Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hear me speak!

Ten days ago, I was the guest on a friend's student radio show. We played lots of good songs, with the theme "ladysingers only". You can listen to it on mixcloud here. The music's banging, the banter's, well, mostly nonexistent, and I have probably the weirdest damn accent you've ever heard on a native English speaker. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Look, an update!: Gay ladies onscreen


So, November’s over.

This means I once again have the free time to continue enlightening y’all about Jesus, pop culture, and the kyriarchy. Don’t all thank me at once. I’m sure you’ve been waiting, breath bated, for my opinion on two particular developments in lesbitainment (which is a word I just made up, and will never use again) (unless I do).

Lip Service

Ah, Lip Service. For six glorious weeks you brought the sunshine of trashy goodness into my life. This is a show about lesbians. Did you get that? Lesbians. Gay ladies. Dykes. I hope you got that, because if you weren’t aware of that going in then you might have found it difficult to keep up with.

I jest, of course. The characters on Lip Service are LADIES who sleep with LADIES, and beyond that there’s not much else. In all six hours of it, there was nary a scene that was not directly about or driven by the lesbianity*. The only threads of story that weren’t about gayness were the job hunt of aspiring actress Tess and Shanealike Frankie’s quest to uncover her true identity, and to be honest both of those plot strands were secondary to the relationship dramas in both characters’ lives. Tess is hooking up with a minor TV presenter who’s afraid of being outed; Frankie is hoping to win back Cat, the ex whose heart she broke, but Cat has just met the wonderful, gorgeous, amazing, beautiful police detective Sam, and she would have to be a TOTAL MUPPET to give that tedious Frankie even a minute of her time, and – I’m sorry, is my ship showing?

If all that sounds ridiculously soapy, that’s because it is. The show is about 50% OMG DYKE DRAMA, 50% blatant lesbian wish fulfilment, complete with extremely steamy sex scenes (leading me to coin a word: fantrashtic). Arguably, this is very reductive: everything these characters do relates directly to the fact that they are gay, whereas in, for example, my life maybe 5% of the things I do relate directly to being gay (though perhaps more if I’m in a relationship...). However, television is by nature reductive. I also don’t spend 95% of my time hanging out with my five best friends, but in a sitcom called Friends nobody questions that. And it’s possible that we need this single-minded focus on the gayness in order to counteract the extremely heterosexual television environment; a sense of identity is often forged most strongly by the feeling of being a tiny minority standing against the mainstream.

*Aside: in Bizarro World where everything’s backward, I guess I would be complaining about the portrayal of men in Lip Service, since their entire characters either (a) revolve around the ladies or (b) consist of being of raging A-hole; luckily, centuries of systemic oppression don’t reverse like that, so HA HA nobody cares. And actually I quite liked sweet little Ed and party monster Jay. It’s nice to see some straight dudes and gay ladies hanging out together in TVland, and if the dudes are hitting on the ladies, well, it happens. For a while my group of friends perforce included a Barney Stinson type who firmly believed that his magic wand was more powerful than the Scarf of Sexual Preference (actual quote, from our first conversation: “I’ve turned 3 lesbians in my time”, and oh, how disappointed he was to learn that some of the ladies are immune to his almighty d00dliness).

The Kids Are All Right

If Lip Service is all about gay ladies and their particular gay lady issues, The Kids Are All Right goes to the other extreme. I watched the film with certain reservations, knowing I would be subjected to the tedious trope of, well, some dude’s magic wand being more powerful than the Scarf of Sexual Preference, but that turned out not to be the problem I expected it to be. The story isn’t about sexuality (fluidity, whatever) at all; it’s about a middle-aged couple whose marriage is flagging. I freely admit that my judgment might have been colored by my fury at the pisspoor projection of the screening I saw, but I found the movie pretty boring.

Here’s a little thought experiment: change the sex of Annette Bening’s character. Swap her out for, I dunno, Chris Noth or somebody. Nothing else about the film is different, is it? It’s still the story of a marriage where both partners have gotten so comfortable that they take each other for granted, and Julianne Moore’s character enjoys the feeling of being wanted again; it’s still the story of a rich, white, suburban family being a little dysfunctional. While I admire the total normalization of same-sex parents, it is just not an interesting story to me.

