I think the feeling is mutual.

The problem is not that writer-director MacFarlane’s show Family Guy is unwatchable; nor is his film début Ted, for that matter. It’s that 90% of McFarlane’s humor belongs to a 13-yr-old, and 90% of that is about pushing at your boundaries. Jokes about gays, trashy white women, Asians, more gays, prostitutes, fat kids, Jews, and gays — and all with the gleeful “will you let me get away with this?” spew that I have only witnessed from unreconstructed frat guys who don’t know they’re being overheard.

To which I suppose MacFarlane would respond, “Hey, I know all about feminism and how wrong it is to make homophobic cracks or racist jokes about an Asian guy with a duck — I’m doing it ironically!” Thus, you’re the asshole if you complain.

So the whole audience will laugh at the gay jokes because no one wants to be an asshole, but the jokes are actually not funny even if you’re not a humorless feminazi like me.

The remaining 10% of jokes are better, and the film sports an incidental moment or two in the dialogue that are so good they make me want to weep for all the time this writer-director wastes on the other shit. There’s one particularly perfect reference to Flash Gordon (1980) that was so crystalline and throwaway it almost felt like something I’d hear from a friend of mine. MacFarlane’s scattershot references to other films are clever and enjoyable.

But … the rest of it? It’s Mark Wahlberg. Who has a life history (and criminal record) of thinking homophobic/ racist jokes like this are funny. (And who, BTW, cannot pass as a 35-yr-old. Sorry.)

Mila Kunis is charming as always, yet this material reminds me that a hefty chunk of her acting career is with material like this (That 70s Show, Meg Griffin on Family Guy). I’m not sure whether this is a problem of typecasting, craven career decisions, or that she actually thinks this stuff is funny.

And oh, did I mention? The story is about a boy who has no friends other than his teddy bear, a boy who grows up to become a man who has no friends other than his teddy bear. Autobiographical? You be the judge.

Advertisements

When I checked the showtimes online for Bridesmaids, here’s what the theater website told me:

This spring, producer Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad) and director Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) invite you to experience Bridesmaids

And to think I was going to see it because it’s a movie written by women (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) and stars six of them. Hollywood has just discovered that not only are women funny, but audiences will flock to see them (the movie took in $7.8 million yesterday alone, coming in a close second to Thor 3D) — so, to smooth the way, it puts up a lot of male boldface names in the movie’s ads.

Yet I left the theater with the realization that, in terms of tone at least, this film has Judd Apatow all over it. In fact, if one fed the scripts for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad into a supercomputer, one would find there’s an Apatow formula that strikes a balance between poop jokes, awkward sex scenes, eccentric secondary figures, and genuinely affecting sentimental moments between the main characters. Am I saying that Bridesmaids is just warmed-over Apatow? Not at all: this film is in many ways a total delight. Placing those elements into a film about the biggest chestnut of all female-oriented plots — the run-up to your best friend’s wedding — seems, to me at least, much better than just a female version of Apatow’s own clichéd plots (high school boys on a quest for alcohol and girls, etc.).

Maybe I’ve just been reading too many articles about Hollywood’s slow acknowledgement that audiences want to see women being funny, but it was hard for me to see it without that topic in mind, as if the film was trying to make a point. (Remember when Hollywood discovered, via American Pie in 1999, that women liked sex? Gee, thanks for small favors.) Previously, Hollywood has tended to hold to a three-part philosophy concerning female humor, as Tad Friend notes in his piece about the comedian Anna Faris in The New Yorker:

  • Women don’t have to be funny.
  • Also, women aren’t funny.
  • Really, they’re not.

If nothing else, Bridesmaids blows those concepts out of the water. The women in this film use every comic trick in the book — they run the gamut from subtle to broad and display great gifts for physical comedy when it’s required. Plus, the film wins prizes from me for taking apart the wedding industrial complex fairly handily, especially considering I’d just spent an hour on the phone with a friend suggesting plausible-sounding excuses for skipping a bridal shower.

But I also don’t want to oversell this movie. It’s exactly what you think it’s going to be, not much more. As with last year’s Easy A, this movie is funny, alternately gross and sweet, and features some surprisingly touching moments; Kristen Wiig in the lead role knows when to trot out her Saturday Night Live absurdities and when to rein them in; and the other leads (Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne) are terrific, while Wendi McLendon-Covey (the blousy blonde from Reno: 911) doesn’t get quite enough screen time for my liking. For two much more diametrical responses, read the smart back-and-forth about this film on the Bitch website between Kjerstin Johnson and Kelsey Wallace.

My strongest criticism boils down to the fat jokes. I love the actress Melissa McCarthy — she played the best friend on The Gilmore Girls and more recently had a brief and celebrated run on Mike & Molly, a show I never saw but which got a lot of love from people whose opinion I respect. Those same writers have been divided on her appearance here. Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood loved the film and especially McCarthy, saying “she shows a woman who is fun and sexual and raunchy and real and ready to beat the crap out of you on a moment’s notice. That’s what was so great about her character, you had no idea what was coming next.” On the other hand, Bitch‘s Johnson and Wallace decried the “lazy” jokes levied at the “unrefined fat woman” who burps out loud, waddles through a couple of scenes (har, har!), and comes across as butch. (McCarthy has explained in interviews that she modeled her character on the abrasive, loud, yet oddly appealing Food Channel star, Guy Fieri — a decision I find brilliant.)

I’m going to take for granted that readers of this blog are enlightened enough to be aware of fat phobia, unlike the 20-something woman jackass in the theater next to me who squeaked, “Gross!” at the sight of one of McCarthy’s big ankles. Obviously none of us wants to see a movie that gets cheap laughs from the sight of a fat woman. But equally obviously none of us would say that fat women should be kept out of comedies, or that they’re not allowed to be funny, or that they’re not allowed to use physical humor. Silverstein puts it nicely: “Fat women never have fun in films. They might laugh but always when people are laughing at them” — whereas in this one McCarthy’s character is having a blast, moving forward with that Fieri-like assuredness that renders impossible a simplistic reading of her character. It’s important to note that at a crucial moment in the film, McCarthy’s character steps forward to show a truly heroic self-awareness, competence, sensitivity, and dedication to her friends (in fact, it sounds as if McCarthy herself is responsible for that plot development). So I return to the question: do I forgive the few bad fat jokes because overall we laugh with McCarthy and appreciate her character so much?

In the end, I remain divided on whether the fat jokes ruin Bridesmaids. I’m still persuaded enough by a Silverstein-like appreciation for McCarthy’s character and performance to refrain from a full-throated complaint. Perhaps this is Hollywood’s first experiment with enlightened fat phobia, pace Susan Douglas’s enlightened sexism: that is, the film tries to tell us that it’s okay to regress back to fat jokes because the fat woman is a successful and comparatively three-dimensional character. Let’s face it: I laugh at some of those enlightened sexist ads on TV — first and foremost the Old Spice dude who says, “Look again! It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love!” That extra layer of irony seems to excuse the fat jokes because they’re not the old, unenlightened fat jokes. It’s a fat phobia that seems to accept — even celebrate — the fat woman on the surface, but in reality it repudiates fat people and keeps them in their place as the comic sidekicks. Maybe.

Normally I like fall semester.  Students are enthused and hopeful (even the seniors, before their sad descent into apathy during the spring), the nights start to get cold after a long hot summer, I make unrealistic plans to focus on my research even though the teaching gets overwhelming.  But this semester’s tough.  It started with a student in true emotional crisis, continued when I frantically pulled together a public talk in three mad days, and now that I’m in the middle of an exceptionally bureaucratic period of paperwork, I feel buried alive.  No, it’s worse than that:  especially after a long, whiney, cranky dinner conversation in which my poor best friend listened to me patiently, I feel as if I’ve become some kind of demon zombie.

How poetic, then, that I’ve been watching “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” for the first time.  And let me ask:  how did I never watch this show before?  I think I’ve made it clear how much I love films/TV with strong women; love scary stuff; love to immerse myself in long-running TV shows; love to look at pretty men, etc.  This one has it all, yet somehow during the late 90s when it was on, I was distracted (and had a TV with only one channel, as I remember it).  No, this one has MORE than it all, for there’s an entire academic sub-discipline of Buffy Studies including the peer-edited (!) online journal, Slayage: The Online Journal of Whedon Studies, which apparently branched out due to the show’s creator’s subsequent projects.  (Disclaimer:  I’m being facetious, honestly, and don’t really think there’s enough to this fun show to spark much academic blah-blah-blahing, so I won’t be spending much time with Buffy Studies.  I’d much rather keep watching the show than reading quasi-academic prose about it.  And with that I promise to keep my big words to a minimum.)

It took me a few episodes, but I really get it now why people raved about this show all that time.  What a brilliant analogy for high school, what a brilliant quasi-feminist show.  Even my hero, Susan Douglas, raves about it in her terrific book, Enlightened Sexism:  The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done.  For Douglas, “Buffy” was that crystalline example of a female-centered moment of 90s media and popular culture that held up women as powerful and kick-ass.  It might not have been a feminist dream, but it wasn’t the horrors that we have now, like “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”  “Buffy” takes all the things that are horrible about high school and characterizes them as demonic, which must have been crazily therapeutic for people who were actually in high school at the time.  Let me just describe the first episode that clicked for me:  “The Pack,” in which a group of high school kids already prone to petty cruelty and mockery becomes inhabited by the evil spirits of hyaenas.  Not only do they continue to prey on the weak, but they might actually eat you if they get you alone in a room.  They won’t prey on Buffy, because they sense she’s too strong for them; they focus, instead, on the shy and small.  “Buffy” would have helped to explain a lot about high school for me.  (My new favorite character is the town’s mayor — an okily dokily, Ned Flanders type who makes plans to end the world in the same sentence as reminding you to get more calcium.  OF COURSE such a man is a demon.)

But that’s the thing, isn’t it?  Old people like me like “Buffy”  because it’s a metaphor for our lives, too.  I’ve entertained myself for hours with the fantasy of stocking my office with wooden stakes and kicking a certain colleague in the head with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s taekwondo finesse.  That’s why Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series appealed to me so much this summer, too — these tales of a world turned upside down and the necessity for extreme female action in a time of crisis are inherently attractive when one works for large, bureaucratic institutions and deals with soulless bureaucrats (and senior colleagues!).  And they’re healthy reminders to me to keep the demons at bay lest I be turned to the side of evil.  (And yeah, I’m fairly certain that the dude who plays Angel was created in some kind of test tube designed to infect the dreams of viewers.  Not that I’m complaining.) 

I’ve got papers to grade and letters of recommendation to write and applications to fill out and lectures to finish, and my department is at each other’s throats more than usual.  I’m beat.  Thank god I can explain all this by understanding that my department sits atop a new Hellmouth.

I’d never seen “Glee” before — and let me say, it’s utterly delightful — but stumbled across its “The Power of Madonna,” that is, its very special episode on feminism.  And then I found hundreds of posts online, treating it as if it were an important intervention on feminism because the words misogyny, sexist, and objectification were used on a mainstream TV show. 

I’m tempted to suggest that a perky TV comedy can treat the topic of women’s feminist anger BECAUSE it’s perky comedy.  I’m tempted to trot out Susan Douglas’s notion of enlightened sexism again (Susan, perhaps I should receive commission?); point out that “girl power” is a fundamentally hobbled form of feminism; and remind us that Madonna is hardly an ideal feminist.  All of this is true.  But frankly, it’s just a pleasure to see a storyline in which high school girls get mad and seek a way to articulate a feminist identity (and then sing!).  At this point, us brow-beaten feminists will be thrilled with anything. 

The show starts with the girls in the glee club having a powwow about dating, a conversation that can be summed up by one character’s resigned assessment that “we have to accept that guys just don’t care about our feelings.”  When a well-meaning male teacher tries to intervene, an even more resigned girl pushes him back. “The fact is that women still earn 70 cents to every dollar that a man does for doing the same job.  That attitude starts in high school.”  (Wow. Count me happy on hearing this in prime time.)  Slowly the girls start to fight back and express themselves verbally as well as in song.  My favorite is when the “they just don’t care about our feelings” Asian girl takes a sexist boy’s head off:  “My growing feminism will cut you in half like a righteous blade of equality!”

They build up tension and resolve it by singing a lot of Madonna songs and gradually convincing the reluctant boys that this music shouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable.  There are some tedious side stories about various women asserting themselves sexually (to say no or otherwise).  (JEEZUS, people, does feminism always have to be exactly equivalent to sex?)  Best of all is a transfixing number with the cheerleaders doing a routine on stilts to “Ray of Light.”  Throughout, Jane Lynch is great as the unhinged director of the “cheerios” who idolizes Madonna. 

Please, let’s just stop calling this feminism.  I enjoyed this show perfectly well without having to engage it on those terms.  Feminism can’t be made palatable to a reluctant public by dressing it in a Madonna pop song for one episode; nor is it reducible to The Power of Madonna.  Let’s get happy about some feminist stuff coming up, and some women with powerful lungs belting out terrific Madonna covers.  But let’s just call this what it is:  “Glee” is just its own thing.  We can all be happy that these girls articulate a version of anger and empowerment, and hope that more TV shows engage with those subjects — hope, indeed, that more actual girls get angry and empowered.  Hell, at this point I’d take the Spice Girls’ version of girl power again.

Bereft for “Slings & Arrows,” I turned to the only thing on TV that looked watchable:  “Justified,” the new Elmore Leonard-based show on FX — it had been getting a lot of good press, and after watching Timothy Olyphant play Seth Bullock in “Deadwood” for three seasons, I was prepared to watch anything in which he dons a cowboy hat again. 

But let’s make no mistake about the gender politics of the show.  Set in eastern Kentucky most of the time, “Justified” takes advantage of what Hollywood sees as a back-assward locale to trot out tried-and-true stereotypes about rural Southern women and the men who protect them.  Olyphant’s character seems mighty courtly, to be sure, but that quality mostly allows him to be an enlightened sexist.  That is, they pay some lip service to the idea that gender roles aren’t locked in prehistoric times, but only long enough to allow the characters to go Neanderthal again.  It’s plain old sexism — dressed up in slightly more knowing clothes, as Susan Douglas shows us.

Olyphant plays Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal who’s managed to shoot a few too many of the fugitives and renegade prisoners he was hired to oversee, so they transfer him back to Kentucky as punishment.  Although it’s awful close to his hometown, he’s too stoic to talk much about his misgivings about going back home again (instead, we see him suffer silently when he runs across his ex-wife, now happily remarried).  Luckily, Raylan’s views of cowboy justice — and his frequent refrain that his shootings were justified because those other guys drew first — fits right in with Kentucky lawmakers. 

Olyphant gets a lot less actorly exercise here than he did in “Deadwood,” but it’s hard to separate the two characters. Both make great use of the actor’s skill in speaking softly, as if he might be a modern-day Gary Cooper, but his dark, beady eyes show him to be a closet sociopath.  In short, he’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

If only the show had decided to give him any other three-dimensional character to work with.  Instead, he plays with the usual suspects:  comically fat white supremacists (because…being overweight and racist go together?), a sassy black woman co-worker, a bunch of hillbilly drug runners, and — for love interest — a hot, blonde, rifle totin’ missy, Ava, who’s had a crush on Raylan since she was twelve, and who just shot her abusive husband to death. 

In Episode 4, the show indulges in enlightened sexism to try to assuage haters like me — it’s a textbook scene.  Although Raylan was supposed to cede control of a job to Rachel (sassy black woman co-worker, played by Erica Tazel), he’s gone and taken charge.  He brings this up in the car as they leave.

Raylan:  “I’m sorry if I crossed a line with you at the office.  If I shouldered my way to the front of the line it wasn’t intentional.  I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you to get where you are in the marshal service.”

Rachel, smiling wryly:  “Because I’m black, or because I’m a woman?”  …

Raylan:  “Look, I understand I’m the low man on the totem pole—I understand that.  But Rolly and I have a long history and I should be walking point.”

Rachel:  “This isn’t just about this case. You did walk to the front of the line.  And I don’t know if it’s because you know the chief from Glenco but you walked in and you went right to the front.”

Raylan:  “Yeah. You ever consider I happen to be good at the job?”

Rachel:  “And you being a tall good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger?  That has nothing to do with it? You get away with just about anything.”

Raylan:  “What do I get away with?”

Rachel:  “Look in the mirror! How’d you think it’d go over if I came in to work one day wearing a cowboy hat?”  (Raylan smirks.  Rachel persists.)  “You think I’d get away with that?”

Raylan:  “Go on, try it on.”  (Rachel looks at him curiously, as if she might.  End of scene.)

See?  It’s really Rachel’s fault that she’s not more assertive.  Not only did she fail to take control in her own case, but in this very conversation she permits the subject of the white man’s aggression to drop.  After this scene, the episode spends zero more time fretting about the fact that Raylan has completely taken control.  He continues to use the same tall, good-looking white man with a shitload of swagger persona, and he wins.  Now that we’ve had a moment to take feminism into account, we can go back to appreciating a 1950s version of gender/race relations, where the white guy is always in charge.

And what happens at the end of the episode?  Rachel does try on the cowboy hat.  But it doesn’t fit.

MANifestos & manthems

9 March 2010

When Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar, the orchestra burst into a rendition of “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.” My friends and I thrust our hands high in the sky from our position on the couch, thrilled that she’d won. And then I thought, “Wait.”

First, there’s the obvious fact that I now know the Helen Reddy song less for its 1970s feel-goodness than for the ironic 2006 Burger King version, which they call the “Manthem”:

Enlightened sexism, anyone? As Susan Douglas brilliantly defines it, this ethos follows the argument that “women have made plenty of progress because of feminism — ideed, full equality has allegedly been achieved. So now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.” Even better to resurrect funny caveman stereotypes of men who need hamburgers, Dockers, Old Spice, and Axe Body Spray to clarify their über-manliness and ironic sensibility. “Now that they ‘have it all,'” Douglas explains in the voice of the enlightened sexist, women and girls “should focus the bulk of their time and energy on being hot, pleasing men, competing with other women, and shopping.” Meanwhile, men can go primal — ironically, of course, but the effect is the same. As Kjerstin Johnson shows in a Bitch blog post, there’s even a fake-umentary about plummeting testosterone levels and the emasculinization of men in America. Ha ha!

I’m thrilled by Bigelow’s Oscar win. But in this cultural environment of enlightened sexism, it’s hardly a feminist triumph, as Helen Reddy might have desired. It’s all well and good for so many commentators to trumpet the fact that “The Hurt Locker” is a really good dude film (see? women can even direct good films that dudes want to see, not like chick flicks at all!) and that Bigelow has a knack not just for putting together great action scenes but finely-wrought interactions between men.

It’s all about the guys. Who can blame them, in this stifling environment of feminist control, for issuing such a long series of MANifestos and manthems? In the meantime, ladies, get back to the gym!