Monday, 25 May 2015

I saw a film today, oh boy

Adam Sandler is clearly some sort of Max Bialystock-level genius. I don't know how he's pulled it off, but somehow his current (very successful) career consists of:
  • writing a movie script while putting in the least possible amount of effort
  • flying out to exotic locales (the Caribbean, the Sahara) on his production company's dime in order to vacation while he films his movie
  • casting his friends in these movies so that they can all pal around in their vacation spots while occasionally taking breaks to do actual work, and
  • somehow, no matter how badly his movies flop, continuing on in this vein with no sign of professional or financial collapse.
Like I said: genius.

Sandler doesn't come up in the news very often- at this point, even professional critics are tired of flogging this dead horse- and when he does it's usually related in some way to his movies pissing people off. Sure enough, the latest news story is exactly what you'd expect from Sandler at this point: First Nations actors have walked off the set of his latest movie, "The Ridiculous Six," citing the script as being offensive towards their people and culture. Sandler and co have responded to these accusations with "it's a COMEDY, tcha," the tried and true refuge for everyone who's ever told a shitty joke and had to stare down a stone-faced audience in the aftermath. The movie will undoubtedly go on, as will Sandler's career- at this point, I don't think anything short of a massive fire at Happy Madison Studios is going to stop him. But some of the responses to this news story gave me pause- specifically, the cries of "our culture is too PC!" and- intriguingly- "censorship!"

Censorship? Really?

Here's the thing: the definition of the word "censorship" has gotten so warped in the past few years, very few people understand what it actually means. It's an especially egregious misuse in this case because no one is even trying to shut Sandler down; publicly calling his movie offensive is not the same as trying to halt production. One private citizen has every right to decide that he doesn't want to participate in another private citizen's business venture- which is, at the end of the day, what Sandler's movies are. Moviemaking is a business. No one is required to work at a business whose ethics they disagree with, or whose scheduling they don't like, or whose uniforms they think are ugly. That concept, "private citizen" is key to the entire censorship debate: it marks the difference between what censorship is and what it isn't.

Most of the time, cries of "censorship!" are accompanied by references to the First Amendment of the American Constitution. Let me quote it in full here, since it's not that long:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (x)

I bolded that first bit on purpose. Censorship happens when a government stops its citizens from the free distribution of thoughts and ideas. A government. Hollywood is not a government, and the actors who walked off the set of "The Ridiculous Six" are not senators. If the United States Congress passed a law saying that they as a legislative body found Sandler's work juvenile and offensive and that he was therefore prohibited from releasing it in the United States, that would be censorship. This is, in fact,t he opposite of censorship- these actors are exercising their right to free speech in order to criticize what they see as a film which harms the public perception of their culture. They have that right, just as Sandler is within his rights to make the film anyway, and put it on Netflix. Freedom from censorship is not the same as freedom from criticism, especially when that criticism is coming from one private citizen to another.

Another case frequently cited as censorship is the imbroglio that happened over "The Interview" this past winter. To wit, if you missed it: Seth Rogen and James Franco made a movie in which their characters assassinate the prime minister of North Korea. North Korea took umbrage to this, and threatened to attack theatres in which the film was shown. Sony, the company the film was made under, responded by pulling it from circulation, eventually compromising by releasing it to Netflix and video on demand services. Honestly, I'm more than a little tempted to think that they cooked up the whole ploy themselves: it turned the latest bro-stoner comedy into a cause célèbre, with people lining up to prove that Kim Jong-Un couldn't tell them what movies to watch, dammit! (And lining Sony's pockets as a result, naturally. The greatest trick capitalism ever played is convincing people that spending money was equivalent to taking political action.) Now, if North Korea truly was behind these threats, that's horrible. But is it censorship?

Here's the thing: no, it's not. Because North Korea is not the American government. North Korea has no sovereignty over American citizens, and its only recourse in deciding what Americans read and watch comes by way of terrorist threats. The threats may have influenced the decision to pull the movie, but the decision itself was Sony's- and Sony, as a private company (I know, I keep beating this drum) is well within its rights to choose not to release a film. Film companies pulling films from release is not actually a new thing; they do it whenever they think that the film's release will hurt the company more than help it. It's just that this particular release was accompanied by such a media firestorm, it became- as I said- a cause rather than a mediocre movie being pulled from rotation. (I have to ask, did anyone feel that their lives were truly enriched by watching The Interview? Were the jokes about Rogen and Franco's bromance really vital to your understanding of the human condition?)

