Holy Hot Girl! Look out! She’s got Super Powers!

I’m addicted to a premise. (Admittedly, I’m addicted to several, otherwise saying no to romcoms and space odysseys about boys with daddy issues would be much easier). Here it is: an absurdly hot girl (who’s also absurdly unaware of how hot she is) finds she has super powers, which enter her into a world full of magic and more absurdly hot people. Typically, how she came to have these powers begins as a mystery, which is revealed over the course of several episodes or the whole movie and at some point constitutes, along with whatever will-they/won’t-they, the only real reason you’re even still watching this drivel. This revelation usually elucidates hot-girl’s life purpose (how being intimately connected to why in any context), and by the end of the show run, she will be called upon as the only one able to save our world, their world, all worlds. Thank God for this waify bitch and her magical hands, back flips, gun, hoo-ha or what-have-you.

During my initial tirade on this, to which a one-eyed teddy bear acted as my enthralled audience, I could think of at least eight TV shows and movies predicated on this premise that I have watched in their entirety at least twice. I recommend each, even though Rotten Tomatoes gave two of the movies 27% and 13% respectively and more than one of the TV series at some point becomes actively terrible. They are: Jupiter Ascending (2015), Mortal Instruments (2013), Lost Girl (2010-2016), Haven (2010-2015), True Blood (2008-2014), Twilight (2008, 2009, 2010, 2012), Wynonna Earp (2016-) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992, 1996-2003). Their powers, in order: reincarnation and a bank account; demon fighting and extreme tattooing; healing and an irresistible poonani; immunity to other people’s wacko problems; mind reading and delicious blood; not having her mind read and nothing else (because Bella is basically a useless placeholder whose strength is manifest as blankness); ability to wield a powerful gun (not an innuendo, but really an innuendo); and vampire-related prophetic dreaming plus superhuman senses, durability, strength, reflexes, fighting ability and resilience. So, I bring to these lady badasses the eternal questions of litfuck: Why do I watch this and what am I unwittingly buying into when I do?

In part, I watch these things for the same reason we watch any fantasy. I put myself in the place of the character and feel like I too, another regular gal, could wake up one morning with awesome abilities coupled with flawless skin. Additionally, for the duration of my watching, I am one of these women, and one (all, read: all) of her hopelessly and singularly smitten suitors is in love with me. Cue the lineup of lanky, high-cheekboned protector-types, including wolf- boy (Kris Holden-Ried, Lost Girl), dog-man (Channing Tatum, Jupiter Ascending ), angsty and dead (David Boreanaz, Buffy), angsty with a death wish (Jamie Campbell Bower, Mortal Instruments), and mustache ride (Tim Rozon, Wynonna Earp). I’m a badass with a purpose and a boyfriend I don’t need but get to have anyway. Sex, direction, ability and salon-perfect hair. If your real life’s got you down, then fret not; you’re destined for cooler, sexier things.

Though I’m into the very empowering depiction of inordinately capable female protagonists who rock socks and get shit done, I do wonder how else these fictions might be read. In sitting back to consider, I find in these stories a strange sublimation of the trope of the witch. Witches, until their more recent revamp in things like Harry Potter, Charmed, and Practical Magic (oh, pretend you don’t remember Practical Magic), traditionally manifest qualities that scare us (us=men). They are aberrant in their gender expression: too old or twisted to bear children (the witch in Hansel and Gretel), too ugly to want to bear children with (Macbeth’s Weird Sisters), too large to be feminine (a la the White Witch in Chronicles of Narnia), too sexual to remain passive (Circe of Odyssey fame). Passivity and power are precisely the issues. Witches know things they shouldn’t and wield that intelligence with dexterity and influence. Morgan le Fay is most harrowing as a beautiful woman who aims to subvert the honorable King Arthur. That women have power and what those powers are constitute threats because they leverage ladies into positions in which they are actors not receivers, subjects rather than objects. The ends to which those powers are and might be used makes them scary. Their purpose seems deviant, and, just as why and how are linked, so too must their origins be perverse. Hence, the women trapped by the mentality of medieval Europe and early modern witch trials clearly derived their abilities from the devil.

The women featured in the examples of the premise I just can’t get enough of are not, per se, witches, but they do have mysterious powers that make them agents in their own lives to such an extent that they actually don’t need men. In fact, the men need them. This is all commensurate with a rash of more feminist fiction in the mainstream that I’m ecstatic to see, but I still don’t know how to read the explanations of the origins and purposes of these women’s extra-human capabilities. I see these explanations as the narrative’s apologia for the woman having powers that she shouldn’t. There must be some reason, some defense, for why a character that we root for has powers that are not human, that in fact make her monstrous, possibly demonic. Yes, times have changed, so it’s possible to classify a witchy-woman as a “good guy” without representing some great transgression to our current notions of right and wrong. But, the trope of the woman with supernatural abilities is old, and the one we borrow from now when we read or write Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Lost Girl will still show its relation to the roots it grew from.

In order to make monstrosity non-threatening, we must give it a reason, one that supports our worldview by echoing it or by standing as its evil, vincible contrast. In these shows and movies, our badass bitches possess their powers as a result of birthright, blood and destiny. Their purposes are to defeat demons (so therefore are not of demonic origin) or to serve as arbiter-cum-barrier between worlds. (Except for Bella Swan, whose purpose as far as I can tell is to act as an empty, silent shell of a human being so that her creepy boyfriend can get some peace and quiet from constantly hearing people who think. And maybe Sookie Stackhouse, who does refuse to sit in the corner and watch but for the most part is just lunch. Sexy lunch, but still lunch.)

The latter of these categories, which places our female wizard-gladiators at increasingly porous and blurry boundaries, has them doing the hard work of standing between. This is not only an innovative path for considering gender roles but for framing realities of being in the world. They do not clarify what should and should not be by reinforcing their dividing line but occupy a place that is both double and non-existent. Postmodernism loves this because it paves the way for entirely new logics, but it’s not so conducive to asserting good and bad, acceptable and unnatural. The former explanation bizarrely places a girl with preternatural abilities to wield a stake, a gun, a wand (not all the women act through phallic appendages, I promise) in the position of sole, benevolent savior, the only one capable of saving everyone through love and self-sacrifice. Remind of you of anything, Jesus? The idea that there is more to the world than what meets the eye, that some things defy explanation and do not owe us one, is central to religious faith, and there is plenty of fiction that tells the story of Christ’s magic through a chosen-one protagonist. (Right, Neo?)So, to what strand of readings do these lady badasses belong? And if main characters are always a sort of surrogate self, who am I getting off on thinking I am? I don’t know, but I believe that Buffy can save us all.

