Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Feminists, pick your pop-culture battles!

(WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Toy Story 3. Read only if you've seen the film or have no intention of seeing it. It's a good movie. Go see it. Then come back and read my blog.)

Leaving indie films and foreign films out of the equation for the moment, I will state that the number of high-quality mainstream movie releases for Summer 2010 (so far, at least) could be counted on one hand. Among those, Pixar's Toy Story 3 is by far the most enjoyable. In fact, nothing else comes close. This smart, funny animated film about toys is a single bright spot in a summer movie season dominated by dreck.

But when Natalie Wilson of Ms. Magazine goes to the film, she sees not an oasis of quality but a bearer of dangerous sexist and homophobic messages. According to a recent article she posted, Toy Story 3, while admittedly clever and fun, tries to convince its audience that the only good toy is a heterosexual male toy. First, she claims that male toys outnumber female -- hardly unusual when most films feature five significant male roles for every one female. Second, the female characters are presented in a stereotypical light: Andy's mother is a nag, and Barbie is a helpless over-emotional whiner. Third, the film bashes gays in the form of Ken, whose metrosexual love of fashion is severely mocked. Due to these three points, we should look on the film with suspicion even as we enjoy it, lest we buy into the anti-PC messages.

I've seen Toy Story 3, and as my husband could certainly tell you, if a movie contains sexist messages I can see them coming a mile away. I saw nothing remotely sexist, or maliciously collectivist in any way, about this film, and my jaw is scraping the floor at Wilson's criticisms.

What I notice first is what Wilson doesn't mention. Only one female character possesses stereotypically negative "female" qualities, and her role is very small: Molly, Andy's little sister, who seems all set to become one of those shallow, hyper-appearance-conscious teenage girls whom psychologist Mary Pipher calls "female impersonators." Were all the female characters variations of Molly, Wilson might have a point. But Wilson doesn't mention Molly at all; instead she disparages the mom, who doesn't nag any more than any other mom might while supervising her son's packing for college. Wilson also conveniently forgets the film's most appealing female figure: little Bonnie, whose imagination and gentle care with toys almost make the loyal Woody forget Andy, and who becomes the rightful inheritor of Andy's toys at the end. (The last scene before the credits roll, which features Andy and Bonnie playing together with Woody, Buzz & co., is one of the most touching in recent memory.) If Molly is a female impersonator, Bonnie is adorably and delightfully herself. I have perfect faith that she'll grow up to be an art nerd, not a fashionista.

As far as the female toys go, how did Wilson miss Jessie? As in Toy Story 2, Jessie is tomboyishly active, not a passive porcelain doll like Bo Peep (whose absence from Toy Story 3 I scarcely felt). Feminists like Wilson might have a problem with Jessie because her judgments are rash, and while she makes decisions, they're often the wrong decisions. But to me, one of the greatest signs of strength is the ability to admit your mistakes and make every effort to correct them -- and this Jessie does, in spades. Moreover, Barbie's depiction is much more complex than Wilson would have us believe. Sure, she's first seen bawling when Molly throws her into the donation box, and sure, she moons over Ken and his dream house (what else could we expect?), but when it counts, she takes decisive and clever action to save her friends. Criticisms of Ken don't hold much water, either. At the film's end, Ken the "metrosexual" becomes the strong, wise leader of the Sunnyside Day Care toys that his one-time boss, the tyrannical Lotso Huggin' Bear, failed to be.

Yet I wonder most at Wilson's choice of Toy Story 3 for her attack, while apparently oblivious to the multitude of sexist messages that surround her at the multiplex.

Did she miss Killers, in which Katherine Heigl plays, as Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum puts it, a character "stitched together from shreds of every dispiriting, routinely accepted trait so popular and so soul-killing in the female characters currently prevalent in crappy action-romantic comedies"? The trailer alone made me want to gouge my eyes out, as Heigl flies into her shrill, helpless shrew routine (Eeeeew! A gun!) while her assassin-for-hire husband tries to save their lives. I'm told she "gets better" at the end, but a sudden shift in the last five minutes of a film, as opposed to a change that's been coming on gradually, fails to convince. Here, it seems, would be a far worthier mark for Ms. Wilson's darts.