The interesting thing is, there is actually a history of Hollywood colluding with the American government to censor movies- and it hasn't been done with the intent of appeasing pissy liberals. Throughout the 1920s, various state and municipal governments came up with laws to keep movies that they disliked off the screens: in response, Hollywood scrabbled to find some way of appeasing them, and came up with the Motion Picture Production Code. Rather than having to make cuts after sending the film prints out, the reasoning went, they would make all the necessary changes before
Hi I'm Joseph Breen, and I'm here to ruin your day.
anyone outside the studios ever saw the films. The Code was originally overseen by Will Hayes (hence the common nickname "Hays Code") who had resigned from his position as the head of the Republican National Committee days before taking on the job at what would become known as the Production Code Administration. He was later replaced by Walter Breen, a Roman Catholic layperson who once charmingly referred to Hollywood's Jewish directors as "the scum of the earth." Breen's anti-Semitism probably contributed to Hollywood's extreme reluctance to release any films criticising Nazi Germany: while filmmakers attempted to make movies that criticized the Nazi concentration camps, they were shut down by the PCA, and only permitted to move forward after it was discovered in 1938 that Nazi spies had infiltrated the American government. Here are the "don'ts" of the Hays Code- the things Hollywood films were absolutely not allowed to portray:

  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion [homosexuality]; 
  5. White slavery [prostitution];
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed

So PC. Much liberal.

Directors either complied with the Code or found ways to skirt it (kissing scenes of longer than three seconds were forbidden, so Alfred Hitchcock got around it by having the actors come up for air every three seconds during a two-minute makeout scene in Notorious) and it remained in place until 1966, when the Hays Office closed. This happened for a variety of reasons; America was beginning to shift away from the rigid religious morality that had governed the Code, and the lack of an MPPC certificate was no longer a barrier to a film's financial success. Most significantly, a 1952 Supreme Court case, Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, handed down the verdict that films were protected under the First Amendment (a freedom that had not previously existed, as per the Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio decision of 1915) which means that state boards could no longer control what content was and was not acceptable in their movie theatres. The government could no longer control what movies the public watched.

So that's when film censorship ended, right?

Well, Kind of.

You may have seen "This Film is Not Yet Rated," the 2006 documentary detailing the inner workings of the Motion Picture Association of America- the ratings board that replaced the Hays Code. The director of that film, Kirby Dick, found that members of the MPAA were generally laypeople when it came to child development and psychology, that their appeals process provided no clarity to directors who wanted to know why their film had received the rating it did, and that a disparity existed between films with heterosexual content and homosexual content. But most pertinent to the current discussion is the fact that Hollywood frequently works alongside and in cooperation with none other than the Pentagon- aka, a branch of the American government. The Pentagon provides military vehicles, weapons, and expertise to filmmakers, but can and will yank their support if the film portrays the military in a way that they disapprove of. Here is a partial list of films produced with Pentagon assistance (the full list can be found at the link):
  • Iron Man
  • Transformers
  • True Lies
  • Star Trek IV
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Battleship
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Captain Phillips
So, does the Pentagon's involvement in Hollywood constitute censorship? Not under the First Amendment, no. The Pentagon isn't Congress, and the First Amendment specifies that Congress cannot interfere with the freedom of speech. However, the Pentagon's relationship with Hollywood- and Will Hays' quick job turnover from the RNC to the Production Code Administration- comes closer to government interference in filmmaking than anything else under discussion. It is perhaps worth noting that the First Nations actors criticising Adam Sandler do not work for the Pentagon- and the American government does not have a history of either cooperating with or uplifting its First Nations constituents. So unless Obama comes out with a presidential decree shutting down Happy Madison Studios, it might behoove Adam Sandler's fans to consider the fact that he operates and has always operated with impunity as far as censorship is concerned.

After all, he's not inferring "sex perversion."

Friday, 27 March 2015

I wanna be a starship ranger

The future is now, so I don't see how the time isn't right for me . . .

Being a woman who likes genre fiction is one of the most exhausting experiences on earth.

