Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Get thee behind me, she-devil!

As you can probably tell from looking at this blog, I put a lot of thought into the media I consume. I'm not saying this to brag about what a smart person I am; I just do it automatically. If you don't think about what you're taking in, how can you enjoy the nuances of the plot and characters? You have to put at least some thing into what you're watching or reading, or you're just staring at a screen/page for hours on end. You don't have to go in-depth with your analysis or anything, but it's pretty basic media consumption to think "X did Y because they were motivated by Z." Again, it's not about whether or not the viewer is smart; it's just how we're wired to interact with media. I think I tend to look a bit closer because I want to create media myself, and so I look at the ways other people have gotten it right or wrong. As a woman, I'm also invested in/tend to notice the way the media I consume treats female characters, because the way we are portrayed in fiction reflects the way we feel about ourselves in real life. If I want to do anything as a writer, it's boost self-confidence rather than deflate it. I want readers to know they're not alone.

So, I've been watching a lot of movies lately! I watch a lot of movies in general, and since I'm taking two film courses this semester, I'm watching more than usual. I've also been looking at horror movies, since Hallowen is approaching. And what I'm finding is . . . disturbing. I'm familiar with the way the media in general views women; you can't be a consumer of fiction and NOT be aware of it. What I wasn't aware of, at least not personally, is the way the horror genre treats women- specifically, how much it loves tearing them to pieces.

Let's look at a proto-example, The Exorcist. You probably know the story: a little girl gets posessed by a demon, and a priest struggling with his faith has to overcome his doubts in order to save her. What are two things you notice about that summary?

One: the person in peril is a little girl, specifically a twelve-year-old. Two: the focal point of the story, the character who has an arc and emotional journey, isn't the little girl at all. She spends most of the movie under control of a (gender-neutral) demonic force. It's the priest. The movie isn't about the person being put through hell and having control of their body taken away; it's the one who Feels Really Bad About It. And the man. The male role here is the important one. It's even the title of the movie: "The Exorcist," not "The Posessed." Regan, in the grand scheme of the film, doesn't matter. Moreover, the way the film uses her to make a point- I would argue- says a lot about what we value as viewers and what frightens us. Remember this scene?

Of course you do; it's one of the movie's big shocking moments, and certainly one of the most controversial. Regan, now fully under the demon's control, "masturbates" (I'd argue it looks more like stabbing, but the intent is there) with a crucifix while her head rotates 180 degrees, and when her mother enters, the demon drags Chris's head down in an attempt to make her fellate her own daughter. Disgusting, right? Of course it is- it's incest. But it's also playing on a lot of our fears about girls, especially preteen ones who are just beginning to be aware of their own sexuality. What's the scariest thing in the world? A young girl masturbating, apparently. And masturbating with a crufix- intentionally profaning one of the holiest symbols in Christianity. So young girls > female masturbation > blasphemy. Starting to see my argument?

You can argue the point; Regan's mother Chris is, after all, a character in her own right who influences the plot. She has feelings towards her daughter, and she isn't removed from control of her body like Regan is. But she still isn't the focal point of the movie itself- Karras is. We may sympathize with Regan and Chris, but Karras is the one we're meant to root for. He is the one who's here to slay the dragon and bring the princess home to her castle. I ask you, then: why isn't her mother given that chance? I know that within the logic of the film, Karras is needed because he's a priest and priests are the ones who perform exorcisms, but what he does in the end is simply invite the demon to enter his body and then kills the demon by killing himself. Did that really need a priest?

Okay, you argue, but The Exorcist is only one movie. There are plenty of horror movies- exorcism movies, even!- that don't involve the demeaning of a girl or woman for the benefit of a male character. Okay, then. Where are they?

How about The Exorcism of Emily Rose? Who's the protagonist of that one?


Well . . . okay, how about The Last Exorcism? Does that have a female lead?