Did she miss the posters for Eclipse, the third film in the incredibly popular (and I use the word "incredibly" in its most literal sense) Twilight series? Here is a story that features a "heroine" incapable of thinking for herself, ruled in every way by her desire for a hunky male, at the mercy of the stronger characters and forces that surround her. It romanticizes female passivity and dependence. Bella Swan makes Toy Story 3's Barbie look like Xena Warrior Princess, yet this character has become the conduit of thousands of tween-to-teen girls' daydreams. Surely this is more sexist, and more potentially damaging, than anything we've seen in Pixar.

Did she fail to notice how movies with male protagonists continue to outnumber movies with female protagonists, and how often female-centered movies are notoriously poor in quality? Did she have a thought for how often, even in supposed "chick flicks," the female characters are called upon to do little more than look glamorous and pine for men (yes, Sex and the City 2, I'm looking straight at you)?

Hollywood needs to clean up its act where women are concerned. It needs to start releasing female-centered films that are actually good. But attacking Toy Story 3, a movie that offers more good news than bad where its females are concerned, smacks of Boy (or Girl)-Who-Cried-Wolf Syndrome -- never the solution to any problem.

If feminist pop culture critics are looking for a real sign of something wrong, they should hearken to Ellen, the "Modern Lady" of Info-Mania. A couple of weeks ago, this light-hearted and often hilarious look at pop culture featured Ellen's look at the strong undercurrent of misogyny in beer commercials. She let roll a series of clips which feature attractive women being knocked unconscious in touch football, catapulted into pools, pooped on by horses, and otherwise disparaged and humiliated. The gender hostility was palpable. (What such commercials say about men isn't exactly flattering, either.) Though Info-Mania presents all its segments in a humorously cynical way, this one left me more sad than amused, as I wondered at yet another apparent sign that guys and gals don't trust or even like each other anymore.

This is a problem worth looking into, Ms. Wilson. Aim your arrow here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Beware Collectivism, Part 1

(I call this "Part 1" not because I have a specific series planned, but because I have more to say on this subject than one blog can cover, and I know I'll be revisiting it.)

When I teach Freshman Composition, I start by asking my students what, in their view, separates a good essay from an okay-to-bad one. After they give me some of their opinions, I give them mine, and often they coincide beautifully. One thing they always bring up is "specific details," whereupon I explain that specificity is achieved through the kinds of examples used. Okay-to-bad essays rely entirely on the collective, the plural, the hypothetical. Good essays balance the collective with the individual, the plural with the singular, the hypothetical with the actual. As a result, good essays linger in our memory, while okay-to-bad essays dwindle into darkness about fifteen minutes after we have read them.

Individual, singular, actual examples have a greater hold on the memory for a simple and obvious reason: readers relate to them. Confronted with statistics and percentages, we may nod our heads and think about them for a minute or two, but we quickly move on. Confronted with a specific situation involving an individual with a name, we pause long enough to consider, "What if that were me?" or "What would I do in that same situation?" It's easy to dismiss statistics and collective examples as if they had nothing to do with us; with a well-told and on-point example involving an individual, that individual's problem -- momentarily, at least -- becomes ours. This difference in response offers a hint of the problems with collectivist thinking.

Collectivist thinking is fairly easy to define. It's synonymous with "Groupthink," the tendency to think of ourselves and others in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, religion, etc. To put it more concretely -- every time you see a T-shirt or a bumper sticker that reads, "It's a [fill-in-the-blank] thing; you wouldn't understand," you're looking at collectivist thinking.

When we're reading an essay and the writer backs up her point with a specific, individual example, and we relate to that example regardless of the age, gender, or race the individual comes from, that example gives us an inkling of the similarities that bind the human family together. Collectivist thinking is in the business of highlighting differences rather than similarities, discord rather than harmony. "We're over here; they're over there. We have our problems; they have theirs."

Worst of all: We -- the people of the same age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. -- come in all kinds; we vary. But They -- the people from The Other Generation, Gender, Race, etc. -- are All The Same.

The biggest problem with collectivist thinking is that it's impossible to avoid. The hilarious Muppet musical Avenue Q tells us, "Everyone's a little bit racist"; sadly, it's true that everyone's a little bit collectivist. Collectivism is our defense mechanism against the often overwhelming complexity of the human race; it's our misguided attempt to give sense to inexplicable behavior. "Oh, she expects me to guess what she's feeling because that's what women do," or "He's attracted to the gangsta lifestyle because he's a black teenager," may be easier for us to understand than the fact that these people make questionable choices because of a myriad of factors and variables that have gone into making them the individuals they are. Also, collectivist thinking comes from a dangerous place: our experience. Let's say, for argument's sake, that everyone over seventy whom we have gotten to know well has turned out to be quick-tempered and narrow-minded. It's easy, then, to think all people over seventy must be the same. If we meet a new person over seventy, even though that person may be brilliant and sweet-tempered, our low expectations color our experience with this person; we're likely to see narrow-mindedness and bad temperament even where there is none, because that's what we think we'll find.

