besides Vergara on the cover, the fold-out includes Kerry Washington (her new show Scandal begins in April), Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife) and Grace Park (Hawaii Five-0). We’ve also got some positive body-image stuff happening with the deliciously voluptuous Kat Dennings—I’ve never been a huge fan of hers, but GODDAMN her body is crazy—and the normal-sized Emily Deschanel (Bones), plus proud curvy girl Vergara. And the ages are fairly well represented. Dockery is the youngest cover girl at 31—Margulies and Vergara are both over 40—and only three of the seven women featured on the fold-out are twenty-somethings: Dennings, Revenge’s Emily VanCamp and Shameless’ Emmy Rossum. So, yes, progress. There is SOME diversity in color, age and body type.
But is it enough?
I might not be so sensitive to this except we’re just coming off the appallingly racist reaction to casting decisions in The Hunger Games and the issue of how progressive we really are is on my mind. There’s something I heard about the movie Hitch once that has stuck with me and the VF cover calls it to mind. Hitch was developed as a vehicle for Will Smith, and in the initial casting cycle they auditioned several well-known leading ladies who happened to be white (Hitch, if you haven’t seen it, is a romantic comedy, albeit a pretty terrible one). Then someone decided that America wasn’t really ready for an interracial rom-com, but they also worried that white audiences wouldn’t support the movie if Smith was partnered with a black actress (I am dying on the inside, writing this out). The compromise? Enter Eve Mendes, a Latina actress. This was seen as “the answer” to the interracial “problem”—dark enough to “match” Smith but still light enough to qualify as “interracial”. I don’t even know which part of this offends me the most. Literally years later and I still can’t process that this happened in the twenty-first century. But the VF cover reminds me of the Hitch thing. I don’t know that Vergara’s inclusion on the cover over, say, Taraji Henson, who is the female lead on the popular new Person of Interest, is a Hitch-like compromise, but knowing the decision has been made at least once before, I can’t shake the nagging suspicion.
And what of Melissa McCarthy, Oscar nominee and Emmy winner for her CBS sitcom Mike & Molly? That’s an awful show that I wish would cease to exist on principle, but you can’t argue that this has been McCarthy’s year, between the success of Bridesmaids and her Emmy win. And now she’s producing, too, developing pilots and getting them to network. Why not put McCarthy on your cover? She’s a long-time television presence—Suki!—who has turned into a burgeoning power player. She was the first—and most obvious—exclusion I noticed when I looked the spread over. I thought, How can they not include Melissa McCarthy, who is the new queen of TV comedy? And then I thought, Oh yeah, because she’s a big girl and this is a lingerie shoot. Note to the VF editors: When an actress is having the kind of year McCarthy has had, you can’t ignore her, and if including her means you have to scrap your objectifying lingerie-themed photoshoot, YOU SCRAP THE OBJECTIFYING LINGERIE-THEMED PHOTOSHOOT.
Which brings us to the ogling.
This year in entertainment belongs to the female ass-kicker. This is the year we met Katniss Everdeen in the flesh—in ALL her glorious flesh, which we’ll get to—the year that Bella Swan finally does something approaching useful, the year that fairy-tale princesses put down the goddamn singing sparrows and take up arms, and that women on TV are some of the best schemers and politickers around, thanks to Revenge and Game of Thrones, and I have high hopes for Washington’s Scandal. So why then is the theme of VF’s TV issue “scantily clad eye candy”? Why not put them all in varying styles of armor, give them swords and shields, and stage it like a motherfucking uprising of amazing? Because the message here, as always, is that women can go so far before they must be sent back to the boudoir, because that’s the real domain of women. And if you think I’m being oversensitive, I want you to ask yourself what a similar cover shoot for men might look like. Unless it’s all the hottest dudes on TV doing this, then no, I’m not being oversensitive.
Your Body is Bad, and other lessons we need to un-learn
Before we get into the quagmire of double standards and learned body dysmorphia that surrounds The Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence, I want you to read the following statement, and then repeat it back to yourself, out loud. I’m deadly serious—say this back to yourself, OUT LOUD. Go into the bathroom, your dorm room, your car, whatever, and look in a mirror and tell yourself the following:
There is no wrong way to be a woman. There is no wrong way to be me. This (point at yourself, for real) is right and worthy.