Not so much, no.
Okaaaaaaaaaay . . . Stigmata! That's the movie I watched that spurred this whole ponderance on my part. That one's got to have a woman who gets to reflect and act on her situation- she's billed on the poster! Surely they won't take yet another story about a woman being tortured and robbed of her bodily autonomy and make it all about a male crisis of fai-

Oh, for the love of God!
I'm not writing an essay (I have to write about five for class anyway); I can't claim to have drawn a definite conclusion from this. All I can say is what I've seen for myself. And what I've seen is . . . an endless parade of women being battered, bruised, and beaten while a man stands nearby weeping quietly over their suffering. But the final shot isn't the women's face. She doesn't get a say in what happens next. Whether she lives or dies (we have a 2/2 ratio on that one, though I'm told that if the director of Stigmata had had his way, it would have been a 3) it's not her story. It's his. This is veering genres wildly, but do you remember the posters for the first season of The Good Wife?

Like I said, completely different genre. But if you take the tagline and flip it, you've got a pretty good description of the horror genre- at least, the subgenre I review in this post. Her suffering. His story.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Sometimes, you just need a self-affirmation

I've heard it said that high school English is specifically designed to make students hate literature. Having gone through four years of it and earned relatively good marks all the way through, I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. If you're not interested in English in the first place than it's soul-crushingly boring, but that's true of just about any subject: high school math class didn't make me hate math. Math made me hate math. As a dorky, lit-inclined sixteen-year-old, high school English gave me a creative outlet for my various feelings on the literature we were reading. It also gave me a bitchin' excuse to read Lady Macbeth's part out loud when we covered Mackers. Admittedly my creative writing course did briefly make me hate writing when my teacher advised me to think of myself as a conduit rather than a writer and let the words "flow through you to the page," but I got over that quickly enough. I still wanted to write, I just didn't want to write that. And at the end of four years, I left with a diploma and my faith in literature relatively unshaken.

No, high school English did not make me hate literature.

College English, on the other hand . . .

The way we've structured higher education in general is pretty much designed for maximum pain, regardless of what you're studying. You spend four years, minimum, cramming information into your brain at a rate that you can't possibly process, and promptly forget about it during the next block of classes because you have new information to cram in there. You squeeze yourself through a meat grinder of papers, tests, and evaluations with the goal of "get good marks" rather than "learn." At the end of those four years, you have the option of either launching yourself into the workforce with the knowledge you've forgotten, or go on to incur even more debt and forgotten facts by going on to graduate school. Congratulations! You have successfully navigated through our culture's rite of adulthood. As a prize, you get student loans!

Our culture's attitude towards grades is- pardon the language- really fucked up in general. There's a narrative that says your grades (usually equated with your intelligence, though the two actually have relatively little to do with each other) mean you're a better person, a smarter person, a more patient and hardworking and generally worthwhile person. Why? Because you can explain algebra? Because you understand the literary significance of the scarlet letter? These things are your abilities, and you have the right to be proud of them. But they don't make you a good person, or a kind person, or a person who does good in the world. Hell, even all of those things don't make you a worthwhile human being. You're a worthwhile human being because you're you. You bring something new to the table simply by virtue of being an individual. If what you want to bring is pumping gas or working in a bookstore or staying home with your kids, congratulations. You're making it. You're making it because you are doing something that changes the world, however small. You think pumping gas doesn't change the world? That person who needed to get to work might disagree. Working in a bookstore? You may have just sold a book that will inspire the reader to get up and keep going for another day. Staying at home with the kids? You're raising the next generation, and God knows we need more kind, caring people in the world.

A friend of mine, Hannah Johnson, has a book out called Know Not Why. I'd recommend it because it's an excellent book in general, but there's one passage in particular that I go back to when I'm feeling down about my purpose in life:

It's like she's thanking me for something way bigger: getting her kitten out of a tree, helping her granny across the street, I dunno. It's funny, how stuff that seems so small can be so important. I guess there's no real way of telling how much something can mean to somebody else. Maybe even this job is sort of important.

