A tool for critical viewing

Here’s a handy memory device for the next time you watch a movie.

It will help you remember the 3 rules to Alison Bechdel’s measurement of gender bias in media.

The bottom line is TWO–are there two named female characters on screen? If yes, great! Advance to the next level.

The second is TALK–do these female characters talk to and interact with each other? If yes, holy crap, you’re moving up to…

The third criteria TESTES–do our characters talk about something besides testicles? If they only talk about men, the film fails. But if they do not, hurrah! Get that star!

The original context of this test was a comic strip, yet I find myself amazed and horrified at how regularly films fail it….and often on the first level. Try it for yourself sometime.

-Nicole

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Atlantis: The Lost Empire (media review)

 2413574-atlantis_disney

2001

Directors: Gary TrousdaleKirk Wise

A Look a Gender in Children’s Cinema

            Atlantis: The Lost Empire (Disney, 2001, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise) is not original by Disney’s standards, race and gender cartoon archetypes or many of the other characteristics that indicate the typical genre conventions of children’s cinema. Instead, it shows its uniqueness by not falling prey to the whole formula used by other directors to produce a moneymaking movie that kids nag their parents to see and that adults plop their kids in front of as a baby-sitter. Atlantis is not the break-through, progressive movie that questions industry habits or societal norms, but it does put race relations, semi-non-traditional protagonists and the importance of education and cultural preservation at the forefront of its storyline.

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the elements that make Atlantis an average film in the genre. Like a laundry list, certain aspects also seen in numerous other kids’ movies can be checked off: the film explores the demise of a royal family, the female lead is a princess, the female lead is hetero-sexual, almost all the female characters are hyper-sexualized, the male protagonist must save the royal family and its people after being begged by the female lead, the female lead’s mother disappears/dies when she is a little girl (thus she has never had a ‘proper’ role model), the male protagonist lost both his parents at an early age, the male protagonist is white and hetero-sexual, the male protagonist is more knowledgeable than the female lead (about her own culture, she is illiterate and only he can translate the written word of her people), the female lead is gawked at openly by several male characters (with and without her knowledge), the male protagonist’s goal is to fulfill a dream of his grandfather’s (i.e. patriarchal pride, almost all of the characters are trying to fulfill a dream of their fathers’), there is a clearly defined bad guy (who is a “foreigner” – with a twist), there is a fight / violent scene in which the male protagonist must save the female lead who is in danger and cannot help herself and, last, but not least,  the male protagonist and the female lead wind up together by the end of the movie. For most of Disney’s films and other producers and distributors of children’s cinema, it can practically be assumed that this list is handed off to the scriptwriter prior to the completion of the story in order to fill the standard format. Even with the fields of gender studies and children’s psychology consistently publishing work on the topic, few things have changed.

As for the aspects of the film that are atypical, there are many, but perhaps not enough to clean the slate and wipe away the stereotypes it is also laden with. Nonetheless, these differences need to be discussed for their importance in making Atlantis one of Disney’s more “conscious” movies. To start off, characters of multiple ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds are featured in speaking roles (including Hispanic, French, Italian, African-American, Southern-American and, of course, Atlantian – each has a special talent or skill that makes them invaluable to the plot), both of the supporting female characters are more technologically advanced than rest of the male characters, one of supporting female characters holds military rank and is addressed with her title throughout (and the film is set in 1914) and there is an appreciation for a foreign culture, not just a foreign love interest.

from julvett.deviantart.com

from julvett.deviantart.com

Although several gender-related observations have been already pointed out, these dynamics are more influential with the context of the whole film. While watching, I could not help but to question the choices of the “binary” and wonder why the film-makers did not choose to perhaps explore an alternate caste for the Atlantians, maybe one with no gender or at least with more than two. Additionally, even though Atlantis is described as being far below sea level in a secret “cave,” the women are clothed in tight dresses and bikini tops as if they were influenced by Summer Sale commercials in the modern-day West. Apparently practicality was lost on this lost civilization, at least according to Disney.