Stealing Bechdels

The Bechdel Test is laid out very simply. For those of you who don’t know it, there’s a whole website that explains, but basically it’s three rules that actually fit into one sentence: There are two or more female characters with names (1), who talk to each other (2), about something other than a man (3). That doesn’t seem that hard. That happens to me every day, even if just me calling my mom to talk about myself. But, as any explanation quickly makes clear, precious few movies make it into this category. Reciting the Mahabarata would take less time than reading a list of the mainstream films that fail this test. (In case you wanted to hear that, at least a condensed version).

In the 1985 comic, the test appears almost as a joke, but one whose laugh quickly trails into a disgusted, powerless sigh. The women decide to go home and make popcorn, in Bechdel’s story, because the prospect of  another movie with flat female characters and non-existent feminine relationships frankly sounds boring. Bechdel is about representation, and what it calls out are the very limited roles of women. Oh, not so limited. In the movies, they can be wives, mothers, sisters, witches, bitches, dreamgirls and an occasional sympathetic fat friend. They can be all these things as long as they don’t exceed their functions of rotating around the bright center of the Copernican universe: some dude. What the Bechdel test is signalling is that a vast majority of popular movies limit women to the status of objects, plot devices or symbols. Even the sympathetic ugly friend graced with an ounce of emotional complexity is merely a man mirror. She’s there so he can see himself or so we can see him in a different light, so we can say, “oh look, he’s not a completely self-involved, vapid POS; he has an unattractive female friend.” (Except that he is, and honestly, we’d be upset if he hooked up with the fat chick.) The takeaway is that only men can be real people. Women are accessories, tools, and only have value in terms of what they mean for men. The very fabric of society depends on it (Levi-Strauss is just reading the rules). What the Bechdel test exposes is that in representations of society, women cannot exceed their roles as objects and cannot, cannot, cannot be allowed to form their own bonds…unless they’re over men.

If movies are meant to reflect the world, this is a sorry state. Worse still, we seem to be admitting more and more that our artistic representations of society shape society as much as they reflect it. This opens a line for interpreting popular movies as actively cultivating this state of affairs. These days, we’re starting to take this whole representation thing seriously, and suddenly an obscure cultural reference from a lesbian comic book that’s older than I am is now on everyone’s lips. My problem (I always have a problem. Blogs are glorified rant spaces; don’t be shocked) is that nowadays, everyone is giving themselves a pat on the back for passing Bechdel. But, it’s not a litmus test. It’s not a box you check. If two women have a five second exchange about a sword — even if one of them is the hero — this does not mean it’s a feminist film (Admittedly, The Force Awakens may not pass feminist muster for me, but The Last Jedi is giving me a new hope). There are feminist leaning movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test — Run Lola Run, Shrek — and there are wildly unfeminist movies that do — How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Weird Science.

I’ve begun to feel lately that some movies are shoehorning in Bechdel test passing gestures because they think the appearance of representation and actual representation are the same thing. Crazy Rich Asians is still Cinderella even if a breastless girl has a conversation with a princess about microloans for women. This is how I came to the question of what this test is really demanding with its incredibly low bar of we just wanted to be in the movie and have a fighting chance at enough psychological depth to be a plausible human and not an electron to a dick-shaped nucleus. This made me ask if passing the Bechdel test is about feminism or about something else, and further, what’s the requirement I’m imagining for something to be feminist. Steel Magnolias passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. There are six female characters, with names, who constantly have conversations that are not about men. The women develop as people, as do their relationships with one another. For good measure, even the audience’s understanding of these women and their relationships evolves. But, for me, I find it difficult to call this movie feminist, even when I remember that it came out in 1989. It’s normative to the point that Julia Roberts’s character is painted as a hero for knowingly sacrificing her life so that she can produce a male heir. She tries to convince her mother to support her decision by saying that she “would rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” Life without making a baby, for women, is bleh. Bleh at best. This is not the only moment of regressive and confining goals for women, but it’s certainly my favorite…well maybe when Dolly Parton makes fun of a wedding guest for dancing with a younger man and wearing a dress so tight that her butt looks like “two pigs fighting under a blanket.” Shut up Dolly. At least she’s making something happen under her blanket.
But, then I have to think again about the feminist demand the Bechdel test is making and the perhaps narrow view I have of what feminists look like. Bechdel is asking that women be represented in a real way and that they not be isolated from one another. Steel Magnolias is doing that and more. The women have free reign to express themselves and make their own choices, even if damaging patriarchal structures are tacitly informing those choices and the women show zero recognition of that fact. It shows problems that women really confront and allows them to think, feel and act ambivalently. This makes the movie feminist. Furthermore, the women are unapologetic about their choices and their behaviors. Bechdel demands complex heroes, not idealized heroines (we all know how that turns out in things like Wonder Woman). Steel Magnolias does that and more. So, who’s being narrow, rigid and prescriptive now. Looks like me.

And the Moral of the Story is…For Dads Too. Christopher Robin and The Incredibles

Children’s movies are instructive. (Actually, all movies are instructive. Why do you think I don’t volunteer to be the winter caretaker of scenic overlook hotels anymore? Or marry someone who would. Wait, I may have done the latter.) We go to these movies anticipating a lesson. The fairy tale, the myth, the Bible story and the feature length cartoon are all visited with an expectation of a moral. Disney and Pixar know this. (Ok, Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney. I still think of them as separate in terms of what movies they’re producing). Pixar has a major theme with encouraging bravery even when you feel scared (Finding Nemo (2003), Monsters Inc. (2001), Brave (2012)). Until about the 1990s, all of Disney’s lessons for girls were, “serve, wait for a man and fear women who don’t have youth and do have ambition” (Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959)). Their lessons for boys were, “be boys!” (Peter Pan (1953), Pinocchio (1940)). Though, lately Disney seems to be trying to make amends, moving through “misbehave and wait” (The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995)), to gender-bucking girl-heroes (Mulan (1998), Moana (2016)), and “oh, actually women can have nuanced relationships” (Frozen (2013), Maleficent (2014)). (Admittedly, this second one is not animated, but a, it deliberately tries to reevaluate the evil crone, and I’m into that; b, Angelina Jolie’s beauty is exaggerated to the point of being cartoonish; and c, live action-ing classics is the new cartoon). Disney may have its faults, but even its teachings are developing with the times.