A few years ago, I worked at a museum where part of my job was to help pick up artifacts from donors. The first trip I went on was to a woman's house, where she told us all about the problems she was having with her son and her landlord. As we were driving away, my boss explained to me that the real purpose of the job wasn't picking up the artifacts: it was letting the donors talk it out for as long as they needed to. Sometimes they just needed a listening ear. Of all the things I learned in that job- cataloguing, restoration, museum curation- that's the lesson I've kept with me the longest. Sometimes it really isn't about the letters you have after your name, or whether or not you can explain Godard's King Lear. It's about whether you're happy with what you're putting out into the world. If you are, I think you're doing okay.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Music theatre Mondays: The mailman won the lottery

Firstly, while we are on the subject of music: check out this Kickstarter! It's for a children's folk album about historical figures (Johnny Appleseed, Harriet Tubman, Che Guevara, etc) that needs a total of $2000 to get off the ground. It's actually passed its goal now, but CD production is always expensive, and it's for a good cause. Go, go, go!

And now, on the other side of the historical figures spectrum: Assassins. I really, really doubt any children's folk singers will be making a CD about these guys any time soon, and that's probably a good thing: I have a high opinion of what kids are able to understand, but tht doesn't mean I want to explain the Manson Family to a three-year-old. Not to mention the questions of didacticism: I'm actually told that some people object to Assassins because they think it's trying to make the audience feel bad for people who want to shoot the President. And . . . I can sort of see it. In just about any work of fiction, with RARE exceptions, you're supposed to feel something for the characters. You don't necessarily have to like them, but you should at least understand what circumstances and personality traits lead them to where they are at the end of the story. I don't think Shakespeare was endorsing regicide when he wrote Macbeth, but if you don't feel anything for him, the play falls apart. Same goes for Assassins: for the most part (I'll get to the exceptions in a minute) you're not meant to view the assassins as people to admire or emulate. They're just . . . people. Deeply flawed, violent people, who make terrible decisions. You know: musical theatre!

The base premise of Assassins, if you're not familiar with it, is this: various murderers or attempted murders of American presidents gather together on the stage- which is set up like a shooting carnival game- to interact and play out their stories. Like First Dance, it's very much a revue show: the assassins don't have a narrative, such as it were, they just sing and interact. This is how you get numbers that would make no sense if the show was trying to be linear ("Unworthy of Your Love," or the one where Lynette Fromme and John Hinckley Jr. sing about their respective objects of creepy, creepy affection) and scenes that, likewise, make no real logical sense- like all of the assassins appearing to Lee Harvey Osward in a dream sequence telling him to shoot JFK.  But for all that the songs are separate from each other, there is a sort of theme going on: disaffection, lack of identity, and the need for connection. Obviously many of the assassins are not the most balanced of individuals- specifically Hinckley, Byck, and Guiteau- but it's surprising, looking at them, how many do what they do because they want to stand for it. Booth, obviously, is standing for the Confederacy. Lynette Fromme does what she does because she thinks it will benefit the Manson Family. Czolgosz and Moore both think their actions will benefit the poor. Zangara was- uh, I don't really know why Zangara does what he does. I don't think the musical does either, because the song dedicated to his actions- "How I Saved Roosevelt-" is about the crowd's reactions, not Zangara himself.

For as much as the show is about the asassins themselves- and they are, obviously, the main focus- the music also does some of the same things Bonnie and Clyde did, in that it uses the building blocks of history to discuss the larger issue surrounding it. As much as I don't agree with the actions of the assassins (seriously, please don't send the Secret Service after me) I do like a lot of what "The Gun Song/Ballad of Czolgosz" has to say. Like B&C, it's about economic justice: specifically, the disparity between rich and poor, the lie of "bootstraps" ("in the U.S.A, you can work your way to the head of the line!") The point of "Another National Anthem," which I quote in this entry's title, is that the assassins "forgot about the country," because they think they're owed attention and adultation. Same with "Everybody's Got The Right," which opens and closes the show. And as awful as the assassins are, they're also oddly pitiable- they're people who think they're lost, and their response to this is to pick up a gun. There's tragedy in that, I think, no matter who you are.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

"You're my land ahoy"

Gather up your kleenex and put on your pirate hats, friends, because I am about to introduce you to THE MOST DECEPTIVELY SAD SONG ABOUT GAY PIRATES EVER WRITTEN. Played on the ukelele.