As explored in the course article, “Hetero-Romantic Love and Heterosexiness in Children’s G-rated Films” (Martin and Kazyak), hetero-romance plays a role in uniting the main characters, but, thankfully, is not the goal of the movie. It plays a minor part post-climax as closure to the audience to assure the future of Atlantis (and to suggest a sequel). To further the affair, the female lead has to flaunt her wears and the male protagonist has to prove his worth through intellect. The classic innocent vixen trope is displayed when the female lead undresses to go swimming and the male protagonist’s eyes bulge slightly as he trips over his words. “Do you swim?” she says. “Uh, pretty girl, uh, uh, I meant, pretty good,” he replies. This odd idea of the woman being aware and unaware of her appeal at the same time is tricky and sometimes hard to recognize. It is an elusive look or a flirtatious action, often followed by a sincere comment to diffuse her sexual awareness, but increase his, which is acceptable.

Examining the male protagonist more closely, we notice that he does not fit the bill of the normal, masculine hero. He is scrawny and academic and made fun of for both traits. “You are a scholar, no less?” the female lead inquires. “With your diminished physique and large forehead you are suited for nothing else!” He is not set on finding a maiden or damsel in distress, instead he is hopeful in his hunt for history and heritage. His adventure is one of identity. His tools are education, dedication and empathy. Nonetheless, while his uniqueness begins the adventure, it is brute force, fast action and violent combat that saves the day. One moment he doubts his ability to lead and the next he is leading makeshift troops into a fiery battle to save the female lead, who, by this point in the story, is literally an object.

As the climax begins to ramp up, the female lead, for one reason or another, transforms into a holy statue, a glowing figurine frozen by a mystical crystal that binds her community. She is not a woman, definitely not a person, but a representation of the female form. The “bad guys” kidnap her in this state to bring her back to the modern world to sell her as an artifact. In other words, her autonomy is lost when she sacrifices herself and identity for her culture. She cannot have it all.

from tk-the-tiger on tumblr

from tk-the-tiger on tumblr

Caricatures in certain cases, when used in clever ways, can explain a cultural identity, understanding or phenomena that only parody can. By utilizing a stereotype to prove an idea about how such a generalization came to being so widely accepted, a lesson is learned and a comedy is often played out. On the other end, when a formula of tropes is repeated over and over without active commentary, such as in children’s movies where the target audience is obviously not media, politically or gender literate, lessons are learned lacking realistic dialogue to balance the digested material. This is the weary consequence of reusing the same story and characters in a loop with no responsibility for the messages being created, interpreted and internalized.

-Darragh

Media Review–“Accessory”

Jordyn Taylor

Confessions of a Shopaholic

2009

“Fashion defines women” is certainly not a new concept, but I was surprised to learn that by tracking fashion trends, you can track the modernization process of a society. To put this into practice, I’ll do my best to gain some sort of insight into our society by breaking down the messages in “Accessory.” I am indebted to Professor Susan Hiner for her excellent talk on fashion and modernity given at Tyler School of Art, which inspired and provided the background for this post.

Oh, our love affair with inanimate objects.

No, really, she is about to make out with that mannequin. Do woman (wealthy, white) have so much agency that they can afford to love their luxury accessories instead of- or more than- other people?  Clearly, pleasure is tied up in the acquisition and display of “brand name” objects. Now take a moment to appreciate this image.

Here’s where it gets interesting: the handbag did not always carry the meaning we assign to it today. In fact, circa 1801 handbags were seen as ridiculous alternatives to pockets, which were hidden underneath the dress. A handbag, in contrast to the secrecy of the pocket, was promiscuous. The women carrying a handbag openly was immediately “classed down”  as vulgar, letting it all hang out. Unless her bag was a sewing bag, because in that case it announced her prowess at home economics and thus potential wifely qualities. Needlework was acceptable, it showed a woman’s moral fiber. Virtuous needlework would keep a woman from the idle vanity of handbags.

Jump forward to the 1880s. Department stores have entered the scene, trampled small businesses underfoot. We can see all too clearly the developing gendered economy, reflected in the literature of the time. Women, as consumers, are idiots. They drive men to bankruptcy. And who is to blame for this trouble? The humble handbag. Because woman get irrational over them. In fact, it’s almost like your wife or fiancee is having an adulterous relationship with these huge stores full of fashion. Isn’t it? Check out 2:52 in the video again. Stores are seduction machines.