We’re eleven years past American Beauty. We’re centuries into the kyriarchy. Rich, white, suburban families do not need their stories told anymore. I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another rich, white, suburban family being dysfunctional onscreen. I want to hear the stories of people who have historically been othered, people who have interesting new stories to tell. The Kids Are All Right offers a picture of two lesbians – people who have historically been othered and marginalized – who have become a part of the mainstream. It tells mainstream America, “Look! The ‘gay lifestyle’ is no different than the straight one”, and in the process turns what is on paper a new story into a story we’ve heard a thousand times before.

The fact is, not everyone in a marginalized group wants or is able to become a part of the mainstream like that, and that doesn’t make their lives or stories any less valid. Art and culture can open our minds to people that live fundamentally different lives than we do, and sometimes that entails overemphasizing the difference; but then again, sometimes it involves minimizing it. I guess there’s a place for both the Lip Services and the The Kids Are All Rights of this world.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Glee: Infuriating Fans Since 2009

Overthinking It has been making ripples across the Interwebz of late with a series of articles on one-, two-, and three-dimensional characters, most notably the Female Character Flowchart (which has its own issues, chiefly that its gigantitude arguably negates its point, but that’s not what I want to critique today). Plenty could be said about all these articles, but the point I want to pick up on is Fenzel’s remark that

If a character lacks depth and believability on the page, the actor can provide it.

Chris Colfer understands this. At this point, Kurt Hummel is by far the best thing about Glee, and it’s not because he’s written more consistently and given more interesting things to do than the other characters (although arguably he is; that creator Ryan Murphy is rewriting the gay teen experience from a perspective of both wish-fulfilment and Aesoptinum gets more evident with every episode). No, it’s because, week in, week out, Chris Colfer delivers a performance of such depth and nuance that he elevates even the weakest material. I will admit to taking a fangirl’s delight in the appearance of Harry Potter and his puppet pals in Tolerance Narnia; as ridiculous as the whole thing was, it was the least cringe-worthy aspect of last week’s episode.

That song really sucks, though. I live in a little bubble of indie, prog, and Kelly Clarkson (WHO IS THE GREATEST POP STAR OF HER GENERATION AND AS SOON AS I HAVE ANY EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THIS ASSERTION I WILL PRESENT IT TO YOU), so my familiarity with the songs featured on the show is variable, but I like it best when they do great show tunes or interesting reinterpretations of classic pop songs. From my point of view, a lot of the music this season has been kind of terrible. It’s the missed opportunities that sting the most, though: imagine if ‘Grilled Cheesus’ had featured, instead of the not-really-relevant ‘Losing My Religion’ sung insipidly by the insipid Finn, Kurt singing XTC’s ‘Dear God’. Or Sue singing it. Or both of them singing it, as one of those neat cross-cut duets the show used to do? *dies from the thought of what might have been*

The most recent episode featured a couple of fun mash-ups, so I guess it wasn’t all bad. What was all bad was the treatment of Coach Beiste, which was a veritable shag-pile of WTF. I watched in horror as the show drained away everything I love about the walking factory of awesome that was pre-‘Never Been Kissed’ Coach Beiste. First we were invited to laugh at her in an unbelievably mean-spirited way, and then we were fed the vomitous rom-com line that every woman, whoever she is and whatever she’s accomplished, wants nothing more in life than for a boy to tell her she’s pretty – preferably in the form of a hideously patronizing pep-talk and pity-smooch from Will Douchester, who is fast becoming the show’s least likable character.

Also, she’s not gay, you know. Well, why the heck not? Kurt Hummel began life as the most flamboyant acculturation of gay male clich├ęs in TV history, and through a combination of increased airtime and brilliant acting has transformed before our eyes into the most well-rounded member of the ensemble. Why not do something similar for the gay ladies?

While I’m at it, what is this show’s problem with women, anyway? No other show literalizes the virgin/whore dichotomy so thoroughly. On the one hand, Santana and Brittany are the school bicycles, maliciously stealing the virginities of male characters Finn and Artie in between screwing every other guy in school and fooling around with each other (which is both a telling comment on the show’s portrayal of bisexuality, and the only bone thrown to the gay ladies).