I've seen this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in action: an acquaintance of mine, some years ago, was distressed because her boss, with whom she got along well, had resigned, and she was worried about who might replace him. Her biggest worry, she confided, was that her new boss might be a woman. She had clashed with every female boss she'd ever had, and as far as she was concerned, if the new boss turned out to be female, a clash was inevitable. The new boss was indeed female, and, sure enough, my acquaintance clashed with her. I had to wonder how much of this clash was due to the new boss's short-sighted personality, and how much was due to my acquaintance's low expectations.

When we form our expectations based on collectivist thinking, we make trouble for ourselves, and the stereotypes on which our expectations are founded perpetuate themselves. Yet we continue to think collectively -- to attempt to understand people in monolithic group blocks rather than on a case-by-case basis -- despite the fact that sooner or later, we should figure out that any attempt to understand a group, without accounting for the marks of individuality within that group, is doomed to failure.

I'm not innocent in this. I recall the day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. I had forgotten all about the timing of the announcement (I'd gotten sick of this story some months ago and was trying to ignore it), and I'd gone to the store to pick up groceries. As I was driving through the parking lot, I caught sight of two young black women shouting for joy and high-fiving each other. Immediately I remembered that the verdict had just been announced. My next thought: "They acquitted him."

Why did I assume at once that these two young women were celebrating O.J.'s acquittal? What evidence did I have for this assumption? One of them could have just gotten engaged, or one could have been congratulating the other on a promotion at work, or they might have been old friends who hadn't seen each other in over a year. The potential reasons for their behavior are infinite. But I concluded that it was about O.J., because months and months of media coverage had convinced the collectivist part of my brain that every single African-American believed O.J. was innocent and wanted him acquitted, or simply wanted him acquitted regardless of his innocence or guilt.

Yes, the announcement had just been given, and yes, Simpson was acquitted. But I will never know what those two young women were celebrating about. All I'll know is that when I saw them, collectivist thinking came first, and common sense later. Though I try to keep myself aware of it and to curb it whenever I can, I'm just as prone to collectivist thinking as anyone else. And it scares me.

Those Muppets in Avenue Q are on to something. So, what can we do about it?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Favorite TV Cops

Television gives me a chance to daydream myself into the shoes of people who do a job I would never consider doing in real life.

I could never be a cop. I admire the work that cops do; I like knowing every minute of the day that a large force of people has accepted the duty of ensuring my safety, along with everyone else's. But I would make a lousy police officer. For one thing, I daydream far too much; a good cop stays alert and aware at all times. For another, I'm a physical coward; I can't run, punch, or kick worth a darn. Finally, and most crucially, cops must deal on a regular basis with humanity at its most reprehensible. Violence and perversion I'd prefer not to think about, they have to confront head-on. (I couldn't make it past the second episode of Law & Order: SVU because I was too icked out.) Yet when I watch a high-quality cop show, for a little while I can see through the eyes of these men and women who do what I couldn't.

So here's a salute to five of my favorite television cops (though not, I should add, my only favorites -- just the five I've chosen to salute in this blog), each of whom shines in my eyes for different reasons.

1. DCI Gene Hunt, Ashes to Ashes. If 24's short-fused, torture-happy Jack Bauer put on several pounds and sported a British accent, he might be something like the wild and crazy Hunt. Due process demands fair treatment for those accused of crimes, but in fiction-land it's enormously satisfying to watch an obviously guilty criminal get his butt kicked, and Hunt's favorite method of interrogation involves cornering sleazebags in the Men's Room and shoving their heads in a urinal. Contrasting with more cerebral DI Alex Drake (see #5), Hunt lets his finely-honed instincts drive him right where he must go. He hasn't undergone a single day of sensitivity training, and one never knows just what he'll do or say next. This unpredictability, coupled with the charismatic performance of actor Philip Glenister, makes him compulsively watchable.