I talk a lot of shit about celebrities, most of them women. I’ll pick apart clothing and style choices, I’ll photo-assume the state of someone’s relationship based on one candid photo, I’ll judge a person’s worth in the arena of public opinion based on which designer she wears to the Oscars. I accept that all that means I’m a shitty person with a heart made of spiders and turpentine. But one thing I won’t do is criticize a woman—or anyone—for something she can’t help. That’s why excessive plastic surgery makes me so sad-mad—women slicing their faces into oblivion to meet some arbitrary (and let’s face it, probably male-determined) standard of beauty is infuriating. You are the way you are, and while there are certain parameters that can be adjusted, everyone has their basic shape and reality. And there is nothing wrong with that. There’s no wrong way to be a woman, to be yourself, and we’re each right and worthy in our own ways.
So the mere idea that the “fatness of Katniss” is a thing makes me BREATHE FIRE.
From the moment Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss Everdeen, there was discussion about whether or not she was the right choice, as there always is whenever a beloved literary character is brought to the big screen. And yes, I do remember people questioning whether or not Lawrence could accurately portray a character with a history of malnourishment, but one who also runs and jumps and shoots things and whose physical prowess as a hunter has kept her family alive. To me, yes, Lawrence embodied that Katniss. She was strong and athletic and capable—when she shot a bow and arrow you believed she could really handle that weapon. But her tiny waist and long limbs also suggested a willowy-ness, a hint of vulnerability under the steel. And speaking of Lawrence as a person, she’s GORGEOUS. She has an insane body that is all the more beautiful because it isn’t the Hollywood norm. She’s tall and has breasts and hips and an ass and thighs and it’s beautiful. She looks like a real person.
So far, it seems like Lawrence is handling the criticism of her body well, supposedly laughing it off and pointing out the double-standard that her equally fit male co-stars, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth, are not being criticized for appearing too “well fed”. But the larger issue is what this is telling the girls out there who look up to Katniss and see in Lawrence that having jiggly bits is not only acceptable but also sexy and beautiful. The “fatness of Katniss” tells girls that while too thin is a problem so is strong. Because this isn’t about being overweight or childhood obesity, this is about a young woman with a very fit, athletic body that happens to be bigger than an A-cup being judged as too fat. Jennifer Lawrence is not a stick insect but she is far, far from fat. And I resent the implication that she—that anyone with her body type—is too fat. I resent it on behalf of the tall girl who slouches down, the short girl who wears platforms every day, the thin girl who binge eats and the plump one that purges.
So what’s the lesson today? That you can’t be too thin but you also can’t have any curves and the pinnacle of female empowerment is on par with being trussed up in lingerie and posed, boobs out, to be gazed upon as an object of desire. And too bad if your skin is dark, you’re still an also-ran and we’re deigning to acknowledge you.
Fuck that noise.
There is no wrong way to be a woman. There is no wrong way to be me. This is right and worthy.
Let’s start with just talking about The Help as a movie. It translated well to screen, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s wildly popular book by writer/direcotr Tate Taylor (Pretty Ugly People). I wasn’t a huge fan of the book—not only did it not live up to the hype but I found it kind of offensive—but the movie was a more enjoyable experience to me. This story definitely worked better with the benefit of a top-notch cast. Like X-Men: First Class before it, The Help is a study in how good actors can elevate mediocre material. The Help is about twenty minutes too long and parts of it drag, giving it some awkward pacing issues. The movie worked better and was more interesting when it focused on the home lives of Aibilene (Viola Davis, Doubt, in a performance sure to be in the mix come Oscar season) and Minnie (Octavia Spencer, Peep World, in a breakout role). I could’ve used more Aibilene and Minnie at home and less Skeeter going on dates.
Speaking of Skeeter, Emma Stone delivers a solid if not mind-blowing performance as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the young journalist who begins compiling the stories of black maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. Stone shows she can capably handle a weighty role like this, but it isn’t a chameleonic performance. That’s definitely still Emma Stone, but she’s effective and likeable as Skeeter. All around, the acting in The Help is really, really good. Besides Davis, Spencer and Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Allison Janney (The West Wing), Sissy Spacek and Ahna O’Reilly (most famous for being James Franco’s ex) fill out the ensemble. Chastain is particularly good as Celia Foote, a tacky trophy wife. She hires Minnie after Hilly Holbrook (Howard), queen of the Junior League, has blacklisted her from the homes of Jackson. Celia and Minnie develop an interesting relationship, more friendly than Minnie is comfortable with, and their plotline pays off in a moving scene when Celia suffers a miscarriage. Everything that worked in The Help worked because of these actresses delivering strong performances. I didn’t dislike The Help and that’s solely down to the quality of the acting.