Well, the adultery never stopped. By the 1900s, women had moved into the public sphere of activities. Their defiant use of fashion accessories allowed them to transgress traditional  boundaries that associated women with privacy and the home. Where does that leave us today? The bigger the better! In the video, our girl dances in front of bags larger than she is. Designer bags are now symbols of wealth and status, to a much greater degree than they were in the past.

threej

See? We’ll even fight for them! How can we go out into the world without an accessory that proclaims our power and marks us as better than the competition?

“He’s my latest accessory. Was he on sale?”

We’re at the point now that we use relationships in the same way we use designer labels: to boost our status. To give us another reason to feel good about ourselves, in the public street and online, through photos and status updates, anywhere. It’s a kind of power trip to be able to claim someone as “your significant other.” “Accessory” is a bit interesting in that it is the women who are making this statement of power, quite blatantly listing men as objects in their collections. I would not call it empowering, however. It comes at the expensive of dehumanizing men, even to the point that men are bought and sold like the shoes and bags. That’s no kind of progress.

We tend to think that quantity makes up for quality. If we own a lot of bags, or boyfriends, our quality of life will increase. Are these things just tools, or are they some fundamental part of our egos? And at that rate,  I wonder at what point does ownership transfer? When do we stop owning our accessories, and they start to own us?

fourj

~Nicole

“Django Unchained” – Media Review

* Review contains plot spoilers and/or details.

2012

Director, Writer: Quentin Tarantino

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio

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“The idea isn’t just “slavery was bad.” The overarching point is that old ideas of inferiority linger despite the fact that we all think we know better.” – Stephanie Zacharek, NPR

This is a not a nice movie and it is certainly not for your entertainment. You cannot walk away feeling accomplished or redeemed after watching it. No one “wins.” No one is free because we are still locked in a world that cannot deconstruct or discuss social justice. This movie scratches the surface of human rights issues that have been left to be edited by text-books, storytellers, memories and Hollywood. At least the dialogue is not as repressed as it used to be.

Like many, I’ve been hearing about the the controversy surrounding Django Unchained from before it even hit theaters. Although it opened on Christmas Day, I finally saw it last night. To some extent, I knew what I was in for. Friends had told me it was a “white guilt” movie, made to make Caucasians cringe in their seats and hang their heads low. Others said it was a “black redemption” film for all the African-Americans and blacks that really wanted to see the innards of white people fly high in the sky. I hate the idea of white guilt, as I hate any stereotype that negatively portrays or affects a group of people. Just because I am white does not mean I have to answer for crimes against humanity performed and encouraged by people who share my same skin color. Conversely, if someone had been aware enough to tell me that Django is a political allegory (and a damn good one at that) and a discussion of social privilege, I would have been less cynical of my peers who had previously seen the film.

I had really hoped that the audiences of Django would be able to see past Quentin Tarantino’s name and Jamie Foxx’s fame and especially all the gory action, but alas, even the friends I went to see the movie with did little more than yawn as we left the theater. Sadly, I think Django is lost on many because of the glamor surrounding its making and release, let alone the…um…lack of education American students receive about slavery, race relations and critical media consumption.

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Women as Accessible Accessory

The women in this movie are merely objects. Whether black or white, the men of Django move around “their” women and, apparently, in and out of them as well. They are either sexualized props or supporting aids who are so domesticated that they are simply there to make the lives of men easier. None of these women are aggressive players in their own story, because they do not have one.

Women are currency for trade (literally and figuratively), physical manifestations of male ego or trophies to be won, if nothing else. Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), Django’s long-lost, slave-traded and German-speaking wife, is a perfect example. The character has almost no lines, never defends herself from the grasp or gaze of men and is simply a token of a job well done. Although Washington explains that the role “allows the black woman to embrace a fantasy that historically wasn’t available to her,” it still caters to the unfortunate ideal of a damsel in distress. “I know it’s not the most feminist idea to be a woman in a tower wanting to be rescued, but for a woman of color in this country, we’ve never been afforded that fairy tale because of how the black family was ripped apart [during slavery],” Washington said. “I really saw the value of having a story that empowers the African American man to do something chivalrous for the African American woman, because that hasn’t been an idea that has held women back in the culture — it’s something we’ve never been allowed to dream about” (Nicole Sperling, LA Times).