At the moment, I'd say there are two broad categories of genre fiction: the "gritty" stuff, like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, and the more "fluffy" ones like the Marvel movies. I've said before that I don't have a whole lot of time for gritty shows; the main reason is that I find surrounding myself with that kind of negativity tiring, but there's another aspect. The thing is, "gritty" seems to translate- in the minds of showrunners, anyway- into "bad shit happens to women." The bad shit isn't
Pictured: what women can expect from "gritty" drama.
always limited to the female characters, obviously, but there's a specific dimension to the way women are hurt in these shows. It's always to do with their bodies. They're groped, raped, tortured, suffer miscarriages, die in childbirth- it always seems to be some variation of either a woman being made vulnerable by her body or a woman being betrayed by her body. The female vessel is treated as an essentially weak, fragile, corrupt piece of meat in a way that mens' bodies just aren't. Men get hurt; men die; but men die heroically in battle, men take a bullet for their friends, men make heroic last stands. Maybe a single tear runs down their face while they do it. Often their death concludes with a brief glimpse of them in the afterlife, being greeted by the women whose bodies paved their way to heroism.

In some ways, this hurts men as much as it does women; it perpetuates a myth of male superheroism
that leaves no room for men to be weak or emotional or hurt. But the visceral disdain for the bodies of women- that cuts deep. And it cuts into male and female viewers alike. We all learn, hearing these stories, that this is what women should expect: from men, from other women, from themselves. Is it any wonder, then, that violence against women is endemic? We've created an endless cycle of regurtiating misogyny into our pop culture and then playing out the scenarios we see onscreen. And with "gritty" stories becoming increasingly popular, I only see this trend on the rise.

So what about the other side of the coin?

Remember girls, this is what you're good for.
In a way, gritty and fluffy genre shows create a one-two punch of female disempowerment. Gritty shows tell women that their bodies are weak and disposable. In a lot of respect, fluffy shows do that as well: how many superhero movies has the girlfriend/mother character died in? There's a whole trope named after it. And it's not just death; it's disrespect. This past summer, Guardians of the Galaxy opened with Peter Quill's mother on her deathbed, and shows the sole woman on the team being called a "green whore" as a joke. In The Avengers, the sole female superhero is taunted by the villain, who calls her a "mewling quim" (an antiquated slang term for "vagina;" in modern parlance, a "whiny cunt.") Buffy the Vampire Slayer, often held up as a paragon of feminist TV, had its heroine inadverdantly turn her boyfriend into a monster by having sex with him. But I think the trends of fluffy TV, when it comes to women, are deeper and more insiduous than just hurting them physically. That's an aspect, yes. But what these shows really say- beyond "you're gonna get hurt-" is "you can't be a hero."

I don't think I've posted about BBC's The Musketeers here before, but I was absolutely crazy about the first season. It wasn't perfect when it came to women (oh look, more dead girlfriends and attempted rapes) but the most prominent female character, Constance, got to her her own miniature hero's journey. She wanted to learn how to fight, and she did. At one point, she and one of the men find themselves backed into a corner by a bad guy. Constance grabs a sword. "Have you got this?" her companion asks her. She bares her teeth. "Absolutely." And then she kicks the bad guy's ass.

How great is that? Finally, a heroine is being given the same strengths as a hero: she wants to learn to be strong, and she does. She gets to quip at the bad guys before proving she's stronger than they are. This is what we want: women who get to kick ass, who get to be funny, who get to be the same kind of wish fulfillment as the male characters. Escapist fantasy is, after all, a form of wish fulfillment: we want to be Peter Quill, or Robin Hood, or one of the Three Musketeers. When you were a kid, did you ever play games based on whatever TV or movies you watched? I did. Power Rangers was a popular choice, and so was Pokemon. I notice, however, that the older boys and girls get- once they reach school age or so- their forms of fantasy diverge. My female friends and I increasingly made up our own stories, independent of what we saw when we got home from school and turned on the TV. Our male classmates were still playing at Star Wars and Indiana Jones, squabbling over who got to be Indy or Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. When girls joined in those games, we often made up new characters to play (my character's name when we played Indiana Jones was "Sarah.") After all, it's not like heroines were thick on the ground; Star Wars fans got to be Leia (and to be reminded by geek culture that their value still boiled down to how they looked in a gold bikini) and if you were into Indiana Jones, there was Marion Ravenwood. (There were two other prominent women in the movies- the screeching Willie Scott, or Elsa the Nazi seductress. Neither held much appeal for would-be adventurers.) Meanwhile if you were a boy, you could be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo or Indiana Jones or Indiana's father Henry or Lando Calrissian, or Chewbacca, or . . .

You get my point.