Generally, children are the target of this instruction. Christopher Robin and the Incredibles movies are no exception. They are teaching a number of valuable skills to kids. They learn from watching what the children in the movie go through. In Christopher Robin, Madeline has trouble talking to her dad, or rather in getting him to hear her. Though far from a main theme, her articulating and sharing her feelings provides a helpful model. Violet and Dash Incredible (oops, I mean Parr) demonstrate lessons about being responsible and taking care of family, even if the protective force fields and journeys to save captive parents will only ever be metaphorical for us non-incredibles. Kids also learn from watching the adults. Regardless of age, the viewer identifies with the protagonist, shares his point of view, and experiences his character arch. In the first Incredibles movie, Mr. Incredible brings us lessons about sharing, lying, expectations and responsibilities. Christopher Robin learns about excessive seriousness, about the need for play despite a desire to prepare for the future and be faultlessly dependable. These lessons are particularly fun to decode in children’s movies because typically the hero and the villain reflect one another. Billy Pine/Syndrome’s hero worship, his desire to be the soul savior of the day, to be surrounded by the awestruck love and admiration of a helpless and grateful population is only a slightly warped version of the same attitudes Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible has been expressing throughout the film. Defeating the villain is about identifying and overcoming the negative inside. Disney, with its ever-light touch, has Piglet, Tigger and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood crew repeatedly identify Christopher Robin as a Heffalump, a dangerous, childhood crushing creature that can only be defeated through imagination and play. Children watch these movies and learn about fallibility, the importance of whimsy, the need to be open to and listen to others.

Pixar has long since brought us out of the model of kids movies are for kids. I don’t foresee using my dad’s move of listening to books on tape as my only recourse to making two hours of animated feature tolerable. But these summer kids’ flicks, Christopher Robin and the Incredibles movies, not only ask parents not to shut them out but actually seem more directed at them than at their children. They’re instructive alright, instructive to adults, specifically to dads. All three of these movies are about fatherhood, and they have valuable lessons to impart. So, take off your headphones, Dads, because Winnie the Pooh has something to tell you.

Christopher Robin takes on the hobgoblin of upper middle class minds: efficiency. Always working, working, working, a grown-up Christopher Robin is missing out on his life and his child’s childhood by not preserving a sense of his own. He’s so concerned with ensuring his daughter’s future, through his own self-obliterating work ethic and teaching the same to his progeny, that he’s forgotten that doing nothing often leads to the very best of something. Mr. Incredible also learns that fatherhood is more dynamic than being a lone-wolf, hero provider (part of a larger discussion on masculinity, which you can read about here , here , here. Seriously, just type “incredibles masculinity” into a Google search. I’m not the only one who noticed, ok). While Christopher Robin is essentially teaching the same thing as Mary Poppins (1964) – i.e., reminding dads to spend time with their children – and the first Incredibles is largely doing the same, Incredibles 2 betrays a quick evolution for mainstream models of fatherhood. It’s not just that Bob/Mr. Incredible grapples with being a stay-at-home dad and that the movie provides an example of that being an ok role for the man of the house. It’s about watching a father invest a super-human level of energy into the job of parenting and deriving self-worth from that work. It’s about not being good at something the very first time you have to do it (I think that this, more than the inept father trope, is the import of the “Mr. Incredible gets the kids to school” montage). It’s about letting your children see that you’re not perfect but you’re trying. These things are building far past teaching the untouchable father that he’s allowed to have feelings.

I’m calling this out not because I think my dad should’ve taken his headphones off. Honestly, if I have to take my 14-year-old to see Moulin Rouge for the fifth time while it’s still in theaters, it’s only reasonable to bring my own entertainment. I’m signaling it because the three major summer movies for kids this year, Christopher Robin, Incredibles 2 and Hotel Transylvania 3, are all about fatherhood. I’m not accusing men of being a particular stereotype. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the limited models children’s movies give to daughters, but boys, fathers even, have also been represented in a constricting way. These summer spoonfuls of sugar might be giving us something new.

After I wrote this post, and my parents successfully defended the use of books on tape in children’s movies, my father found this article in the Washington Post and sent it to me. Hope for Dads!


Luke’s Lightsaber, Han’s Gun and my Grandmother

An heirloom is an object which connects. It links generations. Mother and daughter. Grandfather and grandson. Often even further back and further forward in time. I think most often of a necklace given to me when my grandmother died. She’d worn it every day. I remember it glinting behind blouses, falling onto plates as she leaned over to set a table, resting on the generous chest I would also inherit. I imagine when my grandfather gave it to her, this religious symbol with little diamonds. So when I took up her talisman – I too wear it everyday – it was like having a piece of her, of him and of our greater group. I can conjure her and the things that this little shape conjured for her, or at least, that I imagine it did. In some sense, they’re with me all the time, as this everyday object becomes a part of my person as it did for my grandmother.

A tactile bridge to the abstract and the lost, an heirloom condenses individuals, stories, groups. When the heirloom is also a talisman, it increases the intensity of all this and adds a sense of magic and a feeling of shared secrets. The heirloom-talisman given and accepted also acts as a mutual claiming. That’s what heritage does; it inscribes you in a genealogy, a figurative or literal family line. An heir, according to Misters Merriam, Merriam and Webster (yes, there were two Merriams), is “a person legally entitled to the property or rank of another on that person’s death” or “a person who inherits and continues the work of a predecessor.” It defines a legal relationship and status, an identity, and an activity that really has the quality of a mission rather than a pastime. The definition of loom I might leave alone for now, as that’s a linguistics diatribe that could go on for a while. (Loom as a verb, loom as a noun, loom in Old English). Let’s just say it’s a tool. So an heirloom is a tool of heritage. I think of all objects of emotional significance that pass from old hands to young ones with their affective powers still intact as having functions similar to that of the heirloom.