2. Constable Benton Fraser, Due South. A live-action Dudley Do-Right, to be sure -- but in this case, we can trust him with our lives. The anti-Gene Hunt, he hasn't undergone a day of sensitivity training because he would never need it; his instinctive civility and good nature come through in his dealings with everyone, from his fellow cops to civilians to perpetrators. (To give you an idea, he walks into Chicago carrying his gear because he keeps letting someone else take the next taxi in his stead.) This goofy kindness is allied with erudition and powers of perception worthy of Sherlock Holmes. On paper, Fraser might come across as impossibly perfect, but his boundless goodness is handled with wit, and actor Paul Gross makes him simultaneously irritating and loveable.

3. Detective Lennie Briscoe, Law & Order. When this show was at its peak, few shows were more compelling. Many fans watched it for Sam Waterston's unstoppable DA Jack McCoy (admittedly an intriguing figure), but Detective Lennie Briscoe, played by Tony Award-winning actor Jerry Orback, kept me tuning in week after week. Wry, acerbic, blessed with a dry wit and a worldly-wise baritone voice, Briscoe could inject humor into the most disturbing situations. ("Three gray suits -- a wild and crazy guy," he remarks as he and his partner search the closet of a murdered Parks & Recreation official.) He's what we'd often like to be: the clever, detached observer who never loses his panache. Sadly, Orbach died during the show's run. While other departing actors were replaced without a single lost beat, the show was never the same without Briscoe.

4. Agent Olivia Dunham, Fringe. Amazon women who can out-punch, out-kick, or out-shoot evil males are a dime a dozen, but Olivia merits a mention here because she's a thinker, with strong powers of observation as well as imagination. Her soldier-like dedication to her work has left her personal life rather sparse, but unlike other shows confronted with the same situation, Fringe does not treat Olivia as an object of pity. She's not cold or misanthropic; we see in her haunted eyes that she carries with her every misfortune she has seen, but she is strong enough to bear it. In this paranormal series, experiments performed on Olivia as a child have left her with supernatural abilities, but only a few episodes show her utilizing them. She doesn't need them in order to be strong.

5. DI Alex Drake, Ashes to Ashes. Conscious of political correctness, many writers fear to show female crimefighters as fallible or vulnerable. Yet here we have a lady cop who's been literally shot back in time to 1982, and who is on occasion threatened, kidnapped, and rendered helpless. So what's so wonderful about her? While she may be down from time to time, she's never out. Even in the aftermath of being rescued, she bounces back with all her strength. Like Olivia Dunham, Alex leads through her brain, utilizing her knowledge of abnormal psychology to work out the most puzzling crimes. And like Constable Fraser, she responds to those in need, even frightened gun-toting "perps," with perception and empathy. Alex doesn't seem to know kung fu. We don't see her going in for a lot of hand-to-hand combat. Compassion and intellect are her weapons, and she bears them with style.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What's wrong with contemporary Hollywood, Part 2

"The Problem of Remakes and Sequels"

Shrek Forever After. Sex and the City 2. Iron Man 2. Robin Hood. The A-Team. The Karate Kid. Toy Story 3. Is it just me, or do this summer's movie offerings carry a distinct whiff of "been-there-done-that"? Is it getting harder to find a movie potentially worth seeing, that is neither a sequel to an earlier film nor a remake, "re-envisioning," or "reboot" of an older movie or TV show?

I should point out, before I go too far, that remakes and sequels are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, nor are they unique to contemporary Hollywood. Remakes, for instance: in the 1930s and early 1940s, studios looked back at their output in the very early '30s, the dawn of the Talkies, wrinkled their noses at the primitive technology of just a few years before, and said to themselves, "I'll bet if we made it again now, with our superior sound technology, we could make it better." In some cases, they weren't far wrong. I haven't seen the 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol, but I can say that the 1938 remake, starring Errol Flynn and David Niven, is a fine film. Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon was adapted for film three times in ten years -- first in 1930, then in 1936, and once again in 1940; it's generally acknowledged that the 1940 version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet, is the definitive adaptation, the undisputed classic. Even after the craze of "let's-remake-those-primitive-early-talkies" passed, some remakes continued to be high-quality. Alfred Hitchcock remade his own 1934 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1956; while I'm partial to the earlier film (largely because Peter Lorre stars in it), many film buffs prefer the '56 version. A Star is Born was first filmed in 1937 but got its definitive version in 1954 (though the less said about the 1970s remake, the better). A fair number of film fans like 1957's An Affair to Remember at least as well as the original 1939 Love Affair. So remakes don't have to be bad. What makes the difference between a remake that equals or even surpasses its original, and one we'd rather forget?