Django’s (Jamie Foxx) actions may be chivalrous, but they also highlight that our social gender structure still isolates and negates many other types of story-telling or stories that are otherwise considered to be sub-cultural narratives. What if Django was a woman trying to save her man? Or her woman? It would make the movie even more unbelievable than it already is, relational to historical context. And more so, why do we only understand romantic relationships as hetero-normative and possessive?

Even in death, women are not treated equals to men in Django. The pretty, ignorant, white sister of Calvin Candie, the slave master who owns Django’s wife, is picked off by Django in the final battle after Calvin has died. Django tells her maids to say goodbye to her as he shots the woman in the chest sending her flying out of the frame, which causes an obvious uproar of laughter from the audience. Maybe this moment serves to lighten the mood before Django blows up the plantation’s estate, but I think it represents that women are not the owners of their own glory, nor are deserving of it in a man’s world. The sister does not die like the other men killed throughout the film. As least they die screaming and fighting, whether or not they deserve to live. The only way that a woman seems to carry honor is if she is being protected by a man, such as Broomhilda, and since Calvin’s sister no longer has a brother to look after her, her honor is stripped and she can be used as a slap-stick prop.

Additionally, what does it say about our backward culture that Jamie Foxx speaks our about racism, but not sexism? How can he embody a character like Django and then participate in collaborating with Kayne West on “Gold Digger?” These contradictions infuriate me. In this capacity, Jamie need not worry about any of the other “-isms” because he has male privilege and therefore does not have to care about insensitivity regarding women. Although he is black, he is still a man and a man still has more leverage if he so chooses to use it.

___________

Violence as a Foundational Catalyst for Racial Sensitivity

“Amid real violence, ‘Django’ premiere cancelled” – Examiner

After seeing the film, one of my friends and I drove to a 24/7 diner and searched the menu desperately for comfort food. I was in between the feeling of nausea at seeing so much death on screen for over two and a half hours and the need to block out the memory with pancakes. I suspect he was just really hungry at 11:30 pm. We sat in silence for a little while, uncommon for the two of us, while I scribbled down notes about how I was feeling and thoughts for this analysis on napkins. When I finally looked up to see his impatient expression, waiting for me to order, I in turn asked how he felt about the movie. Since I was so overwhelmed, I was surprised to hear that all he really had to say was that “there was too much unnecessary violence.” “Anything else?” I replied. “Nah, except that I felt a little awkward seeing it.” Trying to pull thoughts out of him, I asked if that was maybe because he was white. He agreed that was part of his discomfort.

Here we see two levels of sensitivity and non-critical consumption at play: violence and race. Apparently my friend felt something of “white guilt” or close to it. Was it the mass murdering of white folks throughout the flick that did it or the mere mention of race-based discussion? And the other point is forked: how Tarantino’s brand violence perhaps hides  the issue while at the same time reduces the audience to a quivering pool of sensitive viewers that are now emotionally invested and therefore open to receiving the political barrage that is Django. By this I mean, maybe Tarantino cleverly uses obscene brutality as a foundational catalyst for the sensitive topics of gender, race and class that are poked, prodded and pondered over the course of the movie to sway emotions over the edge.

My friend went on to comment that he was used to the bloody, almost comical scenes where the hero confronts a whole slue of bad guys at once. We’ve seen this so many times in so many of Tarantino’s films such as Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2, Inglorious Bastards, Sin City and, now, in the closing scene of Django. My buddy added though that the scene where a slave is torn to pieces by dogs on screen, with careful editing, was too much for him and that it was perhaps unnecessary. I quickly argued that this was not the case and that that moment in the film was of terrific importance since it was one of the most realistic. While Django looks cool twirling pistols and picking off his slimy foils, what Tarantino seems to be mocking is just a show of might and power and the idea that redemption is the purpose of freedom.