However, while both Finn and Artie regret losing their virginity, they quickly get over it and certainly do not suffer in any discernible way. Contrast this with the one female character we have seen lose her virginity (since Rachel and Emma choose to stay chaste and wholesome, while Coach Beiste is actually a 40-year-old virgin – I hope she has a large and well-loved collection of vibrators). Quinn submits to pressure from Puck, who is of course promiscuous without being judged, and is punished with pregnancy, loss of her social status, and getting kicked out of her parents’ home. After spending a season paying the price for her one foray into whoredom, she has earned back her place on the virgin side of the tracks, and she’s staying there now that she’s learned her lesson. Hmmm...

That’s probably enough TV Tropes links for one blog post. (Sorry about those hours of your life you’ll never get back.) To put it succinctly:

Glee, please try harder.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Public Service Announcement

I know I haven't updated in ages - blame the killer combination of NaNoWriMo (25,844 and counting!) and indentured servitude. I didn't even have time to watch TV last week (shock, horror, etc.). Rest assured, gentle readers, I have not forgotten you. I am totally working on some interesting posts that will be up here as soon as I have the time to pummel them into presentability.

In the meantime, if your life is a little deficient in the awesome department, I recommend this free download of Altered Sky's EP. If you like catchy rock songs with the hint of prog sensibilities, lady drummers, and things that are awesome, your socks will be comprehensively rocked.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The five stages of NaNoWriMo

Remember November 2005? (Actually, I don't particularly, but saying that ruins my rhetorical flourish.) It was a time of peace and sanity, or at any rate it was no more or less so than any other month of the year. Fastforward a year, and it's the momentous occasion of my first NaNoWriMo. Lo, November would never be the same for me again.

Using sophisticated algorithms, I have calculated the inevitable stages through which a NaNo participant must pass in the course of the exercise. Behold, the Five Stages of NaNoWriMo:

1. Anticipation
In the build-up to November, in the planning stages, or (if you've failed to plan) in the moments before you write the first sentence that comes into your head, you'll feel excitement writhing inside of you, and you just know that this year is It. This year will be The Big One, the novel so brilliant that someone from Penguin will read your excerpt on your NaNo profile and send you an email begging to be allowed to publish a work of such almighty genius. Savor this feeling; you won't get it again until this time next year.

2. Terror
May also strike in the planning stages, especially if you have no good ideas. Will definitely strike as you confront that blank page and realize that you could write literally anything. Seriously - "hammock pancake cheesecake folderol, bebop in the clown's competitive jugular" is probably a sentence in somebody's novel this year. What if you're reduced to that? Get used to this feeling. It will be your constant companion this month.

3. Exhilaration
Oh my God, this is IT! Inspiration is striking you like lightning at all hours of the night and day! You are the greatest writer the world has ever known, and this novel is the most scintillating work of literature ever conceived! Every sentence that flows from your fingertips is an ambrosial delight! Every new plot and character development is being emailed straight into your brain by God himself! This stage will not last very long.

4. Despair
Why are you wasting your time on this steaming pile of feces? You are the worst writer the world has ever known, and this novel is a suppurating pustule on literature's rear end. You will never write anything worthwhile. You are wasting an entire month, shirking your duties and biting your friends' heads off in an overcaffeinated frenzy, and all you have to show for it is the febrile drivelings of a witless dunderhead. You should just give up.

5. Insanity
Cheesecake folderol in the clown's bebop flibbertigibbet!!! Everybody's doing it!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Who has principles these days anyway?

“I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements…. Last movie I was able to see was Alien.”

-- Dykes to Watch Out For

“I used to love Tarantino movies, but now I’m a Christian I don’t watch them anymore.”

-- My friend Louis

My dad hates Rupert Murdoch. He doesn’t know him personally; he just thinks that – dubious business practices; admiration of Thatcher; The Sun – Murdoch is an odious human being. And so he doesn’t take a Murdoch-owned paper, and he doesn’t subscribe to Sky. The latter is tough for him, because he absolutely adores cricket; but he denies himself it, to avoid giving money to Murdoch.

