Monday, October 5, 2015

Canon, SwanQueen, and Chemistry, or, the Difference between Writing and Performance

I’ve blogged about Once Upon a Time before, and that post was mostly focused on the feminism of Season One. Having now caught up with the show, and spent a wee bit of time internetting about this SwanQueen fandom that people have so many strong opinions about, I’m wading into the debate about the nature of Emma and Regina’s relationship.

The showrunners of OUAT have stated unequivocally that Regina and Emma will never be a romantic couple, and yet a massive number of the show’s fans consider themselves SwanQueen shippers—they believe that the two should be a couple, or subtextually already are.

Now, as I writer, I believe in text, and I’m not a big shipper generally or someone who spends a lot of time reading into (or manufacturing) subtext. But SwanQueen shippers have picked up on something that the writers have no control over: chemistry.

Because let’s be real here. Mary Margaret and David have the chemistry of a brother and sister who are five or six years old building forts in the backyard. Regina and Robin have minimal chemistry—at best, they might be an awkward couple at homecoming who tacitly agree that if they ever have to spend time together again, it will be in the context of a group hang (seriously, did they forget to screen test those two before they cast Robin?). Emma and Hook, they do okay—maybe they’re the high school couple that’s so cute together until college starts and they realize there’s a whole big world of interesting people out there to explore.  

But really, the only times sparks fly on this show (magic or otherwise) are when Regina and Emma are on screen together. Writers can write whatever they want when they’re huddled together with a bunch of laptops, but once those words are in the mouths of living, breathing people, the writers lose their control over the meaning of them.

In performance genres, chemistry is right up there with remembering your lines—it’s everything. This is why Scandal falls so flat for me—Fitz and Olivia have zero chemistry. This is why it surprised no one who saw Mr and Mrs Smith when Angelina and Brad became a real-life couple. Every time they touched on screen—hell, every time they looked at each other—you felt like a dirty voyeur for watching. Buffy and Angel? Great chemistry. Buffy and Riley? Co-workers who have nothing in common.

And Regina and Emma? They’re hot together. They stare at each other’s lips, and they piss each other off, and they feel things for each other. Never mind how many times they’ve tried to sacrifice everything for each other, how they so clearly understand each other better than anyone else, how they share a son. All of this creates truly excellent subtext. But the chemistry between them—that’s what seals the deal for SwanQueen shippers.

So, if we’re being real, we’ll admit that it’s never going to happen. And maybe it’s in part because of the chemistry between them. Maybe this Disney show on ABC is totally afraid of chemistry, straight or otherwise, and that’s why the producers are okay with Snow White and Prince Charming, who are supposed to represent the ultimate true love, lacking it entirely. There’s a whole lot we can say about this possibility—a whole lot about puritan values, our fear of female sexuality, and the plethora of things that get hidden behind the phrase “for the children.” But that’s a conversation for another day.

For now, I’ll just leave you with this image of steamy on-screen chemistry and go imagine what kind of shenanigans Regina and Emma got up to when that dagger changed hands.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Faking It: An absolutely delightful romp through the high school we all wish we could have gone to

*This post contains NO spoilers past the pilot

Hester High School—god, I bet we all wish we had gone there. Located in Austin, Texas, this is a school where those who protest corporations the loudest, those who drive the most eco-friendly cars, and those with the most alternative sexualities are the popular kids. Hester High is the primary location for MTV’s Faking It, possibly the most enjoyable, laugh-inducing show I’ve seen in a long time. In anticipation of the premiere of season 2B on Monday (Aug 31), I binge watched the entire show (18 episodes far).

The premise might sound oversimple and perhaps even insulting: best friends Amy and Karma are mistaken for lesbians and, when their popularity at school skyrockets, decide to fake being a couple. But by the end of the first episode, when they share a steamy kiss in front of the entire school, things grow more complicated for one of them.