The whole film is a parody of our understanding of our own history, of how we lack the lens to understand our past and therefore realize how we create and live our present. The movie is a mirror held up to society, saying that the only way we can relive our own bloody holocaust is to treat it as a Vaudevillian circus. With its thin facade, it really does seem to be another one of Tarantino’s formulaic flicks, but its political necessity is so much deeper. Django symbolizes our dismissal of our past and the shame of slavery. Merely seeing the film represents how skewed our understanding of race relations still is — this topic is not entertaining and should not be.

We are still scared to talk openly about race, gender and class relations, but we can sit through two hours of gore and blood and absolute terror without blinking an eye. What does this say about our emotional sensitivities. What does this say about our media consumption habits?

___________

Masculinity as a Translatable Narrative

The idea of conquering and claiming, a masculine fantasy indeed, is present not only in the narrative of Django’s journey, but in the retelling and revitalization of the past. With both humor and seriousness, I refer to this as story-telling masturbation; a trend that been popular since the beginning of Hollywood’s desensitized culture.

Someone once told me that every American tale is about a boy and his story. Understanding Django’s is so easy with this paradigm. He is the hero every man wants to be and the “1 in 10,000 nigger” that makes his fictional slave story so sad. The story serves the purpose of glorifying the power and intensity of a man with a plan. Django, although nontraditional by standard action movie characterization, still applies in that he “is a male’s ideal. …the quintessential modern action heroes are men who speak to the problems, insecurities and longings of men. …[It is the fantasy of wanting] to go into a theater for an hour and a half and get a vicarious thrill out of seeing someone who can talk back to authority, who makes his own rules, who lives by his own code of conduct and ethics, because the real world will seldom give anyone the opportunity to do that” (p. 140, Blood, Guns and Testosterone, Barna William Donovan).

Using masculinity and the identifiable American masculine agenda, Tarantino has a narrative pre-structured that he can build off of without diverging far from the standard “hero.” In this way, he can translate a sense on empathy onto men, particularly those that are masculine, whether or not they are black, a slave or in desperate need of a better wardrobe. Additionally, Tarantino had the option of using this manly man character to dismiss the need for further characterization so that he could focus on race relations.

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“Hipster-Racism” and Black Caricature

“A Complete Guide to ‘Hipster Racism'” – Jezebel

I’ll let Lindy West of Jezebel define “Hipster Racism (and Sexism)” real quick: “There’s been a lot of talk these last couple of weeks about “hipster racism” or “ironic racism”—or, as I like to call it, racism. It’s, you know, introducing your black friend as “my black friend”—as a joke!!!—to show everybody how totally not preoccupied you are with your black friend’s blackness. It’s the gentler, more clueless, and more insidious cousin of a hick in a hood; the domain of educated, middle-class white people (like me—to be clear, I am one of those) who believe that not wanting to be racist makes it okay for them to be totally racist. “But I went to college — I can’t be racist!” Turns out, you can.”

Great, now we’re on the same page about that hipster -ism business. What concerns me about Django is that lots of white people will go to and see the film and feel better about themselves because they sat through the whole movie and still rooted for the black guy to shoot ’em up. In this way, they may think that they are better people or maybe that because this film was released by a major distributor, made by a major director and stars major stars that we are finally a post-racist society since a slavery movie is now a 21st Century block-buster. No, that is not how that works.

On top of all that, Django is not a character we often see – a quiet, naturally smart, independent and patience black man ready to save the love of his life by possibly sacrificing the life he never had. While he may be the brooding, calculated and courageous hero we glorify him to be, his base is partially that of one of the infamous black caricatures. Django is, at least somewhat, based off the “Nat,” a caricature that “portrays African and African American males as angry, crazed, revengeful brutes with a bloodthirsty hatred for whites” (Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University). We do not encounter the “Nat” regularly because white people are still afraid of angry black people, because, wait for it….the world is still racist even though we like to pretend it’s not by watching movies about minorities seeking redemption (how’s that for a new genre?!)

___________

The movie is neither a rite nor reason. It is not the final word on slavery nor is it the most revolutionary to date. It is a shocking and sensitive portrayal of a reality we’ve long forgotten in the public eye.