You can thank me later.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Music theatre Mondays: First Dance

I did not see any musical theatre this week! I did a lot of other things, namely writing two papers and getting my computer back from Toshiba's clammy clutches- oh, and Thanksgiving. Canadian Thanksgiving is a bit different from the Thanksgiving that I understand is celebrated south of the border- for one thing, we hold it when it's still reasonably nice outdoors, and not a frozen wasteland of dead grass and mud, and for another, it's founded less on mass genocide and more on "well those guys were doing it, so we figure we might as well." Anyway, since my family does not consist of theatre performers (since I have not yet managed to pursue my dream of genetically engineering my very own theatrical Kennedy family. Alas.) I spent a quiet weekend at home with my parents and grandfather.

However! I did see a musical theatre production- of sorts- last week. Because I'm living on a university campus with a drama department, we tend to get whatever local plays are travelling through. The Tottering Biped company (on facebook here- become a fan!) stopped by at the end of September to put on a play that they've been workshopping, "First Dance." I've always been a big fan of Tottering Biped's mission statement with regards to theatre- as a company, they specialize in theatre with a social message, and carrying on a dialogue with the audience rather than making them passice receptors. I first saw one of their productions when "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" stopped by Theatre Aquarius, and found out afterwards that the reason a relatively small company was putting it on is because CanStage- a relatively large professional company based in Toronto- had cancelled plans to produce the play themselves for fear of controversy. "First Dance" is quite different from "Rachel Corrie" in that it tackled different issues and was created by writers and artists working for Tottering Biped rather than a pre-existing play. "First Dance" is an abstract piece- no, come back! I had the same initial response but it's good, I promise- about the courtship rituals surrounding the first dance at a wedding, and what changes in expectation when both partners are of the same gender. It's about same-sex marriage in the sense that the protagonist (his fiance never appears onstage) is gay and marrying a man, but it's more about the experience of being gay in general, how the things you've been trained to expect no longer apply, and the need for creating new rituals to follow. As I mentioned, I am really not a fan of abstract theatre- I saw a few in my short-lived Drama major days, and most of them seemed to involve the writer/director/star standing on a bare stage screaming obscenities and rubbing themselves with various edible fluids- but shows like fall in the middle for me. They're abstract in the sense that they don't have a plot, but concrete in the sense that the audience doesn't have to piece together what the playwright is saying with guesswork and the auteur's say-so. "First Dance" is much less a narrative than it is a series of vignettes that the main character ponders while he plans his wedding, but the wedding itself- and the general good writing- keep it from being pointless or confusing. There's also the dance numbers themselves, performed by people who have very clearly done their homework- as they explained in he Q&A after the show, they're both competitive ballroom dancers- so the polished dialogue never feels out of step with clumsier dance, or vice versa.

"First Dance" is still touring around southern Ontario- you can check times and places on the facebook page I liked to above- and if you have the chance, you should absolutely check it out. It's not terrible expensive, especially compared to mainstream theatres- my ticket cost $20- and it's a comparatively small price to pay for the experience.

(Also, one of the actors hugged me after the show, and I'm never washing this shirt again.)

Monday, 1 October 2012

Nocturne in bondage gear

Music theatre Mondays will be a bit late this week, I'm afraid! I'm behind on an essay (eep) and have another to write for Thursday, so my writing schedule is currently on mission "don't flunk out of school." Regular posting will resume shortly!

I do have an item of interest however. You are familiar with the concept of fanmixes? Basically the idea is, a fan of a person/book/movie/TV show/insert narrative here will compile a list of songs they feel fit the tone of their subject, put a front and back cover together, and post it for the general entertainment of other fans. It's not just a fannish thing, either- I haven't read Carrie Vaughn's Kitty books in a few years, but she used to print her writing playlist in the front of every novel. What I hadn't realized is that this process could become . . . monetized.

Is this something you can actually get paid for? Shit son, I'm sending my writing playlist to ATV. I'm gonna get RICH!