“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”

I’ll resist the temptation to post the nigh obligatory “Winter Is Coming” meme and just point out that I’ve been hermiting and watching a lot of Netflix lately. And I’ll counter the opinions of many who claim to current Golden Age of Television is dead; between House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Grace and Frankie, and scores of other Netflix exclusive films and shows, this era of on-demand, ad-free, quality television is something completely unthinkable to me as a young person. We had movies on demand through cable, but between Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, and countless ahem more dubious opportunities to stream media, it’s never seemed more accessible. While these upstart streaming services may have seemed a base form of entertainment at first, it’s becoming apparent that they’re quite the contenders when contrasted with standard cable television. These venues also become a place for underrepresented voices to be heard, from trans woman of color Sophia played by Laverne Cox on OItNB to aging, closeted gay men and their families on G&F.

Enter Master of None by rising star Aziz Ansari. (Spoilers below thru-out.)

I’ll admit a few things right off the bat. Some of Ansari’s stand-up leaves me cold. It always feels like something I want to like more than I do, because Ansari himself is a likable dude. However, his Live at Madison Square Garden special made me have faith in his stand up (and stand up in general) once more. Here’s a cisgender man talking about how women face street harassment, the complexities of how we westerners get our foods, and tensions between generations of Asian American immigrants. It was refreshing, and fucking funny. I laughed and snapped my way through the special like I haven’t been able to do with stand up in quite a while.

Many of “the rules” of stand up have changed since I was a teenager – and for good reason. Punching up as a concept is now more universally understood and accepted; its meaner big brother, the “equal opportunity offender” is dying out. Those who bemoan the changing tides of “political correctness” sound like dinosaurs, and many younger comedians garner their appeal from being savvy on social justice concerns. While imperfect, the influx of female comedians gaining in popularity over the last decade – from Tina Fey and Amy Pohler, to Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have shown that women who talk openly about feminism are not only funny, but can become comedy powerhouses. Even in the brief time between Fey and Pohler’s ascent to Jacobson and Glazer’s has been transformative in terms of how far the popular consciousness has come. In short, we demand more now from our entertainers.

Ansari has risen to the challenge in many ways. His series, Master of None picks up on points only hinted at during his Madison Square Garden special. Here we get a panoramic view of what it means to be a first generation Asian American. The show deals with racism in the entertainment industry and feeling pigeonholed as a minority. It pays homage to the struggles a previous generation endured in order to secure  a better life for their children, while owning up to some of the cultural differences between the two that cause them to be somewhat estranged from each other. Denise, a butch lesbian of color, features prominently as a recurring character, and her sex life becomes part of the discourse in a way that feels naturalized rather than objectified. Here again, as with his special, Ansari makes room for the stories of women and street harassment to have air time – even acknowledging how men tend to downplay these stories.

For all of its home runs, the show falls flat in two key ways… First, the material of the first few episodes is fresh, groundbreaking, and even subversive. During the last three episodes however, the show devolves into, well, a kind of tired rom-com. Second, during the Indians On TV episode, Ansari and co. delve into the struggles of overcoming racist stereotypes so ingrained in our popular representations, and the ramifications this has on casting decisions and opportunities for work for southeast Asian actors. They discuss whether or not it’s appropriate to use “a voice” that sounds like what western audiences are accustomed to hearing come out of Indian mouths; particularly if it’s nothing to close to how the actor normally speaks. Mindy Kaling is invoked by name during this episode, and the absence of her or any other Indian woman (other than the lead character’s mother) becomes, in that moment, especially glaring. Indeed, much of the show deals with the main character, Dev’s love life, but his only love interests are white women. Claire Danes cameos aside, it’s disappointing to see these casting choices made after an entire episode dealing with racism in popular media. While this does lead to an opportunity to discuss the dynamics of interracial couples (which the show successfully does) it is disappointing to see no Indian women of Ansari’s generation represented. As someone who is a third generation Indian (and mutt; that is, a host of other racial and ethnic backgrounds as well) it’s always a sore spot that there are so few Indian women and nearly zero Indian queer or trans folks in any sort of western limelight. This feels like an overlooked opportunity for another Indian to gain notoriety.

Don’t get me wrong – Master of None is a fine series. Compared to the also recently released W/ Bob and David by sketch comedy veterans Bob Odenkirk and David Cross (replete with Muslim stereotypes, threats to visually depict the prophet Mohammed, a hearing person using a Deaf “voice,” and actual, literal blackface) Master is comedy gold on a silver platter. If my social media feeds are anything to go by, it’s definitely inspiring some thoughtful conversation, the way any good comedy should.


Photo credit: Pitchfork.com

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“A Woman In Trouble” – Part III

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part III

This is the third in a three-part installment on the work of David Lynch and its relationship to feminism, just in time for the long-awaited release of season 3 of Twin Peaks, now slated for 2017.

Enjoy!


My favorite work of Lynch’s, Eraserhead, is perhaps his most enigmatic. The film, which reads like a nightmare, deals with the feelings of dread and inadequacy surrounding new-found fatherhood. This is Lynch at his most raw. The malformed baby the protagonist Henry (played by Jack Nance) must learn to care for is fragile, terrifying, and exceeds the skill set of its parent. To fail to provide means its death – a fear common to all parents who are just learning to sustain a life that is not their own. Henry’s masculinity in general is put to task as the Lady in the Radiator squashes large, globular sperms with her high heels in a playful, mischievous way as the viewer-as-Henry helplessly looks on. Henry’s longing for his neighbor juxtaposed against his own shyness and duties as a father communicate a subordinate, introverted masculinity. The fact that this is Lynch’s first feature length film makes the above all the more impressive – rather than hiding behind the camera, Lynch is putting himself on display to be examined.

I would also argue that the “gaze” of Lynch’s work isn’t always clear. Sweet and intimate friendships like Donna and Laura’s and Shelly and Norma’s in TP came well before Garfunkel and Oates or Broad City. Indeed, Ronette, Laura, and Theresa Banks share a kind of camaraderie as sex workers that humanizes them and exemplifies the special kind of friendship that can develop among women in this profession. Mulholland Drive’s Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla serve as a sort of Hitchcockian hapless victim/rescuer dyad which evolves into a romantic and sexual relationship, in much the same way viewers are habituated to expect with heterosexual pairings. This allows for a subversive twist on the typically straight film noir genre. While it’s possible to argue that this choice was made for the titillation of male, heterosexual viewers, I can say that as a young queer person viewing this in a theater with my mom, it was nothing short of… Well, let’s just say awkward as hell.

Here again, though, it cannot go without noting that Naomi Watts has been publicly vocal about her discomfort with some of the scenes in the film, particularly the masturbation sequence. As a feminist and someone who has directed and starred in erotic films, the comfort of my performers is always at the forefront of my mind, and it gives me pause as to the nature of Lynch’s on-set director/performer dynamics. It would be intellectually and ethically dishonest to say I don’t find this potentially problematic. Being the one “behind the camera” brings with it all sorts of privileges, namely that you are in charge of image creation. You decide what the performers do, how they are framed, lit, etc. Being in front of the camera is a considerably more vulnerable position, and if I ever had the chance, I’d

Those who decide they cannot support Lynch due to his depiction of women have my understanding and support, even though I remain a devoted fan. This brings me back to where we started… My new friend at the bar. After I realized my words had little sway over someone who had never seen anything of his, and I was possibly getting into the territory of talking her out of it, I decided to back down and enjoy the rest of my drink. But this conversation had given me the chance to reflect, and to begin to articulate feelings about and artist I’ve admired for so long, but have had little success in describing.

I for one know I’m looking forward to what’s in store for those of us who’ve waited patiently these long 25 years to be reunited with the weirdest small town in television history. Twin Peaks has forever changed the face of American TV, and it will be interesting to see how it fares with new audiences having their first bites of that cherry pie so good it’ll kill ya.

Photo credit: luisalvaradob.tumblr.com

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part II

“A Woman In Trouble” – Part II

This is the second in a three-part installment on the work of David Lynch and its relationship to feminism, just in time for the long-awaited release of season 3 of Twin Peaks, now slated for 2017.

Enjoy!

CW: Discussion of sexual assault, IPV


One thing I’ve learned over the years about Lynch’s works is that they’re not an easy watch (See: preceding reference to racism, sexism, ableism, and transphobia).  On TP, characters of color, such as Josie Packard and Tommy “Hawk” Hill (yep, that’s really his name) speak in stilted English, or adhere to vague animist traditions that don’t refer to an actual, specific culture (Tommy’s tribal heritage is never named). Johnny and Audrey Horne suffers from unnamed intellectual and emotional disabilities which manifest in a mishmash of symptoms (he beats his head against a dollhouse when he learns of Laura Palmer’s murder; she is depicted as a hypersexualized coquette, yet simultaneously naïve and emotionally disturbed). David Duchovny’s character, DEA agent Denise Bryson, has received plenty of flack for being insensitive to the trans community.

And then there’s the violence. All of the violence. I feel like I need to offer a content warning before I even begin to explain the depth and intensity of the sexual violence, incest, intimate partner violence, and psychic/emotional trauma that are woven into the very fabric of the show. Most of the horrific violence is perpetrated against women; indeed the central whodunit of the show revolves around the rape and murder of a small town’s beloved teenage girl. Yet, as I explained to my less than impressed new friend at the bar, it has never felt gratuitous to me. Really. As I explained to her, I trust where Lynch takes his audience and why. The first few episodes of TP show how distraught everyone in the community is over this crime. Laura Palmer is a human being. Unlike CSI or Law and Order: SVU, she isn’t simply one in a parade of desecrated bodies discovered by a wisecracking team of investigators completely numb to the atrocity of it all. Indeed, her death shakes an entire community who has known her since her birth.

The violence visited upon Shelly Johnson at the hands of her husband Leo are nothing short of traumatizing, particularly for those of us who have lived through the misery of such relationships. The first time the viewer sees Ronette Pulaski, she is crossing a bridge back into Twin Peaks, bruised, bloodied, and in a state of shock after a night of unspeakable abuse. For the sake of those who haven’t seen the series, I won’t give away the identity of Laura’s murderer, but all I can say is take care of yourself when/if you get around to watching the prequel, Fire Walk with Me. Yet amid all of these haunting stories and gruesome images emerges a strange sense of “empathy with” rather than “sympathy for” the survivors and victims.

This brings me to perhaps one of the most nebulous and fascinating parts of Lynch’s work. I consistently fail to be able to fully articulate this to another person when I discuss my love for his oeuvre but I’ll give it a try… Lynch is an absolute genius when it comes to capturing and relaying a feeling. Indeed, TP’s major themes rely on trusting one’s gut, paying attention to feelings, and refraining from relying entirely on the logical and objective. Agent Dale Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) is both the hegemonic ideal of urbane, white masculinity and driven largely by his ability to tap into his intuition.

Aside from how the characters are crafted, Lynch’s work manages to transport the viewer into worlds that feel like they’re a real slice of the director’s subconscious in a way few directors dare to do. Rather than sprawling and domineering, most of Lynch’s films occupy an intimate, even claustrophobic landscape. Interpersonal relationship dynamics and private fears are splashed across the big screen for all to see. Like the robust works of Jackson Pollock, the supposedly masculine strokes speak to a more chaotic and panicked interior; inner turmoil is at the forefront, cranked to a scream rather than sequestered to their typical whisper.


Tune in next week for Part III, wherein we wrap up our discussion!

Photo credit: WomenWriteAboutComics.com