*For the record, I really, really liked this movie. You should go see it (and be critical of it too!).

design by Federico Mancosu

Punching People Is A Bad Idea — A Personal Tale About Desensitization of Violence

As was briefly mentioned in the most recent Fatal Friday post, I punched someone. I am not proud of it. In fact, I am still a little shocked that I had the capability to become so angered by a stranger’s stupid comment  that I used my agency for physical violation. Although Nicole summed up the situation fairly well, there’s more to it than she or anyone else knows. While the moment of violence lasted less then a minute and no blood was spilled nor response made from the punched party, I now realize that although I consume mass amounts of media, I am still not desensitized…as proved by my shock…and I think that is a very important thing to acknowledge.
First things first: on Friday, November 2nd, I went to film class at 10am where I watched the war movie “Brothers” (2009, Jim Sheridan). The film has a brutal PTSD subplot which included the audience witnessing the origin of the main character’s mental disease: a violent murder inflicted on one American solider from another with a rusty pipe.
I winced in my chair and I’m sure other students around me did as well. Later in the movie, this same character cannot function in everyday life as he used to after he returns home, largely due to the emotional stress he’s holding in. Instead, it bubbles up and explodes in the form of a deranged attack on his wife’s new kitchen, a gift from his brother. He smashes it to bits, again with a metal pipe. With his family in terror, the police arrive at his home and he pulls a gun threatening to kill himself. Personally I found this overwhelm hard to digest. (A few days later when we deconstructed the film in class, it was not nearly as striking as it had been when I was emotionally invested.) Nonetheless, when the movie ended on Friday and the credits began to roll, my 150+ classmates immediately got up and exited. I was left sitting alone in a semi-dark lecture hall recounting the story, my feelings about the characters and the apparent lack of sensitive response my peers seemed to show.
About 12 hours later is when I punched someone for screaming, “…and you should’ve sucked his dick too…” in my general direction. Whether or not the comment was for me, I assumed it was and became enraged, throwing my moral and logical reasoning out the window. Almost instinctively my reaction happened, as if I could not find another way in that split second to get rid of the “thing” that bothered me. It’s as if I thought that by punching the guy who said it, the comment would just disappear as if it had never been uttered. I’d like to think I was being defensive, but I was being reactive.
For back-story  I have never been in a fist fight nor have ever found the desire to prove myself in such a way. As an only child, I received a lot of emotional attention and mental stimulation so the idea of physical confrontation has never had much appeal to me. I was always taught to practice civil discussion if an issue came up. I try to be fair and open and listen to all sides, so, in reflection of my actions, I am appalled at myself.
But onward with the night for the tale is not over yet! After a mentally sobering walk to my friend’s place for a get together, Nicole and I watched “21 Jump Street” (2012, Chris Miller, Phil Lord), the stupid comedy about two young cops trying to make a name for themselves by working undercover in a high school to bust a drug ring.
The movie is filled with on-screen death, explosives, vulgar behavior, weapons, drugs, hyper-masculinity and blood…but the catch is that it’s hysterical. Oh the magic of cinema that it can take reality and spin it and interpret it in so many ways! While watching “21 Jump Street” I laughed, snorted even, at the bathroom humor and obnoxious characters. They meant nothing to me. Their failures were my entertainment and for that matter, were supposed to be. The blatant violence was for my viewing pleasure; such an odd phenomenon in our culture.
I still feel the shock of my hit, but I cannot help to wonder why. Is it because I truly do not have a physically violent nature? I think that’s part of it. Or is it because we women are not meant to be reactive, to respond and defend our own honor? And even if the comment was directed at someone else instead of me, would it be an embarrassment that I defended their honor since I am a woman? Perhaps I was not aware how terrible it feels to hurt someone, to see their face offended and their body trying to hide away from the blow. Did I subliminally think that because of all the violence I see in the media that I would feel more heroic? More bad-ass? Is this what violence has become?
The line becomes clearer now: our world is desensitized. To gore. To sex. To anything and everything that used to be taboo. We have gangster rap and kiddie porn, 3D movie theaters and Playboy, non-stop social media and overwhelming advertising. EVERYWHERE. In theory, exposing the individual to constant consumption could begin the proactive dialogue of why the world is the way it is and how our trends and behaviors are created and effect us, but instead we expose society to media without media literacy education, thus the conversation is never had about its consequences, good or bad. This is a problem because real life and what we see on TV becomes blended together in a tangy concoction of moral disregard and confusing agendas. Media is neither good nor bad, but the weight it carries in our world is outstanding.