Not many of us would make that kind of sacrifice. We say, It’s only a small thing so it’s not worth it; I’m only one person so I wouldn’t make a difference; I’ll just indulge myself. We believe stealing is wrong, but we get all of our music from Megaupload. We hurry past people on the street collecting for sick children, and spend £10 a week on comic books. We believe in feminist values, but we watch horribly misogynistic movies and TV.

I admire my dad a lot. Some people might think that it’s only cricket, a trifling entertainment, but that makes me admire him all the more because, when it comes to entertainment, I do not act on my principles.

For example: The Bechdel Test. I love the Bechdel Test. All feminists love the Bechdel Test. Every time I see a movie, I keep a watch out for female characters and conversations they may have. But one thing we never really talk about is that, in the original comic strip, the character refuses to see movies that don’t pass the test. Granted, in 1985 this might not have been very practicable, but nowadays there are ways of finding out in advance whether a movie passes. It would be perfectly possible to never see the many films that fail.

And yet I keep going to see them. Movies that ignore women, made by studios whose policy is to ignore women: if I was serious about the Bechdel Test, wouldn’t I just stay at home?

It’s a sticky question, because I don’t know where to draw the line. When I was about 15, I bought a book by Orson Scott Card. Then I found out the man has some loathsome beliefs, and he does put his royalties where his mouth is. If you buy an Orson Scott Card book, you are contributing to the Mormon Church, and so you are funding things like the Yes on Prop 8 campaign. Does that make it wrong to read OSC books? I hope not; if someone had put a copy of Ender’s Game into my tragic 10-year-old mitts, I might have become a little less tragic, and it still resonated with me last year when I finally read it. My compromise here is to buy all my OSC second-hand, so he doesn’t actually get any of my flaming pink dollars.

But that doesn’t address the matter of content and subtext. One of the reasons we feminists rage so hard at things like the lack of minority representation in Hollywood is because we believe that people’s exposure to the undercurrents of popular culture affects them subconsciously from a very early age (“the ‘fat is bad’ stereotype…is evident in children as young as three”). And, if you’re not engaged in the exhausting work of constantly battling the messages of a messed-up culture – that you’re not complete unless you have a romantic partner, that you’ll be happy if you’re skinny and conventionally pretty, that if you’re not a straight white cis male you are Other and hence inferior – if you’re not fighting against these messages all the time, you’re implicitly accepting them.

That’s where my friend Louis comes in. Louis is a pretty cool guy. He’s another gay Christian with an enthusiasm for pop culture, and although we disagree on some major issues (such as whether a gay Christian should be celibate) I have a lot of respect for him. So it’s worth my while to think about why Louis believes that, as a Christian, he shouldn’t be watching Tarantino films.

Only the most narrow-minded people think they should never engage with anything that doesn’t jive 100% with their beliefs. Having your beliefs challenged is a vital way of ensuring you know why you hold those beliefs, and whether you even should be holding them. Personally, I don’t have a problem with Christians watching Tarantino films or feminists listening to Eminem, but you have to be intellectually honest about it. That involves admitting upfront that this material is problematic, and engaging with it critically throughout: analyzing what about it is problematic for you and why.

Of course, this means I have to admit – perhaps I’m deceiving myself; perhaps I’m simply justifying my own unpleasant, if not downright immoral, enthusiasm for violent movies and misogynistic rap music.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Twilight and the tale of a one-woman quest for pop-culture omniscience

I have a terrible addiction, and it is called Twilight.

It’s not the content of the books themselves that interests me – I’ve read all four, and they really are dreadful – but it’s the phenomenon I find so fascinating. I don’t always know what to do with pop-culture crazes that seem to sweep the world along. When the Harry Potter craze started, I embraced it; as it continued and I passed into my teens, I turned my back on it entirely.

Nowadays, I can look at the fads sweeping our nation’s youth with a more disinterested eye, and consider the question why? Why is this particular series capturing young people’s imagination?