Here’s the part where I talk about Star Wars. (Admit it, you were worried the whole post was going to be about linguistics and my grandmother). The Star Wars universe is vast – more vast even than I realized – and initially, I thought it would have a number of objects of emotional significance that link or at least traverse its many plotlines. Though, given the number of orphans who populate its stories, perhaps I should have been less surprised to find markedly few. Maybe the Millennium Falcon. Perhaps the Tico sisters’ necklaces which create a material reference for their strong bond. But, these smack more of simple family talismans than objects exemplified for what they do and mean as they pass from one set of hands to another. Luke/Anakin/Rey’s lightsaber is the best example. We see it first (first? Oh Sith Lord, in what order do the kids these days see these movies?) in the OG, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. A boy with daddy issues, much in need of a sense of connection to his familial past, is bequeathed his father’s Jedi symbol/tool/talisman and, along with it, a story and a mission. This heirloom gives order to his life at a moment when he’s about to need it most. And, lest you forget to pay attention to it, this light-up sword which has now spawned several generations of children with poked eyes is one of the only physical objects across the Star Wars universe that is significant both emotionally and to the plot – unless you reduce R2D2 pregnant with Death Star plans or Han Solo in carbonite to things, which I don’t. This is one powerful little object, but I’m most interested in how it creates lineage and, in the process, becomes a reference for temporal order. It links Luke to his father and Episodes IV through VI to Episodes I through III. It brings Rey into that Jedi family, readying her to become the last Jedi, and it puts this most recent trio of films after the 1970s classics. It has intra- and extra-diegetic power, forging order in the major genealogical line within, throughout and outside the stories, most importantly helping the viewer to grip and be gripped by the timeline of the films.

A number of the Easter eggs from the new Solo: A Star Wars Story share a lot with these emotionally-charged objects I’ve been describing. They tie together people and story lines across time and do so by being passed from one character to another and possessing secret significance. The Millennium Falcon, again, sort of. A set of gold dice that doesn’t seem to bring Qi’ra much luck but does contain enough emotional significance and presumed magic that Han still has it at least 10 years later in Episode IV. And Han’s blaster. Han’s blaster, for me, is an Easter egg-heirloom. In the OGs, it’s just a gun. (Nobody get their panties in a twist. There’s no shortage of essays and comments against the idea that a gun is just a gun. Not that Han, in either his Harrison Ford or Alden Ehrenreich renditions, needs any more proof of testosterone, proxy or otherwise). In Solo, both the character and his beloved accoutrement get a backstory. He receives it from a replacement father character, Captain Beckett. In fact, it’s a part of this man’s rifle, his character’s weapon/talisman. (Oh my God, please someone write a paper on the weapon-talisman). He disassembles it and gives a portion that somehow is a blaster to Han. This thing which has obsessed fans since the internet was invented basically to talk about who shot first (obviously not Greedo because I imagine trigger pulling is a challenge with those fingers) now symbolizes a narrative that pulls Han into a family of sorts. It gives him a father figure and acts as his official induction into this band and the greater world of smugglers. The genealogy the blaster reinforces is two-fold because it also serves to connect and order the films.

But, the affective power of the blaster is felt not just by Han, but by the spectator as well. Its quality as an Easter egg – a wink to the audience, a conspiratorial congratulations to the canny viewer – redoubles these feelings of connection and significance because it capitalizes on a sense of shared secrets. To me, Easter eggs work a lot like objects of heritage because they condense an emotional tie and signal one’s status as a member of a type of family. You have to be in the group, in the know, to even notice the object at all and furthermore to value it as something of special significance. The viewer astute enough to catch it shares in a secret heritage. It draws us in affectively and makes us feel part of the Star Wars universe and its various genealogies. We sympathize with Han, and, holding one of his secrets, we even empathize with the protagonist to a greater degree. (We always empathize with a protagonist. That’s how movies work).

Of course, there’s a slightly more insidious view on all this which has to do with marketing and merchandise, with getting people to watch more, buy more, grow more obsessed with all of Star Wars’s secret pockets of story, scour the internet for content, and generate their own crackpot theories and overwrought analyses (who would do that?). The Easter egg in general, but particularly this Easter egg which is also blatantly a heritage object for our beloved hero, can simulate depth in the storyline by fomenting a sense of complicity and increased identification in the viewer. Well, I’ve now destroyed my self-congratulatory moment of “clever girl, you noticed the blaster Easter egg” by reclassifying it as a very good marketing ploy, a shallow bid for my money and allegiance masquerading as a sign of narrative complexity.  But, I give in, and honestly, tell me you don’t want one of these.

El Ministerio del Nacionalismo

I’m currently living in Barcelona. I moved here a few weeks before a referendum vote declared illegal by Spain’s central government. The vote was to decide whether Catalonia might secede from the rest of Spain. Part of me viewed this with flippant disdain for what I saw as the narcissism of small differences; part of me knows better, knows the history of Spain, its varied states, their stories of violence and oppression, minor and major in their degree. This post is not about the secession of Catalonia. I still don’t have a definitive opinion on the matter, and being neither an EU citizen nor in a position of power or influence, I feel no need to. (I’m sure my friend Pablo a, has an opinion, b, has an opinion about what my opinion should be, c, has an opinion about my lack of opinion and d, would absolutely never tell me because his ethical principles do not discriminate in size; politics between nations and between friends are equally subject to sticking to your guns. Frankly, that sounds exhausting).

But, I bring this up because it has me thinking quite a lot about Spanish nationalism. Well, this internationally relevant debate and a recent TV binge. Netflix put up all three seasons of El Ministerio del Tiempo, or The Ministry of Time, and feeling that since it was at least in Spanish, I wasn’t merely being a couch potato spending many uninterrupted hours watching it. The much eye-rolling I received from Spanish friends in response to my excited discovery of a Spanish sci-fi show along with the tepid concession that “well, yes, surprisingly they’ve done a show in the American style, and it’s at least decent” nearly wrecked my proud feeling of passive education. But, I was being educated alright, educated in a definition of “Spanishness.”