I am not yet desensitized. I can still feel and hurt and be blown away by something meant to blow me away. The media can frame anything the way it wants, but deep down I know (and sometimes have to remind myself) that the Himalaya mountains will never be as beautiful on television as they apparently are in real life, that physically intimate interactions are at my and my partner’s discretion and will not be acted out “as seen on TV” in sexy soap operas or music videos and that as long as I can actively work on being media literate, I am closer to a human being than any scripted character or photo-shopped model in an advertisement has ever been.
-Darragh Dandurand Friedman (darraghdandurand@aol.com)

Media Review – “Naughty but Nice”

Dr. Sherril Dodds, scholarly dance professor at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance recently presented her engaging research on Neo-Burlesque performance as social and gender commentary. The lecture was informational to say the least and controversial at the most. I sneaked in as she began to speak and grabbed a seat in the front row. Pulling a notepad and pen out of my bag, I did not stop writing until I had to leave.

As Dodds explained, she has been studying neo-burlesque for several years, interested in how performers communicate more than sexuality and coy femininity while on stage, but when it came to her research, her nose definitely didn’t stay in the books. Dodds went on to show pictures of herself in a UK-based burlesque company, twirling tassels and shaking her groove thang. Throughout her thesis reading, she showed pictures of famous burlesque stars from America and Great Britain, summarized the history of the medium and went on to argue that burlesque has more to do with political statements than showing off what your momma gave you.

As she spoke, her word choices were flowery and articulate and they flowed off her tongue with a hard British accent. She liked using alliterations and metaphors to try to get the audience to imagine that they had attended the same burlesque shows she had seen for her research. The effect was stimulating, but at times took away from what she was trying to prove. This becomes an issue when an educated individual tries to present their research when framed between two wall-size screens with pictures topless women licking their lips. Novelty? Yes. Academic? Yes. Full Communication? Hopefully, hopefully.

Firstly, Dodds made it very clear that there is a difference between “stripping” and “burlesque.” Stripping, she described, is when individuals have “economic necessity,” or the priority to meet their safety and physiological needs. In this mindset, they cannot explore the medium with creativity. “Commercialized neo-burlesque focuses less on politics and commentary and more on nudity and ideal feminine sexuality through the male gaze.” Dodds was focused with the influence of authentic neo-burlesque, not its commodified cousin.

Besides authentic neo-burlesque being “good, clean British fun,” Dodds emphasized (every other paragraph, practically) that it empowers women to make choices about how they communicate their gender roles and sexuality. Certainly she was pro-burlesque, but to what extent? Dodds did not view the form as exploitative in the least, apparently. I struggled with this evaluation during the whole lecture. Many of her points were valid in my eyes, but others, well others I just could not morally agree with!

Dodds said that neo-burlesque is an art form that allows “imperfect flesh” to be “celebrated.” That it is a “parody” examining the humorous stereotypes of complicated female identity while mocking expressed feminine behavior and hyper-masculinity. Yes, that’s all fine and dandy and I think it’s great to deconstruct those ideas, especially in a creative manner, but burlesque, no matter what the performer is intending, involves nudity, stripping, teasing and sex. It is male fantasy. It is degrading. It is using one’s body to seek value. I my brain, none of these things are right or rewarding. And even when  try to justify Dodds ideas by saying to myself that burlesque is an opportunity for women to explore sexual power, I fall back and see that it is just another way of seeking male approval.

Burlesque is apparently a lot like Drag in that the performers don’t sing, but instead lip-sync and dance to carefully planned choreography. Dodds says that this offers participants a chance to meticulously plan costume changes, movements and props, therefore creating spectacle and statement. “Facial expressions are social commentary that offer more than just what the smile represents.” Well, what I see is women actively participating in voicelessness, allowing their exposed bodies to speak for themselves with cultural context, not personal. This is detrimental because the audience sees breasts,  butts, curves and sex – a playtoy, instead of a thoughtful individual who may very well have planned a social commentary into their dance. This “voicelessness” represents passivity and perhaps is the exchange for the female to hold court on stage, but she should not have to give up her voice in order to get attention. Her body should not have to be exposed for her to be able to have a platform for opinion. Her ideas should not have to be interjected in-between shimmying, unzipping and flashing. Sex is power, but only temporarily.

First and foremost, Burlesque is a medium that sexualizes and monetizes the female form. Although Dodds enthusiastically commented that cat-calls from the audience are motivating and approving, all parts of me cannot imagine how. Does burlesque actually offer women the freedom to explore their sexuality or can they not get off unless someone else is? With popular forms of media like women’s Cosmopolitan magazine whose sex advice to female readers is largely how to please “your man,” (the mag is almost always heterosexual, mind you) and never to speak out for your own desires, I’m pretty sure that women are being conditioned into these mindsets.

At the end of the day, neo-burlesque as parody, strip, commentary, rebellion, expression, exploration, exploitation or entertainment is mixed messaging. Dodds has a doctoral degree and has proven the ability to deconstruct. The average person does not have that education nor the media literacy training to comprehend the millions of images and texts penetrating their existence from every source imaginable. This is why burlesque is problematic – the commentary is lost somewhere in-between the garters and the feathers.

*May it be known that those who actively participate and enjoy burlesque are not in the wrong, they are expressing themselves, hopefully. I have no issue  with their choice, their bodies and minds are their own. I am sincerely and solely concerned with how our society interprets women, their roles and their bodies through their actions and current privilege discourses. 

Media Review – The Triplets of Belleville

The Triplets of Belleville 

Directed by Sylvain Chomet

2003

Well, that was….unexpected. Almost understated, in the sense that no one makes a statement throughout the movie, barring the beginning and the very end. Being an American raised on Disney animation, I’m used to hearing my animated characters babbling a mile a minute. It took me a while to accept the non-verbal qualities of these characters, who are anything but silent. The soundtrack is brilliant, adding an individuality to both characters and locations. But beyond formalism, beyond its stunning good looks, what’s the heart of this very deliberate work?

I’m mostly stricken by the movie’s very passionate portrait of aged womanhood. Old women in this cinematic world are protectors, strong, indefatigable, entertaining and unique. They are vital, full of life, and that’s why I said I was stricken. The contrast between how I view age and how Grandmother Souza and the Triplets express their age…..it’s the difference between quiet, colorless institutional walls and the heat and sound of the club where the Triplets perform. Can any of us imagine our grandparents and great-grandparents performing in a sleazy club….?

How about hunting for their dinner every night? Throwing explosives? Biking uphill? Or the most impossible of all, enjoying every minute of everything?

Ebert says,”Most animated features have an almost grotesque desire to be loved. This one doesn’t seem to care. It creates a world of selfishness, cruelty, corruption and futility — but it’s not serious about this world and it doesn’t want to attack it or improve upon it. It simply wants to sweep us up in its dark comic vision.”

Did we watch the same movie? Of course the film doesn’t want to be loved; when you’re old, you get your priorities straight. And if it is nothing else, Triplets is aggressively old. It does the unthinkable: equates female age with vigor, and youthful manhood with passivity.
Champion, the grandson, cannot do anything for himself, ever. He has to wait to be rescued by Souza, his grandmamma. Poor, horse-faced boy.
The film indicates to us that her grandson is Souza’s prized possession, exactly like a pure-blooded racehorse. He has no agency of his own. In fact, the men in this world are either passive like Champion or violent like the mobster villain. Cynical, right, but perhaps that’s how age always views youth? The young need direction, or they’ll grow into petty thugs…
I do agree with Ebert on one thing; these women Chomet has created are ferocious. And I don’t want them any other way. Willfulness, determination, and energy….for every tooth lost, another cackle and another song! That’s one vision of aging, and it is beautiful.
(Time to break your faith in humanity. Who did this film lose the Academy Award to? Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Ufff! Thank you, and good night.)