You thought you boyfriend would respect you and your choices?
That's adorable.
So tying this back around to The Musketeers: Constance's arc wasn't perfect, and her primary narrative function was to be a love interest for d'Artagnan, but she still had her own stuff going on. Then season two happened, and it all went to complete shit. Constance, trapped in an abusive
marriage, was berated by her husband on one side and her would-be lover on the other, being called a "coward" for being afraid of being branded an adulteress and/or being hurt by her husband. She didn't get to pick up any more swords. Instead, chastised, she admitted that she was in the wrong for wanting to dictate the course of her own life, and for being constrained by the endless restrictions applied to women's lives. "Hypocrite" was the specific word she used. And then, having been thoroughly humbled by a man who knew what she wanted better than she did, she married him, and they're going to live happily ever after!

What . . .  the . . . fuck.

Where did my Constance go? Where was the heroine I'd wanted so badly as a child? Where was the woman who kicked ass and took names and stood up for her friends- and more importantly, stood up for herself? Why were her thoughts and needs and desires being treated as subordinate to her boyfriend's feelings? Where was the woman who, if I'd been fifteen years younger, I would have been playing with my friends at recess? Doesn't that little girl- all the little girls now who watch the show- get a heroine too?

And it wasn't just Constance: it seemed like this season was an endless parade of women being abused, murdered, tossed aside, and forgotten. The most egregious example is probably the nameless sex worker murdered by the season big bad (even in the end credits, she was only credited as "Prostitute") but she certainly wasn't an anomaly. There was Marguerite, seduced by one of the leads, subsequently abandoned and then blackmailed, and finally succumbing to despair and taking her own life. Marguerite was never her own character; she was an object to move the story along, someone to provide angst for her lover (when he remembered that she existed) and plot fodder when the villain needed a way to move forward. Then there was Queen Anne, a secondary player in her own story: having birthed a secretly illegitimate child, her role was to be threatened with exposure and sexually assaulted by the villain. The villain, by the way, made a habit of that; scarcely an episode went by when he wasn't choking a woman, or forcing her to undress for him, or creeping into Anne's personal space while she was powerless to turn him away. And there were the countless female guest stars- Samara and Emilie this season, Adele and Isabelle and Flea and Agnes last season- who vanished entirely from the show after providing one of the four main men with whatever information or emotion they needed for their own character arcs. Women in this show don't get to be heroes anymore; they get to make heroes of men, often being hurt or dying horribly in the process.

I don't mean to pick on this show specifically- well okay, yes I do, because I loved season one and it was crushing to see how far the second season fell. But it's far from the only culprit. On another BBC show, Robin Hood, the female lead was brutally stabbed to death by a spurned lover stalker. On the CW's The Flash, Barry Allen's mother was murdered before the show even started, spurring him to seek out her murderer and accidentally become a superhero in the process, all while lying to and gaslighting his love interest, Iris. The Evil Dead franchise- which saw a revival in 2013, and has plans for a new TV show- valorized Ash Williams, while the leading lady of the series is best remembered for being raped by a tree. Twice. (I can accept that Sam Raimi, being young and immature in 1981 when the first film was made, didn't consider the implications; I have a harder time swallowing the fact that when remaking the movie over twenty years later, he chose to do it again.) Incidentally, Evil Dead has also been made into a musical- featuring a grand finale entitled "Blew The Bitch Away." I don't think that the men responsible for all these creative decisions actively hate women, and are doing this to spite us: I think it's worse. They write this way because it's never occurred to them to do otherwise.

We write what we know. The people (men) who write genre shows are aping the conventions they saw in shows growing up- Star Trek, Lost In Space, The Lone Ranger. They write their heroes being complex and cool and badass because it's what they were raised to identify with. They want this generation of boys to grow up idolizing the characters they've created. But, in a failure of empathy on a massive scale, it doesn't seem to have occured to them to do the same for women. Boys get to play at being Will Robinson or Captain Kirk; girls get to be green alien space babes. On one level, it's a repetition of sexist attitudes that flourished in the media when they were growing up. On another, it's simply that they don't think that women want heroes too. They don't think women want to wink and blow smoke off a gun after blasting the bad guy away. They don't think women want to be dashing romantics who sweep their partners off their feet. (That's the men's job, after all. And the idea that heroes could romance men, and heroines women? Doesn't even enter their minds.) They don't think women want to see heroines they can look up to, who exemplify all the things we want to be. I don't think they realize that we want anything.