The premise: The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, along with their many accomplishments (consolidating Spanish rule on the Iberian Peninsula, supporting the discovery of the Americas, purifying their kingdom through the expulsion of all the Jews and Muslims), found the Ministry of Time, which houses a series of doors that act as portals across the vast time and space of the Spanish Empire. Lest this particular accomplishment remain without blood on their hands, the man who discovered the portals, who worked out and wrote down how they function, is one Rabbi Abraham Leví, condemned in season 1 episode 4 to relive the same day of his burning by the Inquisition behind the only door in the whole Ministry stuck in a time loop. (Applause Isabella. Applause.)

The unremitting goal of the Ministry of Time is to preserve Spanish history. This includes things like ensuring Cervantes gets the Quijote published, Adolfo Suarez’s  ancestor isn’t killed, Lope de Vega doesn’t die and that the Rabbi does. (The Rabbi is based on an actual person, and, curiously, in real life, he was not torched by the Inquisition nor was he the bumbling, wise-man pet of Isabella). There are whole episodes dedicated to making sure a bunch Velázquez paintings are destroyed when a castle burned down and even to preserving the circumstances of Franco’s reign. The Ministry is plagued with people trying to rewrite time, and the show at least gives cursory space to asking why this is so necessary.

So, what does all of this have to do with Spanish nationalism? Though a couple of friends of mine from Madrid tried to shout me out of the belief that a crappy TV show could be telling them what it means to be Spanish, after watching one of the protagonists give a speech from the Siege of Baler about what all these soldiers from “Andalusia, Catalonia, Extremadura and the Basque Country” have in common in an episode that aired in April 2016 (the increased buzz about Catalan independence started in 2014 if not before), my conviction was renewed. We are one Spain, the show seems to say, and this is our history. A mutual history, a mutual time and space along with a shared conception of it, is paramount to citizens’ sharing what Benedict Anderson calls an “Imagined Community.” The necessity of a mutual concept of past, present and future predates this critic’s seminal weigh in on the matter. It probably even predates Ernest Renan’s 1882 speech at the Sorbonne, “What is a Nation?,” in which a shared timeline in the form of a shared history is central to nurturing budding nations.

So, El Ministerio del Tiempo is a purveyor of Spanish nationalism. The doors only go to Spanish territories, which, in watching the show, we are reminded were once vast. The cell phones which mysteriously have coverage in time periods long before satellites, only have coverage in Spanish lands (i.e. when the Treaty of Paris is signed, poor Julián loses his life line from one day to the next, and the very sexy, 16th century soldier Alonso has to save him). If the highlight tour of Spanish territory is not enough to convince you, consider this, the entire show/ministry is dedicated to showcasing/preserving Spanish history! Protegemos la patria!

Narratives of citizenship aside (though not totally aside, I still have so many questions: what is the definition of Spanishness being purveyed? How are they rewriting different historical figures? How do they portray other countries and Spain’s relationship to them? For example, the American version of the Ministry is a bunch of bumbling capitalists with great tech and zero scruples. I could keep going), the show is highly enjoyable…if you suspend some of your needs for consistency within a fictional world. But, hey, it’s a Spanish show “done in the American style,” so just enjoy your kitsch and stop whining.

A Star Wars Manifesto or A Belated Thank You to my 6th Grade Teacher

Cue music.

In 6th grade, Ms. Russell taught us how to read. I don’t mean the phonics, Dick and Jane kind of reading. I had made it to 12 years old with successful elementary school basics, though my penmanship stopped improving at age 10. I mean read in a way that treats the text as more than the lazy river of plot. Something that one floats through on an inner tube, a presence on the surface, drowsily suspended from falling in. Ms. Russell taught us to pay attention, that there was more going on than the story. There was the way it was being told, consequences to authorial choices, secondary implications in descriptions, subtle changes in perspective. She taught us to read literature, and she did it with the Star Wars books.

For those of you whose nerdom has never brought them in this direction of galactic fantasy, this might be your moment to say, “ah, yes, it seems the movies are based on books,” and while I do appreciate the attempt to invest the film trilogy with traditional literary merit, let’s be clear. The books are a novelization of the movies. Each came out with its corresponding film in 1977, 1980 and 1983, and though Mr. Lucas’s name graces each cover, they were in fact ghost-written (with varying degrees of ghostliness) by Alan Dean Foster, Donald F. Glut and James Kahn. (The first actually came out before the film, but the two were written concurrently). You might wonder why Ms. Russell chose these books instead of your typical Mary Shelley Frankenstein or Lois Lowry The Giver — novels which enjoyed the dignified timeline of book to screen, rather than vice versa. I’d wonder too, but my questions are quickly quelled by gratitude and geeky surrender.

I do not now remember every lesson, but I remember the first. We took turns reading aloud: “CHAPTER ONE: Bursts of laserfire streaked after the consular starship Tantive IV, which was racing for the planet Tatooine. The ship was fleeing from the Devastator, an immense Imperial Star Destroyer that was firing nearly all its turbolasers at the elusive ship. Both vessels had just entered Tatooine’s orbit when the Devastator’s lasers scored a direct hit on the Tantive IV’s primary sensor array.” Ok, no one said it was high literature. You try to summon the interest of a room full of 6th graders without some level of lazy-river style storyline excitement generated by laser blasters and imperilled princesses. Captivated by scrambling rebels and adorable droids, we continued our reading: “‘There’ll be no escape for the princess this time,’ C-3PO said just loud enough for R2-D2 to hear. Mere minutes before the Star Destroyer attacked, the Tantive IV’s commanding officer, Captain Antilles, had issued command/control instructions to the droids, ordering them to restrict and protect all references to Leia Organa’s identity and presence onboard the Tantive IV.” The plot was building, but here, an excited “Ah! There!” from Ms. Russell stopped our momentum. She explained our first literary term: foreshadowing. We were asked to mark the reference to Princess Leia’s capture and escape in some way — with brackets, underlining, or by painting it with one of the various highlighters our parents had sent us to school with. In my copy, there’s a crooked FS on this first page. I remember writing it. It’s even legible. We knew from the movie that the Empire would take our beloved princess, and that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker would rescue her, but “here,” Ms. Russell told us, “the text is already alluding to what will happen.” Foreshadowing. Boom. Reading would never be the same.