The show is topical and timely in an era where Kristen Stewart comes out by saying “I think in three or four years … there are going to be a whole lot more people who don’t think it’s necessary to figure out if you’re gay or straight. It’s like, just do your thing” (interview in Nylon Magazine). Rather than rehashing coming out stories that this generation of high schoolers have clearly moved past, the show embraces ambiguity, confusion, and exploration. Everyone in high school is faking something, and the show says unequivocally that it’s okay to take time to figure yourself out, and that the lies we tell in high school don’t have to end the world (like they do in Buffy*) or define us (My So-Called Life).

Tone-wise, it’s one of the brightest shows out there. If The Killing is a 1 on the happiness scale (seriously, I never once laughed during four seasons of that show, and while I love it, it was dark from the cinematography to the content to the tone), than Faking It is a 10. It’s refreshing to encounter a show that doesn’t treat high school like it’s everything, but also somehow avoids turning into nothing but camp (which is what happened with Glee).

The cast of characters is charming, and the relationship between Amy and Karma is friendship we all wish we had (with or without the sexual tension). Likewise, the friendship between rich-kid Liam and out and proud Shane is absolutely lovely. The two boys have a blast together at sing-alongs or bar fights, joking about their two sexualities with equal levity—hetrosexuality isn’t erased or the norm at Hester. Rather, it’s as available for good-natured teasing and puns as homosexuality has become. The main characters’ parents complete the show, rounding out its politics and questions of identity. 

If you’ve got 22 minutes, head over to treat yourself to the pilot (sadly, with commercials). You’ll laugh, you’ll grin, and you’ll probably be hooked. 

*Nothing against Buffy or My So-Called Life--I love both those shows!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

5 things the Pretty Little Liars writers could have done to make it okay for A to be trans

1. Had at least one other trans character on the show
If a character who had been in and out of the show since Season One or Two had been trans, and friendly with the girls, and generally good, it would have gone a long way to supporting the writers’ claims that their reveal wasn’t transphobic. There are tons of lesbians in this small town for Emily to date—surely it doesn’t strain credulity (any more than anything else on this show) for there to be two trans kids. This also would have just been a great plotline for the writers, regardless.

2. Spent a LOT of time in the finale reminding audiences of how many other people harassed and tormented the lairs
Remember Mona, the original A, who taught CeCe everything she knew? Remember creepy Wilden and the way he essentially blackmailed Hanna’s mom into sleeping with him? And the NAT club, whose mission it was to take secret videos of young girls in their bedrooms? And let’s not forget the ultimate creepster (who, let’s be honest, should really have been A): Ezra, who serially spies on and dates under-aged girls, who has boxes and boxes of info on their lives so he can profit off of their lives by writing a book. Make CeCe just part of an awful club, not a uniquely bad egg, and you go a long way toward supporting your claim that her trans status doesn’t make her bad—she’s just bad, like a bunch of other people.

3. Hit harder that CeCe endured abusive parenting from two pretty awful people
Mona mentions this briefly, but it’s not enough. CeCe’s father put her in an insane asylum when she was, like six. That’s just awful. There’s no excuse for that. And her mother let him. And he did it because she liked to wear dresses. And her mother never fought to get her out of there. And her mother bribed cops and covered up murders. And her father was just generally a dick. So, you know, nurture over nature here—CeCe didn’t have much of a chance to be normal. Take more time to show how messed up you get when you’re parents don’t love you like they should, when you don’t get held and kissed as a child, when you’re cut off from everything you know and locked up.

4.     Which brings me to: Take the opportunity to talk about institutionalization.
If you lock someone up from the age of six (or whatever), guess what: they’ll become as crazy as you pretend they already are. We shouldn’t be institutionalizing young children. What kind of therapy did she get at Radley? None? Then say that! And spend some time comparing her to Bethany, who was legit crazy. This contrast would serve to normalize CeCe, or at least make her more sympathetic.