Still, The Help has some problems, and they’re all carry-overs from the book. The racial politics at play are troubling at best. Here’s what bugs me about The Help: The segregated South and the Civil Rights Era are incredibly complicated histories which have no neat and tidy ending. So what does it mean that The Help attempts to resolve those things with a neat and tidy ending? I don’t begrudge Stockett and Taylor wanting to tell an uplifting story—and The Help as a movie can be taken as an uplifting story—but I wonder about telling THIS story in THAT way. To me, it feels like trying to solve a couple hundred years of racial tension in two hours, which is cheap and not possible. It’s like—look at Skeeter, she’s so well-meaning she’s going to help these poor black women better themselves! And the maids are going to pass their down-home wisdom on to their clueless white employers! And everyone is better off! And we’re all friends now! If you simply don’t ask yourself any questions, if you just watch the movie and don’t second-guess anyone’s intentions, The Help will make you feel good. It is a positive message. There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself.
But is there something wrong with NOT asking those questions? Because what does The Help tell us really? That it takes a privileged white woman to effect change. It’s a gross over-simplification of an incredibly complex subject, and it’s offensive to take agency away from the African-American characters like that. If you’re capable of shutting off that part of your brain, enjoy, but I couldn’t and I felt the movie suffered for it. I was borderline uncomfortable throughout because of the representation of these characters. Again, the actresses do a helluva job overcoming this, but they can’t quite clear the hurdle. Hilly is so awful, such a caricature, that of course no one in the audience is going to identify with her. The thing that makes this history so complex is that all this awful stuff was carried out by normal people. Of course there are Hillys in the world. There are people who are “mean for sport”, as one character calls it. But the reason Jim Crow was allowed to continue as long as it did is because a lot of otherwise nice people simply did nothing. This was institutional racism that pervaded generations. My granny was a wonderful woman and I loved her very much but she had some ideas I could not reconcile. Born in 1914, raised in rural Texas—you can imagine what she thought about certain subjects. She wasn’t a bad person but she was fundamentally wrong. It’s the dark blot on the Greatest Generation. They were just. Plain. Wrong.
So The Help’s cotton-candy approach to this is to suggest that all this bad stuff came from villainous cartoons like Hilly when really, it was normal people like my Granny. It was EVERYONE. It was an endemic cancer and no one escaped it. I give The Help some credit for trying to create more agency for the black maids (they really emphasize that without the maid’s cooperation Skeeter can’t write her book), but they don’t go far enough. There are moments where you see the ongoing nature of the strife, especially at the end when Aibilene is fired and must leave her young white charge, Mae Mobley. The child is genuinely upset—Aibilene is more her mother than her actual mother, which is the same circumstance we see with Skeeter and her one-time nanny/maid. But we also see that Mae Mobley’s mother, Elizabeth (O’Reilly), is coming to realize she is going to have to raise her own children and that her treatment of Aibilene hasn’t been right. I’m not sure that moment would ever really come for a real-world Elizabeth. She’s my Granny—she never changed her mind. She just stopped sharing her opinions out loud because she knew it wasn’t acceptable anymore.
The Help wants us to feel good. It wants us to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come. But I’m not sure we should feel good and I don’t know that we have actually come that far. This history can’t be whitewashed. This isn’t a story I’m sure deserves a happy ending. I appreciate what The Help tries to do—reconcile a difficult and contentious history—but the simple approach doesn’t seem like the right one. Where this irked me the most—disappointed me the most—was in the resolution of Minnie’s story. She’s been teaching Celia to cook and in the end, Celia cooks Minnie an elaborate meal and serves it to her in the dining room, a room Minnie has refused to eat in, feeling it’s not “right”. And just as I know there are people as awful as Hilly in the world, I know there are people as good as Celia, but this is just so…pat. It’s such a nice, tidy bow for the movie. Look, the black servant and white employers are genuinely friends! To me, the better, more honest ending would be to show that Celia has learned to cook but she keeps Minnie on as her maid, because everyone knows no one else will hire Minnie at this point. Everyone sitting at the table together feels fake, but continuing to employ help you don’t really need because it’s the right thing to do? That feels more real.
It’s a complicated movie, despite a serious effort at not being so. It’s worth seeing for the acting alone—Davis and Spencer are outstanding—but we should be asking ourselves the difficult questions the movie tries so hard to avoid. We shouldn’t let The Help, or ourselves, off the hook just because we want to feel good about this now. There is no feeling good about this. This past will always exist. It will always be ugly. We can only move forward and try to be better.