I still write in my books. It makes sense given my profession as literary scholar, critic, teacher, and eternal student. Reactions in the margin, underscoring, squiggly lines. A star. A star with a circle. My books are always fatter and darker when I’m done with them. A colleague of mine leaves his pristine. I’ve always been impressed by this. It’s hard for me to remember that verse when an immigrant is rejected by a life-like landscape, where I’d seen the same linking of traumatic memory to faded photographs prevalent in other works of a certain period, or on what pages an essayist equates primitive man with colonized peoples. The act of marking puts a pause in my reading, forces me to tread water for a bit and be aware of its temperature, its flow, the rocks putting ripples in it. Even just having the pencil in my hand reminds me to pay attention, to take a moment, to put this knowledge in a safe place for later. The stopping leads to other questions: how did this river even get here and where is it going? My colleague can do this without acting like some ink-filled dog marking territory. It doesn’t prevent him from stopping to question, from continuing to consider once he’s closed the book, from teaching his students how to do the same.

Literacy is more than being able to sound words out, whether struggling or sailing across the page. It’s being able to think while you read, to ask questions about origin and bias, to look for assumptions implicit in a particular representation, to contemplate the consequences of pairing certain ideas. High literacy, to me, is to be able to assign these same inquiries to your own ways of reading and writing, but at the very least, people should be taught to read critically. Whether that’s done using a literary vocabulary — like that my 6th grade teacher strove to give our class — or something else, these tools are the difference between teaching someone to swim and giving them a rubber dingy and an expired patching kit. Ms. Russell was the first of a few talented teachers to teach me how to read, and that she did so using the Star Wars trilogy only increases my gratitude. Not only did it validate and, let’s face it, increase a certain form of my nascent nerdom, but it hammered home that this type of reading should not be reserved to the supposedly high-brow. We should approach all that we read — novels, poetry, movies, cartoons, commercials, history texts, the news — with a reflecting spirit. So, thank you Ms. Russell, and may the teaching force be with me as it has been with you.

Set Design for a Plausible Near Future

I am still trying to figure out what makes for a futurescape that we actually believe could exist.  Not just get lost in, suspend our disbelief long enough to enjoy the movie, or the show, or what have you.  What makes it so we go, “hmmm, yeah, it could totally look like this”?

Some of this comes from the spatio-temporal context. For example, anything setting itself at a distant place and time might not even conjure such questions.  If it’s “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” this introduction might cause us to debate between peeing ourselves and simply crying from the excitement, but we’re not going to be asking, “hm, I wonder if our robots will have British accents?” (God, I hope all our robots have British accents).  Another example might be the Shannara Chronicles.  Set so far into the future, it reenters the mythscape.  The presence of, you know, magic obviously helps.  No one asks themselves if the future will look like this when they’re wondering why those characters’ faces look like vaginas, whether the elves are going to get it on and how satisfying it will be based on how much of that Spike TV is allowed to show.

Some of it is production quality.  I can’t imagine that anyone watched Logan’s Run (even in the 1970s) and thought “maybe the world will look like that.”  Well, maybe if you thought that in the future everything would be mostly naked women and malls (insert one of my favorite Latin American critical references to Beatriz Sarlo’s Scene’s from Postmodern Life). But if a diorama of Las Vegas is not your vision of the future, then you didn’t buy this depiction.  Too much CGI has the same effect. One of the many reasons the new Star Wars reboots are doing better than the first round is because of the use of real sets combined with CGI.  Or, think of Avatar, Pacific Rim or any of the Transformers movies after the first one. Those of course present other obstacles, aliens principal among them. Yet, Arrival still feels possible.  Well, not the feel-good ending where we actually get along with the Chinese, but even on the alien ship, I think, “maybe.”

The Expanse…UN building and all.


So, some of it is plot.  The Expanse looks plausible.  Colonizing Mars and mining asteroids while still managing to start wars and economically enslave large swathes of the population, plausible.  Definitely plausible.  But some of it is in what the actual set looks like.  Part of the reason I think the UN office belonging to Deputy Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala could be real is because it combines old and new.  The window has all the future feel of soaring glass buildings bent into physics mocking arabesques, but on the floor, there’s a Persian rug, an object whose presence points to opulence and its two thousand year history at the same time. Here, there’s a combination of traditional with things just on the cusp of new, yet still recognizable.  There’s a sense of continuity between past (Persian rug), present (an institution like the UN), and future (buildings that are one step past Dubai or Shanghai). 

Although, who could be dejected in front of an Apple product?

Very near futurescapes do this well.  Her basically looks like an Apple ad. (The isolation and ennui of modern life lived in constant contact with operating systems are also fairly familiar).  Logan is convincing, but mostly because it looks almost exactly the same as now with some self-driving 18-wheel trucks.

The same principle is at work when we see the decrepit or decaying with the new.  Think of the fallen water tower that Professor X lives in in Logan or some of the street scenes in Minority Report that show dead and rusted out versions of cars from the period in which the movie was actually shot (early 2000s) interspersed with high-speed, sideways highways.  The former lend credibility to the latter even though these highways do not comply with the need for backdrops that don’t look like they were rendered in 3DS Max.  When the decrepit remains of our time showing up in these movies are iconic, this can work to even better effect (though, not always, see, again, Shannara Chronicles).  The Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original, obviously) is a powerful, and somewhat harrowing, example.

Minority Report brings me to my last point, as I’ve heard a lot of discussion about its interfaces.  (This is mentioned in a great episode of 99% Invisible).  Before the future came to fruition in full-force love of touch screens, we wondered how we would interact with ever-advancing technology.  Minority Report seems crafted with quite a lot of attention to how humans would actually live in the environments being depicted, and while Tom Cruise’s crime fighting begins with the rather romantic yet unreasonable notion that life in front of a computer screen will one day look like conducting a symphony, we sort of buy this depiction.  This is because we perceive the detailed consideration of the points of contact between human and computer.  The people who worked on this film clearly thought about what it would be like to inhabit this space, how data would be transferred, accessed and saved.  Even the traces different products would bear of their manufacturers.