I have read many, many, many, many, many webpages that analyze, spork, recap, parody, or edit the Twilight series. I have put way more thought into the subject than most fans, and probably more than the author herself. Now the craze is on the wane, with only two movies remaining, but I haven’t really figured it out, and I am not bored yet.

It’s probably because the whole environment of pop culture is still relatively new to me. I grew up in the third world, and as a child I took active pleasure in remaining ignorant of popular culture. I had never heard of Pop Idol or Jerry Springer; I couldn’t hum you a single Destiny’s Child song; I thought “the matrix” was a super-awesome topic in my math class (actually, I still prefer the mathematical matrix to the overrated movie).

Only in 2004/5ish did I start to realize that pop culture is both interesting and valuable. It’s the window into our society’s mores. “Television is America's cultural campfire, where we tell stories about ourselves” says Sarah Warn in this After Ellen article, but that’s also true of movies, the Internet, and popular YA book series. Without the creators of the material necessarily knowing it, they reveal a lot about the messages our society sends to individuals and the things we collectively believe. Wolfgang Iser believed that the blanks and negations in a text are at least as important as the things that are present, because they show us what an author (reader, society) takes for granted and because they allow for an interplay between the author and the reader.

That’s definitely a huge part of Twilight’s appeal. I’ve heard it described as a “first-person shooter” of a book: Bella’s life is deliberately left empty of hobbies and suchlike so that the reader can easily insert herself, filling in the blanks as it suits her.

Similarly, we expend so much virtual ink analyzing a book that was written as slight, thoughtless escapism because we want to find the values and messages that subconsciously pervade it, be they Mormon, misogynistic, or moral. If I study all pop culture, perhaps I can come to a thorough and complete understanding of not only my particular society, but also human nature itself.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"How can you attract women if you don't look *pretty*?"

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a lot of straight male friends. Straight males, lord love ‘em – especially white, (upper-)middle-class straight males – don’t always have the greatest grasp of identity politics. Some of my friends apparently live on a different planet than I do: where de jure equality in most areas equates to de facto equality in all areas; where the k-word and the h-word don’t exist; where there is a strict gender binary and patriarchal norms are just natural.

Natural: the last defense of those who have no defense for their views. Most of the time, when people say something is natural (“Monogamy/heterosexuality/men being breadwinners while women clean the house is just natural”), the word they should be using is traditional. In Western culture, it’s what we’re socialized to expect. Man and woman marry, have children, grow old together: as rarely as it plays out in reality (what with 40% of marriages in the US ending in divorce), we’re still taught that this is the paradigm, the way it should happen. Why? Because that’s the paradigm our parents were taught.

I understand that, if you’re pretty much on top of the kyriarchy, it’s easy to sit back and enjoy it. But the truth is: these structures are lies. They are harming all of us.

Take the gender binary. I have been asked by genuinely puzzled straight boys why I have short hair and usually wear jeans and a flannel shirt; why I find Rachel Maddow attractive*; why, if I like girls, I am not more concerned with femininity. To some people, the existence of gay people actually reinforces their conception of the gender binary: if you’re attracted to men, you like “masculinity”; if you’re attracted to women, you like “femininity”. It’s common sense!

A lot of people have a surprising amount of trouble accepting the idea that “masculinity” and “femininity” are social constructs. (Try showing up to a wedding in a pantsuit or convincing parents that there’s nothing wrong with having shorter hair than your brother.) At its best, the queer community deconstructs these concepts, allowing people to express their identity fully and not have to fit in predetermined boxes labeled M and F.

I think that’s part of what we find sexy about it. Butches, bois, Shane – there’s real sexiness in throwing off the shackles of a society that wants all women to wear their hair long and their heels high. Over a century of feminism has given women an awareness of the restrictions placed on us by the patriarchy, and maybe that’s why so many more women than men seem to be heteroflexible.

Yep, it’s the OKCupid study: 51% of straight women either have had a same-sex hookup or want to, compared with 18% of men. I can’t help correlating this statistic with the fact that women have more obvious reasons to question the status quo of our society, and in some ways are more able to do so. Look and learn, boys.

*Because I am a gay woman with a pulse. Duh.