5.     Address the aftermath more fully, immediately.
PLL is a show about surveillance, about young girls controlling what happens to them, about predators. But, it’s also very much a show about forgiveness. It’s ridiculous that Paige tried to drown Emily and then they ended up dating. It’s ridiculous that Mona was the original A who blackmailed those girls, hit them with her car, and generally tormented them, and they’re all, “well, you’re better now so let’s be friends again. Also, you’re smart so we want you on our side.” If the liars can forgive Paige, if they can forgive Mona, then it’s pretty clear they will have to forgive CeCe. We get hints of this when they beg her not to jump off of the roof. At the very least, though, when that whole scene ended and CeCe said “game over,” Alison should have walked toward her. We don’t even need to see what happens next—do they hug it out? Just stand there staring at each other? Cry?—we just need to see that Alison is already starting to forgive her sister. CeCe then becomes just one in a long string of people who have messed up majorly, but will manage to come out on the other side okay. CeCe then becomes one of the Liars, like Alison and Mona. CeCe then becomes as normal as anyone ever is, minority status aside, which is the argument the show seems at its heart to want to make.

*And yes, I know at this point there’s no way they could have done all this in a single episode. So make it a double-episode, two-hour, mid-season finale. Give this moment, which we’ve all waited years for, the time it deserves and do it right.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Critiques of the Radical Left on Gay Marriage

For days now I’ve considered posting to Facebook: “Since the Obergefell decision came down, my Facebook feed has been filled with more critiques of gay marriage from the radical left than from the right. And I have to say: critiques from the left are just as personally hurtful and shaming as those from the right.”

But I’m hesitant to post this because I know I’ll get more critiques of gay marriage, only this time they’ll be on my wall instead of in my feed.

But I can’t keep this in any longer, so, here’s my rant against the radical leftist critiques of gay marriage.

There is a profound privilege that comes with the left saying “marriage is the wrong objective.” First, let’s be clear: marriage has never been the ONLY objective, as a lot of radicals seem to think. There’s a concern that the LGBT movement will stop now that we’ve won marriage rights, and we’ll forget about workplace and housing discrimination, about violence against members (especially transgender members) of our community. I seriously doubt that HRC and NCLR and others are going to close up shop and go home now. Certainly grassroots movements won't stop fighting these battles. We all know there’s more work to be done. That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate this victory.

Indeed, forgetting to celebrate our victories along the way is a big problem. Among other things, it makes us feel like we never win, if we can’t stop and smell the roses when we do. It feeds cynicism, which feeds inaction. So, I actually think not celebrating gay marriage has the potential to stop political movements more than celebrating it.

But here’s another reason leftists critiques are privileged: they forget that for a lot of people, the benefits of marriage are essential for hospital visitation, for adoption rights, for their financial situation. There are countless stories of people who saw spouses through terminal illnesses, giving up their job to do so, and had no money at the end of expensive medical treatments, no job prospects, and, without gay marriage, no survivor’s benefits. Edie Windsor was vaguely in this situation, only she had plenty of money so she didn’t NEED survivor’s benefits. That’s partly why she was a plaintiff—she was rich and eloquent. But she spoke on behalf of plenty of people who aren’t those things, and for whom marriage rights come with necessary financial relief. Failure to recognize this material reality of marriage rights is ironic, considering how many radical leftists are hyper-aware of class issues.

Leftist critiques often land on this: marriage is a problematic institution and we shouldn’t join it. Well, if you want to undo marriage, start a political movement to do that. I haven’t really heard of any organizations doing this—although I suspect now there might be right-leaning organizations trying to do exactly this. But, problematic as civil marriage might be, as long as it exists, we should want it to be available to everyone.

A lot of straight left radicals say that marriage was the wrong objective for gays—and god does this one gall me. Who are you to tell us what we should want? The right does that enough, thank you. The vast majority of gays want the option to marry—even if they themselves don’t want to marry. Get off your high horse and support what our movement has overwhelmingly said we want.