Perhaps it’s merely a question of well-assembled art.  This means quality (which can simply be a matter of consistent production design) but also thorough but grounded imagination.  Future scenarios that tend to have success and longevity reflect something about now.  Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (the new one, not the chintzy 1970s one, which is frankly, unwatchable) did so well because they’re also about the period in which they were made.  Now must also connect to the past.  In our day to day lives, we see the past in our present; we live in it: buildings constructed a long time ago, furniture design that was popular decades before pops up again (nothing, not even my mother, will get me to part with my mid-century modern).  So, continuity is a large part of a plausible near future.  The other thing to keep in mind is that we (theoretically? hopefully?) will be in that near future.  If in a film maker’s orgiastic love of pretty design, he or she neglects to imagine what it would actually be like to physically interact with that environment, then we won’t buy it.  Perhaps this will change as we  inhabit virtual worlds more and more, but I’d like to think that we’d like to think, we’ll keep one foot on the ground.

Literary Credit in the Final Frontier

I recently met a woman of my age who described a girlhood crush on Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (Cue theme credits.  Feel free to listen as we embark).  Leaving aside that this was a sentiment that made perfect sense to me (though I think I may be more of a Worf girl myself), her confession brought back countless hours sitting on my parents’ bedroom floor watching that show with my Dad.  Thinking of it now, it’s logical that my father should love this show.  It’s a rerendering of something he’d loved in the 1960s.  It had attractive women in tight onesies.  It boldly went where no one had gone before and showed technology that really did come to be.  (Seriously, my Dad still calls his cell phone his communicator).  The kicker may have been Jean Luc Picard.  An erudite and measured leader who steered his crew with an invested but circumspect attitude.  A respected older man…who was also a credibly attractive, non-macho heterosexual male with the same haircut conferred on my Dad in his early 30s by genes and fate.

But, I think there was another reason he liked the show.  It was good.  It was literature, popular literature.  Yes, I mean this in the obnoxious, high-minded way.  It was a mix of this, clever marketing and some level of acquiescing to 1990s feel good standards (combined with acceptable, liberal subversions of the status quo) that made it the phenomenon that it was.  (It spawned three spin offs and several movies).  So, what makes Star Trek: The Next Generation good, engaging literature?

Each episode is an attentive short story, generally with a foolproof structure and an intelligent yet innovative mind to its literary forefathers. (Of course I’d like to be equal here.  Forefathers, foremothers.  But honestly, I’m talking about some old, dead, white men).  Generally, it doesn’t introduce details or themes that it doesn’t later address.  Data (an android) gives himself a beard and he wants Jordi LaForge and Deanna Troi to opine on if this makes him look like a different kind of man.  There are previous episodes with the same “I want to be a real boy” sort of theme.  You set this opening scene aside and then by the middle, Data is possessed by the spirit of a real man and everything’s gone awry.  (I’m thinking here of “The Schizoid Man,” season 2, episode 6.  Not because it’s a particularly good episode.  It’s just where I am in my binge cycle).  The structures are also fairly reliable and capitalize on the whole parable quality of the show. (Mythical place, distant in time…familiar patriarchal chain of command continually put in situations meant to test their morality and their mettle).  Each episode will be a mystery and a lesson, opening with a problem,then a search for clues, often in the form of or followed by a trial-like exhibition, and then a resolution.  Usually a just one.  Ask yourself why you’ve seen so many episodes of Law and Order when they’re pretty much all the same.  This structure.

(Ok, wrong Star Trek, but really wonderful).

Now my favorite.  Intelligent homage to literary forebearers.  Picard quotes Shakespeare constantly, and well.  In the same episode from above, a super scientist downloads himself into Data because he does not want to die, have the world miss out on his genius and be separated from the young blonde he’s into.  He puts his consciousness and his life’s work into something that will live forever, making of himself a document that cannot die.  The last couplet of Sonnet 18, which Picard quotes once he figures out what’s going on, ends a poem largely about aging by saying that this piece of writing will immortalize the woman to whom it’s dedicated.  “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/ So long lives this.  And this gives life to thee.”  Something produced by man could seal a person’s memory, protect that person against death.  Oh snap, Picard.  Don’t even get me started on a well-updated Moriarty (see “Elementary, Dear Data,” season 2, episode 3).

Yes, the show is treacly at times, but it has more than its moments.  So, go to your Netflix and pat yourself on the back for your binge choices.  I invite you to make it so.

Accusing Blonde

Warning: This post contains extreme spoilers for the movie Atomic Blonde (which, let’s be honest, you weren’t seeing for the plot anyway).

A friend of mine recently taught a short course called “Accusing Women,” which he was kind enough to ask me to TA.  The theme of the class was the recurring literary trope of Potiphar’s wife, the woman who falsely accuses biblical hero Joseph of raping her when in fact she is the villain who came on to him and, after being rebuffed, decides to make him pay for it. (Oh the guile of women!)  The result of this prevailing theme in literature is that women are fundamentally distrusted and that when they seek to have voice (read: assert themselves as subjects rather than wards, possessions or objects), they must be lying.  Doubly so if they’re accusing a man of wrongdoing.  Triply if the wrongdoing should malign that man.  The trope indicts not only women’s voices, but the evidence they present as well.  Potiphar’s wife (who of course has no name, though at some point — and not within the story as told in the Bible, the Koran or in Jubilees — acquires the name Zuleika) fabricates evidence as well, presenting the garment that she ripped off a fleeing Joseph as physical proof of his assault.  Moral of the story: don’t trust them bitches because they’ll even appeal to your faculties of reason to get you to condemn your bro.  In the end, my friend’s class meant to show the false accusation of women’s false accusations.  A nice set of lit crit Russian dolls to play with, eh?

What does all of this have to do with Atomic Blonde?  Atomic Blonde is a better than average action movie with a female hero who, aside from being a bombshell in absolutely amazing 80’s clothes, mostly acts like a combo of Jason Bourne (without the identity crisis) and James Bond (without the humor but with the vodka abuse).  Sadly, this means she falls short of my test for have you created an original female character or have you simply added a vagina to a male protagonist, but the movie is not entirely without the feminist redemption of provoking new thoughts and presenting new images.  (Principal among the latter being a seriously buff Theron emerging from an ice bath).

Fairly certain she could crush walnuts between those shoulder blades.