The real world is hard, and unfair. It's true for everyone, and even more so for people of marginalized identities. Battles aren't won with grand sweeping gestures, but with endless grinding work that only advances us a few inches at the time. Even when the grand gestures are made, there's no guarantee that they'll stick: I remember being glued to the livestream of Wendy Davis's 2013 filibuster, tears pouring down my face as the women in the gallery screamed down the male senators trying to force Davis into silence. In that case, the gesture worked; she won. Except she didn't, because a few months later, the bill she was filibustering against passed anyway. The erosion of your humanity, little by little, will kill you in the end. So don't we deserve something better to aspire to? Don't we deserve to see our heroines succeed, not just because the heroes get to as well, but because we need that sense of hope to keep ourselves going? If we can't expect women in a fantasy world to triumph, how can we ever raise our spirits enough to get up and keep fighting?

And why the fuck is everyone obsessed with Leia in that bikini?

Friday, 6 March 2015

The CBC and diversity

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a fan of Strange Empire, which is why I was distressed earlier this week to hear that it had been cancelled after a single season. The CBC has given no direct reason for this decision, but cited the fact that it was a "difficult" choice and insisted that ratings were not at issue. The CBC representative interviewed also mentioned a desire to make room for new programming, which I admit to finding a bit puzzling. Of their returning shows, two (Heartland and Murdoch Mysteries) are in their eighth season, another (Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays) is in its fifth and yet another (Mr. D) in its fourth. If the network wants to make space for new scripted programming, why not retire shows that have already had a long run rather than cancelling those that have only aired thirteen episodes?  They also re-affirmed their committment to diversity, as the network intends to air a miniseries based on Ines Choi's play Kim's Convenience in the 2015-2016 season, and recently wrapped up The Book of Negroes earlier this year. While I'm happy to hear it, I remain unconvinced that a miniseries demonstrates a long-lasting committment to anything, because it is simply that- a miniseries. It will last only a few weeks, and when it is finished, it will have made no permanent change to the diversity of the CBC landscape. 

With that in mind, I decided to comb through the casting lineups of the CBC's original scripted programming, in order to see how diversely populated these casts actually are. I did this by looking up each show on IMDB, and counting through every actor with a significant enough role to appear on the show's homepage. These shows make up about half of scripted programming on the network: six other new shows have been announced, but their cast list has not yet been released to the public. This breakdown also only includes gender and race, as I have not watched all of these shows and cannot verify the dis/ability or sexual orientation status of the characters. This is what I found:

White male 
5 (Chris Potter, Graham Wardle, Shaun Johnston, Kerry James, Gabriel Hogan)
White female
2 (Amber Marshall, Jessica Amlee)
Nonwhite male
1 (Nathaniel Arcand, Cree First Nations)
Nonwhite female
1 (Michelle Morgan, Chilean-Canadian)

Murdoch Mysteries

White male
4 (Yannick Bisson, Thomas Craig, Jonny Harris, Lachlan Murdoch)
White female
2 (Helene Joy, Georgina Riley)

White male
8 (Jack Laskey, Warren Brown, Connor Price, Hugh Dillon, Dustin Milligan, Torben Liebrecht, Adrian Lukis, Julian Michael Deuster)
White female
3 (Evelyne Brochu, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Lili Bordan)

White male 
4 (Bob Martin, Matt Watts, Edward Asner, Dan Demarbre)
White female
3 (Tommie-Amber Pirie, Martha Burns, Jennifer Irwin)
Nonwhite male
2 (Al Karim, Middle Eastern; Pablo Silveira, Latino)

Schitt's Creek

White male
5 (Eugene Levy, Dan Levy, John Hemphill, Tim Rozon, Chris Elliot)
White female
5 (Catherine O'Hara, Annie Murphy, Jennifer Robertson, Emily Hampshire, Sarah Levy)
Nonwhite female 
1 (Karen Robinson, Afro-Canadian)

White male
9 (Gerry Dee, Jonathan Torrens, Booth Savage, Darrin Rose, Mark Forward, Mark Little, Liam Cyr, Hans Pettersen, Matt Tolton)
White female
4 Lauren Hammersley, Bette MacDonald, Naomi Snieckus, Kassidy Mattera)
Nonwhite male
2 (Wes Williams, Afro-Canadian; Suresh John, Asian-Canadian)
Nonwhite female
1 (Isabelle Beaupre, not specified)

In total:

White male: 35
White female: 19
Nonwhite male: 5
Nonwhite female: 3

Further reading: