Wednesday, August 10, 2011

‘Tangled’ Confuses Itself for an Empowering Rapunzel Remake (Plus, Postmodernism and Postfeminism Defined, Poorly!)

Last year’s animated Disney release Tangled, which reimagines the life and adventures of fairy-tale maiden Rapunzel, is a prime example of why the morals of contemporary cinema are sometimes so difficult to pin down.

Tangled follows the same basic premise as the original Grimm’s tale: A long-haired blonde grows up sequestered in a tower, raised by a witchy woman who isn’t her mother. A princely type dude who is ultimately a love interest comes upon the tower, the witchy woman injures the dude and ultimately Sister Golden Hair heals him and they live happily ever after, probably as royalty. But this film departs from the original in a few ways that are important to a feminist analysis. First, Rapunzel’s hair and powers are crucial to why she’s imprisoned in the tower in the first place. Rapunzel’s golden hair magically keeps her adoptive mother, the vain Gothel, young. And if Rapunzel’s hair is ever cut, it turns brown (yikes, there’s something very Aryan-paranoid about that) and loses its magic.

Recirculating the cinema trope of the older, single woman as hateful and menacing is nothing new, but I hate to see it revisited, especially since it recirculates two gross ideas: that when women try to look young—as we’re constantly told we need to—they become monstrous and that women who aren’t married are violently threatening to the nuclear family. Watch Sunset Boulevard, among many other films, or read the “Scary Women: Cinema, Surgery and Special Effects” chapter of Carnal Thoughts for analysis on how we reproach women who go too far to look younger. And see Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female and many, many other films for examples of single women viciously disturbing heterosexual life with their spinster-ness.

The other big departure Tangled makes from the original fairy tale is the characterization of Rapunzel herself as a heroine instead of a damsel in distress. Certainly, if you read the Grimm’s version, Rapunzel does almost nothing but grow strong hair, sing sweetly and cry magical tears. It’s true that Disney’s version of Rapunzel is more active in the shallow, postfeminist sense of “strong women characters” that are so often touted in postfeminist movies.

When this film was recommended to me, it’s this active nature and dynamism of the heroine that was cited—especially the fact that, at the end, Rapunzel makes the move to kiss her prince instead of the other way around. I’ll admit that the portrayal is nuanced, from a feminist perspective, and that it’s a pretty delightful movie (who can resist a smart-ass chameleon?), but part of the reason this review has taken me a month to start writing is that the final feminist verdict is murky at best because this text is the quintessence of a postmodern, postfeminist take on history, class and gender.

For those who live outside their own assholes (i.e. outside academia), let me briefly explain what I mean when I talk about postmodernism and postfeminism. Postmodernism as I understand it—and trust me, it’s a very shallow understanding—basically describes any cultural product that was made after World War II and thinks of itself as innovative and groundbreaking compared to the social, political and artistic norms of the past. Theorists like Frederic Jameson basically called bullshit on this notion and said that postmodern texts, while they think of themselves as radical and politically advanced, are really just the same ideas repackaged in shinier wrapping. Jameson described postmodern art as schizophrenic, shallow and always loyal to the capitalist status quo.

Postfeminism is an easier concept to wrestle with—it basically refers to any argument or text that furthers the idea that feminism as a theory, and especially as a political movement, is obsolete, passé, or otherwise unnecessary. When I think of postfeminism, I think of girl power, women-who-kick-ass and ersatz consumerist empowerment through things like buying clothes. These ideas tell us that we’ve made it, that sex equality has been achieved, so what are all of you killjoys still doing complaining about sexual assault, the gender pay gap and sexist representation in media when the war is over? Didn’t you get the memo? Women can do anything they want now, including buy lots of shoes.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of reflection or insight to realize that sexism is alive and well, so pseudo-empowerment is something that we should be concerned about as movie fans and media consumers. We should resist the idea that a text is empowering when it’s actually actively propping up sexism or whatever “ism” you’re concerned with critiquing.

So, what is it about Tangled that so exemplifies postmodernism and postfeminism? Well, the first thing is that Rapunzel as an active, feminist character is all over the place. She’s magically powerful, but only in very narrow, acceptably feminine ways—namely, healing and singing. She beats up her love interest Flynn Rider when he intrudes into her tower, but her weapons of choice are her hair, a symbol of her beauty turned powerful, and the wifely frying pan, a piece of kitchen equipment that is usually seen in comedies that turn domestic violence around into something large women inflict on slight men. She saves herself and her initially unwilling travel partner, Flynn, from life-threatening situations multiple times, but it's usually with her magical powers and feminine charm. Rapunzel’s goal of seeing an annual show of floating lanterns is what sets the journey in motion, so she’s actively making the story happen (as opposed to what Laura Mulvey describes as women characters being bystanders while the male protagonist does things to and around her), but it’s not really a radical expedition—she intends on going right back to her tower to paint and read (that sounds downright Victorian) once she has seen the lights.

Where Tangled does pave a clearer path for critique is where it addresses class relations. The film paints a portrait of a society ruled over by a benevolent king and queen whose daughter, who turns out to be Rapunzel, was kidnapped when she was a child. The plebeians love their rulers so much that they collectively mourn the heir to the throne’s disappearance every year on her birthday with a brilliant floating lantern display (similar to the commoners' Aurora song in Sleeping Beauty). Now isn’t that quaint. They joyfully celebrate their class status and dance around the kingdom outside their tidy, shabby-chic homes to vaguely Celtic music. They are clearly ecstatic to work in whatever trade they’re in, propping up their friendly monarchs’ palatial lifestyle. This heavenly class dynamic flies in the face of the brief brush with reality that the hero Flynn brings us when he talks about his childhood in an orphanage, which led to his thievery in adulthood.

Confused about what Tangled ultimately means? Me too! That’s the tricky part about postmodern texts. As Jameson says, they’re nearly impossible to pin down theoretically. So while I try hard to make definitive assessments as to what films are doing well and where they’re failing, this children’s film has been one of the most difficult ones for me to wrap my feminist head around. Of course, for many feminist media critics, the most important thing is to simply ask these questions and to know what you’re watching. That’s the fun—but also the curse—of being an active media consumer.

Bechdel Test: Pass

Overall Grade: B-

Feminist Grade: C

Monday, June 27, 2011

Filipino Teachers Sacrifice Home for a Living Wage in 'The Learning'

Imagine you’re an educated person with a professional job, but that job—and any other you’re likely to find in your entire country—pays below the poverty line, and everyone you’ve ever known your whole life is desperately poor. What if you had a chance to make life better for your entire extended family? But there’s a catch: You have to work in another country for nine months of the year in a job that makes many run scared.

Ramona Diaz’ s documentary The Learning explores just this scenario for four math and science teachers from the Philippines who are recruited to teach in Baltimore’s underserved schools. The film follows their first year away from home. Growing up surrounded by crushing poverty despite their education, Dorotea Godinez, Angel Alim, Grace Amper and Rhea Espedido make the heart wrenching move to the United States—away from their beloved students, husbands, children, parents and friends—to become the breadwinners for their entire extended families.

This is possible because the United States has a hard time recruiting and keeping math and science teachers, especially in famously rough schools like the ones in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. And the women make about 25 times more than they were making as teachers in the Philippines: Godinez says that where she used to make about 180,000 pesos a year, she now makes over 3 million.

What Diaz lovingly shows throughout this documentary is the emotional and physical toll that transcontinental work takes on women whose usefulness to America’s children inevitably comes at the cost of breaking up their own families. And although the film illustrates this injustice clearly—especially in the epilogue, which makes explicit that the Philippines’ recent economic boom grows on the backs of its women’s transcontinental labor in the form of money sent back home—it’s disappointing to hear the four women display and recite the tenets of the American dream since it flies so violently in the face of their reality. When Alim encourages her students to never give up on their dreams by showing them footage of her trip to a Disney park and emphasizes to her family that she wants to dedicate her salary to their education so they can have a better life, it contradicts the terrible bargain she had to strike to escape poverty as an educated person.

These four women are clearly compassionate, talented educators who are taking every chance they have to make life better for themselves. It’s just unfortunate that they have to make that choice to begin with.

Watch the full episode. See more POV.

The Learning screened at Silverdocs in Silver Spring, Md. Visit the film’s Facebook to find a screening near you.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dr. Quinn

Time Warner can be counted among those who subscribe to the misbelief that feminism is somehow contrary to family values.

Another example of how feminism, to too many, is still considered a dirty word.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gamers Hilarious, if Sometimes Pathetic, in Web Series The Guild

When you think of gamers, you probably think of young, white, pale and dorky men who devote as much time to weird anime porn as they do to their beloved video games. Well, much as that world seems steeped in misogyny—perhaps because gamers tend to be dudes who are lower on the hetero dating food chain in general—the delightful web series The Guild gives us a look into the motivations and neuroses of a girl gamer and her wacky teammates in an online, multiplayer role-playing game that I can only guess is modeled after World of Warcraft.

Felicia Day of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog fame writes and stars in the show, which launched in 2007 on YouTube and later on Microsoft video host Zune, which is based loosely on what she calls her own one-time addiction to gaming. The show follows the Knights of Good, a guild of players in an unnamed game that features warlocks, priests, gnomes, dinosaurs, spells and bloody battles with archaic weaponry. The guild is made up of a zany ensemble: the stingy leader and Vork, the needy and obsessive Zaboo, the immature loose cannon Bladezz, the delightfully neglectful mother Clara, the cold as ice Tinkerballa and our protagonist, the anxiety-ridden Codex (played by the fire-haired Day).

The best part of this series is seeing this hilarious ensemble cast of misfits interact with each other in the game and in real life. Since the guild members live in close proximity—presumably somewhere in southern California—the action starts off when the antisocial players are forced to meet in person for the first time. The zany Zaboo kicks off the action when he shows up at Codex’s doorstep, having mistaken a typo for a flirtatious emoticon. He has become infatuated with his guild priestess, and he basically doesn’t leave her alone for the next two seasons. Codex calls on her fellow Knights of Good to help her get Zaboo back home, where has absurd Oedipal issues waiting for him.

While gamers will surely enjoy the banter, the excitement over expansion options and the detailed jargon that goes right over my head, the show is plenty relatable without knowing what potions do and why avatars sometimes ride mastodons. Codex is a sometimes frustrating but usually endearing protagonist to follow. Her neuroses and anxieties start out a little dark—she even gets fired by her therapist in the first episode—but at her core, she’s an adorable, quirky gamer girl whom you root for in every raid, date or other quest.

From a feminist perspective, it’s interesting to see another view of gaming by following a fictitious group made up of half men, half women that is centered on one of the latter. In fact, Day said in an interview with Wired that part of the reason she wrote the show was to bust the myth that all gamers are teenage boys in basements and that quirky girl characters are best used as sidekicks. Codex is front and center, and her fellow women characters get plenty of screen time, too. They're certainly flawed, but they're not one-dimensional.

Clara leaves her kids in department stores with a baby monitor and skips her sister’s wedding to farm gold for a special orb, but she also had a cute relationship with her husband. Tink is bitter, emotionally unavailable and uses her sexuality to manipulate men, but she proves herself loyal to her guild and vulnerable when her character gets erased. Codex is virginal, meek and socially awkward, but she stands her ground with Zaboo’s clinginess, brings the guild together during tumultuous times and even has a one-night stand with a rival gamer.

Other than a rape joke in the first season, the implication that women like behavior like Zaboo’s creepy stalking and the intense hatred the characters all harbor for his overbearing mom, The Guild is pretty tame for a mainstream text. It follows women characters in a male-dominated social network and doesn’t ignore the credibility issues that come up for women within the game. At the same time, the show gives all of us skeptics a sympathetic view for what people get out of these games in one hilarious, enthralling six-minute episode after another.

Four seasons in, The Guild is going strong with insane characters (the flighty but delightful mom Clara and uber-miser Vork are personal favorites), hilarious writing, and off-beat misadventures. And according to Day’s Twitter, season five shot earlier this spring and should be posted later this summer. Make sure you catch up on the first four seasons on the show’s website or Netflix before then.

Logging off ...

<a href="" target="_new" title="Season 4 - Episode 1 - Epic Guilt">Video: Season 4 - Episode 1 - Epic Guilt</a>

Bechdel Grade: Pass

Feminist Grade: C-

Overall Grade: A

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bridesmaids: A Ladybrain Review

In the feminist blogosphere, Judd Apatow’s name is synonymous with dude-bros, high-maintenance shrews and man-children. The writer and director who brought us some of the biggest sleeper hits of the early 2000s—The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up among them—has made his name with a series of movies about immature, loveable losers and the women who settle for them. After seeing much success with movies he wrote and directed, he produced a series of films that promising actors wrote, often starring themselves—Jason Segal wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Seth Rogen wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express. In films like these, the women who reject our slacker protagonists are demonized and punished accordingly. For sins against Veronica Mars, the feminist blogosphere regards Apatow’s name with almost as much distain as Roman Polanski’s.

So imagine my conflicted feelings when Apatow approached a talented, hilarious actress to write a film for him to produce.

Feminists have largely seemed to get behind Bridesmaids, released three weeks ago, despite Apatow’s presence as a producer under the theory that if this film doesn’t do well at the box office, a woman-centered ensemble comedy will never be made in Hollywood ever again. Feminist icons implored women to show up at the box office in bridesmaids dresses. The biggest women in Hollywood website reports weekly on the film’s profits and box-office performance. Most dutiful feminists made their way to the theaters opening weekend, and the rest of us have filed in in the ensuing weeks.

Despite the fact that I tend to be a mite skeptical about purchasing-power activism and honestly had something better to do opening weekend, I did make it a priority to see Bridesmaids in its second weekend in theaters. And while I won’t tell you it’s politically revolutionary to go see this movie, I will tell you that you will absolutely love Bridesmaids because it’s just as irreverent, hilarious and heartwarming as you’ve heard.

Bridesmaids tells the story of Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who are best friends forever until a series of increasingly unfortunate, hilarious and cringe-worthy events that are set off by planning Lillian’s impending nuptials. The pair’s endearing, wacky BFF status is put to the test when the more polished but lonely bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne) tries to copycat her way into Lillian’s graces to dethrone Annie as maid of honor. What ensues is a tornado path of pettiness and absurdity wherein Annie sinks ever lower to hit rock bottom before she sinks a little lower.

As all Hollywood films do, Bridesmaids does leave some feministy things to be desired. This movie is clearly seeped in the logic of heteronormativity and old-maid phobia that has been canonized in romantic comedies, and some of bridesmaid Megan’s (Melissa McCarthy) antics can certainly be read as fat hate. The film is set in a traditionally acceptable feminine theme of wedding-planning (though a wholly irreverent version), features a protagonist whose career ambition is also acceptably womanly (she bakes), pits two conniving women against each other and throws in an accusation of lesbianism as an insult.

But along with these imperfections, Bridesmaids gets a lot of things right. It was written by two women (Wiig and Annie Mumolo), features women who candidly complain about sex and children, and has a villainess who is more pitiable than evil. But what struck a chord most with me was its celebration of women’s friendship.

Although we only see Annie and Lillian alone in a few scenes, I chose to see Bridesmaids as a love story of best friends, even though much screen time is spent on Annie’s relationship with an unassuming, appropriately working-class policeman. The writers and director Paul Feig (that skinny guy from Heavy Weights) make this stretch into resistant spectatorship even easier by showing Lillian’s husband in only two scenes that I remember. But as someone who fiercely loves her best friend and has fiercely reacted when I felt like someone was trying to threaten that relationship, Bridesmaids was cathartic, if not advisable as a guide for how to behave in life or in bridal parties.

So if you are a lady who loves your friends, go see Bridesmaids, preferably with said friends. I won’t tell you it will solve the sexism in film problem, but I will tell you it’s a damn good, lady-friendly time.

Bechdel Grade: Pass

Feminist Grade: B-

Overall Movie Grade: A

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Romantics: A Catch-Up Review

The Romantics had big shoes to fill. It was released at the tail end of a slew of indie-aesthetic films about miserable people attending the rural, New-York-area weddings of brides and grooms the protagonists resent for one reason or another. In 2007, there was Margot at the Wedding and in 2008, Rachel Getting Married. The wedding theme, ensemble casts, dim lighting, choppy camera work and cringe-worthy antics of our leading ladies link these three films. Unfortunately for the other two, Rachel Getting Married is the golden child in this triumvirate. Given the blazed trail, though, The Romantics promised something different enough that I actively sought it out, and I maintain that its differences in form, lovely casting and open-ended conclusion make it more than a tagalong to better wedding films. In fact, it’s much better than the miserable whine-fest that was Margot at the Wedding.

The Romantics is a surprisingly fun version of a cliché story: two friends fighting over a dude. It’s no surprise that one of the women represents out-of-control passion while the other is a beacon of sensibility—women characters in film rarely break the dichotomous trend of embodying only one trait at a time, usually either pure malice or pure grace.

This film tells the story of a group of friends who meet and fall in love, a la St. Elmo’s Fire, at Yale. Poetry buff Laura (Katie Holmes) takes up with the similarly literary-minded Tom (Josh Duhamel—who knew he did anything worthwhile but marry Fergie?). Somewhat inexplicably, these two break up, and Tom starts dating the comely, rich Lila (Anna Paquin), Laura’s best friend and roommate. This love triangle is emblematic of the larger group of seven friends, who earned the nickname The Romantics for their “incestuous dating history.” Years after Laura and Tom’s breakup, these three reunite—along with their four other college friends—for Tom and Lila’s wedding at her parents’ coastal estate.

The setup is something we’ve all seen before, courtesy of the Brat Pack and countless romantic comedies. But The Romantics redeems itself with a few variations, the most interesting of which is the structure. This film spends a remarkable amount of time with the ample supporting cast, which includes Dianna Agron, Elijah Wood, Candace Bergen and Malin Akerman. The way these characters pop in and out of scenes—hiding in corners, overhearing whispered conversations, switching romantic partners—is delightfully operatic. At times, you almost expect characters to launch into soliloquies or recitatives. Writer and director Galt Niederhoffer takes a Shakespearean approach to storytelling, deftly connecting the disparate vignettes together to add levity and heart to a film that could have easily fallen into romantic-comedy hell in less capable hands.

Unlike your typical big-budget wedding fare, The Romantics is also unapologeticly ambiguous in meaning and somewhat in morals. It gives us awkwardness—thankfully not on level with Rachel Getting Married—but not necessarily the clear answer. Maybe this is just resistant spectatorship talking, but it wasn’t clear which woman was right for Tom in the way that most love-driven films make that choice abundantly clear. In fact, the complicated friendship between the two leading ladies was much more interesting than Tom’s boring and aimless equivocating.

Don’t expect The Romantics to reinvent the genre, but do expect to see Niederhoffer take liberties with plot and form conventions that make this film worthy of your Netflix queue.

Bechdel Grade: F

Feminist Grade: D

Overall Movie Grade: B-