Prep spoiler.  We spend most of the movie thinking that British agent David Percival (James McAvoy) has “gone native” in Berlin and that loyal agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) has been sent there to complete a mission and discover Satchel, a traitor to the British who’s been leaking information to the Russians (read: Cold War movie with typical seeming plot).  It’s obvious from her arrival that Broughton is being set up, and we discover fairly quickly that it’s Percival who’s behind it.  With every fresh set of acrobatically defeated Russian operatives, we renew our support for Broughton.  We root for our bad ass bitch the whole movie (in particular when she escapes a car armed only with a red stiletto) and slowly come to assume that Percival must be Satchel, trying to arrange things so that his countrywoman will take the fall.

Broughton (Theron) taping microphone wire under her clothes.

But, turns out, all those scenes of Broughton’s taping a microphone to her body were not just an excuse to display flawless Theron in frankly fantastic lingerie.  Broughton is Satchel, and she records Percival (let it be known, he was doing the same to her) along with several other characters she encounters.  She then cuts these tapes together (a lovely scene of Theron in her underwear under blue neon lights) to make it sound like he was in league with the Russians all along.  Couple this with photographs left to her by a French lover (the entrancing Sofia Boutella), and our lady hero falsely accuses her male counterpart of being the traitor (that she is) and gets away with it.  We even side with her without the terrible, tacked-on second twist of her actually being a triple agent of the CIA.  (I didn’t need the US to justify her actions for me to continue to be on team Broughton).  To summarize: a woman falsely accuses a man by taking hard evidence out of context (the garment, I mean, the photographs) and manufacturing evidence so that his voice can, along with hers, testify to his treachery.  Has this trope progressed or has she simply become so clever as to best a bias that’s existed for over 2,000 years?  Has she gotten us to doubt the voices of men or plunged women even further into a well of suspicion?  I can’t answer this, but I can tell you one thing: if I could have helped her, I would have volunteered to be that wire.

Wonder Woman Has Left Me Wondering

My expectations for the Wonder Woman movie were high.  I was looking for a hero. Not just in Wonder Woman, but in the movie itself.  I was thrilled at the prospect of going to a superhero movie directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins) and with a woman (Wonder Woman/ Gal Gadot) at the center of its story.  Such movies have been making strides in the direction of no longer horrifying my sense of feminism – from Thor and Tony Stark’s dick measuring contest conducted by comparing their girlfriends’ professional and intellectual achievements (“…and the company that Pepper runs is the foremost tech conglomerate on Earth,” “There’s even talk of Jane getting a, um, a Nobel Prize”) to a male-female friendship based on mutual support and respect without the obligatory phase of manipulative sexual tension (see Captain America and Black Widow) –, but in the recent spate of Marvel and DC mega-movies, Wonder Woman is the first one with a $100 million plus budget and the first in over ten years to revolve entirely around a powerful female character, to give her a history, a coming out of ignorance and into herself.  Hallelujah.  A female as star of the show rather than as narrative prop to evolving but still highly self-involved male protagonists.

In some ways, Wonder Woman rose to the occasion.  After the obligatory franchise frame linking present day Wonder Woman to Bruce Wayne, the film opens with something between a male fantasy and a male nightmare as it pans over leather-clad women training on the paradise island of Themyscira.  Thanks in large part to its female director, the film suffers little from cringe worthy shots of these women as a series of sexualized parts.  It would be an exaggeration to say that there is no objectification happening at all, but gratuitous nudity is delivered in the shape of a less than embarrassed Steve Trevor (not that a naked Chris Pine elicits any complaints from me) and Gadot’s good looks are treated with a measure of self-awareness (if not by the character, at least by those around her).  The shooting itself might even make Laura Mulvey proud, for Wonder Woman is no mere object of scopophilic gaze.  The camera does not reduce her to a thing to be looked at by a man nor to a cipher for the quelling of male inadequacies.  She is here to do a job, that is, end all wars, and seems little aware of her effect on a room full of men or that people in the street might be staring.  Setting aside the question of whether Gadot and writer Allan Heinberg successfully combine naiveté with incredible intelligence and ability in the character of Diana Prince, this mixture creates a powerful image for all women: a woman who carries herself with unapologetic confidence, unafraid of what the world of men, its systems and its violence, might try to do to her.  In the realm of further positive symbols, the film delivers us: a woman repeatedly saving a man’s life, that man recognizing and supporting her superior capacities (best exhibited in four men lifting a door to aid an impressive, battle-ending leap by Wonder Woman), and a sexual relationship that pointedly does not try to sanction itself through allusions to an eventual marriage or happily-ever-after.  By featuring a woman who is rewarded instead of chastised for her curiosity and enjoyment of sex, Wonder Woman reminded me of Barbarella.  (Although, that such a big screen depiction of female sexuality should still appear revolutionary 49 years later is likely less than the best sign).

Wonder Woman first shielding herself against Ares’ energy ejaculate.

But the strides for feminism seem to end with this truncated sex scene precisely for the reasons most critics have cited as the collapse of the film in the last quarter of its run time.  Following modern comic-book movies’ need for definitive and outsized final fight scenes, thirty minutes of battling a poorly thought-through plot twist replaced the development of the central characters and their relationship.  One of the opening narratives describes the Amazons as at one time having kept men from making war, but how?  Wonder Woman largely acts like an action movie’s typical leading man.  She does not consult others, she believes herself to be the silver bullet (one deployed exclusively through violence), and with an ejaculation of power, defeats the final villain, temporarily albeit, ending the war.  This screen time would have served better had it been spent on building the characters, depicting intimacy or giving a plausible grounding to Wonder Woman’s doubts and ambivalent feelings.

My major gripe is with anyone who watches this movie and thinks our job is done.  I will not deny the incredible steps forward represented by and in Wonder Woman.  But the conversation cannot end there.  We need to ask where it falls short, when you can tell that this movie was still written by a man surrounded by male producers, and how it could have better defied its environment of crowd pleasing measures directed mostly at adolescent male tastes.  But then again, my expectations were very high for something that first and foremost was meant to be a better-than-tolerable summer blockbuster.  Perhaps I, like Wonder Woman, need to realize that the Ares influence that fostered our current conditions is not to be vanquished in one blow, even by a woman made to kill that god.