It is not, as many think, the remake's closeness to the original in terms of dialogue and setting. Gus Van Sant attempted a scene-for-scene remake of 1960's Psycho, and despite (or perhaps because of) the duplication, this remake has gone down in recent film history as an unqualified disaster. What was the remake missing? What are so many of these revamps of classics often missing?

Attempts to be faithful to the letter of the original are likely to fail. But it helps if those remaking an older film, particularly a classic, can at least wrap their minds around the spirit, the soul of the original, and understand what made it a memorable film. Remakes can't duplicate the spirit of an earlier film any more than the letter, but if the writers and directors are guided by an understanding of that spirit, they're more likely to put their finger on how to make the story work for a contemporary audience. Recent remakes of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The Day the Earth Stood Still conspicuously lacked this understanding; accordingly, they tanked. Honestly, who got the idea that Adam Sandler was the modern era's Gary Cooper, or that Keanu Reeves could make an adequate substitute for Michael Rennie? In the 1936 Frank Capra film, Longfellow Deeds is naive but wise, and emerges as a hero; Sandler's Deeds is a fool throughout. Michael Rennie is stalwart and strong as the alien Klaatu; Reeves is a mere mannequin. Similarly, I don't hold out much hope for the upcoming remake of The Karate Kid, because in the teasers I've seen, Jaden Smith exudes 'tude, whereas in the original, the underdog Ralph Macchio has a sweetness about him, and we root unreservedly for this nice guy to finish first.

If Hollywood must remake, revamp, re-envision, or reboot older material, it's better off doing what it's doing this summer: sticking with material from the 1980s. Today's filmmakers are more likely to understand the spirit and soul of something like The A-Team than something like Casablanca; after all, these filmmakers actually lived through the '80s. However, the problem remains: we've seen it before. Classic Hollywood could get away with remakes because more films were made per year; we got more remakes, but we also got more original material. In contemporary Hollywood, where we see far fewer films per year, we can't afford so many remakes. I know I can't be the only one getting impatient for something new.

Like remakes, sequels aren't necessarily bad. Some sequels manage to surpass their originals. 1935's The Bride of Frankenstein is more admired by today's cinephiles than 1930's Frankenstein, though both are good films. Most fans of the Star Wars films name the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, as the best. More recently, Toy Story 2 and The Dark Knight proved at least as good as their originals; some fans like them even better. X-Men United, the second of three films in the series, is lauded as superior to both its original and its sequel. I'm not a fan of Iron Man 2, but plenty of reputable critics liked it.

So where's the problem with sequels? For me, it's a simple matter of understanding the components of a good story. Good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a movie strikes box-office gold, the powers in Hollywood deny that movie's plot the right to an ending. Like American television shows (and often to the same bad effect), they have to keep going and going. Even the best studios are falling prey to sequel fever. Proverbial and literal wild horses could not stop me from going to see Toy Story 3, and The Incredibles cries out for a sequel, but with plans for sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. (two stories that came to suitable ends) in the works, Pixar Studios may destroy its own reputation as the one studio in Hollywood that has never released a bad film. Its rival animation studio, Dreamworks, has long since succumbed to sequel fever. The first Shrek film offered a funny, moving tale that managed to parody and salute fairy tales at the same time, not an easy feat. But with each successive sequel the charm has diminished. The first sequel had its moments, but the third was disastrous, killing my taste for a fourth. And all the sequels forgot the most important thing: the story had finished! Dreamworks's Spring 2010 release, How to Train Your Dragon, is actually better than even the first Shrek, and it comes to an enormously satisfying conclusion. Now, thanks to high box-office returns, the studio plans to blast that conclusion with a sequel.

Unlike remakes, sequels to popular films are almost sure-fire box-office successes, and, of course, this is, and has always been, Hollywood's bottom line. Is the proliferation of remakes and sequels a sign that the studios are fresh out of original ideas, or are those studios simply giving the public what it wants? (I suspect it may be a combination of both.) If we're going to see any change in the picture, then we, the moviegoing public, have to demand more of Hollywood. As Charlotte Bronte asserts, "It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility"; we want action, in fiction as in life. We have to let them know, with our box-office dollars, that we're hungry for something new and different. We want to be taken to new worlds; we want the thrill of discovery, and we should not be forced to settle for the comfort of familiarity.

Enough already with the "been-there-done-that."