And finally, the personal . . . I wrote about this a bit in my novel Barring Complications, but marriage is profoundly personal. It inflicts tiny wounds to a person’s sense of self to have their relationship disparaged, whether from the right or the left. It’s incredibly frustrating that on a day when I wanted to celebrate, when I cried a lot more than I ever expected to because I suddenly felt more like a full citizen in my own country, I had to read from so many of my friends that this was nothing to celebrate, that there was better work to be done elsewhere, that gay marriage was not an appropriate achievement to be happy for. Well, gay marriage isn’t just an abstract political agenda; it’s my life. I live a gay marriage every day. And I am proud of it. I fought for it, and so did a lot of other people. We fought against the right shaming us—we don’t need to the left shaming us, too.

Okay. I feel a little bit better, having said all this. Now I'm going to look at more gifs of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on unicorns with rainbows. Happy Pride, everyone!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Emily Thorne’s Inner Ninja—and yours, too!

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how long ago a friend of mine recommended I watch Revenge—because it was pretty much yesterday and I just finished watching the last episode of the series. I’m truly skilled at binge watching. Suffice it to say, I devoured the series, which was a compelling combination of action-packed and soapy.

Reflecting on why Emily Thorne is such a fascinating character, I’ve landed on this: what woman doesn’t want to be fully embraced by her inner circle as both sophisticated 1%-er and bad-ass ninja? I completely want her wardrobe—both the couture and jewelry, and the hoodies and boots. Every woman has an inner ninja, a side of ourselves that we will bust out with ferocity if properly inspired to do so. But it’s a side of women we seldom get to see on television.

Along those lines, we don’t see a lot of anti-heroes that are women. We’ve got Dexter and Frank Underwood, and other male anti-heroes. So it’s delightful to encounter a female character who breaks the law and does awful things to people, and to root for her every step of the way. It’s also particularly gratifying to hear her say to Margeaux, to Ben, to Nolan, with no hubris whatsoever, that she’s a master at this and no one is going to beat her. It’s a kind of (male) confidence rarely seen in women on television.

And Victoria. What a riveting combination of ruthlessness and relatability. She’s an excellent foil for Emily for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is this: all Victoria wants is children as devoted to her as she is to them, and Emily is nothing if not a devoted daughter. If circumstances were different, they could be exactly what the other needs. But they’re like two magnets that can’t be flipped, doomed to repel each other for all time—for infinity times infinity. 

And so the central relationship in the series is between two women who aren’t mother/daughter, who aren’t lovers or besties, but who are mortal enemies. I’m hard pressed to think of another series that offers this relationship as its primary focus. Women can be just as ruthless as men, Revenge demonstrates, and I for one love it.

Having said all this, I confess I was disappointed in the ending for two reasons. (Spoilers for series finale follow!) First, David didn’t belong in that final showdown between Emily and Victoria—no one did. Their reckoning should have been reserved for the two of them alone. A big part of me wishes they would have killed each other—the series was set up as a Greek tragedy from the beginning, with the body count steadily climbing each season, so ultimately all the major players should have died save one who lives to tell the tale—probably Nolan. David’s presence in that final scene bothers me for another reason: I have a problem with Emily being one of the only characters (Nolan is the other) who doesn’t kill someone—and I mean directly kill, not indirectly like Conrad with Amanda. Reserving her “goodness” by ensuring that she never directly takes a life sets her up as too much of a Madonna/angel, a trope that the series managed to avoid in a lot of other arenas.

The other problem I have with the ending is that this wasn’t a pretty-pretty-princess show, and it shouldn’t have ended with a storybook wedding. I appreciated that the fourth season spent a lot of time on Amanda’s loss—not the loss of her childhood, but the loss of her revenge. Who is she post-revenge? Well, we know what she’s not, and that’s a tired/conventional woman who just wants to sail off into the sunset with her man.

The show had other weaknesses, the first among them being the choice to resurrect, well, almost everyone, but specifically David. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the way the show handled his reunion with his daughter. It wasn’t an overly-sentimentalized cry-fest; it was Amanda yelling at him, and the two of them being separated almost immediately after David figures out she’s his daughter. I had been thinking during Seasons One and Two that Emily had transformed her father into something of a saintly figure, and I love that the show undid that image when David returned to the land of the living.

All in all, a great show and a fun ride for feminist viewers who love watching a sophisticated woman be a ninja.